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the air i would kill to breathe

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CHAPTER TEN: WAVES

She knows— they all know— that she’ll go any minute now. She can feel it in every inch of her body, every rattle in her breath, every twitch of her fingers. What hurts him the most, though, is the fact that she struggles to greet the one she loves the most every morning. He knows her mind is working at its best to grasp at the fraying threads of her memories, but it almost feels like a stab in the gut when he sees his name at the tip of her tongue, not quite ever leaving her lips.

“Good morning, Natasha.” Steve doesn’t expect a reply from her, instead carding his fingers through her hair and tracing the outline of her face softly. She lies on her side wordlessly, hand in his, but sometimes she doesn’t quite know who’s hand she’s holding, who’s face she wakes up to, or even who’s voice she’s listening to. Everything has been a haze to her, a thick layer of fog standing between her and the rest of the world. Everyday the fog gets thicker and thicker, until it’s suffocating, almost. 

“Wanted to give you something… that’s me.” Natasha whispered, an envelope between her fingers. “For when I’m not… me.” 

“You’re always you.” Steve replied, his tone pleading. 

“We both know it, Steve. You’ll feel like you’ve lost me, because one day I’ll wake up to foreign faces, foreign people, and I might not recog—” 

“— No, don’t say that.” Steve brought Natasha’s head closer to him, his fingers automatically curling around her shoulders. “You won’t ever forget me.”

“Morning,” Natasha starts slowly, and Steve can tell that she’s struggling to find the next word. 

“Steve.” He whispers softly. Patience is evident in his tone but with it brings hurt, because what was once her favourite word is now held prisoner by her own tongue. He knows that she’s trying her best, and that is all that matters to them.

As the day goes by, he knows it’ll happen today. He can see it, feel it, and as much as he dreads it, he knows it’s time to let go. They sit by the window, Natasha’s head on his shoulder and her hands resting in his lap. She eyes the horizon with an unwavering gaze, letting shades of tangerine cast her face aglow in the warmth of dusk. She keeps silent, the whites of her eyes pink and glassy. As she tears her gaze away from the window to look at Steve, a knowing look settles gently on her face. It’s somewhat expressionless and still, but Steve can render the thousands of emotions running through her mind. She wants to go.

Natasha looks towards the beach again, then back at Steve. She nods ever so slightly, and with that he extends his arm out towards her, two pairs of feet padding softly against the linoleum. As Natasha pushes the glass doors open, she can almost hear FRIDAY’s voice overhead.

“Goodbye, Miss Romanoff.”

As they step out onto the sand, she feels the familiar, tangy breeze against her cheek, cool but blanketed with warmth. She feels every grain of sand in between her toes, feels the fragments of iridescent seashells against her feet. Natasha’s hand is snugly in Steve’s, and she can’t help but feel safe and at peace.

As they approach the shore, Natasha pitches forward out of exhaustion, but Steve manages to keep her steady. 

“It’s alright, we can sit here.” He slowly lowers himself to the ground, while Natasha settles for resting her head on Steve’s lap. An early evening lull slowly descends upon the beach, the quiet between the fervent calls of seagulls and chaotic lace of breaking waves. It brings her back to when she’d sit shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow with Steve, the two of them watching waves till dawn descended upon them. 

As she looks up at Steve, there’s a quiet smile painted on his lips, and his eyes water ever so slightly. His eyes rest, not unblinking but slowed, and Natasha can’t help but notice the look of content on his face. She has rarely ever seen this expression on him, and she decides that she wants to commit this— the sun aglow against his cheeks, semblance of a smile on his lips, eyes creased slightly with contentment— to memory. Because if she has to see him for the last time, she wants to see him with a smile.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Steve breaks her train of thoughts, a hand on her shoulder and the other palmed against the sand next to him. He sees Natasha replicate the same smile he has on her own face, staring straight into his eyes.

“Nothing,” Natasha looks away, fingers running through the sand next to her, eyes glistening with unshed tears. Her lip quivers, but Steve doesn’t notice. When she finally looks back up at him, trepidation hangs in the air.

“I just want to remember this.” Natasha’s gaze lands on his face, and for the first time in her life she appreciates the smile that graces Steve’s face. It comes from deep within and lights his eyes up in a way that makes her heart flutter. “I want to bring this memory with me when I go.”

Steve gives her a pained smile as he pulls Natasha closer to himself, as if she’ll leave him any minute now. A beat stretches between them, neither saying a word. Slowly, Steve feels her cheek vibrate against his lap, and he feels the tears pooling against the fabric of his shorts. 

“And maybe, if I look at you long enough,” Natasha whispers softly, her voice full of longing. “I can.”

Steve rubs his hand up and down her arm starting at the shoulder and down to her palms. He can feel the slight tremors wracking her body, can feel the tears on his lap, can feel the way she’s gripping onto his hand as tightly as she can. 

A few moments later, she hears the light padding of feet against sand behind her. Sam and Bucky stand a few feet away from them, and they’re both wearing forced smiles. Natasha smiles wearily, tilting her head towards the empty spot next to Steve. 

As the sun further descends beneath the horizon, Natasha has her head in Steve’s lap and Sam has his arm around Bucky. For a moment, it’s just the four of them again, like it was always meant to be. Redwing is perched silently on Sam’s shoulder, whirring softly. She almost thanks him, because she’s realised that it’s these little things that make life so much more worth living. Quiet nights with Bucky, either on each end of the couch as they find solace in the non-verbalism. Sam  offering her his hair straightener, which she still had no clue of why he’d have one. Steve silently making meals in the kitchen and sliding bowls across the table, an eyebrow raised and a hand extended.

There isn’t a final, selfless statement or a last deep breath like how it is in a Hollywood film. There aren’t any pleading screams or arms extended out begging for mercy. 

It’s Natasha’s shallow breath against Steve’s lap. She steadies her breathing, matching each inhale and exhale with the waves breaking on shore. Her gaze wanders and stretches far out towards the horizon, and she has a longing look in her glazed eyes. Steve wishes her breath isn’t growing weaker by the second, but it is. He can barely feel her cool breaths on his lap now. 

It’s Natasha planting a quick but lasting kiss on his lips while she repeats her words over and over again in his face.

“I love you. It’ll be okay.” There are tears streaming down his cheeks, and he shakes his head in a fervent attempt to shut her up. Because, no, she isn’t leaving. She never will. She’s the Black Widow, she’ll follow him to the ends of the earth, she’ll stay right by his side for as long as they have both feet on the ground. But they don’t— she doesn’t. She’s already one foot beneath and Steve can only watch as she falls, off the face of earth, her fingertips brushing against his.

It’s her fingers slipping from their grip on Steve’s khaki shorts, plummeting towards the sand beneath. It’s a lock of her hair plastered against her temple from the steady stream of tears she can feel down her side. It’s the gentle, peaceful smile that crosses her face for just a moment, before it leaves as fast as it came.

It’s the desperation in her eyes; Steve’s too, because she could go out any minute now. Steve doesn’t want that to happen, not ever. He sobs into Natasha’s shoulder, caving forward and gently stroking through her hair. 

You’ll be okay, Steve says, but he thinks it’s more of a reminder for himself. That part of the journey is the end, and that he needs to let her go now. 

“I love you, too, Nat.” It happens. Her last breath is silent, and Steve wishes for another steady gust of air against his lap, but it never arrives, and he never feels it. Tucking her hair behind her ear, he holds her as close as he can. As he looks up, a gentle breeze against his tear-stained cheeks, the last wisps of sunlight disappear beneath the ocean and the reigns of night take over.

“Goodnight, Natasha.”

Steve,

You’re making breakfast as I’m writing this a few feet away from the stove. I can smell freshly-made pancakes, and it’s a comforting feeling, you know. Just like old times. I don’t know if you’re reading this while I’m still here, or when I’m already gone, but I hope this letter gives you a piece of myself you can keep. I won’t be around much longer, we both know that.

I’m scared, Steve. I don’t say this a lot, but I’m watching your back against me and the way you have a smile on your face and it dawns on me that today might be the last time I see that smile I’ve grown to love. Death doesn’t discriminate, it takes and it takes and it takes but we keep on living anyway. 

Thank you for teaching me how to love. For making me pancakes even though you know they’ll end up someplace else eventually. For sitting on the cold tiles for hours on end, being next to me but also giving me enough space to breathe. You always knew exactly what I needed. 

Maybe I’ll see you again, Steve. When you’re the shoreline and I’m the waves and we always find our way back to each other… or however that quote ends. Go look it up, okay?

I’ll miss you. I love you, Steve. Endlessly.

N.R.