Cover image courtesy of Ruminational on Tumblr; find the original post here.
The first the Young Ultimates knew about it was when Steve swung by Stark Industries on his motorcycle to pick up Clint, only to find Clint notably absent.
They'd talked about the motorcycle at breakfast that morning; Clint loved the bike, and Steve had agreed to pick him up and take him out to an empty lot where they could practice some trick-riding. Clint had been excited, and it wasn't like him to miss an appointment without warning. At least not since the infamous Stark Family Dinner incident, back before Clint had internalized the idea that people would miss him if he didn't show up somewhere.
Steve frowned, parked the bike and headed inside.
"Evening," he said to the security guard manning the lobby desk. "How's tricks, Potts?"
"Just fine, Captain," Potts replied cheerfully. "Yourself?"
"Can't complain. Hey, your little sister starts work this week, doesn't she?"
"Yep, first day's tomorrow. She's going to be Bambi's assistant."
"She ready for Tony?"
"As ready as anyone ever is," Potts replied. "Head on back if you like."
"Might in a minute. Have you seen Clint today?"
"Sure. He was headed out a little while ago, said he was meeting you -- then said he forgot something and ran back in. Haven't seen him since."
Steve frowned. "How long ago?"
"Bout half an hour, I think." Potts shrugged. "Want me to page him?"
"Yeah, could you? He probably just got distracted."
Potts picked up the security phone and dialled; Steve listened, worry increasing, as he held a one-sided conversation.
"Hey Bert, can you get on the speakers and page Barton? His ride's here. No, I saw him go but then he came back -- really? Really." Potts covered the mouthpiece. "He knew you were meeting him?"
"Yeah," Steve replied, concerned.
"Cap says definitely. Well, it's not like him to forget, but...sure. Okay. I'll pass that on, thanks Bert," Potts said and hung up. "East wing security says Barton left twenty minutes ago from another exit. Called for a cab, loaded his stuff in, and took off."
"A cab?" Steve asked.
"That's a little strange. He could've called Jarvis or Hogan, couldn't he?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "Hey, listen, call up Jarvis, tell him Clint took a cab from work and to keep an eye out for him. Is Tony around?"
"Senior and Junior are at a field test, won't be back until tomorrow."
"Okay. Thanks, Potts. If you hear from Clint, you can get hold of me at the mansion or the penthouse."
Potts looked worried too, but he nodded. "You think he's in trouble?"
"He's got a good head on his shoulders, I'm sure he's fine," Steve said.
"But just in case?" Potts asked knowingly.
"Just in case," Steve agreed. He pushed through the front doors of the building and fired up the bike, heading back towards Manhattan and the mansion at top speed.
Just to be safe, and to avoid making anyone at SI suspicious, he stopped at a payphone and called Phil, too; there was no answer at Phil's home number, but he'd been working long hours at SHIELD lately and that wasn't a shock.
When he reached the mansion, there was a strange car parked in the driveway, an old beat-up junker that looked out of place on the well-raked gravel drive. Jarvis met him at the door.
"Mr. Stark and Master Anthony are out," Jarvis said, taking Steve's coat and speaking in a low voice. "They're not expected to return until late. I received your message from Officer Potts. I am excessively glad to see you, Captain."
"What's the story with the rustbucket out front?" Steve asked.
"Mrs. Stark is entertaining a guest," Jarvis said. "A Mr. Charles Bernard Barton."
Steve gave him an alarmed look. "Barton? It's not Clint's dad, is it? I thought he was dead."
"Older brother, perhaps, or very young uncle," Jarvis replied. "I believe Mr. Barton is waiting for Master Clint."
"I'll handle this," Steve assured him. "Lead the way."
Charles Bernard Barton was a scruffy, tough-looking kid in dungarees and a muscle shirt that had seen cleaner days. On the cream linen sofa in the music room, he looked very out of place, but then so had Clint at first.
He looked like Clint, enough that it was clear he was family. He was taller and more thickly muscled, built on heavy lines rather than Clint's lithe grace, but he had the same sharp jawline, a nose that would look more similar if it hadn't been broken at some point, and the same dark-rooted blond hair. His eyes, too, looked like Clint's eyes, down to the strange sense of something just slightly different when you looked at them. In Clint, it was almost mystical; in this man, it raised the hairs on the back of Steve's neck.
Maria was sitting in the wing chair nearby, upright and outwardly calm. Steve noticed the butt of a handgun emerging from Barton's waistband, in the hollow of his back, as he leaned forward.
"Steve, dear," Maria said. "Do come in. I'd like you to meet Charles Barton. He's Clint's older brother."
"Call me Barney," the man said, with a sharp, toothy grin as he offered a hand. Steve looked down at it, then up at Barney skeptically.
"I'm guessing you stopped by Stark Industries earlier today," he said, ignoring the offered handshake. Barney settled down on the couch again, hands on knees.
"Thought I'd pick the kid brother up, take him out to dinner, do some catching up," he said. "Clint and I have some business to transact. Didn't see him, though, so I thought I'd come thank his new benefactors."
"Clint's in the field with Tony," Steve said. "But I'll tell him you stopped by."
"I can wait," Barney said. "I was about to have a word with Mrs. Stark here about all she's done for Clint. Turns out the Starks are pretty generous," he said.
Steve's eyes flicked to Maria. "Is that so."
"We were just discussing what it'd cost, hypothetically, to keep me from spilling a few beans about Clint, in fact," Barney continued. "See, the thing is, Captain America, I just finished a stay in hotel federal, if you take my meaning, and I'm a hungry man with no job. Talking to a newsman about the cutest little Young Ultimate's police record and some of his tastes, that'd make me enough to tide me over. But I bet Mrs. Stark is prepared to make me a better offer, out of the goodness of her heart, isn't she?"
"My dear young man," Maria said sternly, "I wouldn't pay your dreadful hush money if you had photographs of my husband kissing Hitler."
Steve cheered inwardly. Barton looked unruffled.
"Hey, it's cash for me either way. Besides, I'm not interested in your husband; a fella like Howard Stark can defend himself. Poor little Clint, now, he was always so...sensitive."
Maria gave Steve a tiny shake of her head. Not yet. Steve relaxed his hands, which had started to curl into fists. She opened her mouth to speak, but they were all interrupted by Jarvis, who entered with a phone on a tray.
"Mr. Coulson for you, Captain," he said. Steve lifted the phone off the tray, holding the receiver to his ear.
"It's Steve," he said.
"Steve, I just got home," Phil said. "Clint's been here. He left me a note that sounds a lot like a goodbye letter. What's going on?"
"Minor situation," Steve said. "I'm handling it."
"No cause for concern. I'll see you later at the penthouse," Steve said.
"Are you being held hostage right now?" Phil asked.
"No. Thanks, Phil," Steve said, and hung up.
"Where were we?" Barney asked. "Right. You were going to write me a nice check, Mrs. Stark. Or Captain America here was going to throw me out, and I was going to go to the newspapers."
"Oh, no," Maria said. "Is that what you think was going to happen here?"
"You think you got a third option?" Barney sneered.
Steve rested a hand on Barney's shoulder, leaning over him from behind the couch. He didn't squeeze hard enough to hurt; he really just wanted some leverage in case Barney tried to go for the gun.
"Son, I don't think you realize she's not the one who needs options," he murmured.
Maria stood, now that Barney was ever so gently pinned, and went to the wet bar, pouring out a club soda.
"You see, everything a Stark does is newsworthy," she said, turning around and sipping daintily. "The good and the bad."
"Clint's not a Stark. He's a Barton," Barney said. There was an anger in his voice that Steve couldn't decipher, but clearly Maria had found his pressure point with uncanny ease.
"My husband and son are both Starks. Tony was...let's say troubled, for some portion of his youth, and in the end it seemed easier to simply strike a deal with the newsmen," she said. "Dreadful people mostly, smelling of cheap sandwiches and with unstarched collars. But very easily persuaded. Why, even J. Jonah Jameson won't run a story about a Stark after the last time we had him to dinner."
Steve tightened his fingers just a little.
"So you can, of course, go to the news, or to the local radio station, to the police, but they won't hear you; I suppose you could get on a soap box and shout it in a crowded park," Maria said, coming to stand in front of him, forcing him to look up. "But it still won't do you any good, because we, my dear boy, have all the leverage. Now, I love Clint dearly, so out of an abundance of good will I am willing to give you adequate funds to leave New York and set up housekeeping elsewhere. And I will restrain Steve here from his favorite thing in the world, which is punching-in the faces of small-minded, wicked little men who like to prey on others. Steve also has very complex feelings about betraying one's brother."
Barney, finally beginning to understand that he was outmatched, looked up at Steve. Steve looked back calmly.
"So your options are to take the money and go, ignore the money and attempt to disgrace and discredit my stalwart, good-minded second child, or you can try to reach that pop-gun in your waistband and Steve can put his hand down the back of your trousers and, quite literally, destroy your pathetic ass."
Barney gaped at her. Very early after waking up, Steve had found out about Howard's marriage and wondered what kind of woman could keep him in hand without despairing. Meeting her pretty much explained it, but it was still awfully fun seeing Maria in top form.
Barney went for the gun, which was even more fun.
Steve moved lightning-fast and beat him to the trigger; he didn't actually pull it, but he felt Barney stiffen as he gripped it.
"Oh, dear. Down to two options," Maria said thoughtfully. "Steve?"
"Isn't Clint very good friends with that nice young fellow from the government?"
Steve took the gun out of Barney's waistband and tucked it in his own. "Yeah. The one with special assassin training and the entire federal intelligence system at his fingertips?"
"Well, there's another option," Maria said. She reached out and tipped Barney's chin firmly in her direction. "You could try to push Clint around personally. I suspect you've done some of that in the past. And that option leads to you being slowly taken to pieces by a former elite soldier with a protective streak wider than Steve's shoulders and absolutely no moral compunction about murder. Steve, if you would."
Steve took his cue and raised his hand to the back of Barney's head, gripping his hair and using it to pull him upright. He rotated him, eased him in, and whispered in his ear, "Choose wisely."
Jarvis met them at the door with a baseball bat in one hand and an envelope of cash in the other.
"Five hundred dollars," he said, holding up the envelope. "Please, do feel free to decline," he added, swinging the bat idly.
Barney, still held by the hair in Steve's iron grip, took the cash. Steve propelled him out the door and into his car, holding the gun on him through the open driver's-side window.
"You don't scare me," Barney snarled as he started the car.
"I don't have to," Steve said, and pulled back the hammer. "I just have to hit one of your balls with this, and I'm pretty sure I can manage that from here."
The car peeled out like the devil was chasing it. Steve watched until it was through the gate at the end of the drive, then gently uncocked the gun and put the safety on. He turned to Maria, standing in the front doorway.
"Where is he?" she asked.
"Clint rabbited," Steve replied. "We need to find him before he does something dumb. He already left a Dear John for Phil."
"Well, I'm sure between a couple of soldiers, a pair of geniuses, and myself, we can manage," she said. "Inside, quickly. I'll see about getting in touch with Howard and Tony. You call Phil and explain the situation. I'd like to have Clint home in time for a late dinner; you know how it irritates Howard when anyone's late to that kind of thing."
They caught up to Clint at the port authority bus terminal, where he was apparently trying to run for California.
"Oh, Clinton Francis, no," Maria said, and Clint startled and turned, dropping his duffle bag but managing to hold onto his bow case. "You don't have any clothing at all suitable for Los Angeles society. I mean they are all heathens and monsters to begin with but they're fashion-forward, and you haven't been to California in two years."
"How...?" Clint asked, and then he noticed Phil. "Oh, shit."
"Language," Maria said pointedly.
"You can't be here," Clint said. "Barney's gonna screw it all up, that's what he does, I gotta get out of town -- "
"It's handled," Steve said. Clint turned white.
"Handled?" he asked in a strangled voice. "Are...are you here to kill me?"
Steve blinked. "What?"
"My brother showed up at SI, he only has one thing on his mind ever, then you come here, so he must have talked to you, which means either you paid him off or I'm a liability..."
"How exactly do you think I planned to kill you in the middle of the port authority?" Steve asked.
"Not you. Phil," Clint said.
"Well, that makes sense," Phil said, sighing.
"I know all about how the government treats intelligence risks," Clint said.
"Boys," Maria said, gesturing for them to go away. "Let me speak to Clint, please."
Steve stepped back, and Phil did too (somewhat more reluctantly, at least as far as Steve could tell). Maria put her arm carefully over Clint's shoulders and led him off to one side, presumably for some quiet. Steve listened hard, super-soldier hearing picking up nearly every word.
"I'm sorry," Clint blurted. "I'm sorry, my brother's such a creep, I can't believe he's even out of prison."
"We can't choose our blood," Maria replied soothingly.
"How much did he ask for?"
"That's not material. I gave him enough to leave New York and sent him on his way."
"He won't leave," Clint insisted.
"Perhaps, but he won't get much traction staying, either," Maria said, as she guided him into a seat in a dim corner. "Darling, I know your childhood was terrible and you were practically raised by wolves -- wolves might have been an improvement -- so I want you to understand that I'm not scolding you. I understand why you tried to leave, to save us."
"I just didn't want to see his stupid smug face again -- "
"I know," Maria soothed. "But your life is different now."
Clint made a frustrated, anxious noise.
"Part of being a family means we rescue each other," Maria continued. "It isn't simply your duty to protect us or your friends or Phil -- "
Clint's head shot up.
"A discussion for some other time," Maria told him. "It is also your duty -- listen to me, Clinton Francis, your duty -- to accept help in your time of need. In part because a small fracture can be patched, but the bigger the break, the worse it is for everyone else. But mainly because this is how these things work."
"Oh," Clint said. "It's a how-things-work talk."
Steve smiled. There had been a lot of those with Clint, in the early days, when he was learning about family and adulthood (and fashion).
"Yes," Maria agreed. "You should have called Steve before running. You certainly should have warned me that your brother might drop in for tea."
"I'm sorry, I panicked, I fucked it all up -- "
"Shh, it's all right. Nothing was irreversibly damaged. But you should have asked for help, Clint. We would have been happy to help you."
"I just...I knew you wouldn't care about what Barney had to say but everyone else would, they'd come down on you for what I've done, what Barney knows about me -- "
"And Phil could lose his job," Maria said. Clint put his face in his hands.
"I'm sorry, Maria -- "
"Oh, Clint. Just because I didn't talk about it doesn't mean I didn't know," she said. "You're a Stark now, dear. Not talking about things is how we talk about them. But Starks always back each other. Sometimes while shouting at each other," she added, and Clint let out a coughing laugh. "But we never abandon each other just because of a headline. Which won't be a concern regardless," she added, dusting off her skirt and standing. "Now, come along, Phil's going to want an explanation for that letter you left him."
"Hey," Steve said to Phil, before they got back within earshot. "Be nice to him when he says he's sorry."
"Oh, don't worry," Phil replied with a smile. "The letter was hilariously tragic. Romantic-Poet level sad. I'll be nice, and then I'll never stop teasing him about it."
Which was when Tony descended in the Iron Man armor.
In theory, Steve knew that it was the most efficient way to get from the test range to their location; in practice, the arrival of Iron Man tended to herald trouble, and everyone in the immediate vicinity scattered.
"All right," Tony said as he landed, pulling his helmet off and tucking it under one arm, smoothing out his hair. "Whose ass exactly do I need to kick? Your message got a little garbled from the phone to the range, Mom. I sent Bucky to the mansion just in case. Hey, Phil, how you doing, you good?"
Phil gave Tony a nod, so he pivoted.
"Clint Barton, I have told you and told you that Iowa is not the answer to your problems," he said, handing off his helmet to Phil absently and coming up to rest his gauntleted hands on Clint's shoulders.
"He was going to California," Maria said.
"Good god, you don't have the wardrobe for California," Tony said. Maria gestured at Tony, see?
Clint looked like he might be having a moment, and Steve inwardly cheered when Tony pulled him in by his shoulders and gave him a stiffly armored hug.
"What's this I hear about a brother?" Tony asked. "Because I'll fight him, the only guy who gets to push you around is me."
"Thanks," Steve heard Clint say. "I think Mom took care of it."
"Well, good," Tony replied, letting him go and turning towards Phil. "I'm still gonna need a weekly update on this guy's location just in case," he said. "Official SHIELD business. He sounds like a threat to national security to me, if he's trying to blackmail Stark Industries."
"Already working on it," Phil replied calmly.
"Good, well, let's go home, then," Maria said, leading the way towards the car, where Hogan was waiting. "Steve, if you would ride point, please? Anthony -- "
"Air escort," Tony nodded, taking his helmet back from Phil, who fell in, following Maria and Clint towards the car. "See you at the mansion. Dad'll be home in time for late dinner."
Maria caught Steve's glance and rolled her eyes, lips drawing up in a small, dry smile. "Just so. In the meantime, Clint and I will have to speak a little more about depending on family for assistance. Also, we'll plan a nice shopping trip. If you want to see California, dear, we'll introduce you properly."
Steve watched until Clint was in the car, leaning up against Phil, and then fired up the bike and turned towards the mansion.