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the air i would kill to breathe

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CHAPTER TWO: A SIDE EFFECT

“You sure you’re okay?” Steve placed a firm hand on her shoulder, his eyes filled with nothing but genuine concern. How fitting a response for Natasha to suddenly break into a coughing fit, slightly doubling over from the force that wracked her shoulders and her chest. She could barely manage a breath as the fit tore her apart, but once it had subsided, she faced him once again.

“Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She replied hoarsely, sniffling her nose. Natasha couldn’t count the number of times she had repeated that phrase for the past few weeks, or maybe even months. If anyone asked Natasha, she’d say she was fine. Even with a sickening cold getting the better of her, she was fine.

Planting a chaste kiss on his cheek, she pulled away to give him a weak smile, a hand gently clasping around his arm. “Come visit, alright?” As she waved him off at the driveway, she couldn’t help but feel like a piece of her had been torn away. Steve had been her anchor amongst a sea of chaos ever since they had lost, and now that he’d left, she felt like she might drown any second. But of course, she hid it behind a small wave and a painfully big smile on her lips. 

As Steve rode off into the horizon, the car engine roaring until it became nothing but a distant rumble to her ears, she found herself with tear-streaked cheeks.

“I’ll be okay.” She whispered to herself. 

TWO WEEKS LATER

“What’s up, Red?” Rocket folded his arms across his chest, shooting Natasha a questionable look. “The flu bug finally getting to you, huh?” He let out an abrupt chuckle, garnering looks of disapproval from the other members of the team. Not that he cared, anyway.

“Cut it, furface.” She spat back at him, her tone becoming harsher than she would have liked it to be. “Alright, alright… let’s wrap it up.” Rocket feigned annoyance, rolling his eyes at Natasha accusingly.

She could feel the pressure building in her lungs with each passing second, and it took Natasha everything within her to hold it back, tidying her hair to cover it up. 

“If anything goes sideways, let me know,” she rasped, adding on. “See you all next month.” 

One by one, they turned off their holographic channels, fading to dust. Once she was certain that the last member had left the call, she doubled over, letting out a string of hacking coughs.  God, maybe a medical check-up wouldn’t be so bad now, would it?  

By slow, torturous degrees, the coughs eased in intensity, and then slowly passed until she was reduced to nothing but a wheezing figure curled in on herself. As she looked up with teary eyes, she noticed one last active channel to her right.

“Nat?” Rhodey finally spoke up after her fit. She closed her eyes, expecting the usual update on Clint, but the words that left his mouth said otherwise about his intentions. “You look a little,” he surveyed her closely, “under the weather.”

Thanks for stating the obvious. “Quit it Rhodes, I’m okay!” she stated curtly, her voice heralding a little more exasperation than she would’ve liked, taking him aback. “Just checking on you,” he spoke up after some time,  eyes filled with nothing but worry.

“I don’t need anyone checking on me,” she raised her eyebrow in amusement, “I can handle my own.” With that, she ended the call promptly with a quick dismissive wave of her hand, smiling slightly at Rhodey as he turned his back and left the call.

As she stood behind the sink, hands grasped onto the edges of the countertop, she tried inhaling deeply for the first time in weeks. However, all she heard was a soft, wheezing noise that sounded from the back of her throat, coupled with a shallow breath. She could feel her lungs spasming with every breath she tried to take, and Natasha was smart enough to recognise that it needed immediate medical attention.

Stretching it out a little longer won’t hurt too much, right?

The reflection that stared back at her in the mirror was a call for concern; the change she was seeing couldn’t be crueler. Her hair was unusually flat and there were auburn roots peeking out from underneath her blonde, shoulder-length tresses. The supposedly fitting halter neck top was now loosely fitted, and her arms seemed to become thinner with each passing day.

“Jarvis…” She wavered, bringing the other hand up to wrap around her own left arm. “When was the last time I had a meal? Like a proper meal.” Truth be told, she had lost track of her diet. And time. And quite frankly, everything else .

Natasha never lost track of time. She never lost sight of her targets, never missed a single meeting, never showed up late to any of Tony’s parties. But of late, she found herself forgetting about everything around her. First came the overdue paperwork and the dozens of missed calls she’d forget to return. 

Then came the basics; she’d let her lunch slip right through, followed by her breakfast, then all three meals at once. Natasha couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually had a full bath, instead of hopping into the shower for a couple of minutes. 

——————

“I got something for you by the way,” Tony smirked, turning his back to leave, “well, more like, made something for you.” Natasha didn’t fully understand Tony, simply shooting him a quizzical look. 

“Better be good.”

“Oh, it will be. You’ll see.”

Natasha only came to realise what her apparent gift from Tony had been when she was sprawled out on her bed one morning, doing nothing so much as staring blankly at the ceiling above her head. A voice sounded through the speakers in her room, and she almost felt her heart leap into her mouth as she flinched in surprise. 

“Auntie Nat! Don’t forget to brush your teeth and hair today! I love you.” 

That was when Natasha realised that hearing someone’s voice, especially Morgan’s, saying those words aloud could bring tears to her eyes. Throughout the subsequent weeks, she’d hear Morgan’s voice over FRIDAY’s operating system every now and then, reminding her to take care of herself. They always seemed to hit her when she needed them the most. Damn you, Tony, for being so observant. If he had been there to see her react to his work, she wouldn’t have admitted the fact that she appreciated it. She did, though. 

There was something about listening to Morgan’s voice, encouraging her to slowly tick off the boxes on a checklist she’d never got around to completing, that made her heart clench. It was simple, fair enough, but it was progress and that was all that mattered.

“The last time you had a proper meal was two months and twenty-seven days ago.”

“And what was that?”

“You had a full meal of Carbonara Pasta with Captain Rogers.” 

Two months ago? God, had she really been eating intermittently for two whole months? Natasha knew she would’ve gotten an earful from Fury, if not for him now appearing under the list of decimated individuals.

Her appetite seemed to have disappeared along with the rest of her teammates. On good days, she’d muster whatever strength left within her to make a peanut butter sandwich. On bad days, she’d starve for days on end, only eating when Steve popped by, which was almost only once in two weeks. 

Throughout the day, her condition only got worse. On multiple occasions, she had to pause for a minute, dropping everything she was holding while struggling to get any air into her lungs. It felt as if there was an invisible vice constricting around her windpipe, crushing it with all its strength. Her fits now lasted five whole minutes, leaving her trembling on her feet after each one had ended. 

Just as she was about to grab a mug from the top cabinet, a shooting pain in her chest hit her out of nowhere, and the cup in her grasp plummeted to the ground, shattering at her feet. Crouching onto the ground, she willed for the pain to subside, but all it did was get worse. 

Just breathe, Natasha.

She tried taking in a small inhale, but all she got in return was another bout of coughs that threatened to tear her whole frame apart. 

With no other options, her eyes scanned the open cabinets, until they landed on a box of cough drops. Those should do the trick. 

As she stood up, her knees almost buckled beneath her, prompting her to clutch onto the edge of the kitchen counter. Partial spots of black invaded her vision temporarily, leaving her lightheaded. 

Popping two cough drops into her mouth, she managed to wind down the hallways and get to her room. 

Fuck,” she muttered as her leg caught the foot of the bed, tripping and stumbling onto the bed on her stomach. She could hear her burning chest groan in protest at the impact, and Natasha almost regretted being so clumsy. 

Not bothering to pull the covers over, she lay on her stomach, hands still tightly clutched to her chest and curled herself into a fetal position. The pain in her throat and her lungs was only getting worse, and Natasha wondered if this was what it truly felt like to be sick before being pulled under by her fatigue, sleep pooling heavily on her eyelids.

— THREE DAYS LATER —

On good days, she would pick up her gun, shooting dummies square in the chest in quick succession. She’d make a trip to the organisation she had set up for children who had lost their parents in the decimation, checking on each of them and giving them all the hugs they so desperately needed. She would sit at her desk for hours on end, filling in paperwork and answering panicked calls from the public. She’d smile widely at her teammates when they got connected to their group call, glad to have someone to talk to while she was isolated in a facility no one ever visited. 

Then there were the bad days. Days when she’d be seated at the foot of the toilet for hours on end, heaving everything up until there was nothing but bile and air. Days when she barely had the energy to get out of bed, let alone open her eyes. Days that seemed to stretch into months as her incessant coughing fits never allowed her to take a solid, deep breath in the past few months. 

Today was one of those bad days, and as much as she tried to make it a decently good one, it only got worse as the hours went by. 

As soon as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and planted them onto the carpet beneath, she could feel her vision swimming as she swayed on her feet. Looking out of the window, she noticed that the trees weren’t swaying in the wind like usual; instead, they were still in the afternoon heat.

Afternoon. Natasha quickly glanced towards the alarm clock on her bedside table, instantly regretting her decision as pain throbbed violently around her skull. It was already one in the afternoon, and everyone knew that Natasha never slept in. Especially not past noon. Not when she had calls to pick up and work to do.

“Shit,” she mumbled under her breath, pressing her fingers onto her temples as she attempted to ease the dreadful headache. Then, she remembered that she had to call the team for another board meeting today, report back to headquarters on the updates for damage control, stock up on supplies for the orphanage and-

“Miss Romanoff, I would like to remind you that you have a meeting with—” FRIDAY’s calming voice ironically jolted her from her momentary stupor. Natasha didn’t give FRIDAY any time to complete her reminder, instead squeezing her eyes shut and muttering into the duvet. “Cancel it. Please.” FRIDAY instantly acknowledged her decision and duly complied. “Will do.”

Strangely enough, the heat in the room was stifling, scorching, almost. It had been a couple of weeks since the clouds had last parted, leaving the sun to hang high in the sky at midday, relentlessly burning down on the world below it. The window opacity had been automatically decreased, but something felt off.

If it was burning up outside, why did it feel so terribly cold inside?

“Fri, what’s the temp?”

“It’s currently 95°F.”

As she looked at the sun blazing in the sky, heating up her sheets and the carpet below, a puzzled expression crossed her face. Was she hallucinating the sun?  

“Miss Romanoff, your core temperature is starting to rise. That might explain the chills.” Oh.

“At?”

“102.2°F. I would advise seeking immediate medical attention.” 

Natasha had been shot countless times in her years of being an Avenger. A bullet to the shoulder, a bullet to her thigh, hell, even a bullet to her chest; she’d seen the worst of injuries. She’d been inflicted with stab wounds, burns, injuries of varying degrees, but she had never, ever felt this much pain. And to think it was caused by a supposedly common cold left Natasha utterly confused, not that she had the energy to think about it, though.

Shaking out a couple of ibuprofen pills on her palm, she dry-swallowed them, pushing past the feeling of disgust as the bitterness lingered on her tongue and in the back of her throat. Another wave of chills hit her, and she could’ve sworn the bitter, Russian winters were much warmer than her bones.

As she stripped her damp, sweat-soaked top from her clammy skin, warm water started to pool at her feet. Any normal person would know that taking a hot shower while running a temperature definitely wasn’t the most sensible thing to do, but Natasha’s fever had taken a toll on her mind, leaving her dazed and oblivious to the water scorching her back. She let the water run for a few minutes while she hung her head, eyes hooded and barely opened, softly groaning at how the warmth offered her respite from the cold. 

Except, she wasn’t cold. In fact, she was far from cold. 

If Natasha hadn’t turned on the shower at full blast, she would’ve heard FRIDAY’s voice over the steady streams of water hitting the marble floor. 

“Miss Romanoff, your core temperature has risen dangerously, I’d advise you to seek immediate—” FRIDAY’S faint voice was cut off when she nearly collapsed onto the floor, slamming into the side of the glass door. Her side ached with the force, and she could do nothing but clutch her right abdomen with what little strength left within her. As she threw on a sleeveless tank top— not the best choice given that she felt like she might freeze over anytime— she rubbed her eyes blearily and trod out of the bathroom.

Except, she never made it to her bed.

Sweat left streaks down his temples and along his neck as he struck the bag relentlessly. There were faint, red spots peeking through the fabric wrapped around his knuckles, but Steve knew it was a good sign; it meant that he was making progress. It meant that he was slowly falling back into his routine, moving on past the weeks of despair he’d landed himself into, and most importantly— taking his mind off everything around him. However, a sudden, unmistakable voice interrupted him, prompting him to still for a moment, chest heaving violently from the exertion.

“Captain Rogers, it appears that there is something about Miss Romanoff you should be informed of.” What was FRIDAY reporting on Natasha for?

“Yeah?”

“It appears that Miss Romanoff is feeling unwell.” Steve had never imagined those two words — ‘unwell’ and ‘Romanoff’ — could end up in the same sentence. Because Natasha never felt unwell, not in a million years. Either that, or she refused to admit it. 

“Another one of her jokes again, isn’t it?” Steve shook his head, chuckling to himself. “The last time she pulled one on me, I ended up getting drenched in water,” he feigned a groan, “then, flour.” 

He knew that Natasha loved pulling pranks on people, especially on himself. It seemed unlikely that she’d bother to play another trick on him, given the circumstances of the aftermath, but Steve could never be too sure of Natasha. 

“I’m afraid this alert was not sent out by Miss Romanoff, Captain.” Steve was busy unwrapping the fabric around his knuckles when he froze. “I would advise you to check on her as soon as possible.”

His blood ran cold, heart hammering away in his chest. That was when he remembered that he’d never actually received an alert from FRIDAY about Natasha ever since he’d left, especially not one about her jokes. Her oddly composing voice ironically made him break into a cold sweat. 

“I’ll be over in f-five,” he tensed, slinging a jacket over his shoulder and slamming the door shut behind him. 

Steve glanced around the common room, eyes scanning for any sign of Natasha. He noticed how the kitchen, usually overflowing with unwashed dishes, was relatively spotless. Then, his eyes fell on the kitchen counter and he walked over to it in trepidation.

Picking up an orange bottle, he spun it around to read the label. Ibuprofen. Painkillers. 

As he stalked down the hallway, he noticed how the door to her bedroom was ajar, when it would usually be closed or locked. There was a sickening heat radiating from behind the door, and that alone made Steve concerned enough to nudge open the door, instantly feeling the stifling warmth. 

There were sheets strewn haphazardly on the bed, a couple of pillows on the ground, but no sign of her. When he turned a corner to check in the bathroom, he almost jumped in shock from seeing a figure lying motionless on the ground. 

“Natasha!” Steve whispered harshly as he carefully turned her onto her back and nudged her cheek. Her skin felt cool and clammy under his touch, but at the same time, he felt her radiating heat like a brick out of an oven. Shit.

Come on,” he continued shaking her gently, until he noticed her eyelashes fluttering ever so slightly, eyes still closed. “That’s it, wake up please…” 

As her eyes opened a fraction, she could vaguely see a towering figure looming above her head. Then, the pain set in, and so did the nausea and chills. Her breath quivered in short, quick gasps as she struggled to sit up, face flushed and eyes hooded. 

“Hey, don’t.” Steve gently rested his palms on her shoulders as he held her down, afraid that she’d aggravate her condition by sitting up. Natasha’s face glistened in a way that made Steve worried, and he knew that she needed to be anywhere but on the cold, wet ground of the bathroom. 

“I’m going to lift you to your bed, alright?” Steve questioned with concern, but all he got was a silent moan he could barely hear. Her head lolled to the side, resting against Steve’s chest as he looped one arm beneath her legs and the other around her back.

Once he’d gently lowered her onto the bed, he brought a hand up to her forehead, instantly recoiling once he’d felt the heat emanating from her skin.

“Fri, what’s her temperature?”

“She is currently running a temperature of 105°F, Captain.” 

105°F. Steve had fallen sick on countless occasions back then, but never had he seen a temperature as high as hers. Getting Natasha to the medical bay was a battle he’d never win, because he knew Natasha would kick him in the face for it if she found out she had been brought to the MedBay. 

He noticed how her face was ashen, how a sheen of sweat was clinging to every inch of her skin, how she took in shallow breaths as her chest barely rose and fell. Even though Steve was staring right down at her, her eyes were trained on the ceiling next to his head, unseeing and blank. 

“Don’t need,” Natasha whispered hoarsely, closing her eyes momentarily, “your help.”

Just as she’d finished her sentence, she broke into another coughing fit, her back arching off the bed as she could do nothing but hope for it to pass as soon as possible. Once the violent spasms had subsided, she laid still, allowing Steve to rub his hand across her back in slow circles. Natasha let out a contented hum as she felt the warmth seep into her skin, but she wouldn’t let Steve hear it.

Normally, she would recoil from his touch, but Natasha needed nothing more than human contact after months of shying away from social interactions. 

“Nat, I’m taking you to medical.”

“It’s not that serious, St’ve.” Natasha sniffled as the congestion messed with her enunciation. Steve would joke about it, but now was definitely not the time to crack one. 

“105°F isn’t high?” Steve’s face grew dark, and the slight raise in his voice startled Natasha. She blinked hard, then shut her eyes again as she turned away from Steve. 

“Please... don’t.” 

Steve’s expression changed instantaneously, from one of annoyance to one of guilt. The horrific realisation set in, and he finally recalled why she always denied medical treatment. Years of being the Red Room’s best experiment had inflicted decades of pain and torturous memories onto her. 

As Natasha turned to her side, she squeezed her eyes shut, willing for the waves of memories to recede back into the deep crevices of her mind. 

She could remember the procedures vividly if she pulled them back out again, but for the most part, they were tucked away in the deepest corners of her conscience. If she let them resurface, she was afraid that they’d remind her of just how much of a killer she was.

A sea of red, she pictured. Red streaming down her fingers, red on her targets, red pooling around her feet on the linoleum floor. Then, there came the white. Bright lights above her head, white wrapped around the countless of stitches, white reflecting into her eyes as the metal instruments glinted in the doctor’s grasp. The red in her blood seeped into the white on her skin, claiming more and more territory, until almost every inch of her battered body had turned crimson and-

“Stay here, I’ll go get a couple of things.” Steve’s surprisingly quiet voice jolted her from her thoughts, and only then did she realise she still had her back facing him. She nodded numbly, just enough to let Steve see her head slightly bob up and down before she felt the dip in the mattress disappear. 

Fuck. ” She murmured as the icy towel met with her skin, flinching in shock. The drastic change in temperature was enough to send a flash of pain shooting through her head, gathering at the base of her skull. Steve withdrew his hand immediately, carefully lifting the towel off. “Sorry.”

“It- It’s okay.” She repeated hastily, as she prompted Steve to place it back. She hated how she was pushing everyone away— pushing Steve away, who was only trying to help. But it seemed like she’d never actually experienced help at all, especially not when she was at her lowest. 

Steve propped an arm on the bed, sliding into the empty space next to her on the queen-size bed. As they turned to face each other, he could see how flushed her cheeks were and feel the heat rolling off her skin in waves. 

“Why are you doing this?” Natasha was the first to speak up, her eyelids hooded but her gaze still trained on him.

“If I don’t, who else will?” His reply involuntarily sent a wave of chills down her spine, and he changed the topic promptly. “This isn’t normal. I haven’t seen you sick, ever.

Natasha thought about how the knock-off serum should’ve ruled out any possibilities of falling ill, at the very least, but it wasn’t the case. She could feel her body withering away, she could feel the dull aches in her bones turning into sharp pains, the congestion in her airways posing a bigger and bigger problem for her as the days went by. Just a cold, she reminded herself.

“A side effect from losing half of the world, I guess.” The corners of her lips turned upwards ever so slightly, before she closed her eyes momentarily, only to stare back at Steve in tears.

“You haven’t lost me though.” Steve tilted his head to the side, giving her a forced, lopsided grin. Natasha broke into a small smile upon hearing his words, before being pulled under by exhaustion, fluttering her eyelids closed.

They still had each other, right?