Chapter 1: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 1
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.
Chapter 2: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 2
Bickering between Steve and Tony hits its peak, and Bruce is stuck being mediator while struggling to figure out what to do about returning Carmen's pin.
Author’s Note: Thanks for sticking with me so far! I realize that not a lot of people like original female characters and stuff, but I hope that Carmen isn’t too hard to bear—she’s kind of a cameo for a friend of mine. Also, I have a bit of a hard time getting inside Tony’s head. He’s much more fun when he’s all enigmatic and strange, and I feel like I write him better through other peoples’ eyes, but this story really can’t exist without his POV, so here is my attempt, as well as my attempt to write some of the other characters! Please enjoy! (:
Episode Four: Order and the Heart, Pt. 2
“You managed to piss off the Captain? Again?” Pepper’s voice was incredulous in Tony’s ears, and he pinched the bridge of his nose. Tony had gotten home not long ago and had immediately made his way downstairs to the workshop. It had been in disarray, Dummy struggling to put it back into some kind of order while the other robots were at their charging stations, but instead of helping clean up, he’d swept a ton of stuff right off the nearest work table and slammed down the head of one of the leader drones, beginning to pull it apart to see what made it tick. He’d only gotten so far before deciding to call Pepper.
“Look, okay, it wasn’t my fault. He’s been particularly uptight lately. I mean, just ‘cause I don’t always follow orders to the letter—“
“Tony, you don’t follow orders at all. Does it ever occur to you that that’s what you signed up for when you joined the Avengers?”
“No, okay? That most certainly is not what I signed up for, Pep. Absolutely not. I joined the Avengers because I thought we could do more as a team. That maybe, we could save some more lives as a team. But I guess I was wrong, huh? I nearly dropped that woman—“
“I don’t remember her name—just some S.H.I.E.L.D. psychic or something.” Tony waved a hand impatiently, ignoring the fact that Pepper obviously couldn’t see what he was doing.
“I was flying, she was doing some psychic thing, I don’t know, it was all very cool and we were doing a damn fine job. But then, I guess one of the bastards snuck in under my radar and got a hit in.” Sparks exploded from the circuits he’d pulled from the drone’s head and he cursed, pulling his hand away a bit. Dummy offered him a Band-Aid, but he waved him away.
“Are you okay, Tony? Were you hurt?”
The words were barely out of her mouth before Tony was continuing his story, a screwdriver in his mouth distorting some of his words. “So there we were, and I almost dropped her. But, then the Hulk was there and everything turned out alright. But of course, that’s not how ol’ Cap sees it. Nope, just me being irresponsible, never mind that she got out just fine and Bruce seems to dig her, and we killed the bad guys.”
“Tony,” there was a warning in her voice, and Tony sighed, knowing exactly what she was getting at.
“I’m fine, Pepper,” he told her. “Look, I need to get back to work on this drone to find out what makes it tick, so I’ll catch you later. How about dinner at Le Cirque tomorrow? 9 o’clock?”
“Alright. And Tony?” She paused. “I love you.”
Tony swallowed around what felt like an entire basketball in his throat, feeling a crushing weight seeming to land on top of his chest. He wasn’t sure if he could breathe, though he knew there was something he ought to be saying. Too much time had passed. She was probably getting really upset. He could say it back. He knew he should say it back. Instead, he coughed, and managed to get out, “Uh, yeah, you too. Goodbye, Miss Potts.”
As the phone went dark, Tony tossed it over the surface of the table and dropped his head into his hands, groaning. Yeah, he’d made a royal ass of himself there. What was new? He stood quickly, ignoring the sharp pull of pain that resulted in his side. He placed a hand over the ice situated there, sighed, and decided that he needed some more coffee.
Bruce was sitting in the kitchen, his hand clutching at the butterfly pin he’d found in his pocket and a mug of coffee cooling next to his hand on the table. He knew he ought to return it, but the thought of seeing Agent Ortiz again made him very distinctly uncomfortable.
The fact was, he hadn’t found himself attracted to another woman since he had been forced to part ways with Betty not so long ago. There were the obvious reasons—the fact that he turned into a giant green rage-monster that could level entire cities, just from getting a little excited, among the most primary of these reasons—but the main reason was that a part of him, a very large part, had thought that Betty was the one and only woman for him.
He knew he couldn’t be with her. He couldn’t endanger her that way, and not to mention the part where her father was dead-set on using him as a lab rat so they could create more like him to use as weapons. When he had left her, he’d given up on love.
And then, this agent waltzed into his life. Or fell, he supposed, and he’d felt his heart lurch despite the fact that he had been Hulked out. As far as he knew, that hadn’t happened before, with anyone except for Betty. Maybe it was because he’d gotten better at controlling that part of him. He didn’t know, but he couldn’t go this route again. Sure, Bruce didn’t know for sure that it would be another case of love and heartbreak, since he’d only just glanced at her briefly and he was pretty sure she didn’t want a Hulk for a boyfriend, but the very possibility terrified him.
“Bruce, old buddy!” the chipper voice dragged him out of his thoughts and he glanced up to see Tony, an icepack strapped to his side and a shit-eating grin on his face. He gave a tight smile to him in return, his gaze flitting back down to the pin as he ran his fingers over it.
Tony made his way over to the coffee maker and poured himself a cup. “What is this? Are you moping? Is that why you’re being so quiet? It’s a little unnerving, to be honest, so if you could just, I don’t know, say some words or something, I’d be really…”
“The Captain is really upset with you,” Bruce cut in, sighing and sitting back in his seat, moving the butterfly pin to his back pocket and surveying Tony as he took a long sip from his mug.
Tony shrugged, swallowing and making a face. “Good god, this is awful. This is…yeah, worst coffee I’ve ever tasted. What did you use? Is that…is that Folgers? I think I might cry. Seriously, I might just start sobbing in a corner. I don’t think I’ve ever had coffee that hadn’t been specially imported from somewhere overseas, and now I see why.” Bruce watched as he poured the coffee out and wiped his mouth with a swipe of his hand, which he promptly rubbed on his pants before flopping into the seat across from him.
Tony fell silent, just staring at Bruce from across the table, the fingertips on his left hand beating out a staccato rhythm on its surface. Bruce met his gaze squarely.
“So, what’s the story?” Tony finally said, breaking the silence as he slowly took the icepack off of himself and set it aside on the table. He winced at the movement, but otherwise, made no show that he was in pain.
“What do you mean?”
“Okay, either I’m completely losing it—“
“A distinct possibility. Even probable.”
“Or you were just fondling that butterfly pin that belonged to the uh, psychic girl. What’s her name?”
“Ortiz. Agent Carmen Ortiz.” Even her name was beautiful.
“Right! Agent Ortiz. So, what’s the story there, big guy?”
Bruce sighed, glancing out the window briefly. “There is no story, and if there were, I’m not sure I’d tell it to you.”
A second later, Bruce realized how that had sounded when he saw Tony’s face. It wasn’t a big change—miniscule, really—but there it was, a slight freezing in his jaw, a shadow in his eyes, a closing-off in his face. He seemed tense, guarded, although his lips were still curved upwards just slightly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like—“
“No, it’s fine. Totally cool. I’m not the ‘confiding in’ type, I get it.” Tony waved his hand dismissively.
“—that. I didn’t mean it like that, Tony. I meant it generally. I’m not very good with telling stories, so if there were one, I would probably not tell it to you or anyone.”
“Yeah, alright, I guess I can see that.” Tony stood from the table and pushed the chair underneath it, his hands resting on the back for a long moment as he stared down, considering the table. He drummed them on it, then smiled at Bruce, offering a wave. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Wait, Tony. What about the Captain?”
Tony’s face screwed up in confusion. “What about him?”
“He’s still pretty mad at you. What are you going to do about that?”
“What makes you think I’ll do anything about it? If he’s mad at me, he’ll either get over it or he won’t. It’s not my problem he can’t see that there is a method to my madness, or that I work better without him bossing me around.”
“So that’s what you think, huh?” came Steve’s voice and Bruce watched in abject horror as Tony whirled around smiling. Oh, boy. This wasn’t going to go well. “What happened to all of that you were saying about me being the leader?”
“Did I say that?” Tony said, the very picture of innocence.
“Yes, sir, you did. Would you like a playback?” came Jarvis’s voice over the speakers.
“You traitor,” Tony muttered, “That won’t be necessary. You know, I think I might just have to alter your personality—this is getting pretty ridiculous. I mean, who are you working for, really?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Steve said, his arms folded across his chest. Bruce noticed that sweat was soaking through the front of his wife-beater and matting his hair to his head and guessed that he had been working out for some time.
“I also seem to remember during that conversation you saying that you weren’t anybody’s leader,” Tony returned.
Steve opened his mouth, but didn’t have anything to say in his defense. Tony held up a hand to his ear, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Wait, I’m sorry, that’s your line. How old are you? 90? 95? Honestly, I don’t think you’re fit to rule us at that age. You could be senile.”
“Look, Stark, whether I, you, or anybody likes it or not, I’ve been given the position of leader of the Avengers. And as such, I expect the people I’m working with to listen to me when I give a direct order,” Steve said. “And that includes you.”
“Maybe I would if your orders weren’t completely idiotic!” Tony yelled, and Bruce sighed, rubbing a thumb and forefinger over his eyes. “I mean, why did you even want me to retreat!? I was perfectly fine. No more worse for wear than the others. Yet I was the one you tried to hustle out of there. Why was that? Huh? Do you think I’m weak? That I can’t hold my own? Well, you guessed wrong. I could take you on any day of the week!”
Steve’s face flushed and for a minute, Bruce shifted in his seat, trying to hide his puzzlement. It couldn’t be…did Steve like Tony? No. That wasn’t possible. Maybe he cared for him—they all did, though Tony was probably the most frustrating human being in existence—but he couldn’t care for him like that could he? He’d never pegged him as being interested in anyone of the male persuasion…
Still, whatever the case, Tony had Pepper, so he hoped sincerely that he was misreading the situation. He had never had particularly great social skills, and dealing with a heartbroken super-soldier seemed like it might not be an easy task.
“I’d like to see you try it. Why don’t we go a few rounds in the training room right now?”
“Because I have work to do, Soldier Boy. And you smell, so wrestling with you at the moment, if you’ll forgive me, is pretty low on my list of things to do. I have important work down in the workshop.” Tony pushed past him in the doorway and began heading towards the elevator which would take him back to his workshop.
“Coward,” Steve said, then looked as if he regretted it immediately when Tony suddenly froze and turned around. Bruce regretted it, too, but couldn’t move fast enough to stop what was happening.
Tony was next to Steve in a second, his nostrils flared as he glared up at the super soldier, who was a good head taller than him. Cold rage rested in his eyes, and Bruce really didn’t want to see it unleashed right then and there.
“Coward, am I? Tell me, Captain,” Tony said, making the rank sound as if it were a dirty slur that should never be uttered in public. “Who was it that stepped up and saved Manhattan from the nuke? Who was it that flew right up into the portal and launched it at the Chi’Tauri mother ship, saving your sorry ass along with the rest of the world? That’s right, it was me. And what about you, huh? What did you do? Tossed your shield around, barked orders at us, and made the call to close that portal before I was through it? That’s right—that one was you.”
Any regret that Steve had was gone from his face in that instant, replaced with a mask of pure anger. Bruce was worried that they wouldn’t even make it to the training room before one of them got killed.
“Now, guys, I think you need to step apart and take a deep breath.” He turned to Steve first. “Captain, Tony was injured during today’s fighting. Perhaps it would be better to have your match off later?” He kept eye contact for a moment, watching as Steve relaxed ever so slightly, then turned to Tony. “And you were right—you do have more important work to do in the workshop. So how about we call it off for tonight, okay?”
For a second, Bruce feared that Tony would argue and would refuse to step down. But eventually, he turned on his heel and barked out a rough, “Whatever” before disappearing into the elevator.
Bruce heaved a sigh of relief. “Phew. I was getting a little worried there.”
“Tony was injured in the fight?” Steve asked, and Bruce shook himself a bit, looking at him in surprise.
“Yes—the blast he took to the side managed to get through the armor. I thought you knew?”
Steve shook his head. “Tony doesn’t tell me anything he should,” he said, and his voice sounded strained to Bruce’s ears. “I’ll be in my room if you need me, Bruce.”
“Yeah, alright Captain. I’ll see you in the morning—I’m making scrambled eggs for breakfast.”
Steve nodded briefly and then disappeared through the door to the hallway, leaving Bruce alone once more. He hoped that with time, the two would remember how to get along. For now, though, he had to figure out what he was going to do about returning the butterfly pin.
Chapter 3: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 3
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Episode Four: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 3
“Hm? What is it?”
The moon filtered in through the specially designed blinds that Tony had installed in Clint’s spacious bedroom. One click of a button or a call to Jarvis, and the entire place closed up like a liquor store on Sunday, the blinds keeping all light out—and yes, that was all light. Right now, they were set to be slightly open, though, because if there was one thing Clint enjoyed, it was watching the soft glow of moonlight reflecting off of Natasha’s bright red hair or the milky-white expanse of skin on her naked body. She was currently mostly wrapped up in one of his dark purple sheets, but one slender leg poked out while the other curled around his beneath the comforter. Her head was curled into the crook of his neck, her warm breath glancing across his collarbone and a long, thin hand situated just above his heart, his own hand atop hers. The other hand was curled into her hair, tugging gently just the way he knew she liked it.
It was times like this, with her half asleep and murmuring, her breath ghosting across his chest like an electric touch, that he forgot how absolutely deadly she was. He could remember the first time he’d faced her, then as enemies, and he still had a scar—a long, jagged cut that spanned from just below his collarbone to just above his hip. Sometimes, after they’d had sex, she would run her hand along it and he could still remember the flash of pain, but now it was intermixed with pleasure at her touch.
It took a lot to get to that point, though.
Slowly, Clint became aware of her watching him, her eyes large and unblinking and inconceivably green in the soft lighting from the window, and he remembered that he called her name. He couldn’t remember what he’d been meaning to say, though, or maybe he just lost the nerve, so instead, he smiled at her, brushing some of her hair away from her face and planting a warm kiss on her forehead.
She made a face at him, her nose scrunching up in the most adorable way. “What was that for?” she asked. “I was trying to sleep.”
“I know. I just couldn’t help myself,” Clint said, “You’re sexy as fuck, you know that?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, so I’ve been told. Now shut up and let me sleep.”
“Yes, princess,” Clint sighed, pulling her closer and just staring up at the ceiling, where a fan was lazily turning and filling the room with a nice, comforting breeze. It stood to reason, of course, that the second her eyes closed, he remembered exactly what he had wanted to say. Three little words, yet they were incredibly heavy words, and ones that he hadn’t said in a long, long time. In fact, the last person he’d said it to was dead now. A part of him feared that anyone he said them to would have the same thing happen to them.
Sighing once more, Clint simply curled his arm more tightly around her and closed his eyes, forcing himself into a light slumber.
“A date? What is this Midgardian tradition of which you speak?” Thor boomed the next morning. Much to the annoyance of the Avengers, he was very much a morning person, just as perky and loud in the wee hours of the morning as he was late at night. He barely seemed to need sleep at all, in fact. Must be a demigod thing.
Bruce, Thor and even Tony were sitting around the breakfast nook in the kitchen, hands curled around mugs of steaming coffee. Steve was awake, but was out running as he did every morning to clear the night’s demons and begin the day anew. Clint and Natasha weren’t awake yet—they were very much not morning people, and the rest of the group didn’t expect an appearance from them until after eleven.
Tony looked as if he hadn’t slept at all, deep, dark circles hollowing out his face and making him look even older than he was. And honestly, Bruce wouldn’t be shocked if Tony hadn’t slept for days. The man was a notorious insomniac, and he often saw Tony slaving on some device or another when he woke up to get a glass of water in the middle of the night, muttering feverishly to himself. He never noticed Bruce at those times.
Bruce took another sip of the coffee in his mug. Tony had insisted that they get rid of the Folgers, and had instead made them all try some imported coffee that he deemed the greatest on the planet. Bruce conceded that it was about as close to perfection as coffee could get, but the price made him balk. Even if Tony had billions, Bruce did not, and the idea of spending so much on coffee was completely ridiculous to him.
“A date is when one person takes someone they care about out to have fun. They usually go see a movie, have dinner, things like that,” Bruce explained to Thor, who looked like he was trying to wrap his head around that.
“No, I’ll tell you what, if you want to really impress her, you take her out to a top-dollar establishment and drown her in all the finest delicacies and wines. Then you take her home and—‘
“Please don’t finish that sentence, Tony,” Bruce said with a wince. “And do you honestly think Jane would want—“
“You mean Jane would wish for me to do this for her!?” Thor thundered, sitting up in his seat like a massive puppy who had just heard the word ‘fetch.’
“Wow, calm down there, Goldilocks. Seriously, you couldn’t look more like a golden retriever if you had a tail wagging behind you and your head hanging out of a car window. Hey, I’ll tell you what—you calm down, and I’ll explain everything you need to know about dating women on Earth,” Tony said, giving him an amused smirk and leaning forward to put his elbows on the table and lock his hands. “I’m kind of an expert.”
Thor nodded eagerly. “Yes, Anthony, tell me more! This tradition fascinates me. Do you really think Jane wants to participate?”
“Of course Jane wants to participate. Isn’t that kind of the whole point? She’s only been in love with you since forever and around here, when you feel that way about someone, you take ‘em out, show ‘em a good time.”
“You are sure?” Thor asked.
Bruce had to rub his fingers over his eyes. This wasn’t going to end well, with Thor playing by Tony’s dating handbook. He knew he should probably call Jane and let her know immediately. But he had one thing he had to do.
He glanced at his watch, then quickly took the last gulp of his coffee before standing up. Tony’s gaze shot to him, his eyes darting quickly as if he hadn’t expected the movement. “Where you headed, big guy?”
“I have to…uh…return something.”
Tony gave him a knowing glance and a bit of a smirk. “You sly devil you.”
“Shut up, Tony,” Bruce said, but he was smiling.
“I dunno, maybe you ought to get dating advice from Bruce. The guy’s like a sex magnet. One day, and already he’s stumbled upon an excuse to see this Agent lady again.”
“Agent lady? Who exactly are we talking about?” came a voice from the doorway and Bruce turned to see Clint and Natasha enter the room…except Natasha was only wearing a dark purple sheet. He politely averted his gaze and looked anywhere but at her. Tony, on the other hand, stared cheekily, ignoring the dark glare he was receiving from Clint. Bruce wondered if maybe Tony was looking to make an enemy of everyone in the house, or if he just happened to have a death wish.
After all, it was one thing to stare at a naked Black Widow, who could kill a man with nothing more than her hands and/or thighs of death. Quite another to do it with her sometimes-boyfriend who was also a master spy and assassin in the room with them.
Luckily, Natasha didn’t look bothered. Instead, she gave Tony a knowing glance and a roll of her eyes before pushing further into the kitchen and moving to make herself a mug of coffee. “You didn’t answer my question, Bruce. What lady agent are you seeing?”
Bruce ducked his head, sure that a light blush was sweeping across his cheeks. “Agent Ortiz.”
“Ohh, got the hots for a psychic, I see?” Clint said waggling his eyebrows at him.
“It isn’t like that. I just have to return her pin.”
“He’s lying. It is like that. Exactly like that, in fact.”
“Exactly like what? I do not understand,” Thor’s face contorted in confusion.
Tony patted his back. “You’ll see, buddy.”
Just then, the final member of their group entered the kitchen, taking all of them in with a slightly dazed expression. A dark ring of sweat decorated the collar of his tank-top as he fiddled with the empty water bottle in his hands. His golden hair was damp, slightly tousled, and his cheeks were colored a light pink from exertion. “You’re all up early. What’s going on?”
“Why don’t we head down to my workshop where I can teach you all you need to know?” Tony said to Thor swiftly, standing from his seat. It was obvious that he was eager to leave, to avoid conflict if he could. He pushed past Steve on his way out, but Steve reached out and took his arm.
Tony tensed immediately, his entire body freezing at the contact. Bruce felt his heart speed up a tad, in fear that there was going to be an explosive battle right then and there, but Tony was exercising an extraordinary amount of restraint that was uncharacteristic of him, and hadn’t even made a move to yank his arm away just yet.
The entire room seemed to be tense with anticipation. All of the people in here were pretty much trained to read a situation in an instant, to feel when a fight was eminent and force might be necessary. This felt like one of those times.
What felt like an eternity of waiting with bated breath, however, finally was expelled when Steve’s expression softened and he slowly let go of Tony’s arm. “Can we talk…later? I don’t want this…this thing between us to continue. We’re not a very good team when we’re like this.”
“Yeah, sure, Cap. Later. Thor, let’s go. My time is very expensive, but I’m giving you a bargain. By the end of the night, you’ll be a date guru. Jane won’t even know what hit her.”
“What is a guru?” Thor asked, standing and following Tony to the elevator. “And why would I wish to hit Jane?”
The rest of the conversation was lost in the ding of the elevator, and the group watched as they disappeared.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you all later,” Bruce said once they were gone, smiling at all of them in turn before heading away. He sincerely hoped that Tony and Steve would work out their differences soon, but more importantly, he had a butterfly pin to return.
Tony sighed, chewing on his lip as he looked over his latest contraption. He wasn’t sure what he wanted it to do just yet, but honestly, that was pretty much always the case when he first began working on something. What would start as one thing, one curiosity, one challenge, swiftly became several on top of each other, until he finally had something he could use.
He had sent Thor out of there some time ago and had promptly lost himself in his work. He’d finished up his analysis on the drone head and had sent the information to Fury as well, before a question about the psychic circuits began this whole project. It wasn’t going well, but that was just a small speed-bump. He’d just have to put in some more time, get it worked out…
Suddenly, the phone in the workshop rang. “Don’t answer that, Jarvis. I’m busy.”
“Sir, it is Pepper Potts. Are you sure you would like to ignore it?”
That gave Tony pause. Something niggled at the back of his brain, something important…
Shit. “Jarvis, what time is it…?”
“It is 10:28, sir.”
Tony cursed again, tossing down his work tool and rubbing his eyes. Shit, shit, shit…
“Answer it,” he got out.
“Tony.” Pepper’s voice was ice cold, and she somehow managed to put enough venom in his name to make it sound like the vilest of curses and insults.
Tony sat back in his chair, staring up at his ceiling and folding his arms across his chest. “Pep, I am so sorry. I got caught up in work and, you know how I can be, let’s face it, I’ve always been bad about making plans and—“
“Tony, you know what, it’s fine. I really shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not like you’ve ever given me reason to believe you would stop your work for more than five minutes to meet me for a date, and without me there reminding you to be places, how could I expect any different now?” Pepper said, her voice nearly cracking toward the end of her tirade. He was used to annoying her. Used to pissing her off. But the disappointment in her voice, that was something he wasn’t used to. It felt like knives in his brain, in his chest.
Yes, he had gone too far with his birthday party last year. And she had been seriously disappointed in him, to the point of wanting to cut him out of her life. But somehow, beyond all odds, he’d managed to get her to forgive him. Maybe it was because she knew now that he had been dying—he had no such excuse now.
“Pep, let me make this up to you, okay? I can make this right. I can. Just please—“
“Please what, Tony?” she said, and his heart broke at the sound of resignation in her voice.
He ran a hand over his face. He didn’t know how he was going to finish that sentence. “Come over,” he finally said, “Come over and we’ll have that date. Just you and me, some takeout, and the finest wine in the cellar.”
“I don’t know, it’s getting late, I really should…”
He heard her sigh and he knew he had her. A light smile found its way onto his lips. Yes, he was going to make it up to her. He’d show her that she was the most important person in his life. Because she was. He was going to tell her, tonight, that he loved her. He could do this.
He opened his mouth, and then heard her scream.
Everything Tony was going to say slipped right out of his head, the endless equations in his mind suddenly coming to a grinding halt as his heart gave a mighty heave. “Pepper? Pepper! What the hell is going on? Are you okay? Pep!”
And then the line went dead.
Author’s Note: Uh-oh! Poor Pepper! And will Clint tell Nat how he feels? And how's that date thing going for Thor? Will Bruce end up flirting with Carmen? Guess we’ll have to see what happens next! ;D
Chapter 4: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 4
Author’s Note: This chapter promises to be a very long one! I hope you all enjoy it, though! (:
Episode Four: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 4
Bruce stared at the door once more, running a hand through his hair restlessly and then moving to knock once more before stopping himself and stuffing his hands in his pockets. He was standing in the hallway at one of S.H.I.E.L.D’s headquarters, in the hallway where all the dormitories were located—the name on the door he stood in front of was Ortiz.
He’d been there for a good half-hour, debating again and again whether he should knock or if he should just stuff the pin in her little mailbox outside the door. Before he’d even managed to get here, he had tried to busy himself with as much as he could to put it off, but now, here he was. To be honest, he felt a bit foolish. What if she had already gone to bed? Groaning in frustration, he pulled the pin out of his pockets and reached to stuff it in the mailbox after all…but the door swung open.
Carmen was wearing nothing but a red silk robe with lovely butterfly designs done in white thread decorating it, her hair damp and slightly tousled. It was obvious that she was just getting out of the shower. Bruce quickly looked down to hide his blush, but one look at her dainty bare feet had him all choked up again. She was truly attractive.
“Can I help you?” she asked, amusement coloring her lightly accented voice.
“Um…How did you…?”
“Know you were here when you didn’t knock? Honestly, Dr. Banner, I’m not sure what you were thinking by not knocking, especially since I could sense your presence at the door this entire time.”
“Oh, right. Because of the psychic…” the color drained from Bruce’s face. “The entire time?”
“Uh-huh,” Carmen laughed, and Bruce quickly brought a hand to his forehead in embarrassment.
“I’m so sorry. I’m really embarrassed now. I should just…” He rummaged in his pocket for the butterfly pin before remembering that he’d been putting it in the box when she had opened the door, and he quickly recovered it, handing it over to her. “You…uh…left this. In my pocket. Although, not sure how it got there…”
“Oh, that’s easy. I put it there,” Carmen said, taking the pin and smiling at him as she fastened it to the robe.
She caught the confusion on his face and laughed. “How else was I going to get you to come over? I’m afraid I have never been very good at simply asking a guy out, and you seemed too shy to do it yourself. Besides, following a battle like that, it didn’t seem like the right time. But hey! Now you’re here. Want to come in?”
Bruce felt like a whirlwind had just made its way through his brain. He had always prided himself on being brilliant, but he was definitely not at his best when it came to women. They confused the hell out of him, and this one more than others. Was she saying that she wanted to go out with him?
It took him a minute of her staring at him before he realized that she had stepped aside to allow him access to her sparse apartment. Slowly, he shuffled past her and gave her an awkward smile.
She closed the door behind him. “Tea?”
“Um…Yeah. Sure. Tea would be…it’d be excellent.”
“Great, have a seat and I’ll bring it right out.” She padded into the kitchen and slowly, Bruce made his way to the small sofa. There was no window, the barracks apparently being underground, but she’d put up a picture of the New York skyline that was truly breathtaking.
Other than that, the room was pretty barren. White sofa, white carpet, white walls…a flood of white that almost hurt Bruce’s eyes. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen S.H.I.E.L.D’s accommodations, but after the opulence of Stark Tower and the personal touch Tony had put on his room there, everything seemed particularly bland. Carmen deserved better.
He heard the clatter of a tray and quickly turned to see Carmen coming into the living room. Quickly, he moved to help her, setting everything down on the coffee table before taking a seat and just watching as Carmen poured them two cups of the jasmine tea she had prepared. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of the curve of her eyelashes against her dark cheeks, the way her hair fell around her face and shoulders, the carefully manicured fingernails on her petite hands…
Gingerly, he accepted it when she held out one of the cups to him and took a sip. They sat in silence for a long moment, just staring at one another.
Finally, she set the cup down and set her head on top of her hands, elbows planted on the table on either side of the tray. “What’s the matter with me?”
“You’re not…there’s nothing wrong with you, why would you—“
She held up a hand. “Save it. I can tell when a person’s interested in me. You are. So why don’t you act like it? Is it because there’s something wrong with me in particular that you don’t want to be around me?”
“I swear to god, if you say complicated, I will blast you so hard with psychic energy you won’t wake up for a century.”
Bruce swallowed the word and offered a tight-lipped attempt at a smile. “Could you really blast someone with it? The psychic energy, I mean.”
She shrugged, smiling a little. “I think I’ll keep that a secret, Dr. Banner. But you didn’t answer my question. What’s wrong with me?”
“It isn’t you, it’s…”
“Let me guess, ‘it isn’t you, it’s me?’” she asked. Bruce nodded, still smiling, though it was a distinctly uncomfortable smile. “Dios mío, you are just a bundle of break-up clichés and we aren’t even dating yet.”
“Yet?” Bruce asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Yet,” she confirmed, “It’s only a matter of time before you succumb to my charms.”
“You got an ego on you,” Bruce said, laughing and growing more comfortable despite himself.
Carmen laughed as well. “Nah, I just know when there’s chemistry, and you and I…we have chemistry.”
“And you know that for a fact?”
She shrugged. “I feel it.”
“With your psychic abilities?”
She laughed. “No. I feel it as a woman. So what do you say?”
“To what?” Bruce asked carefully.
“You, me, dinner, next week.”
Bruce swallowed, looking down. “Carmen, I really don’t think…”
He felt her finger on his lips, silencing him, and looked up in time to see her gaze firmly trapped on his as she leaned across the table. “Don’t think. Just feel, and say yes. It’s only a date, Dr. Banner.”
She brushed her finger across his lips to his cheek, a light smile on her face. It was only a date, she was right about that. But he was afraid of what one date would lead to; possibly more dates, and then love, and then danger.
But she was right about one thing—there was chemistry. He felt electricity where her fingers had touched. “If we’re going on a date…then the least you could do is call me by my first name. No more of this Dr. Banner nonsense.”
“Yay!” Carmen pulled him into a hug, and he was very aware of the fact that his face was basically buried in her breasts. She eventually turned him loose and sat back, grinning at him. “I’m happy we could come to an agreement, Bruce.”
“Yeah, well, there’s still a chance that you’ll regret even thinking about going on a date with me.”
“Nah,” she responded, her grin only widening.
Suddenly, Bruce’s phone rang and he pulled it out. Tony’s name was on the caller ID.
“Excuse me for a moment—this could be important,” he said.
She nodded and stood, picking up the tray. “Alright. I’ll just be in the kitchen.”
He waited for her to leave before pressing the talk button on his StarkPhone. “What do you need, Tony?”
“It’s Pepper. Something’s happened to her. I’m en route to where her phone connection dropped out. Tell the others.”
Before Bruce could ask any more than that, Tony hung up and Bruce quickly stood. “I’m sorry, I have to go, Carmen! I’ll see you next week!”
With that, he raced out of the apartment, not waiting for a response from the kitchen. He had to move swiftly.
“Jane Foster, well-met,” Thor said. Well, more like boomed. The man’s voice was like an avalanche of rock. And sexy. At least, that’s what Jane thought of it. She had to admit, she’d been rather surprised when he had called her and asked her to go on a proper date with him. She had thought they were the kind of relationship that was beyond simply ‘dating,’ but he assured her that it was just something he wished to do for her.
“Thor,” she said, smiling brightly at him before standing on her tip-toes and pressing a warm kiss to his shapely lips. “So, what made you suddenly interested in going on dates?”
Thor shrugged, although a grin sat lazily on his face. “Let us just say that my eyes have been opened. I was assured that Midgardian women enjoy dating?”
“Oh, we definitely do. I just didn’t think you were the type.”
“What type would that be, fair Jane?”
“Midgardian,” she laughed.
Thor’s booming laugh joined in as he reached over and held open the door to the sleek black limousine he had arrived in.
“A limo?” Jane stared in wonder. “It’s been a while since I got a ride in one of these. How did you…?”
“Do not ask questions. Simply get in, and I will show you as good a time as can be imagined.”
Still a bit puzzled, she climbed in and got comfortable. Thor joined a moment later, after informing the driver of where they would be headed next. Jane had been carefully left out of the loop, as Thor seemed to want to surprise her.
He popped the cork on some champagne, pouring them both a glass. “To our first date!” he toasted, and Jane clinked glasses with him.
Jane tried to pry information out of Thor to find out where he was taking her, but he was frustratingly tight-lipped, and she had to wonder if maybe Clint and Natasha had something to do with that.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, they pulled up in front of a high-end New York restaurant, and as Jane climbed out and looked at Thor’s beaming face, she felt her own cheeks flush. “Okay, you absolutely have to tell me how you can afford a place like this?”
Thor rolled his eyes fondly and placed a hand on her lower back, leading her up to the doors. “The Man of Iron has many assets, the weight of which I do not quite know, but he assures me that he can ‘pick up the tab,’ and that we must only mention his name.”
“Tony, of course,” Jane rolled her own eyes, but couldn’t help the flush of gratitude.
They got to a snooty looking man behind a podium with a book. “Name?” he asked lazily, looking them up and down, as if sizing them up. Jane was not a wealthy woman, although S.H.I.E.L.D. had been very generous with her of late. She knew her dress, which was peach colored, looked somewhat plain compared to the ostentatious getups around her, and the man was very much telling her with his eyes that she wasn’t quite welcome.
“Thor Odinson!” Thor called out in his most demanding voice.
The man sighed, looking in his book. “We have no reservations here under that name, sir.”
“What!? You dare question me? I shall bring the wrath of the gods upon this establishment!”
“Thor!” Jane said, quickly putting a hand on his arm. “Calm down. Tony said to mention his name. Maybe if we…”
“Of course,” Thor said, gathering himself and looking at the man once more, who was staring at them as if he were three seconds from summoning the police. He probably was, too. “Perhaps there has been a mistake. Tony Stark—“
The name had an immediate reaction, but it was not the one that Jane was expecting. Everyone seemed to freeze, and the man behind the podium actually squeaked, ducking down behind it and calling out for security.
“Wait, there’s been a mistake, why—“ Jane didn’t get to finish before the security team was grabbing them and pulling them away, threatening to throw them in a holding cell if they made a fuss.
And of course, Thor had to make a fuss. He knocked two of them clean unconscious in less than a few seconds, and would have summoned Mjolnir had it not been for Jane reaching up and touching his shoulder and begging him to calm down.
“But these burly men are threatening us! Why should I not eradicate the threat!?”
“Because that’s not how we do things here, Thor!” Jane shrieked. “We’re law-abiding citizens. They can’t keep us here for long. It’s obvious that Tony has some kind of history with this place. What did he say, exactly, when offering to fund our date?”
“I…he said that he could pay for any place we wished to go. Even mentioned this one by name! I knew not what other high-caliber establishments there were, so I latched onto the name.”
Jane sighed. “Did he by chance tell you not to come to this one?”
Thor opened his mouth to indignantly protest, but then closed it promptly, his cheeks coloring a light pink. “Now that you mention it…”
“Oh, Thor…” Jane shook her head but smiled, placing her hand in his as they were ushered into a small room in the back of the restaurant.
They were kept in there for several hours, along with a few others who had tried to pull one over on the staff to get inside. By the end of their time there, they had made many new friends and Thor had promised that sometime he would get Tony to take them all out to a feast, where they could make merry and enjoy one another. Jane would have pointed out that Tony had never agreed to that, but decided that whatever he had done to the people of this restaurant that landed them in this room, he should pay for by getting them all nice restaurant reservations later. His treat, of course. It probably wouldn’t even be that hard to convince him. The man seemed inclined to spend every penny he had earned over the years, and it wasn’t like he was running low.
They were walking back to Jane’s New York apartment (she was between New York and New Mexico all the time these days), as the limo driver had given up and had left them. Thankfully, it wasn’t very far, though Thor had requested the driver take a circuitous route to get them there in order to spend more time with her inside the limo.
“I am sorry, Jane Foster,” he told her, breaking the companionable silence that had descended on them.
She glanced at him, tilting her head a bit to see his face behind the curtain of long blonde hair. He looked…well, disappointed. Sighing, Jane wrapped her arms around his waist. “What for?”
“I ruined this treasured Midgardian tradition!” Thor said, sounding incredulous that she didn’t already know this and blame him for it.
Jane laughed. She couldn’t help it. “Thor, the thing about dates is that they don’t usually go the way they’re planned—but it doesn’t matter! What’s important is spending time with a person you care about. We spent time together, and I had a good time despite being locked in that room. We made many friends, we laughed and ‘made merry,’ and what more can a person ask for in a date?”
They arrived in front of her place and she grinned at him, biting her lip. “Now how about you and I go on upstairs and do an even more treasured tradition? And not only a Midgardian one.”
Thor grinned and pulled her into his arms—this, he knew how to do well—carrying her bride style over the threshold and into the building and up the stairs as if she weighed no more than a feather. He had to put her down in front of the door in order to let her unlock it, but the second the door was open, he was kissing her.
They made their way clumsily to her bedroom, leaving a trail of clothing as they went. Her door was closed, but this time, he didn’t stop to make it more easy for her to open it, so she fumbled with the doorknob without disentangling her lips from his.
She had only just managed to push it open when a chirping began. Thor jumped, as if burned, and quickly reached into his pocket as Jane nearly tumbled backwards into her room. She watched as he glanced at the ID on the phone and then he gave her a questioning look, as if asking her whether he should take it or not.
She thought about telling him to forget about the phone, to just set it aside and be with her. But he was a superhero, and his superhero phone was ringing. The Avengers knew he was with Jane. She knew they wouldn’t call without a damn good reason.
“Answer it,” she told him, and he nodded, quickly pressing the talk button. She had been amazed at how quickly he had mastered some of the Midgardian tech that Tony had handed him, but then, Asgard was supposed to be far advanced, even if the way he talked sounded like it came from medieval times.
Jane turned and quickly found a pair of jeans and a t-shirt to put on, as well as a comfortable gray sweater. By the time she had dressed, Thor was hanging up.
“Most troubling news indeed!” Thor informed her.
“What happened?” she asked, her heart beating quickly.
“The Man of Iron’s beloved, Pepper Potts, has disappeared! They fear she has been kidnapped.”
“Oh no,” Jane got out, her eyes filling with tears. “Do they think she’s alright? Quick, we have to get over there!”
“You are coming with me?”
“Of course I am! Pepper is my friend, Thor. And so is the team. We should be together for this.”
“If you say so, fair Jane. Come, let us be off!”
And with that, they rushed off to Stark Tower.
“Nat, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this for a long time,” Clint said, pulling himself up from the mat where he and Natasha had just been sparring. “So can we just stop and talk for a minute?”
They’d been training for hours. Sparring, target practice, fighting with the dummies, everything. They’d run the entire gambit of the training room more than once.
“No, c’mon, one more sparring match.” Natasha held up her hands in a ready position. Sweat had dampened her hair, making it fall in ringlets around her face—it always got curlier when it was wet, he’d noticed—and Clint sighed, reaching out and taking her hands gently in his own.
Her face softened. “What is it, Clint?”
“What…” he began, then stopped, his words getting caught up in his throat. It was definitely a strange sensation, as Clint had never been short on words before. Not really. He’d been able to talk his way out of more situations than he could count.
Natasha seemed to notice, too. “Seriously, I think this is a first. I’ve never seen you struggle with words before, least of all around me. Just say what you’re thinking.”
“What are we?” he blurted out in a rush.
She blinked at him, her green eyes luminous in the dim lighting of the training room. “What do you mean, ‘what are we?’ We’re us. You and me. I thought that’s what we always were.”
“No, I mean,” Clint turned around, running his hand through his short-cropped hair. It, too, was a bit damp from sweat, though he supposed having less hair worked in his favor in the keeping cool department. “What kind of relationship do we have? Friends with benefits? Boyfriend and girlfriend, lovers…what?”
He turned to face her, his own face filled with something like desperation. He’d been struggling with this very question for a while. At first, it had been easy to ignore. She was the most excellent partner both in bed and on the field, and he’d liked it, but as they spent more time together, grown to understand each other more, his feelings had transformed into something that was somehow more than that, and he felt like he deserved some kind of clarification.
Natasha stepped forward, placing a hand on his cheek. “Clint, why are you so obsessed with labels all of a sudden?”
“You mean it doesn’t bother you? That we have no idea what sort of direction this relationship is taking?”
She smiled at him, gently running a thumb over his cheek bone. “Why should it? I don’t even know whether you or I will live to see tomorrow, given the nature of our careers. I’ve learned to enjoy the moment, and not stress over the future, or the direction of our lives. Because who knows if we’ll even have a life outside of right now?”
“I can’t do that, Tash. I can’t go through everything blindly. I mean, I used to, but then…I don’t know. You changed me. After my brother died, I didn’t care about the future. There was no future. And then I got the order to kill you, and I looked into your eyes and couldn’t do it. From then, everything was different. And now we’re here, and fuck it, I love you, Natasha. Okay? I love you.”
He expected her to tell him her famous line—love was for children. But instead, she surprised him.
“I know, and I love you, too,” Natasha said, pressing a slow, lingering kiss to his lips. “But does our love really need a label?”
Clint exhaled slowly, his fists clinching and unclinching as she moved around him, heading for the door and grabbing a towel off the rack.
He closed his eyes, frustrated. He didn’t know why he thought that this would have gone any differently.
“But if you must have a label…” her voice suddenly called from the stairs that lead up to the hallway and then the elevator. “Lovers’ll do it. Much stronger than boyfriend and girlfriend without the childishness.”
He grinned at her, and she waved, heading up the stairs, but was suddenly stopped when both of their phones went off with a simple text—“Avengers assemble in Tony’s workshop. Important!”
“Let’s go,” Natasha said.
“Right behind you.”
They made their way to the workshop, finding the rest of the crew already there, though Tony was conspicuously absent.
“What’s the situation?” Natasha asked immediately, her voice all business as she took in the rest of the group.
“I got a call from Tony,” Bruce began. He had been leaning up against one of the worktables, his arms folded across his chest. “Apparently, something happened to Pepper. I don’t know the specifics—he hung up before I could get them and he has refused to answer the phone since then. I’m worried.”
Steve nodded, his face a careful mask of emotionlessness. “I take it he went after her already?”
“Yeah, but I was too late,” came a voice from the direction of the elevators, and everyone turned as one to find Tony heading arriving. His face was tight and pinched, worry in every movement of his body. “They’ve taken her.”
“Who has taken your beloved, Man of Iron?” Thor asked, surprisingly gentle as he reached out to pat Tony on the shoulder.
Tony deftly moved out of his reach, pushing the hand away. “I don’t know, alright!? I don’t fucking know. But they had to have taken her for a reason. I just need to know what…”
“Alright, Avengers, we need a plan of action,” Steve said, his voice changing to that of Captain America—it was somehow deeper, full of command. Clint often wondered how Tony managed to avoid following his orders when he sounded like that. Oftentimes, Clint found himself moving to obey before it even registered in his head.
“Know what? Why don’t you all just…go someplace else and plan what you want. I’ll be down here, thinking up my own plan to tell you. I just need time to think and sort it out. I can’t think when everyone’s crowding in my workshop.”
Bruce pursed his lips unhappily. “Tony…”
“No, okay? No. Just…give me some space.”
Steve moved to stand in front of Tony, staring into his eyes, as if searching for something there. “What are you thinking, Tony?”
“I’m thinking you’re getting a little too close there, Cap. Might want to take a few steps back.”
Steve, to Clint’s everlasting pride, did not rise to the bait, instead giving Tony a soft look of what might be pity. As Clint watched, Steve sighed. “Fine. Just…please, don’t do anything stupid?”
“Is that an order?” Tony said, a flash of his old humor back, though not as strong as it usually was.
“If it must be, yes.”
Steve reached out and placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder, resting it there for a minute, and unlike with Thor, Tony didn’t immediately brush it off, instead closing his eyes and accepting the comfort, if only for just a moment. Then he turned around and began tapping away on the computer.
Steve watched for a moment, the motioned for the rest of the team to follow him into the elevator, where they would try and figure out what to do in the meantime. Probably, they were waiting for a ransom call or something.
As the elevator doors closed, Tony sighed. “Sorry, cap…this is another order I’ll be disobeying.” Then, he pulled out Pepper’s phone and dialed the number given to him by whoever had taken her.It had been programmed on the phone, so when he rushed to find it, there it had been--'If you ever want to see her again, call for terms of release.'
“Alright. They’re gone, out of the picture. What do you want me to do?”
Chapter 5: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 5
Author’s Note: This is it, folks! The grand finale. As always, I am working on my action scenes and trying to get better, so there’s that. Also, this chapter, too, is going to be long because I have a lot of stuff to do in it. I hope you all enjoy it! Thanks for reading! :D
Episode Four: Orders and the Heart, Pt. 5
Steve sighed for the nine millionth time, unable to help himself. He was worried about Tony. Not just because he was probably nursing a broken heart, but because Steve had come to know him pretty well in the time they’d be living together, and so he knew that there was a very high likelihood that Tony was planning something really, really stupid.
But it wasn’t like Steve could go down there and stop him; He couldn’t actively forbid Tony from going after his girlfriend, mostly because he knew that if Peggy were in a similar situation, he wouldn’t have even taken the time to consult his team. He’d have simply rushed off to find her, consequences be damned, the same way he had when he went after Bucky all those years ago. Of course, he’d been willing to accept whatever disciplinary action came with that—he wasn’t so sure Tony was.
And as much as he hated to admit it, Tony was different from himself. Tony didn’t have the super-soldier serum and he didn’t have the best track-record when it came to self-preservation. Steve sighed again.
“Captain,” Natasha said in a sugary voice, “If you sigh one more goddamn time, I will rip out your tongue and strangle you with it, and then the only sigh you’ll be making is your last breath. Got it?”
He blushed a little, rubbing the back of his head and ruffling his hair. “Sorry,” he said, because let’s face it, Natasha was scary and was absolutely capable of doing exactly what she said.
The group had moved up to the kitchen after Tony had thrown them out of his workshop, Bruce saying that he could really use some tea to help calm himself. None of them had wanted to see Bruce hulk out inside the building—again—and so they hadn’t argued, instead choosing to follow him. They had since been here, trying to come up with some kind of solution.
“He’s going to be okay, you know,” Natasha added a moment later, and he met her eyes slowly, seeing compassion in them.
“Yes, totally,” Clint cut in. “He’s leaving right now, probably going to confront them himself.”
Steve quickly started, looking around as if trying to remember the quickest route to his room and thus to his Captain America uniform and shield, but Thor rested a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to see the insanely bright blue eyes of the demigod. He didn’t say a word, but there was an unspoken comfort in the touch, and Steve relaxed, just slightly.
“You didn’t let me finish. He’s probably going to confront them himself, but I think he’s gonna kick their asses, whoever they are.”
“We don’t know that; we have no idea what they’re capable of,” Steve quickly supplied, “Do you honestly expect me to sit here while he rushes off to his probable death?”
“Cap, we’re talking about Tony Stark. He built the first Iron Man suit in a cave with a box of scraps, escaping captivity against all odds from a group of terrorists who tortured him. He’s stronger than you give him credit for,” Natasha said, and Steve felt his heart thud uncomfortably at the thought of anyone hurting Tony the way he was sure the terrorists must have; they were the reason he had needed the arc reactor in the first place.
“She’s right,” Bruce continued. “But I don’t think we’re going to just let him leave, are we?”
“Of course not!” Thor boomed. “He is our brother in arms! We shall help him.”
“Actually, I think we should try and give him the benefit of the doubt and only help if we absolutely must. We can’t have him thinking we don’t trust him. We’ll just have to tail him,” Natasha supplied.
“And how exactly are we going to manage that without getting caught?” Steve said.
“Do you have any idea who we have on our team here?” Clint asked, arching an eyebrow. “We have Black Widow, the most successful spy that S.H.I.E.L.D. has. She’s going to follow him, and inform us of every step of the journey.”
“You can do that?” Steve said, and he couldn’t hide the hope in his voice.
“No problem,” Natasha said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “Although I’m gonna have to ask you to sit tight and trust me here, Cap. I’ll keep you informed, but it’s a lot harder to hide five people than it is one.”
Steve chewed his lip. He didn’t like the idea of Black Widow being the only one in close proximity if things got tough, but she was strong, and so was Tony, and as the team leader, he had to trust that they could stay alive long enough for the rest of the team to get there.
“Then…” Steve took a deep breath—he absolutely did not sigh, thank you very much—“I guess you’d better hurry and catch up.”
“That won’t be a problem. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, he’s using one of his more nondescript cars rather than his suit. So he isn’t flying,” Clint said.
“How do you know…?”
“I just saw it pull out of the parking garage across the street. He must have a tunnel that connects the workshop to it, but there was no doubt that it was him driving it.”
Bruce whistled. “I can never get over how good your eyes are.”
Clint shrugged, a smug grin stretching across his face. “What can I say? I may not have super powers, but I got the gift of sight.”
“Alright, I’m off. License plate, Clint?” Natasha said, and Steve noticed that she had changed clothes while he wasn’t looking; he had to do a double-take for moment, unable to believe it, but sure enough, there was a pile of clothes sitting on the kitchen floor and she was now wearing a tight jumpsuit, her weapons secured to her body.
Steve watched as Clint gave her the license plate and she kissed him on the cheek before moving over to hug Steve. He returned it, not sure why he was getting the extra attention, but then she spoke a moment later. “We’ll bring him and Pepper back safely, Cap. I know that Tony is especially important to you, though I bet you’ll try to deny it. But he’ll be back in time for you two to settle the score, alright? I promise.”
She pressed a kiss to his cheek before waving quickly at them and stepping into the elevator that would take her downstairs to where she kept her vehicle and asking Jarvis if he could pull up a map of the city so she could figure out the most likely way to cut Tony off, given his direction of travel and the way that kidnappers tended to operate. She believed that whoever they were, they were keeping Pepper in this city, or else Tony most certainly would not have taken the car he had.
Steve watched her go, and prayed that this would go well, that Tony and Natasha would come home and Pepper would be safe with him and things would go back to normal. Of course, that was wishful thinking—but what else could Steve do?
Tony chewed on his thumbnail as he maneuvered the car with his other hand. Of course the guy had picked the most cliché place imaginable, but Tony had promised he’d be there and no amount of clichés would stop him from saving Pepper. He wasn’t stupid; he knew it was a trap. But he was a clever man, and he had more ways out than anyone could imagine—as Steve was always so quick to point out.
He remembered that encounter vividly, the one where Steve had chastised him for always thinking of ways out. Funny, he decided, considering nowadays, Steve was always trying to make him take a way out, whether he wanted to or not.
Shaking his head to clear it of Steve, he continued on the road. The warehouse wasn’t too far from here, but New York traffic was notoriously awful and he was having a hard time meeting the time limit that had been set by the kidnappers. He blasted his horn as he stopped once more, wishing once again that he hadn’t had to drive. He wished he could fly, but the kidnapper had been very particular about him not showing up in his suit.
Not that he didn’t have his ways of connecting to the suit, if it came to it, but whoever this guy was, he didn’t need to know that. Finally, he gave up and pulled up to the nearest curb, climbing out of the car and leaving it there as he ran the rest of the way to the warehouse.
Pepper, he thought to himself, I’m coming for you. Don’t you worry about a thing.
Pepper tugged impatiently on her bonds for the umpteenth time, but it was useless. They were done well, probably because they had been done by machines. There were two men, one obviously the one in charge as he was barking out orders, and the other his lieutenant, and the rest of the movement belonged to several robots or drones, the likes of which she had never seen before.
Despite not being the one in charge, the lieutenant gave her the creeps. He was a small man, a dainty pair of sunglasses hiding his eyes from her. His hair was greasy and dark, and he kept moving, as if restless. He put her in mind of a spider in the worst way possible.
The leader she could get a much better read on. He was vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t quite place him. But he seemed a bit…out of his league. Unbalanced. Full of rage and anger. And impatience.
“Where is he? He should be here by now! You assured me that getting Pepper would be most effective in getting him here!” he was currently yelling, running a hand through his light brown hair. He looked older, maybe around Tony’s age or a little older, wrinkles spread over his face, especially around the eyes, as if he’d been worrying or stressing about something. She assumed it was this weird grudge he seemed to have against Tony.
“Patience, sir,” said the lieutenant with a scuzzy smile. “He’ll come.”
As if on cue, there was the sound of scraping metal and Pepper’s head shot up to see Tony, breathing hard, his hair a damp mass around his head. It was a hot day outside, the kind of heat that you could pretty much see coming off the pavement in waves. She could see the bright light of the sun creating a luminous backdrop for her would-be savior. He wasn’t wearing his suit, and she felt an immediate fear for him. She began struggling against her gag and bonds even more; she thought he’d be smarter than this—wasn’t he the one boasting about his superior intellect? And yet, here he was, waltzing right into a trap.
“Alright, I’m here. Let Pepper go. Now.” Tony’s voice sounded rough, tension evident in every part of him. Pepper’s heart gave a weird throb—of fear, of love, she wasn’t sure which—at the sight and sound of him.
“Not so fast, Stark,” said the leader, and she could hear his excitement. She glared at the back of his head. “What do you think you’re here for?”
“I’m here because you took my girlfriend. Now release her, or you’ll regret it.”
“Oh, threats. Wonderful. I was worried you were going to make this boring,” said the leader.
“Not threats—promises,” Tony ground out, his hands balling into fists. His foot moved, and at the same time, the lieutenant held up a hand and the robots all moved at once, three pointing guns at Pepper and the rest at Tony. He stopped immediately, freezing.
“You didn’t let me finish my story. Bind him.”
Tony barely put up a fight as they manhandled him into a chair next to Pepper, securing him to it. She stared at him with wide blue eyes, asking him what the hell he was thinking, showing up without armor or backup.
He gave her a short smile and shook his head. Still, it was oddly comforting, not being here alone. She had to have faith that he was working on a plan even as he allowed them to tie him to the chair. They didn’t give him a gag, which she decided was proof that they were not the smartest of people. Tony could talk them into surrendering ,she was willing to bet.
“My name is Bruno Horgan,” said the leader. “Ring any bells?”
“To be entirely honest, not even the vaguest of rings. Is that name supposed to mean anything to me?” Tony asked.
“Maybe this’ll ring some bells.” He motioned at the robots and one of them smacked him hard on the back of his head with the gun it held in its hand. To his credit, Tony barely made a sound of pain as his head shot forward with the impact.
“Some bells are ringing, alright,” Tony got out, shaking his head to clear it. “But none of them is your name. Who the hell are you? And please, I don’t think that hitting me on the head is going to clear it up. In fact, I think it’ll only hurt your case more. So let’s just skip that part, shall we?”
The leader, Bruno’s, face turned an unpleasant shade of purple and that’s when Pepper recognized him. Her eyes widened, and she began squeaking around her gag, tugging on her bonds and squirming in her chair.
“What’s this? Looks like your girl here has something to say.” He motioned to one of the robots and they pulled her gag down a bit.
“I know who you are. Bruno Horgan, you used to make weapons for the government until—“
“Yes, very good. Gold star for you. Tony Stark ruined my career—my factory was dismantled and I lost my contract with the US government. You forced me to this, Stark. And now, I’ll have my revenge.”
“Alright, I’ve listened to this enough. Did you know, and don’t take this the wrong way because I’m sure you’re a smart man and all, but did you know that when you tie people up, you shouldn’t tie them directly to the chair?”
Bruno had a brief moment to be surprised before Tony was moving, tipping the chair over and falling to the ground, where the chair broke into pieces. In one swift moment, because he didn’t have a great deal of time before the robots received their orders, he took a piece of the chair and flung it at the robots. Two of them stumbled into Bruno and his lieutenant, knocking them down briefly, and Tony quickly untied Pepper, pushing her to behind several unmarked crates.
“Stay there! When you see a chance to run, go for it! Don’t look back for even a second, do you hear me!?” Tony told her, and Pepper barely managed to nod before he stood. “Jarvis! Deploy!” he yelled into a small device attached to a pair of silver bracelets that she hadn’t noticed he was wearing until now.
Though Bruno was still unconscious, the lieutenant was up and moving, shouting orders at the robots in a language that Tony didn’t understand, but he was pretty certain that the orders had not been for the robots to get him some cupcakes and a pack of ice for his head.
Tony barely managed to dodge as one of the robots fired its laser weapon, jumping behind a separate stack of crates from the one he had placed Pepper behind. He recognized them all as the robots from before, with the psychic capabilities. There were, thankfully, less of them than there had been at the battle a few days prior, but knowing that it would take some time for his armor to get here, he had to think fast before he ended up being incinerated.
His eyes quickly took in his surroundings, trying to figure out a way to keep the robots occupied. Finally, he spotted a broken crate. The contents were robotic in nature, leading him to believe that this warehouse had not been picked at random, but rather belonged to Bruno and his pal. Grabbing what looked to be a mounted laser, he began tugging at the insides, his fingers moving quickly to rewire the device. If his equations proved to be correct, and they always were, then he could make an explosive device. It may not destroy the robots, but there was the possibility that it could, and even then it would at least buy him some time.
Finally, the device beeped and he moved out from his cover, tossing the device at the nearest robot. It stuck fast to it, and he kicked it with both legs, knocking it into a group of several others. Tony took cover once more as the force of the explosion tore through the warehouse. It wasn’t the strongest explosive device he had ever made, not even the strongest he’d made in a few seconds, but it was effective without killing everyone, including himself and Pepper, in the process.
Smoke clogged up the place and he coughed before the familiar sound of crashing glass resounded in the warehouse and his suit appeared in its compact form. Quickly, it began changing shape and attaching to him, wrapping him in the protection of the gold titanium alloy and arming him with the weapons he needed to save Pepper and make things right.
Just as the smoke cleared, Iron Man went on the offensive, charging through the remaining robots with ferocity, blasting them with his repulsors.
“No! My creations!” screamed the lieutenant, and Iron Man faced him as the leftover robots tried to repair themselves. He needed to find the one whose psychic connection to them was keeping them around. He had destroyed all of them, but they were still moving. There had to be one hiding.
Suddenly, the lieutenant held up his hands to his head, and the process of the robots’ repairing suddenly got quicker. That’s when Iron Man realized that they weren’t being controlled by another psychic robot. The lieutenant had psychic abilities, and he was the one in charge of them.
Cursing, Iron Man moved to attack, tackling the lieutenant to the ground and aiming is repulsors at his face. “Surrender now! I won’t ask again!”
That’s when the sound of a weapon firing up reached his ears. He turned just in time to see that Bruno was no longer unconscious, and in fact was dressed in an armor of his own, even having a mask of his own, with the weapon from earlier strapped around his waist like a belt. And the ruby center of it was glowing, bright and dangerous, and Tony knew he wouldn’t be able to dodge.
It had taken a great deal of restraint on Natasha’s part not to immediately rush to Tony’s aid when he allowed them to tie him up. She had followed him, swiftly and silently, like a shadow, to the warehouse. Immediately taking up a hiding place, she watched everything with an intense gaze, occasionally whispering what was happening in a quiet, even voice.
She thought about blowing her cover when he escaped, too, wishing to lend a hand and knowing that he didn’t have his armor on him immediately. Yet still, she waited, patiently calculating and figuring when she should intervene, if at all.
The second his armor arrived, however, she allowed herself a deep breath of relief. He wasn’t exposed anymore; there was very little danger he couldn’t face when he was in that suit. She quickly told the others through her communication piece, and she felt their tension leave as well. She didn’t even get onto Steve when she heard him sigh on the other line.
As she watched Tony take out several robots with ease, she felt pride bubble in her chest, slowly but surely making her way over to where she had seen Tony stash Pepper moments before. She reached her, touching her shoulder with an extended hand. Before Pepper could scream, Natasha swiftly covered her mouth and held a finger to her lips. Pepper sagged in relief, and Natasha removed her hand from her mouth. A second later, Pepper was moving forward and embracing her.
Natasha held her for a moment, rubbing a hand comfortingly on her back. But the fighting was still going on, and Pepper was in danger here.
She motioned for a break in the warehouse wall that lead outside, and Pepper nodded, letting her know that she had seen it. The women shared a brief smile and Natasha squeezed Pepper’s shoulder. “Go,” she mouthed. As Pepper made her escape, Natasha turned back to the battle that was occurring right in front of her. It was then that Natasha saw it: the man who had introduced himself as Bruno, his weapon ready and aimed at Iron Man.
She didn’t have much time. “Pepper’s safe, but Bruno’s got his eye on Tony. He’s got some kind of weapon that I’ve never seen before, but it looks dangerous,” she explained hurriedly to the rest of the Avengers through her communication device. “I’m going to help. Get over here as soon as you can.”
Natasha pulled the ear piece out and stood, aiming her weapon at Bruno. “Stop!”
“Not so fast, girly!” screamed the lieutenant, hurriedly standing before Iron Man could stop him. He put his hands to his head and seemed to be concentrating, and then, Natasha felt it—pressure, blinding and suffocating, moving through her head. She screamed, unable to figure out where the pain was coming from. Her gun fell from her grip as she clutched her head, falling to her knees. “Did you honestly think I didn’t notice you hovering behind those crates, you ridiculous child? I’m a psychic!”
“Natasha!” Tony screamed, reaching out and grabbing the lieutenant by the throat. Underneath the helmet, Tony’s expression was warring between confusion at Natasha’s presence there and concern for her wellbeing. “Stop! Whatever you’re doing to her, you stop it right now or so help me, I will end you!”
“Your quarrel is with me, Iron Man!” Bruno shouted, grinning gleefully from beneath his mask. And the weapon fired. Iron Man dropped the lieutenant, turning to face the blast. He placed his arms in front of him, not wanting to take a direct hit.
For a single moment, Iron Man thought that nothing was happening, that the weapon was a failure, that his suit had completely fended off the attack. And then agony exploded across his arms. It literally felt like the suit was on fire from the inside out, and he looked to see that the metal was melting.
“What do you think? Brilliant, isn’t it? It’s a special ray that melts metal.”
Tony ripped off the gauntlets, biting back a scream and holding his arms to his chest. The skin was red and blistering where the melting suit had burned the skin.
He had little time to recover, however, before Bruno was firing up the weapon again. Iron Man acted quickly, grabbing the lieutenant and using him as a human shield. “Don’t even think about it, Horgan! You blast that weapon and you’ll be melting your pal here.”
Bruno laughed, and the lieutenant joined in, his laughter rasping as he squirmed in Iron Man’s grasp. “You fool,” he said, and then Bruno shot the ray once more.
Shocked that Bruno would be willing to shoot his own guy, and not possessing the heartlessness to doom a man to death by melting unless the situation absolutely had no other options, Tony tossed him roughly into the side of some crates. He hit them hard, the entire mountain of wood and robot parts falling on top of him. Tony knew he was unconscious when all the robots, which had managed to get back up just moments before, collapsed to the ground, no longer powered by his psychic abilities.
And then the ray hit him square in the chest. The pain this time was unlike anything he had ever experienced, but he managed to place a hand over the arc reactor which powered his heart just moments after the blast began to prevent it from melting entirely and surprised to find that his hand didn’t melt, though the metal beneath his palm was burning to the touch and scalded the skin right off of his hand.
He fell to his knees, the pain sending his body into shock. The arc reactor, though it had been protected from much of the blast, was still damaged extensively, and he could feel it shuddering in his chest. The suit was ruined. He made a valiant attempt at contacting Jarvis, but the words got caught in his throat, a moan escaping instead of the words he was trying to get out, and given the damage, he wasn’t sure the words would reach him anyways.
“This is it, Tony Stark,” Bruno said, “This is the day you met your end at the hands of me, Bruno Horgan, the Melter!”
The weapon began firing again, and Tony closed his eyes in defeat. He couldn’t move. He could barely breathe, the pain was mind-numbing. There was no escaping this. Wouldn’t Steve get a kick out of that, when he realized that the great Tony Stark, Iron Man, didn’t have a way out of this one.
Tony’s face screwed up in confusion. Was it really possible that Steve was going to haunt him in death? It seemed like that was the case. Assuming that he was dead, that was. He was reasonably certain that he was dead.
A solid thunk echoed throughout the place, and Tony chanced opening his eyes to see Bruno laying on the ground. He watched as the shield that had just been thrown landed back in Steve’s grasp; the Avengers had arrived.
Steve moved to his side, his strong grip on his shoulders pulling him roughly to his feet. “Iron Man, get a hold of yourself! Report! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Tony tried, but instead a whimper escaped.
“We gotta get him out of this suit! Thor, help me out! Hawkeye, check on the Widow. Hulk, make sure that this guy’s weapon can’t fire again and then round him up with the robots and see if you can fish that lieutenant out of that pile of robotic parts.” Steve’s orders were somehow soothing to listen to, his voice strong and sure. He had to give it to the guy—he had being a leader down to an art. Tony just needed to work on his inner follower.
Tony allowed Steve and Thor to manhandle the armor off of him, though it wasn’t easy. It stuck to his skin and clothing in parts and was already difficult to get off as it was. Jarvis came online just in time to help release the bolts on the armor.
Steve took in the damage, easing Tony into a laying down position on his back and Tony looked up into his eyes. They were full of concern and…guilt? Tony shifted, wanting to prove that he was okay, that “Take it easy, big guy,” Steve said, letting out a long breath, and running a hand through his hair. “I told you not to do anything stupid. Will you ever, ever listen to me when I give you an order?”
Tony took a deep breath of his own, determined to actually get words out this time. “Maybe…if you’d stop giving stupid orders.”
Steve gave him a bit of a laugh. “You are definitely getting punished for this one, Stark.”
“Pain…plenty of punishment enough. Widow?”
“She won’t open her eyes. Cap! Something’s wrong.”
Steve stood swiftly, moving out of Tony’s line of sight in what he assumed was the direction of Widow’s position.
Tony heard Hawkeye’s voice as if from a great distance, and he surged into a sitting position. Thor caught him by the shoulder. “Halt, Anthony. You shouldn’t try moving just yet. You are badly injured.”
“No, Tasha—“ he struggled, but Thor’s grip was solid, and no matter how hard Tony struggled, he couldn’t break it. Pain threatened his consciousness, his vision darkening around the edges.
Slowly, Thor manhandled him back into a laying position, and the last thing Tony heard before his consciousness fled was Bruce’s voice (apparently, he managed to de-Hulk after breaking Bruno’s weapon and wrapping a giant metal arm around him to keep him contained) saying, “I’ve called S.H.I.E.L.D. We need to get them to the medical bay. Tony, do you remember anything, anything at all, about what happened to Natasha? Tony? Stay with me! Tony!”
And then, darkness folded around him.
Nightmares accompanied him in the darkness, nightmares of being trapped in his own armor as it melted and burned him, his skin beginning to peel off and melt along with it. Natasha, staring at him, her eyes cold as she accused him of getting her killed with his recklessness. Pepper, pleading with him and blaming him for getting her taken.
He woke up with a jolt as the image of Pepper melted in front of him. He tried to sit up in bed, but a warm weight on his arm prevented his movement. Bandages wrapped around his torso and arms, an IV sticking out from underneath one. Beeping accompanied the wakefulness, and a tingling pain.
Pepper was asleep, her head on his shoulder, her hand over his. He stilled, not wanting to wake her, but at that moment, Steve came into the room holding two cups of coffee and as the door closed behind him, Pepper came awake, her eyes widening when she saw that Tony was awake and staring at her.
“Tony!” She pressed a couple of kisses to the corners of his lips and he wrapped an arm loosely around her, breathing her in. She certainly wasn’t melting. That was good.
“How do you feel?” Steve asked, setting the coffees down on a side table. He looked like he hadn’t slept in ages, dark circles underneath his eyes and a bit of a beard growth on his face.
“I’m alright. But…” Tony took a deep breath. “Natasha. Tell me she’s…”
“She isn’t dead, Tony,” Steve said, offering a half smile. The smile faded as the super soldier ran a hand through his hair. “But she isn’t alright, either. She still hasn’t regained consciousness. Agent Ortiz says that she has some severe psychic damage. She’s trying to repair it, but she says she has rather limited abilities in that area.”
“It was the lieutenant. Scuzzy fellow, dark hair. I tried to tell you before I passed out, but…” Tony bit his lip, shifting to get into a slightly more upright position. He hated being prone, with people hovering about him. It drove him nuts. Made him feel vulnerable. Pepper helped him a bit, giving him a disapproving look but doing nothing more to discourage him. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Tony. You obviously did the best you could. You couldn’t have meant to—“
“What I meant doesn’t matter, Pepper,” Tony cut in. “What matters is my recklessness resulted in an injury to my team member. And then I couldn’t even provide useful information. Did you at least catch the bastard?”
Steve shook his head. “Unfortunately not. He must have gotten away before we got there. All that was left was Bruno and those robots. Natasha told us that there were two of them before…” Steve swallowed, shaking his head, “But we just didn’t get there in time.”
Tony felt disappointment grow in his chest like a living thing, reaching out dark tendrils to squeeze his heart. He brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. “Pepper, could you give me and Cap a moment?”
She looked between them, and then sighed, standing. She kissed the top of his head. “Alright. But I’ll be back soon. I’ll go and get the nurse, let her know you’ve woken up.”
The sound of her clicking heels retreated into the distance, the door closing behind her with a sound of finality.
“Alright, let me have it, Cap. I know you’re just bursting to say you told me so.”
“I told you so.”
“Please, no need to hold back. I fucked up. Say it. Wait…did you just say I told you so?”
The Cap moved over to the side of his bed, his eyes narrowed and his lips a thin line of disapproval. “You disobeyed me, again, and not only got yourself hurt, but the Widow as well.”
“In my defense, I didn’t know she was there. She followed me—I didn’t drag her along with me,” Tony pointed out, bristling defensively and ignoring the prickle of pain that resulted.
“There wouldn’t have been a need, had you simply followed orders and thought up a rational plan with the rest of us. You’re a danger, not only to yourself, but your teammates. I talked this over with Fury, and he thinks it best if you go on probation for a while as we consider your actions,” Steve continued.
“And what do you think?” Tony said, narrowing his eyes.
“I think…that he’s right. You nearly died, Tony.”
“I nearly die all the time, Captain!” Tony snapped.
“Exactly!” Steve shouted back, and Tony shrunk in the bed, surprised by that response. He didn’t think he had ever heard Steve shout before. When they fought in the past, he generally had lowered his voice. Shouting was not in his repertoire. He was so shocked that he didn’t even have an intelligent response to that, so Steve simply continued. “You nearly die all the time, and it drives me crazy! For once, why don’t you just let other people help you? Protect you? You sure as hell won’t protect yourself!”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Weren’t you the one who told me that I wasn’t the kind of guy to ‘lay down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over me?’ What is this sudden change all of a sudden, and why is it any different when I nearly die than when one of the others does?”
“Because,” Steve said, and he sounded weary, sad. He took a seat in the chair next to Tony’s bed, his eyes imploring him to listen and not interrupt. “When you took that nuke through the portal during the Chi’tauri incident, I ordered Natasha to close it, knowing that it would condemn you to death. I realized that I had been wrong about you, Tony. I was wrong, okay? You are exactly that kind of guy. Your death would have been on my conscience, knowing that you had made the sacrifice play despite my doubts. But you survived, and when you woke up, I had a second chance to make things right. I owe you, Tony, because I was wrong.”
Tony stared at him for a long moment, his mouth frozen in a look of astonishment, but Steve was still not finished with his tirade.
“But how can I pay you back, how can I protect you, when you’re always rushing off to get yourself killed? You don’t always need to do things like that. We’re a team, Tony. And that means you need to trust us, trust me, and follow orders.”
“Then you need to realize that you can’t always protect me, Cap. We are a team, but this stifling me, it isn’t going to do any of us any good,” Tony responded. He was a little flattered, but at the same time, this wasn’t working. He and the Cap were just too different, and he couldn’t follow orders that were in direct competition with getting something done. Saving the world should always be the priority, and not protecting Tony. “I can follow orders. You just have to recognize that your orders can’t always be ‘retreat’ and ‘back off’ and ‘lay low.’ I can’t do that.”
“I’ll take that into consideration, Tony. But Fury still wants you on probation. What you did was more than just disobey orders; you kind of messed up big time.”
“It was Pepper,” Tony said, as if that explained everything, and to him, it did.
“Then maybe,” Steve said, standing, “You should think hard about how to protect her without endangering yourself and everyone around you.”
With that, Steve left, leaving Tony in the darkened hospital room to think about what he had said. He couldn’t help but feel an intense ache in his heart, feeling as if this incident, and his response to them, was going to pull apart this family of his.
When it am to orders and the heart, Tony knew what he would pick. And that was a problem as far as the team is concerned. A problem they hoped to fix by putting him on probation.