Mutant bashing, much like gay bashing had once been, was a semi-regular occurrence in most large cities – and New York City was a larger city than most. Dramatic headlines about mutant ‘incidents’ kept fear and anger simmering in the ignorant, the paranoid, and the just plain jealous, and the government contributed to the stew of confusion by making mutants a talking point they could use to score points off each other. So one more dramatic headline, one more leading news story about another incident on an obscure street in the depths of the city did not do more than make most people raise their eyebrows or shake their heads, in fact it didn’t even cause much of a rise in political pontification or watercooler chatter.
This incident, however, was different.
At first, nobody knew that. News outlets weren’t much interested in follow-up when there were more click-worthy stories to be had, so only a few columnists in a few papers noted that the NYPD’s response to this particular bashing had been unprecedentedly swift and that every single person involved in the incident had been arrested and charged the following day. One or two bolder journalists tried to make that into something – “DID THE NYPD JUST TAKE A SIDE ON MUTANT RIGHTS?” – but their attempts pretty much fell flat. Something orange with tentacles had inexplicably appeared in the bay the same day as the bashing, just hours after it in fact, and stories about the Fantastic Four fighting cartoonishly pornographic monsters were much more lucrative than follow-ups about some mutant being beaten and set on fire after frightening a crowd of ordinary citizens. And they had better pictures of the tentacle monster, too, and footage which barely required any editing at all.
Two days after the tentacle monster, a press conference was announced, and news outlets across the city shivered in orgasmic anticipation: The Avengers had never called a press conference before. Except for Iron Man/Tony Stark and occasionally Captain America, they’d never willingly spoken to the press at all. Press kits appeared in reporters’ inboxes, time-sealed so they could not be opened until the day and hour announced. Reporters who tried it – or had their IT departments try it – were rewarded by having their computers lock up and display a message that said Patience is a virtue, asshole while a countdown timer slowly ticked off the minutes until the conference and played an AC/DC song at full volume every hour on the hour.
Luckily, the press conference had only been announced 24 hours in advance.
When the reporters started showing up at the appointed place the next day, some of them hours early, dark-suited SHIELD agents in sunglasses with futuristic-looking guns were already prowling the edges of the space. A few small signs warned attendees not to speak to the agents. One reporter, apparently driven insane by the hourly AC/DC her laptop was still playing, ignored the signs and attempted to corner two of the agents with questions, which was how everyone found out that at least some of the guns were set to taze instead of kill. The reporter wasn’t harmed, but she did have to leave to get a change of clothes. On coming back into the area she gave the patrolling agents a wide berth.
The Avengers appeared right on time, and right on time every affected laptop switched from AC/DC to a triumphal march, which played for exactly one minute before falling silent. Thor was giving the crowd a baleful look, but Banner patted his arm and he nodded, raising his hammer and taking off into the sky again. Iron Man raised his visor and stepped up to the podium. “Quite a few of you noticed,” he began, “that we weren’t on hand a few days ago to handle a monster that appeared in the bay. There was some speculation about why exactly that was, especially since some of you noticed that we were actually in the city and yet the Fantastic Four had to fly in from somewhere else to handle it. We’re here today to address that speculation.” He cleared his throat. “Those of you who are observant may have already noticed that we’re missing one Avenger today.” Murmuring started, a soft crescendo of worry, because the familiar red-white-and-blue of Captain America was indeed absent from the Avengers’ ranks and every other superhero’s face was grim. “Yes,” he confirmed. “Captain America. Want to know where he is?”
The question was harsh and mocking, and behind the Avengers a large screen lit up. News footage of the mutant incident from several days ago started to play, including the headlines that had gone along with it scrolling along the bottom. A particularly vicious headline flashed yellow, and Stark turned a look on one particular reporter in the crowd. “You, right? Nice alliteration, you should be writing jingles.” And then one gold finger pointed at the figure of the victim on the screen. “Anyway, if you want to see Cap, there he is, right there. Being almost beaten to death by a crowd of people he’d just saved from a drive-by shooting.”
Silence. He kept going. “He turned his back on those people to put this,” he held up a piece of paper, “on the windshield of the car whose door he’d just used to block the bullets. It says, Sorry about the damage, please get in touch with me and I’ll pay for the repairs, and then he put his cell phone number on it and signed it S. Rogers.” On the screen, the footage had gone back to the beginning. “What you’re about to see is the entire unedited incident – and I emphasize ‘unedited’ because you’ve all without exception edited the living shit out of this footage to make it suit your needs. Which were apparently all about sensationalism and agenda, not about the truth.”
On the screen, people were passing back and forth on the sidewalk as traffic languidly trickled past – it was a side street, not a main street. A muscular blond man wearing a flannel shirt and jeans made to detour around a crowd of people in front of a popular deli, when it appeared that something in the street caught his eye. He yelled something which was probably Everyone, get down!, looked around for something, and then with a grimace ripped the door off a nearby parked car and held it up like a shield to fend off a hail of automatic gunfire pouring out of a passing car window. The car sped off and the man looked like he wanted to give chase, but he turned and said something else, Is everyone okay? There were nods, some of them were crying, and some of them were scowling. The man breathed a sigh of relief and put down the bullet-riddled car door, grimacing at it. He fished a little notebook out of his pocket and scribbled something on it, then ripped off the top page and tucked it under one of the car’s windshield wipers.
That was about when the brick hit him. Several of the rescued started attacking him. He tried to fend them off, apparently trying to ask what they thought they were doing and very obviously trying not to hurt anyone, but then more people joined in, shouting, hitting, kicking, throwing.
A police car came down the street, slowing. A few people on the fringes of the group shouted out to them…and then the police car drove off. There were no lights or sirens.
The man was down on the ground by this time, and he stayed down. One person, a youngish man whose face was twisted with gleeful hatred moved in again once the rest had moved back, splashing something on the unmoving body and then brandishing a lighter. He snarled something and lit the body on fire.
Someone else came running up, dropping a bag of groceries, and shoved aside what was left of the group. The new man whipped off his jacket and smothered the fire, shouting for help. A heavyset older man came out of the deli, armed with a baseball bat, and the newcomer snapped at him; he ducked back inside. Within a few minutes a fire truck had pulled up, shortly followed by several police cars. The screen went dark.
Stark hadn’t taken his eyes off of the crowd of reporters and photographers, his jaw set and angry. In fact, all of the Avengers looked angry. “You caused this,” he told the crowd, almost growling his voice was so gruff. “You play up every incident you can for the ‘dangerous mutant’ angle, because it sells papers and gets viewers, and that means every single one of you is responsible for this,” his golden finger jabbed at the now-dark screen again. They could almost hear his teeth grinding as he got control of himself, and the blue-white light in the center of his chest was shining like a particularly vengeful star. “One of the best men I know almost died three days ago because all of you think your job is to sell the news, not report it.”
Dead silence, and then one brave – or just stupid - microphone lifted. “Mr. Stark, is Captain Rogers a mutant?”
His dark eyes, ringed with the shadows of several long, worried nights, narrowed. “No,” he said. “No, he’s not. None of us are.”
Another reporter spoke up, pointing. “What about…”
Dr. Banner pushed up to the podium beside Stark, who made room for him but didn’t step back. “Nope,” he said. He looked even more tired than Stark did. “You all know this story, I shouldn’t have to keep repeating it. I was trying to recreate the supersoldier serum that was used on Captain Rogers, and one of my experiments blew up in my face.” He snorted. “According to him, I got lucky. The first time the serum was ever tested, it created a guy called Red Skull. The Hulk may be destructive, but at least he’s not evil.”
A red and gold gauntleted hand clapped him on the shoulder. “No, far from it.”
The archer, Hawkeye, stepped up on his other side. “I used to work for the circus,” he said. “Trapeze artist. I can do what I do because I’m trained to do it, and because I train every day to keep my skills sharp.” He glared at one particular reporter, who averted his eyes. “Yeah, you should look away from me, Morris,” he said. “You’ve been insinuatin’ for a while now that I’m a mutant in that tabloid rag you write for – and it’s not the mutant part that offends me, it’s that you’re so sure my skills were just given to me instead of bein’ something I’ve worked my ass off for.”
“The same goes for me.” Black Widow stepped forward, and the other Avengers made way for her. “I train for hours every day, we all do – on the days we are not fighting something horrible to protect you, of course.”
“Thor couldn’t stay because we need him at home Cap-sitting while the rest of us are here. And because when he’s mad, the place he’s mad in tends to get hit by a freak thunderstorm,” Stark added, leaning back in to the microphone. “But he’s not a mutant either, he’s an alien – an Asgardian, one of the guys who inspired Norse mythology. In fact, he’s the son of Asgard’s king.”
“What about his brother?” called out someone else.
Stark rolled his eyes. “His brother is a pain in the ass.”
That got some laughter, and then one of the reporters pushed to the front of the crowd, photographer in tow. “Mr. Stark,” she called out in a very young voice, “is Captain America going to be all right?”
The laughter cut off like a switch had been thrown, and a few people looked ashamed of themselves although more of them looked eager to hear the answer. “Yes,” Banner told her, and smiled tiredly when she looked relieved. “He’s healing, but he had a lot of injuries, it’s going to take some time even for him. And he’s not used to being inactive, so being stuck in bed is driving him nuts right now.”
“Which means he’s driving all of us nuts,” Stark added. He found a strained smile for her. “You’re from that vidcast, right, Stars and Stripes Forever?” When she nodded, he nodded back. “Well congrats, you just won an exclusive interview for remembering what’s important. Move over here by the steps, away from the riff-raff, we’ll talk in a few minutes.”
A ripple of complaint spread through the crowd, but a renewed glare from Stark shut them up. A few reporters shouted out questions about the captain’s injuries, which made Banner roll his eyes. “You watched the video.”
“Most of you watched it more than once,” Stark said, the growl coming back into his voice. “The kind of injuries he has should be fairly obvious – they’re the same sort of injuries anyone else has who gets bashed.”
An older journalist raised his hand. “What about the police who didn’t stop? What’s being done about them?”
“Yes, are the Avengers going to take action against the NYPD for this?” another reporter called out.
“The two policemen who didn’t stop have been suspended,” Stark answered. “It’s not the NYPD’s policy to let on-duty officers pick and choose when to do their job, but apparently those two didn’t get the memo. I’m guessing there will be some updating of the mandatory diversity training because of this. And we’d like to offer public thanks to the city’s firefighters, most especially Ladder 121, because the man who put out the fire and made someone call for help was an off-duty fireman and his intervention saved Captain America’s life.”
“But is Captain America going to sue the city? Or the police department, or the officers? What legal action is going to be taken?”
Banner was shaking his head, and Hawkeye snorted. “You guys don’t know much about Cap, do you?”
“I doubt the idea has even crossed his mind,” Stark elaborated. “He doesn’t think that way. And we don’t plan to take any legal action, it isn’t necessary. The NYPD has already caught the shooter and arrested the people who took part in the assault. That said, though, if anyone knows anything else about what happened, they should let the authorities know.”
Banner cleared his throat. “I’d also like to ask that anyone who does know someone who was involved, please don’t beat the crap out of them before you turn them in or after they get out – stuff like that makes Cap upset, and he doesn’t need to be any more upset right now than he already is. Just turn the bastards in and let the criminal justice system take care of the punishment.”
“Was the shooter trying to take out Captain America?”
“No, it was gang-related,” Stark answered. “The target was someone else on the street at the time, and that person did not take part in what happened afterwards.” The kid in question had actually run like a scared rabbit, but nobody was going to say that and risk setting off a gang war. “If you guys have any other questions about that, or about suspects or trials, you’ll have to ask the NYPD. That’s their ballgame, not ours.”
“What about SHIELD?” the female reporter who apparently hadn’t learned her lesson after all yelled out. “Why aren’t their agents allowed to talk to us? What is SHIELD’s response to this going to be?”
Stark rolled his eyes, and waved a hand at the armed agents on the perimeter. “You’re looking at SHIELD’s response. The agents won’t talk to you because they’re on guard duty and talking to you is a distraction. Oh, and SHIELD wants to stick Cap with a bodyguard – or maybe all of us with bodyguards, not real sure yet. Last I heard they were talking to the Secret Service about it, so we’ll see how that plays out.” He frowned, looking undecided for a moment, and then his expression hardened. “I don’t think you’re getting the message we’re trying to send here. Three days ago, the only thing you cared about the really vicious bashing that happened right here in our city was how many points you’d get for sticking the word ‘mutant’ in a headline. You didn’t care about the victim, none of you even tried to identify him, and you only care about him now because now you know who he is – because now he’s someone important, and he has important friends, so now you’re going to get points for caring.” He leaned in to the microphone again, almost snarling. “Well let me tell you a little secret: Everyone who gets bashed is important to someone…and they should be important to all of us, no matter who they are. Because it’s a crime that can happen to anyone, and no one it happens to deserves it.”
He stepped away from the podium, his visor snapping closed, and stalked off the stage. Banner followed him, and Black Widow, but Hawkeye paused in front of the mic for a moment. “That’s not just a line he pulled out of his ass, you know, or something someone slick wrote for him to say, ” he told them all. He looked upset rather than angry. “It’s something Cap said, the first time he heard about somethin’ like this happening.”
He followed the other Avengers down the stairs, and a SHIELD agent came up on the stage and turned off the mic. The other agents were herding the reporters and photographers away, pushing them out of the area – except for the young female reporter from Stars and Stripes Forever, who had the full attention of all four heroes and who would most likely refuse to share her exclusive interview with any other outlet in the city. Although a few photographers did manage to snap a picture of her covering her photographer’s lens with her hand when the Iron Man visor flipped back up so Stark could wipe his eyes. She wrote a very nice post that evening condemning all of the reporters who'd used that photo, too.
Most of the city’s reporters sort of slunk back to their offices after the press conference. They had a story to write, a big one even, and the press kit had details and pictures aplenty for them to use, even some quotes from officials in SHIELD and from the Fantastic Four. But the press conference had been streamed live on the Internet and was available on YouTube almost immediately, so they knew they were all going to have to be very careful about how they presented what had been said – everyone knew it was far too late to pretend to either outrage or sympathy, because evidence that either of those would be a complete fabrication was already racking up hits on Stark’s YouTube channel. A few tried to get away with it anyway and had the attempt blow up in their faces, but most of them just quietly swallowed their personal helping of crow and wrote bare-bones accounts of the press conference followed by a few paragraphs about all the great things Captain America had done, with Stark’s impromptu quote from him prominently displayed. It was a big story, yes, but from the reporting end of things it was pretty much a bust.
By the next morning, however, the press conference turned out to have given them a follow-up story worthy of a banner headline or a breaking news update for every news outlet going. Because at 6 o’clock that morning, eight of the top men connected to the gang involved in the shooting had been found lined up on the sidewalk outside the precinct the shooter had been charged in, most of them looking like they’d just gotten out of bed and all of them having their hands secured behind their backs with zip ties. None of them seemed to be hurt, and each one had a piece of notebook paper duct-taped to his chest listing all of the things he could be charged with. The gang leader’s paper had an additional note carefully scrawled at the bottom: Tell El Capitan he can chill, we didn’t hurt them none. Sorry their shit with us got him fucked up. We hope he feels better soon.
Every paper covered this, of course, but not a single one gave in to the temptation to run an eye-catching headline about the city’s gangs supporting the Avengers – although one reporter who really couldn’t seem to learn her lesson posted a speculative article which hinted about Captain America’s possible connection to organized crime in the forties on her paper’s website. It took the Internet at large about an hour to discover the article, and by the end of the next hour the paper’s editorial comment section was jammed with complaints, a movement had started calling for people to unsubscribe and use a different news source, and the paper’s Facebook page and Twitter feeds were filling up with calls for the reporter to be fired. Her editor had just been made aware of the situation when a deceptively soft-spoken SHIELD agent arrived bearing notice of a lawsuit against the paper for malicious libel, a lawsuit being brought on Captain Rogers’ behalf although not at his request – the captain, the agent informed the horrified editor, was unaware of what was going on and they planned to keep it that way until he was closer to being fully recovered. “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you should do about your reporter,” the agent, who had identified himself as Coulson, said when the editor asked if SHIELD wanted the reporter fired. “We’re trying to keep the chilling effects to a minimum, but SHIELD’s legal department said we couldn’t let the libel slide. And so did the head of a certain ‘family-run’ organization who contacted our director right after the libel came to light. Apparently Captain Rogers saved his father’s life during the war.”
Once Agent Coulson had left and the editor had calmed himself back down, he had the article pulled, a retraction and apology put in its place, and the reporter was demoted to writing the paper’s community events column for the next six months – a job which would keep her in the office and out of the public eye, she wouldn’t even have a byline. Because she was a fairly recognizable news personality, half the city was angry at her, and there had been some very specific and highly personal threats made…and, well, angry as he was at her himself, her editor didn’t want his idiot reporter to become the next sensationalized headline about a case of bashing in their city. Captain America was right, nobody deserved to have that happen to them.