A/N: This is a real story with a whole plot and all. It is long enough that I plan to run it in three parts.
Cerulean St. Cloud
Tony Stark was at a party and he was bored. This was almost never a good thing, except for the time he conceived of the Jericho System — no, that didn't turn out to be a good thing either. Basically, Tony plus Bored equaled Trouble. With a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for BORED!
OK, he really knew he was bored when old show tunes came into his head unbidden. I mean, show tunes! Black Sabbath he could understand.
Why had he agreed to come to this party with Bob, one of the many Stark Industries VPs? Bob who had immediately hooked up with a new girlfriend and vanished, leaving Tony alone with a bunch of strangers and bored! Oh yeah, because he'd been bored back at the Tower, too, with Banner off saving the world from dysentery and Pepper called to an emergency board meeting and Thor away on Asgard knew what business. Romanoff and Barton had disappeared on a SHIELD mission, taking Cap, too, maybe. Though all Captain America's business was shield business, Tony thought, with a smirk for his own cleverness. (Oh sure, said his always sardonic side — the one that was even sarcastic to himself — like Steve's never heard that one before!)
Tony had almost been bored enough to go to the board meeting (bored meeting) with Pepper. Almost. And now at the boring party, he was rethinking that yet again. The shock on the directors' faces when he showed up might be worth listening to Tedious Ted from Legal.
Sipping his drink — at least the refreshments were top drawer — Tony admired the penthouse apartment — half a penthouse, really, one of two apartments taking up the top floor of the building. The main room was decorated in minimalist modern with no chairs, just a few bar stools and one couch providing seating. On the other hand, there was a coffee table and many small tables scattered around, handy for setting down a used glass or plate. There were fully stocked wet bars in two corners, one for mixed drinks and one for beer and wine. In the diagonally opposite corners were tables full of appetizers, one with hot dishes and one with cold delicacies. The arrangement was designed to keep people circulating, not clumping around one bar or table.
Despite the expert setting, people didn't seem to be having a lot of fun. Some were already sidling toward the exit. This seemed more like a business cocktail party, a roomful of strangers stuffing their faces and slipping away before the sales pitch could start.
The nicest things were the tall, slender, pale yellow glass vases, each containing one twisted orchid stalk. Pepper would admire the ikebana. OK, Tony was super bored if he was thinking about Japanese flower arrangements.
And then Tony's roving eye caught sight of a thing of rare beauty — the cutest tush. A sky blue silk dress pulled tight across the most delicious derriere Tony had seen in ages. When the woman moved , long white-blonde hair cut straight across swayed, just brushing the beautiful bottom, calling attention to perfection in a way that simply could not be accidental. The night was looking up, Tony thought, or rather down, he smirked.
A salacious grin on his face, Tony assumed his playboy persona and moved smoothly to the woman's side.
"Excuse me, miss, I couldn't help notice your stunning ass-ets," Tony said, with just a hint of emphasis on the "ass." Sure, that wasn't the way to catch a nice girl, but Pepper would kill him if he actually caught one. He was just hoping for an amusing session of flirtatious banter with a professional or semi-pro escort.
But when she turned, Tony suddenly wasn't bored any more, because the face beneath the white-blonde bangs belonged to the Black Widow. And how hadn't he recognized that pulchritudinous posterior? Damn, the master spy was good! She could even disguise her behind.
Focus, Stark! Tony thought sternly and the erratic playboy shattered into the calculating engineer.
Natasha must have seen something she approved of in his change of expression, because her assessing stare became a smile of delight.
"Why, you're Tony Stark! Mr. Stark, is that any way to talk to a woman you haven't been introduced to?" she chided playfully. There was a hint of the South in her voice, a steel magnolia, indeed.
Tony made a tiny half bow of greeting. "That's the way I talk to a woman I would like to meet," he countered. "Miss…?"
"St. Cloud," she purred, offering her hand. "Cerulean St. Cloud."
Tony almost choked. That was such a stripper name. But, being Natasha, it must have been chosen with its falsity in mind.
"No one is born with the name Cerulean St. Cloud." Tony leavened his scoffing with a conspiratorial smile.
"No one is born with any name at all," "Cerulean" replied coquettishly. "Don't you like it, Tony? I made it up myself. It's sooo much better than Edna Marchbach."
"'Cerulean' is a beautiful name for a beautiful woman."
She chuckled, batted her eyes at him, then looked past his shoulder. "Darling!" she said gladly, sounding suddenly more girlish and less worldly-wise. "Look who I found. It's Tony Stark. He likes my name."
Tony turned, face bland, expecting to see Hawkeye. He saw the dirty blond, spiky hair he expected, but it was more elevated than usual. He looked up into the face of Steve Rogers. Except, this wasn't the friendly grin of Steve or the all-business stone face of Captain America. This was a suspicious and — judging by the way he unobtrusively shouldered Tony aside — possessive male. He handed a martini glass to Cerulean, freeing a hand that snaked around her waist, before he turned to salute Tony with his highball glass.
"Mr. Stark," he said.
"Tony, this is my fiancé, Kevin Starr," Cerulean said. She flashed her sizable diamond ring at Stark.
"Kevin" reluctantly took his hand from around Cerulean's waist and offered it to Tony. "I should thank you," he said with an effort at civility. "You and your friends made my fortune."
"How's that?" Tony asked, with a better impersonation of politeness.
"I invented a new kind of crane — new gearing and a new method of balance. Like a traveling supercrane. It was in demand for clearing dead space whales." There was a new note of enthusiasm in his voice. Kevin was a man who knew his stuff.
"Sounds like something Stark Industries might be interested in distributing," Tony said idly.
Now Kevin was genuinely smiling. "Once we get all the patents squared away, I'll be sure to call your office. We just have a small plant now. We have more orders than we can fill."
Kevin was projecting his voice to carry over the crowd noise. Several people glanced his way, then looked away again. More people probably knew Kevin's business than he intended. Unintentional on "Kevin's" part, Tony understood; entirely intentional on Cap's part.
The engineer fitted the pieces together. The talk about patents meant this was probably an industrial espionage case. Cap was being set up as the target, but what was Natasha's role? Cerulean was certainly no innocent bystander.
"Excuse me, Tony. You have a smudge of lipstick." The woman rubbed the nonexistent smudge off his cheek, taking a moment to caress (as Cerulean would) and slip something in his ear (which was pure Natasha). Steve caught her hand and pulled her away, twining his fingers in hers.
Tony heard the middle of an exasperated conversation. "…uin everything."
"Relax, Jasper." That was Clint Barton's voice. The Hawk was watching from somewhere, somewhere high, no doubt. "It would be out of character for Tony to not flirt with Cerulean or for him to run away just because she has a big, strong man with her. He's a nuisance like that. And, yes, Tony, I know you can hear me now."
Tony was used to talking back to the voice in his ear. It took an effort of will to pretend he heard nothing.
"The crowd's beginning to thin out," Jasper Sitwell said. "They'll make their move soon." Whoever "they" were.
"If you want in, Stark, get your car from the valet, drive away, then double back and come to the Fairmont's west entrance," Clint instructed.
"Looks like this party's breaking up," Tony commented. "Guess I'll go find someplace livelier. Seriously, call me when you're ready to expand. If my CEO likes the looks of your project, we can probably do business."
"Thank you, Mr. Stark." Kevin shook hands willingly, but stayed between Tony and Cerulean.
Tony smiled his sharklike grin. "If I forget who you are — kinda depends on how much excitement I find later tonight — just remind me of Cerulean. I could never forget Cerulean St. Cloud."
Natasha simpered at him. Steve frowned. Tony flipped a two-fingered salute of farewell and left. As he was going, he heard "Kevin" say, "We should probably be leaving, too."
"Just one more drink, honey," Cerulean coaxed.
Tony retrieved his car and followed instructions. Barton's voice gave him directions when he arrived at the Fairmont. Making sure he was unobserved, Tony entered a suite that had a view of the penthouse apartment across the way.
A SHIELD strike team in full gear waited patiently in case of trouble. They had an alarming number of paramedics with them. Then again, they were backing up the Black Widow who could wreak carnage with a bottle cap and a martini olive. Agent Jasper Sitwell sat at a bank of communications gear. Monitors gave him a view of several rooms in the penthouse, including the party room, which was emptying fast. There were just a few lingering guests, including the two Avengers, and the hosts saying goodbye.
Tony wondered how Bob was involved with these men who were on SHIELD's radar in such a big and potentially lethal way.
"What's the play, Agent Sitwell? Industrial espionage?"
"Very good, Mr. Stark. Your hosts, Markham and Jinks, have been moving from town to town stealing industrial secrets by the fine, old-fashioned method of beating the information out of the rightful owners."
Tony did not like the direction this was headed.
"They have a bevy of lovely ladies, including — as of two towns ago — the intriguing Cerulean St. Cloud, who lure the secret holders into the clutches of Markham and Jinks and their motley crew. The criminals beat the poor man until he gives up his passcode or safe combination or whatever they need to retrieve the information — much of it classified and all of it dangerous in the wrong hands. It's our mission to return said information to the hands of the original owners."
Sitwell's speech might have sounded pompous, except for the deadly serious expression on his light brown face.
"If you know so much, why don't you just arrest them?" Tony asked, though he knew it was never that simple.
"Because they work for someone else," Sitwell said. "Romanoff believes the information is in their own safe, which she plans to access while they are busy with Captain Rogers. If she's right, we will shut down this crew and take out their boss before he knows anything has gone wrong."
"And if she's wrong?"
"Then we will follow 'Kevin's' information when it's passed to the boss and proceed from the top down."
Tony was afraid he knew the answer, but he asked the question anyway. "And why is Steve involved?"
Sitwell turned fully away from his monitors to look Tony directly in the eyes. "Because no one can take a punch like Captain America."
Tony felt as if he'd been punched. "That's wrong on so many levels."
"He volunteered. In fact, he suggested acting as a diversion."
Tony threw up his hands. "Of course he volunteered! He's Captain America! He volunteered to be a guinea pig in a project that would either kill him or send him to the front lines!"
"Tony, I've got his back," Clint's voice came through the earpiece Tony had forgotten. "If it looks too hairy, then his attackers are pincushions and we'll find another way to track down the boss. No offense, Sitwell."
"It's no more than I expected, Barton," Sitwell confessed. "Every man in Markham's crew is a known killer, though witnesses against them tend to recant or disappear. Three of their recent beating victims have died, one of a bad heart and two from excess stubbornness. One of those men was a widower who left three orphaned little girls all under the age of eight."
"Natasha takes that personally," Barton commented, then in a different tone of voice he reported, "They're making their move." Sitwell spun back to his display. He put the party room up on the main screen.
"Romanoff planted cameras and microphones in every room," he told Tony.
"She also tweaked the blinds," Clint said with amusement strong in his voice. "They can't see anything but blank roofs. They don't realize I can see in."
The bad guys began to subtly surround Steve. Two were the hosts Markham and Jinks. Bob had pointed them out to Tony but hadn't gotten around to introducing them. Two others were dressed as party guests in well-cut suits that concealed hefty muscles. The other three had been a bartender and two waiters.
"I'm curious, Mr. Stark. How did you end up at this dangerous party?" Sitwell asked, as they watched Markham chat with Steve.
"I'm wondering the same thing, Agent Sitwell." He explained that Stark Industries' vice president of research and development had invited him to go and immediately took off with a woman, abandoning Tony at the party.
"I had told him no, but I decided I needed to get out of the lab and all my friends said they were busy."
Off on his roof, Clint snorted.
"So it was a last minute decision? That may have been your salvation, Mr. Stark," Sitwell said solemnly. "You would be the grand prize for any idea thief."
"And since you are committed to Pepper, they tried a backhanded approach through 'Bob'," Clint said. "I saw that girl he left with. She's one of theirs."
"Just as well they were committed to Captain Rogers tonight," Sitwell said.
"I'm not as fond of punches as Cap is," Tony agreed. "Especially when they're thrown at me."
"Captain America saves Iron Man again," Hawkeye snarked.
Two muscle men grabbed Steve from either side. Two more confronted him while another lurked behind, dancing a little in excitement. The two bosses, Markham and Jinks, hustled Natasha out of the room.
"Let her go!" Steve seemed to struggle to get away. Tony knew Captain America wouldn't have had any trouble escaping his captors, but that wasn't the play. "Cerulean!" Steve called desperately.
While Steve continued to squirm in the main room, the camera in the hallway showed the men release Natasha as soon as they were out of sight.
Markham patted her blue-clad behind in patronizing fashion. Tony winced, because he didn't expect the man to keep his hand. But undercover Natasha merely smirked.
"Good job, doll. You wait here in case we need the damsel in distress routine."
"You got it, boss," Natasha answered, in an entirely different persona from the two she'd shown inside the party. "I just need to freshen up, then I'll be right back."
Markham nodded permission for her to leave. Natasha started down the hall. When the men went inside, she paused by an unmarked door and began to pick the lock. She was inside before her bosses even finished telling "Kevin" what they wanted.
"No! I won't give in to bullies," Steve said.
And that's the real Steve, Tony murmured, forgetting that Clint and Sitwell could hear him. Clint nodded agreement, but didn't speak. All his attention was fixed on the beating that was beginning.
Tony's eyes flicked back and forth from the screen showing Steve taking a punch to the one showing Natasha breaking into the safe with an electronic code breaker.
"Where the hell was she hiding that?" he asked.
"Don't ask," Clint advised.
Intriguing as Natasha's actions were, Tony couldn't keep his gaze away from Cap. Two men pounded on Steve from the front while a third landed an occasional kidney punch from behind.
Kevin swore in curses that Tony would have sworn Captain America didn't know.
"Almost there," Natasha reported. "Hang on, Steve."
Glaring at his attackers, Steve spat a mouthful of blood in the nearest man's face.
Sitwell reported that to Natasha who nodded. Jasper muted his microphone to explain to Tony, "Spitting is a signal he's OK. Right now, Rogers and Romanoff can be heard by all of us, but they communicate only with each other. Barton and I have to deliberately flip a switch to talk to them."
Tony nodded understanding. You don't want to distract them," Tony said.
The man with bloody spit in his eyes, wiped his face and then wound up for a roundhouse punch straight to Steve's jaw.
A rattling noise came from one speaker. Sitwell cursed.
"What?" Tony demanded.
"That's the sound of an earpiece falling on the floor," Jasper answered.
There was a crunch, then one speaker began to hiss. Sitwell shut it off.
"And that's the sound of someone stepping on an earpiece," Clint said. "Nat, Cap's lost his earpiece."
Natasha swore in some language Tony didn't know, as she opened the safe; then swore more fervently when she reached inside.
"What?" Clint and Sitwell demanded simultaneously.
"It's a tablet," she said, and pulled the computer into view of the hidden camera. "I need more time." She plugged the code breaker into the tablet.
None of the men said it, but they worried that Steve might not have a lot of time.
To Be Continued