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a marvelous gift

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Bucky Barnes didn’t remember his birth. That was fine; who did? He’d heard the story of his birth many, many times, and maybe that would have been normal, except his story was usually told in grave, hushed tones, not a happy reminiscence.

It wasn’t that his parents were unhappy about his birth—they loved him dearly. The problem was that on the day Bucky was born, the warlock Zola appeared.

“I am here to bestow a gift to your child,” he cackled evilly while hellfire leapt up around him. (It was possible Bucky had a bit of an imagination and embellished a few details.)

Bucky’s parents gasped in fear. Everyone knew the warlock Zola did twisted experiments with his magic, and his gifts were more often curses. Winifred Barnes curled protectively around her wailing infant son and George stood tall in front of them.

“Please, sir,” George said respectfully but also somehow strongly and with a lot of pride and intimidation because he was a strong and proud man. “A gift isn’t necessary.”

“A gift he shall receive,” Zola declared in a nasally voice. “A gift any parent would kill for. Complete obedience. Child, stop that incessant noise.”

And Bucky stopped.

That was Bucky’s curse—he was cursed with obedience. He could no more disobey a direct order than he could stop himself from blinking or breathing. He tried to hold back, the way someone might hold in a sneeze or a cough, but it made him dizzy, out of breath, quivery, and sick to his stomach.

His parents were terrified. This kind of curse could bring great harm and distress to their son. Anyone could take advantage of it, knowingly or not, and hurt him. It was a nightmare. They quickly forbade him from telling anyone of his curse, and they sought out council from any fairies or magicians with reputations for kindness.

They got the same answer from everyone—no one could remove Zola’s magic but Zola himself. And asking Zola was not an option. Whenever Zola’s experiments didn’t go according to his plan, he simply killed the test subjects.

Bucky hated his curse. He wasn’t naturally disobedient, and he was usually happy to help his mother and father and the sisters who came after him. What he hated was how careful his family was around him. He hated that he had no choice—any obedience on his part wasn’t a character trait, but a product of his curse. He felt like he wasn’t a real person, just a toy soldier who went where he was pointed.

But for the early years of his life, Bucky’s curse didn’t come much to light. His family took care not to give him orders, and he would have had to obey his tutors anyway. Friends were often dangerous, but Bucky had three sisters and his parents; he didn’t need friends besides his acquaintances at his lessons. His family was just on the cusp of wealthy—they probably would’ve been over the threshold had they had fewer children—and his life was largely ordinary and comfortable.

Until, of course, he met Steve Rogers.


“We’ve been invited to the ball at the palace,” Winifred announced to her children over breakfast one morning when Bucky was thirteen. Bucky wasn’t paying much attention; he and Becca had found a mangy stray dog and brought him inside without their parents’ knowledge. He was hiding under the table and they were slipping him table scraps. “James, you are welcome with us.” Bucky looked up quickly from where the dog was licking bacon grease off his fingers so his mother wouldn’t grow suspicious by his lack of attention.

“Can I dance at the ball?” He asked. He loved to dance, but children weren’t often invited along.

“If there are girls there for you to dance with,” his mother assured him. Bucky tried not to wrinkle his nose. He knew he was supposed to start liking girls soon, but so far he didn’t quite. He could enjoy dancing with a girl if she knew some of the faster, fun dances, but every girl he’d danced with so far only knew slow waltzes and those were terribly boring. Besides, girls his age had just started getting so…giggly. He didn’t know what to do with that.

“Madam, there is another message,” their butler, Nathan, said, handing Winifred another envelope with the royal crest sealed over it. Winifred thanked Nathan and opened it, her eyes getting wider and wider as she read.

“We’ve been invited to dine at the same table as the queen and the prince!” She cried, a hand flying to her mouth. George looked up quickly from the work papers he’d been poring over, dangerously close to Elizabeth’s sticky baby fingers.

“Have we?” He asked. “Why on earth?” George was related to the royal family, but distantly enough that it hardly mattered. It made them noble, but only just, and they’d never been invited to dine with them before.

“It’s because of James,” Winifred said. “He’s the same age as the prince. It seems they would like Prince Steven to experience other boys his age.”

“I don’t wanna sit with some stuffy prince,” Bucky protested, the dog’s head resting on his knee. “He probably thinks he’s better’n us just ‘cause he’s got a crown.”

“He’s going to be our king someday,” George reminded him sharply. “And we will pay our respects. James,” he said seriously, clearly. “You will be on your best behavior today.”

Bucky scowled furiously at the command, even deeper when his mother didn’t counter it. “Yes, sir,” he said sullenly, because the curse was already taking hold. His father’s face softened.

“I’m sorry to give you an order,” he apologized. “But it’s very important we don’t offend the royal family.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky repeated, because he was still mad but on his best behavior. Did his father have to give the order so early in the day? Bucky had to sit completely still all through his lessons and couldn’t sneak away to climb trees during languages the way he normally did. Bucky learned languages faster than any of his peers, and he got bored easily. Listening to their poor pronunciation was sometimes torture, and today he had to endure it with his hands folded primly atop his desk. He couldn’t even convince Rebecca to counter the order because that wouldn’t be acting on his best behavior, either.

He submitted to his bath without a word of complaint and even scrubbed under his fingernails without prompting. He was already exhausted of being on his best behavior by the time they got to the palace. His obedience wasn’t automatic—he still had to do it himself, so every time he forgot and let his posture slouch or his mind wander from his parents’ boring conversation, he got a stomachache.

His mother pressed a kiss to the top of his head just before they got out of the carriage. “Just a few hours,” she promised. “Then you’ll be done. You can complain to me for as long as you want afterward.”

“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” Bucky said pleasantly. “I’d love to.”

Winifred snorted at him, because he was obeying but still managing to sass her. Bucky knew she secretly loved when he did that. She would have hated to see him obey without a fight.

They took their seats at the high table. Bucky was a little impressed despite himself. The goblets were gold. There were servants milling about, and Bucky had to remind himself he couldn’t sneak amongst them to explore the palace.

It was ages before the queen and prince entered, and everyone had to stand when they did. The prince was a little runt of a thing—he was probably smaller than Becca, even though he was Bucky’s age and therefore two whole years older than her. His whole body was small and scrawny. Bucky was starting to grow, getting aches in the middle of the night while his bones stretched, but the prince didn’t look like that was a problem he had.

There was a lot of bowing and curtseying and Bucky wanted to roll his eyes. Why should he have to bow to someone just because of their blood? Could the prince hit a homerun or climb the highest tree in the forest? Those were things Bucky considered worth bowing over, not sitting in some fancy throne all day.

The night was going fine, no hiccups to record, and Bucky stayed polite and on his best behavior through the meal. He had to admit, he got a little more intrigued with the prince when he thanked all the servants by name and got scolded by his mother more than once for being too loud or eating too hastily or doodling on his napkin.

And then the cake happened.

“Have some cake,” the prince said, sweeping a hand at the cake a servant had just put in front of him. He barked it at Bucky, really, an order in the truest sense, and his mother gave him a narrow-eyed look that made him blush.

Bucky couldn’t focus on that. His parents had abandoned him somewhere and he’d just been giving an order that was going to prove disastrous. Because the prince hadn’t said, “Eat your cake” or “Eat the one piece of cake in front of you”; no, the prince had said, “Have some cake.” Unspecific orders were the worst kind.

Bucky tried to hold back. He clenched every muscle in an effort not immediately devour the cake. He took very small bites, eating as slowly as possible. It was all no use. Eventually, he finished his piece of cake. But his curse wouldn’t let him stop eating.

Bucky clenched his fist around his fork, willing himself to overcome. His head started spinning. He needed more cake. He had to eat more cake. He tried taking deep breaths. There was buzzing in his ears.

“What’s wrong?” The prince asked.

“Do you see my mother anywhere?” Bucky managed to choke out. He was going to fly apart into a million pieces. He was going to throw up. He was starting to sweat.

“I don’t know who your mother is,” the prince told him with a shrug. If Bucky weren’t about to die from lack of cake, he’d laugh. Maybe, if the prince weren’t the prince and they were in the same lessons, they would be friends.

“I think she’s dancing with your father,” the queen said kindly. “Is there something you need?”

I need more cake. “No, Your Highness, thank you, Your Highness,” Bucky’s mouth said, because he needed more cake but he also had to be on his best behavior. It was too much. He couldn’t take it anymore. He lunged at the piece of cake discarded on the table next to him. But he pounding in his head hadn’t subsided. Devouring more cake was not being on his best behavior. What was he supposed to do? He’d gotten two competing orders.

“You really like cake, huh?” The prince laughed. Bucky was going to cry. He was going to throw up while he was eating cake. He couldn’t stop. He looked around desperately, mentally screaming for his mother or father.

“Hey, what’s the matter with you?” The prince sounded concerned now, and Bucky’s heart squeezed again. Worrying the prince was not being on his best behavior. He was going to break down in sobs soon.

“I need my mother,” Bucky mumbled. Then, blessedly, his mother appeared, and she could see instantly from the look on his face that something was wrong.

“James?”

“Mama,” Bucky practically sobbed. “He said have some cake.”

It didn’t take any time at all for her to understand. “Stop eating the cake, James.” His muscles relaxed. He set down the fork. But he still needed to get away. He wasn’t being on his best behavior. He stood so quickly he knocked into his mother. Another stab of pain in his stomach. He bowed as best he could.

“Forgive my manners, Highness…es,” he amended at the last moment, giving them each a formal nod. He was a minute away from vomiting, and that would make it even worse because vomiting at the queen’s table was certainly not his best behavior. “I gotta go.”

He sped away and made it to the front hall before he had to drop to his knees, gasping. His mother caught up to him easily. “Don’t worry about your best behavior,” she said quickly. It was enough to stop the pounding in his head, but it came a moment too late, and he threw up into a potted plant. Bucky was crying a little, not because of the pain from his curse anymore but from embarrassment and rage and the after-effects of disobedience.

His mother stroked his hair back from his forehead. “James, I’m sorry,” she murmured. “We shouldn’t have given you orders and then left you.”

It wasn’t long before his father came looking for them, and he took one look at the sweat, tears, and snot on James’s face and his own took on the same guilt as Winifred’s.

“Nathan is bringing the carriage around,” he said gently. “We’ll go straight home. I’m sorry, son.”

They babied him the rest of the night, giving him a second warm bath and letting him bring the stray dog up to his room, but he didn’t feel well enough to even enjoy it. He fell asleep with his face buried in the dog’s fur, his tears mingling with the dirt caked there and turning it to mud. He hated his curse. He would give anything to break it.


Bucky had wandered away from his lessons again. It wasn’t his fault, as he repeatedly insisted to his parents. It was boring. He already spoke French better than his instructor and was well on his way to surpassing the man in Latin, as well. Why should he have to sit in a stuffy room on a beautiful spring day?

He was in the marketplace, thinking he might try his hand at charming one of the shop girls for a sweet roll—it had worked once before, and he was getting better at the charming act, though he always had to be wary of strangers—when he heard a commotion coming from an alley. He wandered over and saw his mangy stray being barraged by some boys throwing rocks at him.

“Hey!” Bucky howled indignantly. “Stop that!”

The dog, whom they’d all started calling Dum-Dum thanks to Elizabeth’s limited grasp of words and Annabelle’s little-girl idea of humor, saw him and immediately whined, trying to get closer to him, but one of the boys pulled at his tail. Bucky saw red, and he was ready to charge in fist-first when he noticed another kid on the ground, beside the dog. It looked like Dum-Dum was standing over him, protecting him. The boy spat blood and got to his feet.

“You heard him. Stop it,” he said, and Bucky felt a jolt in his spine. That was the prince. These boys clearly didn’t know that—no way would they have dared disobey him if they did.

“Thought we told you to shut up,” one boy said, sending the prince sprawling with a kick. That made Bucky even madder. These kids were all older, sixteen at least, and the prince was tiny enough as it was. Nothing about this was fair.

And so he dove in, punching and kicking and even biting when necessary. The prince helped as best he could, but he was wheezing the way Dum-Dum did when Bucky tried to get him to run too far, and he already had bloody knuckles and a black eye blooming. Dum-Dum, for his part, clawed and bit at the boys, and eventually they ran off.

“Have fun with your ugly mutt!” One turned over his shoulder to yell. Bucky snorted. It was an order, but not one hard to follow.

“I will!” He called back, one hand already smoothing over Dum-Dum’s fur to see if he was injured.

“Not talking about the dog!” The boy shot back. Bucky glanced quickly at the prince and saw his face turn red.

“You alright?” Bucky asked, trying to tramp down on the giddy feeling he was getting. He rolled his eyes at himself. Now he was going to have fun with the prince, regardless of circumstance. So irritating.

“’m fine,” the prince insisted around a few coughs.

“You sure?” Bucky asked, concerned despite the smile he was holding back.

“Yes,” the prince said. “I’m not some kind of invalid.” He was leaning a little bit against Dum-Dum, but Bucky wasn’t going to mention it. Dum-Dum didn’t seem to mind.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Alright, but you did just get the snot kicked outta you by some bigger kids.”

The prince huffed. “I can handle it. I had ‘em on the ropes.”

Bucky let himself laugh at that, but he threw an arm around the prince’s shoulders so he didn’t think Bucky was making fun of him. “Course you did.”

“James, right?” The prince asked. Bucky wrinkled his nose.

“Bucky,” he corrected. “Only my parents and tutors call me James. You’re the—Steven, right?”

The prince wrinkled his nose right back. “Steve,” he said. “Only my mother and tutors call me Steven.” Bucky laughed at that. He liked Steve. He had a streak of something a little bitter, maybe what Bucky’s mother would call wicked. It wasn’t evil, not like Zola. It was fun.

Bucky wasn’t really paying attention to where they were going, content to follow the prince, Dum-Dum padding along beside them, but before long he realized they were on the path to the palace.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. Should he have put his arm around the prince? That wasn’t proper, probably. He saw the prince’s face drop a little and he squirmed away from Bucky.

“Thanks for helping,” he said, stiff and formal now in a way he wasn’t before. “You can go if you want.”

Bucky saw the flash of hurt in his eyes and felt a little pang in his chest. “What if I don’t want?” He asked. “You gotta go home now? I was gonna climb some trees, if you want to come.”

Steve tipped his head to the side for a moment, assessing Bucky, and then his face split into a smile that quickly turned to a wince as it pulled at the cut on his lip. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll race ya.”

It wasn’t much of a race, considering Bucky’s legs were so much longer than Steve’s and Steve’s breathing sounded a bit like an old train coming down the tracks, but Bucky held back a little so he only won by a few feet. Dum-Dum trotted dutifully at Steve’s side, like he was making sure Steve didn’t fall down dead.

“Beat ya, punk!” Bucky crowed.

Steve scowled. “You’re a jerk,” he muttered. It made Bucky laugh again. They scrambled up the tree, and Bucky saw Steve grimacing a few times as he reached for branches so he gave him a few boosts under guise of nudges. Steve narrowed his eyes like he knew what Bucky was doing, but he didn’t complain. Dum-Dum barked at them, mournful at being left behind on the ground, but it wasn’t like he’d enjoy being up the tree, either.

They stayed in the tree for a long time, perched on branches with their backs against the trunk, swiping apples hanging around them and puckering their faces at the sour, unripe taste. They talked about food and complained about their lessons, and Steve revealed he had no patience for learning.

“I like to know things,” he explained. “I just hate being stuck inside when the weather is good and I’m not si—” He stopped, embarrassed, and Bucky didn’t press it. He knew about keeping secrets.

The falling light soon sent shadows through the leaves, and before Bucky knew it there were a few royal guards clustered around their tree. Dum-Dum, usually one to greet people happily, sniffed warily. He must’ve been put off from his earlier encounter with the boys.

“Prince Steven,” one said, craning his neck back to look up into the tree. “You must come down at once. It isn’t safe. And you’ve given your mother quite a fright, running away from us like this again.”

Steve rolled his eyes at Bucky, jaw set in annoyance. “I didn’t run away, Coulson,” he argued. “I’m just being normal.”

Coulson looked pained. “Your Highness, I know Sir Timothy indulged your little adventures before his disappearance, but the simple fact is you are not normal.”

Dum-Dum growled warningly, and Steve’s little flinch at Coulson’s words had Bucky agreeing. He hated the sad look in Steve’s eyes, so he elbowed him.

“He’s right, you know,” he said gravely.

“He is?” Steve asked, and Bucky felt bad for his teasing because of how hurt and betrayed Steve sounded.

“No one normal has that big of a nose, Steve.”

Steve gaped for a minute, and then he cracked up laughing hard enough to make him wheeze again and lean off the branch as he clutched his side. Coulson looked even more distressed.

“Your Highness, please,” he begged. Steve sighed.

“I’m coming,” he said. “See ya around, Bucky,” he added more quietly as he started climbing down. Bucky followed him, something seizing up in his chest at the thought of not seeing Steve again.

“Race ya here tomorrow,” he blurted out, practically whispering so the guards wouldn’t hear.

Steve paused and looked up at Bucky. His nose was sprinkled with freckles and it made Bucky want to laugh.

“Okay,” he said with a wicked little grin. “First one to dodge their lessons wins.”

It didn’t even take a month before Steve and Bucky became inseparable. It was difficult for Bucky’s parents, at first, to treat Steve like any other kid and not call him “Highness” or “Prince Steven”, but Winifred saw the way Steve’s shoulders drooped and the disappointment in his eyes the first time she did it and made it her last.

Bucky, for his part, started to learn his way around the castle, including the secret passageways Steve used to sneak away from his guards.

“Is that safe?” Bucky asked, stomach twisting. He couldn’t stop picturing bandits coming in during the night, creeping down the twisting hall and finding Steve’s room. It wouldn’t be hard to overpower Coulson, who watched over Steve’s sleep, if there were more than one of them, and then Steve would be exposed and vulnerable. Someone could easily slip a knife between his visible ribs, cut across the pale line of his throat, and it made Bucky ill.

Steve rolled his eyes. “There are guards everywhere,” he pointed out. “Even if someone got in, which is unlikely with all the patrols, someone would catch them.”

Bucky couldn’t shake the image of Steve taking one last, gasping breath, and he shuddered at the thought. “You oughta tell the Commander,” he said. “It’s their job to keep you safe.”

Steve put his hands on his hips. “If I tell ‘em I won’t have any way to sneak out anymore. That what you want?”

Bucky couldn’t understand the tight feeling in his chest and throat. He was not quite fourteen and his dad had yet to sit him down and explain to him about bodies and feelings and love. All he knew was a world without Steve Rogers was a world he couldn’t bear.

He grabbed Steve’s arm and shook him a little. “You’re too important to let something happen to you, Rogers.”

Steve glared at him, yanking his arm away. “Because I’m the prince,” he said glumly. Bucky couldn’t take that, couldn’t take Steve thinking he was only worth something because of his blood. He grabbed Steve and pulled him roughly against his chest, muffling the indignant squawk Steve let out.

“Because you’re you,” Bucky whispered into his hair, not entirely sure why he was on the verge of tears.

Steve relented, which was unusual and probably had to do with how much of a weirdo Bucky was being, but he dragged Bucky along with him to see Fury, the head of the Royal Guard. “Probably the last time you’ll ever see me,” Steve huffed.

When Steve detailed his secret tunnels, Bucky saw Fury’s lips and eye-patch twitching a little. “You already knew,” he accused.

“We’ve known about those since Sir Timothy was here,” Fury admitted. Sir Timothy, Bucky had learned, used to be Steve's personal guard, before Coulson, but he'd vanished without a trace months ago. There was still a search party looking, because Steve insisted, but no one was very hopeful he was coming back.

“But you still let me sneak out?” Steve asked. Now Fury was definitely trying not to laugh.

“Well, I wasn’t much for lessons when I was your age, either,” he revealed. He winked, though Bucky wasn’t sure if it counted as winking if it was the only eye he had or if it was merely a blink. “I’m nice like that.”

Bucky slept a little easier, knowing Fury was making sure Steve was safe, and he didn’t even have to lose Steve.

Or so he thought, until winter came, after they both turned fourteen and Bucky had only a few months to fifteen and he grew three inches and Steve didn’t grow at all. Bucky was waiting by their tree, breath puffing in front of him, and Steve came staggering out. Dum-Dum ran to his side immediately, yapping in a way that almost sounded worried.

“Steve!” Bucky cried, hot on Dum-Dum’s heels. Steve’s face was ashen and sweaty and he was breathing hard. When Bucky grabbed him, he could feel Steve’s pulse racing in his thin wrist. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Steve croaked, voice sounding painful as it scraped its way out of his throat. “What are we doing today?”

“I think you’re sick,” Bucky said. “You better get back to bed.”

“I’m not an invalid,” Steve snapped, swaying on his feet.

“Okay,” Bucky soothed, not sure why Steve was getting his hackles up over a cold. Dum-Dum was jittering in circles around Steve. “But even superheroes gotta rest, you know. Sounds like you got a cold or something.” Bucky reached out and felt Steve’s forehead, pulling back with a startled cry when he felt how hot it was. “You’re burning up!”

“I’m fine,” Steve insisted.

“Steve—” Bucky started.

“Bucky!” Steve cut him off. But then his eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted like Bucky’s ma did last year when they found the nest of mice in the cellar. Bucky caught him with a worried yell, Dum-Dum barking up a storm beside him and leading the way up the palace walk.

Bucky got maybe three feet inside the castle grounds before a guard came running. “What have you done to him?” The man demanded. Bucky didn’t know him.

“I didn’t—I—” Bucky didn’t know what to say. Steve was still limp in his arms. Bucky hadn’t realized how skinny Steve really was until he realized he could lift him without too much effort at all. He had a painful lump in his throat and he couldn’t quite draw a full breath, not from exertion but from terror.

“Mr. Barnes, what happened?” Coulson asked, and seeing his familiar face gave Bucky a wave of relief so strong he could cry.

“I don’t know,” he said, biting his lip hard. “He—I think he’s sick; he has a fever, and he just—he fainted…” He was babbling, and he refused to give Steve up when the first guard tried to take him from Bucky’s arms.

“I'll take the prince,” the guard said.

“No,” Bucky argued. “I’ll carry him.”

“Come on, then,” Coulson cut short any further argument. “Let’s get him to the healers.”

Bucky had never been to this part of the palace. He’d only been to the kitchens, the great hall, Steve’s room, and the library. He’d seen barely half of Steve’s home.

Even with Steve as skinny as he was, Bucky was a little out of breath when they finally reached the infirmary, a room with white walls and white curtains and a blazing fire. A woman in white took one look at Steve and tutted, gesturing to an empty bed for Bucky to put him down.

“Send for the queen,” Coulson told the guard, who saluted and left quickly.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Bucky asked, digging his fingernails into his palms.

“Get that dog out of my infirmary,” the healer said, and Bucky swallowed hard. It wasn’t an answer. Coulson put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and steered him out of the room. Dum-Dum didn't want to go; Bucky had to grab him by the scruff of his neck and drag him, and he was growling all the way.

“Let the healers do their job,” Coulson said. “I’m sure the cooks would whip you up something if you headed down to the kitchens.”

“I’m not hungry,” Bucky mumbled. He had no intention of leaving the hall in front of the infirmary door, and he didn’t for hours, waiting through the queen sweeping into the room and the shadows lengthening through the windows and the servants lighting the lamps in the hall—until the queen came out and gestured at him.

“Come with me, please,” she said, and then he didn’t have a choice. He wasn’t sure if he would’ve gone with her if not for his curse. She led him down the hall into a small guest chamber bigger than Bucky’s room and his sisters’ room put together. She wasn’t saying anything, and it was making Bucky nervous.

"I swear I didn't hurt him," Bucky blurted out. His face quickly went red. He shouldn't have spoken to the queen before she spoke to him. But he couldn't help it. What if she thought he hurt Steve and never let him see him again?

"I know," she told him gently. "Steven gets sick very often."

Bucky's brow wrinkled. "He hasn't gotten sick since I've known him." Then he went even redder. He certainly shouldn't have contradicted the queen.

She just nodded, though. "The spring and summer are easier on him. Steven is..." Her eyes went distant as she looked out the window. "Steven is a bit fragile."

"No disrespect, ma'am, but no he's not," Bucky said. In for a penny, and all that. She looked back at him and smiled, a quiet little laugh bubbling from her lips.

"I'm very glad the two of you met," she said. She looked very sad. "Steven doesn't have many friends. People are always on their best behavior with him, since he's the prince, and if they don't realize he's the prince they can be..." She paused. "Cruel."

Bucky thought of the boys who were beating Steve up that day all those months ago, nearly a year ago now. He frowned. "Well, they're idiots. Steve's the best."

There was something in her smile he didn't understand. "I'm telling you that Steven gets sick so you'll understand, Bucky. He doesn't appreciate getting sick, and he tries to fight it and push through. Sometimes he needs someone to help him, but he won't admit it."

Bucky didn’t even have to consider that before he was vowing, "I'll help him."

She smiled at him again. "I know you will, Bucky. You're welcome to sleep here until Steve is better. I will send a message to your parents."

"Wow, thanks," he said, taken aback. He'd thought he was going to have to sneak in later tonight. The queen nodded at him again and turned to leave. "Hey," Bucky called after her. It was disrespectful, but she didn't seem to mind any of his other disrespect so far. "How'd you know my nickname?" Most adults only called him James.

Queen Sarah looked over her shoulder, laughing at him a little. "Darling, Steven doesn't stop talking about you unless he's not talking at all."


Bucky had gotten Queen Sarah's permission to sleep on a cot beside Steve's and he'd brought Dum-Dum in, too, to the healer's disapproval, so he was there when Steve finally woke up.

"Bucky?" He croaked. Bucky flew up, grabbing for the pitcher of water on the table.

"Here, drink some water," he said, naturally bossy from being a big brother. Dum-Dum was sitting up and alert, whining lowly.

"What are you doing here?" Steve asked. His hair was sticking to his forehead in sweaty clumps and his eyes were a little glassy, but at least he was talking.

"You swooned in my arms!" Bucky told him. "Couldn't leave you all alone."

Steve scowled. “I hate this.” He didn’t just sound angry; his voice sounded tight like he was going to cry, and he bent his head so Bucky couldn’t see. Bucky pretended not to notice, because he was a good friend.

“Steve, everybody gets sick,” Bucky pointed out, trying to sound cheerful. “’s not a big deal.”

Steve fidgeted with the blankets over his lap. “It’s a big deal for me,” he admitted, sounding defeated. “I get sick all the time. The healers think I might not even live long enough to be king. I’m…I’m weak.”

Bucky’s heart was squeezing painfully in his chest. The thought of Steve dying was unbearable, just like when he’d been worried about someone getting in the castle and killing him. He’d never thought about Steve’s own body doing the job.

“Hey,” he said roughly. “You might get sick but you’re not weak.”

Steve snorted, annoyed now. “Bucky, I can hardly climb our tree. You always have to help me and pretend you’re not, like I’m a little kid.” He pounded a fist onto the mattress. “I probably wouldn’t be a good king, anyway,” he whispered.

Bucky couldn’t handle that, couldn’t take the sadness in Steve’s eyes or the doubt in his voice. He climbed up onto the bed and wormed around so he was tucked around Steve.

“You’re the only guy I’d trust to be king,” he said loyally. “Your ma’s a good queen, but if it’s gonna be anyone else, it has to be you. You stand up for what’s right and you’re not afraid to fight, even when you know you’re gonna lose. You’re the bravest guy I know.”

Steve tipped his head against Bucky’s shoulder. “Yeah?” He asked, voice small like it never was in the daylight.

“Yeah,” Bucky promised, and maybe it was a little weird but he turned his head and kissed Steve’s hair. It didn’t feel weird. It felt easy as anything, natural, and it felt good. He wished he could make Steve feel better—he wished he could tell him about the curse, and how it made Bucky feel weak and scared and like he wasn’t a real person.

Bucky opened his mouth, trying to force the words out, but all it did was make his arms shake enough that Steve pulled back and gave him a funny look. Bucky sighed a little and pulled him back in, closing his mouth. He couldn’t tell Steve. He resolved to get someone to counter the order not to tell anyone as soon as he got home. Steve would feel better if he knew Bucky’s weakness. He wouldn’t feel so alone.

They fall back to sleep like that, curled around each other protectively, and it was many years before they would truly part.

Chapter Text

"Quit it," Steve snapped. Bucky sighed. Now he didn't have a choice. He pulled his hands from his hair and turned around.

"What?" He asked, peeved. Nothing irritated him more than orders that came absently. And Steve was so bossy, he gave Bucky orders almost every other sentence.

They were seventeen now, and Bucky still hadn't been able to tell Steve about his curse. When he'd asked, two years ago, his parents had exchanged worried glances.

"That's not a good idea," his father had said gently.

“What do you mean?” Bucky had asked. “Why not?”

There was a pause while his parents gathered their words, and then his mother said tentatively, “Bucky…Steve is the prince. He might use that to his advantage.”

“Or he might let it slip to someone else who would use it to their advantage.”

Bucky had been furious. He’d refused to speak to either of his parents for five solid days. But no matter how often he shouted and asked politely and begged and cried, his parents wouldn’t budge. They’d gotten to his sisters, too, and none of them would lift the order.

Bucky knew Steve would never do anything to hurt him. Steve would never use his curse against him. It wasn’t in his nature. And there was no way Steve would just go around telling people about Bucky’s curse. Steve was better than that.

As Bucky grew older, he could understand, a little better, his parents’ fear, but he still couldn’t believe they would think that of Steve. They’d known Steve for years, knew his goodness and his heart. Bucky was still furious. He’d fought with them just that night before he’d stomped off to the palace, in fact. He hated having such a secret from the person who meant the most in the world to him.

“You’re just always fussing with your hair,” Steve said, annoyance all over his face. “You’re dragging me out, let’s just go. Not like the girls won’t be flocking around you anyway.”

Bucky pressed his lips together to hold in an angry retort. He knew Steve was actually mad because he’d been sick all week again. He actually did want to go to the ball they were going to, but he had his reputation as a stick in the mud to uphold.

“Fine.” Bucky’s voice came out a little strangled, because technically Steve had given him an order and he was holding off obeying it. “Let’s go.”

Dressed in plain clothes, Steve was hardly distinguishable from any other almost-royal teenager at the ball. He’d pointed out more than once that Bucky looked more like a prince than he did, a fact Bucky always vehemently denied. There was no one Bucky thought looked more like a prince than Steve, with that golden hair and strong jaw and long, long lashes.

It didn’t take long for Steve to grumpily find a table to sit at while Bucky danced. Bucky was popular with girls. He played that up, a bit, because he couldn’t pretend he didn’t enjoy the attention, but also, if he was being completely honest with himself, because he knew it pissed Steve off.

The thing was…well, Bucky loved Steve. He really did. But there was something about making Steve mad that Bucky found exhilarating. It was cruel of him, and he always felt bad afterward, but seeing Steve scowl as Bucky winked at a girl made something light up inside. It was horribly unfair, because Bucky knew how inadequate Steve felt. Bucky didn’t think any of these girls had a clue, truth be told, because if they had brains they’d be clamoring for Steve’s attention, not his.

And yet, he still did it at every ball.

Bucky quickly got swept up dancing. He was popular at these balls; he was a good dancer and he was always very respectful. Girls liked that. Their parents liked it even more. Mostly, Bucky was respectful because he didn't like the thought of anyone being uncomfortable, doing anything they didn't want to—the reasoning behind that pretty obvious, he knew—but also because once when he was fourteen his tutor had said,

"You must always respect the fairer sex."

Bucky didn't know if it counted as an order when he wasn't so sure about the whole fairer sex business, considering Becca got in plenty of fights and Bucky had had the unfortunate experience of going into the washroom after any one of his sisters for years and years. Besides, he would've respected everyone anyway. It was another little thing about his curse that niggled at him, because he didn't like the idea that it might've just been the order making him good.

Steve, of course, was sitting stiffly at the table like he was being paid to be uncomfortable. Steve had issues with crowds of people. When they knew who he was, people fawned all over him and tried to talk to him just because he was the prince. When they didn't know who he was, they ignored him or gave him pitying looks because of how small and skinny he was or because they'd heard the rattle in his chest. Neither situation was exactly ideal, so Steve tended to be awkward with non-Bucky people.

Bucky didn't like leaving him alone for too long, since he was the one who dragged him out in the first place and abandoning him was just plain rude, no matter how much he got a thrill in the pit of his stomach when he saw Steve glaring at Bucky's dance partners.

"Gonna dance at all?" Bucky asked, swiping Steve's brandy and taking a long drink.

"Who'm I gonna dance with?" Steve asked, only slightly petulant.

Bucky shrugged. "Anyone you want. Just go ask."

"You know I don't know how."

Bucky rolled his eyes. "I know you know better than you pretend."

Steve huffed. "Well, all those girls are laughing at me, anyhow."

It wasn't entirely untrue, Bucky realized with a frown. He was pretty familiar with the good kind of giggling, and there wasn't much of that being aimed in Steve's direction. It was making Bucky furious. He tugged at Steve's elbow.

"Come on," he said. "We're dancing."

"With who?" Steve snapped.

"Each other," Bucky shot back. "Now shut up and follow my lead."

Steve did neither, of course, because Steve didn't have a curse that made him follow orders. Steve seemed to have a curse that made him unable to follow orders, though that curse was just his natural personality.

"Buck, this ain't proper," Steve hissed, face bright red because people were pointing and staring.

"Neither is you being nearly a man and not knowing how to dance," Bucky insisted. "Right foot back."

Steve wasn't naturally a bad dancer, not really, and his perfect memory meant he had no trouble remembering the steps. The problem was, as usual, his body couldn't keep up with him. Bucky could see him wincing every time he stepped back with his left foot, because of his crooked back, and when the quartet picked up the tempo Steve started breathing hard.

But he was laughing, breathless, as he tried not to knock into Bucky too much, and his face was flushed but not too much so, and Bucky wanted to shove him right under those girls' noses and shout, Can't you see?

"Lemme lead," Steve requested. Bucky was planning on it anyway—it would be a little awkward since Steve was smaller, but Bucky couldn't very well teach him to dance without letting him a lead a little—but he couldn’t just let Steve get away with that kind of bossiness, even though he should definitely be used to it by now.

"You're gonna step on my toes," he protested, sounding almost as breathless as Steve now from resisting the order.

"Will not!" Steve said, laughing a little.

"Take the lead from me, then, big man," Bucky teased, and Steve grumbled good-naturedly while he tightened his hand in Bucky's. He wasn't hesitant at all, because Steve didn't know how to be hesitant when someone was challenging him, but his barreling in led to them smacking heads.

"Ow, Steve!” Bucky complained. “I always knew your head was harder’n a brick, but I didn’t know it was literal.”

Steve was just laughing, head thrown back, and Bucky couldn’t help but follow suit. Sometimes he forgot this part, getting wrapped up in Steve’s indignation and his causes and his bullheadedness and his bossiness. Sometimes he forgot that most of all, he and Steve were best friends forever because they were a couple of doofs who made each other laugh harder than anyone else could.

“Excuse me,” a servant said, tapping them on the shoulders. “I have a message here for Sir James.”

Bucky wasn’t actually a sir, no one their age was, but at these kinds of functions the servants always pretended they were. Bucky figured the kind of person who got a kick out of that was probably not someone he wanted to hang around with.

“That’s me,” he said easily, one arm still thrown around Steve.

The servant looked behind him and they followed his gaze to see Fury standing in the doorway, looking horribly out-of-place. There were whispers flying around the room because of his Royal Guard uniform.

Bucky led the way over to him, just so people wouldn’t figure Steve out, and Fury beckoned them out the door. A royal carriage was waiting.

“Aw, Fury, c’mon,” Bucky groused. “We ain’t even gotten any girls for Steve to dance with yet.”

“James, get in the carriage,” Fury said. His voice was grave, no humor laced in like usual, and Bucky felt a rush of worry in his stomach along with the need to obey.

“What is it?” He asked, climbing in and then reaching back to help Steve. Steve, of course, ignored his hand.

Fury waited until the door was closed and they started moving to say anything. Bucky had a pit in his stomach.

“It’s your parents, James,” Fury said, far gentler than Bucky would have ever expected to hear him speak. “They’ve died.”

His words didn’t register. Bucky sat there, dumbfounded, not processing, until Steve reached over and grabbed his hand. For some reason, looking down at Steve’s long, pale fingers gripping his own brought everything crashing down on Bucky’s head.

“What?” He gasped. “What do you—no.”

Fury shook his head. “I’m sorry. A gang of bandits overtook their carriage. From what we can tell…” Fury hesitated.

“Tell him,” Steve commanded. “Don’t hide anything from him. Bucky deserves to know.” Bucky couldn’t speak, but he squeezed Steve’s hand. He wanted to know.

“Your father was protecting your mother. Both were…stabbed.”

Bucky shuddered. He didn’t have to think too hard about what his father was probably protecting his mother from. Everyone knew the stories about bandits and what they wanted. He couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t breathe. He could hear someone making a choking sound from far away and he looked at Steve. But it wasn’t Steve breathing like that—it was Bucky.

“Dead?” He sobbed out. If anyone but Steve had been there, Bucky would’ve tried harder to keep himself together. “How can they be…?” He curled into himself. “What are we going to do?” Bucky, at least, was old enough that he could fend for himself. But his sisters were still children. Elizabeth was only six years old.

Would she even remember their parents as she grew up?

Steve was rubbing a hand across his back. “It’s gonna be okay, Buck,” he promised. “We’ll figure it out.”

“Where will we live?” Bucky gasped. He was getting a little hysterical now. “What kind of job can I get that will be good enough to take care of my sisters?”

“Bucky, breathe,” Steve ordered softly, and Bucky was, for once, grateful for an order. He shuddered as he drew in gulping breaths and Steve wrapped an arm tighter around him. “I don’t care if you all have to come live in my chambers,” Steve declared, jaw set in determination. “I’m not gonna let anything bad happen.”

Fury was staring at his hands, giving them as much privacy as was possible in a small carriage, and Bucky knew from the passing landscape outside the window they were going to his house, not the palace—his house, where his sisters were in bed, probably, where they had no idea that their parents were—

Bucky turned and crumpled into Steve, burying his face in Steve’s neck, trembling as he tried not to cry. His parents were never coming home. His parents were dead.

“I got you, Buck,” Steve murmured, his own voice tight. “I got you.”


Bucky slipped through the gap in the hedges that he and Steve used to get in and out of the palace without the guards noticing. It was a tighter fit for them these days, though not as tight for Steve as he wished. Dum-Dum sighed wearily and hopped through behind him.

It still worried Bucky, sometimes, how easy it was to sneak in and out of the palace, but he reminded himself that Fury knew about their secret passageways. He probably guarded them and let Bucky in but no one else.

Bucky eased Steve's chambers' door open and crept inside. There was a lamp still burning, like Steve had fallen asleep sketching again, but he was tucked away in his bed. Maybe he'd known Bucky would be coming over. He'd been doing so more and more often since his mother's relations had come to take care of them.

It had been three weeks since Bucky's parents had died. For four days, Bucky and his sisters had been alone. Well, as alone as you could be when your best friend was the crown prince and the queen knew what had happened so she sent palace guards to watch over you at night.

But then, a cousin of Bucky's mother had shown up. She had an old letter from Winifred asking her to take care of the children should anything happen to her and George, so she and her husband were there to do their duty. They were childless and had always wanted children. They loved Elizabeth and Annabelle. They tolerated Becca and Bucky. It was clear they wanted to start as much from scratch as possible, and Bucky and Becca were too old for that.

Bucky was by far their least favorite—they thought boys were mischief and trouble, even though Bucky did everything they asked and at first had even tried to do so cheerfully, without fighting back the way he usually did. But there was only so long he could accept assuming servant duties before he would lash out. It wasn’t that Bucky minded helping Eliza with the washing or Nathan with the horses or Martha with the cooking; they weren’t rich or noble enough that their servants were just servants. Nathan and Martha and Eliza had been like aunts and an uncle and the Barnes family had all pitched in their whole lives.

It was that the girls were told not to help anymore and Bucky was ordered around like he’d never been, like following orders was what he should be doing. It made his blood boil, but he hadn’t had a choice. And then, a few days ago, Winifred’s cousin had gathered them all in the great hall and said,

“Servants, you may go. You’re no longer needed.”

It didn’t matter how hard the girls cried or what Bucky said; they were sent away with a few week’s pay and all their belongings they could carry with them.

Bucky'd told Steve that they'd sent Nathan and Martha and Eliza away, so the queen could help them find new positions, but he hadn't mentioned that he'd been told to move his things into the servants' quarters all alone but for Dum-Dum and had been solely responsible for the cooking, washing, and cleaning in the days since. Steve would fly off the handle, and Bucky didn't want to make his mother's cousin upset. He wanted Elizabeth and Annabelle, at least, to have something.

"Buck?" Steve murmured as Bucky climbed into bed beside him. They were a bit old to be doing this still, but Bucky figured no one would be too upset. His parents were dead. Besides his relatives, no one seemed keen to make him do anything at all. It was the least amount of orders he'd ever gotten, yet he felt more miserable than he ever had.

He burrowed down beside Steve and instantly buried his face in Steve's hair. He had a bomb to drop tonight and the fallout was going to be awful for both of them.

"What is it?" Steve asked, wriggling around to face him. "Is something wrong? I mean...more wrong?" He corrected quickly. Bucky put his arms around Steve and held him close.

"I have to go away," he whispered. Steve was still for a moment, not realizing what Bucky meant, but then he shoved back to look at Bucky.

"What?" He said. "They're sending you away?"

"They're not sending me away," Bucky promised gently. "I'm choosing to go."

"Why?" Steve demanded, not even bothering to ask where Bucky was planning to go.

"They're taking the little girls back to their own house. Sold off Ma and Dad's things. Sending Becca to finishing school." Bucky's lip curled. He knew why people sent teenage girls to finishing school: so they'd learn to shut up and follow their husband's orders. He didn't want that for Becca. He'd tried to convince her to run away, but she'd just looked sad.

"Bucky, I'm just a girl," she'd said. "Where would I go? You know it's not safe for me to just roam around the way you could."

"I'd protect you!" He'd cried. "I wouldn't leave you all alone!"

She'd taken his hand, shaking her head, and sighed tiredly. She'd looked so much older than nearly-sixteen. "There's not much for me in this world. The best I can hope for is a good match." She'd refused any of his other arguments, no matter how he'd raged.

"Becca can't go to finishing school!" Steve said now, disdainful. "They'll ruin her, turn her into some curtsying little flower who never speaks her mind." Bucky felt tears building in his throat. How could he leave Steve? Steve knew everything. Bucky didn't even have to voice his fears.

"I tried," Bucky choked out. "I tried to get her to run away."

Steve reached up and brushed a hand soothingly through Bucky's hair. "I'm sorry, Buck," he murmured. "Feels like your whole family's falling apart right in front of you."

And then Bucky really was crying, tears and snot and sobs that he tried to muffle by biting his knuckles. Steve pulled his hand away and let him press his face into Steve's bony chest instead. That was exactly how Bucky felt. He'd already lost his parents, and now he was losing his sisters, too.

"Why don't you stay here with me?" Steve asked, plaintive, and Bucky took a deep, shuddering breath to calm himself down so he could outline his plan.

"I'm gonna go to the Royal Guard Academy," he proclaimed. "Then I can come back and be in your protection service."

"You don't need to go to the Academy for that," Steve said dismissively. "You've been in my protection service since we were thirteen."

Bucky shook his head. "I gotta learn how to protect you for real, Steve. What if someone sieges the castle or your carriage gets set upon by bandits? What can I do against that?" He sniffled, not feeling very strong or brave at all with tears on his face. "I don't know anything."

Steve's lips were pursed, but Bucky could see on his face he knew it was a good idea. It would keep Bucky housed and fed for a few years, and then he'd be a grown man and could start earning money for himself.

"If you want me in your protection service," Bucky added. "Guess you might not choose me." He wasn't serious, and Steve only rolled his eyes, not deigning to even address that.

"When will you have to leave?" He asked.

"In the morning. They're taking the new recruits in two days and the journey will take that long."

"In the morning!" Steve cried. "That ain't fair, Buck, we hardly get to say goodbye! The journey only takes one day."

"By carriage," Bucky reminded him. "I don't have—"

Steve cut him off. "So you'll take—"

"I won't show up to the Academy in a royal carriage, Steve. I ain't using you to get in their good graces." He had to interrupt Steve quickly to stop the order from coming out of his mouth.

Steve was frowning so hard it looked painful, but Bucky knew he wouldn't argue over that one. Steve knew far too well about proving yourself.

Bucky could see the exact moment Steve relented, because he crumpled around Bucky. "What'll I do without you?" He said, trying to sound like he was joking but missing the mark by a mile. It made Bucky's heart ache. He hadn't been apart from Steve in years. He wasn't sure he knew how to be apart from Steve anymore. Who was Bucky Barnes, anyhow? It was Steve and Bucky, always.

"You'll impress all the dames with your dancing," Bucky said. "I'll come home and you'll be married with a pile of babies already."

Steve snorted. "We both know that's not true."

Bucky bumped him with his shoulder. "Well, not with an attitude like that."

Steve didn't even try to laugh. He was squeezing Bucky so hard it was almost getting hard to breathe, but Bucky was squeezing him right back.

"Can I write you?" Steve asked in a small voice.

"You damn well better," Bucky growled. "Who else'll do it? Becca, maybe, ‘til they won't let her anymore. The cousins surely won't let the little girls." Bucky's voice broke a little. He loved his little sisters. Living without them was going to be hard.

"I'll make them," Steve said fiercely. "I'll send a post carriage out to their land every single day and guards with spears and they'll get letters from the girls for you."

That made Bucky laugh, watery and shaky. "Don't force my sisters to write at spear point, Steve."

"They'll want to write," Steve said confidently. "Those girls think you're the best in the world. And good thing," he added solemnly. "Someone's gotta share your delusions."

Bucky pulled the pillow from under Steve's head and hit him with it. “See if I protect you,” he said. “Someone’ll come to kill you and I’ll show ‘em a secret passageway inside.”

Steve was laughing, hooking his legs around Bucky in an effort to flip them over, but there was no way he’d be strong enough to do it. They quieted down after a while, Steve’s breath coming a little too hard for Bucky’s liking. He pressed his ear to Steve’s chest and listened for the familiar skip in his heartbeat.

“I wish I could go to the Academy,” Steve said quietly. “Be a soldier.”

Bucky huffed but didn’t say anything. He hated that Steve wanted to fight. Their kingdom hadn’t gone to war in their whole lives—Steve’s father, the king, had died in the last war, just before Steve was born, and Sarah had kept them a peaceful kingdom since—but there were whispers they heard in the market sometimes. The bandits who were coming after people more and more weren’t just bandits, they were bandits from the next kingdom, and they were getting ready to make a move.

Sarah told them it was all nonsense and no one was going to war. But she and Fury and the War Council had been meeting an awful lot lately.

“You think you’ll be scared if you go to war?” Steve asked drowsily.

“Course not,” Bucky lied. The thought of war scared him pantsless. He didn’t want to go to war. He was only going to the Academy so he could protect Steve.

“Me neither.” Steve was mostly asleep, but Bucky was fighting it. He wanted to stay awake as long as he could, wanted to stay in the bubble of Steve’s warm room with Steve’s bird-bone body lying half on top of him.

But he fell asleep, and then the sun came in through the windows and woke them. They woke tangled in each other, as usual. Steve’s hand was curled protectively around the hem of Bucky’s shirt, fingers brushing against the skin of Bucky’s stomach, and Bucky had his legs wrapped around Steve’s.

Steve blinked awake slowly and caught Bucky staring at him. His face scrunched up against the sunlight streaming in the windows, and he burrowed his face into Bucky’s chest to block it out.

“Bright,” he rasped out, voice still scratchy with sleep. Bucky laughed a little, wanting to cry. Steve had said that every single day Bucky had woken up beside him since they were thirteen.

“Well, it is the sun,” Bucky pointed out, just like he always did. Steve grunted.

“You got time for some breakfast?” He asked. He kept his voice nonchalant, but Bucky felt the way his hand tightened around Bucky’s shirt.

“Yeah,” Bucky reassured him softly. “Wouldn’t leave without a last breakfast from Mandy.”

Steve snorted. “She’d never forgive you if you did.”

Neither of them moved, even though they were both fully awake now. Steve stretched out a finger and was sweeping it back and forth across Bucky’s skin. It was making Bucky’s stomach contract. It tickled a little.

“Prince Steven?” Coulson called through the door, knocking. Steve sighed and buried his face in Bucky’s chest again. “Prince Steven, your mother is wondering if you’ll be joining her for breakfast.”

Steve pulled back so his voice would come out clear. “Yes, Coulson, I’ll be right out,” he promised. “Please advise the kitchen Bucky’s here as well.”

“Yes, sir,” Coulson answered dutifully. They stayed as they were for another minute, and Bucky knew he’d have to be the one to get moving. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to disrespect Sarah and keep her waiting. Besides, he needed to say goodbye to her, too.

She listened intently as he told her his plans, and Bucky knew her well enough now to know the little furrow between her brows wasn’t directed at him. She looked a lot like Steve when she frowned—more powerful than her slight body gave her credit for.

“Were they unkind to you?” She asked sharply. Bucky kept his face blank.

“No, ma’am,” he lied. “Everything was just fine. I just think it’s time I found a way to be worth something.”

Now Steve’s face was all pinched up. “Y’always have been,” he protested.

Bucky got the feeling Sarah didn’t quite believe him about his mother’s cousin not treating him bad, but she was at least kind enough not to push it with the whole palace gathered for breakfast.

“Bucky,” Mandy, the cook, called down the table from her seat. “You come into the kitchen before you leave. I’ll fix you a pack.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky said immediately. He would’ve even without the order, but Mandy was even bossier than Steve. (Maybe. Maybe it was a tie.) Bucky’d run out of the kitchen on her laughing orders only to be ordered back in more times than he could count.

And then he couldn’t put it off any longer. He had a pack of provisions and a map to help him know the way; he had said his goodbyes and now he was just stalling. Steve was staring down at his feet, not meeting Bucky’s eyes, and everyone had left to give them their space.

“You gonna be alright?” Steve mumbled, still not looking up. He kicked at a stone and watched mournfully as it rolled too far out of his reach to kick it again.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, throat threatening to close up on him. Steve finally looked up then, and his blue eyes were watery and sad. It broke off a piece of Bucky’s heart.

“Write me.” It was an order Bucky didn’t need but one he’d follow perfectly.

“I’ll tell you what a great solider I’m learning to be,” Bucky said lightly.

“It’ll take a lot of work,” Steve scoffed.

“What do you mean?” Bucky asked, a little offended. His mouth twisted wryly. “I’m great at following orders.”

Steve burst out laughing. “Buck, you’re awful at following orders. You take everyone’s orders completely literally so following ‘em’s more trouble than help.” He said it with a fond little smile that made Bucky’s insides twist up happily. Steve had no idea why telling Bucky he was bad at following orders was so important, and Bucky still couldn’t tell him—he’d hoped, guiltily, that his parents’ dying meant he didn’t have to follow any orders they’d left in place, but not so—but he stepped forward and crushed Steve hard to his chest.

“You write me back, y’hear?” He whispered fiercely into Steve’s hair. “Don’t leave me all alone, Steve.”

“I won’t,” Steve promised, serious this time. “Just…” He shrugged a little, shoulders bumping up into Bucky’s chin. “Don’t forget about me once you got all those friends at the Academy.”

Bucky squeezed him tighter, giving him a little shake. “Steve.” He pushed Steve back to look at him straight in the eye. “You ain’t getting rid of me. Ever. Got it? I’m with you to the end of the line, pal.”

Steve’s eyes were really welling up now and the smile he shot at Bucky was tremulous enough to make Bucky’s stomach shiver. He pulled Steve back in again and they stood there for a long time.

Bucky pulled back reluctantly. “I gotta get going if I’m gonna make it to the inn by nightfall.”

Steve took a step back. “Alright,” he said. Bucky took a step toward the path, walking backward. Dum-Dum was whining, like he knew what Bucky was about to do, and Bucky knelt down to card his fingers through the dog's shaggy sand-colored fur.

"You stay here and take care of Steve," he ordered the dog quietly. Louder, to Steve, he said, "Keep Dum-Dum for me, will ya? I can't take him with me."

"Bucky." Steve sounded a little broken. He knew how much Bucky loved the dog. Dum-Dum was leaning against his legs and Bucky nudged him gently.

"Go on," he told the dog. "We both know Steve needs someone looking after him. If I can't do it, it's gotta be you." He straightened up and watched Dum-Dum trot sadly over to Steve's side. “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” he admonished. Steve rolled his eyes, one hand reaching down to tangle in Dum-Dum's fur.

“How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”

Bucky shook his head. “You’re a punk,” he called.

“Jerk,” Steve shot back. He bit his lip. “Be careful.”

Bucky tossed off a silly little salute that made Steve huff a little laugh. Bucky took one last look at his best friend, the bright spring sun making a halo of his golden hair, and then he wrenched himself around and set off for his future.

Chapter Text

Bucky was hoping not to come across anyone else on the path. Strangers were a constant problem, and he hadn’t really thought about the fact that he was all alone. A stranger could give him any kind of order, and he had no one there to watch his back.

Maybe he should’ve taken the carriage.

But he was here now, already on his way, so he held his breath through every copse of trees and houses along the way. He was alone for much of his journey. It was a strange feeling; on the one hand, he was happy, because it meant no one could give him any orders. But Bucky was a sociable sort; he liked having people to talk to. He wished Steve was with him. Being alone didn’t matter if Steve was there.

It was nearly nightfall before he came across anyone else. A red-haired woman was staring down at a pile of clothes on the ground, hands on her hips. As he got closer, Bucky saw a head attached to the pile of clothes and realized it was actually a person.

"Hello," the woman said. "Can you help me?"

"Sure," Bucky answered, trying not to be wary. He liked helping people when it was his own choice. But he still needed to be careful. Not just because of the curse—they were strangers in the forest. Who knew what kinds of things they could be into?

"This is Clint," she offered. "He's unconscious, and he's a bit heavy for me. Could you...?"

Bucky rushed forward and took one of Clint's arms. They got him up and propped him against a tree. "Is he alright?" Bucky asked. Clint's nose was bleeding.

"He's fine," the woman said. She seemed awfully unconcerned. "He's had worse."

"Oh," Bucky said. He couldn't think of anything else to say. The only person he'd seen regularly lose consciousness was Steve, and he was never as casual about seeing that as she seemed to be.

"I'm Natasha," she said. "What's your name?"

Bucky regarded her suspiciously for a moment. "What happened to him?" He asked instead of giving his name. There wasn’t much he'd be able to do if she gave him an order, but he could try stalling.

She smirked a little. "He was juggling our firewood. Got a bit ambitious. It's a shame, really. He actually is a very good juggler."

Bucky winced. "That'll hurt when he wakes up," he muttered. "I'm Bucky."

"Bucky?" She raised an eyebrow and he tried not to look too uncomfortable. "Well, Bucky, you've been very helpful. Thank you. Where are you headed?"

Bucky licked his lips. He wasn’t so sure he could trust this woman. How did he know she was telling the truth about this Clint guy? Juggling firewood seemed pretty stupid. Then again, it did sound like something he and Steve would get into for fun.

"I'm going to the Royal Guard Academy," he said. He tried to inject some pride in his voice. Recruits were supposed to be proud to be there.

Natasha looked at him closely for a moment. "Huh," she finally said. "Interesting."

"Why's that interesting?" Bucky asked, a little huffy despite himself. He didn't even really want to go, but still. Everyone kept acting like he'll be awful at it. Remembering Steve's words hurt his stomach a little, so he focused back on Natasha.

"You don't seem that happy about it," she pointed out.

"I'm happy about it," he lied. Natasha raised an eyebrow.

"You're lying," she said. Bucky opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. "Don't lie to me."

He snapped his mouth shut. Now he couldn’t lie, but that didn't mean he had to say anything. Natasha gave him another smirk and nodded a little.

"I thought so," she murmured to herself. "You're one of Zola's."

Bucky's whole body went cold. He'd argue, but he couldn't lie. "How did you know that?" He asked, lips feeling numb. If she knew, she could use that. If she knew, she could order him to do anything she wanted.

"I'm very perceptive," she told him. She was very cryptic was what she was. Bucky felt his breaths starting to come quicker. She was going to use him now. Just what he and his parents always feared—he was going to fall into the wrong person's hands and be mistreated. Her perceptiveness must have shown her his worries, because her face softened.

"I wasn't one of Zola's," she said quietly. "But I had a similar curse, from one of his...associates. Apprentices, maybe."

Bucky's heart pounded. "Had?" He echoed. He sounded breathless.

"Had," she repeated. "I broke it."

"How?" He asked, desperate now. "Please, how do I break it?"

Now she just looked sad, and Bucky wanted to scream. She was going to tell him the same thing every fairy and magician told him and his parents—couldn't be done, no help for it.

"I don't know," she confirmed his fears. She sounded regretful. "I don't remember how I did it."

"You don't remember?" He asked.

Her face turned blank. "There were other things going on."

Bucky almost shivered at how cold she suddenly sounded. "But it can be broken?" He asked. He hated how small and shaky his voice sounded. He was nearly a man, but just then he felt like a small child.

She looked very kind and lay a hand on his arm. "It can," she told him, looking directly into his eyes. "Everyone will tell you it can't be broken, because he's Zola. But I know you can break it. I wish I could give you more help."

Bucky's throat felt tight. "Thank you," he managed. "It helps to know..." He stopped, swallowing hard. She nodded.

"So, the Academy," she said wryly. "Not exactly my first choice when I had to obey."

Bucky shrugged. He couldn't lie, since she ordered him not to, but he didn't want to let slip his connection to Steve. His parents had been worried Steve might use Bucky to his advantage, but Bucky knew it could just as easily—more easily, actually—go the other way. "I want to serve in the prince's protection detail," he said, keeping his voice casual.

"It's a good job," she said. He got the feeling she understood more than she was letting on. Just then, Clint groaned.

"My head," he mumbled.

"Well, that's what you get," Natasha said fiercely, but Bucky doesn't miss the gentle way her hands stroked the hair back from Clint's forehead. It made a wave of longing rise up in his throat for Steve. He had to look away for a moment.

"Who's this?" Clint asked, bemused.

"Bucky," Natasha answered. "He's on his way to the Royal Guard Academy." She didn't say anything about his curse, and Bucky was supremely grateful.

"We're heading that way," Clint said. "Why don't we go together?"

Bucky bit his lip. "I don't have anything to give you," he warned. "Nothing for you to steal." It was a lie, but his curse let him say it because he was saying it to Clint, not Natasha. Just before he’d left, Sarah had pressed a coin purse into his hands. He hadn’t wanted to take it, but he didn’t have much choice. His mother’s cousin had taken any money George and Winifred had, and Bucky needed a little money for his journey.

Clint held up his hands. "Hey, hey," he said. "Not what I was going for. You're young. This isn't the safest road these days. Just trying to help."

"Clint has a soft spot for strays," Natasha said. She sounded almost fond. It gentled the fact that she just called Bucky a stray. Clint shrugged.

"Don't like kids being alone."

"I'm not a kid," Bucky said. "I'm seventeen."

Clint and Natasha exchanged a look. "Okay," Clint said, placating. "Not a kid." It was more patronizing than if he'd just outright argued with Bucky.

Bucky didn't bother doing anything beyond rolling his eyes. He knew he was young, though they couldn’t be more than five years older than he was. It might be helpful to have Natasha with him, since she knew about the curse. He trusted her, even though he knew he should probably have been more wary. It was hard not to when he knew she went through it, too.

"I'm planning to stop at the inn up there," Bucky said. “Figured it wouldn’t be safe to travel after dark.”

“Smart move,” Clint said. “Do you have money for the inn?”

Bucky’s face burned. He had Sarah’s money, but he was worried about what would happen if he revealed that. Clint noticed the look on his face and huffed quietly.

“Look, kid, you’re wary of strangers—I get it. That’s a good thing. But I promise you I’m just trying to help. I’m not gonna take your money. I just wanted to make sure you could pay for a room.”

“I have enough for a room,” Bucky said, staring at his feet. His pride had taken quite a few hits since his parents’ death; taking money from people was just another drop in the bucket.

“We should keep moving,” Natasha broke in. “Staying in one place too long isn’t the best course of action.”

They walked along quietly for a little while. Bucky kept thinking about how Clint and Natasha were dropping hints about the bandits. “Have you had run-ins with the bandits?” He finally blurted out after nearly a mile.

Clint and Natasha had a silent conversation with their eyes. “We have,” Clint finally said. Bucky’s hands balled into fists.

“I want to meet them after I’ve learned to fight,” he growled.

“You should hope you don’t,” Natasha said sharply

Bucky bit his tongue before he could tell her why he wanted to fight them. He didn’t know if he could actually trust these two, and it wasn’t wise to tell them too much. At least if they assumed he had parents they might be less likely to kill him. They’d probably think someone would come looking if he disappeared.

Would anyone go looking? He didn’t know. His parents were gone. His sisters were all but lost to him. Steve and Sarah were his family, but they expected him to be gone for years. It would be a long time before anyone noticed. The thought made him cast his eyes at the ground, throat tight.

But Steve was expecting letters. And if he didn’t get them, Bucky had no doubt Steve would march his way right into the Academy and demand to see Bucky. It made him want to cry a little, but it made his heart a little lighter, too. Steve would always come for him.


As they approached the town, Clint started randomly whistling. Natasha seemed to hardly notice, but Bucky had no idea what was going on. Finally, a dog roughly the same color as the brush on the side of the path came loping up. The dog looked weary. Somehow, when the dog was at Clint’s side, they looked almost like they could be brothers.

The dog sniffed at Bucky’s fingers and he missed Dum-Dum. “Hi, fella,” Bucky said. The dog gave his hand a little lick and Bucky grinned.

“This is Lucky,” Clint said. “He walks with us sometimes.”

“I left a dog at home,” Bucky revealed. It was the truth. Steve was home, and Bucky left Dum-Dum with him.

“What’s his name?” Clint asked.

“Dum-Dum,” Bucky said challengingly. Adults always scoffed at the name. Clint cracked up laughing.

“That’s an awesome name,” he said, offering Bucky a hand for a high-five.

“My little sister named him,” Bucky said. He ducked his head a little, a pang shooting through him as he thought about Anabelle’s missing two front teeth and the way Elizabeth was just starting to learn to read. He’d never see the new teeth grow in or see Elizabeth reading a book on her own.

“Was she sad you left?” Clint asked. Bucky remembered Elizabeth’s hiccupping sobs as Winifred’s cousin shoved her into the carriage, Annabelle screeching out for him as the carriage drew away, Becca’s solemn face and her hand pressed against the carriage window.

“Yes.” He didn’t say anything else until they got to the inn.

He took his own room when they got there, because Sarah had given him money enough to ensure that, and he lay down and tried to sleep right away. His body was tired from a full day of walking, but his mind wouldn’t stop. He’d never been this far from home before, and he wasn’t even far, really. But he’d never had reason to go anywhere; he’d had his family and Steve right there, so why go away?

He wondered what the relations’ house looked like and if Annabelle and Elizabeth were sharing a room or if they got their own. He wondered when Becca was being sent away. He wondered what Steve was doing. Getting into some kind of trouble, no doubt, especially without Bucky there to stop him. Bucky shook his head wearily and finally fell asleep imagining Steve trying to go looking for the bandits and getting himself killed.

He got an early start in the morning, a little surprised that Clint and Natasha were still joining him. “It’s not so far from here,” he pointed out. “I can make it on my own.”

Clint shrugged. “We’re going that direction anyway,” he said. Bucky was pretty sure it was a lie, but it wasn’t like he knew Clint all that well to be able to tell.

“Wouldn’t want you to fall into the wrong hands before you can get to the Academy,” Natasha added, an eyebrow slightly raised, and Bucky swallowed hard and nodded. He got more and more nervous the closer they got. He wouldn’t be able to sneak away and climb trees once he started the program. He’d get kicked out, and then he wouldn’t get any pay and he wouldn’t be able to protect Steve. Lucky shoved his nose into Bucky’s hand, distracting him from his racing thoughts for a little while.

Before the Academy came into view, Clint and Natasha broke off. “This is as far as we go,” Clint said. “There’s some people who wouldn’t exactly be happy to see us.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “I was just starting to believe you aren’t bandits.”

Clint laughed, and Natasha snorted. “We’re not,” she said. “But just because we aren’t bandits doesn’t mean we’re in the Academy’s good graces.”

Bucky shrugged. “Well, uh. Thank you. For coming with me, I mean. For looking out for me.” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, feeling a little awkward. Clint threw an arm around his neck and shook him a little bit.

“Try not to let them get you down in there, okay?” He didn’t know his words gave Bucky no choice. He’d have to constantly think about not getting down. He sighed a little internally.

“Good luck,” Natasha said. She leaned close and murmured, “Don’t follow Clint’s order unless you want to.” Bucky breathed a little sigh of relief. She’d released him. They left him with waves, Lucky barking a little and reminding him of leaving Dum-Dum behind, and he bit his lip before making his way down the path.

He looked up at the building in front of him; an old castle turned into the Academy. It looked big and cold and nothing like the last castle Bucky had enjoyed, because he knew Steve wasn't inside. He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, pretending Steve was there with him and they were jumping into a fight, and pulled on the heavy door.

It didn't open.

He didn't know what to do. Knock? Here he was, facing his future, and he couldn't get inside. It seemed a disheartening metaphor. Before he could do more than stand foolishly for a moment, the massive door creaked open.

"Oh," a guy around Bucky's age said, surprised. "What are you doing outside?"

"I was trying to get in," Bucky said. "I'm a new recruit."

"You've missed the new recruits!" The guy told him. "That was yesterday."

Bucky's heart sank. "They only take new recruits one day?"

The guy shrugged. "I've no idea. I'm new myself."

Bucky rolled his eyes, a huge breath whooshing out of him. "Well, jeez, kid, you scared the hell outta me."

The guy smirked a little, and Bucky thought maybe they could get along. "You're not supposed to be outdoors without permission," the guy said.

"Well, where were you going?" Bucky asked.

The guy held up a snuff case, looking sly. Bucky knew he probably looked shocked. They were hardly more than kids, and most kids didn't smoke already. Bucky's father had been a pipe smoker, but only in his study and never around the children. Bucky's mother hated the pipe.

"I’m called James," the guy said. Bucky laughed.

"My name’s James, too," he informed him. "But I go by Bucky."

"How silly," James said. "I go by Monty."

Bucky laughed again. Before either of them could say anything else, another guy came up behind Monty. “You’re out of bounds!” He hissed. “You’re gonna get in trouble before you even get started.”

“I’m new,” Bucky said. The kid blinked, then looked at Monty.

“What’d you do, just find him outside?”

“I merely opened the door,” Monty said, sounding a little miffed.

“It was locked,” Bucky added helpfully. The new guy made a face.

“Are we locked in here or something?”

Bucky had originally thought the kid was a goody two-shoes, but he didn’t seem to like that idea, so maybe there was hope yet.

“Say, am I outta luck since I didn’t get here yesterday?” Bucky asked.

“I don’t think so,” the guy said. “I got here three days ago and people’ve been showing up ever since. I’m Gabe.”

“Bucky.” They shook hands and Bucky felt like they were real grown men now.

“Monty’s got an extra spot in his room,” Gabe said. “I’ve got Frenchy and Morita in with me, but you can bunk with Monty.” He dropped his voice a little. “Don’t get in with Rumlow, whatever you do.”

“Who’s Rumlow?” Bucky asked, hushing the same way Gabe was. Now he couldn’t get in with Rumlow, so he figured he should know who he was. Monty made a disgusted sound.

“He is the absolute devil incarnate.”

Gabe rolled his eyes. “That’s a bit dramatic,” he said. “But Rumlow is—”

“Right behind you,” a voice said, making the three of them jump and yelp a little. Bucky whirled around and found himself looking at a muscular guy a few years older than them. He had an ugly sneer on his face that Bucky didn’t like one bit. Bully, Steve’s voice in his head said.

“Now what are you three new recruits doing out here?” He asked. “Out of bounds.”

“He’s a new recruit, just arrived,” Monty said quickly.

“We were helping him get situated,” Gabe agreed. Rumlow’s lip curled a little as he looked at Gabe, and Bucky’s hands started balling themselves into fists, readying for a fight. Gabe shot him a little quiet down look.

“New recruit, huh?” Rumlow said, raising an eyebrow and looking Bucky up and down. Bucky didn’t know if he should hope he made a good impression or not. “Well, recruit, we’ll have to get you set up with a roommate.”

“He’s in with me,” Monty said quickly. “Already chosen.”

“Oh, I wasn’t aware you had authority to give room assignments, recruit,” Rumlow said, faux-innocent. “Forgive me, I thought I was in charge of this unit.”

“Technically, you’re not,” Gabe pointed out. “Colonel Phillips is in charge of all units.”

Rumlow didn’t like that clarification one bit. His eyes flashed dark and Bucky could just see the violence about to happen.

“Hey,” he broke in. “I don’t care so much where my room is so long’s I get one. I need to see the colonel so I can give him my conscription letter.”

All potential recruits had to report to their local Guard station to get a letter certifying their aptitude for the Academy. Bucky had gotten his from Fury, so he was pretty sure he was all set on that front.

Rumlow blew out an annoyed breath. “Follow me.”

Bucky shot a look backward at Monty and Gabe. Monty shrugged at him and Gabe mouthed good luck. He wondered what the curse would do if he had to bunk with Rumlow. Maybe there’d be an easy solution, like Colonel Phillips just making an order.

Colonel Phillips was a sour-faced man who was irritated about being pulled away from his dinner to inspect Bucky. And Bucky didn’t exactly look great; he’d been on the road two days and was dusty and rumpled. He hadn’t even combed his hair down before getting in front of the colonel.

“Who gave you your conscription letter?” Phillips asked.

“Commander Fury, sir,” Bucky said, and Phillips raised an eyebrow at that. He held out a hand, and Bucky fumbled in his bag for the letter. It was a little crumpled, but it still bore the Royal Seal. Phillips scanned it, frowning, and Bucky tried not to fidget. Surely Phillips couldn’t turn him away when the head of the Royal Guard had vouched for him. Wasn’t Fury in charge of Phillips, too?

“Fine,” Phillips finally said. “There will be a uniform ready for you in the morning. You get three changes, and you will wash them in rotations. If you get them dirty faster than you can wash them, you will be punished. You will wake up promptly at reveille and report to calisthenics no more than fifteen minutes later. Your unit will be assigned times for breakfast and classes and drills. The rules will be explained more fully in the morning. You’ll need a room,” Phillips said, looking over to Rumlow. It was gutsy, but Bucky blurted out,

“Sir, I’ve got one already. With one of the other new recruits.”

Phillips shook his head. “That’s fine. I don’t care. Room with the other new recruit. Rumlow, show him to his quarters and get him some regulation sleeping clothes. Dismissed.”
Rumlow was glaring a bit, but he wouldn’t disobey a direct order from the colonel, and Bucky tried not to look too triumphant. As soon as the door closed behind them, Rumlow shoved Bucky.

“You think you’re clever, don’t you?” He asked.

“A bit,” Bucky agreed, because he already didn’t like Rumlow and knew he’d enjoy getting his goat. Rumlow bared his teeth.

“I’m your commanding officer, recruit,” he reminded Bucky. “It would be wise for you to show me some respect.”

“Sure thing,” Bucky said easily. “Just make sure you get me my pajamas like the colonel ordered.”

It wasn’t smart, probably, to make an enemy out of the guy who would likely be doling out punishments, but Bucky couldn’t help it. He could tell this was the sort of guy who’d get some kind of satisfaction out of beating the tar out of Steve, and that made him hate the guy.

Rumlow shoved Bucky into a room and Bucky practically fell on his ass. Monty’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline, but he took one look at the storm clouds on Rumlow’s face and wisely kept his mouth shut.

“Get your new pal here his clothes,” Rumlow snarled. “And be ready for pain tomorrow.”

Monty whistled lowly after Rumlow left. “I see you’re quite the charmer.”

Bucky shrugged. “Not too worried about a guy like him,” he bluffed. Rumlow was going to be dangerous; he was definitely the type to give out orders just to see who’d be afraid enough to follow them, and Bucky wouldn’t be able to protect himself.

It was the right answer to give Monty, though, and he laughed and waved a hand toward the other side of the room, identical to his side with the bed, writing desk, footlocker, and bureau. “Your side,” he said. “Just sleep in the buff tonight; I don’t feel like going down to the laundry for you.”

Bucky gritted his teeth. Now he had to sleep naked. Wonderful. The Academy had been such a great idea. Bucky unloaded what few things he’d brought with him into the footlocker; he didn’t really need to worry about putting his clothes in the bureau, since he’d just have to be in uniform all the time, but it felt nice to do something familiar.

Monty noticed Bucky’s stash of food from Mandy, but he didn’t say anything. Bucky saw his eyes following the cloth bag it was all in, though, so he pulled out one of the sweet buns and said, “Head’s up.” Monty caught it but looked at him suspiciously.

“Where did you get this?” He asked.

“Cook sent it with me before I left home,” Bucky said.

Monty raised an eyebrow. “You have your own cook and you’re coming here to the Academy?” It was a valid question; the Academy was mostly for farmers’ children and the like. If someone in a higher station wanted to join the Royal Guard, they could usually pay to do an apprenticeship and skip the unsavory parts of the Academy.

“My friend’s cook,” Bucky amended. “Not mine.”

He’d satisfied Monty’s curiosity, apparently, because he tore into the bun and sighed a little. “Your friend’s cook is a magician,” he breathed. Bucky snorted a little, because he’d heard whispers that funny things happened in Mandy’s kitchen sometimes, but he kept it to himself.

Monty started a bit when Bucky stripped down to get into bed. “Good God, man, I was joking about that!” He said. Bucky tried not to flush too deep. It was mostly dark now, only a few lamps lit in the hallway casting shadows.

“I like a breeze while I sleep,” he said nonchalantly. Half his so-called charm and wit came from having to cover up obeying orders people didn’t realize they’d given him. Monty just sort of shook his head and rolled over. Bucky sighed and tried to sleep.

Reveille blared through the hallways. Bucky had never been one to spring up out of bed, but he had no choice—he tried to close his eyes again and immediately felt the roiling in his gut that told him he was disobeying. Right. Phillips had ordered him to get up promptly.

He was antsy as Monty tried to help him sort out finding his uniform. “What’s your rush?” Monty grumbled.

“We have to be at calisthenics in fifteen minutes,” Bucky said. “Colonel Phillips told me.”

“So what? It’s not like a minute will make a difference.” Maybe not to you, Bucky couldn’t say.

They got to calisthenics and did their exercises. Bucky stayed hunched as much as he could, trying not to draw attention to himself. Gabe introduced him to the other boys in his bunk—Frenchy was actually named Dernier but had an accent thick from the northern region; Morita had a scowl that spoke of a chip on his shoulder that reminded Bucky of Steve. They all ate breakfast together after calisthenics, and Morita made himself a little bigger to help block Bucky from Rumlow’s sight.

“I got here the same day as Gabe,” Morita told him. “Rumlow likes to pick on new guys.”

“He already hates Bucky,” Monty informed everyone. “Damn near threw him into the room last night.”

Bucky shrugged, trying to seem unaffected. “Guess I’m not everyone’s flavor.”

They had classes in the morning, classes on strategy and survival skills and even a class on the history of the country. Bucky frowned a little as he looked at the workbook he’d been given. They had Sarah and Joseph’s wedding date wrong, and were reporting Steve was two years older than he really was.

“Recruit, you’re displeased with something you’re reading?” The instructor asked.

“No, sir,” Bucky replied quickly.

“Then why were you frowning?”

“I…wasn’t, sir.”

“Do not lie to your commanding officer,” the instructor said sharply. Bucky sighed.

“This information is incorrect,” he said, keeping his chin high. “The King and Queen were married in the winter. And St—the prince is seventeen this year, not nineteen.”

The room was completely silent. “You think you know better than the royal historians?”

Bucky swallowed. “I’m from the Royal City,” he clarified, hoping that would be answer enough.

“And I suppose you know the Royal Family personally, do you?” Luckily, it was rhetorical, so Bucky didn’t actually have to respond. He couldn’t lie, and he really didn’t want to expose his connection to Steve.

“Good work, recruit,” the instructor told him sarcastically. “You’ve earned yourself kitchen duty for the next week. You will eat only after all the work has been finished. If there’s time.”

Afternoon classes, at least, went better. Bucky was strong and healthy, so the physical courses were no trouble for him. He had a lot to learn in hand-to-hand combat, but everyone else did, too. He was as surprised as anyone else to find he had natural talent in shooting.

“Are you from the countryside?” The rifle instructor asked.

“No, sir. Royal City.”

The instructor raised an eyebrow. “How often have you shot?”

“Never, sir.”

Now he looked impressed. “We could make you a Royal Sniper, aim like that.”

“I’d appreciate that, sir.” Bucky didn’t actually care much either way, but specialty positions paid more.

Dinner included mail call. “Recruit Barnes, a letter.”

“It’s only the first day of training!” Morita pointed out.

“You got a sweetheart?” Gabe asked.

Bucky looked down at Steve’s quick, messy handwriting and couldn’t stop the smile coming over his face. He shook his head. “My best friend,” he told them, tucking the letter into his jacket to read later.

“The one with the cook?” Monty asked. Bucky nodded. Of course Steve would send him a letter the first day he could. Part of it would be him wanting Bucky to have letters. But a lot of it, Bucky knew, was Steve’s impatience.

Bucky didn’t get back to his room until later, almost time for lights-out. Kitchen duty involved cleaning up the mess hall after everyone was done, too, so Bucky hadn’t eaten at all. He saw some other guys sneaking food while they were working, but he couldn’t. The instructor had ordered him to wait. By the time everything was done, the food was put away. Bucky opened his pack and pulled out some bread Mandy had sent him with. It wasn’t enough, especially not with all the physical labor he’d done all day, but it was all he had left.

He lit a candle and pulled Steve’s letter out of his jacket. Monty was reading a book, not paying him any attention, so Bucky opened the letter carefully. Steve’d had the sense to seal it with their own special seals they’d made together one day, a rough star in red wax, instead of one of the Royal Seals.

Dear Bucky,

I know you only just left this morning, but I didn’t want you to have to wait to get letters. I promised I’d write and I know if I want you to write back I gotta give you something to say. I had to sit through a meeting with some diplomat from the southern region because Ma wasn’t feeling well. (Don’t worry, it’s just a cold.) I think maybe she wasn’t even sick but she knew how boring it would be and wanted a way out. I don’t want the job I’m supposed to take if it includes a lot of this stuff. It’s so boring, Buck. He didn’t even want to talk about the water crisis they’re having down there, either—he said it wasn’t polite to bring it up. Polite! Can you believe that? There are people getting sick because the only water they have is mud and he’s worried about being polite.

I had to talk with Coulson about my behavior afterward and he reminded me that part of the job is diplomacy. Dum-Dum fell asleep while he was talking and snored so loud I could hardly hear anything. It was the best part of the day. Anyway, tell me how things are at the Academy. Is it exciting? Are there are a lot of people there as new recruits? I hope they’re treating you right and feeding you enough, etc. etc. (Mandy is very worried about you getting enough to eat.) I’ve met Colonel Phillips once or twice and I know he’s a good man but he was a bit rough. Maybe you should make some friends with guys who’ve been there a while and they can show you the ropes.

Ma says we have to hold a ball in two weeks. I think I’ll probably die of boredom at a ball without you. Plus it’s all old people and some of their daughters they’ll try to shove at me. I wish I was there with you. I hope you made it safe and you’re doing well. Write me back as soon as you have time. I know you got more important things to focus on now but I need to live vicariously through you since I’m stuck here with no fun at all.

I hope you don’t think it’s silly if I say I miss you already, Buck. I haven’t been two days without you since we met. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself.

Your longsuffering and bored friend,

Steve

Bucky read the letter three times in a row, sighing a little. He looked at his hands, angry and red from the hot dishwater. He thought of his empty stomach and ache in his shoulder from the rifle’s recoil. He thought of Rumlow and the way he’d treat Steve.

Bucky missed Steve, but he was glad Steve wasn’t here.

That didn’t stop him from reading the letter again before lights-out, or from tucking it under his pillow to give him good dreams of Steve while he slept.

Chapter Text

Bucky didn’t get a chance to write back to Steve for nearly two days. The problem was he got so many orders in a day, and there didn’t seem to be enough time to follow them.

Keep your head up!

Drop your chin!

Watch where you’re going!

Listen to me when I speak!

Run ‘til you wanna die, recruit.

Stop running when I tell you to stop!

It was endless, and the orders contradicted themselves, and Bucky was often in a state of confused exhaustion as he tried to remember which orders he was supposed to be following, what he was forgetting to cause the nausea in his stomach and pounding in his skull.

He would have stayed up past lights out to write Steve back, but Steve had tacked on when you have time to the order to write back, so Bucky was stuck waiting. He wasn’t pleased about it, either. Following all these orders would’ve put him in a bad mood anyway, but enduring it all without Steve was ten times worse.

But finally, he had an hour to himself because he’d finished a test early, and he hurriedly pulled out paper and a pen. He couldn’t be sure if his hands were shaking from his own desire to talk to Steve—even just in writing—or his need to obey Steve’s command.

Dear Steve,

I got here safe. The walk was fine, and I met some people out there, too. Get this—a guy knocked himself out because he was juggling firewood. Sounds like you. I almost got in trouble in the first hour I was here because I wasn’t supposed to be outside. But I met some guys who have my back, so that’s okay.

Bucky paused, unsure of how much he should tell Steve. He wasn’t going to tell him he hadn’t had a proper dinner the whole time he’d been there. He wasn’t going to tell him Rumlow followed him around and used any excuse to punish him. He certainly wasn’t going to tell him that punishment was corporal. But he didn’t have much else to tell Steve. This was his life now.

I got in trouble on the very first day because I can’t keep my big mouth shut. Not as bad as you, obviously, but still. We have to learn history of the kingdom and I was correcting something our workbook said. CO wasn’t too happy about me getting smart, I guess. I don’t do it that much so how should I know if people won’t like it? I’m still kinda annoyed about that. Like I don’t know when my best pal’s birthday is. But I couldn’t say anything, or then everyone would know.

He stopped himself before he told Steve he’d be all kitchen duty all this week (and next, thanks to talking back to Rumlow). It would only make Steve worry, and besides, Steve thought the Academy was some fun adventure. Bucky wouldn’t be the one to burst his bubble.

I got picked to be a sniper. Turns out I’m a real good shot. Must’ve been all those times with the slingshot or something, you remember? With the O’Doyle twins hassling little Janie Bryer about her shoes and you deciding to step in and give them a new target?

Now Bucky stopped because his stomach hurt. Not from the curse, but from homesickness. He missed Steve so much. It hadn’t even been a week, but Bucky hadn’t gone this long without him since they became friends. He missed Steve, he missed his parents, he missed his sisters. He missed his dog. He bit his lip hard to keep tears away. He didn’t have time for tears.

How’s everyone there doing? Tell Mandy the food she sent me with’s been a lifesaver. Plus it’s the best food anywhere, of course. How’s Dum-Dum? Has he forgotten about me yet? Have you? I guess maybe not, since I was the only guy with a letter on the first day, but still. It’s been a few days now. I gotta say, pal, thing’s aren’t half as exciting without you here. Whenever we learn something new I think about what you’d say. And I know you think it’s boring, but you’re doing an important job. Go easy on poor Coulson. He kisses the ground you and your ma walk on. I gotta go. I miss you, Steve. Draw me something, will you? Draw me a picture of you so I don’t forget what you look like. Make sure to get that giant potato you call a nose right, too. Write me back when you can, okay?

Love,

Bucky

He folded up the letter and sealed it, and then he had ten minutes to sit with his knees pulled up to his chest and his head in his hands.


The first week passed quickly, a never-ending stream of commands and orders and hunger. Gabe, Monty, Morita, and Dernier all started taking turns saving something from their meals for Bucky, but that meant they were getting less to eat, too. Bucky hadn’t been lying when he’d told Steve Mandy’s food was a lifesaver. Somehow, there was always just one more sweet roll in there, even when Bucky knew he’d split the last one with Gabe. There was always a last meat pie even though Bucky had given the last one to Monty.

He didn’t question it too hard. He didn’t have the time nor the energy. Normally, it was exactly the kind of thing Bucky would get excited about—if Mandy really did have magic, how powerful was she that it could extend this far?—but with all the orders swirling around his head and the constant threat of Rumlow hanging over him, Bucky could do little more than feel grateful.

Steve wrote him back immediately, a thick envelope with multiple sheets of paper inside, and Bucky had to quickly stuff the whole thing in his shirt when he saw Rumlow coming. Bucky didn’t know what all was inside, but he knew he didn’t want Rumlow getting his hands on it.

“Barnes,” Rumlow said. “You’re to report to the shooting range for your sniper assessment.”

“He’s not done with his breakfast,” Morita pointed out.

“Report immediately,” Rumlow added, an ugly sneer on his face as he took in the sight of Bucky’s still-full plate. He’d barely had two bites of cold eggs. Bucky stood up from the table, ignoring the grumbles of his friends, but he did pick up a piece of bacon and quickly stuff it in his mouth.

And of course, he got to the range and there was no one there, because breakfast wasn’t over for another twenty minutes, so he had to stand there waiting—“Stand at attention,” Rumlow had ordered, laughing, before walking off—while his stomach growled angrily.

But Rumlow hadn’t said he couldn’t read his letters. It was a bit difficult, what with the standing at attention thing, but Bucky managed to pull the envelope out of his pocket and open up the seal.

The first thing he unfolded was a drawing of himself, Steve tucked under his arm, and it almost made tears spring into his eyes. Of course Steve wouldn’t just draw himself. He had to add Bucky in there, too.

The next thing he unfolded did make tears spring into his eyes. It was a letter from Elizabeth, all shaky drawings and misspelled words. Of course Steve had made sure to collect letters from the girls. Bucky rifled through the papers, looking for a letter from Becca. He was most worried about her.

Dear Bucky,

I hope you’re doing alright in the Academy. I’ve heard things from my friends’ brothers, you know, about how the Academy can be, and I know it’s going to be extra bad for you. I hope things aren’t too bad and you’re not too miserable. I don’t want you to be unhappy, and I don’t like the idea of everyone telling you what to do all the time and you with no defense. If I could I’d come there and stay with you, to make sure you’re okay.

I’m to leave for finishing school in the morning. I’m sure it’ll be fine. They’ll feed me and teach me how to be lady—if that’s possible. I guess it’s good I’ll learn to curtsey and sew and all that. You know I never had the patience for sewing before but everything’s different now.

Please don’t worry about me, Bucky. I’m not too unhappy, I’m truly not. I’m sure I’ll make friends and be just fine. We miss you, and I hope the cousins will let us all have Christmas together. I’m a little worried about whether or not they’ll try to make Elizabeth forget all about us and Ma and Dad, since she’s so young, but Steve drew her some pictures and he told the cousins he’ll be sending a carriage for letters for you and me every other day. Good thing he’d got the whole Royal Guard to back him up, because his mouth is sure big enough to need it.

Please take care of yourself, Bucky. In whatever way you have to.

Love,

Becca

She’d included the address to her finishing school so Bucky could send her letters. He pressed the letter against his chest, eyes closed, for as long as he could before the curse protested because he wasn’t standing at attention. He heard footsteps behind him and quickly stuffed it all back into his pocket.

“Recruit Barnes, whatever are you doing out here already?” The shooting instructor asked.

“I was told I’m to take my sniper exam, sir,” Bucky answered.

“Well, yes, but why are you out here all alone standing at attention?”

Bucky hesitated for a second. He wasn’t going to snitch on Rumlow, no matter how much he deserved it. “Just anxious to get started, sir.”

The instructor raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Let’s go, then.”

Bucky got a near-perfect score, only missing three targets, and the instructor even smiled at him.

“You’re a hell of a shot, kid,” he said. “I’m glad to have you on board.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bucky replied. “I’m glad to be here.”

It was a lie, but no one had to know.

Bucky got to his history of the kingdom classroom before anyone else. He’d finished his shooting exam before breakfast had even ended, but he didn’t dare go back in where Rumlow was. He pulled out the envelope and read through Elizabeth and Annabelle’s little girl letters, two or three lines about how they missed him and drawings of their family. He considered stopping, because his throat was tight with longing and homesickness, but he couldn’t just not read Steve’s letter when it was right there in front of him.

Dear Bucky,

You think I’d forget you in a week? You took all the stupid with you, remember, so really I should be worried about you forgetting me. Here’s a reminder: My name is Steve, and I’m the best in the world. I’m feared for three kingdoms over, but I’m a kind and wise ruler. You do my bidding and grovel at my feet. Ringing any bells? I put in a picture, too, so that oughta help.

Look, Buck, I’m no fool, so don’t try to treat me like one. You’re dancing around how things are going, so that must mean they’re not so hot. I get why you’d pretend for the girls, but not me. I’m your friend. We never lie to each other. Right? So you can tell me whatever it is that’s bothering you.

Anyway, there’s a diplomat over from the east who I’ve been spending a lot of time with the past few days. Her name is Peggy and she’s gorgeous. I just about forgot how to speak for a minute when I first saw her, but you better believe she’s not the kind of dame who’ll sit and let you fawn over her. She’s great. Reminds me of you, actually, but obviously much easier on the eyes. She's telling me all about some problems they’ve been having up there with the same bandits we’ve been dealing with. I think we’re going to come to some kind of agreement over how to deal with them.

Being a sniper sounds pretty important. We could put you up in one of the towers when you get back. There’s a guy in the Guard who just got here a few days ago who loves it up in the towers. Says he wants to climb up the walls! Can you believe that? I’m pretty sure Coulson almost had a heart attack at the thought of someone being able to climb the walls and get into my room. And before you get all up in arms over it, no, it’s not possible. We checked. It was pretty funny. No one got hurt.

I hope you’re taking care of yourself. I keep forgetting you’re gone and I’ll plan to tell you something, then I remember I have to write it down. Wish I could be there with you instead of stuck here in the castle all day. Peggy’s great and she’s making me feel more like I’m actually doing something worth doing, but I still think I should join the Guard. The Guard isn’t just to protect me and Ma, you know, it’s for the kingdom as a whole, and shouldn’t the guy who’s supposed to take over someday do his part first?

Okay, I’m sorry, I’m getting all political again. I’ll save it for when we’re together and I can talk your ear off and you can pretend you’re listening. I miss you, Buck. I’m real proud of you, but I miss you all the same. I know you get a break for Christmas, but that’s an awful long time to wait. I’ve never really been patient, but I’ll do my best.

Love,

Steve

Bucky would have liked to sit there and reread the letter a time or two (or more), and especially to parse through the part about Steve being pretty star-struck by a pretty woman, but people started shuffling in, so he folded it up and put it away.

“There you are,” Monty said, taking the seat beside Bucky. He shoved a biscuit into Bucky’s hand. “Eat that, quick.”

Bucky was all too happy to obey, stuffing the hard, two-day-old biscuit into his mouth and trying not to spray crumbs as he said, “Thanks, Monty.”

“Dernier’s doing his best to bring you some eggs, but I’m not so sure how he’s going to do that.”

“You guys are the best,” Bucky said fervently, only feeling slightly guilty because technically Steve was the best, but Steve was probably saying things like that to his new friend Peggy anyway. Gabe, Dernier, and Morita had come in and taken the seats next to Monty, each bearing a napkin full of food. Dernier’s did, in fact, contain eggs, and Bucky didn’t even care how strange he looked as he ate eggs off a napkin. Morita had brought him a piece of bacon, and Gabe had brought half a banana.

“You’ll drop if they keep working you so hard without giving you a chance to eat,” Gabe said worriedly.

“I’ll be okay.” Bucky tried to sound confident, but he wasn’t so sure himself. “I’ve still got some food my friend’s cook sent with me.”

“Magic,” Dernier mumbled. “It is magic.”

“I know,” Bucky agreed. “Seems like it.”

Dernier raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t seem like it. Is.”

Bucky just shrugged. He didn’t know if people got hostile about magic. He didn’t want anyone asking too many questions about how he knew Mandy, and he didn’t want to accidentally cause her any trouble.

Luckily, the instructor came in then and stopped any conversation. Bucky made sure to keep his face pleasant, since this guy already didn’t like him, hands folded obediently on the tabletop as he’d been ordered three days ago. He reminded himself not to let his pen scratch too loudly as he took notes, as he’d been ordered yesterday.

He didn’t have any more trouble until he got to hand-to-hand combat. He always had trouble in hand-to-hand, because Rumlow was there. Bucky didn’t really know why Rumlow hated him so much, unless it was still because of how Bucky had weaseled away from him with General Phillips that first day. But hate him Rumlow did, and he did everything he could to make Bucky’s life miserable.

“So, I need a volunteer for this demonstration,” Rumlow said. “Barnes, thank you for volunteering.”

Bucky didn’t sigh. He kept his head up and walked to the front, where Rumlow was waiting for him.

“Now, Barnes, raise your hands like you’re going to attack,” Rumlow ordered. “And I’ll show the counterstrike.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky said obediently, trying not to grit his teeth. He raised his hands obediently but otherwise didn’t move.

“Come on,” Rumlow said impatiently.

“Come on what?” Bucky asked. “You said to raise my hands. I raised ‘em.”

It wasn’t smart, probably, to do this with Rumlow. There were some instructors Bucky could get away with sassing this way, but Rumlow already had such a short tether, and his temper usually ended in Bucky being thrown bodily to the ground.

“You have to walk toward me, too, recruit,” Rumlow barked. “Like you’re going to attack.”

So Bucky walked toward him, but he lowered his hands. Rumlow had to spend another five minutes coaxing Bucky into exactly the positioning he wanted, and he grew angrier and angrier with every titter from the other recruits.

Sure enough, the whole thing ended with Rumlow throwing Bucky to the ground and kicking him a few times for good measure, but Bucky couldn’t feel too regretful about it. Sure, it hurt, but at least he could feel like he still had some dignity and control. He wouldn’t be Rumlow’s little puppet, not without a fight.

“Why do you provoke him?” Monty asked, exasperated, as he helped Bucky off the floor after class had ended. Rumlow had decided to be Bucky’s sparring partner. Bucky’s nose was bleeding and his lip was swollen, but he’d gotten a few hits in, too.

Bucky shrugged, wincing as it pulled at the bruises on his ribs. “Can’t let him think he’s got the right to treat us like dirt.”

“He doesn’t treat us as bad as he treats you,” Morita pointed out.

“Yeah, and thanks for taking that heat,” Gabe teased. “But maybe you should let him pick a different punching bag, at least for a few days.”

“When are you going to get a full meal?” Dernier agreed.

“Hey, I’m pretty good at taking hits,” Bucky said. “I ever tell you about my best friend Steve?”

Monty rolled his eyes. “Only every other sentence, Barnes.”

Bucky couldn’t help but laugh at himself. “Yeah, okay, that’s true. But listen, he’s a tiny little guy and gets into fights constantly, so I always had to back him up. Guys like Rumlow, they’re all the same. Bullies. They’re all cowards at their core, so I gotta push back.”

“Yes, well, you’re pushing back at the expense of your own body,” Monty said.

“I get it,” Gabe promised. “But I think you could stand to dial it back a little.”

“And if Jones is telling you to dial it back, you must be going overboard,” Morita joked.

They got into the dining hall and Bucky snapped off a salute, still holding Dernier’s handkerchief to his nose, before reporting for kitchen duty. He was hungry, he was tired, he was sore, and he was at the mercy of every single person there.

But Bucky still had a spring in his step, because he’d gotten his letters. He had friends here, at least, and he had his sisters. And he had Steve. It didn’t fix everything—actually, it didn’t fix anything, not really—but it made it seem just a little bit better.

Chapter Text

Time started to pass more quickly. Remembering commands got a little easier. Or Bucky’s symptoms lessened, at least; maybe it was just the curse knowing he was trying. Or maybe the curse’s hold was weaker with so many conflicting orders. Maybe he’d break the curse just like that, from not being able to follow all the directions he’d been given. It would be anticlimactic, sure, but Bucky wouldn’t give a damn.

Or maybe his body would just combust and fly into a million pieces.

Getting letters from Steve and his sisters made everything so much better. In every letter, Steve asked, You didn’t forget me yet, did you? It made Bucky roll his eyes every time. Like he could ever possibly forget Steve.

Before Bucky knew it, a month passed. Things with Rumlow got…well, worse. Bucky could see on his face he was starting to pick up on something strange about how Bucky followed orders. Sure, all the recruits did what Rumlow told them to do, because Rumlow was their superior and he wasn’t scant about punishing them for any perceived insubordination.

But sometimes Bucky tried to resist. He usually tried to do it when Rumlow couldn’t see, because he didn’t want Rumlow noticing the way Bucky’s teeth would clench and his hands would ball into fists, but, unfortunately, Rumlow wasn’t as dumb as he looked.

“Recruit Barnes,” the man himself said in the dining hall one cold, gray morning. It was drizzling outside and Bucky’s stomach dropped. He knew this wasn’t going to go well for him.

“Yes, Rumlow?” Bucky asked.

Rumlow narrowed his eyes and stepped closer. Bucky worked hard not to recoil. “What was that you called me?”

Bucky had to take a deep breath to keep his voice stead. “Corporal Rumlow,” he corrected himself. Gabe was stepping on his foot under the table.

“I have a job for you,” Rumlow said, sneering, and Bucky bit the inside of his cheek. “Report to the stables right away for cleaning duty.”

“That’s not my job duty this week.” It slipped out before Bucky could stop it, and he flinched immediately after he said it. It was true—the recruits were on a rotation of duties, except kitchen duty, which was a specialty or, if it wasn’t your specialty, a punishment. This week, the 107th regiment of recruits were assigned to the laundry. The 101st was on stable duty, if Bucky remember the rotation correctly.

“It’s not your job?” Rumlow asked menacingly. Bucky’s heart was already pounding from the force of resisting, and now he’d made Rumlow angry.

“No, it’s not,” Gabe piped up angrily. “It’s the 101st’s duty.”

“We’re on laundry,” Morita added. Bucky shot them both a dirty look. They were only going to get themselves in hot water for insubordination, too. He needed to go report to the stables. He needed to go right away. He was going to vomit if he stood here not reporting to the stables any longer.

“Well, I just assigned Barnes here to stables duty,” Rumlow said, all silky smooth. “Start by clearing the pasture,” he added to Bucky. The uncovered pasture, where he’d be completely exposed to the wind and the rain.

“Why would he need to clean the pasture?” Monty asked. “Isn’t that the point of a pasture, that it doesn’t need to be cleaned?”

“It’s a field,” Dernier agreed. “The poop, it goes away on its own.”

Rumlow’s nostrils were flaring and Bucky had a drop of sweat rolling down his back. His ears were ringing. He needed to go out to the stables right away and start in the pasture.

“I’m going,” Bucky said.

“No!” Gabe protested. Rumlow wasn’t sneering anymore. He was giving Bucky a long, assessing look that Bucky didn’t like one bit. He just shrugged helplessly at his friends, trying to ignore the cold sweat on his upper lip, and turned around to head out the doors. He hadn’t gotten breakfast yet. Again.

Outside was cold and miserable. The drizzle wasn’t heavy, but it was steady and lingering and chilled Bucky to the bone. He couldn’t just fuck off and hide behind the stables; oh no, he’d been ordered to clear the pasture, so he had a shovel and was flinging piles of manure around. The problem was he’d fling a pile, but it was still in the pasture, so then he had to run after it and fling it farther, and soon he was clear to the edge of the lake, at least two miles from the Academy building itself.

He was panting and shivering but sweating from the exertion and he couldn’t stop the angry tears that escaped.

“Argh!” He screamed, flinging manure into the lake and startling a few birds into angry, squawking flight. He beat the shovel into the ground a few times, rage overtaking him, before the curse forced him to run back to the pasture and find more manure to clear.

His hands were numb. He missed his morning lessons. That would be more punishment. But he couldn’t leave. Rumlow hadn’t given him a time limit. He had the sudden, horrible mental image of himself, running around this pasture flinging shit everywhere, until he finally just dropped dead. He yelled some more. A few horses in the pasture gave him highly affronted looks and one or two ran off.

“Recruit Barnes.”

Bucky snapped to attention. It was Colonel Phillips. Wonderful. Bucky was dripping wet, crying, and covered in horse shit.

“What on God’s green earth are you doing out here?” The colonel asked flatly.

Bucky shuddered, a combination of the cold and the curse berating him for stopping, and he had to swipe a filthy sleeve across his running nose. “I was ordered to do stable cleanup, sir.”

Colonel Phillips raised an eyebrow and looked pointedly between where Bucky was, in the middle of the field, and the stable. Bucky flushed a little, though he doubted Phillips could tell with the state Bucky was already in.

“I was ordered to start in the field,” he said. Normally he wouldn’t be so loose-lipped—if it got back to Rumlow, he’d make Bucky’s life even more hellacious for bad-mouthing him to the colonel—but standing at attention when the curse was screaming at him to keep clearing the pasture, with his legs trembling from the effort of holding still, was requiring all his attention just then.

Colonel Phillips stared at him for another minute and Bucky was biting his tongue so hard he could taste blood.

“Go inside,” Phillips finally said, and Bucky slumped in relief for one second before the curse started chanting at him again. Go inside go inside go inside. “Get cleaned up. Into some dry clothes that aren’t covered in shit.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky said around chattering teeth.

“And then,” Phillips went on. “Report to your afternoon lessons.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky repeated. He saluted and took off at a fast walk. He refused to run.

The shower wasn’t warm, but at least it cleaned him up, and he dried himself thoroughly before tugging dry, clean clothes on. He felt so much better. His stomach was hollow and angry and he tugged out a meat and vegetable pie from the sack Mandy had given him. There hadn’t been any meat and vegetable pies when she gave it to him. He didn’t care. He didn’t question its appearance or the fact that it was still warm. He ate it as slowly as the curse would allow, which was not slow, because he needed to report to history of the kingdom.

He slid into a seat beside Dernier just before the instructor closed the door. His friends all turned to him with wide eyes.

“Are you alright?” Monty asked worriedly. Bucky just shrugged. How was he supposed to answer that question?

“Of course he’s not alright,” Gabe hissed. “Barnes, why do you let Rumlow push you around like that? He’d move on to someone else if you didn’t do everything he told you to.”

Bucky couldn’t take this today. His throat was clogging up horrifyingly and he finally caught a break when the instructor rapped his knuckles on the table and said,

“Let’s begin.”

Rumlow wasn’t teaching their hand-to-hand class today, and Bucky knew he should find that ominous but could only be relieved, just for today. He felt like he could burst into tears at any moment.

He actually got to eat dinner—a full dinner, with meat and vegetables and a roll and a whole, tall glass of milk—and felt immensely better for it. Best of all, Monty pulled an envelope out of his jacket and handed it over.

“More letters from your sweetheart,” he teased. The boys had taken to calling Steve Bucky’s sweetheart, on account of him writing just about every other day, and Bucky had given up trying to fight it. It probably didn’t help that he lit up like a candle every time he got a letter.

He checked over both shoulders but didn’t see Rumlow anywhere, so he broke the seal and opened the letter.

Dear Buck,

Hope my last letter wasn’t too boring with all the political stuff. I guess I just want to make sure you know Ma and I are doing everything we can to stop the bandits. I still miss your parents, too, and what happened wasn’t fair to anyone. Did you know the bandits are going by the name HYDRA now? Some weird secret society or something. I’m not really sure.

I’ve been in bed all day, because I caught Ma’s cold. I know I’m usually mad but it’s kind of a relief to get away from Pierce, the diplomat I’ve been dealing with all week. Something about him gets on my nerves. More than most diplomats. But before you go getting all worried, I’M FINE. It’s just a cold. The healers aren’t even bothering with medicine. I’m just eating Mandy’s soup. I let Dum-Dum up on my bed because he was whining something fierce. He’s all cuddled up beside me. I think he thinks he’s keeping me warm. Mostly he’s just farting and stinking up the place, but I guess someone’s got to do it now that you’re gone.

Peggy’s going back to her own kingdom next week. I’ll be sad to see her go. It’s certainly been more exciting with her here. But at least I won’t be making a fool of myself as much. I know what you’re thinking—sure I will. Ha, ha. Just because I’m not Mr. Handsome and Suave like you.

Bucky looked down at himself, at the blisters on his hands from the shovel this morning and the dirt and probably manure caked under his fingernails, and thought about the way his cheeks had hollowed out a bit since he’d been here and hadn’t been getting enough to eat, how his ribs were starting to show and how he had bruises from his daily punishments from Rumlow. His fingers were a little pruned from doing laundry duty—he still had to do it even though Rumlow had sent him on the pasture duty this morning—and his fingernails were a little cracked. He deflated a little, throat getting tight. Steve would be horrified to see him now.

Anyway, tell me how things are going. Rumlow still being an ass? I’d like to meet him sometime where he can’t get away and have a little chat with him.

Bucky snorted at the mental image of Steve trying to fight Rumlow. It would be like a mouse trying to fight a dog. Steve would certainly fight hard, and Bucky had no doubt he’d land a few good hits, too, but still.

Have you forgotten me yet? I’m still thinking about you every day like it’ll telepathically help you out. I know you need all the help you can get. Are the girls still writing to you? You better tell me if anything happens so I can make sure their letters still get to you. I just got a letter from Anabelle yesterday and she said she misses you with her whole heart.

Okay, I probably just made you cry, you big baby.

Bucky sniffed a little. He tried to convince himself it was from being out in the rain earlier.

It’s getting colder. Almost Christmas. I hope I get to see you. I know your Christmas leave isn’t long and you’ll probably want to spend it out at your cousin’s house with the girls. That’s fine with me. Maybe I’ll throw my weight around and come visit the Academy sometime. Surprise inspection.

Anyway, hope I see you soon. Miss you.

Love,

Steve

Bucky hoped Steve wouldn’t do a surprise inspection. He didn’t want Steve seeing him like this, all beaten down and half-starved. Steve remembered him strong and tough. Bucky needed to fatten himself back up before Christmas. There was no way he wasn’t seeing Steve.

He didn’t have kitchen duty today, so Bucky actually had free time to write Steve back right after dinner. He needed to tell Steve how things were going; he’d written it as an order. Holding the pen hurt a little, thanks to his battered hands, but he could deal with it for Steve.

Dear Steve,

I haven’t forgotten the time we climbed that tree just outside the market, the one further down than our usual tree, and you ate so many crab-apples you nearly shit yourself. So no, I haven’t forgotten you.

You must be out of your mind if you think I’d rather spend time with those assholes than you at Christmas. I want to see the girls, and I’ll make sure I do, but there’s no way in hell I’m not spending time with you and your ma. Honestly, I owe Mandy my whole life for the food she sent up here.

He didn’t mention that he might actually owe her his life, literally, because her food was all that was sustaining him more days than not, besides what the boys could smuggle out for him.

Rumlow’s still a real peach. Made me clean the stables today even though we’re on laundry duty. And then I still had laundry duty, too. Colonel Phillips saw me out there cursing like a fool and sent me inside. I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me.

The boys all say hi. They feel like they already know you with everything I told them. Gabe says you sound mostly crazy with some of the fights you get in, and I told him he don’t know the half of it.

He thought about telling Steve about how they all called him Bucky’s sweetheart, but he paused. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really, just a silly little joke. But for some reason he paused. It gave him a wriggly feeling to tease Steve about it, which was strange because he’d never had trouble teasing Steve before. Maybe things were just different now that they were apart. He frowned at the idea. He didn’t want anything to be different between him and Steve.

Don’t follow Peggy back to her nation, you hear me? I’m in the Royal Guard now, and there’s only two royals I care about guarding. If you leave, what’s left for me? Just farting Dum-Dum. Though I wouldn’t really mind if he came and kept me warm. The Academy’s all old and drafty and it’s definitely cold here already. We might get snow before the month’s over.

BUT DON’T MAKE A BIG DEAL. I don’t want you getting up in arms about something that’s not that important. Focus on the water problem and those HYDRA bastards. I’ll wear an extra pair of socks to bed and be fine.

Eat all Mandy’s soup, okay? She’ll take care of you. Tell your ma hi and I miss her. Tell everyone hi and I miss them. I’m even missing Coulson a little, truth be told. You don’t need to tell him that, though.

I miss you, Steve. But I’ll see you soon, at Christmas. Not too much longer now. Stay out of trouble and don’t do anything stupid.

Love,

Bucky

“Done writing the missus?” Monty asked when Bucky started folding up his letter. “I’ve got some important gossip.”

“Important gossip from who? You’ve been in here the whole time I have been.”

Monty waved his question away. “It seems Colonel Phillips called Rumlow into his office this afternoon.”

Bucky’s stomach lurched. “I didn’t say Rumlow’s name or anything,” he said. “How’d he know?”

Monty shrugged. “It’s not like he acts like an angel and is only horrible to you. Someone else might’ve spilled the beans.”

Bucky shook his head. “He’s going to try to get back at me,” he murmured, flinching already. He didn’t know how much more he could take.

“He probably will,” Monty agreed gravely. He pursed his lips. “Why do you do everything he says?”

Bucky dodged Monty’s eyes, busying himself with carefully applying the seal to Steve’s letter. “He’s my superior officer.”

“Yes, but even when he’s ordering you to do things he has no authority to order you do it. And I can tell you hate it. Why are you so obedient?”

Bucky’s mouth was completely dry. He couldn’t tell Monty, even if he wanted to, but he should have known Monty and the other guys would notice. The only reason Steve didn’t really notice Bucky’s curse was because no one really ordered Bucky around when he was with Steve—no one ordered Steve around—and Steve himself was incredibly bossy and also used to everyone doing as he said. But other people always noticed if Bucky spent too much time with them. It was why he couldn’t go steady with any girls.

“I do as I’m told,” Bucky said. “That’s—it’s why we’re here, isn’t? To follow orders?”

Monty was squinting at him, and Bucky didn’t know what to do. He didn’t think Monty would do anything to hurt him, but he could do it accidentally, or accidentally let something slip to someone who would do something to hurt Bucky.

“I’m going to bed,” Bucky announced, laying Steve’s letter on top of his bureau and snuffing out his candle. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Monty said, but his voice was still thoughtful, and Bucky didn’t fall asleep for a long time.

 

Bucky kept bracing himself for Rumlow’s big explosion, but nothing happened. Sure, he still chose Bucky as his partner in hand-to-hand and kicked the shit out of him most days, but Bucky was used to that. And Bucky was a fast learner, helped along by having to follow orders, so he was actually starting to be able to fight back a bit. He still got bogus punishments and orders from Rumlow, but nothing all that bad. He started to relax a little as another month passed.

There was snow everywhere, and stable duty now included blanketing the horses and checking their feet, applying oil when they got dry and cracked. Bucky liked working with the horses. They were so big, but they weren’t mean, except for Snooker on the end. He had a biting problem. But even that wasn’t such a huge deal; he was an animal. It didn’t feel vindictive, and he didn’t target Bucky specifically. He bit anyone in reach.

Some of the instructors had noticed Bucky was good with the horses, and he didn’t even spoil them with carrots from the mess hall, either. They just seemed to understand each other. He got assigned to stable duty for two weeks in a row, even when the rest of the 107th moved on to floor cleaning.

Dernier was all too happy to move on. He hated the horses. And the horses hated him, too—more than just Snooker snapped their big teeth at him. But now Bucky was working with the 104th. He didn’t really know them very well. He mostly kept to himself, half out of necessity and half just because, but he chatted amiably whenever someone was working in the stall next to him.

He was just stooping to attend to Snooker’s hooves when one of the guys came over to him, a hard frown on his face.

“Rumlow says you’re a snitch,” he announced loudly without preamble. Bucky sighed a little, straightening up and dodging the cross-ties holding Snooker’s head in place so he couldn’t bite.

“I’m no snitch,” Bucky said mildly.

“Rumlow says you are,” the guy repeated. Bucky fought not to roll his eyes.

“You a friend of Rumlow’s?” He asked.

“Sure am.” The guy puffed his chest out proudly, like being a friend of Rumlow’s was something worth bragging over. Bucky doubted it was true. Rumlow didn’t seem the type to make friends.

“Well, someone for everyone, huh?” Bucky shouldn’t have said it. He knew that. He knew it as he was saying it. But he couldn’t help himself. The guy crowded Bucky up against the wall, eyes flashing.

“What are you trying to say?” He hissed.

Now Bucky couldn’t not roll his eyes. “I wasn’t trying to say anything. I did say it’s nice that two assholes could find each other, I suppose.”

“I ain’t no fairy,” the guy spat. It rolled something in Bucky’s stomach, hearing the venom this guy assigned to that.

“I never said you were,” Bucky pointed out.

“You think you’re a real smart-ass, dontcha? Got assigned to sniper right away, got friends in high places, huh?”

Now Bucky was a little concerned. Did someone know about Steve? Oh, God, what if Rumlow had somehow found out? Bucky’s stomach dropped. Rumlow already sort of knew that he could order Bucky around and Bucky would do it. If he knew Bucky was friends with Steve…

But this guy had made a grave mistake—his posturing and menacing had brought him just within Snooker’s reach. Snooker didn’t appreciate anyone coming into his space, so he lunged and took a nice, big bite out of the guy’s arm.

The guy howled, swinging a fist at Snooker, and Bucky caught it and threw him out the open stall door. They’d had a horse who bit sometimes, when he was just a child, and his father had told him very firmly there’s usually a reason an animal isn’t friendly, and you don’t ever want to be part of that reason.

After that, word sort of spread around that Bucky was a horse whisperer who got Snooker to do his dirty work. Gabe roared with laughter.

“Snooker does the devil’s dirty work,” Dernier muttered darkly.

“Can you get the horses to write my history of the kingdom essay?” Morita asked. “How am I supposed to know how the prince broke his arm?”

“He was climbing up a drainpipe to someone’s window and he fell,” Bucky answered automatically. Steve had been delivering a letter from Bucky to the girl he’d been pining for that week, a girl named Mary Williamson whose father had heard the crash of Steve hitting the ground and threatened to sic the dogs on him when he realized where Steve had been going.

Not that any of that was in their workbook.

“How do you remember all this shit?” Morita asked.

“I don’t get what this has to do with our willingness to fight,” Monty said. “What do I care if the prince broke his arm? It’s not like it was in some heroic act.” That was up for debate, if you asked Bucky. Mary Williamson’s father owned thirteen hunting dogs. But Monty did have a point—it was a bit strange that this was part of their requisite education to be part of the Royal Guard.

“Maybe they wanna make sure we know how reckless the prince is,” Bucky mused. “So we know what we’re getting into.”

Gabe barked out a laugh. “Like any of us are actually going to be working with the prince.”

Bucky kept his mouth shut. He sure as hell would be. Then again, he didn’t need a class teaching him about Steve’s recklessness. He’d gotten to see it all firsthand. And, perhaps the argument could be made, had egged him on a time or two.

“Letter for Barnes,” the recruit on mail duty said. “As always. You must got some kinda overprotective mother to write you this much.”

Bucky’s words all stuck in his throat for a moment, the thought of getting letters from his mother pausing everything inside him. He cleared his throat and pasted on a grin, raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

“Everybody loves me,” he said, voice sounding only a little bit rough. The guy rolled his eyes but handed over the letter.

Dear Buck,

You staying warm? Mandy is knitting you some extra socks. I’ll send them when she’s done. I’m sure they’ll somehow manage to keep your feet warmer than any other socks and never get wet. But you didn’t hear anything from me.

We’ve got a new healer on his way. His name is Erskine and he thinks he might be able to help Ma. She just hasn’t been able to shake that cold that’s been following her around. I feel bad because we’ve sort of been passing it back and forth for a while now. But somehow I’ve been able to get over it and she hasn’t. I’m trying not to worry too much.

Maybe he can do something to make me taller, too. Remember how Fury said he hit a late growth spurt when he was our age? Well, it hasn’t happened to me. You get any taller? I’m sure you’re stronger now. Guys usually come back from the Academy all muscled up. I sure hope they can do something to make you smarter, but I’m not holding my breath.

Peggy knows Erskine and says he’s a good man. They worked together for a while. I trust her. I just hope his journey isn’t too hard. He’s a bit old, and it’s a harsh time of year. Peggy’s still writing me, which feels like a miracle. She’s going to come back after the spring thaw. Maybe you’ll be home by then. How long do you have to stay there, anyway? I already think you’re ready to be my bodyguard. You saved me from Davey Thompson enough times that I’d give you the job today.

You didn’t forget me yet, did you? I’m the guy who nobly held a royal ball in your honor for your sixteenth birthday and spent half the night throwing up because he drank some bad wine. But it’s the thought that counts, I think.

A month and a half until Christmas now. What kind of gifts do you want? I’ll even try to get some of those emu eggs you liked so much the southern delegates brought up a few years ago. We’re not on great terms with them right now, so I can’t promise, but I’ll try to smooth things over. I’m not very good at smoothing things over, though. I think maybe you should be the prince and I’ll be the soldier. You’re way better at being diplomatic than I am. You can talk your way out of anything. I just try to fight my way out.

I got a letter from Becca a few days ago. She sounds like she’s doing great. Of course she made friends the minute she got there. Everybody loves Becca.

I hope I get to see you soon. I miss you, Buck.

Love,

Steve

Bucky was frowning a bit as he finished. He didn’t like the sound of fetching some healer from far-off because Sarah needed it. And he didn’t like how down in the dumps Steve sounded. He knew winter was always tough for Steve—he didn’t well in cold, and he got sick more often, and he was stuck inside a lot—but Steve just sounded worn down. Worry, probably, over Sarah and over the problems the southern delegates were bringing with them. It made him want to leave right then, start walking toward the castle and sneak in Steve’s window.

He didn’t get a chance, though. Of course he didn’t. Because Rumlow had finally come to exact his revenge. He was flanked by two other superior officers, actual superior officers who were higher up than him.

“Recruit Barnes,” he said. “You’re going to have to come with us.”

“Um…why?” Bucky asked.

“We’re doing an investigation into the incident in the stables last week.”

Bucky’s mouth dropped open. “Because he got bit by Snooker? Snooker bites everyone.”

Rumlow just shrugged. “We’ll see what the investigation says.”

Bucky’s legs were jumping for him to follow them, but he dug his heels in a little. “What happens to me during the investigation?” He asked.

“You’ll be in isolation,” one of the other COs told him.

Bucky swallowed hard. “Isolation?”

“And you’ll think about what you should have done differently,” Rumlow added.

“Let’s go,” the third CO said. “Come with us.”

“Oh, and by the way, Barnes,” Rumlow said nastily, tossing Steve’s letter back at Gabe, across the table. Bucky’s friends were watching with wide, worried eyes. “Isolation means no mail privileges.”

“No,” Bucky said. “You can’t take away my letters!”

“No receiving letters and no writing letters,” one of the other COs agreed. “Until we decide you can be put back in with the other recruits.”

Bucky was fuming. He should’ve known Rumlow would find a way to make his life miserable long after he stopped being worried about it. He clenched his jaw to keep himself quiet. The last thing he needed was to get into more hot water.

“This isn’t fair,” Monty said. “He didn’t do anything!”

“If the investigation proves that, he’ll be taken out of isolation and given any mail that came in while he was without privileges.”

Bucky saw Gabe starting to open his mouth, so he shot him a look. No one else needed to get in trouble on his behalf, either. “It’s fine,” he told his friends. “I’ll be fine.”

The curse was pulling him to leave the room, the follow the officers to wherever isolation was. So Bucky squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and followed orders.

Chapter Text

They put Bucky in a cell. He couldn't believe it. He was a good kid. He'd always been a good kid, at least partially because he had no choice in the matter. And here he was in a cell for something that wasn't his fault.

There was a window, at least, so he could sort of keep track of time. Coulson had once tried to teach Steve and Bucky to read the time based on the sun's position, but Bucky could only see a sliver of sky. He knew it was evening, but then, he'd already known that because Rumlow had grabbed him at dinner. And he'd ordered Bucky to think about what he could've done differently. Bucky was sure he meant for Bucky to think about not making him mad, but instead all Bucky was picturing was throwing a fist into Rumlow's stupid, smug face, eating until his stomach burst, and running all the way back to the royal city to Steve.

That's what he should've done.

He fell asleep thinking about climbing trees with Steve--what he could be doing instead of lying here in a cell--and woke up when he heard the cells around him opening. From what he could hear, it was breakfast. One upside was he'd probably actually get fed.

But the longer he waited for his cell door to open, the more he realized how foolish and naive that thought had been. The people bringing breakfast were recruits on kitchen duty. There was no way Rumlow hadn't told them not to give him any food, and no one wanted to disobey Rumlow and risk becoming his new target.

Bucky slumped against the wall. Now he didn't even have Mandy's food to tide him over. Think about what you could have done differently. He shouldn't have gotten on Rumlow's bad side. He shouldn't have come to the Academy at all. These thoughts led to him wondering what would've happened if he hadn't gone to the ball with Steve the night his parents died. Would changing that have changed anything else? Would they still be alive? Maybe if he'd been home they wouldn't have gone out that night. Maybe he could've stopped them. Maybe...

He wiped tears off his face, but they just kept welling up. He told himself sternly to quit being a baby, but ordering himself never worked. He'd tried a million times, usually trying to counteract orders someone else had given him. How long was he going to be stuck in this cell? He had no doubt Rumlow would try to leave him until he rotted away. But there were people who supervised Rumlow. Wouldn't one of them notice if Bucky missed all his classes? Would Rumlow's word count that much against him?

He composed a letter in his head to Steve, as much as he could when his mind kept returning to what he could've done differently.

Dear Steve, he thought. I'm locked in a cell because some asshole got too close to a horse who bites. I haven't had three meals since I've been here. I still have blisters on my hands from cleaning up shit out of a field. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.

It didn't make him feel any better. What was Steve going to think when Bucky didn't answer his letter? His teasing you forget about me yet? would seem like valid. How long would Steve wait before he gave up on Bucky?

Bucky was doing a supremely terrible job of cheering himself up.

He did some calisthenics in his cell, because sitting still was killing him. But he was tired and he was hungry and when he finished he was sweating and his cell smelled. He heard the rattling around the cells again. It was lunch time.

"Hey!" He yelled when someone walked by. "When are you gonna feed me?"

Whoever it was paused just outside Bucky’s cell. “Sorry,” a trembling voice said, and Bucky knew immediately who it was—a small guy, a little slow, who Rumlow gave constant shit to, named Elias. He worked in the kitchen and was part of the Royal Guard, technically, but would never leave the Academy. His father had been some big-shot general in the last war, serving right along with Steve’s father, and that was the only reason he got to be part of the Guard.

“I can’t feed you until dinner tonight,” Elias whispered, and Bucky just knew with a sinking feeling even that was going to get him in trouble with Rumlow.

“Don’t risk anything for me,” Bucky told him. “I can handle myself.”

Elias opened the barred window on the door and gave Bucky a skeptical look that almost made Bucky want to laugh.

“Rumlow told us not to feed you at all,” he revealed. “You can’t just handle yourself with no food.”

Bucky couldn’t really argue against that. Besides, he was already feeling faint with hunger. “Thanks,” he said weakly. He wanted to ask Elias to smuggle him some paper to write back to Steve, but he wasn’t going to put him in that kind of danger. He’d get in trouble if he got caught by anyone, but worse than that, he’d get Rumlow’s ire.

Bucky slipped into a doze in the afternoon. He was cold and hungry and couldn’t stop thinking about running away the second they opened his cell door. He didn’t want to be here anymore. He wanted to protect Steve, but he didn’t think Steve would want him to go through this to get the job.

He woke up when the barred window opened again. “Here!” Elias hissed. “Take this, hurry.”

Bucky scrambled up and grabbed the offering. A rock-hard biscuit, almost reduced completely to crumbs, and a napkin with a few pieces of shredded beef and one small, cold, cooked carrot. Bucky stuffed the beef and the carrot in his mouth.

“Can I have some water?” He asked, voice raspy.

“I’m working on it,” Elias muttered, hands fluttering nervously. He never looked anyone straight in the eye, not even superior officers when they were talking to him, and Rumlow liked to dish out punishment for it. He could only do it when none of his superior officers were around, because Elias was a bit of a pet thanks to his father.

“Thanks,” Bucky said. Elias nodded at him and closed the window, plunging Bucky into darkness again to gnaw at the biscuit and try not to break his teeth on it. The food, somehow, made him even hungrier. Elias brought him a small tin cup of water a few hours later—after dinner was done, Bucky figured, and Rumlow was enjoying kicking people out of the mess hall before they were done eating.

Days passed this way, with Elias slipping him a little food and water after dinner. Bucky lost track of time. He slept for long chunks of the day, partially because he was so hungry and partially because there was nothing else to do in his cell. Even the need to think about what he could’ve done differently, as Rumlow had ordered, died down after a few days, because he’d done it so much. Maybe his curse was taking pity on him. He was pretty sure, though, it was really just because he’d obeyed the order as much as he could.

Once per day, Bucky got led out of his cell to the showers. He never saw anyone else besides whatever officer took him back and forth. The first few times, he’d tried to talk to whoever was leading him, but after the first time he’d been knocked down for impertinence he gave that up.

It was horrible, being so cut off, but equally horrible was how relieved Bucky felt. No one could give him orders, because there was no one there to talk to him. No one was there to watch him do weird things because of the nature of language. His imprisonment was a kind of freedom, and he hated himself for enjoying it.

He didn’t know how long it had been before the cell door opened and Colonel Phillips stood on the other side. He pursed his lips as he looked at Bucky.

“Recruit Barnes, you are free to leave isolation,” he said. Bucky just blinked at him for a moment, not even comprehending what he was saying, and then he scrambled off his cot. He fell, head swimming from moving so fast, and when he looked up Colonel Phillips’s nostrils were flared in anger.

“You should not have been mistreated this way,” he said shortly. “And those responsible have been punished.”

Bucky’s tongue felt too large for his mouth. “Not Elias, sir, he was doing what Rumlow told him but he did bring me food; don’t punish—”

“Not Elias,” Phillips assured him. “Rumlow is no longer part of the Royal Guard.”

Bucky gaped. “You kicked him out?” Over me? He wanted to ask

“You’re not the first recruit he’s taken issue with,” Phillips informed him, almost sounding wry. “Go to the mess hall and get something to eat.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky said, hastily saluting and practically running for the door. He would’ve been running if he could’ve, but he was too weak.

The mess hall was empty. Bucky didn’t know what to do. He’d never been here when no one else was. He didn’t know if he was supposed to go into the kitchen and find something or how he was supposed to eat. His legs were trembling. He didn’t want to go back to isolation, even as nice as it was not to get any orders.

He crept into the kitchen after looking over both shoulders. He felt like he was stealing. He wasn’t, though, he kept reassuring himself. Phillips had told him to get something. Still, he felt jumpy and wrong-footed. He didn’t know what time it was or which lesson he was supposed to be in. He went back to his room.

It almost didn’t feel real, standing there and looking at his books piled on the desk, seeing Monty’s spare uniform strewn haphazardly across his bed. Bucky went to the bureau and opened the bag of food Mandy had sent along. He almost cried.

The bag was almost bursting, full with fat pastries and meat pies and loaves of bread. There were even baked potatoes in there, still hot when he broke them open and shoved them in his mouth.

Bucky looked out the window. It was so nice to see a different bit of sky than he’d been staring at for however long he’d been there. He frowned. The flag was halfway down the flagpole. His stomach dropped.

That meant someone had died. In the Royal City, it meant someone from the palace had died. What if—

Fear clogged his throat. He went through the stacks of mail on his desk, probably piled there by his friends, searching for letters from Steve. None. No unopened letters.

Bucky’s breath was coming dangerously fast now. He was going to hyperventilate and pass out. He took a deep breath and held it. It was midafternoon, judging by the sun. His friends were either in history of the kingdom or hand-to-hand combat. The thought of going to either lesson left him dizzy. But he couldn’t just sit there, not with the possibility of…

He wouldn’t even think it. He packed what little possessions he had into his rucksack and turned to leave. He paused in the doorway and turned back, ripping a sheet of paper in half and scrawling a note to his friends.

Hey guys,

Phillips let me out of isolation today. I’m sorry I didn’t come find you, but I didn’t want to interrupt class. I have to go. I don’t think I was cut out for the Academy, so I’m going home. Thanks for having my back. If you’re ever in the Royal City, look me up. I owe you a million.

-Barnes

Bucky slipped out the front door and down the long, winding path back to the road, and he didn’t look back even once.

 

Bucky was asleep on some pine needles at the base of a tree, using the tree to block himself somewhat from view of the road, when someone grabbed his shoulder. He was up in a flash, arms raised to defend himself, and what he saw made every part of him stop.

“…Steve?” He breathed. It looked like Steve. Well, it looked like Steve’s face. But the body…that did not look like Steve. Whoever this was, he was huge, all rippling muscle and strength. But he had Steve’s eyes, framed by those ridiculously long lashes, and he was staring at Bucky like he was a sight for sore eyes, and then when he spoke, Bucky knew it was real.

“Buck,” Steve said. “Oh my God.”

“How…?” Bucky felt like he was going to faint. Dashing off to run back to the Royal City the same day he’d been released from a cell where he hadn’t been properly fed may not have been the best idea.

“Your friends wrote me two days ago,” Steve said. “I didn’t get any letters for three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” Bucky asked. “I had no idea it was that long.”

Steve’s face was all pinched up in worry. “What’d they do to you?” He asked. Bucky let out a choked laugh.

“I should ask you the same question! What is…?” Bucky waved a hand in Steve’s general direction.

“It’s kind of a long story,” Steve admitted. They stared at each other for a minute, and then, almost at the same instant, reached for each other. The hug was long and tight and hurt a little bit. Steve was a lot stronger than he used to be, and he was slightly crushing Bucky. Bucky wasn’t going to complain, though. He didn’t mind one bit if he died like this.

Although that might have been a little traumatizing for Steve.

“Wait,” Bucky said, voice muffled in Steve’s neck. “The flag was half-mast. Who died?”

Steve’s hold tightened, if that was possible, and he made a wounded sound that sent a shock of hurt and fear through Bucky. “Ma,” Steve said quietly, voice shaking a little. “Ma died. Just…just the day after I sent the letter about the healer coming. He didn’t get to us in time.”

“No,” Bucky whispered, tears burning the back of his throat. “Steve, no.”

“She was so sick, Buck, I didn’t want to tell you how sick because I didn’t want you to worry and I thought—I thought she’d get better.” His voice cut off abruptly, a sure sign he was holding in tears, and Bucky squeezed him tighter. If there was anyone Steve shouldn’t feel embarrassed to see him cry, it should be Bucky. Bucky had cried on Steve more times than either of them could possibly count.

Bucky was crying now, not even trying to hide it. His heart ached for Steve; Steve and Sarah had been closer than any family Bucky ever knew, even his own. It had been just the two of them for so long, and they had to spend so much time isolated from everyone else for their own safety.

But he was crying a little for himself, too. He was tired of people dying. It wasn’t fair. He’d already lost his own parents, seen his sisters dragged away from him, left Steve behind once. Now he’d go back to the castle and Sarah wouldn’t be waiting for him?

He knew he was selfish to think of himself, think of his own hurt, just then. He should be focused on Steve. He knew how it felt when someone told you your mother was dead. It had to have been worse for Steve, to see her slipping away like that, helpless. There was nothing Steve hated more than being helpless.

Bucky didn’t murmur any platitudes in Steve’s ear, just held him tight and whispered, “I got you,” as Steve shuddered and hardly cried. Bucky wasn’t that surprised; seeing any tears from Steve was proof of how much he trusted Bucky. Steve didn’t let himself cry. Bucky was sure he’d cried a bit to himself, face pressed into a pillow with his fist in his mouth to muffle the sound, but Bucky had no doubt not a single other person on earth had seen Steve cry, not even at the funeral.

“So it’s been…three weeks?” Bucky asked. “I missed—I missed the funeral and everything?”

Steve nodded, swiping at his eyes and hunching his shoulders. His new, huge shoulders. Bucky couldn’t stop staring. It was the same mannerisms, but a whole different body.

“It was okay,” Steve said. “She’s next to Dad, so that’s good.”

Bucky sat down, legs feeling all shaky again, and Steve sat beside him. Bucky reached for his hand and Steve gave it over easily. They didn’t do this—hold hands—as much now that they were older. As kids they’d hated to be separated, and holding hands seemed a simple way to remedy that. People had given them dirty looks, especially the older they got.

But they were alone here, out in the woods, and Bucky couldn’t muster up one bit of care for what anyone would think if they did see. He hadn’t seen Steve in half a year, and in that time Steve’s mother had died and he’d gotten a whole different body.

His hands felt the same, fingers long and calloused from his drawing pencils. It was reassuring. His eyes were the same, and his hands were the same. It felt like that made him more real.

“What did they do to you?” Steve repeated, solemn, as he squeezed Bucky’s fingers.

Bucky shrugged. “Nothing,” he said truthfully. “Just put me in a cell.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Left you in a cell alone,” he said. “And it doesn’t look like they fed you anything.”

“Fed me once a day,” Bucky said. For some reason, he thought that would placate Steve. He wanted to roll his eyes at himself. Nothing would placate Steve, especially not the thought of Bucky only getting one meal a day. And really, what food he had gotten hadn’t been much of a meal, but he certainly wasn’t going to tell Steve that.

Once a day,” Steve echoed, eyes flashing. “That’s not enough. You look—Buck, your cheeks are all sunken in. I bet I could see your ribs.” He tugged at Bucky’s shirt to lift it up, and Bucky swatted him away only half-heartedly. Steve sucked in a breath when he saw the bruises along Bucky’s side. Bucky had forgotten they were there. He hadn’t gotten any real beatings for a while, but just a few days ago, one of the officers had sent him sprawling with a kick for walking too slowly back to his cell after his shower, and he even had a few scars from some of Rumlow’s worse days.

“Who did that to you?” Steve growled. Something about it made Bucky’s heart beat faster. Steve had always been a big talker, passionate about doing the right thing and being fair, and he’d fought hard despite his body’s lack of any real ability to back his mouth up.

Now, though…that body could back him up, and Bucky couldn’t figure out how he felt about that.

“It’s fine,” Bucky said. “Colonel Phillips already dismissed him from the Guard. He won’t be hurting anyone else.”

“But he already hurt you,” Steve argued. “I’ll kill him.”

Bucky felt overwhelmed, just for a second. This was Steve. His body was different and his eyes were sadder, but this was Steve, through and through, and he had to lay his head on Steve’s shoulder for a second to get his bearings. It was a much different angle than it used to be.

“Alright, your turn,” Bucky requested. “What happened to you?”

Steve sighed a little, the movement taking Bucky’s head with it as Steve’s powerful new body took on air. Bucky didn’t hear even the faintest hint of a wheeze. That was something to be grateful for, at least.

“The healer got to us the day of the funeral. I was…upset that he didn’t get there faster.”

Bucky snorted. He could imagine, Steve in a rage and snapping at anyone who came within a hundred feet of him. But he pressed his face harder against Steve’s shoulder. He should’ve been there. He couldn’t have done anything, probably, but he could’ve at least run interference and kept people out of Steve’s warpath.

“He was very kind, though, and he felt so awful about Ma dying before he got there. And after the funeral, I…” He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “I got a little sick,” he admitted in a voice that meant he’d completely disregarded his own health. Bucky gave him a glare. He certainly should’ve been there to take care of Steve.

“And Dr. Erskine said…well, he said there might be a way to make me healthier. For good. Make me bigger and stronger. Better.”

“Not better,” Bucky interjected. “You were just fine the way you were.”

Steve’s cheeks reddened a little, but he rolled his eyes and went on. “Dr. Erskine wasn’t just a healer. He had some fairy blood in him, too. He was magic. So he did a spell and, well.” Steve shrugged. “Here I am.”

Bucky had a strong suspicion there was more to that story, but he was distracted. “You keep saying he was. What happened to Erskine?”

Steve’s face fell. “Well, some spy working for the HYDRA bandits and Zola showed up—”

“Zola?” Bucky interrupted again, heart pounding. “Zola wasn’t there, was he?”

“Nah, just some lackey.” Steve game him a funny look. “I didn’t know you were so worried about Zola.”

Bucky opened his mouth. He wanted the words to pour out, wanted to tell Steve everything. But of course he couldn’t. Even as he thought the words, his stomach gave an ominous lurch and his head felt like it was going to split open.

“I’ve just heard how powerful and evil he is,” Bucky finally said, lamely.

“Mm, yeah, well, he wasn’t there. But the guy killed Erskine.” Bucky hated how sad Steve looked. He had good reason to be sad, of course, but Bucky still hated that it was happening.

“Well,” Bucky said. “I guess it’s good that your body can back up your mouth now. Maybe I won’t have to do it for you anymore.” He meant it to be lighthearted and joking, but it almost came out bitter. Steve looked at him very seriously and Bucky looked away.

“Bucky,” Steve said. “I would love if you backed me up. I always want you to back me up. If you want to.”

Then it was Bucky’s turn to flush a little, and he wasn’t sure why he was being so strange. Of course Steve wanted him as backup. They were best friends. They’d been each other’s backup for more of their lives than they hadn’t. Why did Bucky feel like he was going to cry just from hearing Steve say it?

Bucky nodded. “I guess so,” he said, this time his levity hitting the mark. “Not like anyone else will probably do it.”

Steve gave him a gentle shove. He couldn’t really go far, since they were still holding hands, but he pretended to stagger. “Tree trunk arms now, huh?”

Steve laughed and flexed a bulging bicep. “Not too shabby.” The light was falling fast and Bucky could hardly see him anymore. “You should sleep, Buck, you look dead tired.”

“You need to sleep, too,” Bucky said. “Weren’t you just sick a few weeks ago?”

Steve smiled gently. “I don’t need as much sleep as I used to. So you sleep, okay? I’ll keep watch and make sure no one tries to steal anything from us.” He tugged Bucky down to rest his head in Steve’s lap.

“Got nothing to steal,” Bucky pointed out, eyes starting to close obediently. “Just a bunch of letters and food from Mandy.”

Steve was running his fingers through Bucky’s hair, definitely speeding up the falling asleep process, and he shushed Bucky gently. “That’s important stuff. I’ll keep it safe.”

“My hero,” Bucky managed to say sarcastically. Steve snorted and gave Bucky’s hair a little tug in retaliation. Bucky couldn’t believe after so much terribleness he got to have this again, Steve wrapped up around him cracking jokes and teasing. He fell asleep with a smile on his face, and he slept straight on until morning.

Chapter Text

They had to walk back to the castle slowly, because Bucky was weak. Steve was a little weak, too, actually, mostly because he had almost no provisions with him.

“I got the letter from your friends and I kinda…ran out,” he revealed, turning a little red.

“Steve,” Bucky admonished, exasperated. “What would you have done if I didn’t show up with food?”

“I could’ve caught some rabbits or something,” Steve said, puffing up a little with wounded pride.

Bucky started laughing. “How were you going to catch some rabbits? Do you know how to make a trap? Do you even have a knife with you?”

“Well…” Steve rubbed at his forehead. Bucky softened; he couldn’t help it. He bumped his shoulder into Steve’s.

“My hero,” he said fondly. “Came running to save me, huh?”

Steve’s blush deepened. “I just…” He lifted his chin, because he was Steve Rogers and he didn’t back down. “I wasn’t going to leave you like that, Buck. No one gets to treat you that way. I don’t care who they are.”

Bucky shook his head, a little surprised by the thick lump in his throat. He wasn’t surprised Steve came for him, not really. But he’d just gone three weeks without human interaction and then suddenly it was Steve, there and healthy and alive and wanting to take care of him, and it was a little overwhelming.

“You okay?” Steve asked, brow furrowing as he looked at Bucky.

Bucky cleared his throat. “Gonna have to teach you some survival skills,” he said, voice a little gruff. “Since you’re running around with no food all over.”

Steve still looked a little concerned, but he let it slide, bumping into Bucky and tangling their legs up so they almost crashed to the ground. Bucky grunted and hip-checked him, leaving them both laughing and a little breathless.

Under normal circumstances, they would have made it back to Royal City by dark. The days were starting to get longer again. As it was, night fell long before they made it back, and they could do little more than hope there was nothing in their path.

But finally, Bucky saw the towers of the castle come into view. He felt like crying at the sight. Home. After everything that had happened, he was finally back. He’d been gone barely half a year, but it felt like decades. He felt like an old man now.

“Your Highness!” A guard cried when he caught sight of Steve. “You’ve returned!” He stooped into a bow and Steve looked awkward, the way he always did when someone bowed at him. It just looked a little funnier on his new, big body.

“Your Highness?” Bucky asked as they walked away. “When did people start calling you that?” Sure, an extra-respectful visitor may have said it once or twice, but by and large everyone in the castle called him Prince Steven, or Steve if he had his way.

Steve shook his head. “Since Ma died they won’t call me Prince Steven anymore,” he explained. His voice only wobbled when he said died and Bucky was fiercely proud of him. “But my coronation isn’t until my twenty-first birthday, so I’m not the king. There were a few days where no one knew what to call me.”

“I can think up a few things,” Bucky teased. Steve rolled his eyes.

“Your Highness!” It was Coulson. He sounded a bit beside himself. “Your Highness—you shouldn’t—disappearing like that—” He was practically vibrating. Technically, he couldn’t order Steve around, especially not now that Sarah was gone. But he clearly wanted to read Steve the riot act for disappearing.

“Steve, did you tell anyone?” Bucky laughed. He’d forgotten, almost, how utterly impossible Steve could be. Steve just shrugged guiltily.

“Hello, James,” Coulson added distractedly. “You’re looking…” He trailed off. Bucky could imagine how he was looking. Coulson frowned. “Well, why don’t you two head off to the kitchen? I’m sure Mandy is worried sick and has probably baked enough for two feasts by now.”

Steve winced. If there was a woman on earth who could get Steve to behave besides his own mother and Bucky’s, it was Mandy. When they got to the kitchen, Mandy took one look at Bucky and had to sit down on the stool in the corner, hand pressed to her heart.

“Oh, look at you,” she murmured, shaking her head angrily. “Didn’t they feed you at all? Didn’t you eat my food?”

“He was in isolation, Mandy,” Steve said, like that was supposed to make her feel better.

“Your food kept me alive before I got to isolation,” Bucky told her honestly, and that just made tears well up in her eyes. She blinked them away.

“Well, we’ll get you fed up now that you’re back,” she vowed. “Go into the dining hall and I’ll bring you something.”

“You don’t have to bring it in there,” Steve protested. “We can eat in here.”

Bucky would’ve loved to agree, but it was a bit hard to concentrate since she’d given him an order. He did his best to nod, hoping it worked out.

“Nope, shoo,” Mandy said. “Go sit down. There’s nowhere to sit for real in here.”

Steve was going to keep arguing—of course he was—but Bucky just tugged on his hand and led him out of the kitchen. He didn’t even put up a fight; Bucky must’ve really looked terrible.

Bucky dropped into a seat at the table and realized his legs were trembling, and not from the curse. He sighed a little and Steve searched his face. “Are you alright?” He asked worriedly. “Should I get the healers?”

Bucky shook his head wearily. “It’s the middle of the night,” he pointed out. “And I’m just tired, that’s all.”

Steve pursed his lips but he leaned his shoulder into Bucky, giving him something to rest against. Bucky’s eyes started drooping almost immediately. Sure, he’d been eating the last two days with Steve, but he’d been cooped up in a cell for three weeks. Walking for two days straight had wiped him out.

“Don’t fall asleep yet,” Mandy said, so Bucky had to drag his tired eyes open again. She set a bowl of soup in front of both of them and a loaf of still-warm bread between them. Bucky wasn’t sure how she’d carried it all, but he was too tired to really question it.

“I know you probably didn’t get out of isolation dreaming about soup,” she started, a little apologetically. “But you shouldn’t overdo it.”

“Mandy, I got out of isolation dreaming about your pretty face,” Bucky said, mostly on instinct. “Any food you bring me’s a bonus.”

She snorted, thoroughly unimpressed with his charm. “Eat your soup,” she said, turning to leave. “And there’ll be a good breakfast for you in the morning.”

“Thank you, Mandy,” Steve and Bucky chorused, both digging in. The soup was warm and delicious and somehow made Bucky feel happier just from tasting it. His legs felt stronger and the aches and pains from sleeping on the ground for two nights seemed to fade away.

Steve tore the loaf of bread in half and handed Bucky his share. “’s good,” he said through a mouthful. “’s so good.”

Bucky laughed at him. “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” he said haughtily. He couldn’t eat any of the bread until he finished his soup. And he had to eat it all; Mandy hadn’t specified, but she’d said eat your soup and Bucky’s brain was telling him she’d meant all of it.

They didn’t take long to get through their food, and they were both drooping by the end. “Let’s go to bed,” Steve suggested sleepily.

Bucky nodded through a yawn. “Think how soft it’s gonna be,” he said, and Steve groaned a little.

“I can’t walk that far,” he pouted. “Carry me, Buck.”

Bucky swallowed his last mouthful of bread. He knew Steve was just kidding. He knew that. Steve could’ve had two broken legs and he would’ve insisted on dragging himself around. But Bucky didn’t have a choice.

“Think I can carry you?” He said, trying not to let his voice sound tight with battling the curse. “You probably weigh more than I do.”

Steve laughed. “I’m sure I do,” he admitted, looking almost bashful about it. “Especially since you’re all skinny right now. Maybe I should carry you.”

But he hadn’t made it an order. “Here, hop on,” Bucky said, turning his back to Steve and reaching behind himself blindly to grab at Steve’s arm.

“Quit it, you’re not carrying me,” Steve said, laughing, and Bucky’s stomach unclenched. It was lucky he had practice in navigating Steve’s orders. And it was lucky Steve never actually ordered Bucky to do anything painful or terrible.

They got to Steve’s room and Dum-Dum sprang up, yelping excitedly and jumping up on Bucky with enough force to make him stagger backwards. Steve caught him and held him up.

“Dum-Dum,” he scolded. “Get down, Bucky’s hurt.”

Eerily, Dum-Dum immediately jumped down and then whined a little, pressing gently against Bucky’s legs, like he was contrite. Bucky stooped to pet the dog.

“Hey, boy,” he murmured. “Don’t listen to Steve. I’m fine.” Dum-Dum whined again and rested his head on Bucky’s knee. “I’ll be okay,” Bucky promised, not even stopping to feel silly about reassuring a dog. “You take good care of Steve while I was gone?”

Dum-Dum harrumphed a little, looking over at Steve, and Bucky laughed. Dum-Dum had to be the smartest dog in the world. Everyone probably thought that about their dogs, but Bucky just knew there was something special about Dum-Dum.

“I am capable of taking care of myself,” Steve pointed out huffily.

“Sure you are,” Bucky placated, scratching one last time behind Dum-Dum’s ears and standing up, holding in a groan. He felt so much better after eating, but his body was still stiff and sore.

He pulled off his shirt and goosebumps immediately rose up on his skin. He’d forgotten he wasn’t wearing an undershirt. They hadn’t been provided any with their uniforms. Steve was building up the fire, and Bucky went to the bureau to find a shirt to sleep in.

“Jesus,” Steve hissed, and Bucky turned around, thinking Steve had burned himself or something. Instead, Steve was staring at Bucky’s back. He came closer and touched a scar Rumlow had given Bucky with a belt.

“I forgot about that,” Bucky admitted, looking back over his shoulder. “Got that one not too long after I got there.”

“I’m going back to the Academy and I’m ripping the whole place down brick by brick.” Steve’s hand was warm against Bucky’s skin. It was strange, because all their lives Steve’s weak heart had meant his hands and feet were always cold. Now he was radiating heat even from a few inches away.

“Wasn’t the whole Academy’s fault,” Bucky told him, slightly hushed because his voice suddenly felt too loud for some reason.

“Anyone who knew what was happening and didn’t protect you helped hurt you.” Steve’s voice was soft, gentler than he usually was, and he was stroking his fingers up and down Bucky’s back. It made Bucky shiver a little, his stomach whirling the way it usually only did when he was disobeying an order. He couldn’t think what order he was forgetting about, though.

They stayed like that for a minute, looking at each other, and Bucky couldn’t figure out what this buzzing under his skin meant or why he was finding it hard to breathe. He finally swayed just a little and Steve frowned.

“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go to sleep.”

“We should wash up,” Bucky tried to protest. “Don’t want Evelyn to have to wash your dirty sheets not on washing day just because we went to bed filthy.”

Steve hesitated. He hated to create extra work for anyone. “It’s alright,” he finally decided, taking the shirt from Bucky and pulling it over his head. Bucky’s arms got stuck and they both laughed, but eventually he got the shirt on and his pants off. “I’ll wash ‘em myself.”

Bucky rolled his eyes a little, because there was no way Steve would be able to do that without someone noticing and taking over for him, but the sentiment was Steve to his very core. They lay down in Steve’s bed, and Bucky realized suddenly how small the bed was. Both of them fitting hadn’t been a real problem before, but now Steve was jumbo-sized.

“You are taking up an awful lot of room,” he accused, mostly asleep already with his arm around Steve’s waist and his face pressed up close to the back of Steve’s neck.

“I know,” Steve said mournfully. “Might have to get a bigger bed.”

Bucky laughed a little, drifting. “Bigger bed for a giant,” he said nonsensically. Steve snuggled back against Bucky.

“Go to sleep,” he murmured. Bucky didn’t even have time to feel the effects of the curse, because he was already obeying.

Bucky woke up slowly, relishing how warm he was and the heavy weight of Steve’s arm around him. Steve must’ve shifted around at some point in the night, because they were facing each other now. When Bucky opened his eyes, Steve was already awake, just staring at him. Neither of them spoke for a minute, lying there nose to nose, and then Steve’s stomach growled loud enough to nearly shake the bed and Bucky cracked up laughing.

“Guess that new body of yours needs more food, huh?” Bucky asked, trying to stretch a little but not able to go far because of how big Steve was.

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Steve admitted sheepishly. His stomach growled again, louder this time, and Bucky couldn’t help but laugh again.

“Well, let’s get going on breakfast then,” he suggested. “Otherwise I’m a little worried you’re going to eat me.”

Steve snorted. “You would not taste good.”

“Excuse me?” Bucky paused his quest for clean pants—Steve’s new pantsize was a little long for him, curses—to give Steve an offended look. “I would taste delicious.”

“You’re too full of bitterness,” Steve said, shaking his head. Bucky dropped his mouth open theatrically.

“You’re thinking of yourself. You would be disgusting.”

“I’m actually fine with that,” Steve told him. “I don’t much care if a cannibal finds me gross.”

“I find you gross,” Bucky muttered, glaring good-naturedly. Steve’s face softened, going fond and happy, and Bucky almost had to duck his head.

“I missed you, Buck,” Steve said, and Bucky sort of wanted to cry.

“I missed you, too,” he replied. “So much.” Horrifyingly, his voice broke a little, and he saw Steve’s eyes go wide and concerned. Steve quickly closed the space between them and wrapped his newly-huge arms around Bucky.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”

“I know,” Bucky said quickly, backing away. “I’m fine.” It wasn’t that he didn’t want Steve’s comfort. He just…didn’t know what was going on with himself. Maybe it was because he’d been alone for so long. He couldn’t seem to act right.

There was a beat of awkward between them before Steve said, “Well, let’s go get breakfast.”

Bucky didn’t know why he was being so weird. For months, he’d longed to be back with Steve, and now here he was and he could hardly bring himself to look at him. Was it just because Steve looked different now? But Steve didn’t look that different; he was bigger, sure, and his back wasn’t crooked anymore, but his chin was the same and his freckles were the same and his eyes were the same and his lips—

“Buck?” Steve interrupted his thoughts. “You gonna sit down?”

“James!” A few people called out to him. “You’re back!”

He must’ve still looked pretty rough, though, because he saw wide eyes and furrowed brows. He said his hellos to everyone, Dum-Dum steady on one side and Steve on the other, and his legs weren’t quite so shaky now that he’d had a proper night’s sleep on an actual bed.

Breakfast was delicious, of course, and seemed to give Bucky more strength than any breakfast he’d had at the Academy. Then again, he hadn’t often gotten to finish his breakfast at the Academy. He kept looking around the table, not sure what he was searching for, and then with a force like a punch to the gut he realized it.

Sarah wasn’t there. He knew, of course, that she wasn’t there. But it was so strange to be sitting here, eating, and not catch her eye across the table, make faces while Steve ranted about something they both actually agreed with him on but were teasing to get him more riled up.

Bucky had a hard time swallowing his potatoes. He turned to tell Steve—so strange without your Ma—but he stopped himself. Of course Steve knew it was strange without Sarah. Steve had been sitting across from her for far longer than Bucky ever had. She’d left a much larger hole in Steve’s life than Bucky’s. It would only be cruel to bring it up to Steve, reminding him of something he’d never forget, anyway.

“What is it?” Steve asked when he noticed Bucky half-turned to him.

“Hm?” Bucky said. “Uh, nothing.” Luckily, there was a commotion in the hall that captured everyone’s attention, and Bucky turned to see a beautiful dark-haired woman striding into the room.

“Peggy,” Steve breathed, and Bucky’s stomach dropped.

“Oh, Steve,” she said, walking straight up to his chair. Steve stood up and she hugged him tightly. “I left as soon as I heard about your mother. I’m so sorry.”

Bucky sat there awkwardly, unsure what to do. He never felt unsure of what to do when Steve was around. Usually what he needed to do was keep Steve laughing or keep him from fighting or back him up when he couldn’t keep him from fighting. But this…this was unfamiliar territory.

“Peggy, this is James Barnes,” Steve said. “Buck, Peggy Carter.”

Bucky stood up and bowed a little. “Nice to meet you, ma’am,” he said. He could hear how stiff his words sounded. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he added, because if nothing else he could still needle Steve. Sure enough, Steve flushed a little.

“And I you,” she replied, raising an eyebrow a little. “I thought you were at the Academy learning to be the greatest sniper in the history of mankind.”

Now Steve’s face was beet-red. “I didn’t say—”

“Oh, hush,” Peggy cut him off. “The way you talked about him I’d think he was magical.”

Bucky cracked a little grin at that. “Aw, Steve, really?” He teased. Steve had his shoulders hunched up by his ears, a scowl on his face.

“I wouldn’t’ve introduced you two if I’d known you were gonna gang up on me,” he said grumpily. Peggy shot Steve a fond look and Bucky’s heart stuttered a little. Oh. They were…oh.

“But really, weren’t you at the Academy?” Peggy asked.

“I, uh…” Bucky didn’t know what to say. “I left when I heard about Steve’s ma.”

“That’s why you left?” Steve asked quietly. Bucky turned to face him.

“Steve, of course. Soon as I got out I saw the flag at half-mast and left right away.”

“You should’ve left there anyway,” Steve said fiercely. Someone dropped a fork with a clatter that jarred them both. They’d turned in toward each other, in their own world the way they got sometimes.

“Sorry,” Bucky apologized to Peggy. “Steve and I just got found each other yesterday. Or…the day before?”

“It was yesterday by then, I think,” Steve pointed out. “Bucky was…well, there are some things about the Academy that require some more oversight, I think.”

Peggy was looking between them, assessing, and then she nodded. “Right. Would it be alright if I put my horse up in your stable? He deserves a good long rest.”

“Of course,” Steve said, starting to step away from the table like he was going to go attend to her horse himself. One of the stable boys rolled his eyes and sprang up from the table.

“I’ll take care of that, ma’am,” he said. “You can stay at the table, Your Highness.”

“Thank you, Jacob,” Steve said. “Peggy, here, sit, you must be starving.”

Bucky drifted a bit during breakfast. It was so loud in the dining hall, so full of people who were talking and laughing and arguing. Bucky felt raw, like he was recovering from a long illness. Someone walked behind his chair and he flinched away instinctively, worried it was Rumlow coming to take him away for some chores or to punish—

But no. He was in the castle. Steve and Peggy were talking animatedly and Steve kept shooting little looks at Bucky. Rumlow wasn’t here. Rumlow couldn’t get to him. The only danger he was in was being suffocated by Steve’s massive new tree-trunk limbs.

After they finished breakfast, Steve and Peggy decided to go to the library to look up some old map of the kingdoms that had something to do with whatever they’d been talking about while Bucky had been zoning out.

“I’m going to help Mandy in the kitchen,” Bucky said. Steve’s eyebrows drew together.

“Are you sure?” He asked, putting a hand on Bucky’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I’ll come find you when I’m done,” Bucky promised. Steve searched his face for a minute, frowning a little at whatever he found there, but didn’t push it.

“Alright,” he said. “We’ll just be in the library.”

Bucky helped clear up some of the dishes and carried them into the kitchen. He put them in the basin of soapy water Mandy already had waiting and tied an apron around his waist before getting started washing.

“And what, pray tell, are you doing?” Mandy asked when she came in behind him.

“Helping,” Bucky said.

“I don’t think the king brought you back to be on his wait staff,” she said. Bucky flinched a little.

“Don’t call him the king,” he practically begged. She raised an eyebrow.

“He is, though.”

“Not yet,” Bucky argued. “Not for a few more years.” Just let him be Steve, he thought. Being the prince had kept him busy, sometimes, but mostly he’d been all Bucky’s. Once he was king, Bucky would have to share him with the whole kingdom.

“He doesn’t like being called the king anyway,” Mandy said. “Said he’d rather be the Captain of the Guard.”

Bucky shuddered a little. Rumlow used to talk about being made Captain. Steve had a lot to learn about being in the Guard, about surviving and about fighting, but Bucky had no doubt he’d be better than Rumlow.

“Isolation, huh?” Mandy said, standing beside him to dry the dishes. Bucky stiffened a little.

“I didn’t do what they said I did,” he defended himself quickly.

“I believe you didn’t,” Mandy told him. “But I know isolation can be rough.”

Bucky washed another plate, biting his lip, before he spoke, tone flippant. “It was fine,” he lied. “No one there to bother me.”

“No one there to care for you, either,” she pointed out softly. Bucky closed his eyes, hands still submerged.

“I’m fine.”

“Bet you aren’t,” she argued without any heat. They went on working in silence for a while. Bucky couldn’t stop thinking about the bag that kept refilling itself with food, the soup that warmed his bones and made his aches disappear.

“Mandy?” He asked a little timidly.

“Hm?”

“Are you…” He licked his lips. “Well, I mean…how did I keep getting more food while I was away?”

She looked at him for a long minute, then glanced over both shoulders. “How do you think? Sounds like you’ve got an idea or two.”

Bucky looked down at his wrinkling fingers. “Are you magic?” He asked.

Mandy was quiet for so long Bucky was sure she wasn’t going to answer. But she did. “Yes. I’m a fairy.”

A fairy! All this time, so close to him. And she had to be powerful; her magic had reached him even when he was away. His heart was a fluttering ball in his chest as he thought about how powerful she must be.

“Can you undo curses?” He finally asked, voice barely above a whisper. There was another long silence. Bucky couldn’t dare peek at her. He felt like his question would break into a million pieces if he asked.

“No,” she said. His heart clattered to the ground, along with the dish he was holding. It broke, of course, and Bucky’s throat ached with tears he refused to shed. His curse had been an annoyance, a potential danger, all his life, but the last several months at the Academy had showed him the real burden it was. Burden wasn’t a strong enough word. It was a millstone around his neck, and he was standing on the edge of a river. All it would take was one little nudge to send him in.

“I’ve got it, love,” Mandy murmured, and then she flicked her wrist and the pieces of the plate rose into the air and into the garbage. Bucky stared numbly. She could fix a broken plate, but she couldn’t fix him.

“I thought you might be wondering that,” she admitted after a moment. “I never knew, of course, but I thought I recognized Zola’s work. The obedience. He saved that one for special occasions.”

Bucky was losing the battle against tears. She’d known? How long had she known and not said anything? His breathing was hitching and he held his breath to keep it steady.

“Why can’t you?” He whispered. “Can’t anyone?”

“Only you can break it,” she told him sadly. “And I don’t know how.”

Bucky pulled his hands out of the sink angrily. “That’s all anyone can tell me,” he snarled. “That I can do it but they can’t tell me how. What good is that?”

Mandy looked so impossibly sad, and it made him angrier. What good was her sadness? What good was anything? He was going to be cursed forever, used by anyone who wanted to use him until he eventually died from trying to follow impossible orders.

“I’m sorry,” Mandy said. Bucky turned away. Everyone who knew was so sorry, but couldn’t give him anything useful. All the fairies and wizards and magicians his parents had gone to, Natasha, and now Mandy—they told him it was possible, but that was all they told him. It was useless. How on earth could he break it himself? If he could, he would’ve done it already, when Rumlow was ordering him around and making him a human punching bag.

He wandered the halls of the castle for a while, trying to calm down, but everything made him feel worse. He went outside, where the air was still cold but spring was trying to worm its way up to the earth. He walked until he found himself at the gnarled old tree he and Steve used to meet at. They used to climb its branches and hide from Coulson, used to eat its bitter apples and see who could withstand the most. Everything had been simpler then, as children; Bucky had been cursed, but he’d been loved, too, and he’d had his parents to protect him.

Now neither of them were children, and Bucky was home again, but he’d never felt more lost.

He didn’t know how long he’d been out there, back against the trunk of the tree because it was too old to reliably hold him anymore, before Steve came to find him. Steve didn’t say anything as he sat beside Bucky and rested against the trunk, their shoulders touching.

“Where’s Peggy?” Bucky broke the silence first.

“She’s resting,” Steve told him. “She’s been riding for a week.” Bucky didn’t say anything. Steve leaned a little more into him. “Are you okay, Buck? Really?”

Bucky probably would’ve cried, once upon a time, but instead he felt numb. “I guess.”

“That means no,” Steve countered.

“You’re the one we should be worried about,” Bucky said. “Your ma just died, Steve. And you’re pretending nothing’s wrong, like she went on a trip or something.”

Steve practically crumpled beside him. Bucky felt a twinge of guilt—he really had been worried about Steve, deep underneath all his own feelings, but he was mostly bringing up Steve’s hurt to get Steve to stop thinking about his.

“I miss her,” Steve whispered.

“I know,” Bucky said truthfully. It had been half a year and he still missed his parents. Steve rested his head on Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky tilted his own head down to rest on Steve’s. “You don’t gotta pretend you’re okay.”

“I can get by on my own,” Steve said stubbornly. Bucky sighed.

“The thing is, you don’t have to,” he reminded Steve. Steve was so intent on not needing anyone’s help all the time, he didn’t stop to think about the fact that people wanted to help him. Everyone in the palace loved Steve. He was kind and fair and learned all their names. He tried to help them do their chores and he didn’t tolerate any cruelty. But Bucky thought just maybe, even if Steve wouldn’t accept anyone else’s help, he might take Bucky’s. “I’m with you to the end of the line, pal.”

Steve turned and buried his face in Bucky’s neck. “Look who’s talking.”

Bucky snorted. Steve could never just take a good thing at face value. “I am glad you came for me, though,” he said. “I was…I was going a little crazy in there.”

“I was going a little crazy here,” Steve admitted. “Didn’t have Ma, didn’t have your letters…I didn’t know what to do.”

“How’d you get big, Steve? You said it was that wizard. Did it hurt?”

“A little.” That was a lie. Bucky could hear it. It was probably agony. And Steve had probably taken it willingly. Sometime, when they weren’t both in the midst of breakdowns, he’d give Steve a swift kick to the behind for that.

“Did your ma know you were going to try it before she died?” Bucky asked. Steve shifted and Bucky knew the answer before he spoke.

“No,” Steve said. “Dr. Erskine didn’t tell me about it until he got here.” Bucky didn’t ask if Steve thought Sarah would’ve approved. He’d just torture himself over it, and there was no sense to it. Whether or not she would’ve approved didn’t make any difference now.

“I feel like I might’ve actually gone crazy,” Bucky finally told Steve. He’d never tell another soul, not even any of his sisters, but he could tell Steve, sitting here beneath their tree and not looking at each other, spilling hushed secrets and hunched together. Steve wrapped his arm around Bucky’s shoulders.

“Well,” he said. “I’m following you, so be careful where we go.”

Bucky scoffed. “Since when are you following me? I’m following you.”

“Sure,” Steve said. “Now you have to. I’m almost the king, and I’m the new Captain of the Guard.”

Bucky shook his head. He’d been following Steve for far longer than Steve had been a captain or anything more than a skinny kid with scraped knees and black eyes, and he’d follow him if he went back to that tiny guy whose heart was too big for his body.

“No,” Bucky said, shifting a little closer and letting his head fall against Steve’s. “That little guy who was too dumb not to run away from a fight. I’m following him.”

Chapter Text

It felt strange to be back at the castle. Bucky kept feeling like he should be doing something, which was a little funny considering how much of his life he’d spent around the castle not doing anything. Maybe it was all those months at the Academy, not getting a moment to himself and always working, that had changed him. Maybe it was that sitting around doing nothing made it painfully obvious how much the castle had changed.

Or, worse still, how much he had changed.

Had the castle hallways always been so drafty and cold, or was it that Bucky was still skinny and always cold? Had the outside guards always been so coarse and crass or was Bucky shying away from harsh words more than he used to?

Not to mention Bucky was suddenly, painfully, aware of how much time Steve was spending with Peggy.

Bucky had always wanted someone to see Steve for who he really was, see past his bruised knuckles and stubborn chin to the giant heart thrumming away and forcing him to stand up for everyone, everyone, everyone. He’d always wanted someone to notice the way Steve’s eyelashes fanned out across his cheeks when he looked down. He’d always wanted someone to appreciate Steve’s dry wit and hoarse laugh.

But now someone was seeing, noticing, appreciating, and Bucky wasn’t as happy as he should have been. It made him feel guilty. When Steve went off with Peggy to the library to bend their heads over some old book, Bucky went to the kitchen to peel potatoes as fast as he could. When Peggy eyed Steve with open admiration, Bucky looked at his feet. When Steve smiled like Peggy herself caused the sunrise every morning, Bucky let himself quietly out of the room and pretended he wasn’t counting how long it took Steve to realize he was gone and come looking for him.

He was hiding out in the stables one day after he’d been back for nearly two weeks when Steve came out with his determined face on. Bucky had been cleaning stalls earlier, but now he was sitting on a hay bale outside Lady Red’s stall, Dum-Dum lying on the ground beside him. Lady Red was the royal stables’ most trusty broodmare. She’d had a bout of colic all week and the grooms had been taking shifts staying with her.

“Here you are,” Steve said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Bucky shrugged. “I’ve been working.”

Steve looked at him for a long minute. “You know you don’t have to earn your keep or anything like that around here.”

Bucky rounded his shoulders and picked at the bale he was sitting on. “What am I supposed to do all day?”

“I don’t know. We used to fill our days pretty easily,” Steve reminded him with a little smile that made Bucky’s stomach hurt.

“Yeah, well, you’re a little busy these days.” It slipped out before Bucky could stop it, bitterer than he’d let himself sound since he’d been back. Steve’s brow furrowed and Bucky looked away again.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve asked.

“Means what I said,” Bucky mumbled. “You’re the king now. Got stuff to do.”

“That’s not what you meant,” Steve challenged. “And I’m not the king yet.”

“Who’s handling the decisions for the kingdom?” Bucky asked. “You’re still doing your diplomat stuff. Who’s doing…whatever your ma did?”

Steve shoved Bucky over a little to take a seat on the hay bale. “The Security Council. But some of the members want to vote to appoint a regent.”

“Who d’you think they’d pick?”

“I don’t know. I’ve heard a few people talk about Councilor Pierce being a good choice. He was a solider with my dad, so he’d be able to help if HYDRA really does come and try to invade us.” Steve gave Bucky a hard look. “Don’t change the subject. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Bucky blew out a breath. “What do you want me to say?” He snapped, not just buying time. “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore when I went half a year without free time? I’m worried if I stop working someone’s going to punish me?” He swallowed hard, but the acid rising in his throat felt like it was from the truth of his words rather than the curse. He’d apparently satisfied it.

Steve made a wounded noise in the back of his throat. “They’d have to go through me first,” he vowed, low and angry.

“That’d mean you’d have to notice anything other than Peggy for five seconds.”

The words hung between them for a minute, heavy and uncomfortable. Bucky wanted to take them back. He didn’t want to pop Steve’s bubble of happiness. Truly, he didn’t. But he felt like there was something ugly and angry growing inside him. He’d always had spite in his core, making him contrary to his cursed obedience, and he felt like everything that had happened at the Academy had made it worse.

“Oh,” Steve said. Neither of them said anything for a minute, and then Bucky sighed.

“Forget it,” he told Steve. “She likes you. I knew there had to be one girl on earth who would.” He was joking now, but it fell a little flat.

“It’s just…” Steve trailed off. “She didn’t treat me any different before. She saw me, you know?”

So did I, Bucky didn’t say. “I know,” he promised. “And that makes me think she’s good enough for you.”

Steve huffed. “I’m not good enough for her.”

“Well, you got that right,” Bucky teased. Steve grabbed him around the neck and put him in a headlock. Bucky retaliated by digging his fingers into the side of Steve’s hip, where he’d been ticklish for as long as Bucky could remember. Steve yelped and squirmed away and fell right off the hay bale, where Dum-Dum immediately breathed his dog-breath right into Steve’s face. Bucky laughed so hard he hit his head on the wooden door to Lady Red’s stall behind him, which set Steve off laughing again.

Lady Red whuffed out a sigh. She was getting old. There was no telling how many raucous boys she’d had to put up with wrestling outside her stall. She seemed fairly tired of it. Bucky stood up and peeked over the wall.

“How you holding up, girl?” He asked. She gave him a look that was pretty judgmental, even for a horse, and they always looked vaguely judgmental. Bucky wasn’t sure if she was judging him for being a terrible friend or making too much noise when she wasn’t feeling well. Possibly both.

“Okay, okay,” Bucky soothed her. “Steve’s going back to the castle and I’m just going to be quiet and read my book in case you need me, alright?”

“Who says I’m going back to the castle?” Steve asked indignantly. “Maybe I’m gonna stay out here with you.”

It made Bucky feel warm all over, but he raised a skeptical eyebrow at Steve. “You gonna be quiet? We can’t bother Lady.”

Steve scoffed. “Oh, right, I’m the loud one.”

Bucky refrained from pointing out that between sniper training and sitting in isolation for three weeks, he’d learned to be pretty damn quiet. Steve would get restless in two minutes, anyway. He never could sit still for long. Reminded him too much of being sick and bedridden.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Steve was shifting around and sighing a lot. Bucky kept his finger in his book, marking his place, and gave Steve a look.

“Just go inside,” he said.

“No,” Steve responded stubbornly.

“Why?” Bucky asked, exasperated. “You’re bored.”

Steve’s cheeks colored slightly and he ducked his head a little. “I just got you back,” he said softly. “Is it so wrong I want to spend time with you?”

Bucky wasn’t entirely sure what the feeling in his chest meant, but he didn’t try to hide his smile. “Well,” he said, and then stopped because he wasn’t sure where to go from there. “Can’t blame you, I guess.” He filled his voice with extra bravado. “Pretty face like mine.”

Steve snorted and leaned back against the stall, closing his eyes like he was settling in to take a nap. “Sure, Barnes,” he said. “You’re real pretty.”

He was being sarcastic, sure, but it still gave Bucky a little thrill to hear, and he thought, between one heartbeat and the next, oh, that’s what that is.

 

Now that Bucky had realized why he was so unhappy about Steve spending time with Peggy, he avoided the both of them even more. It was a combination of the jealousy burning up his chest and the guilt he felt over wanting Steve to only be happy with him.

“Where do you keep disappearing to?” Steve asked, annoyed, after Bucky had been dodging him for three days.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bucky lied, hoping Steve wouldn’t press. For once, Steve didn’t, though he didn’t look pleased about it.

“I’m going into the war room to plan. Will you come with me?” It was so unlike Steve to ask, and he sounded unsure.

“Yeah, course I will,” Bucky said automatically. Maybe he was also cursed with doing whatever Steve wanted him to. He couldn’t find it in himself to feel too unhappy about that one, though. “What are we doing?”

“We’re strategizing,” Steve said, head held high even as his ears went red. “For taking out HYDRA.”

Bucky assessed him for a second. There was no reason for him to sound so defensive just to Bucky. “People been saying things about how you shouldn’t be doing it?” He guessed, and the way Steve pursed his lips was all the answer he needed.

“There’s people who don’t think it’s proper, for the soon-to-be-king to go off fighting,” Steve muttered. “And then there’s the people who say—well.”

“Well what?” Bucky asked, eyes narrowed, because now Steve was embarrassed and he didn’t get embarrassed over propriety.

Steve hesitated for a second, but he couldn’t really hold back from confiding in Bucky. Not that it made Bucky’s stomach swoop or anything. “They say…they say I shouldn’t be the captain because I…don’t know anything.”

Logically, Bucky understood the criticism. After all, Steve wasn’t exactly battle-tested. He had no training. He’d come running after Bucky without so much as a pack of food. He’d never shot a gun in his life.

But mostly, Bucky felt anger burning in his chest. It wasn’t just that people were criticizing Steve—hell, Bucky criticized Steve plenty. It was that they told Steve these criticisms, made him feel small. Steve had a chip on his shoulder bigger than the kingdom, and at least half of it was made up of the need to prove himself because so many people had thought him worthless for so long. There had always been whispers, people saying he wouldn’t live long enough to be king and that he shouldn’t, anyway, because he was too frail to lead the whole kingdom. And now here he was, trying to prove himself as always, and they were still doing it.

“What the hell do they know?” Bucky asked.

Steve shrugged. “Well, you know, some of ‘em are on the war council. They probably know a lot.”

“So what?” Bucky said, indignant. “You’ve probably read more about troop strategy than they have. You need a little training, so we’ll train you. I can teach you how to shoot, how to fight. Anyway, they can’t tell you what to do. We’re going to fight HYDRA and you’re leading us.”

Steve’s whole face was bright red now. “Buck,” he murmured. “Who’s us, anyway? Those other guys, they won’t follow me.”

Bucky grinned. “You know, it just so happens I know a few guys.”

 

Steve sent off a carriage, and Bucky spent the rest of the day in agony teaching Steve to shoot. He had to get real close to Steve’s body, flattening himself up against Steve’s back, wrapping his arms around Steve to show him how to hold the gun.

Steve’s new body was strange to Bucky. He didn’t have sharp little elbows anymore. Bucky couldn’t feel each of his ribs and the knobs in his spine. He was all muscle and his hips were in a totally different place and Bucky didn’t quite know what to do. He’d never been conscious of how he’d felt about Steve’s old body, but the realization he’d had definitely wasn’t a product of this new body. Bucky mourned Steve’s bird bones even as he grudgingly admitted it was nice that Steve could stand up fast without almost falling over.

And now that Bucky knew how he felt, well. Seeing Steve with his shirt off almost sent Bucky into a conniption, so apparently he didn’t mind either of Steve’s forms.

“Like this?” Steve asked innocently, grip completely wrong, and Bucky groaned internally a little. Steve was killing him.

Steve,” Bucky groaned out loud. “You have such a good memory. Why do you keep doing this wrong?”

“I don’t know!” Steve snapped, getting annoyed now. “We’ve only done it like three times! Sorry I didn’t spend six months learning.”

“Maybe I should go grab your chamber pot shield,” Bucky teased. Once, when they were fifteen, Steve had dived into a fight with the top of a chamber pot.

“They used shields in the last war,” Steve reminded him.

“Yeah, and swords,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. “We have guns now, Steve.”

Steve grumped and grumbled, but he let Bucky correct his grip three more times before he had it down. He was still a bit sloppy, but they’d keep working. It had only been one afternoon.

Just before dinner, the carriage came back from the Academy, and Gabe, Dernier, Morita, and Monty came tumbling out. Bucky felt, suddenly, a thick lump in his throat at the sight of them. They’d stuck by his side, done what they could for him, for six months of misery, and they’d all but saved him there at the end by sending Steve after him. Sure, he’d already set out, but he had no idea if he’d have made it all the way back alone.

“Barnes!” Monty cried happily, running over and practically tackling him. “You didn’t even say goodbye.”

Soon Bucky was stumbling under the weight of everyone else, too, and he was laughing even though he could hardly breathe. In the gap between Gabe’s head and Morita’s armpit, Bucky spotted Steve, standing off to the side, looking awkward, and that couldn’t stand.

“Alright, alright, you missed me, you’re lost without me,” Bucky said, standing upright again. “I get it. Guys, this is Steve.”

For once, the whole group of them was silent. Gabe’s mouth was actually open.

“Um, hi,” Steve said, waving dorkily. Bucky snorted.

“What’s wrong with you guys?” He asked.

“That is the prince, no?” Dernier asked.

“Oh,” Bucky said. “Well, yeah.”

Well, yeah,” Morita mocked, sounding a little hysterical. “All this time your pal Steve was Prince Steven?”

“Yeah…” Bucky said slowly. “Didn’t you know that? You sent him a letter.”

“We sent the letter to the address on your letters!” Monty said, and then Bucky realized what was going on. He hadn’t wanted anyone to find out about Steve, and Steve was fine with the subterfuge (Steve was almost always fine with subterfuge), so Bucky had sent letters to Steve at Mandy’s goddaughter’s house.

“Right,” Bucky said, wincing. “Uh, sorry about that.”

“That’s why you were so good at history of the kingdom!” Gabe said.

“He argued with the instructor,” Morita informed Steve.

“He does that a lot,” Steve said.

“It brought trouble,” Dernier said.

“So, you guys ready to take down HYDRA?” Bucky cut in quickly. They didn’t need to rehash all the trouble he’d gotten into. He didn’t really want to give Steve more ammunition for those sad looks.

Steve gave him a dirty look that meant they’d be discussing it later and turned to the boys. “He’s right. I brought you here to ask if you’d like to be placed on a special task force with me and Bucky. It’ll be dangerous and covert and we won’t have a lot of backup most of the time.”

“We’re fresh from the Academy,” Gabe pointed out. “We don’t have any experience. Don’t you have access to the entire Royal Guard?”

“Bucky trusts you,” Steve said. “That’s all the trust I need.”

“This is crazy,” Morita said. “An entire team of green recruits?”

“I said it’ll be dangerous,” Steve reminded him.

“I think it sounds rather fun,” Monty declared.

Morita shrugged. “Long as we all know what we’re getting into.”

Dernier rattled off something in French and Gabe laughed loudly. “We’re in,” he translated.

“Okay,” Steve said, smiling. “Good. Great.”

They all stood there looking at each other for a minute, not sure what was supposed to happen next. “Well?” Monty asked good-naturedly. “You’re our captain. What should we do?”

“Um.” Steve swallowed, floundering just a little. He’d never really led a group before. Sure, the servants and guards in the castle did what he said, but they also often ignored what he said and did what the queen or Coulson or Fury had ordered. Bucky saw him barely treading water and had to jump in.

“We should keep training,” Bucky said boldly. “We’ve got a lot to do.”

“Right,” Steve agreed, bravado in his voice that made Bucky want to beam with pride. “Let’s get to work.”

 

Their training was a bit of a mess. It was slightly better than the blind leading the blind, but Steve had natural leadership skills that helped him bluff his way through it. Plus, Peggy came out to help them, and Bucky was surprised by how much she knew.

“Thought I was just some stuffy war room diplomat?” She guessed accurately after Bucky looked amazed at her shooting skills.

“Yeah,” he said honestly. “I did.”

She smiled a little at his candor. It was the best—and longest—conversation they’d had. Bucky was afraid she’d be able to see exactly why he resented her, so he avoided her.

“Steve’s quite abysmal at shooting, isn’t he?” She asked casually.

Bucky opened his mouth to defend Steve, because that was always his reflex, but he stopped. Peggy wasn’t being malicious. Peggy loved Steve, too. He snorted. “He really is.”

“I saw him throwing around the targets for you to shoot at, and I thought he might do better with a shield.”

“Honestly?” Bucky asked, incredulous. “People don’t use shields still in battle.”

“What I have in mind isn’t quite a regular shield,” she promised with a little smirk.

Later, they watched as Steve threw the shield with enough strength and accuracy to chop a hay bale in half.

“Okay,” Bucky said, impressed. “I see what you mean.”

“Part of effective training is finding everyone’s strengths,” Peggy told him. “Using their talents to best benefit the team.”

“This isn’t the first time you’ve put a team together,” Bucky realized.

“No,” she agreed.

“Are you going to come fight with us?” He had to force the question out. She would be an incredible asset in the field. But Bucky was jealous and selfish and horrible. He wanted Steve to himself.

“I’m not,” she told him, almost gentle now. “I have my own responsibilities, you know. I do have a post in my kingdom.”

“Right,” Bucky said. They were both quiet for a minute, watching as Gabe and Dernier tried to figure out the best way to stack the two halves of the bale up to make it higher than the original and see if Steve could still hit it. Steve was scolding Dum-Dum who kept getting underfoot and was in danger of getting hit if Steve lost control. “So…what happens when Steve becomes king?” Bucky asked finally.

“What do you mean?” Peggy asked.

“With you and Steve. Will you come to live here?” The question felt like pulling out his own teeth, but he figured it would be better to know. He’d need time to prepare himself. Peggy turned to look at him.

“No,” Peggy said. “I’m not going to come live here. I can’t abandon my kingdom and my people. And Steve can’t abandon his. And so…well.”

Bucky swallowed hard. He could see a slight pain in her eyes, and it made him feel bad. But he felt worse for Steve. “Does he realize that?” He asked, nodding toward Steve. He and Steve hadn’t spoken at all about Peggy since the day in the barn. They danced around the subject now, and Steve was awkward and squirrely about how he spent his time when he wasn’t with Bucky.

“We’ve discussed it,” she said quietly.

“Oh,” Bucky murmured. He thought about how sad that must make Steve—to finally find a woman who actually saw him, knew him, deserved him, and both of them too honor-bound to their respective duties to be together.

“I think he’ll be alright,” Peggy cut into his thoughts. Bucky made a considering noise.

“He cares about you a lot,” Bucky made himself say. It was the truth, and surely she knew that, anyway.

“He cares about others, too,” she said cryptically, and when he gave her a confused look she just raised her eyebrows. “Shall we go join them?” She asked instead of answering him. “I believe our Frenchman friend is going to try to set that bale of hay on fire.”

Dernier had a slight obsession with explosives and fire. It wasn’t the worst thing—it would come in handy when they were fighting, to be sure—but it added an extra layer of stress to life whenever Bucky noticed him standing beside anything flammable.

“Did you see?” Steve asked excitedly once they were within earshot. “I hit it every time.”

“Yes, well done,” Peggy said with a fond smile. Steve’s smile went soft around the edges and Bucky’s throat burned. He was selfish and wanted Steve to himself, sure, but he’d never actively rooted against Peggy. He wanted Steve to be happy.

“What do you think, Buck?” Steve asked, twirling the shield in his hand. “Can I bring it into battle?”

Bucky forced himself to look directly at Steve. His hope and happiness made him shine like the sun. It hurt Bucky’s eyes and his heart. Steve seemed so happy, and soon he’d be so sad.

“I guess it passes the test,” Bucky said, making himself sound jovial and carefree. “Long as you’re the one throwing it.”

Steve laughed. “Maybe I’ll teach you, huh? You made fun of me with the shooting, I’ll get my payback.”

Bucky snorted. “Hey, pal, there’s not a weapon I can’t handle.”

“Come and get it, then!” Steve taunted. He took off running, glancing quickly over his shoulder, Dum-Dum barking and setting out beside him. Steve was running, waiting for Bucky to give chase, and the pull Bucky felt was more than just the curse and the command. Even without it, Bucky would have no choice. He did what he had to do. He followed Steve.

Chapter Text

Bucky looked for movement, a ripple in the bushes, anything that would alert him to the presence of anyone else. He saw nothing. He raised the scope to focus on Steve. Steve was creeping along, heading to the bunker. The grass beneath his feet was barely moving with his steps, and it was jarring when Bucky thought of how clumsy he used to be—he’d once tripped in a hallway and brought down an entire suit of armor.

There. A spot of black against the green spring leaves, just a flash before it was gone, but Bucky knew where they were going. He counted in his head, keeping track, and moved slightly to his left to account for the wind changing his trajectory.

He squeezed the trigger. Perfect hit. Steve dashed forward at the burst of sound and wrenched open the bunker doors. He whooped and pumped his fist, his mouth moving with words Bucky couldn’t hear from so far away.

The guard who’d been playing HYDRA for their training exercise threw his hands up, exasperated, as the rest of the guys came out of the woods, hollering and gloating. The guard had paint splattered all over the back of his head, Bucky noted smugly. He would be completely dead if this had been real.

Bucky made his way down the ridge he’d been perched on, getting to the group in time for Dum-Dum to start howling, his own way of celebrating their triumph.

“Can’t you get that dog to shut up?” The guard grumbled. “It’s bad enough you lot are so loud—you can’t do that in a real maneuver; you do know that, don’t you?”

“Oh, come on, Jackson,” Steve said jovially. “You’re just bitter because your team’s lost three times in a row.”

Jackson harrumphed and Steve laughed at him, high on his success and how fast he’d been able to run. His cheeks were flushed with exertion and excitement, his hair ruffled from where he’d taken off his helmet, and Bucky had to look away for a bit, biting the inside of his cheek.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Steve decided. “It’s about dinnertime, I think.”

Morita snorted. “If we can’t keep a clock with us, we’ve got your stomach to tell the time.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Oh please. I could hear yours rumbling all the way in the treeline.”

“I think that was a different part of him,” Gabe muttered. Some of the other guards, dressed in black to simulate HYDRA, came slouching out of the woods, annoyed at losing again. They were covered in colored chalk, meaning Dernier had set off a fake explosion again. All dead, by Bucky’s count.

“I can’t believe you made that shot,” Monty said, shaking his head at Bucky. “I heard the instructors saying you were good, but that was incredible.”

“The shooting instructor said you are the best he has seen,” Dernier added.

“Of course he is,” Steve said proudly. “Bucky’s the best there is.”

They all started walking back to the castle, everyone arguing and laughing, Dum-Dum barking along with them. Bucky didn’t say much. It took him a little bit to come back from sniper mode. He had to go into a different setting in his brain to get that quiet and still, and getting back to normal wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Steve slung an arm easily around his shoulders, grounding him. Touch helped, a bit, to bring him back.

By the time they got back to the castle, Bucky was okay again. He laughed when Dum-Dum ran in the front door first and then turned back to look at them all, as if he was asking, What’s taking you guys so long?

“You boys are so loud,” Mandy complained at dinner. “You keep scaring the chickens like that and we’re not going to have eggs.” She looked pointedly at Dum-Dum, who was perched on his back legs, paws on Bucky’s leg and nose peeking up over the edge of the table. “The howling is what gets ‘em.”

“Aw, come on, Mandy,” Bucky said. “Dum-Dum just wants everyone to know he’s happy, too, don’t you, boy?” Bucky asked, rubbing Dum-Dum’s ears and slipping him a piece of roast beef. Dum-Dum whuffed happily and Bucky cringed a little. “Gotta start brushing your teeth.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “His breath’s almost as bad as yours, Buck.”

Bucky wanted to throw a green bean at him, but he knew Mandy would make him pay for it. He settled for innocently scratching his nose with his middle finger. Steve cracked up laughing.

Monty and Peggy were deep in conversation, heads bent close together. Bucky nodded at them. “That can’t be anything good.”

Steve shrugged. “You’re the one who put the candle wax in Monty’s tea last week,” he reminded Bucky. “It’s your own fault if they retaliate.”

“If they come after me, I’m taking you down with me,” Bucky informed him.

“How do you know I won’t be in on it?” Steve asked, grinning wolfishly.

Bucky gave him an outraged look. “Et tu, Brute?”

“Who you calling a brute?”

Bucky snorted, trying to keep the dopey smile off his face. He hated that he couldn’t just joke around with Steve anymore. Not without having feelings. Monty and Peggy both looked over at him, eyebrows raised, and he groaned. That was never a good sign.

He was on high alert for the next few days, but nothing happened. He was starting to wonder if the prank was just making him think they were going to prank him. Things proceeded as normal; they trained during the daylight hours. Bucky got letters from his sisters that made him happy and sad at the same time. He decidedly left out the part of his story where he was left in isolation for three weeks and all but starved. He wouldn't tell the younger girls that, anyway, but he wouldn't put it past Becca to track Rumlow down and try to make him pay.

But then one day he and Steve were woken by Peggy pounding on the door to Steve’s quarters. They were still sharing the room, even though there was plenty of space. Bucky could have moved into the Guard quarters with the rest of the guys. But Steve had only shrugged when he’d suggested it, and Bucky didn’t actually want to, so he stayed put. Bucky was awake instantly at the sound. Steve…took longer to wake up. They were working on it.

“What?” Bucky asked, voice raspy.

“Steve needs to get to the war room now,” Peggy said, all business. Bucky rolled his eyes. He was pretty sure she was just getting him alone so Monty could exact some kind of revenge on him.

“Yeah, okay,” he said. “Soon as Steve wakes up I’ll send him over.”

“No, Barnes, wake him up,” Peggy snapped, and Bucky realized this wasn’t part of any silly prank war. He shoved at Steve’s giant shoulder obediently.

“Steve, get up,” he ordered. “Peggy needs you.”

“Uhh,” Steve groaned.

“Steve,” Bucky said, shaking him. Steve needed to hurry up and wake up so Bucky’s stomach would settle.

“What?” Steve asked, eyes opening for real this time.

“Peggy needs you,” Bucky repeated. “War room. Sounds bad.”

Steve blinked twice and then sat up. “You coming?”

“I guess,” Bucky said.

“You’re one of my advisors,” Steve reminded him with a lopsided smile as he pulled his pants on. Bucky snorted and buttoned his shirt.

“Fix your hair,” he said. “You can’t walk in looking like you just woke up.”

Steve didn’t answer, but he did as he was told. He’d always had his ma to remind him about things like that, but now Bucky had to make sure to do it. Bucky knew that Steve knew he needed to look presentable, but it wasn’t something he’d ever cared about, so it didn’t stay in his head, regardless of his amazing memory.

They went into the war room and saw a sea of taut, concerned faces. There was a seat next to Monty open, as well as the head of the table. Steve pursed his lips a little but took the head seat without comment while Bucky slid into the spot by Monty.

“Your Highness,” one of the councilmembers started. Steve didn’t react visibly to probably anyone else in the room, but Bucky could see that he was already uncomfortable. Maybe Peggy could, as well, because she interrupted.

“We don’t have time for courtesies,” she said. “Steve, HYDRA is encroaching on your borders.”

The councilmember glared at her, but didn’t bother getting angry. At the end of the day, he was on Steve’s war council. He’d get a vote in anything that happened. Peggy didn’t even live in the kingdom, no matter her relationship to Steve.

“Where?” Steve asked, immediately concerned and engaged. “Which borders?”

Someone slid a map over to Steve. From across the table, Bucky could see it was marked. Steve studied it for a moment, jaw clenched.

“There are no Guard posts there anymore,” he said. “Those people have no protection.” His nostrils flared. “This is my fault.”

“Your Highness!” A councilmember protested. “The fall of the Guard post was not your fault.”

“We should have sent reinforcements as soon as we knew they needed them,” Steve all but growled, never mind that it had barely happened yesterday. “We’re heading out today.” He nodded at Bucky, Monty, Gabe, Dernier, and Morita.

“Surely you don’t mean to leave the kingdom without a ruler!” The first councilmember, still glaring like he’d smelled something unpleasant, said.

“The council can vote on decisions as always. Send messengers to me for anything important. But,” he added. “No one goes alone. All messengers are sent out in pairs.”

“I think we should appoint a regent,” Glare-Face said.

“Councilman Pierce, we have discussed this,” Steve said. “I will be weakening the regency anyway once I take the throne. We’re keeping the council intact and all decisions will be put to a vote. What sense does it make to appoint a regent in my stead when I don’t plan to rule that way?”

“But sir,” another councilman piped up. “It will be dangerous out there. What if something happens to you? There is no heir to take your place.”

Steve was getting impatient. “Then the council will remain in place and put all decisions to a vote. The change to the new government will come a bit quicker than planned, but that’s what should happen.”

“You decree that one man shall not make the law anymore?” Pierce muttered. “The irony.”

Steve’s eyes flashed and he took a deep, steadying breath. “We have work to do,” he said. “We—I—have left my people alone and defenseless, and HYDRA took the opportunity I gave them. It’s my responsibility to fix that. You can disagree with me if you like, but you will do so without me here to listen. I am going to the borderlands and I am protecting my people.” He stood up and gave a jerky bow. “I’ll be making preparations to leave if any new information comes in.”

He met Bucky’s eye and nodded slightly. Bucky stood up and bowed at the table. Monty followed, then Morita, Gabe, and Dernier. Peggy followed them out and rushed ahead to catch up with Steve.

“They have a point, Steve,” she said quietly. “Something could happen to you out there, and you don’t know what will be happening here without you.”

“You think I should stay?” He demanded. “I can’t sit here while people are being—”

Would you let me finish?” She barked. “You need to make sure you have enough support here to withstand anyone trying to rebel. And I don’t mean the servants. We already know they would die for you.”

“That’s why I’m going,” Steve insisted. “So they won’t.”

You need a majority of councilmembers on your side,” Peggy hissed. “You can’t dash off to be the hero without making sure the government is firmly in place. Do you understand me? Do you remember how my country’s current regency came to be?”

Steve’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry. Yes. You’re right.” He exhaled sharply. “Okay. Buck, get things going. Horses, provisions, all that. You all know which weapons and supplies you need. Gather them. I have to…” He trailed off, looking back at the War Room. He sighed. “I have to go be diplomatic.”

Morita snorted. “Like any of ‘em care what’s coming outta your mouth with an ass like that.” He glanced guiltily at Peggy and added, “No disrespect, ma’am.”

Peggy looked unimpressed. “You think I can’t handle crass language?”

“No, I think you may not want anyone else looking at his ass.”

That got Peggy to laugh, and some of the tension in the hall started to clear out. Bucky felt a little annoyed, though he knew he had no reason. Steve and Peggy were…something, perhaps. Whatever they were. It would make sense for Morita to joke about that. Bucky’s feelings about Steve’s ass were neither known nor important.

“Alright, let’s go,” Bucky said, pretending his irritation was fake. Only most of it was about Morita’s comment. Some of it was antsiness over obeying Steve’s order, “Steve, go do the song and dance. We’ll do all the work, as usual.”

Guilt flashed over Steve’s face for a second, so Bucky punched his shoulder to get him to knock it off. It probably hurt his hand more than Steve’s shoulder.

“Come on, pal, give ‘em a speech that’ll knock ‘em dead, huh?” He murmured. “You make sure everything’s taken care of here and I’ll make sure everything’s taken care of for the road.”

Steve nodded. “Thanks, Buck.”

“Why is Bucky in charge?” Gabe asked, jokingly jealous. “Since when is he second in command?”

“Since Steve threw up on me when we were fourteen,” Bucky shot back. “Now shut up and do as I say.”

They bickered good-naturedly down the hall, and Bucky split them up to do different tasks. Dernier and Gabe were gathering weapons, Morita was in charge of the medical supplies, Monty was on horse duty, and Bucky was going to the kitchens.

“Why don’t you get the horses?” Monty asked. “You’re much better with them.”

“Because they’re prettier than the girls he’s used to!” Morita yelled back over his shoulder as he headed to the healer’s quarters.

“Mandy likes me better than you,” Bucky reminded him. “Can I help it if everyone likes me better than you?”

Dernier laughed something out in French that had Gabe snorting along with him. Bucky narrowed his eyes—he was sure he’d heard something about Steve in there, but didn’t really know enough French to get context—and that just made them both laugh harder as they headed to the armory.

Monty grumbled a little, but it was without heat. He just liked to try to get Bucky’s goat most of the time.

“You coming with us?” Bucky asked as Peggy walked beside him. She gave him a faint smile.

“I thought we talked about this already.”

“Well, sure, but that was about you and Steve and your…” Bucky shrugged. “You and Steve.”

Peggy shook her head, a little sadly. “If Steve isn’t here I’m afraid my time here is up, too. I’ve been away from my own kingdom for too long. I have work to do there.”

She’d been with them for two months, helping them to train, and it almost seemed unfair that she wouldn’t see the payoff of battle. As if she could sense his thoughts, her lips twisted wryly.

“Don’t worry,” she told him conspiratorially. “There will be plenty of fight for me still.”

Bucky felt a rush of affection for her, despite all his jealousy. If anyone deserved Steve, it really was her. He frowned at her.

“You’re really sure there’s no way for you and Steve to be together?”

She looked at him for a long time without answering. “No way that I’m willing to take,” she finally said. “Think what that would mean. Either I give up my post or Steve gives up his. And of course, no one expects Steve to give up his. Oh, I know,” she said quickly before Bucky could butt in. “He would. Notions of a man’s role be damned. He would. But he’s too tied to this place. You think he’d willing leave behind his mother’s legacy? His people? And say he did—you can’t pretend he wouldn’t resent me for it. He’d try not to and he’d feel awful about it. But he would. And he has a temper. I’m sure you know that better than I do. I couldn’t do that to him, Barnes.”

“And you can’t do it to yourself, either,” Bucky said. “I’m not judging,” he added. “You worked hard for your spot. You shouldn’t have to give that up.”

She looked away, and Bucky almost thought he saw a sheen in her eyes. Not that he’d ever tell anyone if they asked. “There’s no good choice,” she said softly.

“I know the feeling,” he said almost without thinking. His choice, of course, was much easier than hers. Tell Steve his feelings or don’t. If he told Steve, he’d face Steve not reciprocating, and even if Steve did feel the same, Bucky would put him in danger. He already put him in danger every day just by being near him, cursed the way he was. It would be much easier to use Bucky against Steve if they were romantically involved.

So it wasn’t really a choice.

“Anyway, where would that leave you?” Peggy asked.

“Where would what leave me?” Bucky said, surprised. He hadn’t said anything out loud, had he?

She raised an eyebrow at him. “If Steve or I gave up our post and got married. Where would that leave you?”

“I’d go wherever Steve went,” Bucky said. “As his guard.”

“As his guard,” she echoed. “Right.”

“What are you trying to say?” Bucky snapped, pulling up short. “Stop being so cryptic.”

“Stop being so dense,” she countered, and Bucky’s eye started to twitch because it was one of those impossible to follow orders. “You know exactly what I’m saying. How you and Steve are with each other—it’s not hard to see.”

Bucky started to sweat, a combination of fear of what she was saying and disobedience. But how could he obey? It was just a figure of speech. She wanted him to understand what she was—oh.

Bucky sucked in a breath. “Don’t,” he whispered, his hammering heart now only a result of what she was implying. “Don’t say anything to him.”

“Of course I’m not going to say anything to him.” She sounded almost offended. “But I think you should.” Thank God she’d suggested and not ordered.

“I can’t. I can’t be—that can’t happen.” His voice broke a little, to his horror. Her brow furrowed.

“Don’t tell me you’re worried he doesn’t feel the same. He does, you know. That’s another reason I’m not fighting too hard for a solution. I knew from the time I met him he already loved you. He could grow to love me, if we had time, but you took root in his heart long before I got here.”

Bucky covered his face with his hands. “No, no, no,” he moaned, his traitorous heart leaping. “Don’t do this to me. You don’t understand—you have no idea. I can’t, I can never. I would hurt him.”

She looked almost alarmed now. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Bucky’s throat was closing up, his breath coming ragged. “We’re never speaking of this again,” he said between gritted teeth. “You don’t know anything about me. What I—Jesus. I shouldn’t even be near him, if someone finds out…” He bit his lip hard enough to taste blood.

“Stop!” She ordered, and he had to relax his jaw and stop babbling. “I don’t understand, okay, I see that now. I promise I won’t say a word.”

Bucky’s chest was heaving, but he knew she’d keep her word. She was a woman of honor, who believed in duty and responsibility. She kept her promises, regardless of what orders someone might give. His throat ached. She would be much better suited as Steve’s guard than he was.

Peggy was still staring at him, concerned, but he turned his head away and started walking again. After a second, she resumed beside him. They got to the kitchens and she stopped.

“Well,” she said, somewhat awkwardly. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. HYDRA is a threat to all of our kingdoms, and Steve and I have been discussing forming a coalition, coming together to eradicate them.”

Bucky nodded, unsure if he could speak. He felt intensely embarrassed about his breakdown. And now she knew he had a crush on the boy he’d once wet the bed on.

She looked at him for another long moment, head tipped to one side, and then she said softly, “Please take care of yourself out there.” She turned and walked away before he could respond, and he only felt relief.

Bucky leaned against the wall for a moment, closing his eyes and breathing, gathering up his strength again. His mind was swirling with all the emotions battling each other inside him. He felt something cold and wet against his hand and jumped a little, opening his eyes to see Dum-Dum looking at him worriedly.

Worriedly. Bucky shook his head. Dum-Dum was a dog.

“Heya, boy,” Bucky said. “I gotta go in the kitchen for a minute, and you know Mandy doesn’t let you in there.”

Bucky may have been imagining it, but Dum-Dum seemed to look mournful. He was always trying to slink into the kitchen, but when he succeeded he never even stole any food. He just whimpered at Mandy and tangled himself up in her legs until she cursed at him and shooed him away.

“I’ll be right back, I promise,” Bucky said. He pushed open the door and pinned Dum-Dum with a look so he wouldn’t rush in. “Mandy?” Bucky called.

“Won’t be but a moment, love,” she answered from somewhere in the giant pantry. She appeared a minute later, arms laden with cheese and a bag of flour. “Has someone died?” She asked, alarmed.

“No,” Bucky said, startled himself. “Not that I know of. What?”

She pressed a hand to her heart. “You looked so—well. What do you need?”

“We need some provisions,” he told her. “We’re leaving as soon as we’re ready, out to the borderlands. HYDRA’s invaded.”

“No,” she whispered. “No, you can’t go.”

“Mandy?”

Her face was white as a sheet and she dropped everything in her arms. The flour exploded, coating them both in white dust.

“Mandy!” Bucky hurriedly helped her down to sit on the stool in the corner. “What’s wrong?”

“Something terrible will happen if you go,” she told him. “I don’t know what, but I can see it.”

A chill went through Bucky. “Will I hurt Steve?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I just know it’s something horrible.”

Bucky closed his eyes. How was that new? Something horrible happened to him every day. He had do anything anyone told him. He squeezed her hand.

“Mandy, you know I have to. If Steve’s going, I have to go with him.” She shook her head but didn’t speak, eyes full of tears and lips pressed together. “I need you to change your order,” he said gently.

She started a little. “Oh, James, I’m sorry, I didn’t think. You can—you do what you think is right.”

He appreciated the order. It gave him a semblance of control over his own life, like he got to actually choose anything. There was almost an awkwardness between them. Knowing something bad was coming was too heavy, too large to think about or discuss, especially since Mandy didn’t know what and they both knew it could be almost anything, given Bucky’s condition.

“Well, I’ll get some packs together,” she said crisply, standing up and straightening her shoulders. “And they’ll…you won’t go hungry,” she promised. “I’m going to put some tonic in there, too. The healers will roll their eyes and say it’s a wives tale but I happen to know my tonic does its job.”

Bucky smiled at her words. Of course. It was magic. “What its job?”

“Keep you strong, keep you healthy. Abraham—Erskine, that is—said Steve can’t get sick anymore, not with his spell, but the rest of you howling commandos can.”

Bucky laughed. “Howling commandos?”

“Yes,” she said defensively. “You’re a group of special soldiers and you’ve got that mutt who won’t quit howling.”

“I’ll have Steve rename us right away,” Bucky teased. She rolled her eyes at him.

“Don’t you give me cheek,” she warned. “Don’t you have other preparations to make?”

“Yep, I’ll be on my way.” He hesitated. “Will you—if something does happen to me. If I don’t come back. Will you tell Steve?”

“Tell him what?” She asked.

“What I can’t tell him.” Even though Mandy already knew, Bucky’s curse wouldn’t let him even speak the words. “Can’t you tell him now?” Bucky asked, suddenly excited. “Mandy, that would fix everything!”

“How would that fix anything?” She asked quietly, sadly. “He won’t be able to break it. He won’t want you to go with him. He’ll want to lock you up here, try to keep you safe.”

Bucky deflated. He knew it was true. And it was more than Steve not wanting Bucky to go on the mission—Steve wouldn’t go. He’d stay with Bucky, and he’d spend all his time and energy bringing in every wizard, fairy, healer, and magician alive. He’d let his other responsibilities fall by the wayside for Bucky.

Bucky shied away from his own brain as it whispered maybe Peggy’s not so wrong because he knew Steve would do that for him, just like he’d known, in his cell, all alone, that Steve would come for him.

“You’re right,” Bucky whispered. “He can’t know.”

Mandy looked heartbroken for him, and Bucky had to look away. It wouldn’t help anything. She waved her hands and the flour all over both of them disappeared, back into its bag where it belonged. The cheese rose up from the floor, clean and perfect.

“I’ll tell him if the time comes,” she finally promised. “Do you want me to tell him the other thing you can’t tell him?”

Bucky’s stomach dropped. “You knew?”

“Oh, love, I’ve known since you were children.”

“I didn’t know,” Bucky protested lightly.

Mandy laughed a little. “I knew that, too.”

Bucky hunched his shoulders. “Don’t tell him that one, please.”

“You don’t think he has a right to know?”

“I think it would only hurt him to know.”

They were both quiet and she nodded once, to show she’d honor his request. He wanted to retreat, go hide somewhere and parse out his feelings.

“We’ll come say goodbye before we go,” he told her. “I need to…” He needed to check in and make sure everything was taken care of. Steve had given him an order, and he needed to obey. He found Morita first, made sure he had a pack with medical supplies. Morita knew healing arts, which would be very fortunate on their trip. Next he found Dernier and Gabe, packing rifles and explosives and even a few swords. Bucky raised his eyebrows.

“Swords?” He asked skeptically. “We haven’t trained with swords. How about knives instead?”

“Come on, how about one sword?” Gabe suggested. “You never know when a good sword might come in handy.”

“If you can’t fight with it, you can hit a man on the head,” Dernier pointed out. Bucky laughed.

“Fine, one sword, but you’re carrying it.”

“No swords,” Dernier decided.

Finally, Bucky went to the stable to check on Monty’s progress. Mostly, Monty was standing in the stable and supervising as the stable boys checked the horses’ hooves and got them saddled.

“You’ll be able to change them out at the guard station halfway,” one of the grooms reminded Bucky. “We sent a runner ahead to have them ready for you.”

“Thanks, Adam,” Bucky said. He looked over at Monty. “Keep supervising,” he said, giving Adam an amused look. “I need to go find Steve.”

What he really needed was a quiet minute to himself, but that was going to happen thanks to Steve’s bossiness and the English language as a whole. Bucky went to the War Room and found the door open, the room empty. The meeting had already broken up. He went to Steve’s quarters. Steve was packing, Dum-Dum lying on the ground in front of the fire and snoring.

“Everything all squared away?” Bucky asked, pulling his own clothes out.

Steve shrugged. “I think so. I don’t know how inspiring I am.”

“Inspiring enough,” Bucky assured him. “They don’t know what a doof you really are.”

Steve jabbed him with an elbow. “You’re supposed to be my best friend.”

“Yeah, so I can tell you what a doof you are.”

“Oh, look who’s talking.”

Bucky didn’t tease back and Steve frowned, but neither of them said anything for a while, packing in companiable silence. Bucky felt like there were a million things he could say, things rushing around the inside of his head, but he held his tongue. Nothing was worth mentioning. There was no point telling Steve about Mandy’s warning. It would only scare him. Sarah had only died a few months ago. Steve didn’t need to worry about Bucky, too.

It wasn’t long before everything was ready to go. All that was left were goodbyes. Bucky wasn’t surprised by everyone who gathered to see Steve off. Everyone loved him. He and Peggy had already said a private goodbye. She’d left first, back on her own horse for her journey home. She’d said goodbye to Bucky, too, but it had been more of an understanding look between the two of them than anything else.

Mandy hugged Steve tight and whispered something in his ear that made him nod, looking a little sad, and Bucky guessed it probably had to do with Sarah and how proud she’d be. She came to Bucky next and gave him a squeeze. She barely came to his shoulder these days.

“You need to take care of yourself,” she whispered. Bucky appreciated how hard she was working to not give him an order. Her natural bossiness made that no easy feat.

“I’ll do my best,” he promised, a lump in his throat. The last time he’d left here had not been a pleasant experience. What if what Mandy said was true? What if he never came back?

“Ready?” Steve asked. The rest of the team had mounted their horses already. Bucky was just standing there, staring up at the castle.

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Let’s go.”

He pulled himself into the saddle and they set off. Dum-Dum came tearing out of the castle then, easily evading the poor girl trying to catch him. He barked as he caught up to them, sounding accusing to Bucky.

“No,” Bucky said. “Dum-Dum, you’re staying here.” He got a cacophony of barks and yips in response. He halted his horse and dismounted to crouch beside Dum-Dum. “It’s going to be dangerous out there. Stay.”

He got back on his horse. Dum-Dum kept following, growling now. Bucky desperately wanted him to come—Dum-Dum was a piece of his childhood, a piece of his sisters, a piece of his parents. But he imagined something happening to the dog, a bullet from far away, a knife between his little ribs, and his throat seized up.

“Stay!” Bucky snapped again. Dum-Dum barked at him, furious barks that were almost frightening.

“He could be useful,” Monty suggested.

“I’m not using him to test our food,” Bucky snarled. “He’s staying here where he’s safe.”

“Buck,” Steve said softly, reining his horse in to walk beside Bucky’s. Bucky was near tears, more than he had been to leave the castle and Mandy. He needed Dum-Dum to stay here and be safe. He couldn’t be sure that Steve would be safe, though he’d do his best. He couldn’t protect his sisters anymore, not now that they were scattered. But if he could get Dum-Dum to stay, he’d at least be alive.

“We’ll take care of him,” Steve promised. “And he’ll take care of us.”

“If he gets hurt…”

“I know,” Steve said, and Bucky knew that he did. “But I don’t know how you’re going to get him to stay, short of locking him inside, and how’re you going to do that?”

He was right, of course. It would break Bucky’s heart to do it, and he felt like he’d already done that so much lately. He swallowed hard.

“Fine,” he said, and then he told Dum-Dum, “But you’re walking. Don’t even think you’re getting up here on my horse, got it?”

Dum-Dum panted happily, loping beside them easily, and everyone pretended Bucky was serious and wouldn’t pull Dum-Dum up into the saddle the second he seemed to tire.

“Well, we wouldn’t be the Howling Commandos without our dog, would we?” Gabe pointed out. Dum-Dum howled his agreement.

“That dog understands us, I swear,” Morita said. “It’s creepy.”

“You are worried the dog is smarter than you,” Dernier teased. Dum-Dum howled again, making them all laugh at the look on Morita’s face. It was nice, the lightheartedness, the camaraderie, but Bucky felt like he couldn’t quite get into it. Something terrible was going to happen to him, and he had no idea when it was coming.

He looked over at his friends, laughing and insulting each other, and felt a pang in his heart. He glanced over at Steve. The sun was shining in his hair and he was laughing along with the rest of them, face open and easy even though Bucky knew he’d been upset to part with Peggy and to leave home for the first time. But he was a leader now, he was taking charge, and he felt like he was really doing something—he had a purpose.

Bucky settled into his saddle a little deeper. He didn’t know when he was going to die out here, but he knew that he was going to protect his group up until the very moment it happened.

Chapter Text

It would take them four days to get to the borderlands. Steve, apparently, figured that would be enough time to think up a plan.

"You didn't think of a plan before we left?" Gabe asked irritably.

"Oh, he thought of a plan," Monty grumbled. "Get there and fight."

Steve looked embarrassed. That had, in fact been his plan. Bucky shook his head.

"We can think of a plan together," he said. "Just because Steve's the captain doesn't mean he should have to do all the strategy himself."

Dernier muttered something in French and Gabe nodded.

"I'm sorry," Steve said, almost meekly—as meekly as he got. But his head was up high. "But Bucky's right. I can't do this all on my own. You guys knew I didn't have any experience when you agreed to join me. I need us to work together. Are you with me?" He was looking at Gabe, Monty, Morita, and Dernier. It wasn't a question he needed to ask Bucky, and it made Bucky swell with pride a bit.

"Yeah, we're with you," Morita said. "They're just antsy."

"Forgive me, I've never fought anyone before," Monty said.

"Well, that’s a lie if I ever heard one," Gabe countered.

"A schoolyard brawl doesn't count!"

"Only because you lost them all," Dernier piped up.

"We know they've taken the guard post," Bucky cut in before they could keep bickering. "Steve, you've got the map of the borderlands, right? We'll look when we get closer and see which angle is best to come at the post."

"We won't know where else they've set up their men," Gabe pointed out grimly.

Dum-Dum barked then. Morita gestured at him. "Well, the mutt can help us."

"He's not a mutt," Steve said, offended, even though Dum-Dum was almost the exact definition of a mutt.

The ride quickly got boring. They needed to be on alert, yes, but it was hard to be completely on alert for four days straight. They had to make up games to keep themselves occupied.

"I spy something green," Bucky said. Steve opened his mouth and Monty cut him off.

"No, you two aren't allowed to guess for each other."

"What? Why?" Steve demanded. He'd never liked being told what to do, and he especially didn't like feeling left out.

"Because you can read each other's minds," Morita said, exasperated. "You already know exactly what he was looking at."

"So do I," Dernier declared. "Tree."

"He's right," Bucky admitted. There wasn't anything else to see. I Spy didn't last long.

Steve's stomach grumbled loud enough that they could all hear it. He looked almost comically surprised at the sound.

"Guess we're stopping," Gabe said.

"No, we haven't gone far enough to stop just for me," Steve argued. Everyone ignored him and reined their horses in. "So much for anyone listening to the captain," Steve grumbled.

"Did you eat before we left?" Bucky scolded. He knew the answer was no even before Steve looked guilty. "Steve! You're bigger now and your body's burning through—"

"I'm not a child you need to keep track of!" Steve interrupted.

"Well then keep track of yourself!" Bucky shot back. "What am I supposed to do, just wait until you keel over because you—"

"I wouldn't have fainted, Bucky, I—"

"All the stubbornness in the world won't—"

"Are you two about done?" Morita asked dryly. "Barnes has the food packs."

They stopped arguing. Now it was Bucky's turn to look sheepish. The nice thing about magically refilling packs was they didn't need to carry much food with them. Bucky looked into the pack to see what they had for an afternoon snack. Pears and cheese. Not bad. Dernier made an appreciative noise when he bit into the cheese.

"Okay," Gabe said conspiratorially. "Cap, there's something I've been dying to ask you but I thought I shouldn't do it at the castle with people around."

"What?" Steve asked warily.

"Did you really fall into a drainage ditch because Barnes bet you you couldn't jump over it?"

Everyone roared with laughter and Steve scowled. "When are you going to stop telling that story?" He groused.

"When it stops being hilarious," Bucky said.

"But why didn't you make it?" Monty asked. "Your legs look practically long enough to step over a ditch."

"I'd make it now," Steve said.

"Debatable," Bucky said under his breath, loud enough for Steve to hear.

"I was smaller then," Steve explained.

"That's right, Barnes always said his best friend was small."

"Stevie here signed himself up to be an experiment," Bucky told the others. "And he grew to be the size of a house."

"It wasn't an experiment, exactly," Steve protested. Bucky raised an eyebrow.

"Had anyone ever successfully done it?"

"Well..."

"Did you know if you were going to live through it?"

"Uh..."

"Did the fairy guy know you were going to live through it?"

"He was pretty sure."

The guys all laughed at the look on Bucky's face. "Pretty sure," he echoed. "Risking your life for pretty sure." It came out bitter—bitter like he felt, but he hadn't meant to let anyone know it. The guys all suddenly had things to go be busy doing, over by the horses.

"Are you mad I'm like this?" Steve asked.

"No," Bucky said. It wasn't exactly a lie but it wasn't the complete truth. Steve gave him a hard look.

"You're lying."

"I'm not," Bucky insisted. "I just...why'd you want to change?"

Steve stared in disbelief. "Are you serious?" He asked. "Did you forget what I looked like before?"

"No," Bucky said softly. "I never will." He regretted never fully appreciating Steve's old body, his lithe limbs and the sweet way he fit perfectly under Bucky's chin. He felt, suddenly, like he was going to cry.

"Oh," Steve said, surprised. "I..."

Neither of them spoke. Bucky cursed himself. Steve wasn't an idiot, no matter how often Bucky called him one. He was going to figure out how Bucky felt.

It seemed much worse that he should figure it out when they were out here, away from everyone else. If it had happened at home—at the castle—Bucky could have gone away, could have left before Steve guessed or after he'd realized and was uncomfortable.

"Well, I'm glad you don't get sick anymore," Bucky added, voice normal again.

"Yeah," Steve said. He nodded. He didn't say anything else. Bucky swallowed and looked away.

"We should get moving."

"Right," Steve agreed, standing. He didn't offer his hand to Bucky to pull him up off the ground. Bucky bit his lip hard and got to his feet, cursing himself and his traitorous heart and voice.

Something must have shown on their faces, because everyone mounted silently. Even Dum-Dum was quiet, though he couldn't quite keep himself from barking a little at some birds in the trees above them.

The quiet stretched on, as did the afternoon. Bucky was angry enough at himself to spit. It was bad enough he'd freaked Steve out, but now everyone else had to suffer through it too. He stared down at the black mane of his horse, missing the way Steve's knee had brushes against his earlier when they'd been riding side by side. Now the path was narrower and they all had to ride single-file.

"I spy something gray," Steve finally broke the silence after hours. There was almost a collective sigh of relief.

Bucky's stomach unclenched a little, and they kept riding.

 

They slept in watches. Steve was worried about anyone being on watch alone, so they took it in pairs.

"I'll take first watch," he said. "Monty, you're with me."

Monty's eyes flicked minutely to Bucky—Bucky could feel that everyone was quickly glancing at him—but he said only, "Sure thing, Captain."

Bucky resolutely looked at no one. It didn't matter. It was fine. Maybe Steve would never look at him again. Maybe Bucky would slowly fade out of importance in his life. But at least Bucky was there to protect him. That was enough.

Bucky lay out his bedroll and stretched out. Dum-Dum rested his head on Bucky's knee and he scratched the dog's ears.

"Hey, what happened with you and Cap?" Morita asked. "I thought sure you'd take watch together."

"Nothing," Bucky said. "We're not attached at the hip." His mind suddenly supplied an image of a way their hips might touch and he was glad for the dark so no one could see the way his whole face flushed.

"Hm," Gabe said.

"It's nothing," Bucky repeated. "Shut up and go to sleep."

"Yes, sir, Barnes, sir," Dernier said sarcastically. They weren't trying to be assholes. Any other day, even earlier that day, and Bucky would have easily teased back, maybe would have thrown Dernier in a headlock and given him a noogie. But he couldn't stop remembering the way Steve's eyes had gone wide and shocked, the way Steve's shoulders had been tense for the rest of the afternoon.

Bucky had done that. He'd made Steve uncomfortable. Steve wouldn't say anything about it—he'd never blame Bucky or anything—but Bucky knew.

He must've dropped off, somehow, because the next thing he knew was Morita quietly saying,

"Your watch, Barnes. You and Gabe."

"Thanks," Bucky whispered, standing and following Gabe over to the edge of their makeshift camp. They'd all slept in their clothes, boots on. It was one of the first things they'd learned in their field tactics class, and it wasn't exactly hard to understand why.

Neither Bucky nor Gabe spoke, though Gabe stared at the side of Bucky's head for a little while. Bucky was determined not to break.

"Well?" Gabe finally said.

"What?" Bucky asked.

"Don't tell me something didn't happen between you and Steve."

Bucky shrugged. The good thing about negative orders was it usually meant he didn't have to do anything at all. It was easy to say nothing in the face of that.

"Oh, come on!" Gabe insisted. "You talked about him nonstop for months. We all got here and you're sleeping in his quarters. And then suddenly you two aren't speaking?"

"I don't know what you expect me to say," Bucky said truthfully.

"What did you two fight about?"

Bucky looked into the dark woods. "I didn't see why he would let the fairy scientist change him."

Gabe didn't say anything for a while. "You liked him better before."

And that wasn't it, not really, because he was still Steve, still spoke the same way, still hotheaded and still with the chip on his shoulder.

"He's still the same," Bucky finally said. "In the ways that count."

"So what's the big deal?" Gabe asked.

"I don't know if he knows that." Bucky realized it as he said it. The problem he had with Steve's new body was that Steve expected it to matter. And it would, to some people. Probably most people. The people would certainly trust him as the king better now than before, when he'd been small. He had the same anger burning inside, but it seemed more righteous now with his bigger body. It could be rationalized away before—impotence, people whispered. Now it was praised.

Bucky could have just hated everyone who loved Steve now only because of how he looked and not cared much himself, if only Steve hadn't seemed to believe it too.

 

The next three days weren't quite agony. Things were strange between Bucky and Steve, but Steve wasn't avoiding him anymore. It almost still felt like he was, but then Bucky realized Steve just wasn't seeking him out. It was such a change it felt like disdain.

They were less than a day's journey to the old Guard post and everyone was tense. Every rustle in the trees had them on alert. Bucky had his rifle out, resting across the front of his saddle. Dum-Dum was slinking quietly in front of them, nose to the ground and ears cocked.

Steve, riding point, pulled up and raised his hand for them to stop behind him when the trees were just starting to thin out. They couldn't be more than four miles from the post.

"Let's stop here tonight," he said, hushed. "We'll get the maps out and make our plans."

They made camp, without a fire tonight lest they be spotted by scouts. They ate cold meat pies over the map spread over a tree stump.

"If we go in pairs," Steve said. "Fan out and surround them."

"Maybe I should go ahead and scout first," Bucky suggested. "See how many there are, maybe pick a few off now if there's a chance."

Steve hesitated. It wasn't a bad idea, but it wasn't exactly safe, either.

"It's a good plan," Morita pointed out.

"I'm coming with you," Steve said.

"No," Bucky protested immediately. "We could be walking into an ambush."

"So you think you should go alone?"

The answer was yes, but Bucky didn't say it. There was no point; everyone could tell that's what he meant. Steve's eyes flashed.

"I'm coming with you," he repeated. His voice was a firm growl that had Bucky's stomach tightening pathetically. He kept his face neutral. He'd made things awkward between them enough already. He didn't need to make it any worse by reacting to Steve's gravelly tone.

"Fine," he said. "But the point is stealth. You have to be quiet."

Steve rolled his eyes a little. "Oh, shut up," he said. Bucky was glad he was going to shut up anyway.

They left the others—for once, Dum-Dum did as he was told and stayed behind, though it'd been a near thing—and took off on foot.

They didn't speak for almost the entire way. Bucky, for one, couldn’t, because of Steve's order, and Steve didn't seem too inclined to say anything.

They both stopped when the post came into view. Bucky tipped his head toward a tree. Steve raised his eyebrows skeptically and Bucky rolled his eyes. Steve would make a terrible sniper. Bucky scrambled up the tree and looked down at Steve challengingly. Steve sighed a little and started to follow. It was a good thing they'd spend years climbing trees together; they could do it fast and silent.

Dark was falling fast. Getting back to the camp wasn't going to be fun, Bucky thought grimly. But it would cover them. They sat in the tree, watching. The guard post was crawling with black-suited HYDRA bandits. Bucky started to feel almost dizzy. How were the 6 of them going to do anything to that many?

He looked over at Steve and saw the same despair on his face. They'd been so foolish. They'd thought they were so invincible.

There was no way Bucky could shoot any of them. He could hit them, even at this distance, no problem there. The problem was there were so many, they'd notice if their guys started dropping, and then they’d know someone was after them.

He pointed down at the ground and Steve nodded. They climbed out of the tree and set off walking again, more slowly now because in the dark they had to take more care to be quiet.

"What are we going to do?" Steve finally whispered. Bucky couldn't make any noise. Steve had told him to shut up. It'd been hours ago, he tried arguing. He hadn't meant it. It was no use. "Nothing?" Steve asked. "No ideas?"

Bucky waved a hand at him, hoping Steve would think he was worried about being quiet. It must've worked, because Steve stopped talking.

"I'm going to get you all killed," Steve said softly after a while. Bucky made an angry noise, deciding it was worth the way his head spun.

"I'm so stupid," Steve went on. "I thought I was so smart. I thought I could take on all of HYDRA." He let out a hollow laugh. "I wouldn't have even made it to the Academy if you hadn't already left and met me halfway with supplies."

Bucky grabbed his arm. He hated his curse always, but right now, when Steve was doubting himself and Bucky could say nothing, he wished he could claw inside himself and rip it out. Steve had his eyes on the ground, shoulders slumped. Bucky grabbed his chin and made him look up. Bucky shook his head deliberately. He squeezed Steve's shoulder.

"I don't know anything," Steve insisted. "What am I going to do, walk in there and throw my shield at a hundred people? There's too many of them."

Bucky wanted to remind him of the time the two of them had taken on Jimmy Hanson and all four of his brothers. Sure, it wasn't exactly the same, but 5 on 2—and, honestly, it had been more like 5 on one and a half, because Steve been two days out from bed rest after a bad fever—had felt insurmountable, too.

"You guys should go back to the castle. I'll go and...I don't know, try to reason with them. Make a treaty, maybe."

Bucky scoffed. Technically, he wasn't making noise. He shook his head and squeezed Steve's shoulder again.

"I'd never forgive myself if any of you got hurt because of me," Steve said. Then he bit his lip and added, so softly Bucky almost could have missed it, "Especially you, Buck. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you."

It shouldn't have seemed like a confession. They both knew it was true. But it was the way Steve said it, quiet and earnest, his eyes locked on Bucky's, his hand reaching out to rest on Bucky's waist, that sent a thrill down Bucky's back.

This couldn't be happening, not now when Bucky couldn't say anything. Steve looked hopeful and said,

"Do you get what I'm saying? I—I think that's what you were saying. The other day. And I didn't know what to do, because...because I've been wishing you were saying that for years and then it seemed like maybe you were and I was afraid I was wrong and I was making it up because it’s what I wanted and I didn't know..." He bit his lip again. He let out a weak little chuckle. "Uh, jump in anytime you want."

Bucky exhaled loudly. He could finally speak again. But now that he could, he found he didn't actually have much to say.

"Steve," he breathed, and then he leaned forward and pressed their lips together. Steve sucked in a surprised breath—what was he so surprised about, honestly, the dork—and wound his arm around Bucky's waist. They stayed like that for a long time, pulling each other closer and holding on tightly, their kisses getting more and more urgent. Bucky finally pulled away with a gasp.

"Steve, this is not..." He had to stop and get his breath back. "We're not safe here."

Steve blinked a few times, looking dazed, and Bucky couldn't help but feel a bit gratified. He'd done that.

"Right," Steve said, almost dreamily. Then he blinked again, harder this time, and his eyes cleared. "Right. Oh. Right."

They set off again. It was almost awkward, picking their way through the woods silently after Steve'd just had him pressed up against a tree and kissing the life out of him. Bucky wanted to laugh giddily but forced it down. That wouldn’t be very covert, and it would sort of defeat the purpose of stopping.

Dum-Dum ran out to greet them and lead them back to the camp, no fire or lights to guide them. Just before they reached the circle where everyone had spread their packs, Steve reached out and touched Bucky's shoulder. It was a light touch, but it made Bucky's stomach bubble with happiness.

He leaned a little, into Steve, and turned his head to see Steve grinning as wide as Bucky knew he must be. They held each other's eyes for a minute, their secret passing between them, and then they rejoined their group to make a plan of attack, feeling once again like they could take on the world and win, so long as they did it together.

Chapter Text

It took about thirty seconds for the real world to come crashing down on Bucky once they got back to the fire and the others. All it took was Morita saying,

“Barnes, wipe that smile off your face, it’s scaring me.”

And Bucky had to stop smiling.

What had he done? He’d known all along he couldn’t be with Steve because of his curse. He knew that. No one would even have to find out about the curse to use him against Steve. It wouldn’t take torture or threats or bribes. They could walk up to him in the middle of the street and tell him to take them to Steve and he’d have to.

Panic was rising in his chest. He was going to get Steve killed. He might be the one killing him. He was going to throw up.

“Buck?” Steve asked, concerned, and Bucky had to actively work not to gasp for breath. His throat was tight and he felt like there was a weight on his chest. He knew his own orders didn’t affect him, but he’d told himself to protect Steve and he definitely wasn’t, so it almost felt like a normal curse reaction.

“Let’s plan,” Bucky said hoarsely. Steve’s face got very serious very quickly as he remembered his own earlier panic and the base waiting for them.

They stayed up almost the whole night, planning and worrying and arguing. In the end, their final plan wasn’t much better than “show up and fight”, despite the crease between Monty’s eyebrows as he insisted,

“I was joking when I said that.”

But there wasn’t much else they could do. Steve could order reinforcements from the Guard, but it would take another four days for them to get there, and HYDRA was already taking people—Steve’s people—hostage, if they were leaving them alive at all.

They were going to do a full day of recon, just to see what came of it, and then they were going to attack at dawn on the day after. Bucky felt queasy. He couldn’t stop thinking about Mandy’s warning on top of all his worries about ruining Steve’s life.

“Hey,” Steve said lowly as they spread out their bedrolls. “Are you alright?”

“Sure,” Bucky answered, words sticking in his throat a little. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Steve gave him a look. “Buck.”

Bucky shivered a little. “I don’t think we should tell anyone,” he blurted out.

Steve’s brow wrinkled. “Tell anyone what?” Bucky bit his lip. How was he supposed to explain? But then Steve’s face went from confused to blank, meaning he’d caught on and didn’t want Bucky to see his feelings. “Oh. Well. Alright.”

He was hurt. Bucky could tell. And that made his guts twist up, too. He couldn’t do anything right. “I just mean—for a while. Things are crazy right now and I don’t want you to have to deal with anyone…saying anything.”

Steve tipped his head to one side, considering that. “You think any of the guys will have a problem with it? They don’t seem the type.”

“Oh, no, not them,” Bucky answered automatically. He knew his friends would be fine. “But word’d spread, you know? And I think, you know. You’re still building up your credibility. We gotta—I don’t want to ruin that for you.” Bucky was tripping over his words in a way he didn’t usually, mostly because he was speaking them as they formed in his brain. Steve wasn’t a guy who liked to hide things, especially if there were people who thought he should be ashamed of something he wasn’t ashamed of.

But his face was going all soft now as he looked at Bucky and it made Bucky’s cheeks heat up, among other parts of him, despite all his worry and fear. It was just such an incredible feeling, being on the receiving end of that look from Steve.

“Always looking out for me, huh?” Steve asked, dumping cold water on Bucky’s thoughts. If he was truly looking out for Steve, he’d leave. He’d walk into the woods and disappear so no one could ever find him and use him against Steve. But then Steve would go looking for him, no doubt, and get himself into who knew what kind of trouble. So leaving was out. But at the very least, he should’ve kept his damn mouth shut—both from talking and other uses he’d put his mouth to that night.

Bucky swallowed hard. “Sure thing,” he managed to say. “’S my job.”

Steve brushed a hand over Bucky’s arm, so soft he could’ve missed it if he wasn’t completely attuned to every movement Steve made.

“Mine too, you know,” Steve murmured. “For you.”

Bucky wanted to bury his face in Steve’s neck. He wanted to back away and leave Steve to be safe without him. It was a good thing he was so used to being at war with himself, or he thought he would probably break off into a million little pieces. But Steve was looking at him again, his eyes full of a feeling Bucky shied away from naming, even in his head, and Bucky knew if he didn’t show his reciprocation it’d hurt Steve’s feelings. Bucky had never been good at that.

He let his own hand rest on Steve’s side, just below his ribs where it was almost his hip, and swept his thumb back and forth a few times before reluctantly pulling his hand back.

“Let’s get some sleep,” he whispered. “Next couple days are gonna be big.”

Steve was biting his lip, and it made Bucky’s mind run wild about hardly an hour ago when he’d been biting Steve’s lip, but he clenched his teeth and forced it out of his mind. If he didn’t, he’d either go crazy thinking about it or just jump onto Steve right there.

Even still, Monty woke Bucky up for his watch and Bucky found that he and Steve had curled together in their sleep. Bucky had ended up with his face mostly in Steve’s armpit, which wasn’t exactly the best place to be, though not really the worst, either, truth be told. Monty didn’t even bat an eye, and Bucky realized it was probably because it wasn’t a new phenomenon. He and Steve had always slept that way, had always walked so close their shoulders and hands brushed, had always shoved at each and wrapped their arms around each other.

Bucky knew he should be more concerned about that—in terms of discretion, it wasn’t great, was more of a neon, blinking sign saying use me to get to the king—but just in that moment he couldn’t dredge it up. It made him feel warm and a little silly, like the time last Christmas Sarah had let them put whiskey in their cocoa and it left him giggly and content.

He didn’t cast a glance over his shoulder as he took his post, paired up with Morita tonight because they’d switched things up, but it was a near thing. He’d have to find a way to separate himself from Steve soon. Maybe he’d find a girl for Steve, someone who was safe and would give him an heir to boot.

But for now, Bucky could gently touch his own lips and stare off into the darkness, remembering the feeling of Steve against him.

 

They were eating lunch after showing the others the HYDRA base—“I can put the explosives many places,” Dernier had assured everyone, “And we can blow it off the side of the mountain.”—when Dum-Dum sat up, ears pricked. Bucky reached for his sidearm and glanced over to where Steve’s shield was resting against a tree. They had a map spread out over a tree stump and Steve was doing a supremely terrible job of pretending his hand wasn’t resting on Bucky’s knee underneath it. His fingers all tensed around Bucky’s leg and then he moved his hand.

Gabe had his gun out, too, and Morita was already inching toward the edge of their camp, to where Dum-Dum’s face was pointed. Two people came into view, hands up to show they were unarmed, and Bucky relaxed only slightly.

“Are you the new Guard?” The woman asked quietly. Steve blinked.

“Are you from the Guard post here?” He asked. She nodded.

“We were overrun.”

“Thank God you’re alive,” Steve breathed. Dernier shot Bucky a look. He hadn’t put his gun away, and Morita hadn’t moved back. They could have been spies. Their intel had told them HYDRA hadn’t left anyone alive.

“We were out on patrol when they attacked,” the man broke in, noticing the tension in the air. “We saw—” He broke off.

“Aren’t there more of you?” The woman asked, despaired, and Steve’s face twisted up in guilt. Monty narrowed his eyes.

“How many of you survived?” He asked. He was definitely still suspicious.

“The two of us, and then we found three still alive in the woods after they took the base.” The man looked down at his feet. “One died later that night.”

Dum-Dum sniffed at the man’s hands, and then the woman’s, and then he came back to Bucky’s side, apparently no longer worried. It made Bucky relax, though he knew it wasn’t logical. Dum-Dum was a good judge of character, though. Bucky trusted him.

Gabe holstered his gun as well, and Morita came back to his seat. Dernier dug out the food pack.

“Are you hungry?” He asked.

“Oh we’re—alright,” the woman said.

“We have plenty,” Steve told them. “The royal cook, Mandy—”

“Sent us with plenty,” Gabe broke in. Steve nodded just a little, acknowledging Gabe’s doubts and conceding that caution was still the best course. They didn’t need to tell these strangers that Mandy could somehow send them food wherever they were. Steve liked to believe the best in people, but he was still smart enough to know they might not live up to that.

The woman’s name was Sharon and the man’s was Cameron. They’d been living in the woods since HYDRA had taken over.

“We’ve taken out three agents,” Sharon told them as she ate. “When they come close on patrol we take them down. We’ve got some backup from the people in the village.”

Steve exchanged a look with Bucky. “How many?”

Cameron shook his head sadly. “Just five. HYDRA went through the village and took anyone useful. They’ve even taken most of the children. Everyone left is…disheartened.”

Steve pursed his lips angrily. The muscle in his jaw was jumping, and Bucky gave himself exactly two heartbeats to be distracted by it before returning his attention to the task at hand.

“Steve can probably get more to fight,” he said.

“Yes, he can rally the people,” Dernier agreed.

Steve looked dubious. “They’ve been through hell. How can I do anything?”

“You’re the king,” Gabe pointed out. “They’ll want to help you.”

Sharon’s eyes went wide and Cameron jumped up to bow. “The king? Your Highness!”

Steve cringed a little. “Please, don’t.” He waved at the food. “Go back to your food.”

They were both staring at him now, and he looked intensely uncomfortable. Morita shook his head. “But if HYDRA took anyone who was useful, how will anyone left help us fight?”

“HYDRA may have different ideas of useful than we do,” Monty pointed out. “Some of the people left may be more helpful than anticipated.”

“I’m not going to force anyone to fight,” Steve said. “But I want to warn the people so they can leave, in case we lose and make things worse.”

“A lot of people have already left,” Sharon admitted. “But HYDRA’s got patrols around the village. They don’t want anyone else to leave.”

The outlook was grim. There weren’t many of them, and they’d never been in a real battle, anyway. But they didn’t have much choice. So they crept through the woods, avoiding HYDRA patrols to sneak into the village. Sharon and Cameron had contacts in the village, so they went to them first.

Most of the houses were ransacked, anything edible gone and most of the furniture stolen or broken. There was a little girl outside one of the homes, playing in the street with a broken wagon wheel. She straightened when she saw them, her chin starting to tremble.

“We don’t got nothing left for you to take,” she told them. She was probably around Elizabeth’s age, and Bucky’s stomach clenched as he made the comparison. His mother’s cousin lived a three days’ journey from here. HYDRA would spread there next.

“We’re not HYDRA,” he told her. “We’re from the Royal Guard. We’re here to help.”

She looked suspicious, so he knelt and showed her the insignia on his shoulder. She traced it with one fingertip. “Mama said the king don’t even know we’re here. He don’t care.”

“He does,” Bucky argued. He nodded at Steve. “That’s the king right there. He came himself.”

She frowned a little. “Prove it.”

Steve shrugged and pulled out a coin purse, looking awkward. He brought out a penny and showed it to her, turning to the side so she could compare his profile with the one etched onto the coin. Her mouth dropped open.

“Are you hungry?” Dernier asked, opening the food pouch so she could look inside. That won her over even more than proving Steve was the king. They probably should have led with the food. Dum-Dum helped, too—he was apparently irresistible to little girls who wanted to pretend he was a pony.

It was easier to convince the few adults still left in the village. Many of them had seen Sarah and saw the resemblance in Steve, or had even seen Steve as a young child on state visits. Many of them were in awe that he came personally.

“It’s my fault you were left vulnerable,” he told them, that steel, determined edge in his eye that always made Bucky feel a mixture of exasperated and fiercely proud. “I couldn’t leave you unprotected.”

It surprised no one except Steve that nearly everyone agreed to help in any way they could. Soon they had volunteers to act as diversions and volunteers with healing experience and volunteers to fight. Steve kept reiterating to everyone that this was real, and dangerous, and could be fatal, and no one backed down. He put his hands in his hair and tugged a little, a sure sign he was overwhelmed, and took off into the woods to be alone.

Bucky, of course, went after him. He would even if the woods weren’t a source of danger right now. He found Steve not far into the tree-line, hands on his face.

“Can’t keep an eye out for HYDRA like that,” Bucky teased him softly. Steve shook his head and didn’t say anything. “It’s their home, Steve,” Bucky reminded him. “They’re going to want to fight for it.”

“They deserve someone who actually knows what he’s doing.”

“You do,” Bucky assured him. “You know more than you give yourself credit for.”

Steve leaned forward so he could rest his face against Bucky’s shoulder. “They could die, Buck.”

Bucky shrugged a little, even though Steve’s face was covered so he couldn’t see. He’d feel it. “Well, they’ll die if HYDRA goes unchecked, right?”

Steve sighed, the breath hot against Bucky’s neck. “I’m worried.”

Bucky couldn’t help but run his hand up and down Steve’s back, even if he’d been the one to say they needed to keep things secret. No one had followed them here, and he always had been weak in the face of Steve’s distress. “I know.” They stayed like that for a while, before Steve’s sense of duty made him straighten and raise his chin. Before he could get too far, Bucky pulled him in by said chin and gave him a kiss, just a soft one to remind Bucky was there.

Steve’s face went all dopey and Bucky had to duck his face to hide a smile. “Let’s go,” he huffed, pretending to find Steve annoying, and Steve’s smile grew because he knew better. Then, of course, he looked guilty, because he was enjoying himself and that always made him feel guilty.

Bucky poked him in the side of the face while they walked, making Steve squawk a little, and then they spent a while trying to shove each other into trees. By the time they got back to the others, Steve was more relaxed and ready to get back to work.

Monty raised an eyebrow at Bucky, who just shrugged nonchalantly. So he knew how to get Steve back into the right headspace. Was that a crime?

No one slept well that night. They were scared, all of them, but no one wanted to admit it. Dum-Dum kept whining in Bucky’s ear, but Bucky couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Maybe he was just reacting to the nervous air around them.

And then it was time to get moving. Bucky’s stomach had dropped to his toes. He kept thinking about what Mandy said. He told himself she couldn’t know—he’d never heard of fairies seeing the future—but it didn’t help much. She was magic. Bucky couldn’t pretend that didn’t matter to his fears.

As they were packing up and getting ready to head out, there was rustling in the woods. Bucky’s heart started to hammer and he brought his hand to his gun. He could barely make out shapes—a lot of shapes. Had HYDRA found them?

But no. It was elves.

“You are the human king,” one said gravely to Steve. Steve nodded, trying not to look too wide-eyed. He hadn’t argued his title at all in the village, and he certainly wasn’t going to now. The elves didn’t deal much with humans, despite living within the borders of the kingdom. Sarah and Joseph had never tried to rule over them, so the elves and the humans had largely avoided each other to each live in peace.

“You have come to stop the other humans who have come here?” The leader checked. Steve nodded again. “We are here to help.”

Steve seemed to finally find his tongue. “You—really? The elves haven’t been involved in human politics in almost three generations.”

The elf searched Steve’s face with his large eyes. “That is true,” he agreed. “But these are very bad men. They will not leave us be, and we do not wish to fight a full war. So we will join you now and win this battle.”

“Thank you,” Steve said seriously, all his diplomatic training kicking in. “We’re very grateful for your help.” Elves weren’t known for their battle abilities, truth be told, but they were cunning and loyal and any help was better than none.

And so they set out, toward the Guard post that had been taken by HYDRA. Bucky kept his eyes and ears peeled, ready for any movement or sound that would mean it was time to fight. Tension was covering all of them.

Dernier gave them a terse nod and broke off, moving forward with Gabe to set explosives. In the distance, they could see a plume of smoke—the townspeople and the diversion. Bucky glanced over to make Steve had his shield ready. Any moment now.

They crested the last hill to the side of the mountain where the Guard post stood, and there was a mass of black-suited figures waiting for them. Bucky felt fear run through him and leave him cold. Someone had betrayed them.

“Shit,” Steve muttered. “Dernier and Gabe…”

“No time to worry now,” Monty said tersely. “They’re coming.”

And they were. Steve straightened his shoulders and nodded at Bucky. Bucky nodded back and made his way to the highest vantage point he could find. He started picking off HYDRA agents as soon as he got set.

He watched through the scope as Steve, Monty, and Morita led a crowd of hip-height elves down to the valley. Dum-Dum stayed by Bucky’s tree, tense and growling. Bucky shot until the rifle was out of bullets. They should have had Mandy replenish those.

His ears rang with the sound of shots and explosions—Dernier and Gabe must’ve been alright after all, at least long enough to set the bombs—and the air was so thick with smoke he probably wouldn’t have been able to do much long-range shooting anyway. He scrambled down from the tree and rushed forward.

“Stay here,” he told Dum-Dum, who, predictably, ignored him and kept running. Bucky didn’t have time to deal with that.

Things actually weren’t going too badly, Bucky thought. So far he could see far more HYDRA agents on the ground than any of the townspeople or elves. Morita was bleeding from a gash in his arm and Monty’s face was ashen, but they looked otherwise unharmed. HYDRA was starting to retreat.

And then Steve went down.

“Steve!” Bucky screamed. Steve got right back up, but Bucky’s heartrate didn’t slow. The shield hadn’t come back to Steve the way it was supposed to; it was stuck in the trunk of a tree close to the edge of the cliff. Bucky yanked it free and kept running.

“Look out!” He called to Steve as a HYDRA agent took aim. They were on the run, but they were still trying to get a few last hits in. Bucky managed to get in front of Steve with the shield and block the bullet, but the force of it against the shield sent him flying. The shield was so heavy, and Bucky wasn’t used to its awkward positioning, and he found himself tumbling over the cliff. He managed to catch onto a branch sticking out of the side, but he couldn’t find a foothold and there didn’t seem to be anything else to hold onto. His arms were trembling so badly he wasn’t sure what good holding on was going to do.

Dum-Dum was barking frantically and Steve was screaming, “Grab my hand!” He was reaching, half-throwing himself down beside Bucky. Bucky wanted to tell him to get back, to stay safe, to be careful, but he couldn’t even breathe, let alone speak. He had never been so terrified in his entire life.

Steve’s hand was reaching, reaching, and Bucky let go with one hand to reach back, and then he heard a loud crack. For one second, he felt suspended in the air, everything slow motion as he realized what happened. He saw horror flash over Steve’s face, because he’d figured it out before Bucky. The desperation in his eyes was the last thing Bucky saw before he started to fall.

“Steve!” He couldn’t help but scream out, the word torn from his throat painfully. It didn’t matter. The air left his lungs as he hurtled through the air, and with a sickening crunch, everything went black.

 

He opened his eyes. It was dark. Where was he? Something was trickling on his side and he rolled his head over to look. He wished he hadn’t. His arm was a mess of blood and shredded skin. He could see his own broken bone poking out, and he couldn’t see anything beyond his elbow. He would’ve vomited if he could’ve, but his stomach only convulsed once, shooting pain through every part of him.

“Ah, yes, you’re awake,” a nasally voice said. He tried to find the speaker but could only move his head to either side. “Get him up.”

Hands pulled him upright and he didn’t bother stopping his scream of pain.

“Stop,” the voice said. He stopped, but he was shuddering, still gasping with the fire going through his body. “Well, well, well,” the voice went on. “I knew I recognized my own work. This will be quite useful.”

Finally, the speaker came into view—a sneering, small, mousey man with glasses perched on his nose. The sneer was the worst part.

He felt a shiver go through him at the sight of this man. Who was he? As if he’d asked that out loud, the man smiled a twisted smile that made him feel even worse.

“We have already met, you know.” The smile turned even uglier. “At your birth. I am Zola, and we have much work to do, James.”

Chapter Text

"Open your eyes."

He resisted for a moment, twitching, but then his head felt like it was going to float away. He opened his eyes. Zola's sneering face filled his vision and he wanted to close his eyes again.

"Good," Zola said, lips curling. "The obedient ones are my favorite."

Bucky wanted to scream for a few different reasons. He was strapped to a table while Zola and some of his assistants worked on his arm. It would be a blessing, except they weren't very worried about how much pain he was in. He also had his doubts that these people were actual healers.

"Now, let's have a talk," Zola said. "Answer my questions honestly. Let's start with some easy ones. What is your name?"

Bucky gritted his teeth. He didn't want to answer. But he didn't have a choice. The pain radiating through his body got worse when he resisted an order.

"James Buchanan Barnes," he gasped. One of the assistants started poking at the exposed bone in his arm and he couldn't hold back the scream that tore from his throat.

"Stop that," Zola snapped. Bucky obeyed, but he couldn't help the little grunts that were still coming out of him. It hurt. He had never felt such agony, not even when he'd fallen off a horse when he was twelve and hit his head on the ground. He'd bled like a stuck pig after that and Becca had thrown up.

Becca. Bucky knew he would never see his sisters again. He was already crying, but it made him want to sob. He'd never know if Becca got away from finishing school. He'd never get to know Elizabeth and Annabelle, not really, not as adults.

And Steve. Bucky clenched his jaw to keep from whimpering. Bucky was never going to see Steve again. They would never climb trees together, never shove each other into the lake, never sleep curled together, never kiss again.

"Is the prince going to come after you?"

Bucky's stomach dropped. Of course Steve was going to come after him. Steve always did. Maybe he wouldn't. After all, Bucky had fallen off a cliff. Bucky had no idea how he was alive. He shouldn't have been. He should've been splattered across the rocks. Steve couldn't get down the cliff to look for him. And there was still HYDRA to deal with, the kingdom to take care. Surely the other Commandos would convince him it was a bad idea.

"I don't know," Bucky said. It wasn't a lie, necessarily. He suspected Steve would, but he didn't know. He prayed Steve wouldn't. Zola getting his hands on Steve...Bucky's stomach convulsed. He wouldn't let it happen.

Zola stared at him for a long time. Looking for signs of distress, Bucky realized. Judging if he was lying. How he hoped to tell the distress of disobeying from the distress Bucky was in over his injuries, Bucky didn't know. He wasn't even sure he'd be able to feel he effects of the curse just then.

"You are going to be very useful to me," Zola said. Bucky made a noise--panic, disgust, protest, he wasn't sure how he'd meant it, but Zola understood the idea behind it.

"Are you saying you'll disobey?" He taunted, laughing. Bucky had never hated anyone the way he hated Zola. He'd thought he'd hated Rumlow, after beatings and not eating properly and missing his letters, but it was nothing compared to the burning in his stomach as he looked at Zola. Bucky hadn't loved killing people, but he did it to protect Steve and the Commandos and the kingdom. He did it from far away; he didn't have to watch.

But he wanted to kill Zola. He wanted to stab him, twist the knife and feel his flesh and guts rip. He wanted to watch life fade from Zola's eyes.

It scared him. He never would have thought himself capable of thoughts like that. But it was true.

There was a knock on the door. "Ah, right on time," Zola said. "We have much work to do before you'll be ready to do your job."

"What kind of work?" Bucky blurted.

"A new arm, for starters." Zola waved a hand lazily and Bucky watched, shocked, as a disembodied silver arm rose from a work bench in the corner. The arm was made of metal, bulky and heavy. It looked like a blunt instrument.

"If the healers ever finish prepping you," Zola said pointedly to the gathered assistants.

"The serum is still working. His skin had already begun dying, sir," one brave soul spoke up. "When you brought him back--"

Bucky threw up. This couldn't be happening. Zola had brought him back from the dead? That couldn't be possible. The assistants grumbled as they hurried to turn him, not giving him the mercy of choking to death. What did it matter, if Zola could simply bring him back again?

"Come in," Zola snapped as another knock came at the door. "You will learn to control yourself better," he added to Bucky. "That's what he's for."

He gestured at the door, which was opening to reveal...

Bucky threw up again. The cold fury in those eyes couldn't mean anything good for him.

"Well, recruit, did you miss me?" Rumlow jeered.

"Did I give you permission to speak?" Zola asked in a dangerous voice. Rumlow sputtered. "I should gift everyone with obedience. Maybe it would help. Pity it only works on children."

Rumlow closed his mouth obediently, but Bucky could see the anger rolling off him in waves. He had no question who was going to pay for that anger.

"You cannot begin his training until his arm is ready," Zola told Rumlow.

"Sir," an assistant interrupted. "Five minutes."

"Wonderful." Zola's voice was full of contempt. "A full day after requested."

The assistant trembled but went on working. It felt like he was scraping Bucky's bone right out of his arm. He didn't dare look. He couldn't scream again.

Finally, the assistants backed away, nodding at Zola. He grabbed the floating arm and came up to the table, muttering under his breath words Bucky couldn't understand. Spells, he realized. Magic. Bucky started to breathe faster as the arm came toward him. How were they planning to attach that to him? He didn't know much, admittedly, about healing, but this didn't seem like it was going to work.

Zola pressed the arm into the stump Bucky had left and turned it. Bucky couldn't help it--he screamed again. The pain, the sound of the metal grinding against his bone, and his disobedience to the previous order all came together and the beating in his skull was so strong he couldn't see for a minute. He screamed again, making the pain worse, and then everything, blessedly, went dark.

 

He woke up still strapped to the table. He was covered in his own vomit. It made him retch again, but he had nothing left to bring up. Nothing hurt anymore, the blinding agony was gone, but he felt weak and chilled.

He refused to call out to anyone, some lost child scared of the dark. Who was going to come, anyway? Zola? Rumlow? The thought of either of them being even remotely comforting almost made him laugh. He was trembling. He wanted Steve. He wanted his mother. He wanted to go back in time before any of this happened, never go to the Academy, never run blindly into the woods after Steve. He wanted to die.

"Feeling better?" One of the assistants asked. Bucky didn't bother answering. What was there to say? The assistant came over and felt Bucky's forehead. It was nothing like the way his mother used to do it, a cool hand against fevered skin, concern and love in her eyes.

"Wiggle your fingers," the man commanded. Bucky did. "With your left," he said impatiently. Bucky blinked. His left...he looked down. The arm was attached. He watched, fascinated, as he wiggled the metal fingers. The assistant made a pleased sound, leaning closer to look.

And Bucky lunged.

He got the metal fingers wrapped around the man's neck and squeezed. He'd never killed anyone like this before, but he couldn't say he was very conflicted about it now. He was sure the metal hand could rip through the restraints holding him down; if he could get rid of this man and get off the table, surely he could get away. He didn't know how far he could get--he didn't know where they were--but he'd rather die running away than be stuck here.

"Stop!" The man gasped. Bucky kept squeezing, willing the man to die before the curse grew too strong, but it didn't happen. He was already weak from everything that had happened, and he couldn't resist obeying. The man fell to the ground, gulping and cursing and rubbing at his neck, and Rumlow ran into the room.

"Don't get close to him, fool!" He shouted.

"I realize that now," the man said icily.

"You'll be punished," Rumlow told Bucky. Bucky knew it was coming, but it still made a shudder run through him. He was all too acquainted with Rumlow's punishments. As if he heard this thought, Rumlow smiled. "And I don't have to worry about anyone at the Academy finding out and crying over it," he said. "I can do whatever I want."

Now Bucky was actually scared. If back at the Academy Rumlow had been showing restraint, Bucky was definitely in trouble. He started to sweat, adding more grime to the layer of filth already clouding his skin. He was still strapped to the table, and Zola must have enhanced the restraints somehow because Bucky was straining the metal hand and couldn't break them.

Rumlow started raining blows down on him and he couldn't protect himself in any way. It was an awkward angle, at least, but Rumlow was nothing if not determined.

"Damaging the asset..." The assistant said uneasily. "Zola may not like that."

Rumlow shot him an annoyed look. "He can fix any damage with all his magical powers. Or are you saying he's not as good as he claims to be?"

"I..." The assistant sputtered. "No, I didn't say that!"

"Good," Rumlow said. "Then shut up and mind your own business."

The assistant spent one last second looking between Bucky and Rumlow, and then he left. Bucky could've cried. At least it would've been a witness. Not that it mattered. Who here was going to speak up for him?

The copper taste of blood was filling his throat and mouth when the door burst open. “What is the meaning of this?”

The voice was semi-familiar, though he couldn’t see the speaker.

“Sir, he needed to be punished for—”

“You cannot damage him,” the voice interrupted Rumlow. “We don’t have time to keep patching him up over and over.”

“Sir, he was disobedient.”

“Oh, was he? I was under the impression that was impossible.”

Rumlow paused. His fist was still raised. “He was defiant,” he amended.

“There are other ways to cure that,” the voice said coldly. “We’re not barbarians, Rumlow, honestly. We aren’t going to beat it out of him.”

Rumlow lowered his arm, though his fists were still clenched and his eyes narrowed. Finally, the person came into view so Bucky could see his protector. He gasped. It was councilman Pierce.

“You!” Bucky said involuntarily. He’d sat right beside Steve at so many meetings. And he was working with Zola all along? Pierce smiled at Bucky.

“How do you think HYDRA was getting past the guard posts?” He asked lazily. “You didn’t think they were smart enough to do it on their own, did you?”

“Steve trusts you!” Bucky protested.

“All the better,” Pierce said carelessly.

Bucky swallowed hard. This could only mean horrible things. If Pierce was HYDRA, and now they had Bucky…

“We’re not going to send you to betray your old pal, don’t worry,” Pierce said, rolling his eyes like Bucky was being dramatic. “He saw you fall off a cliff, for God’s sake. You’re dead. He knows that. He’s been moaning and crying about it for weeks now.”

Weeks? Bucky shivered. He’d had no idea it had been so long. He couldn’t keep track of time here. Then the rest of the sentence caught up, too. Moaning and crying. His stomach clenched. Steve.

“If you let me get back to him, I’ll tell him to be lenient,” Bucky said desperately. If he could just get back to Steve—

Pierce laughed uproariously. “Look at him, thinking he can strike deals!” He said to Rumlow. He turned back to Bucky, no longer laughing, face cold. “You will do as you’re told and you won’t argue.”

Bucky clenched his teeth. A blanket order. One of his least favorites. They stuck around the longest because counter-orders had to be specific enough to catch them, and without someone on his side looking out to catch those, he’d have to rely on luck.

And luck hadn’t exactly been on side lately. Or…ever.

Zola came in then. Bucky shuddered. He didn’t want to be, but he was terrified of Zola. Maybe it was some leftover echo from the day he was born. Maybe it was just that he knew what Zola was capable of better than most people.

“You’re awake,” Zola said. “Good. We can begin. We have to test your reactions.”

He nodded to one of his assistants, who stepped closer to Bucky with a scalpel in hand. “Test one,” the assistant said. Bucky barely had time to brace himself before the assistant was sliding the scalpel down his arm, cutting him. Bucky shouted in surprise and pain.

“Quiet,” Zola said lazily. Bucky had to hold his breath to keep from crying out. Sometimes he wished the curse just took over and followed orders for him. Making him follow the orders himself seemed extra cruel.

Before his eyes, his skin started to knit back together. He inhaled sharply but didn’t otherwise make a sound. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and it wasn’t without pain.

“Wonderful,” Zola murmured, writing on his clipboard.

It went on for hours, days, weeks—Bucky didn’t know. Cutting him, injecting him, pulling out his fingernails. He didn’t see why Pierce had stopped Rumlow from hitting him. How was this different? Because they were writing it down and marking the results? He would have almost preferred Rumlow. At least Rumlow tired.

He had no idea how much time had passed when Zola seemed to finally be satisfied. He put away his clipboard and Bucky couldn’t even spare too much time to be relieved—he was too worried about what was coming next.

There was no way they weren’t going to use him to some end. Zola had already told him that, anyway, and knew about the curse. There was no way they wouldn’t use Bucky. But whatever magic they’d done to make him heal like that had to be part of it too. He just couldn’t figure out what it was going to be.

“Now,” Zola said, unfastening the restraints that had held Bucky in place for however long he’d been there. Welts covered his flesh wrist. They healed every day and chafed anew, so he’d been in an endless loop of hurting and healing. “We can begin the real work. Stay where you are until I tell you otherwise.”

Bucky stood still as the assistants cleaned him off and dressed him. Zola beckoned at him and Bucky didn’t move. Zola pursed his lips.

“You will not play these games with me,” he said. “Come.”

Now every delay was disobedience. Bucky clenched his fists, angry tears threatening to well up. Even his small acts of rebellion were gone now. He was a puppet. He followed Zola to a carriage and climbed inside when instructed. He looked out the window as the dry, barren scenery passed by. They must have been somewhere in the eastern reaches of the kingdom. He didn’t know when or how he’d been moved.

“Now,” Zola said when the carriage stopped and they got out. “We will test you. Shoot the target.” He handed Bucky a gun and pointed. Bucky followed the line of his finger.

It was a man, tied up and gagged. Bucky took a step back. “What?” His voice came out high and thin. “Kill him?” The curse was already tugging at him to obey. His head started to swim.

“That is what I said,” Zola affirmed. “Do it now.”

“No,” Bucky said, stomach churning for more than one reason. His legs started to tremble. His fingers were twitching on the gun. He should just shoot the man. He needed to. He had to. He shook his head, trying to focus. He wasn’t going to shoot some innocent person.

He could be HYDRA, his brain said helpfully. Killing a HYDRA agent wouldn’t be so bad. But Bucky didn’t know that. If Zola wanted him dead, he was probably at least partially a good person. Bucky was sweating, mouth dry. He couldn’t think.

“Shoot him,” Zola repeated. The man made a muffled, frightened noise.

“N-n-” Bucky couldn’t even talk. His mouth was watering now, the precursor to throwing up. His whole body was wracked with tremors as he fought the curse. Time to break it, now. Natasha and Mandy had both told him it was possible. He’d do it now.

“Shoot him!” Rumlow yelled, impatient. Bucky fell to his knees, vomiting in the grass. He wasn’t going to shoot this man. His finger twitched on the trigger. His head was spinning. His vision started to fade away, and then he passed out.

He woke to Rumlow kicking him. Apparently the ban on punishing him was lifted. Waking provided no relief. The curse was still tugging at him. He rolled onto his side, trying to shield himself from Rumlow, and saw the man’s unseeing face. He was dead.

Bucky threw up again.

“Stop,” Pierce said.

“Zola told me to punish him,” Rumlow protested sullenly.

“Zola is wrong.” Pierce’s voice moved, like he had turned to the side. “All due respect, of course. But we’re going about this wrong. Of course he would resist that order.”

Bucky was still shaking and twitching on the grass. The man was dead—why wasn’t he free from the order? The curse wasn’t logical.

“Stop trying to shoot him,” Zola said, finally giving Bucky some relief. “Go on,” he said to Pierce, voice silky in a dangerous way. “What is your brilliant idea, then?”

“We know who he was. We know what he did. He has to know why we’re having him kill these people.” Pierce came closer and looked down at Bucky, frowning at the mess around him and all over him. “We’re saving the kingdom,” he said.

Bucky spit in the grass and didn’t answer. Steve was saving the kingdom. Steve was fighting for the kingdom and working for the kingdom and helping the people of the kingdom. Pierce and Zola wanted power, nothing else.

“You don’t believe me,” Pierce said. “It’s true, though. We just need your help.”

“Never,” Bucky managed to say. His throat was gritty from throwing up.

Pierce smiled coldly at him. “You don’t have much choice in the matter, do you?” He didn’t wait for an answer before he turned to Zola and Rumlow again. “It’s simple,” he said. “We make him forget who he was.”

“How?” Rumlow asked skeptically. He glanced at Zola. “Magic?”

“Oh, please,” Pierce snapped impatiently. “The boy does anything we say. Forget who you were,” he said to Bucky. “Forget your old life. You’re our soldier now. Act accordingly.”

Forget? Forget his parents, his sisters, the Commandos, Steve? He wouldn’t. He struggled to sit up, the curse already tugging at him. Besides his desire not to, Bucky didn’t know how. How could he just wipe his own mind clean?

“The brain does not work that way,” Zola said. He sounded almost petulant. “And his obedience does not work that way. It is not instantaneous. He must do it himself.”

Pierce gestured at Bucky, writhing on the ground. “He’s doing it.”

Zola shook his head. “It is an imperfect method.”

“It’ll work fine until you come up with something better.”

Their voices faded out as Bucky focused inward. Maybe if he fought and passed out again they’d think up a new way. Rumlow sent a kick to Bucky’s ribs as incentive to work harder on obeying. Unlikely. Zola was muttering about how it could take years to find the right combination of spells and enchantments.

“Forget it all,” Pierce said.

The whole world was dissolving around him. His mother’s face flashed into his mind and disappeared like water down a drain. He couldn’t try to bring it back without his head feeling like it was going to split open. One by one, faces were falling out of his head.

He held onto Steve longest. First he lost Steve as he was when Bucky last saw him, broad-chested and healthy, cheeks flushed with life and vigor. He held onto Steve with his long, thin limbs and his wheezing breath and his freezing-cold feet.

But then Steve’s hair was gone, and then his eyes, and his fingers, and he was gone. The word Steve echoed in his head, but with nothing attached anymore. It was just a word.

The soldier stood up off the ground. He stood at attention. He waited for his orders.

Chapter Text

"The target," Pierce said, handing the Soldier a dossier. "Kill him. Take any measures necessary to keep it quiet. Collateral damage is acceptable."

The Solider nodded, eyes scanning the file. Memorizing the target's face took mere seconds. Pierce always gave the orders. Zola might have given them to Pierce, but interactions with Zola personally were restricted to arm maintenance and behavioral corrections. Zola was a scientist, as he'd said repeatedly. He was not interested in the rest of it.

"This man is trying to overthrow the kingdom," Pierce went on. The Soldier's brows drew together. Anyone trying to overthrow the kingdom had to be stopped. The kingdom was important.

Why?

It was like seeing something from the peripheral vision. It was just around a corner, locked away somewhere. The kingdom was important for a big reason. Not just because it was the kingdom and not just because Pierce said so. But why?

His head started to throb. That happened when he reached for those things around corners in his mind. He stopped and focused on Pierce again.

"He wants to kill the king," Pierce said, and the Soldier gave a violent start. He almost growled. No one was allowed to kill the king. Pierce had explained to him that the king was his nephew, but it was kept secret. He was a trusted adviser to the king, and the Soldier's job was to protect the king by whatever means necessary.

That information had gone down easily, had felt right and clicked into place perfectly like so little else did. Protecting the king was his job. He had never doubted that, never fought it the way he'd been told he sometimes fought other orders. When Zola checked his behavior, he was told of the things he'd done wrong on previous missions that he didn't remember.

He didn't remember, Zola told him, because disobedience couldn't be held in the brain. It slipped out like water from a crack. Rumlow punished him, and Zola told him why afterward.

Rumlow took the Soldier to the target. It was day, and the target was working. He worked as a farrier in the outskirts of the Royal City. He worked often on the king's horses. That would give him an easy way to kill the king.

The Soldier lay in wait for hours, as instructed. He was to complete his mission at dusk. That was when all missions were completed—on the cusp of day and night, just as the kingdom was on the cusp of order and chaos. They were restoring order, keeping the king safe.

Finally, it was time. But the target came into his house with a little girl holding his hand and skipping along at his side. Daughter. Age 7. She tipped her face up at the target and smiled and the Soldier shuddered.

A red ribbon tied in a bow in dark hair. A sticky hand. Giggles and excited voices. A scraped knee and tears. A smile with two missing teeth.

The Soldier clutched his head. He had never seen the child before today. Why did her smile bring to mind the corner-of-the-mind feeling?

Annabelle.

His stomach rolled. What was an Annabelle?

"Soldier," Rumlow snapped. "Focus on the target."

The order was welcome. Orders cut through the fog in his head. Obedience was rewarded. Completing his mission would mean he could sleep without the restraints on his arms and legs.

He focused the scope again and tracked the target. Clear shot. He hesitated. The girl wasn't in the path of the bullet, but she was close enough for splatter. She wasn't the target. She was a child. Collateral damage is acceptable.

"Do you have a clear shot?" Rumlow asked impatiently.

"No," the Soldier said. It wasn't a lie. He didn't have a shot clear from showering the girl in brain matter.

Rumlow huffed. "What's taking so long?" He muttered. The Soldier didn't bother answering. He'd long learned that unless Rumlow was looking directly at him, he expected no answer.

There. The girl had gone into a different room as the target filled a pot with water. The Soldier took the shot. The target dropped. Water was still running from the tap.

The girl came into the room. She was too far away to hear her scream, but the Soldier shivered as he heard a scream in his mind.

Bucky!

"Finally," Rumlow said. "Let's go."

The Soldier followed Rumlow. He slept unrestrained that night and even got a blanket. He had completed his mission and done well. No punishment.

His dreams were full of screaming children and blood. He woke up vomiting. He was glad he was unrestrained so he could roll to the edge of the bed instead of throwing up on himself. There was a chamber pot at the side of his bed for this reason.

He finished, wiped his mouth, and lay back down to go to sleep. This happened every night. It didn't bother him.

 

"A new mission," Pierce told him. The Soldier did not know how long it had been since the target with the little girl. He did not remember the target or the little girl. Even obedience slipped out of his head when ordered. "This is a long mission," Pierce warned. "You'll have to do reconnaissance first."

The Soldier nodded. He did not remember, but he'd been told he'd done reconnaissance before.

"There is an impostor posing as the king," Pierce said. The Soldier bristled. The king was important. "Your mission is to get information. Find weak spots. Find a way into the fortress he's calling the royal castle. And then kill him."

He handed the Soldier a file. The painting inside made the Soldier frown. The nose is wrong, he thought, and then he wondered what that meant. His head hurt as he looked at the target. Pierce was watching him closely, gauging his reaction, so he couldn't cradle his head the way he longed to. But the nose was wrong--he knew that firmly.

"Something wrong?" Pierce asked, tone indicating any answer other than a negative would not be tolerated. The Soldier shook his head.

"Rumlow will take you to the spot and brief you more fully," Pierce said, bored already. But as the Soldier left the room, Pierce stopped him. "This mission is the most important you've had," he said gravely. "I can't imagine what would happen if you failed."

The Soldier shivered and didn't respond.

 

The ride to the fake palace was long, and it seemed longer with only Rumlow for company. Maybe it was because Rumlow always doled out punishments, but the Soldier didn't like him. He made the Soldier's lip curl, even when he was just sitting there minding his own business.

But the Soldier forgot all that when he saw the fake palace. It wasn't fake. He knew that. This was the palace. He didn't know how he knew, and he couldn't sit there and think about it without feeling that cramping feeling in his stomach and the swirling feeling in his head. All he knew was the building filled him with a sense of rightness. He wanted to go inside. His stomach was hurting from being away from the building, but then it hurt when he tried to figure out why.

"What?" Rumlow barked at him. "What's that look on your face?"

The Soldier grunted and turned away. He didn't have to answer to questions. Rumlow was muttering under his breath, but no direct orders, so the Soldier tuned him out. The edge of recognition feeling was back, everywhere he looked. He saw the Royal Stables and thought Lady Red and then almost retched from the pain in his head and the rolling in his stomach.

“You’re going to set up here,” Rumlow said as they reached the spot. It was a copse of trees across from the palace. “Watch and gather intel. Do not engage until we get the sign from Pierce. Understood?”

The Soldier nodded. Rumlow always wanted him to answer with yes, sir but the Soldier wouldn’t do it unless ordered, which Rumlow rarely did. He may have been the one doling out punishments, but he was still afraid of the Soldier and his metal arm.

Rumlow huffed but soon left to plant the listening devices, since he was less noticeable than a man with a metal arm, and the Soldier was alone to set up his surveillance equipment. It didn’t take long, so soon he was perched in a tree peering into the windows of the palace. He couldn’t hear anything, but he could see people, most likely servants, moving in and out of rooms, cleaning, setting the table in a banquet hall.

He got his first glimpse of the target after an hour or so. Rumlow had planted the listening devices and then gone on his way. He wouldn’t sit through the long reconnaissance. He’d left food and gave an ordered schedule of when to eat.

The Solider was tuning out two serving maids complaining about their womanly pains—he was listening, honest, but he didn’t see how this would be helpful in overthrowing the imposter—when two men came into the hall, deep in conversation.

“I don’t think you’ve thought this through well enough,” the other one, the non-target, was saying. “Are you considering how dangerous it is?”

“I know,” the target said. “But you’re not considering space-saving necessities.”

“Look,” not-target said, shaking his head and crossing his arms over his chest. “There’s just no way I’m going to pick a pet manticore over a dragon. I mean, can you even keep a manticore as a pet? Aren’t they mostly sentient?”

“Aren’t dragons?” The target countered. “And anyway, I never said pet, I just said ally.”

“What kind of alliance can you offer a manticore? I mean, with a dragon you say hey, man, here’s some cows and some gold. Manticores want, I don’t know, anarchy or something.”

The target snorted. “I didn’t realize you were such an expert. And I’d have to find a manticore before I actually put some more thought into this. No one’s seen a dragon in a hundred years, anyway, so I don’t think you’re more right than I am.”

“Uh, that we know of,” Sam pointed out. “Maybe they’re just minding their own business.”

“Or they got eaten.”

The Soldier was completely perplexed by this conversation. Why were they discussing making alliances with mythical beasts? Was the kingdom in such trouble they would be willing to risk their lives persuading a dragon to join them?

Sam suddenly snorted. “Did you hear Morita said the real question is whether you could get a unicorn on your side?”

The target scoffed, too. “Unicorns don’t even take sides.”

This shed no light on the situation. And the Soldier was distracted. The king—the false king—was bringing up some kind of feeling in the Soldier’s chest he couldn’t identify. He had unconsciously moved closer to the edge of the tree, closer to the palace wall, and was looking over the target’s body for any sign of distress.

Maybe his subconscious wanted the imposter in perfect condition before the Soldier killed him.

Surveillance was usually tedious, but the Soldier found himself eagerly listening to every word out of the target’s mouth. Even when the things he said were ridiculous and left the Soldier rolling his eyes, or when the Soldier didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t even notice a full day had passed until Rumlow came for a check-in.

“Report,” Rumlow barked.

“The target is mourning something,” the Soldier said. “He wears a black armband. He did not sleep last night. He sat with his head in his hands for 37.5 minutes before leaving his quarters and going to the stables, where he sat with his head in his hands outside a stall for another 15.7 minutes.” The Soldier left out the part where the target had cried, actual tears and running nose and heaving breaths but not a single sound. It didn’t seem pertinent and it had left the Soldier…unsettled.

Rumlow laughed. “He’s still mourning?” He asked. “It’s been a year.”

“You know what he’s mourning?” The Soldier asked. He wasn’t usually supposed to ask questions, especially anything that wasn’t in his mission briefing. If Rumlow knew and the information wasn’t in the briefing, it wasn’t of the Soldier’s concern.

Rumlow’s lips twisted into an ugly smile. “His friend died in battle,” he said, watching the Soldier with hard eyes. The Soldier nodded and didn’t say anything more. He’d pushed his luck already.

“The mission has changed,” Rumlow said. “Have you heard preparations for the ball the palace is preparing for?”

The Soldier tried not to look guilty. If the target himself hadn’t said it, he didn’t listen, and he didn’t remember anything about a ball.

“You’re to infiltrate the ball,” Rumlow went on. “You’ll take out the target once you get close enough.”

The Soldier nodded. “Maintenance first?” He asked.

“Yes. Not until tomorrow morning. The ball is tomorrow night. Continue your surveillance for now. Fine something useful.”

The Soldier didn’t bother with a response. His job was always to find something useful. That was the point of surveillance. Rumlow’s orders were useless, as always. Rumlow himself was largely useless.

“Do you understand?” Rumlow pressed. The Soldier tried not to roll his eyes.

“Yes,” he responded obediently. “I can’t surveil with you talking.”

Rumlow narrowed his eyes, but he let it slide, because the Soldier was right. He soon left, and the Soldier was once again focused on his task. He witnessed the target hearing about the impending ball.

Why?” He whined. It was the only accurate description of his tone of voice. “A ball?”

“You’re supposed to be finding someone to marry,” an advisor reminded him. The target’s face went suddenly very blank. Sam grimaced and exchanged looks with a mustached man beside him. Monty.

The Soldier’s head reeled. Why had he thought that? He shook his head to clear it and tried to ignore his heartrate increasing.

“I don’t wish to marry anyone,” the target said. His voice was flat.

“Your Highness—”

“Are you advertising to the kingdom that that’s the point of this?” The target asked. “I’ll dance and I’ll receive my people, but I will not be choosing a suitor.” He rose from the table. “Excuse me.”

Sam chased after him. “Steve.”

“I’ve told them over and over again—”

“It’s their job to make sure—”

“It’s their job to help me keep the kingdom safe and this isn’t—”

“No king is supposed to rule alone, Steve, you know that and you—”

“I’m in mourning!” The target exploded. His voice echoed down the corridor.

Sam wrinkled his brow. “Barnes? I know he was your best friend, but I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to just never marry, Steve.”

The target was quiet for a very long time. His respiration was increasing, and the Soldier found he was matching it without meaning to or knowing why.

“You’ve been in mourning for a long time,” Sam added gently. “It’s one thing to be grieving, but your public mourning going on for this long…it’s attracting attention, Steve. We’re going on a year now. That’s as long as…”

“As long as I should be in mourning for what he is to me,” the target whispered, dropping onto a bench. Sam’s eyes went wide.

“You mean…?” Sam sucked in a quick breath. “Oh. Oh, wow. Steve, why didn’t you ever say anything?” His face was etched in lines of sympathy and the Soldier found he’d missed something again. He didn’t know what was going on.

“We didn’t tell anyone,” the target said. “And it was only—I mean. It wasn’t like…well.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Just a few, uh, you know, kisses? We weren’t betrothed or anything.” So he was mourning a lover. The Soldier’s stomach was twisting strangely.

“Only,” Sam echoed. “Just a few kisses with the guy you knew your whole life, huh? Nothing serious.”

The target all but crumpled, his giant shoulders rounding in on themselves and his face contorting in pain. “I think I’ve loved him since the first time I ever met him.”

Sam put a hand on the target’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Steve.” Neither of them said anything for a long time. “Do you want me to say something to Natasha? She’s heading up security tomorrow since Fury’ll be gone. She can run interference, make sure no one has any ideas about what’s going to happen.”

The target sighed. “I don’t know,” he said, rubbing a hand across his face. “No, it’s fine. I can handle myself.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said slowly. “You know you don’t have to handle it all yourself, right?”

The target smiled, but it was strained. “Yeah. Thanks, Sam. I’ll be fine.” He got up and straightened his uniform. “I’ve got more meetings to go to.” He walked off and Sam stared after him for a while. Sam ran a hand over his short hair and shook his head.

“What are we gonna do with you,” he muttered. The Soldier couldn’t help but agree.

 

“You have your identity,” Pierce reminded the Soldier. “Do not reveal your face. Keep the target in your sights and engage if you need to, but do not take the shot until I give the order.”

It wasn’t the usual protocol. Usually, the Soldier has his briefing and his mission but had free rein to carry it out. He was very good at carrying out his missions. But this time, Pierce was going to be there, watching, and would give the final order. Maybe it was personal for Pierce; maybe because the target was impersonating Pierce’s nephew.

The Soldier didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter. He nodded his understanding and tied the mask into place. He hated the mask. It made it hard to breathe and no one could hear him when he spoke. But he couldn’t very well go into the Royal Palace and kill someone with his face uncovered.

“Where are you going?” Pierce asked sharply. The Soldier stopped. He’d been heading for a gap in the hedges. It was a small gap, too small to fit through with the metal arm.

“I…” He didn’t know. Had he thought he could crawl through the gap?

“Get in the carriage,” Pierce barked. “We’re going through the front entrance like all the other guests.”

The Soldier obeyed wordlessly. He kept his eyes down as they passed the guard station.

“Councilman Pierce, welcome,” one of the guards said. “A guest?”

“My nephew,” Pierce said smoothly. The Soldier wondered if anyone ever questioned how many nephews he had. And then they were getting out of the carriage, walking up a grand staircase to overlook the hall, empty of table and chairs now to clear out a space for dancing. There were couples on the floor, the Soldier didn’t see the target anywhere.

“I have obligations to attend to,” Pierce said in his ear. “Go find the target and stay with him. Stand by for my order.”

The Soldier nodded and went to do as he was told. He scanned the crowd, looking for a gap that would mean a smaller person, looking for crooked posture and bruised knuckles and—he shook his head. No, that wasn’t right. He was looking for broad shoulders and muscle. Some previous mission must have been crowding into his mind just then.

He thought the target would probably be sitting, or perhaps leaning against a wall, and found him hiding around a corner, talking to a beautiful woman with bright red lips.

“Thanks for coming, Peg,” the target said. “It means a lot.”

“I know how you are at these kinds of things,” she said, her voice melodic and full of laughter. “Couldn’t leave you all alone to the wolves, could I? Not that I don’t think Wilson and Romanoff wouldn’t do their jobs, of course, but what with your Commandos off on patrol I had a feeling you’d be over here against the wall.”

“Their jobs of being my security detail or their jobs of forcing me to go out and mingle?” The target asked. He was smiling, an actual smile with happiness on his face, and the Soldier had to turn away for a moment to catch his breath. What was happening? He didn’t remember every mission, granted, but he didn’t think this had ever happened. Was he malfunctioning in some way? He glanced around for Pierce, but he knew he wasn’t supposed to bother his handler during a covert mission.

“Well, are you going to dance?” The woman asked the target. The target made a face.

“Only if you give me the first one.” He gave her a blinding grin.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t try to charm me, Steven. I know you too well for that.”

He laughed, a big booming sound the Soldier wanted to hear again. “Can I get one?” The target asked, hopeful now. “As friends, I mean. I know you and Gabe…”

She put a hand on his arm. “Of course I’ll save you a dance, darling,” she promised. “But you do have to attend to your duty. You have a line of people waiting to dance with you.”

The target sighed. He leaned against the wall. “You know the first person I ever danced with?” He asked wistfully.

“I can take a guess,” she said kindly.

“So far he’s the only person I’ve ever danced with.” His face fell a little. “It was the best night of my life,” he said softly. “And then we got the news about his parents, and that was when everything changed.”

She tapped her hand on his shoulder. “Come on, then,” she said lightly. “If the next person is going to be your first since him, I’ll take that honor.”

“Thank you,” the target murmured. They went onto the floor, and the Soldier heard a woman sigh.

“Of course he’d choose her,” the woman said to her friend. “She’s beautiful.”

“Just because they’re dancing doesn’t mean he chose her chose her,” her friend retorted. “I’m getting in line. You never know.”

The Soldier frowned at the long line of people avidly watching the target. How was he supposed to stay close when the target had so many people clamoring for his attention?

“Hello there,” a small woman said to the Soldier. “You’re not in line to dance with the king?” She had fascinating red hair. It brought to mind the forest, for some reason, and an unconscious man.

“It’s a long line,” he said, tipping his voice low and charming. Pierce had asked if he knew how to be charming, and the Soldier had been offended. He’d wanted to say ask half the women in the kingdom. But he hadn’t said it. It hadn’t made sense.

“I was hoping that meant you would dance with me,” she told him. She winked. “The bad part about the king being open to men and women is it takes double the people away from the rest of us.”

The Soldier laughed. “I can’t pretend I don’t have designs on him,” he said smoothly, because he needed to stay near the target. “But I certainly won’t turn down a chance to dance with a beautiful lady.”

“Wonderful.” She took his arm and led him to the floor. The target raised a hand to them, giving the Soldier a curious look. The Soldier copied his dance partner and winked at him, just to see what he’d do, and was delighted when the target’s face went crimson.

“I’m Natalia,” she said. “I work here in the palace.”

“My name is Sasha,” he responded. “My uncle is a councilman.”

“Oh, which one?” She asked.

“Councilman Pierce.”

Her face didn’t move at all. “I know him,” was all she said. The Soldier nodded. The music changed, picked up into a faster dance, and his heart lifted in excitement.

“This is one of my favorites,” he blurted. She smiled.

“Then we'd better keep dancing.”

They did, dancing circles around everyone else. She was an incredible dancer. And so was he, as it turned out. The Soldier was tempted to forget the mission and enjoy the night with her. But as soon as he lost sight of the target, all his complaints came back—dizziness, shortness of breath, stomach pains. He kept glancing over his shoulders, looking for the target, and eventually Natalia smiled.

“Well, I can tell when I’m not the object of affection,” she said. “I’ll bow out gracefully.”

“I apologize,” he said sincerely. “You’re a wonderful dance partner.”

Her smile changed to a smirk. “I know.”

He laughed at that, and bowed over her hand. He even kissed it, making her snort in amusement. “Thank you,” he said. “I suppose I shall join the line.”

“No need,” she told him. She lifted a hand and waved at the target. “I’ll bring him over now.”

“Hi,” the target said, coming over immediately. “Everything alright?”

“More than,” Natalia promised. “This is Sasha. He’s a phenomenal dancer. You two should dance.” She raised an eyebrow. “He could teach you a thing or two, I’m sure.”

The target’s face turned red again. It sent a thrill through the Soldier’s stomach. “I, uh. Would you like to dance?” The target asked.

“Pal, I thought you’d never ask,” the Soldier said. Pal? He wasn’t sure where that had come from. The target looked stricken for a moment, but he shook his head slightly and took the Soldier’s hands.

“Thank you,” he said over his shoulder to Natalia as they took the floor.

The target was not as good a dancer as Natalia. The target was a pretty awful dancer, actually. His rhythm was alright, and he was graceful enough, but he held his entire body stiff, like he was worried about touching the Soldier.

“Are you not enjoying this?” The Soldier asked. The target started.

“No! I mean—yes—I mean…I’m sorry,” he sputtered. “Am I doing it wrong?”

The Soldier shook his head. “There’s not really a way of doing it wrong,” he said. “You need to loosen up.”

The target was staring at him like he’d grown a second head. “You sound so much like someone I used to know.” He sounded sad.

“Whoever you’re mourning?” The Soldier asked, tipping his head to the black patch on the target’s sleeve. It was small enough to be almost unnoticeable, but the Soldier had known about it from his surveillance.

The target smiled sadly. “Yeah,” he said. “He loved dancing.”

“And you didn’t?”

Now the smile was wry. “I wasn’t ever any good.”

“How could you not be, with a body like that?” The Soldier didn’t mean to sound lascivious, but it did come out a little sultry. The target was an attractive man, and the uniform he was wearing was cut perfectly. The Soldier may have been obedient, but that didn’t mean he was dead.

He relished the way the target’s cheeks darkened, but then the target’s face shuttered closed. “I don’t take much time for dancing,” he said, but now he was stiff and polite. The Soldier had said something wrong. Pointing out the target’s body was a step too far.

“Let me see if I can guess what you do instead,” the Soldier said, making sure he sounded teasing. “Hmm…you herd sheep?”

The target barked out a surprised laugh. “No.”

“Maybe…pigs?”

The target laughed harder. “Is there something about me that suggests I herd pigs? What does herding pigs even mean?”

“What do I know? It’s your hobby,” the Soldier joked. Part of him was dumbfounded. He was charming. Very.

“Well what about you, Mr. Mask?” The target asked. The Soldier snorted.

“Mr. Mask?”

The target rolled his eyes. “You haven’t told me anything about yourself.”

“My name is Sasha, as Natalia said.”

“Natalia?” The target interrupted. “Her name is Natasha.”

“Oh.” That threw the Soldier off balance. “She told me Natalia.”

Now the target huffed a laugh. “She likes inventing new characters to play around strangers. Sorry about that. So, your name is Sasha.”

“Yes. I’m here with my uncle. I’m from the southern border of the kingdom. And I do not herd sheep.”

The target laughed again. “How about pigs?”

“No, no pigs either. I dance all day so I’m ready for occasions like this.”

The song ended and the target squeezed the Soldier’s hand regretfully. “I have to attend to my other guests.” He sounded like he’d rather do anything else. “Will you save another dance for me?” He asked, almost shyly.

“I’ll be waiting,” the Soldier promised. Their eyes held for a moment, and then the target pulled his hand away.

“Thank you, Sasha,” he murmured.

The Soldier danced a few more dances with other people, mostly women who were bored of waiting in line for the target. He made sure to keep the target in his sightlines, and his gaze drew the target’s eyes more than once. He blushed and smiled every time.

The Soldier also had to keep an eye out for Pierce. He had to be sure he was close enough to quickly get into position when the order came. He was leaning against a wall, watching the target squirm in the arms of a beautiful blonde woman, when the target’s friend, Sam, came to stand beside him.

“Hi there,” Sam said. “You’re Sasha, right?”

The Soldier lifted his eyebrows and Sam laughed. “Steve grabbed me and pointed you out. You made quite an impression in just one song.”

The Soldier shrugged. “Isn’t that what everyone’s trying to do?”

Sam nodded. After a beat, he said, “So, is that your master plan here? You’re going to charm him and you hope he’ll propose marriage to you at the end of the night?”

“No,” the Soldier said truthfully. “I’m just here to dance. If I get to do it with a beautiful man, well, that’s a bonus.”

Sam looked at him for a minute, assessing, and then shrugged. “Alright,” he said. “Aren’t you hot with that mask on your face?”

“It’s part of my allure,” the Soldier said. “Mysterious stranger.”

Sam laughed. “Man’s gotta have a plan,” he agreed. He clapped a hand on the Soldier’s shoulder, looking a little surprised at how solid it was. “Here comes your boy.”

The target was heading back toward them, smiling widely. “Hi!” He said. He sounded younger, and the Soldier pictured him with his hair standing up. Especially in the back, because he had a tendency to smooth out the front with his fingers. Didn’t he?

“Do I get my second dance now?” The Soldier asked.

“Yes, please,” the target said. He held out his arm. “Shall we?”

The Soldier took it. “Gladly.”

The song was slower this time, and the Soldier was distracted for a moment by the feeling of the target’s waist under his hand. He was glad it was the flesh one, so he could actually feel the sensation.

“So, Sasha,” the target said. “You never told me what you do.”

Protect the king. “I’m in protection,” he said. It was close to the truth.

The target nodded. “You certainly have the body for it,” he murmured. His eyes went wide. “Oh God. I’m so sorry.”

The Soldier threw his head back and laughed. The target was deliciously awkward. It was endearing. Maybe the Soldier would try it for his next persona.

“I don’t mind getting a compliment like that from you,” he promised, watching the way the target’s eyes darkened a little. Interesting. He was a man easy to read.

“Would you like to walk with me?” The target asked abruptly. “In the garden?”

“I would love to,” the Soldier said. He glanced over his shoulder for Pierce. A walk in the garden would be a perfect opportunity to strike.

Jealous stares followed them as they made their way to the doors. The Soldier wasn’t completely faking the smug look on his face. Not that anyone could see it, he remembered. He had the mask on.

The target kept his hold on the Soldier’s arm as they walked. It was summer, the night air warm and the falling dusk pleasant. It was the right time to strike. Where was Pierce? The Soldier couldn’t complete his mission without the go-ahead, but he needed to act while he had the chance.

“Sasha, there’s something I want to tell you,” the target said. He let go of the Soldier’s arm to wipe his hands on his pant legs. He was nervous. The Soldier watched him warily.

“What is it?” He asked, keeping his voice warm. He wasn’t too worried. The target was a large man, yes, and he looked like he could fight well, but the Soldier was a trained killer, and nothing could beat the arm.

“I…I’m not going to be giving a marriage proposal to anyone at the end of this ball,” the target said firmly. “I’m not looking for suitors.”

“Is that all?” The Soldier laughed, relaxing. “That’s not why I came here.”

“It’s not?” The target asked.

“I love to dance,” the Soldier said. “And you’re not so hard on the eyes, you know? It’s a perfect night.”

The target smiled shyly. “Well, I’d like to be friends with you,” he said. He looked up and met the Soldier’s eyes, and he inhaled sharply. “I’m sorry,” he said, voice shaking. “Your eyes just look so much—”

He was cut off by a dog barking and running up to them.

“Dum-Dum,” he groaned. The dog was frantic, whining and barking and bounding up to the Soldier. The Soldier backed away nervously. He hadn’t spent much time around dogs.

“I’m sorry,” the target said, trying to grab onto the dog, who was jumping up and nearly knocking the Soldier over. “Jesus, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him like this. He’s acting like he knows you or something.”

The dog was all but howling now, jumping on the Soldier and licking every bit he could touch. “Uh, it’s alright,” the Soldier said, though he was unsettled. The dog was acting like he knew him. But how would the Soldier know the target’s dog?

“Dum-Dum, get down,” the target snapped. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Sasha!” It was Pierce. The Soldier swallowed hard. Time to move.

“Councilman Pierce.” The target was much cooler with Pierce. It made the Soldier smile a little, since no one could see.

“I see you’ve met my nephew,” Pierce said. The target looked surprised.

“Councilman Pierce is your uncle?” He sounded almost dismayed. The Soldier had to bite down a laugh.

“Actually, he’s not,” Pierce said. “Soldier, complete your mission.”

“What?” The target asked. The Soldier wrenched himself away, darting back far enough to get full use of the metal arm. His fist connected solidly with the target’s stomach, knocking the wind from him.

“Sasha,” the target gasped. “What?” But to the Soldier’s shock, the target dodged the next punch and threw one of his own. That had never happened. He was stronger than the Soldier had realized.

“Sam!” He yelled. “Shield!”

The dog was whimpering now, running back and forth between the Soldier and the target. Pierce had backed off, but he looked at the Soldier and repeated,

“Complete your mission!”

Just then, Sam came flying in—literally. He had sprouted wings. He dropped a metal shield and the target caught it easily. Just as easily, he flung it at the Soldier. The Soldier only just had time to raise his arm and grab it. It was heavy, and the sound of the metal meeting metal was a horrifying screech.

His body seemed to remember this shield. He threw it back to the target, hard enough to make his feet slide.

“Backup on standby for the garden pavilion,” Sam said into some kind of communication device. “Only one subject as of now. We may have it covered.”

The target darted in, close, and hit at the Soldier’s metal arm with the shield. He felt the metal arm give a little, the way it was absolutely not supposed to. He drew a knife. The target blocked and parried with him.

“Situation?” Natalia, or Natasha, or whatever her name was, asked tersely from behind them. The Soldier couldn’t expend energy listening to the conversation. His target was in front of him, fighting back, and so far was matching every blow.

“Why are you fighting me?” The target asked between gritted teeth.

“You’re my mission,” the Soldier said.

“Natasha, get Pierce!” The target yelled. “It was his order.”

Natasha started giving orders, telling more soldiers to follow Pierce. They were surrounded. For the first time, the Soldier felt worried. He had no extraction plan. He didn’t realize there would be backup. This was supposed to be an imposter king, not someone with the whole Guard behind him.

The dog got under foot. The Soldier gave him a hard kick and he yelped. That seemed to enrage the target more than anything else had.

“Don’t fucking touch my dog!” He yelled. His kick sent the Soldier sprawling, and his mask came loose. He threw it away before it could slide around and obstruct his vision, and the target stopped. Every movement ceased.

“Bucky?” He breathed. Bucky! It was the name he heard in his head. His stomach clenched.

“Who the hell is Bucky?” He growled. He was tired of hearing that name.

“Soldier!” The Soldier shivered. It was Zola now. There was a murmur through the crowd of soldiers. “Complete your mission.” The Soldier spared a glance for Zola. He had a hostage. At least they’d have a way out. Black-suited men were swarming, tangling with the Royal Guard. The Soldier and the target were cut off by a large fountain, mostly out of sight of everyone else.

“Bucky, what are you doing?” The target asked. His voice was trembling. The Soldier was breathing harder than the fight warranted. He was malfunctioning again. He was trembling.

“Cap!” Sam called.

“Stand down!” The target ordered. “No one touch him!”

“Cap!” Sam repeated, angry now. But there wasn’t much he could do—even with more and more of the king’s soldiers rushing in, there were too many of the black-suited men. Some of the king’s soldiers were turning on their own.

“Bucky, come on, what’s going on?” The target asked.

“Shut up!” The Soldier cried. His head was spinning. He had to complete his mission. But the target…Steve…

An image flashed through his mind—Steve, much smaller, with a scraped knee and a black eye, furious over something and refusing to back down until the injustice was rectified. The Soldier’s head felt like it was splitting in two.

“Bucky.” Steve’s voice was gentle. “You know me.” It sent a wave of nausea rolling through the Soldier.

“No, I don’t!” The Soldier protested. He sent the target flying with a punch to the jaw. The target didn’t even resist. But that wasn’t right. Steve always fought.

Bucky!

“Soldier! Complete your mission!”

He stalked over to the target, still on the ground, and drove the knife into his shoulder. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would get the message across. Maybe it would shut him up long enough for the pain in the Soldier’s head to recede so he could focus on the mission. The target didn’t even resist. He gave a groan of pain and stayed on the ground. Why wasn’t he getting up? Steve always got up. Sarah had said—

“I’m not going to give you any orders, Buck,” the target said. “It was my fault before. I ordered you. So I’m not doing it now.”

It felt like the world was shifting under his feet. The ground was unsteady. He was cracking in half.

“I’m not gonna fight you,” Steve choked out. “You’re my friend.”

Well, you’re my best friend, you know, so when you get in fights, I have to get in them, too. Think of me once in a while, would ya?

The Soldier gave a howl of pain and frustration and confusion. “You’re my mission!” He protested. He punctuated his words with blows to the target’s face. That would shut him up, if nothing else.

“Complete your mission!”

“Then finish it,” Steve said, breaking his own promise and giving an order. “’Cause I’m with you to the end of the line.”

The world did crack in half then. That’s how it felt, anyway. Every part of the Soldier went weak, like a puppet with its strings cut. This was Steve. This was Steve, the boy he had loved since he was thirteen years old, before he knew what love even meant. This was Steve, his best friend, his family, and Zola wanted him to kill him.

Zola and Pierce wanted to kill Steve to take over the kingdom. They didn’t care about the people, or the water crisis in the southern region, or the early frost in the east. They would never travel to a far-off village to make sure the people knew their gift to the palace was appreciated.

They would steal from the people. They would kill the people. And they would make him do it. They would make him start with Steve, and then they would make him forget again—forget summer days lying on the bank of a creek, shoving each other in just after they’d dried off, forget lying close together on the bed and drawing comfort from each other, forget family and happiness and warmth.

He wouldn’t. He had killed and he had died and he had endured so many beatings and gone without food and given away his whole life. But he wouldn’t kill Steve. He retched. The pain was unbearable. Memories were flooding through him—his parents, his sisters, his life. The faces of the people he’d killed. The little girl finding her father dead in the kitchen. He fell to his hands and knees and vomited, not sure if it was the pain ripping him apart or the memories of everything he’d done.

“Kill him!” Zola howled. The Soldier looked down into Steve’s eyes and shuddered all over. The pain was gone now. He’d made it through the storm.

He pulled the gun from Steve’s ankle, the one he knew would be there. Steve looked unbearably sad, but he didn’t move to stop him. He spun around and shot Zola between the eyes. He felt bad about the spatter on his hostage. He always had hated spattering people he hadn’t killed.

“Bucky,” Steve said.

He dropped the gun, and he ran.

Chapter Text

He was in the forest. He didn’t have food, but he knew how to survive. He’d left his best knife behind—left it in Steve’s shoulder—but he did have two others that had been stashed in his boot and the small of his back, respectively, and he knew how to forage and set traps.

But the problem was after he’d trapped an animal. He looked at a rabbit, at its twitching nose and its eyes looking at him, and he opened the trap and let it go. How could he cut its throat, knowing how the blood would spray? How could he wring its neck, knowing the crack the bones would make?

He tried fishing in a small stream, because he thought that might be better. Fish were hardly animals, were they? But he looked at the fish, gasping and flopping as it suffocated, and he retched and threw it back into the water.

He didn't know where he was going. He didn't really have anywhere to go. He didn't have a home anymore. He felt a pull in his stomach at that thought—Steve Steve Steve—and he ignored it. He could do that now. He could ignore things people told him.

Of course, so far he hadn't run into anyone to tell him anything, but even being out here at all was disobeying orders. He whistled a little, just because Rumlow had once ordered him not to, so he knew he wasn't under the curse anymore. He didn't whistle a lot, though. He wasn't exactly in a whistling mood, all things considered.

He spent a few solid days sitting against a tree, staring into space. He had killed people. A lot of people. And not HYDRA, not people trying to kill Steve or any of the other Commandos. People who were trying to help the kingdom. People who resisted Pierce. People who were just trying to live their lives.

He didn't know where his wandering was taking him, but he soon found himself heading down an unfamiliar road to a familiar address. He'd never been to his mother's cousins' home, but he'd sent enough letters to Annabelle and Elizabeth, while he could, to know where it was.

He didn't want the girls to see him. He was sure they'd been told he was dead; he didn't want to scare them. And he didn't want them to see him alive when he wasn't even entirely sure it was true. Did this count as him being alive? If so, how could he possibly explain everything to them? He couldn’t. There wasn’t a way. He found a hill with sight lines into the house and settled into the familiar feeling of surveillance.

Annabelle was sitting on a chair at a writing table, coloring. She was barefoot, which was horribly unladylike and made him smile. She was swinging her legs, which was also unladylike. But she said something to their cousin, and she was missing a front tooth. She'd been missing it when he'd left. How—

Oh. It was Elizabeth, not Annabelle. It had been two years, and Elizabeth was now the age Annabelle had been when he'd left. Annabelle—the real Annabelle—walked in then, now well into the phase between childhood and teen. His head ached a little, but not because he was disobeying. He was just confused.

He longed to be closer so he could hear them. He wanted to know they were okay, know they were happy. He wouldn't let them see him, because that would only hurt them, but he wished he could make sure they were alright. If they weren’t, he’d…he wasn’t sure what he’d do. He didn’t want them to see him, after all. But he could send word to Becca, maybe. His brain shied away from his first thought, that he’d send word to Steve. He couldn’t send word to Steve.

He stayed for two days, drinking in the sight of his baby sisters. He couldn’t go see Becca; it seemed worse to lurk outside a school for girls and peek in the windows. He only wanted to see Becca, not spy on the other girls, but still. It made him uncomfortable. He had enough black marks on his character. No need to add perversion, as well.

And then he was back to wandering the forest. It was quiet, and he had too much time to think. It had been over a year since he’d been allowed to think. And the things he had to think about now were unpleasant, to say the least.

He could remember fourteen assassinations. Fourteen people who been alive, going about their business and their lives and being happy, before he’d come along and cut them short. Fourteen families who were impacted. Fourteen times he should’ve broken the curse and didn’t.

Why had he been able to break the curse for the fifteenth?

He snorted at himself. He knew why. He just didn’t want to think about it. It was selfish, really. What made Steve more important than the other fourteen people?

Everything. He couldn’t actually make himself feel overly guilty about that part, but then he felt guilty about not feeling guilty. He hated that he’d killed those other people, but if he had to save only one person, it was going to be Steve. It was always going to be Steve.

What was Steve doing? Was he healing from the fight? Was his shoulder better after being stabbed? No, there was no way he was resting, affording his body the break it needed. That wouldn’t be Steve.

Was Steve searching for him?

He shivered. Half of him hoped yes and half hoped no. Steve hadn’t looked for him before. But he didn’t know that, did he? Maybe Steve looked but Zola had already found him. Maybe Steve found nothing but bloody snow.

Steve had mourned for over a year. Steve still had a black patch sewn onto his sleeve. Steve had refused to marry and find someone to rule the kingdom with, refused to follow the law. Steve had talked about their dance to Peggy. Steve was definitely searching for him.

He shivered again. Steve had said it was my fault before. Steve blamed himself. Of course he did. But he shouldn’t. Steve could have ordered him not to come and he would’ve found a way to go. He would never leave Steve alone, not for something so dangerous.

But he’d left Steve alone now, hadn’t he? Zola was dead, but Pierce wasn’t, for all he knew. Rumlow wasn’t. Steve still wasn’t safe. There would always be people who wanted to kill the king and overthrow the kingdom. Steve would never be safe.

He couldn’t go back. He’d stabbed Steve. He’d beaten Steve. He’d failed in his most important job, to keep Steve safe. Steve had other people keeping him safe. He still had the Commandos, and Peggy was obviously coming back when she could. He had Natasha, who Bucky remembered from the woods now. He had Sam, who could somehow grow wings. That seemed incredibly useful, especially considering how stupid Steve could get. Wings would keep Sam prepared to back Steve up in any situation.

Steve didn’t need him to keep him safe. Steve had the entire Royal Guard and he had friends and he was big and strong and healed fast.

His lips burned with the memory of pressing them to Steve’s. His arms ached with the phantom pain of a lifetime of holding Steve. His whole body, his whole being, wanted to go back to Steve. He shoved it away. Steve didn’t need him, and he didn’t deserve Steve.

He spent another two days lying on a bed of pine needles before he bolted upright. He could keep Steve safe. He was a sniper. Sure, Steve had undoubtedly gotten a new sniper—it wasn’t like there was ever only one in the Guard anyway—but he could help out. Steve didn’t have to see him, the same way he hadn’t let his sisters see him. He could watch from a distance, make up for the damage he’d done.

He set out for the castle right away, before he could fall into another trance of reliving every person he’d murdered. That always sidetracked him for hours, at least, and usually days. He went back to the trees he’d hidden in before, just weeks earlier, to watch Steve. His surveillance gear was still there. He put the listening receiver to his ear, hardly daring to hope.

“—hasn’t come back in two days,” Sam was saying grimly. The devices Rumlow had set were still there. He could hear everything. He pumped a fist triumphantly, then felt bad for the exuberance. That wasn’t befitting his somber exile.

“He’s searching for Barnes,” another guy added. It was Clint, Natasha’s friend who had knocked himself out. He had a bow leaning against his chair and a quiver of arrows on his back. An archer? Archers were mostly phasing out, but it wasn’t terribly surprising that Steve would give one a chance.

“He won’t find him,” Natasha said. “Not if he doesn’t want to be found.”

“But it’s Bucky,” Gabe cut in. He sounded confused. “He—you guys don’t know him. If Steve’s looking for him, he’ll let himself be found. He won’t leave Steve.”

Natasha and Sam shared a grim look. “Maybe the Bucky you knew,” Sam said. “But he’s different now.”

“No,” Morita said, shaking his head stubbornly. “I mean, yes, he’s different. But that won’t be different.”

“Did you guys know…” Sam trailed off and licked his lips.

“Did we know they were mad for each other?” Monty asked. “Oh, we knew.”

He couldn’t believe it. He and Steve had thought they’d been so careful. It had only been a few stolen kisses, anyway, a few touches of their hands—how could the boys have caught that?

“Before they…whatever,” Dernier added. “They loved each other for a long time.”

“Steve seemed to think no one knew,” Sam said, looking between each of the Commandos. Morita snorted.

“They weren’t exactly subtle,” he said, laughter in his voice. “I mean, Steve wrote him letters every damn day while we were in the Academy. And you should’ve seen the way his face lit up when he got them. And then that day in the woods, they came back from scouting and they were both glowing. Like we couldn’t tell.” His face darkened. “And I told Barnes to quit smiling.”

“You didn’t know,” Dernier comforted him. “None of us knew.”

“That he was going to fall?” Clint asked.

“That he had to obey.”

The table fell silent. His heart was pounding. They all seemed…sad. Sad that he’d fallen. Well, sure, he reasoned with himself. Of course they would. They were his friends. And look at what he’d become.

“I don’t know when Steve ate last,” Sam finally said.

“He hasn’t come to me for food in two days.” Mandy! His heart lurched in his chest. What Mandy must have thought of him. And how disappointed she must have been that her premonition had come true.

“Two days?” Gabe fretted. “His metabolism is too high for that. He can’t go on that long.”

“I think he has the pack,” Monty said. “The magical pack you sent to the Academy with Barnes.”

Mandy scowled. “He’d better.”

There would be hell to pay if he didn’t. What was Steve doing, leaving his friends and the safety of the palace without coming back to eat or sleep? His stomach dropped as he remembered the last time Steve had rushed off without provisions or a plan. After Sarah died. When he was in solitary and couldn’t get letters.

As if their talking had summoned him, Steve himself came walking into the room. Everyone stopped talking and stared at him. He noticed, judging by the tightening of his shoulders, but he didn’t comment on it.

“Does anyone have any new intel?” He asked.

“Are you hungry?” Mandy countered. He blinked at her a few times.

“No. Anyone? I went to his mother’s cousin’s home, where his two youngest sisters are living, but they said he hadn’t seen them.”

“He didn’t go to Becca’s finishing school, either,” Gabe reported.

Steve shook his head. “I didn’t think he would. He hates that Becca’s in finishing school. If he went there, I don’t think she’d still be there.”

“You think he’d steal her away?” Clint asked.

Now Steve just looked annoyed. “Not if she didn’t agree to it, but it wouldn’t take much convincing. She doesn’t like it there and he’s older now. He has money. They could hide.”

“We can tell the headmistress to alert us if Becca disappears,” Sam suggested. Steve nodded and pulled a map to himself, crossing things off. Everyone else in the room exchanged looks.

“Steve,” Sam started carefully.

“No,” Steve interrupted him. Sam huffed.

“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”

“You think I should give up on him.” Steve hadn’t even looked up. He was measuring the distance between two points on the map.

“I was not going to tell you to give up on him,” Sam said, offended now. “He’s your best friend. He’s your—” Here Sam broke off, unsure of how to phrase it. Steve didn’t supply a word. “Anyway, I’m just saying you should take a break. You can’t help him if you collapse.”

“Remember that time you didn’t eat for a day and you fainted?” Morita reminded him. “He almost killed you himself.”

“I’m eating,” Steve said distractedly. “Did we get in touch with the southern Guard?”

“They haven’t seen him.”

“Steve.” Natasha kept her voice firm. She pulled the map away from him, ignoring his glare. “He was trained by Zola and Pierce. You won’t find him.”

“Have you been searching Pierce’s properties?” Steve gave no indication he’d heard what she’d said.

“We haven’t found him or Rumlow,” Clint said grimly. Steve slammed his fist down on the table, making everyone jump.

“Does anyone have anything useful to tell me?” He snapped.

“Yes,” Mandy spoke up. “You’re taking your anger out on everyone else and snapping at us. You’re cranky and tired. You need rest and food.”

“Mandy—”

“Don’t you interrupt me. Everyone is doing their best to try to find Bucky. We love him, too, Steve. Killing yourself isn’t going to help him.”

Steve hung his head. “Okay,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”

Mandy softened and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re worried about you.”

“I’m just worried about him.”

“He’s made it through the woods before,” Clint said. “And now he’s even better trained.”

“I’m going to go lie down,” Steve said. “Please let me know if anything comes up.”

The others kept talking, but he couldn’t focus on them. His eyes were straining to take in every part of Steve. His shoulders were slumped and tired, his hair was disheveled, his uniform was in disarray, and his nails were ragged from biting them. Steve was a mess.

He didn’t really care how many other people would think Steve didn’t look his usual handsome self. There wasn’t a thing on earth he’d rather look at. He watched Steve sit on the edge of his bed for a while, staring down between his knees. He watched Steve open his sketchbook, draw a few lines, and then turn away. He watched Steve pull his uniform off and lie back on his bed.

But Steve didn’t sleep. It was a feeling he understood all too well—bone weariness with no relief. He hadn’t slept in days, himself, and he had no doubt Steve hadn’t, either. He wanted to run up to Steve and scold him for not taking better care of himself. He wanted to wrap Steve in his arms and hold him until he finally got some sleep.

Part of him, though, a small part he was trying to push down and ignore, was flooded with relief. Steve wasn’t doing so well after all. Steve hadn’t simply forgotten him. Steve was still mourning him, even now.

He felt horribly selfish for being happy about it. But he couldn’t help it. It was nice to know his friends were searching for him. It was nice to hear them speak of him like he was a person, like he was worth finding.

They didn’t know, though. They didn’t know about the fourteen people he’d killed. How could they? The whole point had been stealth and silence. No one knew who had killed those people, no one except him and Zola and Pierce and Rumlow. He didn’t know where Pierce and Rumlow were, and it made him uneasy that the Guard hadn’t caught them. They’d be looking for him. What if Zola had taught them new magic, in case the curse wore off? What if they had a new way to capture him?

He should leave. If they were tailing him, he was leading them right back here to Steve. He should go out to the woods and let them kill him, if that’s what they were going to do.

He didn’t move. His eyes were too hungry for the sight of Steve’s jaw. His hands were itching to touch Steve’s skin. He looked down at the metal arm, the fist that had done so much damage to Steve’s face, and he swallowed down the bile rising in his throat. He could never touch Steve again.

Steve would get over him eventually. It wasn’t that he was so hard to get over; at this point, it was Steve being noble and stupidly loyal. After enough time passed, Steve would give up. Steve hated to give up, but it didn’t really count as giving up if there was no way to win, no way to even fight, not really. So Steve would take the patch off his arm. Steve would remember him, of course. Maybe he’d have a son and name him James or something.

His stomach ached at the thought of watching Steve find someone new. Because he knew he would—he would stay and watch over Steve. He would hide forever, making sure Steve and whoever he loved and any children they ended up with were safe and happy. He’d check in on his sisters from time to time, make sure they were taken care of, but they wouldn’t need him as much as Steve. Steve was the king, and that was automatically unsafe.

Steve finally fell asleep after hours of staring into the fire. Where was Dum-Dum? The dog should be at Steve’s side. He felt guilty as he remembered kicking Dum-Dum. He never would have hurt the dog if he’d remembered.

He watched for days, keeping track of the way Steve paced during meetings, watching Steve toss and turn and bolt upright, sweating through nightmares, crying when Steve cried, both of them stuffing fists in their mouths to stay quiet. This was agony. But this was penance. He deserved to see Steve and not touch. He deserved to hear Steve’s voice but never directed at him. Maybe he could regain some kind of goodness in his soul if he looked without wanting.

Or, well, wanting too much. He couldn’t completely stop wanting Steve. He didn’t think he ever could. He hadn’t even under the curse and Pierce’s orders.

Rumlow attacked on day four. Steve had barely slept an hour the night before, and he’d snapped at everyone so much they’d all left him. Steve and Sam had fought, hissing at each other and turning away angrily. Steve was stomping around the garden, inside the castle wall because he’d promised Mandy, the only person who could get any semblance of sense out of him.

He saw movement over Steve’s left shoulder. His focused his eyes and saw the sneer on the mouth before he saw anything else, and that was all he needed to know who it was. Rumlow. His stomach twisted. So many things he’d done over the year were crueler put into context.

“Soldier,” he used to say mockingly. “Have you ever loved anyone?”

“Soldier,” he’d spit during beatings. “Has anyone ever cared if you lived or died?”

He burned with anger seeing Rumlow’s face. Rumlow attacked swiftly. Steve had his shield, at least, but he hadn’t slept and he wasn’t eating well. He was weak. Rumlow was quickly getting the upper hand. Where was the Guard? Where were the Commandos? Why was Steve alone?

Sam dropped from the sky, wings unfurled, and tackled Rumlow. The ensuing scrabble was furious and no one came out unscathed, but two against one with a magically-enhanced giant and a man with wings wasn’t a tough equation.

But it left Rumlow alive. He found that…dissatisfying. But then he pictured himself shooting Rumlow, pictured beating his face in, and the thought of the blood and the sound of crunching bones left him wanting to vomit.

Steve could do it. Steve wanted to do it; that much was obvious. But thinking Steve doing that, killing someone who was no longer actively fighting him, was even worse. It wasn’t as though Steve had never killed anyone. But he only killed people who wouldn’t stop. Rumlow wasn’t even struggling anymore.

So alive Rumlow would stay.

“You hurt Bucky,” Steve said. “Even before you stole him from me. In the Academy. You beat him. I saw the scars.”

Rumlow spat and grinned at Steve, blood on his teeth. “I sure as hell did. I found any excuse I could to mark up that pretty face.”

Steve squeezed Rumlow a little harder than was probably necessary. Rumlow squeaked in pain. Sam was glowering, too, and he wasn’t moving to stop Steve.

“I could kill you right here,” Steve said, teeth clenched, face inches from Rumlow’s.

“Thought you were all about fair trials,” Rumlow taunted. “I heard a lot of your speeches, Mr. Captain of the Guard.”

“I’m willing to make an exception,” Steve hissed.

He didn’t want Steve to do this. He’d heard plenty of Steve’s speeches about fair trials, too, since they were thirteen years old. He didn’t want to be the cause of Steve’s idealism flying out the window.

“I was doing him a favor,” Rumlow claimed. “I was teaching him. Order through pain. It’s funny—he had that curse, but he needed a lot of pain to teach him order. Sometimes I had to beat him three times in one—”

“Man, shut the hell up,” Sam snapped, kicking Rumlow’s legs out from under him. Steve’s hold on him put pressure on his windpipe. For a second, it looked like Steve was really going to do it. Rumlow’s eyes bulged out in fear.

He couldn’t watch this. He couldn’t see Steve do this. Steve couldn’t do this. He pulled the knife from his boot. It would travel farther. He hurled it.

It landed right on target—buried in a tree right beside Steve’s head. Steve jumped, and Rumlow could breathe again. Steve looked down at him, lip curled, and then at the knife.

“You have friends around here?”

His stomach rolled at the idea of being called Rumlow’s friend. There were few things he would deny more vehemently than that.

“Uh, Steve,” Sam said suddenly. He was examining the knife. “You know anyone who can land a knife in a tree trunk with the initials JBB carved into the hilt?”

Steve dropped Rumlow completely. Rumlow massaged his throat and Sam got a hand on him before he could even think about running away. Steve pulled the knife out of the trunk, not an easy feat, and stared at it like it was precious gold.

“Bucky,” he whispered. He turned around, eyes searching wildly. “Bucky!” He bellowed. He started to run toward the trees.

“Steve!” Sam said. “How far can he throw a knife?”

“Eighty feet,” Steve answered automatically.

Rumlow barked out a laugh. “Not anymore,” he said. “Your boy’s got a super arm now. We measured him at a hundred fifty.”

“And how fast can he run?” Sam asked. “Do you think you’re going to find him right now? He’s probably long gone.”

He wasn’t. He was in the exact same spot, cursing himself for not remembering he’d carved his initials into his knife. He also wasn’t a hundred and fifty feet away. He wasn’t even eighty feet away. If Steve had run toward him, he would overtake him and find him, no doubt.

But Steve slumped. “You’re right.”

Part of him was screaming. He was right there—Steve could find him. But no. This was better. He’d stopped Steve and Steve wouldn’t know he was there. This was what he’d decided his life was going to be.

Steve hardly seemed to notice Rumlow anymore. He helped Sam get him into the castle, movements slow and wooden. He stared unseeing at the ground as he walked. He tripped over the threshold.

They put Rumlow in a cell and Steve leaned against the wall, pressing his forehead to the stones. Sam put a hand on his shoulder.

“We’ll find him,” he promised. “Hey, look on the bright side—we know he’s watching.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, rubbing his finger over the letters on the knife hilt. “I guess.”

 

He worried for two days. What if Steve came looking for him? He knew the right direction now. But Steve didn’t—discouraged, hurt, sad, whatever he was feeling, it kept him in the castle, in his quarters, for two days.

He also worried about Pierce. Rumlow was too proud for his own good, and that was why he was sitting in a cell with a guard outside the door. Pierce would be smarter. He wouldn’t go himself—he never did his own dirty work. He may have even sent Rumlow this time around.

Steve wasn’t sleeping. Not even the interrupted, tossing-and-turning kind. He’d stopped even lying down at night. He sat in front of the fire most nights, though he didn’t stoke it to keep it burning through the night. Frost would be coming soon, and he wasn’t bothering to keep the room warm. Idiot.

Some nights Steve sat up to the window, face pressed against the pane. He prayed, sometimes, looking at the moon.

Worst of all were the nights Steve spoke to him. Steve didn’t know he was listening, of course, but he was, and what he heard made him want to throw himself into a pit.

“I’m sorry,” he always started. “I’m so sorry I made you fight. The Academy was hell for you and I ordered you right back in. I’m sorry I didn’t save you. I could’ve grabbed your hand. I was right there! If I’d just been faster.” He usually started to cry at this point. They both did. “I’m sorry I never told you. I’m sorry we only got two days when we could’ve had years. I’m sorry, Buck, I’m so sorry.”

It devolved from there—sometimes Steve would apologize for ridiculous things that had happened in their childhood (“I’m sorry I stole your cat-eye marble and never gave it back and pretended I didn’t know where it was”) and sometimes Steve would just stop talking altogether.

It was hard to listen. It was hard to hear the pain in Steve’s voice and see the tears on his face and not go to him. But he had to be strong, he reminded himself. He was doing this for Steve.

It was day three with no sleep and Steve was hazy at best. He was sitting in a meeting with his advisors and he hadn’t said a word in ten minutes. He probably hadn’t heard a word in longer. Everyone seemed to notice, but no one was calling attention to the fact that the king wasn’t paying attention in his own meeting.

He had just decided to check in on Rumlow—seeing him locked up in a cell brought him an intense satisfaction he refused to feel guilty about—when he noticed Rumlow wasn’t in the cell. The guards had changed five minutes ago, according to schedule, and the guard was still sitting outside the cell. But he was looking over his shoulder shiftily.

HYDRA. The guard was HYDRA. He’d let Rumlow out. Where was Rumlow?

He searched the listening devices. He jumped from treetop to treetop, peering in castle windows. He didn’t see Rumlow anywhere. His heart was thudding. Steve wasn’t safe. Mandy wasn’t safe. The Commandos weren’t safe. Sam—who he’d never met, but had surveilled long enough to consider a friend, sort of, in his mind—wasn’t safe.

Pierce had to be making a move. Pierce was going to come to the castle. How many guards were HYDRA? How many would stand with Steve? The Commandos, Sam, Natasha, and Clint all would. Surely some of the rest of the Guard would. But would it be enough? Pierce had people everywhere. In every village they’d gone to, he’d had contacts. Those contacts could raise up an army of the people.

But the people loved Steve. Steve went to even the farthest villages to listen to them. But still. One visit a year couldn’t repair damage from someone singing a different tune every day.

There—third floor. Rumlow was running through the servant’s quarters. The servants would be on Steve’s side. What other king ate meals with his servants? They knew Steve was good and they knew Pierce had betrayed him.

He reached to his back for a rifle. He didn’t have a rifle. He cursed himself. Of course he didn’t have a rifle. They’d sent him in covertly to the ball; he couldn’t have walked in with a long-range gun on his back. And he’d run from there. He was down to one knife and he couldn’t make that throw to hit Rumlow.

Before he could figure out what to do, an arrow sang through the air and notched itself right into Rumlow’s throat. He collapsed, a puppet without strings. Dead. The archer—Clint. He was sitting in the guard tower in the courtyard. He spoke into the communications device on his wrist, no doubt alerting everyone. Good. Steve would be ready.

Pierce was striding onto the grounds, in plain daylight, not even hiding. A swarm of HYDRA agents was with him.

He looked quickly toward the guard tower and the archer sitting there. He was shooting at HYDRA agents, dropping them quickly one by one. Why wasn’t he getting Pierce? Pierce was most important. Stopping Pierce would stop everything. Pierce was the one giving orders.

He needed a rifle. What was he supposed to do?

“Bucky.”

He whirled around. A middle-aged sandy-haired man with a bushy mustache was standing there, holding a rifle out toward him. He didn’t have time to question it. He tracked Pierce, watching as the agents around him dropped. Steve ran down, shield falling more. Sam was flying around, doing his part. Pierce was talking, waving his arms, gesturing. A few guards who were standing behind Steve started to fight against him.

No. Pierce and his lies would not win. He took aim and squeezed the trigger. Perfect hit. Pierce dropped, dead. Steve’s head shot up, lips mouthing Bucky.

He couldn’t look at Steve. He’d done his job. He turned to the man. There was something familiar about him.

“Who are you?” His voice was rusty with disuse.

“I’m Sir Timothy,” he said.

That didn’t tell him anything. He vaguely remembered the name—Steve’s old guard. Why had he decided to come back after so many years away?

“Dum-Dum,” Sir Timothy amended sheepishly.

He jumped back. “Dum-Dum is a dog!”

“Yes, well, you weren’t the only one Zola got to.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. “Zola…turned you into a dog?”

Dum-Dum—Sir Timothy—shrugged. “One of his lackeys. They had a little girl, an obedient one like you. I tried to help her. I think the spell was supposed to kill me, honestly, but the girl kicked him in the last second and it came out wrong, I guess. So I turned into a dog.”

“And I found you.”

“Good thing, too. I was a wretched dog. Couldn’t find my way back to the castle to protect Steve.”

“Why did you stay with us, then? You could have slept in the castle with Steve.”

Now Sir Timothy looked embarrassed. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “The girls were so enthusiastic…I didn’t want to hurt their feelings by choosing Steve.”

They eyed each other another moment. “You slept in my bed with me.”

Sir Timothy coughed. “Yes.”

His eyes widened in horror. “You saw a lot of things.”

“I did.”

Now they weren’t meeting each other’s eyes. God, this was embarrassing. If he’d known his dog was a man he would’ve been much more careful about some of the private activities he’d gotten up to in his room.

“Um, sorry I kicked you,” he mumbled. “I, uh…” He shrugged.

“I forgive you,” Sir Timothy said, and for some reason it actually felt like it meant something, like it lifted a weight off his shoulders. He remembered the melee going on below and went to the edge of the hill to look. He could’ve gotten closer to the edge, but he was a bit hesitant to stand on the edge of cliffs these days.

Without Pierce, the battle was all but over. The loyal members of the Guard were gathering up those who had turned sides. Steve was staring down at Pierce’s body, face etched out in unmistakable hatred.

Zola, Pierce, and Rumlow were all dead—no one responsible for holding him captive and making him kill was left. He thought he’d feel relieved. He didn’t, not really. It didn’t change what had happened. He’d still killed those people.

“He misses you,” Sir Timothy said. He’d almost forgotten the dog-man was there. “Steve does. He misses you.”

“I know that,” he said, because he did.

“Why don’t you go to him?” Sir Timothy asked. “I know how important he is to you.”

“I’ve done things. I can’t be with Steve now.”

Sir Timothy took a deep breath, but he didn’t say anything for a moment. “He knows about that.”

“He doesn’t,” he protested. “He knows about the curse. He doesn’t know what I did.”

“They made you kill people,” Sir Timothy said. His voice wasn’t as heavy as the words demanded. “But you didn’t have a choice.”

“I obviously could’ve broken the curse,” he snapped, angry now. What did this man know? He’d been a dog while this was all happening. He’d seen that dog chase his own tail and run into a wall because of it.

“Could you have?” He asked, unimpressed. “Because you’d never tried that, of course.”

He kicked at a rock, spinning around angrily. “I’m not worthy of Steve!”

“Shouldn’t Steve be the one who decides that?” Sir Timothy said it quietly, not reacting to the anger being hurled at him. He looked sad and kind and, somehow, still like the filthy, trembling dog Becca had cried over.

“Steve’s too loyal for his own good.”

“Do you love him?” Sir Timothy asked.

“Yes.” He couldn’t pretend otherwise, not in front of Sir Timothy. He knew already, had heard him whisper it to himself in the dark more than once.

“He loves you. I’ve heard him say it. As a dog and a person,” he added jokingly. “And he’s in agony now.”

“I know,” he whispered. He had to bite his lip and clench his teeth to keep from giving in to the lump rising in his throat, though he supposed it didn’t really matter. He’d cried into Dum-Dum’s fur a million times.

“You’re in agony, clearly. He’s in agony. And you don’t think you’re worthy of him. That’s fine. Maybe you’re not. But right now he thinks you’re staying away because you blame him. Do you blame him?”

“Of course not!” He burst out, angry at even the thought. “None of this was his fault!”

“Maybe you should tell him that.”

He turned away from Sir Timothy. Everything was swirling in his head and he still wasn’t entirely used to making decisions. He needed to think, he needed to decide for himself what to do. He needed—he needed time.

“Are you going to tell him where I am?”

“No,” Sir Timothy promised. “I won’t.”

They looked at each other for a moment. He didn’t really have proof that he could trust Sir Timothy, but he couldn’t help if his judgment was clouded because of how Dum-Dum had stayed at his side. But Dum-Dum had been a dog, looking for table scraps and belly rubs. The thought was half-hearted. Dum-Dum had done more than any dog ever should. Sir Timothy had stayed at his duty, protecting Steve, even as a dog. There was no reason not to trust him.

“I’m going back to the castle now,” Sir Timothy said. “I’d been off checking in on Becca.”

“You told the girls?” He asked. The lump was back in his throat at the thought of his sisters.

“I did,” Sir Timothy confirmed. “Becca was pretty embarrassed. We had quite a few heart-to-hearts I don’t think we would’ve had if she’d known I was a grown man.” Sir Timothy’s eyes twinkled the same way Dum-Dum’s had. “The little girls were mostly excited about an enchantment, and sad about losing their dog.”

He couldn’t help but laugh a little, even as his eyes misted over, because that sounded just exactly like his sisters.

“I miss them.” It slipped out. He was used to being open with Dum-Dum, and Sir Timothy was putting him at ease.

“They miss you,” he assured him. “They don’t know you’re alive.”

“I don’t know if I am,” he murmured.

“Steve would help you know that.”

He ran a hand tiredly through his hair and Sir Timothy held up his hands, placating. “Okay. I did my duty. I said my piece. I’m going back to the castle now. I hope you’ll come inside, but I’m not going to force you. You’ve been forced too much over your life.”

He was overcome with the need to hug Sir Timothy, and he didn’t let himself question it. He did, and then he was sobbing into Sir Timothy’s broad chest the same way he’d sobbed into Dum-Dum’s fur. No one had touched him without hurting him in over a year. Sir Timothy stroked his hair and he pictured Steve as a child, before he’d known him, crying out injustices and hurts this way, too. It made him cry harder.

“It’s alright,” Sir Timothy soothed. “You’re free now. You’re safe.”

He pushed himself upright and swiped at his face. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Sir Timothy said.

“Thank you, Dum-Dum. I mean—sorry.”

Sir Timothy laughed. It was a big, booming sound. He liked it. “You know what? I don’t mind Dum-Dum.”

That made him laugh, too, a little trembling after the tears but—it felt good. When had he last laughed? Certainly not since he’d died. Or not-died.

“Goodbye, Bucky,” Dum-Dum said. He stuck out his hand and they shook and he laughed at the memory of Annabelle struggling in vain to teach the dog to shake hands. Dum-Dum laughed too, no doubt remembering the same thing. “I knew what she wanted,” he confirmed. “But I did try to have some dignity.” His face grew somber. “I hope I see you again.”

“I…” He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t going to promise anything. Dum-Dum nodded and then turned and walked away.

He was alone again. He’d wanted to be alone so often when Pierce and Zola and Rumlow were there. He’d wanted to be alone pretty often as a kid, too, wanting to be away from people and their endless orders. He climbed up into a tree and set his back against a branch, thinking about how often he and Steve had done the very same thing, racing each other, hiding from each other, talking and laughing and arguing.

His stomach hurt. He missed Steve. Somehow he’d managed to miss Steve even when he hadn’t remembered who Steve was. Why was he sitting in this tree without Steve? Why was he hiding? If his job was to protect Steve, didn’t that include protecting him from hurt? Didn’t that include making sure he slept and ate? Didn’t that include making sure he was happy?

He looked into Steve’s window. Steve was scrubbing at blood on his face. The knife with JBB in the handle was there on the dressing table. There was a sketch of the two of them on the nightstand. “Bucky,” Steve whispered.

His resolve broke. Dum-Dum or Sir Timothy or whatever his name was thought it would be better. Sir Timothy had known Steve since he was born, had been assigned to protect him since the first breath he took. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to Steve.

He climbed down from the tree. He wouldn’t fit in the gap in the hedges anymore. He went to one of their other secret passageways, a crack between two pillars that formed a sort of corridor into a real corridor. It was a tight squeeze, and the metal arm didn’t exactly give.

Fury was at the end of the corridor. He started slightly, which meant he was shocked beyond belief.

“Barnes,” he said.

“Still guarding our secret tunnels?”

Fury smiled a little. “Steve wouldn’t let me close them up.”

It sent a new wave of heartache over him. That idiot. That hopeful, lovable, idiot. “Am I still allowed safe passage?”

Fury stood aside. He was smiling, which wasn’t a typical sight, honestly. “I’ve never been happier to grant it.”

“Thank you,” he whispered as he passed. He didn’t think his voice would work properly. His feet made the trip without needing any input from his brain. He thought he could find Steve’s chambers with no eyes, without his brain, even. He stood outside the door, palm sweating. He wasn’t exactly sure why he was nervous. He knew Steve would be happy. Steve wasn’t going to turn him away.

Still. They had hard things to discuss. They had hurts to repair. He’d stabbed Steve, and it wasn’t as if either of them were ever going to forget that. But on the other side of the heavy oak door, Steve was dressing for bed. He didn’t sketch much these days, but he might have been flipping through old drawings. He used to hum under his breath as he readied for bed.

His hand was shaking as he lifted it. He knocked on the door.

“Yes?” Steve called through.

He couldn’t answer. His throat had dried up. He couldn’t make a sound. He knocked again, their special knock this time. Steve must have fallen, because there was a thud and a curse and then the door was wrenched open. Steve’s bare chest was heaving with the force of his breaths, his hair was wild, his eyes were bloodshot and his face was pale.

He was the most beautiful sight in the entire world.

“Bucky,” Steve breathed. And so there was only one thing he could do, faced with a tearful Steve Rogers, disheveled and wondering and a little scared, worried he was hallucinating, probably, that he’d blink and the sight would disappear. He couldn’t stand to see the way Steve was trying to push down his hope, just in case, because the world had worn him down. He didn’t have to think about what to do next. He simply let his body take over and do what it did best.

Bucky smiled a little, because Steve was there in front of him, and he reached out and pulled Steve into his arms.

Chapter Text

“Bucky? Bucky!”

The shouting pulled him from sleep and he groaned, muffled into Steve’s freckled shoulder.

“Make them stop,” Steve grumbled, voice slow with sleep.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Bucky couldn’t resist saying, a big grin splitting his face. Now Steve groaned, and he hit Bucky with a pillow, but he was smiling, too, and he came back in close to kiss Bucky once, twice, three times.

“You’re never gonna get tired of saying no to me, huh?” Steve asked ruefully.

“Nope,” Bucky said. “But hey.” He pulled Steve back in for more kisses, less innocent this time. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of saying yes to you, either,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. Steve laughed a little, nuzzling his nose around with Bucky’s, and was leaning in again when the pounding on the door started.

They both sighed, but guilt was tugging at Bucky the same way the curse used to. He patted Steve’s hip and rolled out of bed, pausing to tug on a shirt and making sure Steve was covered before opening the door.

Annabelle and Elizabeth all but fell into the room, thanks to the way they were leaning against the door. Elizabeth was near tears and Bucky clucked his tongue before leaning down to scoop her into his arms. It was lucky the metal arm was so strong; she was growing like a weed.

“Hey, now,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“You didn’t say anything,” she mumbled, tucking her face against his neck. “And I couldn’t see you so I got scared.”

He held back a pained noise. He didn’t have to ask what she’d been scared about; for one thing, it didn’t take a genius to figure it out, and for another, she’d been having nightmares for months about him suddenly dropping dead or disappearing.

Again, not hard to figure out why.

Bucky gave his youngest sister a tight squeeze and then crouched down to set Elizabeth on her feet and pull Annabelle into his arms, too. She was nearly ten and had decided she was mostly a grown woman by now, but her lower lip wasn’t looking too steady, either.

“I’m sorry,” he told them both. He couldn’t promise he was never going to die or disappear again; he didn’t want to make promises he couldn’t keep, and he couldn’t, not with the way he and Steve were planning to get back to work in the Guard soon.

“Lizabeth’s just being silly,” Annabelle said, like she hadn’t been right there beside her. “You can sleep and we know you’re okay.”

“Can you sleep in our room again?” Elizabeth asked. Bucky looked over his shoulder at Steve, who had moved to the end of the bed, lying on his stomach with his chin resting across his arms so he could watch them. His hair was sticking up ridiculously in the back and Bucky felt a wave of affection so strong his knees almost went weak.

“Well, what about Steve?” Bucky asked. “You don’t think he’d get lonely sleeping in here all alone?”

“He can sleep in our room, too,” Elizabeth said, getting excited now.

“Yeah, a big sleepover!” Annabelle said, forgetting she was being aloof and grownup. Bucky rubbed his hands over his face. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to sleep in their room, and he wasn’t sure he could handle sleeping beside Steve in their room.

“How about this,” Steve started. “Tonight, we will have a campout on the grounds, with a fire and a tent and everything.” Both girls cheered, and Steve waited a second before going on. “But Bucky and I will keep sleeping in here.” Now they booed, and Steve laughed. “I’m not done!” He promised. “We’ll get Mandy to enchant a mirror and you’ll have one and we’ll keep one in here and whenever you’re worried about Bucky, you can use the mirror to see him.”

Bucky shot Steve an alarmed look. He wasn’t so sure about them peeping in whenever they wanted. That would be highly inappropriate, and Bucky sure didn’t plan on curbing their own lifestyle to accommodate the occasional sister spying on them.

Steve, of course, could read every dirty thought playing through Bucky’s mind, and he was gasping with laughter because of it. Bucky narrowed his eyes. They’d see who was laughing when the girls ran with this idea instead of forgetting about it, like Steve was probably assuming they would.

“Hey,” Becca’s voice behind them made them all turn to look. She had her hands on her hips. “Why am I the only one up and helping Mandy in the kitchen?”

“Well, you are the only one who’s Finished,” Bucky reminded her cheekily. Becca rolled her eyes. It probably would’ve been funnier if Bucky hadn’t told that joke at least once a day for the past few months.

“I needed Bucky,” Elizabeth said, slipping her hand into his. He ran a hand fondly over her hair, which made her squawk indignantly and rush over to Becca to make sure her bow was still in place.

“Well, Bucky needs to get dressed,” Becca said. “And Steve needs to get out of bed sometime today. So we’re going to go to the kitchen to help Mandy while these lazy boys get ready to get to work.”

Elizabeth and Annabelle giggled. Steve raised an eyebrow. “You can’t boss me around anymore,” he said, mock-serious. “I’m bigger than you are again. And I am the king, you know.”

“Not technically until coronation day,” Becca reminded him sweetly. “You could still be dethroned before then.”

Steve laughed, one of those big, happy laughs with his head thrown back that filled Bucky’s entire body with warmth and light. It made him want to burrow into Steve’s arms and never move.

Becca ushered the girls away, throwing a look over her shoulder and saying, “Don’t be gross. Get dressed.”

Bucky waved her away and closed the door before settling back onto the bed beside Steve. Steve immediately moved his head to use Bucky’s thigh as a pillow, rolling to his back so he was looking up into Bucky’s face.

“Good morning,” Steve said, smiling softly.

“Good morning,” Bucky echoed, leaning down to give Steve an uncoordinated, upside-down kiss. It was sappy, and cheesy, and ridiculous, and neither of them cared one iota. They’d earned it, and Bucky would be as stupid as he wanted.

Bucky ran his fingers through Steve’s hair. “What do we need to do today?”

Steve hummed in thought. “Well, we’ve got a meeting with the HYDRA Council.”

“My favorite,” Bucky muttered. Steve made a face in sympathy.

“I’m moving to have Ross removed today,” Steve told him, voice burning with anger. “He has no place in that room.”

“Steve,” Bucky sighed. “You can’t just remove everyone who has doubts about me.”

“Why not?” Steve asked petulantly. Bucky gave his chin a little flick.

“Is it the whole coalition or just our kingdom?”

“Just us. Peggy sent a messenger yesterday and said they were delayed. Didn’t I show you? Apparently Howard decided to come with her and now he’s trying to charm every woman in every village they pass through.”

Bucky snorted. In truth, Howard was a fuzzy image in his mind, someone Bucky had met once a few months ago while he’d still been recovering, but he didn’t want Steve to know that. Steve liked Howard, in the cautious sort of way he liked anyone who wasn’t Bucky, so Bucky would do his best to get along with him.

“Gabe’s probably pretty sad she won’t be here today,” Bucky said. Steve grunted his assent. Bucky pulled his hands from Steve’s hair and squinted down at him. “Are you sure you’re happy for them?”

“Buck!” Steve exclaimed, sitting up so fast they almost smacked heads. “Of course I am. I certainly can’t be with her.”

“Thanks to duty,” Bucky said, hoping he didn’t sound too bitter. He’d made his peace with Peggy, and with her relationship with Steve, and he really liked Peggy and was glad Steve had another friend who’d known him when he was still small. But he couldn’t help the tiny niggling of jealousy that still sat in the back of his mind.

Steve, of course, looked right through him. “Because I already loved someone else before I met her, and he’s here with me now.”

Bucky knew Steve loved him. They’d both said it a million times. He’d known it before he’d “died” and he’d known it as soon as he remembered who Steve was. But still. His heart gave a little leap when Steve said it so easily in a conversation about something else like that. But he didn’t want to change the mood in the room, so he teased,

“Oh, good, you hadn’t told me you loved me in like twelve hours. I was about to forget.” He fought a cringe when he realized what he’d said. Jokes about forgetting things weren’t quite as funny as they could be.

Steve rolled his eyes, luckily. “You’re an asshole.”

Bucky laughed. “I thought you loved me?”

“I do. But that doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.”

Bucky gave Steve another upside-down kiss. “Right back at ya, pal.”

They got a bit sidetracked for a while, but Steve really was quite beholden to his duty, all joking aside, so he reluctantly pulled back. Bucky sighed a little, but he couldn’t fault Steve. His dedication was something Bucky loved about him, usually, when it wasn’t getting in the way of other things he wanted to be doing.

“Time to get up?” Bucky guessed.

Steve made an apologetic noise. “I feel bad.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said under his breath. “A working king. You could be one of those fat cats who sit around on the throne eating chicken legs all day, but no. You gotta care about people and actually rule.”

Steve laughed and shoved Bucky off the bed, rolling off after him. “That’s your way of being supportive, I’m sure.”

“Sure, let’s go with that,” Bucky said. He threw a shirt at Steve and hit him in the face. Steve huffed and put him in a headlock.

“Are you kidding me?” Bucky cried, outraged as Steve started to give him a noogie. “How many times could I have done this to you our whole lives and I didn’t do it? I let you have your dignity!”

He got the upper hand, thanks to his metal one, and they wrestled around for a while, but again stopped before it went anywhere good.

“You’re gonna kill me,” Bucky said seriously. “I’m just gonna drop dead from frustration.”

Steve snorted. “If I can stand it, so can you.”

“Are you trying to dare me into a sex standoff?”

Now Steve grinned, leaning down to nip at Bucky’s ear. “Of course not. That’s a lose-lose situation if I ever heard one.”

“Good.” Bucky pulled back and laughed at the affronted look on Steve’s face. “Come on, King Steven,” Bucky said innocently. “You’ve got meetings to attend.”

Steve said a few unkingly things and they finally left their room, still elbowing and shoving at each other. Coulson saw them coming and looked pained.

“Your Highness,” he said. “You’re late.”

“I’m not—” Steve paused and noticed the sun streaming through the window. “Oh. We’re late.”

They did not look the least bit dignified as they ran down the corridor, but they stopped when they got to the meeting room. Bucky reached over and smoothed down Steve’s hair for him. Steve’s face went dopy for a second and Bucky shook his head, biting down a smile.

“We don’t have time for you to be cheesy right now,” he said, like he wasn’t floating on cloud nine to see that look on Steve’s face

They walked into the room and most of the delegates for the HYDRA council smiled at them. Ross didn’t, and Bucky tried not to hunch his shoulders too much.

“I apologize for my tardiness,” Steve said, slipping into his formal king-speak. “We had some pressing matters to attend to.”

Monty snorted and coughed to cover it up. Gabe pounded him on the back, pretending to be concerned when he was really just laughing, too. Steve shot them both a dirty look, but it did nothing to quell their laughter.

“If we can get started,” Ross said dryly. He wasn’t Bucky’s favorite person. He wasn’t anyone’s favorite person, Bucky was sure. “Now, Mr. Barnes, you were telling us about your assassination of the royal farrier, Albert Richter.”

Bucky shuddered, feeling like he’d been doused in cold water. He thought of the little girl, skipping along and holding her father’s hand, and the scene she must have found when she went back into the kitchen. Steve was standing up before Ross was finished with the question.

“Councilman Ross, if you cannot be civil—”

“Is that not what happened? He said himself—”

“Your phrasing of the question—”

“If you take issue with the manner in which I speak—”

“As a matter of fact, I do, and I would appreciate—”

“Steve,” Bucky said firmly. Steve snapped his mouth shut, nostrils flaring. He was furious, and it mattered to Bucky, it mattered a lot, but he wasn’t going to let Steve run off the rails in his own meeting. “Yes, I shot Albert Richter. I was under orders and I didn’t know who he was besides his name. I was told he was trying to kill the king.”

Ross’s eyebrows went up skeptically, but Bucky saw more than one face at the table crumple a little.

“But before you said you didn’t remember King Steven.”

“I didn’t,” Bucky said. He paused for a second, trying to choose his words carefully. “I didn’t remember my past, or who Ste—King Steven was. I just knew…there was a part of me that knew it was my job to protect the king. I knew the king was important to me.”

“And they exploited that,” Steve said quietly. His hands were out of sight, but Bucky could tell from the set of his shoulders he was clenching and unclenching them. He was barely holding it together. These council meetings were almost harder on him than on Bucky.

“So you allowed yourself to be manipulated into murdering anyone who refused to join HYDRA’s ranks?”

Okay, they were harder on Bucky.

“He was cursed.” Natasha’s quiet voice cut through the tension of the table and everyone turned to look at her. Her face was completely blank.

“So he’s said,” Ross said. “How can we believe that?”

“I was cursed the same way,” Natasha said calmly.

“I saw her before and after she was cursed,” Clint vouched for Natasha.

“And there are witnesses from Bucky’s birth where the warlock Zola laid the curse,” Steve added.

“Is Zola not known for his curses?” Dernier reminded everyone.

“We’ve all sworn on the king’s name about what we saw at the Academy,” Morita said.

Ross folded his arms. “I’m just having a hard time understanding how he could’ve been forced to do something.”

Bucky had to hand it to him—at least he wasn’t outright saying Bucky was lying. He had implied it more than once, sure, but he had the decency to at least suggest he was open to hearing more evidence.

Bucky cleared his throat. “I stabbed Steve,” he said, proud of himself for keeping his voice steady. “I would never have—I wouldn’t have done that. Steve’s my—” He had to stop for a second. “Steve’s my best friend. He’s part of my family. I lo—”

He cut himself off again. He didn’t have to give that to Ross. That was for him, and for Steve, and this random delegate who wasn’t even the leader of this council didn’t get to force that out of him.

“Is the king’s recommendation not enough?” Sam asked. “You don’t believe him?” There was an uncomfortable murmur through the room. Steve nodded his thanks to Sam.

“We have the locations of HYDRA strongholds, thanks to Bucky’s information. I move to have this council adjourned and for the Guard task force to resume the destruction of HYDRA.”

The motion went through, and the meeting broke up. Steve was at Bucky’s side immediately, a hand at the small of his back, but delegates kept coming up to talk to Steve and Bucky needed to get away.

“I’m going to go check on the girls,” he murmured to Steve. Steve nodded, but his eyes followed Bucky all the way out the door.

“There’s the scoundrel!” Bucky would’ve been more worried if it hadn’t been unmistakably Monty yelling those words. He turned around and flipped the Commandos off.

“Like it’s not bad enough I have to be accused of treason and murder, now I gotta talk to you guys?” He joked.

Gabe narrowed his eyes. “I hate that Ross guy.”

“He’s just doing his job,” Bucky said weakly. He hated Ross, too. But he couldn’t pretend he didn’t understand why people might not think him trustworthy.

“If there’s one thing I will never doubt in this world, it’s your dedication to our sovereign,” Dernier said, wiggling his eyebrows.

“And I certainly don’t want to see that dedication again,” Morita grumbled. All their teasing was half-hearted; they were all grinning and he knew they were happy for him and Steve. After he’d come back, after he’d been ready to face everyone again, they’d confessed that his love for Steve had never exactly been secret, and they were all just happy the two of them had gotten their acts together and figured things out.

Before the whole dying-but-not-dead-and-assassination thing.

“I’m going to the kitchen to check on my sisters,” Bucky told them. “Don’t you guys have some target practice to do?”

That earned him some groans and grumbles. He was still the best shot—no one had beat him yet. It was maybe a little unfair, considering the intense training he’d gotten for over a year, but he didn’t mind exploiting it in favor of some teasing.

When he got to the kitchens, he paused just outside the doors for a moment, smiling at the scene inside. Dugan was hard at work, coring some apples obediently while Mandy hovered over him, despairing of his lack of ability.

“Well excuse me for getting out of practice with opposable thumbs while I was turned into a dog,” he pointed out. Then, of course, Mandy felt guilty, because she was a fairy and she hadn’t noticed an enchanted human running around the castle for years and years.

“Dum-Dum,” Elizabeth said. “Can you cut this?” She was holding up a string of paper that Bucky could already recognize would turn into a doll. Dugan had decided to keep his job as royal protector, though Steve didn’t need it anymore. Instead, he was in charge of wrangling the two younger girls in the months since Bucky had taken them from his mother’s cousins and brought them to live in the castle with him and Steve.

“Lurking again,” Becca said, making him jump. “You know they like it better when you come inside and talk to them.”

Bucky shrugged. He didn’t want to mention that he sometimes still had trouble being around people, that the guilt still ate at him like acid and made him want to scream and throw himself off the tallest bell tower on the grounds to make it stop. From the look on her face, he thought she probably knew.

“When you showed up at school,” she started, then stopped and looked away, blinking hard. “Bucky, Steve came and told me you were dead. And then there you were. You were alive, and I know it was awful, I know you sometimes wish you’d died but I—” She was crying now, still fighting it but losing mightily. “I was so happy to see you.”

He pulled her against his chest, his little sister who’d always helped him against the curse, as best she could. She used to follow him around at lessons and counter-order every casual thing his classmates said.

“Hey,” he told her quietly. “I don’t always think I deserve to be here. But you girls, and Steve? You make it worth it.”

She nodded, her head bumping his shoulder, and he gave her a little squeeze. “Besides, I won’t get you for much longer, right? Some rich nobleman’s going to come visit Steve and see your stitching and fall madly in love.”

She snorted and pushed away from him. “I don’t want to get married any time soon. And I’m not going to marry anyone who thinks my stitching is impressive.”

Bucky laughed, happy the finishing school hadn’t scooped out her heart and her personality, and the sound drew the attention of the two younger girls.

“Bucky!” Elizabeth shouted, as if she hadn’t seen him for weeks instead of hardly more than an hour. “Look, Dum-Dum’s helping me make paper dolls!”

“Liza, don’t call him Dum-Dum,” Bucky scolded. “His name is Sir Timothy.”

Dugan snorted. “The sir never really fit,” he confided. “Steve used to call me Timmy.”

Timmy?” Annabelle giggled. “That doesn’t seem like your name.”

“You girls can call me Dum-Dum.” He winked. “I got pretty used to it.”

“But you’re not a dog anymore,” Annabelle reminded him. “You’re a man now!”

Dugan feigned shock. “What! Then why did I eat my breakfast on the floor?”

Elizabeth and Annabelle howled with laughter, and Bucky heard some chuckling in the larder. He left Becca helping the girls with their dolls and found Mandy amongst the pears from the fruit trees on the grounds. She was looking out the doorway almost fondly at Dugan, and Bucky raised his eyebrows.

“Mandy, do you fancy the dog-man?” He asked quietly so no one else would hear.

“Don’t call him that,” she scolded, two little splotches of pink coloring her cheeks. Bucky couldn’t help the hoot of laughter he let out.

“You do!” He cried. “After all the complaining you did about him as a dog, you like him as a man.”

“Oh, hush,” she ordered.

“I don’t have to,” he reminded her. Her face softened.

“You don’t,” she agreed. “I’m glad. Though I do like when you used to do as you were told.”

“He never really did as he was told,” Steve interrupted, coming in the larder and making them both jump a little. “He always found ways to mess up orders.”

“Not always,” Bucky said regretfully, thinking of the scar that ran down Steve’s shoulder.

“Yes, always,” Steve said firmly, knowing exactly where Bucky's mind had gone. He laid his hand on Bucky’s elbow. “Will you come for a walk with me?”

Mandy scoffed and Steve and Bucky turned to look at her. She noticed them looking and rolled her eyes. “Oh, a walk, that’s what they’re calling it these days?”

“Mandy!” Steve said, blushing furiously. Bucky felt every part of him go fond. He loved when Steve blushed. He tugged at Steve’s hand.

“Come on,” he said. “Before you burst into flames.”

Mandy was still laughing at them as they walked away, and then they had to deal with Dugan and Becca smirking when they said they were going for a walk, too, so by the time they escaped to the grounds, alone, Steve’s face was positively scarlet.

They were quiet as they walked. Neither of them mentioned where they were going, but their feet carried in them off the castle grounds, toward the Royal City and their tree at the edge of it. They were too big now to climb it, too big even to sit at its base and lean against it comfortably, so they stood under it and looked up.

Steve finally broke the silence after they’d be looking for a few minutes. “So,” he started. “Back out to fight HYDRA.”

Bucky’s stomach tightened a little, but he nodded. He didn’t say anything. Steve clearly had something on his mind, and he’d spit it out when he felt like it.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long.

“Are you sure about this?” Steve blurted. “I just mean—you don’t have to, Buck. You could stay at the castle and, I don’t know, bake cookies all day or something. You earned rest.”

Bucky moved forward to lean against Steve. “And what would you do?”

“I’m burning HYDRA to the ground,” Steve growled. “I’m going to kill anyone who contributed to hurting you.”

Bucky sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“You don’t have to come, though. I know it’s never been what you want to do.” He stopped before he said that he’d made Bucky come last time, luckily, so they didn’t have to get into that argument again. Steve’s guilt over not knowing about Bucky’s curse threatened to consume him almost every day.

“I go where you go,” Bucky told him. “All I want to do is be with you. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

“But you don’t have—

“I do have to,” Bucky cut him off. “I have to be where you are. I can’t—Jesus, Steve, don’t you get it? I can never be happy if I’m away from you. I broke my goddamn curse for you.”

Steve rested his forehead against Bucky’s. “I don’t want you to come just because you feel obligated. You don’t have to make it up to me or anyone else. It wasn’t your fault.”

Bucky closed his eyes. He wanted to say I do have to make it up. He wanted to say I could’ve fought harder against the curse. But they’d been around and around this subject before and he didn’t want to fight.

“I want to come,” Bucky said slowly. “I want to make sure they don’t hurt anyone else. And most of all I want to make sure they don’t hurt you. You’re not going to stay here with me, Steve. You might try but you won’t be able to. You’ll go crazy. And I can’t be here baking cookies while you’re out risking your neck.” He kissed Steve. “I happen to like that neck.”

Steve huffed out a little laugh. “I know you do.” They were quiet for a few minutes, leaning together and sharing air. “I love you,” Steve said quietly. “I want you with me every minute of every day. But I want you to do what’s best for you.”

“What’s best for me is to be with you,” Bucky told him softly. “We’re better when we’re together, Steve. That’s always been true, since we were scraping our knees on these branches.”

Steve finally cracked a smile. “Yeah,” he said. “That is true.”

“I know, I’m a smart guy,” Bucky said. Steve’s smile grew.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far. You did once ask me if I thought there were merpeople under the lake.”

Bucky laughed. “I don’t seem to recall you being too sure there weren’t.”

Steve chuckled too. “You told me it was possible. I have a tendency to believe what you tell me.”

“So believe me when I say I’m coming with you, and it’s not a sense of obligation or duty or guilt. Okay?”

“Okay,” Steve whispered. “I’m glad you’ll be there. And I’ll protect you better this time.”

Bucky shook his head but didn’t argue. Steve was going to go to his grave—some far-off day, very far-off, if Bucky had any say in it—thinking he should have been able to catch Bucky, or should have jumped after him, or should have found him. None of it was logical, but Bucky knew better than most that guilt wasn’t logical, and he knew if their roles were reversed he’d be in the same boat.

So instead, Bucky just tugged at Steve’s shirtfront and kissed him again. He considered a day wasted if he didn’t get at least a hundred kisses, and by his count he was only about a third of the way. They had some work to make up for lost time because of the meeting.

“You know what else?” Steve asked huskily in a pause for breath.

“Hmm?”

“We gotta get planning a wedding. It would be best if we’re married before my coronation, so they can give you your crown on the same day.”

Bucky’s eyes snapped open. “Why, Your Highness, is that a proposal?”

Steve blinked. “Oh. You want me to propose? I thought you just…knew.” He looked suddenly so worried and so guilty it made Bucky laugh out loud.

“That is the least romantic proposal in the history of humanity, I’m sure.”

Steve grinned. “Does that mean you’re saying no?”

“Of course not, you idiot.” Bucky reeled him back in for a few more kisses or ten. “You know I’ve always longed to be King Bucky.”

“I didn’t know that, but I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve mumbled in his ear. “Seems like it could come in handy for me.”

“I can think of some things that would come in handy for you.”

Steve laughed. “That didn’t make sense.”

“Well, you make me stupid, what do you want me to say?”

They were smiling so hard it was hard to kiss, but they didn’t let it deter them. They knew things would get tough in the future—Steve would always be in danger, and there would always be people who were mistrustful of Bucky, and rooting out the remains of HYDRA was going to be dangerous and frustrating—but they’d gotten through tough before. They were alive, and they were together, and that was what counted.

They’d had their sad ending. They were ready for the happy one.