Clint hated feeling helpless.
There had been nothing he could do when his parents succumbed to the illness that swept through the realm taking a huge part of the population with it.
There had been nothing he could do when his best friend Tony was taken into the care of Obadiah, because Clint was still a kid and Tony didn't see the darkness lurking in Obadiah's eyes.
There had been nothing he could do when Clint was dubbed a bad influence and shipped off to an orphanage on the other side of town with no idea where Tony had gone.
He searched the streets, the public places and all the spots Tony and he used to play, but he never saw Obadiah or Tony anywhere.
Then his priorities had to change. Clint was too small, too scrawny, too determined to find Tony to be useful at the orphanage which was already filled over its capacity because of the sickness that stole everyone's parents away. So he was thrown out and onto the streets. He was just lucky it was still summer.
Being a street rat became all about survival, about knowing where food would be thrown away even though it was still edible, where he could stay for the night without being too exposed to the weather and/or the owners wouldn't be annoyed by him immediately. He became even scrawnier at the beginning, before he managed to get enough food to fill out a bit. His fingers didn't fumble as often when he had to resort to stealing something, though that was always a last resort.
It was the middle of his first winter when he saw them for the first time.
He was hunkered down between some crates trying to hide from the cold. His clothes were barely enough to keep him from freezing to death, but while he normally used the day to gather supplies, but he didn't want to risk it with how bad the winds were.
The sound of hooves on the stone road made him look up and watch as a dozen horses made their way down the main road towards the castle. Men clad in blue, white and red clothes and mail, bearing the crest of the royal family sat on top the different colored horses with straight backs and heads held high, looking incredible strong and healthy. The Royal Guard.
The homeless kids that usually hurried over to visitors, merchants and in general wealthy looking people didn't even bother on this day. Not even the hope for a piece of bread or a coin could get them out of their hiding spots.
Clint watched them move past, not even looking around them, as if they were above what was happening in the lower city.
As they disappeared behind the next bend in the road, Clint thought about how they had never been to the town before, how none of the Royals were ever seen visiting, either, how it seemed that no one in the castle cared for the peasants beyond the minimum to make sure they weren't rioting.
The ball of resentment was only fueled by the cold and hunger gnawing at him.
A couple hours later, as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon and the wind let up, though it was still incredibly cold, Clint made a bad decision and went to the castle to break in and see what was going on there.
He was still small enough to crawl into nooks and crannies between some of the stones to hide from patrolling guards and servants. While the stone walls had absorbed the cold, it wasn't nearly as bad as outside.
Loud voices pulled him down a long and high corridor, the shadows cast by the torches enough to hide him behind sets of armor and tapestries.
“... need it and we have it.”
“Nonsense. They're fine”, a gruff voice said and leather creaked. “They hoard their food and money and tell us they need more, that they don't have anything to pay their taxes with. Liars! All of them!”
Clint peeked around the corner, keeping to the ground to not be spotted as easily.
A long table was the only thing in the room. At the head of it was a big elaborate chair with golden decorations and shining stones. The man on it was fat, with gray hair and beard, fists clenched on top of the table and dark circles under his eyes. A golden, shiny crown sat on top of his head. It looked valuable enough to feed the whole lower district for the winter.
On the other sides of the table sat five men each, younger than the King, but a few only a little bit. They all looked like they had enough food and money to keep them healthy.
Except for the King everyone at the table looked uncomfortable.
“Father”, the man on the King's right side said. He was the youngest of them all, but his clothes were the finest with the crest of the King stitched into his shirt over his heart. “Our people are starving. More and more are dying. They're not hiding anything.”
“Maybe your Majesty is thinking of the next kingdom”, the man opposite the Prince said, leaning back in his own chair. He was wearing the mail and red, white and blue of the Guard. A scar ran over his left cheek.
“Don't patronize me, Captain”, the King snarled, pointing a finger at the man. “The storage here in the castle is for us only. All those dirty liars and thieves don't deserve...” He was interrupted by a coughing fit. It was an ugly sound and they all hurried to the King's side as it didn't seem to stop.
“Get a physician”, the Prince ordered and a servant ran towards the door, towards Clint.
Scrambling Clint pushed himself behind a tapestry as flat as he could manage and waited with baited breath for the footsteps to pass him.
The men were still talking and making noise inside the room, but it was too chaotic for Clint to hear understand anything. The near encounter with the servant had been enough for him already and he quickly made his way back out of the castle.
Four days later it was announced that the King had passed away and that his son would take his throne.
Two days after that the engagement of the new King and a princess from another country was announced.
A day after that the castle opened their gates to the villagers that didn't have anywhere to stay and food was handed out coming from the castle storage.
It was looking up.
King Joseph and Queen Sarah changed most of the laws over the years and made sure their citizens were cared for in a very stark contrast to the rule of the former King.
People didn't die as often anymore. There was more laughter in the streets and even festivals.
By the time the Queen grew heavy with child the royal family was once again adored by the public and the greed of the former King only a shadow on the horizon for the elder.
Clint managed to become an apprentice under the brothers and blacksmiths Brokkr and Eitri and was even taken in by them to sleep under their roof. Grateful for everything they were doing for him he worked twice as hard and helped out around the house and with chores when the other two were too tired or overwhelmed for it. He never listened when they told him he didn't have to do it.
His favorite task, however, was more for his own pleasure than theirs.
He loved going to the castle to deliver finished items or get the right measurements. It allowed him to hang around a little to watch the knights train on the big training field. Be it with swords or with lances on horseback or even hand to hand.
At night he dreamed of becoming a knight himself, but he knew that was never going to happen. Watching was enough anyway.
Clint's body grew buff with muscle from working with the metals every day and he used his spare time in making sure he stayed as nimble and flexible as he had been during his street rat days.
Years passed in peace. There was no major conflict or even war with the other kingdoms, no food shortages or outbreaks killing people. Even the winters didn't feel as cold anymore.
The kingdom, including Clint, watched Prince Steven grow up. Literally.
Often it was every day that the people saw the Prince ran through the streets, always accompanied by his best friend who was just as old as he was.
They weren't even a whole decade younger than Clint, but as Clint watched them run through the market and duck into alleys to avoid the Royal Guard all while laughing and kind of missing the point of hiding, Clint felt much older. He also missed Tony even more.
Everyone adored the Prince and it seemed like he was becoming much like his father and didn't have any of his grandfather's characteristics thankfully.
Before Clint knew it the Prince was turning twenty-one and messengers were sent out to the other kingdoms for a spouse. He felt a bit sorry for him. As Royalty arranged marriages were completely normal, but Clint didn't like the thought of marrying someone he didn't love, or worse, hadn't ever met before.
But maybe that was just him. After all, he had grown up outside the castle and many things were different down here.
Days later Clint was at the market fixing up a couple wagons and crooked stands, when a town crier was paraded to the little podium for announcements and silence fell over the people. Clint straightened up, just as curious as everyone else.
Had they found someone for the Prince to marry already? Had something happen to the family in the few hours they had been out of the public eye?
“In the name of the King, all loyal subjects are hereby invited, by royal proclamation, to a masked ball to be held in two days time in the honor of Crown Prince Steven. The royal family humbly request your company and help in finding a suitable spouse for Crown Prince Steven. Come as you are. Masks will be provided. That is all.”
Immediately the people were in chaos. A masked ball AND the peasants were invited? That had never happened before. Of course everyone was in a frenzy.
Clint had to admit he was intrigued, so he didn't argue with Bokkr and Eitri when they got him clothes fit enough to be seen in around the castle. Though he promised himself he would find something for them in return.
The brothers didn't want to go themselves (“Not our crowd, kid.”), so Clint was on his own as he ascended the steps in front of the castle, even as he was surrounded by all the others going to the ball. He listened to them talk about how spectacular it all was or what they thought the ball would be like, the food, the princes and princesses from the other kingdoms. Groups of ladies giggled about how they were going to seduce the Prince and become the next Princess without a drop of blue blood. Clint heard a couple men proclaim the same and he smiled at their enthusiasm.
It was a masked ball. Anything could happen.
A big table was put in the entrance hall, manned by three servants all wearing the same completely white mask that hid their whole face. One by one the people in front of Clint stepped up and picked a mask from the assortment presented. The servants filled the empty spot by another mask from boxes behind them.
Clint leaned to the side so he could see them better, even though it wasn't his turn yet.
The mask were all different colors and shapes. There were ones that covered the whole face, like the ones the servants wore. There were ones that covered either the whole right or left side, or mask that hid the top half. Red, blue, white, black, pink, yellow, orange. All colours in all the shades you could imagine. Some were as colorful as a peacock or just one color. Shiny stones and long feathers had been used to decorate them, making some more attention seeking than others.
“Oh, I can't even tell it's you”, a woman proclaimed as her husband put a black and white mask over the upper part of his face.
Like a little bit of fabric would render the identity of someone completely anonymous. Maybe if you didn't know the person it was possible, but Clint could easily pick out Taryn who always tried to give him an extra egg on the market and which he always smuggled back. Not even the big and long red feathers could prevent him from recognizing her.
When it was his turn, Clint stepped up to the table and let his eyes wander over all the options. He didn't like the ones you had to hold up yourself or the ones with overly loud colors and feathers. His goal wasn't to stick out in the crowd and fish himself a prince. He just wanted to relax and maybe dance once or twice.
In the end he was drawn to a half face mask in the shades of purple with black stones along the outer edge and black fabric around the holes for the eyes. A black string was attached to the back to keep it on. It complemented the black of the rest of his clothes without being too flashy.
The ball room was massive, crowded by guests and servants alike. Musicians had taken positions to the side and were already playing a gentle tune. On the other side was an ample buffet many had already found. Opposite the entrance was a big throne with a smaller one on either side of it. They were all occupied by masked individuals, but there was no mistaking the King and Queen. The Prince was no where near them.
Maybe he is hoping to find a spouse who doesn't recognize him, Clint thought as he moved carefully through the masses to get something to drink. That notion certainly appealed to Clint.
To have someone fall in love with the person and not with all the things they were rumored to be.
As the blacksmith apprentice Clint was perceived as more brawn than brain and even those that knew and liked him well enough thought there was more air in his head than thoughts. It was frustrating sometimes, so he could only imagine how it would be for a Prince that would rule a whole kingdom later.
The music quietened until they completely stopped playing. Everyone's attention was pulled to the King who had stopped up from his throne.
“With great joy do we welcome you all.” He smiled widely and spread his arms. “We thank each and every one of you for joining us in our quest to find the perfect match of our son Steven.” He paused and his smile turned a little mischievous. “Who appears to already have started to mingle. Please, enjoy your night.”
As soon as the King had sat down again, the music started up again, but it was nearly drowned out by everyone talking and trying to figure out who the prince was. Men were accosted and dragged onto the dance floor in the hopes to have found the right person.
That the men they had chosen sometimes had black or brown hair and not the blond Steven wore, didn't even seem to register.
Clint shook his head in amusement. Apparently people were stupid enough to be blinded by a mask to the point where they didn't see any other characteristics.
With a cup of wine in hand he found a spot away from the food and the dance floor, content to just watch for now, when a woman approached him, clothes too fine to be anything but royal.
Her brown eyes roamed over his body in a very predatory fashion and her teeth were almost blindingly white when she smiled.
“Good evening”, she purred and a shiver of unease ran down Clint's spine.
“Good evening”, he replied even as he tried to think of a way out of this.
“I believe you should ask me to dance.”
“I could not dare to dance with you. I'm just a baker's son.” The words had the desired effect.
She recoiled and her lips pursed as if she had eaten a lemon. Without another word she turned and went off to find someone richer than him.
Two more, one woman and one man, asked him to dance, but he declined as politely as he could. They were all eager to find the prince and be his spouse. He didn't want to string anyone along or be courted because they thought he was someone else. That defeated the whole purpose of the masks.
“You're not going to go in search of the Prince like everyone else?”
Taking a sip of his cup Clint looked to his right and promptly choked. Coughing he tried to get his breathing back under control as the stranger helpfully clapped him on the back a couple of times.
“You okay?”, the stranger asked, a concerned frown half hidden by the completely unadorned, black mask that only accentuated his stormy blue eyes. His brown hair was long enough to brush his shoulder as it hung open and a little disheveled around his face.
Clint waved off the worry and took another, bigger sip of his wine. He couldn't believe that it took only one attractive guy to speak to him and he was already embarrassing himself. “I'm okay. I'm okay. You just startled me.” With your shoulders and those muscles and those damn kissable lips.
“That was not my intention.” White teeth caught his bottom lip for only a brief moment, but Clint's eyes were immediately drawn to it. “How about a dance as an apology?” He held out a hand and Clint raised his eyebrows, even as his lips formed into an amused smirk.
“Seems to me like you're getting exactly what you wanted.”
The stranger's innocent, worried expression disappeared and was replaced by a mischievous grin. “Is that a yes?”
“I must warn you.” Clint put down his cup... somewhere and took the other's hand. “I'm not very good at it.”
“Don't worry.” He led Clint the few steps to the dance floor, but moved to the outskirts, before turning toward Clint again. “We don't have to dance that elaborate.”
“Your feet thank you”, Clint said as he stepped closer and put his left hand on the stranger's shoulder. He could feel a hand settle at the small of his back, warm and firm.
“My name's James, by the way.” He moved them into an easy four step rhythm that basically moved them in a one meter radius and kept them away from all the other much more talented dancers.
“Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of the masks?” Clint wanted to keep looking up into James' eyes, but he also had to make sure that he didn't actually step on his toes every now and then.
“Everyone calls me something different, but you don't have to tell me yours.” He leaned forward, hair brushing Clint's cheek as he whispered into his ear: “I think gorgeous fits you well enough.”
Startled Clint missed a step and stumbled, only kept upright by James tightening his hold and consequently pulling Clint closer and against his chest. Clint glared at him for laughing, even as a fierce blush spread over his face.
He felt like a damn maiden in one of those fairy tales and he did not like it.
James finally stopped laughing when Clint hit his shoulder lightly, but didn't seem to move away one bit, just kept Clint close even while they weren't dancing anymore. “Come on, it's not like you've never had people compliment you before.”
The hand Clint had on James' shoulder itched to touch his hair, but he stopped himself. He didn't really know the man, but it already felt great just to stay in his arms. “Not everyone can be as handsome as you.”
James' tongue darted out to the corner of his mouth. “You think I'm handsome?” There was that smug smirk that at the same time infuriated Clint and really made him want to kiss him.
“I wouldn't be still in your arms, if I didn't think so.”
James' smirk softened and he lifted their joined hands to his mouth to press a soft kiss onto Clint's hand's back. It brought them out of their tight embrace and created a more decent distance between their bodies, though Clint missed the firm warmth of James' body.
“And I'm honored you have chosen me to spend your time with.”
Clint raised his eyebrows at him, his cheeks still warm, but he refused to look away. “You know that I'm not the Prince right? Or any kind of Royalty?”
“I don't care either way. When I first saw you I was interested in you and now, after talking to you, I'm even more interested.” His eyes were serious and never wavered. “I'm not the heir to the kingdom, but if you allow me, I will do anything in my power to make this evening into one of the best ones of your life.”
“We have met only minutes ago.” Clint's protest sounded half hearted at best. “You don't even know my name.”
“People put too much stock in names. I care about you as a person, though I must admit, I have not done this too often.” James lowered his gaze, though there was nothing submissive about him and Clint smiled at his antics.
“I find that hard to believe. Surely there were many trying to win your heart.”
A smirk spread over James' lips. “Oh, hundreds.”
Clint stifled a laugh that wanted to bubble up, but couldn't hide the smile that remained on his own lips.
When he had come to the ball, he hadn't expected to actually find someone he enjoyed talking to as much as he enjoyed talking to James. And James even seemed to like Clint well enough to consider him worthy of his time.
This time it was Clint who took James' hand and lifted it to his lips to kiss the back of it. “I feel honored you would choose me to spend the night with.”
James raised his eyebrows silently, his eyes adopting a bit of a hungry look.
It took a moment, before Clint realized how his words also could have been interpreted. ”Oh, I'm not that easy, James.”
James' laughter was full of joy and it lit up his whole face, even through the mask.
Clint wanted nothing more than to kiss him. The strength of the urge startled him a little. Sure, he had liked men and women before, but never had he felt like this.
A commotion on the dance floor pulled their attention away from each other and onto two men who were dancing with as a couple, but unlike anyone around them. It was a dance that resembled a duel a lot. Both were giving and taking and not missing a step. The taller one was blond and wore a blue and white mask covering the top half of his face. The other had brown hair and his mask was a striking design of red and gold. Even as they were moving around each other and over the floor they seemed to be talking, laughing, trading barbs.
One by one the couples still dancing had stopped and stepped to the side. Everyone was staring and talking about them. The two didn't seem to notice, as wrapped in each other as they seemed.
“They seem pretty happy. I think you got some competition for providing the best night.” Clint glanced to the side and saw James rolling his eyes.
“Always has to show me up”, James huffed, but there was something fond lurking in his smile.
“You know who it is?” Turning back to the couple Clint tried to recognize either of them, but he most likely hadn't seen them before.
Suddenly there was a hand on the small of Clint's back again and James' breath brushed against his ear. It took a lot for Clint not to shudder.
“The blond one is Prince Steven”, James whispered and Clint nearly missed the meaning. “I don't think I know the other one.”
Now that Clint knew, he could see the resemblance to the teenager and little kid that had visited the villages years ago, but the prince had grown up into a very handsome man, even with the mask.
“It's good that he found someone that makes him smile like that.” Clint looked back at James, when he felt James' eyes on him.
“You don't cease to amaze me.”
Clint tilted his head at him in confusion, but James just smiled at him shaking his head and offering his hand again.
“Do you want to go on a walk with me? There is something I want to show you.”
Rationally Clint knew he should say no. James was handsome, funny, charming and knew the Prince. He was far too good for Clint and even though he seemed to like him, he didn't know anything about Clint.
After the moment of hesitation Clint placed his hand in James'. “I would love to.”
The smile James graced Clint with already made everything worth it.
Just one night, Clint thought as he was lead out of the ball room onto the balcony and from there down some stairs. I am going to enjoy this night and then I will leave him alone.
Standing torches illuminated the path, dipping parts of the bushes and flowers in darkness and others in vibrant, dancing colors. Stones crunched under their feet and for a bit it was the only sound audible.
They were still holding hands and because James made no motion to let go, Clint didn't either. There were callouses on James' hand Clint suspected were from wielding a sword, but asking would veer into territory Clint was not ready to go. Maybe it was weird, but he didn't want to know anything about James that could potentially lead him to him after tonight. He didn't trust himself to resist the temptation.
After a couple of turns James started talking about what kind of plants there were and how he had spent some time hiding and exploring the grounds in an effort to get away from the daily routine. It was bordering on too much information, but Clint couldn't bring himself to stop him. The emotion in James' voice and the way he described things lend the stories a different feeling and Clint felt himself pulled in completely.
They reached a stone bench, its legs taken over by green vines climbing up and around them.
“This is what I wanted to show you. It's my favorite spot”, James said and smiled a brilliant smile in Clint's direction, leading him over to sit down side by side. “None of the noise of the castle of the village reach here and basically no one comes over here.”
“It's beautiful.” Clint smiled back and squeezed James' hand. “Thank you for showing it to me.”
“It's even better with you here.” The smile turned rakish and Clint rolled his eyes at the thick layer of charm, but still felt himself swayed.
“If you want something, you could just ask. No need for this seduction act.”
James' eyes sparkled bright, especially against the dark mask and sky, as he tilted his head a little, brushing his hair behind his head. “You're saying you're already seduced?”
“I'm saying I'm not one of those that can be seduced. If you want to do something, ask or do it. I'm going to either agree with it or stop you. I'm not helpless.”
“No”, James murmured, shifting a little closer and bringing his free hand up to rest against Clint's cheek. “You're a breath of fresh air in this stuffy place.” His voice was full of wonder and Clint could feel his face grow warm again.
“I'm not that special”, Clint muttered, trying to lower his head to hide his face, but James' hand slipped to his chin to keep the eye contact.
“I have not met anyone like you in my entire life.” His face was surprisingly serious. It took Clint's breath away. “There is no one more special than you.”
“You are such a charmer it's nauseating.” Even as Clint said it, he was reaching up with his own free hand to grab the back of James' head, soft hair and the string of the mask pressing into his palm, and pull him forward into a kiss.
Without hesitation both of James' hands went up to gently frame Clint's face as he kissed him back.
One of them made a noise, but it also could have been both of them. They moved closer to each other, melting into the other one's touch, forgetting the world around them.
Absently Clint wondered how he had gotten from begging in the streets to making out with a stranger in the Royal Garden, but he wasn't going to question it right in this moment.
Clint's fingers shifted to slightly grab James' hair to see how it felt, but also to hold onto something, because he felt like he could just float away into nothing.
As his lungs started to protest for the lack of air Clint nipped James' bottom lip like he had done earlier in the evening, eliciting a very delicious sound from James, before resting their foreheads against each other, heavy breath mingling in between.
“Just hope no one saw us breaking every rule of etiquette.” Clint barely recognized his own voice.
“Screw etiquette and screw them. I don't care what they think.” James carded one hand through Clint's short hair, snagging on his mask a little, but continuing on while pressing a hot open mouthed kiss to Clint's lips that he was only all too happy to reciprocate.
They came up for air only when they absolutely have to and they don't talk. Even in the cool night air Clint was getting pretty warm under his collar, every fiber of his being getting lit up by James' lips and hands. He really didn't want to stop, but he knew he had to. This had no future.
The thought was not enough to completely snuff out his arousal, but it was enough to dampen it.
Reluctantly Clint pulled back, noticing that their bodies had gravitated towards each other so much that Clint was practically sitting in James' lap. James' lips were flushed red and with his hair in even more disarray from Clint's fingers he looked even more handsome. It was unfair really.
“We should go back”, Clint said quietly, sounding not very convinced even to his own ears. It didn't help that his fingers were still playing with James' hair and tracing the line of his jaw.
James frowned, his pupils nearly swallowing up all the color, his hands burning an imprint onto Clint's waist. “I rather stay here with you.”
“There is supposed to be fireworks at midnight.” Clint lowered his head and looked up at James through his lashes, not even needing to fake the blush. “I have never seen those before and I would like to experience it with you at the castle.”
James softened and smiled. “That sounds wonderful.” The genuine happy look on his face made Clint just the more guilty.
It wasn't like he didn't want James, but he rather not let it get too far if they never saw each other again. That way neither of them would regret anything.
There was a moment of awkwardness as Clint had to climb off James that had Clint's face burning and James smirking arrogantly. Clint really wanted to hate him, but he just couldn't.
They walked back the way they had come, not touching this time, but glancing over every now and then. James was still grinning like the fox that caught the hen and it made Clint even grumpier.
People were coming out of the ball room just as Clint and James arrived on the balcony. Flushed faces were half hidden by masks and a few had even taken them off to fan themselves some air. Even though Clint was used to the heat from his work with the furnace, he was glad he was not one of them.
It had nothing to do with the handsome fellow subtly pressing up against his side and the warm hand on the small of Clint's back.
Nothing at all.
“It seems like we're right on time”, Clint said and wondered how much time had passed while they had been in the gardens.
“And seems like we weren't the only ones having a good time.” James' low tone sent a shiver over Clint's back, but he looked over to where James nodded and spotted the Prince and the man he had danced with earlier.
The two were standing by the railing away from everyone else as much as possible, bodies angled towards each other. Both their lips were redder than normal and the jacket from the unknown man was missing, showing off his red shirt. The stranger was talking, gesturing around with his hands and the Prince was just watching with a fond smile, even as he had to duck the flying hands a little.
“You think the man knows who he's talking to?” Clint turned back to James, wanting to commit his face to memory, even if that was sappy.
“A punk that's who.” James grinned at the laugh escaping Clint, but before either of them could say anything else, there was a hiss and a colorful explosion in the sky just before a loud boom was audible. More than a few flinched, before exclaiming in delight.
James grabbed Clint's hand again and he turned to look at him, when something else caught his eye.
The Prince was holding the stranger in place, talking at him while the stranger was trying to pull away, looking awfully pale and panicked under the mask.
Clint's surprise did not stop him from ripping off one of his buttons and flicking it away. It flew past the various guest and hit the Prince square in the forehead, startling him so much that his grip loosened. He wasn't letting go completely, but it was enough. The stranger yanked his hand back and ran back into the ball room and presumably out of the castle as quick as possible.
“Bucky, catch him!”, the Prince shouted, audible even over the fireworks and James let go of Clint's hand.
“Why the fuck do I always have to?” James grumbled and took off after the stranger, the Prince on his heels and Clint rooted to the spot shocked.
James was Bucky, the Crown Prince's best friend and son of the Royal Guard's Captain?
So much made more sense now and Clint was even more certain there was no future for Clint and James.
With a heavy heart Clint pulled off his mask and put it on the railing, tying the string around it so it wouldn't fall or be blown away by the wind.
Then he slipped away from the other guests and down into the garden from where he could sneak around the castle and back to the village.
Brokkr and Eitri were still up and sitting by the hearth drinking some ale. Clint ignored their questions how it had been and made his way to his room, stripping off his clothes and burying himself under the covers, hoping sleep will erase the memory of James' – no, Bucky's touch.
The next day for the very first time Clint refused to go outside to run errands and shut himself in by the furnace hammering hot crude metal while Eitri went to the market.
The physical labor, the heat, the repetition. It was helping in chasing away the night before, but it wasn't really working all that well and Clint pushed himself even further, angry how it was doing the opposite.
Earlier than he expected Eitri came back and called Clint and Brokkr to get to him quickly.
“We've got company!”
Sighing and not really understanding why they needed Clint for that, he wiped the sweat off his face and torso with a rag and put on a simple shirt, before making sure the furnace wouldn't get the whole house caught on fire and then finally walking towards the front door.
By the time Clint saw the group consisting of mostly men and one woman dressed in full armor with helmet and armor in the colors of the Royal Guard, they had already spotted him and it was too late to hide.
The Captain stood in front, his hair had turned gray at his temples in the years after Clint had broken into the castle in the kid, but the scar was still very pronounced. His expression was friendly enough, if not gruff.
“I apologize for the intrusion, but the King has decreed that all men in the realm are to put on this article to find the one that got away from the Prince last night at the ball.” The Captain (holy shit, Bucky's father!) stretched out his hand and showed off the black glove with red trim. It must have been left behind in the struggle.
“Well, these two weren't even at the ball”, Clint said, nodded towards Brokkr and Eitri. “And I can tell you that it wasn't me.”
“My orders are to have every man try them on and bring the one that it fits to the castle for the engagement.” The Captain stepped forward and held out the glove for Brokkr to try first. “I must insist.”
“This is ridiculous. It could fit countless of men. How is that a good way to find someone?” Clint crossed his arms in front of his chest and watched as Brokkr's hand didn't even fit half way.
“Steve is a romantic”, the woman said and shrugged, a smile on her face. A strand of red hair curled at the back of his neck.
“I'm telling you it wasn't me.” Clint refused to try it on. He wasn't even the right height or had the right hair color. “Doesn't the Prince have a description of this mystery man?”
“Sir”, the Captain's voice was patient, but there was also an edge to it that Clint absolutely did not like. “If you refuse I will have to force you.”
Rolling his eyes Clint grabbed the glove and pulled it on his left hand. The annoyance he felt quickly changed into utter terror.
It fit perfectly.
Unable to move Clint watched the Captain test the glove making sure it actually fit and didn't only look like it.
“It's a perfect fit”, the Captain declared and there was an audible sigh relief from the others.
“Finally. I have seen way too many eager people”, one of the guards said, earning a reproachful look from the woman.
“Sam, this is about Steve's happiness.”
“He better be grateful”, Sam grumbled, shifting his stance a little.
“He will not be grateful”, Clint protested, finally coming out of his stupor. Yanking the glove off his hand he threw it at the Captain and stepped back, but was grabbed by two male guards, preventing him from fleeing back inside the house. “Let me go! I'm not the one you're looking for!”
“I apologize.” The Captain didn't fucking look sorry at all. “King's orders.”
“Brokkr! Eitri!” Clint tried to get free, but even though all the time smithing had made him pretty strong, he was still no match for two fully trained guards, especially the tall, long haired blond one.
“Sorry, kid”, he heard the brothers call after him as he got dragged away and up the main road.
Kicking and screaming Clint surely was a sight for all the villagers observing. Even in Clint's rage and desperation he noticed them pointing and a fair amount of them were crying as if not being chosen was the worst thing in the world.
Clint would trade places with any of them in a second.
By the time they arrived in the courtyard of the castle Clint was drenched in sweat again, feeling the bruises already forming on his arms. The guards that had started to drag him off had to switch, because of a broken nose and scratches Clint had managed to inflict. Once Clint had nearly managed to escape, but there were just too many of them.
A runner had gone ahead, so a crowd was waiting for Clint and the guards.
The King and Queen were front and center, Prince Steven on their left bouncing on the spot and more knights around them. A smaller man with curly dark hair clad in green robes hovered to the side at first, before he moved to the injured guards talking to them in low tones Clint wasn't able to hear.
“You found him?” Steven's eyes sparkled as he approached Clint who was still held in place by Sam and another man.
“No.” Clint spit on the ground in front of him, stopping Steven in his tracks in confusion. His voice were a bit rough from screaming at the guards on the way. “This is a fucking mistake.”
“The glove fit him, you Highness”, the Captain told him and Steven's face lit up again.
He stepped forward and grabbed Clint's hand. “I am not going to pretend to know why you had to leave so early last night, but I am so glad the fates have brought us back together.”
Someone behind Steven snorted, loud enough for everyone to hear, before Clint could.
“And I thought you were smarter than this.” Clint sneered at him, far too angry to think about the consequences. “I'm smaller, broader and fucking blond.”
“But... the glove fit, didn't it?” Steven's confusion made him look like a lost puppy. It made it impossible to be more mean about it.
“The glove can fit hundreds of people. If you don't want to marry all of these, I suggest you change the rules.” At least Clint could still be snarky.
“You can't seriously believe that this would work, Stevie.” A man walked forward to take a place right next to Steven, previously hidden behind the King and Queen. He was also wearing a Guard's clothes, his hair bound back in the back of his neck, but those eyes and that body and those lips...
Ah shit, Clint thought, his heart stopping, before speeding up rapidly. Of course Bucky would be here. Why hadn't he thought about that before? (It was just typical that Bucky looked absolutely fantastic and Clint was sweaty and gross.)
“How else would I find him? How would you do it?” Steven turned to Clint for an answer who could just stare at him wide eyed.
With every word the chance Bucky would recognize him would grow.
“Now he's quiet?”, Sam remarked, shaking his head. Another second and he let go of Clint's arm, earning a surprised look from Clint and the other Guard that was holding Clint's other arm who then let go too.
Clint rubbed his hands over his biceps, trying to chase away the ache, while he shrugged. “Isn't the fact that he ran away a clear sign?” He resolutely did not look at Bucky, but he hoped with all his heart that he wouldn't recognize his voice. “From how you treated me, I'll say it was pretty founded.”
While Steven gaped at Clint, Bucky started to grin and clapped Steven on the shoulder. “I like you.”
If Clint wasn't terrified that he would be found out, he was petty sure his face would be bright red right now.
The sound of hooves on stone made everyone turn towards the main road as two very healthy, decorated horses made their way towards them, surrounded by plainly black dressed men with swords on their belts and followed by a man on foot, deliberately hanging back.
One man was older, bald with a full gray beard, clothes more decorated and expensive looking than the King's and didn't that say a lot? His companion was younger, the age in between Clint and Steven, hair pitch black and his clothes similar to the other man, just a little less flashy. The man hanging back was dressed surprisingly bad. He was obviously a servant with how he took hold of the reigns and led the horses to the side, but servants usually reflected their lords and this was a very bad reflection.
Sam, along with Bucky grabbed Clint's arms again while the two men got down from their horses, and led Clint to the side and out of the way. Thankfully their grips weren't too tight this time. That was also the reason Clint didn't protest or struggle. Not the fact that he was too shocked by Bucky touching him.
As Clint looked around he noticed how everyone had straightened up and were looking more alert and serious. Were these men such a big deal?
The ruling couple stepped forward, politely smiling, while Steve back away behind them slightly, looking far more like the future ruler than the love sick puppy from a minute ago.
Even Bucky wasn't smiling anymore and seeing something else than the charming, flirting, carefree man was only making Clint fall even more for him.
“Lord Obadiah”, the King greeted, chasing all thoughts of Bucky away immediately.
Clint's neck hurt with how fast he turned his head to stare at Obadiah.
A lord. He scowled silently. It had been about twenty years since he had last seen him, but that arrogant, slimy smirk was a hundred per cent him.
“Your Majesty.” Obadiah lowered his head, but it wasn't quite a bow and not even close to what the King's station deserved. “I came as soon as I heard. It dismays me that my son has shown such poor manners.”
“Please explain”, Queen Sarah said and there was a brief flash of annoyance on Obadiah's face, before it smoothed out in a smile.
“My son was the one your son danced with at the ball last night. When the Prince told him about his identity, my son was so shocked that he ran away.” Obadiah put a hand on his son's shoulder and squeezed. “Go ahead. Show them.”
After a moment of hesitation the young man stretched out his hand which was clad in the twin of the glove that had fit Clint.
Steven's face lit up, before he got control back over his features and he glanced at Clint for a long moment, as if asking for his opinion.
He was just a blacksmith apprentice. He had no business consulting royalty.
While Steven and Obadiah's son (which sane woman would be with that man was a mystery to Clint) talked about the ball sounding like he actually knew what he was talking about, Clint looked the supposed match over very closely, but the longer he was looking, more and more differences he spotted.
The black hair should be more like the servant's brown mess whose height was also more accurate. The shoulders were too narrow and the legs to muscular. Really, the servant was a far better...
Frowning Clint tilted his head a little as he focused all his attention onto the servant.
The right shade of brown hair, his face was the right tan under the dirt. He was a bit taller than Clint, noticeable only if you ignored the slumped posture, but the right height for the one they were looking for.
Clint poked Sam's arm who looked at him in surprise and then confusion as Clint tried to subtly gesture to switch places with him, though ultimately he relented.
Shuffling another two feet to the side he nudged the other man who flinched and looked at Clint with wide brown eyes.
“You're the one, aren't you?”, Clint whispered and panic flickered over the other's face, before he looked over to where Obadiah looked like a fat and lazy cat who got the cream.
“That's not important”, he hissed and grabbed Clint's sleeve. “He's going to kill them.”
Clint frowned. “What?”
Someone cleared their threat ahead and Clint looked over to see Obadiah glare at the man at Clint's side.
“Anthony”, Obadiah chided and Clint felt like he had been struck by lightning, white noise filling his ears for long enough to miss the next minute.
Tony is alive. Tony is right here. It repeated over and over in Clint's head.
Forcefully he shook his head. Like Tony had said, that wasn't important right now.
“When?”, Clint asked Tony as quietly as he could, not looking at him directly.
“Any moment. He's next in line if the family is dead.” He paused as Obadiah shifted to glance back and continued when he was facing away again. Clint's heart was doing overtime as adrenaline surged through him. “With no eye witnesses there will be no one to dispute him.”
Clint bit down on his bottom lip thinking, when Steven looked at him and subtly raised an eyebrow. He hesitated, before he shook his head and disappointment made Steven's shoulders slump.
“Oh no”, Tony said and in the same moment Obadiah looked up towards the castle wall.
Clint followed his gaze and noticed someone dressed like Obadiah's guards half hidden with a crossbow in their hands. A crossbow that was being aimed in the direction of the royal family.
Without thinking Clint grabbed a dagger from Sam who startled and tried to stop him, but wasn't fast enough. As strongly as he could he threw the dagger, satisfied when it hit its target and made the person with the crossbow fall off the wall and onto the courtyard with a splash.
For a moment nothing happened, before chaos erupted.
Guards surrounded the King and Queen and hurried them back towards the castle, while Obadiah's men drew their weapons and attacked with a cry. The Captain and the guards that had picked up Clint threw themselves into the fight, right alongside of Steven. Obadiah's son grabbed a horse and fled as quickly as he could, while Obadiah shouted orders that were swallowed by the sound of steel meeting steel.
Not going to just let things happen Clint moved forward and grabbed the first black clad man he could and punched him unconscious, before grabbing his sword, so he could even the playing field.
He hadn't intended to do it, but somehow he ended up next to Bucky, thrusting his sword into the belly of an attacker to keep him from beheading Bucky. There was only a moment of eye contact, before the battle forced their full attention.
They complimented each other. Bucky fought a little more formally with all his training under his father, while Clint's style was a bit of a mixture of what he saw the knights train and what he had taught himself. With no words they had each other's backs.
Unsurprisingly it ended up with Obadiah's men on the ground dead or dying and Clint and the knights standing and victorious. There was blood on Clint's cheek, but it was immediately forgotten as Clint saw Obadiah holding Tony in front of his body with a knife to Tony's throat. As pitiful as that knife would have normally looked, it was the most terrifying thing in the world in that moment.
Clint tightened his grip on his sword, though there was nothing he could do with that from where he was standing. He only just had found Tony again. He was not going to give him up this easily.
“It's over”, Clint said, glaring as if it could set the man on fire. “You lost.”
“Shut up.” Obadiah looked panicked and uncontrolled. “You street rat ruined my plans.”
“You're not going to hurt Tony, Obadiah.” Clint had been helpless when Obadiah had taken Tony years ago, but he refused for history to repeat itself. “I won't let you.”
Obadiah sneered, pressing the knife into Tony's and making a drop of blood ran down his neck. “And how are you going to do that?”
Something touched Clint's free hand, the one that was not holding the sword and his fingers automatically curled around the leather. The familiar weight of a dagger nearly made Clint's smile.
“You always underestimated me.” He let the sword clatter to the ground, distracting Obadiah enough to be able to throw the dagger without him being able to hurt Tony any further.
The dagger sticking out of his eye Obadiah crumpled to the ground like a sack of potatoes. It felt incredibly satisfying.
He looked at Tony who was already walking towards him. “It's me.” Before he knew it he was enveloped in a tight hug that he only gladly reciprocated.
“We have some catching up to do”, Tony said against Clint's shoulder, the words muffled by it, but Clint smiled.
“We have all the time in the world.” He let go of Tony and looked over, seeing the Prince and his knights hover close to them, looking confused and curious. “Now I think you got to get yourself a prince.”
Tony winked at him, before he sauntered over, as if he was the one wearing royal clothes and not the dirt streaked rags Obadiah had dressed him in. Even blood streaked and hurt Steven looked like it was the best day of his life.
Shaking his head with a smile Clint bent down to pick up his sword. When he had straightened up again, a group of knights stood in front of him and he blinked in surprise.
Bucky, Sam, the woman and the Captain. And there was no way out. Shit.
“You know, those were my daggers you threw”, Sam said, looking despite the words pretty impressed. “How did you know you would hit him?”
The woman scoffed. “Didn't you see the way he took down Obadiah? I'm Natasha, by the way.”
“Clint, and I always hit my target. Also, you gave me the second one.” Clint raised his eyebrows at Sam who huffed, but didn't get to respond.
“Where did you train, Clint?” The Captain looked him up and down. “You're working as a blacksmith, correct?”
“I'm an apprentice, yes. And I've pretty much trained myself.” Clint shrugged and wiped his sword clean on one of the bodies. Better do it now, before the blood could dry and stick to the steel permanently.
“You make it damn hard not to flirt with you.” The way Bucky looked at Clint could only be described as heated and Clint swallowed, his throat suddenly very dry.
“Only you would find two people that are totally your type in as many days.” Sam rolled his eyes. “Clint is here and your mystery man is not. What are you waiting for?”
Clint's heart was racing again after the fight had strangely calmed him down completely and the Captain was pinching the back of his nose as if he was trying to fight a headache, while Natasha was smirking.
“I met him first. And no”, Bucky stopped Sam from talking. “It doesn't matter that he run away. Like with Steve, there had to be reason.”
“Maybe he just wasn't that into you”, Clint said, before he could stop himself. The words physically hurt and the stubborn, hateful set of Bucky's shoulders was even worse. “Maybe it was like with the Prince. He found out who you were and didn't think he was good enough.”
Too focused on Bucky, Clint didn't see the other three's expression change and them exchanging looks.
Bucky frowned. “That's ridiculous. He is better than most of the people I know. Generous, funny, snarky, smart. I'm going to find him and make him see that, if it takes years.”
Tilting his head up to look at the sky for a moment Clint smiled to himself wryly. He had thought he could walk away. He could have that one night and be happy with it, but of course Bucky had to completely destroy those plans.
“You make it pretty fucking hard yourself.” Clint let the sword clatter to the ground again, the blacksmith part of him dismaying at the damage of stone against steel, and walked forward, grabbing the front of Bucky's clothes to pull him in. “I told you, you can't talk me into anything, so there is no need for the seduction act.”
Recognition appeared in Bucky's eyes, before a wide smile spread over his face that Clint couldn't help but kiss. Arms wrapped around him as Bucky kissed him back and pulled him even closer.
Clint couldn't believe that he had ever thought he could go without this ever again.
Catching their breaths they rested their foreheads together, grinning like idiots.
“I can't believe that you didn't recognize me without the mask.” Was he the only one capable of actually looking at the people and not the masks? “It didn't hide my identity that well.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “At least I wasn't as bad as Stevie.”
Someone cleared their throat next to them. “I heard that.”
Grinning Bucky turned to Steven, an arm firmly wrapped around Clint's waist as if he was afraid to let him go again. “You know it's true.”
“It is not.” The Prince was standing with Tony, a hand resting on Tony's back who looked very happy.
“Boys”, the Captain interrupted loudly, before Bucky could respond. He looked done with all of them. “What I was about to do, before I was so rudely interrupted.” He looked pointedly at Bucky who just grinned. “Clint, what do you think about joining the Royal Guard?”
Clint's eyes widened as he stared at the older man. “Really?” The dream of becoming a knight had never really left him, had pushed him, but he never in a million years would have thought it could actually come true.
“I think an exception can be made in light of today's events.” The Captain smiled at Clint. “Though don't expect me to do you any more favors because of your relationship with my son.”
Straightening up Clint nodded seriously. “Wouldn't dream of it, sir.”
“Good answer.” With that he nodded back and then made his way towards the castle.
“Hey”, Bucky said, moving his hand from Clint's waist to his cheek to turn his head to look at him. “You're going to run away again?”
Clint licked his lips, before reaching up to put his hand on Bucky's. “It seems like I would end up with you anyway.”
“You better.” Bucky pressed a kiss onto Clint's cheek, before he was suddenly pulled away by Steve. The Prince had an arm around Bucky's shoulders, teasing him a little with his free hand.
Tony rolled his eyes and moved next to Clint, knocking their shoulders together. “What idiots”, he muttered, but it was too fond to be insulting.
“Now that everything is perfect and we're all happy.” Steve was beaming and shiver of unease an down Clint's spine. “We can plan two weddings. Isn't that fantastic?”
“Are you insane?!” - “Ah, hell no.” - “Excuse me?”, Tony, Clint and Bucky exclaimed at the same time, staring at Steve in horror.
“There has been absolutely no mention of marriage whatsoever.” Tony pointed an accusing finger at Steve who had the audacity to look surprised. “That is not what I signed up for.” With that Tony started to walk away, still waving his hands through the air and cursing Steve who let go of Bucky and jogged after him, laughing, which only seemed to infuriate Tony even more.
Shaking his head Clint still had to smile. Even surrounded by bodies of their enemies, it seemed like it was turning out well for them.
“Got something for you”, Bucky said, stepping into Clint's personal space again and pulling something out of his pocket.
Clint's eyebrows shot up as he recognized the mask he had worn the night before and left on the balcony. “You're carrying that with you?”
Shrugging Bucky grinned at him. “I had to have it on hand, if I ever found you.”
“Nauseating”, Clint told him, before pulling him into a long kiss.
It seemed like Clint still ended up like one of the maidens in the fairy tales, finding their prince and living happily ever after.
He didn't know what the future might hold, but for now Clint was okay with how things were.