If Dr. Rosalind Elliott had her way, her lab would not have been invaded by celebrity scientists, but the way things were, management was always concerned about the bottom line, so of course Mr. Tony Stark and Dr. Bruce Banner were granted time and attention.
The lab phone made a softy trilling noise and Rosalind left her bench, took off her gloves, and answered it. “Dr. Elliott, Research Department,” she said, keeping her tone crisp and neutral. It would be one of her co-workers calling to tell her that the hot-shots were here, and even if she was annoyed about the situation, she wasn’t mad at her co-worker.
“Mr. Stark and Dr. Banner are in the foyer,” said Marcia sunnily. The dear girl got along with everyone, and she was whip-smart to boot. Rosalind had hired her last summer, and she was so personable and good at her job that Rosalind didn’t know what she’d do without her.
“I’ll be down in a moment,” said Rosalind. She hung up the phone and gave the lab space a critical once-over. She didn’t notice anything out of place or labeled with critical information that visitors shouldn't see. She left the radio playing as the volume was set low, and it was on her own favorite classical station. How anyone could object to the soothing music she couldn't understand. Even Hobart seemed to like it when he was in the room, and lord knew, he listened to some egregious racket over in his own space most of the day. Even when he had earbuds in, she could overhear the din and clamor.
Rosalind removed her lab coat and washed her hands at the sink and tried not to stew over all the things she should be doing instead of giving a tour to pampered, spoiled scientists turned superheroes. She had a validation to start on the thirty second injections, a new technician that needed training on organic extractions, and a paper that she had to give one last edit before sending it out for review. If anything, she needed more time. More funding would be wonderful, but time was a truly scarce commodity.
Her lab had skimpy, if adequate, funding for at least another two years, but they could always use more people and better equipment. If Tony Stark liked her lab and decided to send his derivative projects here, then they would be assured of greater resources. Of course, that meant she'd have to deal with the celebrity scientists on a regular basis. She'd be stuck wasting even more valuable time mollycoddling grandiose egos! Rosalind wasn't sure if being poor or having the hassle would be the better outcome.
The elevator ride down was just one floor, but it gave her time to take a few deep breaths and to put on a professional, courteous face. The entrance foyer was a short distance from the elevator and as she arrived, she could see Dr. Banner and Mr. Stark standing close together, nearly rubbing elbows and shoulders.
The two men were chatting amiably with Marcia as she approached, and Marcia finished her conversation with a smile and then a friendly wave before leaving them.
“Dr. Banner, Mr. Stark,” she greeted the men with an outstretched arm.
Dr. Banner smiled and shook her hand, and Rosalind felt her heart rate speed up. She’d seen photos of him of course, in the news, and he’d looked all right, but in person he seemed so much gentler, and far more handsome. There was something to his movements that gave him an allure just not captured in pictures. Rosalind gave him a genuine smile. “I’m so pleased to meet you,” she added.
“Thank you for agreeing to see us, and giving us a tour,” Dr. Banner said. “And please, call me Bruce.”
“Rosalind,” she said automatically. She turned to shake with Tony Stark, but the man gave an odd gesture with his hands, declining.
“I don’t shake,” he said. “Sorry. Thanks. You know how it is.”
Rosalind pulled back her hand and smiled politely. She’d read all manner of things in the news about Tony Stark. It was hard not to. He was on the cover of everything, from serious news to tabloids. One newspaper had in-depth articles about the impressive work he was doing developing clean-energy and another had an exposé about his getting drunk at his own birthday party and firing explosives at his guests!
She eyed him up and down and decided she didn't like the look of him whatsoever. He had the face of a disreputable pirate, cavalier and desultory. His physical bearing was haughty and reeked of arrogance. His clothing might be impeccable and expensive, but he reminded her of the boy who'd sat one seat behind in school and poked her in the back with a pencil for hours. Oh, she'd loathed that boy! And now, it looked as if the universe had sent another to poke and prod at her.
She’d expected Mr. Stark to be flamboyant and difficult. His genius was undeniable, of course, but that didn’t make him the least bit attractive. Rosalind had heard him described as charismatic, but he seemed rather peculiar, and actually, she thought he was a bit repulsive. No, she thought, she didn't like the cut of his jib.
Rosalind decided that despite the golden promise of funding she might be better off without Stark Industries' involvement in her lab.
“Not really,” she said, truthfully. “Well, shall we start the tour? You’ve both been signed in and given visitor’s badges?”
Bruce touched his badge lightly and Mr. Stark tapped his with an impatient gesture that made Rosalind feel as if he thought she was an idiot. She bristled and fought down the sudden urge to slap him. She would give him the tour and then dump him on the doorstep and get back to her real work. No amount of funding was worth being under a capricious, annoying thumb. It distracted from the science if she had to worry about her management, and she already had enough management to deal with as it was.
The sound of a musical ringtone, unfamiliar to Rosalind broke through, and Mr. Stark pulled his phone from a pocket. "Sorry, gotta take this," he said, though he didn't look sorry whatsoever. "Stark. Talk to me," he spat into the phone. He listened for a moment. "No, the good stuff. A whole case. Yes, have it delivered to the plane." He stretched his free arm to reveal his watch and glanced at it. "You know the schedule. And it better be loaded. No excuses. Caio." He readjusted his attention to fall on Rosalind. "All done. Don't let me hold us up."
Rosalind realized she'd been grinding her back molars and gave a slight smile. “This way, please,” she said, and took them to the elevator. The lab itself wasn’t all that large, but it consisted of several vestibules with separate rooms. The rooms each had a door leading in from one vestibule, and then a second door that exited out onto another hallway. “We have one-way work-flow, obviously, since we’re dealing with amplified products.”
"Did you have this built specifically for you?" Bruce asked curiously as they walked through the first set of doors. "Or did you have to refurbish it?"
"They gutted the whole floor and, excepting some support walls, we were able to plan out the rooms as needed," she replied.
"It's very well thought out," he said. "With doors at both ends of the rooms, so you only ever go in one door and exit out the other."
Rosalind glowed. "Thank you! I helped with the planning. I'd worked in other labs, and had always wanted the two door design. It helps reduce the contamination by the amplified product into the extraction and quantification areas, of course."
"Bruce," said Tony Stark with a waggle of his eyebrows, "you want doors in our lab, you got doors. Just say the word. I'll even throw in the locks."
Bruce flushed and he readjusted the glasses on his face. "We can, uh, talk about lab design later. Tony." His voice remained mild, though the last word was spoken very pointedly.
Rosalind pursed her lips but held her tongue. With effort, she continued. "We also keep our reagents and our plates in separate storage locations. The kits we use—" She turned to indicate the rows of freezers where they kept their primers, and out of the corner of her eye she caught the swift movement of Tony Stark’s hand as he poked Bruce in the side. For a moment it didn’t register with Rosalind, other than a slight flavor of disgust at his childish behavior, as if she was giving a tour to children instead of adults and then she remembered. Dr. Bruce Banner had a condition. Provoking him was abnormally, abysmally stupid.
She turned a look on Stark, barely keeping it from being a glare of disapproval, and he just smiled at her as though a cat who’d dined on three canaries and there wasn’t a feather in sight.
Bruce cleared his throat, glancing between them. “Dr. Elliott—Rosalind—you were telling us about the multiplex kit. I was wondering if you used a four, five, or six dye system? Have you had any troubles with pullup?”
Rosalind turned to look at Bruce, who was thankfully calm and not developing any symptoms. “Five dye at the moment, although we're currently considering validating a six dye. The more loci, the more dyes needed, especially since the base sizes are squeezed in pretty tightly. We've found that sometimes off-ladder alleles start to run into the next locus. Fortunately that's pretty rare. We run the internal lane standard in the orange. And we only have an eight capillary CE.”
She shot a look at Stark. This was the only reason she’d even considered allowing him in her lab. Equipment wasn’t cheap, and Stark had deep pockets. “If we had some of the more recent real-time PCR products, and some personnel to validate them, we could really increase our productivity.” She waited a beat but Stark seemed bland. She tamped down a surge of irritation. Heaven help her. He wasn’t going to give her anything but an ulcer. “Let me show you our robots. They do a marvelous job of reducing the extraction process time, allowing us to get samples on the CE more quickly.”
"Robots," Stark said, and actually rubbed his hands together. "Now we're talking."
Even though it wasn't a particularly provocative remark, Rosalind found that just sound coming out of Stark's mouth was enough to irritate. She glanced to Bruce, but he looked indulgent, almost fond. She supposed he had to be inclined to put up with Stark's absurd delinquencies.
Mentally squaring her shoulders, she soldiered on, and moved them along to the next set of rooms. As she began to explain the use of the paramagnetic beads within the robotic system she saw Stark again reach out and this time he pinched Bruce Banner just below his ribs. Bruce flinched and swatted at his hand. Since Bruce didn’t seem otherwise affected, Rosalind kept going with her description of the high-throughput technology. “It reduces contamination,” she said. “We haven’t had an issue for several thousand samples now, and we’ve been able to reduce our reporting thresholds, though we do still sometimes have stochastic issues.”
"Contamination, Bruce," Stark said drolly, with another light poke to Bruce's lower ribcage.
"Oh, do you have issues with contamination?" Rosalind asked lightly. She was petty enough to feel an odd sort of satisfaction that the highly vaunted Tony Stark lab itself would experience contamination issues, the same as any lab.
Bruce sent a look at Stark that was indecipherable, but he smiled at Rosalind. "Not so much, no. Not exactly. I mean—" He shrugged. "Just one particular event, and we've got it cleared up now." He paused, and then added, "Some of us are sloughers."
"I see," Rosalind said, and tried to hide her disappointment, though she still counted it as a victory of sorts. All people sloughed skin, it was the nature of being alive. Even with the best of precautions, sometimes an errant bit of dust got where it wasn't supposed to be, and was amplified along with the intended original source.
Stark was grinning at Bruce in a ridiculously jaunty way that made Rosalind's ire flare again. How anyone put up with the man was beyond her. Fighting down the urge to give him a royal telling off, she refocused back on the laboratory. She was a professional, and she was giving a tour. She would not let buffoonery get the better of her.
“Dr. Elliott,” Stark said before she could launch into her next segment. “This is fascinating. Really, really good stuff.”
Dr. Elliott waited suspiciously, feeling as if the hammer was about to fall. She reminded herself that Dr. Banner was the biologist, with advanced degrees in biochemistry and physics. Tony Stark was an engineer. Even with his advanced degrees, he was essentially a mechanic.
"But we know all this. I've got robots running robots." He flashed his devil-may-care grin at her and then winked at Bruce. "We're here about the work you started doing with methylation. All your epigenetic work. I read your articles. All of them. On the effects of gene expression."
Rosalind blinked in surprise at that. She'd been publishing for several years, and had her name attached in one way or another to upwards of thirty articles. She doubted he'd done more than scanned the titles.
"We need to figure out what's causing enormous swings in phenotype differences if the genotype is exactly the same." Tony Stark cast a sideways glance at Bruce, and Bruce looked down and away. "You must realize we're here about gamma radiation damage," he said, none too gently.
Rosalind quickly checked Bruce, who looked blankly mortified, and she thought she really did despise Tony Stark. "I doubt methylation is your culprit, Mr. Stark," she said. "You have some other modification happening at either the RNA translation or the protein level. We don't do that sort of analysis here."
Stark made a waving gesture near his head with his hands that signaled he couldn't care less. "We still want to pursue this avenue. I already spoke with your board. They're good with it. It's all set up. We'll have some buccal swabs sent to you by Monday. That should be sufficient to start."
Rosalind stared at him.
"Bruce, we good here? Seen everything important already, right? Let's make tracks, then," Stark said, barely looking at Bruce for confirmation. He put a hand to Bruce's hip and pushed gently, urging him to move forward. When Bruce side-stepped the contact, giving Rosalind an apologetic look, Stark didn't wait to be escorted, but started walking away. "More important stuff to do today, Bruce. Right? Right." he called over his shoulder.
Rosalind was stunned. Had she ever even had a choice? She glanced at Bruce Banner, wondering at the boorish treatment that he suffered under Tony Stark's short-attention span. He survived being colleagues with this man, but Rosalind wasn't sure that she would.
Bruce gave her yet another apologetic smile. "Yes, he's always like this," he said, "but he's really a good person. I look forward to working with you. Your work here really has been impressive."
"Thank you," Rosalind said automatically, astounded and boggled.
"Shall we catch up? He's not going to wait," Bruce said.
Having Tony Stark out of her lab sounded like a splendid idea to Rosalind. "Yes," she said. They followed Stark to the elevator, down to the first floor, and then the short distance to the foyer. Marcia was talking with the receptionist there and looked surprised, but delighted, to see that the tour was over so quickly. Stark snapped his fingers and pointed at her in a quirkily acknowledging way. "Marce," he said, shortening her name, "be seeing you."
"I do hope so, Tony," Marcia said, looking gracious as always, and perhaps a bit more approving than Rosalind could accept. Did the tabloid accounts of Stark's vulgar behavior count for nothing, or his rude, roguish manner of addressing people? Marcia was able to get on with all sorts of people and, of course, Rosalind reminded herself, Marcia hadn't just wasted the better part of an hour on a ruse of a tour. Rosalind narrowed her eyes at Marcia. They would perhaps need a chat together on the subject.
Stark unclipped his visitor's badge and tossed it negligently onto the desk. Then he whirled around and gave a tug on Bruce's badge and did the same. "Right, good. Thanks so much. We'll talk later. Let's go, Bruce."
Bruce held out his hand and shook with Rosalind. "He's distracted today. But I'll contact you once the samples get here and we can plan out a series of experiments." He gave an apologetic shrug. "Our audit accreditation documents require on-site inspections for off-site lab work, and this was the last day we could squeeze it in. We're very thankful for a tour on such short notice."
"I see. Well, in the future, perhaps some better communication. I'd appreciate it," Rosalind said, trying not to sound too upset or biting.
Bruce looked amused. "We'll do our best." Then Bruce was gone through the door, hurrying to catch up to Stark and Rosalind was shaking her head.
"How'd it go?" Marcia asked.
"Bizarrely," Rosalind said. "It sounds like they just wanted to see the lab. They already knew they were sending us samples." She took a deep breath and tried to release the tension in her shoulders. "Dr. Banner was quite pleasant, but I think we're going to be on our toes around Mr. Stark." If it had been any other co-worker than Marcia, Rosalind wouldn't have said the next thing, because it was derogatory and gossipy. But Marcia never talked out of turn, and Rosalind hoped for some confirmation of her own observations. "Honestly, I don't know how Dr. Banner puts up with Mr. Stark. He was constantly poking at him, and treating him as if he were a sheep to herd about. As if he couldn't wait for the tour to be over. "
"Oh?" Marcia said, and then giggled. "Probably because they just started dating." She turned to flip around one of the slightly less disreputable tabloids. "See? They're flying off to the Turks and Caicos Islands to celebrate."
"They're dating?" Rosalind asked. She bent to read the headline. "Good grief," she said, and then said the first thing that came into her head. "What a nuisance! Now I'm going to have to worry about contamination and mixtures in those buccal samples!"
Marcia dissolved into laughter, and after realizing what she'd said, Rosalind did too.