Rogers was standing at attention in front of Fury’s desk.
It wasn’t the first time he had been on the receiving end of a formal warning, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. The fact that it was night outside, and the rest of the office was deserted told him how pissed Fury was.
“Sir,” he put in, when Fury stopped for breath, “I understand she was running a brothel, but she was still a lady. They had no right to touch her the way they did.”
Fury steepled his fingers, looking across the desk. “Why the hell do I put up with you, Rogers?” he asked, as he always did. “The 19th century called. It wants its manners back. You are an FBI agent. You deal with criminals, you treat them like criminals, d’you understand me? You don’t ask them if they’re well or how their dog is or whatever the hell it is you’ll do next time.”
Steve’s hands balled in fists by his sides. “Sir, I can’t help thinking if we treated them like people instead of like criminals all the time…”
“My god,” Fury groaned. “How the hell did you survive on the streets of Brooklyn?” He waved away any answer Steve might have made. “Anyway, no more beating on members of your own team. Are we clear?”
“Tell them to keep their hands to themselves, and I’ll do my best,” Steve replied evenly.
Fury watched him thoughtfully, drumming his fingertips on the desk. “Good enough,” he said. “Now, why I really got you up here, Rogers. We need you to go undercover.”
Steve felt like he’d slammed into a brick wall without warning. “What?”
“You, Rogers,” Fury replied. “We need you to go undercover.”
Steve tried to gather his scattered wits.
From every dressing down that Fury had given him, all he knew was that Fury thought he could be a good agent, if he wasn’t so old-fashioned. Old-fashioned guys didn’t get to go undercover, especially guys who got flustered when they had to lie.
Fury got up and flicked on the projector hooked into his computer. Images lit up across the wall of his office. Dozens of men, smiling, laughing, good-looking men.
If anything, Steve was even more bewildered. “Sir, what is this?”
Fury was looking at the images. He had his hands folded behind his back, and he rocked on the balls of his feet. “This, Rogers, is the Captain America pageant,” he said. “Every state sends their best-looking, most respectable young man to try and win the shield with good old-fashioned manners and chivalry and all that crap women seem to like.”
“And I’m going undercover because…?”
“If you think I’m sending you because you’re pretty, you need to take a step back, Rogers,” Fury said with a snort. “We’ve had threats against the pageant. The usual: it’s a disgrace to masculinity, it isn’t the American ideal, it’s a travesty, all the usual bullshit. We need someone in there, on the ground, who can get access to all areas.”
Steve nodded, looking at the array of pictures. “Doing what? What’s my cover?”
Fury was smirking, he could hear it in his voice. “Welcome to the Captain America Pageant, Mr New Jersey.”
The guys had always teased him for being a gentleman, but now, he was expected to go to a competition judged entirely on how charming and proper and respectful he could be. That part, he could do. Pretending to be anything except what he was? That was the problem.
It didn’t matter how much the guys called him Pretty Boy, if he couldn’t bluff his way through the pageant and keep the young men safe.
He was sitting in front of the pageant organiser, his hands squeezed uncomfortably between his knees. Alexander Pierce was looking at him kindly, but there was also pity there, as if he could see right through him.
“You don’t seem very at ease about all this, Mr Rogers,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I hear you were nominated for this job by Agent Fury himself.”
“He thought I’d blend in pretty easily,” Steve said with a rueful shrug. “I’m not exactly the kind of guy who goes centre-stage a lot.” He looked down at his hands, then back up. “I guess I’m just kind of nervous.”
Pierce smiled benevolently. “It’s natural,” he said. “You’ve got a good reputation, Rogers, and I’ve no doubt you won’t be any trouble, even with your lack of undercover experience.”
Those were the words that lingered in his ears, long after he left Pierce, carrying a briefing package about what to expect on arrival in Miami. Fury must have told him. It only made sense, letting him know he was getting an agent on his first undercover op.
For the first time in his life, Steve stopped in at the regular bar on the way home without someone inviting him. A few of the guys were there, but he settled for sitting at the bar, leafing through the sheets and itineraries, and oh god. A swimsuit competition?
The stool beside him was pulled out.
He turned his head to find a striking red head smiling at him, a calm, knowing smile. “Uh. Hi, miss?”
“Fury sent me,” she said. “Settle your tab. We’ve got work to do.”
Natasha Romanoff looked up from her magazine, a smile flitting across her lips. “That’s kind of the point, Rogers,” she said. “The Captain America pageant isn’t all about the looks, but that’s a big part of it. You’ve got to make them pay attention.”
She had been sent, she said, as a consultant. In what, she didn’t say, but she’d already dragged him through four stores and dismissed pretty much everything they threw at him.
“I thought the contestants had to be themselves,” he said, looking at his reflection again. The suit fitted like it was made for him, dark blue over a light grey shirt. He looked like he should be some kind of lawyer or banker or high-flier. “This isn’t me.”
Natasha folded her magazine up. “You can look yourself in between the rounds,” she said, “but you’ve got to look like you stepped off the cover of a magazine when you’re surrounded by all of the others. Sure, they can get you through to the semi-finals, for security’s sake, but you have to look like you belong there.”
He adjusted the cuff of the jacket, wishing he could just put his leather bomber jacket back on over his shirt and jeans. “So I have to have a different outfit every time I show face?” he said. “Isn’t that overkill?”
He saw her reflection laugh. “Hey, as long as the bureau’s paying for it, why worry?” she said. “And you’ll have one hell of a wardrobe once you’re done.” She was suddenly right behind him, looking at him critically. “I think we’ll work with shades of blue. It suits you. And stops people noticing at the deer-in-the-headlights look you’re wearing.”
He slipped the jacket off. “This isn’t exactly easy for me,” he pointed out. “Why did Fury call you in anyway? Pageants your speciality?”
“And undercover work,” she said glibly. “You’re looking at Miss Nebraska from three years ago. Gave up the crown and got a badge instead.” She pulled him around and reached up to undo the buttons of his shirt. He was too surprised to stop her. She eyed his chest critically. “We’ll have to do something about that.”
Her eyes flicked up to his. “Some people like to go natural,” she said, “and that’s great for them, but this is war, Rogers. If you want to look the part, we need you to make some sacrifices.”
He looked down at his chest and the mat of hair. “No. Nuh uh. No way!”
Her eyes gleamed. “I was sent here to do a job,” she said. “I’m to prepare you for this pageant in any way I deem necessary.” She took a step closer, and he almost took a step back, even though she was half his weight and almost a foot shorter than him. “And I’m going to do it. Do you understand, Agent Rogers?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said before he could even think what he was agreeing to.
She smiled and it was almost sweet. “Good. Now go and get changed. We have a lot more to do.”
People moved around the plane, sitting back down. Steve glanced at the display on the back of the seat in front of him, idly scratching at his chest again.
Natasha leaned over from her seat and smacked his hand away. “Don’t scratch.”
“It feels strange,” he said.
“Now you know how girls feel every time they shave and wax,” she said primly, crossing her legs. “If you scratch, your chest’ll be red, and no one wants to see that.”
“The only time they’ll see my chest is the swimsuit competition,” he said, grimacing, “and I don’t think that’s what they’re going to be looking at.”
Natasha snickered, looking out of the window. “Don’t blame me, Rogers,” she said. “I only picked the outfit. You brought everything else to the party.”
Steve folded his table away, but kept his schedule open in his lap.
All things considered, Natasha’s preparations could have been a lot worse. She’d grilled him day and night on his alias - Steven Grant from New Jersey - and got him a wardrobe that almost made him feel the part. Steven Grant was a High School gym instructor, so his down-time clothes were similar to Steve’s own: comfortable slacks, running pants, t-shirts.
It was the competition clothing that felt weird: tailored suits, shirts, ties. He wasn’t someone who liked dressing up or drawing attention to himself, and every time he put one of those suits on, he felt eyes on him. Maybe Steven Grant would have dressed up smartly more often, but Steve Rogers didn’t and he felt like a fraud.
Natasha leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes. “You’ll be fine,” she murmured. “Just be yourself.”
“Kind of defeating the purpose of undercover.”
One blue eye cracked open. “You know what I mean, Rogers,” she said. “You’re a nice guy. You just have to say ‘school teacher’ instead of ‘FBI agent’. All your answers to anything else are pretty much the same: you went into it because you want to make a difference, you like working with people, y’know. The usual. Just… be Mr Nice Guy that everyone says you are, and you’ll be fine.”
He nodded, breathing in then out. He closed up his file, and waited for the flight to come into land.
Natasha looked up at him. “You’ll meet the rest of our team this evening,” she said. “May and Hill have been prepping down here for the last week.” She smoothed his jacket over his chest and stepped back. “Don’t forget your cover.”
He looked around. “Orientation breakfast first, right?”
“You got it,” she said, pulling his arm to turn him ninety degrees. “I’ll get your bags to your room. You get on that bus and make some friends.”
Steve grimaced. “What if I forget the cover?” he asked.
“Hill and May have your back,” she replied. “One of them’ll drop you a feed line in your ear if you freeze up.” She patted him firmly on the shoulder. “Everyone’s nervous their first time, Rogers. Be a big boy and get it done.”
He gave her a look. “You know how that sounded right?”
She grinned. “What? You think guys are the only ones who get to make the sex jokes?” She waved him away. “Go and be with your people, Rogers. I want to see how much chivalry and testosterone this building can take before it caves in.”
Steve self-consciously tugged at the end of his coat, straightening it, and headed for the bus.
Pierce was there, his assistant by his side, checking names.
“Mr Grant,” he said with a smile, holding out his hand. “You’re looking sharp.”
Steve shook his hand. “Thank you, sir.”
“Rumlow, mark off Mr New Jersey.” Pierce motioned for him to get on the bus. “We’ll see you at the breakfast, Grant.”
Steve nodded, stepping up onto the bus. Most of the seats were already taken, and he recognised some of the faces from his briefing pack. Some of them were dressed up smarter than he was, others were half-casual.
There was only one seat free, beside a young man who hadn’t made any effort at all. He was in a t-shirt and jeans, and was sitting by the window, looking out. His hair was loose around his face and he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt than seemed out of place in the heat.
“Is this seat taken?” Steve asked carefully.
Dark blue eyes looked up at him and Steve could see why he was in the competition. He could have been a model for any one of the renaissance artists. “Does it look taken?” he said.
Steve took that as invitation and sat down. He looked around the bus at the array of faces, then back at his neighbour, who had gone back to staring out of the window. “I’m Steve, by the way,” he said. “Steve Grant. New Jersey.”
The man next to him looked at him through dark strands of hair. “James Barnes,” he said, then snorted quietly. “New York.”
Steve offered a smile. “It’s good to meet you.”
Barnes looked at him. “Sure,” he said, turning back to the window, and crossing his arms over his chest.
Steve watched him for a moment, until the bus pulled out. If all the competitors were are surly as James Barnes, it was going to be a long week.