Steve has never actually met a Gilded before, but he has seen one. This one, actually, at a party almost exactly a year ago to the day. King Alexander of Stoavania has always been famous for the elaborate celebrations he likes to throw and that one, held in a towering palace made out of silk and silver and attended by only the very wealthiest of the world's population...well, it holds a special place in Steve's memory. So much beauty, so much opulence...so much grotesque, unearned wealth, stolen over more than a thousand years. A hundred Gilded must have attended, each one adorned with diamonds and sapphires and rubies and the wealth of whole countries draped over their flawless skin. None more so than King Alexander's, who stands out as exceptional even in a room full of the most beautiful people alive. Then, it had only been a glimpse up into the heavens of the tent, his eyes just one pair in a hundred fixed upon wide strands of cobalt silk and the man contorting himself into astounding positions, only his own strength and skill saving him from a fall that would unquestionably kill him.
Alexander's Gilded is almost more famous than his Master. He has his own Instagram. Last Steve checked - and he does, it's part of his job - more than fifteen million people follow StoavaniasGilded. He's seen in magazines and on the Internet, in photoshoots and at events and parties, always at his Master's side, dressed in couture designs and never less than a million dollar's worth of fine jewelry. His whims turn the tides of fashion and YouTube bloggers dedicate hours to recreating some of his more elaborate makeups and adornments. Steve's generation has probably seen more of the Gilded than any before and still they want more. They want to look into the far removed world the Gilded inhabit; where a title and blue blood brings with it more than just inherited land and wealth.
The Gilded have been a cultural phenomenon from their conception almost seventeen hundred years ago, and now the most famous of them is draped across Steve's lap.
This isn’t his crowd. He’s not got the money or the status to rub shoulders with these people on any other day of the week. He’s certainly not got the kind of ancestry that would allow him to even look at a Gilded in person, let alone touch one. He might have an invitation for tonight but he hadn't exactly been at Alexander's last party legally.
He’s worked hard, been useful to the right people, and then made a deal with the Devil and now he is here, the ink on his invitation signed by King Alexander himself.
This is his reward, given by a man who considers materialistic gain the lowest possible remuneration. This is how King Alexander keeps lesser mortals ensnared in his web. A night in the presence of a Gilded. A night of smokey gray-blue eyes and diamond draped limbs, of skin that glitters with crushed pearls and a body that’s traded only on the very highest of levels. He’s been told to understand that. This Gilded is going to Switzerland tomorrow; an essential part of furiously dangerous negotiations. Back in the day, wars started and ended with exquisite beauty and the spread of a Gilded’s thighs. Now it’s mostly business. Steve is not allowed to taint the royal bartering system.
But a kiss. He’s allowed a kiss.
He’d want one too if he weren’t being looked at like he makes the sun rise and fall in the sky. The Gilded that sits in his lap looks as if he is in love with Steve. They met twenty minutes ago. They haven’t even spoken. It can’t possibly be love, which means it is being faked. And if that is being faked, the rest of it probably is as well. The illusion is not as foolproof as Steve has expected it to be. Somehow it takes the shine off the whole encounter.
This is the first time he's met a Gilded, and it's the first time he's been close enough to see the elaborate gold marks that they are so famous for in all of their glory.
There is a piece from the sixties, now famous, in TIME magazine, where a Gilded from Denmark was photographed from every angle and the details of their body art dissected publically for the first time. Up until then, most were under the impression that the gold lines were made by ink injected into the skin. Few had realized how the decorative marks were actually made. There had been a momentary outcry when the truth came out - shock and horror at the idea of human flesh being cut open and filled with molten metal. The Council, in an effort to regain the goodwill of the people, had allowed a documentary crew to film the procedure being performed from a young Gilded seminary. The boy, who couldn't have been more than fifteen, hadn't made a sound throughout the entire thing.
Steve runs his fingers over the raised lines of gold and can't imagine a world in which it can't have hurt to create them. They are beautiful, yes, but in a truly macabre way. And there are so many of them. Thin, elegant lines etched into skin in delicately twirling patterns. They are different for each Gilded. On this one they flow like water and the silks he performs with.
And they must have been agonizing to create.
The Gilded aren’t people in the eyes of the law. They have no rights of any kind. They belong only to those of Royal blood and birth. They cannot be bought or sold. If Steve were to raise a hand to this one it would be treason and a death sentence. If Alexander were to walk across the room and slit his Gilded's throat now, he would pay a fine to the Council and a replacement would be packaged up and shipped out tomorrow morning. The Gilded are not people. They are not human beings. But this one, real in Steve’s arms, is not some hypothetical aristocratic toy talked about around a table full of idealists and antimonarchist. He’s warm and breathing and his heartbeat is steady under Steve’s hand. There is color to his cheeks, visible even below the dusting of pearl; there is a life in his eyes that is full of curiosity and expectation.
And then he speaks, and Steve's whole reason for being here slips from his mind.
"Won't you kiss me?" He asks, in a voice that is rich and warm and without any discernable accent.
“"Do you want me too?” Steve asks, naive perhaps, thinking that this Gilded, this man, will confess to him any kind of desire when his owner is scarcely three feet away. But Steve has to ask. He has to. He has a reason for being here that doesn't extend to kissing, but no man in his right mind would turn a Gilded down when offered. Steve doesn't have to try too hard to play the part. "I won’t if... Only if you want me to.”
A voice laughs behind them. King Alexander has a crystal glass in his hand and the contents alone are worth more than the homes of everyone Steve knows. "It doesn’t have feelings," he laughs and the other guests laugh along with him. They do so more from jealousy than amusement. They aren't the ones with a Gilded in their laps. "You don’t have to coax it into taking off its panties.” Steve bites back the urge to point out that the Gilded isn’t actually wearing anything more substantial than the net worth of a small country in precious stones. No panties. In public he wears only the highest fashion, but in private events, clothing is clearly not the kind of accessory Alexander is wanting to see.
“"If you want it,” Steve says again, his eyes focused on the Gilded's and nowhere else.
And the Gilded, smiling at him now in a completely different way, leans in and kisses Steve before he can ask again.
No wonder men kill for this, Steve thinks, lost in a dream. The lithe body in his lap is strong with muscles dedicated to the art of beauty and the mouth that moves against his own is softer and sweeter than any Steve has kissed before.
He keeps his hands from wandering out of sheer, stubborn will alone, his shirt collar suddenly far too tight and the air much hotter and heavier than it was only a moment ago. He needs to breathe, to recover, but the Gilded merely angles his head in another direction and draws Steve's tongue into his mouth. It's better, somehow, and worse as well. Now Steve can't help himself and he lets his hands sink into the dark curls that fall around the Gilded's face. There's more finery there as well, tiny golden beads and clusters of clear crystals woven in delicate patterns. He pulls too tightly, dislodging a diamond the size of his thumb, and the sight of it falling to rest in the follow of the Gilded's collarbone is the cold splash of reality he needs to stop him falling down the rabbit hole and losing himself completely.
He pulls away and eases his fingers out of the Gilded's hair.
"Problem, Rogers?" King Alexander asks, laughing at his reluctance.
"I wouldn't say that, Your Majesty," Steve says, making a show of shuffling in discomfort.
As hoped, Alexander laughs again. He holds out a hand and coyly beckons his Gilded over. Steve is forgotten about in a heartbeat as the Gilded returns eagerly to his master, crawling on all fours like the pampered pet he is and practically purring when Alexander strokes his cheek. "Still so beautiful after all these years," he muses. It's almost impossible to tell how old the Gilded is under the makeup he is wearing. His skin is clear and healthy, his eyes too, but he has the benefit of the best diet and care possible. Some owners squander their Gilded; Alexander does not. He gives him a playful pat on the ass. "Can't have you getting poor Steven all hot and bothered now, can we?"
The Gilded casts his eyes down demurely and bites his bottom lip. "I'm sorry, Master," he says, not sounding in the least bit honest.
"Of course you aren't, naughty boy. Why don't you dance for us while we get down to some business?" The Gilded kisses the tops of his shoes without prompting and rises gracefully to his feet.
Steve isn't sure how anyone is supposed to focus on business when there is a someone dancing naked in the middle of the room, and for the first twenty minutes no one really does. Eventually the sight of supple, naked limbs and lamplight glittering on precious stones just becomes part of the background. The Gilded dances without pause or fatigue as the men around him talk about the thing they like talking about the most: money. Alexander doesn't involve himself much. He is the kind of wealthy who considers it the height of crassness to talk about such trivial things as income. It's a privilege even only a fraction of this disgustingly rich party share.
Steve is expected to talk a lot. He doesn't have money and everyone here knows it. What he does have are smarts and a brain for finance. He knows how to take a million dollars and turn it into a hundred million - or at least he knows how to make it sound like he does. That's how he's gotten himself through the door in the first place; with the promise to make rich people richer. The longer he talks, the greedier everyone gets and the more he wants to throw up.
It seems like hours before Alexander stands and they all break off their conversation to rise to their feet as well. Steve almost thanks him. "Gentlemen," he says, holding his arm out wide and welcoming. "You'll forgive my early retirement I hope; I am not as young as I used to be."
They all murmur false platitudes, and denials, just as they are expected to. Alexander waves the compliments off and says they are too generous, just as he is expected to. It's all a steaming hot pile of bullshit.
The Gilded follows him without instruction, three paces behind, his hips swaying in a way that suggests he's more exhausted than he's letting on. Steve's actually a little impressed he's lasted as long as he has.
He's also getting impatient.
Without King Alexander to impress, or the Gilded to drool over, the rest of the party have no reason to stay. He hopes they'll make their way home, and instead he's forced to hang around for another hour while the rest of the wine is drunk and the bragging in the room reaches new, outrageous heights. They mostly ignore him now that they have no more reason not to, and that's fine. It lets him fade into the background and take his position, hidden from sight as the last of them finally leave.
It must be close to three am by the time the household staff have come in and cleared away the majority of the mess left behind. Alexander's security do a precautionary sweep of the room, but they are too tired and bored to look as closely as they should. This house isn't even their usual residence. It belongs to Alexander, but it is rarely occupied. They don't often have cause to be in New York. Gilded are not particularly popular with the American government. Those rare times they do visit are spent here, in the penthouse worth more than a hundred million dollars. Only the very best for them.
As Steve makes his way out of the main rooms and down towards the private suites, he doubts whether anyone other than King Alexander, his Gilded or his staff have ever been in this section of the residence. It is quiet and peaceful. The walls and floor alike are crafted from marble and every spare surface is covered with cherry wood furniture and gold fixtures. There are several towering doors lining the side of one wall, each matched with a large window opposite. Heavy drapes frame each of them, but it looks like they are never drawn. They, like so many other things in this building, are for decoration only.
With the night's darkness creating an inky canvas behind the windows, the open doors and light streaming through them provide him with the perfect view into the room at the end of the hall. Steve can even see his target reflected in the glass, a white robe hanging from his shoulders as he moves around the room.
Steve slips inside and closes the door quietly behind him as soon as the Gilded moves out of sight.
The suite he finds himself in is laid out exactly as Natasha promised. It's as decadent and ostentatious as the rest of the building, but there's no personal touches like there were in the main room. There are no signs of Alexander's presence as an occupant, leaving Steve to conclude that her understanding of his relationship with his Gilded is accurate. She'd said Alexander's rooms were further down the hall and it looks like she is right. The King isn't in love with his Gilded, despite remaining unmarried his whole life. The suite isn't kept for sake of appearance. They belong only to his Gilded. That works best for what Steve has in mind. He's worked hard to build this alias and he doesn't want to burn it if he doesn't have to. It's better if he can catch the Gilded alone.
They don't need Alexander to be in love for this to work. Ego is just as good a motivator.
"If someone finds you here you're dead," Steve freezes, surprised at being caught unaware. He turns around and sees the Gilded in the doorway to the bathroom. His robe is unfastened, doing nothing to provide modesty. His skin is clean, no longer pearl dusted and a little pink from being scrubbed. Without the makeup he looks no older than Steve.
There are no sounds of running feet to indicate that the Gilded has triggered a panic alarm, so Steve remains where he is standing. He doesn't have any intention of hurting the Gilded and that might happen if things are to escalate too quickly.
"I mean it," the Gilded says, casually leaning against the doorway. "Last time my Master did the job himself. Have you ever seen a man skinned alive? It's an unpleasantly longwinded way of dying."
"I don't plan on getting caught," Steve shrugs one shoulder, matching the Gilded's calmness with his own. He can still make this work. "Or skinned, for that matter."
"They never do," the Gilded says. "Somehow it always seems to happen anyway. You're hardly the first to try." That isn't surprising. For as long as Gilded have existed, people have tried to take them.
"Get kidnapped a lot, do you?" Steve finds himself asking, almost disarmed by the smile he's pinned with.
Surprise flashes across the Gilded's face. "Kidnapped? You know I'm not worth anything, right?" He actually laughs, as if the whole idea is preposterous.
Steve has to join in, though his laughter is much more bitter. "You think the old man wouldn't pay a fortune to get you back?" He's still wearing a diamond the size of a robin's egg which hangs in the hollow of his throat. That alone could feed a small city for a few years.
"I think he'd sooner drop a bomb on wherever you plan on holding me," he says wryly. "It's much neater that way. The Council will send him a replacement for me. So... unless dying is high on your to-do list, I suggest you leave now. Take the servant's exit and I won't even tell anyone you were here."
That's Steve's cue. Beneath that calm exterior, he can see nerves fraying at the edges. It's only a matter of time before the Gilded tries to either fight or evade him. Steve doesn't really like either option. So he moves in first, trying to radiate all the of the menace and danger he does in the field. It must work, because the Gilded is pampered and spoiled and clearly has no idea how to handle himself in a fight. He goes tense; a rabbit caught in the headlights of a truck.
"I told you," he says, less of the casual calmness now and more of an edge of fear, "He'll kill us both before he pays you for me."
"Maybe it's not his money I'm after? You know how much you'd fetch on the underground market?" As soon as he says the words he regrets them. He has no intention at all of doing something so cruel, but the Gilded doesn't know that and history is rife with examples of what has happened to Gilded who have fallen into 'common' hands. He hears the words and doesn't even wait for the fear to fully sink in before he's racing towards the door.
Steve moves as soon as he does. closing the gap between them. He's got a syringe in his pocket loaded with a sedative strong enough to put the Gilded out long enough to fly him halfway around the world. By the time he wakes up, this will all be over. No real harm, very little foul. And maybe a lot of lives made safer because of it.
"I really don't want to hurt you," Steve says, intercepting the Gilded before he can reach the door and trying his best to convey how honest he is being. He wraps his hand around the Gilded's wrist and jerks him to a stop before he can reach the door.
Less than a second later, he's flat on his back with the wind knocked out of him. "Heard that before," the Gilded says as he stands above Steve, his fists clenched. "You don't have permission to touch me," he snarls, grabbing Steve by the lapels of his suit and hauling him up off the floor. Steve has just enough of his wits left rattling around inside his skull to break his fall as he is thrown head first across the back of the chaise lounge. Stunned, he climbs shakily to his feet and the lack of arriving security suddenly makes sense. Back in the day, the Gilded were trained to fight, protecting their masters from any threats that might make it past their bodyguards. There's hardly much call for that kind of training in a less violent world, but the fact that they hadn't considered it sits heavy on his chest.
He's not leaving here without completing his mission. Too many lives depend on it. The Gilded might know a few moves, but Steve's been at war for over a decade now and he hasn't spent most of his life sitting around being hand fed grapes. You can't compare them.
He takes off his jacket and unfastens the top button on his shirt, giving himself a little more maneuverability. If he has to fight, so be it.
As much as Steve doesn't want to hurt the Gilded, he somehow gets the impression that the Gilded doesn't really want to hurt him either. Not in a permanent way at least. That doesn't extend Steve much in the way of courtesy when it comes to getting his ass kicked, but it does leave the impression that if the Gilded wanted this over and him dead, Steve would very much be so.
Instead, he just finds himself once more on his back, this time with a pair of ridiculously strong thighs wrapped around his neck. "I'm sorry," the Gilded says mildly, "can't you breathe?" Steve chokes back a response and focuses instead on trying to pry himself free. Aren't Gilded supposed to be the seen and not heard, docile and submissive types? Apparently this one has never received that memo. He's as fast as he is well trained, and the supple, slender limbs hide a wealth of strength.
Steve tries another tactic. He goes limp. Seconds later, the pressure around his throat eases, proving both that the Gilded really doesn't want to hurt him and that he lacks any kind of killer instinct. Steve wants to tell him not to ever let his guard down like that again but he's too focused on trying to breathe.
As soon as he has a little more maneuverability, he twists himself around, grabs a handful of the Gilded's impractically long hair, and with an inward wince and internal apology, uses the hold to slam his head against the marble floor.
He's not as ruthless as he might be with an enemy in the field and maybe that's his own foolishness coming into play. It isn't rough enough to kill, or even knock unconscious. It is enough to daze him though, and that's all the time Steve needs to wriggle free and reverse their positions.
He's not even on his feet again before the doors are bursting open and the army of a small country is pouring into the suite. They wrestle Steve to the ground before he can make it even a single step, and he tastes blood as his lip smashes against the hard floor. That's probably karma, he thinks.
He spits out a mouthful of blood and it lands an inch from a pair of velvet lounge slippers. As a hand fists his hair and jerks him upright, Steve gets an up close and personal view of King Alexander's lined face. He's wrapped in a robe and unflappably calm: he must have known about Steve's presence long before he chose to make his entrance. What was he waiting for? Steve's hardly about to send him an invitation.
He glances over Steve impassionately then turns his back on him to focus on the Gilded. Steve suddenly has to struggle against the dozens of hands that wrestle him into the main bedroom. It doesn't matter how many of them he shakes off, there is always another two to take their place. Heavy manacles - gold, of course they are fucking gold - fasten around his wrists and suddenly he's being wrenched upwards and onto the tips of his toes. There's actually a set up in the room for hanging chains. They must be designed for the Gilded, which explains why everything is ornately decorated. He makes a mental note to catalogue this as officially they most expensive bondage he's ever taken part in.
The fact that he's been restrained but not executed sits strangely in his gut. The Gilded did say something about being skinned alive... He's standing on a white rug shaped like a fleur de lis. Skinning him alive is going to ruin it. Steve looks over at the Gilded for some kind of insight into whether he should come outright and say so. He's on his knees, his face tilted up and a look of adoring wonder focused wholly on his master. He's not going to be much help.
Alexander raises his fingers to the bruise that is already blooming on the Gilded's cheekbone and Steve's not convinced that the wince it produces is one caused by pain. The Gilded hadn't given a single indication of discomfort during their fight, but when Alexander catches him in the same spot with a vicious backhanded slap, he whimper and raises wet eyes in supplication. "I'm sorry, Master," he whispers, as if he is to blame for the injury Steve caused.
"Go clean yourself," Alexander says, his voice stripped of the warmth and affection is has so far always held when addressing his Gilded. "Cover that up or you'll have to wear the mask."
"Yes Master," the Gilded gasps, kissing the back of the hand that just struck him.
Alexander snatches it away in disgust. "Go on," he orders. "I want to inspect you before I go back to bed."
Steve can see the flash of panic that flares up at being given such an undefined deadline. "Yes Master," he says again, rocking back on his heels and rising to his feet gracefully. If he wants to run to the bathroom, he doesn't. He walks calmly and carefully, then closes the door silently behind himself.
Without the attention of a third involved party, Steve has to resign himself to being the centre of all of King Alexander's focus. "You are not Steven Rogers."
"No," Steve says, staying calm. "I am."
"Well I'm assuming you're not a financial analyst."
"No," Steve shakes his head, "I'm really not."
"You fooled my financial analysts. Apparently you've the brightest mind he's ever seen." Alexander pauses in consideration, then turns to one of the soldiers, "Have him brought here, then gouge out his eyes. Clearly he doesn't use them properly." Steve manages not to cringe. "I heard my Gilded tell you what I usually do to people who try take things from me. Is there anything you'd like to say in your defence?" So he had heard the whole conversation. Who was he setting up for a fall? Steve, or the Gilded? He can't see the point in either.
"You're going to ruin the decor," Steve says.
"I can afford it."
"Why'd you make him watch?" He's stalling for time and not even in a smart way. He doesn't pretend he's not struggling to break free of the chains either. And even if he can, there's a room full of soldiers and a closed door between him and the Gilded. And he's not leaving here without him.
"He enjoys it."
"I doubt it."
"Fine, I enjoy watching him not enjoy it." Now that Steve can believe.
"I'm a King," Alexander corrects him. "And you're part of SHIELD."
"Never heard of it," Steve says, his heart rate rocketing. "What's shield?"
"Of course you haven't. And it's purely coincidence you coming here the day before I close the Sokovia deal. He's right you know; I'd burn your entire country to the ground before I allowed him to be taken from me. But. I make a habit of not killing people until I know what they are worth. Somehow I think you are worth something. You'll stay here for the night until I decide what to do with you. You can keep my Gilded company. Remind him why we do so try and avoid the common classes."
It's only minutes since the Gilded left them, but the bathroom door opens and he steps out like he's about to take centre stage. Steve's not the only one who looks at him, a snappy answer to Alexander dying on his tongue. Backlit by the extra bright lights streaming in from the bathroom, the Gilded looks otherworldly, inhuman.
Alexander flicks his wrist in a silent order and the man behind Steve pulls a cloth gag between his teeth before he can do more than splutter in outrage. He tries jerking in the chains once more, but he's got nothing to leverage himself with and as soon as the gag is fastened, the soldier steps back and out of the small circle in which Steve could damage him.
The Gilded hesitates when he sees Steve is still there, but Alexander's mood is no better than it was before, and he is beckoned over with an impatient wave.
There isn't a sign of bruising on his cheeks at all. Everything has been carefully covered up with makeup. His eyes are ringed with kohl and his long lashes are speckled with the tiniest crystals. His hair is perfect again, loose this time, and he looks to Steve as if he should be stepping into a catwalk.
But Alexander shakes his head and tuts sadly. "I'm disappointed in you, James," he says. He glances up at Steve, who's face must show his surprise. "What? You don't give your pets names?" That doesn't fit with the way Alexander had called the Gilded - James - 'it' earlier that night. You give pets names yes, but not toys. "Lots of Gilded have names, don't they precious?" Alexander strokes his hand over his Gilded's hair and James nuzzles against him, happy to be shown affection again after being reprimanded. "Admittedly some are nicer than others. James here is named after James Buchannan - another Gilded, not the President. Rather a famous Gilded, back in the seventeenth century. Exceptionally beautiful. Spoiled and adored by his Master," Alexander draws James closer, until his head rests against the King's thigh. "Of course the Gilded weren't all that popular in England back then and while his Master might have had a superlative eye for beauty, he was quite atrocious at ruling a country. Not particularly bright on the battlefield either, and when faced with his own captivity, he fled, leaving his poor, heartbroken Gilded behind. I'm sure you've heard the stories of what happened after that."
Steve's heard the stories. It looks like James has as well. It's a cruel name he's been given, and it makes Steve's threat of selling him on the underground much more vile in context. It also makes him look at Alexander in a different light. They've always known him to be heartless, merciless and at times vindictively severe, but the enjoyment he's taking from petting his own -visibly frightened- Gilded and reminding him of his namesake - a boy so savagely torn apart by his Master's enemies that there had been no body to bury - it's sadistic. It's sick.
Alexander stops stroking James's hair and uses his thumb to tilt his face up towards him. "Fetch me the mask," he says, not speaking to James but to one of the attending soldiers. "You let him touch you," he says. "You'll wear it from now until I have the time to finish him off properly and maybe you'll learn from your mistakes."
The mask, it turns out, is something out of an opulent gothic horror story. It's carried over to Alexander on a pillow of scarlet velvet and much like the majority of the accessories James wears, it is made almost entirely out of precious stones. This one looks to be made of diamonds. Thousands of them. But it is less a mask and more of a hood, and it must weigh a ton as Alexander positions it over James's head. The back is fastened by a dozen clips that attach to one small lock and it circles around from under his chin all the way to the nape of his neck. It's lined with something soft and dark, and though it must leave a space for breathing, Steve can't see where. The diamonds just form circle after circle of spiraling patterns. It's beautiful, but it turns James into a faceless, glittering thing, and Steve can't look at him for long without feeling the urge to shudder.
"Up you come," Alexander says once the lock is secured. He helps his Gilded stand on shaking legs and guides him over to the bed. James can't see, Steve realizes, and there's a special kind of evil in the mind of a man who blinds someone to a threat that is currently chained up only a few feet away. "Get some rest. I need you at your very best tomorrow." James is settled under silk sheets and tucked in like an errant child.
And then Alexander leaves, only passing Steve a particularly cruel smirk on his way out. The soldiers follow and take position outside the doors, and suddenly Steve is alone with the Gilded again.
So much for his plan.
He's two, maybe three inches taller than James is, so he's actually able to get his toes on the ground, which is a blessing. It allows him to take some of the strain off his shoulders and arms, and then to test the chains themselves. They aren't bolted directly to the ceiling, so Steve can't try and rip them down, but they are designed for someone who weighs less than he does, so maybe, if he pulls himself up, lets the chains take all of his weight, he can start to loosen the two connecting hooks and free himself that way.
He tries it, pulling himself up like he would if he were doing a pull-up, then tucking his knees up to his chest. The momentum lets him swing around towards the pillar behind him, so he braces his heels against it and uses his own weight to create a fulcrum.
The hooks don't even budge.
He keeps trying, doing everything he can to get free, and ignoring the man who is huddled in the bed across from him, flinching every time the chains rattle. He's let his own squeamishness get him into this mess. He's been unprepared to face a Gilded who can defend himself, and equally unprepared to do whatever it takes to complete the mission. Now he's not going to have to accept the fact that he's failed, but witness it first hand.
He can't accept that. He has to get free. He has to stop Alexander making that deal.
And if that means crossing a line he has never thought himself capable of crossing....
Exhausted, his arms give out on him. His shoulders scream as their take the weight of his entire body. He feels like he's gone ten rounds against a tank and he's not sure his legs could hold him up even if he could get them underneath him.
And it's daylight outside.
How long has he been struggling?
The sudden, careful brush of fingers against his jaw startles him. He jerks back, hissing in pain, and James does the same, bracing himself with an outstretched arm as he stumbles. Then he tries again. His hands feel around Steve's throat and jaw, brushing across his mouth before they find the knot of the gag and gently unfasten it, leaving it loose around Steve's neck.
It's unnerving, staring into the formless face. Steve can see more of his own self reflected back off the edge of a thousand jewels than he can of James's. He doesn't know if he is smiling or frowning, if he's in pain or afraid.
But he is, apparently, kind. He spills water down Steve's chest at first, but is then able to hold a bottle up against his mouth, tipping it just enough for the cool liquid to surge across his sore, parched tongue. His mouth is so dry that at first it hurts. Swallowing is painful. But the more he drinks, the easier it is, and James doesn't stop until there is nothing left in the bottle.
"Thank you," Steve says, surprised at the compassion he is being shown. James shrugs his shoulders. He's not tried to speak but Steve doesn't know if that is because he physically can't - the mask is tight and unyeilding - or because he doesn't want to. "I wasn't going to sell you on the underground," Steve says quickly. "I really wasn't. I don't...I didn't come here to hurt you. Your master can't be allowed to make the Sokovian deal. Too many people will die if he does."
James's hands trail lightly down his face until they reach the gag. He tilts his head almost apologetically, but pushes the fabric back into Steve's mouth. He doesn't fasten it tight, and Steve doesn't even try protesting. James is devoted to his master. There's no point trying to win him over with arguments he probably doesn't even understand.
He watches James make his way slowly back over to the bed, and he is under the sheets and feigning sleep when the doors to the suite open a few minutes later and a group of stern-faced men and women march through them. Some of them hesitate when they see the mask, looking towards a tall, gray-skinned man for direction. They don't talk among themselves, even to decide on a course of action. Instead two of them, both girls who can't be much older than sixteen, circle the bed, take a hold of one each of James's arms, and help him from the bed.
James lets them lead him, unsteady on his feet and dependent on them to guide him. If Steve hadn't just seen him navigate the room with much more confidence just a few minutes ago, he'd believe him to be as helpless as he looks.
The girls sit him down on a plush stool and one of them starts to tuck errant strands under the edge of the mask. Another appears with trays adorned with jewellery, holding them up for the contents to be studied and passed over, until a selection is made and the most enormous piece is chosen. Steve's not sure if it's a collar or a cape, but it fastens snuggly around James's throat and almost seamlessly blends into the edges of the mask. It then forms a web that hands down the front of his chest and over his shoulders. A pair of large earrings come next, and Steve wonders if they are going to take off the mask. They don't. Instead they slide the bar at the top of them into James's nipples. Not earrings then.
Amidst all this he is patted down with clothes soaked in sweet smelling water and another attendant flicks at him with a straight razor, removing the odd hair here and there as he goes. It answers the question as to why no YouTube blogger can perfectly recreate the looks James wears in public: they don't have an army of people to make them look good.
Even Steve is mildly fascinated, at least until one of the attendants takes a hold of James's dick and practically uses it as a handhold to make him stand. "Do you need to urinate?" He asks, speaking to him for the first time.
James shakes his head. If Steve feels bad for him now, it's a feeling that grows when the attendant takes that as a cue to wrap metal bands around his dick. This time Steve does squirm in sympathy, because there is no way in hell that can be comfortable.
And just like that, the whole scenes goes from bizarrely, uncomfortably captivating to really, really fucking skeevy. Maybe it's the stark reminder that the Gilded is a man just like Steve is. Maybe it's that James can't see what is being done to him. Either way, he's disgusted with himself.
It takes him a second to realize what the next item on their agenda is, and this time he does look away. That's something else he's done a good job of overlooking. He came here to kidnap a Gilded and to stop Alexander using him as the final trading piece in getting a very nasty law off the ground. He's just not given much thought into how the Gilded played his part. The anal plug sort of makes it hard to forget, even if he is supposed to be distracted by the enormous sapphire that is set into the base of it.
The final items are relatively tame in comparison - four delicately engraved cuffs, one placed on each ankle and wrist. He's being dusted with a faint, shimmery powder when the doors open and Alexander returns with a contingent of soldiers.
The soldiers are for him, but it's James he's suddenly more concerned for.
"Let me look at you," Alexander says. He gives one of the heavy piercings a tug and Steve can hear James gasp in response. "I'd have you now if we had more time," he says by way of praise, even though he's looking at Steve as he says it. "I doubt Schmidt would appreciate sloppy seconds. It's a shame about the mask; you know how much he likes to hear you sing for him." Steve can't tell if that is a euphemism or not but he doesn't get the chance to find out as Alexander continues. "Maybe we'll make you sing for us instead, Captain Rogers?" Steve doesn't show his surprise. Of course they will have put together the facts during the night. "Get him down," Alexander orders his soldiers. "And find something a little more practical to restrain him with. You're coming to Sokovia with us, Captain Rogers. Johan Schmidt is quite excited to meet you."
I'm adding an extra warning for claustrophobia here. It's not something that really crops up again in the story in a big way, but if characters being trapped in small spaces is a no go for you, you might want to skip this part.
Even a king can't just kidnap a man and take him out of the country. There is something oddly calming about that, and Steve thinks that maybe the transfer from penthouse to plane will give him the chance to escape.
He turns out to be as wrong about that as he is everything else.
He's shackled properly is time, and not in the fancy bindings used on James. They are no more or less yielding, but they aren't gold and he doesn't feel trussed up like some kind of trinket the way he did before. But he is hobbled, with chains around his ankles preventing him from taking his usual length of stride, and more around his wrists, keeping them weighted down behind him.
Ahead of him, Alexander leads James along on a silver leash. He's crawling on his hands and knees, so Steve can pretend their slow pace is down to that and not his own stumbling steps.
He doesn't have to work hard to avoid looking at the way James’s hips sway with each movement. After seeing the way he's been treated all evening he can't bring himself to be yet another person who leers and drools over his nakedness. Even the occasional wink of sapphire, no doubt intended to tease alluringly, makes him feel nauseous.
That nausea grows when he sees just how they intend to smuggle him out of the country. If he weren't gagged, he'd be telling the entire assembly just what he thinks of them. He tries regardless.
Because Gilded aren't legally recognized as people in their own right, they don't need a passport to travel across borders. They do, however, have to be transported in a very specific, internationally recognized and approved ‘official’ way.
Hence, the golden monstrosity waiting for them in the entrance hall.
It's practically a coffin though it’s officially been termed a ‘carriage’. It's long enough for a grown man to lay down in, with poles extending from either end in order for it to be carried by attendants. It's elaborately engraved and lined with black velvet, and there is no way in hell he’s going to fit inside….
But the carriage - crate, coffin, death trap - falls under diplomatic law, and it cannot be searched by foreign officials. It’s probably the best way to get him out of the country without anyone seeing him, and Steve isn’t exactly claustrophobic, it’s just…
How long is the flight between New York and Switzerland? And he’s going to be in there. He’s going to be in there with James…
Jesus Christ, no...
One of the soldiers puts James in first. The Gilded seems to know what is coming - though whether he’s figured the full extent of it is anyone’s guess - and he is obedient and pliant as he is settled down against the soft linings. There is a small cushion for his neck to rest against, which is a consideration for his comfort that surprises Steve. Then, despite the fact that there are three very large intimidating locks on the outside of the crate, they clip the cuffs on his wrists and ankles into the base of it.
And then they drag Steve over.
He lets the one behind him suddenly shoulder his weight as he rears back and plants his feet in the chest of the closest soldier. It sends all three of them crashing to the ground as neither of them are able to brace against Steve’s attack, but it is a short lived victory as multiple hands grab at him roughly and drag him, struggling and swearing, over to the crate.
It’s that that makes him stop fighting. Not because he’s giving in, but because as he’s forced in face first, it’s not the soldiers he’s going to hurt if he continues, but James. Despite his motivations for being here, he’s not sure he can stomach the idea of doing so again.
They still feel the need to hold Steve down at the back of the knees and neck until they can close the lid on top of them both. There are three ominous clinks of metal as the locks are fastened, and then they are trapped.
The way Steve is bound means that the top of the crate presses uncomfortably against his arms. He’s lying directly on top of James, and he wiggles, trying to find a way to position himself so that the entirety of his weight isn’t resting on the Gilded’s chest. There’s no way to avoid pressing against the multitude of jewels though, and even through the layers of his clothing, they dig unyieldingly into his flesh. He squirms again, ignoring the discomfort, and manages to get their knees either side of each other. It’s then, when the crate shifts and lurches and he gets the sudden, nauseating sensation of being carried like a piece of furniture, that he realizes just how badly James is shaking.
Steve’s not claustrophobic and the dark crate is terrifying him. There are multiple gaps in the carving to allow light and air inside, but James is still masked, still bound down, still struggling to breathe with the weight of Steve on top of him.
And now, as they are being carried towards their destination, he is starting to panic.
Steve is cursing the gag, his bonds and most of all himself as he tries to brace his weight against his knees and allow James a little more room. It’s impossible. There simply isn’t enough space in there for the both of them. He tries making soothing sounds instead, which does about as much good as throwing a cup of water on a forest fire.
Then he thinks; fuck it. James is already terrified of him, so he’s not exactly damaging his reputation, and they have nothing left to lose, so…
He stops trying to create distance between them and goes soft instead, tucking his face into the curve of James’s neck and using the rough edge of the mask to try work the gag out of his mouth. It doesn’t take as long as it might have done before James loosened it, and it is with a memory of that kindness that Steve works furiously to repay him.
It feels like he is rubbing his cheek raw against the mask, but then they are suddenly jolted. James shudders, and the gag comes free.
“Easy, easy,” Steve says quietly, his voice scraping rough with abuse. “Breathe, come on, that’s it...you can do it. Deep breaths, nice and steady. With me. Come on. I’m rambling. Please don’t pass out.” He’s worried about that most. It’s the mask. How restricted is his breathing behind that thing anyway?
His nonsensical babble doesn’t have the desired effect. James continues to tremble, his chest rising and falling in short, shallow huffs, pressed against Steve’s own. Without the use of his hands, his usual methods of providing comfort and security are robbed from him. He can’t give a strong hug or a gentle, reassuring pat on the back. He only has his words, and they have never really been good at anything useful.
He can feel the panic start to rise in his own throat and tries desperately to push it back down to his gut. He wishes Peggy were here, or Sam. They’ve always been so grounding, so calming, and he knows they’d be able to say the right things to calm a trapped, frightened Gilded. Even Natasha is better at this than Steve. Hell, even Clint is, and he has permanent foot-in-mouth syndrome.
But it is just Steve. Just inadequate, useless Steve.
Beneath him, James’s panic starts to become a desperate thing and he thrashes, mindless now and wild, regardless of his bonds or the lack of space. Frightened, garbled sounds leak from behind the mask and he shudders as if he’s about to start crying.
Fully aware that if he does so the chances of him suffocating take a sharp rise, Steve bangs his feet against the roof of the crate as hard as he can and starts to shout for help. They might not care so much if he’s killed or damaged in transport, but the repercussions if James dies now are too severe for Alexander to risk, surely?
The only response he gets is a kick to the side of the crate, even when he screams “He can’t fucking breathe!”
But his attempts to attract attention only seem to agitate James further, and in the face of their apathy, Steve quickly quiets once more. “Shush, shush, it’s okay, I’m sorry. Please, please just breathe with me, it’s okay, you’re okay, you’re-” he switches track, desperate and out of ideas, and starts to sing instead. He doesn’t even speak Irish, only knowing the songs as his mother sang them and not the actual meaning of the words, but the melody is calm and sweet, and it’s all he’s got. Céad slán don oíche aréir, 's é mo léan gan í anocht ina túsLeis an mbuachaillín spéiriúil...is that...do you like that?” He doesn’t get an answer, of course he doesn’t, but James does lose the edge off his wild breathing. Elated, Steve continues, “A bhréagadh mé seal ar a ghlúin, Chuir tú orm an t-éileamh, a mhíle grá bán, ach ní leatsa mo rún Mar céad faraor géar, tá na sléibhte 'dhul idir mé 's tú…I think I’m singing you a love song, sorry about that. Is it okay, do you want me to stop?” James’s leg twitches under Steve’s. “Did you just try knee me in the balls? Okay then. Just for that I’m going to sing you all the love songs I know. Even the bad ones. Like, Beach Boys in the eighties, that kind of bad. Maybe some Celine...or...or I could just stick to this one?” James timidly nods his head, the mask rough against Steve’s cheek. He doesn’t say anything, just feels the relief swell through his chest as they settle into something quieter, their breathing starting to sync together. He does stick to the songs his mom used to sing him. Not the ones his father taught him - no bawdy lyrics, just soft, sweet, gentle tunes, until he feels his voice start to go, and switches to humming them instead.
Outside of the small, strangely surreal space that Steve has created for them, the world bumps along in shifting intervals, sometimes still and silence, sometimes rocking and loud. It’s nearly an eight-hour flight, but he loses track of how long they stay in there together. Eventually he has to stop singing, dehydration, pain and exhaustion robbing him of the energy to do much more than lay there as his body cramps and spasms painfully.
Ever so often, James twitches beneath him, his limbs moving in small, scarcely perceivable ways. Every time he does, some part of Steve sings with momentary agony, and then the pain in his legs and arms settles into something more bearable.
He wonders how much of James’s life is spent restrained in one way or another. He must have developed pretty impressive ways to deal with the stress positions and enforced stillness, and it seems like he’s trying to help Steve in the only way he can.
And Steve, exhausted though he is, rests his head in the small, unadorned space between James’s neck and shoulders. “Thank you,” he says quietly. He feels James nod as the casket is suddenly tipped at an angle that sends shooting pains up the back of Steve’s legs. They must be near their destination.
And James has started to tremble once again.
“I’m getting you out of here,” Steve promises with rising urgency as they are set down with a hollow ring of metal meeting marble. The first of the three locks clicks as it is unfastened. “I promise. I’m getting you out of here.”
Strong warnings in this part for non-consensual sex, consent issues and the overall nastiness that comes with a society that accepts the treatment of Gilded as normal.
You'll be able to skip this part and pick the story up in the next chapter if you don't wish to read this particular content.
There is no eleventh-hour salvation waiting for them when they land. Steve can't say he's surprised, not really, not when the rest of his team can only guess as to what has happened to him. Peggy will take his failure to meet at the RV as a sign that he has failed his mission and she'll be forced to fall back on plan b. Steve hates plan b. Plan b involves them all doing things that they really don't want to do. It involves crossing that invisible line that sets them apart from the people they are trying to bring to justice.
They just might not have a choice anymore.
With that in mind, Steve sets about planning his escape, hoping that he can still save them all from becoming what they have sworn they will never become.
He's not going anywhere without James, which presents its own set of problems. He's seen how devoted to Alexander James is and while he might live in fear of what is going to be done to him here, there's no doubt in Steve's mind that Alexander has been filling James's head with horror stories of the world beyond his golden cage. He won't come willingly. First and foremost, Steve is going to need to incapacitate him somehow. He got his ass handed to him before, but he has one thing James doesn't, and that's the ability to fight dirty. If Steve has to hurt him to save him, then so be it.
That still leaves him in the unenviable position of having to smuggle one of the most heavily guarded men in existence out of a fortress-like palace without being caught by their enemies, or blown up by their allies.
Because if the only way to stop Alexander and Schmidt from pushing through their new law is to send in an unsanctioned air raid... SHIELD have that kind of firepower.
If anyone has the balls to make that kind of choice and live with it, it is Peggy.
Steve doesn't want to be hanging around, just in case she does.
And none of that helps him actually escape the palace. First he's got to get out of this god forsaken coffin, then he needs to subdue or kill the soldiers who will no doubt be in constant attendance. He's fairly sure Alexander isn't capable of putting up much of a fight if it comes down to it, but Schmidt is a whole different beast. He's military trained himself.
And unlike King Alexander, he is not a pragmatic kind of man. He's also less prone to dramatic bouts of grandiose showmanship, something that becomes all too apparent when they are finally released from their golden prison.
Steve is hauled out first, forcing him to shelve his mental escape plans and calculate his options on the fly. They dump him on a ground made from ice cold, highly polished stone, and kick him until his numb limbs flare agonisingly back to life. He can do little more than take it, folding himself into as small a space as possible and trying to control his breathing as the pain laces through his arms and legs. They could release him now and he'd not make it more than a few paces, he knows it. His body has simply never been forced to endure such prolonged enclosure before and it is struggling to keep up with what is happening to it.
That's another issue to contend with. He's dehydrated and he's weak, as well as being heavily outgunned and outnumbered.
James seems to be handling things a little better. Through the gaps in the legs of the men beating him, Steve can see King Alexander standing dispassionately next to a tall, horrifyingly mutilated man. Schmidt has famously taken a knife to his own face on numerous occasions over the years and the result has left him with thick bands of scars that stretch across his thin, bony face. It's what has earned him the nickname 'The Red Skull', and in full, sweeping black leather coat and equally dark trousers, he cuts a strikingly sinister figure, especially when he pulls James from the crate and the two of them stand side by side. He holds James up on shaky legs with an arm around his back. The other hand traces the edge of the mask curiously. "And this is here because?" He asks Alexander, who nods his head in Steve's direction, passing the blame down the line.
"He allowed that one" he points at Steve, "to touch him. I am...reminding him of the things he values and is valued for. I understand you must be disappointed but I really must insist the mask remains on, at least until the day's business has been attended to. After that, you are, naturally, free to do as you pleased with him for the negotiated period of time. Mask or no mask."
"It is a hardship I will endure for the time being," Schmidt says, putting his hand between James's legs and squeezing until even Steve can hear his gasps of pain. "There will have plenty of time for me to enjoy his face once our business is done."
King Alexander smiles and nods again, and Steve wonders who would have been forced to give in if Schmidt had pushed the matter. Alexander has the final say, yes, but he wants something from Schmidt badly if he is willing to loan - and Steve shudders at the idea now - James to him for more than the one night.
Steve's presence continues to be ignored by both Schmidt and Alexander. They couldn't care less about him. He is an afterthought; an extra bonus in a deal already weighed heavily in Schmidt's favor.
Schmidt is more interested in his prize; predictable in his desires, it is no wonder Alexander has not shown any sign of concern that the deal might not go through.
It makes Steve wonder just how many times James has done this for him for him to be so supremely confident of his success.
"And this one?" Schmidt asks, finally looking at Steve, who has struggled painfully onto his knees. "The SHIELD agent?"
"Captain Steven Rogers, to be precise," Alexander corrects, the grim smirk on his face suggesting that he knows all well and good just how pleased Schmidt is going to be to have Steve in his possession.
He's not wrong. Schmidt's skull-like face morphs into a smile that promises a grim future. "Perhaps you would like to sit in on negotiations, Captain Rogers?" Schmidt asks, his teeth gleaming bright and sharp as his mouth stretches into an enormous grin. "Witness history being made before we end your life?"
Steve doesn't dignify him with an answer.
The space set up for negotiations is a large, echoing chamber in the very heart of the palace. Faces of men long dead stare down at them from the walls on all sides and the only natural light comes from the glass ceiling almost seventy feet above them.
In the centre of the room, there is a table large enough for a hundred people to sit around. There are not that many in attendance today, but he can imagine what it is like when the room is full to capacity.
They make him sit at the head of the table, freeing his bound hands and feet long enough to fasten them securely to the chair he is sat on. The relief he gets from the change in position is offset significantly by the pain the movement causes.
And then, as casually as a man might remove his shoes, Alexander absently lifts his hand in signal of approval and Schmidt roughly pushes James face down across the table.
After seeing how much emphasis the King puts on grace and refinement, this sudden violence towards his Gilded - by another man no less - should be enough to trigger all kinds of rage. Instead, Alexander beckons over a server and orders himself a brandy.
There's a ringing sound of metal hitting the floor, then the rustle of fabric, then he's taking the space between James's thighs and just...
Right there, in the middle of the room.
James doesn't make a sound. Doesn't protest. Doesn't resist. He'd thrown Steve halfway across the room just for touching his arm, and yet now, because Alexander wills it, he remains docile and placid as he is so roughly used in front of an audience.
He can fight. Steve's seen it. He can and he should but he's not. Steve wants to scream at him to get up and beat Schmidt's fucking face in like he knows he could. He wants to scream at all of them - at Schmidt, at Alexander, at everyone just sitting around and watching...
Instead he is just sitting there himself, stunned and useless and unable to do anything to stop what is happening. There are a dozen other people in the room, not including those who are being paid as security by Alexander or Schmidt, and not a single - not a single goddamn one of them - is doing anything to stop it. Worse though, they are acting like it is normal. Like it's part of their daily lives.
The fact that it so clearly is, it's just...
They're sitting around talking among themselves, talking to Schmidt, about their trips, about the fucking weather, and he's just...rutting away like an animal. Worse than an animal. He's a monster, they all are.
And James doesn't even know it. He doesn't know that this is fucked up and wrong and sick because he can't have ever known anything else. He's been bred for this specific purpose and that's just. His brain can't get around it. The reality of knowing that someone specifically created a life for it to be abused like this. And the rest of the world just accepts it. Hasn't put an end to it or ever really, truly tried to. A few uprisings. The odd rebellion. But history on the whole has been content to let this just happen.
And Steve...Steve came here to kidnap James, fully intending to return him to Alexander when they'd achieved their goals. He's as bad as they are. God, he might even be worse.
"It's been done as you asked," Schmidt says, grunting as he finishes. He steps back and slaps James hard on the ass, laughing at the soft moan the violence produces. "Still such a good fuck," he laughs. "No wonder he's not gotten rid of you yet. We will have fun, you and I." Then he sits back in one of the chairs, legs wide and predatory, and waits in smug satisfaction as James climbs gracefully down from the table and straightens his clothing for him. Then he slides onto his knees and kisses the top of Schmidt's boots. The mask stops his mouth from making actual contact, but the gesture remains the same.
Somehow it's almost the worst thing that has happened so far. How totally brainwashed does someone need to be to willingly and without prompting kiss the feet of the man who just raped him in the middle of a crowded room? And there's no question in Steve's mind that that is just what happened. The law doesn't allow James to say no. If he can't refuse consent then he sure as hell can't give it.
Maybe that's what snaps in Steve's head. The unjustness. The whole disgusting idea that somehow the lives of the people in this room are worth more than James's or hell, even Steve's. That because they have money, they can treat such atrocities as commonplace.
Steve came here to stop Alexander implementing a law that would leave millions of people in even greater poverty than they already are. He came to stop a King and a corrupt politician from creating the spark of fire that will ignite a country that has been teetering on the brink of chaos for generations into the flames of a full-scale civil war. He came to do something good, and he'd been willing to do something bad to make sure it happened. To push the boundaries of the rules he and his kind have always followed out of a sense of right and fair play.
No one was going to get hurt.
Now, he's going to burn every last one of them to the ground.
His plan changes, and the wooden arms of the chair splinter beneath his rage. The left arm gives way first, and it makes a good weapon to thrust upwards into the unprotected belly of the first man who tries to restrain him.
The world explodes into a cacophony of sound and violence around him, but Steve's head is, perhaps for the very first time in his life, utterly, peacefully quite.
He knows what needs to be done, and no force on earth is going to stop him from doing it.
There's basically just a lot of violence in this chapter. Most of it is against people who deserve it.
The fight is a short-lived one.
The soldiers that rush to restrain him don’t stand a chance against his rage. He’s never killed like this before– indiscriminately, viciously. He knows he can be cold blooded when the occasion calls for it, but this, this feels too hot. His rage isn’t made of ice, it is made of fire, and his whole focus is turned on burning every last one of these bastards to the ground.
The problem isn’t his will. That is solid and unbending.
The problem is that Schmidt is as intelligent as he is deranged.
An entire army couldn’t stop Steve at this point.
But the sharp blade of a knife pressed between two of the many diamonds adorning James’s throat? That stops Steve in his tracks.
From there it isn’t much effort to bring him down to his knees, hands holding him firm, weapons pointed at him just in case their masters gave the order to kill.
No one looks surprised by what just happened. Schmidt, evil bastard that he is, looks smug. Alexander just looks contemplative. He’s the one who withdraws the key from a chain around his neck and unfastens the heavy mask on James’s face. Schmidt is still holding him firm, ready to draw blood if Steve shows any hint of resisting. He doesn’t. He stays as still as James does, noting the fact that the Gilded moves more while the mask is being removed than he did when Schmidt pressed the knife against his skin. He's too quiet and docile and passive. No self-preservation at all.
But then maybe the same can be said for Steve. He’s about to get killed for someone half the world claims isn’t human.
He looks human to Steve. Free of the mask, his face is almost bloodless. The kohl he’d applied before being put into it is smudged around eyes that are ringed red and sore. There are indents in his skin where the mask has pressed too firmly for too long and his mouth is swollen and sore looking.
But he’s looking at Steve in utter bewilderment. And for the life of him, Steve can’t tear his eyes away.
“It seems you’ve made something of an impression on Captain Rogers,” Alexander says before he turns to Steve and asks, “Was it the fact that it was Herr Schmidt who fucked him that upset you, or rather that he was just being fucked by someone who wasn’t you?”
It physically pains Steve not to throw off the hands holding him so he can charge the king down and rip his face off.
“I think the good Captain has a soft spot for your lovely whore,” Schmidt chuckles. “How sentimental.”
James hasn’t stopped looking at Steve since the mask was removed, and he jumps when Schmidt presses the knife into his palm.
“Master?” He asks Alexander in a soft voice.
The crack of the back of Schmidt’s against his cheek hits all the way to Steve’s bones. James manages to stay on his feet, which is impressive as hell given the kind of power Schmidt can throw into one of his blows. It’s made his lip bleed though, and the sight of blood spikes Schmidt’s appetite for more violence. “Finish him,” Schmidt orders, pointing at Steve.
It’s the first time James has not immediately moved to obey an order. He looks back at Alexander. “Master, please,” he says, his eyes wet. Steve wonders how many people James has been ordered to kill in the past. It’s happened before, he can see as much in James’s eyes. “You wanted him alive.”
It’s a dangerous thing to say, but James says it anyway, surely knowing what response he is going to get. Steve waits for the worst of it – for Schmidt or Alexander to punish James for his disobedience – but no beating or spectacular show of violence erupts from either man. Pierce shakes his head in disappointment, something that seems to hurt James more than a physical blow, then turns his back on them all. He doesn’t leave the room, but it’s a pointed way of showing James that he’s very much under Schmidt’s rule right now and can expect no help or support from his master.
For a second, James looks bereft. Then Schmidt snatches the hand that holds the knife and tangles his other fist in James’s hair. Diamonds scatter, knocked out of place by the roughness as James is dragged over to Steve’s side.
“Cut his throat,” Schmidt says, “or this,” he squeezes the hand that holds the knife, “is the next thing going up your ass.”
The soft sound of pain he makes is too much for Steve. He wants to fight back, but there is no way he’ll get more than a few paces in either direction before someone puts a bullet in him. Now he’s been cleared for death the gathered soldiers won’t be so restrained in dealing with him.
Maybe he should try though. If he is going to die, better that he spare James the trauma of having to do the job himself.
But Steve simply isn’t the give up and die kind. It’s in his nature to fight even when he probably should just give in.
And he can’t now, not knowing he will be leaving James to this – to a short, miserable lifetime of abuse.
But Schmidt moves before he gets the chance. He jerks James’s hand forward, the blade angled upwards to sink into Steve’s throat.
And James, showing all the grace and agility he had displayed while dancing at Alexander’s command the night before, twists himself under Schmidt’s arm and drives the blade deep into the Red Skull’s gut.
Everything slows down to match Steve’s shock. The soldiers don’t move. Alexander doesn’t yet turn at the commotion.
James stares down at the place where he’s holding the knife inside of Schmidt with a mix of horror and surprise in his eyes. He doesn’t look like he can quite believe what he has done.
Steve’s not sure he can, either.
But then something snaps, both in the room, and in James, and several things happen all at once.
First, and most importantly, Steve hears the sudden screech of alarms. They aren’t inside the palace but outside. Perimeter alarms. Warnings. Someone or something has breached the outward defences.
Oblivious to that, James pulls the knife out of Schmidt’s gut. Instead of dropping it or throwing it aside, James stabs him again, this time in the throat. He doesn’t stop there. As Schmidt falls to his knees, James stabs him again and again, his face twisted up with pain and hate and he’s not going to stop unless…
That’s when Steve moves. In the confusion that follows, as the alarms blare and the room falls into a confused, bloodwashed chaos, Steve throws all his energy into bucking off the hands that hold him down. Faced with the sheer amount of power his adrenaline and rage provide him with, they don’t stand a chance of stopping him.
He can see Alexander moving towards them from the far side of the room. The other aides and politicians are too busy trying to escape, but if he reaches them Steve is almost certain James will shut down entirely.
Very much wanting not to get stabbed, he grabs the hand holding the knife before James can plunge it into Schmidt’s mutilated body again. In an ideal world, he’d have the time to talk James down, to calm him and reassure him that Steve isn’t going to hurt him.
Only Steve has every intention of doing so, and he can’t bring himself to lie about it.
Instead, using his grip on James’s wrist to hold him firmly, what he does say is “I’m so sorry about this.”
Then he head-butts the Gilded. Hard.
James might know how to fight, but he can’t defend himself from that kind of blow, not when he’s taken completely off guard.
Steve doesn’t hesitate after that. He throws James over his shoulder and spins around on his heels. He’s certain that at least a third of the weight he’s carrying now is jewellery, but it isn’t enough to slow him down. Steve once carried Thor thirty miles through a toxic wasteland; in comparison, James is light as a fucking feather.
With James safely in his arms, Steve doesn’t turn and head for the door. Reinforcements will be on their way, attracted by the screams from inside the room.
Instead, he heads towards the window. Turning so he hits it at an angle – with his shoulder, not with James’s body – Steve charges directly at it, smashing through the ancient glass and throwing them both into a freefall towards – what he really hopes is – the rescue waiting below.
Steve has jumped out of a lot of windows in his life, but he’s never regretted it so quickly or completely as he does now.
Their rescue is indeed waiting below them.
In a chopper.
Directly below them.
He doesn’t even have time to mentally finish swearing before the bird suddenly lurches onto its side – a spectacular bit of flying that makes it immediately clear Clint is not at the controls – and the two of them crash painfully into its open belly.
Immediately arms latch around them both as their transport is levelled out. Half a second later, Steve is being yelled at by everyone on board.
“What the fuck was that?” Sam is behind the controls and he looks like his whole life just flashed before his eyes. “What the fuck was that?”
“Good timing!” Steve says, clutching his arms tightly around James and holding him protectively away from both Natasha and Sharon, who crowd around them trying to decide if Steve is unharmed and healthy enough for them to beat him senseless. Apparently he looks pathetic enough for them to hold the violence and settle for a verbal lashing.
“Please tell me that’s not-“ Sharon says, staring at James. Steve has him carefully shielded in his arms, his face tucked away from sight, but there is no hiding those telltale gold markings. “Fuck,” she swears. “Oh fuck.”
“Not exactly how I planned on dying,” Natasha says, her voice dry.
“What’s he done?” Sam asks from up front, his focus on getting them the fuck out of there while the rest of their air support provides enough cover for them to escape. He’s probably the best pilot they have, but even he’s taxed by the demands of flying so far behind enemy lines. Alarms are blaring from every panel the bird has as their computers work overtime to ward off the barrage of ground to air missiles being aimed their way. Pierce wasn’t lying: he will wipe James out of existence before he lets someone else have him. “Is that?” Sam asks, casting a lightning fast look over his shoulder. The rest of his response is long and colourful and it makes even Steve blush, then he says, “if your dick is to blame for this clusterfuck I will sit on you while Natasha cuts it off.”
Steve is so glad to see them again, so thankful that they came after his dumb ass, that he laughs. “Technically I was supposed to kidnap him,” he points out, cradling James’s head in the palm of his hand. His hair is silky and soft and after spending so long locked in a box with him, bound and unable to provide comfort, Steve revels in being able to try and soothe the headache he knows James is going to wake up with.
“That,” Natasha points out, throwing a shock blanket over James and himself. She fusses in a way that makes it clear she resents her soft, squishy centre being exposed for all to see and he knows he’ll be paying for it for weeks, “Was the plan before you got yourself taken hostage like the dumbass dipshit that you are. Now I think it is a bit redundant.”
“I couldn’t leave him there,” Steve says softly. “Nat…he killed Schmidt. They tried to make him kill me, and he killed Schmidt instead. You know what they would do to him.”
Both she and Sharon pause, stunned, then Sam swears again and the bird lurches, and by the time they regain their footing that surprise has morphed into something else. Respect, maybe.
Sharon touches Steve’s shoulder gently, understanding. She, more than anyone perhaps, knows how hard he finds it to turn a blind eye to suffering of any kind.
And god, what they would have done if Steve hadn’t taken him. What they will do if Steve can’t keep him safe. Gilded are supposed to be meek and submissive and docile. You can beat them, brand them, torture and rape them and they won’t fight back. They’ll take it all prettily and ask for more. That’s apparently part of their appeal.
A Gilded disobeying is rare. A Gilded fighting back is unheard of.
A Gilded murdering someone – not their Master, but almost as good as…
If word gets out Masters the world over will wonder if their own Gilded are equally capable of violence.
Other Gilded might think they have a chance at righting some of the wrongs inflicted on them.
If not contained, it could be bloody, world-shattering pandemonium.
The Council will need to make an example of James. To reassert the submission of the Gilded and to discourage any others from acting out against their Masters.
In no world could Steve leave him to that kind of fate.
James is still in his arms as Steve clutches at the edges of the shock blanket and wraps it more tightly around them both. He can feel the cool clamminess of James’s skin and it matches the bloodless pallor of his flesh. Beneath the beautiful dustings of pearl and gold, beneath the diamonds and sapphires that decorate him like a pretty bauble, he looks the closest to human Steve has seen yet. Frail almost. Not fragile, just mortal. He is bruised from where Alexander struck him the day before, and from where Schmidt struck him just. And Steve. He’s left his mark as well. None of them are disfiguring. Shamefully, they only serve to draw attention to the otherwise perfect lines of his face. He is truly, exquisitely beautiful, and suddenly Steve feels less validated in the way he has just snatched James from the only reality he has known. For a moment it feels less like a rescue and more like a theft. He’s a thief in the night who has stolen something very rare and precious, priceless even.
It lasts for only a second and leaves him feeling hollow and disgusted. James isn’t an object. The law might say he belongs to someone, but he is a living, breathing human being and he deserves more than the lot he has been given.
“You know this is how the Trojan War started,” Natasha says. Before joining SHIELD, Natasha had been trafficked as a child, taken from her home in Russia and sold to a particularly disgusting man in America. If she is sympathetic to James’s situation, there is no indication of it on her face. She’s good at hiding the truth of how she feels about everything, and Steve has never presumed to push her to do otherwise. “Peggy is going to string you up by the balls.”
Sharon nods in equal seriousness.
Steve would comment, but James makes a soft, pained sound in his arms and that steals all of his attention.
“Hey, hey, James? Can you hear me? It’s Steve…remember me?” In hindsight, he probably should have started with something less antagonising than ‘hi, I’m the guy that tried to kidnap you and made your shit life even more shit’. James opens his eyes almost immediately and Steve thinks he could drown in them they are so clear and so blue. That’s all the warning he gets before James rears up and slams his bruised forehead right into Steve’s nose.
Which breaks on impact, blood gushing like a fucking guiser, streaming down his face and his clothes, across James’s face – still lovely but now creased with utter fury. He doesn’t make any move to extract himself from the blanket, or Steve’s awkward hold. He simply goes limp and heavy and glares up at him with a look that pretty much defines passive-aggressive. He’s waiting for the retaliation, but not in a way that is weak or cowed or traumatised. It’s challenging, reminding Steve that James knows for a fact that he isn’t Alexander and therefore has no reason to be all the things Gilded are supposed to be.
“Oh,” Sam grins, looking over his shoulder again, “I take it back. I like him. He can stay.”
Steve, holding one hand to his nose, tries not to swallow too much of his own blood. He nods in agreement with Sam because yes, he deserved that.
It hurts like fuck, which is fair. It is. He probably owes James more than one good hit. And he’ll give it to him as well, because now on top of the clusterfuck that comes from murdering a Head of State, kidnapping a Gilded, committing treason and breaking a dozen international treaties…on top of the fact that they are still more than likely going to blow up before they make it to international waters and the safety of a SHIELD helicarrier, Steve has another problem to deal with.
He’s pretty sure he’s in love.
Warnings: creepiness. much creepiness. also Pierce thinks like a Bond villain. more creepiness.
TWO DAYS EARLIER
James fights the way he dances: his whole body given over to the fluidity of movement, of grace and power and poise culminating in something as deadly as it is beautiful. Alex can watch him all day and never grow tired.
All Gilded are expected to continue refining their skills and James is no exception. He practices daily, sometimes alone, but more frequently with members of their security detail. He’s grown from the delicate boy he once was – from a child Alex had little use for. He’s given himself over completely to his training, to his betterment. He has become this for Alex, because Alex has asked him to.
That’s the true power of owning a Gilded. It’s not through force or violence that submission is taken, but complete and utter devotion. James loves him, body, heart and soul. He wants to please Alex more than he wants anything else in life. Alex’s dissatisfaction physically pains him, his anger emotionally devastates him. That’s the power he wields. That’s the power that makes James the perfect weapon. No danger, no threat, is equal to the distress caused by the mere concept of failure.
It’s why he wins every match he fights and has done for years. He has more to lose than the men who oppose him. The carrot and the stick both have their places in owning a Gilded, but Alex has found that the carrot is much more effective in the long term.
Up on the platform, James ducks under Commander Rumlow’s swinging arm and then kicks his leg outward in a graceful sweep. Rumlow goes down with a grunt and holds his hand up in supplication. If James were not James, he would expect to be given a hand back up to his feet, as is courteous when fighting a friend.
Alex allows him physical contact while fighting, but the second the match is won, their standard rules apply. The hand that touches James will be removed and James will be sent to the Room. Rumlow is not stupid enough to risk dismemberment and James will do almost anything to avoid the Room.
“Well?” The stack of official reports on his desk need his attention, but for now he has more important concerns. “Is he ready?”
James is barely out of breath, unlike the circle of men and women who surround him. Rumlow had been the last man standing – James has calmly and methodically forced all eight of his security team into submission. And now he crawls over to Alex and settles at his feet. He’s fully made up – a final test to ensure he can fight as well in his adornments as he can without them – and as exquisite as the day Alex first took possession of him.
“Rogers won’t know what hit him,” Rumlow chuckles, rolling his shoulder in a way that suggests James has really hurt him this time.
“Excellent,” Alex settles his hand in James’s hair and smiles at the blissful way his Gilded leans into the contact. Such a tactile boy. “Leave us now,” he tells the rest of them, his eyes not leaving James’s. They truly are mesmerizing. A man could go mad with the power of that much adoration.
He waits until the door closes then draws James up to his feet and leads him over to the large, down stuffed couch in the bay window. Sunlight streams through the glass and paints James’s skin lovingly; drawing shadows and contrasts to the raised gold lines and the intricate artwork of jewels.
Alex has spent millions adoring James with so much finery. Many of the more elaborate pieces are gifts from sycophants and admirers wishing to buy his favor, but today he wears only the gifts Alex has given him. The collar is platinum and set with a row of pear shaped diamonds that grow in scale until the largest sits at the hollow of his throat, glittering in the light. The corset has been chosen for its restrictiveness – forcing James to use all of his skills to fight effectively. It’s cinched as tightly as the fabric allows and the steel boning will leave indents and bruises in his skin when Alex removes it. He doesn’t mind. The fabric itself is strong but almost sheer and decorated with silver metal thread to add robustness. A thousand crystals have been added by hand, and the laces that bind the corset together have been dipped in liquid gold. Alex can just about see the bruises already blossoming beneath the thin material and it is a sweet, tempting tease at delights to follow. The ring around his cock and the plug nestled in his ass are equally as exquisitely designed and it is almost a shame that neither are on display.
And there is no time to play with either, not yet.
“Are you ready, precious?” he asks, taking a seat and drawing James down until he can lay his head in Alex’s lap.
“I believe I will be able to please you, Master.” That’s James’s way of saying he is. He will never respond with a simple yes or no answer – to do so would be too presumptuous, but he can respond in a way that lets Alex know how he feels. When he says the words ‘Only if it pleases you, Master’, Alex knows he does not want or agree with what is being asked of him, but will do it regardless. Now, he is happy and confident that he can do what has been requested of him.
“I do not doubt that for a moment,” Alex says, gently stroking his hand through James’s hair. It’s the perfect length – long enough to invite fingers to muss or grab, but not unruly or untidy. “I am aware of what I am asking of you,” he says. “This will be the hardest thing you have ever done to prove your devotion. The pain will be great. Both myself and others will hurt you. Are you prepared for that?”
“The greatest pain will be being parted from you, Master.”
“Not seducing Captain Rogers? Not looking at him the way you look at me? Not submitting your body to his touch?” He’s teasing, mostly, but the sudden look of distress on James’s face is agonizingly sweet.
“I-“ James thinks a moment. “No, Master. None of those things will be real. I will not love him.”
“And you love me,” Alex says, gently running his thumb across James’s cheek. “Darling boy. You know what I need you to do.”
“Yes, Master,” James says.
Alex tightens his fingers in his long hair and snaps his head back tightly. It hurts, and James gasps, looking up at him with wide, wet, sorrowful eyes and red lips that part on a delicate sound of hurt. “Poor Rogers,” Alex laughs, “he doesn’t stand a chance against you, does he?” He loosens his hold, and James relaxes against him again. The point has been made.
Steve Rogers is an artist as much as he is a soldier, and he is a good man. He believes himself safe within his cover, working his way through the ranks to a place where he can force Alex’s hand. He’s not a bad spy. He plays the part well. But James will not be the first of Alex’s eyes in SHIELD. He’s had the poor Captain made from the very start. And he is predictable – predictable enough that Alex has prepared him this – the perfect trap.
James is sweet and beautiful enough to appeal to that artist’s eye, and he hurts so prettily. The Captain will want to save him from Alex and all the wicked things he is forced to endure. And when he learns that James doesn’t need saving, he will do what every man does when faced with their idea of perfection:
He will fall in love.
James will own him, heart, body and soul. And he will own SHIELD through him.
And Alex owns James.
He’s going to change the world and everyone in it. He’s going to reshape history and use the spoiled, pointless, pampered, useless pets of his position to do it. No one has ever weaponized a Gilded before. No one has ever tried.
Not until Alex.
James is going to reshape the world and deliver it to Alex’s feet, and he’s going to do it with that lovesick, hopeless, adoring smile on his face.
A man could go mad with the power of that much adoration.
“Oh. Em. Gee. You are in so, so much trouble!”
There’s a relief crew waiting for them the second they land on the Helicarrier and because the world hates him, Wade is leading it.
“Literally no one says ‘oh em gee’,” Steve says tiredly, his eyes fixed on James as they make their way down the ramp. It’s windy and loud and chaotic on deck, and James’s eye dart from one side to the other in a show of nerves. He’s clutching the shock blanket around his shoulders and though he’s being very careful not to actually touch Steve, he’s physically projecting his desire to stay close. Steve is okay with that. He doesn’t want James out of his sight for a second.
“They absolutely do in hundred percent all of the time what happened to your face?”
“Our guest broke his nose,” Sharon says, smiling kindly at James. “To be fair he deserved it.”
“I did,” Steve agrees, trying to show James that he’s not angry and he’s not going to hit him or hurt him or shout at him.
Wade gasps loudly and smacks his hands over his mouth. “Oh. Em. Gee!” He exclaims, his voice muffled. “You are my new favourite person. Hi favourite person, I’m Wade and I will be your guide as we tour this exciting but badly designed secret government facility! Do you have a name? I’m okay with calling you Favourite Person but my boyfriend might get upset.” Somehow Steve doubts it. Peter is the most level headed guy on the planet, which is a necessity for balancing them both out.
Despite the run on mouth and the twelve degrees of batshit, Wade doesn’t make any move at all to touch James, and his entire body langue is relaxed and unthreatening. Like Sam, he has an official combat role within SHIELD, but the two of them are also key members of the Med Team’s Mental Health Unit. It’s not like anyone has experience dealing with a Gilded, but they do have patients who suffer from PTSD and Stockholm Syndrome. That’s got to be a start.
And James doesn’t seem intimidated by Wade the way he is the rest of what is happening around them. He opens his mouth and says, “I’m Bucky,” and Steve’s jaw hits the floor. “I mean…” he flinches at Steve’s surprise and huddles in on himself in expectation of a blow. “One of the nurses who looked after me, she called me Bucky. I like Bucky. If…if that’s okay?” He’s asking Steve, who doesn’t agree fast enough. Wade kicks him solidly in the shin.
“Bucky,” Wade says, “I like it.”
Steve loves it. Bucky. It’s a name he chose. It’s an identity that he’s claimed as his own, and that’s phenomenal. Maybe there is hope for him now he’s out of Alex’s influence? Blindly obedient pets don’t pick out their own names, or if they do they don’t have the courage to claim them verbally.
But despite Wade’s acceptance, it’s Steve Bucky is looking to for validation. He’s no idea why. The first thing he did when waking up was break Steve’s nose and now he’s looking to him for permission.
“It’s perfect,” Steve says softly, his heart growing three times the size as Bucky’s whole face lights up in delight. Holy shit. He’s never seen a smile so radiant that he feels cold as soon as it fades away.
“So Bucky,” Natasha says, drawing all of their attention back to the mission, “will you be okay going with Wade for a check-up while Steve and the rest of the team debrief?”
It has to be done. Even without the verbal ass-kicking he’s got coming, no mission goes without a debrief. Besides, he needs Peggy’s advice. What to do when you fall in love with your target? What to do when your target is basically an old pervert’s living sex doll?
But Bucky goes pale and to everyone’s horror, drops to his knees. He bows his head and clutched at Steve’s ankle. “Please don’t send me away,” he begs.
They’re getting a lot of strange looks but no one is foolish enough to bother a group that has both Natasha and Sharon in it. Steve doesn’t pay them any attention and drops down to his knees with a painful thud so he is level with Bucky. “I’m not sending you away,” he says, gently prying Bucky’s arms from around him. “You’re safe here, I promise.” When he is able to encourage Bucky to look him in the eye, his heart breaks at the confused misery he sees on his face. The smart-mouthed, feisty, angry man who has arguably kicked his ass twice is nowhere in sight. He looks young and frightened and Steve aches with the need to help him feel safe. “You need to see a doctor,” both for a standard physical, and because Steve is still concerned about how violently Schmidt used him, “but…I can come with you? If you want?”
“If it pleases you,” Bucky says softly.
Pleased might not be the word Steve would pick, but there is something very formal and antiquated about the way Bucky speaks sometimes that is no doubt thanks to Alexander. He’s not about to comment on it. “Sure,” he says, drawing Bucky back up to his feet and fussing with the edges of the blanket that have slipped down his shoulders. His skin is like ice when Steve brushes it with his fingers. Ice, and silk.
“The Director won’t be happy,” Natasha points out. It’s in a way that makes it clear she isn’t trying to change his mind.
“She can only cut my balls off the once,” Steve shrugs, then glances at Bucky in case he took the joke literally. His face is carefully blank again. “Sam’ll put in a good word for me, won’t you, Sam?”
“No,” Sam says. “Sam is going to try patch up his poor, wounded baby.” He waves his arm at the bird and the several large holes in her side. “You’re on your own.”
“I’ll try get the WSC to postpone the debrief until you’re done,” Sharon offers with a helpless shrug. It's the best he's going to get.
“Excellent!” Wade says, already bounding over towards the hanger doors. “Shall we?”
Bucky has yet to move. He stays fixed to the spot and looks at the doors like they are going to lead him directly to the seventh circle of hell. He’s not going to follow without encouragement.
Steve holds out his hand. “Bucky?” He asks, waiting, hopeful and foolish.
A cool hand slips into his own. There’s a ring on every finger and his nails are neatly trimmed and highly polished. The gold cuffs are still locked tight around his wrists. They are a rude reminder of the world Steve has snatched Bucky from.
Steve draws him closer and Bucky goes. “Let’s get you taken care of,” he smiles.