The one thing Pepper Potts prided herself on was the fact that she could stay cool under pressure.

But when she became Tony Stark's personal assistant (and later the CEO of Stark Industries all together), she quickly discovered that her ability to stay calm would have to stretch beyond the boundaries of office work and board meetings.

She had to pretend she wasn't scared when Stark's long time business partner decided to go on a murderous rampage. She had to be non-challant about her boyfriend almost dying from his heart condition…or a rival trying to kill him on a race track…or an army of suits coming after him…

Oh, and everything was just A-OK when aliens invaded New York, and the inventor nearly got trapped in the vacuum of outer space.

Yep. No matter what, she was just a totem pole of serenity.

She HAD to be, now that the tower she called home was half destroyed and still in the process of being rebuilt…that, and there was the tiny detail of it playing host to a team of superheroes.

She actually didn't mind; not all that much. She was happy that Tony made some new friends and became a part of something bigger than himself (as shocking as that was-mostly to him). And for the first few months since the invaders were driven off, she had assumed her calm, "everything's just fine" demeanor and welcomed the team with open arms. True, they weren't living there, but almost every day, one of them would stop by-sometimes for a few minutes-sometimes for the whole day, and soon, she was being regarded as the "team mom"-the one who was always there to lend a helping hand, or an ear to listen. Silently, they were all grateful for the red head's presence (when Tony became too much to handle), and she, in turn, found that these "Avengers" gave her an odd sense of stability again. When things got too crazy for her, they would each, in their own way, remind her that everything would be okay, and over time, she found that her calmness wasn't just a façade anymore-she truly WAS at peace again.

Almost.

Steve was just a huge bundle of adorkableness. She found herself connecting to him the most-both souls having to get used to an insane amount of change in a short amount of time. She paid no mind to his near-constant blushing around her, and kindly corrected any mistakes he made; explaining things in a way that wasn't demeaning. He felt forever indebted to her, and she felt like he was the father she never had. Seeing his kind face always made her smile.

Thor was…odd. (But then again, so was her life. What else was new?) But she chalked that up to him literally popping in an out at random times. And anytime he DID make his presence known, it was an event. He constantly referred to her as "Lady Pepper", and so far, she couldn't convince him to call her anything less (not that she wasn't enjoying it, mind you). And he was always prepared with a story about one of his adventures in Asguard, to which she'd drop whatever she was doing to listen. His homeland sounded like such a mystical place, and internally, she was itching for the day he'd invite the rest of his friends along to see it. And much like Steve, she found herself becoming one of his primary teachers of Earth culture. He wasn't as fast a learner as the super solider, but he was always up for any challenge, and she admired that about him.

Oddly enough, for how in and out Thor was, she saw him more than she saw Clint. S.H.I.E.L.D. must've been keeping him busy with missions or something. He never spoke much, but when he did, it was always something important or meaningful. Unless archery was brought up. THAT, he could go on for hours about. And she didn't mind him being a show off, because his skills were an amazing sight to be seen.

As for Natasha…well…they were on speaking terms anyway. She rarely saw her ever since the Justin Hammer incident. But if this woman helped save the world, then the secretary could be a tad more forgiving towards the spy who was just doing her job.

And then there was Bruce.

Pepper could accept the various super people coming in and out of her house…but Bruce was on another level entirely.

She found it downright strange when Tony brought the nervous scientist home-going on and on about what a genius he was and how much he'd love Stark Tower (or Avengers Tower as he now wanted to call it). Naturally, the red head had been her usual, inviting-self and kindly welcomed Banner in…

…but it wasn't until an hour later that the billionaire revealed to her just who and WHAT the scientist was…and suddenly, she wanted to be a thousand miles away from where she was standing at that moment.

And the horror only intensified when the inventor made it clear that Bruce was going to be staying…as in, settling in…as in, not going anywhere…as in, he was going to be LIVING just a few floors below them.

Miss Potts held the record for staying cool under fire…but even she had to draw the line upon discovering the Hulk was going to be their roommate.

She was quick to voice how BAD of an idea that was. Tony promptly responded that he owed Bruce a life debt, and to give the man a chance…the same way she gave the inventor a chance. And that was the end of the discussion.

Admittedly, for the first month or two, it was as if Bruce wasn't even there. The doctor was in the lab nearly 24/7, and the few times he ventured out for food (or if Tony dragged him out himself), he stayed quiet. He always just took what he needed-no more, no less, and God forbid if he'd ever ask for anything. Truly, this guy was fixated on making as little an impact as possible.

And Pepper, for her part, did everything in her power to stay polite…even as she busied herself with organizing the repair crews-trying to avoid the scientist in every way possible. But being roommates and all, eventually, the two crossed paths, and when they did, the red head would tightly clutch whatever was in her hands at the given moment to mask her trembling body. She'd force a smile; say what needed to be said, and would scurry on her way.

She knew Bruce was an Avenger. She knew he had a brilliant mind, and in the few times they spoke, a kind heart. She took pity on him. She felt bad that he was so alone, and that Tony had befriended him and given him a proper home.

She WANTED to be friends with everyone. She WANTED to trust him-she truly did.

But anytime she'd steal a peek in the lab; staring and watching the scientist work in a peaceful silence, or chit-chatting with the billionaire on some new invention…the only thing she could see was a green rage monster that could burst out of him at any given second. An unstoppable behemoth that could destroy what was left of their home, and take THEM along with it, without any thought or mercy.

And Bruce must've taken the hint that she was downright terrified of him, for he barely engaged her unless it was necessary. Only once did Tony catch him trying to pack his belongings, to which he just about exploded, saying he wasn't about to let Banner "disappear to nowheresville again", and that their house was his house, and he shouldn't worry about what others think. Pepper had been eavesdropping, and she physically shrank at her boyfriend's stinging words-no doubt that last sentence was referring to her. She quietly patted away before they noticed her…although it was also to escape in case the heated argument caused the doctor to change.

She wanted it to work. But she was used to stability. To being in control…and the Hulk was anything BUT that.

Five nerve-wracking months later, and both the secretary and the scientist knew this…thing between them couldn't last much longer. If this living arrangement was going to work, something had to give.

So Bruce surprised both the CEO AND himself when HE made the first move.

He found her on the penthouse level one morning-specifically in the observation area, where there was a wall of windows that offered a breathtaking view of New York City. The red head had both an IPad and a regular clipboard in hand-shouting out an assortment of directions to the dozen or so repairmen and cleanup crews. Her back was to the scientist, who had patted in rather quietly-trying to gauge whether now was a good time to discuss the elephant in the room, as it were.

Before he could make his decision, Pepper suddenly turned, then promptly jumped at spotting him just a foot or so away from her. She said nothing, but whatever she was holding was instantly clutched tightly to her chest as she stifled a gasp. But Banner was long since used to such tense reactions, and kept his expression neutral as he muttered, "Um…Miss Potts…can we talk?"

His eyes flicked down for only a second to see that the secretary's knees were shaking. And her obviously forced smile did nothing to mask her trembling voice, "Uh…s-sure. What…do you need?"

Anyone else would've questioned why she didn't suggest stepping out to some place more private, but this came as no surprise to the doctor. This woman was going to stay rooted to the spot, in an open area that offered plenty of room to escape and more than a few witnesses in case…you-know-who showed up. Not HIS most ideal place to hold a conversation…but he had her attention, and he had finally worked up the nerve to discuss a subject even he didn't like bringing up. There was no turning back now.

"Um…" he shifted on his feet; not making full eye contact, "I just wanted to say…how grateful I am that you and Tony opened your house to me." He pushed his glasses up a bit farther on his nose, "Not too many people are very willing, or…brave enough to…and for good reason."

He paused a moment to judge her reaction. Miss Potts merely blinked at him-shocked at the silent man suddenly opening up, "…Bruce…I…"

But her tone must've been too tiny for him to hear, for the scientist pressed onward, "If…if I'm overstepping my boundaries, let me know…but…I'm very fortunate to have the friends that I do." He took a deep breath and glanced down at his chest, "…and I think the other guy appreciates it too." On instinct, he folded his arms, almost as if he were hugging some unseen person, "I think we both don't want to lose what little good we have going for us."

Pepper's fingernails were practically digging into the clipboard, especially at the out and out mention of Banner's alter ego. And yet, something in her mind cancelled out her instinct to run, considering that this was the most she'd ever heard him talk, and to her no less. He let loose a puff of air and bounced on the heels of his shoes as he continued, "Look…all I'm trying to say is…you have every right to be…nervous."

That wasn't exactly the first word he thought of, but it sounded more polite, "Hell, I'M still nervous about it…about all…this." He waved a hand, motioning to the building they currently resided in. And then, for the first time, he made full eye contact with her, "But…I don't WANT you to be nervous…and I want you to know that…the other guy and me…we've come to an understanding." He didn't know how else to describe his dual personality, so he merely shrugged, "I've got more control than you-" He caught himself, "-than most people believe…a 'terrible privilege', as Tony put it."

The whole time the doctor was giving voice to his plight, Pepper had visibly relaxed a bit. The fear was still evident in her eyes, but now she couldn't help but be curious…especially when her boyfriend was mentioned.

Bruce shoved his hands in his pockets; not knowing what to do with himself, "I mean…really, ignoring a problem or situation only makes it worse." He didn't specify what "it" was, but somehow, he knew she knew, "It's really just a matter of channeling the right energies…or expressing negativity in a positive way…just have to stay cool under fire…sounds fung shway, I know, but…"

He rubbed the back of his head and trailed off from there, upon realizing he was just rambling at that point. An awkward silence fell between the two-the only sounds coming from the nearby workers. But in that moment, Miss Potts had come to understand what made this quiet man tick-at least a little bit. Who would've thought that he was just as scared of her as she was of him…or maybe not OF her, so much as being scared of hurting her-physically or otherwise.

Actually, now that she thought about it, all the Avengers (and yes, even Tony), had the potential to be just as dangerous as the Hulk…but no one was afraid of THEM. Bruce seemed to be the only one aware of what he could truly do…and maybe, in some ways, that actually made HIM the most responsible of them all. This was a man who had to be in control of himself 24/7…who had to walk the fine line between rage and serenity…who had to always stay cool under pressure, lest things go wrong and people get hurt…

And THAT was something she could completely relate to.

And considering how it'd been over five months with not a single incident…perhaps she had seriously misjudged him all along.

Her eyes had gone a bit misty, which Bruce mistook for fear, and he visibly shrank. Maybe this was a bad idea, "Um…I'm sorry…I'll go…"

He started to turn to leave, but Pepper threw an arm out, "No, wait!"

Immediately, he stopped. For a long beat, the two stared at one another, as the red head searched desperately for the right words. How could she possibly summarize five months worth of anxiety? But to his credit, the scientist was very patient-allowing the secretary to gather herself-not looking judgmental in the slightest. In fact, he almost appeared relieved that he had made it this far.

But at long last, Miss Potts found her voice, "Bruce, I…I'm…it's just…with everything that's happened…to Tony, the Avengers, the…alien thing…I…" Her voice hitched, but no tears came out, "I try to do my job…I try to stay calm…to stay diligent, but…but sometimes, it…it just…"

"-just gets to be too much?" Banner finished for her, "Like you just want to explode, and just let it all out. All the fear, all the frustration…all the pain."

It was a statement, not a question…a statement that came directly from experience, to which Pepper could see that in his eyes and thin lips. She nodded ever so slowly, "Bruce, I…I'm really glad you and Tony are friends." This time, she DID wipe away an escaped tear, "He never really had anyone who could understand him until now, and…I think it's made him a better person."

But the more she talked, the more Bruce found it hard to focus on what she was saying. A weird, red mark had suddenly appeared on her neck…

…and then the mark started to move…

She continued on, not noticing, "I guess I…I just want to say…I'm…"

Now the mark was on her chest…and it dawned on the doctor it wasn't a trick of the light…

…it was a red dot…

…from a scope…

"PEPPER, GET DOWN!"

For the red head, the next minute was nothing but a blur. One moment, she was standing-the next, Bruce lunged forward and tackled her around the waist, sending both of them crashing to the floor. There came a loud popping sound, but the CEO couldn't see what it was, or where it was coming from, for the scientist was laying on top of her, protectively. He looked back only once, and quickly pulled a sharp object out of his ankle.

She tried to ask what happened, but he was already scrambling to his feet and yanking her up with him. The only words she could make out from his hurried voice was "hidden sniper", "poison dart", and "won't affect me." He frantically pushed on her back; shoving her behind a stainless steel counter and forcing her down so both she and him were barricaded in the dining room area.

Only then did Pepper finally sputter out, "W-what's going on?"

"You know those repairmen you hired?" oddly enough, Bruce's voice stayed even. She nodded, and he shook his head-speaking frank, "…they're not repairmen."

And with those simple, but chilling words, Miss Potts realized they were in BIG trouble.

Gathering her nerve, the CEO risked taking a tiny peek around the counter…and her heart jumped to her throat. The twelve men on the repair crew had formed a semi-circle around the dining room-their smocks and cleaning fatigues shed for black, espionage-type suits.

And all of them had a gun of some type drawn.

She swiveled back around behind the safety of the table-chest pounding and mind racing-trying to deduce how these people could've possibly slipped past their various security measures. Her eyes then fell on Bruce, who's face took on a very peeved, but still determined expression…and it made her realize, what she SHOULD'VE been thinking about was how they were going to get out of this mess.

Suddenly, a harsh, commanding voice broke the tense quiet, "We know you're behind there, so you might as well make this simple and surrender."

Even as the man was talking, the secretary was already frantically tapping her earpiece, whispering, "JARVIS, security breach! JARVIS!"

But the A.I. didn't respond. She turned on the scientist, "I can't reach JARVIS!"

Evidently, her whispering echoed off the stainless steel, for the man answered back, "Don't bother. We made sure your cyber-butler went beddy bye."

By then, Pepper's mind went into overdrive. Who could possibly have the technology or know-how to disable JARVIS?

Only one name came to mind.

"Did Justin Hammer send you?" the secretary called out, although she couldn't hide the fear in her voice.

"And what's it to you?" the man practically snarled.

She stole another glance at Bruce, who motioned to keep their attackers talking, while also pointing at her skirt pocket. Taking the cue, the red head carefully slipped out her smart phone and furiously began typing. But whatever broadband virus that was crippling JARVIS was also affecting her phone service inside the building, for the screen began to fizzle out on her.

But fortunately, she managed to send one message before the phone blacked out.

Tony,

We got a code Black Sabbath.

Pepper

The secretary was about ready to cry. The phone was their last chance. She knew that her boyfriend would come to the rescue, and no doubt call for back up too.

She just didn't know if it would be IN TIME.

Turning her attention back to their attackers, she decided to play into their greedy side, "Whatever you're getting paid, we can double it. Or triple. Whatever you want."

There was a pause, and for a second, she thought they were considering her offer. But all her hopes were dashed when the man replied, "We didn't come for money. We came for YOU."

Pepper stifled a gasp. All this time, THAT'S what they were after? Kidnapping someone is a surprisingly easy thing to do, especially with a team of people, so why go through all this trouble?

She was broken from her thoughts when the leader of the group gave an ultimatum, "We're giving you one chance to make this easy. Come with us now, and no one gets hurt."

Miss Potts had scrunched into a tiny ball-scrambling to come up with another plan. But she was drawing a blank. They were outnumbered, with no way to call for help, and no place to escape. Resigning to her fate, she slowly made a move to get up-taking a deep breath. If she had to do this…whatever happened…she wouldn't give these people the satisfaction of looking afraid.

But suddenly, a gentle, but firm hand grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. She turned to find Bruce was slowly shaking his head no. Very quietly, he muttered, "Don't do it." And then, to her surprise, he began to rise to his feet.

"What are you doing?" she whisper/shouted.

He glanced down only once, muttering, "Believe me, I'm used to holding conversations at gun point."

She didn't have time to dwell on the full ramifications of that statement, for the scientist, without any hesitation, made his move and popped up in full view of the enemy agents. Instantly, the men aimed their guns at him, but he simply sighed-almost looking bored, "I really wouldn't do that if I were you."

The man who had been doing most of the talking (no doubt the group leader), cocked a brow, "And just who are you?"

Instead of answering him, Banner posed a question of his own, "I don't think it much matters to you...because you're not here to take hostages are you?" He motioned to the group surrounding him as if he were giving a classroom lecture, "There's at least ten of you here, and two of us. All you had to do was whip the guns out at any point…" He scratched his chin, now more curious, even as an assault rifle was aimed between his eyes, "No…you came here for something else. Something to steal, maybe? Is that why you're stalling?"

He put his hands in his pockets; rocking back and forth on his heels as his eyes flicked toward the window briefly. But a second later, he was staring them down again, "Or if Hammer DID send you, are you here just to wipe out your competition? Is that why that helicopter's coming for us?"

The leader of the assault team couldn't help the tiny look of surprise on his face. The doctor caught it easily and answered his silent question, "Yeah, I can hear it coming…I'm kind of used to that sound." His brief flash of disgust was the only window into the painful experience behind his words, "You're here just to have your way with us and then burn the evidence. You already tried poisoning Miss Potts."

And then suddenly, Bruce produced the empty dart from his pant pocket-the one that was meant for the secretary, but hit him instead. He flicked it at them like one would brush away a piece of fuzz, and it bounced across the floor with a loud ping. He flashed a creepily amused grin, "That almost hurt by the way."

The men could do nothing but stare at the dart, then back up at the scientist in utter shock. Taking advantage of the silence, he folded his arms and steeled his eyes into an ice cold stare-making it clear that a firing squad didn't intimidate him in the slightest, "So, I'm going to give YOU all a chance to make this easy. Pack up your stuff, and leave the premises now…because if you don't…you're going to make me angry…and you wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

From her shelter on the floor, Pepper was visibly shaking with fright, not just at the terrorists that invaded her home, but at being reminded that an unbridled rage monster could appear in front of her at any second. It wasn't helping that his voice was chillingly calm as he delivered his warning.

The men passed glances at one another-pondering what to do. The dart was a clear indicator they weren't dealing with a normal person. Was this some new super being they weren't told about? They all looked to their leader, who readied his scope as an answer. So what if the guy was apparently immune to poison? Didn't mean he could take a bullet.

"Waste him!"

With their bluff called, the squad unleashed a fury of bullets. Fortunately, Bruce had ducked back behind the counter a split second before hand, realizing that, as usual, they weren't going to heed his warning. He put a hand to his chest-trying to calm his pounding heart. He could feel his inner beast inching his way closer to his conscious mind. The jolly green giant wanted to come out and play.

But he had to stay human just for a few minutes longer; just enough so he could fully analyze the situation so the other guy knew which stuff was okay to break. He looked over at Pepper, who was still shivering, and spoke quickly, before their attackers decided to finish them off, "They've got choppers on the way…this place is going to be blown sky high with us in it if we don't get out of here. They were just sent to keep us trapped here."

At those words, he carefully peeked around the table again to size up their opponents. Most of them were busy reloading their weapons-another was radioing someone; most likely the incoming helicopter…and another was grabbing a…

"Oh crap…" the doctor mumbled.

Miss Potts found her voice, "What? What is it?"

The scientist swiveled back around and didn't meet her gaze; instead speaking in a dead pan tone, "…they got a bazooka."

"B-BAZOOKA?" the red head sputtered-sweat pouring down her neck as all the color drained from her face.

But the increased fire power was the least of Banner's worries. He could hear the sounds of the chopper drawing near, as well as heavy boot steps as the men closed in on them-now finished playing games and wanting to get their job over with.

A green haze was forming at the corners of his vision. He couldn't hold back the beast much longer…and truthfully, he didn't want to. He had already lost a girlfriend, a decent life, and everything that was ever important to him.

He was finally starting to gain it all back…and he WASN'T about to lose it all again.

They needed the Hulk.

Taking a deep breath, he began undoing the buttons on his lavender shirt. At the very least, he was NOT going to ruin another piece of his wardrobe. During which, he said simply, "Pepper…I need to ask you something."

The fact that he called her by her nickname made her fully face him…and when she spotted him taking his shirt off, her heart leapt to her throat.

Oh no…not here…not now…

He didn't wait for her to respond. He turned to her; staring right in her eyes; his voice taking on a commanding tone that was usually only heard from Steve, "Do you trust me?"

She merely blinked; not fully registering as she was still too scared, "What?"

"Do you trust me?" his tone was urgent; his skin now tingling-the beast pounding at his cage.

The red head trembled, "I…I…"

Banner grabbed her by her shoulders, "DO YOU TRUST ME?"

Pepper stared into the doctor's eyes…eyes that were determined, but still gentle and pleading…begging her to put faith in him and his alter ego…silently promising that he'd do everything in his power to protect her…

I don't WANT you to be nervous…the other guy and me; we've come to an understanding…I've got more control than most people believe…

The men all cocked their guns…and she made her decision.

"…yes."

Bruce gave her a final smile, "Good."

He then scooted backwards and whipped his glasses off…his brown eyes suddenly glowing green.

"Then the other guy won't hurt you."

And with those words, the cage was unlocked. Bruce allowed himself to be ushered to the backseat…

…and the Hulk was let off the leash.

Pepper had heard plenty of stories about the famed green monster…but only a small number of people knew he actually had a dual identity…and even fewer had bared witness to his stunning transformation. So naturally, she didn't know what to expect, other than thinking it might've looked something akin to a man morphing into a werewolf, like in the movies.

In reality…it actually wasn't very scary…mostly because it happened so fast. No lurching, no spasms, no crying out in excruciating pain as ligaments were disfigured and rearranged…

…it was just…one moment, Bruce was sitting there…and the next, his skin turned green and his body quadrupled in size…

…and suddenly, the Hulk was standing in her kitchen; fists bared and ready for smashing-teeth clenched as he let out an angry, low bass growl that sounded more like a lion.

It was simultaneously the scariest, and yet, the most amazing thing Miss Potts had ever seen. She was too stunned to look away or move, even though she was now fully exposed to the firing squad.

But it didn't much matter, for her attackers were all equally scared into a horrified silence-their guns all shaking in their trembling hands as they realized just who they were now facing. And even with the beast hunched over to accommodate for the low ceiling, his mere presence was enough to make one of the men wet himself.

For one, long minute, the two sides stared each other down-each daring the other to make the first move. It was only when one of the shooters inched their way in Pepper's direction, that the Hulk glanced at her for the first time. She jumped in surprise, yet her legs wouldn't move…especially when recognition dawned on his face, and his eyes momentarily softened in concern.

And then, in one quick motion, he carefully grabbed the secretary in a giant fist and shoved her behind his back for protection. Although she was still frightened, she couldn't help but be taken aback at such a thoughtful gesture…or how he sent death glares at the shooters and growled-spreading his arms out and making it clear that if they wanted to harm this woman, they'd have to go through HIM first.

And along with not immediately smashing everything in sight, it was Pepper's first clue that the Hulk wasn't the mindless destroyer she thought him to be.

…until he let loose an earth-shattering roar-one that shook the entire room and the force of which blew a few of the shooters off their feet. Immediately, they all scattered like ants; tripping over one another as they shamefully ran for their lives.

The only one who had the gall to hold his ground was the leader, who kept his eyes locked on the beast, but shouted, "Jack! Get the bazooka!" When no one responded, and no rocket flew over his head, he tried again, "Jack?"

But upon swiveling around, he discovered his team of commandos had abandoned him…and he only turned back when he felt an angry, warm breath tickling his neck. The Hulk was now standing just a foot away from him-eyes grimacing, but mouth contorted in a twisted, "you just epically failed" smile.

The sniper did NOT take that kindly. Wanting to prove he still had one ace up his sleeve, he quickly swiped a grenade from his utility belt and pulled the pin. He promptly threw it right in the beast's face and yelled, "Oh, SCREW YOU!"

Being so close, the green giant had no time to react. The bomb exploded at point blank range; temporarily blinding him and causing him to cry out in utter rage. Although, the searing heat was no different than a bee sting to him-he was more angry at such a pitiful opponent catching him off guard. His hands swatted at the cloud of smoke left behind-eyes darting everywhere as he searched for his target that he so badly wanted to smash into the floor. But whether the man used the distraction to escape, or was blown back by the force of the blast, either way, his enemy was nowhere to be found.

To that, the Hulk threw back his head and roared. Needless to say, he was more than miffed at being denied the fight he so craved. But soon, he calmed down just slightly; letting out a frustrated puff of air as he turned on his heel and made his way back over to where Pepper was still standing in a mix of fear and relief. The floor trembled as he trudged closer and closer, and yet she didn't back up or look away.

Instead, she cautiously stepped forward; meeting him halfway. The giant man/beast and the tiny woman gazed at one another-each scrutinizing the other curiously. True, somewhere inside that green body, Bruce was hibernating…and yet, it wasn't him at the same time. Banner and the Hulk WERE the same guy…and still totally different simultaneously.

But when his green eyes turned tender-his lips now more concerned than angry…Miss Potts came to reason she WAS still facing Bruce…a different form, yes, but it was the same man who asked to trust him…and it was the man who saved her life.

And for the first time that day, she sincerely smiled, to which the beast returned it in kind…in an odd, "it's nice to meet you too" sort of way.

But the moment was instantly broken when a maelstrom of bullets suddenly rocketed through the wall of windows; the glass exploding inward as a helicopter made itself known. The Hulk yelled out in surprise, but instead of immediately chasing his new target, he threw himself on top of the red head-kneeling over her protectively as a barrage of ammo was emptied into his backside. Instinctively, she ducked her head, but also hovered closer to her only line of defense. A squad of snipers was one thing, but a chopper armed to the teeth? NOW what were they going to do?

Apparently, the Hulk was already formulating a plan. This was all the more exemplified when he scooped up Pepper and cradled her in one, massive arm, to which she gasped, but more in surprise than fear. Even as he was still being pumped full of lead, he merely shrugged it off like a pesky fly and glanced around-searching for any type of escape route.

Well, he couldn't fly…but he COULD jump. And another wall of windows on the opposite side of the room was just in front of him…

…with a 30 story drop underneath.

Pepper followed his line of sight, and all the color left her face, "Oh no…"

He began jogging.

"No-no-no-no-no…"

The jog escalated to a sprint.

"Please don't tell me we're…"

Now he was running.

"Oh, shoooooot WE ARE!"

He tightened his grip around her. She buried her head in the crook of his arm and held on for dear life.

And the green beast went smashing through the windows; the world cranking into slow motion as the two hovered in the sky-shards of glass buzzing around them like glittery rain. And for one moment, Miss Potts felt like they really WERE flying.

Until they found themselves facing ANOTHER helicopter-one coming right for them; armed and ready to fire.

But just as the enemy got the shot off, for the red head, her vision went dark, as the Hulk practically smothered her against his chest; cupping his hand over her completely to protect her. With his other hand, he reached out, and with one furious swipe, he clipped the chopper-tearing out the landing gear and causing it to spiral out of control…

…at the same time that gravity took hold again, and the beauty and the beast descended into a terrifying free fall. Pepper let out a blood-curtling scream, but it was all the more muffled by her savior scrunching up into a ball-trying to cushion her for the inevitable crash landing.

No sooner did Miss Potts mutter out one prayer for their survival, they hit the pavement…and the force made her black out.

When she finally came to, her vision was trapped in a blurry haze; ears ringing; head feeling underwater, and every bone in her body aching…but she was in pain…and it meant she was still alive. And then, slowly, but surely, her world came into focus, and she fought to sit up-taking inventory of any injuries. Miraculously, other than a few scrapes and bruises, and one bloody gash down her forehead, she was fully intact.

Her surroundings weren't so lucky. As a result of their meteor-like crash, a shockwave had rippled outward in all directions-destroying an entire city block; fire hydrants exploding water like volcanoes, fire and smoke dotting the area, and dozens of cars overturned. Thankfully, there weren't any people around; most likely, they all evacuated when the choppers arrived and the shooting started. Save for the relieving sounds of sirens in the distance, the red head was all alone in the war-like zone.

…until the object she was sitting on moved…and she gazed down to discover she was currently perched on the Hulk's stomach…the likes of whom was spread eagle in the street-his hand still loosely wrapped around his charge.

…loosely, due to the fact that he was knocked unconscious.

Pepper wasn't sure if there really was anything out there that could kill the green monster…but she hoped to God this wasn't it. She was about to call out his name, but stopped short. Did she have to call him the Hulk now? Or did he still go by Bruce?

So instead, she put her ear to his enormous chest and listened. His heart was pounding at a thousand miles a minute, and his increased breathing made her bob up and down, as she was now laying flat on his stomach.

But it was when she stared into his wore torn face that she physically stopped. His blackish-green hair was frazzled (but like it ever looked neat to begin with), and his eyes were closed in a temporary bliss. She cautiously inched closer; obviously worried for him…and yet, at the same time, she couldn't help but be curious at just how peaceful he looked.

Then, suddenly, he snapped awake, making her jump. His eyes went wide as saucers, and a second later, he grabbed her and rolled over; instantly springing to his feet. But before she could begin to wonder what was wrong, she received her answer by the deafening sound of an explosion not just a few feet away from where they landed.

The chopper that the Hulk had clipped earlier was still out of control, and had hit the street in a deathly nose dive…and Pepper had been in too big of a daze to notice it coming down right on top of them.

…if the Hulk hadn't of woken up…or moved when he did…

Miss Potts didn't want to even think about it. Instead, she was more focused on just where the green beast was taking her. Still cradling her in one arm, he circled around the building; coming upon the tower's parking lot. There were only about ten cars sitting there, including the vans the deadly paint crew arrived in. And with that, the giant smirked; he needed to "borrow" them, and surely, the shooters wouldn't miss them.

The lot was fenced off by a brick wall-perfect for what he was about to do. Quickly, but carefully, he set Pepper down on the ground; nudging her into a corner. And then he took her by surprise for about the fifth time that day, when he unceremoniously grabbed one of the vans and began ripping it apart as if it were cardboard. The secretary tensed up; holding her ears to prevent against the horrible shearing sound of metal on metal. But she remained where she stood; too perplexed at what he was up to.

But when he handed her what was left of the front seat, followed by bending the strips of mangled metal around her, realization dawned…he was making a shield for her. She then took the hint and fully backed into the wall corner-covering herself with the seat cushions as the green giant bent and folded sheet after sheet of metal over top of her. Within minutes, he had created a tiny, makeshift, protective shell for her to hide in.

For her, the small room was pitch black, save for one crack between the seams. She peeked out through the hole, and the monster momentarily gazed back at her, as if saying "stay here." Well, it wasn't like she could argue with him. Instead, she simply nodded in understanding, before disappearing into the blackness.

With his friend safe and out of harm's way at the moment, the Hulk turned his attention back toward Avengers Tower, where the helicopter that had first attacked them was still taking pot shots at the building. If the beast was merely angry before, NOW he was furious. Without hesitation, he took a flying leap and began scaling the enormous structure, in a move that would make King Kong jealous. In no less than a minute, he had climbed his way back up the tower; making it all the way to the roof itself. The chopper soon leveled itself with its new target, and beast and machine faced off against one another.

And ever the one to prove that Bruce's soul was still the driving force behind his alter ego, the Hulk WAS actually calculating his next move; looking much like a kid who couldn't reach the cookie jar. Other than letting loose a few threatening roars, he didn't have anything to throw at his opponent, or otherwise fight back with. Of course, he COULD just dive bomb the chopper much like he did the first one…but that also meant taking the huge leap of faith again. And if the Hulk was teaching Bruce to let loose, Bruce was teaching the Hulk restraint, and there was no way the surrounding area could endure another beast-induced shockwave (as Banner explained in the back of his mind).

So instead, he could only stand there; confused as to why the pilot wasn't immediately shooting at him…when suddenly, a huge force of wind blew at his back, and he swiveled around to discover yet ANOTHER helicopter rising into view. His head snapping back and forth, he discovered the two choppers had him surrounded-sandwiched in the middle of what would undoubtedly be another hailstorm of bullets. But the giant held his ground; giving the machine a smug look. Let them waste their ammo; he'd just get a laugh out of their vain attempts to kill him.

But just before the helicopters could get the shots off, there was a flash of light, and a second later, the tail of a front-facing chopper erupted in an explosion of fireworks. For once in his existence, the Hulk actually cocked his head in surprise at the odd turn of events. But soon, a second explosion went off behind him, and he spun around just in time to notice the other chopper also twirling out of control-smoke pouring from the cockpit.

There then came the distinct sound of mini jet engines criss-crossing the sky…and through the fire and smoke, Ironman descended into view.

The green giant let out a roar, only this time, it was one of utter relief that the calvary finally arrived. To that, Stark gave him a thumbs up, before taking off after the flying death machines; making it clear that he'd take care of things from here. With a swiftness that could only come from months of practice, the iron avenger circled the choppers like a tornado-fiercely plucking out both pilots in one fell swoop. He then allowed himself some more height and distance; his targeting system locking onto both helicopters as every last weapon in his arsenal was armed.

True, he didn't NEED to shoot them with everything he had…but much like his green friend, he was ANGRY.

Less than a second later, the detonating choppers lit up the sky like a Fourth of July celebration-the pieces so tiny, there was hardly any debris left to crash to the earth.

Tony then turned his full attention to the two pilots still dangling in his grip-crying out as they hovered thousands of feet off the ground. And although his mask was void of any expression, it was still clear his mind was filled with nothing but revenge at his own home being attacked.

"For your sake…I think it'd be better to just let you go splat, than give you to HIM", the inventor motioned to the rage beast still waiting on the roof-his voice nothing short of venomous.

Both pilots cried out for mercy-real tears pouring down their faces. The billionaire just shook his head and groaned at such a pathetic sight, before coming to a gentle landing on the roof. But he certainly WASN'T gentle with his two former attackers, as attested by the way he unceremoniously tossed them at the Hulk's feet. Ironman nodded, "They're all yours, buddy."

The two pilots could only stare up at the monster in total horror-shaking at the sight of the beast clutching a piece of charred landing gear like a baseball bat. He cast them a dark smile; his toothy grin a bad sign that he'd make sure whatever punishment he dished out would HURT. They both closed their eyes-believing death to be more welcome than THIS.

…so it came as a complete shock to them when the giant bent the piece of metal around them; effectively tying them up. The pilots blinked with the biggest "what the hell just happened" expressions…until the beast roared right in their faces as a final warning. One screamed-the other fainted from the shock.

So the Hulk was just toying with them the whole time; making them think he was going to end them both. Who knew the giant had a sense of humor? Unless that was the Bruce side of his psyche poking through. Either way, Tony found it hilarious, and held back a laugh. Instead, he merely looked up at his friend, "Can I just say I love you?"

The beast smiled…then actually chuckled.

"Sorry I was late for the party", the inventor glanced around; voice now serious again, "Where's Pepper?"

The monster answered by simply pointing downward, before jogging away and hopping over the side of the roof. Stark hovered above him; watching as the green giant scaled back down the side of the tower like an overgrown monkey. Even while in his suit, the billionaire tapped his chin, "Note to self-install a Hulk-sized elevator."

Both the green beast and his iron companion were back on the ground within minutes. For a short beat, both heroes stared up at the tower-still intact, but looking a little worse for wear. The Hulk let loose a huff; turning away, frustrated that he couldn't do more. But he glanced down when Tony nudged his arm-proving once again that a ten foot tall monster didn't faze him, "Hey, you saved the family homestead. Nice job, big guy."

Obviously, the beast wasn't accustomed to kind compliments, which made him actually smirk in a sincere, almost cute way. But the calm moment was short lived when a figure darted past. The giant immediately noticed-maneuvering around Stark and taking off down the alley-emitting a dangerous growl as he went.

"Hey, where's the fire?" the inventor called after him. But before he had his boot thrusters fully activated, a loud rumble caught his attention. Turning, he was greeted by the sight of a plain-clothed Steve Rogers pulling up on his motorcycle.

Even without his shield or costume, the Captain still gave off an air of authority as he hopped off his bike and marched toward his comrade-the fear of disaster evident in his eyes. He must've gotten wind of what happened and raced over; not bothering to waste time with suiting up (and most of his gear was either at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ or Avengers Tower anyway). He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "I found two guys trying to escape out the front." He flexed his fingers as he added, "They won't be getting up." He didn't falter, but his voice more than emphasized his guilt, "I got here as fast as I could."

Tony waved off his apology, "Don't sweat it. I just got here too." It was then that the inventor took notice of the soldier's…informal attire. Needless to say, the old, "bomber jacket/slacks/plaid shirt" combo was getting tiresome, and he raised a brow behind the mask, "…okay, seriously, we need to take you shopping. Is that the only shirt you own?"

The Captain's dead pan expression gave a silent reply of, "you did NOT just ask such a dumb ass question."

But before he could respond properly, the sound of the Hulk's roar reached their ears. Both blonde and brunette turned at the noise, then glanced at one another, before sprinting down the alley-wanting to catch their oversized friend before he did anything more reckless.

Thankfully, to Steve's shock, and Tony's amusement, the giant was already handling things. The two heroes made it to the back parking lot just in time to witness a most…satisfying sight. The few shooters that had yet to escape from the building must've finally made it outside…only to run right into the monster they were trying to get away from. And seeing as how the beast constructed a barricade made up of various, overturned cars, they weren't going anywhere.

The soldier was quick to take charge. He pointed an accusing finger at the invading squad-anger evident in his commanding tone, "Drop the guns! Hands in the air!"

Immediately, the six or so men threw down their weapons, although in truth, it was more due to the fact that Ironman was aiming his repulsors right at them…AND they were also standing next to a rage beast. They all instinctively huddled together, as the Captain relinquished their guns, while Stark kept them in their place. When he was sure they wouldn't make any sudden moves, the inventor glanced over at Steve, who was swiftly disassembling each weapon thanks to years of practice.

"You got things covered here?" he asked; not really knowing what else to say.

The soldier turned to look up at the green giant, who stared down at their former attackers with his best, "move and you're dead" expression. To that, the blonde smirked; nearly chuckling at the irony of his next statement, "No…I think the Hulk's got everything under control."

If said beast heard him, he didn't react to the praise. Instead, he was preoccupied with making his way over to a far off corner of the lot. Both Steve and Tony couldn't help but watch in curiosity as their friend walked up to an odd-looking metal construct…but as he peeled back the layers of the iron shell, its purpose became clear.

Pepper Potts emerged from the metal shack; bruised, shaken, and covered in dirt from head to toe…but very much alive. Stark wasted no time in closing the gap between them, and flipped his mask up so he could give his lover a passionate kiss. They stayed interwoven in each other's arms for a long minute; not needing to say anything. Just seeing one another again was enough.

It was only when the giant let out, what could only be described as a whimper, that the secretary finally turned to face her rescuer. He bent over in a vain attempt to be more at her level-eyes blinking in total concern at her obvious injuries.

…and then, to the complete surprise of everyone present…the Hulk actually spoke…

"…pretty lady okay…?"

His voice, while extremely deep and a tad hoarse, still had the tiniest twinge of Bruce's sensitivity…and it had come from such a primal place in his heart…that he would actually speak out and talk to her-something he RARELY did…

It was enough for Pepper to finally break down and begin to cry. All of the pain, all the stress, the torture, the fear…and the shock of surviving it all, thanks to a person she once thought to be a mindless monster…it all came out in the deepest, heaviest sobs imaginable.

And then, without another thought, she leaned in and gave her savior the biggest, most thankful hug she could muster.

The Hulk's eyes widened.

Steve's jaw went slack.

Tony just blinked.

And Pepper mumbled out, between sniffs and tears…

"Yes…pretty lady okay…"

.

.

.

.

.

"Are you certain you do not wish to have the janitorial staff tidy up the mess?"

Miss Potts shivered as she dumped another pan full of broken glass into a trash can, "No thanks, JARVIS. The last cleaning crew wasn't exactly friendly to its customers…I can handle it myself."

With that, the red head exhaled a sigh as she took in what was once a beautiful penthouse-now looking like a shell of its former self. Only three days, and it wasn't even a third of the way of being cleaned up from the kayos that ripped through it. Taking a breath, she returned to sweeping up the several thousand shards of glass as she reflected on the past few hours.

It wasn't long before police and rescue crews arrived at Avengers Tower, and Tony was quick to shuffle the Hulk inside where he could transform back without notice. At the same time the officers were slapping the handcuffs on the shooters, a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents made the scene; showing off their credentials before hauling away both the terrorists AND whatever wreckage of theirs was left. The rest of the day remained mostly a blur to the CEO, as she was rushed to the nearest hospital-Steve tagging along to keep her company. It wasn't until later that she found out that Tony went with the secret agents to have a little "talk" with his attackers. Up to now, they refused to cooperate, but the inventor was confident they'd get them to crack sooner or later. As he had quipped, "We should just give them five minutes with the jolly green giant."

Speaking of whom…

Pepper was so focused on her task, she nearly jumped when a second broom entered her line of vision. Glancing up, she discovered Bruce was standing next to her-absently pushing glass and other debris back and forth. Did he just get there, or was she so lost in thought that she hadn't noticed him cleaning up just a few feet away from her? Either way, he obviously wasn't too focused on the chore either, as evidenced by how he half-smiled at her, "…need help?"

She knew for a fact that wasn't the REAL question he was asking. He really just wanted permission. So she merely smirked and nodded as an answer. With that, the odd pair got to work; sweeping the floor in a companionable silence. They hadn't spoken since the incident, and this was the first time they were truly alone together.

So Banner took the initiative when he commented-not really looking at her, "I think you over work yourself."

Pepper wasn't sure where he was going with his words, but she didn't care. She just wanted to talk about SOMETHING so there wasn't an awkward quiet. Shrugging, she tiredly sighed, "I don't think its work, so much as it's the stress. I have to have everything in order…I'm the one who has to have everything under control…and pretend that everything's okay when it isn't."

The doctor swept a little slower; grin widening, but eyes sad, "I know THAT feeling all too well." He then added-almost as an afterthought, "I know a few breathing techniques that could relieve that stress a bit…if you're interested."

The red head almost chuckled, "I'd like that."

At that point, she finally paused to take a good look at the scientist. He was back in his lavender shirt again-the one he had the presence of mind to remove before he changed. It was probably the first piece of clothing of his that survived a transformation. His face dropped to a neutral expression, but it was evident in his sorrowful eyes he felt responsible for the destruction of her house. But she truly didn't mind. Possessions could be replaced.

A life couldn't.

"…Bruce?" she nearly whispered out.

The doctor had been humming a soft tune to himself; possibly another method of his to stay calm. But he poked his head up at her sudden words, "Hm?"

He was now completely focused on her, and she semi-flinched at the attention, but only because she wanted to voice a subject they both knew was coming. She leaned on her broom; lips curling up into a grateful smile as the words finally came out, "…I never did thank you."

Banner's cheeks blushed ever so slightly at such a simple sentence that carried so much love and gratitude behind it…as well as a possible apology for misjudging him so profusely. He tried to think back-his memories of his time as the beast a bit hazy…but he COULD pick out a few key images…mainly the one of the red head wrapping herself around his oversized arm.

He'd never forget THAT.

His eyes fell to his shoes as his face turned red, "You're welcome…" He looked up again; smirking as he added, "…from both of us."

His soft statement gave the secretary pause, as she now regarded the doctor in a whole new light. She recalled Tony telling her once how the scientist attempted to end his life when he had lost all hope of a normal existence. She couldn't bear to imagine just how much pain and torment the man had gone through to drive him to do such a thing; living in constant fear of the beast within.

But truth be told, really everyone had a Hulk inside them…he was just the only one who could bring it to flesh and blood…and to be able to commandeer such a creature into a powerful force for good…she could only hope he would reconsider his place in the world. In the course of a few hours, he had proven to her that the green giant WASN'T a monster.

A beast, yes…but NOT a monster.

And as Bruce momentarily lost himself in the woman's eyes; the lady who was once terrified of him, and now looked upon him as a friend…it made him stand to reason that the more allies he and his alter ego forged, the more control he gained over his other half. The big lug truly DID want to help others-it just proved difficult when most people wanted to shoot at him. Perhaps this whole Avengers thing was beginning to remedy that. He was going longer without incidents…and even then, the "incidents" were now turning into missions and rescues instead. For the first time, he was calling out the other guy on purpose…because now he was needed. And as a doctor, who was he to not go where he was needed?

He knew total acceptance was still a long ways away…but Miss Potts, Tony, and all his new friends gave him hope-a feeling he hadn't experienced in ages. He finally had allies who understood what it was like to not be normal. He finally had a home and a life worth living…

…and THIS time, he wasn't running away, because this life and these people were worth fighting for.

Just then, Pepper broke the calm quiet when she sighed and stretched-folding her arms as she tossed Banner a playful smirk, "I think we both deserve the night off." She added a wink, "How about a movie? I'll treat."

The scientist's grin never left him, but a twinge of apprehension crept in his eyes. He was gaining control, yes…but he wasn't THAT confident yet, "You sure you wanna' stuff me in a crowded room?"

Determined to make due on a debt that could never be repaid, she smiled at him with total sincerity.

"I trust you."