Steve spends the last morning in his homeland looking out over the hills. He’d grown up surrounded by them, gazing at them from the window of the castle as the sun rose and set.
He does other things that morning - he helps Cathilda pack the last of his things and goes along with Bucky and Sam’s good-natured teasing that they give up on once it becomes clear that Steve isn’t about to cheer up - but mostly he sits at the window and looks out at the hills.
It’s entirely possible he’ll never see them again. It’s only three weeks to Stark’s kingdom, it wouldn’t be a hardship to come back, but still - Steve doesn’t know how much of a say he’s going to have in deciding whether or not he gets to take trips. He doesn’t know a lot of things about how his life is going to go from here.
He’s expecting it when he hears the familiar footsteps of his mother. He doesn’t have to look back, but he does anyway, drinking her in - they have the same pale blonde hair, the same pale blue eyes, the same hard spark that had them stand up at each fall. They carry this in their shoulders, mostly, and keep their chins lifted. Steve doesn’t remember much about his father, but he’s been told he’d done the same, and in his portraits, this is true.
“Hi,” Sarah says as she approaches.
“Hi, Ma,” he replies. He shuffles sideways to allow her to sit next to him against the wide windowsill.
She takes the casual address with her usual fondness as she sits. Steve had been brought up with everyone telling him to address his mother as Your Majesty or at the very least Mother, but between the two of them it had always just been Ma .
Steve can only look at her for a few more seconds before it gets too much and he turns to the window again. The sun isn’t very high in the sky and it makes for a pretty sight, casting light over the hills.
“I look forward to your letters,” Steve says. “You’ll let me know how the people fare after I leave?”
“Hm? No, I was going to leave that to your advisors.” Sarah smiles, shifts sideways to nudge his shoulder, then stays there. “Of course I will.”
For a moment the only sound is the courtyard below. Steve lets the chatter comfort him, his mother’s shoulder resting against his.
“They’ll be fine, Steve,” Sarah says. “Thanks to you.”
Steve examines the stones that make up the window. He runs his thumbnail along the blunt edge of a stone, a practiced motion he’s been doing since he could climb up onto the windowsill. He’s going to miss it - the particular pattern of stones, the familiarity of home, all the small things he’s leaving: the thatches of yellow flowers that appear at the edges of the courtyard, the booming shout of the trainer down in the courtyard; his favourite bedsheets and the strange lean of his bookcase. He’s never lived anywhere else but here, and now all of this will just be a place he is from. In ten years, it will be a distant memory.
Sarah puts a hand on his cheek and pulls gently. Steve turns with it, as he always has, so he’s facing her.
“Look at me,” she says, though she doesn’t have to ask. He’s already looking. He will bring sketches of her with him to this new place, but they will never compare to the real thing.
“Your people will thrive, thanks to what you are doing,” Sarah continues. Her face softens. “I know how you feel. At the same age you are now, I made my way to this kingdom. It was strange to me, and I missed my home. But the years passed, and soon I found that this was my home. It had become as loved and lovely as where I had grown up. When I die, I will be buried in the dirt of this place, and I would have it no other way.”
Steve closes his eyes, turns his face against her hand. Focuses on the warmth of it instead of the thought of dying, decades from now, and being buried in foreign soil. Whatever it would become to him, right now it was horrifying.
“Hey,” Sarah says.
Steve sighs. Opens his eyes. His mother hasn’t looked away, and her gaze is unrelenting.
“One day it will feel like home,” she says. “I promise, Steve.”
Steve tries to imagine her, twenty and terrified and trying not to seem either. He’s never known her to be anywhere other than comfortable in this kingdom, the place she’d raised him in. He’s heard tales of her growing up somewhere else, but whenever he tries to picture it, familiar fields make up the background. She’ll say cliffs and Steve will think of the Sparrowford Cliffs off to the East, and cannot picture much else.
Steve musters a smile anyway. Tries to feel as brave as he looks.
“I know, Ma,” he says. “I know it will.”
She sighs. Kisses his forehead, then wipes off the moisture.
“At least you’ll have your best men with you,” she says. “They would die for you, and not because you’re the prince. Treasure those kinships, Steve, but don’t use them as an excuse not to let others in when you arrive in Stark’s kingdom.”
Steve snorts. She tweaks his ear, and Steve leans away.
“Ma,” Steve says. “I’m not looking for-”
“I know,” she says. “You never did. My brave boy, always okay on his own.
No help needed, no sir, this little prince will -
“Ma, you know I’m-”
Fine , Steve doesn’t get to say. His mother cuts him off.
“At least-” she goes to brush his hair back, then stops. “You will meet your husband with an open mind, yes?”
Steve gives her a dry look.
“Stories about a man do not make the man,” she reminds him. “He might be-”
,” Steve says. “And he might be just what they say.”
“Well,” Sarah says. “You can hardly go in expecting him to be a drunk bastard. You do not hide your dislike well, we’ve been over this, and that doesn’t make for a good first impression. If you do… if you do end up disliking him, at least have it be a true dislike. Get to know him before you decide you don’t like him.”
Steve sighs. He looks out over the hills. Not for the first time, the image conjures a sad, bitter churn in his stomach. He will miss this, he’ll miss all of this.
“Yeah,” Steve says. He musters up another smile, which starts out flimsy and then turns genuine once he focuses on his mother. “If I do dislike Anthony, I promise I’ll have fantastic reasons.”
“It’s all I can ask for,” Sarah says. She laughs as she hugs him, and Steve puts his arms around her and buries his face against her shoulder.
He’d never say don’t make me leave . He’s the one who offered to leave in the first place. Making a match with the Starks is the only thing that will save their people from starving these next few winters. But as he clings to her, as if he is two instead of twenty, the words almost start to form at the back of his throat.
The journey is both intensely boring and incredibly irritating all in one.
The boredom is no one’s fault; there’s not much anyone can do in a carriage for three weeks straight. The irritating aspects of the trip are utterly the fault of Sam and Bucky, who somehow manage to get into long arguments every single day about things so banal that Steve would yell at them if he was the type of ruler who yelled to make people shut up and if he weren’t so used to their antics. One argument a day was normal back home, one argument a day while trapped in a moving carriage for three weeks is a miracle. Steve almost wants to congratulate them.
On the last day, Steve waits until they’ve both calmed down over who’s eaten the last of the jerky, then says, “You two cannot let anyone see you like this.”
“We know,” they chorus.
“I don’t just mean anyone of consequence,” Steve reminds them. “Anyone will talk, and it will get back-”
“Your highness ,” Bucky says, which has always come across as ingenuine ever since he met Steve at age 8, the son of a knight chasing around the crown prince until a servant told them to stop, at which point they did it where people couldn’t see. “We’re very aware. We got a stern lecture about it before we left. We’ll be sensible, you won’t get side-eyed because of us.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Steve says.
“We can behave,” Sam says.
Bucky kicks his shin.
Steve sighs. Waits for another argument to start up, but Sam just rubs his shin and shifts to the other side of the carriage, next to Steve.
“How’re you feeling,” Sam asks.
Steve hates that question and any iteration of it. Now more than ever. He answers it as he always has: with a perfunctory smile and a, “Fine.”
Sam and Bucky trade a look. They’ve been fighting since Sam came into the picture five years back, but one thing they can always agree on is when Steve is being annoying. Steve finds these times often line up when they’re both being annoying.
“At least Anthony’s attractive,” Bucky says.
Sam hums in agreement. “Yeah, at least there’s that. Who needs a husband who actually respects people or cares about their wellbeing-”
Bucky tries to kick him again. Sam dodges.
“It’s not malice ,” Sam says. “As far as we’ve heard, anyway. It sounds more like - a lack of care. Not that he goes out of his way to be terrible.”
“Great,” Steve says. “Thanks, guys.”
He goes back to staring out the window. The scenery has changed slowly the longer they’ve been on the road, and it doesn’t look entirely new, just new enough to be unsettling. They’ve reached long stretches of flat land.
“Are we there yet,” Bucky asks for the thousandth time on the trip, and Steve sighs and reminds himself how freely they offered to come and live with him in this new place - there had been no hesitation. Both of them said it like they had honestly not considered things going any different.
When they get to the city the castle is in, Steve waves. Citizens are whispering, jostling each other and pointing to the carriage, and they stare at Steve as he waves. They look surprised, which isn’t a good sign. Steve’s encountered royals who believed interacting with the public lowered them as a person. He’s getting the feeling that the Starks might be that kind of royal. Or, he had already got that impression, but this is a sinking confirmation.
As they near the castle, Sam whistles.
Steve nods silently. It’s bigger than back home, but more than that - it’s grander . It’s blindly obvious that this is a richer country, even just going through the city - people are better dressed, the fabric less worn, the people more well fed. They’re cleaner. The castle has no ivy growing up the walls and no servants’ clothes are moth-eaten as they come to direct the carriage that holds everyone’s luggage.
When Steve climbs out, there is a woman with red hair smiling up at him.
“Your highness,” she says. She bows, a deep one that Steve mirrors. She pauses at seeing him come out of the bow, a flicker of confusion going over her face before she drags a smile back up and saying, “It’s an honour. My name is Ms. Potts, I’ll be showing you to your rooms.”
“Thank you,” Steve says. He gestures back at Sam and Bucky. “These are my knights, Sir Wilson and Buchanan. And you can just call me Steve, if you like.”
Ms. Potts blinks. Steve immediately regrets what he’d just said - he’d done this to some visiting dignitaries over the years, and they’d seemed pretty bewildered. He’s never actually had to ask a servant to do this - the few servants that had come into his service as he grew up had already known to call him Steve by the time he met them, he always assumed the other servants let the new ones know.
“You don’t have to,” Steve says, as he watches a complex war take place on her face, like she’s struggling against obeying him but also upholding societal obligations. “Anything is fine.”
Beside him, Bucky snorts. Steve doesn’t elbow him, but it comes close.
Ms. Potts’s face smooths out, but not before Steve catches a look that seems almost pleased. Steve hopes he’s not misinterpreting that; he could do with the servants liking him.
She sidesteps this whole mess by saying, “If you’ll please follow me,” and starting to lead them into the castle.
She leads them through the castle. She doesn’t point them to every room, but the ones she does pass, she tells them about - down those stairs is the kitchen, and out there is one of the gardens, and out there is your knights’ lodging, and right up here is your rooms, next to Prince Anthony’s .
Steve nods as he enters his rooms. They’re bigger than his old ones, and full of finery that Steve has always been uncomfortable around - gold-plated, marvelously crafted handles on the drawers and curtains with embroidered designs and intricate lace that probably took someone months to do. Even the royalty and nobles in his old kingdom didn’t bother with this much luxury.
“His highness would like me to pass along that you can choose to remain in these rooms after the marriage,” Ms. Potts says, hands folded neatly in front of her.
Steve raises his eyebrows and looks over at her. “Excuse me?”
He’d been assuming these were his temporary quarters until the wedding takes place tomorrow, and then he’d move into Tony’s rooms. And his bed. Which he’s been trying not to think too hard about.
“That’s all he said,” Ms. Potts tells him. “I’m sure he will be open to discussing the matter with you.”
Steve nods. Tries not to frown. “Does he want me to stay in these rooms after we marry?”
Pepper’s smile is deeply professional. “He’ll discuss it with you later.”
Steve tries not to imagine his soon-to-be-husband marrying him and then continuing to sleep with other people in his rooms while Steve listens through the wall. Hopefully the walls are not thin. Steve eyes them warily.
“When will I be meeting him,” he asks.
“Soon,” Ms. Potts says. “Before that, the King has been asking for you.”
Howard looks different than the drawings Steve has seen, which is fair. Those drawings are at least twenty years out of date, and the man in the bed in front of him is weary with illness as well as age. His skin is pulled tight over his cheekbones, all of him gaunt, and there’s a fine sheen of sweat on his skin that reminds Steve of how often he’d been sick as a child.
Steve bows low. “Your Majesty.”
“Come here,” Howard says.
Steve approaches the bed. He nods at the two guards on either side, but neither of them meet his eyes. Alright.
He kneels at Howard’s side. Howard is propped up in bed, which is a bigger bed than Steve has ever seen in real life, and there are stains on his plush shirt.
Howard’s eyes rove over his face. He snorts, seemingly to himself, says, “How was the trip?”
Steve hadn’t been expecting that. “It was fine, Your Majesty.”
“Get up to anything interesting?”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“No last hurrahs before meeting your new husband?”
There we go. Steve is glad he’s prepared his face, his posture, into the careful blank he does when he knows he’s meeting someone he won’t like.
“No. Your Majesty,” he adds, almost an afterthought.
Howard laughs. It might be because of the slip, but Steve gets the feeling Howard is too wrapped up in his own head to notice much outside of it. He’s not sure how much of that is illness and how much of it is just Howard.
“You should’ve,” Howard says. “Gotta treasure the time you have before you’re tied down to my son.”
Steve is glad that Sam and Bucky are looking over their new lodging. He doesn’t want to know what they would have to say to him later, after hearing this.
Steve keeps quiet. Even with his training on how to talk to other powerful men, he’s not sure what anyone would say to that.
“Shitstain,” Howard mutters. His head drops against his pillows and then back up as he coughs, twice, into a handkerchief he has balled up next to him. “Don’t tell me I’m the deliverer of bad news.”
“I…” Steve pauses. “I’ve heard many things about your son.”
“And?” Howard grins. There’s blood in his teeth, but only if Steve looks hard. “Excited for your impending nuptials? Excited to spend the rest of your life chained to that-”
He doubles over, coughing. Steve looks at the guards - should he bring in a physician? But neither of them look at him, and eventually Howard’s coughs subside. There is something red and thick in the handkerchief as he lowers it.
“Hey,” he rasps. “Look, Steve - you gotta chain him , alright?”
“Your Majesty,” Steve tries.
“Running all over the place like a wild thing,” Howard says. His eyes are dark as he takes Steve’s sleeve and shakes it. “Hear me - you have to tame him. Not just his behaviour, but his thoughts. Get inside his head . He is pliable, if you try hard enough. If you put up with him, get him to like you - he’s never liked me, but if you try, you can-”
“Your Majesty,” Steve says, louder this time. He swallows as Howard meets his eyes again; he’d been looking around the room like he’d been trying to find something, only to get confused every few seconds.
“I appreciate your advice,” Steve says. “But I would like to meet my betrothed without any preconceived notions.”
Howard’s throat works. Steve imagines foamy blood sucking down his throat, ready to be coughed up.
“You’ve already heard about my son.”
“I have,” Steve says. His heart is low in his chest. “I’d rather not hear any more until I can gather my own thoughts about him, rather than other people’s.”
The disappointment is obvious in Howard’s eyes, which might be promising. Maybe Howard’s grudge against his son is just that - a grudge, a jealousy, something bitter and unearned, something he wants to infect other people with. If he was really doing this for Steve’s benefit, there would be less - revelry, in Howard’s dislike for his son. Or at least that’s what Steve hopes.
Howard rolls his tongue in his mouth. Again, Steve thinks of blood.
“Good luck to you, then,” Howard says eventually. “He’ll have heard of your arrival by now. You should go to him.”
Steve’s chest tightens. He bows again.
“Your Majesty,” he says.
Howard waves at him to leave, and Steve does. It’s only when the door closes behind him that he realizes he hadn’t thanked him for arranging the marriage and sending money to Steve’s kingdom. He makes a note to do that later, then goes to find someone who can tell him where to find his future husband.
The very first servant Steve finds tells him that Anthony will be in the library. He says it like this is a regular occurrence, which is - nice. Maybe Steve and his husband can talk about books. Hopefully Anthony actually reads the books, instead of - milling around or conducting affairs with servants or whatever else one might do in a library except read.
He uses the directions the servant gives him and thinks seriously about sitting down and drawing up a map of this place when he has a spare moment, if not to consult, then if only to get it properly down in his mind through mapping it out. This is a big palace. Steve gets the feeling he’s going to spend his time here sticking to a select few areas and leaving the rest of it.
When he steps into the library, he temporarily forgets what he’s there for. Or, it at least gets put to the back of his mind. The library is just as glorious as everything else here, but more importantly, it has more books than Steve could ever want. He could read one book a day for the rest of his life and not make it through all the books on the shelves surrounding him. It makes him feel oddly small.
The shelves are not short enough for him to look over, so Steve walks through them, line after line, until he reaches the end of the room. He does another walk back, gets to the door and decides that Anthony must’ve left.
He’s about to do the same when a voice calls down at him: “You’re bigger than the drawings said you’d be.”
Steve freezes. He looks up.
There’s a familiar face looking down at him from a nook just above Steve’s head, facing a window. Now that Steve looks properly, there are steps leading up to it.
The man keeps looking at him. His face is impassive, much like the art that Steve has seen of him, except the real life version sitting above him has something flickering under the surface of his expression, something tight and unhappy that makes Steve’s heart sink. He’s beautiful - obviously, he’s beautiful, with a neat goatee and features both dark and bright that makes Steve’s fingers itch for charcoal, but Steve would rather someone ugly who is happy to marry him than someone beautiful who doesn’t. And Anthony does not look happy to see him, even though he’s obviously trying to hide it. He also looks similar to his father, but there’s something crucially different about their faces that Steve can’t work out. Something in their eyes, maybe.
It takes another second for him to realize Anthony is waiting for him to speak. Steve tries to look just as impassive as he does, but he assumes he also has things flickering behind his face.
“I grew very much in the past few years,” Steve says. “Did they not send you-”
“They sent the recent drawings,” Anthony cuts him off. “They do not do you justice. Your shoulders are much broader. And your chin.”
He waves a hand down at Steve. He’s still sitting against the window, he hasn’t moved to get down to greet him, shake his hand - or however they were supposed to be introduced. Steve expects that there was supposed to be something more proper, more official - Pepper had mentioned she had something scheduled for them to meet. Steve isn’t sure he’s glad about getting to meet Anthony alone.
“I suppose they are,” Steve says. He folds his arms, then lets them fall to his sides again. He’s been trained his whole life not to, but when he’s especially nervous he can’t stop himself.
He waits for Tony to climb down. When he doesn’t, Steve takes a deep breath.
“I’m Steve,” he says. “It’s good to meet you.”
Tony’s eyebrows do something complicated, but only for a second before they smooth back out. Steve realizes that he’s said the wrong thing, something he might say to a new laundrymaid - it’s good to meet you , instead of it’s an honour . Princes call for honour, at the very least.
“I apologize,” Steve starts, but Anthony’s already sitting up.
“It’s good to meet you too,” he says, in a tone that might be taunting, but possibly not towards Steve. Steve doubts Anthony’s ever said that exact phrase in his life - this castle seems like the sort of place to cage a prince, keep him standing straight every single second of the day, keep his manners clipped and proper, his greetings polite and - in Steve’s opinion - superfluous. On the rare occasion that Steve’s met royalty, most of them had been surprised at how relaxed Steve and his Ma had been about talking to people, no matter the rank.
“I’m Anthony,” Anthony says as he walks down the steps. He arrives in front of Steve and Steve is surprised to find that Anthony is about two inches shorter than him. Despite this, Steve feels loomed over.
Anthony pauses. “Though, if you are using your shortened name, then I guess - well, some call me Tony.”
Steve nods. “Would you… like me to?”
“Call me Tony?” He does a funny little smile. “You have me calling you Steve, so yes, you can call me Tony.”
Steve nods again. Resists the urge to cross his arms or pocket his hands. He’d used to do that as a child, and nobody tried too hard to tell him off about it. Now he wishes they had.
“Did you have a good trip,” Anthony asks.
Steve thinks of King Howard, coughing blood into a handkerchief. Did they talk together about this beforehand? Is Tony going to follow it up with the same thing Howard said?
“It was fine.”
“Mm,” Tony says. He does cross his arms. Steve wonders if he can too, whether Tony won’t find it rude. “You don’t need to worry about getting your wild oats sowed. You’re free to roam as you please around here, marriage notwithstanding.”
Steve opens his mouth. He closes it. He folds his arms, since Tony’s doing it and hence can’t fault him for it.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says. Then, mostly out of being appalled, hoping Tony somehow means something else, rather than any kind of surprise: “What do you mean by that?”
“What do you think,” Tony says. He sounds remarkably unaffected, though his smile is brittle. “We know how this goes. None of our parents married for love.”
“Mine did,” Steve says. “They didn’t know each other well when they married, but they grew to love each other deeply.”
Tony blinks. “Well. That’s good for them.”
Steve tries desperately not to think of all the tales of the callous, insensitive drunk he’s heard about, and instead focuses on the man in front of him. He’s Steve’s age, and Steve is feeling awfully young right now, so that means Tony might be feeling the same. He looks much like Steve does - out of his depth, even if he’s better at covering this than Steve is.
“Look,” Steve says. “We don’t - this does not have to be-”
He can’t think of the right word. He sighs, says instead, “We are to be bound for life. I would have us become friends, if you - if that is something you want.”
Steve has the distant feeling that his whole life hinges on this. The future drifts in front of him, murky and terrifying and long and - possibly lonely. Steve isn’t sure how lonely it will be. He hopes it won’t be, but he also knows he doesn't have much of a choice.
Tony looks at him. He doesn’t say anything, just looks, and Steve decides that the main difference between him and his father is definitely the eyes - Tony’s eyes are more than his father’s, somehow, full where Howard’s are nearing empty. More what , Steve doesn’t know, but he hopes it’s good.
“You want to be friends,” Tony says after moments pass.
Steve nods. “I do. You are free to-”
He can’t find a polite way to phrase it, so he just comes out and says, “-have affairs, if you want.”
Tony eyes him with something close to distrust, but closer to confusion.
“Do you want?”
“What?” Steve is so caught off guard he answers honestly. “No.”
Tony snorts. “What, do you expect me to bend over whenever you ask? Fulfil your every-”
“No!” Steve realizes he’s just taken a step back, which can only be construed as rude. He wonders if he should step forward again. Tony is still looking at him very strangely.
“I don’t expect anything,” Steve says. “I - people have told me things, but I don’t - we - there is no chance of producing a hier, and one will be chosen from your cousins anyway, so we don’t need to. If you don’t want to, I don’t see why we would.”
Tony’s face changes, but only slightly. Steve can’t even start to read him.
“The marriage has to be consummated,” Tony says.
Steve shrugs. “There are ways around that. People have lied before, or put it off.”
Tony steps forward, arms still crossed, face held high. His eyebrows are raised consideringly.
“Do you want to?”
“Want-” Steve chokes on his tongue. It’s embarrassing, and he has to look away. The floor under them is marble and polished, and he can’t help thinking
as he examines it. How many hungry bellies could they feed with the money it took to make this floor?
Tony is waiting. Steve makes himself look at him. He knows his cheeks must be flushed, but he puts this out of his head, along with everything that appears hazy and out of reach when Tony said do you want -
“I - I would rather not, until I know you better. Until I know you well. If I can choose.”
“You can choose,” Tony says instantly. His jaw works, a short flutter of muscle under his skin. “There are no bedding ceremonies anymore.”
Steve is grateful for that down to his soul . The idea of people being around for that even just before, knowing what he’s about to do, makes his skin crawl. The idea of people being there during some of it -
“You seem very relieved by that,” Tony says.
“I am,” Steve says.
“By the lack of a bedding ceremony, or being able to choose?”
“Both,” Steve says. He gets the feeling, now, that he’s being tested. He wishes vaguely that he knew how to do and say all the correct things, but apparently Tony finds him satisfying enough, because his face relaxes into something less guarded, even if it’s only by a margin. Steve wouldn’t have caught it if he hadn’t been scrutinizing him.
“Thank you,” Steve says, remembering in a burst, “for agreeing to this union. My people will be eternally grateful to you and your kingdom.”
Tony’s smile, which had only just appeared, shrinks. He glances away.
“ Our kingdom, soon,” he says.
“Right,” Steve says. “Yes.”
Tony slides his hands into his pockets. They seem to be made of material so expensive that even Steve hadn’t been able to get it back home.
“Well,” Tony says. “We’d best get away from each other, lest people see that we’ve met in this uncivilized manner and the monarchy collapses.”
“Of course,” Steve says. He gives one last look around the library, tries to pin this to the map he’s constructing in his mind so he can find it later. Before Tony starts to leave, Steve says, “Do you read often?”
Tony pauses. He’s in the doorway, one hand toying absently with a button on his vest.
“I do,” he says.
“Oh,” Steve says. “Me, too.”
Tony looks as if he’s about to say something else, but then he ducks his head, says, “I look forward to meeting you later,” and leaves.
Steve watches him go with a nagging sense of wrongness, but it’s cut through with thin rays of hope - his future husband does not seem to be half as awful as he’d been warned. He hopes that this wasn’t a fluke, and then he heads in the opposite direction to Tony, to continue filling out the map he’s creating in his mind.
Steve meets Tony properly later that day. They’re surrounded by guards and advisors and also Pepper, who Steve guesses is higher ranking than he’d previously assumed. Judging by the interactions Tony has with everyone, he gets the feeling that the only people who actually call him Tony is Ms. Potts, who shares an obvious camaraderie with him and rolls her eyes fondly at him when she thinks no one is looking; James Rhodes, one of Tony’s advisors, who narrowly avoids getting into an argument with Tony that seems both well-worn and good-natured; and Happy Hogan, a guard who Tony makes fun of while Hogan’s mouth twitches. None of them call him Tony while Steve watches them, but Steve assumes that’s because people are around. Bucky and Sam do the same thing, treating him more or less like a prince when there are important people around, then lapsing into their usual friendship once they’re alone.
All three of them seem wary of Steve, which, if they’re Tony’s friends, is fair. Steve’s glad that Tony has people around who care about him, him as a person , enough to be wary of his future husband. All three also look cautiously pleased when Tony and Steve trade a few brief and friendly jokes that start from Tony telling Steve his eyes are a shade of blue the sketches could not match. Like the ocean on a calm day.
Steve blinks and realizes that Tony is teasing him. There’s a curl to his mouth that hints at an inside joke, so Steve replies, “Thank you, your eyes are - very brown.”
Damn. He’s not mentioning this to Bucky or Sam later.
Tony’s mouth curls further. “Oh?”
“ Very brown,” Steve says, as dry as he can, hoping he’s actually playing this off and not digging himself a hole.
“I feel like there’s a compliment in there somewhere,” Tony says.
“I’m trying,” Steve says. “There aren’t a lot of beautiful things that are brown.”
“Except my eyes.”
“Except your eyes,” Steve agrees.
“Which are very brown.”
“So very brown,” Steve nods. He looks around the courtyard. “Like… a… tree.”
At this, Tony actually laughs.
“Trees can be beautiful,” Steve argues. “They’re used in poetry, and, and - blue is easy to compare to something beautiful.”
Tony’s grinning. It almost makes Steve want to actually come up with something good to say about it, something properly flattering, instead of joking around. He gets the hazy thought of being able to do that in the future - Tony will be his husband. Steve will have a lifetime to compare his smile to things.
But that thought makes his stomach lurch in a way he doesn’t completely like, so he cuts that thought off before it can solidify.
They don’t get much time to talk before one of the advisors is telling Tony they need him for something, so Tony says, “Well, I’ll see you at the wedding.”
“See you,” Steve says. He wants to say I look forward to it , or something of the like, but his palms are sweating and the words stick in his throat so he just nods and watches Tony leave again.
That night, Steve ducks into the knight’s quarters. He gives two of them a fright in the hallway until Bucky appears, clapping their backs and saying, “What’d I tell you? Now, stop falling over yourselves, where I come from princes spend time in the knight’s quarters all the time, so get used to it. Hi, Your Imminent Highness.”
“Hi,” Steve says.
Bucky cranes his head back towards the bedrooms. “SAM GET IN HERE OUR PRINCE NEEDS US.”
From the bedrooms, Steve hears a muffled yell and then some crashing.
“He’s getting here,” Bucky says. He watches the other two knights hurry along, then turns his gaze on Steve and leans against the wall. It’s all loose, casual, but Steve knows that Bucky can tell how he’s feeling without having to ask. That happens after growing up together.
“You look excited,” Bucky says.
Steve gives him a look. “Oh, good.”
“That was a lie,” Bucky says. “You should work on that.”
“I don’t think I should,” Steve says. “ Regal , yes. Assured , absolutely. Excited ? People don’t care if I’m excited.”
“People don’t,” Bucky agrees. “We-”
He thumbs back at Sam, who appears rumpled in the doorway behind them before coming up to Bucky. “-do. So work on it.”
“I’ll try,” Steve says blandly.
Sam slaps himself in the face and makes some waking-up noises. It’s late at night; Steve is surprised Bucky had still been awake.
“You met him, right,” Sam says. “Or do you get your first actual look at the man when you’re walking down the aisle?”
“I met him,” Steve says. “Twice, actually. I met him officially - we were introduced - but before that, we ran into each other. We talked.”
Sam suddenly looks awake.
“You talked,” Bucky says. “How’d that go?”
“It went - okay.”
“He’s not like he is in the stories,” Steve says. “He’s-”
He’s like me , he doesn’t say. Scared and young and wanting to make the best of the situation, but skeptical he can do so.
“I don’t think he wanted this marriage,” Steve says instead. “I think his father forced his hand.”
Bucky hums. “Into a marriage, maybe. But did the prince get to choose you?”
Steve hesitates. He hadn’t thought to ask, and now he’s not sure he wants to know.
“He would have had many options,” Bucky says. “But you’re the one marrying him tomorrow.”
“I am,” Steve says. “I’m - yes.”
“So? How do you feel?”
Steve puts his hands on his hips. He wants to give them a flat look, play this off as a joke, but the future is coming up at him too fast. This is the right thing to do and Steve knows it; he would never do anything else. No one has had to ask him to do this, he’s asked for it every step of the way, he agreed to all of it. But suddenly all he wants is to be home, to sleep in his old spot by the window, curled up on the windowsill. He wants to know where everything is, not just in his head but through a lifetime of walking through its halls and knowing in his bones where the stables are, who works at the Inn, which milkmaid walks with a limp and is slower with her work because of it. He knows nothing of this place and now he is to live here forever, and he knows that all this comfortable knowledge will come, but for now everything is confusing and he’s getting married to a man he just met yesterday .
“I wish we had more time,” Steve says. “Me and - Prince Anthony. Not that it would matter, if we’re getting married anyway.”
“But he’s-” Sam pauses, smothers a yawn. “-he’s nice? If he’s not like the stories? He’s good, then.”
“I think so,” Steve says. “I - there might still be some truth to the stories of him being cruel and drunk, but I’m hoping that’s a small part of him, if it’s there.”
“Here’s hoping,” Bucky says. He reaches over and squeezes Steve’s arm.
The next morning, Steve is married.
He lets the servants dress him - his clothes are more complicated than Steve is used to, and he absentmindedly follows how this overly-fancy formalwear works as the servants pull it onto him. This button, then that button, then these straps - it gives him something solid to focus on, rather than what’s to come.
You knew this would happen , he tells himself as he is led through the castle, into the chapel, which is bigger than a third of his old home. He’s always known he was probably going to marry for his kingdom, rather than for love. He’d hoped he would have more free years ahead of him, but if he has to marry now, then so be it.
You knew it would happen, Steve repeats to himself, a talisman he keeps returning to, as if it will burn out the disappointment and panic in him. You knew, so you have no right to feel like this.
Disappointment feels strange, and guilt follows as he meets Anthony - Tony’s eyes across the room. It’s only for an instant, then Tony’s gaze drops. But hope feels - hasty, somehow. Like he’s asking for something Tony will not or cannot give.
Steve tries very hard not to feel anything at all as he walks up to the front of the chapel.
If Tony’s feeling anything, he’s not showing it. If anything, he looks numb. He stands impossibly straight, as if he’s holding steady for a painting, his hands folded in front of him.
Steve repeats the words the pastor tells him. He listens distantly as Tony does the same.
It’s only when Steve slides a ring onto his finger that he realizes Tony’s hand is shaking. It’s minute enough that he doesn’t notice until he’s holding his hand, but there’s a definite tremble there, however small.
Steve doesn’t think much about it as he gives Tony’s hand a squeeze. He’d do the same to anyone going through a rough time, and he doesn’t wake up to the context until Tony’s surprised eyes meet his for the first time since he walked into the chapel.
Steve looks back at him. He feels his eyebrows raise as if he’s asking, what ?
Tony’s mouth quirks. Like his shaking, it’s a barely noticeable thing, but it’s there.
He squeezes Steve’s hand back.
Steve feels himself smile. They can do this, maybe - be confidants. He prays this isn’t something that will happen once, that it is the start of a lifetime of soothing each other’s nerves. He could use a partner to stand with him as he goes through all of this, and Sam and Bucky can only do so much.
The pastor is still speaking, but Steve doesn’t pay much attention until you may kiss . Steve’s grip tightens on Tony’s hands. Right.
Tony looks vaguely amused as he leans in. He raises his eyebrows, as if to ask: okay ?
Steve kisses him. It’s different than the books said it would be - not that they go into much detail. It does not feel like petals, or ecstacy. It’s a mouth, soft and a little dry, against Steve’s. The fact of it sends a thrill of light down his spine, which is mostly lost in the rush of everything else happening; his heart pounding, all the sweat gathering under his arms and on his forehead. It’s a short kiss, because it can’t be anything else and Steve wouldn’t know what to do if it wasn’t, and Steve blinks rapidly as he draws back.
Husband , he thinks hazily as he looks down at Tony, who seems as dazed as he is, but for so short a moment that later Steve thinks he imagined it.
They get walked back to their rooms. Or, they get walked back to Tony’s rooms, and because everyone’s looking at Steve like he should, Steve follows Tony inside. Then he stands there, curling his toes inside his shoes, which are stiff and new and painful despite the short amount of walking. At least Steve’s rooms are only a ten second walk away from here.
When Steve turns around after closing the door, Tony is leaning against a bedpost. He’s looking at Steve expectantly, with the same kind of amusement from before: what now?
“Do you play chess,” Steve says desperately.
Tony’s mouth flickers upwards. “Yes,” he says. He goes over to a bedside table and picks up a bottle of wine, pours a glass and then glances back at Steve.
Steve shakes his head.
Tony puts down the bottle and picks up the glass, returning to the bedpost.
“You want to play chess,” he says, “on our wedding night.”
Steve eyes the wine. Tony’s gripping it a little too hard.
“Yes,” he says. “If you want.”
Tony cocks his head at him. Looks him up and down. Steve fights the urge to do - something, but he can’t stand any straighter and he definitely can’t fold his arms now.
“I’m sure you know,” Tony says, “we’re forgoing centuries of tradition by not making use of this.”
He looks back towards their marriage bed. It’s big and sturdy and has intricate designs carved into the bedframe.
“I’m sure-” Steve swallows. “We cannot be the first to do something else. If you think of every couple, there must have been at least a few who were-”
Steve can’t finish the sentence. A few who were - what? Too nervous? Hated each other so much they couldn’t face each other in bed? A few who couldn’t get it up?
His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. He ends up shrugging.
“So,” he says weakly. “Chess?”
Tony smiles. He takes a large mouthful of wine, then says, “Chess it is.”
Tony is, fortunately, very good at chess. Enough so that Steve is genuinely distracted from his circumstances because he’s mapping out his strategy.
Tony seems the same, forgoing the large gulps of wine - of which there had been many - in order to concentrate on the game. At first he seems surprised by the competition, surprised in a joyous way that makes Steve’s chest tighten, but then the game continues and Tony’s focus goes almost completely to it.
They are, at least, using the bed. They currently have the board between them as they sit crosslegged on top of the covers, their shoes off and some of the more constricting clothing shucked off. Tony had thrown his to the floor where Steve had folded his and placed it on a table.
“You brought people with you,” Tony says at one point. “Anyone interesting?”
“Uh,” Steve says. He eyes the Knights on his board. “Some servants - there is one woman, Cathilda, who is now working in the kitchens, she has been with me since I was a boy. She’s a good woman. Other than that, two of my knights.”
Steve wonders if he should continue, then does. “They’re both close confidants.”
“Good,” Tony says instantly. He looks surprised by himself before his expression settles back into something not quite calm. “It’s - you should have people you can talk to, coming somewhere so new.”
Steve blinks. He’d been fearing that the wine would turn Tony into the noblemen he’s seen at dinners, red-faced and laughing too loud and pawing at serving girls, but he’s had two glasses - admittedly, drunk very quickly - and the only thing he seems is more relaxed, his posture slightly looser as he reaches to move his pieces.
“I’m glad to have them,” Steve says. “Do you have such people?”
“I do,” Tony says. He glances up at Steve, then down quickly, like he hadn’t expected to find Steve looking at him. “You’ve met them all, I think - Rhodes, my advisor, has been with me for six years. He was the first person I could call a friend.”
It is an awfully long time to go through life without a friend, Steve thinks. He’s suddenly very glad he met Bucky as a child.
“And Pepper - Ms. Potts,” Tony adds, when Steve’s brow furrows, “She has been with me for about the same time. She is my personal servant, without her I would constantly be showing up to things even later than I already do. And Happy, my guard. He’s been with me for - three years? And he - well, we get along well. And he seems concerned for my wellfare for reasons that don’t involve me being the prince.”
Steve nods. He can understand that. People seeing past the title to the person - this has been rare, but when it happens, Steve has treasured it.
“You’re different than I expected,” Steve hears himself say, and barely manages to hold back a wince. Damn.
Tony blinks. His face goes guarded, but in a way that Steve is starting to recognize - he abruptly takes on the brittle smile he’d been wearing in the library when they’d met.
“Oh? And how did you expect me to be?”
“Uh.” Steve tries to think of the more flattering stories, but can’t remember any. “You - I had heard… some unsavoury things about you.”
Tony reaches over for the wine for the first time in a while. “Do tell!”
“I don’t think I-”
Steve sighs. Sends up a prayer, then a thought out to Ma - I am trying! I swear! before saying, “Most of them seem now to be defamatory gossip. The stories claimed you were cruel, and uncaring, and had little in your head but merrymaking, instead of the concerns of your people.”
Tony nods. He seems unfazed, even though he’s gripping the glass hard again. “And?”
“And…” Steve shrugs at the glass. “That you drank more than you should.”
“That was… the word used, yes.”
Tony drains his glass, then runs his tongue along his bottom lip. Steve determinedly doesn’t watch the movement.
“Well,” Tony says. “Worse things to be married to.”
“You don’t seem to match them,” Steve says. “The stories.”
Tony flashes his teeth at him. “How would you know, O husband of mine? You’ve spent - what, two hours with me in total?”
“You don’t seem - cruel. Or uncaring.”
Tony’s mouth flinches sideways. He looks away.
“Yes, well,” he says. “Give me time.”
“Are-” Steve picks up a discarded castle piece from the bedspread. Takes a deep breath. “The stories have you treating servants callously - using them for footrests. Wooing noblemen’s daughters and then shaming them after they come to your bed. Throwing lavish parties and spending money carelessly when commonfolk suffer on the outskirts.”
Tony tilts his head. He doesn’t speak for several seconds.
“Parties, sure,” he says finally. “I - I have stopped those, in the past few years. Mostly. Treating servants badly - maybe I will yell at some, if I am in a particularly bad mood, but I hold myself accountable for that. I have Pepper keep track for when that does happen, so I can make amends. Other than that, I treat them well, especially the ones who have been in our service for a long time. I did woo some nobleman’s daughters - and sons - but I never shamed them for coming to my bed. If any shaming occured, none of it was from me. Spending money carelessly - again, yes, they are right about that. But I’ve been - I have been trying to improve. I have realized recently that I - that my actions have far-reaching consequences. Of course I already knew that, in my head, but it never really - it didn’t truly sink in until this year.”
“Nothing special,” Tony says. “I took a trip around the kingdom. Some freedom before, uh.”
He gestures at Steve. He seems apologetic about it.
“I didn’t know it was you, back then,” he says. “All I knew was that I had to be married.”
“Right,” Steve says.
“And I saw-” Tony rolls his tongue in his mouth. Shakes his head. “My people. In a way I had never really seen them before. One of them spoke to me in a way commonfolk never dared to before. I was mad at first, but I soon thanked him. He opened my eyes to what I will be able to do, as a ruler. How I can help. Do better than-”
He stops. Steve thinks of fires, the white core of them.
“I will help my people,” Tony finishes. “When I rule, I will make things better for them. And - and for yours, obviously. The alliance between our peoples will mean that no one will have to starve.”
“Thank you,” Steve croaks. He clears his throat. “I have been - I had my advisors tell me about this kingdom. I would like to help the people as much as I can. Yours, as well as mine.”
“Ours,” Tony says.
Steve nods. “Ours,” he echoes. It feels like a promise.
Tony looks - relieved, Steve thinks. Enormously relieved, and half-hopeful, half-disbelief.
“Good,” he says. He reaches over, takes the wine bottle from the bed, uncorks it and drinks from the neck of it. “The drinking can be negotiated,” he says, at Steve’s appalled look. “Maybe.”
“As long as you can keep it under control,” Steve says slowly, consideringly, “I can live with it.”
Tony winces. “Alright. I will try to - yes.”
He takes another drag, then re-corks the wine bottle and drops it over the edge of the bed. There’s maybe an inch of liquid left in it.
“You don’t drink,” Tony says.
Steve shakes is head. “My father drank.”
From the look of him, Tony has heard all about how King Joseph drank.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, of course.”
Mostly to change the subject, Steve says, “Did you pick me? As a husband, or did - was it Howard?”
“I picked,” Tony says. “Howard had the final choice, though, so I had to make it seem like you would make me desperately unhappy with your dullness and that you would surely chain me with unhappy rules for the rest of my life. But yes, I picked you.”
Steve laughs. It’s probably leftover nerves, because nothing in that sentence was humourous.
“The King does seem to want strange things for you,” Steve says.
Strange things , Tony mouths. “He does, yes.”
“I hope-” Steve feels, oddly, like he’s been drinking the wine also. “I hope this does not turn out as he wants it to. I would make you happy, if I can.”
Tony’s face is flushed, but it’s been like that since the last glass of wine. He blinks unsteadily, lips parted. For a moment it seems like he forgets to speak. Then he says, “I - I would make you happy, too. If I can.”
Make him like you, Howard’s voice jeers in Steve’s mind. You can get in his head and then-
Steve pushes it out firmly.
This is my husband, he tells it. He finds he does not need anything else to justify it - husband is enough, with all the rest of the meaning gathered easily behind its girth.
Life is not normal, not yet. Steve knows it will take a while for this to seem like his real life, rather than a holiday he will soon return from. But until then, he keeps himself busy: he familiarizes himself with his advisors and has them teach him all they can. He sketches the trees outside his window and the view from the battlements.
He writes to his mother, the longest letters he can manage, which is still quite short. He’s never been good at writing long letters, keeping to short, simple sentences that spell out plainly what has been happening. He has read letters that have gone on for pages expanding on what has been happening, as well as the writer’s thoughts about what has happened, but Steve has never been able to do that. He tells his mother the facts - I am married, I am following your advice, my husband seems like a good man and I believe we can be trusted partners in life - and cannot come up with anything else. Thoughts occur and then evade him - his doubts about all of this; his worries about the marriage and his husband and Howard, but they seem too intimate to include on the page.
His mother’s letters are the same - she tells him what has happened, and not much else. She does include how much she has missed him, which he reciprocates. He has missed her so much he hadn’t known it was possible, and he takes much solace in her telling him about how things were like for her in the first year she lived with her new husband in her new kingdom.
Things were awkward at first , she writes. But I soon got to know him, and love come soon after.
Steve gets to know Tony. It is, indeed, awkward. They dine together, but that is usually accompanied by several members of the court and there is no time to talk about anything you wouldn’t want to say in front of multiple near-strangers. Whenever they are out together in public, there are guards following close. The only real time they get to spend together is in the library, which the two of them frequently, and their nightly games of chess.
“The servants talk about us,” Tony tells him one night.
Steve frowns. “There is nothing to talk about.”
“Exactly,” Tony says. “The sheets are washed and oh, look! There is nothing to wash out, yet again.”
Steve’s cheeks burn. “They know we sleep in separate rooms.”
“Yes, but still,” Tony says. He shifts his knight a square away. “You are still free to invite whoever you wish to your rooms, by the way.”
“Yes, I know,” Steve says. “You, as well.”
Steve looks up, tries to hide his surprise. “Of course. You made it clear that you would…”
He trails off.
“Right,” Tony says. “I did, didn’t I? I just - I would stop, if you wanted me to. You have the right to ask it of me.”
“Oh,” Steve says. His throat works. Tony is still eyeing the chessboard, and Steve is thankful for it. He couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes right now. “You needn’t stop for me.”
“I only thought - if it bothered you-”
“It doesn’t,” Steve says, so quick he doesn’t realize whether or not it’s a lie as he says it.
“Alright,” Tony says after a moment. “I will - resume, then.”
Steve makes a noise of agreement. He keeps his head bowed and resolves to tell absolutely no one about this.
That night, Steve discovers the walls are thin enough to hear someone’s nighttime activities. Namely, Tony bedding someone in his rooms while Steve sleeps in his own rooms. It’s an unwelcome development, and Steve figures that Tony had been waiting for Steve to let him know it was okay. Which is nice, he supposes. It also makes him wonder if Tony would actually stop if Steve asked him. He likes to think he would. He also knows he is not going to ask Tony to stop unless - unless something dramatic happens.
He puts his hands over his ears and does his best to fall asleep like that, but it’s uncomfortable, so he has to check every few minutes if they’re finished. Once they are, and the moans and moving has stopped, Steve can finally sleep, though even in the silence, it takes hours for sleep to claim him.
At least once a day, if he has time, Steve heads down to the knight’s quarters to see Sam and Bucky. They’re settling in to their new lodging and making friends easily, because they’re the kind of men who have always been able to do that.
The other knights are still bewildered by a prince coming to spend time around them, but Steve can sense they’re getting more relaxed having him around. It helps a lot that Sam and Bucky treat him - well, not exactly like they would treat another knight, but not like they would treat a prince , definitely. They tease and jostle him and make Steve feel like a person rather than the title most others treat him as.
“So,” Bucky says a few weeks after the marriage, as they’re watching knights-in-training spar in the courtyard. “How is it?”
“Being married? It’s - good.”
“Mm,” Steve says. He folds his hands behind his back.
“Because I heard that you’re sleeping in different rooms.”
“Yes,” Steve says. “And?”
Sam says, “ And that Tony’s bringing other people to his bed. Not often, but - still.”
Steve doesn’t answer. He watches the knights clash swords in the ring. He’s been trained how to fight, so he knows enough to see that their stances could be better.
Beside him, without checking, he can tell that Sam and Bucky are giving each other a look.
“Steve,” Bucky says.
“I’m going to head back inside,” Steve says. He hears the others call his name, but he doesn’t stop. He heads back to his room and goes over the list in his head - the map of the castle, which he’s started sketching, and the names of servants. There are things he cannot control, and then there are things that he can.
After their next game of chess, Tony pushes a thin, ornate box into Steve’s hands.
“For your sketches,” Tony says. He seems uncomfortable, so Steve doesn’t press him on it.
He opens the box. The inside is lined with velvet and nestled in the velvet is a dozen coloured pencils, each filed to a careful point and vibrant enough that Steve momentarily forgets to thank Tony and instead stands there staring.
Then his senses kick back in and he says, “I - these are - thank you, Tony.”
“You can ask, you know,” Tony says. “You’re a prince, you can ask for things.”
“I know,” Steve says.
“People say you’ve been helping in the kitchen when the cooks get overwhelmed.”
Steve pauses. “Well, yes. I used to do it back home, and I know how to do the basics, so-”
“You’re the prince , Steve.”
“I am,” Steve says. “And I have hands, and I know how to make bread, and - and I had an hour free, so why shouldn’t I have helped?”
“The kitchen staff must’ve had a field day.”
“They were - unsure of how to handle the situation,” Steve admits. “But Cathilda assured them all was well.”
“Ah, Cathilda. Your faithful cook.”
“My faithful cook,” Steve agrees.
Tony hums. Leans against a bedpost. Says, “I’ll have to meet her one of these days.”
Steve doesn’t know how he feels about that, but he thinks it’s a good feeling.
Tony does get to introduce himself the next time he sees Cathilda, but it’s under less preferable circumstances than they anticipated.
For a start, Howard is there. He hasn’t been present at any dinners before this, but according to the physician that escorts him in, he’s experiencing a momentary burst of strength.
“How fortunate,” Tony says as Howard is assisted into the chair at the head of the table.
He lifts a glass of wine. “We are, as always, honoured to have you grace dinner with your presence, Your Majesty.”
Howard glowers at him. He’s not even subtle about it. He smiles as he does it, but it comes across as a sneer, which only adds to how clear his contempt is. Steve almost winces, watching it. Tony, however, stays steady and unfazed, his eyes bright and challenging. Steve can only notice the challenge now that he’s spent enough time around him to recognize it - Tony covers it, mostly, but there’s still the glimpse of an expected obstacle, some future fight to overcome.
Steve has never seen the father and son interact directly, but he gets the feeling that Tony’s expectations will come to pass.
The dinner is more subdued than usual. Steve keeps his eyes on his plate except when he glances up to check if Tony’s okay. So far, Tony seems to be set on making it through this dinner, eating as fast as he can while still being neat about it. He doesn’t raise his eyes from his plate except to gulp wine, even as he makes polite conversation with the king, asking how he fares and how the physicians have been treating him.
Howard answers. None of it is impolite, none of the words are, anyway, but those words have an unmistakable bite. As do Tony’s, though his is more restrained. Steve is in the middle of admiring his restraint when Howard says, “And are you paying enough attention to your new husband?”
Steve concentrates very hard on cutting his boiled carrot into tiny pieces.
“What prompted this worry,” Tony replies.
“The usual,” Howard says. “People talk, son.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed.”
“They talk,” Howard continues. “And the talk around here is that Steven is being tragically neglected.”
Steve keeps his eyes on his carrot. Cuts it into eights rather than fourths, now.
“That rumour is unfounded, then,” Tony says. “Steve’s very well attended to. Aren’t you, husband?”
Damn. Steve lifts his head, looks at him. “Yes, I’m very well attended to.”
“There,” Tony says. The brittle smile is back. “Just gossip.”
“Oh, I’ve heard differently,” Howard says.
Please don’t bring up my intact virginity , Steve thinks. Or Tony’s lack of it.
“The chambermaids were very sad when they heard you were getting married,” Howard says. “It’s good to hear that they did not need to be, as they still attend to your rooms regularly.”
Tony’s fork scrapes against his plate.
“Yes, they are good at their work,” he says stiffly.
Howard grins. “I know . Only, I had thought that you were set on not carrying on the Stark tradition of being attended to by others than your spouse.”
Steve glances up. Tony’s face twists, a momentary flicker, but enough to know that Howard is twisting the knife in something important.
Tony says, “I,” and then stops. He doesn’t fidget, his face barely changes, but Steve knows that look from their chess games - there is an ocean’s worth of thoughts occurring under the surface.
Howard laughs. “Look at you, boy. So sure you were going to be better than me. And you’ve turned out to just carry on the same lines. It almost makes me proud.”
Steve entertains a vague fantasy of Tony up and pouring gravy over the King’s head.
“That’s not,” Tony says, and his voice is strained now. “This is
the same as what you did.”
“No,” Tony says. He swallows. “It is not - a lie, or a betrayal. I have permission. Steve is happy with this situation.”
“Oh!” Howard turns to Steve, who wishes for a hole to hide in. “That’s a relief to hear, Steve. It is a rare man who is truly happy with the man he is eternally bonded to bedding the servants.”
Steve is, as he is used to be when Howard is involved, lost for words. He looks over at Tony and finds him with blotchy cheeks - apparently Tony can blush, it just takes a dressing-down from his father. Steve tries to meet his eyes, ask silently for help, but Tony won’t look up.
“Uh,” Steve says when seconds pass and it’s clear Howard wants an answer. “Right.”
“One has to tolerate certain things from a spouse,” Howard says. He’s eating soup, as he can’t eat solids anymore, and his hand shakes around his spoon. “But as long as you get certain things, tolerance is achievable. Wouldn’t you agree, Steven?”
Steve thinks he’s being insulted, but he can’t pin down the exact insult. Or maybe the insult is directed at Tony? As long as you get certain things -
“Only,” Howard continues, apparently not content with waiting for an answer Steve doesn’t want to give, “it seems your marriage has not been properly consummated yet.”
“ Really ,” Tony says, almost spitting it before he visibly reigns himself in. “You seem very certain.”
“I am,” Howard says. “There has been sex on your sheets, but only after you have rolled around with one of your girls or boys. Your husband remains untouched.”
“Or,” Tony says, “the marriage has been consummated , just not in a bed .”
Steve chokes on his carrot. Throughout the table, dignitaries and servants alike smother their laughter like they’ll be put to death if it comes out audible, but only a few succeed. A hush falls over the table.
Steve’s face burns. He honestly has not realized that is something that can happen , though it seems obvious in retrospect. He is struck, not by the first time, by how naive he is to these things, and how naive his husband isn’t.
“Your husband,” Howard says, “does not seem to be the type to do that.”
Half-giddy with embarrassment and still somehow keeping his voice even, Steve says, “I have hidden depths, Your Majesty.”
Another suppressed titter rises from the table. Steve looks across at Tony, who is staring at him, his eyes wide. It’s not exactly the expression he’d gotten as Tony realized how good he was at chess, but it’s close.
Tony turns to Howard. “You can rest your suspicions now. My marriage is safe. Thank you for worrying, Father.”
Howard’s mouth tightens into a line. He takes another mouthful of soup, then pauses. “There is vinegar in this.”
Tony makes an increment of an expression. Steve doesn’t know why until Howard turns to the servant beside him and says, “Excuse me, is there anyone new in our kitchens? Someone who hasn’t been told that their King does not have vinegar in my food?”
The servant pauses. “There is someone new, Your Majesty, but I do not know if-”
“Bring her to me,” Howard says.
Another incremental expression crosses Tony’s face. Steve gives him a questioning look but he just shakes his head.
Steve is sure his own face does something when the servant returns with Cathilda at her side, the whole table sitting there like a breath being held, hardly daring to pick up a fork lest they make a noise the King is displeased by.
Cathilda bows when she reaches a sensible distance from Howard.
“How may I serve you, Your Majesty?”
Howard pushes the bowl towards her. “How long have you been with us?”
A pause. “Almost two months, Your Majesty.”
“Two months. Mm.” Howard pushes the bowl further, enough that it comes precariously close to tilting off the side. “What is this, then?”
Cathilda looks into the bowl. “It looks like potato soup, Your Majesty.”
“Good eye,” Howard says. “Did you know that I do not take vinegar in my soup?”
“I - no, Your Majesty. I will tell my staff.”
“I don’t care about your
,” Howard says. His voice gets lower, sharper, something to cut yourself on. “They know how to treat their betters. They know how to
, so things are kept
, the way he
. Surely they must have told you what I do or do not
“They have, Your Majesty-”
“Then what? Did you forget?”
“I - I didn’t make the soup, Your Majesty.”
“You - you didn’t.” Howard draws a thin breath, coughs in a way that’s light, but threatens to become clotted with blood. “Then who, pray tell, did?”
“I-” Cathilda looks over at Steve, who looks back steadily. Steve’s hand is clenched in his lap, under the table. He’s had to tell visitors not to trouble the servants before, but that was when he was Prince of his land. Now he’s just -
Cathila continues, “I am not sure, Your Majesty. It’s very busy tonight, we-”
Howard lurches sideways and throws the bowl at her feet. It cracks into dozens of pieces, the soup splashing over her feet and up onto her apron. She takes a flinching step back to avoid the worst of it, then stops.
“What KIND,” Howard spits, “of kitchen are you RUNNING down there? Hm? Tell me that-”
“Father,” Tony says.
Howard doesn’t stop. Beside him, a physician, who has been overseeing him, takes a step towards him, hands out and unsure.
Howard is halfway through berating how Cathilda refuses to look at him when he bends in half and starts to cough. It wracks his body, his thin frame trembling with effort. The coughs are very clearly wet, and Steve can see blood seeping through Howard’s fingers, which are clasped over his mouth.
“ Micheals ,” Tony says, rising in his chair. He directs it at the physician, who darts forward before Tony can finish his name, and puts his hands on Howard’s shoulders, perhaps to guide him up, only for Howard to shove him off.
“Get away,” Howard snarls, and it’s thick with fluids. He hacks, spits blood onto the floor.
Cathilda steps away from it. Steve waits, but it seems Howard has forgotten her.
“Father,” Tony says again, more urgently this time. “Just let them- can’t someone-”
Another servant comes in and, haltingly, puts his hands under Howard’s arm. The physician does the same on the other side, and Steve watches them haul Howard, who is half-stumbling now, out of the dining hall.
Silence reigns in his wake. Steve tries to meet Tony’s gaze again, and Tony allows this for a second, his eyes overly bright, but that goes away after a few sharp binks. Then Tony is heading towards Cathilda, holding his hands up placatingly when she stiffens.
“I am sorry about him,” Tony says quietly, enough that Steve has to strain to hear him. “It was no fault of yours -”
“It’s fine,” Cathilda says. She smiles uneasily. “I have been warned. They also mentioned you would come and comfort me, after.”
Steve’s hand clenches again. He digs his fingers into his leg, imagining Tony younger, too young, telling the servants it’s not your fault, that’s just how my father is. You did nothing wrong. Hopefully that means someone told Tony the same.
There is already a servant working at the spilt soup with a rag. Steve gets out of his chair, heads over and kneels down to pick up fragments of the bowl. The servant looks at him, wide-eyed.
“Hi,” Steve says. “Do you mind?”
The servant’s eyes dart around, like he’s looking for something that might cause Steve offense.
Cathilda comes over and bumps his shoulder.
Steve looks up at her. “Hi.”
“Not your job,” she reminds him. “Your Highness.”
“It shouldn’t be your job to get yelled at for something you did not do, because of something not worth yelling for,” Steve says. “Yet here we are. How is dessert faring?”
“It’s good,” she says. She glances at Tony, who is about a foot away and watching the exchange with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders stiff. Tony jerks into action, coming down beside Steve and reaching for some of the smaller shards, gathering them in his palms.
“You hold,” Steve tells him. “I’ll pick.”
Tony hesitates, then holds out his cupped hands. Steve empties his handful of shards into them, then picks up another from the ground.
At the table behind them, the sound of cutlery slowly resumes.
Their chess game is slower than usual that night. Occasionally, Tony will rub the spot where a shard had pierced, which he hadn’t noticed until they got to a scrap bin. It hadn’t bled much, but it must’ve stung. Steve’s eyes draw to it every time he gets a glimpse of Tony’s palm.
Steve is thinking of his mother and Cathilda and Howard and the late Queen Maria all at once when he asks, “Did you hope to marry for love, when you were a child?”
Tony makes a face. “Not really,” he says. “My parents had no other children, so.”
“Right,” Steve says. He used to wish for brothers or sisters, too - so he wasn’t lonely, in the early days, and later, so there wasn’t so much pressure on his shoulders, which didn’t get broad until much later.
“Did you,” Tony says.
Steve regrets asking. He’d regretted asking as he was saying it.
“I don’t know,” he says.
Tony nods. He slides his knight closer to Steve’s side of the board.
Steve opens his mouth. Closes it.
“Why-” he starts it, and it’s only when Tony looks up, expectant, that Steve supposes he has to finish. “Why did you pick me? As a match. Howard forced you to marry, but you had - there were other options. Many of them.”
Tony nods again. This time is slower. He presses a thumb into his palm, near the small cut he’d received hours ago. When he looks back at Steve, it’s almost considering. Steve feels his shoulders go back under it, as if he wants to make a good impression.
“Maybe I wanted to help you,” Tony says. “To help - anyone, for once. Your people needed it.”
, Steve thinks dully. So it wasn’t about him at all. It’s - a comfort, in some ways. In others, it’s… less so.
“And-” Tony hesitates. His thumb presses harder into his palm, then relaxes. “Everyone said you were kind. I thought… if I had to marry, I’d prefer to marry someone kind.”
He’s looking at the chess board, but after he says this, in the new silence, he looks up. Then, just as quick, he looks away, as if he had expected Steve to be looking elsewhere.
Steve doesn’t know where else Tony thinks he’d be looking.
That night, Steve lies in bed and wonders if this will be one of the nights Tony will bring someone to bed, but the other room remains quiet that night. Steve’s nights remain uninterrupted for the next two weeks, when they get called to the King’s deathbed.
It’s a short affair. Howard is mostly gone when they reach him, his breath coming slow and long and gasping like he’s lying in a tub instead of a bed. He’s propped up, but Steve can tell it’s not helping. There is liquid in his lungs, too much to be coughed out - the King is drowning in front of them.
Steve stands back. Tony takes a step towards the bed, then rushes to Howard’s side. His breath is rasping, too, but his throat is clear.
“Father,” he says. “Can you hear-”
Howard coughs; a rattling, awful sound that makes Steve flinch. His eyes roll in his head. If he’s aware anyone is there, he doesn’t react to it. He doesn’t seem to be aware anyone is there, much less his son, the last of his family, within touching distance. His head lolls, his eyelids droop.
“Howard,” Tony says, his voice cracking. He looks over at the physician, who is standing at the other side of the bed, his eyes lowered. “Are you sure there’s nothing-”
Howard’s breathing stops. It slows down first, with longer pauses in between, and then he doesn’t take another breath.
Tony stares. Steve stares at Tony as his jaw tightens, then untightens, his hands following suit, curling into fists and then uncurling. A muscle twitches in his cheek and his nostrils flare.
Steve averts his gaze. He knows what a man looks like when he’s trying not to cry, and he doesn’t think Tony is the kind of man who wants to be witnessed in the act.
But when Tony talks, it’s even, if a little thick. “The King is dead, then.”
“The King is dead,” the physician agrees. “Long live the King.”
Yes , Steve thinks. There is much more behind the thought, a lifetime of prophecy becoming solid for the first time, but for now, he focuses, again, on Tony, who has his face turned away from him and is looking at the slack face of his father, who will hang in paintings on this castle wall for the rest of their lives and beyond.
He waits. The physician pulls the bedsheet up over Howard’s head.
“Tony,” Steve says.
At first Tony doesn’t turn, watching the still shape under the sheet, as if checking for movement. He sniffs, drags a hand down his face, then turns and walks out without looking at Steve once.
When Tony refuses to let Steve into his rooms, he doesn’t think much of it. He fetches Rhodey and Pepper, who Tony does let in, after a time - and then goes up to the battlements to sketch the courtyard from above. He stays there until the wind gets too much of a chill and the courtyard is nearly complete on the paper, then heads inside.
“How is he,” he asks when he runs across Rhodey in the hallway, close to his and Tony’s rooms.
“He is…” Rhodey trails off. Pinches the bridge of his nose. “The coronation will be soon.”
“Yes,” Steve says.
“He is trying to focus on that, instead.”
“Yes,” Steve says, quieter. He had thought of this himself, when thinking he would take over his kingdom after his mother’s death - he would have done the same.
He doesn’t ask if Tony wants to be alone - if Tony wants to see him, he can send for him. Failing that, their rooms are separated by a single wall. Tony knows where to find him now that Steve has returned to his room and continues sketching, filling out the smaller details: the coat on a mule pulling a cart; the smile on a servant’s face.
Still, Tony has not come to see him by the time Steve goes to bed. Steve listens - for what, he doesn’t know. Sobbing, maybe, or sighs, or something being thrown, but there is nothing but silence from Tony’s room. Steve keeps listening, but soon the silence is enough to tug him gently towards sleep. He’s very close to it, almost caught in its gossamer fingers, when there’s a knock at his door.
Steve waits for someone to announce themselves. When it doesn’t come, Steve assumes it’s Bucky or Sam, being bolder than usual, and goes to open the door.
It’s neither of them. Instead, Tony steps inside the room.
“Hi,” he says.
Steve blinks. “H - hello. Are you-”
Tony walks past him and climbs into bed. He gets in the cold side of bed, the one Steve hadn’t been in, and pulls the covers up to his neck.
Steve stares at him. He closes the door.
“Come,” his husband says. His voice is muffled by a pillow. “Sleep.”
“Alright,” Steve says. He pauses, steeling himself, then goes back to the bed, climbing in. He has not slept in bed with another person since he as a child, forgoing bedwarmers for pans of hot coals.
He waits, but Tony does not do anything. Their breathing is slow and quiet in the otherwise silent room.
Steve tries to find something to say.
Tony beats him to it. “You are, as always, allowed to tell me to leave.”
“I know,” Steve says.
“My father’s death notwithstanding,” Tony continues. “Do not let that effect-”
Steve snorts. “Yes, right. Despite your father’s death today, I must ask you to leave this bed. Perfectly fine.”
“I would,” Tony says after a moment. “I would leave.”
Steve shakes his head. “Don’t.”
“Okay,” Tony says.
“It’s not as if this is inappropriate,” Steve says. “We are married. It is strange we have not done this before. Shared a bed, I mean.”
“Right,” Tony says softly. “Well, you are - you’re welcome to come to mine.”
Steve feels, not for the first time, much younger than his years. This time, however, it is tinged with something else.
“Of course,” Steve says. “And you, to mine. We should probably - it would make sense if we had the same bed.”
For a second Steve thinks he has said the wrong thing. Then Tony says, “Is that what you want?”
“I - yes?”
“Yes?” Tony raises the word as Steve had, with a question on the end of it.
“Yes,” Steve says, firmer.
Tony looks at him. He’s still dazed, in some distant way, and Steve cannot blame him after the events of today. When he smiles, it reaches his eyes, but barely.
“Well,” Tony says. “Who am I, to deny my husband?”
“You can,” Steve says.
“Yes,” Tony says. “You, as well. If you wish. I do not want to be - I don’t want to do anything you do not wish me to do. We are partners in life, before anything else.”
Before he can talk himself out of it, Steve leans over and kisses Tony’s cheek. His skin is very warm, and even with the fleeting touch, Steve’s mouth burns with borrowed heat.
After that, there is no talking. Steve turns onto his back and closes his eyes, and he thinks Tony must do the same. Still, he thinks he can feel Tony’s gaze on him until he falls asleep.
The coronation, like the wedding, is a haze. Steve does the right motions, accepts the crown - he is not the King, though he is the Royal Consort, but the weight is still enough to make him dizzy. He watches another crown get placed on Tony’s head, and it is as if he is watching them both as he is outside of his body - the two of them in their glory, trailing capes behind them, fur and finery lining each garment that had been draped around them this morning.
The thing that makes Steve jolt back into his own body is Tony glancing over at him and making a face. It’s the barest hint of expression, eyebrows raising, mouth pouting out slightly as if to say what ?
Steve feels his mouth tick outwards. He raises his eyebrows back and Tony smiles, a flicker of it, which is all they are allowed before they have to go back to careful blankness.
Partners , Steve thinks.
Life is still not normal , Steve is not used to this place - but slowly, things are getting nearer to it. Steve has long since completed his map of the castle, and now he can picture some of the rooms in detail: the crooked shelves in the library, the cobblestone he has to step over in the left corner; the kitchen table that has wood that is good to chip at with a fingernail. Small things that make up a life - the birds’ nests that roost above the knights’ quarters, the baby birds with names that Sam and Bucky argue over; the servants who he now knows by name and greet him in the halls with more warmth than they greet the other nobles.
Tony, asleep next to him in bed. Steve is very much not used to that - but he knows he will get there. He will get used to sharing a room, as well as a bed: to sitting at his desk, sketching, while Tony reads on the bed; to waking up in the middle of the night and listening to Tony breathe, his warmth changing from unfamiliar to necessary in order to sleep.
His mother had said that about his father - she had trouble sleeping, after his death. She’d grown used to the sound of his breath, it lulled her to sleep. Getting used to its lack had taken longer than getting used to it in the first place.
One night not long after the coronation, Steve is listening to Tony breathe and imagining being so used to it he’s unable to sleep otherwise, when Tony says, “We should visit your old kingdom. Check how the aid efforts are faring.”
Steve startles. For one, he had thought Tony was asleep.
“Is this a good time,” he asks, though all of him aches to say yes, let’s . “Things are still settling.”
“Things will always be settling,” Tony says. “And it is only three weeks away to reach your old lodgings. Your mother is not making any trips soon, is she?”
Steve shakes his head. “She mentioned nothing in her last letter.”
Tony shifts against the mattress. “Good. She can tell us all about how the aid efforts are going - our reports do not explain things from the perspective of your countrymen, just ours. It will be useful to see what we can improve.”
Steve’s chest twists. He’s written to his mother, telling her how Tony is generous, that he is kind, that the stories about him are hearsay. He has not told her how he sometimes finds himself staring at Tony whenever he does something particularly affecting, when he goes out of his way to be kind, but he thinks that his mother can read past the surface level that Steve puts in those letters.
“A useful trip,” Steve says when he realizes Tony is waiting for a response. “I like how you think, My Lord.”
He means it as a joke, but it comes out too tender to be anything but an admission. Tony’s smile goes small and shy.
“I mean to do well,” he says. “By our kingdom and your birthplace. And by my husband, of course.”
“As you should,” Steve says. “Another reason I like how you think.”
Tony grins. It’s closer to flirtation than Steve has ever come, and the fact of it makes him look away, into the moonlight coming in from the window.
“Tell your mother we will see her soon,” Tony says.
Steve nods. Keeps his gaze on the moonlight, which falls on them both, turning them pale and glowing.
The trip back is much quieter than the trip there, mostly because Bucky and Sam elect to stay behind. Steve is surprised by this, but they do have recruits to train, and they also hadn’t been sure if the offer of a trip is being offered to them as well.
“It is,” Steve had said. “Well, it is if I say it is.”
Bucky had hummed. “I have to say, I’m glad you married a man who lets you walk over him.”
Steve laughed. “He doesn’t let me walk all over him . We are simply equals. In our hearts, if not in status.”
Bucky had laughed back at that, even if it was gutted slightly by Sam digging an elbow into his stomach.
Steve misses them, but distantly. He’s missed his mother more, and his old home, and aches to see them more than he has ached after anything in his life. When the hills - his hills, the ones he’d seen from the castle window all his life - appear in the distance, Steve’s eyes prick with relief.
“You had a good life here,” Tony says. He’s been quiet since their last game of chess, which they have been playing enough for Steve to almost get sick of it over the three weeks they’ve been traveling.
“I did,” Steve says. He looks over at him, wipes at his eyes. “Would you feel the same, returning home after months of being gone from it, not knowing when you would see it again?”
Tony thinks this over. “I don’t know,” he says eventually. “I used to imagine running away from it.”
Steve can imagine this easily.
“Not now, though,” Tony adds, as if he has just realized something. “I am - quite content, now.”
“Oh?” Steve finds he is just as happy to look at his husband than he is to look at his old hills. “Content, are you?”
“Somewhat,” Tony says dryly. “I am King now, have you not noticed?”
Steve snaps his fingers. “ That was what the crown was about.”
“Yes, that,” Tony says, and laughs. He leans his head out the window of their carriage. Steve tries to imagine soaking it in with new eyes - Tony has never been here before, and Steve suddenly feels a pang of doubt. Their land is getting aid, now, but it is still no more richer than it was when Steve left. Still, the landscape -
“It is beautiful,” Tony says, and Steve nods despite himself. “A fitting land for you to come from.”
“Flatterer,” Steve says.
Tony snorts. “Should I know anything about your palace, before we arrive? Is your mother…”
“Is my mother,” Steve prompts, when Tony doesn’t continue.
“Is there anything I should know,” Tony repeats.
“I do not think so,” Steve says. “Just be yourself. Not the man from the stories they have heard-” he continues when Tony gives him a dry look, “-they are not you.”
Tony opens his mouth.
“No, not even when you were younger.”
“You didn’t know me then,” Tony says.
“No,” Steve says. “But I know you now. You may have been callous and rude and drunk, but you were not bad . Underneath, there was always the man you are now.”
Tony rolls his eyes, but it is a stiff movement, more for show than anything else. Steve can tell, now.
When Steve gets out of the carriage, it’s to the sight of his mother running down the stone steps of the castle. She looks ten years younger, face split into a smile that radiates light everywhere she passes, and when she reaches him she flings herself into his arms.
“My son,” she says. She presses her face into his neck.
“Hi, Ma,” Steve says quietly. He squeezes her gently, and she squeezes back hard.
She draws back, clasps his face, gives it a shake before stepping away, turning to Tony.
“Your Majesty,” she says, dropping into a bow.
Tony returns the bow. “Your Majesty.”
Sarah’s straightens. “I was sorry to hear of your father’s death, My Lord.”
“He went peacefully,” Tony says, which is what he has been telling anyone who brings it up. No one has challenged it yet.
“Good,” Sarah says. “That is all we can ask for. Would you come inside?”
“I would love to,” Tony says. “Your son has been telling me all about this place, I am happy to finally see it.”
“Oh?” Sarah looks at Steve. He doesn’t know what that expression is about, but he can feel himself ready to be embarrassed. Her smile is far too knowing , as if she knows everything that Steve has left out of his letters.
“In that case,” Sarah continues, “I am more than happy to show it to you. I hope it lives up to Steve’s poetical waxings.”
“Ma,” Steve says, at the same time that Tony says, “I don’t know, Steve’s poetical waxings were very poetic.”
Sarah laughs. Tony looks overjoyed at this, then hastily covers it up.
Steve gets distracted by greeting all his old servants, all of whom take a few minutes off of their tasks to come to him and have him fill them in on how things are in his new home, as well as answer Steve’s questions about their families and lives. Steve gives more hugs in half an hour than he has in the last year.
While he is doing this, he loses sight of his mother and his husband. This is a little distressing, but Steve can’t abandon the people he’s grown up around in order to go and make sure his mother isn’t embarrassing him somewhere.
Eventually he makes an exit, promising he’ll see everyone else before he leaves - and goes to find them. It doesn’t take long, and soon he emerges into a hallway to find Sarah and Tony examining a portrait of Steve as a child, his parents behind him.
“He was very small,” Tony is saying. “Even for a child.”
“He was,” Sarah says. “We worried for him.”
“I was glad to hear he became healthy,” Tony says. “When it happened, I mean. It could not have happened to a better person.”
“Yes? What did you hear of him?”
“That he was sick,” Tony says. “And that he was - polite and respectful to everyone, no matter who they were. That he was kind. A good man. I’m - I was glad, when the news came that he was healthy. The world is better with him in it.”
Steve’s throat constricts with it. He blinks. They haven’t noticed him yet, standing at the doorway to the hall.
“I met your mother once,” Sarah says.
Steve can’t hear Tony’s intake of breath from here, but he watches Tony’s throat work.
“Just once,” Sarah continues. “When we were girls. I can’t remember why - we were at a gathering, some political thing. Both princesses from small kingdoms. She made me nervous, until I talked to her. I wasn’t nervous after that - she had a way of making you forget yourself.”
“Yes,” Tony says after a moment. “She was like that.”
“I was sorry to hear of her passing.”
Tony nods. He blinks hard. Steve thinks about walking up and taking his hand. Husband . It is allowed, even expected for Steve to comfort him.
Tony clears his throat. “You mentioned you kept some of Steve’s drawings,” he says. “May I see them?”
Ma , Steve thinks, as Sarah laughs and says, “Of course! Follow me.”
“Please don’t,” Steve calls, and steps into the hall.
“Too late,” Sarah says back. “We’re gone. Anthony, come.”
Tony grins, a surprised thing, and shrugs down the hall at Steve.
Steve sighs and goes to catch up.
Later, when Tony and Sarah have had their fill of cooing over Steve’s mortifyingly old sketches, Sarah pulls Steve aside. Tony is busy examining their library, fingering the books as he goes down the shelves.
“It was a good match,” Sarah says quietly. “I’m so glad. I felt - awful, letting you go off to a stranger.”
“It was necessary,” Steve reminds her. “I asked for it. You could not stop me if you tried. And things turned out for the best.”
Sarah watches him watch Tony, who pulls out a book and opens it, blows away the dust.
“You like him,” Sarah says.
Steve watches Tony’s hands: careful, handling the book like it’s precious.
“He’s very fond of you.”
Steve snorts, self-conscious. But he doesn’t disagree.
That night, Steve sleeps in his old bed. Tony joins him.
They’re barely settled in when Tony asks, “Have you ever had anyone? A servant? A knight, perhaps?”
Steve has gotten this question before. His answer is the same. “No.”
Many reasons. It would feel strange to be with someone he has so much power over, for one. What Steve ends up saying is, “I don’t know them. People have offered, but if I am - to take someone to bed, I want to know them.”
Tony is quiet. Then he says, “You’re a good man, Steve.”
“So are you,” Steve says, natural as drinking when he’s thirsty. He thinks, briefly, of Tony telling him I would stop, if you -
“It bothers me,” Steve says.
Tony’s eyes are very white in the darkness.
“You, bringing others to bed,” Steve says. “It bothers me. I’d like you to stop.”
“Done,” Tony says instantly.
“Good,” Steve says. Then, “I’m sorry-”
“Don’t be,” Tony says.
Steve hadn’t even been sure how the sentence was going to end, but he has an inkling that Tony’s answer would have been the same no matter how he ended it.
“Alright,” he says. “I won’t.”
Steve hesitates, then he reaches out and touches Tony’s waist. He doesn’t have to reach far.
“I,” Steve says, and stops. Starts again. “I wanted to know if - do you want - I mean, it would be perfectly correct in the eyes of God.”
Tony’s eyes are very wide. “I know. It’s not God’s eyes I care about.”
Tony reaches back for him. He puts a hand on Steve’s neck. Steve shivers under the feel of it.
“Who do you think,” he says. He thumbs at a line in Steve’s neck. “Would you want to?”
“Sure,” Steve says, very croaky. He doesn’t blame Tony for giving him an uncertain look. “I mean - I - I know you enough. And I feel for you as a husband. And not just because we’re married. I mean, I feel for you what my mother felt for my father.”
“They were happy together?”
“For a time.”
Tony’s voice is guarded as he says, “Your father drank.”
“He did,” Steve says. “Much worse than you. If I do start to drink that much, I will ask you to stop.”
Tony shakes his head against his pillow. “I won’t let it get that far,” he says, and swallows. His throat clicks dryly, his fingers unmoving now against Steve’s neck. “What do you want of me?”
“I want -” A plethora of unmentionables flash through Steve’s head. He looks, again, at the moonlight. It’s coming in from over the hills. It is darker here than it is back -
“I want you to do what you want,” he says.
“What do you want?”
“I want…” Tony hesitates. He looks almost frightened. “I want us to be husbands. No one else. No chambermaids, no affairs, I want us to be able to trust each other completely.”
“Oh,” Steve says. “Yes, okay.”
“Okay,” Steve repeats, and watches the bright flash of Tony’s smile, unsureness sloughing into certainty but still flinching, as if he is not fully convinced.
Steve kisses him. On the mouth, properly, as they had at their wedding. Unlike that kiss, this one spins into something long, soft - something private, not for public consumption. This is for them and them alone.
Tony’s mouth moves slowly against his, then against his neck, replacing his hand.
Steve hears himself sigh. He’d thought, sometimes, about what his wedding night would be like, and neck kisses hadn’t appeared in his mind. He hadn’t thought much about any of it, all of it hazy and undefined, loose shapes moving in the dark.
This is different. Sharper; the bodies coming into focus.
Steve runs his hands through Tony’s hair and listens to Tony’s breath hitch.
This, he decides, is what he’d been hoping for, when he’d let himself think of it.
Two months later, Steve watches the tallest tower of the castle come into view. It had been daunting, the first time he’d seen it from his carriage window.
“We’re nearly there,” Steve says.
Tony makes a questioning noise, then blinks muzzily. His eyes come open properly on the third try, and Steve watches him fondly. His hair sticks out in different directions, his clothes rumpled from sleeping slumped in the carriage seats.
“What,” Tony says. He rubs at his eyes, hums lowly. “Home?”
“Home,” Steve agrees. He shifts closer so their elbows brush, and Tony’s weariness gives way to a bright, soft happiness that still feels like a blessing. Steve grins at him, nudges lightly, then lets their shoulders lean together.
They will be there in half an hour, at most. Then they will get out of the carriage and step into the courtyard, which Steve can picture on the backs of his eyelids - not perfectly, but that doesn’t matter. Steve has a lifetime to perfect it. He can, though, perfectly imagine the feel of his sheets, the sharp groove in his desk that he often runs his fingers over; the place in the kitchen cupboard where the flour is kept. It is familiar, and Steve has missed it, and when he has finished with his day he will climb into bed and Tony will follow, and Steve will fall asleep listening to him breathe.