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The Time Machine

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"Hey, I think I made a time machine," Stark says.

Every muscle in Natasha's body screams run.

Clint steps toward the tangle of wires and tubes. "Cool," he says, raising a bottle of beer to his lips.

Fuck, Natasha thinks, and she reaches toward Clint's jacket to drag him back. They'd had an agreement: they could accept Tony Stark's hospitality while they figured out how many of their former acquaintences planned to prosecute or kill them. But if the words cold fusion or time machine ever escaped Stark's lips, they would leave. Immediately.

"Cool?" Stark asks, draining the rest of his beer in one gulp. "All you have to say is cool? This is more than cool. This is a fucking time machine powered by the scientific miracle of cold fusion."

"Clint," Natasha says.

He doesn't even look at her. Instead he reaches toward a lever. "Hey, what does this thing do?"

***

Natasha is cold. She reaches back to pull up the covers, but they aren't there. The ground beneath her is hard. She fumbles at her hip, and her fingers close around the hidden holster of her knife. That gives her the confidence to open her eyes. Clint's face is the first thing she sees, which is reassuring, even though he looks dead asleep and the remnants of his beer bottle are shattered on the ground beside him.

Natasha pushes herself to her knees and looks up. They're lying on a sidewalk in the shadow of a tall gray building. Around them are at least a dozen other buildings, all identical, like gray tombstones reaching into the sky. She doesn't bother to look around. She knows what she'll see: a street too straight and too wide for the handful of boxy cars parked along its edges. No trees, but maybe an empty field for soccer games and government-sponsored calisthenics. A babushka in a flowered scarf pushing a cart through empty early morning streets. This is Russia in 1991. It's home.

Clint snores, and Natasha jabs him in the ribs as hard as she can.

"What?" Clint bolts upright, his words slurred, his fingers rubbing at the sore spot on his rib. His eyes open. "What the fuck?" he says, suddenly sounding awake.

"You sent us back in time," Natasha says, keeping her voice quiet and level.

"I didn't mean to touch the lever." Clint's voice is loud on the empty street, and Natasha shushes him.

"You were drunk," she says, cutting off his protest with a wave of her hand. "More importantly, this is the Soviet Union and we are American agents--"

This time it's Clint's turn to cut her off. "Not anymore," he says. "We're not agents of anything."

"Right." Natasha nods slowly. She forgets sometimes -- often, actually -- that SHIELD had fallen. It's like waking up in the morning and forgetting that your best friend is actually dead.

"It's still dangerous for us to be here," she says. "Our clothes, our shoes, our hair -- it's all wrong." Never mind glasnost and perestroika; the KGB would hardly care to find a strangely dressed Russian woman in the company of an American man in the middle of a residential neighborhood on the eve of a revolution.

"We'll be careful," Clint says. Natasha looks at him hard, and he adds, "I won't speak to anyone."

"Good," she mutters. "Your accent is appalling, and you think all Slavic languages are the same."

Clint cocks his head, and Natasha goes quiet, listening. Footsteps are coming toward them. Without a word, they retreat an alleyway along the edge of the building. Natasha reaches out with a foot and scoots the shards of Clint's American beer bottle off the sidewalk.

The footsteps come closer, and Natasha listens harder. They're light footsteps, like a child's, and they're shuffling. Memories from her childhood drift to the surface. Her recollections of life before Red Room are fractured at best, but she knew she'd once shuffled down the sidewalk in shoes that were too large even with newspapers stuffed in the toes. Shoes were rationed; it would have been foolish to take a pair her size when she would have outgrown them in a few months.

There are more footsteps now, quick and purposeful and heavy -- a man's. His voice drifts down the alley: "Little girl, stop and talk to me."

Natasha leans back against the concrete wall, suddenly dizzy.

"Nat?" Clint whispers. "You alright?"

Natasha opens her eyes reluctantly. Clint is peering at her, then craning his neck around the corner of the building to look down the street. She knows what he sees: a little girl in a gray coat talking to a man in a black uniform. It's cold outside, but he isn't shivering, even without a coat. He's telling her that she'll never have to wait in line for bread again.

"Nat?" Clint says again, his voice louder.

Natasha swallows. Her throat is dry. "That little girl, the one in the gray coat --"

"Wait, how do you know there's a girl?"

"She's me."

Clint stares. He opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again. Suddenly there's a knife in his hand. Natasha hadn't seen where it came from. Sloppy, she thinks. Red Room would say it was unforgiveable to let anyone -- even a friend -- pull a knife by surprise.

"Is that man taking you to Red Room?" Clint asks.

Natasha snorts. "Take is a strong word. I went willingly." No bread lines. Her own room. Plenty of heat in the winter. She hadn't needed much convincing. Red Room had taken most of her memories, but they'd left her that one. They'd wanted her to know how easily she'd come.

"I could hit him from here," Clint says, twirling the knife between his fingers.

Natasha shakes her head. "It doesn't work that way, Clint. They'd chosen me. They would have sent someone else."

"All right then." Clint slides the knife back into its invisible holster. "We take him out and we take you somewhere else. Somewhere you could start over."

"Are you serious? If you took me away from here, you'd never know me. I'd never meet you." Her voice is getting louder, hysterical even. She hates herself for it, but she can't stop. "You'd give me up? Just like that?"

"You know it's not like that." Clint's voice is quiet and low, anger burning in his eyes. "You know I --"

"Stop. Not here. Not like this." Natasha leans back against the wall again. They've never said I love you -- not when they started sharing a bed, not when they started sharing an apartment, not even when SHIELD had fallen and all they had was each other. If they're going to change that, it won't be on an anonymous Russian street, staring at the ghosts of her past.

"We can't change my life," Natasha says slowly. "If I never went to Red Room, I would never have come to SHIELD. I could never have saved Tony Stark's life, and he wouldn't have been there to stop the missile. I wouldn't have been able to close Loki's portal."

"Okay." Clint nods. "Okay." He tucks a curl behind her ear.

They listen to the little girl's footsteps vanish down the street with the man's.

***

Natasha wakes up on the floor of Tony Stark's laboratory. Clint is already awake.

Natasha stays on the floor, thinking. "You played me," she says finally, looking up at the white tiles on the ceiling. "Tony Stark would've wanted to see dinosaurs or a strip club in the nineteen fifties. He would never have set a time machine for a random Russian city in 1991." She forces herself to sit up and look at Clint. She wants to run, but she wants to hear what he'll say.

"It wouldn't have been easy to give you up, you know." He doesn't try to touch her, but she can't look away from the intensity in his eyes. "I don't know if I could have done it if I thought you'd really want to change things. But if you'd asked me to, I would have. I would have taken you away from that man and given you a better life."

Natasha swallows the lump in her throat. "But why did you take me there? Why did you make me watch that?" Her voice is breaking. She lets it.

"Because I wanted you to see that Red Room and SHIELD added up to something. You weren't just their tool, Nat. You saved the world." He reaches out and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, just like he had in the alleyway. "And I thought, for once in your life, you should have a choice."