AUTHOR'S NOTE: So Frea_O and I were in an Undisclosed Location discussing writing (wine was involved), and I noted that my stories are usually grounded in some form of reality. Quoth she, "yeah, you don't usually go for that magic stuff, do you?" - or words to that effect – and I agreed that no, I didn't think I could. Almost immediately, a little bell chimed in my head. (My muse, saying, "ummm … hello?")
Next, AvengersFest happened and I got the following request from Jadesfire:Team bonding - whether all the team or just a few of them - is my favourite thing. I like everything from tricky plotty stories to short, simple character studies, … But above all, I love anything with team-acting-as-family. Bickering, arguing, prodding each other and ultimately backing each other to the hilt. Oh, and I have a real weakness for stories including time travel or telepathy. The final straw was my Significant Other, who'd just spent weeks looking for the Kenneth Branagh version of Henry V, and suddenly this … this Strange Thing started to take shape inside my head...
This story was posted anonymously on AO3 over a month ago, but author reveals are today so I can finally put it up here. I own nothing but a handful of clocks that run more or less on time.
By Alpha Flyer
"You can't go back … you can't go back!"
As far as battle cries go, it sounds more desperate than challenging. But the white-blue rays spraying from the contraption inside the baby carriage the man has parked in Rockefeller Plaza are real enough, and a definite menace.
It had started almost as a joke – he'd point the thing, and a few pigeons would disappear. Again.
"Look, Mommy! Magic!" an excited voice had rung out, high and clear, and things went downhill pretty quickly after that.
Wherever the man, unassuming, dressed in grey slacks and a sweater-vest - directs his fire, a blue, shimmering ring opens up, and whatever is inside (or behind?) just … vanishes. There's a bit of a 'pop' as if someone is pulling the cork out of a bottle of cheap, over-carbonated Crimea champagne, and then the world is restored – except what was there before isn't there anymore.
According to the reports received by S.H.I.E.L.D., and transmitted to the Avengers, an electronic billboard, a garbage can, a lamp post had been the first things to go, even before the pigeons. Inanimate objects, initially.
But then the police had arrived.
Three NYPD cars with flashing blue lights; a van, carrying members of the S.W.A.T. team – all vanished, inside rings of blue fire.
The ensuing panic had cleared the Plaza quickly, and by the time the team gets there, it looks as if the man is running out of new targets. Then he makes some adjustment in the carriage, and points it at a deserted hot dog stand.
From her position beside the Metropolitan Art store Natasha can see Clint take aim at the man, from the high ledge atop the NBC building where Stark had deposited him seconds earlier. Stark is making a pass over the Plaza, looking for an angle from which to blast that baby carriage and making sure there's no actual baby inside before he does.
Thor is in Asgard and Banner … well, mid-town has barely recovered from the last Hulk episode so he's decided to sit this one out. Besides, their adversary is only one man, however interestingly armed. Steve is lurking behind another corner ready to pounce as soon as the carriage is out of commission.
She can't see Clint's face from the distance - he would be able to see hers no doubt, his vision being what it is - but she can see by his posture that his bowstring is as taut as his shoulders.
Natasha waits for a silent arrow to finds its target.
But the man must have felt something, for he turns, looks at her, and follows her eyes – up, up. His mouth opens in another scream, or imprecation - and then several things happen at once.
The man sends a rapid-fire series of blue bolts into the air; seconds later, the carriage erupts with one of Ironman's blasts (no baby, then).. The air seems to shudder, and the whole corner of the building on which Clint is perched suddenly vanishes. His arrow shoots up in the air as he falls, taking with him the ledge that suddenly is supported only by air, or less.
He falls … twisting, trying to arm one of his grappling arrows, taking her breath with him … and then Stark streaks through the sky even as Steve on the ground pounces on the man by the baby carriage and silence falls on the plaza.
Natasha knows that Stark has caught Clint, she can see the two of them – red-gold and black - moving together, flying. But then she sees it, the last of those blue rings, still shimmering in mid-air, right in Ironman's flight path. There is another pop and then …
Clint just knows that flying towards a ring of blue fire is a bad idea; even in the circus people get scorched on a regular basis. He tries to say so, but the wind just tears the words from his mouth, and through the ring they go at full throttle.
He can't really complain – after all, Stark had plucked him out of free fall when that ledge had disappeared under his feet. Just … gone it was, right after that guy in the sweater had pointed at it with what looked suspiciously like a TV remote, and Clint knows he should count himself lucky that Ironman was right there, and there wasn't much left for a grappling arrow to find purchase on.
So, yeah - normally, a little gratitude is in order, and normally Clint would maybe even buy Stark an extra-nice bottle of Scotch, or offer to kill the next round of … whatevers without calling in air strikes.
But gratitude is a matter of time and place and perspective, and right now, fact is, they're not in Kansas anymore. (Or wherever. Not the time for metaphors, or Rogers-accessible pop culture references.) Gratitude will have to wait for a more suitable occasion.
"What the hell?"
Stark has noticed too, and comes to what amounts to a screeching halt in mid-air, resulting in some pretty undignified dangling on Clint's part. Flying is pretty cool, but frankly, Clint would prefer to be in control of details like speed and trajectory himself, even if he usually ends up showered with glass.
"As I was saying, Stark, don't fly through that."
"Bit late, Legolas. Where the hell are we?"
"Fuck if I know."
Clint refuses to even pretend he has a clue. Honesty tends to be a good place to start when you need to dig yourself out of a hole - easier to find the right kind of shovel.
"Mind if we land while we figure it out? That tin can of yours is doing things to my shoulders and rib cage."
One thing you can say for Stark, when it comes to his equipment, he takes hints (probably tried to hug Pepper with that suit on once too often, and got shit for it). A couple of seconds later, Clint's feet are safely in the grass and the pressure on his rib cage is off.
The grass is the kind you'd probably call a meadow, long, unkempt and shot through with flowers going to seed. The air is something else – not a trace of yellow cab or pizza parlour, and the only sound apart from Ironman's clanking joints is birds. Even Central Park after a rain doesn't smell this clean.
They're on top of some kind of hill, which is good for tactical purposes, and allows for max visibility, which may be not so good. Clint almost immediately spots something moving below in the valley, past the edge of a small wood. What he sees is not exactly reassuring - but before he can say something to that effect, Stark commands attention, as only Stark does.
"JARVIS?" he asks, banging the side of his head with a metal fist. "Hey, JARVIS. JARVIS? Talk to me. This isn't a time for jokes. I'm not laughing here!"
Stark wrestles with his faceplate for a moment. The look in his eyes when it comes off is as close to - okay, not panic, but genuine concern - as Clint has ever personally seen in the usually unflappable billionaire.
"Nothing," Stark complains. "I get nothing from JARVIS. It's like he isn't there."
Good thing those repulsor things are mechanical then or have some kind of back-up system, or they might have crashed out of the sky after all. Wouldn't that have been fun. Still, Clint manages to keep his voice in his usual battle range between pissed off and I don't give a shit, when he answers.
"Yeah? Well, at a guess, I'd say that's because we're way out of range."
He points into the valley, where a convoy of what looks like soldiers is moving across the landscape, followed by what looks like a supply train. And while military convoys themselves are getting somewhat rare in the days of reliable airlift, what makes this one particularly odd is that the soldiers – except for some on horses – are mostly on foot. And the supply carts are being pulled by what looks like cows, except they're not like the ones milk cartons, they're scrawny-looking beige things with long horns.
Most remarkable, though, is the fact that the low afternoon light glints off metal worn by the men on horses, and that the majority of the leather-clad foot soldiers are carrying long bows. Ironman and Hawkeye, times a few hundred or thousand, in the original version and and unplugged.
"I don't think it's a question of where we are, but when we are."
"What do you mean they just disappeared? JARVIS?"
"I am afraid I have lost all contact with Sir, Miss Potts. One moment he was there, and then both he and the Mach 56 were … gone."
The AI sounds gravely concerned, almost desperate.
"Yes, Miss Potts. If there is anything I can do to bring him back …"
Pepper glares at Banner and Thor as if they were personally responsible for whatever happened to Tony and Clint, which isn't really fair as neither of them was on the scene. Steve usually gets a bye in these matters because he's so nice, despite being nominally in charge, and as for Natasha herself, she assumes that she is being presumed innocent thanks to Clint's disappearance. Although why that should be the case is a little baffling to her. It's not as if she and Clint …
Besides, she realizes with an ice-cold grip, the whole thing is actually her doing. If she hadn't looked up at Clint on that ledge … And why exactly did she look up at him?
Pepper, unaware of the inner battle being waged beside her, continues on the warpath undeterred.
"The last time Tony disappeared, he turned up in rural Tennessee. Has anyone thought to check there?"
"'Tis not a jesting matter, Lady Pepper," Thor's baritone manages to both admonish and reassure at the same time, even as it echoes off the still textile-free walls of Stark's living room. "Upon reports a portal was opened to an unknown realm, and they entered unwittingly."
"A portal." Pepper has clearly reached the end of her ropes. Her voice rises with each question. "Another portal? So where did they go? Asgard? That place where the Chitauri came from? Isn't that radioactive now?"
"They are not in Asgard, my Lady," Thor answers the one question he can. "Asgard has … other protections, things we have put in place since Loki's first betrayal. We would know if someone had breached our boundaries, but none have."
As soon as Banner's analysis had arrived at "portal," it was obvious that Thor's knowledge of the Bifrost might assist, and the fact that he has come as quickly as he did speaks volumes of his concern.
Pepper looks helplessly around the room, her distraught gaze settling on Natasha. Pepper has come to see the erstwhile Nathalie Rushman as the only person tethering the Avengers Initiative to something resembling sanity, and so it is to Natasha that she directs her question.
"So what's next? Where do we start looking?"
Natasha has an answer ready – born out of the wordless exchange of glances she had on the Plaza, with the man who'd opened gates into other worlds.
"I need to talk to him," she says, looking at Steve. "MacAllister, I mean. You brought him down, Cap. Do you think he's stable enough for a … conversation?"
Steve has been silent throughout, his face as pinched as she has ever seen it. Losing comrades, it strikes Natasha, will always be hard on Captain America, and no doubt he is beating himself up for not moving on MacAllister sooner. Of course, had he done so, they might now be down three, not two …
As for herself, she refuses to think what losing Clint might mean to her in the long run. After all, he's not gone - cannot be gone. Not again. No, he's inside that shimmering ring, somewhere. He is, damn it. Damn him.
Steve draws a deep, shuddering breath.
"Yeah, I think he is sane. He was incoherent and agitated, but quite lucid – if that makes sense."
Banner injects himself into the conversation.
"In some forms of mental illness, a person's reality may be ninety degrees from normal, but it hangs together as a coherent fantasy."
Pepper shoots him a wounded look.
"You told Tony that you 'weren't that kind of doctor'."
She accentuates her comment with weapons-grade air quotes, but Bruce refuses to take the bait.
"I'm not. But I have read Scientific American Mind on occasion, hoping to learn something about how the brain works. I thought it might come in handy some day."
Pepper stops dead in her tracks and is probably about to say something that's probably an apology – nerves really are a little frayed in every direction. But Steve interrupts, all business again and uninterested in self-flagellation in any form. He looks at Natasha.
"I don't believe that MacAllister was mentally ill at all. Distraught, yes. He kept muttering, 'You can't go back, you can't go back'. I have no idea what that means, but it might be important."
It's probably a good thing that it isn't too warm - Octoberish, judging by the colours of the trees. Otherwise, without JARVIS running the cooling mechanism inside that red-and-gold tin can of his, Stark might be in more trouble than he already is, an hour into their time here.
Being unable to get out of his suit without a toolkit, or without destroying it, is on the resolve sooner rather than later list of their current problems. "Go home" has been shelved under longer term for now, given that they don't even know in which direction to start looking.
Luckily, certain basic human needs are easy to take care of, or things could get embarrassing pretty quickly. (Does that flip-up codpiece mean Ironman takes leaks on long-range flights?) Juvenile thoughts, Clint chastises himself, not appropriate to the seriousness of their situation.
A clanking sound indicates Stark is done his business for now, and has started ruminating again, at his usual ninety-miles-a-minute pace.
"What I don't get is why, if we hit a temporal displacement field, we didn't stay where we were. The geology here is definitely not Manhattan. Also, I need tools if I'm to build another portal to take us back. Do you know where I can find tools, Birdman? And some Purell?"
Clint isn't a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but his stake-out reading has included enough science fiction novels for him to be able to answer the first part.
"The Earth rotates. So now we're somewhere else than where we started out. And before you tell me the whole fucking solar system and the universe rotate too and we should have been spat out somewhere in outer space, I really don't give a flying fuck why that didn't happen. Just counting my blessings. Which don't include Purell."
Talking about blessings - being stuck with Stark is distinctly a mixed one.
"So where are we then? Needless to say my GPS is out, too."
What the fuck makes Stark think Clint might possibly know that? Oh yes, over-dependence on technology. Good thing archers operate on manual. Clint squints at the very distant horizon, where the sunlight glints off what looks like a body of water, and the white rocks poking out here and there under the vegetation.
"Chalk, and a large body of water," he says. "Medieval outfits that look Western, not Asian. English channel? As to which side, your guess is as good as mine."
To give him credit, Stark doesn't waste time arguing with a good hypothesis, just because it comes from someone without a PhD. or a subscription to Popular Mechanics. Instead, he nods, and points a metallic finger at the convoy below; it has come to rest now, and the first tents are appearing. White, round, with little flags on top.
About a mile East, there is another, much larger encampment. Many more tents, more horses, more men.
"These guys down there aren't headed for a birthday party. That's an army. No, two armies. What good wars do we know of in the Middle Ages?"
"Fought with bows?" Clint doesn't know shit about history, but he does know archery. "Hundred Year War?"
"Not exactly helpful, Barton. Can we narrow that down some?"
Clint, of course, hasn't a clue as to which hundred years they're talking about (three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a week with Loki is all the wars he feels the need to be acquainted with, thank you very much) and he says so.
Besides, what difference does it make? Maybe if someone comes looking for them, but what the hell are they supposed to do about it, leave a message in a bottle and bury it somewhere? Hey, Tasha, I'm in the 16th Century, can you come get me?
But there is some intel to be gleaned from what he can see, and that's worth analysis.
"One thing I do know is that archers means chances are, the guys down there are English. Plus, some of the others are wearing armour, so they should have at least a crowbar in that supply train."
That seems good enough for Stark, who actually admits that he knows even less about medieval shit than Clint - at least he tried to read 'Ivanhoe' once. History and science, apparently, don't mix. (Except for history of science, but that's not helpful here.)
Damn. Clint realizes he's mentally babbling now. Good thing Stark has action on his mind.
"Well, what are we waiting for, Robin Hood? Let's go meet your playmates."
Even though the crowbar was Clint's idea, the thought of knocking on the (figurative) door of an unknown army of some seven thousand guys is a tad daunting.
"Maybe we should hang out up for a while. I still have my bow, so we won't starve …"
Stark pulls himself up to his full height – which is only more than Cling because of those steel lifts in his repulsor boots – and glares.
"If we're ever going to get back to New York, Barton, I'm going to need tools. And that … " he points into the valley, "… is where I'm most likely to find them."
He's not wrong, of course, and besides … Clint has never been slow when it comes to making decisions, especially stupid ones.
"Guess you'll fit right in with those guys in the tin cans," he says. "They'll probably think you're important. May want to explain the colour scheme, though."
Of course, flying straight at that army is not an option - even though Stark's repulsors are still working. They've both heard of the 'Temporal Prime Directive' and even though this isn't some TV show, it makes sense not to stir up the locals right away; they end up flying through those fucking woods as far as they can to get close to the now-established camp. Of course, Clint gets enough twigs and leaves in the face to up his annual folic acid intake by a thousand percent, and he spits out a small pine branch and a couple of bugs. A kingdom for a face plate …
They're in a small clearing now, just at the line where the woods thin out into the open.
"Okay, what's the plan now?" Clint asks, in the spirit of consultation. "Walk down there, wave and introduce ourselves? Or fire your repulsors, for a spot of shock and awe? I'm open to suggestions here."
As it turns out, the matter is taken out of their hands. There's a crackle in the underbrush, and a small group of men appears, bows in hand but not drawn. For a moment they just stand there, mouths agape as they take in Stark in his red-gold splendor, but none make an immediate move to attack.
"'Tis not the stag we sought, my Lord," says one of the archers after a minute or so of stunned silence. "But nor is it the French. Pray, what are our orders?"
It occurs to Clint then, that this is the Age of Chivalry - when battles were arranged by time and place, a whole country would accept defeat at the fall of a single castle, and killing a knight outside approved fighting hours was considered a serious breach of etiquette.
He likes his chances here.
The helicarrier's detention level has been fully restored; it's brighter now and the cell built for the Hulk has been replaced by an interrogation chamber that won't plummet to the ground at the push of a button. Still, Natasha has to fight down an uncomfortable feeling of déja vu as she heads along the catwalk; she looks over her shoulder more than once.
Her mind insists on replaying the sounds and sensations of her fight – right …. here – with an enthralled Clint Barton: the grunts and the thuds of fists connecting with leather and flesh; the hissing of arrows, then blades; finally, the clanging of his head against the railing and that voice, his voice, raspy, hollow and searching, like an echo from the bottom of a pit: Tasha?
Where the hell is he now, her partner?
She shakes it off. No time. Rogers is there already, waiting by the glass door.
Apparently, most of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s in-house lawyers are still tied up in jurisdictional wrangles with the State of New York, which has lost eighteen law enforcement personnel to MacAllister's rampage and wants him, badly. Fury, she knows, is sympathetic and more than ready to hand the man over – but only after his top interrogator has had a crack at him. She needs to make this count, and fast.
Little is known about Angus MacAllister from available sources: family originally from New York, junior physics professor at MIT, quiet life, no priors. Widowed, never remarried, no social life beyond the occasional coffee with colleagues. His academic and lab work are undistinguished, according to Banner, to the point where he was unlikely to be given tenure, even before he unleashed something that took bites out of reality.
MacAllister sits in a chair facing the door, a thin man with sullen and sunken features who looks older than he is, and beyond caring. Not because he doesn't feel, though – the premature lines in his face have been etched by pain.
Good. Pain is something she can work with. She puts her finger on it.
"You can't go back – where, exactly?"
He looks at her with empty eyes, but says nothing. It's a funny thing, Natasha has questioned perps on a scale that runs from petty thief to unhinged Norse god with father issues, and she doesn't get that … criminal vibe from him. Nor does he seem insane – Steve was right about that.
The Captain is watching from the other side of the one-way screen, and a brief flick in MacAllister's eyes towards the glass suggests that he, too, knows someone is there. The man is no fool, that much is clear.
"Fuck you," he says, but he sounds more tired than defiant. "Fuck everything. It's all a waste."
"And vaporizing innocent people will do what, exactly, except cause more waste?"
MacAllister glares at her for a moment, almost as if he were reviving, ready to throw a challenge.
"You," he says. "I saw you. On the Plaza. You looked up, and I saw the sniper. Thanks for that."
Natasha isn't used to feeling during an interrogation - not since Loki – and she is a little taken aback at the wave of anger that washes over her. Her hands twitch, and for a moment she thinks she cannot control them, that they might make her break his neck. She takes a breath and finds her center. If there is one thing the Red Room has taught her, it is to channel her rage.
"That was my partner you disappeared," she snaps. Make it personal. "What did that machine of yours do to him?"
MacAllister leans back in his chair, a bitter but unapologetic smile playing across his lips.
"Welcome to my life," he says. "Ask me if I'm sorry."
Natasha represses the urge to hit the man. Channel it.
Pain. Her own can - will - have to await analysis. What is the source of MacAllister's? Too early, she wants to hurt, not to learn.
Channel the rage.
"That's quite the gizmo you invented," she says. "For someone who can't even make tenure. Must have hurt, seeing others get ahead, when you're the genius. Or was it all just a Houdini act, and somewhere there's a secret room that they all just wait to pop out of again – all those cops." And one … two Avengers.
He stares at her, with a mixture of contempt and pity, and maybe he is insane.
"It's one hell of a room out there," he says. "You have no idea. None at all."
He leans forward, buts his elbows on the table and runs his hands across his face. When he looks up, his eyes are a little wild.
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to locate someone in eternity? No? No one does. But I did it. I. Did. It."
He emits a noise that could be a giggle, a hiccup or a sob.
"And it wasn't enough. So, no. Don't expect your friends to walk out for you. Nobody came back for me."
And suddenly, she understands. She allows her voice to soften, and her eyes.
"The person you lost. It was your wife. All this – it's about your wife, isn't it?"
Her eyes bore into his, and she sees the truth in his even before he speaks.
"I was so close," he says, his voice breaking. "The afternoon of May 18, 2007. That afternoon. I was there. I went back a dozen times. Each time I could see her, I called for her not to cross the street. But she never heard me."
His eyes turn a little sly, and a little pleading - and yes, there is madness behind them, she's certain now. (Isn't there always, in those who would bend time and space to their will?)
"I couldn't, because I'm just Angus MacAllister, also-ran physicist who can't get published. And you're right, I can't get tenure. I can't get Tara back. But Tony Stark could do it. This is S.H.I.E.L.D., they told me. You're with S.H.I.E.L.D., right? Do you know Tony Stark? Could you talk to him for me?"
Natasha has gotten what she came for, and it's pretty clear that there won't be anything more, for anyone. MacAllister's eyes tell the story all too well – he's so far around the bend, you need a telescope to see the bend. But no one has ever accused the Black Widow of being nice, and there's one door that she can close on Angus MacAllister.
"I couldn't even if I wanted to. Stark is one of the people you stranded on the other side of that portal of yours."
She turns to leave, only to find by Steve Rogers' tall figure blocking the exit. His voice is as unsteady as Natasha has ever heard it.
"Is he really saying that he found a way to go back in time?"
The small hunting party draws closer. Clint is keenly aware that the three archers seem barely familiar with their bows; their arrows are held loosely, heads pointing on the ground. There is, moreover, little of the hardened killer in the men's eyes. Wariness, yes, and some fear – the look of men pushed by circumstance into roles they would never have picked for themselves in a million years.
Clint has no doubt that he could take at least two of them out with his own bow before they could so much as nock an arrow. No need to do so, then - not yet, anyway. He deliberately relaxes his shoulders in a down tools signal to Stark, who nods his understanding. The good thing about Stark (well, actually, there are a number of them, Clint has begun to reluctantly realize some time ago) is that doesn't feel threatened by expertise.
"Hail fellows, well met," Stark intones. "You haveth great weather, for this time of year."
Ouch. Clint is already having second thoughts about that whole spokesperson thing.
The men's apparent leader – short and stubby, almost square, really - is dressed in leather like the archers, but the chest portion, arms and thighs of his outfit are reinforced with bits of hammered metal. His headpiece is not unlike Ironman's, with a faceplate that can be flipped up or down. He looks to be about eighteen years old, but carries himself with confidence drawn from a sense of entitlement and superiority. Privilege and expensive kit equals power – in this world like in any other.
When the man speaks, he addresses only Stark; Clint might as well not exist.
"Declare yourself, good Sir Knight – in the name of Henry, Sovereign of England and of France."
The man's eyes, as they slide over the red and gold of Tony's armour, are positively dripping with envy. Knight, huh. Stark flicks a slightly triumphant glance at Clint, who just shrugs.
"Your show, Stark – you're used to being called 'sir'."
"Fuck you, Barton," Stark says, but continues seamlessly, in the most drippingly bombastic tone imaginable, "Mine name is Sir. Sir Anthony Stark."
"The name is English, but Stark?" the young noble muses. "'Tis not a House known to me, nor is thy speech at all familiar. Whence do you hail, Sir Anthony?"
"Emm … New York, actually," Stark says. "And the knighthood, yeah, that's kind of a recent development. Battle of Manhattan, saving the world from alien invaders kind of thing. You know."
The little speech should have caused comprehension hiccups, but surprisingly it doesn't. Instead, the guy seems to take from it what he needs – bragging over a battle won, a reward - and looks impressed; the three archers relax.
"The King himself is a son of the House of Lancaster," the guy intones importantly, with a meaningful look at Tony's red suit. "But peace is now between the houses, and he will be most pleased to see a man of York come to join his cause, and wear his colours. I am Sir Thomas of Mowbray, third of that name. Do you bring many men of arms?"
"Man," Stark corrects him. "Just one. Our ship was lost in a storm, with all hands. Clinton here is all that's left, I'm afraid, but he's worth a couple guys in a fight. Most handy with that bow of his."
You gotta hand it to him, Stark is quick on his feet; even his language is getting more bombastic by the minute, right along with the storybook clichés he's piling on. Clint nods in affirmation.
"And yeah, we'd really like to meet that King of yours, and pay our respects. Sir Anthony here could use a trip to your armoury."
It's almost as if he hadn't spoken. Sir Thomas ignores him entirely, even though the words have obviously sunk in.
"I shall take you to the King forthwith, Sir Anthony. He will be most pleased for another knight amongst his ranks, and …" he casts a distinctly less enthusiastic look at Clint, "another longbow man."
"Recurve," Clint mutters, but his comment may as well have been pissed into the wind.
"But what of our task, Sir Thomas?" one of the three archers says. "Night is falling and the King's pots are empty, we must bring summat for his supper. There's little fighting can be done on empty stomachs, no matter how just his cause."
Clint makes a quick decision. Sir Thomas may be an elitist pig but he doesn't seem ready to slaughter Stark, and forging alliances with the underclass is always a good idea. (There's usually more of them, and where there's no money, loyalty is earned with decency.) Besides, singing for your supper is easier when you supply the food.
"Show me something worth eating, guys," he says, "and I'll help you kill it." He snaps his bow open – he'd collapsed it for the ride through the shrubbery - and watches their eyes go wide. Even Mawbry seems a little impressed.
The rather enormous wild boar they come across about half an hour after parting ways with the two 'nobles' is probably a lucky fluke. But Clint isn't inclined to ask questions, and he nails the thing with a single shot to the eye as it gallops towards him (do pigs gallop? this one sure isn't trotting). The animal's body completes a few more steps before the reality of death sets in; it comes to a somersaulting stop right in front of Clint's feet, which he hasn't bothered to move an inch.
"There," he says, as cheering breaks out around him. Your King won't starve. "Mission accomplished."
Hierarchy does have its privileges, though, and top of the working class is a perfectly good place for a former Staff Sergeant. Especially when it comes with the power to delegate.
"So here's the deal, guys. I killed it, you carry that sucker back to the camp."
The morning after MacAllister is transferred from the helicarrier into the custody of the State of New York, he is found dead in his cell. The coroner's report is very definitive on the cause of death – asphyxiation by hanging – but less so on any possible third party involvement.
Needless to say, the media are having a field day. Eighteen of the NYPD's finest and two Avengers were lost at the hands of this man – what are chances he had help? Speculation quickly becomes truth in the eyes of the public, but ultimately, it doesn't matter.
The fact is, MacAllister is not there to answer questions, assuming he could have, and it takes all of Nick Fury's political capital with the DA's office to obtain access to his papers, a copy of his hard drive, and the remains of the famous baby carriage for the team to study.
Ironman's last repulsor blast effectively fused the machinery to the metal frame of the carrier, besides coating everything in a layer of melted polyurethane that is as prejudicial to delicate circuits as it is sticky and pink. But the remote that MacAllister had been swinging is still there, still whole, and a few things – including a bit of Chitauri tech – could be salvaged from the carriage. Every bit helps in the quest to reverse-engineer a phenomenon they have yet to understand.
It's been several weeks now, though, and Banner hasn't emerged from Stark's labs except to sleep and change clothes (both rather sporadically). Jane Foster, who's been summoned by Thor - "the one who knows more about portals than any living soul in the Nine Realms" - seems to share Banner's work habits. Even Erik Selvig has turned up, muttering something slightly sheepish about helping out an old colleague.
Natasha is convinced that if it weren't for that speed-mouthed assistant of Jane's, the science team would forget about eating altogether. Darcy Lewis has been given the run of the Tower, her own apartment and unlimited access to Pepper Potts' credit card; thanks to her, the Chinese and Lebanese take-outs down the road and the Starbucks franchise around the corner are experiencing a major uptick in business.
Thor does what he always does; he disappears for days on end without explanation, presumably to run that kingdom of his or slay monsters none of them have ever heard of. When he comes back, though, it's as if no time has passed for him; at times, even his hair is mussed in exactly the same way it was when he left. Inter-dimensional jetlag, it seems, has peculiar manifestations.
But come back Thor does - far more regularly than before. His first stop is always the lab, just to check on what progress may have been made, or to offer whatever new insights into portals he just happens to have picked up in obscure corners of Asgard.
And then there is Steve.
Captain America has frequently claimed that science interests him only as a means to catch up to what he has missed, plus a basic knowledge of cellphones, computers and modern weaponry is, after all, necessary for him to do his job.
But now? He practically lives in the lab, constantly looking over Jane's and Bruce's shoulders, watching as whatever they are doing causes small rings of … something to fizz and crackle in the air before closing up again.
"Stop hovering, Captain," Bruce finally snaps, just as Natasha enters the lab. "Or I can't guarantee the Other Guy won't make an appearance right here in the lab, and that would be very counter-productive."
"Sorry," Steve mutters. "It's just, time travel is … interesting. You sure I can't help in some way?"
Bruce runs a hand across his forehead, and shakes his head.
"I'm not sure anyone can help," he sighs. "We're missing something important here. MacAllister must have had more data somewhere than what we've found. I can open a gate into the fourth dimension, but I have no control what's at the other end, and I can't hold it open. I'm afraid those gates he threw open in Manhattan were just random, and we won't be able to find Barton and Stark."
An icy hand clenches around Natasha's gut; Steve simply won't hear it.
"No. He did it. He said, I was so close. The afternoon of May 18, 2007. And then he said, I could see her. He went back in time to look for his wife, and he did find her."
"I know, I know," Bruce's voice is weary. "I saw the tape of Agent Romanoff's interrogation. May 18, 2007. The day Tara MacAllister died in a car crash. She was pregnant, and it's all very horrible and tragic. But we haven't been able to …"
Steve is insistent.
"He got there, though. That means, we can too. There must be something else. Something we're missing."
It makes Natasha a little uncomfortable, this single-minded devotion with which her remaining teammates have thrown themselves into unraveling MacAllister's secrets. She is not used to relying on anyone other than Clint – or maybe Coulson – to accomplish anything, and this … this is something beyond her experience.
And it chafes, having to let others do the work.
Steve, she suspects, may have different reasons to be frustrated. Whenever he thinks no one is watching, he takes out a photograph and steals a look, or rubs his thumb across it.
Natasha has no doubt that the picture is the one the divers had brought up from the wreckage of his plane, the one he'd had pinned to the dashboard when he went down. It gives her little comfort to know that she and Pepper are not alone, mourning the loss of someone to the passage of time.
Trying to keep herself busy – the Black Widow does not pine, dammit, and who the hell does Barton think he is anyway? – she divides her time increasingly between the Tower and the helicarrier. Anything beats standing around in helpless impotence.
It's on one of those trips that Coulson asks to meet her in the cafeteria.
Doreen, Queen of the Lunchroom, hands Natasha a plate of Clint's favourite baklava – Doreen's own version of the yellow ribbon, or the candle in the window. Everyone knows she'll keep making them until Hawkeye returns and they better keep eating the damn things, or else. Natasha ignores the "DAY 38" sign over the cash register, and accepts the offering and a cup of her favourite tea with a gracious smile.
Coulson is already there, sitting at one of the tables with a young woman Natasha doesn't remember meeting before. One of his newbies, no doubt – from that team Fury has saddled him with, supposedly because his health won't allow him to hang around the likes of the Avengers anymore. (Natasha doesn't believe it for a minute.)
"This is Skye," Coulson says, without preamble. "Skye, meet Agent Romanoff."
The young woman tries hard not to look star struck, and fails. Natasha just nods, assuming there is a point to this meeting and that Coulson will get to it in his own time. Skye gets there first.
"I hacked into the computer system at MIT, where MacAllister was teaching," she says, practically bubbling. "And I found an embedded program in the physics faculty's server. It was heavily encrypted, but I managed to crack it. Here."
She passes a USB stick across the table.
"It's MacAllister's. I have no idea what all that stuff on it means, but …"
"Thank you," Natasha says, and it takes all her self-control not to grab the thing and run off with it. "That is … very kind."
"Oh, kindness has nothing to do with it," Skye says. "I made a bet with Agent Ward that I'd get to meet one of the Avengers before he would, and …"
Coulson lays his hand on her arm and gives her an indulgent smile.
"I'd stick with kind, if I were you," he says mildly. "If you want to meet the others some day, that is."
The encampment is pretty basic, worse than anything Clint has seen, including outside the wire in Afghanistan. The majority of the foot soldiers are sitting or lying on the bare ground, damp and soft after the rain and churned up by the hooves of the knights' horses.
The place stinks to high heaven, too, a mix of unwashed bodies, urine and worse – no field latrines in the Middle Ages – and the men seem sullen, hungry and tired. Whispered voices speak of the coming battle, the numbers of the French they will be facing, and the surety of death.
But no one, to Clint's amazement, speaks out against the king. No comparison to late-night kvetch fests he remembers from Iraq, where the names of politicians were usually spat out with a curse.
There are a few tents, and it's to the biggest one that Clint is being led now. The thing must have been set up while he was out there pig hunting, fluttering blue-and-red standards and all. Someone holds the flap open and he ducks in without hesitation, pleased that no one moves to take his bow. (Security for heads of state is a relatively recent concept, it would appear.)
"The successful huntsman, Sire," his escort announces, "and purveyor of tonight's feast. Sir Anthony's man, Clinton of Waverly, nick-named Hawkeye."
Clint suppresses a snort. Thanks, Tony of Malibu. Sure enough, there he is, in all his red-and-gold splendor, chatting amiably with a young, fit-looking guy in a leather tunic. Fits right in, the bastard.
"Kneel, knave," the man beside Clint hisses. "Thou art in the presence of the Sovereign."
Well, Hawkeye isn't normally one for kneeling, but here he is in Rome (so to speak) and he figures it's what the Romans would do. No point pissing off the locals unnecessarily, especially since there's thousands of them, all armed. Clint drops down on one knee, but keeps his eyes on the man's face.
"I thank thee for tonight's meat, good my fellow," the young King says politely, and Clint decides that he likes what he sees. Given what he's seen from Mowbray, the upper classes here don't seem to hang with the grunts, but this guy doesn't take their service for granted.
He reminds Clint a bit of Cap, young but with eyes that have seen a lot already. Used to command, but not a man who makes decisions without weighing the consequences.
"'Twas a prodigious shot, right in the mighty beast's eye. Never have We heard of a single arrow felling such an one. Pray tell how thou didst make the shot, Clinton of Waverley?"
Ah yes, the ritual post-hunting success bragging; all that's missing is a two-four and a pick-up truck. Clint flicks his bow off his shoulders.
"Here," he says, showing it to … Henry? … but making no move to hand it over. "Slightly better design from what your guys are using."
The fact that Clint is holding on to the bow is not lost on the King, who shoots him a sly grin. A warrior, who understands a man's relationship with his weapon. Clint likes him even more.
"A marvelous design," Henry nods. "Ne'er have I seen its like. Whence does it originate, Sir Anthony?"
Huh? Oh, yes. Henry's bowmen wouldn't own their weapons; the guy has no reason to assume that Clint does. Stark doesn't skip a beat.
"Made far away, in China, where all the finest things come from."
"Would all Our men had such weapons," the King muses. "For their aim is not as true as thine, Clinton of Waverley."
He turns to Stark.
"We fear for the morrow when we face Our foe. Their numbers are far greater than Ours."
Now that Clint has no trouble believing, having seen the French encampment, and the way the other guys in his so-called hunting party handled their bows. His escort is trying to usher him out, the ritual thank you to the working stiff being done, but …
"You know, sir, in a target-rich environment you don't need a perfect shot," he says. "All you have to do is point up, let those arrows fall down on their heads. Laws of gravity. If there's lots of Frenchmen, your men are bound to hit something. The guys on foot don't have helmets, do they?"
The other knights in the tent look pretty scandalized – a nobody giving tactical advice to the King? Henry, though, nods thoughtfully.
"Wise words, good my man. We shall reflect on them."
He glares at Mowbray, who has been stage-muttering a protest to an older, white-haired fellow.
"Never scorn the words of those of lower station, Sir Thomas. In my youth, We learned their wisdom is no less than Ours, be their voices less schooled."
And presumably just to piss off Mowbray, for whom he seems to have little use, Henry outright invites Clint to stay and share in the boar he killed.
It turns into an interesting evening, all things considered, even though the booze is a bit weak. Must be what Thor calls mead, way to sweet for Clint's taste, although he finds himself wondering what Natasha would make of it. But it sure beats lapping water off leaves or drinking from puddles in the mud, like the men outside ...
Stark is in fine form, munching on a rib of wild pig, waving the bone and dispensing advice of his own.
"If you're planning a battle for tomorrow, stay away from that meadow. I mean, seriously. I was up to my thighs in mud, walking over here. Death for guys with horses and armour, that stuff. What you need here is astroturf."
Clint is almost disappointed to see the evening end, but Stark is getting itchy or something and besides, there's a battle coming that they really should be trying to get out of before it starts.
"We shall see you on the morrow, good my friends," Henry says as he moves to kick everybody out of his tent. "When we will meet our fate. Tomorrow is the feast of Crispin, and no better day to state our cause to those who would oppose Us. Mowbray, pray accompany Sir Anthony to the armourers wagon before they rest. He hath need of their tools."
Clint approves; obviously, Stark has been busy turning the feast of wild boar into a favour worth collecting on. All they need now is to get some kit to get him out of his suit when the need arises, and they can disappear before things get bloody.
The thought of leaving seems wrong though; the King seems a good sort, the kind who gives a shit about the people fighting his battle. And they do for him. Inspiring, really.
"You know, sir," he says as they're heading out, "You may want to give your guys a pep talk at some point. They're loyal people, but scared shit … I mean, witless. You can probably make each other feel better."
"Pep talk?" Henry frowns, but then the light dawns. "Thou speakest in a manner most strange, but hast the right of it, good man. We oft take those who would die for the Crown for granted, our brothers in arms though they be."
And that, as they say, is that, audience with the lower classes and glossy red strangers is over, Kings need their sleep.
They follow a sullen Sir Thomas to the supply train, and a wagon loaded with bits of metal. A forge is going beside it; twenty-four/seven sword repairs, on the hoof. Stark mutters imprecations over the quality of the tools on offer, but he scores a decent-looking hammer, a pair of tongs, a chisel and a punch.
They don't get assigned a tent – Mowbray doesn't offer to share his, which is perfectly fine with Clint – but they find a relatively private patch of ground by some bushes. Stark's heavy feet get stuck in the mud a couple more times, but a rough blanket Clint managed to wheedle from a toothless man in the supply train "for the use of my master, Sir Anthony", makes for a half-way dry place to rest, at least.
The first thing Stark removes, with Clint's help, is his head piece, and he spends the next half our or so deeply engrossed in fiddling with the thing.
"You're not going to get JARVIS back online, you know that, right?" Clint finally says.
Ironman just grunts.
"We won't get anything back," he says, "but we might be able to send something out. Basic carrier waves, like those radios my Dad used to take apart."
"In case someone is scanning medieval France for our presence? Good thinking. And good luck."
Clint knows he probably should question the rational thinking behind Stark's tinkering, but then again, they got tossed six hundred years into the past, so who the fuck is to say what's possible anymore. So instead he leans back and thinks about what he'd miss most about the twenty-first century if they should be stuck here forever.
Natasha, that's a given. Doreen's baklava, and the smile when she hands him one, like it's the best thing on the planet (it isn't, but he'll never tell her that). Having a beer with Steve by the water tower on top of the apartment building next door.
The list is growing –funny, it seems to be all about people, not things - and he wonders how Steve is coping with all the people he can't ever go back to. Which brings him back to Natasha Romanoff.
Luckily, it's about that time that Stark suddenly goes quiet, and stops clanking around with his toys.
"What?" Clint asks, and is rewarded by more silence. From Stark, that is not a good sign.
"Something wrong, Tony?"
Stark looks at him, and the expression on his face is … stressed, and pleading.
"I have a favour to ask, Barton," he says, and there's almost a squeak in his voice. "But you can't tell anyone. Like, ever. I would hunt you down and kill you. But that boar stew and the mead … Well, I'm kind of in a hurry to get out of this thing, and I can't reach so well back there …"
Understanding dawns in Clint and yeah, he gets why Stark would be concerned about Public Disclosure. But hell, the guy saved his ass plucking him off a disintegrating ledge, so what does he think Clint would do, refuse to reciprocate? Call the paparazzi?
Although, of course, this does opens up opportunities for inside jokes over the comm system – maybe to beat even Budapest.
Nat will kill him if he doesn't tell her …
A few minutes later there Clint is, on his knees, removing the butt plates on Stark's suit. When you gotta go, you gotta go, right?
And of course it would be that precise moment, right when he's got his hands on one of Ironman's metal cheeks, that a shimmering blue ring opens up right in front of Stark.
It turns out that MacAllister had used the laboratory at so to build his contraption, without permission and against faculty policy - which explains both why he failed to produce anything that might have furthered his career, and why he had hidden his research so cleverly. Darcy Lewis guesses that "people probably thought he was in the lab at all hours because he was an incompetent idiot, not a black market genius."
Once Jane and Bruce have dissected the USB stick, their work progresses much more quickly. Of course, access to Stark Industries' unlimited financial capacity and facilities doesn't hurt., and there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the result is probably an improvement on what MacAllister cobbled together on a shoestring.
Steve is still hovering in the lab, and both he and Natasha are present when Bruce opens the first window into the past.
The scene is a battlefield. Mud, explosions, more mud. Men in curiously flat helmets ducking machine gun fire and a barrage of artillery shells behind sand bags in a muddy trench.
"World War I," Steve's breath is coming unnaturally fast, as if he'd been running. "Either the Ypres-Salient or the Somme."
To Natasha it feels almost obscene, that they watching death rain down on the soldiers in the trench – silently, impotently, as if peering through the keyhole of a forbidden door. Then, as suddenly as it opened, the ring closes and all there is, is the lab and its gleaming instruments and glowing monitors.
"Could you … intervene?" Steve asks cautiously. "I mean, wind back, cause the guns to misfire? Or better yet, stop that assassin who triggered the war?"
And all of a sudden Natasha knows, just knows that Steve's question isn't about those soldiers at all, and why he has been here all this time, even though he can contribute as little as she herself can to help retrieve Clint and Tony.
Bruce, a life-long student of regret, knows too. His voice is soft, almost a caress when he responds.
"You're asking whether we can change the past, Steve. The answer is no, we can't. It's really very simple."
He walks over to a monitor and calls up a file.
"MacAllister left a note with his research. Listen to this."
The screen flicks to life, and Natasha recognizes the face instantly: Angus MacAllister, looking haggard and drawn.
"September 20th. I finally did it. It took me years to find her, and I finally did it, opened the portal right there, into New York, right where it happened."
MacAllister looks up at something beyond the webcam, and seems to be swallowing back tears.
"But I couldn't touch her. Couldn't stop the barkeeper from serving those drinks to the driver who killed her. Couldn't stop him from getting into car. Couldn't save her. Couldn't save … them. Our baby. Couldn't … All this work, everything I've done … I cracked time, just to find out that you just can't go back."
He crumples, and the last thing seen is his hand, reaching for the stop button.
Bruce switches off the screen and turns to Steve.
"You can't go back, Steve. It's what made MacAllister so desperate that he turned his machine into a weapon, and tried to get himself killed by the police. He knew that you cannot change what has already happened. I'm sorry."
Steve stills, and for just a moment he seems to Natasha to have become smaller, almost sunken as he hears what surely he must have expected. He'd been there, with her, at the interrogation …
But then he draws a deep, shuddering breath and straightens back up. There's work to be done.
"Right. How do we pinpoint the place where he sent Tony and Clint, then?"
A soft, cultivated voice fills the room.
"If you permit me, Captain Rogers," says JARVIS. "I have given the matter some thought."
As it turns out, JARVIS, unasked, has spent the weeks since his Master's disappearance scanning all available CCTV footage and social media (and some … less available ones) for glimpses of the portal that swallowed the two men. There is something close to pride in the AI's voice when he says, "Allow me to demonstrate."
The picture, recalibrated and refined, is a glimpse of countryside seen through a shimmering ring. Green fields, a forest, a lowering sun, a shimmering vastness on the horizon. Natasha's throat goes dry when she realizes the dark spot in front is Ironman and Hawkeye, about to fly through.
"I have extrapolated from details in the terrain, measured against erosion projections and calculations of the movements of the sun, plus sunspot activity, that the scene is France, near the Pas de Calais, in late October of 1415."
Jane Foster, who has been quietly watching and sipping a Darcy Lewis-procured latte, speaks up.
"JARVIS, can you link into the timescope and open a series of windows, until you get us into the right timeframe?"
She turns to Banner.
"Then all we need to do is to scan for something we know is there that doesn't belong, like Ironman's suit, or the carbon fibre in Agent Barton's bow. What do you think, JARVIS, can we try that?"
The AI's voice is practically brimming with excitement. JARVIS, it seems, has missed Tony Stark.
"It would be my genuine pleasure, Doctor Foster."
The scanning takes several hours, but no one leaves the lab (except for Darcy, who returns in record time with several bags of shawarma, falafel and stuffed pita.) Thor lands on the Penthouse balcony with a thud that shakes the entire building, and strides into the lab moments later, followed by Pepper.
It is past midnight when JARVIS announces that he has found something that should not exist in the fifteenth century: a carrier wave. Natasha is on her feet like a shot, ignoring the way her fingernails bite into the palm of her hand.
The blue ring shimmers and holds – and in the middle is Hawkeye, on his knees behind Stark, a pair of tongs yanking at the man's metal behind.
Clint turns and looks at his teammates through the ring.
"Okay," he says, "this looks bad. But it's not what you think."
Stark's livingroom has long since, by popular acclaim, become the place for post-battle gatherings - what they used to call the 'hot wash-up' in the war, where people are supposed to level out, discuss lessons learned and get ready for the Next One.
There are many reasons why this place above all others – convenience; accessibility; lack of paparazzi (the Shawarma joint where they went after the Chitauri has become a tourist attraction); enough space to accommodate Thor's voice; plus, JARVIS has finally figured how to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. out.
But as Steve looks around the room, it sure doesn't resemble the hot wash-ups of his time in the military. For one thing, the place is littered with Chinese take-out containers. For another, there is a distinct lack of discipline in the way in which people have arranged themselves around the room.
Barton and Romanoff are side by side on the floor, fencing with chopsticks (she cuffs him on the arm when he grabs a sweet-and-sour chicken ball she'd obviously had been aiming for herself).
Stark lies sprawled across an enormous chair, one hand hovering at the place where Pepper Potts is perched on its arm.
Darcy Lewis sits on the back of the couch that the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are leaning against, her bare feet on an expensive-looking silk cushion, proclaiming in a beery voice that, "I don't get why people who say they've been reincarnated always have been someone famous. Or you guys, time travelling and yeah, sure, you turn up smack in the middle of a famous battle and changing the course of history. No one's ever been a maid in a previous life, or time warped to a pig farm. I call bullshit."
"Not my fault the guy said his name was Henry," Tony protests from around a honey-garlic spare rib. "Or that everyone thought he was a king. Who knows who he was? The only thing that's definite is that nobody there used deodorant."
"You can't change the course of history," Banner throws in from across the room, with a quick look at Steve. "We've established that. What happened to Tony and Clint happened - because it already happened. Besides, Henry the Fifth didn't need anybody's help. The man was a brilliant military strategist."
"Plus," Darcy picks up Bruce's thread, "he gave one of the great motivational speeches of all time. The Saint Crispin's Day speech. We learned about it in high school: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. Sexist, of course, because they didn't let women in the army back then. But that speech has become, like, a total cliché; there's one in every action movie, ever. And he did that all without you two. Well, maybe Shakespeare had something to do with it. Afterwards. Whatever. But not you."
Barton's chopsticks pause in mid-air, and he sounds almost defensive to Steve when he says, "We never claimed we changed history, Lewis. For one thing, we weren't there long enough to make an impact. Six weeks for you was less than six hours for us."
Everyone ignores, by tacit agreement, Stark's muttered simultaneous comment about Saint Crispin, patron saint of the potato chip industry.
Darcy is on a roll, though – political science is her thing, Steve knows, and that includes some history. She doesn't get the opportunity very often to show off in this company, and so she hauls out her iPhone and taps in a few commands. (Wikipedia?)
"Here. Henry's most famous battle was in a place called Adge … Adgin … Shit."
"Agincourt," Pepper tosses in from across the room. The woman, Steve is convinced, hears and sees everything.
"Right. Adgincort. He showered the French with a rain of arrows that were shot high up in the air and came down on their heads."
Darcy grins at Barton.
"Score one for marksmanship, huh, Ace? And he arranged for the battle to be in a field where half of the knights drowned in mud, thanks to their heavy armour. Simple, but brilliant and effective. No need for you Avenger types to swoop in and save the day."
"What I said," Barton grumbles over his shoulder, before turning his attention back to Romanoff. "Here, have my broccoli."
Natasha shakes her head, then places it on Barton's shoulder. "I'm full, thanks."
Barton's arm snakes around her waist and he buries his face in her hair; it's as peaceful, as intimate and as close as Steve has ever seen the two assassins together, and he feels a slight twinge of jealousy in his gut.
He looks across to where Banner, Jane Foster and Thor are discussing in low voices the possibility of tracking twenty-first century police equipment in the Paleozoic.
"Any gate allows a glimpse," Thor intones, with infinite patience. "We need but hold it open awhile to see what we wish."
"But what would we be looking for? Police cruisers?"
"Any material with a unique resonance we know didn't exist then. Like … any ideas here?"
Stark tosses in. "NYPD service revolvers are either Sig Sauers, Smith & Wesson or Glocks, right? Glock uses a ferritic nitrocarburization process to prevent corrosion …."
His eyes track Pepper Potts' movement across the room, as she heads for the expensive Scotch.
Darcy, for her part, has lost interest in her iPhone and is cruising Netflix for a copy of Henry V. ("The Kenneth Branagh version. Not the BBC one, the guy who plays Henry in that looks way too much like Loki.")
Steve leans back in his chair and puts his feet on the coffee table, which is littered with cardboard containers, discarded napkins and empty soft drink cans. He looks around the room as if for the first time.
We band of brothers.
They're not the Howling Commandos. They've never known Bucky, and no, Steve will never get to go to that dance with Peggy. MacAllister was right, he reflects - you can't go back, and there is a weight to that knowledge which he will never shed.
But there is another thing Steve knows for sure, and a small smile steals across his face.
You can go forward.