To be perfectly honest, Steve wasn't sure how he'd ended up here.
He'd signed up to fight a war. Signed up to be a soldier, a man's man, to stand up to bullies around the world and fight for what was right. He'd wanted to fight, wanted to win. He'd thought the supersoldier serum would be the solution to his every problem; he'd thought he'd be a soldier at last, or he'd die trying.
This had never been part of the plan.
The emotions swirled and rolled around in his gut like he was on the Coney Island Cyclone all over again, sixteen and scrawny and about to puke. He was furious at his situation, and so preoccupied being righteously indignant about the unfairness of it all that he didn't focus much—at all, really—on his motions.
"Cripes, Rogers, you're stiff as a board! Hips back, breasts out, c'mon."
Steve's first thought was to remind the man—Jack, the owner of the club he was auditioning for—that he wasn't actually a woman, that he clearly didn't have breasts. His second was that if he did, he certainly wouldn't be sticking them out anyway, not for Jack, and not for the clients that Steve had been assured would "just eat him up with a spoon".
As if that was supposed to be a good thing.
Steve resigned himself to silence, to the fact that if he wanted to get out of this situation anytime soon, he'd have to make money. To do that, he'd have to get a job. To get this job, he'd have to look good. The club may have been sleazy and it's owner even worse, but the man knew what appealed to his patrons. Steve did the dance again.
"Christ, kid, you look like you'd rather shoot me."
He'd rather be shooting something, that was for sure.
"Look, try a smile or somethin', wouldja? I'm not believin' for a second that you wanna fuck me." Jack chewed on a cigarette as he spoke, rolling it along the ridges of his teeth, chewing it like gum without bothering to light it.
"You said sex wasn't—" Steve began, alarmed.
"Cool yer heels, no one's asking ya to fuck anyone. But ya gotta make 'em believe you do, that's the whole shtick. If you can't do that, no matter how great a body ya got you're fucking useless to me."
Steve froze, the word useless ringing like a gunshot in his ears. When he'd been released, the military had taken every penny he had—not that he'd had much to begin with. The supersoldier serum, in spite of the many muscles it had gifted Steve with, wasn't replicable without Erskine, and therefore wasn't viable. As a result, the whole SSR program had been decommissioned and considered a failure, and a damn expensive one at that. The military considered Steve to be at fault somehow, and had taken everything he'd ever made and then some for their trouble.
Steve, jobless, inexperienced, and deemed militarily unfit once again—they claimed to be unsure how Erskine's serum had affected his brain, though Steve suspected they just wanted him out of their hair—had no way of getting another job. His year in the military was now classified, and there was nothing he could put on a resume to explain the empty year. To anyone hiring, he looked like a lay-about who'd wasted a year of his life doing nothing in the middle of a depression.
Steve was trying everything he could, scouring every want ad and hitting up every business, but no one was hiring and if they were he wasn't qualified. He wasn't unaware of his new physicality, though—he was attractive now, tall, muscular, and dexterous in ways he hadn't previously thought possible—and knew there were certain jobs where athleticism and physical appeal were all that mattered. He was loathe to stoop to it, but desperate, about two weeks from being homeless, and exceptionally hungry—the superserum had done a hard number on his metabolism—he'd given in and starting seeking out jobs at some of the new clubs popping up over New York infamous for their hush-hush allowance of all types of…interests.
Steve hadn't liked the thought of that. He'd spent a long time hiding his tendencies for impure, queer thoughts, and it felt like playing with fire working someplace like that. But a man could make a hell of a lot of money working in these new places, and Steve wasn't in a position to turn that sort of cash down. Sex with clients was optional in most places though it paid an exorbitant amount of money, but Steve thought he could scrounge by without it—at least, he was damn well going to try.
So he steeled himself, fiercely determined as he cocked his hips back, jutted his chest out, and shot Jack his most dazzling smile. He decided then and there that if he was going to strut around this ridiculous stage like a peacock in too-tight corsets and stringy, see-through thongs in as many combinations of red white and blue as the horny bastards in costume design could have wet dreams of, he was going to look good doing it, damn it.
After the tryouts, one of the men Steve had caught watching him from the wings approached him. He was dressed in the simple, well-pressed suit of a businessman, and Steve wondered what he was doing in sleazy place like this. He remembered his gaze though, steady, fixed without being leering, and decided that he liked him better than Jack already.
"Phil Coulson." The man passed him a business card. "Talent manager for Club Shield."
"Steve Rogers." Steve took the card, glanced over the name, phone number, and address. Club Shield was in a different district—hell of a nicer one, too.
"We know." Phil managed to inflect a smile into his voice without actually moving his lips. "We're interested. You're new, clearly, but you're fairly good and we're not opposed to training those we think have the aptitude for it."
"You'd train me?" All the other places Steve had auditioned at had made it clear he'd start the next week, and that it was up to him to figure out some kind of routine in the meantime.
"Among other things. We demand more of you—the rehearsal schedules are fairly intense, and we maintain full control over all your costumes and routines, who you work with on-stage, things like that—but in return, we take care of our own. That means we'd train you, watch out for you, make sure you're getting as much or as little work as you need." Phil glanced around, a slight air of disapproval more in his eyes than his expression as he took in the grungy club. "We're safe, we're clean, and we're exclusive—our clients aren't the type to take liberties you haven't signed off on. Consider it, Mr. Rogers. I think you'd be a good fit for our team."
Steve wondered if he'd look too eager if he said yes immediately.
"If I decide to accept…" Steve forced himself to look hesitant. "Is there another audition I need to schedule, or can I start immediately?"
"You can start whenever you'd like." Amusement was visible in the corners of Phil's eyes, and Steve figured the game was up.
"Right." Steve glanced down at the card, then back up at Phil. "Tomorrow?"
"Certainly." Phil nodded, thankfully making no comment on Steve's eagerness. The sooner he got a job, the sooner he could have a hot meal; he couldn't afford to play it coy. "We like it if our employees live in the building. Keeps you close, and we can control your rent and spot you as necessary; not to mention the team-building it fosters vastly increases our retention rate. Is that a problem for you?"
"No. I can—whenever," Steve answered quickly. He didn't have much to begin with, and he'd been selling anything he didn't need these past few weeks as he became increasingly desperate for money. All he had was a few trinkets and a handful of books he couldn't bear to part with; the landlord would've already kicked him out months ago if she didn't have a soft spot for him.
"Good. Come by the club tonight to see for yourself what we're like, and I'll let Nick—the owner—know you'll be stopping by. He'll want to meet and get to know you, so make sure you talk to him."
"Wait, get to know me? Why?"
Phil paused a moment, cocked his head.
"Listen, Steve: this is a fickle business. Dancers come and go in the blink of an eye—plenty of them just want a quick buck, next month's rent so they can get back on their feet. That's fine, no one wants this job forever, we get that. But we're not aiming for the revolving door, either. We want people who are comfortable sticking around for a while. Plenty of clubs offer dime-a-dozen teenage runaways working the pole for week here, a month there. They get replaced, no one notices. We want our dancers to be unique, recognized, desired—those are the kinds of dancers who bring in repeat clientele, who take the business up a notch. So we want to understand what you're looking for from us before we bring you in."
"Right." Steve nodded quickly. "Okay. Sure. Yes."
"Glad we're on the same page." Phil tipped his hat in a goodbye, then he was off, down the stairs and out the side door right before Jack came storming up.
"Damn it, Coulson!" Jack shouted at the closed door, then muttered, "Fucker."
"Who was that?" One of the other dancers asked.
"The jackass who steals all my boys, that's what," Jack grunted, scowling at the dancer, "But he didn't talk to you, now did he, Phillips? So get back in place and let's see it again, looks like Rogers just opened a slot for ya."
"I haven't accepted ye—" Steve began, but it was a moot point.
"Fuck off already."
Steve took that as his cue to leave.
The entrance wasn't quite hidden, but it was easy to miss if you weren't looking for it: a single, simple door with the words Club Shield in fancy cursive and a small eagle with wings, their logo, just above it. There were no bouncers or place to pay, not in the front—it was only through the door and down a hallway that he was blocked from further entrance. There was still no bouncer, oddly enough, just the woman behind the counter.
Steve had no money to begin with, and the price listed was astoundingly high. He must've looked as panicked as he felt—he hadn't thought about how he'd pay to get in, and if he couldn't get in, he might not get the job, and he couldn't afford to lose both the job at Jack's as well as here—but woman peered down, dark eyes examining him shrewdly.
"Steve Rogers." It wasn't quite a question, but Steve's head shot up anyway.
"Yes ma'am, that's me." Steve nodded quickly. "I was told to speak with—"
"Nick, yes." The woman stepped out from behind the counter, extended a hand. "Maria Hill. Come with me."
"Uh, should you really just leave the—?" Steve glanced behind him, but another man, tall and bald, had already taken her place. "Oh. Wow."
"Why do you have the bouncer hide like that?"
"He's not the bouncer. He's backup," Maria corrected, "Bouncers are unnecessary. I tend to run the counters, but when I don't, it's Jasper or Phil, and none of us require assistance removing unruly customers from the premises."
"Got it." Steve nodded, absorbing that. "Cashier and bouncer in one. Saves money, I suppose."
"That it does." The corner of her mouth ticked up, apparently pleased that he'd picked up on that. "I'm the business manager. I handle finances, advertising, that sort of thing. Jasper Sitwell—he just took the counter—is the premises manager. He keeps an eye on the clientele once they're inside, makes sure everyone's behaving themselves and steps in if need be."
She opened the doors to main room, and Steve took it all in: the club was stunning. The décor was dark, as was the usual style, but instead of making the place look like a dirty, furtive secret, it just looked classy, perhaps somewhat mysterious. Sleek grey paneling accented the black booths and navy carpeting well, and Steve felt like he'd accidentally stepped into a spy movie instead of a whore house, so that was probably a good start. He hoped he could hold onto that.
The place felt busy without being crowded, and the music was low enough that conversation was possible but not forced. In the front there was just the bar and some tables, but the main seating was separated into three floor levels that lead down to the center stage below. The stage was large and easily visible from every angle in the club, and Steve could see the man dancing there now—he was shorter than Steve, with dirty blonde hair and lean but definitely visible muscles, particularly in his arms. He was in some purple feathered, stringy outfit Steve had no name for and frankly thought looked a little silly, though he'd certainly give the man one thing—he owned it. He knew exactly what he was doing, and the crowd clearly appreciated it.
"Hawkeye," Maria informed Steve.
"Do I…call him that?"
"Up to him." Maria gave a small shrug, just a miniscule lift of one shoulder. "You'll learn everyone's stage names—it's up to them if they want to tell you more. Give it time."
"Hey, Hill!" someone hissed. Steve turned to see a dark-haired woman behind the bar waving them over, "Who's this pretty boy?"
"Nice." She gave a wolfish grin. "Spin for me blondie, what's your ass like?"
"Darcy," Maria warned, then turned to Steve. "This is Darcy Lewis. She, Jane Foster, and Betty Ross are runners."
"Yeah, clients put up one of those markers—" Darcy pointed out the little markers on the end of the tables. "—if they want refills on a drink or to buy one of you, then I run out and get their orders. Which, speaking of, it looks like I need do. See you around, hot stuff."
She hopped over the bar, smacked his ass, and disappeared down the aisle.
"Uh." Steve wasn't quite sure how to react to that.
"She's excitable, ignore her." A brunette exited the back of the bar, extending a hand. "Jane. I overheard; you're new?"
"Possibly." Steve shook her hand. "Nice to meet you."
"You too. Coulson's been going on about you." Jane told him with a mysterious, amused smile.
"He talks like you lap-danced your way out of your mother's womb." Jane laughed.
"Oh." Steve tried his best not to blush.
"If you turn that red on stage, they're going to eat you right up." Jane raised an eyebrow in amusement.
"That's the plan." Maria gave a hint of a smirk, then led Steve further along.
They passed a number of tables, until Maria steered him towards one in the back that overlooked the club. Phil was there, seated next to a tall, intimidating man with an eye patch. They were passing papers between themselves, bickering, until Steve was within hearing distance and they fell silent. Phil nodded at him once, curt, and gestured to the open seat. He didn't look at all like someone who would "go on" about anyone.
"Hello." Steve greeted them both. The man with the eye patch grunted.
"Nick," Phil warned.
"Minute." Nick—the owner of the club, Steve remembered—flipped another page. "That's not gonna work."
"It'll work if we have another dancer."
"Who'd you steal him from?"
"Hm." Nick gave a more pleased-sounding grunt. "Fine. Sit. Maria, that'll be all. Take over before Jasper shoots someone again."
Steve sat, though he couldn't help glancing over his shoulder towards the door.
"Relax." Nick waved a hand. "I'm kidding. He's not armed."
"Anymore," Maria muttered, though Steve's superhearing caught it just fine. Apparently Nick had it too, because he looked up with a scowl.
"Point being that he's not armed."
"Of course." Maria was already leaving.
"Did he actually—?" Steve began, alarmed.
"We banned a client that was becoming a problem, they became a problem for Jasper, he fired a round into the ceiling roughly a yard above their head." Nick was flipping through the files again, talking about a shooting like someone discussed the weather. "He's licensed to carry and a damn good shot, he knew where he was aiming. Don't worry about it. What's your name again, kid?"
"Steve Rogers," Steve answered, then added, "And I'm 27."
"Right." Nick glanced up at that, examined his face. "Baby face, though. We can work with that."
"So: why do you want to strip in front of strangers for money?"
"Uh." Steve stuttered over the phrasing of the question. "I—I need the money."
"Right. And there's a hell of a lot of jobs out there. Why this one?"
"I don't have many options." Steve admitted. He'd thought the upside of this kind of job was the lack of an interview process. What exactly was he supposed to say? He was broke and desperate for cash, just like every other dancer they'd probably ever seen.
"I don't have the job experience. I was an art student for a few years, then I—well. Uh. Last year is classified, and now I'm here."
Eyebrows went up around the table.
"Classified," Nick repeated.
"Classified." Steve nodded. "I understand if you don't believe me. But it's true, and I can't give any other answer, which means I can't account to most employers why I didn't have a job last year. And most clubs don't, uh, interview, so."
"I see." Phil jotted something down. Steve did his best not to look like he was trying to sneak a glance. "I take it you didn't finish school?"
"No." Steve shook his head. "Too expensive. I'm—I should've been evicted months ago."
"How long do you think you'll need this job?" Nick leaned on the table a bit, holding eye contact with him, presumably so Steve wouldn't lie to him.
"A while," Steve said truthfully, "At least one or two years, probably more. I owe money to just about everyone I've ever met and then some, and I don't have the skills to go looking for other work yet."
Nick watched him steadily for another moment. He turned to Phil, who gave a single, sharp nod. Nick nodded back.
"Okay, kid." Nick sighed. "We'll take you on. Listen, I own the building and I run the show, but you need something, you go through Phil. He's the talent manager, you're the talent, see how that works?"
"Got it." Steve nodded quickly, grateful.
"Pay goes through Maria, 1st and 15th of every month. We don't do the money-throwing bit—it's cute, but everyone makes more this way. Someone holds money out to you, you don't take it. They pay the runners, then the runners come back and—"
"How much can they buy?" Steve interrupted. Nick shot him an unamused look.
"Don't interrupt me. Then the runners come back and check with Jane, who has the masterlist of consent. You set up what you will and won't do with Phil, and he'll pass it on to Jane. You can take the base pay and do nothing else, you can do strictly lap dances, you can fuck ten clients a night, that's all on you. Set it up with Phil. They pay the runners, runners bring it to Jane, Jane informs Phil, Phil sends you out. Easy."
"Right. Easy." Steve nodded, trying not to look as relieved as he felt. "Thank you so much, I really—"
"Go on already." Nick waved him on. "Phil'll show you the open apartments we've got. Rent's taken directly out of your pay, so don't worry about any bills."
"Does the base cover—?"
"Base pay is rent, utilities, and about fifty bucks. You can live off it if you absolutely have to, but I'd suggest at least doing some lap dances if you want to start paying off any debts."
"I will, again, thank you—"
"Go." Nick waved him off like one might a particularly pesky fly.
"Right, going." Steve nodded quickly, and Phil fell into step beside him.
"Have you given a stage-name any thought?"
"Not really," Steve admitted.
"Never used one before?"
"Well." Steve thought briefly of the idea they'd floated to him back when he'd been in the SSR program. "There was one. Kind of had a nice ring. It sounds a little arrogant though."
"We've got a dancer named after a Norse god."
"Oh." Steve blinked. "Wow. Okay. How's Captain America sound, then?"
"Captain America," Phil mused, "Hm. Catchy. Suppose we could use a little patriotic flair around here; there's a war on, after all. Gives our resident designer a good theme to work with too. What about your boundaries? You seem fairly clear on them."
"If someone teaches me how, I bet I could manage lap dances. But that's—for now, can that be—?"
"That can be all." Phil nodded once, flipping open his little notebook again and jotting it down. "I'll inform Jane."
"You're welcome, 'Captain'." The corner of Phil's lips turned up in amusement.
"Hey, Cap." Clint smacked Steve's ass as he made his way off-stage. "Great job. Man, first day opening up the lap dance slot and you've already got two."
"I do?" Steve panted, grabbing the towel Clint offered and wiping off his face. He never would've imagined what a workout this kind of thing could be.
"Yeah, tables 7 and 9. 7 looks like a bachelorette party, 9's a loner."
"A loner? Great." Steve sighed, brushing past him to grab the water bottle from his prep station and take a quick drink, hopefully quench some nerves as well as his thirst. Everyone always complained how handsy loners could be.
He'd been here almost two months now, and he'd gotten fairly used to the looking—looking he could handle. It was a lot of leering, but Steve had never been particularly body conscious to begin with and was self-aware enough to know he looked damn good these days. Hell, he got leered walking down the streets sometimes. Touching, on the other hand…well, touching would be new.
Not that he'd told Phil, or any of the others; this wasn't exactly the business for virgins, and he needed the job as much as ever. Though, it wasn't as if they'd just outright dump him; Phil hadn't been kidding when he'd said they took care of their own. This may not be his true purpose—please, God, let this not be his true purpose—but he kind of liked it here. He never would've expected it, not in a million years, but he'd fallen into it all fairly easily. The clothes were skimpy and the dances provocative, but like with just about anything, he did it enough times and he lost his embarrassment. He was actually getting fairly good at it. The dances were sort of fun, once you looked past the purpose of them. Not to mention it was all so colorful, so bright and theatric, very artsy in its own way.
His group had been so much more accepting than he'd expected, too. There were a lot of groups and plenty of shifts a night, which put them on a rotating schedule that meant they didn't meet many people outside their group. He got to know the people he did work with very well though, since they all lived on the same floor. He'd been placed in "A", the superhero-themed group, with Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Thor.
Hawkeye and Black Widow, aka Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov, lived in the apartments to the right and left him, respectively. Clint was their highest earner for lap dances, and the one who organized and decided all their training schedules. He was snarky and goofy and took absolutely nothing seriously, but Steve liked that about him. This wasn't the job most people set out for in life, but you'd never know it from talking to Clint. Natasha doubled as their choreographer and was supposed to be the best dominatrix in New York state. Though Steve didn't really go for that sort of thing, she also had a fantastically dry wit and intelligence in spades, so he thought she was pretty great too.
Thor, aka no-really-my-name-is-Thor Odinson, shared the apartment across the hall from Steve with Loki Laufeyson—who was not a dancer, as he had very snottily informed Steve the moment they met—and they ran the costumes department together. Thor was great, enthusiastic and theatrical with a keen eye for colors and judging what dancers would be most comfortable in. He was the kind of guy that brightened a room, that could set people at ease simply with his presence. His brother—half brother? Step brother? Brother in law? No one was quite sure—was definitely his polar opposite, but they managed to compliment each other. Where Thor was good with people, with matching personalities to costume styles, Loki was a wizard with design. He could get anything to fit anyone, and if he got his hands on it at some point, you knew you were bound to look nothing short of fantastic.
They were good friends with some of the others that worked the club too, and went out for drinks with them often. There was Bruce Banner, the club's bartender, who Steve expected clients to be rude to because of his easy-going nature, but actually commanded the bar with threats of a fearsome temper that Steve learned quickly was not a joke and not to be taken lightly. Betty, Jane, and Darcy, the three most take-no-shit runners Steve had ever met, also joined them most of the time, as well as Phil, though oddly only when Clint did.
It wasn't the life Steve would've ever imagined for himself, but he wasn't unhappy. He had friends, he was making money, and the dancing was even sort of enjoyable when he relaxed and let himself go with it. It wasn't permanent and he wouldn't want it to be, but he was alright.
"Loners aren't always bad," Clint assured him, "This one looks alright. More pass-the-time than horny-stalker. Though Darcy said they had crazy eyes for you, so who knows."
"Joy. Fingers crossed."
"Relax. Just remember what I taught you."
"Or if you actually want to succeed, remember what I taught you." Natasha corrected, exiting the stage behind Steve. "Use your hands. Figure-eight hips. Tease, don't touch."
"Got it, Tasha." Steve smiled.
"Why does nobody listen to me?" Clint complained, "I give great advice!"
"I don't think 'hands down, ass up, rock that booty everywhere' counts as particularly good advice," Steve said doubtfully.
"At the very least, it's not specific enough to be useful," Phil agreed as he joined them backstage, "Steve, with me. I assume Clint told you?"
"Yeah. 7 and 9?"
"Right. 7 is 7B. Do you remember the letter system?"
"B means second person from the left?"
"Exactly." Phil nodded once, then nudged him out the door that led down the steps and out into the crowd.
Tables 7 and 9 were both on the lower deck. 7B was a young, slim woman at a table full of women, all young and eager and flushed with alcohol; definitely a bachelorette party. 7B was likely the bride-to-be herself, and she tittered excitedly when he approached.
"Hello, ma'am." Steve shot her his most charming smile. "I hear you'd like a dance?"
They all had different openers, and Phil encouraged that. The more diverse the options, the more clientele they could appeal to—Clint was the silver-tongued tease, the one who dropped right into your lap with a smirk and a, "Hey baby, you wanted a ride?" Natasha was sultry and smooth with a hint of danger, a woman of few words and endless teasing. Thor was all physical, confident and capable with the powerful musculature of his body in a way Steve hadn't quite gotten a handle on just yet. Which was fine by them, apparently, as Clint had put it most plainly: Steve was supposedly their innocent. Steve himself wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he could certainly work with it.
He didn't stay with 7B long—she seemed just as embarrassed about it as Steve was—and he finished with a swivel of his hips and a slow wink. She flushed bright pink, and Steve considered it a job well done. He moved on, up the stairs to table 9, and…it was a man waiting for him. Of course it was. Why wouldn't it be? They catered to men too. Steve knew that. He expected this, at some point. Eventually.
He swallowed hard.
It didn't help that the man was painfully handsome. He was tan-skinned, with tousled brown hair and dark eyes that watched Steve hungrily as he approached. Steve tried to find something else to look at, anything but those eyes—his hands. Hands were good to watch, make sure there were no sudden movements, grabbing, that sort of thing. Right. Watch the hands.
He expected smooth, businessman hands, but was surprised; this man's hands looked rough, calloused, and he could see the dark lines of three different scars—one just under his knuckle, one that looked like a burn at the curve of his index finger, and a long one by his wrist. He made the mistake of looking back up, curious if something about the man would explain the state of his hands, and caught his gaze again. The man's lips curled up into an easy, disarming smile that Steve couldn't help returning. He didn't seem like a workman of any kind, his clothes all but screamed money—right. Money. Steve was doing this for money. There was nothing queer about him needing money.
"I hear you'd like a dance?"