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THERE IS only one professor of Superheroism in the United States, possibly in the world, although she prefers the term Metahuman Studies. Dr. Joan-Marie Provone has a lot to say about the emergence of real life genre superheroes, the history of comic book heroism, and way society treats the Avengers now, as well as the way it may react to them in the future. But one remark she made in a recent interview about the Avengers stands out.

"Superheroes are tasked with the unusual, the epic, the overscale," she said. "In the meantime, there isn't much for them to do. And it behooves us to remember that nature abhors a vacuum. The frequency of overscale events is likely to rise in direct correlation with the number of overscale individuals present to combat it."

In other words, the more superheroes you get, the more supervillains start appearing.

Even so, nobody's liable to ask Captain America, on whose image the "super hero" comic book genre was founded, to leave New York just yet.

 

"I hate these sons of bitches," Clint said over the comm, as he rained hell down on the pair of men who had Steve cornered. The arrows bounced harmlessly off one of them, but an explosive caught the other one in the back and blew him flat. "Can we please finally take them down? They're ruining my morning commute."

"To where?" Tony asked. The last Steve knew, he'd been about a block north, trying to hold the perimeter around the bank. "Where exactly are you commuting, Hawkeye?"

"I have places to go, people to see," Clint insisted.

"They blocked off the street to his favorite bakery," Natasha put in.

"Oh man, no carrot muffins? I was looking forward to carrot muffins," Sam added, and Steve smiled.

"Carrot muffins after bad guys," he said.

"That's cool, they're worth it," Sam replied.

Tony ignored the discussion of muffins as if baked goods were beneath him, when Steve knew they absolutely were not. "Okay also? This guy has a giant iron ball covered in spikes on a chain, and I am not sure how to deal with that."

"Shoot him in the face," Natasha suggested.

"Thor, behind you," Sam added.

"These men have no honor," Thor roared.

There were eight of them, or at least, there had been eight of them at the last two bank robberies; less than eight were still standing after the Avengers mobilized against them during the third. They called themselves the Wrecking Crew, and Steve really, really hated them. They had heavily reinforced body armor of some kind, at least two of them were strong enough that they had to have some kind of biological enhancements, and they were bank robbers.

It just struck him as so terribly unimaginative.

These men could be heroes. They could be Avengers, with time and training. And at least, though he never wished for terrorists, if you were going to be a bad guy you might as well go for broke. Bank robbery was beneath them; it was a waste of their power, and it showed a petty turn of mind that was almost more offensive than the theft itself.

A large green hand swung down from above, and the second guy who'd had Steve pinned was swept away in a blur of motion that said the Hulk was getting tired of toying with them.

"Oh, hey," Tony said suddenly, sounding genuinely startled. "Your pal's here, Cap."

"My who now?" Steve asked.

"Well, someone just swung past me in blue tights and a red face mask."

"Hey! I see him!" Sam called, sounding delighted.

"Oh man, Spider-man's here?" Clint asked. "Where? I'm collecting urban legends. Falcon, come get me, I wanna see him."

"Focus," Steve said, disarming the fella that Clint's arrow had knocked unconscious. He kicked him over onto his back and set to work, bending a handy bit of rebar around his wrists. This wasn't one of the enhanced ones, at least he thought not. It'd probably hold him. For good measure, he took the man's helmet and plonked it down on his own head, on top of his cowl.

"That's a good look for you," Natasha said, as Steve joined her in the little plaza in front of the bank. "Civilians are all out, bank's locked tight, but if they can just push through walls that's not going to matter."

"Hawkeye got one, Hulk's got one -- " Sam said, spotting from above.

"I have two down, here," Tony said. "One of them's a heavy hitter. He's not gonna stay down for long."

"Uh, Spider-man got one but then he disappeared," Clint said.

"It looks like he took a hit," Sam agreed.

"That leaves three -- " there was a roar and the sound of a hammer colliding with metal, " -- two," Steve corrected.

"One," Thor said in a satisfied voice.

"What did you do?" Tony asked.

"I struck a man with my hammer. He struck his brother with his body."

"Either of them one of the heavies, Thor?" Steve asked.

"No. One remains."

"Anyone seen Hulk?"

"I've got a bead," Tony replied. "He's, ah, he's boxing with our last baddie."

"Okay. Let's get everything secured. Widow, Falcon, go help Iron Man keep his down. Hawkeye -- "

"I'll coordinate pickup with NYPD, they're on their way."

"Great. Thor, back Hulk up, I'm coming to you."

Natasha held out her fist for a bump as they parted. He bumped obligingly, grinned at her, and took off towards the sound of distant roaring. He ran down an alley, cornered when the roars began shifting to his left, and dodged past a dumpster.

There was a rustling noise and a soft, pained breath, and Steve jerked to a stop.

 

THE SOCIAL and possibly metaphysical phenomenon that requires supervillains to fill the vacuum created by out-of-work superheroes may be the reason the Wrecking Crew formed, though their decision to rob banks in Manhattan seems less than well-planned. Why would you deliberately get as close to the Avengers as possible when committing a crime? Surely they could have robbed banks in San Francisco, or Buenos Aires.

There are extenuating circumstances, of course. Crime, particularly of the "overscale" sort, has been on the rise since the fall of SHIELD and the rediversion of other law-enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to support part of the workload SHIELD formerly handled. Particularly in Washington DC and New York, where the Avengers are most visible, Captain America's violent destruction of his former place of employment, accompanied by Black Widow and the Falcon, seemed to stir a revolutionary spirit in certain kinds of criminal.

The Wrecking Crew, an entire assembly of that kind of criminal, moved with a vicious efficiency that hardly allowed time for a response. Their first robbery was completed in eight minutes; the Avengers weren't even notified until police arrived, two minutes after the completed robbery, to find a war zone where a bank had been. The Crew had simply bulldozed their way in, picked up anything not bolted down, and vanished. The second robbery, four weeks later, took six minutes. The Avengers were called, but it took them six minutes just to reach the crime scene, even with the small, efficient urban jet they keep on standby.

The Avengers aren't really designed for first response. Seven people need time to assemble, especially when some of them have very specific gear to put on, and seven is not quite enough to have a smaller team on standby at all times. As a unit and as individuals they are extremely capable, but they are not generally regarded as an immediate solution to any given problem smaller than full-scale invasion. They defer, whenever possible, to police and fire units, and rightly so, to the minds of most New Yorkers. Nobody likes a show-off.

In this, Captain America has set an impeccable tone of respect and cooperation that has even the surliest of NYPD hardliners admitting that the Avengers aren't out to steal anyone's thunder. (Thor has plenty of his own.) He has also set a non-expansionist policy, post-SHIELD, when people were murmuring worriedly about Tony Stark funding the Avengers as a private security force. The Captain's mandate is clear: the Avengers are a small, special-operations force, and they are neither credentialed nor trained to take on the duties of law enforcement and emergency service agencies.

But the Wrecking Crew aren't exactly your run-of-the-mill bank robbers, either.

 

"Hello?" Steve called, when he heard the sound again -- wet breathing, a person in pain. "Who's there?"

The breathing went silent.

"It's okay," he said. "You're safe now. I'm Captain America. You sound injured -- I just want to help."

A soft scrabbling noise was enough to lead him to the source, but in the dim light of the dust-filled alley it was hard to discern at first where exactly the other person was.

"Guys, I'm going to need a minute," Steve said, and tapped his comm off. He swung his shield, dispersing some of the dust in the air, and came forward when he saw a shadow against one wall. It was a man -- small, young, but too large to be a child. He was smeared in dirt, knees against his chest, curled with one arm tucked between thighs and belly in a way that was worrying, given the smell of blood in the air.

"Hi, I'm Steve. Can you tell me your name?" Steve asked, kneeling next to him. There was a gasp and a soft laugh, followed by a grunt. "Hey, can you hear me?"

"Yeah," came a voice, low and oddly hostile. Steve reached out, then hesitated.

The man was wearing the shredded remains of a shirt, and at first it looked like one of the Spider-man costume shirts that had sprung up lately, blue with cheap red-and-black print on it. But the shirt was skin-tight and thick, and most of the imitations didn't have the red gloves.

None of the imitations were one-piece, with blue leggings and red boots. Steve noticed, slower than he should have, that a shredded cowl was hanging off the man's face.

"Spider-man," he said calmly. "Clint and Sam said you took a hit."

"I'm fine," the man rasped.

"Okay, well, clearly that's not the case," Steve said. "Listen, let me -- "

"I'm fine," he insisted. "I have a healing factor, like you."

"Son, you have lost a lot of blood, and I already went easy on you once," Steve insisted. "Just let me have a -- "

The man let out a rueful laugh and reached up with his free hand, tugging the shreds of cowl off completely. He raised his head and Steve knew that face, the curious brown eyes and unruly hair.

"Oh, Parker," he said, as Peter Parker gave him a hangdog look. "You are trouble in tights."

 

THE THIRD time the Wrecking Crew robbed a bank, the Avengers were ready.

I kept in touch with a few of the Avengers since my original piece on them went live. In fact, it would have been difficult not to. For two full weeks after Heroes In Manhattan appeared, my life got very crazy: comments flooded the online article, and emails and even handwritten letters poured in. My professional freelance blog's following doubled in size overnight, though most people were only following me so that they could comment on the article there as well.

Suddenly, someone with a real face and a real name had a direct line to the Avengers, and it was me. Overnight I was expected to become either their pimp or their PR man, I never quite knew which. Most of the questions were typical curiosity -- what are they like? What do they like to eat? Is Captain America single? -- but a handful of letters had more insightful questions, questions that I found I wanted answers to as well. I began to compile a list of talking points to bring along if I were ever invited back to the Tower.

And then I realized I had Captain America's email address, because he sent me a thank-you note for the article. I also had Hawkeye's phone number, and contact information for Tony Stark's scheduler. I had Maria Hill's business card. (Former SHIELD Agent Hill now works for Stark, as an upper-level logistics manager at Stark Industries.)

So I opened a dialogue with Steve Rogers, which lasted through the destruction of SHIELD and the hearings that followed, at a time when it would have been politically inexpedient to do a follow-up article. Around the time the Wrecking Crew was gaining momentum, we had brunch at a cafe that he likes near Stark Tower.

"Well, don't put this on the record," he told me (he's now given permission, since the Wrecking Crew are safely under lock and key), "but we're on a rotating sixty-second standby."

He explained that they had instituted the standby as an emergency measure, unsustainable long-term but practical and useful for the moment. At least three Avengers were in-uniform and on-call, required to be able to report to the jet in a minute or less, at all times, until the Crew was brought under control. He was on a break, but as soon as we were done, he was heading back to the Tower to suit up. His official shift would cover five o'clock in the evening through four in the morning, leading a downsized team consisting of himself, the Falcon, and Hawkeye. The scheduling was arranged, in part, so that Tony Stark could have dinner with his fiancee and Natasha Romanoff wouldn't miss Dog Cops.

It appears that none of them counted on one of New York's local urban legends waiting on standby as well.

 

"I can't go to the hospital," Parker rasped. "I have family, I can't -- "

"It's okay," Steve soothed. "Just let me see, all right? I can't leave you here if your guts are hanging out."

Parker sighed, but he tilted his head back against the wall and let his legs slide out, hand dropping away. The entire front of his costume was deeply gouged, but he'd been lucky. The only place the skin was broken was his abdomen.

But there it was...bad. Maybe not so lucky.

"This, this is," Steve said, pressing his wrist to his mouth. He'd seen wounds like this in the war. "Parker, you're going to need a doctor. Even if you heal fast, you might not heal correctly, and sepsis -- "

"I've dealt with worse. I'll be okay."

"In an alley? They'll find you anyway. Look..." Steve cast around. "We'll get you out of the uniform, you'll be just another casualty."

"And when I heal over by tomorrow?" Parker asked, breaking into a cough.

Steve reached up to rub his forehead, then realized the helmet he'd stolen from the Crew was still on his head, as was his cowl. "Here," he said, tugging both off and yanking hard enough on the cowl that the seam where it was sewn into the uniform ripped neatly. "Wear this. We'll get you back to the Tower, there's medical staff there that can help."

Parker gave him an incredulous look, so Steve put the helmet back on his head and put the cowl on Parker's. It covered enough of his face that he probably wouldn't be recognized. Steve tapped his comm.

"I need medical at my location," he said. "I have a friendly with injuries for Stark Tower."

"Dispatch confirmed," JARVIS said in his ear. "Ambulance is on its way."

"Okay, this isn't going to be fun," Steve warned Parker, then hoisted him up in his arms. Parker grunted but didn't cry out as Steve brought him to the mouth of the alley.

"They'll see," Parker mumbled, sounding like he was fading fast.

"It's okay. I'll make sure you're safe," Steve assured him. He thought he'd read somewhere that Parker was a prodigious rising star journalist -- he was twenty four, only two years younger than Steve, but he looked much younger. Steve remembered meeting him when he arrived to do the story on them and thinking he wasn't much more than a boy.

"Sorry," Parker murmured, and Steve felt him go lax in his arms as the ambulance approached. The back doors popped open and two women in uniform were out almost before it stopped.

"This is Spider-man," Steve said, as he laid him on the gurney they tugged free. "He's friendly, he's a metahuman. Do not take the mask off his face."

"Captain, we need to -- "

"He has a healing factor," Steve interrupted. One of the women glanced up at him. "He's going to heal fast, you just need to stabilize him and get him disinfected and stitched up. You have to leave the mask on and we need to take him to the Tower as quickly as we can."

They exchanged a look as they loaded him in. Steve climbed in after.

"Sir," one woman said warily.

"I'm making this easy on you," he said. "I'm riding escort. If your boss yells or someone tries to sue, you just say Captain America made you do it. I'll take the heat."

"Do we have a name, sir?" the other paramedic asked, radio at the ready.

"John Doe Rogers," Steve replied. "You can list me as next of kin."

He waited until she was done with her radio, then tapped his comm. "This is Cap, I'm en route to Stark Tower with Spider-man. I need a status report, because I'm out for the next fifteen minutes at least."

"All clear here," Natasha reported. "You can stand down."

"Excellent. You mopping up?"

"NYPD and emergency services are on the scene," Sam answered. "How's Spider-man?"

Steve glanced at Parker, now unconscious with a drip in his arm. One of the paramedics nodded.

"I think he'll be fine. I'll let you know when I do."

"Lay on some food for us, will you?" Tony added. "See you home in an hour."

"Sure thing. Yell if they get rambunctious," Steve said, and heard Tony mutter rambunctious amusedly before he tapped off again.

 

THE BATTLE with the Wrecking Crew was not the first time Spider-man had been sighted in New York, or been mentioned in the media. Along with a handful of others who may or may not exist, he comprises the shadowy side of superheroism: individuals unsanctioned by law enforcement or federal mandate, whose motives can be as opaque as their masks.

New Yorkers who believe they exist at all generally believe they are a force for good, but there is a tension between wanting heroes to protect us and fearing people with more power than ordinary humans possess. Heroes who won't show their face -- who won't even stand forward to be acknowledged in daylight -- fall under more suspicion than a billionaire who grants magazine interviews or a soldier whose newsreels are archived at the Smithsonian. Even Natasha Romanoff, who is perhaps the most private of the Avengers, doesn't wear a mask. New Avenger Sam Wilson has a very public record of exemplary military service, and has not taken specific precautions to avoid the spotlight the way many Avengers did in the days immediately following the Chitauri invasion.

It may be that Spider-man realized the fine line he walked after tangling with the Wrecking Crew as an auxiliary Avenger, or it's possible that Captain America caught him by the elbow and convinced him to raise his visibility. The Avengers are coy about their dealings with their shadowy colleagues. It's even possible the recent public reaction to Daredevil, prior to the fall of Wilson Fisk, has made Spider-man wary of secrecy.

How this singular oddity will be treated in the coming days in the media, by law enforcement, by other metahumans, and even by the general public, is likely to be a test case for other non-sanctioned superheroes to emerge from the shadows. It is a lot for one man to carry.

 

Once he'd seen Peter delivered to Medical in Stark Tower, and warned the doctors there not to remove the mask, Steve stepped out of the treatment room where they were puzzling over what to do with Peter's already-healing gut wound. With one eye on the glass window so he could monitor them, he took his phone out of his belt.

"JARVIS, Peter Parker has some family in Queens, right?" he asked.

"Indeed, Captain. Mr. Parker lives with his father's sister-in-law, May Parker. Records indicate she is his only living relation."

"Can you find her phone number?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Okay. Put me through."

The phone rang three times before there was a click, and a clear, worried-sounding voice. "Peter?"

"May Parker?" Steve asked.

"Oh -- ah, yes," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm waiting for a call from my nephew and I'd like to keep this line free -- "

"I'm calling about Peter, ma'am," Steve said, and heard her inhale sharply. "He's safe!" he said hurriedly. "He's getting medical treatment at Stark Tower."

"Medical treatment?" she asked. Steve winced.

"He's been hurt, ma'am, but it's not serious. I got your number from him and I thought I'd let you know he's safe."

"Who is this, please?" she asked.

"Sorry, my name is Steve Rogers. I'm -- "

"I know who you are, Captain," she said gently. "I assume you helped him?"

"Yes, Ms. Parker," he said.

"Thank you, Captain. Peter is very important to me. Are you sure he's all right?"

Steve looked back into the treatment room. Peter was pale, dark circles under his eyes visible even with the mask, but an IV was already draining nutrients into him, and they were stitching up the worst of the wounds.

"Well, he'll be off his feet for a day or two, but otherwise he should be fine," he said. "I can send someone to bring you here, if you like, but the mess downtown -- it might be better to wait for a few hours at least. Peter's probably going to be unconscious for a while anyway."

"He thinks very highly of you," she said quietly. Steve wondered if she knew who Peter really was. "Will you stay with him? If you can't, I should come."

"No, Ms. Parker, I'll stay," he said. "We're all very fond of Peter."

"I'm glad. Thank you, Captain Rogers."

"Call me Steve. Let me give you my number," he said, and after she'd written it down and he'd assured her again that he'd stay with Peter, they said their goodbyes. The doctors were mostly gone from the room, only one nurse remaining. Steve knocked, and she gestured for him to come in.

"How is he?" he asked.

"Recovering fast. I'd think he was you if he weren't so scrawny," she said, smiling at him. "This is Spider-man?"

"Yep. Good kid."

"Not one of your team, though."

"Well. Not yet. Doesn't mean he's not one of the good guys," Steve said. "I'll sit with him a while, if you're done."

"Press the call button if you need anything," she said, and patted him on the shoulder as she left. Steve sat next to the bed and tucked a finger under the edge of the cowl quickly, brushing a shaggy lock of brown hair back up behind Peter's ear.

"What are we gonna do with you, kid?" he asked with a sigh.

 

THE TERM "metahuman" has come to be preferred, at least by their own PR officers, for human beings with enhanced or altered biology. Thor Odinson, not being human, is not a metahuman; Steve Rogers, with chemical enhancements bonded to his DNA, is. Tony Stark, while a genius, is a physically baseline human who uses a "prosthetic", and is thus not a metahuman; Bruce Banner, with an alter ego who changes his physical form and inhabits it, is. Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, and Sam Wilson are highly trained and naturally talented, but they, like Tony Stark, are "baselines".

Sources within the superhero establishment seem in agreement that Spider-man is a metahuman, but there is some debate over the nature of his enhancements. Witnesses have seen him climb sheer glass with his hands, but never his bare hands, always the gloves that are part of his full-body concealment. He appears to spit a sticky fluid from his wrists, but the fluid is synthetic and may be the product of mechanical compression, like very high-tech Silly String. His acrobatics, while impressive, are not any more impressive than Natasha Romanoff doing an agility workout.

But then there's the footage of him on YouTube, taken during the Wrecking Crew fight. In it, at one point, he lifts a car.

In the footage, relative to the car, it's been calculated that he stands at about five foot ten and weighs maybe a hundred and sixty pounds. But there he is, benching a Volvo. Either he's got some serious engineering game on Iron Man, or he is metahuman.

 

With the help of JARVIS and a handy StarkPad, Steve ordered a massive amount of food from three different restaurants. JARVIS let him know when it arrived, and he left his vigil for a few minutes to unpack and lay out the food, filling a plate for himself quickly. By the time the Avengers arrived back at the Tower, he was settled in at Parker's bedside again, eating lasagne and trawling the internet for news stories and posts about the fight. Tony had some service that clipped it all, and the Stark Industries PR office would handle any negative publicity, but Steve still liked to get a feel of the news for himself.

"Sir would like to know if you are coming to the meal, Captain," JARVIS said, after a while. "They have not waited on your presence to begin."

"Good," Steve said. "Tell him I'm going to stay here, unless I'm needed. I promised Spider-man I'd make sure nobody messed with him."

There was a momentary pause, and then JARVIS said, "Agent Romanoff wishes to know if you desire company."

"Sure, if she wants to," Steve said. "Everyone else planning to get some shuteye after the grub?"

"I believe so. Shall I have them report in to you when they wake, Captain?"

"No rush, we have the Crew in custody. The debrief can wait."

A few minutes later, Natasha walked in, wearing her favorite after-battle outfit -- sweatpants and a worn-out t-shirt, usually stolen from Clint or Sam -- and smelling like soap. She took in Steve, the empty plate, the boy on the bed wearing his cowl, and asked, "So...who is he?"

Steve raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think I know?"

"You've met him, what, twice now? Sitting by the bedside of a wounded comrade is one thing. You know him," she said, settling into a chair on the other side of the bed. "Also, you're still a really bad liar, Steve."

He shrugged. "Doesn't mean I'm gonna give you a name."

"Spoil-sport."

"Guilty." He glanced at Parker. "He was scared someone would find out. He has family to protect."

"So does Stark," she pointed out.

"Tony's a billionaire. Pepper has the best security in the country, and she lives with us."

"Thor has Jane Foster."

"Jane's in this voluntarily, and she's shown she can defend herself. Besides, keeping her a secret from Loki was never really an option."

Natasha sat back. "And you and me, Clint, Bruce and Sam, we're just lonely assholes."

"Basically," Steve replied. "Sam's got family but I wouldn't mess with his ma if you paid me."

"So what's he got?" she asked, nodding at Parker. "A spouse? Kids?"

"He's practically a kid himself. I don't know about a spouse."

She picked up his left hand, studying it briefly. "No ring or tan line. Maybe siblings? Parents?"

"Tasha," Steve said tiredly.

"Nosy by nature," she said impenitently.

"Leave him alone."

She saluted, then leaned back. "He did good work today, anyhow. We should recruit him."

"The Avengers have a transparency policy." Steve shook his head. "I can try to talk him around, but you know I'm not good at that...manipulation stuff."

"I could take a crack at it."

"Maybe."

"Anyway, what're we gonna do about his face? Make him wear your big A-hat around until he leaves?"

"He won't be here that long. He has a healing factor."

"Jesus," she said, glancing at his bandages.

"Yeah, you should've seen him when I brought him in. Anyway, he'll be fine in hours, not days -- I'll take him home tomorrow or the next day." Steve looked down at his tablet. "I'm going to try to convince him to tell us who he is. Just the Avengers, at least. He knows we can keep a secret."

"It's probably smart, not telling anyone," she said. "Can't stuff that genie back in the bottle."

"It can't be easy."

"No, not easy," Natasha agreed. "But there's a freedom in being unknown. There's a boldness that I think you lose when you're made visible. For good or ill."

"He hasn't seemed that bold in the past."

"Not as Spider-man, perhaps. Maybe in his other life. I would imagine he's an extraordinary person to know, out from under the mask."

Steve thought about the man they knew as Peter Parker -- an accomplished young journalist, intelligent, well-mannered, curious and capable. He'd liked him. He knew Clint had taken a shine to him, and Clint didn't often like strangers. He'd even been respectful of JARVIS.

All that, and he had committed himself to defense of the city, as well, without a support structure or anyone he could talk to about it. It fitted together, certainly, the fact that Parker had made a quiet, intensive study of superheroism, writing a book on the battle with the Chitauri and accepting SHIELD's invitation to do a piece on the Avengers.

"Yes, I think he probably is extraordinary," he agreed.

"Well, let me know if you need my help. I'm very persuasive, even when I'm not allowed to be manipulative," she said with a smile. Steve smiled back.

"Thanks," he said. "Get some rest in the meantime."

"Physician, heal thyself," she replied, and got up to leave.

 

WHEN ASKED if he is a metahuman, Spider-man asks first what a metahuman is. When told, he responds simply, "Yes. I am."

Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you.

 

Peter woke once in the night, but only briefly; once Steve told him that he was somewhere safe and his aunt knew he was all right, he slipped back into sleep pretty quickly. Steve went up to bed, leaving JARVIS to make sure nobody bothered the kid, and when he came down again in the morning, Peter was sitting up and eating breakfast, still in the cowl, looking about a million times better than he had the day before.

"The gaping abdominal wound is healing nicely," Peter said, showing off what looked like a bad case of road rash on his stomach. "In case I didn't say it in a haze of painkillers last night, thank you for saving me."

"All part of the job. There's a shower through there," Steve said, indicating the door to the bathroom, where there were no cameras. "When you're done, you can put these on."

He set a pile of clothes -- pants borrowed from Tony, who looked like he'd be a pretty close fit, and one of his own shirts, plus a full-visor motorcycle helmet -- on the bed. Peter eyed the helmet curiously.

"We're taking my bike," Steve said. "Plus it'll hide your face."

"Bet you want your cowl back," Peter remarked, hand rising to touch the tattered edge of it almost reverently.

"Keep it, I have more," Steve said easily. "Go, get cleaned up so your family doesn't think we kept you in a holding cell all night."

When Peter emerged from the bathroom, motorcycle helmet plonked on his head, Steve got a text from Tony. Very "The Stig". Not even one little peek?

Keep your eyes to yourself, Steve texted back, and led Peter down to the garage, where his bike was waiting at the exit ramp. Peter scrambled onto the bike behind him, wrapping his arms around Steve's chest, and they took off up the ramp with a roar of the engine and a whoop from Peter.

The ride out to Queens was nice -- not too long, and the traffic was decent -- but Steve was distracted for much of it, making sure they weren't being followed or watched. By the time they pulled up in front of Peter's home it was midmorning, and May Parker was out in the front yard, tending a scraggly but clearly well-loved garden.

"Thank goodness," she said, as Peter dismounted and tugged the helmet off. "I swear, Peter, you're going to get yourself killed for a story one day."

"Aunt May, this is Steve Rogers," Peter said, as she took her hands off her hips and hugged her nephew hello. "Steve, this is my aunt May."

"Pleasure to put a face with the name," Steve said, shaking her hand.

"Thank you for looking after this one. He doesn't know when to run away from danger," she said.

"An admirable trait, ma'am, at least in my part of the world," Steve said with a grin. She was a striking woman, very different from Peter -- short, solidly built, with fine threads of silver in her black hair.

"His uncle used to fill his head with comic book stories," she said affectionately, as Peter blushed. "Never thought he'd be making a living off the real thing. Will you come in for a drink, Steve? I'd like to say thank-you for pulling Peter's fat out of the fire."

Peter, slightly behind her, was making a wide-eyed NO face, shaking his head.

"I'd love to, but I can't today," Steve said. "Would you mind if I stopped by tomorrow to see Peter? Make sure he's doing all right?"

"Of course. I'll be out most of the day, but Peter will be here resting. Won't you?" she asked Peter, who nodded obediently. "Stop by any time, Steve."

"Nice to meet you, ma'am," Steve said, pulling his helmet on. "Peter, I'll see you tomorrow. Keep your head down, hey?"

"Yes, Captain," Peter said, and Steve saw May smack him in the back of the head, lovingly, as he pulled away.

 

UNFORTUNATELY, SPIDER-MAN is not granting interviews to the press. My discussion with him was less due to any decision to emerge from hiding, and more because Captain America told us to play nicely together.

Spider-man remains a non-Avenger. The Avengers' new transparency policy conflicts with his strongly-held, almost Libertarian belief in personal privacy, and until he is willing to remove the mask, Stark Industries can't sanction him as a member of the Avengers Initiative. Legally, there's too much at stake for a multinational corporation to fund a vigilante metahuman who won't show his face and can't prove any alibi if someone else in his costume commits a crime.

Spider-man is philosophical about this; he refuses to stand idly by when he could give aid, but he also refuses to sacrifice his friends and family "on the altar of heroism" as he puts it. To protect them from reprisal, he remains anonymous, and is willing to risk legal sanctions to keep them safe.

But to explain how I came to be standing on a rooftop in Washington DC, chatting with Spider-man under cover of darkness, we have to go back a lot further than the roots of his urban legend -- all the way back to 1943, to a Nazi slave labor camp full of American soldiers.

This is a story of the second world war, the cold war, the space race, the secret infiltration of an intelligence agency, the rise of Hydra from its own ashes, and the longest serving prisoner of war in the history of the American military: James Buchanan Barnes.

In the aftermath of the fall of SHIELD -- what Natasha Romanoff succinctly called "the wreck in the middle of the Potomac," -- I was asked by Captain America to find James Barnes, and Spider-man was asked to protect me while I did so.

 

When Steve returned to the Parker house the next day, Peter made coffee in the cozy, dim kitchen, and waited expectantly for Steve to speak. Steve thought he was probably preparing to receive a lecture about his behavior, but that would be hypocritical at best. Instead, Steve said, "How are you healing?"

"Pretty well," Peter replied nervously, sliding his mug between his fingertips, hand to hand. "Honestly, I think the shock was worse than anything."

"From the injury?"

"From being found out," Peter replied. "I'm uh. I can be a little high strung. I had anxiety dreams most of the night."

"I'm sorry," Steve said. "Honestly."

"Not your fault. Bound to happen sooner or later. But I don't think you came by to ask how I am, did you?"

"In part. But I'm glad your aunt's not here, because I have a favor I'd like to ask you," Steve said, sipping from the coffee mug. "One I can't really ask without us discussing Spider-man."

"Ah," Peter said. "A hero favor."

"Yes, but -- I don't want you to take this the wrong way. I don't want you to feel you have to do this. Your secret is safe with me, Peter, no matter what. Your safety isn't dependent on anything you do or don't do for me. If that helps with the anxiety." He saw Peter's curious expression and shook his head. "I have bad dreams too, sometimes. You knew that, you reported on us."

"Yeah, I just..."

"What?"

"You really are just like they say in the high school history books. It still catches me off-guard."

Steve's mouth quirked. "I try to live up to my reputation."

"So what's the big secret favor?"

"I wanted to ask you before -- as a journalist -- if you could help me find someone. But the someone I'm trying to find is dangerous, and I didn't feel I could involve you in that. It's one of those things a person has to take on voluntarily, and I knew you hadn't signed for this kind of duty. Now, though..."

"You know I can protect myself," Peter said shrewdly. "You want me to find the Winter Soldier."

Steve flinched, startled. "How do you know that name?"

"I'm a journalist, Steve. I'm a lead journalist on the superhero beat. I don't even always have to look anymore; these things find me."

"What do you know?"

"I know someone was loose in DC. He killed Nick Fury, then he went after you -- not hard to work out Hydra was running him, at least in retrospect. Rumor has it his codename is the Winter Soldier. Sketchier rumor gave me some backstory, nothing I can confirm. All the footage from the Triskelion is locked down tight, but once the Helicarriers got in the air, people started filming on their phones. There's footage of your fall from the third carrier, did you know? Footage of someone falling after you, too."

Steve nodded. He did know; he'd watched himself fall on YouTube, Sam sitting next to him with an anchoring hand on his back, reminding him that he'd survived and could turn off the video if he wanted. He'd watched it three times, and hadn't gone back to YouTube since.

"It's all conspiracy theories," Peter continued, "but I've had a look, and the footage of the man falling after you seems authentic to me. Is it?"

"Yes. At least I believe so. He was on the carrier with me. Someone pulled me out of the river."

"The hikers on the Potomac who found you, they saw a man in black leaving the area. The descriptions match as close as these things ever do." Peter shrugged. "So he survived the fall, presumably making him a metahuman, like we are. I figured you were probably looking for him."

Steve nodded. "I'm sure he survived. Why haven't you....?"

"Reported on it? None of the information is actionable yet. If I wrote about it I'd sound like a whack job. But I'm learning that if you wait, there's a time for all things to come to light."

Steve was silent; he kept trying to think of something to say and failing. If Peter could assemble all this...

Peter cocked his head, apparently puzzled by the silence. "He can't still be after you, or he'd have been tearing up New York by now. Do you want to find him because he's dangerous, or because you need to know what he knows in order to burn Hydra's last roots out of the ground?"

"What conjecture have you had about his history?" Steve managed.

"Not much. People say he's an assassin. The first credible sighting of him is in 1954, so it's probably an inherited title. That Winter Soldier spoke Russian; this one might, I don't know, but if he works for Russia he's been on loan to Hydra for a while now. Unless...?" Peter peered at his face. "I can't look for him if I don't know what you know."

"Do you know who Bucky Barnes is?" Steve asked.

"Sure, who doesn't? He was your XO during the war. Died during a classified mission near the Russian border...." Peter trailed off. "No fucking way."

"He was experimented on by the Skull. More properly, by Arnim Zola. He was brainwashed. Wiped clean. They gave him -- probably they gave him some version of the Serum I got. They gave him a metal arm..."

"No shit, the Winter Soldier is James Barnes?" Peter asked. "Does he know that?"

"I think he does now. He didn't before -- well, a lot happened, and I think he knows at least that he knew me. But he hasn't come to find me, either to kill me or get help. I need to know what he knows, yes, but it's more important that I know he's safe. I need to find him and -- Sam and Natasha are good, but Sam's not a spy and this isn't the way Natasha does things. You...you found out about what Ross and Abomination did to Harlem, you got Clint to talk, you charmed Pepper and JARVIS...and you can defend yourself."

Peter seemed to consider this, looking down at his coffee. "It's not Spider-man's normal gig, for sure, but it's Peter Parker's specialty. The thing is, Steve, I do these things so I can write about them. It's my job."

"I'll pay your expenses," Steve said.

"That's not what I -- "

"It's not a hardship for me. When I -- came home, the government cut me an almost criminally large check. Felt like blood money. Guess now I know why," Steve added. "I haven't touched it, other than to invest it. I can pay you for this. Put the money to good use."

"Which is fine, and I'll take you up on that, but what I mean is that my time is valuable. Journalism is a hustle, especially freelance, and if you step out for too long, stepping in again is hard. The money isn't an issue. But I want exclusive rights to the story, and I want to be able to publish it without you coming after me."

"As long as you're honest, that's fine," Steve said. "He's not the bad guy, Peter, he's a victim. A prisoner of war. You'll see, you'll understand."

"But he is dangerous."

"Yes. Even when he remembered me, he lashed out, and he doesn't know you." Steve hesitated. "Tony had some ideas about kevlar for your -- "

"Thanks, but no thanks," Peter said with a smile. Steve nodded. "All right, then. Let's get started before Aunt May gets home. I'll need everything you have on him."

Steve reached for the messenger bag, pulling out a thick file of photocopies. "It's all in here, including my after-action reports -- Natasha translated the Russian records for me, the translations are there with the originals. You know how to reach me if you have questions. JARVIS is at your disposal too, there's an email address for him in the file."

"I can email an AI," Peter murmured, still smiling. "What a wonderful world we live in."

 

JAMES "BUCKY" Barnes has almost as much ink dedicated to him as Steve Rogers, at least in the history journals. Captain America's executive officer during the war, Barnes was also his childhood friend, and his rescue was the reason Captain America first crossed enemy lines and entered combat.

Barnes was serving as a sergeant in the 107th Infantry Division when he, along with four hundred other men, was taken prisoner in one of Hydra's first independent military actions during the war. The prisoners were forced into a Hydra slave labor camp, where those who weren't worked to death were experimented on by Arnim Zola, Hydra's chief scientist.

In a letter written to a friend after the war, Colonel Chester Phillips -- Captain America's commanding officer, and one of the unsung heroes of the European campaign -- describes Arnim Zola thusly:

He was a rat-faced pittance of a man with a petty way of talking that always implied he thought you were beneath him. He was like if you took Howard Stark and drained all the color and charm out of him -- freakishly intelligent, but otherwise a bland, snotty little potato-salad smear of a human being.

Barnes was Zola's last experiment, according to Captain Rogers, who pulled him off an operating table during his successful raid of the camp. What Zola did has never been made entirely clear, but subsequent events indicate he was working on -- and may even have perfected -- a version of the original "super soldier" serum which turned small, asthmatic Steve Rogers into Captain America.

There are no records, military or personal, that suggest anyone knew what had been done to Barnes. Even Captain Rogers admits, when asked, that he didn't notice anything unusual about his friend beyond the trauma of being tortured -- and even that was kept well-hidden most of the time. If James Barnes noticed he was suddenly stronger or faster than he had been, he kept it to himself until the day in 1945 when he died -- or when it was assumed he had.

Barnes fell to his "death" from a train, during the same classified mission where Zola was captured and subsequently interrogated by Colonel Phillips. The intelligence Zola provided led Steve Rogers, still mourning his best friend, to a frontal attack on Hydra's last stronghold in the waning days of the war. Peggy Carter, in an account for a documentary in the 1960s, recalled those pivotal days:

His death crushed Steve. I'd never seen him so despondent. While I agreed with his strategy at the time and I still think it was the wisest option, Steve's decision to attack Schmidt's stronghold directly was undoubtedly driven by James's death. I don't think he was acting in passion or revenge; I don't think Steve had a vengeful bone in his body. I think he simply didn't care if he lived or died anymore.

James and Steve were closer than brothers. I don't think Steve loved anyone in his life the way he loved James Barnes. And the loss drove him to take risks he would not otherwise have taken.

In the course of three days, Barnes had fallen to his presumed death, Johann Schmidt died in an altercation with Rogers for control of the bomber they were on, and Rogers himself was presumed dead when the bomber crashed somewhere in Greenland.

What happened to Arnim Zola?

Zola's history is murky in the aftermath of the war. He was meant to be extradited to Switzerland, his homeland, but he never got there; instead he was a prisoner of the US Army until the Allies and the Soviets began divvying up Germany after the war. He was traded to the Soviets for concessions (which remain confidential) during that negotiation, and became a prisoner -- sources indicate perhaps more of an honored but involuntary guest -- of the USSR.

Which was where he and Barnes met again. And again, Zola was the one standing over the operating table.