She really hated bloody marys. They were just cheaper than mimosas most of the time. That was probably because they tasted like something that you’d spit up after a bad night out. It hadn’t been a bad night out, but somehow, for someone so “put-together” as her lab supervisor liked to joke, or encourage with what passed for motivation when squinting, she could never seem to pull herself together on Thursdays. Clear answer: stop going out on Wednesdays, but she still ended up here every week.
Jemma ended up in the cafe for lunch most days, somewhere quiet to interpret literature rather than hear the clinking of small tubes of glass and the trill of fingers against keyboards. The biology lab was beautiful and clean and particularly advanced, but it was also loud. Even when it was quiet.
The grid-marked book in front on the table of her swirled and bent in impossible ways. She hated the way it looked when it did that--her hands would shake when she strung together the parts of formulas. Her drawings would look like they had been produced in high wind or earthquakes. She should stop going out Wednesdays. Her phone chimed the end of lunch hour and it was time to stand up and get her things and head back to the office.
The walk back from the cafe was quick and chilly and she slung her bag across her shoulder on the way out, shoving things in there on the way out and dropping everything for the hundredth time that week. Not bad, she whispered to herself, noting that at least her books had made it back in there.
Her cell phone, on the other hand, had suffered a casualty. She shook her head at the cracked screen and began her journey over again.
“Jemma, you left this,” Bobbi said without looking up from her own cell phone and while dangling Jemma’s keys.
“Thanks,” Jemma replied without surprise.
“Coming back from Baxter’s?” Bobbi asked, matching up to Jemma’s footsteps.
Jemma nodded. “Not unlike a hurricane, it seems.”
Bobbi laughed. “Looking over your notes from yesterday on the listserv last minute before we get into this meeting.”
“Noticed that you’re onto something and I am certainly not surprised.” Bobbi shoved her hands in her pocket. “Why didn’t you talk to us about it?” She stopped on the sidewalk.
Jemma grimaced. “Didn’t I?”
“No,” Her mouth twirked, “you didn’t.”
“Fuck.” She cursed under her breath.
“Yeah, you’re going to be presenting this one all on your own. I mean--the email was clear and wonderfully written, but our team hasn’t talked about this at all and we don’t operate that way. Frankly, I’m surprised Coulson hasn’t strung you up by your ears already.”
“This is punishment, isn’t it?” Jemma groaned and started back, trying desperately not to stomp.
“Also, there’s a rip in your pants.”
Bobbi pointed at the exposed portion of Jemma’s underwear. “Yeah, right there.”
Deep breathing didn’t work for Jemma, but even if it had, she still wouldn’t have thought to do it. Right under her belt, a horizontal rip ran from her hip to the middle of her back. “How didn’t I catch that?”
“I wondered myself. Last Tuesday.”
Jemma could feel herself go pale. “Tuesday? Why didn’t you tell me?” She struggled with her faded green sweater, trying to cover at least part of the fashion offense.
Bobbi pursed her lips. “I had a question that I knew you wouldn’t answer. How many times will Jemma wear the same pair of black jeans that almost look like slacks in the next week? Answer: at least three. Can’t confirm because I didn’t see you over the weekend.”
Jemma didn’t say anything, but she did point her face directly at the building they were fast approaching.
“I’m just…” she stopped. A look of formulation caught her for a minute before she continued. “You can’t keep this up.”
Jemma sighed. And so it was this same conversation again. She’d tried playing stupid, agreeing to change, and also...well, lying. “I’m not--”
Bobbi stopped her with the power of one look. “Stop. Don’t fight me, okay, just listen. I have known you for so long.”
“Uh-huh” Jemma hurried on. They went through the door of the building and headed to the elevator.
“Jemma, you can’t do this forever. We both know better.”
She didn’t answer, but pushed the button to the left of the elevator and they waited in silence.
“And you reek of vodka,” Bobbi finished as the doors closed.
“This is a technology that simply must be embraced now--by an organization such as this with the resources and the valuable minds that ours employs.” Jemma looked through the room, a crowd much bigger than she had expected and bigger than her supervisor had told her. It didn’t make her nervous. The awful bloody mary had helped with that.
She took a second and waited. “Any questions?” It was genuine, really, no matter how it sounded.
No one said anything.
“Okay, I’ll stay after for anyone who wants to discuss,” she smiled and watched people turn to each other. It didn’t seem promising. Bobbi sat in her seat in the front row and tried to give her a look of confidence.
“That could have gone better, huh?” the lab supervisor said, walking painfully slowly to the podium where Jemma was waiting.
She gazed into the floor, thankful that the presentation hall did not have a microphone. “Notes?” She asked.
Coulson crossed his arms. “The idea is a fantastic one for certain. Maybe you just needed to, you know, talk it out with someone before hand. You can do better than this, Jemma.”
She tried to smile and hoped that it looked sincere. No one seemed to be able to mind their own business today. “Consider the lesson learned. Hear that, Bobbi?”
She was already standing by the two of them, her things packed. “Heading back to bio,” she said, waving her hand in Coulson’s direction.
He turned to give Jemma a look. Deep lines crossed his forehead. It was a go-to expression for him, but even so, she saw it much too often. There was no way she was getting out of this one unscathed.
“How long did you work on this one?” He asked, gesturing to the screen that everyone had been stuck on just a little bit prior. She had scraped it together in the blink of an eye and had still been working on it when the audience all filed in, to be true, and it was good enough--but she knew it wasn’t good.
Jemma bit her lip. “Couple of minutes.”
“Oh, Don’t say that.” she said, sounding too close to a beggar.
“It does. We could have helped you with it. Your paper was good.” He referred to the email that she’s posted on the listserv. From his reference to it and the size of the crowds, at least she could verify that people were reading her papers.
She turned away and shut down her laptop. “Well, I was up all night working on that.” In a fit, when a draft of cool air bounced off the auditorium walls and hit her, she scrambled again to cover her hip. Dispose of all the evidence piece by piece.
“This could be a great initiative. Something good for a whole lot of people. The only caveat is that we’re all going to have to devote a lot of time to this one.” He said, pointedly. “But I think the big guy is probably going to want to talk to me about this and probably set up a team with the neuropsych department and some people from tech. How does that sound to you?”
“Oh, fine.” She could feel her own ears prick up, but tried to contain her excitement at the thought of beginning a new project. The research aspect of the job was fantastic, but putting her hands on something new was even better. Jemma liked working, after all, and aside from going out, that was really the only other thing she did anymore.
“We’ll have to meet about it.” He admitted. “I need to get more of an idea about the inner workings of your plan before he gets ahold of me. No surprises.”
She looked at the clock by the entrance. Most people would have already started heading home by then. “Want to talk now?”
Coulson shook his head and arranged his files. “First thing in the morning. I have plans I’m late for.”
“Alright, the morning, then.” She tried to mask her disappointment, but suddenly wondered if any of this pretending was working at all.
He gave her a small wave and then turned to leave without looking back.
Jemma sat in the presentation hall for a while after everyone had filed out. Either her delivery had been that good or not a single person at the company had had any interest in the topic at all. She took a deep breath and then sat on the edge of the stage until her hands stopped shaking, and she took out her notebook and began to draw the blueprints.
Baxter’s closed at 4:00, which was about the same time that The Ostrich opened on Front street. It was a quick shift from lunch to dinner time, but Jemma was never really hungry anymore. They had drinks, though, and music, and that tinny ring of foreign people chatting with one another. The thunking sound of a cue ball clubbing against velvet.
It was better than home.
She took the notebook with her when she left the office, one of the last people in a building where everyone stayed late. As it got later, the office became colder until she realized that it was time to head back.
The Ostrich was closer to her apartment than it was to the office, a long 15 minutes in which Jemma became overly obsessed with the thought of plopping down on the first available park bench and continuing her work. The sweetest kind of escapism, but it was cold outside as well, and The Ostrich became sultry in the night. Jemma just wanted to warm her toes.
Just an hour or so, she promised herself, trying to think of the concern on Bobbi’s face. It wasn’t her fault; she really did just care for Jemma’s wellbeing.
She poured into the bar, where people were stringing in two or three at a time and then leaving, but the corner booth was open almost always. It was the one closest to the heating. She took her seat and removed her green sweater, piled it into the seat beside her.
A waitress dropped a glass of whiskey on the table without a word, used to the routine and the generous tips.
“Thanks,” she said without looking up. Her part of the routine as well. She took out the book for the countless time that day and went back to it, leaned over far enough to swallow the whole set up. She sketched a neuron, imagined the way that she would need to present the project to Coulson, breaking it down far enough that he could explain it to Fury himself. After a few minutes, she took the whiskey and downed it in one gulp.
“Just a glass,” someone said in a hushed voice.
“Yeah, but with what in it?” The waitress asked, her voice firm. She was growing more irritated by the minute.
Jemma didn’t look up, but she did find herself listening.
“An empty one.” the hushed person said, growing louder.
From her peripherals, Jemma could see the man holding his arms out in frustration.
“I just want a glass,” he insisted, “with nothing in it.”
“You’re in a bar; we don’t do that here. You can order a drink or you can leave.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Here’s a dollar,” he said tersely. He slapped his hand against the sticky bar. “Let me borrow the glass.”
“No,” the waitress replied, equally as terse. A force to be reckoned with, but a good person to have on your side, and she was on Jemma’s side.
The man was petulant. He hunched over the bar. “I’m not leaving until you fill this very very simple request.”
A distraction. She looked up from the brain and the shaky lines that she was trying to render on the paper for Coulson.
Jemma wasn’t sure what the man expected; this was New York. Everyone expected someone’s ulterior motive. “He’ll have what I’m having,” Jemma said loud enough to be heard over the noise of the other people. She crossed to the bar, her drained glass in hand.
“Listen,” the man began, two fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.
“I’ve got this,” she whispered, standing closer to the bar. She snuck the man her empty glass when her waitress turned back to the shelf. “Don’t be a child,” she told him. “I was all empty.”
“Your tab?” The woman asked.
“My tab,” Jemma repeated to the waitress with a wink. She took the whiskey, poured a little taller than others, and strolled back to her booth and to her work, which she had begun labelling, by memory, with medical precision.
“Is that Ardbeg? Did she pour you that?” The man huffed, only low enough for Jemma to hear. A stiff finger was pointed at the waitress, who had already moved onto something else.
“I doubt it,” she admitted, now aware of why the man, who was unquestionably scottish, had felt the need to follow her to the corner booth by the sweltering heater. She took a sip of the drink and hid her smile behind the glass. “And if it is, they've most likely watered it down.”
It was an old private joke, one that she made to herself the first time someone had told her that she was on the highway to alcoholism. She only bought so many drinks because three whiskeys from The Ostrich equalled the alcohol content of one at home.
“I suppose they, eh, do happen to have the nice liquors at the bar for women who look like you.” He said matter-of-factly as he fished a flask out of the inside pocket of his coat and began to pour with his back turned to the other patrons.
Jemma tried not to laugh. The audacity of someone to bring his own liquor into a bar so he could pour it into their glass. She looked again to the blue notebook, convinced he would take off after he was finished pouring so she could return to her important work which was now without distraction.
“That’s a spot-on diagram,” he said quietly, having settled. He took a seat across from her. “Are you a neurologist?” The man looked up at her and she was caught there, frozen in time.
His eyes were the same blue as his shirt. The same blue as her chemistry notebook.
“I-I...Jemma Simmons, biochem,” she stuttered, but held out her shaking hand for him to grasp.
“Leo Fitz; engineering.” He said.