Cerulean St. Cloud Part 3

Steve gave a laugh that turned into a groan. He clutched his abused abdomen and folded toward the floor, but Iron Man was there in a flash, catching him before he could face plant in the bloody glass.

"Don't make me laugh," Steve pleaded breathlessly. "It hurts when I laugh."

"I knew that was an old joke, but that old? Really?" Tony said.

Steve laughed again, and groaned again, leaning on Iron Man's shoulder. Tony hoisted his friend into his arms, which wasn't easy, armor or no armor, when Steve was curled into a tight ball of pain.

"At least calling the suit wasn't a total waste," Tony commented.

He knew he should lay the injured man on something flat, but damned if he was going to put Captain America on the filthy, glass-covered floor. Natasha swept the coffee table clear and Iron Man carefully set his friend down.

"Easy, big guy," Tony said.

Steve curled on his side, panting in agony. Natasha knelt beside him and put her hand on his neck. She rubbed in a soothing, circular motion. "Breathe slowly," she instructed. "In … out, like …"

"No names!" Sitwell's voice was sharp in everyone's ear. "We still have some live ones," he reminded everyone.

"Like our friend taught you," Natasha finished, making a face. As if she'd forget to keep Avengers' business separate from SHIELD's! "Slow it down, Kevin."

Eyes still squeezed shut, Steve nodded. He panted rapidly for a moment, like a woman in labor, then consciously slowed his breaths. He focused on Natasha's hand, timing each breath to the back and forth sweeping of her fingers.

"Wait? Is that why you're taking yoga? In order to hide how much pain you're in?" Tony's protest distracted Cap and reminded him of his pain.

Steve wanted to keep his eyes scrunched up against the pain, but he couldn't help but open one to look at Iron Man in incredulity.

"It's called pain management, Stark," Natasha said furiously. (Tony's name was fair game. He'd told the world who Iron Man was.) "Don't distract him."

Then Tony got it and was ashamed. Drugs didn't help the super soldier very much or for very long. He was learning breathing and imagery techniques to control his pain.

The SHIELD strike team, including medics, ran in, saving Tony from his discomfiture.

"Where you been? Canada? I took the long way around and still got here first." Tony took his embarrassment out on them. It was true. To cut off anyone trying to escape, he'd zoomed around the building, crashed through Markham's apartment on the opposite side of the top floor and then made his grand entrance through the front door of Jinks' penthouse.

"Well, it's easy when you can fly," Clint's voice said in his ear — and right behind him!

Iron Man jumped and spun to find Hawkeye smirking at him. (And when Iron Man jumps, he ends up hovering six inches off the floor.) Tony looked at the archer, then at the broken window.

"Did you swing over here? Seriously?"

"Of course not," Clint scoffed. "It was a zip line."

Of course it was.

"Silly me," Tony replied. He looked at the medics and gestured at Cap. "You people want to help … here?" He was proud he remembered not to use names.

Agents were checking the fallen criminals and collecting the live ones. Two medics unpinned the archer's target and began to work on him. Two others went to Cap. Tony recognized one as Smithberg, the medic from the cave-in. The other was a woman with short, sandy blonde hair.

"This one's gone. Bled out," a medic reported from the arrow victim.

"I'm not going to cry about it," Clint said. "He was going to shoot 'Kevin' in the back."

The medic shrugged agreement. He and his partner went out with the other agents to treat the wounds of the live criminals who had been hauled across the hall to Markham's apartment. Markham protested in a dazed way, but no one paid any attention. Smithberg and the woman began to examine Steve.

"We're all clear," Sitwell reported. He sauntered in, a satisfied grin on his face. "Prisoners sequestered. No listening devices except our own. No reports to the police from the neighbors."

"Our prisoners did their own sound proofing," Natasha pointed out. A gentle finger touched a darkening bruise on Steve's face by way of explanation. "What about the information?"

"Already in Fury's hands. He's assembling another strike team as we speak. How's our patient?"

"Let you know when we have a chance to examine him," the woman said tartly. She had been looking over his head wounds, which were simple cuts and bruises, but Steve was still on his side with his knees tight to his chest, so she couldn't examine his abdomen.

"New partner?" Tony asked Smithberg, who was unpacking equipment.

He nodded. "Since we knew Cap would take some abuse, we picked Amber for the team. Cap seems to be comfortable with women docs. Not sure why." Apart from being from the 1940s, when male doctors would have been more the norm, Steve was known to be shy.

Smithy had spoken quietly to keep his patient from hearing, but, like so many, he'd underestimated the super soldier's enhanced hearing.

"Comes from my mother nursing me when I was a kid, I guess," Steve answered.

Smithy looked surprised. Tony tapped his ear and mouthed "super soldier."

"I heard that, Stark," Cap said with his eyes still closed.

"I didn't say anything!"

"Sometimes you think too loud, genius. I can hear the gears turning."

"Gears are so 20th century, 18th century, even. Microprocessors are the way of the future — your future, my present," Tony answered.

"Microprocessors are quiet," Steve countered. "You're not."

"Point! Tony agreed cheerfully.

"Shut it, Stark," Amber said, seeing her patient shudder with pain.

"I hope you don't mind me comparing you to my mother," Steve apologized.

"Of course not," she answered with a smile. "But I will be offended if you don't lie flat so I can check your chest and stomach."

"Not sure I can," Steve panted. "Those brass knuckles hurt and I felt something tear when I threw that goon."

Amber patted him and began to prepare a pair of IVs. She explained that one was the mix of glucose and nutrients they called Cap's Cocktail. It was fuel for his enhanced healing. The other was morphine.

"Enough to knock most people out. With you, I think it will just take the edge off so we can examine you. OK?"

Steve nodded.

Agents began removing the three dead men. When they picked up the one Cap had hit, his head bobbed, as if it was attached by a wet noodle. It made Tony sick to think how many broken bones must be in the neck.

Steve's eyes were open to watch the body go. There was no regret in his gaze.

"Geez, Cap, I've never seen you that mad," Tony said honestly.

"He shouldn't have hit Cerulean with the knuckle dusters."

Smithberg was probing Natasha's cut cheek to see if the bone was broken. It wasn't, because she knew how to ride a blow, too. "I can take care of myself," she told Cap.

"It wasn't you — Natasha. It was Cerulean," Steve tried to explain.

"Maybe you'd better check his head again," Clint told Amber seriously. "Nat was Cerulean."

"But they didn't know that." Steve was frustrated that he wasn't explaining himself well. "Cerulean worked for them. She was doing what they wanted. Jinks slapped her with an open palm — OK, that's window dressing, but that guy didn't need to hit her with the brass knuckles. He did it because he enjoyed it. It was … disloyal."

He quirked an eye at the doubtful faces of his friends and medics.

"No? Maybe it only makes sense if you're on morphine," Cap sighed.

Natasha smiled with a warmth that she shared with few. "It makes sense if you're a good, honest, sincere man."

"Then us spy types will never understand," Clint pointed out.

Speaking of warmth, Cap felt it seeping through his veins, easing the sharp bite in his belly. He cautiously started to stretch his legs out. Smithy helped him roll on his back.

His advanced healing meant that his bruises had already developed to their full glory. The left side of his face was black and blue. Visible through his torn shirt, his chest was marked by dark fist imprints and what they could see of his abdomen was near black.

Tony winced and hissed in sympathy.

Smithy held up a blanket to give Cap some privacy while Amber made her examination.

"If it makes you feel better, Tony, I know they never landed a punch to his groin. He was too quick to twist aside." Hawkeye had watched the whole beating. "His hips are probably bruised, though."

When Amber was finished, Smithy put the blanket over their patient. Cap blinked at them, eased a little by the morphine, but not exactly sleepy.

"What's the verdict?" he asked. The Avengers and Sitwell waited for an answer, too.

Amber chewed her lip. "We'd better wait for Dr. Kiel's decision, but I think you'll need surgery. Nothing major," she hastened to add.

"You do know you're talking about Captain America, right?" Tony said doubtfully.

"Mr. Stark, our field medics are doctors, fully trained in diagnostics and field surgery," Sitwell said.

"Only if we can't get our patients to a surgeon in a sterile operating theater," Smithberg countered. "But he's right, Amber knows what she's talking about."

"But I've never seen Captain Rogers as a patient," Amber parried. "We need proper tests."

"But he heals like crazy," Tony protested.

"I think that's part of the problem this time. Something tore in his abdomen, causing bleeding."

"Causing all that bruising," Smithy added.

"Now the space is full of blood and even if the wound itself closes, the body can't get rid of the blood easily," Amber explained.

Steve understood. "You need to drain it," he said.

"Then why are we standing here?" Tony demanded.

"Just waiting for the stretcher, Stark," Smithberg said. He pointed at the door where two medics wheeled in the gurney.

"Meet you at SHIELD Medical, Stark," Natasha said.

"Meet you?"

"Well, you need to tell Pepper that Steve got hurt," Clint said with a smirk.

They all knew Pepper thought of the super soldier as an oversized little brother.

"Right!" Tony lifted off gently, to not stir up the air, and drifted purposefully toward the shattered window. As he zoomed out, he remembered that he'd had a car. Well, that's what chauffeurs were for. "Jarvis, get me Happy," he told the computer interface. "And then Pepper."

Doing surgery on Captain America was traumatic — for the surgeon and the patient's friends. Steve had calmly suggested doing it the way they did in his grandfather's day, as fast as possible with no anesthetic. (And why did it seem extra weird that Steve's grandfather was alive during the Civil War, though only a child?)

But Dr. Rebecca Kiel couldn't bring herself to deliberately cause such pain. Yet knocking Steve out meant they had to flood his veins with a near toxic amount of anesthesia. They chose the safest medication available, but the sheer volume was frightening.

The surgery itself was simple. Kiel cleaned the blood from the abdominal cavity and sutured the incision, watching tissue heal almost as soon as she stitched it together. The flow of anesthesia was stopped, but Steve did not wake, not even when he was moved to a recovery room, not even when his friends started a low-voiced argument with his surgeon.

"All his vitals are normal," Kiel reassured them and herself.

Steve looked peaceful but terrible at the same time. The bruising on his face had moved into the sickening gray-green-yellow phase. It looked like he was wearing makeup to play Frankenstein's Monster, Tony thought, what with the funny color and the fading purple scars that had been deep cuts just the day before.

"Shouldn't you wake him?" Clint asked. He'd been in surgery enough, God help him, to know that was procedure.

But Cap was a special case, Kiel reminded them. Waking him was waking him to pain that the medical staff couldn't relieve. The longer he stayed in a normal healing sleep, the better.

"Sleep is the best thing for him," she said.

"It would help if people didn't hold conversations in his hospital room," Steve pointed out, without opening his eyes. He shifted position, winced, settled again and finally blinked his eyes open. He regarded his visitors — Dr. Kiel, Sitwell, Tony (with Pepper this time), Clint and Natasha, who was smiling despite her bruised cheek and scabbed lip.

"There's my namesake, those cerulean eyes," she teased. Steve and Clint smiled at some shared joke. Tony, naturally, wanted in.

"You got the name Cerulean from Steve's blue eyes?"

Clint sighed and pulled Tony aside to let the doctor examine her patient. "It's nothing. It's a game Nat and I play on boring stakeouts. We try to think of the most obscure words for things. We were describing the Avengers and Nat said that Steve's eyes were 'cerulean.'"

Sky blue was a good description of Cap's eyes, Tony had to admit.

"Clint said it sounded like a stripper's name — which shows where his mind usually is," Natasha said, coming over to poke her partner in the ribs. "He put it together with the street we were on — St. Cloud. When I needed a name for a working girl, I remembered Cerulean St. Cloud."

Tony glanced down at Natasha's behind, a lovely derriere, it's true, but minus the shaped foundation garment that made Cerulean's backside so memorable. (And that had protected Natasha's putative modesty after she tore off her skirt.)

"I miss Cerulean," Tony said plaintively.

Natasha saw the direction of his gaze and punched him. He flinched, but laughed. "So, did you describe me in this game?"

Clint considered. "Last time, my word was 'elephantine,' but Nat trumped me with Brobdingnagian."

"My genius or my bank account?" Tony quipped.

Natasha rapped his temple with her knuckles. "Your ego, Stark."

Satisfied with her patient's progress, Dr. Kiel left and Steve's friends gathered around his bed. Sitwell apologized for the plan that had resulted in Steve's injuries.

"I didn't fully understand your limitations, captain. I'm sorry you were hurt."

"It's nothing I can't recover from," Steve pointed out. "And we did catch the bad guys, didn't we?"

"We did." Sitwell smiled. "The boss is being interrogated by Nick Fury himself. Most of his victims will receive compensation for their stolen inventions."

"But nothing brings back the dead," Natasha said darkly.

"True, but three little girls will not have to worry where the next meal is coming from," Sitwell said.

Natasha nodded shortly.

"So, debriefing tomorrow at 14:00," Sitwell told Clint and Natasha. They nodded and Steve said, "I'll be there."

Disapproving stares were thrown at him from all parts of the room. Captain America was undaunted. He'd seen worse.

"Dr. Kiel just said I'd be out of here by noon tomorrow," he said mildly.

"Then I'll be there, too, to make sure you don't overdo," Tony said insistently. He sounded so much like protective Pepper that she slugged him for making fun of her. The funny thing was, he hadn't meant to. It was just that the authoritarian voice in his head sounded a lot like Pepper. (When it didn't sound like Cap.)

The next day, Steve Rogers walked gingerly but under his own steam into Sitwell's office for the debriefing. Everyone offered opinions; even Stark had useful input. Sitwell finished his notes and nodded. He complimented Romanoff on a job well done and thanked Stark for his observations. "You were unexpectedly helpful," he said, deadpan.

"I always try to be unexpected," Tony replied, unfazed.

"And Captain Rogers, I was pleasantly surprised by your acting abilities," Sitwell said. "It's not what I expected from a soldier."

"Spending months on stage has to teach you something, right Cap?" Clint said.

Steve just smiled modestly.

"You did the jealousy really well," Natasha said.

"I liked the way you did keep away with Cerulean, keeping her out of Tony's evil clutches," Clint chuckled.

"Was that difficult, since Stark is a friend of yours?" Sitwell asked idly.

Steve fidgeted — just a twitch, but all the agents saw it. And Tony noticed their sudden focus on Cap.

"Was it a problem?" Sitwell asked, no longer idly.

"No … no, it was easier because it was Tony. Um, they called it method acting back in the '30s." Steve looked positively shifty, not a good look for Captain America.

"They still do. But that means you drew on personal experience," Clint said.

"I thought we were friends?" Tony exclaimed, actually hurt.

Steve rolled his eyes nervously at Natasha on the opposite side of the room, but then manned up and confessed. "Tony is always trying to 'improve' my shield. I have to protect it from his … enthusiasm."

Clint and Tony were laughing hysterically. "So you pretended Nat was your shield?"

Steve gave Natasha his best repentant puppy dog expression. She gave him the cold assassin glare, stood and stalked toward him like cougar.

Clint and Tony shut up instantly. Wide eyed, they edged their chairs away from Cap, who closed his eyes and waited for his doom. Natasha got right in his face. When she touched his discolored cheek, he flinched and opened his eyes to see her staring at him, nose to nose. And then she kissed his nose.

"Comparing me to your iconic shield? Flatterer!" she said and she laughed at the relief on Steve's face.

Clint mused, "Black Widow, Cerulean St. Cloud. Black and blue — it suits you Nat." Then he ran, with Natasha in hot pursuit.

Sitwell debated imposing order but decided, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Avengers' crazy chemistry worked and that was all he asked for. He thanked Tony and Steve for their work and dismissed them.

"So, you coming back to the Tower?" Tony asked.

"I'd rather go to my place," Steve said. His nice, quiet place in Brooklyn.

Tony made a face. "That sounds boring," he said.

"But boring sounds good right now," Cap countered.

"Now that you mention it, it kind of does. Mind if I join you?"

As if anything was boring with Tony Stark around, Steve thought with a smile.

"OK, but keep your hands off my shield," he warned.

The End

A/N: Cerulean and St. Cloud are the names of two streets I drive past. I just love the word, cerulean. Look for a new chapter of "A Very Good Team" next week.