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As might be expected, Pepper meets Sarah Jane for the first time at a Stark Industries press conference. This being the 21st century, female reporters are long past being a novelty, but Ms. Smith’s questions are unusually perceptive. Not only has she done her homework on the medical hardware Tony is rolling out, she’s thought through some of the long-term social implications of the technology. More than that, though, she saves her most incisive question for the cocktail hour afterward, and asks it in a way that suggests she knows very well why Stark Industries is setting up its own network of clinics in the Third World rather than let the United Nations (and, by extension, S.H.I.E.L.D.) get its hands on the new equipment.

Pepper gives her a business card – the third-most exclusive of the five versions she has with her – and makes a mental note to research one Sarah Jane Smith at the first available opportunity.

#

Given Tony Stark’s reputation and Pepper Potts’ spectacular looks, Sarah Jane is very much afraid that Potts will turn out to be a figurehead. Five minutes into the press conference, she changes her mind. Stark’s personal assistant and (for today) corporate spokesperson is clearly the smartest person in the room – and might still be, Sarah suspects, even if Stark himself were to walk in unexpectedly. She is playing the assembled newsies as skillfully as certain teens of her acquaintance might play a video game, and charming them even as she does so. This being the case, Sarah Jane quickly alters her own agenda, asking a couple of thoughtful questions that she wouldn’t have dared pose to an ordinary PR flack, and gets equally thoughtful (and quotable) answers in return.

Having more than fulfilled her journalistic duties, Sarah takes a chance when she and Pepper cross paths during the post-conference social hour. Given Stark Industries’ connections to S.H.I.E.L.D. (which oversees what’s left of UNIT these days), she asks a question designed to probe Potts’ and Stark’s attitudes toward all things UN-related. The half-response she gets is both as suggestive and as oblique as she expects, and she flies back to England later that week content to await further developments.

#

As it turns out, Sarah Jane Smith’s security workup is both less and more intriguing than Pepper expects. She had anticipated a dossier not unlike Natasha’s (which, as Stark Industries’ just-minted CEO, she had insisted on seeing before allowing S.H.I.E.L.D. to inflict her on Tony). Ms. Smith, whatever else she might be, surely isn’t an assassin. Instead, she finds a host of connections to something called UNIT, which – despite the I-for-Intelligence in its acronym – has clearly had far more to do with reining in off-the-wall science and supposed extra-terrestrial activity than with actual spycraft. Even after she sics JARVIS on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s computers (another CEO’s perk duly extracted from Tony), such files as she can find on and from UNIT are impressively vague about the details where the words “alien invasion” are concerned. Still, the implications of some of the older reports definitely run in that direction, and others dovetail entirely too well with more recent events. The word “Dalek” is in Stark Industries’ files, too, and Pepper is disconcerted to find it in as many different UNIT documents as she does.

The personnel records are a bit less fuzzy, but not much. Obviously, the file that contains pictures of nine different men and identifies them all as the same “scientific adviser” has been corrupted somehow, even though JARVIS insists otherwise. The file on Sarah Jane herself is long but full of gaps. It’s clear that at some point she was a full-time field agent, yet there’s nothing even remotely resembling a payroll record. On the civilian side, Ms. Smith’s press credentials are impeccable though decidedly scattershot, especially in the last few years – evidently an inheritance has given her enough money that she can pick and choose her projects. Most curious of all are her two children, both adopted within the last few years, as nothing in UNIT’s files or outside them suggests that the woman has ever had any sort of personal life. JARVIS is adamant that the adoption records are wholly in order despite their extraordinary sketchiness – to the extent that if Pepper didn’t know better, she’d think JARVIS had created the files himself.

Pepper finishes reading the report and frowns. Going purely by the data, she probably ought to classify Sarah Jane Smith as a high-level security risk and avoid any further contact. But her instincts insist that both those decisions feel wrong, though her internal Magic 8-Ball is maddeningly vague when it comes to providing specifics.

What she needs, she decides, is a second opinion. So she puts in a call to Maria Hill.

#

UNIT, Maria reflects, has been one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most colossal ongoing headaches.

The two agencies had eyed each other sideways for a good many years, mostly avoiding any outright rivalry via a combination of geography and specialization. S.H.I.E.L.D., rooted more strongly in North America, took on the purer espionage and political intrigue cases, while UNIT handled runaway monsters and science-gone-wrong disasters under European (mostly British) leadership. But after successive debacles in the mid-2000s involving the Daleks and the Master, the United Nations and Nick Fury had both seen enough, and UNIT was summarily folded into S.H.I.E.L.D.

That, at least, had been the plan. Maria smiles wryly to herself as she recalls the four months when her job had consisted almost entirely of seeing that UNIT’s personnel and records were properly integrated into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s infrastructure. The records had been fairly easy to manage, all things considered, even though a shocking percentage of the material had consisted of (gasp!) paper files kept in old-fashioned filing cabinets. The personnel were another matter. By the time she’d finished processing letters of resignation, there were scarcely enough UNIT scientists left to fill a seminar room at the Hub. Nor could Maria blame them. She could promise those who stayed greatly improved labs and technical facilities – but what UNIT’s researchers wanted were flexibility and creative freedom, neither of which were high on Fury’s list of R&D priorities.

Which reminds Maria that Pepper’s is not the only request she’s had lately to delve into UNIT’s old records. Fury has also sent her a memo in connection with the team of “Avengers” he’s trying to put together. Give me all you can find on this Doctor character, says the note. If we lose Stark, we’ll need another tech genius in the mix.

Several mornings later, Maria has four minor paper cuts, two toes bruised by a dropped banker-box, a great deal of dust under her fingernails, and an appointment for a mani-pedi which is totally going on her expense account.

She also has a fat file and a memo for Fury. Here’s what you asked for on the Doctor, it says. Short version: Most valuable asset in UNIT’s toolbox, if you can find him – and stay out of his way. Maria chuckles as she sends the packet on its way. Unless she’s badly misread the reports, there’s no chance in Hell of the Doctor – whichever one of him Fury might encounter – accepting the job Fury is offering. But she would dearly love to watch the fireworks if Fury actually manages to pin him down long enough to make the pitch.

Pepper’s inquiry is another matter. UNIT’s hard-copy records have, if anything, less information on Sarah Jane Smith than Maria and Pepper have already run down electronically. Maria, however, has an ace up her sleeve: she’s stayed in touch, informally, with a number of the scientists whose exit interviews she conducted during the merge. As it happens, one of them is UNIT’s former Head of Scientific Research, who’s now in charge of a department the British have dubbed MI-9, or the Scientific Security Branch....

Maria begins to type an email message, then pauses and deletes it. Wrong approach, she tells herself, recalling the tenor of Pepper’s voice on the phone. This one’s personal, not professional. I can’t play this card at a distance.

Fifteen minutes later, she’s moved up the mani-pedi appointment, performed major surgery on her office calendar, and reserved an airline ticket to London. Only then does she key the command sequence to scramble her phone line, pick up the handset, and dial an overseas number.

“Kate? Turns out I’m going to be in your neighborhood next week. Any chance I can buy you lunch?”

#

Kate Stewart’s choice of restaurant is a bit of an odd duck. It’s licensed as a pub, but the menu runs to a mix of Italian dishes and Jewish-delicatessen fare. It is, in fact, possibly the only pub in all England where ordering fish and chips will get you a heap of fried potatoes and a plate of smoked salmon, the latter definitely not deep-fried. Despite its eccentricities, however, the food is excellent, the prices are moderate, and its half-hidden location on a narrow London side street means that its clientele is mostly local. It is, in a word, safe ground.

She stands and smiles as Maria Hill comes through the door. Maria returns the smile, threads her way across the room, then slips off her fog-damp coat before sliding into the back-corner booth. “Interesting place,” she says. “My cabbie wasn’t sure this street really existed till we actually got here.”

“We’ve a theory at the office that Jonas pays Zagat not to list him,” Kate replies, “so as to keep from being entirely mobbed.” There is further small talk as menus are perused and lunch is ordered – primavera calzone for Kate, who continues to nurse a pint of cider, and a turkey Reuben for Maria, whose eyes flicker mischievously as she asks for a Nut Brown Ale.

“I daresay you won’t find Robin Hood lurking in the woodwork,” Kate tells her, catching the look.

That prompts a grin from Maria. “Actually,” she says, “we have him on retainer back home.” Then her expression grows more serious. “That said, there was someone I was rather hoping to look up while I’m here – totally a personal favor, though, not anything official.”

Kate catches the tap-dancing behind Maria’s tone and quirks an eyebrow at her. “Totally personal?”

“I promise. Not official, not even black-ops ‘off the books’. Which is what makes it awkward, actually.” Maria’s voice has shifted; she is carefully trying to sound trustworthy yet not persuasive.

Kate is silent for a long moment, then nods. “Comes with the business,” she says. “So, this person you’re looking for – she’d be a journalist, yes?”

Now Maria’s eyebrows shoot upward. “Yes. And how—?”

“Comes with the business,” Kate says again, grinning now. She lifts one hand and gestures, whereupon a woman seated two booths away rises and steps briskly toward them. “Maria, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane, Maria Hill. I expect I ought to warn you both against talking shop – but I rather think that may be a lost cause.”

Kate’s prediction proves wholly accurate. Luckily, Sarah Jane’s sonic lipstick has been tuned to prevent any possible eavesdropping, as the three-hour conversation that ensues includes mention of eleven different alien invasions, eighteen classified superweapon prototypes, four international doomsday conspiracies, seven incarnations of three different Time Lords, and a partridge in a pear tree robot dog in Bannerman Road.

When it finally ends, Sarah Jane promises to fly back to America to cover the just-announced Stark Expo in New York. Maria promises to set up another lunch, this time to properly introduce Sarah Jane to Pepper Potts. And Kate? “I believe the phrase that’s wanted,” she says, “is ‘my work here is done’.”

#

The day after the firefight at the Stark Expo complex, Pepper tries to get out of her lunch date with Maria. “Can you say exhausted?” she says. “Between the awful parts of last night and the amazing ones, I’m not sure I can work up the energy.”

“That’s why you have an absurdly luxurious suite of your very own at the Four Seasons,” Maria retorts. “So we’ll order in. See you at one.”

It is, in fact, two minutes past one o’clock when the knock sounds. Pepper sighs, pushes herself out of her armchair, and pads across the suite to open the door.

She is surprised to find not one but two women standing in the hallway, and gives herself a self-conscious once-over as she steps aside to let them in. Black yoga pants and a Tron T-shirt are not the outfit she’d have chosen if she’d been properly warned, and she gives Maria a severe glance to drive home the point.

But Sarah Jane Smith merely smiles disarmingly. “You’re entitled,” she says. “One doesn’t often get a proper holiday after helping save the world.”

Pepper blinks. “The way you just said that—”

“Oh, yes,” says Sarah Jane, still smiling. “Been there, didn’t get nearly enough. It’s the great trouble with time travel; the adventures all run into one another. Not that the Doctor didn’t try, mind, but half the time his vacations might as well have been adventures themselves.”

“Time – travel?”

Maria is nodding even as she picks up the room-service menu. “It clears up a lot of the anomalies in the files. Especially the Doctor’s dossier.”

Pepper remembers that dossier, with its nine photos and the great range of dates attached to various entries. “You mean—?”

“I’m afraid so,” Maria says. “Actually, the Doctor sounds a lot like Tony, only with more lives than a cat and a time machine instead of a super-suit.”

At this, Sarah Jane flashes a sharp glance at Maria, looks thoughtful for a moment, and then turns a much more sympathetic expression toward Pepper. “Dear me,” she says, sounding decidedly amused. “We may have more in common than I thought.”

Exhausted or not, Pepper can’t help but laugh softly. The idea of a Tony-analog chasing back and forth in time saving the world is charming and terrifying in roughly equal measure, and if he’d dragged Sarah Jane along for a significant portion of the ride....

“Well, then,” she says, “let’s find out.”

# # #