Steve stared at his hands and waited for them to stop shaking. What was he doing? He'd just ordered someone to make him a magic sword and shield so that he could go on a suicide mission into some enchanted forest! It was absurd in a way. In a lot of ways. But there was nothing else to do. He kept seeing Elizabeth's livid face as she gave him her ultimatum. Steve thought he had seen something else in the Queen's eyes besides anger. Fear. The Queen was afraid for her daughter, and he was certain that she must be as afraid of plunging their respective people's into war as Steve was. He was also certain that she would not hesitate to carry out her threat if he failed. Oh, God, he thought. I'm going to be sick.
Marcellus walked in just as Steve was emptying his stomach in the nearest waste basket. Steve heard him gasp, and in a moment, Marcellus was beside him, rubbing his back and murmuring soothing words. When the heaving stopped, he helped Steve to a seat and gave him some water to rinse with. "Thank you," Steve said.
"Are you all right, my love?" Marcellus asked.
"I think so. Just tense I guess."
Marcellus nodded solemnly. "I understand perfectly. I, too, am shaken by this dreadful turn of events."
Steve sighed heavily. "There is nothing left to do but wait, is there?"
"No, there is not," Marcellus replied. "I have informed Lord Edward of your command, and he is at this moment calling the dukes together. I also gave Mother Tatiana your best sword, dagger and shield. She will need time to perform the spells you requested, and Captain Martinez will, of course, need time to gather supplies for the journey."
Steve nodded. "In that case, I think I'd like to go out for a while. I need a break from the castle."
"Of course," Marcellus said. "I will order an escort."
"No," Steve said, shaking his head. "Please. I'd rather be alone with you, if you don't mind." He sighed. "There's no point keeping a guard now, anyway. He has what he wants."
Marcellus frowned. "Indeed. Very well, then, we will go alone. Where would you like to go?"
"I want to be near the water," Steve said. "Is there a lake or a pond somewhere close?"
"I know of a place where we can be alone," Marcellus said. He handed Steve one of the daggers from the case and chose one for himself, saying that it just wasn't prudent to go out without any kind of protection. They left the room, and Marcellus told an attendant to let Lord Edward know that he and the king could be found at Queen Alexandria's Lake. Then Marcellus led Steve outside and toward the gardens. "You have not yet been all the way through the maze yet, have you?" Marcellus asked. Steve shook his head, and Marcellus smiled. "Follow me closely."
Marcellus didn't have to tell Steve twice. Steve was definitely in no mood to get stuck in this maze alone. He'd still only been able to figure out the very first part. Anything deeper, and he was out of luck. Marcellus walked the winding paths with ease, just as if the way were second nature to him. They took several paths that seemed to lead nowhere, and a few times, they had to squeeze through tight spaces between hedges. Steve was certain that Marcellus must be going the wrong way, but the prince seemed unconcerned. After about twenty minutes, they came to a long, dense wall of hedges from which they could go no further. "Here we are," Marcellus announced.
Steve was shocked. "This is the end?" he cried. "How did we get here so fast?"
"I took a shortcut," Marcellus said simply. He led Steve along the hedge wall for about six yards, then stopped. The spot looked just like the rest of the wall to Steve, but Marcellus seemed to think it was significant. He reached into the hedge and pushed. To Steve's utter amazement, a door opened. Marcellus stepped inside, beckoning for Steve to follow. Steve did, and his eyes widened. They were in a large clearing, surrounded by tall evergreens. There was a wide lawn and a small, deep blue lake, it's gentle waves glinting in the sunlight.
Steve smiled. "It's beautiful!"
"This is Queen Alexandria's Lake. Our ancestor, Queen Alexandria, used to come here to meditate upon her spiritual findings after she took the throne. Upon Alexandria's death, her daughter Alexis named the lake after her. Since then, the kings and queens of Pacificana have often used this as a place to meditate and regain peace in times of discord." Marcellus looked around, with a wistful expression. "It was here that Stephen and I were Bound."
"Ohh," Steve said. "Man, I'd love to just have a private lake to go to when I was feeling down."
Marcellus smiled. "You do," he said. "Would you like to go out on the boat, or would you prefer to rest at the shore?"
"Let's take the boat," Steve said.
"I should have known. Stephen can never resist the urge to be on the water." They walked to the small dock where a single rowboat was tethered. Steve got in and Marcellus untied the boat and guided her away from the dock. Steve helped row, despite Marcellus' protests, and they took the boat out to the center of the lake. There, they stopped and sat quietly, listening to the sound of the water lapping against the sides of the boat.
Steve had almost forgotten about their troubles in his surprise at finding a whole little world behind the maze, but now that he had the chance to sit quietly, all his worries and his fears had returned with full force. He sighed heavily. "What am I going to do, Marcellus? Everything is shot to Hell! Annette's gone, and who knows what that freak could be doing to her, and the Queen... oh God, this is a disaster. I'm... I'm not cut out for this. I'm just a singer!"
"But you aren't, Steve," Marcellus said. "You are a king, and you behaved as such. A lesser man would have crumbled when faced with Queen Elizabeth's wrath."
Steve couldn't suppress a wry chuckle. "I think puking my guts out counts as crumbling. I'm sure King Stephen would never have done that."
Marcellus shook his head. "You are wrong," he said. "You carried yourself with a strength and dignity befitting a true king, and I am sure that those present were filled with some hope despite this dark situation." Marcellus rested a hand on Steve's arm. "I have complete confidence in you, Steve," he said. "I know that you will keep your word."
Steve smiled. "Thank you, Marcellus," he said. He sat quietly for a few more minutes, then sighed again. "Marcellus. I've been thinking. Everyone seems to think that going to the Forbidden Forest is very dangerous. Well, more than that. They seem to think that it's a suicide mission. I just wanted to tell you... you don't... if you don't want to come with me, you..."
"Say no more," Marcellus said. "Steve. In my king's absence, my loyalty belongs to you. Just as I would never abandon Stephen to fulfill such a quest alone, so will I never abandon you." Marcellus put a hand on Steve's chin and gently made Steve face him. "I have come to care very deeply for you, Steve. I know that, even were it not a given in the eyes of the court that I should go with you on this journey, I... I would follow you to the ends of the earth."
Steve swallowed, trying his best to stop the tears he could feel starting to well up. He'd never heard such a touching sentiment from anyone before. He didn't speak. Instead, not really thinking about what he was doing, he unsheathed his dagger. Taking a deep breath, he pierced the skin of his left hand and drew the dagger diagonally across his palm. He stared at the cut for a moment, watching the blood well up and begin to drip onto the bottom of the boat. Then, hand shaking, he looked up at Marcellus through eyes blurred with tears. "I love you, Marcellus," he said. "Will... will you bond with me?"
Marcellus' mouth dropped open, and he gaped at Steve for several long moments. He said nothing for so long that Steve was horribly afraid he might refuse. The silence lingered, and Steve fought to hold back tears. "You... you don't have to s-say yes," he said. "I just... thought... because... we're going on a dangerous mission, and I thought... it... it might be safer. I w-would know right away if you were in danger, and... we..."
"Shhhh," Marcellus said, putting a hand on Steve's cheek. "It isn't that I don't love you, or that I don't want to bond with you," he said. "It's just that, it was in those very words... in exactly this way that Stephen proposed to me." His voice was filled with amazement. Steve was amazed too, but he was also afraid that the memory of Stephen's bond would keep Marcellus from bonding with him. Marcellus stared down at his hand for a few moments, and Steve struggled bit his lip. "And let nothing sever the bond we share," Marcellus whispered.
When Marcellus looked up again, his eyes were starting to shine with tears, too. He took the dagger from Steve and drew it across his palm, being careful not to cover his previous scar. He took Steve's hand in his own, gripping it tightly, and pulled it over the water. When a few drops of their blood had fallen into the lake, Marcellus began to speak. "Spirit of the Waters, we humbly ask that you bless this union, joining our souls in complete Oneness. Grant that we may share eternal love, harmony and bliss in each other through the beauty and mystery of the Bond, and let nothing - neither time, nor distance, nor even the emptiness of death itself - sever the bond we share."
Marcellus held Steve's hand over the water for a few more moments. Then, a few feet away from the boat, a spray of water shot up into the air. The droplets formed into the shape of a woman's face, then fell back into the lake. Steve gasped, but it wasn't just shock at seeing water spontaneously defy gravity. He was suddenly inundated with strong emotions, and he was more than a little alarmed to discover that they weren't all his. He felt happiness, relief, guilt, and, faintly, hurt and sadness. The confusing and conflicting emotions frightened him, and he looked worriedly at Marcellus. Marcellus smiled gently, and Steve felt the fear lessen slightly. At the same time, he felt the desire to comfort someone. "The confusion will lessen as you learn to distinguish your emotions from mine," Marcellus said.
Steve nodded. He closed his eyes, finding all the visual stimuli of a regular day too much to handle on top of the madness going on inside him. He tried to relax and figure out what was going on inside his head. After the initial shock wore off, Steve could tell that there were more than jumbled emotions inside him. There was a presence - a feeling that there was someone else with him inside. Weird! Steve thought. The presence felt like Marcellus. Steve focused on the feeling, and soon, he realized that there was more than one presence inside him. He could feel another someone, very faintly, and he immediately knew that it was King Stephen. The person felt like a mirrored version of himself, with only very slight differences. Eventually, Steve was able to assign the right emotions to the right person. Marcellus' emotions, he could feel nearly as strongly as his own, but they had the Marcellus feeling to them. Stephen's emotions were fainter, but he could still tell what they were.
Marcellus was confused. He felt happy, guilty and worried at the same time. Stephen was hurt and despondent. Steve thought that the king must be upset because Marcellus had bonded with him. He could feel a sense of despair from the king, and a deep homesickness, as well as a sense of resignation. He was resigning himself to his fate, in a strange world, apart from Marcellus. Steve could sense Marcellus' denial, and his extremely strong desire to allay Stephen's fears. It was so strong that Steve almost felt like he could hear an unspoken conversation between them. Marcellus assured Stephen that he still loved him, and promised that he would get home somehow. Steve tried to give off a feeling that he wasn't trying to steal Marcellus from Stephen, and he felt a combination of amusement and gratitude from the king in return.
After a while, everything settled down inside Steve, and he felt like he could safely open his eyes. Marcellus smiled at him. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Steve nodded. "A little freaked out. But I'm okay. What about you? I mean, is Stephen okay?"
Marcellus sighed. "I believe so. He is sad, but he stands by what he told me in the Trance. He wishes me to be happy, and if you are the one who makes me happy, you have his blessing."
Steve smiled. "He's a pretty amazing guy," he said. Marcellus nodded, and Steve looked down. With a shock, he realized that his hand was still bleeding profusely. He was so busy trying to get used to being Bound that he hadn't even felt the pain in his hand until now. "Guess we should get these looked at," he said.
"Here. We can use this for now." Marcellus pulled out a handkerchief and wrapped Steve's hand in it. Steve did the same for Marcellus, and they looked toward the shore.
"Maybe I should have thought about this first," Steve said.
Marcellus laughed, and Steve felt mildly disturbed to realize that he had felt the amusement before hearing the laughter. He handed Steve an oar and took the other one in his good hand. Steve took the oar and got into the right position, doubting their ability to do this together. Steve felt more amusement from Marcellus. "Don't worry," he said. "You would be surprised by how coordinated Bonding can make you."
Sure enough, they were easily able to guide the boat back to the shore together without any problems. They left the secret area, and Steve followed Marcellus back to the castle. They avoided contact with anyone in the palace on their way back to their quarters. Marcellus said that it would be best if people did not find out that they had bonded, since it didn't make sense for him to bond with the king a second time. Should anyone ask, they had been careless with the ropes on the row boat, and burned their hands.
Once in Steve's quarters, Marcellus unwrapped Steve's bandage and put on some of the herbal remedy. Steve did the same for Marcellus, and they found some clean strips of cloth to bandage the wounds with. When that was done, Steve felt a strong surge of happiness from Marcellus. A moment later, he was enveloped in a strong hug. Steve grinned, and hugged Marcellus back.
They stayed on the couch, Marcellus with his head resting on Steve's chest, and Steve with his arm around Marcellus' shoulders. Steve closed his eyes and just spent a little time getting used to the presence of another person in his psyche. He'd been mildly afraid that he wouldn't be able to handle the loss of privacy, but instead, he found that he very much enjoyed the sense of togetherness. There was no fear, or worry about having his emotions bared to Marcellus at all times. Thanks to the fact that the sharing was reciprocal, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Marcellus loved him as much as Steve loved Marcellus. There was a feeling of complete security - a knowledge that, no matter what, there was someone with him who cared about him deeply, and that nothing could come between them. It was the kind of security that Steve had longed to experience for a very long time.
Steve sighed, as his worries about Annette and Queen Elizabeth made themselves known again. "I'm still scared," he said.
"I know," Marcellus said. "I also know that you are a strong, capable man, and that you will not fail us." Steve smiled, grateful for the encouraging words. He was about to tell Marcellus that he loved him, when the prince sat up and gave him a long, tender kiss. "I know that, too," he said.