The week after I moved to New York City, aliens invaded. Which is pretty much typical.
I wasn't in Midtown that day, at least; I watched things unfold from my brand-new Brooklyn apartment, a good safe distance from the carnage. I was jealous as hell of the reporters on the ground, though. That's the kind of thing that can make your career, if you're lucky.
Maybe not everyone sees it that way. But I'd moved to New York because that's where news gets made, and I wanted a big story.
It took hours to get into Manhattan, the day after the Chitauri invasion, but I went anyway. The Bugle offices hadn't been badly damaged, miraculously, but half the staff was out, and rumor had it Jameson had descended from his editor-in-chief's office, the day before, to help evacuate civilians. And, incidentally, take their statements. The Bugle had better coverage than any other city paper, that was for sure.
We missed the big story just like everyone else, though. The front-page headline was "ALIENS INVADE MANHATTAN." You had to turn to page three-- below the fold, even-- to get "WHO ARE THE AVENGERS?"
But that wasn't clear yet, the day after the invasion. That day, everything was still total chaos in the newsroom, phones ringing constantly, everyone from Jameson down to the lowliest intern looking faintly shell-shocked. New Yorkers are used to weird shit, but this was a grade above. And I wasn't even a real New Yorker yet.
The TVs were all turned to cable news, where some of the anchors hadn't even stopped reporting long enough to change clothes. Jameson was in the middle of a knot of flunkies, barking orders I could hear from clear across the newsroom. Out the window, you could see one of those huge, horrible whale-like ships, sprawled across a couple of buildings.
I sat down in my cubicle, booted up my computer, and stared at the blank screen for a long, long moment. I had no idea-- none whatsoever-- of what to write. I didn't even know where to start.
"Hey, new kid," someone said behind me, and I jerked to attention. "You're the new kid, right? Fresh from flyover country? You having second thoughts about the move, yet?"
I turned to glare at the speaker, and then tried to wipe the glare off my face, because I was pretty sure that glaring at the Bugle's star reporter got you in trouble. Ben Urich grinned at me, lopsided and a little rueful.
"We do actually have cities in the Midwest," I said. "I'm from Chicago. You may have heard of it?"
Ben grinned wider at that. "Yeah, but kid-- you'll notice that aliens didn't invade Chicago."
He had a point.
In the days that followed, people started to get a handle on the invasion story, and began to wonder just who it was that had turned the Chitauri back. Iron Man, sure, we all knew about, and Tony Stark was very much the public face of the post-invasion cleanup. But he kept strangely mum on the identities of the people who’d helped him. The big green monster who’d torn up Harlem, the blond guy with the hammer, the archer, the little redheaded lady who was all over Youtube taking out aliens single-handedly. And, of course, the guy dressed up as Captain America.
Man, everyone wanted to know about Captain America. Especially Jameson. Rumor around the offices had it that Jameson was a big fan of the original Captain, the one from WWII, and anyone who could get the scoop on the new guy would be promoted on the spot.
But whatever information there was, it was classified so high you had to be God or Nick Fury to look at the files. Tony Stark, the only guy who was talking, released a terse-for-him statement that the other Avengers were SHIELD agents or liasons, and SHIELD itself wasn’t exactly known for its open frankness.
But there are other ways to get a story. Jameson had the interns scrape up every frame of amateur photography, every second of shaky phonecam video, and set the whole staff to studying it. He blew up the pictures of Captain America as big as resolution would allow, and plastered one whole wall of the newsroom with them.
“I don’t care if he’s wearing a mask,” he said. “He’s showing enough of his face that we ought to be able to come up with something.”
One of the interns pointed out, a little anxiously, that what we could see of the new Cap’s face looked an awful lot like pictures of the old one. “Maybe they’re related?” he offered, nervously toying with his camera strap. I tried to remember his name. Palmer? Parker? “The old one was supposed to have some kind of super-powers, so maybe the new guy’s his grandkid. Inherited the powers somehow.”
Jameson chewed his cigar thoughtfully. “Could be,” he said at last. “There’s a story in it, anyway, even if it’s just speculation. Well, get cracking!” he boomed, and the intern scuttled away.
The speculation just got more and more intense. Cable news spent as much time talking about Captain America as the rest of the Avengers combined-- well, except for Tony Stark-- and every old newsreel, every photo and propaganda poster, got dug up and dissected by every news outlet around. The general consensus was that the new Cap was some relative of the old one, who'd inherited his super-soldierness, and SHIELD had stuck a uniform on him.
Then Captain America did his first TV interview, and that theory got shot to hell.
He picked PBS, of all the goddamned things. I’ve never been so jealous of Bill Moyers in my life. They only got half an hour with him, but Jesus, what a half an hour it was!
He did the interview in costume, which was, I’ll admit, kind of funny. “I, uh, don’t really want the kind of spotlight Mr. Stark has,” he told Moyers, looking as bashful as you can in a skintight suit. “I’d rather have something of a private life.”
That wasn’t the real bombshell, though. That came when Moyers asked how he’d taken up the Captain America identity, and what had led him to step into the shoes of a World War II hero.
“Well, they’re my shoes,” he said. “I guess, anyway. I-- some of the story’s classified, but I’m, I suppose you’d call it the original. I’m the same guy that fought in the war. When my plane went down, I landed in the North Atlantic, and I froze. I don’t remember any of this, but they told me after I woke up that the ice kept me preserved somehow. When they found me they thawed me out, and I was okay. Still alive. I don’t know how, but, well, here I am.”
Well, that did it.
If the media had been in a frenzy before, they were absolutely bonkers now. Jameson got this really dangerous-looking throbbing vein in his forehead every time he talked about it. Every network, every paper was offering huge bounties for an interview, a photo, any scrap of information they could get. But SHIELD kept its mouth shut, and no one knew how to get ahold of the Captain.
Which is why it came as a bit of a surprise when I spotted him in line at Starbucks, three blocks from my apartment.
He wasn’t in costume, of course. He was wearing a Dodgers cap and sunglasses, carrying a notebook under one arm, wearing a plaid shirt and khakis. I’d been staring at the lower half of his face every day in the newsroom, though, and the nose and mouth and chin were the same ones plastered larger-than life on the Bugle’s wall. The height was right, too, and the broad shoulders. It was him.
I fumbled my phone out of my pocket, and snapped pictures of him frantically while pretending to text. He didn’t notice, paying for his coffee with the same shy smile he’d offered the cameras on PBS. He sat down at one of the tables outside and flipped through his notebook to a blank page. I slid into the seat across from him.
“Um, hi.” Not the smoothest opening move, I’ll admit. “I, uh-- look, I’m a reporter with the Daily Bugle, and I was wondering--”
His face, open and friendly, shut down as soon as he heard the word ‘reporter.’ “I’m not sure what the Daily Bugle would want with me. Sorry.”
“C’mon,” I said, “I-- look. I’ve been with the paper three weeks and I haven’t filed a single story of note, unless you count the puff piece about societal changes between 1944 and now, which frankly I don’t. So getting an interview with Captain America would be pretty spectacular.”
“Well, you’d have to talk to Captain America about that,” he said, his voice clipped, face shuttered. “Good luck finding him.” And he made to stand up and leave.
“No-- wait a minute, just wait!” I said, a little desperate. “I might be the first person to recognize you, but there’s no way I’ll be the last. If you don’t want the media crawling down your throat, you’re gonna have to give us something. Half an hour won’t cut it.”
He frowned at that, glancing at the crowded sidewalk at if the pedestrians were all concealing microphones and notebooks and those old-timey flashbulb cameras. He sighed. “Okay, theoretically, if I was Captain America-- which I’m not-- I would say that I only did that interview to stop the crazy rumors that were all over the news since the attack. I’m not Tony Stark; I’m not interested in being famous. Or I wouldn’t be, if I were Captain America. Which I'm not."
"Honestly?" I said. "I'm not sure you're going to have a choice in the matter. You're a national icon, you're practically the American version of King Arthur, and people want to know about you. You're gonna be famous whether you like it or not. The bit you have a choice about is how much control you have over your perception in the media, and for that, you have to talk to us."
I offered him my business card. After a long, considering pause, he took it. "King Arthur? Really?" he asked.
"I was an English Lit major, before I switched to journalism," I said. "The hero out of legend, sleeping 'til his country needs him most? You don't see it?"
"Nah," he said. "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn." He got up to leave. "And by the way, that article wasn't bad," he said. "You got a couple of things wrong, though."
"Like what?" I asked eagerly.
"Figure it out for yourself, and maybe we'll talk," he answered, and walked away.
“Wait!” I called after him. “How do I get in touch with you?”
“You live in the neighborhood, right?” he asked. I nodded. “Then I’ll see you around. Don’t worry.”
I sat there for a few minutes, kind of stunned. I met Captain America! Captain America read my article! Captain America wanted me to fact-check my article!
I met Captain America, and all I knew was that he was from Brooklyn. Jameson was gonna have my ass if he found out.
But a lead was a lead. I did what any good reporter does: I followed.
The Captain’s WWII squad was a matter of public record, and I knew plenty about them already. They’d nearly all had long and illustrious careers after the war-- years of distinguished military service, success in business and politics, lots of grandchildren. All but the one who’d died during the war: James Barnes, of Brooklyn, New York.
So maybe the Captain had put a hometown pal on his team. If I found a paper trail for Barnes, I might find one for the Captain too.
I started combing through old city records, looking for James Barnes. He and his parents turned up on the 1920 census, but by 1930 the parents were gone, and I found death records for them from the late 20s. That meant Barnes had been orphaned young, so I went looking for the orphanage.
The building was long since turned into apartments I couldn’t afford, but some civic-minded resident had put up a history of the place on the Internet, with lots of high-res scans of old pictures. I paged through a lot of black-and-white photos of boys in knickers lined up on the front steps looking solemn. Like, a lot. But I found him.
He looked maybe fifteen in the picture, his hair combed neatly, one careless arm slung around the boy next to him. J. Barnes and S. Rogers, 1933, it was captioned, and I peered at the two of them, their faces, their easy camaraderie. The other boy was pale-haired and skinny, barely coming up to Barnes’ shoulder, but I thought I recognized something about the face.
Combing the orphanage records netted me Steve Rogers, born-- ha! Born July 4, 1918, of all things, which made him the right age. A good, close-up picture proved elusive, though-- all I could find were a few group shots from the orphanage, and a few more that looked like the right guy from, of all things, an Internet page on 1930s science fiction fans.
He was a shrimp, though, my Steve Rogers-- a weedy little guy, nothing like the brawny, broad-shouldered Captain. But the face, as best as I could tell, was right. The eyes, the mouth, they matched the guy I’d met. And he’d known Barnes. They said Captain America had been augmented, somehow, when they made him a super-soldier, so maybe that explained the extra foot in height.
Meanwhile, I was settling in at the Bugle, filing my first few stories, unpacking my life into my apartment. I wrote a story about a couple of idiots who’d managed to reverse-engineer a Chitauri raygun and used it, of all things, to rob a bank. That got me an approving nod from Jameson, and I rode the high of that for a while, until I ran out of stuff to write about again.
And the whole time, the media ate its own tail over the Avengers-- who were they? Where did they go? How did they do what they did? Was Tony Stark ever going to shut up? And while the press clamored, I was sitting on a story that would make their jaws drop. If I was right. But I had no way of proving it.
That weekend there was a street fair in my neighborhood, and I went for a walk through the tents to clear my head. I was seeing Captain America everywhere by then-- and it didn’t help that it seemed like half the little kids at the fair were wearing Avengers t-shirts. I kept doing double takes at every guy over six foot with blond hair and muscles. And then I did a triple take, because that guy over there, the blond one with the muscles, eating an empanada, was the right one.
I decided to take a chance. “Hey, Steve!” I hollered at him, and his head jerked up. I crowed a little, internally.
When he saw me, his eyes went almost comically wide. He stuffed the last bit of empanada into his mouth, wiped his hands on his pants, and practically ran over to me. “How did you--?” he began.
“Brooklyn was enough of a hint,” I said. “You were in the orphanage with James Barnes, yeah?”
His gaze turned assessing. “That’s not bad detective work,” he said. “So did you figure out what you got wrong in the article?”
I grinned at him, like it hadn’t been keeping me up nights. “Well, you had a female commanding officer-- I was wrong when I wrote you wouldn’t have seen that before. And hanging around with Howard Stark, you probably would have known what a microwave oven was.”
He nodded. “Not bad. Howard blew up more stuff with that thing than with some of his actual weapons designs. Peggy thought it would never go anywhere.”
“So you’ll do an interview, right?” I asked, eager, but he shook his head.
“I don’t want the attention, okay? If you want to run what you’ve got, be my guest, but I don’t think you can prove anything. Can you?”
“I-- But--” I sputtered, crestfallen.
“Look, you seem like a nice kid, and I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be in the papers, okay? It’s bad enough there’s all this speculation. I tried doing an interview, and that just added fuel to the fire. I’m not interested in giving the press anything more.”
“If I can prove it, I’m running the story,” I warned him.
He looked me over, and yeah, okay, there was the guy who’d led men through half of Europe and an alien invasion besides. I could feel my posture getting better, sort of involuntarily. Despite myself, I wanted to impress him again, to do something that would make him take me seriously.
“If you can prove it, I’ll give you that interview,” he said, and I nodded.
What can I say? I like a challenge.
I started by seeing what kind of records there were on Steve Rogers in the modern day. I used a library computer, figuring SHIELD was probably keeping one of its many eyes out for anyone who got too close to the Captain. It took forever, with such a common name, but eventually I turned up his driver’s license. Someone at SHIELD was being sloppy, or maybe Steve just didn’t like lying on his fake birth certificate, because that gave his birthday as July 4, too.
The picture matched, anyway, and I was pretty sure that it would stand up to facial recognition software. Now I had to decide whether to bring the story to Jameson. It could maybe make my career, make me the reporter who unmasked Captain America. So what was I waiting for?
That was a question I couldn’t answer, and yet I kept waiting. Ben Urich even called me on it-- caught me staring into space in my cubicle, looking morose, and said, “If Jonah catches you with that look on your face, you’re going to be in for it.”
“What look?” I asked, hoping he didn’t say, ‘that vaguely guilty look.’
“You’re sitting on a story,” he said. “Any old hand could tell. Why aren’t you writing it up?”
“It’s... complicated,” I said. “What do you do when you know something that could really make someone’s life difficult, and they don’t deserve it?”
“Usually it turns out they deserve it, I find,” he said. “But if you’re sure they don’t, that’s a little tougher. Just make sure no one else knows what you know, or can figure it out. Getting scooped won’t do you or your subject any good.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think.”
“No problem, rookie,” he said. “Just wipe that look off your face before Jonah sees it.”
A few more weeks went by, and I didn’t run the story. The media frenzy around the Avengers started to die down a little. With nothing to feed them, the sharks went looking for easier prey. Jameson stopped looking quite so much like he wanted to murder everyone he saw, and Iron Man made a couple of big splashes that drew headlines of their own. It looked like the story was going away on its own.
That was when I got the call. I was at work, not really paying attention, when my cell rang. “This is Steve Rogers,” the voice on the other end said, and I snapped to attention. “I need to talk to you.”
I met him at a bar in Manhattan, well away from SHIELD HQ. He was waiting in a back booth, hands restless on the table, his shoulders bowed a little despite his too-good-for-the-21st-century posture. “Did anyone follow you?” he asked me, as I slid into the booth.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but, you know, SHIELD is kind of notoriously sneaky, so I might not have noticed.”
He frowned at that, but shook his head as if to clear it, to focus on whatever he’d called me here for. “Look,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for not running the story about me. You had the chance to make my life pretty unpleasant, and you didn’t take it. That’s why I’m giving you the first chance at this.”
“So it’s not about you?” I asked, a little disappointed.
“Only by association,” he said. He took off his sunglasses and looked me in the eye, a level, steady, honest gaze. I could see, not for the first time, how he’d gotten to be Captain America. “Look, I could get you into a lot of trouble with what I’m about to tell you, but you’d be helping someone who really needs it. Who I can’t think of any other way to help. Do you think you’re going to be able to handle whatever happens, if I give you this information?”
“Absolutely,” I breathed. I would probably have jumped off a bridge if he’d told me to, right then.
He slid a thumb drive across the table. “I got these files from SHIELD,” he said. “They’re pretty well classified.” He paused for a moment, looking down, and I realized for the first time that he looked really damn tired. Worn down, even, or as worn down as a superhero can look. “Two weeks ago, I participated in a joint operation between SHIELD, the Army, and the Russian government, tracking down a terrorist cell in Chechnya. One of the prisoners we took is currently in Army custody, and I’m afraid he’s going to disappear. I need a big, hot spotlight shone on this situation, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s special about him?”
“It’s-- kind of a long story,” he said, and sighed. “I guess where I should start is with the Winter Soldier.” And he started to tell me the story.
“Before the Soviet Union fell, I’m told, there was a division called the Red Room that, among other things, was trying to make, well, people like me. Super-soldiers, perfect soldiers, brainwashed assassins who never missed a shot. And their star operative was a guy they called the Winter Soldier. He was so good, and so dangerous, that they kept him in cryogenic suspension between missions, and when they needed him they programmed him with a new objective.”
I started connecting the dots. “And after the Soviet Union fell, what happened to him?”
“Apparently, most of the Red Room’s assets were sold off to the highest bidder. Some of their agents escaped, and went freelance, but the Soldier was still in cryo, and fell into the hands of a series of terrorist groups, who used him pretty sparingly. Until recently, he’d hardly been sighted for twenty years.”
“And he’s the guy you caught in Chechnya?”
He nodded, and looked strangely miserable about it. “See, the thing about the Soldier is, he’s been active off and on since the end of the War.” I could practically hear the capital letter; there would only ever be one War for Steve Rogers, I suppose. “What we didn’t know is how the Red Room got ahold of him in the first place. From what we’ve pieced together, he was found half-dead in the Alps by Russian infantry, and when they figured out who he was, they thought he might have been a test subject for some version of the same super-soldier formula that was used on me. That was how he ended up with the Red Room. They couldn’t get anything useful from his blood, but I guess they figured-- what, waste not, want not, right?” His mouth twisted a little, bitterly.
“So who was he?” I asked. “Before the Russians got him. It sounds like you know.”
His head dropped, and he stared at his hands on the table. “He was James Barnes.”
“Holy shit,” I said. “From your squad, James Barnes? From the orphanage?” I pictured the dark-haired boy from the picture, the arm he folded protectively around his friend. I tried to match up the man in the military records with a merciless, brainwashed super-assassin, the unwitting pawn of terrorists. It was hard to make it all fit, in my head.
And Steve had known Barnes from childhood, had grown up with him-- it had to be a hell of a lot harder for him. “Jesus,” I said. “And now he’s in Army custody?”
“And likely to stay there,” Steve said. “SHIELD used up a lot of its pull on-- well, on other things, after the invasion, and General Ross is holding a grudge. He wants Bucky-- the Soldier-- tried for his crimes, or maybe disappeared away to some black-box prison, or maybe put back in cryo. It’s hard to be sure. But I’m not letting it happen.”
“Jesus,” I said again. “Is he still in New York, at least?”
“I hope so,” Steve answered. “But the faster I light a fire under General Ross’s ass, the less time he’ll have to do something permanent to Bucky. This one isn’t a story you can sit on. If you won’t run it, I’ll go to someone else.”
“Oh, I’ll run it,” I said instantly. There wasn’t even a question of hesitating, not then. “I’m taking this straight to Jameson. Don’t worry.” I held up the flash drive. “Have you made copies of this?”
“A few,” he said. “You should copy it, too. Just to be on the safe side.”
“I guess I know what I’m doing when I get home,” I said, and got up to leave. “And-- thanks,” I said. “For trusting me with this.”
“Do this story justice, and I’ll get you an interview with any Avenger you want,” he said. “Myself included.”
He shook my hand, before I left. The whole way home, I had to resist the urge to tell complete strangers that Captain America shook my hand! This one, right here!
I made half-a-dozen copies of the flash drive once I got home, and I hid three of them around my apartment. The fourth I put in a safe deposit box at a bank I’d never been to before, under an assumed name, and the last two I took back to the Bugle offices with me.
“I need to see Mr. Jameson. Right away,” I told his secretary, and apparently something in my expression told her how important it was, because she buzzed me right in.
“You look like you’ve been shook up pretty good,” Jameson said, running an assessing eye over me as I walked in. “What the hell’s the matter?”
“I’ve got a story,” I said. “My source has leaked a lot of highly classified information, and the paper could get in a lot of trouble if we run it. But if we don’t, my source is going to keep trying until he finds someone who’ll print it.”
Jameson’s face lit up like Christmas. “That’s just about my favorite thing in the world to hear,” he said, and chomped on his cigar for emphasis. “What’s the story?”
I handed him one of my flash drives. “It’s on there,” I said. “Along with the files to back it up.”
I’d written the story at top speed, pretty much in the time it took to make the flash drives, but I thought the bones of it were solid. Jameson’s eyebrows went up when he started reading, and stayed there. He let out a long, appreciative whistle.
“So you’re telling me,” he said, “that a bona fide, genuine American hero-- one of the finest soldiers this country has ever produced-- has spent 70 years as a POW, being tortured, brainwashed, and set on his fellow countrymen? And now that we’ve got him back, the Army wants to lock him up?”
“That’s about it,” I said.
“This is-- this is big,” he said. “About as big a story as we’ve ever covered. These files are classified so high I’m surprised they didn’t spontaneously set my computer on fire. Who the hell’s your source at SHIELD, kid? Captain America?”
“What?” I said, suddenly panicky. “How did you-- I didn’t tell anyone--”
Jameson held up a quelling hand. “That was a joke,” he said. “Are you telling me your source is actually Captain America?”
“Well, yes,” I admitted. “But that’s not part of the story. He only came to me with this because I figured out his identity and didn’t print it.”
“Start from the beginning,” Jameson said.
Once I’d told the whole story, start to finish, Jameson sat back in his chair. “Well,” he said, “at some point we’re going to have a long talk about how you knew Captain America’s identity and didn’t tell anyone. And the story needs editing. But that can wait. For the moment, there’s something I’ve got to do.”
“What’s that?” I asked, nervous.
“Something I don’t get to do nearly often enough,” he said. He picked up the phone on his desk, punched a couple of buttons, and barked out, “Robbie, this is JJ. Stop the goddamn presses!”
If you’ve never been at the epicenter of a full-blown media frenzy, I have this advice for you: don’t.
As the reporter who’d broken the story, I was as much a part of the coverage as any of the actual participants. I got calls from every last news network, and after much consideration, agreed to appear on PBS. Bill Moyers is a class act, for the record.
After much wrangling, several Congressional hearings, and what remained of General Ross’s good name being dragged through the mud, SHIELD released a terse statement.
“We are pleased to announce that Sergeant Barnes has been transferred to SHIELD custody, and is recovering from his ordeal. Further information will become available if and when Sergeant Barnes is ready and willing to share it.”
The set off another cycle of the 24-hour news merry-go-round, but it was shorter-lived than the first one. People at the Bugle stopped clapping me on the back when they passed me, and Jameson gut really grumpy again after his week or so of weirdly magnanimous behavior. A month passed, and then another, and life returned to normal.
One night, I stopped into a restaurant in my neighborhood to pick up some takeout, and I spotted a familiar face in a back booth. I waved to Steve, and after a moment he raised a hand to wave back at me.
Before I could leave, he slipped out of the booth and stopped me. “I just wanted to thank you,” he said. “The story you wrote-- it was exactly the right one. Everything worked out about as well as I could have hoped. I owe you a lot.”
“I’m glad I could help,” I said.
“If you still want that interview--” he began, and I could tell he was steeling himself a little, that he still didn’t want to do it one bit. But he was a man of his word. I respected that.
Over his shoulder, I could see the two people in his booth craning their necks to watch us talk. They were a redheaded woman and a dark-haired man, and they both had faces I recognized. James Barnes looked pretty much okay. Happy, even. I waved hello at him, and he offered me a hesitant wave back.
I turned back to Steve. “Look,” I said, “I won’t pretend I wouldn’t be thrilled to get that interview. But I’m not gonna force you to do it. When you’re ready, when you’re comfortable talking to the public, you come to me, okay? You’ve got my number.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I really appreciate that.”
I left the restaurant, takeout in hand. If Jameson ever found out I’d turned down that interview, he’d kill me. But Jameson didn’t have to know.
And as for me? I was feeling pretty good about my future in New York.