July 10th, 2012, New York City, New York
"Well, this couldn't have gone any worse."
"You fucking think?"
"There is absolutely no need to get testy." Avery pumped her legs harder, struggling to keep the wad of paper above her head as they both floated in the Hudson River. Matt, sensing her issue, swam closer to her and wrapped one arm around her waist, pumping his arms in time with hers.
"Who were those guys?" Matt asked, hand digging into her side as they both started the long trek back to the docks. Debris, some of which was still very much on fire, floated past them, almost comically, as the warehouse burned behind them.
It had started out easily enough. Matt had clearly done this before, even if he wouldn't give her the details as to how or why. They moved through the warehouse without any issue, checking crates, clearing rooms, and reading whatever slips of paper might be milling about until they finally made it to the heart of the operation.
And then it all went pear-shaped.
It had occurred to Avery, along around the time she shoved Matt into a storage closet just to avoid being seen, that she might have a penchant for attracting trouble of all kinds. That suspicion was confirmed for her when the warehouse exploded, sending them, protected by a frantic shield from her, flying into the Hudson without much warning.
"I don't know. I assumed they worked there. It was like they knew we were coming," Avery paused, gasping as a bit of water rushed into her mouth. She tried not to think of the number of bodies, fecal matter, and dead fish that had passed through that part of the river, and focused instead on keeping her head above water. "You said it would be closed."
"I don't work here. How on earth was I supposed to know?"
"Is that really the stance you're taking, right now in the midst of our crime-ing?"
"I made a choice and I'm sticking with it. Yes. Crime-ing. I said what I said."
"You don't have much experience with dock workers, do you? Because I can safely say that they don't usually come with guns and explosives."
"I don't know, Matt. I also used to assume that lawyers didn't like moonlighting as vigilantes, but here we are."
Matt made a noise at the back of his throat and kept swimming. The nearest dock, that wasn't on fire, seemed like it was a mile away and they had only just begun.
The voice crackled through her heads-up display, startling her for a moment before she remembered it was still perched precariously on top of her, entirely forgotten until then in all the chaos. She stopped swimming for the briefest of moments to reach her hand up and pull it back down over her eyes. The corner of the glass was cracked, although she hardly noticed through the amplified brightness of the burning warehouse.
"Why am I getting your bio signature in the middle of the Hudson River?"
"Avery!" Matt's grip slipped and they both sunk down even more until it was only Avery's hand with the papers was sticking out. His hand gripped even harder, leaving little finger-shaped bruises on her already sore hip. "Focus!"
"I am focused," She snapped, completely ignoring the fact that Tony could hear her on the other end.
"Tell me you didn't."
"Do you see a place to swim to?" Matt asked, sounding truly out of sorts for the first time since she had met him. The tone was enough to give her pause, startling her at the sudden change. It was only after she really thought about the wording of the question, after being stupidly ignorant for far longer than she would ever care to admit, that she realized exactly why he might be feeling the panic of their current situation just a little bit more than she would.
She was already feeling a bit of sensory overload and she didn't even have to deal with any of her sense being heightened. She could only imagine how overwhelming it was to Matt.
"Avery," Tony spoke again, more insistent than before. "What happened?"
"Matt, swim forward."
"Thought that might catch your attention."
"What did you tell him?" Avery asked, finally giving up on trying to swim with her boots and instead doing her best to kick them off before they dragged her and Matt, who had this point was surely regretting ever meeting her in the first place, down. She got one halfway off before she realized the effort was only making things harder.
"Nothing, because I don't actually know what's going on. Rogers seems to think you're somehow in trouble and S.H.I.E.L.D. is all over that explosion like stink on dog shit, so I'll ask again, what the hell happened?"
"Are you still at the Tower?" Avery could have jumped for joy when they finally started making progress in their swim.
"No. I'm currently standing on some god forsaken dock in Hell's Kitchen, and you know how I feel about this place, looking for you in the middle of the Hudson River."
"Is Fury with you?"
"Not at the moment. He's skulking around somewhere, though," Tony paused, and she was certain he could hear the relief she felt just from the sound of her breathing. "Rogers is here."
"What? He was in D.C."
"And you texted him that you were in trouble."
"Just to keep him informed, not the guilt him into coming to help me."
"Right, okay. That totally makes sense." Avery could literally feel the sarcasm. Normally, she would be annoyed with him, but after their fight a few days back, she probably deserved it.
It was slow work, made even slower by her needing to keep the paper in her hand out of the water, but after a few minutes of hard swimming Avery was able to make out the soft glow of the arc reactor in the middle of Tony's chest. He stood away from the rest of the flurry of activity, back turned to the firetrucks and police cruisers now crowding the area. To his left, Steve stood, mirroring Tony's posture almost exactly.
"Hmm?" His voice was strained, reflecting the same exhaustion she felt. They were so very close, but that only made their work feel that much more difficult.
"How do you feel about meeting Iron Man and Captain America?"
"Not great, to be honest. It kind of defeats the purpose of my whole thing. I never wanted to be involved in this shit, Avery. This deal was only ever supposed to include information and an alibi. It's my own stupid fault for not sticking to that."
"I'm sorry, Matt," Avery said, just able to get the words out before her name was being called.
Steve Rogers did not look happy. The illumination of the fire had a chilling effect on his normally calm features. Where there had always been an easy smile, the sort of anger that looked so foreign on him now dominated. Even still, when she was close enough to grab, he rushed forward and bent down on the dock, leaning over the side to wrap his hand around her arm and pull her out of the water.
Like a singed catch of the day, she flopped back on the dock and stared up at the sky, clouded with smoke, and struggled to catch her breath. She set the folder down next to her, close enough that she could still reach out and touch it, and stretched her arms above her head, muscles absolutely aching. Matt laid down next to her, gasping for air and soaking.
It wasn't exactly how she had imagined introducing him to her friends. Truthfully, she had fully planned on keeping them separated from each other as long as humanly possible, forever preferably, but it seemed circumstances had forced her hand. Fingers smoothed her hair back, pausing on her forehead before they moved to the side and pushed her hair behind her ear.
"Hey, Steve," She said, sitting up. He was crouched next to her, dressed in a nice pair of slacks and a button down, looking very out of place on a grimy dock and bathed in firelight. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Yep, just taking a few laps."
He made a sound at the back of his throat and nodded, jaw clenched. "I was really worried, Aves."
"I might have overreacted when I texted you."
"I think you underreacted, actually."
"Who's this?" Tony asked, cutting across them as he made his presence known as he bent down and tapped her on the forehead. "Hi, kid."
"Tony, Matt, Matt, Tony. Steve, Matt…"
"Matt, Steve," Matt finished for her, rolling over onto his stomach and sitting up. His movements were weary, pointedly so, and hinted at a man who knew exactly how to get under her skin. She hoped he could feel the heat of the glare she threw at him while Steve and Tony focused their attention on him, but just in case it escaped him, she reached down and pinched his hand as hard as possible.
"So you're the mystery man."
"Matt. Although I wish more than anything that I wasn't here right now. Secrecy was kind of my thing. You understand."
"Right, right. Of course."
"Was this your idea?" Steve asked, tone biting.
"To go into a warehouse to find information about missing biological samples with a girl who is, by her own admission, a genetic anomaly, and who I barely know, all so she can help out a kid with spider powers? No. No it wasn't, oddly enough."
"He just gave me the tip about a possible location. Peter and I were supposed to do this, but then Peter didn't show up. We were just supposed to survey the place." Avery wrung out her hair, miserable, now that the heat of the evening was starting to set in on her wet clothes.
Avery wasn't proud of it, in fact she was certain she would spend the next several weeks making up for it, but at the sound of Nick Fury's less than chipper voice, the first, and only, thing she could think of was shoving Matt sideways into the water. He went in headfirst, arms flailing at the shock of the sudden action, and slammed into the water with a large splash. As if it had a mind of its own, or perhaps as part of some sort of karmic justice, the water went straight for the folder still sitting on the dock.
She scrambled to pick it up, swiping off the excess water as she cradled it to her arms.
It was, if she was allowed to be dramatic, her literal lifeline, at the moment and the only saving grace from this disaster of an evening.
"What the fuck, Avery." Matt hissed, treading water.
"I'm so sorry, but you don't want to meet this new guy."
"You could have given me some warning."
"I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Please god, don't."
"Around 10? Swim left thirty paces. There's another spot that you can climb up."
He waved his hand and started swimming, disappearing into the dark. She would have been sad to see him leave if not for the overwhelming realization that she was about to get the ass chewing of a lifetime. She looked at the water a little longer, going over all her possible explanations for what had just happened, only to come up woefully short.
It wasn't supposed to go as horribly as it had.
But, for once, it had been entirely someone else's fault.
"Gudrun, why am I not surprised to find you in the middle of all this?"
"Because you find my penchant for trouble charming." Avery stood back up to her full height and turned around, folder held away from her wet body. Fury crossed his arms over his chest.
"You just can't resist, can you?"
"Causing problems for you? You caught me Nick, I just can't help myself."
"You would think you have just a bit more appreciation for the precariousness of my goodwill towards you and your shenanigans."
"Shenanigans is an inherently cute word to describe blowing up a warehouse," Tony mused, shooting a pointed look at the burning building. The flames reached higher, the smoke blocking out the buildings on the other side of the river. As if one cue, the top of the building collapsed, vibrating the ground they stood on punctuating her own stupidity. "The height of that is impressive, though."
"Over achiever," Avery said, pointing to herself. "On a more serious note, I didn't actually cause that."
"You're proximity to problems is alarming." Fury folded his arms over his chest. "In an effort to honor our agreement…"
"Contract, but same same."
"I'm going to give you five minutes to explain before I get angry."
"You're not right now?"
"This is my calm voice."
"Oh, wow. That sucks, okay." Avery took a breath, deciding how to explain without sounding like a thief, arsonist, domestic terrorists, or some ungodly combination of all three. "So, during the Chitauri invasion someone broke into one of the genetic research labs at Oscorp. I went back later, accompanied by an unnamed compatriot..."
"Peter Parker, aged 17, son of Richard and Mary Parker."
"We get it," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "You're creepy."
"Attending NYU in the fall, although he still plans to live at home with his aunt, May Parker."
"Now you're just showing off," Avery said, looking at Steve, who, up until that point, had been content to watch the water and burning building. "Anyway, so we went back on July 4th, which is my first instance of crime-ing, in the effort of full disclosure, and discovered that some of the sample were missing."
"Shut up, Steve. It was a word choice and I'm sticking with it." She paused, blushing at the look on his face as he turned around, eyebrows raised. "I'm sorry. It's actually really cool that you came back. I feel very supported and I want to thank you at a later time when it's more appropriate and I'm not still at the scene of my latest crime. Although, again, not my fault as you will all soon find out. Moving on, so after discovering the samples were missing, I promptly had a completely unrelated and quite frankly horribly times breakdown in my power control and decided to take a little trip out west to solve it. So I come back and, having completely and utterly forgotten about a mess of genetic samples missing, me and my anonymous co-conspirator…"
"Peter. You can just say Peter."
"We decided that we needed to do something about it finally because one of us dropped the ball. It was me, in case that wasn't clear. After a few weird encounters with a man from Hell's Kitchen and entering into a dubiously kosher agreement with said man, he tells us that the samples might have gone through this warehouse." To add emphasis, she gestured behind her like she was presenting a brand new car. "We were just going to go in and scope the place. But when we got inside, it was like someone knew we were coming. All that was left was burned files, lots of shredded paper, and a bunch of muscly dock workers with guns."
"I still don't see how the explosion happened."
"That's the thing. I managed to swipe a file off the top of the pile that was being burned and that was going to be that. We were going to leave, I was going to call Tony, and you, if I was feeling magnanimous, and give over the information. But as we were leaving, we noticed a real funny smell."
"Gas," Tony said.
"Gas!" Avery nodded. "I didn't even notice at first, but it got worse and worse. And then, boom."
"Wow, Avery. I do have to say, you have a way with words. Very colorful. I almost felt like I was there." Tony clapped, only a touch mocking.
"Thanks, Tony." Avery smiled, holding out the file to him as he reached for it. "By the way, I got you a gift to say I'm sorry for being an ass. It was a bouquet of wrenches."
"This whole thing is better." Tony flipped open the folder, perusing the pages. "I was so bored waiting for a suit to render and you saved me from having to spend time alone with myself."
"Let me see that," Steve said, walking over to Tony to take the folder out of his hands. "This a shipment list from the last couple of months."
"Well that's convenient." Avery said, stepping over to look at the papers as he flipped through them. "A little too convenient, actually. I think we were meant to find it, if that isn't too tinfoil of me."
"How did you survive?"
"Hmmm?" Avery flipped over the page. "Look at that, its addresses of the people who shipped from here."
"Gudrun, how did you survive a fiery gas explosion?"
"You're insufferable," Fury sighed.
"It's my most defining character trait. To answer your question, it was divine intervention. The lord said, you will not die on this day and reached down…"
"Weird that you would still believe in god, given your own possible godlike status," Tony mused, ignoring the look thrown at him from Steve.
"Not touching that with a ten foot pole."
The four of them stared at each other, the awkwardness settling over them. Steve, after having thoroughly leafing through the entire folder, tucked it under his arm and looked at her more fully. She was a right mess, slightly burnt and soaking wet that she was, but he still managed to look at her like there wasn't a burning building directly behind them. They stared at each other for a moment, each observing the other like they were seeing each other again after months of being apart, before she finally had to look away to avoid the keen sting of embarrassment.
"Gudrun, I need an answer."
"This won't impact our current agreement, right?"
"No. I am a man of my word, as hard as you might find that to believe," Fury said, holding out his hand for the folder. Steve hesitated, glancing at Avery and Tony before he handed it over. He flipped through the pages even faster than Steve and Tony, able to parse the information at a lightning pace. "Part of our agreement involves trust, does it not? I left you alone for the two months you were gone and I haven't attempted to intervene in whatever this is." For emphasis, he held up the folder and shook it.
Avery hesitated. She could not tell him. She could keep it close to the chest and protect herself, just in case he decided to go back on his word and haul her back in again. Or he could not. After several long moments spend staring at each other, she finally sighed, relenting just a little bit.
"I have a new power."
"Is that so? How long have you known?"
"Since the Chitauri invasion. I went to New Mexico to try and control it a little bit. I only came back when I was confident I had it under control."
"Did you two know about this?"
"Basically everyone but you, actually." Tony shrugged, winking at her when Fury turned away. "No offense."
"Well, regardless, Gudrun, I hope you're proud of yourself."
"Not generally no."
"We've got to work on your self-esteem, kid."
Fury lifted the folder up and walked over to Avery, pining her in place with the intensity of his look. "You just got your first official opp as a certified S.H.I.E.L.D. contractor. Keep me posted on where this goes."
"Wait, I'm doing it? Why?"
"I'm a big believer in continuity," Fury paused, dropping the folder in her hands. "And because I don't think anything I could say would stop you. Nothing has in the past. If what you say is true about them knowing you were coming, then this little thread you and your spiderling have been tugging on might just lead to something."
"I'm not actually that committed to seeing this through, to be honest."
"Then I guess we'll never know." It was almost casual, coming from Fury, and Avery instantly narrowed her eyes.
"You're trying to trick me into doing it."
"I'm not doing anything. In fact, I would prefer it if you didn't and instead handed it over to someone infinitely more qualified. But, you have somehow managed to cobble together a somewhat competent tac team. Your Hell's Kitchen contact knew where to go, your little Spider knew to check for missing samples from Oscorp, and you were smart enough to pick up on the fact that someone decided to leave a little trail for you in that warehouse. I think you better follow it." Fury gave her a final look before he stepped back. "Now, if you'll excuse me I have to go speak with the police commissioner. Apparently somebody decided to take it upon themselves to single-handedly raise the terror threat level in New York City."
"Again, not my fault," She called, fully aware that he probably couldn't hear her, nor was he likely to care. Just to be safe, however, she waited until she was certain he was gone to turn back to the others, letting out a low whistle. "Well, this night certainly went south fast."
"Ruin your big date?" Tony asked, shoving his hands into his pockets.
"This kind of was the date," Avery said, gripping the file tightly to her chest. "But, I think I'm going to have to end my fake relationship before we have a real fight about our fake priorities."
"Modern dating confuses me." Steve raised his eyebrows when they both turned to look at him. "What? It does."
"I could go for a burger. Any takers?"
"Are you buying?" Avery asked, toeing off her wet boots and bending down to pick them up.
"No, it'll bankrupt me." Tony took the boots from her hand and tucked them under his arm. "So a bouquet of wrenches, huh?"
"Yeah, I really am sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you when you were just trying to look out for me. And Steve, I definitely shouldn't have brushed off your concerns." She reached out the hand not holding to file and gripped Steve's arm, giving it a little squeeze. "I would like to come home and change though, before we go."
"I'll get JARVIS working on parsing the file."
"You're going to help?"
"Yes? I have nothing else to do and I'm kidding of digging this new, controlled, responsible, Avery."
"This is not how I would define responsibility," Steve said, although he did smirk at her while Tony threw his head back and groaned.
"You're such a wet blanket, Rogers."
"Would you like to invite Matt?"
"To be made uncomfortable by an excessively awkward meal with us three?" Tony interjected, throwing his arm around Avery's shoulder as they began walking.
"I think I'll leave the poor guy alone for a while."
"Probably not too long. Some of those addresses were in Hell's Kitchen," Steve said, sidestepping a pile of broken down shipping crates.
"I almost got the poor man blown up. I wouldn't be surprised if he never wants to see me again, Hell's Kitchen or not."
"Surprise! I bet you never wanted to see me again." Matt slammed the door shut before she could say anything else, leaving behind the smell of aftershave and the cold pizza that had been clutched in his hand. "Oh come on, Matt! I just want to talk."
He cracked open the door again, dressed only in his boxers and his robe. "This is my first day off in a month, Avery. And I'm still soar."
"It is. And that's why I'm here."
"To cause me more stress?"
"No, to tell you that you we don't need to keep doing this." Pushing open the door just a little bit more, he leaned against the door frame, perfectly content to let her keep talking to him without interrupting. "I know what I'm involved with is above you paygrade. I probably shouldn't have made that deal with you in the first place."
After a moment, he sighed and dropped his head to his chest, holding out his arm to push the door ever so slightly wider. "Do you want to come in?"
"Are you going to put on pants?"
"Oddly enough, I have no problem with this."
"I always knew you just wanted me for my body," Matt said, following her as she stepped into his rather spacious apartment. It was nice, perhaps too nice, for someone on such a limited salary. The furniture was threadbare, probably thrifted, and the walls could use a coat of paint, but it looked better than the vast majority of apartments she had bounced around in during college.
"You caught me. I just can't resist your pale, fury chest and robe that looks like you got it from the dollar store."
"No. I don't want to stay long." He gestured for her to sit on the couch, sitting down next to her at a respectable distance. She realized, now that she was really looking at him, that it was the first time she had seen him without his red glasses. He certainly was handsome, with or without them, but she found the effect of his face on her, the slight dizzying and mystifying way he struck her dumb, had lessened considerably since the first time they met. "I know that when you agreed to help me, it didn't involve anything like last night."
"No, not really."
"Which is why I'm here." She scooted closer to him and grabbed his hand. "We can just end this now. You can break up with me at your work however you see fit, or you can kill me off in a dramatic fashion and maybe get a few days off for grief, and I promise to stop asking you to help me commit crimes, even if it is for the greater good."
"But I so enjoyed our crime-ing."
"I still stand by that. Regardless, the point is that I want to give you an out."
"I want to try something," Matt said, seemingly ignoring what she was saying.
"Are you listening to me?"
"Yes and I want to try something."
He pressed his lips against hers, cutting her off mid-sentence and short circuiting her brain. She didn't respond, too shocked to process what was happening. It had been so long, embarrassingly long, in fact, since she had kissed someone that she found she had entirely forgotten what to do. Should she try change the rhythm or let him take the lead? Tongue was obviously out of the question, as were teeth and touching him.
She realized, in that moment, that she was overthinking it in the least sexy way possible.
So she kissed him back.
At first it was exciting, fumbling and fast like a pair of teenagers under the bleachers, but then they found their beat. Her hands found their way into his hair, tugging slightly as his own hands dropped down to her waist and squeezed.
The heat was short-lived however, and spluttered out almost as soon as it started.
They both pulled back at the same time, hands retracting and finding a home on their laps as they put a bit of space between them on the couch. It was awkward. Avery twiddled her thumbs, the taste of him still lingering on her lips. She wanted to say that she liked it, that it made her toes curl and her heart race.
But she couldn't because it didn't.
It was nice in all the ways it was supposed to be, pleasurable in a clinical sense, and exciting and thrilling and meant to invite her to want more.
Which is why she was so surprised to find that she didn't want more.
"That was," He stopped, choosing his words carefully.
"Passable," She offered, hoping she wouldn't offend him. He snorted and nodded, clearly in agreement with her. "I'm sorry. I really would have thought it would be better."
"I didn't want to go our separate ways without knowing."
"When we made our deal, I never thought it would involve what happened last night, I swear. I wouldn't have even asked."
"I wish I could say it was all fun."
"Why does this feel like a real breakup?" Avery asked, genuinely shocked to find that she was actually sad about no longer having an excuse to spend time with him. After a moment of them sitting in silence, she stood up. "I'll keep you posted on things, if you like?"
"Maybe keep the details to a minimum. I have a feeling your life is about to get a hell of a lot bigger than the problems in Hell's Kitchen." He stood up as well and closed his robe, finally, and reached over to touch her shoulder. "How about a fiery explosion for your demise?"
"A little on the nose, don't you think?"
"I like the irony." She walked towards the door, feeling oddly melancholic about the whole ordeal. "If whatever trouble we found last night keeps passing through Hell's Kitchen, you'll give me a heads up?"
"You'll be the first to know."
"Maybe give me three weeks."
"I mean it. I don't want to hear from you until I can figure out how I'm going to kill you off."
"You're going to call me tomorrow, aren't you?" He leaned against the door frame again, a smirk on his face. Instead of responding, she popped up onto her tippy toes and kissed his cheek.
"Enjoy your day off, Matt." She started to walk towards the stairs, before she paused and turned back, her own matching smirk. "I'll see you around."
"If only I could say the same." He stayed in the hallway only long enough to give her a small wave. "Remember. Three weeks!"
A quick update! This story has recently gone through some edits. All the content is the same, just a little more streamlined and clear. The number of chapters has been reduced, but again, all the same events still happen. I'm sorry if you guys got any confusing notifications while I was going through the editing process.
I hope everyone is staying healthy and happy!