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Swing City

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“Of all the places you could go to on holiday,” Sam sounded resigned and amused all at once, like Steve had no comprehension of how entertaining and simultaneously pitiful his antics were, “you had to pick the one where everything can possibly kill you.”

“I’m here on exchange, actually.” Steve returned primly. There was a rustle of static from his earphones-an audible sigh like he’d entirely missed the point. “And I’m pretty sure nothing can kill me in a gallery.”

“That’s the tragic bit. You’re in a gallery.” Sam’s tone was impressively flat, even for him. “You’re in Australia. Go hiking in the bush with the poisonous snakes. Surfing with the murderous jellyfish.”

“I saw jellyfish in the sea life aquarium yesterday.” Steve informed him, because Sam was even funnier with a climbing blood pressure. “They’re rather beautiful.”

There was an annoyed groan of mangled syllables at the other end, crackling over the network. Steve resisted the urge to grin. Sam was probably hitting his face with his palm repeatedly, or thumping his forehead against the desk in that entertaining way people nowadays expressed their frustration. Well done, Rogers, he could hear Bucky chime in with a mock-aggravated sigh, affection shining through the words. Annoying people to the point of physical injury since nineteen eighteen.

A real, non-imaginary sigh heaved its way into Steve’s hearing, fracturing the little fugue of memory he’d gotten lost in. “Fine. Tell me about the gallery.”

“It’s called the National Gallery of Victoria.” The words emerged immediately in an excited spurt, earphones jerking in response. Steve raised a hand to readjust the finicky device, the tiny buds at the end of tangled wires barely clinging on to the gigantic crevice in his clearly oversized ears. How did people nowadays go around striding down the roads and jogging through parks without those wires falling and dragging at their heels anyway? “It’s Australia’s oldest, and largest art museum. They’ve opened up the doors to all their exhibitions for White Night.”

Steve was half braced for a muttered ‘nerd’ or ‘dork’ or whatever other interchangeable insult people had fashioned these days for a person passionate about their interests. It didn’t come, just Sam’s patient voice from the other end. “And what’s White Night?”

 “It’s uhm, a night…” Steve’s concentration was taken up by the looming sign over the first floor exhibit-blocky, yet elegant black text on white walls proclaiming The Art of South and South East Asia. Through glass doors, he could glimpse a shadowed space beyond, with shiny wooden floors and grey walls. The doors gave way silently with a push, Steve stepping through inside.

“You’d never guess it by the name.” Sam voiced pleasantly, a reminder that Steve was still on a call.

“Sorry. Uh…it basically takes place in Melbourne’s public spaces-roads, laneways, parklands, cultural institutions.” His footsteps echoed unendingly in the deserted exhibit. Art draped in light and shadow, and no spectators. The effect was eerie. “Installations, lighting, people performing on the street, music, dance. Seven pm to seven am.”

“So you’re telling me,” Sam began slowly, voice growing more despairing by the second, “that the entire city’s thrown a party, and you’re in a gallery?”

This time, the effect was definitely lost on Steve. “Would it be okay for you to pipe down for a couple of minutes? I’ve found something interesting.”

“I’m sure you have.” Sam muttered. Then, a little louder, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll hang around.” Sound faded, with just the line crackling intermittently.

Steve stepped further inside. It wasn’t a traditionally walled room, space itself seeming to bend and curve unnaturally with the stylistic architecture. Smooth grey walls rose from polished wooden floorboards, curving away to form shadowed alcoves. Three echoing footsteps-and Steve was within one of the cubbies, observing objects mounted in the recesses on the wall, sealed behind glass, softly backlit.

There were lines of brown-green pots: Chinese cooking vessels, the placard said, from the tenth century. Round bellied with short, engraved legs, bronze polish turned sage green by the corrosion of the centuries. He moved towards the closest one. The roughened, imperfect surface had small ridges-rectangular lines spiralling inwards and simultaneously spanning the girth of the vessel, like a maze. It is an enigmatic zoomorphic mask, the description read, called taotie by late scholars, though not by the Shang themselves. Divided by a raising flange at the centre, the mask can also be read as two confronting dragons…

Must be strange. To have your pots and pans, the ones you brewed broth and chicken soup in, spooning mouthfuls into your sick son’s throat, on display like this hundreds of years later. For strangers to stare at, and imagine what it was like. Leave smudges from their fingers on glass, never touch. Forever separated. Because they couldn’t imagine, could they?

Steve moved on.

The space opened up, became wider, better lit. There were rows and rows of glass boxes, clay sculptures mounted carefully within. Steve walked past figurines of horses and rams, oxes, boars; something with a boar like body but the muscular legs and streamlined hindquarters of a horse, with a ridge of horns starting from the base of the neck and proceeding over the skull all the way to the bridge of the nose. Figures of men, women, deities…cast in clay, cracks gleaming dully under fluorescent lighting centuries later.

The place was still desolate, even while Melbourne celebrated life and living in the world outside this building; monument really, built to honour the passing of time. So silent. Or not…not really. There was a constant hum in the space, quiet yet overpowering. Pitched at a single note, permeating through halls and corridors and little nooks and crannies. Steve had come to be used to it-it was the hum of the air conditioner, the device that people used these days to isolate themselves from the heat of the sun and the warmth of the outside air. It reigned in every room, the sound, every building he set foot in-within the closed walls of the place he was first thawed out in, the airy spaces of his classrooms, the cabins of the airplane that took twenty-three hours to fly to the other hemisphere of the world, via Los Angeles and Sydney airports (all, all humming); to the quiet abode of his own apartment. A perennial, emotionless sound filtering in from the shiny white machinery mounted on the walls, or tiny vents in the ceiling.

(Sometimes, when Steve jerked awake from sleep, it was like the hum had grown loud enough to bore through his skull; swarming through the passages of his brain like buzzing bees till it all exploded-blood and tissue smattering the walls).

“You still there?” Sam’s voice shot through the deep-splintering the canvas of machine noise, as clear as a trilling bird in silent, mountainous gorges.

Steve closed his eyes. Useless really, to wonder for the umpteenth time how Sam managed to do it. Know to give, exactly when the need was most dire. “…yeah.”

“Wanna tell me about the interesting things you’re looking at?”

Steve cleared his throat. “Sure.” Easy enough after that, to move to the centrepiece of the room-a five-foot-tall statue carved of gilt bronze, gleaming rusty gold under the cool yellow spotlights. Steve peered at the placard. “Avalo…valoki…Avalokiteshvara. Patron bodhi..sattva of Tibet.”

It was incomprehensible, Steve thought, eyes flickering from head to toe of the statue, to think of the hands that had shaped this, that had mimicked delicate folds of silk and brocade in cold metal. The intricacies of the necklace that hung heavy on that neck, the anklets that curved around delicate feet. The expression. So peaceful, so benign. A smooth wide forehead, high, arching brows shaped like the bend of a bow. Thick lips pulled into the gentlest of curves, closed eyelids looking within. The statue had many heads: one facing forward, one back, one each on the right and left. There was a towering headdress made of more heads yet, looking to all four directions, each terraced layer growing smaller and smaller but with the same peaceful expression on his face.

“Bodhisattva of compassion.” Steve read on. “Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who stays on earth to help…” a pause, barely noticeable, “people escape the cycle of life, death and rebirth.”

“As scintillating as that is,” Sam was a liar, he absolutely found that interesting, Steve knew him, “I think I might appreciate a picture to really feel it?”

“I’m coming to the Japanese part of the exhibit now.” Steve fished out the phone from his jeans pocket, business end of the earphones plugged into the top. Tapped at the little rectangle, with the tiny red circle on his homescreen that he learned meant camera after six weeks of unmotivated fiddling. The Japanese ceremonial helmet that he’d paused in front of zoomed up on his screen. Steve waited for it to focus.

“Remember to turn the flash off, the museum exhibits don’t like that. Or the guards.” Sam reminded him, oh-so-helpfully. “Got told off for it in front of a bunch of school kids once, it was pretty humiliating.”

“I don’t suppose that’s a rare occurrence for you.” Turn off the flash. Okay. He…could do that. Absolutely. Steve tapped at the little gear symbol on top of the screen. A menu opened up…white balance, ISO, exposure settings…dear god. What the hell happened to point and shoot? Why was all this so complicated?

“Getting humiliated in front of kids? Less so ever since I left high school, if you’d believe it or not.”

Back, back, back. Okay. There was another shape on top of the screen, like a little white bolt of lightning. Lightning was…flashy, right? Right. That made sense. A little. Steve tapped at it in turn, his gigantic thumb missing its mark and hitting exit instead. The camera application closed. For fuck’s sake.

“Are you framing your picture? Matching it up to the rule of thirds?” The sass is not very helpful right now, Steve wanted to growl, but that would give his patheticness away. Even though he used ‘sass’ correctly in a sentence. Probably. It was one of the first words Sam had ever inadvertently taught him.

Open the camera up again. Done. Tap at the lightning. No helpful little note appeared, telling him if he’d mucked up something indelibly; just a little white line diagonally slashing through the lightning. Fine. Fine.

Steve gave a quick darting glance around. No men and women in black suits, fitted with Bluetooth headsets and a perennially suspicious look on their face. He lined up the picture, and dabbed at the shutter button on screen.

Click. No blinding flash of light. Steve felt like punching the air in triumph.

“Weeeell?”

“Hold on for a second.” Share, share, share…okay, this he had actually done before. Share to Sam Wilson…done. Hell yes.

A few seconds of silence. Sam spluttered out laughing, the line twanging in feedback.

“What?” Steve resisted the urge to glance around wildly, as if Sam had been spying on him through the numerous cameras mounted on the walls and had caught his little struggle and subsequent moment of victory. Miraculous as modern day technology was, Sam was an ordinary American university student, who did not have live access to the NGV security footage. Steve knew this. Didn’t stop his neck from getting all twitchy.

“You…you have..” Sam was apparently finding it difficult to breathe, what with all the inexplicable mirth. “Eclectic tastes.”

Steve stared at the helmet, the doomed words making their way out of his mouth forlornly. “I don’t understand.”

“What does the description say?” Sam seemed to have gained better control over his rampant amusement.

“Japanese ceremonial helmet with octopus and Genji cart wheel crest-”

…or maybe not. Sam burst out in cackles again over ‘octopus’, Steve sullenly glaring at a two-hundred-year-old Japanese artefact decorated by waving tentacles all the while. Several faint wheezes later- “remember to Google hentai at some point.”

Of course. Like the half a million other inexplicable, stupid things in this stupid century. Steve speed-walked through the rest-models of samurai armour, built of large iron plates bound together with cotton, kabuki masks with heightened expressions, alternately monstrous and wondrous. Statuettes, paintings, illustrations.

There was a wall hanging right at the back, with spidery writing running from top to bottom of the painting styled like a scroll. A flock of birds at the centre, darting and frolicking amidst a bed of foamy clouds. Feathered bodies and beaked heads etched in greying ink on the scroll of parchment-like paper. Splotches of playful darkness abounded amid the beigeness of the wall, the tan floors, the creamy whiteness of the paper-the strokes of the pen (not brush) trailing feather light over spots and darkening to gashes at places. Steve had never seen this kind of art before.

And you never would have, if you hadn’t woken up here. Now.

Steve shook the thought aside, with an errant jerk of the head. Dropped his eyes to the description. Artist: Kim Hoa Tram, Chinese, 1961. Title: lost the way to the nest.

Steve kept walking.

“How long are you planning on staying in this place? There is a party going on outside, I hear.”

“Almost at the end of it.” Steve murmured. Weapons from eras long past hung on the walls, carefully maintained. There was an early 19th century arm brace from Iran, built of steel; a Persian helm with a solid bronze body and hanging chainmail to protect the neck and face, the lattice finer than gossamer curtains. An archer’s thumb ring from 18th century India (kastubaan, the description said), made using an ancient technique inlaying precious jems into jade or metal. Recesses had apparently been drilled into the jade, and the gems inset, held in place by bands of gold. Wearing such a ring was a mark of a skilled warrior.

“Why do you like it, this much?”

There were two shields hanging on the wall too-Steve moved towards the closer one. Persian, early 19th century. Perfectly round, smelt of iron. Concentric yellow rings, in a gold-silver alloy stood out against the dark brown surface. There was a circle of yellow at the centre, which bloomed outwards to outline shapely petals, with darker, intricate engravings spanning the corolla. The tips of the petals tapered out to burst into spindly, flawless patterns embroidering the petals of another, larger flower pattern. It went round and round, brown and gold curling into themselves, petal growing to petal.

How could a weapon of war be so beautiful?

“Steve?”

Steve blinked. Stepped back. There, hanging on the wall were just two shields-iron painted dark and gleaming, cold and hard. Memories of blows ringing past the surface coating the iron as thickly as any paint.

“I guess I just like being around things older than myself.” The exit yawned open beyond the displays, a steel mezzanine leading to the ground level. Steve pushed past glass doors again, walked downwards slowly.

“You’re twenty-four.” Sam attested easily, “I could give you my mum’s fridge. Pretty sure it’s from the time of her marriage, the miserly coot.”

“Sure.” The acquiescence came easy, as did the reinforcement of the lie. Steve barely even flinched anymore.

Sound was beginning to filter into his world again-there were scattered groups of people on the ground floor, and the distant roar of the crowd outside. “I’m going outside now. Talk to you later?”

“Wifi permitting, of course.” Sam conspicuously paused, shades of seriousness seeping into his tone. “You gonna be alright, yeah?”

The smile rose to Steve’s eyes more than his lips, quiet and faint. “Yeah.”

“Talk to people. Mingle. Someone your age.” The tone sounded more entreating than anything; it was almost touching. “Relics are all well and fine, but it’s the present that counts, yeah?”

Even quieter. “Bye Sam.”

Steve tugged the earphones out, winding the wires around his fingers before stuffing it inside the back pocket of his jeans. He moved towards the baggage collection area, retrieved his small backpack with a smile. Sucked in a breath, nodded at the doorman. Passed the ornamental wall of falling water, stepped outside.

Two things swept over him immediately: the heat, and the noise. The air was muggy, weighed down by the Australian summer and the warm breaths of the Melburnian youth that had taken to the streets that night. If he shaded his brows with his hand and squinted, he could see a thousand people tracking their way through St. Kilda Road towards the gallery, easy.

It took Steve ten minutes to navigate his way out of the crowd flocking outside the NGV ornamental fountains. Bodily integrity and personal space firmly reclaimed, he walked up St. Kilda, moving towards the spires of Flinders Street Station. It was slow moving, with camps of people randomly stopping in the middle of the road to cluster up together and make exaggerated, pouting faces at their cameras-revelling in their ability to do so without being mowed down by cars or trams. There was a slouching girl in front of Steve, head firmly bent to her phone screen, shuffling ahead like one of those creeping things in that show Sam had shown him…The Walking Dead? Walking shoulder to shoulder as everyone was, it was impossible for Steve to overtake the girl, as frustrating as her distracted ambling was.

She was probably his age. Hair shaved right up the back, even higher than he had in the army-but with a shock of green right across the middle, sweeping over her forehead and into her heavily-lined eyes. What looked like two fluffy pink cotton balls hung suspended from her ear lobes, large enough to brush past her very bare clavicles. Her belly was bare too, as were her shoulders, just a strip of black cloth knotted at the centre obscuring her chest. Her arms were muscled, swarming with green-and-black swirls of tattoos. Knobby knees poked through a large rip in each of her jean legs, black and fitted in their turn, over combat boots.

Steve was wearing a blue-and-white checkered button down, over a plain white t-shirt. Blue jeans, whose fit he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. White running shoes.

Steve could imagine how the conversation would go. Hi, I’m Steve. And you are?

Ebony Darkness Dementia Raven Way. How do you do?

(For all his resentment against the world he’d ended up in, Steve was fairly convinced that the ‘modern masterpiece’ that he’d received a link to very early on in his university days, was anything but a masterpiece. He still felt vaguely bad about the reams and reams of mockery that the work had apparently inspired-but considering the role it had just played in his own sarcastic commentary, he was probably a hypocrite.)

It wasn’t just her, though. There was a beautiful blonde woman, leaning against the railing of the St. Kilda bridge, the Yarra river gleaming sleekly in the background. Tight, groomed curls over a long black dress, a silk scarf encasing her shoulders. A redheaded man was photographing her, long sleeved shirt folded to the elbows, corduroy pants worn over loafers. They seemed just as alien to him as the green-haired girl trudging in front of him, as did every laughing, merry face on the road today. Every pair of crinkled eyes, every excitable voice. Like Steve was somehow incorporeal, existing on a plane separate to the rest of these people; the ones who’d been born in and had grown up in this world.

Steve shoved his hands into his pockets, straps of his backpack drawing tight on his shoulders. The base of his throat felt tighter. Melbourne was supposed to be different. A place he’d never been to, with no preimages to cloud existing vision, no memories to leech away colour from the present.

As it turned out, Steve was afflicted by more than just a persistent case of nostalgia.

He wandered aimlessly, feet carrying him past Flinders Street all the way down to Elizabeth’s, chatter and music seeping in and out of his eardrums. The stream of people seemed to bend right suddenly; so he turned right with them, on to Collins Street. Carried along with the flowing crowd…not unseeingly, but with flashing lights and bright dresses and neon banners all blending in his vision together, like someone had upended a glass of liquid on a watercolour painting. Colours flowing freely, till everything was washed out.

His legs stopped. Steve didn’t know why, so he raised his head.

The people in front of him had come to a standstill, so had the people at his back. Maybe it had something to do with the raised platform right in the middle of the street.

Steve blinked, and blinked again; it felt like he’d fallen asleep on his moving feet and drifted off into a dream. Could the serum do that? It was designed to keep him going regardless of the shape he was in-could it detect that his mind had waved a white flag and thus sent it off to bed? Because this…this was…

It was a square platform, about fifteen square feet, with wooden flooring that shone under glossy spotlights. There were four poles erected at each corner, with what looked like fibre rope running along the sides, from end to end, winding around the poles; like a boxing ring. People thronged around the edges, some hoisting kids to their shoulders for a better look. But all that wasn’t the surreal part.

The surreal part was that there were five strapping men on that stage, complete with high-waisted, pleated pants and suspenders, jitterbugging away. Beyond the platform, and the crowd of watchers awkwardly swaying or bobbing on the balls of their feet, a swing band was strumming out something lively. Looming over it all, stood a ten foot screen swaying gently in the wind, resplendent with the black and white forms of Fred and Ginger cutting a step.

(Even with a glimpse, it was easy to identify-the scene was from Top Hat, where Ginger thought Fred’s character was a married man; she was reluctant to dance with him at the start, but then got inexorably pulled in by his charm. That flashy throw-and-dip maneuver right at the end…Bucky had unsuccessfully attempted it with many a lady, Mabel had even broken an ankle because of i-)

Steve dropped his gaze to the dancers, head ringing. They were feisty, energetic; every vigorous jerk of their heads set free a shower of sweat droplets. The stage was fairly vibrating under the force of their tapping feet, he could feel the tremors pass into the concrete under him, though he was fairly certain no one else could. Broad smiles, on each and every face, except….

Except the one right at the end. The man’s lips curved over his immaculate goatee, but into something more akin to a smirk than a smile. He was…off, in other ways too. Unlike the rest of his troupe members, his dark trousers tapered down instead of flaring into wide pleats, hugging his calves with every movement, fitted hems shaking free of his ankles with every sharp kick. His shoes were glossy, heeled. His black suspenders stretched over a bright red shirt-did the man do his research at all? No one wore those kind of colours back…

Back in the day. Back home. Steve’s throat was beginning to feel desert-like, harsh and prickly.

And those kicks. Perfectly angled, perfectly practiced. Nothing natural about them at all. He moved his hips too much, didn’t crouch nearly enough. This kind of dancing wasn’t supposed to be for the elegant folk, even while they did their dancing too. This was supposed to be about kicking back with a buddy after a hard day of work at the offices, or down by the docks; swing by the dance halls, step on a pretty dame’s toes. Not to present and perform and-

“I love you Tony!” Someone screamed from the crowd, and the man paused. Cocked a hip, tipped the wide brimmed felt hat perched jauntily on his head. Brought two fingers to his lips, blew a kiss out in the direction of the voice. It was irking, was what it was, irking and wrong-and Steve suddenly felt aflame with it, the wrongness of everything. The swing band with their too shiny coats, the screen with Fred and Ginger waltzing away in perfect video quality. The smarmy dancers, the clamouring crowd that was pushing past him even now, phones lifted high in the air, ready to ‘capture the magic’.

It wasn’t an urge befitting Captain America-but fuck if Steve didn’t want to tear it down screaming, the stage and screen and all of it, the entire goddamn farce. These people…they…they amused themselves with it, played pretend, thought that by snapping on suspenders and waistcoats and flowery dresses for a night, they could be…they could be-

They couldn’t. And neither could Steve.

“Another round of applause for our lads from Swing Patrol! I’d also like to thank John Morrison, and his fabulous Swing City band, for lending their tunes to us tonight. Now, let’s welcome back on stage our amazing marathon dancers; they’ll be entertaining you guys from seven pm to seven am, that’s straight up twelve hours of dancing, I don’t know how they do it-”

Steve couldn’t do this. He turned, almost unseating a kid perched on her father’s shoulders with his own broad ones. A swift apology, and he began to try and sidle his way out of the crowd-vision shorting out, breaths falling hard. The going was difficult, what with the entire throng seeming to press forward, and he couldn’t risk knocking someone to the concrete and fracturing bones with an errant push. Maybe sideways would be easier?

Okay, he was making some progress in this direction. He was approaching the fringes of the-no, shit. The sidewalk was cordoned off by rope, the way cut off by a large Cadillac occupying the space. Down the road, he could see an entire parade of cars lining both sidewalks: a Packard 180 just adjacent to the Cadillac, a blue Nash 600 a couple of doors away. The Cadillac currently in his path was a Series 62; Mr Demero had had one of those, gleaming turquoise body and cream roof. And there it was, in form if not in colour, transported straight out of nineteen forty one: perched on a Melbourne sidewalk, with a Hokkaido Cheese Pastries sign gleaming yellow in the background, and a bright red Westpac ATM.

Steve’s lips curled, bitterness staining the motion. This was like giftwrapping nostalgia and smacking it straight across his face, sharp and painful.

“-ank Benedetto at the mike, sing along if you know the words-”

Forward it was, then. Maybe he’d be able to emerge beyond the stage where the band had set up; they couldn’t have closed off the entire street. Movement was teeth-grindingly slow, it took him fifteen minutes to even draw level with the far end of the square stage. He threw back a last look at the performers-there were four…maybe five couples onstage. They seemed to be dancing to their own rhythms, instead of the choreographed, synchronised charade from before; and it was enough to stagger Steve for a second, keep his gaze locked and blinking. The band was closer now, the music loomed even louder-a slow, lilting saxophone underlying a throaty voice:

I’ve got you…under my skin

I’ve got you deep in the heart of me

So deep in my heart that you’re really a part of me

I’ve got you…under my skin

A blonde and a redhead, a dark-skinned man with another blonde…and there was the goateed man again-Tony, or whoever. He’d forsaken his fedora, a spiky, dark tangle of hair emerging in the bargain. His shirt was darkened with sweat, wrinkled at the back, long sleeves folded back untidily to the elbows. His sinewy arms were wrapped around a redhead-decked in a simplistic powder blue tea dress, buttons running up the front. And Steve might have stopped there, moved his eyes away for the final time…except at that choice moment, the redhead raised a prim hand and smacked the man upside the head.

Steve blinked in startlement, bringing a hand up to shade his eyes from the bright spotlights. That…that hadn’t really happened, had it? Except it happened again-the woman raising her knuckles and rapping her dance partner smartly on the head, as if they weren’t performing for a hundred people. The man’s mouth screwed up in mock indignation, eyes shining brown in the light, bursting to a thousand crinkles. He bent his head, lips moving next to the woman’s ears, the cocky smirk seeming like a distant memory of the past.

Steve pulled his eyes away, sent his gaze skittering over the other couples on the floor, scoping for anomalies. The blonde and redhead right up the front were clearly the stars-she was positively ethereal, scarlet locks resplendent in victory curls and kissing the side of her chin. A sleeveless polka dotted blouse, and a short red skirt that flared when her partner hoisted her up in the air, arms strong, lines flawless. On the descent, he dipped her backwards, fitted waistcoat straining against a flexing back, purple lining gleaming. Steve could still discern echoes of the old rhythm in their movements-slow slow, quick quick, but soon the redhead would twist sinuously, legs flying out, body curving back in absolute trust, crowd crying out in appreciation-effortlessly modern. It should have been just as off-putting as the previous performance, but as her toes touched the floor, they looked at each other-the smallest of nods, the touch of a smile on the blonde’s lips-partners at the end of a perfect maneuver.

The couple behind them was older, a glint of grey outlining the man’s tamed mop of curls, silver gleaming off his rimless spectacles. His partner had dark hair to match, bunned up at the back, a prim cardigan over a dark shirt dress. She didn’t bend her spine, the slant of her chin almost standoffish-their movements overall simple and methodical. They executed the six count turn precisely, crosskicks and all. As the song moved to its next stanza, the man inched forward and murmured something, his partner arching a brow in response; resuming their step without a missed beat.

It was a curse sometimes, the eyes of an artist, catching on these little details that so often went missed. He’d have moved on to the teenage couple at the back, hobbling through their steps; except there was a flurry at the corner again, and Steve’s eyes went careering back to the goateed man and his companion. She was apparently on a tirade, lips moving rapidly-ceasing when they pulled back, held hands and kicked outwards-and there they were back again, and she was continuing, brows scrunched and exasperated moue. And he was…he was actually nodding his head along, apparently according to the beat of the song, mouth curled cheekily. And there she was again, reaching up to thwack him for the third time upside the head.

Steve wasn’t the only one who’d caught it, there was an outburst of snickers from the group to his right at the redhead’s violence; and it was a blow in its own right, realising he’d been caught in stasis, staring for the past several minutes at a show he thought he couldn’t tolerate.

The two parted: the redhead curtsied sarcastically, Tony swept into an exaggerated bow. The group next to Steve giggled again; his own mouth was curving upwards, outside his conscious control.

I'd tried so not to give in

I said to myself this affair never will go so well

But why should I try to resist when baby I know so well

I've got you under my skin

Tony jerked his chin at the couple adjacent to them, the redhead frowned. He did it again, eyebrows rising and falling animatedly. Steve felt the rope separating the dancers from the crowd under his fingers-he didn’t know when he had moved this close.

They seemed to finally come to a consensus. At first, what had just transpired wasn’t apparent-they seemed to just fall back into their natural rhythm. Except the rhythm seemed…stuttered somehow, Tony stepping on to his left foot and pausing too long before the hop, his partner following through too quickly on her right. They pressed close, chest-to-chest, and Tony grinned widely over his partner’s shoulder, like inviting the entire world into the joke.

But it soon became apparent that he wasn’t grinning at the audience at all; the dark-skinned, stately man was scowling over his own partner’s shoulder, decidedly unimpressed. He tucked a hand around his companion’s elbow (straight trousers, short, voluminous blonde locks) and moved right. Tony and the redhead moved right. And then left, and then into a quick turn at counts five and six, exactly like the couple two feet away from them.

Copying like kindergarteners, and Tony was beaming like one, dark eyes dancing in mirth. There were creases around his eyes, and down the corners of his mouth, outlining those mischievously pursed lips, pink and curled. His teeth flashed white when he smiled, brows arching high as he contributed to the stream of whispered insults that was flowing continuously between the two couples now. It was a strange contrast; that erudite smoothness persistent in his naturalistic movements, the slant of his lips-and that carefree shine to his eyes.

Steve moved closer. He could feel the heat steaming off the floor now, the thunder of dancing shoes hitting the boards in tandem vibrating in his chest. Hear their strained, exhilarated breaths rush out of their lungs, pouring into his ears over the trombone solo.

They were literally knocking into each other now-Tony and his partner cutting off the other couple’s natural trajectories, oh-so-casually boxing them into the far corner, elbows and kicking heels just barely missing body parts. Or not-the blonde kicked out her leg with an amiable smile, rounded toe tip landing straight on the back of Tony’s thigh-he buckled with a swear, a yell from the crowd arcing up, “You go, Danvers!” The woman shrugged nonchalantly, red lips mouthing an, ‘oops’. Her partner switched his disapproving glare to her instead.

“Oh man up Rhodes!” The man-Rhodes, presumably-stilled in his motions, something resigned stealing over his features. He turned, pacing over to where Tony was still rubbing at the sore spot on his thigh, the redhead standing off to the side unsuccessfully attempting to conceal a smirk. Proffered an arm. Tony straightened up with a jerk, face alight with glee; and curled his fingers around Rhodes’ bicep. The crowd went berserk.

The redhead daintily made her way over to Danvers, the ladies automatically sliding into a relaxed sway, hands fitting over shoulders and hips. But no one was looking at that: all attention was firmly caught by the two men in the centre throwing their limbs out like the jitterbug had gone out of fashion, and they were determined to retrieve it from its shallow grave. It was shoddy, with jumps gone wild and kicks out of time-and Steve could hear Tony’s laughter above it all, clear and free-spirited and alive.

This is what I want-the thought slid into his mind, sudden and clear and perfectly formed. Not the low croon of the sax, or upbeat tempo of swing music; not the old-fashioned curve of the Cadillac, or the sharp snap of suspenders, or Fred and Ginger cutting a sharp step through the dance floor.

But this-Rhodes was ducking under Tony’s elbow now, hand raised to his brows, looking hither and thither in exaggerated ‘I can’t find you’ motions. Tony stood at his back, back of his hand pressed to his forehead in parodied distress. The other couples had pulled back to the periphery, clapping and cheering, the blonde with the purple lined waistcoat catcalling the loudest. Tony and Rhodes turned around together, eyes widening dramatically in ‘there you are!’, stepping back close again. The saxophone piped high, drums flourishing in not too far behind, and Tony jigged his butt to the beat; Rhodes covering his face with a hand, forehead sinking to his friend’s shoulder, overcome with laughter.

This: the comfort, the familiarity, the ease-Tony threw his head back, veins straining against his sweat-damp neck, and Steve felt the knife slice through his heart, quick and easy-the intimacy. The way they all laughed at each other, laughed at themselves, secure of their place in their friends’ hearts. The way they fell so easily in step: two forward, and two back again, like that was how they’d grown, in and around each other, vines twining close and comfortable. Bracing each other’s backs, falling into their negative spaces, carving out a place that was just their own. Making a home.

Steve didn’t know how long he stood there, hopelessly caught by dark, flashing eyes and joyous laughter-till the outbreak of applause startled him out. The song had drawn to a close, and two of them were, dear god…Tony and Rhodes were standing a metre apart, face to face, legs together and backs military straight, saluting each other. The sound of his own laugh, small and helpless, caught Steve by surprise-oh god this was…this actually made him empathise with those hordes of girls on campus squealing their hearts out over one thing or another…it was all just so ridiculously cute.

“Alrighty then! Our fantastic marathon dancers are going to be taking a breather for a minute-” Steve could feel his heart shrivel into his chest at the words, oh no, why- “but don’t go anywhere, because we’ll be handing out free passes to dance classes! That’s right, Swing Patrol holds regular classes in the city, so if you liked the moves put on by our lovely guys and gals, we’re giving out a chance for you to attend any three beginner classes for fre-”

Everybody was slowly tramping off the stage, fishing out handkerchiefs to mop the sweat across their brows, rolling their shoulders and flexing their legs experimentally. Except-and Steve’s heart liberated itself in a tiny leap-Tony was climbing the stairs back up again, a stack of little green cards peeking out from his left fist. He was-oh god, he was making a circuit around the stage, handing out passes to the grasping, flailing hands from the crowd. And Steve was…he was right next to the barrier, he could grab a pass if he wanted, make eye contact-

No, no, no. Steve’s heartbeat sped up triple fold, clammy hands sticking to the rope he’d still been clinging on to all this time. He couldn’t, he couldn’t-he never learned how to dance, not properly-thus, an upbeat voice inside his head pointed out, making perfect sense for him to actually attend classes. Tony was rounding the far corner now, damp patches on the undersides of his sleeves clearly visible, getting closer-Steve didn’t even have to go, did he? It wasn’t a binding contract, he could just take the pass and…and not go, just raise his hand, take the scrap of paper from Tony’s warm grasp…and Sam said talk to people your age but Tony was clearly older than him, and-

Fuck, he was here. Tony slid a pass into the chubby fist of the kid propped on his dad’s shoulders, high fived his other hand, ruffled his hair. Steve felt something warm, and strangely gooey stir to life inside his chest. And then those eyes moved over to…

To Steve.

His hand wasn’t up-he realised, with something akin to mortal terror-his hand wasn’t up. Tony was just going to move on right over, disinterested gaze roving past the petrified blonde in the boring clothes, and he’d turn away and leave and Steve would never see him again except during his obsessive Googling of Swing Patrol because the modern world could be nice like that-

Those eyes were on him. Tony. Tony was looking at him. They were-looking at each other. Okay. Okay. Steve could do that. How many times did one blink in a minute? Was he blinking a normal amount of times? No wait, he lost count.

That dark brow quirked up. Tony’s mouth curved to the left, as if to say- well?

Steve put his hand up.

A slight exhale of amusement. Steve’s ears heard it, over all the chatter and music and Melbourne’s night air. Tony extended a hand, fingers long and tanned, the dark green card peeping from the crevice between his index and middle digits.

Steve reached out and swiped it, his own fingers brushing ephemerally over Tony’s. They were warm. Damp.

Tony jerked back in response, dark eyes widening for a moment. They scoped over Steve’s own, for an infinite second.

(Shit, were his hands prickly? Cactus-like? The serum didn’t do that.)

Then Tony turned, swivelling on his heels, moving over to the other end. Steve’s heart crashed into his sternum, fingers folding tight over the card, stiff edges crinkling in his palm. It was warm too, and slightly sticky. Like something phantom still lingering on its surface.

Right at the edge, before the stage sloped down into steps-Tony paused. Looked back distractedly, eyes catching over Steve’s.

Another second, drawn long and taut. Tony turned his head away, heels tapping down the stairs, vanishing behind the stage.

Steve felt the smile rise to his lips, slow and inexorable. His heart was pounding steadily in his chest.

 It felt like the best day of his life.

 

~

 

Dawn arrived, bright and sunny-or dreary and dismal, he wouldn’t know. Steve hadn’t looked at the sky in a while.

He was sitting on the sidewalk, next to the front wheel of the Cadillac-butt cold, legs outstretched, hands folded on his thighs. Eyes still enamoured by the stage a couple of feet away.

He’d been here all night. Here through the ebb and flow of the crowds, the street filling to choking capacity at one am, drunken youth hollering at the band to ‘play their song’, and when it emptied to desolation at four, nothing but silence and tapping feet and the jazz tunes, still tripping along, to keep him company. His ass had gone numb a good while back, but his back still felt alright, courtesy of the serum.

Yes, that’s exactly why they gave you the serum. So you could stare obsessively at a stranger for-he dropped his gaze to the watch on his wrist, wow-ten hours straight. Well done.

But try as he might, the shame didn’t come. He was…strangely happy, parked on his butt at seven am on the side of a street in a city he’d entered just a week ago. He didn’t regret a minute of it, being here while Romanov and Barton (he knew all their names now, courtesy of snarking that became louder as the crowds emptied) executed move after move, energies unflagged, to the increasingly incredulous boos of their teammates. Here when Parker twirled Pepper around in a perfectly graceful Charleston, and went back to stumbling over his feet with MJ. Here when Tony tried and failed to coax Bruce into a dance with him, led Barton around the ring in a surprisingly decorous jig, narrated jokes all throughout his turn with an increasingly flat faced Romanov.

I would sacrifice anything come what might

For the sake of having you near

In spite of the warning voice that comes in the night

And repeats - how it yells in my ear

Romanov was dancing with Bruce now, torsos pressed close, her chin tucked over his shoulder-swaying slow and tired. Barton and Hill were straight-backed still, his arm bent perfectly and pressed to her shoulder blade-and attempting to tickle her, if her impassive, unimpressed expression was any clue. Parker and MJ were obscured in the corner, feet wobbly and barely standing. Danvers and Rhodes had their foreheads pressed together, looking down at their moving feet.

Don't you know little fool

You never can win

Why not use your mentality

Step up, wake up to reality

Tony and Pepper were dancing cheek-to-cheek. His eyes were closed, cloaking those dark irises peacefully; even as they swerved from one side to the next, feet barely shifting. The song was coming to a close.

But each time I do, just the thought of you

Makes me stop just before I begin

Because I've got you under my skin

It was-surprisingly painful, to think that Steve would have to let go of this soon. Ten hours felt too short, an achingly brief glimpse into a world; into the lives of ten people that he’d probably never see again. They-he probably didn’t teach the classes, even if Steve mustered up the courage to go. And if he did…Steve would still be an outsider, peeping into a bright, vivacious life that had no place for a relic, a withdrawn shell of a man.

Looking at a world he had no place in had never felt this…satisfying, though. Like Steve would be content to watch all his life.

Yes I got you…under my skin 

Tony’s eyes fluttered open.

The exhale left his chest, whistling out silently and mingling with the morning air. Steve hoisted himself to his feet, brushed his gravelly palms against the thighs of his jeans briskly. The air was crisp, the smell of sweet-spun sugar and coffee beans winding out from the café three doors down the street, drifting dreamlessly on the breeze. People had begun slipping out into the street again-jogging past in track pants, headphones secure over their ears, early birds in blazers and ties walking to work with a bagel in hand. Sunlight filtered dimly through the gaps between the buildings, golden shafts of light illuminating patches on the asphalt road, shining off the glossy steel and mirrored exteriors of the tall skyscrapers.

It was a beautiful morning.

Steve tucked his fingers in his pockets, thumbs hooking into the riveted belt loops. It felt good to walk again after keeping still for so long.

 

“Leaving so soon?”

…and just like that, his heart rate skyrocketed, the poor organ slamming into his ribcage so hard that Steve couldn’t breathe. He turned, slowly.

Tony stood there, not five paces away, shirt and trousers wrinkled past repair, felt hat crumpled under his fingers. There were dark circles under his eyes, but they looked clear under the touch of the early morning light.

“You’ve been here all night.” And watching me, Tony didn’t say, irises dark and unreadable. His voice sounded…good, without the backdrop of swing music and a chattering crowd, deep and full-bodied, layers playing upon layers. It lilted up in amusement, and Steve resisted the urge to shiver, “You a stalker, by any chance?”

And here was where he had to thank Sam again, because it would have been more than a little humiliating to ask Tony to clarify what he meant by that. But there was no time to think about that, because words were brimming up frantically in Steve’s chest-no no no no no, but somehow couldn’t seem to escape past the blockade in his throat-because he liked to be honest, and watching a man you didn’t know for ten hours was a little stalkery.

He finally managed to squeeze a syllable out, somewhat strangled, “N…no?”

Tony’s eyebrows had been climbing progressively to his hairline the longer the seconds passed without a reply-once it actually hit the air, his lips turned up into a now-familiar curl of amusement. Oh god oh god, his mouth was doing that because of Steve, his heart was going to run itself out, thank heavens he’d never met Tony back before the serum, because that smile would have given him a bloody heart attack.

“You sure about that?”

Yes, your smile would have literally dropped me dead-Steve opened his mouth to say, and then snapped it shut again, because Tony wasn’t asking him about that, was he? His mouth flew open again-and now he had to say something, because Captain America couldn’t fall to the level of a goldfish. “One…one night is hard-ly.. anything. Stalkers are…a bit more long term, I think.”

Yes Rogers, tell him all about your understanding of stalking as a concept. Excellent conversation material.

“Hm, you’re right.” Tony tapped a finger on his bristled chin-had Steve always found beards attractive? Was this a recent development? It sounded probable, except now Steve found it hard to imagine a state of mind where he didn’t find stupid ass, sculpted, louche like facial hair one of the most irresistible things in the world. “I teach the classes at Coburg on Thursdays.”

Wait. Wait, what?

One beat. Two.

“You know,” Tony continued, the faintest trace of uncertainty seeping in, “to assist you to better stalk-”

“No. I mean, yes.” His words were colliding with each other, rapid and clumsy. Steve could feel a flush begin to build at the base of his neck, creeping past his jaw. “I-I get it.”

“Good.” Tony twisted the hat under his fingers further; Steve resisted the urge to pull it away from his hands, stroke his knuckles to soothe the anxious movement. “My name’s Tony, by the way.”

Kinda knew that already. No Rogers, stop being creepy- “And…your last name?” -too late.

“Stark.” Tony smiled, a swift bursting sunrise. Steve could feel his heart twist desperately under his rib cage, one last protest before defeat. Way, way too late. “Why, you gonna look me up online? Hunt through my Facebook profile, epitome of the lazy modern-day stalker?”

“I’m…not very good with stuff online.” So eloquent. But there were a few things he was not half bad at, like getting the hell over himself. So Steve squared his shoulders, tried out a smile of his own, “And I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy. I like putting effort into my…endeavours.”

“Well, I’ve got a dab hand with technology myself. Maybe that’s another area where I can help brush up your skills.” Tony leaned in, ever so slightly. His free hand reached up to tug at the open collar of his shirt as if it itched, thumb running under the cotton. And for all that the flamboyant colour had annoyed Steve before…it was something else to see the sweat droplets peppered over that tan skin, leaking into the darkening red of the shirt. Something hot, and exhilarating and terrifying. “And I’m glad to hear of your hardworking temperament, …?”

“Steve.” He whispered, more breath than voice. They were so close now.

“Steve.” Tony repeated. His lips curved up, eyes blinking dreamily.

And Steve…moved, because he was tired of holding still, tired of being stuck in stagnation, tired of letting life fleet him by. He moved, and he could feel Tony’s startled breath under his lips-and he didn’t know if they were the softest lips he’d ever kissed because he wasn’t looking back, he was staying in the present. This present, this…gift, of Tony pressing closer, hand smoothing over the back of Steve’s neck, felt hat crushed somewhere in the rapidly decreasing space between their bodies. Two unspeakable seconds of setting foot in another world, this world-and how long had he needlessly waited at its threshold, not knowing that the door was open?

Two seconds-enough to categorise heat and smell and touch (not taste. Not yet.) Steve whispered against Tony’s mouth, feeling the breaths rise and fall in tandem. “Don’t have to teach me everything.”

“I-I get it.” Tony echoed back, sounding…awed, maybe. He pulled back, hat crushed beyond repair in his flexing grip. There was a slight indent on his lower lip, that hadn’t been there before. Maybe Steve had left it there. Tony’s tongue darted out unconsciously, tracing over the mark as if in hunt for an elusive taste.

Steve shuddered, and stepped back. The breeze whistled in the space they had just vacated, eliciting goosebumps over his bare forearms. He had to clear his throat twice, to get it working. “Thu..thursday, then?”

“Thursday.” Tony nodded, and then again as if he’d forgotten to do it the first time. He turned, motion sluggish, and slowly walked away, head bent and ponderous. Steve watched his back, all the way till he reached…his group of friends who’d been waiting for him. And watching. Oh golly.

…but it didn’t really matter, did it? Steve turned, slow and unhurried, hands burying themselves in his pockets again. His shoes padded softly against the asphalt as he walked, navigating around spilled food and fallen banners from the White Night celebrations. A night of living, they called it.

Steve stole a deep breath from the air, filling his lungs with the scent of roasted coffee, and freshly baked bread. Sweat from passing joggers and a night spent partying, the lingering odour of alcohol, the pungent, chemical cloud of deodorant. Sun streaked bright across his cheek as he slowed at the intersection, waiting for the traffic lights. There was a girl waiting beside him, snapping gum from stark black lips; wearing a top that was tied around her neck by two flimsy strings, entirely backless. It was red.

Steve smiled. His weight shifted forwards, bobbing on the balls of his feet, eyes watching the light that had just turned yellow. Any second now.

Funny, how different the world appeared when he had something to look forward to, small and ephemeral as it was.

The light changed, and Steve moved-each succeeding step lighter and lighter like he might float away.

I’m gonna go dancing.