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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?”

Chapter Text

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?

Chapter Text


CHAPTER THREE: CALL

WAKANDA

“Buck!” Letting out an exasperated sigh, Sam stopped a wheelbarrow in its tracks, halting in front of a baby goat. It was barely the size of his boot, just reaching below his calf. Sam tilted his head to find it standing in a pile of waste, bleating innocently as it stared back at him with big, glassy eyes. “I can’t believe these things shit like,” he stared back down at the wheelbarrow, “twenty times a day.” Sam ran a hand down his face, casting a glance at Bucky who was sitting against a tree, a few feet away from him. 

“Sam, they’re baby goats,” Bucky mumbled nonchalantly, letting another goat prod at his metal arm. “Of course they shit, a lot.” It was chomping relentlessly on his left arm, while he held a jug of lemonade in the other. 

Ever since the decimation, Sam and Bucky had made up their mind to remain in Wakanda. Okoye needed all the help she could get with both T’challa and Shuri gone; not that Sam and Bucky contributed much to help her, though. Shuri had given him a humble plot of land to work with, coupled with a wooden hut and a dozen baby goats. Sam had been doing most of the housekeeping in the goat pen ever since they’d settled down, to Bucky’s amusement. Seeing Sam worked up over baby goats made Bucky slightly humoured. 

“Do they have names?”

“No,” Bucky raised an eyebrow, looking down at them, “why would they?” 

“You should name this one Steeb.” Sam crouched down to pull one away from the edge of the fence, where it had been ramming into the leg of a neighbouring war rhino. It reminded Sam of Steve with the way it was stubborn and gullible— just like Steve. “We’ll see,” Bucky rolled his eyes, his mind already filling with all the possible names for them.

“Red!” Sam yelled across the field, his eyes landing on a goat who was now slinking away silently. Bucky had named her after Natasha; afterall, she was just as feisty and as cunning. As Sam managed to pick her up from the back, he could sense Bucky closing up on him.

“Speaking about Red, have you called Natasha? Or Steve?” 

“No. Why?” Sam resumed his work at piling stacks of hay into the wheelbarrow, their names reminding him of the decimation and the events that played out. They creeped into his mind, threatening in its vividness. Sam had been working on letting bygones be bygones, but the mere sight of the exact place where he’d watched his teammates fall to the ground sent waves of guilt through his system. 

“She’s probably drowning in Vodka. Or making out with Steve.” Sam shrugged, earning a punch in the torso by Bucky. “Don’t say that.” Bucky mocked a scowl, but all Sam did was let out a high-pitched whistle as he continued pushing the wheelbarrow along.

“We should check up on them,” Bucky admitted after Sam had cleared out the goats’ pens. 

“I think we are the ones who need to get checked up on, honestly.” 

AVENGERS FACILITY

Natasha gripped onto the edge of the toilet, now slick with a mixture of sweat, tears and bile. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking no matter how hard she gripped onto her thighs or how tight she clasped them together. As another wave of nausea hit her, she lurched forward and dug her knees deeper into the cold tiles, trembling faintly as she held a silent prayer on her lips. Natasha had been perched at the foot of the toilet for the past hour, and she’d done nothing but heave out the contents of her stomach violently, until there was nothing but air and dribbles of spit.

“FRIDAY, could you call—” Just as she was about to finish her sentence, her face paled and she retched again, the only thing painfully passing her lips being air. “— Dr Cho.”

“Will do, Miss Romanoff.” Natasha backed up against the cold wall, folding her arms across her midsection and doubling over. She’d been having violent bouts of nausea for the past few days. They started with the occasional sickening feeling in her gut; those were manageable and relatively easy to hide from Steve. Then came the panicked trips to the bathroom, where futile whimpers for help spilled out between the night’s dinner. They only happened in the middle of the night, and Natasha was thankful for that. She wouldn’t want Steve waking with a start and bursting into the toilet, only to see her so vulnerable. 

Vulnerability. Natasha would do anything to hide her helplessness; not even the ones closest to her had seen her in a state past asking help from others. It scared them to think about just how much she had endured alone, let alone lived with, for most of her life. The only time they’d see her in a state of vulnerability would be the day they lowered her into a pit six feet under— but she hoped that day wouldn’t be arriving so soon.

Natasha? ” A petite voice crackled over the call, and Natasha silently let out a sigh of relief. If not for the fact that she was huddled next to the toilet, she wouldn’t have called Helen. Or anyone else. Natasha was stubborn, but definitely not stubborn enough to ignore the warning signs which were threatening to tear her apart from the inside. 

“Hey, Helen.” Natasha swallowed thickly, fervently praying that another wave of nausea wouldn’t conveniently hit her mid-call. Burying her head in her hands, she murmured apologetically. “I’m sorry for calling, I know it’s late.” 

“Oh, don’t worry about it! I’m just finishing up some paperwork.” Helen’s surprisingly chirpy voice painted a stark contrast against the dire situation Natasha had gotten herself into. “What’s up?”

“Need to see you. Tomorrow. Here.” 

Helen’s blood ran cold as Natasha spoke, her words drawn out and slow. She had never gone to Helen for help, let alone willingly called her. There was an unspoken silence that lingered in the air, before the gears started turning in Helen’s mind and she put two and two together. 

“I’ll be there. See you tomorrow.” Helen mustered as much optimism in her voice before ending the call, fearing for the worst. Even with a dozen bullet wounds and pints of blood spilled, Natasha never, ever sought help. Not until now.

“Miss Romanoff, your appointment with Dr. Cho starts at 8 in the morning today.” FRIDAY’s voice sounded softly, causing Natasha to shift uncomfortably under the covers. Ever since the fever, Natasha had been having restless and fitful nights. Not that they were uncommon, though, but she knew that a collective three hours of sleep in the past seven days was definitely a cause for concern. Even Tony got a couple more hours of sleep on average in a week. 

As she sat up slowly, her back ached in protest, and she could feel the onset of an imminent, blinding migraine. “Thanks, Fri.” She exhaled gently, careful to keep her coughing fits at bay as much as she could.

Natasha nestled into a couch in the common room, vaguely catching onto soft footsteps padding across the room. ‘’Natasha?” A voice startled her from behind, and she barely had the strength to swivel around.

“Hey,” Natasha mumbled while looking straight ahead at a wall, feeling her stomach churn violently although there was nothing but air and acid. 

Helen sat next to her on the couch, setting her bag down and pulling out papers. As she reached over to bring Natasha into a tight embrace — like they always did when meeting each other—, Helen could sense that something was off. Natasha had seemingly shrunk in her stature, and her ribs were painfully visible through the thin, black camisole she was wearing. Trying her best to avoid staring, Helen promptly returned her gaze back to the clipboard clutched in her hands, scribbling a couple of words mindlessly as Natasha watched on. 

“Wanna tell me about it?” Helen trailed her gaze towards the medicine strewn haphazardly on the coffee table, before staring back at her. Natasha stilled, contemplating if calling Helen over was even a good choice to begin with, but a sudden jolt of pain in the side of her head almost made her lurch forward. That definitely cleared her doubts about calling Helen.

“Headaches. Lots of them.” Natasha started, ghosting her fingers over her temples as she tried to ease the pain away. Helen scribbled on as Natasha continued to spill out her symptoms. There were far more than Natasha had initially thought of, and Helen struggled to keep pace with the long list of words, until she finally stopped at the last symptom. 

“ — and, occasional chills. That’s about it, not too many honestly.” 

Not too many?” Helen looked down at the list of all eighteen symptoms she had described, before looking back up at Natasha with concern etched onto her face. Natasha’s face paled as she stared at the list on the clipboard, unaware of just how much she’d been hiding from herself. She only realised the full extent of her illness when she first saw it set on paper in ink, stretching past the allocated ten blanks under the section labelled ‘Symptoms’. She studied Helen’s face for any sign of anger, or frustration, but all she got was a slightly concerning look of sorrow on her face. 

“How long has this been going on for?”

“Three months, probably.”

Sirens went off in Helen’s mind as she registered Natasha’s words carefully, piecing together bits of information to form some sort of diagnosis. She recalled how a patient had come into her clinic, describing the exact same symptoms, only to be pronounced dead in her apartment a few days later. Helen shuddered at the memory, clutching the clipboard even tighter. She wouldn’t let Natasha know about her suspicions, not now, at least.

“I’ll have to run a couple of tests. Your symptoms aren’t pointing me towards a solid diagnosis yet, but we should be able to figure it out after the results come back.” Helen forced a smile, “Meet me at the compound’s MedBay?” 

“Sure,” Natasha nodded her head numbly, visibly shaken by the thought of making a trip there. 

A FEW HOURS LATER

Bursting out of Helen’s office, Natasha made a run for the bathroom. As she rested her head against the cool porcelain, she attempted to steady her breathing. The Black Widow was never scared, but this wasn’t the Black Widow. This was Natasha Romanoff, nothing more than an apathetic and stubborn member of the team. 

Unbeknownst to her, silent prayers had slipped out from her lips vehemently throughout the day; the idea of waiting for the tests results, which she was positively sure would return negative, was nothing but terrifying. 

“I’ll be okay.” She closed her eyes, falling under the sound of her own heartbeat throbbing in her head.

WAKANDA

“Who’s taking care of them while we’re gone?” Bucky questioned, holding a baby goat in his arms. He could almost hear Sam rolling his eyes, to which he chose to ignore and instead, focused on packing his bags. 

“They can take care of themselves,” Sam stated, looking out of the hut to find Steeb and Red headbutting each other, their bleats ringing in his ears. “ Or not, ” Sam sighed and ran a hand down his face. 

“Wheels up in five.” Heading out of the hut, Sam found Okoye standing at the door, her face blank. He’d never seen Okoye smile, let alone twitch the corners of her lips, and Sam wondered if she’d ever lost it at a joke. He knew there was nothing to joke about, given the circumstances, but Sam tried to find happiness in the little things in life. Like goats, or Bucky. 

“Send my regards to the Captain. Nat too, ” she spoke with an air of dignity, but Sam caught her voice softening at the last two words. “I will.”

As Bucky packed the last of his belongings into a haversack, he waved to the goats, mumbling something that Sam couldn’t quite catch from his seat in the Quinjet. 

“To home?” Sam started up the engine, pushing buttons and flipping switches on the dashboard.

Bucky adjusted in his seat, and he could’ve sworn he caught Okoye heaving a sigh of relief as soon as the wheels were up.

“To home.”

AVENGERS FACILITY

“Thank you, Dr Kim.” Ending the call, Helen reclined in her seat, opening up the file in her inbox. Natasha’s test results had been delivered, but as her cursor hovered over the document, she felt the tension building up behind her eyes and the air thickening around her.

Natasha would be fine.

Natasha would be fine.

Natasha would be fine.

As she opened up the document, a flurry of words and numbers emerged. The first few pages didn’t catch her attention— just standard patient data— but as she read on, her heart hammered in her chest. Keeping her gait casual with as little hints of hesitation as possible, her fingers trembled against the touchpad, knowing that something was looming ahead. 

Soon, charts and scans appeared, and it didn’t take a registered doctor to recognise that there was something very wrong with the images. Her attention shortly averted to the numerous underlined words and bold, red phrases, until her gaze came to a halt on the last page.

SCLC

T3N1M1

She almost blanched when she re-read both lines again. Fear coursed through her system like carp through a river, the absolute shock and realisation paralysing her in her seat. In that moment, Helen could only hear the sounds of her heavy breaths and the soft whirring of the ventilator in the ceiling. 

“No,” Helen mouthed, attempting to scroll past the page she was on, but it was the last one in the document. Her diagnosis was clearly imprinted onto the page, and Helen could do nothing but stare at it and pray that this was a fever dream. But it wasn’t, nothing in the document was a hallucination; it all felt too real. 

A notification popped up in the corner of her screen, snapping her out of her momentary stupor. She contemplated putting it off, but as she glanced to look at the sender, she felt her heart fall to her feet.

Nat:

Hey Helen, just letting you know that I’m feeling slightly better today. 

Thank you for the painkillers :)

Helen almost let out a strangled sob as she closed the pop-up, propping her elbows onto the desk and burying her head in her hands. “You’ll not be feeling better anytime soon, Natasha. Not in ten years, not ever.” Helen wants to tell her, but all she could do was drown in her own thoughts.

With shaky hands, she reached for the mobile phone on her desk, slowly scrolling through her contact list until she reached Natasha’s number. Now or never.

QUINJET, ON ROUTE TO AVENGERS FACILITY

The compound sat in the middle of a huge, plain field, with various smaller buildings littering the edges. There were no signs of civilisation in sight; no parked cars, and overgrown shrubbery growing around the compound were signs that the facility had not been tended to in a long while. 

“I hope we don’t catch them making out.” Sam sneered, steering the Quinjet for landing.

“Sam,” Bucky warned, casting a disapproving but otherwise non-threatening glance at him. He wondered about what they could’ve gotten up to in the compound, and he could only hope that they were coping well with the decimation.

The Quinjet rumbled to a halt on the landing pad, and the rear exit opened up as Sam busied himself with the controls. “I’ll be out in a second. Go say hi.” With that, Bucky grabbed his bag, slung it over his shoulders and trudged out of the jet, leaving Sam to park the jet in the facility’s hangar.

Helen waited with bated breath as the line rang, impatience growing within her. Before she could contemplate on how she would break it to Natasha, the ringing stopped and a faint, weak voice sounded from the other end. 

“Dr. Cho?”

Helen drew in a deep breath, her hands clammy and stiff. 

“Hey, Natasha. The test results came in.” Helen hesitated on the last few words, the crippling fear of revealing the diagnosis to Natasha settling in her bones. There was no response from Natasha, and that gave Helen a sign to continue.

“We did a couple of blood tests that day, the biopsy results came in,” Helen started, fear evident in her unusually quiet voice. “Standard procedure, I’m sure you’re aware of it. I took a little more than necessary to run more tests and—” 

And?” Helen could almost picture her raising her brow incredulously. Natasha knew there was something wrong; Helen never rambled on aimlessly, ever. Years of being in the field of spywork had trained her to detect traces of fear and uncertainty in people’s voices, and Natasha was almost positive that Helen was hiding something.

“We— Dr Kim and I checked the—” 

“Shoot it,” Natasha mumbled lazily, leaning back into her seat. 

Natasha,” Helen’s voice grew deeper, her breath hitching. 

“It’s cancer. Small cell lung cancer.”

Natasha stilled, the phone in her hand gripped tighter than before. In just seconds, she was curled in on herself, laying still on the unusually stiff couch. The only movements in the room were the slight tremble in her lips and tears darkening the fabric of the couch.

Oh. ” That was all Natasha could manage as her eyes grew glassy, hand pressed over her lips to stop herself from breaking into a sob. She was Natasha fucking Romanoff. There was no way she was going to die from cancer. 

Helen cringed inwardly at Natasha’s first response since the diagnosis. Her indifference towards the news, the simple ‘ Oh ’ she murmured and the lack of reaction was worrying for Helen— scary, even. But Natasha was far from indifferent, Helen just couldn’t see her breaking down on the couch alone, denial consuming her entirely.

Bucky stalked down the hallways, looking from room to room. Most of them had been emptied or cleaned out, with the occasional boxes strewn around the corridors. Looking for Steve or Natasha in the infinitely huge compound was proving to be a difficult task for him, until he stumbled across the common room and found a lock of red hair peeking out from the edge of the sofa. 

He hid behind a door frame, remembering how they had planned to surprise Steve and Natasha together. She was lying on her side, a phone nestled between her shoulder and her cheek. Bucky noticed, however, that there were tears streaming down her cheeks and that her eyes were red rimmed. Shit. No more surprises.

As Bucky was about to turn to alert Sam, a feeble voice broke the still air. Bucky froze in his steps and listened closely.

Stage 4?

All the colour drained from his face as his eyes grew wide with panic, the two words reeling in his mind.

Stage 4?

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE: RUNNING INTO DEATH

A WEEK LATER

“Nat, we’re seriously understaffed.” Steve shot her a disapproving look as he dropped his gear at the door, slumping onto a couch. Sam and Bucky followed closely behind, their faces worn with exhaustion and frustration. Looking up from her tablet, Natasha came face to face with Steve, who had been towering over her. 

Ever since the decimation, the team had been doing side missions every now and then when a threat seemed to surface. There were days when they’d trek the Andes, and days when they’d find themselves secluded in a remote basement under the streets of Morocco. 

Every announcement of a new mission would be met with Natasha’s declinatures. For the first few missions, she’d politely decline, busying herself with paperwork which Steve seemed to believe in. Then, they progressed to futile excuses; visiting Tony, overseeing compound security and making the eighth video call of the week to Carol. Eventually, she grew tired of her act and resorted to simply being tired. 

“There are people out there who need our help, Natasha.” Steve snapped at her, but Natasha simply looked back at him with a blank expression, her eyes devoid of any guilt. She was far too exhausted from dealing with her own problems to be dealing with others’. “Families lost, homes lost; sitting around in the compound isn’t going to help in any way.” He admonished, albeit slightly puzzled by her oddly calm demeanour. 

“Steve—” Natasha tried, but Steve’s voice had grown louder and overpowered hers. 

“Don’t. Don’t sit around and pretend that you’re busy when surveillance tells me otherwise.” He spat, emphasising the last syllable of his sentence as he stalked off to his room. Natasha’s eyes were wide in fear, but as she found Bucky’s forlorn expression staring back at her, she shot him a cautionary look. If Steve knew about it, she’d never forgive Bucky for revealing the truth. 

Steve had clearly hit his breaking point, and it took everything in Natasha to not spill her guts out to him. If only he knew how her lungs burned up every time she took in a breath, if only he knew how the ache in her bones seemed to settle deeper with every passing day. If  only he knew

Steve buried his head in his hands, face taut with anger. Natasha would always be the first to sign up for a mission, the first to extend her help, the first to spring into action, so why was she refusing to back them up? 

“You okay?” Sam called out from behind, walking into the room and sitting on the couch next to his bed. Steve nodded once, looking back up at Sam to find him smiling wearily.

“This is about Natasha, isn’t it?” Sam implored. Steve nodded again, sighing audibly. Although he’d spent a good eleven years with Natasha, there was still a certain degree of trust he had yet to earn, and Steve knew it wouldn’t be wise to push her limits. She was unreadable, always concealing her problems and hiding herself away from the rest of the world— as if revealing her true self would get her killed.

“She’s going to be fine. You never know what to expect from a world-class spy, huh?” Sam jabbed Steve in the side with his elbow, letting out a low chuckle.

“Guess you’re right,” Steve admitted, rubbing the back of his neck in resignation. 

“Thought you needed this,” Bucky placed a heating pack beneath her body, positioning it carefully before taking a seat next to Natasha on the couch.

“I don’t need it,” Natasha mumbled, the ache in her back overpowering her thoughts and leaving her with a dampened sense of awareness. As she pulled it out from beneath her back, Bucky’s hand gripped onto hers, preventing her from removing the pack.

“You do.” Bucky kept his voice firm but gentle, loosening his grip as soon as Natasha had melted into the warm embrace of the heating pack, sighing in relief albeit her strong refusal. Bucky knew exactly when and how to ease her pain, and Natasha only had him to thank for not blowing her own ego. Natasha had never spent this much time on the couch, or experienced this degree of comfort, until her diagnosis. Knowing that she could be out of the compound, taking down evil while saving hundreds killed her more than the cancer itself. All her life, she’d only been taught to serve and fight— and they would always reap her wins. Now that she could do neither, the bitter taste of failure lingered on her tongue.

Bucky could tell that she was hurting. She would only dissolve into a puddle once Sam and Steve had left the room, she’d only let out a heavy sigh once it was just her and Bucky in a room. She was doing such a good job at hiding her illness, and Bucky wondered if it was even healthy for her to keep doing so. He had seen her try to quell the urge of throwing up violently in the bathroom by shoving her fist against her teeth in vain. He had seen her throw on more layers than usual in an attempt to conceal her figure. He had seen her lose interest in what was once her favourite foods over time. 

As soon as Natasha had stifled a cough, Bucky resolved to speaking up.

“How?”

“How what?” Natasha looked at him in genuine confusion. 

“How do you pretend that everything is okay when you’re—” Bucky hung his head, waves of sorrow washing over him as he struggled to get the last word out, “— not.

“All my life I’ve been running from death; we know this better than anyone. Now that death’s knocking on my door, I don’t suppose there’s anything else I can do.” It hurt her to admit it out loud, to admit that she had given up, to admit that she was only a step away from leaving everyone else behind. Years of going against gods and monsters had prepared her for anything else she had to face in the future, but nothing could prepare her for the attack her body had waged against itself. The serum caused her cells to self-destruct just as fast as they multiplied, which meant a torturous cycle of pain. She knew that they’d over-multiply soon, it was just a matter of time. Three months, apparently.

“You have so much more to do, Tasha.” Bucky shook his head in denial, taking her hand in his. “What about seeing the Bolshoi together? Pranking Sam? The hundreds of candles we’d buy for Steve’s birthday—” Bucky would have continued rambling on in panic, if not for Natasha stopping him mid-sentence.

“I know, Bucky. It’s just that…” She quietened, Helen’s voice ringing in her ears once again. “It’s just that, time is running out. We both know that.” Natasha’s face fell, lips quivering and turning pale. She had never thought about time more than a simple countdown on her toaster or when the Quinjet wheels would be up for their next mission. Time seemed non-existent, especially with slowed ageing by the serum and the fact that she’d been fighting alongside immortal beings. Three fingers up— that was the number of months she had left. Natasha could almost see the dead-end of the tunnel, now replaced by darkness instead of the light she’d always been told of. 

“I’m running straight into death and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Then we’ll run with you, Tasha. We’ll never leave.” Bucky pulled Natasha into his embrace, and he watched as the sleeve of his top stained dark grey with her tears.

Unbeknownst to them, someone had been watching close by, his fists clenched up and face taut. The last they’d seen of him was when he stormed past the doorway in a rush, nothing but a blur of grey to Bucky and Natasha.

Steve.

Throughout the day, Steve noticed how Natasha never left the confines of her bed— with the exceptions of meal times and to use the bathroom. Even then, she’d bring her meals into her room and shut the door before Steve could question further. 

Natasha held a bowl of cereal, her hands shaky despite carrying a half-filled plastic bowl. Each day, Natasha seemed to feel her strength ebb away bit by bit. On some days, she could barely roll over onto her side to get out of bed, and on some days the ache in her bones made her want to snap them into two. Painkillers were merely a drop in the ocean, offering her little respite from the raw, unadulterated pain tearing through her body.

All Natasha wanted to do was to melt into her bed, curl up into a fetal position and wait for the ordeal to pass. The bowl of cereal seemed revolting to her— everything she’d attempted to eat, did in fact, look ten times less appetising now. Silently praying that no one would intrude on her, she spooned a mouthful of soggy cereal, hoping she wouldn’t trigger her gag reflex.

Speak of the devil, Natasha’s door burst open with force. As she slowly craned her neck to see who it was, her eyes widened in shock as Steve stormed up to her bedside. 

“Let’s train for three rounds. Meet me in five.” Steve stated duly, leaving Natasha with no chance to accept or reject. The expression set on Steve’s face suggested that he’d only take one answer from her— a yes.

Steve remembered how he’d overheard their conversation from the doorway, watching as the name ‘James’ slipped out of her mouth, watching as they shared hushed whispers, watching as she slipped away from Steve’s grasp. 

Bucky’s your friend, get it together. As he mentally berated himself, he knew deep down that Bucky had become something more for Natasha than Steve would have wanted. 

As if in protest, her body ached in ways she’d never fathomed, every little movement now more of a negotiation than an order. 

“Right.” There was hesitancy laced in her words, but Steve had been far too blinded by fury to see through it. Pushing herself to her limits was far better than being interrogated by Steve, and the last thing Natasha wanted was for him to find out this early. 

“Meet you upstairs in five.”

Stepping into the on-suite bathroom, Natasha combed her fingers through her matted hair, slick with sweat and dull in colour. There was no longer any life teeming within her, and all she felt was an empty shell of what was once herself. 

As she piled on a tank top and a thick jacket, she could only pray that the layers would conceal her painfully thin figure and the way her ribs protruded out of her skin. However, changing her clothes alone already seemed like a daunting task. 

“Ready?” Steve set his jaw, eyes trained on her as he held both arms up at chest level. 

“Mhm.” Natasha had barely responded when Steve suddenly sent a punch through the air, narrowly missing her cheek. She hadn’t trained at all in the past month, let alone done any form of exercise. Although her muscles had weakened, she was still able to keep her pace up with Steve as she managed to land a couple of successful blows. 

Ducking under his attacks, Natasha smiled as she found herself with surprisingly good reflexes despite the circumstance. Each attack by him was met with an effective counter from her— together, they fought like a well-oiled machine. However, the smile on her face was soon wiped out as she caught a glimpse of Steve’s expression. 

Steve picked up the pace, each blow landing itself faster. He watched as Natasha struggled to keep up with him, the smile on her face soon wiped out and replaced by a look of worry. Pure, unadulterated rage that had been brewing within him for the past few days translated itself into lethal punches. They seemed to increase in intensity with every passing second as he rained down blow after blow on her, completely blinded by his own frustration and rage. Watching Bucky get too close to her for his own liking set something off in him; he had never been one to envy others, but the way they acted around each other made his skin crawl. Coupled with her lack of effort, Steve believed that he had every reason to rage at her.

“Steve, slow down.” Natasha cautioned, her voice wavering as she tried to counter his attacks. However, she let a couple of them slip and ended up with a strike to her cheek and a punch in the gut. Apart from the debilitating ache, she had to manage the multiple bruises she could feel incoming. With black spots threatening to crowd her vision and her lungs searing, Natasha wasn’t sure how long she’d be able to last on the mat before she’d blackout. Mid-fight, she looked up to find his eyes set in a way that she’d rarely ever seen. His expression was dark and foreboding, and every inch of his body seemed to be buzzing with wrathfulness. 

Steve—” She tried again, raising her voice slightly as he stopped momentarily to stare at her. At that moment, Natasha felt nothing but fear, her breaths ragged and harsh. As much as she cast a worrisome look at him, Steve seemed to be oblivious to it, charging at her again in an attempt to knock her out.

Before Natasha could get another word of warning out, his fist collided with her body. Her gaze flickered downwards to find his fist connected with her midsection as a sickening crunch filled the air. The force of his punch sent her stumbling back a few feet, then collapsing onto the ground as she looked at Steve in horror. 

“Get up.” Steve folded his arms, looking down at Natasha as she clutched onto her ribs, doubling over from the pain. Every breath she attempted to draw was met with a sharp pain shooting through her chest, leaving her breathless.

Steve noticed how her breathing was erratic, but he pretended not to notice, waiting for her to get back up. Steve only registered the severity of the situation when he noticed how she was clutching onto her chest, wincing in pain. Realisation hit him square in the chest, and he scrambled over out of fear, instantly regretting his actions.

“Shit,” Steve mumbled as he dropped to his knees. Natasha pointed towards her ribs weakly, her eyes full of desperation. Lifting up the hem of her hoodie, Steve’s jaw went slack as the scene before him unfolded.

The first thing he noticed was just how thin she was. Natasha had a slender figure, but Steve knew the current state she was in was far from acceptable. His eyes trailed eastwards and he found her ribs painfully pressing against her skin, almost threatening to rupture. 

As Natasha scrambled to pull the hoodie back down, she let out a sudden gasp as her ribs jarred painfully against her skin. 

“I'm getting you to medical.” Steve picked her up, careful to not aggravate her injury before making a run for the MedBay. Natasha winced as Steve placed his arms under her knees and slung her arm over the back of his neck.

“Ibuprofen. We cannot risk placing a splint.” The doctor slid a bottle of pills over the lacquered desk, clasping his hands together. 

“Refrain from any other strenuous activities, the ca—” Before he could complete his sentence, Natasha stood up slowly, looking him dead in the eye as if she’d knock him out if he dared to say another word. 

“Thank you, Doc.” Natasha muttered coldly, before turning her back to leave, the splintering pain in her chest still limiting her mobility. Steve held her back by the arm, but Natasha swiveled around to face him and jerked her head in the direction of the door.

“We’re leaving.” 

Guilt squeezed at his brain as he stood outside her room, one arm leaning onto the adjacent wall for support. The image of her thinning figure sent a chill down his spine, and he wondered how he hadn’t realised it sooner. There was something wrong with Natasha. It wasn’t a passing common cold, a minor ache in her bones, or anything else she'd claimed it to be. It was anything but it. 

As he pushed open the door gingerly, Steve found Natasha lying on the bed, her chest barely rising and falling. Each exhale was shaky and her chest trembled with caution. Although she wore a blank expression, Steve knew that she was hurting from the way her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks.

Setting down the bottle of ibuprofen, he sat down on the mattress next to her. Steve knew that Natasha was awake, but he stalled, hesitating to call out her name. 

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Natasha shrugged nonchalantly, but winced when the movement caused her ribs to jerk upwards. Bad timing to do anything, really.

“I’m so sorry.” Steve sighed, gripping the edges of the mattress in regret. He should’ve known better, should’ve seen the warning signs, should’ve got her signal. There was no reason to be this oblivious, not when they’d spent eleven years on the field together, growing accustomed to each other over the years. 

“You don’t have to be.” Her voice barely came out as a whisper, eyes still closed. Five words from her were all it took for guilt to start eating at him from the inside, festering like an infected wound as he willed for nothing but to pour his heart out to her in apology. “I shouldn’t have done that, I know it’s something I would’ve never done,” Steve heaved out in disappointment, words tumbling out of his mouth is hurried succession as his face flushed with remorse.

“There’s something on your mind,” Natasha remarked, studying Steve’s expression with caution. His gaze wandered back to the ground, and by now he was saturated with penitence. “I’m always open to listening.”

Steve hated how she cared more about the way he was feeling than the fact that she had three cracked ribs, all a result from his wrath. He couldn’t deny that there was something on his mind, but Steve wasn’t sure if speaking his mind would clear things up or dig himself a deeper pit to spiral into. All the looks of adoration shared between Bucky and her, the way Steve would visit only to find Natasha tucked into the crook of Bucky’s neck; why was he concerned about the way they acted around each other?

As he opened his mouth in an attempt to spill the truth on his mind, a blur of red whizzed by him, making a run for the bathroom. Natasha left the door ajar, instantly dropping to her knees and turning her back against Steve to blanch into the porcelain bowl. However, she gagged dryly, realising that she hadn't eaten for the entire day. “I couldn’t…” Natasha retches again before she can finish the thought, but Steve filled in the blanks. I couldn’t hold it in.

Get out,” Natasha managed, shoving him away before shutting the door with what little strength left in her. Hearing the door click shut gave her a sense of relief as she continued to choke on the mix of air and stomach acid. However, her relief was somewhat short-lived when she felt a hand on her back, realising that Steve was on the wrong side of the door.

“You’re okay. You’re okay,” Steve repeated as he held onto her side, Natasha almost toppling over from the bouts of nausea. His fingers etched into her shirt, and he could almost feel her ribs digging into the pads of his fingers. 

They sat on the chilly bathroom tiles for as long as Natasha needed, just Steve comforting her as best as he could while Natasha managed a few deep breaths before gagging fruitlessly again. Sorrow and desolation filled Natasha up quickly, and all she wanted to do was to empty it all out in the pit before her. There was still so much hurt she had yet to empty out from her system.

Once the nausea had dissipated and Natasha was left resting the side of her head on Steve’s chest, he spoke up. “I think we both know who needs to speak their mind first.” 

One look from Steve was enough to break down her walls, enough to lower her guard, enough to make her want to spill everything out in waves. Natasha knew that keeping it a secret would only last so long; it was just a matter of time before Steve would eventually get to know of it. There was no other circumstance where she could break the truth to him— no more excuses, no more lies, no more hiding. 

“I’m sorry,” Natasha apologised for what seemed like the fifth time that day, but Steve swiftly stopped her. 

“Don’t. Don’t apologise.”

“But Steve, this is someth—”

“You have no reason to be sorry.” His tone heralded an air of finality, and Natasha found herself losing her grip on the one cursed word she’d been trying to utter for the past few minutes. As she drew in a shaky inhale, she whispered in a voice only Steve would have been able to pick up.

“Cancer.”

Steve was about to retort with another line but he stopped short when the word left her lips. It resounded clearly in his mind, flashing like a broken neon sign. With his jaw slack and his eyes as still as a frozen-over lake, he watched as Natasha’s expression turned uncharacteristically desolate. It took everything in her to utter that one word to Steve, to utter it to the person that meant the most to her, to utter it to the one person who would have to live the rest of his life knowing that she’d be just dust in the wind soon enough. 

Steve pulled Natasha into his arms wordlessly, wanting nothing but to run a comforting hand over every inch of her paling skin. It had lost its colour a long time ago, along with her lips, and her hair, and her eyes. Steve had been too caught up in his emotions and work to have noticed that the once bright colours on her features seemed to have reduced in intensity as the days flew by. Everything painted a dull, grey scene in his eyes, and for the first time in his life, his enhanced sight did nothing but amplify the dreadful grey. 

“How long?” Steve found himself skipping to the practical side of the issue, denial obvious in his tone.

“Have I had it or have I got left?”

“Both… Either,” Steve muttered in a hurry, his mind racing with worst-case scenarios.

Three.

“That’s how long you’ve had it?” Steve pressed for an answer, gripping onto her shoulders out of fear. Natasha felt her world crashing down around her at his words. She wanted to assure him that she still had a long way to go, that she’d be alright, but no matter how she tried, she found herself spitting out the truth.

“That’s how long I’ve got.” Steve froze, shaking his head in a futile attempt to wake up from a nightmare which was very much a reality. “No, no it can’t be.” With his gaze unfocused and his attention wavering, Natasha took it as a signal to wrap her arms around him tighter, further cementing him into reality. It was harsh to take it in, but she knew that what had been done, had been done; there was nothing the both of them could do. 

If the sound of his heart splintering into thousands of fragments could be heard, it would’ve drowned out the soft sobs escaping from Steve’s lips and Natasha’s soothing voice. As the weight of Natasha’s words finally sunk in, Steve was left feeling entirely hollow. Denial had consumed him whole, leaving nothing but desolation in its wake. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Steve’s voice came out as a hoarse whisper, as he pulled back to gaze at her through teary eyes.

All the times he’d forgone her silent signals for help, drowned out the sound of her retching in the room next door by knocking out bags after bags of sand, ignored her attempts to forgo missions— they all finally washed over him as realisation dawned upon.

“I couldn’t.” Natasha choked out, her words catching in her throat. Receiving her diagnosis was one thing, revealing it to her loved ones was another. Natasha could imagine how Steve would have turned her back on her if he knew, how Steve would have condemned her for being nothing short of the weakest link. However, the super-soldier sat across from her on the floor said otherwise. With one arm rubbing gently along her back and the other planted firmly on her shoulder, all Natasha felt was pure, unadulterated love. 

“Why?” 

“Because this changes everything, Steve.”

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX: UNWELCOME

“Why?” 

“Because this changes everything, Steve.”

And she was right; everything changed. Natasha awoke the next morning to find her hand encapsulated in Steve’s hold, warmth radiating off his skin. A look of confusion set on her face as she gently slid her hand out from beneath his, careful not to wake him. They’d never engaged in much physical contact, especially while Natasha was asleep. Anyone who had ever dared to lay a finger on her while she slept would’ve gotten a roundhouse kick in the face. 

As she stumbled out of the room, carefully running her fingers along the walls for support, she walked into the kitchen to find a table set with breakfast. Sam had his back turned against her, oblivious to her presence as he whistled in the midst of flipping pancakes. 

“You’re up early,” Sam remarked, tossing a pancake onto her plate and sliding it towards her. With a half-smile, Natasha watched Sam dole out the remaining pancakes, a radiant smile etching itself onto his face. However, her heart sunk at the thought that she had yet to tell him about it. About the fact that he’d be losing another one of his friends in three months, tops.

“Bad night, huh?” Sitting across from Natasha, he crossed both arms and rested them on the countertop. The events from last night resurfaced in her mind and she hesitated before shrugging her shoulders.

“Could be better.” She gave up trying to shove a piece of pancake into her mouth, instead opting to lean back into her seat and stare blankly at the wall behind Sam. Her appetite was on a dangerous decline, but she pretended not to notice

Down the hallway, the sound of footsteps padding lightly against the marble floor resonated into the kitchen, prompting Sam to dish out the last couple of pancakes onto two adjacent plates. As Steve and Bucky filed into the kitchen, their forlorn expressions stuck out the most, especially to Sam.

“What’s up?” Sam looked at both of them incredulously, but neither said a word or did so much as to make eye contact with him. There was something off in the three of them, but Sam could not lay a finger on what exactly had happened.

Breakfast passed slower than any other mornings they’d ever had; plates were untouched and their eyes were devoid of any emotion, unsettling Sam to no end. Steve and Bucky would usually talk endlessly during breakfast, but their lips had been sealed ever since they set foot into the kitchen. 

For the next hour, no words were exchanged at the table— only the sounds of metal against ceramic and the shuffling of chairs. 

“Natasha,” Sam called out, and she knew instantly that she’d have to break it to him. Nudging her head towards the direction of the couch, Sam sat down next to her, a hint of worry in his features. Although she’d broken the news to two others, the one word she’d been refraining from saying still caught in her throat when the time came.

Sam received the news better than both Steve and Bucky, all the while listening and nodding sympathetically. Natasha knew that Sam never liked wearing his heart on his sleeve, but she could tell that he was devastated. 

“When did it start?” Sam questioned flatly, much to Natasha’s relief. The last thing she would’ve wanted was another dreary, downcast conversation. Normalcy was something she rarely ever got in conversations since breaking it to the team. 

“Helen said it’s been two years…” Natasha trailed off, her gaze wandering towards the ground beside Sam’s feet. Two years was a long time. Painfully long, in fact. She’d brushed off the warning signs almost as soon as they started appearing, deeming them nothing more than common ailments. The serum could fix everything, couldn’t it? 

Broken bones could mend, bruises could heal, airways could clear. But what if they never did? What if Natasha had been oblivious to the daunting severity of the situation all along, blinded by the thousands of missions she’d been assigned to and the countless hours she’d spent drowning her thoughts out?

Sam knew better than to press her for answers; being blamed for her own downfall would have made things much, much worse. Deciding to resort to words of comfort, Sam rested a palm on her thigh, giving her a reassuring rub.

“We’ll be okay.”

Sometimes, Steve just wishes that she would be awake, that she would spend what little time she had left with him. He hated how they were wasting away so much time, how every moment spent with her could be her last. But Natasha needs rest , he chides himself— sleep means recovery, right?

On the surface, she slept in past noon; something she would have beaten herself up for in the past. However, fitful sleep plagued by night terrors was really the only ‘sleep’ she ever got. She wouldn’t tell the others about how she’d jolt awake every other hour, her pulse erratic and her hands shaking beyond control. 

“I don’t want this to change anything, Steve.” Natasha noticed how the way he acted around her had changed; more ‘are you okay?' s and less time away from her. She’d always been a lone wolf, both on and off the field. Receiving help had not always been her cup of tea, especially when it was born out of sheer pity for her.

“I know, I’m so sorry,” Steve sighed in defeat, wrapping his arms around her back and pulling her closer. “I just— I wouldn’t know what to do if I lost you.”

It started out with waking up to breakfast trays by her lap every morning, a note attached which would be signed off by either three of them. 

‘Made your favourite pancakes, I know you love them - J’

‘Redwing delivered this here, thank him :) - Sam’

‘Hope this makes you smile, call me over! - S’

As much as she smiled inwardly at their gesture, she found herself spiralling into a pit of helplessness. Her feet ached so much she could barely make it to the bathroom to throw up, her wrists hurt so much they trembled when she picked up a spoon, and she could barely do the simplest of tasks. Grabbing breakfast from the kitchen itself was proving to be a daunting task for her, let alone making it to her bedroom door. 

Then, she was seething in anger, or pain, Natasha didn’t know. She was the Black Widow, she could take down a dozen henchmen with just her skillset alone. She could scale buildings in the dead of the night, avoiding every security camera and taking out her targets in the process. But then reality sinks in, and she realises she isn’t the Black Widow anymore— she’s nothing but a human faced with death.

On multiple occasions, Bucky had offered to sling his arm over her shoulder while they walked along the corridor, but tripping was a better option than receiving help, Natasha thought. She would push Sam away whenever he turned up outside her room and asked to check up on her. She started to distance herself from everyone, predicting when they’d head back to their rooms so she could make a run for the kitchen or the bathroom. They barely saw her throughout the week, only managing to catch a blur of red before they’d hear her door slamming shut with force.

Natasha writhed in sheer pain, the sensation digging deeper into her muscles until they hit the bone with each passing minute. It felt like a dozen silent hand grenades buried within her body, waiting to detonate and unleash hell on her. Except when they did, she’d shove her face into a pillow, force her eyes shut and wait for the darkest hours to pass. The pain clawed at every inch of her body, but Natasha knew it would have been expected; Helen had mentioned the possibility of metastasis. However, never in a thousand years would Natasha have expected the pain to be that debilitating.

She must have let slip a few groans and shouts because a familiar voice sounded from the other end of the door. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve been silently grateful for the company, but she had hit her breaking point. She was done being fussed around by her teammates, done being looked after like a person lying on their deathbed, done with their help.

“Nat...” She could almost hear the sound of his heart splintering into a million pieces at that one word, but she powered through and refused to open up for him. Not that she could even if she wanted to, though. Every muscle in her body was searing in flames and she felt herself being burned up from the inside. The bottle of painkillers next to her bed taunted her, but she knew she’d probably already went way over the appropriate dosage per day. 

As she stared at the doorknob through teary eyes, wanting to call out for him, her lips trembled in protest. A look of frustration crossed her face, her eyes seeming to say ‘ I’m so sorry, Steve. I can’t let you in. I’ll make it through on my own.

TWO WEEKS LATER

A dull throb in her head caused her to stir, followed shortly by a fuzzy feeling in her arms. Natasha wasn’t sure if it was the way she’d slept last night or the cancer, but everything seemed off its axis. Focusing on the clock at the other end of the room became more of a challenge than a simple part of her morning routine.

Natasha waited for the rest of the guys to clear up after breakfast before making her way to the kitchen. As the days flew by, she could feel the muscles in her legs starting to give way, but she made up for it by working out in the gym as best as she could. One foot after another , Natasha would remind herself as she took extra precaution when moving around the compound. 

Noticing a bowl of yoghurt and granola on the counter, Natasha inched forward to find a note from Steve attached.

‘Out for a run :) Made breakfast for you - S’

As she hummed in content, the bowl of yoghurt seemed more appetising than it ever had been. He’d thrown in a couple of mixed berries, different shades of red and purples decorating the bowl. However, the further she got into breakfast, the stronger the odd feeling seemed to wash over her. There was a tingling sensation in the back of her neck, as if there were electrical impulses jolting through her body. Although mild, they felt unsettling to her. Conducting electricity was definitely not a symptom Helen had described , Natasha chuckled dryly to herself.

The walk back to her room seemed easy, too easy for her liking. She felt lightheaded, her vision swimming in flashes of blacks and whites. Rubbing at her hands feebly to rid of the oddly numbing sensation, she coached herself not to drop to the ground. She guessed that she was dehydrated, or exhausted, or both. But the thought of waking up and having breakfast merely an hour ago seemed to point to the fact that this was something much more serious. 

One moment she had her shoulder against the wall, face paling and her vision unfocused. The next, her body had gone rigid, back slamming against the hardwood floor. Rendered with no vision and zero mobility, Natasha could only hear distant echoes reverberating from the end of the hallway, and she prayed hard that those voices belonged to Steve.

“I got us lunch on the way back!” Steve called out to no one in particular, setting a bag full of takeout on the counter. As he stalked down the hallway, he peeked his head into Natasha’s room to find it vacant. A pang of fear hit him, but he knew that Natasha would always end up in the training room or the common area when he left the compound. 

“Nat?” Steve turned a corner along the corridor to find a motionless figure lying in the middle. His breath hitched in his throat, as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He knew that neither Bucky or Sam were home, which left him with only one option to determine the figure on the ground. 

As he raced down the hallway, Steve noticed that Natasha was anything but motionless. She was wracked with tremors, limbs jerking against the ground. Dropping down onto his knees, Steve immediately registered the severity of the situation— she was having a seizure.

“You’re okay,” Steve whispered, hurriedly shucking off his jacket and sliding it underneath her head. Guttural groans spill from her lips, along with dregs of spit pooling on his jacket. It’s the least of his concerns, however; Natasha was breathing harshly through her nose, and Steve could only hold his breath, hoping it would pass.

“Fri, time it,” Steve called out, running a palm gently along her cheek. He’d been trained for situations like this, but it was the first time he’d seen it happen, especially on Natasha. Just watching her— the way her muscles flexed sporadically and involuntarily— made him ache. 

One minute. Her limbs were locked painfully, face in a grimace Steve would have never wanted to witness again. Steve knew to expect seizures from metastasis, but watching them happen in person caused tears to spring from his eyes, leaking down his cheeks and onto her shirt. She was still shaking violently, fists now clenched by her sides and eyes rolled back. 

Two minutes . She felt a hand on her cheek, but couldn’t lay a finger on what was happening and why someone would be touching her. The word ‘Natasha’ spilt from said person’s lips in succession, and with every passing second, anxiety brewed within her like an inferno. Being able to hear her name but not being able to respond to it frustrated her endlessly. Frustration soon turned into fear as all she saw was a white haze enveloping her vision.

“Natasha—” Steve barely managed before the tremors stopped abruptly, her shoulders still shaking slightly from her laboured breathing. Her eyes were closed, but Steve could feel her fingers twitching every now and then underneath his grasp. Rubbing soft circles into her palm, he swept away the stray strands of hair plastered onto her forehead, all the while whispering words of comfort to ease her.

“You’re alright, hey, you’re okay,” he coaxed, trailing his palm up and down her back as she shuddered involuntarily, quelling a belch. However, before Steve could ask if she was alright, Natasha lurched sideways, emptying herself onto the floor next to her.

She shook her head and groaned softly, as if trying to apologise as she wiped the back of her hand against her lips. Natasha’s head felt fuzzy; one minute she was walking along the hallway, the next she was on the floor next to a concerned-looking man. 

Then, it hit her. The one who was kneeled beside her, the one who had his hand on her back, was Steve. The thought of Steve having to witness her in this state almost made her sick; weeks of trying to avoid him had led her back to square one. His voice was like a fly she could never seem to swat away, his hands seemed to burn holes into her back, and his presence almost made her sick. The last thing she wanted was for Steve to have another reason to fuss over her with his painfully caring demeanour.

“Are you okay?” Steve questioned slowly, as Natasha’s eyes remained shut. A simple shake of her head told Steve to wait by her side before she came to fully. “Take however long you need. I’ll be here.” 

They both stayed on the ground, with Natasha’s head cushioned underneath Steve’s lap and Steve resting against the wall for hours on end, neither saying a word.

“Think you could sit up?” Steve started, rubbing her shoulder lightly. Natasha stirred, confusion almost setting in but not before a flash of anger hits her out of nowhere. The thought of somebody, especially Steve, fretting over her sent waves of distaste and frustration over her. Without thinking twice, she spoke for the first time in hours.

“I don’t need your help.” 

Steve was taken aback at first, his eyes wide in confusion. Natasha’s tone was laced with vitriol, voice low and harsh. After her ordeal, Steve imagined that she would’ve still been out of it.

“It’s okay, your mind just needs some time to kick back into the right gear and—” Before he could finish his sentence, Natasha spat out at him, her fists clenched in warning. “Rogers. I don’t need your help.

Without warning, Natasha shoved him in the chest, getting up with a shaky gait. Steve wanted to hold her down, to make sure she had gotten enough rest, but it seemed like Natasha had hit her breaking point. 

“I’m perfectly fine!” She snapped at him, hands braced against the floor. Her breathing is still laboured, panic rising within her, but she suppressed it down with the sheer frustration harboured towards him. 

By now, exasperation was pouring out of him, his face contorted into a frown. Why wouldn’t she accept his help? Why was she so indignant about being left alone? That was when he realised that maybe, just maybe, Natasha never cared for him. That maybe all those weeks he spent caring for her were unwanted, that every single gesture was left unappreciated. 

“Natasha—”

“Leave.”

“I can’t—”

“Steve, I won’t repeat myself.”

He saw the pure, unadulterated fury in her, how she clenched her jaw in indignance, how she stared daggers at him. Then, he saw a flash of remorse, her eyes seeming to plead for him to stay, hand almost gravitating towards his arm. It disappeared as soon as it appeared, face going dark again. 

“You were seizing in front of me and I couldn’t do anything about it!” Steve raised his voice, this time taking Natasha aback. Then, realisation set in— she had a seizure and Steve was there to witness it. Natasha almost gagged in disgust at the fact, hands clawing at her face and in her scalp.

“Leave me alone.” Natasha stood up shakily, treading towards her bedroom her before slamming it close in Steve’s face. The thought of Steve seeing her so vulnerable and defenceless made her skin crawl; no one had to see her in that state, not even herself. 

Ever since her diagnosis, all everyone had been talking about was Natasha. Natasha’s treatment. Natasha’s well-being. Natasha’s appetite. Sometimes, it felt as if talking about these things was so much worse than the cancer itself. She wanted a semblance of normalcy, not pity or remorse for her. 

Natasha stayed in her room for the rest of the day, dismissing FRIDAY’s request to book her an appointment with the neurologist or Steve’s presence in the room next to hers. Her muscles ached immensely from the aftermath of the seizure, and coupled with the dull throb in her bones, Natasha curled in on herself, willing for the pain to disappear. This was a side of herself she would never let anyone witness, not even Steve. 

That night, Steve lay awake on his bed, the mattress unusually lumpy. His back ached in protest, and Steve wasn’t sure if it was from the cheap mattress or the hours he’d spent on the floor of the compound, doing nothing but comforting Natasha. He scoffed in response, downing a glass of water. She never cared, Steve. She wants nothing to do with you.

As screams pierced through the still night air of the compound, Steve didn’t do so much as flinch. He’d normally be the first one by her side when she was plagued with night terrors, but this was one night he knew he couldn’t help get her through. Steve could almost hear her hushed and muffled whimpers, but he pretended not to notice, simply turning his back against the adjacent wall to her room. 

Oblivious to the sleep-ridden occupant in the room next to hers, Natasha’s screams lasted through the night.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN: PAPER CRANES

ONE WEEK LATER

He had been nothing short of a plague to her, every inch of her body buzzing in revolt at the sight of him. Natasha would avoid him at all costs, refusing to respond to his painfully, forced pleasantries. Steve continued making breakfast for two, although it pained him to sit on the opposite end of a void, the plate of pancakes— her favourite— ignored and untouched. 

She would rest at the base of the porcelain bowl every night, wishing that someone would hold her hair back, wishing that they’d help her tide over the darkest hours. Days came and go, but no one ever did, leaving her to wish that she hadn’t pushed him away.

He would lie awake on his bed every night, wishing that he could drown out the sounds of her whimpers, wishing that he could hold her for the rest of the night. A week passed, but he never reached out for her, leaving him to wish that he hadn’t let her go.

Natasha dug her feet into the soft sand, feeling granules fall through between her toes. It was a comforting feeling, to not have to feel the hardwood of the compound beneath her feet, to not have to confine herself to the restraints of her bed. 

She watched as the hues of orange and gold stretched far and wide, half-hidden beneath the horizon. She was lost in the rhythmic percussion of waves breaking on sand, of the occasional chirps from seagulls. Her lips bore a semblance of a smile, edges of her lips curling but not quite reaching her eyes just yet. She always found comfort in the beach.

The ball of fiery red further descended beneath the horizon, leaving streaks of oranges and pinks to linger in the darkening sky. It sank further and further until it left nothing but the evening sky in its wake, now painted a dark orange. 

As she watched the sun set, her lips trembled, a frown slowly making its way onto her face. For the first time in her life, Natasha felt fear. She drew her knees in, wrapping her arms around her legs. Her body shook like withering leaves in the wind, shoulders trembling violently. A cry for help forced its way up her throat, and this time, Natasha didn’t choke it down.

“I’m scared.” She admitted out loud, a sense of relief seemingly washing over her as the words rolled off her tongue. “I don’t want this.”

She saw Steve in her sleep, in her dreams, in her nightmares. A figure who always extended his hand out to her, begging for her to cling on. However, she kept her hand to herself, only focusing on the fact that he was being over concerned about her health. If there was one thing left for Natasha to learn, it was the art of letting go, of bringing your walls down and letting others in. 

He doesn’t deserve this, none of her, in fact. Natasha knows the feeling of having something ripped away from you, a piece of yourself torn away. It’s painful, scarring even, because when that something means the whole world to you, it feels as if a part of you dies, too. 

She thinks about how much time she has left— two months. That’s all the time she’s got left to make the most out of life, to say the words she’s always wanted to say, to make Steve something more than a field partner or a friend. 

Natasha sat facing the sun, flashes of Steve appearing before her vision. “You don’t deserve this. You never did.” Before she knew it, she was blinking tears from watery eyes, wet tracks lining her cheeks. The tears ran and ran, never once giving her a break. 

Steve stepped harder on the accelerator, the compound hidden behind thick shrubbery now visible in his line of sight. As he started picking up speed, a gust of sea breeze hit him, prompting him to tilt his head towards the coast. A lone figure was sat still, a few feet away from the shoreline. The darkening sky cast her auburn hair in a soft, orange glow— the colour of tangerines and fire. 

He knew in a heartbeat who it was. He always knew. 

As he slowly pulled up on the road next to the beach, he leaned back into his seat in resignation. Biting the inside of his cheek, Steve shut the car door gently, ambling closer towards the shoreline. The coast was desolate and quiet, albeit the sound of waves crashing softly against the sand. 

Steve stood a few feet away from her, arms locked by his sides. His steps were quiet, but not quiet enough for Natasha, who always caught on to the softest of sounds. 

She knew in a heartbeat who it was. She always knew.

No words were exchanged as Natasha remained seated on the sand, with Steve standing a distance away from her. He sighed deeply, wracking his brains for something to say, for something to do. After forgoing a whole week of conversations, Steve suddenly found himself tongue-tied as he stood by quietly. Natasha wanted to turn around, to look at him through teary eyes and let him know how she felt, how much she was hurting, but she found herself at a loss for words, making futile attempts at choking back sobs. 

“I’m scared.” Natasha repeated. This time, she spoke louder, knowing that Steve would be listening to every word. “I’m tired of running from death, I’ve been doing it my whole life.” She sighed, a fresh influx of tears streaming down her face. “I don’t know what it feels like to be at peace, I never knew.” She exhaled harshly, lowering her head towards her chin.

Steve listened on numbly, every inch of him writhing with guilt. His heart didn’t snap like a brittle piece of ceramic or burst like an overflowing dam. It broke in heaving waves, each wave a reminder of a new, disturbing reality that had arrived uninvited into both his and Natasha’s lives. A cruel reality where his usual act of braiding her hair had changed into holding her hair back as hurt— so much hurt— surged up into the porcelain bowl beneath her. A reality where pancakes— which were once her favourite breakfast item— became nothing more than a few pathetic pieces of bland, baked dough. A reality where her ability to run miles with Steve had been downgraded into a simple jog, leaving her breathless and exhausted in mere minutes. 

Natasha stalled for a minute, clasping and unclasping her hands, before she started again. “He had bright green eyes. A dashing smile, golden, blonde hair. Tried to play with my hair when I picked him up.” Natasha chuckled softly to herself, the thought of him sending fresh waves of emotions washing over her. 

“I almost got him. He looked at me like he knew; like he knew that I’d spend the rest of his life loving him unconditionally.” Natasha’s voice grew quieter, but she never stopped. “But there was one condition. One thing I could never promise him.” 

“I’d have to leave him as soon as I got him.”

Steve’s breath hitched, words catching in his throat. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but shut it immediately, a mix of emotions surging through him. Then, the realisation set in, and he jerked in shock. 

Natasha was going to adopt a child. 

“I was so close to finding happiness. James, that would be his name. I was so close to bringing him home. I was so close to getting everything that reminded me of happiness.” She started shaking with grief, wiping the back of her hand across her cheeks. 

“But he left, left me alone with it.” 

Natasha thought about her last words to Steve.

“Leave me alone.” Natasha stood up shakily, treading towards her bedroom her before slamming it close in Steve’s face. The thought of Steve seeing her so vulnerable and defenseless made her skin crawl; no one had to see her in that state, not even herself. 

How ironic; being alone would be the last thing she’d wanted. 

As Steve watched her tears flow unchecked, dotting the sand with dark patches, he found himself on the verge of breaking his defences down. He stifled his sobs, but a part of him was breaking too, because it dawned on him that leaving Natasha was the most selfish thing he had ever done. If Natasha wouldn’t be the same, then neither would he, because that’s what happens when you love someone. Their happiness becomes a part of your own, their sorrows become a part of your own. A part of themselves becomes a part of yourself. 

Just as Natasha took a shuddering breath, Steve dropped to his knees next to her all of a sudden, feet digging into the damp sand. 

“I’m so sorry.” He latched onto her, wrapping his arms around her as tightly as he could. “I’m so sorry.” Steve repeated in between muffled sobs into her shoulder. 

“You shouldn’t be.” Natasha tapped her hand comfortingly against his back, pulling away to reveal fresh tears. “I should be the one apologising,” she admitted quietly, head tilted inwards in dejection. Steve was about to open his mouth to reason with her when Natasha started slowly, eyes facing the gradually setting sun. 

“I’m sorry for not being enough. For a lot, in fact.” She exhaled through ragged breaths, shoulders heaving with each rake of emotion through her frame. There was no response on Steve’s end except for an intensification of grief.

“I’m sorry for not doing more good for all the bad I’ve done. I’m sorry for not fighting for them. I’m sorry for not being enough.” Natasha finally collapsed her head into Steve’s chest, lips quivering against his shirt. Steve carded his hand through her hair, his fingers catching onto all the knots she got from the hours she’d spent bedridden. He pressed his palm gently against the side of her head, pulling her in closer. 

“You’ve always been enough, Natasha.” Through watery eyes, Steve watched as her fingers slowly curled around his arm.

“You don’t understand. My time has been cut short,” Natasha’s voice wavered slightly. “Cut short by so much. I still have so much to do, so much to make up for what I’ve done.” She thought about all the words yet to be spoken, things left to do, apologies to be made. Apologies. She had so much to apologise for. 

1996, The Hospital Fire. Natalia watched on as the building went up in flames, red embers licking at children her own age, devouring them whole. The inferno left nothing in its wake except for a young, naive Natalia and the first stains of fresh blood on her pristine ledger. 

2003, Drakov’s Daughter. Natalia scanned over his face on the file, noting Drakov’s features with her well-trained eyes. But what caught her attention was the young girl pictured next to him, barely reaching his waist. She had fiery auburn hair and striking green eyes— just like herself. A dagger made its way into his daughter’s side as Natalia shoved it in mercilessly, her eyes clouded with tears— of satisfaction or guilt, Natalia didn’t know. 

“You’ve done more good than what most people have in their entire lives.” Steve wrapped a reassuring arm around her shoulder, his head resting on hers. “What matters is the amount of good you’ve done. All the times you stepped forward when no one else would, all the times you willingly put yourself forward, knowing you’d risk your own life.” He continued, watching as tears slowly clung onto Natasha’s lashes. “You have done enough, Natasha. You might not see it yourself, but you have, and I’ll be here to remind you of it.”

Love is for children, Natasha knows this. It’s an intangible, perilous thing to own. But she wonders how Steve has never said those three words to her, after everything they’ve been through; the years of shared experiences, looking out for each other in dire situations, chaste kisses on the crown of her head, and the smile he’d always shoot at her whenever she said his name.

However, Steve has said it to her everyday, in ways she can never fathom. It’s tangled in the hair that Steve would hold back whenever she trembled at the foot of the toilet. It pours into the wastebasket that Steve would hold close to her chest as waves of nausea churned within her. It’s caught in the way Steve would hold her paling hand in his, as they ran tests on her she didn’t even know of. It’s laid down on the space between them as she lets the silent sobs escape from her lips; translating into overwhelming guilt settling in the pit of Steve’s gut. 

Silence lingered between the both of them as Natasha took in Steve’s words, her demeanour calm but hiding the storm surging within her. Chilly, biting winds blew through her, but she didn’t let it show. Instead, she leaned in closer, taking in the warmth radiating off Steve. 

Steve, in turn, tightened his hold on Natasha, before releasing her for a moment. He unzipped his backpack, fishing out a worn, grey hoodie. As Steve draped it over her shoulders wordlessly, she slowly turned to face him, expression blank yet seemingly fille with so much emotion. “Keep it, Steve,” she gently pushed his arms away, sighing. “I won’t need it—” Natasha paused before the words could leave her mouth, but Steve instantly knew what she was going to say. I won’t need it anymore. 

The simple act of Natasha rejecting her favourite jacket— once his own favourite hoodie — seemed to tide him over the edge. Realisation kicked in; the realisation that soon, her closet would be empty, he’d walk the hallways alone, and their bed would only be half-warmed. 

“Are you scared?” Steve cupped her face in his palms, tilting her head up to face him. Her eyes, once filled with so much heart and hope, now looked like hollow, emptied-out crevasses devoid of life.

“To death,” Natasha let out a lifeless chuckle, closing her eyes and feeling the tears run again. Amidst all the chaos and desolation, a part of Steve was happy that she still had her sense of humour, that she still had the energy to make him smile, albeit forced. 

“Death doesn’t discriminate, Steve.” Natasha sighed, sitting up right and leaning her head against his shoulder. She said it with conviction, but a part of her wondered if Death had picked her for the horrendous crimes she’d committed. Everyone pushed her to forget her past, to live and let live, but they didn’t know that those experiences had been ingrained into her memory for eternity, plaguing her till the day she died. 

“You should go.” Natasha stated with an air of finality, her gaze fixed on the breaking waves on the coast. Steve tilted his head, puzzled at her statement. Natasha seemed to sense his reaction, pursing her lips and giving him a response devoid of any hope. 

“I won’t be here any longer, and neither should you. My life isn’t yours to live; you have so much life left to live.” She ghosted her fingers over his jaw, feeling the way his chin trembled in trepidation. When Steve faced Natasha, he was a picture of grief, loss and devastation. She had never seen Steve look so broken.

“I don’t know what else I have to live for after—” Steve was cut short by his own sobs threatening to tear from his throat, the screams and shouts threatening to escape. 

“How come?” Natasha continued calmly, her eyebrows slightly creased as she gazed at Steve. 

Because I love you .” 

The words left his mouth as soon as he opened it to reply, hitting Natasha square in the chest. She felt the air catch in her lungs, felt her muscles tensing, felt her jaw going slack. He said it. The three words neither of them had ever dared to say, three words made forbidden by the stakes they were faced with, three words made impossible by their ever-changing, perilous world. 

“Steve—”

“Let me stay, Natasha. Let me take care of you, let me love you, while you’re still a part of this world.” He felt the air rush out of Natasha in an exhale, their faces merely inches part. His eyes were full of resolution, face etched with nothing but his love for her.

Natasha opened her mouth, still reeling in shock. She was about to respond when Steve suddenly rested his forehead against her own, breath shaky. Natasha closed her eyes in response, her hand clasped in Steve’s. 

“I love you, Natasha. It’s not a pitying ‘I love you’ or a forced ‘I love you’. I love you, and I don’t know if I’m ready to live in a world without you.” Steve sobbed, letting his defences crumble and his emotions run free. 

“I love you too, Steve.” Her voice was barely a whisper, wavering from the thousands of emotions racing through her heart. Finally, Natasha leaned in, her lips capturing his softly. A rush of euphoric bliss surged through Steve, his face flushed with heat. It was slow and soft, comforting in ways that words would never be. With one hand on her cheek and the other around her side, he pulled her in until there was nothing left in the space between them except for heart and hope. She could feel the beating of his heart against her own chest, rapid but at the same time, comforting to her. 

They lingered for a few moments before Natasha pulled away, breathless. Steve was about to apologise, his hands already gripping tightly onto hers, before she let out a breathy laugh.

“I see you’ve had practice, Soldier.” She gave Steve a wry smile, a smirk making its way onto her face. 

“You don’t need practice,” he feigned rolling his eyes, echoing his words from their car ride in Jersey years ago. Natasha could only let out a dry chuckle, her face aglow in the evening sun. 

“You’ll be getting lots of it soon, Steve.” She laughed, giving him a pat on the shoulder. Natasha sat unmoving on the sand, letting the cool water lap at her feet, bubbling and frothing at her toes like brine. 

“You know, the closer I get to love, the further away it seems.” Natasha spoke up suddenly, burying her head in her hands. She’d just gotten back everything she’d ever wanted, so why was she the one chosen to go?

“I’ll always be here, loving you endlessly, Natasha.” Steve pressed a kiss to the crown of her head, smiling softly as he draped the jacket over her trembling shoulders and brought her into his embrace. Natasha rested her head in Steve’s lap, watching the sun set as they held onto each other’s hand, not letting go even after the night sky had faded in. 

ONE WEEK LATER

Folding paper cranes; it was a childish thing to do, that Natasha knew. It wasn’t something one would normally find the Black Widow engaged in, but when she was left with no other choice but to wait for her imminent death, she hoped that someone out there would listen to her, to give her a sliver of hope or one last chance at experiencing happiness before she could no longer bring herself to. She’d fold a crane every night, fingers gently pressing creases into the paper before scribbling down a wish. Then, Natasha would drop it out of the window, clinging to a small sliver of hope.

It started with Steve stumbling across a crane one night while he was out for a coffee run. The crane was nestled among the thick shrubbery skirting the compound, its yellow wings barely peeking out. Steve stepped forward cautiously, confusion written on his face as he wondered how and why a paper crane would be amongst the shrubs. Carefully unfolding it, he pressed the paper flat between his palms to find a line of writing— specifically, Natasha’s handwriting — on one side. 

“A vacation to the Maldives would be nice. Tony used to talk about how he bought a mansion there.”

Steve trailed his gaze upwards to find a lock of red hair peeking out of a window. Natasha was leaning against the sill of her bedroom window, hands crossed and her hair swaying gently in the wind. One look at her and the paper crane in his palm confirmed his suspicions— she was making wishes no one would ever grant.

That was how Steve found himself clutching four plane tickets to Maldive as he smiled at Tony, gratefulness filling his heart. “I know how much it means to her.” Tony gripped Steve’s shoulder comfortingly, offering somewhat of a rueful smile, but his eyes gave his emotions away; deep down he was grieving for her. 

Steve thanked him as he turned to leave, returning a sorrowful smile. 

“Anytime, Cap.”

Steve stalked towards her bedroom, footsteps quietly padding against the linoleum floor as he peeked his head around the corner. On the bed lay Natasha, her hands whizzing across the keyboard as she studied the screen intently. Even when plagued with the unimaginable, she never caught a break, still working tirelessly like before. She would visit the organisation she’d set up a few months ago, picking up little kids in her arms and comforting them endlessly. She would diligently attend meetings, pushing back the sickening nausea haunting her throughout the day. It was not the same, though. Some days she’d find herself dozing off midway through a meeting, some days she’d find her vision faltering as she rubbed her eyes blearily in front of the monitor. 

“FRIDAY…” Natasha mumbled, her mind in a haze.

“I think you should get some rest, Miss Romanoff.” Rest. Right. That was what she needed.

However, Steve would always be there to help her pass the darkest hours, to lift her back up when she collapsed, to gently shake her shoulders to rouse her when she grew too tired. He never overdid his actions, to Natasha’s contentment. He knew how Natasha always favoured doing things on her own, it was just how she was as a person. 

“Hm.” Natasha hummed as she craned her neck to find Steve standing in the doorway, a painfully wide smile plastered onto his face. 

“You seem pretty chipper tonight, huh?” Natasha stated, shutting the laptop screen and resting her hands on it. 

Steve could only chuckle as he walked over, taking a seat on the edge of her bed. 

“Take a guess?” Steve rubbed his thumb over her knuckles, waiting for her response. 

“More pancakes?” Natasha raised an eyebrow, lips quirking into a smile. 

“Think you’d like this?” Steve pulled out four tickets, eliciting a soft gasp from Natasha. Her eyes went wide, lips parted slightly. Natasha gazed at the words printed on them, disbelief shaking her to the core.

‘TO: MALDIVES’

“You didn’t have to…” She trailed off, looking back up to find Steve’s face aglow with happiness. Unbeknownst to her, Steve was erupting with joy. He didn’t know how long ago it had been since he’d seen her smile that big, since he’d seen her eyes water with gratefulness. 

“Funny enough,” Natasha looked up at the ceiling, as if deep in thought, “I’ve wished for this before.” 

Woah,” Steve feigned shock, before wrapping his arms around her tightly, holding her close. 

“Thank you, for this.” Natasha mumbled into his shoulder, wetting the fabric with her tears. “Thank you so much.” 

Steve had never seen Natasha so full of joy, in fact, he was almost shocked to find a serenity that never quite belonged to her; only now did she seemed to have found true happiness. She felt the tension ease from her shoulders, felt her steps lighten, felt a slow smile etching itself onto her face. 

“You ready?” Steve tossed a float towards Natasha, shutting the car door and heading for the shore line. Sunlight casted softly upon the primrose sand, gently illuminating the thousands of iridescent seashells littered along the coast. The water was still— small lacy waves occasionally hitting the beach with minimal force. 

“Thank God for this fresh air!” Natasha exclaimed, breathing in deeply and taking in the briny aroma of the ocean. Steve could sense the genuine excitement and joy rolling off Natasha in waves, radiating out of her every pore. At that moment, Steve only felt grateful for the chance to give Natasha some semblance of freedom. She was content, and that was all that mattered.

As Sam and Bucky hit the water first, Steve and Natasha stood behind, watching the sea meet the horizon. “You sure you’re up for swimming? We could sit back if you want.” Steve grasped her hand, a look of concern on his face.

“Yeah, it’s going to be fun!” Natasha smiled widely, the corners of her lips reaching her eyes. As they both made a run for the sea, their feet kicking up a flurry of sand and water, she felt truly contented.

They spent the afternoon frolicking in the sea, occasionally shoving water at each other and floating on their backs. However, Steve had started to notice Natasha’s lethargy in the way she’d started depending on the float instead of swimming on her own, in the way she’d pant breathlessly after an intense water fight with Sam. Natasha, however, proved to Steve that she was just fine by recovering quickly with a smile, before carrying on with the fun.

Unbeknownst to them, they were swimming in a certain someone’s watery grave.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHT: WATERY GRAVE

MALDIVES

They spent the afternoon frolicking in the sea, occasionally shoving water at each other and floating on their backs. However, Steve had started to notice Natasha’s lethargy in the way she’d started depending on the float instead of swimming on her own, in the way she’d pant breathlessly after an intense water fight with Sam. Natasha, however, proved to Steve that she was just fine by recovering quickly with a smile, before carrying on with the fun.

Unbeknownst to them, they were swimming in a certain someone’s watery grave.

“Watch out!” Bucky hurled a beach ball straight towards Steve, hitting him unceremoniously across the cheek. However, he grew quiet, unflinching with his feet rooted in the sand. Slowly, he spun around in a circle, eyes scanning the horizon. 

“Where’s Natasha?” Steve drew his brows together, shielding his eyes from the blistering sun as he looked for a figure in the water. He’d only last seen Natasha a minute ago, but now she was nowhere to be seen. Not even a shadow on the water’s surface.

“Where is she?” Steve repeated his question, this time grabbing the attention of Sam and Bucky. They, too, scanned across the water’s surface, trying to catch a glimpse of a certain redhead. Before Bucky could make another remark, Steve had left the group, swimming outwards in a desperate search for Natasha.

Then, he caught sight of a lock of dark, red hair floating on the water’s surface. 

Hers. It had to be hers.

Panic surged up his throat in an instant, bubbling towards the top in an attempt to spill over. He could hear the thrumming of his own heartbeat in the water and in his ears. Saltwater made its way down into his airways as he struggled to surge towards Natasha as fast as he could. Steve found her half-submerged, arms suspended in the water and her expression lifeless. The gut-wrenching realisation finally set in when his outstretched hand latched onto hers. She had drowned.

Steve dragged himself onto the shore, kicking up the sand around him as Natasha’s body followed behind in his vice-like grasp. As soon as he’d flipped her onto her back, he could tell that they didn’t have much time left— one look at her face was enough to let him know that he was at the losing end of a race against time. 

His fingers trembled as he gently pressed two of them onto the side of her neck, making silent prayers to deities he didn’t even believe in. But no matter how long he had his fingers pressed tight against her skin, he never got a pulse. There wasn’t a faint tremor beneath his fingers, and that fact alone was enough to send chills down his spine, adrenaline flooding his system like it was on an intravenous drip.

“S...She doesn’t have a pulse,” he declared to no one in particular, dropping her wrist onto the soft sand beneath them. His voice wavered and he inhaled shakily, contemplating his next step.

“Hey, come on…” He muttered hurriedly, shaking her shoulders desperately in an attempt to rouse her. He was cut short when Sam intervened. “She needs CPR. Now.” Sam had been put through enough life-threatening situations back in the Air Force to know when a situation was close to becoming dangerous. This was one of those situations, and he could only sit back and pray that he didn’t lose another friend.

“I’ll get the AED, start compressions.” Bucky stood up in an instant, turning on his heels and running towards the mainland. For a moment, Steve was at a loss. Not because he didn’t know how to perform resuscitation on her, or because he was still in shock from the chain of events leading up to that moment, but because he knew what would happen if he started compressing. As much as he willed himself to keep the vivid imagery at bay, they washed back into his headspace in waves. 

Steve watched as her chest failed to rise, her entire body going rigid and lifeless. Her ribs stuck out from beneath her midsection, barely covered by a thin layer of skin hanging over her bones. She was so thin, painfully thin. 

Steve didn’t want to know what could happen to those bones once his palms were placed firmly against her chest, didn’t want to know what he would feel, what he would hear. He got his answer soon enough as one look at her pale, blue lips was enough for him to make a decision. 

“I’m sorry, Nat.” He placed one palm against the centre of her chest, then laced the other on top, clasping tight. “I’m so sorry.” His voice quivered with fear, palm trembling against her clammy skin.

Thirty compressions. 

Then, he started. As he sunk his palms into her chest, he could almost feel her ribcage protesting against the pressure. As he leaned into each compression, he watched as she remained still, eyes closed and her lips slightly parted. “Please,” he begged futilely, his gaze switching between her face and his palms. 

Two breaths.

Once he had finished the compressions, he removed his palms quickly and stretched over to hover above her face. Cradling her head in his hands, he tipped it back and sealed his mouth over hers. Then, he watched as her chest rose ever so slightly after each breath of his. At least he was getting oxygen into her lungs.

“Come on, Natasha.” He breathed out, starting the second round of compressions. He could feel his pace quicken, his stomach knotting, and perspiration lacing the edges of his hairline. Then, in a flurry of panic and frustration, he felt the heel of his palm sink much deeper into her chest than the previous compressions. He barely had time to register the sickening crunch beneath his hands as he steadied both palms, letting out a silent gasp. Steve knew it was inevitable, but the thought of breaking her ribs made him sick. 

“Steve,” Bucky prompted him after noticing how he’d stopped after the realisation had set in. He broke out of his stupor, then resumed the compressions. However, he wished he didn’t, because the noises which followed gave him anything but relief. 

He felt the bones shifting under each compression, how each broken end of her rib nicked at her skin, how her bones continued to pop and crackle under the force. He let out his pent up tears, allowing them to stream freely down his sandy cheeks and drip onto her cold, damp skin. As he sealed his lips over hers again, the coldness of her lips almost shocked him, causing him to pull back and take another look. By now, they were a pale blue colour. Another set of chest compressions only reminded him of just how icy she felt under his touch, how her normally warm chest now felt like a sleet of cold, unforgiving snow. 

By the fourth cycle, panic was starting to set in his bones. Still no response, no movement. He no longer heard the crackle of her bones underneath her skin, instead feeling them shift entirely under his hands. Purple welts and splotches deepened in colour on her abdomen, contrasting against her unusually pale skin. 

“I’m hurting her…” Steve gasped after each compression, casting Bucky a worried glance. The bruises on her chest looked painfully obvious, and he could see how some of her ribs were misaligned underneath the skin. No. He couldn’t do this anymore, not when he knew that they were caused by him.

“It’s the only way we can save her!” Bucky reminded him through watery eyes, his eyebrows furrowing together in desperation. What if they couldn’t save her? What if she was already… gone? What if all their attempts at resuscitating her had proved to be futile because she was already clinically dead?

He hated the taste of saltwater in his mouth from hers, hated the way her lips were tinged blue and parted, hated how the bright, red hair stuck to the sides of her cheeks drew a sickening comparison to her ashen face. 

It wasn’t fair that his heart was beating while hers was not. It wasn’t fair.

“Steve!” A shout reverberated through the air, and Steve looked up just in time after the thirtieth compression to find Sam running across the sand, clutching a black bag close to his chest. 

As Sam busied himself with getting the machine started, Steve grabbed a pair of scissors from the bag. He deftly cut the straps of her top, drying her off in the process with a towel and exposing her skin to the frigid sea breeze.

“How’s she doing?” Sam questioned, his voice devoid of any nervousness as he attached the pads to her skin.

“No response. It’s been almost… five minutes.” It took everything in Steve to not let his tears fall again. 

As the machine beeped to signify that it had completed analysing her heart rhythm, Steve moved his hands away, palming them on his thighs. They ached from the amount of pressure he’d exerted on her, and he could only imagine how much more painful it was for her. Everyone backed up around her, and once they were clear, Sam hit the shock button with bated breath. 

Steve thought he shouldn’t be looking. But he did anyway, because it was the only thing presented before him. He watched as the push of the button sent electricity coursing through her body, her back arching instantly only to thump back onto the sand right after. Steve could barely take it, especially not when the first shock had failed to jumpstart her heart. With Bucky holding the bag valve mask over her face and Sam continuing chest compressions, Steve almost let out a strangled sob, thoughts of giving up racing through his mind. 

As Natasha strained upwards with the force of the shock again, Steve was practically begging for her to wake. “Please,” he choked out, watching helplessly as her back hit the sand again after yet another failed round. 

But when Sam placed two fingers against her neck, his eyes widened. “She’s got a pulse.”

At that moment, Steve collapsed onto the sand beneath him, a wave of relief washing over the three of them. Then, without warning, Natasha sputtered, choking on the water as her lungs rattled. Steve gently grabbed onto her shoulders, rolling her onto her side as he pushed her hair away from her cheeks and tucked the loose strands behind her ear.

“It’s okay… it’s okay,” he whispered, coaxing Natasha as she struggled to cough up water and sand. Her eyes were forced shut, brows knitted together and her face contorted with pain. It was obvious she could barely get any air into her lungs, so Steve resorted to slamming the heel of his palm against her shoulder blades, careful to not hurt her even more than he already had. 

Water spilt over her pale lips, gathering in a puddle next to her. The sheer amount of water being expelled from her lungs scared Steve; how long had she been under for?

“Just breathe for me, okay?” Steve secured the mask over her face and started compressing the bag, hoping to render any form of assistance he could give. “You’re alright, Nat. It’s going to be okay.”

She was still visibly struggling to breathe, only managing intermittent gasps as Steve hit her between her shoulder blades again. “Easy… Breathe,” he repeated, pressing his fingers to her neck once more only to find her rapid pulse. Natasha’s cheeks had restored some of its colour, but she was still as pale as the sand beneath her; she looked like she was about to pass out. Trembling after each agonizing breath, each attempt at inhaling felt like an impossible task for her. 

After a few more minutes of choking up water and pained attempts at getting air into her lungs, she opened her eyes a fraction, staring at nothing in particular through hooded lids. 

“I’ve got you, just look at me,” Steve brought his hand to her chin, tilting her head up slightly. He could see a mix of shock and fear in her eyes, evident by the way her gaze was slightly off-kilter. Once her breathing had evened out slightly, she rolled onto her side, closing her eyes temporarily.

A Quinjet arrived at their location shortly after Sam had called for it. Heading straight back to the compound was better than being admitted to the local hospital and risking being in the public eye. As Steve gently looped his arms underneath her legs and across her back, he dashed up into the jet, carefully laying her down on a reclined seat.

“Stay with me, okay?” Steve gripped onto both of her shoulders, his hard gaze fixed onto her. Once he had given Sam the green light to take-off, the jet was in the air, racing against time to touchdown back at the compound. 

Steve slumped down in the seat adjacent to hers, his fingers aching and chest tight from the ordeal. Guilt settled onto his chest, in the pit of his stomach, deep in his bones. He knew he shouldn’t have agreed to take her to the beach, no matter how much she’d had asked for it. 

Because she could’ve left Steve that afternoon.

She could have sunk to the bottom, the waves could have dragged her away from the shore. She could have remained motionless on the sand no matter how much Steve tried to bring her back, she could have left as soon as Steve had grabbed onto her arm. 

The sheer magnitude of it all only set it when Steve looked at her, still taking in ragged breaths and her eyes shut tight. Steve could have lost her today. He could lose her at any moment, too. 

Her condition stabilised quickly as soon as she’d received medical attention, but Steve was still far from relieved. He sat facing her bed, shoulders hunched and his jaw set. There were a thousand thoughts racing through his mind, if only Natasha could see them. Her hair was still partially damp from the water, strands sticking to her temples and down her neck. Steve realised for a fleeting moment that they were only down to a month now, or even less. He desperately wanted her to hang on for just a little longer, to push on a little further, but he knew that even Natasha Romanoff, the strongest person he’d ever known, was finding difficulty in that. The thought of her withering right in front of his very eyes every day sent a jolt of panic down his spine.

“Nat,” Steve looked up from the cool, tiled floor of her ward, holding eye contact with her. She cocked her head to the side slightly, prompting him to continue. She had a peaceful look to her, almost serene, which scared Steve because she’d just survived a near-death ordeal. 

“I’m sorry.” Steve exhaled, resting his left arm on the edge of her bed. 

“It was nice, you know,” Natasha started, closing her eyes as she pictured the scenery in her mind. The sand flowed in between her toes and fingers, the grainy texture oddly comforting against her skin. Even though the heat burned into her back, leaving her with chills, she couldn’t help but smile. She’d always found comfort in the beach; the way the never-ending waves broke gently on the shore, the way seashells would wash up every now and then, the way the sand provided her with a comfort she rarely experienced. If anything, she hoped that the last thing she’d ever see would be the calming sun descending beneath the horizon. 

“I could have lost you, Natasha.” Steve’s voice wavered, and he tried not to think about the outcome of what could have been the worst-case scenario. “If we didn’t find you… I don’t know what I—” Steve inhaled sharply, his heart aching in protest. “I don't know how I’d live with it.”

“I promise I won’t do it again,” Natasha resolved, rubbing her thumb over his hand, giving him a reassuring but watery smile. Steve noticed the way her lips curled into a half-hearted smile, as if she knew that she wouldn’t be able to keep that promise herself. 

“You won’t.”

Steve knew very well that her options were limited, that they could do nothing but wait for the imminent end. 

He was desperate; desperate for her to get better, desperate to pull her back towards him. Even though she was still carrying out daily activities as she did before the diagnosis, he could tell with each passing day that things were getting harder and harder for her. 

She’d push on the backspace button more frequently, the spoon would occasionally slip through her grasp, the walls would be imprinted with faint handprints. But even then, life still carried on for her.

“Have you ever considered treatment?” Steve propped his elbow up onto her bed, studying her expression. Natasha stilled, before replying smoothly. “Helen thinks it won’t improve my condition. Says it’s pointless.”

“Do you think it’s worth a shot?” 

“Steve…” Natasha trailed off, watching as Steve’s eyes brimmed with tears. She could tell that Steve was desperate, almost pleading, for her to seek treatment. She could see his heel bouncing against the tiled floor, could see the way his eyebrows furrowed, could see the look of concern etched onto his face. 

“It’s alright if you refuse, I understand.” Steve rubbed a comforting hand on her shoulder, easing her tense muscles. “Do what’s best for yourself, alright?” 

Natasha took a couple of hours to make her decision. On one hand, she knew that treatment would only delay her imminent death by a few weeks, perhaps even days. On the other, she wanted to get better. She wanted to go back to the times when she’d roam the compound with renewed vigour, when she’d take down gym bots effortlessly, when she’d finish meals in one sitting. 

“I’ll try it.” Natasha nodded with resolve, giving Steve the same watery smile she always wore on her lips. She was going to try to get better, and that was all that would matter.

“I’m so proud of you, Natasha.” Steve kissed the crown of her head, before both of them drifted off to sleep as the clock struck twelve. 

Everything will work out just the way it should, she thinks to herself. 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINE: FOREVER AND ALWAYS

The thought of treatment sickened her at first. What more could it do than to buy her a few weeks, and if she was lucky, a month? With it came a torrent of side effects she was unprepared for, a new wave of sickness she was tired of, and another let-down. However, as she looked back up at Steve, his eyes filled with so much hope for her, she suddenly realised it could buy her everything .

Everything came with a cost though, didn’t it?

The drive back to the facility was silent, with occasional strings of coughs from Natasha and the whirring of the air-conditioner. Steve stepped as hard as he could on the accelerator, willing for the traffic to move so he could get them back as soon as possible. He knew how rough car rides were for Natasha, more so with the added nausea from her chemotherapy session that morning. As he tilted his head to the side to check on her, he noticed Natasha leaning her head against the window, fingers digging into her jeans. There was an unsettling look to her, and Steve knew that the treatment had not been easy on her. 

“We’re just five minutes out.” Steve stated reassuringly, turning a corner.

“Mm.” She hummed quietly, wishing that they would get back to the facility faster. With her stomach contracting violently and her insides feeling like they were being twisted, she didn’t know how much longer she could last before breakfast made its way back up.
“Just hurry.”

She burst through the front doors, dashing towards the bathroom as fast as she could before she halted right in front of the toilet. They had been in the same exact predicament far too many times to consider it unusual. Before she knew it, she was lurching forward, white-knuckled on the porcelain. 

Steve caught up to her slowly, sitting down next to her on the tiles with a hand on the small of her back. ”Don’t hold back, alright?” Steve watched as she paused momentarily, arms still trembling as she steadied herself against the toilet. That was another signal for Natasha as she blanched again, this time harder than before, causing Steve to wince the slightest. 

Once the storm had passed, Natasha grabbed a napkin from Steve’s outstretched hand, collapsing in a heap on the ground. Her stomach still churned, but at least she had gotten out what she could. Steve’s visage swam before her eyes, and a throbbing ache settled between her eyes, but she wouldn’t tell him, instead opting to brace both palms against the ground.

“I’ll go get you a glass of water,” Steve looked for her approval, but before he could stand up, Natasha’s hand had wrapped itself around his arm. 

“I don’t know if I can do this anymore, Steve.” She thought about how the treatment was just added torture, how it was making her weaker than she already was, how it was draining so much from her. The treatment takes time, this she knows, but she doesn’t know if she can last that long. A long, silent beat stretched between them, before Steve sat back down. 

“Nat, I know you feel like you can’t, but the treatment will take effect soon.” Steve mustered his most reassuring tone, but he could tell from the way Natasha’s eyes flitted towards the ground that she already had her mind made up.

“How long then?” Natasha breathed out. “We don’t have much time left…”

For the first time in his life, Steve saw the light go out in her eyes. He had been so fixated on her getting better, he never paused to think about how she felt and just how much it was affecting her. After every session, she’d return home, exhausted and fully drained. It left her in bed all day, only emerging for a quick snack she often could not even stomach. He thought about the number of days she had left, and it ease almost a kick in the teeth for him when he realised they had less than two weeks. Two weeks. Just fourteen days before he lost her, forever . He knew it was selfish of him to want her to continue with the treatment; Natasha always knew better. With that in mind, he resolved to make the last few days of her life as comfortable as possible. 

“It’s alright, Natasha.” Steve sighed, carding his fingers through her hair.

“You tried and that’s all that matters. I’m proud of you.” 

Once Natasha was steady enough to stand, he let her lean against him as she collapsed onto the bed face-first, groaning inwardly.

“I’m going to bed.” Natasha declared, pulling the covers over her lazily with her hair sprawled out across the bed.

‘Not like this,” Steve rolled his eyes and chuckled, lightly tugging at the quilt. He flipped Natasha onto her back gently, repositioning her head onto the pillow. “You’ll suffocate yourself.”

By now, Natasha had closed her eyes, exhaling gently as she pulled the covers up. “I won’t.”

“And why is that?”

“Because you’re all the air I need to breathe.” Natasha winked at him, intertwining her hand in Steve’s before rolling onto her side and drifting off to sleep. He was thankful that even after the ordeal she’d been through, Natasha still held on to her sense of humour. Steve could only laugh softly in reply as he sat with his legs outstretched next to her, rubbing his thumb along the top of her head. 

A few minutes after Natasha had drifted off to sleep, Sam showed up in the doorway, leaning against it on his arm. “Hey,” he uttered softly, getting Steve’s attention as he swivelled his head to the side to find Sam. Steve could only give him a half-hearted smile as he watched over Natasha, fingers softly running through her hair. 

“You should get some sleep.” Sam declared gently, taking a seat next to Steve. His eyes were a testament to the amount of rest he had gotten in the past few weeks; weary with exhaustion and heavy with sleep. Sleep— He craved that more than ever now. 

“You know I can’t.” Steve exhaled heavily, his shoulders slumping and his resolve crumbling. Only when Sam planted his palm on Steve’s shoulder did he realise that he was trembling. 

There was a long beat before Steve spoke up again, this time merely a whisper on his lips. 

“I don’t know when she’ll go, Sam. She might not be a part of my world anymore when I wake up.” 

That’s all it took before Steve started sobbing softly, quiet enough to not wake Natasha up but loud enough to startle Sam. Steve was hurting and no one knew how to help him— all they could do was to hold their breaths. 

Snow rested upon rows of trees down the street, stringed with multi-coloured flickering lights. There would normally be lights illuminating from every window in every home, but this year was slightly different. Children still sung Christmas carols and people still dressed up in santa hats, but there was an obvious heavy fog lingering in the air above them. The first Christmas after the decimation was definitely different from all the other Christmases they’d shared.

“You okay?” Steve steadied his grip on her shoulder as they walked along the pavement. 

“Yeah,” Natasha replied softly, leaning further into Steve’s side. Her bones ached and her mind felt foggy, but she wouldn’t tell Steve, not when this would possibly be their last Christmas together. Her last Christmas. The thought of it made her heart sink to her feet. Christmas to Natasha was just another day at work. More paperwork to fill, more evaluations to clear, more work to take her mind off things. However, she would never admit the way her heart would flutter whenever Tony arranged for Christmas dinners in the facility, whenever the team sat around the fireplace to warm themselves up, whenever she was with her family. Because the Christmases she’d spent in Russia were barely days of celebration, she found herself indulging in the little moments that made Christmas so special to her. The sweater Steve had gifted her, the coffee pot Clint had so graciously bought for her (because she could never get enough of it), and the dozens of little inventions Tony had tinkered with and made for her.

As Steve and Natasha continued strolling along, he couldn’t help but notice the change in Natasha’s demeanour. Just over a year ago, they had walked down the very same street, with Natasha pulling ahead of him, her eyes lit with so much joy. Steve remembered the way she had her favourite churros in hand, how she tugged at his sleeve and dragged him towards the ice rink. As he stared back at her, he realised everything had changed in the span of a year. As they passed by the beloved churros stall Natasha used to swear by, she could only hum softly in acknowledgment as she looked at the stall owner apologetically. 

“You love those!” Steve smiled, turning to face her. Nostalgia filled him as they stood side-by-side in front of the stall, reminiscing how they used to grab them post-mission.

Used to.” Natasha corrected him despondently, leaning her head against Steve’s shoulder. Steve was at a loss for words for a moment; a part of him knew that this was inevitable but another part of him hated how she had lost interest in everything she’d loved previously. 

As they continued walking through the snowy streets, Natasha’s eyes trailed upwards from the ground to take in the sights and sounds of the festivities. She noticed the little things like children clad in winter jackets, the aroma of freshly baked bread and the lovely elderly couples sitting quietly on benches. 

“Black Widow?” A young girl trots over to her, looking up at Natasha with the widest smile she’d ever seen in her life. The girl had red hair just like her, and was dressed in a winter coat one size too big. Before Natasha could crouch down and respond, the girl grabbed her by the wrist and stared back up at her with big, doleful eyes.

“Will you come to my birthday party next month?” 

Natasha felt the wind get knocked out of her as soon as the words had left the girl’s mouth. She stood shell-shocked as Steve suddenly walked around her and crouched down in front of the little girl.

“She’ll be there. Promise.” Steve locked his finger around hers, before giving her a wave goodbye. Natasha looked back up at him, unsure of what to say. She settled for nestling her head against his arm, letting out a quiet sigh.

“You’ll be there, right?”

“I will.” Natasha gave him a watery smile, looping her finger with his.

Steve brushed his fingers against the snow, dusting away soft layers to reveal a crumpled yellow paper crane. There were multiple creases all over it, indicative of Natasha’s competency in origami. It was folded neatly, layered with tiny snowflakes. As he clutched the crane in one hand and prepared to stand back up, he heard the soft crunch of boots in the snow. Steve turned around in an instant, coming face to face with Natasha. However, something about her demeanour sent a pang of remorse through his body. She was leaning onto the adjacent wall slightly, hands wrapped around her torso tightly with one too many coats draped over herself. She had the same watery smile, the same tiredness in her eyes, the same look which never failed to make Steve wish he could hold her in his arms forever. 

“I-” Steve started, but Natasha unfolded her arms to loop them around his back, pitching forward into his embrace. From the corner of her eye, she spied the crumpled yellow paper crane in his grasp.

“All those wishes…”

“They weren’t real.” Natasha completed his sentence, her face seeming to fall just the slightest but she straightened herself up and sighed. “I know, Steve.”

“I was finding them and making them come true.”

Natasha held Steve’s hands in hers to find them trembling ever so slightly, his face contorted with emotions Natasha could only see as regret. He wished he could continue granting her every wish, wished he could move mountains to see a genuine smile on her, wished he could do the impossible if that meant spending just a little more time with her, but he knew the end was inevitable.

As she rested her forehead on Steve’s chest, pursing her lips to fight back sobs, Steve pulled away to look her in the eyes. 

“I know what your last wish is, Nat. I know what it is, but I’m so sorry.” Steve sighed, his shoulders heaving in resignation. He could almost see the faint flicker of sorrow in her eyes, could almost feel the dejection emanating from every inch of her skin. 

“I can’t grant it,” his tone was pleading, lowering and shaking his head as he willed back tears. “I don’t know how.”

Natasha pursed her lips together silently, watching as Steve gripped at his jeans and creased his brows. Before Steve could say anything else, she planted a gentle kiss on his lips, taking the paper crane from his hands.

“You already did.” 

As she unfolded the crane slowly and handed the piece of paper back to Steve, his whole world came to a stop all of a sudden.

My last wish is to find the one person who’d follow me to the ends of the earth. I love you, Steve.

For the last time, Steve pulled Natasha into his embrace, letting the paper crane flutter to the ground. She stayed within his arms for as long as the night stretched, letting soft snow litter her hair and the warmth from Steve’s arms warm her up. 

“I love you too, Natasha. Forever and always.”

 

Chapter Text

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.