"Ms. Potts, the Director of SHIELD is here to see you."
Pepper looked up from her screen, a crease between her eyebrows. "That wasn't on my schedule, was it, Gracie?"
The young woman looked distinctly nervous. "No, Ms. Potts. Shall I-"
Pepper dismissed her with a flick of her fingers. "Go ahead and clear my schedule. It'll do the reps from AveryTech good to sweat for a while. Send the Director through."
Surveying her screen again with a frown, she tapped out a note to herself and minimised the whole thing as her door slid open again. A familiar figure stepped through and waited for the door to close again before collapsing into the most comfortable chair in the office.
Pepper scowled as she stood. "Come on Maria, that's my favourite armchair."
Maria Hill grinned. "I know."
The second-best armchair wasn't terrible, simply less comfortable, so Pepper sat there instead, one slim leg crossed over the other at the knee. As much as she would like to kick off her heels and curl up, she made it a point to at least stay semi-professional in her own office. From the way Maria was draped across one armrest, she had no such compunctions.
"What's up?" Pepper asked, teasing voice betraying the barest thread of anxiety. "You pulled the plug on the last three margarita nights, but you can turn up at my office unannounced?"
Maria sighed. "Officially, I'm here on a courtesy call to inform Stark Industries of some odd energy readings that one of our teams came across during an unrelated operation. They don't seem dangerous per se, but some of our scientists were curious about their use and wanted permission to study them."
"I'm avoiding paperwork. Now I know why Phil stepped back into Head of Field Operations."
"He always was clever," Pepper laughed, relaxing now she knew there was no immediate problem. "The UN still firing screeds of paper at you over Steve and Tony's little spat?"
"Yes, and he's still in Wakanda while Barnes recovers, so I'm left to pick up the pieces. Surely you've had your share of paperwork?"
"We have an entire department of lawyers to handle this sort of stuff. I do leave one copy on Tony's desk to scare him into behaving."
This time it was Maria's turn to laugh. "I should try that with Steve sometime. Does it work?"
"So far, yes. As much as he claims to hate it, I think the therapist is helping, too." Pepper's eyes went distant, then she shook herself and grabbed a StarkPad and stylus from the table between them. "Well, as you're here: tell me about these energy readings and then we can decide what to do about them."
"It might be nothing. Then again, I'm sure someone said that about every major scientific discovery at some point. A team were conducting a field training exercise when some experimental tech went haywire. When they got back to base, one of my scientists took a look at the readings they got and noticed their similarity to Jane's published work..."
Jane studied the readouts, shaking her head. "I don't know what these are. They're not mine, for sure. They do look similar but this stabilisation coefficient is skewed towards-"
Darcy cut her off before she could descend further into Science. "What Janey's trying to say is that it's not us. Her. Odds are it's no-one we know, otherwise she'd recognise more of it. Where did Maria say these were from?"
"One of the shared research facilities in upstate New York," Pepper told them, looking troubled. "They're not sure it's us, but the other companies there are working on pharmaceuticals and the bee problem. Our researchers there are looking at applications of Tony's clean energy but none are supposed to be looking into portals. I've contacted the head of the facility there; she denies any knowledge of these readings and doesn't have the technology to check them for herself."
"Looks like it's time for a roadtrip," Darcy suggested. "I'll bust out the 90’s playlist. We can pick up Maria on the way.”
“She's the Director of SHIELD now, Darcy. I don't think she can just drop everything for something like this.”
“We'll call her anyway,” Pepper said. “It is what she's here for. Officially.”
“Oh, thank Freya,” Maria sighed, when Pepper put her on speaker. “The UN want me to sit in on another special committee meeting where those dusty bureaucrats will read my latest report again and ignore all my recommendations. None of them will mind as long as I give them a half-decent excuse.” Her tone turned teasing. “What are you missing, Pepper? Surely being CEO keeps you too busy to go on a road trip like this.”
“As CEO, it is my responsibility to investigate any possible misappropriation of company resources,” Pepper replied seriously. Darcy reached out and poked her in the side. She yelped, the mask dropping. “Fine. Stockbroker reports and a random selection of performance evaluations for some of my immediate subordinates.”
“I knew it,” Maria crowed. “All right, ring me when you're downstairs. I'll see you soon.”
“How long is she in New York?” Jane asked, as Pepper put the phone away. “I feel like we hardly see her these days.”
“You should've just refused to accept her resignation letter,” Darcy grumbled. “Kept her here with us.”
Pepper smiled. “I did think about it, believe me. She took half our security team when she left, which didn't help matters. Now, are we going or not?”
“I'd feel a lot better about this if Nat and Wanda were here,” Maria muttered, half to herself, as Jane fiddled with a device that bore some resemblance to a barcode scanner. “And not just because they can actually hold a tune.”
Pepper raised her shoulders in an elegant approximation of a shrug. “Some time out at Clint’s secret farm will be good for them. They've been through a lot, these last few years.”
Darcy snorted, leaning on the wall outside the facility administrator's office, fingers tapping out the beat of the last song on the playlist. “And we haven't?”
Thinking back and looking around, Pepper had to concede. “True. Hopefully we won't need either of them to check on some strange energy readings.”
“Great, now you've jinxed us.”
Pepper glanced over at Maria. “What? No I haven't.”
Darcy nodded vigorously. “You totally did. Right, Jane?”
“Huh? Wait, there's no such thing as jinxes-” Pepper started to smile but Jane wasn't done, “-but saying something like that does seem to increase the chance of unexpected things happening. Sorry.”
Darcy laughed out loud at the disgruntled look Pepper gave Jane and even Maria had a grin on her normally impassive face as she and Darcy bumped fists.
“How's the detector-thing going?” Pepper asked, waving her fingers as she deliberately changed the subject.
Jane tapped the device, wiggling a dial. “The scanner isn't really meant to track these readings - it's a wonder they picked them up at all - but I think if I switch the polarity - ah.”
Jane swung in a circle, holding the scanner in front of her. As she faced somewhere between Maria and Darcy, it beeped. “There are trace readings this way. Same type as your lot found, but from the looks of the degradation, not as recent.”
“Perfect,” Maria said. “Lead the way. And Darcy?”
“I am not investigating a potentially dangerous situation with Wannabe stuck in my head.”
Maria was sure they made an odd sight, wandering the corridors of the research facility together. Maria took the lead, just ahead of Jane, who was aiming and adjusting her scanner as it beeped and whirred. Darcy followed close behind, providing tools from her handbag on request and stopping Jane from walking into a door more than once. Pepper walked at the back, tracking their progress on a schematic she had on her tablet and fielding a call from some irate shareholders at the same time.
Somewhere on the fourth floor as Jane's muttering became louder, the beeping became more frequent until it merged into a shrill whine. When it resumed beeping, Jane stumbled to a halt and turned around. Retracing her steps, the whine returned.
“Whatever caused the readings, I think it's in there.” She gestured to an innocuous door, identical to the doors on either side.
“We'll have to continue this discussion another time.” Pepper hung up and compared the door to her schematic. “According to this, the lab belongs to a Doctor Henry Roberts. He's been working for Stark Industries as a researcher for almost ten years. He's a physicist, is supposed to be looking at affordable teleportation.”
“ Affordable teleportation?” Maria asked, emphasis heavy on the first word.
“Jane cracked teleportation after London,” Darcy informed her. “Made quite a splash in certain circles.”
“Why haven't I heard about it, then?”
“It's all theoretical right now,” Jane said, blushing. “Really, it was only an offshoot from my work on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. There was no way to direct it and the power requirements alone would be more than Tony's arc reactor could provide.”
“That might explain the readings your team got,” Darcy said to Maria. “If he's working on something based on Jane's research.”
“It doesn't look like teleportation,” Jane argued. “The little research I did on it went in a completely different direction.”
Pepper shrugged. “We're here now, we may as well check inside.” She stepped forward, and opened the door.
Darcy squinted at the man in the lab as she followed Maria in. He looked wrong , oddly fuzzy, as if - she took off her glasses to give them a clean, but when she replaced them, he looked unchanged.
“He's got the containment shield up,” Jane said. “I thought it was only supposed to activate in times of emergency.”
Maria prodded at it, snatching her hand back as it administered a sharp shock with a crackle of sound. “That hurts .”
“It shouldn't do that,” Jane said. She pointed out an odd contraption on the bench. “That's a convection forcer,” she noted, sounding impressed. “Looks like he can turn the shield on and off at will.”
“We need one of those,” Darcy muttered back. “Of course, the question is why does he have it on?”
“Why don't we ask him?” Pepper suggested. She raised her voice. “Dr. Roberts? Do you have a minute to talk? Dr. Roberts?” She looked at her friends. “Why can't he hear me?”
Jane hit her forehead with her palm. “The shield blocks sound as well. You need to use the intercom.”
Pepper crossed the room to the white button Jane indicated. “Dr. Roberts?”
The man jumped at her voice, and spun to face them. “Who's there? What are you doing in my lab?”
“Dr. Roberts, I'm Pepper Potts.”
Even the fuzzy barrier couldn't disguise the sneer that crossed his face. “Oh sure, I know you. Stark’s girlfriend.”
Pepper sighed. “I'm also your boss. I'm here with Dr. Jane Foster and we have some questions about your research. Could you please take down the barrier?”
Meanwhile, Darcy had wandered to the other side of the lab, peering through the barrier. “Hey Jane, what does this look like to you?”
“It looks like that machine Loki used to summon the Chitauri army, on top of my pulse transmitter…” She dashed over to where Pepper stood and jabbed at the intercom button. “What have you done with my research? The transmitter shouldn't be used like that!”
“Dr. Foster, I presume? It's not your research, not anymore. It's not my fault if you're too stupid to see the true potential in these portals. You whined about not having enough power but I've discovered more power than even Stark could imagine. And it's beautiful."
Jane looked disconcerted. “What? How?”
“That's for me to know and you to cry about when I buy Stark Industries.”
“Is this when we call security?” Jane asked, taking her finger off the intercom button as Dr. Roberts continued to rant.
“I've already called them,” Pepper said. “But I'm not sure how much help they would be, stuck on this side of the barrier with us.”
“We need to get into that side of the lab and turn it off,” Maria said. “Is there another way into the room?”
“Not that I know of,” Pepper replied, pursing her lips in thought. “But the barrier can't be omnidirectional because that would suffocate anyone inside.”
Darcy looked up. “Hey Jane, remember when that power surge overloaded your ion emitter?”
“Back in March?”
“No, I'd forgotten about that time. I was thinking about two weeks ago. The shield kicked in but the explosion blew me into the ceiling and I ended up over Calvin’s lab.”
Maria looked speculative. “The ceilings are hollow?”
Pepper nodded. “I remember now. All the labs are designed that way - to absorb any incidents of sudden force.”
“You mean explosions?”
“Well, yes. But that's how it was explained to the Board. They seem to think that explosions are indicators of wasted resources, not a normal part of the research process.”
“You know, in most companies I'm sure they're not. Usual, that is.”
Jane rolled her eyes at her assistant. “Pretty sure the last explosion was your fault.”
“That was tiny, it barely counts-” At Pepper's raised eyebrow, Darcy mimed zipping her lips shut. “Sorry.”
“Right.” Maria nodded decisively. “We need to get into the ceiling. Pepper-”
Pepper looked down at her stiletto heels. “I'll stay here and keep him distracted. I don't think I should try traipsing through the ceiling with these.”
She turned to Dr. Roberts, who was watching suspiciously through the barrier, and turned the intercom back on. “You haven't read your contract very well, have you, Dr. Roberts? As a researcher here, any breakthroughs you make remain the property of Stark Industries. Technically, you're already in breach for not reporting this.”
Rather than becoming angry, the scientist seemed to get smug. “You say that, but I'm sure I can convince you otherwise.” Picking up a tablet from the bench beside him, he tapped at it a few times. The contraption that resembled Jane's whirred to life, a glow forming a couple of feet above it. “When they see this, no one will be able to deny my brilliance! Women will be throwing themselves at me, men will be begging to work with me…”
Maria swore under her breath. “If that's a portal, we can't let it open fully; we have no idea what's on the other side. Jane, stay here and see if you can do something about that.”
“Maybe it'll be like Thor,” Darcy murmured doubtfully to Maria as they edged out of the room, the scientist still ranting, Jane now bent over her scanner. “He was pretty cool.”
Maria scowled. “Or it could be Loki. Again. I'm not taking that chance. Come on.”
The glow was forming into an amorphous blob as they slipped into the corridor. It was mostly empty at this time of day, the thick walls muffling the confrontation in the room they’d just left. “Now, how are we going to get into the ceiling? I'm not sure I want to be exploded up there again.”
Maria looked around, eyes alighting on a small blonde in overalls, a toolbelt at her waist.
“Special Agent Hagen?”
The blonde froze mid-step as Maria continued towards her. “Yes?”
Maria smiled. “I thought it was you! What are you doing here?” She turned to a confused Darcy. “Darcy, this is Special Agent Hagen of the FBI. I didn't realise the feds had branched into lab maintenance.”
Agent Hagen checked around them for listeners, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "I'm undercover at this facility,” she told them. “We need it for an operation. Agent Thomas is here as well. Please don't break my cover.”
“Does whatever you're doing involve Stark Industries?” Darcy demanded.
Agent Hagen shook her head. “No, we're investigating one of the other companies in this facility. Seriously creepy stuff, trust me.”
Maria studied her, then shrugged. "Fine. We'll get out of your way once we've dealt with this situation, and to do that we need to get into the ceiling.”
"I can do that," the agent said, grinning.
In short order, Maria and Darcy found themselves levering one of the ceiling tiles out of the way. From her vantage point, Maria could see Dr. Roberts gesticulating wildly at Pepper, tablet still firmly in one hand. For her part, Pepper gave every appearance of listening to his rant through the barrier as Jane continued to fiddle with her device. Though Darcy couldn't see her clearly, she had no doubt her friend was muttering to herself as she searched for an answer from her side.
“What's the glowing thing?” Agent Hagen asked quietly, drawing the attention of all the women in the ceiling. “It's beautiful.”
“So beautiful,” Darcy agreed. “I've never seen anything like it.”
Maria looked up at her two companions. Both were staring into the lab, transfixed. Darcy leaned forward, as if to get a better view, and Maria had to shove her backwards to stop her falling in, blocking Hagen's view in the process.
Landing on her butt, Darcy shook her head, blinking. “What just happened?”
Agent Hagen sat back, frowning. “We were looking at that-” She gestured to the spot underneath Maria where the portal would be. “And then I started feeling all weird and floaty.”
Maria sighed. “New plan: don't look at the damn thing.” Drawing her gun, she shot Dr. Roberts' hand, causing his grip on the tablet to loosen. He yelled in surprise even as Agent Hagen somehow swung upside-down to pluck the tablet from his grasp and deposit it in Darcy's hands, all with her eyes closed.
Maria dropped into the room, gun firmly fixed on the cowering scientist.
“You can't shoot me,” he insisted, gaze darting between Maria and the portal behind her.
"I'm the only one who can close the portal."
"Darcy?" she called, gaze never wavering.
"Just a minute," Darcy said, her landing far less graceful than the blonde behind her. "Jane, what do I do?"
She held the tablet up to the barrier but Jane shook her head. “I can't read it, the distortion is too great.”
"Get that barrier down," Maria ordered.
Darcy winced as the fed bludgeoned the shield generator with a multi million dollar microscope, but it did the trick, reducing it to shards of metal and glass.
The barrier flickered and died, letting Jane rush through.
“Don't look at the glowing thing,” Maria warned. She needn't have bothered; Jane's eyes were glued to the tablet Darcy held out. She compared it to her scanner and hit a few buttons. The portal stopped growing, but stayed fixed in place above the machine that created it, glowing ominously.
Dr. Roberts started to smile as Jane muttered under her breath. Finally she said, “Darcy, take a look. Do you see something that looks like my oscillator?“
Darcy edged closer to the machine, careful not to look up, and peered inside. "I think so, yeah."
"Can you reach it, take it out?"
Darcy tried. "Not quite, it's too deep."
Agent Hagen handed her a pair of long handled tongs from somewhere and watched carefully as she manoeuvred it out. Both glanced up at the portal, then away, but it seemed unchanged. “Was something supposed to happen?”
Jane sighed. "That's what I was afraid of. Okay, can you see the two rings next to each other but not touching? If you can fuse then together it'd create a feedback loop like that time with the chocolate fish."
Darcy made a face. "Firstly, thanks for bringing that up and second, how am I supposed to melt them? You stopped me bringing a hair-dryer to work, remember?"
"Perhaps I could be of assistance," Pepper said, coming over. "What needs to be melted?"
A flame hovered over her palm for a second, then winked out. Wide-eyed, Darcy pointed out the components in question. For a moment nothing happened, then they began to blur and melt together.
"I think that's enough," Darcy said as the machine began to whine and the portal wobbled dangerously.
"Behind the counter, now," Maria ordered, and the women dived behind it as a soundless explosion shook the room. For a moment, everything was quiet, then alarms began to sound outside. They stood to survey the damage, smoothing hair and straightening clothes as they did. The laboratory was trashed but the glowing portal was gone. Dr. Roberts lay among the wreckage of his equipment, arm bleeding sluggishly where debris must have caught him.
Pepper made her way over and looked down at the battered but still-alive scientist. "Dr. Roberts? You're fired.”
A group of men in uniform burst into the room and looked around in stunned shock. None noticed a blonde woman disappearing up into the ceiling. Maria did, but filed that away for another time. “Your security's response time seems lacking,” she noted as they hauled Dr. Roberts to his feet and escorted him out.
“We'll have to work on that,” Pepper agreed blandly. “In the meantime, however, I feel we deserve a little time off.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?” Darcy asked, perking up considerably as she cleaned her glasses on the hem of her top.
“I could do with a drink,” Maria admitted, looking torn. “But I have to go back and make a report about this. I'll probably have to fill out a mountain of paperwork and that's not even including whatever Pepper did because wrangling another signatory to the Accords is not how I want to spend the next month so..." She took a deep breath. "It's a good thing I didn't see anything.”
Pepper looked grateful, then speculative. “Paperwork for what? You came with us to check out the energy, Dr. Roberts' machine malfunctioned and exploded but no-one was hurt, right? The annoying doctor notwithstanding. You could type that report up with your eyes closed, file it on the way.”
“And that would be it?” Maria asked. She looked around to see them all nodding. “Then I'm in, I suppose. Jane?”
Jane shrugged. “I was going to work on refining the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, but somehow I'm not feeling it today.”
Darcy cheered, pumping her fist in the air. “Margarita night is back on!”
Maria laughed at her enthusiasm, throwing one arm around Pepper's shoulders. “The first toast goes to us.”
“To us!” Pepper agreed.
“Hey Maria?” Darcy said.
“If you wanna be my lover…”
Maria threw back her head and laughed.
“You gotta get with my friends!” they all sang together, as scientist and intern and director and CEO left the ruined laboratory behind them.