Steve first notices the switch on a Sunday night.
The switch is innocuous and dated. The toggle protrudes from a bronze cover, the metal slightly tarnished where it meets the pale mounting block. Mostly hidden in the shadow of the permanently drawn curtains, it’s not surprising that Steve never noticed it before. He forgets that the apartment features a grand bay window; he’d be hard pressed to recall any minor fixtures at the peripheral of the blackout curtains.
That first time, the switch catches Steve’s eyes for a moment, but only a moment. He is tired, belly made heavy with the pleasant weight of a hearty meal, muscles relaxed with the heat of the sun’s last rays. His shoulder is warm under the drape of Bucky’s liquor-loosened arm. The soft skin of Bucky’s inner elbow cleaves to Steve’s neck where his shirt collar wilts. The sweat of a summer’s evening is unnecessary glue with Steve’s hand clasped to Bucky’s wrist, Steve’s arm circled around Bucky’s waist. Steve’s eyes catch on the switch for only a moment as he guides Bucky through the living room, and then they return to Bucky’s hooded eyes, to Bucky’s drink-sloppy grin; Bucky’s red lips, blue eyes.
The only thing that matters to Steve is the man in his arms. Bucky’s eyes gleam with the blue light that seeps through the crack in the curtains, sleepy half-moons brushed with thick lashes, the corners crinkled by the stretch of his smile. Bucky falls into bed and Steve follows. He doesn’t mind lying under rippled covers even in oppressive heat, the contrast of Bucky’s skin cool and marble-pale. He doesn’t think about the gruelling workday ahead of him, the messages waiting on the telucid, the shiftsuit fitting scheduled to replace his uniform. Steve is happy so long as he’s with Bucky, and the feeling follows Steve into sleep.
The second time Steve takes note of the switch it is a Wednesday morning and there are many matters clamouring for Steve’s attention. The war is over and they have long been victors, but Captain America endures and evolves, a torch to lead this shining new world. Steve stumbles from the bedroom to the living room, careful not to clip the doorframe as he struggles to feed his arm through the fitted sleeve of his new shiftsuit. The trace-web tingles on the back of Steve’s ear, refreshing his connection to Stark Industries. The holopad on the coffee table emits short pulses of light as it receives the morning’s headlines. The telucid beeps aggressively with a waiting call, syncopating with the whistle of the kettle in the electric kitchen.
Steve hurries to the telucid and turns the dial as his hand finally slips into the gloved end of his shiftsuit sleeve. The cover on the telucid flips up and rays of blue light trace the netline of Ms Palm’s trim figure, the severity of his assistant’s long straight hair exaggerated by topographic grids. Steve bids Ms Palm a loud good morning, only softening his voice after the kettle whistle is silenced and replaced with the low murmur of boiling water automatically filling mugs and hydrating cubes of surta to be formed into breakfast.
Familiar with this routine, Ms Palm efficiently reels off the pertinent communique, highlighting Peggy’s comments regarding the visiting Russian dignitaries Steve is to welcome, and reminding Steve of the boardroom luncheon he is expected to attend at Stark Tower.
Steve listens politely as his agenda is clarified, nodding in the affirmative when his trace-web throbs once and chimes gently to signal connectivity, but his attention strays with the soft padding of barefeet on hardwood floors and the clink of dishware and cutlery being settled on the stainless steel of the kitchen counter. A muffled yawn is distorted in the bowl of a mug. The dry scratch of a hand across a warm belly is cancelled by a grumbling sniffle, and Steve is suffused with an affection that mutes the white noise of duty.
Steve hastens to end the call without disregarding courtesy and feels the bunched muscles of his shoulders relax when the blue light of the netline flickers out and the lid of the telucid snaps shut. Regretfully, time is short and the arrival of the Russian dignitaries is imminent, so Steve cannot stop to fill his stomach let alone enjoy Bucky’s sleep-fuzzy company. However, Steve can drink in the sight of Bucky’s slouched shape, the long lean lines of his muscled bones frail in the skin of a loose cotton shirt. Bucky’s unbound hair curls in a spill of chestnut brown at the angle of his throat, reminding Steve of how it felt tickling against the bridge of his nose, of how it looked threaded between his fingers.
Bucky picks his head up from the cradle of his crossed arms and smiles at Steve like Steve’s thoughts are projected as clearly as the holopad news which scrolls across the ceiling in grainy blue light.
Steve smiles in turn, helpless against the brilliant blue of Bucky’s eyes. Steve goes to Bucky and fits his hand to the corner of Bucky’s jaw, resting his thumb on the crest of Bucky’s cheek. Not for the first time, Steve is amazed that he is allowed to have this. This life and this man and this love. How impossible.
“How is it that I can have you here with me?” Steve chuckles in renewed disbelief.
“You can have anything you wish for,” Bucky says, leaning the weight of his skull into Steve’s palm.
I already have everything I could want, Steve thinks, but the trace-web trills urgently before he can voice his thoughts and Steve is shaken from the hypnotic grip of Bucky’s regard.
“That’ll be Peggy,” Steve says apologetically.
Bucky waves Steve off with a wry smile, turning to his heaping plate of breakfast as Steve backs towards the front door.
Steve is glad that Bucky has served himself such a large helping of food. Bucky looks a bit wan even under the bulbs of the standard vita-light fixtures illuminating the apartment. Vita-lights may mimic and reproduce the health benefits of sunlight, but surely the real thing is better. Perhaps if they opened the blackout curtains for once, Steve thinks, eyes drifting to the sheet of heavy black cloth blanketing the far wall, to the tiny shape of the switch at its side.
Later, Steve thinks, and promptly forgets.
Months and months flow by in a pleasant haze, each hectic morning soothed by the peace of companionable evenings and well deserved weekends. Steve’s work is a far cry from the violence of his wartime occupation, and so different from the mundane and transient labour of his youth. Food is plentiful, both natural and synthesized, and the only cramps in his gut nowadays are the result of a well indulged sweet tooth he hadn’t known to pamper. His lungs work cleanly behind his ribs, his heart pumps with oxen strength, and his limbs respond in kind. Steve is important now, never overlooked or ridiculed or reduced by others, never betrayed by his own weak flesh. There is no more hunger or illness or shame, though these memories rest on dusty shelves at the back of his mind.
As charmed as Steve’s life has become, it is nothing against the immense relief he feels for Bucky’s good fortune because Bucky’s fortune is Steve’s fortune. What good is food and health and pride without Bucky there to share it with? Steve’s appetite is whet by Bucky’s adventurous palette. Steve’s breaths are cleansed when shared against Bucky’s lips. Steve’s life is lived when lived with Bucky. These are feelings renewed every morning when Steve wakes up to Bucky’s blue-eyed gaze, and every night when Steve falls asleep against the cool touch of Bucky’s skin. Steve never thought his waking life would be better than his dreams.
“Strange, where life leads us,” Peggy observes one autumn evening with her elbow resting on Steve’s kitchen counter and her hand swirling a glass of blue wine.
“Strange and incredible,” Steve says. They watch with shared amusement as Howard shows Bucky his latest fido prototype, the little sphere hovering shakily off the coffee table in the living room and blinking one large telescopic eye. Steve glances at Peggy, confides quietly, “I’m going to propose to him.”
“About time.” Peggy grins into the rim of her wine glass, her good cheer exaggerated by the soft wrinkles gathering at the edges of her mouth, the light crow’s feet pointing to the silvering strands at her temples.
Something inside the fido makes a popping noise, and with a metallic clunk the fido falls and falls to the coffee table, ejecting a side panel with the force of impact. Bucky ducks the debris and laughs at the look of disbelief carving ravines into Howard’s brow. Bucky’s own carefree face is reflected in the frosty convex glass of the fido’s unblinking eye, and Steve can’t resist stepping into the living room to nuzzle into the laughing curve of Bucky’s neck.
There’s a sudden flash and a clicking like glass fracturing. Steve pulls back and blinks clear his spotting vision to see Howard smirking with the fido clutched in his hands. Howard settles back into the high-backed chair angled towards the coffee table. “So it’s not quite ready to be a paparazzi pet, but hey, the camera works fine.” Something whirs mechanically in the fido. A metal scale shifts and a thin white square slides out. “And it produces instantaneous photograms.”
Howard plucks the photogram from the fido and hands it to Steve with a dramatic flourish that tempts an eyeroll from Steve and earns a snort from Bucky. The photogram is sturdy and glossy in Steve’s fingers, the image in a full vibrant colour that seems to shiver as Steve tilts it to catch different angles of light. The lighting is poor in the photogram image, but Steve can see the two ghostly figures leaned together in low light. In the photogram, Steve’s arms are wrapped around Bucky’s trim waist. Steve’s grin cuts deep shadows in his cheeks, his hair almost entirely silver-grey against the rich brown of Bucky’s rumpled mane.
Steve blinks rapidly. His eyes feel unfocused.
“You know, if we get some more light in here, the instantaneous photogram would probably turn out better. Not that this one ain’t a sweet sight, but it’s not every day a genius billionaire brings a revolutionary prototype into your living room, so seize your chance, my friends.”
“It’s.” Steve clears his throat, tasting salt, somehow convinced his voice will creak with rust. “It’s not that revolutionary, Stark.”
Howard draws back with a scandalized noise, clutching the broken fido to his chest. “Pal, I’ll have you know that you are holding one of the first colour instantaneous photograms ever produced, and mark my words, I’ll have colouroid telucids hitting the market within the year!”
Steve loses track of Howard’s babble, letting Peggy draw Howard into conversation. Peggy’s lips are tinged by the blue wine, purpling the red of her lipstick and bruising the sound of her words until it is static in his ear. White noise.
Steve see-saws the photogram on his fingers. He tilts it back and forth, stabilizes it, corrects its path, tries to parse the unease trickling cold down his spine.
“What’s wrong, Stevie?” Bucky asks, leaning over Steve’s shoulder to get a good look at the photogram.
Steve turns to look at Bucky, at the shining blue of his eyes, the smooth skin of his cheek, the brown silk of his hair. Bucky is as beautiful as ever, and Steve releases his disquiet with a self-deprecating chuckle. It bubbles up, null like sound under water. “Nothing, Buck,” Steve says, reaching up to tuck a strand of dark hair behind Bucky’s ear and ignoring how his tendons stand in sharp relief on the leathery back of his hand.
Steve glances briefly at the switch by the curtains; considers flipping the switch to brighten the room; considers retaking the photogram in full light. But Bucky reaches out and grabs Steve’s hand. Bucky grabs Steve’s weathered hand, tugs gently and guides him to join their chattering friends.
Then, one night some uncounted time later, Steve sleeps and--
glass fractures, clinks, sprays towards him with a torrent of ice. His face is wet, throat choked with brine. There is a light, blue and cold. Something aches in his heart; in his hand. His fingertips are--
reaching into biting wind. Snow like glass against his hand. Just a bit further. A bit farther. A bit far--
to hold him again. Pull him from his restraints. His hair is damp, skin bruised, mouth soft. Hold him. Never let him go. Never--
wakes and is annoyed by the itch of the trace-web on the back of his ear. It’s so small Steve often forgets to take it off before bed. Steve scratches absently behind his ear, unwilling to roll out of his warm resting place beside Bucky, the night air chill despite the apartment’s diligent heating. Steve clears his throat quietly, licking the salt from his lips as he rubs at his irritated eyes. His chest feels tight and his fingers prickle with pins and needles, probably from sleeping on one side for an extended period of time. Despite the discomfort, Steve burrows his hand under the dip of Bucky’s waist and settles his arm in the space between Bucky’s side and the mattress.
Bucky doesn’t stir, and Steve pulls Bucky tightly to his chest.
Steve matches his breathing to Bucky’s. Holds him. Sleeps.
And it is another day, and another night, and another season, and time passes. Surely it passes. Though, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Even with the ever quickening evolution of technology, the numerous innovations, the wealth of new inventions. Sometimes Steve sits in his state of the art electric kitchen and watches the surta cubes be reshaped in the oven, becoming meatloaf or shepherd's pie, and he wonders when the shine wore off the appliances. He wonders when he stopped marvelling at these gadgets he thought he’d never live to see. Sometimes the sun and the moon and the changing winds are not adequate grains in the hourglass, and Steve will turn instead to the mirror above the bathroom sink. At least in this glass Steve can be assured of reality in his silvered hair, and in the deepening creases at the corners of his lips and the corners of his eyes.
This is not a dream.
Love is blind, and Steve looks at Bucky and-- Bucky is beautiful, always beautiful, forever beautiful, though he’d clock Steve if he ever said as much. Bucky’s limbs are muscled lines, pale against the backdrop of black curtains. Bucky’s dark, unruly mane hangs in tangled strands that beg for shears. Bucky’s smile is soft and red. Bucky’s eyes are blue.
Bucky blinks slowly at Steve, asks what’s wrong.
Steve sits at the kitchen counter and looks at Bucky standing by the blackout curtains. He thinks he is forgetting something, but Bucky’s eyes are blue, and it aches to look at the light peeking through the gaps of the curtains.
Steve shakes his head because nothing is wrong. How can anything be wrong when he has everything he could wish for?
After Steve drops to one knee, after Bucky slides the ring onto his finger, after they have shared a shaky embrace and one long sweet kiss, when Steve turns away to retrieve the bottle of champagne he’d hidden away he watches Bucky from the corner of his eye. Steve watches and sees the slump of Bucky’s shoulders, the slightest droop at the corner of his lip, and these motions -- these small, secret signals -- bite into that aching, uncertain tumor in Steve’s mind.
Steve knows he should say something. He knows it the next day, and the day after. He knows it months later. He knows it when he stands at the altar, and when he shucks Bucky over the threshold to the rhythm of Bucky’s indignant fists on his back. Steve should say something, but Bucky’s smile is too exasperated and too fond to be anything but genuine.
This is real. Everything from Bucky’s rank morning breath to the tired nighttime heap he forms beneath the blankets. Steve works under Peggy as she leads the SSR in new directions. Steve liaises with Howard at Stark Industries. Steve comes home to Bucky whose hair is often singed and whose fingers are often blackened with the grease of his latest mechanical patents. Everything is as real as the time etched into Steve’s aging skin, but something is not quite right.
“Steve,” Bucky says one winter. “Steve. Stevie. Come away from the window.”
Steve lets his fingers fall from where they’d been tracing the edge of the blackout curtains. Instead, his hand settles on the wall next to the curtains, on the wall next to the switch, the casing of which has tarnished nearly black.
“Bucky,” Steve says and hears Bucky shift from foot to foot behind him. Steve listens to Bucky breathe, barely audible over the howling of the wind outside. “Why do we keep these curtains? The war’s over. The war’s been over for a long time.”
“It’s just-- I think it’d be good to get a little natural light in here sometimes, y’know.”
“Just a bit,” Steve says, but it’s strangely difficult to slide his hand back to the curtain. The wall is freezing beneath the pads of his fingers, the imperfections like rivets, the feeling metallic in texture and temperature, contrary to the warm earthtone of the wall paint. Steve feels so cold and the sound of the rushing wind bites at his numbing hand. For some reason, Steve feels afraid.
Steve looks back over his shoulder, Bucky’s name caught on his chapped lips. The room is dark with shapes vaguely outlined by the blue light glowing beyond the edges of the curtain. The edge of the steel counter seems harsher, spotted with the buttons and toggles of various appliances. The coffee table seems taller and slightly sloped towards the high-backed chair. Bucky stands by the chair, lets it swivel unchecked as he brushes past it towards Steve. Bucky’s navy coat is buttoned tightly to the collar, his cropped hair swept back from his creased brow. Bucky’s right hand reaches cautiously towards Steve, and his left sleeve hangs limply at his side.
“Steve,” Bucky says, looking unbearably sad. “Aren’t you happy?”
“I am,” Steve rushes to assure Bucky. “I am happy, Buck. Everything is-- perfect.”
Bucky’s lips crook wryly. “But.”
“But--” Steve swallows compulsively and tastes brine, “but I think… I think I’ve done something terrible, haven’t I?”
Bucky barks out a harsh laugh. “‘Terrible’ seems like a bit of an overstatement, Stevie.”
“But it is terrible. I can’t just have everything I want.”
“And why not?”
“It’s not right.”
“Don’t you deserve to be happy, Steve?” Bucky asks, somber. He adds quietly, “Don’t I deserve to be happy?”
Steve’s eyes feel hot, and he blinks quickly as he turns his head away from Bucky’s shining blue gaze. “You do, Buck,” Steve says to the tarnished switch before him. “I wish I could give you everything.”
“And you did,” Bucky says. “But I know you, Steve.” Bucky’s so close now that Steve can feel the cold puff of Bucky’s words on the back of his neck. “I know you, and I know what you’re going to do, and-- It’s okay, Stevie. I’m with you. I’m here. No matter what.”
They stand like that in silence for a long time, nothing but the scream of the wind beyond the glass to cloak Steve’s ragged breathing. A part of Steve wants to stay like this forever, if only because he knows now what happens next. What needs to happen next.
Steve reaches blindly behind him, heart aching and fingertips burning when he feels Bucky’s hand finally, finally in his own.
Steve feels ninety pounds and asthmatic again as he tears down the curtain with one swift pull. Steve’s pulse jumps at the sight of that grand bay window, that windshield of gridded glass and the vast ocean below.
Steve’s knees feel weak, but it doesn’t matter because he is already seated, the high-backed pilot’s chair shaking with the turbulence of the Valkyrie’s flight. Steve’s eyes burn, the bright ice bobbing on the waves only making it even more difficult to see. Steve is deafened by the roar of wind and turbines. His stomach heaves with the emotion he tamps down. His fingers convulse over the Tesseract gripped tightly in his hand.
The Tesseract burns coldly, shining blue tendrils of power flickering out and rapidly eating through the leather of his glove to reveal the ageless hand beneath.
Bucky always told Steve that Steve was better than anyone gave him credit; that Steve would change the world. And Steve knows that here in his hand is the power to reshape the world. But Bucky also told Steve that Steve was a good man, and surely no good man would bend the world to his will. Surely the lives of the many outweigh the few. So Steve lets go of the Tesseract, lets it drop away from him, lets it burn through the metal grating and the hull, lets it fall and fall away into the cold water far below.
Steve closes his eyes for one long minute. He takes a shallow breath. Opens his eyes to flip the switch on the autopilot. Contacts Peggy. Lets her bruised words keep him steady until all he sees is blue.