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You Be The Anchor That Keeps My Feet On The Ground (I'll Be The Wings That Keep Your Heart In The Clouds)

Chapter Text

I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night

Steve was growing restless. New York was in shambles, and while he was doing his best to aid the recovery effort, it wasn't enough to curb his deep sense of unease. To him, it was almost as if a thin film of ice still clung to his emotions; like it had once encased his body--and it was only now beginning to thaw, trickling lines of grief into his veins for a past he couldn't return to. He saw Peggy in the crimson-tinted curve of every woman's lips, Bucky in the cocksure grin of the Brooklyn boys strutting down the street--and the memories ached in ways he wasn't able to pronounce. So when Fury summoned him for a mission, Steve was glad for the distraction.
Tony, however, wasn't pleased.
"Listen here, pirate patch," he sniped at Fury, who sighed at the predictable insult. "It's been weeks since I've seen Pepper, I'm beginning to hate the sight of New York, and I'm not your metal suited pet monkey that you can just send off anywhere to do your bidding!"
Steve rolled his eyes, half-expecting Tony to stamp his foot too while he was at it.
"What's the mission?" Steve asked, crossing his arms and ignoring the still griping Stark.
"You have to find someone for me," Nick replied, swiping his fingers across the holo-screen. "A girl by the name of Cerise Solange."
"Looking for a wife, Fury?" Tony pursed his lips as he cast an eye over the photo. "Bit young for you, isn't she?"
"Why do you want her?" Steve stared at the picture-- she certainly seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary.
"My operatives have reported strange occurrences around her--the people she comes into contact with--something happens to them." Nick seemed disquieted, and Steve narrowed his eyes.
"What happens?" Tony echoed Steve's thoughts.
"That's the thing, we don't know. The accounts I receive are disjointed and inconclusive--the agents I've sent into the field after her come back disoriented with their memories scrambled. As far as I can tell, she's not vicious or violent--but she's clearly not in control of whatever powers she possesses, and that makes her a flight risk. Public opinion on the Avengers is still divided--some may consider you heroes for saving New York, but there are many others who haven't forgotten you trashed the city in the process. We don't need this spreading out to the masses."
"Yes, yes, fine," Tony waved his hand dismissively. "But why does it have to be us? Specifically, why me ? Last I checked, I wasn't on babysitting duty."

Fury pinched the bridge of his nose, clearly aggravated. "Thor is off world, we can't risk Bruce turning into the Hulk, and Natasha and Clint aren't exactly what you call friendly. I don't want to use force to bring her in--or risk setting off whatever it is that she can do. She needs to feel safe."
"Oh, so this old man and I seem real cute and cuddly to you, huh Nick?" Tony said bitingly, slinging an arm around Steve. "Look at that, Cap. We're 'safe'. Guess I better amp up my bitchface from now on, I'm losing my touch."
"You're heroes," Fury corrected, unamused. "Tony, you're Iron Man. She's probably watched you on the news for years, saving lives. Steve, you're a living legend, a war hero. If she's going to trust anyone, it will be you two."
"I don't like this, it feels like I'm your errand boy," Tony said mulishly.
Steve groaned, finally tired of Tony's snark. "Come on, Stark. It's a simple mission. We'll be back in no time."
Tony scowled, unconvinced.
"Look, if you do this, I'll give you six months off," Fury gave in, evidently hoping a bribe would work. "Just bring her in. She can stay at the compound, maybe we can find someone to train her. Who knows, she could become enough of an asset to join the Avengers. Whatever the case, she can't be left to herself."
Tony cocked an eyebrow. "You mean that about the vacation bit?"
Fury flashed a rare grin. "No, but you can tell yourself I did if it makes you feel any better."
Steve laughed as he watched Tony stomp out of the room. It wasn't everyday someone got the better of Stark.

Two Days Later

Steve had said it would be simple, but it was proving to be anything but. He and Tony had already scoured the locations Fury had told them the girl was last seen, but she was nowhere to be found.
He supposed it was to be expected. One had to have had some skill to avoid S.H.I.E.L.D operatives for this long.
"I need a drink," Tony groused, flinging open the door to the dingy bar they were standing in front of.
Steve followed with trepidation--alcohol did nothing for him now, and he didn't much want to tolerate a drunk Tony Stark.
The faint strains of song sifted through the dusty air of the room, growing stronger as they approached the bartender.
Steve could make out the slender silhouette of the woman performing in a shadowy corner of the room.
He joined Tony, slumped against the bar, and gradually allowed himself to sink into the syrup-slick sensation of the singer's verses.
She had a voice like pulled taffy, sticky-sweet and golden-smooth--it settled languorously into Steve's senses like sun-warmed wine, reminding him of the songs of his time--simpler, purer, sweeter.
Steve closed his eyes, letting the words weave themselves into his memory.
"There used to be a graying tower alone on the sea,
You became the light on the dark side of me,
Love remained a drug that's the high and not the pill,
But did you know,
I wish a gust of wind would bring me home,
You know that I love to live with you,
But you make me forget so very much,
I forget to pray for the angels,
And then the angels forget to pray for us,
So dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in,
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove,
Dance me, dance me to the end of love...
A shaft of light hit Steve in the face, and his eyes flew open, catching the gaze of the now-silent singer.
Steve froze.
A long spill of ravensilk hair, eyes the color of maple leaves in the morning light and skin like sunlit honey--this was the girl from the photo Nick had shown them.
Steve gave Tony a sharp jab in the chest. "Tony it's her, the singer."
He snapped to attention, but it was too late.
Solange had taken one look at Steve and fled.
They raced after her, careening into the damp, dimly lit alley behind the bar.
"Damn it, we're losing her," Steve panted, Tony quickly losing ground behind him without his suit.

"STAY AWAY FROM ME!" They heard a scream, and Steve cursed as he saw a homeless man stagger his way onto Solange's path.
She was backing away from him, hands outstretched. "No- no, you don't understand, I'll hurt you, just stay away, don't touch me--DON'T TOUCH ME--"
But it was too late.
He barreled into her, trying to grab at her clothes.
And then went flying ten feet into the air, landing with an enormous crash and an ominous cracking noise--without Solange moving a single muscle.

Chapter Text

Silver Tremblin' Hands

"Stark, check if he's still alive," Steve said sharply. "I'll handle this one."
"By yourself?" Tony asked, skeptical. "You sure, old man?"
"You don't have your suit," Steve reminded him. "And besides..."
He looked at Solange, who had sunk shuddering onto the dirty pavement. "I don't think she'll be a problem."
"Go away," she said miserably, her svelte body shrinking away from Steve as he approached her with his hands held out in a placatory gesture. "I don't want to hurt you."
"We don't want to hurt you either," Steve replied. "For now, let's talk. I'm Ca-"
"Captain America, I know," Solange finished, cautiously getting to her feet. "And that-" she added, gulping, as Tony reappeared, "is Iron Man."
"You bet your ass it is," Tony agreed. "He's alive," he addressed Steve. "From what I can tell, coupla broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. Got off lucky, if you ask me-- pipsqueak packs quite a punch. I've called an ambulance, but I can't say I feel too bad for him, considering he was trying to rip this one's clothes off."
Solange let out an audible sigh of relief, but continued to eye them warily. "Why are you here?" She demanded. "I know S.H.I.E.L.D's been looking for me. I don't want any trouble, I don't--and I won't let myself be captured so you can run experiments on me and--and lock me away someplace and--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Tony cut her off. "Just who do you think we are, the mafia? We're not trying to torture you."
"We just want to help," Steve added.
"You can't help," Solange said bitterly. "And don't try and force me either!" Tony tensed as she doubled her fine-boned hands into fists, but Steve could see the way they were shaking--the vulnerability lining her mouth like pink-chapped lipstick. It was palpable--it stirred something in him, some secret wellspring that he'd thought had dried out long ago.
"Cerise," He said slowly, the taste of her name heavy and strange upon his tongue, like foreign fruit. "I know you're scared," Steve tried to make his tone as non-threatening as possible. "But you don't have to be. I know what it must be like, cutting yourself off from contact with anyone because you're afraid you'll hurt them if you get too close--feeling like you're on the outside looking in at this world that seems to be passing you by--feeling like a freak. You don't have to feel that way--you can finally belong--you can feel safe. If you just give yourself the chance to."
She stared at him, jade green eyes blown wide with disbelief. "You can't mean that," Cerise whispered.
"I do," Steve said firmly. "I promise."
She had been holding her body like a tightly coiled whip, but it was now slack with shock. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"You don't," Tony shrugged. "You're just going to have to take the risk."

~~~

"Nice neighborhood," Tony said sarcastically as they moved past the rundown buildings.
Cerise flushed. "We can't all be billionaires, Mr. Stark. It's not easy being constantly on the run."
Steve shot Tony a disapproving look.
"Don't give me that face, Rogers," Tony snapped, though he had the grace to look abashed.
"I'll just--just get my things then," Cerise said hesitantly. "It won't take too long--the landlord doesn't allow anyone but tenants inside here."
Tony narrowed his eyes. "And how do we know you won't give us the slip and run off?"
"You don't," Cerise replied sweetly. "You're just going to have to take the risk."
Steve suppressed a snort as Tony gaped at her.
"Don't you start giving me lip, brat," Tony glared. "How old are you anyway, sixteen? Seventeen?"
"I'm twenty-one, thank you very much!" Cerise's voice rose in indignation.
"Really, I couldn't tell," he said snarkily. "What with you being a midget, and all."
She huffed, jogging up the stairs of the building without deigning to give him a response.
"This one is going to be trouble," Tony griped. "I can't believe we're actually stuck on babysitting duty. We're going to have to live with her!"
"She doesn't seem so bad," Steve folded his arms, amused. "Might help if you didn't antagonize her."
"Thank you, Cap, for your scintillating input," Tony said bitingly. "That was some speech you gave back there to her. You write that shit beforehand?"
Steve sighed. "It was the truth, Stark. That's it. We've all felt it."
"Yeah, yeah," Tony waved his hand. "Let's just hope she doesn't murder us in our beds."
"I couldn't do that even if I wanted to," Cerise appeared silently behind Tony, causing him to curse. "I have no control over my powers. They only ever appear if someone tries to harm me, or if I feel threatened."
Tony ignored her response, pointing at the lump of fuzzy black fur in her arms. "What the fuck is that ?"
Cerise shot him a puzzled glance, settling the furry creature carefully into the crook of her arm. "That's Luffy, my cat."
"Oh no," Tony said fiercely. "Oh hell no. I am NOT going to live with an accursed cat in the tower. Not fucking happening. Leave it here, kid."
Cerise's mouth popped open. "What? I can't do that! There's nobody I can give her to, and even if there was, I wouldn't, I love her!"
"I don't care," Tony jabbed a finger at the animal. "It's got to go."
As if in answer, the cat hissed at him. Steve almost thought Tony would hiss back.
Cerise looked to be on the verge of tears. "Please," her voice quavered. "Luffy is all I have."
Tony was discomfited, but held his ground. "No."
Cerise looked beseechingly at Steve from under eyelashes dark and thick as soot. "Mr. Rogers, please. I swear she won't be a bit of trouble. I need Luffy--I can't leave without her. Please don't make me."
Steve shifted uncomfortably. He wasn't used to wide-eyed girls staring him in the face imploringly.
Cerise gave a desperate look at the cat, and Steve just--
Steve just couldn't.
"Let her keep it, Stark," Steve said wearily. "Look at it, it's tiny. The compound is huge and you're never out of your lab. You won't even see it."
Tony swore. "God, I knew there was a reason I didn't like you. Just for that, I'm putting her on your floor. You can stay with her. And that damned cat." So saying, he stalked back to the car.
Cerise's eyes sparkled like dew-speckled grass as she shot Steve a grateful glance. A smile blossomed into being on her face as she looked at him, lips unfurling like the petals of a nascent rose. It was a slow blooming thing, dimpled and guileless--the first smile Steve had ever seen on her. It made her honey skin glow, and Steve blinked, coming to the belated realization that Cerise was pretty.
Not that it meant much--looks had ceased to matter to Steve ever since he'd accepted that he would never get that dance with Peggy. All the same though, something in the clean lines of her face appealed to him, something that spoke of a strength of spirit that belied her soft features.
"Thank you, Mr. Rogers," she said timidly. "I won't forget it."
"Just Steve is fine," he corrected mildly. "Mr. Rogers makes me feel old."
"You are old," Tony interjected nastily. "Now could the two of you stop flirting so we can fucking leave this dump already?"
For the nth time that day, Steve rolled his eyes.

Chapter Text

Bag Full Of Thoughts

Cerise didn't know what to think.
She'd never expected this, not in a million years.
Hers had been an empty sort of life, if she looked back on it--Cerise always felt like a wraith, aimlessly drifting from place to place like the rolling gray fog on a winter's night--insubstantial and weightless. She'd been invisible, inconsequential--hadn't left a single mark upon the world. Cerise had more or less resigned herself to it--there had been no other way, once her powers manifested--it had been a weary acceptance that weighed her down like a slave's shackled feet. She didn't ever expect it to change--
But then they had come, legacies already in the making--billionaire Tony Stark and the indefatigable Steve Rogers--for her.
And Steve had pinned her with his gaze, an unfamiliar sort of empathy in his clear cerulean eyes--and spoke the words Cerise had wanted to hear all her life. The deepest wish of her heart, lodged like a splinter in her chest, a throbbing that kept her up at night--to belong, for once. To have a home. To know what it was to be close to someone--to not feel like she was a secondary character in her own story, reduced to a helpless bystander watching life pass her by.
It wasn't something she hoped anyone would ever understand--least of all stoic, steadfast Captain America, who always seemed to know what to do.
But he had. Somehow he had.
She hadn't told him of course, but Cerise'd been there during the battle for New York, huddled under a rickety, half-dilapidated fruit shop. She remembered seeing Steve, armed with nothing but his shield and his courage, fighting like he was born for it. She remembered them all, and most of all, recalled the pinpricks of envy needling into her veins watching them; and wondering, not for the first time, what it was like--not being afraid of your own power.
Steve had promised her things could be different if she gave them the chance to be--the promise itself wasn't as surprising to Cerise as the fact that she believed him. She didn't have a single reason to, but she did.
And it bothered her.
Shaking the thought off like one would an errant fly, Cerise surveyed her room with a small sigh. While it was luxurious, easily the best she'd ever seen, all sleek gray walls and silver accents--it felt cold. It felt aloof and unwelcoming--the very air seemed stiff, as if it didn't want to accommodate itself to her. The only familiar thing in the room was Luffy, placidly curled up on the foot of the bed.
"Guess this is supposed to be our home now, Luff," Cerise said dispiritedly.
The cat flicked her tail lazily, looking as if she'd belonged there all her life.
Cerise gustily exhaled. It could have been a lot worse--at least it was Steve that she was sharing space with, not Tony. He'd seemed to hate her on the spot.
She winced, recollecting how strained the journey back to the compound had been on her first night. Tony had spent the time glowering in the corner, muttering darkly about the evilness of felines. Steve had just stared out the window with a tired air about him. Once they'd reached, Tony had stalked off to his quarters in high dudgeon, and it was left to Steve to show her around the building. The tower had seemed enormous to Cerise, as if it would swallow her whole, and she'd shrunk into herself as a result, doing her best to seem invisible. It was all she knew how to do.
Steve, of course, had been nothing but courteous, telling her he was just across the hall if she needed anything. They shared the kitchen and living room, but Cerise barely ever saw him. It was funny, Cerise thought to herself--his open eyes and classic good looks were sure to engender trust in anyone, while Tony's face resembled a closed door-- but her intuition told her it was Steve who was the real enigma.
Tired of her musings, she jumped to her feet. "Time for your food, Luff." She stepped out the door--and was promptly slammed up against the wall with an earsplitting bang.
"Who are you?" demanded a husky voice, and Cerise choked, trying to pry the hand off of her neck in vain. Eyes watering, she was barely able to make out flaming red hair and pale skin before Steve came racing out.
"Nat! Natasha let her go, she's not an enemy!"
The hand at her neck fell away, and Cerise fell to the floor, panting.
The woman--Natasha, hoisted her up. "Sorry," she said, not sounding very apologetic at all as she set Cerise on her feet. "Old habits die hard. Unfamiliar face, you know."
"That's--that's okay, Miss Romanov," Cerise squeaked, doing her best to stealthily edge away from her. Judging by Steve's amused glance, she hadn't succeeded. With her skintight black gear and prowling gait, Natasha rather reminded Cerise of a panther. A panther that looked very capable of eating her, if rubbed the wrong way.
"Oh, polite, this one," the Russian spy blinked at her. "Natasha is fine, kid. What's your name?"
"Cerise," she replied, massaging her throat nervously.
Comprehension dawned on Natasha's face. "Oh, so you're the reason the boss is coming here."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "Fury's coming to see her?"
"Yeah, he's on his way." Natasha checked her phone, then tsked. "Nope, scratch that, he's here. Let's go."
Cerise balked. "Fury..? As in Nick Fury? Director of S.H.I.E.L.D?"
"That's the one," Steve seemed to sense her anxiety. "Don't worry, he doesn't bite."
"Usually," said Natasha, smirking at her.
"Stop trying to scare her, Nat," Steve admonished as they headed downstairs. "She's only just got here."

~~~
Cerise didn't know what to make of Fury. His hooded, swarthy face was inscrutable as he regarded her, his one eye fierce and piercing.
"So you're Cerise," he finally said slowly. "We've been looking for you a long time."
Unconsciously, she stuck her chin out. "I didn't want to be found."
Nick chuckled. "So what changed your mind?"
Cerise narrowly avoided meeting Steve's eyes.
"Eventually, you get tired of running. And Mr. Stark mentioned that there was a possibility you could offer me help in controlling my powers."
"Yes, about that," Tony spoke up. "I hope you're not expecting me to do anything here, Nick, cause I don't know any of this mojo shit she can do. So sorry, but I'm not playing Mr. Miyagi to her Karate Kid, unless you want me to teach her how to create tech or something."
"I don't need your help to do that," Cerise said resentfully under her breath, but no one heard.
"I do not understand that reference," Steve said blankly.
Tony rolled his eyes.
"I don't know that I could help much," Natasha said doubtfully. "I could teach her how to fight, I guess."
"Yes, good idea," Nick nodded. "She should know how to defend herself."
"Oooh we're going to have fun, kid," Natasha winked at her.
Cerise gulped.
"What about Banner?" Fury suggested. "He has considerable experience living with uncontrollable impulses."
"Oh, that's genius ," Tony drawled. "Do you really want to put the two people in this area who have no command over their powers together in one room? They could kill each other. Or us. Or both."
"We can't risk him turning into the Hulk," Steve agreed. "She can barely protect herself. I'm with Stark on this one."
Tony looked gratified.
"Thor is in Asgard and Clint's on a mission, so that leaves..." Nick's eye roved around the room before it settled on Steve. "You."
"Me?" Steve echoed, puzzled. "What can I do?"
Nick crossed his arms. "You were a soldier. You know the value of discipline. Maybe if you can bring it into her life, it might help her manage her powers."
Cerise wished they wouldn't talk about her as if she wasn't present in the room with them.
"I think you should ask her opinion," Steve said, almost as if he had read her mind. But she couldn't help looking at him with grateful eyes for his comment alone.
"I don't mind training with Mr. Rogers," Cerise said slowly. "If he wants to, that is."
Steve chewed his lip.
"Sure," he agreed easily. "I'll be happy to help out, if I can."
Steve held out his hand. "Ready to take back control, Cerise?"
Hesitantly, Cerise took his hand.

Chapter Text

For The Right Reasons

Steve startled out of a light doze with the sensation of something watching him. He rolled out of bed, every nerve on high alert--relaxing only when he finally laid eyes on what it was.
Luffy surveyed him coolly, elegantly curled upon his table across the room.
"Oh, hello," said Steve, bemused. "What are you doing in my room?"
She simply looked at him with her lamp-like golden pupils--there was an uncanny prescience to her eyes, as if even though the cat couldn't speak, it knew everything that was said around it.
Steve dismissed the foolishness of the thought, getting to his feet and approaching the animal with a healthy amount of caution. She hadn't seemed to warm to anyone, sticking close to Cerise's heels everywhere she went. She eyed Tony balefully, baring her teeth at him on the rare occasions they crossed paths, and she regarded Natasha with a wary sort of indifference. Enhanced healing or no, Steve didn't want to get scratched. So he went to her slowly.
Luffy twitched her ears, blinking lazily up at him.
"I feel like you want something," Steve told the cat. "What is it?"
She stared at him imperiously.
Luffy stretched out her neck towards him--gingerly, Steve extended his hand and rubbed her gently behind the ears.
She purred, pushing at his hand.
Steve smiled slightly, not able to shake off the ridiculous notion that he had just been conferred a great honor.
Right then, there came a tentative knock on his door.
"Come in," said Steve pleasantly, still stroking Luffy.
Cerise entered, eyes blowing wide when she spotted Steve petting her cat.
"Oh," she blinked. "I was looking for Luffy. I'm sorry she bothered you."
"It's no trouble," Steve demurred. "She's sweet."
"Luff likes you," Cerise said, surprise evident in her eyes. "She rarely ever likes anyone."
"I'll take it as a compliment," Steve replied, amused.
Cerise let out a quiet chuckle, gathering Luffy up in her arms. "Okay, I'm gonna go then."
"No, wait," Steve stopped her. "I've been meaning to talk to you about your training. I need some input from you before we can officially start."
She looked at him curiously, returning to her seat on the couch. "What do you want to know?"
"Your history, in essence," Steve answered. "When did your powers first manifest? Do you know the full extent of them? Is it just telekinesis? What triggers them?"
Cerise steepled her fingers together, looking contemplative.
"I think I was around seventeen at the time," she began. "There was...an incident," she said, voice hitching. Steve raised an eyebrow, but didn't ask her to elaborate.
For now.
"Anyway, that was the first time they appeared," she hurried on. "I sent a group of people flying into the air. As I've said before, if I feel as if I'm in danger or that I'm unsafe in any way, they tend to come out, but not always. It's a fifty-fifty chance, to be honest."
"Hmm," Steve nodded. "What about when you're angry? Do they come out then?"
Cerise frowned.
"I....wouldn't know," she said slowly. "You have to--have to talk to people in order to get angry with them, or feel anything, at all. I haven't done that. Not for--not for a while," she finished quietly, eyes downcast.
Steve's lips pulled downward. He didn't like the hollowness on her face--it didn't belong on someone so young.
Or so gentle.
It was odd, he thought, for someone with such latent ability lying dormant in their body to be so openly vulnerable. Cerise wore her fragility wrapped around her shoulders like a mantle, and it disquieted Steve, who wasn't used to transparency after living through two world's worth of people with hidden agendas.
It just didn't make sense to him.
"It doesn't have to be that way anymore. So..." he softly prodded. "Moving things with your mind, that's about it, yes?"
"No, actually," Cerise tapped her fingers nervously on the oak table. "There was this one time I shot fire out of my hands. Another I made water burst from a cylinder...and I think I might have started a storm once."
He barely repressed the urge to gape at her. Tony would have taken it in stride and made a witty rejoinder, but Steve just stared.
"Well, uh--," Steve coughed awkwardly. "That's quite...diverse."
He cleared his throat. "I can't say that cleared up much, but I do have a fairer idea of your triggers. It sounds to me like you need to sort through your emotions, because that's what your powers are tied into. I'll figure out a way to help you do that, and since Nat won't be here for more than three days a week, I'll oversee some of your physical training as well."
He jumped to his feet, causing Luffy to open one insolent eye.
"Let's begin."

~~~
"I think--I'm--gonna throw up," Cerise panted with her hands on her knees, nearly sinking onto the grass.
Steve jogged back to her. "Then throw up and keep running," he said, unfazed. "We've been doing laps for an hour and a half. You still have thirty minutes left."
Cerise, still gasping for breath, couldn't do much but stare at him in disbelief. He hadn't even broken a sweat.
She wanted to punch him in his stupidly perfect face.
He grinned at her sweaty, flushed profile, as if he knew what she'd just been thinking.
"Come on, champ. Let's go."
By the time they were done, Cerise's legs felt like jelly. By contrast, Steve hadn't even mussed up his hair.
It really wasn't fair, she thought.
Groaning, she dragged her way down to the kitchen, searching for food.
In the next ten minutes, Cerise felt a whole lot worse.
"What the fuck happened?" Tony yelled, racing into the room, Steve close behind, the sound of the smoke alarm nearly deafening.
"I don't know!" Cerise said shamefacedly, beet-red and mortified. "I just put the chicken in the frying pan and left it there.. and..." she gestured helplessly.
"Ugh," Tony said disgustedly, spraying coolant from his glove hand. "You really are a nuisance, pipsqueak."
"I'm sorry," Cerise said miserably. "I'm really sorry, I swear I didn't mean to--I'll fix it I just--" she cringed away from Tony, curving her small shoulders inward as if bracing for impact. Steve winced, preparing to do damage control for whatever barb Tony had to offer up at the moment.
But there was an unidentifiable cast to Tony's eyes as he looked at Cerise's hunched in frame.
"It's nothing I can't fix, kid," he said in a markedly quieter voice. "Maybe just--just stay out of the kitchen."
Steve watched him leave with a small smile.
Cerise avoided his gaze.
"I just wanted something to eat," she said dolefully, strongly reminding Steve of a kicked puppy.
Steve's lips twitched, but he managed to control himself.
"Maybe you should let me cook from now on."

Chapter Text

The Darkness Creeping In

Cerise had lost count of the times she'd woken up like this since it happened. It hadn't lost its potency either, the memory--or nightmare, or was it both? -- still as sharp and cutting as it had been years ago.
"Stay away from me," he stammered, backing away as fast as he was able. "STAY AWAY."
"Jer, don't be afraid of me," she begged, stretching out her hands. "I would never hurt you--I don't know how it happened, I don't--don't--please don't go. Don't leave me. Not you.
"Get away from me, freak!" Jeremy yelled, the terror in his eyes slicing into Cerise like the bite of a blade. "You're not human. You're not--not Cerise. Don't you touch me!"
"I did it to protect you," she whispered, feeling her heart quietly crumble into pieces. "I just wanted to keep you safe. You're all I have left."
But he'd already run away, his figure dwindling into the distance within the blink of an eye.
The sunlight was blinding that day, but she could almost see the darkness that would unfurl its tendrils into her life, like ink swirling into water.
She sunk to her knees and sobbed.
Cerise's eyes flicked open, the dry burn at the back of her irises an accustomed pain. The tears had stopped coming years ago, coursing through her body instead, the salt of them singeing her blood. On nights like these, she could almost imagine the sound of its sibilant hissing. She dug her nails into her palms, a habit as well-worn and familiar to Cerise as her old patchwork blanket. When she'd first begun doing it, the idea had been for the pain in her hands to distract her from the pain in her heart. It had long since ceased to work, but grooved scars were always littered across her palms now, like miniature crescent moons.
Wearily, she got out of bed. The day had barely begun, the grayish morning light only just starting to filter past her curtains, but Cerise already felt sapped of energy. Luffy batted at her ankles gently, and she lifted her up in her arms, burying her nose in Luffy's velvet-soft fur. The cat purred, nuzzling into Cerise's neck.
She breathed a little easier, chest loosening the longer she held on to Luffy. She had never been just a pet to Cerise--but rather a companion, a friend--who always had an uncanny way of managing to comfort Cerise when the shadow of her past loomed too large for her liking.
As if on cue, there came a firm rapping upon her door.
Steve poked his head in, his blue eyes clear and alert. "Morning, Cerise. Nat's here for your first lesson."
"Good morning," Cerise said quietly, trying not to let her disquiet show. "Give me a few minutes, I'll be right down."
Steve nodded, sweeping her with a brief, searching gaze. "Are you alright? You seem...upset."
Cerise gave him a wan smile. "Is it that obvious, or are you just good at reading people?"
Steve laughed. "A little bit of both, I suppose." He waited, and Cerise sighed.
"Just memories, Mr. Rogers. Isn't that all that it ever is?"
"Steve," he reminded her, leaning against the doorjamb.
He paused, mulling over his words.
"I don't know who or what it is you've left behind, and you don't have to tell me," he said carefully. "But it doesn't have to define you. You are more than the sum of what you've been through--what has been done to you or what you have done to others. You have the ability to change the narrative, to begin again--and I know you know that, somewhere deep down, otherwise you wouldn't have come with me that night in the alley. You can shape the path the rest of your life will take--anyone can, as long as they have the will. And you're not just anyone, are you?"
Something like the first faint embers of hope glimmered to life in Cerise's chest as she met Steve's eyes.

~~~
Natasha circled her slowly, reminding Cerise so strongly of a stalking panther that beads pf perspiration began collecting at the nape of her neck.
"Hmm," she mused. "You're small. Slim build--good for stealth work. Could be fast if we trained you enough. Steve's making you run, isn't he?"
"Yes," Cerise said ruefully, legs beginning to throb at the mere mention of her grueling regimen. "Every day."
"Good," Natasha nodded. "I'll be straight with you, kid. You're never going to be a fighter--not really. You're starting too late. I was trained since I was a child, most of us at S.H.I.E.L.D are. It takes years to even become half-way decent, and you don't have that kind of time. So I'm going to be brutal with you. You're going to hate it, you're going to hate me--but if you listen, and train till you drop, you might be able to keep yourself from getting killed, if the occasion ever arises. Practice like your life depends on it, Solange. Because someday it might."
Cerise swallowed, steeling herself.
"I'm ready," she said.
"Right," Natasha shrugged off her jacket. "I'm going to start you off with some basic self-defense tips, and then I want to see your reaction time to attacks."
Cerise gulped.
"The eyes, nose, groin and knees are the most vulnerable points of the human body. If you find yourself in a fight, try to incapacitate your attacker by targeting these areas. Don't be afraid to fight dirty, there's no place for honor when it's life or death. We'll be working on how to punch from tomorrow onwards, but for now, I'm going to attack you. I want you to try and stop me."
Cerise barely had time to brace herself before Natasha charged--she tried to block the blow with her arms, but Natasha deftly slipped past her defenses, punching her cleanly in the stomach.
The air whooshed out of Cerise's lungs as she collapsed onto her knees, gasping for breath.
"Again," commanded Natasha, unimpressed.
Cerise staggered to her feet.
By the time two hours had passed, Cerise was drenched in sweat--bruised, battered, and utterly exhausted. She hadn't been able to block a single blow from Natasha, nor land one of her own.
"I've seen far better," the spy commented. And then, looking at Cerise's flushed face, added: "I've also seen far worse."
She barely registered her words, slumped on the floor.
Cerise startled in panic as Natasha leaped at her in the split second she'd taken her eyes off the redhead.
"Never let your guard down!" Natasha barked, hands already set to lock around Cerise's throat.
She would have succeeded--if Cerise hadn't sent her flying backwards, her power suddenly flaring into being. Natasha would have crashed into the wall, had she not executed a perfect flip at the last minute, neatly landing on her feet.
Cerise was horrified.
"I'm so sor-"
Satisfaction gleamed in Natasha's moss-green eyes.
"Now that's more like it."
Cerise groaned, dropping to the floor in a crumpled heap.
Tony chose that exact moment to saunter into the room.
"Well, you look like shit," he greeted Cerise's prone form.
Every part of her body stinging and sore, Cerise didn't have the energy to respond.
"Nat, you need to come with me," Tony said, face actually serious for once. "We've got a mission."

Chapter Text

Hatchling Hassles

Nearly quailing under the three pairs of eyes that were currently boring into her, Cerise felt like a beetle under a microscope.
"We can't take her with us," Steve insisted, folding his arms. "It's too dangerous and she's barely started training."
"She can't stay here by herself either," Tony shot back. "This compound is only safe as long as we're here to defend it. You know people are pissed after the battle last month--they try and mob this place almost every other week."
In unison, the two of them looked at Natasha, who chewed her lip thoughtfully.
"She can stay on the Quinjet," she finally said. "Clint is gonna be joining us, and we're more than capable of making sure the hatchlings don't reach the jet. Cerise'll be fine."
Tony nodded, satisfied. "You're outvoted, old man."
Steve huffed, displeased. "This is a bad idea. We had absolutely no clue that Loki had left behind Chitauri eggs near the outskirts of the city. Even if they're hatchlings, they're big enough to cause a lot of mayhem. We need to be careful."
"We'll be careful, Rogers," Natasha promised. "Don't worry so much. You know we can't leave her here."
Steve sighed, evidently giving in.
"Fine. Let's suit up. But I don't like this."
"You don't like anything, Cap," Tony rolled his eyes.
"C'mon, kid," Natasha tugged at Cerise's arm. "You're not going to need it today, but it's time you got your stealth suit."
By the time they'd all returned, Cerise was peering down at her gear with some amount of alarm. It fit her like a second skin, leaving nothing to the imagination--it made her feel inordinately exposed.
"Stop looking like it's going to spring to life and bite you; it's just a suit," Natasha said impatiently, placing a sheathed dagger in Cerise's hand. "Here--just in case. Only use this if you have no other choice. You don't know anything about knife-fighting yet, so the odds are if you're placed in a situation where you try to use it, your opponent is just going to take it from you. And then you'll be in twice as much trouble. So remember--life or death only ."
"I got it," Cerise said faintly, reluctantly curling her fingers around the dagger.
"She's not going to need it, Nat," Steve looked reprovingly at the crimson-haired spy.
He gave Cerise a reassuring smile. "You have nothing to worry about. Let's go."
Her eyes widened as they approached the hovercraft--Cerise had never seen anything like it--sleek and streamlined as it was, like a metal falcon.
Tony grimaced in disgust as Luffy hopped nimbly up the ramp of the Quinjet.
"Seriously?" He snapped, eyeing the animal balefully. "We're bringing this demon with us?"
Luffy yawned, sharp teeth poking out, staring at Tony with an air of truculence.
"It's just a cat, Tony," Steve said wearily. "Leave it be."
"Of course you'd say that," Tony scoffed. "Don't think that I haven't noticed you with it. You're fraternizing with the enemy, Rogers!"
Steve looked heavenward.
"Both of you shut up," Natasha snapped, fingers flying across the Quinjet's control board. "We've got work to do."
Cerise had the insane urge to laugh, but she pressed her lips together and restrained herself.
Natasha's device beeped, and she spared it a cursory glance.
"Clint says there are about two pods of Chitauri that have hatched, plus another three still in egg form. Steve, Tony, take point on attacking the hatchlings. Clint and I will destroy the eggs. Make sure to keep them distracted--they'll try and protect the unhatched pods."
"Fine," Tony said with ill grace.
Steve inclined his head in silent assent.
Cerise withdrew from the three, allowing them to discuss strategy. She felt more out of place than ever--but Cerise understood. To them, she was a liability--someone to be taken care of. She couldn't possibly blame them--there really wasn't much she had to offer, aside from her powers--and they didn't even work half of the time.
A stocky figure with a bow slung over his shoulder was waiting for them on the tarmac when the hovercraft landed.
Cerise peeked out at him cautiously.
"I don't bite...Cerise, is it?" His voice rose into a question at the end.
"Hello, Mr. Barton," she greeted him nervously."It's nice to meet you."
He raised a non-committal eyebrow.
"Looks a bit soft to me," he remarked to Natasha. "Too polite. Never seen a polite agent."
"She's not an agent," Natasha replied. "Don't be an asshole."
Cerise's faint smile faltered, and she retreated into the confines of the jet.
Steve frowned at Clint.
"Let's get to it, then," Tony flicked the visor of his suit shut.
"Now you stay put," he told Cerise firmly. "Not one toe out of this jet. Got it?"
"Yeah, I know, I know," she muttered, feeling abjectly useless as she watched them leave.

~~~
"How many of these fuckers are there?" Tony barked, throwing a Chitauri hatchling against the wall. It chittered angrily, refusing to be subdued until Tony snapped its spike-laden spine. Blood the color of verdigris sprayed against Tony's suit.
"Ugh, that's disgusting," he spat in distaste, lobbing a few more of the reptilian aliens against the wall. "Cap, how're you doing?"
"This should be the last of them," Steve panted, wrestling one of them to the ground. He severed its head from its neck with his shield. "We're lucky the young ones don't have wings."
"Don't jinx it," Tony cautioned, diving towards another hatchling, smashing it until its carapace was cracked and broken.
Natasha's voice came crackling in through Steve's earpiece. "Clint and I have taken care of the eggs. What's your status?"
"We're about finished," Steve straightened, catching the last of the younglings with his hands and squeezing their necks.
Suddenly Natasha cursed, causing Steve to stiffen in alarm.
"Nat? What's wrong?" He demanded.
"There was a full-grown Chitauri here," Natasha said tersely. "I don't know how it stayed hidden. Steve--it has wings. It escaped before we could take it down."
"Where is it going?" Steve said grimly, already knowing the answer.
Natasha's voice was tight with tension.
"It's headed towards the Quinjet."

~~~

Cerise exhaled gustily, surveying the empty hovercraft in dejection.
At what point was she supposed to begin becoming anxious at the Avengers' absence?
She didn't know how much time had passed, but it felt like hours.
All of a sudden, Luffy began hissing, hackles raised and teeth bared.
Cerise felt uneasy. "What is it, Luff?"
She didn't have time to wonder any further when the roof of the jet came crashing downwards-- a gunmetal gray, skeletal creature with snapping fangs balanced on top of it.
It shrieked at her, the sound scraping against her ears like nails against a chalkboard.
Cerise froze, unable to move, as if she were a mouse locked in the gaze of a snake.
Luffy leapt in front of her, claws out--and motion flooded back into Cerise's limbs. She could hear pounding footsteps hitting the tarmac, but it would be too late by the time they got to her.
Cerise had to protect Luffy.
"Hey, ugly!" She yelled, grabbing the first thing her hands came across. "Stay away from my cat!"
And she shoved a hairbrush into the Chitauri's black, glittering eye as the Avengers came barreling into the ruined entry point of the aircraft.
It careened backward, screaming in pain--falling perfectly into Natasha's ambit.
She dragged it away by its scaly wings, ignoring its wailing protests.
Tony gaped at Cerise.
"Did you--did you just stab an alien in the eye with a pink plastic hairbrush?"
Cerise flushed. "It was the first thing I could think of."
Inexplicably, Tony gave her a sardonic grin. "I like your style, kid."
"Didn't I give you a knife?" Natasha returned, flicking blue-green blood off her hands.
Cerise colored even deeper. "You said I'd probably end up with it in the other person's hands."
"Still would have done more damage than a hairbrush, Solange," Natasha started laughing. "But it was quick thinking, I'll give you that."
Clint regarded Cerise with barely-disguised amusement. Only Steve didn't seem eager to mock her--in fact, he was staring pointedly at Tony.
"Oh no," Tony wagged a gloved finger at Steve threateningly. "Don't you say it, Rogers."
"I told you so," Steve said primly.

Chapter Text

Mindbending

"Come sit down, Cerise," Steve patted the mat laid out on the floor of the training room. "We're going to start helping you manage your powers today."
Cerise eyed him apprehensively, but he looked fresh-faced and serene despite the early hour of the morning--immaculate in a simple white shirt and drawstring pants. It was a composure Cerise wished she could emulate--wrung out as she was after a week of grueling lessons with Natasha. She didn't think she could ever match up to Steve's unflappable demeanor.
As she settled down upon the mat, she noticed a box of paperweights tucked under Steve's thigh.
"Am I expected to lift those?" she asked doubtfully.
Steve smiled. "You're expected to try."
Cerise still felt nervous.
"So here's what we're going to do," Steve hooked his fingers under his chin. "We're going to attempt to have you raise these in the air, in a relaxed environment."
Cerise blinked, uncomprehending. "But I told you, I have to be in danger to--"
"Exactly," Steve interjected. "That's the problem. You have to stop associating your powers with negative emotion. Even if you somehow manage to channel them whenever you want, you'd still be letting fear and sadness, maybe even anger at some point, dictate how you use your abilities. You never let your darkness guide you--eventually, it'll corrode you from the inside out."
"But I have no way of controlling this--even if I managed to lift it, what if I use too much force?" Cerise wrung her hands, visibly distraught. "I could hurt you."
"Cerise," Steve said soothingly. "I'm not going to let anything happen. You're safe. I know you don't trust me right now, and I don't blame you for it--but just give me a chance."
He looked at her intently, aquamarine eyes open and honest.
"Try to trust me, alright? I won't make you regret it."
Cerise breathed out--and let herself believe, just a little, that she could rely on Steve.
"Okay."
Something like warmth kindled in his eyes.
"Thank you."
He handed her a paperweight--Cerise weighed it gingerly in her palm, wondering how hard it would be to raise it.
"Try to move it now," Steve instructed. "Just focus on pulling your power upwards. Imagine it like reaching into a well to bring up water."
Cerise closed her eyes and did as he said--tried to burrow deep within herself to wherever her power lay coiled and dormant--to pull a thread of power out.
She didn't know how many minutes had passed, but when she opened her eyes, the paperweight hadn't risen by so much as an inch.
Cerise wilted.
"It's fine," Steve assured her. "It's rare that anyone gets things right their first time. Keep at it."
Gritting her teeth, Cerise picked up the paperweight again.

~~~

By the time an hour had passed, Cerise had a raging headache. Despite not moving a muscle, she could feel beads of perspiration trickling down her back.
And not once had she been able to summon up her power.
If Steve was disappointed, he showed no sign of it, looking every bit as unruffled as he had at the start of their lesson.
"I think that's enough for now," he told her, putting the paperweight back in its box. "We'll do this again at the same time tomorrow."
"I'm sorry," she said, rubbing at her temples fretfully. "I know I'm doing a bad job."
Steve shook his head.
"You've only just started--it's not going to happen overnight. Just give it time."
Cerise nodded half-heartedly.
"So, how are lessons with Nat?" Steve asked, in an evident effort to divert her mind. "I heard Clint showed up for a few of them."
She stuttered in alarm--what was she supposed to say? She was grateful--Cerise knew they were giving up valuable time to teach her, and she was acutely aware that she was far from the best student they'd had. There was no way she was going to repay that with complaints, but--
But Steve seemed to find his answer in her face.
"Let me tell you something," he said gently. "So you can understand them better. Natasha and Clint have not known a very happy world--most S.H.I.E.L.D. agents haven't. They're used to hard lives and even harder people--and they've had to become hard themselves to deal with those things--it's an armor they've adopted to help them cope, and after a certain point in time, that armor isn't so easy to take off. You're very different, and you're young, and that throws them off. Try not to mind too much. They don't know how to respond when they're faced with something that isn't familiar to them--but they'll learn. They're not doing it intentionally."
Cerise's mouth fell open.
"How--?"
Loss seemed to cling to the lining of Steve's lips as they twisted up in a rueful smile. "Let's just say I know a thing or two about not being able to fit in. And how to recognize it in others."
She stared at him in disbelief, painfully aware that he'd seemed to pluck the thoughts right out of her mind. It was almost as if she were wearing the stealth suit again--she had the same sensation of being utterly exposed--except this time, it was just under his gaze.
A strand of hair tumbled over her face--even though she'd tied it back, it was the seventh time it had happened that day, and it'd frustrated Cerise no end.
There was something very vulnerable in her face at that moment, Steve thought--a kind of transparency that he'd only ever hoped to see in people, but never expected to find. But Cerise's emotions shone through her like light through a lampshade--muted yet strong.
Slowly, almost without meaning to, Steve reached forward and brushed her hair away from her face.
Color flooded into Cerise's cheeks.
Steve blinked at his hand, almost as if he'd realized it had developed a mind of its own.
There was a beat of silence, and then Cerise shot to her feet.
"I-um-well-thank you," she stammered, face still flushed. "For the stuff about Miss Romanov and Mr. Barton I mean--not--not the other-- the hair--"
She cut herself off--turning even redder, if it were possible, and fled, failing to notice Tony waiting by the door.
"So," Tony drawled. "Did you two have a nice time staring at each other all morning?"
Steve wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to have an all-out fight with Tony Stark.
"What, daydreaming already, Rogers?"
"Leave me alone, Tony."

Chapter Text

This House Is Not A Home

Cerise was jolted into consciousness by a sharp rapping on her door.
She groaned, flinging her blanket over her face. Maybe if she pretended she couldn't hear him, he would go away.
Undeterred, the rapping continued, persistent and firm.
Hinges squeaked and Cerise peeked an eye open, meeting Steve's rebuking gaze.
"You're almost late," he said, crossing his arms.
"Mr. Rogers please," Cerise whined, burrowing further into her bed. "It's Sunday."
"We don't get Sundays," Steve said flatly. "Now get up."
Groggy, exhausted, and disheartened, for once Cerise forgot to be conscious of her words.
"Well we should!" She insisted peevishly. "What about my human rights? I have half a mind to form a union against all of you and stand outside throwing tomatoes at this building!" Cerise finished, aiming a vindictive kick against the bedpost.
There was a brief pause--then Steve threw his head back and laughed. Sluggish with sleep as she was, Cerise still raised her head at the novelty of the sound. There was a startling innocence to it, a tinge of surprise to his voice--as if he wasn't used to laughing very much. It made Cerise sad--made her want to keep that expression of childlike pleasure in his blue-glass eyes there a little longer--the expression that made the lines of his face melt into something younger--something sweeter.
Still chortling, Steve stepped away from the bed.
"I'll be sure to tell Tony you said that. And if you don't get out of that bed in the next minute, I'll tell him in front of you."
Cerise shot out of bed with alacrity, glaring at Steve's satisfied smirk as he left her room.

~~~
Making Steve laugh had been a welcome surprise, but the lift to Cerise's mood had only been momentary. It was as bleak as the sky outside--dull gray and sullen-soaked with rain. Today's lesson with Steve hadn't gone any better than the ones preceding it--it was as if Cerise's power had simply twined around the insides of her body, and refused to pry itself out. Steve had been unfailingly patient, with nary a word of reproof to offer her, for which she had been grateful--but he'd been equally as unyielding, always asking her quietly to try lifting the paperweight, day in and day out. It was chipping away at her resolve, like an infestation of termites in wood--each day, the belief that she could master her abilities diminished.
She supposed she was doing better in her training with Natasha, comparatively---but Cerise could tell the spy wasn't wholly satisfied by the speed of her progress. Cerise could sense the soft curves of her body gradually solidifying, but it felt like too little, too late. It certainly didn't help that she still felt like an interloper in their midst--an unnecessary cog in an already well-functioning machine. The compound itself was still a stranger to her--the walls seeming to rebuff her entrance, the floors sapping warmth from the soles of her feet. Natasha was brusque and blunt--Clint wary and aloof in the brief times he'd been around her--as if he wasn't sure what he was supposed to make of a young girl being thrown into their midst. Cerise wasn't sure what to make of herself either, at times--transported as she had been from a dreary existence in the derelict underbelly of New York--to living among heroes .
And Tony......
Cerise winced. He hadn't warmed to her in the slightest in the month that she'd been living at the compound. And yet, Cerise sensed that there was a depth and dignity to him that he was only choosing not to let her see--there was no way he was as unfeeling as he made himself out to be. She'd seen the harsh contours of his face smoothen into gentleness at the sight of Pepper Potts--the way his lips stuttered around the syllables of her name.
There was love in him, she knew it.
It would just probably never be directed at her.
Her only consolation was Steve--the solemnity of his bottle-blue eyes and steady footsteps a constant, comforting backdrop to Cerise's new life. But she hardly ever saw him outside of their lessons together--and something in her shrank from approaching him--the same insidious fear she'd had all her life--that if she were to stretch out a hand, it would be flung in her face. So she curled in on herself--retreated into that deep, dark place within that seemed to spread its inky fingers further and further into the crevices of her body as each day passed.
Shoulders caving inward, Cerise dragged herself into the common kitchen, resigned to eating another cold meal by herself. She stiffened as she saw Tony approaching--setting the tray down on the counter, she did her best to sidle out of the kitchen as unobtrusively as possible. She’d almost made it out, when Tony called after her.
“Hey kid, come back in here for a sec.”
Cerise turned around to look at him with curiosity--he usually went out of his way to avoid talking to her.
He fixed her with his oaken-brown eyes.
“I can see what you’re doing, you know, and I want you to stop.”
Cerise blinked.
“Um, I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow?”
Tony groaned, evidently uncomfortable with whatever he wanted to say. “Just—just stop hiding inside your room when you’re not training with Steve or Nat, or skulking in corners where no one can see you when there’s company around. This is your place now too. It belongs to you just as much as it does to any other Avenger living here--so own it.”
Cerise stared at Tony until the meaning of his words settled into her brain, and then she beamed up at him.
"Mr. Stark.....thank you," she said, eyes shining. "That means a lot to me."
Tony fidgeted, visibly discomfited.
Suddenly, he smirked at her, an impish glee in his eyes.
"So you won't be going out and throwing tomatoes at us to defend your human rights then, will you?"
Cerise froze.
Resentfully, she cursed Steve under her breath.

~~~

Steve sighed. He'd lost track of time for the third day in a row.
The compound was silent and expectant, akin to a bated breath, as Steve walked down the hallway.
He paused, catching the faint strains of a raised voice carrying out into the corridor.
It got stronger the closer he came to Cerise's room--until, as he came to a stop outside of it, he could also hear the delicate thrumming of a guitar.
She was singing.
He'd never had the chance to listen to her again after that very first night--and just like before, he couldn't help succumbing to the undulating waves of her song--sinking down onto the cool linoleum beside her door.
The richness of her voice fell around Steve's ears like warm velvet.
"This is my temporary home,
It's not where I belong
Windows in rooms, that I'm passin' through
This is just a stop, on the way to where I'm going
I'm not afraid because I know...
This is my temporary home..... "
An aching sort of loneliness seemed to cling to her voice, linking hands across the chasm of her falling notes in a lover's embrace--it struck some long-slumbering chord in Steve-- recalling to him the hollow humming in his chest on nights sleep could not be salvaged, the nights where he could hear the staccato taps of his racing feet--always out of step with the indifferent, hurried rhythm of the new world he'd been thrust into.
It made Steve want to--want to reach out, he supposed--reel her back from the sea of uncertainty she always seemed to float in.
Steve was up and inside her room before he even had time to register the thought.
Cerise stopped short with a start, blinking up at Steve in confusion.
He stalled, scrambling for a reason for him to be there.
"I was--going to cook for myself," Steve finally said, inwardly congratulating himself on his quick thinking. "If you're hungry--I mean--would you like to join me?"
Her forest-fern eyes met his with subtle perception--as if she recognized his offer for more than what the words suggested.
"Sure," she said slowly, a faint smile curling against the corners of her lips. "I'd like that."

Chapter Text

Burnin' Old Memories

"Are we sure this is happening?" Tony demanded of Fury, uncharacteristically grim-faced.
"My sources confirm it," Nick replied with surety. "They'll be shipped off tonight, if no one stops them."
"This is bad, even by our standards," Steve grimaced. "Children are supposed to be off-limits."
"Nothing is off limits for the wrong sort of people," Natasha said, a shadow settling over her face. "This isn't the first time it's happened, and believe me, it won't be the last."
Cerise blanched, nauseated by the knowledge of what had just been revealed to them.
Sequestered in the darkest districts of New York, a secret Hydra base had been operating right under S.H.I.E.L.D's nose. They'd been trafficking in children--the homeless, the destitute, the down-and-out dregs of society--the ones no one would miss, or ask probing questions about. It was a lucrative business--children were young, impressionable and easy to mold into whatever form Hydra saw fit--they'd been busy creating a financial empire borne upon their backs--selling them to the highest bidder, averting their eyes from the brutality they were being sent into.
After all, monsters didn't care about creating more monsters.
Cerise felt sickened to the core--it had hit her a little close to home, dredging up memories that Cerise had long buried under the rubble of her adult years.
"Cap, Tony, Romanov--you're up," Fury instructed. "I'll be sending my best taskforce with you. Destroy the base, bring back the leaders for questioning, and most importantly--rescue the children. Can you manage that in one day?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "What do you think we are, Fury? Amateurs?"
Steve folded his arms. "What happens to the kids once we remove them from the base?"
"They'll be rehabilitated," Natasha said briskly, flicking through the data on the holo-screen. "Applegate Orphanage is ready to take all of them in."
Cerise was rendered immobile with terror.
There was no possible way she'd heard them say what they just did.
"Applegate Orphanage?" Tony echoed, dashing Cerise's hopes. "That's one of the fancy ones. Oddly generous, don't you think?"
"They take in a lot of charity cases," Fury waved a hand, unconcerned. "It's the best place for the children."
But it wasn't--Cerise knew the real reason they were being taken in.
The ridged flesh around her elbow seemed to pulse, reminding Cerise with every throb of the fact that she had not been able to escape, not in any definite way--not after all.
"Let's suit up," Steve rose to his feet, nodding at Cerise. "I'll see you. We'll continue our lessons later."
She could barely muster a shaky smile in response.
How could she manage anything further?
The demons of her past had finally reared their ugly heads again.

~~~

"Please don't," Cerise locked her knees against her chest, fingers leaving crimson smears against the fabric of her clothes. "Please. I'll do anything. Just-just stop."
His gunmetal eyes gleamed with satisfaction, raising her off the floor by the scruff of her neck.
"You belong to me, little jade. This is where you'll be for the rest of your life."
His voice dropped to a sibilant hiss, lips an inch away from her ear.
"There's no escape, darling."
Cerise fell out of bed with a dull thud, chest heaving.
She pushed the heels of her hands into her eyelids, vainly hoping to block out the images--but to no avail. The memories flooded in anyway, a deluge of white-hot shame and acidic regret.
They were entrenched in her brain like tree roots--she could still feel the tendrils of his voice looping around her ears, much like the way his hands had looped around her wrists with bruising intensity.
Cerise glanced down at her arms, half-expecting to find them still ringed with deep purple welts.
Though they were smooth and unblemished, Cerise could almost sense the phantom burn curling around her wrists.
Luffy nudged at her shoulder with her cold nose, mewing softly--but for once, it didn't help.
Cerise put her head in her shaking hands, trying to close herself off from the nightmarish reality she'd found herself in.
But there was no hiding from this.
She was petrified down to her very bones-- Cerise felt as if frost had crystallized on the surface of her body, encasing her in cold-sweat dread from all sides.
But she couldn't just sit idly by--set those children adrift into the ocean of misery that Applegate Orphanage held for them. Cerise would never be able to forgive herself--she hadn't managed to save anyone back then--she'd had no choice.
Could she make a difference this time?
Cerise didn't know--but she owed it to the people she'd had to leave behind to try.
The world didn't need more bitter, heart-hungry children, with starving eyes that had nothing to do with lack of food.
She could tell from the dim light illuminating her room that it was past the early hours of the morning.
The Avengers would be due back anytime--Cerise steeled herself.
Steve and Tony would need to be told--while they still had time to stop this.
Would they believe her?
Would they trust her enough to follow through on what she said, when she didn't have a shred of proof?
There were notes of uncertainty clinging to every thought that ran through Cerise's mind like vines--but it didn't change a thing.
She would do what she could.
Cerise stiffened as she heard a door open down the hall--they were here.
She ran down the corridor, a strange sense of urgency shooting through her veins like adrenaline.
"Mr. Rogers," she said desperately, spotting Steve standing by the staircase--she snagged her fingers on the sleeve of his suit. "You need to--"
A soft, nasal chuckle stopped Cerise dead in her tracks.
It was the same derisive laughter that had dogged her footsteps since the day she'd run as if her life depended on it--because it had.
Luffy hissed, sticking to Cerise's ankles--fur raised and bristling.
Slowly, Cerise lifted her eyes up to his fine-featured face.
His smile was like the slash of a razor-blade.
"My dear Miss Solange," he murmured, voice a cloying caress that pricked goosebumps onto Cerise's skin. "How lovely to see you again."

Chapter Text

Tears For Fears

Steve and Tony started in surprise, gazes rapidly flicking between Cerise and the immaculately-suited man.
"You know each other, Mr. Cranston?" Tony enquired, eyes narrowed.
"Why, of course," Cranston purred. "Miss Solange was one of our very first residents."
Steve stared at Cerise.
"You're an orphan?"
Cranston didn't give her the chance to answer.
"Well, we never knew for sure," he said musingly. "She was placed on our doorstep twenty years ago without even so much as a note. We took her in, and searched the system for months. I don't think we ever found even the slightest trace of her parents."
Cerise fervently wished she had the dagger Natasha had given her a month ago--she'd never been violent, didn't think all the training in the world could ever make her violent--but she wanted to slit Cranston's throat, wanted to watch him choke and convulse on the crimson tint of his lies.
He'd never looked for her parents--or any relation of hers. If Cerise had ever had a family, any leads towards them would have long gone cold by now.
"Well, we'll let you catch up then," Tony eyed the two of them dubiously. "While we get you the information on the children that've been rescued."
Steve seemed confused, eyes roving over Cerise sharply--but he remained silent despite his scrutiny.
"Mr. Stark--" Cerise managed to force out, but couldn't continue any further--her voice an unwilling captive in the dry prison of her throat.
They entered the elevator before Cerise could muster up anything further to say--leaving her face-to-face with the man she'd been running from for what seemed like eternity.
"So we meet again, little jade," Cranston gave her a rictus grin. "I told you that you couldn't escape me forever."
A preternatural chill washed over Cerise as she met his flint-gray eyes--she felt seventeen years old again, brittle and trembling under the weight of his inflicted wounds.
"What? Nothing to say to your old man after all these years apart? I expected something at least, Cerise."
Cranston's stone-hued gaze rubbed Cerise raw, like it was gravel grazed against her skin. She hated the ownership with which he pronounced the syllables of her name--the sense of dominion--as if it, and she, belonged to him utterly.
"You're no relation of mine," she spat, despising the way her voice quavered. "Have you forgotten what you did to me--to us? To everyone?"
Cerise doubled her hands into fists to hide their shaking.
"I won't let you make victims of these children. Not again."
Cranston's lips curled back--baring his sharp incisors as he let out a humorless laugh.
"And what are you going to do to stop me, my jade? You may be living with the Avengers now--for whatever reason, which I'll be sure to find out soon--but you are no one and nothing--you have no proof, no records, no one who will be willing to go against me."
Cranston seized her by her hair, the sharp, tugging ache reminding Cerise of a thousand mornings like this one.
"Besides," he sneered, words doused in contempt. "Who would believe the word of a girl with no name and no power?"
Cerise could feel the acid-like burn at the back of her eyelids--it felt like defeat.
Like surrender.
"You are what I've made you to be," Cranston hissed, blunt nails scraping up the side of her neck. "You'll never be free of it--you'll never be any different."
Cerise's head hung low, the taste of her shame rising like bitter bile to her mouth.
He pulled at her hair, exulting in the pained gasp the motion drew from her.
"I'll be sure to tell the new kids what's in store for them. What they'll be trapped in forever--just like you were. Just like the rest of them."
Cranston shrugged. "Who knows, maybe there's a girl among them with eyes like yours. I must confess I'm rather partial to that shade--if I find one, I'll teach her the things I taught you, my sweet. I'll make her as powerless as you are. As you always will be."
He winked--and suddenly, a terrible, nameless fury broke over Cerise like a cresting wave--not for herself, not for the childhood he'd robbed her of, not for the bruising and battering he'd accumulated upon her skin over the years like a collection of fine jewels--but for the children he was about to maim forever. Children, who for one brief moment had felt the balm of rescue--who believed they would finally be safe.
Who would just be trading in one form of subjugation for another.
Cerise felt the coils of her magic spring to life.
"No," she said calmly, fingers twisting outward. "That's where you're wrong, you see. I've always had power. You've just never seen it."
Cranston flailed, pinned to the wall like a fish on a hook.
Cerise could feel the flames wreathing around her wrists--the first time she'd felt warm in days.
She raised them towards Cranston, barely an inch away from his face.
"You're not going to take those kids," Cerise said flatly. "You're not going to take anyone. You're going to walk out of here, go to Director Fury, and confess everything you've done. Or I will burn you where you stand, Willis Cranston. I will burn you down to ash."
He gaped at her, the fear coming off of him almost tangible.
"Well isn't this a friendly reunion," Tony drawled from behind Cerise, making her jump and lose control.
Cranston crumpled to the floor.
"You know, I had a feeling something was distinctly fishy," Tony frowned at her, Steve just behind him. "We were all set to intercede when he grabbed your hair.....but it seems like you managed just fine, after all."
There was subtle approval in Tony's eyes as he looked at her--a quiet satisfaction in Steve's.
For a fleeting moment Cerise felt strong--felt empowered.
It disappeared swiftly enough as soon as Tony crossed his arms, shooting her a quelling look.
"So you gonna tell me now what the fuck is going on here, kid?"

~~~

Cerise slowly sank into the living room chair, Luffy loyally at her heels, quailing under Tony's heavy gaze. Steve's eyes carried a more neutral charge--but even his were expectant. Waiting for answers from her.
She took in a deep breath--and finally let her secrets come to light.
"Applegate Orphanage is a sham," Cerise admitted tiredly. "They put us in fancy schools and dressed us in fancy clothes--but it was all a farce. We were groomed from the moment we joined the orphanage to be sold off like cattle--the drug trade, sex trafficking, thievery, the assassination business--you name it. We were to be sold into it all. Cranston made himself a millionaire on our misery--particularly because of the girls."
"Prostitution," Cerise clarified, noticing Steve's incomprehension. "They--they taught us how to please men as soon as we were old enough to--to menstruate. We were trained as soon as they deemed fit."
Tony's face was slack with shock--a dark cast falling over Steve's.
"Did they--were you--?"
The unasked question hung in the air like a noose.
"No," Cerise shook her head rapidly. "I resisted. The other girls were too scared of what would happen to them if they refused--but I wouldn't--couldn't let them do that to me. I just--"
Cerise choked on the memories clogging her throat.
"I paid for that in blood," she finished dully. "Cranston beat me--he made the kids beat me--but it could have been worse. He's done worse. I got off lucky."
Force of habit led her fingers to trace over the grooved skin around her elbow.
The two Avengers followed the motion of her hand--there was a muscle jumping in Tony's jaw, turquoise-toned fire smoldering in Steve's eyes.
Steve reached out an arm towards hers, as if to touch the scar--but he pulled it back after a brief pause, like he'd thought better of it.
"How'd you get out?" Tony asked, the question stiff with tension.
Cerise shrugged.
"I was seventeen I think--they were going to move me someplace else. Cranston had always said I was different--that there was some other purpose for which I'd been sent to him. Whatever it was, I didn't want to find out. They took me to the car--and I ran like hell till I didn't know where I'd ended up."
She swallowed past the lump in her throat.
"I was homeless for a while--but eventually I got by on my singing--constantly moving from place to place, bar to bar. Just hiding--until the two of you found me."
Tony, for once, seemed to be at a loss for words.
"Why didn't you tell us?" He eventually demanded, accusation flaring in his eyes. "You should have the minute you knew where the children were being sent!"
"I'm sorry, I--"Cerise's shoulders caved in as she stuttered in her speech.
"Tony," Steve spoke up finally in rebuke. "It's not her fault."
"No, you're right," Tony unexpectedly replied, making both Cerise and Steve blink at him in surprise. "This is on us."
He bent down to eye-level with Cerise, looking at her intently.
"If you didn't trust us enough to think we would believe you over something like this, then that's our fault. I'm sorry--we're sorry. For what it's worth, we would have believed you."
Cerise's eyes stung.
"Thank you," she stammered. "I--thank you."
Steve looked at Tony with something like pride on his face.
The sound of a throat being cleared caused Tony to straighten.
Fury stood by the doorjamb.
"Well, he's singing like a canary," he remarked dryly. "Whatever Solange did to him, it scared him real good."
Cerise felt an overwhelming sense of foreboding as she met Fury's calculating stare.
There was predatory cunning in his single eye--it made Cerise acutely uneasy.
"Come on, Stark," Fury beckoned Tony. "We need to discuss funding for these kids."
As they left, Cerise finally let herself breathe fully.
The worst of it was over.
"You did well today," Steve addressed her quietly.
Cerise raised her face to his, searching for the pity she expected to find stamped across his face--but there was only calm acceptance.
"It was pure chance that I lifted him off the ground," she said bitterly. "I did nothing."
"No," Steve insisted. "I saw you. You attacked him the minute he started threatening the children--you did it for them, not for yourself. You took control--you didn't let yourself remain a victim. You've been running from him for years--but when you got the chance, you didn't let your fear stop you. You stood up to him--and you did it to protect someone else. You took your power back."
Steve smiled at her.
"You did well today, Cerise," he repeated.
He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing for a brief moment.
For the second time that day, Cerise felt warmth seep into her body.

~~~

She didn't know what had led her restless feet to the training room--but here she was.
Sleep had snatched itself away from her clutches yet again--Cerise hadn't expected anything less, after the day she'd had.
Why she'd seen fit to end up in the training room however--she didn't know.
Slowly, as if in a daze, Cerise reached for the box of paperweights.
Silently, she willed herself to lift it, screwing her eyes shut.
There was a faint vibration--
Cerise gradually pried open an eye.
The paperweight hovered in the air--Cerise's mouth fell open in amazement.
Standing unnoticed by the door, Steve smiled.

Chapter Text

The Aftermath

“Mr. Rogers, I did it!” Cerise exclaimed excitedly, eyes shining.
Steve hid his smile in the sleeve of his shirt as he watched the paperweight hover in the air. It wasn’t the first time he'd seen her lift it—but she didn’t know that.
“Well done,” Steve said warmly.
“And if you don’t stop calling me Mr. Rogers I’ll make you run an extra hour in the morning,” he threatened.
Cerise’s face fell comically, making Steve laugh.
The sound pulled itself involuntarily from his lungs, striking him with its unfamiliarity—Steve had found himself doing it often, around Cerise.
Why he couldn’t explain—but it wasn't an unwelcome sensation. Steve always felt lighter around her somehow—as if an invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders in her presence.
She reminded him of simpler times—a relic of old world charm that Steve had presumed long-faded from the annals of time.
“Try again,” Steve said, dismissing the direction his thoughts had taken.
Cerise wilted visibly as the paperweight resumed its stubborn place upon the floor.
“Don’t worry,” Steve said, getting to his feet. “It’s a start. We’ll work at it.”
His fingers twitched with the perplexing urge to ruffle her hair as she beamed up at him--there was something painfully sweet about her, a strange strain of similarity in the yearning always flickering in the flecks of her sea green eyes--a yearning that some secret part of Steve couldn't help responding to.
It set Steve on edge however--made him uneasy. He'd always had extremely clear opinions on the people in his life--and it unsettled him to find that it was not the case with Cerise.
“Good job," he said hurriedly, moving hastily to leave the room. "Train well with Nat. I'll see you in the evening."
Cerise groaned, dragging herself up by her feet.
Sessions with the Russian spy remained as grueling as ever--Natasha was relentless and demanding, and Cerise always left their bouts feeling like a worn-out punching bag.
"Hey, kid," Natasha greeted, ambling into the room. "Heard about your run-in with Cranston. Nice work."
"Uh, thanks, I guess," Cerise ducked her head. "It was really a matter of luck, I think."
Natasha crossed her arms.
"No, you did good, Solange. Those kids are safe now thanks to you."
She halted, evidently weighing whether what she had to say was worth being heard.
"I was trained all my life for something I didn't want to do," Natasha finally began, making Cerise flick her head up in surprise.
"And I didn't fight it--not really," she continued. "But you did. You paid the price for it--and you paid it heavily. But you fought anyway--you did what I couldn't. That takes guts, kid. And you've got plenty."
Cerise glowed as she looked at Natasha.
"It means a lot to me that someone like you thinks I'm brave," she said gratefully. "And I think you're wrong about yourself, Miss Romanov. You did fight--you fought to turn your life around. You made it different--you began again. You made yourself a hero."
Natasha gaped at her for a moment--and then smiled--the first genuine smile she'd ever given Cerise. It transformed her face--softened out the hard edges, made her look years younger.
"Thanks, kid," Natasha said slowly, emerald eyes bright and gleaming.
Cerise felt inordinately pleased that she'd finally extracted a smile out of the stone-faced spy.
Natasha smirked at her.
"Hope you don't think this means I'll go easy on you today."
Cerise sighed.

~~~

If this continued any further, Cerise was going to run out of space on her body soon for the bruises she was accumulating.
Natasha, true to her word, had been anything but gentle that day.
Cerise winced with every step she took down to the ground floor--she ached in places she didn't even know were capable of aching.
She tried to be as quiet as possible--it was late into the hours of the night, and she didn't want to wake anyone up.
"Isn't it past your bedtime, kid?"
Cerise jumped at the voice that came behind her--whirling around in alarm.
"Oh, Mr. Stark," she said, relaxing once she saw it was him. "You're up late."
"So are you," Tony replied, folding his arms across his chest.
Cerise shrugged.
"Not a heavy sleeper even on the best of days."
"So this is one of the bad days then," Tony looked at her expectantly.
"Suppose you could say that," Cerise agreed. "Nothing I'm not used to though."
Tony exhaled heavily.
"Alright, kid, I was gonna wait to tell you this in the morning, but since you're here now I might as well."
Cerise blinked up at him.
"I have eyes and ears pretty much everywhere, thanks to my tech," Tony began. "And I know Cranston never did a thing to find out where you came from. I can help you look for your parents--your family, whatever's left of them. If you want me to, that is."
Cerise froze.
All through the years she had shied away from thoughts of her family--who they were, why they'd left her, whether they still cared--the question had dogged at her heels for as long as she'd been running--and now, here it was: staring her straight in the face.
"Kid?" Tony prompted.
Cerise chose her words carefully.
"I think that I don't want to go down that road," she said, measuring out her sentences with precision. "Whoever my parents were, whatever reason they had--they didn't want me. They sent me to a place that would have been the death of me if I hadn't managed to escape. There's already a great deal of bitterness that's bled into my life, and I don't want to dredge up more by searching for people that gave me away in the first place. There are just some questions you don't want answered."
Tony nodded, seeming unsurprised.
"If you're sure."
Cerise dipped her chin.
"Yeah, I am."
Tony paused, chewing his lip as he regarded Cerise.
"I don't think my father ever saw me as anything more than a tool for him to utilize," Tony offered unexpectedly. "I was an object to him--a commodity, an asset. And I knew the minute I stopped being that for him, he'd put me away on some dusty shelf like one of those half-finished projects he always used to toss aside. I used to watch the neighborhood boys--they didn't have half my money or intelligence, but they used to play baseball with their dads every evening, and I'd see them walking home arm-in-arm, and think to myself--that I would trade places with them in an instant."
Cerise's lips pulled downwards as she glanced at Tony, genuine sorrow in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Stark. I had no idea."
"I'm over it," Tony waved a dismissive hand. "My point is, sometimes the family you're given isn't all you'd hoped or expected it would be. You have the chance to start over, here. Form bonds with whomsoever you please. You can choose your family, kid. That's a gift."
Cerise stared up at him, oddly touched by his little speech.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark. For the offer--and for thinking of me. I really--" She swallowed. "I really appreciate it."
Tony clapped a hand on her shoulder.
"Don't mention it, kid. Try and get some sleep."
Cerise watched him leave with a faint smile on her lips, before making her own way up to her floor.
A subdued mew from the common room caught her attention.
She poked her head into the room, spotting Luffy placidly curled up on a tabletop--and Steve, fast asleep on the couch.
Cerise started in surprise, cautiously walking in.
She immediately noticed the frigidity of the air, eying Steve with some concern.
Cerise considered waking him--but he looked too peaceful, face smooth and childlike in unconsciousness.
Instead, she fetched a blanket from the cupboard, draping it gently over Steve's knees.
Cerise studied his sleeping face--there was a dreamlike innocence to it, vulnerability casting shadows across the contours of his features. It made Cerise reach out and brush her fingers lightly across his hair.
He shifted at her touch, making her draw her hand back in haste.
Steve muttered something incoherent--and Cerise bent forward, straining her ears.
"Peggy," he whispered, rolling over onto his side.

~~~

S.H.I.E.L.D Holding Facility, New York.

Cranston's eyes flicked open with the unshakeable sensation of something watching him.
A thick shadow lay across the floor of his cell.
Cranston let out a shuddering breath.
"Do they know?"
A cold sweat broke over Cranston at the words of the disembodied voice.
"N-no," he stammered. "I didn't tell them anything, I swear. Not a word."
"That is good," the voice continued. "But you know what I've come here to do."
"No p-please," Cranston begged, backing into the corner of his cell. "I won't tell them anything, I swear it. I swear it. She has no idea who her parents are."
"It is unavoidable," the voice insisted coldly. "The girl must never know the truth of what she is. And if the Avengers think to investigate into her family, the trail will start with you."
Tears leaked out of Cranston's eyes.
"Please..."
"I regret it," the voice said dispassionately.
The shadow launched itself at Cranston's throat.

Chapter Text

Blue Spring Night

"Spaghetti sound okay to you?" Steve asked Cerise over his shoulder, already shaking out pasta from the container.
"Sure, whatever you like," Cerise answered gratefully. "I'm just glad you're making anything at all. I know I'm hopeless."
"It's no trouble," Steve let out a quiet chuckle. "I like cooking--back in my day food was usually just boiled. There's so much you can do with it now--it's incredible."
Cerise smiled at him.
They'd formed an unspoken sort of agreement over the past few weeks--where Steve would call her for dinner, and they would eat together every night. Invariably, the hours would idle by long after the meal was over, and Cerise would find herself in companionable quiet with Steve--usually while he studied mission reports or she pored over the techniques she'd learnt from Natasha that day.
Occasionally Steve would talk--about his life in the 1940s, how much the world had transformed in the seventy years he'd been under the ice--the tiny, everyday little changes in modern life that never ceased to amaze him--and Cerise would listen. She had the strange sense that no one else ever had.
Cerise was too ashamed of how starved and empty her life had been to share much of it--but something about Steve made her want to. He always seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say, a calm sort of acceptance in his eyes when he looked at her--as if nothing that lay in the murky depths of her past could or would influence his opinion of her. So she tried, in her own small way, to respond in kind--spoke to him about her music, about how it had been a refuge for her against the cold sleet of her years in the orphanage.
Steve had never once pitied her in the slightest--there had only been empathy in his gaze, as if he somehow understood how she felt without her saying so--how she'd always felt a little out of place everywhere she went--unable to keep in tandem with the pace of the other people she'd been surrounded by.
For whatever reason--he seemed to understand.
So Cerise looked forward to dinnertime every day--it was a slice of much-needed normalcy in her life. She'd never had one--but their little ritual of eating together made Cerise think of home.
Steve was soothing to be around--it settled Cerise when she was near him, grounded her in some subtle way that she couldn't quite fathom.
"Your speed is improving," Steve's voice broke Cerise out of her reverie. "Your running, I mean. You're getting better."
Cerise gave a rueful sigh.
"I'm still yards behind you, though," she said regretfully.
Steve grinned at her, an unusually roguish cast to his periwinkle blue eyes.
"You're always going to be yards behind me," he smugly replied, laughing at her mock-angry expression.
Cerise was amused as he handed her the plate of steaming pasta--but something was niggling at the back of her brain.
That name he'd called out in his sleep the other night--whose was it?
She couldn't explain why she wanted to know so badly--but she did.
But Cerise didn't know how appropriate it would be to ask him--would he think it an intrusion on her part?
"Mr. Rogers," Cerise began tentatively.
"Hmm?" Steve barely looked up from his plate.
She paused--and then decided to throw caution to the wind, hastily blurting out her question.
"Who's Peggy?"
Steve choked on his food.
Cerise instantly regretted her decision, shrinking away from Steve's piercing gaze.
"Who told you that name?" He demanded as soon as he'd regained breath.
"Nobody!" Cerise raised her hands in a gesture of innocence.
"Really, it was no one," she insisted, as Steve narrowed his eyes.
Cerise colored slightly.
"You said her name in your sleep the other night," she admitted. "You were in the common room."
Steve straightened out of his stiff posture.
"Oh," he blinked.
Cerise was truly crimson in the face.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry," she said hurriedly. "I was just curious--I won't ask again if it bothers you, please don't be offended, I--"
"Hey, hey, relax," Steve cut her off. "I'm not offended. You just surprised me, is all."
He hesitated.
Steve had kept Peggy close within the walls of his heart--the memory of her scarlet-tipped smile too sacred to share, but--
Something about the gentleness glimmering in Cerise's green eyes pulled the words from his mouth.
"Peggy Carter was...someone I knew, in the '40s," Steve said slowly.
"My best girl," he added, a soft smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "Someone who believed in me. Someone who...cared."
Glancing at his face, Cerise wondered if anyone would ever look at her the way Steve looked when he spoke about Peggy.
She shook away the ridiculousness of the thought.
"Is she--" Cerise's voice trailed off.
"No," Steve shook his head. "Peggy's alive. But she's old now, obviously--and sick, and I don't know how much longer--"
He fell silent, lowering his head.
Cerise's fingers itched with the need to squeeze his shoulder, offer him some form of comfort--but she was too afraid.
"Mr. Rogers," she said instead quietly. "Some people wait all their lives for the kind of bond you seem to share with Peggy. You got the chance to feel it twice. You have her back now--and even if it's just for a short while, you still have her. That's worth a lot."
"It's going to hurt when she's gone," Steve swallowed convulsively, throat bobbing.
"Everything hurts," Cerise said, a wistful twist to her lips. "Some people are just worth the pain."

~~~

S.H.I.E.L.D Headquarters, New York

"Status report, Agent Hill," Fury commanded. "How are Solange's lessons progressing?"
Hill swiped her fingers across the holo-screen, pulling up Cerise's photo.
"Romanov's assessment is that her physical strength is improving at a steady rate," Hill informed. "Solange is responding well to training, even if it's not a very rapid development. Romanov is more or less satisfied with her."
Fury nodded.
"And Rogers?"
"He doesn't offer much information," the agent replied. "If anyone asks he simply says she's learning more day by day--he doesn't trust us. He won't voluntarily give us any details, if he can help it. But I have it on good authority that what she did to Cranston was a freak incident, and uncharacteristic of her usual grasp on her abilities."
"Yes, Cranston," Fury mused. "He was found dead the other night, wasn't he?"
"Died in his sleep, they say," Hill answered. "They didn't find anything amiss with his body."
"Hmm," Fury said, seemingly unconvinced. "He's been perfectly healthy all these years, running his little racket. I don't think it's a coincidence that this happened right after what Solange did to him."
"Maybe not," Hill agreed. "But we can't prove anything."
"Sir," she continued. "This girl though. She's young and unpredictable. Volatile. Are you sure she's what we need?"
"All that can be managed," Fury dismissed, unperturbed. "She could prove herself to be a real asset to us, if given the right opportunity. We thought she could only use telekinesis, but she conjured fire that day with Cranston. Who knows what else she can do? She's valuable, Hill. We'd be fools to let her slip through our hands."
The agent offered no further argument.
Fury stared out of the window, lips pursed.
"Hill," he addressed his second-in-command suddenly. "Run analytics on Solange--every time her powers flared up. Try and find a pattern."
Numbers glowed across the holo-screen as Hill rapidly fed in data.
"Sir," she said slowly. "I think you need to see this."
Fury peered at the screen with his single eye.
"Interesting," he remarked. "They only ever appear in high-stress situations. This...changes things."
Hill looked at him sharply.
"I'll give her a few more months with Rogers," Fury decided. "I'm confident he can help her improve."
Hill crossed her arms over her chest.
"And if that doesn't work?"
"Well then," Fury glanced at Cerise's smiling face, illuminated by the blue light of the screen. "Let's just say I've got a plan."

Chapter Text

What Lurks In The Dark

Luffy snarled, the sound a clear, guttural threat.
The shadow loomed over the bed, elongating by the minute until it stretched above Cerise's sleeping figure.
It seemed to pulsate silently in the dim light of the room, the inkiness of its form spreading out like lake water under a night sky.
The shadow lowered itself, an inch above Cerise's face.
Luffy launched herself at it, hissing violently--
And just as suddenly as it had appeared, the shadow vanished, leaving Luffy to land heavily onto Cerise's chest instead.
Cerise woke up with a choked gasp.
"Wha--Luff?" She muttered drowsily. "What're you doing?"
"Come on, get off, you're heavier than you look," Cerise pushed with sluggish hands at Luffy, but the cat refused to budge from her seat on Cerise's torso, stolidly remaining perched in her place.
"Ugh, fine," Cerise shoved her face back into the pillow. "Suffocate me then. I'll just sleep anyway, somehow."
Long after Cerise's breaths had evened out, Luffy fixed her lamp-like eyes on the room in silent vigil.

~~~

The shadow glided through the streets of New York, almost merging with the dark asphalt of the roads.
It swooped up the length of the dingy building--and then melded itself to the body of one of the creatures waiting on the roof.
"What does your shadow have to say?" The smaller of the two enquired.
"That she's healthy," the other responded. "That her powers are dormant, for the most part."
"They need to remain dormant, Quotho," the smaller creature reminded him urgently. "We can't afford to have them fully awakened. She's with the Avengers--Steve Rogers is training her--"
"It's going to take a lot more than a soldier's drills to set off that kind of ability," Quotho replied, seemingly unbothered. "You know where she's from, Jhago. You know how brutally they were trained just to be able to keep their powers in check. Do you think swinging a knife and throwing punches will ever measure up to that?"
"I know very well what they were like," Jhago snapped. "I was there. But we're playing with fire by allowing her to stay with the Avengers. You know that."
Quotho shrugged.
"Let her have her mummer's farce at freedom, Jhago. You and I both know we will take her in the end."
"And how do you suggest we do that?" Jhago demanded. "She is too well-protected now--and she has a guardian. It never leaves her side--we cannot break into their compound to capture her, we must remain unseen. No one can know who we are."
"And no one will," the larger of the creatures assured him. "The guardian is limited by its current form. She cannot stay locked up in that compound forever--and they will not be able to follow her everywhere. Eventually she will end up alone, and that will be our chance. We will have her, Jhago."
"And what of her origins?" Jhago questioned him further. "What if she finds out who she is? What she is?"
Quotho shook his head.
"We killed Cranston--there is not a single soul left in this world who knows the truth of the girl's history. She will never find out."
"I hope you're right," Jhago turned his slit-pupilled eyes to the New York skyline. "We've spent years searching for her. If she slips through our fingers again..."
"She won't," Quotho said confidently. "We won't let her--you and I have come too far now to turn away empty-handed. You know how much we need the girl."
"Her and her blood."
Jhago glanced at him sharply.
"And what happens once we get her blood?"
Quotho bared his fangs in a rare show of amusement.
"Why," he said pleasantly, rust-iron claws shooting out of the green membrane of his fingers. "We kill her, of course."

~~~

"Focus," Steve said firmly. "You can do this."
Sweat dripped down Cerise's back as she flexed her fingers.
There was a faint vibrating noise, and the paperweight lifted itself an inch off the floor--hovering precariously.
Cerise's shoulders slumped.
"I'm sorry--"
"Don't be," Steve shook his head. "You don't have to apologize, you're learning. A month and a half ago, that paperweight wouldn't have moved at all. You're improving."
Cerise sighed, unconvinced.
Steve gave her a long look.
"You know what your problem is," he said, folding his arms. "You're afraid of it. You think it's some alien force that's attached itself to you--something foreign, something unnatural. It's a part of you--part of who you are. You need to accept that, otherwise you'll never learn to control it."
Cerise didn't meet his eyes.
"It hurts people," she whispered. "It's never done any good."
It doesn't have to," Steve frowned at her. "You can change that. Besides, haven't you only used it when someone was threatening you or meant you some sort of harm? Have you ever attacked an innocent person?"
"Well...no," Cerise admitted unwillingly.
"And it's done some good," Steve corrected her. "Because you used your power on Cranston, he confessed to all his crimes. He'd have walked free if you hadn't."
"And maybe he might not have been dead," Cerise responded.
Steve raised an eyebrow.
"Are you honestly sorry he died?"
She stared up at him.
"No," Cerise's lips tightened. "I'm glad he's dead."
He nodded, unsurprised.
"He was no loss to the world," Steve agreed.
"Don't you think it's suspicious that he just died within two days of being in S.H.I.E.LD. custody, though?" Cerise looked up inquiringly at Steve.
He narrowed his eyes.
"You don't trust S.H.I.E.L.D," Steve said.
It wasn't a question.
Cerise stammered in alarm.
"It's not that--it's just--I-"
"Relax," Steve waved a hand. "I don't trust them either, but they've got no reason to kill Cranston. What could they possibly gain from that?"
"I guess you're right," Cerise chewed her lip thoughtfully. "It's still odd though."
"Yes," Steve conceded. "I'll ask Tony to look into it."
"No need, he already is," a voice sniped from behind them.
"Mr. Stark," Cerise blinked. "I didn't realize you were here."
"Well, I thought it best to break up the utterly boring conversation you were having," Tony said derisively.
Steve sighed.
"Anyway, there was nothing amiss to be found with the body," Tony continued. "No signs of violence, no force--nothing. His heart just stopped in his sleep."
Cerise furrowed her eyebrows.
"He was always healthy though," she said slowly. "And there's never been anything the matter with his heart."
"I dunno, kid," Tony shrugged. "Just telling you what I've heard. Don't worry, if there's something to be found about his death, I'll find it."
"Thank you," Cerise said gratefully.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Tony dismissed. "I'm gonna leave. You guys can go back to making eyes at each other, or whatever it is that you two do in here."
He smirked as Cerise's face flamed.
"Don't let him get to you," Steve said amusedly. "He just likes to tease. And you always react--that's why he loves picking on you."
She muttered incoherently, still red.
Steve grinned.
"Come on, champ. It's time for our run."
Cerise groaned.

Chapter Text

Almost Like The Blues

She knew she was dreaming.
She didn't know how, but she knew.
Fog rose in milky curlicues around Cerise, obscuring her surroundings completely.
It swirled around her ankles, lovingly wrapping tendrils up her feet.
"Hello?" Cerise called out tremulously. "Is anyone there?"
Cerise whirled around at the sound of a guttural growl--and tripped onto the ground in her frantic bid to back away, the mist eddying around her in circles.
The panther stalked forward, coal-black fur glistening, stark against the gray gloom of their surroundings.
It was easily the size of a horse, utterly dwarfing Cerise's cowering form as it stood over her.
The panther fixed its luminescent topaz eyes on Cerise, placing a giant paw on her calf.
She curled in on herself, bracing for impact--and then blinked dazedly.
A disembodied voice echoed in her head, soundless as print on paper.
The animal's maw hadn't opened in the slightest, but somehow Cerise knew that it was the one speaking into her mind.
"You don't belong here, child."
"Wh-what?" Cerise scrambled away from the panther as rapidly as she was able. "How--how are you in my head? How is this possible--what do you mean--I--"
"You don't belong here," the voice repeated. "You know it. This isn't your place."
Although there wasn't the slightest sound to be heard, Cerise could inexplicably feel the texture of the panther's voice--it was throaty and rough, (recalling to Cerise the sensation of scraping her hand against tree bark) -- and unmistakably female.
"I don't know what you mean," she said out loud. "Where would I be but here? I've lived in New York all my life."
"And have you ever fit in, even once?" The giant cat pressed on insistently. "This is not your home. This is not where you are from, child."
"Where else would I go?" Cerise said faintly, the truth of the panther's words seeping into her veins like melting ice. "Who else would I be?"
"You were born for something greater than this," the voice continued inexorably. "The answer is in you. It's been in you all along."
"I don't understand," Cerise shook her head numbly. "I've never been anything special. My powers are a curse--and why would I leave the Avengers?"
"Your power is a blessing. And I do not ask you to leave the Avengers, little one," the panther prowled around Cerise. "Your path is bound to one of them--you need to stay, for now."
"Then what are you asking me to do?" Cerise shifted uneasily. "What is it that you want?"
"I want you to realize that this isn't your life--and this isn't your world," the voice answered. "I'm asking you to accept what you already know."
"Find out where you truly belong, where you should have been all along--who you should have been all along. There are forces conspiring around you, the likes of which you cannot even fathom, child. They will stop at nothing to keep you from discovering the truth of your history. You cannot let them win."
"If you know so much, why don't you just tell me who I am?" Cerise asked the panther bitterly.
"I am bound by my oaths, young one," the panther turned its back on her, muscles rippling sinuously as it moved away from Cerise. "I would have gladly told you. But this is your journey."
"Wait--what oath?" Cerise demanded. "Who are you? Come back!"
The panther didn't look back even once.
"I think you know who I am," the voice said, coolly amused. "You always have."
Cerise vaulted up in bed, gasping for breath.
Her gaze flitted around the room.
Luffy's yellow eyes stared back at her.

~~~

Steve slowly settled onto the floor outside Cerise's room, mulling over the day's events.
Cerise had been distracted and out of sorts all throughout her lessons, though she'd done her best to stay focused.
Steve wanted to ask her what was wrong--but he didn't know whether she would appreciate the questioning. There was always an air of tightly-coiled tension to Cerise, almost as if she felt that if she loosened her grasp on herself even a little, she would fall into pieces.
He wanted to take that away, somehow--tell her it was alright to let her guard down a little--that she was finally in a safe space.
Steve hated the fractured light in her eyes--the constant wariness evident even in the restriction of her movement--she was always mincing her steps when she walked, trying to appear as small as possible, curling in on herself wherever she chose to sit, in an attempt to take up the least amount of space. Cerise was always hiding away--and it bothered Steve no end. He wanted to catch her hand, tell her that she could take up all the space she wanted--take ownership of her surroundings--because she deserved to.
Because she had earned it.
When she'd revealed what her life had been like before Steve had found her--what Cranston had done--he'd barely been able to hear her over the sound of his own blood searing in his veins.
Steve had been incensed--he'd wanted to knock Cranston's teeth in for the lives he'd ruined.
For the hollowness he'd created in the open curves of Cerise's face--for the desolation he'd caused in the misty green moors of Cerise's eyes.
Steve had looked at Cerise with a newfound respect after that day--he'd run up against the streak of steel present in the otherwise silk wrap of her personality.
Steve's thoughts faded into white noise as Cerise's voice wafted through the closed door--rich and heavy like warmed treacle.
It was the only time he thought she was ever truly herself--when she sang, there was an earthy, gritty sense of authenticity to her voice--as if she were peeling back her skin until only her rawest self remained.
He didn't know how he'd started sitting by her door at night to hear her sing--but the habit had grown as gradually as the burgeoning stalks of a newborn plant, until he found himself outside her room as soon as the sky started to weep ink.
Her song opened up a fount of bittersweet yearning in Steve--her voice a thread that wound him down the barren roads of his heart, dust-dimmed with neglect.
It stirred something in Steve--tugged up a sentient creature of emotion, that seemed to lazily stretch its limbs and arise from a long-kept slumber.
Something that hungered--paced against the confining cage of Steve's chest, pawing for attention.
Steve closed his eyes, and let the lilt of Cerise's voice carry him home.
"So I let my heart get frozen,
To keep away the rot,
She tells me that I'm chosen,
He tells me that I'm not,
There is no God in Heaven,
There is no Hell below,
So says the great professor,
Of all there is to know,
But I've had the invitation,
That a sinner can't refuse,
And it's almost like salvation,
It's almost like the blues..."

Chapter Text

Interlude

Cerise peeked at Steve curiously from the corner of her eye--or rather, at what he was holding in his hand. She'd seen it on him often enough, the plain white notepad a common sight around the living space they shared. Cerise often found him scribbling in it in the hours they'd spend together in quiet after their meal, but she'd never quite summoned up the courage to ask him about it. Cerise didn't know why it mattered as much as it did--but she'd found herself curious about many of the little things she noticed about Steve in the two months she'd spent at the compound. There was a peculiar sensation in Cerise's chest when she observed things about Steve she didn't immediately understand--an insistent sort of tug at her conscious, tiny hooks pulling at her skin, letting her know she wanted something more than this--more than just the light companionship they currently shared--more than just the surface things she knew of him--simply just more .
Despite how intimidating Steve often came across, with his hard-cut jaw and granite-hewn physique--there was a stable sort of warmth to him that washed over Cerise like the lazy waves of the midsummer ocean.
It pulled some slumbering, half-aware part of her to the forefront in his presence--yanking up an unfamiliar sort of want.
"You know," Steve looked across at her amusedly. "You've been staring at me for over five minutes now. Whatever it is you want to say, you can say it."
Cerise wanted to sink into the depths of the couch to hide her beet-red face, violently cursing her own stupidity.
"It really wasn't anything," she stammered, valiantly averting her gaze from Steve's. "I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable."
"You didn't," Steve frowned at her, a faint downward pull to his mouth.
He studied her shrinking figure intently.
"You can ask me things, you know," he continued. "I don't mind. I--" he faltered for a brief moment. "It's nice, actually."
Cerise blinked at him.
"Um," she said tentatively. "I was going to ask you what that notepad was for, actually."
"Oh," Steve said bemusedly, glancing down at it. "It's nothing special, really. I obviously missed out on a lot of years when I was under the ice--so I jot down things that people tell me I should know about the world now--or things I'm interested in looking further into."
Steve's lips twitched as he watched Cerise's eyes widen to the size of saucers as she stared at the notepad--barely biting back a laugh as he saw her practically vibrating in place.
"Do you want to add something to it?" He asked her indulgently.
Cerise's eyes sparkled like wet grass in sunlight, but she still looked uncertain.
"I would be glad to, Mr. Rogers, but I don't know that I would have much to offer," she chewed her lip nervously, evidently teetering on the cusp of what she wanted to say.
Steve set down his pad and waited.
"All I've ever known are books and music," Cerise began slowly. "For a very long time, they were all I had."
Her lips tweaked upwards a fraction as she recalled the memory into words.
"I still remember slipping out of the orphanage on the rare few chances I got--I'd go to the nearest library and just sit there for hours--lose myself in all these worlds where people were good, and true, and kind--I thought, if someone were able to create characters so beautiful--there had to be some good left in the world. It gave me hope--that did. Other times I'd sneak into theaters to watch my favorite musicals--Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music--I don't know to put this, but listening to those songs--it made me feel human. I was this dead thing wasting away at the orphanage, but for those two hours at the theater--I felt alive. I felt like love existed in life--and that I could survive anything as long as I knew it was there, even if it never entered my own life. It--" Cerise cut herself off, flushing under the weight of Steve's gentle smile.
"I'm sorry," she said hastily, contrition plain in her tone. "I've said too much--you don't want to hear any of this, I-"
"I do," Steve interrupted her softly. "It's rare that you ever talk about yourself--and you should do it more often."
"It seems to me you have a lot more to offer than you think," he handed her the notepad. "You can write down the names of the books you loved best. I'll have to read them on my own, but those musicals--"
Steve hesitated, suddenly finding himself infuriatingly unsure.
He cleared his throat.
"Those musicals," he tried again. "Maybe--you could--watch them with me...?"
His voice trailed off into a half-question.
There was something so achingly sweet in the smile Cerise gave him right then, Steve half-expected to find honey smeared across her carnation-stained lips.
It cut him to the quick.
"Of course," Cerise's voice was a mere wisp in the cool air of the room. "I would love to, Mr. Rogers."

~~~

Tony strode into the room, barely sparing Cerise a glance as he approached Steve.
"We've got a problem, Rogers."
Steve got to his feet instantly.
"What is it, Tony?"
Tony crossed his arms over his chest, a mulish look on his face.
"Fury's being a real pain in my ass," he griped. "He gets more paranoid by the day, and now he's badgering me to make sure that there aren't any more pods of Chitauri eggs still strewn around New York. He was going on about needing to contact Banner--said that Bruce had reported observing gamma radiation emanating from the areas where the Chitauri had attacked, and also around the places where we found the pods."
"I tried reaching Banner," Tony added, forestalling Steve's question. "He's nowhere to be found--I can't trace him. I don't know where he's sequestered himself, but I don't think we can expect any help from him this time around--and I don't know about you, Cap, but I have neither the time nor inclination to search every goddamn warehouse in this city for a nest of alien eggs."
Steve exhaled heavily, furrowing his brow.
Cerise, who had been silent throughout the course of the entire conversation, fidgeted at the mention of gamma radiation.
Tony shot her a cursory look.
"You got something to add, kid?"
"I-uh," Cerise dithered. "I might have something that could help."
They both stared at her blankly.
She turned on her heel, almost running back to her room.
Steve and Tony followed after her in silence, watching bemusedly as Cerise scrabbled amongst her belongings for whatever she was hoping to find.
"Here," Cerise finally said breathlessly, holding out a spherical object towards Tony. "I was looking for this."
It was an odd-looking device, resembling a half-knitted ball of black wool--with thin threads of wires spiraling out every which way.
Tony eyed it with ill-concealed distaste.
"What the fuck is that?"
"You mentioned gamma radiation," Cerise said nervously. "I made this--back when the Hulk--I mean, Dr. Banner, was fighting in New York. I configured it to detect gamma rays--it was just an experiment, and I never expected it to work, but--it showed me Harlem on the map I'd put in--said there were signs of radiation there--and that's where--that's where--"
"Where Banner was fighting," Tony finished for her with shrewd eyes.
"Will it still work?" Steve asked Cerise doubtfully. "That happened many years ago."
She nodded.
"If I could just plug it into an energy source, I'm sure I could get it to work," Cerise turned to Tony. "Mr. Stark, do you have jumper cables by any chance?"
"Do I have-" Tony gaped at her. "Do I have--kid, I have fifty different labs in this city alone. Just come down with me--and bring that...thing."
He pointed contemptuously at the device in Cerise's hands.
She hurried to keep up with the long strides of the two men as they descended to the basement where Tony's lab was located.
"You can plug it in there," Tony gestured dismissively towards the docks. "This better work."
Steve nodded encouragingly at Cerise as her hands flew over the circular screen of her detector.
A few minutes later, the screen glowed blue and Cerise sighed in relief.
Tony's eyebrows rose high into his hairline as he watched her tap her fingers across the screen.
"It's showing me coordinates for...uh, Brooklyn," Cerise informed, peering at the detector. " I don't know if it's the Chitauri, but there are definitely trace elements of gamma radiation present in the upper boroughs."
"Kid," Tony addressed her suddenly. "How did you make this? Did you ever even go to college?"
Cerise flushed a virulent shade of red.
"No, I didn't," she admitted. "I wanted to, but I was broke. I knew...someone," her voice hitched at the tail end of her sentence, causing Steve to narrow his eyes at her. "He was in college and I used to read his books on electrical and mechanical engineering. It was fascinating for me--and eventually he started sneaking me into the campus lab and I would just tinker with things. That's basically how it started..."
Cerise shrugged.
Tony stared at her for a long moment.
"Well," he said after a pregnant pause. "I could use that sort of skill around here. You're welcome to use my lab whenever you want, kid--so long as you don't disturb me."
Cerise's mouth popped open in disbelief.
Steve smiled at her dumbstruck expression.
"Let's suit up, Stark," he told Tony. "Looks like we're headed to Brooklyn."

Chapter Text

The Heir

"I still think bringing her with us was a bad idea," Steve said, lips obstinately jutting outwards.
Tony glared at him.
"Steve, I told you--we can't leave her at the compound by herself, the civilian's protests aren't going to die down anytime soon. And you saw what happened the last time we left her in the Quinjet--you think she has a portable case of hairbrushes ready to go that she can just lob at whatever might escape us and go after her next?"
Cerise couldn't help the startled laugh that bubbled out of her as she caught Tony's eye, though she subsided hastily when Steve directed his frown onto her.
"This is a ridiculous argument," Steve crossed his arms, frowning. "She could very easily get hurt."
"No, it makes perfect sense," Tony shot back. "This way, even if we get ambushed by something, we're instantly going to be able to defend her, if it comes to that."
"Tony--"
"Can the both of you shut up?" Natasha snapped, cutting Steve off. "If there actually is anything in here, you've probably already alerted it to our presence because of your pointless yapping."
They both stared at her, affronted.
"So quit it," she said, completely unfazed. "Rogers, you refused to leave the kid in S.H.I.E.L.D custody, so this is the only option we've got. Stark, stop being so flippant about her safety."
"And you," Natasha fixed her catlike eyes on Cerise, who narrowly resisted the urge to shrink away from her gaze. "Use that device of yours and tell me if there's anything inside this filthy warehouse that shouldn't be there."
"Sure," Cerise raised her detector out in front of her. It beeped faintly, glowing electric blue.
"It's not much, but I'm definitely picking up some traces of radiation," she informed them.
"Could be more eggs," Tony nodded.
"Could also be something else," Steve replied grimly, motioning towards Cerise. "Stay behind me."
They entered the warehouse warily, the smell of mildew and damp assaulting their noses as soon they stepped inside.
The faint sound of water dripping down followed their footsteps as they went deeper into the deserted building.
"I'm not seeing anything unusual," Natasha's alert eyes scanned the area expertly. "No pods, for sure."
"Are you sure this thing of yours works, kid?" Tony huffed.
"It used to," Cerise said uncertainly. "I swear that there's--"
The detector suddenly let out a strident beep, hurting Cerise's eyes with the brightness of its light.
"Mr. Rogers, I-"
She was cut off by a sharp, screeching noise, as part of the roof of the warehouse was rent apart--
And came crashing down barely an inch away from their heads.
It took Cerise a split second to realize that there was a creature on top of the dilapidated remains of the roof, shredding the metal-coated surface with razor-tipped claws.
Steve and Tony instantly closed ranks around Cerise--like stage curtains sliding shut.
The creature let out a chittering snarl and leaned back on its haunches, readying itself to attack.
It was four-legged with ridged spikes on its mottled green back--beady black eyes staring malevolently at the four of them.
"That doesn't look like a Chitauri," Steve doubled his hands into fists.
"Yeah, no kidding, old man," Tony rolled his eyes before his visor obscured his face.
The creature poised itself to spring at them--and then fixed it's predatory gaze on Cerise.
It froze, utterly motionless--eyes locked on Cerise's.
A guttural, spitting noise emanated from its elapine throat as the creature continued to look at her--almost as if--as if it was trying to communicate with her.
"Is it--is it trying to talk?" Steve echoed Cerise's thoughts.
The creature hissed again, pawing at the ground--and before it could so much as move, Natasha tackled it to the floor, knife pressed against it's scaled neck.
"Nat--wait--" Steve called out urgently, but the spy didn't listen.
"H---h--heir," the creature choked out against the cold steel pressing into its throat as it still stared at Cerise, twisting the words around its serrated tongue with a strange sort of inflection, as if it had never used the language before.
"You...are...heir..." it continued, addressing the horrified Cerise. "Have...orders...to..."
The tip of its tail glimmered a lurid shade of vermilion--and Steve shouted at Natasha to get back.
She barely managed to roll away in time--the creature exploded, black blood spraying everywhere.
Cerise slowly lifted her gaze to meet the three pairs of eyes boring into her.

~~~

"Why the fuck is an alien calling you an heir? What did it fucking mean?" Tony pointed a finger at Cerise accusingly. " Why the hell does it know who you are? "
Cerise's shoulders caved in under the force of Tony's glare.
"I don't-- I don't know--I really don't have any idea, please, you have to believe me--" she pleaded, wringing her hands as Tony shook his head disgustedly.
Cerise backed away from the irate Avenger--quailing as she realized that even Natasha was pinning her with suspicious eyes.
"That's enough, Tony," Steve stepped in front of Cerise, blocking her from the gazes of the other two. "She told you already--she doesn't know."
Tony didn't spare him a response, turning on his heel and striding out of the room.
"Wait, Natasha--" Steve called after her tiredly, but the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent had already followed Tony out, looking over her shoulder at Steve to tell him that she would be notifying Fury of the day's events.
Steve wearily pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I'm sorry," Cerise said miserably, hunching into herself even further. "I--"
"You have nothing to apologize for," Steve interrupted her quietly. "None of this is your fault."
Cerise's jewel-toned eyes widened--the raw, naked hope shining through in them causing a peculiar ache to flare in Steve's chest.
"You believe me?" She asked in amazement.
"Yes I do," Steve told her firmly. "If you had something to hide, you wouldn't have shown us your device or led us to that alien. I know you're scared--but I want you to know I'm going to do my best to get to the bottom of this. We all will."
"Even Mr. Stark?" Cerise blinked up at him uncertainly.
"Even Mr. Stark," he repeated with a faint smile.
And Cerise--" Steve paused, clearly debating whether he should continue. "I didn't want you to go alone to S.H.I.E.L.D for a reason. I don't trust them--they always have an agenda, and if it doesn't align with what other people want, they don't much care. Be careful--they see you as an asset more than a person."
She paled visibly, tawny skin bleaching itself of color.
"And what do you see me as?"
Steve's lips quirked upward, but his eyes were solemn as they fell upon Cerise.
"Someone who could make a difference," he answered, getting to his feet. "If she tried to."
"Mr. Rogers--" Cerise caught hold of Steve's sleeve before he could walk out of the room, winding her slender fingers around the material.
"Thank you," she said sincerely, the gratitude on her face so transparent and open it flustered Steve entirely. "Just--thank you so much. For believing me, for looking out for me--everything, I--"
The corner of Cerise's mouth flicked up even as her breath hitched-- celadon eyes gleaming sheer vulnerability.
"No one's ever done that for me before."

~~~

Jhago paced past the platinum walls of their vessel, gaze heavy upon his companion.
"This was a close call, Quotho," he chastised, finally breaking the silence. "Not all of our servants are as intelligent as the one they found today. If it had revealed anything--"
"But it didn't," Quotho replied calmly. "It self-destructed before they could try and get information out of it."
"But if the Avengers start looking into this--"
"Let them," Quotho clapped Jhago on his armor-covered shoulder. "Let them run around like the ants they are, searching for clues. They won't find any."
He surveyed the overcast sky from the gangplank of the vessel.
"We have kept this secret for twenty years, Jhago. We will keep it for twenty more--no matter who comes in our way."

Chapter Text

Opia

Steve entered the room absentmindedly, preoccupied with thoughts of his pending paperwork-- immediately crouching down in alarm when he found Cerise huddled on the floor with her knees up against her chest.
"Cerise?" He said urgently, hand winding around her thin arm. "What's wrong?"
She looked up at him with eyes so dark, they were almost the color of moss during midnight.
Cerise pointed wordlessly to the open door--and even from three floors up, Steve could hear the acrid, angry voices leaking into the room.
"Mr. Stark and Miss Potts have been fighting for hours," she said, voice barely a whisper. "I--I don't like raised voices. They....bring up bad memories."
Steve sat back on his heels--it wasn't what he'd been expecting.
Cerise ducked her head, not daring to meet Steve's gaze to find only disgust there--or worse, pity.
"I know it's stupid--"
"It's not," Steve refuted, and there was no judgment in his electric blue eyes--only a serene sort of acceptance. "We all have our demons--you have nothing to be ashamed of."
She gave him a wan smile, irises still devoid of their usual light.
Steve made a split second decision as he offered Cerise his hand to lift herself up with.
Her skin felt like liquid silk as it brushed against his fingers.
Steve hastily let his hand drop away, lifting something from the table and motioning towards Cerise to follow him.
"Come on. I have to show you something."
She trailed after him in puzzled silence, glancing at him curiously as they went up the elevator.
Cerise's eyes widened as the elevator doors slid open--she stepped out slowly, conscious of Steve at her side.
"You've never been up to the rooftop, have you?" Steve didn't wait for an answer, leaning against the railing as he looked out at the view.
There was a slight chill in the air, the cool wind fanning gently across Cerise's face as she joined Steve.
Twilight stretched its rose-red fingers across the darkening sky, a last farewell from the setting sun.
"I come up here and watch the sunset when things get to be a little too much," he told her, still looking out at the horizon. "It helps me think. And reminds me that no matter what happens, the sun will set and rise once again--that life will go on."
For one long, but strangely fleeting moment, Cerise wanted to wrap her arms around Steve. She didn't know how he did it, or whether it was even his intent to--but he managed to make her feel safe in her most vulnerable moments.
He made her feel less alone--and for Cerise, who had become so accustomed to living behind a glass wall that separated her from the rest of the world--found that it was surreal to discover how easily it had been breached by Steve.
Steve looked at her oddly.
"Is there something on my face?" He hesitantly asked.
Cerise snapped out of her reverie in an instant, realizing with mortification that she had been staring at Steve for several minutes.
"N-no," she waved her hands wildly, face flushed and burning. "Nothing-- I just--"
She swallowed the rest of her words, composing herself.
"The view's beautiful," Cerise said softly. "Thank you for showing it to me, Mr. Rogers."
Steve grinned at her.
"Can't hear those two go at it from up here, can you?"
Cerise blinked in surprise, the fact not dawning on her until then that she could no longer hear Tony and Pepper arguing.
"So," Steve passed a small laptop into her grasp. "I was thinking we could finally get around to watching one of those uh...musicals, you like so much?"
The full force of Cerise's smile hit Steve in the face as it blossomed into existence--even after the past few months he'd spent around her, it hadn't lost its potency in the slightest--Steve wanted to shade his eyes in the wake of its quiet brilliance.
"Wait," Steve peered uncertainly at the laptop. "This is how you watch movies, right? On this thing?"
His look of bewilderment was so endearing Cerise couldn't help but laugh--struck with the sudden urge to touch Steve.
It was a simple sort of want--Cerise wished nothing more than to have the innocent weight of his hand atop hers.
She shook her head rapidly, retreating from the path her thoughts had taken her down.
"Yeah, this is how you watch them," she replied amusedly. "Is there somewhere we can sit over here?"
In answer, Steve pulled two flimsy-looking lawn chairs out into the middle of the rooftop, kicking a rickety folding table in between them.
"Is Moulin Rouge okay?" Cerise asked nervously, fingers dancing across the keypad as she sat down.
"Sure," Steve settled down next to her, eyes as tranquil as lake-water reflecting the light of dawn. "Whatever you like."
Steve leaned forward, his shoulder a mere inch away from Cerise's.
As she watched him become engrossed in the movie; for the first time, she no longer felt the hollowness that had echoed inside the caverns of her hungry heart for as long as she could remember.
For the first time in forever, Cerise felt whole.

~~~

A sharp rapping on her door startled Cerise away from her book.
"Mr. Rogers?" She called uncertainly. "You can come in."
It didn't sound like it was Steve at her door however--the knock had been far too impatient.
"It's not Cap," Tony flung the door open and strode in. "Though I think it's very interesting that you instantly thought it was him. In your room often, is he?"
Cerise gaped at him.
"What--no--he just--in the morning--wakes me-" she spluttered incoherently.
"Relax, kid," Tony snorted. "I'm just messing with you."
She stared at him indignantly.
Tony surveyed her room, brown eyes narrowed in an almost-squint.
"It's so neat in here that it's downright painful," he commented. "Looks like a monk's living here."
Cerise waited silently--she had been around Tony enough to know when he was deflecting.
He shifted uncomfortably--
And with a long drawn out breath, finally broached the subject.
"I wanted to apologize to you, ki--Cerise," Tony began reluctantly. "I shouldn't have said anything to you about that alien--I realize now that you had nothing to do with it. Steve believed you from the beginning, and I should have too. I would have, if I'd bothered to think it through before I accused you. I'm--I'm sorry."
Cerise felt something that had lodged itself in her throat ever since the incident loosen at last.
"Thank you for your apology," she said, green eyes serious and calm. "And I understand. If I were in your place, I would have probably done the same."
Tony shook his head, a faint upturn to his lips.
"No you wouldn't."
"No I wouldn't," Cerise admitted with a grudging smile. "But I understand anyway, Mr. Stark."
He nodded, clearly discomfited.
"And the lab is still open to you," Tony added hurriedly. "If you ever feel like making something. And--if you don't mind, you could show me how to make that gamma detector of yours. We'll need as many as we can get if we're going to get to the bottom of why that creature was running around, not to mention why and how he knew you."
"I don't mind," Cerise said, pleased. "We can start tomorrow."
"Right," Tony stood up. "Great. Good talk."
He turned to leave--but something in the weary lines of his face, the furrow permanently etched into his forehead--made Cerise call him back. She realized, behind his stinging sarcasm and caustic quips--was a real person, separate from the cloak of Iron Man that he wrapped around his vulnerabilities. The suit was a physical manifestation of the armor Tony had locked around himself--and outside of it, he was just as human as the rest of them.
And he'd been hurt today--Cerise could see the pain in the backs of his eyes.
"Mr. Stark," she said tentatively. "I'm sorry about you and Miss Potts. Do you--do you maybe want to talk about it?"
He stared at her, and for a half-second she thought he would rebuff her offer--
But then he sank back down on the chair heavily.
"Sure, why not, kid," he said tiredly. "Why not."

Chapter Text

Uncomfortable Truths

"So this is how you do it, right?" Tony welded the device together, shielding himself behind his visor from the red-hot sparks. "Is the wiring okay?"
"Yep," Cerise nodded, still looking with incredulous eyes around his lab. She had never seen a better-equipped or more opulent working space--and it only served to exacerbate her growing concerns.
"You're doing it perfectly," she assured Tony.
"Of course I am," he smirked at her. "I'm a genius."
Cerise bit her lip, dreading the conversation she was about to have with Tony--but it had to be said. She couldn't in good conscience allow things to continue as they had been.
"Mr. Stark," she swallowed hard, throat constricting. "I have to tell you something."
"Hmm?" He didn't look up from the worktable, barely paying her any attention.
She let out a long, final breath.
"I don't think I can live at the compound like this any longer," Cerise admitted, feeling an immense sense of relief as the words escaped from her at last.
The tongs Tony had been holding clattered onto the table.
"What the fuck?" He demanded. "Why?"
"Please don't get me wrong," Cerise pleaded. "I am so grateful to you and Mr. Rogers for taking me in--you have no idea how much. I just--I just feel like I'm freeloading here. Mr. Stark, you house me, and clothe me, and feed me--and I've done nothing to earn it. Absolutely nothing. I don't--I don't want to be a charity case."
"Are you nuts?" Tony frowned at her. "No one thinks of you as a charity case. Steve doesn't pay anything to live here--have you ever seen him bothered over it? I'm a billionaire--I have enough money to fund the entirety of S.H.I.E.L.D. five times over--and still be rich at the end of it. It is literally of no cost to me to keep you here."
Cerise sighed.
"Mr. Rogers contributes to S.H.I.E.L.D--he goes on missions. He works. What am I doing?"
"I know it doesn't cause you any trouble, Mr. Stark," she continued resolutely. "But that isn't the point. It's the principle of the thing--I hope you can understand. I don't mean to offend you."
Tony huffed, crossing his arms.
"You're serious about this?"
"Yes," Cerise replied firmly. "I am."
"Fine," Tony appeared to be mulling something over. "How about this. I could use an assistant in here when I'm developing more tech. I can see you know enough to be of some help--no idea how you managed that without any formal training, by the way--but hey, whatever works right? So after your lessons with Cap and Natasha, come here and work with me. You won't have much free time--but you can consider that your way of paying me back or earning your place here, or whatever other lofty nonsense you've stuffed your head with."
He pinned her under his gaze.
"Does that work for you?"
Cerise blinked at him dazedly--she hadn't expected Tony to take it as well as he had, much less offer her a solution.
"Yeah," she said gratefully. "Yeah it does. I just want to give back what I owe you--what I'll keep owing you. Thank you for understanding, Mr. Stark. Really--I appreciate it."
"You're a strange one, kid," Tony snorted. "But you're proud. I like that."
Cerise smiled at him shyly as they resumed work.
She let the silence linger in the air for a while, before tentatively asking--
"How are things with you and Miss Potts now?"
Tony sighed, face seeming to age five years in a trice.
"It's the same as before, kid. Like I told you--Pepper wants me to stop making suits, to stop working with S.H.I.E.L.D--she's terrified that one day I'm going to walk into a fight I won't be able to come back from--and I can't blame her for it. But I know what I saw, inside that portal or whatever it was--there's an entire army out there. And they're angry--they hate us--they would do anything to destroy this place. Our safety is hanging by a thread--"
Tony lifted up his visor, passing a weary hand over his face.
"I love Pepper," he continued. "I do. And there's nothing I wouldn't do for her--but is it fair of me to put her before the rest of the world? We're in danger--I know that for a fact. I've seen it. Isn't it my responsibility to try and prevent that?"
Cerise's eyes were emerald-warm and empathetic as they rested upon Tony.
"It isn't your responsibility alone," she said softly. "Wasn't that the whole point of creating the Avengers? To be able to do things together that you couldn't on your own?"
"You have so many people willing to help," Cerise reminded Tony. "Even if they don't say it. Mr. Rogers, Miss Romanov, Mr Barton--they'd fight to protect this world, just as much as you would. And you're allowed to be selfish, Mr. Stark--you're only human. You have the right to want happiness for yourself."
Tony stared at her.
He opened his mouth but stopped himself abruptly when the door swung open.
Steve poked his head in cautiously.
"Alright if I come in?"
"You already have," Tony answered, but there was no bite to his tone.
Steve looked curiously around at the loose wiring littered throughout the room.
"I just came to tell you two I'm leaving," he explained, though his gaze was mostly on Cerise. "There's some sort of international ring that's gotten hold of sensitive government records. Fury wants me to bring them back and capture whoever's involved."
"I figured he'd want to send one of us somewhere soon," Tony nodded, unsurprised. "How's the taskforce he's given you?"
Steve gave a non-committal jerk of his head.
"Decent enough, I suppose. I'll make do."
"Good luck, Mr. Rogers," Cerise lifted her hand as if to brush it against his--but after a momentary pause, let it fall away unnoticed.
"I'll get you to call me Steve one day, see if I don't," he said, nudging her almost playfully. "Train hard with Nat, alright? Practice on your own, too."
"Sure," Cerise smiled at him gently. "Of course I will. Be safe out there."
"I should be back in a week," Steve squeezed her shoulder briefly. "I'll see you."
"Bye," Cerise said quietly, a faint downward crease to her lips as she watched him leave.
"Oh come on," Tony snapped irritably. "You don't have to look so sad about it. Now get a move on--we have work to do."

Chapter Text

And when they tell you that loneliness

is a poem no one taught them,

But they know by heart anyway,

Teach them another one,

Stay with them till they get all the words right.

Homecoming

"Mr. Stark," Cerise said insistently, impervious to his efforts to assuage her. "It has been more than two weeks. You have to look for him--or tell S.H.I.E.L.D. to do it."
"S.H.I.E.L.D would risk revealing their mission if they started trying to find out where he is," Tony dismissed. "They won't do that. And kid, I'm sure he's fine. Something must have come up--you know he can handle himself."
"Mr. Rogers said he wouldn't take longer than a week!" Cerise exclaimed, aghast. "It's been nearly three, Mr. Stark. He could be captured, or hurt, or worse--"
"Hey, hey," Tony cut her off. "Nothing is as bad as you're making it out to be, Cerise. It's Steve we're talking about here--the man can rip a log in half with his bare hands. I promise you, he's got it covered."
Cerise breathed out heavily through her nose, feeling the urge to shout at Tony for the very first time.
"Oh look at that, you're actually glaring at me," He gave her a sardonic grin. "That's a first."
When Cerise only stared at him in disapproving silence, Tony sighed in defeat.
"Look, if he's not back in the next two days, I'll find him. Alright?"
Cerise didn't bother with a response, turning on her heel to leave the lab.
She could feel the panic swilling inside her, rising like bile in her throat.
The burn of it was alien to her--as was the realization of how much she'd come to rely on Steve. Cerise had never thought of blue as a warm color until she'd seen Steve's eyes. They reminded her of ocean waves under the light of a spring sun--she'd learned to look for them around the compound when she needed reassurance--when she needed not to feel alone. He'd steadied her---been the anchor under her feet that tethered her to this new life. Cerise hadn't realized his presence was what had turned the compound from a house into a home--not until it'd gone missing.
The rooms seemed somehow colder without him in them--lacking some inexplicable quality that Cerise couldn't figure out for the life of her.
Cerise felt strangely adrift--insubstantial even, without the familiar weight of his presence bolstering her.
And her fear for him grew in increments with each day that passed without his return.
Cerise sunk into the downy depth of her bed, tightly screwing her eyes shut--
And hoped, that when she opened them again--
Steve would be there.

~~~

Steve limped in through the door, wincing with every step. The mission hadn't gone according to plan in any way whatsoever--and he had been hard-pressed getting himself and his team out of it unscathed.
"You!" Came an irate voice, and Steve started in surprise at finding Tony awake at a quarter past one in the morning.
"It's about time you came back!" Tony pointed an accusing finger at him. "Do you know how much the kid has been badgering me about you? 'Where is he, why isn't he here, something must have happened to him, do something Mr. Stark', and on and on and on it went."
Steve blinked, nonplussed.
"I--"
"Do you know how worried she's been? Or more importantly, the headache she's been giving me because of it?" Tony demanded, but there was a sharp sort of relief to his voice in spite of it all.
Steve opened his mouth again but subsided under Tony's scowl.
The sound of feet pattering against the plush carpet was his only warning before Cerise came nearly careening into the room--
And flung her arms around him.
Steve froze, acutely aware of the delicate press of her body against his.
When was the last time someone had hugged him?
Steve couldn't recall it, the memories seemed submerged in a coat of ice-- just as he had once been.
"I missed you," Cerise murmured into the broad curve of his shoulder, so quietly that even Tony, who was standing just a few steps away, couldn't hear. "I thought--I thought you might not come back."
Her gossamer-spun hair tickled Steve's cheek like the touch of a butterfly's wings.
Steve breathed in her soothing scent--it was the same as ever, crushed lotus blossoms and neroli oil with a hint of cinnamon.
He remembered noticing when it first permeated their living space--how it brought to mind the lazy midsummer evenings of his childhood, when the sky was warmly washed with the golden haze of the setting sun.
It suffused his senses, loosening a knot that he hadn't realized had tightened in his chest since the day he'd left the compound.
"I'm here now," he said gently, managing to give her a one-handed pat on the back despite the strange woodenness belying his movements. "I'm sorry I took so long."
"Hi."
A rose-tinted flush stole into Cerise's cheeks as she shyly withdrew from him.
"Hi," Steve said softly, an involuntary smile spreading across his lips.
Tony let out a disgusted scoff.
"It's like I'm not even here. Can you two take your puke-inducing sappiness somewhere else, please?"
Steve and Cerise wore twin expressions of extreme discomfiture.

~~~

"They were about to escape on a boat," Steve explained to Tony, tired muscles crying out in gratitude as he settled into the soft, accommodating folds of the sofa.
"We thought we had the situation well in hand, but they shot our hovercraft down."
Steve shook his head silently to reassure Cerise as she turned to look at him in alarm.
She didn't normally include herself in conversations in which they discussed work--Steve suspected it was because she felt out of place and unwelcome in their midst still--but she had chosen to stay today, curled up quietly on the other side of him.
"We overpowered them of course, but essentially all of us were stranded--things looked pretty grim until a military ship spotted our team and took us on board--and even then, it took a long time for us to reach a place where I could contact S.H.I.E.L.D. to pick me up."
Steve was perplexed at the pointed look Cerise shot Tony at this-- and at the dark glower she received in return.
He continued on nevertheless; stopping only when he heard a muffled thump--a light weight falling on his shoulder.
Cerise was fast asleep--head resting against Steve's wide shoulder, her curtain of inky hair obscuring her face from view.
"Awwww," Tony clicked his tongue mockingly, voice dripping with derision. "How absolutely precious."
Steve shifted in place, at a loss on knowing what to do.
"Admit it," Tony gave him an infuriatingly smug wink. "You're enjoying this, Rogers."
"I most certainly am not," Steve replied primly. "This is just an inconvenience."
"Okay, if you say so," Tony stretched an arm towards Cerise. "I'll just wake her up then, shall I--"
"No!" Steve said instantly, swatting Tony's hand away with his free hand at once.
He cringed as Cerise stirred in her sleep for a moment, sighing in relief when she settled back against his shoulder.
"Yeah," Tony snickered at Steve as he got to his feet. "That's what I thought."
He frowned at Tony's triumphant expression.
When Tony turned to look back at him before leaving the room, his face was devoid of its usual jeering cast.
"She was genuinely worried about you," he said slowly, eyes heavy on Steve's. "Make of that what you will."
Steve turned to look at Cerise with new eyes.
He was sore, exhausted and barely awake, his suit clinging suffocatingly to his sweat-soaked skin.
Steve's entire arm was already screaming in protest--but at that moment, there was no other place Steve wanted to be except on that couch, with Cerise's head against his shoulder.
The feeling had been gone so long from his life, Steve didn't know what to do with the sensation when it finally hit him---the sweet sacredness of having someone to come home to--someone who worried and waited for his return.
As he watched Cerise, her features soft and muted in sleep---
The first flickering ember of warmth kindled to life in Steve's chest.

Chapter Text

Fire Burn, And Cauldron Bubble

"My shadow tells me the girl grows ever closer to that soldier--Rogers," Jhago met Quotho's gaze evenly. "It is not desirable--not in the slightest."
"No, it is not," Quotho agreed, the stone-cracked gray skin between his brows creasing with every word. "She needs to remain pure for our purposes."
Jhago shook his head disgustedly.
"She may already have been rendered impure. We only found her in recent years--who knows what happened before then?"
"The girl is our vessel," Quotho replied quietly. "You know we have ways of decontaminating vessels."
"Quotho! The process--" Jhago gaped at him in shock. "There is very little chance that it will leave her body intact. You can't possibly expect her to survive it--"
"What other choice do we have?" Quotho demanded. "If this she-creature has been defiled as we assume--the ritual cannot take place. It will not take place--unless she is cleansed."
"But the risk--"
"The risk was always there, Jhago. It has been there for twenty years. The real risk--of what we stand to lose if the girl is allowed to live long enough to find her way back to where she was born. If she is allowed to live long enough to grow into her powers---if she breaks past that seal that's keeping them locked--that risk, Jhago."
A deadened sort of flame guttered in Quotho's eyes as he stared fixedly at Jhago.
After a tense silence, he averted his gaze from Quotho's, resignation evident in the droop of his shoulders.
"As you will it, my liege," Jhago said finally. "Is it ready?"
Quotho bent down to where the vat hissed sibilantly, steam rising off of it in wispy curls.
The obsidian liquid sloshed angrily against the sides of the cauldron, the sheen of its surface so bright it looked as though it were polished with a coat of black lacquer.
"Soon," he promised Jhago. "It will be ready very soon."
"And what of the soldier?" The smaller of the two inquired. "We cannot let this continue."
"We won't," Quotho promised. "Just because I am biding my time does not mean that I plan to sit idly by. We cannot call attention to ourselves in any way until the preparations are complete in all aspects--this is the most crucial part of it. Once that is done--"
Quotho tightened his clawed hands into fists, unmindful of how they cut jagged lines into his palms.
"You can be sure Steven Grant Rogers will be eliminated."

~~~

The watery yellow sunlight filtered through the glass-paned windows, still managing to pierce Cerise's eyelids despite the muted quality of its glare.
She shifted drowsily, sleepily wondering why her pillow felt so much firmer than usual.
Cerise finally let her eyes open--and found her face buried in the tight blue material of Steve's suit.
For one brief moment, she was arrested by the steady rise and fall of Steve's chest, by the way sleep softened his features--
And then Cerise realized exactly what she'd done--and twisted away from Steve so violently she toppled off the sofa head-first.
He woke with a start, crystal-blue eyes foggy with sleep--and met Cerise's gaze instantly.
Cerise couldn't even get up off the floor, so conscious was she of the red-hot burning in her face.
"I--I'm so sorry---" the words fell from her mouth in a rushing torrent. "I didn't mean to, I swear--"
Steve opened his mouth.
"Cerise--"
She didn't even seem to hear him.
"You were hurt--and I must have made you so uncomfortable--I--"
Steve tried again.
"Cerise--"
But she'd already turned and fled from the room.
Steve shook his head and got to his feet, wincing as his stiff muscles twinged in protest.
He couldn't help the slight smile that pulled at his lips, amusedly thinking of Cerise's flustered face just minutes before--of the pretty cherry hue that had imbued her cheeks.
Steve bent his head to the side, trying to work out the aggravating crick in his neck.
"Morning Rogers," Natasha walked soundlessly into the room. "Did you have a nice night?"
Steve narrowed his eyes at the pointed leer on her face.
"Stark told you, didn't he," he sighed in resignation.
"You bet your ass I did," Tony sauntered into the room with a triumphant smirk. "I told everyone--even Clint."
Steve glared at him.
"I just saw the kid racing into her room as if her life depended on it," Natasha informed the two. "So I take it the morning after went well, huh, Rogers?"
Steve breathed through his nose heavily as the two snickered at his obvious aggravation.
"I don't understand why I'm being singled out for this undeserved ridicule," he said, affronted. "I didn't even choose for it to happen. Cerise is the one who slept on my shoulder. Why aren't you lot saying anything to her?"
"Because teasing her would sort of be the equivalent of teasing a real-life Bambi," Tony answered thoughtfully. "Just wouldn't sit right--picking on a defenseless creature like that. And besides, you give better reactions."
"Plus, the way Tony told it, you didn't do anything to stop her sleeping on you, did you, Steve?" Natasha added mischievously. "Admit it, old man. You enjoyed it every minute of it."
"I most certainly did not," Steve refuted peevishly, eye twitching in annoyance.
"Then why didn't you push her off?" Tony asked slyly. "You didn't let me wake her up either."
Steve scowled, marching out of the room in the wake of their laughter.

Chapter Text

The Lull Between Storms

"Agent Hill," Fury strode across the helipad where the slim woman stood waiting for him. "What's your report on Solange's progress?"
"Romanov is--"
Fury cut her off before she could finish her sentence.
"I don't care about her physical training," he waved a hand dismissively. "She can take her time with that. I want to know about her lessons with Rogers--can she control her magic now?"
"Rogers is as reticent as ever," Hill replied evenly. "He never tells us a thing, and I don't think he's about to start anytime soon. But Romanov tells me Solange hasn't mastered the use of her powers yet--far from it in fact."
"I knew it," Nick shook his head, unsurprised. "Rogers is too soft on her--she needs to be put through the wringer. I thought he could manage, but maybe I was mistaken--it's been over three months and there's barely any progress to show for it."
"I don't think that's a fair assessment, sir, " Maria countered. "Steve Rogers may be a product of the super-serum--he's the epitome of what a perfect soldier should be--but at the end of the day, he's still just human. He has no experience with whatever magic this girl uses--no one does--and it's unnatural. We've never seen anything like it before. He's doing the best he can, and she is improving, albeit slowly."
"Be that as it may, this arrangement clearly isn't working as fast as I wanted it to," Fury insisted. "S.H.I.E.L.D could benefit a great deal from her skillset if she were working for us---but that can only happen if she knows how to use her magic. There's more to this than meets the eye, Hill--there's no earthly reason why an alien from outer space should recognize an orphan girl from the seediest part of New York."
"But it did," he continued. "Which means Solange is special--and I'm making it my business to find out why."
"But first," Fury signaled the helicopter to prepare for liftoff. "We need her to be able to effectively use her magic--or whatever it is Solange has."
"So what are you going to do?" Hill crossed her arms.
"For now?" Nick walked up the ramp to the chopper. "Nothing. You and I have a mission to complete first."
"And once we're back?" Hill prodded as she followed after him.
Fury raised his voice over the whirring of the helicopter's blades.
"You were the one who ran analytics on her, Hill. This shouldn't surprise you--her powers only ever flare up when she's threatened--or something she cares about is threatened."
Nick turned the full force of his gaze on Hill.
"She needs a push--a big one. And I'm going to give it to her."

~~~

Not for the first time that week; nor the last, if he was really being honest with himself--Steve invariably found his feet leading him down to the lab.
He peered around the door hesitantly, but as always, Cerise came bounding up to him with the latest project of the day.
"Mr. Rogers!"
Steve couldn't help the indulgent smile that crossed his features as he looked at Cerise's brightly-pleased eyes while she waved a metal contraption in the air--at eyes that were pleased to see him.
"Mr. Stark wants to add detachable knives that he can use as projectile weapons to his suit," she explained to him. "That's what we're working on today!"
"What can I say," Tony said dryly, coming up behind Cerise to nod a greeting at Steve. "I'm trying to get in touch with my inner ninja."
Tony nudged Cerise's shoulder.
"Run along kid, work on that wiring for me."
"Sure," she flashed a smile at both of them before moving to the back of the room, out of earshot.
"So," Tony raised a thin eyebrow at Steve. "Been seeing you in here a lot these days, Rogers."
The soldier shifted uncomfortably.
"Well, you know, I guess I just got curious about what you do in here."
"Well, you've certainly never done it before," Tony pointed out cattily. "Rather unusual, don't you think?"
"If it bothers you so much, I can leave," Steve snapped, aggravated.
"Hey, I'm just saying," Tony raised his hands in the air, feigning innocence. "No need to get so crabby about it."
Steve crossed his arms.
"I'm just curious," he insisted mulishly. "That's all."
"Right," Tony said, unconvinced. "And this has absolutely nothing to do with a certain doe-eyed little snippet who just happens to work here every day now?"
Inwardly, Steve cursed, but kept his face even.
"Nothing at all," he replied anyway, resolute.
Tony rolled his eyes skyward.
"You are so full of shit, Rogers."
Steve glared at him, but within the safety of his own thoughts--he could admit Tony had the right of it. He'd become used to having Cerise around most of the day--
Looked forward to it even, as the one bright spot in the otherwise monotonous flow of his daily life.
So when she'd begun spending a sizeable time down at the lab after whatever discussion she and Tony had had--Steve couldn't help but follow after her.
It wasn't even as if it were a conscious decision on Steve's part--Cerise just seemed to tug him to her wherever she went.
Steve felt a quiet sense of contentment as he watched Cerise's open, vibrant face--it had bothered him to see her feel so palpably out of place in the compound--but it didn't seem to be so much the case now, and Steve was satisfied. He wanted to see her grow into her own skin--and she was, bit by bit.
"Wiring's done, Mr. Stark," Cerise reappeared next to Tony, causing Steve to break off his train of thought. "Should we get to motor function next?"
"Sure," Tony didn't even look up from the table where his metal suit lay, absently stretching out a hand to ruffle Cerise's hair. "In a moment, Bambi."
Cerise's mouth fell upon with a pop.
"Did you--did you just call me Bambi?" She demanded of Tony indignantly.
"Yeah," Tony assented breezily. "Fits you, don't you think?"
Cerise spluttered in indignation, scarlet-faced.
"I-- you--that's not--"
"What's a Bambi?" Steve asked in confusion, inadvertently cutting Cerise off.
"It's a deer," Tony informed him lazily, a mischievous smile on his face. "A baby deer. All big-eyed and fluffy-tailed."
"Hmm," Steve fought back a smirk at Cerise's piqued face. "You know what, I can see the resemblance."
Cerise scowled as the two broke into fits of laughter.

Chapter Text

Out Of The Realms Of Possibility

The girl smiled at the soldier, the buttery yellow sunlight slanting into the room turning her eyes to translucent green glass.
He too seemed to respond in kind, the daylight smoothening out the hardened edges of his features as he looked at the girl.
They didn't see the shadow collecting like a dark pool of ink in the crevices underneath the door--it was likely they never would.
No one ever did.
It soared over the New York skyline back to its master, the concrete jungle underneath it glittering like cemented diamond.
Quotho stood waiting by the spaceship that was invisible to all eyes but his.
The shadow gave its report in a series of hissing clicks.
"So they grow closer by the day," Quotho surmised to himself, grim but unsurprised. "I must act, and soon."
He turned his head towards the interior of the vessel--where he knew the potion waited, tantalizingly close to completion.
He was bound to inaction till it was fully ready--and it grated on him--
The years of constant searching and toil finally a stone's throw away from fruition.
It had been a question of survival for his entire race--for their supremacy after years of slinking amidst their own shadows--but despite what had been at stake, only Jhago had stepped to join his side in his twenty-year-long quest.
His brother in all but blood.
There was no room for failure--not even the slightest error.
There was simply too much riding on their shoulders--the first faint stirrings of rebellion already beginning to chase at their heels.
The girl had to undergo the ritual so they could obtain what they wanted from her--
And then she had to die.
She was all that stood between them and true greatness--and yet, they needed her.
It infuriated Quotho--that they were so dependent on her, on what she could do--on what lay quietly sleeping in her veins.
The years seemed to curl back on themselves in Quotho's mind, as he revisited how it had all started two decades ago....
The streets ran red with rivulets of blood, the wails of dying men and the keening of the women in mourning hanging heavy in the air like mist.
Quotho surveyed the carnage with a vicious sense of pleasure, stepping through the pile of bodies strewn like refuse across the once-gleaming roads.
They had won.
At long last, they had won.
"Where is the infant?" Jhago asked, cutting a swathe through the blood-clogged streets with his sword. "We left orders not to kill it."
"Where the rest of the accursed family lies dying, no doubt," Quotho replied tersely, kicking aside the battered body of a child. "This war is at an end. We take the infant and go."
Jhago nodded, the two of them hastening their pace as the spires of the domed building loomed closer and closer---as they walked on, the screams of the dying faded away.
There was an expectant sort of silence as they entered the building at last--as if the very air held in a bated breath.
Here too, bodies lay sprawled in various states of dismemberment--the only difference the silk of their clothes as opposed to the rough hemp of those on the streets.
They were all equal before the pitiless gaze of death.
But Quotho wasn't interested in them or their ranks--he wanted the leaders. The heads--or more importantly--the daughter of the leaders.
Their feet left claret-stained prints on the gem-inlaid tiles as they breached the inner sanctum of the building.
Quotho paused as they entered the innermost area--the face of the man lying prone on the floor was as well-known to him as his own, even disfigured as it was with the splicing cuts of a rapier.
"So the mighty Tristan has fallen at last," Jhago said scathingly. "Long may he reign in the forges of hell, as befits his perfidious nature."
But Quotho only had eyes for the woman curled in a limp heap on the floor, the blood seeping so thoroughly into her hair that it was impossible to ascertain its original color.

He bent over her still form, tossing her arms aside to see if she was sheltering the infant they so desperately sought.
He stiffened in anticipation as he pried a soft woolen bundle from the woman's arms--but it was empty. There was nothing, and no-one, in it.
Quotho froze, and then found the eyes of the woman open and blazing green upon him.
He lifted her up by her blood-slick hair, so that she dangled in the air in front of him.
"Where is the child?" He demanded. "I will keep you alive just to hear you scream if you do not tell me, Gordayna. You have no power anymore. Your land is lost to you."
Gordayna laughed--a dry, wracking chuckle--and spit at him.
"She is gone," she said with rattling breaths, chest heaving with the effort. "You will never find her."
Quotho hit her across the face with an open palm--Gordayna fell to the floor with a resounding crack, blood leaking out of her ravaged mouth.
"We are the best hunters to ever live," Quotho snarled. "I will overturn heaven itself if I must to find that baby--and I will."
Despite his words, the vindictive triumph in Gordayna's eyes chilled Quotho to the bone. They were not the eyes of a defeated woman--not even close.
"I have sent her somewhere you will never be able to go," Gordayna rasped. "There is no place in this land where you will find her--magic or no magic."
Dread washed over Quotho as the implication of Gordayna's words settled upon him.
"You have doomed her as certainly as if she were in our hands," Quotho said, aghast. "Her death is as inevitable over there as it would be here with us."
"No," Gordayna shook her head. "She will return. My daughter is the last true living descendant--our greatest, and our only legacy. She will return--and when she does, the mountains will tremble before her wrath. It has been foretold--you think you have won today. Savor it while you can, beast--she will rain fire upon you all."
Gordayna convulsed, blood running in streams from her lips--and spoke no more.
Slowly, Quotho raised his eyes to meet Jhago's shocked gaze.
Quotho opened his eyes, mooring himself to the present.
Against all odds, he'd managed to find the girl.
And he would do anything--whatever it took--to make sure the prophecy never came true.

Chapter Text

When pain is all that they offer

Like a kiss from the lips of a monster

You know the famine so well, but never met the feast,

And home is the belly of the beast.

The ocean is wild and over your head

And the boat beneath you is sinking

Don't need room for your bags

Hope is all that you have

Surely someone will reach out a hand

And show you a safe place to land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Safe Place To Land

"So will you be joining us in the lab today as well, Rogers?" Tony asked mockingly as the two of them stepped into the blessed coolness of the Avengers Tower.
"Maybe," Steve hedged, though he knew perfectly well he would be there.
Tony rolled his eyes--but Steve was much too preoccupied with other thoughts to notice.
They'd both been called to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters--
Upon arriving, Steve had expected them to be given news of potential missions--but it had only been paperwork.
Something didn't sit right with him about the entire affair--the paperwork seemed too trivial a reason for S.H.I.E.L.D. to summon them. It was almost as if--
As if it were an attempt to divert their attention from something else--or someone else.
He opened his mouth to mention it to Tony--and froze in shock as a piercing scream rent the air.
In all the four months he'd known her, Steve had never once heard Cerise sound so utterly terrified.
It filled him with an abject sense of dread.
"What the fu--"
But Steve was already running before Tony could so much as finish his sentence, racing up the stairs four at a time in his desperate bid to get to Cerise.
He was half-aware of Tony chasing at his heels and cursing violently as Cerise's voice carried down towards them--shrill and frantic with panic:
"STOP IT! STOP IT PLEASE, I'M BEGGING YOU!"
Steve crashed through the doors to the rooftop, Tony nearly colliding into him as he came to a stunned standstill.
The tableau before them was as absurd as it was horrifying.
Cerise was struggling vainly against the iron grip of a vaguely familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, eyes wide and tortured--
While Fury stood at the edge of the rooftop, dangling a hissing, spitting Luffy over the flimsy scaffolding of the railing.
"WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU'RE PLAYING AT, FURY?" Tony bellowed, a vein throbbing at his temple.
Steve was beyond words, already running full tilt toward the agent--he would throw the man across the rooftop if it meant keeping Cerise safe.
"Either of you takes one more step and I throw this animal off the roof," Fury said calmly, nearly crushing Luffy in his large, rough-hewn hands as he held her off the side of the railing.
The cat yowled, claws extended--
But it could barely breathe in Fury's grip.
A half-choked sob forced its way out of Cerise's throat--it wrenched at Steve just as much as the mute plea in her eyes did.
Every cell in Steve's body was screaming at him to pull Cerise away from the agent--to break each bone in Fury's body for whatever twisted plan he was executing at that very moment--
But Luffy mattered as much to Cerise as her own life did.
It would destroy Cerise if anything happened to the cat.
It killed him to do it, but Steve stopped in his tracks.
"Stark, don't move," Steve said firmly--he knew Tony wouldn't be able to see past his distaste for the animal--his priority would be to get Cerise away from the operative, no matter the consequences.
But to his surprise, Tony seemed to have no intention of moving.
"Wasn't planning to, Cap," he confirmed, not taking his eyes off of Fury. "What the fuck are you doing, Fury? Who gave you the right to come in here and use force on the kid?"
"It's simple, Stark," Nick's swarthy face was inscrutable. "I want results. All Miss Solange has to do is use her powers to take her little friend from me--and we can put this incident behind us."
"We are never putting this incident behind us," Steve snarled, every word seethed in white-hot rage. "You've gone too far, Nick. Put the cat down and get out of here while you still have a chance."
Nick smirked.
"No, I don't think so. I gave you three months with her, Rogers--and you've nothing to show for it. She's never going to learn like this--she needs a push, and if you won't give it to her, I will. This is out of your hands now, Captain."
"The hell it is," Steve spat, eyes boring into Fury's like the point of a sword. "Last chance, Nick. Stop this."
"No," Fury said quietly. "It's her last chance. This is my final warning to you, Miss Solange--use your powers. Or your feline friend is going to have a very long way to fall."
The naked fear collecting like moisture in Cerise's eyes cut Steve to the quick--he had never felt more helpless than he did at that moment, standing idly by, bound by his very concern for her.
"Please don't do this," Cerise pleaded, voice cracked and trembling. "I'm begging you. I've told you a thousand times that I can't just summon up my power at will--I'm nowhere near there. Please let Luffy go. Please."
"For God's sake Fury, come to your senses!" Tony yelled, eyes burning russet fire. "She's just a child--are you insane?! LET. THE. FUCKING. CAT. GO."
Nick smiled at him pleasantly.
"Let go of the cat? Why, of course."
And he flung Luffy off the side of the railing.
What followed after would be seared into Steve's brain for the rest of his life.
Cerise screamed, the sound so rife with desolation that Steve was sure it would ring in his ears for months to come.
For once in perfect sync, Tony and Steve sprinted towards the end of the rooftop--for that one brief moment, they were united.
They would have willingly gone over the railing to their deaths to save Luffy for Cerise--
Had the ground not begun to shake underneath their feet, deep cracks beginning to splinter through the concrete.
They hit the ground hard, but it was nothing compared to what had befallen the other two--
The agent restraining Cerise was blasted into the air--he slammed against the wall with a sickening snap--and curled motionlessly onto the floor.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Luffy hover back up within his reach--he grabbed her in his arms in a trice.
He could feel the animal's tiny body quivering against his, and a fresh wave of anger overtook him--until he heard Fury's agonized yelling.
The man was pinned against the opposite wall--his entire arm and torso engulfed in billowing flames.
Steve's nose stung with the strong scent of ozone--he could feel rather than hear the distant boom of thunder.
And Cerise stood absolutely still with a single arm outstretched, controlling it all--her eyes as incandescently white as the forks of lightning streaking across the suddenly overcast sky.
"Oh fucking hell," Tony swore, getting to his feet painfully, visibly panicked. "Fuck. This just got a whole lot worse."
But Steve was already walking forward as fast as he was able.
"Steve, stay back--" Tony shouted urgently--
But he wasn't afraid.
He should have been, he knew that--should have, seeing the extent of her powers, at what she had just done--
But he wasn't.
When Steve looked at her all he could see was the girl she'd always been to him--the girl as gentle as an early spring morning--the girl who was always hurting--
The girl whose pain he wanted to wipe away with a single touch of his hand.
"Cerise," he said softly, approaching her slowly--very, very slowly. "Let Nick go, Cerise. He isn't worth it."
"Stay away," Cerise's voice was strangely metallic--deep and unfamiliar. "Stay away--I don't want to hurt you--I don't--"
Steve inched closer to her, ignoring Tony's frantic attempts to call him back.
"You would never hurt me," Steve said gently, eyes intent on hers. "I believe in that completely--I believe in you completely. I'm not scared of you Cerise--I'm not."
Cerise's lower lip trembled.
"He hurt Luffy," she said, voice as plaintive as a child's. "He hurt her."
Steve held Luffy out to Cerise in his arms.
"She's safe, Cerise--she's absolutely safe. Look--you saved her. You did that. It's over--you can let it go. Let Nick go--please."
He was a mere step away from her now--close enough to feel the heat of the steam rising in clouds around her.
Steve stretched his free hand out gradually--and encircled Cerise's narrow wrist, squeezing lightly.
Green bled back into Cerise's irises--
And Fury dropped to the floor with a dull thud, the flames finally flickering out.
The ground steadied under Steve's feet--but before he could catch her, Cerise had already crumpled to the floor.
Steve crouched down next to her in an instant, passing Luffy into her keeping.
She buried her face in his chest, clinging to him as if he were all that stood between her and the rest of the world.
"I'm s-sorry," Steve could feel her body shuddering against his with heavy, wracking sobs. "I'm so s-sorry I--"
"Shhh," Steve stroked her hair tenderly, chest aching with every broken sob she let out. "You're safe now--you're safe. It's okay."
"You're okay, sweetheart," Steve whispered, rubbing soothing circles into the small of her back. "You're okay. I've got you."
"I--I can't get up," Cerise said numbly, the bewildered hurt and confusion in her eyes causing Steve to feel like his heart had been sliced in two. "I-- I can't move."
"She's in shock," Tony pronounced grimly, face tight with tension as he came up behind Steve. "Get her out of here, Cap."
Steve cradled her carefully in his arms, trying not to jostle her in the slightest.
Cerise curled into his hold completely, Luffy nestled securely in the crook of her elbow.
Steve followed Tony's gaze onto the half-slumped form of Nick Fury--and the wrath burned like wildfire in his veins, consuming all else in its path.
Only the warm, solid weight of Cerise in his arms kept him moored to sanity.
"You listen to me like your life depends on it, Nick Fury," Steve's voice was ice-coated steel. "Because it does."
"If you ever so much as look in Cerise's direction ever again, I will rip you limb from limb--I will make you watch as I lay out your body parts in front of you, one by one. You will never enter this place again--you will never talk to her again, or I will tear you apart with my bare hands. And I will enjoy it."
Nick's face paled as he met Steve's blazing eyes.
Steve was aware of Tony gaping at him, but he only had eyes for Cerise.
"You'll take care of this?" Steve looked over his shoulder at Tony.
"Yeah I-"
But Steve had already left without waiting to hear the end of Tony's assent.
Tony watched him descend the stairs with grave eyes before he turned back to Fury, who was unsuccessfully trying to get to his feet.
"Steve isn't a violent man," Tony said quietly. "Far from it. So the fact that he just said what he did to you--that should tell you just how appalling you were today. You tortured an innocent girl half your age over something she couldn't control--for your own selfish gain. I'm not a bit sorry for you--you deserve to have every inch of your skin burned off your body. You've made mortal enemies today, Fury."
Nick spat out a gout of blood.
"I can handle Cerise Solange."
"Maybe so," Tony replied, unfazed. "But you've never had Steve Rogers for an enemy--and you've never had me as one either. If you don't stay away from us--I'm going to cut all my funding from S.H.I.E.L.D. You'll be bankrupt within a week."
Tony's lips curled back into a grimace as he locked eyes with Fury.
"Get out of here, Nick. And don't you fucking dare come near my kid ever again."

~~~
Steve carefully set Cerise down on her bed--hating the way she instantly hunched in on herself, so tightly coiled Steve wondered how she was even able to breathe freely.
He drew back--and Cerise's hand shot out to wrap around his arm.
"P-please don't leave," she stuttered, voice rubbed raw by weeping. "I don't--don't--"
"I wasn't going to," Steve reassured her hurriedly, worried by the chalky-white pallor that had fallen over her features. "I'm here. I'm staying."
He pulled up a chair next to her bed.
Steve wanted to touch her--smooth away the pain that was so acutely palpable on her face, Steve could almost feel it cutting against his own skin.
But Cerise seemed so fragile, he was afraid she might break apart if he laid so much as a finger on her.
"If I'd just been able to learn how to use my powers, none of this would have happened," Cerise said dully, words coming out muffled as her head was buried in Luffy's soft fur, an arm wound protectively around the feline's diminutive frame.
"Luffy wouldn't have been hurt if I'd just known how to use them," she continued, eyes completely devoid of their usual lustre.
"No," Steve said fiercely. "No, don't you dare do this to yourself. I'm not going to sit here and let you think this is your fault---because it isn't. It isn't at all---Nick Fury is a horrible human being who is so used to manipulating people to get what he wants that he's forgotten whether or not it's even right. He doesn't care who he hurts as long as his goddamned results are--"
Steve broke off in alarm as Cerise screwed her eyes shut, wincing in pain.
"What's wrong?" Steve demanded, vaulting off his chair. "Are you hurt?"
"I--I don't know," Cerise breathed heavily. "I feel so strange. It's my back--it's like it's burning."
Steve slid his hand between Cerise's shoulder blades--and bit back a curse at the heat he found radiating against his palm.
"It's definitely hot to the touch," Steve furrowed his brow. "But there's no injury that I can see. I'll get a doctor for you--maybe they'll be able to figure out what's wrong."
As he stood up, Steve forgot to keep his other arm hidden from view.
Cerise cried out in alarm, instantly reaching for him.
"Mr. Rogers, your hand!"
She twined her slender fingers just under the curve of his hand, staring in disbelief at the ugly red burn splitting the skin.
"I did this," she realized, horrified. "I did hurt you--I did, I--"
"No, no Cerise, you didn't," Steve shushed her gently. "I could see the steam coming off of you. I touched you anyway--I knew what I was doing. And I would do it again in a heartbeat--because you are worth the pain. You are--each and every minute of it."
Silver lined Cerise's eyes as she raised her head to look at him--the sheer affection shining on her face robbing Steve of breath.
Slowly, as if time were suspended in honey between them, Cerise pulled Steve's hand towards her--
And softly pressed her lips to the skin of his palm.
Later on, when Cerise would look back on these years--she would remember this moment as the time she had her first inkling--
For one fleeting minute, the shooting pain in Steve's hand subsided.
Color rose high in Steve's cheeks as Cerise let his arm drop.
"Thank you," she said fervently, throat convulsing with the effort of choking out every word. "You have no idea how much I--I--"
"Just thank you. I must have managed to do something good in this life, if I get to have you in it. And I'm so sorry for the trouble I put you and Mr. Stark through--"
"I should be apologizing," Steve rebutted quietly. "You belong here, Cerise--this is your home, and no one should ever make you feel unsafe in it--but Fury did, today. And I wasn't here. I should have been there for you--and I wasn't. And that's on me."
"That's on us," Tony corrected from where he waited by the door, making Cerise jump in surprise. "We should have known better than to think S.H.I.E.L.D. would call us just for paperwork. It was a stupid trap and we fell for it--and you shouldn't have had to pay the price."
He settled on the other side of Cerise's bed, and looked her straight in the eye.
"Bambi, I swear to you, I will make Fury pay for what he's done--he won't get away with this."
"You don't need to do that for me," Cerise shook her head sadly. "It's not worth it."
"Yes, I do," Tony insisted firmly. "You're one of us now, kid--you're not alone anymore. And we take care of our own."
A ghost of a smile passed over Cerise's wan face.
Tony silently offered her his hand--
Cerise took it gratefully, wrapping her other one around Steve's uninjured fingers.
Some of the light returned to her green-glass eyes as they sat in silence--a living link of hope against the dark events of the day.

~~~
Steve nodded at Tony as he left the room, an unspoken understanding passing between the two of them.
Steve turned to look at Cerise--her eyes were closed, but there was nothing peaceful about her still-ashen face.
He got off the chair as quietly as possible.
"Are you leaving?" Cerise's tired eyes slid open.
Steve was startled.
"I thought you were sleeping," he admitted.
"No," Cerise's lips pulled downward. "It's still--I'm still--"
"I know," Steve answered--he didn't need her to finish her sentence to understand.
Cerise bit her lip.
"Will you--will you stay with me till I fall asleep?" She asked nervously, already bracing for a refusal.
Steve was already back in his seat before all the words had left her lips.
"Sure, sweetheart," he said, the endearment coming to him as naturally as breathing. "I'm here. I'll stay as long as you want me to."
"I always want you to," Cerise murmured, completely unconscious of her speech--
And then flushed virulent scarlet as she realized what she had said.
Steve felt his heart constrict in his chest--he rapidly averted his gaze from Cerise's, choosing instead to check on his burned hand.
He'd been so caught up in his worry for Cerise that he'd forgotten all about his wound--hadn't even noticed the pain--
Steve's mouth fell open as he raised his hand in front of his face--
It was smooth, unlined--and completely unmarked.

Chapter Text

Argentum & Aurum

"Are you sure you're up for this, Cerise?" Steve eyed her worriedly.
Though it had been a week since the incident, there was still a raw sense of fragility underlying Cerise's movements--she seemed more withdrawn than ever, on the verge of sinking back into the shadows--but Steve wasn't going to let her.
Not after the effort it had taken to bring her out of it.
"I'm okay, Mr. Rogers," she smiled faintly. "Seven days is enough of a break. I should start training again."
He looked at her doubtfully, but dropped the matter--choosing to hook the punching bag onto the ceiling instead.
"So, we'll just rehash the basics," Steve began--
And found himself interrupted by a wary Natasha.
"Think that's my job," she said, cautiously entering the training room.
There was a tense moment of silence--
And then Cerise shrieked in alarm as Steve shoved the spy against the wood-paneled wall, hand nearly pressing into her throat.
"Did you know?" Steve spat, eyes steeped in indigo fire.
Cerise pulled at his arm frantically.
"Mr. Rogers, let her go please!"
Steve didn't even shift in place.
"Did you know?" He demanded, eyes boring into hers. "Did you know what that bastard was planning? Because I swear to God if you did, Romanov, I'll--"
Despite his hand almost flat against her throat, Natasha's gaze was evenly composed as she stared back at Steve.
"I didn't, Rogers," she replied calmly. "I had no idea. Fury doesn't tell me everything--you know that."
Cerise finally succeeded in dragging Steve away from the spy, though Natasha had the sense he only allowed himself to be moved so as not to hurt her.
"Then where have you been all week?" Steve glared at her, unconvinced.
"Dealing with the aftermath," Natasha shot back. "Tony didn't pull his punches, Rogers. He was serious about cutting all funding--he said as much. The higher-ups were so terrified of losing all that money, they collectively voted Fury out of his post. He's no longer director of S.H.I.E.L.D."
Steve and Cerise reeled back in shock.
"Then who is?" Steve asked in disbelief.
"No one right now," Natasha sighed. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles, Steve. The council is in interim control for the time being--but it can't last forever. Something needs to be done, and soon."
Natasha's eyes shifted to Cerise.
"But that's not important right now," she said, addressing Cerise. "I came here to talk to you."
Cerise blinked.
"I'm sorry, Solange," the spy offered unexpectedly, causing Cerise to stare at her in confusion. "My personal opinion on Fury aside, he shouldn't have done that to you. It was cruel and undeserved--and I'm sorry you had to go through it."
Cerise's throat bobbed as she met Natasha's eyes--but there was a subtle dignity to her gaze in spite of it all.
"Thank you," Cerise said quietly. "I'm glad that you--weren't involved. And if you see Nick Fury again, tell him--"
Natasha narrowed her eyes.
"Yes?"
Cerise tightened her hands into fists.
"Tell him that S.H.I.E.L.D is supposed to be about saving people--about restoring their capacity to control their own lives. It isn't about snatching that control away for your own gain."
Cerise was conscious of Steve watching her intently.
She turned to face Natasha again.
"Tell him his position was lost to him the minute he forgot that."
Cerise felt the color rise to her cheeks under the warm light of Steve's approving gaze.

~~~

Cerise fidgeted nervously near the main door--she knew Steve was about to leave, and she had to give it to him before he went.
She'd been delaying it for weeks.
"Cerise?" Steve shot her a puzzled look as he descended the staircase. "Were you waiting for me?"
She chewed her lip, unsure.
"Um," she began hesitantly. "Yeah. You're going to see Ms. Carter today, aren't you, Mr. Rogers?"
Steve blinked at her.
"Yes," he admitted warily. "I am."
Cerise understood his reticence completely--
Peggy was the only thread that remained--that connected Steve, to his old life.
She was the last living link that existed in and out of Steve's memory--and as such he guarded her fiercely.
"It's just--" the words spilled out of Cerise's mouth so fast he could barely catch them. "You mentioned a while ago that she gets cold very easily and I thought--well--I just thought I should knit these and I--"
She cut herself off abruptly, holding out the soft red material nestled in her hands for Steve to see instead.
"They're hand-warmers," she explained hurriedly at Steve's look of incomprehension. "I don't know if they'll help much but--"
She faltered as Steve stared at her.
"Did you--" Steve cleared past the knot in his throat. "Did you really make this for her?"
Cerise nodded cautiously.
Steve could feel his chest tighten--he hadn't expected this--not at all.
That she had remembered him talking of Peggy--hadn't dismissed it as just another offhand remark--
That she had remembered, and actually listened --
That she had found time to try and ease Peggy's difficulty--someone she barely knew--
It spoke of a delicate shade of kindness Steve had thought long-faded from the murky, ever-changing patina of the current world.
He looked at the careful stitching painstakingly woven into the red fabric--and felt something lodge itself in his throat.
"Thank you," he said fervently, voice dangerously close to breaking. "Thank you, I-- I keep telling them over there that the air conditioning bothers her and she's always cold, and she isn't happy but they never listen, I try and I try but they just don't listen and it kills me every time I have to leave her there but I can't--I can't--"
Steve choked to a stop, the touch of Cerise's hand against his suddenly all he could feel.
Her green eyes were filled with concern as she looked at him.
"It's okay, Mr. Rogers," she reassured him softly. "I understand. Why don't you take the warmers for now, and when you come back we can maybe discuss what can be done for Ms. Carter?"
Cerise turned to leave--
And Steve made a split-second decision.
"Come with me?" He asked, the question escaping almost involuntarily from his lips. "To see Peggy, I mean."
Cerise whirled around in shock--but her eyes were bright as she met Steve's gaze.
"You mean that?" She looked at him in pleased disbelief. "You really want me there?"
Steve smiled at her gently.
"Yes, sweetheart. I want you there."

~~~

"Today is one of her good days," the attendant informed Steve as they walked down the hallway. "She was asking about you today Mr. Rogers--she remembers you."
Cerise's eyes widened as she understood the underlying meaning of what had just been said--but she kept her face even for Steve's sake.
Steve nodded in thanks before opening the yellow-painted door.
"Hey Peggy," he greeted her quietly, a contented smile on his face. "Bet you're tired of seeing my face so many times in a row huh, huh? So I decided to bring a friend with me today."
Cerise peered shyly around Steve's shoulder at the slight frame of the woman on the bed.
Though her body had been ravaged by the passage of time--there was a certain toughness that stubbornly lingered in the withered planes of her face--a weathered sort of dignity--
Wrinkles that spoke of a life well-lived--in service and in strength.
"Hello, Ms. Carter," Cerise said slowly. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Just Peggy, child," she smiled at Cerise, iron-gray hair tumbling in curls around her shoulders. "You must be Cerise--it's lovely to finally see you in person. Steve's talked so much about you."
Cerise blinked rapidly, eyes flitting to Steve with surprise.
"He has?"
Steve averted his gaze--suddenly fascinated by the view outside the window.
Peggy's lips twitched in amusement.
"Oh yes, he has," she confirmed, beckoning Cerise forward. "But never mind Steve. Tell me more about yourself, child."
Steve let the quiet hum of their conversation wash over him as he lost himself in the labyrinthine tunnels of his own thoughts--they had become increasingly convoluted of late when it came to the two women in his life--
He had to be honest.
They were the only two that mattered.
When Steve looked at Peggy, he didn't see the aged face or the weariness in her limbs--he remembered and thought of her as how she had been before he went under the ice--the blinding beauty and charm of her full, crimson-coated lips and dancing eyes--the bright, glittering gold of the thousands of suns that made up her personality--warm and glowing and deceptively simple.
When he looked at Cerise, he was struck by the sensitive prettiness of her delicate mouth, and dreaming, distant gaze--she had the same luminescence of shimmering silver on a crescent night--just as subtle and soft and complexly shifting.
Peggy had been brash and brave and beloved by all--the bold, beautiful plumage of a peacock's tail, if a human could ever be such.
Cerise had the elusive allure of a dew-dripped canvas of midnight grass--the lingering notes of a nightingale's song on a starry night, if ever such a thing could be made flesh and blood.
Peggy had moved through her life with the force of a howling winter wind--strident and straining--while Cerise's tread had been as light as ether, akin to that of a sighing summer breeze--wistful and waning.
If Peggy had walked with the confidence of a woman who thought she owned the world--Cerise stepped with the curiosity of a woman who wanted to understand it.
But for all that shared yet dissimilar loveliness---for all that it was Peggy he had come to see--
Steve's eyes were constantly drawn back to Cerise--to the perfect Cupid's bow of her lips, the slim column of her throat--the wave of her hands like the flight of white-winged butterflies.
It raised to life a burgeoning sense of turmoil within Steve as he looked at Peggy--a half-shamed, guilty sense of longing when his eyes invariably turned back to Cerise.
There was discord growing within Steve--a smothered sense of disquiet which he was only to happy to dispel from the forefront of his thoughts when Peggy asked him to bring her a glass of water.
Peggy turned her face towards Cerise.
"Now that he's gone," she said, eyes solemn upon the younger's face. "I have something I need to ask of you--and it cannot wait. I seem to live in a haze these days--some half-kept sort of slumber in which reality seems a dream and dreams themselves feel real. This is one moment of clarity in a dozen of dazed ones--so I must ask."
"Steve is strong," Peggy said quietly. "But his heart is as easily bruised as his beliefs--he has so much faith in people's inherent goodness--and it is being chipped away piece by piece by the world he's found himself in. Someone needs to uphold that conviction in him--he needs it to survive. And my role in that is over--my life is coming to an end, whether Steve acknowledges it or not."
Peggy offered her wizened hand to an utterly stunned Cerise.
"It's yours now," she told Cerise. "I used to worry about him being alone--but I can see now that he isn't. Promise me you'll take care of him, child."
Cerise's mouth popped open.
"You don't even know me," she whispered. "How can you trust me with something like this?"
Peggy's lips flicked upward.
"I know the way you look at Steve--it's the same way I used to look."
She lifted her head to meet Cerise's eyes.
"So will you grant me my wish?"
Cerise swallowed--but if she were to be honest with herself, she'd known her answer anyway.
"I promise," she murmured. "I'll do everything I can."

Chapter Text

The Dearly Departed

"Mr. Rogers, where are we going ?" Cerise huffed out, struggling to match his long strides.
"The point isn't to go anywhere specific," Steve corrected her. "The point is that you need to get out of the compound--look at yourself. You're wasting away."
He meant it.
In the weeks following the incident with Fury, the color had seemed to drain away from Cerise's features--a chalky white undercast to the normally warm honey tone of her skin. Deep hollows ringed her eyes--and she was rarely out of Tony's lab, burying herself with feverish intensity into the work.
She kept Luffy with her at all times--as if Cerise were afraid the cat would be snatched away from her the minute she let the animal out of her sight.
It pained Steve to see the latent fear lingering in the back of her green-glossed eyes--it worried him.
More than he'd like to admit.
He genuinely wanted to talk to her--to push her to admit she was hurting, so he could help in some tangible, palpable way--
But there was a strange sense of discord within him that held him back--it was as if Steve felt if he asked her, he would be forced to acknowledge how much her evident unhappiness perturbed him--
And it perturbed him greatly.
Steve had no choice but to tackle it in a roundabout manner--it was all he could stand to do without facing the emotions that had begun seeping into his system since the day he'd brought Cerise to see Peggy.
So when Cerise had reluctantly agreed to his suggestion (though it was more of a demand on his part, really) of spending the day outside, with the sole proviso that she could bring Luffy along--Steve had brooked no argument, simply tucking Luffy under his arm and proceeding on his way.
The cat didn't seem to mind at all--instead choosing to curl her tail around Steve's arm with perfect equanimity.
They found themselves traversing a cobble-stoned back alley--Steve was too preoccupied to properly notice his surroundings--until Cerise caught at his arm excitedly.
"Mr. Rogers look, that's your photo over there in the window!"
Steve glanced upwards--and found his own face staring back at him from the lace-curtained French window of the shop they'd found themselves facing.
"Oh." He blinked, nonplussed.
"We have to go in!" Cerise insisted animatedly, leading Steve by the hand into the ramshackle little shop.
There was no owner in sight--Steve barely managed to navigate his way through the cluttered expanse of the store.
It was as if he'd entered into a riotous explosion of color--a crazy quilt of many-hued objects strewn in no particular order across the area.
Cerise was peering at a battered brown photo album--
Steve started as she let out a surprised sounding exclamation.
"Mr. Rogers, there are pictures of you in here as well!"
Steve leaned over her shoulder, absentmindedly breathing in the water-lily scent of her hair as he did so.
The album was an amalgamation of his brief years spent in the war effort--shots of him and Peggy in their uniformed regalia--a discolored vignette of him before the effects of the super serum--
And him.
The half-healed scabs of Steve's wounded heart ripped themselves open all over again as he looked at the roguishly curled hair--at the impish twinkle in his brown eyes.
"Who's this, Mr. Rogers?" Cerise asked softly.
Steve closed his eyes--unable to see the slash of his friend's grin--the sight of it cutting across him like a knife.
"Bucky," Steve sighed. "That's Bucky--my best friend."
" Was my best friend," he corrected himself bitterly.
Cerise waited wordlessly--she knew Steve would talk if he felt like it.
"He died while we were on a mission," Steve admitted slowly. "He died--to save me. And I--"
"It's like--it's like living with half my limbs cut off--"
"The world seems to have lost its balance without him in it-- I just--"
"I just miss him," Steve finished simply. "It never stops."
His fingers twitched with the need to grip hers as Cerise slipped her hand around his.
"He's still with you," Cerise said quietly, squeezing Steve's hand gently. "The people that we lose, they have a way of living on in spite of it all. He's in you, Mr. Rogers--in all the kindness that you show people--in the good that you do without asking a thing in return. You reaffirm his memory by your actions every day, Mr. Rogers--you'll keep him alive forever where it matters most--"
Cerise smile was as sweet and pure as childhood--the stark loveliness of it snatching Steve's breath away from him.
"In your heart."

~~~

"Is it done, then?" Jhago asked.
"It is done," Quotho pronounced with finality. "We need no longer wait."
"How do we proceed, my liege?" Jhago placed the weight of his searching gaze on Quotho's own. "We cannot storm their living quarters."
"We won't have to," Quotho responded calmly. "We will use the Asgardian. His search for his brother will bring him to earth very soon--and he will seek the Avengers' help--I am sure of it." "We can use that to our advantage--you know exactly how."
"We will bring them to us," Quotho's eyes were as hard as flint as he examined the contents of the cauldron. "The girl and the soldier--they will need to be taken separately. Our thralls will handle the rest of them."
Jhago placed a hand on Quotho's shoulder.
"So it has begun?"
Quotho turned his eyes to the sprawling city laid out before them--like the rippling musculature of a monster emerging from a long-kept slumber.
"Yes, brother. It has begun."

~~~

Steve glared at the chinks of light peeking through the half-shut door of Tony's lab.
The wraiths of his past had drifted aimlessly through his dreams that night--rousing Steve from a fitful sleep in the wee hours of the morning.
He'd had a sneaking suspicion that had led him down to the basement--and it had just been confirmed.
Cerise jumped in fright as Steve flung the door open.
"Mr. Rog--?"
"It's three in the morning," Steve glowered at them both. "You should be sleeping, Cerise. This isn't healthy."
"What's the matter, old man?" Tony lowered his visor, eyeing Steve snidely. "Pissed that other people can stay up past your bedtime?"
Steve couldn't hold it in any longer.
"For once in your life, be serious, Tony!" He yelled.
" Look at her--"
"She's dead on her feet--she's exhausted and clearly hurting--and just because you're used to burying your demons under your work, it doesn't make it okay for her to do the same!"
Tony gaped at Steve, speechless for once.
"I'm fine," Cerise said into the tense silence, though the indignity of her tone was rather marred by the half-closed slits of her eyes--bleary and unfocused as they were.
"Mr. Rogers there's nothing wro-" she cut off with a pained groan as she tripped up against a table, swaying and unsteady on her feet.
There was a half-sharp, half-guilty cast to Tony's eyes as he looked at Cerise.
Steve breathed heavily through his nose.
"Cerise. Go. To. Bed."
"No," Cerise refused mulishly. "I said I'm fine, Mr. Rogers!"
"You are not!" Steve shot back, narrowly resisting the urge to raise his voice. "You can barely even stand!"
"You'd have to carry me out of here before I leave this room, Mr. Rogers!" Cerise dug in her heels, uncharacteristically obstinate.
"Fine," Steve said shortly. "Have it your way--"
And unceremoniously lifted Cerise over his shoulder.
Tony slowly started to chuckle.
"Wrong move, kid."
She shrieked in alarm, drumming her hands against Steve's back in vain.
"Mr. Rogers what are you--put me down!"
"We're not done talking about this," Steve told Tony tersely, utterly ignoring Cerise's protests as he walked out of the lab.
"Sure, Cap," Tony hid his smile. "You enjoy your night--doing whatever it is that you're doing right now."
Steve growled incoherently, marching his way back to their apartment.
"Mr. Rogers, this is ridiculous," Cerise muttered sulkily, evidently resigned to her situation as they reached her door.
"So are you," Steve said irritably, still making sure to set Cerise down onto the floor of her room as carefully as possible. "Just go to sleep, will you? You'll have time enough to work with Tony tomorrow."
He turned to leave--but came to a stop when he felt Cerise's warm hand wrap around his.
"I didn't mean to worry you," she said in a small voice. "I'm sorry. It's just---when I don't have anything to do these days--I start to think about everything that's happened--I think things that I shouldn't--and I don't want to. I don't want to feel like this, Mr. Rogers."
"So talk to me," Steve pleaded, sitting down in front of her. "You aren't alone any more Cerise--so don't act like it."
"I really wasn't trying to make you worry," Cerise said ruefully. "I just--I just don't really know what to do right now."
"I know, sweetheart," Steve reached out to run his fingers through her hair--secretly pleased at the crimson flush that instantly stained her cheeks at the action. "It's okay. Just promise me you won't shut me out."
Cerise's eyes were large and vulnerable in the dim lamplight of the room as she met Steve's earnest gaze.
"I promise," she whispered.

Chapter Text

Lightning Before The Thunder

Cerise hummed to herself softly as she hung her clothes out to dry on the rooftop--it was the first time she'd entered the area since the incident.
It hadn't gotten any easier for her in the full sense of the word--except for the fact that she had Steve.
Somewhere in the half-hidden crevices of her mind, Cerise had always known that she could rely on the soothing balm of the soldier's presence--
But he'd made her promise not to close herself off from him--and it meant something to her.
Meant the world, in fact.
Retreating into the dark confines of her own mind, that was all Cerise'd ever known how to do, but Steve--
Steve made her want to drop her defenses--open herself up to the possibility that she truly wasn't alone anymore--that he would be there to set her back on her feet, no matter how many times she lost her balance.
The sensation was as strange as it was sacred to Cerise--it settled deep into the hollow spaces in her heart, filling them up with honey-tinged warmth instead.
Cerise fell to the floor in alarm as an iridescent pillar of light descended its way down to the rooftop, seemingly originating from the distant blue borders of the sky itself.
She shaded her eyes from the blinding luminosity of the pillar--faintly discerning the shadow of a man stepping out from its glare.
Cerise gaped in shock at the apparition that appeared before her--the ringed steel of the man's vest glittering in the sunlight, almost the same shade of yellow as his ropes of rough blond hair.
He pointed the front of his gunmetal gray hammer at her.
"Who are you?" The man demanded in a gravel-grazed voice, staring at her out of intensely electric blue eyes.
"I'm--I'm me," Cerise said dumbly, dazed by the spectacle of the man before her. "I mean I'm--"
"Greetings," the mail-clad man said gravely. "I am Thor of Asgard."
Cerise blinked, utterly flummoxed.
"Uh, hi," she replied, scrambling to replicate the solemnity of his tone. "I'm Cerise. Of New York."
Thor raised a dark eyebrow.
"Are you mocking me, good lady?"
Cerise's mouth popped open.
"What?! No! I was just--I mean I was trying to--"
Cerise's spluttering subsided when Tony raced out onto the roof.
"Thor?" Tony gazed at the Asgardian in disbelief. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

~~~

Steve glowered darkly at the two of them.
Cerise was practically buzzing with excitement, orbiting with great animation around Thor.
He couldn't quite put a finger on the reason--but it irked him to see Cerise direct her wide-eyed gaze onto the Asgardian, with an almost worshipful kind of fascination.
"I don't think I've ever seen you scowl like that before," Natasha walked up to him, wry amusement gleaming in her green eyes. "Jealous isn't a good look on you, Rogers."
Steve turned his glare onto Natasha.
"I'm not jealous," he said, affronted. "I simply don't see why she's so impressed with him."
Natasha rolled her eyes.
"Oh, come off it, Steve. He's practically a myth come to life--for all intents and purposes, he's a god. And you have to admit, Thor's pretty easy on the eyes."
Steve's scowl deepened as he watched Thor throw his head back in laughter at something Cerise had said---very clearly gratified by her attention.
"Can you really control thunder?" Cerise asked, her rosebud mouth forming a perfect 'o' of surprise at Thor's nod of affirmation.
"Stark tells me you have a little power in that regard as well," Thor remarked. "Would you do me the honor of a demonstration?"
"Oh," Cerise's cheeks pinked. "I suppose I could try, I--"
She crinkled her nose in concentration, which in any other circumstance Steve would have found utterly endearing--
Had the recipient of that expression been him, and not Thor.
To everyone's surprise, lightning flashed across the sky in great white stripes--the distant boom of thunder reverberating around the room.
Thor looked taken aback--as if he hadn't actually expected Cerise to be able to do it.
"A lady after my own heart," he recovered himself rapidly, however. "Most impressive."
Steve's eyebrow twitched in irritation as Cerise smiled up at Thor.
It was maddening watching her openly admire the Asgardian warrior--
He wanted to pull her away from Thor, catch her by the hand and--
"Will you stop it?" Natasha hissed, breaking off Steve's train of thought. "You'll burn a hole in Thor's back at this rate, the way you're glaring at him. Look, even Tony's noticed."
Steve turned his head, and sure enough--Tony was watching him with slyly knowing eyes.
"Tony always notices," he muttered resentfully.
"Yes, because you have the subtlety of an elephant, Steve," Natasha responded, evidently exasperated. "Just relax, will you grandpa? Let Cerise be--she's young and it's a perfectly natural reaction to have. It doesn't mean she's going to run away with him-- so chill out."
Steve frowned at the spy.
"I just think Thor should spend less time plying Cerise with compliments, and focus on finding the brother he let slip from his clutches again ," Steve said stiffly.
"It's what he came here to do isn't it-- didn't think that included bantering with girls half his age," Steve added waspishly, leaving the room in high dudgeon.
If it had been anyone else, one might have said he banged the door on his way out.
"When do you think he's going to realize?" Tony asked dryly, coming up behind Natasha.
"Not anytime soon," she rolled her eyes. "God, what a dumbass."

~~~

Steve's ears alerted him to the sound of the front door opening.
Cerise had volunteered to 'show Thor around New York', as he'd been too busy fending off the Chitauri the last time he'd visited to notice much.
Tony had elected to join them, irreverently winking at Steve before he went--as if he knew why Steve had chosen not to leave with them.
Steve's lips pulled downwards into a grimace--
He didn't think he could tolerate watching Cerise grow increasingly captivated with Thor.
So he'd chosen to stay home--but it hadn't helped improve his mood in the slightest.
"Mr. Rogers!" Came a singsong voice, wafting in from the living room of their shared apartment.
Steve turned around at the sound--
And stared in disbelief at the sight before him.
Cerise smiled up at him, an arm slung sloppily over Tony's shoulder--she seemed to be teetering in place, unable to support her own weight.
"Mr. Rogers, did you know that pigeons are really mean?" She asked in complete earnest--though Steve could scarcely understand her slurred words.
She peered up at him with unfocused eyes and flushed red cheeks.
"I tried to feed one and it flew away from me! It was a bad pigeon--we should outlaw them all!"
"Is she drunk?!" Steve demanded furiously of Tony, pointedly ignoring Thor's presence.
"No..." Tony hedged, and then cringed as Cerise tripped over her own feet.
"Well, yeah, " he admitted, rubbing the back of his head ruefully. "Thor said he had Asgardian wine on him--and I wanted to try it--so did she. I didn't know she was gonna be such a lightweight though."
" You gave her Asgardian wine?! " Steve fumed, automatically catching Cerise as she nearly fell for the third time in the past few minutes. "Tony, it's the middle of the day!"
"It's happy hour somewhere, old man," Tony gave a non-committal shrug. "God, you're such a stick in the mud. Lighten up, will you? She'll sleep it off."
Steve snarled wordlessly, eyes so caustic it was a wonder Tony and Thor didn't instantly catch on fire.
"Are you mad?" Cerise wobbled her way to Steve. "You sound mad."
"Please don't be mad at me, Mr. Rogers," she pleaded, lower lip jutting out just a little--
And Steve kicked himself for how it instantly thawed out his anger.
"You're my favorite, Mr. Rogers," Cerise said woozily, almost unaware of what she was saying. "I like you best, you know? So don't be mad at me, please?"
She peeked up at him imploringly from under the silken fringes of her long lashes--
And stretched up on her toes, suddenly cupping his face between her small hands.
Steve froze, color flaming in his cheeks--
He was acutely aware of the sensation of her soft fingers on his skin--
Though he was spared from making a response as Cerise landed clumsily onto the couch, curling into an undignified heap.
"Well that's just blatant favoritism," Tony huffed from his place opposite Steve. "But are you happy now, you possessive prat?"
"I wasn't--I didn't--"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Tony cut off Steve's incoherent rambling. "We're leaving. Just get her to bed."
Steve barely noticed the two men leaving the room--arrested by the wild-rose hue stealing into Cerise's sleeping face.
He was forced to admit that her words had soothed the irritation that'd been pricking him all day.
Steve slowly smiled to himself--despite her disorientation, he knew Cerise had meant what she'd said.
When he would look back on that day in later years, Steve would wish he'd treasured that moment more--
It was the last happy one they would have, for a long, long, while.

~~~

Jhago seemed to melt into the murky darkness of the night--
Stealthily stalking forward until he reached the bulky silhouette of their vessel.
Quotho didn't bother with a greeting as Jhago walked in, merely asking:
"Are the thralls ready?"
"Yes," Jhago confirmed. "They are prepared to move at your command."
Restless waves of energy were rolling off of Jhago--Quotho could sense it.
"Whatever it is that you want to know, ask," he said calmly.
"Why are we separating the soldier from the rest?" Jhago instantly questioned. "Where is the need for that?"
"Because he cares most for the girl," Quotho replied. "That makes him dangerous--he will fight harder than any of them to protect her. If they are captured together, and we threaten the girl--he will not risk her getting hurt in any way. It is his handicap--and we will use it."
"We are operating on the belief that she will not use her powers," Jhago pointed out. "What if she does? This could very easily go awry, brother."
"She has no idea how to harness them," Quotho assured him. "The incident with the S.H.I.E.L.D director has terrified her--she is blocking her powers from developing."
Jhago nodded.
"So when do we begin?"
"At first light," Quotho turned to face the sweeping landscape before them. "We have waited long enough."
"It is time."

Chapter Text

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be-- and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.

Can't Do Without You

"So where do you think Loki is?" Tony asked Thor, who was eying his lab with an air of befuddled fascination.
"Somewhere on earth," Thor supplied cheerfully.
"Sure, great, that's very helpful," Tony grumbled in an acidic tone. "Really narrows down the parameters."
"Why do you think he's on earth anyway?" Natasha questioned, more patient than Tony. "He could be anywhere. You said there were many realms in space, right?"
"I did," Thor agreed. "But my brother has always been attracted to this land. The corruption--the avarice--the baseness of human emotion--it pulls at him. He will not be able to resist returning."
"Charming," Tony said scathingly. "Totally looking forward to meeting him again--hopefully without an alien army in tow, this time."
Steve offered no opinion of his own--he was too busy watching Cerise, slumped on the couch and subdued by a raging headache.
It was nothing less than she deserved after her rash choice to drink past her limit the previous day--but Steve was still concerned.
He spent half his time worrying about her these days, if he were to be really honest with himself.
"Let's tackle New York first," Steve spoke up at last, finally removing his gaze from Cerise. "Natasha and I will do a sweep of all the boroughs. Tony, maybe you could use your tech to check for any kind of suspicious activity here."
"Thor," Steve regarded him with thinly-veiled distaste. "I suppose you could check the city for alien activity. I assume you know the signs--since you have more experience with that than all of us."
"What about me?" Cerise gingerly raised her head, eyes squinting against the strong sunlight. "You haven't given me anything to do."
"You can do something when I see you're able to walk in a straight line again," Steve said shortly, though he couldn't resist reaching down to ruffle her hair, nullifying the bite of his words.
Cerise's mouth popped open in protest--
But Steve had already left.

~~~

Cerise peeked at Steve as he walked out of his room in full gear.
The stealth suit clung to him like a second skin--outlining every ridged muscle.
Though there wasn't even an inch of exposed skin, it still made Cerise blush.
She hurriedly flicked her eyes away from his body--
And noticed the straps of his chin guard hanging loose.
"Wait a second," Cerise lifted herself up on her toes, carefully tying the flaps around his sharp jaw. "There you go."
Her fingers lingered against his skin a second too long--
And Steve realized her face was an inch away from his, their bodies almost brushing up against each other.
He hastily stepped back, ignoring the flare of an unidentifiable emotion rising up within him at her touch.
"I'll see you," Steve said awkwardly, backing away.
"Wait!" Cerise caught at his hand. "Let me come with you. Please."
Steve opened his mouth, instantly ready to refuse--
But Cerise insistently squeezed his hand.
"Please, Mr. Rogers. Miss Romanov said she couldn't make it today because she had work with S.H.I.E.L.D--and it's just a recon mission. We're not in any danger--if there's even the slightest trouble, I'll go back to the Quinjet, I promise. Just--"
She broke off to stare at Steve with entreating eyes.
"I just don't want you to go alone," Cerise admitted quietly.
There was a painful pulse emanating from the center of Steve's chest as he heard Cerise's words--when was the last time someone had cared for him that much?
He couldn't refuse--coudn't deny the mute plea in her glittering green eyes.
"Okay," Steve sighed, hiding how much her little speech had affected him. "But you have to do exactly as I say."
"Yes, sure," Cerise nodded emphatically. "Whatever you want."
Steve turned away from her at the buzzing of his phone--it wasn't from a number he recognized.
He picked up the call warily.
"Hello?"
"Steve," Thor's voice came through strangely tinny, but it was unmistakably his. "I believe I've found valuable information on Loki. Meet me in Brooklyn."
"Fine," Steve agreed easily. "We'll be there."
He motioned to Cerise impatiently as he typed out a hasty message to Tony about his new plan.
"Suit up. We're leaving in five."

~~~

Steve looked around in confusion as he and Cerise dismounted from the Quinjet.
"Thor?" He called out, puzzled. "Where are you?"
Cerise glanced uneasily at her surroundings--there was a peculiar sense of foreboding curling into her veins.
Something seemed off.
And then Cerise froze.
It had been a blindingly sunlit day--but the sky had suddenly turned overcast--
And there were tendrils of thick, white mist roping around Cerise's ankles.
"Mr. Rogers!" She called out urgently. "Something's wrong, I--"
Steve whirled around, shield at the ready--
But it was too late.
A cloaked arm had seized Cerise, emerging out of the rapidly growing fog--
And pressed a dagger to her throat.
Steve's blood turned to ice at the sight of Cerise choking.
"Follow me, soldier," said the hooded figure, the gray of his cloak melding perfectly with the mist. "Do it, or the girl dies."

~~~

Tony clicked his tongue, busily sorting through the new shipment of robot parts that had just been delivered to him.
"What are you doing, Stark?" Thor ambled into the lab, looking at Tony enquiringly.
"Oh, just going through this new batch of equipment I--"
Tony cut off his absentminded response, turning startled eyes towards the Asgardian.
"Thor?" Tony furrowed his brow. "Aren't you supposed to be with Cap? He told me you called him--said you had a lead on Loki."
Thor turned absolutely still.
"I did no such thing," he said slowly. "I have no knowledge of my brother's whereabouts as of now."
Dread filled Tony's face.
"Fuck," he swore violently, already racing out of the room. "Fuck. This is bad."

~~~

Cerise's vision swam before her eyes.
She could scarcely make out anything beyond the roof of the high-rise building they were trapped in.
The thick charcoal smog obscured everything in her view--
Except for Steve.
They'd tied her hands and feet together so tightly Cerise could barely move.
Cerise knew if she so much as moved a muscle, she would topple over.
Steve had suffered the same fate.
There was a deep, personal cruelty to the manner in which he'd been placed in front of her, inches away from reach--
With no way for Cerise to touch him--
To hold on to the slightest comfort of his skin against hers.
They were the actions of someone who knew her--knew what Steve meant to her.
It chilled Cerise down to the bone.
Steve had tried--tried to break free and pull her away from their clutches on their way up to the roof--
But the phalanx of gray-cloaked figures had converged around Cerise--and dug their knife even deeper into the fragile skin of her throat.
Steve had watched the blood trickle down her neck--
And turned as still as stone.
"You will not walk out of this alive, soldier," one of the men--or women, Cerise had no way of knowing what lay beneath the fabric of their cloaks-- had rasped. "But you can save the girl-- if you do exactly as we say."
All through the agonizing trip to the top of the building, Cerise had pushed to let out her magic in some way--in any way--pushed until her head was screaming.
But not even a wisp of power rose to the surface.
The guilt burned Cerise just as much as her bound body did--
He was in those ropes for her.
Steve could have easily broken out of them--but he stayed within their confines.
Because of her.
Cerise turned anguished eyes on Steve.
"Mr. Rogers, I'm scared," she whispered, and she was--
But it was for him.
Not for herself.
"I know," Steve's stricken gaze still tried to reassure her, in spite of it all--it sliced Cerise's heart clean in half. "It's okay--we'll be okay. I'll think of something."
There was a looming sense of finality surging to the forefront of her veins--she had to get the words out.
Before it was too late.
"I don't think I ever told you, Mr. Rogers," Cerise managed a tremulous smile. "But I used to dress up as Captain America when I was young-- I’d hunt for these old rags—collect all the red and blue ones, and cobble together some sort of outfit to match yours. You were my hero, Mr. Rogers. There’s a saying that you should never touch your idols because the gilding will stick to your fingers —but you were exactly how I thought you would be—you were everything I imagined you to be."
The tenderness shining in Cerise's face turned her eyes as soft as heather--
It smote Steve somewhere far, far within the innermost recesses of his chest.
"You were the only one who never treated me like a child," she continued, voice reed-thin but determined. "You saw me as someone equal to you—you never once called me kid, did you know that? You were the only one who believed in me Mr. Rogers—in my ability to make a difference in the world—to have something to offer it. You made me feel like I finally belonged somewhere. You were kind, and brave, and you were never afraid of doing the right thing—so I want to thank you."
A terrible, nameless fear rose in Steve with every word that fell from Cerise's lips.
"This isn't goodbye," Steve said fiercely, panic cresting within him in rolling waves. "We're gonna get out of this, sweetheart, why are you--"
"It’s my time to do the right thing now," Cerise, for the first time, cut across him. "You’ve always done your best to protect me-- and I'll never not be grateful for it. But now it’s my turn to protect you--I refuse to let you die for me."
Steve was speechless, throat closed in the vice-like grip of horror.
"See, my being gone--it doesn't matter as much to me," Cerise shook her head, wistfulness curling the corners of her lips. "But the thought of a world without you in it--even if I'm not there to see you--it's unimaginable."
"I can't fight," she said solemnly. "You don't know how much I wish I could. But I can give you a fighting chance--and if I have to lose, I'm going to do it on my own terms."
The look Cerise gave him then--Steve would remember it all his life.
It was as if she were trying to burn the memory of his face into the backs of her eyelids--as if it were the very last chance she had to see it.
She desperately stretched forward, straining painfully against the rough binding of her ropes--
And traced her lips across the contours of Steve's cheek.
With the barest brush of her mouth against Steve's skin--Cerise knew.
She simply just knew.
By all logic, it should have made what she was about to do even harder--
But it only served to cement her resolve.
There was no other way.
"Steve," she said softly--and he froze, the sound of his name on her lips more sacred than any religion in the world.
"These past five months with you, they've been a gift--"
As she spoke, he could see the silver sheen in her irises--eyes glimmering like frost-coated grass with unshed tears.
The hooded figures; who had previously paid no attention to Cerise's words after placing her against the ledge of the railing, had no time to react.
"Make this count," Cerise told Steve, smiling gently--
And threw herself off the edge of the building.

Chapter Text

I'm going under and this time I fear there's no one to turn to

This all or nothing way of loving got me sleeping without you

For now the day bleeds

Into nightfall

And you're not here

To get me through it all

I let my guard down

And then you pulled the rug

I was getting kinda used to being someone you loved.

Be With You Never

"NO!" Steve yelled, tearing out of his ropes in a split second--but it was too late.
Cerise's falling body had already disappeared into the swirling fog.
There was a dull roaring in Steve's ears--in an instant he was transported to the snow-capped mountains in his days through the war--
Watching his best friend give his life for him.
Except now he was helplessly watching two bodies hurtle down the yawning chasm.
Everything that followed after was a haze to Steve--
He only remembered the whirling of his fists and legs, the fine red spray of blood misting against his face as he broke apart every bone in the bodies of those who had led Cerise to her--to her--
Even in the confines of his own mind, Steve couldn't shape his thoughts around the word 'death.'
It took him less than ten minutes to subdue the group.
Steve could no longer tell whether the blood coating his knuckles was his own or if it belonged to the unidentified cloaked figures now prostrate upon the ground.
But he kept punching, and punching--there was molten hatred in his veins for what they had done--for what they had forced Cerise to do--
He wanted to reduce them to a pulp of blood and beaten muscle.
He vaguely registered a voice calling to him--it echoed in his ears as if from a great distance.
"Steve! STEVE!"
Natasha ran across the rooftop, struggling to pull him away from the battered corpses.
"Rogers, they're dead," she dragged him away with effort. "They're dead, you can stop. Stop it."
Her face paled as she regarded the gray, cracked skin on their faces--the stark, slit-pupilled eyes.
"Jesus fuck, I don't think they're human."
Steve ignored her words--now that he had nothing left to fight, the enormity of the situation hit him like a bullet in the chest.
There was raw agony blistering through his body.
Cerise had--she had--
Natasha straightened up, glancing around as if noticing the girl's absence for the first time.
"Steve," there was real fear darkening the spy's eyes as she addressed him. "Steve, where's Cerise?"
He couldn't breathe--Steve's throat had closed in on itself.
"She--" he gasped for air, ice crystallizing in his veins. "She's--"
"She's right here," Tony flew up to the rooftop, Cerise held securely in his arms. "I found her floating six inches off the ground--she's just unconscious, as far as I can tell."
He carefully set Cerise down onto the concrete tiles of the rooftop.
The breath whooshed back into Steve's lungs--sheer relief causing his knees to buckle under him.
He sunk to the floor--and buried his head in the folds of Cerise's shirt, desperately needing to hear the resolute beat of her heart.
She was breathing.
She was alive.
Steve barely felt Tony placing a wary hand on his shuddering frame---eyes pricking with painful tears that refused to let themselves fall.
"We're lucky this smog hid everything," Tony slid the visor of his metal suit down. "Reporters would have had a field day seeing the kid levitate herself. How'd she fall, anyway?"
"She didn't," Steve replied grimly, fury now beginning to seep in with the still-lingering dread coursing through his bloodstream. "She jumped."
Steve didn't pause to hear Tony's startled curse, getting to his feet immediately once he saw Cerise's eyes flutter open.
"I--what," she blinked dazedly, instantly searching for Steve. "I don't understand--how am I--"
"Yes, you're alive," Steve responded tightly, averting his gaze from her. "No thanks to anything you did, by the way."
"Take her back to the compound, Tony," he said flatly. "She's never going on another mission again."
Cerise's mouth fell open in shock.
"No! Mr. Rogers, I--"
But Steve had already walked away from her.
"Come on, Bambi," Tony lifted her up in his arms, voice uncharacteristically gentle. "Don't push him for now--you've shaken him up pretty badly."
"Let's go home, kid."

~~~

Steve dug the heels of his palms into his eyes--the stinging of the trapped tears in his irises had yet to abate.
He'd delayed returning to the Avengers Tower as much as he possibly could--but Cerise had still been waiting for him the minute he'd entered their apartment, stretching out an entreating hand towards him.
It'd killed him to ignore the hurt confusion in her eyes--
But he'd strode past her anyway, locking himself inside the safety of his own room.
Watching Cerise throw herself off that building--it had been the worst moment of his life.
Worse than crashing the bomb-laden plane, and with it all his hopes of a life with Peggy--worse than seeing Bucky fall off the edge of the train for him--
The very worst.
Why had it taken Cerise jumping off that ledge for Steve to realize she was as much a part of him as the air in his lungs?
That there had never been a single person throughout the entirety of his exceedingly long life that he'd cared for more?
He didn't have a clue--
All he knew was that it had destroyed him to see her fall--
And she'd done it for him.
It was his fault.
It had been like his ribcage had shattered with the force of his feelings for her--
It had hit him like a blow to the face--he could no sooner live without Cerise than he could live without his heart.
They were one and the same to him now.
And it terrified Steve.
He felt naked and defenseless in the wake of his epiphany--
As if he were dangling off the edge of a precipice--and if he let himself leap the final distance--
He would be landing into uncharted waters--armed with nothing but his emotions and his fragile, aching heart.
Steve couldn't do it--couldn't face it.
He simply didn't have the strength.
The sound of his door swinging open snapped Steve out of his reverie.
Tony strode in, countenance dark and scowling.
"Have you spoken to Cerise?" He demanded without preamble.
"No," Steve said dully.
"Are you planning on talking to Cerise at all?" Tony crossed his arms and glared at him.
"No," Steve repeated tensely.
Tony gaped at him.
"This is unkind, Steve," he said firmly. "She doesn't understand why you aren't speaking to her--was crying her eyes out the last I saw. The least you could do is talk, she took that damned fall for you--"
"THAT'S THE FUCKING POINT, STARK!" Steve finally exploded, flinging a chair against the wall in a fit of helpless anger. "SHE NEARLY DIED FOR ME."
"For me," Steve continued bitterly. "As if I'm worth that sort of sacrifice. As if I deserve it."
"I can't let her get close to me, Tony," he fixed his tortured gaze on the other man. "She'll never make it out of that alive--and I'm sick of watching people pay for my mistakes. I should've known it was a trap--but I didn't. And she nearly paid the price."
"She's already close to you," Tony didn't turn a hair at his outburst. "You can't reverse it now, Cap--and you can't do this. You need Cerise--and more importantly, Cerise needs you. You don't get to walk into her life, and then walk out as you see fit."
"I'm not saying you should tell her you're in love with her or any of that shit," Tony added, attempting for a conciliatory tone. "But you have to stay in her life--for both your sakes."
"I'm not in love with her," Steve snapped instantly. "And I can't, Tony. I won't. I won't put her in danger."
"OH, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!" Tony yelled back at last. "Can you be honest with yourself, for once in your life, Steve--admit your own feelings?"
"What is this really about?" Tony glared at him. "Is it about the fact that you don't want to risk her life---or is it about the fact that you're terrified of how much Cerise means to you--and how much you mean to her? She matters more than anyone else to you, Steve--and you matter just as much to her. You can't hide from it--even if you spend the rest of your days lying to yourself like you are now-- no amount of distance you put between the two of you is ever going to change that."
"Please leave, Tony," Steve slumped onto his bed tiredly, refusing to let his words sink in. "I don't want to argue this with you."
"Fine," Tony snarled. "Come talk to me when you take your head out of your ass for five minutes and realize you're about to create a whole lot of suffering where there doesn't need to be any."
He strode out of the room, slamming the door shut on his way out--
Leaving Steve to grapple with the consequences of his decision.

~~~

Steve wearily opened the door to his room, late into the wee hours of the night.
There had been an incessant volley of knocks sometime earlier--but Steve had assumed it was Tony, back to fight again, and ignored it.
Steve stepped out--
And nearly tripped over the motionless form of Cerise, leaning fast asleep against the wall outside his room.
Steve froze.
Had she been here all this time--waiting for him?
His heart twinged at him in reproach--
But Steve couldn't listen to the persistent plead of its pounding.
Not anymore.
Steve bent to the floor and drew Cerise up into his arms gently--grazing the tips of his fingers against the fine-boned features of her face.
He wanted to commit the sensation of her skin against his hands to memory--it was the last chance he would have to experience it.
Cerise stirred awake in his careful hold--half-conscious eyes soused with sleep but sincere.
"Mr. Rogers," she instantly caught hold of his hand. "You have to tell me what's wrong. Talk to me, please--"
"There's nothing to talk about," Steve said quietly, exhausted by the onslaught of his emotion.
He abruptly set her down onto the floor.
It wrenched at him to release her from his hold--his arms felt coldly empty without the weight of her body in between them.
Cerise refused to let go of his hand.
"Whatever it is, I'm sorry," her lower lip began to tremble, the words wavering uncertainly from her mouth. "I just wanted to keep you safe--"
Steve's fingers throbbed with the need to wipe the tears burgeoning in the corners of her almond-shaped eyes--the ache of it drove him to distraction--
But Peggy's face rose up to the forefront of Steve's mind--the slash of her crimson-tipped smile like an accusation.
He stepped away from Cerise in a trice.
"Say something," she begged. "Anything. Please."
"There isn't anything left to say," Steve said dully--and there wasn't.
A numb sort of deadness was splintering from the center of his chest outwards to the rest of his body.
"Mr. Rogers--Steve," Cerise beseeched him, fervent eyes silver-green with liquid. "Steve, please. You made me promise not to shut you out--so don't do this to me. Don't."
"Whatever it is, just--just talk to me, please--Steve, I--"
"I'm sorry, Cerise--"
There was a corrosive burning branding its way up the column of Steve's throat--the words seared like acid on his tongue, but he forced them to fall from his lips anyway--hating himself with every syllable that escaped his mouth.
"I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to see you--I don't want to look at you."
"Just leave me alone," Steve said hollowly, ignoring the howling of his heart, trapped and screaming in the desolate cavern of his chest. "I don't want anything to do with you, Cerise."
Until that moment, Cerise had never thought the sound of her own name could ever be that harsh--each sentence of Steve's tearing against her skin like thorn-scratched gashes.
"But I--"
But I love you, she'd been about to say--
Except Steve wasn't there to hear her anymore.
He'd already left the room.
Cerise buried her head in her hands and sobbed--the fissures of her barely-healed heart cracking open all over again.
She'd come full circle--
Just as alone as she'd been at the very beginning.

Chapter Text

Nerves On Ice

The tension in the air between them was so sharp, it seemed to crackle with an almost electric charge.
"Who could have done this?" Tony demanded, the slope of his shoulders rigid and strained as he spoke. "What enemies could a twenty-one year old girl possibly have?"
"Maybe it was Loki," Steve replied, catching Thor's eye.
Thor met his gaze evenly.
"My brother is many things," he answered Steve calmly. "But he is not a murderer of children."
"Cerise is not a child," Steve curtly responded.
"Oh, really?" Tony snapped at him acridly. "Coulda fooled me, the way you've been treating her these days."
"I don't have the energy for this, Tony," Steve wearily pinched the bridge of his nose--and he meant it.
Keeping himself away from Cerise was sapping every bit of his strength.
"Oh, no, you're not getting out of it this easily," Tony spat. "We are having this conversation."
"We've had it already," Steve sighed.
"Then we're fucking having it again, Steve!" Tony yelled. "Quit acting like her jumping off that ledge was some sort of personal failing on your part--it was her decision, so give her the goddamned dignity of her choice!"
Steve paled--the ghost of his old loves rising up in front of him, the memory of them echoing in Tony's words.
He choked on his words.
"Peggy--"
"So this is about her now, too?" Tony snarled. "Are you going to deny your feelings, all for a woman who lived a long and fruitful life without you--and even got married, if I have my facts right. She moved on Steve--it's about time you did too."
He averted his eyes from Tony's--what could he say to defend himself anyway?
Nothing Tony had said had been wrong.
Thor's eyes flitted between the two of them in perplexed apprehension.
"I cannot hope to comprehend the nature of the relationship between the two of you," Thor addressed Steve slowly. "But if I were you, my friend, I would think twice before so grievously wounding the heart of a lady--especially not one of such noble disposition as Cerise."
"Yeah," Tony rolled his eyes. "That. Whatever Shakespeare over here said."
The three hastily subsided as Cerise entered the room.
"Miss Romanov's here to see you, Mr. Stark," she managed a wan smile at Tony, carefully avoiding directing her eyes anywhere near Steve--
It hurt to even look at him.
Outwardly, nothing had changed--training went on as usual, and Steve remained unerringly polite--ever the consummate professional.
But it was the little things that cut Cerise to the quick--the way he'd stopped correcting her every time she called him Mr. Rogers--the way his fingers never brushed away her hair no matter how many times it fell over her face--the way it had become so rare now to ever see a smile from him--when once it had always softened his face whenever he looked at her.
She hadn't realized how much she'd begun to depend on those things--how they had become as vital to her as the methodical working of her lungs--
Until Steve had snatched them away from her.
And now she was coming up short for air.
Cerise had lost him--
And she would have done her best to try and bring him back to her--
Except she was in love with him--
And it would have flayed open what was left of her shattered heart to see him push her away again.
So she let him slip from her clutches.
If Cerise had been sharp enough to notice the agony outlining the edges of Steve's eyes whenever their gazes accidentally met, she might not have been so sure of her conviction--
But they were separate even in the sameness of their heartbreak.
And neither of them were aware of it.

~~~

Cerise shivered uneasily--no matter how often she turned up the heat, she always seemed to remain cold these days.
Not even the familiar warmth of her blanket could help.
She smiled gratefully as Luffy sinuously slipped between her arms, butting her head gently against Cerise's chin.
"Guess it's just you and me again, old girl," Cerise said ruefully, holding the cat securely against her chest. "I know you won't leave me, at least."
Luffy simply regarded her out of inscrutable, lamplike eyes.
As always, Cerise had the niggling sense that the feline knew exactly what had been said to her.
She started in surprise as the door swung open--
Hooks seemed to twist painfully in Cerise's stomach as she whirled around to face her now-open room, wildly hoping it was Steve--
But it wasn't.
"Well, you look disappointed to see me," Natasha remarked dryly.
Cerise stammered in discomfort.
"No--it's not that, I just--"
"Relax," the spy waved a hand dismissively. "I don't take things personally--and besides, I think I know who you're waiting for. Now come on, get ready. We're leaving."
"Leaving?" Cerise eyed the S.H.I.E.L.D agent warily. "Leaving where? Aren't my lessons over for the day?"
"They are," Natasha agreed. "But I don't want to let you off if you're just going to mope around for the rest of the day."
Cerise flushed a dull shade of scarlet.
"I'm not--"
"Yes, you are," Natasha cut across her. "Might as well admit it--you're miserable. And frustrated. I get that--but you're an Avenger now, kid. Or at least--one in training. And we don't teach our successors to sit around and drown in their imagined sense of helplessness. Life shouldn't push you around-- you should push life around."
Green met green as they locked eyes.
"So you can either sit here, be miserable and do nothing," Natasha extended her arm. "Or you can go out, be miserable and work on your skills--and come back knowing you did something worthwhile with your day, even if you felt like utter crap. So which is it going to be?"
Cerise stared at her, arrested mid-motion--
And then took her hand.

~~~

Quotho roared in fury, throwing the contents of the spacecraft against the hard planes of its own frigid walls.
The floor shuddered under his feet in protest, rivets shrieking as they came apart--
But Quotho was impervious to everything that lay in the wake of his wrath.
"Calm yourself, my liege," Jhago said in alarmed tones. "This will do nothing to help us."
"Years," Quotho hissed, ignoring his brother's ineffectual attempts at pacification. "Years have we spent planning her capture. And it was ruined."
"Ruined," he spat with venom. "Because of a common soldier. A human."
"No one could have foreseen what the girl did," Jhago placated in vain. "She sacrificed herself for the mortal--"
"AND WE NEARLY LOST HER!" Quotho bellowed. "What if her powers had manifested a second too late? She could have died--and all our work would have been for naught."
"Would it have really been so terrible?" Jhago questioned tentatively, shadowing Quotho's restless feet. "If she had died that day--it would mean there would never be a chance of her returning to that--that place. We are playing with fire here, brother--she is the union of two of the mightiest bloodlines to ever exist. Even we do not know what she is truly capable of."
"It is precisely because she is the product of that bloodline that we must have her," Quotho replied, finally coming to a standstill. "We will need to begin anew. It is clear to me now that we cannot use the girl and Steven Rogers as leverage against each other--she may do herself irreparable harm in a bid to protect him--we must not risk that."
"She is like nothing we have ever seen before, Jhago--if we utilize her correctly--in the manner we spent so many years discovering--we could create a super race of our own. We could take this world--and every world, by storm."
Quotho directed the full force of his gaze onto Jhago.
"We could win this war, brother."

Chapter Text

Got To Hide Your Love Away

Tony eyed Cerise with ill-concealed caution--
She seemed as taut and vulnerably exposed as a raw nerve.
He didn't want to cause her any further injury by a thoughtless remark--
But she was worrying him.
"The wiring is almost done for this piece," Cerise said, voice as brittle as a nub of chalk. "Just this last part left, I'll--"
"Fuck," she cursed as her hand trembled in place, and the circuitry, nearly complete until then--fell apart.
"I'll fix it, I'm sorry," Cerise frantically lifted up the cables, but she was shaking in earnest now, her words soused in barely repressed tears.
"I'm sorry," she let the metal contraption fall from her hands, entire frame shuddering violently. "I'm sorry, I--"
"Hey," Tony hurried over in alarm, and after a brief moment of hesitation--gingerly put his arms around her. "Hey, kid, it's okay."
"It's not your fault," he said gently, raising his voice slightly over the sound of her muffled sobs.
They both knew it wasn't the lab work he was alluding to.
"He won't talk to me," Cerise helplessly choked out. "Why won't he talk to me, Mr. Stark?"
Tony felt his throat tighten at the naked plaintiveness clinging to her question.
"Because he's an idiot, Bambi," he sighed heavily in response, rubbing Cerise's shoulder with hands clumsy in inexperience. "Give Steve time. He'll come around, I promise."
"But why?" Cerise seemed to crumple against him lifelessly. "I don't understand what I did."
"You jumped," Tony replied quietly. "You reminded him of how helpless he's forced to become when someone's ready to give their life for him. It's not the first time it's happened, kid."
"Sergeant Barnes," she realized with a slow roll of nausea. "I reminded him of Sergeant Barnes."
Cerise raised tortured eyes to Tony.
"I didn't mean to," she whispered. "I didn't, I swear--"
"I know," Tony ruffled her hair. "I know you didn't. He's just scared, Bambi."
"Of what?"
Losing you, Tony wanted to tell her. Loving you and losing you anyway.
But he couldn't.
It wasn't his place to say.
Sensing that Tony couldn't--or wouldn't respond to her, Cerise moved away from him.
"I should head to bed," she said, voice still thick with tears. "It's kinda late."
Tony nodded, ire rising within him towards Steve as he looked at Cerise's glassy eyes.
"Thank you for listening..." Cerise turned back to look at him, managing a watery smile.
"...Tony."

~~~

Cerise slumped to the ground, back braced against the rough surface of the door.
She simply didn't have the energy to stay upright a moment longer--not even to make it to the bed.
Without Steve to steady her, it felt like she was constantly balancing on a tightrope--liable to fall at any moment.
And what safety net could possibly exist below her, now that he had left?
She would never know it, but at that moment, Steve was leaning against the other end of her door--
Their backs bridged away from touch by just the barrier of wood.
Spotting her guitar lying nearby, Cerise listlessly strummed her fingers against the strings--
Just to give her hands something to do other than long to catch at Steve's.
The song seemed to slip out of her of its own accord--it didn't care that her throat was rusty with disuse--it wanted out.
And out it came.
"Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There's someone reaching back for me
I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night
He's gotta be sure
He's gotta be soon
He's gotta be larger than life
I need a hero..."
Outside, Steve heard the forlorn wisps of Cerise's voice settle into his ears--
He buried his head in his hands and wept.

~~~

The milky whiteness of the page seemed to swim in front of Steve's burning eyes--his hands moving idly across the sheet.
There was, at least to Steve, no conscious thought guiding his movement--
But when he looked down to see what he'd drawn, he recognized the familiar lines of Cerise's face, etched in soft strokes by his own fingers.
It was hardly the first time it had happened--over the past weeks the long inkspill of her hair had tumbled across the pages of Steve's sketchpad--
They were filled with the elegant arch of her hands, the sharp jut of her collarbones, the perfect double curve of her shell-pink lips--
And the striations in the verdant, ever-changing hues of her eyes.
Steve felt as though it brought him closer to her in some inexplicable way--even amidst the chasm he'd created between them.
The pad dropped from his grip in surprise as the door to his room swung wide, nearly rocking back upon its hinges with the force at which it had been flung open.
"Get off your ass and talk to Cerise this instant," Tony growled at him without preamble. "This has gone on long enough, Steve. What you're doing--for whatever reasons, and I know them--is unconscionably cruel. Have you fucking seen the way she looks these days Rogers, you're being utterly heartle--"
"I look at her every minute of every day," Steve said wearily, feeling as though his limbs had turned to stone. "It's impossible not to."
There was simply no fight left in him as he dully met Tony's glare.
"Then why the fuck won't you talk to her?" Tony demanded, aggravated.
Steve gave up--it took all the energy from his bones to keep himself away from Cerise.
He didn't have room for his secrets anymore.
"I see her in my dreams every night, Tony," Steve's eyes were far away and unfocused, clouded with the feelings he dared not name. "And you'd think that it would be a good thing, wouldn't you-- dreaming about the people you care for--happy things--a picnic, a dance, a candlelit dinner--"
"But when I have them," Steve said bitterly, desolation seeming to echo through the hollow spaces in his words. "I see her broken and dying in front of me, her blood on my hands. She asks me: 'why couldn't you save me, Steve?' And every time I answer: 'I tried, darling--'"
Steve lifted his agonized eyes towards Tony.
"And every time she tells me: 'You didn't try hard enough.'"
"And then I wake up," Steve's voice was fraying, tearing apart at the seams. "And my sweetheart is the first thing I want to see--the only thing I ever want to see. And when I finally get to look at her--at her face, at her smile--it feels like a gift-- from God even, if I were a man who believed in one. It feels like staring into the face of the sun, Tony--I'm blinded to all other beauty except hers--her smile is the only light I know will always shine on me."
Steve's throat seemed to be closing in on itself--he struggled to finish the last of his sentences.
"So I look at Cerise, and I think to myself: 'I would stay away from her for the rest of my life--if it meant that I could keep that smile alive."
Tony was aghast--staring speechlessly at Steve's head, hung low under the weight of his admission.
"You're breaking your own heart, Cap," he said finally, eyes still dark with shock.
Steve smiled sadly.
"She's worth every piece of it."
Steve slumped against the headboard of his bed--didn't wait to see if Tony had chosen to stay or leave.
Didn't care.
He could feel the freezing shards pierce his powerless heart--
It occurred to Steve that he had never fully left the ice--not really--
It was a part of him now.
And if he wasn't careful, one day--
It would swallow him whole.