Avery pulled her legs underneath her and continued sorting through the mountains of paperwork dropped off by Bambi just before eight, feeling herself becoming increasingly frustrated. Bambi had been kind enough to not say anything about the monster bruise on her face, but Avery knew everyone this side of Manhattan would hear of it by noon. She didn't even have time to get dressed, resulting in her less than professional practice of sorting through the work in nothing but her favorite pair of sleep shorts and ratty t-shirt. Mandu perched himself up on one of the numerous piles and watched her as she worked, clearly disturbed by both the early hour and the invasion into his personal space of all the paperwork.
"You would think that someone would have been paid to do this before," Avery mused, eyes perusing the file about relief work done in the former Czechoslovakia. "I mean, it is a multi-billion dollar company."
"You're right, I shouldn't complain."
"Your demon spawn snuck into my lab while you were gone last night and peed." Avery tensed, shoulders popping up around her ears so fast she thought she felt something pull. She immediately held the paper up to her face and looked down, trying to think of a way to hide her face from Tony without it being too obvious. "Also, somebody dropped flowers off for you."
Avery turned the non-bruised side of her face towards him, eyebrows raised. "Really?"
"What are you doing?" Tony asked, closing the door behind him as he gestured to the paper still glued to the side of her face.
"Filing through osmosis."
"These flowers look expensive. Who did you have sex with and why wasn't I told?" Avery stared at him, mouth slightly agape. "I'm sorry. Good morning, when did you have time to meet someone?"
"Where was the accident?" Avery asked, turning her head ever so slightly and readjusting the paper so that it covered more of her face.
"In the corner. We made eye contact as it was happening. It was uncomfortable for all parties involved, but that isn't really important right now."
"I didn't sleep with anyone," Avery said, although she didn't quite understand why they were even having that conversation. "Not that it's any of your business."
Tony walked over to her bed and sat down, folding his arms over his chest as he looked at her side-long. She turned to the side and made a big show of sorting through the papers, probably messing up the meticulous work she had already done for only a moment of avoiding the inevitable. "Can I see the flowers?" She asked, holding out the hand that wasn't pressing the paper to her face, only to have them yanked away from her like the piece of cake. "Oh come on, it's too early for this."
"What the hell happened to you face?"
Avery blanched, realizing that in her effort to grab the flowers that she had let the paper slip. In hindsight, she wasn't proud of her reaction of immediately shoving her head under the bed just to avoid having him see her face, but she was committed at that point. "Nothing," She said, utterly mortified.
"Who hit you?"
"No one," She said out of reflex more than a desire to lie to him. "That's a lie. His name is Matt."
"I'm going to kill him," Tony said, tapping the side of her thigh with his foot. "Matt what?"
"I don't know."
"Was this when you were with Peter?"
"It's a long story and I have it completely handled, so if you could give me my flowers and leave me to my paperwork and cat and mortification now, I would appreciate it." Her voice was muffled by the bed, but she just couldn't bring herself to crawl out yet. For some reason, the shame she felt when she told Steve was magnified tenfold with Tony. With Steve, it was simply a peer telling her she made a mistake. She could ignore him. She couldn't ignore Tony, even if he wasn't hovering above her like a vulture waiting for the moment she dropped dead, she wouldn't be able to pretend like nothing was wrong. She felt him nudge her hip with his foot, prodding her in the playful way that she had come to expect from him despite how decidedly not playful the conversation currently was. "If it makes you feel better, Steve didn't approve either."
"Approve of what exactly?"
"Matt sent the flowers." She rested her chin on her hands and waited for the other shoe to drop. She thought she was technically too old for a scolding, especially from someone who had made just as many spectacularly bad life choices, but she still expected him to make the attempt. He was within the age category that it seemed almost natural, compulsive even.
"What's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, somethings up."
"Something is always up, Tony."
"Stop being cute and answer the question." Avery rotated on her side as best she could and looked down at her legs, noticing that he had started bouncing his left leg up and down.
"I swear it's not as shady as it seems. He made a mistake and he apologized. I spoke to him yesterday and he apologized for it. I've got it under control."
"He says the dress is black tie," Tony said, holding the note down between his legs and waving it back and forth. "Can you come out please?"
"Really? Black tie? That's fancy."
"Who is this guy?"
"A lawyer from Hell's Kitchen."
"He's too old for you."
"Excuse me?" Hearing the judgmental tone in his voice, and not the sort that seemed to stem from the same source as Steve, she ooched out from under the bed and scowled at him.
"Or an asshole."
"Now you're just making shit up." She stood up and turned on her heel, marching towards her bathroom just to avoid looking at him at the moment. When she was halfway there, she turned around and snatched the flower card out of his hand and took it with her.
"A lawyer who is within your age category isn't making enough money to afford these kinds of flowers. So either he's old enough to spend money on his midlife crisis," He gestured to her a way that was less than flattering, causing Avery to scowl even more, before he continued. "Or, he's a trust fund baby who is just looking for someone to throw all his extra money at."
"Because it would be so crazy for someone to want to spend money they don't have on me."
"That's not what I said."
"It's what you meant."
"Why are you being so weird about this?"
"When you leave, could you make sure you don't mess with my filing system."
"Oh the filing system? You mean the random piles of crap? That filing system?"
"Um, it's your crap that I'm trying to sift through." Avery tried not to shout, but she couldn't stop herself after a moment. "If you're just going to act like Steve then you don't get to be in my bedroom."
"I paid for this bedroom."
That wasn't the other shoe that she had expected and it hurt like someone had punched a hole straight through her chest. Clenching the tube of mascara in her hand, she tried to compose herself for a moment. She toed the door closed and dropped the makeup, leaning back against the counter with her arms crossed over her chest, shoulders drooping. Perhaps he didn't mean it to come across like it had, but the feeling in her chest wouldn't cease even after she took three deep and supposedly calming breaths. "And Matt paid for those flowers. And whether it was with a trust fund, student loans, money from the mob, or profits from being a male escort, it's literally none of your business."
"Rogers is coming back this morning. It's good to know we finally agree on something."
"Congrats. I'm so happy that I can bring you two together." Avery closed her eyes and looked down at her feet, unable to keep the anger and hurt out of her voice. "You know what really cheeses me off? How you and Steve can act like I make all these terrible decisions, but then the moment either of you does something, you expect everyone to leave you alone and respect that."
"Like, Steve acts like I don't know why he's being all moody, which I totally do by the way, and you act like I don't know that you spend all your free time making new Iron Man suits, but I do. And both of you would get mad as hell if I tried to tell you how to live your life."
"You do, though. All the time actually. Whenever I called you on your little bullshit soul journey to east bumfuck New Mexico, you made it very clear what you thought about every little decision we made."
"That's not the point."
"No, the point is that you keep making shitty decisions."
"You don't know anything about this guy, you don't know why I'm going out with him, and you sure as hell don't know bunk about my decision making process." She stormed out of the bathroom and walked over to her closet to find clothes a bit more suitable for public. She yanked open the doors and grabbed the first dress she saw, completely unbothered by the fact that it tended to cause horrendous chaffing. A little bit of gold danced over her fingers, flashing for a moment before it traveled up her arms and disappeared. "When you called me in New Mexico all you talked about was the new things you were adding to your suits. The more powerful rockets, the little lasers that can cut through steel, the little thing you added to the crotch to make it more breathable, and I never said a word except to say that it sounded amazing."
"It is amazing."
"It's also unhealthy."
"How do you figure?" Tony asked, voice raising slightly.
"You told me about fourteen new suits in the last two months."
"It's not fourteen."
"It is. I counted, because I had nothing better to do." Avery turned around and tossed the dress onto her bed. "And Steve, he tries to act like he's not more traumatized by waking up 70 years in the future, but I can tell he is. Every time someone makes a joke he doesn't get or references a movie he hasn't seen, he feels that pain all over again. But he won't talk to me about it. He won't tell me what's wrong with him. Instead, he gets mad at me for saying yes to a date for the first time in six fucking years because that's an easier thing for him to take his anger out on." Avery snatched the flowers from Tony while he was distracted by her sudden ranting and tossed them on the bed next to her dress, too angry to admire the color or the fact that there were several roses in the mix. "These flowers are basically an act of extortion. They aren't because a guy didn't get freaked out in the first five minutes with me, or because he's having a midlife crisis and I'm just young and naïve enough to think he actually likes me, or because he's some douchebag with a trust fund. He asked me out because he needs an alibi and I need help."
"Avery, I can help you wi…" Tony started, but she cut him off with a glare.
"No, god, just don't. You're already paying for my room and board and salary, I don't need anything else from you. I'm sorry that me going on a date seems to be such problem for all of you, but I know what I'm doing."
Avery rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, already feeling stupid for thinking this dress was the right choice. It was black and backless and proved nothing besides the fact that she was probably too petty to be making her own decisions. Still, she had committed to it, and her date with Matt, and she couldn't back out. Still, she kept the tag tucked in under her armpit. She clenched her hands into fists as she waited for the cab, fighting off the now almost insatiable desire to run back to her room and hide under her covers and forget the fact that she hadn't spoken to anybody but Bruce in the three days since she stormed out of her room.
She wasn't proud of that, but Tony hadn't approached her to apologize, so she was standing her ground, even if that meant spending the last three days practically living out of her room and off granola bars just to avoid seeing him.
"You can do this, Aves," She said to herself, growing more nervous as she waited for the cab to pull up. "This is a business transaction. Forget about Tony and Steve and focus on what matters: not getting murdered tonight and holding up your end of the bargain."
Every time a yellow cab passed, her heart beat faster, threatening to burst from her chest. She thought, by the time Matt finally did step out of the car that she was libel to have a heart attack at any moment. Seeing him dressed in a black suit, complete with bowtie, made her heart beat even faster and she had to squeeze her hands together behind her back to keep them from shaking too bad.
"You look beautiful," He said, crossing the large sidewalk with a smile on his face.
"How can you tell?"
"I've heard a rumor that you're supposed to tell women that when taking them on a date, but my sources could be wrong on that."
"It's a black dress. With no back."
"My ankles will be in danger all night."
"Then I'll be sure to catch you if you fall, if you haven't already." He smirked at her and she was thankful he couldn't see the wild blush that sprung up in her cheeks or the way she rolled her eyes.
"Should we go?"
"You mean before you spontaneously combust from blushing so hard?"
"Shut up. I'll go put on sweatpants, it won't bother me one bit."
"Don't be such a tease, Avery."
"Matt," She warned, looking down at the ground.
He placed a hand on her lower back and she thought he might have been right. She shook her head and reminded herself, once again, that it was a business transaction and nothing more, and allowed him to lead her over to the cab. "I like the backless."
"Thanks, I thought it would impress the lawyery types you work for."
He opened the door for her and held out his hand, helping her into the cab in the most charming way possible. He folded up his cane quickly and slid into the seat next to her, scooting just a bit closer than necessary. "You don't have to be so nervous."
"What would make you think I'm nervous?" The high tone of her voice did nothing to help her case. "I'm not. I just don't want you getting any ideas. The back isn't for you."
The cabbie looked over his shoulder, thick eyebrows raised.
Matt smirked and shook his head. "Are you always like this?"
"What?" She tore her gaze away from the back of the cabbie's head and looked over at him. "Devastatingly charming and unattainable?"
Matt smiled and leaned closer to her, invading her space in a way that made her feel his body heat. "Careful Avery, you might have me thinking this is a real date."
"Real date, my ass."
"You're going to have to hold my hand."
"What, no. It's probably clammy."
Avery shied away from him the moment they stepped out of the cab. Around them, people dressed in suits and dresses streamed into the building with an air of superiority that Avery didn't think she would ever be able to emulate. Despite her objections, he grabbed her hand and squeezed, smirking at her in a way that made her think he wanted to be here just about as much as she did.
"Matty, where have you…hello who is this lovely creature?"
"Foggy." Matt turned to the blond man fast approaching them, holding her hand in a vice-like grip to keep her from backing away.
"So she is real."
"Are any of us, really?"
"And funny." He brushed his hair back from his face and smiled at her, extending his hand out to shake hers. "Hello, Foggy Nelson, almost attorney at law, best friend of Matt, single if you find him intolerable after tonight."
"Gudrun? What is that, it sounds exotic and exciting." Matt squeezed her hand again.
"Scandinavian of some kind."
"You do look Swedish. Is it Swedish?"
"Wow, okay. I think I need a drink," Matt said, cutting across Foggy before he could continue berating her.
Avery would have turned right back around if not for Matt's hand wrapped around hers. She was right that it was clammy, but she didn't hate the fact that he offered it so willingly, even if it was just for show. The banquet room was practically filled to the brim with people who clearly knew each other, laughing at jokes she probably wouldn't understand and drinking alcohol that was worth more than her entire life's savings. Matt, clearly sensing her immediate discomfort, asked her to lead them to the open bar and promptly ordered. Avery, doing the one thing her mom had always told her not to, downed the drink in one gulp. Foggy smirked at her and clapped Matt on the back as he ordered his own drink, preferring something a little fruitier than the straight shots.
"How long do we have to stay? For appearances?" Avery asked, forced to lean over and whisper in his ear so that Foggy wouldn't overhear them.
"An hour, at most."
"Promise?" She asked, fighting the urge to reach over and grab his drink as well. "This is giving me hives."
"Oh, that's romantic." Foggy leaned against the bar and propped his head up on his hand, staring at her. "Hey, Avery, maybe you could answer some things for me, since Matt doesn't seem to know much of anything about you."
"What do you want to know?"
"All the dirty details, of course. Who are you, are your looks genetic and do you have a sister, where are you from, what did he bribe you with to come on this date, an…"
"Foggy, let her breathe." Matt shook his head and took a small sip of his drink, removing his hand from Avery's so that he could place it on the bar behind her. "You can ignore him."
"It's fine. He's your friend, he's probably just surprised that you're on a date."
"I will be honest, it is a bit of a shock."
"And where is your date for tonight?"
"Ah, buddy, you've already met my left hand."
"You're a lefty? I thought your handshake was a little weak. That might explain it," Avery couldn't resist the softball he had lobbed in her direction. For a moment, she was afraid that she might have crossed the line, but then Foggy and Matt started laughing, genuinely and without even a hint of mockery, and she felt the knot that had formed in her chest from the moment they stepped inside lessen ever so slightly. "To answer only the questions I'm allowed to by Big Brother, my name is Avery, I'm from New Mexico, I have no brothers or sisters that I know of, and the only bribe offered to me was a bit of ice cream and the promise of more in the future. And the opportunity to meet you of course."
Matt quirked his head to the side and she couldn't help but notice the slight smile playing on his lips. His hand moved from the back of the bar and brushed against the skin of her back, fingers so light she almost didn't feel it before he pulled it back and acted as if nothing had happened.
"Come on, we should meet the partners."
"So we can leave."
"So we can leave about an hour from now," Matt said, setting his drink down on the bar. "Foggy, I will catch you later."
"Wait, I wasn't finished charming your new boo."
"She's a boo in progress, and if I let you keep interrogating her, she'll break up with me forever and never come back."
Avery waited until they were a few steps away before she rounded on him. "This is not a real date, bud."
"It's only been ten minutes. You don't know that for sure."
"Plus the cab ride."
"You're right. A cab ride. That's a real commitment."
"Look, I can tell that this usually works for most women," Avery paused, stopping them in the middle of the throngs of mingling people so that she could turn and look at him. "But this is a business transaction."
"Is that your buzz word for the evening?" He asked, leaning close to speak in her ear. "This is the prologue, Avery."
"Oh god, please tell me you didn't put in actual effort? After tonight, I'm a ghost. A figment of your imagination, only to be used when you need to ineffectively stop crime and punch defenseless women for a few hours."
"Defenseless? I seem to remember you holding your own pretty well."
"I am pretty great, especially at combat maneuvers and similar things of the like."
"And so knowledgeable," Matt said, leaning even closer until she had a hard time forming a coherent thought.
"So these partners."
"These partners." Matt leaned back, although he stood decidedly closer than he had before. Avery tried not to feel slightly giddy about that.
Business transaction. She touched the side of her face, pressing her finger against the makeup caked bruise, to remind herself why she was there, and steeled herself to meet the partners, making sure to put a little bit of space between them as they started walking again, hand in hand.
"If you had told me part two of this would involve climbing over roof tops in heels, I would have said no." Matt peered over the top of the roof and held his hand down to help her climb up the last of the rickety ladder rungs. Her heels dangled precariously and she was sure if she looked down she might see more than a few alley dwellers enjoying the free show up her dress. She gave up trying to hold it down by about the sixth time it blew up, deciding that focusing on not falling off and breaking her neck was a little more important than her modesty. She wrapped her hand in his and breathed a little easier when she was able to crawl over the top of the roof. "Some of us are wearing death heels, if you'll recall."
"Maybe it was part of my plan to get you to fall for me," He said, pulling off his suit jacket and placing it on her shoulders, despite the fact that she didn't ask. It smelled like him, a fact she immediately pushed away, and instantly warmed up her freezing skin. "And I happened to like those heels."
"Is the sound alluring?"
"More than you will ever know."
"I simply state the truth."
"Well, they're officially coming off, sorry to burst your bubble." She tried not to let out a sound of stupid excitement when she was able to toe them off and kick them aside. She walked away from him and over to the edge of the roof, pulling the jacket tighter around her shoulders as she walked over to the other side of the roof. "So what's the deal? Why are we here?"
"This is the best make out spot in Hell's Kitchen, didn't you know."
"I must have missed that memo."
He moved to stand next to her and mirrored her posture, folding his arms over his chest. "In reality, I wanted to show what I found out."
"This is, as you keep pointing out, a business transaction, so here's my consideration." He touched her shoulder and pointed with the other hand. "You see the light over there?"
"Everything the light touches, and all that jazz?" Avery asked, unable to stop herself.
"The Kingdom of Hell's Kitchen," Matt said, playing along. She couldn't help but smile.
"What's that shadowy place?"
"New Jersey, you should never go there."
"Yes, I see it," Avery said, wondering how he knew it was there, but deciding it was probably better not to ask.
"I've been doing some asking around and it turns out that there's quite a bit of smuggling that goes in and out."
"Including genetic material?"
"If there's a buyer, there's going to be someone selling it."
"And that's the place to get it." Avery leaned forward just a little bit, staring at the dock. "That looks like it's full of criminals and guns and drugs."
"And drugs? Say it isn't so."
"Matt," She said, unable to keep the laugh out of her voice. "Thank you."
"You sound surprised," He said, bumping her with his arm.
"No, I mean yes, but I had kind of a crappy week leading up to this and it was surprisingly a lot more fun than I was anticipating. And you held up your end of the bargain. That's so refreshingly rare and exciting."They stood in silence for a moment and Avery could see, for the moment they were standing there, why Mat insisted spending so much time running around on the rooftops. Even though she could see where he couldn't, the feel of the wind and the sound of life beneath there feet relaxed her to the point of almost exhaustion. "None of my friends like that I'm out with you tonight and I kind of acted like an ass about it, so this was really nice, even if it wasn't because you're actually interested in me."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Do you want to make out?" Avery laughed and shook her head, taking half a step closer to him. "And who said I wasn't actually interested?"
"Were you?" Avery looked over at him, biting her lip as a sudden wave of anxiety washed over her. "Are you?"
"Now, you're going to have to go on date number two to find that out."
"Right, the ice cream."
"The ice cream. I was serious about wanting more, by the way. If I'm going to be spending money on nice dresses to be an alibi, the least you could do it shell out some cash for a few cookie cones."