His knees and elbows are swollen and red and covered in small lumps. Each involuntary twitch of his limbs makes the aching pain turn sharp as fire and his breath catch in his throat. Combined with the erratic beating of his heart (slow, then so fast each beat blurs together, no discernable rhythm to the movement at all), it’s enough to make Steve’s head spin.
His mother encourages him to shift slightly and pulls the blankets down. There’s an angry red rash spread across his chest; he can feel it burning on his back as well. He hears his mother murmur softly before rubbing some soothing cream against the wounds. His vision blurs as he starts to lose awareness. His head lolls to one side. Distantly, he hears his mother’s voice, urging him to hang on. He groans softly. It would be so easy to let go and slip into blissful unconsciousness. Nothing would hurt then. The fear and despair in his mother’s voice is what makes Steve hang on. However much he wants to rest, he’ll be damned if anyone dares upset his Ma. Although it makes the pain blaze bright and hot, he moves his hand to hers and grasps it gently.
He can always rest later.
Jobs were scarce at the moment. Steve’s rent was climbing along with his bills, and he knew his friends worried about how he was going to make it through the winter. He wished he could tell them not to worry. He wasn’t going to make it through fall, let alone through to the end of winter.
At first, he’d made ends meet by recycling more. He repaired his clothes time and time again. When they wore too thin to wear in public, he patched them onto his ragged sheets. Any art that wasn’t strictly for a commission was done with leftover scraps of charcoal and lead on whatever scraps of paper he could find. He put newspaper in his shoes to make them last.
When that failed, he’d cut back his essentials as much as possible. He barely used electricity anymore. The beaten up radio he’d patched together from the scrapyard sat silent; he couldn’t spare the power to run it. He limited himself to two meals a day, and small ones at that. As his meals shrank, so did his waistline. Resigning himself to his new size, Steve just punched new holes in his belt and learned to live with a growling stomach.
After that, it was a choice between rent and medication. There wasn’t a cheaper apartment to be had in Brooklyn, and since Steve didn’t fancy his chances on the streets, medication it had to be. He stopped taking painkillers immediately. They were expensive, and besides: if things didn’t pick up soon, he’d be needing them soon enough. His back ached all the time now, but at least the stomach pain from his ulcers helped curb his appetite. The asthma cigarettes he rationed carefully. He switched to an even cheaper brand when he needed to buy new ones, despite the demonic hallucinations that haunted him as a side effect.
It wasn’t enough. It had taken a long time for Steve to come to the final realisation. He’d visited the church his Ma had always taken him to and knelt praying for hours, hoping there was another solution. None came. He would take half doses of his medication and pray. Either it would work, or - well. It wasn’t all bad, he told himself. Bucky would be better off without him, and this way he’d see his Ma again. He took ten of the slender needles from the cabinet; five full, five empty. He was careful not to spill a single drop of the precious black ichor as he transferred the liquid between needles. When he was done, he had ten half-full needles. If he was very, very lucky, this might keep him going until more money started coming in.
The headaches came first. A dull, throbbing ache behind his eyes settled in one morning, and it never quite seemed to go away. Some time after that, he noticed his chest was hurting more. He’d always had heart trouble, but this was different. The tingling in his fingers and toes settled in around the same time. That somehow scared Steve more. How could he draw with constant pins and needles in his hands? He’d laughed at himself when he realized what he was thinking. It wasn’t like he had the supplies to draw these days.
When he noticed large blanks in his memory, he let himself start taking painkillers again. Not every day, of course. Special days. If he had a chance at a job that would pay more money, or if he was going to visit his friends, he’d let himself take half a precious pill.
The memory problems had been hard to hide, just like his weight loss and new tendency to stumble. Bucky was suspicious, he knew. He tried to talk to Steve about it nearly every day, but Steve kept blowing him off with excuse after excuse. It might have worked, too, if Steve had been prepared for the symptoms of severe pernicious anemia.
It had been such a good day, too. He’d let himself take a full dose of his painkillers before going to visit Bucky. They’d spent their shared day off work wandering around the city, visiting all their favourite haunts. Bucky had insisted on buying two jam doughnuts when they passed a bakery. They’d gobbled them down on the edge of the street with hot jam spilling down their chins, not caring about the mess. For a few minutes, Steve forgot the pain. He could let himself believe things were back to normal and could stay like this.
The illusion didn’t last long once they made it back to Bucky’s place. Steve had nearly fallen over the doorstep; only Bucky’s quick reflexes had saved him from crashing to the ground. Shaking a little, Steve had stretched out on the floor and took a few deep breaths as Bucky set the radio playing. A sense of peace started to spread over him. That was, until he noticed the sensation of a warm liquid spreading from his crotch.
Bucky’s voice was uncertain. Steve swallowed heavily, wishing the ground would open up and swallow him up. Instead, he just grimaced as the stench of his bowels releasing themselves hit his nose. Face flushing hot with embarrassment, he pushed himself up on his elbows -
- and promptly crashed back to the ground. Horrified at his gracelessness, he tried to push himself up again. The second fall was worse than the first. He caught his chin on the floor as he landed, clacking his teeth together. When he tried the third time, he didn’t even manage to lift himself up even an inch. His muscles strained and shook with effort, but he couldn’t drag himself up.
“Oh God, Stevie.”
Bucky was by his side in an instant, picking Steve up and cradling him in his arms without a second thought. It was all Steve could do to shake his head. He’d make a mess of Bucky’s clothes, and Bucky deserved better than that.
“S’okay,” he tried to explain. “‘m just dyin’ is all. It’s all right, Buck.”
“Like hell you are,” Bucky growled, tucking Steve into his own bed. “I’m calling the doc, okay? You just hang on, Stevie. If you die on me, I’m killing you myself.” When Steve said nothing, Bucky’s worried glare turned angry. “Promise me, Stevie.”
There was a long pause as Steve hesitated. Finally, he sighed and mumbled out his answer. “Promise, Buck.”
The next few days were some of the worst of Steve’s life to date. Even with the help of the doctor Bucky brought, he could feel darkness dancing just out of reach more than a few times. It was closer sometimes than others; and sometimes it was an effort not to slide into it and rest. He’d heard the odds the doctor had told Bucky. If he survived, it would be a miracle. Well, a miracle was the least of what Steve was willing to do for Bucky. He wasn’t going to give up. Not when he’d made a promise. It was that and that alone that made him push through to recovery.
After the anemia incident, they’d become housemates. Bucky had insisted. Bedbound and utterly dependent on Bucky for everything from food to entertainment, Steve hadn’t exactly been in a position to argue. Bucky was worse off financially for the decision, but he’d be damned if he was going to let Steve get himself hurt again. Day by day, Steve regained his health. The headaches never quite left him, and he’d done permanent damage to his heart, but he learned to live with those. What choice did he have? Bucky had spent weeks by his side, coaxing him to eat and drink and rest as he saw fit.
The winter his friends had feared came and went. It was a mercifully mild one, something for which everyone was grateful. It was just as well. After finding out how Steve had tried to go without his medication, Bucky grew suspicious if Steve so much as sneezed. Winter faded into a lush spring without either of them getting so much as a cold for the rest of the year.
The winter after was brutal. Snow lined the streets, and they couldn’t afford to keep the whole apartment heated. After some debate, they dragged the heater into Steve’s room and piled all the blankets they had up on his bed. It was cramped and a little uncomfortable to share the bed, but they managed. It was enough to keep them warm through the night. That was the important thing.
It became doubly important when Steve’s respiratory problems started playing up again. Cold after cold after cold infected him. Few enough of them kept him bed-bound, but they were frequent enough that he’d swear he spent more time sick than not. Although he never denied his illness or skipped his medication, Steve tried not to let them slow him down. He’d pushed through sickness ever since he was a tiny child with rheumatic fever. He apologized to Bucky more than once for his illness. Even if he wasn’t infections, it didn’t seem fair on Bucky when they were sharing a bed as well as their living space. The sneezing and sniffling was bad enough, but it was the coughing they both hated. The worst of the fits felt like an asthma attack. They’d keep Steve hacking and wheezing long past when he could focus on anything than trying to pull air into his lungs. There were nights when he’d wake up Bucky five or six times, but his friend never once complained. Steve resolved to keep the rest of his illnesses quieter after.
It was Christmas day when that plan backfired. Steve had dragged himself to church in the early morning and rushed home soon after. Even if he and Bucky didn’t celebrate the same holidays, they liked to spend them together as much as possible. They’ve got their own little traditions by now. Each year, while Steve’s at church, Bucky ducks down to a local Chinese restaurant and buys them lunch. Once they’ve both stuffed themselves full and put away any leftovers, they exchange gifts. They have to take turns with that, each one eager to see the reaction the other has. The rest of the day is free to be spent however they like. The radio is usually playing softly in the background. They both love the radio, and between them they’ve got the skill to put together one far better than either of them could afford.
Steve never remembered going to sleep that night. Later, the only thing he would remember was lying in bed, the night cold and still around him. Bucky was by his side, hanging onto his hand and sniffling quietly.
“Please, Stevie. You’ve gotta wake up. You’ve just gotta. I can’t - I don’t wanna be without you, Stevie, so please, make it through this, and I’ll make sure you’ll never go without anything again. I dunno how, but I’ll do it Steve, I swear, just wake up.”
His words became thick and slurred after that, too broken by hiccupping sobs to make any sense.
Later, Steve learnt it had been another full day before he had stirred. When he finally blinked his eyes open, Bucky was curled up beside him with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Once he had the strength to speak, he told his friend:
“I heard ya, Buck. Last night. And I promise, so long as I’ve got a say in it, I’m not going anywhere without you.”
After that, Steve became, if not sensible, then at least a lot less reckless. Whenever he found himself contemplating something remotely dangerous (whether it as another street brawl or a brisk walk in the rain in winter) he found himself recalling the way Bucky’s voice had broken before he burst into tears that one Christmas night. For Bucky’s sake, he kept himself alive.
With less than a day left before Bucky shipped out, Steve found himself staring at the headlines in the newspaper.
“Boy, sure are a lot of folks getting killed over there. Kind of makes you think twice about signing up, huh?”
Steve looks at the man beside him. He’s young - younger than Steve - and fit to boot. There’s no doubt the army will take him. Steve looked back at the paper and for a moment contemplated the idea that in a few short weeks, Bucky could be among the nameless and faceless death toll. He shook his head. As his name was called, he mutters a negative response to the young recruit and stands as tall and straight as he can to present to the doctor assessing them. Maybe that will be enough to get him enlisted.
He’s rejected, of course. As the doctor points out, he’d be rejected on his asthma alone - let alone the pernicious anemia, let alone the scoliosis and scarlet fever and - and. The list went on and on. In the end, it didn’t matter to Steve why he was rejected. It all added up to one big fat “4F” separating him and Bucky. So Steve, being Steve, did the only thing he could think of.
He tried again.
And again. And again. He lied about his health and his identity each time, not wanting to get caught. He’s Steve from Ohio next time, then from Detroit, even from New Jersey, never mind that he’s as good as got “Brooklyn” carved into his bones. No matter how much Bucky scolded him, he refused to give in. He was going to enlist, or get caught. Those were the only two options left to him.
By the time Dr Erskine came alone, Steve was desperate. He would have agreed to anything if it got him closer to Europe. The training was brutal, but no more so than Steve had expected. And when, after all of that, Erskine proposed a way to make him fit? There was no way Steve could reject that. Not only would they let him near the front, Steve would finally be strong enough to protect Bucky. It was a gamble, they both knew. The procedure was experimental, and Erskine lowered his eyes and changed the topic when Steve asked about his odds. Bucky would never forgive him. That thought lingered in Steve’s mind when he walked into the lab, saw the set up before him. Spectators were kept well away from the procedural area (whether for his benefit or theirs, he couldn’t bring himself to ask). Steve himself, he soon found out, was to enter a huge metal device, like an iron lung. Like a coffin. The resemblance between the machine and a sarcophagus was hard to deny, but it wasn’t enough to stop Steve from climbing in. And if it was to be the end, he hoped Bucky would forgive him.
It wasn’t the end.
What came next was war, and the war was nothing but a series of almost-ends that blurred together into one never-ending nightmare. The Howling Commandos became Steve’s life. He kept them alive, and in return they kept him alive. It was just as well Bucky had the additional support now, because if keeping Steve alive in peacetime New York had been a full-time job, then keeping him safe on the front required the whole damn army. Without the serum, Seve wouldn't have lasted five minutes. He was always too quick to sacrifice himself, too concerned about others to hold himself back.
Summer at war bled into autumn. It took a bullet passing clean between Steve’s ribs and out the other side for him to learn caution. Just as before, it wasn’t for his sake he learnt - but Bucky had never turned that particular shade of greenish-grey he turned when he saw the blood seeping through the flag on Steve’s uniform. Steve continued to get hurt - it was war, after all - but he became a little more cautious after that.
“You’ve gotta survive,” Bucky would tell him every time he was hurt. “Who else is gonna put up with me when we get home? Besides, you promised you’d show me all the places they took you on tour.”
“Whatever you say, Buck,” Steve agreed, expression openly adoring. “I’ll take you everywhere.”
Then, to distract them both, he’d share stories of places he’d seen and things he’d done. They’d talk and laugh until Steve had healed enough to rest, and then they would drift off to sleep side by side. The commandos were never far away, and never said a word about their closeness. Cap and the sarge were like brothers, they’d say - and if it was something different, well, so long as Cap kept bringing them back in one piece, they didn’t have any reason to complain. And Steve did bring them back, time and time again.
Until Bucky fell.
It took all of Steve’s will to hold tight to the frozen bar on the train in the mountains after Bucky fell. Grief raged inside him, howling, savage. It wanted him to let go. He wanted to let go. But he held on, tight, stubborn, because Steve would not let Bucky’s sacrifice be in vain. He dragged himself back to the camp, dispirited and broken. He found a bar. He drank the bar. It didn’t help, of course - even straight vodka wasn’t enough to get him drunk anymore. Instead he remained sober and endured. Endured is the strongest word he could use to describe it, because he certainly couldn’t say survived. The hurricane of anger and grief still tore at the insides of his chest. It was too much. When it was not a sharp whirlwind tearing him and his world apart, it was a deep heaviness in his chest. Dimly he recognized it as the depression that plagued him on and off through his life, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with. It slunk with him from hour to hour, wearing him down. He grew tired. Bucky falling was the beginning of the end. Steve knew this. Bucky would have known, if he had been somehow able to warn people. But he couldn’t. Bucky was gone, and it was inevitable that as soon as the chance arose, Steve followed him.
As he turned the nose of the plane towards the ice, Steve felt a spike of fear. Of all the ways he could have died, this was more violent than he had hoped. Still, it wasn’t all bad. He had Peggy on the line with him, he was saving lives, and he would finally be able to rest.
Contrary to Steve’s plans, the impact didn’t kill him. After a moment of disorientation, he found himself coughing and spluttering as he pushed himself up on his elbows. His hands dug into shards of ice and glass, cutting deeply. He could barely see for the thick black smog filling the cabin, but he could hear water trickling into the cabin. This wasn’t what he had planned. Steve lunged forward, planning on pulling his way out or perhaps reaching the radio, but for all his strength he didn’t budge an inch. Confused, he looked down, and - oh. That would do it. His leg was crushed under the heavy machinery of the central controls. A chill ran down his spine as he realised he couldn’t even feel it. He tried to move the limb, with no success. The water trickling into the cabin was a steady stream now, leaving him damp and cold. It would be a matter of minutes before Steve was submerged, if he didn’t choke on the gas first.
Well. Steve had spent most of his life flirting with death. This was where it would finally get him - not in a sickbed, not in a back alley in Brooklyn, but here: alone, in the ice, with nowhere to turn. He lay down. Here, finally, he could stop fighting. The darkness pulling at the edge of his mind felt more like a memory than a threat. He welcomed it with open arms and closed his eyes.