“Explain to me again why I have to be the one to do this?” Steve huffs, looking back over the information that Natasha had dropped in front of him. It’s solid, convincing, well documented. It always is from her.
“You should be the one to do it because I asked you to do it, and it needs doing,” she says. “And because I can’t.”
“Of course you can,” he protests.
“You’re right, I can,” Natasha agrees. “But I’m not going to. Because realistically, Steve, you are far less likely to look out of place visiting a strip club than I will. At least, this particular strip club.” Steve sighs, and flips through the file again. “Come on, you know I’m right.”
“Of course you’re right,” Steve agrees. “This is your area. But you always tell me how terrible I am undercover.”
“Well, for one, you’re not going to be undercover. Not really. You’re just going to be doing some investigating. And two, you’ve gotten better at hiding in plain sight. Besides, you’re a white male. You’ll blend right in with the regular clientele.”
Well, he can’t exactly argue with that. Natasha has a point — he really is the best fit for this part of the operation. Her lead is solid, and the sooner they wrapped things up, the better. One less head to chase down in the aftermath of DC that had left their entire support network in ruin, and HYDRA scattering in all directions, armed with all the SHIELD intel, tech, specs, weaponry, everything they could get their hands on. While HYDRA hadn’t exactly won the day, they hadn’t exactly lost either. What remained of SHIELD had prevented total catastrophe, but HYDRA had had the advantage of already being mobilized, already having a plan. So when they went to ground, they took a lot of valuable assets with them.
Assets that had since started showing up on the streets, and in the hands of other less-than-savory operations. Insight had been dismantled and Zola destroyed, but they were still left picking up the pieces in the wreckage that was left behind.
The second time that Steve had woken up in the hospital after the helicarriers went down, Sam had stepped out and Tony was sitting in his place, holding vigil at Steve’s bedside with an enormous vase of flowers.
“Thanks. You know, for saving my life,” Tony had said without preamble while Steve was still half asleep. “But I don’t get it. You needed backup, you could have called.”
“Things happened kind of fast,” Steve croaked out, his throat dry. Tony handed him a glass of water and kept talking.
“Yeah well, I’m Iron Man. I could have been there in no time. You should have called.”
“And you should have called when you gave you address to a terrorist. And you should have called after your house got blown up and fell off a cliff.”
“Oh my god,” Tony huffed. “Are we still talking about this?”
“Yes we’re still talking about this because your house got blasted into the ocean and I thought you were dead. And you should have called.”
“Okay, fine. Fine. I’m sorry. We both should have called.”
“Fine,” Steve agreed at last, and then a moment later added, “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Yeah, I’m glad you’re okay, too. You had me worried there for a while, Cap,” Tony agreed softly.
After Steve had recovered, which thankfully took only a few days with his healing speeds, he didn’t really have any place to go. He couldn’t go home - his apartment was still a crime scene. He couldn’t go back to work - SHIELD had gone more or less under on account of a cephalopod infestation.
So he’d followed Tony back to New York. Sam had come along, ostensibly to stay in touch working on the Bucky search, but Steve was pretty sure Sam had been feeling just as adrift as himself. He wasn’t surprised to find Bruce already there, nor was he surprised when Natasha reappeared a few weeks later, Clint in tow.
And just like that, they’d set up shop.
It was too bad that peaceful, emotional moment that he’d shared with Tony in the hospital hadn’t lasted. Almost from the time that Steve and Tony were back in the same space they were back on each other’s cases. Steve had been trying to make it work but… it wasn’t going well.
“Whatever information you can find. The more, the better,” Natasha says, leaning against his counter and drawing his attention back to the task at hand. “We know who’s involved, but that doesn’t do us a lot of good if we can’t recover the assets. You thinking of moving on us, Steve?”
The abrupt change of subject leaves him with a bad case of mental whiplash, and it takes half a second for his brain to recover from the stumble and switch gears. He looks over and sees her nodding towards the Real Estate Agent’s card that he’d left sitting on the counter.
“No. I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not,” he shrugs. Natasha says nothing, simply raising an eyebrow as a prompt for him to continue.
“I mean I’m not seriously thinking about it, no,” he clarifies. “It wouldn’t make sense, it’s easier having us all here. Better. Safer. There’s too much on the go right now, trying to find Bucky, and all this on top,” he waves at the file in front of him.
“But?” She nudges.
“I don’t know. I thought maybe it would be better. If I got some space for a while.”
“You mean, if you gave Tony some space,” she corrects. Steve doesn’t say anything, he didn’t have to. “Come on Steve, don’t you think you’re overreacting a little?”
“Not really,” he says honestly. “I mean we work together fine. For work. But you have to admit, we’re not doing a very good job of… living this close to each other.”
“You haven’t seen him in week.”
“Yeah, and that has probably been one of the nicest weeks for everyone here. Come on, Nat. You’ve seen it. We just… it doesn’t matter how much we try. We just end up getting under each others’ skin. It’s not- it’s not fair. He won’t say it, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want me around. And I-” He needs to not be around Tony. The only reason that he’s gone a week without seeing Tony is because he’s gone out of his way to make sure they couldn’t cross paths. Because sometimes, every once in a while, they have a conversation and it’s nice. They laugh, they joke, they banter. Tony gets that little twinkle in his eye that he only gets when he’s genuinely having fun, and Steve would believe for a moment that there would be a chance, that they could at least be friends even if he’s never allowed himself to hope for anything more. But those occasions are rare, and growing rarer. Now, every time they look at each other it’s like something has shattered, and what was once friendly banter turns into harsh snipping and underhanded digs. And it hurts more than Steve wants to admit. So, yeah, he thinks maybe space would be nice. Space to get over Tony.
“Look, I’m not planning anything, okay? It was just a thought, nothing more.” He snatches the card up off the counter and shoves it into a drawer, closing it with more force than was strictly necessary. “I need to get ready. I want to make sure I know the layout and the exits.”
They both know he’s already committed every detail of the floorplan Natasha had acquired to memory, but she doesn’t call him out on it.
“Sam and I will be on stand by a few blocks out, we’ll follow you there. Call if you need anything.” She squeezes his shoulder gently on the way out, and Steve doesn’t move until he’s heard the door to his apartment click quietly shut behind her.
Three hours later Steve finds himself sitting at a dark wood table by himself., eyes scanning the busy club as he tries to look inconspicuous. It is a nice place - upscale decor, classy and chic in that modern way. Tucked away in one corner is a VIP area, and nearby is a doorway with a security guard standing in front of it. Steve knows from the plans that it leads back to a private area. Already, he’s seen several of the dancers lead clients back there. Of course, on paper there is no sex being traded, of course not, that would be illegal. But, if certain clients are prepared to tip well in order to arrange for a more… intimate experience, well, now, that’s different.. And off the record.
A waitress comes by a moment later, her short skirt and top only barely covering her, eyes and face covered in smokey makeup. She smiles at Steve, batting her eyelashes coquettishly.
“You look like you need another drink, handsome,” she coos, nodding to his empty glass. Steve leans back in his chair and does his best to return the smile, playing up the shy charm. Natasha had coached him, telling him to go with the flow of whatever happened, and to play up that aspect of his personality. Steve had stared at her incredulously at that. She’d pointed out that it would play better than the parts of personality that were stubborn, abrasive, and sought to punch his way out. On that, he had to concede that maybe, she had a point.
“Drink would be nice,” he agrees. “Scotch and soda please?”
“Well aren’t you just the sweetest thing,” she says, leaning down towards him and brushing her fingers against his arm. “Nice guy like you, all alone in a place like this.”
“I like the drinks,” he says dryly, soliciting a laugh from her.
“Sweet and funny. I like you. I’ll be right back with that drink, handsome.” As she leaves, she somehow manages to find and excuse to touch his arm again, her slender fingers and long nails lingering too long and squeezing his bicep too tightly. Go with the flow Natasha’s voice echoes in his head.
Right. He can do this.
As he waits, his eyes scan the room as it gradually fills with more clients. A new act has hit the stage, a dancer who manages to move and twist herself in a way that Steve knows would take incredible strength, training, and discipline, and she does it while making it look seamless and effortless. For a brief moment, he is reminded of the USO girls on his tour, each of them beautiful, definitely, but more strong and graceful. He’d seen the hours of effort they had put into practising their dances and had decided early on that dancing was an incredible feat of athleticism. He’d gained even more respect for it after Natasha had walked him through some ballet basics.
He pulls his eyes away from the dancer and continues his scan of the room. So far, there has been nothing to suggest that anything out of the ordinary is going on. No signs of HYDRA, no shady dealings, not even so much as a belligerent customer. But, the night is young. Steve sighs. At this rate, it’s going to be a long one.
Slowly, the club starts filling with people and the volume in the room begins to rise. Periodically, the same woman would come by and offer him a drink, which he accepted. Sitting alone in a strip club not drinking would have drawn far too much attention to himself, and it isn’t like he needs to worry about getting himself drunk on a recon mission.
An hour passes without incident and Steve begins to think that the intel they have might be false — or at least that nothing’s going to go down tonight and he’ll have to come back another time — when the woman who’s been bringing him drinks all night comes back again, sly smile on her face. At this point, the volume of the music and the din of voices have risen to the point where conversation is nearly impossible. She sidles up into his space, resting her hands on his shoulders and running them down his arms. She raises an eyebrow and nods over her shoulder towards the private rooms, and takes his hands, pulling him to his feet. Steve swallows hard, but doesn’t resist. Natasha had told him to go with whatever happened, and this woman looks and acts like she knows her way around this place. With any lucky, she might have information, maybe heard something, rumours or gossip. Anything that could help him.
She smiles at him, giggles, and he follows her back behind closed doors.
Getting her to answer questions turns out to be a lot more difficult than Steve had thought. Internally, he curses the fact that it’s him out on this mission. This kind of underhanded information gathering is not his forte, and add to that is the fact that he’s having a hell of a hard time playing the role of ‘interested patron enthusiastically enjoying a beautiful woman stripping him down to nothing, teasing him with playful brushes of her fingers and telling him that he could look, but not touch’.
He doesn’t want this. He’s got nothing against this woman or how she makes her living, but he doesn’t want this. He feels awkward and out of place, and even with her beautiful soft skin and curves so close to his space, he can’t help the way he yearns for strong arms and shoulders instead, sculpted by hours working in a shop, of bright brown eyes and scruff covered chin. He shoves those images aside and turns his focus back on the woman. He’s got a job to do.
A job that isn’t going well for him, seeing as every time he tries to prod the conversation towards something useful, she turns the tables and comes at him with questions of her own. It’s enough to make him curse with frustration. He sticks to his cover story, but he gets the impression that she doesn’t quite believe him. She lowers herself onto his lap and runs her fingers teasingly down the front of his chest. It would feel nice, if he weren’t thinking of fingers stained with motor oil.
“You’re so tense,” she purrs, bringing a finger up to his jaw and running a thumb across his lip. “And you seem so distracted, handsome. Come on, tell me what’s on your mind. I’ll take good care of you.” She rolls her hips against his to emphasise the point.
His avoidance tactics aren’t working, and he’s not getting anywhere. She’s getting somewhere, though. She has, little by little, managed to divest him of his clothing. He suspects, by the way she continues to strip him and change the subject whenever he asks her a question, that she might be on to the fact that he’s not just a regular patron looking for a good time.
He opens his mouth to say something, but doesn’t get a chance before his train of thought is derailed by a shout, a loud bang, and something that sounds a hell of a lot like a gun shot, followed by screams. Without thinking, Steve grabs the woman around the waist and rolls them to the ground, putting his body between her and the door to shield her. She stares at him, wide eyed and panicked as he jumps to his feet.
“Stay here,” he snaps, and runs out the door.
The main room of the club is in chaos. The patrons have all fled, leaving an empty dance floor, upturned tables, and shards of broken glass littering the floor. All that’s left remaining are two groups of people, facing off.
“You made a mistake, trying to double cross us,” a man dressed in black tactical pants and a jacket says blandly. “You could have just kept to our deal and we all could have gone home happy.”
Steve take a step back, trying to stay out of the line of fire until he can come up with a halfway decent plan. He only manages a step and a half before he hits something.
“Watch it!” The words are hissed in an all too familiar voice. Steve’s eyes widen and he turns to find the last person he expected to see here staring back at him.
“What? Wait, Steve?” Tony replies, blinking in confusion.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Steve says as he eyes Tony standing beside him, as naked as he is. Tony very obviously eyes him back. Unlike Steve, Tony doesn’t appear to make any effort to keep his eyes above Steve’s neck.
“Heh. Could say the same about you, Cap. The hell are you doing here anyway?”
Steve doesn’t have a chance to answer as a raised voice from the far side of the room catches his attention.
“You’re the ones who betrayed the terms of our agreement,” snarled the club owner.
“Excuse me?” The man in black that Steve now recognised as a HYDRA agent says coldy in response.
“You set up a deal, take our money, and then set Avengers on us, that’s your plan?” Steve hears the sound of a clip loading into a gun as the owner continues. “Let me show you just what happens when you try and screw me over.”
A few things click into place all at once, and suddenly the woman who’d taken an interest in him and ‘what was troubling him’ makes a hell of a lot more sense.
The HYDRA agent slowly turns his gaze around the room until it settles on Steve and Tony, and his eyes narrow sharply. An impossibly long moment of tension hangs in the air. Beside him, Steve feels Tony’s muscles tighten, ready to spring into action. From the corner of his eye, Steve sees Tony nodding ever so slightly at him.
Then all hell breaks loose.
The club owner fires a shot, but HYDRA guy is ready for it and is already ducking for cover. His backup seems to take it as a personal offence and charges after them. Steve almost feels bad for the club owner and his crew. They aren’t going to stand a chance against highly trained HYDRA assets.
Steve would really like to make it out of this without a body count. Tony, it seems, agrees. And neither of them want to risk the HYDRA team making a getaway. Wordlessly, they enter into the fray, heedless of the fact that they’re both unarmed, and still very, very naked. In the far distance outside, Steve can hear sirens approaching, so really they only need to find a way to hold their own a few minutes until backup arrives. But a lot can happen in a few minutes.
A few feet away, Tony picks up a bar stool by the legs and swings it at one of the HYDRA goons with everything he’s got. It connects hard with the man's knee, and he crumples to the ground, cursing. Tony lets out a satisfied whoop that Steve can’t help but find it adorable enough to temporarily chase away all of the complicated feelings that he has regarding Tony. Now isn’t the time to deal with them anyway.
With Tony at his six, Steve surges forward. Subduing HYDRA is his priority, but he’s not about to let the buyers make any kind of get away either. They’re all lucky that both sides seemed to realised that with the fight turning to such close quarters, guns are not a good idea. At least that lessens the chance of anyone getting shot.
He goes after the HYDRA leader, facing off with him in a fighters stance. Steve’s pretty sure he recognises the guy from SHIELD, but can’t put a face to the name. The man eyes him, and then sneers with a harsh laugh. “Captain America, caught with your pants down. How embarrassing for you.” With a snap of a movement, he goes to reach for a gun, but Steve is still faster. He rushes into the man’s space, and in one quick movement, has the man disarmed and is trying to wrestle him into a hold. The man manages to break free, but judging by the hiss and the crack, it costs him at least a fractured wrist. Steve can’t say he feels sorry for the guy.
They both regain their footing in a second and move to strike again, when out of nowhere, Tony appears behind the guy, still wielding his barstool, and brings it down on the back of the guy’s head. He drops like a sack of bricks and doesn’t move.
“Ha! Take that,” Tony says triumphantly, and turns around to face the fray again. They’re lucky that the HYDRA team and the club owner’s flunkies are doing a pretty good job of keeping each other occupied. It leaves Steve and Tony free to move around the room and incapacitate the ones who seem like they are the biggest threats.
It’s been a week since Steve has seen Tony, and longer since they’d had an interaction that hadn’t ended in them hurtling angry words at each other, and he’s forgotten just how good it feels to fight and banter with Tony at his side. He’s missed this, and he aches for the friendship they could have had if they could just… find a way to make it work.
Their fight comes to a sudden and startling halt as the room is suddenly filled with a fully decked out TAC team, weapons raised, shouting for everyone to get on the ground. Predictably, both HYDRA and the club crew try and flee towards the back of the building, but don’t make it farther than ten feet before they’re surrounded by the second half of the TAC team. One of the HYDRA goons tries to go for his weapons, but his hand barely has a chance to twitch before he’s roughly thrown the to ground, his head hitting with a crack and his shoulder dislocating when he tries to struggle. The rest put up far less of a fight.
“On the ground,” the squad leader demands again to Steve and Tony who are both standing with their hands raised.
“Whoa, settle there soldier,” Tony says. “We’re Avengers. We’re the good guys.”
“I don’t care if you’re Father-fucking-Christmas, you’ll get on the ground so I can clear and secure this site,” He says it in a way that makes it clear that the topic is not up for discussion. Steve quickly takes Tony’s arms and nudges him to the ground. Tony protests, but he goes, and the squad leader waves at one of his people who quickly zip ties their wrists together behind their backs, and then ties both cuffs together so that Steve and Tony find themselves sitting on the ground sitting back to back, attached at the wrists. It’s not remotely how Steve would have wanted things to go but considering they were caught in the middle of a fight between two groups of hostiles, completely naked and with no ID on them, he should probably count himself lucky that it didn’t end worse.
“So, this sucks,” Tony says cheerfully as the TAC team works on securing the rest of the building. “Not quite how I pictured this evening ending. Mind you, nothing about this is what I pictured, including you being here. You never answered my question about why that was.”
“Recon,” Steve sighs resignedly. “On the intel that said HYDRA was looking to make a deal through here on the stolen SHIELD tech.”
“Funny, that’s what I was doing. Natasha never mentioned you’d be here,” Tony says pointedly. Of course she didn’t. She just orchestrated it so they both just happened to end up in the same place working. And if they happened to run into each other, well, wouldn’t that just be a coincidence? “She did, however, mention that you were thinking of moving out of the tower.”
“Oh my god, I wasn’t seriously considering it,” Steve huffs in annoyance.
“But you were thinking about it at least a little,” Tony says. Steve can’t argue, because it’s true.
“Do we need to talk about this now?”
“Well it’s not like we have anything better to do,” Tony snaps. “But you’re right, if you want to leave, I won’t stop you. Have fun and don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”
“Dammit Tony, it’s not like that.”
“Then what’s it like, huh? It’s fine, Steve, I get it. I’m not easy to be around. It’s probably better this way anyway.”
“It’s not like I want to leave,” Steve protests.
“Then what is it? ‘Cause I have tried my damndest to make sure you and everyone else there has everything they need.”
“It’s not that,” Steve protests again.
“Then what the hell is it, Steve?” Tony yells desperately.
For a flash of a moment, Steve wonders how they got here from fighting bad guys, but it doesn’t matter, because they are here, and this conversation is happening whether he likes it or not. His brain seems completely on board with this, because before he realises what he’s saying, Steve is growling back, “I can’t stand being so close to you, knowing you can’t stand to be around me. I can’t stand having you so close and being reminded all the time that I want you and can never have you. That I can’t even manage to be friends with you.”
A stunned silence follows, and Steve presses on before Tony can say anything. “Look, it’s fine, okay? I’m not going to leave the tower, I’ll get over it, and I’m sorry I’m impossible to be around.” As if this night couldn’t get any worse, now he’s gone and burned the last semblance of a rickety bridge that there was between he and Tony. Just fucking great. As soon as he sees Natasha again, he’s going to give her hell.
As if showcasing the ability to read his mind, Natasha appears in the room a moment later with Sam and Rhodey. She glances at the pair of them and raises an eyebrow, not bothering to avert her eyes from the fact that they’re both obviously undresses. One of the TAC agents had been kind enough to toss a couple of cloth napkins in their laps, at least. Beside her, Sam and Rhodey both burst out laughing.
“Oh come on, this is not the worst situation you have found me in,” Tony whines over at Rhodey.
Rhodey nods his head in agreement and says between fits of giggles, “No, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing.”
The squad commander makes his way over, and Rhodey somehow manages to school his expression back into something resembling professionalism. “Everything checks out, building is secure, I’m officially releasing them to your custody, Lieutenant Colonel. But we’ll need them to file a statement.”
“What, no apology?” Tony huffs, glaring up at the man.
“He was just doing his job, Tony,” Steve says wearily.
It takes a few minutes, and a bit of scrounging, but soon enough Steve and Tony both find themselves free and on their feet again, and dressed. The whole situation is a bureaucratic mess and at this point there are multiple agencies on site, and no one can seem to decide who has jurisdiction where. It’s a headache that’s going to take days to sort out. Steve desperately hopes that he can convince Maria to handle the inevitable inter-agency information sharing meetings that are going to result in the coming days.
All Steve wants is to go home and hide, but Rhodey won’t let them leave until they’ve at least filed an initial statement, reports to follow. By the time they’re done, Steve feels worn down and wrung right out, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to lose it on the next person who tries to talk to him about something that isn’t leaving. Which is of course, when Tony decides to march back into his line of sight.
“We need to talk,” Tony informs him, stern face and no-nonsense.
“Not now. Can we just... not right now?”
Tony doesn’t budge. “Fine. I’ll do the talking.” Steve doesn’t want to hear it, but Tony is between him and any reasonable way out, and he really doesn’t want to cause yet another scene, so he braces himself for the inevitable tirade.
“You’re an idiot,” Tony tells him. And here it comes. “You’re such a goddamn idiot and I don’t even know what to do with you, Rogers. Where the hell did you get it into your head that I couldn’t stand to be around you?”
Steve blinks in surprise, and it’s followed quickly by angry frustration. “Maybe because I can’t have a civil conversation with you without you digging at me and pushing me away.”
“I’m pushing you away?” Tony snaps. “You’re the one who’s been avoiding me for weeks.”
“Because you were avoiding me!” Steve retorts. “Look, what do you want me to say? Just… tell me.”
“I don’t want you to say anything,” Tony growls, stepping closer into Steve’s space. Before Steve realises what’s happening, Tony’s hands are clinging to his shirt and shoving him back hard until his back hits the wall. Then Tony is pressing up against him, pinning him in place as he kisses Steve hard enough to take his breath away. Steve gasps in shock and Tony takes advantage of the surprise to press deeper, sliding his tongue between Steve’s lips. Steve’s brain catches up a moment later, his hands drop to hold onto Tony’s hips, and suddenly Steve is kissing him back with all the desperation and desire he’s been trying to ignore since they’d met. Tony breaks the kiss and pulls back after a moment, and Steve whines softly at the loss of contact, fighting the urge to chase after Tony’s mouth again.
“You thought I didn’t want you?’ Tony said, his voice raw. “Steve, I’ve wanted you so fucking much it hurt to look at you. Every time you opened your damn mouth, every time you smiled, every time you were a stubborn, snarky, infuriating asshole, I wanted you.”
He’s an idiot. They’re both idiots. Each of them pushing the other away to protect themselves because they wanted something they thought they couldn’t have.
“So, what now?” Steve asks, feeling far more vulnerable than he’d like.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I just watched you beat up bad guys stark naked, and I gotta admit that’s definitely going to fuel more than one fantasy, so really, I’m kind of hoping to take you home and do very inappropriate things to you. Repeatedly. In several different ways.”
“I… could get behind that,” Steve agrees.
“But after that, I have no idea. Not like I’m great at this.”
“After that, you let me buy you dinner,” Steve says firmly.
“What? Sex before the first date? Why Rogers, I never would have imagined.”
“Yes, you would,” Steve says with a grin.
“Yeah, okay, yes I would. And did.. But first, home. We clearly need to work on our… communication skills.” Tony waggles his eyebrows.
Steve knows he’s looking for a laugh, or even to make Steve blush, but Steve’s not going to make it that easy for him.
“You wanna communicate?” Steve says, eyes darkening and grin turning impish. “Let’s work on practicing ‘oh, yes, harder.’”
Tony stares at him, mouth agape for a long moment. Then he seems to give himself a mental shake, and grins right back.
“Time to go,” he says, dragging Steve toward the exit. “I have a very, very fast car.”
Steve laughs as Tony pulls him out, feeling happiness bubble up in his chest.