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Protocol 1985

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It’s Tony’s fault, of course.

He’s meant to be at SHIELD headquarters for a meeting, and when he doesn’t show up Natasha is deputized to bring him in. Clint tags along mostly because he’s got nothing better to do, and because watching Natasha almost get visibly annoyed by Tony is always funny.

They find him in one of the Tower’s subbasements, elbows-deep in wiring. “Natasha!” he says cheerfully, flipping up the lenses on his welding goggles. “And I see you brought Katniss. What’s the occasion?”

“Meetings, Tony,” Natasha says. “We schedule them for a reason. Specifically, so you can attend them. Any of this ringing a bell?”

“Only very dimly,” Tony says. “Especially when there’s so much interesting stuff here. You know, no one’s been through some of these crates in fifty years? They just got moved from place to place, and the inventories are totally fucked. There’s gotta be something cool in here somewhere.”

Natasha very distinctly does not sigh. Clint can tell. “Do you actually need to make that determination right this minute?” she asks.

“Sure do,” Tony says. “No time like the present.”

In all fairness, the collection of crates Tony’s pulled off the shelves do look interesting. Some of them have the old SSR insignia stamped on them, which makes Clint think they probably should be in SHIELD custody. Others have variations on the Stark Industries logo, versions of it that haven’t been in use for years, a few that Clint’s never seen before. And one crate, a big one, is stenciled on all four sides with SSR-- DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 2046.

“Hey, what’s this one?” he calls out, interrupting the argument that’s starting between Tasha and Tony.

“Dunno,” Tony says. “It’s not on the inventory. Want to find out?” He grins at Clint, who finds the corners of his mouth turning up despite himself. Tony’s annoying as hell sometimes, but he can also be a lot of fun.

He turns to look at Natasha, whose arms are crossed over her chest. Her body language resolutely does not say just how annoyed she is. It says she’s annoyed, yes, absolutely, but not how annoyed. Which, to Clint, is clearly very, but a little bit interested all the same.

“It says not to open it until 2046,” Natasha points out.

“So?” Tony says.

So they pick up a couple of crowbars and lever the crate open. Inside is a... thing. It’s got wires and cable and vacuum tubes, a lot of dials down one side, mysterious metal bits. Tony’s eyes light up when he sees it.

“What is it?” Clint asks. Natasha steps closer, interested despite herself.

“No idea,” Tony says. “Let’s investigate.”

It’s awfully easy to get sucked into Tony’s orbit, caught up in his infectious enthusiasm. Even Natasha succumbs, a little, and within half an hour they’ve got the whatever-it-is set up in a lab and hooked up to power.

Bruce has been drawn in too, and he and Tony are conferring over a bunch of readouts from the thing while Clint and Natasha study it up close.

“What do you think it does?” he asks her.

“No way to be sure, without the inventory. Could be anything.” She frowns. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” But then he can hear it too: a high-pitched whine, almost too faint to pick out over the air conditioning and Bruce bickering with Tony. He looks back over at the device.

A point of light is gathering within it, and the whine is getting louder. “Uh, Tony?” Clint says, taking a step back, pulling on Tasha’s arm so she steps back too. “I think you should--”

And then the light flares, impossibly bright, washing over him and Natasha in a wave. It leaves him seeing spots, feeling dizzy, and when his vision clears the first thing he realizes is that he’s lying on the ground. Tasha is lying next to him, and at his groan she stirs.

“Holy crow, it worked,” someone says.

Clint’s on his feet in an instant, Natasha beside him. The speaker is a man of middling height with a narrow moustache, wearing weirdly old-fashioned clothes. He’s got goggles that are an old-timey match for the ones Tony had been wearing earlier. He pulls them up onto his forehead to stare at them.

Natasha’s got her gun drawn and aimed at the man before he, or Clint, can do much more than blink at each other. “Where are we?” she demands.

“Easy, there, little lady,” he answers. “No need to get upset. You’re in SSR HQ, if that means anything to you.”

“Oh, hell,” Clint breathes, taking in their surroundings. It’s a lab, but it’s a lot more analog than the lab they’d been in a moment ago. The machine they’d unpacked from the crate is behind them, looking newer than it had before. There’s a pinup calendar on the wall, he notices, a real old-fashioned one. It gives the month as October, 1946.

“Clint?” Natasha says, and glances his way. “I think we need to get out of here.”

“Yeah, I think so too,” he says, and adds “Protocol 1985.”

Her eyes widen just a hair.

“Hey, listen,” says the man with the moustache, “if you’d put that down I’d love to ask you some questions.” He comes around the bank of dials he’d been standing at, heedless of the gun trained on him, and while he’s busy wondering what kind of idiot does that Clint realizes why, exactly, the guy looks so familiar.

“Don’t shoot him,” he tells Tasha, and when she flicks him an inquiring glance he says, “Tell you later. But we really do need to get out of here.”

“Howard?” says a voice at the door. “Phillips wants to know what caused that power surge-- oh!”

Natasha wheels to get the newcomer in her sights, and the man with the moustache-- who is, in all likelihood, Howard goddamn Stark-- tries to grab the gun from her. She takes that somewhat amiss, and Stark is on the floor with a nosebleed, groaning, in about three seconds flat.

The woman who’d interrupted them backs away into the corridor. “Please don’t do what I think you’re about to do,” Clint says to her, but it’s too late, she’s shouting, and he can hear boots thumping their way towards them. “God damn it,” he adds, though it’s not like he can blame her. He’d do the same, in her position.

“This is not going to end well,” he remarks to Natasha.

She rolls her shoulders and says “For them, maybe.”

“Just try not to stomp on any butterflies, okay? Or-- any more than you already have,” he says, nodding at (oh, god) Howard Stark semiconscious on the floor.

“If this is actually a Protocol 1985, I guess I’d better not,” she says, and when the woman in the doorway comes at her she takes her down as gently as possible.

Fighting their way out of a secure U.S. government installation is not actually as difficult as Clint expects it to be. Everyone is weirdly hesitant to shoot them, and surprisingly bad at hand-to-hand. No one even calls a building-wide alert. They do their best not to maim anyone as they make their way through the facility, and inside of twenty minutes they’re standing on a street corner, drawing stares. Clint is aware that he himself is gawking.

“We need to move,” Natasha says. She’s trying to hide it, but Clint can see she’s shaken. All around them, the evidence of a Protocol 1985 is plain and unmistakable: the cars, the clothes, the smell of coal smoke in the air. They’ve traveled in time, no question.

“We’re so fucked,” says Clint, but he follows her, out through the streets of 1946 New York.

***

So Protocol 1985 exists because SHIELD has a fucked-up sense of humor. No one’s ever used that particular contingency plan, as far as Clint knows, but it exists, and agents do get trained in it. Just in case.

The name, Clint’s pretty sure, is someone’s idea of a joke. The protocol hasn’t been changed much in the years since Back to the Future came out, at any rate.

According to Protocol 1985, agents who find themselves stranded in a time period not their own should do their best to blend in with the contemporary population, reveal nothing of future technology, and keep away from local scientific and governmental authorities. They should avoid changing the timeline if at all possible, and attempt to get back to their own time should the opportunity present itself.

Protocol 1985 also strongly cautions agents against crossing their own timelines. It doesn’t say what you should do if your teammate’s dead dad is the one who zapped you back in time in the first place, though. Even SHIELD isn’t that thorough.

It takes a little while to be sure that no one’s on their tail. Once that’s seen to, Clint and Natasha stop running, regroup, and assess the situation calmly.

“I told you, we’re fucked,” he says.

“Stop saying that,” Natasha tells him. She’s counting how many bullets are in the clips they have on them. The number is not, in Clint’s professional opinion, high enough.

“I don’t have my bow, Tasha,” he reminds her, not for the first time.

“That’s pretty far down the priority list, okay?” Natasha says. “First we need money, clothes, and a place to go to ground. Then we need a plan to get home. Then we worry about getting you a bow.”

Clint grumbles a little, but he knows she’s right. They’re way too vulnerable in their 2012 street clothes, and stick out like a couple of sore thumbs. “Okay, so, money. You got anything we can pawn that won’t fuck the timestream? Because I don’t.”

“I was thinking we could find the red light district and mug a couple of johns,” she says, with a predatory glint in her eye.

“That’s your solution to everything,” Clint says accusingly.

But, in all fairness, that’s because it usually works. Once it gets dark, they find a suitably seedy neighborhood to prowl. Clint lurks in the shadows, holding Natasha’s jacket, and watches her flirt and preen until she gets a drunk to follow her into an alley. Then it’s just a matter of quietly knocking him out and lifting his wallet. Clint’s all for taking his clothes, too, but they’re not the right size.

A couple of marks later, they’ve got enough money to rent a room for the night and buy clothes in the morning. The hotel clerk eyes their ringless hands and Natasha’s trousers suspiciously when they check in as husband and wife, but the place is seedy enough that it apparently doesn’t matter.

Once they’re in the room, Clint forces himself to relax a little. There won’t be any security-feed footage of him and Natasha to track them down by; no one knows their faces well enough to find them. They’re a safe distance from the SSR facility, and no one but the two of them knows their names.

“Ugh,” Natasha says, and stretches, rolling her neck from side to side. “Remind me to punch Tony when we get home.”

“Get in line,” Clint says shortly. “You think there’s a way back?” He doesn’t say what he’s afraid of: that they’re stranded, that they’re stuck. That there is no way back.

Natasha’s trying not to think it either, he can tell. “Sure there is,” she says. “That machine. We just need to get our hands on it, without letting SSR pick our brains about the future.”

“Easier said than done,” Clint snorts, but Natasha shakes her head, once, a quick sharp movement.

“Their security’s for shit. It’s antiquated,” she says. “You saw that on the way out, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” he admits. He supposed that makes sense: SHIELD in 2012 has decades more experience at dealing with nasty people, and the tech to back it up. “Hey, you do realize that was probably Howard Stark you punched in the nose, back there?” He gestures vaguely at his head. “With the goggles?”

“Oh, hell, you’re right,” Natasha says. “Well, that’s almost as good as punching Tony. I think that was Peggy Carter, too, in the doorway.”

“Who?” Clint asks.

“She was an SSR agent, back in the-- now. She and Steve had a thing. I think he’s still carrying a torch for her.” Natasha flops back on the bed, boneless. “Haven’t you read Steve’s file?”

“No,” Clint says, “when I want to get to know someone socially I talk to them. I don’t use SHIELD resources to get intel.”

“Your loss,” she says. “But I’m pretty sure that was her.”

“Great,” Clint says. “So we beat up the only people who have a reason to like us.”

Natasha sits back up to fix him with a stare. “Clint,” she says, dead serious, “if there’s one thing we have to avoid, it’s telling anyone about Steve. Talk about fucking the timeline.”

“Point,” says Clint, and sighs. Time travel really takes it out of you. “I’m getting some shuteye. You mind first watch?”

“Not at all,” Natasha says, and he switches off the world for a while.

In the morning, they go looking for a secondhand shop to buy some clothes. To do this, they have to borrow a phone book from the clerk at the hotel desk, who eyes their slept-in clothes even more suspiciously than he had the night before.

Once they have clothes-- and a sympathetic shopgirl fixes Natasha’s hair for her-- they breathe a little easier. Also, Natasha flat refuses to wear a fucking girdle, so there’s that. As for Clint, he can’t get used to the goddamn high-waisted trousers; they practically come up to his nipples, and the suit jackets don’t give him enough range of motion. How Steve wears this stuff, he'll never know.

They also buy a pair of cheap wedding rings, figuring it’ll be easiest to pose as a couple-- they’ve done it plenty of times for missions, and Clint thinks if they treat this as deep cover, just another assignment, they maybe won’t lose their minds.

They find a nightclub, and Clint gets a job as a heavy; Natasha they hire to sell cigarettes, which is a damned waste. But rolling drunks will only get them so far, and might draw the wrong kind of attention eventually. It means a lot of late nights spent thinking longingly of the indoor smoking ban. Clint had actually forgotten how the reek of it got into your clothes and hair, how even your skin felt tarry after a night in a smoky club. They’re smoking unfiltereds, too.

They get a crappy little pay-by-the-week room at a boarding house, and give their names as Clint and Natalie Barton. No one thinks anything of it. Clint keeps having to remind himself he doesn’t have to sweep the room for bugs; Natasha has to be reminded to draw the curtains before she works out. When they’re not working or sleeping, crammed next to each other in the narrow, poky bed, they’re surveilling SSR HQ. They don’t have enough money for Clint to buy a bow.

A couple of weeks pass like that, just scrabbling to find their feet, and it doesn’t get any easier. Clint keeps expecting people to be-- he doesn’t know, nicer somehow, less cynical, more naive. Maybe they’re a hell of a lot more likely to underestimate Tasha than people in 2012, but mostly it seems like just as many people are assholes in the 40s as they are in any other time.

Clint thought, at least, that he’d maybe understand Steve better from living through his time, but he doesn’t think it’s helping much. Mostly he’s starting to think that Steve would have been himself, entirely exceptional, in whatever time he was born in.

It’s Natasha who cracks. “I can’t take another week of this,” she says. “I swear, working for Tony was easier. If one more meathead pinches my ass--”

“Oh, I’ve been hoping you would say that,” Clint says. “Want to cause some damage?”

“Do I ever,” Natasha says. “But let’s at least try to be subtle.”

It’s not that hard to get the right uniforms and ID. Natasha goes in with the cleaning crew, a scarf covering her bright hair; Clint’s just another soldier strolling in the front door. They go in during third shift, when there’s a skeleton staff, and rendezvous outside the lab they escaped from. Natasha draws her gun from where it’s hidden in her mop bucket, Clint picks the lock, and they slip in the door.

The device is gone from its place in the middle of the floor. “Damn it,” Clint says softly, as they sweep the room. It’s nowhere in evidence, but there’s a door at the back of the lab that’s ajar, light spilling out, and as Clint approaches to check it he hears someone moving--

And Howard Stark steps out, yawning, his hair sleep-tousled. He freezes mid-stretch. “Hey, what’re you doing in here?” he demands. “This is a secure lab.”

Natasha, who’d managed to conceal her gun in an eyeblink, bats her eyes at him. “Oh, sorry, Mister Stark,” she says innocently. “We just wanted a minute alone to-- um--” And she giggles. Clint rubs the back of his neck and tries to look embarrassed.

“Oh, well,” Stark says, and waves a sleepy hand magnanimously. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of young love. Just don’t mess up my equipment.” And he wanders back into the other room.

Clint and Natasha exchange a look. “Well, we wondered where he gets it from,” Natasha says.

“And now we know,” Clint agrees. “Let’s toss his files.”

As quietly as they can, they go through the paperwork scattered throughout the room. Natasha’s the one who determines that the time machine’s been moved to another lab. She’s all set to go when Clint points out something that’s been nagging at him.

“Are we going to be able to operate it on our own?” he asks. “We don’t know how the damn thing works. I hate to say it, but we may need Stark.”

“I really wish you hadn’t brought that up,” Natasha says, leveling an even gaze at him.

They go to the lab anyway, hoping for the best. The time machine’s hooked up to power, at least; they each start paging through files, trying to figure out how the thing works. Or at least how to turn it on.

Clint’s about to start flipping switches when a crisply-accented voice from the doorway says “Freeze, please.”

“Aw, hell,” he mutters, because Natasha’s drawn on the woman in the doorway, and now they’ve got a standoff. “Look, we don’t want any trouble.”

“And I don’t want you messing about with highly classified machinery,” she retorts. She has dark hair, worn simply, and a determined expression. Clint recognizes her from the day they arrived. “How did you get in here?”

“Your security’s a little behind the times, from our point of view,” Natasha says. “You should probably put that down, Agent Carter.”

The woman’s eyes widen as she recognizes them. “You’re Howard’s supposed time travelers,” she says, “aren’t you? He’s been trying to get Phillips to start a manhunt for you two for weeks.”

“Not supposed,” Clint says, which draws a glare from Natasha, “and that’s why we really need to turn this thing on, before we screw up the timeline any more than we already have. Okay? We could use a little help.”

“Help you?” she snorts. “You put eight good men in hospital. Where’d you learn to fight like that, anyway?” This is addressed to Natasha, and Agent Carter looks kind of impressed despite herself.

“Not where,” Natasha says. “When.”

This earns them an arched eyebrow. “You really expect me to believe that, don’t you?” Agent Carter says.

“We really do. Look, I’ve read your file, Peggy,” Natasha says, gun still trained on Agent Carter. “You’ve dealt with plenty of strange stuff. Maybe not as weird as time travel, but anyone who’s spent any time around the Super Soldier Project and the Tesseract should have a pretty high threshold for weird.”

“How do you know about--?” Agent Carter begins. “That’s classified.”

“I have a pretty high clearance, back in the twenty-first century,” Natasha says. “Now are you helping us, or am I going to have to beat you up again?”

While they’ve been talking, Clint has been edging sideways, out of Agent Carter’s line of fire. When she wheels to cover him, he’s already close enough to disarm her. “Sorry, Agent,” he says, and she sets her mouth in a flat line, clearly expecting to be knocked out again. “We’d really rather do this the easy way, if that’s any help. Your decade sucks. I want to go home already.”

“Well, I don’t know what you want me to do,” Agent Carter says. “You want Howard for this. I assume you’ve read his file, as well?”

“You could say that,” Clint says, and he and Natasha exchange a look. Hers is warning, but his is a little bit amused. “Tell you what. How about Nat puts her gun away, and you call Stark in here, and we get home before the future gets any more screwed up?”

“Barton, are you kidding? She’s going to call two dozen guards if we let her near a phone,” Natasha says, so annoyed he can almost make out a faint line between her eyebrows. “And I’m not putting my gun away.”

“Prove you’re from the future, and I’ll call Howard right this minute,” Carter says.

“You know what? Fine,” Clint says. He pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, and makes to toss it to her. “Catch.”

She puts her hands up warily, but once the phone’s in her grip her expression changes to fascinated. “What is it?” she asks.

“A communication device,” Clint says. Natasha is doing the Natasha equivalent of glaring daggers at him, but he honestly does not care. If this gets them home faster, it’s worth it. “Battery’s dead, or I’d show you how it works. Flip it over, though.”

She does, and her eyes widen at the Stark Industries logo blazoned there. “Howard didn’t make this,” she says.

“His company will,” Clint says.

She meets his eyes. He keeps his gaze level and steady. “All right,” she says. “I’ll get Howard.”

She makes the call, and Clint and Natasha take up positions on either side of the door, waiting for, they hope, Stark and not base security.

While they wait, Carter leans against a console, arms crossed, studying them both. “You’re not what I would have expected time travelers to be like,” she observes.

“We weren’t planning to be time travelers,” Natasha retorts. “We didn’t know what the damn machine did.”

“Then why on earth did you turn it on?” she asks.

“We’re not the geniuses who thought that was a good idea,” says Clint. “We just happened to be standing a little too close when it went off.”

“That explains rather a lot,” Carter says. “So where on earth have you been, these last few weeks? Howard’s been going mad.”

“Blending in,” Natasha says.

“Badly,” Clint adds. “Did I mention I don’t like this decade much?”

“You may have done,” Natasha says, and the corner of her mouth turns up a little.

“So what’s the future like?” Peggy asks, and there’s a gleam of interest in her eyes. “If it’s so much better than now. Obviously the technology’s a lot more advanced; what else changes?”

“We really can’t tell you that,” Clint says. “Sorry.”

“I mean, I suppose it’s not some horrible dystopia, or you wouldn’t be in such a rush to get back.”

“It’s home,” Natasha says, with a note of finality in her voice. “We never should have come here in the first place.”

“Oh, all right,” Carter says, a touch petulantly. “You can’t blame a girl for being curious.”

Clint can see why Steve liked her.

When Stark finally strolls in, Clint moves to shut and lock the door behind him, and Natasha gets him in an arm bar. “Hey, what are you--” he begins, and then their faces register with him. “What the hell? I let you make time in my lab, and this is the thanks I get?”

“Honestly, Howard,” Carter sighs, “can’t you recognize your own time travelers?”

“My-- oh, fantastic!” His whole face lights up. “Listen, if you’ll just let go of me I’ve got about a million questions. For starters, cold fusion’s been giving me a lot of trouble, and I was wondering if you had any hints--”

“Really, no,” Natasha says. “You’re sending us back. Now.”

He looks eerily like Tony when he pouts. “Aw, c’mon. Just a few pointers?”

“Nat, can I hit him? It’s almost as good as hitting-- you-know-who,” Clint says.

“Who?” Carter asks, her eyebrows going up.

“Not that I’m not tempted,” Natasha says, “but we do actually need him to operate the time machine. And then we need you to box it up, stamp it ‘Do Not Open Until 2046,’ and forget about it.” She lets go of his arm, though. He shakes it out, looking affronted.

“Now, why would I do that?”

“Because you don’t want to violate the laws of causality, and possibly break the space-time continuum,” Clint says. Off Natasha’s inquiring look, he adds “What? I’ve read plenty of science fiction.”

“We found the box in an SI archive,” Natasha says. “Unless you want to break the future, you’ll do what we tell you.”

Stark’s expression turns mulish. “Fine,” he snaps. And then he grins. The grin is even more alarming for its similarity to Tony in a destructive mood. “Then I’ll just have to come with you.”

“Howard, that’s mad,” says Carter. “Talk about breaking the future. You couldn’t possibly.”

“I damn well could,” he says. “It’s my time machine. I can use it if I want to. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t.”

“I-- oh, damn, I don’t suppose I can. But still.” Carter crosses her arms again.

“Oh, hell,” Natasha says. “I hate to say this, but you can’t because-- because-- you’re too important to the future.” She scowls. She looks the very picture of someone who really, really doesn’t want to be saying what she’s saying, which Clint is pretty sure is what she actually is, just at the moment. It’s a pretty impressive act all the same. “Knowing what’s going to happen to you will change the future-- our future-- in ways we can’t predict. You can’t do it.”

“She’s right,” Clint puts in. “Changing your history-- your particular history-- there’s no telling how our future would turn out.”

“I’m really that important? I make that much of a difference?” Stark’s expression is a striking combination of wonder and ego. Clint thinks about how unbearable Tony would be if time travelers from the future told him he was essential to the progress of mankind, and tries not to groan out loud.

“Not just you. The people you influence. Your legacy.” Natasha’s putting a lot into this performance, and Clint can see it’s working. She always does her best work when there’s some truth to whatever she’s convincing someone of.

Howard rubs his hands together, a maniacal glint in his eye. “Right, then. Let’s get you two back to the future.”

Clint very resolutely doesn’t laugh.

While Howard’s setting up the machine, they change back into their 2012 clothes. Carter studies them both. “So those are everyday clothes, in the future?” They nod. “Lucky you. I can’t get served in a restaurant in trousers. I suppose it’s different for you.”

“We’ve come on a bit,” Clint admits.

“It must be wonderful. I’d love to see it,” she admits, sounding a bit wistful. Clint feels obscurely guilty, then thinks of Steve and feels really specifically guilty. “But I suppose you’ll tell me I’m vital to the future, too.”

“You are,” Natasha says, and Clint can tell she’s lying.

To his surprise, so can Carter. “That’s sweet of you to say. But I can see the writing on the wall. During the war, there was room for me to be exceptional, to not follow the rules. But the war’s over now, and people expect me to be a good girl again. The sky’s the limit, for Howard. I’ll be lucky if I ever get promoted again.”

Natasha opens her mouth, and Carter fixes her with a stare. “You say you’ve read my files. Go on, tell me I’ve got a long and lofty career ahead of me. Tell me I don’t get shunted sideways, and passed over, and treated as less than I am. I’d love to hear it.”

Natasha doesn’t answer. Carter gives a laugh without much humor in it. “There. I thought so.”

“Ready!” Stark calls out.

“Right,” Carter says. “Let’s get you home.” She stands at attention, and walks briskly over to Howard. Clint feels like a heel.

It’s surprisingly simple, in the end. Stark flips a few switches, a faint hum builds in the air, and blinding light flashes around them. The next thing Clint knows, he’s on the ground, being prodded in the shoulder.

“Uh, you okay there, Robin Hood? I’d poke Romanov, but I’m afraid of drawing back a stump.”

“Tony, I am going to kick your ass,” Natasha growls beside him.

“I called dibs, remember?” Clint says, and they climb to their feet and advance on Tony in unison. He backs away, hands upraised, eyes wide. As far as Clint can tell, they’ve been gone for less than a moment.

“Hey, hey, what did I do? And why do you guys smell like an ashtray all of a sudden?” Tony asks.

Clint and Natasha exchange a look. Before they can start pummeling Tony, though, there’s another flash of light. Clint wheels around, thinking, crap, Stark didn’t listen after all, but it’s Carter picking herself up off the ground, taking in the shiny 21st-century lab with wide eyes. Behind her, the time machine lets out a shower of sparks and powers down.

“Uh, guys? I think it’s broken,” says Bruce.

“What do you think you’re-- Natasha begins, but Carter holds up a quelling hand.

“It’s fine,” she says. “Howard promised to lay a paper trail for me. He’s even going to fake my death. I’ve still got a file for you to read. That doesn’t mess up history, does it?” She smiles a bright, sharp, happy little smile. “And I get to see the future!”

Natasha looks a little impressed. Clint sure as hell feels impressed. That’s not a solution he would have thought of.

“Wait. Wait,” Tony says. He points a shaking finger. “That thing’s a time machine?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Carter says. “You didn’t know.” She holds out a hand. “Peggy Carter. Charmed, I’m sure. And you are?”

Clint has rarely seen Stark look gobsmacked. It’s a pretty good look on him, he decides. “Uh, Tony. Stark. Hi.”

“Oh!” Carter cries happily. “I see the resemblance. You’re a grandson, then, or a great-great, surely? If it’s 2046?”

“Um, it’s actually 2012,” Clint says. “Sorry. Didn’t want to tell too much.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Carter says. “Seventy years isn’t a bad hop, all things considered.”

“Actually,” Natasha says, “there’s something we should probably tell you about that.”

That, of course, is when Steve pushes open the door, and says “Hey, guys, Fury says if we don’t show up for that meeting he’s going to oh my god, Peggy.”

She goes pale. He’s not far behind her. She raises her hands to her mouth, and says, voice trembling, “Steve?”

“Seriously, a time machine?” Tony demands.

“I think you’d better tell us what just happened,” Bruce says, and then everything dissolves into happy chaos.

EPILOGUE:

Breakfast at the Tower is an informal affair. There’s an absurd array of breakfast cereals, a selection of fresh fruit, various dairy products; people mostly help themselves. Natasha’s having grapefruit, since she’s the only person in the world who can eat one at eight AM without squirting herself in the eye.

As for Clint, he’s crunching his way through the first of several planned bowls of the kind of artificially-flavored Technicolor quasi-foods he’d spent his stint in 1946 dreaming about. When Steve wanders in wearing pajama bottoms, no shirt, and an expression of stunned good fortune, he waves vaguely at them both.

“Hey, Cap,” Clint says around a mouthful of corn syrup and preservatives. “Reunion going well?”

Steve blushes, which is kind of cute. “Uh, yeah,” he says, and goes for the plain Cheerios. As he’s pouring the milk, Agent Carter walks up behind him, which explains where Steve’s pajama top went.

She wraps her arms around Steve, and plants a kiss on his temple. “So,” she says, “what’s breakfast like in the future?” He smiles foolishly at her; her smile back is just as love-struck. Getting bitched out by Fury is worth it, sometimes.

“It’s not all that different,” Natasha says. “Some things aren’t.”

“But a lot of things are,” Clint adds. “Mostly good things. Want to try a Pop Tart?”

“I’d love to,” Peggy says. Clint passes her the box.