After so many years of working for Tony, she should be immune to headaches. But apparently, it took ten years to build up immunity to only Tony—not the superhero team she suddenly found herself stepping around constantly.
Not that it was all a bad thing. Steve was polite and did all the gentlemanly things she thought were gone in this day and age—helping her carry extra work when she had a meeting with the board, holding the door for her, refraining from cursing around her, things like that. Clint was a sharp-shooter of all trades, including language, and he often had them all in tears from his running commentary about the various SHIELD agents running in and out of the mansion. Natasha was becoming a friend, and it was nice to have another woman around when the boys got their egos running.
Bruce though… Bruce was the mystery. He spent most of his time out of the way. He reminded Pepper of a mouse, scurrying around and trying to live but not be seen. He smiled at her when he did see her, but it was a shy, please-don’t-react kind of smile. She never knew where he went when he was hiding, and didn’t ask; if she wasn’t being told, she didn’t need to know. She liked that rule when it came to the Avengers. It cut down on how many aspirins she needed to take daily.
So she really wasn’t prepared for what she walked into that day in Tony’s workshop.
Everyone had been hearing explosions coming from the workshop for ages, but seeing as how JARVIS wasn’t requesting everyone evacuate the building, and Pepper reacting with a sigh and a slight roll of the eyes, no one paid much attention to it anymore. No one asked questions. (Steve did smother a few laughs when Tony would inevitably come upstairs with another ruined shirt, or singed hair)
Everything was on a need-to-know basis.
Pepper wasn’t prepared to see Bruce fruitlessly tugging on Tony’s legs, the rest of her boyfriend’s body stuck upside-down inside a metal container. Tony’s yelled instructions were muffled from being stuck, but they reverberated loudly. “No, no, stop, that’s not helping—Get Dummy, or Butterfingers!”
Pepper covered her mouth with one hand and resisted the urge to laugh. A few squeaks came out anyway.
Bruce let go of Tony immediately upon realizing she was there. “Oh, er… Hi. Um, Pepper. Hi. This isn’t… It’s a bit, er… complicated? Tony’s, uh, Tony’s fine. Just a bit… stuck.”
Pepper nodded, regaining most of her composure—her lips twitched as she fought the urge to smile. “I see that.”
“Pepper? Pepper! Tell Bruce how to get the robots to listen to him, they can get me out!” Tony called.
She covered her face with the papers she’d come in with (Tony’s signature was still needed on a lot of the company documents) and tried to keep a straight face. She beckoned to Bruce. “It’s really simple, just talk to them. He should have upgraded their recognition for your voice, if you’re down here often,” she said softly.
“Yeah, we… it helps, to have somewhere like this. Keeps my mind busy, focused,” Bruce replied, his voice softer than normal.
Pepper glanced over her shoulder at Tony’s legs, still flailing. “I take it this isn’t something that happens often?”
The demure man grinned briefly. “No, no… maybe once a week. The rest of the time, it’s more the…”
“Explosions,” she said with him, nodding. “Well, it’s just a good thing we already have all the insurance, if you two are down here playing lab partners all day.”
Their eyes met for a moment, and he looked down again. “He’s really, ah… ambitious. I don’t… I don’t know how you managed to control him before.”
Pepper hesitated. Everything was on a need-to-know basis around here. Maybe there were a few things Bruce still needed to know. She touched his arm lightly. He flinched, but didn’t pull away. “I didn’t,” she said simply. “He’s more ambitious because you’re here to bounce ideas off of. I was mostly regulated to making sure he ate and slept, and didn’t smash anything else valuable with his tests. You’re a doctor, and a top-notch scientist; he’s a scientist and an engineer, and about half a dozen other things. To him, the possibilities between you are endless.”
Bruce didn’t say anything. Pepper patted Dummy’s arm. “Like I said, they’ll listen to you. Give them clear instructions. Dummy might take a bit to really get it. Butterfingers might drop Tony on his head.”
She started to walk away. Bruce’s quiet, “Thanks,” stopped her. She looked back. “Don’t thank me quite yet. You’ve just been promoted to Tony Stark’s Official Babysitter.”
That was the first time she heard Bruce Banner laugh.