“So here’s the thing.”
Clint looks up from the stable he’s currently in the process of mucking out, because his life sucks and that’s how he spends his afternoons these days, to see Natasha peering at him from the barn door, carefully out of reach of any of the muck that Clint is currently shovelling.
Instantly, Clint’s day is looking up. “Nat!” he says, beaming at her and leaning his shovel against the wall, hopping over a particularly noxious pile of muck and wishing he was clean enough to give her a hug. He hasn’t seen her in months. “How’d you find me?”
She wrinkles her nose and steps back and says, “I could smell you from six counties over, what are you doing -- it doesn’t matter, listen. I’ve got this fantastic opportunity for you, only I need you to ditch what you’re doing and come with me. Right now.”
Clint blinks at her and then blinks at the horses whose stables need to be mucked and says, “I don’t think I can? I was late with breakfast one morning and --” He snaps his mouth shut and flashes an airy, unconcerned grin, and then says, “They were pissed.”
Natasha isn’t squeamish about the nastier details of what exactly it means for Clint to be a foster kid passed around the kingdom to whomever needs a bit of extra domestic service, but Clint would rather not be moved so soon after getting to this placement. If she loses her temper and punches his foster father in the face, who knows where they’ll send him next.
In the grand scheme of the hell that is being an orphan ward of the kingdom basically sold into servitude, his life could be a whole lot worse than five quick lashes to his back for being late with breakfast -- it hadn’t even broken the skin. He could barely feel it.
Natasha’s eyes narrow and he knows she knows he’s underselling it, but she doesn’t ask. He’s grateful for that. “Are they paying you?” she asks instead.
“No? I mean, that’s kind of the deal with being a ward… Domestic servitude in exchange for room and board.”
“Exactly. This opportunity comes with financial compensation for services rendered.”
Despite himself, Clint is intrigued. “What sort of services?” he asks, because he knows Natasha is willing to do just about anything to guarantee her own survival, and he doesn’t judge her for that. There’s a reason he’s still relying on charity to keep himself going, while she’s not. She got herself out a long time ago.
“Does it matter?” she asks, which basically confirms his suspicions. “Either way, you’ll be out of this mess and free to live life on your own terms.”
“Nat. You know I--”
“And if it doesn’t work out,” she says, breezily ignoring his interruption. “You come back here and keep living this sad, lonely, pathetic little life with nothing lost or gained.”
“It’s not that sad or lonely or pathetic,” he grumbles, but it kind of is.
“Come on,” she says. “Rinse yourself off, come with me, I’ll dress you up, we’ll have a fun night dancing, eating food we don’t have to pay for, pretending to be someone else for the night, and then, if nothing comes of it, it’s fine. I’ll have you back by dawn.”
It does sound nice. “And I don’t have to do anything if I don’t want to?” he asks her, and by her sharp grin, she knows she’s got him.
“Not a thing,” she promises.
“Okay. On one condition. I can’t leave until I’m done mucking all this out, so I need you to grab a shovel and --”
She laughs so hard, he’s not sure how she manages to walk away, but somehow she does it, leaving him alone to finish his task as quickly as he can.
Natasha has a carriage. A real, honest-to-god carriage.
It’s sleek and sophisticated and gleams in the sunlight, and it’s all 100 percent hers.
It blows Clint’s mind that the ragged, bruised little girl he’d met at his very first foster home had gone on to make so much of herself that she actually owns something, but she’d always had a ferocious look in her eyes that told anybody looking closely enough that she wasn’t to be fucked with.
He really should have seen it coming.
She’s also dressed in the most beautiful deep red gown that hangs off her shoulders and falls to the floor in a heavy sweep of a fabric so rich, Clint doesn’t even know what it would feel like to touch. Her hair is done up in a pretty sweep of red curls, falling to the side, and her lips are painted to match the gown.
She’s also got a graceful black mask hiding half of her face and making her eyes look even brighter than usual. It’s pretty much the only part of her he recognizes from that first foster home.
He climbs into the carriage and freezes because the seats are plush and if he so much as touches them or breathes wrong, he’s going to get them dirty.
Natasha rolls her eyes and shoves a bundle of clothing at him, dropping down onto the seat and pulling her knees up, crossing them under her gown.
“Get changed,” she tells him. “And settle in. We’ve got a few hours before we arrive.” She knocks on the roof of the carriage to signal her driver to set off for whatever their mystery destination is.
Clint’s still standing there frozen, hunched over so his head doesn’t hit the roof of the carriage, cradling the bundle in his arms, because the fabric he’s holding is softer and finer than anything he’s ever touched and he’s already dirtied it and he doesn’t know what to do.
“Clint,” Natasha says, gentler now. She cups his chin with one of her hands and forces him to look at her. “Get changed. I promise not to look.”
He huffs a little and smiles weakly and says, “It’s nothing you haven’t seen since we were kids, anyway.”
She smiles at him and lets him go, making a big show of looking out the window as Clint shrugs out of his rough, patched clothes and slips into what she brought for him.
It’s only after he puts on the ornate, soft, green outfit that he pulls the hood up and says flatly, “... This is a Robin Hood costume. A shitty, rich Robin Hood costume.”
She turns to check him out, grinning, and says, “It fits. Perfect.” She studies him for a moment, making him turn in a circle, commenting on the fit of the trousers over his butt, the way the jacket falls over his shoulders, and then hands him a deep green mask that looks just like hers.
“It’s a costume party,” she tells him. “Put this on.”
“Really?” he asks, unimpressed, because his costume is an artistic imagining of Robin Hood, sure. It’s not very realistic -- he doesn’t think he could shoot a bow in it, for starters. The trousers are too tight for riding, as well. He couldn’t flee the Sheriff of Nottingham in this ridiculous outfit, that’s for sure.
“A masquerade,” she confesses, wrinkling her nose and grinning. “You’re supposed to look rich, which you do. The actual costume is secondary, not functional.”
“And what are you supposed to be?” he asks her.
She lifts an eyebrow. “I’m a queen, obviously. Now stop sulking. You look great. They’re going to love you.”
He’s still a little concerned that Natasha intends to find him some rich benefactor intent on squirreling him away in some house somewhere and showering him with gifts in return for sexual favours.
Which sounds lovely in theory, but Clint’s not all that into being someone’s mistress, when that someone probably has a husband or a wife somewhere. His own parents were ridiculously unhappy with each other and he’s not going to contribute to that in someone else’s marriage, not even if it means living a life without mucking out stables and getting roughed up a little when he serves breakfast a little late.
“Don’t worry,” she tells him. “Just dance and have a good time and see what comes of it.”
Clint hasn’t been free to dance and have a good time in his entire life.
But he thinks maybe, disguised as he is, he can have this. Just for tonight.
The carriage stops and Clint goes to get up, but Natasha says, “Hold on. Your shoes are a problem.”
He looks down at his shoes and, yeah. They’re a mess. They’re old and a little tight and one has a hole in the toe. He feels an instant tightening in his belly, a nervous bit of shame that he thought he’d have grown out of by now, and a sinking sensation as he realizes that this isn’t gonna work. There is no way he’s going to be able to walk into this fancy party and pass as someone who deserves to be there in shoes like this.
But Natasha just pops up the carriage seat, revealing a storage space crammed full of various bundles of cloth and the odd weapon or two. She rummages and comes up with a shiny pair of men’s shoes, clasped with a fancy bit of metal made to look like a bird. They’re easily the fanciest shoes he’s ever seen, other than the beautiful slippers on her own feet.
“They’ll be a bit big,” she says. “But they’ll work.”
Clint wants to know why she’s got a secret stash of men’s apparel in her carriage, but, given what he knows of her profession, he’s not going to ask. He just slips out of his beaten up old shoes, puts the new ones on, and swallows back that feeling of unworthiness as he realizes that this is just about the only time he’s ever had shoes on his feet that don’t have holes on them.
“Nat --” he says, a little choked up.
“Oh don’t be like that.” She shoves the door open and hops out of the carriage. “You can keep them.”
“Yeah,” he says, rolling his eyes and following. “I’ll do that. I’ll wear them next time I muck out the stables, how ‘bout, or --”
But he knows he’s going to keep them. And he’s going to treasure them. And he’s going to hide them carefully from every foster family he’s ever going to have because, for the next four months, until he turns 18, everything he owns is effectively the property of whoever owns him.
And these shoes don’t have holes in them. They’re precious. They’re--
He freezes on the sidewalk and stares and someone runs into him, nearly knocking him over.
With a few hasty apologies, he stumbles out of the way, grabs Natasha’s arm, and hisses, “This is the palace.”
She blinks at him innocently. “Yes, Clint. That’s where the masquerade is.”
“I can’t go to a party at the castle,” he says, appalled.
“Of course you can.” She shakes out her skirts, making sure they fall just so, and says, “It would be silly to go somewhere else when the masquerade is happening here. Besides, the entire kingdom is invited to this particular masquerade, which you’d know, if that guardian of yours ever bothered to speak to you.”
“Mr. Rumlow’s very busy,” Clint says dutifully, still staring at the palace with wide, starry eyes.
“I’m sure.” She links arms with him, hauling him down the sidewalk towards the wide palace steps, not even slowing when Clint stumbles a time or two.
They eventually make it up the stairs and through the giant double doors that lead to an anteroom where real, live butlers would take their cloaks if they had any. They’re swept along with the tide of regally dressed guests, out of the anteroom, through a wide hall, up a graceful staircase, and then through another set of doors that open onto another stairway and a giant ballroom, glowing with candle light shimmering off all the bright, beautiful costumed courtiers.
“Oh my god,” Clint breathes, as Natasha finally lets him duck out of the lane of traffic, into a shadowy spot along the upper veranda overlooking the ballroom. “Nat, look at it, it’s beautiful.”
She smiles a little, leaning against the railing next to him and watching the couples below, twirling on the dancefloor. There are long tables of food set up -- more food than Clint’s ever seen in one place, all of it on crystal trays. There are giant champagne fountains, and waiters moving through the crowd with trays of it as well as delicate little treats he can’t even imagine being allowed to taste. Across the room, there is a wall of windows and glass doors leading out onto a balcony, lit up with torches and glowing as the sun sets.
“Thought you’d like it,” she says. “Don’t spent the whole night eating, though. You owe me at least one dance.”
“You can have as many dances as you like after I taste everything on those tables,” he says, and then she’s taking him by the hand and tugging him down the stairs.
The thing about dancing is that, aside from a few clumsy attempts with the mop or the broomstick or Natasha, back when they were very young, Clint’s never actually done it.
And he’s not the most graceful person in the world to begin with.
But Natasha sweeps him up in her arms and he’s dragged helplessly along in her wake as they join the others on the dance floor.
“Just stop thinking and follow me,” she tells him, but it’s kind, not judgemental, and she smiles at him.
Clint takes a breath and lets go of the need to know where he’s going and where he’s meant to be putting his feet, and lets her pull him along, and that’s pretty much how all their interactions go anyway.
It’s not magic -- dancing is the least magical thing, as far as Clint’s concerned. He still stumbles and gets tripped up, especially if he starts thinking about it, but she doesn’t miss a beat, not even when her feet land on his toes, or when he stumbles, or when he tries to go left when she’s going right.
“Figured I’d rescue you before you ate so much, you made yourself sick,” she says.
He pouts at her. “I only made it halfway down the table, that wasn’t part of the deal.”
Laughing, she says, “You needed a break. This party goes until dawn, and if you make yourself sick now--”
“Don’t forget, we’ve gotta leave by midnight if we’re going to get home on time,” he tells her, alarmed.
“Right. You know, you could just come with me -- I’ve got enough now. I could take care of you, give you a place to stay, help you find an apprenticeship--”
“It’s illegal, Nat. I’m not gonna get you in trouble. Four more months, and then I can do whatever I like. I’ll get a job and we can get a little cottage somewhere, just like we planned, by the sea, and have a thousand dogs. And a few goats. And we’ll find you a nice boy and you can get married and I can be the crazy uncle who lives in the attic and we can adopt all the orphans in the kingdom and give them a real home.”
She smiles but it looks a little sad, and they take another turn on the dance floor, so fast, Clint gets a little dizzy. “Yeah,” she says, soft. “That sounds really nice.”
And then the song is over and she leaves him back by the tables of food, kissing his cheek and saying softly, “Be good.”
She disappears into the crowd before Clint can ask her where she’s going, and he figures she’s off to find someone with some money to dance with, so he shrugs and starts loading up another plate.
Clint eats and he drinks and he eats some more, and his stomach has never been this full before. He rubs it ruefully while gazing at all the food he hasn’t managed to taste yet, and then decides to search for Natasha. He’s feeling just a little lonely, surrounded by hundreds of overdressed people who are all chatting and flirting and dancing and growing progressively tipsier as they do their very best to empty the champagne fountains.
He edges around a particularly vocal cluster of people, tries to stand on his toes to see her over the crowd, gives up, and heads for the stairs instead. He sees better from a distance anyway, and a bit of height is just what he needs to find her.
Besides, the crush of people is beginning to make him feel anxious.
Clint is halfway across the ballroom when someone steps very deliberately into his path. He’s clumsy at the best of times, and his shoes are a little too big, so he trips, landing hard against the stranger’s chest.
“Whoa, hey, careful there,” the man says, laughing and catching him by both arms. He doesn’t let go. “Little too much to drink?”
Clint tries to tug himself free but the guy just tightens his grip. “No? Sorry,” Clint says.
“Don’t worry about it, happens to all of us. Some air will help.”
And now the handsy guy is steering him towards the French doors overlooking the balcony and the gardens beyond, and Clint doesn’t really want any air, and he also doesn’t want some random dude dressed in far too many rhinestones to escort him out there. But he also doesn’t want to make a scene.
“Nah, I’m good,” he says, tugging a little harder. “I was just --”
“Nonsense,” says the man. “We’ll get you sorted out, it won’t take long, and then we can talk about how you can repay me for my kindness.”
Clint shoots him a quick, narrow-eyed look, and says, “I’m not feeling all that inclined to thank you for anything, actually.”
The man’s smile is a little too sharp. “I’m sure you’ll change your mind. I saw who you arrived with -- if you have any concerns at all, I’m sure Natalia won’t mind clearing them up for you. Just tell her Lord Lukin took care of you.”
Clint, when he smiles back, is just a bit sharper, and suddenly, getting some air sounds like a fabulous idea, because it’s shadowy outside and that means when he kicks Lukin in the balls, it probably won’t cause a scene.
And he’s damn sure this is not what Natasha wanted for Clint when she brought him here.
So he lets Lukin tug him out onto the balcony, and then down the stairs into the gardens beyond.
And then he knees him so hard in the balls, Lukin falls to his knees with a satisfying and animalistic sound.
Clint’s stalking back inside, in a foul mood, when he runs into another fucking dude lurking in the shadows.
“What the fuck,” he snaps. “Don’t touch me.”
Instantly, this guy’s hands are up and he’s taking a step back, even if Clint can see the amused quirk to his lips in the light spilling off the balcony. “My apologies,” he says. “I didn’t see you.”
Clint glares at him, and says, “Probably because it’s dark,” he allows. “But if you’re just lurking out here trying to drag people into the bushes to molest them against their will while making suggestive comments about how they’re asking for it or you’ll pay them for it or whatever else, then I’m gonna kick you in the balls too.”
“Is that -- Surely that’s not what just happened.”
“Kicking molesters in the balls isn’t a crime,” Clint says with a scowl, crossing his arms over his chest, mostly pissed that a handsy bastard ruined what was turning out to be one of the best nights of Clint’s life. “What are you even dressed like, that’s the worst costume I’ve ever seen.”
The guy looks down at his outfit, which is, as far as Clint can tell, just ostentatiously rich and not actually meant to be an artistic rendering of anything, with a cowl pulled up over his hair.
“I’m not supposed to be anything,” the guy says, though he is wearing a black mask over half his face, like Clint is. “I’m the prince.”
Clint squints at him in the low light. The guy isn’t wearing a crown, but then, neither is Natasha and she’s pretending to be a queen, so that doesn’t mean anything. “Which prince?”
The guy is still looking amused, like he’s only a breath or two away from laughing, but now he looks a little exasperated too. “The prince. The crown prince. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Steven Grant Rogers, heir to the throne.” He pitches his voice a little louder, like he’s talking to someone just out of ear shot. “Hiding in the shrubs in the damned gardens like a coward. My mother is throwing this ball to find me a spouse. Surely you knew that. Right?”
“... Someone’s throwing a ball to force you to get married? That sucks.” Clint lets his shoulders relax a little, because surely a crown prince can be relied on not to molest hapless guests in the gardens. It would probably be an international incident if he did.
“Uh, yes. Well. It’s not ideal. But if you’re not here to try to hook up with a prince, what are you doing here?”
Clint tugs his sleeves down over his wrists, smoothing out the wrinkles from where Lukin had grabbed him, and makes sure his shirt is hanging just perfectly again. “Oh, me?” he says, trying to shake off his rage. He still has a few hours to have a good time and he refuses to let Lukin ruin it. “I’m only here for the food.”
“Have you tried those little chocolate tarts, they’re fucking delicious.”
He skirts around the prince and makes his way back up the stairs, already wondering if he can sneak a few tarts back home in his pockets.
“Hey,” the prince says, laughing and hopping up a few stairs to follow him. “Wait, you can’t just threaten to kick me in the balls and then leave me here.”
Clint pauses at the top of the stairs, considering the prince in the better lighting of the balcony for a moment. “Is it a crime to kick the crown prince in the balls?”
“Well, you didn’t actually do it, so I suppose I can let it slide,” he says with a grin. “Besides, if I had dragged you off to molest you, I’d definitely deserve it. If I get you some of those chocolate tarts, will you dance with me?”
“I can get my own tarts,” Clint says, suspicious.
“Yeah, but. But I’m the prince,” the prince says, laughing. “You’re not very good at flirting, are you?”
“I’m great at flirting,” Clint grumbles. “What I’m terrible at is dancing. Why d’you want to dance with me, anyway?”
“Because it would be a nice change of pace to dance with someone who doesn’t give a fuck that they’re dancing with the crown prince,” he says easily. “Besides, if one of my guests truly dragged you off to molest you, I probably owe you. C’mon. Let me be hospitable.”
Natasha wants Clint to have a good time, and he supposes, in a hazy, daydreamy sort of version of his life, going off to a ball and having a prince fetch him chocolate tarts is something he should like, so he finally rolls his eyes and nods.
The prince grins at him; he’s got a beautiful smile.
Which doesn’t matter, of course, because the attractiveness of a prince’s smile is never going to be something that makes a difference in the day to day life of someone like Clint Barton, orphan and shit shoveller.
“C’mon,” he says, and then he grabs Clint’s hand, like it’s nothing, like Clint’s hand isn’t a ragged mess with blisters and calluses from shovelling shit and whatever else -- like anybody has ever held Clint’s hand, except for Natasha, who doesn’t count.
And before Clint can say what he wants to say -- which is what the actual fuck -- he’s being tugged into the ballroom and the oppressive crowd of overdressed partygoers is parting like the sea.
They just… move to the side in a graceful sweep of motion, complete with wide eyes and mouths gaping open, and oh holy shit, Mr. Rumlow, Clint’s current foster father, is standing right there.
What is he even doing here, Clint needs to run, he needs out of here, he needs to be at home getting things prepped for tomorrow’s breakfast like he’s supposed to be, Rumlow is going to kill him -- he’s dead, he’s murdered, he’s practically buried already.
Except Clint’s in a costume and Rumlow is too far away to tell that Clint’s got the rough, beaten up hands of someone who ought to be shovelling out stables rather than held in the grip of the crown prince.
Besides the prince doesn’t give him much of a chance, just tugs him along the way Natasha always does, and his shoes are a little too big, so he stumbles but follows him across the room.
People are still staring, but the prince doesn’t seem to notice. He adjusts his grip on Clint’s hand, surveys the table of food, and says, “Is it just the tarts, or do you see something else you like?”
“Oh, everything,” Clint can’t help but say with a dreamy, breathy sigh. “I only got halfway down the table, though, and then I got full. I could eat again, though.”
“Hmm. Well. I did promise chocolate tarts in exchange for a dance, and I’m definitely a man of my word, so…”
And then the prince has a chocolate tart in his other hand, willy nilly, like he doesn’t even care that he’s getting smudges of chocolate on his fingers, and he’s holding the tart to Clint’s lips, and Clint doesn’t know what to do with this. He kinda wants to laugh in the poor guy’s face, but that would be rude, and he’s not sure if being rude to the prince is against the law.
“What are you doing?” he asks instead, amused and hoping Natasha is watching from somewhere, so they can giggle about this later.
“I’m trying to flirt with you,” the prince says, dropping his voice a little lower, warm with amusement. “You said you were good at it -- is that true, or am I gonna have to teach you?”
Clint meets the prince’s eyes over the tart, sees the challenge there, and he’s never been good at running from that. And it’s a big tart, but it’s not that big -- a stretch, but not impossible -- so he grins slowly and says, “Maybe you’re gonna have to teach me.”
And then slowly, deliberately, and as unsexily as humanly possible, he manages to cram the entire damned tart into his mouth -- licking the prince’s smooth, calloused fingers in the process.
He’s half expecting the prince to grimace in disgust and step out away, maybe come up with some sort of excuse, and then find someone that else to dance with -- someone whose cheeks aren’t bulging out with the massive amount of tart they’re currently trying to choke down.
But instead, the prince laughs, completely unconcerned with the crowd of courtiers who are muttering in disgust at the mess Clint can feel all over his mouth.
By the time the prince finally has himself under control again, Clint’s managed to swallow most of the tart, and then he nearly chokes all over again as the prince rubs at what has to be an impressive smudge of chocolate on Clint’s lip with his thumb.
“They’re good tarts,” he says, and he’s somehow made his voice lower, more intimate, despite all the people staring. “Steve and I -- I used to sneak into the kitchen when I was a kid and steal them whenever the cook made them for dinner. My record is shoving three into my mouth at a time, but I always needed a drink to help.”
And then he’s pressing a glass of champagne into Clint’s hand and licking the chocolate off his thumb and Clint’s staring at his mouth and this is all spiralling ridiculously out of control.
So he does the intelligent thing and tosses back the entire glass of champagne, licking it and chocolate off his bottom lip after he does, and hoping that clears his head.
“Dance with me,” the prince says, and he’s staring at Clint’s mouth just like Clint was staring at his a moment ago and Clint’s head isn’t clear at all.
And fuck it. Natasha said to have fun. And chocolate and champagne and dancing with a flirty prince -- that’s the very definition of fun, isn’t it?
“I lied about the flirting but I was pretty honest about the dancing,” he says. “I’m terrible at it.”
“I don’t mind,” says the prince. “Knowing all the steps gets incredibly boring incredibly quickly. We’ll make it up as we go along.”
That, Clint decides, sounds like a much better way to spend the evening than getting his toes stepped on, so he gives in and the prince beams at him and sweeps him out onto the dance floor.
Dancing without giving a fuck about the steps apparently involves a lot of spinning, some stumbling, crashing into other couples a time or two until they all give up and just watch from the sidelines, and a lot, a lot of laughing.
Clint laughs so much, his stomach cramps up and his cheeks hurt from grinning. He can’t remember ever having laughed this much.
“No, like this,” the prince says, trying to teach him a strange shuffling two step sort of move, but ending up stepping on Clint’s toes again and laughing. “Left, left, right, left, and then a little hop -- I swear, it’s an actual dance, I’ve had years of dance training, you know, you’re supposed to trust me.”
“I barely know you, Mr. Years of Dance Training,” Clint says, trying his best, but he’s giggling too hard to follow the steps. “Besides, some of us were busy actually doing real life things rather than learning to dance.”
“I know that, which is why you’re supposed to let me lead.”
It’s a disaster. It’s all a disaster. Clint doesn’t mind, and the prince doesn’t seem to mind, but as Clint trips over his own feet again and catches himself with a yelp, he becomes aware of the fact that most of the crowd is still watching -- and they don’t seem impressed.
It makes him self-conscious and he slowly stops laughing, stops even smiling, and the prince notices.
“Hey, no, we’re having fun, we’re dancing,” he says.
“Yeah,” Clint says, forcing a smile at him, trying to ignore them all. “It’s just -- I’m really bad at it.”
“You’re doing great.”
“Fuck them,” says the prince, and then he winces a little and seems to rethink his reaction. “Does it bother you? I can have them all arrested. They’re all judgemental harpies, every one of them, ignore them, okay? Hey. Seriously. You’re doing fine. It’s not you they’re staring at, it’s me.”
“I suppose someone like me isn’t really someone they think the crown prince ought to be dancing with, especially at a ball where he’s supposed to be finding someone to marry.”
Clint tries to step back, and the prince let’s him, but he’s frowning. “They don’t get a say in who I marry,” he says. “Or who I dance with.”
“I guess,” Clint says. “But--” He takes another step back, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, towards the doors leading to the garden. “I’m just gonna go…” What was it Lukin had called it earlier? “Get some air. Outside. Thanks for the dance. It was loads of fun, sorry I sucked at it, I--”
“No, sure, that’s fine, let me just --”
Clint flashes a quick, awkward grin, and then bolts for the doors and the shadows beyond them, where it’s dark and cool and no one is staring at him. He watches through the windows as, gradually, the courtiers all stop whispering amongst themselves and go back to whatever they were doing before he made an idiot of himself.
“So stupid,” he mumbles, sitting up on the stone wall of the veranda, overlooking the gardens. The worst way to get caught out for being a nobody at a fancy castle party is to somehow fuck up badly enough to make himself the centre of attention. If Rumlow realizes who he is, he’s dead. He’ll be murdered. He’ll be forced to dig his own grave and then he’ll be killed and buried in it.
He tells himself that’s the only reason he’s feeling so unsettled -- it wasn’t that he was actually having the time of his life fucking around with a guy who he temporarily forgot was Crown Prince -- whatever his name is.
Oh god, Clint is such a disaster, he can’t even remember the prince’s name.
He groans and buries his face in his hands.
“I brought you a drink -- it’s just water this time.”
Clint jumps with a yelp and of course it’s the prince standing there, looking worried and holding out a goblet of water.
Clint takes the goblet because he thinks that’s what you’re supposed to do when a prince offers you something, and takes a sip. The water is clean and fresh and tastes a thousand times better than any peasant water Clint has tasted before.
He sets it aside because somehow, that breaks his heart a little bit.
The prince sits beside him on the railing, a careful distance away, and says, “You don’t like lemon water?”
“Oh, no, it’s fine, it’s just.” He frowns and fidgets with the fluffy sleeve of his stupid costume and confesses, “I’ve never tasted lemon before.”
The prince stares at him. “Never?”
“You’ve never tasted lemon before, you don’t dance, you were -- what did you call it? Out having a real life instead of taking dancing lessons?” He slides a little closer. “What were you doing, while I was eating lemons and learning to dance?”
Clint huffs out a breath and shrugs. “Robbing the rich and feeding the poor?” he says, because the truth -- living a childhood of indentured servitude because your orphanage system sucks balls -- doesn’t sound half as glamorous.
The prince smiles, slow. “I’ve never met anyone like you before,” he says. “I don’t think you care at all that I’m a -- that I’m a prince.”
“Why should I care? It doesn’t matter one way or the other to me. I mean, sure, you’re a nice enough guy, and I’m pretty sure, judging by your frankly amazing jawline, that you’re at least decently attractive, and funny too, but at the end of the day, you’re going to go back to your life of dancing and palaces and fancy foods and I’m going to go back to mine. So the fact that you’re born into privilege, that doesn’t really change anything. Does it?”
“Everyone else at this ball is scheming to get me alone and here I am, alone with you, and you haven’t even tried to shove your hands down my pants.”
Clint cocks his head, amused despite himself, and says, “Do you want me to shove my hands down your pants?”
“Well, I don’t know, I’d like it to at least be an option,” he says, laughing. “Don’t take it off the table entirely.”
Clint shakes his head, grinning. “That doesn’t sound very princely to me. Your Highness.”
The prince slides a little closer. “Well, maybe I’m not a very princely guy. Maybe I want to, I don’t know. Hang out, and teach you to dance, and feed you lemon drops, and make you laugh, because when you laugh, I think it might actually be because you think I’m funny, not because you want to impress me.”
“You make being a prince sound kinda lonely,” Clint says, quiet. “It can’t be that bad -- dance lessons, lemons, champagne fountains. Those chocolate tarts. Hundreds of people putting on their fanciest costumes just to come here and try to convince you to marry them.”
“You’re not even trying to convince me to marry you,” the prince teases, but it’s softer now, and he’s so much closer.
Clint shrugs and tries to sound easy and casual when he says, “Maybe I’m not worth marrying.”
“A ball is a stupid place to decide anyone’s marriageability,” the prince says, and then he licks his lips and hesitates and Clint realizes he’s staring at the prince’s mouth, so he looks away quickly. Before he can pull away or say something stupid to break the strange, soft tension, the prince brushes his fingers along Clint’s jaw, forcing him to look back. “I never caught your name,” he says, closer now.
“I never gave it,” Clint reminds him, but it’s breathy and not half as sassy as he wants it to be.
He should be pulling away. He should be saying something biting and clever about princes and peasants and chocolate tarts. He should be laughing and shoving the prince away and declaring that this is all some big, cosmic joke, and if the prince only knew how worthless Clint really was, he wouldn’t be out here about to kiss him.
No one’s ever thought Clint was worth kissing before.
He’s certainly not worth being kissed by a prince.
But the prince does kiss him, and it’s soft and tentative, barely a whisper, and before Clint can make up his mind about kissing him back, there’s a loud, jarring sound from the palace wall.
He jerks away, startled. “What is that?” And then he blinks. “What time is it?”
The prince is frowning, looking off in the distance towards the sound. “It’s an alarm for the guards,” he says, distracted. “I’m not sure --”
And then a clock somewhere begins to chime.
“Oh fuck,” Clint says. “It’s midnight. I have to go.”
He scrambles up off the wall and the prince reaches for him, saying, “No, wait, just--”
But this is all a stupid fantasy that Clint doesn’t get to have. He doesn’t get chocolate tarts and lemon water and secretly sweet princes kissing him at a masquerade ball -- he gets stables to muck out and foster families to serve and four more fucking months before he’s free.
What’s the point in aging out of the foster care system if he’s killed before he can do it? And if he doesn’t leave now -- right now -- he’s going to be killed.
“Sorry, I have to,” he says, backing away.
The prince gets to his feet. “Wait,” he says again. “I didn’t get your name -- and I need to tell you, I’m not actually--”
“There’s no time,” Clint says, turning to run. “I have to go or I’m dead, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have -- you shouldn’t have wasted your time with me.”
“Wait,” calls the prince, but he doesn’t give chase -- probably doesn’t want Clint to kick him in the balls the way he’d threatened to before, he thinks.
He trips on the stairs over one of his stupidly too big shoes and doesn’t even realize he leaves one behind until he stubs his toe on the steps to Natasha’s carriage, which is waiting out front.
He’s about to panic because she’s not inside, but before he can, she throws the door open and climbs inside.
She’s panting and disheveled, grinning a little wildly, and she calls for the driver to go, and fast, as she stuffs a few bags into the storage compartment under her seat.
“It’s nothing,” she says, hurried. “Drive on!”
The carriage lurches into motion and Clint is left feeling oddly bereft with one bare foot tucked underneath him against the evening chill.
Natasha falls asleep in the carriage, so Clint doesn’t have a chance to quiz her about what she was doing, whether it had anything to do with the alarms, and what she stashed under the seat he’s sitting on.
He doesn’t really want to know. Plausible deniability and all that.
The carriage slows outside the Rumlow house at dawn and Clint scrambles out of it without waking her. He’s got his work clothes back on, carefully leaving the Robin Hood costume on the seat for her, but he keeps the one remaining shoe, cradling it carefully as he sneaks into the kitchens.
He’s got a room upstairs, in the attic, tucked into the gable. It’s draughty and barely big enough for his narrow cot, but there’s a loose floorboard and he thinks he might be able to hide the shoe there, and Mr. Rumlow shouldn’t find it.
He doesn’t need to start breakfast this morning, luckily, because Rumlow and his family aren’t back from the palace just yet, but there are cows to be milked and chickens to be fed and Clint didn’t get any sleep at all on the way home, but he goes straight to work.
The Rumlows get home in mid-afternoon, sleepy and hungover and bitchy. Clint does his best to stay out of their way and keep to the kitchens, working on dinner.
And by the time he finally gets to sleep, it almost feels like the night before was a dream.
Life goes back to normal. He doesn’t see Natasha. He doesn’t wonder if the prince has found a suitable partner. He doesn’t listen for gossip from the palace.
He just keeps his head down and works hard and tries to stay out of Mr. Rumlow’s way.
Weeks pass and Clint has started a countdown to his 18th birthday and freedom, and then he gets an unexpected delivery.
He takes the package from the boy, offers a cookie when he realizes he hasn’t got a single penny to spare for a tip, and then Clint opens it.
A bag heavy with coins slips out of the package, landing on the kitchen counter with a thump.
This must not be meant for him, he thinks, breath catching with anxiety. If he opened Mr. Rumlow’s mail --
But a note slips out of the package next, written in Natasha’s graceful hand.
Payment for services rendered, as agreed, she writes. Probably enough for an apprenticeship and a little apartment over a shop somewhere. But if you’d rather something more adventurous, you’ll always know where to find me. -N
A business card is carefully folded into the letter, on heavy cardstock with embossed gold lettering. All it’s got on it is a scripted letter N and an address.
Clint hides it and the money away with his shoe and freedom is so close, he can almost taste it.
Three days later, he’s in the stable, mucking out stalls again, when he hears horses in the courtyard -- and by the sound of it, there must be nearly a dozen.
Someone’s already gone to fetch Mr. Rumlow, so Clint stays in the stable, though he can’t resist a quick peek from the shadows.
There are nearly 20 palace guards on beautiful horses standing in formation in the Rumlows’ tiny courtyard. Each guard looks more imperious and bored than the last. And at the front of them, on the most beautiful horse of all, sits a gorgeous blonde with blue eyes. He’s just about the most attractive man Clint has ever seen.
When Mr. Rumlow appears at the doorway to the house, he takes in the guards before him and then instantly kneels, bowing his head in an uncharacteristic display.
The blonde guy dismounts gracefully and another man beside him -- tiny and squirrelly by comparison, hurries to follow him. He clears his throat and says, loudly enough to project, “Announcing His Royal Highness Prince Steven Grant Rogers, heir to the throne.”
Someone blows a trumpet.
The prince -- oh shit, oh god, it’s the fucking prince -- rolls his eyes a little but then seems to rally, squaring his shoulders.
“I’m here searching for all marriageable men and women who may have information about the owner of this shoe,” he says, as Rumlow gets warily to his feet.
Steve produces a shoe.
It’s Clint’s motherfucking shoe.
He is dead. He is so dead. It’s a very ornate shoe and even if it wasn’t, the hawk clasp on it is very specific and if they find out that Clint sneaked away from home and dressed up like a courtier and went to the ball and ate probably thousands of dollars worth of chocolate tarts and kneed a probably-important dude in the balls in the garden --
He’ll be executed.
Clint ducks back into the stable and backs himself into a stall, kicking the door shut and hunkering down behind Betsy, the sweetest of all the horses.
She chomps on some oats and looks at him suspiciously but doesn’t kick him, which is a relief.
He can still hear the action in the courtyard. Rumlow demands to know what it’s all about and Steve’s little assistant says imperiously, “You dare question His Royal Highness?”
“Sitwell,” Steve sighs. “Calm down. A guest at the ball left this shoe behind,” he explains. “It is my wish to locate the owner of this shoe.”
“How do you intend to verify the owner?” asks Rumlow, and there’s a clatter as all of his children of marriageable age, who had doubtlessly been at the ball, appear in the doorway, giggling and shoving and proclaiming to recognize the shoe.
Clint squeezes his eyes shut and claps his hand over his mouth and tries to keep his anxiety contained.
“I’m sure it’ll fit me,” says the daughter. “Let me try it on, I’ll prove it.”
“We’re the same shoe size,” says the son, the one who likes to fuck up everything Clint does to try to get him punished.
“Well,” says Steve. “We needn’t resort to that. I just… figure if you lost this one, you’d probably still be in possession of the other, so… Anybody?”
“I did,” says the daughter. “But I lost it.”
Clint snorts and then shrinks back, hoping no one heard him. No one comes to investigate, and he slowly relaxes, as Steve says, after a pause, “Well, the thing is, we’re pretty sure it’s a man’s shoe, so…”
“I dressed up as a man,” says the daughter. “It was a masquerade.”
“That’s fair,” he says. “It’s possible. So if that’s true, you’ll know the answer to this question: what was the best food at the ball?”
“Sorry, that’s not. I’m not… Is there anyone else of marriageable age here?” Steve asks, clearly growing frustrated. For a moment, Clint’s petrified they are going to call for him, but of course they won’t. They forget he’s there until they need something or until he fucks something up.
“No, Your Majesty,” says Rumlow. “But my children loved all the food at the ball, it would be hard to choose just one --”
“Thank you for your time.”
Rumlow’s still talking when the entire crowd of guards and royalty ride off out of the courtyard, and then there’s nothing except for the horses snorting softly and the Rumlows bickering about who fucked that up more.
Joke’s on them. Clint’s pretty sure the prince is just looking for the owner of the shoe because whatever Natasha stole happened coincidentally the same time as he went dashing off all dramatically into the night.
He waits until the Rumlows go back inside and then gets back to work, forcing himself not to think of the prince and how different he looked than Clint had imagined.
That night, Clint pulls his pretty shoe out from under the floorboard and strokes his finger over the hawk-shaped clasp and can’t help but remember that night and wish things could be different.
But that’s not for him. All that he gets to have, if he’s lucky, is an apprenticeship and a house big enough to adopt all the orphans he can.
And that’s enough.
He dreams of chocolate tarts and being chased through a hedge maze in the dark, laughing.
Three days later, Clint is fast asleep after having spent the day cleaning out chimneys. It’s the middle of the night and he’s snoring, deep in dreamless, exhausted sleep, sprawled on his little cot.
He’s so deeply asleep that he doesn’t even hear the gable window slide open or notice someone slip inside.
And then Natasha shoves him roughly and hisses, “What the fuck, Barton?”
He wakes up slow and groggy. “What? Wh -- Tasha?” he mumbles, rubbing at his eyes. “What are you -- what am I --”
“Why did His Royal Majesty Prince Steven whatever the fuck his name is come to my house today asking to see all marriageable young men and women who might have a shoe that looks identical to the one I gave to you?”
Clint blinks up at her. She looks pale and sharp in the darkness, with the light of the moon hitting her cheek bone, her jaw, but the rest of her face in shadow. He sits up slowly, his entire body aching from the day’s work, and says, “I don’t know, Tasha.”
“Has he been here? Did he see you?” She sounds panicked.
“I was hiding in the stable,” he says. “He didn’t see me.”
“How did he get your shoe? Does he think you were the one who stole --”
“I left it,” Clint blurts, interrupting her. “I was -- we were. On the terrace. And the clock chimed midnight. And I ran and it fell off and I didn’t have time to go back for it.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “You were on the terrace with the prince,” she echoes. “Why?”
Clint ducks his head miserably and and shrugs and says, “Because we danced for a long time and then I panicked and hid out there and he came to find me.”
Clint closes his eyes. “He kissed me.”
She’s quiet for a lot longer this time, and Clint’s pretty sure she’s going to be furious, but when she speaks, it’s unexpectedly gentle. “You never do things by halves,” she says, soft. “Why did you hide in the stables if that’s why he’s looking for you?”
“Because he isn’t looking for me, he’s looking for someone dressed in finery,” Clint says, flopping back on his bed, which creaks alarmingly. “He’s looking for someone with shiny shoes and silk garments who has nothing better to do than dance the night away at a fancy ball and stuff himself with chocolate tarts. He’s not looking for an orphan with holes in his shoes, covered in -- covered in cinders from the fireplace. It was a mistake. It was a stupid accident. And it’s better if he doesn’t find me.” He pauses and then adds miserably, “Plus, there’s always the chance he just wants to torture me for information on whatever you stole.”
Natasha squeezes his knee and says, “Maybe you’re not giving him enough credit,” but she sounds like she’s not sure she believes it.
“The worst part is,” Clint confesses, voice shaking a little because it’s late and he’s tired, “I really wanted to keep those shoes. Both of them. They’re the most beautiful shoes I ever saw.”
“Well then,” she says evenly. “I’ll just have to steal it back for you.”
Clint doesn’t let her go alone. He knows she’s better at these kinds of things than he is -- hell, he suspects she’s made a prolific career out of her ability to procure valuable items, but if he let Natasha sneak into the palace to steal a shoe back for him, without him, and she got caught, well. He’d never forgive himself.
So despite the fact that he knows he’ll be a liability, he sneaks away from the Rumlows’ house in the dead of night and rides in her carriage back to the palace, where he never thought he’d go again.
It looks different when it’s not all lit up for a ball -- darker, more ominous, silent except for the flickering of torches and the metallic rattling of the guard’s armor as they pace along the walls.
The gates are up, because it’s a peaceful kingdom and they probably don’t expect trouble, but Natasha rolls her eyes when Clint asks if that’s how they’re going to get in.
“You can’t just walk into the front gates and not get caught,” she tells him.
They’ve ditched the carriage in the city and are skulking behind some shrubbery, Natasha’s face tense and pale in the moonlight as she watches the movement of the guards.
“There’s a weak spot in their rotation on the western corner,” she says, quiet. “I can scale the wall there, sneak in through the kitchen. The cook should be asleep by now.”
“I can totally scale a wall,” Clint says, which is a lie. “How will you even find the shoe?”
“If he’s parading about with it holding it up for inspection, he’s probably got it stashed in the treasury,” she says. Clint worries that she sounds more confident than she should be. For all she knows, it’s shoved in a saddlebag somewhere, ready for tomorrow’s jaunt to wherever Prince Steve intends to look next.
Natasha turns to him, rests both hands on his shoulders, and says very clearly, “I need you to be the lookout.”
“But I’m here to help,” he says.
“I love you. But you’re clumsy. You’re loud. You’re taller than you think you are. You are terrible at pretending to be anything you’re not. Last time you were here, you kneed a nobleman in the dick. I need you to wait here.”
He wants to argue, but he knows her, and he knows there is absolutely no chance that he’ll get his way here.
She hesitates for a moment and then says, “If something happens and I don’t come back out, I need you to go back to the tavern where we left the carriage and tell the driver. His name’s Scott. He knows some people who can help get me out. Okay?”
He opens his mouth to argue and she lifts a brow, so he sighs. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll wait here.”
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
Clint is terrible at waiting.
He tries his best, at first keeping watch, and then realizing that there’s actually nothing to watch out for at the front gates. He makes himself as comfortable as he can instead, sitting in the lush grass and drawing circles in the dirt.
And then he gets hungry.
He stands back up, glancing at the gates and then back down the lane towards the city, on the other side of a small garden. He could go to the tavern and grab a snack, maybe…
No. He cannot abandon Natasha. He needs to --
He freezes and then slowly turns his head and -- yeah. He’s taller than the shrubbery. The guards saw his head pop up. Fuck, Natasha was right.
“Uh, hi,” he says, as the guard, who looks relatively mild-mannered and not at all inclined to chop off his head, thank god, comes closer.
He looks Clint over, gaze lingering on his carefully-mended tunic and the holes in his shoes, and his expression turns a little amused. “Lost track of time, did you?”
“Yes,” Clint says, uncertain. “Yeah. That’s what -- yes! I was at the tavern having a drink and I lost track of time and now I’m late to -- to wherever I’m supposed to be.”
“Aw, don’t worry, boy,” says the guard, slinging an arm around Clint’s shoulder and ushering him straight towards the gates. Crap. “I know Master Coulson keeps a strict curfew on his stable boys, you aren’t the first we’ve caught trying to sneak back inside after hours. I won’t tell. Just hurry along now, before he catches you, and if he does, don’t mention that I’m the one who let you in. Okay?”
“Sure!” Clint chirps. “Sure, absolutely, this never happened, thanks!”
And then he’s left alone in the darkened courtyard and Natasha is going to murder him.
But while he’s here… well. He might as well check the saddle bags for his shoe.
The stable is dark and familiar -- just like the Rumlows’, but bigger and cleaner because they’ve probably got a whole team of people here, not just Clint.
Clint’s anxiety eases the second he steps inside, soothed by the softly snorting horses, the lazy stamping of hooves, the smell of hay and horse.
“Don’t mind me,” he whispers to the horses, who are dozing in their stalls. “I’m just looking for -- there!”
He slips through the shadows to the tack room, which is locked of course, but Clint knows how to pick a damned lock. Natasha taught him when he was small.
It only takes a few moments and then he’s inside, carefully closing the door behind him.
There are rows and rows of shelves holding every manner of tack, all of it kept to a high shine, and Clint itches to run his fingers over the brassy finishes and muss them up a little.
He doesn’t, though, he just makes his way to the saddle bags, draped carefully over a bar in the back. He goes first to the royal blue one he remembers from Steve’s horse, the one with the silver embossing -- it’s the prettiest, and he figures that means it’s the prince’s, and his shoe might still be in there.
He finds it in the third pouch he checks, shoved in next to a handkerchief and a sketchbook. He wants to take the book too, but he’s not a thief and he’s worked hard to not become one, so he just carefully extracts his shoe and --
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be in here.”
Clint goes still, breath catching in his throat. For a wild, stupid moment, he thinks it’s the prince -- something about the voice echoes in his memory -- but as he slowly turns around, it’s not the blond guy from the Rumlows’ courtyard.
It’s someone he’s never seen before -- shorter, dark hair, a dangerous sort of look about him. He’s dressed in finery but it doesn’t seem to sit well on his shoulders.
“Uh, hi,” Clint says, hiding the shoe behind his back. “I’m, uh, I was late for curfew and I work here.”
“No you don’t.”
“Okay. Okay, that’s fair. But listen, I was just --”
He comes closer, a lazy sort of movement that reminds Clint of the barn cats back home, stalking mice. He shivers a little when he realizes that makes him the prey, and stumbles sideways, trying to keep the stolen shoe out of sight and also somehow make his way to the door.
“What did you take?”
He’s fast -- he knows he can be fast. He’s had a whole lot of experience running from people who wanted to hurt him. If he can just get to the door, he can probably get to safety, as long as this guy doesn’t call for the guard.
“What are you even doing in here,” he says, trying to distract the guy, who is eyeing the open buckle of the prince’s saddle bag suspiciously. “It’s late. Someone pretty as you, probably needs a whole bunch of beauty sleep and --”
The guy spins to face him, eyes going wide. “The shoe,” he says, his voice strangely going a little rough. “You took the -- why did you --”
It’s the best chance Clint’s gonna get. He thinks, for a brief second, about throwing the shoe at the guy’s head, distracting him, but -- but it’s his fucking shoe and Natasha gave it to him and it’s the only nice thing he’s ever had.
So instead, he clutches it to his chest and dashes out the door, kicking it shut behind him.
He can hear the guy cursing, already giving chase, and takes the precious few seconds’ headstart to throw open the side door of the stable, making sure it slams against the wall, and then ducks into the nearest stall, huddling in the darkest shadows.
The horse there snorts at him, kicks her feet a little, but she doesn’t panic, which is nice
“Good girl,” Clint mouths at her, stroking her velvety nose, as the guy runs to the open door, glances around the empty courtyard, and starts swearing furiously.
Clint tucks himself into as small a ball as he can and holds his breath as the guy leaves the stables, not even bothering to close the door, and -- shit. Calls for a guard.
He’s only got one fucking choice here, and it’s one that’ll probably result in him being killed.
He eases the stall door open and quietly, apologetically…
Steals the horse.
He’s going to be executed so fucking quickly.
But thieves get executed too, he thinks, so either way, he’s doomed unless he gets out of here, and the horse is his best chance for survival -- and she’s a nice horse, clearly on his side, so.
So. He slips onto her back, shoves his shoe in his pocket, twists his hands up in her mane, and whispers, “I’m so sorry, I’m stealing you, please don’t be mad.”
And then he tightens his knees and nudges her with his heels, a little sharper than he might otherwise be with a horse, but speed is essential here and he’s already calling out apologies -- to the horse, to the nobleman, to the guards, to anyone who’s fucking listening.
The horse doesn’t seem to mind. She rears up a little and then takes off with a leap.
She’s faster than any horse Clint has ever ridden before, and wilder, and less inclined to listen to his gentle attempts to guide her, but she also clearly likes to run and probably hasn’t had the chance, not tucked into the royal stables the way she’s been. Clint gives up trying to guide her and focuses on trying to hold on as she takes off at a gallop, heading for the gates and blowing right by the kind guard who’d let Clint in before.
He sees Natasha by the shrubs where she left him, eyes wide and shocked, and has enough time to hiss, “Run. Meet me back home.”
And then she and the palace and the pretty nobleman who caught him are left behind.
By the time the sleepy guards get mounted up, Clint’s already halfway through the city, and by the time they give chase, he’s already gone.
The horse slows eventually, sides heaving, tossing her head and finally giving in when Clint cautiously tries to turn him towards home.
He makes it after dawn, and it’s too late. The Rumlows are up and breakfast isn’t ready and the eggs aren’t gathered and the horses aren’t fed and the cows aren’t milked and they’ve been bellowing for Clint for an hour, furiously trying to cook their own breakfasts despite never having been in a kitchen before.
When he arrives, he’s leading the horse, who looks a little ragged, a little sweaty, dusty from the road like Clint is, which is probably the only reason they don’t instantly realize that she’s a far better horse than they can afford.
That, and their rage at seeing Clint stumble into the courtyard probably blinds them to everything else.
“You have one job, boy,” Rumlow snarls, advancing on him like a thundercloud. “One reason we go out of our way to feed you, to keep a roof over your damned head. And if you can’t even do that, there’s no point to us keeping you at all.
Clint is exhausted. He’s numb. And he’s known since the sky started lightening with the dawn that he’d be punished for everything he was supposed to be doing at home.
So he doesn’t flinch or cry out when Rumlow backhands him viciously across the face, not even when his lip splits and his mouth fills with blood.
The horse doesn’t like it -- she whinnies and stomps and Clint knew she was a good horse -- the best horse.
And then Rumlow’s got him by the front of the shirt, shaking him, shouting things Clint doesn’t care to listen to and the shoe falls out of his pocket and lands in the dirt between them.
There’s a pause. Everything freezes for a breathless moment and suddenly, Clint wants to cry.
“What have you done, boy?” Rumlow says, slow and stunned and horrified.
“Nothing,” Clint says, but his voice cracks and he can feel how pale he is.
“That’s the prince’s shoe,” Rumlow’s son says, crouching to pick it up out of the dirt.
The son’s the one who likes to fuck up Clint’s work and get him in trouble for it, and Clint wants to punch him in the face for daring to touch his shoe, wants to snatch it up and climb back on the horse’s back and get out of here and never come back.
But he belongs to these people, for three more months. He’s nothing but property and they can do whatever they like to him and to the things that are his.
He blinks back tears and doesn’t lash out or cry the way he wants to.
Not even later, when Rumlow has him restrained and whipped for missing breakfast, for not doing his chores, for being a burden and a nuisance.
He does cry a little when the son shouts from the attic that he found the other shoe, because that means he found Clint’s stash of money from Natasha too, which means he’ll never be able to afford an apprenticeship or a tiny house in the country for all the orphans.
Later, when Rumlow drops him into the root cellar that runs alongside the house and closes the rotten wooden door, Clint doesn’t make a sound. Not even when he hears the chains pulled tight and locked.
He hates the dark and the dirt and the bugs he can feel crawling on him, but his back is torn up and bloody and he can’t crawl away from them even if he wants to.
So he lays still and quiet and keeps his eyes fixed on the light spilling through the rotten pieces of wood on the door and lets his mind drift far away from this place and these people and to his future he can no longer afford to have.
And then, even though it makes his back hurt more, he starts to cry.
Darkness falls and Clint clenches his eyes shut and breathes through the tears and does his best to ignore the crushing claustrophobia and the things he can feel crawling on him.
Natasha wakes him when she kicks her way through the door early the next morning, rotten boards giving way easily beneath her foot.
Clint winces at the bright light and then tears his back open scrambling for her.
“Nat,” he cries, scrubbing at the dirt and tears on his face. He needs to get out of here, he needs to get the bugs off of him, he needs--
“Shh,” she cautions, reaching for his hands and pulling him carefully out of the cellar. “We’ve got to be quiet. I’ve got you.”
He’s shaking, and she crushes him into a careful hug. It hurts but he doesn’t care, clinging to her. He gets her finery all dirty, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
“They took my money,” he tells Natasha, voice bare and breaking. “And my shoes.”
“Shh,” she says, smoothing his hair. “You don’t need them. I’m going to take you away from here, where they can’t hurt you anymore. Your prince is at the front door and Rumlow’s making an ass of himself trying to convince him that his idiot son was the one who left the shoe.”
“Why would he want to?” Clint asks, as Natasha takes his hand and leads him towards the stable. There’s a path back there that’ll take them to the road farther down. “Won’t he be arrested?”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “The prince isn’t looking for the owner of the shoe to arrest them,” she says. “He’s looking for the owner of the shoe to date him.”
“He liked you,” Natasha says. “C’mon. Scott’s waiting with the carriage and -- Shit, they’re coming. Quick, hide.”
She tugs him into the stable, back into Betsy’s stall, and she snorts happily when she sees him.
“Hi, girl,” Clint whispers. “I missed you too.”
He rubs at her nose and then goes still when he hears Steve and Rumlow outside.
“My mistake,” Rumlow says, silken and smooth. “If I knew you came here seeking a thief, I’d never have offered my son.”
Clint shoots Natasha a quick look because there it is, proof -- Steve came to arrest him. She just rolls her eyes.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t have,” Steve says dryly.
“But as I said, Your Majesty, there are no thieves here --”
“Really?” Clint muffles a surprised gasp because that’s the aristocrat from the stable. “Because that’s my horse.”
“They kept the horse?” Clint breathes, and Natasha rolls her eyes again.
“Of course they did,” she whispers. “They’re too stupid to know they can’t afford a horse like that.”
“That’s definitely evidence that there’s a thief somewhere on the premises, Bucky,” Steve says, and the aristocrat from the stable -- Bucky -- doesn’t sound angry. He sounds amused.
“That’s -- that’s your horse?” Rumlow says, his entire voice changing now, growing a little pitchy. “I am so sorry, My Lord, I had no idea. Our ward -- our ward returned with it last night but I wasn’t aware that it wasn’t -- that he’d stolen it.”
“Your ward,” says the prince. “You have a ward. You said your two children were the only ones of marriageable age --”
“A ward is hardly marriageable,” Rumlow scoffs. “They’re barely servants. They’re barely --”
“Where is he?” Bucky asks, his voice going dark. Clint shivers, hiding his face against Betsy’s neck and trying to breathe through his anxiety.
Rumlow is quiet for a moment, and when he speaks, his voice is layered with all manner of false cheeriness. “Why, in the cellar,” he says. “Resting after his punishment.”
“What have you done?” Steve asks, and he doesn’t sound amused anymore.
“Punished him for thievery, of course. When we caught him --”
There’s a stunned silence. They must have made their way to the root cellar by now, only to find the door broken.
“I -- I don’t know what could have happened,” Rumlow says.
“Why is there blood in the cellar?” Steve asks quickly. “Bucky -- Bucky, just wait.”
“They’re going to find us,” Natasha whispers. “We need to go. They’ll search the stables, we have to get into the trees for cover, and get to my carriage. Can you run?”
“I can try,” he says, and Natasha squeezes his hand and then leads the way to the back door, which opens soundlessly on well-oiled hinges.
She checks that the coast is clear and then hisses, “Run.”
He does, and she keeps hold of his hand, not leaving him behind.
At first, the barn covers their escape, but then Clint hears someone shout from behind them and knows they aren’t going to make it. He tries his best to go faster, but every step tears at the jagged wounds on his back and he’s trembling.
“Nat,” he pants, yanking his hand out of hers. “Go. I’m sorry.”
She stumbles without him holding her back, nearly falls, but catches her balance. Before she can react, someone grabs Clint from behind, yanking hard on his arm, and he cries out as it tears at his wounds. He trips over a loose stone, falls hard at Rumlow’s feet, rolling and grinding dirt and rocks into his cuts.
He doesn’t bother to get back up. There’s no point to it, not now -- he’s caught and he knows it and he focuses all his energy just on breathing.
Rumlow looms over him, blocking out the light, and Clint braces himself to be kicked, but before the blow comes, Bucky says, quiet and dangerous, “Don’t fucking touch him.”
“Hey. Hey, it’s okay. Everything’s fine,” Steve says, much more gently. “Can you get up? We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Clint opens his eyes and blinks up at Steve, who looks beautiful and royal, haloed by the sunlight that’s turning his hair to liquid gold. He looks nothing at all like Clint imagined, when they danced and ate chocolate tarts and made fools of themselves on the dance floor.
“Yeah,” he croaks, and Steve takes his hand, helping him carefully to his feet.
Clint staggers against him, catching himself on Steve’s chest, and he stares into his blue eyes and says, without thinking, “I thought. I thought you were shorter.”
Steve tries to hide a grin but he can’t quite manage it. “Yeah, well,” he says. “I’m wearing taller shoes?”
“Steve,” Bucky says, pained and irritated all at once.
Clint looks over Steve’s shoulder at him and blinks slowly and Bucky looks back and his eyes are so familiar. “Bucky?” Clint whispers, confused.
“You need a doctor,” Steve tells him, carefully letting him stand on his own feet.
“I got beat up,” Clint tells him. “And whipped. I didn’t hit my head.” He takes a cautious step towards Bucky, who looks sullen and also like he wants to run. He knows Bucky -- recognizes the way he holds himself, his eyes, the lines around his mouth and his jaw. “You’re -- it was you.”
The lights in the stable the night before had been dim, but here, in the daylight, he can see it plainly.
“How dare you speak to Lord --” Rumlow starts to say. Someone, from the sounds of it, punches him in the face. Clint doesn’t look, however, too busy staring at Bucky’s face with narrowed eyes.
“You’re not the prince,” he accuses.
Bucky flinches, turning away. “I know you came looking for a prince, but I--”
“That’s -- that’s the most ridiculous -- I don’t understand how you fooled anybody who knows you,” Clint says, exasperated. “That’s the most ridiculous plan I’ve ever heard. And I told you before, I didn’t go to that stupid ball looking for a prince, I went for the food.” He hesitates, swaying a little because, right, he’s fucking bleeding. “But if you -- if you want to execute me for stealing, I need you to know, all I took was the shoe, and it was mine.”
Bucky looks back at him, considering for a moment, and something in his shoulders relaxes. “And my horse,” he says, but his voice is softer, a little uncertain now. He steps closer.
“Well. I did intend to give her back,” Clint says.
“And everything in the palace the night of the ball that went missing, that wasn’t him either,” Natasha says. She sounds like she wants to run, but she’s not gonna leave Clint behind. He was stupid to ever think she would.
“Really?” Steve asks, but he sounds intrigued, not angry. “How do you know?”
“Because it was me.”
Steve starts laughing, and Clint would worry about the fact that she just confessed to theft in front of the prince, but Bucky inches closer and says, exasperated, “We weren’t lookin’ for you to execute you, we were lookin’ because I wanted to finish that kiss we started.” He touches Clint’s bottom lip, achingly careful of the place where Rumlow split it. “And Stevie got so sick of how surly I got from missin’ you.”
“Missing me?” Clint asks, frowning. “You barely know me.”
Bucky shrugs, looking helpless. “I was hoping to fix that. Thought maybe you’d like to go out for dinner, or -- or maybe I could teach you to dance or. Or a picnic. Somethin’.”
Clint’s lip aches when he starts to smile, shy. “Yeah?” he asks, and then reality closes in and he says, “But I’m not anything. I’m -- I have no family, I have nothing, I--”
“I don’t care,” Bucky tells him.
“Yeah,” Steve chimes in. “It would be my honour if you -- and your companion -- would be my guests at the palace, just until we get all this mess with your foster family sorted out, which might take, oh, I don’t know -- when are you turning 18?”
“Three months,” Clint says, a little stunned.
Steve beams at him. “Three months. Perfect. We’ll get this sorted out in three months -- and after that, Bucky and I like to go out to our country estates for some fishing and relaxing and -- have you ever been to the country?”
“Steve,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “You’re gonna scare them off and we’ve only just found them.”
“No,” Clint says, quiet. “I’ve never.” But he’s always wanted to.
Natasha comes to stand beside him. “Clint’ll be my guest, at my townhouse in the city,” she says haughtily, and then, when Steve looks like he’s going to argue, she adds, “But your friend can come and visit if he wants to, and if Clint isn’t opposed to it, assuming that no one decides to make a big deal of the fact that he’s not quite old enough to be on his own and I’m not his legal guardian. And while we’re at it, Your Majesty, you might want to review the way your kingdom treats orphans, because I can promise you, Clint isn’t the only one suffering at the hands of the assholes you put in charge of children without families of their own.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Steve says, sounding halfway to smitten already. “Perhaps you’d like to consult on the matter -- I had no idea this was happening and it definitely will not happen again.”
She snorts. It’s not very ladylike.
“Also she promises to give back everything she stole so long as you don’t execute her,” Clint says quickly.
“No I don’t.”
“I’m sure we can work something out,” Steve says, warm and amused.
“Clint,” Bucky says, like he’s testing the name out on his tongue. He smiles, slow, and then takes Clint’s hand. “Would you let me call on you?”
Clint’s feeling a bit dizzy. Whether it’s the abrupt reversal of his fortunes, the fact that he can’t remember when he ate last, or the blood loss, he isn’t sure. He holds tightly to Bucky’s hand and says, a little hazy, “I’m a terrible flirt and a worse dancer and I -- and I --”
And he faints, but luckily, Bucky catches him before he hits the ground.
Apparently there’s an argument about how to get him to a doctor, with Natasha winning when she declares that there’s no goddamn way she’s letting anyone take Clint into the Rumlow house again, not even to wait for a doctor. She also glares at Rumlow until he sulkily agrees to fetch Clint’s things, and then Bucky carries Clint to her carriage.
They travel to the nearest town, have his wounds seen to and bandaged, and Clint sleeps through all of it, thankfully.
Six months later, Clint’s got his own place, paid for with his own money, earned at a probably-royally-subsidized bakery where he’s learning to cook bread and biscuits and cakes. The cakes are his favourite, those he’s terrible at the decorating. He tries his best and his favourite part is how each one looks a little better than the one before.
But the best best part is that the funds he makes from the bakery, combined with the money Natasha gave him after fencing whatever she stole from the palace, are enough to purchase a small, crumbling rectory out in the country.
It’s a stone house with a collapsed roof, a few acres of overgrown gardens, and a tiny barn with enough room for a handful of cows or horses.
Clint’s got a horse of his very own because he’d tried to give Bucky’s back to him after the whole accidentally stealing it thing, and Bucky had refused to take her.
The house is a fair ride from the city, which is nice because it’s peaceful and quiet and only a quick walk to a small village with everything he needs. It does mean, though, that he has to cut down days he can work at the bakery to spend time out at his tiny place, fixing the house up and making it habitable.
It’s got eight bedrooms and he’s building an expansion out back. It’s also got a sizable kitchen and a dining room that’ll easily fit a table built for 12 or more. The living room will be cozy once he gets the chimney swept out.
And it’s only a 20 minute ride from Bucky’s country estate.
But that’s not the reason he chose it. No. Not at all.
It’s perfect -- or rather, it will be perfect. Once the house is livable.
Natasha doesn’t offer to help, but she sends along a crew made up of her driver, Scott, and a gang of other characters Clint would hesitate to trust, if they hadn’t somehow earned Natasha’s.
With everyone’s help, the place only takes a few weeks until he can move in and start filling it with sturdy furniture. Built for children.
Clint’s only just put his bedroom together, fluffing his pillows and looking around the very first bedroom that’s ever been just for him, when he hears hooves on the road below.
He looks out the window to see Bucky riding up, and can’t help the way his entire face lights up with a crooked, smitten grin.
Taking the stairs two at a time, Clint stumbles out his front door and leaps off the porch, and he nearly trips and falls -- would have, if Bucky hadn’t anticipated both his enthusiasm and his clumsiness, and caught him before he hit the ground.
“What are you doing here?” Clint asks, breathless and beaming at him.
“Brought you some things.”
Clint looks back at the horse and sees that its saddlebags are loaded with just about every toy he can imagine, from building blocks to softly knitted animals and dolls.
“You weren’t supposed to!” Clint reminds him, not doing anything at all to push him away. “Remember? I’m doing this on my own.”
“Sure you are,” Bucky tells him. “But you don’t have to. I didn’t help with the house or the land or the work you put into it, though it was fuckin’ difficult for me -- and harder for Steve. But these aren’t for you. They’re for the little ones, and you can’t stop me from spoiling them.”
Clint rolls his eyes and Bucky just shrugs his shoulders and then stands up on his tiptoes and kisses him, desperate and hungry like they hadn’t just spent three nights at Bucky’s country estate, locked up in the bedroom.
“Did you get your bed together yet?” Bucky asks him, eyes dark and intent.
“Yes, but don’t you dare leave your poor horse out here with all those bags on her, sweaty and hungry and --”
Bucky starts to laugh, backing away with his hands up in surrender, and Clint knows he’s just not used to not having a servant appear ready to take care of his horse for him, but Bucky’s learning and Clint’s willing to be patient.
“Hey,” Bucky says, as he leads his horse back towards the stable. “I nearly forgot. I brought you a gift too.”
“I told you I’m doing this on my --”
Bucky opens a satchel and pulls out a tiny, golden ball of fluff, a sleepy motherfucking puppy blinking its one good eye at him and yawning and already wagging his tail and holy shit, Clint is going to die.
“Is that -- is he for me?” he breathes, because his eyes are burning with tears and his hands are shaking and he can remember, vividly and brutally, the first time he tried to befriend one of his foster family’s dogs, and how quickly it was beaten into him that farm dogs are not pets and family dogs are not for children without families.
He also remembers three weeks ago, waking up from a nightmare drawn from that experience, and clinging to Bucky while he cried about it.
“Born in Steve’s stables,” Bucky says, casual. “He got hurt when he was just a few days old and his eye didn’t recover. Won’t be much good there, so Steve was looking for a home for him and you’ve got a home now. Could use a dog.”
Clint can’t reach out for the dog, he can’t, he absolutely cannot, and Bucky must read it in his face because he doesn’t give him a choice. He gently pushes the puppy against Clint’s chest and brings first one hand up, and then the other, to cradle the puppy.
“Oh god,” Clint says. “Bucky, I’m going to hurt him. You can’t -- you can’t keep giving me things, you have to let me do something for you in return.”
“I thought maybe we could call him Lucky,” Bucky says, just as the puppy leans up and clumsily licks Clint’s nose.
“Lucky,” Clint breathes, holding the puppy up carefully. It fit -- because somehow, despite everything, Clint thinks he must be the luckiest guy in the world. He’s got Natasha -- and she’s about to become a real life queen, and he’s got Bucky, and he’s got this house, and he’s got his horse, and his goats, and his very own bedroom, and now, he’s got his own dog, and what else could he possibly ask for?
He cradles Lucky in a careful hug and looks for Bucky again, only to find him on one knee, looking, of all things, nervous.
“There is one thing you can do for me, but only if you want to,” he says, licking his lips, and Clint goes very still and stares. “You could agree to marry me and --”
“Bucky Barnes,” Clint says, slow and warm and amused. “Don’t you know that finding your future partner at a masquerade ball specifically designed for that purpose is barbaric at best?”
Bucky’s nose wrinkles and he says, “Now I know you’ve been listenin’ to Steve too long,” he says, and Clint’s never going to get over teasing them both for the way he and Bucky had met -- Bucky disguising himself as the prince after Steve had sullenly refused to attend the ball in his honour.
How anybody who knew them fell for it is beyond Clint. Bucky’s half a foot shorter than Steve on his best day.
“I’ll be anything you want me to be,” Clint says, because Bucky’s starting to look worried. “As long as I get to be yours.”
Bucky’s up and off his knees in seconds, kissing him just as hard as he had before, though this time he’s careful of Lucky, curled up and wagging his tail against Clint’s chest.
They’re the luckiest, Clint decides, kissing Bucky back until he’s breathless. He and Lucky both, despite everything, have a home and a family and he never thought he’d get to have either.
“If we get married,” Bucky tells him. “You’re gonna have to let me fund the addition in the back, so we can fit more kids in, and I also want to build a playground -- kids need a playground, Clint. Don’t argue with me.”
Clint’s laughing too hard to do much arguing, but he manages to press a kiss to Bucky’s cheek and tell him he loves him anyway.
The first child arrives on a Wednesday. It’s a sullen little boy with a shock of blonde hair and angry brown eyes and a hand-print bruise on his cheek.
The instant Clint sees him, something in his chest tightens up and he knows, more than he’s ever known anything in his entire life, that he’s doing the right thing here.
It’ll take longer for him to convince this boy of that, but Clint’s going to do his damnedest to try.
“Hey,” he says, as the boy climbs down out of the farmer’s cart, clutching a tiny satchel of clothes. His shoes have holes in them and so do his trousers and Clint’s going to patch them both first time.
The boy glares at his toes and kicks a rock and Clint chooses to believe the rock wasn’t kicked at him.
Clint flashes a friendly smile and spreads his arms, gesturing to the house and it’s overgrown gardens and the goat tearing up weeds in the front yard, the cow wandering in the back.
He’s going to teach this boy to mend his clothes and cook food he actually gets to eat, and give him a fair amount of chores to keep the place running but also give him at least half a day every day to explore the things he wants to explore -- to learn and to create and to dream of something better than just surviving to adulthood.
And he’ll teach all the other children the same.
“We’ve got your room ready for you,” he says. “Welcome home.”