On April 20th, Clint woke up to three immediately frustrating things:
1. There was a ray of sunshine doing its level best to stab him right in the eyes.
2. Phil was not in bed beside him, hadn’t been for the last thirteen days, and probably wouldn’t be for at least the next two weeks.
3. His cell phone was telling him that it was Friiiiday, Friiiiiday, just like it did every Friday at seven in the morning, because Tony Stark could be a vengeful, ruthless human being.
Clint wasn’t really into the whole ‘omens of misfortune’ thing and anyway this was pretty much a normal awakening for him, so mostly he vowed revenge on Stark, ticked off another day on his mental countdown, and rolled out of bed to start his morning.
Living in a mansion with the rest of the Avengers was … weird. Occasionally it felt depressingly familiar, but that was mostly when things were tense and everyone was either shouting or sulking. To be honest, the most surreal parts of Clint's day were likely to be six-hour movie marathons with the team, as opposed to various supervillain shenanigans.
Clint's morning routine, barring supervillains or Phil or general weirdness, involved a nice long run, a shower, three cups of coffee, and then breakfast of whatever Cap was making -- because Steve made actual delicious food in the morning, and bacon and eggs and fruit beat instant oatmeal any day, and Cap mostly left him alone to eat it.
When Phil was around, the chances that the routine would include a round of sleepy morning sex were vastly improved.
Today, however, there was no Phil, and when Clint got back from his shower he discovered no food, either -- just Steve, Thor and Bruce clustered around the coffee maker, which had no coffee in it.
"It was working yesterday," Bruce was saying. He poked at one of the complicated-looking button panels on the side.
“Perhaps if I -” Thor started, but was immediately cut off by the other two.
“Maybe Tony would know?” Steve said, doubtfully.
“Maybe JARVIS would know,” Bruce corrected.
Clint left them arguing mostly good-naturedly in the kitchen, although the newness of the team -- and the lack of caffeine -- meant there was a slightly cautious edge in all their voices. If he had alerted them to his presence, they would have said good morning and how are you and he would probably have been invited into their little baffled circle around the coffee maker, and maybe twenty minutes of Clint’s day would have been lost to what amounted to an impromptu team-bonding exercise. Twenty minutes was not so much, but his feet carried him quietly and safely away from the kitchen without much input from his brain.
The awareness that he found the mundane feel-good team stuff to be the most uncomfortable part might have actually been the worst thing about the whole living situation. It wasn’t exactly that it was a surprise, or anything, but when Clint joined the Avengers Initiative he really hadn’t expected to have his issues with people shoved in his face all the time, especially in the form of being prodded into making Jane a mixtape while Thor shouted, “It must be more epic!” in his ear.
This was usually the point where Clint thought, fucking self-reflection and went to toss stress balls at Phil’s head and watch him catch them without looking up from his paperwork (because the office is Not An Appropriate Place for Fraternization), but Phil wasn’t here and the idea of spending any time at all with any Avengers whatsoever was making something wild and skittery and desperate crawl under his skin. Clint was mostly only good at Phil -- he used to be good at Natasha, the past-tense “used to” being a small contributing factor in the ongoing saga of why he wasn’t so great about people in general, but he really was trying, and -- okay! Time was up. Fucking self-reflection.
He was about to break something expensive, and then maybe skip breakfast to shove his window open and see how hard it was to climb up to the roof using only one hand, when a voice said, “There’s an incoming message for you, Agent Barton. Shall I display on the nearest screen?”
“... JARVIS?” Clint said, carefully putting down the paper-thin vase that has been in this room since before he moved in. “Uh, sure. Who is it?”
“Director Fury, sir,” JARVIS said pleasantly, which served as a distinct counterpoint to Fury's face and voice.
"I know you have a history of being a dumbass," Fury said, not even bothering with a hello, "so here's a suggestion: don't."
"Okay?" Clint said.
"As of thirty minutes ago, Agent Coulson's status has been officially reported as going radio silent without prior agreement. I want to emphasize that this is not MIA -- we don't know whether he's gone quiet because someone's sitting on top of him and he’s waiting it out, or because he's in active danger. Trying to pull him out now could make matters worse for him, so until we have his location we are proceeding cautiously. Do you understand, Barton?"
"Yes, sir," Clint said and he did. This was not his first time at the proverbial rodeo. "I promise not to be a dumbass, sir."
When Clint wandered downstairs to forage through the fridge later, resolutely ignoring the way his stomach was churning, he discovered that everyone except Thor had gathered in the kitchen, talking quietly. Upon Clint’s arrival they went silent.
“Subtle, guys,” Clint said. Cap and Bruce looked a little sheepish, but Tony just shrugged, remorseless, and Natasha came up and punched him in the shoulder, which really hurt but meant she cared.
He was already looking for his exit when his phone made a dinging noise. He fished it out of his pocket.
land of adventure!! , it said.
Clint honestly had no idea where Thor got that one from -- or, actually, where he has gotten to right now -- but there were Avengers with pity in their eyes everywhere, and it was time to escape. “Well,” he said. “Gotta run.” Natasha pulled a face at him.
“Let us know when you decide to do something,” she said.
“I’m not gonna -” Clint started, but she shook her head.
“Let us know,” she said again. He could see Cap nodding very solemnly out of the corner of his eye, and Tony flashed him a thumbs-up. He really did flee, then, at a nonchalant walking pace that he was 100% certain fooled nobody.
The day continued to go steadily downhill.
In the early evening, Fury contacted him to say that they upgraded Phil’s status to MIA, and that they officially couldn’t locate him anywhere. There was talk that the group he was infiltrating had fled the city that served as their base of operations -- Genoa -- and possibly the country. It was possible they took Phil with them. Phil’s never really liked Italy, anyway, Clint thought to himself, and concentrated very hard on not doing something stupid.
He locked himself in his room while he argued with SHIELD about being allowed to go with the search-and-rescue team (“We’re sending six agents from the European division, Barton, end of story”) and ignored all attempts at contact from the other Avengers, who left him alone after he shouted at them two or three times while exchanging increasingly frantic messages with a mercenary named, completely unironically, Smith, who often took jobs in that area of the world.
Clint hoped Fury appreciated his self-restraint.
Clint was also pulling some slightly shady strings to find a flight to Italy sometime in the next four hours, assuming Fury wasn’t anticipating that and wouldn’t send people over to sit on him. Clint wasn’t exactly an unknown face, anymore. He had an action figure, for fuck’s sake. Sure, it was sometimes fun to sign little kids’ tiny plastic bows, but in the good old days, before his face got plastered all over everything, Fury would have already given him the okay to quietly stir up some shit and bring Phil home.
Smith got back to him: no joy.
There was nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and he remembered Phil saying, "See you later," and then walking out the door. His throat was aching from shouting at people, from the remembered, full-body reaction to nightmare scenarios. Tony had a private jet, Clint thought; it would not be subtle, but he would probably let Clint steal it if he asked nicely. He left a message for an arms dealer operating out of an adorable, hillside Grecian village: CALL ME.
The front doorbell rang a little after two in the morning. Clint froze, staring at his computer screen without actually seeing it. Home visit. SOP. Fury stopped responding to his messages thirty minutes ago.
Phil had been MIA for ten hours.
“Sir?” JARVIS said. “Director Fury is here to see you.”
“Right,” Clint said. He stood. Smoothed his hands down his shirt. There was something cold and awful growing in the pit of his stomach, sending goosebumps down his arms, so he opened up the closet and pulled out one of Phil’s old sweatshirts. It was a little long in the arms and a little tight in the shoulders, but it was warm and it was soft and it still smelled like Phil.
Thus armoured, he went to see Fury.
“Agent Barton,” said Fury. He stood in the front door, not venturing further inside, and Clint knew.
"I'm sorry," said Fury, and, “preliminary coroner's report says at least two hours ago."
Everything went a bit wobbly after that.
Clint jerked awake, and Phil was dead. It was like there was a smooth black box in Clint’s head, a little piece of unreality, completely unignorable, and he kept prodding and prodding at it and never got any closer to it making sense. His heart was pounding hard, the sun was in his eyes, and everything from yesterday flooded back in a gut-punching, nausea-inducing rush.
The time is goin’, tickin’ on and on, sang his phone.
Wait, he thought. What? Today was Saturday, and sometime in the small hours of it Phil Coulson died alone. There were pictures. There was a body.
It’s Friiiiday, his phone argued, and Clint was absolutely going to fucking kill Tony fucking Stark. That promise was the only thing that got him out of bed, but it still took him an hour.
Clint put on Phil's sweater again. Someone or something put it back in the closet, and he was immediately struck with the fear that it had been washed, but no -- it still smelled clean and Phil-like. It was comforting and simultaneously awful.
He padded quietly through the house, unable to locate Tony, but when he ghosted into the kitchen he found Bruce, Thor, and Steve gathered around the coffee pot, just like they were the day before. "It was working yesterday," Bruce said, frowning.
“Perhaps if I -” Thor began, and oh my god.
“Maybe Tony would know?” Steve suggested, his arms crossing almost defensively over his chest.
Bruce said, “Maybe JARVIS would know.”
“I’ve seen this movie,” Clint said, blank, and Thor, Bruce, and Steve all turned slowly around to stare at him where he was leaning heavily against the door frame. It was maybe the only thing holding him up.
“Which movie?” Bruce asked. Clint stared at him. Probably he should look away at some point, but his brain was in overdrive and had cut all non-essential functions in order to deal with the HOLY FUCK WHAT that was going down. The concept of social niceties, seldom high up on his priorities list at the best of times, slipped off to die a quiet death.
“Clint?” Steve said. “You look -- are you okay?”
Clint was - Clint was most definitely not okay; he was heartbroken and heartsick, but ‘furious’ was swiftly being replaced by ‘alarmed’.
“I don’t know,” he croaked.
“Are you ill?” Thor asked.
Clint considered that. “Maybe?” he said, still clinging to the edge of the doorway.
“If you don’t know the answer to that question,” Bruce suggested, “probably that means you should sit down and maybe have a medical check-up.”
“That sounds like a really great idea,” Clint said, “but instead, I’m going to ask you two questions, and then I’m going to leave. No, don’t talk yet! Questions first. Number one. Where is Agent Coulson?”
Clint was braced to be deluged in sympathetic facial expressions and awkwardness, but what he got instead was, “I thought his location was classified for this mission” from Steve, who was clearly totally weirded out by Clint this morning but was gamely playing along anyway. Clint exhaled and sagged a little, but pulled himself upright when his teammates all took two steps toward him, as though choreographed.
“Okay,” said Clint. “Great.” His head was spinning. “Second question: what day is it today?”
“It is Friday,” Thor said.
Bruce added, “April 20th.”
Cap said, “Hawkeye, what’s going on?”
“I have no idea,” Clint said, and ran.
Fury’s video call came right on schedule. Just like yesterday. Today. Fuck. April 20th, take two.
"I know you have a history of being a dumbass," Fury said, "so here's a suggestion: don't."
“Oh my god,” said Clint, involuntarily, and maintained his death grip on the hem of Phil’s sweater, just out of sight of the web camera. Fury squinted at him, but kept going.
"As of thirty minutes ago, Agent Coulson's status has been officially reported as going radio silent without prior agreement. I want to emphasize that this is not MIA -- we don't know whether he's gone quiet because someone's on top of him, or because he's in active danger. Trying to pull him out now could make matters worse for him, so until we have his location we are proceeding cautiously. Do you understand, Barton?"
"Yes, sir," said Clint. He fervently hoped his face was not actually reflecting what was going on inside his head, as mostly that consisted of a lot of horrified gibbering. He did not promise not to be a dumbass, because that decision had apparently been taken out of his hands.
He didn’t know why he’d been given a second chance, but he was also not going to waste time thinking about that while he could be using it instead to save Phil. He had a head-start on yesterday, although, granted, not as much of one as he could have had, if he hadn’t wasted so much time freaking out.
He called the Grecian arms dealer first, who was actually at home and not out dealing death or sleeping or whatever, and used up a life-or-death favour to obtain a valuable piece of information regarding the membership of the Hydra cell that Phil was tracking. He passed this information on to Smith the mercenary, who took five grand from one of his offshore accounts in exchange for a name. “I called ahead,” she told him. “She’ll talk to you now.” The mysterious third person turned out to be someone actually in Italy, who demanded ten grand and then went off to wreak some quiet havoc on Clint’s behalf.
And yet -- at 3:00AM, the front doorbell rang.
Clint jerked awake, and Phil was dead. Again. This was -- this was beyond the normal sense of unreality that accompanies death. It’s Friiiday, suggested his phone.
He bought Phil maybe an extra hour of life, not-yesterday, and a slit throat instead of a bullet to the head. Clint wasn’t sure how to feel about that, beyond the knee-jerk, stomach churning nausea, but if nothing else, he knew now: he could change things. In a minute he was going to get out of bed and change things again, only better. Just as soon as he locked away the images of Phil’s body, sprawled in an alley.
But on April 20th, take three, Phil died pretty much the same way he did on the first April 20th, except the bastards dumped his body in the middle of a road in Yemen, completely throwing off Clint’s geographical profile. Fuck.
Clint had no idea whether he was dreaming or lost his mind somewhere after they told him Phil wasn’t coming back, or -- well. There was always the possibility that this was really, truly happening. Clint decided it didn’t actually matter which of those options was true.
I got this, you got this, said his phone. Tony’s revenge music was strangely apt. “What is my life,” Clint asked the universe at large, and got out of bed with a purpose.
Phil gained one hour, again, and two extra bullets to the chest.
On April 20th, take five, Clint got out of bed when the first strains of Friiiiday reached his ears. He pulled out an off-the-grid passport and four thousand dollars from the safe he kept in the closet. He went to the airport. He booked a flight to Italy. He made his phone calls in the air.
Phil died, messily, ten hours ahead of schedule, and a few hours later the entire world whited out in front of Clint while he was stalking through Venice looking for people to kill. The next thing he knew, he was blinking awake to sun in his eyes and the worst song in existence and an empty bed beside him.
Clint crossed that particular option off of his mental list.
On April 20th, take seven, Clint stole a quinjet and was shot down somewhere over the Atlantic by an opportunistic super-villain with way more weaponry on his hands than SHIELD intel had previously indicated. He shouted a lot of vehement fuck-you’s at the universe as he lost altitude and crash-landed into the drink.
Dying was actually not at all like falling asleep, and he was pathetically grateful when he woke up in his bed to gotta be fresh; gotta go downstairs.
He crossed that option off the list, too, and tried not to wonder if his death meant, somehow, that Phil survived the loop.
Except -- Phil probably didn’t. Survive, that was, because Clint woke up on Friday the next not-day, just like normal. The loops were not a constant number of hours, and they were tied, somehow, to Phil's life and death. The longer he was able to keep Phil alive, the longer he had to save him. He also, apparently, had approximately three hours before the loop reset itself after each of Phil’s deaths, and so on days when they didn't find Phil's body, he would still be able to figure out when Phil died, despite not knowing where.
This chessmaster stuff was really Phil's division, not his, but he knew another chessmaster.
“Natasha,” Clint said.
She didn’t look up from her stretch, forehead pressed to her knee, but he could tell she was tracking his position. Of everyone currently in this funhouse mansion, Natasha was the most likely to call him on his shit -- or, in this case, his slow and inevitable descent into rage and weirdness and despair.
"Let's pretend that I wanted to find someone in Italy," Clint said. "Who would you call?"
Natasha uncurled from her stretch and gave him a brief, hard look before sliding into a new position, her face shiny with sweat. "Is this about Coulson?"
"No," Clint lied. "His location is classified, remember?"
Natasha hmmmed thoughtfully at him. "Vladimir Morozov," she said. "You remember him?"
"Mostly just the painful aftermath," Clint said. "He shot me in the head."
"A graze," said Natasha, and bent her spine in a way that Clint associated with his circus days. "He has the most comprehensive connections in that area, and he'll take my call."
"Could you -- would you contact him? Tell him -- tell him that there's an operation in Genoa, and he can expect Smith to establish contact soon."
"Nothing to do with Coulson, huh," Natasha said. She rose to her feet but took care not to breach Clint's personal space bubble, as she always did when she sensed he was in a dangerous mood. "Don't do anything we can't fix for you later."
"Got it, thanks," Clint said, tightly, and backed out of the room. He ran into Tony a couple floors later, propped against a wall and clicking absently away on a tablet. He looked distracted.
"Hi, Tony," Clint said, because late in life he was painstakingly taught that acknowledging other people was apparently less awkward in the long run than the immediate, painful present.
"Hmm? Oh, hey," Tony said absently, and because Tony often seemed to operate on an entirely different plane of social interaction than the rest of the world, that was the entire interaction, which suited Clint just fine.
Morozov and Natasha proved very, very helpful, and riding that high, he stupidly decided to trust people and spent the whole next loop locked up in a SHIELD facility, ten stories beneath the ground, while technicians ran blood tests and he was not allowed to make a single phone call, although Bruce came to visit and chased away the scary technicians and offered to make his phone calls for him.
Phil still died. He didn’t try telling SHIELD again.
He was feeling a little burned when he went to see Natasha the next not-day, which was probably why he said, recklessly, "Is this the sort of advice you gave Phil when you fucked me over? 'Don't do anything'?"
They never actually talked about this. Natasha stood very still and watched him with no expression on her face whatsoever. "No," she said, finally. "I didn't tell him anything at all. I did, however, leave anonymous, exonerating evidence in a drop box for Fury, who passed it on to Coulson."
"You never told me that," Clint said, and was proud when his voice didn't waver.
"I didn't think you wanted to know."
"I would have. I do."
"Well," Natasha said, and gave him an actual, small smile. "Now you know."
"I have to--" Clint mumbled, and Natasha said, "Go on. I will call," and Clint stumbled through the mansion for the next part of his routine. Emotions. Exhausting.
Tony was standing in the hallway, just like always. “Hi Tony,” Clint said, just like he did every day.
“Hey,” Tony said, equally distracted. He didn’t look up from his tablet, which was the way Clint liked it. He was pretty sure his eyes telegraphed exactly how batshit he was starting to feel all the time, so he was making an effort to avoid eye contact and prolonged exposure to other human beings.
Phil would be dead in ten hours, unless Natasha passed along a specific piece of intel to Vladimir Morozov. If Morozov did whatever it was he did with the information that worked in Clint’s favour, Phil would be dead in fifteen hours, instead, but Morozov was apparently more flaky than any of them had realized -- even with the whole ‘shooting sometime allies in the head’ thing -- because Phil only gained those five hours maybe 50% of the time.
Clint had taken to compiling notes in his head every night once Phil was dead, which was when Clint went down to the range to spend a couple of hours refocusing himself with a bow and arrow in his hands; he was gonna have a lot of notes to add to Coulson’s files if they ever got out of this. He was gonna be the goddamn king of intelligence.
Wait, no. When they got out of this.
On April 20, take 24, Clint woke up, made three phone calls, and ate a bowl of oatmeal while pretending to be perfectly fine. He let Fury’s phone call go to voicemail. He waited an extra five minutes to avoid Bruce in the hallway, and did not go down to the firing range at 11AM because that was where Steve and Natasha would be sparring. He ordered Thai food for lunch and ate it in his room while flow-charting on his tablet. He did not answer the text message from Thor, who texted again in forty minutes to ask whether Clint got his message. Clint still hadn’t figured out what land of adventure!! was referring to, but whatever it was, it was at the very bottom of his to-do list.
When Clint’s watch beeped at 2:15PM, he emerged to track down Natasha and, as he had every day since April 20, take 13, he padded silently past Tony. “Hi Tony,” Clint said, listless, and then, acting on some faint spark of curiosity, “Why are you always standing here?”
“What?” said Tony. He looked up, startled and immediately defensive. His tablet jerked violently in his hands. “I’m not always -- you know, you’re acting very strangely, Barton.”
“You look pretty shifty yourself,” Clint said. He’s almost - almost - interested despite himself. “I meant - I meant why are you here right now.”
“No reason,” said Tony. From the next room, the TV made a sort of “wonh wonnnh” noise, and Steve laughed. Clint stared at Tony. For a moment, Phil's absence presented itself as an agonizing, physical ache.
“Really?” he said. “Every day, that’s what you’re doing? Watching Cap?”
“Move along, Barton,” Tony said, and Clint, having exhausted his limited stores of caring, shrugged and went to find Natasha.
The only time Clint managed to wake up before Friiiiday started wailing in his ear was the night he had what could be called a screaming nightmare, if he hadn't trained himself, over the years, to remain very still and very quiet instead.
In this personal, private horror show, he dreamed that he stopped the time loops, and Phil died once and for all.
The worst part, obviously, the part that made it a screaming nightmare and not just his life, was that he was terrified, every loop, that this was the way things would end.
On April 20, take 25, Clint woke up, made three phone calls, and then had a brainwave about possible locations used by Hydra over the last two years, so he skipped breakfast and asked JARVIS to (quietly, secretly) crunch some numbers for him. He took Fury’s call and managed to act like a non-time-looping human being, and decided to take a chance and ask Fury to keep the news that Phil went gone radio-silent from the rest of the team, at least for now.
Both the JARVIS-mapping and the Fury call went almost suspiciously well, and so Clint only emerged from his room to locate Natasha for the Morozov thing, which also went almost suspiciously well, except that when he was safely back in his bedroom he got about five minutes of peace before he abruptly realized that his door was open. It gave him new insight into the annoyed faces SHIELD junior agents gave him when he took to skulking around home base.
“So hey,” said Tony. He stood in the open doorway, looking dangerously nonchalant. “JARVIS says you two are getting along really well.”
“Yeah,” Clint said, absently. “Me and Jarvis are buds.” He pecked at another couple of keys, stabbed for the semi-colon, and then registered that Tony was still standing, silent, on the other side of the room. “Something I can help you with?”
“No, no,” said Tony. “You just -- do your thing.”
Which was great, except Clint seemed to have accidentally tripped Tony Stark’s Suspicion Circuits, because suddenly Tony was everywhere, and when he wasn’t, his CCTV cameras and wheely robots haunted Clint’s every move. It turned out to be really difficult to secretly save someone's life in a series of chess master-like moves when one of the pawns was a nosy asshole convinced something was up.
The thing was, though, that at the end of the day Fury came to the front door and Phil was still dead, but he gained at least an hour and death was a single bullet to the brain. Clint had a terrible hierarchy of negative-optioning, and an extra hour and a clean death put that loop right at the top.
“Tony Stark,” Clint said, and grit his teeth.
Spending time with Tony always made Clint remember why he never spent time with Tony.
The last time, pre-loop and pre-oh-god-Phil, had been the thing with the exploding refrigerators, and he hadn’t liked it much back then, either; he suspected the sentiment was mutual. He wasn’t sure what he did differently this loop, but Tony definitely seemed worse. Clint finally got fed up when he heard banging in the walls and looked up from his colour-coded maps to discover something robot-shaped peering at him through the vent.
"I'm going to kill him," Clint told the robot, and went to corner Tony. They ended up screaming at each other in the middle of the tv room, which was pretty much par for the course for their attempts at interpersonal problem-solving. This time, though, Clint had a terrible feeling that neither of them was shouting about the stuff they were actually pissed about; Clint was shouting about personal space but what that translated to was, I'm stuck in an endless time loop and my favourite person keeps fucking dying. He didn't know what Tony's translated to, but he bet it wasn’t actually misappropriation of Stark tech.
“What is going on in here,” a voice said, and of course it was Captain fucking America, standing tall and horrified in the hallway. He advanced on them in a manner that managed to look more concerned than threatening, which was pretty impressive for a guy as big as Steve, especially since he was holding his shield -- he must have come straight from sparring with Natasha.
Tony went weirdly still, anyway, and Clint took the opportunity to dart past Steve and speed away down the hallway. “Listen,” he could hear Cap saying, “Ms Potts called -- she said you’ve been avoiding her?”
Not my problem, Clint thought to himself. Not my problem, not my problem, not my problem.
There was, however, something sort of pathetic about watching Steve and Tony be stuck in the same old loop, over and over again. On the one hand, it was a nice distraction from the sucking hole of awful that was currently Clint’s life, in an ‘oh, I remember when Phil and I didn’t have our act together and drove everyone up the wall with our obliviousness etc. etc., wasn’t that nice’ sort of way.
On the other hand, watching Tony carefully station himself near Steve, day after not-day, was starting to really wear on Clint’s nerves, which were already under enough pressure, thanks. He figured shouting “Now kiss!” at them would not actually solve any problems, no matter what the Internet said. He couldn’t even avoid them, because for some reason the more time Clint spent letting himself be harassed by Tony, the longer Phil seemed to live, and one loop, instead of shouting at Tony about personal space he snapped and shouted, “Tell me about Cap,” in the middle of their fight. Tony startled visibly.
There was a pause while Tony struggled with what to say, which was a new experience in and of itself, and then: “It’s like fucking sunshine when he appears, okay?” Tony snapped. “Little blue birds flying around singing and telling me how fucked I am and absolutely no one offering any helpful advice whatsoever, so yes, really. And seriously, Barton? You look like you’re going to fall over.”
“You asked other people for advice?” Clint said, ignoring that last part.
“Well,” said Tony. He looked increasingly hunched-in and small and miserable. “I asked JARVIS.”
“Huh,” said Clint, distracted and caught up in an actual personal epiphany -- not because it was increasingly obvious that Tony was stupid in love with Cap and had no idea how to handle it, but because the whole thing was uncomfortably familiar. As it turned out, self-awareness could actually, sometimes, be useful. Go figure.
Phil would be proud.
He took a deep breath, and said, “I promise not to forget the whole you-and-Cap thing but--”
“Wait, wait,” Tony said, alarmed, but Clint kept right on going.
“I need your help,” Clint said.
And Tony said, “Okay,” like it was that simple.
It -- wasn’t that simple, exactly, but it was close.
“I feel like I’m playing a game. In the dark. With my hands tied behind my back. And there are no rules except whatever will fuck me and Phil up the most,” Clint said into the couch cushion. “And I always lose.”
He didn’t look up, but he could feel the rest of the team exchanging looks. “Clint,” Cap said, after a moment, "say that we believe you --”
“You will,” said Clint. “You always do, in the end.” That felt uncomfortably like a metaphor for Clint’s Life With Avengers. Next time he'd say something else.
“Well, okay,” said Tony, “but maybe you could get started on the convincing for this round?”
“Ugh,” Clint said, staying very still. He could feel against his cheek where Natasha gouged the cushion with one of her knives during team movie night. “I spent two whole loops memorizing this, so you better appreciate it.”
“Are you going to tell us what happens next? Like that movie?”
Clint twitched. “Do not mention that movie,” he says. “Please. And -- sort of.”
He’d memorized a live news broadcast, reasoning that whatever changes he made would probably not have much of an impact on local news. They always sent Thor out to watch the interview in person to help confirm that what Clint was rattling off happened in real-time five minutes later, and then on the TV, while the Avengers watched, another ten minutes after that. Thor also helpfully reported that he detected no magical influence for this little trick, and the whole thing only ever took maybe half an hour and was always gratifyingly easy.
Less helpfully, Thor had no idea why Clint was stuck in a seemingly endless time loop, or why it was tied to Phil showing up in various prime body-dumping sites and breaking Clint’s heart.
Clint didn’t always tell them that Phil had died, had died, had died, was going to die again.
They tried just as hard and the loop had similar outcomes, regardless of whether they knew it or not, and sometimes -- sometimes he woke up in the morning, chest tight, and all day the words would get stuck in his throat, as though saying it out loud would make it permanent.
“You didn’t think we could do this, could you,” Steve said one afternoon, quietly and thoughtfully. Bruce and Tony were snarking productively at each other in the far corner of the lab, while Jane -- Thor’s physicist ladyfriend, who was generally brought in about two minutes after everyone believed Clint when he said “time loop” -- pinned large pieces of equation-covered papers to a bulletin board.
Natasha was speaking very intently into her phone. A couple of loops ago, Clint had skulked around and spent a relaxing fifteen minutes listening to her threaten to make some luckless bastard’s life miserable. Natasha had a way of making all her threats sound very calm and reasonable, and you nodded along before you even realized she had just informed you how and why she was going to gut you.
“We’re really good at beating people up and stuff,” said Clint. “But this is a little different.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Steve. He glanced over at Clint, hunched over in Phil’s unchanging sweater, and said, “We’re going to bring him back alive.”
Clint grew up with the comic books and the cartoons and the action figures, just like everyone else; the circus wasn’t under a rock, or anything. He really couldn’t be blamed for getting chills whenever Steve suddenly came over all Captain America.
“You know,” Clint said, slowly, “I think I actually believe that. I just haven’t -- I’m not really big into uh. Trust?”
“I had no idea,” Steve deadpanned.
Clint never told this story, but Steve wouldn’t remember it, and anyway, Clint was pretty sure he was starting to get dopamine rewards for sharing his feelings. Or maybe that was just chronic exhaustion. “SHIELD thought I was a double agent and stuck me in a hole and threw away the key, or so I thought, but I wasn’t the double, it was Natasha, but it turns out Fury knew the whole time and she wasn’t actually a double agent but a triple agent and eventually everything got sorted out.”
Steve gaped at him.
“It was a whole thing,” Clint said, and waved his hand around in a gesture that was meant to encompass two months in a jail cell and four months on the run and hello, betrayal, my old friend.
“But you still came back?” Steve said, all wide-eyed and horrified.
“Well,” said Clint. He put his head down on the cool metal of Tony’s workbench. “People can be really … persuasive … when they want to be.”
There was a pause, and then Steve hissed, “Hawkeye, are you not here of your own free will?”
Clint, half asleep, flailed his way back to wakefulness. “What -- not of my -- no, Cap, no, I meant that Phil --”
He could tell the precise moment when he said too much, but Steve was like a dog with a bone and Clint wouldn’t put it past him to spend the rest of the loop following Clint around and making concerned noises.
“Phil went to bat for me,” said Clint, slowly. “He made a file. All the reasons why I could never have been the double agent in the first place.” When it was all over and the truth came out and they brought Clint back in -- to collect his box of personal items from lock-up, to maybe steal his favourite bow -- Phil herded him into his office and showed him the files full of research he’d been working on for the last six months. None of it had made a difference, in the end, but Phil had tried anyway; Phil had his back and Clint hadn’t even known it. It was a love letter in the form of six encrypted SD cards full of video surveillance and paper trails, one for every month he’d been gone. Clint stayed with SHIELD for Phil, and not anything else.
They weren’t even sleeping together, then. It had pretty much blown Clint’s mind.
The sciencey contingent seldom got anywhere productive, so Clint usually gave them a couple hours to get it out of their system, and then tasked them all with running scenarios to try to win the super depressing where in the world is Phil Coulson game. Part of the problem, Clint thought to himself while frantically typing out to-do lists for the next two hours, was that he was only one person, and it was getting to the point where the endless variables were becoming almost too much for him to sort through and hold in his head.
His cellphone rang and he answered, absently -- Smith usually called in around this time, although she was ahead of schedule. The connection was crackly, full of static, but through the white noise, a voice: “Clint?”
It felt, abruptly, like something vital was coming apart in his chest. Thirteen normal days and thirty that nobody remembered but him, and here was Phil’s voice in his ear. “Phil?” he croaked. Across the room, Natasha looked up, sharply. He held his hand up, palm out. Wait.
“You must have done something different,” said Phil. He sounded awful. “This is the first time I’ve been able to get to a phone.”
There was a ringing in Clint’s ears. "What? Phil -- have you been --”
“I don’t have much time,” Phil said, and then laughed, all sharp edges. “Or I guess we have all the time in the world. You remember, don’t you? I wasn’t sure if it would work. If I had known it would be like this I probably wouldn’t have done it. I apologize.”
“I -- of course I remember; of course I’m going to -- Phil, what are you, what do I need to do --”
“Time’s up,” Phil said, a choked exhale, and then, “Tomorrow.”
The line went dead. Phil must have, too, because three hours later the world reset.
Clint punched his pillow once, twice, three times, and then flopped back down, breathing hard. There were birds making unpleasant noises outside his window, just like they had for approximately forever, and the same familiar patch of sunlight crept across his face while Friiiiday wailed in the background, and oh god, oh god, Phil remembered everything.
This was good, though, this was -- well, no, in so many ways this was awful, because everything, god, and Clint thought of every single time SHIELD had sent back grainy footage of Phil’s body, and at least, he thought, at least they’d mostly all been quick. But Phil remembered everything, and that meant that he could take and use every bit of help that Clint could get him. Vast emotional trauma was tomorrow’s problem, when Clint could be sure that Phil wouldn’t be suffering deadly physical trauma.
Thinking about Phil, alone for thirteen days and thirty-one, now, made Clint want to curl up in a blanket ball and not move again, but the only viable option was to keep getting up and keep moving. He was burning out, but nothing had stopped him yet, and every morning he got up and got through another not-day, because Phil was waiting on the other side and that was the only ending that Clint would accept.
“I am going to fuck so many people up today,” he said out loud, and he meant every today he hadn’t gotten to yet. “It’ll be great.”
Clint got out of bed. He made his three phone calls. Natasha called Morozov. Clint did his magic trick and got every single Avenger on his side, and one by one he ticked off every item on his mental list, everything exactly the same as not-yesterday, except that at 10PM, he carefully set his cell phone down in front of him and stared at it.
“Expecting a call?” Natasha asked, frowning at him.
“Phil,” Clint said. “I don’t know what he’s going to say, though.” His hands were sweating, so he wiped them on his pants.
“What?” asked Natasha. “Why didn’t you say anything? Are you certain?”
“It happened not-yesterday --” Clint started, but the phone was ringing. He could feel his heart going rabbit-fast as he answered it. “Phil?” He watched Natasha leave out of the corner of his eye, presumably to grab Tony or one of the others from the next room.
“Hi,” said Phil, through the static. That same feeling was happening in Clint’s chest again. Was this what a heart attack felt like?
“Hi,” Clint managed.
“I take it they’ve been dumping my body,” said Phil.
“Yeah, yes,” Clint said. “I’ve had people search that whole -- every place they ever put -- we’ve looked. They’re neutral dumping grounds. And when we stake them out, they just pick new ones. Phil, where are you.”
"I don't know," Phil said, and then: "Fuck. I have to go."
"Tomorrow?" Clint asked. Natasha came back through the door, Bruce and Cap and Tony and Thor and Jane in her wake, all of them noisy until they actually got into the room, at which point they were just silent and wide-eyed and staring at him.
"Tomorrow," Phil agreed, something almost peaceful in his tone, and then he was gone. Clint collapsed very gently against the counter.
The assembled Avengers and company were all looking at him, waiting -- not-tomorrow he might go find somewhere more private -- and he was just ... so tired. He would nap, but it felt wrong to sleep when Phil was dead. Clint could sleep when he was dead, how about that. Thanks very much, universe.
"There's a machine," Phil said, the next time he called. "I knew I was in trouble, that I didn't have much time, and it seemed like the only viable option."
"I'm running a trace on this call," Clint said.
"I took the cellphone from Vladimir Morozov," Phil said. "Or at least, I think it was him; I put a large calibre bullet in his head, which makes identification a messy process."
"Fucking fuck," Clint said.
"There is actually something very satisfying about dealing with Morozov, now," Phil said, the next day.
"Natasha will appreciate it, but whatever you do, don't tell the shrinks," said Clint. "I'm going to arrange for a little goodie bag for you to be left on Morozov's person. We tracked him today but lost him somewhere in Poland."
"I'm smiling right now," Phil informed him. "It's been a while."
"A portable EMP?" Phil said. Clint could hear running footsteps in the background, although Phil sounded calm and unhurried and best of all, unhurt.
"Fifty metre range," Clint said, fingernails digging into his palms.
"I think I love you," Phil said, laughing.
Clint grinned wildly, badly startling Natasha and Cap. "I know," he said.
On April 21st, take 53, at 7AM New York time, Clint received a call from a payphone in a tiny tourist village high in the Alps.
"Agent Barton," said Phil. "Objectives achieved. Notify Fury and bring me home, would you?"
“The tech from the European divison says Agent Coulson had to choose an -- anchor?” Bruce said, one hand at his ear, listening to whoever was speaking to him through the earpiece.
“Guess that was you, Barton,” said Tony, and Clint said, “No shit, Sherlock” and gave him the finger, and then Thor picked Clint up and spun him around in a hug and Cap put his hand on Clint’s shoulder and Natasha tucked her arm in his and Fury said “Good work,” and, “Coulson’s on the line for you.” Clint detached himself from the crowd of Avengers and wandered a little further down the hangar, fishing his earpiece out of his pocket and tapping it to the right channel.
“Hi,” said Phil.
“You picked me,” said Clint. He was still wearing Phil’s sweater, just like he did every loop. Tomorrow, at last, would be washing day -- although it wasn’t visible, there were tears and snot all over one sleeve from the fifteen-minute meltdown he allowed himself, locked in the bathroom. Too many extreme ups and downs made for an emotional roller coaster from which he was more than ready to disembark. He was honestly pretty excited about doing laundry.
“Of course I did,” Phil said. He was quiet, for a moment, and Clint could hear the Quinjet approaching through the ear that wasn’t listening to Phil breathe, soft and only a little unsteady. "We'll be all right," Phil said at last. Across the hangar, the assembled Avengers flashed him a variety of triumphant thumbs-ups (Bruce and Natasha), grins (Steve), and fist-pumps (Thor and Tony) as the Quinjet came into view.
"Yeah," he said. He felt strangely warm and fuzzy, even with all the anxiety for Phil's possible mental state coming abruptly off the backburner where he'd left it. "I know."
Clint had spent a lot of hours imagining his reunion with Phil. He had also spent a lot of hours carefully not imagining anything of the kind, mostly when Friiiiday was playing in his ear and he was fighting the nausea that accompanied knowing that he’d failed Phil yet again. Still -- when he had imagined it, it was always just the two of them. Sometimes there was slow motion running. Often there were variations on the theme of sex, a particular favorite of which involved being instantaneously transported back to their bed in the mansion and spending a long, long time reacquainting themselves with one another.
What actually happened was this:
Phil Coulson got off the Quinjet. He passed a large briefcase to a waiting scientist while a SHIELD technologist followed him off the Quinjet with a stack of papers, and Bruce and Tony both made futile grabby hands. Phil shook Fury's hand, saying something Clint was too far way to hear, and then turned and locked eyes with Clint. Phil didn’t actually look that different -- his eyes were tired, and his shoulders were hunched in, defensively, but it was still Phil, alive and largely whole.
Clint had imagined slowly sauntering (running) up to Phil, but reality found him rooted to the spot, staring, as Phil took three, six, ten steps forward and yanked him into the best, most awesome hug of Clint's entire life. Clint could feel his muscles relaxing for the first time in weeks, could feel Phil, pressed tightly to his chest, doing the same. Phil smelled like gunpowder and something strange and metallic -- not iron, something unfamiliar -- and Clint inhaled deeply and shut his eyes tight and mashed his forehead into Phil's shoulder.
"Hi," said Clint.
"Hi," Phil said, voice rough and a little muffled.
Eventually, Fury, sounding almost apologetic, said, “The sooner we debrief, the sooner you both get to go home.”
They parted, reluctantly, but Clint kept his shoulder pressed to Phil’s all the way to Fury's office.
Debrief with Fury was forty-five minutes of Clint and Phil taking turns quietly horrifying one another with very dry, matter-of-fact descriptions of their respective time loop experiences. The one bright spot came when Clint mentioned deciding to bring in the team and Phil shot him a sharp look and then an actual smile.
Debrief with Fury immediately turned into debrief with the Avengers and scientist support staff, the time loop device set up in the corner and humming ominously.
"I'm informed that there are some concerns about stopping the device," Fury said.
"What concerns," Clint and Phil said, simultaneously. Clint gripped Coulson's fingers a little tighter under the table; swept his thumb over the pulse point in his wrist.
"We have to shut it down," Phil said.
"Nobody is arguing against that," Director Fury said. "Believe me. We just need you both to be aware that shut-down may include some side effects."
"D-Dub thinks it's gonna wipe your memories," Tony said, bluntly.
The representative for the Department of Weird (officially the Department for the Study of Unknown Technological and Thaumatological Devices or Incidents, but D-Dub had stuck, for obvious reasons) winced. "To be clear," she said, "based on the documentation Agent Coulson stole, we think it will erase his memories of the loop, since he was the initiating anchor point."
"And Agent Barton?" Cap asked, so Clint didn’t have to do it himself.
"We're 86% certain that, as the secondary anchor, he will retain full memories of the looping period."
Phil relaxed minutely at the first piece of news, but tensed up again at the second. “It’s fine,” Clint said, preemptively. “I’m fine.” He stared at Phil, and Phil stared at him, and they had one of those conversations that Clint had missed so much, which mostly depended on minute twitches of facial muscles.
“Can we do it now?” Coulson said, turning back to the D-Dub rep. “No waiting.”
“Yes,” she said, and everyone turned simultaneously to stare at the machine that Phil had brought back with him. Clint had already spent ten or fifteen minutes alternating between giving it the evil eye, and being excessively, embarrassingly thankful that the thing even existed. “It should actually be really -- it’s actually really simple,” the rep said. She sounded almost apologetic. “Very user friendly. There’s a button on the side here? Right next to the one you pushed, sir, to start the loops in the first place. We’re calling them the ‘on’ and ‘off’ buttons.”
“You guys make the big bucks downstairs, don’t you,” Tony said, flat, but Phil was already standing up and making a beeline for the machine.
“Wait!” Clint shouted. His chair toppled over when he stood, abruptly and carelessly. “I - wait. Wait. How do we know hitting the reset doesn’t set us all the way back to the first April 20th?” His voice wavered just a little at that last part, without his permission.
“We’re 93% certain that won’t be the case --” the rep started, and Phil slammed his hand down on the ‘off’ button. The machine made a small, sad, beeping noise, and then powered down with a faint and anti-climactic whiiiir-click.
Into the sudden silence, Clint said, dangerously, “Phil --”
"Five minutes," Phil promised the room as a whole, then took two steps and yanked Clint through the door and into the hallway without waiting for a response. The room erupted into noise behind them; Clint caught a glimpse of the D-Dub rep draping herself over the machine to prevent Bruce and Tony from reaching it while Steve shouted and Natasha and Thor egged them on. Fury had his head in his hands.
Phil hustled him around a corner and into a janitor's closet. Clint reached out and clicked on the bare lightbulb, illuminating shelves and mops and Phil’s face, doing something complicated.
Clint was gulping in air, unrelated to their dash out of the meeting room. “Do you -- did it erase the loops?”
“Not the first one, or this one. The in-between ones, I think,” Phil said. “I know they happened, but -- I remember remembering, if that makes sense.”
“You are such a fucking idiot,” Clint said, despairingly. “If it wasn’t in such poor taste I’d make an ‘I’m gonna kill you’ joke right now, but I’m honestly not sure I can ever make that joke again. Phil, Phil, oh my god.”
Phil’s face made that complicated expression again, and then he started laughing, huge, undignified giggles, which set Clint off, and they clung to each other, shaking and making terrible snorting noises into one another’s shoulders. Something shifted, then, while they were still both on the edge of hysterics; Phil crowded Clint up against the shelves and kissed him. Their foreheads knocked together and there was a bottle of bleach digging into Clint’s back, and in about two minutes he was really going to regret not optimistically sticking supplies in his pocket earlier today, but here, now, with Phil, this was still everything Clint had wanted for fifty-three nonexistent days.
It had been far, far too long, and, okay, Clint's sex drive had pretty much curled up and died after that initial 2 AM visit from Fury, but Phil was warm and solid and actually pretty damn close to having his way with Clint, right here in the closet, which was so much like old, post-mission, adrenaline-fueled times that Clint was pretty much ready to fall to his knees with gratitude.
Phil's hands settled at Clint's hips, then up under his sweater, before abruptly stilling. "Is this my sweater?" he asked. Clint groaned.
"Two months, Phil," he said, "two months, and you wanna ask me what I'm wearing?"
As it turned out, Phil was much more interested in removing what Clint was wearing, and better yet! The feeling was mutual.
It was longer than five minutes.
They returned to the debriefing a bit dishevelled, but Tony was the only one who leered; the rest of the Avengers had all returned to their seats and were wearing variations on the same genuine smile, although the D-Dub rep had gone a little flushed and seemed to find the table very interesting. Fury mostly looked bored.
"In your own time, gentlemen," he said.
Five conversations Clint had on April 22nd.
1. “Hey Tony,” said Clint. “First of all, JARVIS has agreed to change all your ringtones to a really great song you might be familiar with -- I found it really meaningful in my time of need. Secondly: I have a question to ask you that’s going to make you really uncomfortable! It’s about Steve.”
“Oh god,” said Tony.
2. “This,” Clint said. “What the hell does land of adventure!! mean?”
Thor squinted at the phone screen Clint had thrust in his face. “Ah! Your device is missing the beginning of my missive. I was wondering if you would accompany me to the fabled land of Legos! Great artists of your world use tiny building blocks to create glorious tombs and treasure hunts for bold adventurers to test their mettle!”
“Oh, sure, of course,” said Clint. “How could I have missed that.”
3. “Thanks, Natasha.”
She smiled. “Anytime, Clint.”
4. “I made a cupcake,” Clint said. He held out the plate. The cupcake had purple icing and dinosaur-shaped sprinkles.
“...Yes, you did,” said Bruce.
“It’s for you,” Clint said. “It’s a thank-you cupcake. For visiting me in SHIELD’s ‘we’re not saying we don’t believe you, but we’re not comfortable releasing you into the wild’ psychiatric lockdown.”
“Oh,” said Bruce. “Well, anytime.”
5. “Hey Steve,” said Clint. “Tony has a question to ask you that’s going to make you really uncomfortable! But I promise it’s awesome.”
Clint watched, fascinated, as Steve’s ears slowly began to turn red.
“Stop helping,” Tony hissed.