The motel outside Pigeonville, Iowa, is as plain and drab when Phil wakes up as it was when he went to sleep. He lies still for a minute after waking, gathering his thoughts from where they've scattered, marshalling them into tidy formation before he swings his legs out of bed. The carpet's thin and scratchy against his feet, and the grey light that's spilled through the blinds stripes his toes. His third-day suit hangs, already ironed, in the alcove that serves as a closet for the room. On the bedside table, beside his cufflinks and his watch, his phone blinks steadily: fourteen unread text messages, two video files, and a voicemail. Phil cracks his neck, stands up and sweeps his hands up toward the ceiling, bends forward and reaches to touch his toes.
"Let me not end Tony Stark today," he murmurs, stretching his hands back toward the ceiling and then down to his feet. "Let me not end Tony Stark. Let me not end Tony Stark."
Day 214 on the campaign trail of Steve Rogers for President. Twenty-sixteen's shaping up to be a hell of a year.
"We've had fifteen ethics complaints since yesterday afternoon," Darcy says as Phil slides into the booth at the Central Pigeon Diner.
"Stark?" he asks.
"Eleven of them," she says. "Pretty much baseless – same old whatever about proper divestiture of assets, use of Stark Industries software for campaign purposes. The lawyers have it."
"And the others?" Phil nods his thanks at the waitress who pours him coffee, reaches for the sugar dispenser, and suppresses a flinch when he sees the Hello Kitty sticker Darcy's fixed to her phone.
"The only one that has traction is from Chisholm's campaign. They think it's unfair that the Avengers provide Rogers with his security."
Phil shrugs. "So tell him he can have the X-Men."
Darcy smiles, slow and a little wicked. "I like that. I like that a lot."
"Put Thompson on it. If it happens, we'll need someone to ride herd on Wolverine. He doesn't like politics."
"Yeah, because I turn cartwheels over my job every morning," Darcy says dryly, and picks up her phone, begins to scroll through new messages.
Phil stares at the sticker. It's mocking him; it's mocking him in pink, and it sparkles. "That's not standard issue," he says, because there are things he can let pass, and others he can't, and Hello Kitty is a mouthless abomination visited on the gullible and those inclined toward mischief.
"Get over it," she says, and turns a sunny smile toward the waitress. "The number three, over easy, wheat toast, and a cinnamon roll to go, please."
Phil takes a sip of his coffee. At least her breakfast choices are sound.
There are moments when Phil feels a twinge of sympathy for the other candidates. It's not easy to run against a man who's saved the world from Nazis, demigods, aliens, and giant, sentient armadillos. Not even Rogers' love life can seem to make a dent in the polling numbers, and that has to be demoralizing. The American public is usually so trustworthy in refusing to forgive past sins, but now, at the eleventh hour, no one seems to have an appetite for Tony Stark's tawdry youth and the salacious effect he's surely having on Captain America's morals.
That doesn't mean there aren't protestors at every campaign stop. The peaceniks hate the very concept of a Super Soldier, and they hate Stark Industries' record of weapon sales even more. At least a half-dozen can be trusted to show up at events with large, colored graphs nailed to wooden sticks, itemizing casualty counts. On more than one occasion someone's used a stick to create more casualties, beaning a religious zealot or two on the head – the peaceniks might not like the source of Tony's fortune, but they don't think he's going to hell for having sex with Rogers on a regular basis. There are the cryophobics, and dues-paying members of Americans Against Genetic Engineering, and representatives from People for Regular Metabolism. Veterans Against Mutants show up almost every time and get into shouting matches with contributors to the Bucky Barnes PAC, and there's a small but dedicated band of imbeciles who keep campaigning for Doctor Doom as a write-in.
Phil's only had to deal with twenty-seven women who've claimed that Rogers fathered their son or daughter, and one woman who claimed he'd fathered her ferret.
That was actually a really fun day.
"What have we got?" he asks Sitwell outside the Lions Club.
Sitwell arches an eyebrow.
Phil arches one right back.
"Barton wants to hang by his ankles from the lightning conductor on top of First Methodist," Sitwell offers, and the bastard is smiling, like he enjoys telling Phil these things.
Phil touches his earpiece. "Barton."
"You know it'd be hot," Clint says, voice clear over the comm. link. "Leaves my hands free."
"Explain to me how your hands aren't free when you're standing on your feet, rather than dangling from your tibia a hundred feet above the ground."
"Aww, shucks," Clint says, voice low. "Coulson. I didn't know you cared."
Phil knows that tone of voice. "Shoot another hole in the sleeve of one of my suits and I'm sending you to work in Congress," he says blithely.
Clint says something uncomplimentary that Phil hopes everyone on the frequency hears.
He turns back to Sitwell. "Bugs?" he asks. "Video lines, memory control devices, points of entry for poisonous gas?"
"Taken care of."
"And no unusual – "
Sitwell tilts his head as if to indicate that he's no fool, but thanks for the trust. "No signs of bifrost activity. We're scanning all frequencies, and the Asgard technology is deployed in vectors six and three."
"Looks real nice."
"Twenty feet back, seven o'clock from the podium, no media access to the candidate's point of entry."
"Everyone have signs?"
"We'll hand them out as people arrive." Sitwell looks at his watch. "T-minus 90 minutes and counting."
Phil nods. "Show me the escape route."
Phil says nothing.
"Really?" Clint asks over the comm. link.
"Fine," Sitwell sighs. "Anderson, go get the ladder."
"He needs a ladder?" Phil asks.
"I need a ladder," Sitwell says. "Rogers can punch out a wall and run for the hills with someone over each shoulder, but me, I need a little help."
The crowd at the Lions Club is mostly older, with a handful of high school kids and a smattering of parents. The windows are open, but it's May, and it's warming up fast. Coulson tells an intern to go fetch bottled water from the Operations Vehicle and watches as she pauses, eyes darting right and left before she hurries away.
"What was that?" he asks Sitwell.
He shrugs. "She probably thought it was code."
"Young man!" says an old lady who materializes at Phil's elbow, brandishing a campaign flyer like a weapon (it takes Phil 0.006 seconds to establish that it's not). "The state of education in this country is shocking, just shocking, and Mr. Rogers says nothing about it in his pamphlet, not a thing, it's an outrage!"
Phil makes no sudden movements. "Ma'am."
"I have grandchildren, four of them, and none of them are learning useful things. Why does Mr. Rogers have no position on diagramming sentences? Why?"
"I'll be sure to pass along your thoughts," Phil says calmly.
The voter before him quivers with indignation. "And home economics! Let's bring back life skills, young man – sewing on buttons, and the ability to balance a checkbook, and the safe handling of weaponry, these are vital qualities. Don't you agree? Don't you?"
Phil does not smile, or show her the emergency sewing kit hidden in the false heel of his shoe, or the ATM receipt in his wallet that records the robust health of his meticulously maintained checking account, or the Glock that's at his hip. "Sitwell?" he asks.
"If you could show this community member to the VIP section, perhaps she could exchange a few words with the candidate after the speech."
The woman flushes and rolls back her shoulders, settles her purse more comfortably in the crook of her arm. "Well. Well, I – thank you. Thank you very much," she says, trying to look like this is exactly the reaction she expected.
Phil waits until she and Sitwell are some distance away before he taps his earpiece. "And Sitwell?"
"Don't let her get anywhere near Stark."
Sitwell snorts. "Amen to that."
Lunch is an egg salad sandwich, eaten while leaning against a fence beside a fire truck, while a photo op takes place 7.13 feet away.
"Financials are in," says Darcy, showing Phil a .pdf on her tablet. Around the edge of the document, he can see she has a Hello Kitty wallpaper. He really ought to demote her, but she knows 37% of his passwords. "Chisholm raised $28m last quarter."
Phil wipes his mouth on a napkin. "Walker?"
"Well, that's nice." He finishes his bad cup of coffee and passes the empty cup to a new intern, who handles it like it's a bomb. "Pocket money for summer." The Rogers campaign has $271m cash in hand, and pledges through November.
"So," Darcy says.
"I'm just wondering."
If this is about Bananarama again, he'll administer the Vulcan nerve pinch to himself.
"How do they expect to win, exactly?"
Phil finishes the last bit of his sandwich – good bread; just the right amount of mayo; they should come back to Pigeonville more often – and dusts his hands. "October surprise."
Darcy squints at him. "Like – the sex act?"
Phil eyes her coolly and makes a note to look that up later. "The political strategy of holding onto damaging information until 5-6 weeks before the general election."
"Right." Darcy goes back to looking sanguine. "What do you think they have?"
"I'm guessing misinformation from Magneto, possibly some kind of attempt at mass deception or subliminal messaging at Loki's direction." Phil tugs his cuffs down, smoothes his tie.
"Used to be all you had to worry about was people figuring out you'd changed your position on, I don't know. Social Security." She chews on her lip – not a nervous tic, Phil's come to realize, but an honest expression of thoughtfulness. "We gonna use the Roosevelt thing?"
"That's up to Ms. Potts." She's a formidable campaign director, and she can run in heels. Phil can, too, but that's classified.
"I'm just saying, people seem to like Roosevelt. We have his voter ID card from 1940 . . ."
"Ms. Potts feels we may lose time defending the campaign against charges of socialism. Again." Phil really didn't enjoy March.
Darcy laughs weakly. "Have they seen who he's shacked up with?" she asks.
"I believe after the mooning incident, they've seen rather more of Stark than we could possibly wish." Phil eyes the crowd, looks up to the grain elevator where Barton's keeping watch. "You made the reservations?"
"I have staff for that," Darcy replies, but she taps at her tablet. "All confirmed. Full security search underway, including a chemical analysis of all food going in and out of the restaurant."
"I'm headed to the debate site," Phil says. "You know what to do."
"Can I use the cattle prod?"
Phil can't help a small smile. "Only if he starts suggesting a smear campaign featuring pig knuckles again."
Darcy flips him a mock salute. "Here's hoping."
She's possibly the best assistant he's ever had.
What sympathy Phil feels for the hopelessly outmatched Democratic and Republican candidates usually dissipates ten seconds after he interacts with their staff. Chisholm's an asshole, and his staff follows that lead – they yell at the local party members, berate the interns, and generally act like CNN should be paying them for the privilege of filming their long demise. This is what you get, Phil reflects, for selecting a candidate who forgot his grandmother's birthday three years in a row. Not that most people know that. Most people don't have Phil's resources.
But it's Walker who really makes Phil nuts, who makes the back of his neck itch (although he betrays no visible discomfort). The man hates kittens. Hating kittens is un-American. The idea of someone hating kittens while heading the executive branch of government makes Phil want to set trip wires in unfortunate places. There are few things that can work him up to a vocal rant – Tony Stark; people being rude to librarians; the state of Delaware – but kitten-hating tops the list. Even Darcy noticed.
"Geez, so Walker hates kittens," she'd said. "What's the big deal?"
"Kittens are small and innocent and delightful and purr," Coulson said, raising his voice just a fraction. "What's to understand?"
Which is when Darcy started leaving Hello Kitty merchandise in his briefcase and his overnight bag. He's glad she works for their side, because she has a natural proclivity for evil.
Since tripwires are not, in any immediate sense, a possibility, Phil stands at the back of the debate hall and watches everyone with the cool, implacable gaze he knows has sent three of Walker's more fragile staffers into early retirement. Sadly, Christine Everhart sees him,and assumes the fact that he's alone means he's not doing anything and would love to talk to the press.
"Mr. Coulson," she says as soon as she's close enough.
Phil quells the urge to correct her. It's for the best that none of them insist on Agent for the time being, but the change still rankles. "Ms. Everhart."
"I hear Tony Stark trashed a hotel room and sent a porter to the hospital last night," she says.
Phil says nothing.
"Is it true?"
He pauses for a moment before he answers. "I imagine by now you've spoken to the young man in question and illegally obtained copies of his medical records. If I were a betting man, I'd lay money on the fact that you have terrible, out-of-focus iPhone photographs of a room with scorch marks in the carpet."
"So that’s a yes?"
"It's more an assessment of the fine work our journalistic establishment is capable of in this day and age," he offers blandly. "Of course, I'd also like to wager a small sum on the fact that you know the altercation took place three doors down from the room Mr. Rogers and Mr. Stark occupied yesterday evening, and that the fire that was started there seemed to have been the work of an amateur arsonist, perhaps with ties to the local Sheep Party movement."
Everhart narrows her eyes. "Of course."
"I'd also warrant that, being an investigative journalist of the highest caliber, you already know that Mr. Rogers smelled the fire, located the room in which it had been set, and extinguished it with the hotel's own equipment before innocent people were hurt. He's a genuine American hero."
"Right." She smiles at him just a little. "And the porter?"
"Mr. Rogers and Mr. Stark always carry their own bags." He smiles politely while tracking the young staffer who's entered by the rear door, and who's favoring his left leg over his right. "If you'll excuse me, I really should find Mr. Walker's campaign director. We have some logistics we should go over."
Phil smiles tightly and walks across the empty hall at his usual pace.
Angela Carlisle, Walker's chief of staff, sees him coming. She holds up her hand as if he's an errant cyclist who needs traffic school. "I don't talk to underlings, Coulson. It's Potts or no one."
"Absolutely," he agrees, and walks right past her, grabbing the shoulder of the limping staffer, who's standing behind her by now. "Excuse me. Do you have identification?"
"What? I don't work for you, man – "
It's a giveaway. Phil jabs three fingers into the man's brachial plexus, then his kidney, then kicks out the back of his knees so that he crumples weakly to the floor. Covering his hand with the pristine handkerchief he keeps in his pocket, Phil reaches into the man's pants and pulls out a syringe filled with pale blue liquid.
"Probably meant for Walker," Phil says to Carlisle. "But don't take that from me. Call Ms. Potts, by all means." And he walks away.
The rest of the day is your typical, run-of-the-mill, ordinary campaign day – someone tries to hurl an actual cannonball at the stage during the debate, but forgets they're not Thor, and pins themself under it; Tony throws his arm around Phil's shoulder and calls him his special peanut butter cookie; Phil does not kill him. There are six small security threats at the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, and three large ones at the Chicago, Miami, and Santa Fe offices. Two people mail threats in actual envelopes, seventeen send packages, and four hundred send emails without hiding behind any kind of proxy server. The idiocy is astounding. Darcy tries to install Hello Kitty seat covers in Phil's rental car, and an intern falls to pieces when someone asks her if she could locate the press release on deep-sea fishing. Phil's the only one who remembers her history with tuna. He briefs Rogers on Serbia, Cape Town, and Dubai. There are chicken wings for dinner.
They're headed to Solon the next day, so Phil heads out before the last event is done, reaches the motel off Highway 1 just after eleven. There's a light on in the room he's been assigned, and he smells gunpowder when he reaches the door, just a little heavy on the potassium nitrate. It's familiar, almost comforting, and he isn't surprised when he opens the door and finds Clint doing a handstand between the bed and the television.
"How long?" he asks, shutting the door and deadbolting it behind him.
"Forty-seven minutes," Clint replies.
Phil sets his bag on the bed and pulls out tomorrow's suit, his shirt, his tie, and a clean pair of shorts. He shrugs out of his jacket, unfastens his watch, lays it and his phone on the beside table. Only then does he round the bed to where Clint's still in his handstand and sit crossed-legged on the carpet in front of him.
"When this is over, I'm going to a cabin at an undisclosed location, and no one will be able to find me," he says.
"I know," Clint says. "I co-signed the deed, you idiot."
Phil smiles at him. "Just reminding you."
"C'mere," Clint says softly, and Phil leans in, kisses Clint while he's still upside down. It's not the weirdest way they've kissed, or the strangest place – there are no high winds, for a start, and right now no one's trying to dematerialize their brains – it's lazy, and soft, and just a little dirty.
"I'm gonna shower," Phil says when they break apart. He thinks he might be flushed.
"I'm gonna do this for seventeen more minutes," Clint replies.
"Okay." And Clint gives him an upside-down smile, and Phil feels suddenly, wholly, and marvelously like he's the luckiest man alive.