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Steve learns how to dance when he’s twelve years old.

He fights it tooth and nail — like he does with most things in life — but his mother won’t hear a word of it as she hooks Steve’s thin arm around her waist. He’s pulled tight to her front, taking in the watered-down scent of her favorite perfume, and Steve’s nose wrinkles when a blouse button itches his cheek.

His mother laughs. “Steve, this would be easier for us if you’d only give it a go.”

“I don’t see why I got to in the first place,” he tells her. “It’s not like no one is going to wanna’ dance with me there.”

For weeks now, Archie’s birthday block party has been the talk of school — and Steve has to admit that he’s a little surprised when he finds his very own invitation stuffed into his threadbare satchel. Bucky had beamed at the little white envelope, dragging Steve close with a crooked elbow as they waddled down the busy streets back towards the docks.

Mrs. Barnes, Bucky said, had been teaching him how to dance for the event. After all, the whole school seemed to be going. Steve knew what Bucky was really trying to say though, that all the pretty dames with their curled hair and bright eyes were going to be there and ready to dance. But Steve doesn’t care much for that, or at least he doesn’t until Bucky opens his big, fat mouth and tells his mother that he’d gone and been invited to the party as well.

“Steve,” his mother says, “you’ll find the right partner one day,” she finishes, and there is something in her voice that makes Steve look up. She’s smiling softly at him, and the light outside hits her just the right way that Steve almost can’t see the tired lines that so often frame her face.

He clenches a fist into the back of her apron, and from above, she laughs.

“Okay, now hold out your hand just…like so,” she tells him, raising his arm to his side before crooking it upward. Their hands are awkwardly laced together, and for a second, Steve wonders if he should’ve washed his hands of the charcoal he’d been drawing with before his mother set in on this scheme. But the idea passes once she leans towards the kitchen counter and turns on their radio. A big band blares from the tinny speakers, and Steve cracks a smile when his mother tries to take him out for a spin.

________

When Steve goes to the party, he finds himself tapping along to the music by himself all night long.

________

“Do you know where Nat is?”

Clint blinks, staring at Steve over the slice of pizza that’s currently stuffed into his mouth. Beside him, Kate thumps her mentor hard on the back, and she gives Steve an exasperated look whilst Clint chokes off to the side of her.

“She’s in the gym. Uh, the second one, maybe? This place has, like, a bajillion and three training rooms,” she says, and Steve can only nod. He was getting ready for his workout earlier, waiting on Natasha to show up like she always did, and something began nagging at him when she hadn’t shown up after he’d gone a few rounds with a punching bag. Steve gives one more cautionary look at Clint, who has finally managed to both swallow his pizza and yell at Kate, and decides to check gym closest to Natasha’s floor.

Even with so many superheroes living in one place, the tower remains remarkably quiet. At first, that had kept Steve up at night when he'd moved in. All the silence sounded so out of a place to a man who’d grown used to sleeping in noisy cities and even louder war zones.

But the silence he’s become accustomed to is missing when he turns a corner towards the gym. Steve stiffens automatically, quieting his steps as he listens to the music drifting down the hallway. It’s a soft melody that lilts and turns like a spring breeze, and the steady piano echoes somewhere deep inside Steve’s chest. He moves forward, eyeing the cracked door that leads into the gym, and his breath catches when he angles his head to peek inside.

Steve knows that it’s Natasha he’s seeing, but it is not the Natasha he knows. With her braided hair pulled into a tight bun, Steve watches as his friend comes to pointe on her ballet shoes. Her arms are fixed above her head in an elegant arch, and from where he’s standing, Steve can even see the measured rise-and-fall of Natasha’s chest as she begins to move. Each step she takes is careful as she arches her back and elongates her neck, pirouetting and gliding through the music until it comes to a breathless close.

He’s still standing there, unable to look away as Natasha’s face falls into a smile when she comes up to breathe.

“Was that meant to impress me? That was just sloppy.”

Steve nearly stumbles at the voice. From across the gym, Steve tracks Natasha’s cocked brow to find Bucky leaning against the wall. His own dark hair is pulled high into a bun — the same one that Tony teases him about and that Steve secretly loves — and Bucky's sweat-stained shirt is drawn taut across his chest. Natasha isn’t fazed by his appearance as she walks towards him and yanks the towel that had been hanging around his neck towards her.

“Did I hurt your feelings, Barnes? Does it hurt to know that I’m better at this than you,” she asks dryly, but Bucky just laughs.

“Trust me, Natalia, you didn’t hurt a thing. Your ego has grown so much in the past few years; It’s a shame your dancing hasn’t improved half as much.”

Steve turns away from the door just before Natasha’s fist connects with Bucky’s shoulder. He keeps his head low as he shuffles down the hallway, heart racing like he just finished racing Sam up to the tower’s roof from the ground floor. And, when he makes it back to the elevator, Steve has never before felt its accompanying quiet linger so heavily upon him.

________

Steve doesn’t know how to deal with everything. Not all the time.

Sam tries to help him work through it all: the guilt, the fear, the crushing uncertainty.

It’s almost a blessing, really, when Steve finds out that the Black Widow and the Winter Soldier share a past — even if it is one that neither quite remember. There is a mutual understanding they bond over, and it is one that Steve has never heard them speak of before.

There are things in life that Steve knows he will never get closure on.

His mother’s death.

Erskine’s murder.

The train.

Peggy.

Steve hadn’t thought he’d have to add Bucky’s life with the Red Room to the list as well.

________

He mentions it once after team training a few weeks later when Steve finds himself leaving the gym with Natasha by his side.

“So, I heard you like to dance?”

From the corner of his eye, Steve sees the way Natasha’s lips turn as if she is repressing a flinch. And, suddenly, Steve wants more than anything to redirect where this conversation is going.

“You saw us,” she replies, less of a question than it is a statement. Steve deflates, letting out a long breath.

“Guilty as charge,” Steve answers. Natasha nods, taking in the detail as she begins unwinding the tape around her knuckles.

“I assume that there is a reason you’re bringing this up then. What? Are you looking for dance lessons?”

Steve shakes his head, remembering a lifetime ago when he’d failed to learn the jitterbug like every other self-respecting guy his age. “No,” he says, “I just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed watching you. That is, I mean —”

Natasha snorts. “Never let it be said that you don’t have a way with words, Steve.”

“Okay,” he sighs, fighting the urge to rub his neck. “I’m just going to be quiet now.”

“No, no,” she says. “Don’t be embarrassed. It’s flattering, really. I mean, you’re smooth talking circles around Barnes.”

“I’m not quite sure I believe that.”

Natasha raises her chin, looking Steve right in the eye. “You know, if you want to come watch, all you have to do is ask. We’re friends, Steve — no secrets, not anymore.”

Steve blinks at the conversation’s turn and slows to a stop. He doesn’t bother questioning her about her offer or denying his own damnable sense of curiosity. Natasha’s eyes are open when she looks up at him, and in this moment, it’s all Steve can do to nod his head.

“Yeah,” he tells her. “I’d like to see you dance again.”

She smiles. “Alright, I’ll let you know when.”

________

Steve almost forgets about the whole conversation until two months pass and he gets a text that reads:

Gym 2. 13:00. Bring tights. :)

________

“Aw, Stevie, tell me you didn’t forget the tights!”

Steve shrugs, walking through the gym with a small smile. “Sorry, Bucky, but you know I burnt all my tights once Howard made me an honest-to-god uniform.”

Natasha, who’s been stretching at the bar, laughs in what sounds like disbelief.

Sighing, Steve comes to stand by Bucky with a resigned look. “Why do I have a feeling that I am going to regret coming down here,” Steve asks himself, and Bucky throws his metal arm around Steve’s neck.

“C’mon, you’re going to love this,” Bucky says, and Steve nods like that’s a fact.

He stands to the side for awhile, watching quietly as Natasha and Bucky finish their warm-ups on the floor. Legs spread wide, they are stretching forward to reach their toes, and Steve finally decides that talking, in fact, is something he wants to do.

“Why ballet?”

The two stiffen, and yet again, Steve realizes the errors of his fallible mouth. “Actually, forget that I —”

“They told us it was for discipline,” Natasha interrupts. Her face is towards the floor as she grabs the soles of her feet, pulling them back in a way that looks entirely too painful. “Ballet is a lifestyle. It requires years of training, but I think it was also about repetition, about perfection.”

“It was expected of us,” Bucky says after a moment, voice rough as he reaches for his other foot. “It was a way to control us, to…to see if we could execute certain steps and behaviors like we were some kind of goddamn puppets.”

Steve swallows thickly, willing himself to speak.

Sitting up, Steve watches Natasha as she takes a deep breath. Her braid falls over her shoulder, and Steve’s eye catches the hollow of her collar as she turns to look at him.

“For years, I believed I was a ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre, but then I woke up one day to find that I had never been anything more than an assassin that someone else had made me into,” she says, reaching up to pin her hair. “Somedays, this here is all I have left of a life that I wish had been real.”

“Nat —”

“Steve,” Bucky says, stopping Steve as he pushes himself to his feet. “Just…watch, okay? You’ll see.”

And so that’s what Steve does.

________

Natasha and Bucky dance together in a way that makes Steve believe they’ve done it their entire lives.

The ebb and flow they take from one another as they float across the floor catches Steve’s breath as he watches Bucky’s hands circle around Natasha’s waist. He effortlessly lifts her high into the air as he moves to hold her with just one hand centered at her back. Natasha hangs above his head, back arched around his grip as she lifts her arms tenderly to her side. With her toes pointed towards the ground, Bucky carries her through one, two turns before easing her back to the floor.

Orbiting one another to the time of their music, Bucky’s tight movements contradict the easy look on his face as he spins Natasha into a dizzying arabesque that leaves her balanced on pointe when the music fades to a close.

Seated on the floor, he can only watch as the two catch their breath and eye Steve privately for some sort of reaction.

All they get is this:

“I think I get it now.”

________

It’s a couple weeks later when Steve gets a new text after he returns from a covert mission in Latveria that’s left him beaten and bruised.

Same place, same time. Seriously, bring the tights. :)

________

“Okay, but really? What part of bring-your-own-tights do you not understand?”

Steve swats Bucky’s hand away from his cut lip and gives his friend a stern look. “The last time I wore tights, people threw tomatoes at me, Buck. I was traumatized.”

Bucky sniffs, turning away from Steve to grab his water bottle, and Steve spends just long enough staring at his friend’s retreating figure to not notice Natasha sneaking up on him. He jumps when she presses herself into his back, winding her arms around his waist in a hug that makes Steve stammer.

“W-What are you doing,” he asks.

“Oh, nothing,” she tells him. “I’m just doing what Barnes is too scared to do himself.”

Bucky sputters, water flying everything. “She lies!

Pulling away, Natasha shrugs and pushes something towards Steve. He frowns, unraveling the pile of cloth until he realizes that he’s holding a pair of navy blue tights in his hands. Steve’s mouth drops, and he looks down at Natasha.

“What is this?”

She hums. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt for you to maybe learn a few positions is all, Steve. It can do wonders for stress.”

“What about you,” he presses, realizing that Natasha is dressed in tight jeans and leather jacket that don’t exactly scream prima ballerina.

Natasha tilts her head, smiling at Steve as Bucky walks up to join the pair. “Oh, you know. I’ve got a thing to go to in Hell’s Kitchen.”

Bucky gives her a look. “Hell’s Kitchen?”

“I’ve got a blind date,” she says, and Steve can almost feel his eyebrows disappear into his hairline. He struggles to speak, but it’s a moot point as Natasha quickly makes her exit while Bucky teases her out the door.

“…you back by midnight or he’ll have to deal with me too,” Bucky calls out as the door shuts in Natasha’s wake. Steve huffs, rubbing his fingers over the thin, opaque fabric of his new tights.

“Brings back memories, huh,” Bucky asks, and Steve nods.

“Sure does,” he mumbles. “I’m just not sure they’re the good kind.”

Bucky laughs, full-blown and bright in a way that lights up Steve’s stomach with something hot. He feels Bucky’s hand find his waist. “Steve,” Bucky starts slowly, “we don’t really got to dance if you don’t want to. It was just a joke.”

But Steve knows better — has known Bucky long enough to tell when he’s joking and when he’s giving Steve an out. There is something important in this moment, even more important than when Steve’s mom told him about finding the right partner or when he used to watch Bucky swing his dates round-and-around all the Brooklyn dance halls. Steve can feel it in the way Bucky’s hand is solid against his body, hotly pressed against the very same skin that had been beat to hell just hours ago — and now?

Now, Steve finds it aching for an entirely new and unknown reason.

Letting out a breath, Steve knocks Bucky gently against the chest with a loose fist. “What? Don’t tell me you’re not up for the challenge,” he says, and suddenly, Bucky’s voice relaxes.

“Oh no, it’ll be a challenge,” he says, “but I don't think I could've asked for a better partner to do this with.”

Steve laughs, ignoring the absence of warmth he feels as he takes a step back from Bucky, and his hands reach for the waist of his sweatpants. Bucky, who had also been laughing up until that point, lets out a startled noise as Steve strips to his boxers.

“Holy shit,” Bucky whispers, “what are you doing?”

Smirking, Steve unfolds the tights and holds them up for Bucky to see. “Wait? So you don’t want to see me in these,” he asks.

Bucky grins, and he lets out an appreciative whistle that makes Steve laugh so hard that he nearly falls over.

“Nah,” he says. “Don’t you remember? I wanted you to keep those things years ago.”