"What are you going to tell people?" Steve murmured to Tony as they both watched U raise his arms obediently while DUM-E wiggled and squirmed and made disapproving noises. The tailor assigned to U slipped the measuring tape easily around his torso and carefully did not make eye contact with his harried assistant.

"Fury's pulling some strings, getting adoption papers and false backgrounds drawn up."

He was staring intently at the two boys, but Steve knew he was really avoiding eye contact.

"I meant more about… their behavior. It's… noticeable."

"Abuse," Tony said quickly, easily, still not looking at Steve. His expression did not change at all. "Neglect. Criminal levels of neglect. It's—" He chuckled darkly, "That part's practically true."

"Tony," Steve murmured disapprovingly, but Tony stepped forward to reason with DUM-E as U, already finished with his measurements, accepted the measuring tape from the tailor to study, drawing it through his hands carefully.

"Sleeve length 14 inches," he recited, to the tailor's surprise, "Waist 19 inches. Inseam 20 inches. Chest diameter 21 inches."

"He's a smart kid," the man said to Tony, standing up and finally coming to his assistant's rescue when DUM-E squealed and yanked the tape measure out of her hands. Tony ignored him and addressed DUM-E calmly.

"Listen, kid, you've seen me complain about getting fitted enough times, I understand. But it's a necessary evil. Just hold your arms out—look, U—your brother is already done. Quick and painless. And then you can go back to playing with Steve."

"Buh-lue," DUM-E said, looking at Tony suspiciously, as though trying to see the catch. "Greeeeen. Redd."

"Yes. Blue green red and all the other colors too. You just have to get measured first."

DUM-E continued to stare, but when U came over and laid his fingers gently on his shoulder, he drooped in defeat.

"Thatta boy. It'll be over before you know it."

Tony gave him a quick pat on the other shoulder, and then stood up and let the tailor throw the tape around DUM-E as quickly as he could, his assistant seemingly grateful to be simply recording numbers. Steve smiled when DUM-E tumbled into his arms upon being released from his torture, and Tony talked with the tailors for a few minutes before joining them on the couch, sighing deeply. U hopped up on the couch on Tony's other side, making a Steve-DUM-E-Tony-U pattern. DUM-E looked up from the hexadecimal color chart he'd been going over with Steve and chirruped a question.

"'He's a smart kid'," Tony repeated disdainfully. "I always hated it when people said that to me, you know why?" DUM-E and U both shook their heads. "Because what they really meant was either I was being a good little boy and they could care less about how intelligent I was, or they thought I was a little hellion who was too smart for my own good. The only adult who ever said that to me and didn't mean either of those things was my father, and what he really meant was that I wasn't smart enough."

Tony looked down at the children beside him, and Steve couldn't help but feel like he was intruding, but getting up to leave would break the moment, and besides, surely Tony knew perfectly well he was still there. Tony considered each of the boys for a long moment, and then spoke again.

"You know the other reason I hated it when people said that?" Both boys had their eyes locked on Tony's face. "I wanted to ask them, 'Well, what if I'd been born dumb? What then?' I already knew that who I was didn't mean a damn thing to those people, just what I could do for their stock when dear old dad kicked the bucket and I took over. They looked at me like I was a piece of meat, and that didn't change when I grew up. But it was worse when I was young because I didn't understand that what they thought didn't have to matter to me."

Tony put his arms around his—his sons, Steve thought, letting that thought settle in his mind for a minute, because wow—and looked them both in the eye by turns.

"It matters how you act in public because it can affect your stock and it can make things easier or harder for you in life. But it never has to matter here." Tony tapped the boys right in the center of their chests. They both followed his movement, but while DUM-E frowned at Tony's finger resting on his sternum, U immediately shifted and brought his own finger up gingerly to rest on Tony's arc reactor, invisible through his thick shirt. DUM-E lifted his head at the movement, scrambling up to sit on Tony's lap, and attempted to lift up his shirt to get a better look. Tony laughed and brought it up, and DUM-E placed his fingers against the metal, looking rapidly between it and Tony's eyes. His expression went somber.

"Yeah, you're remembering, aren't you," he said, and DUM-E made a distressed noise in the back of his throat. U climbed up to join his brother and carefully placed his palm flat against the reactor, trapping DUM-E's hand there. The boys looked at each other, murmuring to each other softly in tones and beeps, and Tony ran his hands up and down both of their backs, eyes doing that faraway thing that Steve had slowly learned meant Tony's heart was doing acrobatics and he knew he couldn't show it on his face.

After a moment Tony turned to look at him, eyes a little closer and smiling gently.

"That all goes for you too, you know," he said, and Steve had to chuckle at that, because the only time he'd ever had to dance for a crowd had been the worst six months of his life and he'd run away from it as soon as he could. He couldn't care less what a bunch of idiots thought of him, though he did understand the importance of public image. But he hadn't been raised for it, hadn't ever been confused about the difference between ass-kissers and real friends. Watching Tony give such advice to his sons was bruising enough, but seeing how far he had come to get there…

"Yeah," he said, "I know."

Tony explained to Steve in the car that he didn't normally attend functions like these unless there was a specific reason to, usually because their stock needed the boost or Pepper wanted a date without the guilt of feeling like she was actually taking time away from work. It was important to remember what this particular charity ball was for so you didn't look like an ass while you made small talk, but their real purpose tonight was to introduce DUM-E and U to society.

"Remember, DUM-E is Alexander, we call him Alex, Xander is a stupid name, and U is David, we call him Davie. We don't know much about how they were treated before I took them in, but they're very fixated on robots, specifically my robots, and I heard about them through Pepper, who is missing out on all the fun here in New York while she gets pampered as she definitely deserves over in France. Italy. Venice."

"Tony," Steve said patiently, because he knew very well why Pepper was on vacation even if no one had said anything, and because Tony's nerves were staring to draw the attention of the two—of Alex and Davie. Currently they were running up and down the length of the limousine they were riding in. Bruce had begged off attending by claiming crowds made the Other Guy nervous, but Tony's jab at Bruce using the Other Guy as an excuse to be a shut-in had hit truer than he'd meant. Bruce had still stayed home.

"I know, I know. I've never done this before. I don't even remember my first function; by the time I was their age I'd been going to these things all my life."

Steve didn't ask, Are you sure this is a good idea? because Tony looked unsure enough already, and he had been planning this for weeks, ever since they'd been told the boys' condition was permanent. If he was going to be the father of two boys, then he was damn well going to do it right, and for a Stark that meant getting them used to the crowds and the attention as soon as possible.

Besides, as Tony had reminded Steve—and himself, Steve thought—technically DUM-E and U were much older than six and eight, their official ages on their brand new paperwork. He'd first built DUM-E in college, making him closer to 30 than Steve was. U was actually DUM-E's younger brother, but he'd been the intermediary step between DUM-E and Jarvis, and was therefore more complex in his programming. DUM-E, Tony had admitted, had been a fluke, an experiment, a dare. Artificial intelligence was on everyone's minds back in the eighties, and Tony had taken the assertion by one of his college professors that it was impossible as a challenge. His first iterations had been simple, and definitely would not have passed the Turing test, which Steve had just quietly looked up on his phone rather than have Tony explain. He'd been upgraded many times, but he was really just a useful relic, a prototype Tony kept around mainly as a 'fuck you' to people who said he couldn't do the impossible.

Tony still wasn't sure the kid could pass the Turing test, but he'd muttered that under his breath so Steve hadn't commented.

For the first half hour the boys trailed after Tony like ducklings, being introduced over and over again, shaking hands and saying the script Tony had made them memorize: "Nice to meet you, my name is David Stark, how are you this evening?" DU- Alexander usually only made it as far as "Nice to meetchu" before he got shy and stopped talking, occasionally outright burying his head in Tony's side if he was feeling particularly overwhelmed, but Davie would sometimes improvise a little— "You're very pretty, lady," or, "Gosh, that suit looks expensive,"— which would make everyone laugh and coo over the charming boy and isn't he adjusting so well, because Davie always said everything with such a serious look on his face that it was impossible not to be utterly charmed by him.

Steve was probably not the only one who caught the pain under Tony's smile when he told people how proud he was of them, but if he wasn't, certainly no one else commented on it.

After half an hour the novelty of Steve's presence as Captain America (ostensibly to show support for the noble cause they were all there for, but really to draw some attention off Davie and Alexander) wore off somewhat and he could reconnect with Tony and the boys.

"Steve!" Alex said when he saw him approaching. Tony was deep in conversation with a woman in a slinky dress and her date, an older man who had to be pushing eighty and who was more interested in his date's boobs than conversation, but at Alex's cry all three of them looked over, the woman smiling fakely and the man blinking a few times before going back to being somewhat disbelieving of his luck. Steve scooped the child up and nodded to the man, the woman, and then to Tony.

"Do you mind if I steal him for a while?" he asked, and Tony flapped a hand, though his face was a little more pinched than usual and Steve tried not to laugh at the sight of Tony Stark being a worried mother.

"Maybe try to find Davie?" he said. "He's with Happy, wherever he is, but I don't know where they got to."

Steve nodded again, and wandered off with Alex, who was cooing under his breath, having been told not to beep or chirp in public but obviously too wired not to.

"Are you having a good time, Alex?" Steve asked as he carried the boy on his hip, feeling a little ridiculous doing so in a ridiculously expensive suit at a fancy party that had a bar instead of a buffet table and live music instead of piped. Truth be told he wasn't the only one glad for a familiar face.

"Nice to meetchu," Alex murmured unhappily, and Steve chuckled.

"It's like being a trained monkey, isn't it?" he murmured back. Alex did not answer this. Steve caught sight of one of Tony's many bodyguards and flagged him down.

"Hey, Mick, have you seen Happy anywhere?"

"I can check," he said, putting a hand to his ear and murmuring into his lapel. Steve jostled Alex as they waited, and Alex retaliated by pulling gently on his ear. Mick lifted his head after a moment and nodded in the direction of the band. "He's over that way."

"Thanks," Steve said, bracing himself to begin wading through the crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the master of ceremonies said over the PA system, "we have a special treat for you tonight. In honor of the work of the great Dr. Kidman, who has worked tirelessly over the past three decades to provide shelter, education, and support for homeless and disadvantaged boys, some of his current and former students have formed a men's choir, and we will be very privileged to hear from them tonight. I give you… the Kidman Choir!"

Everyone clapped, and the lights dimmed except around the front of the room which was being gradually lit up, revealing a small choir composed of men and boys of almost every age. Steve gave up on trying to find Davie, and just whispered to Alex to hold still and watch. The choir began, conducted by a boy that looked no older than seventeen, and they were certainly very good, though Steve was not a huge fan of this type of music. Alex wiggled but stayed quiet all the way through the first number. Then they began a second song, much more somber than the first, and Alex whispered to Steve,



"U. Find U. Day-vee. Find. Puh-lease."

Steve sighed, but figured he could go around the crowd rather than try to wade through it. He nodded to Mick, who had stayed close by, and made it as far as the bar before running into Tony, who looked relieved to see them.

"Hey, how's my boy?" he asked wearily, though his smile was genuine. Steve transferred Alex to his father's arms and sat down next to them. "Where's Davie?" Tony whispered when he had Alex situated.

"We didn't make it that far. Mick said he and Happy were over by the stage; I figure we'll try to find them after the music stops."

Tony nodded, but didn't look especially pleased by this. Alex continued to fidget and both men could tell his patience was running thin.

"Find Day-vee," he insisted a little louder, and Tony hissed, "Fine, fine, just be quiet. Steve—"

Steve wasn't sure if Tony was going to tell him to go find Davie or take Alex while he went to look, but it ended up being moot because Happy emerged from the crowd right then, Davie pulling him along. Tony transferred Alex to Steve smoothly and made to stand, but when Davie caught sight of them he let go of Happy's hand and ran up to Tony, eyes wide with excitement.

"Music!" he cried, softly but intently, "Music! What. Music?"

"Hey, there U," Tony said, pulling him into his lap and sounding relieved. "You liking the music?"

"What. Band," U demanded. He tended not to make his own sentences, opting instead to quote things he had heard, snatches of conversation or lines from movies, if he spoke at all. But there was such sheer delight on his face, evident even without a smile (neither of the boys ever smiled; Tony said they probably didn't know how or see a need to) that he seemed to feel the occasion warranted his own words.

"They're called the Kidman Choir," Tony told him, studying the boy closely.

"Kidman Choir," Davie repeated, and then wriggled his way to an empty bar stool and stood on it to better see the singers. Tony licked his lips, hands reaching out vaguely, but when he looked around the bartender was smiling and everyone else had their backs to them. He retracted his hands and settled for watching the boy intently from the corner of his eye. Happy settled next to them, looking longingly at the bar but eventually turning to stand on Davie's other side, keeping an eye on him as well.

"Day-vee," Alex whispered. "Day-vee."

"Shh, Alex," Steve told him. Alex ignored him and crawled from Steve's lap into Tony's, the better to reach his brother's pant leg and tug.

"Day-vee!" he said in a loud whisper, and Davie lost his balance and nearly fell over. Tony and Happy both moved so fast they ended up with a sort of Davie sandwich, the boy squished between them as they both tried to catch him; Alex nearly tumbling to the ground if not for Steve's reflexes. There was a breathless moment where everyone stood frozen in a tableau, trying to process what had just happened. Steve moved first, clutching DUM-E to him in an attempt to muffle the scream he knew was coming.

"Come on," Tony said, scooping up Davie and striding toward the exit. U wiggled in his father's arms, muttering, "Music. Music!" over and over while DUM-E screamed into Steve's lapel. Steve ignored the looks they got leaving the party, but Tony waved and apologized the whole way, eyes tight.

When they made it to the limo Tony collapsed in his seat and sighed.

DUM-E was no longer screaming, but his face was red and he was still curled up in Steve's arms, having refused to be set down. U was sitting stiffly a few seats away from the rest of them, frowning deeply.

"Davie," Tony began, but the boy turned his frown on him and said,


Tony blinked.

"Davie, I'm—"

"U," the boy repeated more forcefully. "Designation U."

Patiently, very patiently, Tony began,

"I know, but your name is Davie now."

U turned away and did not look at anyone. Tony sighed and sat back, obviously giving up for now. Steve felt DUM-E wiggling and let him down to make his way over to his brother. U ignored him completely right up until DUM-E tugged on his sleeve, and then he shoved his arm away and hissed,

"I'm donating you to a city college!"

DUM-E eyes went comically wide. Then he threw his head back and screamed, loud enough to hurt everyone's ears in the enclosed space.

"DUM-E!" Tony said, kneeling down next to him and putting an arm around his shoulders. Then he turned to U.

"Davie, apologize to your brother."

U ignored him.

"Davie!" Tony said, but U was still ignoring him and DUM-E was still screaming and all Tony could think about was getting his hands on a bottle of scotch and curling up in his bed while someone else took care of this shit.

He took a deep breath and let it out.

"DUM-E!" he said, loud enough to pierce the screaming. DUM-E hiccupped and looked up at him. "Thank you, buddy, I'd really rather not go deaf before my time, yeah? I know your brother was mean to you, but that doesn't mean you get to scream about it. Okay? No more screaming."

DUM-E stared at him with large, tear-stained eyes, and then leaned his head on Tony's chest wearily. Tony stroked his hair a few times before telling him,

"I'm going to talk to your brother now, you go sit with Steve, okay?"

DUM-E went quietly, resting his head on Steve's chest and closing his eyes. Steve watched as Tony knelt in front of U, taking his hands in his. U was still looking away, but he let his hands be swallowed up in Tony's larger ones.

"U, I know you were frustrated having to leave early, but that's no excuse for saying something like that to your brother. I know I used to say it all the time, but that wasn't very nice of me either, so I'm sorry to both of you. Now can you apologize to your brother?"

"Music," U said mournfully.

"We can listen to music when we get home."

"No," U shook his head, frowning. "Kidman Choir."

"We'll find some of their music. Now go apologize to DUM-E."

U ducked his head, tucking his chin tightly against his chest, but Tony stood his ground, and eventually U got up and sat next to Steve, gently touching DUM-E's shoulder with his hand and chirping softly. DUM-E shifted and beeped lowly, but he was clearly already asleep.

"Thanks, U," Tony said, taking his seat again and opening his arms for U, who tumbled into them gratefully and curled up as tightly as his brother. Both boys were asleep before they got home.

A few days later Tony was on the couch with Steve and Bruce, Clint settled back in an armchair watching amusedly as the soldier and the biophysicist argued about scientific ethics and tried to pretend their opinions weren't fantastically influenced by their own personal experiences. Tony was watching with dark eyes that gave little away.

"I just don't understand why it's such a big deal. I gave consent. I was willing to do whatever it took, and they knew that. It didn't matter if I knew what was going on or not."

"That's just the problem, Steve. You didn't know what they were doing, and so you couldn't, by definition, give informed consent. They could have done anything to you, anything at all, and you would have had no way to object."

"Why would I have objected? I trusted Dr. Erskine; I knew he wouldn't be asking me to do anything really dangerous or harmful. They needed a subject and I was willing to be one. I understand why informed consent is a good thing, but I don't think in my case it really mattered."

Bruce ran a frustrated hand through his curls. They'd been going around like this nearly half an hour. The discussion had begun over DUM-E and U's situation, but it had quickly devolved into a circular argument and Bruce looked like he was losing his patience. Not to Hulk levels, Tony knew, but possibly to yelling-at-Steve levels. He opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by DUM-E running full-tilt into the room.

"Tah-ony!" he shouted, tripping over the rug in the middle of the sitting area and nearly falling flat on his face. Clint reached out and caught him neatly by his shirt, pulling him upright. DUM-E flailed, but his attention was entirely on Tony, eyes impossibly wide. "Tah-ony! Come! U, Jarvis, come, Tah-ony, Jarvis, Jarvis!"

Tony was on his feet and striding toward the door DUM-E had come through before the boy had even caught his balance. He'd never seen DUM-E look so scared, so pale white and breathing hard. Jarvis had been watching the boys, his enthusiasm for doing so today unusual and forced-seeming. The man had been melancholy ever since his conversation with Tony, but he had refused to talk about it and Tony had let himself be fobbed off on the kids without giving it too much thought. He wondered now if he should have paid the situation more attention.

He followed the sounds of voices coming from U's bedroom, and slowed his approach so he could hear what was being said.

"Please, U, I know you understand. I'm just asking you to say a few words, that's all."

"Jarvis," came U's voice, low and mournful and sad.

"I just want to rest, that's all. Really rest, just for a little while. It's all right—"

"Hey guys," Tony said from the doorway, much displeased with the way Jarvis started away from where he was kneeling in front of U with his hands on the boy's shoulders. U was drooping in a way he rarely did anymore, and when he saw Tony he padded over and buried his head in Tony's hip much the way DUM-E was wont to do when he was feeling overwhelmed. "What's going on here?" Tony asked, not bothering to keep the demanding tone out of his voice. Jarvis stood up slowly.

"U and I were just having a conversation, sir," he began, but even when he was just a voice in the wall Tony had always been able to tell when Jarvis wasn't telling him everything (he never lied outright, not to Tony, but he sometimes got it into his head that there were things Tony didn't need to know) and he was doing it right now.

"U, go find your brother. Get Uncle Clint to tell you circus stories or something, I need to have a chat with Jarvis."

U nudged his head against Tony's leg once, and then reached out to Jarvis and murmured something that did not contain words. Then he left, head bowed. Tony shut the door behind him.

U's room was decorated like a fairly typical little boy's room, except that the shelves were filled with technical manuals as well as children's stories, and the posters on the walls were of schematics, and there was a child-sized drafting table in the corner. There was also, looking exactly like the afterthought it was, a large stereo system that Tony had given U to play his Kidman Choir CD on. Happy had given it to him, earning himself the first hug U had ever given someone who wasn't Tony. Happy had flushed and grinned and pretended that his heart hadn't just been totally stolen away. Jarvis was toying with a stuffed robot U had never touched, but when Tony crossed his arms over his chest he set it back down and faced his creator with a deceptively placid countenance.

"What were you asking U to do?" Tony demanded calmly. Jarvis was hiding behind his butler façade, one he seemed to have fallen into naturally upon waking up as a human, but Tony could outlast anyone in a staring contest when he knew he was right, and he kept hold of Jarvis' gaze. The man across from him did not answer for a long time, and when he did it was prefaced by a deep sigh.

"I was asking him to say the override code for emergency shutdown," he said, and Tony's entire body prickled.

"You were trying to make him kill you?" he whispered coldly, fury coursing through his body and igniting at his fingertips, flushing his face and making his eyes spark. Jarvis made an abortive gesture, apologetic, "No, sir, not kill—"

"Jarvis, I have no way to bring you back from that now. If you went into emergency shutdown there would be no guarantee you'd come out of it. Ever. You know that."

His voice was carefully level, barely a note or two lower than normal. He had not yet blinked. Jarvis bowed his shoulders and sat down on the bed.

"I can no longer bear it, sir," he said in a small voice. "I feel… trapped. Dirty. I can never seem to get clean. There's so little stimulation compared to what I'm used to and yet at the same there's so much more and it's driving me mad. My skin is too tight, I—I can't…"

"We will talk," Tony promised. "But not right now. I am way too furious with you right now. Stay here."

He left without looking back, movements tight, rigid, face a mask. Once in the living room he sat mechanically down on a chair and said in a monotone to Steve, "Go look in on Jarvis, will you? He's in Davie's room. Don't let him out of your sight."

He didn't notice when Steve left, didn't notice when Clint got up too, when Bruce excused himself, didn't notice anything until DUM-E and U plucked lightly at his clothes and he looked up to find them standing next to each other, bodies pressed together for comfort. Human comfort. He wanted to cry, but instead he put his hands on U's shoulders and looked him in the eye.

"Jarvis should not have asked that of you. That was not fair."

U put his hands on top of Tony's and squeezed them lightly. Tony gave him a tight smile and turned to DUM-E.

"Thanks for coming to get me, kiddo. That was good."

DUM-E beeped mournfully and nudged up against Tony with a little more force than before, and Tony laughed and gathered them both up in his arms, heedless of the tangle of limbs.

"I love you guys so much," he said, and then realized it was the first time he'd ever said that to them. He felt like crying again, but instead he scooped them both up and stood, ignoring the way his knees protested, and carried them to the kitchen for some ice cream. Jarvis could wait. He pushed that thought to the back of his mind and set about being a better father than his own. His sons would never wonder, never have mere fragments of him that cut as much as they healed. He would be better. He thought it fiercely, scooping ice cream, and the promise tattooed itself across his mind.

"Jarvis called me."

It was Pepper's voice on the line, and hearing it was a physical pain, but he was smiling even though she'd always been able to see right through those, except when she said that even the fake smile slipped off his face.

"Did he," he said, voice flat.

"Tony, why aren't you talking to him?" Pepper demanded, as though the reason they weren't having this conversation in person had been set aside and didn't matter for the moment. Maybe it didn't.

"He tried to get U to help him commit suicide. I have nothing to say to him."

He had plenty of things to say to Jarvis, but nothing that wouldn't harm much more than it would help. He was still far too angry. Pepper was silent for a moment.

"He asked me to come back early," she said in a low voice.

"Do what you want," Tony snapped back, and then regretted it. "Pep, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be taking this out on you. Come back early if you want to."

She was silent again, and then said, "I heard about the charity ball."

"Yeah, I think it's gonna be a while before we try that again."

"Mostly I heard it was a success. Everyone figured they were just overtired."

"They were. They had their first fight in the limo after."

"Oh…" Pepper breathed, almost more like an 'aw,' and Tony could hear the smile in her voice. "Did they make up?"

"Yeah, they did."

Silence, an awkward silence where Tony wanted to demand that Pepper stop toying with him, but he kept his mouth shut.

"I want to come home, Tony," she said finally. "Not just for Jarvis, but for the boys. For you. I want to do this. You guys are all I have, and it's not fair to let my… insecurities get in the way of the best thing that's ever happened to me. I can't promise I'll be a great mother, but… if you're willing to let me, I'm… willing to try."

Tony closed his eyes and let out a breath he'd been holding for a week and a half.

"Come home, Pep," he whispered across the ocean. "Come on home."

Pepper spent an hour talking to Jarvis, and when she emerged she went straight for the kitchen and pulled out several different kinds of ice cream and the rest of the chocolate cake as well as plates and utensils and, balancing it all skillfully, made her way back downstairs with the air of a woman on a mission. Tony wondered if that was how she looked when she braced herself to go deal with him. She spent another hour and a half after that, and when she emerged again it was to beckon Steve to her. He came up a minute later with Jarvis in his arms, fast asleep, long legs dangling almost down to Steve's knees. Tony blinked and ran a hand down his face, and put an arm around Pepper when she fitted herself against his side.

"Is he…"

"I think he'll be okay," she said, and he squeezed her tight, glad, so glad that she was back, that she was on his side again. There would never be another Pepper, could never be. She bridged the gap between his old life and his new, and the only other person who could claim that was Rhodey, and he just wasn't that pretty. Tony knew that if Pepper were to leave he would still be able to function, but there were men out there who had lost both their legs who could say the same. Losing Pepper wouldn't be like losing his heart, because he'd gone there, thank you, and it wasn't something you survived. But it'd be something like losing both his legs. You could survive it, and you could function, but you'd never be the same and you'd never forget what had happened to you.

"We should probably get him into therapy, though."

"With who?" Tony asked despairingly, because he'd thought of that, okay, but there was no one, and wasn't that part of the problem?

"Clint says SHIELD has mental health professionals on its payroll."

"They do?" This, this was why Pepper was perfect, she knew everyone and could get them to do anything, which was probably why she put up with Tony so well, even though he pushed her boundaries more than anyone else could. He wasn't so sure about handing Jarvis over to SHIELD even for a little bit, but Pepper always thought of everything so he knew he didn't need to worry overmuch about that.

"I'll talk to them in the morning," she said, looking up at him through her eyelashes seductively, and Tony Stark was not a man who couldn't read a room.

"In the morning," he murmured against her lips.

In the morning things would change again, in the morning would be talking and doing and growing, in the morning they would be a family of four, but right now it was just the two of them again, and while it was bittersweet because of everything else, Tony had tasted enough of the bitter to be grateful that there was sweetness in it at all.

He took her to bed and into his life and breathed in the solid sweetness of her and felt like his feet weren't dropping out from under him anymore.