Episode Four: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 1
“Stark! Retreat! That’s an order!”
“Don’t take orders well, Cap!” came Iron Man’s voice, “You should know that by now!”
The fighting had intensified, to the point where they were almost in a full-scale battle of war. Two small armies were facing off, 50 some-odd S.H.I.E.L.D. agents plus the Avengers and the 100 or so drones they were battling with. They had no idea where the drones had originated, but they had some kind of psychic abilities that were making it very difficult to take out. For every 25 drones, only one controlled the rest—if you killed one, it would simply rise once more with the help of one of the 4 leader-drones, which were the only ones you could kill permanently. The problem was, you didn’t know which ones those were. So far, they’d only taken one.
Iron Man was surrounded, Jarvis working furiously to find a way to pick out the leader-drone. It would be easy enough to shake them—all he had to do was fly into the sky. As tough as these things were, they couldn’t fly. But for Jarvis to complete his analysis, he needed to keep their attention on him.
A massive lightning blast went off on the other side of the battlefield, taking out several, all of which got back up within five minutes. Thor was getting frustrated, Tony could tell, as he heard the demigod scream out his rage.
The one thing he was thankful for was that they were far from most civilization. In a delightful twist, they were actually doing battle in what had once been a battlefield of the Revolutionary War, which meant lots of wide open space and very few innocents to worry about. He wasn’t sure, but he had a sneaking suspicion that whoever was behind this particular scheme had picked this place specifically for a reason…he just wasn’t sure what.
One of the bots sent a blast of psychic energy at him, and Tony ducked out of the way. “Jarvis, give me some good news!” he requested, shooting a repulsor blast at the one that had attacked him and knocking it back several feet. He suspected it would get back up, but at least it bought him some space.
“Not enough data, sir. Do you wish me to start the process once more?”
Tony cursed. This was not going well, not at all. There was literally nothing special about the one drone that they had taken out. Well, except for the fact that it could be taken out at all.
A roar from Tony’s left brought his attention temporarily to the Hulk, who was also getting annoyed by his inability to completely destroy the enemy. “I think our only option is to just try and take out as many as possible and hope that the leader drones are in with the rest,” Tony said, preparing his laser weapon, which he had seen in action during Hammer’s invasion of his expo.
“Ready!” he called to no-one in particular, “Fire!”
The red lasers shot out with lightning speed, decimating several of the drones in one go. But, as always, it was futile. Wherever the leaders were, they weren’t near him, and Tony didn’t have any more laser to go around to the others. He’d been kind of banking on the idea that maybe one of these bastards would be what he wanted.
They all got up, more angry than he would expect a bunch of emotionless bots to be, and he barely got out an “Uh-oh,” before they all attacked him at once. He didn’t have enough time to fly off. He knew that. The best he could hope for was to duck down and pray that the damage would be minimal until he got his thrusters ready.
He knelt, moving his arms protectively in front of him…but the attack never came.
Instead, he heard the sound of Captain America’s shield singing through the air, and several thumps and clangs as he knocked them out of the way.
Tony stood and stared at the leader of the Avengers—he looked pissed, even as the shield landed back in his grip. For one solid second, Tony wondered if he was going to use it on him.
“You disobeyed a direct order, Stark,” Steve said, his face pinched beneath his cowl in the gloom of the setting sun and his eyes as steely as a blade. His grip on the shield seemed unnecessarily tight, and if he weren’t wearing gloves, Tony would probably guess that he was white-knuckled.
“Yeah, can we maybe talk about this later?” Tony said, “Perhaps never? We have kind of a situation here, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I’m serious, Tony!”
“And so am I—Look out!”
Steve ducked just in time to avoid having his head knocked clean off by a robotic arm, and Tony blasted the offender.
And was shocked when the entire group around them seemed to collapse all at once. “Huh…Got another one.”
That one must have snuck in with Steve, rather than been part of the group that Tony had taken out. Whatever the case, he was simply thankful that it had been taken care of.
“I think I’ve noticed something!” came an unfamiliar voice over the S.H.I.E.L.D. comm. that had been given to him by Fury. It was a female’s voice, and was lightly accented, as if the speaker were from a Spanish-speaking country, or at least from a family of Spanish-speakers.
“Who is this?” Steve asked, his face screwing up in confusion.
“Agent Carmen Ortiz,” was the quick reply, “Part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. psychic unit.”
“They have a psychic unit?” Tony said, his curiosity piqued. “Tell me, Agent Ortiz, is that next to the ‘Ghosts r Real’ department, or closer to ‘Freaks Anonymous?’”
“About halfway between both, I think, but we have more important things to worry about. I was able to pick up on a reading, just before you took out that last drone. Nothing concrete—my skills are pretty limited, if I’m being honest—but there’s a faint psychic energy that emanates from them more-so than from the others. If we can narrow down on that frequency of energy, we should be able to find and dispatch the leaders.”
Tony and Steve exchanged a look, as if they were both wondering just whether they should trust S.H.I.E.L.D. on this or not. Shrugging, Tony had to admit that he really didn’t know, but there was one thing he was curious about. “Just how are we supposed to find that frequency?” Steve asked for him.
He heard the agent take a deep breath. “Me,” she answered. “If you can get me close-“
“No, absolutely not,” Steve cut in, “It’s too dangerous.”
“I am a trained member of S.H.I.E.L.D!” came her sharp response, and Tony had the distinct pleasure of watching Steve swallow thickly and look chagrined.
Natasha’s voice came over the comm. It sounded strained and the sounds of combat were pretty unmistakable in the background. She and Clint had been covering for Thor, trying to keep the drones off of him while he summoned his thunder and such: “She’s one of the better agents, too. Me and her were in pretty tight competition with one another for a while there.”
“Wow, Steve, you just managed to piss off somebody that was matched with the Black Widow. I honestly…I feel pretty bad for you right now, not gonna lie. Tell me, what should I put on the tombstone? ‘Here lies the Capsicle, he pissed off the wrong chick?’”
“Can it, Stark,” Steve said, and to Tony’s surprise, he did. Shaking his head, Steve turned his attention back to the woman on the other end of the comm. “Listen, ma’am, I meant no disrespect. I just still don’t like the idea of putting dames in danger.”
“Hey!” Natasha’s voice called, and Tony had to duck his head to keep from laughing out loud. “Are you saying I’m not a dame worth protecting?”
“No, Tash, I think he’s probably just afraid of you,” Clint responded with a snicker. “Ow! Shit, that’s just uncalled for!”
Steve blew out a frustrated breath, hefting his shield. “Let’s just get this over with. Agent Ortiz, you’re sure you can find the frequency we need to take out the rest of these bad guys?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Then give me your location. Iron Man will be over there soon.”
“Wait, why me?” Tony said. He had just decided he was going to try and give assistance to the Hulk, who seemed to be having a hard time shaking off some of the drones, who kept on latching onto his arms and legs and preventing him from moving the way he wanted.
“Because you can fly and we can cover more ground from the air. We have no way of knowing how close or far away the leader drones are. Agent, how effective are your abilities from afar?”
“Not that strong, I’m afraid, but I should still be able to pick up on the frequencies. I just won’t be able to read them, not that I’m very good at that bit anyways,” she answered, sounding somewhat sheepish. “My location is just behind you, sir, by the way.”
They turned so fast they nearly gave themselves whiplash, and watched as a fit young woman with dark skin, curly hair and olive-green eyes jogged up to them. She smiled when they caught sight of her and waved, picking up the pace a bit. She was short, though somewhat taller than Tash, and she seemed to be a very capable shot, quickly shooting drones which seemed to get too close to her or block her path. Before long, she was standing before them, still smiling.
“Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”
“I think I like her. Seriously, Steve, can I keep her? She’s just too cute, she’s driving me nuts.”
Steve ignored him and turned to face the psychic. “Are you prepared, ma’am? We need to do this quickly, so we absolutely cannot afford to make mistakes.”
She nodded. “Yes, I’m ready.”
“Tony, pick her up. Can you still fight while holding her?”
“I’m wounded. Really, do you honestly think I can’t take care of a few non-flying drones while holding on? Piece of cake. What does that expression even mean, by the way? ‘Piece of cake.’ What about a piece of cake is particularly easy? I mean, other than the decision to eat it…”
“Tony,” Steve said, gritting his teeth. “Tick-tock.”
“Right. Tight schedule. I’ll see you in a bit, then, Cap. Hold on tight, sugarplum. The ride might get a little bumpy.”
He knelt down so that she could climb on his back, her thin but obviously toned arms wrapping tightly about his neck and shoulders while her thighs wrapped around his waist. When he was sure that she wasn’t going anywhere, he darted into the air. He didn’t use his full thrust capacity, because an effective search was also one that wasn’t hurried. He also didn’t want to drop Agent Ortiz. He was sure that there would be some serious paperwork to fill out, and he knew Coulson would just love that.
“So, how does this thing work? Do you just close your eyes and say some magic words and poof, there’s the recipe for the killable drones?”
“Really, if you’d just be quiet for a minute so I could concentrate, then I could find them.”
“Is it that simple? Really? No magical words? Not even ‘sim sim zalabim?’ What about ‘abracadabra?’ I’ve always wanted to say abracadabra. It’s got a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
“Quiet!” Agent Ortiz hissed, and he was reminded suddenly of the fact that she had at one point given Black Widow a run for her money, and he had no desire to die just yet, so he nodded a bit.
“Quiet. Yeah, I can do that,” he said, and wasn’t even bothered when Ortiz made a skeptical sound.
They had only been searching for a moment before she suddenly startled, “There!” she yelled, pointing to a drone that was about to take a swipe at one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives. Quickly, Tony aimed with the repulsor on his right hand, the energy exploding from the gauntlet and hitting the drone. Just like that, several drones, many spread over a wide area, suddenly collapsed.
Tony made a whooping sound, changing course and making his way towards the Hulk. “This isn’t so hard!” Tony said.
The words had barely left his mouth before he learned to regret them. Having stopped paying attention to the enemy for a moment, he didn’t see when one of them aimed a pressurized cannon at him. The blast slammed into his side, and he began flying sideways, having suddenly lost control of his flying capabilities. He wasn’t too worried about his crash—he knew that the suit would protect him. But the female agent on his back was another matter entirely.
She screamed, and Tony felt her grip slipping off his suit. He tried to reach around and grab her, but it was no use, her hand already floating from his grasp as she plummeted towards the rough ground below. With a hollow feeling in his chest, Tony was suddenly bombarded with probabilities and statistics, facts and math. Either way you ran the numbers, there was only one probable outcome: Agent Carmen Ortiz was going to die, and it was all his fault.
And then, there was the Hulk.
Tony had the sense to be terrified for a minute, fearing that the Hulk would hurt her, but instead, he yanked her from the air and cradled her in his arms in a surprisingly gentle fashion, pulling her close to his chest as he hit the ground at a roll.
Tony hit the ground a moment later, dirt flying up into the air as he made a giant crater. He felt the impact in his bones, jarring and painful but entirely tolerable. He’d had worse falls, such as when he’d managed to make his escape from the Ten Rings.
A pang of agony welled up at the memory, but he pushed it down, pulling himself slowly out of the crater. The fighting hadn’t stopped—all around, drones were still doing battle with the heroes, although the numbers were way more favorable. But this was no time to rest. He had to find that last leader drone and destroy it, before another catastrophe happened.
Though the Hulk was not one for words, and in fact was much more suited for violence and smashing things, Bruce Banner was still there, and as he stared at the agent though the “other guy’s” eyes, he felt a sense of recognition. It wasn’t that he knew her specifically—he only knew that she reminded him of someone.
The Hulk growled low in his throat, and slowly, Agent Ortiz’s eyes crept open. She’d been sure that she was going to die, or at least break several bones, but instead, there she was, cradled in Hulk’s massive arms.
She swallowed slowly, and then smiled. “You saved me,” she said.
The Hulk snuffled and looked away, warm air tickling her face with his breath. She couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her. She wasn’t sure why she laughed—maybe because she’d come so close to dying, or maybe something else, but the Hulk seemed puzzled by it.
At least, until his eyes landed on a glinting golden pin that rested on her shoulder. It was a butterfly, beautifully crafted. It had been a gift. She slowly reached up to touch it, and then, ever so slowly, she grabbed the Hulk’s hand and brought it to the pin. “Butterfly,” she said.
“Hulk…like…butterfly,” came the slow response which sounded more like a growl. Amazed, Carmen couldn’t help her smile.
“Do you want it?” she asked him, but all of a sudden, there was Iron Man again.
“Hate to break up this touching scene, but we really ought to consider finishing things with these guys. Big guy,” he addressed the Hulk, earning a threatening growl which Tony had to make a mighty effort to act as if it didn’t terrify him to no end. “Wanna carry our psychic here? We have to find bad guy.”
“Find bad guy.”
“Yeah, buddy. Let’s find the bad guy.” He would have patted the Hulk’s shoulder, but realizing that that would most likely end in the loss of his own arm, Tony refrained. He couldn’t fly anymore, so instead, he jogged alongside the Hulk, shooting anything that ventured too close. It took some doing, but they eventually found the final Leader drone, hiding out some way from where the rest of the fighting was taking place. It took the Hulk less than five minutes to entirely dismantle him, effectively putting an end to the battle.
They made their way back to the others, who were slowly gathering around Nick Fury, who’d done a little fighting as well. His one eye quickly found them as they made their way back.
“That took far too long,” Fury said, his voice hard, “Had this been in a city, a whole lot of innocent people would be dead. Do you think that’s acceptable? Huh? Do you?”
“No, sir,” Tony heard Steve say as they finally got there.
“What’s goin’ on over here? In trouble with daddy, are we?” He placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, but Captain America quickly batted it away, glaring at Tony just briefly. Annoyance fluttered through Tony, but he pushed it down. There would be time for that later. Right now, Fury was giving them hell and all he wanted to do was go home, get drunk, and pass out. Or maybe just get work done in his workshop. He wasn’t quite sure which yet.
“Didn’t think so,” Fury said in response to Steve, ignoring Tony’s interjection, “Stark, take these leader drones to your lab and see if you can figure out who made them and how they work. I don’t want anything else like this getting out, but if we see it again, I want to make sure we know how it ticks and how to tell them from the rest of the drones. We can’t always count on a psychic to be on hand when faced with a threat like this. Do you understand me?”
Tony opened his mouth to return a smart comment, but Steve silenced him once more with a look, a look which reminded him of the kind of look his mother would give him when she knew he was about to talk back to his father.
“Now get out of here, all of you.” Fury motioned at his team to start cleaning up and Tony watched it all with a look of mild irritation evident. Finally, the only ones left were the Avengers and Agent Ortiz, who got almost as red as a tomato at the sight of Bruce coming back to himself, mostly naked as usual. Luckily, there was a change of clothes at hand and he disappeared temporarily to change.
“Well, that went well,” Tony said, grinning at them. His face plate had been removed, giving them all a clear view of his face, but the rest of the suit was pretty messed up.
“That’s what you call going well?” Natasha said with a quirk of an eyebrow.
Tony shrugged, still unable to keep the grin from his face. He felt like this every time a battle was finished, this kind of intoxicating feeling where colors seemed a bit more vivid and sensations were heightened almost beyond recognition.
“Well, it isn’t what I call going well. Tony, I’d like a word.”
“Which word would you like? Apple? Aardvark? I’ve got a lot of words, I could do this all day—“
“Be quiet! Dammit, Tony, you not only disobeyed a direct order earlier, but you also endangered the life of another by not paying attention! Keep messing up like this, and I’m not sure you deserve to be a part of this team.”
“A part of this team?” Tony said, his voice dangerous. “I am this team. Without me, do you honestly think The Avengers Initiative would have ever gotten anywhere? Huh? I’ll tell you, the answer to that is a big fat resounding no!”
“Boys, boys,” Clint cut in, trying to keep his tone neutral. “Do we have to do this here?”
Steve shook his head once, his mouth a thin red line of disapproval. “Clean up your act, Tony,” he said, then turned on his heel and marched over to where Phil Coulson was supervising the cleanup. Tony glared at him darkly, his eyes never leaving the Captain’s back.
Carmen whistled, however, drawing their attention back to her. They had forgotten she was there. “Are you always fighting like this?”
“Pretty much,” Bruce said, returning. His face was slightly flushed still, but he had recovered most of his dignity. Carmen seemed unable to keep a smile off her face, and Tony wondered if there was something there before dismissing it immediately—even if there were, it was none of his business. “Tony and Steve are both very talented men, but one thing stands between them: they’re both very stubborn. And sometimes, that means they don’t get along.”
“Get along or not, I’m kind of tired of standing around here. Let’s head back to the Tower, shall we? I’d like a shower to get some of this grime out of my hair,” Natasha said, then turned a smile on the other woman. “Great to see you again, Carmen.”
“Likewise,” Agent Ortiz managed, “And it was great to meet the rest of you.”
After smiling and waving briefly at her, Natasha turned to drag Clint towards their transportation, Tony trailing behind them.
Bruce looked between them for a minute, seeming torn, before he smiled. “Well, I suppose that’s my cue.”
“Thanks for saving me,” Carmen said, and Bruce smiled, his head ducking down before he glanced up at her with just his eyes, a sort of bashful expression that Carmen didn’t really know what to do with.
“No problem. I’ll see you around, Agent Ortiz.”
“Yeah,” she sighed, smiling softly as Bruce turned and returned to their transportation. He couldn’t quite shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, he was turning his back on something special. He just didn’t know if he was ready to face that just yet. Too bad he didn’t realize that he had her butterfly pin sitting in his pocket.