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the air i would kill to breathe

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CHAPTER ONE: HOLDING ON

“Take care of it, will you?” Tony flashed a grin at Natasha, patting the walls of the compound. He grabbed a sleek suitcase, slipping his glasses on. 

“Fri, make sure Red over here doesn’t mess the place up.” Tony uttered towards the ceiling, earning a jab in the ribs by a certain redhead. “Ow.

As they shared a brief hug, Tony pulled back to look at her in the eyes. “Take care of yourself, Natasha. I’m being serious.” He knew how self-care was never a word in her vocabulary; it wasn’t in his, too, but deep down, Tony felt slightly worried for her. He’d seen how she rarely emerged from her room ever since they returned from their trip to Thanos months ago, how he’d watch as she laid on her bed, eyes unseeing and a slight tremor in her hands. 

Tony shot a questioning look at Steve, who was standing at the doorway. Steve nodded his head in assurance, whispering in his direction, “We’ll do our best.”

As Steve and Natasha stood side by side, their arms barely brushing against each other, they watched Tony pull out of the driveway and ride off into the sunset stretching across the horizon. Even after Tony’s car had long been gone, they stood for a while in silence, listening for each other’s quiet breathing. 

“How about you?” Natasha spoke up, her eyes never leaving the fiery, red sun hanging low in the sky, almost disappearing behind the seams of the world. Steve didn’t need to question further to know what she was referring to; years of being partners on the field had conditioned them to understand each other easily. 

“Nat…” he trailed off, tilting his head to look at her, but she was still looking straight ahead. Steve knew that this conversation would have happened sooner or later. 

Ever since the rest of the team left, it had only been Steve and Natasha remaining in the facility, which gave him a lot of time to think about why he would choose to stay. With months of pain and frustration pent up in him, survivor’s guilt clawing at his insides, and the constant dull ache in his bones, staying in the compound wasn’t doing him any good at all. In fact, it was only intensifying the pain— hallways of empty rooms belonging to his teammates greeting him every morning, reminding him of the sheer amount of loss they’d experienced. 

But as he gazed at Natasha and noticed how exhaustion painted itself on her face, how weary she looked, he couldn’t imagine leaving her alone to deal with the aftermath. 

“I’ll stay.” He straightened up himself, placing a hand firmly on her shoulder. “We’ll make this work.” 

Natasha flashed him a smile, but he could tell it never seemed to reach the corners of her eyes at all.

— THREE MONTHS LATER —

“Just let me know if anything pops up again, okay?” Natasha mumbled, exhaustion evident in her voice. It had been almost three months since Thanos, and Natasha was barely gripping onto a thread while keeping her head afloat in a sea of utter chaos and damage control. Being the only active member of the team, she was tasked with handling most of the aftermath. A gruelling and draining job, she knows, but if no one else stepped up to do it, who would?

The sound of keys jingling from a distance prompted her to shut off the call immediately. She kept her eyes trained on a tablet on the desk, pretending to work on it when all she saw staring back at her was a black interface. As the sound of light footsteps stopped right outside her room, she could sense a burning gaze on her back. 

Then, there was a gradual dip in her mattress as she felt someone sit a couple of inches away from her, the aroma of Chinese takeout filling the space between them. “Hey,” the voice startled her on the inside, but not enough for it to make her physically flinch away from him. It had been a whole week since she’d last heard him, the only voice keeping her company every day belonging to a talking raccoon. Not that she was complaining though; Rocket’s voice was better than none at all. 

Steve’s gaze had been fixed on her ever since he’d stepped into the room and gently sat down on the mattress, mindful to keep a short distance between them. But even as their silent waiting game hit the minute mark, Natasha didn’t turn to face him, didn’t do so much as let the tablet slide down the side of her lap subconsciously. 

Steve knew she needed time. They all needed time, lots of it. The decimation had taken out quite a big portion of them— both physically and mentally. Besides having more than half of the rooms in the compound desolated, dust collecting on the window sills, they felt torn apart, physically. Her joints and muscles ached from the battle, and Natasha could tell Steve had taken the brunt of most of Thanos’ hits, seeing as how his vision swam every time he shifted slightly for the first two weeks. But now that they had all the time in the world, they were at a loss, feeling nothing but the weight of the world and the climbing death toll on their weakening shoulders. Too many hours were spent on making peanut butter sandwiches she’d never eat, filling in paperwork no one would ever review, making calls that never got picked up by their receivers.

A soft crackle under the sheets resounded after shifting closer to her, and he tilted his head to the side, raising an eyebrow. His right hand found a cool, metallic packet under the covers, and he pulled it out, studying it in the sunlight streaming through the windows. There were two packs, in fact, so he read the labels. 

Nyquil and Dextromethorphan. 

By now, Natasha had realised what Steve was doing, but he could tell that she was way too out of it to bother responding. “You okay?” He questioned in a hushed tone, concern laced between his words as he waved the packets in front of her. 

“Yeah,” she murmured, shoving the tablet away from her lap. As she leaned her head against the wall, she fixed her gaze on the wall instead of looking straight ahead at him. “Just a cold.” She finished off, digging the heels of her palms into her sunken eyes.

Just a cold’ might’ve been the biggest understatement she’d made that week, or month, even.

— FOUR MONTHS AGO 

“I’m so sorry,” he breathed out, well aware that she wasn’t in the mood to talk about anything, let alone their failure. The air in the Benatar was thick and heavy with dread, everything happening around them slowed and warbled. Occasional flashes of reds and blues against the slate of pitch-black darkness only reminded them of their failure— of her failure. She remembered how her breath had hitched when she kicked over the gauntlet to find it empty, devoid of the stones. She remembered how in that instant, all she could feel was the unbearable pressure mounting within her, the weight of reality crushing her like a boulder. Then, before she knew it, they were back on the Benatar, heading home empty-handed and glassy-eyed. 

As Natasha kept her feet on the seat, she felt her chest tighten even more with every passing second, her attempts at taking in another deep breath proving to be futile. Besides being beaten to a pulp by Thanos, she had also been fighting against the symptoms of a cold for the past few weeks or so, not that she’d bothered to tell anyone though. It unsettled her how she hadn’t had a cold ever since her superiors in Russia pumped cold, blue serums into her system.

“Can’t—” she whispered, her eyes welling up with tears threatening to leak. Her ashen face was a stark contrast to the darkness enveloping their jet. “I know, Nat. We’ll make it work, promise.” Steve shot her a sympathetic gaze, but he found it odd how Natasha never once turned around to face him, let alone move at all. 

“No—” As she managed to choke out, Steve placed a hand on her shoulder and spun her around gently, horrified by what he was greeted with. Natasha’s face was pale, too pale for anyone’s liking, and her fingers were wrapped around her thighs, nails digging painfully into the black kevlar. 

“Are you…” Before Steve could finish off his question, he was met with a string of coughs from Natasha, hacking continuously between her knees, ensued by a soft wheezing sound which sounded like her airways working against her struggle to inhale. 

She let out a soft groan once the coughing fit had ended, which prompted Steve to reach out and rub slow, comforting circles on the small of her back. Only when she’d opened her eyes did she realize that his hand was placed firmly on her back. 

“S’rry,” she whispered hoarsely, her lungs still burning from the fit. She knew that there was something very wrong, that she probably needed to get checked out by medical, but she the Black Widow, for crying out loud. She could handle a common cold, right?

“You probably need to get checked out by Med, Nat. That didn’t sound good at all.” Natasha tilted her head up to meet Steve’s worried gaze, always one for being overly concerned. 

“I’m fine.” Natasha sighed, digging the heels of her palm into her eyes. 

I’m fine. 

A sudden burst of coughs by Natasha broke him out of his thoughts, and he stared back down at the packets again, recalling what they were for. Flu meds and cough suppressants.

“You’ve been at that,” Steve pointed towards her, then the box of tissues on the side table, “for almost three months.” 

Three months. If she could handle three months, she could definitely let it stretch out, right? It was a common cold, she could fix it on her own; more water and rest, that’s what they’d always say. But it never occurred to Natasha how three months of incessant coughing and wheezing between breaths could mean something more than a simple, common cold. 

“I’ll be fine.” She declared, swinging her legs over Steve’s and making her way out of the room.

I’ll be fine.

They fell back into an uncomfortable silence again once Natasha sat down next to him on the couch wordlessly, a cup of cold, stale coffee in her grasp. It was nothing unusual, yet, Steve felt as if everything had changed since the decimation. He recalled when she’d lay her head on his shoulder after a side mission, sharing a dingy hotel room in Egypt or anywhere else in the world they had to be. But now, she kept her distance from him, her palm on the couch a few feet away from his lap. 

“Any updates on him?” Steve decided to break the silence in the air, but regretting his question as soon as he caught the small gasp escaping from her lips. She didn’t need to question further; they both knew who he was referring to. “Mexico,” she stated flatly, clearing her throat, “Rhodey called in.” Steve shook his head in disappointment as Natasha pulled up a screen. Killed: 91, Injured: 38.

It had been four months since Clint had dropped off the radar. No note or message for her, just a climbing death toll in his wake as he went from country to country, seeking revenge fruitlessly. The call rang on for minutes as she waited for Laura to pick up, but no one ever received it at the other end of the line. A trip to the Bartons' farmhouse confirmed her worst suspicions as she spotted an abandoned bow and quiver close to the oak tree, coupled with bowls of uneaten salad on the bench. They were gone, and so was he. A part of Natasha wanted to go after him, try to bring him back and pull him out from the deep end just like he’d done the same for her all those years ago— but something told her that doing so wouldn’t work, not this time. Not in a long while.

Natasha had subconsciously leaned closer towards him, their shoulders now almost grazing each other. She missed the comfort she found in him, but it seemed that she’d lost all feeling after the devastation, sitting beside him like an empty shell of what once was a snarky, witty spy. She could barely bring herself to take another bite out of the noodles sitting in her takeout box, twirling the fork mindlessly between her fingers.

“You know, I found a place in Brooklyn.” He started, palming his jeans as Natasha’s heart started to race. Found a place?

“It’s small, nothing fancy.” 

“Hm.” Natasha let out a low hum, anticipating what he’d say next with an uneasy feeling settling in the pit of her stomach. 

“I was wondering if you’d be okay with staying here—”

 “— Alone.” There, Natasha completed the sentence for him before he could make it to the end. Steve froze, his lips slightly parted in shock as he reeled from her reply. 

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” She looked straight ahead, drumming her fingers lightly against the side of the paper takeout box. If Steve had been looking at her from the front instead of the side, he would’ve seen the slight sheen of moisture glazing over her eyes. But he didn’t, continuing to watch Natasha with apprehension in his eyes and caution in his voice.

“No…” He was at a loss for words, finally heaving out a low sigh. “That’s not what I meant, Natasha.” 

But she knew he was lying. You’re a terrible liar, Rogers. Under different circumstances, she would be laughing at his naivety and his lack of expertise at deception. But she wasn’t laughing now, was she?

“I just,” he breathed out in defeat, “don’t know if I can do this any longer.” 

If not for her, Steve would’ve left the compound as soon as he could, escaping from the hellish place which brought back memories of nothing but their loss and failure. He swore he could catch his teammates’ voices floating through the hallways and emanating from their rooms. He could hear Thanos’ last words on an endless loop— from the deep recesses of his mind or from the record player in the corner of the room— he didn’t know. Every living day spent was a day filled with pure, unadulterated loss. Anger, frustration, sorrow, delirium, and grief; just a few of the many different emotions brewing within him. But he never told Natasha; he could see the effects of the decimation wearing on her as well, and he knew that he wasn’t alone in this. If anything, she was probably having it rougher than him. 

“I was thinking…”

No. Please don’t go, Steve. Don’t leave. 

“If I should leave.”  As much as he hated hearing the word ‘leave’ being said in front of Natasha, he knew he had to get it off his chest somehow.

“I’ve been talking about moving on in the support group, and I’ve seen how some of them come back the next session with a fresh smile on their faces or a piece of good news; signs of moving on, that’s progress.” He clasped his hands together, lowering his head to his knees.

“Staying here is just reminding me of everything, Natasha. Their voices, their little traits or quirks that’d normally be unnoticeable now seem so obvious, hell, even their faces. I see all of them every time I enter a room, every time I turn a corner, every time I open my eyes.”

It was when the words tumbled out of Steve’s mouth unchecked, did she realise just how much pain she’d been causing him, how much hell she’d ventured into while dragging him along. Steve didn’t deserve this, not after what he’d already been through. No one deserved this.

“I’m sorry,” she exhaled, hands vaguely trembling under the crushing reality of what she’d done. “Go. It’s okay.”

But he knew she was lying. You’re a terrible liar, Romanoff. He knew, probably better than anyone, that Natasha’s curt and direct answers were a cover for the thousands of words she couldn’t bear to say out loud. Because saying three words and brushing it off was so much simpler than pouring her entire mind out like a vicious storm surge.

Bringing the back of her hand to her eyes, she wiped deftly before biting her bottom lip— much harder than she would’ve wanted to.

“Nat—”

“I’m serious, Steve. I’m going to be okay.”

Natasha collected her thoughts, before starting again in a shaky whisper.

“I’m so sorry. I-I shouldn’t have dragged you into all of this, all of me. God, I should’ve known.”

Truth was, she knew. She knew all along that keeping him beside her would inevitably take a toll on him. She knew, because she saw those faces, heard those voices, too. The guilt was like gasoline in her guts, her insides slowly dying to the toxicity as a single confession from Steve set her ablaze entirely. The fire had burnt her out so badly that there was nothing left but a shell, an outline, of what was once a headstrong teammate.

Go, please. I don’t want you hurting any more than you already are, I don’t want to wake up and look at you feigning a smile, pretending that everything is perfectly fine when no, you’re breaking apart on the inside. I don’t want to sit across from you at the desk and stare into your tired eyes, knowing I’m the one who made you stay. I don’t want to hurt you.

Don’t go, please. It hurts waking up in the middle of the night, running my damp palms across the void next to me. It hurts knowing that you left because you couldn’t deal with your loss. Our loss. Please don’t leave me like how everyone in my life already has. I’m a cold-hearted spy undeserving of love, but underneath, all I’m asking for is someone I can trust, someone who can help me find my place in the world.

For the third time that evening, they let the thick, uncomfortable silence stretch into minutes, neither looking at each other or making a sound. Steve had his head in his hands, eyes shut tights and creases of worry and guilt etched onto his face. Natasha simply stared at the wall behind the television, eyes blank and her lips pursed. If Steve had been paying attention, he would’ve seen how every inch of her body was quivering.

“I’ll think it through. A few days, alright?” Steve turned to look at her for confirmation, and for a moment, she sensed a sliver of hope. Think it through. That meant he’d stay, right? With butterflies threatening to rip from her insides, she nodded briefly, a faint but grateful smile plastered on her face. 

As night fell, the last of the sun’s rays filtered through the floor-to-ceiling panels, cosseted behind clouds the colour of apricots. With Steve’s last words from their conversation hours ago still reeling in her mind, she let the screen of her tablet fade to black, all the while lost in her own thoughts. 

Natasha made her way to his room, her mind coming up with movies they’d watch that night or moves she’d use to take out Steve during their sparring session that night. She’d barely made it to his door when the sound of a zipper tore through the air. Peeking her head into the doorway, she glanced around the room, until her gaze fell on him. 

He sat on the bed, a black suitcase placed next to him. It was filled with clothes— his clothes. Her mind stutters for a moment, every inch of her body pausing on her except for her racing heart. 

As she watched him fill his bags with every single possible article of clothing, including the hoodie she’d usually share with him, she knew that he had already made up his mind. 

“Steve?”