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the air i would kill to breathe

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CHAPTER FOUR: JAMES

Stage 4?

Bucky watched as the two words escaped her mouth in a strangled, barely audible sob. He stilled, fists clenched on both sides as he drew in a sharp breath. The scene unfolding before him reminded him too much of a particular event which happened years ago, and Bucky could only pray that it was not what he thought it would be.

Bucky remembered sitting in the doctor’s office, his much smaller hand wrapped in his mother’s. The air was sterile and fresh, but the atmosphere seemed dense— stifling, almost. He remembered the feeling of his heart sinking to his stomach as he watched the tears roll down his mother’s cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Barnes.” The doctor scanned over the computer screen once more, before looking back at his mother with a sorrowful expression. “I’m afraid the chances are slim at Stage 4.”

When Bucky had grown much older, he finally understood the cause of his mother’s death. A few months after he’d sat in the doctor’s office, his mother had left him, and back then, Bucky wasn’t sure where she’d went.

“Bucky?” A faint voice from the other end of the room startled him, causing him to jerk against the doorframe. Natasha had sensed that someone was lurking, and sat upright to get a better view of who it was. To her horror, it was Bucky, staring back at her with wide eyes.

“Hey Natasha,” Bucky mustered as much friendliness as he could in his voice, ambling into the room to sit next to her. He hoped that Natasha had missed out on the fact that he’d been standing close by, listening to their conversation.

Natasha seemed to catch on, and she feigned a smile at him, standing up to offer him her place on the couch. As she made her way to the kitchen sink, Bucky started, “How are you?”

“Fine.” Natasha rested both palms on the edges of the sink, closing her eyes to steady her breathing. The last thing she wanted was to hyperventilate in front of him. “Since when did you and Sam decide to surprise me?” Natasha could hear a second pair of footsteps padding into the room, and Natasha knew exactly who it was.

“Reminder to self, never work with goats again.” Sam chuckled, dropping onto the couch next to Bucky; it felt good to be back at the compound. ”You wouldn’t want to be around—” Sam turned to face Natasha, but realised that she still had her back against him, slightly hunched over the sink.

“Hey, Nat?” Sam cocked his head in confusion, wondering why she never once turned back to look at him or respond to him.

Tears soaked her tank top as she gripped onto the counter, knuckles turning white with force. The reality of the situation had not yet sunk in, and Sam’s visit did not offer her any respite from the crushing revelation. Helen’s words continued replaying in her mind like a malfunctioning record player, ignoring the duo’s concerns until she felt a warm hand on her shoulder.

“Nat?” She spun around to come face to face with a concerned-looking Bucky. His brows were slightly furrowed and the corners of his lips were turned downwards. Thankfully, she’d managed to wipe some of her tears away before swivelling around.

“Just need some space,” she sighed, brushing his hand off and trudging back to her room, leaving an utterly confused Sam standing next to Bucky.

Once she’d closed the room door gently behind her, she collapsed onto the bed, waves of anguish and terror washing over her as she let reality sink in. Reaching for her phone at the edge of her bed, she dialed for Helen with shaky hands, the phone almost slipping from her grasp in the process.

“Natash—” Helen had barely answered the call for a second when Natasha cut her off, voice firm but full of trepidation.

How long do I have?” She whispered, pushing all the panic and anger to the back of her mind. She wasn’t going to go down without a fight. She was going to live out the rest of her life— if she had enough time—  to the fullest.

“Three months. I can’t promise any longer or shorter until...” Helen trailed off, her tone almost sorrowful.

Natasha found herself accepting the truth more easily than she would’ve expected to. Three months. That was all she had before she’d be be rendered helpless on a bed, with nothing left to do except for waiting it out.

“Thank you, Helen.” Natasha choked out, balling her fist and bringing it up to her mouth.

“Anytime.”

For the first time in her life, Natasha let herself cry. It was not a discrete tear falling down her cheek, or a slight quiver in her lips. She clutched the sheets as hard as she could in her fists, letting out silent screams as she punctuated her sobs with intermittent breaths of air. She cried as if the ferocity of it would dismiss the diagnosis, as if she’d wake up again the next day and find out that it was all a dream. But none of it was— she was stuck in a nightmare she wouldn’t be able to escape from.

If anyone had walked in at that moment, they would have thought that the figure lying on the bed, crumpled and distressed, would’ve been someone else. Being an Avenger was the only thing keeping Natasha going, giving her her place in the world, making her feel more than the assassin she’d been conditioned to be. The cancer would slowly, painfully, strip that part of herself away from her.

The serum coursing through her system was killing her. The Red Room had concocted it in a way that it’d attack its own host if the situation became dire. Her serum, the very same serum that had been keeping her alive and protected, was killing her slowly. Helen had suggested chemotherapy, but she knew that not even a body pumped full of drugs could destroy the rapidly spreading cancerous cells.

The phone laying next to her broke the still air with a succession of rings all of a sudden, startling Natasha out of her much needed shut-eye. She’d unknowingly fallen asleep, presumably from the exhaustion of sobbing into her sheets for the past few hours and the toll cancer had taken on her. She blinked a couple of times, struggling to focus on the name displayed on the screen. As her vision cleared out, she realised the caller was Steve, and it took everything in Natasha to hit the green button instead of the red.

“Hey, Steve.” Natasha ran a hand through her damp hair, her breath escalating with each passing second.

“Hey. Was wondering if I could come over tonight?” Natasha could hear a hint of a smile in Steve’s voice, and she forced herself to curl the edges of her lips upwards as well.

“Sure. Sam and Bucky came over—” A string of coughs broke her off, leaving Steve to continue after she’d finished.

“You’re still sick?” He questioned, and Natasha could do nothing but shake her head over the phone, stalling as she formulated an answer.

“I’m getting better. Soon.”

“Alright. See you at 6.”

Natasha wore a bittersweet smile as the ache in her throat overwhelmed her again. Getting better could not be further from the truth.

Soon enough, dinner rolled around, and Natasha met Steve in the driveway, pulling him into a hug. If Natasha was looking, she would’ve seen the horror in Steve’s eyes as her body pressed up against his, feeling her ribs dig painfully into his own. Steve chose not to bring it up, following her into the common room for dinner.

Sam and Bucky had whipped up a few burgers, coupled with sides of mashed potatoes and mixed greens. Natasha couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten anything apart from takeout or sandwiches. As she held the burger up, her stomach churned with nausea, revolted by the sight of it. Losing her appetite was one of the symptoms, but Natasha was hoping that she’d be able to take a couple of mouths at the very least.

As she watched the other three people at the table dig into their meals, she raised her trembling hands up to the table to grab a fork, attempting to start eating. The others were far too consumed in their conversations and meals to realise that Natasha’s face had gone sickeningly pale.

With one hand on her midsection and the other grasping weakly onto her fork, she swallowed dryly, silently praying that the nausea would pass. Just as she was about to pick up a wad of her salad, Natasha’s hand flew up across her mouth. She pushed herself away from the counter as she made a run for the bathroom down the hall, ignoring the calls of concern from her teammates.

Once she’d gotten to the edge of the toilet, she threw up whatever was left in her stomach from the meagre lunch she’d had. As she held her own hair back, the remnants surged up her throat and into the waiting toilet bowl. Surveying the mess with teary eyes, she realised just how much things had changed, and how things were never going to be the same again.

As she stood back up and wiped the back of her hand against her lips, the door swung open to reveal a paled Steve, his forehead etched with worry. “You okay?” Natasha had lost count of the sheer number of times Steve had asked her that question. She knew that they were going to turn into ‘ You’re not okay’ soon, and Natasha could only hope that she’d keep it from the team as long as she could.

Slinging one arm over her shoulder, Steve helped her towards the common room, leaning her into his shoulder. Her legs were unusually shaky and her shoulders felt bony, but he pretended not to notice. Just a side effect from losing half of the world, he guessed.

She swallowed thickly, willing for the unchewed burger to make its way down into her stomach. Every bite into her meal seemed like an impossible task; the burger was bland and her stomach churned in disgust.

“What’s going on, Nat?” Steve gripped onto Natasha’s arm, his jaw set and his eyes trained on hers. The look on his face startled Natasha slightly; she’d only seen this expression on missions and in meetings, never during casual talk. Natasha know that Steve was serious, and that there was no way she could slip out of the situation and avert his question.

“Nothing, there’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t know why everyone keeps asking the same question…” Natasha trailed off, dropping her plate into the adjacent sink and stalking off back to her room. Her door slammed closed, and Steve almost wore an apologetic look as he resumed his meal, shaking his head at Sam and Bucky’s shrugs.

The next few days were pure torture, to put simply. Natasha was still reeling in shock from her diagnosis, and she hadn’t emerged from her room ever since that night, not that Steve and the other guys knew of. Keeping the news from her friends and throwing up violently in the bathroom weren’t exactly the most effective combination.

“FRIDAY?” Steve laid on his back, running his hands through his hair.

“Captain,” FRIDAY responded politely, waiting for him to continue.

Steve pondered for a moment, his eyebrows creased in concern. The distant sound of the toilet flushing indicated that she’d just finished another round of emptying her lunch, but Steve knew better than to bother her.

“Natasha, she’s not okay, isn’t she?” Steve breathed out in resignation.

“I am afraid I’m unable to give you an answer, Captain.”

FRIDAY stalled for a few seconds, as if she was hesitant to talk to Steve, before she added calmly.

“She has requested for all surveillance to be turned off, and for all entry points to her quarters to be locked.” FRIDAY spoke with an air of finality, prompting Steve to fidget with the sheets, crumpling them in his fists. Natasha had been actively trying to avoid them for the past few days, and it didn’t help him for her to deactivate surveillance, leaving Steve with no choice but to wait for her.

Natasha startled awake, sitting up abruptly to find her pulse racing and her palms wetting the sheets. Night terrors . She remembered that Helen had mentioned that night terrors were a possible symptom.

On another day, Natasha would find herself being held by a pair of firm arms, grounding her into reality with an arm running up and down her back comfortingly. However, she felt nothing but the cool air running along her back, freezing her over.

She must’ve screamed beforehand, because the door creaked open slightly, letting a steady beam of light filter into the dark. A face popped into view, and Natasha could barely make out who it was, or how they had overrode the lockdown on her room.

“Steve?” Her first instinct was Steve; he’d always be there to check up on her when the sound of her screams reverberated down the hallways, and Natasha knew by heart that it would be him.

“Sorry,” A voice behind the door sounded, and Natasha registered the fact that it wasn’t Steve. “Just wanted to check if you’re okay.”

A metal arm came into view as he stepped into the room, flicking the switch on the small lamp by her bed. Bucky looked on as Natasha sat upright in her bed, still panting in fear and exhaustion from the night terrors. Her shirt clung to her back, and her forehead was slick with sweat.

Bucky was one of the very few people whom Natasha could trust with her past; not even Steve had broken that wall of trust guarding her tortured memories. Over the years, as Bucky had slowly begun to reclaim his memories, those of a certain redhead named Natalia had resurfaced as well. Dark green eyes, fiery auburn hair and her signature smirk.

“Thought you were sleeping.”

“Could say the same for you,” Bucky remarked, his gaze falling on the way her hands were trembling. Wordlessly, he grabbed them in his own, signalling for her to look up at him.

“Match my breathing.” Bucky instructed, taking deep breaths before exhaling slowly. Natasha hated nothing more than being helpless in front of others, but now that she could count the number of months she had left on one hand, nothing seemed unreasonable anymore.

The weight of hiding her diagnosis from the team seemed to be suffocating her. She knew it was selfish of her to lie about her health, but this was who she was. She’d grown up lying to her superiors about everything from her loyalty to her health. However, as she looked up and found herself staring back into Bucky’s eyes, full of nothing but care and concern, she realised this wasn’t her superiors she was looking at. This was her family.

“James.”

For the first time in her life since the Red Room, the name ‘James’ rolled off her tongue. Bucky stared back at her, his eyes wide with surprise, before composing himself and gripping her hands tighter.

Natalia,” Bucky resolved, his features softening. From the look on her face, Bucky knew that he was not dealing with the Black Widow, acclaimed Avenger and international spy. He was face to face with Natalia Romanova, a girl robbed of her dreams of becoming a ballerina, a girl who wanted nothing but peace and quiet in her tortured and chaotic life.

“You know, don’t you?” Natasha cast her gaze towards the ground, remembering the look of horror on Bucky’s face that afternoon as he stumbled upon her on the couch.

“I—” He started, words catching in his throat as he contemplated his actions. Trepidation wrapped itself around his throat like a vice, and every word threatening to escape his lips seemed like a curse.

Natasha wavered, her tears silently rolling off her cheeks as she waited for an answer. Bucky was a deer caught in the headlights, his eyes searching hers for any sign of warning.

Slowly, Bucky let go of her hands, pursing his lips as he looked back up at her. He nodded his head once, and Natasha nearly missed it in the dim light, if not for her keen eye.

“I’m so sorry,” Bucky wrapped his arms around her back, his attempts at holding in his own emotions proving to be futile as his eyes watered. Instead of recoiling, Natasha melted into his embrace, wanting nothing more than to be held.

“You don’t have to be, James.” Natasha whispered quietly, as she held onto him for as long as the night stretched.

Steve felt a twinge of panic in his gut as he stalked down the hallway, stopping in his tracks to find Natasha’s door ajar. As he rubbed his eyes blearily, a glint of metal caught his attention behind the door. There, sitting next to Natasha on her bed, was Bucky.

He watched as they exchanged whispers, barely audible and more intimate than Steve would have liked. As he leaned against the wall, he felt a rush of envy. Steve had never felt this way under any other circumstances, so as he listened to their conversations, his heart raced in his chest. Something about the way they sat across from each other, their fingers intertwined and the way Bucky gazed at Natasha gave him a tense feeling he could not shake.

As he ran his hand through his disheveled hair, he remembered how Bucky and Natasha had shared knowing looks with each other throughout dinner, and how he’d found him talking to her as they were washing the dishes. Steve knew that he had no right to feel the way he did, given that Sam and Bucky had just returned to the compound.

They’re just catching up, that’s all. Steve berated himself, taking one last look at her room before making his way back to his own quarters. If anyone had been standing in the hallway, they would’ve seen how he had let out a long, tired exhale.

By morning, Steve left for his apartment, leaving a note on Natasha’s bedside.

Take care, I’ll be back.

S.