Title: Assess & Acquire

Author: tarotgal

Fandom: Marvel CMU (Avengers & Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

Rating: PG-13

Pairing: Pre-Clint/Coulson
Spoilers: For the Avengers movie and the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Warning: Character death. A lot of character death.

Summary: When Clint Barton shows up unannounced on Phil Coulson’s doorstep, Coulson is forced to change his vacation plans. So when a simple mission to asses and acquire an object of unknown origin comes up, he figures there’s no reason he should turn that down. Naturally, things are never as simple as they seem.

Author’s Notes: Written for NaNoWriMo 2014 all in one month (a first for me!). This story is finished but will be posted in pieces.




Assess & Acquire


Chapter 1


The buzzer pulled a reluctant Agent Phil Coulson out of sleep. You couldn’t really call it jet lag if you actually lived on a jet. But Coulson definitely noticed it felt different to be back in his apartment in New York—stationary, cold during this late autumn season, and quiet.


Or, at least, it was usually quiet. The startlingly loud buzzer sounded again, ensuring that he not fall back to sleep. Knowing it wasn’t his alarm clock or even his phone, he dragged himself out of a perfectly lovely, warm bed. He grabbed his phone off the nightstand, checking the time: 8:22am. After pulling his bathrobe on as he crossed his bedroom, Coulson stashed his phone in one of the front pockets. At the bedroom doorway, he spared a few seconds to slide his feet into slippers. Then he walked down the hall, cursing the buzzer as it went off again. It wasn’t something ready in the kitchen and it wasn’t his television magically turning on out of nowhere (this time). Yawning, Coulson crossed the living room and headed for the door to his apartment.


He shouldn’t even have been here; he should have been back on the bus with his team. Only a few people knew he was alive after the Battle of New York, but apparently one of that extremely small group was trying to get into his apartment without calling him first.


He’d been needing some time off for months now, and if this was the way he was going to be treated while on a staycation, he might as well be back in the magical place that was Tahiti.


Coulson reached the door and, instead of going for the handle or sneaking a glimpse through the peep hole, he depressed the intercom button. “Yes?” That was as polite as he could manage just now. He felt proud to have done even that much. Sleep was a precious commodity.


“Agent Coulson, it’s me.”


Recognizing the voice at once, Coulson sighed and slid his finger over to the button to buzz Clint Barton in.


Seconds passed and Coulson found himself leaning forward, eyes closed, nearly falling asleep upright against the wall. Clint would have to walk in the door, over to the elevator bank, wait for the elevator, take it up to Coulson’s penthouse, and walk down the short hallway. That gave Coulson not only seconds but precious minutes to rest.


A knock at the door shook Coulson awake. Resignedly, his hand closed over the door handle, turned, and pulled. Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avenger Clint Barton stood in the doorway with his bare arms wrapped around his chest and his shoulder against the door jamb. As his handler for years, Coulson had seen Clint in a number of compromised states. He’d seen Clint with an infected leg and a fever of a hundred and three point five. He’d seen Clint with a bullet wound in his shoulder. He’d seen Clint with the stomach flu on top of three broken ribs. He’d seen Clint with a stab wound in his chest, knife still stuck in as he continued to fire arrows. But this… Coulson had never seen Clint look quite like this.


Clint’s nose was bright red and the bags under his eyes were dark, as though he’d been punched out a few days before. Before Coulson could comment, Clint snapped forward. “Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” The sneeze sprayed forward, strong and forceful, catching Coulson in its wake.




Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” A second struck almost immediately.


Coulson stepped back, grimacing. He wiped his face off with the sleeve of his bathrobe. “I take it this means you’re sick?”


Clint nodded, sniffling and finally raising a glove-covered hand to his face. “I know this is supposed to be your week off, but I really need someone to look after me and make sure I take medicine at the right time.” He sniffed again, hard, long, and wet.


Coulson was unmoved.


“I’d go see Tasha, but she’s on an op in Bulgaria; I don’t even know how to reach her.”


“So you thought I’d be able to use my S.H.I.E.L.D. resources to contact her for you?”


Clint pushed off from the door jamb and straightened up. “Not exactly.”


“You thought I’d call up Nick Fury to sit by your bedside?” That one was supposed to have been a joke, so when Clint didn’t laugh, Coulson took a step back. Fury was going to kill him.


“No,” Clint finally said. “Actually, I was hoping you’d take care of me.” Clint rubbed the back of his hand against the bottom of his nose, the glove rubbing hard against his sore nostrils. “Please?”


With a heavy sigh, Coulson stepped aside and swung his arm, gesturing for Clint to come in. “All right, but try not to sneeze on absolutely everything I own.”


Clint chuckled, and Coulson had a terrible feeling that it wasn’t a delayed reaction to the Nick Fury joke. Flopping down on the couch with his face in the couch cushion, Clint didn’t make it a minute before sneezing into it. “Hahh… hahh h’Ikshhh!


“I’ll get you a box of tissues,” Coulson said, closing the door to his apartment and engaging the locks.


Clint lifted his head from the pillow, nodding. But his appreciation lasted only a second before his jaw dropped open. Hah… hahh-IHKshoo! Sniff!


“You sound terrible.”


“I feel it.”


“How long have you been sick?” Coulson crossed the living room, giving the couch a wide berth.


Clint snuffled and shook his head, as if that were an answer.


“Barton? That was a direct question.”


“Four days?”


“Four…” Coulson did the math and called up the last file he’d read on Clint. “You mean you were sick when S.H.I.E.L.D. had you trailing the man who attempted to take down Dr. Strange?”


Clint nodded, coughing into his fist. “Wasn’t a big deal. If I get some medicine in me, I’m able to hide it pretty damn… hah… huh-wellhuh-KChishhhh!


“Somehow, I doubt that.” Coulson raided his linen closet, pulling out a spare pillow and pillowcase, a couple blankets of varying weights, and a tissue box with a chevron pattern on it. When he got back to the couch, Clint was hunched over, sniffling into the back of his hand again, rubbing his nostrils raw with the tough leather. “When did you last take something for this cold?”


Clint shrugged. “Can’t remember. A day, maybe? I ran out.” As Coulson set the items on the far arm of the couch, Clint sat up to reach out to them. Coulson pulled his hand back, avoiding contact. There was nothing he liked less than being incapacitated, especially due to an illness and especially when such things could be avoided so easily by taking minor precautions. Besides, this was his week off; he did not plan on spending it in bed with a bad case of sniffles.


Another buzz sounded, and this time it was Coulson’s cell phone. He pulled it out of his pocket and checked the caller ID before quickly answering. “This is Agent Coulson. Go ahead.”


It was Agent Hill, and she didn’t bother introducing herself. “There’s a situation at the New York City Science Museum. An employee has reported a new 0-8-4. I hate to ask, but our resources are stretched at the moment and you’re close, aren’t you?”


“That’s two blocks from my apartment.”


“Assess and acquire, that’s all we need.”


“Oh, that’s all? Acquire an 0-8-4—that’s all? Have you heard of Thor’s Hammer by any chance? You know I’m supposed to be on vacation.”


There was a second of static on Hill’s end of the line. And there was a sneeze on Coulson’s end, after which Clint finally dipped his hand into the box of tissues to blow his nose. “We wouldn’t ask if we didn’t have to. It was either you or Tony Stark, and we had a better chance of actually seeing the 0-8-4 if we asked you. Should be quick.”


Hahhh-KATChhhh!” Clint sneezed again, spraying the coffee table. Apparently making use of the tissues did not mean covering his nose and mouth with them when he sneezed.


Coulson grimaced and did a few mental calculations. Agent Hill’s idea of a quick mission wasn’t always his; there was a reason he’d insisted on having his own team that he could run his own way. And he knew from experience there was never any such thing as a standard 0-8-4. But he also knew S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t about punching time clocks. “All right, I’ll do it. But if this turns into something bigger, you’ll need to send in a team, or at least backup.”


“Confirmed. I think Agent Barton’s in your area presently.”


Glancing toward the couch and rolling his eyes, “I have a feeling you may be right. I’ll call when I have the object in hand.”


“Good luck, Agent.”


Luck. He had a feeling he was going to need that. He slipped his cell phone into his bathrobe pocket and sighed as his gaze fell upon Clint, curled up into a little ball that took up only half the couch. “I have to head out for an hour, maybe two.”


“Was that Director Fury?”


“Agent Hill. She needs me to—”


“I heard enough.” Clint shivered. And sneezed. “Hahh-EHFTchhhh!” He looked longingly at the blankets at the opposite end of the couch, as if he had suddenly developed powers of telekinesis. “Coulsod? Cad you…”


Coulson could, albeit reluctantly. It had been a long time since Coulson had been in a position to tuck someone in. He’d almost forgotten how good it felt to pull a blanket up over someone he cared about and slide the ends under that someone’s warm body. Not that he cared about Clint in that way, of course. They were colleagues. Sure, once they seemed like they might be able to become something more… but then Coulson up and died. Dying put a damper on your Facebook relationship status. “Don’t leave the apartment. Don’t make a mess of things. Don’t let anyone in. Don’t answer the land line. Don’t—”


“Dod’t worry. I’ll be fide.”


“Don’t forget to blow your nose,” Coulson finished, tucking the tissue box in under the blanket with the man. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”


Superheros—even Hawkeye—had uniforms. Cap had his red white and blue. Iron man had his armor. And Coulson had a suit—a whole closet full of them, in fact, complete with a tie rack that would make Georgio Armani weep. A complete costume change would normally take half an hour, but he managed to make himself presentable enough in ten minutes flat. With his cheeks still stinging from the aftershave, keys jangling in his pocket, and a scarf wrapped around his neck against the cold, he headed to the museum.


He knew why Hill had chosen him for this mission. The museum was only a two block walk from his place. Why bring in a team when you lay a guilt trip on a Level 8 S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who practically lived next door to your 0-8-4 already?


The science museum was unusually crowded for a Thursday; there were the usual tourists and school groups there on field trips, but there seemed to be a lot of other people as well, as if drawn there by some mystical force, commanding them all to converge on the same location at the same time. Literally the same time. A little girl who wasn’t watching where she was going collided with Coulson, hitting his left leg and doing no damage except to knock her breath out for a few seconds. Though it was her fault, Coulson apologized and swiftly moved out of the public areas as soon as possible.


He was barely free of them when his phone buzzed. He glanced at it, somehow not surprised to find it was Clint calling. He answered, pressing the phone hard to his ear but unable to hear Clint’s voice over the noise around him. Coulson turned his body toward the wall, shouting into the phone that he couldn’t hear, but it did no good. “Text me!” he finally said, and terminated the call with annoyance building in him. Clint knew he was on a mission, knew he should only be disturbed in case of emergencies.


Coulson stared at his phone, waiting for the text that would explain that Skrulls had invaded the apartment building or the Brotherhood of Mutants was torturing his downstairs neighbors for information. When the text came, it read simply: Bring orange juice.


Orange juice. He’d bothered Coulson on a mission because he wanted orange juice. Unless orange juice was suddenly a powerful substance that could bring Loki to his knees, this text had no business existing. Unfortunately, it was followed by another: The kind without pulp.


And, then, one more: Please?


Coulson sighed and quickly texted back: Fine.


And that was it. The end of their communication. Coulson showed his badge to a security guard at a door with an AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY sign posted on it; he was quickly granted admittance.


Behind the scenes at the museum, the pace wasn’t much different from the rest of the museum. It seemed every researcher or scientist in the city—minus every one Coulson actually trusted from Stark and Banner to Richards and Connors. At once, Coulson suspected he’d been too quick to accept this mission and thought of calling Fitz-Simmons up so he could at least Skype them into this.


He didn’t need to ask around; he only had to follow the crowd of excited people in lab coats. Once there, he had to admit the 0-8-4 was quite the impressive sight to behold. He also had to admit it looked to him like nothing more than a small Tesla Coil—something you’d see in a science museum gift shop or at a Spencer’s Gifts in a mall. It stood about a foot and a half tall, a metal cylinder with a rounded top like a giant pewter bullet. Teal and purple bolts of electricity danced around the top in no discernible pattern and with no visible source.


“We’ve had it here at the museum for months now,” a researcher named Dr. Daniels explained, when Coulson introduced himself to the group and asked who was in charge. “This morning, it just started acting up, right out of the blue like this. We don’t know where the energy is even coming from. It’s just impossible.”


“Then it’s a good thing I specialize in the impossible.” Coulson took a step closer to the object and that was when everything happened at once: his cell phone buzzed in his pocket (probably Clint asking him for another box of tissues or something) and one of the threads of energy leapt from the object and struck Coulson straight in the chest.


He stepped back, startled. Several people screamed, others jumped away from him. The researcher he’d been talking to grabbed his arm, as if Coulson were about to fall over or pass out or worse. One man ran for a security guard while another started to dial 9-1-1. But Coulson took stock of himself and realizing that felt fine.


It was the strangest thing. He’d just been standing there and suddenly there had been light shooting into his chest. But he hadn’t registered any sensation—not heat nor cold nor pain nor even mild discomfort. He felt fine, albeit a little irritated when he checked his phone to find another text message: And nasal spray.


“Are you sure you’re all right?” another researcher asked, steering him over to the nearest chair and planting him there. “We should do a full workup. Do we need to notify anyone? S.H.I.E.L.D.?”


“I’m fine,” Coulson insisted, and he meant it. But it took another hour to convince everyone else of that fact. The device, meanwhile, had stopped emitting strands of energy. It stood as plain and motionless as it apparently had been since the museum had acquired it. If its only function had been to freak out a whole room of scientists for a morning, then mission accomplished. But Coulson had a mission of his own: assess and acquire. It had looked pretty, and now it looked inert; there was the assessing portion of the mission done. Against strenuous objections from nearly everyone still in the room, Coulson picked up the item, secured it in a S.H.I.E.L.D. case, and left the museum. 0-8-4 acquired. Mission accomplished.


There was a measure of humor in the situation, he had to admit, as he pushed a small shopping cart through the city grocery store, the case sitting up front like an insistent child. His first stop in the store had been the fruit juice aisle where he had found pulp-free orange juice fortified with all sorts of things in addition to 100% of one’s daily Vitamin C. That lead him over to the vitamin and medicine section, where he spent probably far too long trying to decided which medicine would be best. He tried texting Clint to gain some direction, but each one of his texts went unanswered. So he got what normally worked for him when he felt under the weather and hoped it would help Clint just as well. Tissues, as luck would have it, were on sale, so he bought a four-pack of boxes, figuring they would last Clint a while. Then he stocked up on cough drops, nasal spray, and some saline rinse that claimed to help congestion. If Coulson knew nothing else about the agent’s condition, it was that he was congested. He also picked up normal groceries; he’d gotten home so late the night before and he hadn’t had much food in the apartment to begin with. Living on the plane most of the time meant not having a well-stocked pantry or fridge back home. Besides, it was lunchtime and he was famished.


Nearly three hours since he’d left, Coulson returned home to his apartment, multiple shopping bag handles bunched tightly in each fist. He expected to find the apartment exactly as he’d left it; that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Clint had apparently remembered the command about blowing his nose and forgotten the one about not making a mess. Used, balled-up tissues solidly coated the floor in a two-foot radius around the couch. There was a particular concentration around the side where Hawkeye’s head was. The empty tissue box had been ripped into pieces, strewn about the room. When he’d run out of tissues, apparently Clint had switched to paper towels—the roll he’d found in the kitchen—and then to toilet paper—which he’d found in the bathroom. A cereal box lay sideways on the coffee table, little Os spewing from its top across the surface except for where a bottle of water from the fridge stood like a lone pillar, sweating little beads onto the delicate wooden surface. The cell phone perched on one corner of the table showed he had eight missed messages. One blanket was on the floor, another bunched up around Clint’s middle, and a third covering the lower half of his body, excluding his feet which stuck out so that the shoes he still wore pressed into the fabric of the couch. The pillowcase had been forgotten, and still hung over the arm of the couch, but the pillow was wedged under Clint’s head, folded so it raised his head up higher. The man, somehow, had made himself comfortable enough, despite the mess, to have fallen asleep.


Coulson dropped the shopping bags, locked the door behind him, carefully set the 0-8-4 aside, and then headed straight for the couch. His shiny black shoes made a path through the sea of tissues as he stormed over and knocked Clint’s shoes off his couch.


Clint woke with a start. And a cough. And a snuffle. And another cough. “What… Coulson?”


“Shoes off the couch,” he stated. “And sit up. I’ve got medicine for you.” As Clint toed off his shoes and they clunked to the floor upon the tissues, Coulson put food away in the fridge and weeded through the shopping bags for the cold pills.


“Can’t I just take two and knock this out?” Clint asked when Coulson popped a single pill out of its blister pack and into Clint’s hand.


“One pill; it says that right on the box. We’ll see how you do on a normal dose.”


Clint grimaced as he washed the pill down with a few sips of orange juice. “Stings,” he said, before flopping back down onto the couch and sneezing into the cushion again. “h'CHIShahh!” Clint shivered, pulling the blankets tighter around himself. “I don’t feel good,” he said, curling up on himself again.


“You’ll be fine. Give the medicine a chance to work. At least you weren’t attacked by a beam of light today.”




Before Coulson could explain in any detail about the 0-8-4 (which he was suspecting might not actually be an 0-8-4 at all but might, instead, just be some scientist’s cruel joke on them all), there was another buzzing sound.


Nothing good had come of these all day, and Coulson had half a mind to ignore it. But one glance at the caller ID changed his mind. “Hello Director Fury, this is Agent Coulson.”


“Something is going down by the docks. We need our best marksman on it, but we can’t get a hold of Agent Barton. You were his handler; do you know where he might be?”


“Agent Barton is about five feet away from me, sleeping on my couch.”


“Excellent. We’ll need you both tonight. Sending the details right over.”


And before Coulson could say another word, Fury had hung up. “Shit.”


Hah-CUTCHHH!” Clint pitched forward from the first sneeze then further forward just a moment later with two more. “Hehh-KTchhh! HehhhChushhhh!


“Let me reiterate: shit. I’m calling Fury back. You’re in no condition to—”


“I can do it.” Clint snuffled and scrubbed at his nose with his hand. “Whatever he needs, I can do it.” He cleared his throat and lay back against the pillow and couch cushion. “When does he need us?”


“Tonight. Sundown.”


Clint nodded and closed his eyes. “Let me rest my eyes a little, then I’ll take a look at the file.”


In the end, Clint took a three hour nap. When he woke, he sounded twice as stuffed-up but seemed twice as alert, so Coulson figured it all evened out. A sleepy marksman is a sloppy marksman, so he preferred the version of Clint who could accurately shoot compared to the version who could pronounce words properly. There had been time enough to each read through the file and strategize a bit.


There had been reports of strange items being smuggled in and out of the country at the docks. In a perfect world, that meant some bootleg DVDs or, at worst, some cultural artifacts dug up by grave robbers. In this world, however, it was much more likely to be alien devices some group planned to use to take over the world. Their job was reconnaissance and capture. If Hawkeye had a shot, Coulson could authorize him to take it, but S.H.I.E.L.D. preferred these guys to be taken alive. They wanted to track where these items were coming from and going to, and that was more difficult if parts of the operation suddenly turned up dead. But they couldn’t risk the items falling into the wrong hands in order to figure out whose hands they were. So they had to capture everyone they could and recover the items. 


It seemed simple enough, but Coulson rapped his knuckles on the nearest wooden surface every time he even briefly entertained such a thought. Coulson still had reservations about taking Clint out on a mission in a compromised state, but he had to admit that the man did seem better. He was sniffly and sneezy during the elevator ride and the walk outside to a taxi. He practically sneezed his head off during the taxi ride over; given the strong scent inside the cab, Coulson wondered if Clint’s already compromised nose was reacting to whatever incense or air spray the middle eastern cabbie had used in his car. But the moment they got within sight of the docks, Clint’s condition cleared up as if by magic.


Agent Coulson took the ground while Hawkeye made his way to the top of the nearby lighthouse. The notes in the file had identified it as the best lookout point for their operation and it wasn’t difficult to guess why. With its significant height and 360 degree view, it made for an excellent vantage point; an added bonus was the fact that it was normal to see someone walking the deck of a lighthouse, in order to inspect it or keep the lighthouse operational, whereas someone atop a tall building would be conspicuous.


With the communications channel open between the two of them,  it instantly felt like old times again—simpler times, times before they knew about portals to parallel universes or bridges to other planets, times before experiments changed the fabric of the universe, before superheros were such public figures, before Coulson had been legally declared dead.


“I’ve got eyes on them,” Clint said into Coulson’s ear. “And on you. Head about fifty degrees to your right. Then take the next left around those storage containers. That’s it. You’ll… you…” There was a pause, then a barely audible “n’ghht!” as Clint successfully stifled a sneeze.


“I’ll what?” Coulson asked, pretending he had not heard.


“You’ll find them.” And, just like that, Coulson did. Even though he’d known from the case file what to expect, he was taken off guard by the sheer number of items being smuggled. There were dozens of crates, towering over them, and the smugglers were putting item after item into them—greenish vials, glowing amber stones, bronze gauntlets, sea foam green canisters.


“Found them,” Coulson whispered. “Looks like four of them. Confirm?”


“Confirmed. Can’t use my net arrow unless they’re all together. Think you can do anything about that?”


“Absolutely. You’ve got my back just in case it goes south?”


“Always, Sir.” Warmth sprang up in Coulson at these words. And that warmth inspired confidence.


With a myriad of possibilities at his disposal, Coulson settled for the easiest of them all. Gun raised, he stepped out from the shadows. “Hold it right there!”


The men responded predictably. Two of them dove for weapons. One rushed at him. Another drew a gun. They were all in range; Coulson was sure of that. Yet that net arrow didn’t come. What did come was a gunshot.


Once again, Coulson was aware of a burning pain in his chest. As he fell, he saw the net fall, and he heard Hawkeye yelling his name through the comm. But it was too late. He struggled to hold on, knowing it was too bad for him to walk away from; he was already too far gone. Gunshots rang out. Arrows flew overhead. The four suspects were silent as by the time Clint reached his side and dropped to his knees.


Coulson went cold as he felt his head lifted. “No, no, no” echoed overhead and through the comm like a creepy echo. “Coulson…”


Coulson struggled to keep his eyes open—and ultimately failed. “Promise… me,” Coulson choked out, “Promise you won’t let them… bring me back.”


Clint coughed and choked out a strained, “I don’t think I can promise that, Sir.”


“You have to…” Coulson winced as the pain in his chest intensified. He felt something wet and soft touch his lips. A kiss. A kiss, strong but tender. Coulson tried to speak around it, tried to insist he wanted to die. But he wasn’t sure he believed that anymore. Then, suddenly, the pain was gone.


Chapter 2


The sound of the buzzer brought Coulson to as though he’d been subjected to some form of shock therapy. He sat straight up in bed, gasping for breath. He shuddered as sweat trickled down the sides of his face and down his back, and gooseflesh broke out upon his arms. Looking down, he saw he was in his pajamas and in his bed.


The bastards. They’d done it again. He didn’t want to die; of course he didn’t. But this wasn’t natural. He’d only been dead for a few minutes the first time, and S.H.I.E.L.D. technology was amazing; he couldn’t really blame them for bringing him back. But how had Clint managed it this time? Clint had been sick and not at his best. He must have had help. Which meant Fury knew. Probably Coulson’s team knew by now as well. They’d all be descending upon him at any moment.


The door intercom buzzed again, and Coulson knew that was one of them now—Agent May to scold him and say him he’d taken unnecessary risks, or Skye to sit by his bedside and look worried, or Clint to tell him what had happened with the suspects, or Fury to finally fire his ass for letting this happen again.


Knowing he couldn’t hide from them forever, Coulson pulled himself out of bed. He moved sluggishly, which was no surprise; he’d been  exhausted during his trip to Tahiti as well. When he got to the doorway of his bedroom, he put on his slippers out of habit. Their rubber bottoms slapped softly against his hardwood floors as he made his way to the door. He thought about who he wanted to find at the door and decided that as long as it wasn’t everyone all at once, he could cope. He pressed the button. “Yes?”


“Agent Coulson, it’s me.”


Clint. Of course it was Clint. He’d probably come to apologize or to make sure that his momentarily delay had not caused permanent damage… or had not somehow damaged the relationship between them. Coulson wasn’t so sure yet it hadn’t. But he buzzed Clint up anyway. Then he unlocked the door. By the time he’d opened the door, the elevator dinged, doors rolling open.


Clint wasn’t alone in the elevator. Behind him was the downstairs neighbor, Ms. Sampson. She wore a floral dress and held a cat carrier in each hand. The two exchanged words that were too soft for Coulson to hear before the agent stepped out of the elevator, one hand on the door to keep it from closing on him as he exited.


Clint looked terrible. Coulson must not have been in recovery long, because Clint apparently still had his cold. Clint blinked at him for a moment, then snapped forward with a strong Hahh-Ktshhhhh!


“Looks like you still have—”


Coulson broke off as Clint sneezed again. Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


An overwhelming sense of deja vu washed over Coulson more like a tsunami than a wave. He gripped the door frame, feeling dizzy, disoriented.


“Geez, Coulson. I’ve got a terrible head cold, but you look worse than I feel. Are you all right?”


Coulson closed his eyes, concentrating on the smooth, painted wood against his forehead. “For someone who has just been shot, I guess I’m fine.”


“Shot?” Alarmed, Clint laid his hand on Coulson’s shoulder. “How? What happened?”


“Ha ha.”




“You know. You were there.”


Silence. A pregnant, meaningful, but uneasy silence. Coulson opened one eye. Clint looked as though he might be sick with concern. Then he sneezed again. Ehhh-Hetshhh!” Sniffling and rubbing at his sore nostrils, Clint spoke with a measure of timidity Coulson had never heard from him before. “Can I come in? I think we both need to sit down.”


They sat on different ends of the couch. Coulson sat with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Clint leaned back on the cushions and struggled to breathe without sneezing.


“Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you shot?”


Irritated that Clint would play him like this, he grabbed his t-shirt at the bottom and pulled it up to show Clint. Clint flinched a little as his eyes took in the sight before him, but confusion still danced in his eyes.


“You say you were just shot?”


“Yes,” Coulson sighed. “Right…” He tucked the end of his shirt under his chin and looked down. His scar—the one the Asgardian blade had made—was impossible to miss. The small scars from scratches or accidents over the years were there, right where they were supposed to be. But there was nothing new. He’d been sure he’d felt the bullet hit him right in his chest. But there was nothing—no fresh wound, not even an old wound. He believed fully in the miracles S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors could perform, but even they couldn’t heal a wound and leave no mark at all behind.


Coulson dropped his shirt, tugging it back down. He shivered. “Last mission, when we were at the docks, one of those smugglers shot me.”


“Coulson, we’ve never gone on a mission at the docks.”


“But last night—”


“Last night I was huddled up under a blanket in my apartment watching reruns of Dog Cops and sneezing until my nose was this lovely shade of Fuji apple red.” He sniffled now, his nostrils flaring. “I had a rough night last night, barely able to sleep when this cold got so bad. Then I ran out of medicine, and I felt so miserable… I needed help, and you’re the first person I thought to go to.”


“What about Natasha?”


Clint smiled. “Okay, you’re the second person. Tasha’s undercover in some operation in Bulgaria, I think. But…” Coulson waited for him to finish, but he never did. “Hahh… hah-eh-Chishhh! H’Ketchhh!” Clint sneezed freely, at least turning his head this time so Coulson didn’t get caught in the spray. “Hahh-Kitchuhh!” He pressed the back of his hand against his dripping, twitching nose.


Coulson stood. “Hold on. Let me go get you some tissues.” With a sigh, he headed to the linen closet. He’d bought several tissue boxes at the grocery store the day before.


But none of them were there. Given how sneezy Clint had been, it seemed possible Clint could have sneezed his way through one of the boxes, maybe two. But the entire four-pack? That wasn’t what bothered him the most about what he saw, though. Right there, on the second shelf from the bottom, was the box of tissues sporting a black, gray, and white chevron pattern. It was identical to the box Clint had destroyed the day before.


Coulson raced to the kitchen. He opened the pantry. He looked in cupboards. He opened the fridge. There was nothing. Nothing but some baking soda, some bottled water, some tea, a half a bear of honey, and an unopened box of cereal. “This is all wrong,” he said to himself while Clint sneezed again in the other room. Nothing about this made any sense. Nothing.


And then his phone buzzed. He heard it from the other room, rattling the nightstand. As if in a daze, Coulson walked to it. He stared at the caller ID for almost a full minute before answering. “Agent Hill?”


“Good morning to you, too, Agent Coulson. There’s a situation at the New York City Science Museum. An employee has reported a new 0-8-4. I hate to ask, but…”


Though she kept talking, Coulson stopped listening. He even lowered his phone.


This was all happening again. Clint showing up at his door, sick and sneezy. The box of tissues waiting to be used. Agent Maria Hill calling him about the unidentified, suspicious 0-8-4 at the museum a couple blocks away. It was all happening again as though it had never happened the first time.


“I can’t,” Coulson suddenly said, sitting down on the side of his bed. He lifted the phone back to his ear.


“Agent Coulson, are you there?”


“Agent Hill, I can’t.”


“I know you’re supposed to be on leave, but this is—”


“No, you don’t get it. I can’t go to the museum. And I can’t go down to the docks with Agent Barton to stop smugglers.”


“Sorry, what?”


“I can’t do these things because I’ve already done them. And I think they got me killed.” He hung up while she was trying to stammer out a response.


Then he returned to the living room. Clint sat hunched over, both hands cupped to his face. His eyes flicked upward toward Coulson. “Those tissues? I thig I deed theb.”


Coulson nodded in agreement. “And I need you to help me out. Because I think I’ve been Groundhog Dayed.”


Clint blinked at him then pitched forward again. Huh… huh-Kuhfshhhhh!


Coulson went back for the tissue box. He waited while Clint blew his nose repeatedly, dropping the used tissues to the floor at his feet when he was done.


Irritation crawled over Coulson’s skin. He may be living the same day over again and he may have actually just died and come back to life, but that didn’t mean he was suddenly all right with Clint making a mess in his apartment. He got up and went to the bathroom, returning with the small trash can. Clint eyed it but got the message. “Okay, now tell me about what’s going on. You think you were shot?”


“I know I was shot. But I’m the only one who seems to remember it.” Quickly, Coulson outlined the events from the day before—Clint arriving, the trip to the museum, the shopping trip, the operation at the docks that had gone so very wrong. The only thing he left out of the story was the kiss. Coulson wasn’t sure what it had meant, so Clint would probably only find it confusing. He fully expected Clint to inch away from him on the couch or excuse himself and leave or even duck into the bathroom to call Nick Fury and explain that Coulson had lost his mind. Instead, Clint listened attentively, with only an occasional sniffle.


When Coulson was done, Clint gave a nod. “All right.”


“All right? I tell you all that and all you can say is ‘all right’? Do you actually believe me?”


The side of Clint’s mouth turned up in a smile. “Loki took over my mind, Sir. We fought off hundreds of aliens in New York City that were trying to take over the world. You died and came back to life. At this point, there’s nothing you could tell me that I wouldn’t believe.”


Coulson was surprised at how relieved he felt. Whether this was all in his head or not, at least he had Clint on his side now.


“So do you think it was a one-time thing? Or do you think you’re permanently in a… a… a loo… hah-Cheww! Sniff! A loop?


Coulson shook his head. “I have absolutely no idea. But I hope it’s not permanent. I guess there are ways I could find out for sure. I could hand you my weapon and you could kill me right now.”


Clint’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think that’s a great strategy. I think we try to keep you from dying today. Then you’ll see a tomorrow. Tomorrow might be the same as today or the same as yesterday, which was also today. Or tomorrow might actually be tomorrow. Either way, you’ll be alive to see it.” Then he reached over, took hold of Coulson’s hand, and held it in his own.


“Thank you,” Coulson said softly.


With a shrug, “Least I can do considering I got you killed yesterday. Lucky for me, you don’t know how to stay dead.”


“Lucky,” Coulson repeated, though he was far from feeling it. He reclaimed his hand. “Okay, if you’re going to stay here, you’re going to need more than just a box of tissues—trust me on this. I’m going to get dressed and go to the grocery store.”


Clint cleared his throat. “I’m not letting you go alone.”


Despite the situation, this made Coulson laugh. “You forget that I went to the grocery store yesterday and nothing happened to me there. I’ll be fine.”


Clint stared unblinkingly at him. “Of course you’ll be fine, because I’m going with you. Now go get dressed.”


Coulson hopped in the shower, marveling at how much his life had changed since the last time he’d put on a suit and tie. Except that this was, technically, the same day. And so he chose the same suit and tie.  But this time he slipped a few handkerchiefs into the pockets, just in case Clint needed them… knowing Clint would need them. It didn’t take ten minutes before Clint did need one. Shivering on the walk over to the store, Clint looked twice as miserable as he had when he had shown up on Coulson’s doorstep—both times. “Heh… heh-hrSchh! Heh-Ketchuhhhh!” Clint stopped in place, leaning against the back of a bus stop. Here was the world famous Avenger who helped save the world, incapacitated by a cold. “Hahh… hahEHschhh! Sniff! Sniff!” Clint sniffled wetly and rubbed his gloved hand at his nose until Coulson forced a hanky on him. “Thah… thanks-hahh-Kumffff!” He sighed into the handkerchief’s folds and massaged his nose before lowering his hand.


“Are you sure you don’t just want to go back to my place?”


Clint nodded vehemently. “I need to grab some orange juice.”


“Without pulp.”


Clint eyed him. “You really have lived this day before, haven’t you?”


“This time around there are fewer text messages. Come on.” Coulson grabbed a cart and started filling it with the same items he’d bought the day before. Clint followed along behind like a sniffly puppy, stifling sneezes the way he had the night before during the operation.


Once, he even dug the handkerchief out of his pocket and pinched his nose through it. H’nggh-huhhhhhh!” His exhale afterward was twice as loud as the sneeze, but he was smiling when he folded the hanky up and stuffed it into his back pocket. “These handkerchiefs feel amazing. Sniff! You’re never getting this one back.”


“Fine by me,” Coulson said, thinking of the damp, germ-covered handkerchief. He couldn’t help but smile when Clint couldn’t see, however. He dropped a bag of cherry cough drops into the cart.


“I, sniff, like the honey and herbal ones, sniff, sniff, better.


Coulson made the switch as well as a mental note. He had no intention of living this day again to make use of this information immediately. But he was still Agent Barton’s handler, and it was never a bad idea to know everything you could about your agents.


He found that grocery shopping was actually a good excuse to let his mind wander to his situation—what was happening, what had caused it, and would it happen again? Certainly he’d been through a whole host of crazy over the years during his time with S.H.I.E.L.D., but usually that involved linear time. Usually.


His phone buzzed in his pocket. Assuming it was Nick Fury calling about the operation down by the docks, Coulson dropped the Vitamin C tablets into the cart and answered immediately. But it wasn’t Fury; it was Agent Hill again. “Hello?”


“Coulson, the museum—”


Coulson looked back at Clint, rubbing his nose and sniffling and rubbing his nose some more. Poor guy. “I told you, I can’t make it to the museum. Send someone else.”


“No, the museum: it’s not there any more.”


The words hit Coulson hard in the gut. For a second, he couldn’t breathe. Then he couldn’t believe it. “Say again?”


“It just exploded, taking out a city block. And that’s not all. There was some blue-purple energy that was part of the explosion.”


Coulson swallowed hard. All those people he’d seen at the museum. The tourists, the scientists, the children. That little girl who had bumped into him. The researcher who’d been concerned about him. They were all gone now, thanks to the… whatever it was. “That energy would be from the 0-8-4.”


“That’s what we guessed as well.”


But Coulson didn’t have to guess. He knew. He knew because he’d seen.


“Coulson, it’s spreading.




“The energy. It’s taking over the city, destroying everything in its path.”


“Well we have to stop it.”


“Our scientists don’t know what it is, let alone how to stop it. Coulson, you’ve got to get out of the city. You—”


She kept speaking, but Coulson didn’t hear her. He looked up at the florescent light bulbs overhead in the store and the brighter ones in the display cases. From every outlet shot bolts of teal and purple. The strands of energy ripped through everything in sight, dividing shelves in two, setting the produce section on fire, taking down a screaming couple at the cash register and the line attendant as well. The escalator down to this level of the store exploded, setting off a chain reaction. “Too late,” Coulson said into the phone.


He turned, seeing Clint’s wide eyes, searching his for answers, for aid. And those were the last things he saw before the building exploded around him.



Chapter 3


The sound of the buzzer made Coulson open his eyes. His room. The same light gray walls. The same navy satin sheets on the bed. The same phone and lamp on the bedside table. No crazy bolts of energy tearing through anything in their paths. No gunshot wound. Not even a sneezing agent of S.H.I.E.L.D…. at least not yet.


But he wasn’t dead. Again. And that was something. That meant this wasn’t a fluke or a one-time thing. This was something bigger, and he was right in the middle of it. As far as he knew, he was the only person who knew about it. All he had to do was figure out what it was and how to make it stop. What could be easier? He’d already been through this day twice before; he had the advantage of knowing what was going to happen. Or, at least, what he thought was going to happen. The museum hadn’t exploded the first time around.


Coulson jumped from bed and grabbed a crisp white shirt off the hanger. Almost on instinct, he grabbed the same jacket, pair of slacks, and tie. He was only as far as draping the tie around his neck when the buzzer went off again. His hand was already at the panel beside his door. “Good morning. Come on up, Agent Barton.”


By the time the elevator stopped on the top floor, Coulson’s suit jacket was buttoned, his tie was tied in a neat Windsor knot, and he had ignored how damn tired he felt. He smiled, knowingly, as the elevator doors rolled open and Clint said a few words to Mrs. Sampson (that Coulson still couldn’t hear) then walked toward him. Suddenly, the man was thrown forward. “Hahh-Ktshhhhh!


Coulson closed his eyes. He should have remembered. And now Clint had sneezed on his suit. Fantastic.


And Clint wasn’t done yet. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


“How did I not remember that?”


Sniff! What? Sniff!” When Clint lifted his hand and rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand,  the end of his nose moved right then left then right again.


“Never mind. Bless you.”


“Thanks. Sniff!


“So you need a place to crash? What about your apartment?”


Clint was quiet for a moment. “I think my neighbors are sick of hearing me sneezing. The walls aren’t so thick. Plus it’s lonely.”


“You need a girlfriend. Or a dog.”


“I need something,” Clint muttered, and he rubbed his nose again. “Look, I’d go see Tasha, but she’s on an op in Bulgaria; I don’t even know how to reach her. And I need someone looking after me.”


“I understand,” Coulson sighed, stepping aside and inviting Clint in for a third time. “Just try not to make a mess this time.”


“This time?” Clint collapsed face-down onto the couch. He pulled a cushion to his chest, nuzzling his face into it and hugging it tightly. “Hahh… hahh h’Ikshhh!


Coulson was already on his way to the linen closet for the box of tissues, wondering why he hadn’t thought to grab them on the way to the door, except that he’d been pulling on his pants at that point. It was less of a shock to see the same tissue box on the shelf this time, but he still paused, marveling at the black, white, and gray chevron pattern on it. Everything had reset. Clint had forgotten everything he had found out about the time loop. The museum—and the rest of the city—hadn’t blown up. And Agent Maria Hill had yet to call him about the mysterious 0-8-4.


He still didn’t know exactly what was going on, what it all meant, what was causing it, or what it was going to take to stop it. But the one thing he did know was that if he didn’t go to the museum to see the object again, they were all going to die again, and that was worse than just his getting shot. Between the two, he’d take the version where the fewest people died. Though maybe—just maybe—he’d be able to get through the day alive as well.


It was worth a shot.


Haah-IHHKShhhh! Heh-Ktchuhhh!” Coulson heard the man sneeze from down the hall and seized the tissue box immediately. But he grabbed the pillow and blankets as well while he was there. He might be inexplicably stuck in a time loop, but he was still Agent Clint Barton’s handler… and perhaps his friend as well. Kiss by the docks notwithstanding.


“Shoes off my couch,” Coulson said, tossing the tissue box onto the couch beside Clint. “Being sick’s no excuse for messing up my furniture. Kick your shoes off and I’ll cover you up.”


Clint turned his head and looked up at Coulson. “Huh?”


“You look cold. I brought blankets. You’re a smart guy; put it together. Now lift your feet so I can get your shoes off.” Clint wore black Timberlands with thick soles, laced all the way up to the top, so Coulson had to slip it hand an inch or so up under Clint’s pants in order to get to the bows. The boots clunked to the floor. Then Coulson turned onto his side, curling up for warmth. That made it easier to cover Clint with the blankets. “Got the tissues?” Coulson asked, tucking the blanket around him.


Clint nodded, sniffled, and got a tissue out just in case, balling it up in his palm.


“Good. Then you’re all set for when I need to leave.”


“Leave? Leave why?”


Coulson’s phone buzzed in his pocket. “Because of this.” He took his phone out and answered without having to look at the caller ID. “Agent Coulson here.”


“There’s a situation at the New York City Science Museum. An employee has reported a new 0-8-4. I hate to ask, but our resources are stretched at the moment and you’re close, aren’t you?”


Coulson had to admit she did sound genuinely sorry about pulling him away from his vacation. Little did she know this was not the vacation he had had in mind anyway. “I’ll be there in fifteen. Agent Barton just showed up at my door suffering from a bad head cold. I’ll make sure he’s set then I’ll head right over.”


“Thank you, Sir. Should I take Agent Barton off the active duty list?”


Thinking of the op Fury was going to call them to later that night, Coulson didn’t hesitate. “Please. He’s in no condition to work, and I’m going to have my hands full with this 0-8-4.”


“It’s just a standard assess and acquire mission.”


Coulson smiled. “Something tells me there’s nothing standard about this. I’ll contact you when I’ve got it in hand.” Coulson hung up and looked down at Clint, who was wearing an amused expression on his face.


“I’m in no condition to work?”


“No, you’re not. Believe me.” Coulson draped another blanket over Clint and tucked it tight around to keep him warm. “You’re sick and sneezy and need to stay right here while I go to the museum to get an 0-8-4. On the way back, I’ll pick up you some medicine and orange juice sans pulp.” 


Clint’s brow furrowed. “How’d you know?”


“Lucky guess. Try to get some sleep, Agent. I won’t be long.” He found himself patting Clint’s arm through the blankets, not realizing why he was doing it, but noticing that it made the corners of Clint’s mouth twitch into a smile. “I think there might be a Dog Cops marathon on today if you find you can’t fall asleep.”


This time, Clint smiled fully. “You’re the best, Sir.”


Coulson left, not actually knowing how long he was going to be, because he planned on doing more than just grabbing the 0-8-4.


The whatever-it-was at the science museum had to be the key to all of whatever this was. It couldn’t be a coincidence that it had struck him with energy and he was the one who was aware of the day repeating. And when he hadn’t been there to see the object, it had begun to self destruct. Or had its energy gone out looking for him? He had to find out more about it, which meant getting back to the museum.


It was just as busy as he remembered. And the little girl with pigtails and an inability to watch where she was going collided with him, just like before. “Sorry,” he apologized as she gasped, surprised and out of breath. “Are you going to be all right?” She nodded nervously and ran after her father. He stood for a moment, watching her go. “Let’s hope you will be.”


He found the lab faster this time around, pushing past some of the other researchers flocking to it. The 0-8-4 looked exactly like Coulson remembered: a tall, silver bullet with electricity visibly dancing around it. As far as 0-8-4s went, this one seemed relatively innocuous. And this time it didn’t even come in contact with him.


Everyone turned to look at him. He held up his badge. “Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. And you’re…” His gaze fell upon the researcher he’d met on the first day, but he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. Damn it.


“Dr. Daniels.” The man stuck out his hand and Coulson shook it. “I’ve been studying this device for months and today was the first time it seemed to be more than a paperweight. Care to tell me what it actually is?”


“Wish I knew. How about you start by telling me everything you know about it.”


“Not much to tell, I’m afraid. A construction crew discovered it in the rubble of a building they were trying to put back together after that battle with the, ah, space aliens.” The Battle of New York. So this thing’s origins had something to do with the first time Coulson died; he should have guessed. Dr. Daniels went on, “The construction worker who found it actually mistook it for a thermos at first. But, as you can see, there’s no cap, no opening, no visible markings of any kind on its surface, actually. There was nothing to indicate its origin or purpose.”  The man gestured to the item, regarding it with something akin to admiration. “Of course, it was reported it to S.H.I.E.L.D. at once, but they had their hands full. As it seemed harmless, it was sent here to the museum laboratory for further testing. That’s where I came in.”


Coulson caught a note of pride in the man’s voice. He supposed not even scientists at city-funded museums were devoid of egotism. “And what did you find out about it?”


“Not much,” he said, sighing with regret. “It’s made with some metal we haven’t been able to identify. It shares many properties with vibranium, but seems resistant to our measuring equipment—X-rays, every scan we could come up with—nothing seems able to penetrate it. It’s held up to every strength test, heat, cold, you name it.”


“It sounds like you were trying to destroy it.”


“As far as we knew, it was just a giant column of metal. But a few hours ago, it started doing this.” He gestured toward the object, shaking his head. “We had no idea. It doesn’t seem dangerous, but we thought we should call you guys anyway.”


“It is dangerous,” Coulson said, remembering the shower of sparks and roar of flames as it ate away at the grocery store. Something bothered him about what the scientist had said, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. The idea that he might actually have unlimited time to figure it out occurred to him, but he didn’t want to think about being stuck in this time loop forever.  Waking up every morning to a sick Hawkeye sneezing on him, ending each day with a violent death—he couldn’t do this forever. He had to figure out how to stop this. And this 0-8-4 had to be at the center of it all.


Curious, Coulson took a step toward it. The purple and teal arcs of energy dancing around the top of the object grew smaller. Coulson stepped back. The energy lashed out angrily, reaching toward him.


It was then Coulson realized there was silence in the room. Everyone was watching him, seeing just what he saw. And while S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t always operate so out in the open, if a room full of scientists and researchers could produce some intelligence about what was going on, then he wasn’t going to hold back. Short of explaining the time loop, that is. Clint might not have trouble  believing in this time loop, but Clint was an Avenger; he’d seen things that would make these guys’ heads explode… and not the sort of explosion that had happened yesterday.


Coulson stepped closer again and, with a deep breath, wrapped his fingers around the neck of the object. At once, the energy died down to nothing. It didn’t shoot him in the chest the way it had the last time. It seemed satisfied just to be in his hand. But it didn’t feel any different—the metal was still cool to the touch, the size around still too wide for him to completely encircle it with his hand. Someone exclaimed, someone else jumped back in surprise. Coulson picked up the object. It looked so innocent, so innocuous. It was hard to believe this little thing had leveled half a city in a matter of minutes. It was even harder to believe this thing was the cause of the time loops. But if it were to blame, why had it done it? What did it want? And what would it take to make all of this end?


He set it back down, half-expecting to see the energy return. But nothing happened. He picked it up and put it back down again. Nothing happened then either.


Finally, Dr. Daniels spoke up again. “Either that was the most incredible coincidence, or this object’s been waiting for you.”


“Waiting for what?”

“I think you’d better tell us.”


“I can’t,” Coulson said, shaking his head. “But I might know some people who can.” He reached into his pocket and made a call. “May? Are you guys still in the area?”


“We can be there within the hour, Sir. Are you in trouble?”


Coulson stared at the object on the table, almost not wanting to take his eyes from it now. “I think you could classify this as trouble, yes. There’s something I need Fitz-Simmons to take a look at immediately.”


“They’ll be thrilled. We’ll call you when we’re in range.”




The sense of relief he felt after contacting his team was incredible. They’d only been together for a few months, but he had the same trust and faith in them that he felt for agents he’d worked with for years. Just as long as none of them wanted to crash on his couch right now, things would be fine.


“My team and I will be taking over,” Coulson announced. After what they’d witnessed with the object responding to him, none of the researchers there raised an objection to this. “Dr. Daniels, I’ll require copies of all of your tests and notes related to this. Everyone else, I ask for you to keep this matter confidential.” With that, Coulson picked the item up and popped it into the case he’d brought along.

It felt strange walking away with it this time, like he was carrying a time bomb at his side. It felt even stranger to be taking it home, to where Clint happened to be. And this time he kept it in hand as he shopped instead of leaving it in the cart when he reached to the back of a shelf for the right can of chicken soup.


This time, Clint didn’t text him with requests, and Coulson hoped that meant the man had managed to fall asleep after all. The poor guy had looked like he needed it. Hell, he had looked like he needed to sleep for a week. At this point, sleep didn’t sound like such a bad idea to Coulson either. He wondered how much sleep he was actually getting each night, what with the sudden, unexpected, violent deaths that kept happening. With resolve, Coulson decided that sleep could wait.


Save the world today. Sleep tomorrow. That sounded like a plan.


“Your total is eighty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents,” said the line attendant at the cashier station who Coulson had seen die the day before. Despite the high price for over the counter cold remedies, Coulson handed over his credit card.


When he returned to the apartment, he realized he’d forgotten to grab Clint the trash can from the bathroom this time around. Tissues—and pieces of the tissue box—were scattered across the entire living room floor… again. “Out of tissues?” Coulson asked, pushing the door closed behind him with this shoulder.


Under the blankets there was a Clint-shaped bulge, the top of which moved in something resembling a nod. Out popped the top of a head, two tired and blinking eyes, and a bright red nose. “You brought more?”


“The softest ones they had in the store.”


“So glad you’re back, Sir.”


Coulson sat down on the edge of the couch and went through the bags, unpacking them onto the coffee table. The second he pulled out a tissue box, Clint grabbed it. He blew his nose into the tissues and relaxed back into the cushions as he launched the used tissue over the side of the couch. “I’ll clean these up later,” he said, sounding so weak and exhausted that Coulson could not have believed him, even if he knew from previous time loops that that wasn’t likely to happen any time soon.


“Take some pills,” Coulson said, getting the medicine out. “I’ve got some work to get done with my team this afternoon—”


“I thought you were… huhh… hehh-Uhhh… huh-Ehkshhhh! Sniff! I thought you were on vacation this week.


“I thought so too.” As if he were the president and this were the case carrying nuclear codes, the case containing the 0-8-4 had not left his hand since the museum. He rested it on his lap and ran his fingers over the case. He thought about explaining it all to Clint again; the idea was easier to entertain, knowing for sure that Clint would believe him this time around. But Clint looked so exhausted, so sick. Clint didn’t need to know everything. If Coulson managed to break the loop, there would be time to tell Clint later, when the man was feeling better. And, if not, Clint wouldn’t remember about this anyway the next time the time loop began again.


If it began again.


Fitz-Simmons would probably  be the first to point out that twice did not a pattern make. They would probably already tell him he should have come straight to them the moment he realized what was happening. Well, he was going to them now. That was a start.


His phone buzzed. Checking first to make sure it wasn’t Fury calling about the operation by the docks, and wondering who was going to take down the smugglers if not the two of them, Coulson answered his phone. “Are you here?” They were. “I’ll be right there. Thanks again.”


“You’re leaving again?”


Coulson looked down at Clint, looking up at him with big eyes filled with hurt. “I thought you were going to look after me.”


Admittedly, Coulson’s heart broke a little at the sound of these words. He reached out and petted Clint’s arm through the blanket again. “I know. I’m sorry. But this is big.”


“How big?”


He hesitated a moment before answering. “Not sure yet, but it might be end of the world big.” Clint did not protest, but he didn’t look happy about this either. “You have my cell phone number. If you need me, you can text me or call me.”


“You’re staying around here though, right? You’re not leaving the area?”


Coulson’s first instinct regarding the 0-8-4 was to figure out what it was and how to use it to stop the time loops. The second instinct was to take the object straight to the sandbox so that it wouldn’t destroy the city again. Failing that, he just wanted it as far away from Clint Barton as possible. Yet, he still answered, “I’m not leaving the area.” He fingered the cell phone in his pocket with his other hand. “You have my number. If you need me, you call me. Got it?”


Clint wasted no time in nodding. Then he closed his eyes and nuzzled his face into the pillow. Hhhhhhhh” He drew a long, shaky breath. Then another. “Hehhhhhhhh” They gave him enough time to get a tissue to his face. “Huhh-Chihhhhh!


“Bless you. Feel better, Agent Barton.”


“Is… huh… huh-IKSchhhhh! Sniff! Is that a direct order, Sir?


“Absolutely.” It hurt, walking away from Clint this time. Clint had come to him not because he needed a place to sleep, but because he needed someone to look after him. And Coulson had welcomed him in, only to repeatedly disappear on him. But he didn’t want Coulson on the bus. For one thing, introducing Clint to his team would be best done when Clint felt significantly better. For another, if things went south again, he didn’t want Clint getting caught in the cross hairs this time.


Of course, he didn’t want his team to get hurt either, but he stood a much better chance of figuring this out with their help than without it. So he took the elevator down to the parking garage under the building, slid into Lola’s driver’s seat, and started the car up. He met them where they’d dropped him off, a park near his house. He drove the car up and into the hold without any trouble. Once inside, he headed straight for the lab.


“Welcome back, Sir. I thought you were going to be out all week?” Simmons asked, looking up from the tablet device in her hand where equations danced, merrily waiting their turns for her attention.


“That’s what I thought, too.” With care, Coulson set the case down on the table in front of her. He opened it slowly, cautiously. But contents had not shifted during flight. The 0-8-4 sat gleaming, teasing, taunting just by being there.


“What is it?” she asked, her voice full of awe.


Coulson smiled. “That’s what I hope you and Fitz would tell me. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it gives off a unique energy display, it seems to react to my presence, and it’s one stunning paperweight. That’s all I’ve got. But Dr. Daniels at the museum should have sent over the results of tests they’ve been running on this thing for the past few months.”


“Got ‘em,” Fitz said, entering the room. His eyes were fixed on his own tablet, his thumb slowly scrolling through whatever was on the screen. “Some of these tests, though… why were they even bothering to measure this stuff?”


“Dr. Daniels made it sound like they ran out of options and just started trying anything they could think of.”


“Yeah, but submerging it in a container of ice water? Were they entering this into a grade school science fair by any chance?”


Coulson chuckled. “Okay, I get it. They’re not exactly at your level, but who is? Think you can figure this thing out?”


“Absolutely,” Simmons reassured him.


Fitz nodded as well. “We’ll just need to run a few preliminary tests…”


Coulson knew that look in Fitz-Simmons’ eyes; they were kids and this was their candy. “Let me know when you find something.” As the phone in Coulson’s pocket buzzed, he thought he knew exactly who it had to be. So he wasn’t surprised to see Clint’s name attached to the text message: HELP.


That was only one step beneath a 9-1-1 message. Coulson excused himself and left the lab, though his people were so deep into their job they barely noticed him leave. He got to the privacy his room and called Clint back immediately. “Clint? What’s wrong?”


“Coulsod! Hehh-KITChh! Helb be! Heh-Chshhhh!


“I repeat: what’s wrong?”


Hehhhhhh… hehhhh… hahhh-Kihshh! Krshhhhh!


“Bless you. Clint—”


Heh… heh-CHhshhh!




Hahhh-eh… ehhh-KITChh! Hehh-Kahshh! Ahh k’shhhh!




Sniff! Coulsod… I’b dying.”


Coulson scrubbed his hand back and forth over his eyes. “You’re not dying. You’ve just got a bad head cold.” Clint had been exactly this bad exactly at this time during the first loop. Once he’d been on the mission, he’d been able to control himself. But Coulson couldn’t explain that. “Relax. Just relax. Relax and blow your nose.”


Heh-Kshhh! Kehtchuhhh!” A second later, Coulson heard a cough and then a monstrous amount of nose-blowing on the other end of the line. He waited. And listened. And winced a few times. The uncontrollable, strong sneezes were almost preferable to the wet, full, rumbling sounds of Clint blowing his nose; Clint’s nose had to be hurting, and he had to be feeling lightheaded from all of this.


Patiently, Coulson sat down on his bed and waited for it to be over. He wished he were back in his apartment, able to reassure the man with a touch, with his presence. It might be overstepping his bounds a little as a handler, but Clint obviously needed it, or else he wouldn’t have called in his moment of distress. “That’s it,” Coulson said, as the blowing started to sound a little less miserable and a little dryer. “Feeling better?”


There was a weak cough. When Clint spoke, Coulson thought he could hear a smile in his voice. “Much. Thank you. Sniff! When are you coming back?


“Soon. I’ve got my team here looking at the object. It’s going to take them some time, but as soon as they’ve got something for me, I’ll be back.”


“Maybe we can have dinner? Or watch something together? Or both?”




His phone buzzed again. Maybe not. He checked the text message. “Clint, sorry, I have to go. My team’s got something for me already.”


“All right. Thank you. Sniff!


“Any time.”


Coulson hurried back to the lab, surprised and pleased that Fitz-Simmons had come up with something already. He knew they were brilliant; that’s why he’d wanted them on his team to begin with. He just hadn’t known how brilliant they were. “What do you have?” he asked, walking through the door.


“A problem!” Fitz replied, just as alarm began to sound. “We couldn’t have known…”


“Known what?”


Simmons bounced around from screen to screen and circling the table where the 0-8-4 sat in a transparent container. “Gamma radiation.”


“You exposed it to gamma radiation?”


“These readings are off the charts,” she said, by way of an explanation. “We thought we were getting somewhere. But the radiation seems to have woken something up. Its core temperature is rising. It’s  not just hot to the touch, it’s dangerous. And we don’t see a way to bring it down.”


“It’s going to explode,” Fitz said. “And it’s going to take us with it.”


The container shattered around the object, and Coulson heard a soft humming sound coming from the object. “Okay. Options?”


Fitz winced, panic filling his words. “Die a terrible, painful death?”


Coulson closed his eyes and braced himself. “Been there, done that,” he said out loud. Then, to himself alone, he added a whispered, “Let’s hope I live to have it happen again.”


Searing pain shot through his whole body, exploding like a firework.



Chapter 4


The buzzer woke Coulson, who sat up at once, gasping and shaking. He was not fond of this situation he had found himself in. Repeating a day over and over again was draining, but actually dying each time around was so much worse. And of the deaths so far, that last one ranked right up there. The look on Fitz-Simmon’s faces as they had told him what they’d done, knowing they were about to die along with him. His team. He had dragged them into this mess, and he’d had to watch his team die right in front of him because of what he’d decided to do with his day. How long could this go on? How many times would he have to die? How many times would he have to watch others die? Innocent people… friends… people he cared about. The door intercom buzzed again.


Clint Barton.


Pulling himself out of bed, Coulson headed for his door.  He thought about getting dressed, but he’d already wasted too much time lying in bed, speculating about his fate. Clint would be impatient, probably pacing around, definitely eying the building to see if he could scale it safely. So Coulson skipped the suit this morning, but he did stop briefly to put on the slippers that were, as always, at the bedroom door. He threw on his bathrobe as he walked, cinching the green tie tie around his waist. And he grabbed the chevron-covered tissue box from the linen closet, ripping it open and pulling one out.


He pressed the button on the panel by the door. “Good morning.”


“Agent Coulson, it’s me.”


Of course it was. “Come on up, Agent Barton.” He pressed the button to unlock the building door for Clint and then unlocked and opened the door to his apartment. How many times was he going to do this? Already it was beginning to feel like he was just going through the motions. Coulson rested his forehead against the wall for a minute as the elevator whirred in the hallway.


The elevator dinged and Clint spoke to Coulson’s neighbor. Then he walked toward Coulson. As the elevator doors closed, Coulson saw the man’s eyes close as well. He held up the tissue just as Clint fell forward. “Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” His nose planted right into the tissue instead of all over Coulson.


He straightened up, pulling back.




Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” The second sneeze sprayed forward, and Coulson grimaced. Two sneezes. Why hadn’t he remembered that second one? Coulson took another tissue out of the box and handed it over. “Let me guess: you’re not allergic to cats?”


Clint rubbed the tissue under his nose and shook his head. “I wish. How did you know I was going to sneeze?”


This was his opening, his opportunity. Clint would understand. And then Clint would want to stay with him all day. And though Coulson liked the idea of being with Clint and keeping an eye on him, what he didn’t want was to see Clint die in front of him again. “How long have I been your handler, Agent Barton? I could hear the congestion in your voice. So is it a bad head cold or the flu?”


Clint shrugged and tilted his head forward. “Do I feel like I have a fever?”


Coulson stared at his forehead for several moments before he realized Clint wanted him to put his hand there. Fitz-Simmons would probably comment about how that wasn’t a scientific tool for measuring accurately, and Coulson wasn’t even sure he could determine just by touch, but still he reached out and cupped his hand to Clint’s forehead. Then he flipped his hand over, pressing the back to Clint’s forehead. He still had no idea, but it did feel warm. “Maybe,” he said, finally.


Apparently satisfied with the noncommittal answer, Clint shook off the touch. “Can I stay at your place? I need someone to look after me and make sure I—”


“No tissues on the floor. No shoes on the couch. Got it?”


Clint nodded, rubbing again at his nose with the tissue Coulson had previously given him.


“I’ll get you some blankets now, and when I go out I’ll pick up whatever you need.”


“You’re going out?” For days now they’d gone through similar routines, but this was the first time Coulson was sure that Clint was pouting, actually pouting. “You’re supposed to be off this week, aren’t you? I thought you were off…”


Coulson wondered if that were the main reason he had come to Coulson in the first place—not because Tasha was unavailable, but because Coulson was on vacation and supposedly would have the time to take care of him. But then he remembered that first night, that death, and that kiss. Even when someone is dying, you don’t kiss like that unless there’s something more there. It was just a question of what that something was. “I thought I was, too. But an 0-8-4 has turned up and I’m the only one who can investigate it. I need to recover the item and bring in my team. As soon as they figure out what it is, I’ll be free to enjoy the rest of my time off.” Though ‘enjoy’ was a strange word to use when it now was synonymous with ‘hand tissues to my sniffling house guest.’ “I’ll try not to be gone all day.” Coulson ducked back down the hallway to get changed and retrieve the same blankets and pillow. He forced the pillow into the pillowcase on his walk back to the living room, knowing this time around that Clint wouldn’t do it on his own.


By the time he’d covered Clint with two blankets and relocated the trash can from the bathroom beside the couch, his phone gave that familiar buzzing sound. Remarking to himself that this was good timing, just in case he couldn’t stop what was going on today and had to do this again, Coulson answered the phone. “Agent Coulson here.” He tried to sound surprised and a bit reluctant when he found out yet again about the 0-8-4. But, naturally, he told Agent Hill he would recover it.


Hehtchhhhh! Hehshuhh!” Clint sneezed, as though the cold itself was staging a protest to this decision.


As soon as he was off the phone with Hill, he called his team. Though he didn’t want the jet exploding again, it seemed safer in their hands than at the museum where it could take out so many civilians. Plus, the lab on board would be much better equipped to figure this object out, as long as they didn’t subject it to gamma radiation again. “May, I’m going to need you to make a return trip a little sooner than expected. Pick me up where you dropped me off in an hour?”


Hehh… hehhhKetchh!” Yes, it definitely seemed like Clint’s cold didn’t like the idea of him leaving. “Hehh-Ketchhhh! HehShuhhh!” In fact, it had acted up last time when he’d been on the jet, and all Clint had needed to do was call and hear from Coulson in order to make it back down again.


Coulson sat down on the couch, rubbing the butt of one hand against his forehead. He was seeing patterns that were meaningless instead of getting to the real truth of things. And the real truth was that there was a device that had somehow latched onto Coulson to make him repeat this day over and over again. It had to be stopped—sooner rather than later, if Coulson had a choice. Which meant he’d have to tell Fitz-Simmons and probably the rest of his team what was going on.


“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Coulson promised, rubbing Clint’s arm through the blankets. “Call me if you need me. Promise?”


Clint’s small nod came with a shrug and a snuggle further beneath the blankets.


“That’s an order, Agent Barton. If you need me, call me. I’ll have my phone on the whole time.”


This time when Clint nodded, it was a little more spirited, resolute. Coulson took that as a good sign.


“Try to sleep this off. I’ll be back before you know it.” Coulson got up, straightening his tie, and headed for the door. He was as far as the door, hand on the doorknob, when his phone buzzed again. Coulson froze. It was too early for Fury to be calling about the operation down at the docks. It might be Agent Hill calling back to tell him something they’d only just touched on during their first phone call. Or it might be May or someone else on the team following up on his incredibly vague mention of a case. If he were a betting man, he’d put money on the latter; as soon as Skye found out there was a case, she’d want to be all over it. He wouldn’t be surprised if somehow she hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s system to find out it was an 0-8-4 and to be waiting for him in the restricted section of the museum when he arrived. But once he dug his phone out, he found that it was neither of these parties. Coulson gave a small smile and answered his phone. “I’m still here.”


“I know.” Clint’s voice from behind Coulson came a split second before the one over the phone, creating an eerie echoing effect. “You said to call if I needed you. Sniff! Sniff! I need you. Sniff! I know you’re on a mission, but can’t I tag along?”


Coulson considered what it would look like to show up at the museum with a sniffly agent in tow. Clint would have to put on a suit and get cleaned up a little, at the very least. No one would take him seriously in a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers—sneakers that were on on the couch, Coulson had to take a moment to acknowledge. But, on top of that, he wasn’t sure how Clint was going to react to seeing how the energy strands reacted to Coulson. Coulson still wasn’t sure he liked that part of it himself, and the other researchers at the museum seemed shocked by it both times. He wasn’t sure he wanted someone who knew him, someone who knew what he’d been through during the Battle of New York, to witness it. “Maybe next time. Your job right now is to rest and feel better. Mine is to go to the museum and grab an 0-8-4.” He softened a little, remembering the last time he’d spoken with Clint over the phone. Coulson hung up and turned around to find Clint out from under the blankets a little, holding his phone in one hand and rubbing his nose with a tissue in the other. “Maybe we can do dinner and then a movie.”


Clint’s whole face brightened significantly. He nodded in agreement then tossed the tissue into the trash can, making the basket.


Satisfied he was leaving Clint in as good a position as he could, Coulson headed back out and managed to make it to the museum again without his phone going off.


The museum was busy, but no little girl collided with him this time. The brief delay at home with Clint seemed to have put him on a slightly different schedule. Sure enough, when he stood in the museum’s atrium and looked around, he spotted the little girl with her brown pony tail bouncing behind her as she and her father walked toward the exhibit hall dedicated to ancient cultures. For a moment, Coulson thought about the mummies entombed in that exhibit hall, all of whom had died hundreds of years ago and stayed dead. He wondered what that was like, and the thought sent a chill through him.


The same security guard looked at his badge and gave him the same wave through to the authorized personnel only section of the museum. The same researchers were huddled around the object in the same room. The same chief researcher gave him the same handshake. And the same strings of blue and purple light shot from the object. Deja vu did not come close to describing how this felt. But it was pretty clear that he was the only one who felt anything at all, or else they were all excellent actors.


This time, he ignored their stunned gasps as he went straight for the 0-8-4 and picked it up. The energy lights disappeared at once. He popped the object into the S.H.I.E.L.D. case and snapped the clip shut. “Dr. Daniels, I would appreciate if you could send us the results of whatever tests you’ve performed on this object since the museum acquired it. I’m sure you were thorough, and I wouldn’t want my team duplicating any of your hard work.”


The man nodded, his eyes still registering shock at the way Coulson had manhandled his research subject. “Of course. I’ll send them to S.H.I.E.L.D. immediately.”


“Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.” With that, Coulson strode out of the museum, case and object in hand. He headed straight for the park, by way of a hot dog cart. He wasn’t all that hungry, but he couldn’t remember the last time he had had something to eat. His body must be resetting each day along with the world around him, otherwise he’d be famished by now. He ate the hot dog as he watched the harness drop down from the jet as it hovered above him in the park. S.H.I.E.L.D. technology was fantastic, but it hadn’t managed teleporting yet.


Coulson pitched the hot dog wrapper in the nearest trash can, strapped himself into the harness, and tried to enjoy the sensation of being lifted off the ground and into the air. After all he’d been through, it was one of the simplest pleasures to take in, the rush of wind around him, the way the city pulled away beneath him. He thought of Clint, always wanting to be at the highest points, atop buildings or in rafters. He wondered if that was one of the reasons Clint had chosen to invade Coulson’s penthouse apartment.


“Welcome back, Agent Coulson. Did you miss us already?” Skye stood with her arms crossed, a smile on her face, as Coulson extricated himself from the harness system.


“Absolutely. Besides, how many opportunities to save the world did you have while I was gone?” He lifted the case a little in his way of gesturing to it. “I need Fitz-Simmons’s help on an urgent identification.”




Coulson nodded. “Yes. They’ve only got today to do it, otherwise I’ll probably die. Again.” He passed her, heading for the lab, but after a few seconds, he heard her steps as she followed behind.


Fitz-Simmons were just as thrilled by the object this time as the first time around. “I know you’ll want to shoot it with gamma radiation,” Coulson told them, “but you can’t. It’s highly sensitive and will cause the device to explode, taking the entire jet with it.”


Fitz thumbed through the research notes on his pad, brow furrowed. “How do you know that?”


“Because that’s what happened yesterday when you ran the test.” Coulson set the case on the table and flipped the clasp to open it. “This thing is somehow making me—and only me—repeat days. I’m stuck in a time loop, which is a good thing, in actuality, because I keep dying but I don’t stay dead.”  No one spoke. They all stared at him. They didn’t even look at the object. After a minute of awkward silence, Coulson cleared his throat and spoke again. “I would prefer you figure out what this is and why it’s doing what it’s doing sooner rather than later. I’d prefer to end these loops today and not wake up this morning for a fifth time.”


With an understanding nod, Simmons rooted around in a desk drawer. She pulled out a thermometer. “Any other symptoms? Dizziness? Disorientation?”




She popped the thermometer into his mouth. Unable to answer while it was stuck under his tongue, he shook his head. They were wasting time. He pointed at the object, trying to get them to redirect their attention, when Ward walked in. “Hello, Sir. Did you call us back because you’re feeling under the weather and needed Fitz-Simmons to work on a cure for the common cold? If so, I want it on the record that that is a poor allocation of S.H.I.E.L.D. resources, but I’m on board. A cold can be pretty nasty.”


Coulson thought of Clint back at the apartment, sneezing and, hopefully, sleeping by now. He hadn’t called Coulson back, so that was a good sign. But Coulson also hadn’t stopped by the store to get him medicine, and he seemed to need that. He hoped the man would be able to hold out until the evening. Poor Hawkeye.


The thermometer beeped, and Simmons pulled it out. “Completely normal.”


“You sound disappointed,” Coulson told her.


“Occam’s Razor: the simplest solution is usually the best one. Now there might be something really wrong.”


“There is something really wrong. I’m repeating the same day over and over again because of this thing.” He gestured to the 0-8-4 that everyone seemed to be ignoring. “Figure it out and you’ll be able to stop this.”


Fitz had a hand on his chin, rubbing his forefinger against the curve in little strokes. “Assuming this is actually happening. Forgive us, Sir, but time travel… it’s just not possible. Recent studies have proved—”


“This isn’t time travel exactly, it’s a time loop. And I’m stuck in it unless you can figure out what this thing is.” This time, he pointed emphatically at the object. “Just start there, all right? If you really can’t find anything at all suspicious, then you can call me crazy and ship me off to that special place agents retire to when they’ve lost their minds.”


Ward looked visibly uneasy at this joke, and Coulson’s two scientists still looked skeptical. But that seemed to be enough to start them toward studying the object instead of studying him.


Strangely enough, Skye was the only one among them who seemed ready to believe what Coulson was going through. She had her arms crossed over her chest, but her head was cocked at an angle. “A time loop? Can you prove it? Do you know what I’m about to say? Do you know what’s going to happen next?”


He shook his head. “This is only my third time through… fourth counting the first day before time reset itself. This is the first time I’ve told you all about this.”


Skye looked… was that an expression of hurt?


“I didn’t want to involve you if I didn’t have to. I thought I could figure this out on my own. But I don’t even know where to start with this thing, and my staring at it isn’t going to help—I know that much.”


The jet banked slightly; given that he practically lived on board now, Coulson barely noticed, but it was an indication that they’d reached an altitude where May could put the jet on autopilot. So she was probably going to be on her way back to see what the mission was all about as well. “Maybe we should give these two some room to work and we can talk about this somewhere else?” Coulson suggested.


And that was how he found himself playing poker with May, Skye, and Ward. He could think of a number of people he would be less likely to win a hand of poker against, but he had absolutely no intention of actually playing to win. He wished he had a photographic memory, but he would just have to rely on his S.H.I.E.L.D.-trained one in order to help him out. At first, he thought he would memorize each card in each hand, but then he realized he needed a better system, so he concentrated on just the winning hand each time. First it was Skye with three aces. Then there was Ward with a pair of kings. Then Skye with a royal flush. Then May with three eights.


When his phone buzzed, he answered it immediately. He believed so much in Fitz-Simmons that it didn’t occur to him that it wasn’t them calling already. “What do you have for me?”


“For someone on vacation, you sure sound eager for a mission.”


Damn it. “Sorry, Director Fury. I thought…” He closed his eyes. There was no way to complete that sentence, but he couldn’t look any of his team members in the eye right now. “Never mind.”


“Look, there’s something going down by the docks. We need our best marksman on it, but we can’t get a hold of Agent Barton. You were his handler; do you know where he might be?”


“He’s out of commission, Sir. He’s really sick. He couldn’t be stealthy right now if his life depended on it.”


“You sure about that?”


“Absolutely. He’d get us both killed.” Coulson shivered, realizing it wasn’t entirely a lie. He knew Clint would be able to contain his cold well enough while on a mission. But if Clint had been at the top of his game, that bullet might not have found its way to Coulson’s chest that first day.


“All right. Enjoy your vacation.”


Briefly, Coulson thought about telling Fury what was going on. He wondered if the man somehow knew he was back on board the bus, already back to work. But telling his team this time around was enough; he didn’t know how Fury would react and saying too much now might mean not being able to follow up with Fitz-Simmons. So Coulson didn’t say a word about the time loop. “Thank you, Sir. I’m trying.”


“Don’t make me send your ass back to Tahiti now.”


“It’s a magical place,” he answered, though not exactly sure why.


When he hung up and slid his phone back into his pocket, he realized everyone had gone silent, watching him. “You didn’t tell Fury what’s going on?” May asked.


“It would take too long to get him to believe it.”


“Unlike us?” Ward looked skeptical but amused.


Coulson nodded toward the cards, indicating that they should keep playing.


“Tell me again how this is going to help the case,” May said, dealing out the next hand to each of them.


“Not the case. It’s going to help me. If Fitz-Simmons can’t come up with a solution and I have to live today over again, I’ll just insist we play cards. Then I’ll be able to call up the winning hands and make you believe I’m in a time loop. That will save, well, time.”


“And it will make us all believe that you are suddenly psychic, not in a time loop,” she said. Coulson looked down at his hand. He had nothing; again. “I fold,” he said with a sigh. “Fine, what will it take to convince you?”


Ward shook his head. “I don’t know if there is anything, Sir. We’ve seen some strange things, but never time travel. We’re usually investigating the strange, not part of the case ourselves.” Skye caught Coulson’s gaze for a moment then looked away.


“It’s not unusual for us to be stuck in the middle of things. The unique thing this time is that I seem to be the only person who realizes it and remembers from day to day.”


Ward held up a hand. “Okay, okay, even if this is true, what could be causing it? Time travel is pretty powerful. It would take something huge to cause this. What do we know that’s capable of such a thing. Do you think it’s Loki?”


Coulson genuinely had no idea. “Loki… Thor would have told us if Loki had escaped.”


“Assuming Thor could contact us. What if he—”


“There’s no evidence that it’s Loki. The 0-8-4 looks advanced and it’s made out of some unidentifiable metal, but it doesn’t seem to be Asgardian in origin.”


This sort of speculating was getting them nowhere. He wished he were back home, shopping for supplies and taking care of Clint. At least there he’d be making some sort of progress toward an end. This was just painful. Besides, Loki had been responsible for his death the first time; Coulson didn’t like the idea of him being behind all of the other ones as well. Loki had too much of an ego to sit back and do this to Coulson; he’d want to get right up on the stage and show you exactly who was to blame for your misery. Though why he would want to target Coulson specifically, Coulson had no idea. Maybe he was just the easiest pickings from the team that had tried to take him down. But, deep down, he didn’t think this was Loki’s doing. Maybe it wasn’t even personal, just that the 0-8-4 had happened to target him.


Or maybe it had to do with the few minutes he’d been dead before. Maybe it knew somehow. Maybe it could sense this about him. Maybe it had no intention of ever letting him break out of this loop, so he would always have to live this day over and over. Or maybe there was some magical chain of events that would unlock the next day for him.


But he still thought his best bet was to figure out what the object was and try to shut it down. If the object was what was causing it, that is.


His phone buzzed again. Excitement seized Coulson when he saw it was a text from Fitz. “They have something.” The card game was abandoned immediately, ended almost as quickly as it had begun.


“Have you figured out what it is?” Coulson didn’t have time to dance around the subject. “Have you figured out how to stop it?”


Fitz and Simmons exchanged a look, which was not a good sign. Fitz even looked a bit guilty as he replied. “It’s not an answer so much as a theory.”


That was something, at least. And a theory of theirs was worth a lot in Coulson’s book. “All right. Let’s have it.”


Simmons gestured toward the 0-8-4 where it sat on the lab table, almost exactly where it had been on Coulson’s previous day when it had exploded, taking down him and his entire team. “What does this look like to you?”


No one spoke, but Coulson was pretty sure they were all thinking the same thing. At least, he did until Skye blurted out “a giant, silver dildo.”


Simmons let out a small shriek of laughter and clapped both her hands to her mouth. But she couldn’t contain the laughter, especially every time her eyes fell upon the object. She tried to get herself under control, regulate her breathing. “M’sorry. I just… haHA!” She giggled, looking helplessly at Fitz for help. “I’m picturing…”


He nodded, understanding, and started laughing as well. “Galactus?”


“Yes!” she said from behind her hands, and they laughed together.


Not for the first time, Skye seemed to be out of the loop. “Who’s that?”


“We’ll tell you some other time. But apart from… a silvery phallus, what does this resemble?” Both she and Fitz stared straight at Agent Ward this time.


Ward took a few seconds then shrugged when he answered, “A bullet.”


“Ex-actly.” Fitz’s Scottish accent came out stronger as he slowed the word down for added emphasis. “And if there’s a bullet, there has to be a gun. One’s not much good without the other, is it?”


The pregnant pause that followed this gave them all time to think, to try to come up with something else—anything else. But this made more sense to Coulson than almost anything had since the time loops had begun. “A weapon. You’re saying you think this is part of a weapon?”


They both nodded.


“Is it likely this time loop is part of the weapon, or could it be an unintended consequence?”


“Don’t know just yet. Still need to figure out how this baby works.” Fitz manipulated the table display, easily paging through graphs and stats and schematics.


“Wait, what was that?” Simmons asked, grabbing his arm.


He paged back, and they both stared at what looked like scientific gibberish to Coulson.


“Sir,” Simmons said, looking at him through the holographic projection. “Could you step closer to the object?” Coulson did. “Interesting. Now touch it?” Coulson did. “Now back away… slowly.” Coulson did, and both Simmons and Fitz cocked their heads slightly to their right, his left.


“What is it?” Skye asked before anyone else had a chance to do so.


“The energy readings,” Simmons said. “They fluctuate significantly whenever Agent Coulson gets near. I think he’s correct. I think it is tied to him somehow.”


“But there isn’t any of that energy coming out of it right now, those teal and purple strands that were there this morning at the museum that alarmed all the scientists.”


“The levels are low, but significant enough to show up on our instruments briefly. I think that’s because you’re here, Sir. You’re in close proximity to it.” She smiled at him through the display. “Care to test my theory?”


Coulson didn’t want to die again. He didn’t want to watch his team die again, even from afar. But if Fitz-Simmons had a theory, that was more to go on than he’d had since this whole thing started. So he took a deep breath, looked at his team—the curiosity and concern on each of their faces—and closed his eyes to keep himself from chickening out. “You need me to leave, don’t you?”


Twenty minutes later, he was taking the bridge out of the city when he saw the explosion in Lola’s rear view mirror. The teal and purple bursts of energy were small in the distance, but they reached out in his direction, causing explosion after explosion—cars, buildings, anything with the potential to explode went up in an impressive display of flames and sparks. Traffic was stopped on the bridge as people panicked, running, screaming. The sound of sirens filled the air, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier appeared overhead.


“Please let this day repeat,” Coulson said, worried but somehow at peace as well. This was a theory, only a theory. But, deep down, he knew. And when his end came, in teal and purple light, he owned it.



Chapter 5


Coulson woke to the sound of a buzzer going off. He didn’t open his eyes right away, taking a moment to be grateful that the world had once again reset around him. He was alive. His team was alive. And he was just a little bit closer to figuring this whole situation out. For a moment he wondered if, maybe the reason this day kept repeating was that it was too complex to be solved all at once. Perhaps there was some outside force putting him through these paces, watching as he got it wrong over and over again and laughing at him. If he were in a movie, that would certainly be the case. He’d have to keep doing this over and over and over again until he got it completely right.


But this wasn’t a movie. This was just another chapter in an already strange life. And he still believed the way to get to tomorrow was to figure out what was causing this repeat of todays and stop it. Which meant he could completely dismiss Clint if he wanted. Clint wasn’t part of this, he was just an agent with a head cold.


Except that he wasn’t just an agent with a head cold. He was Clint Barton. And he was in need. And even though it had nothing to do with the 0-8-4 and would take time out of his personal mission, he felt the need to confide in Clint again this time around.


Assuming he made it out of bed eventually.


As the buzzer came again, he dragged himself out from under the covers. On came the bathrobe. On went the slippers. And out came the tissue box. He pressed the intercom button and mouthed along to the words that came through the bronze speaker beside the door, “Agent Coulson, it’s me.”


Coulson realized he was smiling. “Come on up, Agent Barton.” This time, he pulled two tissues out of the box to start with and had them at the ready when he opened the door to his apartment.


Barton almost literally fell face-first into them. Hahh-Ktshhhhh!


Clint started to rock back with a breath, then forward again less than a second later with the second sneeze. Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


“Bless you,” Coulson said, letting a surprised Clint take the tissues for him.


“Th-thanks.” Clint sniffled and wiped at his nose. “How did you know, Sir?”


“I’m stuck in a time loop. You sneeze like this every morning. Come in, Agent Barton. Let me take care of you again.”


Was Coulson imagining the flush in Clint’s cheeks?  He pressed the back of his hand to Clint’s forehead. “Just a bad cold,” Clint mumbled. “I don’t think I’m feverish, but you can check. Sniff! Sniff! I would have called Natasha, but I can’t get in touch with her. She’s on some mission in Bulgaria or something like that. I should… hehhh… hahh-KTShhhhhh!” He caught the sneeze in the tissues he’d taken from Coulson, now already balled-up in his palm and looked over at the box in Coulson’s hand. “You… you really did know, didn’t you? You’re actually in a time loop?”


“I am.” Coulson gestured toward the couch. Clint sat down, and Coulson sat down next to him. “Do you believe me?”


Clint shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I guess it could be possible. What happens today?”


“Different things. Usually I set you up on my couch here and then head to the museum after Agent Hill calls about an 0-8-4.”


“Agent Hill calls?”


Coulson’s cell phone buzzed. He took it out of his pocket and, after a moment’s hesitation, offered it to Clint.


Skeptically, Clint took it, pressed the button to answer, and lifted it to his ear. “Agent Coulson’s phone.”


Coulson listened to Clint’s side of the conversation, knowing what was happening on the other end.


“An object at the museum? He’s supposed to be off this week.”


A pause. Clint looked at Coulson, eyes narrowing. “I’ll tell him. He’ll call you back.” When he hung up, he set the phone down on the couch between them. “An 0-8-4 at the museum.” He reached over and pulled a tissue out of the tissue box in Coulson’s lap. “Heh… heh-Kurshhhh! Sniff! This isn’t an elaborate joke, is it?”


“Not one of my making.” He took his phone back from Clint. “Do I call her back and tell her I am on the case?”


Clint helped himself to another tissue. “Only if I get to come with you.”


Coulson hadn’t been expecting that. “Clint, you’re sick. You came here because you didn’t feel well.”


“That’s not the only reason I came here, but if you’re really in a time loop, I am sure you know that.” Clint sniffled and rubbed the tissue at his nose. “I’ll wait for you to get dressed. Then we can head over to the museum.”


“I’m sorry, who’s the senior agent here? You’re sick, Clint. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable staying here? You usually nap here while I’m out, then I bring you back some cold medicine, because you’ve run out.”


“I have run out.” Clint gave a laugh. “What a day to be stuck in a time loop!”


Coulson smiled.  “You’re the one with the cold, not me.” He got up and head to the bedroom to change. “All I do each day is die.”


“What?” Clint called from down the hallway, probably to make sure he had heard properly. Coulson just chuckled. Though he knew Clint should stay put and relax, he wasn’t opposed to the idea of getting the agent’s feedback on this case. Clint was far more observant than any S.H.I.E.L.D. agent he’d ever worked with before; that was one of the pleasures of being the man’s handler. Maybe that was even one of the reason he had agreed to the op on the docks that first day. Working with Clint wasn’t like working with anyone else. There was an intensity, a passion. Even when things were strange or went wrong, Clint took it in stride. And Clint had certainly seen a lot of strange and wrong. Maybe he’d catch something no one else had so far. He’d managed to catch a cold, after all.


Coulson called Hill back and told her he and Agent Barton were about to head over to the museum to check out the suspicious object. He put on his usual shirt, suit, and tie, slipping a few handkerchiefs into his pocket as well, just in case. It seemed likely Clint would need them, especially when Coulson returned to the living room. Clint was curled on his side, shoes on the couch, used tissues accumulating on the floor already. HehShhhh! Heh… heh-Ketchhh! H’Chshhhh!” He looked up at Coulson for a second before his eyes shut, features drew together, nose wrinkled, nostrils flared. “Hehh… hehhKETShhhh! H’Shuhhh!” His large nose filled the tissue when he rubbed then blew his nose.


“You don’t have to do this. You can stay here and mess up my apartment some more.”


With a slight groan, Clint pushed off from the cushions and got to his feet. “I’m… I… I… ihhh-Chuhhhh! hihKushhhhh!” Clint’s running, twitching nose disappeared behind a whole handful of tissues. His eyes squinted shut as he blew his nose hard repeatedly. Then he grabbed the tissue box and cleared his throat. “I’m right behind you, Sir.”


It was impossible to miss that fact. Clint didn’t stop sneezing the entire way to the museum. Coulson took hold of his arm, keeping him going when they crossed the street and a particularly strong bout of sneezes just happened to hit when the light changed. Knowing that telling Clint he didn’t have to come along was pointless now, Coulson merely waited patiently for the sneezing to subside. He pulled Clint over to the side of the museum building, shielding the man from oncoming onlookers on the sidewalk by standing close in front of him.


HihhShuh! hehKetchhh! Huh-hehh… heh-ktchihhh! huhhh... huh-HUH—” He froze in place, tissue pressed against his nostrils. They both waited, expecting a strong sneeze that never came. Clint snuffled then rubbed his nose against the back of his gloved hand. “Excuse me.” He smiled sheepishly, as if that were a joke.


Coulson smiled back. “Ready to see what’s been driving me crazy for the past four days?”


Clint nodded and followed behind again. Coulson walked through the busy museum, snaking around groups, slipping between people wandering around with museum maps in front of their faces. He kept glancing over his shoulder, not wanting to lose Clint. Halfway across the large entrance hall, he felt Clint’s hand on his shoulder. Then he felt the man pressed against his back. He wasn’t going to lose Clint now.


“Oof!” Coulson looked down to see the little girl pulling back from having collided with him. She looked shocked as she pulled away then ran past him to catch up with her father.




Coulson watched her go.


“Sir, is there something wrong?”


Coulson took a breath. “There’s a lot wrong, Agent. Come on.”


Coulson showed his ID and got them both past the security guard into the authorized personnel only section. He led Clint down the hall to the familiar research lab. The hallways were busy, but not crowded enough for Clint to have to walk as close as before. Yet Clint stayed pressed up to Coulson’s back, so close that Coulson could hear him sniffling. Clint shouldn’t have come. He should have been back at the apartment, tucked under blankets. At this rate, Clint would never get better.


When they got to the lab, Clint broke off, attracted at once to the object. It was no surprise. Coulson had seen this three times already, and each time the sight of the large metal object with its rounded top, its teal and purple energy threads, and its shiny silver surface was hard to look away from. Coulson stuck his hand out to the head researcher. “Dr. Daniels, I’m Agent Coulson, here to take possession of this object.”


“Possession? Good luck with that. This energy is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I recommend no one get any closer to the object. It could be dangerous. This device is a complete mystery to us so it has the potential to do an unmeasurable amount of damage.” Dr. Daniels kept glancing from the object to Coulson and back again as he talked, nervous and unsure.


Clint looked hesitant as well. “Sir, maybe you should just let it alone and see what happens?”


“The last time I did that, the entire city exploded.”


Clint took a step forward, taking a closer look at the 0-8-4. “I think I’ve seen something like this before, Sir.” The strands of energy surged, dancing as if excited.


“Really? Where?”


“During the Battle of New York.”


Dr. Daniels nodded emphatically. “Yes, that makes sense. The object was recovered from wreckage after that battle.”


S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had been on the scene after the battle almost immediately. So much alien tech as well as alien bodies themselves had come through that portal; they couldn’t take a chance of any of it ending up in the hands of civilians who could get hurt or—worse—misuse it. With all the giant alien beast corpses, the alien weaponry, and the alien ships, of course something this small might go on the end of the priority list, especially if it wasn’t active. Someone could have just mistaken it for a giant thermos.


“What did you see it doing during the battle?”


Clint shook his head. “I don’t remember it exactly, but the colors of this… this energy…” He lifted his hand to his nose and pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “H’nghtt!” he stifled his sneeze, then let out a loud breath afterward. “It just looks familiar. I remember seeing these zipping… through the… the sky d-dur… during the… the bah…. bat.. Battle.” Finally, he turned, eyes snapping closed. “H’ngftt! Huhhhhhhhhhhhhh.


Clint’s restrained sneezes were so loud Coulson wondered why he even bothered trying. Maybe he would try to remember to tell this to Clint the next time they were alone.


For now, though, Coulson just waited out the the sneezes. Huh… huh-K’ngxxxt! Hurhhhhhhhh!” Clint stumbled forward, and the energy grew noticeably by inches. It couldn’t be a coincidence.


“Clint, step back.” When the agent did, the arcs of the strands decreased in size. “Now move closer again.” Back the energy came, increasing in size as well as intensity. It was reacting to Clint in the opposite way it reacted to Coulson. Fitz-Simmons had said there were small energy readings whenever Coulson got near, but there hadn’t been any of this visual display. He wondered what their instruments would be reading now with Clint so close. And he wondered what would happen if Clint were to touch the device. “Try picking it up.”


An uproar among the researchers suggested quite strenuously that this was a terrible idea. Even Clint looked wary for a moment. But then he locked eyes with Coulson and saw something there. Coulson knew Clint wasn’t about to refuse a direct order but, more than that, he trusted Coulson in a way he didn’t trust many. That was one reason he’d shown up at the man’s apartment, in need of some care when he didn’t feel so good. And now Coulson was asking him to test a theory that could put him in harm’s way or even end his life if the day didn’t reset. How much did he actually believe the story about the time loop? How strongly did he believe in Coulson?


Clint reached out. The moment his fingertips brushed against the smooth metal curve of the object, the laboratory exploded.


Chapter 6


The buzzing woke Coulson out of sleep, making him sit up in a cold panic, gasping for breath, but he couldn’t just leap right into the day as if nothing had happened to him. What had happened was almost too terrible to believe. He had just sacrificed Agent Clint Barton—Hawkeye, one of the Avengers—for a chance to prove a theory. The fact that the theory had held up didn’t entirely justify his actions, but it did give him something new to go on. He needed time to figure out what that truly meant. It couldn’t be a great sign that someone in a time loop was desperate for more time. Coulson wondered how many more of these he was going to have to go through—how many more deaths, how much more there was going to be to this mystery.


With a sigh, Coulson climbed out of bed, skipping the bathrobe and slippers this time but remembering the tissue box; that was going to be essential every day. Double sneezes. Every day was starting with Clint Barton and his double sneezes. The other elements around him seemed less important at the moment. He pressed the intercom button and said, in sync with Clint over the speaker, “Agent Coulson, it’s me.” Though he had known it would be Clint, of course, it was still a relief to know the man was not actually dead. The guilt over what he had done to Clint lingered in his mind, and he vowed that today he would put it right. Today he would try to figure out what the device was about, but he would also do everything he could for Clint. And, today, everything began with a whole handful of tissues to catch Clint’s double sneezes.


He opened his door to find Clint standing there, hand raised as if about to knock. But instead of knocking, he snapped forward. Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” It almost seemed for a moment that he would stop there this time, but Coulson wasn’t fooled. He kept the tissues up and ready when Clint sneezed into them again. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


Coulson waited until after the second sneeze to say, “Bless you,” followed by, “Coming down with a cold, are you?”


Clint snuffled into the tissues before pulling back and shaking his head. “I’ve had it for a few days now. Can’t seem to get rid of it.”


“Have you tried cold medicine?” He’d meant it in fun, because of course he knew Clint had.


Somehow, Clint got the joke and chuckled. “Ran out. Sniff! Sniff!


“Of course you did.” He reached out and put a hand on Clint’s shoulder, drawing him inside the apartment so that Coulson could shut and lock the door behind them just to be safe. His hand slipped down to Clint’s upper arm and he pulled Clint across the living room, depositing on the man on the couch. He went down to his knees at once and pulled Clint’s sneakers off for him, one at a time. Then, with a hand on Clint’s chest, he gave the man a little push so Clint lay back against the couch cushions. Clint coughed in surprise but he did not protest. “I don’t have any cold medicine here, but I can make a quick trip to the grocery store later this morning to pick up anything you want. And I have a feeling you want a lot.”


Clint took the tissue box from him, helped himself to a tissue, and then plated his face into it. Huh… uhhhh huhSchhhhhh!” He gave his nose a cursory rub with the tissue. “This is a good start,” he told Coulson.


Coulson’s phone buzzed. Every time he tried to get things under his control, something else happened that threw another unexpected variable into the equation that was today. Knowing it was pointless to ignore the call, he settled on the floor beside the couch and answered. “Agent Coulson here. Go ahead, Agent Hill.”


On the other end, Hill said exactly what Coulson expected her to say. “There’s a situation at the New York City Science Museum, an employee has reported a new 0-8-4. I hate to ask, but our resources are stretched at the moment and you’re close, aren’t you?”


For one brief moment, Coulson considered telling her no. No, he couldn’t do it. Have someone else retrieve the unknown object and bring it to him so that it could babysit both the 0-8-4 and the oh-so-sneezy Agent Barton. But, of course, he knew he couldn’t do that. What would happen if someone else tried to pick up the object? Probably nothing good. It was a close call between Clint and all of New York City… but in the end, he was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and was always going to make the choice that saved the world. “I’m only a few blocks away. I can be there in no time. But this has got to be the last thing I get called back for while on vacation. And that means telling Fury that his favorite trusty marksman is not available this afternoon either. Agent Barton currently holed up on my couch with a big box of tissues and a bad head cold.”


Clint’s timing could not have been any better if he had planned it. He launched forward in his seat with a strong, “hiht-KETChuhhhhh! HehhSshhhihh!


“I see. I mean, I hear.”


“Glad that you do, Agent Hill. I’ll go after that 0-8-4 now. I’ve got a protective case right here with its name on it.” When he hung up, he could have sworn Clint was pouting. But Avengers did not pout. Okay, maybe Tony Stark did from time to time, but the others didn’t. Coulson gave him a reassuring smile. “I have a mission, but it’s a quick one—just a simple retrieval job. I’ll be back before noon. And before I go, I’ll make sure you’re set up here and comfortable. Give me two minutes.” He headed to the bedroom, got dressed in his usual suit with his usual tie, but made sure to slip a handkerchief into his pocket as well. His next stop was the linen closet. With his arms full of blankets and pillows, he headed back to the living room.


Clint lay curled on his side, shivering and hugging the tissue box to his chest. Hehhh… hahh-Uhshuhhh! Sniff!” Despite the tissue box at hand, he didn’t even make a move toward it when he sneezed. Maybe his nose was too sore or maybe he was too cold to uncurl. Whatever the reason, Coulson pretended he didn’t have a problem with a man spraying germs all over his apartment. He slipped the two pillows into pillowcases and set them on the arm of the couch closest to Clint’s head. Then he covered Clint with one, two, and three blankets. He tucked the blankets tightly around the man’s body then rubbed his hand up and down Clint’s upper arm through the blankets.


“A little better?”


Clint relaxed with a gentle sigh. He stopped shivering a few seconds later. “Better,” he agreed sleepily.


“Good. Now get some rest while I’m gone. I’ll be back with more tissues, cold medicine, and orange juice.”


“I like the kind without pulp.”


Coulson knew this of course, but he pretended he was learning it for the first tine. “So noted. Try to get some sleep while I’m gone. And if you think of anything else you need, send me a text. Got it, Agent?”


Snffling as he closed his eyes, Clint nodded. “Yes, Sir.”


Coulson wasn’t even across the room when his phone buzzed. He took it out and looked at the text message: Thank you Coulson. Chuckling, Coulson put his phone back in his pocket. “You’re welcome. Just rest and feel better.”


Heading out of the apartment building was harder than it usually was. He kept wanting to go back up and make sure Clint was all right. He stood outside his apartment building and looked up toward his apartment, thinking about Clint. He even took his phone out, considering calling the man to make sure he was all right, maybe by asking some stupid question about what kind of tissues he liked best. But before he could make the call, his phone buzzed. Of course it was Clint: Get going. I am fine.


Coulson smiled and went. He hit walk signs as he crossed the street at each block, as if that were a sign he could trust that this was the right thing to be doing. He paused once at a drug store, wondering if he should just pop in and buy some medicine, but then he remembered that text Clint had sent him and continued on to the museum. As he walked through the busy entrance hall, however, he got a text that he paused to read: Peppermint tea.


Coulson cocked his head. Peppermint tea? That was his first request? Well, at least it was easy enough.


Still smirking about it, Coulson headed into the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY section of the museum by way of the security guard stationed there. He followed the crowd swarming toward the research laboratory where the 0-8-4 was being held. The moment he set eyes on the object again, he wondered if its great display of blue and purple threads of dancing energy would ever get less impressive. Sure, he wasn’t thrilled that it was making him live this day over and over again, but he had to admit that without it, he would have been dead at the docks from a gunshot wound and Clint would be out both a handler and a caretaker.


His phone buzzed again, and Coulson chuckled to himself. Nice timing, Clint. He checked it: cough drops.


Then, a few seconds later: honey or herbal ones.


Though he already knew this, he couldn’t tell Clint that. Instead, he texted back: You should be trying to sleep.


He didn’t expect a reply, but he got one: I tried. The sneezes keep coming. Come back with tissues.


Before Coulson could send a reply, one more text came through: Lots and lots of tissues.


As he put his phone away, Coulson realized he had been smiling like an idiot this whole time. Some of the researchers were staring at him, but not as many as when he walked over to the 0-8-4 and picked it up. The anticipated gasps came from all around. “Agent Coulson from S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he said, as he put the object into its case. “I believe someone called us this morning?”


Dr. Daniels stepped forward. “I did.” He stuck his hand out for Coulson to shake.


“Thank you notifying us about the object. We’ll take it from here. Could you make sure your research notes get sent to me and my team?” Coulson said all of this while shaking the doctor’s hand.


Dr. Daniels looked stunned. “Oh, all right.”


And Coulson took off. Not until he was crossing the entrance hall again did he remember about the little girl who had bumped into him. He just so happened to spot her across the hall. She was sitting on her father’s shoulders, delighting at looking at a display of metal birds dangling from the second story balcony above her head. She raised her arms up, trying to touch one, but they were up far too high. Her fingers flexed and wiggled hopefully. Coulson hoped she wouldn’t be too disappointed when she realized she would never be able reach. Still, her father patted her ankles reassuringly.


Once outside on the city streets again, Coulson found his phone buzzing again. He wished he were more surprised. He checked his texts and saw: Did I mention orange juice?


Coulson rolled his eyes. He reached the city supermarket and took an escalator down into it while texting back: You did. No pulp. It’s practically in the cart now.


He was certain Clint was going to get no sleep at all this morning, which probably should have been obvious that first day when he’d seen the way Clint had sneezed his way through the whole box of tissues. Clint would definitely need more of those. So Coulson rounded up all the usual suspects in the grocery store, filling his cart quickly with item after item. Once again the cold medicine threw him. There were too many choices. Obviously what he’d bought before hadn’t cleared Clint up the way he’d hoped. Maybe it was time to try something stronger.


“Got a cold?”


“What?” Coulson turned and found an older woman with dusty gray hair standing there, a heavy basket of vegetables clutched in her hands.


The woman nodded toward his cart. “Tissues, orange juice—looks like everything you need to fight a bad cold. Do you have one?”


He shook his head. “No, my…” How did one describe Clint Barton? The Avenger who just showed up on my doorstep this morning has a cold? Or the excellent marksman who is probably making a mess of my apartment right now has one? Or maybe the man I’ve known for years but have only recently just discovered I might have feelings for because he kissed me as I was dying has a cold? “My friend has a cold. I’m picking up some things for him.”


“That’s so nice of you,” she said. “If you’re feeling indecisive about what to get, I can recommend the NyQuil.”


Coulson located that on the shelf and immediately made it part of his cart. “Thank you.”


He checked out and left, glad that the building and the city had not exploded yet, and glad that he was heading home. His hands were so full of bags he almost couldn’t manage the lock for the building’s door. He hit the wrong button in the elevator and had to wait through an extra floor before getting to the penthouse. And then he had to put down a few of the bags to get the key in the lock of his door and put his finger on the thumb panel at the same time. The retina scan was easier to manage, requiring him to just lean forward and not blink for a second. S.H.I.E.L.D. security measures had always made him feel safe before. But that was before he had brought an 0-8-4 home.


Huhhh… huhhh-IHShuhhhhh! Uhhh… Hehshhhhhh!


“Is that your way of saying welcome home?” Coulson asked, hauling all of the bags inside and dropping them on the kitchen counter.


Clint sat up on the couch, rubbing the back of his hand at his nose. Sniff! Sniff! Did yousniff! Did you get tissues?


Realizing he had forgotten the trash can from the bathroom and a stern reminder about not leaving tissues all over the floor, Coulson looked over to see Clint on the couch, an island amid a thick sea of tissues. Realizing he didn’t really care that much, Coulson brought a box of tissues out of one bag and threw it over the counter and across the living room to Clint, who actually caught it. The man wasn’t an Avenger and former circus performer for nothing.


“Thah… huh… ihhhhhh… uhh-HuhhShhhh! HehShuhhhh!” Clint ripped open the box far too late to catch those sneezes, but he buried his face in tissues by the third. “Huh huhfshhhh!” He coughed and blew his nose until Coulson joined him in the living room. Coulson sat on the edge of the couch with the bottle of NyQuil. He carefully poured a capful and handed it over to Clint, who just stared at it.


“Did you or did you not want cold medicine?”


Clint melted back against his pillows and lay down again. “Is that the only thing you bought?”


Coulson had to admit the bright green wasn’t particularly comforting, and this stuff never tasted very good, but medicine wasn’t supposed to taste delicious; that’s how you knew it was working. “I’ve got some nasal spray and cough drops in the bags somewhere.”


Clint looked longingly over at the bags. “I guess I’ll sniff make those work. I can’t take NyQuil, Sir.”


Coulson looked down at the cup of green in his hand. “Can’t or won’t?”


Hehhh… hehhh-KITChhhhh!” Clint sneezed freely, as if he didn’t have a tissue box right there in his hands.


“Because, I’ve got to say, you look and sound like you need some cold medicine. And, coincidentally, I’ve got some right here in my hand…” He held the cap out toward Clint again.


But Clint shook his head, sniffling. “Coulsod… there’s alcohol id that. Huhh… huhh-KIHShhhhh!” Finally, with his nose dripping, he helped himself to tissues to blow and wipe his nose repeatedly.


“There’s a small amount, yes, but I’ve taken you off active duty with S.H.I.E.L.D. and unless you’re planning on driving a car just now, which I wouldn’t recommend with you sneezing like this, it shouldn’t be a problem.”


Clint turned his head toward the pillow and sniffled a few more times, not meeting Coulson’s eyes.


So, of course, Coulson felt as though he had missed something important here he should have known. “Clint?”


“My dad was an alcoholic. You know my file backwards and forwards. Sniff! Sniff! I thought you knew that.


Damn it. He had known. “You don’t—”


“I don’t. Sniff! Sniff!


“I’ve seen you drink on operations.”


Clint gave him a weak smile. “Looks like my act was too sniff convincing. Hehhh… hah HUHShuhhh!


“Bless you.” Coulson poured the bright green liquid back into the bottle and set the whole thing aside, out of sight where it wouldn’t bother Clint. “I’ll go get you some other brand.”


“No.” With the quickest reflexes Coulson had ever seen, Clint reached out and put a hand on Coulson’s shoulder. “No, you just got home. Stay.” He sniffed hard. “I can make-do with sniff with whatever else you got for me. Hehhh… hehhh-Uhschhhhhh!


Coulson patted the back of Clint’s hand. “As long as you’re sure.”


Clint nodded, though he didn’t seem to have convinced himself, let alone Coulson. So Coulson got up and brought the bags over. He handed things to Clint, one item at a time, until Clint was buried under everything and trying to hold back his laughter. He looked out from between two boxes of tissues. “I’m sure. But maybe not everything all at once?” Coulson helped to un-bury him.


“Did you get anything for lunch?”


“You’re hungry!” Coulson stood up. “That’s a great sign. Classic chicken soup coming right up.” Coulson donned a blue and off-white striped apron he kept on a hook in the kitchen by the pantry. He tied it on with a bow in the back then got out the can of Campbell’s chicken noodle. He poured it into a pot, filled the can with water, and poured that into the pot as well. As it simmered on the stove, he got out a tray, big bowl, and soup spoon. He found a sleeve of Saltine crackers and added that to the tray. “Soup’s on.”


Ihhh.. Huhh… huhhUhtchhhh!


“Blow your nose!” Coulson called back toward the living room.


Clint obeyed the order. And he sounded miserable doing it, poor guy.


There was no hurrying the watched pot on the stove, so Coulson stood there, forearms resting on the counter, head bowed. The warmth of the stove was a comfort, as was the promise of food and some normalcy on a day that was anything but normal. He wasn’t even that hungry. But the smell of the soup cooking made his mouth water. There would be enough in the pot for them both to have some. Coulson got out a second spoon and a mug for himself. He tidied up around the kitchen while waiting. And he took the useless bottle of NyQuil to the bathroom medicine cabinet, returning with the mini trash can, which he plopped on the floor right next to the couch. Better late than never, even in a time loop.


When the soup was finally ready, Coulson poured it into the cup and the bowl and carried the tray over to Clint. “Sit up,” he told Clint, who was buried under blankets again.


“Don’t want to. Cold. Shivery.” Clint slipped down further beneath the blankets with a pathetic sniffle.


Coulson countered with, “Do it anyway. Hot. Soup.”


Peaking out from under the blankets, Clint still looked reluctant. “I don’t want soup. Can we order a pizza?”


“You’re sick, so you’re getting soup. I slaved over a hot stove for something like fifteen minutes to make this, so you’re going to eat it. Unless you’re actually a vegetarian and I never noticed because of your superb acting skills?”


Reluctantly, Clint took the chicken soup. He crumbled up some crackers into it before taking his first taste. And once he did, he went back for a second spoonful and a third directly afterward.


“I take it that means you like it?” Coulson asked, settling into the armchair with his steaming mug of soup and a spoon.


“Don’t get your pretty… hah… heh-Huhshhhhh! Don’t get your pretty apron in a bunch. It’s good. It’s no pizza, but it’s good.” He had another spoonful. “Pizza for dinner?”


“We’ll see.”


Hehgood hahhh… huh-HShhhhhh! Huhhhh… huhh-KTSSchhhh! Oh… crap. I can’t… huhhh” Clint made a grab for the tissues and buried his nose in a whole bunch of them. “Hehhhh huh-Uhtchhh! Huhshhhhh! Huh-huh… huhh-Uhshhhh! Huh… huhhh…” he wavered, lifting his head up from the tissues for a second. His tongue poked at his bottom lip. His nostrils quivered. Then he fell forward, nose meeting the handful of tissues again. “Huhh… huf… huhhhh-Kehshhhhh!” Coulson remained there, nose in the tissues, taking sniffly, deep breaths, until he was apparently sure he wasn’t going to sneeze again. He gave his nose a hard wipe then lifted his head. He looked relieved for about a second before snapping forward. ”Scuse… huh-huh-UHShhhhhh!


“Bless you!” Coulson said, whistling. “I’ve seen you sneeze a lot, but that was damn impressive.”


Clint looked down at his lunch and made a face. He helped himself to another couple tissues and blew his nose. Then he looked up at Coulson, sniffling. “You’re sure you don’t sniff, sniff, have any cold medicine lying about in a suitcase somewhere or something?


“I’m absolutely sure.”


“Want to go check?”


Coulson gritted his teeth and tried to stay positive, though Clint was starting to not make that so easy. “Want to try some nasal spray?”


Clint shrugged in a noncommittal way. “Guess so.” He reached over to the coffee table for it and the tray on his lap tilted just a little too much. Coulson made a dive for it but wasn’t fast enough to keep it from spilling. “Damn it!” The whole thing wasn’t lost, but it was enough to soak a blanket, a bit of the couch, and the carpet.


Coulson set his mug down on a coaster on the coffee table and then went for his dish towel. “Didn’t burn yourself, did you?”


Clint shrugged again. Squatting down next to the couch, Coulson took a look at Clint’s hands. He looked all right, though the backs of two fingers were a little red. “I’ll get some cream for those.” He cleaned up the mess and went back to his bathroom. His medicine cabinet was just as bare as his pantry and fridge, but he did have an emergency first aid kit. He had to wait for Clint to finish blowing his nose again before he could apply the cream to the slightly burned area. “I take it you don’t want any more soup?”


Clint sniffled and shook his head. “I’m not too hungry anyway.”


This statement earned Clint an eye roll, though Coulson bent his head so Clint couldn’t see it. With the spill cleaned up and the burn treated, Coulson plucked the nasal spray off the table and put it in Clint’s hands. “There you go.”


Clint tore open the box, broke off the plastic safety seal, and shoved the tip up his right nostril. But he pulled it out a second later, face screwing up. Huhhh… huhhUshhhh! HuhSchhhhh!” He blew his nose, then he tried again, inserting the end. This time, he managed to push the end down once to release a squirt into his nose. He tried to inhale at the same time, but his nose was far too stuffed up with cold. He coughed and pulled the bottle of nasal spray out immediately. Between the coughs there were sniffles and between sniffles there were “h’TSHHHH!” short, urgent sneezes. He thrust the nasal spray back at Coulson. “Dod’t wadt this either,” Clint told him.


“How about cough drops?”


Clint shook his head. “Throat doesn’t hurt right now. But I… I… huhhh…. Huhhh huh-Ihkschhhh!


Of course it didn’t. He’d asked for cough drops and now he said he didn’t need them. Glorious. And Coulson knew the one thing he needed, Coulson hadn’t managed to get. It was no wonder Clint was miserable, but he wasn’t making it easy for Coulson to help him. “All right. But you’re still feeling sneezy?”


This time, Clint nodded. And sniffed hard three times. And nodded again.


Without cold medicine, Coulson didn’t have too many options to offer. “Would you like to take a shower?” Clint narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Hot steam will help clear you up a little.”


Clint was either easy to persuade or desperate, because he headed to the bathroom, stripping off items of clothing as he walked there. Coulson watched him go, shaking his head. He stripped off the top, soiled blanket. He was out of blankets, but he could give Clint the comforter off his own bed.


“Coulson?” Clint called from the bathroom. “How does your shower work?”


Coulson’s eyes narrowed as he walked back to the bathroom. “Turn on the water, then switch it to shower mode in the up position.” Pretty much like every other shower on the planet.


“Which way is the hot water?”


In addition to the muffled voice, Coulson could hear sniffling through the bathroom door. “Turn it to the left, Clint.” He heard the water streaming from the faucet. Then he heard the spray of water coming down as a shower. He stood outside the door, arms crossed over his chest, waiting and listening, just wanting to be sure Clint was doing all right. One strong sneeze and he could slip and fall and kill himself. Coulson had been through a handful of deaths now, none of them great. But slipping in the shower because of a sneeze had to be close to the bottom of the list of preferable deaths.


Coulson headed to his bedroom for the comforter and ended up sitting down on the end of the bed. He listened to the faint sound of Clint sneezing and the water running and no shriek and thump as the man fell. Certain Clint had made it through that sneeze safely, Coulson fell back on the bed. The mission at the docks. The trip to the museum. The investigation into the 0-8-4. Coulson had been through a lot lately, but today was more exhausting than everything so far.


He took out his trusty cell phone and made a call to Agent Hill. “I successfully took possession of the 0-8-4,” he told her.


“Good work, Sir. We received the research and tests from the museum and sent it to your team, as requested.”


“I have another request.” This was met by such an uncomfortable pause Coulson worried the call might have dropped.


“Go ahead, Agent Coulson.”


“Bulgaria. I need you to connect me to our team in Bulgaria.”


“I can’t just—”


He cut her off, “It’s important. You know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t have a reason. I have to contact Agent Romanov on an urgent matter.”


“She’s undercover.”


“Without a phone?”


Agent Hill sighed. “Fine. I’ll do my best to get you through, but if it interferes with the operation, it’s on your head. Agent Fury won’t be happy.”


“Forget Agent Fury. Agent Romanov will kill me.” He heard Clint sneeze again from inside the bathroom. “But I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t desperate.”


He hung up and stared up at the ceiling of his bedroom. Thanks to these time loops, Coulson was starting to get used to waking up to this sight every day instead of his room on the bus. Thinking of his team, he gave Ward a call. “Did Fitz-Simmons get the museum research about the 0-8-4 from S.H.I.E.L.D.?”


“They’re analyzing it right now, but they say it would be easier if they had the object in front of them.”


Coulson listened to the shower still running and the sneezes still coming from inside the bathroom. And he thought about the way his desperation to figure this out had made him order Clint to his death in the previous loop. It still didn’t sit well with him. It wasn’t as though taking care of the man today would help him atone, especially as Clint didn’t realize anything had happened. But it did ease his conscience just a little. Not to mention that it felt good to be doing something, to make some difference. And it felt good to be with Clint as well, in a situation where they weren’t facing life or death or he wasn’t barking orders through the comms. “I know it would, but I can’t get it to you just now.”


“Something else has come up? Do you need assistance, Sir?” He sounded eager, and Coulson knew it must be killing him to be waiting around while the scientists did their thing. Ward would rather be in there doing what he did best: kicking butt.


But he couldn’t kick Clint’s cold’s butt, so Coulson was forced to decline the offer. “Thanks, but no. I’ll let you know if I need you—” His phone buzzed. It had to be Agent Romanov. “Hang on a second, would you, Agent Ward? I have another call coming through.”


Ward waited as Coulson answered. “Yes, hello?”


Natasha spoke softly but sharply, “This had better be important, Agent Coulson. I’m deep undercover and taking a risk just using this phone. What are you calling about?”


All of a sudden, Coulson wasn’t sure how to answer. He knew how it would sound if he said ‘Clint’s gone all sneezy on me and I need you advice’ or ‘How fast can you be on a plane back to the states with some tissues?’ But he also knew that Clint’s constant demands were beginning to drive him crazy. He’d gone to all this trouble to talk with Natasha, and Ward was still on hold on the other line, so he had to say something. “It’s about Clint.”


She went so quiet Coulson had to lower his phone and look to make sure the line hadn’t gone dead. “When?” she finally said, softly. And then, with a little more feeling, “Who?”


“No!” Coulson exclaimed at once. “No, he’s fine! Well, he’s not fine of course. That’s why I’m calling. But he’s not dead.” At least, not unless he spilled any more soup on Coulson’s couch. Or not unless he touched the 0-8-4, but Coulson was going to do his damnedest to make sure that never happened again. “He, ah, he’s come down with a cold—” Coulson stopped short because, at that, Natasha let out a loud, unrestrained laugh.


He tried to think back, but he couldn’t remember ever hearing her laugh before when she wasn’t undercover on a mission, laughing on purpose. Natasha Romanov, Black Widow and member of the Avengers, simply did not laugh.


“Oh, Agent Coulson, you’ve suddenly made me happy to be in Bulgaria.”


He hadn’t been expecting that. “I thought you usually took care of him.”


“Only because once we were undercover as a married couple when he caught a cold. He was so demanding that it was all I could do to keep from killing him and blowing both our covers. But I guess he considered it an act of friendship that I cared that much about him and now whenever he feels so much as a sniffle coming on, he shows up on my doorstep, expecting me to look after him. He’s okay on his own the first couple days, but after that he gets lonely and starts feeling worse, probably because he sucks at taking medicine on time without someone there to shove it down his throat.” She paused and, when she resumed, her tone was much more sympathetic. “Oh, Agent Coulson. I’m so sorry. Clint with a cold is not a good combination. Where is he now?”


“My bathroom. I made him take a shower. He couldn’t stop sneezing.”


“That happens when he doesn’t take his medicine. Whatever you do, don’t get him NyQuil or DayQuil. He won’t take those.” Clint closed his eyes, wishing he had thought to call her before. She knew Clint in ways Coulson couldn’t even imagine. “And keep him warm. I still don’t know why he insists on going around sleeveless all the time, but when he has a cold, he gets the chills, whether he’ll admit it or not.”


“The bigger problem is that he’s admitting too much. And making demands. I’m thinking of bringing in an FBI negotiator at this point.”


“It won’t help, I guarantee it,” she said, laughing again. It was the strangest, most unnatural sound Coulson had heard all day and it put him on edge. If this were bad enough to make Natasha Romanov laugh, Coulson wanted no part of it, that was for sure. Except that… he felt for the guy. And, yes, Clint was getting annoying and demanding, but Coulson still wanted to be with him and look after him. He’d even chosen Clint over his team this time around. His team. Ward was still on the other line.


“I called to find out how I should handle Clint,” Coulson said, quickly. “Is there anything else I need to know?”


She was quiet again, maybe thinking or maybe hesitating to answer.


“Natasha, please. This shower of his isn’t going to last much longer.”


Finally, she replied, “He likes being touched.”


Once again, Coulson had not been expecting that. “I’m sorry? Our connection might be bad. Could you repeat that?”


“Touched. He likes being touched. He likes being looked after, which you know already because, obviously, he came to you. He likes knowing someone is there and likes feeling it. Usually he’s happy if I just pretend to feel his forehead every half an hour, but sometimes he needs more.”




“How are you at hugging, Agent Coulson?”


“I’ve never had any complaints.”


“Just let him know you’re there for him and not going anywhere, and the clinginess and neediness will subside. He’s only demanding when he’s worried about being left alone feeling miserable. He grew up in a circus with everyone around all the time. Sometimes he needs his quiet time, but when he’s sick, he needs anything he can get from people he trusts.”


“Got it. You’ve been a big help. Thank you. I hope I didn’t pull you out of anything important.”


“Nah, just trying to seduce a diplomat and steal a blood sample. Same old, same old.”


“Good work, Agent. Carry on.”


He smirked as she hung up. He wasn’t so sure about hugs, but this explained a lot about why exactly Clint showed up when and how he did this morning. And to show up and then be made to stay behind while Coulson headed off to the museum must have been a miserable, lonely time for Clint. Though it sounded like the man might be better off just going to the tower and letting the other Avengers look after him. He had a feeling Pepper Potts wouldn’t make the mistake of bringing back NyQuil.


His phone buzzed at him and a small jolt of panic rushed through him as he remembered Ward had been waiting during that entire conversation. Coulson quickly resumed the call. “Hello?”


“Sir,” Ward said at once, “Fitz-Simmons figured something out. They’re right here. I’ll put you on speaker.”


“Yes,” Simmons said, sounding far away but otherwise clear. She spoke with a definitive air, confident and helpful. “Sir, the object gives out energy, enough energy that we can track it from here.”


“But I know where it is already. It’s here, in my apartment.”


“Aye,” Fitz inserted himself into the conversation with what sounded like haste. “But it’s not the only thing giving off that energy signature.”


Coulson went cold, feeling chills even though he didn’t have a fever or even a head cold like Clint’s. “What?”


“There’s something else with an almost identical reading showing up in our scans… and it’s not very far from your present location. We only have a general location, though. We’re working on honing in on it exactly.”


Coulson heard the water in the bathroom turn off, and he heard a loud huhh-CHISHHHHhhh!” sneeze now that the water wasn’t drowning out the sound of that.


“Call me immediately if you do.”


“Yes, Sir.”


Coulson hung up and went toward the bathroom, sliding his phone into his pocket as he went. “Clint?” he called. “I’ve got some warm clothes for you to change into if you want something clean.


The door to the bathroom opened and steam poured out around Clint, who stood there with only a towel wrapped around his waist and the side of his hand pressed under his nose Coulson got him a clean change of clothing, which was also the warmest and most comfortable thing he owned, guessing that Clint was not eager to try to fit himself into one of Coulson’s suits. Shivering, Clint put on the thick winter socks, gray sweat pants, white undershirt, and black hooded sweatshirt with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on the upper right hand side. Since his time at the academy, this had been Coulson’s workout outfit on days when it was cold out. He liked it big and baggy around him, so there was more than enough room for Clint, who was broader in places like the shoulders and arms. It didn’t take Clint more than ten seconds to sneeze into the sweatshirt’s sleeve, though, which made Coulson cringe, though he tried not to let Clint see his expression.


Huhhhh… HIHSchhhhh!” right into the sleeve, though at least he covered his nose.


Sighing, Coulson moved behind him, put two hands on his shoulders. “All right. You’re going back to the couch and your tissues.”


“Yeah… I ab.” He let Coulson urge him out of the bedroom and direct him back down the hallway to the couch where he curled up under the blankets instantly. Coulson forced tissues on him, then, hesitantly, sat down on the edge of the couhc and felt his forehead for a fever he knew Clint didn’t have.


A smile came to Clint’s face, albeit a brief one. “Ihhh… huhhh-Huhschhhh! Hershhhhhh!” He snuffled into his tissues.


“Did the shower help at all?”


“Little bit. I can breathe a little freer now. Sniff! Sniff! It was a good suggestion… even if I still feel sn… snee… sneezy huh huh-HEHSchhhhh! Hehschhhh! Huhchhhh!


“Bless—” Coulson was cut off by the phone buzzing in his pocket. Clint eyed the phone and retreated further under the blankets. Coulson put a hand on Clint’s arm through the blankets before answering the phone. “Coulson here.”


It was Fitz. “Sir, we’ve been able to narrow down the energy signature. There’s one coming from your apartment, and there is another one about six blocks away.”


Coulson looked down at Clint, snuffling and hiding under the blankets, and he glanced over at the 0-8-4 in its case. He remembered what Natasha had said about Clint not wanting to be alone. But if this day was ever to end, he had to figure out what the object was, and this might be his only chance. He took a deep breath and straightened his tie. “Give me the coordinates, Fitz.” He thanked her and hung up.


One of Clint’s eyes poked out from under the blankets. “You’re going?”


Coulson nodded. “I have to. My team’s got a lead on this 0-8-4.”


“Can’t it huh… huh Uhshhhhh! Sniff! Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”


“It really can’t.” He rubbed his hand up and down Clint’s arm through the blankets. “You can come with me if you want, but I figured you weren’t feeling up to it.”


Sniffling, Clint sat up. “I’ve sniff, sniff got your back.


Coulson hadn’t counted on Clint coming along, especially once he remembered how much Clint had sneezed on their way to the docks that first day. “Then let’s go.”


There was something essentially wrong with Clint wearing his quiver over Coulson’s sweatshirt. He’d considered changing, but he had shivered so much they both decided that wasn’t a good idea. So there was Hawkeye, equipped with a bow and arrows, wearing Agent Coulson’s worn sweats and pulling tissues out of the front pocket of the hoodie. Coulson did his best to not laugh and also not thinking about dying as he led them out into the cold city streets.


He tried to hail a cab, but not a single one came near them; Coulson had no doubt the large weapon was probably a key factor in that. So they headed down to the subway. They had to walk a block out of their way to catch it, but Clint knew all about catching things by now, and soon they were sitting on a subway car, speeding toward their destination. Clint sat hunched over with his forearms on his knees, though every so often he raised a hand and took a swipe or two at his nose. Coulson stood in front of him, holding onto a pole I the subway car, essentially blocking view of Clint from as many people as he could. H’NGttt!” Clint sneezed into a hand tightly cupped to his face, thumb and forefinger pinching his nose. Coulson knew it wasn’t appropriate to bless him in public like this.


“Your wallet and jewelry!” shouted the man in a black ski mask who had just slid the door to the car open and now stood there, brandishing a gun.


Everything happened all at once. The man moved toward an older woman with her grocery shopping in a cart, waving his hand impatiently toward her purse until she handed it over. Clint pulled an arrow out of the quiver and nocked it back in the bow. Coulson started for the man in order to take him out. But whether the mugger meant it to or not, the gun went off.


Coulson felt like he’d been kicked in the chest by a sentinel. There was a searing, blinding heat that traveled all over his body. Clint had his arm around Coulson at once, guiding him down onto the dirty floor of the subway train. “Coulson,” he choked, before he slumped forward. Coulson closed his eyes, wishing he had just followed Natasha’s advice and kept Clint tucked in under the blankets back at the apartment.


Chapter 7


The sound of the buzzer of the front door intercom was nothing like his phone’s buzzing, but Coulson wished that for just one loop, both buzzing systems would suffer a horrible, painful death—certainly something worse than exploding or getting shot. He felt so drained, he almost considered not getting up and out of bed to let Clint in. He could just lie there, pretending to sleep straight through every buzzer he came across in life from now on. But he knew Clint wasn’t feeling well, and he knew how this played out if he refused to go to the museum. The city—and perhaps the country or even the world, he had no way of knowing for certain—deserved better than an exhausted and annoyed Agent Phil Coulson. He was a better protector than that, not to mention he was sympathetic to Clint’s situation.


So up he got, again, and headed for the door in his bathrobe and slippers, because even exhaustion from a seemingly never-ending time loop was not enough to give up on the people he cared about. He pressed the button on the intercom. “Good morning, Clint.”


There was silence, then there was confusion. “How did you know it’s me? Sniff!


“I knew it was you because it’s always you. I’m stuck in a time loop,” Coulson replied, pressing the button to unlock the building’s main door. “Come on up to the penthouse and don’t mind the cats in the elevator.” Coulson opened his apartment door, waiting, ready, with the tissues in hand. The elevator doors opened and Clint looked over at Coulson before giving Coulson’s neighbor a smile and a polite nod.


As he walked toward Coulson, Coulson noticed his pink nostrils twitch with a sudden breath; of course he knew Clint was going to sneeze, but even if he didn’t know, he’d seen the man sneeze so many times now, he was beginning to noticed the subtle signs that the sneezes were about to strike. Maybe some of Hawkeye’s keen observational skills were rubbing off on him.


Coulson raised the tissues, holding them in front of him just as Clint stumbled forward. Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” Clint only had time for a quick breath in to facilitate the second, sudden sneeze. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” Clint snuffled into the tissues, sliding his hands up over Coulson’s to take charge of the tissues. He gave a small cough from congestion and cleared his throat. “You’re in a time loop?”


Coulson nodded. “Bless you. Again. Come inside. We’ll talk. You’ll sneeze. It’ll be great.”


Laughing a little, Clint followed behind. Coulson’s first thought was to get dressed. He didn’t mind Clint seeing him in his navy boxers and gray sleeveless, tank undershirt. But he couldn’t deny he was a little chilly. He assumed that Clint would once again crash on the couch while Coulson got dressed. But Coulson had changed the formula enough that Clint apparently felt comfortable enough to follow Coulson right to the bedroom. Clint sat down on the end of the bed, the chevron tissue box on his lap. Coulson went for his usual outfit, strategically angling the closet door to block him when he bent to pull on his pants.


“I think you promised an explanation,” Clint said, snuffling into a fresh tissue.


“There’s an 0-8-4 device at the museum a few blocks away. First time around, some energy from it went into my chest. When that day ended, I woke up this morning again as if the day before had never happened. But every morning I wake up to you needing someone to look after you because you’re not feeling well. Every day Agent Maria Hill calls me about retrieving the 0-8-4. And every day I die.”


Heh… hehh-Ketchhhhh!” Clint coughed again in surprise. “Wait, what?”


“I die. Every day so far. And I wake right back up here in bed.” Coulson stepped out from the closet, straightening his usual tie and then gesturing toward the bed. He’d only had his back turned a couple minutes, expecting to see the bed just as he’d left it that morning when he had jumped out of it. But he was surprised to find Clint had pulled the comforter to the bottom of the bed, sitting on the end of it but folding it up over his shoulders, hugging it around himself for warmth. A handful of balled-up tissues surrounded Clint’s tennis shoe-clad feet on the rug. “Well, make yourself at home,” he said, eyebrows raised.


Clint blushed again, and Coulson realized he’d never noticed the man blushing so easily before. Sometimes they teased each other over the comm while on operations—typically it was Clint teasing Coulson and Coulson reminding Clint to be professional. But if their teasing resulted in Clint blushing, that wasn’t something Coulson could ever tell through the earbuds. You could know someone for years, trusting each other with your lives, but sometimes it still took getting stuck in a time loop to learn something new.


“I’b sorry,” Clint said, taking a deep breath and blowing his nose heartily into a tissue. He started to throw off the comforter, but Coulson held a hand out, palm up, gesturing for him to stop and be still.


A second later, Coulson’s phone buzzed. He answered it on speaker phone, though with his finger to his lips to indicate Clint should just listen. “Good morning, Agent Hill.”


Her voice sounded further away and with more of an echo this time. “There’s a situation at the New York City Science Museum, an employee has reported a new 0-8-4. I hate to ask, but our resources are stretched at the moment and you’re close, aren’t you?”


“Just a few blocks away.”


Huh!” Clint was going to sneeze. Despite the fact that he was scrubbing furiously at his nose with the back of his hand, the sneeze was going to come. And there wasn’t time to take the phone off speaker. “Huhhh-Ihschhhhh!” Clint sniffled and shivered, pulling the comforter tighter around himself while he pulled a fresh tissue from the box.


“Um, bless you?” Agent Hill sounded more amused than confused.


“I’ve got Agent Barton with me here. But he’s not feeling too well. I’d like to officially request that you remove him from the active roster of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, with the exception of this retrieval operation, of course.”


“Sure. But it’s not going to take two of you to retrieve the object,” she said.


“You never know. I’d like to bring him along for backup, just in case.”


“Fine, if you think that’s necessary. Report in when you have the object in hand.”


Coulson promised he would and then retrieved the S.H.I.E.L.D. case he knew would be large enough for this particular object. It was fortunate he kept a few of these at his apartment, just to be prepared. Taking the time to get the materials he needed for the easy tasks in this day would start getting old pretty quickly. Though, speaking of which, Clint was going to need some cold medicine and tissues pretty soon. He wondered if he should be varying his routine a little to account for the shopping trip before going to the museum, but he remembered the way the 0-8-4’s energy had found him later that morning in the grocery store because he hadn’t gone to get it first. Besides, he didn’t like the idea of the key to all of this being anywhere but in his hands or with his team. One thing was certain: he was not going to let Clint touch the object this time. But it had been all right being in the same apartment with him as long as it stayed in its case, if Coulson remembered correctly regarding what had happened back on the first day. All the days were going to start blurring together in his mind pretty soon if he didn’t pay more attention to things.


But there was so much he needed to remember. There was the information Fitz-Simmons had given him about the object and their findings. There were the poker hands he’d memorized so he could better prove the time loop to his team. And there were the two sneezes Coulson needed to catch in tissues first thing in the morning so he didn’t get sprayed with Clint’s germs. Not to mention a whole host of details: when Agent Hill would call, the name of the chief researcher at the museum, the fact that Clint didn’t like pulp him his orange juice, and so much more. There were some things he couldn’t avoid remembering, but the rest he would have to work on.


Unless this was his final loop. Unless this tie he figured it all out, solved the problem, and kept from dying. Then he could just spend a leisurely day resting and taking good care of a sick and needy and Clint Barton.


hihhhh... hihh-ihhhh” A sick and needy and sneezy Clint Barton. Clint swayed on the end of the bed, tip of his tongue resting on his bottom lip, nostrils flaring wildly with each breath. “Huhhh-Kitchhhhh!” He sniffed hard and then looked up at Coulson. “When do we leave?”


“Now. But you don’t have to come, Agent. I can handle this on my own, and I know you really don’t feel well. If you need to stay here and sleep this off, go ahead. I’ll pick up some medicine for you on the way home; I know you ran out.”


Clint rubbed at his nose with a tissue. “I want to have your back. Sniff! Sniff-sniff! Don’t I usually go with you?”


“Not usually. But I welcome the help, if you really do feel up to it. Last time you went, you ended up going through quite a lot of tissues.”


Clint peered into the box. “Seems to be a good number left. I’ll risk it.” He abandoned the comforter, shivering at the cool bedroom air. “Besides, tagging along with you on this retrieval assignment is better than being home, miserable and alone.” He tucked the tissue box under his arm, crunching it a little. “Let’s hehl-let’s… heyhhhh… heh-lehhhlet’s g-g-go heh-KEHTChhhh! Hehhh… heh… h’Ktchhh!


If this had been his first time through this day, he knew without a doubt he would not let Clint come along after that. The poor guy looked sick and sounded twice as bad. But he knew Clint could handle himself at the museum, because he’d already seen it happen. Of course, he’d also seen Clint make the museum explode, but Coulson took full responsibility for that particular death. This time around, he wasn’t going to let Clint touch the object. This time, they were going to bring it back here where it was safe and where they could get a good look at it.


They headed to the museum, taking the same route Coulson had always used: two blocks up and two to the right. Clint had had a bit of a sneezing fit halfway across the street the last time, but today he made it further than that before he reached out to Coulson. “W-wait.” His hand waved at Coulson’s suit jacket, and Coulson barely felt the touch.


But when he turned and saw the look in Clint’s eyes, he knew something was very wrong. Clint rocked dizzily, his eyes rolling back. Coulson grabbed hold of him, gripping his arm tightly and keeping him upright. “Are you dizzy, Agent Barton?” Clint nodded, closing his eyes. He stepped closer and pressed himself to Coulson’s chest. One of Coulson’s arms wrapped around, holding Clint there. “Take all the time you need.”


Clint nuzzled his face into Coulson’s shoulder and then sneezed. “huhhGIHShhhhhh!


Coulson winced. He’d been doing such a good job lately of anticipating Clint’s sneezes and not getting sneezed on. So much for that. He reached up and rubbed Clint’s back. The vest was thick; Clint probably couldn’t even feel it. So he slid his hand up and rubbed the back of Clint’s head, stroking comfortingly. “Bless you.”


Clint lifted his head, sniffling, and looked at Coulson. “Sorry. Sniff!


“It’s all right. I know a good dry cleaner.”


He tried to look amused, but his nostrils kept twitching and he kept rubbing at them, which made them look even redder, if possible. “I take it this is the first time this has happened?”


Coulson nodded. “Maybe we were walking too quickly. I should not have pushed you. I probably shouldn’t have brought you. If you’d prefer to go back to my place… I could even call you a cab if you don’t feel up to walking on your own.”


Shaking his head, “No, I’m fine now. I… I-huhhh! Huh-KShhhh!” He scrubbed at his nose with one of the many tissues he’d brought along. “Well, not fine, but I will be okay in the museum. Sniff! Sniff! I’ve got your back, Agent Coulson.”


“I know you do,” Coulson reassured him. Coulson remembered the feeling of that bullet hitting his chest, though, and he knew he couldn’t completely rely on Clint in this state. He needed to look after Clint and get him feeling better so that Clint really could have his back—maybe not down by the docks, but on their next mission, definitely. “Let’s go on in.”


When they got inside, Coulson scanned the room for her as they slowly made their way through the thick crowd, but the little girl was nowhere in sight. As they made their way to the research lab, Coulson felt Clint’s hand on his shoulder again, staying close, which made him smile. Some things changed, some things surprised him, but he was glad this detail was back again, even if it meant listening to Clint sniffle the whole time.


“I should tell you,” Coulson said, as they made their way through the security checkpoint and down the hall for special, authorized persons only. “You can’t get too near the object.”


“I can’t?”


“That’s right.”


“What will happen if I do?”


Coulson didn’t see the harm in telling him. “The last time around, when you touched it, the entire museum exploded and we all died.”


Clint was quiet. For a moment, Coulson wondered if he were perhaps on the verge of sneezing again. Instead, there came a soft, “Really?”


Coulson stopped, and Clint ran into his back. Coulson turned, trying for some sort of mix of sympathy and commanding to hide the guilt he still felt about the incident. “You did it because I told you to, and you followed orders because you trusted me. It was reacting strangely to you, and I had to know definitively what that meant. And then I woke up in bed, hearing you buzzing to get into my apartment. No harm done, Agent.”


“I…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “I won’t go near the object again,” he promised, shoving his hands into pockets.


“Good man,” Coulson nodded approvingly. But, as they turned into the lab, he started questioning again the idea of bringing Clint along this time. Next time he’d insist Clint stay back at the apartment… and maybe sleep in bed instead of the couch. Clint had looked so comfortable and warm wrapped up in Coulson’s comforter and so miserable now, gazing at the alien object with its teal and purple threads of energy waving around.


“I’ve seen this before.” There was something like reverence in his voice. “It was during the Battle of New York, Sir.”


“I know,” Coulson said, wishing he’d done a little more ahead of time to prepare Clint—not that the walk had been very long to facilitate such an in-depth discussion. “It was discovered in the rubble of a building after the battle. Try to think—what did you see it doing? Do you think it could take down a building?”


Clint met his eyes, and Coulson knew he was thinking about how it had supposedly taken out the museum in a previous loop. Coulson had seen it destroy a museum, a supermarket, a jet, and the entire town. Of course it was a weapon; that much was obvious now. But what sort of a weapon reacted differently to chosen people? What kind even chose specific people like this? And what sort of a weapon had a time loop component to it?


This sort. Obviously, this sort.


“Sorry, are you from S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Dr. Daniels came over to introduce himself again.


Coulson stuck his hand out. “Yes. I’m Agent Coulson, and this is Agent Barton.” Coulson saw Clint’s nose twitch again and tried to draw attention away from Clint  “We’re here to retrieve the object.”


Dr. Daniels’ eyes widened slightly. “I’m not sure touching it is such a good idea. This morning it started doing, well, this. The energy is off the charts. And we’ve never seen anything like it. All our instruments are stumped.”


Clint pinched his nose desperately, trying to hold his breath. But his sore nostrils flared anyway and his head bobbed forward. Hehhh-Nkkxxx! Uhhhh….


“It will be fine,” Coulson said, striding forward with a certainty that only came from having done this multiple times before. He took hold of the object and watched as the energy strands retracted and disappeared altogether. He placed the 0-8-4 in its case and secured it with the clasp. “Dr. Daniels, could you send all your research on this to my team? I’d like to get their take on it, and you’ve done such extensive studies already. That will be incredibly helpful.”


“Of course,” Dr. Daniels’ gaze had not left the closed case.


“Thank you. Agent Barton? Shall we go?”


Clint was more than ready to go. He followed behind, not sneezing until they were back out in the entrance hall again. And then his restrained h’ngtxxxx!” echoed slightly in the large space.


“I would like to visit the grocery store,” Coulson told him once they were outside again. “But if you’re not feeling up to the trip, you can go back to my place. I can give you the key.”


“I will be fine,” Clint said, and Coulson saw that he was eying the case as well. “But the object…”


“Safe in its case,” Coulson said, patting the outside of the case somewhat affectionately. He led the way to the grocery store, taking the elevator down from the sidewalk level into it. He couldn’t help but remember what had happened the last time he’d been there with Clint. The way the store had exploded around the two of them. It was surreal to be walking around with the object of his destruction… or at least torture… while shopping for the right brand of tissues for his agent, who was sniffling beside him.


With a firm grip on the case, Coulson led them down aisles while Clint piled everything in their cart. When the small cart was overflowing and they had come dangerously close to cleaning the shelves out, they headed to the checkout. Clint fished out his credit card, but Coulson was already offering his over. “My idea to stop at the store, so it’s my treat.”


“Yeah, but it’s my cold,” Clint replied, sniffling and rubbing his nose.


“Too late.” The woman at the cash register prompted Coulson to swipe his card as she bagged up his items, completely alive by the end of the transaction.


Today was going well, all things considered. Everything had gone as well as it could. When they got back to the apartment, he would contact his team and explain the situation. Then he would get Clint medicated and tucked in before heading to the lab on board the jet with the 0-8-4. If this was the last time he was to go through this day, at least he’d done all right this time around. And if he had to live this day over again, now he had a good model to work from. All  he would have to do was the same thing again and again, changing whatever was to come later enough to get some answers. It seemed like a good enough plan.


Huhhh huhh… huh-ihhhh! Ihhhhhh-huhshuhhh!” Clint sniffled and rubbed hard at his nose, shivering violently all the while. Clint needed to get back to the apartment. Now.


“Bless you, Agent Barton.” He pressed a hand to Clint’s back and guided him toward the elevator to leave the grocery store.


“Thank you, Sir.”


Clint stood in the corner of the elevator on his way up, sniffling into his sleeve and dragging the back of his hand back and forth under his nose. Coulson watched the end of that nose move back and forth, reflected in the metal walls of the elevator so it looked like there were dozens of other sniffly Clints riding up to the penthouse with him.


Then Clint began coughing. Coulson had seen him cough a little bit before, but nothing like this. It started with just a few coughs, like a tickle in his throat he was trying to fight. But then it kept going, a rumbling, wet, painfully thick cough. It seemed to pull at him, taking over his whole body the way one of his strong sneezes did but lasting longer and not stopping. He gasped for breath when he could. And, because he was talented, he managed to choke out a few words. “Something’s wrong.”


Coulson sensed it too now—not only sensed it, but felt it. The air was thick with something which could have been poison gas as easily as smoke, though he couldn’t work out how either one would be present now. But everything around him was growing warm—warmer than it should have been. And, above the sound of the elevator’s whirring controls, was a roar and screams. Something was very wrong. He hit the emergency stop button and the elevator came to a stop at the eighth floor. The doors started to open and failed. But through the crack, the danger came into view for both men.


The hallway in front of them was engulfed in flames. What hadn’t been visible from the outside was now an unavoidable danger consuming everything in its path. All the S.H.I.E.L.D. security measures Coulson had made sure were part of the building, and it turned out the whole place was just going to go up in a burst of fire. And it was going to take Clint and Coulson with it.


Clint surveyed the elevator and the access hatch in the ceiling. “There isn’t enough time for us both to get out. Huh… huh-IHTchhhh! Sniff! I’m sick. I’ll never make it. You should go, Sir.”


Coulson shook his head and sat down. “Even if we were to get out, there’s nowhere to go. Besides, the day will just reset for me.”


Clint glanced nervously at the hatch then at the fire through the opening between the doors. “How sure about that are you, Sir?” Coulson tugging at the leg of his pants made him crumple to the floor, coughing more from the smoke.


Rubbing a hand up and down Clint’s back as if that would soothe him against the thick smoke now filling the elevator, Coulson replied as reassuringly as he could. “As sure as I’ve been about anything in my life.” If he couldn’t save Clint this time around, the least he could do was keep the man calm. No one wanted to face one’s death in a panicked, disoriented, terrified state. He leaned close to Clint and put an arm around the man. His sea green eyes looked into Clint’s bloodshot ones, and he knew what had to come next. With a soft smile, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to Clint’s.


Clint gave a start, initially more surprised than anything else. But he did not pull away, did not disengage, did not break it off. He accepted the kiss and, after a few moments, deepened it. His mouth opened, his tongue lapping cautiously at Coulson’s lips until they parted. Clint sniffled as he tilted his head, lunging forward with a hand on the back of Coulson’s head.


Coulson felt the touch. He felt the kiss. And he felt the burn of heat against his skin. He tried to keep his eyes locked on Clint’s, but the fire broke into the elevator, eating up the last of the oxygen inside and burning with a fiery, concentrated burst of flame that had no escape. Coulson screamed despite himself as pain filled him, washing over his skin, eating him alive. In agony, he did his best to cling to Clint, waiting for the end to come but never doubting that it would.



Chapter 8


When Coulson woke to the sound of the buzzer, a scream caught in his throat. Knowing the day had reset and knowing he was not on fire, he still threw the covers off and stared down. His gaze traveled over his body, as though inspecting it for damage. There wasn’t a burn on him. Gunshots. Explosions. Fires. It had been a week of the same day on repeat and he still wasn’t quite used to finding that, once again, he was supposed to be dead but was not.


But this time he had to wonder why the day had ended the way it had. The time had been about noon or one o’clock in the afternoon when they’d entered the building and ridden the elevator up toward Coulson’s penthouse. He had made it far later in the day before without a fire taking place. What had caused it this time and not the times before? Every morning, without fail, Clint pressed the door buzzer at the same time. If given the chance, he always said the same thing. And then Agent Hill called every morning at the same time. She, too, always said the same thing. If he did nothing, the object would seek him out and take out the entire city in the process. If he did something, he could change the day’s events. But never before had his building burned. So it had to have been something he had caused. And he had been sure that, this time, the 0-8-4 had nothing to do with the cause of his death.


So what had changed? Or, more importantly, what had he changed?


It wasn’t telling Clint; he’d done that before. It wasn’t retrieving the object from the museum; he’d done that before, too. It couldn’t possibly be buying a different brand of tissues or letting Clint sit on the edge of his bed. It had to be something to do with the building. Or someone who had figured out Coulson lived there and targeted the building on purpose. But no one seemed to be interested in the 0-8-4 apart from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the researchers at the museum who had called S.H.I.E.L.D. to take it in the first place. He and Clint hadn’t been in the building when the fire started, though, so it wasn’t as though one of them had knocked over a lantern and caused the building to burn down. And in none of the days Coulson had done something to stop a figurative lantern from tipping over… as far as he knew. But it had to have been something or else the building wouldn’t have gone up in flames. He would have to pay close attention so whatever it was didn’t happen again.


Coulson made it to the intercom beside the door and pressed the button. “Yes?” he asked reflexively.


“Agent Coulson, it’s me.”


Poor Clint sounded terrible, like always. So apparently nothing had changed yet. “Come up to the top floor, Agent Barton.” He buzzed Clint in. Like he always did. Still no change.


Coulson felt strangely aware of his every move, over-analyzing everything. Did he usually have to wait this long for Clint to emerge from the elevator? Had he been too long in answering the door buzzer? Or too quick? He hadn’t bothered getting dressed this time around, but he couldn’t imagine what that had to do with anything. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he didn’t think the building had burned down because he’d skipped putting on his slippers and bathrobe before answering the door. He considered going back for them now, just in case, but there wasn’t time. As he opened the door to his apartment, he heard the ding of the elevator and saw the doors slide open.


He saw Clint standing there, talking to his neighbor from downstairs with the cat carriers in hand. He watched Clint leave the elevator and head toward him. And he anticipated Clint snapping forward with the strong, sudden sneeze. Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” But he’d forgotten the tissues.


Coulson winced, feeling the spray fall against his chest, neck, chin. That wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst was having Clint sneeze on him and knowing that Clint was about to do it again.


Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


Coulson didn’t even have his bathrobe on in order to wipe his face off with his sleeve, so he pulled the end of his undershirt up and used that instead.


“Oh,” Clint’s voice was thick with congestion, and he sniffed hard, dragging his gloved hand under his nose. “I’b sorry, Sir. Sniff! I caught a horrible cold, add I really deed subwhere safe to crash. Datasha is off od a bissiod add I cad’t go to Avedgers Tower. Do you thidk I could… I bead, I dow this isd’t the best start id askig, sdeezig all over you like that. It’s just that by dose—”


“It’s all right,” Coulson said, stepping aside. “Come in. Just try not to sneeze on me any more, all right?”


Clint cupped his hand over his nose and mouth. Huhhh… huhh-Urschhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff, sniff! I caddot bake ady brobises, Sir.” He stumbled in and threw himself on the couch. Once there, he sighed deeply, shoulders sagging, body relaxing into the couch cushions. Coulson retrieved the trusty tissue box from the linen closet, along with blankets and the pillow—just like he’d done before. He wondered, given the number of times Clint had sneezed on him or breathed germs on him or kissed him, why he hadn’t gotten sick yet. He wondered if that reset itself at the beginning of each loop as well, and decided it must. And that meant that he really should remember the tissue box next time. He didn’t want to get stuck on the final time through the loop with all of Clint’s germs pumping through his system, lying in wait to get him sick.


He thought about showering now, in fact, about how nice a hot shower would be during this loop. He could call his team to go babysit the 0-8-4 while he stood under the hot water and let it reduce his worries down to the very basics of being warm and clean and alive.


Huh… huh-uh… huh-EHSchhhhh! Hetchhhh!


“Bless you, Agent Barton.” Coulson draped one blanket and then the other over the sniffly, sneezy S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who had so quickly become a fixture in his living room and in his life. And he knew, as he tucked the blanket around Clint once again, that there wasn’t time for the luxury of a hot shower.


He had left his cell phone in the bedroom, but he could hear it buzzing away with urgency.


“I’ll be right back,” he promised Clint. Coulson got dressed while he answered the phone. He pulled on his pants with one hand while he held his phone in the other, listening to Agent Hill telling him about a mysterious, suspicious, and potentially dangerous object of unknown origins. He buttoned up his shirt as she very nearly begged him to cut his vacation time incredibly short in order to go retrieve the object. And he cradled the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he tied his tie and listened to her telling him the object was nearby, just a few blocks away at the museum. “All right,” Coulson gave in, as he had so many times before and as he knew he would have to from now on if he wanted to keep the city from exploding. “I can retrieve the object, but I want something in return.”


She was quiet for a moment before replying, “You know S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t make deals. What is it you want, Agent Coulson?”


“It’s Clint Barton, Hawkeye. Agent Barton just showed up at my place a few minutes ago with one raging head cold. Take him off active duty before he pushes himself too far. The guy’s a mess right now.”


“Hey!” came a shout from the other room. “I heard my name! What are you saying about me?”


Coulson chuckled. “Just arranging for S.H.I.E.L.D. to ship you off to the sandbox if you sneeze on me again!” Coulson yelled back, pressing the phone to his chest so that he wasn’t shouting into that. Then he held the phone back up again. “Well?”


“You’ve got yourself a deal, Agent Coulson. Barton’s useless if he isn’t at the top of his game.”


Coulson couldn’t entirely agree with that statement. Sure the man’s shooting skills were not up to his usual standards of perfection due to the cold, but so far Clint had proved to be useful in other ways. “Thanks, Agent Hill. I’ll let you know when I have the 0-8-4 in hand.” He hung up and laced up his shoes. Then he took a second to look at his reflection in the mirror that hung over his bedroom dresser. The same suit he always wore today.


He had made so few changes. But how was he to know if he’d been careful to not change the one thing that ended up with his home on fire?


“What was that about?” Clint asked from behind a handful of tissues when Coulson walked back into the living room.


“Agent Hill called me in on a case. She needs me to retrieve an 0-8-4 for S.H.I.E.L.D.” He thought about telling Clint about the time loop again, but he decided he had enough balls in the air without worrying about keeping track of yet another. Besides, Clint would probably insist on coming along again, and the man looked so comfortable on the couch. Tucked under the blankets. Head nestled on the pillow. Tissue box propped up on his chest. Sneakers on the couch. Used tissues on the floor. Some things were worth changing.


Coulson lifted up the ends of the blankets and pulled the shoelaces until the bows came undone. He slipped the shoes off and then tucked the blankets back around Clint’s sock-clad feet. He grabbed the trash can from the bathroom and rounded up the discarded tissues into it. “Try to get some rest, Agent. Call me if you need me. I’ll grab some things for you on the way home. Just… stay put, all right?” He wanted to tel Clint to stay out of the elevator, but he didn’t have a way of saying that without revealing far too much. “And feel better.”


Halfway through Clint’s nodding, his eyelids dropped closed. His nostrils still flared with sniffles, but his breathing slowed down. Coulson’s fingertips ghosted over Clint’s forehead. He thought about kissing the man’s forehead, but then he thought better of it. He didn’t want to disturb Clint.


So, remembering what Natasha had told him, Coulson settled for a brief touch and a kind sentiment before heading out to the museum.


Everything played out exactly as Coulson remembered. The museum was as busy as ever. The little girl with the bouncy brown ponytail collided with him again then scampered off after her father. The security guard stationed between the public area and the authorized personnel glanced at Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. badge only briefly before waving him right right through. Dr. Daniels introduced himself. Scientists and researchers stood in awe, gazing at the object. And even Coulson took an extra second to marvel at the awesome display of teal and purple energy leaping about from its smooth, silvery surface.


Then he picked it up and secured it in the S.H.I.E.L.D. artifact case. No good S.H.I.E.L.D. agent should leave home without one. And the amount of relief he felt upon locking the object away and holding the case tightly in hand was intense, measurable even. This time, he skipped asking about research. He hadn’t done that on the first day, and he’d made it through the day to the evening at least in his apartment before dying down by the docks. He couldn’t imagine what that would have to do with it, but at this point, he was just trying to keep the changes he made to a minimum.


He stopped by the grocery store and filled the cart more quickly than usual. He grabbed item after item, unable to remember which ones he had chosen on the first day compared to ones from subsequent trips. He hoped his instincts were good enough for him to rely on. But he couldn’t imagine that his selecting the orange juice with a little too much pulp had somehow been the cause of the fire in the building. 


When he returned to his apartment building, he stood outside it for a full minute, studying the windows for flames or smoke or any sort of an indication that a fire might start. But there was nothing. Still, when he got inside to the lobby, he decided to take the stairs all the way up instead of using the elevator. By the time he got to his home, he was sweating. His white dress shirt was wet at the pits beneath his suit jacket and his tie was completely undone, hanging loosely from his neck. He was panting a bit when he opened the door to his place.


Clint was dead asleep, snoring up a storm. He lay on his stomach, one arm hanging down over the side of the couch, one leg sticking out from under the blankets. He was drooling on the pillow. And there was the shape of a tissue box under the covers with him, though it was probably empty given that the small trash can from the bathroom was almost full to the top with balled-up, used tissues.


As quietly as possible, Coulson put the groceries away. He kept glancing back at Clint, warily. He knew he should probably wake the man up and give him some cold medicine. But Clint looked exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes. And unless some genius scientist like Banner had discovered something new in the last few hours, there was still no cure for the common cold; sleep was one of the best things for Clint right now. It sure beat dying in an explosion, that was for sure. Perching on the arm of the couch, arms crossed over his chest, Coulson couldn’t help but notice how peaceful he looked, despite the loud, inhuman snores coming from him.


Coulson let his body calm and cool down after the climb. But he kept thinking he smelled smoke. Four times he got up and checked the hallway, listening for screams or the roar of fire, but the building was quiet and safe.


Deceptively safe, perhaps? He sat down on the armrest, staying for only a few minutes before getting up and pacing back and forth. He sat back down, but watching Clint sleep wasn’t too comforting. So he popped up again just a few minutes later. After checking the hallway two more times, he decided it was time he did something. So he reached down and gripped Clint’s ankle. He gave it a small shake. “Clint?” Clint didn’t wake. “Agent Barton?” Clint stirred, barely awake and already drifting back off again. Coulson moved to sit on the side of the couch now. He reached under the blanket and closed his hand over Clint’s shoulder. “Agent Barton, wake up.”


This time, Clint wrenched himself from sleep and stayed that way. He blinked up at Coulson. “H-hey,” he said. “I… oh… I’m gonna sneeze.”


“What a surprise.”


Huhhh… huh-KTChhhhh! Sniff!” He rubbed hard at his nose. And now he looked both exhausted and pathetic. “Sniff! Sniff!


“Bless you.” Nervously, Coulson glanced around, as if expecting the apartment to burst into flames at any moment. He couldn’t stay here. It would probably be safe; if the place was going to burn down, it would have done so already. But he didn’t know what had changed—or what hadn’t changed. But just being here made him too nervous. “We need to go.”


“Yeah…” Clint pushed himself up off the couch, blinking tiredly. “Wait, why do we have to go?”


Coulson’s hands were tight in fists. He glanced over at the 0-8-4 in its case, knowing that if he didn’t get a hold on this situation, this could easily drive him to paranoia and insanity. He had to tell Clint something—something other than the last time he’d been through this day, they had died in a terrible apartment building fire. “It’s not safe here.”


Clint looked around. “Seems fine to me.” He coughed and gave his handler a weak smile. “I’ve got my bow and quivers. I’ll protect you if something happens, Sir.”


Coulson smiled. “I’m sure you will. But we still need to go.”


Clint coughed. “Okay. Where?”


Where indeed. The jet? The helicarrier? “Your apartment.”


Clint’s eyes widened. “Aw, no. Not my apartment. Not a good idea.”


“Not open to debate, Agent.” He tried to look reassuring. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring the groceries. Aaaaand the medicine. You should take some right now before we leave. Get your shoes on while I get you some water to wash it down with.” He had two pills and a glass of water in front of Clint in less than a minute. Clint only had one shoe on by then; it seemed like he was moving in slow motion since he woke up. Slowly, he took the glass of water and took a first sip to wet his mouth. Coulson almost died of old age while waiting for him to take the pills and down them. Clint sniffled and continued sipping the water. Coulson let him drink a little, but Cling was taking too long. So Coulson took the glass from his hand and patted his arm. “All right. Get up.”


Coulson rounded up the necessary items before practically pushing Clint out of the apartment.


“I really don’t think this is a good idea, Sir.”


Coulson insisted they use the stairs. Clint spent the whole time coughing and sneezing and complaining and protesting. Coulson was sweating again by the time they got to the bottom. But he still raised his hand boldly to hail a cab. He had bags in his hand and on his shoulder, but he wrapped his free arm around Clint. Clint seemed worse than earlier, and Coulson couldn’t help but remember the way Clint sneezed his head off around this time on some previous days. He hoped they would reach Clint’s place before the worst of it hit.


A cab pulled up to the curb, and Coulson manhandled Clint into the back seat before climbing in after him. “Brooklyn. Quincy and Tompkins in Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Coulson told the cabbie, who sat looking over his shoulder through the Plexiglas divider at them. He didn’t look too happy about the location, but he turned and started his meter. Then he pulled out into traffic.


Within a minute, Coulson regretted not insisting Clint take a blanket with him. It was chilly out and Clint sat huddled in the backseat with his arms crossed over his chest to keep warm. Feeling sorry for him, Coulson scooted over to the middle seat. He fastened the seatbelt there, and then he wrapped his arm around Clint again. Clint did not protest. Instead, he leaned into Coulson for the warmth, among other things. He coughed a little. He sniffled a little. And he sneezed a lot—mainly into the tissues from the box in his lap but sometimes right into Coulson’s shoulder.


Hehh… hhhhh…. huh... huh-CHIShhhhhhh!” Clint snuffled, rubbing his nose into Coulson’s shoulder. “M’sorry, Sir. Sniff! Sniff!


“It’s all right,” Coulson said, rubbing his hand up and down Clint’s upper arm. He knew this was silly. Clint would probably have been perfectly safe back at the apartment, but Coulson couldn’t take that chance. This really did seem like the best option, though they could just get a hotel room somewhere. But he was sure Clint would be most comfortable somewhere familiar.


Heh… hahhh… heh-Uhschhhhhh!” Clint pulled back from Coulson’s side, sniffling. “I… I hahhh” He pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He held his breath. Neither did much good, and he still ended bobbing forward from the force of the sneeze. “H’Ngstt!


“Bless you,” Coulson said softly, trying to assuage his guilt. But even though Clint might feel miserable, at least he wasn’t burning to death, trapped in Coulson’s building.


Clint glanced up at their driver warily before closing his eyes. “Wake me up when we get there.”


With traffic the way it was, it took practically forever to get to Clint’s building. The whole time, Coulson was worried about Clint, but mostly worried about what might happen. A semi might come out of nowhere and ram the car. A fire hydrant might explode, flooding the street and causing the cab to hydroplane and crash. Dr. Doom could suddenly show up right next to the cab, reach in, and strangle them.


Finally they arrived at Clint’s place. Coulson paid the driver, and then he nudged Clint. “Hey. We’re here.”


Clint had been resting but hadn’t managed to fall to sleep during the ride. Sniffling, he crawled out of the cab after Coulson. The climb up the stairs to Clint’s top floor apartment felt like it took twice as long as the trek down the stairs from Coulson’s place. And once they got inside, Coulson realized he probably should have listened to Clint. They shouldn’t have gone there.


First of all, the apartment was a complete mess. Coulson had thought Clint had made a mess of his apartment in previous time loops, but this was beyond anything Coulson had seen before. Tissues were absolutely everywhere, some balled-up and some folded and crumpled. There were little piles concentrated near certain places in the room—the couch, the kitchen counter, the coffee table. Scattered everywhere that tissues weren’t—on the floor, in the sink, on the couch—were dirty dishes, mugs, glasses, silverware. Then there were items of clothing strewn about. Blankets on and off the couch. An empty bottle of medicine here. An empty blister pack of pills there. A thermometer sitting in the empty fruit bowl. A wash cloth hanging over the faucet. A heating pad on the coat rack Tea bags on the stove. A bottle of nasal spray on the chair. Four days. Clint had been sick in this apartment for four days, making a mess of it. It was going to take some time to clean up properly.


But none of that was why Coulson now wished he hadn’t insisted on going to Clint’s place. Standing in the middle of the living room was a man. He wore a cheap red track suit, white sneakers, and gold chains around his neck. His hair was slick with gel. His chin was shaved clean except for a single patch beneath his lower lip. And in his hand was a gun. Pointed right at Clint.


“Welcome home, Bro.”


“Fucking tracksuit dracula,” Clint muttered under his breath. He reached for his bow and arrow, but the man tisked, clucking his tongue against the top of his mouth four times, scolding him. All it did was make Clint angry. “Damn it.”


“You didn’t tell me you had company over,” Coulson said to Clint, whose teeth and fists were all clenched.


“Been waiting a while for you. Thought it best to get you while you were under the weather, Bro.” He glanced over at Coulson. “Who’s your friend?”


Coulson started forward, his hand out as though to shake hands. “Oh, I’m Agent Phil Coulson. Nice to meet you. And your name is…?”


The barrel of the gun swung toward him. “Don’t you move!” Dramatically, and even though he didn’t need to in order to fire, he unclicked the safety on the gun.


Coulson stopped in place. He wasn’t scared of dying, because he knew the day would just repeat again. But he didn’t want to watch Clint die. He didn’t want Clint to die.


So Clint wasn’t going to die. Not this time around at least. Coulson was a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent. He’d been trained for circumstances exactly like this. Carefully, Coulson set down the 0-8-4 still in its case. He didn’t know what would happen if it got caught in the crossfire, but that wasn’t an experiment he wanted to run today. With the object safe and out of the way, Coulson raised his hands in surrender. “All right, all right.” He took a step back. “You don’t have to be scared of me.”


The man gave a derisive laugh. “I’m not scared.”


“You should be.” Coulson charged at him. He got to the man just as the gun went off.


Coulson felt the breath leave him. For a moment, everything was all right. But then the pain took over. Coulson doubled up as the intense hurt started to take over his whole body. He still tried to move forward, however, needing to stop the man at all costs before the man could take Clint out. Luckily, the man hadn’t anticipated that Coulson wouldn’t go right down. Coulson charged and knocked the gun out of his hand and then shoved him up against the wall. The shove was more like plowing, throwing all the strength he had left in him forward and taking the man with him. At the same moment, an arrow came shooting over Coulson’s shoulder. It tore a hole in the red tracksuit and pinned the man’s arm to the wall. The man shouted and pushed Coulson away. But that was the worst thing he could have done. It left him open for another arrow to pin his other side against the wall as well. The man howled in rage just as Coulson collapsed to the floor among the tissues.


He tried to keep his eyes eyes open. He tried to stay conscious. But the pain was too strong. He raised his hand, grabbing for Clint, trying to reach out to him. His his arm suddenly felt too heavy. But it was all right, because he felt his head being lifted into Clint’s lap. He felt Clint’s fingertips graze over his lips and cheeks. “No… Sir… Phil… No, no…” Clint choked on his words and coughed. Coulson realized Clint was on the verge of tears. He didn’t want that; he didn’t want Clint to be in distress. But it would take too long to explain that this wasn’t the end, that he wasn’t really dying. And Coulson had neither the time nor the strength to say anything. All he could do was lie there and listen to Clint sniffle and feel Clint caress his cheek. “I… I’m so sorry.” Then, suddenly, the man shifted a little and suddenly he felt Clint’s warm lips against his.


It was an amazing kiss. It was almost even a kiss worth dying for. Almost.



Chapter 9


Coulson woke to the sound of the buzzer, but he could still feel the kiss lingering on his lips. It was a sensation he would love to feel again, but he was not at all sure how to achieve that without dying again. He cared deeply for Clint; he had for some time. And maybe this kiss was just Clint’s personal way of saying the same thing. But, somehow, Coulson didn’t think so. The kisses hasn’t felt like touching, goodbye kisses. They had been more like preludes to passion, sweet, intense, sensual exchanges that had made it clear both parties would have liked more if one or both of them hadn’t been on the verge of death.


But what if, this time around, Coulson tried to initiate a kiss when imminent peril or death wasn’t a factor? How would Clint react to that? What would happen to what they were? Did he dare use the time loops to find out?


Coulson wasn’t sure he was ready to find out just yet. But he was ready to get up and answer the door yet again. He donned his bathrobe and slippers and grabbed the tissue box along the way as well. He already had two tissues pulled out and in hand when he pressed the button on the intercom. “Yes?” he asked innocently, as if he had no idea who was there.


“Agent Coulson, it’s me.”


Of course it was. Coulson found himself smiling as he replied. “All right. Come on up, Agent Barton.”


Coulson fussed over himself while waiting for the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to arrive at the top floor. He ran a hand over his hair. He tightened the tie around his bathrobe. He looked down to make sure there were no surprises. Thinking about Clint that morning had been more pleasant than he had anticipated, but he had not had time to do anything about that or even reflect about it. If this day ever ended, that would be the first thing he addressed with Clint… though the first thing he wanted to do was just lie down and sleep like the dead.


There was a knock on his door, and Coulson realized he hadn’t opened it ahead of time this time around. So he opened the door and almost forgot to raise his tissues in time. He was met with the sight of Clint Barton falling forward. “Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” And then, directly after, “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” Clint snuffled, rubbing his nose into the tissues still in Coulson’s hand. He lifted his head and, when he found Coulson still smiling, he smiled back. “S-sorry. Sniff! Sniff! I’m fighting the worst cold, and it’s kicking my ass. Apparently colds don’t go away in half the time if you down a double dose of cold medicine.”


“That can’t be good for you.”


“I’m an Avenger. I can handle it,” Clint shrugged. Then he tiled his head forward again until his nose was nestled back in the tissues Coulson still held. “Hah… heh-KEHTchhhhh!


“Yeah. I see that.” Coulson pulled a few tissues out of the box and handed them over. “Here you go, mighty Avenger. Blow your own nose.” He pulled Clint inside and closed and locked his door behind, though he knew he’d be opening it up again soon. When he turned, his first instinct was to direct Clint toward the couch again. And, once again, he would explain about not putting shoes on the couch cushions and not tossing used tissues on the floor.


But then he thought about the kiss, and about what it meant to him. Clint was more to him than just a fellow agent. Coulson put his hand on Clint’s back, directing him not toward the couch but toward the hallway and bedroom. “Come on. I want you to lie down and get warm. I don’t have any cold medicine, so I’ll have to go out and pick some up for you.”


Clint didn’t even pause before climbing into Coulson’s bed, still rumpled from sleep from when Coulson had thrown off the covers and climbed out when the intercom had buzzed. He laid his head on Coulson’s pillow and smiled as Coulson covered him in the bed sheet, blanket, and comforter. “What’s that smile for, Agent Barton?”


“It’s still warm,” he said, his voice soft and edged with something like reverence. “And… ah-and…”


“Oh, here.” Coulson dropped the tissue box on the bed for him. “I’m going to get dressed because—” His phone buzzed. He held up a finger, indicating for Clint to hold on for a moment while he answered. “This is Agent Coulson. Go ahead.”


Knowing already that it was Agent Hill didn’t mean it wasn’t reassuring to hear her voice and her predictable request. “There’s a situation at the New York City Science Museum, an employee has reported a new 0-8-4. I hate to ask, but our resources are stretched at the moment and you’re close, aren’t you?”


“I am.”


Hehhh-Kehshhh! Hehh… ehhhh… hehhhhhh… eh-heh… hehhh-KSHHHHHH!


Coulson tried not to smile. “Bless you, Agent Coulson.”


There was silence on the other end of the phone for a few seconds longer than there should have been. “You’re busy.”




“You’re otherwise engaged.”


“No. I mean, yes. But it’s just Clint with a bad head cold. I’ve put him to bed—”


“In your bed?”


“No, I mean, yes. But just because he’s sick.” And maybe also a little bit because he kisses so well. Coulson wondered what it would feel like to experience one of those kisses some time when he wasn’t about to die a terrible death. Not that inviting Clint to sleep in his bed when sniffly was going to get him one step closer to finding out, but it was the least he could do to help Clint feel better. After all, he’d managed to get the man killed several times over the past eight days. And he still didn’t know what had started that fire. “I will go to the museum and pick up the 0-8-4, Agent Hill.”


“You are certain you can fulfill the mission?”


Hahhh… hahh… hah-IHTChhhhh!


Coulson winced as he heard Clint blow his nose. “Yes, I am certain. I will be at the museum within fifteen minutes. Could you let Director Fury know this particular agent and Avenger are not available for any other missions that might arise later today?”


“I do not think he planned to send either of you—”


“Trust me on this, Agent.”


“All right.”


“Thank you. My team will take over analysis of the object once I have it in my possession.”


“That won’t be necessary—”


“Trust me. It will be.”


She sighed. “All right.”


Heh… heh-ehhhh… hehhhhhhhhhhKETChhhhhh!” Clint sneezed, shaking the bed with its strength just as Coulson hung up and sat down on the edge of the bed. Clint was curled on his right side around the tissue box, covers up to his ears.


Coulson sat behind him and rubbed his arm through the layers. “Bless you.” And, suddenly, for the first time, he truly felt bad that he had to leave on the operation. For the first time, he actually wanted to stay and look after Clint—hand him tissues, stroke his hair, rub his arm through the blankets… or not through the blankets… from under the blankets. “Ahem!” Coulson cleared his throat and hopped up, turning so there was no way for Clint to see the reaction his body was having to these thoughts just strolling through his mind. Besides, he had to get dressed and get to the museum before the 0-8-4 leveled the city.


He put on his usual everything—his time loop suit, as he was starting to think of it. “You’re going?” Clint asked, his voice muffled under the covers.


“Agent Hill needs me to retrieve an 0-8-4 from the local museum. My team needs to take a look at it. And you need to rest.”


Clint lifted his head, rubbing at his red nose. “And what do you need, Agent Coulson?”


Coulson stood for a moment, thinking about his answer. There were a hundred things he wanted right now. He wanted to figure out what the 0-8-4 was. He wanted these time loops to stop. He wanted to quit dying and coming back to life. But what he needed? That was a different story. “I need…” He walked around the bed and pressed a kiss to Clint’s lips. “That.” Then he tugged the covers back up again. “Get some rest. I will back with medicine.”


This particular walk to the museum was the hardest one yet. He’d brought Clint with him before, and that wasn’t what he wanted this time. He wanted to be back in his apartment with Clint. Things there were… well, not simpler exactly, but a challenge he had actually a hope of conquering.


But he knew he had to return to the museum for the object. So he walked the several blocks there, endured being bumped into by the little girl, and found his way to the lab.


This time around, Coulson had never been more efficient. The moment he had finished introducing himself to Dr. Daniels, he was already reading for the 0-8-4. With it safely nestled in its padded case, the foam inside cushioning and protecting it, he strode out of the museum. He was sure he had saved a lot of time that was usually spent speaking with the researchers or trying to reassure them it would be all right for him to take over. But he didn’t realize how significantly removed from his usual timetable he was until he stepped out into the street, heading for the supermarket, and was trampled to death by a large, rampaging elephant.


Chapter 10


Coulson sat up in bed at the sound of the buzzer. He didn’t like to believe in some greater force here, pulling the strings and watching him dance. But after dying each day for more than a week’s worth of days, he was beginning to suspect someone was doing this to him on purpose. He could believe the gunshots and the object-related deaths easily; he had been trying to figure out what the object did then and it had seemed trial and error might be the most efficient way of doing so. The fire in his apartment building had seemed so random, and he still couldn’t pinpoint exactly what he had done to cause it to happen that day and no other. But the elephant had been… strange—and this was the opinion of a man who worked for a secret organization, who lived most of the time in the air, who had spent the better part of a year sitting by the bedside of a frozen superhero from World War II, and who had been run through by an Asgardian god but lived to tell the tale. Bizarre had a whole new weight when the word was used by Agent Phil Coulson, and that elephant coming out of nowhere and trampling him in the middle of the city street had been truly bizarre.


With resolve to look both ways before crossing the street from now on during these time loops, Coulson climbed out of a perfectly nice, warm bed and made his way to the bedroom door. He grabbed his phone off the nightstand. He pulled the bathrobe off the hook and slid his arms through its sleeves. Its tie dragged on the carpeted floor as he stepped into his slippers, wiggling his toes as his feet went all the way in. He grabbed the tissue box from the linen closet and pulled out tissues as he went.


When he got to the buzzer, he answered, “Come on up,” without even waiting for Clint to introduce himself. Then he stood at his door, tissues in hand, and waited for the elevator. He’d done this before and he could do it again. But he didn’t think he could do it again forever. If there were an outside force wanting him to get it right and punishing him with fires and random elephants and who knew what other crazy, painful deaths, he thought he had better start trying to figure it out sooner rather than later. Because this repetition was already starting to get to him. How many ways were there to get up and answer the door? After a few dozen or a few hundred or even a few thousand, when would he start wishing that the deaths come sooner, easier? When would he start wishing for death to be permanent? When would he start begging for death to finally claim him?


Coulson didn’t want to get to that point. He wanted to figure this out. And that meant enlisting the help of Agent Clint Barton (despite his head cold). It meant enlisting the help of his S.H.I.E.L.D. team. And it meant enlisting the help of absolutely anyone who could help him out. Coulson was not going to be picky at this point.


He heard the elevator ding out in the hallway, doors sliding open and footsteps approaching. He heard the knock on the door, took a deep breath, raised the tissues, and opened the door. If he was going to have to do this every day, he certainly would. But he did not want to get sneezed on every single morning. That much he seemed to be able to control without causing some major catastrophe that made the building explode or leveled the city. This was just Clint Barton sneezing into a handful of tissues instead of all over his handler… and friend… and… maybe something more if Coulson was ever allowed to make it to the next day.


 Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” Clint sneezed, face planting right into the tissues; Coulson held them at exactly the right height. Clint started to draw back, but Coulson reached out and put a hand on Clint’s head, keeping him there as the second sneeze suddenly struck. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” This time, Coulson dropped his hand and let Clint pull back, sniffling. But as he balled up the tissues in his hand, he got a fresh tissue out of the box with his other hand. Clint took it, looking too grateful to be surprised, and blew his nose.


“Bless you,” Coulson said. “Come in. You look like you could use a warm blanket and some cold medicine.”


Hope danced in Clint’s eyes, over the folds of the tissue. “You have some?”


“No, but I can go out and buy you some,” Coulson told him, ushering him in and closing—and locking, of course—the door behind them both. It was little protection against fires or otherworldly energy weapons, but it might keep an elephant out of his penthouse apartment.


Coulson would have escorted the man to the bed again, but Clint already headed straight for the couch. He flopped down on it, hugging a couch cushion to his chest, coughing and sniffling. The one tissue Coulson had gave him was pretty well used up by then. “I started feeling sick a few days back. Thought I could kick it on my own. But it just got worse. I think I need someone looking after me. And I’d ask Tasha, but I think she’s off on an undercover op in Bulgaria.”


“So I’ve heard.”


“And I… I c-c-cah… huhhhh… I c-can’t go to the tower. Huh… huhh-EHSChhooo!” Coulson sat down on the edge of the couch and held the box of tissues out. Clint helped himself to two. After wiping his nose, he blew it, then wiped some more.


“So you needed somebody to look after you and, naturally, you thought of me? You thought I’d be free to drop everything and take care of you?”


He concentrated on rubbing his nose, buying himself some time. He didn’t—couldn’t—look at Coulson when he answered. “I had hoped you might.” He wavered, looking unsure. “Will you?”


“Yes,” Coulson answered right away. “But you need to do something for me.”


“Sure. What’s that?”


He loved how quick to answer both of them had been. “I need you to keep me alive today for as long as possible.”


Clint sat right up. The couch cushion fell to the floor. “What did you say?”


“Keep me alive. I’m stuck in a time loop. Every day I die and ever morning I wake up again here. Sometimes I tell you what’s going on. Sometimes I don’t. This time around, obviously, I’m telling you.”


“And do I usually… believe you?”


Coulson smiled. “Every time, without fail. Though it helps prove my point when Agent Hill calls me to ask me to go to the nearby museum to retrieve an 0-8-4, even though I am technically on vacation.”


“Agent—” He cut off at the buzzing sound of Coulson’s phone.


Coulson pulled it out as usual. He was about to answer it, then thought it would be a better idea to have Clint do it. He offered over the phone. “Answer it for me, would you?”


Clint looked down, obviously seeing Hill’s name on the caller ID. Warily, he answered. “This is Agent Phil Coulson’s phone, Agent Barton speaking. Go ahead.” Clint listened, and Coulson watched him listen, studying Clint’s face and tone of voice for a reaction to what this might mean to Clint. “I see.” Clint nodded to himself, because she couldn’t see him through the phone. “I’m sure he’s available, yes. He’s just looking after me this morning. I’m not feeling so hot. Sniff!” A pause. “I will tell him. But I guess he could.” A longer pause, during which Clint rubbed his gloved hand under his runny nose. “Yes. That’s just a few blocks away, I understand.” Another pause while he looked at Coulson and smiled. “You’re in luck. He just walked into the room. Here you are, Agent Hill.” He handed the phone over.


Coulson gave Clint a smile as he took the phone. “Good morning, Agent Hill. I assume you have a good reason to pull me away from the first vacation I’ve had since Tahiti? It’s a magical place.”


“I’m sorry, Agent Coulson. We’re stretched pretty thin right now and could really use your help. Clint tells me the New York City Science Museum isn’t far from your present location, and there’s an 0-8-4 that was found after the Battle of New York that’s apparently acting up now. I thought you would want to be the one to bring it in for us.”


“You thought right. I’ll be over there in a few minutes.”


“Thank you. And… should I be concerned about Hawkeye?”


Coulson smiled back at Clint this time. “No, he’ll be fine once I get some medicine in him. It’s just a bad head cold, I think. Nothing to worry about as long as you don’t send him off on an operation.”


“Good to know. Thanks again, Agent.”


When Coulson hung up, he slipped his phone into the pocket of his bathrobe. “So, what do—”


“You die?” Clint interrupted. He stopped for a moment to sneeze. “Hehh… heh-eh… heh-Keschhh! Sniff! Every time loop, you die?


“I do. I’ve been shot, burned, caught in explosions… run over.” He didn’t want to mention the elephant specifically. He didn’t even want to think about the damn elephant.


Clint stood up and put a hand on Coulson’s shoulder. “You’ll look after me, and I’ll look after you. Is it a deal?”


“Deal. I’m going to have to get dressed first—”


“Any deaths related to that?”


“None. Nothing until after the museum. Unless I don’t make it to the museum. In which case the entire city explodes.”


Clint stared at him and said, with all seriousness, “Go get dressed. Let’s go to the museum.”


Coulson dressed quickly and returned to the living room. Clint was bent almost in half, tissues pressed to his nose and mouth. Heh-huhh-HuhShuhh! Heh-uhh… HuhShuhhhh!I


“Bless you. Ready to go? Load your pockets up with tissues. If other times through the loop are any indication, you’re going to need every single one of them.”


Heh heh-KIHshhhh!” Clint grimaced at the idea of sneezing so much. “Maybe we should stop off for that cold medicine along the way?”


Now that was an interesting thought. A quick in and out for one item wouldn’t take so much time the 0-8-4 would come after him. And nothing about it seemed like it would cause a fire in his building, either. “I’ve never tried that before. We could give it a go. There are some things about the object I should probably tell you before we get to the museum, anyway.”


After his last encounter with the… what had Clint called the mobster? A tracksuit dracula? After his last encounter and death, Coulson instinctively felt that he should be carrying a weapon as well. But so far he’d never needed one in the morning just to go to the museum, so as long as they didn’t change anything too significant like get the researchers all riled up, they’d probably be fine without weapons again. Clint shoved another handful of tissues into his now obviously bulging pocket, and he was more reluctant to leave his weapons. “You wanted me to protect you, right? I need my sniff, sniff bow and arrows for that. Sniff!


“Relax. As long as I make it to the museum, nothing will come after me this morning. Besides, I have a feeling they’re not going to get through museum security.”


Clint still picked up his weapons. “I’m an Avenger. I don’t take unnecessary chances. And I don’t let museum security tell me what to do.”


They started to leave, but Clint held up one finger this time, motioning for Coulson to wait. Ehh… heh!” His breath was catching in quick, shallow gasps. “Huh! Uh!” His red, chapped nostrils were flaring. “Huhhh! Huh-uhh!” His eyes squinted shut, though he looked like he was struggling to keep them open, eyebrows arched. “Huh! Uhh! Heh! Ihhh!” His mouth dropped open as a tissue came up to cover the lower half of his face. “Ih-yehhhhh… HEH—” He paused, waiting, nose wrinkling, brow furrowing. The sneeze seemed to take forever to come. Just as Clint was starting to lower the tissue, it struck. “KEHTchuhhhh!


“Bless you.” Coulson had seen the man sneeze hundreds of times now, but that didn’t lessen his sympathy. “You really sound awful,” he told Clint.


Clint nodded, blowing his nose repeatedly, as many times as the tissue could take, refolded in on itself after each blow. Sniff! I really feel awful. Sniff! But I’m not dying from it. I think you have the bigger complaint right now. So let’s get going to the museum.”


Grateful for Clint’s support, though still feeling bad for the guy, they headed to the museum. But they did pop into a drug store along the way and buy a box of medicine. And he did take the time to explain the necessary facts to Clint as they walked. “The object displays energy within our visible spectrum, and started doing so this morning. The first time I encountered it, the energy went straight for me.”


“It sniff! Sniff! It killed you?


 “No. It didn’t even hurt. And when I touched the object, the visible energy went away. My team did some analysis of it on board the jet and the object is still putting out some measurable amount of energy, even if we can’t see it any more. You, however, affect it in the opposite way. If you get near it, the energy output increases until everything around it explodes.”


Clint stopped dead in his tracks. “Why are you taking me there then?”


Shaking his head, “It’s nothing to worry about until you get within a few feet of it or try to touch it. It’s fine once I put it in its protective S.H.I.E.L.D. case here.” He patted the case for dramatic effect. “I don’t know that the case is able to contain all its energy, but I’ve never had a problem with it when it’s in its case. You’re able to be close to it and everything. In fact, if one of us isn’t near it at all times, it levels the city.”


“Let’s try to avoid that this time. New York already got a bad beating sniff, sniff after the battle a few months back.


Coulson was in agreement about this. “This object was recovered from the wreckage after the battle. S.H.I.E.L.D. should have taken charge of it then; it’s clearly an alien weapon of some sort, and it’s got to be responsible for the time loops somehow. But the researchers at the museum have at least run some preliminary tests on it in the meantime.”


“Why do you think it picked today of all days to act up?”


With a shrug, “Couldn’t tell you. Mars aligning with Jupiter? An unseasonably chilly day in late autumn? A timer that’s been counting down inside it this whole time finally went off?”

“Or the fact that we came together this morning.”


This made Coulson pause for a beat. “What?”


“We haven’t seen each other once since… since… oh… I… heh


“You’re going to sneeze,” Coulson said, slightly amused. Of course the moment Clint has a new theory for him, he gets interrupted in its delivery. That was just so in keeping with the way this day usually went.


Clint nodded emphatically, mouth dropping open again as he pinched his thumb and forefinger over his nose and curled his other fingers around his mouth. He tried to keep from breathing, but the gasps were too strong, too instinctive. Redness flushed into his cheeks, and he pressed his side up against the wall of the store they happened to be passing, trying—and failing—to blend in and stay out of the way of the New Yorkers passing on the street.


Having witnessed this sort of thing before from Clint, Coulson understood what he should do. He moved in front of Clint, put his arms around the man, and drew him close. Clint buried his face in Coulson’s shoulder. But he didn’t sneeze until Coulson’s hand reached up and stroked the back of his head. That was the touch that apparently let him know it was all right. “Heh-heh… heyihhhhhh… KIHXxxnghttt! Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…


The stifled sneeze sounded painful, but muffled into the folds of Coulson’s time loop suit. Coulson patted Clint on the back, then moved back to give him space. “Bless you, again.”


Clint sniffled, rubbing the back of his hand with the fingerless glove at his nose, which had to be making it a shade redder. “Thank you, Sir.” With a nod, Coulson put a hand on his back and led him onward toward the museum.


Hawkeye was no Captain America or Iron Man. He wasn’t a powerful Asgardian god or even a big green guy. But Clint was right; he was still an Avenger. And he was still recognized by security at the museum. After signing autographs—one for the guard’s daughter and one for the guard himself, he turned on the Clint Barton charm. “Hey, I know weapons aren’t allowed, but I’m escorting this S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on official business…” He was waved through at once, despite the beeping of the metal detector as he passed through it. Coulson, on the other hand, was stopped when he set off the alarm. He was the senior agent and had been Clint’s handler for years; he wasn’t used to this new recognition Agent Baron was getting. It would make future undercover missions more difficult. Though saving New York and the world in a public battle hadn’t hindered Agent Romanov at all it seemed. Maybe Bulgarians didn’t follow the American news as closely as their own.


Still, Coulson played by the rules. He put his badge, keys, phone, and wallet into the little tray as he followed behind. The timetable was off again, so the little girl didn’t run into him. But he did spot her on the other side of the hall, coming out of an exhibit already with her father. They couldn’t have been in there long, considering when Coulson usually ran into her—or she into him. Before heading to the lab, they swung by the restrooms. Clint took a few sips of water from the drinking fountain then swallowed two cold pills with another mouthful or two and a few jerks of his head to get them down fast. While they were there, Coulson noticed the little girl ducking into the women’s restroom; that explained things. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents walked around the periphery of the circular entrance hall until they got to the Authorized Personnel Only area. That security guard gave Clint a harder time about the weapons—which amounted to only about an extra twenty seconds of scrutiny. He glanced at their badges and allowed them in through the doors to the hallways swarming with researchers.


Coulson led the way to the lab, smiling as he felt Clint’s hand on his shoulder this time around again. They wove around small clumps of them in the hallway and slipped through gaps between others, reaching the laboratory before most of them. Dr. Daniels was there, though, his gaze fixed on the 0-8-4. Coulson approached while Clint hung out just inside the doorway, watching the scene from his perch where it was safe enough away.


“Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Coulson introduced himself, yet again, wondering how many more times he was going to have to do this. “Dr. Daniels, I presume?” he asked, knowing perfectly well, of course.


Dr. Daniels tore his gaze from the object and its dangerous but beautiful threads of blue and purple energy. “Agent Coulson, it just started up like this this morning. What…” he noticed Coulson getting closer. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get too close.” By the doorway, Clint tensed up.


“I will be fine,” Coulson said, hoping that statement applied more to the day and his new (albeit sniffly) protector than to the object he knew would be safe as houses in his hands. He picked the 0-8-4 up, noticing that the energy retracted, not meeting any bit of his hand as he wrapped his fingers around the shiny, silver cylinder. Coulson opened the case he’d brought along and set the object safely inside. “Dr. Daniels, I need you to send the extensive research you’ve done to S.H.I.E.L.D. so my team can work on it as soon as possible.”


“Of course,” he nodded automatically, eyes now on the small case in Coulson’s hand. “Right away.”


Boldly, Coulson headed for the door. Clint jumped a little, nervous to see the case so close. But, just as Coulson had said, it was safe for the two to be near each other now that Coulson had it. “Do you want to stop by the grocery store on the way back to my apartment?” Coulson asked, listening to Clint sniffle more. Clint had his nose pinched almost all the time now, snapping forward periodically as strong, half-stifled sneezes came at him.


“No. I want to take a closer look at the object as soon as it’s safe to do so.” He looked around, expecting danger to be lurking right around the corner. Then he pitched forward. “H’Ngttttt! Uhhh…


With Clint at his side, looking out for danger, Coulson took out his cell phone again. He called May. “I need an unscheduled pickup in the park where you dropped me off. S.H.I.E.L.D. has me working on an 0-8-4 and I need the best and brightest on my side to figure it out.”


“Yes, Sir. Changing course now. Estimated time of arrival in twenty minutes.”


“Thank you.” He hung up, looked both ways at the intersection, checked to make sure the crossing light was set to WALK, and looked both ways again. When he was sure no cars, trucks, buses, or loose, rampaging elephants were heading his way, he crossed the street. He could feel Clint walking close to him, so close he could pull Coulson out of harm’s way at a second’s notice.


Heh… ihh-NXxgtttt!


Assuming he wasn’t in the middle of sneezing during that particular second. Still, he felt safer with Clint at his side than without him.




Coulson looked around. “I’m sure we can find a food cart if you’re hungry.”


“Sniff! But are you hungry? How many time loops have you been through now? You didn’t have breakfast this morning. Do you always skip breakfast?”


Coulson thought about it. He’d had a few bites to eat here and there during the afternoon while Clint had been napping or when his team had been working on the device. But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a meal. And he did not actually feel hungry yet, though he knew he probably should. “Let’s find a food cart and somewhere to sit and talk. You look exhausted, Agent.”


Clint nodded and sniffled, which pretty much meant Coulson was right on the mark about that. They ended up sitting on a park bench eating piping hot, foot-long hot dogs loaded with everything from ketchup and mustard to relish and onions. Clint made a dent in the tissues he had stashed in his pocket, using first his napkin then a dozen or so of them to blow his nose. The cool, crisp air outside was probably not helping and only making it run more. But he didn’t complain once.


“I think you’ll like my team,” Coulson told him between bites. He still wasn’t very hungry, but the hot dog had been a good idea for the warmth alone. As long as the hot dog didn’t turn out to be tipped with rat poison, this seemed like a good change in the course of the day’s events. “They’re no Avengers, but I hand-picked them myself. They’re a good bunch.” Coulson had a soft spot for all of them, but Skye especially, he thought Clint might get a kick out of. They were both used to doing things in a roundabout kind of way, rules be damned. But Clint had been through the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy, and Skye still wasn’t completely trusted by the team, despite assisting them many times on operations. It would take time, he knew. And time was something he both had and didn’t have right now. But when you were stuck inside a time loop, sometimes it felt like no matter how far you got, it didn’t matter because you were just going to start over again from scratch. Unless this was the time they figured it out and stopped the loops from happening. Coulson savored the last bite of the hot dog, though it was mostly bun by that point.


“Can I get a look at the object again?” Clint asked, dabbing at his nose with a tissue.


“Sure.” Coulson didn’t see the harm in it. “Just try not to sneeze on it. I don’t know what will happen if you do, and today’s going pretty well. I don’t want to jeopardize that.”


“Got it,” Clint promised, holding his hand up as if he were taking an oath or pledge.


Coulson set the case between them on the park bench and opened it up. Clint knew better than to reach for it. And he kept a tissue at his nose and mouth so he didn’t even breathe on it directly. But the object didn’t react to having Clint so close. No visible energy sprang from it. It sat contentedly in its case, nestled in the gray foam padding that had formed all around it to keep it safe and secure.


But it would have been safer and more secure if the case hadn’t been opened at all. Because it was still sitting there when Coulson and then Clint, only a second later, felt a sharp prick on their necks.


They never made it to the rendezvous with the bus that Coulson had tried to arrange.


Instead, Coulson found himself waking up and unable to move. He sat on a chair in the center of a room, feet tied to each front chair leg. His hands were tied behind him at the wrists to each back chair leg. Thick robes wrapped around his torso three times, tying him tight to the back of the chair. Whoever had done this was good with knots; the more he strained, the less slack he got, so he stopped before it was too tight around his chest to breathe. The room was dark, apart from a single light bulb dangling overhead, and so large that Coulson couldn’t see the walls on any sides of him. It seemed an endless abyss surrounding him, so even if he miraculously broke free somehow, he wouldn’t know in which direction to go in first. He could end up running right to a dead end or, worse, toward the barrel of another gun. Worse yet, the case and the 0-8-4 were nowhere to be seen. “Hello?” Coulson called out, his voice echoing endlessly in the room.


“Hey,” came a rough voice from just behind Coulson. “Glad you woge ub at last. Sniff! I’ve beed callig for you for albost ad hour.”


“Clint?” Clint sounded horrible—twice as tired and four times as congested. That couldn’t be good. How long had they been here like this?


“Yep-heh-yep. Ihhhhhh-CHSHHHHH!” The sneeze, too, echoed throughout the large room.


“Bless you,” Coulson said softly.


Clint snuffled, laughed, and coughed all in the span of about a second. “Dod’t bother, Sir. I’b too far gode add I c-cah… hah… huh-KITSCHHHH! Snuffffffff! I cad’t s-stob sdeh… ehhh… hehhhh-EHPTISHHHHH!


Coulson turned his head toward where Clint seemed to be. If he strained his neck, turning his head all the way to the right, he could just about make out a blurry shape with blond hair sitting about a foot away, directly behind him. Clint was too close to see properly but too far away to to be able to reach out and touch even if he strained at the rope restraints rubbing his wrists raw. “Are you tied to a chair, too?”


Once again, Clint answered in the affirmative. “Yep.” But this time he managed to do it without sneezing… at least for a good five seconds. “Ihhhh… ihh-HIHKSchhhhhhh! HEHTSchhhhhhhh! Uhhhhh… Sniff! Sniff! Bet you’re wishig you had edlisted subode else to brotect you today, ared’t you, Sir? I did a bretty boor job of it.”


“There’s still time. You may end up saving me after all.”

Heh dot too likely, eved without this horrible cold id by dose. Heh… huh-IHShhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff, sniff! I should have idsisted od that grocery store trib. I could use bore sniff! Sniff! bore tissues, Sir.


“I’ll keep that in mind for next time I go through this time loop.” Coulson replied, trying to sound optimistic.


“Udless this snrfffff! Udless this is your last tibe through add you dod’t get adother do-over.”


“That’s not the way today works for me,” Coulson reassured him. “I’ll make this right tomorrow when—”


“A time loop?” The voice came from somewhere in the shadows. A cold, deep voice tinged, strangely, with mirth. “Well, that explains how confident you were when you merely waltzed into the museum and took charge of the Shandari bullet.”


Chills raced up and down Coulson’s spine, and not just because it was freezing cold here—wherever here was. He didn’t recognize the voice at all, so it wasn’t an adversary he had met before, which was both good and bad. He didn’t know who had kidnapped them, but at least it wasn’t Loki. “Who are you?”


“Ah…” From out of the darkness came a soft cackle. In Coulson’s experience, good guys didn’t cackle like that. Well, good guys also didn’t render S.H.I.E.L.D. agents unconscious, kidnap them to undisclosed locations, and tie them to chairs. So he had a pretty good idea of what he was dealing with already. The reply didn’t change his mind any. “So you don’t know who I am yet. Excellent. That will make this much more fun… for me, that is. I dare say you two won’t be enjoying yourselves much.”


“What—” Coulson began.


Huhh-IHShhhh! HIHShuhhhhh! Huh… huh-KETCHHHHH! Uhh… sniff! Heh-EPTSHHhhhhhh! Sniff! Oh godSniff! Sniff!


“Hang in there, Clint.” His hand bent back, fingers stretching, wrists pressing hard against the tight ropes, but he came nowhere close to touching Clint. He would have to settle for being that reassuring, commanding voice Clint listened to when they were on operations. “I’ve seen you in worse spots than this.”


More cackling. The sound put Coulson on edge far worse than Wolverine’s adamantium claws against a chalkboard. If he could just see the villain, that would be better than this cold, disembodied voice from the darkness. “I see,” said the voice. “So he’s the key to all of this. The best way to hurt you is through him… and that shouldn’t be hard, considering the state he’s in already.” From out of nowhere to the side of them came a small dart attached to a wire. Electrical current flew through it, straight into Clint’s left side.


The agent screamed and shook as he was tased, the sound of the chair he was on rocking as he tried to get free on top of the shout made Coulson strain again at his own bonds. “Cut it out, you bastard!”


“Now, now. Name-calling does not suit you. Why waste your time on that? If you simply tell me what I want to know, this can all end so much more quickly.”


Coulson had no intention of cooperating—not for his sake or for Clint’s. But he did want to know what this man was up to. The man presumably had the 0-8-4 now and knew something about it. Clint needed to know what the man wanted to get out of them, preferably before the man tortured Clint Barton to death. So he asked, point blank, “What do you want to know?”


The tasing stopped. Clint gasped for breath, then let out a soft moan.




“Mb’okay… Sir…”


He sounded miles from okay.


“What I want to know,” the man began, “Is how you knew to activate the device today of all days.”


Coulson didn’t even have to lie. Out came the truth. “I didn’t do anything. It started up on its own this morning.”


“Liar!” Again came the taser. Again came Clint’s scream. And again Coulson tried to get free and failed.


Clint was tough. Clint was a trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Clint was an Avenger. But Clint was also just a man. One who was already compromised. What if he ended up killing Clint but didn’t touch Coulson? What if he let Coulson go and the day didn’t reset? Coulson had to keep the man’s attention on him and off Clint. “So what if I am lying? You’re threatening me. You’re not giving me any incentive to cooperate. We’re trained agents here, ready to die to protect our world. I’m not about to hand any information over to you. I don’t even know who you are.”


Clint stopped screaming and, instead, coughed; it sounded moist and terribly painful, like he could start gagging at any moment.


“Agent Barton?” The sound did not let up. Chills ran, again throughout Coulson’s body. “Agent Barton? Agent Bar—Clint? Clint?” The sound let up.


Clint gave a final cough, then got his breathing under control.


Relief filled Coulson. “That’s it. Stay with me, Clint. I’m right here. Right behind you. Focus on my voice.”


“Try… heh-heh-GETSHooooo! Trying to, Sir. Sniff! I dod’t dow what tibe it is, but I thig that cold bedicide wore off.”


Despite the situation they were in, Coulson had to smile at this. “I’ll get you something stronger next time.” 


“You will tell me what I want to know!” the voice boomed from the darkness, and Coulson was pleased to hear more emotion this time, even if that emotion was anger. Good. He was starting to lose his control.


“Maybe some tea as well. Do you like tea? Some strong herbal tea with honey might help clear you up.”


Sniff! Souds great, Sir.


“And tissues. I’ll get you all the tissues. Do you know there was one day I went shopping for tissues for you and couldn’t decide what kind to get so I got one of everything in the store—minus the floral scented ones. Those seemed like an abomination I wouldn’t let into my apartment. But I made sure you were drowning in tissues.”


Clint’s breath caught again. “Huhh… huhh… huh-uhhh…” It sounded like he was fighting it.


“It’s okay, you can let it out” Coulson soothed.


“Doe… Sir… uhhh… huhhhhhh… hah… by dose…”


Coulson closed his eyes for a moment, wishing he could will this loop finished sooner so he could at least do something to help Clint. All he could do now was talk. “We’re going to get through this, Clint. Just pretend you’re sneezing into a nice, big wad of tissues. Or one of my handkerchiefs. You liked those.”


“I huhh I did? Hehhh… uhhhh…


“Yes. Softer on your nose.”


Uhhh.. Huhh-HIHSchhuhh! HuhhSHIHHHhhhhhh! EhhhhKSHHHHH! Uh… huh HIHSChhhhhhhh!


 “That’s it,” Coulson said, through the sound of Clint sniffling madly.


“That’s enough!” the villain shouted through the darkness. “This banter is ridiculous and—”


Coulson cocked his head. “Ridiculous? Does this seem ridiculous to you, Clint?”


“Doe, Sir. Berfectly datural to be tied up to a chair id the biddle of a dark roob, talkig about by sdeezy head cold with you.”


“How did you activate the device?!” demanded the voice. “It just sits here, doing nothing. All of this potential and it’s dormant!”


Ah. So he knows what the device is capable of doing, but he can’t operate it. It must be blocking the man somehow since it was already tied to Coulson… and maybe to Clint as well, to some extent, though he couldn’t figure out how that would be. It definitely reacted to Clint’s presence, but Clint hadn’t been anywhere near it on that first day when it had seemed active.


A familiar buzzing, quite unlike that of the taser, filled the air. While it could have been the villain’s cell phone, Coulson was certain the sound was coming from his pocket. Dumb move, kidnapping two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and leaving one’s phone not only on him but turned on. He hadn’t been at the pickup point where he was supposed to have been. That sound was probably Skye calling to tell him she had figured out his location and the team was about to burst in, guns blazing. There was nowhere to take cover. There was no way to warn Clint. But Coulson had a feeling Clint had already figured it out.


With a huge grunt and a scraping of wood, Clint managed to rock his chair, tipping over to his right and falling to the hard concrete floor. His right arm and right hip took the brunt of the fall, but he was over far enough for Coulson to see him, and Coulson could tell he was still alive—in pain, definitely, but still alive. Coulson tried to do likewise, but something grabbed him. He heard footsteps racing close. He heard shouts and gunfire.


Then he felt a hand on his throat. It squeezed, pressing at just the right spots to take his breath clean away. Coulson struggled, knowing that would make things worse but having no other way to fight the man off. He couldn’t manage to break free, but he did manage to turn his head just enough to catch a glimpse of the man who had taken them captive and tortured them. The voice hadn’t been familiar, but the face was.


The face was. He just couldn’t… quite… remember where… he’d seen it… before….



Chapter 11


Coulson woke, gasping for breath in a state of pure panic. His eyes shot open, and he stared at the closet door across the bedroom from his bed for almost a full minute until his heart rate began to drop down toward normal again. Automatically, he climbed out of his very warm and very safe bed and into the chilly morning air in his apartment. Goosebumps dotting his bare arms, he walked straight to the door, hit the buzzer to unlock the door downstairs for Clint, and then unlocked his own door. He threw it open and started down the hallway.


Repeatedly, pressed the button for the elevator, as if that would hurry it along faster. He didn’t care that Mrs. Sampson got a look at him in his underwear when the doors rolled open. He didn’t care that it was freezing in the apartment building’s hallway. He didn’t care that Clint was taken completely off guard when Coulson grabbed him, pulled him out of the elevator, and wrapped both arms around him in a tight hug. He didn’t even care when Clint sneezed down his back.


Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” And then, of course, “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


Clint tried to pull out of the hug, but Coulson clung to him tightly, not ready to let him go yet. “Um, good to see you, too, Agent Coulson. You may not want to be doing that, though. I’ve come down with a pretty bad cold, and I’m probably still contagious.”


“I know.” Coulson squeezed him even tighter. “And I don’t care.”


Clint waited a few seconds before replying, “How does S.H.I.E.L.D. always seem to know everything about me?”


“Not S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Coulson explained. “Just me. I’m stuck in a time loop, and I was just tortured and killed before waking right back up in my bed like always.”


Clint sniffled as he stood there, then his hands found Coulson’s back and rubbed comfortingly. “And where was I when this was going on?”


“Tied to a chair with probably a broken arm and some burns from being tased repeatedly.”


“Ah. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable.”


“I would like to avoid that particular outcome today, if possible.”


“And standing here hugging me all day will accomplish that, will it?”


“Ha…” Coulson gave a half-hearted laugh and finally pulled back. He felt a little embarrassed, yes, but he also felt the instinct to step forward and embrace the man again almost immediately. Fighting against his instincts, he gestured toward his open front door. “Come in. There’s time for me to start a pot of water for tea before Agent Hill calls me in the middle of my supposed vacation to go after an object at the museum just a few blocks away. Do you actually take honey in your tea, or were you just humoring me about that because we were tied up and being tortured and trying to stall for time?”


“Um… honey’s fine, Sir.”


As he lived mostly on the bus now, Coulson didn’t have very much in his apartment. But he did have water, teabags, and half a plastic bear of honey. He parked Clint in his bed with the tissue box and his cell phone close at hand. “Answer it when it rings in a few minutes,” he ordered. Then he went to heat up the water. It felt like a dream to be moving around again. One moment he was dizzy, losing air, losing his vision, and the next moment he was back in bed, just fine as if the day had never happened.


But it had. Clint might not remember it, but Coulson sure did. Coulson knew he’d never forget it. And while he didn’t feel any closer to ending this time loop situation he found himself in, he did have a brand new piece of the puzzle called a Shandari bullet. The man had called it a Shandari bullet. He didn’t know the Shandari, but that sounded alien to him. Luckily, he knew some people who knew a thing or two about aliens.


The hot water in the kettle reached its boiling point just as he heard his phone buzz from his bedroom. As he poured water over the teabags in mugs, he listened to Clint’s side of the conversation with Agent Hill again. “This is Agent Phil Coulson’s phone, Agent Barton speaking. Go ahead.” Then Agent Hill said something on her end that made Clint reply, “I see.” Agent Hill followed-up, presumably asking about Coulson’s availability… perhaps wondering if he were on some sort of operation already with Agent Barton; Agent Barton did not often answer Coulson’s phone for him, after all. “I’m sure he’s available, yes. He’s just looking after me this morning. I’m not feeling so hot. Sniff!” There was another pause, during which time Coulson carried the tray of tea down the hall toward the bedroom. “I will tell him. But I guess he could.” When Coulson entered, he saw Clint pressing tissues to his nose and trying to concentrate on the details Agent Hill was relaying to him over the phone. “Yes. That’s just a few blocks away, I understand.” Once again, Clint looked up at Coulson and smiled. “You’re in luck. He just walked in. Here you are, Agent Hill.” He handed the phone over to Coulson.


Coulson exchanged it for a cup of tea and settled down on the edge of the bed, the tray between the two of them. “You have a job for me to do, Agent Hill?”


“There’s a potentially dangerous object of unknown origin at the museum near your present location. I’m calling to ask if you could retrieve it for us.”


“Absolutely. I’m on it. Just don’t make a habit of it, Agent. This was supposed to be my vacation.”


“Right, Sir. Sorry. And, Sir, Agent Barton…?”


“Staying with me while he recovers from an illness. I trust you have already removed him from the active duty roster?”


“Oh, I will as soon as I’m off this call.”


“Glad to hear it. Keep up the good work, Agent Hill. My team and I will take it from here.”


“Actually, you don’t need to—” Coulson hung up as if he had not heard this last bit from her.


“How’s the tea?” he asked, taking the teabag out of his and adding honey. He stirred with a spoon and then blew on a spoonful to cool it down enough to drink it.


“Wonderful,” Clint replied. “So… you’re really in a time loop?”


“I am.”


“So Agent Hill has called you about this 0-8-4 how many times?”


“Today makes number eleven.”


“I see.” Clint sipped from his mug of tea. “And how many times have you made tea for me?”


Coulson smiled and took a drink from his own mug. “This is the first. And, if I don’t find a way to stop this time loop, it won’t be the last.”


Huh” Clint reached for a tissue, but Coulson did as well, out of instinct. Listening to Clint sneeze and sneeze and sneeze without help had been painful. He didn’t want Clint to ever go through that again. So his hand reached the tissue box first and pulled out a few tissues that he put into Clint’s hand for him. “Huhh” Clint buried his nose and mouth into them. “Hehhh-Ehhhh… ehhh-HIHShhhhh!


“Bless you.” Coulson got up and set the tray on the nightstand. “Get some rest while I’m at the museum.”


Clint shook his head and set his tea aside on the tray. “I can come with you.” He started to push the covers down in order to climb out of bed.


“You can. You have before. But there’s no need for you to do so. I can make it there and back without dying, as long as I look both ways…” And look out for a certain face that was now burned into his memory. “I need you well rested for this afternoon.” He pulled the covers back up. “So stay put and stay warm. I’ll be back with the 0-8-4 as soon as I can be.”


Coulson put on his usual clothes, making sure to put his phone into one pocket and a handkerchief into the other, just in case Clint needed one from him later in the day. He headed to the museum straight away. He fought through the busy crowd of museum-goers. He apologized when the little girl bumped into him, even though he was beginning to think she should be the one to apologize to him instead of looking startled and running off as she did every time their paths met. He made his way through the security checkpoint and to the lab along with the sea of other researchers bound for the same destination.


It was strange how at home he was beginning to feel in this room, even though everyone around him wore lab coats and he was the only suit in sight. After all this time, after all these days, he was starting to think of this object as his. Even though he had let someone take possession of it last night, he hadn’t told its secrets (as if he had actually known its secrets). And even though it had gotten him kidnapped and tortured and, yes, killed, he still came back for the object today. The Shandari bullet.


“I am S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson,” Coulson said, showing his badge for a brief moment before putting it away again. “Who’s in charge here?” he asked, trying to not look directly at Dr. Daniels when he said it.


Because, of course, Dr. Daniels spoke up. “I am. I called this morning when the object started doing… this. It’s been dormant for months while I was studying it. And then, suddenly…”


“This. I got it.” Coulson pretended to be studying it when, in actuality, he was looking past the Shandari bullet’s impressive energy display at the faces of the researchers in the room. They all looked fascinated and interested by the object; any one of them could have been the kidnapper. Even after crossing the women in the room off the list, that still only left him with two-thirds of the room. He studied each face for a second, seeing if any of them looked like the face of the man who had taken him by the throat not long back and squeezed the breath and life out of him so violently. He tried to get a look at all of them, but some of them were on the move, trying to peer through the spectators and get better looks or just different looks. So Coulson was forced to move around as well, checking out everyone he could see. But not one of them matched the face in his memory of his most recent death.


Finally, he gave up the search here and picked up the Shandari bullet, to the genuine astonishment of everyone. He smirked, wondering if that was ever going to get old; he hoped it wouldn’t. He placed it in its case and thanked Dr. Daniels for the phone call. The man had done the right thing in calling S.H.I.E.L.D. so quickly. Lives had been saved due to that action, Coulson threw in there as well, pleased when Dr. Daniels blushed.


Then Coulson left the museum. He checked for rampaging elephants and saw some destruction on the street that must have meant the elephant had already been through, taking some trash cans and a bus stop down along the way. He double-checked to be sure nothing was coming before crossing at the crosswalk. Never before had Coulson been so glad to be such a rule-follower. Sometimes it limited you, but other times it came in handy. Coulson filled a shopping cart with all the essentials—from orange juice without pulp to the strongest cold medicine he could find in the store to far too many tissue boxes… though Coulson was starting to think you could never have too many tissue boxes.


He carried his purchases the remaining block and a half home where he promptly dropped them at the sight before him. The apartment building was on fire. Again. Flames leapt from windows on the fifth floor all the way up to the penthouse. Huge plumes of dark smoke soared boldly upward, making the statement that Coulson had, once again, failed.


Around him, children cried. Sirens sounded. Emergency lights flashed. Police set up barriers and tried to keep people back from the danger, but there were many tenants of the building looking as shocked as Coulson now felt. Firefighters were on scene to handle the blaze, but the building was so far gone, Coulson knew anyone still inside would be a goner. He thought of Clint first and his collectibles second; he’d be lying if his worldly possessions hadn’t crossed his mind at all. Dogs barked. Cats meowed. And someone put a hand on his shoulder.


Coulson leapt away, knocking over some of the bags but keeping the Shandari bullet in its case gripped tightly in his hand. If that man had somehow tracked him down and set his place on fire, so be it, but he wasn’t getting his hands on the object again. But it wasn’t the man who had tortured them. It wasn’t even a neighbor or an emergency responder. It was Clint Barton.


Clint had a streak of ash on one cheek and a scrape on one arm. A thick gray blanket was draped around his shoulders, but otherwise he looked as well as a sick man could look. The handle of the case still gripped tightly in his hand, Coulson threw both his arms around the man and hugged him.


“Whoa!” Clint laughed. “Twice in one day. Agent Coulson, people are going to start talking!” he joked.


“Let them,” Coulson mumbled into the man’s blanket-covered shoulder. “What happened?”


“The smoke alarm went off. I grabbed my bow and arrows and got to the window just in time. I had a couple trick arrows that let me scale down the side of the building. I got a little too close to one of the windows at one point, and I caught my arm on a loose bit of a drainage pipe. But, in all, a pretty decent escape. I’m not sure all of your neighbors were as lucky.” He pulled back a little, eyes narrowed at Coulson. “You could have warned me this was going to happen.”


Coulson shook his head. “It doesn’t always. This is just the second time it has.”


“But it has happened before?”


“Just once. You and I both died in an elevator.”


“That sucks.”


“Yes, it did. But why did it happen this time and not every time before? What did I change?” He glanced at his watch and found it was just a few minutes after noon; he tried to commit that to memory, but there was so much he was already trying to remember—faces, poker hands, names, times, events. His memory just wasn’t good to keep it all in there.  “Why did this have to happen to me?”


Clint shrugged helplessly. Coulson gave him one more hug, squeezing hard for effect. Then he pulled back and brushed the ash off Clint’s cheek as best he could. There was still a faint gray streak there when he picked up the bags. “All right. We need to go somewhere safe.”


“Uh…” This time, Clint didn’t sound like he was about to sneeze, for a change. “My place isn’t really a good idea, if that’s what you’re thinking.”


Coulson had already ruled that out. Even knowing who was there waiting for them so they could be ready when they entered the apartment didn’t even put Clint’s place on the list of possibilities. Besides, all of Coulson’s weapons had just gone up in a fire. “No. I have somewhere else in mind, actually.”


Ehhh” Clint looked around to see if anyone was around to hear him. Some of Coulson’s neighbors were around. He ended up pinching his nose closed anyway. “Hehhh… heh-eh… Keh’Hixxtttt!


Coulson looked around as well, searching for his car. He finally found her behind a firetruck where several parts of the building had rained down on her. She was not beyond fixing, but she was not in any condition to be driven just now.


They walked a few blocks over to be able to catch a cab heading uptown. A few cabs passed them by; Coulson thought it might have to do with Clint in a blanket, but he wouldn’t hear of Clint taking it off even briefly. It was chilly out and Clint still insisted on wearing a uniform that had no sleeves. One finally stopped for them, and Coulson ushered Clint in just like before, placed the bags inside, and then climbed in along with the case. He found himself studying the cabbie’s face in the rear view mirror, just to be sure this man wasn’t coincidentally the man from the night before; of course he wasn’t.


“Where to, guys?”


“Eighth, Broadway, and Central Park, Please.”


The cabbie’s eyebrows shot up. “Columbus Circle then?”


“Yes. Stark Tower, more specifically.”


The cabbie pulled back into traffic. “I hear they’re calling it Avengers Tower now.”


“You don’t say…” Coulson said, smirking again.


But Clint seemed dead set against this. “Okay, look, you can take me home if you want. Just not the tower.”


Lowering his voice, Coulson replied, “We’re not going to your place. There’s a guy in a tracksuit there waiting to shoot me. Or, rather, he’s waiting to shoot you, but I’m pretty good at getting in the way.”


Clint looked guilty about this something that wasn’t his fault. At least, it probably wasn’t his fault. Coulson hadn’t exactly stopped to ask why the tracksuit dracula had been there. But whatever had gone down, Coulson was pretty sure he didn’t need to get killed because of it.


“Okay, but we can’t go to the tower.”


“Why not?”


Clint shrugged, which wasn’t much of an answer. Neither was sneezing, which was what he did next. “Uhhh-HITCHnxxxt! Heh… heh-KTngxttt! Sniff!” He sneezed into the side of his hand, restrained as best he could. Coulson offered over one of the tissue boxes and Clint dove right into it, blowing his nose, avoiding answering again.


“Agent Barton… Clint… why can’t we go to the tower?”


“I won’t be allowed. You might not even be.”


“That’s absurd. You’re an Avenger. There’s no reason to not go there. It’s the safest place we could be.” Coulson wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. All right, it was true that not all of the Avengers had been told that Coulson wasn’t dead. His death hadn’t been solely a manipulation to get the superheroes working together as a team. He truly had been killed by Loki; Fury had used that death, sure, but it had all been for the best. Meanwhile, Coulson had been rushed straight to S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors and had been revived while the Avengers had joined hundreds of alien invaders in battle. In the aftermath, no one had informed the Avengers that Coulson was going to survive. It had been touch and go for a while, and Coulson had really been dead for minutes, so it hadn’t been a lie at the time. “Tony does know I’m alive, doesn’t he?”


Clint shrugged again. “I’m actually not sure.”


Oh. Well, this did change things a little. There was no predicting how Tony was going to react to this news. But Tony would cope and, while he did, they would be safe in the tower. Clint would have somewhere warm to rest and Coulson would have at his disposal a wealth of technology and knowledge. If Thor were around, he could even ask about the Shandari; an Asgardian was sure to have heard of any alien race that was involved in the Battle of New York.


“We’re not going to be able to get in, though. Sniff! Sniff! I told you, I can’t go to the tower.”


“We’re at the tower,” the cab driver said cheerfully. Coulson swiped his card and added a good tip to the fare. He gathered up the bags and got out of the car, but Clint remained inside.


Rolling his eyes, Coulson leaned over. “Agent Barton, do I have to order you to get out of a taxi cab?”


Reluctantly, Clint climbed out of the car and closed the door behind, careful to not get the blanket stuck in the car door. He stood outside the tower and looked up at it as the tallest tower in Manhattan loomed above him. “This is such a bad idea, Sir.”


“It will be fine once Tony gets over the initial shock of seeing me.”


“That’s what you think.”


They entered from the back instead of through the public front entrance. If Coulson had been driving Lola, he could have parked it here in Stark’s garage. They took the elevator up to the top. Clint used his access code and also placed his palm on the panel to convince the elevator to reach the restricted floors. Clint then stood, leaning on one of the mirrored walls of the elevator, arms crossed over his chest, sniffling ever few seconds from a nose that wouldn’t quit running. When the elevator got to the top, he took a deep breath as if stealing himself against what was to come next. They walked out of the elevator and not even a second passed when an alarm sounded. The sound was painfully shrill, surrounding them in repetitive waves. Coulson fought the desire to cup both hands over his ears to lessen the impact. At the same time, Plexiglas walls were rising up from the floor to meet the ceiling on all sides of Clint and Coulson. It left them in a clear box about five feet by five feet in size. “What is this?” Coulson asked, knocking on one of the walls.


Down the hallway, a door opened and Tony came out, looking serious, concerned. “Alarm off,” he said calmly, and, mercifully, the siren stopped its wailing. Tony walked to them, his own arms crossed over his chest. He took a look at the two of them, then asked through the Plexiglas, “Who are you?”


“I know it’s probably a shock to see me alive,” Coulson began. “And I was dead, really. But S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to revive me.”


Tony took a long look at him, then finally nodded his approval. “Seems like something S.H.I.E.L.D. would do. Okay, Agent.”


“Good. Now would you let us out?” Coulson knocked on the clear wall dividing them.


“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”


“Why not?”


“JARVIS,” Tony said in a voice a little louder than the one he had just been using. “Tell Agent and Hawkeye why they won’t be coming out.”


JARVIS, Tony’s computer AI, spoke up with its calm, reasonable tone and English accent, “Quarantine was initiated because a virus was detected in one of the individuals.”


Tony nodded in agreement. “What virus?”


“A rhinovirus, more typically known as the common cold. Contagion level risk high.”


“Exactly.” Tony nodded again. This time, he looked from Coulson to Clint. “Hawkeye, you know better than to come here when you’re sick.”


Clint sniffled, rubbing his nose before replying. “I do. Sniff! Sniff! I tried to stop him, but these aren’t ordinary circumstances. His entire apartment building just burned down and… and… a-and-hahhh… hahh-HIH!” The sneeze waited just long enough for Clint to pinch his nose. That didn’t get rid of the sneeze entirely, but it did help him stifle it. Still, Tony couldn’t have missed it. “H’nixxtttt! Urhhhhhh….” He scrubbed at his nose again before continuing half-heartedly. “And he’s caught in a time loop.”


Curiosity flared up behind Tony’s eyes. “Really?”


Coulson nodded. “It has something to do with this Shandari weapon that’s giving off energy readings. But I don’t know how to end the time loops. I don’t even know how they started in the first place.” Coulson sighed. “Will you help, Tony?”


“I’d love to,” Tony said with a smile.


H’Nixttt! Heh-Ehppttch!


Tony winced. “Unfortunately, I can’t do much from out here and there are way too many germs for you to come in here. Sorry. You two are going to have to go.”


Clint, looking miserable, shrugged at Coulson. “I tried to tell you I couldn’t go to the tower.”


Coulson rubbed his forehead, where a tension headache was starting up. “Yes… I guess you did.” He made eye contact with Tony through the Plexiglas. “Can you at least start researching what a Shandari bullet is? See if Thor has heard of it. See if anyone is talking about it on the Internet.”


“Sounds like you’re asking for a little more than a simple Google search.”


Coulson set the case down and knelt beside it. He opened the case up and held up the object of unknown origin that now had a known origin. “I assume that if your tech can tell Clint has a head cold, you can get some scans of this from in here. He closed the case and set the object down on top of it. Then he took a step back from it, in case Tony’s tech needed a full 360 degrees to get a proper reading. He also put his hand on Clint’s chest and guided him to back up a few feet as well. He didn’t know what would happen if the Shandari bullet started up with its energy with the same intensity before, trapped inside an airtight Plexiglas box, but he didn’t want to find out.


Tony sighed. “Of course. JARVIS, please scan the object Agent just set down.” Tony leaned against the wall, arms still crossed over his chest. “When Hawkeye feels better and you’re not crawling with his germs, I expect you back here to talk about why you’re not dead.”


“The object is made of an unknown material,” JARVIS’s voice explained.


“Interesting…” Tony took out his phone as the schematics downloaded automatically to it. “Fascinating. It’s giving out weak energy readings….” He turned, walking back down the hallway toward his lab.


“You don’t say.” Coulson hit the button for the elevator. Then he retrieved the object, fitting it safely back into its case. “Call me if you find something out! Ask Thor about the Shandari!”


Tony didn’t turn around, but he did raise a hand, waving dismissively over his shoulder. Coulson hoped that Tony had heard.


The elevator dinged behind them and the doors rolled open. As Clint, nose pinched between his fingers, leaned against the side of the doorway to keep the doors from rolling closed again, Coulson picked up the case and the shopping bags to take those with them to wherever they were going next. Then they took the elevator back to street level.


Clint stopped pinching his nose and covered his mouth with both hands, praying-style, and coughed a few times. Then he pitched forward with sneeze. Hehhh-EhkShhhhhhh!


“Bless you.” He had to admit that Clint was a mess just now. Tony was probably right; Clint was probably contagious. Maybe it was the time loop resetting him every day… or maybe it was the memory of those kisses, but Coulson just wasn’t concerned about catching this from him—certainly not as concerned as Tony seemed to be. “So when did Tony go all Howard Hughes about germs?”


“Don’t know.” Clint pulled another tissue out of the box and blew his nose. He pocketed the balled-up tissue when he was done. Coulson wondered what it meant that he was willing to toss used tissues all over his own and Coulson’s place but he didn’t dare doing that in Tony Stark’s elevator. Now that he thought about it, Clint wouldn’t even sneeze properly in Tony’s presence, despite the fact that they had been quarantined. “He’s been like that since I met him.” Clint looked thoughtful for a moment. “But he’s been different since the Battle of New York.” He gave Coulson a sympathetic smile. “I guess we’ve all been a little different.”


Coulson shrugged in a noncommittal way and leaned against the opposite wall of the


“Thor took off to Asgard to deal with his brother. Tasha’s always working. Cap left for Washington, D.C. Bruce barely leaves his lab. Tony’s an unstable mess and pretends like hell he’s normal. And you… well, you died.”


“I die every day now,” Coulson said, his weak smile not the least bit reassuring to either of them.


Sniff! Maybe Tony will find something.


“I hope so. I’m starting to run out of options, and I can’t keep up with the changes. It’s too much for just one man to keep in his head. I make one little change and my whole building burns down. Or the city explodes in a ball of energy. What if I do the wrong thing tomorrow and accidentally trigger something that brings another horde of aliens to invade the world? Or what if get us tortured again, and this time I can’t talk the guy out of killing you? What if my team doesn’t believe that I’m in a time loop and immediately ships me off to the crazy farm? What if—”


Pushing off from the wall, Clint launched himself across the elevator and pressed his lips to Coulson’s in a strong kiss. Clint’s head was turned slightly, eyes closed, kissing deeply, firmly. Surprised by it, Coulson took a few seconds to realize this was actually happening. Then he reached up and put a hand on the back of Clint’s head to ensure that it would keep happening. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth. Though begun in sympathy, this kiss bore little resemblance to the tender, bittersweet kisses exchanged on his deathbeds. This was powerful, full of desire, full of meaning. Clint was a goddamn master of kissing, his tongue moving in exactly the right way, his hands groping in just the right places, his body pressing close with just the right pressure. Coulson would have ridden that elevator up and down for the rest of the day if it meant Clint wouldn’t stop kissing him like that.


But it ended all too soon when Clint gave a gasp and his body gave a start. He pulled back, pressing the back of his gloved hand to his nose and mouth, squishing his nose against his hand as he took quick, shallow breaths. He turned to the side, eyebrows raised then brow furrowing. Ihh hehh hehh hahh uhhh uhhhhhh… huhh-KITSchhhhh! HurKshhhhhh! Ehptishhhhh!


“Bless you,” Coulson told him again. He, too, pushed away from the wall of the elevator and put an arm around Clint. Clint seemed to melt into the touch, trying to get closer. “You came to me this morning so that I could take care of you, and all I’ve done is endanger you and drag you uptown. Let me find you somewhere safe to rest and feel better, all right?”


Clint nodded, scrubbing at his nose with the glove, the end of his nose moving left then right then left again as he sniffled wetly.


The problem was, Coulson was almost out of ideas. He could call the jet to pick them up, but the last time he did that, they had ended up kidnapped. That was the last thing Coulson wanted right now. With a giant S.H.I.E.L.D. jet heading straight for them, they were conspicuous targets. Coulson’s building was gone, and along with it his bed and warm comforter. And they definitely couldn’t go back to Clint’s place, not with the mobster waiting there to shoot them. The best option now—probably the only option—was to get a room somewhere. He could register them under a fake name so anyone looking for them wouldn’t be able to find them. And then he could medicate Clint and put him to bed before calling Tony to see if he’d figured anything out yet.


When they got out of the building, Coulson hailed another cab. Instinctively, he studied this driver’s face as well, but he didn’t look a thing like the man who had kidnapped them to get a hold on the Shandari bullet. “Nearest hotel, please,” Coulson said, wishing he had an exact destination to give. An open-ended instruction like that to a cabbie meant doubling a fare, if not tripling it. He’d have to keep his eyes open for hotels coming up so he didn’t get screwed and driven all over New York now.


The cabbie started the meter and threw his left turn signal on for a split second before diving back into traffic. The guy he cut in front of honked and nearly rear-ended him, but he seemed oblivious as he weaved in and out of traffic, not unlike the way Coulson now easily navigated through the crowded museum every morning. Clint sat beside him, sniffling, and Coulson reached over, drawing him over. Clint came at once, melting into his side, snuggling close in his blanket. He rested his head on Coulson’s shoulder and closed his eyes, perfectly trusting.


Coulson wished he had had more time to enjoy the sensation of having Clint Barton—marksman extroidinare, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and Avenger—curled up next to him. Because, as the cab made a right turn, it was hit from the side by a moving van trying to beat the yellow light that had already turned red. There was a brief moment of realization, an even briefer moment of pain, and then nothingness.


Chapter 12


Coulson woke to the all-too familiar sound of the buzzer, but he didn’t open his eyes right away. For a moment, he could still feel Clint in his arms, pressed warm against his side. He knew how easy that kiss had been, and the hugs that had followed it. He remembered what Clint had said about them all changing after the Battle of New York, and he wondered if this were just Clint trying something new for a change or whether it was something true and genuine that had been building between them for a lot longer.


Then he remembered Clint was downstairs, cold and probably shivering, waiting outside by the intercom for Coulson to buzz him into the building. So Coulson rose from bed, grabbed his phone, threw on his bathrobe, stepped into his slippers, grabbed the tissue box, and made it to the intercom by his front door before Clint could buzz impatiently a second time. “Come on up, Agent Barton.”


He had to keep in mind that this was the same Clint who had kissed him, but a Clint that had no memory of kissing him. He rubbed his forehead where the headache from yesterday was starting already—not a good sign. He hadn’t been lying when he had told Clint this was too much to keep track of. No one should have to remember so many details of different versions of a single day. No one was capable of coming up with the cause and effect for every possible decision. He would start to go crazy if he had to think of that every time around. Instead, he should try to make the best decisions he could in the moment, try to be the best version of himself he could be, try to uncover as much about the mystery at hand as he could, and see where that got him in the end. With so many factors at play, so many little details floating around him, he needed a fresh start and needed a baseline he could use from now on to compare everything to. There would be time when he had solved this and broken free from the time loop in order to figure out where he stood with Clint Barton.


He heard the ding of the elevator in the hallway, faint through his closed door, and moved to unlock his door. He pulled one then two tissues out of the box and held them in his hand. Then he opened his front door to see Clint already winding up for a sneeze that would soon become two. Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” Clint took a breath, only to snap forward again. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” As he rubbed his nose into the tissues Coulson held for him, he opened his eyes, looking puzzled. “How sniff, sniff how did you know?


“Because I’m stuck in a time loop, living this day over and over again, and the only thing I’ve actually managed to master after more than a week of this is to keep you from sneezing on me first thing in the morning.”


Clint narrowed his eyes and took charge of the tissues in Coulson’s grasp so he could rub and blow his nose on his own.


“Pretty soon, Agent Hill is going to call me away from my vacation and ask me to go to a science museum to pick up an 0-8-4. She doesn’t know that the object is called a Shandari bullet and has somehow attached itself to me—and to you. Every day, I try to find out as much as I can about it, but every day I end up dying one way or another and I still don’t have enough information to end these loops. I don’t even know if this is what the object is meant to do or if it was an unintended side effect of its actual purpose. I don’t know how dangerous it is, but I do know that doing nothing about it causes the entire city of New York to explode, and I really don’t want to see that happen again.” He took a deep breath. “The reason I’m telling you all this is because I know you came to me because you feel sick and need me to look after you. I promise I’ll do that as best I can, but I need your help on this one, too, and I know you’re going to believe me about this because you believe me every damn time I have told you about it in the past.”


Clint followed Coulson inside to the bedroom and sat down on the bed with the tissue box on his lap. “Just tell me how I can help you, Sir. I may have a cold, but I’ll do whatever you need me to.”


Relieved all over again, Coulson gave him a smile. “Thank you, Clint. Here’s what’s going to happen: Agent Hill is going to call me in a few—”


His phone buzzed. Damn it. It was incredible to be on day eleven of a time loop and still feel helpless against time. He thought he had another few minutes at least before he was thrown back into things again. He took his phone out and, without even bothering to check the caller ID, handed it to Clint to answer as icing on the cake that proved his whole story about the time loop was true. “Tell Agent Hill I just stepped out of the room for a second and ask her why she’s calling.”


As Clint answered with a “This is Agent Phil Coulson’s phone, Agent Barton speaking. Go ahead,” Coulson headed to the bathroom and made a bee line for the medicine cabinet. He didn’t have any cold medicine in the apartment; he knew that already. But he was actually after the Ibuprofen to take the edge off this headache before it got any worse. He downed an extra strength pill with a few handfuls of water from the sink faucet and stuck his head back out to see where Clint was in the conversation. “I’m sure he’s available, yes. He’s just looking after me this morning. I’m not feeling so hot. Sniff!


Coulson headed to his closet to change, wondering if that sniffle had really been necessary again at that moment or if he had just used it to illustrate his point to Agent Hill. Slipping into his usual time loop suit brought a comforting familiarity to his morning routine; it was definitely something he had no intention of changing. By the time he had dressed and stepped out of the closet, Clint was looking back at him, “You’re in luck. He just walked in. Here you are, Agent Hill.” And he handed the phone over to Coulson.


“Good morning, Agent Hill.”


“Good morning, Agent Coulson. There’s an 0-8-4 at a museum close to you that needs retrieving. It should be pretty quick. Are you available?”


Available was such a strange word to use. Was he too busy lounging around in bed, making Clint Barton tea and handing him tissues to stop the destruction of New York City? No, he supposed he could rearrange his schedule and find some time to be available for that. “I’m available to cut my vacation short and go on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. on two conditions.”


She paused and then said, “Go ahead.”


“First, you take Agent Barton off active duty; he will be assisting me on this mission.”


“Done. And the second provision?”


“I’m going to have the head researcher at the museum send his research to you. I need it sent immediately to my team and to Tony Stark.”


“To Stark? Coulson, I know he’s an Avenger, but he’s not going to like working for S.H.I.E.L.D.”


“He’ll like this. Tell him it’s from Hawkeye if you need to. This is big, and I need all eyes on it, every available man. I believe in your power to convince him. Once he sees it, he’ll be as thrilled as a fanboy at Comic Con. Trust me on this.”


She took a minute to think this over before answering, “Done. Thank you, Agent Coulson.”


“Thank you, Agent Hill.” He hung up the phone as if this were the most normal phone conversation, the most normal mission, the most normal day. He faced Clint, who now gazed at him curiously. “Tony Stark? Really?”


“I need everyone on this. I’d ask Bruce, Hank, and Reed, too, if I could be certain about how they would react and that they wouldn’t pump it full of gamma radiation; that didn’t turn out well the last time we tried that.” He sat down on the bed. “And now is the time I reveal the rest of my plan for the day.”


Clint laughed. “You sound like an evil villain.”


“I was trying not to sound like a desperate man.”


Clint reached out and took his hand, squeezing. “Like I said, I’m here for whatever you need.” But as quickly as it had been given, the hand was taken back. He cupped it to his face and snapped forward, bouncing a little on the bed. “Hehh… huh-Ihshhhhhh! Huh… h’KETChhhhhhh! Uh… Whatever you need, as long as what you need doesn’t involve breathing clearly for five minutes. God, my nose won’t quit!” He rubbed it hard, back and forth again.


Coulson couldn’t help but smile. “I promise you’ll be able to do this, sneezy nose and all.” He took a deep breath and then began. “I need you here this morning, resting, safe, so I don’t have to worry about you. At some point around noon, my building may or may not go down in flames for a reason I have yet to determine, so I plan for us to be gone by then. We’ll be on board my plane, with my team. I’ve never introduced you to them before, but I think you’ll like them. I guess we’ll see, assuming we don’t get kidnapped, tortured, and killed on the way there again.”


Clint’s eyes were wide. “All right…”


“Here are the things that must not happen.” He held his fist up and enumerated, finger by finger. “One, you will not get too close to the Shandari bullet unless it is in its case. Two, we will not show anyone in public that we have the object. Three, we will not go to your apartment, because there is a mobster in a cheap red tracksuit waiting there with a gun to kill you. Four, we will not skip getting tissues and cold medicine, because you’re going to start sneezing your head off this afternoon and feel completely miserable. Five, we will not go to Stark Tower or Avengers Tower or whatever it’s called right now, because Tony’s apparently got a thing about germs—”


“I knew that much already.”


“Six…” Coulson tried to think of a sixth. He was out of fingers on his one hand, and the only sixth he could think of involved telling Clint he could kiss Coulson any time he damn well pleased, contagious cold or no. The thought made him smile, but he shook it from his head. “Never mind about a number six. Just be ready to go when I get back.”


“Yes, Sir.”


Before he left, he made a quick cup of tea for Clint and set the trashcan from the bathroom by the side of the bed. “Try to get some sleep while I’m gone.”


Clint nodded. “Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”


Coulson gave a nod back. “Thank you for believing me.” He made it to the door of his bedroom before he thought of a proper six. “Six, look both ways before crossing the street in case of speeding cars, trucks, moving vans, or elephants.”


Clint, who was nuzzling his face into Coulson’s pillow, furrowed his brow again. “Elephants?”


“Believe me when I say that this has been a strange day, Agent Barton.”


On his way out of the apartment, Coulson got his phone out. It rang twice before May picked up. “Agent Coulson, you’re supposed to be on vacation.”


“I know, but since when has that worked out for me?”


“Well, you did recently visit Tahiti.”


“It’s a magical place.”


“Right. Is there a reason you’re calling, Sir?”


Coulson took a deep breath. “This is an emergency mission. Top priority. I’m on my way to a museum to pick up an 0-8-4. Through my… investigations, we’ll call them… I’ve found out that it’s an alien weapon called a Shandari bullet. Hawkeye and I will be bringing it on board in about an hour for Fitz-Simmons to analyze.”


“So you need us to come back for you?”


“You’re quick, May. That’s what I love about you. Well, that and your ability to take out a team of ninjas single-handedly without breaking a sweat.”


“Flattery will get you nowhere, but a case will get me to turn this bus around and pick you up.”


“Thanks. We’ll be in Lola. I’ll call from the car when we’re in the air.”


“Yes, Sir. Hope you had a good vacation until now.”


Coulson thought about his morning and the days he had been through so far. “Sure. Let’s call it good.”


Gunshots, fire, explosions, car crash, trampling, torture… and kisses. Kisses from Clint Barton. All things being equal, it actually could be worse. And at least he had the chance to make it better each time around.


“Oh, and May?”


“Yes, Sir?”


“We’ve got the basics on board, right? Orange juice, tissues, thermometers, cold medicine?”


“Are you ill?” She suddenly sounded concerned, which was sweet, considering it was May.


“No, but Clint is. It’s just a head cold, but I don’t have the time to stop by the grocery store today for supplies.” He’d been at the grocery store the day before when the fire started; he had to get back to his apartment before then today.


“We’re well-stocked.”


“Glad to hear it. I’ll be in touch.”


The phone conversation had taken nearly the entire walk to the museum, which seemed to have been a good use of his time. He went through security at the museum, apologized when he was run into by the little girl, and went through the second level of security without batting an eyelash. He had this part of things down. Nothing bad ever happened to him at the museum. He walked with the other researchers toward the lab, a suit and tie in a sea of white coats. But this time he didn’t waste time looking at the faces of other researches. In and out, simple as possible, if he wanted to create a baseline for the day that he could then modify as needed in future loops. No unnecessary deviations.


“I’m looking for the researcher in charge,” Coulson said, taking out his badge. “Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. here.”


Dr. Daniels walked over to him, hand outstretched. “I’m Dr. Daniels. Welcome.” He turned an gestured toward the Shandari bullet. “We don’t know what it is exactly, and we were caught off guard when, after months, it started doing this this morning. We are completely at a loss. We have never seen anything like it before.”


“Then you did precisely the right thing in contacting us this morning. My colleagues would like a chance to study the object up close, so I’ll be taking it into custody. Would you be so kind as to send S.H.I.E.L.D. all of your research notes?”


“Oh…” The doctor actually looked a bit sad to not have the chance to study it any longer. “Of course. But I’m not sure it will be safe to move.”


“I’m sure it will be fine.” Confidently, Coulson strode over, picked it up, and placed it in the protective case.


“How did you do that?” Dr. Daniels asked, staring after it.


“I have a way with unknown objects of this nature. Like I said, you did the right thing to call us this morning. Thank you, Doctor.” After shaking his head a second time in the span of five minutes, Coulson was on his way.


He made his way back across the crowded entrance hall, just like usual, but this time ran into a group of Japanese tourists bent on having a group photo taken. He nearly walked right through the group as they gathered for the photo in front of the fountain in the center of the entrance hall. As he started to go around the group, one of them thrust a cell phone into his hand. “Photo?” the young woman asked, her eyes big, pleading. Reluctantly, he agreed. He backed up far enough to get them all in the shot; they had clumped together almost routinely, but there were still so many of them. And people kept walking into the photo or bumping into him from behind. Someone bumped his elbow just as he tried to take the photo the first time and two people ran right into him just after he took the second one. A man trying to take a photo of something else backed right up into him only a second later. Coulson quickly snapped a third photo with the camera phone that turned out perfect. He handed it back to someone in the group as half the group members were bowing in thank you to him. He escaped as quickly as possible, looking both ways each time he crossed the street or even walked in front of an alley between stores.


When he got back to his building, there was no sign of fire. He checked his watch; it was only a quarter past eleven o’clock. Perfect. He headed up the elevator and into his apartment.


Despite being fast asleep under the blankets in Coulson’s bed still, Clint came awake quickly when Coulson shook him by the shoulder. “Hehh… huhhh… huh-IH-HEHShhhhhH!” Clint sneezed into Coulson’s pillow, and Coulson resisted the urge to move his hand up from shoulder to head and stroke the man’s hair comfortingly. Clint sniffled and blinked up at him. “Time to go?”


“Time to go,” Coulson confirmed with a nod. “Are you ready?”


Clint grabbed the black and white chevron tissue box, that had been severely depleted during the morning, and nodded. “Yes, Sir.”


Coulson locked up after them and followed Clint into the elevator, which came almost at once; Coulson took that to be a good sign. They stood against opposite walls of the elevator, which made Coulson smile and half expect Clint to leap across and kiss him again, but of course he knew that wasn’t in the cards this time around. Clint snuffled hard a few times and smiled, rubbing his nose. “I sneezed in the elevator on the way up to your place, and your neighbor asked me if I happened to be allergic to cats,” he told Coulson, who had been so caught up in setting a perfect, efficient, baseline day that he had almost forgot what elevator small talk was like. “We started talking about cats—she just got two new kittens.”


“Yes, I saw the cat carriers I the elevator with her during previous time loops.”


“Right. We talked so much that she missed her floor and had to ride the elevator back down again. Heh oh huhhh-EHShhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff! So, sniff! I was telling her about some kittens I knew who were real trouble-makers and got into everything. I told her she should kitten-proof her apartment right away or they could get hurt or do some serious damage.


Coulson nodded along during this, not really caring about small talk let alone small talk about someone else’s small talk. But something Clint had said suddenly flipped a switch inside his brain. “Hold on a minute. Damage? Clint, think carefully about this. Can you remember exactly what you said at the very end of your conversation?”


Clint shrugged. “Sure. I told her to be sure to watch them around curtains and put away anything hazardous that cats could knock over.”


Coulson’s eyes were wide. “Like candles?”


“I didn’t say candles but, yeah, I guess that would count. I don’t… hehh-hehh… uhhh-IHTChuhhhhh! Snifff! Sniff! I don’t think kittens and open flames go together too well.”


They didn’t. Playful, rambunctious kittens plus open flames equaled apartment fires that spread to the curtains and then the rest of the apartment building. Clint had been the reason the building hadn’t burned down every day and they hadn’t even known it. And in yesterday’s version of today, Coulson had been so happy to see Clint alive he had practically pulled him out of the elevator the second the doors opened in order to hug him. That hug had felt so damn good, so reassuring. But it had meant that last little piece of advice had gone undelivered, and the building had gone up in flames because of it.


“Sir, you’re shaking.”


Coulson cleared his throat and rubbed his hand over his forehead. The headache was back. “I’m okay,” he said, collecting himself. “Just putting some missing pieces into the puzzle. Better late than never, right?”


Clint nodded. “Does time even matter any more when you’re in a time loop?”


“Actually, time seems to matter even more.”


The elevator got to the ground level and opened. They headed straight for Lola, and Coulson checked his mirrors and even looked over his shoulder twice to make sure the street was clear before he pulled out of his parking spot. As soon as it was safe to do so, he turned on the car’s boosters and flew it off the streets. He dialed May’s number. “We’re on our way.” Within five minutes, the bus was in sight, ramp open so he could drive right into the cargo bay and park. It all went without a hitch. No freak plane or missile coming from out of nowhere and striking them down. No one on the streets below spotting them and screaming in terror to see a flying car. He was safe on board with a team he trusted and an experienced, albeit sick and sniffly, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who already believed him backing him up. The object was safe in hand. The research was probably already in their system. And whatever his team couldn’t figure out, maybe the researchers or Tony Stark would figure out. Everything was going exactly as planned. Now he just needed to get Clint some medicine and maybe take a double dose of painkillers for his headache and the day would be perfect.


Skye and Ward were there to meet him, so Coulson made introductions as the four of them walked to Fitz-Simmons’ laboratory. “Agent Barton, this is Agent Grant Ward. And this is Skye, our… hacker consultant?” Skye looked amused by the title. “Ward, Skye, this is Agent Barton, also known as Hawkeye.” Clint held a hand up in a sort of wave, then covered his mouth as he coughed.


“Excuse me. I’m fighting something at the moment.”


The first thing Coulson did when he got to Fitz-Simmons lab was ask Simmons about cold medicine. But she’d already got a bag ready, filled with nasal spray and decongestants and tissues. He could have kissed her for it, but there were many reasons that wouldn’t be a good idea. Coulson handed the bag to Clint, who popped two pills into his mouth immediately and washed it down with a third of a bottle of water also in the bag; Coulson loved how thorough his team was. “This is Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, our resident scientists. Jemma’s a bio-chemist and Fitz is an engineer. If anyone can figure out what this Shandari bullet is and how to stop it, it’s them.” Coulson said by way of introductions. “Fitz-Simmons, this is Agent Clint Barton, also known as Hawkeye.” Coulson was glad to see both scientists look impressed to be meeting an Avenger; so often they were off in their own world together.


Clint coughed into his fist and rubbed at his nose. “Nice to meet you two. So, do you think you’ll be able to stop these time loops Agent Coulson is stuck in?”


Damn it. One thing at a time, Clint. Quickly, Coulson put the case on the lab table. “I went to pick this device up from the museum. There was visible energy emanating from it. You should have gotten the research notes from Dr. Daniels by now?”

“Sent over about half an hour ago, Sir.” Simmons sounded quite proper, but Coulson could tell she didn’t believe what Clint had just said; he could hear the skepticism in her voice.


“When I got neat the object, some of the energy struck me in my chest. After that, every time I get near it, its energy readings drop and every time Clint gets near it, they go up again.”


Fitz looked confused. “Was he hit by the energy too, then?”


Coulson shook his head. “No, he wasn’t even at the museum at the time.” Clint had been back at Coulson’s apartment on the couch, calling every ten minutes to request Coulson buy one more thing at the grocery store for him. Amazing how they could have gone from that to this all in one day, and all Coulson had to do was to tell Clint about his repeated deaths. Piece of cake. It was going to take more for his team to believe him, though, and he knew it. “Ever since the device’s energy struck me, one thing or another has made me die. And every time I wake up again in bed and it’s this morning. During one loop, you exposed the object to gamma radiation and the bus exploded, so I really want you to avoid doing that this time.”


Simmons nodded thoughtfully. “No gamma radiation test. That won’t be hard to avoid.”


“Another time around, I was kidnapped by someone who wanted to know how I… how did he put it… how to activate the Shandari bullet.”


“Shandari?” Fitz said, trying the word out with his Scottish accent. “Sounds… alien.”


“I think it must be. It was found in the rubble of a building destroyed during the Battle of New York. I’ve had S.H.I.E.L.D. reach out to Tony Stark, and maybe someone will be able to get a hold of Thor. I’ve never heard of the Shandari, but I’ve got to say I don’t care much for their weapons. I don’t know what this is supposed to do, but what it’s doing is making me live this day over and over again, and it’s starting to get to me. Simmons, you don’t have anything strong for a headache around here, do you?”


She got him something. He borrowed Clint’s water bottle to wash it down and hoped that it would kick in fast. What had started as a dull ache this morning was now a stabbing pain in his temple.


“I need you to find out everything you can about this Shandari bullet,” Coulson said, opening up the case and setting the object on the lab table, on display. “But I especially need you to figure out how to shut it down safely so that tomorrow doesn’t end up being today all over again.”


Simmons nodded at him. “Of course, Sir. We’ll do what we can.”

“Thank you. I knew I could count on you two. Call me as soon as you have anything or if you need me.” He escorted Clint, who clutched the bag of supplies to his chest, out of the lab to give them some room to work. As they left, he heard the two scientists talking to each other in hushed tones.


“Do you think he’s actually in a time loop?”


“Seems unlikely. But if this energy device is somehow tuned to his brain waves, it could be making him think he’s in a time loop.”


“Let’s start with seeing what its energy readings are right now.”


“Good idea.”


Coulson sighed to himself as they headed down the hall and out of earshot. He still had every confidence in them, he just hoped coming clean with them didn’t backfire. He didn’t want to die today in an insane asylum during an electroshock therapy treatment.


They ran into May, Ward, and Skye waiting for them, and it was May with her hands on her hips and head bent so she was looking up at him, “Time loops? Really?” Of course they had been listening in on what had happened in the lab. Coulson expected nothing less.


And so he suggested the poker game. Again. Clint couldn’t play, because dealing another person in would throw the hands off too much. And, besides, he was already starting to enter the afternoon of feeling worse that seemed to come every time, medicine or not. Coulson just hoped it wouldn’t be too bad for him this time around.


Ihhh hehh-HSchxxmphhh!” He sneezed, stifled and smothered in several thick tissues. It wasn’t silent, but it was probably as close as Clint Barton’s sneezes could get. He sat in a chair just off to the side of the desk around which the four chairs had been placed and upon which a deck of cards sat, shuffled by Ward, May, and Skye in that order, just like last time. Coulson hoped this would be enough to convince them.


Pulling each hand back up from memory almost hurt as much as the headache. Ward dealt the first hand and, as soon as everyone had their cards, Coulson called it. “Skye’s going to win this one with three aces.”


Skye pressed her cards to her chest and looked down at the backs. “What, can you see through them or something?”


Coulson shook his head, which hurt, so he stopped doing that immediately. Coulson hoped his own headache would back off sooner rather than later. Just looking at the cards in his hand was making his head pound so much his stomach was churning. “No,” he said. “I told you: we played this exact game before in a previous time loop. I know who’s going to win each hand. First it was Skye with three Aces—sorry you wasted your luck with such a great hand on such a pointless game, by the way. Then Ward gets a pair of kings. Next Skye with a royal flush. And then May with three…” he suddenly couldn’t remember. His head pounded so hard everything around him was going white. He tried to visualize the cards. Three… three… what had it been? It came to him then. “Three eights.” He pushed his hand into the middle. “Go ahead and deal. You’ll see.”


They saw. There went Ward’s Kings, the king of spades and the king of hearts—both fitting, Coulson thought. Then, just like he had said, Skye beat them all with a royal flush. Finally, thank goodness, it was indeed three eights that May had that won the fourth round.


Skye clapped to show she was impressed, and Clint joined her, all smiles and maybe looking a little proud as well? Ward nodded, but his eyes were narrowed, as if he were trying hard to think of a way Coulson could have performed that trick. But Coulson hadn’t touched the deck, which had been fresh out of the package and hadn’t even dealt any of the hands. May sighed and gave a decisive nod. “All right. Say you have been through this day before. What happens next? Do you know what I’m about to say?”


Coulson knew better than to shake his head this time, because the pains in it had magnified tenfold since the last time he’d made that mistake. “No,” he told her. His voice sounded weak and far away all of a sudden. “This is the first time I’ve ever tested this out… with you.” He hunched over a little in his seat, pressing the base of each hand to his forehead.


“Coulson, are you okay?” Skye asked.


“N-no… I don’t think… so. My head…” Coulson managed to choke out before everything went dark around him and he spun, dizzily, into blackness.


Coulson woke up in bed, but to the sound of beeping not a buzzer. Simmons stood beside the bed, injecting something into an IV line that, Coulson realized, was stuck into his right arm. He tried to sit up, but something cool and heavy rested on his forehead, and he felt so good he couldn’t work up the energy to fight against it. As it was, he didn’t even need to move in order for Simmons to notice he had regained consciousness. “Welcome back, Sir.”


“I didn’t die, did I?”


“No,” she smiled, shaking her head. “But you passed out in your seat at the poker game and Ward carried you here. Your heart rate was all over the place and you’re running a dangerously high fever. I’m giving you drugs now that should bring your temperature down. How do you feel, Sir?”


He took quick stock of himself. His head still hurt, but it wasn’t quite as overwhelming as before. Still, the bright white everything around him made him want to shut his eyes tight and never open them again. He was cold, though that was possibly because of whatever was on his forehead or the IV drip in his arm. His stomach still felt unsettled. And his heart still raced, making his breathing quick and erratic as well. “Terrible,” he said. “And cold,” he added.


Simmons brought him some blankets, laying them over him from feet to chest. She didn’t tuck them around him the way that Coulson remembered tucking blankets tight around Clint in previous time loops. “Clint?” he asked.


“I’m right here, Sir.” Clint had been hanging in the doorway, apparently waiting there this whole time. He walked in and sat on the edge of Coulson’s bed. He had a tissue box crushed under one arm, but he picked up Coulson’s hand in both of his, holding it between them to keep it warm. “This wasn’t part of the plan you told me this morning, Sir.”


“No,” Coulson agreed. “This is new. This has never happened before.”


“Could it be the device breaking you down, affecting you after so much exposure to it? Or could it be something the time loops are doing to you?” Clint speculated.


“It’s neither of those actually,” Simmons said, looking at some slides through her microscope. “Agent Coulson, you’ve been poisoned.”


The words washed over Coulson but didn’t really touch him. It didn’t seem real. Poisoned? How could that have happened? Everything had been going so perfectly this time around. No explosions. No gunshots. No fire. No bizarre, runaway elephant. Coulson hadn’t even had a damn hot dog from a street vendor this time. How could he have been poisoned?


Simmons seemed to be on the same train of thought. “Sir, have you had anything to eat or drink today?”


He thought carefully. “Just swallowed an Ibuprofen this morning with some tap water. And some of Clint’s bottled water with the medicine you gave me when I came on board.”


“I think it’s probably safe to assume the water of New York City hasn’t been poisoned, or we’d have heard about it in the news by now. The poison must have entered your system some other way.” She turned to Clint. “Have you been with him all day?”


“No, he…” Clint pinched his nose and turned away as best he could “hehhh-PFshxtttt! Hekngttttt! Sniff! He, ah, he went to the museum to retrieve the object on his own. Damn it, I knew I should have gone with him!


“I’ve been to the museum eleven times now,” Coulson explained. “And not once before have I been poisoned there.”


Simmons tried to reason this out. “Yes, but if there had been an airborne delivery any other time, Agent Barton would be suffering as well. And he’s sick, yes, but I gave him a quick exam and he’s not showing any of these symptoms.”


This didn’t make any sense. “But the museum was packed with people. Museum-goers, tourists, researchers, security guards. They would all be infected if something was… in the air.” He squinted at the bright light overhead, then closed his eyes against it. “Could you maybe turn off some of the lights? My head is killing me still.” As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t used those particular words to describe how bad he felt. He was in pain and discomfort, yes, but he wasn’t dead yet. And if he didn’t figure this out now, he had no hope of stopping it from happening during the next time loop.


Clint squeezed his hand while Simmons switched off the main overhead light in the lab. Her monitors and the desk lamp by some of her equipment were still on, but the result was a vast improvement. Coulson opened his eyes again, almost all the way. “Thank you.”


“Sir…” Coulson recognized Simmons’s voice as she thought out loud. She and Fitz were always tossing theories back and forth. “Did someone touch you?”


Coulson went cold. Utterly cold. He still felt Clint’s hands around his, but suddenly he didn’t want to. Of course Clint had touched him, but he couldn’t believe this was Clint’s doing. That would mean Clint had been planning this the whole time. The Shandari bullet reacted to him; maybe he had only been pretending this whole time that he was unaware of the time loops. Maybe he’d been repeating along with Coulson and that was why he believed it so easily when Coulson told him about it. It made sense in a horrifying sort of way. But he knew, without a doubt, that he was dead wrong. Another unfortunate turn of phrase.


“I shook hands with the lead researcher at the museum, but I’ve done that many times before,” Coulson said.


“It wouldn’t have to be an obvious point of contact,” said Simmons, still brainstorming out loud as she worked through the problem. “With the right delivery tech, it could have just been someone bumping into you or even brushing past you. Sir, may I check you for marks?”


Coulson let her, of course. Clint got up from the bed so she could pull the covers down a little and look him over, but apart from removing his top hand once so Simmons could have a good look there, Clint did not let go of Coulson during the whole inspection. When his nose tickled, nostrils starting to flare, he rubbed his nose into his shoulder and held his breath until, apparently, the urge to sneeze went away.


The inspection, it turned out, did not take long. She checked his arms and the front of his neck. She helped him sit up and checked the back of his neck, her gloved fingers brushing over him softly. She untied the gown he had been put into and pulled it apart in the back so she could inspect him there. And just when Coulson was dreading what came next—obviously an inspection of his chest, where Clint would see the scar Loki’s staff had made—her fingers stopped. “I think…” Her fingers pressed, moved a little, then pressed again. “Yes, this is it. It’s tiny, just a pinprick in size.” Satisfied, she tied the gown up again and carefully eased him back against the pillows. “It’s so small, you probably didn’t feel a thing. And it was probably so quick that the amount of poison was small and took a while to make its way through your system to start doing damage.” She glanced over at the monitor, not smiling, despite this step forward. “I’ll keep analyzing the blood samples I got from you, looking for an an antidote, but I can’t be certain how long that will take.”


“No,” Coulson spoke up at once.


“I’m sorry?”


“No,” he repeated. “I’m too far gone already. I can feel it. Don’t spend your time on me. I need you to focus on the Shandari bullet, on the 0-8-4. When I die, the day will start over again, and I’ll be fine. I’ll watch out when I’m at the museum this time. I won’t let anyone poison me. But if you don’t figure out these time loops, I’ll be living this day over and over forever. And, as it turns out, it’s not the best day of my life.”




“I know you don’t really believe in the time loop, but I swear it’s happening. And this is an order, Agent. Focus on the 0-8-4. Get in touch with S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. See if they’ve figured anything out. Talk to Tony Stark if you can. Someone’s got to figure this out. This is an order, Simmons.”


With tears in her eyes, she nodded. “Yes, Sir.” She glanced at Clint, who nodded at her. He settled back on the edge of the bed to watch over Coulson. “Call me if his condition worsens,” she told Clint in a pleading tone, before practically fleeing the room.


“She’s worried about you. Sniff, sniff! We’re all worried about you.”


“I’ll be fine again once the time loop resets.”


“And until then, you have to lie here in agony as poison slowly takes you down from the inside?”


“So dramatic.” Coulson smiled, tried to laugh. “I’m not used to being on this side of things. Usually you’re the one tucked into bed and I’m the one sitting by your bedside, wondering how I can help.


Clint smiled down at him. “How can I help, Sir?”


Coulson thought about it for a moment before putting together a new plan. “First, you can start calling me by my name. Second, can you turn some of these lights off? My head’s pounding.” Clint squeezed his hand before setting it down. He turned off every light and every monitor in the room, including the one that showed Coulson’s vitals. In the darkness, he had to feel around on the bed for a place to sit where he wouldn’t be crushing Coulson’s legs. But once he got settled, he found Coulson’s hand again and squeezed it.




“Much.” He couldn’t see Clint well now, so he closed his eyes and let that last image of him smiling fill his mind. Most of his other deaths had been quick. The pain had been terrible, but fleeting. He wasn’t used to having this much time or for not knowing how long it would take until the poison claimed him entirely. “Talk to me, Clint.”


“Okay, but I… hah… huhhh-HURShuhhhhh! Sorry.


“I don’t mind you sneezing when you have to,” Coulson told him. “Just don’t let me pass away in silence. I… I… I need this loop to be worth something. I need for this death to matter.”


“Under… hahh understood, Sir… Phil… huhhh-IHSchuhhhh!” He had to have been holding in his sneezes before when Simmons had been there, because now they were coming at him thick and fast. “Except I don’t know what to talk about.”


“Right… How about… answering a question for me?”




“Are you still angry with me?”


“Excuse me?”


“I was your handler for years. I know it didn’t make us besties or anything, but after I died, S.H.I.E.L.D. covered up my death and I went along with that. Are you angry… that you thought I was dead all that time?”


Clint gave a strangled laugh. “You realize you’re asking me about your death while you’re dying again?”


“I realize there’s a certain irony to this, yeah. Just answer the question, Agent.”


“Yes,” he replied like a reflex. “Yes, I was angry you were dead. And then I was angry S.H.I.E.L.D. covered up the fact that they revived you. But when I found out you were alive… I wasn’t angry, Sir, I was relieved. And glad. And… and…”


“And… you have to sneeze again?”


“No,” Clint laughed. “No, well, yes. I do. But… huhh… huhh-UHSchhhuhhhh! Sniff! Sniff! Excuse be a secod.” He shuffled around on the bed, leaning over Coulson so he felt the man’s body pressed against his legs through the blankets. Then he heard the sound of tissues being pulled from a box followed by the sound of Clint blowing his nose repeatedly. When he finally finished, he put his hand on Coulson’s leg through the blankets. “Are you still there?”


“I’m not dead yet,” Coulson said softly.


“Good. Because now I’ve got a question for you: in all the time loops you’ve been through so far, have I ever told you the real reason I showed up at your door this morning?”


“Sure. First time around, in fact. You said you were out of cold medicine and your cold was getting worse and you needed someone to look after you.”


Clint was quiet for almost a full minute, as if waiting for Coulson to keep going. “And that’s all I said about it?”


“You said you’d have called Agent Romanov, but she was undercover on a mission in Bulgaria, and you didn’t know how to contact her.”


Clint laughed. “Oh, Tasha. She always takes care of me when I’m sick.”


“So I’ve heard.”


“But you take care of me all the time.”


Coulson didn’t follow.


“You’re my handler. There’s no one I’d rather have taking care of me and looking out for me when I’m at my weakest, like I am now with this damn cold.”


“Because being a trained S.H.E.I.L.D. agent with level 8 clearance qualifies me to hand you tissues?”


“No,” he said softly. “Because you’re you.” He tried to clear his throat but ended up sneezing. “Hah… huhh-Ihhhshhh! And because I fell for you. You, with your paperwork and rules and loyalty and unwavering service and wit and mystery and kindness and self-sacrifice. I fell for you hard.


Coulson didn’t know how to reply. He had a strong  feeling this was the sort of thing Clint could only be saying because the room was dark and he didn’t have to look Coulson in the eye when he said it. But he did squeeze Coulson’s hand and run his thumb against the back of it thoughtfully, comfortingly.


“I can guess from your silence that you don’t feel the same?” His voice… Coulson had heard it break before, just before dying, but this was worse. It was small… disappointed… maybe even ashamed.


“You’d be guessing wrong.”


Clint let out a sharp gasp that had nothing whatsoever to do with his cold.


Pain shot through Coulson, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. So he quickly tugged on Clint’s hand. “Come here. Kiss me before I’m too weak to kiss you back.”


Clint found Coulson in the dark as if by magic. A hand on his cheek, wet lips on his lips, and a strong body pressing and warming him from above. Coulson couldn’t think of a better way to go. This definitely beat getting run through with an Asgardian walking stick, that was for damn sure. He tried to focus on the kiss, tried to ignore the way he could no longer feel his limbs, the way his stomach burned and his head pounded so hard and fast he thought his head was going to explode. Whatever this poison was meant to do, it was doing it now. He tried to enjoy the kiss, tried to make it the only thing real in his world.


But the pain was too much, and he turned his head to the side with slight moan.


“Phil!” Clint said, stroking his hand repeatedly against Coulson’s cheek. “Don’t do this now,” he said, his voice breaking again. Coulson heard him sniffle too much for it to just be from his cold. “I don’t want you to go.”


Coulson couldn’t move his hand, but if he could he would have reached up and squeezed Clint’s hand. “I know. But you have to let me die. It’s the only way.”


Footsteps. Running. Light from the hallway flooded the room, and Coulson couldn’t throw up a hand to protect his eyes from it. It sent searing pain through his head, making it explode almost as spectacularly as the Shandari bullet had made things explode in the past. “Sir,” Fitz said between gasps of breath. He had run the distance from his lab. “It’s all about the energy. Mr. Stark sees it too. Do you understand?”


Coulson didn’t understand. That was just about nothing to go on. He already knew it gave out various amounts of energy. There wasn’t enough information. He needed more. Now. “Fitz… more… faster…”


Fitz could talk faster; he was the right man for that job. He sped through the next sentences with barely a gap between words. “It has to do with you and your energy readings. It’ll take time to figure out the right frequencies, though.”


“Got it… thanks…” Coulson said, and tried to remember those words. Frequencies. Energy readings. He’d have to tell Fitz-Simmons during the next loop. He had to remember or this day would never end. But then the pain intensified to almost impossible amount. It was unbearable, and his face contorted in agony as it overtook him; he tried to be strong, tried to not cry out. But he could feel the pain taking over.


“Phil!” Clint begged. “Please don’t go yet!”


“It will be all right. Please let me die,” Coulson managed, trying to sound reassuring and confident when, in actuality, he probably just sounded like he was in the worst pain of his life. He didn’t want to leave Clint, he didn’t want to start over with him again. But he did want to take all he’d learned and wake up again to the sound of Clint pressing that intercom buzzer.


Chapter 13


Clint woke up coughing so hard he had to roll over. He fell off the couch onto his hands and knees, and struggled to breathe. Both his nostrils were completely stuffed up, so when he tried drawing a breath through them, all he got was a weak snxtt!” and a whole shitload of sinus pressure that made his head throb. Freezing, he grabbed the blanket off the couch and drew it around his shoulders as he sat back on his legs on his living room floor. His head swam dizzily for a moment, the congestion moving about and settling back in his nose, only with fierce tickles this time. His breath caught and made his head jerk back for a second before his whole body pitched forward. “Huh-IHShuhhh! Huh… hahChshhhhhhhh!” He reached for the box of Kleenex on the couch and realized there wasn’t one there. He checked the floor around the couch and finally located it sticking out from under a couch cushion. There were only a handful of tissues left, so he took just one and used it conservatively, wiping his nose with one end, then the other, then blowing into the middle, folding it, and blowing again. Pressing the slightly damp tissue to his tender nose hurt each time, but by the time he crumpled the soggy thing up, his nose felt clearer. Almost like he could breathe normally. “snrgttt!” went his nose when he tried again, and he shook his head with disappointment. He pitched the balled-up tissue across the room in disgust.


His apartment was an overwhelming mess; he hadn’t had the energy to clean for days, and everything was piling up. He needed Natasha to come tidy up for him and sit with him and look after him. But he knew he couldn’t get Natasha. And, deep down, he had to admit that he didn’t really want Natasha.


He wanted Phil Coulson. Ever since he’d found out Phil wasn’t dead, he’d wanted to go to him, to tell him all the things he’d realized after the man’s supposed death. Sometimes you didn’t realize how much you wanted something until you couldn’t have it any more. But in this case, sometimes you didn’t realize how completely in love you were with a thing until it was gone. Clint had found himself wandering streets sometimes, ending up outside the man’s apartment building, staring up at the top floor longingly. Phil was hardly ever in, and it was too many floors up to be able to actually look in the windows to see if the lights were even on inside, but Clint felt better just standing there, knowing Phil was alive somewhere.


He had heard S.H.I.E.L.D. chatter yesterday that Phil was back in New York on a well-earned albeit partially forced vacation leave for a week. It was early yet; maybe Phil was still at home. Maybe, even without a grand declaration of love, Phil would take one look at Clint and sweep him into his arms. Or maybe Phil would just feel sorry for him and take him in. All he really wanted was to be near the guy and have someone around who could bring him food and tissues and make sure he actually took his meds on time. If anyone knew how to stick to a schedule, it was Phil.


Medicine. Now that was a lovely thought. Clint hauled himself up and over to the kitchenette. He shuffled through piles of dirty dishes and balled-up napkins he’d blown his nose into until he found the box of cold pills that had been his saving grace over the past few days. He slid out the blister packs and stared at it. Every single section had been punched out. He turned them over, just to be sure. “Aw, meds, no.” He rubbed his palm back and forth across his forehead. When had he finished them off? He’d thought that there’s be enough to get him through the worst of this cold, but maybe his symptoms were hanging on longer than expected. Or maybe he’d taken too much during some desperate, middle-of-the-night stumble into the kitchen for relief. Whatever the reason, he was out of medicine. And almost out of tissues. And definitely out of food.


 His instincts, even more than his heart, told him to seek out help. Which was why he got dressed in a hurry and left his apartment.


About halfway down the stairs, he stopped to sit down on a stair. His nose had been running since he’d left his apartment, but rather than go back for what little Kleenex he had left, he had settled for rubbing his nose with the backs or sides of his hands, which sometimes necessitated wiping his hand on his pants leg, and other times necessitated sniffing as hard as he cool to try to keep it from running anymore. But now he felt like sneezing again, which was going to be loud here in the stairwell, and that was definitely going to suck. “Huhhhhhhhhhh” Shit. He gritted his teeth and tried to will the sneeze away. “Huhhhh!” The technique sucked. He tried holding his breath. “Hehhh!” That didn’t work any better. So he rubbed hard at his nose, pushing the end of his nose around, dragging his hand and forearm hard against his flaring, tickling nostrils. “Hih! IHHHHHH!” Resignedly, Clint prepared himself for the inevitable. “Huhhh-UHSchuhhhhh!


It was louder than he had guessed it would be, and he cringed at the sound. A few seconds later, Aimee opened the door to her apartment and peered out into the hallway. Clint hadn’t realized which floor he was on, though he wasn’t actually even sure he knew which apartment was Aimee’s. Her pink hair and multiple facial piercings were unmistakable, as was her expression of annoyance. “I was trying to practice here.” She slightly raised the guitar she had in hand. “You wanna take that somewhere else?”


Clint nodded and hauled himself up off the stair, hoping to make it out of the building this time without another sneeze and knowing the possibility was just about as likely as The Hulk showing up on his door wanting tightrope walking lessons, especially considering he already felt like sneezing again. “Sorry,” he said, giving her a wave of greeting meets apology, then rubbing again at his nose to try to keep it in check.


“You’re not going to talk to Ivan, are you?”


Clint shook his head. Their landlord was a bastard. He’d raised fees on them twice this year under bogus pretenses and he had it out for Clint, who had stood up to him the last time, not that it had done any good.


“Well, he’s looking for you. Maybe you should… I don’t know… be armed?”


He gave her a weak smile. “Thanks for the warning, Aimee.” Then, with a sigh, he trudged back up the stairs to his apartment. He collected a handful of arrows, swung his quiver onto his back, and grabbed his bow. Then he stood in the middle of his living room, fully armed, blowing his nose through three tissues. He pocketed the remaining two before heading back down the stairs.


This time, he only made it down one flight. Huhhh… huhh-UHGschhhhhhhh!” Though no one came out of their doors, Clint was sure everyone who was in had to have heard that. He dug a tissue out, massaged his nose with it, and then held it to his nose as he descended the rest of the stairs. He coughed a few times and sniffled and snuffled into the tissue almost the whole way down, but luckily he didn’t sneeze again until he was out on the street about half a block from the building with Ivan and his witless goons nowhere in sight.


Steeling himself against the cold of autumn, Clint walked to the subway. While waiting for the train, he paced in front of the newsstand, knowing he should be hungry but not wanting to eat anything. He ended up putting down a buck for a cup of hot water he just held for the warmth of it. He dumped it in the trash when the train arrived and it had gone lukewarm. Navigating the maze of subway stations was usually second nature to him, but he sneezed his way through the transfer stop and had to backtrack, then he went the wrong direction in a tunnel, walking from one station to another. By the time he emerged back onto the streets of New York, he was ready to collapse with nowhere guaranteed to do it.


Phil’s apartment wasn’t far, and he had planned on heading right there, asking to be let in, and somehow talking his way onto Phil’s couch. But Clint ended up standing outside the building, staring up at it, afraid of what it could mean if he showed up like this. Should he call? Should he just go back home?


Huh… huhhUHschhhhh!” Clint was down to his last Kleenex, and that was only good for maybe one more wipe at best. “Huhhh! HuhhUHSchhhhh!” But the sneezes weren’t letting up.


A woman passed by, walking her dolled-up yorkie. “Bless you,” she said, hopping from foot to foot to stay warm thanks to a skirt that only made it halfway down her thighs.


“Can I pet your dog?” Clint asked, watching the pup sniff around on the patch of grass.


She shrugged. “Go ahead.”


He rubbed at his nose then squatted down. He ran his hand over the dog’s head, feeling the silky fur and the plastic barrettes stuck in there to make it look “cute.” Poor thing. But he nuzzled his hand and he stroked it again. Clint preferred big dogs, but little dogs like this had their own charm, especially when they weren’t barking their heads off. “Thah… th-thanks,” he said, standing up and turning. He bent his arm and folded the elbow over the lower half of his face. “Huhh-NGxxttt! HehhGsttttt! Uhhhh!


“You should go inside,” the woman said, hugging her arms over her chest and the lime green pea coat she wore, except for the retractable leash still in her hand. “You’re going to catch your death out here, if you haven’t already.”


He gave her a weak smile, thanked her again—without sneezing this time—and tried to look like he wasn’t some crazy stalker staring up at people’s apartments. He made his way straight for the door to Phil’s building and pretended to press the button and wait until the woman had rounded the block with her terrier. His finger hovered over Coulson’s name beside the door. He wanted to press it, but he knew he couldn’t. Phil Coulson was his handler. Phil Coulson was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Phil Phil Coulson wasn’t his lover or even really his friend. Phil Coulson hadn’t even told him he was still alive after the Battle of New York.


On the street behind him, a taxi cab honked. A street cleaning truck passed by. A metal gate in front of a shop rolled up. And, on the sidewalk, Clint Barton sneezed. He snapped forward so suddenly and unexpectedly, that he didn’t realize he’d actually fallen into the buzzer until he was pulling his thumb off it. “Damn it.” He thought about fleeing right now. Phil didn’t need to know he was there. He hadn’t even meant to press the button.


But then came a buzzing sound on the panel, followed by Phil’s voice, slightly mechanical. “Come on up, Agent Barton.”


Clint froze. How had he known? Was there a hidden camera? Clint almost forgot to grab for the door handle before the unlocked door locked again. He shuffled reluctantly though the lobby and leaned into the elevator button to call it. What was he going to say to Phil about why he was there? And how was he could to convince Phil to let him stay? This could only end badly. Phil was going to be angry with him.


The elevator dinged as it arrived, and Clint headed in. He punched the top floor button hard, taking out his aggression on it. He was stupid for doing this. He was stupid for being here. He was stupid for even getting up off the couch this morning. “Hold the door!” a woman shouted and raced over to the elevator just before the doors closed, but Clint pushed the button to open the doors. “Thank you,” the woman panted, joining him there with a cat carrier in each hand.


It didn’t take realized he had to sneeze again. He hated sneezing in front of strangers—or anyone, actually. But he still had too many floors to go and the elevator was going too slowly. So he pinched his nose shut with his thumb and forefinger. “Hehhhh” It didn’t help, though. “Huhh-Ngxxxt!


“Oh dear! God bless you.” the woman said again. “You aren’t allergic to cats are you? I was just taking my new kittens to the vet. Just got them yesterday.”


“No, I’m not allergic.” Clint squatted down and peered into the cases, seeing a gray ball of fluff that might have been a giant dust bunny in one, and seeing a spunky little tuxedo cat blinking out at him in another. “They’re cute. Your first time having kittens?”


“Yes. So far they’ve been a handful.”


“Have you kitten-proofed your apartment?”


She looked at him dumbly. “What?”


“Kittens get into everything. They could get into something and hurt themselves. They…” Shit. Not another sneeze. He just hated sneezing in front of people like this. He pinched his nose again and tried to hold his breath. But his cold was too strong to get tricked into backing down now. “Hehhh… Hkxxttt!


“God bless you.”




“You were saying?”


“Right… kittens are curious and dive into anything they can get their paws on. You need to—”


“Oh no!” she exclaimed, looking up at the numbers lighting up above the door. “I forgot to press the button.” She shook her head. “I guess I’ll just ride it up and then down again.”


He nodded, the urge to sneeze prickling at him again already. H’Nghttt! Kgstxxx!


“God bless you.”


When they reached the top floor, Clint was filled with relief just to escape the tiny metal box where he was being stared at as he was sneezing. He rubbed at his nose, not daring to take out the soggy tissue. He sniffled, only remotely glad that the sneezes had freed the congestion in his head enough to make him be able to sniffle. As the doors rolled open, Clint tied up the conversation. “Just watch them around anything long and dangling like cords or curtains. And be sure to put away anything hazardous they could knock over.” Clint looked over to see Phil’s door opening, so he made a hasty retreat out of the elevator.


His only thought was getting to Phil’s apartment. He heard the elevator doors slide closed behind him as he walked to the door. And he tried to smile at Phil as he approached. But he suddenly found himself stumbling forward again with a strong sneeze that took him completely off guard. “Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” He would have been sneezing freely, uncovered, but somehow Phil had tissues up where he could fall right into it. Clint was about to apologize and ask how Phil knew he was in need of tissues, but his breath caught again and, again, he snapped forward. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!” It felt so good to have the dry, soft tissues against his wet nose, he rubbed his nose into them before opening his eyes. “How sniff, sniff how did you know?


Smiling at him, Phil stepped forward and wrapped an arm around him in a close, tight hug. “Because, unfortunately, I’m stuck in a time loop. I’m living this day over and over again.”


Clint pulled back, trying to determine if Phil was joking about this. But the man’s dire expression reminded him that this was not how Phil joked. Not to mention, how else would he have known Clint was there and going to sneeze? Stranger things had happened.


“Come in, and I’ll tell you about it. There’s still a few minutes before Agent Hill calls me away to pick up an 0-8-4 at the museum a few blocks away.” Clint found himself being ushered inside, door locked behind, just like that. He hadn’t needed to explain himself, hadn’t needed to turn on the charm or promise anything. He hadn’t even needed to put on a little puppy dog pout of patheticness and beg for cold medicine. Instead, he was whisked away to Phil’s bed. His sneakers were pulled off, his weapons were laid down carefully between the bed and the nightstand, and he was put right to bed, covered with the softest sheet and the thickest, heaviest comforter he’d ever touched. The only thing that would have made it any better was if Phil had been under there with him to keep him warm.


Phil sat down on the bed and immediately had his hand on Clint’s forehead. It was cool at first, then warmed against his skin. It felt even better when Phil began petting, stroking comfortingly to soothe him. And Clint probably would have fallen right to sleep just like that, overwhelmed in comfort in none other than Agent Phil Coulson’s bed, if not for two things. The first was Phil needing to explain what was happening. And the second was, of course, sneezes. “Hahhh-Hehschhhhhh! Hehschhhhhhh! Huh… huh… HERSchhuhhh!” Under the covers, Clint pulled several tissues out of the box and rubbed and blew his nose as quietly as he could in order to still catch the thread of Phil’s explanation.


“The first time around, I went to retrieve the item at the museum and it struck me with some sort of weird energy. The object is called a Shandari bullet and, whether it was meant to do this or not, it’s making time loop this day over and over for me. Every morning I wake up to find you at my door, sneezing. By the end of every day, I die and have to start all over again from the beginning. But I’m getting closer. This last time, I was poisoned.”


“Poisoned!” Clint tried to sit up, startled, but Phil put a hand on his shoulder and eased him back down. Then he went back to petting Clint. And Clint found his body relaxing almost immediately.


“Before I died, my team figured out when and how I was poisoned.”


“Who did it?”


“I’m not…” Phil shook his head. “I’m not exactly sure yet. Probably the same person who kidnapped us a few loops back. I can see his face in my mind, but I can’t quite place it. But that’s why I need your help. I know you’re sick, but I can’t do this without you, Hawkeye.”


Clint looked up at him, his head sunken deep into Phil’s pillow. It meant he probably didn’t look too convincing, but he sure as heck meant it when he replied, “Just tell me how I can help you, Sir. I may have a bad cold, but I’ll do whatever you need me to.” And that was how Clint found himself sitting up in bed instead of napping under the immensely satisfying comforter.


Phil’s phone buzzed, startling Clint, even though Phil had told him there would be a phone call. “I’ll get dressed while you talk to Agent Hill,” Phil ordered Clint as he handed the phone over. “Tell her I just stepped out of the room and ask her what she’s calling about. Got it?”


Clint nodded, feeling overwhelmed again and trying to focus on the task. Moreover, he tried to focus on completing the task without sneezing his head off where Agent Hill could hear. So he cleared his throat ans answered as professionally as he could, “This is Agent Phil Coulson’s phone, Agent Barton speaking. Go ahead.” He watched Phil head to his closet. He’d seen Phil change before or during missions plenty of times before. And he had pretended, during those times, that he wasn’t interested in watching. But he had to admit, it was nice seeing the man in nothing but boxers and a white wifebeater.


“Oh, Agent Barton. I was calling for Agent Coulson, obviously. Are the two of you working a case I don’t know about, or is he available for something?”


Or are the two of you sleeping together and that’s why you’re at his apartment in the morning, answering his cell phone for him? She didn’t ask that of course, but she didn’t have to. Clint replied, “I’m sure he’s available, yes. He’s just looking after me this morning. I’m not feeling so hot. Sniff!” His nose was running again, badly. He pulled a tissue out of the box that now sat in his lap and he held it to his nose. He didn’t want to blow it, because she would hear that. She could probably hear the tissue rubbing against the phone as well or masking his voice a little, but he didn’t care as long as he kept from having another sneezing fit in front of another woman today. He had had his daily quota of those, thank you very much.


“I need him to do a quick assessment and retrieval job for S.H.I.E.L.D. We’re understaffed at the moment and he’s nearby. I’m sorry if that eats into his vacation time, but do you think he would be able to do a quick job for me?” Quick job? Obviously she had no idea about him getting hit by energy and being part of a time loop. Clint clearly didn’t have all the details, but that part of it didn’t sound so quick to him.


“I will tell him. But I guess he could.” Just then, Phil reentered the room, apparently waiting for a good time in the conversation to take his phone back.


“There’s an 0-8-4 over at a museum. We need him to retrieve it. Understand?”


Of course he understood. This wasn’t the first he was hearing about it. He moved the tissue in place to get a dry section to his nose. The urge to sneeze was rising again, and if he didn’t concentrate, he was going to sneeze right now. “Yes. That’s just a few blocks away, I understand.” Once again, Clint looked up at Phil and smiled. “You’re in luck. He just walked in. Here you are, Agent Hill.” Urgently, he handed the phone over, then pressed another tissue to his face.


“Good morning, Agent Hill,” Phil said, as if he had no idea what she was calling about. But his whole story had matched up. Even if this was some elaborate trick devised by Fury that both Phil and Maria were on together, there’s no way Phil could have known about Clint sneezing exactly when he did unless this was a time loop or Phil was somehow psychic now. And it seemed that the most important piece of that puzzle—other than Phil himself—was waiting for them at that museum.


Phil paced around his bedroom as he spoke on the phone, which gave Clint enough opportunity to muffle his sneezes into whole handfuls of tissues as they came. Hhh… huhhh-Chmphhhhhh! Hehschffffff!” He looked up over the tissues to see that Phil wasn’t even looking at him now, but Clint couldn’t take his eyes off the man.


Phil seemed absorbed in his conversation with Agent Hill. “I’m available to cut my vacation short and go on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. on two conditions.” There was a brief pause, presumably while Hill asked what those two conditions might be. “First, you take Agent Barton off active duty; he will be assisting me on this mission.” There was a brief smile on his face as he got his answer, which seemed to satisfy him. He turned in place and looked over at Clint for a brief moment. Then he went on. “I’m going to have the head researcher at the museum send his research to you. I need it sent immediately to my team to analyze. And I need you to read Tony Stark in on this one. I have a feeling we’re going to need his help. I’ve seen him recently and something he’s been working on may in fact help us.”


Clint didn’t hear the very end of the conversation, because another sneeze sprang up. He felt it tickling the inside of his nose so badly he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to muffle the sound any. Through tissues already plastered to his face in expectation, he gasped for breath. “Huh! Heh! Hehhh! Huhhh! Uh!” Then he paused, the sneeze intensifying for one miserable, teasing second before finally striking. “Hehhhhh-Umphschhhhh!” But it didn’t stop just there. “Hehhh-Ihshphhhh! Hehchummfff! Heh… huhhHushufffff!” He blew his nose in an attempt to drive the tickle out. An attempt that did not work. “Hah-ah-Hahschumphhh! Hushufffffff! Uhhhhh” He moaned, wanting to collapse, exhausted back on the bed.


But then Phil was there, settling down next to him and petting his head again. “Bless you,” he said softly. “I feel awful about this, because I’ve seen how sick you are, but I need you to watch out for me at the museum this time around. If someone is going to poison me, you need to find out who and stop them. I can’t die again, not when I’m so close to figuring this thing out.”


“Of—” he paused. His nose was so stuffed and runny the word was almost unintelligible. He turned his head and blew his nose a couple times, dropping the tissues over the side of the bed as he did so. Then he tried again. “Of course, Sir. Whatever you need. ”


Phil smiled at him. “The same applies to you. Except, I’m sorry to say I’m out of cold medicine. But we can pick some up on the way to the museum.”


Clint considered, then shook his head. “On the way back would be fine. I can last until then.”


“You’re sure?”


He climbed out of bed and picked up his bow. “Let’s go get that… what did you call it?”


“A Shandari bullet.”


“Yeah, that. Let’s go get ourselves a that.”


“Just a few things before we go.” He dialed another number on his cell phone and waited for the other party to pick up. “Ward, I’m going to have some files sent to the bus from a museum. I need Fitz-Simmons to focus on the energy portions of the research. That’s the key to everything.” Phil listened to the reply. “I’ll be in contact as soon as possible. I’d like for May to pick us up with the object, but I’ll contact you when we’re ready.”


Phil hung up the phone and led Clint to the living room, where he went through the closet there. He called out to Clint from there. “Next, you need to promise to not touch the object.”


“Why’s that?”


“The one time you did, the object exploded and probably took the whole city with it, possibly the whole world. It’s hard to know as we were dead by that point.”


That wasn’t exactly what Clint wanted to hear early in the morning. “All right. I don’t want to do that again. No touching the Shandari bullet. Anything else?”


From the closet, Phil took out a S.H.I.E.L.D. case and a small black box. “A few things. When we get to the museum, I want you up on the second floor so you can watch me from above. Whoever poisoned me the last time did so by injecting something into the back of my neck. It took hours to finally kick in and kill me.”


“They won’t get to you a second time,” Clint promised. “But… what… sniff! What were they trying to accomplish by poisoning you like that?


Phil took two earpieces out of the box and turned each on. “I’ve been thinking about it, and the best I can come up with is he meant to inject me with more and then steal the Shandari bullet from me. But he wasn’t able to inject me with enough so I was already on the bus with my team by that time. Here…” He handed over an ear piece. “Test this with me.” They both put one in and tested them out to be sure they worked.


“Ready?” Clint asked.


“Do you have enough tissues?”


He hadn’t even thought of that, but Clint now loaded his pockets down with tissues. “How long have you been going through this day?” Clint asked.


“About two weeks now,” Phil told him. “Long enough to know you’re going to need tissues.”


What if he lost sight of Phil? What if he sneezed at the wrong time and missed getting the bad guy? “Maybe you should call huh… huhh-URshhhh! Sniff! Maybe you should call a member of your team to cover you instead?


Phil shook his head. “I have exactly who I want. We’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we? I know you can do this.” He squeezed Clint’s shoulder. “Now let’s go.”


Clint followed Phil out to the elevator and leaned against one of the walls inside. He coughed a little and rubbed at his nose. He couldn’t help but notice how Phil kept looking at him like he knew a lot more than he was saying. “Sir, did something happen during one of the time loops?”


With a sigh, “A lot of things happened during the time loops.”


“Yes, but did something happen… between us?”


Phil didn’t reply right away. He wouldn’t even make eye contact as he thought about what to say. Finally, he looked back at Clint. “If we make it through this loop, I’ll tell you.”


That was good enough for Clint for now. As they walked out of the apartment building, Clint let the senior agent lead the way. If Phil had been through this before, he probably knew everything from the time the street lights were going to change to who was passing them on the sidewalk. Or maybe it took more than a couple weeks of loops to learn that sort of thing. But Phil also looked tired. He didn’t want Phil to go through any more loops than he had to. Ideally, they’d stop the bad guy, figure out how the device worked, stop the time loop, and free Agent Phil Coulson up to take care of him.


Huh… hehhhh!” He needed someone to take care of him. Clint pinched his nose again, preparing to hold back the sneeze as much as he could. There were too many people around, too many people who would see him sneezing. This was a nightmare. But then he felt a hand on his shoulder.


“Come here…” Phil said directing Clint over to the side of a store, out of the way on the sidewalk. Then he pulled Clint close and wrapped his arms around the man. “Sneeze all you need to. I’ve got you.”


Clint bent his head down and nuzzled his face into Phil’s suit jacket. “I… I have to… hehhh… hehKTschhuhhhhh! Heh heh hehKtchhhffffff! Huhhh huhKehshhhh! Huh… hehhh-Uhhshuhhhh! Sniff!


“Bless you.” Phil rubbed his back where the quiver of arrows wasn’t. “Better?”


Clint raised his head. He didn’t feel any better, but the urge to sneeze had passed for now. So he nodded anyway. And on they went to the the museum. They walked up the front stone steps and headed in through the tall double doors.


The museum was swamped with people, which surprised Clint. So many people… so many possible culprits. And then Clint gave a start when he saw the security checkpoint just inside the entrance, but Coulson didn’t seem concerned. “The guard is a bit obsessed with superheroes and the Avengers. You’ll have no problem getting in with your bow and arrows.”


With a slight smirk, “Obsessed with superheros? I bet you don’t know what that’s like, Mr. Mint Captain America Cards.”


Phil frowned. “Fury still owes me for those ones he damaged.”


Clint turned away so Phil wouldn’t see him laugh about that. But it turned out the man was right about the security guard. “You’re Hawkeye, aren’t you?” the security guard exclaimed the moment he spotted Clint, even when Clint was a few people back. He rushed those museum patrons through quickly and then marveled at the sight of Clint. “Hawkeye in my museum… wow… could I get your autograph—for my daughter, Melanie, of course.” Of course. Clint signed the back of a museum map the man thrust at him. “And one more… for me?” Once again, Clint did his best not to laugh. He signed another one for the man whose name was right there on his name tag. “Bruce. It’s Bruce.”


Clint had already written it, so he smiled obligingly then handed it over. He knew he couldn’t look back at Phil or he would absolutely crack up. Instead, he turned on his charm. “Hey, I know weapons aren’t allowed, but I’m escorting this S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on official business…”


“Go right through!” the guard said, almost pushing Clint through the metal detector. Even went it went off, he didn’t bat an eyelash. He did, however, turn toward the next person in line: Phil. “Anything metal goes in the tray,” he said, narrowing his eyes. Clint waited for Phil to make it through then collect his personal items and cell phone from the tray that had been through the x-ray machine. Phil looked amused, not irritated, though. Then he motioned to Clint to take the stairs up to the second floor.


“I’ll keep my eye on you, Sir,” Clint promised before racing up the grand, marble stairs. The layout of the museum was easy enough to figure out, even at first glance. The entrance hall was a large circle with a fountain in the center. There were exhibit halls branching off from the circle like rays of the sun. These exhibit halls stretched off in all directions except on the side where the main entrance doors were. Clint felt far more comfortable up here, looking down at the chaos below. He was in his element up high like this with his bow at the ready in case someone tried something with Agent Coulson. “I’m with you, Sir,” he said through the comm channel.


Phil replied, “I’ll be cutting across here and—oof!” A little girl suddenly ran into Phil.


“Sir!” Clint had a trick arrow nocked in his bow, ready to fire. His fingers were about to let loose the wire when Phil stopped him.


“Stand down, Agent. It’s just a little girl who loses her father. She runs into me all the time. No need to overreact.”


“You could have warned me about that…”


“Sorry. She’s the only exception. If anyone else approaches me, especially from behind, don’t hesitate to fire.”


“Yes, Sir.”


“You’re going to lose me in a minute when I head to the employee area. But we’ll keep the comm live so you can follow what I’m doing. I promise I’ll be fine until I get back to the entrance hall. I’m certain that’s where it happened before.”


Clint didn’t like the idea of not being able to watch Phil the whole time. He couldn’t protect the agent if he couldn’t see the agent. But he did trust Phil. “Be careful, Sir.”


Faced with some time to kill, Clint put it to good use studying the people in the entrance hall, looking for suspicious characters. He saw a few people just standing around, surveying the other people in the hall. But each of them, without exception, ended up finding friends or family and heading to an exhibit or up the stairs. No one sent red warning flags up for Clint. In addition to watching everyone, Clint tried to follow Phil’s progress. He listened to the introductions with the researchers and the way Phil took charge of the situation, swooping in and snatching up the 0-8-4. It was impressive—and pretty hot, actually.


Clint also spent some time sneezing. He couldn’t help it. And at least it was happening now and not later when Phil was back in sight and needed him. Not even a sneeze would distract him then, he resolved. So, for now, he wouldn’t berate himself for needing to sneeze. He did, however, keep pinching his nose so his sneezes weren’t loud, attention-getters. He might be on the second floor, but plenty of museum-goers still passed by. “Hehh… hehhh! HEH! Hurxxxnttt! Hengxxxt!” Sometimes when he sneezed while Phil was speaking, he heard the man falter or pause in speaking. Sometimes Clint muttered an apology, knowing Phil wasn’t able to answer him.


“Agent Barton,” Phil’s voice said through their comm at last.


“Right here, Sir.”


“I’m approaching the entrance hall.”


Tense, unblinking, Clint’s eyes did not move from where he had seen Phil disappear from sight earlier. Something inside him jumped with Phil appeared. “Eyes on you, Sir.”


“Thanks, Agent,” came the reply, though Clint didn’t take it personally when Phil did not look up at him. He knew they wouldn’t want to let anyone know Clint was there.


Clint sniffled a little and got an arrow set in his bow so he could react immediately this time. Closely, he watched Phil walk across the entrance hall, carrying the S.H.I.E.L.D. case. And he scanned the crowd, looking for someone who might be looking at him. He didn’t see anyone watching Phil, but that just meant whoever it was wasn’t being obvious about it. A warning flared up in Clint when someone asked Phil to take a photo of a group of Japanese tourists. Clint watched carefully as the man handed his camera over, but the man didn’t go anywhere near Phil’s neck or even actually touch him.


Just then, he felt someone bump him. He almost loosed the arrow, but managed to keep hold of it and relax his posture just a little as he looked down. A little girl had bumped into him. No, not just any little girl, but the exact same little girl who had bumped into Phil earlier. That seemed like a strange coincidence. Or, rather, it seemed that way until he started feeling woozy a few seconds later. He lowered his bow so he wouldn’t shoot the arrow by mistake. And then the world went dark around him.


When he opened his eyes, his head was pounding. It took him a few seconds for his head to right itself. The moment he pushed past the dizziness, the congestion got to him. It stabbed and prickled at his sinuses and then he snapped forward. Huhh-UHKSchhhhhhhhhh!” Sneezing hurt, and not just because the sneeze was stronger and more powerful than usual. He tried to rub his nose but found that he was tied to something. He was sitting upright, but his middle was held against something. He looked down to see ropes wrapped around his chest. His arms were pulled back behind him and tied with something at the wrists. He could move his fingers, but the bindings were so tight there was no room for him to pull free easily, so wiping his nose was out… as was the more important concept: escape. Clint’s legs wouldn’t move either, as they seemed to be spread apart but tied at the ankles to what Clint now identified as a hard wooden chair. But wood wasn’t bad. Wood could break. Escape wasn’t completely impossible, but it would take some time and some strength.


First, though, was finding Phil. Clint was tied to a chair in the middle of what seemed to be a very large room, like a warehouse. There was a bare, gray concrete floor; a bare, dim lightbulb hanging directly overhead; and a bare, almost non-existent hope of being rescued. Apart from Clint in his chair, it seemed empty and deserted—in short, it was the perfect place to detain and torture someone. It stood to reason that if he were here, Phil was somewhere similar… or even somewhere there. “Sir?” he whispered. He received no reply but, as he strained to listen, he heard something he hadn’t noticed before: breathing. The breaths were soft, slow, and even. They were the breaths of someone who was asleep, not someone waiting in the wings to jump out with a weapon and a million and a half questions Clint wouldn’t have any idea how to answer. Clint had spent years working with Phil, but he was kidding himself if he believed he could identify Phil’s breathing from anyone else’s.


Yet… the most he listened to it, the more he was certain. It was coming from right behind him, not even that far behind him either. Maybe a foot, maybe two. He was just far enough back that he couldn’t reach him no matter how he twisted his wrists and stretched out his fingers, but also too close for Clint to catch a glimpse of him no matter how he turned his head or moved his shoulders. The ropes were too tight. The chair too strong. “Sir?” he tried again, a little louder. Then, “Phil?” Nothing. Definitely asleep then. And while Clint desperately wanted Phil to wake up and help him find a way out of this, he also knew there was probably no escape from this situation and Phil might as well sleep while he could and save himself the distress a for a few extra minutes.


It was hard to stay quiet, however, when you had a horrible head cold and hadn’t had medicine in at least a day. His nose tickled madly, and his throat tickled as well, as the congestion traveled downward. He coughed and sniffled and tried his best not to sneeze by straining his neck and scrubbing his nose on his shoulder. But the material of his uniform was not the most receptive and mostly only irritated his sore nostrils rather than soothed the tickle in them. “Hahhhh hahh-KETSCHHHHHHH!” he sprayed freely, unrestrainedly. It was loud enough to wake a city block, but Phil slept on. Maybe Clint was tougher, more resistant to whatever they’d injected him with. Or maybe Clint had been given a smaller dosage. Or maybe they had only brought enough for one, expecting just Phil, and had split it between them at the last minute, unevenly. Whatever the reason, Clint was at least relieved to find out that it wasn’t poison and they hadn’t been killed. Clint focused on that breathing. In the lonely darkness, that breathing was the only thing that kept him present, kept him sane. He needed that breathing… almost as much as he needed a damn tissue. “Huhhhh… hahhh-HIHKTSChhhhhhhhh! Hehktchhhhhhhh!


Clint gasped for breath and tried to will the tickles away, but he failed miserably. Hahh-KTSchuhhhhh! HAH-EHHKFSChhhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff!” Oh god, his nose was running. He rubbed it at his shoulder now, trying to wipe it dry. But the more he rubbed it, the more it tickled. “Hahhh… hahh… hahhhhhhhh… hahh-HIHSchhhhhh! Hehktshooo! HehKshhhhhh!” His head swam again, dizzy from so much rapid fire sneezing. “Hahhh-Kshhhh! HuhhhKshooo! Huh…. Ahh-hahhh…” And then, the worst thing happened: the sneeze stuck. He felt it tickling madly inside his nose. He felt it tickle the back of his throat. But it just wouldn’t get bigger and wouldn’t come out. “Aw, sneeze, no…” Clint said, his nose too full now. He tried sniffling, but got the same annoying “Snxxt!” as when he’d woken up that morning, like time was repeating on him as well. “Dab it!”


Clint coughed and tried to relax. He tried to match his breathing to Phil’s. In and out. In and out. “Hahhh-HAHHHSHUSHHHHHHH!” Great relief coupled with great misery. “Snffffff!” But at least he could sniffle a little now. “Phil? Snffffff! Phil, I know that’s you. Snffff! Snifff! If you’re there, just… breathe id add thed out agaid.” He listened closely to the breathing behind him. In and out. “I dew it.” He smiled. “Hi, Sir. I’ll just sit here add wait for you thed. All right?” In and out. In and out. Clint gave a laugh. “Dod’t worry, Sir. I’ve got your back.”


Clint wished that by slowing his breathing he could fall asleep. He felt sick and exhausted and could probably use the extra rest. But every time he got close to drifting off, he had to sneeze again. And so he had to go through the routine of trying to hold it back, screwing up his face, wrinkling his nose, gritting his teeth, pursing his lips, only to have his every attempt thwarted. Hahhh-Uhshhhhhh! HahhhKshuhhhhhhh! Hah… hahh-ahschhhhhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff! Hahhh-Huhhshhhhhh!” He tried laughing again, though that mostly came out as coughing. “How was that, Sir? Dot eved worthy of a bless you? Huh… huhhhhHuhshhhhhh! Sniff! You’re bissig sub good sdeezes frub be here. Hahhh… hahhh-Huhshoo! Sniff!


After about half an hour, Clint started shivering. Maybe it was getting colder in the warehouse. Or maybe it was that his legs were getting damp from being caught in so many of his sneezes. Or maybe his fever was coming back. Whatever the reason, he was shivering and wishing more than ever to be back in Phil’s bed, under that impossibly heavy comforter. A warm cup of tea. A hot water bottle at his feet. A warm arm draped around him from behind in bed. There was so much he wanted right now, though he would settle for a tissue. Right now, he would just about sell his soul for a tissue. “Huhhhh-UH-Hihtschuhhhhhh! HuhSchuhhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff! Snifffffff! Huhohhuhhh-Hihshhhhhhhhh! UghSir? Sniff! Are you awake yet?


Phil wasn’t. Clint couldn’t tell how much time had passed. He hadn’t been counting seconds or minutes or even sneezes. But it seemed like an eternity had passed already. “Hahh… Hehh-Huhshooo!” And he was absolutely no closer to stopping sneezing. “Huhhh-huh-huh-HUH!” He paused, sure that the sneeze would mess with him again and go away. But then it didn’t. “Huhhh-KETCHushhhhhhhh! Sniiiiiiiffffffffffff!


Groaning miserably, Clint rubbed his nose on his right shoulder, then his left, then the right again. It really only made things worse, but it was all he could do. Huhhh-Huhshchhhhhh! Hehkshuhhhhhhh! Sniff! Sniff! Sniff! Huhh… huhShuhhhhh! Sniff! Sir?” he tried again. “Are you sure you’re dot awake yet and just blayig a joke od be? Heh Is Stark goig to jubb out of the darkdess add yell boo?” Phil did not answer. And Tony Stark did not jump out from anywhere. All that happened was that Clint sneezed again. “Huh-IHShuhhhhh! Huhshuhhhh! Heh heh-IHSchuhhhhhhh! Sniiff! Sniff-sniff!


Between sneezes, Clint spent some time thinking about his kidnapper. That little girl had definitely been the one Phil had told Clint wasn’t a threat. She couldn’t have moved both of them on her own; she had to have had help. Phil had said she had lost her father? Clint was willing to bet that man was in on this. But he’d dismissed it at the time. And there she had been, looking not at all innocent. Her eyes had been filled with… what had they been filled with, exactly? Rage? Hatred? Malicious intent? Or… anger-filled excitement, maybe. She had known exactly what she was doing when she had jabbed him with that syringe. He had only taken his eyes off Phil for a second, but in that second he’d broken his promise. Some S.H.I.E.L.D. agent he’d turned out to be. Agent Hill should remove him from active duty permanently if he ever got out of this mess. “I’b sorry, Sir,” Clint whispered, wishing above all that Phil had been awake to hear that. “This is by… by… by fault hahhh-Ihschuhhhhh! Ehshihhhh! Heh heh… hah-UHChooo!


But as Phil continued to sit behind him, unconscious, Clint’s mind continued to wander. What if they’d hurt him, and that was why he wasn’t waking up? What if they’d injected Clint with some stuff and they hadn’t had enough for Phil, so they’d had to clock him over the head or hit him and knock him out? What if it were some complication with the Shandari bullet? What if he never woke? Would the time loop reset if Phil wasn’t awake? Or was he already dead? “Sir? Phil?” Clint knew that calling out to him wasn’t going to work by now. His sneezes were twice as loud as his words, and none of them had done anything except make the situation worse. But it made him feel better. “Ha… hahh-Hahschhhhhh! Sniff!” And right now he needed whatever he could get that would make him feel better.


Minutes passed. Hours. Days. Decades. And just when Clint was about to give up any hope, he heard a different sound behind him. It was the sound of something moving. It could have been their kidnapper finally making an appearance, but somehow Clint just knew that it was Phil finally coming to.


“Hello?” Phil called out, his voice echoing in the large room the way each and every one of Clint’s sneezes and sniffles had.


“Hey,” Clint replied. His voice was tired, congested, but he tried to sound as relieved as he felt. “Glad you woge ub at last. Sniff! I’ve beed callig for you for albost ad hour.”


“I know. I’m sorry.”


He knew? He was sorry? That wasn’t right. Not at all. “Doe, it was by fault. I was subbosed to have beed watch… watch… huhhh hold od hehhhh-HihKTSHHHhhhhhhh!


“There was nothing you could have done. And this isn’t the first time I’ve had this happen.”


Clint rolled his eyes. “You could have warded be. Sniff! Sniffffff!


“Sorry,” he repeated. “Your poor nose. You’ve been sneezing nonstop since you woke up, haven’t you? Bless you, Clint.”


A distinct chill ran up Clint at the sound of Agent Phil Coulson saying his first name like that, full of so much kindness and sympathy. Clit laughed, “Dod’t bother with that, Sir. I’b too far gode add I c-cah… hah… huh-KITSCHHHH! Snuffffffff! I cad’t s-stob sdeh… ehhh… hehhhh-EHPTISHHHHH!


“Now that I’m awake, our kidnappers should be showing themselves any moment now. Though they needn’t bother. I know who they are now.”


“You can’t know!” came a shout from the darkness, and Clint wondered if their kidnappers had been listening in on them this whole damn time. That was inarguably creepy. He hoped they’d enjoyed watching him sneeze his head off for an hour. The sound of footsteps filled the silence, coming closer and closer. And out of the darkness came the person Clint had expected.


“You’re that little girl’s father,” Phil said.


A dart flew to him, embedded itself in his chest, and facilitated an electric current. It sounded to Clint as if Phil were being hit by a taser, and Clint shout out, “Stop!” as if simply being given that command had ever stopped any super villain in the history of ever.


“Not a father, a loyal servant of her majesty.”


Clint cleared his throat. “That little girl is a queed?”


There was a pause. “A princess, actually.”


“A bridcess? Dot the bridcess?


“She is Princess Runella, twelfth in line for the throne of the territory of Yamala on the world of—”


“Let be guess,” Clint interrupted. “Shaddari?”


So shocked, the man took a step back.


Phil had recovered somewhat from being hit with the energy, because he managed to eek out, “Told you we knew who you were. And I know about the bullet.”


The man took a step forward, making up the difference he’d just lost. “You will tell me how you activated it. You will tell me how to use it.”


Clint thought that was about as likely as the Black Widow knitting baby booties for kittens. “Sure,” Phil agreed, and Clint groaned inside. “I’ll tell you just as soon as Tony Stark goes to an AA meeting and the Hulk teaches a ballet class.”


The man roared with anger—an inhuman, blood-curdling kind of roar. He fired his taser at Coulson once again for longer this time, and Clint got the sense that Phil was doing this specifically to keep the man from targeting Clint. That didn’t seem fair, but he was grateful just the same. Phil was a damn good agent.


Just then, there was a buzzing sound. It took Clint a few moments to recognize it as Phil’s phone. The idiot space aliens had forgotten to relieve him of his phone. Phil wouldn’t be able to answer it, of course, but if it was buzzing, that meant it was still on. And if it was still on, that meant S.H.I.E.L.D. could be tracking them. And if S.H.I.E.L.D. were tracking them, that meant help might be on its way.


Correction: help was definitely on its way. Clint heard gunfire. And he heard Phil’s warnings. But he heard both of them too late to do anything about it. As his chair fell to the side, Clint felt something strike his shoulder, something else strike his thigh, and then…













Chapter 14


Coulson woke when the door buzzer went off. He sat up in bed with only one thing on his mind: Clint. He thought he’d had it figured out last time, thought having Clint along to watch from above would be enough. But he hadn’t counted on there being two of them… and he hadn’t suspected anything like that from the sweet, lost little girl who had run into him at the museum so many times. Hell, he’d even told Clint she wasn’t a threat and to stand down… and that mistake had gotten them both killed. This time was going to be different.


Jumping out of bed, Coulson trudged across his bedroom and down his hall, plunged his hand into his linen closet, and ripped open the tissue box with the chevron design on it. He pressed the button by the buzzer and spoke into the panel there, “Come on up, Agent Barton.” Then he pressed the button to unlock the front doors to the apartment building. As he waited for Clint to arrive, he tried to go over everything he’d learned in the previous time loops, but there was so much it made his head hurt. So he focused just on yesterday. He knew exactly what needed to be done, what needed to change. And he knew just what to do. Now the trick was just to stay alive long enough to do it.


He knew he had to wait for Clint to leave the elevator on his own. What he wanted to do was race over and take the man in a bear of a hug again, but he knew that if he did that, his apartment building would burn down… and Clint would be understandably confused. So he waited, tissues at the ready. And when Clint stepped out of the elevator and came toward him, Coulson held the tissues up in just the right place.


Hahh-Ktshhhhh!” The sneeze was strong, and Coulson felt the force—not the wetness—of it against his hand through the tissues. And he held the tissues in pace, even though Clint started to pull back, knowing Clint would of course sneeze again. “Huh huh-KIHtchhh!


“Bless you,” Coulson said definitively. He thrust the tissue box at Clint. “Come in. I know you’re not feeling well. Let me get you into bed while I tell you what’s going on and how I knew what you were doing. But, first… I’m going to have to hug you.” He wrapped his arms around Clint and drew him close. It was the solidness of the man in his arms that he liked the most, but there was more to it—the way he smelled like aftershave and honey, the steady beat of his heart, the brush of his hair against Coulson’s face, the shape and pressure of his body as it pressed against Coulson. If the world weren’t about to blow up, he’d choose to stay there all day like this. Instead, he pulled back, put a hand on Clint’s cheek, and kissed him softly on the lips. “I’m stuck in a time loop,” he told Clint. “And this is far from our first kiss. Now come inside.” And when he turned, he could sense Clint was directly behind him—exactly where he wanted the man to be from now on.


Huh… hahhChushhhhh!” This time, Clint caught his own sneeze in a tissue, for which Clint and the back of his neck were grateful.


Coulson tucked Clint into bed again then sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his arm through the comforter. Not even sure Clint could feel the pettings, he moved his hand upward and stroked Clint’s head. He knew he ran the risk of moving things forward too quickly, but there wasn’t much time and there was too much that needed to be said. “Like I said, I’m in a time loop. Every day I wake up to you buzzing my apartment and sneezing twice in the hallway. Every morning Agent Hill calls me on that phone,” Coulson pointed to his nightstand. “She asks me to go to a museum nearby to pick up an 0-8-4. I now know its origin is the planet Shandari, and it’s called a Shandari bullet, part of a weapon used during the Battle of New York. But there are at least two Shandari here in the city looking for the object. When I slip up somehow and they realize I have it, they come after me, and that never ends well. But sometimes other things get to me. Every day I try to figure out what’s going on. Some days I figure out more than others. But every day I die. And then I wake up again right here in my bed as if nothing happened and you’re downstairs again with a case of the sniffles, needing me to take care of you.”


“That’s… hahhhh… hahhhKTShuhhh! Sniff! Sniff! That’s some story.”


“I know you’ll believe me now,” Coulson explained, “Because you always believe me. But, just in case you need extra proof, I want you to answer the phone when Agent Hill calls. You can tell her I’ve just stepped out for a moment.”


No sooner were the words out than the phone on the nightstand buzzed with an incoming call.


Coulson gestured for Clint to pick it up, then headed to his closet to get dressed. He stood in front of the rack of suits for a minute, wondering if he should change things and put on something different. In the end, he went with the same shirt as always, same suit as always, and same tie as always. He listened on and off to the phone conversation to see where Clint was. “I’m sure he’s available, yes. He’s just looking after me this morning. I’m not feeling so hot. Sniff!” That sniffle made Coulson smile to himself. It was reassuring to know that every time the day reset, he could count on certain things to remain constant. Which meant that he should be able to count on a certain little alien princess to run into him at the museum.


He tied his tie and straightened it in the mirror on the inside of the door to his closet, then he headed into the bedroom. Clint looked up at him from where he lay in bed. “You’re in luck. He just walked in. Here you are, Agent Hill.” Sniffling and rubbing at his nose, he handed the phone over to Coulson. Then he pulled a few tissues out of the box and blew his nose into them as quietly as he could.


Coulson lifted the phone to his ear. “Hello, Agent Hill. What can I do for you and S.H.I.E.L.D. today?”


“There’s an 0-8-4 at a museum a few blocks from your current position. It’s a simple assess and acquire—”


“With all due respect, Agent Hill, it’s not. I would like to call my team in on this one and utilize Agent Barton as well.”


“How do you know—”


“You’ve got to trust me on this.”


On the other end of the line, she sighed. “All right. It’s your team. I can’t stop you from using them on this mission. But are you sure Agent Barton is up to helping?”


Huhhhhhh huhh-Hischhhhhh! Huhhh-Ketchooo!




Coulson had to admit this was not a very convincing argument. “I’m sure.”


“All right then. Just retrieve the 0-8-4.”


“We will.” He hung up and sat back down on the bed. “Are you all right?” he asked Clint, petting the man’s head again, his hand gracing through the soft dark blond hair.


Clint nodded. “So you’re really in a time loop?” Coulson nodded. “And every day you really die?” Coulson nodded again. “And you actually think you’re going to get me up and out of this extremely comfortable, warm bed now that you have tucked me in here?”


Coulson chuckled. “All I’ve had to say before is that I need your help.”


Smiling, Clint sat up. He rubbed his gloved hand at his nose, but he sat up. “Let’s go.”


“Hold on,” Coulson laughed. “A few things before we start out.” Coulson held a finger up. “First, you can’t touch the 0-8-4. When I touch it, the energy leaping around it dies down. But when you touch it, the energy increases and takes out the entire city.”


Clint rubbed his nose again. “Ah, all right. I promise to keep my hands off it.”


“That shouldn’t be too hard, as I’m going to need your help with the Shandari. That should keep you occupied. Second, I’m bringing my team in, so you’re going to have to work with them.” Clint didn’t look too happy about this, but he nodded before blowing his nose.. “Third, try to keep your tissues off my floor and in the trashcans as often as possible.” Clint gave him a weak smile and palmed the balled-up tissue he was just about to toss over the side of the bed. “And, last, I want you to do anything in your power to keep me from dying today.”


“But sniff! But you said you always die.


“And I’m getting tired of it. So help me keep a lookout for fires, explosions, muggers, and rampaging elephants. Sound doable?”


“Rampaging…” Clint chuckling. “Oh, you’re going to tell me all about that one when this is over.”


Clint picked up his bow and quiver and they headed out of the apartment, toward the museum. On the walk there, Coulson made a phone call and explained as much as he could to his team. Clint, sniffling as the late autumn wind whipped around him, stayed ever vigilant. He didn’t let Coulson cross the street until he was sure no one was running the light. He insisted on walking ahead a few steps in case he needed to intercept someone about to charge and attack Coulson. And even though he did a good deal of rubbing at his nose and sniffling and coughing here and there, he only faltered once. He stopped in his tracks, pinching his nose and puffing up his chest, trying to hold his breath.


Coulson took him by the shoulders, easing him off to the side. Shaded under the canopy of a quick stop shop, Coulson put both his arms around the man. With a hand on the back of Clint’s head, he directed it downward, hiding it against his dark time loop suit jacket. “No one’s watching,” he assured Clint.


And, almost instantly, Clint let loose with sneezes. Hetchfff! Hehkshfffff! Hehshffffff!” He lifted his head, feeling better, and sniffled again. He didn’t need to ask Coulson how he knew. But Coulson smiled at him and gave him a quick, light kiss. Then they resumed their trek toward the museum.


When they got there Clint, who had just been briefed on how to pass through security with weapons, took Coulson’s gun and sailed right through with the help of the two autographs he’d left with the beaming security guard. Clint and Coulson wore earbuds again, but this time they weren’t alone. Clint hung back a little, letting Coulson go forward on his own.


Coulson walked at the same pace as usual. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the familiar bouncy brown ponytail coming at him. Relieved he had timed this right, he let her collide with him. “Sorry,” he said as she pretended to get the wind knocked out of her. But instead of letting her run off to catch up with her manservant, Coulson grabbed her by the arm. “Sorry, your highness. I’m a little tired of you. This ends now.”


The girl shrieked, startled, and tried her best to pull away. But Clint was right behind her now, holding both her arms. She struggled and kicked, and Coulson remembered only too well the way he had struggled against his bonds in the previous version of this day when she had orchestrated their kidnapping and torture. He had little sympathy for her now. She shrieked more loudly for help, but none came. The noise did attract the attention of some of the museum patrons, but once Coulson showed them his badge and warned them, “She’s dangerous and carrying a weapon! Stay back where it’s safe!” everyone backed up at once, giving them space.


Glancing over at the spot where he had so many times seen her “father” standing, he now saw Agent Ward and Skye. Skye had her gun trained on the alien and Ward had him in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s securest pair of restraints. “I’ll take her,” came May’s voice from behind Coulson, and he turned back around to see Agent May taking custody of the other alien, freeing Clint up. His first move was to, sheepishly, rub again at his runny nose. Coulson had expected no less, but he’d done his job well.


“Everything in place?” Coulson asked her.


She gave him a reassuring smile. “Of course, Sir. She’s waiting for you.”


“Excellent.” He patted his chest and sides, feeling there the gun Clint had given back to him still under his suit jacket and feeling his S.H.I.E.L.D. badge in an inner pocket, but also feeling his wallet still in his pocket. She hadn’t even been a convincing pickpocket. He wondered if all Shandari were so stupid or just the royalty and their stooges.


“Excellent.” He glanced over at Clint. “Coming?”


Clint was at his heals. After both showing their IDs, they were allowed into the Authorized Personnel Only area. Clint putting his hand on Coulson’s shoulder so as not to lose him as they weaved through the mass of researchers and scientists flocking to the laboratory was never going to get old for Coulson. He wanted to reach up and lay his hand over Clint’s holding it there, stoking the back of the man’s gloved hand as he led them on toward an object he knew the name of but was still not much closer to figuring out. But that’s where Fitz-Simmons came in.


“Hello, Sir!” Simmons said cheerfully as soon as he entered the laboratory. She had her lab coat on and a tablet in hand. From the look of it, she and Fitz had made friends with Dr. Daniels, who was still somewhat enchanted with the Shandari bullet’s impressive and beautiful energy display. “Dr. Daniels was showing us some of his research. This object is simply fascinating. The energy just started up like this from seemingly out of nowhere this morning.”


Coulson smiled to himself and succeeded in not glancing over his shoulder at Clint. But he couldn’t help thinking about what they were now. They were more than friends. More than partners. More than agents. But they weren’t anything else yet… even if he wanted them to be. Suddenly, he felt Clint squeeze his shoulder. Coulson’s smile widened and he tilted his head toward the touch.


Like a hummingbird, Fitz was darting around the table, analyzing the Shandari bullet from all directions as he watched the energy dance. He held a scanning instrument of some sort, recording the readings but barely looking down at the instrument’s screen. “Hello, Sir,” he said, still staring unblinkingly at the 0-8-4.


Simmons explained, “We’re trying to gauge if it’s possible to actually move this object. The object gives off a very specific energy signature.”


“It’s safe for me to move it,” Coulson told her. “Do you two have the readings you need?”


“Yes,” Simmons answered. “But, Sir…”


Not listening to her protests, Coulson strode over without Clint right behind him. Coulson picked up the object, inciting gasps from everyone, including members of his team. But not from Clint. When he set the case on the laboratory table and set the object inside, he noticed Clint smiling with something like pride in his expression. Though that didn’t last too long.


Huhhh… hahhhh-INGhtttt!” Despite the attempt at stifling his sneeze, almost all eyes turned toward Clint, especially now that there was no pretty teal and purple energy to entertain them.


Coulson decided it was time for introductions. “Agents Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, meet Agent Clint Barton. He’s a little under the weather, but I needed an Avenger to watch out for me today.” Clint gave a wave and a step back, avoiding anything that might look like a handshake. “I’ll see you two back on the bus shortly?”


“Just need to finish up here,” Fitz said, glancing over at one of the computer monitors on the far wall.


“Good. Clint?” Coulson said, gesturing for them to leave. And, with the case with the object safely in hand, they headed out. But they didn’t go back through the entrance hall, the way they’d come. Coulson navigated through hallways as if he had done this a hundred times—or even one time—before. Finally, the glowing red EXIT signs he had been following ended in an actual door. At the back of the museum, there were large loading docks and some staff parking. But right outside the entrance sat a familiar car. “Clint, I think you remember Lola?”


Clint nodded and slipped into the passenger seat. Coulson started to hand over the case, but Clint pulled back, instinctively. “You said I shouldn’t touch it.”


“It’s fine as long as it’s in its case. I promise.” Clint set the case on his lap and held onto it tightly. Coulson turned the key in the ignition and then fired up the systems. By the time they were halfway around the parking lot, the car was in the air. The jet was parked on the roof of the museum, giving his team easy access. Coulson drove Lola into the hanger only minutes after Ward, May, and Skye had returned.


“Are the aliens dealt with?”


“Delivered to S.H.I.E.L.D. Though Agent Hill seemed surprised to see them, Sir.”


Coulson grinned. “I thought it would make a nice surprise. Agent May, as soon as the others are on board, get us in the air and over open water.”


She nodded, acknowledging the order. “Anywhere in particular?”


“Somewhere we won’t cause too much damage if we explode.”


Skye’s eyes widened. “Is that likely?”


With a shrug, Coulson answered, “Let’s just say it has happened before.”


Coulson led Clint through the ship to his room. Clint set the Shandari bullet down, seemingly glad to put some distance between it and himself. But Coulson’s room was small, especially with the door closed behind. It wasn’t much more than a bunk and some storage compartments where Coulson kept his personal items and clothes. He took off his suit jacket and laid it on top of his bed. Then he started to undo his belt.


“Whoa,” Clint held both hands up. “Sir, I don’t know what exactly you and I did in previous time loops, but I’m not ready for…”


Coulson paused, his belt undone and his fingers poised over the button on his slacks. He had been so used to Clint following his lead and watching his back, he’d forgotten to explain. “This isn’t sexual. Several times now, those particular aliens have injected both of us with something. It’s usually something that knocks us right out immediately and we wake up an hour or two later. But once it was poison. It took some time to kick in, but my team didn’t have time to find a cure.” He neglected to explain that he had specifically told Fitz-Simmons to not look for a cure and to, instead, focus on the Shandari bullet. “We had direct contact with the aliens before they were detained; we need to make sure we weren’t injected with anything. I could have one of my team members look you over, if you prefer, but I thought you’d be more comfortable with me. I’m… more comfortable with you.”


Clint hesitated, then let out a slow, resigned sigh. “All right. What are we looking for?”


Undoing the button and zipper on his slacks and dropping them to his ankles, Coulson explained. “It’ll be small, the size of a pin prick. A little red dot; it persists even after a few hours, so if that little girl got us, we should be able to tell.” He unbuttoned his shirt and laid that on the bed on top of his jacket. With just the white tank on, he surveyed his arms closely and realized that Clint had stepped closer and was doing the same. He couldn’t help but be slightly self-conscious as he pulled off his shirt. The stab wound from Loki’s Asgardian staff had healed but had left a mark that would probably always be there. “I’ll need your help on my back, and the backs of my legs,” he said, turning on the balls of his feet. Though he had thought not seeing Clint at this time would be easier, it was actually harder. His mind raced, imaging Clint’s facial expressions or even just imagining what part of him Clint was presently looking at.


“I…” Clint trailed off, but not to sneeze. He sniffled a little but cleared his throat with his elbow over the lower half of his face. “I need you to slide your boxer shorts down for a minute so I can check your… ah…” Thankfully, another sneeze saved him from finishing his sentence. “Huh… huhhh-KETChhhhh! Huhhhh huh-Ihschhh! H’Chihhhh!


“Bless you.” Coulson slid his underwear down, giving Clint an unhindered view of his ass. He surveyed his front while Clint checked his back. He leaned over a little, hands on his thighs, to get a proper look. With his shorts and undershirt back on, he took off his pants completely and pushed down his black socks to check his ankles. “Nothing?” Coulson asked.


Clint rubbed his hand over his forehead then back and forth across the back of his neck. “I wouldn’t say nothing exactly… but no injection marks. Sir…”


“I should check you over now.” Coulson pulled his pants up, buttoned up and tucked in his shirt, and topped it off with his jacket again.


“Yes, Sir.” He closed his eyes, pulled off his vest, and dropped his pants. “Do your worst!”


Coulson laughed and put a hand on his bare shoulder. “Briefs, huh? I’d had you pegged as a boxers sort of man.”


“All right for a suit but not such a good match for this uniform,” Clint told him. He sniffled as Coulson looked him over. Coulson checked him carefully, resisting the urge to run his hand over Clint’s skin to keep track of where he had looked and where he hadn’t. “Huhh Coulson? Hahhh I… I… huhhhhh… huhhhh!


Resting a hand on Clint’s hip, Coulson stepped close behind the man. “Go ahead and sneeze, Clint.”


Not a second later, Clint snapped forward. Heyhh-UHSchuhhhhh!” He shivered, possibly because he was standing there almost naked. But Coulson moved in closer, wrapping an arm around Clint’s front, pressing a kiss onto Clint’s shoulder. “Hah I thought you said this wasn’t anything sexual? Sniff!


“It wasn’t until now.” He stroked Clint’s chest. “I have a warm pair of sweats you can get into after I finish checking you.”


Clint nodded, sniffling, and rubbed the side of his hand at his nose. “Do you have a tissue too?”


“Oh, better.” Coulson pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and dangled it over Clint’s shoulder for him. “Give your nose a blow into this.”


Clint spent a second fumbling with it, not sure how to go about using it. Then he finally picked a corner and gave a small blow into the cloth. Even from behind, Coulson could read the man’s body language, which said he was thrilled. His shoulders loosened and body relaxed. “Oh man…”


Coulson chuckled. “I know. Soft against your sore nose, isn’t it?”


Clint blew his nose again and again, rubbing and wiping in-between each blow.


Meanwhile, Coulson looked over every inch of Clint. This time, his fingers trailed over the skin and Clint shivered but didn’t tell him not to touch. Clint slid his underwear down briefly for the final bit of the inspection, but Coulson kept his hands off there… mostly. There were worse ways to spend time than being inches from Clint Barton’s ass… but there weren’t too many better ways. When he was satisfied Clint had not been poisoned, he helped Clint tug the pair of underwear back up again. Then he went through his drawers for the sweats.


As he handed over a pair of black sweats with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo large on the front of the hooded sweatshirt, Clint shivered again; his timing couldn’t have been better. “We’re going to have to talk about this later, too,” Clint told him, not hesitating to climb into the warm, comfortable clothes.


“Tomorrow,” Coulson told him, hoping that this time there would be a tomorrow. “Let’s go see what my team has for us on the Shandari bullet. Are you all right with the one hanky, or do you want a second one?” Soon, several handkerchiefs were nestled in the front pocket of the hoodie, along with Clint’s phone and S.H.I.E.L.D. ID badge. He followed Coulson out of the small bedroom and through the plane. Coulson knew from experience that Clint was memorizing the layout of the bus as he went; he might have been raised as a circus performer and he might be an Avenger now, but he was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent at heart.


Coulson brought the case to Fitz-Simmons’ lab and set it on the table. Once he took it out of the case, Clint took a few steps back, until he was almost flat against the wall by the door; he wasn’t taking any chances.


“Much less impressive without all that…” Fitz gestured toward the object, wiggling his fingers. “All that energy stuff, isn’t it?”


“But it’s still giving off an energy reading,” Coulson told him. “Check it out.”


Fitz snatched his instrument and checked. He whistled, impressed. “You’re right about that, Sir. The frequency isn’t the same—it’s lower now—but it’s definitely still there. How did you know?”


“I’ll tell you later. Like I said on the phone, the frequency is the key to all of this.”


Fitz was moving around it again, circling the much larger table now, watching the readings on the screen in his hand with a slightly puzzled expression. It wasn’t until he was on the other side of the table that he uttered a surprised, “Ha!”


Simmons rushed to his side. She hung off him and peered at the screen as well. “Oh… oh that’s interesting, isn’t it?”


Coulson grew impatient. “Care to share with the rest of the class?”


“Oh, sorry, Sir.” Simmons moved aside to Fitz could walk over to him and explain.


“The object is giving off energy of a certain frequency, but at a very low strength. Coincidentally, you’re also giving off a bit of this same energy. Almost as much as the object, in fact, but not quite.”


Hehh-N’ggxxphh!” Clint sneezed, squeezing his nose through the folds of one of the handkerchiefs, trying to not only stifle but smother his sneeze. Thanks to his cold and the cold temperature of the lab, he gave a violent shiver.


Without thinking about it, Coulson took off his jacket and draped it around Clint’s shoulders, hoping some of his own body heat would be transferred over as well.


Simmons practically shrieked as she looked over Fitz’ shoulder at his readings.


“What? What is it?” Coulson rushed back over.


“The readings changed,” Simmons said, one hand to her mouth, the other pointing at the reading device that was pointing not toward the Shandari bullet but toward Coulson.


“What do you mean?”


Fitz explained, his eyes fixated on the device in his hand. “Your reading is lower now.”


“It’s dropping?”


“No, it just dropped. It’s stable now, not fluctuating. But it’s less than it was a few seconds ago… before you took off your jacket.”


Understanding, Clint stripped off the jacket and held it out at arm’s length. Without looking up from the screen of his device, Fitz walked over and got a reading. “It’s the jacket,” he said. Pivoting in place, he took a reading of Clint while he was there as well. “And it’s you, too, though to a lesser degree as well. I don’t understand this. Humans give off mostly infrared radiation, which is elecromagnetic. What I’m reading on here is… something outside that spectrum.”


“Is it dangerous?” Coulson asked.


Simmons shook her head. “I don’t think so, Sir, but we can’t say for sure without extensive tests.”


“No gamma radiation!” Coulson said quickly.


“Okay, but what’s strange…” Fitz continued, looking at the readings, “is that this jacket is giving off some of the energy as well. It’s an inanimate device; it shouldn’t be doing that.”


Coulson glanced at the table. “An inanimate device like the Shandari bullet?” His jacket. Could this all come down to his time loop jacket? Was that the reason why he wore it every day, not his mild obsessive compulsion? He couldn’t have known, but maybe the Shandari bullet had targeted him that first day because of the jacket he was wearing?


“Sir, is there something special about this jacket?”


“Not that I know of,” Coulson said, though he certainly had been through a lot of adventures with this jacket on over the past two weeks.


Clint spoke up, “Maybe you should take your pants off and see if they’re special too?” Coulson looked over at him, eyes narrowed slightly, but Clint replied playfully, “Just returning the favor, Sir.”


“That’s a thought,” said Simmons thoughtfully. She walked over to the jacket and took it from Clint. “Oh,it’s heavy. What’s…” She pulled out Coulson’s phone, just as it buzzed with an incoming call.


With a yell and a jump, Fitz gestured toward the device in his hand. “That’s it!” He pointed it at the jacket, then back at the phone. “Aye, it’s the phone, not the coat. And these numbers… wait a second.” He darted over to a computer and started typing.


Coulson took his phone and checked the caller ID. Director Nick Fury. Damn. He would have to answer. “This is Agent Coulson.”


“Coulson, nice work on bagging those aliens this morning. How did you know they’d be there?”


“It’s a long story, Sir. I’ll file a report at my earliest convenience.”


“Good. Now Hill tells me that Barton is with you?”


“He is…” Coulson looked at Clint, who seemed to be trying to follow the thread of the conversation hearing only Coulson’s side of it. He also seemed to be holding back a sneeze, pinching his nose hard through the folds of the handkerchief.


“Excellent. There’s a job I need a good marksman for down by the docks.”


Coulson walked over to Clint and wrapped his hand around the handkerchief with Clint’s hand beneath it. Clint looked confused, but he didn’t put up much resistance when Coulson lowered their hands. Clint’s nostrils flared and his head tilted back. Eyes fluttered shut and, apparently trusting Coulson this time, he sneezed freely, despite the others in the room. “Huhhh-KIHShhhhh! Heh heh HUTChhhhh! Hehschhhh! Sniff! Sniff! Hehhh-IHTChuhhhhh! Hehshuhhhhh!” As the sneezes backed off, Coulson raised Clint’s hand again, nodding appreciatively at him.


Coulson put the phone back to his ear. “I’m sorry, Sir. I couldn’t hear you over all of Agent Barton’s uncontrollably loud sneezing. You were saying?”


“I’ll find myself another marksman.”


“Excellent idea.” He hung up quickly before Fury could hear either him or Clint laughing. Coulson rubbed his hand down the back of Clint’s head, against his short hair. Then he tugged the hood up and over the man’s head to keep him warmer.


“I have something!” Fitz called out. He waved his hand, motioning for everyone to come over. Coulson and Simmons joined him at the computer while Clint turned to the side, hunched over, and blew his nose lightly into the hanky some more. Fitz pointed at the screen. “The numbers were nagging at me, running through my head, and I was trying to make sense of them. Turns out, I can. Or, I almost can. Look at this.” He pulled up a graph of the energy the Shandari bullet was putting out. “And now here’s the energy that’s in Agent Coulson, Agent Barton, and the phone… and here they are together.” He touched the screen to drag one graph over the other. They matched up almost exactly. Almost.


“That’s too close to be a coincidence. So what’s the missing piece?” Simmons asked.


Coulson sat down in one of the chairs by the desk. “This doesn’t make sense. I can see how the energy would be in me and even in my phone. The first time I approached the object, the energy went right into me.”


Simmons and Fitz both looked confused. “The first time, Sir?”


“Long story,” he repeated. “But Clint wasn’t even in the room when it happened. How did the energy get attached to him?”


“Has he ever touched it?” Fitz asked.


“Once. When I touch it, the energy goes away. When he gets near it, the energy flares up.”


Everyone was silent for a while, lost in thought. Then Clint pulled his phone out and turned it on. “Check this,” he said, walking over to them and laying it down on the desk by the computer. Fitz scanned it at once and the data appeared on the screen.


“So close!” Fitz exclaimed, pointing.


Coulson stood up immediately. “Call me.” Everyone looked at him, but he looked at Clint. “When it touched me the first time, Clint was calling me. I think he needs to call me.” Clint was already dialing. And Fitz was already holding up the reading device.


As soon as Coulson’s phone buzzed. Fitz had the reading up on the screen. “That’s it. Don’t pick up. Just let it go, Sir.”


Coulson reached out and took Clint’s hand. He knew what had to happen now. Knew in a way he couldn’t explain. “We have to touch it together,” he said. Clint shrunk back, shaking his head. He wouldn’t budge, even as Coulson tugged on his arm. “If it works, the time loops stop—”


“Wait, did you say time loops?” That was Fitz.


“—if it doesn’t work, we all blow up and I start this over again with more information than I had this time around.”


“Wait, did you say blow up?” That was Simmons.


“Please, Clint. You have to trust me on this.”


It still took Clint almost a full minute to decide. A minute during which his phone gave up trying to reach Coulson’s. When he looked down at his phone, he took a deep breath and redialed. “Okay. Let’s do this.” He let Coulson lead him over to the table where the Shandari bullet sat. Clint scrubbed at his nose with the back of his hand, took another deep breath, and reached out for the item. Coulson reached out as well. Together, their fingertips made contact with the object.


Energy leapt from from it, and they both pulled their hands back instinctively. Glowing teal and purple strands of energy surrounded the silver cylinder in an impressive display. Then the energy faded all on its own.


Fitz rushed over with his device. “There’s nothing,” he said, hand running through his hair. “This is amazing, but there’s nothing. The energy is completely gone.” He checked them and their phones as well. Once again, Clint’s phone stopped calling and Coulson’s stopped buzzing. “Sir… would you mind if we did some more tests on this object?”


Realizing he was still holding onto Clint’s hand, Coulson gave it a tight squeeze. “Do all the tests you want,” Coulson said. “But no gamma radiation, just to be safe.”


Fitz-Simmons promised. Coulson started to lead Clint out of the lab, but then he stooped. “Simmons, you’ve got cold medicine here, right?” She nodded. “I’ll need it. Anything but NyQuil.” They got some food and tea from the kitchen. Then they retired to Coulson’s room where Coulson wrapped Clint in the blankets from the bed and sat down on the sheets beside Clint to drink their tea side-by-side.


“Do you think what we did actually hehhh


Coulson grabbed his tea from him.


“Thah… hahhhh-Hah… Hah-Kishooo!


“Bless you.”


Coulson had liberated a sizable box of tissues as well, but Clint didn’t want to use it just then. He wiped his nose with a handkerchief, dropped it onto his thigh, and took the tea back from Coulson. Clint sniffed and cleared his throat again. “Thanks. Sniff! Do you think what we did actually changed things? Do you think the time loops will stop?


Nodding, “I think so. But there’s only one way to find out.”


“Kill you and see if you wake up in your bed again in the morning to the sound of me at your front door?”


Coulson gave him a sly smile. “Okay, maybe there are two ways to find out. I’ll opt for the one where we just wait it out.” He sipped his tea and realized he couldn’t relax. He didn’t know for sure that what they had done had stopped or fixed anything. Moreover, he didn’t know how to be with Clint any more. For two weeks, he’d been working nonstop to solve this mystery. It had come with too many complications, too many changes. Now that it appeared to be all over, he didn’t know what to do.


Clint, however, apparently knew exactly what to do. He leaned forward and kissed Coulson. It wasn’t their first kiss—it wasn’t even their first kiss of the day. But it was the kiss Coulson knew he would measure every other kiss against for the rest of his life. The way Clint’s lips pressed against his perfectly. The way their heads tilted at exactly the right angles. The way Clint’s tongue explored tentatively at first then, in response to Coulson’s, more energetically. Clint didn’t even sniffle once, and it lasted for what felt like hours.


Finally, they pulled away from each other, lips wet and warm and wanting more. “The tea’s getting cold,” Clint said.


Coulson picked up his cup; it was lukewarm at best. He chugged it. “All gone.”


Clint laughed and followed suit. Then he lay down on Coulson’s bed and lifted the blanket in invitation.


Coulson smiled. He reached down and slid Clint’s shoes off for him. Then he took off his shoes and his time loop suit and shirt. He squeezed onto the bed and under the blankets with Clint. “We’ll talk about what all this means tomorrow, right?” Coulson asked.


Clint snuggled into him and, instinctively, Coulson wrapped an arm around him to pull him closer. Clint was soft and hard all at once, and Coulson never wanted to let him go. Clint sneezed into Coulson’s chest a few times, rubbing his nose into the soft, warm, white undershirt. But Coulson just rubbed his back or kissed his temple until the man fell asleep in his arms. Coulson stayed awake as long as he could, savoring the moment, but two weeks of time loops caught up with him. After one last look at Clint, snoring beside him, Coulson fell asleep.



Chapter 15


Coulson woke to the sound of buzzing. For a moment, he refused to open his eyes. He’d done everything he could think of the day before. It wasn’t fair to make him do this all over again. He was out of options. Before he could groan, Clint did it for him. “Answer your phone, Phil, or turn it off.” Coulson opened his eyes. He was on his back with Clint almost on top of him. Clint’s arm was draped over Coulson and Coulson’s arm was wrapped around Clint. Coulson realized he couldn’t move from this position if his life depended on it.


“They’ll leave a message,” he said. And, just then, his phone stopped buzzing. Smiling, he started petting the side of Clint’s face. Clint nuzzled his face against Coulson’s hand, and Coulson almost couldn’t believe his luck. He was warm. He was contented. He was comfortable. Nothing was going to get him out of bed today.




With a hand on the bed to push him up, Clint sat up. “Well, that was quite a sneeze. I didn’t see that coming. Did you catch my cold?”


Coulson felt his head spin. “Tissues,” he muttered, holding a hand to his nose as it started running. “Deed tissues…”


Clint rolled over Coulson and reached, fishing the box of tissues up off the floor and into the bed with them.


He offered the box over just in time for Coulson to pull two tissues out of it. Coulson’s breath caught. “Ih-hih-YIHShfffff! IhShmphhh!” He took a breath and blew his nose. He stared at the tissues for a second, then balled them up and tossed them over the side of the bed. Laughing, he pulled Clint back down and drew the covers up to their ears.