Elle Berkley was late.
It wasn't an unusual occurrence, but this particular occasion required the most precise use of her time possible, and D.C. traffic was not that use. She checked her watch again, blowing a huff of air out when it informed her that she only had fifteen minutes to get to a place that was a twenty-minute walk away. Her leg bounced as she channeled her impatience. Finally deciding that the rickety cab she was in was going absolutely nowhere, she shoved a wrinkled twenty in the driver's hand before stepping out into the street. Pulling her phone from the bag on her shoulder, Elle looked for the quickest way to her destination while simultaneously pulling her high heels from her feet.
Her pace quickened as she chose the route, the robotic voice telling her to turn left in 500 feet. She checked the street quickly before lightly jogging over the crosswalk, her hand gripping the bag she was carrying so nothing would fall. Taking another turn, she checked her watch again.
She tried to walk quicker without breaking into a run, hoping that no one would deem her suspicious enough to report. She confirmed that the road she was walking down was, in fact, Rogers Street, before rapidly pressing the button to cross.
"Come on, come on, come on," she muttered, not stopping her assault on the button until the sign in front of her read "WALK". She raised her wrist to eye level.
Elle could see the building she was heading to. How could she not? It rose above almost everything else in the D.C. skyline, the glass windows gleaming. She swallowed thickly, hoping her fear would follow.
She hadn't waited for the okay to walk that time, running right through traffic when she saw a break. She waved apologetically at the car that honked at her, her speed increasing as she headed for the glass door.
The line outside the elevator had been far too long, and she opted for the stairs, hoping her decision wouldn't cost her more time than necessary. She had just passed a door marked Floor 12 when the burning in her legs made her stop. She leaned against the wall for the slightest moment, before resuming her flight to Floor 14.
She threw the door open and made a beeline to the receptionist's desk. She smiled politely as the woman hung up the phone.
"Hi, I'm here for the interview? My name is- "
"Elle Berkley!" She winced at the stern tone that resounded from a young-looking man standing in the entry of the hall to her left. The receptionist shot her a sympathetic smile and Elle took a deep breath, straightening the blouse she had on and trying to adjust her blonde curls before turning to the man.
"That's me," she replied, hand nervously tugging at a loose thread on her pants.
"Follow me," he said simply, turning and walking down the hall, not waiting for her to respond.
She slipped her shoes back on before walking quickly after him, trying to keep up with the stride of the taller man. He tapped away at a tablet in his hands as he navigated the maze of doors, finally coming to a stop at one. The man knocked lightly on the door, pushing it open at the muffled "come in" that drifted through. He said a few short words to the person sitting inside before opening the door completely, letting Elle into the office.
A gray-haired man sat behind a desk, writing something on a paper in front of him. Hundreds of books, academic and fictional, were shoved into the shelves along the walls. The wall behind the man was covered in certificates and degrees, each of a varying subject and level of prestige. There were a few frames on the man's cluttered desk, all facing towards him. Pictures of his family, she assumed. Children's drawings littered the walls, each signed by a Princess Carly. She smiled slightly at that, examining one that looked like a butterfly, though Elle supposed it could be something else if one turned one's head at a certain angle.
The man at the desk finally looked up, shaking out his hand as he smiled at her. He stood, raising his hand for her to shake.
"Ah, you must be Miss Berkley. I've heard so much about you." He gestured for her to sit. "I hope you don't mind that I asked you to meet me in my office rather than have a formal interview room. I've always hated formalities." He smiled again, his brown eyes crinkling at the edges. She couldn't help but smile back.
"I absolutely do not mind, I prefer a more casual setting myself." She shifted, waiting for him to begin asking a barrage of questions. Instead, he stood, leaning against the window as he examined the view. She waited a few more moments before taking initiative.
"Uhm, so I have a preliminary proposal in my bag, as well as some tentative bluepr- "
"Did you know that I was in the military?" His question effectively cut her off and caught her by surprise.
"N-No, I didn't, sir," She responded, confusion evident in her tone.
"Army." He turned to face her. "I was part of the Air Calvary in Vietnam. You ever hear of that?"
She furrowed her brows, thinking for a moment before the familiar name clicked.
"That was the test run for air mobility. They sent helicopters full of troops to the battle and used them for evac too." Her eyes widened a bit, awe filling them. "You were part of that?"
He chuckled at her reaction before nodding. "I was a Warrant Officer, served as a Huey pilot." He shook his head. "But that was a long time ago. Walk with me," He said, moving towards the door. Elle gathered her things before following after the man.
"The reason I'm telling you about my military history is because I owe my ability to judge character to those experiences. I saw a lot of men come in and out of my command, and I had to learn to predict their behavior, and, not to brag on myself, I got pretty damn good at it." He paused, swiping an ID card and punching in a code before continuing through a metal door, waving for Elle to follow. "All in all, Miss Berkley, by the end of this interview I'm going to know how valuable of an asset you would be to us. But, I want to give you a chance to convince me. And I'm not talking about blueprints and proposals. I've seen it all before, and, not to be rude, they come a dime a dozen. So, I want you to convince me why I should take you on."
He pressed the down button outside of an elevator and turned to her. "I'm not even talking about your intelligence, Miss Berkley. I'm talking about you. Your character, your flaws, your habits, your weaknesses, your dreams, everything. I know I'm asking a lot, for you to reveal yourself to me after 15 minutes of us knowing each other, but I'm much more interested in the person than the machine, wouldn't you agree?" He stepped inside the door, holding it open as Elle hesitated.
"So, Miss Berkley, are you in or out?" She chewed on her bottom lip before stepping through the doors.
He smiled at her, pressing a button before the elevator whirred to life.
"Let's begin then."
Elle wasn't quite sure if it was the fact that he was a total stranger or the fact that she desperately wanted what he was offering, but she had given the man in front of her the entire motivation she had for coming to him today. She was fairly certain her absent father had even been mentioned, something she barely spoke to her mother about, much less the aging man in front of her.
When she had finished speaking, the man facing her nodded, looking like he was in thought. She shifted her weight, hoping she didn't seem as impatient as she felt. The elevator dinged as it came to a stop and opened, signifying that they had arrived at their floor.
He waited a moment before stepping off, and Elle followed him, unsure of what was happening. He finally turned to her, his eyes twinkling slightly.
"I think you're going to be very happy with what I'm about to tell you."
Her stomach fluttered as she waited for him to continue.
"Welcome to the George Washington PhD program. When can you enroll?"
She grinned, excitement spilling onto her face.
"As soon as you'll let me, sir."
"Oh, please, now that we'll be working together, allow me to tell you my name." He smiled and shook her hand again. "Dr. Josiah Herman." She smiled back before he turned and called over his shoulder.
"Any chance you can be here by Monday?"
"Lottie! You here?" Elle called into the small apartment, using her foot to kick the door open slightly as she held a bag of groceries.
"Yeah! In the back," her roommate's muffled voice carried through the hall. "There's a letter for you on the counter."
Elle set down the groceries, pulling a bunch of bananas out and placing them in a bowl. She had just placed a jug of orange juice in the fridge when she heard the clicking of Lottie's heels. Straightening and turning to face her, Elle let out a playful whistle at her mocha-skinned roommate's appearance.
"And where are you goin', Miss Fancy Pants?"
Lottie chuckled in response, clipping an earring on.
"I'm going to dinner with some friends from the Psych department." She gasped excitedly, hands hitting the counter repeatedly. "OH MY GOSH I TOTALLY FORGOT TO ASK HOW DID TODAY GO?"
Elle laughed at her friend's antics before putting a box of macaroni in the pantry. "I think it went really well. I fumbled some of the questions, but I don't think he really minded…. Because I'm in!"
The two girls let out an excited shriek and Lottie pulled Elle in for a hug.
"Oh, I knew you would! You're gonna be great there!" She pulled back, making a mock pouting face. "You're gonna get your PhD before I even get my Bachelor's! And I'm older!"
Elle grinned, squeezing her friend's arms. "Oh, hush! You know you're plenty smart enough to finish school early! And besides, you can take me out for drinks when I graduate." She winked at Lottie.
Lottie laughed incredulously. "If you're even old enough then! Knowing you, you'll finish the whole program before you turn 21!" She grabbed the purse that she had placed on the counter. "Hey, you want to come with us? We could turn it into a celebratory dinner. I know Ethan wouldn't mind," she said, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
Elle faked a gag, shaking her head. "Thanks, but I'll pass. It's just gonna be me, Netflix, and some Ben and Jerry's tonight. Have fun though, and don't forget to call when you leave or if you need a ride!"
Lottie rolled her eyes. "Yes, mom. I promise to be back by curfew." She laughed as Elle shoved her playfully. "Okay, I'll see you later. And don't forget about your letter!" She said as the door shut behind her.
Elle eye's shifted to the thick, official-looking envelope on the counter. There were no discerning marks on it, save her name. She twirled it in her hands for a few minutes before opening it and reading the letter inside. It was a recruitment letter of sorts; she had seen enough over her 19 years of life to know. The letter ended with a cramped signature, followed by the printed words: Nicholas J. Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
She remained skeptical, carrying the letter to her room and placing it on the desk. She grabbed her laptop, typing in a few words before skimming through the articles that had popped up under "S.H.I.E.L.D." She read one that explained the history of the organization, tracing its roots back to the WWII era. She glanced between the screen and the paper on her desk a few times before shaking her head and closing the laptop.
She shoved the letter in the left-hand drawer, intent on letting it stay there. If this S.H.I.E.L.D. organization wanted her to be a part of it, they could contact her again. Her phone vibrated, and Elle glanced at the picture before answering it.
"Hey, Mom. No, I'm good, what about you? Oh, hey, guess what..." She walked into the living room, the letter already forgotten.
Elle knocked on the wooden door in front of her, opening it when she heard a confirmation to enter. She smiled at the older man.
"Hey, Dr. Herman. I was gonna check out a few minutes early if that's okay with you. I've got a big test in Dr. Cooper's class on Monday, and I'm writin' the rest of the weekend off as a study session." Dr. Herman smiled at her before waving her on her way.
"Go for it, kid. You've put in some good work these last few weeks. If I'm not careful, you'll end up taking my place," he chuckled, his eyes twinkling as Elle grinned back.
"No worries there, sir. See you Monday." She waved before exiting the room and pulling her phone to text Lottie.
Elle: Thinking of Chinese for dinner. You want the usual?
Lottie: Sounds gr8 roomie! Be there 7
Elle wasn't entirely sure how she was balancing everything in her hands and still unlocking the door, but there she was. She held the bag of takeout in her teeth while juggling her backpack and keys in her hands, finally getting the silver key into the lock.
She used her elbow to push the handle down and leaned against the door slightly, opening it by pushing her back to the door. She attempted to pull her keys from the lock, turning as she succeeded. The takeout plummeted to the ground, followed by her backpack. It was only at the crashing sound that Tony Stark looked up at her.
He smiled around a bite of Easy Mac (her Easy Mac, Elle realized) and waved at her, his demeanor that of an old friend that dropped by for a visit. She didn't move, even when the door behind her creaked closed, slamming slightly. He finished the bite in his mouth, swallowing before he spoke.
"So, apparently, you ignored the letter that they sent, so they figured it would be better coming from me. Something to do with our shared experience in mechanical engineering, I think. Anyways, here I am, on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D., asking you to consider their recruitment letter as serious." He wiped his mouth, leaning back slightly as he gauged her reaction.
It was only after his explanation that Elle moved from her previous position, jaw closing and arms falling limply to her sides. After realizing he wouldn't get a response, Tony stood and entered the kitchen, opening and closing a few cabinets.
"Is there a place I can get a glass around here?" he asked, peering at a shelf in front of him.
"Third cabinet on the left, next to the microwave," she responded, still dazed. She slumped into a stool at the bar, her fingers threading themselves through her unruly curls. The sound of running water interrupted her thoughts, and she shifted to face the billionaire in her kitchen.
"I'm sorry, what is it that S.H.I.E.L.D. wants from me, exactly?" she questioned, still confused by Tony's appearance at her living place.
He took a few gulps from the glass in hand before answering.
"They want to offer you a position in their engineering department. They would work with your schedule, let you finish your schooling, and then want you to become a member for an extended period of time. Think of it as an internship, but much more awesome." He waited for another question, but when he received none, he moved to pull his suit jacket back on. "I know it can be a little overwhelming, but it's a great opportunity. I would think about it, if I were you." He took a step towards the door.
"Wait." He paused mid-step, a slight smile twitching at his lips. She swallowed her nervousness before continuing. "Why me?"
Tony chuckled, putting on his sunglasses. "I would imagine it has something to do with you getting a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at 19. You've got something special, kid. S.H.I.E.L.D is pretty good about seeking that out." Her face remained unconvinced, and he sighed, stepping back towards her.
"Look, I know how it is. You age always seems like a reason to not do something. But this is a killer opportunity, and I promise you that if you don't take it, you'll regret it." He backpedaled, opening the door. "Besides, it might just change your life." He winked before making his exit, the door closing behind him.
Elle remained seated, slightly stunned at what had just happened. Lottie came in a few moments later, confusion written on her face.
"Um, did you know that Tony Stark was on our floor? I just passed him a few seconds ago. Hey, what's wrong? Wait, why is there takeout on the floor? What's going on?"
Elle looked at Lottie, mouth slightly agape. "I think Tony Stark just recruited me to work for S.H.I.E.L.D."
"I'm sorry, what?"