Prince Tony wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself, one arm shielded where it gripped a small bottle. He ducked low as he slipped past the groundskeeper's hut and darted across open lawn towards the stables. The main barn was dark, but he pushed the heavy door open with confidence and let it slide shut behind him. A hearty whuff greeted him.
"Hallo, Regal, how are you this evening?"
Regal snorted again in reply and Tony peered through the dark until he could make out the horse's huge head. He patted his nose as he stepped past. The ladder up to the hayloft was hard to navigate with one arm full, but he knew it well - even skipped the creaky rung - so it wasn't long before he was pulling himself up into the sweet-smelling loft. Here, finally, was light, a small lantern burning in a cleared section of the floor. Hay had been carefully packed around all the crevices and openings in the loft so anyone walking by in the dark wouldn't suspect there were two boys up there, staying up talking late into the night. And it was more often than not that there were.
"Over here, Tony!"
Tony toed off his shoes and tiptoed across the floor so his footsteps wouldn't set off the donkey in the corner stall. He shrugged his cloak off.
"Did you get it?" Steve leaned forward in the lantern light, blue eyes wide with excitement.
Tony sunk down to his knees and revealed his prize - the dark green, glass bottle. "Yup." He leaned closer to Steve, foreheads almost touching. "You sure you want to do this?"
Steve nodded. "I don't believe it will really do anything."
"I bet it will." Tony started wiggling the cork loose. "Bruce is the best apothecary my father has ever employed. If he says it makes you tell the truth, then it does."
"And it also makes you silly and dizzy?"
"That's what the men said."
"I get dizzy just from trying to brush the top of Regal's head," Steve said with a grin.
Tony smiled back. "You get dizzy from everything." Tony pinched him in the side, just below his ribs. "Cause you don't eat enough. Oh! That reminds me." Tony tugged his cloak open and rummaged around until he found the pockets. He took out a crust of sweet bread and a hunk of aged cheese and handed them to Steve.
"Thank you." Steve took the food and started to eat, slowly but steadily, eyes cast down. He always took the food and ate it, always said thank you, but Tony didn't really know how he felt about the handouts. It wasn't like the stable crew weren't well fed, they were, but Steve was small and young. Brock and his gang from the show stable stole his rations more often than not. He wouldn't tell Tony how far their bullying went, but he had his suspicions. He'd tried bringing it up with his father more than once, but to no avail.
"It's my favourite cheese," Tony said, just to say something.
Steve nodded around a mouthful of bread. "'S good."
While Steve ate, Tony talked. He talked about his day, what he'd learned from his tutors, and how boring it had been sitting in court all morning. He told Steve how things would be run when he was King - very differently - and what his father's rulings had been. He told him about the paint set he'd been gifted and how very awful he was at rendering anything's likeness. "I tried to paint Mrs. Hill from the kitchen, but it ended up looking more like Neo, the donkey." He sighed. "I should just give it to you. Your sketches are always so true and mine look like chicken scratch."
"Did you build anything?"
"No. No time. I had to hang around with Bruce for ages before he turned away long enough for me to grab this." Tony finally managed to get the top off. He sniffed the contents and nearly sneezed when the smell fizzed up his nose.
"Are you going to get in a whole lot of trouble?"
Tony shrugged. "Maybe a bit. But there's not much they can do and my father won't want to be bothered by it. So probably just a bit of yelling. Totally worth it. You ready to play?"
Steve nodded, licking the last of the cheese grease off his fingers.
"Okay, so just one mouthful each. Any more and you'll feel really sick. Then we each get one question, back and forth, until it wears off. Okay?"
"Okay. You drink first."
Tony laughed. "Isn't someone supposed to test the king's food first?"
"You're not the king yet, Tony," Steve said softly, something melancholy drifting across his face. "And besides, I just tasted a lot of your food, your turn."
Tony laughed again. Steve always made him feel giddy and wild, like he could run twenty turns around the whole paddock and never feel tired. "Okay." He picked the bottle up, pressed it to his lips and tilted, letting a mouthful trickle in. When it was enough, he swallowed heavily and passed the bottle to Steve. "How long do you think it'll take to kick in?"
"I dunno." Steve took his swig and set the bottle down, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Tell me a lie. What's your name?"
"Prince S-S-S - ugh. I tried to give myself your name, but I can't!" He pressed his sleeve over his mouth, suddenly wobbly. "Oh, what a strange feeling! Tell me your name!"
"To-n-n-n - ah! I see what you mean. Oh, wow." Steve tipped over slowly until he was on his back in the hay and Tony settled in beside him. "Who's going first?"
"I drank first, so I get to ask first."
"Umm…" Now that he had the opportunity to ask anything he liked, he couldn't think of a single thing he wanted to know about Steve that he didn't already. "Which is your favourite horse?"
"Pff. That's easy enough. Regal."
Tony smiled up at the dark roof, lantern light flickering strange patterns across the wood. "You know, one of his sons will be my horse in a few years. And you can be my groomsman and we'll travel the world and spend all day playing games and laughing and we won't have to hide here at night, anymore. Instead you can come to the castle and sleep in my room."
Steve turned to look at him. "Do you really mean that?"
"Yes, of course." The drink wouldn't let him lie, but he wouldn't have anyway. "Is that your question?"
Steve nodded. "That was my question." He turned away again. "What's yours?"
"Did you really kiss Sharon behind the gardening shed last week?"
"What? No!" Steve half sat up, then lay down again. "No. I don't like her like that."
"Is there someone you do like?"
Steve was silent, shifting on the hay. "Yes… but it's my turn to ask a question," he said, and Tony supposed he was right. Besides, he didn't really have the right to ask something like that, anyway, especially now, when Steve couldn't lie. There was also something he didn't like about Steve's "yes." Perhaps it was a question he didn't want the answer to, after all.
"Sorry. You can have two."
"Are you excited to be king someday?"
Tony nodded. "Yes, I think so. Court is very boring, but there's a lot of important stuff a king does that I'm excited to do. And I can't wait to stop my lessons. They're so tiresome. Plus, when I'm king, father won't be able to tell me off and you and I can run around and ride horses and play games all day if we want to."
Steve snorted softly. "You will be far too busy with managing the kingdom to do that."
Tony shook his head. "Of course not. I'll always have time for you."
Their questions drifted towards the games they played, the horses, and which of the staff they liked and didn't like. The potion made Tony feel goofier and dizzier as time wore on, and it showed no signs of wearing off. They dissolved into helpless giggles more than once, losing track of the questions they were asking.
The night wrapped cool and cozy around them, and when Steve started shivering, Tony pulled his cloak to him and threw it over both of them, Steve's shoulder pressed tightly against his.
"Who do you think you will marry?" Steve finally asked, after he'd been quiet for a long time, thinking of another question.
Tony hummed consideringly. He hadn't thought much about marriage. It seemed rather inconvenient that he had to do it at all. "Oh, I don't know. I suppose Lady Virginia seems most likely. If her mother hasn't had a row with my father by the time we're old enough. And Pepper is a good rider and likes books so we'll have things to talk about."
"You could love her?"
Tony shrugged. "It's not really up to me. My turn."
Steve snuggled deeper under the cloak.
Tony had asked pretty much everything he could think of. "Do you - uhh. What's something you've always wanted to tell me but haven't?"
Steve coughed heavily, and Tony sat up, peering down at him in the dark. "I'm okay," Steve reassured him. "I don't - um." Steve huffed with frustration, and Tony wondered if he was trying to lie. "I - I've always… sometimes… sometimes I wish you were someone else. I wish you were different. And then I feel bad for feeling that way," Steve finally stuttered out.
"Oh." That hurt. It hurt more than Tony would have thought it could hurt. Steve was his closest friend, the best person Tony knew, and he wouldn't change anything about him, except, perhaps, making him able to get chores done a little faster so they could spend more time playing. But Steve wanted Tony to be different, someone else. Perhaps, someone easier to talk to, kinder or more considerate. It was the same as all of his father's advisers, smiling and grabbing Tony's shoulder and telling him how clever he was; they were all lying, Tony knew that. Steve was the really clever one. He'd learned to read without any tutors, and he could draw and ride and even cook. It would explain that strange, faraway look Steve would get in his eyes when he spoke of Tony's someday ascension to the throne, the way his mouth would pinch at the corners like he thought it was all so distasteful. Steve was a very pretty liar, but now, faced with the truth, Tony could see how those untruths had been falling from his lips all this time. "I think this game has gotten rather old."
"Yes, perhaps." Steve coughed. "I didn't upset you, did I?"
"No, no, of course not." And that was how Tony knew the potion had worn off for him, though it was another hour before Steve, with his smaller frame, could give a name that wasn't his.
The next day, when his lessons were done and court did not need him, Tony began to pack his bag, ready to go find Steve and read to him until he was done sweeping out the stalls. But then he remembered. Steve wanted him to be different, to be someone else. Most likely, he only ever spoke to Tony at all because he was the prince and Steve didn't want to offend. Tony couldn't think of a single reason why Steve would truly like him; he likely spent all their time together wishing he was elsewhere. Well, Tony wouldn't put that on him any longer. There were plenty of other things he could spend his time doing. Alone things.
The whole kingdom had turned out for Tony's coronation, it seemed. Lady Pepper had shown up with her new husband, Sir James. Tony had found himself surprisingly relieved at their marriage, though he should have been distraught that it left so few options for himself, but instead, all he was was happy for them. After all, he was only nineteen; there was time for him yet, before people started to wonder at his unmarried state. And with both his parents now gone, there weren't many who would have the courage to do so to his face.
Courage, however was something Tony was lacking tonight, nerves about tomorrow's ceremony twisting his stomach with hot bile. When he couldn't sleep, he slipped out of bed and threw a heavy, fur cloak over his nightclothes. He left his rooms with a lantern in hand and wandered down to the grounds, shivering in the crisp, winter air. The horses and donkeys were all stabled for the night and he made his way to the smaller barn where the seniors were housed.
Thinking of his friends brought his mind back - as it often did - to his old friend, Steve. He hadn't spoken to him again since the night with the truth potion, and Steve had not sought him out. Thinking back, there was no appropriate way for him to do so, but at the time, Tony had only felt unmissed. But he missed Steve, dreadfully, painfully. And yet, he hadn't been able to bring himself to pretend, to force Steve to lie and act as though he cared. That would have only cut deeper.
Regal stomped and huffed when Tony swung the barn door open and stepped inside. Tony rubbed the horse's soft nose and old, stale memories leaked in. He went to the ladder, almost without will of his own, and started to climb.
To his surprise, in the hayloft, another lamp was already burning and a large form sat, hunched over a book held in its lap. At the sound of Tony's feet hitting the wood, the man looked up sharply and his eyes went wide with shock. "Oh, heavens! Your Highness - Majesty! Excuse me. My apologies. I was just -" The man started scrambling to his feet.
"Oh goodness, no. You can keep your apologies." Tony waved him back down. "It's my fault, entirely. I didn't know anyone was up here or I would have let you be."
The man stood and bowed, the light catching his face and illuminating it for a moment. It was as if he had thought the man into existence, someone he hadn't caught more than a passing glimpse of in seven years.
"Steve?" Tony asked, before he could stop himself.
Steve opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "Um. Yes, Your Majesty. Steve Rogers. Is there something you need, My Lord? Do you wish to ride?"
"At this hour? Heavens, no. Well, yes, actually, I do, but it's far too late. No, no, I just wandered here. I didn't mean to find anyone. But you... we were friends, were we not? As boys?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. We were." Steve tried to straighten up but the ceiling was too low and he ended up needing to sit down again. He'd grown a shocking amount in the fast few years, not just upwards, but in the breadth of his shoulders too. He'd once been a head smaller than Tony and now he was at least a head taller.
"I remember those days very fondly."
Steve swallowed heavily, his throat bobbing. "As do I, Your Majesty."
Tony shuffled closer, sitting too. He set his lantern beside Steve's and tried to summon a smile. "You called me Tony back then."
Steve's whole form stiffened instead of softening. "Well. You weren't the king back then. Your Majesty."
Like an old wound reopened, Tony refelt all the pain of that night with the truth potion. And here was further evidence that Steve had only ever given Tony what he thought the master's son - and now master - wanted from him. Tony had been no kind of friend to Steve, only using him so Tony could play at feeling affection. "I'm very sorry to bother you," Tony said, hating how rough his voice sounded. He started to push back to his feet.
"You're more than welcome to stay. If you want to."
Tony paused. "Do I not make you uncomfortable? Or has that changed, now that we are older?"
Steve stuttered for a moment. "Your Majesty? I - I promise you, you never made me uncomfortable back then. I treasured every moment we spent together. You were my… my dearest friend. I was very sad when - when -" Steve cut himself off.
Tony sighed, eyes falling down to the twin lanterns. Steve's was running low, spluttering and coughing. "You needn't lie to protect my feelings, Steve. Back when you had no choice but to tell the truth, you said otherwise."
"I didn't!" Steve snapped, eyes going wide. Then he slapped his hand over his mouth and muttered out, "Your Majesty."
"Oh, come now. You said you wished I was someone else, someone different -" Tony choked on the words. "I never meant to force you, you know. I only ever thought you genuinely liked me."
"Oh, but I did. So very much. The only change I longed for was for you to no longer be a prince, heir to the throne. I'm nothing but a poor, orphaned stable boy, and I have nothing that makes me worthy to be friends with a prince. That is the only thing I ever wished would be different about you."
"You never wished that I might be gentler or kinder or wiser or - or-?"
"No, of course not. I have always loved you exactly as you are, Your Majesty. But I knew someday your station would come between us, and I was not as strong then as I am now. It near broke my heart. That is the sole change I've ever wished for. I swear to you."
Tony turned slowly to face Steve, afraid of what he might see in the other man's expression. And sure enough, what he saw stopped his heart. Steve was gazing at him in the lantern light, eyes wide and pleading and so open that Tony could read them as easily as a book in the library. Tony swallowed and cleared his throat. "When you say you love me… Is that as all subjects love their king? Or…"
Steve's expression twisted painful. He said nothing.
"I thought you were only pretending to like me because I was your superior. Because you felt obligated to do whatever you needed to make me happy."
"Oh, To-" Steve cleared his throat. "Your Majesty… I have never been very good at that kind of thing. I'm afraid I'm rather rude to people I don't like, even if I really shouldn't be. If I didn't like you, I never would have come, never would have spent time with you. Those days… they meant the world to me." His voice dropped low and soft. "You asked me, back then, if I'd kissed Sharon. I hadn't… I haven't kissed anyone. I…" He broke off with a rough breath.
Tony watched Steve's eyes drop to the floor and he couldn't stop his hand from reaching out and tucking two fingers under Steve's chin. He raised his eyes back up. "Steve…" It was like magic was drawing him in, closer and closer. "I haven't kissed anyone, either," he whispered, a scant inch between them.
Then Steve flinched away, and Tony stilled. "We shouldn't, Your Majesty. I'm sorry, but we shouldn't. It's not - I can't."
Tony jerked backwards out of his space, sucking oxygen into his burning lungs. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to push you. I thought -"
"You thought right. I do want… We can't. You're the king - the coronation is tomorrow! I'm a - a stable hand. No one - I can't. I'm not what you need. And if you kiss me tonight and disappear out of my life again, I'll - I…" Steve bit his bottom lip, plumping it up, and blinked damp eyes. "I can't take it."
Seven years of regret bubbled up and burned inside Tony's chest. All the pain they'd both been carrying, all the things he wished he'd said to Steve and never had. "Steve. I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. If I'd known… well. If I'd known, I would have said something back then. I would have come back the next day. I would have kissed you. I would have told you how much I cared, how important you were to me. But I'm surrounded every day by people who say, 'Oh, yes, Your Majesty, how smart, how funny, how charming,' but they don't really mean it. I never wanted to make you feel that way. I loved it when you called me Tony."
Steve crumpled forward, his hands landing on Tony's lap and his forehead pressed against Tony's chest. "I miss you so much," he murmured, and Tony cupped his face between his hands and lifted, drawing Steve up against him.
"Please let me kiss you. None of the other stuff matters. If you love me like I love you, I will make sure that station never comes between us. I am the king, after all. I can make things happen."
Steve sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "But you will have to marry someone with connections, with political value, and as much as I wish I could be willing to be in the shadows at your side through that, I don't think I can handle only having a piece of your heart."
"I will not," Tony said, indignantly. "Trust me, they have tried to have me forge connections, but I won't marry for anything but love. Like my father, I'll use trade to my advantage, not family. My grandfather married a lady's maid and she was a wonderful queen. And you… you would make a wonderful prince consort, if you would have me."
Steve sat up sharply, one hand fisted in the hem of Tony's cloak. "You don't mean that. You wouldn't really marry me, surely not."
"Well, of course, I would. I think you would be mad to marry me, but if I have the chance to ask, now after all these lost years, I am not going to give it up. I was young and stupid and blind, back then. I wasted so much. I don't wish to waste any more. If you say yes, I'll announce our engagement tomorrow at the coronation. Our people will be happy for us, I promise you."
"You really mean that?"
"I really mean that. Yes. I'll get Bruce to make another truth potion if I have to."
Steve shook his head slowly. "I don't need that. I trust you. I will. I will marry you. In a heartbeat, Tony." The name sung in Tony's heart. "It's always been you." Steve leaned in close. "You really want me?"
Tony answered with a kiss, drawing Steve in with the hand on his cheek. Steve's lips were soft at first, tentative, then, when Tony gasped and pressed deeper, Steve opened his mouth and surged forward, clawing up Tony's body and tangling them together. Tony flopped backwards into the hay, pulling Steve down on top of him. He was laughing into the kiss and so was Steve, their hands finding each others and winding together. "I really want you. And that's the god's honest truth."