A/N: So. Here it is. The middle - actually, I'm calling it the interlude. It's what happens with Cathryn between the events of Avengers Assemble and Avengers Age of Ultron. This was not easy to write, but hopefully it will tide you over until I'm through with Age of Ultron. I have an outline and a general idea of how I want to end it, but that's all. It probably will take a while to write, but the more reviews there are, the more emails I'll get, so the more I'll remember to write. Just food for thought.
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Marvel and J.K. Rowling, respectively. For the most part, if you recognize it, it's not mine. I make no monetary profit from this.
Warnings: Mention of suicide. Arguments. Offscreen sex. Swearing. That's it, I think.
So, without further ado...
Cathryn nearly dropped the tray of tarts at the shock of her wards triggering for the first time since she'd set them up. It had taken two years of study to work out the runic arrays, and more than that for the wand motions and incantation, but the result was a ward that didn't affect muggles, interrupt technology, nor advertise the fact that a witch lived at the otherwise unassuming Butter-and-Crumpets café. It was useless as far as keeping people out, and only offered minimal protection against fires and natural disasters, but it was top-notch in what she'd designed it to do: warn her when a British witch or wizard crossed her doorway. It had been damn near impossible to make, but when Cathryn peered through the doorway to the main room of her café, she knew that the months of frustration had just paid off. Only one person had hair like that.
Seeing Hermione after all those years - eleven, now, or nearly that - was like a punch to the gut. When Cathryn had fled, she didn't look too different in age from her friends. Now, even with wizard-kind's graceful aging and natural proclivity towards long lives, there was no mistaking that there was something very different about Cathryn Potter. Her façade of Cathryn Black, created with forged paperwork and rigorous Aging Potions, minimized the effect, but couldn't get rid of it completely.
"Hello?" Hermione's voice did funny things to her knees. An unaccented voice, after years of the nasally American drawls and incorrect pronunciations.
"She just ducked into the back," Mrs. Drew said. Business had been spotty in the two weeks since the Chitauri invasion - some people still claimed it was a mass hallucination brought on by a bad gas leak - but stalwart, stubborn, no-nonsense Mrs. Drew had been there the morning after the attack, when Cathryn had slid easily into her old routine, worried, yes, but ready for her usual late-morning tea and biscuits. "She'll be out in just a minute."
Cathryn deposited the tray on the counter and pinched the bridge of her nose. If the shop had been empty, she would've disguised herself. But all of her regulars knew her and knew that she was the only employee. Mrs. Drew was old, not senile.
Taking a deep breath, Cathryn fixed a smile on her face and picked up the tray.
"Hello, Hermione," she said breezily, sliding the tray into the display case. "How are you?"
Cathryn looked over at her one-time friend, whose mouth had fallen open in poorly-disguised shock, her brown eyes tracing the contours of a face far too young for her actual years.
"Ryn - but - how?"
Cathryn couldn't remember ever seeing Hermione so lost for words. "Why don't you stay until I close," she offered. "We can talk then."
Hermione nodded, an expression of deepest confusion stuck on her face.
Cathryn took pity on her. "Never mind," she said, "just - go upstairs and make yourself comfortable." She directed her friend to the right door - with a sign saying 'employees only' - and sent an apologetic smile to Mrs. Drew, the only regular customer currently seated. "Sorry," she said, "It's been a while since we've seen each other."
Mrs. Drew nodded affably, "Quite. Are those raspberry, by chance?"
Cathryn served Mrs. Drew one of the tarts and spent the rest of the day worrying about what exactly Hermione was doing in her flat. As a result, her wave and smile to Steve when he ran past her window as she wiped down the last table were less cheerful than normal. He slowed and let himself into the café, ignoring the 'closed' sign on the door.
"Is everything alright, Miss Black?" he asked, scanning the room.
Cathryn straightened up, squeezing the damp rag into a ball. "My sister just showed up for a visit," she lied easily. "I imagine she's not too happy with me."
The frown on Steve's face deepened. "The attack?"
"And other things. You still helping with the clean up?" She'd asked him the same thing a few days before, but the answer might have changed. Before the Avengers had disassembled, Steve had agreed to become an Agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. She was expecting him to leave any day, but still, every morning he showed up for his breakfast with only a few words of greeting and thanks.
Steve scratched the back of his neck. "Just a few more days. My boss wants me back at work."
Cathryn nodded, and they stood in awkward silence for a few moments.
"Well, if everything's safe - I mean, if there's nothing wrong," Steve caught himself, "I'll just be - " he jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Back to my run. Have a good evening."
"You too," Cathryn said as he turned and left, making sure to look both ways before stepping onto the sidewalk. A faint smile on her face - they'd met after he'd gotten run over by a bike just a few yards down the street - Cathryn finished her nightly cleaning, lingering a little longer than she normally would have as she directed the dishes to their proper places with her wand.
Finally, she couldn't put it off any more.
Upstairs, Hermione had more than made herself comfortable. She'd made herself at home.
"You run it by yourself?" Hermione observed, serving out the shepherd's pie she'd made during the afternoon.
Cathryn nodded, eyeing the table. She joined Hermione in the kitchen, hopping onto the counter to fetch a bottle of firewhiskey from the tallest shelf above the stove. Hermione didn't comment about the alcohol, and Cathryn couldn't suppress the grimace at her friend's foreboding silence.
"Why haven't you - ?" Hermione began, but Cathryn shook her head.
"Wait for another - oh - ten minutes, and then start asking questions."
"What's so important about ten minutes?" Hermione demanded, eyes narrowed. The bowls made angry thumps as they landed on the table.
"You'll see." Perhaps Hermione could hear the defeat and bitterness, because she didn't protest. They ate in silence, although Cathryn wasn't very hungry.
She knew the Aging Draught had worn off when Hermione's fork slipped from her fingers, clattering against the bowl. "Cathryn?"
"Here." Cathryn waved her wand at the firewhiskey, which obediently uncorked itself and poured two shots into the waiting glasses. She downed hers in a single gulp, although Hermione only took a shaky sip.
"What's wrong? Why - why are you so…" she trailed off, and then shook her head. Cathryn only caught the motion from the corner of her eye; she didn't want to chance seeing something that would hurt her even more than Hermione's presence already was. She'd tried her best to squash - or at the very least, forget - her feelings for her friends back in England, and having her closest friend only a few feet away was dragging her emotions to the forefront of her mind. It was like when she'd seen the ocean for the first time; she'd known what an ocean was for years, but nothing could prepare her for the grandeur and overwhelming largeness of it.
"No. You haven't changed at all."
The scrape of the chair on the floor got her attention. "What are you - ?" But Hermione was already at her side, brushing her fringe from her eyes, hands settling on either side of her face. Cathryn allowed Hermione to turn her face first one way, and then the other. "You look just the same," Hermione breathed at last. "A bit healthier, yes, but no taller. No lines."
"Jealous?" Cathryn asked with a broken sort of smirk, and Hermione's hands momentarily tightened against her skin.
Wetness. Cathryn looked up in time to see a second tear roll down Hermione's face, wavering at the side of her chin. And then she was being smothered against her friend's body, her face planted firmly into Hermione's softer-than-it-used-to-be stomach.
"What did they do to you?" Hermione mourned, hands stroking Cathryn's hair in a manner she assumed came from experience with children. Mrs. Weasley had done the same, after the Third Task.
"I did this to me," Cathryn said, her voice muffled by Hermione's clothes. "I met Death as an equal, holding his three Hallows but only wanting one of them, and he sent me back with a curse."
"Curse?" Hermione asked, and immediately began to cast diagnosis charms on her.
Cathryn waved her hand, disrupting the spells, the residual magic trailing from her fingertips for a few seconds before dispersing. Hermione's mouth formed an 'o' of astonishment. "Curse."
Hermione shook her head, but lowered her wand. "It shouldn't be - just a story - not possible."
"You of all people should know that stories and myths are rooted in fact," Cathryn said, getting up and heading for the sofa. Hermione followed, mouth moving soundlessly.
"But that would mean…" she trailed off, unwilling to actually say the words.
"I am Master of Death," Cathryn said blandly. "Mistress, if you want to be technical."
Hermione shook her head again, eyes gleaming. "But you don't have them anymore! You lost the Stone, and put the Wand back, ages ago!"
"They follow me, just appear, like that - " she snapped her fingers, and Hermione flinched " - if I'm more than a hundred yards away from them for more than a day. I tested."
"Have you used them?" Hermione pressed, fingers twitching, as if wanted nothing more than to start writing notes.
"The Cloak and the Wand, yes," Cathryn said.
"But not the Stone."
She shook her head. "It's not fair to anyone," she said.
Cathryn shook her head again. "Especially not him."
Hermione gave her an understanding glance. "Not many are so strong."
"Believe me," Cathryn said with a bitter laugh, "I'm not so strong as you think. I'm unable to die, and if I do, I heal, as if I'd never died. No scars, see." She bared her wrists for Hermione, whose entire face crumpled.
"Y - you tried?" she breathed, horrorstruck.
Cathryn watched, detached. Feeling the deaths around her had somewhat desensitized her; it had taken intense Occlumency training at Viktor's house, three entire months of nothing but meditating and studying in a house in the middle of a forest, to block out everyday deaths. Mass death still got her attention, especially if it was nearby, but it didn't give her migraines - the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in Manhattan had made her bleed from her eyes and ears.
"After Fred's funeral," she said. "But not again."
Hermione ran a hand down her face, and then sighed. "I can understand, now," she murmured. "Why you never came home, why you distanced yourself, even from Teddy."
"How is he?" Cathryn asked. She'd sent him the Marauder's Map for his first Christmas at Hogwarts.
"He's brilliant," Hermione supplied. "An odd mix of his parents and Andromeda." She frowned. "Who's furious with you, by the way. We only knew you were alive because of the Black tapestry. They won't believe when I tell them that - "
" - coming - what?"
"I'm not coming back," Cathryn said, and rushed on before Hermione could object. "Think. How do you think the majority of the population will take this?" she gestured to her face. "You know what they're like - they'll see me and cry out for my death! And if they don't, then the Ministry will."
"The Ministry's not like that anymore!" Hermione burst out.
"Maybe," Cathryn said grimly. "But in a hundred years? Two hundred? When I'm just another story in the textbook, and Voldemort's a bogeyman to keep children from misbehaving. Then I'll just be an unaging freak, something to be studied and dissected, killed and resurrected in the name of research."
"No," Hermione breathed, eyes wide and skin drained of color. "They - they wouldn't."
"Hermione, I'm not human," Cathryn said slowly, trying to make her friend understand why she wouldn't - couldn't - return to Britain with her. "When everyone on the planet is dead, I'll be here to see the end of days, whether it's from some disease, a meteor, or an alien invasion," she snorted. "And we've already had one of those."
Hermione didn't appreciate her humor, and gave Cathryn a watery glare.
"Is that how you found me?" It was the only logical explanation.
"Your dragonscale armor," Hermione supplied. "Saw it on my Mum's telly. It was only luck I was there, really, visiting with Rosie and Hugo. My children." The news made Cathryn glad she was sitting.
"How old are they?" she asked timidly, all too aware of how time was slipping through her fingers.
"Six and four," Hermione said with a sad smile. "They grow so quickly."
Cathryn nodded. "I know." They sat in silence for a moment. "And Teddy?"
"Finishing his - "
"Third year," Cathryn interrupted. "I know."
For the first time, she could read pity on Hermione's face. "It's better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all," Hermione said gently, placing her hand on Cathryn's arm.
Cathryn couldn't help but snort. "Maybe," she said, "but you don't have to watch everyone you've ever cared about grow old and die."
"You don't want to live with the regret," Hermione persisted, hand squeezing a little. "I know it must seem daunting - "
"But you don't know!" Cathryn exploding, leaping to her feet and striding to the empty hearth. "No one knows! It's maddening! I try not to think about it, but it's inescapable. Every time I look in the mirror, it's right there in front of me! Time - all of time - alone!"
"Only if you make it that way!" Hermione shouted, on her feet as well. "Cathryn - you don't have to be alone! There's no need to isolate yourself like this!" She took a breath and slowly sat back down. "We just have to think about this calmly, and come up with some options, and we can - "
"This isn't another grand heroic quest," Cathryn snarled.
"The other one wasn't either," Hermione snapped back. "Now, sit, or I'll make you sit." Cathryn doubted her friend could force her to do anything anymore, but sat anyways. "I will accede that it's wisest not to return to England, but that doesn't mean that we can't visit you. I know Molly will want to see you, and Ginny. Neville, Luna, George - "
"Please, not George."
Hermione frowned. "He's gotten better. It's been fourteen years. He and Angelina married. Their son is two now."
Cathryn used her wand to clean a dark spot - probably coffee - from her blouse.
"Have you…seen anyone?" Hermione asked delicately, not looking anywhere near Cathryn. The silence spoke for itself. "Cathryn, you've got to move on with your life, you've still got time to - " She broke off awkwardly.
"Yes, Hermione," Cathryn said acidly. "I've got plenty of time, haven't I."
Hermione rolled her quill up in her parchment. "Ryn, you could do amazing things if you let yourself. Think of all the ways you could - "
Hermione sighed. "I - I know. I just - I've found you after years of searching, and I want to bring you home, to meet my family, and see people who've heard about you, not the Woman-Who-Conquered. But I never expected…" she waved her hands at Cathryn. "This."
Cathryn's lips twisted into a bitter smile. "I don't think even Dumbledore could've foreseen this. Just think," she added humorlessly. "In a few years, your children will be older than I am."
"No, they won't, you'll still be older."
"But they'll look it. They'll get to enjoy a normal life, find someone to love and grow old with them. Have a family. You know that all I ever really wanted was to have a family of my own."
"We are family," Hermione insisted, but they both knew it wasn't the same.
The discussion was dropped. Neither of them mentioned that there had been no real decision. Cathryn hadn't agreed to visit or to accept visitors, and Hermione hadn't promised not to tell anyone about finding her.
At ten, Cathryn stood up and stretched. "I need to get to bed," she said. "Early mornings."
"Oh, is it that time already!? I need to start home."
"How long did it take you to track me down?" Cathryn asked, directing the dishes to clean themselves as she packed away the leftover shepherd's pie.
"A quick internet search," Hermione said smugly.
"Oh. You use those sorts of things often?"
"I had to teach my parents," Hermione sighed. "It wasn't easy, but so long as I don't have my wand on me, it's relatively safe and certainly effective. It would be wonderful if I could somehow figure out how to ward electronics against magic, but," she sighed again. "Well, if it was easy, someone would've already done it."
Cathryn gave Hermione a tense smile. "Have a good journey."
"Cathryn - "
"I'm happy here."
Hermione gave her a level stare. "When you stop lying to yourself, you know where to find us." But before she left, she gave Cathryn a hug and made her promise to write at least every month, "So that I know you're not locking yourself away somewhere to brood."
And with one last smile - a rather suspiciously wobbly one - Hermione turned on the spot and was gone.
Cathryn stared at the empty space for a long moment, until the sink overflowed with bubbles and she had to do some quick wand-waving to get the dishes back under control.
"How is your sister, Miss Black?" Steve asked after his usual morning greeting.
Cathryn set his eggs and toast in front of him. "She wanted me to come home," she confided. After a second of hesitation, she sat down opposite him, making sure to keep an ear out for the timer in the kitchen. No one liked burned scones.
"And where's that?" Steve asked, before quickly adding, "I don't mean to pry, ma'am."
"There's no need to call me ma'am. I'm not nearly old enough for that." At least, not yet.
Steve's gave her a smile as he squeezed ketchup onto his eggs. "I was taught it was rude to ask a lady's age."
For the first time since Hermione walked through her door, Cathryn laughed. Knowing Steve - or rather, Captain America - she had little doubt that his mother had taught him that. It was only polite, especially for someone raised in the 1930's.
"I'm hardly sure I qualify as a lady," Cathryn chuckled. "But thank you for the compliment." A beeping came from the kitchen. "That's me," she said, and stood. "Enjoy your food. Tell me if you need anything." As she walked away, straightening her apron, she heard Steve mutter something to himself.
When she collected his dirty dishes after he'd left, she found a note scribbled on the napkin. If you need help with anything, call. I'll come if I can.His phone number was carefully printed underneath.
Cathryn sighed and glanced towards the phone by the cash register. Maybe, she decided, I should get a mobile.
Steve stopped showing up regularly after that morning. Cathryn knew what he was doing - covert ops, subduing criminals, being an all-around good-guy and hero - and didn't make his breakfast unless he came in. When he did show up, though, he was far chattier than normal, asking her about business, about what had happened in the city while he was away, her sister, and her life before New York. Cathryn did her best to give answers that were vague, and more than once she ended up hiding in the kitchen to avoid answering some of his cleverly-worded questions.
She wondered how much he knew, why he was pressing so much now after so many months of being perfectly content to sit with his newspaper.
A year passed. Cathryn spent it in a state of near-meditation, happy to sink into the serenity of routine, sending Hermione the required letters once a month, providing excuses for why she wouldn't visit. The letters she got in return were her only peek into wizarding society. Hermione wasn't the only one to have started a family. All of the Weasleys except Charlie had children. After a discreet inquiry, Hermione divulged that Neville and Luna also had children with their respective spouses, and Viktor had a single daughter named Ekaterina, which had led to some rather suspicious questions from Hermione that Cathryn had pointedly not answered.
All in all, the only variety in Cathryn's life was Steve, and that was exactly the way she liked it.
And then, as the world did not spin into an apocalypse with the end of 2012, her own world stopped when Steve showed up at her door with a bouquet of pink roses and a bashful, hopeful smile, bundled up against the freezing January weather.
Cathryn swallowed her trepidation and opened the door, skin erupting in goosebumps as the cold air followed Steve in.
They stared at each other for a long moment before Cathryn said, "I'm nearly done wiping down the tables. The fire is still going."
She took the minutes it took to finish cleaning to get a hold of herself. This was Steve - not Captain America, but Steve. She could handle Steve.
Only after untying her apron and adding it to the pile of dirty linen did Cathryn turn, mentally preparing herself for letting him down. One look at Steve's face told her that it wouldn't be easy. You don't have to be alone, a very Hermione-ish voice pointed out from the back of her mind.
Cathryn considered the notion as Steve stood and held the flowers out to her. What would it be like, dating Steve Rogers? Romantic, she was sure, but also, in the end heartbreaking for the both of them.
But would it be? the mind-Hermione pressed. He survived nearly seventy years in ice and didn't age a bit, and hasn't aged since. Maybe you won't have to be alone.
Cathryn shook her head. They would be entering a relationship where each of them brought a collection of lies and other baggage. She imagined that he would eventually confess to being Captain America. But just how was she supposed to confess to not only being eternally seventeen, but also a witch and Griffin?
"Thank you," Cathryn said politely, accepting the flowers and walking behind the counter to find a vase.
Steve leaned his hip against the counter and watched as she carefully trimmed the roses before sliding them, one by one, into the vase. The air lay heavy between them. "Would you like to go on a date?" Steve asked as Cathryn put the scissors away. She looked at him, eyes sliding over his wool coat and dark blue scarf; he was as fit as ever - not surprising, given his occupation and whatever-the-hell had been in the Serum - and his blonde hair was tousled from either the wind or his fingers. He looked hopeful, unsure, and young, like a teenager asking a girl on a date for the first time.
And despite her long pause in answering, his smile didn't fade. "What did you have in mind?" Cathryn found herself asking, despite her common sense, which was screaming at her to grow a backbone and turn him away, no matter how cute and attractive and kind he was.
Steve let out a short breath - relief? - his smile broadening into a grin. "Whatever you'd like to do, really. A movie, dinner, a walk, coffee…" he winced, glancing at the espresso machine on the counter behind her. "Maybe not coffee," he amended.
Cathryn let out a short laugh. "A movie," she agreed, and then paused. "I'm going to be very honest with you right now, Steve," she warned. He nodded, and she forged on. "I'm not looking for romance right now."
His brow crinkled. "But you - "
"You're my friend," she interrupted, fingers twisting in the long sleeves of her shirt. "And friends go to movies and dinner together." Cathryn sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, wondering how much she would regret this tomorrow. But when has Hermione ever been wrong? a voice that sounded very much like Ron pointed out. "That being said," she continued quietly, "if our friendship does turn into something…more, I won't run away." Hopefully. "And before we do anything, you have to know that there's some things I just can't tell you."
Steve stared at her for a moment before nodding. "I know," was all he said. "But I'm willing to just be friends, if that's all we've got."
Cathryn gave him a tight smile and gestured to the door to her flat. "I'll just go get ready. Ten minutes." And even as the door swung shut behind her, she was already second-guessing herself. I didn't promise anything past what we've already got, she argued with herself as she measured out a dose of Aging Draught.
You promised friendship, the Hermione-voice pointed out.
"And look how ours turned out," Cathryn muttered before swallowing the potion in a single go. After that, she shoved all of her thoughts behind an Occlumency barrier and hurried into her room, quickly finding a pair of boots and donning several layers for warmth.
Despite two jumpers, a thick woolen coat, a scarf, a hat, and a pair of gloves, Steve frowned in concern when she reentered the café. "Will you be warm enough?"
"I spent seven years in Scotland," Cathryn said dryly, pulling out her keys. "And I could very well ask you the same thing."
His face darkened for a moment before he said lightly, "I've spent a fair amount of time in the north."
Cathryn chose not to press the matter - she knew what he meant, anyways - and in a few moments, the two of them were walking down the slush-covered street.
They ended up seeing the month-old "The Hobbit: the Unexpected Journey", and then sitting in her café for nearly an hour discussing the relative merits of movie vs. book, sipping large mugs of hot cocoa. Steve waved goodbye and left just before nine, and Cathryn was left to wash the mugs, thinking that, perhaps, Hermione hadn't been completely wrong about actually living.
Two days later, Steve showed up just after closing, with a small bouquet of snowdrops. Once again, Cathryn shoved her doubts to a box in her mind and allowed him to take her to his favorite Italian restaurant, although she insisted on paying for her own food. They talked about books, the internet, and a whole list of 'favorites'. Cathryn firmly told herself that they were perfectly normal topics of conversations for friends.
After dinner, when he dropped her off at her door, he said, "I've got a business trip tomorrow, just a few days, a week at most."
Cathryn nearly said 'be safe,' but settled for, "Good luck," and then she hugged him before she remembered that she shouldn't. It was normal for her to hug Ron and Hermione before they all went into battle. She'd hugged them - and Luna and Ginny and Neville - before the debacle in the Department of Mysteries, she'd hugged Ron and Hermione before she'd gone to the thrice-damned cave with Dumbledore, and she'd hugged just about everyone she cared about in the Room of Requirement before the Battle of Hogwarts, including Professor McGonagall. But this was different, because as far as she was supposed to know, Steve was headed to a conference room, not a battle.
Steve took the hug in stride, folding his arms carefully around her shoulders and giving her a quick squeeze before letting go and stepping back.
"I'll be back before you know it," he said with a smile, looking far too pleased for just a hug.
"Goodnight," was all Cathryn could come up with, and she fled into the café and straight up the stairs, not looking back or offering Steve a wave.
He'll be perfectly fine, she told herself, settling the kettle onto the stove. He's Captain bloody America, for crying out loud.
And yet, she breathed easier when, five days later, he showed up at her door as she finished wiping down the last table, a single long-stemmed iris in his hands. That night, they ice-skated in Central Park.
Cathryn had been better-friends (because that's what she and Steve were: friends. Good friends, perhaps; best friends, maybe; but just friends) with Steve for four months when Natasha crashed their planned viewing of 'Wicked' just as they were lining up to enter the theatre.
Cathryn was digging in her handbag for her ticket when she heard the familiar voice say, "Sorry to crash your date, Rogers, but there's an emergency, and you weren't answering your phone." Cathryn jerked her head up, too startled to even deny that they were on a date.
Natasha considered Cathryn with narrow eyes as Steve pulled out his phone and frowned at it. Steve apologized to Cathryn while poking at buttons on his phone, but she was busy staring back at Natasha.
Cathryn saw the moment when Natasha realized who she was. The spy's eyes widened ever-so-slightly and a single eyebrow arched. Natasha quickly slid her eyes to Steve, and then back to Cathryn. Cathryn shook her head minutely, in such a small motion that most people would have missed it. Natasha wasn't most people.
And while Natasha pretended she'd never met Cathryn in her life, Cathryn pretended the same, once more wishing Steve good luck and accepting the hug he gave her before he followed Natasha to the sleek black car just down the block.
After the car disappeared around the corner, Cathryn turned around, marched into the theatre, and did her best to let the life and times of Elphaba Thropp distract her from what Natasha could be telling Steve.
For some indecipherable reason, Natasha said nothing to Steve. He returned from the emergency none the worse for wear, and their strong friendship (and that's all) continued until the day Steve showed up and let himself in, despite the 'closed' sign on the door, and saw Cathryn opening a rather large box of firewhiskey.
"What kind of alcohol is it?" Steve asked, scanning the room before allowing himself to relax against the counter.
"Whiskey," Cathryn answered. "Special from Britain. How was your day?"
"Good," Steve said with a shrug. "Met a new sparring partner at the gym."
"Is he any good?" Cathryn grabbed her handbag and slung it over her shoulder.
"Better than the last one. Prospect Park?" he offered.
"Sounds lovely. Sandwiches?"
"I know a place."
After a moment of hesitation, Cathryn snatched up a bottle of firewhiskey and shoved it into her handbag. At Steve's slight frown, she shrugged. "It's a nice evening."
Steve smiled. "It'll take more than that to get me anywhere near drunk."
Cathryn smirked. "It's a small bottle, I'll grant you that, but it really packs a punch."
Steve didn't believe her, and by the time they staggered back from the park, they were giggling like recalcitrant teenagers. And at that stage of inebriation, it only took a single glance at the still-full box of unopened bottles for them to decide it was a perfectly logical idea to see who could drink a double-shot the fastest. And that, clearly, they had tied, so they should have another, and another, and then -
Steve kissed her. And because she was drunker than she'd been in more than ten years, and because it'd been entirely too long since she'd had the company of anyone in her bed, and because even if they were just friends, she wasn't blind and it wasn't her fault Steve was so damn attractive, she kissed him back.
In an odd twist of fate, it was her nightmares that saved her. Cathryn woke naked and overheated, half-pinned to her bed by a snoring, equally-naked man, her nightmare fading away in favor of confusion and an impending sense of doom.
The alarm clock's glowing red numbers told her that it was 3:27 in the morning.
Blonde hair and a square jaw told her that Steve was the snoring radiator.
"Damn." It didn't seem to truly encompass the situation, but it was as close as she cared to get this early in the morning.
Slowly, she slid her legs from under his and maneuvered her pillow so that as she rolled off the bed, his arm fell onto the pillow instead of empty mattress. Cathryn watched for a moment as Steve murmured something in his sleep and clutched the pillow closer. Then she turned off her alarm, slipped into some pajamas, and retreated to the kitchen, where, after taking her measure of Aging Draught, she started baking. First some basic milk rolls, and then some currant scones, and then, just for the hell of it, blueberry turnovers.
Cathryn was contemplating frying up some bacon - she wasn't sure if Steve would have a hangover, although she suspected not, since she herself didn't - when the door to her room swung open and Steve stepped into the narrow hallway, dressed except for his shirt (which Cathryn remembered having been lost somewhere downstairs before they'd staggered to the bed, along with both of their footwear and her bra) and a flush high on his cheeks.
"Good morning," Cathryn said. "Scone?" She gestured to the cooling rack. If they were eating, they wouldn't have to talk.
Steve didn't seem to know what to do, and he ate the scone in silence as Cathryn dumped six rashers of bacon into a frying pan and stared at them as they bubbled and snapped their way to crispness. She arranged the cooked bacon on milk buns - two slices per bun - and put the ketchup on the table before sitting down across from Steve.
"It'll help your hangover," she said, nudging the plate towards him.
"I haven't got one," Steve said, and then winced - actually winced - and closed his eyes.
Cathryn waited until he'd opened his eyes and was looking at her - a bit desperately, to be perfectly honest - and smiled gently at him. "I wasn't sure if you would or not."
His eyes widened, and then his eyebrows furrowed. "You knew?" It was more hurt-sounding than accusatory.
"After the invasion."
"That long?" Now he sounded even more hurt, and Cathryn closed her eyes against how much more pain she would doubtlessly inflict on him before he left her flat. Sleeping together had been a mistake. A colossal mistake, one that she couldn't just ignore. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't think it mattered. I figured that you'd tell me when you felt you could trust me."
"I do trust you."
Cathryn stayed silent, and watched as Steve's shoulders slumped when he realized the trap and the truth in her words.
"I trust you too," she started slowly, "and you are a great friend. Probably my best friend," she admitted, "but I don't want - this." She gestured between them.
"Why?" Steve looked angry, and Cathryn blinked in shock. She'd come up with many reactions that Steve might have towards what she had to say, but in none of the scenarios had he been angry. "What's so wrong with us loving each other?! I'll admit that maybe we shouldn't have - " he paused, the flush coming back to his cheeks " - shouldn't have made love for the first time when we were drunk, but that doesn't mean that we can't fix this!" He lowered his voice, seeming to struggle for the right words. "We're good together. We fit."
"Do we?" Cathryn challenged. "You hardly know me. My first boyfriend was army." A flat-out lie; the Order of the Phoenix hadn't been an army. The only army that Fred had been a part of was Dumbledore's Army, and that had been a defense club more than anything else. "He was killed in action. Every time you leave for a business trip, I keep waiting for the day you don't come back, just like him!"
"Why didn't you say something?! If you'd told me - "
"I didn't want to push you."
" - would've - what? Push me?"
"Fame. I'm not a fangirl. I think that what you stand for is great - justice, heroism, all of it - but when it comes down to it, I care more for Steve Rogers my friend than I do for Captain America the martyr. And since I allowed myself to care for you, I couldn't force you to choose between me and your job. And if we did become more than friends, I wouldn't be able to not force you to choose." Cathryn's voice hitched. This was exactly the reason why she'd told herself she wouldn't get attached to anyone; passing acquaintances were one thing. Friends - more than friends, really - were an entirely different problem. "Did that make any sort of sense?"
Steve was staring at her as if he'd never seen her before. "Yes," he said at last, and she knew that he understood what she was asking for by the mixture of pain and acceptance in his eyes and the lines of his face. "My employers - "
"You can just say S.H.I.E.L.D., if you like."
He ignored her interruption, " - they've been trying to get me to move to D.C. for months. I think," he said softly, "that, unless you'd rather I not, I'll take them up on their offer."
Cathryn said nothing, and her silence was answer enough.
Steve nodded, thanked her for her hospitality, and, after a long hesitation, stretched out his hand.
She shook it.
It took her a month to get used to Steve's absence. The worst of it was that she never knew when he was on a mission, so instead of just worrying most of the time, Cathryn worried all of the time. The most surprising part was that she missed going on - what she was forced to admit to herself - dates. Movies, theatre shows, even just walks. Steve had left, and she had no other friends in the city. Acquaintances, yes, although all of her acquaintances were also her customers, so that made everything a bit…stilted. It was hard to be friends with someone who paid you to serve them coffee and tea and food.
After a month, Steve's absence wasn't so noticeable, and Cathryn was able to hide in her routine, and if her smiles were less brilliant and her movements less cheerful, no one really knew her well enough to notice, let alone comment on the fact. And Cathryn wasn't quite as alright with that as she thought she would be - or should be.
Shortly after midsummer, Natasha showed up at the time when Steve used to run past. And, like Steve had done in the later days of their not-quite-romance, she let herself in.
"Hello, Widow," Cathryn greeted.
"It's not makeup, and it's not a mask. What is it?"
"Science," Cathryn said firmly. Natasha frowned. "Lord Thor's type of science."
Natasha's frown cleared. "Magic."
Cathryn shrugged. "I am a witch."
Natasha watched in silence as Cathryn went about the rest of her nightly closing routine, clearing out the register last.
"Aren't you going to ask?" Natasha pressed.
Cathryn made a noise of annoyance. She'd finally gotten used to - back to normal, and now Natasha was here to mess it up. "Fine," she said shortly. "Why are you here, how is Steve."
Natasha followed her into the kitchen, and Cathryn didn't bother hiding the fact that dishes were washing themselves in the sink or that several kinds of bread dough were kneading themselves on various counters. "Steve is…single-minded in his approach to missions," Natasha said at last. "I just dropped by to check on you. I was in the neighborhood."
"I know you can lie better than that. You're a spy, for Merlin's sake."
"Be ready to leave."
Cathryn's brow furrowed. "For a mission," she asked slowly, "or something else?"
Natasha moved in front of her, stopping her from checking on her flour supply. "The director is uneasy," was all she said, but Cathryn nodded.
"An apocalypse, then."
Natasha's lips twisted into a wry smile. "Something like that." She pulled a pair of tinted glasses from her back pocket. "Your magic wore off. And Steve misses you." And then, so fast that if Cathryn hadn't seen the door to the kitchen swinging on its hinges she would've thought Natasha had used magic, the woman was gone.
Despite the warning, nothing happened.
Cathryn didn't let herself ignore the warning, even after more than a month had gone by. Her flat, already somewhat bare, became strictly utilitarian. The majority of her belongings found their way into her trunk - or, rather, Sirius' old Auror-issue trunk that she'd found in the attic of 12 Grimmauld Place. Unlike Moody's, it only had four compartments, but two of them were four times larger on the inside than on the outside. It was a bit messy, but her things fit. Most of them, anyways.
By the time October announced itself with yellow and orange leaves, Cathryn had decided that, even if nothing happened by the end of the year, she would move on. The Butter-and-Crumpets was her café, and she would miss it, but she was tired of taking aging potion. Sooner or later - and more likely sooner - people would start asking questions; she'd already been asked twice by the older crowd why she didn't have a boyfriend.
A fortnight into October, Cathryn's mobile phone rang for the first time in months, just past seven at night. "Steve?" she asked automatically.
"It's now," Natasha said coldly. "Leave your phone." The line went dead.
Cathryn swore and leapt to her feet.
Three minutes and seventeen seconds later, the Butter-and-Crumpets was empty. Five minutes after that, it was filled with men carrying guns.
Some hours later - nearly nine, to be exact - Steve Rogers stood on the sidewalk in front of the empty building, frowning.
He didn't go in.