"Don't go anywhere."
Is this a coincidence, or a perfectly timed prank?, Agent Coulson silently wondered as the door slid closed behind him. He turned and gave the prisoner he'd left behind one last glance through the two-way mirror. "Keep an eye on him. I won't be long," he told the guards and walked down the hall.
Once he was alone, Coulson flipped his phone open. "This better be important, Stark."
"Hey, Coulson, you missed all the fun tonight!" came the energized voice on the other end of the line. "Hope it was worth it. How's the looting going?"
"What?" Coulson asked, in his confusion, more loudly than he intended.
"Wow, I'm telling ya', I thought I had a busy night, but I hear S.H.I.E.L.D.'s been keeping busy today, too..."
Coulson cut him off. "What we're busy with at the moment is no concern of yours."
"Of course it is, it's a personal insult to me. I'm very hurt. What, I'm not good enough for you to stalk anymore? My toys aren't good enough for you, so you go after a young, defenseless woman with no money, no connections, no resources, no way to protect her property? Efficient move on your part, sure, but, well, what does she have that's so special?"
Coulson smiled; he never took Stark for the chivalrous type. "Let's assume I know who you're talking about," he said, "we would have investigated her background thoroughly – how would we have found no connection to you?"
"Because there isn't one."
"Then why would you care? How would you even find out?"
"I'll answer your questions if you answer mine."
Coulson's amusement waned. "As hard as it may be for you to believe, Stark, you're not the only one protecting this country. We are in the middle of a very important investigation here, into a significant national and international security threat, and we are taking every precaution."
"Including robbing innocent women. Interesting tactic..."
"It was necessary to commandeer a civilian scientist's research for public safety..." Coulson trailed off, wondering why he was defending himself to Stark instead of hanging up.
"Why, how dare she object! She ought to learn to share, like you guys..." came the sardonic reply.
This is pointless. It's none of his business. We don't have to defend ourselves to him, Coulson told himself. "I assure you, we paid her well for her services," he said aloud.
"Well, then, you lied. If she willingly sold you something, you didn't commandeer anything."
Coulson took a deep breath and said, "We did what we had to do."
"Yeah, that's what Rhodey said when he stole my suit so the government could use it for the greater good. You should hear soon how well that turned out tonight. I was starting to like you, Coulson. But I don't like looters. When I hear about someone having their private property seized, her own inventions, her own designs, her own research, the results of years of work, just taken away, and her completely powerless to do anything about it... that bugs me."
"How noble of you to call and plead on her behalf," Coulson said sarcastically.
"Plead?" Coulson would have sworn Stark sounded sincerely confused. "Who's pleading? I called to give you a piece of my mind. I'm not pleading, I'm just ranting."
"Now, that sounds more like you."
"I don't care what the law says. S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't entitled to Jane Foster's equipment or research any more than the government is to Iron Man. She does the work, you want it, and you just waltz in and take it – there is no way to rationalize that as fair or just."
Coulson shrugged before he remembered Stark couldn't see that. "Whether you approve or not, Stark, it's necessary..."
"Too bad it won't work, then..."
Coulson ignored the interruption. "...and although it's a sweet gesture, there's nothing you can say or do that..."
Stark ignored him back, and Coulson could hear his smirk as he said, "I don't need to do anything. She'll have it back by tomorrow."
"The mind is one thing you can't loot. Stane learned that the hard way. Hammer learned that the hard way. Now it's S.H.I.E.L.D.'s turn."
Stark hung up. Coulson snapped his phone closed, relieved, and shook his head, half annoyed, half amused. Stark was a little too eccentric to believe, some days. Well, maybe that little bit of nonsense would keep him satisfied until this crisis was over. Making a mental note to have the boys look further into Jane Foster's background until they found a connection to Tony Stark, Coulson moved to get back to his interrogation.
"Anything unusual?" Coulson asked the guards as he approached the prisoner's holding room.
"He seems a little disoriented, sir," one explained. "Started talking to himself."
Jane Foster was making the round of her pacing on the far side of the room when her cell phone rang. Darcy picked it up from the table and held it out at arm's length, shortening the distance her friend had to sprint to reach it. Jane seized the phone, hoping to see Erik's number blinking at her on the screen, but instead saw a number she didn't recognize, with a California area code. Her hopes of hearing that Erik had managed to free Thor from S.H.I.E.L.D. shattered for the moment, Jane answered the call and impatiently said, "Whoever you are, no, I don't want to buy it, sign up for it, or start a free 30-day trial..."
"Shield, Thor, Selvig, Einstein-Rosen Bridge," said a man's voice. Jane saw Darcy to raise a quizzical eyebrow (no doubt at the baffled look on her face) and started to say, "Uh..." before he continued: "Had to get your attention before you hung up, Miss Foster."
"Who are you, and how did you know that would get my attention?" Jane demanded.
"Name's Tony Stark, you might've heard of me, nice to meet you..." (He spoke too fast for Jane to have time to roll her eyes at the prankster's ridiculous alias or for her jaw to drop, even if she had known which response was appropriate in this case.) "... An old associate of mine – Erik Selvig, I think you might know him – just called and told me the most fascinating story..."
"You know Erik?" Jane asked, still skeptical that she was really talking to the billionaire industrialist Tony Stark. How could Erik never have mentioned that!
"And I know S.H.I.E.L.D. Didn't know they were interested in you, though. And, yes, I really am Tony Stark."
"What did Erik tell you?"
"That you're an astrophysicist currently interested in wormholes, currently working on a personal project on that very subject with a lab of customized equipment, who observed quite the atmospheric phenomenon yesterday evening, picked up a very unusual hitchhiker, and came home today to find that S.H.I.E.L.D. had seized all of your research and equipment. Well, he told me more, but that's the short version."
"Yeah..." Jane said, suddenly remembering something. "Erik told me he had an old colleague who's dealt with them..."
"Yeah, they've been bugging me to join them for this secret project of theirs ever since I invented the Iron Man suit. They don't take No for an answer easily."
"So I've seen," Jane said bitterly.
Stark's voice softened as he said, "When Selvig told me what they did to you, I thought of the hearing I had to attend a few days ago. The Senate Armed Services Committee tried to get me to hand over my suit – apparently, they got it into their heads that they should decide how my property should be used. They figured they were entitled to use my invention however they wanted, so they held a hearing where they could ask me for permission to steal it. I still don't see what the point of that charade was. I guess I should give S.H.I.E.L.D. some credit for honesty – at least they weren't afraid to act like thieves when they just walked in and took what they wanted without pretending they had your consent. Then again, they did 'pay' you, which makes no sense when you take something from someone by force, which they did, so never mind."
The sympathy in his voice was comforting, and Jane relaxed a little as she said, "I shouldn't have let them get away with it. I shouldn't have given up," remembering how pathetically she'd fought for her notebook.
"Hey, you stood up to them – that's more than a lot of people would've done. But you, you weren't afraid of them for a second. That's pretty impressive." Stark sounded sincere.
Jane smiled briefly at the praise and confessed, "That's because I was afraid of losing my lab." She sighed before continuing, "I can't believe it's all gone, just like that, all at once, everything I've worked on... My whole life was practically in that lab – when I think of the time it would take me to start over..." Jane began rubbing her forehead; that unbearable feeling of helplessness was stealing over her again. She tried to stay calm – the last thing she wanted was for the great Tony Stark to hear her break down.
Stark gave her a minute to collect herself before he said, "I can only imagine what you're going through right now, Miss Foster. That's why I wanted to call to let you know that everything's going to be okay."
"How? What can you do?"
"Then... what can I do? How do I stop these people?"
"Just wait. You'll have your stuff back by tomorrow."
Jane shook her head, desperately trying to make sense out of what he was saying. "I don't understand, what are you going to do?"
"I told you – nothing."
"Then why did you call if you can't help me?!" Jane yelled, leaping to her feet.
"You don't need my help," Stark answered matter-of-factly. "I thought I might be able to save you a few hours of anguish by assuring you that, before long, S.H.I.E.L.D. will realize they left behind what they need most, and there'll be no point in keeping the rest."
Jane calmed down slightly. "What are you talking about? They took everything."
Jane could somehow hear Stark smile and wink as he answered, "You'll see. Well, I guess that about covers everything, so I might as well hang up."
"Wait!" Jane shouted. Her equipment wasn't the only thing S.H.I.E.L.D. had. "What about Thor?"
"Can't help you there. Bye."
Jane didn't consider calling him back even for a second. She looked at the phone as if doubting the previous conversation had really happened, dropped it on the table, and then dropped back into the chair.
"Who was that?" Darcy asked calmly, turning a page of Erik's library book.
"Tony Stark," Jane answered, bracing herself for the comeback.
"Cool – let me know when the President calls."
Coulson took a deep breath and braced himself before asking, "Any progress?", knowing full well by now what the answer would be. Sure enough, the agent looked up from the screen and spared Coulson the redundancy of an audible answer by simply shaking his head.
Coulson turned away from the wall of computers and began walking among the technicians at work on Jane Foster's customized equipment. They were able to grasp the general idea of how it worked but not enough to be sure they knew everything it was designed to do or that they were using it correctly. They were as lost as the scientists trying to interpret her research – they had the numbers, charts, and pictures but had formed 20 or 30 different theories so far about what they indicated, the notebook that they had assumed would serve as a primer was nowhere to be found, and there were still several major disagreements over whether Foster's most farfetched conclusions were completely incorrect or not, followed by arguments over new interpretations of her data, which added up to quite a fruitless investigation. It was so frustrating to think they might have the answers to all the recent unexplained phenomena right in front of them but were powerless to translate it into something understandable! What were they doing wrong?
It wasn't until one agent joked that something was more confusing than building an arc reactor that Coulson remembered the bizarre phone call. He put down his seventy-second or seventy-third cup of coffee, bewildered those standing closest to him by pausing to stare seemingly off into space, then shook his head and laughed ever so lightly. "Bet you're enjoying this, Stark," he whispered to himself. So this was what he meant... His rumination was cut short by an incoming call on his radio.
Coulson collected himself, held up the radio, and said, "Mobile unit, report."
"Target has returned to Jane Foster's, sir. Missing notebook has been located..." Figures, Coulson thought, unsurprised. "... Next course of action?"
"Maintain surveillance. Do not approach," Coulson ordered. Once they finished, he made his way back outside where he could think clearly.
They might as well keep it – it'll do her much more good than it could possibly do us, he thought to himself. The next course of action? That was obvious. He didn't think it would take long to get approval from the Director. He would have to let the men keep at it a little while longer, however, to effectively demonstrate what Stark had predicted hours ago – that Jane Foster's equipment and research were useless without Jane Foster.
Congratulations, Miss Foster, Coulson thought. You win; you'll find out tomorrow. That gave him the rest of the night to dread the awkwardness of the meeting where he returned what they'd borrowed because it turned out they didn't need her research but needed her to continue with it. She would no doubt be thrilled to learn she'd been right – they couldn't just take it away; possession did not beget mastery. He hoped she wouldn't be as smug about it as Stark would have been... even though she would have just as much right to be.