She was fumbling around in the dark for a flashlight or candle—seriously, of all the times her BlackBerry wasn't attached to her hip.
The Malibu house she knew like the back of her hand, but the newly constructed Avengers Tower (how convenient that only the A had been left), that was a whole other story. They'd only been living there for a week and a half and she still needed to adjust—especially in the dark.
She'd been in her and Tony's bedroom, finishing up a few last-minute reports Tony would scold her for, insisting she worked too much. But at the moment he was breathing heavily right beside her, deep in slumber.
Pepper looked at the clock, which read 2:03 am. She really needed to sleep, but first she needed to tell Jarvis to secure the building and lock everything down. Everyone had probably left a long time ago. She was just entering the kitchen, in an effort not to wake Tony by talking to Jarvis in their bedroom.
All of a sudden, the lights went out and she was standing in a completely dark living room and kitchen full of stuff. The security panel was located across the room, there she could type in her access code to secure the building remotely. Jarvis was offline now too—great. She really should've brought her phone. Her surroundings were trickier to manage than even Tony's workshop used to be; even larger, more things scattered about. She fumbled around, knocking against a few stools, a small table, until finally, she stubbed her toe against the counter. Swearing, she grabbed ahold of it and tried to feel around the cabinets for a flashlight and after a few failed attempts, she found one.
The security panel was easy to find after that. Ducking her head, she typed in her code and heard the satisfying beep of the manual lockdown. A rustling followed by a dull thunk made her jump suddenly and Pepper saw stars as her head collided with the cupboard above her. She let out a yelp and when a crash sounded behind her — a lamp, if she had to guess — Pepper turned towards the noise.
The flashlight in her hand revealed a disheveled-looking man who was sort of shuffling in place.
"Are you okay?" he asked urgently, his eyes not even straying towards her state of slight undress.
"I—Who are you?" she asked instead, noticing the Stark Industries badge courtesy of Happy.
"I'm Bruce Banner. I'm, uh, a colleague—"
"Dr. Banner, of course," she filled in, remembering the files Tony had shown her one night. She just hadn't expected to see him in her kitchen in the dead of night. "I know who you are. Tony's told me all about you."
His eyes widened and Pepper had to refrain from smiling at his comically surprised expression.
"You're Pepper Potts?"
"Last time I checked my ID, yes."
He was fumbling around nervously, and Pepper wondered whether she should take pity on him.
"You're Tony's girlfriend?"
"God help me, but yes," she affirmed, grinning at him. He looked her over for a moment and frowned. She thoughtfully raised an eyebrow at him.
"I'm sorry. It's just—You're so..." he was gesturing wildly, trying to communicate what he couldn't seem to bring into words.
"What?" she urged, still smiling gently.
"You're just so... regular."
"Excuse me?" she asked, both eyebrows raised now.
He immediately looked alarmed. "I mean ordinary," he amended, again immediately realising his mistake. Waving his arms, he tried, "No! I mean, you're normal. And he's extraordinary."
"You really know how to flatter a woman, Dr. Banner," Pepper chuckled, finally giving in at seeing the panicked look on his face. She stepped forward and offered her hand, which he shook gratefully.
"Bruce, please. It's very nice to meet you, Miss Potts. I've only heard good things about you," he told her, smiling rather shyly, throwing a glance at the shattered lamp on the floor. "I'm sorry about that. I'll pay for it."
"Oh, please, it's fine. If you knew the number of times Tony has trashed the places he lives in... Let's just say one lamp won't make the difference. Oh, and call me Pepper."
He smiled again and she looked at him for a couple of seconds, waiting for him to speak. When he didn't, she asked the obvious question. "So, can I ask what you're doing here at two in the morning, Bruce?"
"Oh, yes, of course," Bruce chuckled, stepping further towards her so his face was lit by the light outside. "Tony said I could keep working for a little bit, and I was just on my way downstairs when the elevator stopped and let me out here."
Of course. Jarvis' absence would trigger the safety protocols throughout the whole building. Tony could be somewhat larger than life at times, but he really was the most brilliant man she'd ever known. Looking around, she gestured to the couch so that they could both sit down. Luckily the room was adequately lit thanks to the many windows and expectionally bright Moon.
"How are you settling into the lab?"
"It's really nice," he told her. "Top-notch equipment, someone to bounce ideas off of and who can actually handle... the other guy. It's the most secure I've felt in a while," he admitted, throwing her a slightly sad smile.
"I know that Tony would be very happy to hear that. I'm glad you're here, so he's not constantly cooped up in those labs alone. I'm not around as much as I used to be to drag him out of there in time."
Pepper smiled at the memories; how she used to be mostly his babysitter and go-to person to mess with, the easy report that she had carefully kept within certain limits, until Afghanistan provided a wake-up call for both of them—Tony took responsibility and she became his equal. She became more worried than ever, but he confided in her more and more. And she guessed that the rest was history...
"I'm sorry you had to work alone tonight," she continued apologetically, "I forced him to go to sleep. Ever since New York, he's been... different. PTSD, I think—not that he'd admit it."
Bruce nodded in understanding. "I don't know Tony as well as you do, of course, but I think he has realised how vulnerable everyone he cares about is. He might have the metal suit, but the rest of you don't."
Pepper tried to maintain her composure, but Bruce had hit the nail on the head. Although she was scared every time he went out, she knew that he was capable of taking care of himself and now she had some peace in knowing that he had an entire team he could count on who would watch his back.
"I think you've pretty much got him pegged. One thing I've seen in him from the moment I became his assistant is that Tony loves too much. Always has. That's why he doesn't trust a lot of people. I'm glad that The Avengers are there to remind him that he's not alone," she told him, choking up a bit. Bruce tentatively reached out and touched her shoulder in comfort. Something about him made her feel incredibly calm, nothing that suggested he could be anything less.
"And you're there," he reminded her in a gentle tone.
"Well, I try to be."
"He talks about you all the time," Bruce insisted, remembering one time he'd actually timed Tony telling all of them a story about her. As Natasha was the only one familiar with her, the rest of them had made up their own image of Pepper Potts. They all knew she had to be pretty badass to control Tony and befriend Black Widow. And clearly, the woman in front of him was. "He told us there's no better words for you than his 'better half'."
Pepper's heart clenched at those words. She knew Tony loved her, but she hadn't expected that he would say it so clearly to others. She also knew Bruce's relationship history through Tony, and right then, she honestly couldn't grasp why someone who had loved him so much hadn't stayed by his side.
"What is it with men saying that to others but never to whom it's about?" she wondered.
The scientist shrugged. "I guess Tony is more of an action rather than words kind of guy."
"Ain't that the truth. But he can be sweet when he wants to be."
They both jumped when a sudden voice rang out. "Now, Pepper, don't go telling my secrets to strangers in the night."
Tony himself walked towards them, and as if on cue, all the lights turned back on. "Ah! Jarvis, everything secure in the building? Then run diagnostics, I want to know how this happened."
He further closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around Pepper's waist. "What was that about me being sweet? I can't have you spreading that rumour around."
"Don't worry, we already know you're a sap," Bruce interjected, grinning innocently.
Tony narrowed his eyes at his friend. "You weren't trying to seduce my woman, now, were you? I'll have you know that over the last decade she has only liked a very specific type of scientist."
"First of all," Pepper said, slapping him on the arm, "I'm not your woman but your girlfriend. Second, it was either you or Justin Hammer. Must admit, very close call."
"Can we not talk about the guy who tried to murder you, please?" Tony asked in exasperation. Pepper just stared at him in return until he relented.
"Alright, dear, no more calling you a woman."
Bruce chuckled against his better judgement as Pepper shook her head and mouthed insufferable at him.
Bruce thought that Tony could count his lucky stars having a woman like Pepper stay with him for all these years. Maybe he could ask her for some advice some time, try to find his own Pepper.