Chapter Four - The Infection
The sun cut through the portal window bright as the spotlights posted at military checkpoints all over the city, designed to disorient. To instill a childlike smallness in the passerby's and the fear that something awful lurked in the inky blackness beyond. Bucky lifted his hands to his face, blocking the light, trying to bat away the confusion. Where was he? Dusty rafters overhead, frayed velvet beneath his palm; he was in the attic. He had slept through the night. Merde. Bucky surged upright and Steve's arm slipped from atop his shoulder.
It had been another brutally cold night, Bucky remembered now. So cold he didn't dare attempt to climb down the icy fire escape to his room. And if he was being honest with himself—which he outright refused to be—he didn't want to leave Steve's side. The American had seemed to be recovering well the first few days, but as the temperature dropped and a whiteout blizzard rolled in from the north his energy waned. Bucky was lucky to get a solid hour with him an evening. Most times he was dozing in and out, light of breath.
The American was still asleep so Bucky took the time to appraise him. His jawline beaded with sweat, his typically soft and plump lips drained of color and cracked with dehydration. Bucky wished he didn't know Steve's body so well, to know such minor details as the natural pigmentation of his lips and the cowlick that grew in the opposite direction of his hair at the base of his neck, right side. He tried to convince himself it was useful. His analyzation revealed some key details about Steve's health. And today the final conclusion wasn't coming up well.
Once downstairs Bucky began to make preparations in his head for a hearty dinner stew for Bucky's fever, but there were so few options. The first winter of the occupation had been terrible food wise and now with the rations even stricter and imports all but nonexistent, there was little to be had for anyone. It was only when Rumlow brought home some of his own rations that they managed to eat well enough to not go to bed hungry. And now with feeding a secret fourth mouth, even after already trying to provide what he could to Wanda's struggling family, added an extra strain to dinner making. He was barely treading water in a quickly rising flood.
The windows outside the apartment looked like a white curtain had been pulled shut across them, the outside world a static view of depthless white. There would be no rations to find today in this weather, he'd have to make do with what was left in the pantry. Thankfully Rumlow was already gone for the day when Bucky emerged from his room. It made sense for him to go to work, even on a day like today, but Bucky couldn't seem to understand what Peggy was getting ready for. There would be no school in such a blizzard.
"Classes are surely canceled today, have you looked outside?"
Bucky appraised Peggy from the doorway to her room where she fastidiously laced up her knee-high boots. He wondered when she became so self-assured. Something had changed in her, a fire had been lit, and it propelled her down a path with purpose. It struck a chord of panic in his heart. Where would they end up, these paths they'd chosen?
"It is, I'm going to Marceline's to study and help with household chores," Peggy pulled on the large seal-lined jacket of Maman's, giving off a startling resemblance to their mother, but it was the twitch of her nose that gave Bucky pause. It was her tell. She wasn't being truthful. "Her maman has come down with pneumonia in this terrible weather so they need help."
"Oh, well just be careful." He could not dispute what sounded reasonably true.
She brushed past Bucky into the hall and plucked her gloves from the counter. Bucky pushed aside any reasons she might be lying, he had more pressing matters residing just above their heads. She bid him a wave farewell and headed out the door.
A few hours later, while the broth simmered around the old chicken bones, there was a knock on the door. The ladle dropped from his hand into the pot and he jumped back to avoid the splash of boiling water, eyes latched on the door. Three more persistent raps rattled the door.
A quick survey of the apartment affirmed there was nothing incriminating in the open. Bucky wiped his hands against the apron before pulling the door open on Natasha Romanov, hand poised for another hammer on the door.
"Mademoiselle Romanov, tout va bien?" Bucky opened the door fully, but took a wide stance to block her entry, surveying the hall behind her suspiciously.
"Yes, everything is fine. Besides the unrelenting cold, hunger, and general malaise."
A laugh escaped Bucky's lips despite his unease. Her sharp delivery might distract most from the sarcasm embedded in her words, but Bucky could at least appreciate her wry humor. In return Natasha gave him the quirk of a smile.
"Is there something I can help you with? I'm in the midst of cooking…" He trailed off with a wave over his shoulder towards the kitchen.
Natasha leaned in, eyes raking over the apartment, and it made Bucky feel exposed. He shifted his balance from foot to foot.
"Non. Actually I just wanted to drop by and check on you and your sister. Make sure you two were doing well. She informed me of your loss. I—I am sad to hear of it."
"Merci beaucoup, it has been hardest for Peggy, but we are managing." He did not wish to talk of Papa with her.
This was the second time this week she had dropped by unannounced with the intention of "checking in" on them. If she had been friends with his Papa before the war maybe he would have bought it, but not now. Not with everything going on.
"If you ever need anything…"
"It's most generous of you to offer your assistance, but we are doing just fine." Bucky moved his hand to the doorknob, ready to end this conversation.
"Le capitaine is not here?"
The color drained from Bucky's face. Was she a nazi spy? Rumors were rampant that they had infiltrated every layer of society. Before he let his fears run rampant he remembered, she meant the German not the American. Still his suspicions lingered. Why was she so interested in them?
"Non, thankfully. But one never knows when he might return." There was a warning hidden in his words and Natasha didn't miss it.
"I see, and what of your sister?"
"Gone too, off to study or something. I don't think she wanted to tell me the truth."
Natasha seemed perturbed and their eyes locked. Something swarmed behind her dark brown eyes. A whole world apart from Bucky's and fastidiously kept that way.
"Hm, well I wont intrude any longer, but if you ever—" She bit off the rest of her words when a thump rumbled from the ceiling and the striped chandelier swayed.
This time Bucky's heart dropped into his stomach and triggered a spike of fear. Steve. Both their eyes swept the ceiling before Bucky gave Natasha an abashed smile and shrug, "Old building."
"Indeed…" Natasha's eyes lingered a beat too long on the ceiling.
"Well I must attend to the stew, if you'll excuse me."
The door clicked shut on Natasha before she could respond and Bucky fell against it, breath expelled in a gush out his nostrils. If she was really a nazi spy Bucky was going to have tread even more carefully. Trust was in short supply nowadays.
"Merde, Steve!" Bucky cussed; something was wrong.
He scrambled to open the window in his bedroom, fingers slipping against the icy latch before they caught the grip. He lumbered out into the blizzard, breath instantly frosted on the air, icy crystals catching in his throat and making him cough. He slipped twice on the frozen steps before throwing his body through the attic port-hole. The air inside wasn't much warmer, but somehow still managed to smell like the interior of those old bathhouses for men, musky and sour.
Steve was in a huddled mass of pillows and blankets on the floor by the couch. A beam of light shot down from the skylight above like a spotlight on Steve's crumpled form. Bucky sprang forward to help him up, throwing an arm around his shoulder and lifting him back onto the couch haphazardly. Steve was mumbling incoherencies and shivering like the sails of a boat in a thunderstorm.
"Steve? Steve can you hear me?" Bucky gave him a light shake on the shoulders as he readjusted him upright on the couch. But Steve gave no indication he heard Bucky, his head lolling from side-to-side as he mumbled out words Bucky could only assume had to do with piloting.
"Mayday, mayday, CAG is hit…"
"Steve, I need you to focus, look at me," Bucky grasped Steve's face in both hands and held it still, willing him to look Bucky in the eyes.
"Cherubs five, Cherubs three, mayday!"
The soft ocean blue of Steve's eyes were glossy and unfocused and refused to settle on Bucky's. Suddenly he charged upright, shoving Bucky to the side.
"I need to get out of here!" Steve lunged forward, then—hobbled by his wounded leg—crashed to the floor again. Bucky's fear grew in leaps and bounds, someone might hear and Steve was not well.
"I can't—I can't do it again! Please, I can't go back to how it was…"
"Shhh, please…" Bucky rushed to his side, but held back at the last minute unsure of what he could do for the man when in such a state. He can't go back to what?
"Steve, we must be quiet."
"Noooo…" The words soon melded into a low growl.
He gave up trying to garner his attention and instead shifted his focus to Steve's left leg. Carefully he began rolling up the leg of Steve's pants, peeling back the bandages. Bucky gasped. The wound was raw and foul. Red streaks spread outward from the mangled flesh and yellowish puss sat in the pockets of separated skin, secreting more clear liquid than blood. He knew next to nothing about medicine, but he knew with certainty this was an infection. A bad one and it was spreading. Steve needed medicine now or he was sure to die.
It didn't seem possible, but somehow it was colder once the sun set in early afternoon. The blizzard blasted through town on the backs of an angry wind, ravaging the city with its thick flurries of snow. It was hard to see beyond an arm's length ahead of oneself, yet Bucky trudged on. The cold was a spiteful ghoul, burrowing into his skin, pecking at his flesh through his myriad layers, excavating for his warmth and stealing what little he had left until his skin turned blue and numb. His eyes watered and nose ran, tears frozen on clumped eyelashes and nostrils clogged with icicles of snot. Keep moving, it was all he could do. Keep moving or risk hypothermia, there were no other options.
Curfew would hit in mere hours and Rumlow was sure to be home by then, but Bucky was certain if he waited until tomorrow it would be too late. The only positive was the blizzard provided Bucky a fare amount of cover. It would be near impossible for someone to see Bucky unless they walked right into him. And he needed the cover now more than any other moment as he worked his way through the silent streets of Paris towards the outskirts of town where Steve had described the site of his crash to be.
Bucky had remembered Steve mentioning how he had buried the supplies he was able to recover from the wreckage before the Gestapo arrived. He didn't know if there would be something of use there, but Bucky knew all pilots were given a medkit and so he whispered a little prayer under his breath—to a God who had long since abandoned him and he in return—for good fortune.
The crash site was easy enough to find, the bare bones of the plane still nose down in the earth, all it's useful bits stripped clean by scavengers. Bucky surveyed the open expanse of land between the cottages for any signs of life, but it was useless. The land was like the blank canvass of a painting not yet formed, the world wiped clean by the endless deluge of snow. And the wind; it was cruel and unfettered as it swept across the empty expanse of frigid land. He had to move quick.
Certain he was in the clear Bucky rushed into the field. His legs sank in the snow up to his knees and Bucky cursed. It would be impossible to find anything in this snow, let alone dig into the frozen earth. "I must try," Bucky wheezed to himself. A man's life counted on it. Bucky would not fail this test.
He withdrew the spade from his coat pocket and fell to his knees beneath the large chestnut tree where the supplies were to be buried. He had to hurry as images of Steve's listless eyes haunted his mind like a ticking clock counting down till the moment they closed forever.
This was a good man and Bucky would save him. He renewed his vigor and began to dig. First just snow, an endless pit of snow it seemed. Then finally earth. It was hard as metal and seemed to resist all attacks he levied against it with his small spade.
Bucky didn't know how long it took, but it felt like hours of endless stabbing with the shovel before the frozen earth fractured enough for him to dig beneath the soil. His fingers were numb and had long lost their dexterity. Blisters had formed and burst, coating the spade's handle in icy blood. The skin of his face was alive with pinpricks of fire, his very joints icing over liked rusted pieces of old machinery. Still he dug. Slowly, painstakingly so, a hole began to emerge as Bucky forced down on the shovel with all his weight and thrust the compact earth up. On what felt like the hundredth strike the shovel chimed like a bell against something metal. A box!
With both hands Bucky plucked the icy metal from the hole and snapped the lid open. Inside were the few supplies Steve had managed to salvage, but couldn't carry with him. A flare gun, a leather canteen burst at the seems with frozen water and a burlap sack. Bucky's breath hitched at the red cross emblazoned on it. A medkit! Inside there was burn jelly and ointments, elastic adhesive and dressings, safety pins, and ampoules of clear liquid with syringes. One was marked morphine, the other penicillin.
Bucky stuffed it all back in the metal case and stood, holding it against his chest under his coat. He was running now, adrenaline spiked through his body like a rush of intoxication after a shot of absinthe. It warmed him from the inside out as he raced back into the heart of Paris. Another prayer slipped from his lips, this time for Steve, to just hold on a little bit longer.
The little cottages and farmhouses quickly gave way to row houses and tightly packed buildings of wildly varying architecture as Bucky progressed deeper into the city, pushing his body. He knew where the military checkpoints were by heart now and which alleys to take to avoid them. RAT-TAT-TAT. The quick-fire burst of a machine gun echoed through the city, carried by the howling wind. It could have been one block over or ten. Bucky couldn't stop, he couldn't pause to catch his breath. He didn't have the time. It was quickly encroaching curfew, that he knew, so he pushed his legs harder.
The wind's howling only grew and Bucky worried, hidden under its icy breath, other screams might be carried along with it like the gun fire. Then he heard a real screech, close this time. Skidding on the icy steps outside his apartment building, Bucky harnessed the momentum to propel him upwards and in, slamming against the giant oak door and throwing it open. He exploded into the lobby and would have kept running, momentum carrying him all the way to his fifth floor walk up, had his passage not been blocked at the mouth of the stairwell by the piercing stare of Brock Rumlow.
"Hauptstrumfüror," Bucky halted, legs locked together and back ramrod straight. He tried reigning in his breath, but it continued to wheeze out of him in large sputters of air. Slowly the warmth began to filter back into his body and he realized just how icy the calculating stare of Rumlow's was. He had his trusty leather notebook out, in which he had been jotting down notes. Arnie Roth stood off just behind him with a pained expression on his normally vibrant face.
"Bucky, should I be worried? It is nearly 7."
Bucky bowed his head subserviently, knowing it was what Rumlow demanded, but it brought his blood to boil chasing off the last of the cold from his body. Yet part of him couldn't help feeling triumphant, he had made it back before curfew and dinner had already been prepped long ago. He glanced between the two men and at the notebook again, which Rumlow snapped shut between his thumb and long fingers, nails chewed up stubs.
"Dinner is ready whenever you would like to eat, sir."
Rumlow didn't seem to like this. A hand launched outwards to grab Bucky's bicep in a searing grip and shoved him up the stairs, "Then go serve it and leave us—"
Bucky felt it slip from under his armpit as soon as Rumlow yanked his arm and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The terror ricocheted inside him like the fragment of a bullet as the metal box fell out of his coat and to the tiled floor with a loud clang that reverberated across the silent lobby.
Everyone seized up. Bucky's eyes bulged as he looked from Rumlow, furiously observing the foreign object, to Arnie and the sympathetic smear of fear across his powdered face. Immediately Bucky reached for the necessary lifesaving supplies when a black booted foot trapped his hand against the metal case.
"What do you have there, my boy?" Rumlow increased the pressure on Bucky's hand and he whimpered. His bones so brittle from the cold he feared they might crack as easy as dry tinder.
"It's—It's—" Bucky stammered, unable to formulate a response that could possibly explain this away before Rumlow demanded to look inside it.
"You found it!" Arnie exclaimed, lunging forward to scoop up the box from beneath Bucky's hand and Rumlow's boot. He quickly held the case to his chest like it were a precious gift.
Rumlow's thick brows threaded together in one angry gash over his predatory eyes.
"Found what?" The demand made it very clear if he did not like the answer there would be trouble. Bucky couldn't breath, his hand still trapped beneath Rumlow's heel.
"My most précieux of artistic supplies, ma chérie!"
Arnie seemed to pump up the volume of his flamboyance drastically now. Voice rising an octave, left arm waving about wildly as he cradled the case to his chest in the other.
"This, Monsieur, contains my Maman's old paintbrushes. I had sold them off for money some time ago when things got desperate. They're made with the finest ivory, quite magnifique! Oh, sir, would you please," Arnie indicated towards my still trapped hand and Rumlow's eyes winded in shock at the brazen request, but grudgingly removed his foot so Bucky could stand upright.
"It is my fault he comes back so late, I had heard word of them showing up at a market the other week and begged him to scour stalls for me, he must have braved the storm all for these, I'm just overcome by the gesture!"
Arnie swung forward dramatically and Rumlow jerked back, almost colliding with the wall behind him, as Arnie pinched Bucky's cheeks in gratitude. If Bucky didn't know any better he'd say Rumlow was scared of Arnie, but why he could not fathom. The man was as effeminate as they came, not a threat at all to this officer and his gun.
"Well…" Rumlow surveyed Arnie with a distrustful eye, but kept his distance.
"Would you like to inspect, Monsieur?" Arne held out the metal case in his hand, fingernails glittering with a fresh coat of polish. Rumlow's eyes honed in on the polish and he shoved Arnie, hard, away from him.
"Keep your distance, filthy man. I'm done questioning you for now, please remove yourself filth from my presence."
Arnie collected himself and hurried up the steps without another word, free hand tenderly rubbing the spot on his chest where Rumlow had jabbed. Bucky stood stalk still, unsure what he should do and hoping to make it out as unscathed as Arnie.
"There was a scene for those types of men back in Berlin," Rumlow started, voice oily with subsiding rage. "Do you know what became of them?"
Bucky hesitantly glanced at Rumlow before bowing his head submissively again. He didn't know, but he could guess.
"Let's just say the area has been cleansed. They no longer prancing about in women's dresses and throw their debauched parties. They're an infection and you would be well-advised to keep your distance, the time will come for them here too if we're lucky."
A shiver ran down Bucky's spine.
"I will not be home tonight, do not touch dinner and go hungry as punishment for your insubordination. I will know if any is eaten, is that understood?"
Arnie had been waiting in the shadows of the stairwell for Bucky, handing off the medical supplies without comment. Bucky had wanted to shower him in words of gratitude, to tell him how clever he was and that Bucky did not think him an infection. Instead he settled for a soft merci as Arnie gave a subdued smile and quickly shuffled off to his apartment, the flamboyance startlingly absent now.
Bucky was extremely thankful he had managed to get Steve to down some soup before he had left on his mission. Otherwise he too would have gone hungry tonight like the Barnes' siblings. Peggy hadn't understood what happened to warrant such punishment—her endless hunger a constant battle to begin with—and Bucky hadn't done a good job of explaining, but what was there he could say? I'm sorry you're going hungry tonight ma sœur, but I've got an American pilot in the attic and he is sick so I had to smuggle meds from his downed plane into the house before he died and the stench of his rotting corpse alerted Rumlow. Have some tea.
Non, she was safer in the dark. And now all Bucky could do was wait. He had injected the penicillin at the site of the wound on Steve as soon as he could sneak up to the attic. Steve had remained unresponsive to Bucky all night and he prayed he wasn't too late. It wasn't until dawn's light that Bucky noticed Steve's fever had broken; his labored breaths returned to normal.
"Mon dieu," Bucky grabbed Steve's hand and kissed it, lips tingling against his will at the feel of Steve's tendons just beneath the skin, which flexed in response. Bucky pulled back in surprise, "You're awake."
It was both a statement and a question. One which Steve answered with the attempt at a smile on his haggard face. It quivered on his cheeks, unsteady but alive. The blizzard was lifting and with it the darkness that had settled over Bucky's heart. Steve was going to survive.