The characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any. The opinions expressed by characters in this story may or may not be those of the author.

For Microgirl, because she asked.


"I…I thought you should know."

The words were low and awkward, but worse was the expression on Tony's face, that quiet, almost panicked uncertainty. His hands were open, held down at his sides, as though in their endless capability they'd come across a situation they couldn't handle.

Pepper solved his problem with the simple expedient of stepping into his arms. He wrapped her up in a tight embrace, but it was no tighter than her own. Pepper laid her head on his shoulder, the pain too new yet for crying, and felt Tony press his face into her hair. Here, in their privacy, he could be shaken; but of equal importance, she could find refuge in him.

Phil. It hurt worse than she might have expected, his cool calm competency with flashes of warmth, his practical courage, his utter dedication to good - gone so abruptly. I just saw him, her mind wailed, but she knew it was what anyone might think. Proximity did not stay Death's hand.

For once, Tony made no mention of jealousy, and she loved him for it. This was too deep a wound for his joking. And she knew he was shaken; he'd never liked Phil, but Tony hated loss worse.

He held her as long as she wanted, in the hush of her SI office - or at least as long as she had time to spare. When they separated, he poured himself a drink before joining her on the couch, and she didn't say a word. If it hadn't been the middle of the workday she'd have joined him; but this CEO of Stark Industries would not be caught with liquor on her breath.

"How did he die?" she asked as Tony settled next to her.

"He was murdered. By that greasy sonofabitch who calls himself a god." Tony's eyes went hard and cold before his gaze shifted to hers and softened again with sadness. "I wasn't there, but apparently he got his licks in."

"Good." Pepper set her jaw, feeling anger rise to join her shock and grief. "Good."

Tony put his glass down on the low table in front of them, ice clinking faintly, and took her hand in his. His fingers were chilly and damp with condensation, but his palm was warm, and she held on tight.

"We'll get him for it," Tony murmured, expression fierce and far away, and she knew he was seeing more faces than one unassuming agent's. "That's a promise."

The tears welled up, not so much for her loss or even Tony's anger as for the life snuffed out, the shy true heart beneath the cool shield and the analytical mind. He didn't even get to Portland, she thought, and let herself weep.

Tony gathered her in, still new at this whole comforting business, but just what she needed. Pepper let his shirt soak up her tears, the arc reactor hard and reassuring beneath his shirt, and mourned.

It wasn't long - neither of them had long - but it was enough. When she lifted her head a little of the strain was gone from Tony's face, and he gave her one more quick hug before they both stood.

"I need to get back to the helicarrier," Tony said regretfully. "Fury's going to have a spasm as it is." He walked over to the armoring platform and let it begin wrapping him in red and gold.

"Me too. I have a meeting in a few minutes." Pepper smoothed her hair and wiped her eyes, watching the process, and then stepped up as the battered helmet settled onto Tony's head.

The ritual was firm by now. Pepper slid her fingers into the spaces left by the open faceplate, touching what skin she could, and felt his metaled arms settle around her with the most delicate care. Her kiss was as fierce as her gaze, a silent order to come back to her, and he returned it with the near-overwhelming devotion that never made it to words.

"Be careful," she whispered when their mouths parted. It wasn't an admonition; it was an affirmation, a reminder that he was essential. As ever, his lips curled in quick joy at her words, though the expression was swallowed by sternness a breath later.

"We'll get him," he repeated, kissed her nose, and let her step back. His helmet closed, and Pepper retreated from the blast of his repulsors.

His rising comet was gone in seconds, through the open window and vanishing into the bright sky. Pepper straightened her blouse and sighed as she turned back to her workday, setting her sorrow and worry aside as best she could. Phil had been all about getting things done; he wouldn't begrudge her the need to work.

Two steps from the door, she paused, a thought surfacing, and nodded. The mental note was as neatly formed as any memo. Find the cellist's address. She should be told.

Taking a deep breath, her thoughts with an armored man and one who would need no further shielding, she opened the door.