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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2013-06-17 06:11 pm
Entry tags:

Exclusive 3/3

Title: Exclusive
Rating: PG
Summary: Heroes In Manhattan: From Captain America's Hidden Talents To The Truth About The Hulk, We Debunk The Myths And Expose The Daily Lives Of The Avengers.

Chapter Two


ABOUT AN hour later, Barton knocks on my door.

"I think it's safe to come out now," he says, looking somewhat apologetic. "Cap and Tony went down to the gym to beat the snot out of each other, it's their thing."

"Is Dr. Banner all right?" I ask.

"Thor's keeping him company. He's pretty good at cheering people up. And, in the case of inadvertent Hulking, he's the most capable of putting him down," he adds cheerfully.

"Is that likely?"

"Bruce seems okay to me. Usually these days it takes a punch to the face to make him change, unless he wants to," Barton answers, leading me down the hallway. "And we haven't actually tried the face-punching thing."

"Are you going to hunt down Ross?" I ask.

"Not difficult to find him, his address is in the phone book," he says. "But no. The situation with Ross is a little complicated. Bruce thinks this way is best. Tony doesn't agree, but he'll calm down. Cap's angrier than he's letting on, but he believes it's Bruce's call. Hence, fighting."

"What about Ms. Romanov? She seemed eager for revenge."

"Natasha takes the blame on herself for a lot of things that aren't her fault, and you can quote me on that," Barton answers. "She believes in correcting her mistakes. Bruce explained to her that this is not her mistake."

"She believes him?"

"She accepts that attacking the entire US military establishment would be worse," he says. "Sometimes the choice is between a little mistake and a big mistake. Tasha's smart enough to choose the little mistake."

"And you?" I ask. He looks perplexed.

"Me what?"

"What do you think the Avengers should do?"

"I'm just the bow and arrow guy," he says.

"You must have opinions on the matter."

He stops walking, and I realize we're in a room I haven't seen before, at the opposite end of the floor from the common areas. The view is, as ever, astounding, but the room itself is even more interesting: a solarium, filled with orchids and roses and small trees in decorative pots. There's a sculpture in the middle of the room, art-deco modernist, a man reaching upwards, his bottom half more architectural than anatomical. It's warm here, and comfortingly closed-in. It feels oddly secure.

"I know a little about what it's like to lose control," Barton says. His hands drift along the orchids, brushing the leaves. "The world goes black, and when you wake up again you don't know what you've done. Worse, you do, and it's terrible. More than anyone on this team, I know what Bruce goes through. It only happened to me once, and once was enough to change my life. He does it time after time. He lets it out and hopes that when he comes to, he hasn't hurt anyone who didn't deserve it. All that after thinking he once destroyed eight or nine city blocks for fun."

He glances at the sculpture, then out at Manhattan.

"The thing you want most when you've had control taken from you is to get it back," he says. Barton generally speaks with no accent, but his words are thicker now, more like the country boy he used to be. "So what I think -- what any of us thinks -- ain't material. In this particular case, what Bruce wants to do is all that matters."

"And if Bruce wanted you to attack the entire US military establishment?" I ask.

"Well, I'm not that fond of treason," he says. "But if he wanted bloody payback, we'd find a way. Y'all can think that's fucked up if you want. This is the only family I have. I'm not losing it now."

He knocks his knuckles against the base of the sculpture. "I modeled for this. Felt a little ridiculous at the time, but Steve asked. Tash calls it Ode to A Funny Looking Guy."

On closer examination, it's definitely Barton's face on the sculpture. It looks agonized, like the upward thrust of his body is a final, desperate attempt to reach something he knows he won't. I wonder if that's how he feels, or how Rogers feels. Possibly both.

"What do you think of it?" I ask.

"I think Hulk's not the only one who's just glad someone finally gets him," Barton says. "Stay as long as you want. I'm going to go make sure nobody's killed anyone in the gym."

THE SENSATION of having a ticking time bomb on my laptop in the form of a government expose is not a comfortable one, even for a journalist. On the other hand, in the company of the Avengers, I'm probably the safest person in Manhattan at the moment. As long as they don't murder each other.

Dinner that night is Barton's turn again, and it's definitely comfort food: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, apple slices. Stark moves stiffly, but he has no visible bruises. Rogers has a repulsor-blast burn on his arm, but it's shallow and healing quickly. Romanov has bloody knuckles. All of them are quiet, with the sort of mindless fatigue that follows anger. It's not an awkward meal, but it is a mostly silent one.

That night, Jarvis wakes me, turning on the bedside lamp and calling my name.

"What is it?" I ask, still half-asleep. "What time is it?"

"One eighteen am," he says.

"Why am I up? Is something happening?"

"I believe you may find the gymnasium of interest," he replies.

The elevator to the gym lets out on a hallway, with locker rooms on one side and a workout room with machines and weights on the other. Down the hall is a big open space, taking up most of the floor. There's a lap path around the outside, and a basketball hoop at one end. At the moment, there are lights along the floor indicating a baseball diamond.

I linger in the doorway, either unnoticed or unacknowledged at first. The Avengers are playing a makeshift sandlot game: they take turns at bat while the rest of them play defense. Captain America is pitching. Dr. Banner is standing off to one side, watching with crossed arms and a smile on his face.

Rogers holds out his hand and a holographic ball materializes in it; with a long lean back and a sharp snap he pitches a curveball. Barton swings and misses.

"Stop swinging at the curveballs," Banner advises. "Strike two."

"Dick," Barton pronounces.

"Take it up with the pitcher."

"HEY BATTA BATTA," Stark yells from first base. Barton steps away from the plate and theatrically points to a corner of the ceiling, Babe Ruth style.

Romanov, in the "outfield", looks like she might be indulging the madness of those around her.

Barton manages to hit the next pitch, a fastball that wasn't fast enough, and he takes off for first. Romanov watches the ball sail ten feet over her head. There's a canned roar of applause. Barton runs the bases.

"Wait, I got something for you," Stark yells.

"What's that, loser?" Barton yells back.

"Tiniest baseball bat in the world," Stark responds, giving him the finger. Barton tucks his fingers under his chin and flicks them outward, a rude gesture more often seen in Tunisia than in New York.

"How long have they been playing?" I ask Jarvis.

"About an hour," Jarvis answers. "Captain Rogers has found baseball exceptionally effective in team bonding."

"I can see that," I agree, as Barton and Romanov switch places. Rogers winds up. Romanov bunts for a single on the first pitch.

"Hey pitcher, you suck," Barton remarks.

"So's your old man," Rogers answers, as Stark leaves first base to pick up the bat.

I watch them work their way through the rotation a few times, Romanov stepping in to pitch when Rogers is at bat, before Stark notices me.

"Hey, we get someone in the bleachers," he tells the others.

"Well, come in then," Rogers says. "Might as well cheer from the dugout as the cheap seats."

They continue play, apparently happy to ignore me, until Romanov throws a pitch wide and the holographic ball passes straight through Barton's body.

"I'd charge the mound if I didn't think you'd kick my ass," he says.

"Lost control of the pitch," she replies. "I don't like pretending to throw pretend balls."

"I'm not putting real baseballs in here, one of us will die," Stark says.

"Come on, do some practice pitches," Rogers encourages, stepping back and tossing her one of the holographic balls. Stark settles on the bench where I'm sitting, and Barton wanders over to a rock-climbing wall along one edge of the gym, hoisting himself up.

"A couple of hours ago you were all nearly at each others' throats," I say.

"Drama queen. We had a disagreement. It happens," Stark replies. "Besides, Cap made a rule. Nobody comes angry to baseball."

"That works for you guys?"

"It's hard to stay angry playing baseball. At least, about other stuff," he says, waving a hand. "You're too pissed off someone doubled off your error."

"Rogers' idea, these night games?"

"Mine, actually," he says. "Cap doesn't sleep as much as the rest of us and I was up late, seemed like a good idea at the time to hit a few balls." He grins. "You want a pat piece for your article?"

"I'll take what I can get."

"My parents had a place in Los Angeles when I was a kid," he says. "Spent most of my time in LA. But for some reason I got it into my head that I was a Giants fan. I got a head for numbers, and baseball is a great game if you like statistics."

"Giants any good when you were a kid?"

"Yeah, they were all right. Anyway, all I wanted for my ninth birthday was to see the Giants play at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. I didn't expect to actually get it -- my dad's time wasn't usually his own. I knew he'd have a hard time clearing his schedule. But he actually wrangled a day free and asked if I wanted a ride in the plane. I thought he was just taking me up -- he had a Piper PA-24 Comanche, pretty little thing, and sometimes he let me ride in it with him. Then we landed in San Francisco and suddenly we're in a limo heading to Candlestick. We had Giants-side tickets behind the dugout. Beautiful day for a game. Best birthday I ever had. Lifelong fan of baseball, after that."

"Giants win?"

"Beat the hell out of the Mets."

"Did you see many other games with your father?"

"That was the only one," he says. "One was enough, though."

"First taste is free?"

He grins. "Something like that. Anyway, baseball was always my game. When I was sixteen I used to ditch class at MIT and go see the Sox play. You should ask Cap about the Dodgers. Apparently he used to sneak into Ebbets Field to see games back in ye olden times."

"Historically, the Dodgers and the Giants have something of a rivalry," I point out.

"You don't say," he says, as Rogers whistles sharply between his teeth.

"Resume play!" he announces, and Stark heads back to first base.

Later on Friday -- much later, after the game breaks up (Barton claims he won; Jarvis can't give definitive score since there were no real rules) and everyone's gotten a few more hours of sleep -- Thor and Captain Rogers hatch a plan to spend the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This, I think, should be good.

In ordinary clothes, the two could pass for brothers, albeit brothers with a mutual interest in extreme physical fitness. They draw stares on the street and in the subway; Thor preens, and Rogers either doesn't notice or doesn't care.

Aesthetic admiration, however, seems to be the theme of the day. I follow them from gallery to gallery and notice more about the people watching them than about the art on the walls. A woman tries to make conversation with Thor over a Matisse, but seems a little intimidated when he describes the battle scenes he prefers.

In the sculpture garden, Rogers sits on a bench, sketching; a young man with pink hair sits down next to him.

"Are you an artist?" he asks, leaning in to see what Rogers is drawing.

"Hobbyist," Rogers replies, with a friendly smile.

"You're really good."

"Thank you." Rogers takes him in -- an ironic vintage t-shirt, pink hair, piercings. "Art student?" he guesses.

"Only during the school year," the man replies. "I'm Rick," he adds, offering his hand.

"Steve," Rogers answers, shaking it. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Ask away."

"How did you get your hair so pink?"

Rick laughs. "Bleached it, then chalked it."

Rogers peers at it. "Well, it's very...vibrant," he says.

"Thank you. Hey, you want to blow the museum, get a beer somewhere?"

"No, my friends are here," Rogers says.

"Blow them off."

"I like the museum."

"I like you."

Rogers looks a little tired, but he's clearly trying not to let it show. "Thank you, but I'm not interested," he says politely.

"Your loss," Rick informs him, and walks away. I settle in his place.

"You get that a lot?" I ask.

"Sometimes. Maybe more often than I think -- I'm not good at recognizing it. I didn't get him just now until he told me to...uh, leave you and Thor behind. People weren't so forward, where I come from. And before the war that didn't usually happen to me."

"What, with men?"

"With anyone," he says, his mouth quirking. "Especially men."

"You handle it well."

"Natasha taught me how to be blunt about it. After about the tenth time she rescued me from someone."

"I meant the part where men make passes at you."

"Oh! Well, it's no different, really."

"It is where you come from."

"And I am grateful for the progress that's been made," he says, shading the line of a sculpture's protruding arm. "I never saw any reason you ought to be offended at someone for something like that. No skin off my nose who people step out with."

"Do you ever step out with any of them?" I ask. He looks like he's amused I used his slang.

"No. The attention is flattering, of course, but...well, life's a little complicated for all that right now."

"How so?"

"Got bigger things to think about, is all."

Thor arrives then, announcing his desire for snacks, and we decamp for the roof garden, sandwiches, and beer.

"Everyone in New York is so friendly," Thor says, as Rogers tips his face back to enjoy the mid-afternoon sunlight. "I am never in a public place but someone strikes up a conversation. Midgardians are delightful."

"You've made a lot of friends in New York?" I ask.

"Indeed. Just now I spoke with a woman who was explaining to me the nature of the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. I admit I was disappointed," he says.

"By what?" Rogers asks, leaning forward again. "I saw her work back when I was a kid. I liked it."

"Well, I had thought her paintings of skulls were of animals she had killed in battle," Thor complains. "I thought she was some form of warrior. It turns out they are symbols. A shame, I thought. They would have made such magnificent bragging."

Rogers is clearly trying not to smile. "I'm sorry," he says. "If I knew you thought that I would have explained it to you sooner."

"And do you know about the flowers?" Thor asks, in a low voice.

"What about them?" Rogers asks back, clearly perplexed.

"They say they are truly paintings of a woman's parts," Thor says.

At times, when faced with something bewilderingly modern or particularly complicated, you can see Rogers turning the information over in his head until it makes sense. Usually it's only a second or two, but for this, it takes him more than a few beats to understand.

"No," he says when the penny drops. He sounds scandalized. And a little gleeful.

"So they say!" Thor insists.

After we eat, we spend a long time in front of the Met's collection of O'Keeffe paintings.

"How was the museum?" Dr. Banner asks us, when we troop in for dinner.

"I think everyone learned something today," Rogers replies. In the background, I can hear Thor sadly explaining his misreading of Georgia O'Keeffe while Stark -- well-known as a modern art lover and collector -- falls into a fit of laughter.

MY SECOND Saturday with the Avengers finds everyone in front of the massive television again for cartoons. This time, Stark is present, along with Virginia Potts; she and Romanov sit together and talk quietly, while Stark takes apart some device he's working on and spreads the parts on the coffee table. Rogers is watching a Pinky And The Brain segment from Animaniacs with evident fascination. Thor is absent; Rogers said he's off having brunch with Dr. Foster. Behind his back, Barton made vaguely sexual gestures.

Dr. Banner enters with a bowl of oatmeal, and Ms. Potts calls, "Bruce! I'm glad you're up, Tony is building a better mousetrap. There may be tears."

"Hey, Pepper," Banner responds. She gestures him over and he bends to greet her with a kiss on the cheek before turning to join everyone else. As he turns away, he mouths I'm her favorite at Stark, who points at Banner's eyes with a screwdriver and makes an affectionate stabbing motion.

There's a sudden break in the cartoon, and every head turns towards the television. Jarvis comes over the loudspeakers.

"Pardon the interruption, but I believe this should be brought to your attention," he announces, as MSNBC appears on the screen.

This is the day the Queens Sniper opens fire.

By the time this goes to press, the Queens Sniper will have been studied and pronounced upon and analyzed. As I write this, less than a week after the event took place, it's already beginning to happen.

Banner sets his oatmeal aside. Stark looks up from whatever he's working on. Rogers, about to protest the removal of the cartoons, closes his mouth and leans forward. Barton and Romanov take out their phones. So does Potts.

"What part of Queens?" Potts is asking someone on the phone. "Well, do we have staff from that area? Yeah -- no, I want -- yes, I want you to call every staff member in the area and make sure they're safe."

"...speak to the coordinator for the special team," Barton is saying. "This is Clint Barton attached to S.H.I.E.L.D. and I'm a qualified sniper. Let me give you my badge number..."

"I need to know if the Avengers should be on standby," Romanov says. "If Maria Hill didn't know about this the minute it happened, someone should tell her. Yes, this line or the direct line to the Tower."

On the television, the news ticker is scrolling -- there's a sniper at a shopping center in Queens, taking aim at people on the street.

"Okay. Yeah okay, I'm on my way now," Barton says, hanging up the phone. "Steve! Bike!"

"Keys," Rogers calls back, already throwing Barton a set of motorcycle keys.

"What's going on?" Potts asks, as Barton pulls his boots on. Banner is hurrying down the hall, presumably to retrieve Barton's bow.

"SWAT says they can use me at the scene," Barton replies. "Cops have no idea where this guy is, apparently he can't be making the shots he is without changing location. I can help spot him. And shoot him, if need be," he adds, shouldering the case Banner brings him. He glances at the television, where there are reports of two children having been shot. "Gonna put a shaft right through his nuts," he pronounces, and disappears into the elevator.

"NYPD says they don't think we're the team for this, but S.H.I.E.L.D. wants us on standby anyway," Romanov says, pocketing her phone. "Hill's on her way to the scene. If we're needed, she'll call."

"Should we be onsite?" Rogers asks.

"Not in my opinion," she says. "Clint's on his way there now?"

"He took my bike."

"Him, they may need. This isn't a brute-force situation," she says.

"Standby it is," Rogers says. "Everyone uniform up. Stark, get the armor hot."

"It's always hot," Stark says, but he's heading for his room to change into his flight suit. Soon it's me and Potts, sitting alone, watching news coverage of a sniper in Queens.

"We have fifteen employees with Queens addresses," she says after a minute. "If I knew being CEO meant I suddenly had fifty thousand families I cared about on three continents, I might have said no."

"Can't be much more trouble than one Tony Stark," I offer.

"Some days, much less. Still..." she is watching the news ticker. "I'm pretty sure as CEO I'm supposed to be evil and heartless."

"Stark Industries seems to work fine without the evil."

She's about to reply when my phone starts lighting up with text messages.

Are u ok?
Turn on your tv and tell me you're fine.
Did you see the news?
Please tell me you're still on the Avengers job.

In the New York area, text messages usage spikes eight hundred percent in the next half hour. In orbit, Stark satellites metaphorically groan under the strain, but keep transmitting. Next to me, Iron Man armor case by his leg, the man who designed the satellites and the woman who got them in the air sit curled together, watching the news. Rogers, in full uniform with his cowl pulled back like a hoodie behind his neck, fidgets restlessly, nervously. Romanov is on the phone more often than not. Thor is sheltering in place. Dr. Foster's apartment is in Queens, something nobody knew until he excitedly telephoned Stark.

Banner looks at the news, looks at Rogers, and says, "They are never going to need Hulk for this."

"No," Rogers agrees. "Keep your phone on, though."

"I'll be in the lab. Come get me if the situation changes."

"He tries to keep his stress level low," Romanov tells me.

The Queens Sniper dominates the news throughout the day. There's plenty to report on. The Sniper is very active, and while the area around him has mostly been cleared, he's not above taking shots at cops. The Avengers literally can't stop watching -- it's their only source of information about a situation they may be called into, even if the chances aren't high.

Romanov runs over to us at one point in the afternoon. "Watch," she says.

"What? We are watching," Stark answers.

"Clint just called. He had to cut short, something's about to happen," she says, and as she speaks there's another loud crack of gunfire.

Hard on the heels of the sound, there's movement in the image bouncing back to us from a helicopter camera. A group of four or five SWAT members break right across the plaza. One of them suddenly darts left, disappearing into a building. There's a terrible moment when the cameras, but not the officers, can see a figure emerge onto the roof. Then there's a second man right behind him, the SWAT officer who went left instead of right with the others.

"That's Clint," Romanov says, as the SWAT officer runs the man almost to the edge of the roof.

"Are you sure?" Stark asks, squinting.

"Oh yeah. No backup, last-minute plan? That's him," she says, and the SWAT officer, Maybe-Clint, leaps forward, grabbing his prey and wrestling him to the ground.

"Yeah, that's Clint," Rogers says. "I'd recognize that fool hyperextending his shoulder anywhere."

BARTON RETURNS to us an hour later with a splinted left shoulder, some gravel-burn from his wrestling match, and a huge grin.

"Tell me it's true," he says, hugging Romanov one-armed. "Back-chat on the radio coming back says no casualties."

"One's still in critical," she says, and I realize rather than celebrating a victory for him, they're celebrating the fact that the sniper didn't manage to kill anyone.

"No dead kids?"

"No dead kids," Potts says, giving him a hug once Romanov is done. "Did they feed you?"

"I'm starving," Barton announces.

"I warned you about that shoulder," Rogers bellows from the kitchen. "I said it five or ten times at least, stop reaching so far with your left arm."

"I was chasing a murdering sniper monster," Barton says, throwing him his keys. "It's just a twist, I'll be back on form in like, ten minutes."

"Muscles don't work the way you think they work," Rogers insists, even as he's passing Barton a giant bowl of leftovers from the previous night's dinner. "Your right arm is more limber, you've got greater reach, stop trying to reach equally. Just go for it right-handed."

"I use my right hand for a lot! I try not to risk it unnecessarily!"

"Well, if you do lose your arm I'm sure I'll be very sorry and Tony will build you a new one, how's that?" Rogers snipes.

"My god, you are such a babushka," Romanov says. "You are the biggest little old lady I have ever met."

"Can we talk about how I owned that untalented hack of a sniper?" Barton asks. "I hear they actually got me on camera dropping him."

"Yes, which is how I know you hyperextended," Rogers says.

"Babushka," Romanov repeats.

"Front and center," Rogers orders, and Barton stands to attention in front of him, looking a little defiant. He's starting to be genuinely annoyed.

Rogers rests a hand on his uninjured shoulder and looks at him solemnly.

"Good job," he says. "You got him. Well done, Clint."

The annoyance bleeds away. Barton looks like the praise means more to him than he wants to show.

"Yeah, well. Punks get what's coming to them," he replies.

I ASK Barton if he'd like to discuss what happened in Queens, but he says he can't do an interview until he knows what the party line is. As unorthodox as all of the Avengers are, Barton and Romanov have worked for various governments almost their entire lives, and they have a very strict code.

"Tell you what, though," he says. "I'll talk about the circus if you want."

I genuinely hadn't expected him to volunteer this information; in the earlier interview, with him and Romanov together, he was tight-lipped about it. I don't know why he wants to discuss it now.

"Tomorrow's Sunday," he says. "Looks like it'll be warm out. We can hang out in Central Park."

I'm not going to argue with a man handing me an exclusive on a silver platter. I agree to meet him at Victorian Gardens at ten; apparently he has morning appointments to keep.

Victorian Gardens is a small amusement park within Central Park, with rides aimed mainly at very young children. There is, it must be said, a certain atmosphere of the circus about it. On a crisp, not-quite-warm summer morning, it bustles with families, air filling with the delighted shrieks of toddlers.

Barton arrives a little after I do, carrying coffees -- black for him, cream with no sugar for me.

"I notice things," he says, when I look surprised. "It's kind of in the job description."

We watch the kiddie rides from a distance, and I wait for him to speak. Barton doesn't take well to being questioned.

"I appreciate us doing this outside the Tower," he says, finally. "It gets a little enclosed sometimes. And Cap makes this face when I mention it..." he screws up his own face into a look of half-despair, half-sympathy. "Anyway."

"He doesn't like you talking about it?"

"I think he doesn't like being reminded that all of us are a little broken," Barton answers. "I mean, it's not like that's a secret. Won't be by the time you're done with us, anyhow."

He sips his coffee thoughtfully.

"The thing about it is, if I talk about this wrong, there'll be people on the hook for it," he continues. "Those folks talking about me in the press, the carnie folks -- Natasha gets mad about it, but they're just trying to make their way. I think they're sorta proud. Or they think I'm puttin' on airs," he adds, smiling. "Either way, they don't deserve any trouble for what they did, which was basically putting food in my stomach and clothes on my back for a while there."

"How old were you when you started performing?" I ask.

He picks a boy out of the crowd of kids playing in the amusement park. The boy is one of the older children, perhaps ten.

"About his age," he says.

CLINT BARTON'S first stage name was The Astounding Hawk-Boy!

"I had this costume covered in feathers, I thought I was hot shit," he recalls, looking somewhat fond.

Barton and his brother, Barney, were eleven and thirteen respectively when they ran away to join the circus. They were living in a group home at the time, and when a traveling show came through town, Barney saw his opportunity. He presented them both to the manager of the circus. The manager laughed at them and told them to run along home.

"We ain't got one," Clint piped up.

For whatever reason, the manager felt this was an appropriate defense, and took them in.

They started out as tiny roustabouts, working in the animal pens for a spot on the floor in one of the circus cars and as much mess-tent cooking as they could eat. After six months, Barney was still shoveling lion crap but Clint was performing in the show.

"I wanted to be a strongman. I had my name all picked out," he says, spreading his hands theatrically. "Goliath! But then I saw a knife-thrower, and he had a cape and a pretty assistant -- and I decided no, I'll be a knife-thrower."

The knife-thrower took Clint under his wing, teaching him the tools he still uses today: knives, arrows, and one tired old gun for outdoor shows, all fired with deadly accuracy. Clint, who had a natural talent his brother lacked, was a perfect shot by the time he was thirteen.

"You learn useful stuff in the circus," he says. "Stage makeup, sewing, knot-tying. Horsemanship. Pick-pocketing and scam-artisting. Lots of theater arts. Good balance, good sense of space. I did this act where we rigged me up to a safety harness and swung me all the hell over the tent while I shot arrows at apples the clowns threw around."

The Astounding Hawk-boy's reward for a good show? He was allowed to eat the apples.

By the time he hit sixteen, two things had happened: Barney Barton had run off from the circus, leaving his brother behind, and the Hawk-Boy name was wearing a little thin. Clint Barton was rechristened Hawkeye, The World's Greatest Marksman, and performed in a magnificent purple costume for the next two years.

"I'm grateful for what I learned," Barton tells me. "But I wasn't a fool. They made enough money on me to make it worth their time, and I was still sweeping out the elephant pit after every show too. Day I turned eighteen, I hitched a ride to the nearest recruiting office."

It was an army office, so Clint Barton joined the army. Naturally, he became a sniper. He would carry the name Hawkeye with him throughout his military career and into his work for S.H.I.E.L.D. even before the Avengers. He's clearly proud of it.

"But you were eleven," I say. "That must have been a hard adolescence."

"Well, everyone's got it rough during puberty," he replies, brushing this aside.

He tells me a few more stories from the circus -- some unprintable, others redacted for reasons of privacy, one notable story suppressed in fear of legal action for vandalism. Once the door is open, Barton seems to have no hesitation in talking about his work with the circus, which he clearly feels was an influential time in his life. He is a funny, observant man, and he has a great affection for the people he now works with.

When the topic comes up, I say, "You and Captain Rogers get along well."

"Yeah, most of the time."

"His approval seems to be important to you."

He looks surprised, but finally smiles. "Well, I guess when you're rooming with the walking symbol of America -- who was a member of what they actually call the Greatest Generation -- you figure his good word means something special. It's rare for us to find people we can put our faith in."

Certainly Barton seems to accept Rogers as a surrogate brother, which is probably for the best. Barney Barton, who left his brother and the circus to strike out for himself, is currently serving five to fifteen for armed assault in a California prison.

"Do you speak with your brother?" I ask.

"He made his choice," Barton replies. He glances at me. "He's my kin. He shows up on my doorstep tomorrow needin' help, he gets all the cash I got on me and a hot meal. But I'm not fixed to be particularly friendly with him. We earned the places we got today, him and me."

KIN IS a difficult subject among the Avengers. Of the six members of the team, only one has parents still living, and they're in another dimension.

Anthony Stark's parents died in an infamously mysterious car crash when he was seventeen, leaving him in the guardianship of Howard Stark's business partner, Obadiah Stane, who died several years ago in a small-aircraft accident. Stark is notoriously silent regarding his parents' deaths.

"Read the papers," he says, when I ask him. "It's all in there. I'll send you my favorite conspiracy website about the crash."

Steve Rogers lost his father when he was young to late-onset complications from mustard gas. His father was an infantryman during the first world war, in the same outfit Rogers would later serve in, the hundred and seventh. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was fifteen. He is candid about their deaths, but his tone suggests it's well-rehearsed candor.

"She couldn't shake it," he says. "Working conditions weren't what they are now and she was in a tuberculosis ward. There weren't many jobs going for women back then, especially Irish. She did what she had to do. I never went hungry or cold."

Romanov says only, "I didn't know my parents. I had good teachers, though."

She catches me before I can ask Dr. Banner.

"Let's not tempt fate," she says.

Bruce Banner and Clint Barton are both absent from official records in a way that makes me suspicious. But I do find information about Banner's mother's death which makes me think parents are a sore spot. Barton's parents died in a car wreck when he was nine, explaining how he and his brother ended up in a group home.

There are few siblings -- Barney Barton and Loki, not perhaps the ones they'd choose -- and very little close family. Rogers has a cousin or second-cousin somewhere, but he thinks looking them up would only be awkward. His point is well made.

With each other, however, they seem to have formed a tightly-knit bond. This Sunday afternoon, Rogers has taken the newspaper to pieces all over the living room, lying on the floor and reading the sports page while Banner does the Sudoku and Stark (half-buried under the funny pages) complains about people who can't use newsblogs. Romanov drinks strong black tea and reads the latest James Patterson novel. Barton reads over her shoulder, tutting when she turns the page before he's done. Thor, safely returned from Queens, has the Sunday restaurant reviews.

"We must go here," he tells Stark, pointing to one of the reviews.

"No we mustn't," Stark replies, reburying himself in the comics after peering at the review.

"Bad food?" Thor asks.

"Portions are too small," Stark says.

"Ah," Thor nods.

"Find a good barbecue place," Romanov suggests. Barton points out a passage in the book. "Yes, I see."

"Hey, Steve," Barton says.

"Mm?" Rogers asks, rolling onto his back so he can look at Barton as they talk.

"Is it true that Hydra was trying to strike a deal with Japan? This book says it is."

"I wouldn't know. I just blew up Schmidt's tanks, I didn't go to his dinner parties," Rogers says.

"If I may interrupt, Captain," Jarvis says. "There is no record of any treaty being suggested or made between Hydra and Japanese military or political leaders. The information is anecdotal to a memoir written twenty years postwar by a decidedly unreliable source."

Rogers drums his fingers on his chest, a habit he seems to have picked up from Stark.

"Was it Gilmore?" he asks.

"Indeed, sir," Jarvis replies.

"Gilmore, you troll," Rogers sighs, rolling over again. "Thanks, Jarvis."

"Who is Gilmore?" I ask. Romanov passed me the crossword, so I took it, but I haven't made much headway.

"Gilmore was in the hundred and seventh, where my team was attached during the war," Rogers answers. "He did this book about us, which was...not better for his having wanted a spot on the team when he never had a chance."

"Why didn't he?"

"Because he was a penny-ante bully who liked harassing women," Rogers replies calmly. "He's dead now so I don't imagine it'll cause any harm if you quote me on that."

"Steve doesn't like bullies," Stark says.

"Sure don't," Rogers replies.

Romanov places her book in Barton's hands and stands, ruffling Rogers' hair as she passes. He has been stealthily folding a paper airplane out of the baseball scores, and he launches it at Banner, who catches it without looking and drops it on Thor's head.

"Tell us more stories about the good ol' days, Pa Steve," Stark teases.

"Tell the one about how you and Howard Stark accidentally blew up a bunker," Romanov suggests, returning with fresh tea.

"First, I told you, it wasn't our bunker," Rogers says. "It was an enemy bunker and we were going to blow it up anyway, and it was empty. It's not my fault Howard hadn't field-tested the new explosives yet."

"I can tell you what he'd say," Stark replies. "That was the field test."

"Boy, did I get tanned for that one," Rogers adds nostalgically. "Phillips skinned me for even taking him out in the field in the first place."

"Eternally grateful you didn't get him killed," Stark drawls.

"My crowning achievement," Rogers drawls back.

The second night game happens that night, around two in the morning. Jarvis wakes me again, and this time early enough that the game hasn't begun when I arrive. Stark looks like he's been up for hours -- when I went to bed he was in his workshop, so that's probably the case. Rogers has spectacular bed-head, but he looks a little hollow-eyed too.

It's difficult to say whether the Avengers gather because they're insomniacs or because sometimes one of them needs a distraction from their dreams. Perhaps a little of both. When the game ends just before five, Rogers looks happier. Stark dozes off in the elevator.

MONDAY MORNING, with only two days left on assignment, I'm summoned down from the Avengers floors to the executive floor of Stark Tower. An efficient-looking young man ushers me into the office of Virginia Potts, which is a very large office with a very large desk. It's designed to be intimidating, and it succeeds.

"I find myself with half an hour unexpectedly free," she says. I suspect this is a lie; this moment has probably been planned since the Avengers knew there would be a story on them. "I thought I might be able to fill in any informational gaps you've come across."

It's likely she wants to make sure I'm not seeing or showing the Avengers in a negative light. It makes sense; Stark Industries is closely linked to the Avengers, and not only because Tony Stark is on the team. The Avengers live in a tower built by Stark. Their technology, their armor, and their weapons often come from Stark's own hands. Stark Industries has contracts with S.H.I.E.L.D. Bad publicity for the Avengers is bad publicity for everyone.

I'm more interested in getting half an hour with Ms. Potts herself. Interviews with her have been few and far between since she became CEO of Stark Industries, and before that were nearly nonexistent. There was a profile in Time, ten years ago, but it was barely five hundred words of puff PR attached to a much longer piece on Stark.

She tilts her head, clearly amused when I tell her this. "Well, you can ask," she says, leaning back in her chair. "I may not answer."

Virginia Potts has worked for Stark Industries her entire adult life. She began as a project manager within Research & Development, where her skills caught the eye of Tony Stark during a factory inspection. He arranged for her transfer to his executive office on the spot. For a few years she was one of a dozen assistants and managers at the highest level of Stark Industries corporate, while she took night classes towards an MBA. She earned her degree around the same time Stark promoted her to his personal executive assistant.

"I realized pretty quickly a degree in management wasn't going to cut it," she says. "I needed an MBA. Of course there's a lot you can only learn hands-on, but Tony's always been good about advancing staff who show promise."

When Potts ascended the throne of Stark Industries after several years as Stark's assistant, it was commonly speculated that she had slept her way to the top. Potts, ignoring her detractors, led SI into its most profitable years since its founding and revolutionized the way the technology sector does business. In a world dominated by guru-creators who are both the lead designers and the business leaders -- Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Tony Stark -- Potts has developed a no-nonsense, no-prisoners, no-coding-required policy which has established her place at the head of the digital pack. People buy Stark because it has style, but they keep coming back to Stark because it does the one thing everyone wants in a computer, a phone, or a server: it functions. Flawlessly, seamlessly, efficiently, intuitively.

"I'm the test case. If I can't make it do exactly what I want, it doesn't go to the public," she says. "Sometimes it drives Tony nuts, but it hasn't failed us as a policy."

Stark, though he leaves the running of SI to Potts and the day-to-day coding to their staff, is still the lead developer on at least half of SI's commercial products.

"It causes some friction," she admits, when I ask about this. "But honestly...less now than when I was his assistant. Now he has to listen to me. If he doesn't, I can make whatever he won't deal with someone else's problem. And there's nothing Tony hates as much as when I take his problems away from him."

Is it difficult, leading a multinational corporation while dating a superhero?

"Well, I always know where he is," she jokes. "Of course I worry. Every time he goes out in the armor, I worry. But he has five other people at his back. Things are better than they were. We both have purpose in a way we didn't before."

And the Avengers themselves?

"They're sweethearts. They look after each other. Half the time, now, when Tony leaves the workshop before nine it's because one of them went and dug him out. It's in everyone's interest to make sure the others are fit to fight. And they're not hard on the eyes," she adds. A chime rings softly, and she straightens in her chair. "That's time, I'm afraid."

"One final question?" I plead. She gestures for me to fire. "The employee families in Queens, the fifteen families you were concerned about. All of them all right?"

"That's your last question?"

"People will want to know."

She acknowledges this with a nod. "They're all fine. Thank you for asking."

I thank her for her time, and I'm shown out into the lobby. There's a row of portrait photographs along one wall, the CEOs of Stark Industries past and present. Howard Stark; Howard Stark and Obadiah Stane; Stane alone; Stane with Anthony Stark (who looks excruciatingly young); Anthony Stark alone; Pepper Potts.

I wonder what Howard Stark would think.

"He'd have been horrified," Rogers tells me later. Aside from Tony Stark, he's the only one in this building who knew Howard Stark in any significant sense. "He was a progressive man. Her being a woman wouldn't have been a problem. But he was also possessive. Giving up SI to someone else? Someone who wasn't a Stark? He'd have called Tony every name under the sun. At the very least he'd have insisted he marry her to give her that Stark name. But," he adds, before I can speak, "I think -- I didn't know him as an older man -- I think once he saw what Pepper's done, he'd have thrown his weight behind her and never mentioned it again. He wouldn't apologize. He's like Tony. When he's wrong, he doesn't say he's sorry. He just corrects."

MONDAY AND Tuesday are quiet. The Avengers go about their business: fight practice, meetings, art class for Rogers, physiotherapy for Barton. Romanov does intelligence analysis for S.H.I.E.L.D. Stark has work to attend to for SI, and Banner -- who is officially on the Stark Industries payroll -- has labs to manage.

What Hulk told us hasn't been mentioned since the fight over whether to exact revenge for it. Likewise, though the Queens Sniper is still all over the news, it isn't discussed in Stark Tower. In the former case, I think it's probably being kept quiet, discussed in twos and threes without me present. Stark can't possibly have let go so easily. In the latter, it seems like it's done with: a mission was executed and resolved. Barton's splint is already off.

Tuesday afternoon, a tempest brews up; I'm coming back from a meeting with my editor when I hear shouting even from the elevator. I emerge into an argument being carried on between six people in three rooms.

" -- can't just go online and antagonize the internet!" Stark is yelling from the kitchen. "This will go poorly for you, Steve!"

"I'm not talking about saying I'm Captain America!" Rogers replies from the little computer nook off the main room. At the same time, Barton yells "Oh, for the love of God, just let him do it," from the living room.

"We all have to learn sometime," Romanov adds.

"Yes, and he is learning now, I am teaching him, you cannot try to fix the internet. People are stupid, and this is their bullhorn. What are you going to do, shut down the entire web?" Stark demands.

"Don't be ridiculous," Rogers cuts him off. "People have the right to say whatever idiocy comes into their heads. But I have the right to defend myself!"

"All you're going to do is piss people off, you know that, right?" Romanov asks.

"It sounds like we're on your side but really we just think you're going to learn better from getting spanked by assholes than you will from Tony," Barton adds.

Dr. Banner is leaning against the wall, watching.

"Dare I ask?" I say to him.

"Someone is wrong on the internet," Banner replies. "Steve's threatening to undertake to correct them."

"Surely this has happened before," I say. He smiles dryly.

"Steve just worked out he can Google himself."

"Oh dear."

"I do not understand this," Thor says, emerging from the kitchen. "You know there are fools in this world as in any other. You were born to a higher cause. Why quibble with those who can only dream of what you achieve?"

"What exactly happened?" I ask.

"These people," Rogers says, and then throws up his hands. "Someone else explain it."

"Steve found a forum of neckbeards and child-fanciers who started a thread called Captain America Revenge Fantasy," Stark says. "The question is, if you suddenly got the Super Soldier Serum and were some seriously hot shit, who would you go find from before you were ripped so you could beat them up?"

I can think of a few people I'd consider.

"It misses the point completely," Rogers complains. "I never beat anyone up. Or -- or -- they keep mentioning women who wouldn't go out with them..."

"It's objectively horrible, but unlikely to resolve with a stern talking-to," Romanov puts in.

"I'm going to put that app on your computer that turns all the comments on anything into pictures of kittens," Stark announces. "Jarvis, make a note."

"Noted, sir," Jarvis replies, without inflection.

"The whole point of -- of me -- the whole point was that you should know how wrong it is to use power against the powerless," Rogers says. He seems genuinely distressed, honestly anxious over this. "This kind of power comes with a responsibility to use it wisely. These people think the only thing a little muscle's good for is beating on people who used to beat on you."

"Tell me you didn't consider it," Barton says. "Tell me you didn't want to, just a little."

"Of course I didn't. I'm an adult," Rogers says. Steve Rogers is the youngest of any of the Avengers by several years, not counting time spent unconscious. "It would have been unproductive at best. Sadistic, if you ask me."

"A life well-lived is the best revenge?" Dr. Banner suggests.

"See? Bruce agrees with me."

"I really don't, but I know better than to try and stop you."

"I just think someone ought to pipe up and tell them they're being wrong-footed hooligans about this."

"That's the closest he gets to swearing," Barton tells me.

"Will they cease in their beliefs because you tell them to?" Thor asks, sounding genuinely curious.

"Well, they certainly won't stop if I don't say anything," Rogers replies. He looks determined. "I'm doing it."

"Don't do it!" Stark yells.

"I'm doing it!" Rogers yells back.

CAPTAIN ROGERS is very quiet at dinner.

"You're not talking much tonight," Ms. Potts says to him, having joined us for Romanov's stew and dumplings. "Tony mentioned your scrap with a message board."

Rogers sets down his fork and looks dismal. "They are really terrible people," he says. "They're like piranhas."

"I warned you," Stark says.

"At least now you know not to do it again," Barton adds consolingly.

"Oh, no, I'm going to keep my eye on those sons of -- " Rogers breaks off. "Well. They might be terrible people but nothing gets fixed if you don't stand up to them."

Stark puts his head in his hands. Banner, with a positively evil look, says, "Maybe you should get a blog, Steve."

ALL OF which brings us back to where we began: an Avengers night game bleeding over from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning. Stark and Banner are bickering about whether Thor has the right to fly when he's trying to tag someone out. Thor himself is at batting practice with his hammer. Nearby, Romanov has pinned Barton in their wrestling match and is demanding he declare her superiority in Russian. Captain Rogers is in an effortless handstand, balanced on his right hand. He swaps out to his left, then back to his right.

A soldier, a sniper, a spy; an engineer, a scientist with a giant inside him, and an alien with a mean swing.

When the Battle of Manhattan comes up, or when any action involving them is mentioned, the Avengers are quick to give credit to police and emergency services. They speak glowingly of the people who risked their lives to get everyone to safety and provide medical care, particularly in the wake of the attack.

"There's a reason they're called New York's Finest," Stark told me at one point, without sarcasm or cynicism.

There is no doubt, however, that the Avengers were and are heroes. They are people with gifts, appointed as role models not because they want to be but because they so clearly are. They are imperfect, but they try to be more. All of them act with decency derived from the experiences that shaped them.

"When do you leave tomorrow?" Rogers asks me, dropping out of his handstand and gracefully rolling to his feet. In the background, Thor is promising not to fly indoors anymore.

"I thought before breakfast," I say. "Goodbyes in situations like this get awkward."

"I can see that," he agrees. "Got enough ink for your piece?"

"I think so."

"Well, I'm sure you'll be fair," he says. Then, thoughtfully, "Maybe be a little kind?"

"I don't think you need to worry," I tell him.

"Then I won't. You've been decent," he says. He offers his hand. "Put 'er there, Parker."

Beyond us, the others have begun arguing about whether the Yankees or the Mets suck more.

"I better go mediate," Rogers tells me, and jogs back to them to declare, "You're all wrong, the Dodgers suck the most because they left the darn state."

"And now with the Dodgers again," Barton sighs.

I leave them to their debate, quietly packing to return to my own life as the Avengers carry on with theirs. The sun is rising over Manhattan, glittering off cranes and scaffolding and the shining glass of Stark Tower, where only the A in STARK remains of the sign outside.

Peter Parker is a freelance journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in the Daily Bugle, Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, the Daily Planet, and the New York Times, among others. His first book, Hole In The Sky: The Battle Of Manhattan, will be released in 2014.

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