It had been a few months since Steve and Sam had brought the Winter Soldier in. At first his presence caused an understandable level of anxiety and discomfort, but slowly, oh so slowly those that resided in the tower became less afraid. Slowly, oh so slowly, the shell of the Winter Soldier began to melt under the relentless radiance that was Steve and the steadfast patience that was Sam; little by little, Bucky came to the surface.
Barton was one of the first to approach; not looking for the man that was, but willing to be a friend to the man who might be. He understood just exactly how it felt to twitch like a puppet on the end of someone else's strings. It was Barton who gave Bucky choices and then waited, sometimes all day, for a choice to be made. A sniper's patience made him the perfect one for the task.
On those days Sam worked his ass off keeping Steve away, even if it was just on the other side of the room. Bucky making a choice for Steve was not the same as Bucky making a choice for himself. It was a hard lesson for them both to learn.
Over time, Bucky became more comfortable making decisions when given a choice, but he would not offer a suggestion unless the options had been laid out for him by someone else.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon (Thor's-day as Clint liked to remind everyone) Steve, Bucky, Clint and Natasha were camped out in the common area of the Avengers' Tower. The grey skies and late afternoon light gave the room a cozy feel in spite of its size. Steve was tucked into the window seat using pencils and pastels to capture the washed-out edges of the skyline through the dappled glass. Natasha was curled under a throw blanket in an overstuffed chair reading a novel. Clint and Bucky sat shoulder to shoulder on the big couch with their backs to Steve scanning music channels for something to listen to.
They had progressed from Clint asking "70's or 80's?" and "Do you want Rock or Country?" to playing "Keep it or Skip it". In order to play the game Clint scrolled randomly through the music channels and when he finally stopped on a song Bucky would respond "keep it" or "skip it" – it made for a schitzophrenic listening experience.
"Wait. Go back to that one."
Steve's head came up as he looked across the room. Although she appeared to be engrossed in her book, Steve could tell Natasha was alert as well. Bucky's response was outside the parameters of the game; any new response from Bucky was worth noting.
Clint acknowledged the instruction by pressing the down key on the remote to return to the previous channel. Steve could read the title on the channel guide – 40's on 4. Bucky's head tipped to the right as he listened. Steve smiled slightly as he recognized the tail end of the tune, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree". It was sweet, and sad, and reminded him strongly of home.
The song ended and the music changed. It was a Glen Miller tune – "String of Pearls". The song was more of a "traditional" big band number, just the orchestra without the singers. The tune had a steady under beat driven by the bass and drums that was easy to move in time to. Again, Bucky's head tipped to the right, but this time he nodded in time with the music. From the other side of the room, Steve watched Bucky's posture change. Across his shoulders he was tight and loose at the same time; he was getting ready to make a move.
After a few bars of music, Bucky swung his legs around to the left until his knees were facing Natasha. In one smooth motion he rose from the couch and stepped closer to her chair. He held out his right hand to her. "Would you like to dance?"
Steve forced himself to stay right where he was. He didn't jump up and run over. He didn't turn the music up. He didn't pull Natasha up out of her chair and throw her into Bucky's arms. He wanted to do all of those things but he heard Sam's voice in his head reminding him to let Bucky set his own boundaries and then move beyond them when he was ready.
Natasha, because she was amazing and understanding, responded with a genuine smile as she closed her book and tossed the throw blanket aside. She reached for Bucky's hand as she replied, "I would love to."
While they stood, Steve had a perfect view of the couple in profile. Clint scrambled to move the coffee table and other furniture out of the way.
Bucky's head was still moving in time to the music and Steve could see his limbs getting loose as he prepared to dance. He looked down at Natasha with a wry hint of a smile. "It's been a while," Bucky offered as a preemptive apology as he stepped closer and pulled her into a dance hold.
"I think I can keep up," she assured him with a raised eyebrow.
Then Bucky winked at Natasha. He winked. Steve was transported.
That wink was many things to many people. It was assurance to an uncertain girl that he'd be a kind partner and take it easy while they danced. It was an "atta boy" to the nervous guy who finally got up the nerve to ask the girl he was mooning over to dance. It was a promise to a more adventurous girl that he'd give her the best dance she'd have all night. It was a challenge to the oafish mook who didn't know how to treat a dame, and a guarantee that he'd step in if he saw any trouble. All of them were one hundred percent Bucky.
Steve sat up straighter in the window seat. He was transfixed, and tense with anticipation.
Bucky stepped smoothly into the rhythm of the dance. The song lent itself to an easy glide and the couple traveled in a small circle. Steve had spent a lot of Saturday nights watching other people dance. Many guys bopped up and down to the beat; lots of vertical movement. Not Bucky – his center of gravity was low and he always looked like he was skating along. Natasha matched him step for step, balancing on the balls of her feet for a little added height.
As the song progressed, Bucky guided Natasha into a few simple catch-and-release moves and spins. When the circle brought Bucky around to face Steve, Steve was mesmerized by how young he looked. A soft, unforced smile made Bucky's face look open and relaxed. There was a confidence in Bucky's posture and movements that had been lacking in the months since he'd joined Steve in New York. He flowed from one step into the next so naturally with Natasha in tow; it was like everything else fell away and all that was left was the music.
Steve was familiar enough with the song to know when it was coming to a close. A little piano trill at the end, and the final note played by the band found Bucky and Natasha an arm's length apart, with her left hand in his right. She smiled warmly and Bucky tipped forward in the slightest of bows that was his way to thank a lovely partner.
It was perfect, and that might have been the end of it. But then Glenn Miller was replaced by Tommy Dorsey's Opus One, an up-tempo swing number. A raised eyebrow from Bucky was acknowledged by a nod from Natasha. They wore matching grins as she stepped back into hold, and they took off.
Bucky always was a little bit of a show-off.
Steve gave up any pretense of not being interested, put his pad and pencils aside, and swung his legs down from the window seat to sit facing the room. The first verse allowed Bucky and Natasha to sync their movements to the quicker tempo. The music moved faster than the previous song, so the dancing involved fancier footwork. Again, keeping his center of gravity low, Bucky led Natasha through a series of hops, kicks and turns, always maintaining a hold.
Bucky had an innate ability to read his partners. He was considerate and wouldn't push a girl into doing more than she was physically able to do; some fellows would fling a girl around willy-nilly, but Bucky took care not to make his partner look foolish. By the time the music turned to the horn section picking up the main theme, Bucky recognized that not only was Natasha able to keep up, but she was willing to totally follow his lead.
That's when Bucky really let loose.
The spins became more elaborate, using their combined momentum to balance the rate of return to the center. Kicks were higher and faster. Catch-and-release moves became more adventurous. And all the while there was a pleased-as-punch grin on Bucky's face.
A short clarinet solo gave the false impression that things were slowing down as Bucky pulled Natasha in tight and they circled chest-to-chest and cheek-to-cheek. The piano
solo likewise gave the dancers an opportunity to display fancy footwork in a loose hold. But when the drum announced that the horns were about to return, Steve leaned forward with great expectation.
That was when Natasha's feet left the ground and the "swinging" that the music was named for really began. Bucky effortlessly swung Natasha around his torso, first on the right, then on the left. With her hands on his shoulders he tossed her up into a handstand which she easily maintained; when she allowed gravity to assert itself, she swung down under Bucky's right arm and her legs kicked around until she vaulted around and over his left shoulder. Apparently, Natasha was a bit of a show-off as well.
Steve laughed aloud at the antics of the dancers and clapped at their acrobatics. The clarinet heralded another change of pace and the pair reset to dance in hold much like they had at the beginning. But the final flourish of the brass section to end the song was rewarded with Natasha swinging like a hula-hoop around Bucky's waist until he flung her completely upside-down before guiding her back to her feet.
It was amazing. The dancers were breathless and laughing as the music ended. But for Steve, the highlight of the dance had nothing to do with skill or acrobatics, and everything do to with the light in Bucky's eyes. There were no shadows. There was no hesitation or doubt. There was just the music and the memory of how to dance. The implications made Steve almost giddy.
For the third time the music changed; and with it the mood. Stirring strings invited the couple to slow down and sway as Harry James and his Orchestra took over. Natasha slid easily into Bucky's embrace and rested her cheek against his shoulder. Steve was struck by how even in her yoga pants and tank top, Natasha gave the appearance that she belonged in the era the music was from. The low light added to the illusion of the dance hall, so when the mournful trumpet sounded its plaintive melody Steve felt like he'd been kicked in the chest and had to quickly look away.
But even with his eyes squeezed tightly closed Steve couldn't escape the music and melody
Kiss me once
then kiss me twice
then kiss me once again
it's been a long, long time
Haven't felt like this my dear
since can't remember when
it's been a long, long time
You'll never know how many dreams I dream about you
Or just how empty they all seem without you
Breathing deeply Steve tried to pretend he wasn't drowning in overwhelming memories of a lifetime that should've been his. His vision was filled with dark eyes, perfectly pinned dark hair and red lipstick that matched an impeccably tailored red dress. Steve's hands itched to pull out his compass and look at the photo of Peggy he'd carefully placed there. It didn't matter that in his head he knew that compass had been lost to him decades ago, in his heart it felt like a matter of moments. A pang of regret so strong that it was nearly a physical blow sucked the air out of his lungs as he imagined how it might have been if he'd been able to keep that date and finally take his girl for a spin on the dance floor.
Anger swiftly followed grief and Steve dug his elbows into his thighs trying to ground himself but the tide of emotion was too great to deflect and impossible to ignore. Heart racing and muscles shaking, Steve wanted to lash out at the injustice of it all, smash things on a Hulk-level until nothing remained standing though he knew it wouldn't make any difference. He hated how swiftly he could be overwhelmed by his treasonous feelings especially when what set him off was initially so sweet and exciting.
Reluctant to break the spell the music had cast on Bucky who was still dancing serenely with Natasha, Steve resisted the impulse to rush out of the room and away from the overpowering sensations that flooded his system. It was likely his shaky legs wouldn't have been able to carry him very far anyway. Better to sit here and struggle through than make a scene trying to make a hasty exit.
Opening his eyes, Steve looked down at his hands clasped between his knees. He was surprised to see a remote control held between them. That didn't make any sense.
Steve took a deep breath and tried to be present like Sam advised.
That was when a presence registered on his left side. Steve leaned slightly to the left to acknowledge the newcomer who then moved closer so their thighs, hips and shoulders were touching.
Steve's head dropped and he sagged a little as he clutched the remote in his hands and ran his thumb over the raised buttons; a small physical touchstone to remind him he was in the new millennium, not the 1940's. As mesmerizing as the dancers had been, Clint had sharp eyes and knew that Steve was shaking out. In the same way Clint recognized when Bucky needed space to make a decision, he also recognized when Steve needed to be crowded; to help remind Steve that he didn't have to shoulder everything alone.
After a few more deep breaths, Steve felt steadier. He shouldn't have been surprised that when he raised his eyes to look over at the dancers he found they were looking back at him as well. Natasha's gaze was steady but not overly concerned; she knew Clint had things in hand. But Bucky looked worried. He shot Steve a look that he'd given him on countless Saturday nights across crowded dance floors that asked You okay? Do we need to get outta here, pal?
It was pure Bucky and it made Steve smile as he shook his head in the negative. How did the adage go - the more things change, the more they stay the same? He gave Bucky a "go ahead" wave which had to be as familiar to Bucky as the look was to Steve. Satisfied, Bucky turned Natasha into an easy spin and they waltzed away.
The spell was broken, but Steve wasn't sad to see it go. The specters of the past loosened their violent hold on Steve's heart and his breathing came a little easier. It was alright getting this glimpse into the past with all of the pain that accompanied it because it gave him a foundation of hope for the future. When the song ended, the final trill as the trumpet sounded felt more like triumph than tragedy.
Steve nodded to himself. They all deserved a little triumph over tragedy, didn't they?