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First Impressions

Chapter Text

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single gentleman in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It is also generally understood that a man in possession of little fortune has better things to do with his time than worry about marriage.

In the wake of their father's early, but hardly unexpected, death, Clint and Barney Barton found themselves in possession of no fortune whatsoever. Barton Manor was theirs in name only – they had use of the house until the younger brother, Clint Barton, was twenty-one. On that day, the first of September, the property would pass to their father's cousin.

No intelligent man would have bet his estate and his children's inheritence in a card game, but then Mr. Harold Barton had been anything but intelligent, especially when he had been drinking. In slightly more than a year's time, the two men would be homeless.

There were a few protected investments, which, despite repeated attempts, their father had been prevented from gambling away. There was enough accumulated for the brothers to live comfortably, if modestly, in a smaller home somewhere in the country. Clint Barton was even looking forward to it. The younger Mr. Barton had little interest in business, and absolutely none in marriage. He enjoyed reading, dancing, and bow hunting. As long as he could rent a small cottage in the country, preferably within riding distance of his long-time friend Natasha Romanov, he was content.

The same could not be said for his elder brother. Barney already missed his winters in London, the thrill of being in the centre of the world, and the pleasant company that came with being an eligiable, unwed bachelor.

Still, Clint had thought Barney had at least grown accustomed, if not resigned, to their situation. He was not prepared, therefore, for Barney to march into their sitting room one Wednesday afternoon in June and declare in a gleeful voice that their financial problems were over.

Clint looked up at his brother with a sigh. He had been sitting by the window trimming feathers, and had been enjoying his quiet afternoon. Barney caught his ill humour and laughed, throwing himself down onto the sofa in the sitting room. The once-elegant, now much-battered, cushions flattened beneath him.

Clint frowned. “I shudder to ask.”

Barney grinned. “As well you should, brother mine. I shall not blame you for it in the least.”

Despite himself, Clint smiled back. It had been weeks since Barney had looked this relaxed. Clint realized how much of a strain their financial difficulties had put on him, as though the pinch from his pocket book were affecting his complexion.

Barney lifted his hands in mock surrender. “This time, however, I swear you have no need to fear. The explanation is simple: Netherfield Park is let at last!”

Clint blinked in confusion. “Netherfield Park?”

Barney rolled his eyes and loosened his cravat. “Yes, brother. Netherfield Park. It is the large house near Meryton,” he mocked. “Upon the hill.”

Clint frowned. “I know what it is, Barney. My question is, what does it have to do with us?”

“It has everything to do with us,” his brother explained with a grin, “because it is being let by a young man of large fortune from the north of England. He came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so delighted with it, that he agreed to take possession before midsummer. Some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of the week.”

Clint frowned and turned back to his feathers. “You sound like a gossiping housewife, Barney. What on earth has this to do with us and, as you persist in calling it, our 'impending financial ruin'?”

Barney shrugged. “I sound like a housewife because I have been beset by several this morning on my way through Meryton. Everyone is going mad over this fellow – Banner seems to be his name – and I can see why. Rumour has it he has four or five thousand a year! What a fine thing for us that he should come to Hertfordshire!”

“A fine thing?” Clint asked, picking up a feather and sighting along its length. “I thought I was the only invert in the family. Do you plan to impersonate the vicar and blackmail the boy into marrying me?” he teased.

Barney rolled his eyes. “My dear brother, do not be obtuse. Although,” he trailed off, and Clint put down his scissors and glared. Barney caught his eye and grinned. “No mind. I shall only sacrifice your virtue as a last resort.”

Clint shook his head and went back to his arrow. “You will not sacrificing my virtue at any point, Barney. The ton will quarter me in Hyde Park if I make a spectacle of myself.” He trimmed a feather. “I do not understand why you wish to keep Barton Manor so badly. Even if we could somehow amass the money, there is no guarantee our father's cousin would relinquish his deed on the house. We have some money put away – it is not as if we will be homeless for long.”

Barney glared at him. “It is the principle of the thing,” he explained. “Father never should have gambled away the estate. It is Barton Manor and it should belong to us.”

Clint lifted an eyebrow at his brother and glanced pointedly around the room. The dimensions were grand, but the wall paint was peeling slightly, the cushions were frayed, and the curtains had obviously not been replaced in several years. The house itself was old and the roof was in danger of leaking in three places. The Barton brothers had been able to maintain appearances for the past several years by selling off some of the valuable artwork left untouched by their father’s drunken escapades by virtue of being hidden away in the attic, but funds were growing thin.

“Forget buying out our debt,” Clint told Barney firmly. “If we cannot accumulate the money within the year, we will not be able to afford the land taxes, let alone the Manor itself.”

“I know, I know,” Barney said. He gestured out the great bay windows towards the approximate location of Netherfield Park. “Which is why this Mr. Bruce Banner is going to be the angel of our salvation.”

“And again, I am back to being frightened by your good humour.”

Barney grinned. “Opportunity, Clint! Young men of large fortune never travel alone, they always bring with them opportunity! I have contacts in London, and I tell you this – Mr. Bruce Banner is going to make our fortune.”

Clint rolled his eyes and reached for his next feather. He could already tell this was going to end badly.

He had no way of knowing how right he was.

Chapter Text

In accordance with his plan, Barney left to introduce himself to Mr. Banner the instant the man’s foot touched Netherfield’s soil. By virtue of their father's death, Barney was now the eldest Barton in the area, and as a prominent – though impoverished – landowner he possessed the right. Barney returned in the evening to tell Clint everything, since his younger brother had decided, in the interests of maintaining his sanity, to stay home.

“He has money, I will tell you that,” Barney groused as he settled back in the sitting room later that evening. “He has more servants than he seems to know what to do with. They kept coming in and out of the drawing room, bringing tea and crumpets and asking where he would like this or that placed for the duration. He seemed rather frazzled by the whole thing.”

“It is probably his first household.” Clint frowned, noticing a tear in his dinner jacket. “Are there no ladies in the house to assist him?”

Barney’s eyes lit up. “Not yet, but Mrs. Pym at the tailor’s shop said he is expecting a large party by the end of the week. Four gentlemen and five ladies, I understand, and all in time for Lady Romanov’s ball on Saturday.”

Clint looked at his brother. “The tailor’s shop? Oh Barney, you did not – ”

“Well, we must look the part, must we not, brother mine? Do not worry yourself unduly – I ordered only a new smoking jacket and a pair of leather gloves. Enough to make an impression, but not enough to bankrupt us completely.”

Clint sighed. “I still do not understand how you think Mr. Banner can assist us.”

“I do not know,” Barney admitted, sounding thoughtful. “He seems a scientific sort of chap. There were numerous of books on biology and such being unpacked about us. There was quite the clink of beakers and bottles as the servants carried things downstairs. I do not know what he is about, but it is possible he has come to our small shire to practice some sort of dark alchemy in secret. Perhaps I could sell some potion to the magistrate. Do you think that would be enough to buy Barton Manor, brother mine?”

Clint rolled his eyes at Barney’s jesting tone where his brother could see, but inwardly he frowned. He knew his brother, and Barney was not joking nearly as much as he would like Clint to believe.

The next few days passed in much the same vein. Barney spent his time gathering information about Mr. Banner, and Clint tried to keep it from his mind. While it would be nice to have new neighbours, the society of Hertfordshire having become somewhat static in recent times, Barney’s intensity distressed him. His brother had seemed resigned, at long last, to the loss of Barton Manor; Clint hated to see his hope renewed in vain.

Finally, the night of Lady Romanov’s ball arrived. Clint's offer to help Natasha with the preparations but had been gently, if firmly, rebuked. It was clear she had yet to forgive him for what she deemed the “cruel and willful mistreatment” of her garden party decorations the previous summer.

Nevertheless, Clint hustled Barney from the Manor ahead of schedule, determined to arrive early and assist in whatever manner he could. Society, however, conspired against them. The line of carriages at the assembly hall was double his prediction. Clint knew Natasha had been forced to increase the size of the ball to nearly twice its original number, given the number of sudden acceptances to invitations once the news of Mr. Banner's appearance had circulated, yet even Clint was taken aback at the size of the gathering.

Having no choice but to wait their turn in line, Clint hurried from the carriage the instant they arrived. Barney grew silent beside him, for which Clint was grateful. His brother had spent the entire carriage ride talking incessantly about Mr. Banner, and Clint was growing weary of his schemes.

Together they found Natasha standing at the front of the assembly with her mother. Barney offered his thanks for the invitation and did not linger. Clint smiled to see that Barney and Natasha still did not get along. Their mutual animosity started early, when Barney had offered the strange, silent girl an insult, and Natasha had lashed out, knocking Barney to the floor and twisting his arms behind his back. Neither had ever forgiven the other the insult, for which Clint was thankful. It was pleasant to have a friend he could talk to without Barney constantly interfering.

Nat allowed her mother to accept Barney's thanks, directing her attention to Clint. She looked beautiful, as always, but Clint knew her well enough to see the weariness in her expression. Her fingers twitched subtly, and Clint captured them as he gave her his bow, bringing them up to his lips for a quick kiss.

“Tell me how I can help,” he offered.

Natasha gave him a fond look. “Dance with them?” she asked. “Everyone has come to see the new peacock in town, and the Banner party has yet to arrive. The ladies need some sort of distraction, or the unwed daughters are going to wreak havoc on the assembly room.”

Clint took a deep fortifying breath and let it out slowly. He loved to dance, but hated chattering young women. “Only for you, Tasha.”

Natasha smiled at him, a true smile, quick and fleeting, and therefore precious. “Thank you.”

Doing his duty, Clint much of the rest of the night engaged in dance after dance with Meryton’s finest eligible young ladies. He would worry about the watching mothers, standing or sitting together in groups as they dissected the food, the decorations, and the dancing, but most of the neighbourhood knew of the Bartons’ financial difficulties. Clint did not believe he was in danger of being propositioned for marriage.

As the night went on, he was even able to relax enough to begin enjoying himself. Clint was rather fond of dancing, and several of his partners were uncommonly good. Barney did his part as well, flirting with most of the ladies present and putting on a good show. Barney had a lively disposition, and the Barton brothers were always welcome at balls.

Still, the talk was all about Banner. As Clint passed tables he heard the whispered discussions. Everything was debated – his likes, his dislikes, the tone of voice he used with the butcher’s boy who delivered the meat, and what that might reveal about his society. When the Banner party finally entered the assembly room, it was with much less fanfare than the majority had hoped. Instead of the predicted four gentlemen and five ladies, there were only two men and one woman, though the elegance of the party more than made up for the disappointment in numbers.

Mr. Banner was polite if slightly distant. He was an average looking gentleman who nonetheless somehow came across as rather good looking. His cravat was slightly dishevelled, his hair a tad long, and his suit did not quite fit him. He gave the impression of being half-put-together, or perhaps simply very forgetful, but the mothers of Meryton quickly spun that in his favour.

Of course he was untidy, they whispered, for he was not only rich but a scientist. Everyone knew they were slightly absentminded when forced to participate in society. What he needed, more than one mother nodded knowledgeably, was a wife to keep the estate in order.

Banner’s sister, a young lady named Miss Darcy Banner, was much more agreeable. She had a lively, almost sparkling disposition, and a beautiful figure. Her manners were easy and unaffected, much freer than those of her obviously shy brother. Her dance card filled within minutes, and Barney managed to capture a turn. Clint did not bother trying to fight through the crowd around young Miss Banner. He had more than enough partners to fill his evening, and it quickly became apparent that he would not be assisted in entertaining the eligible young ladies of Hertfordshire by the other members of the Banner party.

Mr. Banner himself danced but little, and with no obvious grace. The other gentleman of the party danced not at all.

Mr. Phillip Coulson, arriving with Mr. Bruce Banner, set the tongues of Meryton flapping. He was not a large man, but no one could call him slight. He was even handsome, in a quiet sort of way, and his gaze was steady. Clint was content to admire the man from a distance, but found himself being introduced by Lady Romanov when he wandered too close to Mr. Banner's party. Mr. Coulson made his leg with stiff elegance, and Clint returned the bow as was proper. Clint quickly retreated back to the general assembly, but kept his eye on Mr. Coulson.

Coulson was clearly uncomfortable with the attention of the assembly. His fortune, people said, was over twice that of Banner’s, and he had a large estate in Derbyshire. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, and the ladies declared him much more handsome than Mr. Banner. He was looked at with great admiration for about three-quarters of an hour, but soon the mood of the crowd turned against him. He was discovered to be proud, disappointed with Hertfordshire society, and above being pleased. He made no effort to dance, and quickly rebuffed any and all attempts at polite conversation.

He had a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, all agreed; certainly unworthy of being compared to his friend.

Clint found himself intrigued by the man. Once the initial rush of introductions had passed, Mr. Coulson appeared much more comfortable. He disappeared into a corner, and after Clint took a turn around the dance floor, he had to make a significant effort to find the man. He managed to do so eventually, spotting Mr. Coulson along a wall across from the refreshment table.

Natasha was resting nearby, and Clint made his way towards her. As he walked, he managed to pass by the disgruntled Mr. Coulson. Across from him, Clint saw Miss Banner give a sudden smile and start across the hall. For a moment, Clint thought she was coming towards him, but he quickly ascertained her true target, and moved out of the way.

Clint watched with interest as Miss Banner crossed to Coulson's side. He was curious to know how the man, who had refused all polite company, would cope with a member of his own party.

Clint had quite poor hearing. It was an affliction he had suffered since birth, and it had not been aided by his father’s poor temper and ready fists. In recompense, Clint had learned to read lips at an early age. His eyesight, quite the opposite of his hearing, was excellent, and he had become very proficient at observing things while his attention appeared to be elsewhere. Both were survival skills that had served him well in his father’s house, but they were useful in different situations, such as this.

Turning himself in the crowd, Clint gave the appearance of watching the dancing, while in truth he focused his attention on Miss Banner and Mr. Coulson.

“Phil! Here you are, hiding in the corner as usual, I see. Come now, it is time to dance. Let me find you a suitable partner.”

“You most certainly shall not,” Mr. Coulson replied firmly. “You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. Your card is full, and there is no one else in this room it would not be a punishment to stand up with.”

Miss Banner rolled her eyes. “Oh please, do stop pretending to be a thespian.” Miss Banner glanced around them, and seemed to lower her voice. Clint could not quite tell from his position, but it was clear in her mannerisms that she was nervous of being overheard. “I know women are not exactly to your taste, Phil, but there must be one or two handsome inverts for you to flirt with at a ball this size.”

Coulson’s face darkened, and he shot Miss Banner an angry glare, even as his eyes flickered over the company. Clint quickly averted his gaze. Discussing sexual tendencies, especially illegal ones, in the middle of a public ballroom was rude, not to mention dangerous.

“Country bumpkins, the lot of them,” Coulson said, his voice cold. “Kindly keep yourself from matchmaking, Miss Banner. You are not fit for it.”

Miss Banner rolled her eyes, but she patted her friend on the elbow and withdrew, clearly realizing she had overstepped good taste. Coulson was left practically fuming where he stood, and Clint decided to have pity on the man. After all, he was clearly uncomfortable, and perhaps they could make pleasant conversation. Clint could certainly use a distraction from the dancing.

And who knew? The man was an invert, like himself, if Miss Banner could be believed. Perhaps they would have more in common.

Feeling hopeful, Clint waited until the set was finished, and then made his way over to Mr. Coulson.

“Are you not fond of dancing, Mr. Coulson?” Clint asked, smiling at the man. He waited politely, and a moment later Coulson’s glance flickered over him once, assessing. It was a powerful look, one that seemed to take in Clint’s hair, face, and clothes.

Clint clearly did not measure up, because Coulson looked back over the assembly with a stiff air. “No,” Coulson answered.

Clint blinked at that display of rudeness, but he tried again. “Are you enjoying the ball?”

Coulson did not bother to look over at him again. “No,” he said shortly.

“Well,” Clint persevered, looking around, “I gather it is not much, compared to London, but – ”

“No, it is not,” Coulson interrupted, his voice flat.

Clint stared at him, struck dumb by this outright incivility. Yes, the ball was small, with perhaps fewer decorations than one might find in town, but the musicians were spirited, and people were obviously enjoying themselves. Natasha had done an excellent job. The ball was not an anniversary, per se, but it had been five years since her father’s death, and she had needed the distraction. She still missed her father terribly, and her mother’s health continued to fail.

Everyone present understood this, except the pretentious man from London.

“I suppose it is not,” Clint said coldly. “If you will excuse me, sir.” Quickly, before he could be tempted to say more, Clint turned and walked away.

He stopped at the refreshment table and fumed. What a rude, horrible man! To think he had ever thought him the least bit attractive! Clint was reaching for the punch when a figure drew his attention. It was Mr. Banner, and he seemed to be escaping from the dance floor and hurrying toward his friend.

Clint turned to watch the dancing, but kept his attention on the two men. He was close enough now that lip-reading was not necessary.

“Good God, I had forgotten what an effort these things could be,” Mr. Banner huffed slightly.

Mr. Coulson turned towards his friend and looked at him with something approaching concern. “Are you well?”

Banner rolled his eyes. “Yes, I am fine, but the hordes have descended.”

Coulson’s lip curled. “Gossiping housewives and large-nosed buffoons. Why you insisted on moving to Hertfordshire, I will never understand.”

Clint stared at Coulson, realizing as he did that the noise from the ball had been replaced by a dull roaring in his ears. Large-nosed buffoons? Clint’s face burned. He was not a vain man, but he had been teased more than once as a child for the size of his nose. To whom else could Coulson be referring to but Clint himself?

Clint burned with shame to think that he had begun by admiring the man. He had to move away or he was going to do something he would regret. He spotted Natasha on the dance floor and placed his drink on the table. Stalking forward, he brushed roughly past Mr. Coulson. He did not look back to see the slight widening of Coulson’s eyes as he registered the slight.

Instead, Clint kept his attention focused in front of him, where Natasha was frowning at him in concern as he approached. Clint shook his head at her unasked question and looked toward her partner. She was standing with a fish-mouthed man waiting for the beginning of a dance, and Clint arched an eyebrow at him. The man bowed hurriedly, and stepped away. Clint held out his arm for Natasha’s hand.

Nat smiled at him, relieved. “My toes thank you,” she said, her voice wry. The music began, but she did not move. “Are you well?”

“Phil Coulson is a terrible man,” Clint said, instead of answering directly. Then he smiled at her, and tightened his grip on her hand as the couples stepped about them. “But I do not want to talk about him. Dance with me?”

She gave him another long, searching look before smiling in the way that said they would be discussing this later. He could pretend she had forgotten about it, if that made him feel better, but she would not.

Clint smiled at her, a real smile this time, and felt love for this woman flow through him. He wished, not for the first time, that he could be the kind of man who loved her like she deserved.

“Dance with me?” he asked again, warmly now, and she did.

Nat was the only one who could keep pace with him, or rather, he was the only one who could keep pace with her. The rest of the formation made way for them, well used to their superior dancing. In the general admiration that followed, everyone missed the way Phil Coulson’s eyes tracked them both.

Chapter Text

The days after the Romanovs' ball passed quickly. Barney related the information he had learned about Bruce Banner and his disagreeable companion a half-dozen times, until Clint started making excuses and escaping the moment Barney walked into a room.

“Banner is certainly a scientist, trained in medicine and some sort of biology. There may or may not have been an accident at the university before he left and moved to our charming back country, but I have found no proof of it yet. The disdainful Phil Coulson is less of a mystery. Definitely wealthy, and certainly old money. He met Mr. Banner at school, where reports say that Coulson excelled in every way possible. Probably paid his way to good grades, with the heaps he has at his Derbyshire estate back home.

“He has a younger sister, a Miss Penelope Coulson I believe, and I do not think she is in London. I could not find out much about her. The young Miss Banner is certainly more interesting. Very lively disposition, all agree, and quite a favourite at parties.”

Clint, sore from the amount of archery practice he had done in the days since the ball, was in an ill humour. “Then marry her and move to Netherfield, Barney. Only quit prattling on about them so.”

Barney shook his head. “No,” he said thoughtfully, ignoring Clint’s tone. “I do not think so. Never bluff a professional, Clint, and my instincts tell me the cherubic Miss Banner is not as innocent as she appears. She is not as ruthless as I am, perhaps, but she is certainly sly. Also, I do not believe she likes me.”

Clint tipped his head back to stare at his brother, who sprawled casually on his favourite settee. “You had one dance together, Barney.”

Barney shrugged. “One dance can be enough, Clint. To fall into love or the absolute reversal of the same, one dance can do it. It did for me. Miss Banner is not going to marry me, despite how easily that would solve our financial woes.”

Instead of wooing Miss Banner, then, Barney turned his attention back to the elder brother. Clint found him studying some of his old texts from university and polishing up on his flattery skills, which caused Clint to roll his eyes. Barney’s flattery skills were second to none, but he had not understood school well enough the first time through to bother finishing it, and Clint did not think a second perusal would much improve Barney’s scientific acumen.

He had not understood a line of the text either, but then Clint had not attended university. The Bartons’ collapsing financial situation had not allowed it. Clint was convinced he would have failed as spectacularly as Barney had, but it would have been nice to have had the chance to try.

Barney spent even more time than usual in Meryton after the ball, lingering at the apothecary’s and “accidentally” running into Mr. Banner – “It is actually Doctor,” Barney explained one evening at dinner, “but he hates to correct people and now everyone in Meryton is mortified they have offended him” – at various stores and shops.

Clint realized that his elder brother’s pursuit had paid off when he came in from the stables one day to find Mrs. Carson the housekeeper with a note for him from Barney.

 

Dear Brother, Barney wrote,

Do not worry yourself if I am late arriving home this evening. I was enjoying a walk back to Netherfield with the esteemed Dr. Banner when I twisted my ankle upon arriving at his estate. The good doctor has offered me the use of his carriage, but I am a little uncomfortable at present. I will rest here for a while before making my way home. Do tell Mrs. Carson not expect me for dinner.

Your brother,

Barney

 

Clint shook his head when he received the message. He could easily imagine Barney writing it under the concerned eye of a very taken-in Dr. Banner, and knew he was going to have to do something or Barney really would scheme the man out of house and home. Barney might go on about “protecting the estate”, but Clint did not share anything near his level of enthusiasm. All he wanted was enough money to continue to pay their servants the wages they deserved. Mrs. Carson and her husband had practically raised him – his own parents certainly had not – and he knew they would accept lower wages if only to stay with the Manor. He did not want to ask that of them.

So instead of letting Barney worm his way deeper into Dr. Banner’s pocketbook, Clint turned back to the stables and called again for his horse. Damn his brother and his schemes, anyway. Clint had been looking forward to his dinner.

It did not take long to ride to Netherfield Park, and Clint alighted from his horse quite soon after setting out. The countryside was particularly beautiful that summer day, and he was already dirty from his earlier ride through the fields. Walking up to the house, Clint became abruptly aware of his less than ideal state when a figure turning the corner around the house was revealed to be the always immaculate Phil Coulson.

“Mr. Coulson,” Clint said stiffly as he spotted the man. He did his best to force the blush from his face, and proffered the man his leg. Coulson paused for a moment, staring at him, and then did the same. There was a moment of awkward silence. Clint pushed through it when it became clear Coulson would not.

“I understand my brother is about? He sent me a missive about a sprained ankle I believe.”

Coulson raised an eyebrow. It was almost as good as Natasha’s, and Clint would bet money it said nearly as much as hers did, if one only knew how to read it.

“He is,” Coulson said. He did not seem to be inclined to say anything else.

Clint stared at him. Really, the nerve of the man! Clint felt his lips thin into a straight line. “Could you take me to him, please?”

There was another pause, and then Coulson seemed to smile, a faint up-turning of the lips. He swivelled to indicate the front door. “This way.”

Clint rolled his eyes behind the man’s back but followed him into the house. He paused on the front step to knock his boots against the doorway, blushing when Coulson glanced back at him again. The other man might be too good for dirt to dare cling to him, but Clint was not so fortunate. He was only a large-nosed country buffoon, after all. Ignoring the man, Clint walked past him into the house with his head held high.

He had been at Netherfield Park only once before, under the previous owner, and had not been invited in since Dr. Banner had taken up residence. From the entrance hall, Clint could see the house had been tastefully redone in muted colours, with a few bright paintings he felt sure were the result of Miss Banner’s influence.

A butler met them in the entranceway, but Coulson waved him off. It did not take long to cross to the sitting room where Barney had evidently been set up.

“Clint!” he said, upon seeing his brother. He made to rise, then winced and thought better of it, settling himself back down on the sofa. “My most excellent brother, truly, I did not mean for you to come collect me. I know you had important work to do today, and I would not wish to disturb you. I hope I made it clear in my letter that you in no way needed to fetch me, for the good doctor assures me I shall be as good as new in no time.”

Barney indicated Dr. Banner, who perched beside him on the sofa. The doctor stood when Clint came in, and crossed the room to shake his hand with a friendly air.

“Mr. Barton,” he said, with a slight smile. “I remember you from the assembly the other night. Quite an excellent dancer, I recall.”

Clint flushed and looked down at his shoes, and so missed the faintly teasing look Dr. Banner gave to his friend in the doorway.

He looked back at Clint. “Your brother really will be fine, sir,” the doctor said earnestly. “I hope you did not ride all this way in concern for him.”

Clint felt himself relaxing. Up close, Dr. Banner had a rueful and open face, with laugh lines already evident at the corners of his eyes. He could not be very old, not much more so than Barney, but he looked better seasoned. The weight of experience, perhaps. Yet somehow the doctor still managed to appear kind, as though he had continued to smile in the face of that experience.

“Not at all,” Clint assured him. “I know my brother quite well, Dr. Banner, and I never believed he was in any true danger. Still, I must confess myself curious as to how he could have sustained so significant an injury while walking here from Meryton.”

At this last, Clint turned to look at his brother, shooting him a tight smile that proclaimed very loudly that he knew exactly what Barney was about.

Barney had the grace to look ashamed for approximately a second, and then he laughed. “It is my own fault, certainly,” he agreed with a self-recriminating smile. “I was simply too distracted by the good doctor’s theories to properly look where I was going, and put my foot into a rabbit hole. I have twisted it pretty badly, I believe, but no matter.” He waved off the pain with a martyr’s air. “It shall be well in time for supper, I am sure.”

Clint wanted to shake his head, but a look at Banner’s face stopped him. The doctor was smiling at Barney in a way that told Clint he was in no way taken in by Barney’s fiction, but he was not about to call him on it, either.

Evidently, Banner understood the small town curiosity that would accompany a man of his wealth and cleverness from London, and had decided to allow Barney his harmless investigating.

Well, Banner might think his brother harmless, but Clint knew better. He smiled tightly. “Be that as it may – ”

Banner cut him off. “It is fine, Mr. Barton, truly. To be honest, I was planning to invite your brother to stay with me for a few days, to rest his ankle. Now that you are here to look after him, would you mind very much staying as well? I would not want him to get bored, and having a familiar face around would certainly improve his healing. I spend most of my days in my laboratory and do not make a very good host, I am afraid.”

Clint blinked at him. “No, no, Dr. Banner,” he hurried to say. “We could not possibly intrude on you for longer than necessary. Barney will be fine to ride by dinner time, I am sure of it.”

Banner smiled at him, his expression resolute. Clint, despite Natasha’s dire mutterings, did not actually have eyes in the back of his head. He missed the way Coulson glared at Dr. Banner from his place behind Clint’s left shoulder, and saw only that Banner’s smile deepened.

“Really, Mr. Barton, I would rather you both stay,” the doctor insisted. “The house is too large as it is, and company would be good for Miss Banner. I believe she gets bored easily. Please, tell me you will stay, at least for a few days until your brother can walk without pain.”

There was not much Clint could say to that, for the offer had been made with genuine good will, but Clint did not want to stay in this man’s house. Banner himself seemed tolerable, but Phil Coulson was also in residence. Clint did not want to spend one more minute in the man’s company than he had to.

Still, he could do nothing but agree. Barney was practically begging with his eyes, and Clint knew Mrs. Carson would understand. She and Mr Carson would eat the magnificent dinner she had no doubt already prepared, and there was no estate business that could not wait a few days. Clint sighed. Banner grinned, taking that as agreement.

A man was sent for some changes of clothing and Barney was assisted upstairs to one of the guest bedrooms. Clint himself was installed in the neighbouring room. He wondered if someone thought he would attend to his brother's side and rush to his assistance at a moment’s notice.

Clint snorted as he locked their adjoining door. Not likely.

Dinner was a quiet affair. Barney had a plate brought up to him, insisting that resting quietly would be better for his leg. Clint allowed him the fiction, though he suspected Barney wanted to distance himself from meals so he could sneak around the house while the rest of them were occupied. He did not know what it was Barney was hoping to find in the house that would lead them to financial freedom, but he hoped his brother was not actually planning to steal from Dr. Banner.

Clint was quickly becoming fond of the doctor, which was unusual. As Natasha could attest, Clint did not actually like most people. He could smile and put on a pleasant show, having been forced to do so for as long as he could remember, but he did not often mean the expression.

Yet with Banner, he found a smile came easily. The doctor seemed to feel the same. He talked easily with Clint during dinner. They both laughed when he tried to outline the basics of his theories and Clint stumbled to even pronounce the title of his theorem.

No intellectual, Clint put up his hands with a laugh. “My brain is too full of simple things, Dr. Banner. Math, physics, and biology would be too much a strain for it, I assure you.”

Banner, for his part, chuckled. “You do not give yourself enough credit, Mr. Barton. It is clear to me, even though we do not know each other well, that your mind moves in interesting directions. You see things, sir, that others do not.”

Clint smiled, but shook his head. “Whatever I may see, I am oblivious to the finer points of science. I must content myself with simpler pleasures.”

“Simpler pleasures. You mean dancing and hunting, Mr. Barton?” Phil Coulson’s voice was even and his manner polite, but Clint heard the insult in the mild tone and bristled at it.

“Hunting, yes, of a fashion,” Clint said, baring his teeth in more of a challenge than a smile. “But though I have learned to shoot like a gentleman, I confess that is not my preferred sport.”

Coulson gave him a flat stare. “I assure you, I do not want to hear details of your conquests.”

Clint blushed an ugly red and, out of the corner of his eye, saw Banner drop his face into his hands.

“I was referring to a bow, actually,” Clint said, his voice tight. “I happen to be a rather good shot.”

Coulson arched an eyebrow at him. “A crossbow?”

Clint narrowed his eyes. “A crossbow is hardly better than a hunting rifle. No, I have a beautiful sixty-pound recurve that was a gift for my birthday several years ago.”

“You must give us a demonstration then,” Banner said, obviously trying to lighten the mood. “Tomorrow, perhaps, when Miss Banner has returned. She was invited to visit one of the ladies for dinner tonight, and so I am afraid she cannot join us until tomorrow.”

Clint nodded and let the subject drop. He was aware of Coulson’s eyes on him throughout the rest of dinner but avoided the man, devoting his full attention to Dr. Banner.

The atmosphere in the study after dinner was uncomfortable. They did not have enough people for cards, and Clint protested when Banner mentioned fetching Barney as a fourth. He did not want someone to go to Barney’s room and find him already gone, off exploring. He begged instead for the use of some paper, and wrote a short letter to Natasha by the fire while the other two men played chess.

Natasha was the friend to whom he could tell everything, closer to him in some ways than his own brother. Barney was always moving, always searching for the next opportunity for easy wealth. Clint loved him, but he was the opposite of restful.

Natasha had come to Hertfordshire when she was six years old. Her father had been born in England, but his family was originally from Russia. He distinguished himself early by doing good trade with that country, and had been knighted. With his connections, he had married a minor Russian nobleman’s daughter, and brought her and their young child back to England.

Natasha was small and quick for her age. She and Clint struck a fast friendship, and Clint had been pleasantly surprised when she refused to let it go, even as his family had fallen deeper and deeper into financial ruin. Natasha had been the only person he’d missed, the summer he ran away from home. When his father’s man had dragged him back from the gypsy circus, it was Natasha who cried with joy to see him, her silent, rare tears more precious than his mother’s loud thanks.

Natasha also protected him from his father’s rage, on those occasions when Barney could not. Barney did his best, but Clint had a habit of trying to defend himself, even when he that knew it would only make things worse for him.

Nat let him hide at her house, and then lied convincingly to her governess that she had never seen him. It was Natasha who taught him how to be quick and fast, and how to hit a man so he stayed down. She was small and a girl, but she had learned more from her father than courtly manners. He wanted her to have the experience to defend herself, and she in turn taught Clint.

When his parents were killed in the carriage accident, it was Natasha who held him while he cried and thought no less of him for it. After several weeks, when it became clear he needed a distraction from the pain, it was Natasha who began to spar with him in earnest. Together they both improved, and when Natasha returned from business trips with her father, she would share with Clint the new techniques she had learned.

The sparring kept him strong and helped him work through his anger. It was almost as good as archery – even better sometimes, because it was harder.

Archery was his gift, Nat said. It came to him as easily as breathing, the pull and release of the bow, the sighting of the target. Clint did not know if she was right, as he practiced constantly and that had to count for something. He never felt as comfortable as he did with a bow in his hands and a quiver on his back.

He wished, writing to Natasha in front of the fire at Netherfield Park, that he had left Barney to his own devices and had dinner with her instead. He told her as much in the letter, hinting that he believed Barney was looking for blackmail material against the good doctor. He mentioned how disarmingly kind Banner seemed.

Clint finished the letter, wondering if he could ask for it to be delivered in the morning with the outgoing post.

“Are you writing to your friend from the other night?” Banner asked him, looking over as Clint sealed the letter.

“Yes,” Clint confessed to him, feeling bad now that he had abandoned his host for the majority of the evening. Clint had not even been watching the chess game, though he could now see from a glance that it had been a hard fight. “We were to go riding tomorrow. I wanted to let her know I would not be able to attend.”

“Ah, so you enjoy riding, then.” Banner asked him, smiling. Clint could not help but smile back. Banner was an inviting gentleman. If only he were the invert, Clint thought, instead of the disdainful Mr. Coulson.

“I do,” Clint admitted. “I am not sure if you do much riding, you fancy men from London,” he teased, “but it is a common pastime in Hertfordshire.”

Coulson raised an expressive eyebrow. “We ride when the need suits us,” he commented dryly, his eyes on the board. “Your skills are more impressive, I am sure.”

Clint gritted his teeth so that he would not say anything insulting. He had meant only to tease, as he usually did with Natasha. Banner, he knew, had taken the comment in the spirit in which it was meant. He should have expected Coulson to find offense in it.

They sat together a short while longer, Clint watching the end of the game. Coulson won, though narrowly, with Banner fighting him for every piece. The game seemed to challenge them both, and Clint wished he were more of an expert at it, to understand the decisions that weighed on each as they contemplated their pieces. Clint knew the basics; he had played against Barney when they were children. As he had begun to win, however, Barney lost interest. Nat preferred real fighting to arguing over chess pieces, and Clint had not played a game in years.

Once the game was over and Banner had knocked over his king, Clint said good night to both gentlemen. He escaped from the room and made his way back up the stairs to the guest wing on the second floor. Barney’s door was shut when he passed, but he did not stop to knock. He did not want to know if his brother was in or not.

Clint slept better than he would have, had he stayed to overhear the conversation the two men had downstairs as soon as he left.

“For goodness sake, Phil,” Banner said. “Why must you antagonize the man? I know you like him, you do not need to hide it.”

Phil, composed as always, reset the chess pieces on the board. “I do not know what you are talking about.”

Bruce wanted to throw his hands in the air, but he could not give into expressions of anger anymore, even small ones such as that. Instead, he shook his head and helped his friend reset the board by replacing the white pieces he had won in battle. “You like him. Admit it.”

Phil stared at him for a moment. Bruce wondered if he were checking his face for hints of green, or just trying to decide what to say. Probably both.

“He is... not what I expected,” Phil said, finally. His tone was level.

“Of course he is not what you expected,” Bruce said, shaking his head. “You expect the worst of everyone. You and Nick, you are two peas in a pod. Whenever a decent man comes along, it surprises the hell out of you.”

Phil gave Bruce his equivalent of a wry grin, which meant his upper lip twitched. “The elder brother hardly reflects well on the younger.”

Bruce shrugged, willing to admit that much. “You do not need to convince me of it. He is one of the most annoying persons I have ever met. Darcy has already offered to bury him in the garden for me, if I wish.”

Phil’s lips twitched again. “Your sister is an admirable protector.”

“I am well, and can protect myself – without the Other Guy stepping in, at that.” He nodded at Phil’s questioning look. “You were right. The change of scenery has been good for me.”

Phil sighed and stood up from the chair. He picked up the chessboard and placed it back on the mantle. The pieces, lifted with gentle care, hardly stirred. “You do look better, but you are hardly well. Bruce, why on earth did you invite that man to stay with you? It is not safe. You know his type – he will go looking for things he does not understand.”

Bruce smiled at the uncharacteristic show of emotion. “I invited Barney Barton because it was the only way to force you to spend an extended amount of time in young Clint Barton's company. I have had to endure you not-talking about him for an entire three days. It was becoming ridiculous.”

Phil glared at him. “I do not understand how my not talking about someone I obviously have no interest in could lead you to something as monumentally stupid as inviting a spy into your household for an extended period of time.”

Bruce gave him a tired smile. “He is not a spy. He is a clever young man who knows something is not right, and he has the instincts to attempt to profit by it. It is all right, Phil. He will not find anything. The elder Mr. Barton will spend a few days circulating through my newly purchased house and will find nothing out of the ordinary. And when the noses inevitably begin poking, as General Ross will ensure they will, he will be there to grudgingly admit there is nothing to be found.”

Phil shook his head. “I do not like you taking this risk upon yourself, my friend. It is not safe.”

“Nothing about this is safe.” Bruce told him flatly. “I wanted you to pack up and go back to London with Darcy when I first moved here, but as I recall, neither of you listened to a word I said.”

Phil gave him an expressionless stare. “I am your friend, and Darcy is your family. We will not leave you to be torn apart by wolves, so stop suggesting it.”

Shaking his head, Phil moved closer. “Besides,” he said, almost kindly, resting his fingers lightly upon Bruce’s elbow, “you are calmer when we are here. That is a good thing, now.”

Bruce smiled at him, tired and a little sad. “It is,” he agreed. “It is a much better thing, now.”

Chapter Text

Clint broke his fast with his brother the next morning. It was awkward – Clint tried to persuade him to give up this charade and go home, but Barney refused. He admitted to doing some minor exploring during the night, but promised he had found nothing useful. When Clint tried to impress upon Barney how much he liked Dr. Banner and did not want to see him hurt, Barney turned to teasing him with lewd phrases.

Clint quickly lost his appetite and excused himself. That was likely what Barney had intended – he would use the time Clint had given him to explore again. Clint cursed Barney under his breath but left the house to walk in the garden. As much as he wished Barney would give up his ridiculous notions, he did not want to be the one who caught him sneaking out the house on a supposedly painful ankle.

The grounds were actually rather lovely, if a little unkempt. Clint wondered if the shrubs offended Coulson with their branches growing every which way. Likely the Derbyshire man had an entire legion of gardeners at his estate, to ensure even the grass grew straight. Banner, on the other hand, did not seem like the type to care much about grass root.

That being said, the man was a biologist. Perhaps he did.

Miss Banner arrived back at Netherfield that day. She had dined at a friend’s house in Meryton the night before, and had done well at cards. The hour being late, the guests had been invited to stay until the following day. Miss Banner, having received her brother’s missive about Barney Barton currently staying in their home, had elected to stay.

She returned home in the early morning and found Clint walking the gardens alone.

“Mr. Barton!” Miss Banner called, spotting the handsome figure taking a turn amongst the shrubbery. She hurried to catch up to him. Clint stopped so she did not have to run.

“What an unexpected delight this is! I thought only the elder Mr. Barton was in attendance, and I confess I would not have come running if I found him lurking amongst the shrubbery.”

Clint laughed, relaxed by the unaffected warmth in her face and tone. What was it about these Banner siblings that could so simply put him at ease?

“I had not thought myself lurking,” Clint teased. “‘Taking a stroll’ is the phrase I would have chosen myself. I should be a very bad lurker if you could catch me so easily.”

“Ah, but my skills at Sardines are unparalleled,” Miss Banner countered, taking his arm as she reached him. “Simply ask Bruce, and he will tell you that when we were children, he could never hide from me for long. But I will accept that you were strolling, for it seems rude to accuse a guest of lurking in the garden.”

At the mention of the word ‘rude’, Clint had an uncomfortable memory of Miss Banner accosting Coulson at Nat’s ball last week. “I am glad you will do so,” he managed to say, around his embarrassment.

They strolled pleasantly for a time; Miss Banner asked him questions, and Clint surprised himself by answering, talking with her about the manor and how his parents had died. She squeezed his arm briefly and confessed that her own mother and father had passed away when she was but a child. She hardly remembered them, she told him, and had been raised by her mother's mother in London.

“Bruce was older and already away at university,” Darcy told him, pride evident in her voice. “He was always very bright and Cambridge accepted him early. He visited often, but it was mostly me and Grandmamma.”

Clint squeezed her arm against his side for a moment in solidarity, and then teased gently, “So when you said that you and Dr. Banner used to play together as children – ”

Darcy laughed. “Very well, it was mostly an eight year old me running after a sixteen year old Bruce, but that makes my skill all the more impressive, I assure you.”

“Oh, I have no doubt, Miss Banner,” Clint promised her, smiling.

“My grandmother’s maiden name was Lewis,” Darcy told him. “Sometimes she used to call me that, Darcy Lewis. I liked it.”

“My friends at the circus called me ‘Hawkeye’,” Clint confessed as they rounded a corner of the gardens. “When I was a child I used to think of it as my code name. A secret name only my friends would know.”

“Hawkeye,” Darcy said, rolling it around on her tongue, “I like it. When were you in the circus? That sounds very exciting!”

Clint smiled at her. “Not very.” Memories of those happy times flickered before his eyes. He shook them off and shrugged. “I ran away from home when I was young. It was silly,” he assured her, lying with the ease of long practice. “I found a wandering gypsy circus and joined them for a time. An older man there gave me a bow, and I learned how to use it. I practiced with it every day, trying to win a place in the travelling routine. The head man was going to put me in the show, but my father’s butler found me first.”

“How long were you with them?” Darcy asked, her voice gentle but curious.

“Almost six weeks,” Clint said, wistfully. “In some ways, they were the best six weeks of my life.”

“And yet you say it was not exciting,” Darcy told him, smiling.

“It was not,” Clint assured her, not lying this time. “There was a lot of work, and as the youngest I had to do all the manual labour, such as cleaning out the stalls. There are many horses in a circus – it is like a busy inn and a wandering castle all in one. It would take me hours every day to muck out the wagons.”

“But you loved it,” she teased him, smiling.

Clint laughed and shook his head. “I did,” he agreed. “I am still not sure why.”

Darcy shrugged. “It was honest labour.” She looked around. “We are not always allowed to do honest labour at our station in the world.”

Clint hummed in agreement. “Silly that we should miss it, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” Darcy said, neither agreeing or disagreeing with him. “The grass is always greener over the hill, I suppose.”

“When we are talking about manure, it certainly is!”

Darcy laughed, turning so that they circled to the front of the house. They strolled for a while longer, and then Darcy left him to tell her brother she was back. Clint escaped the proffered tour of the laboratory and made his way back to his room.

He read for a while, avoiding the other denizens of the house, before finally giving in and visiting Barney. His brother was in his room, obviously bored and waiting for everyone to go to dinner. Clint bit his lip to avoid another argument, and they talked of inconsequential things until it was time for Clint to change for the evening.

Dinner was much more comfortable that night with Darcy in residence. She brought a breath of fresh air to the conversation, and together she and Clint kept the conversation flowing easily. Banner was quiet and seemed tired. Clint knew that he had spent the majority of the day in his laboratory. Clint had the impression that behind his fair smile and slightly dishevelled clothes, Banner hid a fine mind and a relentless agenda. He wondered what it was the man pursued so diligently, but chose not to press him. Clint was not Barney, one to ferret out someone’s secrets to use against them. He would listen if Banner decided to speak of it, but would not push.

Clint wondered if he should mention his concerns about his brother to the table. He dismissed the notion, however – he could not betray Barney, even if his methods were dishonourable. Clint convinced himself that Barney would find nothing of interest.

Coulson was quiet at his end of the table, for which Clint was thankful. He did not know the man as well as the other two did, however, and they wondered at the length of his silence. Phil was often quiet at dinner, both Bruce and Darcy had reason to know, but his silences were usually comfortable. Phil could speak volumes with his eyebrows or the way he put down his fork, and yet he was doing none of that tonight. Instead he seemed almost lost in his own head, which was unusual enough to command attention.

They could not ask about it while the younger Mr. Barton was present, for both Bruce and Darcy suspected their pleasant guest was one reason for Phil's silence.

Bruce sighed into his wine. He knew Phil did not have the easiest time expressing himself. His friend was naturally quiet and more than a little shy. He had barely spoken two words to Bruce for the first three years they had known each other, having met during Bruce’s first year of school.

But Phil’s shyness hid a sharp mind and a wry tongue, and Bruce knew that feeling off balance would be a new experience for his friend. Phil was used to being in control of every situation, and Clint Barton, with his self-deprecating smile and too-blue eyes, was enough to throw anyone out of step.

There was definitely something about the man that captured Phil’s attention. Bruce was not sure if it was the quick mind the man hid beneath a guise of loose smiles, or if it was the admittedly fine physique that Clint did not even seem to notice he was displaying. Phil’s gaze actually sharpened, Bruce noticed, every time Clint reached for a dish on the table. His formal shirt and jacket, rather than hiding his obviously muscular shoulders and arms, instead accentuated their appeal. Even Bruce, who had reluctantly informed Phil years ago that he preferred women, had noticed. He could not imagine what the unconscious display was doing to Phil.

It did not help that after drinks, when Clint had once again remained only the bare minimum of time politeness dictated and escaped to his room, Darcy came into the study and pronounced he was an invert.

“Good God, Darcy,” Bruce said, sinking into his favourite chair by the fire.

Darcy rolled her eyes, but shot him an apologetic glance. “I am sorry, Bruce, but Phil is being an idiot.” She turned to Phil and stared at him pointedly.

Phil looked physically pained. “Lewis,” he began, but Darcy stomped her foot.

“No, you do not get to call me that. Only my friends have leave to call me Lewis, and my friends are not idiots, and you are clearly an idiot, so – no. Banner. It is Darcy Banner, to you.”

Phil raised an eyebrow, but Bruce could see he was honestly hurt. “Darcy, you cannot tell a man’s preferences from one day spent in his company.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “I knew yours, did I not?” Phil’s face took on the faintly horrified expression it often did around Darcy. She hurried on.

“He never once looked at my bosom, Phil. Not once. We walked in the garden for almost an hour, and he never looked down. Tell me that is not conclusive.”

Bruce let his head fall back into the chair and stared at the ceiling. “Mother, Father,” he said, speaking into the empty air, “I wish to apologize. I never should have left her with Grandmamma for so long, you were right. She is completely ruined for polite company, now.”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Oh please, Grandmamma is the most accomplished woman we know. Mother and Father would care more that I know how to protect myself against unwelcome incursions than to think I was some wilting damsel of the upper ton. Besides, we are not discussing me. We are discussing Phil.”

Phil shook his head and picked up a book he had been reading from the shelf, opening it to his bookmark. “Please, do not stop on my account. We were speaking of nothing of import at all.”

“Phil,” Darcy said, and her voice was so nakedly honest that even he had to look up at it. “Talk to me. What is the difficulty at present? I know you like him – you have been admiring him since the Romanov ball last week. And I was not only checking his preferences for you, darling. If he liked women I would be on him like butter on bread. I know you have seen those arms, and they are delicious.”

Bruce sighed and closed his eyes, wondering if it was too late to pretend he had not heard any of that.

“He is also funny and intelligent, so do not give me your ‘I am interested in more than how people look’ speech.”

Phil appeared uncomfortable as he set down his book. “Darcy. It is more than having the same proclivities. I have not exactly made the best first impression, and I do not know how to fix that. Besides,” he looked away again, “it would not be appropriate. We are in different social circles, and any approach from me to him would be impossible. It is not worth thinking of.”

Bruce watched as Darcy’s face attempted to settle on an expression. In the end, she rolled her eyes and sank back in her chair.

“If that is what you think, then you really are a lackwit.”

Phil looked, if possible, even more uncomfortable. He licked his lips and stared at the fire. “It does not matter,” he said, almost as though he were trying to convince himself. “I am only staying a few more weeks and then I am leaving to see Pepper in London. I promised her we would be home for the holidays. It has been too long since we were together at Pemberley.”

“We have a house in this county now,” Darcy reminded him, though her voice was sad. “Unless you intend to avoid us, you will see Clint Barton again.”

Phil turned back to his book, but Bruce did not think he imagined the soft, “Not if I can help it.”

Chapter Text

Clint was glad when Barney was feeling well enough to leave two days later. That was, in truth, when Barney felt he had explored everything he could for as long as he could get away with it, and decided he would have better luck completing his investigation from Barton Manor. Clint had managed to resist dragging Barney home mostly by avoiding him. It was not difficult. Miss Banner continued to seek him out for a morning stroll. They spoke easily as they wandered the gardens together, and those hours quickly became the highlight of his stay. He found himself telling her things he had told only Natasha. He mentioned to Miss Darcy several times that they should meet in a setting less formal than the Romanov Ball.

“I will probably be writing letters of apology for a year afterwards to every young man between here and London, not to mention the Ton,” he confessed with a smile. “But I have the feeling you two would enjoy one another's society.”

Natasha’s response to his letter had been swift. She wrote that she had heard much about Dr Banner and his charming sister, and of course had met them briefly at the ball last week, but that she trusted Clint’s opinion above all else. If he thought she should meet them, then she would look forward to a more through introduction.

After his walk with Miss Banner in the mornings, Clint would lunch with Barney. He kept it as brief as possible, and then escape to gallop about the grounds. His horse, Purple Rider, had been stabled at the house, and Clint took him out at every opportunity. Several times he had approached the stables to see Phil Coulson standing outside, appearing almost as if he wished to speak with him. Yet the man always vanished before Clint could determine whether he should initiate a conversation.

Dinners were easier with Miss Banner in the house. Dr. Banner looked less tired after that second night, and he proved to be an apt conversation partner. There were cards in the evening as well. Clint found himself staying later and later after dinner, drawn into conversation and games. Coulson never tried to speak to him, but Darcy and Bruce often engaged Coulson in conversation.

Through them, Clint could see that Coulson might be a good friend to have, if one were on the man’s good side. He certainly seemed easy with the Banners, smiling and making a smart point during their witty banter. Bruce and Darcy had an easy, amicable relationship, and it made something inside of Clint ache.

This was what a family should look like. Clint hated to compare their witty banter with his relationship to Barney, and find his own family wanting.

Through their conversations, Clint learned that Barney had been right in one fact, at least. Coulson did have a younger sister. Her Christian name was Virginia, not Penelope, but she preferred Pepper, and was nearly ten years Coulson’s junior. He sounded quite protective of her, and often wrote to her in the evenings before or after cards. Miss Banner asked after her, and Clint understood the two of them were friends. She wrote her own letters to Miss Coulson, but she liked to insert words and jokes into Coulson’s missives.

Still, despite the increasing comfort Clint was beginning to feel among the Banner household, or perhaps because of it, he was pleased when Barney finally agreed to leave. Dr. Banner asked him again about his bow, but Clint resisted the urge to exhibit. He did not need to prove anything to anybody, least of all to Phil Coulson. Clint shook his head each time the doctor mentioned it, and said he would show them another time. No one pressed him.

Miss Banner, to be fair, appeared as if she wanted to, but Dr. Banner shot her a glance.

Clint shook his head. It was strange to sit between them, the odd one out, and feel as though Miss Banner and her brother were including him in their lives. He did not know these people well, had only met them last week, and yet he felt a closeness to them he had to struggle sometimes to feel with his own brother. It was not natural.

Nat brought it up in convesation the day after he and Barney returned home. She visited to find him practicing in the field behind the manor, his aim rusty after four days without practice.

“Your aim is never rusty,” she said instead of hello. Clint turned and realized she had likely been standing there for some time. He had been too focused to see her.

“Nat,” he said warmly, and put down his bow to fold her in a quick embrace. She let him, because she knew he never asked for contact unless he needed it. Natasha was not a demonstrative person, but Clint was. He liked casual intimacy and human touch, and he had no one else to get them from besides her.

“Do not pause on my account,” she said, indicating his bow when he let her go. “I understand you spent four days without your beloved, and she is, of course, the only one for whom you may ignore me.”

Clint grinned, but picked up the bow. “As you are the one who bought her for me, I suppose you are permitted to make comments like that.”

She smiled at him, merely curving her lips, and Clint thought of Coulson and the minutely subtle way in which is face changed with his moods. He shook his head, not wanting to think of the priggish man, and nodded towards the stables.

“Did you bring Spider? Do you wish to ride?”

Natasha smiled at him and reached down to pull around the basket she had hidden behind a stump. “Of course I do. Why else would I have packed a luncheon?”

Clint laughed and walked with her to the stables. They rode together through the fields beyond Barton Manor, Clint shooting from the saddle as they cantered. Natasha made a game of swinging down from her horse to gather the arrows from their targets as they rode, the shafts dislodging easily from each clump of grass.

“Do you need meat for dinner?” Clint asked once, sighting a rabbit. The rabbit darted right and left across the field, and Clint tracked it easily.

“No,” Nat said, shaking her head, and Clint let it go. He did not enjoy killing, but he hunted for the table occasionally. They stopped shortly thereafter and laid out the meal. It was a delicious combination of breads, cheeses, and a few of Clint’s favourite sweetmeats.

Slowly, not needing to rush, he spun for Nat the story of the past four days. She listened to Clint complain about Barney and his schemes, and sat quietly when he confessed himself liking the two easy, unaffected Banners. He told her of Miss Banner and that he believed she and Natasha could be terrifyingly good friends.

By the time they rode back, Clint felt lighter. He had not realized how much Barney and the visit to Netherfield had been weighing him down.

 

~

 

A week later, Barney came into the sitting room holding a letter. He was frowning, and Clint sat up from the window where he had been enjoying a book, a rare pastime for him. “What is it?” he asked.

Barney tossed the letter on the table in front of him with a sigh. “It is time,” he said, collapsing back onto the sette. “Nick Fury wishes to visit.”

Clint looked uncomfortably at the letter, lying innocuously on the table. He still maintained that losing the estate would not be too terrible.

“When?” he asked instead of voicing his opinion, as he knew Barney would not want to hear it again.

“Next week,” Barney told him, frowning at the letter. “He mentioned it a month ago, but I thought perhaps I could stall him. Any thoughts?”

Clint shrugged. “We could say no,” he pointed out. “Invent a family emergency.”

Barney shook his head. “No, that would only delay the inevitable, and make him suspicious as well. I will invite him to stay for a fortnight. He can look around, and perhaps he will decide he does not want the old place after all.”

 

~

 

Nick Fury arrived the following week on Saturday afternoon. He was, from the first, not what they had expected. Instead of arriving by post, he drove up in his own curricle, a midnight black affair with an eagle in white on the side. It was strange and rather official-looking.

The driver was a tall black man, the first the brothers had ever seen. He was large and imposing, and would have been so even without the full-length coat and eye patch. He should have looked comical, but instead came off as rather terrifying. He handled the pair of matched bays with ease, and settled them before leaping from the carriage box.

“Mr. Barney Barton, I presume,” the man said, walking towards Barney. He gave his leg. “Nick Fury, at your service.”

Barney, to his credit, only blinked twice before replying in turn. Mr. Fury looked past Barney to where Clint was standing, and spoke to him instead of to the older brother. “This must be your brother, Mr. Clinton Barton.”

Barney clenched his jaw, but turned and presented his brother. “Yes. Mr. Fury, might I introduce my brother, Mr. Clint Barton.”

Clint and Fury exchanged greetings and then Clint, mindful of the man's American accent, offered his hand. Fury gave him a brilliant grin that seemed to contain too many teeth, and shook it.

The man’s palm was huge, but Clint gave him a firm shake. The hours he spent both on the range and sparring with Natasha had given him some strength. The grip earned him another terrifying grin.

“I have heard much about you, Mr. Barton,” Nick Fury said. The pressure of his hand increased slightly, and Clint fought not to wince. “I understand you are something of a marksman.”

Clint, unused to praise from any save Natasha, wanted to blush, but his skill was something of which he was rightfully proud. He squared his shoulders and gave Fury a confident grin instead. “I am the best you have ever seen, sir.”

“Bold words,” Fury said, though his smile eased slightly. “I look forward to a demonstration.”

Clint refused to let his grin buckle. “Of course, sir. Or is it, Colonel?”

Fury actually laughed. “It is Director, actually, but that is not necessary.”

“Well then, sir, may our man get your bags from the carriage?”

Barney, staring at them both, recovered enough to call Mr. Carson forward. Clint saw the older man give each of the elegant horses a loving pat before retrieving the bags from the carriage.

Barney led them into the entrance hall. “I will inform Mrs. Carson that you have arrived, Mr. Fury. Supper should be in two hours, if that is acceptable to you, sir?” He went on without pausing for Fury’s reply. “I am sure you would like a chance to freshen up – my brother will show you to your rooms.”

Fury nodded at him, and Barney quickly escaped. Clint resisted the urge to sigh. Barney had never adapted well when his carefully reasoned plans fell apart. He was probably going to go fume in a corner because Nick Fury was not a doddering old fool who could be persuaded to give up his claim on the house.

“This way, sir,” Clint said, indicating the staircase. He watched the way Fury’s gaze immediately darted around the manor, analyzing entry and exit points. Clint frowned. Was that something the army had taught, or had Fury come from a difficult home as well? As far as he knew, only he and Nat had a habit of identifying the exits in any new location.

“Lead the way, Mr. Barton,” Fury said, turning his attention back to Clint. Clint led them up the staircase and down the short hallway to the chamber in which Fury would be staying. It was a moderately sized room, but light and airy.

“I hope this meets with your satisfaction?”

“It will do very nicely,” Fury agreed. Clint watched him for a moment longer.

“Who, if I may ask, was spreading stories about me, sir?”

“Oh,” Fury shrugged. “I know people. Quite a lot of people, actually. Your skills have not gone as unnoticed as you think.”

Clint felt himself pale. A shiver of fear ran up his spine. What did the Director mean? Surely he could not know about –

“Really, sir? I had not thought many people had reason to pay attention to my skills.”

“A few have,” Fury said blandly. “And there was an incident last year that caught my attention. I have been making inquiries since then.”

“Ah,” Clint said, his mouth suddenly dry. He cursed inwardly. He was going to have to talk to Natasha immediately.

“Well, I am sure you would like the chance to freshen up, as Barney said. Supper is in two hours.”

Fury gave him another toothy grin. “Thank you, Mr. Barton. I will see you then.”

Chapter Text

Clint rode to Natasha’s house in haste after saddling his own horse from the stables. He found her in the east sitting room, stretching through her exercises.

“Who have you been talking to?!” he hissed, once the maid had shown him in and left them alone, well used to their improper tête-à-têtes.

Nat observed him from the floor, her right leg twisted up and behind her head at a seemingly impossible angle. “I have not been talking to anyone,” she said.

“Well somebody has been talking to someone,” Clint said in a huff, throwing himself onto the floor in front of her. “Nick Fury, the man to whom my father gambled away the manor, arrived this afternoon. He complimented my marksmanship and spoke of an ‘incident’ that occurred last year.”

Nat blinked slowly at him, the only indication she was surprised. “He cannot trace it back to us,” she said.

Clint shook his head. “I do not know, Nat. There is something about this man. He is a big, black American with an eye patch and I know that sounds absurd, but it is not. It is frightening. He is frightening. He knows it was us who killed the highwayman.”

Clint heard the fear in his voice. He gave into that fear, letting his head fall forwards into his hands, since there was only Natasha to see. He still could not believe they had been so stupid – yet even now he could not bring himself to regret the robbery.

Only the murder.

He and Nat had been sparring for years without a particular goal in mind. Clint practiced archery because it calmed him. He had learned it in the circus, during the six wonderful weeks he had spent there after running away from home. Natasha had no interest in archery, but she wanted to practice fencing. Clint had studied it as a gentleman’s son, and agreed to teach her. In exchange, Natasha instructed him in the hand-to-hand techniques she had learned from her father.

Working on their skills had been a way to pass the time. Clint had been trying to build his confidence, preparing himself for the day he would finally stand up to his father. By the time his parents were dead and that reason was gone, their practice had become habit.

He had never expected to fight for real – the first time he had, it had been over something foolish.

Mrs. Greensburg’s nephew had been staying with her in Meryton for several weeks, and the muttonhead had decided to pursue Natasha. She could have handled him herself, of course, but her father had passed away that summer and her mother was not in good health. She had not realized the advances he was making were inappropriate until he had crossed a line. The insult occurred in a public area and constrained by her status as a woman, Natasha had been unable to call him out.

Clint had challenged him to a duel on her behalf.

He was sixteen at the time, and small. Mrs. Greensburg's nephew had been twenty-two and well muscled. Clint had been nervous before the fight began, but the feeling did not last. The boy had run back to London to lick his wounds, and Nat eventually forgave Clint for defending her honour.

Clint, flush with the victory, had viewed his skills in a new light. For the first time in his life, he had the ability to defend himself. Yet Clint had no desire to become his father – instead of striking out at those weaker than him, he began to notice the injustices present in Meryton. There had been the baker’s servant who beat his wife, and the slack-jaws in the alley who robbed travellers at night. Clint, discussing such things with Natasha, had been ashamed to discover that she had known of these things for some time. Clint may have been sharp-eyed and able to read lips, but Natasha had a way of making people tell her things without realizing it. Between the two of them, they assembled a list a people of who needed to be taught a lesson.

They did their deeds in silence, using force only as a last resort, and never revealed their identities to anyone. Natasha showed him how to wear paint to disguise his face, and they paid the baker’s servant a visit in the dead of night. After that, it became a little like a game, the two of them sneaking out of their own homes to issue justice upon the populace of Hertfordshire.

It had continued until the summer of the previous year.

It was Natasha who learned of the highwayman robbing carriages across the south of England. Clint followed her lead and spoke to gentlemen coming in and out of London. Together they pored over local maps to discover when the man would be travelling near Hertfordshire.

Before they could strike, however, the highwayman stole from cousins of Natasha in London. He assaulted the carriage on their way back into town, and terrified the youngest daughter.

Natasha was furious.

They decided to attack the highwayman that night. Clint concealed himself beside the road, and aimed carefully. His first arrow went through the man’s shoulder, and his second deliberately scratched the horse, causing it to rear. The highwayman, unable to control his steed with an arrow in his shoulder, lost control.

The plan was to knock the man from his horse, leave him tied in the gutter for the local magistrate to find, and save the country like heroes of old. Instead, tragedy struck. The man had fallen, but instead of rolling clear from his horse he gone down under the hooves. He had the bad luck to be struck upon the head, and had been killed instantly.

Clint, watching from a distance, could only stare. It was Natasha who ran forward and seized half the gold from the dead man’s coffers. She checked that the man was dead, removed the arrow from his shoulder, and examined the horse. Determining that it was spooked but uninjured, she left it tied to a tree for others to find, looping the line so it would look as if the horse had been tangled as it tried to flee. Collecting their own horses from where they had hidden them in a nearby thicket, she had dragged Clint home.

Clint was forced to beg her to stop twice on the way back to Hertfordshire so he could be sick on the side of the road. Natasha waited for him patiently, then chivvied him back onto Purple Rider when he had finished. When they got home, Clint stayed shivering in bed for a day and a half, overcome with the horror at what he had done.

Natasha helped him process what had happened, reminding him of what the highwayman had done, and promising that it was not his fault the man was dead. Clint did not entirely believe her, but he recovered enough to leave his room. He made her promise there would be no more jobs. He would never do something like that again.

Natasha had promised, and Clint had let it go. It had taken him weeks to pick up his bow again, but when he did, he found that it calmed him just as well as it had before.

He was not sure what that said about him, but he had not stopped his practice since. Still, he never crept out of the manor in the dark of night again. He thought Natasha had given it up as well, but he could not be sure. He had never asked her.

The highway-man had been discovered on the road the next day, and his death was labelled a fortuitous accident. Clint had been certain that no one knew they were involved. It frightened Clint to think that Nicholas Fury seemed to know now.

“He was merely casting about,” Natasha told him. “Even if he suspects, he has no proof. We took the arrow, and there was no one to see except the horse. He cannot know, Clint.”

“You are right,” Clint agreed, willing himself to breathe. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides, and he forced them to relax. “We are going to have to be careful with this man, though. He is after more than my father’s house, I think. He is after information.”

Natasha shook her head. “Why would he care? The man was a menace and now he is gone. It was justice.”

Clint smiled faintly. “I know it was, but I also know we need to be careful.”

Natasha frowned at him. “I want to meet this man Nick Fury. What is he like?”

“Come for dinner tomorrow night,” Clint told her, “and I will introduce you. He is not what Barney expected, and I think that scares him. He will be glad to have you over if you distract Fury, and if Fury does suspect us, he will be glad to meet you, too.” Clint looked at her, seriously. “You must be careful with him, Natasha. Promise me you will.”

She promised. Clint stood up. “I have to hurry back,” he said. “It is nearly dinnertime. I will see you tomorrow.”

Natasha nodded and called back the maid, who graciously showed Clint to the door. He rode fast and was home before another ten minutes had passed. Barney gave him a distracted nod when he arrived, and Clint recognized the signs of a new plan brewing in his brother’s mind. Clint sighed and went upstairs to change.

Dinner was a quiet affair. Barney was obviously distracted and Clint was wary of saying too much. Mr. Fury did not seem to mind, and gave polite responses whenever conversation occurred. He did not initiate discussion. They had drinks after dinner, but did not linger. Everyone retired early to bed.

The next day, Clint dressed with a little more care than usual. He felt almost as if he were putting on some sort of armour, and smiled to himself as he buttoned up his coat. He decided he would like to possess the advantage today, and sought out Nick Fury in the sitting room. The big man was relaxing on Barney’s favourite settee reading a book. Clint made polite inquires, and then invited him along for a ride into Meryton.

Fury agreed, standing up and putting down his book. Mr. Carson fetched Purple Rider from the stables and Fury borrowed Barney's horse. Together they rode the short distance into Meryton, each preferring a silence that, despite Clint’s trepidation, was somehow comfortable as they rode.

Once in Meryton, they slowed. Clint pointed out the various shops and places of interest. There was quite a bit more activity on the street than was normal and Clint was surprised to see several young men in militia uniforms strutting about the shops.

He called to Matt Hatsbox, the dressmaker's son, and engaged him in conversation about the officers. He was readily informed that the men were indeed the ____shire militia, come to stay for the summer in Meryton.

Clint thanked the boy and dismissed him with a sixpence for his troubles. He and Fury resumed their progress down the street. They had not gone far when a shout from the road drew their attention.

“Mr. Nick Fury. Good God! I speak of the devil and He appears.”

Clint turned. A gentleman stood on the street, obviously caught in the middle of crossing it to the baker’s shop. He was a man of average height, handsome in a rakish way, with hair that stood a little too long from his head, and a neatly trimmed goatee. He wore a well tailored suit that was vaguely militaristic in cut but not in colour.

“Mr. Tony Stark,” Fury said, shaking his head. “I thought I left you in London. What brings you to this part of England?”

“Oh, this and that,” Stark said, swaggering a little as he strolled along the street towards them. Clint and Fury dismounted to meet him. “And who is this fine gentleman?” Stark said, eyeing Clint openly.

Clint felt a blush rising in his cheeks, but he kept his head unbowed.

“Mr. Tony Stark,” Fury said, sounding amused, “may I introduce Mr. Clint Barton, second son of the now deceased Harold Barton of Barton Manor. Mr. Barton, this is Mr. Tony Stark. Genius, millionaire, rake, philanthropist.” Fury cocked an eyebrow at Stark, “Am I leaving anything out?”

Stark grinned. “No, I think you managed to hit all my high points.” He gave Clint an elegant leg. “Mr. Barton, a pleasure to meet you. Any friend of Fury’s is likely not an enemy of mine.”

Clint made his leg in turn. “I have not known Mr. Fury long,” he demurred, “but I certainly hope to consider him a friend.”

Stark, unexpectedly, laughed. “Oh come now,” he said, clapping Clint good-naturedly on the shoulder, “I understand very well how Nick Fury makes friends.” He shot Fury a smirk. “Bribery, intimidation, threats, and outright blackmail.” He grinned. “Am I leaving anything out?”

Fury smiled with all this teeth. “Not at all, Mr. Stark.”

Stark laughed again, deeper this time, and Clint found himself chuckling. The man was obviously a lunatic, but he was strangely hard to dislike.

At least, so Clint thought. Others obviously did not agree.

Clint looked up at the sound of hooves on gravel to find they had unexpected company. A short distance away, Dr. Banner and Mr. Coulson had paused on their respective mounts. Clint stared, while Fury and Stark looked up. The two parties watched each other for a moment, and Clint was perfectly situated to catch the exchange that passed between Stark and Coulson.

Stark appeared sheepish, an obviously foreign expression on his face. For his part, Coulson looked almost murderously enraged. His normally impassive countenance was twisted into an expression of such abhorrence that Clint was caught by surprise. Clint found himself stepping forward to place his body as a barrier between the two men.

His involuntary movement broke the tension. Coulson met his eyes and blinked, his face clearing almost instantly to its usual blank, expressionless mask. Stark shuffled a little and looked down, obviously embarrassed.

Fury simply stared at them both, too many thoughts shuffling behind his eyes for Clint to make sense of them. Dr. Banner, for his part, looked confused. He glanced between Stark and his friend in obvious consternation.

Clint cleared his throat, and the sound urged Dr. Banner forward. He nudged his horse until it trod the few steps dividing their party.

“Good morning,” Dr. Banner said, addressing Clint. “Coulson and I were travelling to meet you. We had hoped to hear news of your brother. Is his ankle well?”

Clint met Bruce’s eyes, and found himself smiling a little at the obvious concern there. He did not think it was concern for Barney, but he decided to play along. “Yes, very well, thank you. He is quite recovered. Have you been well in turn, Dr. Banner?”

Bruce shrugged, his gaze sliding to Coulson. There were a few dark circles under the doctor's eyes, which gave Clint concern. “Yes, I feel very well, thank you,” he said politely.

The conversation paused. Clint decided to brave the awkward silence and make introductions, but even as he stepped forward, Coulson was already turning away. Clint stopped and stared, unaccustomed to such rudeness, even from the horrible man. Bruce made a mumbling apology to Clint and followed his friend. Clint watched them both leave.

Stark scuffed the toe of his boot a little on the ground, in all respects a boy who had been deserted at a party. Clint turned back to him. “My apologies, sir,” Clint said stiffly. “My neighbours are not always courteous, I am afraid.”

Stark looked as if he were prepared to excuse himself. Clint decided he did not want Coulson's rudeness to ruin his afternoon. “Do you have lunch plans, Mr. Stark?” He asked, before the man could speak. “Mr. Fury and I are going to luncheon at Barton Manor. You are welcome to join us.”

Stark looked surprised, but agreed. He led them back to the barracks where his horse had been stabled, and then the three of them trotted quickly back to Barton Manor. Clint noticed that Fury seemed distracted, and he contributed little to the discussion on the ride.

Lunch began as a strained affair, but good food and drink soon loosened their tongues. Barney walked into the sitting room after the meal to find the three men laughing heartily at a story Tony was telling of his university days.

“So he looked at us,” Tony choked out, “and said, ‘But I got the broom?’”

They laughed until they cried. Clint glanced up through his tears to see Barney looking distinctly nonplussed.

“He was so proud,” Tony continued, tears rolling down his face. Fury slapped his knee and roared.

Clint, catching his breath, stood to wave his brother into the room. Instead of staying for introductions, Barney scowled at him, turned on his heel, and left.

Clint watched him go, his amusement fading. Tony and Fury quieted as well, and soon the entire party broke up.

Clint found his brother later in their father’s old smoking room, a bottle of brandy open at his elbow. “What are you doing?” Clint asked, a little lost. Barney was sitting behind their father’s ancient desk, and the sight brought back memories best left forgotten.

“I am working,” Barney spat, yanking forward a pile of papers, “to keep our family out of the poor-house. Something you seem fine with, I might add.”

“Barney,” Clint said, watching as his brother opened the first of the ledgers and poured himself another drink. “We cannot come up with the money. If someone has to take over the house, I’d rather it was something with the capacity to manage it properly. Nick Fury –”

“Is a scoundrel,” Barney all but snarled, tossing back his drink. “He comes into this country and raids the old families’ blind. Do you think he targeted our father by accident? He marked him as a weak link, and went after him with the ferocity of a tiger. Stinking, slimy, black-hearted –”

“Barney!” Clint took a step forward, startled. He had never before heard his brother speak with such vitriol. “He is a businessman, and our father was a fool. Is it really so terrible that –”

“Yes!” Barney shouted, standing up. “Yes it is, Clint!”

“But why?”

Barney closed his eyes, and a sense of despair seemed to cling to him. “Because it is. Leave it at that, little brother.”

Clint looked at him. Barney had not called him “little brother” in years. He searched his face, but Barney’s eyes were closed. He was the one person Clint could never read.

“Very well,” Clint said.

Barney sighed and sat back down, flipping open a second ledger and pouring himself another drink. Clint hesitated, caught by the tightness of Barney’s shoulders. His brother ignored him, and after a moment Clint turned and walked away, closing the study door behind him as he went.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks passed pleasantly for Clint. Tony Stark became a fast friend. He had once been a member of the military, Clint understood, but had since retired. He now worked as an engineer. His father was the head of a large research firm in London, and Tony was his only son.

“Why did you join the military, then?” Clint asked, some weeks later, after a delicious meal at Tony’s private residence in town. Tony’s man Jarvis gathered their dishes and placed a tray of brandy on the table. “As the heir, shouldn’t you have – ”

“Joined the family business and kept myself out of harm’s way?” Tony asked with a tired smile. He had clearly been asked the question before.

Clint met his eyes and shrugged. “It is the duty of the eldest son.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, that is exactly why I had to leave. Father and I...” he trailed off. Clint noticed that Jarvis hesitated in the doorway with their dishes, pausing on his way to the kitchen.

Tony shrugged, a motion that was supposed to look casual, and was not. “Well, suffice it to say that we have never been close. I left home soon as I had the chance and ran away to join the military. It was a better choice than the circus,” he pointed out.

Clint snorted. He had already confessed to Tony his misadventures as a youth. “I learned some very important skills in the circus.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yes, and I learned very important skills in the military. Mostly that I am terrible at licking boots, which is an essential skill among our fearless men in red.” Tony shook his head. “I am rich enough to buy half the generals twice over, and they loved that.”

That was certainly true. Clint had not realized it at first, but Tony was obscenely rich.

“So, what happened?” Clint asked, nudging his foot when Tony’s pause went on too long. He had glanced away from the table, and there was a distant look in his eye.

“Hmm?” Tony asked, coming back to him. “Oh,” he waved his glass. “I did something idiotic and insulted the wrong person. I was posted to Afghanistan.” He threw back his drink and swallowed around something painful.

“Something happened there.” Clint said. It was not a question. Tony looked up and Clint put up a hand. “Do not worry so, Tony. You do not have to tell me.”

Tony snorted, but some of the tension in his shoulders eased. “Yes, well,” he said, and glanced towards the doorway. Clint could see the shadow of Jarvis still lurking behind the door.

Tony looked back at Clint and smiled. It was a smile Clint was becoming familiar with, a jovial measure of deception. “Something did happen there, but it is poor after-dinner conversation. Suffice it to say that I got myself out of a sticky situation, and learned a lesson about life in the process. In the end, whatever else happened, it led me here!”

Clint snorted and refilled their cups. “To the backwoods of England?”

“Exactly!” Tony grinned. “Which would be untenable, were you not here. But as it is... ” He tipped his glass forward. Clint grinned and echoed him.

They drank together. Tony set his empty glass down with a click.

“I am no longer a member of the military,” he said, rubbing the table absentmindedly with one finger. “I resigned my commission. General Ross asked me here to provide an engineering perspective. This is an experimental division, and they are evaluating some of the weapons I invented before my posting to Afghanistan.”

Clint cocked his head at his friend. “You do not design any more?” he asked.

“I do not design weapons anymore,” Tony corrected with a quick grin. “My workshop is as busy as ever, let me assure you. You are fortunate I left most of my tools in London, or you would never have the pleasure of my company. I tend to disappear inside it for days at a time.”

Clint smiled at him. “My Aunt Carter would say you need a woman about the house.”

Something in Tony’s eyes went far away, and Clint regretted the words.

“Yes, well,” Tony said, picking up his empty glass to roll it between his fingers. “That has not exactly worked in my favour.”

Clint stared at his friend. Something about the look in Tony’s eyes cast Clint’s memory back to the first time they had met. He remembered Tony looking similar then, lost and a little frightened, and everything crystallized in his mind.

“Oh my God,” he said, sitting up suddenly. “It was Coulson, was it not?”

Tony’s head jerked up so fast Clint feared he would do himself an injury. In the hallway, the shadow of Jarvis started.

Tony stared at him. “What – what makes you think – ?”

“It was,” Clint hissed, thinking back. Coulson had looked so angry that day on the street, his usual impassive features twisted. “What did he do, use his influence to send you to Afghanistan in the company of men who could not be bribed?”

Tony stared at him for a long moment, and then reached forward to pour himself another drink. He threw it back with more force than was strictly necessary. “That is about the size of it,” Tony said, swallowing. “You do not miss anything, do you Mr. Barton?”

Clint shrugged. “Not much,” he admitted. “That bastard,” he went on, still thinking of Coulson. “He really has a heart of stone, does he not?”

Tony looked uncomfortable. “It is not – yes, he is an ass, but so am I. Do not think I was blameless in the affair, for I was not.”

Clint waved him off. “Blameless or not, he clearly overreacted.” Tony looked uncomfortable, but Clint pressed him. “He did not send you to Scotland or Ireland, but halfway around the world to Afghanistan – to an active war zone! He was most likely hoping you would be killed, and you nearly were, were you not?”

Tony swallowed and looked away. “Nearly.”

“See?” Clint said firmly. “It is Coulson’s fault.”

 

~

 

Clint spent much time with Tony over the summer months. They passed hours together eating, drinking, or riding. They were invited to several summer functions and played cards with the officers who were now a ubiquitous sight in Meryton. Tony, when he was not being morose, was good company, and he had a sense of humour that Clint found enjoyable. He had not possessed a male companion he could simply spend time with before, someone who was just a friend without the underlying wish for anything more. It was comfortable, and time with Tony passed easily.

Clint saw less of Natasha over the next few weeks as he spent more time with his new friend. It was not that she and Tony did not get along, for they had met several times and Natasha seemed to find him amusing, but she was often busy with Nick Fury. Clint had introduced them during the first week of Fury’s stay, and Natasha had arched her eyebrow at the large black man.

“You will need someone to show you around without Clint’s distracted point of view,” she had offered, and Fury had grinned. They spent quite a significant amount of time together and if Natasha were anyone else, Clint would have assumed Fury was wooing her. As it was, he did not worry – Natasha could handle herself.

With the amount of time Clint was spending in town with Tony, he ran into Dr. Banner and Coulson on occasion. The two groups ignored each other every time they came in contact. It would have been difficult at a social function, but the citizens of Hertfordshire had gained Coulson's measure at the Romanov Ball and he was not invited to cards.

Tony made several attempts to talk with Clint about what had happened between him and the man from Derbyshire, but Clint chose not to listen. His opinion was cemented and no amount of wheedling from Tony would improve matters.

He did miss Dr. Banner's company, for the man could be funny in his own quiet way, and he did not see Miss Banner often. Clint was busy enough that it did not bother him, however, and the summer quickly passed.

Fury’s stay, originally scheduled for a fortnight, was extended time and time again. Despite his reservations, and his continued fears regarding what Fury knew about Clint's involvement with the death of the highwayman, Clint found it easy to like the man. He was large and intimidating, but somehow appeared trustworthy. Clint knew Fury was hiding secrets, and he refused to speak about whatever it was he was the “Director” of, but Clint felt, nevertheless, that he was a good man to have at his back.

Barney was the only one not pleased with the situation, and it came to a head one night after dinner. Fury and Clint had been having a discussion about business, as they often did. Clint had never been to school on the subject as Barney had, but Fury had considerable experience in the management of assets. He relished their debates on the finer points of politics and strategy. Clint found Fury’s knowledge fascinating, and Fury seemed to enjoy Clint’s often unique point of view.

Abruptly, Barney stood from the table and slammed his hand down upon it. “Enough!” he shouted, silencing their discussion. “Take the house or do not, damn you, but leave off this incessant strategising! You torment me with your actions, Director, and I do not care for it. I want you out of my house, while it is still mine to kick you out of.”

“Barney –” Clint tried to say, but his brother shook his head.

“Stay out of this, Clint. The man is a devil, and just because he has flattered you with an inflated sense of your own importance, do not think he has in any way fooled me. I want him out.”

Clint started, feeling struck. Is that what Barney thought Fury was doing, flattering him with their discussions? He thought back quickly – Fury had often praised his quick wit, but the words had been off the cuff, and Clint had never felt embarrassed by the praise. Yet apparently Barney had.

Fury, for his part, rose calmly from his chair. “I am sorry to have given offence,” he said, seriously, inclining his head towards Barney in an acknowledgement that was in no way a bow. “I will, of course, take my leave immediately.”

Barney nodded back, his face still twisted in anger. He turned on his heel and left the table. Clint did not have to watch him go to know that he was stalking towards their father’s study.

“My most humble apologies, sir. I beg forgiveness on account of my brother. He is not himself, lately, and –”

But Fury raised a hand. “Do not concern yourself, Mr. Barton. I understand your brother’s frustrations. He has a right to be angry,” Fury said, shaking his head. “I often wonder that you are not.”

Clint shrugged awkwardly and glanced around the house. It was Barney’s now, and before that it had been his father’s. He did not wish to argue over it.

“All I care about here is Mr. and Mrs. Carson," he told Fury quietly. "If they are well and protected, I do not give two stones about the house. I would live in the woods instead of here, did my station allow it.”

Fury grinned unexpectedly at him. “With your skills with the bow – which I have yet to see firsthand, do not think I have forgotten – I have no doubt you would be successful.”

Clint snorted. “A modern-day Robin Hood? I think not.”

Fury gave him one of his familiar, assessing looks. He had a habit of deploying them in the middle of their conversations, hampered in no way by his single eye. “I think we both know that is not true.”

Clint blushed and avoided his gaze. “Sir,” he asked instead, “where will you go?”

“I will stay with Mrs. Romanov,” Fury said calmly. Clint wondered if he had expected this to happen. “Do not worry, Mr. Barton.”

“I am not worried,” Clint grumbled, but Fury smiled as if aware of his concerns. Clint rolled his eyes and left the table with the older man, calling for Mr. Carson to help Fury fetch his bags.

They waited in the front entrance until Fury's things had been brought down and Mr. Carson had hitched the horses.

When all was assembled, Clint said good-bye to Fury at the landing. Barney did not appear to see off their guest. Fury drove in the direction of Natasha’s house with only Clint to watch him go.

He expected Hertfordshire to be talking of little else the next morning when he made his way into Meryton, but it was other news that greeted him the next day.

“Fury proposed to Miss Romanov?” he repeated, staring incredulously at Matt, the dressmaker’s son.

The boy nodded his head so fast it looked in danger of falling off. “Yes! And she has accepted him!”

Clint stared at the boy, his brain unable – or unwilling – to process the information. He quickly sent a note to Tony explaining he would have to delay their excursion that morning, and rode to Natasha’s.

She met him in the sitting room, her back straight as she poured him a cup of tea. “Is it so hard to believe?” She asked him, not bothering with hello.

“Hard to believe?” Clint asked, staring at her. She looked composed, her hands steady as they raised the cup to her lips. “Natasha, the man is formidable," Clint argued, ignoring his own tea. "But what about your plans? You talk often of how you enjoy living here and managing the estate. What will you do as some man’s wife?”

Natasha speared him with a glance that was at once angry and sad – but sad for him, Clint realized, not for herself.

“Clint, I was always going to be some man’s wife,” she told him patiently. “Yes, I enjoy managing the estate, but once Mother dies I will be alone. Father’s pension will end and there is not enough land on which to make a proper living. Expenses will pile on, and I will be forced to marry – eventually – to keep the estate. Why not marry now, while I am still young and have the choice of it, instead of waiting until I am older and my skills and attractions are diminished?”

Clint shook his head. “Your skills will never diminish. I would marry you in a heartbeat if I could afford to – you know this, for we have talked of such. Please, think about this. This is not some random man who has proposed to you. This is Nick Fury. He knows too much.”

Natasha met his eyes squarely. “He knows enough. No,” she held up a forestalling hand, “Clint, listen to me. Do not be angry. Yes, he knows about you and he knows about me. That is a good thing.” She put down her tea.

“I was never going to be a perfect English lady, Clint,” she said, turning her cup so the handle pointed towards the door, so it was easier to snatch and fling at an attacker. “Mr. Fury understands this. He welcomes it.” She looked up and met his gaze.

“It is true that I do not love him. I have never believed in love. Love is a fairy tale. Marriage is a business arrangement, and one best made between two partners who understand the context of the deal. Mr. Fury and I understand one another. He has the financial acumen needed to keep the estate, while I have experience in management. We have talked much while you were neglecting him, you know.”

Clint felt a stone of guilt settle in his stomach, wondering if he had pushed her to this decision. “Natasha – ”

“No, Clint,” she said, shaking her head. “This is my decision. Mr. Fury asked for my hand last night, and I accepted. I need you to accept this as well.” She looked at him, her eyes steady. “I need you to support me in this.”

Clint stared at her, the only woman he had ever truly loved, and knew he could deny her nothing. “Of course I do.”

“Good.” Natasha nodded. “The ceremony will be in two months, in November, after the ball the Banners are planning at Netherfield. We will leave for his house in Hunsford shortly after. Mother will keep the estate until our business in London is settled, and then we will move back to Hertfordshire.”

Clint nodded, thinking through the arrangement. Fury owned a small cottage in Hunsford nearby that of his patron, a woman he knew as Lady Maria Hill. She was a fierce woman, by all accounts, and Fury spoke of her often. She had aided Fury several times since he had settled in England.

Natasha surprised him by reaching out a hand and taking his in hers. She was not usually a demonstrative person, and Clint gripped her tightly.

“We will settle in over the winter. My mother has agreed to visit me in the spring. Say you will come with her, Clint. I know you will still be angry at me over this, but I am going to want to see you. Please tell me you will come.”

“Of course I will,” Clint agreed, surprised. He squeezed her hand, and she relaxed. This was important to her, he realized. "I promise you I will come."

Clint stayed with her for some time after, drinking tea and talking. They spoke of other things, easy as they usually were, but something between them had changed. Natasha was going to marry and move away. She was right, Clint realized as he took his leave of her, he was angry.

She was leaving him, he realized as he rode home alone. Since childhood Natasha had been his only friend in Hertfordshire, and she was leaving him.

He did not see Fury as often after that. The man did eventually leave to travel back to Hunsford, though he returned often to discuss wedding details with Mrs. Romanov. Clint spent more time than usual with Tony, avoiding Barney as much as he was avoiding Natasha.

“He is so angry,” Clint told Tony, speaking of his brother. “He drinks all the time. He locks himself in our father’s study and looks through the old books kept hidden away there. I cannot reach him in that place.”

“What is wrong with drinking?” Tony asked, pouring himself another finger of scotch. “An excellent pass-time, one I make use of myself occasionally. No better way to lose yourself than in drink.”

Clint shook his head, refusing when Tony would have refilled his glass. “Our father was a drunkard,” he told Tony bluntly, “and a bad man. Barney never used to drink to excess, he was too afraid of turning into our father. I do not know what has changed.”

Something had changed, though, and for the worse. When he was not drunk, Barney spent more time than Clint did in Meryton. He had returned to haunting the Banners at Netherfield Park, and would often spend hours pestering Bruce in his laboratory. He made friends with several of the military men in Hertfordshire, and could be seeing going in and out of General Ross’s apartments during the day.

Clint tried to ask him about these visits, but Barney refused to speak to him. The atmosphere between them grew cold and unfriendly. At social events, Barney abandoned him, choosing instead to speak with the officers when in society.

The redcoats were everywhere. Clint watched them stroll through the streets and charm the populace. The officers were, for the most part, well-educated gentlemen, and regularly invited to parties. With the militia in Meryton, card nights and weekend dances were more boisterous than usual, and many of the young ladies lamented the day the militia would leave Meryton.

Clint looked forward to it. He did not enjoy the amount of time Barney was spending with the officers, and would be glad when they finally left the village.

Still, as the season turned from fall to winter, the atmosphere in Hertfordshire began to shift. The Romanov-Fury nuptials would soon be taking place, and before then was the grand ball at Netherfield. Nearly the entire county had been invited, and despite himself, Clint found he was excited for the ball.

He had always enjoyed dancing, and Natasha was his preferred partner. The ball at Netherfield would be the last opportunity they would have to dance together for some time, and he wanted to remember it.

Clint saw Miss Banner several times during the preparations for the ball. She was often in Meryton fetching something with one of her servants, or making arrangements at the flower shop. He exchanged pleasantries with her frequently, though they never had time to sit properly and talk.

“You are always welcome at Netherfield, you know,” Miss Banner said to him one morning, when Clint had caught her flying out of the bakery and on her way to the dressmaker’s shop. “You would be better company than your horrible brother.”

Clint laughed at the irritated expression on Miss Banner's face. “I am glad to hear that,” he said sincerely, smiling at her. “But I would not want to impose. I know you are busy.”

Miss Banner rolled her eyes and adjusted her handle on the basket of breads. “Yes, thank you for reminding me. Tell me again why I agreed to host a ball?”

“Because the biddies in the town would not let up until you did,” Clint said, grinning at her. He gallantly took the basket from her hands and walked her back towards her carriage. Her man followed them, likewise balancing boxes. “You are the newest neighbour in Hertfordshire, you know. It is your duty.”

“A terrible reason,” Miss Banner argued, but allowed him to help her back into her seat. Clint waved as she left for Netherfield, intending to draw her brother away from his lab with breads to try for the big night.

Dr. Banner was often locked away in his laboratory, Clint knew from his short conversations with Miss Banner, and only Coulson could reach him there. Coulson himself was often away in London or home in Derbyshire, though he still visited his friends occasionally. Clint had seen less of him over the recent months, which pleased him greatly.

Clint wondered what arcane science Banner performed in his laboratory. Barney had told him, when they were still on speaking terms, that Banner spent his days working on some secret formula for the military.

Miss Banner confirmed this for him, one afternoon later in the week when they met in Meryton. “Yes, that is why General Ross goes around with a perpetual scowl on his face,” Miss Banner sighed. “I hate that man for everything he has done to our family, but Bruce is sweet on his daughter, you know. He does not want to disappoint him more than he already has.”

“He has a daughter?” Clint asked, surprised. He had never seen the girl in town.

Miss Banner shrugged. “Miss Betty Ross. She lives in London, and her father will not allow her to socialize. She is a sweet girl,” Miss Banner said, sounding like a ninety-year old woman talking about her niece. “But a tad withdrawn, if you ask me.”

“Certainly you could never be described so.”

“I should hope not!” Miss Banner laughed. “I enjoy society, and my tastes are infinitely more eclectic.”

“Miss Banner, I shudder to think what your tastes would entail,” Clint told her with a smile.

She arched an eyebrow at him. “Were you interested, Clint Barton, I would pursue you to the ends of the earth to inform you of them, but as it is,” she shrugged as Clint blushed and looked around them for passers-by. “I will leave you to other interested parties.”

“What interested parties?” Clint muttered, and quickly took his leave.

Certainly there were no other interested parties, Clint told himself on his way home. Clint spent most of his days with Tony, who was unabashedly interested in women, and who had told him so on one memorable occasion when they were out riding together. Clint had not been embarrassed, for Tony was the kind of person who could say such a thing without condescension, and Clint was glad Tony had understood Clint’s preferences. It meant the man would have no urge to start setting him up with eligible young ladies, as others had tried to do.

“You are fortunate to be a second son,” Tony declared to him one day, “for there is no pressure on you to find a good woman and settle down. You may waste your life as you see fit, instead of being forced to comply with the expectations of society, and marry.”

Clint, who was aware of Tony’s tempestuous relationship with the expectations of society, said nothing.

Chapter Text

October gradually faded into November, and the date of both the Netherfield Ball and Natasha’s wedding drew near. Clint had forced Tony on several occasions to promise to attend the ball and give him something to do when he could not be dancing with Natasha. Tony had rolled his eyes but agreed. Yet when the fateful night arrived, Tony was nowhere to be found.

“He would have been here,” one of Tony’s acquaintances from the militia informed him, after Clint had spent half an hour circling the busy room in vain, “but for the presence of certain other individuals.” The man shot a look at Dr. Banner and Mr. Coulson, standing together near the entrance, while Miss Banner welcomed guests.

Clint felt himself flush angrily on Tony’s behalf. Coulson’s enmity had followed him here, had it? Obviously, Clint was not the only one who knew of the bad blood between the two gentlemen. He should have expected Hertfordshire loyalty to side with Tony, as it obviously had. Despite his tendency to drink, Tony was a boisterous gentleman and was well liked in Meryton, while Coulson's disappointing appearance at the Romanov ball had cemented public opinion against him.

Without Tony, the first half of the ball passed in disappointment. Barney, dressed in his best, had accompanied Clint, but soon lost himself in the crowd. Barney always performed well at these events, dancing with women of every station, and had already filled the cards of several eligible young ladies. Clint, known to be the superior dancer, was also understood to reserve himself almost exclusively for Natasha. She was universally acknowledged as the only woman proficient enough to stand up with him, though Clint considered the situation to be reversed. While many of the other young ladies present enjoyed dancing, most found it embarrassing to be compared with her.

Still, Clint was not of a low disposition, and with time he found his disappointment fading. A dance early in the evening with Natasha helped, and his spirits soon lifted enough to ask several other women to take a turn about the floor. Most were older women whose husbands were fetching drinks from the table, and who felt no embarrassment dancing with him.

Dinner was a delicious affair and elegantly conducted, but Barney had by that point had a little too much to drink. He was loud where he was usually flirtatious, and his laugh echoed almost obscenely from his place across the room.

The dance continued afterwards, however, and Clint found his irritation at his brother mellowed by the excellent entertainment secured by Miss Banner. The musicians were quite first rate, brought up especially from London, and it was difficult to hold onto any disagreement when such excellent dancing was to be had.

Clint approached Miss Banner herself for a turn, and was pleasantly surprised to find she could nearly keep up with him. She was an enthusiastic partner, if not quite as skilled as Natasha, and he enjoyed himself immensely.

It was a shock, then, to find Mr. Coulson waiting for him once his dance with Miss Banner had ended. The other gentleman stood on the edge of the dance floor near the punch table. Clint would have walked past him had the Coulson not said “Excuse me,” unexpectedly.

Clint reeled. Surely the man must be speaking to someone else? But no – the immediate area around them was empty.

“Yes?” Clint answered, still convinced this must be some mistake.

“Mr. Barton,” Coulson bowed, very slightly, at the waist. “I was wondering if – that is, I came to ask if you would dance with me.” His voice was quiet, so as not to carry.

Clint stared at him. Coulson was looking, if it were possible, discomforted. His shoulders, usually so at ease, were hunched slightly beneath his elegant attire, and his face, so often impassive, appeared a little flushed. With a start, Clint wondered if Coulson had been at the drink this night.

“Dance with you?” Clint echoed, and looked around the room at the number of couples. “Here?”

If anything, Coulson looked even more uncomfortable. “Not in the ballroom,” he amended, his eyes darting once to the side and then back to Clint’s. As nervous as he looked, he tightened his jaw in determination. “But there is a balcony near the main dance floor where the music reaches easily.”

Clint stared at him. “And you want to dance with me there?” he asked, still not sure he understood.

“Yes,” Coulson informed him, his gaze steady, though his hands were clenched at his sides.

“Oh,” Clint replied, thrown. What could the man be on about? “Um. Yes, I suppose I could.”

“Excellent,” Coulson said. “I will meet you there at the beginning of the next set.” Moving quickly, before Clint could think of a way to refuse, he turned and walked away.

Clint watched him go with growing frustration. Had he truly accepted a dance? With Mr. Coulson? Hateful man! If he had ever entertained the possibility, Clint would surely have promised himself never to dance with him.

He had already accepted, however, and he could hardly do anything but present himself at the appointed place at the proper time. When the current dance ended, Clint finished his drink and made his way to the balcony.

It was indeed a good distance from the ballroom, quite secluded, but the music drifted there easily. Clint could hear the bustle of the main ballroom, but it was muted.

Coulson was already waiting for him, his gaze turned towards the night beyond the balcony, where the light from the ballroom did not reach. His face was visible in profile, and Clint had to admit to himself that, despite everything, the man was attractive.

A secluded location was no place for such thoughts, however. Clint made a deliberate noise when he stepped onto the balcony and after a brief, visible hesitation, Coulson turned towards him. Whatever emotion the man might have had on his face when he looked into the darkness, it had cleared into his usual impassivity by the time he faced Clint. Clint searched his face for some hint as to what Coulson meant by this, when being caught could so very obviously be disastrous for them both. Had he thought Clint would refuse? Would he have used that refusal, or the argument it might have created, to cast a stain upon Clint’s character? But how could he have planned such a scene, without revealing his own proclivities to the room at large?

Clint did not understand, and confusion made him wary.

The music began, however, and Coulson moved. Clint buried his feelings and followed him. There was a moment of disorder as they worked out who would dance which part, but they soon settled into a pattern and began to step in time with the music.

Clint felt he should not be surprised by the elegance of Coulson’s dance. The man flowed as water might, smooth and graceful. It was clearly a result of too much money, for Coulson had certainly had dance instructors his entire life. Clint, meanwhile, had nothing but the music and his own natural grace, and a fair amount of practice.

They danced in silence for a time. Clint kept his eye on the balcony door, but they were quite alone. He glanced back at Coulson. The man appeared comfortable with the silence, but Clint had always preferred words in awkward situations.

“If we were dancing in the ballroom,” he said finally, as they executed a neat turn, “I might comment on the number of couples. But that is more difficult in this situation.”

“It is,” Coulson agreed with equanimity, never pausing in his execution of the steps. Clint waited for some other word, but the man continued to dance in silence.

“You might remark on the decorations,” he persisted, stepping back and forward again with the tempo of the music. “And I would agree that Miss Banner has done well.”

“You would.” Coulson replied, not as a question, and Clint sighed at him.

“Come now, Mr. Coulson,” he said, needling the man. “We must have some conversation.”

“Do you talk by rule when you are dancing?” Coulson asked him, his tone never changing, though there was now a hint of a smile along the curve of his lips.

“Sometimes it is best,” Clint replied, moving with Coulson as they executed a neat triple-step.

“Then we may enjoy the advantage of saying as little as possible,” Coulson answered.

They lapsed into silence again. The dance proceeded, and then Coulson made a tentative inquiry. “I have observed that you often ride into Meryton.”

“Yes, quite often.” Clint answered, surprised. He paused, and then continued bravely. “You had the particular fortune to be present as I formed a new acquaintance earlier this summer.”

Clint held his breath, and sure enough two spots of color appeared on Coulson's cheeks. “Mr. Stark’s happy manners enable him to make many friends,” he said. “Whether he is equally capable of keeping them is less certain.”

“He has been unlucky to lose your friendship in a way he'll suffer from all his life,” Clint fired back.

Coulson bit his lip, but said nothing. Clint watched him carefully.

“You strike me as a man for whom, once resentment is created, it is seldom forgotten.” Clint said finally, after a few minutes of silent dancing. “You are careful, are you not, in allowing your resentment to be created?”

“I am.”

“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”

“I hope not.” Coulson said, his jaw clenched. “May I ask to what these questions tend?”

Clint shrugged. “Merely to the illustration of your character. I am trying to make it out.”

Coulson actually smiled. “What is your success?”

“I do not get on at all,” Clint admitted. “I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”

Coulson looked away. “I can readily believe it, but I wish that you would not attempt to sketch my character at the present moment, Mr. Barton,” he said as the dance came to a close. “I fear the performance would reflect no credit on either of us.”

“If I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity,” Clint pointed out, stepping away as the final notes from the ballroom faded away.

“I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours,” Coulson said, giving Clint a short bow.

The dance ended. Clint watched as Coulson turned and walked away.

Clint watched him go; anger and curiosity churning in his gut. For all his confusion, though, the balcony was empty without the other man’s presence. Clint shivered as the wind came up, cold now without the exertion of the dance. He turned and followed the path Coulson had taken back into the main ballroom.

The rest of the ball passed in easier conversation. He took several more turns with Natasha and Darcy alike, along with other ladies he had danced with before. He saw Coulson often, always standing along the back wall, out of the way. The man’s eyes seemed to follow him. Clint did his best to ignore him.

The ball ended, finally, and Clint returned home with sore feet. The next day he awoke with a mild headache, and decided he must have drunk more than he thought. He dressed and made his way into Meryton by way of Purple Rider. He found the town in an uproar.

Rumours were flying faster than Clint could catch them, until he finally cornered his usual informant Matt Hattsbox in the street. “What has happened?!” he demanded.

Matt grinned at him in ghoulish pleasure. “Dr. Banner’s secret formula was stolen during the ball last night!” he said, almost bouncing on his toes in the street. “No one knows who done it, but everyone says it was Mr. Tony Stark, the inventor. Apparently, he has been working on a similar formulation, and he used the excuse of the party to steal it from Dr. Banner’s lab during the ball!”

Clint stared at him. “That is not possible.”

Matt shrugged, unrepentant. “It is what everyone is saying,” he said, as if that made it gospel truth. “Mr. Stark is leaving this very afternoon for London. He is packing his things up now.”

Clint cursed and turned away, throwing Matt a sixpence as he left. Clint stabled Purple Rider in haste, and ran into Tony’s house. He found the genius supervising Jarvis as he folded clothes in Tony's room.

“Stark! What is all this?!”

Tony turned to him, and Clint was surprised to see the dark circles under his eyes.

Tony noticed his gaze, and avoided his eye. “Hello, Barton. Did you have a good evening? I am sorry I had to break my promise – I did mean to attend.”

Clint strode forward and grabbed Tony by his shoulders, forcing him around. “Never mind about that. Why are you running away like this? It will only make you look guilty.”

Tony stared at the floor. “What do I care? Everyone thinks I am guilty.” He shook his head. “It does not matter – I am not leaving because of that.”

Tony took a deep breath in, looking as though he were steeling himself. “I have to go back to town, Mr. Barton. I received news yesterday afternoon, which is why I missed the ball. My father is ill, and probably dying. He... well,” Tony laughed hollowly, “the company needs me.”

Clint blinked, feeling struck. “You are father is dying? What has happened?”

Tony rubbed a hand over his tired face. “How should I know? I have not seen or spoken with him since I left to join the military. He did not want to see me. Yet I received a letter yesterday, the first in five years. Drank myself into a stupor after reading it,” he said with an effort at his usual lighter tone, “and passed out until morning.”

He looked up then and met Clint’s eyes. His gaze was heavy and self-reflective, and Clint knew he was not going to change his mind. “He is asking for me. That is more than he has ever done. I cannot say no to him, no matter how this looks to the good people of Meryton. I do not care what anyone here thinks of me, except for you, my friend. I have to go.”

Clint stared at him, and then nodded. He pulled Tony into a crushing embrace. Tony seemed surprised, but after a moment his arms came up around Clint as well. He held him tightly.

“I wish to thank you, by the way,” Tony said, his voice muffled by Clint’s shoulder. “You have been a true friend to me, Barton, and I have never had one of those before.” He gave another hollow-sounding laugh. “Not for a long time, anyway. It was... nice.”

“You have been a friend to me as well, Stark.” Clint said, hugging him closer before stepping away. He met Tony’s eyes. “And I have never had one of those. Unless you count Natasha, but everything is different with her.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “That is because she is a frightening woman, and will be even more so now, as Mrs. Nick Fury. Tell her I am sorry for missing her wedding.”

“I will,” Clint promised. They stared at each other for a moment more, and Clint squeezed his shoulders. “You will write to me?”

“As often as I can manage,” Tony promised. He clapped Clint on the back and stepped away.

“Oh, before I forget – come with me,” Tony said. He pulled Clint out of the room and down a set of stone stairs into what was obviously his workroom. “I was going to wait to give you this, at your birthday perhaps, but there is no time, now.”

Clint had never been in Tony’s workspace before, and he looked around curiously. The large room was a jumble of tools and scraps of iron. Steam-powered contraptions huffed and puffed in various corners, while copper and brass cogs gleamed.

Tony dragged him inside and pointed to something on the work bench. Clint caught his breath.

It was a bow, but not merely a bow – it was the most beautiful recurve bow Clint had ever seen. Clint stepped towards it, eyeing the artistry of metal, leather, and polished horn. It curved as though it ached for Clint’s touch, and Clint’s fingers itched to hold it.

“Stark,” he breathed. “She is beautiful.”

Tony beamed at him. “I am glad you like her. I have spent the past few weeks trying to bring her up to snuff. The most brilliant archer needs the perfect bow, and I used your measurements from the tailor’s shop. Pick her up, pick her up! We have a few minutes to test her.”

Clint reached forward in wonder, trailing his fingers along the haft. He lifted her carefully. She was lighter than he had expected, and fit perfectly in his hands.

“Just the tailor’s?” he teased, but it was half-hearted. She was perfect.

“Well, and the glover’s,” Tony admitted with a grin. “And I may have spoken with Miss Romanov about a few matters, to check your preferences, but it was all in good faith. Come now, I had Jarvis set up an archery range behind the house. Let us test her out, shall we?”

“Yes, please,” Clint said, holding her reverently. He followed Tony upstairs and outside, to see an array of targets set about the garden. Clint removed his jacket and Tony passed him a quiver. It was standard, and Tony sighed as Clint fitted it on his back.

“I wished to make you one of those as well, for I have several ideas for interesting trick arrows. Very sophisticated. But I did not have the time. I shall work on it in London, and surprise you when you come to visit me in the spring. You can use your regular arrows for now.”

“In the spring?” Clint asked, rolling his shoulders. “I would like that.”

“Yes,” Tony said, leaning back on his heels. Clint raised the bow in a shooting stance. “I mean, I am going to have much work to do, so it would be foolish to make plans at this time. But that is what letters are for, correct?”

“Certainly,” Clint said, nodding firmly. He picked the farther target and nocked an arrow, lifting the bow. He pushed out against the riser and pulled in with the string, and the weapon seemed to move with him, like a living creature stretching beneath his touch.

Clint sighted the target and breathed out, releasing the tension with a sigh. The string sang a sharp, low note as it snapped forward in sudden release. The arrow sailed through the air with the perfect amount of force and embedded itself into the centre of the target.

“Brilliant,” Tony said, grinning, and Clint laughed in sheer joy. He fitted another arrow, and they spent the next ten minutes practicing in the garden. Tony called out more difficult and interesting shots, and Clint made every one of them.

Eventually, Jarvis called from the doorway, saying the carriage had been packed. Tony and Clint reluctantly retrieved the arrows, except for the one on the highest branch of the tallest tree, which they decided to leave where it was.

“You will write to me,” Clint made Tony promise once more, as they said their good-byes in front of the carriage.

“I will,” Tony assured him. They shook hands, and Tony gave him one last brilliant grin. “Kiss the blushing bride for me.”

Clint rolled his eyes at the idea of Natasha blushing at anything, even her marriage bed, and Tony laughed. He climbed into the carriage and Jarvis took the box. He clucked at the horses, and Clint waved as the carriage rolled away.

Clint sighed when Tony was out of sight, and slowly returned home. The rest of the week passed quickly. Clint spent what time he could with Natasha, helping with last minute preparations. Too soon the fateful day arrived, and Clint woke with an ache in his heart.

He wore his best suit for Natasha, and watched with the other guests as she appeared at the back of the church. The ceremony itself was beautiful. Fury looked surprisingly elegant in his formal clothes, and the smile he gave Natasha lit his entire face. Natasha even smiled back. It was a real smile, Clint could see, which surprised him. Maybe she would be happy with Nick Fury after all.

The newly married couple left for Hunsford from the church, and Clint threw flower petals with the other guests as the carriage rolled away. Clint stood waving until long after they had vanished from sight, and returned to the manor alone.

Barney had not come to wedding, and was still out with his army friends, engaged in God-knew-not-what. Clint decided he did not want to know. He was heartsick enough as it was without worrying about the schemes his brother was constructing.

It was not long after the wedding that rumours began to circulate that the Banners were leaving as well. Apparently Dr. Banner had urgent business in town, and the household was packed and gone within a week. Clint received a quick missive from Miss Banner, saying that with the loss of his formula, her brother was returning to London to work on his project in a more controlled environment. She never mentioned who she felt had taken the formula, but Clint grew angry reading it nonetheless.

He knew Coulson suspected Tony, and he knew he must be the source of the rumours that had spread so quickly around Hertfordshire. It smacked of the self-same arrogance that had Tony exiled to Afghanistan in the first place; a furious inability to see beyond his own importance to the other lives he influenced.

Miss Banner invited Clint to Netherfield for tea before they left, but Clint sent his regrets. He did not want to see Coulson. He did not think he could control himself if he did.

Chapter Text

Winter passed slowly in Hertfordshire. Clint felt abandoned by his friends during the loneliest season. Tony was gone, Natasha had married and left, and even the Banners had now vanished to London. Barney was often away from the Manor, dining in Meryton or riding about Hertfordshire. He travelled to London several times, usually only for a day or two, and always returned home in grim humour. He spent most of his time when home locked in their father’s study, and Clint learned not to seek him out.

Clint spent his days practising with the bow Tony had made him and writing letters. He had never before possessed such a volume of correspondence. Usually he wrote only to his mother’s cousins in London, a Mr. and Mrs. Carter, who lived in Cheapside. Mr. Carter was his mother’s brother, and worked in trade. It was a connection he had mentioned once at Netherfield, and while Miss Banner had looked enlivened by the connection and asked him about the family, Clint had noticed the awkward look on Coulson’s face.

Evidently the haughty Derbyshire man did not approve of relations who lived in Cheapside.

Mr. and Mrs. Carter had several children, and they visited Barton Manor every Christmas. Plans were made again for December, and Clint looked forward to the holidays. It was with great disappointment that Clint learned the Carters would have to cancel this year, for things in London were very grim.

Tony’s father had indeed passed away shortly after Tony's departure for town, and the business world had suffered. Tony, Clint was surprised to learn, had not officially taken over the management of Stark Industries, but had rather left it to an old associate of his father’s, a Mr. Obadiah Stane. Instead, the papers informed him that Tony spent most of his time inventing, trying to boost the company’s finances with new ideas.

It was working, but there had been a strange spate of mysterious deaths in London. The business world was shaken. In addition to the loss of the elder Mr. Stark, several other businesses had recently lost a founder.

Tony did not talk often of business in his letters, which, to his credit, came often, but rather talked about Hertfordshire and asked after Clint’s bow. He made up increasingly lewd names for her, and needled Clint about choosing one.

Clint refused to grant him the pleasure, though he acquiesced to Tony’s desires and did not press him regarding London. He asked only if Tony was well, and was assured in that regard. For other business matters, he had his Uncle Carter to keep him informed.

As an apology for missing Christmas, the Carters promised to take Clint with them when they went on a tour of the Lake District in the summer. Clint agreed readily – he could not leave his brother at Christmas, but he was more than willing travel during the summer months.

Clint would be turning one and twenty at the end of the summer, and Nick Fury would officially take possession of the house at the first of September. He would rather avoid Barney when he would surely be at his lowest, and a tour of the Lakes was something Clint had wanted for quite some time.

He loved natural beauty, and had heard many stories of the northern countryside from his Aunt Carter. She had grown up in the north, in a small town in Derbyshire, and still spoke fondly of Lambton. Clint looked forward to seeing the country where she had grown up, and of which she had such fond memories.

Through diligent correspondence and constant bow practise, then, the winter slowly passed. Finally, as the mornings began to lighten and the air warmed, Clint heard again from Natasha.

They had written several letters over the winter months, and in each one Natasha pressed him to remember his promise to visit her in the spring. Clint was not sure if his likewise promise to Tony would interfere, and asked Tony about it in early March. Tony regretfully informed him that given the state of things in London, he could in no way entertain Clint in town and begged him to accept Natasha’s invitation instead.

Clint did so readily, eager to see Natasha again. He informed Barney of his plans one evening at dinner. Barney, who had barely spoken to him for a month at that point, merely nodded his head and left the table soon after. Clint sighed into his dinner. He wished he knew a way to heal the rift between them, but as the weeks passed, he began to doubt he ever could.

Finally, the date arrived for his journey to Hunsford. Clint travelled with Mrs. Romanov, whose health was precarious, but improving with the spring. They had an easy conversation as they travelled, but Clint, who had not seen Natasha’s mother since her daughter moved away, was surprised by the amount of grey in her hair and the deepening lines around her face. He made a promise to himself to visit with her more often, to give her comfort when Natasha was away.

The journey was an easy one, the spring air refreshing after the chill of winter, and before long Clint could see the cottage itself in the bend of the road ahead. The park they drove through, up the road to the cottage, was apparently owned by the esteemed Lady Hill, Fury's patroness. It was a beautiful wood, and Clint enviously eyed the largest trees.

He had always loved climbing trees, but the woods at home in Hertfordshire were thin, scraggly things. These were trunks that could support his adult weight, and he itched to shed his jacket and explore them.

Sitting on his hands, Clint managed to resist the urge to leap from the carriage. The horses slowed to a stop as they reached the cottage, and Clint helped Mrs. Romanov descend. Natasha met them at the carriage door, her hair up in a wonderful impression of a proper English housewife, and Clint grinned to see her.

Natasha smiled back at him, real warmth in her eyes, but she moved to her mother first and kissed her gently on the cheek, speaking softly to her in Russian.

Clint escorted them to the house. Fury met them at the door, and offered Clint a hand. They shook firmly, and Clint met his eyes.

“My congratulations, sir. You have a beautiful home.”

Fury grinned at him, his many teeth on display. “It is small, but well cared for, Mr. Barton. Come, let us get you settled inside. I have been looking forward to this chance to return your earlier hospitality.”

Clint’s belongings were settled in his room upstairs, and Clint had to admit the cottage was lovely. His room was small, but well lit, with a beautiful oak tree directly outside his window. Natasha knew him well.

He joined the family for dinner that evening, and was informed that Lady Hill wished to meet them the next afternoon. Clint inquired about her, and Natasha told him with a smile that she was a ‘formidable woman’, though quickly becoming a friend.

“I served with her husband during the war,” Fury told him, smiling, “Lady Hill is more dangerous than half the men I have known in my life, and only my wife is more frightening. You shall like her, Mr. Barton.”

Clint laughed and said he probably would. He glanced at Natasha, who was smiling at the compliment. It seemed Fury did know her, after all.

They sparred together that evening, both shedding the clothes of their station as they met downstairs on the hardwood floor. It felt good to come together again, though Clint was obviously out of practise. Natasha had clearly picked up more than housewifely skills over the winter months.

“What have you been doing, you paragon of English Virtue, to have gotten so good in so short a time?” Clint teased her.

Natasha rolled her eyes, and threw him across the floor by twisting her hips. “I am Russian, you lack-wit, and have no English Virtue. I told you – Nick understands me.”

“It would seem that he does,” Clint shook his head from the floor, and winced. Not moving would probably be a good idea, for the next week or so.

He slept well that night, but woke understandably bruised the next day. Natasha smiled at him over breakfast, and Fury laughed. Mrs. Romanov made no comment, and Clint wondered, as he had on and off through the years, how much she knew of their secret practises.

They went to Rosings, the home of Lady Hill, for tea that afternoon. Clint found himself blinking at the long expanse of the gardens and the sheer number of windows on the huge manor house as they walked up the road.

Lady Hill met them at the door, and laughed at Clint’s expression. “It is horrible, is it not?” she said with a grin, and Clint was surprised to see that she could only be a few years older than Natasha. She was thin, but muscular, and wore her hair in a dark knot tight on the back of her head. “But the house was my father’s, and my husband fell in love with it.” She shrugged, and there was sadness behind her eyes. “No matter how I despise it, I cannot change a thing.”

“Hill would surely come back and haunt you,” Fury agreed, coming forward to take her hands and kiss them gallantly. Natasha laughed again, freer this time, and Clint smiled to see it.

“He would,” Lady Hill agreed, and ushered them in. Clint found himself liking her.

Tea was a relaxed affair, with Fury and Lady Hill provided most of the conversation. Clint watched them all, and observed how Natasha seemed genuinely at home here. She and Fury obviously dined often at Rosings, and Clint watched the graceful way in which Lady Hill moved. She had the same deadly elegance as Natasha, and he suspected this was where his friend had picked up many of her new techniques.

It was interesting, Clint thought, how anxious they were to include him. Lady Hill asked his opinions on many topics, and Fury spoke of business in London. These dangerous, smiling people, a strange sort of family in this beautiful home, were genuinely trying to make him feel welcome.

It was disconcerting, and yet somehow pleasant. He found himself relaxing in their company with an ease that mystified him.

The first days of their visit passed in this tranquil manner. Clint, Fury, and Natasha would breakfast at the cottage together and then occupy themselves until lunch. Mrs. Romanov took breakfast in her rooms, and often knit in the parlour until the early afternoon. Fury spent the mornings busy with correspondence and Natasha occupied herself with the management of the household. Once her duties were complete, she and Clint would spar. Natasha continued to best him in their daily matches, but he was slowly learning to defend himself against her improved skill.

When they were not sparring, Clint enjoyed wandering the grounds. Several times he surrendered to the siren call of the forest and climbed a few of the more tempting-looking trees. He had brought the bow Tony had given him to Hunsford, and he practised with it often.

They lunched together at the cottage and travelled to Rosings in the afternoons. Lady Hill was a gracious hostess, and urged them over daily. Lady Hill and Fury occasionally walked the grounds together, discussing business, but they often sat with Clint and Natasha, sharing stories and playing cards.

Clint found the relationship between Lady Hill and Fury interesting. They treated each other as respected colleagues, and somewhat as if he were her older brother. Though Lady Hill was nominally his patroness, Fury often acted as the superior in their relationship. Once, Clint was sure he heard Lady Hill say “Yes, sir” in response to a statement. He did not know what to make of that at all.

Just as obviously, Fury and Natasha’s relationship was more than that of husband and wife. Their marriage seemed to be a true partnership, with each equally responsible for a particular area of management. Natasha had her strengths, and Fury had his. They complemented each other well.

The jealousy Clint felt surprised him. He wondered what such a relationship would be like.

A week into their stay, just as Clint was feeling settled into this strange dynamic, Lady Hill received a letter at tea. It was presented to her on a silver platter by her butler, and she opened it with a smile.

“Mr. Coulson and Colonel Sitwell will be coming to visit! Oh, excellent! With all the trouble in London, I was not sure they would be able to come.”

Clint felt Natasha’s eyes on him and, less intently, Fury’s. “Mr. Coulson?” he asked, hastily swallowing his sip of tea and putting down his cup. “Mr. Phil Coulson of Pemberley?”

“Yes, and his cousin, Colonel Sitwell.” Lady Hill explained. She caught the look of trepidation on Clint’s face and smiled. “Oh yes, I had forgot – you met Mr. Coulson in Hertfordshire, did you not? When he was visiting Dr. Banner there”

Clint glared at her, because he knew Lady Hill well enough by now to know that she never forgot. “I did,” he said, swallowing anything else his mouth wanted to stay.

“Well then,” Lady Hill said with a smile, showing her teeth. “It will be a pleasant reunion.”

Clint frowned and turned back to his tea, but some of the sweetness seemed to have been leached from it. Just when he was getting comfortable at Rosings and forming new acquaintances, Coulson had to appear and ruin it!

The cousins arrived a few days later. Clint was practising in the forest when he heard their carriage arrive at Rosings. The shout of the groom and the happy commotion reached even his secluded paths. He seriously debated hiding in the underbrush until the rest of his party had left for Rosings to attend the dinner Lady Hill had planned, but such behaviour was beneath him. Besides, Natasha would only come and find him anyway, and likely drag him to the dinner table with grass on his trousers and tree bark in his hair, whether he liked it or not.

Sighing, Clint made his way back to the cottage and dressed for dinner.

The meal was a happy one for everyone at the table but himself, and possibly Coulson. The man looked even more wooden than usual, making almost no conversation and focusing solely on his plate. Colonel Sitwell, his cousin, looked at him oddly, but no one else paid it much mind. Fury and Lady Hill spoke instead to Sitwell, whom they both knew from the days of living and travelling with the army.

Mr. Coulson, it seemed, was related to Lady Hill's late husband. He and Colonel Sitwell often visited Rosings at this time of year.

The next day, they were invited again for tea, and Clint and Sitwell struck up a conversation. Coulson sat in the drawing room with a book, studiously ignoring everyone, and Clint wondered at the man’s rudeness. Lady Hill seemed amused by the entire scenario and made no effort to draw him out. Sitwell, obviously curious about him, took the seat next to Clint.

“I understand you are a proficient marksman,” he began, smiling at Clint. “My cousin says your skills are quite impressive.”

Clint snorted, and glanced towards Coulson. The man was lost in his book. “Your cousin has never seen me shoot, so I do not see how he could be such an expert, but I do enjoy the sport.”

“Perhaps we might have a demonstration, then?” Sitwell asked. Clint searched his face for condescension, but found only open curiosity.

“Tomorrow, perhaps,” he agreed, and smiled as Sitwell’s face lit like a lantern. “Do not look so excited,” Clint laughed. “It is truly not that impressive.”

“I love a demonstration of skill,” Sitwell confessed, his eyes dancing, “and I am sure you are being modest. I look forward to the morrow.”

“Come now,” Fury grumbled from his place beside Natasha. “I have been asking for a demonstration for months, Barton, and you have constantly refused me. Sitwell asks once, and suddenly you are ready to demonstrate your skills? Shame on you, sir.”

Clint grinned at Fury. The words were angry, but his tone held a smile.

“I suggest that the Colonel asks more politely than you, sir.” Clint joked. Across from him, he was aware of Coulson’s grip tightening around the spine of his novel, and he wondered at the man’s odd reaction. “Besides,” Clint went on, “I have been practising with my new bow. I might not disappoint you, now.”

“You could never have done that,” Natasha murmured from where she sat on the settee. “But now that you have been jumping out of trees for five solid days, I suppose you might feel so.”

“We do not have trees like this in Hertfordshire, Mrs. Fury,” Clint told her, sweeping his hands to indicate the old growth forest surrounding Rosings. “It would be a sin not to climb them while I can.”

“If you like old growth forests, you should see Pemberley,” Hill smiled from her chair where she sat sipping tea. She glanced over to Coulson, “The Coulson family has been protecting trees from harvesting for how many generations now?”

“Seven,” Coulson told her, not looking up from his book. There was something fond in his voice, a note Clint had never heard before.

“There you are,” Lady Hill said, turning back to Clint. “High enough that even you could not jump from the upper branches, I am sure.”

“I have not met a tree I could not jump out of,” Clint said, smiling at Hill. He glanced over at Coulson, still reading his book, and dismissed the idea of Pemberley. “But I believe it is unlikely I will ever have the chance to find out.”

Abruptly, Coulson closed his novel and walked to the window. Clint watched him go with a grim sort of satisfaction. Surely Coulson was leaving so he would not be forced to do something horrible like invite Clint to see his venerable estate. That would probably ‘pollute the shades of Pemberley’ or some such terrible thing.

Lady Hill watched Coulson's back with a faintly sad expression on her face, and Clint felt momentarily guilty for being such a poor guest. Natasha asked Sitwell about London, then, and the moment was forgotten.

Chapter Text

The next day Clint brought the bow Tony had given him to Rosings. Sitwell grinned like a schoolboy upon seeing it, and quickly led him around to the back garden. Clint blinked at the targets that had been set up around the shrubbery, some almost hidden behind clumps of flowers. He suspected Natasha had had a hand in the impromptu construction.

Everyone had gathered on the lawn to watch him, and Clint looked up from adjusting his quiver to see that Coulson stood there as well.

“Are you here to frighten me, Mr. Coulson?” Clint asked with a grin. “I must tell you, sir, that I will not be alarmed. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.”

“I shall not say you are mistaken,” Coulson replied, with something like a smile on his usually blank face, “because you could not really believe I am here to frighten you.”

Clint laughed and turned towards Colonel Sitwell. “Your cousin would have you dismiss everything that comes out of my mouth,” he said, grinning, “and you are probably right to believe him. He is, I am sure, never wrong in his judgements of people. He makes them often, I know, so they must always be right.”

Coulson frowned, stepping forward a little. “I make faulty judgements often, Mr. Barton. I simply aim to correct them afterwards, if needs be, to the best of my ability.”

Clint scoffed, thinking of Tony. He shifted his shoulders under the quiver until it sat as it should. “You are watching?” he asked, turning to Sitwell.

The Colonel grinned at him, and lifted his glass. The demonstration in the garden had turned into a makeshift party, with sandwiches, fresh fruit, and chilled tea in pitchers. Clint realized Coulson could hardly have avoided coming to watch him, unless he wished to seem particularly insulting.

Natasha and Fury were present, too, and Mrs. Romanov as well. Clint dismissed Coulson from his mind and lifted the bow, fitting an arrow to the string as he eyed the farthest target, half hidden behind a rose bush.

Clint inhaled slowly, settling his stance, and then exhaled as he sighted and released. The string rolled off his fingers, his arrow flew straight and true, and the head pierced the rose he had been eyeing at the stem. Both the arrow and the rose it had captured struck the target, landing in the centre of bull’s-eye.

There was a startled hush from behind him, and then a thunder of applause. Clint turned and bowed to the group, a full grin on his face, before jogging over to retrieve the flower. He presented it to Natasha with a bow. She laughed and pinned it in her hair.

She turned to Fury and arched her head. “How do I look, my love?” she asked, smiling. It was the first time Clint had ever heard her use the endearment.

“Beautiful as always, my dear” he said to her, bending to press a kiss to the inside of her wrist. Natasha laughed again, lower this time, and Clint felt a pang. She was truly happy here. It was good to see, but it still saddened him. In many ways, she was lost to him, now.

“Again!” Natasha said, turning back to Clint. He could not help but laugh at the joy in her expression, which dispelled his momentary melancholy mood. In a series of motions too fast for anyone but Natasha to follow, Clint shot five arrows at five separate targets, each perfectly centered. Another two he arched high, so they sailed down from the sky to implant themselves in the wood of the targets themselves. It was an impressive display, as the targets had been painted on a thin wooden board, hardly larger than the diameter of the arrow heads themselves.

Fury whistled, low, and Sitwell laughed out loud. “Amazing!” he exclaimed.

Clint grinned at him. “That is what they used to call me at the circus,” he confessed, turning back to the group. He could see Coulson still blinking in his corner, his eyes fastened on the targets. “The Amazing Hawkeye.”

“How long were you with the circus?” Lady Hill asked, sounding curious. Clint shrugged.

“Six weeks. I was seven years old,” he added, blushing. “I ran away from home and it took that long for my father’s man to find me. I was with a group of travelling gypsies who did shows for coin.”

Coulson shifted his gaze from the targets and looked at Clint. Clint could not read the expression on his face.

“So can you shoot from horseback as well?” Sitwell asked, sounding impressed.

“Yes,” Clint told him. “Mrs. Fury and I used to ride together so I could practise. I can shoot from the treetops, too.”

“You should see him shoot at a moving target,” Natasha said. “Here – watch.” She stood and removed her wedding ring.

Fury frowned but did not stop her. Clint grinned and fitted an arrow. He knew what she was going to do.

Everyone watched as Natasha turned and threw her ring up high. Clint tracked the target with special focus. He waited, watching the gold ring spinning through the air as if in slow motion, and when the moment was right, he released his arrow.

The head speared through the ring, catching it on the shaft, and the entire ensemble implanted itself into the centre of the nearest target. Natasha's gold ring gleamed as it spun on the arrow, caught between the target and the goose feather fletching.

There was a stunned moment of silence from the group, and then Sitwell whooped. Natasha laughed and Fury chuckled, while Lady Hill clapped her hands. Even Mrs. Romanov smiled, and she had known Clint the longest.

The only one not moving was Coulson. Clint looked over and met his gaze with a challenging expression. Coulson surprised him by smiling.

It was a genuine smile, and it lit his entire face. Clint blinked at the effect, and surprised himself by thinking that, in that moment, Coulson looked quite beautiful.

Clint smiled hesitantly back, and then turned to retrieve Natasha's ring. He handed it to Fury, who kissed it before slipping it onto her finger.

Lady Hill called for another demonstration, and Sitwell hurried to retrieve the arrows from their targets around the lawn. Clint laughed, happy to oblige.

The afternoon that followed was one of the best of Clint’s life. Everyone seemed particularly impressed by his skill, and they wasted several hours finding new and more difficult targets for him to hit. Lady Hill had the staff bring out ribbons, and she and Natasha threw them into the air. Clint created a pretty display on the top of a nearby tree, and Lady Hill pronounced him ready for the circus again. Sitwell volunteered to find a pack of gypsies he could join.

If it had been Barney, Clint would have been insulted and left, but in this company he simply grinned and bowed again, taking the words in the spirit with which they had been meant.

He had never passed a happier afternoon. It was shame when the air finally cooled and Lady Hill’s man informed them dinner was ready.

Dinner and drinks passed almost as pleasantly, and the four guests returned to Fury’s small cottage happy and full. The next day Fury locked himself in his study for a few hours of business, and Natasha stretched alone in her rooms downstairs.

Clint went outside and met Sitwell for a ride. They often rode together in the park, when Clint did not feel like climbing trees or practising with his bow. Sitwell was an easy companion, and they each enjoyed the others' company.

“That was a marvellous display of skill,” the Colonel told him as they rode. Clint had left Purple Rider in Hertfordshire so that he might ride in the carriage with Mrs. Romanov, and was borrowing a horse from Fury. “You certainly are a master archer.”

Clint felt the back of his neck heat. “Thank you,” he said, feeling a little uncomfortable. “I do not often perform like that in public, of course. I usually practise at home to relax.”

Sitwell shook his head. “If you chose, you could grow rich by performing, though I suppose that would not quite befit your status as a gentleman.”

Clint grinned, thinking of the gentlemen he knew, of Dr. Banner's quiet manner and Coulson in his perfect suits, and contrasted them to himself and his penchant for climbing trees. “I am hardly a gentleman.”

Sitwell shrugged. “You are by birth, which constrains you, I know. I am the younger son of an Earl myself, but younger sons have a freedom that older sons do not. I know Mr. Coulson would be much happier in another life, for example, though he loves Pemberley and enjoys running the estate. Still, I think he is jealous that I was able to join the army, and he was not.”

Clint frowned at him. “Mr. Coulson wanted to join the army?” he asked.

“More than anything,” Sitwell told him sadly, “but his father would not allow it. Still, he worked with Fury often, in the business aspects of army life, and that is how he met Lady Hill.”

Clint chuckled. “I can easily picture her storming the enemy with a rifle in her hands. She is a formidable woman!”

Sitwell laughed. “She is! I have the bruises to prove it!”

The ride passed easily, and the two men separated amicably when they reached the drive. Sitwell continued on to Rosings, and Clint passed through the gate to the cottage.

He stabled his horse and walked in to find the cottage empty. A note had beenleft with one of the servants to say that Natasha and Fury, agreeing it was a beautiful day, had left for a ride themselves. Mrs. Romanov was at Rosings having tea with Lady Hill. Clint was pleased to think he had the afternoon to himself. He went upstairs to have a wash and remove the sweat from his ride.

He was just drying himself when the maid knocked on his door and told him Mr. Coulson was there to visit. Clint frowned and informed her he would be down in a moment. Hurriedly, he grabbed a shirt from the wardrobe and put it on, ignoring the way it stuck to his still wet skin.

He made his way to the drawing room still tugging on his jacket and Coulson, when he turned from the window he was looking out of, stared at him. Clint flushed to think he looked as half-dressed as he felt, but he consciously relaxed his shoulders. Coulson had interrupted him, and he would have to live with the bathwater still clinging to Clint's hair.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Mr. Coulson?” he asked, giving the man a short bow. Coulson bowed back, and Clint moved to sit on one of the comfortable settees Natasha had placed about her sitting room.

Coulson cleared his throat lightly and moved to sit opposite him. “I was simply in the area, and thought to visit. I understand Mr. and Mrs. Fury have left for a picnic?”

“Ah, a picnic is it?” Clint grinned, thinking of the note. “I understood it was only a ride in the country. No wonder they did not wait for me – they wished to preserve the food.”

Unexpectedly, Coulson smiled at him. Clint once again had the fleeting thought that it remarkably changed his countenance. “You do have a prodigious appetite.”

Clint snorted but could not disagree. “It is not my fault that Mrs. Fury serves such delicious food,” he said, carefully not thinking about nights spent locked in the cellar without breakfast or dinner. “One would have to have more restraint than I to leave my plate all but licked clean after a meal.”

Coulson’s eyes went slightly out of focus at that, but he recovered before Clint could ask if he were feeling well. He cleared his throat as if to say something, and then paused. Clint waited, perplexed, and then Coulson gestured awkwardly. “Your brother, I assume he is well?”

“He is very well,” Clint answered, surprised. Of all topics of conversation, he would not have thought Coulson would ask about his family. “He is not an efficient correspondent, however. I have not heard from him recently.”

Coulson nodded, but there was something absent in the gesture. He looked uncomfortable again. Clint resisted the urge to tap his foot on the floor to dispel the nervous energy.

“Lady Hill and your cousin at Rosings,” Clint said, when the urge to fidget became too strong, “are they also well?”

Coulson nodded. “Yes,” he said, “they are very well.”

Clint nodded back. He looked away. The silence between them stretched and lengthened. Clint watched from the corner of his eye as Coulson looked at the mantle, out the window, once at Clint’s wet hair, and then back out the window again.

Clint racked his mind for a topic of conversation. He began to feel it was absolutely necessary to say something, despite the fact that doing so would likely complete the awkwardness surrounding them.

The confusion of that question brought the mind the last time they had been alone together, and Clint realized it had been the dance at Netherfield.

“Have you had any word from Dr. Banner in London?” Clint asked out loud, before he could think better of it.

Coulson looked surprised at the question. “Yes, actually. He and Miss Banner have settled into their London home. He is hard at work on reproducing his formula, I understand.”

“Ah,” Clint said, recognizing his error. This was not a safe topic of conversation, if he wanted their discourse to remain civil. Questions about Tony bubbled in his mind. He did not think Natasha would appreciate a screaming match in her sitting room, even if she were not there to witness it.

Coulson seemed to realize the same, because he hurried to shift the conversation. “My friend writes that they are enjoying London. He is not sure when they will be coming back to Netherfield.”

“Well, if they mean to be but little at Netherfield, it would be better for the neighbourhood if they were to give up the place entirely. We might get a settled family then.”

Coulson shrugged. “I would not be surprised if he were to give up the place, as soon as any eligible offers were made.”

Clint made no answer. This, too, was difficult conversation. Anything related to Hertfordshire was circumspect, for the ghost of Tony lurked in the background of all their words.

Coulson seemed to understand. He paused for a moment more and then, obviously looking around him for inspiration, remarked, “This seems a very comfortable house. I understand Mrs. Fury made quite a number of improvements on it when she took residence.”

Clint smiled. “Yes, I believe she did. She is lucky to have found a man who understands her strengths as well as his own, and left her to do as she sees fit.”

Coulson nodded. “They do understand one another, do they not? I admit I was unsure if my friend would ever marry, and I worried he would settle with someone not worthy of him. I am pleased to see that Mrs. Fury is an excellent match, in all regards.”

“Yes, they are,” Clint agreed. “I admit to questioning the choice myself, at one time.”

Coulson raised an expressive eyebrow. “Yet you retain possession of all your limbs?” he asked, sounding amused. “I congratulate you.”

Clint surprised himself by laughing, and looked away. “Yes, well, we grew up together,” Clint explained. “She is aware of my stupidities.”

Coulson seemed content to let that pass. “It must be very agreeable to her to be settled so near to her mother. I know she is not particularly well.”

“An easy distance you call it?” Clint raised an eyebrow at him. “It is nearly fifty miles.”

Coulson shrugged. “What is fifty miles of good road? It is little more than half a day’s journey. Yes, I call that a very easy distance. It is proof of your attachment to Hertfordshire, I suppose. Anything beyond the neighbourhood of Barton Manor would appear far.”

There was the ghost of a smile on Coulson’s face, and Clint understood that Coulson was teasing him, but despite this Clint felt a twinge of anger. He could only think that to a man like Coulson, accustomed to riding the length and breadth of England, Clint must seem quaint to remain so long in one village.

Coulson seemed to understand that he had caused offence. The awkwardness between them returned and he stood not long after.

“Please give my regards to Mr. and Mrs. Fury, and apologize to them that I missed their company,” he said. Clint belatedly stood and mumbled that of course he would. Coulson nodded to him and turned to leave.

Clint watched him go with a familiar sense of frustrated confusion. He could not understand why Coulson had stayed so long, or tried so hard at conversation. The man, he decided again as he watched him mount his horse and ride off, was infuriating.

Chapter Text

The next day dawned fair. Clint had breakfast with the family and then spent a pleasant few hours shooting from the trees outside. He ate a quick lunch from the kitchens and took his borrowed horse for an afternoon ride.

Sitwell was already in the field, practising his jumps from the looks of it. His horse, a beautiful chestnut amusedly named Flower, cleared a pile of stacked logs easily.

Clint joined him, and they passed the time together.

“Ahh,” Sitwell said, when they stopped the rest the horses and decided to walk a little in the fields. “What I would not give to be at Pemberley today. Coulson has the finest collection of jumps built along the back of his fields. He says he did it for himself on a whim, but I know it is for myself and Miss Coulson that he has them maintained. She is an excellent rider, his sister.”

Clint straightened at this mention of Pepper Coulson, of whom he had only heard of from Darcy. “What is she like?”

Sitwell chuckled. “Oh, she is a good girl. A Coulson, for certain, with her father’s sense of duty and direction. Very much like her brother, she likes to keep things organized and arranged. But she has more of her mother in her than my friend. She is less reticent, for one, and a little more vibrant, and she has brilliant red hair. I suspect she and Mrs. Fury will be fast friends.

“You know her well, then?”

“Yes. I am her joint guardian, along with her brother.”

“Are you indeed?” Clint asked, “And what sort of guardians do you make? Does your charge give you much trouble? If her red hair proves her anything like my friend, I can believe she does! Young ladies can be a little difficult to manage, I understand, though my own experience goes no further than Mrs. Fury.”

He spoke in jest, but caught a fleeting look of unease on Sitwell's face and put up his hands. “You need not be frightened, for surely I pose no harm to her. I daresay she is one of the most tractable creatures in the world. I have heard only a little of her, from the sister of one of Mr. Coulson’s friends, Miss Darcy Banner.”

“Ah,” Sitwell said, and seemed to relax. “Yes, I know of the aquaintance. Dr. Banner is a pleasant gentleman, and very scholarly. He is a great friend of Coulson’s.”

“Oh! Yes,” Clint said, dryly, thinking of Banner and his hesitant shyness, yet pleasant company. “Coulson is uncommonly kind to the good doctor, and, along with his sister Miss Banner, takes prodigious care of him.”

“Care of him!” For some reason, that made Sitwell laugh. “Yes, I suppose Coulson does take care of him. From something he said on our journey here together, I have reason to think Dr. Banner is very much indebted to him.”

“Really?” Clint thought back to his most recent memory of Banner. “What is it you mean?”

“It is a circumstance Coulson would not generally have known,” Sitwell said, his voice dipping lower in the register, “for it could be something of an embarrassment, I understand. But I believe he recently saved the good doctor from a rather difficult situation. A critical formula went missing, it is said, and Coulson managed to finger the thief before any more could be stolen.”

“Stolen?” Clint stared at him. “Thief? You mean the formula that went missing – Mr. Coulson is the one who identified the culprit?”

“Oh, yes,” Sitwell said, leaning back, evidently misinterpreting Clint’s anger. “I know it sounds very shocking, but someone did indeed steal a particularly important formula from the doctor. He has returned to London to continue his work, since of course there is no proof of the theft. Nothing else was taken, you understand, and it is not the kind of thing that gets sold on the open market. Nevertheless, Coulson is the one who investigated the matter, and advised Banner to return to London as soon as possible.”

Clint could not answer. So there, against his will, he had his answer – it was Coulson who had accused Tony of the theft! Tony, if he were able to remain in Meryton, would have certainly counteracted the hateful rumour, but circumstances being what they were, he never had the chance. His reputation, previously pristine, would always hold the stain of that particular untruth.

And he, Clint snorted to himself, he had been unwilling to ask Coulson this directly, fearing – rightly so it seemed – that this would be the answer. Of all the insufferable, hateful things a man could do to another! To label him a thief!

Of course, Coulson's infamy had begun with Tony's exile to Afghanistan, where he had been captured and most likely tortured.

Clint's thoughts were interrupted when Sitwell, seeing that his horse was nosing at a patch of stinging nettle, sprang away from the path. Clint followed him, walking slowly, anger weighing him down. He had half a mind to ride to Rosings and confront Coulson this instant, but he did not want to insult Lady Hill by shouting in her drawing room.

He was too distracted to be fit company at the moment. Claiming a headache, Clint took his leave of Sitwell and returned to the cottage. When he arrived, he bathed quickly to rinse the dust from his skin, and then settled in the sitting room to read through the letter’s Tony had written him throughout his stay at Rosings. The two men had continued their lively correspondence, and though Clint knew there was more than one reason for Tony to be dispirited right now, he analysed Tony’s letters for hints as to its cause.

Once or twice, no more, did Tony mention the suspicions of Hertfordshire, but Clint knew that signified he thought of it often. Clint felt furious on behalf of his friend.

His reading was interrupted by a sound at the door. He rose to check the cottage, but remembered as he stood that Natasha and Fury had joined Mrs. Romanov for tea at Rosings.

He stood alone and confused in the sitting room, and to his amazement heard Coulson himself be let into the cottage! The maid informed him the master and his wife were out, and Clint cursed when Coulson explained that he was aware and had still come to visit.

Clint did not know what he should do, and had just settled for turning to sit back on the sofa, when Coulson walked into the room. He dismissed the maid and put his hat upon the table. Clint stared at him.

Coulson looked up and met his eyes. He seemed to flinch, and picked up his hat again. Settling it back on his head he turned to the mantle, then paused, took it off, and put it once more on the table.

Clint was surprised. He had never seen Coulson so discomfited. After a silence of what seemed to be several minutes, Coulson turned and approached him.

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Clint could do no more than blink at him, shocked. His mouth mouth fell open, and he hurried to shut it again. Coulson did not look as if he had even noticed. He was already turning away, his hands coming up to rub at his nose, a motion Clint had never seen exhibited before.

“I understand that declaring myself thus goes against all standards of propriety, decency, and, I hardly need add, my own better judgement. By admitting my feelings for you, I have left myself open to ridicule, censure, and even arrest. Your brother, for example, will surely seize the most inopportune moment to declare me to the law, should there be profit in it, and I have no doubt he will eventually attempt to do so.”

Clint, having recovered enough to open his mouth and draw breath to halt this madness, shut it again on that statement. While he struggled to contain his anger, Coulson went on.

“Our family situations could not be more at odds. I am well aware of the imminent collapse of the Barton estate and the debt owed to Mr. Fury. Were a conventional marriage even possible, that circumstance alone would be enough to thwart any true proposal. My feelings should be secure.”

Coulson shook his head. He looked up at Clint, and there was a strange sort of desperation in his eyes. A lost look that derailed Clint’s refusal again, for a moment, and allowed Coulson to continue.

“And yet, almost from the first moment of our acquaintance I have come to feel for you a deep, and passionate, admiration and regard. I leave tomorrow for Pemberley and before I go, I would like to see you again, with this understanding between us.”

His shoulders, which had been sagging, stiffened suddenly. “Rest assured you will be compensated accordingly within the terms of our arrangement.”

At that, Clint's anger surged forth again, ignited and aflame. He squared his jaw.

“That is more than enough, Mr. Coulson,” Clint bit out, sharply. He paused for a moment to take a deep breath and try to control his temper. He was a gentleman’s son, and he would damn well act like it.

“I am conscious of the... flattery... of your interest, but I must decline. I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to cause pain to anyone, but it was unconsciously done, and I hope will be of short duration.”

Coulson stared at him. He blinked a few times in honest confusion, and then, looking shocked, turned back around to face the mantle.

He picked up his hat, placed it down once more, and picked it up again.

“And this is all the reply I am to expect,” he said after a moment, turning around to face Clint with his hat in his hands. The confusion on his face quickly melted into anger, and though Coulson tried to maintain a calm facade, the cracks were glaring. “I might wonder why, with so little effort at civility, I am rejected.”

“And I might wonder why with so evident a desire to offend and insult me, you chose to tell me you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character! Was this not some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?” Clint shook his head. “I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. Do you think any consideration would tempt me to accept a man who has insulted my family so grievously? The same man who sent a former friend into certain danger and probable death, exiling him from his own country?” Clint shot Coulson a glare, the image of Tony rising in his eyes. “Do you deny that you have done it?”

Coulson scowled. He turned and paced back and forth in front of the mantle. “I cannot deny it. I did everything in my power to send Tony Stark as far away from my family as possible.”

“And more recently,” Clint challenged, standing now. His fists, he realized, were clenched at his sides. “You have despoiled his character in the most public way, by falsely framing him for the theft of Dr. Banner’s work, when you know full well he is innocent of the crime!”

Coulson’s face darkened. “You take great interest in that gentleman’s concerns.”

Clint threw up his hands. “Who that truly knows him could help but feel an interest towards him?”

Coulson scowled. He turned back towards the mantle, and then seemed to stop and consider something. “And this is your opinion of me?” He said to Clint, wonder in his voice. He shook his head. “My faults by this calculation are heavy indeed.”

He picked up his hat, and seemed to face the door for a moment before spinning back to Clint. “But,” he said, anger again in his voice, “perhaps these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by the honest confession of the scruples which had long prevented my forming any serious design on you. Had I concealed my struggles and flattered you.” He shook his head. “But I could never do so. All lies of the heart are an abhorrence to me.”

Clint scoffed and turned away. From behind him he could hear Coulson go on, anger sharp now in his voice. “Nor am I ashamed of my feelings. They are natural and just. Can you expect me to rejoice in the difference between our stations? To know that your brother is at best a scoundrel and at worst a criminal, and that I am placing my my family's good name and my very life in his hands by declaring myself enamored of you?”

Clint crossed his arms and turned back to Coulson. His voice, when he spoke, dopped into a low, cold register. “You are mistaken, Mr. Coulson. The mode of your declaration merely spared me the concern I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

Coulson flinched. Clint went on.

“You could not have made me an offer of... compensation,” he spat, “in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. From the very beginning, your manners have impressed me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. I had not know you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world whom I could ever love.”

Coulson stared at him. Clint could see the lines around his eyes, the sharp downward curve of his mouth.

“You have said quite enough, sir.” He said, his voice flat. “I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and now have only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Please, forgive me for having taken up your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”

With that, he turned away towards the door, not once meeting Clint’s gaze.

Dimly, as from a distance, Clint heard the front door of the cottage open, and then close. He stood, watching the door through which Coulson had left, for a heavy minute. Then he sat back down upon the sofa.

He felt... drained. He wanted to cry, and could not for the life of him say why.

He sat, exhausted, for a time before the noise of a returning carriage startled him. Not willing to face Natasha, knowing she would see the entire story without him saying a word, Clint fled to his room.

Chapter Text

Clint did not sleep that night.

He tossed and turned in the comfortable bed, his mind unable to disengage from the day’s conversation. Mr. Coulson in love with him! It was ridiculous. He had always thought the man his harshest critic. He stood in his perfectly tailored suits, watching and judging, and the whole time he had been in love with him.

It was absurd, and yet he must believe it was true. He had heard it from the man’s own lips.

And such other truths he had heard as well! Coulson had called Barney a criminal, and completely admitted that he had been behind Tony’s terrible misfortunes, his banishment to Afghanistan and his fingering for the theft of Bruce’s work.

To admit that, and then to make an offer for Clint himself! And such an offer as well! It was insulting. Clint had half a mind to march over to Rosings and call the man out.

Except then he would have to confess everything to Natasha, and probably to Lady Hill, as neither would accept his wish to keep it from their ears. Such discovery was impossible.

He was so angry, he felt that at times he might cry. Despair and resentment churned in his gut, and Clint tossed sleeplessly in bed.

He had always felt that he would never marry. He knew his predilections would keep him from finding happiness in marriage to a woman. He should, perhaps, have married Natasha, but that option was now closed to him.

He realized now that he had nurtured a hope, faint a hope as it might have been, that he would find a gentleman of his own persuasions who could accept him. They could never marry, of course, but they could spend their lives together. Close friendship among men was an unremarkable thing, and they could spend months visiting with each others without anyone suspecting the truth.

Coulson’s... proposal... threw cold water on any half-formed dreams Clint might have had. Given his background and his lack of fortune, no respectable gentleman would ever seriously consider him. The most he could hope for was a similar offer of compensation for companionship from some less odious man.

Payment in exchange for intimacy.

It was false and disgusting, and Clint hated the very idea of it. A life alone in a tiny cottage with his disagreeable brother was infinitely preferable.

Despite the fact that he had not slept, Clint stayed in bed when the sun rose. Getting up now would only alert Natasha that something was wrong. It was best to wait.

By the time he went down to breakfast, Fury was already in his study and Natasha at her stretches. Clint took his bow and his quiver and left via the back door. He put on his favourite pair of climbing boots and walked towards the woods.

The moment he was surrounded by trees, Clint felt though he could breathe again. Something tight and unhappy relaxed in his chest at the scent of fresh, open air. He was safe. Here, in the shadows of the branches, he could hide and no one could find him.

Such were his thoughts, until there was a crunch of twigs behind him. Clint spun around, an arrow notched and his bow ready, aiming even as he crouched to change his target profile from behind.

Coulson was standing in the clearing, admiration clear on his face.

Clint blinked. Coulson's face slipped back into its usual bland expression. Clint released the tension on his bow and stood up, slipping the arrow back into his quiver.

“Umm. Good morning,” he offered, thrown.

Coulson bowed perfunctorily. “Good morning.” He paused for another moment, and then appeared to gather himself. “Would you – could you – please do me the honour of reading this letter?”

Clint looked. There was indeed a letter in Coulson’s hand, folded and tied shut with a loop of string. Clint felt as if his brain were moving at half speed. Numbly, he held out a hand.

Coulson stepped forward and gave him the paper, stepping back almost the instant Clint took it from his hand. He nodded his head, once, his face almost painfully expressionless, and walked away.

Clint watched him go. He blinked down at the letter in his hand, and wondered if he should burn it.

He wanted to, but he had said that he would read it. Clint sighed and readjusted his quiver. He tucked the letter into his jacket, and eyed the trees. He found one likely to hold him, and climbed it quickly.

He jumped from tree to tree for a time, enjoying the feeling of being off the ground. Finally, when he had calmed, he stopped. Breathing hard, Clint straddled the thick branch of an oak tree, and reached into his pocket for Coulson's letter.

To Mr. Clint Barton, the letter began. Clint sighed and read further.

Be not alarmed, sir, upon receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers which were, this evening, so disgusting to you. But I must be allowed to defend myself against the charges laid at my door. In particular, those relating to Mr. Stark, which are indeed grievous. I can only defend myself by laying before you the entirety his connection with my family.

Tony Stark is the only son of a very intelligent, though at times quite destructive, man. Howard Stark was the founder and president of Stark Industries and my own, excellent, father was a close friend of his. My father provided a portion of the initial financial investments in Stark Industries, and the two men remained close throughout their lives. Mr. Stark and I played together as boys.

Mr. Stark, as you know him now, is very much as he was then. Brilliant and caustic, an excellent friend and a terrible enemy. Our temperaments are dissimilar and, as you may imagine, we had our differences, but we were always we were able to repair our friendship after the inevitable rifts of childhood hurts and ills.

We were fortunate enough to attend school, and later university, together, and though I, being older, entered first, Tony advanced quickly. His natural brilliance, somewhat hampered by his secretive father and private tutors, flourished.

Yet, it was not only his intellect that grew. I suspect you have realized by now that Mr. Stark is afflicted with an excess of emotion. He is one of the most mercurial men I have ever known. He can fly between the highest heights of excitement to the deepest depths of despair, and these shifts in his mood are worsened by alcohol.

Despite my best efforts, Mr. Stark's emotional stability plummeted once we were at university together. He made several new acquaintances, one of whom I respect, but many of ill-repute. He began to imbibe to excess regularly, and to lock himself in his laboratory. At first I was able to coax him out for food and study, but as time went on he spurned my efforts. I confess, I became irritated with him and my vexation only increased as he rejected my friendship and gallivanted about London, creating quite a name for himself as a rake.

I, not wanting to think ill of him, felt these rumours unjust, but as we were no longer the companions we had been in our youth, I had no way to be certain. I completed my studies and returned to Pemberley, accepting that our friendship had ended, though it pained me to believe it. It was at Pemberley that my sister, Miss Coulson, who is more than ten years my junior, had been schooled. I had missed her while away at Cambridge, and I was eager to return to her.

Some years passed. My father grew ill and died, much to my sorrow. I took over management of the estate and the education of my sister, remaining mostly at Pemberley, but venturing occasionally to London. I heard some rumours of my former friend, but nothing I could confirm. One report indicated that he had taken another course of study at university, and was expected to remain there for some time.

Then one afternoon, to my great surprise, Tony arrived at Pemberley without warning. He was drunk when he arrived, and demanded, in no clear fashion, that I allow him to stay with me for a duration. I did not know what had occurred at school to drive him out, but it was not in my habit to refuse him out of respect for both our fathers, and our long friendship. I allowed him entrance, a decision I will always regret, and he stayed with us for some time.

During those days he was constantly drunk, and very destructive. He would insult me, and then refuse to apologize. I understood, of course, that something was terribly wrong, but no amount of urging could persuade him to reveal what troubled him.

And then something happened which I could not – and cannot - forgive.

I was often in my study in the mornings. I did not worry about Mr. Stark then, for he was usually sleeping off the effects of the night before. You can imagine my surprise when I descended to breakfast one morning, and found him kissing my younger sister.

Pepper, who remembered Mr. Stark fondly from her childhood days, sprang apart from him the moment she saw my shock and unhappiness. But Mr. Stark, still drunk, I believe, from the night before, refused to let her go.

I was angry, and I called him out, forcibly removing his hands from my sister. He refused my challenge but released Pepper, whom I ordered from the room.

I tried then, I swear to you, to understand why he had done this, what had possessed him to act like this in my own house. Pepper’s fortune could not be his object, for he had more than enough as his father’s son. But he laughed and insulted me and my home and my family, and spat accusations and invective I shall not repeat here, even to you. Suffice it to say that my heart was hardened against him, and I ejected him from my house.

Pepper was heartbroken. She told me she and Tony loved each other, and wished to marry. She begged me to relent, but I could not.

I learned, after, that he had joined the military. I knew it was to separate himself from his father, and I confess I contacted his superior. I asked him to remove Mr. Stark from London, and hoped that some distance from his troubles would help him see perspective. Despite our painful break, I had no wish to see harm come to him, I swear to you.

I had thought he would be transferred to Ireland perhaps, or to the colonies. No one was more surprised than I when I realized he had been exiled to Afghanistan. I tried to go after him, but by then he had already disappeared.

I will not relate to you what happened during Mr. Stark's capture, for that is not my story to tell. Suffice it to say that though I put forth my best efforts to effect a rescue, he managed to extract himself from his captivity before I could do much more than plan. The most I was able to do was have a medical convoy and his one useful friend from university present at the edge of the desert, when he wandered close enough to be found.

I do not think he knows about my involvement, and I would prefer to keep it that way. The blood between us has soured, and though my sister still wishes to marry him, I have refused to grant my approval. He has not applied for her hand, nor humbled himself to apologize. I must conclude that Pepper’s love for him is nothing more than a childhood infatuation, that, or Tony deliberately manipulated her feelings. The first is sad, the second heinous. I wish I could believe the best of him, but I cannot.

I no longer trust him.

The other charge I must explain, if I am to gain some semblance of honour in your eyes, is the accusation I made against Mr. Stark this fall when Dr. Banner’s equation was stolen. Your implication was that I falsely charged Mr. Stark with the theft, when in fact I knew the true perpetrator. This accusation is true, and yet I pause over how to discuss this, wondering how much it is that you know.

No matter. You deserve the truth, and I have sworn to tell it. I apologize in advance if any of this is painful to you.

Mr. Stark did not steal Dr. Banner’s question.

Your brother did.

I am sorry to say it so bluntly, but there it is. I know this to be true, as do Dr. Banner and his sister. We have proof of this. We have known for some time that your brother was attempting to blackmail Dr. Banner, and that he had been scouring Dr. Banner’s residence at Netherfield for some appropriate piece of evidence. We believe he was spurred to do this by others, for reasons we do not entirely understand. It is enough that when the equation went missing, we knew the right questions to ask. Three servants saw a man matching your brother’s description leaving the laboratory during the ball, and his presence in the area remains completely unexplained as guests were not permitted in that area of the house.

For reasons I cannot go into here, despite my wish to acquaint you with all the particulars, we decided not to confront your brother with his crime. Suffice it to say that the equation at hand is a delicate matter, and one on which perhaps rests England’s very security. Bringing your brother to the attention of the magistrates would precipitate an investigation we are not yet ready to launch. I cannot betray a confidence, but there is much more occurring here than the theft of a single formula. When we decide to move against these individuals, it must be with the full power of the law, with no room for error. That time is not now.

The theft, however, had to be explained. The interested parties would expect it, or the gossip would continue. Some person had to be thought guilty, or Hertfordshire would tear itself apart in suspicion and accusations.

It was my recommendation to quietly accuse Mr. Stark. I knew he would be soon returning to London, for I had heard tell of his father’s illness, and would be unlikely to return to Hertfordshire in the near future. I also knew that one of my associates could discuss the truth of the matter with him once he was back at London.

Mr. Stark has known for some time now that we do not blame him for the theft of Dr. Banner’s formula. He has remarked to others that he wishes he could share such understanding with you, but was not sure how to broach the idea of your brother being the actual thief. It has been a subject of much contention with him, and I believe it has bothered him greatly.

I have heard this from second hand sources, however, and cannot vouch for the truth of these words. You would have to discuss the subject with Mr. Stark himself. He may indeed be grateful that another has taken the risk and informed you of the truth.

I cowardly confess that I incur your displeasure only now, knowing that it has already been assured. I was at loathe to bring up the matter previously, hoping that –

It is of no importance.

This, sir, is a faithful account of all my dealings with Mr. Stark, and for its veracity I can apply to Colonel Sitwell, who knows all the particulars, except for those regarding your brother. In military matters you may speak with Mr. Fury, who assisted me in my efforts to find Mr. Stark in Afghanistan, and who has been involved in every step of the most recent investigations regarding the theft of Dr. Banner’s work. Do not blame Fury for not confessing the truth to you sooner. I believe he is used to dealing in secrets, and they do not discomfort him as they once did.

This is the end of my explanation, Mr. Barton. I am sorry if my words had caused you more pain, and I will only add, God bless you.

 

Sincerely,
Phillip J Coulson

Chapter Text

Clint read Coulson’s letter with shaking hands. Halfway through, he decided to tear it up and burn it after all, his unspoken promise be damned.

It was all lies, of course, terrible lies, and not even credible ones at that. He stuffed the letter back into his jacket and jumped from tree to tree until his lungs burned, pushing the troublesome words far from his mind.

No matter how he leapt, though, the thin paper weighed on him. Despite his anger, Clint stopped and retrieved it. He picked up where he had left off – at Tony’s inexcusable behaviour – and forced himself to finish it. He folded it again, put it back in his jacket, and ran for a while longer, rolling the various words and phrases around in his mind. He sat once more and read it through from beginning to end, and then read it again.

Tony and Coulson had played together as boys? The idea was ludicrous. ‘Dissimilar temperaments’, indeed. By the third time he read the letter, however, Clint had to admit that Coulson appeared to know Tony well. Clint himself had seen hints of the other man’s moods, and ‘mercurial’ was an apt way to describe him. Certainly, Tony grew more morose when he drank.

When Coulson wrote that Tony had grown increasingly self-destructive over the years, Clint read real pain in the words. He felt as though Coulson had truly cared for his friend and tried his best to help him. Clint found himself wondering what he would have done, had he known Tony then. Could he have helped him? Would Tony have accepted his help as he had not accepted Coulson’s?

The incident with Miss Coulson made Clint angry. He wanted to declaim it all as lies, and yet Tony had mentioned trouble with the fairer sex, and then refused to go into details. He could have meant anyone, of course, but it did explain his enmity with Coulson. Tony had always tried to tell Clint that his behaviour had been reprehensible, but Clint had refused to listen to him.

Clint had believed he had engaged in an inadvisable romance, perhaps, nothing serious. But this? Could he believe this of his friend?

It was not until his fourth perusal that Clint could focus on the words regarding Coulson’s sister. The man maintained that she still loved Tony and wanted to marry him. Was it all childhood infatuation, then, as Coulson obviously wanted to think, or had Tony manipulated the girl’s affections? Or could there be a third option – could Tony truly be in love with her? If so, why not beg an apology and seek her hand?

Clint thought of his friend. He tried to see Tony from the perspective of a stranger – he was mercurial, with shifts in mood that were difficult to anticipate. He was also proud, though Clint thought his boastfulness might hide a more uncertain nature. Could he believe the girl still loved him? Could he bend his pride enough to apologize to Coulson?

Tony was more than Coulson’s letter made him seem, however. He was also kind and loyal, and had behaved with perfect civility towards Clint and the town of Hertfordshire. Could these be virtues he had polished later in life, after his exile and ordeal? Could Clint believe he had once been the man Coulson knew?

Despite himself, Clint found himself thinking back to the moment when he had first met Tony. Coulson and Banner had appeared soon afterwards, and there had passed a telling look between the two gentlemen. Had Tony looked down and away first, ashamed of himself? Had Coulson’s face gone slack, the way Clint now understood it did when knew not what to say?

Clint forced the memories away and swung down from the trees. He practised with his bow for an hour or so, jumping and rolling with an arrow on the string, to challenge himself and clear his mind. The exercise calmed him.

He tired eventually and, panting heavily, returned to the cottage. He avoided Natasha and Fury, and told the servants he was not feeling well. He was flushed from his exercise and hoped the poor maid did not think him feverish.

He took a long, warm bath, relaxing his overtaxed muscles, but could not help but re-read the letter even then. He pulled it from his jacket and took it with him into the bath.

Alone, Clint allowed himself to at last examine Coulson’s words regarding Barney. Without a doubt, the claim the man made bothered him. His first instinct was to declare it slander, and dismiss the accusation whole cloth, but the longer he ignored it, the more it worried at him.

Clint had known that Barney was looking for blackmail material against Dr. Banner. Barney had practically confessed that to him, the first day Banner had arrived in town. Was it so unbelievable to think that Barney had succeeded? That he had found something of interest and escaped with it during the ball?

If Tony had not been suspected so heavily, would Clint have asked Barney about the theft, knowing that it would have fit in with his plans?

Why had he never questioned Barney about the missing equation, during those dark winter months? Had he been afraid of what the answer might be?

Clint had to admit to himself that he feared it was so.

But what to do now? Who were these ‘other parties’ that Coulson had spoken of, who had urged his brother to such behaviour? Had Barney brought his evidence to them? They must not have paid him well for it, for Barney’s irritability had increased after the Banners had left town, not improved. Was there something he still owed them, perhaps, that kept his brother’s spirits down?

Clint was suddenly anxious to be home. He needed to confront Barney about this, and he could not do so in a letter.

Clint went down for dinner that evening and found Natasha clearly worried about him. Fury shot him a single, steady look, and then seemed to snort under his breath and ignore him. Clint ignored him in return. He was not pleased with the Director this evening. Fury had known some of what was preoccupying Clint, and had not taken the time to inform him. He was in no mood to pander to the man now.

Natasha must have grown tired of his avoidance because she cornered him after dinner. She forced him into her sitting room, and proceeded to beat him on the sparring mat until he confessed some of what was on his mind.

He did not tell her about Coulson’s appalling proposal, for the subject was still too sore for him to speak of, but he shared the man's accusations against Barney. Natasha listened to him patiently, and when he had finished she neither confessed what she had known through Fury, nor what she had guessed on her own. She told him only that she could have her mother ready to leave in the morning, if that was what he needed her to do.

Clint loved her then, completely and with his entire heart, and hugged her tightly. He did not know how he was going to survive in Hertfordshire without her.

He did not want to drag Mrs. Romanov away in the morning, though, and decided to wait another day before leaving. He had to take his leave of Lady Hill, as well. The next afternoon he approached Rosings with trepidation, but was informed upon entry that Sitwell and Coulson had already left.

Clint had forgotten, in all the excitement, that Coulson was to be leaving soon. For his own sake, Clint was relieved not to have to face the man. His own feelings were too uncertain. He was still angry about the proposal and Coulson’s offer of compensation, but his anger regarding the man’s treatment of Tony had faded into something like shame, while his feelings about Barney were in flux. He would not know how to approach Coulson, and was glad he did not have to do so.

Their last tea with Lady Hill was a subdued affair. She obviously knew something of import had transpired, and yet appeared determined not to speak of it. Clint was grateful. They spoke instead on meaningless topics, and only when they were leaving did Lady Hill take his hands.

“Phil Coulson is... an idiot, sometimes,” she said, her voice low and sad. “He has always been under much pressure, as the heir to Pemberley, and he has never allowed himself to pursue what he truly desires in life. I do not know exactly what happened the other day, or what he said to you, but believe me when I say that he is one of the best men I have ever known, and that you, Mr. Barton, are a close second.” She squeezed his hands briefly. “I simply wanted you to know that.”

Clint did not know what to say to her. He did not want to speak of Coulson’s accusations against Barney, or his revelations regarding Tony. He most certainly did not want to talk about the love Coulson claimed to feel for him, or his offer. In the end, he said nothing. Clint simply gave her a small, tight smile, and turned to go.

The carriage had been loaded while they were at tea. Clint and Mrs. Romanov had a quiet dinner with the Furys, and left early the next morning. The fifty mile journey passed more swiftly than Clint had expected, and Mrs. Romanov, knowing him well, did not try to engage him in conversation.

Clint had the carriage stop first at the Romanov’s home, and escorted her to the door, though she refused further help from him, turning instead to her manservant. Clint thought it might be lonely in the large manor by herself, but he knew Fury had asked her to move in with them, and she had refused. Clint, watching her walk back into her empty home, did not think she had long to live.

He was sorry for it.

By the time he disembarked at Barton Manor, darkness had fallen. It was hard to believe, crossing the front step, that he had awoken that morning in Natasha’s cottage. It was even harder to believe that nearly everything he had understood for the past six months was now a mix of anger and accusation.

Barney was not at home. The light under the study door was out, and his bedroom was empty.

Clint fell fitfully asleep that night in an empty house, feeling very much alone.

 

*

 

The next morning Clint awoke to the cheerful smell of bacon. Mrs. Carson was making his favourite meal. Clint got himself out of bed and dressed quickly with Mr. Carson's assistance. His smile came easily that morning, and he felt his usual good humour returning. Coulson was an ass – Clint could accept that. Tony had behaved atrociously in the past, but he was a friend and Clint would stand by him. He wished to speak with him, but that was impossible, and the subject was too delicate to be raised in a letter. The most important aspect presently was that Tony was innocent of this most recent crime, and he knew it. All that remained was to talk to Barney, and that he intended to do today.

Barney was not at the breakfast table, which allowed Clint another half an hour to enjoy his food without shouting. He kissed Mrs. Carson on the cheek for her efforts, and she swatted him on the backside like she had when he was a boy. Clint laughed, knowing that she and Mr. Carson had missed him. It felt good to be home.

He found Barney after breakfast in the study. The bottle of brandy was already out, the stopper open. Clint stepped in and put his hand on the bottle.

“Enough, Barney.” Clint said. His brother looked up at him from the household accounts. His eyes were red and bloodshot, and his hands shook slightly.

“What?” he sneered. “Do you have something to say to me, brother dear?”

“Yes,” Clint said firmly, steeling his spine. “Enough of this drinking and keeping things from me. I know it was you who stole from Dr. Banner last fall. I also know you have fallen into bad company, and that you need my help. What can I do?”

Barney stood up from the table and made a grab for the bottle. Clint easily evaded him, and Barney stumbled. “I do not need anything from you! You are a good-for-nothing younger brother, and an invert on top of that. I should report you, and then would have some peace!”

Clint remembered Coulson standing in Natasha’s sitting room, saying he was putting his life in Barney’s hands.

It was true, but Clint had more faith in his brother than Coulson did.

“But you will not,” Clint said firmly. “I am your brother, Barney. My only wish is to help you.”

“Help me?” Barney scoffed, but emotion choked his voice. Pain, sadness, and fear warred in his tone. “Help me how? Help me bankrupt us? I have done that well enough on my own, thank you.”

“Bankrupt us how?” Clint asked, setting the bottle on the floor and sitting down across from his brother. “What has happened, Barney?”

His brother slumped back into his chair and stared at Clint, his eyes lost. “I made a mistake, little brother,” Barney confessed. He sounded as if he were about to cry.

“I know,” Clint said, reaching forward to put his hand on Barney’s. “Please tell me what has occurred.”

Barney coughed then, a sad, drunk sound, but he started to speak. He told Clint of the gambling he had done last year, knowing they could never afford to buy back the house as matters stood. He knew that such things had gotten their father into trouble from the first, but he thought he was smarter than the elder Mr. Barton had been.

“Unsurprisingly, I was not,” Barney said, slumped in his chair. He stared at the desk and refused to meet Clint’s eyes. “I could not get out, and I lost more money that we did not have to lose. Finally, a man came to me. He said he could bail me out, and sell off my creditors, if I did him a simple favour.”

“Who?” Clint asked, leaning forward. “Who was it, Barney?”

Barney shook his head. “It is better if you do not know, Clint. He has a position within the military, a high one, and that is all I can say. I did not know what to do. Creditors were knocking at my door in London. I said yes.”

He looked up, his bloodshot eyes desperate. “Everything improved. My creditors went away. I left London and came home. I started to feel optimistic again. I could do this. We could keep the house!” Barney shook his head. “I knew you did not care about the estate, but I felt that if I lost it now it would prove that I was a failure, just as our father was. I tried to convince you we needed to keep it.”

Barney sighed and looked away. “And then everything changed again. The army moved into town. I knew my benefactor had not forgotten my debt. He contacted me and proposed the very plan I had already considered on my own. He wanted me to steal from Dr. Banner. But unlike my own nebulous ideas, he knew precisely what he wanted.”

Barney nervously licked his lips and looked at Clint. “The research Banner is working on is... dangerous. Clint, the man has done things you do not understand. He has experimented on others and on himself, and things have gone wrong. Hideously wrong. He is dangerous.”

Clint took in a sharp breath, but did not say anything as Barney shook his head. “The military wants his secrets. Banner was working for them when there was an accident, and he moved to Hertfordshire in the aftermath. They only want their property back. They want to understand what he has done. They told me to retrieve the formula, and everything would be forgiven. We could keep the house.”

Barney sighed and slumped back. “I should have known it would not be that easy. I stole the formula for them, but when I went to hand it in, I heard them talking. They did not just want the formula. They wanted Banner dead. They had already tried to kill him once and were unsuccessful. That is the true reason he moved to Hertfordshire from London. They hoped that once they had possession of this formula, they could finally kill him.”

Barney looked up, meeting Clint’s eyes at last. “I am not a killer, Clint. I do not want to be party to murder. I might not particularly like Dr. Banner, but I do not want him dead.”

He shook his head and spread his hands. “So I ran. I took the formula and I ran home. I recopied it and purposely wrote it wrong. I went back with the altered formula and handed that in.”

“I should have known that my ploy would not be enough to fool them,” he said with a sigh. “They told me Banner was moving back to London and that they would test the formula. When it worked they would give me enough money to keep the house, but only when the formula had been proven right.”

“I have lived in fear for the past four months, little brother. Every knock on the door I expect will be them. They will not be pleased when they realize what I have done. They will kill me, Clint, as they planned to kill Banner. I cannot stop them.”

Clint waited, but it seemed Barney had run out of words. He stared at his brother, at the mess of hopelessness and despair. He reached out to cover Barney’s hand with his own.

“Alone, Barney. You cannot beat them alone. But you are not alone now, older brother. We are in this together.”

Chapter Text

It took a few days to get the details sorted out. Barney still refused to tell him with whom in the military he had dealt, but he agreed when Clint said they should speak to Fury about it. Clint told him about Fury and Lady Hill, and about the partnership they seemed to have. He did not mention Coulson, even though it seemed ever more likely that Coulson must be involved as well. He did not know what Fury was the ‘Director’ of, but he was beginning to suspect it was something important.

At Clint’s urging, Barney wrote Fury a letter detailing everything that had happened, and informing Fury he still had the correct formula in his possession. Fury wrote him back with a speed that indicated the importance of the information. He asked Barney to give him names and dates, and then to destroy the formula.

Clint and Barney burned the offending piece of paper together. Clint had read the numbers and letters before burning it, but none of it made sense to him. Tony might have understood it, but Tony was still in London.

Together, the brothers made sure every piece was destroyed, every fragment accounted for. Once it was done, Barney wrote again to Fury, informing him of the deed and giving him the name he still refused to tell Clint.

Things were better, after that.

Barney came back to him. He left the drink and their father’s study, and he and Clint rode in the fields together. Barney had long been away from the seat of a horse, and Clint ribbed him good-naturedly as he rubbed his offended posterior. Barney snarled in mock outrage and jumped him, and together they rolled and wrestled in the field as they had as boys. They laughed under the apple tree, and threw the cores at each other.

They were brothers, again.

Spring passed into summer, and Clint’s birthday approached. He had looked forward to it with trepidation, before, but now he welcomed the coming month. Barney had spoken to him of it, during one of their afternoon rides.

“I do not begrudge Fury the house now,” he had admitted to Clint. “I can no longer begrudge him anything, after the service he has rendered. I have his promise that Mr and Mrs. Carson will stay on as caretakers.”

Clint looked at his brother. “Has he offered you a place here as well?”

Barney smiled at him lopsided. “He has,” he agreed, “but I think he knew I would not accept it. I am too much our father’s son, you know that. I cannot bear to live under another man in what should be my own domain. Barton Manor has been mine for so long, I could not live in it while it was owned by another. No,” he shook his head, “I have been giving it a great deal of thought. After this is over, I think I might go north and join the militia.”

Clint stared at him. “The militia? But Barney, why?”

His brother shrugged. “They are not all bad, little brother. The officers I met in town were actually quite pleasant. I think I could do well in the military life. I am good at being personable, and there is a place for a man good with words in military service. There is more politics than you would credit. Fury has plans to deal with the bad ilk in the ranks, and he has said that when my blackmailer has been arrested, he will buy me a commission in lieu of my remaining in Hertfordshire.”

“But there is more to the military than conversation,” Clint said, thinking of Tony and the haunted look in his eyes. “There are battles and wars. There is danger, and it can be mortal, Barney.”

“I know that,” Barney said, and his shoulders were straight. “I think I need that element of danger, Clint. I need to feel alive, and I need to give back. It was something our father never did, you see. I feel as though I need to do it. Not for him, but for myself.”

Clint sighed. They rode on in silence for a while, and then turned back towards the house. “If you are certain,” he said finally. Barney grinned at him.

“I think that I am. I have long thought of this and the time draws near. Besides, I think I would look dashing in a red coat.” He winked and, despite his worry, Clint laughed. “But we shall see,” Barney shrugged. “It is not September, yet.”

The weeks passed and Clint continued to exchange letters with Natasha and Tony. He debated for a long time over what to write to Tony and how much to say. He wished to lambast him for his behaviour towards Miss Coulson, and beg him to apologize to her brother, but he could not bear to disclose that he now understood the truth of Tony’s misadventures. He did not think Tony would thank him for learning that Coulson had been the one to tell him. Tony would be ashamed, and rightfully so. He would also likely question Clint about why they had been speaking of such matters in the first place.

Clint could still not bear to speak to anyone about Coulson’s proposal. It was a subject too sore to his heart.

He thought of it often, and of the letter – surely more often than he would have liked. Over time, his feeling towards its author softened. He reviewed every moment of their company, every instance of their meeting. Surely, Coulson had behaved most terribly in Hertfordshire and Kent, in public and in private, yet if Clint were honest with himself, he could see a reason for it. Certainly, Coulson was arrogant, but why would he not be? He had wealth, breeding, and education – all the aspects of which a gentleman should be rightfully proud.

He could not forgive Coulson, not the offence he had given at their first meeting nor the implications he had made during his proposal. Clint still felt secure in his refusal, but it could not be said that his heart remained hardened towards the man. His letter, which Clint read frequently, was responsible for that.

Instead of writing any of this to Tony, however, Clint simply told him that he understood the charge of theft levelled against him in Hertfordshire had been dropped, and though no one in Meryton knew the truth, Clint himself understood everything now.

Tony’s reply, when it came, was full of such heartfelt relief that Clint felt guilty. He realized that the despair he had seen in the previous letters from Tony had not been for the author himself, but for Clint. Tony had wanted to tell him the truth for months, but had not known how. His letters now were stumbling, hastily written things, as if Tony had so much he wanted to say he kept blurring the ink. Clint had to re-read them several times to truly gather their meaning.

Not for the first – or the last time – Clint reflected on the differences between Tony and Coulson. Good as he could be with words in person, Tony clearly had difficulty expressing himself on paper. Coulson was the opposite. He could be awkward to the point of incivility in person, but he was logical and thoughtful with pen and ink. Though he played at being emotionless, Clint was beginning to realize Coulson had perhaps too many feelings. It was as though they reached out and tripped him when he tried to speak to people.

Clint kept to his correspondance and did his best not to think of the man from Derbyshire. Fortunately, distractions were easy to find. His relationship with Barney continued to improve, and as the summer progressed, his trip to the Lakes with the Carters approached.

Clint had exchanged countless letters with his Aunt and Uncle over the summer months, and the date for their departure was set. The Carters would come first to Barton Manor, having left their children with their nanny in London. They would leave from Hertfordshire to begin their tour, and would be gone a month.

Barney had been disappointed when Clint mentioned the trip to him, but he had never been as close to the Carters as Clint was. Instead, he had clapped Clint on the shoulder, wished him good travels, and discussed a journey of his own.

The militia had left Hertfordshire and moved to Brighton for the summer. There were balls and parties, and some of Barney's friends had invited him to join them.

Clint was not pleased with the idea. He spoke to Barney regarding his concerns.

“Can you be sure the offer was made in good faith?” Clint asked. He put up a hand when Barney looked angry at the question. “I meant only that you have enemies within the military, Barney. I would hate for you to be drawn to an unfamiliar location and murdered in your bed.”

Unexpectedly, Barney laughed. “I do not think I am to be murdered at this point, Clint. Mr. Fury assures me his plan against the... interested parties... is coming to fruition. The man I have spoken with has retired to London. He has not accompanied the regimen to Brighton.”

Barney sighed. “I wish only to get away, and escape the confines of Hertfordshire for a while. You are going to the Lakes – should I not also travel for a time?”

There was no argument Clint could make against such a question. He watched unhappily as Barney packed what clothes he would need for the journey, including suits and things he had bought when in despair, which they could truly not afford.

“I cannot very well take them back now, can I, Clint?” Barney said with a roll of his eyes when Clint mentioned the clothes. “I may as well enjoy them. And who knows? Perhaps I shall win the heart of a fair maiden while I am away, and she will end up being a Baroness or some such.”

Clint merely said something caustic in reply to that, but allowed the subject to drop.

Barney left a week before the Carters were due at Barton Manor. Clint watched him ride away from the front step, with Mr. and Mrs. Carson at his side, and tried to shake the feeling that it was the last time he would see his brother alive.

The week passed slowly. Clint spent much of it practising by himself in the fields. He hunted occasionally for Mrs. Carson, but mostly he shot at targets.

He did not enjoy killing things, despite that being something he did well. Memories of his last ‘mission’ with Natasha still haunted him.

Finally the Carters arrived. Mr. Carter was a big man, who took after his sister in looks if not in manner. Clint did not have many memories left of his mother, but he knew she had been beautiful, if distant in her affections. Clint's uncle was not. He was large but not loud, with a subtle, quick humour that mixed well with Clint’s own.

His aunt was quiet also, but with a smiling wit. She was one of the best people Clint knew, and had guessed that Clint was an invert, even from a young age. Clint had been ten when she had sat beside him on his bed one night while he was visiting them and told him that she knew it was not considered right for her to speak with him on the matter, but that someone must. Then, she had said that it did not matter that he loved boys and not girls, and that he would always be her favourite nephew.

She had also told him, in a serious voice, about society, and the law, and that he had to be careful never to be caught. But she had hugged him, after, and Clint knew that she loved him.

It was a joy to see them again, after nearly a year. Clint had missed them fiercely at Christmas, and told them so.

“Ah, I am sorry, my boy,” his uncle said, gathering him into an embrace. “Things have been very difficult in London these days. So many deaths,” he shook his head. “It has quite shaken the business scene.”

“So many?” Clint asked, startled. “Who else has died? I thought it was only Howard Stark?”

His uncle nodded. “Yes, and a great man he was. Not without his faults, I will be the first to say, but a great man nonetheless. His son is in London now, doing his best, and Mr. Stane is in charge of the company, but things have not been the same since Mr. Stark died.”

He frowned. “But while news of his death has dominated the papers, there have been other, quieter, accidents. The heads of other companies, smaller and more discrete, but important all the same. And some of the deaths,” he confessed quietly, “are suspicious, to say the least.”

“Suspicious?” Clint looked at his uncle, alarmed.

“Yes” his uncle said. “The Runners are involved in at least two, from what I understand, and the populace is quite shaken about it. Your young Mr. Tony Stark is safe,” his uncle reassured him, clapping him on the back, “for he has been out of the spotlight quite successfully these past few months, working on inventions, they say.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “He is hardly my Tony Stark, uncle,” he said. “He is simply an acquaintance.”

“Yes well, an acquaintance you ask about often in your letters,” his uncle grinned, “and therefore your aunt has taken to calling him ‘yours’.”

Clint turned to his aunt to dispute this, but she merely laughed at him, and asked about Barney.

Clint gave them an edited version of the truth, not willing to expose all of Barney’s misadventures. He said only that Barney still despaired the loss the house, and intended to join the militia. Clint led them to dinner and they settled to cards quickly after.

“I do have some bad news for you though,” his uncle said to him, when they were seated in the drawing room. “This terrible business in London will curtail our adventures. We will not have time to see the Lakes, I am afraid. We will have to restrict ourselves to the Peaks and Derbyshire.”

“Oh,” Clint said, disappointed. He looked to his aunt. “But you were born in Derbyshire, were you not Aunt?”

“I was,” she agreed with a smile. “I confess that when I learned our trip was to be shortened, I requested of your uncle that we focus on that particular part of the north. I know it is not your favourite,” she said, and Clint blushed. He had spoken of Coulson in his letters to the Carters, before his trip to Natasha's, telling them that Coulson had accompanied Dr. Banner to Hertfordshire, and of the poor impression the man had made. He had not had the courage since to write about how wrong he had been about the man, and his aunt and uncle still did not know the truth.

“But I hoped you would still be willing to accompany us,” she finished.

“Of course I am,” Clint hurried to reassure her. “And I will not rest easy until I have walked the whole of Lambton, all the way to the green you have oft described.”

 

*

 

They left in the morning. The weather was fair and pleasant, and the coach comfortable. They travelled slowly and yet with purpose. It took them several days to reach Derbyshire, and they drove through the country with an appreciation for its many beauties.

Clint had never had such a pleasant excursion. His aunt and uncle appreciated natural beauty just as he did, and if he did not ask to pause at a particular location, one or the other of them suggested it.

They stopped the coach often to walk amongst the rocks and trees of Derbyshire. Clint had to agree with every opinion he had ever heard professed about the country, by both his aunt and the few words spoke by Hill to Coulson.

There was nothing in Hertfordshire to compare. The trees were huge, ancient things, the rocks stark and beautiful. The lakes, when they came to them, were majestic and cool. He wanted to dive into each of them, and his uncle and aunt laughed when he gave in to such urgings, leaving their lodgings early to have a swim before breakfast.

In addition to natural beauties, they visited several stately homes and manors as well. There were many beautiful estates, though none as grand as Rosings.

Too soon they came to Lambton, which was as picturesque a village as Clint had ever seen. He regretted, when they stopped at the inn, that this was to be their last pause before returning home. Clint never wanted to leave Derbyshire. For the first time, he truly wondered what he would do when Fury took possession of Barton Manor.

He would not join the army like Barney – Clint knew he was too independent for such a calling. But perhaps he would travel, Clint thought as he walked the village of Lambton with his aunt and uncle. Perhaps he would move to Derbyshire, and buy a very small cottage on the edge of a village. He had a little money left from his parents' marriage settlement. If he invested it properly, and surely Tony could help him with that, there would be enough for a simple purchase.

It was a surprisingly pretty fantasy, and Clint enjoyed it as he accompanied his aunt to meet old friends in Lambton.

It took less effort than Clint had thought it would to keep thoughts of Coulson from his mind while he travelled in Derbyshire. It was not difficult, with so many things to distract him, but the next day at breakfast his uncle reminded him of whose county they were in.

“Your aunt and I were wondering, Clint,” his uncle said to him at breakfast, while cutting some bacon, “if you would very much mind visiting Pemberley today.”

Clint swallowed hastily. “Do you especially want to see it, Aunt?”

“I should think you would, having heard so much about it,” she returned. “The associations are not all bad. Mr. Stark spent much of his youth there, you know.”

Clint frowned. He wished his aunt would not continue to make such implications about Tony. “We have no business there,” he tried, “I should feel awkward to visit without a proper introduction.”

“No more so than Blenheim or Chatsworth. There was no awkwardness, there,” his uncle chided.

“I should not care for it myself, Clint, if it were merely a fine house, richly furnished.” His aunt spoke to him earnestly. “But the grounds are delightful. They have some of the finest woods in the country.”

Clint knew he was crumbling. His uncle turned to the girl serving them breakfast, and asked her, “Are we far from Pemberley, my dear?”

“Not five miles,” the girl, Hannah, said cheerfully.

“The grounds are very fine, are they not?” Mrs. Carter asked.

“As fine as you’ll see anywhere, Ma’am. My oldest brother is an under-gardener there.”

The pride was evident in her voice. Clint turned to her and asked, “Is the family here for the summer?”

The girl shook her head. “No, sir.”

Clint felt his aunt and uncle look at him. He shrugged, slightly, bowing to what had become inevitable. “Then perhaps we might visit Pemberley after all.”

 

*

 

Clint had to admit, sitting in the chaise with his aunt and uncle, that the forests around Pemberley were the finest he had ever seen.

“I had no idea the grounds were so extensive,” Clint said, making light of the way his fingers itched to grasp his bow and go exploring. “Shall we reach the house itself before dark, do you think?”

“Oh hush, my dear, be patient,” his aunt patted his thigh. “Wait.”

Clint squirmed in his seat, but did as his aunt requested. He was rewarded for his forbearance a moment later when the chaise turned a corner and the house itself came suddenly into view. Clint caught his breath, and dimly heard his uncle order the driver to halt.

It was beautiful – like a painting. The house was large without being imposing, grand without appearing to overbear. Somehow, nestled between woods and a small pond, with gardens circling it in a widening spiral, the house seemed a part of the landscape itself. It rose from the hills as if it had always been there, a fairy creation that stood with the beauty around it, instead of trying to master it.

“What do you think?” his aunt whispered.

“I think,” Clint said back in the same hushed tone, “that I have never seen a house so happily situated.” He stared. “I like it very much.”

His uncle smiled. “Perhaps the beauty of the house renders its owner a little less repulsive?”

Clint rolled his eyes, and the spell broken. “A little,” he said, thinking of Coulson’s expressionless face. Did he even appreciate the beauty of his property? Clint could not imagine it. “Perhaps a very little.”

They passed the rest of the drive in silence. Clint watched the forests around them, noting the few sparse trails that appeared and disappeared apparently at random. He yearned to explore, knowing he could happily spend weeks rambling about the estate, but he stuck to the chaise with his aunt and uncle and was deposited at the door.

They rang for admittance, and the housekeeper was fetched to them. As in the other homes they had visited, Pemberley welcomed visitors. The housekeeper was an elderly woman with sharp eyes, her back unbowed with time. She was much less fine, and more civil, than Clint had any notion of finding a servant in Coulson's employ.

“Welcome to Pemberley,” she said warmly, ushering them in. “I am Mrs. Jarvis, the housekeeper.”

“Jarvis!” Clint started, drawing the old woman’s attention.

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Do you perhaps recognize the name?”

Clint’s aunt and uncle were staring at him. Clint found himself blushing slightly. “Yes. Er, that is, I know a man named Jarvis. He is Mr. Tony Stark’s man.”

“Ahh,” the woman said, smiling. “My youngest son. He trained here under his father and older brother for several years, before electing he was offered employment by that rascal Mr. Stark.” She chuckled, her voice warm and motherly. “My son has done well for himself, and I am proud of him.”

“You have good reason to be,” Clint agreed, smiling at the housekeeper. “Mr. Stark quite depends upon him. I have never known someone to be so organized, and so efficient. I fear Mr. Stark would be quite lost without him.”

Mrs. Jarvis’ eyes twinkled. “Yes, Mr. Stark likely would be. He is a genius, poor boy, but he needs some looking after.” Her gaze became sad for a moment, and Clint realized she must know much more about the situation than even he did, having been a part of the family now for so long.”

“The only one who could match my son,” the housekeeper went on with more of a smile, “is my mistress, Miss. Coulson. Now there is a girl who appreciates the art of an efficient schedule.”

“I have heard much of her,” Clint confessed, “but I have never had the fortune to meet her.”

“Then, please, if you will follow me,” the housekeeper said, smiling. “The drawing room is beautiful and deserves to be appreciated, but there is a fine picture of here there, and I will introduce you.”

Clint, relieved for direction, turned to follow the housekeeper, ignoring the wide eyes of his aunt and uncle as they followed him.

Chapter Text

The drawing room was indeed beautiful. The fabrics were rich and yet comfortable, the paintings tasteful, the frames modern. Overall the house was more open, and had more real elegance, then the clutter of Rosings. He remembered Hill laughing about her late husband’s tastes. He wondered how often she travelled to Pemberley.

Clint wandered to a nearby window and looked out at the view. It was beautiful beyond description.

“What a handsome piece,” Clint heard his aunt say, distracting him from the stunning prospect. Clint turned and saw her staring covetously at a beautiful pianoforte. His aunt played well and many engagements had been livened by her skill.

“That is a birthday present to my young mistress from her brother,” Mrs. Jarvis said, pride evident in her voice. “Such an accomplished young lady, she sings and plays all day long.”

“He sounds like a very attentive brother,” Clint’s uncle remarked.

“Oh yes,” the housekeeper assured him. “He is very attentive. He cares for her prodigiously, and allows no harm to come to her. He is coming down tomorrow, in fact, with a large party of friends.”

Clint started. How thankful they had decided to come today and not tomorrow! What would have happened, what awkwardness would he have had to endure, had they delayed their visit by a day?

“And here is my mistress,” Mrs. Jarvis said, standing by the staircase. Clint hurried to catch up with her. His aunt and uncle were admiring a full-length painting of a vivacious looking young woman with fiery red hair.

“Ah! She is a very handsome lady,” Clint's aunt said.

“Oh, yes! The handsomest young lady that ever was seen. And here is my master, and very like him, too!” The housekeeper turned, and Clint’s eye was caught by a small drawing of Coulson.

He looked at the picture. It was a miniature, but well done. Coulson’s proud chin and brilliant eyes were well captured.

“It is a beautiful picture, but I have never seen the original,” Clint heard his aunt say. “Clint? Does it look very much like him?”

“Oh,” the housekeeper said, turning towards him, “does this young gentleman know the master?”

She smiled and Clint felt himself blushing. “Yes,” he said, “a little.”

Mrs. Jarvis turned back to Clint's aunt, but he could not help but feel her attention remained on him. “He is a handsome gentleman, is he not?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Carter agreed with a smile, “very handsome.”

“Mm, I am sure I know none so handsome, or so kind.”

“Indeed?” Mrs. Carter asked.

“Aye, ma’am,” the housekeeper said. “I have never had a cross word from him in my life, and I have known him since he was four years old. But then, I have always observed that they who are good natured as children, are good natured when they grow up.”

Clint could not help but stare. His aunt nodded, her gaze far away. “His father was an excellent man.”

“He was, ma’am,” Mrs. Jarvis agreed solemnly, “and his son will be just like him. The best landlord, and the best master. Ask any of his tenants or his servants.”

Clint exchanged a glance with his uncle, but the housekeeper went on. “Some people call him proud, but I fancy that is because he does not rattle on, like many young people these days.” She shook her head and smiled again. “Now, if you’ll follow me, there is a finer, larger portrait of him in the gallery upstairs.”

Clint hardly knew what to think. He must have looked as confused as he felt, for his aunt drifted near to him as Mrs. Jarvis turned to lead them upstairs with a gentle, “This way, if you please.”

Mr. Carter took the lead. Clint and his aunt hung back slightly, following from a short distance.

“This fine account of Coulson is not quite consistent with his behaviour to poor Mr. Stark, is it?” She asked in a near-whisper.

Clint struggled for a way to reconcile the two versions of one man, even knowing more of the true history than his aunt did. “Perhaps we might have been mistaken there?”

She frowned. “That does not seem likely, does it?”

Clint shrugged helplessly, not knowing how to respond. His aunt left him to his thoughts and joined her husband. The three of them followed Mrs. Jarvis upstairs to a large hall filled with portraits. Rows upon rows of Coulsons' watched them, some smiling, some serious, as they ambled down the hall.

Clint found himself staring at them. What would they think of him, these ancestors depicted on canvas? The second son of a drunk, about to lose the only home he had ever known. A man who had killed, even accidentally. An invert. Would they think him worthy of their proudest son?

Clint could not imagine it.

“Ah, here we are,” Mrs. Jarvis said, pausing finally. Clint looked up to find himself staring at a large portrait of Coulson. “Handsome, is he not?”

Clint could do nothing but agree. The artist, whoever it was, had managed to capture some of the sparkle in Coulson’s eye. His shoulders were set, his lips thin, and yet there was a hint of a smile lurking around the edges of his upper lip.

Clint hardly knew what he thought of the man, staring up at his portrait. Was he handsome? Yes, he was. He certainly was. Was he a good man? How could Clint know – how could anyone?

He bit his lip and looked away, feeling disturbed by the roiling turbulence in his chest. He did not know. He was not sure he wanted to know, anymore.

Thankfully, the housekeeper did not keep them long. She led them soon enough downstairs and to the garden door. The gardener met them with his hat in his hands and escorted the party around the shrubbery, answering Mrs. Carter's questions about the placement and care of rose bushes. Clint trailed after them. He found a path after several moments and followed it, leaving his aunt and uncle to admire the flowers while he wandered down towards a small lake.

Alone at last, Clint's thoughts rolled in his head. How desperately he wished for his bow! He cursed the rules of society which had forced him to leave it with his things at the inn. How easy it would be to dart across the lawn and lose himself in the forests! He could sort through his confused feelings at his leisure, following the lanes he had spied from the road. There were marked trails that begged for exploration, thick trees he yearned to climb.

He would hardly be able to run from his confusion, though, if he persisted in staying within the grounds of Pemberley. Ah, but to pretend for a short while that the woods were his, or Sitwell's, or anyone's at all except the annoying, confusing, handsome man from Derbyshire!

Turning along the path that led to the lake, Clint stopped abruptly in his tracks. There, ambling up the lawn, was the object of his thoughts himself.

Coulson!

The man was half dressed and soaking wet. He carried his coat in his hand, with his cravat draped over one dripping arm. Instead of his formal attire, he was wearing only a white lawn shirt and fawn breeches, which hugged his form and fit him extremely well, dripping wet as they were.

Clint wondered, with some detached part of his mind, if Coulson had been in an accident and pushed into the lake. He was quite alone, however, and his jacket and cravat were dry. Indeed, he looked relaxed and happy, the set of his shoulders loose and easy, his lips drawn back into an honest smile.

Clint stood and stared at him. He knew he should move before Coulson saw him, as he understood he was invading the man’s privacy in the worst possible way. How embarrassing would it be for Coulson, always clothed to perfection, to come across him of all people in this half-dressed state?

And yet, even knowing this, Clint could not look away. The shape of Coulson’s arms held him hostage. The well-muscled planes of his chest, visible beneath the wet fabric, pulled at him. He could not tear his eyes away from the sight of water dripping down the curve of his neck from his hair.

He surprised himself with the deep, visceral urge to lick it away.

Of course, it was at just that moment that Coulson did finally glance over and see him. Clint blushed, certain that every filthy thought he had been having was visible upon his face. He ducked his head and stared at his feet, and had barely the presence of mind to notice when Coulson – after a pause – moved in his direction.

“Mr. Barton,” he said, sounding shocked. Clint glanced up to see the deep, red blush that had taken over his face. Beneath the flush of colour he appeared pale, and Clint wondered, abruptly, how well he had been sleeping.

Which led immediately to wondering what Coulson would look like asleep, and if he would be as relaxed as he appeared a moment ago, and again Clint was blushing and staring at his toes.

“Mr. Coulson,” he managed to say.

“I – I did not realize you were in Derbyshire,” Coulson said, obviously struggling and failing to find a steady tone. “Are... um. Where are you staying?”

“At the inn at Lambton,” Clint forced himself to answer. In his periphery, he could see Coulson nod.

They stood for a moment in horrible, awkward silence. Coulson broke it first. “And your brother? Is he well?”

Clint blushed, remembering every word Coulson had written about his brother. “Yes, sir. He is very well.”

Coulson was nodding, Clint could tell by the way his shadow bobbed. “And you are visiting Derbyshire?”

Clint blushed harder, regretting the trip. “Yes, sir.”

Coulson cleared his throat awkwardly, “Yes, well. I have just arrived myself. Um. Are you visiting alone?”

Oh, God! How long was he going to draw this out? Clint waited for Coulson to call for the housekeeper and have him turned out on his ear. “No, sir,” Clint managed. “I am visiting with my aunt and uncle.”

“Yes, of course,” Coulson said, nodding again. “I, uh –”

He paused. Clint looked up to find confusion and horror warring for expression on Coulson's face. He hurried to look away.

The pause went on. It seemed as if Coulson had run out of things to say.

“If you will excuse me,” Coulson said finally, and bowed. Clint returned the motion automatically. Coulson took the opportunity to escape, walking quickly up towards the house.

Clint drew in a shaking breath the moment the older man had vanished into the shrubbery. Oh, God! What had he been thinking?! Why had he ever agreed to visit Pemberley?

He fought the urge to stick his head between his legs and breathe. Coulson could still come back.

“The young master himself!” Clint heard his aunt declare from somewhere behind him, sounding amused. “Just as handsome as in his portrait, if a little less formally attired!”

It was too much. Clint spun around, back to the path. “We should never have come!” he wailed.

“Clint!” his uncle exclaimed. Clint brushed past him in his hurry. “What happened? Was he angry?”

“No!” Clint shook his head. It was too much!

“Well, what did he say?” his aunt pressed.

“Nothing of consequence! He – he asked about my brother and where we were staying. And, oh God,” he moaned, dropping his head into his hands, “what must he think of me!”

Clint caught the look of surprise that passed between his aunt and uncle, and knew they could not understand. To come across Coulson in such a state of undress should have been amusing, Clint knew, not mortifying. But they did not know the particulars. They could not understand Clint's intense feeling of shame.

Clint hurried quickly to the chaise, the Carters barely keeping pace with him. The driver was waiting for them by the front door. Clint signalled the man to make ready, and was almost upon the chaise and free, away from this horribly awkward place, when the hurried sound of rushing feet stopped him. Clint looked up to see Coulson crossing swiftly towards him, obviously having dressed with swift haste inside.

Even in such an evident hurry, Coulson looked good. His shirt was clean and pressed, his jacket of a material more fine than any Clint had ever owned. Coulson was doing up the cuffs himself as he strode, and Clint saw his shoulders relax slightly when they were buttoned.

He wondered, suddenly, if Coulson felt safer in his suit. If he wore it as a sort of armour against the world.

“Mr. Barton!” Coulson said, looking up from his cuffs and seeing him literally poised upon entering the chaise. Clint stared at him, waiting for the concerned expression to melt into his usual bland expressionlessness, but it remained. “You are not leaving, are you?”

“Yes, sir,” Clint said, hating the way his voice seemed to give everything away. “I fear we must.”

Unexpectedly, Coulson smiled at him. It was a small smile, a mere upturning of his lips, but it lit his entire face. “I hope you are not displeased with Pemberley?”

Clint stared at him, shocked. Coulson sounded almost to be teasing him. “No, sir. Not at all.”

Coulson’s smile deepened and his eyes gained real warmth. “Then you approve of it?”

Clint could not help but smile back at that expression. The light in Coulson’s eyes seemed to draw it out of him against his mortification.

“I believe there are few who could not approve.”

“Yes, but it is your opinion I am most anxious to hear.”

Clint did not know how to respond to that. He stared at Coulson in wonder. Who was this strange man who smiled at him and looked him in the eye? And where was Clint himself, that he could not rise to the occasion?

He felt off-balance. If Natasha were here she could give him one solid kick and he would surely fall down.

Coulson compounded the problem by looking over his shoulder. “Would you do me the honour of introducing me to your friends?”

Clint blinked and then nodded. He climbed down from the chaise and turned to his aunt and uncle. “Mr. Coulson, may I present Mr and Mrs. Carter. Mr. Carter is my uncle, Mr. Coulson. He lives with his family in Cheapside.”

Clint enunciated the word Cheapside with subtle intention, watching Coulson’s expression as he bowed to the Carters. Coulson had made a face when Clint had brought up the Carters while at Netherfield. He had assumed it was because they lived in an unfashionable part of London. He did not think Coulson would ever stoop to shake hands with someone who hailed from Cheapside.

“Mrs. Carter, Mr. Carter,” Coulson bowed, his face open. “It is an honour. I have to say, Mr. Carter, that I have heard great tales about your mother. Or could it have been your Aunt? That is, about your relation, Miss Peggy Carter.”

Clint could hardly believe the sight in front of him. Coulson bowing to his uncle! Asking about his relations! And who was Peggy Carter, that Coulson should know her name? He had never heard his uncle speak of the woman before.

Unexpectedly, his uncle’s face lit with a smile. “Miss Peggy Carter was my aunt, Mr. Coulson. A fine woman, she never married. Her youngest brother was my father, and my sister was Clint’s mother.”

Coulson nodded at the lineage, and if anything the smile he turned back upon Clint was livelier. If Clint did not know better, he would say Coulson looked almost giddy.

“Excellent,” Coulson said, happily. Clint could only stare. The man was practically bouncing on his toes. “We shall have to sit and trade stories sometime. I am somewhat of a collector when it comes to, well,” he blushed. Clint stared harder. “I am sure you have heard the stories.”

His uncle chuckled, and Clint transferred his stare to him. What was this group madness?

“I have, Mr. Coulson. I have. I would be interested to see your collection.”

“Certainly!” Coulson smiled with obvious glee. Clint caught his breath at the beauty of it. “I am having most of it brought here from London, and much of it has been stored away. I have renovated one of the upper bedrooms into a sort of collection room,” he blushed. “My sister calls it a shrine, but it is nothing so gauche. I simply admire the man’s work.”

Mr. Carter nodded and Clint was torn between demanding to know what they were talking about and staring at Coulson some more.

His aunt came up beside him. Clint started as she moved and looked around. He realized only then that they had been walking away from the chaise for some time. Coulson was leading them along a small path between the gardens. Clint wondered how he had moved without knowing where it was he was going.

“Is this the proud Coulson you told us of in your letters?” She asked, her tone mildly disapproving. “He is all ease and friendliness, no false dignity at all.”

Clint shook his head, feeling lost. “I am as astonished as you are. I cannot imagine what has affected this transformation.”

His aunt arched an eyebrow at him. “Can you not?”

Clint blushed and looked away. His uncle and Coulson were still speaking, and they walked a little ahead on the path around the house. Coulson stopped and pointed to something, and Mrs. Carter and Clint caught up. Mr. Carter and Coulson were expounding upon the pleasures of fishing, and Clint was astonished to hear Coulson very civilly invite his uncle to make use of his lakes and streams any time he wished.

They switched places, then. Mrs. Carter, who was not a great walker, took her husband’s arm, and Clint was left to take his uncle's place beside Coulson on the path. The walkway was narrow, only wide enough for two people to travel abreast.

They walked in silence for several steps, but while Coulson appeared at ease, Clint found himself becoming more and more uncomfortable.

Finally Clint could stand it no longer, and he drew in a breath. “Please, Mr. Coulson, allow me to apologize. I am so sorry to accost you at Pemberley. The housekeeper had assured us you would not be in until tomorrow. We would never have dreamed of invading your privacy if we had known you would be here.”

Coulson, if anything, looked amused. His eyes crinkled fondly. “Pray, do not make yourself uneasy, Mr. Barton. I had planned it so, but found that I had business with my stewart and so rode ahead. The rest of my party is coming tomorrow.” He paused. They took a few more steps.

“Among then,” Coulson continued, somewhat hesitantly “are two who would claim an acquaintance with you.” He looked over. “Dr. Banner and his sister.”

Clint blinked. “Oh.”

Coulson nodded and looked away. He squared his shoulders. “There is one other person arriving who would very much like to make your acquaintance. Would you allow me to... I mean, do I ask too much to introduce my sister to you, during your stay at Lambton?”

Clint blinked at him. Surely Coulson was in jest? After all that had passed between them, and with Clint showing up unexpectedly at his front door, could he honestly wish to renew their acquaintance? Even to the point of introducing Clint to his sister?

Clint saw Coulson was staring at him, obviously anxious for an answer. “I should be very happy to make her acquaintance,” Clint said carefully. What else could he say?

Coulson smiled, a simple twist of his lips, but it did wonders to his face. “Excellent.”

Clint looked around to find they had somehow circled around and were back beside at the chaise. After his offer of rest and refreshment was politely refused, Coulson led them to the groom, and then hesitated. He looked as if he wanted to give Clint a step up, then blushed and stepped back. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Barton. I... I hope we shall meet again very soon.”

“Thank you,” Clint said. He could not stop staring.

“Mr. Carter,” Coulson inclined his head. “Mrs. Carter.”

Clint’s aunt and uncle made their good-byes. Clint could not take his eyes from Coulson as the chaise rolled away. He watched him, standing there against the road, until they turned the corner, and he was gone.

Chapter Text

Clint spent the remainder of the day in a sort of daze. Who was Phil Coulson? What was he really like? Which was the real Coulson – the proud, tense man he had met in Hertfordshire, or the smiling, blushing gentleman he had discovered here at Pemberley?

Could one be more real than the other? Or could both be Mr. Phil Coulson? Prideful and awkward, haughty and boyish. Loyal, too, if Clint believed his tales regarding Tony, even when that loyalty was tested in the worst possible way. The best landlord, and the best master, if Mrs. Jarvis could be believed.

Tony would know. Clint considered writing to his friend to ask which Coulson Tony had known, which was the true man, but Tony's break with Coulson was a wound Clint was loath to open. He suspected that Tony felt the awkwardness of the loss of friendship as acutely as Coulson evidently did. He likely blamed himself, and not unreasonably if Coulson’s letter was true, for the way he had acted.

Thoughts of Tony directed Clint to thoughts of Miss Coulson. He had a face to picture when he thought of her now, thanks to the painting in the sitting room. What was she like, this younger Coulson? Was it true that she still loved Tony?

Did Tony love her?

Clint was self-reflective enough to know that thinking of his friend was a wonderful way to escape from thinking of Coulson, but such was his way of mastering his feelings. The less he thought about Coulson, or the possibility of himself and Coulson, the better. The man was coming to visit, likely in the next few days, and Clint wanted to be able to meet his eye without blushing.

He woke early the next morning and went for a walk before breakfast. He avoided his aunt and uncle, knowing they had questions about his relationship with Mr. Coulson that he could not answer. Clint knew the casual and indifferent acquaintance he had mentioned in the past would not explain the civility – indeed, the partiality – in Coulson’s address.

Seeking solace for his thoughts, Clint roamed the lanes of Lambton. Despite the lure of the forest, he left his bow at the Inn. He did not know what the day would hold, and did not wish to brush dirt from his trousers before he saw his aunt at breakfast. She knew him too well, and such evidence of his disquiet would point her sharp mind in the only possible direction.

He returned to the Inn in a sort of a daze, far later than he had intended, his mind still muddling through the previous day’s encounter. It was with some shock that he heard his name being called from an upstairs window.

“Mr. Barton! Mr. Barton!”

Clint looked up to see Hannah, the maid from the Inn, waving at him. He waved back to show he had heard her.

“If you please, sir. Mr. Coulson is here with a young lady. They are waiting for you in the parlour room.”

Clint stared at her. Coulson had come already? Surely it was too soon?

There was nothing to do about it now. “I’ll be right in,” Clint called back, and hurried to the front door.

He brushed the dirt of the street from his trousers and barely had time to retie his cravat before Hannah was showing him into the parlour. He dropped his hands as he walked in, and saw Coulson stand swiftly from a chair.

“Mr. Barton,” he said, coming over. That faint hint of a smile was back, teasing at his upper lip.

Clint tried not to stare at it. He nodded politely. “Mr. Coulson.”

They both paused for a moment, silently awkward, before an amused cough from the direction of the window startled them. Clint turned to look for its origin while Coulson blushed.

“Mr. Barton, may I introduce my sister to you?” Coulson asked, holding out a hand. The woman standing by the window smiled at him.

Clint blinked.

Miss Coulson was, in every respect, much prettier than her picture. He could see that the painting had been done a year or two earlier, for this woman was past the awkward growth of sixteen and into her seventeenth or eighteenth year.

She was tall, for a woman, with fiery red hair the painter had not been able to capture. Her eyes sparkled when she smiled at him, and Clint was caught for a moment by their brilliance. They were her brother’s eyes.

Clint bowed, careful not to dip too low. Something about this woman inspired deference in him. Miss Coulson laughed, quietly and yet not with ill-humour, her voice like a bell.

“You always find the dashing ones, Phil,” she said to her brother. Blushing, Clint rose from his bow.

Coulson rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, please do not decide you want to marry this one, too. That would be rather awkward.”

Miss Coulson laughed again, and Clint frowned. Did that mean things with Tony had been resolved, or was Coulson teasing? And since when did Coulson tease?

Miss Coulson turned back towards him and surprised Clint by coming forward and taking his arm in hers. Leading him into the room, she said to him, “Now, Mr. Barton, I understand Mrs. Fury is a great friend of yours. Pray tell me, what is she like?”

Clint stared at her. He glanced over at Coulson, who looked amused and a little resigned, before looking back at the woman who held his arm captive.

“Mrs Fury? She is...” Clint tried to think of the appropriate adjective to describe Natasha to a new acquaintance, but his mind was jumbled and he could only say what he thought. “Frightening.”

Miss Coulson laughed. “Excellent!” she said, sounding gleeful. “I shall have to demand you forward my acquaintance. Phil has done an excellent job these last six months of keeping me completely isolated. No more of it, you understand.” She released his arm and shot a sharp glance to her brother, though her eyes danced. “I am tired of sitting on the sidelines. I understand Mrs. Fury is the perfect place to begin my domination of your silly group.”

Coulson rolled his eyes. “I told you, you are more than welcome to join us in London when the situation settles down.” He turned to Clint and explained. “My sister feels she has remained too long at Pemberley.”

“And she is sick and tired of it,” Miss Coulson declared, speaking of herself in the third person. “I am home for the summer because we are always at Pemberley for the summer, but then I intend to move to London.”

Clint looked back and forth between the siblings, feeling as though he were following a game of tennis.

“You mean you wish to marry Tony Stark,” Coulson countered, a line appearing between his eyes, though his gaze remained fond.

“Absolutely,” Miss Coulson said, with a sharp-toothed smile.

“Do you not think you should first enquire as to the wishes of Mr. Stark?” Coulson asked wearily. His air was that of a man who does not expect his suggestion to be followed.

Miss Coulson tossed her fiery hair. “Mr. Stark knows my feelings on the subject. He has insisted on moping about London and going on about –” she glanced at Clint, and her voice caught, “other difficulties, as if that would matter to me.”

Clint frowned at her tone, wondering what she meant.

Coulson sighed and glanced sideways at Clint. “We will discuss this another time, dear sister.”

Miss Coulson had the grace to look sheepish. Clint tried to think of a polite way of asking what the devil they were talking about, when there was the sound of hurried footsteps from the hall. The parlour door opened with a bang and Miss Darcy Banner rushed in.

“Mr. Barton!” The younger Banner squealed, walking quickly towards him. “I have missed you, you ridiculous man. How come you never visited me in London?”

Clint laughed and bowed to her gracefully, forgetting until this moment how much he had enjoyed Miss Banner’s company. Without quite meaning too, Clint glanced at Coulson before answering. Darcy followed his look, and frowned.

“I am sorry,” Clint said, refocusing her attention on him. “I should not have neglected you. Things have been...” he hesitated. “Complicated, at home.”

Darcy sighed and hooked her arm through his, where Miss Coulson had released him. “So I heard,” she said, making him wonder exactly how much she had heard. “Everything is settled, though?” She asked, looking into his eyes. “You shall visit us often from now on?”

“Of course I will,” he replied with a smile, unable to resist her.

A deeper voice coughed from the doorway. Clint looked over to see Bruce Banner standing there, looking a little uncomfortable, as he always did.

“Dr. Banner!” Clint exclaimed. He released Miss Banner’s arm and bowed to the man. “It is wonderful to see you.”

Bruce smiled at him awkwardly. Clint remembered only then that of course Bruce knew it was Barney who had stolen his secret formula. He blushed and took a step backwards, but the doctor's smile only widened, gaining real warmth.

“None of that,” he said, as if reading Clint’s mind. His eyes were open and kind. “I do not blame you for anything, Mr. Barton. I have been speaking with Mr. Fury, and all is well.”

Clint could not help but sigh in relief at the forgiveness. “I am glad to hear it,” he said sincerely. He was about to say more, but a flurry of whispers from behind him caught his attention.

Clint looked back to see Miss Coulson and Miss Banner with their heads together. He glanced at Coulson in alarm, and found that the other man shared his anxiety. A moment later Miss Coulson looked up to see everyone staring at her, and laughed.

“Mr. Barton,” she said, walking back to him. “As the mistress of Pemberley, I would like to invite you and your aunt and uncle to be our guests for dinner tomorrow evening.”

Clint did not want to refuse, but, “You have only just arrived,” he said, a little awkwardly. “I am sure you wish to unpack and settle in first.”

Miss Coulson shook her head. “We have unpacked and settled enough. It is wonderful to be home, even though I was only at Matlock for a fortnight, but it will not be home until all of our favourite friends are sitting around the dinner table and everybody has had more than enough to eat.” She glanced over him critically, and Clint flushed. “I think you have been too busy of late to eat properly. Miss Banner tells me you have a habit of vanishing into the woods for hours at a time, and forgetting important things like supper. We must feed you properly before we set you loose on the grounds of Pemberley.”

Clint stared at her. “Loose on the grounds?” He looked at Coulson. “I think she believes me to be a squirrel of some kind.”

Coulson rolled his eyes. “A hawk at least. Surely some sort of bird of prey.”

Clint heard the compliment in the words, and blushed again.

Miss Coulson snorted, a very unladylike sound. “Do not try to convince me you were not eyeing the forest with interest, Mr. Barton, for nothing escapes Mrs. Jarvis' notice. Now come, come – agree to dinner with us. Your aunt and uncle, too, of course. I am sure Phil wants to talk all about the Captain with Mr. Carter again.”

Coulson blushed and looked away. Clint stared at him. “Is that what you were discussing yesterday? That old family rumour?”

“It is not a rumour,” Coulson said, his voice even despite the blush. “The Captain was a member of England’s finest in the Great Northern War –”

Miss Coulson cut her brother off with a wave of her hand, “Yes, yes, Phil. You can impress Mr. Barton with your knowledge of history later. For now, you must agree to come to dinner, Mr. Barton. Please say you will.”

Clint's blush darkened to meet Coulson's. They stood together not looking at each other for a moment, until finally Clint managed to cough and reply, “We have no set plans. I can speak for my aunt and uncle; they would be pleased to make your acquaintance tomorrow evening at Pemberley.”

“Excellent,” Miss Coulson said, smiling with satisfaction. “We will trespass on your time no longer, Mr. Barton, and see you on the morrow. Until then!”

Clint echoed the sentiment and bowed. Everyone took their leave. His gaze lingered on Coulson’s for a moment, and he was rewarded with seeing the other man smile at him once more before he left.

Clint gave himself ten minutes to banish the blush from his cheeks, and then went to find his aunt and uncle and inform them of the change in their plans.

 

*

 

Dinner was a surprisingly enjoyable affair. Miss Banner and Miss Coulson were as thick as thieves and close as sisters, and should never have been allowed to meet. Dr. Banner was dry but as witty as ever, and Coulson looked more alive than Clint had ever seen him. He talked often with Mr. Carter, and even disappeared for a while to show Clint’s uncle the few objects from his ‘collection’ that were not stored away.

Clint only knew the barest of stories regarding Captain Steven Rogers. There was a family rumour that he had walked out with Clint's mother’s aunt before disappearing off the Russian coast. Stories still circulated that the man had been some kind of ‘super soldier’ who drank a magical formula concocted by the George the First’s secret advisors. England had sent the Captain, along with a group of officers, to Germany for the battle. Reports were conflicted as to why the Captain had been in Russia, but all agreed he had gone down in the frigid northern sea, and drowned.

The stories had often been told in his presence growing up, but he had never paid much attention to them. It was amusing to think of Coulson, with his perfect suits and controlled expressions, as a collector of memorabilia.

Clint spent most of the time talking with Miss Banner, Miss Coulson, and his aunt. He spoke a little with Bruce, renewing their summer friendship. Everyone cheered when Miss Coulson took to the piano. She was a gifted and lively player, and when she stopped for a rest, Clint and his uncle entreated Mrs. Carter to play. She did well, for what she lacked in spirit, she made up for with experience.

Dinner was impressive, and Clint sent his compliments to the kitchen. Indeed, Clint noticed that he had garnered some amount of attention from the Pemberley staff, and wondered what Mrs. Jarvis had told the servants.

Clint prayed they had not caught on to the tension between him and their master. He had not attempted conversation with the man, but he was at least able to meet his eye without blushing. He did not think he could bear it if half the world guessed the thoughts he had been having.

Coulson was in fine form all night, fashionably dressed, attentive, and spirited. Clint could not reconcile the man before him with the stiff, ill-humoured man he had met in Hertfordshire.

Dinner ended and drinks followed, and eventually the carriage was called. The household saw them to the door, and remarked more than once that they were welcome to stay. Mr and Mrs. Carter, however, aware of the newness of the acquaintance, politely declined, and Mrs. Carter saw her nephew's relief as they did. He was unused to such attention, Mrs. Carter knew. She had formed her own suspicions regarding Mr. Coulson and his motives when they had first met the man at Pemberley, and they had only been heightened when she noticed the careful attention he had paid to her nephew at dinner. She did not want to make assumptions, but there had certainly been something lingering in his gaze. Had she not met the man, she might have worried that he would put his own desires above the need for Clint's safety, but she could see now how much he clearly cared for her nephew. As for Clint, Mrs. Carter had never seen him as happy as he appeared to be at dinner, not even during past Christmases at Barton Manor with his particular friend Natasha by his side. Though she was loath to hope too early, she could not help but dream that, after so long, he might find some happiness and no longer be alone.

 

*

 

The next morning Mrs. Carter accompanied her husband around town to meet old friends. Clint was to walk with them but she guessed, correctly, that he had not slept well the night before. She urged him to stay at the Inn and savour his breakfast, and then join them later.

Clint readily agreed to this proposal. He could see the smiling acceptance in his aunt’s eyes and resolved to ask her, soon, how much she suspected regarding himself and Coulson. For the moment, however, he was content to sit at the table and attempt to muddle through his feelings on his own.

He had only gone over the events of the previous evening once more in his mind, trying to come to terms with the warmth in Miss Coulson’s eyes and the easy, unaffected manner of her brother, when a knock at the door disturbed him. He was so lost in his thoughts that it took two attempts for him to hear it. Clint started and rose, finding Hannah the maid standing in the hallway with a pair of letters on a tray.

“If you please, sir, these have just come in from the post, sir.”

Clint thanked her and took the letters, tipping her handsomely. She curtsied to him and left, closing the door behind her.

Clint looked at the first letter on the tray. It was addressed to him, but the direction had been written very ill. He had to look twice to see that the letter was from Barney, and forwarded to him from Brighton.

Clint frowned at the letter. He had not been concerned that there had been no word from his brother. Barney was a haphazard correspondent at the best of times, and Clint had not expected a letter when there were surely other pursuits to enjoy. He worried more now that there was word from him.

The letter began pleasantly enough.

Dear Brother, Barney wrote,

Brighton is wonderful. I have decided I enjoy life by the sea. My compatriots are as eager for salt-air in the mornings as I am, though it is likely because none of us are actually sailors.

The weather has been pleasant. There was a ball last night given by the father of a recently married lieutenant, and it was an excellent affair. Much dancing occurred, my brother. You would have enjoyed it.

I am writing to tell you of more than the taste of the surf, however. I met with the recruiting officer last night. Pleasant gentleman, if a little stiff. He gave me the usual song and dance, and it was much the same as the boys have been telling me since I spoke with them in Hertfordshire.

And yet – it excites me, little brother. I confess I have not felt this way about something in quite a long while. I hope you have an opportunity to experience the feeling of suddenly knowing precisely what it is you want to do in life, because it is unexpectedly delightful. Where I have often felt a dragging sort of tiredness upon beginning a new project, now I am filled with ideas and expectations of pleasure. It is remarkable.

Oh, the boys are knocking on my door again. We are going to play cards at a friend’s near-by. I will write more later, little brother, when I have details for you regarding my first expected posting.

Clint sighed. Barney was truly going to do it, then. He was going to join the army. He wanted to re-read his brother's words to better take in the details, but the next section was obviously written in haste. Clint hurried on.

Clint!, Barney wrote, his hand obviously shaking. They have found me!

I had better calm myself. Stay seated, brother dear. I am not dead yet. No, it is worse than that. My enemies have found me, but instead of casting me off directly they are plotting something far worse – they are pinning their crimes on me!

Brother, I must write this in haste and post it immediately, for then I must flee. I have only time to tell you this – there has been more going on than the misappropriation of Dr. Banner’s formula. There is a power struggle at work here, and more than one person is dead.

Not Dr. Banner, do not fret, but several other gentlemen in London, whose names I do not know, have died. I understand some of the deaths have gone unnoticed, while others are at present the target of an investigation by the Runners.

You must ask how I know this, and I can only confess what you have known about me for some time – I am a sneak. Even when held in the power of my pursers, I sought an edge over them. Part of my incursion into Dr. Banner’s house was an investigation of him directly, but I was also searching for evidence regarding my blackmailers. I did not find it there, but when turning in the altered formula, I stumbled upon a meeting of a sort.

I have already told you some of this, but what I did not confess to you was that I saw faces, even if I did not hear names. I did not want you to know this, Clint, because I feared you would go looking for those men. After Mr. Fury rescued me, I was content to forget what I had seen. I did not want to be dragged deeper into their game.

But now the tables have turned. They are pinning me for murder!

I swear to you, little brother, I have never killed a man. I do not know their exact plan, but, barely an hour ago, I was woken from my sleep by a presence in my room.

I will spare you the details, Clint. Suffice it to say that I reacted as I did when our father used to stalk our rooms at night in retribution for some imagined slight. I lashed out and went over the bed. There was a scuffle. They sent two men against me, to subdue me or merely plant false evidence against me, I do not know.

I defended myself, but the men escaped and I thought myself safe. Then, when I went to retrieve my weapon, I found a bottle of poison among my possessions.

I do not know this bottle! I have never seen it before! But the instant I saw it, a dozen half-remembered conversations came clear in my mind. I realized not only had the gentlemen in London been poisoned, but that my enemies were framing me for their deaths!

I have already escaped, Clint. I write this to you now in a coach travelling as far away from London as it will take me. Maybe it was wrong of me to flee, but I cannot return. I know the players against me – what evidence could I, an admitted blackmailer, present against such gentlemen of rank and fortune? None!

They will have me hanged, Clint. I do not mean to let them.

By the time you get this, my brother, I will be long gone. Please do not search for me, for you may lead my enemies directly to me. I will stay with friends near.... No. I had better not say. This letter could be intercepted.

I am innocent, my brother! Believe that of me, and I will rest easier in my exile. I will write to you once I know myself to be safe.

 

I am, and always will be, your brother.

 

~ Barney Barton

Chapter Text

Clint stared at the letter in horror. Quickly, he read it through again. A chill gripped him, and before he knew it the paper in his hands was shaking.

Barney! Framed for murder! The murder of whom? What had been happening in London? And who were these enemies who pursued him even now?

Clint half-rose from his chair, his mind racing. He had to find him! He had to clear his brother’s name!

Lost in his emotion, Clint hardly noticed when Hannah the maid knocked at the door and walked into the parlour. She gestured behind her, and a gentleman strode in.

Clint looked up in time to see Phil Coulson’s morning smile turn to a look of concern as he took in Clint’s appearance.

“What is wrong?” Coulson demanded, instantly coming forward.

Clint could only stare at him. His hands were shaking, he knew, and he could not make them stop.

“My God, Clint, you are ill. Fetch the doctor!” Coulson turned and shouted to the maid. Hannah’s worried face appeared in the doorway again, before darting back along the corridor.

Her run gave Clint the strength to speak. “No! No doctor – Hannah!” The maid reappeared at the door and Clint shook his head at her. “No doctor, please.”

Coulson gripped him by the shoulders, forcing him back into a chair. His hands, comforting as Clint had never known they could be, came up to hold Clint’s face . Coulson peered at him, real worry in his face and voice.

“You are as white as a sheet, Mr. Barton. And you are shaking. If not the doctor, then let the maid bring brandy, at least.”

Clint stared at Coulson, drinking in the sight of him. His worried eyes, such a beautiful colour, were a balm against Clint's sick heart. Swallowing, he nodded.

“Brandy,” Coulson said with authority, turning to the maid. Hannah nodded and darted away once more.

“Tell me,” Coulson said, releasing his face and kneeling by his chair. Clint missed the warmth of his touch and struggled with what to say. He could not possibly tell Coulson what had occurred, but then, why would it matter? Surely the story would be all over England by now, if people were hunting his brother in the streets.

Before he could decide, Clint saw Coulson’s sharp gaze take in the room.

His eyes alit on the letter, and he turned back to Clint. His expression was calculating, but kind. “You were breaking your fast alone, so I assume your aunt and uncle are out. You were well until you received a letter, were you not?”

Clint nodded, his eyes falling closed. Barney! He kept his eyes shut against the traitorous tears.

“Mr. Barton, please,” Coulson asked gently. “Tell me what has happened.”

The honest concern in his voice tore at Clint's heart. Finally, he cleared his throat and found he could speak.

“I received a letter this morning from my brother,” he confessed. “He had gone to Brighton to stay with the officers.” At Coulson's indrawn breath, Clint heard his own voice break. “I told him not to go! I warned him it could be dangerous!”

He could not meet Coulson’s eyes, looking instead at the man's throat, his shoulders. “He wanted to join the militia; he wanted to be free of our father’s influence. I know you have been speaking with Mr. Fury, you know the enemies he has in the military! I told him not to go to Brighton, that it was not safe.”

Clint felt a sob begin in his throat. Coulson leaned forward and wrapped his hands around Clint's. Clint clenched his hands into fists beneath Coulson's palms, taking comfort from the other man's strength.

“He did not listen to me,” Clint explained in a low voice. “He left Hertfordshire for the sea, and then this morning I received a letter he wrote to inform me that his enemies had found him.”

Clint saw Coulson's shoulders go stiff. “He is not dead, at least not yet.” Clint hurried to say. “They want him hanged rather than shot in the street.” Clint closed his eyes. “They are framing him for several of the murders in London.”

Through Coulson's hands, Clint felt the man shudder. It happened only once before he brought himself back under control.

Clint had not realized he would ever relish that iron control, having spent so long making fun of it, but he craved it now. He needed Coulson to be strong for him, so Clint could lean on him to bear the weight of his fear.

“Two men came for him in the night. He fought them off, but they escaped. They planted a bottle of poison in his room.” Coulson let out a long breath, and Clint's hands tightened beneath his.

“He ran, Coulson. He ran. He is an idiot and he did not know what to do. He wrote to me from the coach on its way out of Brighton. He would not tell me where he was going, and said only that he would write again when it was safe.”

Abruptly, Clint’s eyes flew open. The second letter!

With a gasp, Clint tore himself from Coulson's grip and reached for to the table. The second letter had been hidden under the first on the table, and he flew at it. His hands were steady now, as they had always been when he shot under pressure, and Clint had a moment to be grimly thankful for that while he ripped open the seal.

The second letter had also been sent from Brighton, but it was not from Barney.

Clint read it through twice to absorb the contents, and then threw it away from himself in disgust. It fluttered uselessly to the floor, and Clint paced the confines of the small room.

From the chair, Coulson leaned over and picked up the letter. He glanced at Clint once, seeking permission to read it, and Clint nodded raggedly. He ran his hands through his short hair as Coulson scanned the letter.

Clint’s mouth tightened as he remembered what he'd read. The letter had been written by the general in charge of the Brighton encampment. He was writing to outline the charges being laid against Barney, and to seek Clint’s help in locating him. He professed that all he was interested in was the truth, but Clint could read between the lines. He knew the man believed Barney to be guilty. He wanted only to catch him before the Runners in London did.

And he wanted Clint’s help.

“Insufferable presumption,” Clint snarled as he began to pace the room. “I’d send him to Scotland before I’d put him onto Barney, even if I knew where my brother has gone.”

Coulson rose smoothly from the floor and came over to him. He put his hands on Clint’s shoulders, and stopped his relentless pacing.

“Breathe,” Coulson said, his voice calm and even. Clint looked at him, and saw the steadiness in his eyes. Raggedly, Clint took a breath. It felt good, so he released it and repeated the process.

“Good,” Coulson said, his hands squeezing Clint’s shoulders. “That is good. Just breathe.” He waited a beat, then asked, “Do you feel better?”

Clint nodded, shifting his eyes from Coulson's to the floor. Still, he could feel Coulson nod.

“Now, we need to think. Where would your brother have gone?”

Clint closed his eyes.

Barney. Where would Barney go? Clint thought of his brother.

“He is rash and impulsive,” Clint found himself saying out loud. He could feel Coulson's nod. Growing in confidence, he went on. “He would have taken his things and left Brighton, and he probably did write me that letter in the coach. But at the end – he realizes at the end that someone could intercept it. He knows then that the letter itself is not safe, so he does not mention names. He would have stopped the coach and posted the letter. If it went astray, he knew Mrs. Carson would forward it to me in Derbyshire.”

Coulson nodded again. “A very efficient woman,” he agreed. Clint snorted.

“She is not a Jarvis,” he agreed with a weak smile, feeling calmer now, “but she takes care of us.”

That thought speared him, and Clint blinked his eyes open. “She takes care of me,” he said, more urgently now. “But not Barney. He never wanted to be taken care of, he always wanted to be the one in control. Ever since our father – ” Clint broke off. His mind was racing. “He has gone back to London.”

Coulson looked at him steadily, no disbelief in his gaze, but needing to be sure. “Back to London?”

Clint thought it over again. He nodded. He knew his brother. “Yes,” he said, more firmly. “He would have posted the letter, and then turned around and gone back to London. Probably via post, and changing stations often. He would have been worried about being followed. He may have changed his hat and coat, and I do not know where he would have stayed when he arrived, but that is where he has gone. He would want to solve his own problem.” Clint gave a strangled sort of laugh. His idiot of a brother. “He never could stand to ask for help.”

Coulson gave his shoulders one last squeeze, and then let him go. He stepped back, and Clint almost found himself swaying with the loss of contact. He had not realized how much he had been leaning against Coulson until the man released him.

Clint blushed, embarrassed. Coulson looked back at him, nothing but calm in his eyes.

“I’ll contact Mr. Fury,” he said, his voice steady as always. “He has contacts within the military, and with the magistrates and Runners in London. He may know which victims were poisoned, and he will keep an eye out for your brother. If he appears, Mr. Fury will try to find him before the Runners do.”

Coulson held Clint's eyes, his gaze steady. “We will find him, Mr. Barton. He will not be hanged for this.”

Clint closed his eyes once, briefly, in desperate hope. Then he nodded. When he opened his eyes again, his gaze was filled with purpose. “What can I do to help?”

Coulson's upper lip twitched in a smile. “You can return to Hertfordshire,” he said, and raised a hand when Clint opened his mouth to protest. “No, Mr. Barton. That is the best thing for you to do. There is a chance that you are wrong, and that your brother has gone to back Barton Manor. There is a stronger chance,” he admitted, “that he is in London, but it would be absurd not to check and make sure. Also, you need to take your aunt and uncle home. Their things are at Barton Manor, are they not?”

Clint nodded, guiltily thinking of his aunt and uncle only then. Of course Coulson would remember them first.

“There is also the possibility that your brother has had some kind of communication with Mr. or Mrs. Carson, or that someone in Meryton has heard from him. He has several friends in the area, does he not?” He waited for Clint’s nod, then went on. “You need to return home and quietly ask those sorts of questions. Send a letter to Mr. Fury with your answers – that would arouse the least amount of suspicion. You communicate with him often.”

Clint nodded, again. He looked at Coulson. He wanted to ask, And what will you be doing? but he controlled himself before he could open his mouth. He had no right to demand that Coulson do anything to lessen Barney’s shame.

Coulson knew that Barney was guilty of at least one crime. He said Fury would keep Barney from being hanged for this, but that did not mean he needed to help Clint’s brother himself. He had Miss Coulson and the Banners at his home and could not abandon them, especially to become ensnared in something this sordid.

Fury would be a good person to coordinate this. For him it was about more than Barney, more than the Barton brothers' shame. There was a power play at work here, as Barney had said in his letter. Clint already knew that Fury was involved. Barney said he knew the faces, if not the names, of specific parties. If Fury could rescue Barney, it would help him bring those responsible to justice.

Coulson, with his calm competence and level handedness, made Clint feel comforted, but that did not mean that Coulson would involve himself in the search. Coulson had no stake in any of this. He never would have, except that he came upon Clint at an inopportune time.

“Of course,” Clint said to him now, stepping back. It was difficult, but necessary. “I will write to Mr. Fury, and to Mrs. Fury, as usual. It will avoid suspicion.”

Coulson nodded. “Let us fetch some paper, and we will write to him now. I will make a copy of your brother's letter, with your permission. I can send it to Mr. Fury with my own missive, and you can leave for Barton Manor within the hour.”

He paused for a moment, suddenly awkward again. “This – unfortunate business – will of course prevent you from joining us at Pemberley again tonight.”

Clint nodded, a little stiffly. “Yes, yes it will.” He cleared his throat, “Please, express my apologies to your sister. And to the doctor and Miss Banner as well. Tell them I – ” he hesitated. “Tell them I will miss their company.”

Coulson nodded, his own gaze far away. After a moment he looked back at Clint, and there was distance in his eyes now. “Let me fetch us some paper,” he said, and turned away.

Clint watched him go with a helpless feeling in his breast. This would be it, then. How could Coulson continue their acquaintance, even after Barney’s name was cleared? London had a long memory, and Coulson belonged to a prominent family.

They would part ways, and probably never see each other again.

Clint took his pen from the table and trimmed it, focusing on that action instead of the way his heart was breaking in his chest.

 

*

 

It took longer than Clint would have preferred to explain the situation to his aunt and uncle. He informed them they needed to return to Hertfordshire with haste, allowed them to change and settle things at the Inn, and then chivvied them into the carriage before beginning. He promised to explain everything on the way, and his good-byes to Coulson were hurried. He wanted to clasp the other man about the shoulders, to thank him for his efforts that morning, but the distance in Coulson's eyes stopped him.

Clint gave the other man a stiff bow, instead, which he returned. Clint turned to catch his aunt and uncle watching them both in distress, and hurried to the coach.

As they were pulling away from Lambton, he began his story. He left out the details regarding Barney and the theft of Dr. Banner’s formula, and said only that his brother had gotten himself in some trouble with individuals of high rank in the military. He mentioned the deaths in London, however, knowing his uncle could provide some detail regarding that.

“Yes, it is true,” he said, frowning, “there was a suspicion in poison in several cases. Nothing had been proven, the last I heard, but the whispers had started.”

Clint nodded, and went on to read to them parts of Barney’s letter from Brighton. He had taken the original with him, and left the copy with Coulson.

“They accosted him in the night!” Mrs. Carter exclaimed, disbelief in her voice. “My dear, could this be true?”

Mr. Carter nodded sagely. “I am sorry, but it could be. I fear lawlessness is infecting the upper ranks.”

“But in his own bed!” Mrs. Carter shook her head. “I do not wish to believe it, but sadly I do. What can we do to help?”

Clint had to blink back sudden tears at the entreaty in her voice. Her husband patted her knee comfortably. “We shall return to London as soon as possible, my dear. It is possible that some of my contacts in the business world will be able to help.”

His uncle looked over at Clint, who had regained control of himself. He never forgot how much his aunt and uncle loved him, but he was still caught off guard by it, on occasion. “You will be staying in Hertfordshire?” his uncle asked.

Clint nodded. “I will ensure that Barney has not gone to ground, and begin the search for him from there,” he said. He did not mention his suspicion that Barney had doubled back to London. He trusted them both, but his uncle would already be making enquiries in London. He did not want their home searched, in case word escaped that Barney was in town.

“Good idea,” his uncle said. “Contact his friends in Hertfordshire and Brighton alike, and I will speak to those he has mentioned in London.” He reached forward and gripped Clint by the shoulder tightly. “We will find him, my boy. Do not worry about that.”

Clint nodded, and closed his eyes briefly. They would find him, of that Clint had no doubt, but the question was – would they find him in time?

 

*

 

The trip back to Hertfordshire was completed in less than half the expected time. They set off early every morning, and drove late into the night. Finally, they arrived at Barton Manor one evening as the sun was setting in the west.

Mrs. Carson was there when they threw open the front doors, and she came forward to envelop Clint in a hug.

“Oh, my dear boy,” she said, hiccuping into his chest. “I am so glad you are home.” Clint, worried at her unusual reaction, sat her in the sitting room and fetched her some brandy. She drank it quickly, and some of the colour came back into her cheeks. Mr. Carson came in from outside as well, and stood awkwardly as Clint coaxed a frightened Mrs. Carson into speaking.

“Two men came to the house this evening,” Mrs. Carson told them, finally, her voice shaking slightly. “Approximately an hour ago. They demanded to see you, and when they were informed you were not here, they were very,” she paled, “angry. They refused to leave. Mr. Carson came in, and forced them out. They are staying in the inn at Meryton, though, and say they will be back again tomorrow.”

“Who are they?” Clint asked, holding her by the shoulders. “Mrs. Carson, what did they look like?”

She closed her eyes in terror. “Very large men, my boy. Well dressed, but very angry. They were not officers, nor anyone I recognized from Herfordshire. I thought they meant you harm, Mr. Barton. Even if you had been home I would have told you to hide.”

Mr. Carter looked grim at this news. He shook his head at Clint. “They would not be coming here to arrest you, my boy. They must mean you a more nefarious purpose.”

Clint set his jaw. “What they mean and what they will get are two very different things.”

That night, after Mrs. Carson had been calmed and a quick, cold dinner had been served, Clint quietly left the house after everyone was in bed. He dressed in black as he had when he and Natasha had escaped together, but did not take his bow.

Tiptoeing out of the Manor, Clint made his way silently to town on foot. He stood for a moment in the alley beside the inn at Meryton, and analyzed the rooming house the way Natasha had shown him so many years ago.

The key to climbing, she had said, was to find fingerholds that could support your weight. Your feet could find the cracks your fingers could, if you had the strength to hang for a time if you needed.

Clint crept forward and silently scaled the building, taking his time, finally reaching the small balcony on the upper guest room floor. He knew Mrs. Pym kept that room for paying travellers, and he guessed from Mrs. Carson’s shaking description earlier in the evening that the men who had been sent to kidnap him – or worse – would be well paying.

Likely they were planning to bribe everyone who had seen them into ‘forgetting’ their faces when they had left. Men from London, certainly. They did not understand how in a small village like Meryton, such a display of wealth lasted for no more than a fortnight before tongues began to loosen.

Clint paused on the sill of the boarding room, and tried the window. It was unlatched in the summer heat, and he slipped noiselessly inside.

There were three men in the room, two asleep and one standing at watch by the door.

The man at watch turned just as Clint darted forwards. He had only enough time to draw a knife, and then Clint was on him.

It was a quick, silent struggle. Clint, thankful for Natasha’s improved lessons in the spring, ducked under the clumsy knife-thrust and reached around with one ankle, hooking the man’s knee and driving him to the ground. Quick as lightning, Clint darted away again, grabbing the man’s wrist as he went. Clint twisted as much with his hips as with his shoulders, until the man dropped the knife. Clint caught it before it could hit the floor and spun around, clocking the man under the chin with his other fist as he turned. His strike was true, and the man was knocked unconscious. Clint had time to feel a quick flash of satisfaction, thankful that the move had actually worked, before the man began to fall to the floor. Quickly, Clint put his hand under his head and lowered him silently to the hardwood.

The scuffle of feet had awakened one of the other men, however. He was turning under the covers as Clint crossed back towards the bed.

The man evidently saw him coming, and rolled away from Clint's fist. Clint, moving on instinct now, reversed the knife in his hand. He brought the handle up and knocked the man across the temple. But combat made his heart beat quickly, and in the moment he forgot his own strength. He hit the man with more force than necessary, and felt the sickening crunch of bone. The man fell backward off the bed, unconscious and possibly dead, and Clint felt bile rise in his throat.

He swallowed and turned, leaping onto the second bed and straddling the third man who was just waking. He twisted the man’s arms up above his head and tangled his legs in the sheets. The man was sleeping in his underclothes, and Clint pressed him firmly to the bed. His right hand came up and reversed the knife again, holding the point of it to the man’s throat.

“Where,” Clint asked with deadly calm, ignoring the two bodies on the floor, “is my brother?”

Chapter Text

It took over an hour to be sure, but the man did not know where Barney was. Clint held him down and questioned him for the first half hour, and then gagged and tied him securely with the bed sheets when one of the men on the floor began to groan.

Clint restrained the man on the floor, as well. The one Clint had struck with the knife handle had not twitched, and Clint forced himself to kneel by his side to see if he was still alive.

He was, but his breathing was ragged. Clint took a deep breath, and then tied him up as well. There was nothing he could do for him now, and likely nothing a physician could do, either. Clint had known men who had died after a hard knock upon the head. Either he would wake, or he would die. Clint would have to live with what happened either way.

He turned the man, though, so that if he woke and vomited he would be sick onto the floor. Clint had been knocked upon the head enough himself to know that vomiting often followed a severe blow.

Never let it be said his father had taught him nothing.

His grim task completed, Clint returned to the bound man on the bed. He removed the gag and began his questions again. This time either the hard look in his eye, or the evidence of his resolve, must have convinced the ruffian. He began to speak.

The words chilled Clint’s heart. The man worked for Mr. Obadiah Stane, the man currently in control of Stark Industries. He was in league with a general from the army. The men in this room had been sent to Hertfordshire to kidnap Clint, and were planning on using him as leverage against his brother. They suspected his brother to be in contact with allies of some kind, though they did not know who. They assumed news of Clint’s kidnapping would be relayed to Barney, and felt certain Barney would surrender himself in order to save his brother.

The man did not have to say his employers had intended to kill Clint, regardless of Barney’s decision. He was more than capable of understanding what was not being said.

Almost as soon as the words left the man’s mouth, Clint wanted to rush to the window and ride immediately for London. The sun was barely rising now – if he hurried he could beat the post. He stilled the impulse, however. He knew such rash action would be foolish. He needed to discover all the information he could before he began to look in earnest for his brother. He also needed to notify Fury.

Taking a pen and paper from the room, Clint scrawled a quick note to the Director. He addressed it to his London house, the same as he had his other few missives, and wrote that Stane was the man behind the kidnapping attempt. He said a general was involved as well, and wondered as he wrote it if it were General Ross, the man who had been in command of the Hertfordshire regiment while Barney was being haunted last year.

Clint finished the quick letter with a note that he was on his way to London, and folded the paper before addressing and sealing it. He rang for the maid and slipped the letter under the door when she arrived, keeping the door closed. She took the letter without question, obviously having been intimidated or bribed into ignoring any unusual behaviour from the powerful London guests, and hurried away.

He had left a substantial tip for her on the letter from a stash of money he had found in the room. He hoped the coin hurried the girl’s steps.

That task accomplished, Clint returned to his interrogation. Half an hour later he was slipping back out the window, the sun edging above the horizon at the edge of town. He took care not to be seen leaving the room, and locked the door before he went.

The man on the floor had still not awakened. Clint forced himself not to check his breathing when he left.

He made his way as fast as he was able to Barton Manor, slipping through the lanes of Meryton before he could run through the fields. Once home he bathed quickly, packed his bags, and went to find his aunt and uncle.

They were also in the process of packing. Clint recalled with wonder that they had only returned to Meryton a few scant hours before.

Though he hated to involve them, Clint knew he would need their assistance to get to London. As steadily as he could, Clint summarized the night’s events, saying only that he had confronted the men who had intimidated Mrs. Carson, and had learned of the plot to kidnap him to force Barney’s hand. If his aunt and uncle heard the unstated violence of his actions, they hid their reactions well. Instead they displayed only concern for him, and begged him not to risk himself through a journey to London.

Clint shook his head, knowing he must to go. If he stayed he would only be a target, and the men in the boarding-house would talk. Clint had taken no pains to disguise himself, as they would clearly have explained themselves less to a stranger than to the man they were coming to kidnap. He confessed to his uncle, after his aunt had left the room to resume supervising the packing, that he could not kill them before he left, even though such actions would almost have guaranteed that he would reach London unharmed.

“That is well,” Mr. Carter said, clapping him on the shoulder. “That makes you a better man than they.”

They sat down, then, and devised a plan. It took them through breakfast, but eventually they decided that Mr. and Mrs. Carter would go on to London as planned in their own coach. Clint would write several letters from home, with instructions that they be delivered to various parties in town, two the next day and another the day after. That might help to convince anyone watching that Clint was still at home, perhaps hiding in his house, and keep his pursuers from London.

In truth, Clint would be escaping that morning with his aunt and uncle. He would leave Purple Rider in the stables, and hide himself in his aunt and uncle’s carriage. He could sneak away unnoticed when they stopped to luncheon, Clint assured them. He would hire a horse from the post station, and be safely gone before they emerged from their repast.

Together, the three of them debated this plan for some time, discussing how to best conceal Clint’s presence within the carriage. Reluctantly, they agreed to bring Mrs Carson into the plan, not wishing to expose her to more danger, but knowing her cooperation would be required to carry out their deception.

Mrs. Carson took in the particulars with a worried expression, but she tightened her jaw and straightened her shoulders. She assured them that she and her husband would do their best to see him safe. If that meant pretending he was home when he was not, it would be done.

Clint hugged her gratefully when she agreed, and begged her not to do anything to draw attention to herself. If she or Mr. Carson felt at all in danger, they were to leave everything and go directly to the Romanov estate. The servants there would protect them.

Mrs. Carson patted him on the cheek gently. “We will be safe, my dear,” she told him. “We have many friends here in Hertfordshire, and Mr. Carson will stand guard. Do not worry for us.”

Clint hated it, but he had no choice but to believe her. He hugged her once more before he left.

Climbing into the carriage and arranging himself so he could be screened from passers-by was simple. Looking back at his home, with only a bit of clothing and what money he could spare – most of that taken from the kidnappers' room that morning – hidden at his feet, was hard. The Carsons were standing on the front steps and Clint knew that, after this, everything would change.

Clint hoped he could save Barney, but he knew there was a chance he might not. He himself might be injured or killed. Surely, he would not be back before September, and by then he would be twenty-one. Barton Manor would no longer belong to his family when he returned.

If he returned.

Clint hoped the house would go to Fury. He wanted to believe that Fury and Natasha would survive whatever danger was coming. He wanted to know that Mr. and Mrs. Carson would be looked after. He needed to believe that they would be safe.

He wished, suddenly, as they rolled away from Barton Manor, that Coulson was there to tell him everything would be alright.

 

*

 

The coach travelled quickly. Clint napped for several hours while the Carter's kept watch, until his aunt and uncle had stopped at a post station outside of town. When they were safely inside, Clint slipped from the carriage unseen.

They could not do more than whisper good-bye before they left to go inside, as there were too many people bustling about, but they each gave him fond looks and squeezed his hand before they opened the carriage door and stepped away. Clint hid beneath a travelling blanket as they left, and waited until the groom had stabled the carriage before he stood.

He took care to emerge from the carriage with stealth. Pulling his hat down low over his face, Clint kept his cloak firmly about his shoulders as he found a groom and hired a horse. He handed over the money without hassle and refused to look over his shoulder as he left.

He rode first in the direction of Hertfordshire for a short distance, and then hid himself behind a tree and changed his cloak for one of a different style his aunt had packed him. Then he turned around and headed back towards London.

On the way, luck favoured him. He came across a post-horse standing alone by the road. Clint looked and saw that the post-boy had fallen asleep under an apple tree, where he had obviously stopped for a quick lunch. Clint gave the horse an apple, and then stole the boy’s post-cloak and hat. He stuffed his own cloak back into his bag, and hoped the additional disguise would serve him well.

He took back an apple for his own horse, and rode the rest of the way to London in haste.

Once in town, Clint made his way to a boarding house he knew. He had been to London a few times in the past several years, but never by himself. He had always stayed with his aunt and uncle, and had rarely gone exploring in the poorer districts. Still, he knew where they were, and he began his search there.

Stabling the horse and paying for his feed, Clint asked casually after the whereabouts of a man matching Barney’s description. “He owes me money,” he growled at the stable hand's questioning look.

“You're not the first,” the man said, chuckling. “Good luck with that.”

Clint gave him a considering look, and pulled a small coin purse from his cloak. “Have you heard something, perhaps? He owes me,” he shook the bag and heard it rattle, “quite a lot of money.”

The man's expression became hungry. “I may have,” he said. They negotiated for a moment, and Clint left the stables two tuppence lighter but with a possible location to search come dark.

Clint left the grinning man and hoped he had not been duped. He took a room and slept for a few fitful hours. He rose as the sun was setting, changed his clothes, and left via the upper window. He made his way silently across the rooftops of London, avoiding passers-by. He had a vague idea as to the location of the gaming hell of which the groom had spoken. When he was close, he made his way to street level and tried his luck.

The gaming hell proved to be a dead end. Barney had been there, but months ago, and no one had seen him recently. Clint offered his thanks and put forth some queries, and, with his purse lighter than when he had arrived, left with two possible locations in mind.

Clint spent the rest of the night walking about London, searching for evidence of his wayward brother. By the time the sun rose, he was exhausted from the cycle of hope and disappointment, and stank of cigar smoke and whiskey.

He climbed back into his boarding room window heartsick and sore, and froze when he realized he was not alone in the room.

His knife was up and leaving his fingers before his mind caught up to what he had seen. Horrified, Clint adjusted his aim, and the knife flew into the floor a half-inch from Phil Coulson’s foot instead of into the boot as he had planned.

Coulson looked down at the floor and then back up at Clint. He raised one eyebrow in obvious amusement.

Clint huffed something between a laugh and a cry, his nerves stretched and shredded from the disappointing night and Coulson's sudden appearance. The man came forward to assist him through the window, and Clint gladly let the him take some of his weight.

“Good morning,” Clint managed finally, when he finished climbing into the room. “Lovely weather we have been having.”

Coulson’s eyes crinkled in a smile. He took in Clint’s haggard appearance and delicately sniffed the air. “I take it you were unsuccessful?”

Clint sighed and dropped himself into a chair. “No, I was not successful.”

They sat in mutually disappointed silence for a moment. Despite himself, Clint felt some of the tension in his shoulders lift, just by virtue of Coulson’s presence. There was something... restful... about the man. Perhaps it was the calm steadiness in his gaze, or the familiar suit and patient expression. Whatever it was, it helped. Clint felt himself begin to relax, and then, before he could countenance it, to drift to sleep.

With a groan, Clint lifted his head from the wall and shook it. He could not sleep, not yet. He leaned forward and bent to pull off his boots. He stopped halfway and looked up, blinking at Coulson, his mind moving sluggishly. “Wait,” he said, only just now catching on to the fact that Coulson was in his room. “What are you doing in London? Should you not be at Pemberley with your sister and your guests?”

Coulson frowned. “Did you honestly think I was going to remain at Pemberley and allow you to wander about London alone?”

Clint blinked at him. “Yes.”

Something in Coulson’s expression tightened, and Clint dropped his eyes to his boots, leaning forward again to tug them off. “I only meant that Miss Coulson and Miss Banner are there, and that you told me to go back to Hertfordshire, as I recall.”

“I did,” Coulson said dryly. Clint looked up to meet his expression, and could only call the look in his eyes ‘fond’. “And yet I had very little expectation of you staying there. It seems I was right.” He gave Clint a small, but genuine, smile. “Dr. Banner can look after himself and his sister. My sister categorically refused to be left at home. She is staying with Mr. and Mrs. Fury at the moment.”

Clint let his boot fall to the floor and stared up at Phil in shock. “You brought her here? There are kidnappers and killers about!”

Coulson looked at him. “She was quite insistent,” he said, sounding concerned. “And what do you mean, kidnappers?”

Sighing, Clint went to work on his other boot and told Coulson what had happened to him in Hertfordshire. He was rewarded when Coulson came swiftly forward and put his hands on Clint’s face, raising it to the light and scanning him for injury with a worried expression.

“I am well,” Clint said, pulling his head back a little. Coulson scowled and held him steady. Clint blushed and looked away. “Truly. They are far worse off than me.”

“Good,” Coulson growled. Clint’s heart skipped a beat.

He kept his eyes away, though, and licked his lips. “I may have... killed one of them, however. I did not check before I left.”

Coulson took his chin in hand and forced his head up. Clint met his eyes, and was surprised by their steely expression. “You did what you had to do,” Coulson told him firmly. “You were in mortal danger, and you reacted with more restraint than most. If he is dead, then he is dead. I will not weep for him.” His gaze softened. “It matters only that you are safe.”

Clint stared at him. His heart was thundering in his chest. Coulson's face was inches from his. Clint wanted, very badly, to kiss him.

The thought startled him. He found Coulson restful and relaxing, and yes, he could admit that the man was startlingly attractive, especially when he smiled. And also now, it seemed, when he was staring at Clint as if he wanted to gather him in his arms and hide him away from the world.

But as much as Coulson appeared to care for him, Clint could not pretend he was anything but the second son of a gambling drunk, whose brother was on the run from the law and who, within the month, would have lost his home to Coulson's good friend. He had nothing to offer Coulson. There was nothing special about him except his aim, and that was hardly practical in today’s world.

The differences between them were too great, and Clint's feelings still too uncertain. Clint blushed and looked away. After a moment, Coulson let go of his face and stepped back. His expression cleared and his eyes seemed to shutter slightly. “Now,” he said in a fair approximation of his usual near-expressionless voice, “tell me what you have learned tonight.”

Clint removed his second boot. He told Coulson of his movements that evening, and of the men he had seen. Coulson nodded when he was done. “Good,” he said. “Those locations can be ruled out, then. Fury and I have assembled a list, and most of those places were on our search grid for today. We can skip them, now.”

Clint looked over at him and smiled. “You had a search planned?”

A hint of colour appeared on Coulson's cheeks and he turned to the window. “I prefer to keep things organized.”

Clint grinned. “You wrote it out,” he said, finding the image unexpected and highly amusing. “You have it established in a ledger, I am certain. Every seedy public house noted and labelled, with the level of danger illustrated from 1 to 10. I wager you penned it yourself in a neat hand.”

Coulson snorted softly, but he did not seem to take offence at Clint’s teasing. “Not all of us write as chickens scratch,” he said dryly, but his smile took the sting from the words.

“I failed at all gentleman’s classes,” Clint agreed, bouncing to his feet in a rush of renewed energy. Coulson's smile was like a beam of sunlight, vitalizing him. “I should have stayed in the circus.”

Coulson shot him an amused look. “You would have been a disaster in the circus. You would have had far too much fun, and likely burned the tents to the ground.”

“Surely not,” Clint grinned, “the gypsies were very good with fire. They would have put it out.”

Coulson shook his head, but he was smiling again. “Stay and sleep for a few hours, Mr. Barton. I will rendezvous with Fury, and we will adjust our search. Mr. Stark will be by in a few hours to collect you. We can continue then.”

“Mr. Stark?” Clint asked, surprised. “Is he involved in this, then? Did Fury receive my warning regarding Stane?”

“Most certainly,” Coulson said, his lips going thin with anger. “Mr. Stark was contacted immediately. He has been warned about Obadiah Stane, and will be meeting with Fury this afternoon. We attempted to remove him from London for his own safety, but he refused. He desires to help bring Stane to justice.” Coulson looked at Clint and hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Fury and I reviewed the report of his father’s death. It seems Mr. Howard Stark may have been poisoned.”

Clint sucked in a sudden breath. “But he was ill for some time. Stark said so.”

Coulson nodded grimly. “Yes. We believe his murder was the first. Stane needed Mr. Howard Stark to fall ill so he could be named successor to the company, and ready himself for the final strike. We think he administered small doses of the poison for some months, and then a larger dose when the time had come. Once his employer was dead, he moved quickly with his allies against the other businessmen of London. He is now in a position to take over almost all trade in the country, and with his allies in the military, he may even be planning to stage a coup of Parliament.”

Clint stared at him. Surely this must be a joke. Staging a coup! The man would have to be mad. But Clint looked at the Derbyshire man, taking in the firm set of Coulson's shoulders and the deadly seriousness of his expression, and knew it had to be true.

“We must stop him,” Clint said, finally.

Coulson nodded, his face hard. “We will.” He hesitated, then stepped almost reluctantly back towards the door. “Rest, Mr. Barton, if only for a few hours. Mr. Stark will be by soon enough, and nothing will happen until tonight.”

Clint nodded, knowing Coulson was right. Something occurred to him, then. He looked up, and hesitated for a moment before he asked, “Have you seen him? Mr. Stark, I mean. Have you – ?”

He trailed off, but Coulson sighed. He understood. “No,” he admitted. “Fury is the one who has met with him. He knows I am in town and involved, and that Pepper is here, but I have not yet seen him myself.”

Coulson held his eyes and gave him a small, sad smile. “I will, though, and soon. Do not worry.”

Clint looked away. “Mr. Stark is one of my closet friends,” he said, feeling his chest clench. “Besides Mrs. Fury and Barney, he is the closest thing I have to family. And you – ” he looked up to see Coulson watching him, something he could not read in his eyes. Clint’s voice floundered. “You – you are important to me, also.”

He swallowed, and Coulson stared at him. Clint looked away. He did not want to hear what Coulson would say to his sudden declaration.

Finally, out of the corner of his eye, Clint saw Coulson blink and look away. The moment was broken. He glanced once toward the door, and then back to Clint.

“I’ll be nearby,” Coulson promised. There was something in his voice that Clint did not want to hear, regret or a hesitance he did not like. Clint forced himself to nod. “Rest for a few hours, and Mr. Stark will come round after dinner. We will meet at Mr. and Mrs. Fury's then.”

Clint nodded again, and Coulson hesitated for another moment before bowing quickly and crossing to the door to let himself out. Clint sighed as he left, his momentary surge of energy forgotten. He did not know if he would sleep, but he undressed quickly and climbed beneath the thin covers.

He must have been more tired than he thought, because his head had barely hit the pillow before his eyes closed, and he was asleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

 

Clint awoke hours later to a shout from beneath his window.

He startled in bed and sat up, his hands reaching for the knife in his boot and finding nothing but skin. Near panic, he stared around the unfamiliar room until memory slowly returned to him.

London. He was in London. His knife was still in his boot, in the corner where he had dropped it when Coulson had left. Not, in retrospect, the cleverest decision he had ever made, but he was alive and unharmed in his room, so no harm had come of it.

Clint sighed and relaxed, settling back onto his rented bed for a moment before the rest of his memory returned.

Something had woken him. Not a presence in his room as he had originally suspected, but something else.

A shout, he remembered. Clint looked from the door to his window.

Something was wrong.

The window was dark, and there were sounds coming from the street. Clint moved, swinging his legs out of bed and crossing to his bag. He dressed quickly, pulling on a clean pair of black trousers and a dark purple shirt.

It was late. Later than it should have been. Tony should have been here hours ago, to wake him up and take him to Fury.

Something was definitely wrong.

Clint laced his boots and went to the window, peering out into the street. The night was warm enough not to need a coat, and there were more people in the streets than the hour called for. He swung his quiver onto his back and grabbed his bow, stringing it silently in the shadows of his room.

Men were standing about in groups, most talking quietly. A low murmur drifted up, along with the occasional shout like the one that had wakened Clint. Clint peered out at the dim view of London.

Perhaps it was not as late as he had thought – the red glow of sunset reflected off the tops of the buildings. Tony may simply be running late.

Clint stopped and stared at the red glow. It was not coming from the west, he realized with slowly dawning horror, but from the north.

It was not sunset.

It was fire.

Clint finished with his boots and slipped hurriedly out the window, climbing to the roof. From there he could hear more murmuring from the streets, men coming outside to stare at the fire. It was still far enough away not to worry about this neighborhood, but tension was obviously high.

Clint quickly orientated himself to London, thinking of where he was and what lay to the north. He cursed when he realized what must be burning, and started jumping rooftops to get closer to the blaze.

The north was where the new factories had been built, and there was only one large enough to be putting up that kind of a blaze.

Stark Industries was on fire.

Clint ran over the rooftops, skidding occasionally on loose patches of tile, and vaulted across chimney stacks. The babble of voices from the street got louder as he neared the blaze, until a series of shouts and an inhuman roar caught his attention.

Clint skidded to a stop and looked down.

A group of men in officer's uniforms were racing through the streets, shouting and loading their rifles as they went. As Clint watched, the lead man called a halt. A group of three slid to a stop, dropped to one knee, and sighted along the length of their barrels. Clint looked for their target, but whatever it was, it was hidden by the curve of the street. He looked back at the officers just as they fired, the simultaneous bang echoing through the streets.

There was another painful roar, deafening enough to shake the roof tiles around him.

Clint dashed forward. He had no idea what was happening, but he suspected, with awful and increasing certainty, that the officers firing below were linked to General Ross’s group. That would mean the target they were firing at was likely a friend.

Clint ran to the opposite corner of the roof and stared.

The target was a large green creature. A hulk of massive proportions. Clint stared in horrified fascination as the next set of red coats dropped to one knee. The ... Hulk, Clint supposed ... was certainly man-like. It was huge and green and almost obscenely muscled, yet the trousers it was wearing were certainly man-made. Clint watched with growing disbelief as the red coats fired again. The Hulk roared, its tree-trunk like arms rising into the air. With a horrible smash the Hulk threw its arms forward, fists pounding onto the cobblestone street, and the road rippled, throwing the officers down to the ground with surprised shouts.

Stunned, Clint looked for wounds in the Hulk’s chest and back, and saw none. The rifles, powerful as they were, had done nothing. He stared at the sprawled, stunned officers, and knew that if the Hulk rushed forward now he could kill them all with a single swipe.

Instead, the Hulk paused. It huffed at the men, for all the world like a bull in the ring and, instead of finishing the kill, turned and stalked away.

As it turned to walk back down the street, Clint caught a glimpse of its face. He gasped.

It was Bruce.

It was impossible, but it was so. Yet before Clint could say or do anything, one of the men on the ground climbed painfully back to his feet. Clint caught the flash of a knife in his hand. He did not know what the blade could do against such a creature – against Bruce – but he did not want to risk finding out.

Pulling back on the string, Clint shot an arrow into the officer’s wrist before he could throw. With a pained shout the man went down once more, gripping his arm, and Bruce turned to stare at him.

Clint searched the large green face for any hint of recognition. There was none.

The creature was a Hulk – it was not Bruce. The Hulk seemed likewise unsure of him. He huffed and paced back and forth beneath his building, and Clint froze. He was reminded again of a bull. From what he knew of bulls, they could be indecisive until their targets turned to run. Fleeing often triggered the urge to charge.

The Hulk eyed the building he stood atop of, looking as if he were trying to decide whether to jump. Clint did not know if the creature could climb buildings, and did not want to find out.

Before he could decide what action to take, a clatter rose from the street. Clint looked to see another group of officers running towards the Hulk, armed with rifles and swords, and shouting loudly.

Clint made his decision. He would allow no harm to come to his friend, no matter what form he was in. Clint shot towards the group, taking out the lead lieutenant with an arrow to the calf and the man behind him with a wound to the shoulder.

The men screamed and fell down. The Hulk looked at them, then huffed and turned back to Clint.

“Run!” Clint shouted at him, waving, and turned to jump down onto a side-roof. A moment later he was in the street, and urging the Hulk to follow him. The creature seemed to hesitate for another moment, but then another echo of running boots came towards them and the Hulk quickly made up his mind.

He turned and followed Clint.

“This way!” Clint shouted, leading them towards Stark Industries. He did not know what was going on – he did not know how Bruce had turned into this strange monster, or where Tony was – but he knew there was more burning in that factory than metal. Clint wanted answers.

Together, Clint and the Hulk raced through the streets. Clint jumped from eaves to rooftops and back down again, trying to keep pace. The Hulk was as fast as he was strong, and they soon left the officers behind them.

The closer they got to the burning building, the more the smell of smoke filled the air. Clint began to cough, feeling it deep within his lungs, and even the Hulk appeared discomforted.

The creature snorted again, slowing as they approached the block where the factories were located. Clint was relieved to see they had left most of the residential buildings behind them and that the streets were mostly deserted. People must have already fled, setting up fire blocks further away in the city.

Clint turned and urged the Hulk forward.

“Follow me,” he said, waving at him. “Bruce – Bruce?”

The Hulk looked at him and shook his head. “No Bruce,” he said. His voice was deep and powerful, but definitely not Bruce Banner’s. Clint looped his bow around his arm and held up both empty hands.

“Very well,” he said, edging forward. “Not Bruce. I have been referring to you as the Hulk, in my head,” he said. “Is that acceptable?”

The Hulk seemed to think for a moment. “What Hulk?”

Clint laughed. “You are the Hulk, my friend. A Hulk is a large, strong man. That is you.”

The description seemed to make the Hulk happy. “Hulk strong,” he agreed, with another huff. “Bruce Banner weak. Bruce Banner surrounded by bad General, and all his red men, everyone shouting. Bruce Banner get scared.” He pounded his chest. “Hulk save him. Hulk smash small red men.”

Clint thought of the officers in the alleyway, and nodded. “Yes. The Hulk smashes well. But the Hulk did not kill anyone, either, which is also good. Very good. Killing people is bad, brings more red men.”

The Hulk scrunched his face. “No more red men,” he rumbled.

Clint shook his head. “No,” he agreed, “no more red men.” He gestured to the burning building. The factory was half on fire, the north wing completely engulfed in flames. The southern wing had been mostly spared, but that would quickly change.

“But a friend of ours – of Bruce's and mine – might be in there. His name is Tony. He may be in trouble. We have to go save him.”

The Hulk shook his head. “Hulk no like fire,” he said. “Fire crackles and burns, and the Hulk cannot smash it. There was fire when the Hulk first grew from Banner.” He shifted nervously on his feet and then stepped back, away from the building. “Hulk no like fire.”

Clint stared at him, thinking. There had been a fire in London last year, had there not? He remembered reading about it. A small fire at the University, nothing too destructive, and easily extinguished, but there had been some property damage around the site. Clint remembered being unsure how a fire could have caused the streets to need repair.

Looking at the Hulk now, imagining him roaring and jumping off a building, Clint could easily picture why the streets might need to be repaired.

And what did he mean - grew from Banner? Did that mean that Banner was still in there, somewhere? Could Clint get him back?

Clint looked up as a large pop-crackle came from the burning building. He would have to think about that later. For now, there was work to do.

“Very well, you shall stay here,” he said, thinking quickly. “I will go into the building. You keep watch and – ”

A bang sounded, and Clint flinched. A moment later a burning line seared along his upper arm, and Clint clutched his shoulder and dropped to the ground.

Three more rifle shots came at them from the east. Above him the Hulk roared and charged towards the red coats spilling into the street. Clint ducked and ran south instead, looking for cover.

He dove behind a nearby building, hearing screams as the Hulk charged into the attacking party.

Protected by the corner of the building, Clint checked his arm. A thin score of blood could be seen, but the muscle appeared to be whole. Clint breathed a sigh of relief and ignored the wound, taking his bow and checking the string.

It was sound. Clint looked up and identified several hand-holds in the building above him. He climbed them quickly, making his way to the roof.

He darted east to where the Hulk was roaring. As he came closer, he realized the battle was more desperate than he had thought. Rather than a few red coats, there was a large contingent approaching. They had the Hulk surrounded and were dragging a large, weighted fishing net forward. They were clearly going to try and entangle him. Clint shot several men in the shoulders and arms, aiming for those holding the net. They dropped it, but several more men darted forward and picked it up. They surged forward and threw it over the Hulk.

The Hulk roared and struggled with the net. The men around him cheered and ran forward, stabbing him with blades and firing at close range as he struggled. Clint could not see any trace of blood, but the Hulk roared angrily and Clint could not be sure he was uninjured.

“Hulk, stop!” he shouted, aiming carefully. “Stand still!”

The men below looked up at him and started shouting. Clint ignored them and focused. The Hulk had paused and looked at him as well. Clint took a deep breath and shot five times in quick succession. He grinned as the arrows sliced cleanly through the thick lines of rope. They parted around the Hulk, leaving him free once again.

A rifle shot struck next to his boot. Clint flinched as shrapnel from the roof flew up and into his face. He ducked back. More and more rifle shots struck around him, and Clint felt a sharp burn at his thigh and another at his hip.

Suddenly, from behind him, came the running sounds of boots on tile. Clint looked back to see a lithe figure in a tight black suit with flaming red hair leap towards him. Clint yelped and ducked. The figure somersaulted straight over him and fell over the edge of the roof, toward the street below. Clint, fearing the worst, dropped to his knees and crawled forward, convinced he would see the figure dead on the cobblestones. Instead, to his amazement, he saw the figure rise from a crouch. With barely a pause, it began to lash out at the officers, kicking at arms and wrists, snapping legs and breaking knees and elbows. The figure was a whirlwind of destructive power.

Clint stared in awe as the figure paused for a brief moment and looked up through its curtain of red hair. Clint saw Natasha smile.

He gaped at her. Even he had never seen her like this, alive like this. She moved like a demon, as if this was what she had been born to do.

There was another presence beside him, and Clint looked over his shoulder to see Nick Fury standing there, the dark skin of his face stretched into an almost inhuman smile. He wore a long black coat that billowed in the night air, the ruddy glow of the fire reflecting in his dark eye and the shiny leather eye patch he wore.

Fury turned to him and smiled, and Clint felt himself grinning fiercely back.

“Go on,” the Director told him, nodding towards Stark Industries. “Mr. Stark is still missing, and Phil went in search of him hours ago. I hope they’re both not in there, but you had better find out.”

Clint felt his heart freeze in his chest, icy tendrils of fear spreading from the sudden hitch in his breathing.

Coulson.

Without another word, Clint turned and leapt from the building. He caught the edge of an awning and dropped safely to the ground, moving with as much efficiency if less grace than Natasha had. It pained him to abandon her, but Natasha was clearly holding her own. He left the battle behind him and darted back towards the factory.

The closer he got, the thicker the smoke billowed. Clint coughed and stared at the building, eyes watering. The fire was spreading, coming forward from the north end and licking towards the southern wing. Clint squinted through the smoke at the rooftop and the windows, wondering how he could safely get inside and out again with Tony and Coulson.

Suddenly there was a flash of light from the top of the building, and then a small explosion billowed up and out. Clint ducked automatically at the sight, and then straightened when it was clear there was no debris coming towards him. He stood and stared at the rising plume of flame.

There was a... a creature. No... a machine... rising out of the south end of the building. Clint stared, gaping, as a small metal man came shooting up from inside the building and flew towards the sky.

His metal skin was riveted together and painted in red and gold, and there was a brilliant white light in the centre of his chest. He had miniature engines – they looked like rockets – attached to his feet that fired as he flew, directing his flight.

A moment later another, larger metal man came rumbling after him. He also had a white light in his chest, and his suit was not nearly as sleek, the metal dark and unpainted. The larger man grasped the ankle of the smaller one, ignoring the flame of the engines, and spun him around, throwing him sideways. The man tumbled from the sky, hit the roof of the building, and then fell off the edge.

Clint gasped as the smaller man’s rockets seemed to fail for a moment, and then sputter back to life. The man, who had been plummeting towards the ground, straightened again in midair. He started to rise through the smoke-filled night, shouting something.

He was too far away to make out the words, but Clint heard the larger metal man chuckle. He continued to rise at a slower but more powerful pace; his larger suit obviously undamaged while the smaller metal man’s sparked irregularly.

Clint dashed forward, needing to get closer, to see. The smaller man was somehow familiar, and he moved with grace, even hovering in the air. The closer he got, Clint realized that while the suit had, at one time, indeed been fully painted red and gold, it was now half-crumpled and soot-smudged. The rockets continued to sizzle and sputter ominously, and the man had to continually shift his weight to adjust his flight.

By comparison, the larger suit was pristine, but Clint could see the obvious sluggishness in the way it moved. It lacked the grace of the small man – the original, Clint somehow knew – though it still hovered impossibly in the air.

Clint made it to the base of the building opposite the fight and tried the door. He was unsurprised to find it locked and Clint looked up to the nearest window. It was open and smoke billowed out, but it was not far. Quickly, he began to climb.

Clint had just made it to the ledge of the windowsill when the larger metal man managed to grab the smaller one again. Most of the battle was hidden from his view, but Clint could see flashes of it now and again. While the smaller man had been evading the larger for some time, using his superior agility in the air, the damage to his rockets made him stutter. The larger metal man might be slower, but now that he had momentum on his side Clint could see that he was truly a dangerous foe.

He captured his smaller opponent by a limb and whirled him over his head, releasing him at the top of his arc. The smaller metal man was thrown into an uncontrolled spin, pinwheeling through the air before crashing down into the roof of the building Clint was climbing. Clint stared, peering sidelong over the jutting roof of the adjacent wing, as the man bounced along the tiles for a moment. His rockets sputtered and fired, and the man finally bounced back into the air. It looked for a moment as if his rockets would hold, but then he fell again.

“Tony!”

The scream came from inside the building. Clint started as he recognized Miss Coulson’s terrified voice. He released the roof and dove through the window, ignoring the broken glass that bit into his arms and legs.

Beyond the glass, the warehouse floor was a mess of broken equipment and smouldering debris. Smoke billowed through the space and Clint coughed as he looked around. Half of one wall had fallen in, and the ceiling was caved in, a giant hole in the centre of it. The smaller metal man – could it be Tony? – hung half inside the roof, one arm and leg dangling through the open hole.

“Tony!” Miss Coulson shouted again. Clint looked. The smoke made his vision water, but, finally, he saw her by the edge of the broken wall, tugging at something. She was dressed in what had obviously once been a beautiful green gown, but which was now ripped and covered in soot. Her face and hair were dirty, and she pulled desperately at something caught in the remains of the wall.

Clint felt his heart stutter in his chest.

It was Coulson.

Clint ran forward even as he was aware of the large metal man rocketing over the open hole in the ceiling to land beside the red and gold man hanging on with one hand. The man in the larger suit laughed, a cruel sound that echoed even over the roar of the fire, and kicked at the dented, metal form of Tony Stark. Tony fell in through the hole and landed with a crash onto the floor below, and as he ran, Clint turned his head to watch him.

He wanted to stop and help, because it was Tony, Clint realized now, recognizing the mid-air grace he had noticed earlier, but Coulson was still trapped under the wall, insensate by the looks of it, and the large metal man was already descending down through the roof into the room.

The large metal man flipped his helmet open, and Clint had his first look at the face beneath the iron mask. It was an older man with a cruel smile, and Clint knew this must be Obadiah Stane.

“Tony!” The man gloated. Tony groaned and rolled over on the floor, and Clint breathed a sigh of relief even as he reached Miss Coulson and her brother. At least Tony was still alive.

“Clint?” Miss Coulson asked, incredulous, staring at him. Then she blinked and immediately recovered, tugging at her brother. “Phil is trapped. I cannot get him out!”

“I know,” Clint said, dropping to his knees. He looked over the situation. Phil was lying face-down on the floor, his arms spread wide. His leg was caught under a piece of the red brick wall that had crumbled, and a great wooden beam lay across his shoulders. Nothing appeared to be broken or bleeding, but Clint knew with a sinking feeling in his stomach that he was not going to be able to move him alone.

“We need Tony!” Clint told her.

Miss Coulson shook her head and pointed, tears caught in her eyes. Clint turned and followed her gaze to the open ceiling, where Stane had grabbed Tony and was rising back through the air with him in his grip. Tony struggled weakly, and Stane laughed as he threw Tony back onto the roof. Clint heard the metal clatter even over the flames as Tony bounced across the tiles.

In vain, Clint desperately scanned Stane’s suit for a weakness. There was nothing. No chink in his armour where Clint could put an arrow, no rivet that looked unsound. Even the helmet had been replaced, hiding his face and eliminating Clint’s chance of a kill shot.

He hated that he was relieved by that, knowing that in a few moments every one of them could be dead.

“We have to get you out of here,” Clint said, turning back to Miss Coulson. When she shook her head, her eyes fearful, Clint forgot propriety and took her by the shoulders. “Pepper!” he shouted. “Coulson and Tony, what do you think they would want? They would want you safe! If it came to their lives or yours, they would choose yours every time!”

Miss Coulson stared at him, and Clint shook her. “We cannot help Tony or your brother right now, but outside there are people who can. We can find help and you will be safe. Can you walk?”

Miss Coulson closed her eyes and swallowed. Clint could see the moment she came to a decision, and was already moving when she opened her eyes and nodded. “I can walk.”

“Good,” Clint said. He took her hand. Though it broke his heart into pieces, Clint left Coulson and ran, pulling Miss Coulson behind him. He pushed through the smoke still billowing through the room and ran towards the window. Clint knocked aside as much broken glass as he could and helped her through the frame, flinching as another explosion rocked the building.

It was one of the hardest things Clint had ever done, but he climbed out of the window with Pepper, leaving Coulson behind. He showed her the hand holds, and to her credit Miss Coulson helped herself down with minimal assistance from him. Down was always easier than up, and a minute later they had both made it to the street below.

Clint tugged on Miss Coulson as another billow of flame echoed behind them. They both turned and saw that Tony was back on his feet, rockets firing, evading Stane's attacks by a hair.

Clint pulled Miss Coulson away from the building, and she finally dragged her eyes away from Tony and ran with Clint down the street. They had not gone far before they met Natasha and Fury darting towards them from the corner of a building. They were staring at the flying rocket-fight taking place in the air above Stark Industries, but turned their focus to Clint and Miss Coulson as they careened to a stop in front of them.

Natasha’s calculated gaze took in their sooty clothes and coughs, and flickered from Clint to Miss Coulson and back.

“Where is Mr. Coulson?” she asked.

Miss Coulson choked back a sob. Clint let go of her hand and met Nick Fury’s eyes. He did not know what Fury saw there, but he nodded gravely, and took Miss Coulson’s arm. Clint looked beyond him to where the Hulk was standing, rumbling steps having carried him around the building from whence Natasha and Fury had come.

“Arrow Man?” he asked, his voice like shifting gravel.

“Hulk,” Clint said. He took a deep breath. “I need your help. I need someone big and powerful, someone strong enough to face his fears. I need you, Hulk. I need you to come inside the burning building with me.”

The Hulk took a step back, a rumble building in his throat. He shook his head. “Hulk no like fire.”

Clint put up his hands. “I know, my friend, I know. But my other friend – ” his voice broke. He could feel Natasha staring at him, but he ignored her. “My other friend is inside the building and he is trapped. I need someone strong to get him out. I need you, Hulk. I need you to help me.”

Hulk stared at him. He seemed to be thinking. “Friend?”

Clint nodded. “Yes. You are my friend, and he is my very good friend. I – please, Hulk. I cannot do this without you. Please help me.”

The Hulk shifted from one giant foot to the other. “Arrow Man come with Hulk?”

Clint released his breath. “Yes. Arrow Man will come with Hulk.”

The Hulk smiled. “Arrow Man is Hulk’s friend. Hulk help Arrow Man’s other friend.”

"Thank you," Clint said with a nod, then ducked instinctively as another explosion rocked the buildings around them. He turned and started to run. “Quickly!” he shouted to the Hulk, waving him on. “We must get him out of there!”

Clint could feel the sharp shifting of the ground as the Hulk ran after him. Together they made their way back to the burning building. The Hulk did not bother climbing to the window. He simply lifted his huge tree-trunk arms and smashed the front door open.

Following him inside, Clint squinted through the smoke. He ran forward and pointed up. “We need to go through the ceiling!”

The Hulk looked nervous in the ruddy light of the growing fire, but he nodded. He took in a giant breath, his chest expanding out, and roared as he jumped. He smashed the ceiling in, bounding through the broken beams, and landing on the upper floor. It shifted under his weight, but did not give. Clint leapt onto a pile of twisted, broken equipment, somersaulted in the air to grasp at the tattered edges of the ceiling, and followed him.

They lifted themselves up onto the floor where Clint had stood with Miss Coulson. Coulson was still there, trapped under the rubble. He did not look as if he had moved, and Clint could not tell if he was breathing or not. He ran over to him and the Hulk followed. Clint eyed the open roof as he ran.

He could not see Tony or Stane anywhere. He tried not to think about what that might mean.

“Here!” Clint shouted, showing the Hulk the beam. The Hulk reached forward and with one mighty pull wrenched the beam up and away from Coulson. He threw it into the corner and another wall crumbled. Clint darted forward and dragged Coulson away, out from under the pile of masonry. The broken brick shifted and crumbled around him, but Coulson never flinched. Clint ignored the growing pit of fear in his belly and concentrated on getting the other man out.

Clint reached down and dragged Coulson up over his shoulder. He stumbled once, then turned. “Let us go!” he shouted to the Hulk, and started to make his way towards the hole in the floor.

Before he could get two steps, a loud explosion echoed from the roof. The force of it knocked Clint from his feet, and he stumbled to his knees. The Hulk roared.

From the floor, Clint angled his head to stare through the open roof. Stane was there, looking somewhat worse for wear. He and Tony were fighting, both hovering above the large hole, their rockets spitting and firing unevenly as they manoeuvred.

Clint coughed and rolled to his feet. He felt dizzy and off-balance. He grabbed for Coulson, and felt the floor shift.

Clint cursed.

The latest explosion must have destroyed one of the last supporting walls. The entire structure was beginning to crumble. Clint stumbled to his feet and dragged Coulson forward. He inched towards the hole in the floor, knowing there was no way they were going to make it in time.

With a sudden, sickening lift, Clint felt himself flying through the air. He startled, and then realized there was a large green hand under his chest, and he was not flying as much as being carried. The Hulk had picked him up. Clint tightened his grip on Coulson, even as he saw the Hulk’s other giant hand holding the injured man. With a roar the Hulk tucked them into towards his chest and ran toward the hole in the floor. He leapt through, landing on both feet, and darted forward almost without pause. With another ear-shattering roar, the Hulk crashed them through the remains of the front door.

Behind them, the entire building shuddered. Clint managed to twist in the Hulk’s arms to watch as the building shifted and then seemed to pause, holding itself at an impossible angle for a moment before something gave way. The first shift triggered the end, and the entire structure collapsed in upon itself. Dust and wood billowed outward, and the explosion rocked the night. The Hulk ran forward as the heat from the fire rumbled after them, and then collapsed beyond the reach of the rubble, tripping over the cobblestones and sprawling in the street.

He managed to twist so he took the force of the street on his giant green shoulders. Clint and Coulson were safe.

Clint coughed and looked back. The building was lying in rubble, but Tony and Stane were still fighting in the empty air where Stark Industries had been. Tony executed a turn and twisted, and something small and dark seemed to shoot from his right fist. Whatever it was caught Stane square in the chest. The larger man stumbled back through the air, and Tony kicked at him.

Stane’s rockets gave out suddenly and he tumbled towards the still-settling remains of the building. Tony tried to fly away, but his own rockets were flickering and firing in bursts. Stane hit the crumbling masonry and whatever Tony had fired at his chest exploded.

The force of it knocked Tony out of the air. His rockets finally died and he tumbled, head over feet, falling through empty space.

Clint watched, his heart sinking, as Tony plummeted to the ground. He could not stifle his anguished cry. Behind him, he heard Miss Coulson sob. Tony had been too high. No one could survive such a fall.

With a roar, the Hulk dropped him and Coulson onto the street and jumped to his feet. He ran forward, his mighty legs digging into the cobblestones and tearing great gouging pits in the street as he ran. He leapt then, higher than a being his size should have been able to, and caught the still-falling Tony as he plummeted towards the ground.

The Hulk turned in the air and slammed into the street, twisting so he once more landed on his back, Tony cradled protectively against his chest.

The night was finally still, only the sounds of the settling debris and the dying fire in the air.

Clint coughed again. His lungs were burning, he realized, and once he started coughing it seemed he could not stop. He heaved great gasping breathes that wracked his chest. He turned painfully onto his hands and knees and hacked, bringing up bile and soot and spit onto the street.

Around him he could hear his friends move. Fury said something to Miss Coulson, and with a look over her shoulder at her brother she turned and ran towards the Hulk and Tony. Fury knelt down beside Coulson, and Natasha stood, surveying the scene with her hands on her knives, watching their backs.

Clint finally stopped choking and caught his breath, gasping for air. He turned and crawled the few feet separating him from Coulson. Across the street he could hear Miss Coulson crying, and the Hulk roared. Into the sudden quiet he heard Tony gasp, and then Miss Coulson’s laughing sobs. Clint felt something ease in his chest that had nothing to do with breathing. Tony was alive.

Clint finished making his way to Coulson’s side. Fury had turned him over, so he was laying on his back.

He looked terrible. His skin was pale and covered in soot, there was blood on his hands and at the corner of his lips. Clint stared at him, willing him to be alive.

“On your feet, soldier,” Fury was saying. He was on his knees in the street, bending forward and shaking Coulson’s shoulders. Coulson’s head lolled and bounced on the street with the movement, but he did not wake up.

“You are not mustering out on me,” Fury said, anger and fear tightly controlled in his voice. “You do not have permission to die,” he shook Phil harder. “Wake up, Coulson. That is an order.”

Clint choked back a sob and dragged himself over Phil. His usually tidy hair was a mess, his perfect suit was filthy and torn. He was dark with soot and ash, his eyes, such a beautiful colour, were closed, and his bloodied mouth slightly open.

Clint stared in grief and horror. He felt a sob rise in his throat. Blindly, he leaned down and fitted his lips to Coulson’s.

There was a puff of breath on his face, and Clint pulled back and stared.

He was breathing.

“He is breathing!” he shouted. Fury sat up, blinking hard. Natasha ran over to him. Clint quickly untied his cravat. Now that he was watching for it, he could see the minute shifting of Coulson’s nostrils as he dragged in air.

“Get this off of him,” Natasha ordered, pulling a knife and slicing through Coulson’s suit jacket. The constricting fabric released, and Natasha dropped the blade. “Turn him over,” she said, and matched actions to words, reaching forwards to push Coulson from his back onto his side.

Clint helped her, his hands shaking, and reached a hand under Coulson’s head to protect his skull from bouncing on the cobblestone street.

Coulson seemed to take in a sudden great, shuddering breath, and then his eyes flickered open. Clint’s heart was in his throat as the man blinked blearily. He peered around him.

“Clint?” he asked, his voice dry.

A great tide of relief sweep over Clint, and choking, he pulled Coulson into his lap and embraced him tightly, burying Coulson’s face against his chest. Coulson coughed but seemed to relax into him, breathing into Clint’s shirt.

Natasha put her hand on the back of Coulson’s head and left it there for a moment. Fury breathed out and let his head fall back. Ahead of them, Clint could hear Miss Coulson berating Tony and his weak, protesting replies. The Hulk rumbled, a pleased sound.

Clint felt the tension begin to ease from his shoulders.

They were alive.

Chapter Text

Clint blinked blurry eyes as he woke. He sat up and looked around, wincing as he moved. His chest ached. He was lying in a comfortable bed in a moderately furnished room. He recognized one of the paintings on the wall as a favourite of Natasha’s and realized he must be in Fury’s London house.

Mid-afternoon sunlight seeped through the shuttered window. His shoulder throbbed. A piece of white bandage had been wrapped around the bullet slice he blearily remembered receiving during the battle.

The bandage was only a little red. Clint flexed his arm and winced again. That hurt.

“Stop that,” a familiar voice admonished. Clint looked towards it. Coulson was watching him from an armchair in the corner. His face was pale and bruised, with dark circles under his eyes. Clint stared. The other man looked exhausted and enervated, but he was alive and in possession of his senses.

He was the most beautiful thing Clint had ever seen.

“Are you well?” he asked, or at least tried to. The movement of air in his chest made him cough, and once he started, it felt as if he could not stop. Coulson rose, looking concerned as Clint hacked soot onto the clean sheets. He handed him a handkerchief.

Clint took it. Coulson waited until Clint’s coughing had eased before offering him a glass of water. Clint sipped at it gratefully. His throat felt as though it were on fire.

“I should be asking you that question,” Coulson answered. He sounded concerned but, beneath that, amused. Clint wondered when he had begun to notice the subtle shifts of tone that seemed to characterize Phil Coulson’s emotions.

How had he ever thought the man expressionless? Coulson could say volumes with an eyebrow or a quirk of his lips, and Clint felt himself a dullard for having missed so many of his feelings before.

It meant only that he had more to catch up on, now.

That was, Clint corrected himself, watching the other man, if Coulson was still interested in pursuing a connection between them.

Now that Clint had recovered, Coulson appeared to pull away. He retreated from Clint’s side back to his chair. Clint noticed he was limping and studied him closely – he could see that Coulson favoured his right knee and was being cautious with his left shoulder.

Coulson caught Clint’s worried look and shrugged. “I am well enough, for having a wall fall on top of me. Fury thinks I escaped most of the smoke you inhaled, being face-down for so long. It is you we worried over for most of the night – you seemed to have difficultly breathing once you fell asleep. The doctor was called, and listened to your lungs. He said you will likely recover, but that it will take time. The more soot you can expel, the better.”

Clint nodded, feeling the sharp burn in his chest with every breath. He seemed to be breathing easier now, but there had been flecks of blood left in the handkerchief after he coughed. He knew he had done some damage to his lungs.

“Tony?” he asked.

Coulson smiled. It was an expression more in his eyes than in his face, but Clint caught the warmth in it. “He will be well. He broke several bones including more than one rib, but he is alive, and in some ways in better shape than you. The armour he made protected him, and he should be fully recovered within a few weeks.”

Coulson sighed at Clint’s curious expression. “I know you have questions about the armour, but I should allow Tony to tell that tale. Suffice it to say that he has been working on it for quite some time. It is what allowed him to escape Afghanistan, and its power is… ” Coulson shook his head. “Remarkable. It is easy to see why Stane began his plotting when he learned of it. What Tony has invented is aeons beyond our time. It is a new source of power that will revolutionize the world, and Stane wanted that power for himself.”

Clint tried to ask a question, but his lungs seized. He coughed, and Coulson leaned forward to pat his hand.

“Do not try to speak, please. I can see well enough your question from your expression. Yes, he is ‘Tony’ to me, again. We have already spoken this morning. He woke before you. The disagreement between us has been resolved. He and Pepper are now engaged.”

Clint grinned, honestly thrilled at the news. He tried to say so, but the movement caused him to cough violently again.

Coulson frowned at him. “You need rest. The doctor says we are to keep you quiet for the next several days, to allow your lungs to heal.” His lips twitched. “Natasha tells me that will be a trial for you, and has promised to enforce the doctor’s orders by any means necessary.” He smiled at Clint. “She is waiting outside the door, actually. Would you like me to retrieve her?”

Clint nodded, not trusting himself to speak for fear of coughing again. Every time he did, his ribs hurt, and Clint knew there were more bandages on his body than the one around his arm.

He reached out to grasp Coulson’s fingers before the other man could stand, though, and asked another question with his eyes.

Somehow, Coulson understood him. He nodded. “Bruce will be fine, as well. He has reverted to his normal form. That, also, is a long story. The formula Barney stole was more than a theoretical equation – it was a weapon Bruce had designed for the military, an attempt to create a super soldier the likes of The Captain from the Northern War.”

Coulson’s eyes looked sad. “Bruce had been working on it for years. He finally thought he had succeeded, using a new form of energy ray to revitalize human cells. He was so confident he tried it first upon himself, and instead of granting him strength, it created the form you saw.” Coulson’s expression turned warm. “I understand you christened him ‘the Hulk’. I think he approved of the name.”

Clint smiled, and opened his mouth. Coulson hushed him and rose, squeezing Clint’s fingers once before letting go. Clint relaxed back against the bed, content for the moment, and heard him leave. A moment later Natasha slipped in, lithe as usual, and came over to the bed.

Clint stared at her, shocked. Her hair was very short! Natasha shrugged, unconcerned.

“It caught on fire,” she explained, sitting next to him on the bed. “I had Nick cut it off.”

Clint wanted to say something, but she placed a finger against his lips, stilling him. “Hush now, silly child. What were you thinking, rushing in like that?”

Clint furrowed his eyebrows at her, knowing Nat would understand, and she sighed. “Yes, yes, people were in danger. Of course you had to help.” She brushed at his hair, and the muscles around her eyes were tight. “I was worried about you,” she said, her voice subdued. “You scared even the doctor, last night. He had never seen such a bad case of smoke in the lungs survive.”

Clint frowned at her, and tapped his chest. He smiled. Natasha rolled her eyes.

“Well, I am glad you feel better now, but you will be following the doctor’s orders, drinking milk and honey, and staying in bed for the next three days.” She shot him a quelling look when he opened his mouth to protest, and Clint shut it with a click. “I may be persuaded to let you up earlier, if you listen well and rest today. Now,” she rose, “there are others who want to see you. And do not mind Nick, yet. I have asked him to say nothing until you are healed.”

Clint wanted to ask what she meant by that, but she was already off the bed and at the door. A moment later Bruce came in, looking tired but wry. “How are you feeling?” he asked, and then immediately raised his hand. “I apologize – it is simply habit to ask. Please, do not answer. I understand you are to be kept quiet for the foreseeable future.”

Clint made a face, attempting to indicate how very frustrating he already found the doctor’s order. Bruce smiled at him in understanding.

Behind him, the door opened again, and Miss Banner slipped in.

Bruce frowned at her. “Darcy, you should not –”

“Oh, hush,” she admonished. She was wearing a pale green day dress and looked hale, but there was a large bruise blossoming beneath one eye. She took Clint’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said, with feeling. “Thank you for trusting him. I cannot tell you how much it meant.”

Clint knew she was referring to the Hulk. He smiled gently. Beside her, Bruce sighed. “It did, in truth, mean much to him – to us. Thank you, Clint. I assume you have questions?”

He did. He could not ask what he wanted to out loud, but Bruce seemed to understand what he needed to know. With his sister beside him squeezing his hand occasionally in support, Bruce haltingly told Clint of the research that had driven him, and the foolish mistake he had made when he had been so sure of his success.

“It did not work quite the way I wanted it to,” he confessed with a sigh, and Clint had to smile at that. Miss Banner shook her head, but her expression was fond.

“I moved out to Hertfordshire shortly after the accident,” he explained. “The military wanted my formula, but I knew it was not ready yet. They suspected what had happened, but they did not know. Darcy insisted on accompanying me despite my wishes, and Ross soon followed with his militia.”

“Of course I came with you,” Miss Banner said. “We knew Ross would never leave you in peace, and you refused to do the sensible thing and leave the country.” Her gaze softened. “Coulson and I knew it had to be frightening to be so out of control, and we did not want you to be alone.”

Bruce nodded, his expression caught between fearful and relieved. “As long as I stay calm,” he explained to Clint, “I am in control. I can always feel the Hulk inside of me, though. He is like every moment of anger and fear, every repressed emotion.” His lips quirked in a half-smile. “I had not named him, but I think he approves of your suggestion.”

Clint smiled, and looked to Miss Banner. He reached out a hand to gently touch the side of her face where her bruise was darkening. Miss Banner winced, and then smiled brightly at him. “Former-General Ross came to the house last night. He was looking for Bruce, and was not pleased when I would not tell him where he was. His men were rough, and then the Hulk hit them.” She sounded proud.

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, he has decided you are family, even if you are merely a nuisance of a younger sister,” he teased, relief evident in his voice. “I am not sure why, but he likes you.”

“Everyone loves me,” Miss Banner declared, flipping her hair over one shoulder. “Your evil half included.”

Bruce frowned, “He is not evil, Darce, he - “

She made a guilty expression and patted his shoulder reassuringly. “I know, I am sorry. I did not mean it like that.”

Bruce smiled at her, and Clint grinned at them both. They were going to be well.

After they left, Natasha popped her head in to tell him to rest for a while. Clint did not want to listen to her, but he was exhausted. He slept for a few more hours, and then Natasha brought him some broth. After that, there was a knock at the door, and Barney looked in.

Clint could not hold back the cry of joy that seeing his brother evoked, and paid for it by spending the next five minutes hacking into Coulson’s handkerchief. Barney came forward and patted his shoulder, looking concerned.

“I am sorry, little brother,” Barney said to him, real grief in his voice. “This is all my fault.”

Clint shook his head, not daring to speak, but needing Barney to know that was not true. Natasha had brought him a bottle of ink and a pad of paper, and he hurriedly wrote out that even without Barney, General Ross and Obadiah Stane would still have made their move against London.

Barney shook his head. “They would not have moved so confidently had I not helped them. By retrieving Dr. Banner’s formula, I gave them hope they could succeed, and therefore some of the blame is mine.”

Clint shook his head, but Barney stopped him from writing further with a hand on his wrist. “Enough, Clint. It is well. Let me feel for once how much I am to blame. Innocent people have been injured. As for the others, Stane is dead, and good riddance to him, but Ross is still alive. He is in custody, Fury says, and will be expelled from the military.”

He quirked a grin. “It is interesting to note that several officers of high rank have mysteriously vanished this morning, before they could be dragged before their superiors for their part in Ross’s uprising. In their absence, something of a power vacuum has appeared. There will be room for advancement, and I have already accepted a position.” He held several papers. “The Scottish infantry,” Barney explained. “I leave for the North tomorrow.”

Clint did not know what to say. He wanted to write that no, Barney could not go, but he knew such argument was futile.

Barney seemed to sense this. “You are a hero, little brother. You charged in last night, with only your bow to protect you, and you saved innocent lives. I have stolen and hidden and played the coward for long enough. Let me do this, and give something back. The military will be good for me, I think.”

They sat talking for an hour longer, or rather Barney spoke and Clint scratched out his replies. Finally, Barney had to leave to finish packing. He embraced Clint and kissed him once on the forehead, something he had not done in years.

“Take care of yourself, little brother,” he said, his voice gruff with sentiment. “You have good friends to help you. Let them. Write to me once in a while,” he said with a grin. “Tell me all about Pemberley.”

He was gone before Clint’s shocked fingers could write a response to that. Clint lay back against the covers and blushed, alone in his room, wondering who Barney had been speaking to, or what he had deduced on his own. He fell asleep before he could speak to Natasha about it.

In the morning, he felt improved, and was rewarded with soggy bread as well as soup. He had fewer visitors that day, and Natasha explained it was because everyone was busy repairing London. Tony hobbled into his room in the afternoon, however, and sat with him for some time.

The other man looked terrible, bruised from head-to-toe, but he breathed easily and his smile was cocky. “I congratulate you on your skill, ‘Arrow Man’,” Tony said in greeting as he settled himself into the armchair Coulson had sat in the previous day.

“I was somewhat distracted at the time,” he went on, “but I do recall some madman leaping up and down a building once or twice. We are going need a new sobriquet for you, my friend. Perhaps the Grasshopper Archer?” He grinned. “I know – Hawkeye, as it was in the circus. You leap as though you have wings.”

Clint rolled his eyes and inked a new sheet of paper. I am not the one who actually flew, he wrote to Tony.

Tony smiled at that, a honest expression, and touched his chest. “Yes, well,” he said, looking down. He paused a moment, and then looked up to meet Clint’s eyes. “I confess I have been keeping a few secrets from you.”

Slowly, careful of the broken bone in his arm that had been splinted by the physician, Tony opened the front of his waistcoat and Clint watched him curiously. As Tony unfastened the buttons, Clint caught the flare of some kind of light from his chest.

Clint stared. It was the same light he had seen on the metal man’s armour. Tony finished undoing his waistcoat and lifted the fabric of his shirt. Clint reached out a hand and Tony let him, hardly flinching as the rough pad of Clint’s fingers brushed the glowing circle in Tony’s chest.

What is it? he mouthed.

Tony quirked him a smile. “It is a power source, like a steam engine only much more powerful. I had the idea years ago, as a boy, something utterly revolutionary, but only brought it to fruition when I was captured in Afghanistan.”

He blushed, then, and scrubbed at his hair. “I cannot tell you how it works, for the math is too complicated to put into words. It uses forces I do not think have yet been calculated, but sometimes, when it comes to engines and machines, I can just,” he shrugged, “somehow see the way things should work. Pepper calls it a gift,” he said with a shy smile, before grinning suddenly. “I just call it my genius. Either way, it works.”

His own fingers came up to touch the device, and Clint let his hand drop. “It is keeping me alive, you see. I was injured, as well as captured, in Afghanistan. I was hit by an explosion, and this is keeping metal shrapnel from my heart.”

He looked up, and must have seen something in Clint’s gaze. Tony smiled. “Yes, I have spoken to Coulson. We have cleared the air, a little.” He took a deep breath and looked down.

“My friend,” he started, “I know Coulson is not a particular favourite of yours. I feel I should have done more to defend him, when we talked together in Hertfordshire. Despite the fact that I knew most of our difficulties were my fault – or rather because of that – I was still very angry with him. It is been somewhat... strange... trying to understand what happened to me when I was captured. In many ways, I remain not right in my mind regarding the experience. Stane knew that, and he used it against me.”

Tony sighed again, and leaned back, not meeting Clint’s eyes. “He encouraged m e to blame Phil for it, and to blame my father for what happened before that – for my difficulties at university, you see, and how angry he was when I failed that ridiculous course on the classics. I fell into drinking, and I pushed everyone away. I pushed Phil away, when he had always been the best of friends. Everyone I met after, other than Rhodey – you have not met him yet, but you shall like him – they were not the same. They did not know how to stop me when I fell into destruction. I do not even know if they would have wished to. I needed Phil, but I did not know how to tell him that. And despite everything, I was still in love with Pepper.”

He ran his hand through his short hair and leaned forward, wincing when the movement jarred his injured arm and ribs. He went on.

“I met Pepper years ago, of course. She was just a child then, Phil’s little sister. Yet she was clever, fiery, and we got along well. I moved away and forgot her, but when I saw her again that first summer at Pemberley ...” Almost unwillingly, his face seemed to soften. “I could not believe it was her. This strong woman, vibrant and beautiful… I fell in love with her.”

Tony looked away again. “I could not tell Phil, of course. He was already angry at me, and with good reason. We returned to university, and relations between us worsened. I pushed Phil away, and told myself I did not need him. I did not need anyone but my own brilliance. I had Rhodey, but he could not reach me. I needed Phil. Then he finished university and I looked up one day and realized I was alone. And that it was my own fault. So I drank, and hired a carriage, and found myself at Pemberley. Phil was there, and Pepper, and I did not know what I was doing.”

He shook his head. “No – I knew what I was doing, but I did not care. I think I wanted Phil to be angry at me. I wanted Pepper to reject me. I knew that was what I deserved. But she did not, and Phil found us, and I do not blame him for how he reacted.

“I joined the military to upset my father, and I did not protest when they shipped me out. By the time I was injured in Afghanistan, I thought I was beyond caring.” He laughed, a hollow sound. “When I woke in that cave and realized I wanted to live, no one could have been more surprised than me. I fell into a flurry of brilliance and created this,” he gestured at his chest. “I built the first Iron Man suit and escaped. Rhodey found me in the desert and brought me home.”

He looked at Clint, who was still watching him silently. Words itched on the tip of his tongue, but he kept his hands from drifting to the paper. He knew Tony needed to speak.

“Fury told me when he arrived in London that it was Phil who led the search for me. They had a plan to rescue me, but I rescued myself first. I knew then that he had forgiven me, even though I did not deserve it. I remained in London, attempting to understand what had happened at Stark Industries, and got caught in Obadiah’s intrigue. He deceived me, and it was only when Fury came to me last week that I realized what was truly at stake.

“Fury wanted me to escape London, but I knew I had to finish the new armour first. I did not realize that Stane was working on a suit as well. He had studied the original armour, and it happens he had ties to the powerful men in Afghanistan who took me. He tried to reproduce the device keeping me alive.” Tony shook his head. “He did not understand. It is too far advanced, and too much of the science is not yet understood. His suit could never have compared to mine, but he did not fight with honour. He attacked me from behind, and when Pepper came to find me, he assaulted her, too. Phil came after Pepper, and Stane threw a wall on top of them both.”

Tony paled in remembered horror. “I have never been so scared, Clint. Even when I was in that cave with my heart ripped open, I was never so frightened. Thankfully, you arrived, and then Banner – or, the ‘Hulk’, as I understand you have named his fascinating other half – and I knew I could beat him. I had a few tricks Stane did not know about, and I managed to turn the tables on him.”

Tony met his eyes. “I thought I was going to die. I knew you had gotten Pepper and Phil to safety, and I wanted to thank you for that. I knew I would not be able to get away from that last explosion, and I fell unconscious within the armour. When I woke up in the street… ” He shook his head and, for once, words seem to fail him.

Clint held his eyes, and smiled. Tony smiled back. “Thank you,” he said simply.

Clint reached for his paper, and wrote, You are welcome.

He underlined it twice.

Tony grinned.

The next day, Natasha let him out of bed. Clint winced as he walked across his room and down the stairs, but it felt too good to be moving under his own power to stop. He looked eagerly around for Coulson, but Fury informed him that his friend had taken Pepper and Tony to Pemberley that morning.

“He went up to say good-bye,” Fury told him, “but I believe you were asleep.”

Clint frowned and opened his mouth to explain that Coulson could have woken him, but Natasha glared at him. He was allowed to move, apparently, but not to speak.

“The Runners, the MP’s, and everyone else in the blasted city wants a piece of Tony,” Fury growled, waving a hand to encompass the whole of London. “Parliament convened a special session, and Phil took them away shortly after. He wants Tony to heal in peace, he said, and I agree. In addition, they have a wedding to plan.”

Clint smiled to remember that, and then frowned, because Barney was gone, too.

Fury seemed to understand. “Natasha and I are going to escort you home,” he told him, in a tone that brooked no argument. “We will have to leave shortly after, but I know Mrs. Carson will take good care of you. We will return to London and finish up some matters here, and then join you in Hertfordshire again in a week or so. Bruce and Miss Banner will stay here until we return.” He looked concerned. “We have been able to keep Banner’s name out of common circulation, but I do not want him in London over the winter. I think he should return to Netherfield before the month is out.”

Clint agreed that it made good sense. He did not want anyone to puzzle out what Bruce could do. He also did not think Natasha and Fury needed to drive with him back to Hertfordshire, but he was still very sore. Barney’s voice rang in his ear. You have friends, his brother had told them, Let them help you.

Clint saw his aunt and uncle before he left. Fury invited them over to his townhouse, and Clint’s aunt crushed him to her breast and cried over him for half an hour before Clint could assure her he was well. His uncle was more subdued, but he still gripped Clint’s shoulders in a crushing embrace before letting him go.

With Fury’s help, Clint explained what he could to the Carters. They seemed proud of him, but angry he had taken such risks with his life. When Fury bluntly informed them Clint had saved Phil and Pepper’s lives, they smiled.

Clint felt his ears go red with Fury’s praise. His aunt dried her tears and questioned him a little regarding Coulson, but Clint did not know what to tell her. He was confused. When he had first awoken in Fury’s house, everything had seemed so clear. Coulson had been waiting for him, smiling and looking concerned over Clint and his health, but now Coulson had left without saying good-bye. Clint did not know what to make of that.

Did the other man still care for him? If he did, was his concern that of a potential lover, or merely that of a friend? Surely he felt something for Clint, to be so courteous and kind, or was that simply another side of him that Clint had not noticed before? Did he perhaps smile like that at everyone who had aided him, or did he feel somehow beholden to Clint? Did he no longer feel anything for him personally?

He did not know, and it was driving him to distraction to be held in a state of such suspense. Clint felt that if he could have five minutes with Coulson he would be able to look at him and ascertain his feelings, but those five minutes would never come to pass. Coulson had left without even saying his farewells.

Natasha and Fury escorted Clint home the next day. Clint said good-bye to the Banners before he left, and received their assurances that they would see him in Hertfordshire before long. Miss Banner explained that they would wait another few weeks until things calmed down, and then make their way to Netherfield. There were still too many people who could find the connections between Bruce’s experiment and the explosion at the University last year, and the new swath of destruction to London’s north end. Right now, minds were focused on Ross and on Stane, but soon the attention would shift.

Fury’s associations would be suspect, however, and too quick an exodus would also draw attention. Better to wait several weeks, and travel then.

The drive back to Hertfordshire was extremely uncomfortable. Clint had bruised ribs and sore muscles, and everything was only starting to heal. Natasha had made him some willow bark tea from the physician, and it helped Clint sleep through most of the journey home. By the time they reached Barton Manor – now Fury Manor, Clint supposed, as his birthday had passed while had been in London – it was dark and Clint was sore.

Mr. and Mrs. Carson met Fury, Clint and Natasha at the door, and helped him to bed. Fresh linens had been laid out, and Clint collapsed gratefully into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Nat and Fury remained long enough to see Clint comfortable, returning to London the following day. Before they left, Natasha sat with Clint and explained a little of what they had been doing in London, including investigating Stane’s plot and discovering his contacts within Parliament. Nat had clearly been practising more than her martial skills, and was now quite the infiltrator.

“You have become a spy, Nat,” Clint told her with a smile. He was allowed to speak short phrases, now, as long as his coughing was kept to a minimum.

Natasha smiled. “I have,” she said, clearly proud of her skills. “It is what my father taught me, only more so.” She shrugged. “It is needed, Clint. There are strange occurrences taking place in London, and elsewhere. Steam engines are changing the world, and new forces are rising. This is a skill set that is needed, and one Nick sees a use for.”

Clint could not help a sad mixture of joy and jealousy. “He does know you.”

Her eyes shone. “He does,” she agreed. “He always did. He says from the first moment he saw me, he realized what I could do. He has never tried to stop me, even as he fell in love with me. He knows this is what I was born to do.”

Clint reached out a hand to cup her face, because he was one of the few people who could do that, and he needed to know. “Do you love him, Nat? Do you truly love him as well?”

She met his eyes. “What is love?” she asked, but there was happiness in her face despite her questioning tone. “Marriage is a business arrangement, as I have always said. But I like him,” she told him, her lips coming up in a smile. “Almost as much as I like you.”

He laughed and let her go, and they sat together until dinner arrived.

The week after the Furys left was restful, but boring. Clint slept late every day, recovering, and walked about Hertfordshire in the afternoon. After several days, his arm had healed enough that he was able to pick up his bow. It did not hurt to draw, so Clint returned to his practise. Riding was still uncomfortable, and wary of delaying his recovery – and knowing Mrs. Carson would report all to Natasha – Clint left Purple Rider in the stable.

A fortnight passed before word began to spread through Meryton that Netherfield Park was once more being aired out for the arrival of its master. Bread was ordered, supplies were delivered – a veritable army of servants proceeded in and out of town for two days, opening the house for habitation once again.

It had been nearly a year since the Banners were last at Netherfield, but Hertfordshire welcomed them back with open arms. Dr. Banner sent a letter to Clint, giving him the date they were expected, and Clint dressed that morning with care. He wanted to show his friends how much he had healed.

Mrs. Carson called upstairs to tell him that riders had been spotted approaching the manor. Clint glanced out his bedroom window as he re-tied his cravat, and had to catch himself when he spotted three horses, instead of only two.

He braced his hand on the window and stared. His eyes were not deceiving him. Coulson had arrived with the Banners.

Clint swallowed roughly and checked his appearance. He forced himself to walk in measured steps down the stairs. There was no reason to be nervous.

Mrs. Carson showed everyone to the sitting room. “Dr. Banner,” Clint began, standing and giving the scientist a bow. Bruce smiled at him and returned the salutation, and Clint took Miss Banner’s hand.

“Mr. Barton,” she said warmly, “you look much improved.”

“Thank you,” Clint said, and turned to Coulson. “Mr. Coulson,” he began, and then he hesitated.

Coulson’s face was blank, his expression closed. Clint licked his lips and bowed. Coulson returned the formality with elegance, but said nothing.

Clint felt lost. What was this silence? Had everything that happened in London been a dream?

“What a lovely home you have, Mr. Barton. I have so often listened to you speak fondly of it that it seems I have been here before,” Miss Banner said quickly, interrupting the awkward silence.

Clint turned to her gratefully, offering her a tour. He spent the next hour conversing with the Banners as he showed them through the house. Bruce caught him up on the most recent events in London. Fury and Natasha had been delayed, it seemed, by a Parliamentary investigation into the Stark Industries fire. Stark and Miss Coulson had been requested to return to London, and had done so. Stark was apparently feeling much improved.

Throughout the conversation Clint glanced often at Coulson, and he knew at times that Coulson glanced back. Yet they could never seem to connect their gazes. When the party finally departed, Clint remained frustratingly confused.

What was happening? Did Coulson feel nothing for him? Why such silence? Clint thought they had finally reached an understanding, but he must have been in error. He believed he had learned to understand Coulson’s small changes in expression, but it seemed he had not.

The man was frustrating, closed off, and ridiculous.

And Clint was in love with him.

It had been impossible to stare at Coulson’s profile and not be aware of that fact. This truth was beyond his ability for self-deception – he was in love with Coulson, despite how frustrating the man could be, and he had no idea if Coulson felt the same.

The Banners settled in at Netherfield Park, and Clint received notice through Mrs. Carson, who heard it from the butcher’s boy dropping off meat, that Coulson had returned to London.

He tried to accept the news at face value, but could not help but lament that it meant all his worst fears had come true. Surely Coulson felt nothing for him, then, if he had left a second time without saying good-bye.

Fortunately, Natasha and Fury arrived soon after, pulling Clint from his despair.

They stayed with Mrs. Romanov, but visited the manor the next day. Clint welcomed them both warmly. He had wondered how he would react when this moment came, the legal transference of the property, but he found none of the resentment Barney had long harboured. Clint’s birthday had passed, after all, and the property rightly belonged to Fury now.

Fury gave him the paperwork the next day. He and Fury walked around the manor together, noting areas where improvements were needed. With Fury’s money, they would finally be able to finance those repairs, and Clint was relieved to know the small things which had been bothering him for years, such as the leaky joint on the southwest wall, would at last be resolved.

When they had retired to the sitting room, Clint noticed a damp patch he had not seen before. He realized he had seen Coulson staring at that particular corner when he had visited. Could Coulson have come on Fury’s orders as a sort of advance scout?

He gathered his courage and asked Fury, and watched as the man’s single eye twitched in amusement.

“Yes, Coulson came to see the place for me. I had not been here in a year, and I wanted to know which builders I would have to bring in from London. We have had a few other ideas for the Manor, and we should probably discuss them now.”

Clint nodded and followed Fury to the study, keeping hidden his disappointment. Coulson truly felt nothing for him.

The study had been cleared of old papers, and Fury took his rightful place behind the desk. Clint pulled his chair closer, and again felt relief that he harboured no resentment regarding the arrangement. He knew this was how things were meant to be.

Fury pulled a sheaf of papers from his case, and spread them out on the desk. Clint stared at the pages, each embossed with the same eagle design he remembered seeing on Fury’s coach when he had first visited last year.

There were words printed around the emblem. Clint read them out loud. “The Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Directorate?”

Fury grinned. “More colloquially known as S.H.I.E.L.D. We are a division of His Majesty’s Secret Service, and an agency I have been Director of for two years, now.” He fixed Clint with a stare from his single eye. “And I want you to be a part of it.”

Clint sat, stunned, as Fury outlined his plan. S.H.I.E.L.D. was a new organization. It had been created mostly by Fury himself, with some help from a few key individuals he trusted implicitly.

“The world is changing,” Fury told him, echoing Natasha’s earlier words. The Director tapped one of the illustrated pieces of paper spread out on the desk. Clint looked to see sketches of what appeared to be people, but people warped and changed in some strange manner. One had long, oddly stretched limbs and another appeared to be on fire, though in the picture he smiled as if unharmed. “We have been assembling reports for the past several years of strange individuals with unusual deformities and abilities. There is word of foreign generals in possession of a mechanics beyond our own capability.” He showed Clint a schematic of a bulky glowing firearm, utterly foreign to Clint’s experience.

“The Empire is in danger,” Fury continued. “We need a team of highly specialized individuals with skills we can rely on. Stark has already agreed to be a part of this new force, which I am calling the Avengers Initiative. His Iron Man armour is impressive, and probably the most powerful instrument we have in our arsenal at the present moment. Banner has also agreed to be a part of this team – not only is he as intelligent in his own field as Stark is in his, but the Hulk, as you call him, is a force not to be forgotten.”

Fury looked at him admiringly. “I had doubts we could convince Banner’s other half to work with us, but you proved such a thing was possible. I want him on the team, along with Natasha, of course.” His expression tightened, but his eye remained fond. “I hate the thought of placing her in danger, but I knew when I proposed to her what this marriage would entail. She will never be content to sit out of the fray, and I shall have to accept that.”

Clint nodded. “She is not the type to remain behind in safety. She told me that herself, though I was unsure of what she meant at the time. She has been waiting, I think, to be a part of this. Ever since we began our own personal campaign of justice, years ago, she has been waiting for this very chance.” He took a deep breath in and out, feeling the truth of it settle in his bones, pushing aside the last of his worry and doubt. “She needs this.”

Fury nodded, his gaze sharp. “And you, Clint? Do you need this, too?”

Clint was not sure. He paused, and thought of Fury’s proposal before he answered. Did he?

He had loved the battle. He felt guilty about that, because it must be wrong to feel so alive when he was in mortal danger, but he could not help it. He still felt a deeper, more distant, pang of grief when he thought of the highwayman he had accidentally killed so long ago, and the other assailant he had assaulted here in Meryton. He had enquired discreetly into the man’s injuries, but had found that he and his compatriots had all disappeared. Clint still did not know whether the man had lived or died.

He did not want to be a bringer of death, but as he looked at Fury’s carefully compiled notes, he knew that was not the duty of S.H.I.E.L.D.

S.H.I.E.L.D. was about life. It was about protecting English lives, and maybe even more than that, too.

“I do not need it,” Clint said carefully, answering Fury’s question, “but I do love it. I want to be a part of this, and yet I have to ask – why me? What could I do with a bow and arrow against a man,” he tapped the paper, “who can light himself on fire and not be burned?” He shook his head. “What can I bring to your organization that Stark or Banner cannot?”

Fury speared him with a glance. “Do not diminish your own worth, Clint. You are more than your aim, though your aim is impressive. You see things that others do not. I have noticed it, and so have others. I need someone with that skill.” He snorted. “And if you think for one second that I am sending Natasha into danger without you by her side, you are not the man I thought you were.”

Clint could not help but smile at that.

Fury tapped his papers. “There are stranger things written here than a man who can light himself on fire and not be burned – you would be surprised what an arrow in the right place can do. If you were to lose the ability to shoot tomorrow, I would still want you on this team, but as long as you can aim as well as you did in London, as well as you did at Rosings, then I will want you in the field. You are going to be invaluable, in ways I have not even considered yet.”

There was not much Clint could say to that. He nodded, stood, and bowed formally. “Well then,” he said, his voice gruffer than he meant it to be. He could count on one hand the number of people who had ever they wanted him. “I formally accept your offer.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Fury said, standing as well. He sounded as if he meant it.

Clint blinked as an unexpected thought occurred to him. He looked back at the papers Fury had arranged on the desk and reached towards one, pulling it from the pile.

Written at the top was a title, as well as a report number and a name. Clint confirmed his suspicions, then looked up at the Director. “Coulson?”

Fury’s lips quirked into a smile. “When I said ‘others’,” he confessed, a laugh in his voice, “I largely meant him. Coulson is my other good eye.” He nodded at another paper, which Clint pulled likewise from the stack. This one said ‘Hill’.

“Lady Hill, as well,” Fury went on. “She will work with me, primarily, sub rosa. I was planning on establishing the main office here, at the Manor. Stark is volunteering his new, soon-to-be-built Tower for our use in London. I have the townhouse I shall maintain with Natasha, mostly to keep up appearances, but Hill will likely move here at least part time, though she cannot and should not give up Rosings. We have in the past been operating from that great house, but it is too well known and she is required by her station to host company there often.

He speared Clint with another glance. “I should perhaps have mentioned this from the start, but Coulson will be the agent in charge of the Avengers Initiative. He will be your handler, and direct superior in the field. Will that sit well with you?”

Clint sucked in a breath. “Yes,” he said, unthinkingly. “I trust him. I just do not know… ” He trailed off. “Does he know of this plan? Did it agree to it?”

“He did,” Fury said, sounding, if anything, sympathetic. “We have talked of this. He has agreed with the arrangement, as well.”

Clint nodded then, feeling something in his chest rattle loose. He did not know what that meant – if it meant anything. “Very well, then,” he said.

Fury nodded. “Very well,” he agreed.

 

*

 

Fury and Natasha remained in Hertfordshire another week. The Banners visited often, and Clint spent much time at Netherfield as well. Fury then had to leave, as there was still much to be done in London. There was also some matter he had to discuss with Tony Stark that was too sensitive to write in a letter. He left with the assurance that he would return soon.

Natasha stayed with her mother, whose health was becoming precarious.

“She is ready to pass,” Natasha confessed to Clint when he visited one day. “She misses Father, and wants to see him again. In some ways, I am glad. I will miss her dreadfully when she is gone, but a part of me is happy she will not live to wonder what it is I am doing, and worry over it. I will sell the house, after. The Avengers do not need it, not with the Manor here, and I know of several cousins who are interested in the purchase. I shall let Nick coordinate that, but I am not going to stay here. It has not been my house since my father died.” She gripped Clint’s hand. “I hope you do not resent the loss of Barton Manor.”

Clint shook his head. “It is the same for me,” he confessed. “It has not been my house for many years. First it was my father’s, and then it was Barney’s. If I had not agreed to Fury’s proposal and arranged to say at the Manor, I would have bought a small cottage in the country. I am happy it will be put to use, and give you a reprieve from this place. I know you do not rest easy, here.”

Clint sat with her for several more hours, and then left to return home. He walked for some time alone, thinking of all the ways his life had changed in just a few short months. Natasha had married, Barney had gone. He was being offered a position within an organization he hadn’t even suspected existed, before, and would never have known was needed.

The next day dawned fair, if somewhat cool. Fall was heavy in the air. Clint was preparing to ride to Natasha when an unknown carriage pulled up to the gate.

Clint stood before the window and stared at the completely unexpected sight of Lady Maria Hill emerging from the carriage. She walked purposely to the door of the Manor and Mrs. Carson barely had time to announce her before she strode into the sitting room.

“Mr. Barton!” Lady Hill declared, sweeping forward.

Clint bowed perfunctorily, his mind a whirl with the possible calamities which might have brought Lady Hill to Hertfordshire. “My lady,” he said, straightening. “What brings you here? Is there trouble in London? Is Coulson well?”

“My friend Mr. Coulson is well enough in body, but perhaps severely deficient in mind. I apologize for bursting in on you in this way, Mr. Barton, but I do not have very much time. Mr. Fury has asked me to meet with him in London, and I am on my way there. I was visiting with my friend at Pemberley when Mr. Fury wrote to ask for my assistance, and I was not able to resist the compulsion that drove me here to see you first. Pray, may we take a turn about the garden together? I fear the stuffy air of the coach vexes me.”

“Certainly,” Clint said, indicating the wood behind the Manor. “There is a short path we can travel, if you like.”

“I would,” Lady Hill declared, and took his arm. “I would like that very much, indeed.”

They exited the house and walked several steps in silence. Clint attempted to wait patiently, but had to bite his tongue several times in an effort to hold back his questions.

“I must ask you frankly, Mr. Barton – has my friend Mr. Coulson made you an offer?”

Clint’s toe caught on a tuft of grass, and he stumbled. “I beg your pardon?”

“I am sorry to be so blunt,” Lady Hill went on. She sounded regretful, but not as if she would be deterred. “I know this is not something to be spoken of in polite company, and that it is not my place to speak of it at all. Nevertheless, I must. Were you a woman and this an ordinary courtship, I would likely have asked the moment I arrived if you were engaged to him. As that is impossible, I can only ask if he has made you any sort of offer. Though I love him as a brother, he is horribly daft, at times. After having visited with him at Pemberley and seen the extent of his misery, I can only presume that he is hiding behind propriety and has not yet even approached you regarding this matter. I left him sure in my conviction that you knew nothing of his affections. I have come to remedy that discrepancy, for I fear he will never do so.”

Clint’s mind whirled. Coulson’s affections? Could they still exist?

“There is, at present, no understanding between us,” Clint said slowly. “I thought perhaps that we were building towards something in London, but he left for Pemberley with Mr. Stark before we could speak of it. I have seen him once since then, and his manner was not… forthcoming.”

Lady Hill sighed. “It is as I had feared. You must understand, Mr. Barton, that Phil Coulson has been bound by propriety his entire life. He wished, very much, to follow my husband and Colonel Sitwell into the military. He has a strong sense of duty, and I believe he could have done well there. His father, however, would not allow it. Phil is the heir to Pemberley, and that is all his father would allow him to be. Ever the dutiful son, he followed his father’s wishes and gave up his dream. Over the past several years, since my husband died, I have watched him become more and more insular. He has done well, recently, with Mr. Fury and his new initiative – I understand he has spoken to you of that?”

Clint nodded. “I know of S.H.I.E.L.D. I have agreed to a position within the organization.”

Lady Hill looked relieved. “I am glad. Your skills are unprecedented, Mr. Barton, and we shall be glad to have you with us. The organization has done much for Phil, and helped him regain his sense of duty. He has always been destined for great things, for more than even Pemberley could offer him. And yet, while I have finally seen him content, I have never observed him truly happy.”

She stopped and turned to him. “You make him happy, Mr. Barton. You challenge him, you enthral him, you make him reach to be better than he is. You are what he has been missing.”

Clint did not know what to say. He wanted to protest, but could not find the words. Was that not exactly what Coulson did for him? He had challenged and intrigued, pushed and pulled at Clint since their first disastrous meeting.

Lady Hill shook her head at his silence and turned back to the path. “When I saw you together at Rosings, I knew there was something between you. Mr. Fury has written to tell me of the happenings in London. I questioned Phil about them extensively while I visited with him – I know he left before resolving things with you. He would not speak to me at length, but I gathered enough to know that no matter what he might have said or done, no matter what his countenance might have been when you saw him last, he cares very deeply for you. I think propriety holds him back – that, and the knowledge that if you work together within S.H.I.E.L.D., he will be responsible for putting you again in harm’s way. I believe that bothers him.”

“I have spoken to Fury regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. – any danger I encounter as a part of that organization I undertake of my own free will.”

Lady Hill nodded. “I know this, and Fury does as well. For Phil, though, it is not so easy.”

Clint thought of Coulson laying still beneath the masonry at Stark Industries, the fear he had felt when he thought Coulson might be dead. “I believe I understand.”

“Speak to him,” Lady Hill pleaded. “I do not mean that you must to accept him, or that he has not, at times throughout your acquaintance, treated you very ill, but please speak to him. If this is not to be between you, then let it not be for the right reasons, and not for all the wrong ones.”

Clint did not know what to say. He wished to promise her he would, but the words died in his throat. He had already seen Coulson once since London, and that encounter did nothing except cement his own feelings. Coulson’s feelings were still largely unknown to him, and the man had done nothing to make them clearer.

“I will see him again,” Clint finally managed to say. “I do not know when, but we are both in the employ of S.H.I.E.L.D. Until that day, I will think on what you have said.”

Indeed, as the days drifted past, Clint did little else. He sat with Natasha and visited with Mrs. Romanov. She was not well. Clint did not wish to burden Natasha with his own concerns while her mother was dying, and so turned the information he had received from Hill over and over again in his mind. He came to no satisfactory conclusion, and could decide only that his own feelings were clear. He was in love with Coulson – he had accepted that. How Coulson felt about him would have to wait until they met again.

After lingering a short while in weakness, Mrs. Romanov passed away. Fury returned from London to say a final goodbye and support Natasha during her grief. Clint did what he could to assist them.

Several days after the funeral, Clint received a letter from Stark. He was almost finished with his business in London, and wished to see him. Clint sent his congratulations on Stark’s engagement and invited him to the Manor. Fury was currently staying with Natasha in Mrs. Romanov’s home, until the final arrangements for the estate could be made. For the time being, Clint was acting as the steward of what had once been Barton Manor.

Stark wrote back that he would be very pleased to take Clint up on his offer, and added that his fiancée would be accompanying him with her chaperone, but that she would stay with the Banners, as they had offered their hospitality. Clint knew it would not be proper for her to stay at the Manor, for he had no hostess.

Finally, the expected day arrived. Clint dressed with care that morning and was delighted when Mrs. Carson announced a carriage had been seen. He waited in the sitting room will ill-concealed patience, and leapt to his feet as soon as Mrs. Carson appeared at the door.

It was with great surprise that he saw not only Stark and his fiancée, but Banner and his sister, and Mr. Coulson as well!

Clint bowed at the group at large, concealing his rattled feelings as well as he could.

“Mr. Barton!” Miss Coulson exclaimed. She curtsied, and then came forward to take his arm. “My hero!”

“What is this?” Stark protested, laughing. He looked much recovered, retaining only one splint, and moved easily under his own power. His bruises had all faded. “He rescued me as well, you know.” Stark bowed to him, smiling. “You have my eternal gratitude, which you already know.”

“You are welcome,” Clint replied with a grin, “though you mostly saved yourself, a habit I understand you have long possessed.”

Stark laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “I will endeavour to always do so, but should I fail, I shall expect you to rescue me, now that we are all in this together!”

Dr. Banner shook his head. “You should not be so indifferent about your own safety,” he admonished Stark. He looked back at Clint and bowed. “Mr. Barton, thank you for your hospitality. I understand from Mr. Fury that Barton Manor is now to be used as – what was it you called it, my dear?”

He turned to his sister, who laughed. “A base of operations,” Miss Banner declared. She curtsied towards Clint. “I have agreed to use what skills I possess with ink and blotter to record all your ridiculous adventures. Mr. Fury agrees that keeping me out of it is well beyond even his ability to manage.”

“You are beyond any hope of managing,” Dr. Banner agreed in a fond tone. “I shall apologize to our parents nightly.”

“Miss Banner and I will hardly be rushing into battle,” Miss Coulson explained to Clint, “but it is true that Mr. Fury is aware of our connections to this Avengers group, and we will never truly be out of danger. We will do what we can to assist, each in our own way.”

“I am relieved to hear that,” Clint said. “I know it will be difficult to watch people you care about go into danger, and am glad to know that you will have each other to rely on, when that day arrives.”

He could not help but look toward Coulson as he spoke, remembering what Lady Hill had said.

“Danger will always find us,” Stark agreed. “At least together, we can protect each other, as well as can be.”

“You and hopefully others, as well,” Natasha said. Clint looked over to see her walk into the study. She had obviously just arrived on horseback. “Nick has received some interesting reports from the North. He has eyes on two more potential candidates.”

Clint digested that information while Stark and the Coulsons all offered their regrets on the death of her mother. The Banners had been present at the time of her death, as Clint himself had been.

“Thank you,” Natasha said to them. “My husband is at the house, finishing the last of his business. The weather has turned fair. He suggested we walk together to join him at the Romanov estate for one last dinner. My cousin will be purchasing the property tomorrow, and we would be honoured if you would help us remember our last night in the house in the company of friends.”

They all agreed it was a lovely idea, and that the weather was warm. Gathering boots and cloaks, they set off together down the lane.

Clint could not help but glance towards Coulson. The other man stayed mostly silent, but his eyes continued to flicker in Clint’s direction.

The group strolled along together in the warm fall light, the trees making a pretty picture as they laughed and talked amongst themselves. Tony and his pretty fiancée soon took the lead, and the Banners followed behind to chaperone. Natasha walked just them, a small, private smile on her face, and Coulson and Clint found themselves walking abreast.

They travelled in silence for a time, and by mutual accord managed to trail slightly behind. The rest of the group soon walked ahead of them, and left them a small measure of privacy.

“The years to come will surely be interesting,” Coulson said into the silence. His face was calm, but there was some unknown emotion hidden in his voice.

Clint found himself chuckling. “That they will,” he agreed, looking ahead of them to the group. “A genius with a flying suit of armour, another genius who becomes armour, instead, Miss Banner with her mad-cap finery, and Natasha, skilled as she is. Your sister, whose organizational skills even Mrs. Jarvis has commented on, and myself with my outdated weapon. It is a good thing you, Lady Hill, and Mr. Fury will be there, to keep us set upon the right course, or I would fear for the length and breadth of England.”

“We will do what we can,” Coulson agreed. His face was blank, but Clint thought his eyes twinkled. “I do not think it will be an easy job.”

“Certainly not,” Clint agreed, “but then it would not be worthy of you.”

Coulson cleared his throat. “You are too kind. You have always – since our first encounter...”

He stopped, suddenly, and turned to face Clint. His hands reached out, as if to grasp Clint’s, then fell to his side. “You are, indeed, too generous to trifle with me. If you are feelings are still what they were this spring, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you now will silence me on this subject forever.”

Clint met Coulson’s eyes and swallowed. They were full of every emotion he had ever desired to see from Coulson, every moment of love. “My feelings ...” he began, then trailed off, firmed his resolve, and tried again. “My feelings are completely different. They are,” he said, holding Coulson’s gaze, and hoped the other man could read the truth of it in Clint’s face, “in fact, quite the opposite.”

Coulson’s breath hitched. They stared at each other, each drinking in the expression on the other’s face. Slowly, very slowly, the corners of Coulson’s mouth lifted into a smile. “Truly?” he asked, seemingly unable to believe it.

“Truly,” Clint smiled back, feeling as if his chest were about to burst. Coulson still loved him! He felt as if he could fly!

He laughed, suddenly, and reached forward to take Coulson’s hand. Coulson let him, and Clint squeezed his fingers.

“But no more talk of compensation,” he teased him, and was delighted to see Coulson blush. “I do not think I could take another discussion such as that.”

“I am so sorry,” Coulson said, his entire face red. “There is no apology strong enough. I had not well considered my words, that afternoon. I was anxious and afraid, and I do not have a gift for speaking. I did not mean it as it was said.”

“What did you mean to say?” Clint asked, honestly curious. He had spent more time than he liked to admit over the past weeks and months, mulling over Coulson’s words.

Coulson shrugged helplessly. “I love you,” he said. “I loved you, even then, and yet you frightened me. I knew I could never offer you the advantages that marriage provides for a wife, but I felt I had to ensure you would be cared for. Should we be discovered, I knew my position within society would protect me, but not you. I feared for your safety. I am sorry for saying it as I did, for implying, as I realized to my own horror after that I had, that I was attempting to buy your affections.”

He closed his eyes in grief, and Clint gripped his hand. “I understand,” he said. “My aunt and uncle have often feared for me, either that I would be alone my entire life, or that I would risk an arrangement with an unsuitable man who would place me at risk.”

“I should never have said anything, and I have berated myself for my own weakness almost as much as I have for my unthinking words. I should have ignored my feelings and kept you safe, and yet,” he stared at Clint, “I found I could not. My love for you was too strong. In fear and anxiety, then, I spoke, and with my proposal, destroyed every hope I might once have had.”

Clint smiled at him reassuringly. “Not every hope, for we are here now, are we not?”

Coulson’s eyes shone with relief. “We are, though only through your own goodness, I am well aware.”

“Not only my own,” Clint said with a laugh, but Phil shook his head.

“No, I know well my own faults – I am a coward. When we were together in London, I felt there might have been some softening of your reproach towards me. It taught me to hope as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before, and yet it frightened me. I let that fear rule me, instead of my heart, and escaped to Pemberley with Mr. Stark. I visited here only on Mr. Fury's behest, to observe the state of the Manor and what repairs it might require. He wrote to ask this of me, indicating that he could not visit for some weeks, and while I suspected at the time that his true motive lay elsewhere, I felt myself equal to the task. I had not suspected the great relief I would feel upon seeing you well, nor how difficult it would be to leave you. I returned to Pemberley in a wretched state.”

“I confess, I suspected none of this,” Clint admitted. “After your silence that afternoon, I felt sure you had divorced from me every pleasant feeling.”

“Never that,” Coulson said. “I did attempt to once, early in our acquaintance, but found I could not.” He was silent for a moment, his gaze turned inwards. “I knew from a young age that I did not feel the way a man was… supposed… to feel towards a woman. My mother talked to me about my difficulty, and was supportive. Her brother, you see, was the same. He lived at Pemberley with the family, and passed away when I was a child. He had a friend who often stayed with us, and my mother helped me understand what they were to each other. My father knew, though he did not exactly approve. No one blamed them for being who they were.”

Clint thought back to the servants at Pemberley, and the happy looks they had directed toward him and Coulson. “The servants did appear very understanding,” he realized.

“They are,” Coulson said, blushing faintly again. “Ever since my parents’ death, they have worried about me. They knew I would never marry and provide an heir for Pemberley, and Pepper has always understood that it would be her duty.” Coulson squeezed Clint’s hand. “Everyone remembers Tony fondly, despite his actions several years ago. Pepper has been vigorously defending him to the servants. They will all be delighted when they have a child.”

“So the noble estates of Stark and Coulson will be joined together,” Clint teased. “Tony is going to be insufferable.”

Coulson rolled his eyes. “He is already insufferable,” he pointed out. “They will be married at Christmas, and we will see what children come. I am sure they will have a genius or two who will follow in Tony’s footsteps, but I hope the eldest son will fall in love with Pemberley, as it is destined to be his.”

Clint smiled. “No one could help falling in love with Pemberley,” he told Coulson honestly. “It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”

Unexpectedly, Coulson looked away. “I was so embarrassed,” he confessed to the road, “when I saw you and the Carters there. I had been doing everything I could to avoid thinking of you and my disastrous proposal. I had thrown myself into the Avengers Initiative, knowing all the while that Fury wanted you to be a part of it. He had plans, even then, for using Barton Manor as a base of operations. It was not exactly easy to avoid thoughts of you, but then, perhaps, I did not try so very hard.”

Clint felt himself blush at this admission. “I tried not to think of you,” he admitted. “I was very angry with you, and yet more angry at myself. I read your letter a hundred times, and have it fair memorized by now.”

“Oh, that letter,” Coulson said with real vehemence. “Please tell me you have destroyed it. I cannot think of that letter without remorse. When I think of the things I said in it.” He shook his head. “When I wrote it, I believed myself perfectly calm and cool, but I am since convinced that it was written in a dreadful bitterness of spirit.”

“The letter, perhaps, began in bitterness,” Clint agreed, “but it did not end so. The adieu is charity itself. I have not destroyed it, and will not, even if you beg. I will show it to our nieces and nephews one day, when you have done something particularly horrible and deserve condemnation.”

Coulson, unexpectedly, laughed. He tugged on Clint’s hand. “You will hold it as blackmail, then?”

Clint smiled and squeezed back. “No,” Clint said, pulling him close. “I will keep it to tell them that their Uncle Coulson is not a mechanical man like their father, and that he has a heart that beats both strong and true. I will tell them the whole sordid mess of our courtship, and they will laugh until they are sick, and Pepper comes in to stop us.”

“Will you really?” Coulson asked, his voice a murmur.

“I will,” Clint agreed. They shared a grin, both enjoying the fantasy.

The others were well ahead. In every respect, the two men were alone. They leaned close together, and tilted heads. Clint’s lips brushed Coulson’s. His world seemed to pause, and then Coulson’s arm came up around him, and tugged him close.

They were kissing then, and it was the best and most exhilarating experience of Clint’s life. He felt as if he was going to fly apart at the seams. So much emotion filled him that Clint knew this – even more than archery, even more than the Avengers – was what he had been born to do.

No, he corrected himself, even as the kiss deepened, this was what he had chosen to do. And that was more important.

 

*

 

Tony and Pepper were married at Pemberley at Christmas, in the Coulsons family chapel. Clint and Coulson sat next to each other during the ceremony, and held each other’s eyes as they mouthed the promises along with the official couple. Coulson slipped Clint a golden ring when they had finished, and showed him his own matching band. The rings had belonged to his uncle and his lover, Phil explained to him in a whisper, and were designed to be worn on the thumb.

Clint slipped his on with shaking fingers, and Coulson brushed his hand along the band. Clint was not able to kiss him in the church, so he squeezed Coulson’s hand instead, and saved his kisses for after.

Tony and Pepper spent a four-month at Pemberley after the ceremony, while construction continued in London. Coulson and Clint moved back to Barton Manor, now renamed Avengers Manor, and worked with Fury and Natasha there. The Banners continued at Netherfield Park, and visited often.

While with others, Clint and Coulson maintained separate rooms, though if there was traffic in the hallways at night, it was never mentioned. When they visited Pemberley or the Coulson townhouse in London, the Jarvis clan made up the adjoining bedroom every morning, and gave not a single indication that they knew it went unused.

Fury had been right, in his worry. The world was indeed changing, and it did not stop over the next few years. Fury did have other agents in mind for the Initiative. The expression on Phil’s face the day they pulled Captain Steve Rogers from the ice and found he was alive was priceless. It was a memory Clint engraved on his mind, the sheer wonder and boyish delight in his lover’s expression. Clint reflected on that memory often during the times they were apart, and it always made him smile.

The missions were dangerous, but between them they had each other, and eventually Pepper and Tony started a family. Their first was a girl, red-headed and fierce, and she took after Tony in genius and scope. Their second was quieter, and a boy. His brilliance was a shy thing, and Clint thought he was more like Phil. As the heir of Pemberley, he was introduced to the estate at an early age. He spent much time there, learning the craft at his uncle's knee, and was unofficially adopted by Phil.

He also, eventually, became the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but that is the story for someone else to tell.

 

 

The End.