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Avenger Assembled

Bloody Birthday

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Stesha got a quick call during business hours from Jack to double-check on the flowers, but he never did manage to call her during her personal time before it was time for she and her assistants to head over to the Midtown address where they'd been hired to install the flowers for the baby shower. The address Jack had given them led them to a big, rambling Victorian mansion in Midtown, a huge old house that still clung to life even with newer condos nearby. She and the rest of the florist team were met at the front gate by a pale woman in a black suit that matched her black hair and fingernails. "Hello, you must be from the florist," she said with a smile, standing on her high heels to look in the window of the van. "Here, I'll meet you at the front door once you've had a chance to park. I'm Merry, I'll be your...helper today."

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"Sounds great," Stesha said, even as she looked around to see if Jack was in sight. He wasn't, of course. He'd taken her for a ride to get a better deal on some flowers, but at least he'd taken her on half a date in exchange. She still didn't know how to feel about that. Instead of thinking about it, she pulled the van around the side and had her assistant Paul start unloading the flowers. Despite her own qualms, she'd dyed the roses herself, as promised, and was quite pleased with the deep shade of maroon she'd achieved. Black in most lights, they were still red roses, down at the heart. She had her professional pride, after all.

As she hopped out of the car and checked the invoices, she waited for Merry to catch up. "Just tell us where we'll going and we'll have these set up in two shakes. I remember we set this up with..." She made a show of checking her invoice. "Jack, that's right. Is he around today?"

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"Jack told me to tell you that he doesn't know if he'll be able to make it or not," said Merry, obviously repeating a speech she'd been given by someone else. "But that he's sure you don't need him staring over your shoulder to do a great job. Wow, are those your flowers?" Merry's delight at the sight of Stesha's creations was completely unfeigned, at least as far as the super-florist could tell. "Those are great! They're really going to love these in there." She beamed, then added, "Here, let me show you where we'll be going. We'll be setting up the flowers inside the house," she said, pushing open the door to reveal an oddly decorated house inside. The mansion's wallpaper was all dark purples and reds, the old-fashioned furniture made of dark, heavy wood. If not for the brightly burning old-fashioned incandescent lamps everywhere, Stesha might have thought she was in an old-fashioned funeral parlor. "We'll be setting up the flowers in the living room, the boudoir, and, ah, the kitchen." The house was mostly empty as Merry led the florists inside, with the exception of a few people who were obviously household staff. How many people still put their maids in black dresses and white aprons anymore?

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Her arms full of dark flowers, Stesha craned her neck to look around at the strange building. From behind her, Paul sidled up, similarly burdened. "I thought this was for a goth baby shower," he muttered under his breath.

Stesha shrugged, though she had the same question. "Maybe it is," she whispered back. "To each their own. We just provide the arrangements." She was glad she'd dug up the dark swirled-glass vases for the arrangements, anything white would've just made them look like funerary arrangements. "What time does the party start?" she asked Merry, raising her voice to normal volume. "If it starts late, we'll want to feed the flowers now, so the water will be clear again by the time it starts."

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"It starts just after sunset," replied Merry without a pause, "and runs through until the beginning of business tomorrow morning. It'll be a pretty big party here, with lots of people, are the flowers going to be okay even with a lot of coming and going?" She raised her head and peered at the vases. "Are those sturdy? Like, if they get knocked off their tables, are they going to be okay?"

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"Um... probably not." Stesha blinked. "I mean, they're just glass, just vases. And you don't want to see the bouquet spilled." She mustered a little laugh. "Sounds like it's going to be a pretty wild party. I can put down some ticka-tack to stick them to the tables, but I don't know what it'll do to the finish. The best idea is probably to keep them away from where you're going to be doing party games." She set down her large arrangement on a table, then reached into the box to pull out a corsage of three black rosebuds and baby's breath. "Here's the mommy corsage," she said, handing it over to Merry. "For the mom-to-be. Jack didn't specify if he wanted one, but it's part of our usual baby shower package. You should put it in the refrigerator until she arrives."

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"Oh, it's beautiful!" said Merry, exulting over the bouquet. She looked at the flowers with a big smile on her face, running her fingers over the petals. "I'll make sure to give them to her as soon as I see her. Do you have anything for the, ah, baby?" she asked, giving Stesha a dazzling smile. "You never know, she might like some flowers too."

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"Oh..." Stesha blinked again, getting the oddest feeling she was being taken for a ride. "Most of our showers are for babies who haven't arrived yet. It's really better not to give them flowers, the pollen can irritate their skin, or they might mouth one and get sick... Maybe you could pick up a few silk flowers to pin on the baby, if you wanted? Or you could just press some for her baby book, so she can appreciate them when she's old enough." Moira dug into her bag, pulling out a sheet of paper. "Here, I have instructions for preserving keepsake flowers, if you'd like those." She was starting to feel uneasy, but Merry had been nothing but pleasant to her. Maybe it was just the atmosphere.

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Merry looked a bit disappointed, but took the instructions anyway. "Okay, that should work." Standing on her high shoes, she gave Stesha a searching look. "Thanks so much for doing this. I really appreciate you making this night so special. Is there anything else I can do to help?" She pointed out the particular spots where she wanted the flowers, confirming the places where the vases and such did need to be tacked down. "Just be really careful, I don't want to do anything to mess up the party." She took deep breaths of the flowers as they came by, looking deeply pleased with herself. "This is going to be beautiful."

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Stesha took her time with the big arrangements, knowing that Paul was perfectly competent to deal with the smaller vases. The flowers really did look striking against the dark woods and sober colors of the building, and they would only be better when the moonflowers opened in the evening. She gave the roses a little nudge to open some of them to perfect fullness, releasing their strong fragrances into the air. "There, perfect," she murmured, surveying the effect of the flowers in the main room. She personally thought it was a little understated, with no balloons and no banners, but she was used to her tastes not exactly matching those of her high society clientele. "Where's the cake table?" she asked Merry. "It's always nice to put something there."

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Merry blinked, taken aback, but briefly recovered. "Oh! I know!" She pointed to a huge crimson divan in the middle of the room, a massive, overstuffed piece of furniture that looked like a lady's fainting couch from a previous generation. "Put them here. But spread them around, so we can still use the couch. That's where we'll put the cake. It's more festive that way!" She folded her hands in front of her, grinning cheerfully. "It'll be beautiful!"

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"Right..." Stesha agreed dubiously. "Paul, can you get a dropcloth from the van? We'll just cover the couch so it doesn't get ruined by crumbs or water." With Paul's help, she quickly spread out a white cloth over the divan, then scattered a few loose blossoms around, cleverly concealing the vials that held the water keeping them alive. "I think that should be everything," she told Merry. "I just need someone authorized on this business account to sign the invoice, and we'll get out of your way."

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"I'm on the account," said Merry readily. She showed her ID, announcing her name as Meredith Blake, and happily signed off on the paperwork for the flower purchase and arrangement. She signed the check from M Industries, paying the bill in toto down to the penny, and then began digging in her shiny black purse for the tip. "Jack told me to give you fifty percent," she said with a smile as she handed over a substantial wad of bills, "but I'm throwing in my own ten bucks there. You've really made this night special for me." She smiled again, the sort of look that Stesha usually enjoyed seeing from clients who didn't seem like they were completely insane.

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"I'm glad," Stesha said, sneaking a surreptitious glance at Merry's midriff. She certainly wasn't the mom to be, unless she was having the shower at least five months early, but maybe she was the aunt... yeah, like she still had any misapprehension that this was a baby shower. Or that the money was a tip and not a payoff to get rid of her, but she wasn't proud enough to turn down the much-too-large gratuity. She had rent to pay, after all, and maybe she could take herself out for a mani-pedi and make herself feel better. Or a facial, in honor of the damn hickey she'd woken up with the morning after the date.

She accepted the money, tucking it away into her folder, and gave the invoice one last look. "Thank you so much. Everything seems to be in order here." She passed over the receipts, and a business card. "I hope you have a wonderful time at your party, and that you keep Flowers By Design in mind for all your floral needs. If you have any questions or need anything, please feel free to give us a call. And tell Jack that I said hello."

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Jack Faretti was a brave man, one willing to face the perils of a monstrous enemy, a wicked foe, or a terrible physical threat at any moment. But faced with talking to the woman who he'd treated shabbily on a date and dumped without a word in-edge wise, he lacked the courage to actually stop her and speak to her as she made her way out of the house and out to the floral van.

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Unaware of Jack's regard, Stesha paused on her way out to the van and pulled Paul's share of the tip out of her folder. She had little compunction at not sharing out the entire tip, since she'd done the bulk of the work and most of the tip had nothing to do with the job at all. He was more than happy to get a bigger tip than he'd expected, anyway. As she buckled her seatbelt, Stesha gave the house one more long look, then shrugged and drove away. No use crying over spilt milk, she reminded herself yet again, and she could use all the free time she could get. The city wasn't going to beautify itself.

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Stesha's phone rang early the next evening, not long after she'd gotten off her shift at work. Stesha wasn't the type to check numbers; when the phone in her pocket rang as she walked in her apartment door, she answered it. "Hi, Stesha," came Jack's familiar voice. "Do you have a minute?" Jack was in his own apartment as they talked, recuperating from a really wild party as well as a battle with his own ego and sense of morals.

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"Jack?" Stesha asked, a little incredulously. She kicked off her shoes and hung her purse over the doorknob, then walked into the kitchen with the phone still pressed to her ear. "Yeah, I've got a couple of minutes, no problem. Was there something wrong with the flowers?" She couldn't think of why else he might be calling at this point, when all seemed said and done. Turning on the faucet, she filled a watering can and began watering the many plants that had gone all day without her.

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"No, the flowers were beautiful," Jack told her truthfully. "You really...you really made everyone at the party happy, Stesha. You did a wonderful job with them." He made a small noise. "I'm sorry I wasn't there to greet you. I hope you got along OK with Merry; I know how she can be sometimes." Right now, he thought, Merry was probably digging her way through one of the small animals that had been procured to satisfy her initial cravings the night before.

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"It was fine, she said you were busy," Stesha replied, doing her best to sound bland and cosmopolitan. She checked the leaves on a few seedling she was letting grow up naturally, but it was hard to think about that and the phone at the same time. "I'm glad they turned out the way you wanted them. Thank you for the tip, by the way. I'm sure you know it was much too big."

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"It was what you deserved," Jack said quietly. He paused for a moment, forced a breath, and manned up. "I'm sorry, Stesha, but I don't think we can see each other again. We both have our careers, and I don't think they're moving in the same direction. I had a wonderful time with you...it was certainly the most exciting date I've been on in years. But I think you can do better than me."

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"It's not you, it's me?" Stesha parroted back blandly. It was easier to be dispassionate about it over the phone, she decided, and when she'd had a few days to think about it. And it was easier to be sarcastic about it than to admit to hurt feelings. "It's okay, Jack, I got the idea by the end of the date. You probably don't go out on dates with very many florists. But I will point out that if you just wanted the discount, you wound up at a net loss after the movie tickets and the tip."

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"I didn't lose anything, Stesha," Jack said unhappily. Well, maybe he had, given just how much of his own money he'd blown on this date and its aftermath. "Take care of yourself. Keep using those flower powers of yours." With that he hung up, his social courage having failed him in a way his physical courage didn't. Well, at least he'd said what he wanted and not run away like a complete wuss. This time.

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Stesha stared at the phone a moment after the abrupt hang-up. "Yeah... well... you can go piss up a rope," she told it impotently. "Next time just send a text message." Grumbling to herself, she finished her plant chores, then rummaged around in her fridge until she found a lonely bottle of hard lemonade left over from a movie-watching party last month. She popped the top, then sat down in her favorite chair with it and a bowl of potato chips for a sulk. Did he really think lying to her was going to make her feel any better? Could do better than him, indeed. Maybe not in the looks department or the money department, but she could at least find someone with some manners. She turned on a movie channel and dug into her potato chips, foregoing superheroic antics for one night to nurse her bruised feelings. Flower power indeed. Pfft.

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