The Savoy Hotel, London, June 17th, 1934
Phillip Coulson, the famous detective, strode through the revolving doors of the Savoy Hotel just before seven in the evening. As always, he had to fight to keep the trace of awe from his face at the black and white marble and pure extravagance that was one of London’s best hotels. There had been a time in Phil’s life where something half as grand as the Savoy would have rendered him more than a little awestruck and despite his tailored suits, he’d never quite gotten over that impulse.
When Phil walked up to the reception, the clerk behind the desk smiled warmly in greeting. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Mr Coulson,” he said. “How may I help you this evening?”
Phil smiled politely in reply. “I believe I have a dinner reservation...” he began, not entirely sure what name the reservation would be under.
It wasn’t Phil’s first time dining at the Savoy, but tonight’s dinner invitation was not simply mere indulgence. Phil had received his unsigned invitation through the post and the mystery surrounding the note had intrigued Phil against his better judgement. Whoever they were, his mysterious client was wealthy enough to arrange a dinner reservation at the Savoy and probably had the rank and privilege of polite society.
The clerk smiled again. “Of course, sir,” he said, consulting the large, leather-bound book just below the edge of the desk. “Your table is ready in the main dining room, Mr Coulson.”
Inwardly, Phil raised an eyebrow. It appeared that his mystery client had made the dinner reservation under Phil’s own name, which was both intelligent and devious. Phil was reluctantly impressed, even though he could have done without the layers of secrecy. His life hadn’t always been dining rooms and tailored suits and the cloak and dagger reminded Phil of the more unpleasant parts of his past that were definitely not fit for the polite company he would be keeping.
As was his habit, learnt during his time at Scotland Yard, Phil let his gaze move over the other dinner guests in the Savoy’s main dining room as he settled into his chair. The dining room was just as Phil remembered it, with crisp white tablecloths and polished silverware, and the tables placed far enough away from each other to allow for discretion if needed. Not that the dining room was crowded tonight; Phil only noted three groups of diners aside from himself, all wrapped up in their own conversations and not really noticing each other. He nodded to the waiter to bring over the wine selection, unable to stop his mind from noting the behaviour of the guests around him as he waited for his host to arrive.
There was a large group of five in the middle of the room and from what Phil could see, at least two of them had already been drinking heavily. They all wore fine, fashionable clothes as expected of guests at the Savoy, but even so there was a brashness about them that seemed a little loud and out of place in the refined surroundings. Blinking, Phil realised he recognised one of the men; Anthony Stark, the American born millionaire industrialist and owner of Stark Industries. Phil remembered the scandal from the previous year when there had been an attempt to kidnap Stark while he had been holidaying in the French Riviera. The story had filled the newspapers for weeks, Stark’s photograph accompanying it, which made it easy for Phil to recognise him now.
Stark’s dinner jacket and waistcoat were perfectly tailored, but his bow tie was already askew and despite the smile on his face, Phil could see the strain around Stark’s eyes from across the room. He was drinking heavily from his wine glass as well and it made Phil wonder what was being discussed at the table to put such tension under the smiles and laughter. Holding court in the middle of the table was an older, bald man with a neatly kept grey beard. His photograph had been splashed across the newspapers the previous year as well and there was no mistaking him as Stark’s mentor and business partner Obadiah Stane. Stane didn’t appear to be drinking as much as his partner, but his tailored dinner jacket could not hide the breadth of Stane’s shoulders or the way he laughed just a fraction too loud for politeness. There was a hard edge to the man’s manner and Phil noticed that while he kept a close eye on the staff near him, he was also quick to dismiss them.
Wrapped around Stane’s arm was a very pretty blonde who looked to be at least half his age. Her evening gown was a deep red, as was her lipstick and Phil could see the large diamond ring on her finger without needing to move any closer to the table. The woman seemed to be making a point of flashing it around and Phil absently wondered if the group had gathered to celebrate what appeared to be an engagement. However, it was the large diamond on the woman’s necklace that caught the most of Phil’s attention; there was no mistaking the Blue Star Diamond and Phil made a mental note that it had obviously been Stane who had been the unnamed millionaire who had bought it at auction.
The other two members of the party looked to be far more subdued. To Stark’s left was a rather stunning woman with strawberry blonde hair. Her evening gown was not quite as expensive as her blonde companion’s, but the deep blue colour suited her well and of the two women, Phil privately thought she was far more elegant. On the far side of the party, to the right of the blonde woman, sat another man. His clothes were slightly rumpled, as if hastily put on and his curly brown hair was slightly dishevelled. However, Phil noticed the man’s eyes were sharp behind the thin-wired glasses he wore and that he was attempting to keep a close eye on Stark. Phil wasn’t precisely sure why he thought so, but he would have put money on the fact that the third man was an old friend of Stark’s.
A group of three young diners caught Phil’s eye next. They were sitting in the corner towards the back of the dining room and Phil recognised the young woman as Miss Margaret Carter, the only daughter of Lord Astwell. Phil had taken care of a matter for her father some years ago and it surprised him a little to see how poised and grown up Peggy had become. Phil didn’t recognise either of her companions, but both seemed to be handsome young men and clearly friends. There was something vaguely familiar about the blond man, but Phil couldn’t see his face, even when he turned his head to whisper something to his darker haired friend.
Dining far more sedately towards the other end of the room was Sir John Stern, a prominent MP and a man Phil was surprised to recognise as Justin Hammer, whose company and wealthy, playboy lifestyle rivalled Anthony Stark’s own. Phil knew of the rumours surrounding the pair and was surprised they were both dining at the Savoy without causing yet another scandalous scene. The pair were forever known to almost hate each other, a rivalry that Phil predicted stemmed from childhood rather than just the competition of business. Hammer, however, seemed deep in conversation with Stern and Phil tucked that fact away in his mind. He never knew when something like that might be useful for his investments.
Phil looked away from his observations of the guests when he saw the waiter approach out of the corner of his eye. “Sir, will you be waiting for your companion much longer?” the waiter asked politely.
Pulling his pocket watch out of the pocket of his own neatly-pressed waistcoat, Phil was a little surprised to realise that his mysterious host was over half an hour late for dinner. It was quite possible that whoever had summoned Phil here had been detained, but Phil rather suspected his host was not coming. He pushed aside the feeling of frustration of the missed meeting and the faint itching of an unsolved mystery and smiled politely up at the waiter. “No, I don’t believe I shall,” he replied.
It was hardly the first time a potential client had changed their mind about requiring Phil’s services. As discreet as he promised to be, Phil knew that telling a stranger the details about a distressing or embarrassing moment in one’s life was difficult at best. If his mysterious host ever changed his or her mind, they would know where to find Phil again. And it was hardly the first time Phil had dined alone, even in such luxurious surroundings. He was a loner by nature and had few friends that he could count on, even fewer now that he had left Scotland Yard. Although if Phil was truthful, and he always tried to be with himself, most of his fellow inspectors at the Yard didn’t really like his company on a case, let alone off it.
All thoughts of his lack of company disappeared a moment later, however, when two new guests arrived in the dining room. Phil blinked, not really able to take his eyes off the striking couple that entered and from the corner of his eye, Phil could see he was not the only one. Even Stane and his companions had stopped their laughter to watch. Phil recognised both of the new arrivals immediately from where their photos had been splashed across the society pages for the last week; Miss Natasha Romanoff, notorious adventuress and cousin to the formerly grand Romanov Dynasty and Clint Barton, gambler, writer and rumoured to be related to Russian royalty himself.
Miss Romanoff would be stunningly beautiful even without the deep emerald evening gown she wore. The silk dress hugged her curves and tauntingly revealed the pale skin of her back. Her red hair was as bold as her lipstick and was carefully pinned back from her face in an elaborate hairstyle. Her green eyes were sharp and knowing as they swept the room, her full lips tilted with a hint of amusement. Yet as stunning as the she was, it was her companion that drew Phil’s attention and refused to let it go. Barton’s immaculate black jacket emphasised broad shoulders with the starched white shirt and waistcoat beneath highlighting his trim stomach and lean waist. The man’s hand looked strong and rough in comparison from where it rested possessively on the delicate skin of the Miss Romanoff’s back, but it was his face that Phil’s eyes kept drifting back to. He wasn’t handsome in the classical sense, but his rugged features were only emphasised by the way his dark blond hair was combed back from his face. His jaw was strong and determined and his lips looked as if they were permanently fixed with the hint of a smirk tugging at them. Even impeccably dressed, Barton looked every inch the scoundrel he was rumoured to be. His sharp blue eyes took in the room as intently as Miss Romanoff’s had, resting on Phil for long enough to tell Phil that he had caught Barton’s attention, before they moved on again.
The look had only been brief, but it hit Phil with the force of a gunshot. Phil had long been aware of his preferences and how society found them distasteful and illegal, but even so Phil could not help the immediate stab of longing in his stomach that things could be different. It had been a long time since Phil had found himself interested in companionship, but Clint Barton interested him in a way no one had in a very long time, if ever. Blinking slightly, Phil returned his attention to his meal, even though his appetite had died. Lusting after a ruggedly attractive face and roguish smirk was not something he should be doing, particularly when Barton was rumoured to be the latest in Romanoff’s string of lovers.
Instead, he should be focusing his detective skills on figuring out who had mysteriously invited him to dinner and then not shown up.
“Relax,” Natasha said quietly as she delicately sipped her wine. “Everyone has mostly stopped staring now.”
Clint Barton made a face in reply and drank his own wine. He usually preferred harder spirits when he drank, no doubt a legacy of his rough childhood, but Natasha had strict rules about behaviour in polite company – and dinner at the Savoy Hotel in London was definitely polite society. He might have been able to play the role of gentleman but Clint certainly hadn’t been born into it, not like Natasha. Yet Clint would never regret the events twelve years ago that had led him to meet her. She was the closest thing he’d ever had to a family that cared about him and Clint wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. Although Clint did have to admit that the wealth that came with so-called polite society did beat starving, even if Clint did use the money to mostly to careen from one scandal to the next.
Natasha kicked him discreetly under the table. “If you’re that bored, we can go and find some more entertaining nightlife later,” she said, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
Hiding an answering smile, Clint idly spun one of the knives from his silverware through his fingers. Despite appearances, Natasha wasn’t any more the polite lady than he was a gentleman and it worked for them. He let his eyes drift back out over the dining room for a moment, before returning his gaze to Natasha. “I’m not bored,” he said. “I think I’m just... restless.”
It was a feeling that had been growing for a while. Clint wasn’t quite bored with going from digs in Mesopotamia to the seedier streets of Paris or the more exotic corners of the Orient, but he was beginning to feel like there was something missing. The adventure of it all had lost a little bit of its shine. Clint was getting closer to thirty now and while he would never be the type of man to settle down with a wife and children for more than one reason, he was also feeling as if he would like his life to mean a little... more. More of what, however, he did not know.
“Ready for the next scandalous adventure?” Natasha asked him with a smirk after the waiter had discreetly placed their dinner on the table and disappeared again.
“Maybe,” Clint agreed with a smirk of his own, but part of him wasn’t sure it was that simple. “So,” he said, changing the subject. “What do we know about our fellow dinner guests?”
Natasha sat back with a wicked-edged smile. “Well, where would you like to start?” she asked, her eyes glinting.
It was a game both he and Natasha enjoyed playing. Polite society was always the same on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you could discover where the secrets lay. They both knew what it was like to pretend to be something in one place and something else in another and Natasha loved to poke through the veneer of manners that lay over a dining room like the Savoy to what lay beneath.
Clint let his eyes drift over the room again, watching the guests around him. Almost immediately, his eyes were drawn back to the well-dressed man dining alone. He wasn’t the normal sort of man Clint found himself watching; even from a glance, he looked reserved and the type to frown upon vice, which was not the kind of man Clint usually associated with. Yet, there was just something about him that drew Clint in. His suit was well-tailored and expensive, showing off broader shoulders than one might expect. Whoever he was, he gave off an unassuming air, but his grey-blue eyes were sharply observant as he watched those dining around him as closely as Clint was and Clint could almost see the way he was recording all the details away in his mind. He’d caught Clint’s attention from the moment he’d walked into the room, because out of all the guests, Clint was betting he would be the most dangerous.
Tearing his eyes away from the man, Clint caught Natasha’s knowing smile. Instead of giving her the satisfaction of knowing how curious he was about what she knew, he turned his gaze towards the party in the middle of the room. “What about Anthony Stark?” he asked. “And the man showing off his new blonde fiancé, who I’m going to guess is Stark’s business partner?”
“Obadiah Stane,” Natasha nodded and sipped her wine. “And I believe the blonde’s name is Miss Christine Everhart. A socialite from what I can gather, mostly out for the money.”
Clint smirked. “You wouldn’t be able to guess that from the diamond around her neck.”
This time, Natasha’s smile was almost predatory. “The Blue Star Diamond,” she purred. “I wouldn’t mind having that draped around my neck.”
Clint just gave her a level look because he knew that Natasha was not above stealing things she wanted. “Aren’t you supposed to be telling me all the gossip you’ve gathered on Stark?” he asked.
“It’s a simple story,” Natasha said, trailing a blood-red fingernail over the rim of her wine glass. “Miss Everhart, always on the lookout for a dashing, wealthy man, spent a while a few years ago hanging off Tony Stark’s arm, rather than his mentor’s.” She paused for a moment and shrugged. “It was no doubt some sort of messy affair, but I think half the reason for the expression on Stark’s face right now is the fact that he and his mentor have both slept with the same woman.”
Clint couldn’t help but chuckle softly. “Well, that would make dinner conversation a little awkward,” he agreed.
Natasha smiled in agreement. “Yes,” she said. “I’m almost looking forward to the inevitable scene that arrives after Stark drinks a little too much scotch after the main course.”
Watching Stark for a moment longer, Clint let his eyes drift over the two men in the corner. He recognised them both; one of Stark’s business rivals, Justin Hammer, and a particularly oily MP by the name of Sir John Stern. From the hushed tone of their conversation, they were no doubt attempting to conduct some sort of business deal. Clint vaguely remembered reading somewhere that Hammer’s company wasn’t doing so well lately. He couldn’t say it really interested him. The three diners in the other corner didn’t really interest Clint either because he could almost see the ridiculous love triangle forming in front of his eyes. They were young enough and laughing loud enough for it to be something like that. Determined not to let his gaze wander back to the lone stranger, Clint looked up to meet Natasha’s smug smile.
“His name is Phillip Coulson,” she said without prompting and Clint gave up the pretence that he wasn’t interested. “Nephew to the late Viscount Cavendish who apparently left him most of his fortune, but not the title. He’s a world famous detective.”
Clint wasn’t sure he liked the amount of glee in Natasha’s eyes, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. “A detective?” he said. “You mean like Scotland Yard?”
“In a former life,” Natasha replied. “He works for himself now. Do you remember that scandal a while ago? I think it was when we were staying in Paris. The one with the Norwegian royals? That was one of his cases.”
His eyebrows raised in surprise, Clint glanced at the man again, only to find Phillip Coulson’s sharp grey-blue gaze on him in return. Clint could believe he was a detective. Those eyes didn’t miss anything. The longer he held them, the more he could feel those eyes peeling back the layers and it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. “Any idea what he’s here investigating?” Clint asked, tearing his eyes away and looking back at Natasha.
Natasha shook her head, but her eyes were thoughtful. “No,” she said. Then she smirked again. “The night is young, so would you like to go and attempt a scandal elsewhere or sit here and stare some more?”
Clint glared at her for a moment, before he rolled his eyes. “Do you even have to ask that, Tash?” he said, rising to his feet to offer her his arm. “You know how I love causing scandals.”
Her laughter was rich and smoky and if Clint wasn’t mistaken, Detective Coulson seemed more than a little put out by that fact. Clint couldn’t help his smirk as he passed Coulson’s table. However, to his dying day, Clint would deny that the challenging eyebrow Coulson arched in reply made his heart do anything as stupid as skip a beat.