You barely saw New York as the city slid by the window in front of your glassy-eyed gaze. Headlights, flashing advertisements, and the glow of homes all illuminated your features only momentarily before brushing past you and leaving you to the car’s dark interior. The space between you and your companion seemed infinitesimally small, even with your knees drawn to your chest and your gaze off of his face. Maybe it was just the silence, making him seem closer than he was. All the excitement of the hour before felt as though it had been crammed like cotton down your throat. You could hardly breathe as you listened to his fingers tapping against the buttons on his phone.
For months, you’d been waiting: waiting to appear in court, waiting for the inevitable release of your boyfriend, and waiting for the claustrophobic car ride toward the airport. As passive as those months had been, you still felt tired. Sleep pricked against the back of your eyes, but you knew better then to try and sleep. Sleep, and your boyfriend would notice. Sleep, and he would be hurt.
Just as you thought this, Justin let out something between a whoop of excitement and a dark chuckle. “I can’t believe it.” His shoulder pressed against yours so that you would focus your attention on him. “Look, they’ve already got the story posted!”
He turned his phone so that you could see the screen. There, in high-definition, blue-white glow, were the bolded words “HAMMER CLEARED OF ALL CHARGES,” and beneath that, in smaller type, “Queens Business Head to Spend Vacation Period in Malibu, CA.” Even farther down the page–and what you knew to be what Justin most wanted you to notice–was a photograph, one of the both of you. The embrace pictured was almost lurid; you felt your cheeks burn, though the darkness would hopefully hide your embarrassment. Worse still, you could clearly see Justin’s tongue, just a flash of it, slithering into your mouth.
Clearly, he noticed, too, because Justin laughed again–more genuinely that time–and pocketed his phone. “Interesting choice for the picture,” he remarked, though the smirk gave him away. “But, hey, us getting a little excited, that’s understandable, right? It’s been far too long since I’ve seen my [Name].”
His arm wrapped around your shoulders and pulled you, somehow, closer to him. At the same time, Justin’s eyebrows rose above the frames of his glasses. He wanted an answer. You opened your mouth, but the cotton remained. You settled for a smile, but that wasn’t enough. Justin squeezed you tighter, his smirk returning.
“Why so shy, [Name]? Surely you missed me while I was gone?”
The fingers beating rhythmically against your shoulder drummed your voice out of your throat. “Of course I missed you. I was…driven to distraction, without you around.”
Justin’s smirk grew into a smile. He bent forward and you felt his lips on your forehead. At the same time, his other hand pulled up the end your shirt. You forced yourself to remain relaxed, even as you made to stare outside again. His lips found the shell of your ear; his words tickled as he whispered:
“Good, good. The press will like that. The head of [Last Name] Industries, pining for her lover, wrongfully accused and awaiting sentencing in jail. Everyone will eat it up.”
You said nothing, and Justin pulled away. Now both his hands gripped you as he forced you to look at him.
“Hey,” he said gently. “Hey. You didn’t think they’d actually convict me, did you?”
You allowed yourself another tiny smile, hoping that exhaustion would explain your lack of enthusiasm. “No, of course not.”
Justin snorted. “My lawyers are too good for that. It was just a waiting game. Although they could have made me wait less, you know? You’d think I went out and personally murdered all of those people, the way everyone was going on about it.”
“Mm, well.” You sat up just long enough to peck him on the cheek. “We’ll be in Malibu before morning.”
This earned you another harsh bark of laughter, though Justin also released you. “Thank god. The sooner I see the back of New York, the better. How long have we been driving, anyway? Where are we?” Justin leaned forward and rapped on the glass between the passenger seats and the driver. “Did you hear me?” he called as the driver lowered the glass. “Where are we?”
“Flushing Meadows, sir.”
“Flushing Meadows?” you asked, voice high, and then you saw it: the flashing lights, the fireworks, the massive throng of jostling people. Your eyes snapped shut, but the damage was done. The pain was already there, throbbing in your chest. But it would be behind you soon, just like the rest of the day’s ordeal.
“Oh, hey, what a coincidence!” The back of Justin’s hand smacked your side. “Stark Expo. Isn’t tonight the last night?”
“Yes, sir,” said the driver. “It is.”
“[Name], we have got to check this out.”
Your eyes popped open and your knees found your chest once more. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Even as the words escaped you, you knew you should have kept them prisoner. You were not to make things harder, and a fight would make things harder. The smile on Justin’s face didn’t leave entirely, it just changed. His amusement, formally focused on his narrow escape, was now aimed straight at you. “Not a good idea?” Justin repeated. “Why isn’t it a good idea?”
You swallowed, and when you spoke again, your voice was barely a whisper. “You just got out of a trial where you were accused of being involved in the deaths of twenty-six people at the Stark Expo,” you answered. “Not to mention all the property damage.”
“They got everything cleaned up, didn’t they?” Justin scoffed. “Besides, I’ve been out of touch with the world for so long. I need to check up on the competition. Much as I hate to admit it, the Stark Expo will be where all the competition is at. Besides,” he added, “you father wouldn’t be happy if you skipped out on this opportunity, would he?”
Your very bone marrow turned to ice at the mention of your father. If Justin told him that you had purposely skipped out on trying to gather market intel–and Justin would tell, you knew–your father would not be happy. But the Stark Expo was the last place on the entire planet that you wanted to be. “Please, Justin,” you said, a little more loudly. “It’s late. I just want to go home.”
“[Name], you know I wouldn’t ask you to go if you really didn’t want to. I can understand if you’re tired. It must have been exhausting, sitting around and waiting for my trial to come up, and for me to be declared innocent of all wrongdoing. Really stressful. I mean, after all I’m the one that’s been stuck in jail for the past few months; I might want to get out a little. But if it’s home you want, [Name], we’ll go, right now.”
Guilt walloped you in the stomach, but it did not force you to vomit out your last vestiges of fight. Hard as it was, you allowed your feet to touch the flood and your hands to rest at your sides. “Justin,” you said, trying to infuse as much sincerity into your words as possible. “What if the media sees you there? Don’t you think it’s a little early for you to be rubbing it in Tony’s face that you were acquitted?”
“No one is going to notice I’m there. Every news outlet in the country is going to be focused on Anthony’s triumph, now that my time in the limelight is over.” Justin must have noticed your change of color that time, because he laughed again. “Is that what this is all about? Are you still scared of Anthony?”
“No, of course not.”
“Because that would be stupid even for you, [Name]. That fight was ages ago. You're way above Anthony now; no need to bother with him anymore.”
You forced a grin and quickly took Justin’s nearest hand to give it a squeeze. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. If you want to visit Stark Expo, Justin, we should visit.”
In response, Justin frowned. “Are you sure?” You nodded. “Really sure?”
“Yes, Justin. Obviously I’m not going to run into Tony, and what kind of business woman would I be if I didn’t scope out my competitors when I had the chance?”
Slowly, Justin smiled again. His teeth flashed in the darkness as he leaned his head back toward the driver. “Hey, pull over. [Name] wants to check to the Expo out.”
“Right away, sir.”
Despite the lateness of the hour, traffic remained at a near stand-still, which explained how your car remained close enough to get you to the Expo grounds. As it ticked slowly closer, you prayed. Maybe the Expo would draw to a close before you and Justin ever made it there.
But Tony never had been a believer in “early to bed, early to rise.” Even as you walked beside Justin into the main gate, crowds migrated loudly inside along with you. You flinched as you passed a pair of security guards, but either they did not recognize you or Justin, or they simply didn’t care. Justin, fortunately, was too preoccupied to notice your nerves. He kept an eye out for interesting tech; you kept an eye out for cameras.
It didn’t seem very long before he stopped you to say, “We’ll cover more ground if we split up.” Automatically, your hand anchored around his wrist. The stream of people continued around you, oblivious to the stationary couple in its midst.
“That’ll just make it harder to find each other when we need to leave,” you said, and this time you could not help the pleading note that crept into your voice.
“It’ll be fine,” said Justin as he pried himself free of your grip and pressed his lips quickly to your forehead. “You worry too much. I’ll text you when it’s time to meet back at the car.”
He was gone. Panic fluttered through your veins, a million butterflies that took up roost in your head. You looked around wildly, but Justin had disappeared entirely. You rushed first to the left–tripping several people that didn’t take too happily to the event–and then to the right, where you stumbled through a gap in the crowd and fell gasping to the cement. The ground scuffed briefly at your knees and elbows, but soon you were up again and looking desperately about once more.
Alone. You were at Stark Expo entirely alone. What if Tony saw you? He’d be so angry. Without Justin, you would have no course but to accept his assumption that you had come of your own volition. A quiet, reasonable voice in the back of your head reminded you that the Expo was enormous, and that Tony was probably too preoccupied at the moment to even recognize your face should he pass by. You did not, however, have any inclination to listen to reason that evening.
You began to move quickly through the Expo, hardly taking in any of the innovation featured at the stands lining the road. A scream clawed at your chest, but you would not open your mouth to release it. Neither you nor Justin could afford discovery.
Running around like a lost child, it soon dawned on you, would only attract attention. After a moment’s pause to collect yourself, you found a bench and sank shakily onto it. A trembling hand covered your eyes, but the scene around you did not fade. Perhaps Justin would text soon, but he would be disappointed if you had nothing to report. Although your legs still felt like jelly, you forced yourself to your feet, only to walk straight into another woman.
“I’m so sorry!” you squealed as the lights popped in front of your eyes. Perhaps you wouldn’t have bothered with the apology if you had been able to see that she had a microphone clenched in her hand. You looked up wildly to note that particular detail–and the trailing cameraman–just in time for her to get a good look at your face.
“It’s no trouble. Wait a minute. Are you–You’re [F Name] [L Name]!”
Numb professionalism flooded through your veins and up to your head. You went blank, immediately. No more panic. No more fear. No more thinking. A smile appeared on your face as you stood up straighter to look directly at the woman.
“Why, yes, I am.”
“This is excellent. I was just lamenting the fact that there weren’t any notable people to interview–and here you are!”
You laughed. “Here I am.”
The woman turned and called out to people entirely invisible to you, “Hey, everybody! It’s [F Name] [L Name]!” Before anyone could answer, she turned back to you, beaming. “Are you enjoying the Expo? It’s your first appearance here, is it not?”
“Yes, it is. I felt obligated to take a look at things, since I was in town.”
“Taking a good look at the competition, huh?”
“Sure thing.” You winked. The pool of reporters steadily grew. Camera flashes popped dizzyingly across your face. “Mr. Stark certainly does know how to obtain the best of the best.”
“And yet [L Name] Industries did not have a booth this year,” called another gentleman. You flashed another smile in the direction the voice came from, though you could not see him yourself. “Were you prevented by Stark Industries from obtaining one?”
“I’m afraid that we simply didn’t get our application in soon enough. I’m certain that Mr. Stark would not prevent us from showing due to personal conflicts.”
“Miss [L Name],” cried another reporter. “Is your appearance at the Expo proof that your highly publicized fight with Mr. Stark after the death of his father is now behind the two of you?”
“Mr. Stark and I–”
“You and I…what?”
With a rush of horror that put out any hope of a successful interview, you turned to look at the newcomer. Standing right beside you, looking highly amused, was Tony Stark. Your mouth fell open. The words died before you could even give them breath. In the hurricane of your silence, the media only grew louder, the photographing more frenzied. All the while, Tony stood smiling at you with his hands in his pockets.
“I saw the crowd,” he remarked as he at last took his eyes off of your face and turned them toward the crowd surrounding him. “Strange occurrence, there being someone more interesting than me on the final night of my own Expo.”
That got a general laugh. The instinct to fold into yourself drove itself up from your toes to your head, but the cameras were still recording. Justin would see this. Your family would see this. You could not disappoint them. After a moment of searching, you found your lost, bland smile, and hitched it back on, just in time to hear the reporters take up questioning Tony instead.
“Mr. Stark, what do you think about Miss [L Name]’s appearance here?”
With a frown, Tony gave you a once over. “She could do something about the bags under her eyes.” Your smile grew both wider and drier in response to those words. Tony grinned. “But, really, I’m just as surprised to see her as you all are.”
“Was she invited?” someone from the back shouted.
Tony shrugged. “She’s allowed to be here, if that’s what you mean. I certainly don’t mind.”
“What about that fight of yours all those years ago?”
“Fight?” Tony shot you a questioning look, which you met with trembling lips before stepping forward and back into the fray.
“As you said, that fight was years ago,” you answered. “We were young. I don’t even remember what we fought about.”
“I don’t even remember that we fought.”
Another bout of laughter. Before someone could lob a reminder of Tony’s words–“Don’t ever contact me again. What we have–whatever ‘this’ is? We’re through.”–you grabbed the nearest microphone and spoke. “It’s been a pleasure seeing Mr. Stark again, but I really must be going. I was supposed to leave for Malibu an hour and a half ago.”
“I should get going, too,” said Tony. “The closing ceremony will be starting in fifteen minutes, guys. You might want to go get yourselves set up.”
No one seemed particularly enthusiastic about ending the interview there, but the reporters dispersed slowly anyway. You stood ramrod-straight waiting for them to clear enough that you could make a break for it. Tony’s presence felt like a constant fire pressing heat against your body. You could not ignore him, but you couldn’t bring yourself to look at him either. The sooner you got away, the better.
At last you could. Without waiting for someone to break away to ask for a more private interview, you loped away. You would text Justin once you got outside–feign illness, feign anger, anything that it would take to get away from Flushing Meadows, New York. The illness would be easiest; you’d felt like throwing up ever since Tony Stark had appeared.
Your heart sank into the vicinity of your lower intestine. It took all the self-control you had to breathe deeply in, then turn to see Tony jogging toward you. Maybe you could run, but that would be rude, and your rudeness would get out somehow. So, you waited, although you did not offer Tony a smile as he neared.
“I thought you had a closing ceremony to prepare for,” you said once he was near enough to hear your normal speaking voice. Tony waved these words away.
“It can wait. Can’t exactly start without me.” He fell silent and regarded you for a moment. You blinked sedately back, willing yourself not to blush. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry,” you said lightly. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“You didn’t intrude.” Tony shook his head. “Half the state of New York is here. It’s not like you need an invitation. I was just curious. Doesn’t really seem like your scene.”
A wide smile stretched across your features. “I don’t think you’re in any position to know my kind of scenes these days.”
His brow furrowed a bit at that; he reached up to scratch the side of his head. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “That’s right. It’s been how long now?”
“Since your father’s funeral.”
“Oh,” he said. Then his eyes widened. “Oh.”
“At any rate,” you said, a little more loudly than normal, in the hopes that it would derail Tony’s train of thought, “I was just in New York City, and driving past. I thought I’d take a look around. I’ll be out of your hair shortly.”
“Why the rush? It’s the last night. You may as well enjoy it. Come see the closing ceremonies.” He gestured behind him at the Expo’s largest structure. “I promise it’ll be a really fantastic show.”
“Knowing you, Tony, I have no doubt that it will be. But I really need to be going. My driver is waiting for me.”
“So? Just have him wait a little longer. Isn’t that what Daddy [L Name] pays him to do?”
“Daddy [L Name] has a few strings attached to allowing me the use of my driver,” you said. The false note of humor in your voice hurt your ears. “He expected me home in Malibu a while ago, and if he finds out I wasted all that time here…” You trailed away and shrugged to finish. Tony nodded.
“Still hates my guts, huh?”
“Your guts more than anyone else’s.”
He laughed. “Well, I don’t see why trying to make him hate me less will benefit me. Come on, [Name]. Stay.”
You looked him straight in the eyes. They crinkled slightly–with worry lines–before you spoke. “No, Tony.”
For a moment, it appeared that he would continue to argue with you. Tony’s mouth opened; his tongue wet his lips; he angled his head very slightly upward. Then he let out a short breath and nodded again. “Okay. I’ll be in Malibu in a few days anyway. Maybe we could meet up.”
You did not respond, just blinked and smiled blandly up at Tony. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and then thrust out his hand.
“It was nice to see you again.”
You didn’t take the hand. Your heart beat painfully in your chest. You couldn’t touch Tony. No, that was a bad idea, on almost every level there was. You took a wide step back and clapped your own hands behind your back.
“Sure. Good luck with the rest of your Expo.”
And before he could speak to you any more, you spun about and rushed for the entrance. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe Tony just turned right around and went back to his work. But you couldn’t shake the feeling that he stared at you until you reached the edge of his park, where you ducked into a forested area and sat with your hands gripped around your cellphone, waiting for Justin to contact you, as you shook and tried harder than you had in months not to cry.