Natasha watches Steve make his rounds, trying to quell the panic solidifying in her chest. Her scarlet locks, still looking as if dip-dyed platinum, are brushed back in a plait that reaches over her collarbone, ivory against the ebony shirt. A small breeze carries over the lake and sifts through the trees, whispers rising and falling in tandem with the strength of the gust. The few strands, those bold enough to escape the braid, flutter around like dead spider's legs.
What would it be like, she thinks, as a couple of leaves are ripped from their fragile anchors and flutter upwards, bolstered on the peak of a breath, the crest of an airy wave, to be carried away? The emerald flickers dive in a stomach-churning swoop, like the daring plunge of a roller-coaster carriage, and Natasha almost thinks they'll run into the ground, journey abruptly cut short, but once again a puff comes from under them and they're propelled, somersaulting with blurring velocity upwards. What would it be like to be free, and yet chained to the force of nature? What would it be like, to drink from the sky when it rains? She watches as the couple twirls above her head, partners in some capricious waltz. Almost brushing before falling apart again, the leaves follow each other to the roof of Tony's house, scampering over the tiles in a jig. What would it be like, living for every rise and fall, waiting for every rush of wind, while nestled amongst friends on the forest floor?
Bruce finally stops fiddling with all the dials and switches at the same time her heart lurches to her mouth, a lump forming at the back of her throat. Having lost sight of the leaves, she turns her head left, then right, but they're gone. What would it be like to live life as a game?
The Infinity Stones are luminescent in their case; Natasha doesn't think she's ever hated anything so much, and is glad when Steve slams the case shut, distaste evident on his face too. This jolts her in some way out of her whimsical frame of mind, yanking her from the clouds as if by a chain on her foot. Though the morning is warm, Natasha suddenly feels cold all over, the dark green jacket doing nothing against the chill pricking at her skin like needles. A breathlessness squeezes her lungs, forces them to fight for air, and she gulps, hoping that no one can hear her straining attempts at calming her heart.
"Remember," Bruce starts to speak as Steve swings the case to his side, a determined set to his jaw. "you gotta return the stones to the exact moment you got them, or you're gonna open up a bunch of nasty alternate realities."
"Don't worry, Bruce. I'll clip all the branches."
"You know I tried." Bruce addresses Natasha quietly, who quickly looks up to meet his eyes. "When I had the gauntlet, the stones, I really tried to bring him back."
She swallows hard, crossing her arms over her chest. She forces those thoughts down, the shouting in her head she wishes would be quiet. The guilt, the grief, the loneliness. Clint is gone, but she can't mourn now. Not when that grief is about to be doubled. She has to force them into separate events, separate hours. If she lets the constant sorrow on Laura's face merge with the cold in her heart right now, the water will be too deep to keep her head above and she'll drown, pushed under by the weight of every misery.
"I know." Steve sends her a sympathetic look, which she just manages to avoid, dropping her eyes, only lifting them when he passes over her. He walks over to Sam, and she feels the shift. Time for goodbyes.
There's a kind of finality to Steve's expression as he looks around at the forest, Tony's house (she's still surprised at just how quaint it is) huddled amongst the bark and needles littering the floor. There's a finality to this whole scene, and Natasha knows exactly why. This is goodbye. For real. Like Tony or Clint, except here they get to say their last farewells, which in a way is harder. With them, it was over in a second. No time for second thoughts, or garbled goodbyes. But here, every second, every syllable, is stretched out excruciatingly. Natasha just wants it to be over. She wants to be with him as long as possible, without saying anything. Perhaps just relax into his chest for a minute. And then push him away, turn her back until he's gone, and then get on with her life, or what's left of it. Perhaps if she never says goodbye, it's not really over.
Watching him go, under the pretence that he'll return, is a weight in her limbs, in her heart. It's gone unsaid, but everyone here knows Steve is not stepping back off that platform. There's someone waiting for him on the other side, after all, and it'd be rude to miss out on a dance.
It's funny. Natasha had always kinda thought, for whatever reason, that they- that she and Steve- they were- that they would- it's silly, but that something would happen. She didn't know what, or why, or how, she'd just had a feeling. She'd always felt there was something hanging in the air between them that both were to scared to reach out and grasp, hoping that somehow it would magic into existence by blind force of will. But it never had. They'd stayed as they were, at arms length. And now he was leaving, and this time she knew for sure he wasn't coming back. He hadn't told her, them, outright, but she knew. The ability that comes with time travel... The Avengers, apart from the actual inability, had been the only thing chaining Steve to the present, that much was clear to Natasha. But they'd figured it out, and she hadn't even realised at the time what exactly the light behind his eyes, the first she'd seen in years, had meant. What that revelation had meant to him. And now the Avengers were over, two dead and otherwise scattered. Ties cut loose. Not even Bucky is enough to keep him in the present now. Natasha knows that Peggy outweighs everything.
"You know if you want, I could come with you." There's almost a tone of desperation in Sam's offer, a last ditch attempt at keeping his friend from leaving. Alas.
"You're a good mad, Sam. This one's on me, though." Steve claps a hand on his shoulder, before moving on.
"Don't do anything stupid 'til I get back." There's a faraway half smile as Steve stands before his best friend in the world, the person he'd do anything for. Except-
"How can I, when you're taking all the stupid with you?" They embrace, holding on for just a second before releasing. In any other circumstances, she might've made some quip, some sarcastic comment, maybe concerning contentious sexuality. But the smirk dies before birth, the witticism fading to nothing in her mind.
"I'll miss you, buddy." Bucky is a lot more forthright, staying for the first time what no one else has dared.
"It's gonna be okay, Buck." No denials to be found.
And then his eyes are on her and he's walking over, and she swallows, breathing deeply as he stops just over a metre away. Her eyes travel from the floor, up his body to his face. Their eyes meet and like always, it's like a conversation in a second. Natasha's heart breaks when she realises she's about to lose this. This easiness, like existence doesn't need a second thought when she's with him. No extra effort is needed. She doesn't need to study quantum physics to make conversation with Steve. She starts to feel achingly empty, when thinks about losing him.
Of course, she's not alone. There's still Wanda, and Sam and- and Pepper, and- she should be grateful she has them at all. She should be grateful they didn't lose more than they gained to that monster. It's just that losing Steve feels like everything. It feels like the cane she's been leaning on for the last nine years is being brutally wrenched away from her. Natasha can feel herself stumbling, swaying, about to collapse to the ground. It's going to take a while to get back up again. Standing on your own two feet, something she's slowly realising she hasn't done in years, is harder than she remembers.
"So..." She begins, quickly realising there was nothing behind that word, no tracks for any train of thought to run on.
"Nat..." He just had to, didn't he? He just had to make her chest tighten with that tiny nickname. Then he smiles, though it's a watered down version of his usual sheepish grin. "I guess I'll see you in a minute,"
A wave of white hot rage ripples across her mind for a second there. Stop pretending, she inaudibly begs. Please, Steve, please stop pretending this isn't goodbye. Please stop lying. It hurts. But Natasha pushes the resentment from her mind, choosing instead to return his weak smile.
"I guess you will. Be careful, Steve," She replies, stepping forward and brushing imaginary dust from his shoulder. Part of her is still entreating him, asking him to hug her, give her some kind of closure. She can't do it herself; if he's still leaving under the guise of return, pretending like this is really will be the five seconds promised, an abrupt embrace would be...inappropriate. Melodramatic. At last Steve turns, finally stepping up to the plate.
"How long is this gonna take?" Sam too sounds as if he just wants it to be over.
"For him?" Bruce pushes the last button. "As long as he needs. For us, five seconds. Ready, Cap? We'll meet you back here, okay?" You wish, Bruce.
"You bet." But there's no conviction. Last-ditch reassurances are the worst, Natasha decides. All they ever promised each other was honesty, and now he's not even allowing her that.
"Going quantum in three, two, one..."
She has to resist from blinking, expecting a flash, but there's nothing. He's there and then he's not. And she never did get that hug. Heart aching, Natasha turns away, ready to walk back to the house, to comfort Pepper, and if she's lucky, talk to Morgan for a bit. Just about to do the same, Sam too sighs, feet scuffing the ground as he turns.
But then Bruce is flicking a switch, and this time there is a flash, bright enough for just a second that she spins back around, so shocked her feet carry her into a tree. When Natasha rights herself, sure enough, Steve stands there, case in hand, looking not a minute older. Her mouth opens with shock, complete disbelief wiping a clean slate of her mind, grasping for words and coming up with nothing but a small squeak. Eyes flicking to the sides, she can see Sam and Bucky are much the same.
Steve himself seems oblivious to their astonishment, letting out a long sigh of relief and dropping the case to the floor of the platform. As if her body has a mind of its own, Natasha's feet carry her forward, and she still can't seem to shut her parted lips. That moment is when Steve seems to become aware of their, or rather her, presence. His eyes centre on her and something comes over his face, an inscrutable expression she can't exactly decipher. As if an intangible circumference has been drawn around them, Sam and Bucky stay back, eyes flicking between the two in increasing comprehension. Natasha is the first to speak.
Her arms cross, almost as if she's annoyed. "I thought you were gonna get some of that life Tony was talking about. That we were talking about. You're not supposed to be here, not like this,"
"This time, these people... This is my home now," He steps off the platform, and Natasha's finding it a little hard to breathe, relief and frustration warring in her chest.
"But it's not the one you wanted,"
"Disappointed to see my face again? Hoped you'd washed your hands of me?" Steve begins to walk forward, a tiny grin twisting his mouth.
"No. No, I- I was terrified of losing you, but Peggy-" She breaks off and something drops to solemnity in his eyes when he realises she's not picking up her end of this baton of banter. She's serious about her fear. And there's also a pain that cuts him at the realisation that he was the cause.
Eyes closed, Natasha sucks in breath and exhales slowly, gathering her thoughts and solidifying the to some sort of comprehensible word order. Without warning, she feels the pressure of his hands on her shoulders and her eyes fly open, his face suddenly all she can see. "Why did you come back?" There's almost a crack in her voice, and a tremble weaves through her tone.
A pause. They search the other's eyes, green on blue, though for once there are no answers to be found, cards held tightly to their chest.
"I didn't want you to be alone," Steve replies at last, and a moment later he offers a rueful smile, casting Natasha back to those words in between the pews, seven years ago. He envelops her in a hug, and in a second everything fades away. All she can feel are his arms winding around her back, his breath on the curve where her neck meets her shoulder, fluttering the flyaway strands. Natasha reciprocates without encouragement, arms winding around him tightly too and whispering into his chest.