“Ben Urich, with Front Line,” I say, sticking one hand out to shake and tapping my press badge with the other. “I”m embedded with the Ultimates while you’re in Texas.”
Captain Steve Rogers shakes my hand like it’s one of those interlocking wood block puzzles that hasn’t quite clicked together yet, and one clumsy finger will push it all out of alignment and have me clattering to the ground before you can say Jenga.
“Pleased to meet you,” he says. You can tell he’s been coached on how to be personable and it didn’t quite stick.
Tony Stark takes over with a warm hand-clasp and an irreverent smile. He’s wearing an exquisitely tailored suit; his nails are buffed to a high shine. Stark comes off at first meeting as canny but disarmingly stupid — the kind of man who’s always ready with a quip and not here to hang out and talk shop. People-smart, and likely backed by a very well-chosen team of engineers, but not the insane genius he’s touted to be.
Stark waves at himself, Captain Rogers, and the handful of security personnel they’ve brought on the jet. “This is all you get, unfortunately. Wanda and Pietro are doing their thing in Vienna, Clint’s on mandatory compassionate leave and is not happy about it, and Jan says her mother has a show at New York Fashion Week and she refuses to miss it.”
Captain Rogers positions himself half a pace behind us and says nothing.
“So,” Stark says, breaking into a shining grin, “now that you’re the big boss on this Front Line gig, you still want all reporters to unionize?”
I’m caught flat-footed as a duck with fallen arches. Stark hooks his thumbs into his pockets and looks pensively up into the sky.
“Real journalism requires courage. We enter war zones, walk into natural disasters, march among rioters. We stand up to the powerful to say, tall and proud, you won’t get away with this. But it shouldn’t require bravery to ask for a raise and a severance package," Stark quotes. I barely remember the words, but if I had to guess, he’s pulled them verbatim from a piece I wrote fifteen years ago, under a pen name.
“What?” I say.
“That’s you, isn’t it?”
“I — I think it is.”
Stark raises an eyebrow. “So, still pro-unionization?”
“How did you find that?”
He sighs and glances at Captain Rogers, with a clear look of can you believe we have to lug this moron around with us? Rogers’s face twitches with a ghost of amusement.
“I take a few hours to read everything a reporter’s written before agreeing to any interviews,” Stark says. “Who wouldn’t?”
I wrote for Bloomberg’s finance section for six years, four to five articles a day, sometimes ad-libbing straight into a dictaphone to be handed directly over to the copyeditors. My back-catalogue is thousands of pages long and most of it is dull as drywall.
Logically, it can’t be true that he’s read all that.
But he’s not lying.
Stark watches. All that dumb affable shit melts away and I’m struck by a deep, alien intellect. It’s like staring into the crescent-pupiled gaze of a cuttlefish and wondering what the hell goes on in there.
He’s giving me the courtesy of a warning. I should be grateful.
“I’d welcome a union vote at Front Line,” I say.
Stark has perfect teeth. His cheeks dimple under his goatee. “Good man. Democracy in the workplace. Gives everyone a voice. Lets them put a finger on the levers of power. People need that.”
The Ultimates are in Texas to sniff out a white nationalist militia hiding in the desert and picking off migrants crossing the border.
It’s ugly business. The militia members have a private online forum that Stark and his associates have infiltrated. The pictures they post are graphic; what they discuss is stomach-churning and callous. There’s a thread describing gruesome genocidal fantasies next to one sharing recipes.
The confirmed death count is five. It’s estimated to be much higher.
We stay in a single-story motel with a kidney-shaped pool and an ant problem. I expect Stark to make a fuss over the accommodations, but he dons a zebra-print silk robe, a violently red Speedo and large sunglasses, then makes himself comfortable poolside.
Our trio of dark olive unmarked jeeps stick out, incongruous next to the station wagon and jacked pickup truck parked in front of the other doors.
I lean against the warm bricks outside my room, watching evening fall indigo over the desert and recounting the day into my voice recorder. From here I can see most comings and goings. So far, a SHIELD agent has gone to get ice, and Stark is still next to the pool, drinking clear liquor on the rocks from a highball glass.
Captain Rogers joins him as the pool lights come on. He stands at the edge of the water, face lit from below with dancing blue.
Stark says something and pats the lounge chair next to him. Rogers comes easily, sitting down, then standing with a grimace when the chair dips alarmingly.
Captain America is a large man, at least three hundred and fifty pounds of dense muscle by my estimation. He settles instead cross-legged on the concrete next to Stark. Stark ruffles his hair familiarly. Rogers leans into the touch. They like each other.
I don’t know why I’m surprised.
Maybe that will make up the heart of my piece, I think. A friendship between two remarkable men, as different as life and death. It could be good. Could have real nice resonance with folks.
We take a helicopter out at dawn. Iron Man flies beside us in red and gold, well-camouflaged against the sunrise.
“There,” Stark says, voice clear in my headset. He points to a low hillock. It doesn’t look like much, until my eyes focus on the too-regular rings of scrub surrounding the rise of land, and I recognize the pattern of camouflage tarp draped over skeins of razor wire.
Some of the white nationalists are veterans from Afghanistan. They’ve stolen the desert combat tactics of the US military for their own terrorist ends; playing at war while they kill innocent people. I want to know how cruelty like that takes root: do these men go on tour already bloodthirsty, or does service in a hard, unending conflict send some percentage of our troops home twisted into sick, violent creatures? I hate to think either is true. I wonder if press coverage of heroism and violence is partially to blame. I wonder if this is a new tragedy of modern warfare, or if Captain Rogers’s army contained men like these as well.
“How many?” Rogers asks, voice flat with cold fury.
“Fifteen, maybe twenty,” Stark replies.
“I’ll take them myself.”
“Go get ‘em, slugger,” Stark says. “Drop on my mark.”
Captain Rogers leaps from the helicopter like a gymnast on the dismount. All the lines of his body are controlled. Perfect. The iconic round shield lies flat across his back.
“How does he fit a parachute under that?” I ask.
“He doesn’t,” Stark answers. “Marvelous adrenaline junkie, our Cap. Likes to almost break his ankles every time. Makes him feel like a man.”
A fall from this height would do more than break ankles. In the nineties I reported on a man who tried to land on his feet after falling twenty feet out of a tree. He shattered both femurs — and most poor souls who fall from higher up are less lucky.
Sure enough, by the time I had my telephoto out, Rogers was on the ground running. Iron Man cut away to provide air support, while the helicopter hung back.
We’re just the ride, the pilot told me on the ground. They don’t need us.
Rogers hits the perimeter. The alarm goes up and militiamen boil out of their hidey-holes, bristling with automatic rifles.
I find myself struggling to accept the next series of events. There’s a reflexive self-preservation instinct that develops when you are very young. There are physical feats you’re perfectly capable of performing, given the strength of your muscles. Biting through your tongue, for instance, would be trivial. But you don’t do it — you don’t even consider it. Your brain makes a rule not to damage the body.
I expect, deep in my bones, that all humans will follow these rules. Even those with absurd pain tolerances don’t casually inflict lasting harm on themselves.
The most upsetting piece of medical reporting I’ve read covers a woman with an odd case of nerve damage. Instead of losing feeling, she was rewired so her scalp endlessly, unbearably, itched. The phantom sensation overcame her animal instinct against self-mutilation. In her sleep, she scratched all the way through her skull.
Watching Captain Rogers fight is like bearing witness to fingernail wearing through bone. It should not be possible.
I can hear the fight coming across the open comms. Rogers is quiet; the gunfire is not.
His bright form ducks under the spray of a machine gun — Rogers grabs it by the barrel as it continues to fire. A gun firing like that gets hot quick. It must be three hundred degrees. The metal bends under his fingers.
A man comes at Rogers with a knife. Rogers kicks him in the side, but the man doesn’t stop. Rogers kicks him again.
“Drop the knife!” Rogers roars.
Another guy comes at Rogers from the other side, and this one has a gun. The man with the knife lunges. Instead of dodging, Rogers raises his arm and lets the knife go straight through it. Next he wrenches his forearm in a brutal arc and the blade, trapped between his radius and ulna, twists out of its owner's hand.
Seconds later, the knife finds a new home deep in the gunman’s thigh.
“These nutters have more bullets than the Waco boys,” Stark observes from the sky. “Big boom coming up on your flank, darling.”
Rogers beats twenty-one men into submission. Stark melts their munitions into slag. It’s done in fifteen minutes. We land nearby; the pilot and two other guys in the helicopter with me bustle out bearing first aid supplies and zip-tie restraints.
“Any dead?” the pilot asks.
Stark lifts the faceplate off of his helmet and wipes impact goo out of his beard. “One yes, one maybe.” It doesn’t sound like he cares much.
The dead man has a caved-in cheekbone and an iron cross tattooed on his shoulder.
It’ll take several hours before someone gets here by truck to pick up the uninjured white nationalists. The ones who are unstable will get a helicopter flight; the rest get to wait. They sit with their zip-tied wrists in their laps along the north-facing wall of their building. It’s not too hot — yet.
Inside is dim and cool. There’s a kitchen that smells like canned beans. The front common room is furnished with picnic tables and lawn chairs, the kind of thing you expect to see outside or on a porch. It’s like these people built a house but only know approximately what’s supposed to go inside one. Down a hallway are several bedrooms, each with four sets of bunked cots. A few beds are being used for storage — sleeping bags, collapsible tents and backpacks piled high — but most look recently slept-in. Some are stripped down to bare bedsprings. Their mattresses have been drug out into the front room to make an impromptu infirmary.
This eight-room house full of domestic terrorists isn’t the whole operation. The real gung-ho survivalist types are out on their own, roughing it in the desert. Their forum posts describe the long-nosed rifles they use, and the infrared scopes. Hunters don’t use infrared scopes. It’s not sporting; sniping with heat cameras is only done to cull wild deer populations that have outpaced the usual hunting season thinning.
I understand we’ll spend the next week or so tracking the solo killers down one by one.
I tell myself I want to take stock of the perimeter and get a look at the sheds out back. I really just want to get the hell out of this place.
I find Captain Rogers bent almost double behind a stand of sage-brush, emptying his stomach onto the dusty ground.
He hears me, spits, and croaks, “Take a picture, Benny-boy, it’ll last longer.”
I’m at least two decades older than Rogers, if you count by waking years. He looks about twenty-two, fresh-faced as a Grecian youth. But he’s killed his damn fair share of people, and that ages a man, so I move along and let it ride.
My room shares a thin wall with Captain Rogers’, which I discovered on our first night because America’s favorite son sings in the shower. Rogers watches daytime soaps and speaks too loudly when he’s on the phone, like he hasn’t gotten used to modern connection quality.
I technically can’t report anything gathered from eavesdropping, provided they’re not in a public space where they could reasonably assume they might be overhead. But I’ve freelanced with the tabloids, and that gig teaches you a lot about ways illegitimate information can be used other than quoting it in an article.
So I spend my free time listening.
Right now, Stark and Rogers are having a muffled conversation.
“— vile, murdering cowards! They hung our flag in every room, Tony, they think they’re more American because they hate immigrants — I thought we’d be better than this by now!” Rogers is pacing, his angry voice fading in and out.
“Why do you think I drink?” Stark asks. “You punch Nazi faces inside-out, I pickle my genius brain with Stoli Elit.”
“Nazis! I didn’t die so —” Rogers shouts, as he stomps out of hearing again.
“I am not in favor of you punching through the lovely wood veneers provided by this establishment,” Stark notes dryly. “Not because they’ll charge the repair to our room, of course. But you did shish kabob your palm this morning, in case you’ve forgotten that.”
“It’s fine,” Rogers says.
“Sit down, at least, you’re giving me a crick in my neck. This conversation is like watching tennis.”
The bed creaks as Rogers lands heavily.
“You pace faster than an olympic sprinter.”
“Don’t mean to,” Rogers says.
“Of course you don’t, darling.”
There isn’t much of substance here, from a reporting standpoint. Captain America hates Nazis and is upset after combat. Tony Stark is an alcoholic. Nothing new. I suppose it’s more evidence that Stark and Rogers enjoy each other’s company. Stark flirts easily with Rogers, and Rogers takes it in stride. It’s nice to know that Rogers isn’t homophobic. People assume, given the forties, that Rogers won’t care about civil rights. Those people don’t understand the true American values Captain Rogers represents.
“Don’t pick at that,” Stark scolds. “Let me see it.”
“You gonna kiss it better?” Rogers asks.
Through the wall I hear quiet shuffling.
A low chuckle from Rogers. “I got a scrape on my leg, too.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Oh yeah. Terrible.”
“Liar,” Stark says.
“Well, it itches,” Rogers says. “Big scrapes always itch like the dickens while they heal up.”
“I’m not scratching your scabs for you.”
More shifting on the bed.
“Mmmmmmm, that’s nice,” Rogers hums.
I flick through several options about how to fill in the gaps of what elicited that response. A cold pack applied? Stark massaging out some sore muscles? That’s pretty familiar between friends, but they’re teammates who often fight side by side. It makes sense that they’d administer some comfort and first aid after battle.
A deep groan filters through the wall. Ah. Tony Stark isn’t playing nurse with Captain Rogers, he’s playing nurse.
I have to admit it’s not what I expected.
What embarrasses me is that if Stark had been a woman, I would have been on top of this scoop like a fly on shit-flavored ice cream. Stark and Rogers are both freshly single, and neither is inclined to stay that way. Stark never goes long without companionship, and Rogers is a romantic guy. By all accounts Rogers is monogamous but likes being in a relationship. He’s dated within the team before, and he hasn’t been observed to have a social circle outside the Ultimates. Antonia Stark, had she existed, would be an obvious option.
“Want to take your pants off and show me the nasty boo-boo, baby?”
“That’s not the thing you want to see.”
“No, it isn’t,” Stark purrs.
Rumors have been flying that Stark’s in the closet since he took over the company from his father. Most of the gossip rags have a couple thousand words in the can and ready to print the second anything even half-credible about his sexuality pops up.
Nobody — absolutely no one — thinks Captain America might be gay. It’s inconceivable.
I like to think that I’m a man with integrity. But I’ve spilled a barrel of ink about men who thought the same thing until somebody flashed the right price. The sum of money Nick Fury’s people would pay to catch and kill this story would pay off my mortgage.
SHIELD will bury whatever I write. The public will never lay eyes on it. It’s a victimless crime. Hell, it’s not even illegal.
“Don’t think about Nazis while I blow you,” Stark says, just barely audible.
There’s some creaking — the cheap bed-frames in this place broadcast every one of Rogers’s movements — and a heavy sigh. “Don’t fish for compliments, Tony. Plenty of people’ve told you you’re good with your mouth.”
“I like to hear it from you specifically.”
I hear Rogers murmur something that makes Stark laugh, followed by the sound of someone giving good, messy head.
I really ought to turn on the television and stop listening to — Christ almighty — Steve Rogers having a gay sexual encounter. But if I can hear Captain Rogers’s soaps, he’ll hear my Nightly News and stop for fear of being caught.
That ship has sailed.
I don’t want to blueball Captain America. If I’d had the day he’s had and there was a willing lady handy, I would appreciate the attention.
So I sit on my double bed, do my best to block out the sounds of sex, and type up some notes from the day.
I successfully ignore the goings-on next door until someone — I’m pretty sure it’s Rogers — says, “shit,” with feeling.
“What’s up, peachie-pie?” That’s Stark, definitely.
“Didn’t check for bugs. Today was so -- stupid of me. Stupid.”
“Hey, hey hey hey,” Stark says. “I have an absolute lock on SHIELD’s surveillance. None of Fury’s little listening critters will pick up a whisper of our rendezvous.”
All Stark’s backdoor software exploits and technical expertise defeated by a motel too cheap to spring for proper sound-proofing.
“I don’t want them to find out,” Rogers says, and God, he sounds young.
“They won’t,” Stark says. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Shame hits me square in the chest. That’s the victim: Rogers isn’t out to his superiors any more than he is to the public at large. They haven’t asked; he hasn’t told.
SHIELD must watch them like hawks, if both are that certain their rooms are monitored. I selfishly hope that General Fury doesn’t have any photos of me bare-assed drinking coffee in front of CNN. Getting distracted by some breaking news while half-dressed is practically part of my morning routine. I expect my hopes are futile. SHIELD doesn’t skimp on violations of privacy.
If I print something about the close friendship between Stark and Rogers, even if I don’t mention that they’re involved, how long until General Fury and his associates start taking a closer look?
Rogers and Stark seem — dare I say it — good with each other. There’s genuine care between them. It doesn’t sound like a one-and-done deal. Stark may be friendly but he makes no habit of being kind. With Rogers, he sounds gentle.
It’s not worth it, I realize.
Steven Rogers, aka Captain America, is a hero and a homosexual. It’ll have to be someone else who breaks that to the world. With luck, the world will be ready for it.
I walk across the still-warm parking lot to the front desk. The woman working is chewing bubblegum and fiddling with the fake potted plant decorating the office. The edges of the silk leaves are frayed, betraying that the fidgeting is an old habit.
“I need to switch rooms,” I tell her.
“Mmhmm, sure, tell me your room number. Not exactly packed this week.”
I tell her. She types it loudly into the motel computer. “We have 113 free. It’s non-smoking, so you know.”
“That’s fine. And tell your boss my room’s no good for other guests. It has ants. Lots of ants.”