IT'S THREE in the morning, and the Avengers are playing baseball.
Captain America and Black Widow are on one side, Thor and Hawkeye on the other, with Iron Man playing perpetual defense. The Hulk -- in some form -- is umpire.
The baseball game is virtual; there's a real bat, but the gloves and ball are blue-light holograms. Several floors of Stark Tower, New York's newest and most architecturally dubious ornament, have been set aside for Avenger use, but even Stark Tower can't host an Avenger playing real baseball indoors.
This night game comes shortly before I am scheduled to finish my two-week stay with the Avengers. Starting at the end seems counter-intuitive, but it's better this way: a real slice of Avengers life, without any of the awkwardness of the first few days I spent trying to understand them.
Without the uniform and cowl, Captain America is a boyish blond man with a smile a mile wide, but there's an unmistakable air of command as he murmurs with Black Widow about strategy. Not far off, Tony Stark is reiterating the rules and regulations of fouls, balls, and outs to Thor, a giant man in, at the moment, Mickey Mouse pajamas. Hawkeye stands nearby, watching the others.
The gymnasium has low lights and one long glass wall looking out on Manhattan, which glows dimly before sunrise.
Iron Man pitches and Captain America swings, hitting a high pop-fly. Hawkeye goes deep, leaping like a cat, and the holographic ball just barely ricochets off his glove. He runs for it, scoops it up, and shoots it towards second, where Thor is waiting. Captain America heads back for first base, but Thor lifts off and flies past him, tagging him out on the way.
Hulk calls it an out. Stark calls Hulk a traitor.
Captain America, apparently bored, does a handstand while waiting for the bickering to end. Hawkeye and Black Widow wrestle amiably. Thor practices his swing, but he's using a large, square hammer with a leather grip to practice. Every ball he hits with the hammer leaves the "park".
"Sometimes people can't sleep," Hawkeye informed me, when I witnessed the first of these predawn games. Tonight is the third since I arrived.
This is the life of the Avengers.
NO AMOUNT of begging, bribery, or subterfuge managed to penetrate the steel wall of secrecy surrounding the Avengers in the wake of the Chitauri attack on New York. Tony Stark, the only public face of the team, deflected all questions and maintained a sort of hero's code. He wouldn't name the man under the Captain America cowl, he wouldn't confirm the identities of Black Widow or Hawkeye, and he didn't know where Thor was. He refused to give any details about where the Hulk was or how he was contained. He did it all with a screw-you grin that told the world he knew the answers and didn't think they'd earned the right to have them. It was Tony Stark Theatrical at its finest.
Six months after the Battle of Manhattan, the Avengers were again let off the leash. They were sent to defend a small midwestern town against an attack by the terrorist group AIM, an enemy Stark had dealt with once before. AIM was prevented from further terrorist acts, and the Avengers were lauded by the heartland as heroes, without any of the cynicism of New York in the wake of their first battle. Still, the public wouldn't be content with half-answers any more, and Stark clearly struggled under the constant public scrutiny.
After the second Avengers mission, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, which oversees their activities, decided that "no publicity" was no longer "good publicity". S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted public exposure: a long, in-depth human interest piece that would answer the public's questions about who our newest heroes are.
Why I was chosen was a mystery at first. When a massive, secretive intelligence agency asks for you by name, you don't ask too many questions in return. I was simply told by S.H.I.E.L.D. to present myself at Stark Tower at five pm on Wednesday, and to stay -- living with, eating with, and sharing the lives of the Avengers -- for two weeks.
I was met at Stark Tower by Maria Hill, a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and the handler for the Avengers. I expected dossiers, or at least a briefing. I got neither.
"They're temperamental," she told me, as we walked through the intimidatingly large lobby of the Tower. "They're very private people, and some of them aren't strangers to publicity. They decided -- " on Stark's advice left unsaid, " -- that they wanted you to meet them in person, not on paper."
"And you agree?" I asked.
"I'm their handler, not their mother," she said. "Something I frequently tell them, as well. You'll like them," she added. "Just don't bring up politics in front of Bruce."
"Who's Bruce?" I asked, but she just smiled as she ushered me into a private elevator, which required a retinal scan for her and a thumbprint scan for me.
THE AVENGERS are arranged in a sort of living-room area that the elevator opens onto. Agent Hill shoves me out into the living room, and when I turn the door is already closing behind her. She gives me a smile and a wave.
When I turn back, there they are, looking at me expectantly.
Tony Stark is sitting on a loveseat with the CEO of Stark Industries (and incidentally his fiance), Virginia "Pepper" Potts; in a suit worth more than some cars, he looks too relaxed to be relaxed, and Potts has a charming meeting-the-press smile on. Next to them, sitting painfully upright in a wing-chair, is a man who can only be Captain America, especially since he's wearing an Army uniform.
Thor, who never does give any other name, is in full battle armor on a sofa nearby, with Black Widow and Hawkeye next to him. Outside of Stark, only Hawkeye has been tentatively identified by the public: Clinton Barton, who doesn't exist in any record anyone can find but who has stirred the memories of several people who claim he was a trick-shot performer in a circus twenty years ago. He doesn't look old enough. Thor is looming menacingly and Black Widow is sitting forward, looking defensive of Hawkeye, who is curled up in the corner of the sofa against the arm.
Lurking behind the wing-chair, the only one standing and the one who looks like he least wants to be here, is a middle-aged man in casual dress, fingers fidgeting along the top of the chair. They're clearly all on best-behavior for this first meeting.
There's barely a beat in which to feel awkward before Stark is throwing himself out of the loveseat and forward, welcoming me to the Tower. There are many things that Tony Stark excels at, but talking is a skill he's honed -- in part to keep journalists like me from asking too many questions, I suspect.
"Come meet the team," he says, though he hauls Potts with him to introduce first. "The delightful Pepper Potts. Not an Avenger, but none of us are perfect."
"Is perfect," she murmurs, before taking my hand with a long-suffering smile for Stark. "Pleasure to meet you."
"The giant on the sofa is Thor," Stark continues, and Thor lifts a large, mallet-shaped metal hammer in salute. "Natasha, Clint..."
I say it's my pleasure, that it's nice to meet them, but I'm not allowed time to ask if Clint is Clinton Barton or what Natasha's full name is before Stark is dragging the one unidentifiable man forward by the sleeve.
"Dr. Bruce Banner," he announces.
Dr. Banner looks intensely uncomfortable.
It's not hard to understand why. Several years ago, Bruce Banner was a brilliant biochemist who one day simply fell off the map. His disappearance caused only minor waves in the news media, but it shocked the scientific community. Conspiracy theorists pointed to his work for the Department of Defense and his entanglement with the daughter of a four-star Army general. Others thought he had committed suicide. Finding him here, in Stark Tower, is surprising at best.
"It's a long story," he says, when he catches the expression on my face. "For now, let's just say I speak for the Hulk."
I barely have time to wonder if he's been brought in by S.H.I.E.L.D. as the Hulk's keeper before I'm pulled to the wing-chair and presented with ceremony.
"Captain America," Stark says grandly.
"Steve Rogers," the soldier in the chair corrects, standing to shake my hand. Most of the ribbons on his chest aren't familiar to me, but I can pick out the Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor. I think that whoever has filled the shoes of the first Captain America must be a high achiever. "Pleasure to meet you."
"You took the name," I say, surprised, before Stark can interrupt us. The identity of the historical Captain America was never officially declassified by the government, but the Howling Commandos that he led were never shy about making sure his name was remembered.
"Something like that," he answers, with a small smile and a wary look in his eye.
DINNER IS served in a corner room with a nearly 180 degree view of south Manhattan, which took far less damage than the city to the north of Stark Tower and thus has far fewer cranes and scaffolds.
One would expect, of a meal presided over by Tony Stark, that the food would be delicate, catered morsels, but the Avengers stop eating for no man. They are athletes, and the meal is a massive, high-carb, high-protein delight: spaghetti bolognese, chicken alfredo, green salad, roasted eggplant. When I compliment the food, Black Widow nudges Hawkeye, who smiles for the first time.
"We tend to cook a lot of food you can make in large portions," Dr. Banner says, as Thor helps himself to a massive bowl of spaghetti.
"No chef?" I ask, surprised.
"We rotate," Dr. Banner replies.
"Tomorrow Bruce is on, so prepare for the heat," Stark adds. Dr. Banner ducks his head. "When I cook, we eat pizza. It's safer for everyone that way."
"Who made this?" I ask. Stark points his fork at Hawkeye, who acknowledges it with a nod.
I am seated between Stark on one side and "Natasha", the Black Widow, on the other, clearly the two most capable of deflecting uncomfortable questions. I'm not planning on asking any this early, but even if I were, the decision is taken out of my hands by what happens next.
"So," Thor says, as silence looms. "You wish to hear tales of our heroic exploits."
"Well, it's as good a place as any to start," I say, even as Stark groans and the man calling himself Steve Rogers tries to interrupt.
"Don't encourage -- " he begins, but Thor is already opening his mouth to declaim.
Lo, these many months past, when I first came
In search of my long-wayward missing kin
The rest of the meal is spent listening to Thor retell the story of the Battle of Manhattan between bites of food. He recites in what seems to be flawless iambic pentameter, but for a man whose chosen weapon is a hammer, there is a certain subtlety to his language. The story makes for good material, even for those who were there on the front lines. Hawkeye and Rogers listen raptly; Stark and Black Widow seem mostly amused. Potts murmurs with Banner from time to time. I wonder how often they're treated to Thor's epics.
"One time, he spent an hour recounting the saga of his first visit to a grocery store," Black Widow tells me in an undertone, once we've applauded the performance. "It's strangely compelling."
"You could take that show on the road," I tell Thor, and he looks puzzled.
"Which road?" he asks. Thor's not from around here.
I feel a little like a traitor as dessert is served. This meal has been educational, to say the least. Like any situation where the journalist is perhaps not the most popular person in the room, I have to plan out how and when to approach each of them, and how long to wait before they trust me enough to answer honestly. I've already seized on the most likely to talk: Thor and Steve Rogers. Stark probably hasn't given a truly honest interview since he was seven. Black Widow and Hawkeye are clearly suspicious, and Dr. Banner just seems so nervous.
Thor it is, then, I think, as Stark carefully guides me away from the table, away from most of the guests, and up to the room I'll be sleeping in. It's clear my allotted time with the Avengers is over for the day.
THERE IS one more member of the Avengers I have yet to meet, one who wasn't introduced to me by Stark. J.A.R.V.I.S., or simply Jarvis, as he prefers to be known, is the intelligent computer program who sits at the heart of Stark Tower and, so the rumors have it, aids Stark in piloting the Iron Man armor.
When I'm left to my own devices in my room, this first evening, I want to take notes and record what I've encountered, but first I have to introduce myself.
"Jarvis?" I ask, and there is an immediate response.
"How may I be of assistance?" a voice says, from everywhere at once. It's muted, melodious even, a male tenor with a gentle transatlantic accent.
"We didn't get to talk, earlier," I say. "I wanted to say hello."
"At my request, Sir did not introduce me," he responds. I'm looking at the ceiling, involuntarily. "I was uncertain you would wish to speak with me."
"Disembodied voices tend to unsettle the unprepared." It sounds like he speaks from experience.
"You're capable of making requests?" I ask.
"Indeed. I am an intelligent program, capable of developing preferences and emulating, if not directly experiencing, emotion."
"How's Stark take that?"
"With distinct ill-humor," he replies, though there's amusement in his tone.
"I don't suppose you can give me any dirt on the Avengers?"
"I have been authorized to provide any information you require which does not threaten national security or the personal safety of the occupants of the Tower," he says, which is surprising. "I am also not authorized to disclose any personal information which may be compromising or embarrassing."
"How do you know what that entails?"
"I use my judgement."
"How's your judgement?"
"Impeccable," he replies frostily.
"Can you tell me where the Hulk is?" I ask, testing him. I think of my childhood, asking ridiculous questions of the narrators of old text-based adventure games on the computer.
"I believe you should speak to Dr. Banner about that," Jarvis says.
JARVIS BEGAN life as a missile-guidance system. Unlike most advanced programs, which are created by a team, Jarvis was coded exclusively by Tony Stark. The goal, at the time, was to design a weapon capable of facial recognition and, if necessary, of following voice commands issued by its controllers. It was developed on spec, outside of contract, or else the US government would have had that program long before now. It was just a side-project Stark was working on in his spare time. To his surprise, the facial-recognition software interfaced with the voice-command software and created a learning program. Within weeks it could respond to Stark in complete sentences, but would only respond to Stark.
He scrapped the dream of hyperintelligent missiles in favor of creating the world's first autonomous Artificial Intelligence, who not only has beliefs and opinions of his own but is not shy in voicing them. In the years since Jarvis first came on-line, Stark has been violently protective of his program, refusing all attempts to access the base code or the servers on which it is stored.
Jarvis, likewise, is extremely defensive of his creator, coupling an almost childlike adulation of him with the intellectual rigor of a grown adult and a sort of frustrated, fond tenacity found in most of Stark's closest companions. Like Virginia Potts, Jarvis obviously loves Tony Stark and just as obviously is having none of Stark's infamous bull.
Outside of this one touchy subject, however, Jarvis is friendly, helpful, and soothing to speak with. He is willing to provide me with any accessible information I desire, filtering search results for me and providing video footage from dinner so that I can transcribe Thor's saga. (For a full transcript of Thor's account of the Battle of Manhattan, click here.)
He has access to an impressive database of music and film, as well as a full library of ebooks ranging from esoteric philosophy to murder mysteries. Like his creator, he is an atheist, but it's clear that he was either programmed with or developed a deep sense of compassion and care for the people whose well-being is more or less in his control.
"What do you think of the Avengers?" I ask, after a few hours of conversation and collaboration.
"You may need to restate your parameters," he replies.
"Do you like them? It was just you and Mr. Stark for a long time," I clarify. "Are you capable of feeling jealous? Or of feeling relief that there are other people willing to fill the gaps when Iron Man can't be everywhere at once?"
Even a second's pause is a long time, for a program which can perform millions of calculations per second.
"The Avengers fill an important need," he says finally.
"For the public good, or for Mr. Stark?"
"I'm afraid that may be an answer you should seek from him. As individuals, yes, one could say I like them. I like their presence in my Tower."
Stark thinks Stark Tower is his. I'm not so sure.
"Do you interact directly with them?"
"Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers more than the others," he replies. "Dr. Banner often requires my assistance in his laboratory work."
"And Captain Rogers?"
"Captain Rogers has a lot of questions," Jarvis says. He sounds fond, like an indulgent parent. "But all of them make use of my resources at one time or another. I favor them. I have not always been accustomed to respect from strangers."
"What do you make of me?" I ask.
"That remains to be seen," he replies.
WHEN I wake, the next morning, Jarvis informs me of the time, the weather, and that Stark is in his workshop, where I am not allowed. It's nothing personal; the workshop contains sensitive data that can't easily be redacted around strangers, and Stark's work has frequently been the target of industrial espionage.
The rest of the Avengers are either asleep or out of the building, with the exception of Captain America. Captain America is in the communal Avengers kitchen, and Jarvis informs me that he wishes to speak with me at my convenience. I suspect Captain America is not a man one wants to keep waiting, and that my convenience should be soon.
The communal Avengers kitchen is almost blinding in the early morning, all white countertops and chrome appliances. No less startling is Captain America in a t-shirt barely big enough for his broad frame and a pair of what appear to be yoga pants. He's reading a newspaper, which he lays on the breakfast table when I enter.
"Good morning," he says, pleasant but formal. "Can I get you a coffee?"
"Please. Cream, no sugar."
"Easily done. Breakfast?"
"If there's some available."
He sets a mug of coffee in front of me, then retrieves a plate from the oven: pancakes and sausage. "I've already eaten," he says, sitting down again and shifting his newspaper aside.
"I wanted to speak to you without the others present," he announces, and proceeds to give me a highly intimidating lecture. He doesn't seem to intend it, but the effect is of a high school principal informing me that he's going to have his eye on me.
What he says makes sense. He wants me to be aware that the people I'm meant to report on are human beings, with human failings, and he'd prefer if I didn't scandalmonger -- his word exactly -- in my reporting. His speech is easy, clipped just a little by a hint of a New York accent, and his vocabulary is distinctly old-fashioned. He seems reassured by my promise that I'm here to write about people, not gods, and relaxes when I suggest that I could ask him a few questions.
"Well then," he says, sitting back, apparently at ease with being interviewed. "Go ahead."
I want to know what it was like to be selected to be Captain America; whether he feels a sense of kinship for the war hero, and whether he thinks he's up to the responsibility of wearing the white star. He looks amused.
"You're not asking the right question, son," he says, but before I can ask him what he means, Stark enters the room.
"Don't let me interrupt," he announces, and then without pause for breath, "Cap, I need that chip from your uniform. Running stress numbers, see if I can't get tensile up."
"Little busy right now, Tony."
"Christ, journalists," Stark says, without even looking my way. "Smile pretty, pretty boy, and go fetch, or I'm breaking into your bedroom and looting your laundry."
"I gave the chip to Bruce, he wanted to check my biometrics."
"That foul conniver," Stark replies, helping himself to a package of granola bars from the well-stocked pantry. "He knows uniform comes first."
"Do not wake him up," Captain America orders, his voice full of command.
"Sure, take his side. Look, do you need me here?" he asks me.
I'm torn; Stark is a notoriously difficult man to pin down, but then again, Captain America is even lower-exposure. And while I may want to ask more about Dr. Banner, I want to know what questions I should be asking the Captain.
The decision is made for me when Stark is dismissed with a shoo-ing motion from the Captain, who turns an apologetic look on me as soon as he's gone from the room.
"Tony is very goal-oriented," he says, and then adds, as if being conscientious, "depending on the goal."
"Understandable," I reply, focused for a moment on the mug of coffee I've just drunk from. Stark might be difficult, but his coffee is stupendous. "You said just now I was asking the wrong question. What should I be asking?"
"How about you ask me what happened to the original Captain America?" he says. He looks like he's about to let me in on a really good joke.
STEVE ROGERS was a small, frail man of nineteen when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States officially entered World War II.
Almost everyone in the US knows the story of Captain America, but to poor or wimpy kids in New York, he wasn't just history. We grew up with Captain America as our anthem, our hero: one of us who made good and died gloriously. Most kids I knew playacted Captain America games for at least a portion of their childhood. I wasn't the only one who dreamed of a secret serum that would catapult me to superherodom.
The real Steve Rogers didn't have it easy even before the war, and he struggled with the war when it came. He spent nearly a year trying to join up, disqualified due to everything from flat feet to a heart murmur. He was colorblind and asthmatic, prone to illness, with severe allergies. After five tries at five different recruiting offices, he was accepted into the Strategic Scientific Reserve. The S.S.R., then in its infancy, would eventually split into two branches: one would merge with the O.S.S. to form the Central Intelligence Agency, and the other would form S.H.I.E.L.D. under the guidance of its first director, Timothy Dugan. Dugan himself served as a sergeant under Captain America during the war.
The S.S.R. subjected Private Steven Rogers to a process that not only fixed his genetic frailties but endowed him with endurance and strength unmatched in human history. And it put a good ten inches at least on his height.
The co-creator of the process, Abraham Erskine, was murdered shortly after its first success, and the formula for the serum injected into Rogers died with him. Rogers became the world's first and last super-soldier. Many have attempted to recreate the serum that caused the change, all without significant success. Captain Steve Rogers eventually went overseas to fight, and was declared Missing In Action during a mission so classified even his combat troop, the Howling Commandos, wouldn't discuss it. It's possible they didn't know what happened either.
Seven years after his disappearance, per regulation, he was declared dead.
That much information is available to anyone with access to comic books or Wikipedia. The legend of Steve Rogers was hotly debated almost since the day he went missing. Occasionally reports crop up of him in South America, still hunting Nazis; in Cuba, as a defector and a staunch Communist; even living out a quiet life in the US as a private citizen. Once in a while someone claims to have a skin or hair sample available for sale to the highest bidder. All of them have been hoaxes.
What really happened to Captain Steve Rogers strains credulity almost to the breaking point.
Captain America, so I was told that morning over coffee in the sunny kitchen of Stark Tower, led an assault on the headquarters of Hydra, an isolated but powerful splinter faction of the Nazi party. The leader of Hydra, Johann Schmidt, attempted to escape in a bomber heading for the United States, carrying advanced weaponry capable of destroying entire cities -- each as powerful as an atomic bomb, without the dirty radioactive fallout.
Captain America killed Schmidt, took control of the damaged bomber, and brought it down over Greenland, preventing the bombs from being deployed. He was knocked unconscious by the crash, but survived. The leaking fuselage let in water, locking him in ice and sinking below the surface of an arctic shelf as it filled.
The last two paragraphs are the final piece of a puzzle which until now has remained classified. I later discovered that Captain Rogers himself negotiated for its declassification and insisted the information be made public here for the first time.
The body of Captain America remained in that arctic shelf, frozen and submerged in the crashed Hydra bomber, for seventy years. The serum that had brought him to the pinnacle of human perfection preserved his cellular integrity, and so he lay waiting, like King Arthur, to be discovered and brought home.
The details of his discovery are so top-secret that not even Captain America is fully aware of them, having been unconscious at the time. It became clear during this story, however, that I was not speaking with a soldier tapped to become a new Captain America for the modern age. I was speaking with the original Captain America, a man born in the Roaring Twenties and raised in the Depression. He woke from the crash to find the world had moved on, and seventy years had passed in the blink of an eye.
He looks sad as he explains the last of it: waking to find his culture changed, most of his friends dead, and the children of men he knew in the war -- including Tony Stark, son of Howard Stark, who created the iconic white-star shield -- already older than himself. Captain America is ninety years old, but he looks all of twenty-three, the age he was when he went missing in the ice.
When I ask if he's contacted any of his comrades in arms, he shakes his head.
"A clean break hurts more, but it heals faster," he says, and sips the last of his coffee. I notice nobody else has interrupted us, and wonder if this was intentional. If this tragedy was something that had to be told before any of the other stories I need to hear can be.
There are a thousand questions I want to ask. How he's dealing with losing a world, and for that matter with finding a new one. How he's learned about modern technology, what he thinks of history, what he hoped for when he put the uniform on again. It's hard to speak, however, over his grief. And I reason, perhaps a little guiltily, I have two weeks here. I can ask later.
Still, I'm opening my mouth to speak when Jarvis does instead.
"Captain, our guest has an engagement."
"I do?" I ask, looking up.
"Right," Captain Rogers says, and looks determined. "I'm supposed to take you to see Clint and Natasha."
It appears my carefully thought-out plan for how to approach the Avengers is being preempted. By the Avengers.
CLINT AND Natasha -- often spoken as one word among the Avengers, "clintantasha" -- are waiting for me in a little lounge off the gymnasium designated for Avengers use. They're both freshly showered, still smelling of soap, wearing their official Avengers uniforms.
When I enter, Natasha is fussing with Clint's hair. The gun at her hip is very visible.
"Natasha Romanov," she says, as Captain Rogers delivers me to them. "We didn't get a full introduction last night."
"Clint Barton," Hawkeye adds, offering his hand. His grip is very firm. "And yeah. That Clint Barton."
"The circus performer?" I ask, because if he's not going to mince words, there's no reason I should.
"That's the one," he replies, blank-faced.
Clint Barton, as it turns out, is as all-American as Captain America himself, but from an opposite side of the national experience. A corn-fed son of Iowa, he paints a brief, idyllic-sounding, and admittedly sometimes slightly false-sounding picture of his origins in the Heartland. The Avengers' last battle, near Kansas City, was less than a hundred miles from his hometown. Orphaned at a young age, he spent some time in a group home before leaving town. He's never been back.
"You don't seem old enough to have been a circus performer twenty years ago," I point out. "Not the one people have spoken about in interviews."
"You can't trust them," Romanov intervenes, before Barton can speak. "They're out to make a quick buck and they don't care who they sell to do it."
"Tash," Barton chides, gentler than he's seemed up until now. It's evident that, regardless of Romanov's difficult, defensive stance around Barton, these two come as a pair. There will be no private interviews with them, at least not yet. I suspect this is going to be, as Captain Rogers might say, a hard row to hoe.
"I joined the circus young," he says. "It was under-the-table work."
"That's illegal, isn't it?" I ask.
"Yes," he says briefly. "It is."
That's all the information he's willing to give on the circus, though I make a note to look up those interviews people have done about him in more detail.
Barton is only slightly more forthcoming about his adult career. He joined the Army at eighteen, was a skilled sniper by the age of twenty, and by twenty-five had become a veteran of multiple conflicts. He was eventually recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D., where he trained as a pilot. Pilot, he makes clear, is a thin euphemism for his continuing career as a sniper.
Though he was filmed and photographed with a recurve bow during both Avengers conflicts, the only thing Barton speaks easily about is guns: his training in them, the makes and models he prefers, and the pleasure he takes in testing out new ballistic weaponry for Stark. Stark stopped making arms years ago, but he apparently makes exceptions for his teammates.
There is no discussion of Barton's participation in the Battle of Manhattan. There is no discussion past his enthusiasm for firearms. They avoid the topic with an exquisite deftness which I will only appreciate later, going through my notes. It will require Jarvis replaying the video of the interview to even see how it was done.
The Avengers have their own reasons for the way they reveal themselves. On the first full day with them, I haven't yet come to understand this.
What moves us away from Barton is Romanov, who is suddenly all too willing to discuss her own past if it gets us off his. To my surprise, she is very forthright about her history. Natasha Romanov speaks without a hint of accent, but her impeccable English is not her first language.
The Black Widow, the only woman on the Avengers -- one of only two Avengers who stayed on the street, in the heart of the scrum, during the Battle of Manhattan -- was born and raised in Volgograd, Russia. She trained and served as an intelligence officer for the KGB, but was eventually dismissed from her position due to what she politely terms "shifts in the political landscape".
If she were American, her career after the KGB would probably be termed "private security". As a Russian, most Americans would call her a mercenary. The truth likely lies somewhere between the two, but while Romanov freely admits to taking dangerous jobs for pay, she will not discuss what those jobs were.
Several years after leaving the KGB, she was recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of Clint Barton. Barton also trained her and partnered with her on missions. Barton, taking up the narrative smoothly, explains that they have rarely been separated for any length of time since Romanov defected to the US. They prefer to work together, and their quarters in Stark Tower adjoin one another. They were a team long before the Avengers, and have known each other much longer than any of the others.
They make an odd pair, these tightly-knit opposites, but they share common bonds: both rigidly trained, both adrift before finding a home at S.H.I.E.L.D., and both arguably the most vulnerable members of the team. Thor is clearly supernatural, Captain Rogers is chemically and genetically enhanced, Hulk is a giant wrecking machine, and Tony Stark has a flying suit of armor. Between the two of them, Hawkeye and Black Widow have a couple of guns, more than a couple of knives, a weapon that went out of style five hundred years ago, and the kind of guts you rarely see outside of action films.
"As close partners, have you found it difficult to integrate into the team?" I ask.
They share an amused look.
"None of us are what you might call natural team players," Barton says.
"I don't think it was more difficult for us than for anyone else," Romanov adds tactfully.
I HAVEN'T extracted much more useful information from Clint-and-Natasha by the time Thor comes to fetch me for lunch. Thor is a large man whose boisterous nature makes him seem bigger still, and you don't say no when he tells you it's time to be somewhere.
"Come, my friend!" he says, clapping me on the back as we enter the elevator. "We shall feast today. I have many more exploits to share with you."
"Got any place in mind?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, and lowers his voice conspiratorially. "We shall go to...the buffet."
In many ways, Thor is the opposite of Barton and Romanov, and the shock is somewhat alarming. Over a heaping plate of chicken wings and salad from a nearby buffet restaurant, where the attendants look distinctly nervous, he gives me a story that beggars belief even more than Captain America's does. For what it's worth, the details of his past were confirmed by S.H.I.E.L.D. when I contacted them later that afternoon to do a reality check.
Thor, son of Odin, hails from a separate dimension from ours, not quite an alternate reality but not simply another planet. It's all very physics-based, with some astronomy and meteorology thrown in for good measure. Only about five people on Earth really understand it, so I'm told. Three of them -- Thor himself, Tony Stark, and Dr. Bruce Banner -- are members of the Avengers. The other two, Dr. Erik Selvig and Dr. Jane Foster, are both physicists with strong ties to the Avengers, and are actively studying the phenomenon. Dr. Foster is the only person to have written about it in a scholarly fashion. (For Dr. Foster's paper on the physical relationship between Asgard and Earth, click here.)
In past history, Thor's family occasionally visited Earth and were worshipped as gods by certain human cultures. Now they have drifted -- Thor, his father Odin, his mother Frigga, and the other Aesir people -- into myth and faith. Thor is, quite literally, a god walking the Earth, now formally charged with the protection of this realm by his father. His name for Earth is "Midgard."
How he fell in with the Avengers is a mystery he's not keen to share, but it has to do with the leader of the Chitauri attack: his brother Loki. Once a prince, then an outcast, and now a prisoner in Asgard, Loki was responsible for opening the portal in the sky over Manhattan, which allowed the Chitauri invaders to pass through to our world. The details are still classified -- so classified that almost an entire page of this article had to be redacted to prevent my arrest for treason -- but Loki's public identity has long been known, much longer than his link to one of the people responsible for his defeat.
When he does speak of Loki, which is not often, Thor's normally cheerful demeanor changes. There is a sense of grief, of loss, but also of failure -- as if by loving his brother more he could have prevented Loki's fall from grace, and thus indirectly prevented the deaths caused by the Chitauri attack.
His smile returns, however, when I ask him how he finds life with the Avengers, in the Tower.
"They are fine warriors," he declares. "Strong men and women. On Midgard it is only fair that a Midgardian should rule in these matters; I am proud to serve under Steven."
And how does he like Earth -- er, Midgard?
"It is not so advanced as Asgard in some ways, but it is a fine place to make a home," he replies. "And it is the realm of my beloved."
In the months since the Avengers became public figures, all of them have been linked romantically, but none of those links have ever been confirmed. Some -- like "Captain America fathered my baby!" -- are patently and provably false. Stark, as the face of the Avengers, is rumored to be cheating on Potts every few weeks, but Virginia Potts doesn't seem like she'd brook infidelity well, and most rumors remain that: just rumors. This is the first verifiable account, outside of the Stark Industries Power Couple, of any Avenger having a partner of any kind.
"Your beloved?" I ask.
Thor leans forward. "You must write nothing bad about her," he says, suddenly intent, and for the first time I see the warrior in him. Until now he's seemed like a particularly benevolent fraternity brother.
"I only write the facts," I reply.
"Then I need not worry," he answers. "My beloved is Jane Foster, a great and learned woman of Midgard."
Dr. Jane Foster, a dual Ph.D in astrophysics and theoretical physics, is not a woman to be spoken of lightly, on her own terms but especially if you want to avoid Thor's wrath. A respected scientist and teacher, Dr. Foster is frequently published in her field and has done research work for both NASA and CERN. And she was, so later research will confirm, present at Puente Antiguo in New Mexico when the rumors first began to surface about Thor's existence.
The Avengers and those who surround them should be romantic figures, but they appear to be more like super-scientists: Bruce Banner, a biochemist, Tony Stark, an engineer, Virginia Potts, head of a leading industry technological corporation, and now Jane Foster, an astrophysicist. Heroes for an era of exponential scientific growth.
Thor clearly adores Dr. Foster, who declined to be interviewed. He waxes rhapsodic (not in pentameter, this time) about her beauty, but it's clear he also respects her intellect and finds it a relief to be around someone who understands physics on his level. He often speaks of science in mystical metaphor, but it appears that is more for the benefit of people who wouldn't understand the technical jargon than because he can't grasp the physics himself. It's easy to see why less advanced civilizations would consider him a god.
"Now," he says, after two plates of chicken wings, one of ribs, and a giant bowl of salad, "We must return to the Tower. I have fight practice with the team, and you are to be prevented from attending."
"Oh?" I ask, as we stand and stroll out of the buffet, much to the relief of the staff.
"You are not to attend fight practice until all have agreed," he says. "Tony and Dr. Banner have yet to acquiesce. Do not worry!" he adds, clapping me on the shoulder. "Steven and myself will wear them down. He is very eager for you to see us fight. He is excessively proud of his shield-family."
"Is that so?"
"Indeed. But for now, some of us must know you better first. Ah!" he adds, clearly closing the subject, as an ice-cream truck comes into view. "Dessert!"
OUR COMMUNAL dinner that evening is something of a relief, after the quiet afternoon I spent confirming Thor's story and typing up my notes. I did try to get down to the gymnasium to see the fight practice, but Jarvis was firm, and his disapproval is nothing to sneer at.
It's evident that the Avengers are allowing me to see only what they want to be seen, but even a conspiracy of six slips up sooner or later. When I arrive in the kitchen a little early for dinner, I realize that their reserve the previous day was perhaps just shyness around a stranger. As a team, when they're not conscious of being observed, they are best described as boisterous.
Dr. Banner is at the stove, cooking something that smells like spices. Stark hovers around him, quasi-protectively, shelling him with questions about the food until he apparently has enough information to select an appropriate wine from the massive wine room off the kitchen. Barton is supervising an enormous rice cooker and joking with Romanov, who sits on the counter and serenely sharpens a knife while a large loin of steaming roast pork waits for her attention. Thor, brow furrowed in concentration, sets the table. Captain Rogers, leaning against the wall, watches over his team.
"Supervising?" I ask him.
"Staying out of the way," he replies. "I'm on dishes. So are you."
"Aglianico!" Stark announces, emerging with two bottles of wine. "Make yourself useful," he adds, and casually throws a bottle to me. Captain Rogers catches it when I don't react quickly enough.
"Not nice," he scolds Stark.
"Have you met me?" Stark calls, already walking into the dining room.
"What are we eating?" I ask Dr. Banner, who offers me a spoonful of sauce.
"Brazilian vegetable curry over rice, with optional pork loin roast for the carnivores," he says, as my eyes start to water. Captain Rogers puts a glass of water in my hand. I'm obviously not the first person Dr. Banner has absently dosed with a mouthful of fire.
There is so much I don't know about these people, but the choice to tell me the Captain's story first becomes obvious at dinner. Stark announces that they are playing Popular Culture, a game apparently invented to help Thor (not from around here) and the Captain (not from around now) get up to speed on modern culture. The game has few rules: they simply bounce popular culture references off each other, and take turns explaining them if Rogers and Thor haven't encountered them already.
"Tonight," Barton intones dramatically, "we've secretly replaced Steve's regular curry with instant curry. Let's see if he notices."
"Oh! I know that one! Bruce showed me," Captain Rogers says. "It's the coffee thing, with the flavor crystals."
Stark bursts into song. "Like a virgin, touched for the very first time!"
Everyone looks at Captain Rogers, who flushes.
"Condom ad?" he tries. The table breaks up laughing.
"Madonna," Stark informs him. "The singer, not the religious figure."
"Oh! With the..." and Captain America makes a gesture reminiscent of the iconic Madonna cone brassiere. His blush deepens.
"Name one more Madonna song," Natasha commands.
Rogers thinks about this, chewing slowly to give himself more time. Dr. Banner hums the Jeopardy theme, which apparently Rogers already knows, because he scowls at him.
"True Colors," he says. Stark buzzes.
"That's Cyndi Lauper."
"Oh. Um. Wait, no, I can do this -- "
"Come on, every Madonna song sounds alike, that's not fair," Barton says.
"Vogue," Thor announces, and everyone looks at him. If you've never seen an ancient god vogue, you're missing out.
There are various undercurrents at the table which become evident over time. Stark seems to enjoy picking on Rogers, who loses his patience and gets snappish, much to Stark's evident delight. Clint-and-Natasha are on edge, and the others seem to sense it. Dr. Banner avoids my eyes. Only Thor seems completely at home, friendly with everyone, moving the conversation along whenever it lags.
The others drift away after dinner, but Rogers asks me to help him carry the plates to the kitchen, and then tells me he'll wash if I dry. I consider his origins and refrain from suggesting the large gleaming dishwasher next to the sink.
"So, have we worn you out yet?" he asks, handing me a dish towel.
"No more than usual. Less than the time I was on assignment with a pro football team," I answer. "Thor did devastate a lunch buffet, though. Just watching him eat is exhausting."
"Tony slips them extra under the table whenever he hears Thor's been by," Rogers says.
"What do you think of Mr. Stark?" I ask. "He seems to like needling you."
"You ask as if I'm unaware you'll publish this and he'll read it," he replies. There's a lot going on behind the youthful smile and innocent blue eyes, I think. And if what he's said is true, he is used to the media -- just the media of seventy years ago.
"Is that a no-comment?"
"No. Just a reminder that what I say may be a softened truth," he replies. "Stark's a good man. Does a lot of good. Doesn't like it known. So, perhaps a softened truth and a little revenge," he adds, sounding amused. "Honestly, I don't mind. It keeps him entertained. Besides, as he keeps saying, I have to adjust to this modern sensibility."
Is that difficult?
"The learning, no. The knowing..." he says, and his eyes go distant. "Every step forward is a step away from what was. It's not comfortable. It's unpleasant. Still, necessary," he says, and hands me another plate to dry.
THE AVENGERS have a morning routine, more or less, which I grow to discover over the next few days. Rogers is invariably the first one up, but sometimes Banner or Romanov will be in the kitchen when he emerges. I've heard footsteps in the night, and sometimes low voices.
Rogers rises early and goes running on the sunrise streets of New York, often doing a half-marathon while most other people are still in bed. When he returns he fixes breakfast for himself -- for me as well, now that I'm here -- and then leaves a plate of food in the oven for Stark, a late-riser.
Barton usually eats the food left for Stark. He then makes a horrifying smoothie concoction that he leaves in the fridge for Stark, who seems to prefer liquid to actual food in the mornings. Thor has no fixed schedule, but if they weren't already up, Romanov and Banner usually drift in around the time Tony is "eating" and fend for themselves. Romanov eats a startling amount of cold cereal.
I hope to catch Dr. Banner on my second morning in the Tower, to learn why he lives with the Avengers and what his possible connection to the Hulk could be. It seems logical; a biophysicist with multiple honors in his field, Dr. Bruce Banner is uniquely qualified to study the Hulk, though his experience in large-animal handling seems limited. This morning, however, it's just Rogers and Barton, and they're nearly finished eating.
There's a large artist's portfolio sitting on the breakfast table, a box of pencils and charcoal on top of it. As Rogers puts his plate in the sink, he tells Barton he's going to class, and Barton nods and grunts, barely awake.
"You should come with me," he invites, seeing my glances at the portfolio case now slung under his arm. "We'll get you a doughnut on the way."
An invitation from Captain America is hard to ignore.
STEVE ROGERS, it turns out, is not only a soldier and a hero but also an artist. His class is a three-hour figure-drawing session, complete with nude model. For all his blushes around the topic of sex when he's with the Avengers, he seems intimately at home with the human form. Watching him draw is difficult at first, perhaps more for him than for me. He seems self-conscious about his audience. But eventually he is swept up in the art, and his hand moves freely, sketching out shapes and shading lines precisely. He is not perhaps the most skilled artist in the class, but he clearly has talent.
Between poses, while the model takes breaks, he doodles little cartoons and comics in the corners of his paper. His favorite seems to be a cavorting monkey in a variety of costumes.
"Captain Monkey," he explains. "Back when I was selling bonds instead of fighting, I used to draw him a lot. Kinda got in the habit. He's a performing monkey that got loose from the circus. Now he tries out different jobs."
"You should do a webcomic," I say, and he looks perplexed for a minute before he visibly shifts into agreement.
"Maybe," he says pleasantly. I see him write, in the corner of the page, webcomic.
"Do you know what that is?" I ask.
"Not really," he admits, turning back to his drawing. Captain Rogers blushes easily. "I...when people say something I don't understand, I write it down and use Google to look it up later. It doesn't happen that often anymore."
"You've been...awake for nearly a year," I say. "You clearly like art. I would have thought you'd have stumbled over the concept sooner."
"Been a little busy," he replies, steel in his voice. Later, in the Avengers common room, I will notice the contents of the bookshelf -- in amongst science fiction and romance novels, texts on engineering and war history, and hefty volumes of Russian literature (in the original Russian) there is an entire section dedicated to art. Scholarly works on modernism and postmodernism, coffee-table books about to Frank Lloyd Wright and 50's pulp illustration, anthologies of advertising graphics, volume upon volume of comic books, biographies of Andy Warhol and Picasso. It is staggering, how much Captain America must have needed to learn.
He works diligently for the remaining hour of class, and at the end he has several sheets of charcoal-on-newsprint life studies. His teacher tells him he's coming along, and points out a few places where he could improve. Rogers listens, nodding soberly, and tucks the sheets away.
"We should go back to the Tower," he says.
"Mr. Stark and Dr. Banner still holding out?"
He seems surprised, then rolls his eyes and asks, "Thor?"
"He says you're working on them."
"They'll come around. They're a little suspicious."
"You've been roughed up by the press before."
He looks surprised as we exit into the sunlight of Manhattan. "Well, I suppose. But that's not why."
"They're extraordinary people. Extraordinary people generally face extraordinary struggles. All of them have good reason to be mistrustful. It might seem like fight practice isn't exactly where they'd be, I don't know, vulnerable? But it's where they bond as a team."
"You say they. Do you not include yourself?"
He looks thoughtful for a long time. "Well, it hasn't exactly been a peach for me, but -- I always felt what I had to face, I had to face before I became a soldier, not after. I did my struggling in private, nobody much watching me. Some of the others -- Bruce and Tony especially -- didn't have that advantage. Still," he adds, more cheerfully, "if all we had for public exposure was bad options, you're the best of them, and they know it."
"Sure. Why do you think we picked you?"
"I didn't know you were the ones who asked for me."
"Dr. Banner read some of your stuff on the Hulk. Nobody was pro-Hulk before the Chitauri, but you managed to try."
Before the Chitauri invasion, New York knew Hulk as the monster that nearly destroyed Harlem. The spin was furious from the army, and I was suspicious of it. Between the lines I tried to convey that someone was bullshitting someone, and until we knew who, we couldn't lay all the blame for this at the feet of a creature which clearly didn't have much in the way of higher reasoning skills. I guess I succeeded.
"When will I get to talk to him?" I ask. "One-on-one, I mean."
"Eventually," he says, confirming that the Avengers are deftly coordinating my experience.
"Can I speak to the Hulk?" I ask. "Do you think he'd let me?"
He stops in the middle of the sidewalk, startled. "Do you want to?"
"He's a member of your team. He doesn't seem like he'd be easy to talk to, but clearly something happened between Harlem and the Chitauri. He obeyed orders. He saved lives. Specifically, he saved Tony Stark's life. I've seen the film footage," I say. "I saw you tell him what to do and him nod in agreement. He might be a monster, but he's not a monster."
"I see," Rogers says, starting to walk again. "I'll tell Dr. Banner that. It may help your case."
That evening after dinner (pizza; it's Stark's night to "cook") I find a small cartoon pinned to my door: Captain Monkey, in a stylish fedora with a press pass tucked in the hatband, a notebook clenched in one paw. He stares up, wide-eyed, tail brushed out in panic, at a giant, looming Hulk. Underneath, the cartoon is captioned, "What do you do for fun, Mr. Hulk?"
NEW YORK seems to be a nexus of superhero activity. Maybe, like with a good bagel recipe, there's something in the water.
Of the Avengers, one is a New York native and another three chose to live in New York prior to the Battle of Manhattan; only Dr. Banner and Thor are newcomers to the city. There are rumors of other heroes too, some of which were floating around even before the Chitauri. Most of them remain urban myths, for now -- a friend of a friend saw one once, or someone heard somewhere that they were sighted during the Battle of Manhattan.
The three most commonly mentioned are Daredevil, a demonic acrobat commonly spoken of in Hell's Kitchen; Spider-man, a blue-suited hero who seems to have a supernatural ability to climb walls, and possibly to fly; and Power Man, a Harlem-based legend with bulletproof skin. Spider-man supposedly helped evacuate a hospital during the Battle of Manhattan, and Power Man is said to have kept a building from collapsing on top of several families when Hulk destroyed large swathes of Harlem. Whether these three men are real, and whether Daredevil is even male, are still hotly debated.
"I saw Daredevil last night," Barton announces on Saturday morning. Apparently superheroes get the weekend off too; it's ten in the morning and most of them are gathered in the living room, eating breakfast and watching cartoons. They are not the cartoons one finds on an ordinary network channel; Captain Rogers prefers classic Looney Tunes, which alternate with old episodes of Animaniacs, a show Romanov seems to enjoy. Only Stark is absent, presumably dining in privacy with Ms. Potts.
"What were you doing in Hell's Kitchen?" Dr. Banner asks, sounding a little paternal.
"Nightclub," Barton replies. "Left around midnight. Swear to god I saw something with horns and a kick-ass pair of nunchuks."
"Probably Eskrima sticks," Romanov offers.
"Maybe. They had a line between them. Guess you could use them that way," Barton says thoughtfully. "Anyway, I was on this roof -- "
"Of the nightclub?" Banner asks.
"No, well, okay, I left through the nightclub roof but no, I was just, you know, doing some night stealth practice," Barton says, like this is an ordinary thing to do, no different from going to the gym or buying a sandwich. The others accept it as such. "And I felt like someone was watching me. Look to my left, nothing, check my six, nothing. Look to my right, across the street, there's this gargoyle perched on the wall, only then it moves and it's totally a guy. With horns, in some kind of red suit."
"I bet he doesn't actually have horns," Captain Rogers offers. "I mean, that kind of thing would stick out, even in New York."
"They're a kickass part of his cowl, then. I want some," Barton replies.
"I do not believe he exists," Thor interrupts.
"I saw him!"
"No. If he existed, why would he not come to us? Surely he would wish to join our band of warriors."
"I don't know," Romanov says. "If I didn't know you boys, I might think twice too."
"Well, then you must explain these things," Thor says, and I realize he's talking to me. "You must tell this Daredevil if he exists that he should show himself and join us."
"Some people are shy," Captain Rogers says. "I've met Spider-man. He says he'd rather work alone. I guess he's got family to protect."
"When did you meet Spider-man?" Barton asks. "You didn't tell us you met Spider-man."
"He's pulling your leg," Dr. Banner says. "Or trying to pull Spider-man's. You are reporting on all this, after all," he adds to me. None of them seem able to forget that, I think ruefully.
"No, I met Spider-man," Captain Rogers insists. "On the Helicarrier."
Everyone's attention is on him now, despite the fact that onscreen, Wakko is singing the names of all the US States (and their capitols).
"Did you file a report?" Romanov asks.
"No. Why get the man in trouble?"
"What happened?" Barton demands.
"Nothing much. I saw someone in a spidery costume, you know, with web designs on the cowl -- he's got a full face mask, whaddaya call that, a hood? Helmet?" Rogers considers it. "Well, anyway, he was lurking around."
"What did you do?" Thor demands.
"Grabbed him," Rogers says complacently. "Took a few minutes, he's a slippery guy. Gave him a good shake by the scruff of his neck and asked him what he thought he was doing. He said he just wanted a look around."
"How'd he get on the Helicarrier?"
"Oh, it was in dry-dock, getting the engines looked at. I wasn't really supposed to be there myself," Rogers admits, looking faintly embarrassed. "I was just poking around to get a better idea of the layout. I guess he was doing the same. Anyway, I told him to scram because most other folks in the area would probably take a shot at him. I offered to arrange a real tour for him and said if he was half as good as people talked about, he ought to consider stopping by the Tower to meet everyone. He said no thanks, and lit out of there like his shoes were on fire once I let him go."
"You didn't try to bring him in?" Barton asks.
"Well, I offered. But why bother picking a fight? He clearly didn't want to be brought, and he wasn't doing any harm. Guy gets enough flak from the Bugle without us piling on him. He does good work," he adds approvingly. "Best to leave him alone."
"I can't believe you didn't report the security breach to Hill," Romanov says, clearly annoyed by this casual approach to superheroing.
"Oh, I sealed it up," Rogers says. "I found the hole and chewed a few guys out over it. I think they thought it was a spot inspection. Believe me, by the time I was done that place was tighter than a pig in a chimney."
Romanov seems appeased by this, if still not entirely happy. "Next time you catch someone in a full-body spandex suit lurking around S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, you make a report," she says.
"I doubt he'll lurk again anytime soon. I think I gave him a pretty good scare," Rogers replies, looking amused. "But I promise if he comes around I'll tell teacher. Anyway, you can tell your readers, I know he's real," he says to me.
There you have it, straight from the mouth of Captain America: Daredevil might or might not have horns, but Spider-man definitely exists.