King Harold Barton of Bedford-Stuyvesant dies six days before his youngest son Clinton's eleventh birthday in a drunken carriage accident that takes his life as well as that of his wife. A decade later, nearly to the day, his son Charles Bernard does the same, in a very similar manner. It doesn't surprise anyone – both men were unrepentant drunkards and an accident was only a matter of time – but each of their deaths naturally cause great upset to the political stability of the country.
Charles' funeral is quiet, and though well-attended, most are there out of heartfelt loyalty to the remaining royal son Clinton, Omegan Princeling, rather than out of any dutiful respect to the monarch they had feared more than loved. There is a general feeling of relief among the common folk once the burial has taken place. Young Clint was always the favored Barton son; cheerful, bright, and mischievous, but still kind-hearted. He was a favorite among the gypsies and the circus folk especially, who had taken him on as something of a beloved pet after the young prince had sneaked off as a child to join their band on a summer trek to the highlands. His plans had been foiled by his father's guard eventually, but not before he had made a great impression on the locals as a sweet and thoughtful boy who had no need for the pride and high manners of his royal blood.
There were few in the country who were not pleased by the prospect of their favorite Princeling taking the throne.
Unfortunately, things were not that simple.
Though Clint had quietly been learning the law of the land for years, sitting in on his brother's lessons and taking careful note of exactly what it meant to lead the people he loved, the people who loved him in return, he had been born Omega, and his orientation forbid him from ruling alone.
On the morning of his twenty-first birthday, three days after his brother was laid to rest in the ground, Clint sighs and buries his face in the pillow, nothing but dread sitting heavy in the pit of his belly.
He will have to announce the games today.
At twenty-one Clint is now officially of age, and it had been the wish of his mother and brother both that he be married off to an Alpha of high-standing, preferably one that would make Bedford-Stuyvesant a good political ally. Barney had organized a fortnight's worth of competition before he'd gotten his head kicked in, traditional trials set to allow all eligible Alphas the chance to prove their mettle. Meant to find Clint a partner capable of providing him with the strong, stable relationship and attention all Omegas needed as they matured, it was half display of skill and strategy, half an attempt at courtship, and invitations had been sent to a multitude of nobles and neighboring figureheads alike.
They'd had a response from six or seven perhaps, but now, with a seat on the throne beside him up for grabs, the Alphas would come swarming in like ravens to the kill.
He doesn't care.
The Princeling had given his heart away long ago, and had yet to find a way to get it back.
"Wake up Little Bird," Natasha murmurs in his ear, her small hand warm between his shoulder blades. "It is time to rise and greet the sun."
Clint groans, rolls over and hugs his pillow to his chest while cuddling deeper beneath the covers, pressing back toward Natasha's body heat. She's a cruel mistress though, rolls away from him and takes the silks with her, allowing the cool air to come flooding into his cocoon in an unpleasant rush. Flinching, he shivers and curls into a tight little ball, as if that will save him from her.
She's never shown him pity.
"Come Princeling," she says firmly, her fingers carding gently through his hair as she speaks in the sharp, foreign words of her people, the words no one else in the kingdom had bothered to learn save for Clint. She'd picked up the common speech easily enough, but when they were alone as they often were she preferred the harsh vowels and privacy of her mother tongue. "You cannot avoid your fate by hiding here."
"Yes I can," he mumbles into the pillow, that sick, terror-feeling making his body feel heavy and uncooperative as he drags himself upright in the middle of his opulent, goose down mattress.
Scrubbing a hand through his hair, he rubs it across his face, over his stubbly jaw, and cringes at the thought of just how much primping he'll be put through before he is deemed suitable to address the court today. Natasha eyes him from the other side of the room; she's pulled on a robe of black satin and a pair of flat, red slippers and is uncovering the breakfast trays that had been delivered only moments before, but he's certain she can see what he's thinking, even from there.
Clint yawns as he pulls himself from the bed, crosses to the table set against the wall, unashamed of his nakedness. The sky is still a cold, steel grey outside the windows and threatens a storm, and there's a chill in the air despite the fire crackling lowly in the fireplace. Natasha offers him a fur-lined hunting cloak, sliding it up his arms and over his bare shoulders before pushing him down into one of the heavy wooden chairs pulled up to the table.
She doesn’t answer his quiet murmur but to rub his head, to stand beside him and fill his plate with ham and fruit, tiny poached quail's eggs and the small, golden honey cakes the cook always prepares for his birthday. He has no appetite this morning, but she'll bully him into eating anyway, so he'll do it if only to please her.
They may not have many mornings left like this.
When she finally sits down across from him, Clint reaches out and takes her hand, threading their fingers together and resting them atop the table. They don't speak but he's certain she must know what he's thinking, because she doesn't break his hand or take her own back. Perhaps she's even thinking the same thing.
It's just that they've lived a lifetime together, the two of them, though sometimes it feels like more. Clint had been out riding six years ago when he’d found her – broken and bleeding in the road. She'd been badly beaten and thrown into the gutter in the deadly heat of high summer, left to die by a disreputable brothel by the name of The Red Room. Stolen from her homeland as a child she had been taught all the ways of a murderer and a seductress, all the ways to kill and pleasure a man both, and where Clint's intentions had been entirely honorable in helping her onto his horse, bringing her back to the castle, there were only so many options his brother-King could offer her. Thus the Omegan Princeling had found himself with his very own mistress at the tender age of fifteen, a devoted concubine meant to be both lover and mother to the young boy.
As a beta trained in the art of sex and death she might have been the perfect choice but for her birth and upbringing. Foreign, cold, Natasha had not been well-received by the people of Bedford-Stuyvesant for many years. Still, Clinton had thrived under her care, and she was capable of being both companion and body-guard to the young prince. Though she spoke little to anyone but him, came across as dangerous and disinterested to anyone else, she had slowly been accepted by his people as a fixture in his life, his closest confidant. She lived in his rooms, escorted him everywhere he went, warmed his bed and kept his secrets. He'd only ever slept with her once, though she was generally believed to be at her prince's beck and call each night. She knows him better than that of course, and he knows her – he'd lost his virginity to her for one reason and one reason only all those years ago, and that had been a broken heart.
She is his closest and dearest friend, a sister where his brother had failed to be anything but His Majesty, and Clinton fears that any Alpha he is forced to choose will not be so understanding.
Oh, no doubt she will be allowed to continue on as his mistress, to occupy him when his husband otherwise has no time for him at all, but he does not believe for a moment that anything will stay the same. She will be banished from the King's bedchambers, removed from her seat at the throne beside him, cast down into the kitchens with the servants and the whores, and he does not yet know how he will be able to bear that.
If an Alpha's pride were anything but as great and unbreakable as it was generally acknowledged to be, he wouldn't worry. Everyone knows though, everyone talks about what Alphas are like with their omega. Clinton's father and brother had both fit those molds like a hand fits a glove; he holds out little hope for finding a man or woman among his suitors that will break it. In truth he has only ever met one man, one, single Alpha that he has ever truly cared for in that fashion, and that man had made it very clear that Clint's regard was not returned.
"Eat something for me Little Bird," Natasha says, retrieving her hand after giving his fingers a squeeze. "You have a long day ahead of you."
It's a testament to the gravity of the day that she does not scold him for his words. Though she looks on him as a brother and treats him as an equal in most things, she is made strangely uncomfortable by any submission Clint makes to her. Normally he takes pains to ensure that doesn't happen – today he's feeling rather delicate himself.
When he's eaten enough to satisfy her, sugared honey cakes bitter and crumbly in his mouth, Natasha pulls him to his feet and leads him to the large metal bath basin near the fire. It had been filled one bucket at a time, servants trooping silently in and out, and as Natasha strips him down and hands him into the bath they turn to clearing away the breakfast trays, quiet and discreet. His staff have been with him for years and know just how things should be, entirely devoted to their prince, and when the games are finished and he has accepted the proposal of the most winning Alpha, they will prepare him for his wedding and his coronation and follow him to the throne.
Today, Natasha will be the only one to touch him.
He doesn't think he could tolerate anyone else.
"Tell me what you are thinking," she murmurs as she scrubs him from head to toe, then leans him back to wash his hair.
"I'm not thinking anything," he replies, but his voice is a hoarse whisper and hot tears trace twin lines down his face as he closes his eyes.
Natasha tuts, rinses his hair and kisses his forehead before helping him to stand, handing him out of the tub onto the rug before the fire.
"You dread these games," she says in the common tongue, her accent making the words thick around the edges.
"I dread their outcome," he counters as she dries his body with a piece of toweling, dropping to her knees to do his legs and feet, one at a time. "I dread their result."
"There will be many Alphas competing to impress you these coming weeks," she says sensibly, abandoning the towel for a small jar of oil, which she warms between her hands before spreading it across his chest and shoulders. "Are you determined not to find a one among them that you would be content with?"
"I don't want to spend my life content," he snaps, refusing to be cowed when Natasha cocks a sardonic eyebrow in his direction, her hands never stilling as she works the oil into his skin. Anger rushes through him and he clenches his fists, squeezes his eyes shut and breathes through it until it feels like he's swallowed his heart back down into his chest where it belongs.
"Hell fire, Nat," he curses quietly, shaking his head. "I want to be happy."
Natasha sighs, cleans her hands before putting them on his cheeks and looking him in the eye.
"Do you truly love him so deeply after all this time that you cannot find room in your heart for another?" she asks sadly, and Clint blushes, hangs his head.
"I've tried Nat," he whispers shame-facedly, heartsore and embarrassed. "You know I..."
Swallowing hard, he lifts his head, steels his spine.
He is to be a King now, with a duty to his people, and cannot be led by his heart more so than his head.
"We both know he doesn't love me," he says, staring at his reflection in the dull looking glass brought forth for him to shave with. Natasha looks as if she would argue, but he could not bear her double-speak this day and silences her with a sharp movement of his hand through the air. "He doesn't love me," he repeats, because he thinks his heart will shatter today if he doesn't believe that. "Not the way I love him. He won't compete, and I've had more than enough time to accept that. So..."
With a sigh, he flops down into a chair, kicks his legs out in front of him and puts on a smile that feels strained and false, one of a hundred lies he will tell today.
"Gimme a shave and a haircut woman," he demands, because he knows Natasha will smack him for it, the only one in the world who would dare. "You and I, we have a kingdom to run."
Captain Phillip J. Coulson of the King’s SHIELD considers himself a good and honorable man, a great leader and loyal to the royal family he serves. His mettle has been tested by battle and war, his fealty hard-pressed, but never in all his years of service has he come so close to surrendering to the demands of his heart, to abandoning his duties as commander of the King's Guard as he has on this day.
It takes everything he has to pull himself from his bed. Normally on this day he is all eagerness and good cheer, jumping at the chance to find a quiet moment to wish his Prince well on the day of his birth, but not today. Today, dark clouds loom overhead, a late spring storm, and the distant rumble of thunder heralds a change in things he wishes not to ever end.
Phil had first encountered the Princeling as a child when he himself was just a junior knight, tasked with guarding the keep and patrolling the castle walls. As he pours water into the shallow wash basin on his night table, he muses over the fact that he still knows not how they had struck up such a deep and lasting friendship. Certainly at that time they had both needed someone to talk to; Clinton neglected as the youngest royal son and rejected as an omega, Phil far from home and still learning what it meant to be a man. Perhaps that was all it was, each recognizing something in the other that had reminded them of themselves, but Phil had gone out of the way ever since to make sure Clinton had some small thing to open as a gift on the day of his birth.
It was never much, obviously nothing that could compete with the horses and jewels and land he was sometimes given by his parents or visiting monarchs, but Clint always seemed to like his presents more. He’d said once that all those riches heaped on him had been given to his title, his station, not to him as a person, and Phil actually cared enough to try. He’d gotten him a gift this year as always, a dozen, carefully crafted arrows, beautifully engraved down the graphite shaft with intricate designs, but still sturdy enough to pierce a man’s chest plate and be pulled back out in one piece. They’re gorgeous, and had cost Phil a hefty favor to have fashioned, but Clint was turning twenty-one and had no one left to give him real gifts.
No one, that is, for now.
Today he was turning twenty-one, and without his father or his brother or anyone else left to take the throne, he would ascend from prince to King and be gifted a husband or wife by the laws of their world that forbid an omega from ruling without an Alpha by their side.
The steel bands that wrap around Phil’s heart and squeeze have become familiar these past few months. As Captain of the King’s SHIELD, of course he had been privy to King Charles’ plans to find his brother an Alpha mate, but he hadn’t thought it would actually happen. Clint had always been fire and lightning when his brother brought up the subject of an arranged marriage, and Phil had always assumed that he would refuse any offer he was made. Then Charles – Barney, because it was the idiot drunkard who had done it, not the King – had gotten himself killed and left Clint alone, and suddenly there were consequences to refusing a proposal.
Phil takes a deep breath, dries his face and sits down on the edge of the bed to tug on his boots.
He could still do it, refuse to marry, but as much as Phil’s heart protests, he knows he would never ask that of him, never expect it. Clint could refuse, could say no, he would not take an Alpha, but the consequences would be dire, for him and everyone he cared about. He would be forced to abdicate his position on the throne, leaving the rule of Bedford-Stuyvesant open to the first foreign power able to take it, throwing their country into chaos and war. Lives would be lost, futures ruined, and Clint would never do that to the people he loved.
‘Clinton,’ he curses himself in his head, 'Clinton today, not Clint.’
Phil wasn’t his friend, not anymore, couldn’t be his friend.
No, he was his King's Guard, Captain of the SHIELD, and he had a job to do.
Clothed in full regalia, the deep black uniform of the King’s SHIELD adorned with shiny brass medals and cords, he leaves the carefully wrapped arrows beneath his bunk and steps out into the cool, chilly morning to greet his men, to start this day that changes all he loves.
“Sitrep,” he demands quietly as he stalks across the open courtyard that stands between the castle and the barracks, his third-in-command, Jasper Sitwell, falling in silently at his side.
“Everything is prepared sir,” he reports, jerking his chin toward the waiting columns of soldiers, all dressed in full combat gear. “They are ready to take their oaths, and their orders.”
“In time,” Phil counters, and it’s self-reassurance more than anything. “He’s only announcing the games today. They won’t truly begin until the high moon passes; three nights from now.”
“Perhaps,” Jasper says with a scoff, “But I spoke with one of the Prince’s valets this morning – they're already hosting parties for six different Alphas, and expect at least three more by night fall.”
Prior to the late King’s death – may he rest in peace – only two Alphas had sent official notice of their intent to compete for Clint’s hand. News of Charles’ death had spread quickly, and with it that of Clint’s unexpected coronation. Now, less than a week later, nobles and dignitaries have come pouring across the borders, expecting all the hospitality and welcome that Bedford-Stuyvesant can afford them. The castle staff have been hard-pressed to scrabble together sufficient accommodations, and still more Alphas are yet to arrive, like buzzards to carrion.
“You’re right,” he agrees, though it hurts his throat to speak the words aloud. “That’s why we’re making a show today. By stating their intention to pledge to the crown before the Prince is married, the King’s SHIELD makes it understood that their loyalty is to him, not the throne or whatever Alpha sits beside it.”
“That’s a dangerous statement to make Coulson” Jasper says quietly, but the tone of his voice says he’s playing devil’s advocate, not that he agrees with what he’s saying. “You know the law.”
“As do we all,” he agrees, and that is where he leaves it.
He does know the law, you see.
He knows that an omega cannot rule alone, that without an Alpha they would be considered too unstable to sit on the throne, too ungrounded.
He knows this and understands it, but he neither likes nor agrees with the sentiment.
“We’re ready to march,” Maria Hill says, falling into line on Phil’s right side and distracting him from his thoughts.
Phil nods, grateful for an excuse to redirect his attention, because Jasper is looking at him in that quiet way he has that makes Phil feel like a deer in an archer’s sights. A fitting image, yes, but all the more painful for it, so he gestures his two lieutenants to fall in behind him and stalks to the head of his King's Guard.
He doesn’t speak.
Doesn’t give a rousing speech.
They all know why they’re here, all know what is about to happen and what it will change, and the somberness hanging heavy in the air gives testament to it.
The King’s SHIELD is composed of only the most elite soldiers, chosen for their dedication and their loyalty in addition to their skill. A mere hundred strong, their numbers don’t do their power justice. Each and every man among them had sworn their lives to the SHIELD, to the ruling monarch of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and that dedication, that loyalty has knit them together tighter than blood kin. They live, train, fight, and bleed together, and know one day they will die together.
This decision has been made no differently than any other – all of them together in agreement.
They will serve their omegan princeling and their country, and the world will know it.
Scanning the rows, noting with pride that there is not a man out of place, boots gleaming, swords and shields strapped firmly in place, Phil takes the reins of his war-horse Lola from the tack-boy holding her steady and swings himself lightly into the saddle.
It turns Clint’s stomach to see everyone so happy what with him so miserable. More than anything the atmosphere is that of the midsummer’s fair, the air thick with joy and laughter, food, drink, and music plentiful. There is color and decoration everywhere, the small, gold and purple flags of the country strung from every tree and pole, fluttering happily under the warm, spring sun that’s finally risen high overhead as the storm blows away to the south. His people smile and greet each other, visit with family and friends, small children everywhere underfoot as they gather for the ceremony, and he is left with little more than the unbearable guilt that comes with begrudging them their happiness.
“Smile Little Bird,” Natasha murmurs beside him, her lips barely parting around the foreign words. “One would think I am leading you to your death.”
“You know I would follow anywhere you lead,” Clint replies, forcing a mockery of his normal, cheerful grin onto his face as he waves to the crowds lining the streets with his free hand.
Natasha pulls him closer, her arm linked through his as her sharp eyes scan the road ahead. Clint had seen her slipping a knife up her sleeve before they had departed from the castle, knows she will have many more weapons on her person than that. Her mere presence had become a deterrent to any wayward attack within a year of Clint’s bringing her home, when she had snapped a man’s neck so quickly and neatly that no one else had even had time to see the blade in the man’s hand as he approached.
Well, no one but Clint.
He hadn’t been gifted the nickname Hawkeye for nothing.
Still, he wishes he didn’t need her here today.
For moral support, yes, for a comforting shoulder, but not for protection.
Several soldiers from his armed forces march before and after them as they’ve made their way down from the palace to the fields, but the King’s SHIELD does not.
It’s not that he doesn’t trust his soldiers.
Not that he particularly wants the SHIELD here either.
Clint grits his teeth, attempts to push all thought of Captain Phillip J Coulson from his mind.
The man had made himself clear, good and proper, that Clint’s affections for him were not returned, and that should be the end of it.
This pining will turn to heartbreak soon enough, and it will turn further to poison if he allows it.
But... Phil has always joined him for his birthday before.
“He’ll be there, you know he will be,” Natasha says, squeezing his arm reassuringly.
Well, painfully, but that’s about as reassuring as she gets.
“Yes, as Captain of my King's Guard,” he replies, and he’s inordinately pleased when it comes out flat and unaffected. “Not my friend.”
“Today you must be a King,” Natasha reminds him, reaching up to flick the gold circlet that rests on his head – one of few people in the country who could do so without finding themselves in the dungeons. “So he must then be your Captain.”
“Can’t wait to get out of this get-up,” he grumbles in response as they finally come to the base of the pavilion, handing Natasha up onto the stairs ahead of him. “I can hardly get my breath with all these clothes weighing on me.”
Natasha makes no reply, which means she definitely noticed his change of subject and does not approve. Clint sighs and climbs the stairs behind her, muttering to himself because he knows that whining will make her laugh, or at least relax a little. He’s acting more like himself then, and that will make her happy.
A loud roar goes up when he finally appears at the top of the pavilion, built well above the rest of the low bleachers where his people crowd in tight. They holler and wave, call out well-wishes and toss small tokens onto the grass along the edges of the field; flowers and kerchiefs and coins. Clint smiles, waves, drops short bows left and right as his chest fills up with pleasure and pride. This, this moment is the reason, these people who he loves and serves. It is for them that he will do this thing, not for the score of noblemen and women being led to seats on one of the higher platforms, those who will fight for his hand.
Them he hardly recognizes, though that must change soon enough.
Turning with an elegant swirl of his royal robes – which Natasha has taught him to fling about appropriately – he steps back and takes his seat on the massive, ornate chair that has been brought down for him, a mere minute replica of the throne he will be sat on in less than a month. Natasha is already seated beside him on his left, and he reaches out, takes her hand and lifts it to his mouth to press a kiss to her knuckles. It is a statement, always, of his trust and value for her, a statement that he will not give her up lightly. His sight is excellent; he can easily see across the field to the box seats which hold his competitors, and none of them look pleased.
Clint’s grin is sharp and wolf-like.
“Do not go buying trouble; you shall have it soon enough,” she warns, but he can see that she is pleased with his display.
He spends the next quarter hour watching as his people jostle in, finding seats and places to stand, hanging from banisters and balustrades. He’s not sure he’s ever seen so many people turn out at once – not for his brother and certainly not for his father. The festive air continues and he fights not to cringe, the scent of roast mutton and hot fry bread being sold by hawkers turning his stomach.
The banns don’t help.
The royal announcers begin to play, heavy drums pounding out a steady cadence, and his heart instantly picks up to outpace it, beating just a little too hard in his chest as the horns join in. The anthem of his house is bright and strong in the warm, spring morning and his people settle and fall silent as the sound of a hundred booted feet begins to clatter on nearby cobblestones.
Clint’s heart leaps into his throat, all pain and pride, as a familiar, red-gold mare emerges from beneath the arches at the far end of the field, strutting between his country’s flags like the seasoned war-horse she is. The Captain of his King’s SHIELD, his friend, his heartmate sits astride her, his seat easy and confidant as he leads his soldiers one hundred strong across the field toward them. They march in perfect time, their feet pounding the earth to the beat of the drums, and the sun gleams on scabbards and well-shined breastplates.
They are a sight, his King’s SHIELD, feared by many armies the world over, but Clint only has eyes for one among them.
Phillip can feel Clinton’s eyes on him, even before Lola steps out onto the field. It’s not fancy, not wishful thinking – his princeling’s sight is truly that good – and it makes him sit up even straighter in the saddle. Veteran that she is, Lola recognizes the beat of the drums, the sound of the anthem, and falls easily into the strict high-step she had been taught, the dressage so unnecessary to battle but so important to politics. Phil too falls back on his training – his shoulders squared, spine ramrod straight – as he leads his men across the field, even if his stomach is twisting itself in knots.
These men, this procession, what they are about to do – in these things he can take pride regardless of the day’s outcome.
The fierce power and devotion of the King’s SHIELD is renowned across the world, their reputation largely responsible for preventing the invasion of Bedford-Stuyvesant – a small country by all accounts.
No, in this, knowing that he serves his king to the best of his ability through the battalion he leads, in this he takes great comfort today.
The columns of soldiers at his back come to a sharp halt as they array themselves before their king, unsheathing their swords to fall into an easy ready position, and Phil dismounts quickly and neatly to stand at Lola’s head, Jasper and Maria stepping up on either side of them. His prince, his friend, for whom he holds such tenderness in his heart, looks all of a King on his throne, clothed in a double-breasted suit of dark purple, a glittering gold cape tossed over his shoulder and simple, circlet crown sat atop his head. It is his face though, his closed expression that marks him royalty this day, the fire and mischief and gaiety that Phil so loves set aside in favor of propriety and seriousness.
Phil wants nothing more than to spirit him away from all of this, up to the top of the wall they’ve walked so many times as the sun set and the stars began to shine overhead.
Swallowing hard, he snaps himself to attention, listens as the King’s herald, the young William Koenig, reads the announcements bidding welcome to visiting dignitaries and commoners alike.
“On this day we gather to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of our Prince, Clinton Barton,” he calls, lifting his voice over the cheers of the crowd. “And to announce his coronation as King one month hence, in this, the year of our lord.”
The crowd howls, and behind him the King's Guard begins to strike sword against shield, pounding out a sharp, staccato beat. To either side, Jasper and Maria strike the hilts of their pikes against the earth, hard enough that Phil can feel it beneath the heels of his boots. Smooth and graceful, Clint rises from his seat and approaches the edge of the balcony, looking over them with that cool, detached expression, and gods, Phil wishes he could smile.
Drawing his sword with a smooth hiss, he takes three long strides forward as the SHIELD immediately goes silent, a hush falling over the crowd.
His heart is in his throat, he can’t breathe, and as much as it hurts he thinks that in this moment he is more proud of Clint that he has ever been in all the years they’ve shared together.
He loves his people, is strong and smart and clever, and will make a better king than either his brother or his father before him, omega be damned.
“As Captain of the King's Guard,” Phil declares, pitching his voice to carry to every ear, “I pledge before these witnesses that each of us, one hundred strong and together as the King’s SHIELD, do commit ourselves to service of the throne of Bedford Stuyvesant. Our skills, our lives, fully and without reserve we place willingly at the feet of our omegan princeling Clinton Barton, and we shall follow him to that throne when he takes his crown.”
The crowd erupts, shouting and cheering for the SHIELD that has become a symbol of strength and hope to their country, but Phil can hardly hear it over the beating of his own heart. What they’ve done here today no King's Guard has ever done before, and they’ve made a sharp declaration in the face of the visiting families all hoping for a shot at the throne.
He doesn’t care.
In this moment he does not care – he and his soldiers will weather this as they have everything else.
No, right now, in this moment, all he cares about is Clint.
He swallows hard as he stares up at the face of his princeling, who stares back with a looked of stunned disbelief in his stormy eyes. Behind him his mistress, the girl-killer Natasha Romanov – known by the people as the prince’s Shadow – raises an eyebrow, and Phil knows he ought to lock his doors against her tonight, but there is nothing left to be done, no lie that can undo this truth. Turning his sword in his hand, he grips the hilt so that the blade points directly downward and raises it to his prince, hopes with everything he has that his love does not show on his face. Behind him the SHIELD raises its weapons in time, a heavy understanding passing amongst them.
Clint holds Phil’s gaze for a long moment, then straightens his shoulders and dips his chin in a regal nod.
“As your prince, I accept the fealty of every man who has pledged his service here today,” he says solemnly, and somewhere off to the side someone whistles.
Clint nods in acknowledgement, gazing around the fields at the hundreds packed in to witness the day’s announcements.
“Know that as my people I love you,” he continues, “And that I will strive to serve you to the best of my ability, as all Kings should.”
Turning his gaze back to Phil, he holds his eyes, hot and unreadable.
“To my King’s SHIELD I offer my sincerest and most heartfelt gratitude. Know that I am honored by your service, and do not hold it cheaply. It is with great pride and humility that I will rise to the throne and accept my coronation, and that pride and humility will be all the greater with you at my side.”
Those words send pain lancing through Phil’s chest but he stands tall, until Clint waves a hand in an elegant gesture no doubt taught him by Natasha, a clear dismissal. Snapping to attention, he completes an about face and strides back to Lola, mounting smoothly and walking her in a line straight down the center ranks. Sharp jerks of his head communicate easily with his men – they know their duties from here out and quickly disperse to their posts, taking up positions around the field and the pavilion to protect their princeling. He’s spared a meager four to stand guard over the visiting nobles, but he does not believe for a moment that that is why he can feel their eyes attempting to pierce his chest like knives.
He doesn’t care.
Turning Lola in a neat circle, he trots her back to the base of the pavilion and takes up his own position, standing at visible attention at the base of the stairs.
No matter who he’s angered, no matter how he hurts, he will stand guard over his prince and death befall any man, commoner or royalty, who tests his safeguards.
What was the man trying to do anyway, shatter him to pieces?
Clint swallows hard, ruthlessly fights back tears and takes his place at Natasha’s side, unable to meet her fiery gaze. He barely hears William Koenig read the announcements that Barney had drawn up so long ago, very intentionally doesn’t hear the changes made to the speech after his brother’s death. There’s no stopping this thing now, nothing he can do but survive it with as much of his heart and his dignity intact as possible, and it must start now.
He can feel more than just Natasha’s eyes on him.
Thankfully they don’t have to sit there for very long. After Phil – shit, Captain Coulson – has made his announcement, the atmosphere slides minutely from one of excitement and celebration to another of subtle nervousness. The crowd shifts in place, the rustle and murmur of gossip and finery underscored by the creak of the wooden bleachers, and the hair on the back of Clint’s neck stands on end as the plans for the next four weeks are laid out with painful certainty.
His people will know nothing but festivity and eager anticipation as any and all of the visiting nobles compete for his hand in a series of complicated games and trials. It is posited that he alone determines the success or failure of each participant, determines the finalists and ultimately the winner, but nothing is so easy. If it were truly his decision he would make it now without all this foolishness and frivolity, quickly and easily and with all the surety of his whole heart, but it is not only his decision. No, this will be his first act as ruler, will determine in the minds of the world whether he is capable of showing strength, intelligence, and cunning in order to rule his country. He must choose the Alpha who proves the best competitor, the most worthy of sitting on the throne beside him, and when it is all done and he has made the choice that is not a choice at all, he will finally be given leave to sit on the throne that is his birthright.
After the wedding of course.
A sharp pain in his foot brings him back to attention and he looks up to find that Natasha has trod on him with her tiny, delicate shoes. How she manages to cause such hurt with such a small frame he knows not, but he appreciates the assistance all the same. Rising smoothly to his feet, he loops her arm through the crook of his elbow and pulls her with him to the edge of the balcony, for one last look over the crowd. They cry and cheer despite her presence, wave and holler with delight and thanks, and Clint offers them the smallest bow of his head in return. Unorthodox yes, and likely looked down upon by every potential suitor watching, but he can’t bring himself to care.
They should know now who he is, how he will rule, because though he may be charged by law to have an Alpha at his side, it is he who will be ruling his country, not his future husband or wife. He will neither bend nor break for them, and if he’s lucky, that alone will entice a few of them to drop out before the race has even begun.
With regal waves in all directions, he allows Natasha to guide him back toward the stairs, back toward the road they had traveled here from the castle. His people will stay behind to enjoy some of the cheer and festivity of the day, some of the entertainments set to start the weeks of celebration, but it is not for he himself to enjoy. No, he must return immediately to his home, to the throne that is not yet his throne, and welcome all those who have traveled so far to meet him.
Clint hates rubbing elbows with other dignitaries at the best of times, but this will be even worse.
It’s not a formal part of the games. An Alpha may enter up to the point that the winner of the first competition is declared, but this first meeting has always been considered the true beginning of the battle. Alphas present to court and declare their intent to participate, and then there’s usually some bragging and flirting and gift-giving involved.
It’s all for show.
None of it is for him, really. It’s about intimidation, about grandiosity, about showing off and showing up the others, and as he and Natasha make their way to the open carriage that will take them back to the castle, he resigns himself to an afternoon of stiff propriety and boredom. Perhaps if he’s very very lucky someone may surprise him, catch his eye, but he suspects his luck may only run so far.
‘Tolerance,’ he counsels himself, recalling Tasha’s words. 'Contentment. Just find one that you can stand.’
Like it’s so easy.
Whoever he chooses will be constantly present throughout the rest of his life, always at his shoulder, meddling in his rule...
Biting back a scowl, he helps Natasha up into the carriage then climbs in quickly after, settling himself into the seat with a strict, straight-up posture, facing dead-ahead. He does a halfway decent job of playing it off as if he’s being his most regal and royal self, and doesn’t once glance back at the red-gold war pony that follows closely behind.
It’s funny how little power a King actually has over his own life.
If Clint had his own way, he’d have stripped out of his ridiculous royal get-up as soon as they got back and headed out to the archery field for a little stress-relief, but he rarely gets his way in anything anymore and so is forced into the Great Hall to formally receive the guests that have already arrived for the games. They’ve been kept carefully sequestered from him until now, and more are arriving nearly by the hour. As long as an Alpha is of noble blood, they have the right to compete for his hand.
Knowing this, Clint is left feeling a bit like the fatted calf, offered up to the highest bidder, and his face is grim as he steps back into the cavernous entryway of his home.
“Keep your boots,” Natasha counsels quietly as valets come forward to exchange his heavy cape for a lighter one, his simple crown for something a more ornate. “You’ll feel better.”
Clint does as he’s told, though the heavy hunting boots ruin some of the look. She’s not wrong – he feels better with them on, stronger, more stable, and knowing he can run if he needs to is nothing but a relief. He won’t, of course he won’t, but knowing he can...
It helps, and Natasha knows it.
“What would I do without you?” he murmurs, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and pulling her with him as he walks to the hall, mounts the steps up to his throne.
“You will be fine without me,” she says, and he knows she is trying to prepare both him and herself but her words still put a bolt of pain through his chest.
“I won’t,” he says certainly as he takes his seat, flicking the stupid cape the way she taught him so he won’t strangle himself.
Natasha steps two paces back of his throne and stills herself, settling into a standing position that she can hold for hours, and Clint frowns.
“Lydia luv,” he calls to a nearby serving girl, who’s helping to set a long table at the edge of the room with cutlery for the early supper that will be served later in the day, “Bring another chair, would you please?”
The young girl flushes bright red, curtsies and scampers off, and this time Natasha frowns at him.
“Take care Little Bird,” she says warningly. “I would not see you ruined for me.”
“You are mine Natasha, as I am yours,” he reminds her, holding her gaze steadily. “I will not give you up completely. These Alphas; they should know this now.”
Lydia pops back up, lugging a pale blue ottoman that she places at Clint’s side. He offers her a smile, which sets her to giggling as she darts off to finish with the set-up, and Natasha carefully takes her proffered place, spine straight as steel. She is seated close enough now that she could reach out and place her hand on the arm of his throne, but she won’t unless she has to.
He sees her fingers brush over her sleeve and knows now where her knife is hidden, knows that she will risk her own life taking that of any Alpha who dares to threaten his.
That’s only one of the many reasons he loves her.
He supposes he’s lucky she loves him back, in her own way.
Slowly the Great Hall begins to fill; servants taking their positions at the edges of the room with decanters of water and wine, others waiting to divest the visiting nobles of their cloaks, furs, or boots. Clint spies five members of his King’s Guard tucked away in hidden corners where they can easily reach him, but studiously avoids looking behind, at the man whose presence he can feel like a yoke across his shoulders.
The small orchestra of string instruments that Clint favors has set up in the corner, and begins to play quietly just as the doors open and a crush of suitors pours in.
Home had never felt more like a bait pit.
“Am I the bear, or the dog?” he muses, grinning at Natasha out the side of his mouth, and she arches an unimpressed eyebrow in his direction.
“You tell me,” she replies coolly, and that more than anything encourages him to steel his own spine.
He doesn’t know if he’s relieved or anxious that he’s not immediately swarmed. It would be easier to do this one on one, to actually feel like he’s meeting people instead of being placed on a pedestal for a pack of slavering hounds to fight over. Unfortunately, though his brother may have been a drunkard, he was also a terribly traditional Alpha, and so all these things about to happen must be done in order, by the rules. Had the visiting nobles vying for his hand all come forward at once he could have at least gotten it over with quickly, but instead they take their time milling about on the floor below, shedding their outer garments, wetting their throats with wine.
Clint watches with a detached eye and is grateful that at least his heartbreak and disinterest looks haughty and regal on his face.
He recognizes some of the people moving through the crowd as he observes, flashes of familiar faces. Some he has done business with, some his brother and father have been pushing at him since childhood, others he has never met at all. He had put off reading over the lists of names that came in as each new competitor had arrived, but Natasha had finally pinned him down to a chair and forced him to prepare himself not two full days ago. It would do no one any good to slight a princess, a marquee, or a knight by not even knowing their name, so as the mass of people slowly begins to sort itself he starts putting those names to faces.
He’s not surprised when one Justin Hammer, a young noble and businessman, steps confidently through the throng and makes a break for him, smug determination to be the first in line written plainly across his face. When barely out of boyhood Hammer had taken over his father’s blacksmiths’ shop and turned it into an empire, but the name he has made for himself is not often spoken with respect. He gave no credit to the start his father had given him, and he was known for buying out smaller shops and running off other blacksmiths across the country, leaving little opportunity for honest men who needed the work.
Clint eyes the massive anvil being rolled across the floor toward him and masks his distaste.
“Your Highness,” Hammer purrs, smarmy and superior as he comes to stand at the bottom of the steps below Clint’s feet. “May I be the first to congratulate you on reaching your majority and wish you good health on the day of your birth.”
Clint dips his chin an acknowledgment, hardly a nod, and holds aggressive eye contact the entire time.
Hammer huffs quietly, smirks with cold eyes, and a shiver rolls up Clint’s spine. His brain clamors with alarm bells – the man before him is an Alpha who truly believes in the supremacy of his orientation, and would expect Clint to submit accordingly, regardless of his position as king.
With a wave of his hand he summons his servants forward, two thick, ruddy-cheeked men who push the enormous anvil even closer for Clint’s inspection. The small cart beneath it groans under the weight, and there are delicate carvings etched along the sides barely visible to even Clint’s eye, the markings of the Hammer Smiths.
“A gift of congratulations, and a symbol of my intent,” Hammer says grandly, bowing at the waist, but his knuckles are white where his fingers grip the edge of the anvil. “A blacksmith’s forge, to be opened at the time and location of the Prince’s choosing.”
Beside him Natasha quirks an eyebrow and Clint has to remind himself to breathe – this is a gift from Hammer to himself, not to Clint. By placing one of his forges close to the castle under Clint’s direction, he gains a foothold that he hasn’t had before so close to the city proper, along with ability to expand his ravenous business with the future-King's stamp of approval.
Clint doesn’t want that, doesn’t want Hammer’s conglomerate in his city, forcing his people out of work.
Still, he cannot reject the gift outright.
He flicks a glance in Natasha’s direction and she aims that same unimpressed, challenging look from before back at him.
Clint shoots her a grin and turns back to Hammer.
He may be limited in what he can do here, in front of all these people, but he’s not powerless.
“As the future King of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I accept your gift with thanks,” he answers formally, “And wish you luck. May the best Alpha win.”
Natasha lifts a hand to her mouth, a deliberate display of stifling laughter that she wants Hammer to see, and something in the man’s eyes flashes dark and suspicious. Clint just watches with an expressionless face until he nods and steps back, bowing as he goes. His servants roll the anvil to the side where Clint’s attendants have set up a small staging area, and Clint doesn’t bother to watch it go. Hammer had said the time and place of Clint’s choosing - if that is nowhere and never then he cannot complain. More important even than that, though Clint has to accept the gift and cannot block Hammer from participating in the competition for his hand, he can disqualify him later in part for offering a gift that is unsuitable, and in doing so proving that he did not understand or care about Clint’s character and what was important to him.
This is the way the thing works, after all.
In this, Clint takes back control.
It is he and he alone who determines which participants successfully complete the tasks he and his late-brother have set. Yes, he’s expected to make his decisions based on certain expectations and understandings, no, this first meeting, the giving of gifts is not technically one of those tasks, but in Clint’s estimation it still counts, and it is his opinion of success or failure that matters.
Hammer has failed his first test, and from the glower on the man’s face, he knows it.
The next two hours pass slowly and Clint’s ass and face both go numb from all the sitting and royal observation he’s doing. He meets Alpha after Alpha, tries not to choke on the pheromones that start to stink up the hall, thick and musky as they bluster and intimidate, chests puffed up and faces smug, shuffling and vying for their places. Some he makes no note of, accepting their gifts of coin or jewels with magnanimous gestures and little reaction, others stand out more – Thor Odinson, the crown prince of Asgard, the Countess Nefaria, known as Madame Masque for the gold plating she wears over her face, Alexander Pierce, who comes from the Hydra nation and commands their armies, and who makes Natasha’s fingers twitch toward her weapon.
He wonders at their motives.
He supposes he’ll have plenty of time to find them out.
A small commotion catches his attention and he lifts an eyebrow as Anthony Stark, a local lord and the recently-ruined heir of his father’s estate, shakes himself free of his entourage with an agitated expression on his face and comes stalking toward Clint’s feet. His attendants flank him on either side – a slim strawberry blonde tugging at his left arm, a dark-skinned male with a stern countenance keeping pace with him on his right.
“Tony, don’t,” the woman says insistently, loud enough to be heard by all, but Stark ignores her advice, gesturing widely and aggressively.
“Absolutely not, Peps,” he says as he trots up the first three steps towards Clint’s throne. “It’s unconscionable, utterly ridiculous. I couldn’t possibly.”
Natasha comes to her feet, places herself slightly in front of Clint, and the room seems to hold its breath, everyone noticing her silent threat except, apparently, for Stark.
“If the Lordling has a complaint, I’m all ears,” Clint says benevolently, both because he’s genuinely curious and because it sends a message, to Natasha, to Stark, to all the rest.
He’s started this thing – he won’t hide.
“You’ve complaints of your own!” Stark accuses, throwing out a hand dramatically. “We passed three water-wheels on our way here, all broken-down and rotting. Your people’s fields are dry, their wells low.”
“I’m aware of the water shortage along our Western borders,” Clint says, his stomach clenching with guilt and helplessness when he thinks of the struggles his citizens are facing. Behind him, he can hear the Captain of his King’s Guard shift on his feet. “We are doing all we can to provide necessary aid, though admittedly, we have yet to find a long-term solution.”
“Well, that’s just ridiculous,” Stark scoffs, and Natasha firms up her own stance, though Clint suspects most of the onlookers have lost interest in Stark’s eccentric display already. “It’s a simple problem with a simple solution; how do you not...”
“What gift do you bring, Stark?” Natasha growls, sharp and cold, cutting off Stark’s building rant, and the closest Alphas still listening stiffen, shocked and disgusted that she dare speak at all, let alone to interrupt a Duke.
Stark doesn’t bat an eyelash.
“Only myself, which is gift enough,” he says with a smirk, changing tacks smoothly and shooting Clint a wink. “I was quite certain I would be expected to bring weapons, and I’ve sworn off that lifestyle for good.”
Clint stares, shocked, and the room falls utterly silent.
Over the last decade, Anthony Stark had produced some of the finest and most modern weapons available, had revolutionized warfare with small, hand-held explosives and catapults more effective and mobile than any the world had ever seen. Betrayed by his advisor Obadiah Stane less than a year ago, he had been unusually quiet since his kidnapping and subsequent rescue from the desert mountains across the ocean, but it is clear that no one expected this.
Stark’s companions frown, attempt to hide concerned expressions, but Stark is all smugness and superiority, and just a little bit of devilry.
Clint finds some small part of himself sitting up and taking notice, feels interest and curiosity spark in the pit of his belly.
A small smile turns the corner of his mouth and he offers Stark a nod, a real one.
A murmur of displeasure and jealousy filters through the gathered crowd, and Stark actually looks shocked.
“Bedford-Stuyvesant is a peaceful country,” Clint says, quiet enough to be intended for Stark’s ears, loud enough to be carried to everyone else’s. “We have little need for weapons, and my SHIELD has proven more than enough to protect both my people and my crown. But I like your style, Stark. I look forward to hearing more.”
Goggle-eyed and gap-mouthed, clearly surprised speechless, Stark just nods and retreats back down the steps, quickly swept back into the crowd by his entourage. The gathered Alphas are restless now, agitated by Clint’s early show of favoritism, and he thinks that that is as good a sign as any that they’ve all had enough for one day.
Getting to his feet, he sweeps his cape around him with one hand and offers Natasha his arm, who accepts it without hesitation and stands level at his side with her head held high.
“My friends,” he calls, pitching his voice over the heads of the crowd even as the word sits bitter on his tongue. “I again offer my thanks and best wishes to all who have traveled so far to meet with me. Your gifts and declarations do not go unappreciated. Each of you are welcome to stay and enjoy the food laid at my table, but I’m afraid this day I must retire to other business for the rest of the evening.”
A grumble starts up and zips quickly around the room, complaints and surprised that he’s leaving, but he lifts a hand and the group obediently falls silent once more.
“It’s lovely to have one’s company so desired,” he says, with a smile that only a few will recognize as fake. “But I’m afraid that other things require my attention so that we may best finish preparing for the games that shall begin in three days’ time. Fear not – I will make myself available to dine with you henceforth, as all of you are welcomed back to break bread with me until the day the calls are sounded.”
Offering a short, shallow bow, he turns his back on the group that has subsided somewhat and steps around his throne, intent on the entrance to the back hallway. He has to remind himself to breathe as Coulson and another member of his King’s Guard step in close, flanking them on either side to escort them out, his heart twisting in his chest.
The man’s face is as blank as a stone wall.
Phil watches Clint greet his suitors with an ache in his chest like a knife. There is pain there, of course, longing and regret and bitter disappointment, but there is pride there too, fierce pride for a prince who had grown from a boy to a man to a King. He handles each and every Alpha with a regal calm and cool that Phil has rarely seen from the happy, mischievous omega who had so passionately derided the idea of the traditional games his brother had spent so long planning, and Phil thinks he loves him all the more for it.
At least until Stark steps forward.
He holds his position back and to the left of the throne, doesn’t step forward though he stays at attention. Weapons master he may be, but Stark is no fool. He loves himself far too much to risk his own life here through intentional means, though apparently his genius is more limited than he likes to brag. Natasha Romanov is on her feet before the prince with a quiet menace as cold as ice, and Phil knows without a doubt that she would gut Stark where he stands should he threaten him.
Stark doesn’t seem to recognize the danger, but it’s not really him that sets Phil’s teeth on edge.
It’s the way that he sits up and shows interest, the way that he banters with the Duke and smiles at him.
The way he favors him.
Jealousy flashes hot across his body and he fights to cut it down.
To his relief, Clint calls the evening to an end shortly thereafter, making a pretty speech that panders to the assembled Alphas and taking his leave through the back hallways. Phil makes eye contact with Hill, who is stationed across the room, and she nods her understanding, moving quickly to direct her regiment around the edges of the hall in a subtle, elegant sweep. Satisfied that there are sufficient eyes on the gathered nobility, Phil feels comfortable turning his back to the room and following his prince out.
In his head he runs the numbers: five men falling in on his heel, another nine stationed in the great hall with Hill for a total of sixteen of the King’s Guard, the rest taking up positions and duties under Sitwell’s command at the gates and on the wall. It’s enough, the prince is safe, all keeps covered, but still he cannot untangle the anxious knot in his stomach.
There are enemies here as well as allies.
“Get me out of this Nat!” Clint growls as they step into his chambers, and he only just has time to turn his back before the prince starts tearing at his clothes.
Spine straight, shoulders forcibly at ease, he tries not to listen to the sounds of Clint tugging at his buttons and laces with frustration, to the sounds of heavy fabrics hitting the floor. There’s a sudden unease in the air even sharper than there had been before, here in privacy away from the gathered Alphas, and he worries.
“Stand still,” Romanov hisses, threatening like a snake, but he feels no need to turn back to protect his prince from her.
He’d come to understand their bond many years ago, that bone-deep closeness like that Clint should have had with his blood-brother. Natasha would give her life for Clint’s without hesitation, and she and Phil had come to something of an understanding themselves shortly after she had taken up the role of Clint’s Shadow. Born of mutual respect for the other and care for their prince, he trusts her with his life above all others, even above the SHIELD.
When Clint makes a small sound of relief, he finally feels safe to turn around again, but the feeling doesn’t last. Where he had expected the prince to have shed his formal wear for more casual garments, he hadn’t expected this.
Black leggings and boots, a black tunic and a leather vest, he’s dressed in a similar fashion to the members of his SHIELD, the uniforms they wear when not on the battle field. He’d had them fashioned to mimic the clean lines and dark colors, useful for skulking in the shadows and passing unseen when necessary, even if he could not resist small touches of purple here and there along the stitches and the lacing. He wears a similar outfit when he intends to mingle with the common folk, or when he attempts to pass for a street urchin and slip his guards, and Phil’s heart turns in his chest.
“Your highness, whatever you’re planning, I would beg you to reconsider,” he states calmly, flatly, without any of the emotion built up behind his ribs.
No doubt Clint intends to do some spying, and Phil can’t begrudge him the desire, but the prince has a way of disappearing when he wants to, and it is difficult to protect what you cannot find.
“Your objections have been noted Captain,” Clint says tightly, and Phil only just manages to hold back a flinch. “But there are tasks still to be completed that only I can accomplish if this disaster is to proceed as planned. Fear not, I shall have my Shadow with me.”
“I would that you took your SHIELD, as well as your Shadow,” he replies around clenched teeth, even as he feels Natasha Romanov’s eyes land on him. “You should not be unaccompanied these coming weeks.”
“Then send Rogers!” Clint snaps, turning away and striding sharply across the room.
Phil feels his words like a slap across the face and it takes all he has not to...
Fall to his knees and beg forgiveness?
Clint was fated for this from the day of his birth, and nothing Phil has done or didn’t do brought them to it.
“As you wish Highness,” he replies, ducking his head at Clint’s back, and he doesn’t stay long enough to see Clint’s shoulders hitch.
Instead he turns and stalks back out of the royal suite, leaving two of his guard behind and jerking his chin to summon the rest. The prince will do as he wishes, as always, with or without Phil’s consent. He can hardly order him inside; the best he can do is to do as ordered himself, and send Rogers along on whatever ill-advised mission the prince feels he must undertake. He would have ridden along himself of course, had that been what his prince had wanted, but if he prefers the company and protection of another of his King’s Guard, it is no less than Phil’s duty to oblige.
Clint grits his teeth and shoves a sheathed dagger into his boot, grabbing a wineskin of water from the table.
“Coulson has a job to do, always has,” he growls, bitter and heartsore. “Are you ready to leave? It’s a half day’s ride to the Romani camp – they've already moved for the summer to beat the rains.”
“Don’t Tasha,” he bites out, refusing to give in to the sting in his eyes. “Just... ride beside me. I need you beside me right now. Please.”
A small hand lights on his cheek, tips his face up to meet her gaze.
“Always,” she says, and it’s a promise that he understands.
Together they move quickly and quietly out the back hallways and slip down the wall to the armory, where they collect Clint’s favorite bow and quiver before moving on to the stables, a few members of the SHIELD keeping careful pace behind them. So much for stealth, but Clint understands the need for protection now, with all these foreign Alphas within his sanctum. He shouldn’t have snapped at Coulson about it but he’d hardly been able to bear the man’s presence quietly, not when he wants to hit him and shout at him and kiss the breath from his...
Clenching his fists, Clint shoves those wants ruthlessly away. He’s used to doing so by now, but you’d think it would have gotten a little easier with time. Unfortunately, he’s never done things the easy way.
Tommy and Teddy, two of the castle’s young apprentice stable hands, already have their horses saddled and waiting. Clint’s brown gelding Lucky Boy is the best horse he’s ever owned, despite being scruffy and knobby and blind in one eye. He’s been provided any number of sleeker, faster horses over the years, but he’s always preferred the little sorrel, ever since the day he’d saved him from a pack of potters who had been whipping him in the road. He’s dependable, reliable, and has an affinity for Clint over most others.
Much like Natasha really, who he’d brought home in a similar way. She accuses him of rescuing strays, but she herself had saved her own mount from an uncertain fate. Widow Maker was a wicked ride, a stallion that many in the stables had thought untamable and not worth the trouble he caused, not even for the beautiful foals he threw. He was fire-spirited and unpredictable, and only she had ever managed to stay seated on the coal-black beast. He makes a false start at her and nips the air sharply near her shoulder as she turns to step up into the saddle, dancing around beneath her weight like to throw her before her firm hand on the reins brings him back under control.
“Lieutenant Rogers is on his way Highness!” Teddy chirps as Clint swings himself up into the saddle. “Billy’s bringin’ Justice now.”
“Thanks guys,” Clint says with a grin, reaching down to clasp hands with the boys in a gesture of familiarity that few would approve of. “Have you packed the saddle bags as I asked?”
“And I’ve packed my own,” Rogers cuts in, appearing from the end of the stables with a heavy saddle slung over one huge shoulder. “Captain Coulson said I should expect to be gone overnight?”
“We’re riding out to the Romani camp,” Clint says, watching Rogers’ reaction, the way his ears go pink. “They’ve moved to their summer grounds – we should reach them well before nightfall but hardly soon enough to make a start back before daybreak.”
“Understood Highness,” Rogers says smartly, turning away from him as Billy emerges from one of the stalls, leading his dapple-grey mare behind him.
Clint shoots Natasha a knowing smirk and they wait quietly while Rogers saddles her up. He’d chosen the Lieutenant for good reason, more so than simply not having the strength or patience to ride with Coulson for hours on end. He knows the Romani camp well, better than any of the rest of Clint’s SHIELD. He knows the paths between the tents, the escape routes, where to find most of what they might need, and he knows the deep-seated love that Clint has for the people there, the love they have for him.
More importantly than all those things, he’s half in stupid-love with James Barnes, one of the Romani boys barely older than Clint, an omega that he had made fast friends with when he’d run off with the gypsies all those years ago. Clint’s pretty sure that Barnes loves him right back, and sure enough, as soon as they arrive a near six hours later, as soon as they’re well within the walls of the camp and Clint gives his leave, Rogers slips off to find the young acrobat, leaving Clint and Natasha practically alone.
“That was a cruel trick – Coulson will have his hide if he finds out,” Natasha says as they dismount and hand their horses off to the pack of children come running up to greet them. “Well done.”
Clint just grins, all sharp teeth.
If he’s to survive all this it’s best to practice side-stepping these Alphas now. They will play their games - his games these coming weeks - and he must play his own.
Cunning, cleverness; these he must rely on.
He may declare any Alpha the winner of any competition, as long as he can find a way to justify it.
A wide grin breaking across his face, Clint turns and runs into the arms of the elderly woman come sweeping toward, clicking and jingling and swishing with beads and bells and scarves. Selina Vadoma gathers him up against her chest and clucks at him like a mother hen, then pulls back to pinch his cheeks between her fingers and thumbs.
“I’ve awaited your arrival Princeling,” she says formally, and Clint laughs.
“I told you I was coming – it doesn’t count,” he replies, leaning back in for another hug.
“Hold the faith young man,” she tuts scoldingly, then, straightening up, she waves him and Natasha deeper into the camp, guiding them toward her tent on bare feet. “You must be hungry; the journey to our summer home is a long one from your castle keep.”
“Not that long,” Clint answers fondly, though his pathetic attempt at breakfast seems an age ago. “But I could eat.”
Natasha makes a rude, scoffing sound that causes Selina to laugh, and together they duck beneath the heavy curtain that serves as the door of her parlor, stepping into the warm, candle-lit space within. They're seated in silence on large, flat cushions around a small table, and Selina brings them earthenware trenchers filled with a thick, fragrant lamb stew that brings any number of good memories back to Clint’s mind. He and Nat eat with gusto, ravenous after the ride down country, and their bowls are kept full until they can’t eat any more.
Selina sits back, settling deeper into the cushions as she lights a small pipe, breathing out fragrant blue smoke. She holds Clint’s gaze unwaveringly as a small boy comes in and quickly clears the table in silence, nodding firmly when Clint holds her gaze right back.
“Very well, you did not come here for a meal, or even a visit,” she says, setting the pipe aside and reaching under the cushions to bring up a paper-thin, oiled sheep’s skin which she spreads over the table top. “Shall I tell your fortune, Highness?”
Clint hears her words with a sudden, deep sense of melancholy, and next to him Natasha gets silently to her feet.
“I must find your wayward Lieutenant and secure our lodgings for the night,” she says, pressing a kiss to his hair and a knife into his hand. “I shall return for you when you have finished here, my prince.”
Clint makes no reply, only accepts the knife and tucks it into the boot opposite the one that holds his own, listens to the curtains swish as she exits. It is a heavy mark of respect that Natasha will leave him alone here with Selina, in the Romani camp. That’s not to say he won’t be within her sights at all times, well within the circle of her protection, and she and Rogers are not the only ones here that would fight for him.
Selina watches him with a wise, mournful sort of gaze, and he tips his head at her.
“That bad?” he asks in a quiet voice, as a thick hush falls within the tent, the candlelit low and flickering.
“I’ve yet to read your cards for you princeling,” she murmurs, taking the deck from the folds of her shawl and placing it in the center of the table, equidistant between them. “But I fear the answers they hold will not satisfy either of us.”
“You told me once that I ought to make my own future,” Clint reminds her, “No matter what the cards said.”
“We all of us have free will Highness.”
“Yes,” Clint mumbles, feeling his heart beat far away from him. “I suppose most of us do.”
Straightening up, he reaches out and places both hands atop the deck of Tarot cards, palms down.
“I would ask something of you, something more than this,” he says, and finally Selina smiles, the expression brightening her face, bringing out the laugh-lines.
“This I did not need the cards to see,” she replies with a chuckle. “You would send your suitors here. Am I to discourage them young prince, or send them back to you?”
Clint grins, wide and sharp, and lifts his hands with a flourish to reveal the cards beneath.
“As you see fit,” he declares. “Now shall I deal the deck my old friend? Free will or fate, I would be prepared for this future set before me.”
Selina’s eyes glint in the firelight and she nods her head.
Phil wakes up agitated and exhausted the next morning from a night of anxiety and poor sleep, full of restless dreams.
He doesn’t like sending Clint – hell, sending his crown prince across the county on his own, though it is hardly the first time he’s made the trip. Not alone either – Steven Rogers has proven himself time and again in battle, as evidenced by his quick promotion to Lieutenant and Battalion Leader. Natasha Romanov too has proven her deadly skills many times over, but...
But there are enemies both foreign and domestic about, of more than one kind.
Though it would be near suicide and all-out war for any man or monarch to attempt an assassination, now would be the perfect time to do so, with plenty of suspects to muddy up the waters.
Washing and dressing quickly, Phil heads down to the barracks to break his fast and finds both Maria Hill and Jasper Sitwell waiting for him. This comes as cold comfort – though he is pleased that they are ready and anticipating the day’s work, he is not happy that his moods can be so easily read by his friends. Lucky for all of them that they choose to keep their countenance, and busy themselves with bread and meat before rising to leave the hall and begin their assignments.
Sitwell is on baby-sitting duty.
He bitches about it the entire walk from the dining hall to the armory, but Phil knows he secretly prefers the assignment and he’s good at it. Though he makes an excellent soldier and has a decent mind for strategy, he’s just as good as anyone at cavorting with the regency. A beta raised by a Duchess, he knows all the proper etiquette and manners, all the easy flirtations that allow him to mingle without raising their hackles or suspicions, and subsequently he has an easy time of manipulating them as need be. Phil’s made him chiefly responsible for the pack of foreign Alphas cluttering up their halls these next few weeks – he'll be stationed inside the castle with his regiment keeping an eye on things and directing the dignitaries from room to room, activity to activity.
“Hold the line,” Phil recites dutifully, clasping Jasper’s hand as he turns to take his leave, to collect his men and head toward the palace proper.
It’s a chant and a sigil of the SHIELD, a word of caution and promise of strength and luck, and Jasper’s typically jovial face is all stern seriousness as he nods, accepting the message and sending it back in silent return before striding off.
Hill watches him go before turning to Phil with shrewd eyes.
“There’s a betting pool you know,” she says coolly, and Phil’s heart jumps into his throat. “Not about whether or not you’ll do it. Just about what it will take for you to finally get your head out of your ass.”
Heat flashes across his face, but it’s not embarrassment – it's anger.
“You’re not promoted or paid to gossip about your Prince’s personal life,” he snarls, knowing even as he does it that it’s a confirmation of everything they’re betting on, everything the SHIELD whispers about when they’re drunk or bored or just want to rib the hell out of him. “You’re paid to protect it.”
“Sir,” Hill nods, snapping to attention – more likely because it will shame him than because she’s ashamed of her own conduct.
“Get on your horse, take half your men and ride south,” he orders. “They’ll already be nearly halfway back but I want them coming through those front gates with a full escort. I’ll have these Alphas believe he’s fully protected even if the little fool won’t actually allow it.”
Nodding, all stern and serious now, Maria turns on her heel and heads toward the stables, where her chosen men will be waiting. Meddlesome though both his lieutenants are, they do what needs to be done and can be counted upon to stand up when necessary. He trusts them with their assigned tasks but unfortunately for him, Sitwell and Maria as his best friends too, and, he supposes, care about him in their own way. He’d been a cross to bear all those years ago when things between him and his young prince had finally come to a head, and they’ve been pushing at him to be... well, happier than he has been ever since.
Sighing, scrubbing his hands over his face because these games, these stupid games have only made them believe that he could have what he wants in his heart, that he could be happier.
But he doesn’t...
There’s no way he can go back, you see?
No way he can change what happened.
Yes, he and Clint had managed to find a bit of their way back to each other after that day in the rain five years ago, had managed to repair some of their friendship after enough time had passed to dull the sting, the terrible ache, but...
Cursing under his breath, Phil drops his hand to the hilt of his sword, more cold, familiar comfort, meaningless in the end, and turns to climb the steps to the balustrade, to the top of the wall that surrounds the castle keep. He doesn’t want to be there, to walk the stone paths that he and Clint have walked so often, to pass the place where his prince had run to him so long ago in the middle of a thunderstorm and pressed their lips together so hot and desperate Phil had felt like he’d been struck by lightning.
He’d been so stunned in that moment that he could do nothing but give in to the want and aching love he had felt for so long, nothing but kiss Clint back. At twenty-four it had hardly been his first kiss but it had burned through him to his core, more searing than any encounter he had ever had. It had lasted all of a lifetime and no more than seconds before he’d come to his senses enough to push him away. It had been like a knife between his ribs to do it, but he’d had no other choice.
Clint had only been sixteen years old, half-broken by the end of his first romance with the princessa Bobbi Morse, and Phil had had no right to him.
No right, because he was a child and because he was a prince and because Phil was perhaps one of only two people in the world at the time who really cared about him.
He doesn’t remember when he began falling in love with the boy he’d met his very first day inside the castle keep, the prince who’d gone crashing into him, tumbling them both into the mud as he was being show his new duties as a junior knight, but he knew with absolute certainty that he’d had no right to do it.
For the longest time he’d thought that Clint would never be able to forgive him for pushing him away that night, that he would stay angry forever, but time, as they say, has a way of healing, and after not even a month of giving him the cold shoulder Clint was back at his side as if nothing had ever happened.
Never once in all the years since had he ever shown any romantic inclinations toward Phil – they're friends, and nothing more. He’d never even mentioned what had happened, only solidifying Phil’s belief that it had been rejection and childish impulses at work, nothing more.
He’s not sure what part of all that is worst.
Determinedly turning his mind to his work, Phil makes his rounds, checking in with his men and noting any problems that have arisen overnight. Alphas continue to arrive and the young corporal Andrew Koenig, William Koenig’s brother, has kept running tally with quill and ink of names and patents of nobility, counties of origin. Phil accepts it with a bitten-back scowl, unfurling the roll of parchment as he walks and making note of his concerns – primarily by ranking the visiting Alphas from bad to worse.
Pierce – he's a problem. No doubt he’s doing some spying while he’s in the city capital for Hydra; Phil will be sure to speak with Jasper about having some extra surveillance on the man.
Madame Masque – she is an unknown, to everyone really. He has no idea what she might want, but the mere fact that she remains such a mystery concerns him.
Hammer – well, he's just an idiot, and not a very good person. Phil has no concerns that Clint would willingly choose him, but if the man somehow does well during the games, it won’t really matter.
Clint will be bound to accept the Alpha best suited to both him and his country, and these games are considered the way to best determine that person.
He will not stand in the way of that, no matter how much he wants to.
No matter how much it causes his heart to ache.
Coulson’s sent them, he knows, but he pushes the thought away.
He doesn’t want to think about what it means that the man had been worried, that he wants him protected and home.
Because maybe it means he cares, but it’s also his job.
Maybe it means he cares, but no the way Clint wants him to.
For the briefest moment, Clint thinks back to the day that his first childhood flirtation had come to an end, the day that Bobbi Morse had laughed at him, patted his cheek, and told him to go kiss the person he was actually in love with.
He thinks now that maybe she’d been mistaken, that maybe she’d meant Natasha at the time, but it hadn’t been her he’d run to.
At least not till after, when he’d come staggering inside, dripping wet and heartbroken, completely shattered.
Now, as she did then, she shocks him back to reality, this time urging Widow Maker forward to crowd Lucky, to make the little gelding kick and nicker, hop forward, jostling Clint in the saddle. He shoots her a little scowl, one that’s practically a blatant thank-you, and she rolls her eyes, no doubt well aware of his frustrations.
There’s nothing he can do.
He’d made his interest known and been roundly rejected, and Phil had gone on like it had never even happened, like it had meant nothing. He’d never once brought it up since, never asked, and yes, maybe it had taken a while for Clint to take the hint, to stop waiting, to stop hoping, but he’d figured it out eventually. It wasn’t going to happen, he wasn’t going to get what he wanted, so he’d managed to buck up and move on.
Sort of anyway.
At least they’re still friends.
He just hopes...
He hopes all this won’t change that.
The games, the husband or wife he’ll have to take...
But it already has.
He and Phil had argued yesterday – as much as they ever do – and it had been... many, many years since his birthday had gone unremarked upon by his friend and Captain.
He hadn’t gotten so much as a well-wish.
The rest of the journey back to his castle keep is made in a sort of half-ominous quiet, with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal returning home. The members of his SHIELD urge their horses into regimented lines around them and Natasha reins Widow Maker in so that she falls slightly to the right and behind him. As he approaches the great gates that surround the castle compound his flags are unfurled and the trumpets blare, and something inside of him settles.
This is home, these are his people, this is the fortress from which he governs his country, and these are all things that he loves and cherishes dearly. They come with a sense of awe and respect and a great, terrible pride that near consumes him, like a sun rising inside his chest, and he rides with his spine straight and his head held high like the prince he is, the king he soon will be. There’s a general clamor and chaos that’s quite familiar to him as servants come and go, rushing to the work of welcoming him back, and he can’t keep the smile from his face even as he spots the group of Alphas all milling around on the grass near the stables.
“Clinton!” Thor booms with a huge, cheery smile, raising one massive arm to hail his approach. “Have you been out hunting?”
“Of a sort, I suppose,” Clint replies, bringing Lucky to a halt before the group, biting back a laugh when many of the others grumble and scowl, no doubt displeased by Thor’s familiarity.
As a prince himself he holds the same rank and title as Clint does, and by birth has earned the right to be more casual, to call him by his first name. No doubt the others see this as an advantage, and perhaps it is – he finds he likes the exuberant, cheerful Asgardian.
“But no game brought back?” Pierce comments, likely going for commiserating but coming across snide. “Perhaps best to leave the hunt to others more familiar with the sport.”
“I assure you that while I have no intention of abandoning my throne for the woodland, I more than enjoy a good ride and a sporting chase,” Clint replies, and he can practically feel the pride Natasha’s aiming at him for all his double-speak. Several of the Alphas puff and preen and he has to stop himself from rolling his eyes, unimpressed by the way they’re easily distracted with innuendo.
“All the better,” Thor thunders. “Perhaps we may join you on a hunt these coming weeks.”
Clint just grins, throws him a wink because what the hell.
“Perhaps,” he replies cryptically, picking up Lucky’s reins again. “Gentlemen, ladies.”
“Well done Princeling,” Nat says quietly a moment later as they trot their mounts into the stable.
“These word games exhaust me,” he growls under his breath as Tommy and Teddy come rushing forward with stools for dismounting, long lead lines for the horses. “If they fight amongst themselves all the better – fewer eyes on me.”
“I wouldn’t count on it Sire,” Rogers says beside him as he climbs down off Justice and hands over her reins. “You are a prize to be won in their eyes – do not expect their attentions to be long diverted.”
Clint chuckles, because he knows it is what Rogers expects to hear.
“Believe you me lieutenant, I am well aware this is no shell game,” he replies with a weary sort of smile. “But my final preparations are all in place; in two days the games begin and they shall all have something else to focus on. Barnes has agreed to be my canary in the coal mine...”
“Sire?” Rogers asks, his cheeks red and his voice painfully tight as he tries not to sound too eager, too interested.
He fails miserably.
“Barnes agreed to report back after the first task has been set,” Natasha explains, rolling her eyes.
“He’ll need someone at his side, an unbonded omega in a foreign city,” Clint muses casually as he straightens his clothes and prepares to head back into the sunshine, the string of his bow and sharp line of comfort across his chest. “Can I count on you?”
“As my King commands,” Rogers replies, ducking his head, eyes on the ground.
Clint clenches his teeth grimly as he turns toward the stable doors, steeling himself to meet the throng of Alphas who are no doubt waiting for him.
Phil watches his prince ride back inside the castle gates and sighs with painful relief. Here he can keep an eye on the man far better, discharge his duties with far more ease than with him being a day’s ride south and without sufficient escort. He does his best not to run to the man’s side, but he’s down the wall and back on solid ground before he’s made it even halfway across the courtyard, in time to hear him joking with the pack of Alphas milling around in front of the stables waiting for him. Though he is immensely proud of the sure and easy way that Clint has with them, it is like a needle pricking at his skin to witness it.
Pierce is muttering under his breath with a narrow-eyed look and Justin Hammer is grumbling about missing breakfast, but the rest are all staring after Clint like hounds after a hare. Looking round, Phil makes eye contact with Jasper who is standing quietly at the back of the group, no doubt escorting them across the grounds from the guest hall to the great hall.
“If Sirs and Ladies would follow me,” he says unobtrusively, and Phil can’t understand how he does it but he has half the group turning and ready to move with little more than a gesture.
Nodding his thanks, Phil slips around them and strides into the stable, where Clint and Natasha have both dismounted and are speaking quietly with Lieutenant Rogers. Jaw tight, looking as grim as he ever does, Clint turns toward the doors and nearly stumbles when he catches sight of Phil standing there waiting for him.
“Highness,” he says quietly, ducking his head quickly in a bow that is far less formal than is appropriate. “You are well? No problems on the road?”
He likely sounds more frantic than he ought, but he cannot stop himself from running eyes all over his prince, from wanting to beg leave for his hands to follow and reassure himself that he is well and truly safe and whole and home.
“None,” Clint replies, and beside him Rogers snaps to attention, nodding his agreement. “All tasks complete, and Lieutenant Hill met us near Mill Basin to escort us in with all fanfare.”
Well, he won’t apologize for that, so Phil steels himself to argue, to lecture, but Clint’s mouth softens and he drops his head just the tiniest bit.
“Of course Sire,” Phil murmurs, his heart in his throat, and not for the first time he hates his position, the title and the role that make protecting Clint his job instead of his privilege and heart’s dearest work. “All provisions have been made per your instructions – Lieutenant Sitwell has been placed in charge of coordinating the movement and attention of your guests, the last of whom we expect before nightfall.”
“Very good,” Clint nods solemnly, “But come Captain, I believe I am expected in the great hall, and would not leave the riot on your hands should I not appear.”
Phil bites back a laugh but he can’t stop the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and as quickly as that the tension between them all eases, the old familiarity settling back in to smooth the path between them.
‘It always feels like this,’ Phil muses as he turns sharply and strides ahead, leading the small party toward the hall with a firm, quick gait that suggests places to be and things to be done, that dissuades any of the lingering Alphas from intercepting them. Rogers falls in behind, Romanov keeping her place on Clint’s right, and despite the fanfare, the extra guard and the foreign onlookers, it still feels like it always does.
Like coming home, because Clint is home.
There is little more talk between them as Phil has more than enough work to keep him occupied for the day. He drops them off in the great hall where Clint’s valets swarm in to take his cloak and riding boots and place a small, golden crown upon his head. His old nurse appears, fussing over him and Natasha both, and Clint laughs, bright and clear and more carefree than Phil might have expected from him. It twists his heart, but he determines to be happy for his prince.
He makes his rounds, checking in with each of the SHIELD that have been assigned to the hall, assessing positions and looking for weak spots even as Clint is led to his seat at the head of the great table, a slight step above the long, narrow length of it and all the other chairs. Natasha takes her place at his side, more deliberate symbolism on Clint’s part, and no sooner have they been seated than the visiting Alphas come rushing in, all subtly jostling each other for position nearest Clint’s elbow.
Phil does his job and keeps careful watch as quiet bickering and posturing takes place, until all present have been seated and the servants begin to bring in heavy dishes from the kitchens. Soon enough the table is laden with a late breakfast, dishes steaming and fragrant, but Clint leans back in his chair without reaching for any of them. A wave of his hand encourages the others to serve themselves, and he watches in silence as they do, a bit of clamor and noise bursting from the table as the Alphas become all movement and talk, attempting to gain and hold the Prince’s attention.
Moving closer to take up his self-appointed position behind Clint’s chair, he watches as Natasha leans forward and snatches the ornate crystal glass from Clint’s place setting, filling it a quarter of the way with wine before watering it down. She is as familiar with the prince’s aversion to heavy drinking as he is, not to mention his penchant for being put off his food by stress and agitation, and acts accordingly. She fills his plate with quick motions and sharp looks, and when she places it back in front of him with a sharp rap against the table he chuckles quietly and catches her hand in his to press a kiss to her knuckles. Phil watches surreptitiously to gauge the Alphas’ reactions, and not all of them are pleased.
Phil himself is relieved and delighted that Clint has someone to look after him, and would be grateful to share the burden himself.
Oh hell, what is he thinking anyway?
He is saved from his own thoughts by a flurry of activity at the other end of the hall, servants rushing forward and the great doors being pulled open. A small contingent of nobles and attendees all enter in a rush of color and noise, flanked by guards wearing familiar colors. William Koenig steps forward to read the announcements, but Phil doesn’t need to hear the banns to know who has arrived.
“La Princessa, Barbara Morse.”
“Bobbi!” Clint cheers with surprise, throwing back his heavy chair and leaping to his feet.
He barely makes it around the corner of the table before she’s throwing herself into his arms.
Clint laughs as he catches her, lifting her up and twirling her around before setting her on her feet again, burying his face in her shock of golden hair and hugging her close as he rocks her from side to side. Behind her, Lance Hunter, the head of her own guard and a man that Phil is well acquainted with, offers him an apologetic nod.
“It’s so good to see you,” Clint says as Phil moves closer to subtly guide them away from the table full of Alphas that have started to grumble over the display. “I didn’t know you were visiting!”
“It is good to see you too Hawk,” she replies. “Are you well?”
“I should be asking you,” Clint laughs, deflecting the question. “Your journey was an easy one? Come, join me in the library; it’s been months since we’ve spoken.”
“I probably shouldn’t,” Bobbi says suddenly, biting her lip as her cheeks color.
Clint backs up a fraction of an inch, practically a stumble from a man so sure on his feet.
“I... I came to compete Clint,” she says softly, glancing down at the floor before lifting her chin. “My father sent me. And I thought...”
She trails off, lifts her hand to cup his cheek.
“I thought perhaps you could use a friendly face.”
For all of a second Clint can’t seem to react, and indeed Phil is surprised as well, but then he sighs shakily and turns his face into her palm, holding her hand to his cheek and kissing her fingers before letting her go.
“Very much, my dear friend,” he murmurs, formal but softly enough that only those standing next to him can hear. “I am pleased to have you. The games will begin in two days and your family heritage is well-established; you are welcome to the task.”
Taking her hand, he turns and escorts her the few paces left to the table, pulls back a chair and gestures her into it.
“Take your place amongst your competition princessa,” he says with a wink, not nearly as heavy as Phil expects him to sound. “And break you fast with us.”
Leaving her next to Madame Masque and across from the boisterous Asgardian prince Thor, he moves back to his place at the head of the table, raising his voice to speak above the others as he goes.
“We expect the last of you by nightfall,” he says, waiting for Natasha to take her seat before returning to his own again. “Tomorrow is the Sabbath, and I shall spend much of my day at prayer, as is customary. You are each invited to join me as you choose, but we are of a free religion here in Bedford-Stuyvesant, so I do not count your observance or attendance against your chances.”
Phil listens quietly, continues his observations as Clint speaks. There are a few relieved faces amongst the group, a few glares still being driven in the Princess Morse’s direction, and not for the first time he feels a pang of guilt that he cannot curtail this process for his prince, for his friend. He supposes all he can do is provide a listening ear when asked for, and do his duty in maintaining the safety of both Clint and his country.
As the morning drags on and he watches Clint pick distractedly at the food on his plate, he thinks that may be easier said than done.
She watches him pull blades and bits of armor from his person with a quiet, professional interest that is unnerving, but Phil refuses to be the first one to speak, even though his blood boils to think that she has pulled Clint’s gift from beneath his bed, opened the box and removed the arrow to look, to touch it and roll it between her fingers when he hasn’t had the courage to take them to Clint so that he could do the same. The day had come and gone and there had been no good time, no possible way to approach him privately the way such a gift deserved to be given, and perhaps that is his answer in and of itself.
What right does he have to such a moment, to such an intimate relationship with his crown prince?
That will hardly be the only thing that changes in the coming days.
“You’ve had these,” Natasha says finally, tickling the fletching with her fingertips as he drops onto a stool to remove his boots.
“Yes,” he answers shortly, because direct is best where Natasha is concerned and because what more is there to say?
“You didn’t deliver them.”
“Couldn’t seem to find the right time.”
She muses over this response for a moment, and Phil can feel all the muscles in his back go tense, as if awaiting the fall of a lash.
He doesn’t have to wait long.
“Will you ever?
“Don’t speak to me in riddles Romanov,” he snarls, and Natasha’s teeth flash in the dark where the watery, silver light catches her through the window.
“Fine,” she says silkily, gleefully. "You appreciate a direct approach, then let me speak plainly. Will you ever find the right moment to tell him how you feel? Because you’re running out of time Phil Coulson. He thought he’d found it, five years ago...”
Phil blinks, gapes at her like a fish as his brain screeches to a halt, because he can hardly believe the words he’s hearing, the things they imply.
“Five years, what... he was hurting after Bobbi...” he stammers, words spilling out before the thoughts behind them have even started to sort themselves.
“Bobbi ended things with Clint because even she could see that he was in love with you,” Natasha bites out sharply.
Heat flashes across his body, old anger and defensiveness, and he sneers at her as he tries to collect himself, to gather what little sanity he has left.
“He was a child,” he snaps. “What did he know of love?”
“Enough to have his heart broken!” Natasha hisses right back at him. “Enough to sob, for nights on end, to take comfort in my arms when I offered though he’d never once looked at me before!”
Phil’s heart thumps hard in his chest, skips a beat as those words hit him like a javelin, heavy and sharp to the ribs.
“I... I had no right to him,” he stumbles, all the old arguments he’s made to himself rushing in to protect him from the what-ifs, from the possibility of missed opportunities. “I was barely out of the junior corps, hardly even a member of the SHIELD yet – his brother could have had me in the stocks! He was a princeling...”
“And now he will be a king,” Natasha agrees quietly, cutting off his babble. “You are an Alpha of noble blood and have as much right to compete for him as any of the others. All those reasons, they were good ones, yes? I knew it then, even if he did not. He has always seen things better from a distance. But you do not have those reasons now.”
Phil stares at her, stunned, and at a loss for words, because he truly has no argument against her in that moment. He can hardly breathe and it’s foolish and it’s wrong, because he had known these things already but Natasha Romanov, the prince’s Shadow and closest confidant stands before him speaking truth as if to give him permission and he cannot breathe...
“There is no shame in being the Captain of the King’s SHIELD of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” she muses quietly, looking him up and down as a wolf eyes its prey. “No complaint against you. All that I can see that might hold you back now are your own fears, your own feelings. Have you lost all love for him?”
“No!” Phil snaps, finally finding his tongue. “Of course I haven't. I couldn't cut it out of me with a knife if I tried, why would you...”
“Because that is the only reason I would accept,” she replies, getting to her feet, a blatant threat that sends a shiver down his spine. “He wept tonight because he has lost all hope that you will fight for him. Because he believes that he will be forced to marry one of these foreign Alphas, and never laugh with you again.”
“He still stands up,” she says coldly. “He still moves forward. He faces his fears. Will you?”
Slapping the arrow against his chest, she presses it sharply into his sternum, the point pricking against his skin.
“He doesn’t want your gifts Phil Coulson,” she sneers. “He just wants you.”
And then she’s gone.
Out the open window faster than his eyes can track her, leaving nothing behind to suggest she was even there except the shred of hope burning in his chest that he hasn’t felt in a very long time.
Clint spends the Sabbath in as much seclusion as he can tolerate, which is far less than tradition demands. He breaks his fast before dawn and is pleased that very few of the visiting Alphas are up early enough to join him. Stark wanders into the great hall only moments after he is seated, but from the rumpled look of his clothes and the way his hair stands up in the back, Clint suspects it is a late night rather than an early morning for the dark-eyed, intelligent man.
Not so intelligent before coffee though it seems. He appears to be rather like Clint in that way, shuffling around, distracted and half-asleep until he has drunk two full mugs of the delicious, hot brew that had only been brought to the country a year ago to supplement the tea trade from across the ocean. Madame Masque joins them a short time later and quietly requests a pot of hot water, producing her own tea leaves from within the vast sleeves of her robe. Clint finds that he is not bothered by either of their quiet company, and bids them both good morning when he takes his leave again.
As he moves about the castle in the early morning silence, Natasha flanks him like the shadow she has been named for, knives hidden and eyes sharp. She had disappeared for a short time the night before and appears to be attempting to make it up, and with his strange, uncertain mood Clint cannot say that he is ungrateful. She takes him back to his rooms and dresses him for the service, for the prayers and the penance he must make this day. Heavy robes are wrapped around him, an even heavier crown placed atop his head, and he is escorted in reverent quiet to the cathedral a mile away where the Friar Samuel Wilson has prepared for his arrival.
It’s a solemn sermon. Clint spends enough time out and about, interacts often enough with his people that being seen in public is nothing new, no remarkable stunt. Consequently, he isn’t rushed by those wishing to get a glimpse of him, to speak with him or receive some sort of blessing that he is far too mortal to give. He is ensconced in the front pew, surrounded by his guard with Natasha at his side, and listens in silence as the choir sings hymns and the Friar Wilson preaches about staying the path in the face of adversity and finding strength in God, but also in people and the circumstances that God sees fit to bestow you with. It’s a message Clint has heard before but he takes strength and comfort in the familiar adages, in the idea that there is some sort of order, some sort of meaning to the universe.
Though he is not particularly religious himself, his late brother was, and Clint finds that following the ritual and tradition Barney has set out for him feels rather good today. After the service he stays behind, lighting candles for the family he no longer has and kneeling at the alter to pray to the patron saint of archers. Perhaps the patron saint of monarchs would have been more appropriate now that he is to be King, but while Clint has always been happy and confidant in his role as a leader, in his heart he knows himself a bowman.
He places silver coins in the collection plate, burns incense, and confesses his sins quietly to whatever deity listens. The smoke is sweet around him, and he gives humble thanks for the power he has been given, the power to provide and protect those under his governance. He asks for province, for fortune in whatever form it comes, and asks that he be guided in becoming the best man and the best King that he can be. He rises what feels like hours later, his knees aching but his heart light, and makes the journey back to his castle with a sense of calm that he had not been expecting.
He has done his duty and honored his father and brother, the kings that came before him, regardless of how they may have deserved it.
That is one thing to be said for resignation, he supposes.
It comes with a terrifying sense of relief.
Tomorrow the games will begin and fate will be set in motion, and he will have all of a few weeks to determine who is to be his future spouse, the companion that will rule beside him. It’s a terrifying thing, but one that he cannot change or stop, and so he will do what a King does and go into this with his eyes open and his head held high.
A Sunday supper is served early, and while the total of the gathered Alphas all attend – some three dozen in all – none of them attempt to approach or engage him. Tonight is a night for solace and reflection on all their parts, but that doesn’t stop them from watching him with covetous and curious eyes. Clint himself is far less surreptitious than they, openly watching the assorted men and women seated below him and murmuring quietly to Natasha in her mother-tongue. Many of the Alphas come from thousands of miles away and Clint almost feels sorry for half of them. They are entirely unremarkable and easily lost among the throng, and have very little to recommend them, leaving them very little chance of success. He supposes one or two may surprise him, but really, the main contenders, those that will be the strongest competitors, he has already singled out.
Hammer and Pierce, Stark and Masque and Thor, Bobbi and a few of the others – they are his true prospects and the ones he must focus on whittling down.
It is a monumental task, and one that he is almost glad to have as he tries not to mourn the fact that he has not once caught a glimpse of the Captain of his SHIELD all day.
As evening falls and fires are lit in the great hearths all along the hall, Clint breathes deep and reaches for Natasha’s hand, squeezing it tightly before getting to his feet. As if by prearranged agreement, the Alphas at the table get slowly to their feet and follow him in respectful silence, up the hall to one of the massive libraries his father had favored so. The fires are flickering there too, throwing gentle warmth and shadows around the room, and servants slip in quietly among them, filling glasses with wine and brandy. He’s bracing himself to speak when his King’s guard begins to file silently into the room, ever present and ready to protect, but it is the appearance of the conspicuously absent Captain Phil Coulson that nearly steals his breath.
Natasha comes to his side with a glass of wine heavily watered and he takes it with gratitude, suddenly feeling far older and far more tired than his years. Grabbing on to it is like grabbing a lifeline, having something to hold where his hands cry out for his bow. His knees haven’t gone weak, he doesn’t waver, but he still feels all the stronger for her silent support in the face of what he is about to do.
Nothing for it, and no going back.
Lifting his chin, he pastes on a soft smile and speaks in a voice that is strong and steady and clear and gives nothing at all away.
“My friends,” he calls quietly, pausing until the general shifting and murmuring falls still, “Again, I offer my thanks to each and every one of you who have come so far to meet with me. As you know in a month’s time, I will be crowned the King of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and there is no dearer ambition in me than to care for my people. Unfortunately, as those closest to me know...”
Here he pauses and takes Natasha’s hand, kisses her knuckles as some of the Alphas chuckle and others glare - “I often, at times, forget to care for myself. Tradition dictates that an Alpha must prove they are capable of caring for both me and my country before they are bestowed the honor of my hand, of supporting my rule and upholding the values and beliefs that I hold dear. These games have been designed to test that ability, so that I may take your measure and be certain in my choice. I wish you all the best of luck and determination.”
Lifting his glass, he toasts the gathered Alphas and watches as they drink, taking the opportunity to judge their reactions. It was a pretty little speech, and one meant to send both a message and a hint. He feels that he has been clear in his words and in his actions what his intentions are, and made it evident that he will not merely be stepping aside for some foreigner to take over the rule of his kingdom. The smartest among them will also recognize the more subtle message, that what Clint believes in – his people, their safety and prosperity – is by far more important to him than it might be to other monarchs, and will factor heavily into his choice.
Stark is smirking at him over the rim of his glass, Thor is beaming, Masque stands quietly off to the side, and he thinks perhaps this will be a far more complicated thing than he or they anticipate.
A dark, looming figure steps up to his side with book and parchment in hand, and Clint feels a sudden sense of wariness sweep through the room. Biting down a grin of his own, he steps back and slides behind the wide, oaken desk his father used to write at, gestures to the newcomer for the ledgers to be laid out.
“My advisor, retired General Nicholas Fury,” he explains, as Fury thumps the book and paper down and lays out quill and ink, “Who served my brother and my father before him. He shall take account of each of you, and of your standing within the competition.”
“All Alphas come forward and make your mark,” Fury demands, in a voice far too loud and deep for the reverent hush around them.
A pregnant pause follows, and Clint nearly laughs because Fury tends to have that effect on people. Eventually though one of them steps forward, Alexander Pierce to the surprise of absolutely no one, and writes his name down on the parchment in swooping, curvy script. He smirks at Clint as he straightens up again and seems disappointed when he holds eye contact, doesn’t break or submit, and then the rest are coming forward to add their names, one by one to a list that he will have to tear apart again.
“On the eve of each task, an invitation shall be sent to those Alphas who have successfully completed the task that came before,” Fury rumbles as they file up to the table one by one. “If you do not receive an invitation consider yourself well and truly eliminated. Our prince’s word is law – he and he alone determines your success, and his determination will only be challenged by myself and the members of his council if need be. I would not suggest you approach him with complaints.”
“So we are to be left with no knowledge of why our suit was denied?” Hammer demands, the high note of a whine in his voice.
“I suspect that many of you will know exactly how you’ve failed,” Fury growls, and a few snickers circle the room. “But if any of you wish to hear a run-down of your shortcomings, please, do not hesitate to seek me out. These days I must take my entertainment where I can find it.”
“Thank you, General,” Clint says easily, only stopping him because he’s about to start laughing and can’t show it, has to at least appear to be supportive of his suitors. “I am sure that in such an event you will do an admirable job of conveying my reasons to those who ask for them.”
Fury grunts and drags the parchment across the table, cracking open his ledger and placing the paper inside before pausing, lifting his head sharply.
“Captain Coulson,” he says strongly, and a jolt of heat zips through Clint’s belly. “You have borne witness; step forward and make your mark.”
Clint finds that he cannot breathe in the eon of silence that seems to follow. The Alphas before him do not move, all standing with their shoulders back and their spines straight, subtle posturing amongst themselves. Behind him is all crushing stillness and silence too, but then Phillip Coulson steps round the table and stands before him, every bit the Captain of his King’s SHIELD. He glares at Fury as he snatches the quill from him, but as he puts ink to paper he turns to Clint with the strangest, softest, questioning in his eyes that Clint has ever seen. Breath catching in his throat, heart pounding, he swallows hard and licks his lips in a nervous tell Natasha will scold him for later.
Nodding firmly, Coulson signs his name to the bottom of the page and makes a deep, formal bow.
“My King,” he says quietly, and then he’s moving away, speaking quietly to Jasper Sitwell near the edge of the room as Fury starts to rumble again before turning and slipping out the door.
Clint stares after him, tries to swallow down the hot, throbbing ache of seeing Phil sign that account, not as a competitor but as witness to the others. It makes his eyes sting and his throat close up, and he takes a hard gulp of wine to clear it. Nat’s fingers bite into his shoulder where she comes to stand behind him, and he takes a deep breath, narrowing his focus to the task at hand, lest he fall apart.
“Consider this your first invitation,” he says, getting to his feet again as the Alphas all go sharp and alert. “Tomorrow you shall present yourselves upon the jousting field for the start of the games and the first task. There you will be given your instructions. I suggest you bring a steed of stamina, and consider wisely all possibilities; preparedness is a virtue less valued than it ought to be.”
Several brows furrow, and Clint sees more than one frown amongst the group, but they shall get no more from him tonight. Very suddenly he is exhausted, and upon getting to his feet he feels as if he has aged a lifetime.
“Good night my friends,” he says quietly as Natasha comes to his side and takes his arm, as Fury collects his ledgers and prepares to leave as abruptly as he appeared. “I shall see you all on the morrow.”
Turning his back on the gathered Alphas, he allows Natasha to guide him back to his rooms, where he promptly collapses into a mild panic.
Clint shocks himself by getting up before the sun the next morning without prompting or complaint. Natasha beats him to it of course, but Clint’s still not certain that ever she actually sleeps. There’s a frightening sense of calm about him that he’s not sure he fully appreciates as he rises to face the day, but he thinks perhaps that he’d gotten all the nerves and emotion out the night before. Though he’d choked on his own breath a bit, gasping for air and shaking like he had the palsy, he’d managed not to weep and that’s really all that he could have asked for. Natasha had petted his hair and murmured softly about how well he’d done, and perhaps it had been nothing more than his omegan nature shining through, needing praise and support and reassurance.
Then again, perhaps he is just simply human.
Several attendees swarm his rooms once the breakfast dishes have been cleared, descending on him to ensure that he is as primped and polished as he can be. Scrubbed and shaved and dressed in more finery than he can normally conscience, he watches as Natasha dresses herself in similar precious jewels and prepares to head down to the gaming fields. His royal robes and the elaborate, golden crown of a Prince Regent facing his coronation weigh heavily on him as does the duty he is about to perform, and yet there is a curious emptiness inside his chest, as if he is devoid of all feeling.
As they travel from the castle to the gaming fields to the shouts and cheers of the gathered crowds, he finds himself unforgivably thankful for this good fortune. It enables him to smile and wave, to throw kisses to the crowd and thank those that are allowed to come forward and bow over his hand, kiss his rings. It is unfortunate that some of the pride, joy, and excitement are deadened and dulled, but he doesn’t know if he could do all this with all the full sadness and regret he feels lurking in his chest.
Eventually they arrive at the gaming fields and the festive air about the place is ten times that that it had been upon the original announcement of the games. His people have packed into the stands from near and far, all eager to support him and wish him well, and he takes some peace in that. As they climb to the top of the pavilion he takes a moment to rearrange his face into something cheerful, or at the very least something more... normal than he really feels. Once he and Natasha have climbed the steps they come to the banister around the edge and he spends some time waving and smiling, nodding in response to his name being called, and for a moment simply soaking up the sensation of everything being alright with the world, of his people being happy.
Closing his eyes, he turns his face up to the sun, the beautiful sky above and breathes.
It’s a lovely moment, and one that lasts thank all the heavens, because there’s quite a bit of pomp and circumstance to be got through before the thing can really being. A part of him wishes it were already done and on its way, but instead he finds himself sitting on a small throne as he had done earlier in the week just breathing in the atmosphere, listening to the joy and excitement around him, and much to his surprise it helps.
Very slowly the Alphas begin to arrive, and one by one are announced by name and birthright as they are let onto the grass. Each comes on horseback, so they’re all at least that intelligent – Stark on a pretty gold mare, Thor on a massive beast the likes of which Clint has never seen, Masque on a tiny, sharp-looking pony, and Pierce on a scarred, muddy-colored stallion gone long in the teeth. The very quality of the air seems to change as each new competitor arrives, each name being called out by William Koenig tightening the sense of tension.
Clint counts them silently in his head, watching them mingle and posture before the crowd, jostle amongst themselves for arbitrary position.
He’s so absorbed in the task, has focused his mind so intently on reading their body language that he startles when Natasha rises from her seat beside him and leans down to murmur in his ear.
“There is one last thing I must yet attend to,” she says quietly, kissing his temple. “Do not wait for me.”
Clint’s heart jumps into his throat and he immediately wants to protest, to throw a fit and demand that she stay by his side, but he knows that she would only leave him now at this most crucial moment if she had a very good reason.
Nodding shakily he watches her straighten and turn to descend the stairs, waiving off two members of his SHIELD who look up in question. He knows she would resent their presence and does not need them anyway, so he simply allows her to disappear into the throng below with nothing more than a sharp spike of anxiety to mark the unexpected turn of events.
Perhaps she thinks he needs to do this alone.
And... well, perhaps he does.
He intends to stand as King of Bedford-Stuyvesant on his own two feet, with or without an Alpha.
What better way to start?
William Koenig has finally finished with the announcements, reading out all the rules, how things will work, and the crowd shifts restlessly in anticipation of the horns that will sound the official start of the first trial. Clint swallows hard, spares a brief glance at General Fury, tucked back into the shadows as he always is, unnoticed, his arms crossed over his chest and his single, scarred eye watching Clint with cold, familiar judgment. For all that he’s hardly been a loving father-figure the man has always given Clint good advice and supported him when necessary, and he has never expected Clint to fail because of his designation.
For lots of other reasons, sure, but never because he was an omega.
Now he watches silently with a stony sort of calm that says he knows Clint will do what needs to be done, and that is comforting to him.
Blowing out a deep breath, he pushes to his feet and comes to the edge of the balcony, not bothering to hide the smile, the laughter when a raucous, joyful cheer swells through the bleachers; man, woman, and child all gathered and painfully, unknowingly happy for him. He waves, smiles, blows kisses, in general plays to the crowd though he loves every moment of it and every bit is sincere, until he cannot put it off any longer and raises his hands to signal for silence. An obedient quiet falls and he ducks his head in thanks, clears his throat and lifts his voice.
“My friends,” he calls out over the crowd to the gathered Alphas, “You all know why you are here. As an omega I must wed before I rise to the throne and accept my coronation, but such a decision cannot be made in haste. I must seek out the Alpha that will make the best companion to support me in my rule. Such an Alpha must be strong, cunning, and above all must show that they can care and provide for both me and the people that I love. Tradition dictates that a series of trials be set before you to determine the best match, and so we gather here today to put you to the test.”
Clint pauses, listens to the whistles and the cheers as he assesses the looks of anticipation, of hunger on the Alphas assembled on the field below him.
“Each of you are of noble birth and must now prove your worthiness,” he continues. “And so I put you to this, the first task. There is a gypsy caravan just beyond the river that lies to the south of Bedford-Stuyvesant. There you will find something of great value to me. Now of course, the first Alpha there will have the advantage of time to seek it out, but the thing itself is innumerable, something that each of you may bring back. You have until dawn at the latest two mornings hence to return with it.”
The Alphas shift, restless, and Clint bites back a smirk
“I leave you with this clue,” he offers, watching as they strain forward in the saddle, intent on his every word, “Brought to the table, cut and passed, but never eaten.”
There is a moment of stunned silence, some confused and thoughtful expressions, and this time he cannot stop the smug grin threatening at the corners of his mouth.
“All the best of luck and determination,” he says coolly. “May the best Alpha win.”
Phil had had a plan when he’d gotten up that morning, solid and real. His mistake, he now realizes, was keeping it to himself. He’d made no note of it, voiced no real intention of doing anything at all, no acceptance, no denial, not saying he will or won’t. He thinks it was fear mostly, and as he’d dressed in sensible clothes and strapped on his sword, he had supposed it was probably a good tactic. Not admitting to anyone what he was or wasn’t going to do, well, it protects him really, but he hadn’t realized until now the problems it could cause.
He understands it. It’s a big day, lots going on, plenty of people who need keeping track of, plenty of things that need to run smoothly, so of course they don’t. As Captain of the King’s SHIELD it normally falls to his lot to problem solve and address any issues that arise, so as he makes his way from the barracks down to the gaming field where the first trial is meant to begin, he is naturally beset on all sides by delays. Members of the King’s Guard, members of the Army Regulars, members of the bloody household all swarm him, popping up what seems like every ten yards until he finds himself breaking into a full run down the beaten side path toward the jousting pitch with his heart hammering in his chest, all the voices in his head cursing him for an idiot.
Actually arriving at the gaming fields does nothing to get him closer to his objective, and he’s ashamed to say that he quite suddenly starts to panic. He’d spent all of the Sabbath picking apart Natasha’s words and motives, wrestling with his own heart about the right thing to do, and if he had only been able to ask Clint what he wanted he might have been able to calm the storm inside him but it wasn’t meant to be. He’d gone to the library still not knowing what his intentions were – but probably, in his heart, knowing exactly what decision he could and could not live with.
Only Fury – that old bastard – had taken that decision from him; calling him forth to sign as witness before he could step forward of his own intent and do the same.
It had sent a burst of anger through him stronger than most anything he had experienced before, and the look on Clint’s face...
Didn’t think he could keep quiet and it was that anger, that sudden fear that he had lost his chance that had nearly driven him to his knees. He’d retreated to his barracks to fall apart in privacy, to hyperventilate over the thought that his stubbornness, his stupidity had finally ruined everything and cost him that which he held most dear.
Only then he’d started thinking about Fury’s words.
You have borne witness.
Step forward and make your mark.
One fact, one order, and, if argued properly, the one not connected to the other.
He had borne witness, and he had signed his name, but in his heart he had not signed his name for the purpose of bearing witness.
Hope had flared, bright and beautiful, and a sense of determination had washed over him like that summer storm all those years ago.
He will argue the ruling if he must, but Natasha herself had pointed out that there is nothing to stop him from competing against the others for Clint’s hand. He is an Alpha of noble birth and good standing, and his name is written into the accounts plain as any other.
Now if he can only get to the damned...
Turning sharply with his teeth bared, ready to snarl, he blinks in shock when he finds himself staring at Natasha Romanov, who is leading a saddled and bridled horse toward him through the crowd bustling around outside the arena.
“Hey!” he barks, all instinct, as he fails spectacularly to overcome his shock, “Don’t touch Lola!”
“You’ll need the horse,” Natasha argues, jerking her chin toward the arched doorway that leads out onto the fields. “You left too soon and missed the brief!”
Phil stares, the loud, noisy rush of the crowd stilling behind him as Clint’s voice rings out across the pitch.
“...and so we gather here today to put you to the test...”
“You knew I’d...”
“I prayed you weren’t that stupid,” Natasha interrupts icily. “I was prepared to put you on the horse myself if I had to.”
“That... that won’t be necessary Ms. Romanov,” he manages, fighting a sudden, horrifying surge of embarrassment. He’s distracted, severely off his game, his ears picking out Clint’s words from beneath the pavilion as Lola stamps the ground anxiously. “Though I appreciate your... encouragement.”
“...gypsy caravan just beyond the river...”
Natasha raises an eyebrow, looks unimpressed.
“I know you care for him above all others,” he says, suddenly desperate for something he can’t identify. “I cannot believe that you would push for something that would put him to pain.”
“If I did not think you were a fit Alpha for him I would not,” she hisses, and a shiver runs down Phil’s spine. “No matter how much it might cause his heart to ache.”
Venomous though they are, her words must be what he had been seeking, because they seem to unlock the tightness in his chest.
“...brought to the table, cut and passed, but never eaten...”
‘Tarot cards,’ his mind says, in a moment of brilliant clarity.
“You’re wasting time!” she hisses, shaking the reins clutched in her fist.
A sudden burst of energy and rightness sweeps through him and he grabs onto Lola’s bridle, throwing himself into the saddle and finding his seat before he can even form a coherent thought, a plan of action. Natasha’s already stepped clear of his path though, and he has all the good sense to spare her a look of gratitude before spurring Lola forward. They burst through the open gates and onto the field just as the trumpets sound and the other Alphas turn as a single unit, thundering away across the turf at a pace fit to kill. Competitive, eager, and accustomed to battle, Lola tries to surge forward and after them, but Phil reins her back, clinging to balance as she turns a sharp circle and rears.
Clint stands at the edge of the pavilion gripping the railing tight, pale and stunned, and Phil thinks in that moment that all of his heart must show on his face as he stares back at him.
No word or gesture comes to mind that would make up for his behavior, that would tell Clint all the things he wishes to stay to him, so he merely tightens his knees, turns Lola around, and charges off after the rest.
Body flashing hot and cold, Clint watches Lola turn and charge off across the field before rounding on Fury with a snarl.
“Can he do that?!” he demands, too loudly, too panicked.
“Why would he...”
“Can he do that?!” Clint interrupts, stalking forward like to grab the old war general by the front of his tunic and shake him. “Do not toy with me; I asked you can he...”
“Enough,” Natasha’s voice says coolly in his ear, her hand biting into his elbow as she turns him round and guides him back to the throne to sit. “You must keep your head now, Highness. There will be time for anger later.”
Heatedly, Clint shakes her off, but takes the advice and sits down again, schooling his expression and pretending nothing’s happened for the sake of all his people still milling around on the stands; some preparing to leave now the excitement’s over, some still celebrating, others chanting the name of the Captain of the King’s SHIELD. His heart is pounding in his chest, his nerves all jangling, and he fears that if he were to pick up a bow in this moment his hands would shake.
“What did you do?” he asks lowly, because he is not a fool, and Natasha’s disappearances now appear far too well-timed to have been innocent. “Nat, what did you do?”
“I merely went to fetch a forgotten horse,” she says quietly, sitting very near with her hand on his forearm, even as she looks out across the field. “Captain Coulson was nearly to the gates when I caught up with him.”
“Already on his way little bird,” she reassures him, and suddenly he can almost manage to swallow down the lump in his throat. “It seemed unfair that he start at a disadvantage because he missed the brief last night.”
“He left,” Clint argues, his thoughts coming too fast to be clear. “He didn’t...”
Pausing, he turns to Fury a second time, who has moved out from the shadows to loom silently at his side, ever present when he is needed though in the most aggravating manner possible.
“You asked him sign as witness,” he states flatly, and Fury snorts.
“What witness?” he argues, “All the room stood witness. You and I, Romanov, every soldier present. Hell, Sitwell stood witness, for was he not there as well?”
“Was one not needed?” Clint asks slowly, a cold suspicion forming in his mind.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Fury rumbles threateningly, like a great dark storm cloud. “If a witness were required there were more than enough present to make their statements, should any of these foreign Alphas be foolish enough to argue the Captain’s suit.”
To Clint’s astonishment, Fury’s harsh expression softens, his mouth actually turning up a bit at the corners, almost in mimicry of a smile.
“Phillip Coulson is a very old and dear friend,” he says, an abrupt warmth in his voice that Clint does not recognize. “He is a good and honorable man, even when those traits stand in the way of his own happiness. Perhaps, on occasion...”
He pauses, turns his eye over Natasha for all of a fleeting moment.
“Perhaps on occasion he needs a push. Though, from the sounds of it, I suspect I may have unnecessarily overstepped.”
Clint’s breath catches and his eyes suddenly start to sting as indignation and a great, terrible hope begin to rise in his chest.
“A push toward what?” he practically squeaks, his throat tight. “He made his position quite clear – he never...”
Natasha’s fingers tighten on his arm, warning him to lower his voice and compose himself.
“I fear there are many misunderstandings yet between the two of you,” she says quietly. “This is your chance to correct those misunderstandings.”
Clint chokes a bitter laugh.
“And to what end?” he huffs, slumping back into his seat, the hard and unforgiving throne beneath him as he flings a hand out toward the gaming fields in a sharp, harsh gesture. “It would make no difference – I cannot call him my husband and have it over with; it is begun and there is nothing I or either of you can do to change that.”
Fury rolls his eye and mutters something unflattering under his breath that would result in any other man being thrown into the stockades.
“Captain Coulson is an Alpha of noble blood and good standing,” he barks with irritation, as if speaking to a child he has lost all patience with. “His name has been taken into account, and he has joined the competition before the closing of the first task. What more shall I require of him, your Highness?”
“An explanation!” Clint snarls between gritted teeth.
He knows not where the anger comes from, but if he had to guess he would suspect it was from the near miss they’ve both suffered. He’s practically shaking with the come-down from the excitement of it, his body swamped with fatigue, as if he’d almost fallen from a great height and only just managed to catch himself.
“I’m sure that is something that you should demand of him your Majesty,” Fury rumbles snidely. “As I’m sure you intend to ask all the others. If it were up to me the both of you would already be wed, but as it is that cannot be. So you shall make the best of what this world has given you.”
Clint narrows his eyes, opens his mouth to snap, but then Natasha is standing up and pulling him to his feet.
“Enough,” she says quietly, turning both men toward the stairs. “What’s done is done, and cannot be undone. The Captain will compete for your hand as all the others do, and if he is truly the best for the task then there is nothing to concern yourselves with.”
Clint can hear Fury grumbling behind him but doesn’t think the man is actually speaking words, so he just grits his teeth and ignores it, trying to burn through all the racing thoughts in his mind before his boots hit the grass. He doesn’t succeed, and thank god for Nat who tucks her arm into the crook of his elbow and steers him through the crowds, waving and wearing the polite ‘company’ smile she puts on when she’s covering for his distraction. By the time she drags him into the carriage that will carry them back to the castle he truly is shaking.
“Nat?” he breathes when they've settled into their seats and the cart starts forward with a lurch, “Nat, did he really...”
“Yes Little Bird,” she says with a sigh, pulling him toward her to pillow his head against her breast. “He truly did.”
He knows what he’s looking for – that's his first advantage. Clint’s riddle was easy enough to solve: cards, and no doubt the gypsy Salina’s tarot cards at that. He also knows exactly where the gypsy camp lies, and the easiest paths to take there. Most of the other Alphas will be uncertain of its exactly location and will either need to beg directions or charge off with nothing more than a hope and a prayer in their pocket.
Still, he suspects there is far more to the challenge than simply returning with one of the major arcana in hand.
Turning Lola onto the road leading southwest, slightly away from the gypsy camp, he settles into his seat and starts exploring the contents of the saddle bags thrown over the horse’s back. Apparently Natasha has truly given him her blessing, as inside he finds several wineskins of water as well as plenty of food for the journey. There is a dry change of stockings rolled tightly in the bottom, and even a bit of money that he recognizes as having come from the hidden stores he keeps in his rooms. Though he shakes his head, he doesn’t marvel over the fact that she’s managed to find it. It’s far less a wonder than how she managed to get Lola saddled and out of her stall without being kicked in the head.
She’s not vicious, just... particular.
Not unlike Natasha herself, so perhaps it’s less a marvel than he’d like to think.
Tightening his knees around Lola’s middle, he cajoles her into a slightly canter as they come to the small hill leading down toward the barren plains. Most Alphas will have taken the roads through town, not knowing the best paths to take to the Romani camp nor even where it truly lies. If they are smart they will stop and ask directions, but more likely they’ve all just charged off in the general direction of the river in one large group, heckling each other as they go. The direction he himself is headed may seem to be taking him out of his way, but will prove the quicker trail in the end.
As he crests the top of the hill he is surprised to see two horses waiting at the bottom on either side of the path, their riders quarrelling good-naturedly as they wait. He recognizes the long, golden hair of la princessa Bobbi Morse almost immediately, and is even more shocked to recognize Stark.
“Oh thank god,” Bobbi groans theatrically as he pulls Lola up beside them. “I was starting to lose all faith Captain.”
Phil starts but manages to hide it behind a scowl.
Does everyone know what he had not?
“Why did you break it off five years ago?” he blurts out, the question just as unexpected to him as it appears to be to her. “Why are you here now after you walked away then?”
“I suspect you know why,” she says slowly, coolly, her expression going closed and wary under his demands.
Phil realizes just how loudly and sharply he’d barked at her, realizes that he likely cuts an intimidating figure as she is a full two-months younger than his princeling and likely never been spoken to this way before. She is a princessa after all, and he is likely old and grizzled in her mind, hardened by war. Intentionally softening his face and the set of his shoulders, he pulls Lola back a few paces and feels far less guilty when she relaxes a bit.
“Forgive me princessa,” he murmurs, ducking his head. “I have no right to make demands of you. It is only I had not realized...”
Bobbi looks at him questioningly, like she doesn’t believe him, and he supposes that is fair. He’s been a bit blind these last few years, if everyone else in his life is to be trusted.
Sighing, Phil turns to face Stark, lifting an unimpressed brow.
“Well this is awkward,” he says with a smirk, his eyes dancing with mischief and intelligence. “You both forgot I was here.”
“You could never stay quiet long enough for anyone to forget you Stark,” he grumbles before turning back to Bobbi. “Where are the others?”
“Riding ahead, like to kill their mounts,” Bobbi says, rolling her eyes. “Half will go the long way, over the bridge. The others will likely follow us through Miller’s Bay, but at the pace they’re going they’ll have to stop to rest.”
“And you?” Phil demands, turning to Stark again, who snorts inelegantly.
“I’m not an idiot,” he reminds them, as though that is necessary. “Bit hard to miss that the Princeling has a history with la princessa, even if you hadn’t just confirmed it. Who would know him better? Until this moment I would have been hard pressed to name an Alpha likely to puzzle out his riddles faster.”
There he stops and eyes Phil with a significant look.
“Cheating, Mr. Stark?” he counters, though he is reluctantly impressed.
“Is it cheating to take the most efficient route?” he asks disinterestedly, as it is a question he clearly knows the answer to and does not expect a response for. “I know where we are headed, I know the answer to the riddle itself – what else is cut and passed but never eaten except a deck of cards? No, I merely follow on your heels because you know the territory best of all, and I doubt the prince would begrudge my any guide I was smart enough to seek out.”
Phil frowns but doesn’t reply, because damn it, the man is right. It was smart to follow Bobbi, and that is something that Clint will appreciate, will take into account.
As he suspects, there will be far more to this than a simple find-and-retrieve.
Sighing, shaking his head now at the prospect of the ride before him, he urges Lola forward into the lead, bringing her up to another easy trot that both Bobbi and Stark’s mounts match without difficulty. For some time there is quiet between them, only the clop of the horses’ hooves and the gentle creaking of leather to break the silence, and he finds himself almost at peace in that moment.
He’s really doing this.
He’s fighting for Clint’s hand, proving himself a worthy partner and doing something he never dared hope he might do.
An unfamiliar flush of Alpha pride sweeps through him and he revels in it for all of a moment, smugly pleased with himself and full of sweeping confidence before he carefully draws it back, curling the feeling up into a tight ball to save for when he needs it.
Clint is a far cry from a traditional omega, and would not take kindly to a traditional Alpha trying to bully him about, trying to show off or assert some dominance based on orientation alone.
Well, he has always loved Clint just as he is, and is perfectly comfortable with his own quiet sort of competence.
Getting cocky now will hardly endear him to his prince, his friend, and he suspects that more than one Alpha will fall from grace for just such reasons.
Ah well, less competition for him.
Beside him Bobbi giggles and he startles at the sound, only to find himself baring his teeth in a sneer and grumbling under his breath. She’s eyeing him like she knows exactly what he’s thinking, a little smirk tucked into the corner of her mouth, and where it should be insulting or challenging, should raise his hackles, really it just serves to further reassure him that he’s finally doing the right thing.
He’s not certain of course – he won’t until he has the chance to speak to Clint face-to-face, to ask him if this is something he could possibly want, but with every person who confronts him with his own glaring lack of understanding he grows more confident.
Now if he can only manage to make it to the Romani camp without strangling Tony Stark.
They lose him crossing Miller’s Bay, thank god. Leaving Stark behind means that he and Bobbi and blessed with another few hours’ ride in silence, which is far less fraying on his nerves than the man’s constant chatter had been, an incessant babble about things Phil can’t even begin to understand. He’d actually pulled out parchment and ink halfway across the lowlands, balancing it on the saddlehorn to sketch out drawings and symbols that make no sense whatsoever to anyone but him, and Phil has to give his horse credit for plodding along behind with the slightest bit of guidance or attention from its rider.
Bobbi looks back over her shoulder when he starts to fall behind, raising a questioning brow in his direction, but Phil just rolls his eyes and nudges Lola into a slightly quicker trot.
“That’s two more behind us,” she comments lightly some time later, when they’re only about an hour from their destination and have stopped after crossing the river to give the horses a drink and a rest. “I can’t see who.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Phil says, holding the reins of her horse for her while she uses a fallen log to stretch out the cramps she’s not doubt built up in her legs. “It’s not a race.”
“No, I suppose not,” she agrees, pointing her toes and bending low over her knee with a groan. “Anyway, I’m not used to riding so far.”
“Do not worry princessa; the others won’t be either.”
Bobbi eyes him as he turns to climb back up the bank, hauling the horses behind him.
“Why are you being so kind to me?” she asks suddenly, in a calm voice that suggests an honest curiosity. “You weren’t before.”
Phil feels his cheeks color, embarrassed to be caught out by a girl so much younger and less experienced in the world than he.
“Before I’d... thought you’d hurt him, and perhaps that was something I struggled to forgive,” he says abashedly, forcing himself to meet her eyes. “It is no excuse for the way I treated you.”
“You were doing your job, as you ever have,” she says breezily, waving off his apology. “I am not angry with you for protecting him. But that does not explain why you are being kind to me now.”
"Because I have it on the good authority of several people that I misunderstood some of the circumstances that took place five years ago,” he says tightly, swallowing down the surge of awe and hope and amazement that threatens to make him crow like a prideful cock. “I was wrong, and that matters.”
“But I am still here,” she points out as Phil hands over the reins to her horse and they start walking toward the footpath. “It is still a competition.”
Phil glances at her from the corner of his eye but she is concentrating on the trail ahead, seemingly paying him no mind.
“It is,” he agrees. “But correct me if I am wrong, princessa... it seems as though you are cheering for me.”
It comes out more questioning than he would like but when she turns to him with a smile on her face he feels a knot in his chest loosen.
“I am Captain,” she asserts, grinning brightly. “I think you would make my friend very happy.”
She pauses, her smile turning to a thoughtful frown.
“But this means little when his kingdom is at stake and he must abide by the laws and expectations of others.”
“True, and this is why I am happy enough to help you,” he replies. “Though it would be like a knife in my own belly to fail, I wish him happiness more than anything in this world. If it cannot be me than I hope it will be you.”
“Oh, he does not love me that way,” Bobbi laughs, seeming happy enough about this. “We are good friends, this is true, but I suspect he may make just as good a friend in some of the other Alphas come to compete for his hand.”
She’s quiet a moment and seems to be pondering something as they walk, and of all the things Phil expects her to say, what she offers him next he never could have guessed at.
“Perhaps it would be best, if it must be so,” she says simply before stopping on the road, turning to look at him full-on. “I would not keep him from you, if by some miracle I were to win.”
Phil stares, stunned by her blunt suggestion, and cannot think what to say, his mouth gaping like a fish pulled from the lake, and Bobbi giggles at him before starting off again. They walk an easy mile or two in silence before he can think of how he might reply.
Bobbi just smiles, and accepts his help back up onto her horse.
A short time later the cheers and happy noises of the Romani camp reach their ears and they ride into the bustling camp with little fanfare. Phil spies Carson, the old man who leads the gypsy band sitting in a rocking chair near the entrance to the encampment, smoking a long pipe and keeping a weather eye on the goings-on. Well familiar with each other, he and Phil exchange respectful nods and he rides deeper into the tents with Bobbi at his side. A gaggle of children comes bursting from the maze of wagons and swarm around them, and he dismounts calmly before handing the reins off to Gemma and Fitz, the two he recognizes from his last visit with Clint. If it were a man he would have politely declined, but Lola quite likes children and this is no doubt a part of it – how he and the other Alphas treat the people that Clint loves so well.
He helps Bobbi down from her own little mare and by the time the horses are being led away he’s spotted Barnes sitting on the wide branch of a tree nearby, eating an apple and watching things as closely as everyone else milling around, though far more blatantly than most.
“James!” Bobbi squeaks excitedly, running over to jump at his boots, swatting at them where they hang over her head. “Come down!”
The young omega scowls at her but jumps down anyway, landing in front of her and accepting her embrace with the expression of a disgruntled cat.
“Take us to see Selina?” she asks sweetly when she’s let him go, and Barnes shakes his head.
“Already got a job,” he says shortly, and Phil bites back a smirk because he’d already guessed who Clint’s spy would be.
“We can find our way,” Phil assures them both, “If she’s disposed to see visitors this afternoon?”
Barnes just grunts, jerks his chin in what might be a nod.
Phil nods back before offering Bobbi his arm and turning them toward the west side of the camp. No doubt the man is just brooding because a certain lieutenant had failed to come along, but he’ll see him soon enough if he’s to report back to Clint by the end of the trial. It’s clever really – Clint will get a good idea of how these Alphas treat his people when he’s not around, how they treat those that might be considered outcasts or looked down upon.
Phil has no concerns from that quarter – he's never had any trouble from the Romani; respects them as the Captain of the King’s SHIELD and appreciated the love and affection they have for Clint. Beyond that he believes every man, woman, and child should be judged by their actions, not their blood or birthname.
So no, no concerns on his own behalf.
He does feel rather bad for those that take a different view.
They will not fare well, here or back at the castle.
They come to Selina’s tent and wait respectfully outside in silence, both knowing that she will fetch them when she is ready and not a moment before. Phil stands at attention and takes in his surroundings while Bobbi settles onto the small stool outside the tent opening, picking a handful of wild daisies growing nearby. She hums a cheery little tune as she starts to weave the stems together and he envies her calm, his own spine like steel as he strains to make sense of everything he can see and hear. The Romani camp is ever joyful chaos, but he’s well familiar with this having oft accompanied Clint on his visits. It’s easy to pick out the men and women keeping a careful eye on things as they go about their usual business, the children waiting round in the midst of their games, ready to be of service if it means a bit of coin or a boiled sweet. Old man Carson rarely emerges from his living quarters for anything these days, and it’s a testament to his love for his princeling that he’s set himself out in the sun to take part in all this.
Beside him Bobbi makes a small mewl of displeasure and moves her boot against his, but he’s already spotted the source of her annoyance. Pierce is making his way toward them still astride his horse, jostling the tents and possessions on either side of his path as he rides. He can tell the moment the man spots them because he straightens in the saddle, jerking aggressively on his reins. His mount whinnies and stamps its feet and he dismounts swiftly, dragging it along toward them until he’s crowded in against the door of Selina’s tent.
“Taking turns then?” he demands more than asks, and Phil’s proud of Bobbi for the way she flat-out ignores him. Her status easily allows for this of course – she well out-ranks Peirce – but that’s rather beside the point as Phil had earlier found.
She’s a child out of her depth here, only trying to help her friend and appease her father, and Pierce would be a dangerous rival for any experienced Alpha.
He scoffs when neither of them respond.
“Well it must be the place, since there’s not a damned pub to be found within five miles,” he growls, tying his horse up short to a nearby wagon in such a way that the scarred beast’s hind hooves threaten to destroy the wheels with one disagreeable kick. “What is it then, or does this pass for the local gambling hell?”
Again, he and Bobbi hold their tongues.
Pierce curses and stalks about a bit, as irritable and impatient as his horse which does the same, stamping and blowing angrily. By Phil’s measure less than five minutes pass before he pauses in front of Selina’s tent, leaning his ear near the door before yanking the cloth back.
Beyond his shoulder, Phil sees Selina’s head snap up from the table where she’s been carefully shuffling a worn deck of cards, her eyes narrowed with anger, but Pierce seems to miss it, turning back to smirk at Phil with a smug sort of self-confidence.
“What’s the matter then Coulson, afraid of the old woman and didn't want to be the first man inside?” he taunts.
Phil raises an eyebrow but Pierce has turned his back on him, striding inside and letting the drop-cloth over the door fall closed again. The heavy carpets muffle his words, but his tone is strong and aggressive and Phil’s hand naturally drops to the hilt of his sword as he shifts closer, ready to intervene if necessary, though Selina no doubt has seen to her own security.
It was she who had first taught Clint how to hide a knife up his sleeve, long before Natasha had come along.
After several tense moments and many loud words, Pierce emerges from Selina’s tent with another smug look on his face. He makes sure to flash a worn Tarot card in Phil’s face as he passes, using it to brush an imaginary speck of lint from the epaulet of his Hydra uniform.
Phil doesn’t react – with a card like the Ten Swords he wishes the bastard luck.
He’ll be keeping a closer eye on him from now on.
He wonders if it had been drawn of Pierce’s past or his future.
The man is on his horse and moving again before Selina even emerges from her tent. Together the three of them watch his back in silence as he rides out. Phil can see the want to speak on the fortune teller's face, can read disgust in the thin line of her pressed lips, but she holds her tongue and so he does the same, Bobbi twisting her daisy chain nervously between her hands until Pierce has disappeared from sight.
“Anybody but that guy,” she says shakily, and Phil feels the sentiment down to his toes.
“Would you have your fortunes told today?” Selina asks by way of reply, and some of the tension drains from Phil’s shoulders.
“If you are disposed,” he responds politely, and Selina looks at him with a hard eye before nodding once.
“The lady first,” she says, and Bobbi turns to hand him the flowers she’d woven together.
“Will you be alright alone,” he asks, noting the way her hands shake.
“Of course, don’t be silly Captain,” she says, lifting her chin bravely, “It’s only Selina.”
The gypsy woman’s face softens a bit and Phil relaxes that much more, thankful that Bobbi knows the Romani as well as he does. He places the chain of daisies in her hair and watches silently as the two women disappear into the tent, waiting until the door has fallen shut to collapse onto the stool that Bobbi had abandoned.
He’s on a dangerous path already, he knows, because Bobbi had been right – it is still a competition. He loves Clint, prays, believes that he is the man’s best match, but cannot say if he is the best match for the King. Some of these foreign Alphas, they can offer him things that Phil cannot; land, resources, political alliances and promises of peace. Those will be important to him, because they will be important to his people, and well...
Bobbi had been right.
Phil prides himself on his contingency plans, and if it cannot be him, then he hopes he can help guide Clint toward whatever other Alpha will make him happiest, will make him safest.
Shoving angrily to his feet, Phil curses himself and begins to pace in agitation, angry that he feels as if he is giving up, furious that entertaining this line of thinking seems like the smart thing to do.
“Win it then you fool,” he hisses under his breath.
Perhaps he deserves this. It is only right that he be forced to prove himself, to compete for Clint’s hand when he’d so carelessly thrown away his chances before it had all come down to this. That’s not how it had happened – no, he had been trying to respect what he’d thought had been Clint’s disinterest – but he still feels responsible.
Transparency may perhaps be one of his failings.
He manages to calm himself before Bobbi emerges again, her face bright and the strong scent of incense clinging to her hair. She shyly shows him the Two of Cups before tucking the card carefully away and Phil once again runs through the meanings of the Tarot in his mind – friendship, commitment, love...
Not a bad draw, though whether it indicates romantic or platonic partnership he could not guess.
Taking a breath, steeling himself, he steps inside Selina’s tent.
“Captain Coulson,” she greets quietly, seated at a low table in the dim light, candles flickering around her. “Tea?”
“Thank you,” he accepts, lowering himself onto the cushion across from her.
His scabbard digs into the floor as he does, so he unbuckles the sword from his belt and places it at his side, Selina’s eyes following his movements surreptitiously as she pours. He accepts the small ceramic cup from her hands and waits until she drinks before raising it to his lips, swallowing the hot, bitter brew down though it burns his tongue and throat to do so. Draining the cup, he hands it back to her and she swirls the tea leaves slowly before peering into the bottom.
A moment passes in silence before she sets the cup aside.
He does not ask her what she’s read.
“Shall I tell you your fortune then Captain,” she asks, shuffling the deck of cards between her hands before placing the stack in front of him, centered on the table.
Phil watches her, chews the inside of his cheek.
She’ll read them anyway, he knows this, but...
“You always told Clint he should make his own fate."
It is... not what he’d meant to say.
Selina raises her eyebrow but he doesn’t think it wise to back down now, even if he has suddenly realized that he could return from this venture empty-handed. The gypsy hums, her fingers quick and light as she snaps the edge of the cards, and more quickly than he can follow, cuts the deck into four, placing them at the points of the compass on the table.
“Select a card,” she commands quietly, holding Phil’s gaze. “It is your choice which of the two of us will read it.”
Licking dry lips, Phil stares at her trying to parse the meaning of her words, his heart beating hard in his chest as it strikes him suddenly that this is a test he can fail even if he does accept it. He doesn’t believe in the cards all that much himself, and didn’t think that Clint did either, but he must have sent them all here for a reason, must have some faith...
Reaching out with a hand that shakes as badly as Bobbi’s had, he places it over the deck of cards to his left, North, to home and to Clint. Selina watches him with dark eyes and when he withdraws his hand again takes the top card from the deck, keeping it from his sight in her cupped palm. For a moment her gaze roams over the card hungrily, and Phil wonders what she sees in these things, what she sees in the cards and the tea and the future.
Blinking, Selina abruptly shifts from far-away stillness to carefully controlled action, drawing wax and parchment from beneath the table. She folds the paper quickly into a rough envelope before placing the card inside and sealing it, pressing one of her many rings into the blob of hot wax. She offers it to him with steady hands that do not give anything away.
“Take care Captain Phillip Coulson,” she says as his fingers close on the envelope.
He waits, for anything else but that one ominous warning, and when nothing more comes takes his leave.
Eek, sorry for the late post guys! Honestly I can't believe I've kept it up this long! Unfortunately this week's will probably be late as well - I'm working on a RL project (unrelated to fic) that just got... well, real...
Clint realizes his mistake by nightfall on the same day the trial begins. The most winning Alphas cannot be back from the Romani camp before afternoon the next day, yet he is already sick with nerves and anticipation, wishing it were over. He picks at the supper provided to him in his rooms before jumping up to pace, and feels Natasha’s judgmental gaze on him all the while.
From her seat in the corner next to the low, crackling fire, she works at her embroidery silently. Only a few who have seen her at the task have been foolish enough to comment on it, and Clint has had many a good laugh in pointing out that though she may not be traditionally feminine, there is nothing surprising about her taking pleasure in stabbing something thousands of times with a sharp object. Besides, she most often uses the skill to stitch rude words onto his handkerchiefs, or scolding threats into the cuffs of his sleeves. The sight of her with needle and thread in hand can usually lift his mood, but tonight it does nothing to calm his fragile nerves.
“Perhaps I should have started smaller, eh?” he asks rhetorically as he flops into the wing-backed chair across from her.
He expects her to argue, and she does not disappoint.
“It was a good challenge to begin my lord,” she says quietly, not lifting her eyes from her needlework and using a formal address that forces him to reach for a more quiet, respectable headspace. “Some will never make it to the Romani camp, others may be turned away at the gates. I expect that shall narrow the field considerably.”
Clint stays silent, chewing his lip.
“And as for the rest?” Natasha prompts. “Do you truly wish to know their futures so soon in this endeavor?”
“It’s not about the cards,” he huffs, pushing to his feet and beginning to pace again.
Natasha does not reply, because she knows this and because they have spoken of it, over and over again. It is a calming exercise, and she is leaving him room to perform it, though she has bemoaned the task of listening for days now.
“It’s not about the cards,” he says again, as his pacing takes him to the window and he peers out into the dark, his sight going further than the fires on the wall should allow. “It’s about resourcefulness. How they travel, how they get there, if they truly were prepared for the task. It’s about the condition of their horses on their return, and about how they treat my people while they are there.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
She's got a point.
Grumbling under his breath about women who know everything, Clint crashes into his bed and falls into a restless sleep.
Thankfully for him, the next morning is filled with work and Fury keeps him busy with requests and orders for his council. He takes the opportunity to force Clint into finishing some discussions he’d been putting off, to sign a bunch of decrees and address the issue of one of the prisoners that has been continuously returning to his dungeons for theft. It is a long morning and his hand aches from holding a quill, yet when he looks up and finds it already time for the midday meal, he cannot be upset.
He eats quickly, doing his best not to bounce in his seat while Natasha watches on, then changes into his stealthing clothes and races to the top of the wall. There his guards and members of his SHIELD keep him entertained with conversation and dice as he keeps a weather eye on the horizon, watching for the first of the riders to appear. His heart leaps into his throat when the first trumpet sounds, announcing the return of the first competitor for all the nearby town to hear, but it sinks again when he recognizes the battered war horse of Alexander Pierce thundering up the road toward the gates.
“It is not a race,” Natasha reminds him as he sinks back down onto the crate that had been fetched for him to sit upon. “Do not look so glum.”
Clint sticks his tongue out at her and goes back to the dice game he’s already lost money to in his distraction.
The trumpets sound twice more before the fourth burst of noise finally sees Lola come trotting up the hill. Clint stands on the balustrade with joyous hope in his heart, and as Phil rides through the gates with Bobbi on her horse beside him, their eyes meet and a sudden lust crackles like coal in the pit of his belly.
Not just the man’s body, but many things, and he can feel his expression harden with hunger.
For all of a moment Coulson looks stunned but he keeps riding, and the grin that crosses Clint’s face as he disappears from view is more like a baring of his teeth.
Phil’s the only one out of all of them that looks up.
Clint takes himself down to supper that night feeling smug as a cat got into the cream, and doesn’t speak a word to any of the competitors that gather to dine with him. None approach, and he allows his eyes to roam, taking in their condition, their attitudes. Not quite all of them have made it back yet, but they will all be expected to present themselves in the morning, to declare their success or failure. He suspects few realize that they are already being judged.
Tommy, Teddy, and Billy have been reporting back from the stables all afternoon, and Clint knows that Pierce’s horse had sucked down water fit to drown itself, that Hammer’s had cuts on its flanks from the man’s spurs. Only those who never made it to the camp, that failed to understand or achieve their directive will be fully eliminated this early in the competition – Clint cannot do more than that so soon – but that does not mean he will not be taking note of these things. Any Alpha who has beaten their horse into a faster ride, who sits at his table eating like a wolf and looking road-weary has failed to impress him to say the least.
They wander out slowly, one by one, and Clint does little more than watch them go.
His eyes linger on Phil when the Captain of his King’s SHIELD offers him a short bow before taking his leave, appropriate and expected, and wishes he could send a favor with him.
He sleeps like the dead that night, and wakes up well before sunrise. Natasha dresses him carefully in one of the light ensembles he wears for long days at court, regal yet comfortable, and escorts him down to breakfast. Stark and Masque are already present at the long oaken table, the one scribbling furiously at a set of papers and the other sipping quietly at her tea. Clint nods to each of them and takes his seat at the head of the table, reaching for the bacon rashers and the egg tartlets. He eats thoughtfully, waiting for something though he doesn’t really know what, and as the Alphas trickle in to join them at breakfast his sense of anticipation grows.
As strange as it seems, the surge of omegan pride and coquetry is sudden and surprising.
Before him sits a cadre of Alphas all vying for his hand, fighting to prove their worth for him, and he preens subconsciously with smug satisfaction.
Only Phil seems to notice, and the smile he shoots him somehow manages to be both shy and aggressively proud in its own right.
Clint starts to grin back when the hall doors open and Lieutenant Rogers escorts a dark, glowering figure inside.
“Bucky,” Clint greets as they come together, clasping hands and touching foreheads in the way of omegan companions. “Come my friend, sit with me. You must be hungry – you’ve had a long ride.
“Highness,” Bucky grumbles quietly, and Clint almost laughs because he can see how annoyed Bucky is at having to bow and scrape in front of the others.
Clint doesn't blame him – he hates it himself often enough.
Tugging him by the wrist to a seat at the head of the table alongside him, on his left opposite Natasha, he waves a servant forward and has hot potatoes and thick slices of ham brought from the kitchen, fresh buttermilk poured. He chatters about nothing of importance while Bucky eats his fill, Rogers hovering protectively behind, and ignores the suspicious looks from the Alphas seated below. He makes note of Bobbi giggling behind her hand, of Phil speaking to her quietly as he tries to hide the smirk at the corner of his mouth, and is surprised yet relieved that they are even speaking civilly to each other.
When Bucky finally pushes his plate away with a groan Clint levels him with a look, to which he responds with a serious nod. Grinning, Clint gets to his feet and meets the gaze of Jasper Sitwell across the room as the Alphas below fall silent.
“My friends,” he says, pitching his voice to carry, “May I congratulate you all as the first task of the competition comes to a close. Each of you should have something to present to me if you were successful, and Lieutenant Sitwell will escort you in to do so in the order that you returned. I look forward to speaking with each of you.”
Ignoring the murmur that immediately goes up amongst them, Clint offers his arm to Natasha and helps her to her feet, turning to make his way to the library. Bucky follows, escorted by Lieutenant Rogers, and they are met by Fury who waits with ink and parchment ready to record all outcomes. Natasha and Rogers take their places slightly back of the table while Bucky seats himself next to Clint, and when they’ve all settled Clint breathes a bit of a sigh and signals another serving girl.
“Bring water and more ink, and have someone bank the fires and open the windows,” he orders softly. “We have a long afternoon ahead of us.”
The girl nods and scampers off, and behind him Natasha chuckles.
“Yes, and you are looking forward to it now, are you not Little Bird,” she murmurs in his ear as the servants flood back in to open up the room and lay out refreshment and supplies on the sideboard.
“You know,” he replies with a sharp grin as Sitwell pokes his head through the door, “I think I kinda am. Bring the first one in.”
“Pierce,” Fury rumbles beside him, ticking off the name in his ledger. “Swear to heaven boy, if you choose him you’d better be prepared to have your new husband assassinated as soon as possible.”
“I think you’d find more than one up to the task,” Natasha says coolly, but Clint just shakes his head.
“They’ll each tell their story, and then you’ll tell me yours,” he says to Bucky, who simply nods. “Don’t argue with them.”
“We’ll have not fights here your Highness,” Rogers pipes up, and both omegas roll their eyes.
“I have every faith in you Captain,” Clint drolls, and beside him Bucky snorts. “Let’s get this cart rolling.”
Alexander Pierce is pompous and arrogant. He struts into the room with confidence and presents his card with a smirk, making no attempt to speak as if the simple completion of the task speaks for itself. He seems to feel no need for discussion, as though returning first with card in hand means he has won already, and Clint sees no reason to argue with him at this point. He thanks him formally and does not attempt to engage him further, merely watches him strut back out of the room with a smug smirk on his face and shudders when he turns the tarot card over to reveal the Ten of Swords, the sabers all plunged into a man’s back.
“He wasn’t the first one there,” Bucky says in a low voice as the door swings shut. “Coulson and Morse were. He jumped the line, barged into Selina’s tent. She was furious. He refused to have his fortune told and demanded a card... that’s the one he drew.”
Swallowing hard, Clint nods and flashes the card at Fury.
The man’s face grows dark and he nods back, marking the man’s name down near the bottom of the page and jotting notes in his famously illegible scrawl.
“Lieutenant Rogers, I want a single man on Pierce from here on out, someone discrete,” Clint orders. “More than what we’ve got on the rest of them.”
With a jerk of his head, and one last look at Bucky, Rogers ducks out the door to carry out the command. Clint’s shoulders relax just a little, and quietly determines to himself that not only must he make sure that Pierce does not come out on top of this competition, but he must also learn the real reason that the Hydra Army General is here in the first place.
Luckily for him, the next two Alphas to be brought in had no card to present, and had only been quick back to the castle because they had never made it to the Romani camp in the first place.
Fourth in the door is Bobbi, and he breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of his friend.
“The Two of Cups, Highness,” she says cheekily. “Selina and I had a lovely cup of tea and a bit of gossip about you.”
“Anything I should know?”
“Absolutely not, Highness.”
“Thank you, Alpha Morse,” he says, “Please send in the next Alpha.”
With a flirtatious wave over her shoulder, she disappears again.
“She rode in with Coulson,” Bucky says, settling back in his chair and eyeing Clint out the side of his head. “They both know the camp, know us. They spoke with Carson, waited until they were invited in by Selina. They did have tea, and she had her fortune told...”
He trails off, which is fine because Clint’s not listening.
Phil’s just walked in.
“Your Majesty,” he says, coming to attention before the table and making his bow, all controlled power.
He looks good like this, all determined and clean-cut, all sharp lines and firm jaw, the way he looks when he’s come to present battle strategies to the council.
It sends a very primal thrill down Clint’s spine to see that determination set to winning him.
“What card do you have to present to me Alpha Coulson?” Clint manages to ask, proud and relieved that he manages to keep his voice from shaking.
For a moment Phil just looks at him and a bolt of fear strikes that maybe Selina hadn’t provided him with a card – Clint has never bent his life to the will of her Tarot, but he values her opinion and her ability to read people.
Had she not...
But then Phil is stepping forward and handing him an envelope, and ducking his head subserviently as he backs away again.
“I do not know, Highness,” he says. “I do not know my own future. I only know my own heart.”
And with one last, lingering look, he takes his leave.
For the longest time, Clint stares at the door and can’t breathe.
His heart is pounding in his chest, everything in him wanting to dance, to shout with joy, but he reins it in, tucks it down deep inside where it’s safe. Later, when he’s alone with Natasha he’ll be able to take that feeling out and roll around in it, in the stunned, shocked happiness threatening to burst from inside him like a cask of shaken ale.
Phil... does Phil love him?
He doesn’t think that until this very moment he’d really understood what...
Natasha squeezes his arm, sharp and discrete, and Clint blinks, takes in a deep breath and clears his throat. None of the others in the room react at all and none of them seem surprised, not even Bucky, who just waits quietly for Clint to scrape himself together. The sealed paper in his hands is thick and rough beneath his fingertips, but he can feel the outline of a Tarot card inside.
“Coulson knew what he was doing,” Bucky says, and Clint hears him as if from far away. “Let the little ones take the horses, knew how to get to Selina’s tent and knew to wait. She said he declined to have his fortune told, because she’s always told you to make your own fate.”
Clint swallows thickly, thinks about what that means.
Thinks about Phil’s determination to be a good man and to do the right thing, to protect his country and Clint himself. About his willingness to build his own future with his own hands regardless what the cards might say, and about his trust in handing the card over sight-unseen, when it might be less than favorable.
Of course, it couldn’t be much worse than Pierce’s...
“Him and Morse stayed the night, after. Coulson spent a few hours splitting logs, the princessa helped with the meal and the wash.”
Smart. It was polite to offer something in return for their room and board overnight, proper to offer labor or skill instead of coin. He’s not surprised at all that Phil and Bobbi knew that.
“Will you open it Little Bird?”
Clint looks up at Natasha and shakes his head.
“No,” he answers aloud, and from the corner of his eye he sees Fury mark something in his ledger. “He has put his trust in his own ability to make his future; I will not dishonor that.”
“And it was never about the cards,” she says with a smirk and glint in her eye.
Clint grins, shakes his head.
“It was never about the cards.”
He’d always felt that way, and it was true that Selina had always encouraged him not to bind himself to the will of the Tarot.
It... it meant something that Phil knew that.
Even so, the cards themselves do give him a bit of insight into the competitors. Just as Phil’s unknown card tells him something about the man himself, Pierce’s Ten of Swords and Bobbi’s Two of Cups tell him about them, about their futures as Selina sees them and what she believes their compatibility to be. The gypsy woman has great faith in her inner eye, and knows Clint well. As near a mother-figure as he’s ever had, he trusts her judgement and ability to read people.
But it’s about far more than the cards.
It’s about Hammer, who had arrived near midnight on a panting horse, took his card and turned right back around. From the state of his mount he’d whipped it thoroughly to make it back in time, only to nervously present the Devil card and explain in a belligerent tone that it didn’t have to mean death or hell. Clint knows this of course – it could simply mean negativity in life – but he lets Hammer sweat before thanking him and dismissing him with calm formality.
It’s about Madame Masque, who quietly offers Clint the Three of Swords, a card signifying sadness, loneliness, betrayal, and grief. Bucky says that she was almost heartbreakingly desperate to hear her fortune, that she hung on Selina’s every word and wept after, offering her gold and being hugged and pressed with tea and handkerchiefs in return.
Clint’s a little warmer toward her than the others.
It’s about Thor, who is as loud and boisterous and exuberant as ever, extolling the virtues of the entertainment and information Clint had gifted him by sending him to the fortune teller as he cheerfully turns over the Four of Wands, making Clint’s heart thump. A union between two people, the safety and comfort of home, a bonding from which stability grows – it's an excellent card to draw.
But it’s not just about the cards.
It’s about how the Asgardian prince had gotten distracted on his arrival to the gypsy camp, how he had been enticed into a game of chase with the little ones before finding the fortune teller’s tent. How after he had received his card he had thanked her with a sincerity belying his royal blood, and then ended up helping Coulson chop wood simply because he saw a task needing done and decided to help. There had apparently been plenty of drinking and song in the gypsy camp that night thanks to Thor Odinson, and Clint was sorry he had missed it.
It’s about the things he learns.
They have to wait on Stark. It takes nearly five minutes for the man to appear after he’s been called, and he’s stuffing papers into his pockets when he comes through the door. Clint can’t help but grin a little because he looks a right mess, and because Bucky had told him that the only reason the ‘supposed’ genius had made it to the camp at all was because his horse had wandered in with him still astride it, after he’d followed Coulson and Morse from the castle to Miller’s Bay.
It was a good strategy, smart, so Clint is surprised that Stark has no card to offer him.
“Apologies your majesty, but I am a man of science,” he says solemnly, no trace of his usual acerbic wit in sight. “I hold faith in neither magic nor religion. I understand that you asked us to return to you a Tarot card, but I would not offend your people by... pretending.”
Taken aback, but finding his reasoning oddly sweet, Clint replies with a rather ridiculous question.
“What did you do the whole time you were there?”
Stark stares at him like Clint has managed to shock him, then barks a laugh.
“Rather made a nuisance of myself I expect,” he admits without a trace of shame. “I tend to get... involved in my projects.”
He ruffles the papers sticking out of his pockets and Clint has to confess that he’s curious what the man’s been working on so diligently. He cocks an eyebrow and Stark seems surprised that he’s interested, starts to babble.
“Just when a thing doesn’t work I find myself driven to fix it,” he explains, without explaining anything at all. “So I work on it until it works again, and believe me I have been informed by several reliable sources that I can become a bit obnoxious in my...”
“Stark,” Natasha cautions, and Clint actually turns around to stare at her, shocked by the sort of fond, exasperated note in her voice.
The man clears his throat, ducks a sloppy sort of bow.
“Apologies again Majesty,” he says, and then he’s backing from the room, leaving them in silence.
At least until Fury barks a laugh.
“We may find you a good match yet Princeling,” he says mockingly, and Clint resists the urge to groan.
Selina drew the Five of Pentacles for Stark, according to Bucky. Financial strife, poverty and adversity – it fits well with what he knows of the man’s situation. Nothing much there to learn, but Buck does tell him that the man had pestered a few of the older boys into showing him their well and water system, spending hours tinkering with this or that before falling asleep out in the open where he’d collapsed in a pile of quill and parchment. He’d paid the youngsters in copper coins – not stingy despite his recent loss of fortune – and left the next day after shaking Carson’s hand.
The rest of the afternoon is easier.
A few of the Alphas present with minor arcana that mean little to Clint, and give him no real idea about the Alpha themselves. Some were cordial with the Romani but all were aloof at best, and many more were openly superior or hostile. Clint’s jaw hardens as Bucky passes along his observations, and he is glad that he hears them after the Alpha has been dismissed, otherwise he would have been hard pressed to hold his tongue. These Alphas are tallied near the bottom of Fury’s ledged, dark marks beside their names that do not bode well for their success.
Others of the group never even made it so far as Carson’s caravan, nearly half, for one reason or another. Some made the mistake of paying the wrong beggar for directions as they passed through town, some got lost along the way, one had pressed his horse so recklessly at the outset that the poor beast broke its leg and had to be put out of its pain. These Alphas are thanked gently for their participation and offered lodgings until they are ready to depart from Bedford-Stuyvesant. None argue the decision, though some seem to want to, and Clint breathes a sigh of relief when the last one has left the room and been crossed of Fury’s ledger.
“Only seventeen remaining,” Natasha muses, as they all get to their feet and stretch their limbs. “I had not expected the field to be whittled down so soon. These Alphas are less impressive than I had hoped.”
“Most of them anyway,” Clint murmurs, and behind him Bucky snorts and rolls his eyes.
“All the easier for the rest of us,” Fury intones, clapping Clint on the shoulder as he passes to disappear wherever it is he goes. “Well done boy.”
“Ugh, I feel as if I’ve been sat down a year!” Clint groans, bending from side to side.
Out the corner of his eye he sees Bucky scoop up the pile of Tarot cards, tap them into a neat stack.
“Shall I return them Hawk?” he asks, and with a rock in his throat, Clint nods. “All of them?”
“Yes, all,” he grumbles, making a playful jab at the omega. “Don’t be a horse’s ass.”
“I’m proud of you Little Bird,” Natasha says, ruffling his hair. “You did well today.”
“Most of us did,” Clint huffs, his cheeks warm, as he watches Bucky disappear the cards and one distinct envelope into his tunic. “Seventeen.”
“Seventeen,” she agrees. “A far more manageable amount, yes?”
Cracking his neck, he looks between his two friends, who seem to be waiting for him.
“Are you hungry?” he asks, and they both shrug. “Excellent. Come with me.”
Leading them both up to his rooms, he and Natasha change into more comfortable clothing before they all three head down through the kitchens, dodging swats and wooden spoons as they snatch up pears and hunks of cheese, soft, hot biscuits. Snacking as they go, they head toward the armory on silent agreement, all three knowing what must come next. Clint finds his bow, Natasha a set of throwing knives, and Bucky several small, light hatchets before they move across the compound and slip through the SHIELD barracks.
Lieutenant Rogers takes the lead where he had previously trailed behind on guard, and Clint nearly believes he catches a glimpse of Captain Coulson at his duties before Rogers lets them out onto the small range.
Stepping into the sun and fresh air is like a weight off his shoulders. The grass is green and clean-smelling down the lanes that have been drawn onto the ground in chalk, and the familiarity of the place soothes Clint to his soul. It’s quick work to set up the targets at appropriate intervals, the heavy straw bales set to stop whatever has been thrown or shot at them. Clint sits quietly in the shade of a tree, toying with his bow and arrows while he watches Natasha throw her daggers with deadly accuracy, watches Rogers drool over the way Bucky’s shoulders ripple when he heaves an ax through the air.
It’s a simple moment of perfect normalcy, and Clint doesn’t reflect upon it, instead choosing to simply exist within it.
When he’s done frittering with the tension of his string and the straightness of his fletching, assured that all is as it should be, he gets to his feet and calls for a game. Bucky agrees on the condition that he can switch to the sturdy slingshot he pulls from within his heavy vest, and the three of them spend and agreeable hour seeing who can best the other with speed and accuracy.
Clint wins of course, but it’s a close thing.
It cannot last forever.
The day presses on and the sun turns toward starting to set, and Clint sends Rogers to take Bucky to his guest quarters at the castle to clean up. He and Natasha head inside to do the same, and once again he must put away the comfort and ease of his bow and his simple outfit for the weight and responsibility of the thin, golden crown she sets upon his head.
They walk down to supper arm-in-arm, and Clint does not miss the fact that Rogers is leading a disgruntled-looking James Barnes down in the same manner. He takes his seat at the head of the table with his friends on either side of him and a mere five minutes later the remaining Alphas all come pouring in, all seventeen of them.
He watches many of them jostle and squabble for position, notes how Stark and Masque seem to pair off toward the end of the table where it will no doubt be quieter, each in their own little world. He sees Phil leading Bobbi in and pulling back her chair, treating her like the royalty she is, but sees how the two of they and Thor all three pass dishes, speak and laugh and interact as equals.
Something in him breathes a sigh of relief, to see some of them as people, and people with whom he might truly get along, regardless of the outcome of these games. It makes him happy to see them all happy together, that they are not all at each other’s throats. Though his omegan nature had begun to sit up and take interest, to preen before the lot of them all competing for his hand, he wants no bloodshed here, and he supposes he can’t have asked for a better outcome now that the first task has come to an end.
Natasha touches his knee and smiles at him when he looks at her, ever a strong steady presence. Bucky just rolls his eyes at the posturing taking place below and helps himself to the side of roast mutton put down before them.
Chuckling, happy – at least for now – Clint fills his plate and listens to the ebb and flow of conversation around him, letting his mind drift back over the cards and conversation he had been presented with that morning.
If his gaze lingers on a certain Captain of his King’s SHEILD, that is for him and him alone to know.
As the meal is finished and servants begin to clear away the plates, Clint rises slowly to his feet, glass in hand. The Alphas all fall silent, turning to him in anticipation, and a hot bolt of hunger snaps in his belly, hunger of a very different kind. His every instinct urges him to set these men and women to the task, to demand they hunt and brawl and challenge just for him. It’s a heady feeling, and one that he is determined to control.
“My friends,” he calls gently, lifting his glass, “My congratulations to each of you on your success in the first task.”
The Alphas raise their glasses in response, the suggestion of a toast that they all drink to. Clint hides a grin inside the rim of his cup, because Stark’s head had snapped up so quickly at the mention of success that it had nearly snapped off his neck.
Handing the glass off to Natasha who sets it aside, he firms his stance and lifts his chin, lets a sharp grin tug at the corner of his mouth.
“I expect some of you will find this next task easier.”
There is a general groan and commotion of relief at that, and some of the Alphas laugh.
Holding his hand for silence, he continues with his instruction.
“You have indulged me with this first puzzle to be completed; in this next task I shall return the favor. Each of you will be given a few hours' time alone with me over the course of the next week, that we may get to know one another better. You may choose any activity you like within reason, and I shall do my very best to accommodate you. I only ask that each of you answer one, single question that I shall pose.”
They wait, baited breath, and Clint is unforgivably pleased to disappoint them by not posing the question now.
“You will receive your invitations the evening prior to your allotted day,” he continues. “It will note the time you have been given and you may contact Lieutenant Sitwell with any needs or preparations you may have. I look forward to spending some time with each of you.”
Reaching down, he offers Natasha his hand and guides her to her feet, signals Bucky to rise and follow.
“And now my friends, I retire for the night, with more congratulations to you all. Sleep well, and know I speak the truth when I say that it will be good to see each of you come the morrow.”
Ducking his head in a shallow bow, he turns and leaves the table, the murmur of polite well-wishes following him out. Rogers and a few other members of his SHIELD fall in behind, escorting the three of them back to Clint’s rooms, and he finally allows his grin to escape his control and show on his face.
“You are becoming a better liar,” Natasha remarks as they walk, and Bucky makes a sound of agreement.
“I didn’t lie,” Clint says with a smile, drawing her closer. “I said it would be good to see them all, not that it would be nice to see them all.”
Natasha tilts her head, gives him an impressed look, and he bursts out laughing.
“Come on,” he grumbles with fond exasperation, pulling them both along by the elbow. “I want to sit and gossip about my new beaus!”
Squawking and dodging the slaps both Nat and Bucky aim for his head, he pulls them into his rooms and locks the door behind them.
Bucky’s a useless gossip until they get him halfway drunk and bring up Steve. His omega side comes out when he’s three sheets to the wind and the lieutenant’s name gets mentioned, all blushes and coquettish looks from beneath his lashes. Natasha mostly just listens indulgently, refilling their glasses or pressing nibbles into their hands, keeping them from totally losing themselves, and Clint’s not so drunk that he can’t make a comparison between Rogers’ shoulders and Thor’s on purpose just to really get the ball rolling.
They stay up late into the night comparing the features of Clint’s remaining competitors, swooning over good looks and speculating about sexual prowess the way omegas who’ve got very little experience with such things do. There are plenty of pretty faces to choose from, and even more intriguing personalities, but there’s a safety to the conversation with all three of them knowing exactly who they are each devoted to.
Clint to Phil.
Bucky to Steve.
Natasha to her prince and to herself.
It’s like flirting with the old woman who runs the bakery in town that Clint likes – safe because it’s not going anywhere, because she’s a commoner and a beta and happily married, to a wonderful man who Clint also sometimes casts a wink at just so they all know it’s harmless fun.
“Mind the head you keep on your shoulders,” Natasha warns, standing up out of the little nest of cushions and quilts they’ve built on the floor in front of the fire, looking down at the both of them where he and Bucky are sprawled out on their backs on the floor. “Nothing is as easy as it seems.”
Drunk as they are, they both snicker and snort at the allusion to other things they might be thinking with, and then fall asleep in a tangle when she leaves them for the bed on the other side of the room.
Clint wakes up with a headache and Natasha’s warning thumping a tattoo against the inside of his skull, and a curious mix of dread, exasperation, and eagerness in the pit of his belly.
Together the three of them wash and dress and walk down to the great hall for a late breakfast, closer to midday than dawn. Bucky has been instructed by Selina and Carson himself to stay at the castle until the end of the games, in order to report back to the Romani the fate of their favored princeling. Clint thinks it an excellent opportunity for the omega to see a bit more of the city and get a feel for life here, to see if leaving his family, his home, and his nomadic lifestyle would be worth the hand of the eager young Lieutenant who waits for them at the doors. Bucky flushes when they turn the corner and Steve starts forward to meet them, silently accepts the man’s arm when Clint coldly and callously abandons him by taking Natasha’s.
They would do well together, he thinks, not only because they love each other. Bucky’s grumpy practicality would temper Steve’s cheery optimism, and in return he would make Clint’s friend very happy by catering to his every whim and will. Rogers could easily rise to Captain in the near future, and Clint could knight him as quick as anything, which would leave him with a very favorable suit to present to Carson for Bucky’s hand.
Clint curses himself, reminded of Natasha’s words as his head clamors.
There are very few situations in which Rogers might rise to Captain of the King’s SHIELD, and all of them involve Phil no longer holding the position.
He cannot allow himself even these most minor, indirect daydreams if he hopes to maintain any semblance of impartiality, to hold on to any shred of emotional control.
Their meal is quiet and uninterrupted, as most of the Alphas had broken their fast earlier during the morning meal. Thiers is smaller and more intimate, food and drink brought just for the three of them, and a bit of willow bark to chew for the headache. By the time they’re finished Clint’s feeling much better, and can prepare to face the afternoon with two of his suitors.
“Who shall you see today Little Bird,” Natasha asks as the servants clear away the trays.
“Thor,” he replies, chewing at the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. “And that marquis from the south.”
Natasha hums and Bucky slouches in his chair, watching Clint with dark eyes.
“Shall we wait for you Highness?” he asks, uncomfortably stiff in the face of the staff still milling about.
Clint laughs, waves his hand at him.
“Yes, I want you both here to gossip about my suitors,” he chuckles, “But I won’t be back from the last before supper, so do not strain yourselves. Shall we agree to meet here and adjourn to my quarters each night, to compare opinions?”
Bucky and Natasha both nod, offering him smiles and reaching out to squeeze his hands.
He takes comfort in them, in their friendship and their support for all of a moment before cracking and grin, waving Steve over to the table from where he is standing at attention against the wall.
“Lieutenant Rogers!” he calls cheerily, “My friend Bucky is in need of entertainment and companionship until my return these next days – can I count on you?”
“Of course, highness,” Rogers replies smartly, but Clint can see the color bleed across his cheeks even as he ducks his head in a formal bow.
Funny thing is, the same thing happens with Bucky.
“Excellent,” he declares with a smile, clapping his hands together. “Now if you’ll excuse me my friends, I have an appointment to keep.”
Standing, he leans down to press a kiss to Natasha’s cheek when she tips her face up imperiously in silent, regal request, claps a hand to Bucky’s shoulder, and sweeps out of the room toward his library. Lieutenant Sitwell will bring each Alpha there to meet him, and from there they will...
Clint pauses, thinks about his future, the known and the unknown.
From there they will move forward.
He spends all day standing tall and making decisions, giving orders and appearing to be ever-confident, always in control.
He doesn’t want more of the same in the company of his husband.
‘Or wife,’ he scolds himself, because there are female Alphas in the group and he cannot, he cannot allow himself the daydreams.
Hope, yes, hope he will allow, but he must be fair in his judgment if he wants his choice to stand.
This Alpha had not even been able to answer his question in a coherent manner, had been anxious in the solitary company of a prince and an omega. Clint had – somewhat pettily – suggested a game of chess, hoping that he would at lease be able to draw the man into easier conversation with their attention on the board, but not even that had worked.
One more down, only sixteen left.
“Clinton!” Thor booms joyfully, striding into the library and distracting him from his thoughts.
Bouncing to his feet, Clint smiles widely and offers him a formal bow.
Thor laughs, a loud, rumbling sound like thunder, and returns the gesture.
“I would not stand on formality with you, princeling,” he says, and Clint waves off the rest.
“Nor I,” he agrees, “For the two of us, we have enough formality in our lives do we not?”
“Indeed,” the Asgardian prince replies. “Shall we have a bit of sport instead?”
Clint thinks he probably looks like a maniac the way he grins, all eagerness and an energy that floods his system like a river run over.
“Excellent! I thought we might do a bit of hunting, if you are so inclined,” Thor offers, pushing open the library door and sweeping Clint through with a gallant gesture.
Something inside Clint’s chest settles as he passes - this, this is comfortable, easy. The Alpha isn’t being pushy, just confidant, yet still willing to be denied or let down. There is something else in Thor’s presence and presentation too that he very much likes. He is cheerful and eager himself, like a big blonde puppy, and perhaps just as effusive and clumsy in his energy. Still, as they walk together through the halls and out into the courtyard, he relaxes.
“The good Lieutenant said that he would have men waiting to accompany us, should we choose to ride out,” he says, long, blonde hair gleaming in the sunshine, his heavy red cloak pinned back carefully. “I would trust your superior knowledge of the territory and the game that lives here to guide us.”
The last little thread of tension in Clint’s chest breaks with his words – here is no Alpha such as Pierce who would belittle his prowess or scoff at his presence on the hunt. Clint is perfectly capable of showing him the best places for boar or elk, could demonstrate his ability to hit a rabbit’s eye from a hundred yards with his bow pridefully, but...
“Would you like to see our raptors?” he asks hopefully. “I fear our larger game would not hold a candle to some of the beasts I have heard of being felled in Asgard, but...”
Clint suddenly feels himself blush, ducks his head before biting his lip shyly and meeting Thor’s gaze.
“But I would like to show you,” he says.
A slightly stunned expression crosses Thor’s face before he nods regally, taking Clint’s hand to bow over it and press a kiss to his knuckles.
“I would be honored Clinton,” he says, and Clint squeezes his fingers to show his appreciation for the moment before laughing it off.
“No more formality then,” he reminds him, grinning and eager once more as the energy between them sparks into something more excited, something charged with boyish rigor. “Come, let me show you the mews, and then we shall take to the hunt.”
It’s an easy climb up to the cool, dark houses where the raptors are housed at the top of the wall. Clint dearly loves the birds kept there, so fierce and free in flight. An excellent austringer, he is not called Hawkeye for nothing, and with the name comes great respect for the hawks and falcons so carefully trained and manned. Thor is endearingly delighted and awed by them himself as they step carefully down the line of perches, listening with interest and a cheerful curiosity as Clint explains the gear and the birds themselves.
He selects two for their hunt – a young kestrel and a beautiful Peregrin falcon that he had raised himself from a downy chick. The birds are carefully hooded and jessed, and he shows Thor how to hold on perched carefully on a gloved fist. Satisfied that the two are steady, he leads the way back down to the stables where Tommy and Billy are waiting with their horses saddled, and Maria Hill and a contingent of her soldiers are mounted and ready. He does not miss Pierce, Hammer, and a few of the other Alpha’s milling around, but he dutifully ignores them.
Coulson too, but at least he has a reason to be out and about, performing his duties as Captain of the King’s SHIELD, not standing around gawking.
Mounting his horse, he and Thor set out, riding easily ahead of the rest of the SHIELD who keep a respectful distance. They chatter about nothing, about weather and the available game and the delicious street food Clint had tried on his only visit to Asgard three years ago, and he finds himself enjoying the way that Thor seems to live within the present, to enjoy what is before him and around him instead of worrying about... all the rest.
He also finds himself biting his lip when the name Jane is brought up more than once in the conversation.
Eventually they cross a small branch of the river, the horses clattering through the creek to reach the wide fields on the other side. Woods creep in at the back and along the edges where the tilled earth has been abandoned, left for the season to recover, and Clint sets about showing Thor how they will fly the hawks. Releasing his falcon from its hood and ties, he gives the bird a steady launch from his fist and watches as it takes to the sky, climbing higher and higher until it is merely a dark speck far above them. It begins to circle the field lazily, and Clint takes the opportunity to watch Thor from the corner of his eye
The Alpha had carefully guided his own bird onto the perch brought along, and is standing next to his horse with his hand shading his eyes from the sun, staring up at the clouds and the falcon above him. He cuts a strong, sturdy figure, and Clint knows that the intricate braids in his hair and beard signify some kind of prowess on the battlefield, but the man has been nothing but polite and cheerful since his arrival, never once seemed to give over to the brutishness or pompousness that would so easily fit his body and his stature. He is certainly pleasant company, and at this point Clint has not found fault in him as a suitor, but he wonders....
With a sudden, high-pitched scream, the falcon drops to the earth like a lightning strike, all speed and power and flashing talons, and Thor whoops with triumph as it clashes with the dirt, rising again with a fat, wild coney in is grip. Rising into the air once more, it returns its prey to their feet, and Clint is quick to retrieve it and hood the bird again before it can start tearing the meat. Cleaning the animal, he feeds the bird the offal from his fingers, hissing a bit when the sharp beak hits at his thumb.
“Amazing!” Thor booms, a grin brightening his face.
“Not quite the same as felling the game yourself,” Clint admits, but the Alpha prince shakes his head.
“In Asgard we take great pride in raising up our hunting hounds from pups,” he says. “Is it not the same with these noble creatures?”
“It is,” Clint nods, moving the falcon onto the perch beside the kestrel and placing the cleaned rabbit into their game pouch. “We must first stalk the nests, then climb to retrieve the eggs back down. Once hatched the chicks must be nurtured to maturity before they can be taught not to take the prey for themselves, or to leave.”
“A worthy endeavor,” Thor decides seriously. “They are impressive creatures.”
“Would you like to try?”
It’s an enjoyable afternoon. Clint takes the opportunity to get physically close to the Alpha as he shows him how to fly the kestrel, and while it is more to test himself than anything, he feels it goes well. He doesn’t feel loomed over or threatened though Thor stands nearly head and shoulders above him, and while he’s not entirely comfortable with the closeness, it comes from unfamiliarity, not uncertainty or nervousness. Thor seems to enjoy the hunting and they catch several more rabbits after riding out to another open field, and he babbles on unselfconsciously about the hunts of his youth and the Lady Jane who would enjoy the birds so much.
“Tell me about her,” Clint suggests softly, when the Alpha lapses into a soft silence.
A startled look flashes across his face, as if he had not realized that he had been speaking aloud.
“I... forgive me your Highness,” he stumbles, and for the first time Clint sees him look uncomfortable, unsure. “I should not have spoken so.”
“Thor,” he argues, gently scolding. “Would you answer my question now, if I asked it?”
“Of course,” he agrees, nodding insistently. “Any that you would ask of me; I am sorry, I forgot myself.”
“That was not my question,” Clint corrects. “My question is the same one that I shall ask all my suitors; why are you here?”
He says is softly, encouragingly, yet Thor appears almost stunned, almost afraid. The expression on his face makes Clint want to cup his cheek in his hand, to hug him, because surely there is a reason when he has gone on and on about his Lady Jane in a tone very similar to the one Clint uses when speaking quietly to Natasha about a certain Captain in the middle of the night.
“My father...” Thor begins slowly, “He is not a stupid man. Set in his ways, quick to anger yes, but not stupid. With time to think he comes to recognize his mistakes and he was forced to do so with you.”
Clint nods knowingly – on his sole visit to Asgard as the Royal Envoy of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Thor’s father Odin had made no secret of his disdain for Clint’s youth and orientation, had made it clear that he felt slighted and disrespected to be meeting with the omegan princeling instead of the Alpha King himself. He had not been treated well at the time, and he is not surprised that Odin is making overtures of goodwill now that Clint is to be crowned. He is only surprised by the way he has chosen to do it.
“My father fears invading forces at worst,” Thor continues, sitting easily in the saddle as their horses meander along the tree line back toward the castle. “A break between our kingdoms at best. The loss of trade, communication, political support...”
“You are here then to ensure the on-going alliance between our kingdoms?”
“Sire,” Thor concedes, dipping his head. “I am to be crowned King on my father’s death – a marriage between us would guarantee the consummation of our countries and the continued well-being of our people.”
“Our customs are very different,” Clint muses easily, guiding his horse onto the bridge over the river instead of plunging through it this time. “Our people lead very different lives.”
Thor seems to have no answer to this, but Clint can see the troubled look on the man’s face. Reaching over, he squeezes the Alpha’s arm and he looks surprised, as if he expected to be rebuffed.
“I would not have you think that I do not enjoy your company,” he says carefully. “I surely have. I... do not think we would be unsuited to each other.”
“If not for the love you already have for another?” Clint asks carefully.
Thor’s cheeks pink and he nods before clearing his throat and shifting his shoulders back.
“But I have always known that one day my love would suffer for my birthright and my throne,” he says gruffly, urging his horse forward into a trot.
Clint watches him go and breathes a heavy sigh.
“Yeah,” he sighs under his breath, “Lot of that going around.”
Over the next few days, Clint spends time with many of the Alphas. A few of the lesser nobles surprise him but most do not, and several more are scratched off Fury’s ledger as time passes. If they cannot answer the question as to why they are there to compete for his hand, or if that answer is unsatisfactory as a lie, then they are quietly eliminated, thanked for their time and offered lodgings until the end of the competition. Others do a fair job, impress him with their wit and charm, but all-in-all his finds himself pleased that he had had the foresight to stagger the most promising amongst the least, so that he may spare himself a significant amount of boredom and agitation.
Alexander Peirce proves interesting as ever. He answers Clint’s question with an aggressive, straightforward response; that in aligning Bedford-Stuyvesant and the power of the King’s SHIELD with the Hydra nation and the might of their own army, they shall strengthen both countries and be nigh-on unstoppable in the face of any foe. What he says is true, to be sure, but he neglects to mention that Clint will be completely overrun by his Alpha husband, that his role as King will be stolen from him and he will be relegated to the bedroom with little to do but what he is told, that the power of their command will be used offensively, not only to defend themselves.
Luckily, Clint is smart enough to read between the lines, hear all the things left unsaid and take them into account. For his chosen activity Pierce keeps him in the library, pulls out maps and arranges warboards, prattles on and on, mostly to himself, about all the great successes their new country and new armies could amass, while Clint slouches casually in a chair in the corner. Simpering and fawning disinterestedly like the demure, brainless, properly quiet omega Pierce clearly expects him to be, he makes careful note of everything Pierce says, cataloguing the positions of all the wooden pawns he pushes around the imaginary new world he’s building up in his head.
When their afternoon is over Clint thanks him for his time and runs straight to his council, calling Fury as his former general and Coulson as his Captain. Together they thoroughly assess the information that Pierce has so arrogantly provided them, taking into account the locations of the Hydra armies and the potential pushes they might make into Asgard, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and several other neighboring countries. Fury grumbles and growls, Coulson make notes and mutters to himself about counter-measures, and Clint oddly enough breathes easier for the information he’s gained. Pierce has answered his question, technically has a good answer, and at this point, honestly, he’s willing to keep the man around for a while longer if he’s stupid enough to be spouting secrets left and right.
Fury rumbles a sharp comment sharing a similar sentiment, and Coulson goes dark and glowery so quick that Clint has to excuse himself.
He’s left Coulson until last for a reason, you see.
On Natasha’s recommendation, but he was naturally smart enough to listen.
If he’d seen him any sooner, no doubt his head would be all full-up of the handsome Captain, and that was hardly fair to any of his other competitors.
So he sees them first.
Justin Hammer drags him to the outskirts of the city to show off one of his blacksmith’s forges, prattling on about the amount of business that they do and the quality of their work, of the little empire he is building. His head seems to hold no notion that Clint knows exactly what is going on in his kingdom, has already seen the Hammersmith forges and their work and found them wanting at best. When asked his question Hammer stumbles and trips all over himself before coming up with a simpering falsehood about finding Clint handsome and knowing that he could be a good Alpha for the omegan princeling, and given all the gifts that god has given him how could he not offer them up to his future-king?
Clint is hard-pressed to choose between gagging or snorting with laughter, but manages to do neither.
Instead he thanks Hammer for his time and attention and tells Fury to eliminate him from the competition.
That evening he thinks he spies Hammer coming from the General’s study with petulance on his face and his tail between his legs, but if the man had been foolish enough to argue his elimination Clint has no intention of coming to his aid. This decision at least is easily defensible – if Hammer’s story is that he is here to offer the money and support brought in by his business then Clint has enough of his own already, thank you very much.
He and Bobbi laugh about it the next morning when they spend their few hours together, out on the gaming pitch where she’s brought him to practice their tumbling and cartwheels. She’d even asked Bucky to help her set up a tightrope, at about knee height, that they may enjoy themselves with familiar tricks and games learned from the Romani in their youth. They have a good talk together, just two old friends, and she admits that though her father wishes her to advance beyond her status as a minor princessa, she really had come with all the intention of supporting Clint as best she could. He kisses her on the cheek when they turn back to the castle around midday, thanking her for what she’s offering him. Though their fondness for one another is that of brother and sister, it means more than he can say that she would offer him a safe retreat.
Still, he hopes it will not come to that.
One Alpha spends the afternoon reading him love poems in a stiff and stilted tone that belies her discomfort with the activity. Another takes him to the river to fish, and they enjoy a surprisingly peaceful morning together. Another’s nerves must get the better of him entirely, for he never shows at all, and when Clint checks with the household he learns the man had left for home the night before after receiving his invitation. He sends the Alpha a letter wishing him all the best, and means it with his whole heart.
Madame Masque surprises him. When she meets him in the library early on the morning of her allotted day, he does not know what to expect. She comes with a slim basket hooked over one shoulder, and asks in a quiet voice if he has a garden that they might walk through. Clint offers her his arm and her hand is warm and strong around his elbow, and together they walk the paths of his mother’s flower beds for near an hour, admiring the colorful blooms and plentiful vegetation.
As they come to the center of the great maze, he hands her down onto a bench near a fountain to rest, the pleasant smell of the flowers sweet in the air around them.
“I find beauty in simple things,” she says, her tone light and musical, in a way that reminds Clint of the glass chimes his mother had favored once. “I enjoy beauty.”
Sighing, the mood abruptly changes as she lifts a hand to touch the edge of the mask she wears over her face, the sun glittering off the golden metal.
“But I have no beauty to offer you princeling,” she murmurs.
A moment of silence passes before Clint moves to sit down beside her.
“There are far more virtues in this world than beauty,” he says, laying his hand over hers on the bench between them. “Beautiful things can betray as easily as plain ones, and though coal may not be the prettiest rock I’ve seen brought from the earth, thus far I have found it to be the one I am most often happy to have around.”
Masque makes a choked, sobbing sort of sound and Clint squeezes her fingers.
“Why are you here?” he asks gently.
“Because I would find beauty again,” she says intently, her voice only a little shaky. “If I can. I look for it in the simple things, seek to find it in friendship or in love...”
Clint meets her eyes through the slots in the mask, holds them, then leans forward slowly to press a kiss to her cheek, slowly enough that she may pull away or rebuff him if she chooses. When his lips meet with the warm, smooth metal of the mask he feels like he’s won something, and if he is a bit more effusive in his enjoyment of the small lunch she’s packed for them, delights in the treats she’s brought from her country more loudly than he normally would, well, that is between him and his gods.
He picks a gorgeous pink and white lily on the walk back, and tucks it behind her ear with gentle hands. For all of a second his fingers brush against the raised scars hidden at the edge of her mask by the thick fall of her hair, but he does not flinch from them and neither does she.
Stark, if he’s honest with himself, is the Alpha he is most interested in spending time with.
He doesn’t include Phil in this – Phil is on an entirely different level – but of the rest of them... yes, Tony Stark has piqued his interest, his curiosity.
He’s late again to present himself in the library, but comes in flushed and disheveled and out of breath from running. He apologizes prettily and relaxes when Clint bursts out laughing, then asks him to take a ride with him to a nearby village. Clint thinks he knows what the Alpha is about but doesn’t ask, just agrees to go along and climbs into the saddle, turning his horse toward the small settlement just outside the city proper.
Along the way he cajoles Stark into conversation, and finds the man witty and funny and clever in addition to being intelligent. Careful to steer clear of such topics as his mentor’s betrayal and his recent abduction, he laughs happily listening to stories of his many exaggerated debaucheries and more private practical jokes, pranks played on his friends. The further they ride the more relaxed Stark becomes, and soon enough they are challenging each other to leap their horses and talking like old friends. The man rambles on about the most amazing notions – carriages that run without horses to pull them, machines that would give men wings like a bird, medicines that could cure madness – and Clint listens with astonishment and interest at the incredible dreams he weaves.
When they arrive in the village Clint spends a good twenty minutes greeting his people, shaking hands, clasping shoulders, and yes, kissing babies. The men and women are happy to see him as always, and seem to take Stark in their stride, greeting him just as warmly. Seemingly uncomfortable at first, he finds his feet quickly and easily, and Clint is pleased by the way he interacts with the others, on equal and even footing though his position as a lord likely sees him more often ruling the common folk than mingling among them.
From there he is heartlessly abandoned, but he had expected as much, and he really is not all that upset by it. Rather, he shakes his head amicably and cannot help a smile and a warm, fond feeling when Stark convinces a few of the men to show him their wells and irrigation system. Settling under a tree with several small children, he is provided with a basket of apples and a paring knife that he uses to quarter and slice the fruit, sharing it equally between them as he listens to their stories and laughter. Stark works well with the villagers, asking questions and directing movement in a way that makes him seem a part of them, rolling up his sleeves and getting the knees of his trousers dirty right alongside. He seems to have no qualms about the labor, and makes several more sketches and drawings as midday draws into afternoon.
When he’s finally finished, he seems to startle, realizing all at once that Clint’s still there, leaning casually against a tree and watching him with a sort of indulgent expression.
He doesn’t apologize, just chuckles and shrugs in a sort of self-deprecating way, and Clint finds that he doesn’t mind that either. He likes the Alpha’s mannerisms, thinks he’s rather adorable in his distraction and his intensity. He bumps Stark’s shoulder with his own as they walk back toward the stables where their horses are waiting, and smiles a little to himself when the man once again reacts with surprise.
He’s starting to suspect that as a result of his reputation, Stark doesn’t get nearly as much praise, friendship, or affection as he deserves.
“You had a question for me Highness,” Stark reminds him as they ride back toward the castle.
“Several,” Clint chuckles, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, because he feels that perhaps Stark will be more at ease, and subsequently more honest with him, if he does not feel on the spot. “But I shall save the rest and subject you to no more scrutiny than your competitors, as such would hardly be fair.”
Stark’s golden mare, Mark II, comes sharply to a stop on the road as her rider reins her back, and Clint turns Lucky easily to face the man, to assess the look of worry on his face.
“Why are you here Stark?” he asks easily. “You don’t strike me as the kind of Alpha who needs an omega... or the type of man who wants for a partner.”
“You have been listening to the town criers,” Stark replies with a grin that looks forced and painful around the edges, going for the easy answer - swaggering confidence in his many reported lovers.
“That is not what I meant,” Clint corrects gently. “I have spent plenty of time in your company this past week and I would hazard a guess that half the things they say about you are false.”
Stark shifts uncomfortably in the saddle and does not respond.
“I only thought that it seems perhaps your... science,” Clint says, gesturing toward the bits of paper sticking out of Stark’s pockets, “May be the thing that keeps your mind awake at night. Not an omega, man or woman. I meant no offense.”
Watching Clint warily, Stark swallows, then nods jerkily in a way that seems like he hopes Clint misses the gesture all together as he starts his horse forward again.
“Perhaps that is the case,” he says slowly, cautiously as Clint brings Lucky in close to Mark II’s side, so that his and Stark’s knees occasionally brush. “My attendant Ms. Potts would prefer I settle down with some omega, to... temper my eccentricities.”
“But that is not what you’d prefer.”
“Not particularly, no,” Stark replies with a laugh, before suddenly sobering. “I would make anyone a terrible partner your Highness. I am distractible, and messy, and more often than not, lost in a world of my own making. My thoughts move too fast for most to keep up, which makes me terrible company for any companion, let alone someone I care about. I am... exceedingly lucky in my friends, that they tolerate my simple presence on any given day.”
“So?” Clint asks, a small smile tugging at his mouth, because he believes that Tony Stark is far more deeply loved than he realizes.
“So,” he huffs, “I am here because, as a human being, I am selfish and greedy and flawed, and because I have chosen a path that has left me standing near-penniless on the moral hill I’ve chosen to lay my stake to.”
“Most would say that argues against you being selfish and greedy,” Clint points out easily. “It is admirable that you have left weapons-making behind, after what happened.”
Stark’s jaw hardens and for a moment Clint fears he has overstepped.
“I made a mistake trusting Stane,” he admits a moment later. “I did so because he was my father’s man, but I knew what kind of man my father was as well enough. Perhaps this is my penance for what has been done, for the damage wrought by the things I’ve built.”
“There will always be wars Stark,” Clint sighs, “As long as there are men to fight them.”
“True,” he agrees, “But I had hoped... I have hope that my work might mitigate the damage, not add to it. As for why I am here, again, I defer to my faults. Selfish and greedy, and currently mostly-bankrupt. Though I have no intention of ever going back to weapons-making, I believe that there are many more advancements, many more inventions to be made that will change the way the world works.”
“Your magic carriages and medicinal cures,” Clint says with a grin.
“Science, not magic!” Stark insists, ruffling like a disgruntled bird before settling again when he realizes Clint is teasing him. “Wheels are turned by power; the source only needs to be created. Madness comes from real, tangible things, not myths and folklore. With the proper patronage these things can be studied, researched and changed, fixed even.”
“So you would have me for my fortune?” Clint asks with a laugh, and Stark has the good grace to blush, though his chin comes up defiantly.
“It is a good match for both of us,” he argues. “Do not tell me that you are truly interested in some of these Alphas, posturing around and parading like peacocks, hovering close like vultures to take anything they can from you.”
Clint smirks, inclines his head.
“There then,” Stark huffs. “You see? We would both get what we wanted – I would have my labs and money to fund my projects, and you would go your own way without any interference from your court-required Alpha.”
“You have it all sorted then?” Clint asks, a smile still on his face.
“Not hardly,” Stark grumbles, “There is still this damned competition first, and all the rest of them, especially the Captain of the Guard.”
Clint’s insides clench up but he doesn’t react, and in the face of his steadiness Stark smirks.
“I believe you far more devious than many give you credit for Highness,” he says, urging his horse to a canter and calling back over his shoulder. “More fools them!”
Clint watches him go, and wonders what exactly it is that so many people dislike about Tony Stark.
Later that night things click, and he laughs himself to sleep.
Every day that passes without his turn to take Clint out and compete for him individually is unbearable, and Phil has no one to blame but himself.
He does of course, curses himself a blue streak as he watches his princeling come and go with one foreign Alpha after the other, but it doesn’t make him feel any better. He’d had his chances, dozens over the years his friends so helpfully remind him, and he’d chosen to do nothing and watch in silence, so it’s perhaps a fitting punishment that he must continue now to do the same.
He sees the way Clint smiles, eager to be out hunting with Thor, sees the easy comfort and familiarity he has with Bobbi, notes the interest he shows in Stark and the relaxed acceptance he seems to feel for many of the others and it chills him to his core.
But there is nothing he can do.
He waited too long, the competition is begun, and there is nothing he can do about how well-suited some of these other men and women are to his princeling.
No, the only thing he can do is continue to serve his position as Captain of the King’s Guard to the best of his ability, and when his turn comes do his best to show Clint that he too is a fair prospect for a husband, despite any misunderstandings between them.
It’s that thought that gives him the idea for their little courtship romp. He’d thought perhaps to take Clint shooting, to give him the space to relax and breathe and do something he enjoys away from prying eyes, but that seems... too ordinary somehow. Yes, it shows that Phil knows his princeling well, but they are both already aware of that. This should be different, should mean something more, and as he ponders his current options and his past choices, the answer comes quietly and clear as day.
That doesn’t make anything easier either.
He still has to wait and watch as Alpha after Alpha attempts to win the interest and the heart of the man he is sworn to protect, the man he loves with everything he is. He doesn’t know which is worse – seeing someone like Alexander Pierce try to win, someone so dangerous and poorly matched, or seeing someone like Thor Odinson try to do the same, a good man who would not abuse his position and with whom Clint could likely be very happy.
It’s a terrible, miserable week.
He distracts himself as much as he can by pouring over the information Clint had managed to wring out of Pierce, the war designs and battle formations that the Alpha had so arrogantly spilled in front of what he believed to be a foolish, easily impressed omega. It works in part – keeps him busy as he and his Lieutenants formulate counter-attacks and defensive positions should Hydra ever make the mistake of acting on their plans – but it reminds him too of just how remarkable his heart’s chosen companion truly is.
By the time Sitwell finally appears at his barracks’ door late one evening toward the end of the second week, Phil is ready to tear his hear out in frustration. The heavy parchment is smooth against his fingertips, Clint’s royal seal pressed into wax the color of ripe aubergines, and for all of a moment he can’t breathe as he takes it from Jasper’s hand.
His Lieutenant – no, his friend – claps him on the shoulder before taking his leave, allowing Phil the privacy he needs to clear his throat and pull himself together before locking his bunk door behind him and collapsing on the edge of the bed.
It is with trembling hands that he carefully slides the blade of his penknife beneath the edge of the parchment, cutting carefully through the seal and spreading the paper flat across his knee. He recognizes the princeling’s handwriting from years of study, an elegant scrawl in rich black ink, and he breathes easier with it real and visible and tangible before him, as brief as the message is.
Tomorrow, just past midday.
He can work with that.
He fails to sleep at all that night but the day dawns bright and clear and he springs from his bed as if he were ten years younger than he truly is. Though he dons his regular uniform he dresses with care, and makes sure to stow his emotions safe and tight inside his chest before stepping outside. He has all the morning to pass before his chance will come to escort his princeling away, and he will keep his wits about him till then. Half the point of these games is for an Alpha to prove they are a worthy partner, and if Phil cannot conduct himself, cannot perform his incredibly important duties in leading the army that keeps kingdom and his future King safe, then what good is he?
It’s a painful exercise in self-control.
He’s the last one, the very last, and he doesn’t know what that means.
He can’t believe that it’s coincidence, but isn’t sure if it’s good or bad.
Good, he hopes, but there is so much more at stake now than there would have been five months ago, even five weeks ago.
Five years ago, not so much – he hadn’t lied to Natasha when he’d said that King Charles “Barney” Barton would not have been pleased to find him cavorting with his baby brother – but he still wishes he’d spoken up sooner.
As the sun passes overhead and morning slides into afternoon, he squares his shoulders and breathes deep.
No better time to correct things than the present he supposes.
As the clock over the courtyard strikes the hour, he makes his way toward the library Clint favors on the first floor. Two members of the King’s Guard are posted outside, and he’s painfully proud of the way that they ignore his presence, treating him as a suitor instead of their Captain. Sitwell does the same as he opens the doors, announcing him by his formal title and ushering him inside. Phil squares his shoulders and stands tall as he enters, but he only still just manages not to stumble.
Clint looks magnificent.
It’s not that he looks all that different from the way he normally does, Phil considers as he approaches. He’s dressed well but comfortably, no crown on his head, though he wears the jeweled rings of his rank and house on his fingers. His eyes are still the bright, mischievous collide of color that they always are, and his muscular, athletic body still held with all his familiar grace, but...
But he’s in every way more.
He’s an omega held still with eager anticipation, his body practically thrumming with energy, and his gaze is intent and hot and hungry as he looks Phil over from head to toe. He nearly shudders under that look, wants to yank him up from the elaborately carved armchair he sits in with such feigned detachment and kiss him senseless, but Natasha sits on a stool nearby stitching, and he has no doubt she would defend Clint’s honor and this process from any inappropriate advances with impunity.
“Highness,” he says quietly as he comes to a stop near the foot of the riser on which Clint’s chair has been placed.
He’s pretty proud of himself when he managed to keep his voice level.
“Alpha Coulson,” Clint replies, and there’s a light in his eyes and just a hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth that cuts the tension in Phil’s shoulders and has him breathing a silent sigh of relief as everything stretched out between them across the years relaxes.
“I thought we might take a walk together, if you were so inclined,” he offers quietly, and he is unbearably pleased when Clint slips silently and easily to his feet.
“I’d like that very much.”
Smiling, Phil offers his arm, and feels something deep inside his chest quiver with excitement and pride when Clint takes it easily, wrapping his hand through the bend in his elbow. He squeezes gently and Phil pulls him in against his side, and together they walk at an easy pace out of the castle and across the courtyard, the two SHIELD men following at a respectful distance. They don’t speak but it is a relaxed, familiar silence between them, and when they come to the base of the wall and Phil arches an eyebrow in question, the grin that spreads across Clint’s face lights up his whole world.
It’s a nice view following him up the steps, but Phil manages to control his blush and pull his gaze back up to an appropriate height by the time they reach the top. Clint grins when he looks back like maybe he knows what Phil had been thinking, then leaps lightly up onto the balustrade and starts walking down the wall, his arms out to the side for balance that comes as naturally to him as breathing.
For a while Phil walks along beside him, just enjoying the quiet company, and he thinks that perhaps this matters, because he suspects any other Alpha, with the possible exception of Bobbi Morse, would have panicked and pulled Clint back down to safety. He loves the heights though, loves to climb, the wall, the towers, the trees, and Phil, well, Phil won’t ask him to change, no matter the outcome of these games. He’s beautiful like this anyway, confident and carefree, the breeze ruffling his hair despite the neat cut he’d debuted only a week ago at the start of the trials.
Full of all the life Phil loves in him.
After some time Clint hops down to join him at a more respectable height, his expression significantly less serious than before.
“I much appreciate your choice in activity Captain,” he says, half teasing, half intently meaningful. “I needed a moment’s quiet.”
“I thought you might,” Phil murmurs, keeping his eyes on the path ahead, guiding them past an outlook post and the men who are stationed there. “You always said that it was easier to think at a height. That you saw better from a distance.”
“And what am I meant to see from here Alpha Coulson?” Clint asks quietly, and Phil blinks at his low, intimate tone, but they’re rounding a corner of the wall and suddenly they’re there, the secluded corner where two branches of the wall join together, the shadowed gap where five years ago an offer had been made and rejected.
Phil’s heart sits like a rock in his throat as he watches Clint’s eyes go wide, sees the moment he recognizes where they are, the significance of this place. He means to explain things – why he had brought him here, why he had pushed him away five years ago – but he can’t seem to find his voice. He watches in silence as Clint takes a step away from him to reach a hand toward the wall, to rest his palm against the cool stone. His chest visibly rises as he takes a shaky breath, licking his lips nervously as he turns back in Phil’s direction.
“Why are you here Phil?” he asks suddenly, painfully calm, like neither the question nor the answer mean the world, like his given name in Clint’s mouth isn’t an intimacy that cuts him to the quick. “Why are you doing this? Is it because Natasha told you to? Because you can protect me better from a seat beside me? Or are you like Bobbi – just thought I might need a friendly face, that I might need saving?”
Phil steps forward, his hands coming up to cup Clint’s shoulders as the prince’s words come faster and harder, his tone sharpening with anger, but he remembers himself at the last moment and instead makes a sweeping gesture, a silent plea for Clint to step back into the shadow of the wall away from any potential prying eyes.
“It’s all of those things,” he says insistently, when Clint has done as he’s asked and they’re both hidden from the view of any man passing by, above or below. “It’s all of those things Clint. Yes, I want to protect you. Yes, I would save you all this if I could. Natasha, she... said some things, and I’m well and rightfully in fear of your Shadow, but this isn’t about her or the SHIELD or the others or anything else. “
He pauses, catches his breath because very suddenly he feels angry himself, all hot and pressured and desperate, and because they’re leaning hard toward each other on the balls of their feet like one or the other of them is about to throw a punch.
His mouth open, totally at a loss, Phil sighs.
“It’s only about you,” he says, shoulders slumping as all the fight goes out of him. “It’s only ever been about you.”
“I love you.”
He hadn’t mean to say that – it wasn’t fair, but he’d meant it and he won’t go back on it now, even when Clint’s mouth snaps shut with an audible click and his cheeks and ears go red.
“I know it’s not fair to tell you now,” he admits ashamedly, “To... to say that now. But I wanted to five years ago. I was in love with you then. I think a part of me always has been. But...”
“It’s not enough.”
For all of a second shock and hurt lance across Phil’s heart, but when he snaps his head up to look at Clint, to actually look, he can see the weariness, the sadness he’s all full up with.
“It’s not enough Phil,” he says softly, shaking his head, and he sounds like his voice is about to crack. “For me, of course, yes of course it is, and five years ago... well. It still would have been enough for me, if not my brother. I know that now. But today...”
Phil nods silently, ducking his head again to stare at his boots, because Lord above if he hasn’t made a mess of things, if he...
“You have to know,” Clint says suddenly, sharp and intense and begging as his fingers wrap tight around Phil’s wrist. “You have to know, if I could...”
“Would you?” he asks, just as sudden, and it’s a cruel thing to do, a cruel thing, but he needs to hear it, to know for certain that this is what Clint wants.
He chuckles a bitter laugh and drops Phil’s hand to scrub his fist roughly across his cheek, worrying away tears that haven’t quite spilled.
“Course I would,” he says gruffly, shrugging and shoving his hands into his pockets, his shoulders hunched. “But it’s not about what I want, is it? At least not altogether. Gotta justify it...”
Huffing, he turns a little to the side and looks Phil up and down slowly from under his lashes before meeting his gaze.
“Can’t say it back,” he murmurs. “Can’t kiss you, even though I want to, more than anything...”
He can breathe again.
“Then it is enough,” he says softly, as blessed relief and a warm, quiet happiness rolls through him. “It is enough. That’s all I needed Clint, that’s all I... all I wanted to know.”
Clint’s smile is shaky and uncertain and just a little bit tearful and bashful, but he manages to hold Phil’s gaze and there’s something in his eyes like hope.
“I’d give you a favor, if you were jousting for me,” he says, a joke that falls a little flat given the seriousness of the sentiment behind it, but Phil manages to smile back. “Instead I’ll tell you that I... I mean it, even if I can’t say it out loud. And I hope...”
“What?” Phil asks quietly, and he’s only a little disappointed when Clint draws back in on himself, straightening up, squaring his shoulders, putting on his disinterested-royalty expression.
“I hope that you’ll fair well these coming days Alpha Coulson,” he says formally, inclining his head. “I look forward to your continued competition, and I hope... I hope you will do well.”
“I will,” Phil vows, because despite Clint’s words he can see everything the princeling means on written all over his face. “The best I've ever given, and all I can give.”
Swallowing hard, Clint nods in acknowledgement and turns away, walking off down the wall back toward the staircase that will return him to the ground. Phil watches him go, and tries not to think about what will happen if his best just isn’t good enough.
“He’s in love with me,” Clint says wonderingly, probably for the tenth time since he’d woken the next morning.
Above him Natasha smiles and pets his hair.
“He is,” she says. “Of course he is. Any of them should be.”
Across the room near the fire, still picking over the breakfast dishes, Bucky snorts.
“They’re not,” he points out flatly, and Clint laughs from where he’s sprawled out across the bed.
“Of course they’re not,” he agrees. “They want my lands and my money and my crown... not me. Not really anyway. Some of them might be willing to try, to make something of a marriage and be happy. Phil though... It’s different.”
“It is,” Natasha hums, “But it is not any different at all either, and you must be careful Little Bird.”
“I know,” he sighs, rolling into a sitting position on the bed. “I told him as much. If I were to show him favoritism now...”
“It is not favoritism you have to worry about,” Natasha says. “But you must be able to justify your choice. You cannot choose Phil Coulson for love if he fails the challenges you have set.”
“I know Nat,” he gripes.
She frowns at his tone but he doesn’t apologize.
He knows these things and they weigh heavily on his heart.
“What comes next?” Bucky asks, a welcome distraction and no doubt meant to be one, but Clint breathes a little easier as he answers.
“Four challenges left, and each a challenge in their own way,” he muses, thinking on some of the more higher-ranking competitors. “I expect some of them shall be eliminated quite easily.”
“You mean you plan to make sure of it,” Natasha counters, rising from the bed and undressing with little modesty, choosing an outfit she had carefully selected the night before.
“Not in the way you mean,” Clint promises, getting to his own feet to catch her hand and press a kiss to her knuckles. “Relax Tasha. I will not risk my crown for my heart – surely you must believe that by now.”
“I would like to think so,” she says, cupping his cheek briefly, staring into his eyes before going back to the laces on her undergarments. “But your heart has always been your greatest strength my Prince.”
“And my greatest weakness,” Clint says with a laugh. “Fine - I will not risk my heart or my crown, but rather place my faith in those I love. You trust in them, do you not?”
Natasha rolls her eyes and Bucky, bored of their ridiculous back-and-forth, gets to his feet and tightens his belt, fingers light over his hidden knives.
“Can we go?” he asks, and Clint, who is pulling on his own pants at this point, shoots him a smirk.
“Eager to see your Lieutenant?” he asks, and to his disappointment Bucky doesn’t bat an eyelash. “Hell-fire, neither of you are any fun.”
“You’re having more than enough of that for all of us I think,” Natasha scolds as he finishes lacing up his boots. Taking his arm in a biting grip, she steers him toward the door. “Be serious now.”
They make their way down to the dining hall, Natasha on his arm and Bucky walking a careful three paces behind, members of his SHIELD following at a discrete distance. Though they’d broken their fast alone in Clint’s chambers that morning the remaining Alphas are still gathered in the hall, lingering over their food and drink and speaking amongst themselves, no doubt awaiting his arrival. They stand as a group when he enters; some, like Phil, smoothly and elegantly and naturally, others with far less grace, causing chairs to screech across the stone floor and knees to knock against the edge of the table.
Clint greets them with an easy smile and is careful to stop his gaze from lingering on anyone for too long.
“Sit, sit my friends,” he urges with an easy toss of his hand as he moves to the head of the table, pulling Natasha’s chair out for her. Servants rush forward to pull out his own, others ready to serve food and wine, but he waves them back, murmuring his thanks.
Squaring his feet, he turns to look over his suitors, all waiting with eager eyes.
“I thank each of you again for the care and attention you’ve shown me these last few days,” he says. “It was much appreciated. Now that we all know each other better, we must move into more serious dealings.”
Several Alphas shift nervously in their seats, others calmly wait his command. He tries not to think of Captains, ready and willing to march into battle on his word alone, the loyalty and trust inherent to that position, the steadiness.
“From here on out,” he says, speaking loudly and clearly, “Any Alpha may have their second stand for them in any challenge they so choose. You will be afforded this opportunity once and only once. I suggest you think carefully in doing so; Alpha, beta, or omega, your choice in who stands for you will be judged, as will their performance.”
“You would consider an Alpha for the throne who cannot stand for himself?” Pierce scoffs, and Clint turns on him with a flat, cold expression.
“I seek an Alpha who will be an asset to my rule on the throne,” he says in his most dangerously calm, talking-politics tone. “An Alpha who brings partners and allies with him is all the more attractive for it.”
Forcing a sudden smile, he spreads his arms, palms open.
“Besides,” he continues, “I am not an unreasonable man. We all have our strengths, our weaknesses. Why do a job when you can convince someone else to do it better?”
Approximately half the Alphas chuckle, put at ease by his joking and smiles. The others, the smarter ones, remain uneasy. Pierce has an unpleasant gleam in his eye at being called out, and Coulson is watching carefully, every bit the SHIELD Captain in that moment. Beside him, Bobbi casts Clint a nervous look, and Stark’s eyes are bandying back and forth between Clint and Peirce like a shuttlecock.
“You need not choose a second if one is not needed,” Clint assures the group as a whole. “But you have the option. You may need it in the future, you may not. You may need it today!”
A sense of focus snaps back to life as Clint rocks on his heels, trying to keep the smile off his face.
“Each of you will now meet my own champion in the soldiers’ sparring ring,” he announces, watching carefully their reactions. “The mode of combat will be the Alpha’s choice, be it fists or fencing. The battle will be to first blood, or until one or the other admits defeat. I look forward to the performance.”
There is an immediately murmur of consideration and curiosity, nervousness and eagerness. Clint smirks – he has nothing more to say and nothing more to offer them, so he sits back down and waves Lieutenant Sitwell forward, listens as he raises his voice to carry across the din.
“All Alphas step forward,” he commands, opening a bag of black velvet. “You’ll draw lots to determine the day and time you are to spar, and will be sequestered before and after until the last Alpha has competed.”
Clint watches in careful silence as the Alphas grumble and murmur, but all step forward to draw from the stones he had painted himself; noughts for the first day, crosses for the second, blanks for the third. Such is only fair, since Clint has but one champion to fight for him while there are still nearly a dozen or so of them left.
He is not worried.
Five a day at worst, with plenty of time to rest in between, and no doubt some of these sessions will not last long at all.
“The sparring begins tomorrow,” he declares, the clamor of Alphas below immediately falling away. “That those on the first day will at least have that much time to prepare. Those who spar the third day will obviously have that much more time, but this is as fair as I can conjure for you. This is your opportunity to display your prowess – I hope you’ll give me your best.”
Clint’s heart thumps in his chest but he doesn’t look, he doesn’t look in Phil’s direction.
Instead he sighs, jaw set, and makes a short, sharp gesture with his hand, an obvious dismissal. Irritation sparks quickly and unexpectedly and he slouches in his seat, staring into space as the Alphas reluctantly begin to leave the room. Bucky and Natasha keep watch for him, alert and wary, while he suffers through a brief spate of petulance.
Stupid, spoiled, but he’s abruptly annoyed with it all and he’s glad that the sparring is next on the agenda.
He very suddenly wants to fight himself.
Maybe Pierce had done it, maybe all of them gathered round like dogs below the table, waiting for scraps to fall had done it.
It doesn’t matter.
He thinks he’d fight them all himself if he could but there’s no way he can.
The closest he can conjure for himself is...
“Up. Enough of this.”
Clint breathes a sigh of relief as Natasha drags him from his seat, her hand biting sharply into his arm, though not enough to bruise. Strange rules for royalty – if he ever lost his mind and wanted her gone, he could have her executed easily for the familiarities she takes with him.
As it is he thanks all his gods that she does – he needs someone to keep him humble.
Still, he pushes his luck, he supposes, following her out across the commons and back into the SHIELD barracks, Bucky on their heels. If anyone dared give him the thrashing that she does when they themselves both step into the sparring ring they would be put to a swift death. He allows it, from her and her alone, and that saves her, and them, but there’s still a sense of foreboding and forbidden to it that raises the hair on his neck.
He has all the power here, can give the permission needed for her to lash out and strike, but he has the distinct feeling that if anything went wrong it would not be enough.
She cleans the floor with him, leaving him sweaty and filthy and aching in the best way, but it doesn’t quiet the anxiety in his breast. Though he has learned much from her over the years about how to defend himself and cripple another man as quickly as possible, he had not nearly been at his best. She recognizes this – of course she does, how could she have missed – so when she deems him punished enough for his ill-humor she lets him up off the mats and escorts him back inside. There she bullies him through a hot bath and drags him up to Fury’s study, tucked away in the north tower where she abandons him to his more tender-mercies.
Together they sit in silence for nearly a full five minutes as the retired General’s quill scratches across parchment, before he sighs deeply and turns his single eye in Clint’s direction.
“Well?” he demands, a loud, gruff bark. “Speak boy. You know me better than to come to me for platitudes.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Clint mutters, scrubbing his hand through his hair and meaning more than one thing. “It doesn’t matter who I choose or who wins. I cannot defend Captain Coulson even if he is the champion by right because I love him, and there are few others I can be sincere in accepting.”
Fury scoffs and bends his head, goes back to his writing.
“You are worried about Pierce,” he accuses, and Clint glares.
“Of course I am,” he hisses. “Neither my father nor my brother left Bedford-Stuyvesant on good terms with the Hydra nation. He will not accept any defeat with grace, even if he fails by his own hand.”
“The rules and laws of these competitions have been laid out for centuries princeling,” Fury rumbles. He doesn’t look up, but his tone has softened and his confidence soothes Clint’s anxieties. “No one would dare argue them.”
“Or you?” he asks, and Fury’s teeth glint in the firelight when he finally does return his look.
“Or me,” he agrees, his grin cold and ready to bite. “The information that bloated, self-important prig spilled into your lap has been most helpful, and I and the Captain along with his Lieutenants have taken more than enough advantage of it to be ready to counter any attack Hydra is foolish enough to make. Minimal damage, minimal loss to our side. I am not worried.”
“You’re never worried,” Clint grumbles, slouching down in his chair and throwing his feet up onto the footstool near the hearth.
Moments pass in a silence for more comfortable and congenial than the previous one, Fury still taking notes in his ledgers as the fire crackles merrily away, warming the soles of Clint’s boots.
“You should have more confidence,” Fury says, and Clint blinks he’s so surprised by the gentleness of the censure. “Perhaps that is my fault. Perhaps I do not tell you often enough.”
“Hold your tongue and let me speak,” Fury barks, and Clint snaps his mouth shut.
“You should have more confidence,” he says again, looking worn and more world-weary than Clint thinks he’s ever seen. “Not only in yourself. You should have it in the Captain of your SHIELD, in your soldiers and in your people. You should have it in the other Alphas that have come to fight for your hand, urged on by you yourself. Do not mistake me, they come for your lands and your money and your crown, but they also come for you. For your kindness, your intelligence, for the work you put in to running your country.”
Clint feels his face do something strange, pride and gratitude and surprise, and just that quickly Fury is back to the same gruff but supportive wall of stone he’s ever been.
“Don’t get a big head,” he growls, waving his hand dismissively. “Else you’ll end up like that idiot Pierce. I only wish you take some damned responsibility for what you have done, and what the people around you can do. Hellfire, even that red-headed bitch of a she-wolf you brought in has proved her purpose a dozen times over. If you choose an Alpha it will be the best one for you and your people. The truth is easily defended.”
As his speech comes to an end his words slow and his tone softens once more, as much as it can in the grizzled old man’s throat. Clint sits there stunned for several moments as Fury goes back to his work, a clear dismissal, before standing to take his leave.
He hesitates before he goes, and drops his hand to the General’s shoulder.
It is perhaps the most physical affection he has ever been allowed to show his self-chosen father, but no less meaningful for its brevity.
He leaves with light steps and a lighter heart.
He wants to stand and argue, to defend and fight, and he thanks his gods that he has the opportunity with this next challenge to do just that.
He won’t get to fight Pierce he knows, but he has a fair notion of who he will be sparring against, and he suspects that they’ll prove a much better test of his own skills than the Hydra war general. He is not known for riding at the front of the line, for leading his men into battle. The SHIELD had more than prepared Phil for what comes next – though he may not win his match per say, he will not fail it either.
Of course, he doubts any of the gathered Alphas will actually win against the prince’s champion.
He has no real hopes for himself.
Instead, he steps into the familiar hall where the SHIELD soldiers train the next day and bites back a smirk when he sees that the palace staff have brought down a small throne chair and set it up on risers overseeing the sparring ring. Clint sits atop it bickering with Kate Bishop, the young beta debutante he’d made friends with several years ago when she’d run away from her parents and helped Clint slip away from his guards in the local marketplace. He looks awkward and uncomfortable, and Phil knows he would much rather be in the ring himself, but from what Maria Hill had said he’d already had his chance.
As the door swings shut behind him, Clint reacts to the sound by immediately straightening up and adopting his royal posture and expressions. Phil thinks he sees him soften a little when his eyes find him near the entrance, but not as much as he wants, not as much as...
As he thinks maybe he would if they were truly alone.
Barnes is perched in the rafters, peeling an apple with one of his beloved throwing knives, and Miss Bishop is nearly as attentive and intuitive as Clint himself.
Phil steps up slowly and makes a formal bow, presents himself for judgement.
“Alpha Coulson,” Clint says, inclining his head. “As the first contender of this challenge, I hope you are prepared to give us a show.”
“As you wish, highness,” he murmurs in reply, hoping Clint hears all the things he can’t say.
If the way Kate Bishop giggles and blushes and squeezes his elbow is any guess, she did.
Clint rolls his eyes at her before turning his attention back in Phil’s direction and making a vague gesture to the doors that lead to the private baths. As Phil turns Natasha Romanov, the cold-hearted foreigner from the north who had only been thawed by his prince’s warmth, the Red Room assassin who had spent more of her life protecting him than not, strides confidently into the room.
Phil smirks and drops his satchel near Clint’s feet, towel and wineskin of water, no weapons.
“I know you can probably put me on my ass,” he says, stepping into the ring and clasping her hand, a ritual of Bed Stuy and the man and country she represents today, “But I won’t go easy on you.”
“I’d be disappointed if you did,” she says with a cool smile, and she doesn’t have to tell him that she won’t be going easy on him either.
“What weapon do you choose Alpha?” Clint asks behind him, and Phil turns to him, his hands at his sides.
“None but those I was born with highness,” he says before turning back to his opponent. “As I doubt I can best your champion, I might as well get in a good workout.
Clint has pretty much prepared himself for the outcome of this particular challenge. He knows Natasha well, inside and out, and he knows the Red Room after he had spent two years of his youth convincing his brother to help her dismantle it. He knows what she is capable of, knows he has only tasted the barest sampling of it when they spar together. He doubts any of the Alphas still present can actually win against her, but he suspects there may be all manner of tie or forfeiture or refusal.
He didn’t plan for Phil Coulson to be the first to face her, but he thinks it is probably for the best.
He is perhaps the closest to being her equal in the sparring ring, his SHIELD command trained to fight alongside their men and lead from the front, not to cower in the back like Hydra’s. Though he wishes each Alpha to give their best performance, he wishes the same of Natasha as well – he is sending a message by having her fight as his chosen champion, and he is pleased that she will be fresh and ready against the most formidable of her opponents.
Settling into his seat with Kate beside him, a good friend whose sight is nearly as sharp as his own and who herself has been trained in the art of combat, Clint nearly swallows his tongue when Coulson strips out of his shirt, leaving him bare to the waist with only his loose linen pants to cover him from hips to knees.
“A clever one your Captain,” Kate murmurs, pinching his elbow playfully. “He certainly knows how to catch your eye.”
“And is that something that will prove an asset to my future Alpha?” he asks, watching as Nat and Phil both step into the center of the ring and begin to circle each other, sizing up their opponent.
“Your future husband or wife should be able to gain your attention when necessary,” she councils, and though she sounds flippant Clint knows that this is something she’s actually been trained in, brought up by parents who cared about appearances and had given her the education Clint likely would have gotten if his own parents weren’t dead and his brother a drunk. “And they should make it clear the things they like in return. Your people would wish you well-attended.”
“And well-bedded,” he sniffs, as if he doesn’t care for it, as if he’s not thought of that with Phil, dreamt of the broad chest, thick muscles, and delicate scars on display for him now.
“If it makes you happy sire,” Kate says, quietly and terribly sincerely. “Surely you must know that that is what your people wish for most.”
Clint sighs and doesn’t respond, merely sits back to watch the show.
And oh what a show.
It’s not fair.
Natasha makes the opening move when she realizes Phil isn’t going to, smart on his behalf. It happens so fast he almost can’t see it, just a volley of fists and feet and flashing red hair. Strike, strike, snarling and clenched teeth, and Phil is giving as good as he gets. He lands a solid blow to Nat’s ribs but she sweeps his feet from under him just as fast, and follows him across the mats as he bounces back to his feet. Blow and parry, jab and block, it’s an impressive display by both of them. He’s used to watching Natasha fight, Phil not so much, and his body definitely responds to the performance.
It’s not difficult to imagine himself in Natasha’s place when she wraps her thighs around Phil’s face and tosses him to the floor, or when he jackknifes back off the mats and flips their positions with the ease of a man tossing a rag doll. He ends up straddling her for all of a second before she throws him off again and they’re back to it, a deadly combination of boxing, street fighting, and the foreign martial arts.
Clint can see the moment when Natasha stops toying with him. She’s gone relatively easy on him up to that point, letting him warm up, flex his muscles a bit and show off. He’d guessed she might do it – she's taking her own measures of these Alphas this challenge and will no doubt by painfully blunt in her judgement – but he isn’t quite prepared to see her go sharp and cold, like a wolf starved by winter. It’s like a candle being blow out, the change in her, yet he suspects it is so subtle that only he notices. She lands a strike to Coulson’s ribs with his shin, grabs his wrist and wrenches his arm around her own body, using his momentum to flip him over her shoulder. He rolls to his feet but he’s been winded by both blows, and Clint’s sure he doesn’t see Natasha’s fist coming as it flashes out like a snake-strike.
She connects with his jaw with all the weight of her whole body, arm straight, beautiful follow-through. Phil’s lip splits like an over-ripe fruit and brightens her knuckles with his blood. Any other man might naturally react by throwing another swing of his own, and Clint sees Phil begin to do just that, but he checks himself and pulls back with plenty of time to spare, stepping away with his chest heaving and sweat dampening his temples. He rubs the back of his hand over his mouth, laughs, and clasps hands with Natasha in the way of her people, not Clint’s and his own, and he sees the surprise flit across her face.
“I’ll say it as I’ve said before Ms. Romanov,” he huffs, hand pressed to the stitch in his side, “You are always welcome to train with the SHIELD. I have no doubt that many of us would learn some new things.”
“While I appreciate the offer Captain,” she says with a genuine smile, “A woman must have some secrets.”
“Here here!” Kate cheers, and Phil turns to Clint so sharply that for a moment he thinks the man had forgotten the audience.
Then he squares up to Clint and drops his shoulders, lifts his chin and presents like an Alpha presents to an Omega for judgment, and there’s no doubt in his mind that he is just as painfully aware of the tension between them as Clint is. He is immediately flush with arousal; his skin hot, his nerves buzzing with awareness, his pants too tight and his lungs straining to catch the scent of the Alpha in front of him, of his sweat and his pheromones and any possible arousal he may be feeling, and beside him Kate covers her mouth to hide a delicate snicker.
Swallowing hard, he licks his lips and tastes salt, sweetness.
“A well fought battle Alpha,” he hears himself say, as though at a distance, and Phil’s eyes darken, his pupils blowing wide. Clint finds himself rather entranced by the sheen of sweat glistening at the hollow of his throat, and it’s the only excuse he can come up with for what he says next.
“Though I cannot offer to kiss your hurts I will say that I enjoyed the demonstration.”
Phil’s jaw tightens and he visibly trembles, as though he is fighting to hold himself back as his eyes burn with a crash of surprise and relief and Alpha pride that puts a shiver down Clint’s spine.
Heat flushes through him and he tells himself it’s the embarrassment that cause the blush on his cheeks, from having said something so improper, but he cannot convince himself.
At Phil’s side Natasha shifts, angling herself between them though she has an indulgent look on her face, and it breaks the moment like the snap of dry kindling, cracking it down the middle as the tension gives. Phil blinks, takes a deep breath and then takes a step back, ducking his head in a formal bow.
“Highness,” he murmurs, his head lowered. “I am ever at your service.”
And then he’s turning on his heel and walking out.
As the door falls shut behind him Clint melts into his chair, going shivery and shaky like he’s in shock. He can practically feel Bucky and Natasha rolling their eyes at him, but Kate pats the top of his head consolingly and calls for a serving girl to bring water and wine. It takes him at least a quarter of an hour to feel better, calmer, his friends grouped around him with light-hearted teasing and jokes. After a bit of bread and cheese and a series of stretches Natasha forces him through he feels like the floor is back under his feet and can settle in to hear what she has to say.
“Do I even need to say it?” she asks, a genuine question. “He’s likely to be the best I’ll face – it's superfluous at this point.”
Clint scowls at her because the suggestion is a test, and one he appreciates even less than the way she’d smirked at him for falling to pieces in front of a pretty Alpha.
“Your assessment, if you please, Miss Romanov,” he says coolly, and her countenance immediately changes – she is pleased with him.
“He did very well,” she says, “He is adaptable and perfectly capable of hand-to-hand combat. As the Captain of your SHIELD I would expect no less, but he still managed to surprise me. I’d thought I had him the once – he kept me on my toes.”
She falls silent for a moment, her gaze going far away.
“I appreciate that he met me as I was,” she says slowly, and Clint knows she means the way Coulson had clasped her hand at the end, in the way of her people instead of his own. There is something wondering in her tone when she says it and he feels a great, warm pressure in his chest, but she blinks it away as quick as the snap of her fingers, sharpening again.
“It shows intelligence,” she decides. “He knew well enough who he would be facing when he came here, which shows he knows you as well.”
“Yes,” Clint murmurs.
“A good showing all around then,” Bucky cuts in. “And it’s obvious to anyone you are compatible.”
Clint blushes and Kate laughs, and he waves them all up again with a frown.
“Alright, alright,” he grumbles. “If you’ve all had your fun at my expense, can we get on to the next one?”
Natasha nods when he casts her a questioning look, rising smoothly to her feet.
“I am ready Highness,” she says formally, and Clint catches her hand as she moves to pass him.
Her knuckles are red where she had struck Phil in the mouth, but the skin is whole and presses a kiss there before he lets her go.
With Captain Phillip Coulson out of the way, he can focus on the rest of the group sparring today.
At least, he hopes so.
Of the remaining four Alphas Natasha faces, two choose fencing swords and fail to impress her with their skill. She gives them sporting chance to warm up and find their footing, but once she determines that their abilities are lacking she wastes little time in ending the session. They are thanked for their participation and sent to the infirmary to have the shallow cuts on their forearms tended to, and she hardly bothers to give Clint even a minor assessment of their worth with a weapon.
The third Alpha chooses boxing, and then flat-out refuses to fight a female when Natasha steps out to meet him. He looks to Clint with his chin held high, as if he expects him to approve of this false-chivalry, and Clint gives him the benefit of the doubt by assuring him that his chosen champion is more than capable of facing him. When the Alpha stands fast Clint accepts his decision, congratulates him on his ‘strong moral stance’ but makes it very clear that he disagrees, and then sends him off to Fury when he starts to whine about being eliminated. Though Clint can appreciate a man who is unwilling to harm a female, Bedford-Stuyvesant has a long-standing history of incorporating women into their military and any Alpha competing for their King’s hand should be well-aware that sexism is not tolerated.
The final Alpha to come to the sparring rings that day is Bobbi, and Clint breathes a bit of a sigh of relief when she appears. She carries staves with her, slender batons that he knows she can wield with deadly accuracy, and she isn’t surprised in the least when it is Natasha who steps through the doors to meet her. What follows is less of an honest sparring session and more of a lesson, with the both of them teaching and sharing and chattering as they fool about on the mats.
“You two aren’t even trying,” Clint accuses with little venom as he watches Bobbi take a few strikes at Natasha’s midsection.
“Why should we?” she pants, ducking as Natasha strikes back and springing away as she lunges. “I’m good, but I’m not as good as her. And you won’t ever need me to protect you with her and your SHIELD and your Captain looking out for you.”
Clint just sighs and congratulates her when she lands a hit, leaving Nat with lightly bruised ribs and Bobbi with a place left in the competition.
The second day proves much the same; one Alpha hardly worth Natasha’s time with a short, heavy longsword, though he remains in the competition when he explains that he prefers the mace or the flail but had thought it too violent for a simple sparring match, and two Alphas who refuse to face her at all, not because she is a woman but because she is a beta and who are roundly dismissed.
Fourth comes Alexander Pierce, who looks like he’s sucked a lemon when he sees her. Clint suspects that if it weren’t a blow to his pride he would have used this opportunity to engage a second, as Hydra generals are not known for fighting on the front lines themselves. Still, he is in relatively good shape, and wields the long, curved scimitar he brings with a fair amount of confidence. Smart – though Clint hates to admit it – the blade is native to Pierce’s people across the sea, meant for cutting men down from horseback, and a weapon that any of Clint’s would likely be unfamiliar with.
Luckily he has Natasha as his champion, who though may not have been trained with that particular weapon, has been trained to adapt, to survive, to turn anything and everything into a weapon that comes to her hand. Their battle is perhaps the fiercest of them all, with her opponent apparently trying to prove some indecipherable point, and Clint can’t help but think that his aggression seems fueled by an even-more indecipherable hatred. It puts a shiver down his spine and he wishes Natasha would end it almost as soon as it’s begun, give him reason to send Pierce packing, but she gives him as fair a chance as all the others which he supposes is only just.
It ends quickly, with the two scimitars clashing violently together mere inches from Natasha’s face. She bares her teeth as she pushes back against the larger male bearing down on her and the strain in her form is visible, as is the icy disdain she holds for the Alpha she faces. Clint nearly rises from his seat but is kept in place by Kate’s hand, her face grim even as she holds him back. Before he can panic and call a draw – and perhaps threaten the legitimacy of the match in doing so – a twist and a flick has both blades slipping, and quick as a flash Nat’s back and away, a thin line marking Pierce’s cheek, blood flowing just beneath his eye. He makes a short, sharp sound of anger and actually starts forward, as if to raise his hand against her now that the match has finished, but she merely raises one cool brow and holds her ground.
Pierce brings himself up short and faces Clint’s judgement with a clenched jaw and stiff posture, offering nothing to Natasha except his back.
She is not pleased with him, and it shows in her assessment.
His disregard, his pride, his arrogance, all are problems, but he comported himself well enough, controlling his anger and keeping himself in check. He does not win the match, but this task is not a win-lose game. If it were none would win, and so Pierce is judged as the others are, based on comprehensive merit.
His skill with a scimitar are good enough, and perhaps, on a worse day with a slightly less determined opponent, more than.
Clint thanks his stars that the gods had sent him Natasha and that he had been smart enough in his youth to recognize it. He presses a kiss to her knuckles, silent thanks for all the things she gifts him with – loyalty, protection, love – and begs her sit, presses her with food and drink and a good two hours rest before the next match when she refuses the medic and slaps away his anxious hands.
He’s lucky she doesn’t slap his anxious face – Pierce has unnerved him and it shows.
He wishes, he wants, but in the end he has no choice but to pass the man along to the next challenge.
A bit short, but this chapter had to be split or it would be a monster!!
Clint is pleased when the second day of the trial ends with Thor Odinson being the last Alpha through the door, big and boisterous and easy as ever. He knows he is still tense, still agitated, when the mere sight of the massive blonde makes him want to take shelter from the world in his shadow, allow the Alpha to stand guard over him for a while.
This desire only serves to irritate him further – he has never allowed his omegan nature to dictate his behavior, and refuses to shy or hide while others do the dirty work. He quickly convinces himself that this is the source of his sudden bolt of guilt, not the idea that perhaps he is betraying something in some way. Really, all these stupid feelings are the purpose of this particular challenge anyway - meant, as Kate says, to determine not only an Alpha’s ability to protect their omega, but to determine their physical compatibility.
Some of them – most of them – he doesn’t react to at all.
Some he feels interest in, but very little else.
Others, well, others he feels... drawn toward, and that’s ok, that’s normal.
At least, that’s what he wants to believe.
It’s a bit strange really, having so many trying to win him, to have a cadre of men and women laid out before him for his perusal, for his judgement.
Clint shifts uncomfortably in his seat, pushes all those thoughts, all those concerns to the back of his mind.
“What, no war hammer?” he asks, forcing a grin when the Alpha presents before him, for Thor Odinson is not known as the God of Thunder for nothing. The Prince’s prowess on the battle field with his great hammer Mjolnir is known across the earth itself, as is the legend that no other is worthy of wielding it.
Thor beams, clearly pleased that Clint knows this.
“Nay, for I am not here to fight this day,” he says, shaking his head. “Though if you wish I would be happy to provide you the chance of lifting her.”
“That is not a question that needs answering today,” Clint laughs, feeling a bit lighter. “Nor do I feel that your competitors would be pleased to hear that I had taken you up on the chance to play with your hammer.”
The man blinks, then booms with laughter when he catches on to the joking innuendo, the sound echoing around the small space and perhaps a more apt reason for his moniker than his battle victories. Clint’s chest loosens and he breathes easier, his muscles relaxing where he hadn’t even realized he’d stiffened up. Beside him Kate is smiling at him softly and she places her hand on his forearm, squeezes gently.
“But you surprise me Highness,” he continues, more seriously now, “That you would refuse to face my champion even before you have laid eyes on them.”
“You mistake me princeling,” Thor replies. “I am happy to spar with whomever you set me against, but I shall not fight with them, for neither you nor your people are mine enemy. Time and the good sense of others has tempered me – I now know well the difference between the two.”
Clint feels himself smile, small and shy and honest, and marvels at the blush he feels on his cheeks.
Yes, this competition is certainly starting to get to him – and he’s pretty sure he can safely blame one Captain Phillip J Coulson for that.
Maybe having him go first was a mistake.
Swallowing hard, Clint gestures Natasha into the room, eager to see how Thor will respond to the presence as his chosen champion.
To his relief the prince seems delighted, greeting her with more smiles and booming laughter, clasping her arm cheerfully.
“In Asgard we have a great many female warriors who have bested me in combat,” he says, happily enough as he removes his heavy cape and takes his place on the mats across from her. “The Valkyrie have well prepared me for this day – I hope to prove a goodly match for you, fair lady Natasha.”
To Clint’s shock Nat seems rather charmed by the man, the shadow of a smile flickering at the edge of her mouth. They face each other on the mats, Thor looming over her seeming four times her size, and he waits for her to make the first move. She begins the match with an obvious strike to his face, and as they move into combat Clint sees the way she has adjusted her approach, testing the limits of the prince’s skill rather than just attempting to take him down. He wonders at her reasoning but the match speeds up and it’s the same as all the others. What Thor has in brute strength Natasha makes up for with speed and deadly accuracy, and he expects it to end much the same way it had with Phil – a quick, perfunctory strike meant to end the match but not to severely harm.
Thor must expect the same because what he does next has Clint bursting into peals of laughter.
Swooping in, the hulking Asgardian grabs Natasha up in a bear hug, his massive arms pinning hers to her sides, her back to his chest and her feet dangling inches off the floor. He’s smiling – hellfire, Natasha is smiling – quirking her eyebrow in Clint’s direction to ask her next move. She could break free if she wished, could ‘win’ the match, but could not do so without causing some serious injury, and neither of them are really willing to push it that far.
He’s learned what he needs to know.
“Shall we call it a draw then?” he asks with a smirk, and Thor happily acquiesces, putting Natasha back on her feet and offering her a sweeping bow.
“Well fought my lady,” he says honestly. “Though I have no doubt you might best me in a true test of skill.”
“You’ve skills of your own, Your Highness,” she offers back. “I would very much like to meet your Valkyrie, should the chance ever present itself.”
“I would be happy to host you on any occasion,” he says grandly.
“Actually, about that,” Clint interrupts, rising to his feet and hopping down off the raised throne, shooing Natasha back as he walks with Thor toward the doors, collecting his cape along the way.
“Princeling?” he questions, a genuine concern on his face.
Clint frowns, looks the Asgardian up and down.
“You said to me that you are here to ensure the alliance between our countries,” he says carefully. “I would have you know now that I am happy to do so, no matter the outcome of these games. You are a good man who cares for your people, and Bed Stuy would only benefit from our remaining close friends.”
“I should hope so, Clinton,” Thor replies after a moment’s pause, all stately and regal, every bit the Prince as he bows his head, but Clint can still see the relief on his face.
“I shall hold a ball soon,” he says suddenly. “As the games draw to a close. I tell you this now as I know how far a ride it is from Asgard.”
Pausing, he almost second-guesses himself, but decides to throw at least this much caution to the wind and help a man he would call friend.
“Invite your Jane Foster,” he says, clapping his hand to Thor’s massive shoulder. “Send for your love, I should wish to meet her.”
Smiling at the stunned look on the other man’s face, Clint gives his arm a squeeze and turns back toward his friends.
Clint pushes the final Alphas back long into the afternoon, making sure that Natasha is at her best. He’d summoned servants the night before to draw her a hot bath, had massaged her back and shoulders himself as she cannot bear to be touched so intimately by another. He fusses, making sure she eats well and drinks deep, stretches on waking, and she pets his hair and kisses his forehead in return before telling him in no uncertain terms to stop pestering her.
In truth he is the one exhausted, the one who’s anxieties are all twisted up in knots. He settles into his seat with Kate at his side and is grateful that this particular task is almost over. He feels he could sleep for a year, and the young coos and simpers at him, patting his head and teasing him gently. He brushes her off but listens all the same – she usually proves to have good advice to give and he hadn’t realized that the stress he’s been experiencing since the start of these games is being helped along by a crush of hormones he hasn’t really experienced before in his life.
Lucky for him, they get off to an easy enough start.
One Alpha leaves before the match is called, one Alpha goes wide-eyed and pale-faced when he sees Natasha and promptly forfeits, which at least shows good sense and an understanding of who she is. Madame Masque enters next, and Clint has to admit he has been curious about her. Where he could have predicted Phil or Thor’s style, their choice of weapon, she remains quite a bit the mystery. She presents in long silk robes the color of coal and a porcelain mask the gleams in the light, an older man, lean and scarred at her side. Her voice is soft but unashamed when she explains that, though she has been named a master in her people’s style of martial art, she is no longer physically capable of engaging an opponent herself. She asks to demonstrate some of the movements without an opponent, which Clint happily allows, and which Natasha watches with great interest before joining in, mimicking the beautiful, flowing, low-impact movements with all her usual aptitude.
It is quite a beautiful exercise, and Clint finds himself eager to try it in his own right, but Kate shakes her head minutely and offers him an apologetic smile.
“Another time princeling,” she counsels quietly. “I’m sure if you asked, she would be happy to instruct you.”
Clint sighs but acquiesces, knowing she is right, but still feels rather put out. The limitations of his position, his royal blood, they creep up on him sometimes, but he doesn’t have long to dwell on those thoughts in any case. Masque’s second – her mentor and the man who had taught her from childhood – steps up into her place and gives Natasha a true challenge. Clint recognizes some of the moves Masque had demonstrated, but now, like this, they are fast and sharp and deadly, and almost nothing like they’d been. Being unfamiliar with that particular style of martial art, Nat actually starts to sweat and has to work to hold her own as she had with few others.
In the end, the Master appears to deem her worthy, stepping back and offering her a formal bow, maintaining his silence from start to finish, his hands pressed together from wrists to fingertips and his face solemn and somber.
Natasha’s face turns to a scowl as soon as they leave the room.
“What?” Clint asks, and she crosses her arms, staring at the door Masque and her second had exited through.
“He might’ve bested me, if he’d tried,” she says after a moment’s careful reflection. “It is a style I have never seen before. I find I do not... like the feeling of being shown pity.”
“Perhaps he’s merely shown you respect,” he challenges quietly, and Nat frowns as she turns away, pulling the ribbon from her hair and shaking it out before retying it.
Two more Alphas, one eliminated with staves and one passed along for her acceptable skill with a longsword. Finally the last Alpha, Stark, and yes, Clint is interested in this one as well. Known for building weapons, the man is far less known for being able to use them, but Clint suspects he is far more apt than many would give him credit for. He is curious to see what he will present with, especially given the things he’d said at the start of all this – that he had committed himself to giving up on weapons.
When he comes striding in, easy and entirely under his own power despite wearing a full suit of armor, Clint sits bolt upright in his chair.
Jousting armor is heavy. Battle armor is only slightly more manageable, thick panels of metal that weigh a man down, even on top of the suits of chain mail or leather plaquettes often worn underneath. Clint’s been fitted for his own though he rarely wears it, and while it is certainly the best-made in the country, he still requires several men to help him into it. Mounting a horse alone is nigh-impossible and yet here Stark is, moving as easily and gracefully as a dancer.
He can feel the astonishment radiating from Kate, who is well-familiar with such things having observed many gentleman’s jousts in her time, can feel the curiosity bold and unchecked on his own face, but Stark doesn’t seem to notice as he comes to a stop in front of them.
“Your highness,” he says, ducking his head, a gleaming helmet tucked under one arm.
“How...” Kate starts, stunned, and Clint licks his lips, clears his throat.
“I see turning aside from weapons has not left you without work,” he manages, his voice tight.
Stark watches him with dark, intelligent eyes before answering slowly, “I believe there are more ways to protect the world than by building weapons.”
“Rather by building defenses?” Clint asks, rising to his feet and coming down the steps to stand before him. “May I?”
Stark makes a helpless little gesture, his hands skittering out to the side a bit, but Clint has observed him well these days and knows that he does not like being touched by any other than his closest confidants. In honor of that he keeps his hands to himself, though he does wish to feel the armor beneath his fingers, instead circling him slowly and drinking in the design by sight alone.
“I found a new way to heat the steel,” Stark says, watching Clint stare. “It’s thinner, lighter, but just as strong.”
“You’ve tested it?” Clint asks.
“I will today,” Stark replies with a smirk.
Grinning back at him, Clint waves his hand to signal Natasha and she comes in smoothly, only just barely betrayed by Clint’s eyes. Anyone else would have missed the hesitation in her step, the interest in her gaze. She covers well and approaches Stark with a smirk on her face.
“They’ll be calling you the Man of Iron,” she says, a caution and a tease, surprising him.
Stark blinks, but covers quickly with a smirk of his own, his far more salacious.
“Some of them already do,” he says with a wink, and Clint barks a laugh.
“This one’s set you a real test, my heart,” he says, taking Natasha’s hand to kiss her knuckles, because it hides a bit of his own mirth, which feels... too light. He’s got ideas about Tony Stark, ideas for him, but it’s too soon to be sure, to show his cards. “Do your worst.”
“Hey!” Stark yelps, but his tone is teasing too and Clint grins as he takes his seat again.
“Are you certain of yourself?” Natasha asks as she walks toward the back wall where the weapons available to her have all been laid out. “My prince would not have me harm you, by design or by mistake.”
“Certain enough,” Stark replies easily, watching as she selects a small, light-handled mace about the length of Clint’s arm. “You may turn me a few colors but I understand your prince has an affinity for purple.”
Natasha scowls at him but Stark just looks back at her serenely as he tugs the helmet into place over his head.
“You won’t break anything,” he promises, then he drops the faceplate down with a clang, leaving him muffled and invisible inside. “As our princeling says – do your worst.”