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Chain of Custody

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“Just stop and imagine it for a second, though,” Clint says seriously, and Natasha rolls her eyes as she reaches for their shared spinach-artichoke dip. “The scowl alone’d kill the mood in record time, but come on. The eye patch? The black-on-black-on-black wardrobe? Guy probably sleeps in black boxers on black silk sheets, lost the eye by sliding off the bed or something, and now—”

“Has it ever occurred to that you’re thinking too hard about Fury’s sex life?” Bruce asks.

Clint shrugs. “It’s that or figuring out the physics of when Wade and Nate bump uglies,” he replies, and Bruce isn’t surprised when he and Natasha shudder in unison.

Thanks to the bitterly cold October rain outside, the High Bar is packed nearly wall-to-wall with patrons this Tuesday night; college students on fall break, soccer moms with mojitos, and sports fans jam into booths and cluster around tables, fighting to be heard over the din. A group of men in Cardinals t-shirts shout at the television as their team faces the Dodgers in some important series of games (Bruce never followed baseball, but Steve loves the Dodgers with a single-minded devotion), and the women at the table behind them roll their eyes at every cheer and groan. Bruce can’t determine whether they’re actual or aspirational girlfriends, but either way, he offers them sympathetic smiles as they walk past on their way to the bathroom.

He’s watched enough television shows about battling robots to know the feeling.

Over the last week, he’s battled with dozens of emotions, some of them good and some of them desperately ugly. The news of Fury’s “secret double life” as a husband and father and the subsequent media feeding frenzy’d distracted Tony for days, dragging him into closed-door meetings and leading Bruce to receive a very terse e-mail from one Christine Everhart. He’d printed it out for posterity, and Tony—completely unfazed, just as Bruce’d expected—had hung it in the break room.

“I don’t think you should be so proud of being a menace to society,” Bruce’d observed, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Tony, who’d stepped back to admire his handiwork (including a giant arrow made out of blue push-pins), had smirked. “I’m more proud of the fact that she thinks the guy I married is oblivious to my menacing ways,” he’d replied.

He’d stolen three big gulps of Bruce’s coffee before wandering away.

Fury’d shredded the e-mail and left the strips on Tony’s desk.

But then Tony’d spent the end of the previous week in Washington County for oral argument and the better part of the weekend working at the office with Phil, disintegrating slowly into a secretive, skulking ghost. When he’d collapsed into bed late Sunday night, glasses falling down his nose and his whole body pliant, Bruce’d raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’ve got this case under control?” he’d asked.

Tony’d waved his glasses at him before dumping them on the bedside table. Scooting closer meant shoving his cheek against Bruce’s thigh and nuzzling into his pajama bottoms. “Case is fine, but Coulson’s bossy.”

“You’ve never listened to Phil before.”

“First time for everything, and don’t call him Phil.” Bruce’d rolled his eyes, his fingers idly carding through Tony’s hair as he set his book on the bedside table, and Tony’d shifted to stare up at him. “Seriously, why is he Phil?”

“Because he’s our friend?” Bruce’d suggested. Tony’d wrinkled his nose at that, and Bruce’d chuckled. “Or because Clint texted me this afternoon asking if we were starting a swinger’s club without him?”

Tony’d snorted and closed his eyes. “I hope you told him that I’m about three hundred times more likely to swing with the Rogers-Barneses than I am with the Barton-Coulsons.”

“I actually told him that we’re not swinging at all, but okay,” Bruce’d replied, and Tony’d tipped his head to kiss Bruce’s palm.

Tony’s home with the kids now, probably working through math problems and first-grade spelling words, and Bruce—

On the one hand, Bruce misses him, but on the other hand, he’s glad to be out of the house, away from Amy’s continual questions about death and Miles’s constant, almost eerie silence.

There’s eerie silence sweeping across the bar, too, as the baseball game switches to commercial. Clint seizes the opportunity to elbow Bruce in the side. “Not to change the subject—”

Please change the subject,” Natasha intones as she scoops more dip onto her plate.

Clint pauses just long enough to scratch his nose with his middle finger. “Anyway,” he says once Natasha’s finished rolling her eyes, “the interns cornered me in the hallway the other day and wanted to know if I had any more information about the Pierpont fire. Guess the law school crowd’s turned it into some kinda thought experiment or something.”

“And that’s why I avoid the interns,” Natasha mutters. When Clint snorts hard enough that he starts choking on his beer, she shoots him a dark look. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Barton, I swear—”

He holds up a hand, still coughing, and Bruce hides his own smile behind the rim of his drink. For a moment, he expects Natasha will just kick Clint under the table and be done with it, but instead she waits, her eyes narrowed and her jaw tight. Finally, Clint sets his bottle down. “I’m not saying you don’t avoid them because of their fake intellectual bullshit,” he defends, “but I just think it’s kinda funny how you started dodging them the week after Brassels called Ward the next you—and not before.”

The resounding thump of Natasha smashing her heel into Clint’s ankle leaves Bruce cringing in sympathy—and he cringes again when Clint slams his knee into the underside of the table in his effort to rub his leg. Natasha smirks and sips her wine, but her eyes remain sharp and predatory.

“You know we’ve got a workplace violence policy, right?” Clint asks.

She shrugs. “We’re not at the workplace,” she reminds him, and helps herself to more dip.

Clint rolls his eyes, ready with a retort that will likely result in injury to his other leg, so Bruce raises his glass to placate the both of them. One of the baseball teams scores, and the roar that follows his nearly deafening. He sips his beer as he waits for the high-fiving and chest-bumping to die down, then settles his glass back on the cardboard coaster. “Jessica asked Ororo Munroe the same question at the funeral, and she said they’re still investigating,” he explains with a slight shrug. “Steve said he had a call in to Howlett, but he’s about as good as phones as Tony is with reading an instruction manual. There’s no open case, though, and they haven’t interviewed the kids again, so I don’t know.”

Natasha runs her fingernail along the lip of her wine glass. “They went to the funeral?”

Bruce frowns. “The kids, or the detectives?”

“Either.”

“Jessica took both of the kids, but as far as I know, Ororo’s the only officer who attended.” Natasha nods vaguely, and Bruce leans back against the booth’s vinyl cushion to sigh. “I thought letting them go to the funeral might be a good idea—Jessica thought so, too, at least for Amy—but now Teddy won’t talk about anything related to the Pierponts and Amy won’t stop asking questions about death. Yesterday, she grilled Tony about funerals all through dinner and Miles locked himself in his room afterwards. It—” The words catch in the back of his throat, thick and clumsy, and he drags a hand through his hair. “They need more closure than we can give them,” he finally says, “and part of that involves knowing what’s going on with the investigation.”

“Yeah, but is that really gonna fix anything?” Clint asks. Both Bruce and Natasha glance over at him, and he shrugs noncommittally. “If the fire’s ruled an arson, then it’s got a name, but it’s still two kids who lost everything they knew when their house burned down. Same thing if they never put a label on what happened.” He tips his beer bottle to one side, catching it on two fingers and then balancing it there. “The important part’s not whether you can call it what it is, the important part’s whether you can talk about it. You guys and your kids.”

“Foster kids,” Bruce reminds him.

He snorts. “Yeah, and Kate Bishop’s just my stalker,” he retorts, and Bruce resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Thanks for that, by the way. I love waking up every morning to find out she’s re-Instagrammed that damn picture, just with a new filter and a better caption.”

Natasha freezes, her glass halfway to her lips. “You follow your sixteen-year-old shadow on Instagram?”

“I’d rather follow her than your girlfriend and her eight thousand pictures of food,” Clint returns. Natasha shakes her head as she finally sips her wine, and Clint points his bottle at her. “It’s twice a day, Nat. I’m pretty sure she’s got a backlog of salads and fancy noodle dishes for the express purpose of making me hungry in the middle of docket.”

She rolls her eyes. “Because Pepper’s major life concern is your stomach.”

“No, but your major life concern’s driving me crazy, and I’m pretty sure your girlfriend makes a good accomplice,” Clint returns, and Bruce is fairly certain that Natasha’s knowing little smirk just proves his point.

They wander out to the parking lot about a half-hour later, the rain now only a dreary gray drizzle as they head to Bruce’s car. With the university closed for fall break, he’d offered to drive, and he laughs as his friends bicker over radio stations on the way to Clint and Phil’s. Clint bitches about Natasha’s favorite Top 40 station even as they pull into his driveway, and he musses up her damp curls as he ducks out of the back seat and into the night.

Natasha huffs a breath. “He’s a child,” she complains as he waves at them from the front stoop.

Bruce smiles. “That’s why you like him,” he reminds her, and her silence speaks volumes.

Instead of heading directly to Natasha’s apartment complex, Bruce takes an extra left-hand turn toward his and Tony’s house to pick up the pile of books that he’d promised to lend Natasha weeks ago and that are still sitting on the table by the front door. They ride in companionable silence, the radio transitioning into a commercial break as the halos of light from street lamps and traffic signals bleed into the car through the windshield. Natasha kicks off her shoes and rests her feet on the dashboard, sprawling comfortably in the passenger’s seat. When Bruce smiles at her at a red light, she smiles back.

“I always saw you as a father,” she admits as they pull onto Bruce’s street, and Bruce nearly jerks the car out of their lane as he twists to glance at her. She rolls her eyes, her curls brushing her shoulders as she tosses her head. “That can’t be a surprise to you. You love kids. You’ve built your whole career around protecting them. Why wouldn’t you be a father?”

He huffs a breath, the sound bitter in the otherwise silent car. “There’s a very long list of reasons for that.”

“Besides your history?” When he frowns at her, his brow furrowing, she shrugs. “I’m still an attorney, Bruce. Arguably, I’m the attorney in our office who’s best at reading people—or at least, best after Clint. Whatever number your family did on you runs deeper than your mother’s death. Trust me, I have enough dead parents to know.”

She swings her feet back down onto the mat as Bruce pulls into his driveway, and the overhead light in the garage glows a sickly yellow as he slides the car into park. He rolls his lips together for a moment after he shuts off the engine, neither of them speaking.

Finally, he glances over at her. “I worried about myself even after I stopped worrying about my family,” he admits quietly. “Without someone to temper me, I think— Well, I’m sure you can guess what kind of parent I’d be without a partner.”

Natasha smiles softly. “I never said I saw you without a partner,” she observes, and slips out of the car without another word.

Bruce stares after her for a second, her windbreaker a slash of red in the mostly dark garage. By the time he locks the car and follows her in, the dogs are already done with her, prancing over to lick at Bruce’s hands and nudge his thighs with their noses. He scratches them behind the ears before wandering into the kitchen, where he finds Miles eating an ice cream sandwich—and a pajama-clad Tony glaring daggers at Natasha.

“Official new rule for girls’ night,” he says, his eyes flicking in Bruce’s direction. “No bringing your strays home and into the inner sanctum.”

Natasha stops unwrapping her own ice cream sandwich—stolen, presumably, from the box on the island—to tip her head at Tony. “I let Pepper keep you,” she reminds him.

“Uh, no, I had Pepper first.”

“And yet I guarantee she likes me more,” Natasha replies smugly, and there’s a predatory edge to the way she bites the corner off the sandwich.

Tony shudders as though he’s imagining Natasha’s teeth on a different part of his body, and at the kitchen nook, Miles snickers. He’s in his pajamas too, just basketball shorts and an oversized t-shirt, but Bruce knows from the way he’s sitting that he’s trying to broaden his shoulders and posture for their visitor. Natasha winks at him, and he shifts awkwardly and whips his head around to stare at the wall.

Tony scowls. “Don’t break our kid.”

“If you haven’t broken him yet, I certainly won’t,” Natasha replies, and leans against the counter as she eats her ice cream.

Bruce rolls his eyes at the two of them and their constant, unnecessary posturing, but then suddenly the dogs are springing up and thundering toward the stairwell. Within seconds, they’re joined by a grinning, messy-haired Amy, her pajama shorts nearly slipping off her skinny hips as she rushes into the kitchen and plasters herself to Bruce’s side. Bruce raises his arm and lets her wrap herself around his waist, her face burrowing into his shirt for a moment before she finally peeks up at him.

“Tony said I could stay up until you got home as long as I read books and left Miles alone,” she explains breathlessly. When Bruce frowns slightly, she mirrors his expression, her nose wrinkling. “I wasn’t being helpful.”

“She was asking me how to do my algebra homework,” Miles offers.

“Which is hilarious, given his record with algebra,” Tony immediately chimes in. Miles scowls and throws his balled up ice cream sandwich wrapper at him, but he just shrugs. “What? Between your study sessions with Teddy and your Skype homework review with Briana . . . ”

He drags the name out like taffy, and Bruce sends him a warning look. When he grins, it warms Bruce’s belly in a way it really shouldn’t, not after a full year together. At Bruce’s side, though, Amy just sighs. “I wanted to learn hard math,” she says, “since I learned counting in kindergarten twice and we never do anything fun in—”

She stops, then, the words cutting off abruptly, and Bruce only realizes she’s staring at Natasha once Natasha smiles and waves. Bruce strokes the back of her head gently and tries to step out of the way, but Amy follows him, her fingers curling in his belt loops as she sticks closer.

Natasha wipes ice cream from the corner of her mouth before saying, “Hi.”

“Hi,” Amy murmurs, and presses her cheek against Bruce’s shirt.

Bruce chuckles, shaking his head slightly, but Tony beats him to the punch as he leans heavily on the island and flaps a hand—complete with his own ice cream sandwich—in Natasha’s general direction. “Amy, meet Red-the-utterly-terrifying, and yes, that is her full name. Red, meet Amy, the adorable foster daughter of awesomeness.”

Amy frowns. “Her name is—”

“Natasha,” Bruce corrects, and Tony rolls his eyes when he offers his husband another warning glance. “This is our friend Natasha.”

“When he says our—”

“He means that nobody really likes you but don’t want to stop being friends with Dad because of it?” Miles guesses, and the betrayed expression that flickers across Tony’s face is enough to leave both him and Bruce laughing.

Natasha grins, the laughter climbing into her eyes, and leaves her half-finished dessert on the island so she can crouch down to Amy’s level. Amy hangs back for a moment, her fingers still digging into Bruce’s slacks, but she stops hiding behind him. “I work with Bruce and Tony,” Natasha explains quietly as Amy keeps gaping at her, “and Bruce’s told me a lot about you.”

Amy nods slightly, her lips pursing into a tight line. Finally, she flashes Natasha a tiny, shy smile. “I like your hair,” she says, brushing her own hair out of her face. “Mine goes everywhere.”

“My hair used to get everywhere, too,” Natasha assures her.

“Really?”

“Absolutely,” Natasha replies, and that’s when Amy actually grins.

Natasha splits the last of her ice cream sandwich with Amy, the girl sitting on the edge of the counter and sucking half-melted vanilla off her fingers as Natasha and Miles chat amicably about the horrors of algebra. Tony chimes in occasionally, but he also follows Bruce out of the kitchen when Bruce wanders off to gather up the pile of books.

They almost collide in the hallway, Tony’s fingers slipping into Bruce’s pockets and pulling him close for a split-second longer than necessary. “Everything good?” he asks, his voice almost a whisper.

For the first time in the last ten days—the first time since the Pierpont funeral, really—Bruce finds himself smiling. “Perfect,” he promises, and kisses Tony on the corner of the mouth before leading him back into the kitchen.

Teddy emerges from his phone call with Billy in time to meet Natasha, and for a few minutes, Bruce imagines this life as the life he was always meant to have: a spouse who loves him, children who laugh and tease and play together, friends who slot into his life like they’ve always belonged. He hugs Amy goodnight before heading out to the car with Natasha, books under his arm and a smile on his face, and he catches himself humming along with the radio for most of the drive back to Natasha’s complex. At one point, Natasha raises an eyebrow at him; when he shrugs, she shrugs back and returns to watching out the window.

It’s only after he pulls into a parking spot outside her building and reaches into the back seat for the books that Natasha reaches out and puts a hand on his arm. Her fingers are a shock of warmth through his shirt, and for a second, they stare at one another. She rolls her lips together, a moment of worry evident on her face, and Bruce feels himself swallowing without thinking.

“I need you to be careful,” she finally says, her voice quiet and distant. When he blinks at her, she shakes her head. “I don’t know why I’m even saying this, but I need to know that you’ll be careful.”

“Careful with what?”

“With Amy and Teddy.” His mouth falls open, and as he stares blankly at her, she shakes her head. “You have a husband and a son at home already, Bruce,” she reminds him, “and falling in love with these kids as fast and as hard as you fell for Miles, it— It might not be as easy as you think, right now.”

Bruce wets his lips, his heart sitting so high in his throat that he feels it on the back of his tongue. “I’m not—”

“You are, and that’s okay,” she interrupts, squeezing his arm gently. “I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t. I’m just saying you should go carefully.” She meets his eyes, her gaze steady and soft in the darkness. “For everyone’s sake.”

He glances out the windshield for a moment, watching as the wiper blades sweep away all the tiny pinpricks of rain. “I will,” he promises.

“That’s all I need to know,” she responds, and his arm feels cold when she releases him and ducks out of the car.

 

==

 

“Doctor Banner, we can’t keep meeting like this,” Principal Johnson says, and Bruce rubs his forehead with a hand.

He knows she means it as a joke—her smile’s warm enough, her manner pleasant as she extends a hand in his direction—but honestly, Bruce is too tired to accept her attempt at levity. He shakes her hand awkwardly as he crosses into her office, aware as always at the stacks of paperwork on her desk and the brown, dying fern that lives atop one of the file cabinets. Bruce owns a fern like that, a hasty Hanukah gift from Tony the first winter after they met (during which time Tony’d developed strange assumptions about Bruce’s religion). The fern lives in a sunny corner of their bedroom, now, and Bruce smiles as he thinks about it.

The smile disappears when Principal Johnson closes the door behind her. “Take a seat,” she says, and Bruce remembers why he’s in her office in the first place.

In all honesty, Bruce’d looked forward to a quiet Thursday in his office, picking up the leftover pieces from two very busy days. He’d spent all of Wednesday frantic, rushing through his pre-planned docket to clear time for an emergency custody hearing for two very young, very neglected toddlers. He’d sent dozens of e-mails and texts between cases and during lunch, trying to coordinate translators for the parents, attorneys for all the parties, and scheduling the social workers and police officers involved. By four-thirty, he’d cleared everyone’s schedules enough to actually hold the hearing; at six-thirty, he’d stumbled through their front door exhausted.

“Tea, beer, or butter pecan ice cream?” Tony’d asked, hovering just outside the foyer.

Bruce’d rolled his lips together. “The last two,” he’d answered, and topped off his healthy dinner with a huge helping of—

“You made a casserole?” he’d asked, frowning at the baking dish in the fridge.

“In my defense, you left me to cook for three children.” Tony’d pressed up against his back, a warm, welcome weight. “Found the recipe online. It’s, like, tuna and rice and cheese. Big hit, even Miles ate it.”

“I’m not picky,” Miles’d complained from the couch.

“You are when I cook,” Tony’d reminded him.

Bruce’d brought the rest of the casserole for his Thursday lunch.

His lunch waits for him back at the office as he lowers himself into the chair across from Johnson’s desk, aware of her stare even before he glances at her. Tony’s trapped in back-to-back teleconferences with the assistant appellate court clerk—something about a change in appellate procedure, as Bruce understood it—and Bruce is here, forcing a smile at Miles’s principal as she folds her hands atop her desk. Nearby, there’s a manila folder that boasts Miles’s name.

Bruce swallows.

“Ms. Johnson—”

She raises a hand and shakes her head slightly. “I know we got off on the wrong foot last time,” she says, and Bruce rolls his lips together. “That’s my fault. I know I offended both you and Mr. Stark, and that was never my intention. These meetings are hard enough without a clumsy administrator sticking her foot in her mouth.” She smiles softly. “I owe you an apology.”

Bruce’s mouth twitches, never quite curling into an actual smile, and for a moment, he considers playing ignorant. To grin and nod like a casual, clueless parent anxious to return to work. The way Johnson raises her eyebrows, he thinks she wants the same.

Instead, he says, “You didn’t just ask me here to apologize.”

The principal’s smile immediately fades. “No,” she admits, “I didn’t. Are you familiar with a young man in Miles’s class named Judge Montgomery?”

Bruce nods. “He and Miles were friends when Miles first came into my custody. I think they’ve drifted apart some over the last year.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Johnson replies. There’s something in her tone—not combativeness as much as tension—that immediately puts Bruce’s nerves on edge. He leans forward slightly, his palms rubbing against his slacks. “In social studies this morning, Miles and Judge started arguing. The teacher shut it down, but it apparently came up again in math and science.”

“And?” Bruce asks.

Johnson’s lips crease into a tight frown. “There were some racially charged terms exchanged,” she explains, “and the argument only ended when Miles knocked Judge’s lab stool out from under him.”

As much as he tries to stand on his surprise, Bruce’s mouth falls open. For a moment, he’s absolutely speechless, his eyes wide and his mind racing as he stares at the woman across the desk from him. After a year together, he’s certainly seen Miles at his worst—angry enough that he cries, frustrated enough to fling pillows or shove one of the dogs, so overwhelmed by the experience of being thirteen that a snide comment morphs into a shout—but pushing a friend off his lab stool, that’s an entirely different kind of outburst. He drags fingers through his hair and over his face, unsure how to fill the silence.

His heart feels like it might sink into his stomach. His stomach itself feels like a stone.

At her desk, Johnson sighs. “Judge will be suspended for the rest of the week, given that we have a zero tolerance policy for that kind of language. Miles—” She pauses to shake her head. “We’d like him out until Monday as well. Their teacher thinks that Judge was trying to provoke the altercation—there were words exchanged about both Miles’s mother and his new foster sister—but with the way Miles keeps escalating these arguments—”

“Is Judge okay?” Bruce hears himself ask. He blinks at the urgency of it, the way he blurts out the question; when Johnson frowns, he shakes his head. “I know what’s happening with Miles is serious, I know we need to talk to him, that his therapist needs to talk to him, I just—”

He shakes his head again, a useless attempt to clear the cobwebs, and Johnson forces a tight smile. “Aside from a severely bruised ego, Judge is fine,” she assures him, but he hears the tension in her voice again. “Dr. Banner, if there are resources you need help finding, or other concerns you can’t voice around your husband—”

Bruce snorts and barely resists the urge to roll his eyes. “If you’re about to suggest Tony is the problem—”

“I’m suggesting that raising a teenager is hard for anyone, no matter how much they love him,” Johnson cuts in. Bruce huffs out a breath and rubs a hand over his face. “There’s a lot you’re still learning about being parents to your son—and a lot that your son’s learning about being part of your family. It’s okay to be at a loose end.”

He tries not to think of all the loose ends in their life: Teddy and Amy, the Pierpont fire, their work schedules, the stress of social lives and appointments. He pictures it not as a loosely-twined rope unraveling, but as grains of sand slipping through his fingers. He pushes the thought away and forces a tiny smile. “I’ll let you know if we need anything,” he says. His own voice sounds distant.

“Are you sure—”

“I’m sure,” Bruce cuts in. She looks ready to protest as he rises to his feet, and a second time as he shoves his hands into his pockets. “I’d like to see my son.”

“He’s waiting with his English teacher,” Johnson replies, and stands to lead him out the door.

Miles practically vaults out of his desk when Bruce and the principal walk into the room, the color draining from his face so quickly that Bruce half expects him to faint. He cranes his neck for a second, staring out into the hallway until the door swings shut.

“No Tony?” he asks, his voice nearly a croak.

Bruce rolls his lips together. “No Tony,” he answers, and Miles’s whole face falls.

They walk down the hallway side by side, Miles staring at his sneakers as Bruce listens to their footfalls squeak along the tile floor. He tries to formulate the thousand questions that rattle around in his head—about Judge and his racial slurs, about lab stools, about spikes of anger—but they all disintegrate before ever reaching his lips. He thanks Principal Johnson before they head out the front doors and out into the cool fall day.

Halfway to the car, Miles wets his lips. “For the record, Judge started it, and I—”

Bruce shakes his head. “We can talk about it later.”

The thin thread of anger in his tone—tight and red-hot, overriding even the disappointment that lives deep in his belly—surprises him, and at his side, Miles freezes. He shifts his backpack higher up on his shoulder, his whole body tensing. “Bruce—”

“Later,” Bruce repeats, harsher than before, and forces himself to keep walking. The bubbling, ugly pit of anger that’s brewing in his stomach threatens to boil over, and he forces himself to swallow around it as he fishes his keys out of his pocket and unlocks the Prius.

“Bruce,” Miles says again, ten or fifteen steps behind.

“Get in the car, Miles.”

“But you have to listen to me, Judge said—”

“Do you think I care about that right now?” Bruce’s voice echoes across the parking lot, booming like a thunderclap, and he whirls on his heel to stare at his son. In his baggy t-shirt and favorite jeans, he looks small, a scrawny boy in a young man’s clothing. He flinches when Bruce throws up his hands. “I don’t care what Judge said to you, just like I don’t care what Ty or the boy before Ty said to you. I care about how you respond to it, and about how you continue to think that starting a physical altercation is the only way to deal with the problem!” Miles immediately drops his eyes to the pavement, and Bruce— As much as Bruce tries not to, he finds himself running his hands through his hair before he drops them helplessly to his sides. “You won’t talk to us, you won’t talk to your therapist, you won’t talk to any of the other adults we throw at you on a regular basis. And as much as we beg and plead, you still think that getting into a fight is the better answer.”

Ten or fifteen feet away, Miles swallows thickly. When his shoulders shudder, Bruce’s chest tightens. “He said my rich parents wanted to fill their house with Hispanic kids to do the laundry,” he murmurs, and for the first time, Bruce feels his anger spike a whole different direction. “He called me and Amy—”

“People are always going to find something to call you,” Bruce breaks in when Miles’s voice starts to tremble. He crosses the distance between them, his hands and shoulders slowly unclenching. “They’ll cut you down because of your race, or because you’re smart, or because your parents are two men.” Miles draws in a shaky breath, still not looking up; when Bruce puts a hand on his arm, he flinches, but he doesn’t jerk away. “It doesn’t matter what people say to you to make you feel small, but it matters how you respond to it.”

Miles snorts. “Easy for you to say,” he mutters.

“Very few things came easy for me at your age,” Bruce replies, and he squeezes his arm before leading him to the car. They drive to the judicial complex in absolute silence—no conversation, no radio, nothing but the wind through the cracked windows and the hum of the engine—and Bruce pretends not to notice the number of times Miles wipes his face on the back of his hand. He trudges obediently along behind Bruce when they arrive at the building, too, and when Rhodey answers the door to his office, he ducks under the head of security’s arm and immediately throws himself into one of the spare chairs.

Rhodey raises an eyebrow. “Do I wanna know?” When Bruce rolls his lips together instead of actually answering, Rhodey sighs. He glances over at Miles for a minute—the boy’s already tucked himself up into the tightest ball possible, his head lolling against the wall as he studies the duct work of the unfinished ceiling—before he shakes his head. “Given that I’ve been there,” he finally says, “I’ll take care of it.”

Bruce frowns. “You’ve been in schoolyard fights?” he asks.

Rhodey grins. “No, but I’ve been thirteen, black, and pissed off at the world,” he answers, and he pats Bruce on the arm before sending him back upstairs to his own office.

Bruce returns the favor by sending the last of the casserole down to Miles as a lunch—and, he supposes, as a peace offering.

He works through the lunch hour and into the afternoon, sorting through piles of case files and reports and trying desperately to focus on work and not the teenager who sits seven floors under him, listening to NPR and (presumably) working on homework. But despite his best efforts, Bruce finds his mind wandering, tripping over itself as he stops reviewing documents for his cases and starts reviewing the conversation in the parking lot—and then, every other conversation he’s shared with his son. The terrified twelve-year-old from last October feels like a distant memory; now, instead, Bruce finds himself staring down the gauntlet at an angry, resentful teenager who won’t open up.

He’s still scared, Bruce knows. He can read it in Miles’s face, in his posture, in the way he avoids eye contact and skulks around the house. Bruce just isn’t sure how to crack through his shell and curl his fingers around the fear.

Worse, Bruce can’t decide whether Teddy and Amy’s presence in their house is helping or hurting the situation.

It’s just after he stands up to stretch at around three p.m. that Tony materializes in his doorway. “Need you,” he says, and ducks away just as quickly as he appeared.

Bruce blinks exactly once, his hand still planted on his lower back. “Need me for what?” he calls after the other man.

Even with Tony halfway down the hallway, he can hear his husband’s long suffering sigh—and worse, imagine the accompanying eye-roll. When he reappears in the doorway, his face is the very picture of exasperation. “I just need you,” he explains.

Bruce rubs a hand over his face. “After the conversations I’ve had with Principal Johnson and with Miles, I am not in the mood for—”

“When I need you for sex, I tell you I need you for sex—though I appreciate knowing that not even this fine specimen is enough to get you going right now, really stokes my self-esteem.” He gestures to his own body—including his wrinkled shirt, rolled-up sleeves, and mussed hair—and Bruce rolls his lips together to keep from smirking. “I need you for something else. Which I could tell you about, but I’d rather show you. Keep some surprise in the relationship.”

“Last time you said that, you bought chocolate body paint,” Bruce reminds him.

“And you loved it,” Tony retorts, and disappears back down the hall before Bruce can roll his eyes.

The district attorney’s office as a whole is busy but not crowded, full of ringing phones and noisy copiers, and Bruce smiles as he slides past Darcy on his way to Tony’s office. He nods as he passes Thor and Jane—the latter weighed down with a half-dozen case files—and almost collides with one of the file clerks before he steps into Tony’s office and comes face-to-face with—

“Kate dropped me off,” Teddy says, holding up both hands. He’s leaning against the window ledge, his backpack still slung over one shoulder and his windbreaker open. His hair’s messy and windswept, like he just walked in from outside. “I was going to call you guys first, but I figured if I was coming straight here, it’d make more sense if I just—”

“Is everything okay?” Bruce interrupts, finally shaking off his surprise. Tony, already flopped back in his desk chair, rolls his eyes. Bruce grits his teeth to keep from glaring, but then he’s checking Teddy over, looking for any signs of—well, of anything wrong. “If you needed us, you could have called instead of—”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Teddy cuts him off, frowning. He glances at Tony for a brief second, and he watches the other man shrug before he rolls his lips together. “Miles texted me.”

“Miles?” Bruce repeats.

“You remember Miles, don’t you? Tall, skinny, currently in security office purgatory and still armed with his cell phone?” Tony leans back in his chair and crosses his arms over his chest. “Which actually brings me to my first question about today’s father-son adventures: why does our mildly suspended teenager still have his cell phone?”

“An issue I would’ve probably addressed if he and I’d been talking at that point,” Bruce retorts. His voice is sharper than he means it to be, and immediately, Tony’s half-amused expression falters. He sighs and shakes his head before turning back to Teddy. “Did Miles say anything to you besides the fact that he’s in with Rhodey for the afternoon?”

“Uh, I don’t know who Rhodey is, so probably not?” Teddy replies with a shrug. “He told me he got kicked out of school for the day and wanted to know if I could pick him up and take him back to the house on the bus.” Tony’s jaw tightens, and Teddy quickly raises his hands. “With your permission. He wanted me to get your permission, too.”

Tony’s eyes flick over in Bruce’s direction. “They’re colluding. A couple weeks in, and the two of them are already colluding, waging war against the adults in their household with no respect for their elders.”

“You’re the one who was desperate for more foster children,” Bruce reminds him, but he can’t help a tiny smile, either.

Tony smiles too, a little of the lost amusement finding his laugh lines again. At the window, however, Teddy shifts his weight conspicuously. “I don’t totally know what happened,” he says, playing with the strap of his backpack, “but I can always just go to the library. Kate’s at work, but one of the busses runs right past there, so—”

“What happened at Castle Rock Middle School usually stays at Castle Rock Middle School, but if you can talk some sense into the wayward youth who lives in our house and eats our food, by all means.” Bruce rolls his lips together, unwilling to argue—after all, the last thing Teddy needs is to witness their bickering—but Tony draws him out of his own head by snapping at him. He frowns, confused, and Tony sighs. “Keys.”

“To?”

“To that horrible celery-colored eyesore you call a car.”

“I— What?”

Bruce asks the question at the same time and with the same inflection as Teddy. The teen’s brow furrows as Tony huffs and rolls his eyes. “I know that you’re very concerned about global climate change—I mean, I think you might be the only person on the planet who keeps a copy of An Inconvenient Truth on his iPad—but I’m not sending two teenage boys home on public transportation. They’ll catch tuberculosis. Or meet girls.”

“You remember I don’t like girls, right?” Teddy asks.

“Then your very sexuality is at stake, and that is simply not a risk I am willing to make you take.” Teddy grins even as he rolls his eyes, and for the first time all afternoon, Bruce snorts a laugh as he shakes his head. “So, big guy: keys, please.”

“Uh, not to burst your bubble,” Teddy volunteers from the window ledge, raising his hand like he’s in class, “but there’s one more flaw in your plan.”

Tony dismisses him with a lazy hand-wave. “No flaws, my plan is perfect.”

“Yeah, except I can’t drive.” Tony spins around on his chair fast enough that Bruce almost expects him to fall off it. A bright red flush climbs Teddy’s neck, and he tries to rub it away with his hand. “Ed took me driving occasionally, but I mean, I literally just turned sixteen. While sitting on your couch. I don’t have a license. I don’t really think you’d want me to have one, I’m so bad at it.” Tony blinks, his brown eyes wide in shock, and Teddy swallows audibly. “Should I be apologizing or something?”

“You don’t have a license,” Tony repeats. He strings the words together so slowly, Bruce wonders if he’s had a minor stroke.

Teddy nods. “Yeah.”

“You’re a red-blooded American sixteen-year-old with gal-pals in short-shorts and a boyfriend, and you’re not chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel and take our Prius god-knows where for hours on end?”

Teddy glances at Bruce, who shrugs. “No?” he answers.

Tony groans—loudly—and thumps his head back against his chair. Twice, actually, the second time hard enough that Bruce thinks he feels his own teeth rattle. “I officially don’t understand kids these days. I don’t even care if that dates me: I don’t get them at all.”

A strangled, half-contained laugh bursts out of Teddy, and his effort to hide the sound behind his hand just transforms it into a pained snicker. Bruce rolls his eyes, a smile pushing at the corners of his mouth as he shakes his head. “What Tony means is that we’ll take you out for some driving lessons this weekend,” he says. When Tony opens his mouth to correct him, he raises his hand. “If you and Miles want to go home on the bus, that’s fine. We’ll give you the fare. It might be good for him to talk to someone who isn’t his parent.”

“Despite the fact he has truly excellent parents,” Tony chimes in.

Bruce smiles. “Despite that, yes,” he replies, and nods toward the door.

Tony stays behind in his office as Bruce leads Teddy downstairs, muttering something about cover sheets and signatures as they wander out of the office. The elevator ride down to the basement is quiet, Teddy with his hands in his pockets and Bruce staring at the ever-changing floor number; in the cinderblock-and-tile basement hallway, their footfalls echo ominously. It’s as they pass the IT department, complete with Skye Carson’s handwritten Knock loudly—I’m wearing headphones! sign, that Teddy says, “I wasn’t always a model student, either.”

Bruce raises an eyebrow, more in surprise than anything else, and the teen shrugs. “After my mom died— I lost my dad when I was really little, and so I don’t think I understood how it all worked. One day he was there, the next he wasn’t, and that was the end of that.” He adjusts his backpack before glancing over at Bruce. “With my mom, I hated everything. All the questions, the sad looks, everybody worrying about me all the time . . . ” He trails off with a shake of his head. “I lashed out.”

“And you grew out of it,” Bruce replies.

Teddy snorts. “If I’d grown all the way out of it, I wouldn’t still be in foster care,” he retorts, and Bruce rolls his lips together. “Miles is an awesome kid. If we were the same age, I’d probably hang out with him voluntarily. But it’s really hard to have all that going through your head.” He stops just long enough to catch Bruce’s eyes. “No matter how great your parents are.”

Bruce runs his fingers through his hair. “I’m not sure Tony and I are helping the situation,” he admits.

“You’re too good at this to hurt it,” Teddy returns, and keeps walking.

Once the boys are waiting at the bus stop, armed with enough money for fare and a soda—“Don’t tell Tony,” Bruce warns Miles, and he grins for what feels like the first time all day—Bruce trudges back into the office. He stops at the break room long enough to pour himself a cup of coffee and steal one of Pepper’s yogurts (he leaves an apologetic note in hopes that she won’t blame Natasha) before heading back to his office.

He’s not exactly surprised to find Tony standing at the window, picking dead leaves off of one of his plants. He’s slouch-shouldered and comfortable, the tiny flecks of gray in his hair illuminated by the light from the window, and for a moment, Bruce just wants to press up against him and forget all of the day’s frustrations.

Instead, he pulls the door shut behind him. “If you’re here to accuse me about mismanaging today’s school situation, at least let me drink half this cup of coffee and—”

“Can I guess what happened? Because I got the e-mail you sent right after Johnson called, and ever since then, I’ve been formulating my guess.” Tony plucks off one last leaf before he turns around, his hands immediately falling into his pockets. “Because I’m pretty sure somebody—probably another kid—said something to upset our kid, and our kid, proving once again to be the epitome of reason and restraint, decided to start some kind of physical altercation.” He leans his weight against the window, his posture mirroring Teddy’s from all of ten minutes ago. “Am I anywhere in the ballpark?”

Bruce sighs as he sets down his coffee mug. “Judge.”

“Which judge?”

“No, I mean—the kid who said something to Miles was his friend Judge.” Tony frowns, and Bruce just shakes his head at him. “I don’t know all the details, but I guess he made some racially based comments about Miles’s heritage.” He pauses when a flash of anger flickers across Tony’s face. “And when that wasn’t enough, he added Amy into the equation.”

Immediately, all of Tony’s easy casualness evaporates, his whole body bristling. His shoulders tighten, his jaw sets, and when he crosses his arms over his chest, it shows off the full effect of his forearms. Bruce feels his heart start to race, even though he knows without thinking that the frustration’s not aimed in his direction.

Finally, Tony wets his lips. “Can I string a seventh-grader up by his toes and leave him there to dangle?” he asks, voice tight.

Bruce sighs. “No, Tony.”

“Can I think about doing it? Because right now, knowing that there’s a kid who thinks cracks about Hispanics—including not only my kid but also tiny curly-haired girls who’ve never done a thing to him—are okay, I really want to—”

Tony.

The hard edge to Bruce’s voice causes Tony’s mouth to snap shut, but he keeps his body tense, every inch of him waiting for a fight. Bruce rubs a hand over his forehead and then his face, trying to smooth out the worry lines his day has caused. Eventually, he sighs and shakes his head. “I’m not happy about the exchange, either,” he admits, “but the bigger problem is that we have a thirteen-year-old who’d rather kick his classmate off a lab stool than stop and have a rational conversation. Never mind talking to us.” He drops his eyes to the corner of his desk. “Never mind talking to anyone,” he amends, and his tone sounds quieter now, and sticky.

He swallows around the lump that rises in his throat, but before he reassembles himself enough to raise his head again, Tony’s there, a hand running down Bruce’s arm . Bruce sighs as some of the tension slowly uncoils. “He’s fine until he’s not, Tony,” he says quietly.

“Pretty sure that’s the way with teenagers.” When Bruce jerks his head up, Tony offers him only a tiny, forced smile and a shake of his head. “I don’t like it any more than you do, and I definitely don’t have the answer,” he says, his palm strong and warm on Bruce’s upper arm. “What I do know is that you and I, we’re doing the best we know how to do. Not because we had great role models, because god knows that’s not true, but because we learn from our mistakes and we keep trying to figure it out.”

“And if we can’t help him?” Bruce asks. Tony sighs, his lips already opening to protest, and Bruce raises a hand. “I know there’s no magic balm for this, no quick fix we can pull out and use on him so he’ll feel better about life,” he explains. “But if he keeps regressing, and this keeps getting worse—”

“Then we cross that bridge when we come to it,” Tony cuts in. Bruce rolls his eyes and reaches for his coffee cup, but Tony catches his wrist. “Hey,” he says, and there’s just enough force behind it that Bruce lifts his head to meet those open brown eyes. “I’m not exactly a parenting expert, but I’m a ‘baggage as far as the eye can see’ expert. And whatever happens next with our kid, we’ll deal with it. Hell or high water, it doesn’t matter, because he’s our kid and we’re in it for the long haul.”

Something deep in Bruce’s stomach—this terrified, unnamed knot of emotion that he’s spent the last several weeks fighting against—starts to unwind. When he finally releases a breath, it sounds more like a sigh than a frustrated little huff. “It might not be easy,” he says quietly.

“Nothing worth doing’s ever easy,” Tony replies, “but guess what? We do it anyway.”

 

==

 

“Okay, well, you’re kind of close,” Miles says gently, and Amy groans as she leans her forehead against the kitchen table. “No, come on, you can do it. You got everything right except the ‘e.’”

Amy’s head immediately snaps up, and for a moment, her scowl’s so severe that Bruce almost intervenes. “It’s an er word,” she says snottily, her nose wrinkling. “When we were reading, my teacher said that ‘e’ plus ‘r’ made er.” When she drags out the r until it’s almost a growl, Miles snorts and hides his mouth behind his hand. “It’s not funny.”

“No, you’re right, it’s not,” Miles replies. He holds up both his hands, red pen and all, but Amy keeps glaring. “But ‘word’ is kind of funny, because it sounds like er but there’s no ‘e.’ And if you don’t believe me, ask my dad.”

Bruce barely manages to drop his eyes back down to his iPad before Amy’s staring at him with enough force to bore a hole into his head. When he glances up, he raises his eyebrows as though he’s not spent the last ten minutes eavesdropping. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Amy’s face twists into a scowl that only deepens when Miles bursts out laughing.

Bruce, for his part, smiles.

Deep down, Bruce knows that Miles should be upstairs in his room, stripped of all electronic devices and left to think about his own poor decisions, but it feels wrong somehow to deprive him of these few ridiculous moments with a wound-up first-grader and her spelling words. Of the eight, Amy’s conquered about half—she’s preternaturally good at rhyming, and several words end in –ick—but despite her test in the morning, this week’s sight words still baffle her. She’s misspelled words like not and but in a variety of creative ways, and now, she’s convinced there’s an ‘e’ in word. The very picture of patience, Miles’s returned her paper to her a half-dozen times now, always encouraging her try something new, but now, it’s almost bedtime and she’s still struggling.

Miles’s own homework, on the other hand, sits forgotten.

Bruce and Tony’d traded keys after school, Tony picking up Amy while Bruce drove the Audi home (at a reasonable speed, thank you), and he’d walked in the door to find Teddy and Miles sitting at the coffee table in the living room, talking and playing the world’s least-contentious game of Scrabble. “I know you think you’ve got it under control,” Teddy’d said as Bruce’d walked in, oblivious to his presence, “but girls are complicated. Sometimes, you just have to tell them things to their face before they get it.”

“Says the gay guy,” Miles’d retorted, digging into the tile bag.

“I might be gay, but I still know more girls than you do,” Teddy’d returned, and as far as Bruce had been able to tell, Miles’d choked on air at the perfect comeback. Teddy, smiling placidly, had rearranged a few tiles on his tray. “And trust me on this, okay? I’ve watched Kate and Eli dance around each other for six months, and all because Eli won’t suck it up and tell her he’s got a thing.”

“Like David has a thing for you?” Miles’d asked.

Teddy’d rolled his eyes. “You sound like Billy.”

“He kept touching your leg at your birthday party.” After a year of living with Miles, Bruce’d learned to spot his smug tone a mile away. He’d smiled to himself as he’d dumped his keys on the kitchen counter. “I mean, you keep telling me I don’t know what I’m doing with Briana, but if David molesting your leg means he doesn’t have a thing, then—”

“You’re short a tile,” Teddy’d grumbled, and Miles’d laughed hard enough that the dogs had both run over to check on him.

For the most part, Miles’d spent most of the evening leaving both Tony and Bruce a wide berth, but he’d clung to his two foster siblings like lifelines; after Scrabble, he’d played some inane Kinect game with Amy, reviewed math problems with Teddy, and sat on the deck with both of them, eating ice cream sandwiches despite the creeping October cold. Bruce’d studied him the whole time, ignoring Tony’s constant stream of jokes to memorize fleeting smiles and warm laughter. Whatever fear or anger lived in Miles’s heart had fled long enough for him to fill Amy’s bath (with some supervision) and now, to review spelling words.

And to watch Bruce, his eyes dancing, while Bruce shakes his head. “No ‘e,’” he tells Amy.

Amy releases a half-whine, half-moan and crumples onto the breakfast nook’s bench, her face hidden by her arm as she curls into a moody, defeated ball. Miles reaches across the table and pokes her in the side with the eraser end of her pencil. “Come on,” he goads as the girl smacks his hand away. “You’re so close. One letter off.” Amy grumbles some rough approximation of a response into her elbow, and the teen grins. “You know what? I bet you can’t get it right.”

“Can too!” Amy argues, immediately shooting back up into a sitting position. Miles raises both his eyebrows, his entire face an unspoken challenge, and the girl snatches her sheet of spelling words away from him. “I can spell all my words right.”

“Then prove it,” Miles challenges, and Amy wrinkles her nose at him as she yanks her pencil out of his hand and starts writing.

Once Tony and Teddy return from walking the dogs—Tony laughing about something while Teddy blushes a bright, almost neon shade of red—they coax a triumphant Amy upstairs and into bed. Jarvis mews in protest as he’s evicted from her pillow, curling up at her feet and glaring at the interlopers that interrupted his night in his room. “And then,” Amy tells Tony, her smile as bright as the day, “I spelled the last word right.”

“You know, as much as the big guy had his doubts, I never once thought you couldn’t.” Bruce elbows Tony slightly, his eyes narrowing, and Tony holds up both his hands. “I’m joking, and she knows I’m joking. I mean, she spelled all the words right, so she’s obviously a genius.”

Amy giggles when Tony tweaks her nose, but her face transforms into something softer when he brushes the hair out of her eyes. Bruce is hardly surprised when she reaches up for a fierce, white-knuckled goodnight hug—or when she demands the same thing from Bruce himself.

He’s breathing in the scent of no-tangle shampoo and bubblegum toothpaste when Amy murmurs, “Don’t be mad at Miles.” He pulls back a few inches, frowning, and she worries her lips together. “He said he was bad today, and that you and Tony are both mad at him,” she explains, her arms still looped around his neck. “Everybody’s bad, sometimes.”

Bruce smiles at her and shakes his head slightly. “Not you, I’m sure,” he teases.

She grins. “Sometimes,” she replies lightly, and squeezes him again before she finally settles into bed.

In the hallway, Tony snakes his hand under the back of Bruce’s shirt before saying, “Sounds like he’s not a total lost cause, this time around.”

“Not as much as he’s just plain lost,” Bruce replies, and leans into his grip.

An hour-and-a-half later, the house is quiet and dark as Bruce raps to knuckles on Miles’s bedroom door before carefully letting himself in. Miles sprawls on his bed sideways, his face tilted up toward the ceiling as he studies the pinprick silver stars above him. There’s an upside-down library book next to him, along with two comics and a spiral notebook, but he ignores all his distractions.

For a moment, Bruce just stands in the doorway, wondering how his sarcastic, thoughtful son could look so grown-up and so lost all at once. Eventually, though, he swallows. “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it,” he says gently, his hands falling into his pockets, “and I can’t force you. I don’t want to force you, not until you’re ready. But you need to understand that pushing people around, even when they hurt you, isn’t—”

“I didn’t care until he said it about Amy.” Miles’s voice is soft but strong, so firm and certain that the rest of Bruce’s sentence dies in the back of his throat. He rolls his head against the bedspread, his face young and scared as he meets Bruce’s eyes. “I didn’t even want to tell Judge about her and Teddy—he’s so weird lately, like he thinks I think I’m too good for him or something—but Ganke made it this whole thing, and then—” He shakes his head before he looks back up at the ceiling. “People say shitty things to me about being adopted by you guys all the time, but Amy’s just a little girl.”

Bruce swears he hears his pulse everywhere—in his ears, in his temples, and yes, in his chest—and drawing in a breath does nothing to quiet it. “If people are saying things to you like that, Miles, we can—”

“Can we just hang out for a couple minutes?” Miles interrupts. When he glances back in Bruce’s direction, Bruce can see all the fear and helplessness that’s hiding behind his teenage bluster. “We can talk about stars, or books, or anything, I just— Can we please just hang?”

Despite everything else in their life—fights and fires and teenage angst included—Bruce can’t help but offer his son a tiny, warm smile. “Sure,” he says, and the grin Miles flashes him in response is absolutely blinding.

In the end, they boot up a documentary about space on the iPad, Bruce balancing it on his thigh as they learn about the galaxy.

And when Bruce wakes up at midnight, it’s to a dark iPad in a darker room with his son—his lost, terrified, brilliant son—comfortably asleep on his shoulder.