Even after years and years of it, Steve still can’t deal with how cold it is. It’s the kind of cold that sinks down into your bones and stays there, a lingering ache you can’t shake. Never mind that their car is never warm, the walls slick with cold wet that leaks in from the outside. It doesn’t matter how many bodies are crammed together in such a small space, none of them can remember what it felt like to be warm.
Which is probably why Steve can’t shake the sickness that’s been plaguing him for what seems like forever now. His lungs rattle when he breathes and the cough is getting worse and worse. He shakes alone in his bunk and his already muted smell is practically non-existent. Some Alpha he turned out to be.
He presses his too-hot face into the metal wall that his bunk is set into. The vibrations of the wheels on the track skitter across his skin but it’s become almost background noise.
It’s been ten years since he boarded the train, the train that was supposed to keep them alive when the world froze over. He and Bucky had been caught in the crush of people, racing to get on before the doors closed. The acrid smell of fear and panic stung his nose, his weak heart pounding in his ears as they tried to shove their way through. Their hands had been clasped tight, but Steve’s grip faltered and then Bucky slipped underneath the herd of desperate people and then…
The sound of the door shutting still rings in his ears when he thinks about it. It makes his chest hurt in a way that has nothing to do with the weight of sickness.
Steve shakes away the ghost of the Omega he lost. All thinking about Bucky is going to do is make him cry, which is going to make his cough worse. After Bucky fell, Steve has no one. He’s made a couple of friends he chats with now and again, when his health is okay, but it’s not the same. No warm body to spoon, no gentle hands to wipe away the sweat from his brow. No one to force-feed him soup and medicine because he’s too stubborn to do it himself.
He squints up at the blurry shape crouching near his bunk. It’s Peggy, holding up a dingy rag and looking down at him with a frown. Her Beta scent is soothing, neutral and familiar. “Hey,” he rasps back, swallowing against the sandpaper in his throat. “Everything okay?”
Her eyes go soft. “Yes, I just came to check on you. You missed the food delivery this morning. It was your turn for bread.” She reaches into her tattered jacket and pulls out a chunk of brown bread, hard but thankfully without mold. “Luckily, the distributor thinks I’m pretty,” she says with a sniff.
“Thanks, Pegs. Did you give some to the kids?”
“Yes, Steve. This is what’s left,” she chides, but it’s warm with affection. “You need to eat more if you’re going to get better.”
He waves her off. “There are people who need it more. I’m always sick, remember?” As if on cue, he coughs wetly into his fist. At least there’s no blood this time.
“That’s no excuse, Steve.”
He knows she means well, but he doesn’t have the energy to argue. He doesn’t want to tell her that he’s just tired of it all. Being stuck on the train, living in squalor with too many other people. There are children that don’t even know what it’s like to live anywhere else. Life wasn’t always the best outside, before the freeze, but it wasn’t this.
“I bet the assholes at the front don’t have to worry about being sick,” he mutters as he takes a bite of the bread. It’s like biting into a rock and tastes like dirt in his mouth. He almost can’t swallow it.
She scoffs and shakes her head. “As if we’ll ever know. You need to get that fool idea out of your head, Steve.”
Steve sighs. It’s not stupid. Maybe if he wasn’t such a failure of an Alpha, he could make the journey up. His instincts tell him to protect and take care of the people here, but his body can’t keep up. Instead, he just lays in bed and shivers underneath his tattered clothes while his belly growls.
Rage pools in his stomach and he wants to punch something. That’s when he hears the door clang open and Peggy straightens up. He knows who it is even before the too-harsh stench of Alpha hits his nose. He wants to growl, feels it rumble up from his chest, but he’s in no shape for a confrontation today.
“Look lively, scum! Let’s get this over with quickly,” the Alpha barks. It echoes in the small chamber and Steve winces when it hits his good ear.
Steve tries to get to his feet, but his knees give out before he can make it. Peggy manages to catch him before he hits the slatted floor, not even grunting under his slight weight. “Come on,” he rasps out. Together, they hobble their way towards where Rumlow and his cronies are standing by the open door. All of the occupants of the car are pressed up against the walls, their children ducked behind their parents. If they hide them, maybe they won’t take them away.
Rumlow glances around the room, lip curling up when he spots Steve and Peggy. “Aww, no fight this time, Rogers? Shame. I was hoping to pay you back for last time.” He drags his thumb along the scar on the side of his face that Steve had given him with a piece of rusty rebar. Just seeing it gives Steve a vicious little thrill. He can’t do much, but keeping Rumlow from putting his hands on the women in the car was at least something. Thankfully, there aren’t any Omegas or...well, it wouldn’t be pretty.
He growls weakly, edged with the whistle in his lungs from the sickness. It makes Rumlow and his goons laugh, which makes Steve’s blood run hot.
“Not worth it,” Rumlow spits, stepping to the side. He grabs the nearest child by the hair, a little boy who screams when he pulls him out from behind the boy’s mother. He eyes the child, looking him up and down. “This one will do.” He shoves the child into the hands of one of the men standing behind him. The mother is in tears and rushes to grab the boy back, but Rumlow backhands her before she can get far. Instantly, there are multiple guns pointing in her direction. “I’ll fucking shoot you, and I’d be glad to do it,” Rumlow growls at her, the barest hint of Alpha timbre in his voice. The woman shakes her head and whimpers, cradled by her husband who is shaking just as badly.
If it’s one thing Steve can’t stand, it’s bullies. Before he can think about it, he’s lunging forward and throwing all ninety pounds of his weight into Rumlow. He knows it’s not going to do anything, but heat pounds behind his eyes and he has to do something.
It throws Rumlow off-balance, enough to stumble into the guard behind him. Steve lets out a weak cry of victory as he gets one solid punch in against his temple. Pain flares up through his fingers but he swings again anyway, only to have his fist get caught mid-swing. Rumlow laugh as he tightens his own fist, the sickening crunch of bones grinding together echoing through the air.
“You’re a piece of work, Rogers,” Rumlow says as he squeezes harder. Steve cries out and slumps to the floor, held up by Rumlow’s fist around his own. “You never learn. And you’re so fucking weak.” He tosses Steve to the side, who hits the wall with a thud. Everything hurts and Steve sucks in a breath, setting off another coughing fit. He barely hears the door slam shut over the sound of blood rushing in his ears.
When he can open his eyes again, Peggy’s hovering over him as well as Sam, who looks less than pleased with him. “If you weren’t laying on the floor, coughing up your lungs, I’d shake some sense into you,” he says, heaving Steve up by the arm. A whimper escapes him, but Sam hoists one of his arms around his shoulders. “Steve...you can’t keep doing this. One day he’s just going to shoot you and be done with it.”
Steve can’t help the snort that escapes him. “I doubt it, he likes beating me up too much,” he jokes weakly. His throat is on fire and everything hurts; even his hair hurts.
“That’s not funny, Steve,” Peggy says crisply. “I understand your instincts and all, but-”
“Please,” Steve pleads. He doesn’t need a reminder. His aching back and crushed bones are enough. Thankfully, they drop it for now and Steve is grateful. Right now, all he wants to do is go back to his bunk and sleep for a week.
But they’re not heading for the bunks. They trudge through the smelly car, Steve’s feet clumsy against the uneven floorboards. There’s too many scents, too many bodies crammed together in such a small space, unwashed and caked with dirt. It makes Steve’s head pound harder. He tucks his nose against Sam’s shoulder, taking a shallow breath. His scent is the same muted soothing Beta smell as Peggy’s, though hers is more crisp, like an underripe pear. Sam makes Steve think of sunny days by the ocean.
He misses the ocean. He and Bucky were going to go one day, make their way to California and see the Pacific…
No chance of that now. Not with Bucky being gone and the world a vast, frozen wasteland.
Steve shakes those thoughts out of his head. “Where are we going?” he croaks out.
“To see Erskine. You need medical attention for your hand,” Peggy says, mouth in a firm line. He goes to argue, but his mouth snaps shut when she levels him with a glare. “He can set the bones. Otherwise they’re going to heal wrong.”
They make their way to a small, makeshift tent in the corner, farthest away from the door. It smells stringent, like makeshift cleaner and bandages, out of place in the dingy train car. Peggy lifts the flap and calls out, “Doctor? Are you in?” There’s a shuffling noise from inside before a wizened old man emerges. He’s rail thin and his hair is scraggly, and there’s a pair of cracked spectacles perched on the end of his nose.
“Ah, Steven. I was wondering when you’d come see me,” he says kindly, looking down at Steve through his glasses.
Steve is confused. He’s never talked to this man before in his life. His scent is muted with age and Steve can’t get a good read on him. But his eyes are soft and remind him of his mother’s, so he doesn’t kick up a fuss. “It’s m’ hand,” he wheezes, holding it up. His fingers rest at odd angles and his pale skin is black with bruises.
The doctor meets his eyes. “And your lungs. Bring him inside,” he instructs. There’s not a lot of space; just a fold up cot and a rickety table that holds some basic instruments. It looks nothing like the myriad of doctors’ offices Steve practically grew up in. “Sit there.” Steve sits down on the cot, feeling it creak beneath him. “You two can go now. We might be a while.”
Peggy nods and grabs Sam by the sleeve of his shirt, tugging him away before he can protest. Once out of sight, Erskine pulls the flap shut. It’s pitch-black for just a moment, before a weak yellow light fills the space. He takes Steve’s hand, looking at the crushed joints and bruised skin, shaking his head. “That was a brave thing you did. You’re a good man.”
Steve can’t help the bitterness that wells up in him. “I don’t like bullies. And I hate that Rumlow thinks he can do what he likes because he’s an Alpha. It’s not right.” If only I were stronger. If only I were a real Alpha. He swallows those words back down into the dark pit they came from, and bites down his whimper when Erskine starts to set the bones. Pain lances through him and he takes in a ragged breath, praying he doesn’t start coughing again. The fever is creeping back on him and it makes his vision swim.
He could cry, but what good would it do?
Erskine is as gentle as he can be, shifting the bones and placing tongue depressors between his fingers before wrapping them in soft gauze. “No, it’s not. But I believe our situation has made him believe it is. Alphas like him have existed throughout history, but now…” he sighs, taking a moment before continuing to wrap Steve’s fingers. “At any rate, fighting him is probably not the wisest idea.”
“But if I don’t, who will? I may not be much of an Alpha, but I’m still an Alpha.” He doesn’t mention that he’s the only Alpha willing to fight Rumlow. There are a couple of others, but they’re either too sick or too apathetic. Everyone has learned to take care of their own. Everyone except Steve, apparently. He can’t help how he feels. “So, yeah. I’m going to stand up to him even if it means getting beat down.”
Neither of them speak for a long moment, Steve taking harsh, wheezy breaths and Erskine silently finishing the wrap of his hand. “You’re a good man, Steven,” he repeats, patting Steve’s leg. He turns around and starts rummaging through a tattered bag, leather cracked with age and dry rot. Erskine lets out a hum when he sits back up, holding a small black box with a rusty padlock on it. “Hold this, please,” he says, handing the box to Steve. He pulls a leather cord up from the layers of clothing, wrapped around his thin neck. At the end is a key.
Steve stares down at the box when Erskine slides the key into the lock, the sound of the mechanism grinding loud in the small space. It clicks, and he opens it to reveal a small bottle filled with a vibrant blue liquid and a syringe. In comparison to the grime and grit of the space around them, the inside of the box is pristine, sterile. It even smells like a hospital. “What-”
“This will help you. It’s what I was working on...before. It was the only thing I was able to save from my lab,” Erskine whispers, motioning for Steve to lean closer. He turns his good ear towards the doctor. “It’s a serum, that will make you stronger and heal faster. But most important, it amplifies what is inside so good becomes great, and...bad becomes worse. Which is why I hid it, so a man like Rumlow could not find it and use it.”
“Then why me?” Steve asks, daring not to hope. Maybe this serum could turn him into a real Alpha, one that could fulfill his instincts. Maybe he could atone for letting Bucky go and help the people he’s come to regard as his own here in this cramped, dirty train car.
Erskine smiles. “You are a good man, Steven. Kind, and compassionate, and strong despite your body’s limitations. It’s only an offer, nothing more. If you say no, I will hide it once more and we will never speak of it again.”
Steve takes a breath and closes his eyes. His body aches, from the fight and the sickness deep in his bones. He listens to the rattle in his lungs and the weak, uneven thump of his heartbeat. His Alpha smell is soft, barely there, and he’s never experienced a full rut before.
It isn’t hard to make a decision after that. “I’ll do it.”