It’s January and Steve is sick, real sick. That’s nothing new – it never has been - but this is one of those times where Bucky knows it’s worse than normal. He’s fevered, and one breath too quickly brings on an asthma attack that leaves his tiny body wracked with shudders and causes him to curl in on himself. There are the symptoms; the ones that Bucky doesn’t want to admit out loud because it would mean that word again – that word that scares him to death because it represents the very real threat of that very same outcome for Steve. He tells himself it isn’t that - it isn’t pneumonia - and Steve will get better. Because Steve always gets better, and for all his fragility and illnesses in the world, he has always found a way to pull through.
The last time it was that bad, their priest had actually come by the orphanage and read his best friend his last rites. That had pissed Bucky off – it was as if this guy had been there to look Steve in the eye and tell him, “I don’t think you’re strong enough to shake it.” Bucky remembers sitting by Steve’s bed and holding his hand and he’d been terrified, so terrified, but that was a secret he liked to think he hid well from Steve.
So as Steve had lied there and asked the priest if he was going to die, Bucky had answered before the Father had the chance, and snapped that the blond was being stupid; he wasn’t allowed to because he still owed Bucky a dollar from several years prior. Fuck what the priest had to say – there was no way that Steve was going to die on his watch.
The Nuns admonished Bucky for being insensitive. But Steve had just smiled at him, weak and pale and please God, if you’re up there, you’re not allowed to take him. Not him.
In so many ways, Steve understood Bucky Barnes like no one else did.
So he keeps telling himself now that Steve’s going to get better. In the meantime, Bucky ensures that their cots are pushed together in their tiny bedroom, and Steve has long since stopped complaining about having to strip off his clothing every night before bed so that Bucky can wrap him up in his arms and let their skin-on-skin contact preserve as much body heat as they can. After everything they’ve been through, there’s nothing uncomfortable about it anymore. They’re practically brothers, always have been.
And that’s exactly why Bucky has to do everything in his power to keep Steve safe.
He’s never had to ask himself, ‘What would I do for Steve Rogers?’ The answer has always been crystal clear; since the day he saw a Steve who was much younger and impossibly smaller and no doubt weaker (but somehow, still just as gutsy and stubborn) than he is now… Who was getting hit, and hit, and hit, and the stupid kid just wouldn’t stay down. No, he’d have to get the last word – and of course, that’d only ever lead to another punch. Bucky was James back then, and James didn’t know why he felt compelled to go help him. He thinks it has to do with the fact that he, too, has never liked bullies – but he also isn’t afraid to admit (to himself) that there was just something about Steve that naturally drew the brunet to him.
The first time he stepped in and saved his hide, they’d started a series of actions they’d both repeated ever since, and Bucky has no doubt that they will continue to repeat them until they both have earned their laughter lines. So no, sorry punk, Steve isn’t allowed to get pneumonia again. Bucky doesn’t think he can handle it.
But then Steve’s inhaler starts running low. And that cough is getting worse and the sound of his lungs rattling with every breath is actually keeping Bucky up at night. And that means they’ll have to get medication, because if it is the beginnings of that word Bucky refuses to think of, then their best shot is to nip it in the bud before it gets worse. Bucky will have to save up some money from his work on the docks; money that Bucky doesn’t have, but he’ll find a way – he will – because he has to do everything in his power to keep Steve safe.
But then Bucky loses his job. It isn’t Bucky’s fault, nor is it the fault of the other fourteen people who showed up only to be sent back home within the first half hour. “Times are tough,” they’re told. “Money’s tight and we can’t afford to pay everyone.”
So the people less important have to go and Bucky has only been working there for two months. He doesn’t even need to be told that his name is on that list; Eddie Raymer is stomping off, muttering curses and something about the whole thing being bullshit, and he’s been there twice as long as Bucky has.
So Bucky just turns around and leaves as quickly as he’d arrived.
When he gets back to the apartment, Steve’s still lying in bed with that poor excuse of a blanket pulled up to his chin. He isn’t sleeping, though, and pops open his eyes with surprise when Bucky trudges into the bedroom and dumps his lunchbox on the floor, kicking off his boots. The younger man is too focused on the fact that Bucky is here and not there,that he momentarily forgets to snap at Bucky to pick his crap up. Damnit, it’s all Steve can do most of the time to just keep their place clean – no matter how much of a dive it continues to be despite his best efforts.
He hates feeling useless, especially when Bucky often has to try extra hard to pick up his slack. Steve Rogers doesn’t like to be in debt to anybody, let alone Bucky Barnes.
“So this isn’t the docks,” Steve finally says, sitting up (and coughing – shit, it sounds worse than yesterday, how is that even possible?). He raises an eyebrow at Bucky as the older of the two pulls off his work pants and fishes through the dresser – far too big for the amount of clothes they actually have – for his one good pair of dress slacks. Losing his job means he has to now hit the pavement to go looking for another, and Bucky’s always hated this part.
“Got fired,” he mutters, pulling them up his legs and retrieving his good belt.
“What’d you do?”
Bucky spares him an unimpressed look. “I didn’t do anything, asshole; I got laid off.”
Steve frowns, looking down and then back up at him. “Want me to come with you? Maybe I can find something. It’s been a few weeks, maybe –”
Bucky shakes his head, now tucking his undershirt into his pants. “Nah, Steve, the weather is garbage out there and with your asthma, you’d only slow me down. No offense, buddy. Besides, I heard of a couple places hirin’, so I’m goin’ straight for those.”
Both of them know what he really means; the unspoken, “You’re too sick to go out today, or any day until you get better, you hear? I want you to stay in bed and keep yourself warm until I get back home.” Bucky doesn’t need to clarify – Steve’s known him long enough.
And he hates feeling helpless, like he can’t contribute in any useful way. For as long as he and Bucky have been living together, Bucky’s had to work extra hard to compensate for what Steve just can’t contribute. Sometimes that means two jobs, sometimes it means three; sometimes, it’s extra long hours, or having to give Steve his portion of whatever food they can afford to have because he’s sick and actually needs the nourishment. How many times has Bucky gone to bed hungrier than how he’d started the day, because of Steve? And the worst part always is, even though he jokes about giving the blond a hard time, Bucky’s never upset about it. In fact, he sacrifices whatever he needs to for Steve without a single genuine complaint.
“I’ll find a job soon,” Steve promises, more to himself than anything.
Bucky’s finishing buttoning up his dress shirt, and he nods. They’ve danced to this tune before, no matter how many times the song replays. And as always, he replies, “I know you will, pal,” before turning to Steve and gesturing to himself. “How do I look?”
The shirt’s wrinkled and desperately needs to be ironed, but Hell if they own one of those. All he’ll need to do is throw on the jacket and tie and it’ll be fine. And the pants are a tad too short around Bucky’s ankles, but you have to really be looking at them to notice. In reality, the suit reflects their financial situation, but Bucky’s handsome and his charisma shines through more than anything else, so he manages to pull it off.
As always, Steve replies, “You look like a shmuck.” He smiles weakly. “Knock ‘em dead, Barnes.”
Bucky grabs the matching jacket and black tie and then spins around to give Steve the finger as he back steps out of the room. He grins just before turning the corner and waves. “Always do,” he retorts, finishing the assembly before slipping on a scuffed- up pair of black dress shoes. They could use a shining; unfortunately, they’ll have to do.
“Get some rest,” he calls out, like he always does, before walking out of the apartment and letting the door shut behind him.
He told Steve that he had heard of a few places hiring. He was lying. It’s a thing he does sometimes to make Steve feel better. He’s not proud of it.
Of course we’ll have food for tomorrow, Stevie, don’t be stupid.
If you’re inhaler runs out, we’ll just get it filled up. Now stop freakin’ out and calm down before you give me asthma.
It’s just a cold, buddy; nothing to worry about.
It’s pointless thinking about enlisting, Steve, because the war will never come over here.
As he walks down the streets of Brooklyn, résumé in hand and trying not to think of the biting cold in the air, this is one of those times where Bucky wonders if Steve knows when he’s lying. If maybe it’s a brave face that they both put on for each other, to make things feel a little easier. Because neither of them are the type to give in, nor even admit when they’re thinking of giving up. Stubborn, many (all) would say. It’s one of the reasons they get along so well, and bicker so frequently.
He spends eight hours walking the streets. He is able to see three managers. He leaves all three with nothing. Not even the promise of something. By the time the sky is getting orange, his feet are aching and he can feel a blister on the back of his right heel. He knows he has to head back when he can feel a dry scratch in the back of his throat. The one rule he has with himself is that, no matter what, he isn’t allowed to get sick. Even the slightest head cold could be the thing that did Steve in, and he’d just never be able to forgive himself.
He has a little bit of money on him, no more than fifteen cents or so, but he uses it to pick up some oatmeal, milk, and brown sugar. It’s not gourmet, but the brown sugar is a treat. He hopes Steve’s eyes will light up a little when they sit down to eat. His eyes have been looking a little too dim lately.
“How did it go?” Steve asks when Bucky’s finally back. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with the blanket from their cots wrapped around him, pencil in hand and half a sketch in the works on the tabletop. Bucky hasn’t even taken his shoes off yet.
It was shit. I can’t provide for us. That’s not okay, Stevie, it’s just not. I’ll go back out tomorrow and keep looking.
“Went fine,” Bucky answers, keeping his tone level and nonchalant. He should just stop there but of course he doesn’t. “Got another interview with one of the managers tomorrow.” He doesn’t know why he said that.
There’s a small pause, and he can’t see Steve so he isn’t sure what his face looks like right now. But the scratch of the pencil’s stopped, and that means Steve’s thinking, which is never a good sign when Bucky’s fibbing through his teeth.
“That’s real good, Buck. I’m sure you’ll get it.”
Bucky wonders again if this is one of those times.
Steve’s eyes do light up, when his bowl of oatmeal is put down in front of him and he sees the clumps of the beautiful brown sugar dusting the mush. He had thought Bucky had splurged when he revealed that they were getting milk with dinner; so, of course, the first thing Steve does is scold Bucky for spending money they don’t have on something they don’t need. But that doesn’t stop him from digging in and Bucky can see the moment when the blond’s taste buds are hit with the sweet flavour, and even with the “yeah yeah, punk, just shut up, stop riding my hide, and eat your oatmeal”, seeing Steve warm and content and not coughing so bad makes him feel a little bit better.
They clean up their dishes afterwards (using nothing but cold water, since they ran out of dish soap last month and the bottles have gone up ten whole cents since then and Bucky swears that’s theft) and then wile away the evening in the living room. Steve’s wrapped up in the blanket on the tiny couch as he continues his sketch. Bucky sits on the floor, leaning against the front of the couch, halfway through a second-hand (perhaps third or fourth) copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It’s the sixteenth time he’s reading it since he “borrowed” it from the public library back in ’35. He’d given it to Steve for his seventeenth birthday, because it looked intelligent and, well, Steve’s plenty of that. He’d asked Steve what it was about while the younger boy’s nose was buried in the pages, but all the latter would say was that if Bucky wanted to find out, he could read it when he was finished. And eventually, he did. Then he read it again. And again. And again. Gradually, there was an unspoken agreement that the book just sort of became Bucky’s rather than Steve’s.
He flips to the next page and can hear the tip of Steve’s pencil gliding away, and he realizes his eyes just glazed over the last page without taking anything in. He wonders how long it’ll take him to find another job. He wonders how long he can keep up the charade that everything is fine in front of Steve. He thinks about the amount of food they have and knows they’ll be out within a few days – maybe a week if they can really stretch it.
He doesn’t even want to think about the bills, or the rent, or where they’ll go if they lose the roof over their heads.
And then Steve coughs. It’s wet and deep and lasts far longer than it should, and it’s enough to startle Bucky from his thoughts and make him jump. The air is chilled and the sound of harsh winds and a snowstorm outside the window has Bucky wondering how he didn’t realize it sooner. With a sinking heart, he realizes it was wishful thinking to believe that Steve would get better before he got worse. It rarely ever happened that way.
He turns his head and opens his mouth to ask if he needs anything, and Steve waves him away – which is impressive considering that his eyes are closed. Instinct. Or maybe habit. They just know each other too well. Steve’s fisting his shirt in the middle of his chest and his face is all red against skin otherwise far too pale. It makes Bucky’s own chest tighten; he always feels so helpless watching Steve fight through these.
Eventually, the coughing calms down, though his lungs still rattle in his tiny chest when he breathes. “I’m fine,” Steve insists, keeping his eyes downward on his drawing. Loosening his grip on the pencil, the scratching starts back up again, as if he’d never been interrupted. But there’s a high-pitch whistling sound with every inhale that Steve hopes Bucky will ignore.
He doesn’t comment on it, but Bucky doesn’t ignore it either. Frowning, grey eyes drop back down to the words on the page.
“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”
Bucky wonders if Dorian is talking about Steve.
“You should go out, Buck,” Steve tells him almost a week later.
Six days of Bucky doing nothing but trying – and failing – to find employment; of spending the evenings stuck in the apartment because Steve’s been too sick to go out and the weather’s been too bad that Bucky knows he should stay in. Six nights of being huddled together in their cots with Steve shivering in Bucky’s arms - a bony back spasming against a hard, healthy chest as the blond hacks up phlegm and last night, blood.
Steve had tried to hide it and Bucky had tried not to act too concerned. It’s a weird thing they do with each other, much like the lying. The fear is there, in both of their eyes, and so they water it down to save face. Steve had wiped the light spray of red onto the blanket and muttered without prompt that he was fine. Bucky had just nodded and pulled him closer, doing the only thing to help that he knew how, and promised for the millionth time that they’d get Steve the medicine he needed; he’d get better soon.
Bucky hadn’t slept much that night.
He’s sitting by the window, cracked open a bit to accommodate his habit (for the first time in weeks, the weather is cool rather than cold, and the sky is clear). He exhales the smoke from his lips, trying to aim as much of it as he can out of the apartment. He’d found the smoke in near perfect condition on the sidewalk that afternoon, and it’d driven him crazy having to hold off as long as he could before enjoying it. Cigarettes have been another luxury he’s having a difficult time affording these days.
“And leave you to kick the bucket while I’m gone? Not gonna happen.”
Steve grimaces and lowers his sketchpad, knobby knees tucked up tight to his body. “I feel fine tonight. You’ve heard me, I’ve hardly been coughing. Seriously, Buck, it’s swell of you to have been watching over my like you’re my personal nurse, but I can handle a night by myself and you should really go out. You’ve earned it.”
(Steve thinks he got hired on that second day. It’s the only way Bucky could justify being out all day, every day since.)
Bucky just shakes his head and takes another long drag. “I don’t even have the money to drink.”
“So? Just go out dancin’. You could meet a pretty dame. You know you will. It’ll take your mind off things for a bit.”
Things. Like the fact that they didn’t know what they were going to eat tomorrow, and tonight, Steve may in fact be doing a little better, but those symptoms have been adding up and Bucky’s pretty sure at this point that it is shaping up to be pneumonia… Unless Steve gets the proper medication. Which they don’t have yet. For the same reason that they’re avoiding the discussion about rent being due in four days and neither of them having the dough to cover it.
They’re in dire straits and Steve wants Bucky to go out dancing?
But Steve has a way of talking Bucky into these things – that is, doing something because they think it’ll make the other happy – and within the hour, he finds himself at his favourite joint and trying not to be too preoccupied with wondering if his best friend is okay.
He scopes out the crowd and can’t help but smile a little bit. The music is good and there are a lot of pretty little dolls, and Steve was right – Bucky could just dance and he’d feel loads better for the time being. It was always something of a release for him.
Except Steve is wrong. And if Bucky would’ve known how bad of a decision it would prove to be by the end of the night, he would've rather burned this place to the ground than step one foot inside of it.