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Steps in time

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The next morning, Tony headed to the common area with a yawn. He could already smell bacon and coffee.

“Good morning, Avengers,” he said with a smile as he entered. Steve sat on a bar stool, head in his hands and if possible sank just a little lower as Tony entered.

“You really don’t want to be so loud, right now,” Bruce said from the open kitchen.

“Aw, does someone have an America-sized hangover?”

For being so relatively new to the 21st century, Steve had already perfected the side-eye and he was aiming it directly at Tony.

“I’m not talking to you right now,” he grumbled.

Tony couldn’t hold back a smile as he clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“You’ll forgive me,” he said. “And you know, a little hair of the dog-”

“Only delays the inevitable,” Bruce interrupted as he slid a plate in front of Steve.

“Ah, the greasy food myth,” Tony said as he swiped a piece of bacon from the plate. “You know there’s no scientific evidence that morning-after food cures a hangover.”

“Yeah, well, there’s something to be said for anecdotal evidence.”

“True. Hey, you taking requests, Short Order? Two eggs over medium with a side of toast, made from good ol American white bread, not that nutty, seedy health stuff you and Romanoff eat.”

“Uh-uh.” Bruce tossed a bag of bread at Tony as he headed out of the kitchen.

“What, you’ll cook for Cap but not me?”

Cap’s had a rough night, courtesy of you,” Bruce said. “And I have an experiment in the lab I need to check on.”

“Come on, Banner,”

“You know where the eggs are...you do know where the eggs are, right?”

“Of course I know where the eggs are,” Tony waved Bruce away with one hand. “Go, do your experiment.” Bruce shook his head and walked away with a grin. As soon as he was out of eye- and earshot, Tony looked skyward. “JARVIS where are the eggs?”

“In the refrigerator, sir.”

“JARVIS!”

“My apologies, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said at a noticeably lower volume. Tony eyed Steve as he walked to the refrigerator and pulled open the door.

“You know, I think that’s the first time you’ve talked to JARVIS like a person,” Tony said. Steve grunted, a sound Tony mostly ignored as he pulled open the fridge and gazed into its depths. “Eh, I’m not hungry.” He closed the door and turned back to Steve. “So, listen, when you’re feeling a little more super, meet me up on 75. Got something to show you.”

“Is it more alcohol?”

“Nope.”

“Then I’ll be there.”


The elevator at Level 75 opened onto an enormous room. Most of the floor was open, and until the night before, Tony had no idea what he was going to use it for. But six hours, a tireless AI and two childhood robots later and the frame for a 20-foot cube was smack in the middle. All it needed was a little more work.

Tony got busy, laying cable around the bottom frame, snaking it up the corner poles and connecting an array of projectors together before running the entire rig to a bank of computers.

“Sir,” JARVIS said, “I’ve programmed the specifications you requested. The rendering should be complete shortly.”

“Great, JARVIS, thanks,” Tony said. Everything was nearly good to go. “What do you think J, is it going to work?”

“I suppose that depends on your definition of ‘work,’ ” JARVIS answered. “As I tried to say last night, your theory is sound but the full application is years from its desired potential.”

“Well, sometimes JARVIS, you’ve got to run with what you’ve got. Learned that one the hard way,” Tony muttered. “How long do you think we’ll have before the whole thing blows out??

“My estimation is 25 minutes.”

“Guess we’ll see just how quick a study Cap really is.”

The elevator dinged and when the doors opened, Steve stepped out, looking much more refreshed than he had an hour ago. Tony shook his head as he plugged the last cable in. Super soldier serum was a hell of a thing. Forget warriors, he was surprised the booze industry wasn’t angling to manufacture and market it.

“Feeling better?” he called over his shoulder.

“Much,” Steve said. “Sorry about before.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it.” Tony waved a hand at the remark and stepped out from behind the computers. Steve had stopped at the edge of the frame and was following it’s edges with his eyes.

“What’s all this?”

“This,” Tony said as he grabbed Steve by the shoulder and maneuvered him to the center of the cube, “is training.” Steve crinkled his brow as he looked around the area.

“I don’t…”

“JARVIS,” Tony said. “Hit it.”

The room’s equipment whirred to life and colored light blurred in and out of focus until the spaces between the frame slowly formed the cream-colored walls of a room lined with dark wainscot panels and old, evenly spaced photographs and portraits. Flag poles stood at the head of the room, one with an American flag, one with the flag of New York and two others Tony couldn’t identify at the distance. A few more machines sputtered to life, and several tables covered in white cloth appeared, pushed up against the walls, surrounded by folding chairs.

Steve turned circles, taking in the room. His confused expression eased to one of familiarity as a slight smile tugged at his lips. In the early days, before the Captain America tour started filling packed arenas and civic centers, he’d spent a lot of time in VFW halls, speaking closely and intimately with the family and friends of boys overseas. He was a comfort to them -- before the marketers perfected the war bond pitches and dancers learned their moves, that was -- and returning to the small-scale simplicity of it now in a world that seemed so much bigger and constantly moving was its own comfort to him.

“What is this?”

“JARVIS, phase two.”

More equipment showered dots from the ceiling, pulling them together until the dots formed the shape of a dozen couples. Men and women in the slacks with short-sleeve buttoned shirts and cinch-waisted dresses with flared skirts of the 1940s stood stock still, facing each other, hand in hand.

Tony glanced around the room, too.

“A little flat, but not bad.”

“It’s amazing,” Steve said. “But I still don’t…”

“JARVIS, phase three.” The digital people began to move, stepping forward and backward to music that wasn’t there. “Time for dance lessons.” Steve turned wide-eyed to Tony.

“Oh, no,” he said. “No, thank you.”

“Oh, come on. Just last night you were whining that nobody’d want to date an old guy who can’t dance-”

“I’m not that old! Okay, well, technically I’m that old-”

“-and I’m offering you a remedy to one of those problems.”

“I don’t think so, Stark.”

“What, is it like a homophobia thing? I mean I get it, it’s not like your time was really up with the tolerance, but I gotta say, that’s not the best look today.”

“It’s not! I’m not a-”

“So it’s personal,” Tony said. “You just don’t want to dance with me.” For just the briefest of moments, Steve looked horrified, but the look was quickly replaced with a shrewd gaze. Good man. Even poor, out-of-time, naive Steve Rogers wasn’t falling for that blatant troll bait. “What’s the problem?”

Steve glanced around the room at the silently dancing couples.

“People don’t dance like this anymore,” Steve said.

“Sure they do.”

“I’ve seen people dance, Stark,” Steve said. “It’s not like this.”

“Well, yeah, at clubs, but there are formal occasions too. Proms-”

“Are you going to throw me a prom, Stark?” Steve said. “What next? A 80-years-late-Super Sweet 16?”

“Sure, and after that I can pimp your ride and check out your crib,” Tony said. “Thousands of channels and 70 years of catching up to do and you’re watching old MTV?”

“Well, apparently video killed the radio star.”

Tony burst out laughing as Steve continued staring at the room, taking in all the details. “But seriously, Tony,” he continued. “When?”

“Galas, balls -- you’re Captain America, I’m surprised the president hasn’t thrown one in your honor -- fundraisers. Oh! Fundraisers! That’s it; we’ll do one of those. JARVIS, compile of list of area charities. Baby hospitals, veterans groups, cute animals, that sort of thing. Send the top five neediest to Pepper. Tell her it’s for Steve.”

“JARVIS, don’t do that!”

“Ah! My AI. He listens to me first.”

“The list has been compiled and sent, sir.”

“See? Now you have to learn. So come on, Rogers, stop wasting life.”

Steve approached glumly, his hands crammed into his pockets.

“Okay, first, we need these,” Tony hooked his arms between Steve’s elbows and pulled until his hands were free. Tony’s hand stopped briefly at Steve’s waist. “Wait, no. You should probably lead,” Tony muttered before trading positions and placing his own hand on Steve’s shoulder, clasping their free hands together. “Now, we’re going to start with a simple waltz. It’s just right foot forward, left foot to the side and together, left foot back, making a square. 1-2-3, Lather, rinse, repeat.” Steve nodded. “And let’s go in 3-2-1.”

They both stepped.

“OW!”

“You said right foot forward!”

“I know, I know! My fault. Totally on me; I’m not used to following.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“I heard that. Let’s try again in 3-2-1.”

The first step went fine, but on the second, Steve’s foot went to the left, but his body shifted right. On other tries, he made it through one choppy pass and completely failed on the next, moving right when he should move left or forward when he should go back -- the end result usually being a foot on Tony’s toe or an awkward jerk of the arm -- and his apologetic “sorry” was shaping up to be the word of the day.

“I don’t get it,” Tony said finally. “I’ve seen you bounce a glorified Frisbee off of three trees, taking out five guys as you do it, and have it come back to you, but this is out of the question?”

“This is different!”

“It’s three steps! Here, watch them,” Tony said, pointing to the holographic couple next to them. Steve zeroed in on a pair of brown oxfords and Susie Classics with bobby socks as they stepped forward, to the side, and back. “Now count it out,” Tony continued. “1-2-3.”

“1-2-3,” Steve whispered along as he watched the couple make three passes.

“And now us,” Tony said. “1-2-3.”

Steve’s footwork was coming along. It was slow, but passable as he gripped Tony’s hand and stared at their feet, counting quietly with each step.

“Good,” Tony said. “Now maybe try it without literally counting.” Steve quieted, but his lips still moved slightly with each step. “And I’m just saying, my eyes are up here, soldier.”

Steve jerked his head up to look at Tony, but the disruption also sent him off balance. He missed a step and landed directly on Tony’s foot.

“Ow.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay. Better me than some piece of arm candy in an open-toed heel. You want them taking off more than their shoes at the end of the night, and that’s probably not going to happen if their toes are black and blue.” Tony paused, and shifted his eyes forward. “Well, some might. But probably not if they think you’re spending the whole night looking down their dress.” He paused again. “Well...again...some might.”

“Stark.”

“That’s what we need to do! We need to find you a bad girl. With the right kind, I can see the headlines now, ‘Captain America tames wild party tartlet.’ “

“You know, Stark, that’s not a very nice way to talk about women.”

“I’m just saying, you wanna get laid sometime this century” -- Steve flushed just slightly -- “and you’ve got an image to maintain, that requires a specific type of girl.”

“Dating shouldn’t be about image, Tony,” Steve said. “And-” he stopped midsentence and cocked his head. “Are you serious right now? Or are you just messing with me?”

“Steve, there are four, maybe five, things I’m serious about, and guarantee you, this conversation is not one of them,” Tony said. “What I’m trying to do is keep you out of your head, and off of my feet. And hey, it’s working!”

Steve’s eyes went wide as he glanced down at their feet and back up to Tony and around them. With some gentle nudges that he hadn’t even noticed, they’d stepped and turned to the opposite end of the cube-room and were surrounded by different people.

“Hey! We’re dancin’!” he said with a smile.

“Yeah, we are!” Tony said. “Quick, spin me!”

“What?”

Tony took a modicum of control so Steve could see the move without actually doing it, and when he returned, their bodies were just a little closer.

“JARVIS, how about some music?” A Schubert sonata twinkled from speakers as Steve and Tony continued to dance, and Tony showed him a few ways to make the classic positioning a little more modern.

As Tony suspected, Steve’s dancing woes were all in his head, born from a scrawny kid’s lifetime of insecurity. But now, with the basic waltz more-or-less mastered, they moved on to other dances and styles. And it seemed the more complex the footwork, the easier time Steve had with it. Even the lindyhop -- a fast-paced swing of the period that Tony studied and added to the program as a lark -- Steve was able to watch the digital dancers for a pass-through and pick up the basics in no time, leading Tony across the dance floor like he’d been doing it his whole life.

Tony lost track of how long they danced. His attention was drawn to Steve who had smiled more since they started this exercise than Tony had seen in all the time they’d known each other. His grin was loose and easy and largely unseen outside of Howard’s 1940s photographs.

It made Tony smile as they danced until they were out of breath with hearts pounding. JARVIS turned the music back to the slow Schubert. Tony’s hand found its way back to Steve’s shoulder as Steve’s settled at his waist.

They caught their breaths in a perfectly timed and executed box-step that was so far from where they started that it was itself captivating, and Tony didn’t even notice when the walls of his simulation faded and the people began to disappear.