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Chain of Custody

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“She’d had better and worse visits with her mom, but that’s not what I’m here about,” Jessica Jones says Saturday night, and she adds a second splash of whisky to her Irish coffee.

Tony, Teddy, and Miles are all perched on the very edge of the couch, Wiimotes clutched desperately in their hands as they engage in the ugliest three-way MarioKart battle in the history of the sport. Amy sits cross-legged on one of the overstuffed chairs and cheers for whoever’s in first; when she jostles the chair too much, Jarvis meows loudly and paws at her shoulder. The whole display’s so comfortable and familial that Bruce’s stomach twists.

“Then what is it?” he asks Jessica when he finally tears his eyes away from Tony and the kids. Jessica’s leaning against the island, slouched and comfortable in her jeans and a soft sweater. She raises her eyebrows as she sips her coffee, and Bruce rolls his eyes. “You’re here at eight o’clock on a Saturday night. Worse, you’re cagey and drinking our whisky.” She snorts, almost smiling. “Something’s obviously wrong with one of them.”

“Not one of them,” she corrects. She sets down her mug with finality before she meets his eyes. “The investigation into the Pierpont fire’s a whole other story.”

Something tight and frightened rises in the back of Bruce’s throat, and he nods weakly as he glances back into the living room. The MarioKart battle’d actually started that morning before Miles and Tony’d embarked on “Dad Time” and Amy’d left to visit her mother at her live-in rehabilitation facility; Bruce still clearly remembers the eye-rolls and complaining as he’d shooed all three children away from the television. “You’re making me go to Costco instead of playing with Teddy,” Miles’d whined, slumping on the couch.

“No,” Tony’d responded, poking him lightly in the chest, “we’re offering you the rare and wonderful privilege of spending a day with one of your fathers. Now, go get dressed.”

“But—”

“Go,” Tony’d repeated, and shoved him until he’d dramatically rolled off the couch.

Now, the drama involves Teddy’s supposedly illicit use of a shortcut in the mall level and Miles’s prowess with red shells.

Bruce tries to hold onto his smile for as long as he can, but finally, he turns back to Jessica. “How bad?”

She drops her eyes to the floor and reaches for her coffee mug. “Pretty bad.”

“And how bad is that?”

“Given that you’re a member of the district attorney’s office, I don’t know how much I can—”

“Jessica.” His voice is sharper and tighter than he intends, and Dummy picks his head up from where he’s sprawled on the kitchen tile. Bruce sighs and rubs a hand over his face. “We’ve had the conflict-of-interest talk with our boss,” he assures her, but she just rolls her lips together. “And you know neither of us will ever touch this case.”

“Unless there’s a conviction and appeal,” Jessica points out.

“Tony’ll have it conflicted out to Steve or Clint,” Bruce retorts. She frowns at that, her brow furrowing, and sips her coffee. Uncertainty and worry flicker across her expression, and Bruce grips his own mug harder. “You came all this way,” he reminds her.

“And I shouldn’t spill the beans,” she returns. She leans her head back until it lightly thumps against the upper cabinet. “Every time I try staffing this case with another social worker, they turn squirrelly,” she says after a few seconds. “The fire itself is uncharted territory, and our turnover rate’s so high that most of them are babies themselves. They’ve never spent five, six years with a kid. They’ve never dealt with the level of counselling and school interventions that I’ve dragged Amy through.” She shoves a few loose strands of hair behind her ear before she meets Bruce’s eyes. “I need somebody who gets it more than I need to spill the beans.”

“You talk to Kurt Wagner some, don’t you?” he asks. She snorts and rolls her eyes. “What?”

“Kurt’s tangentially related to the problem, so he’s not really my number one ally right now.”

He frowns. “How’s Kurt part of—”

“Because Howlett paid me a ‘courtesy visit’ on Thursday,” she cuts in, her jaw and shoulders tightening, “and he requested Amy and Teddy’s full social work history.”

In the living room, someone wins the final race of the cup, and for a few seconds, the quiet in the kitchen is overtaken by raucous cheering and laughter. By the time Bruce looks over, Tony and Miles are wrestling for Miles’s Wiimote while Teddy laughs hard enough that he almost slips off the couch. Amy throws a pillow into the fray, aiming for Tony but hitting Teddy in the face instead; within seconds, Teddy’s grabbed her and pulled her onto the floor with him, tickling her viciously while she wriggles and kicks. Dummy leaps up to join the commotion, Butterfingers thunders down the stairs, and suddenly, there’s a literal and figurative dog pile on the floor.

“Please don’t break anything,” Bruce calls out to Tony as the wrestling transforms into a full-on pillow fight with the couch cushions.

“Bones, belongings, or children?” Tony shouts back.

“Any of the above!” Bruce returns—and then he laughs, almost accidentally, as Miles batters his other parent in the face with a couch cushion.

By the time the battle’s finished, with Amy sprawled on the floor like a starfish while the dogs lick her face and both teenage boys gulping their sodas like their lives depend on it, Bruce’s almost forgotten about Jessica’s comment. When he glances back at her, her mug clutched between her hands and her lips rolled together, his heart drops into his stomach. He sips his own coffee, buying time as Tony queues up the next race. For a few seconds, the only sound’s the peppy Nintendo music echoing in from the next room.

Finally, Bruce drags fingers through his hair. “I don’t do much criminal law, but I don’t think he can formally request the files without—”

“He can’t,” Jessica breaks in with a nod. Her hair falls back into her face, and she pushes it away hastily. “It’s just like I said: a courtesy visit. He’d need to either involve Union County law enforcement or get a subpoena if he wants them the formal way, and the fact that he rolled up with coffee and a smile means he knows he can’t get either.” She leans her head against the cabinet again. “I told him that I’d need to staff the decision with my supervisor. Which is bullshit, by the way. I already know her answer, and it’d involve at least three lewd comments about his parentage.”

Bruce snorts a little laugh at that. “Maybe he just wants to be thorough,” he suggests. When she narrows her eyes, he shrugs. “I’ve worked with Logan at least a dozen times, Jessica. He’s not the kind of detective who lives to throw people under the bus.”

“And he’s not the kind of detective you trust further than you can throw, either.” He glances back down at his coffee, and she sighs. “You said yourself you had a bad feeling when he and Munroe showed up to interview Teddy that one night,” she reminds him, and he nods unevenly. “And Munroe came to the funeral, which isn’t exactly standard operating procedure.” She turns her mug around in her hands, her expression slowly softening. “I’m an investigator too, Bruce. I know when something’s not right.”

He presses his lips together. “And something smells fishy to you?” he asks quietly.

“No,” she admits, “but it’s starting to. And that’s why I’m worried.”

There’s another all-out pillow war in the living room a few seconds later, and Bruce excuses himself to referee—only to be dragged down into the fray by his belt loops. He ends up sprawled on the couch, scrabbling for purchase as he half-falls into Tony’s lap, and by time they’re all red-faced and panting, MarioKart’s forgotten. Bruce’s conversation with Jessica is forgotten, too, looming like a far-distant thunderhead as the three children (and one childish adult) traipse into the kitchen for cookies.

Tony squints at Jessica as Miles digs into the fridge for the milk. “Are you here to steal our children?” he asks.

She rolls her eyes. “Depends. Any new lies for me?”

Even with his head stuck in the fridge, Miles’s snorted laugh sounds painful. Tony mimes kicking him in the rear before he steals Bruce’s coffee mug out of his hand. “Not today, but it’s still early. I’ll work on it.”

Jessica, it turns out, likes cookies as much as Amy, Teddy, and Miles do.

Later, once she’s driven away with three Oreos “for the road” and Amy’s sung MarioKart tunes in her bath, Teddy helps Bruce corral her into her bedroom. “You know, you never told me what you did with tu mama,” Teddy informs her, his accent so dismal that she giggles as she tugs wet hair out of the back of her pajama shirt. He grins in response, poking her lightly in the nose, and she swipes at his finger. “That’s a real question, you know.”

“In real bad Spanish,” she retorts loftily. He pulls a face, and she flops back onto the bed. “Even Miles knows more Spanish than you.”

“Because Miles’s mom spoke Spanish. He was born with an unfair advantage.”

“Yeah, and you’re still a million years older than him, so you had more time to practice,” Amy retorts, and she shrieks with laughter as Teddy plants a knee on the bed to start tickling her.

From the doorway, Bruce smiles.

Tony and Miles are still lingering downstairs, engaged in another part of the elaborate “Dad Time” scheme Tony’d hatched early that morning. “First we run errands, then we play video games, then we take over the world,” he’d explained in bed, his body still curled against Bruce’s and his lips close to the back of Bruce’s neck. Bruce’d rolled his eyes, but not without smiling. “Because if he’s left to his own devices, he’ll turn bored and moody—and if he runs around with Ganke, well, that’s not really teaching him much about appropriate behavior while on suspension, now is it?”

“Given that it’s Saturday, I’m not sure he’s still suspended,” Bruce’d reminded him.

Tony’d snorted. “You’re so hot when you’re pedantic,” he’d deadpanned, and pinched Bruce’s bare hip when Bruce’d laughed.

Bruce suspects that, as of right now, “Dad Time” involves zombie video games and shouting, but he can’t be sure over the sound of Amy’s screaming giggles. She wriggles out of Teddy’s grip and then off the bed, her pajamas skewed and her hair stuck in her face. “Bruce’s home base!” she announces, and practically tackles Bruce into the hallway as she grips him around the waist.

He laughs—a bright, unexpected sound that surprises even him—and plants a hand on the back of her head. “Bed,” he says. She glances up to pout at him, and he raises his eyebrows. “You won’t answer Teddy’s questions, so clearly, it’s time for bed.”

“We went to church,” Amy blurts, a non sequitur that leaves Teddy snickering as he flops back on her bed. She twists around to glare at him. “We did. They have Saturday church, so we went to church and sung the songs.”

Teddy props himself up on his elbows and grins. “And then?”

“And then, we went to her special house where we ate snacks and played games.” She tosses a glance in Bruce’s direction. “She got Connect Four and that one where you take the pieces out of inside the man.”

“Operation?” Bruce guesses.

“Yeah. I didn’t like that one.”

“Your mom should get Guess Who,” Teddy suggests. Amy shrugs, her death grip on Bruce’s waist loosening as she gazes over at her brother. Well, not her actual brother, Bruce reminds himself, but by the time the thought solidifies, Amy’s climbing back on the bed to let Teddy brush the tangles out of her hair. Teddy’s gentle, continuing the conversation while carefully working out the knots, and Bruce pretends he’s not listening in as he putters around and picks up Amy’s various dirty clothes.

“Dot says her daddy brushes her hair a hundred times like a princess,” Amy reports at one point.

Teddy snorts. “I don’t think Dot’s telling the truth,” he replies, and the look Amy shoots him is so hateful than even Bruce can’t hold back his grin.

The teen’s on brush-stroke seventy-nine when his cell phone rings, and the smile that blooms over his face when he checks the caller ID is brighter than the sun. “It’s Billy,” Amy teases, giggling, and Teddy pushes her over onto the bed as he stands. He gestures toward the door, Bruce nods, and away he goes, disappearing down the stairs while he greets his boyfriend with a breathless hey.

Amy tips her head up at Bruce and beams. “Billy spent the whole day helping his parents with some special thing and they didn’t even get to send texts,” she reports.

“Tragic,” Bruce intones, and her thousand-watt smile only grows as he takes the brush for the remaining handful strokes.

(Amy counts every last one.)

By the time Teddy’s off the phone, Amy’s curled up with Joey, her breath soft and even as she drifts off to sleep. Bruce knows this because he lingers in the hall, watching her face in the glow of the butterfly nightlight so intently that he misses the sound of Teddy climbing the stairs. “She asleep?” he asks, and Bruce flinches like he’s a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar.

From the top of the steps, Teddy smiles. “I did that sometimes at Ed and Sylvia’s,” he admits. “Other families I stayed with had little kids and everything, but Amy— I always worried she might break without somebody to check up on her.”

Bruce forces a small smile, but his cheeks still feel warm as he closes Amy’s door. “Our niece is a fearless ball of bossiness and sass, and Miles is just Miles.” Teddy huffs a quiet laugh, and Bruce shakes his head. “I forget about other children—or even how Miles used to be when he first moved in with us.”

“Scared and sad?” Teddy asks. When Bruce blinks at him, he shrugs. “Miles talks a lot about when he first moved in here. I know he’s kind of a pill right now—I think he knows that—but you kind of changed his life.”

Bruce drops his eyes to fiddle with his watch. “He changed ours, too.”

“Maybe you’re just like that. Life changers.” There’s something so warmly genuine in Teddy’s voice that Bruce can’t quite ignore it, but when he glances up, Teddy’s staring at his own sock-covered feet. “Anyway,” he says, clearing his throat, “Billy wanted to go to the mall tomorrow. Have lunch, spend some time at the movies or whatever. He can’t get his mom’s car, so you’d have to drive me, but—”

His voice softens, starting to trail off, and Bruce smiles. “Happily,” he answers, and Teddy jerks his head up. He looks so surprised that it briefly knocks the breath out of Bruce’s lungs. “We’re acting as your parents,” he says when he remembers how to breathe. “The least we can do is drive you to and from your dates.”

Teddy’s face immediately flares red. “It’s not a date, it’s just lunch and a movie. Normal stuff.”

“You know, I used to say that about my lunches with Tony,” Bruce retorts, and Teddy laughs as they wander downstairs together.

 

==

 

That night, after the house is dark and quiet and their bedroom lights are lowered to a dim glow, Tony runs his fingers along Bruce’s chest. He’s straddling Bruce even now, when he’s still sweat-sticky and red-faced. His lower lip looks swollen, and Bruce resists the ever-present urge to stroke his thumb along Tony’s mouth.

“Even if it’s worse than just a fire,” he says, his voice still rough and raw from open-mouthed panting. “Even if it’s foul play, or arson, or space aliens, even if Howlett gets ahold of the files and finds out every one of these kids’ dirty little secrets, nothing changes. Nothing’s different. It’s still us and our kid and these other kids versus the universe.”

Bruce releases a tiny breath as he shakes his head. “You said forty minutes ago you wanted me to ‘distract you out of rational thought,’” he teases.

“And you blew more than my mind, so I think you succeeded,” Tony retorts, and this time, the breath that escapes is a barely-contained laugh. Tony grins, a flash of warmth in the cool night, and spreads his fingers across the plane of Bruce’s chest. “This whole sticky ball of misery is what it is,” he says, “but that doesn’t change who we are—or what we do.”

When Bruce reaches up to cup his neck, Tony tips into the touch, beautiful even in the limited light. “We don’t know how bad it might be,” he reminds Tony gently.

“And that’s never stopped us before,” Tony replies, and he threads his fingers in Bruce’s hair before leaning down to kiss him.

 

==

 

The next afternoon, Teddy glances up from his very serious study of his lunch and presses his lips together. “Can I ask you something?” he questions, his eyes steady and serious.

Bruce frowns. The waitress stops by for a moment to leave them their drinks and straws—soda for Teddy, iced tea for Bruce—and Teddy offers her a smile that disappears the second she steps away. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just . . . ” He trails off with a shrug and picks at his straw paper. “It’s not important.”

“Clearly, it is,” Bruce replies, and closes his own menu.

Bruce’d planned to spend his Sunday afternoon marking law school essay exams at a pancake house or a coffee shop, somewhere away from Tony and all three children. Tony’d laughed when he’d said it early that morning, his grin gleaming in the early morning light. Maturely, Bruce’d shoved his shoulder until he’d flopped onto his back.

“I’m sorry that I find it adorable that you think you can spend a few hours without some child-or-dog-related disaster breaking your concentration,” he’d said. He’d leaned over to kiss Bruce’s shoulder, and Bruce’d rolled his eyes. “It’s sweet. Very— What’s that book Dot likes with the mama elephant who wants a bath?”

Five Minutes’ Peace,” Bruce’d replied with a sigh.

“Right. It’s like that.” Tony’d reached over to card fingers through Bruce’s hair, and Bruce’d elbowed him again. “It’s not our fault we miss you like the plague when you’re gone.”

“I don’t think people generally miss the plague.”

“A rash, then. Or, I don’t know, the sun.” Tony’d paused, his face crinkling in thought. “Isn’t that a song? ‘Ain’t no sunshine when my very serious law professor husband’s gone?’”

“Sing that in the shower, and your serious law professor husband’s never returning,” Bruce’d informed him, and Tony’d muffled his laughter by pressing his face into Bruce’s arm.

But he’d also helped steer Bruce out the door a few hours later, armed with his bag, a handful of red pens, and a fifty-dollar bill. “In case somebody thinks the hobo professor lacks an appropriately attentive sugar-daddy,” he’d joked, and kissed Bruce a little too possessively on the doorstep.

Bruce’d finished half the stack before Teddy’d called for a ride home from the mall. And since Bruce’s stomach had started grumbling on the drive back to the house, lunch at a nearby restaurant’d seemed like a good idea.

Now, Teddy stabs ice cubes with his straw and refuses to meet Bruce’s eyes. Bruce allows him a few minutes of silence, squeezing lemon into his tea and adding a half-packet of sugar, but still, the teen stares at the carbonation in his glass like they hold the secrets of the universe.

“Is this about whatever happened with Billy?” Bruce asks gently.

Teddy jerks his head up, his eyes wide with surprise—and with worry. “How’d you know something happened with Billy?”

Bruce tries desperately to stand on the edges of his smile, but he feels his laugh lines crinkling. “You called for a ride three hours earlier than planned and refused to look at me in the car,” he replies, and Teddy drops his eyes back to the tabletop. “Clearly, something happened.”

“Yeah, well,” Teddy mumbles. He reaches up to toy with one of his earrings—he’s wearing more than when Bruce met him, now, all of them gleaming silver and, according to Billy, all of them borrowed from America Chavez. “Billy’s just— He can be a lot, sometimes.”

Bruce chuckles. “Like Tony can be a lot?”

Teddy snorts. “No, I mean ten times worse than Tony, because at least Tony’s fun about it,” he replies, but there’s a tiny hint of laughter in his tone, too.

The waitress returns for their orders just then, her pen poised at the ready, and Bruce delays her by picking an appetizer at random. Teddy wrinkles his nose at the concept of stuffed mushrooms, and Bruce grins. “We can always take them back to the house for Miles.”

A look of abject horror flashes across Teddy’s face. “Miles likes stuffed mushrooms?”

“Miles likes food,” Bruce corrects, and finally, the teen laughs. His grin’s bright and warm, almost reminiscent of when he’d thanked Bruce and Tony for his birthday cake, and Bruce feels his stomach start to clench. He ignores it to reach for his iced tea. “For the record, you can always ask me anything. I can’t promise that I’ll answer—or that the answer’ll be a good one, or what you want to hear—but I’ll try. And, as a bonus, Tony’s not here, meaning you don’t have to suffer through his editorial comments and creative ‘corrections.’”

Teddy laughs at his finger quotes. “I think you love the corrections.”

“Actually, the corrections are one of the few things about Tony I don’t love,” Bruce retorts, and he only realizes how easily the sentence’s fallen from his mouth when Teddy’s grin brightens.

A massive party wanders into the restaurant just then—at least two families with small children—and Bruce glances down at his menu as he waits for Teddy to chime in again. When the teen’s quiet for longer than a few seconds, Bruce raises his head to find that he’s watching the strangers settle into their seats. Among the adults are two men in their early twenties, obviously a couple. One slings his arm around the other’s shoulder, leaning in close, and his partner laughs.

Bruce smiles at that and ducks his head back down to his menu.

It’s when the chaos dips to a dull roar that Teddy murmurs, “How’d you let people know you’re gay?”

It’s soft enough that Bruce almost misses it, and when he glances up again, he finds Teddy staring at his soda. With his head dipped and his eyes half-hooded, he looks frightened, almost lost. The longer Bruce studies him, the younger he looks, a little boy trapped in a man’s body.

Bruce sips his tea before answering, “Technically speaking, I’m not gay.”

Teddy frowns as he lifts his eyes. “But you’re married to Tony.”

“And Tony’s not the first person—of either gender—I’ve dated.” Teddy’s brow tightens, but Bruce just stirs his tea. “My last long-term relationship before Tony—a long time before him—was with a woman I went to graduate school with. And before Betty, I dated a guy I met in my college dorm.” He shrugs slightly. “Tony jokes a lot about how I’ve left a string of broken-hearted bar hookups in my wake, but mostly, I’ve just dated my friends.”

The corner of Teddy’s mouth quirks up into a tiny smirk. “Like Tony?”

Bruce smiles as he nods. “Like Tony. I’m guessing Miles told you the whole story?”

“Mostly about your shotgun wedding, but yeah,” Teddy replies, and Bruce rolls his eyes at the laughter in his voice. “That’s not a bad thing. Billy’d kill me if I ever tried something like that, but the fact you loved each other hard enough to dive right in . . . ” He shakes his head a little as he reaches for his soda. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

“It’s more that I found myself caught up in Hurricane Stark with no outlet,” Bruce retorts. Teddy scowls at him, and Bruce chuckles at his disapproval. “Not that I mind. I sometimes think my whole life was building toward Tony. Even when Betty and I were at our best, I don’t know if I ever imagined much of my future, but with Tony—” The words tangle together, and Bruce realizes abruptly that he’s toying with his wedding band. He forces himself to fold his hands. “Tony’s a force of nature.”

“Or the baron from a corny romance novel.”

Bruce immediately frowns. “Never say that where he can hear you,” he warns, and Teddy bursts out laughing.

This time when the waitress returns for their orders, they cobble together quick, nonsensical answers; Teddy accidentally orders double French fries until she gently corrects him, and Bruce asks her to add chicken to a chicken Caesar salad. They laugh at one another, Bruce lightly swatting Teddy in the arm with his menu when he bleats out a subtle chicken sound, and the waitress grins at them as she wanders away.

Once she’s gone, though, Teddy starts stirring his soda again. “Billy and I met when I was staying at the shelter here in town,” he says after a few long seconds. “My last foster family in Union County were pretty okay, but I’d kind of use their computer to, uh, look at some pictures, and long story short, ‘pray the gay away’ is still a thing some people believe in.”

His red-faced embarrassment—shame, Bruce realizes, shame that stretches from his collar to his hairline—causes a spike of anger to climb up out of Bruce’s stomach. He tightens his jaw reflexively, and Teddy immediately notices.

“It’s okay,” he says, waving a hand. “It sucked at the time, but Jessica pulled me out as soon as I called her. Better I found out before I really started to like them, and anyway, there are worse places to live than the shelter.”

For a moment, Bruce thinks of the crowded, now-demolished orphanage in Union County, with its rickety bunk beds and peeling off-white paint. Even now, the smell of the lemon disinfectant haunts him. “Right,” he murmurs, shaking his head.

Teddy nods and curls his straw paper around his index finger. “I had to change schools in the middle of fall semester,” he continues with a tiny shrug. “I didn’t have any friends, didn’t really know how to make them, was still screwed up from moving to a whole new place with my one bag of crap. And there was Billy, this nosy, grinning kid in my Spanish class, and he kind of changed everything.” His smile suddenly creeps into his eyes, and Bruce feels some of his own worry start to uncoil. “I knew—or I think I knew—I was gay way before then, but meeting him still kind of hit me like an asteroid. And Billy, he figured it all out when he was still in diapers, because as weird as he can be about stuff, he never doubted me.” He pauses to purse his lips. “Well, us. He doubts me all the time, but he never doubted us together.”

He falls quiet for a few seconds, sipping his soda before he returns to playing with his straw paper. Bruce raises his eyebrows. “Is there a ‘but?’” he asks.

Teddy grins, but the warmth fades quickly. “Billy’s got the most supportive parents in the universe,” he explains softly. “They’re psychologists and totally open minded. If they’d started having kids now instead of sixteen years ago, they’d be the people you hear about on the news who wait for their kids to reveal their gender or whatever.” Bruce bites back a chuckle at that, and Teddy finally raises his head. “Billy told them about us pretty quick,” he continues, slouching back against the booth. “We’d barely been doing anything more than kissing in the movie theater, but he couldn’t keep it to himself. And they were so great about it. They invited me to dinner, they involved me in all of this family stuff— They offered to be my foster parents if I wanted.” He drags fingers through his already mussed hair. “And because of how great they are, Billy wants to be out and open to everyone. He wants us to join the gay-straight alliance at school, he convinced his parents to take us to Pride but then I was on vacation with the Pierponts that weekend, he just—” Teddy sighs. “He wants.”

Bruce nods for a moment. “And you don’t?”

“It’s not that I don’t, it’s just—” Teddy raises his hands in a helpless half-shrug ad casts his eyes up at the ceiling. “Billy’s never been kicked out of anything,” he finally says, voice quiet, “so he’s never learned to be afraid of it happening. And I don’t think he can imagine how it feels to be on the other side, to know that there are people out there who’ll toss you out for thinking or feeling or loving wrong.” He glances back at Bruce. “You know?”

His face is so open, so young and vulnerable, that for a moment, Bruce forgets that the broad-shouldered boy across from him is sixteen, old enough to drive a car and enroll in AP classes. Instead, he’s really just a boy, blue-eyed and terrified, and Bruce’s heart stutters. He remembers dozens of boys like Teddy in his time at the orphanage, and dozens more in Judge Smithe’s courtroom.

And others, he reminds himself, in his own home, huddled in the guest room and waiting for somebody else to pick them up and bring them home.

He glances at his tea and, after a time, shakes his head. “Tony never worries about what people think either,” he admits. “He wears it like a badge of honor. Me, on the other hand, I—” The words stick in the back of his throat, and he shakes his head. When he raises his eyes, though, he discovers that Teddy’s frowning.

He blinks. “What?”

Teddy shakes his head. “Nothing, really. It just kind of surprises me, I guess.”

“It surprises you that Tony doesn’t care about what other people think?”

“No, that you do.”

Bruce snorts, nearly rolling his eyes as he reaches for his tea. “I didn’t grow up the heir to a whole business kingdom with a brilliant brain as my failsafe.” Teddy’s face softens then, and Bruce sighs as he leans his elbows on the table. “I grew up with fear, too,” he says quietly. “I worried that I’d be sent away, that I’d disappoint people, that I’d end up like my father . . . After enough loss, it’s normal to be afraid. And it’s normal to believe—wrongly—that all the good things in life will pass us by.”

Teddy bites his lower lip, his eyes searching Bruce’s face. The happy family at the row of pushed-together tables laughs suddenly, and Teddy glances away to watch them—at least, until the two men kiss briefly. He ducks his eyes away, then, his ears reddening.

“You told people eventually, right?” he asks, and Bruce blinks at him. “About being bi.”

“Eventually, and when I was ready to. Which is the most important part.” His mouth kicks up in an involuntary smile. “Except, of course, when everybody knows your secret before you know it.”

Teddy’s face bursts into a grin. “Tony again?”

“According to our friends, we were the last ones to realize what was happening between us.” Teddy laughs, the sound bold and bright, and Bruce can’t help grinning back. “In my experience, the people you care most about tend to figure out your secrets even when you don’t tell them. Sometimes, they even figure them out first. But there’s no shame in waiting to tell the world until you’re ready for the lumps and the consequences.” He shrugs slightly. “I did.”

“And then you got married,” Teddy teases.

“In that exact order, yes,” Bruce replies, and the teen grins at him.

The stuffed mushrooms arrive shortly after that, and the conversation devolves into Teddy’s tale of the worst mushroom pizza of all time. Bruce laughs hard enough at Teddy’s emphatic gestures and ridiculous expressions that he almost snorts tea, and by the time their entrees arrive, they’ve shared a half-dozen stories about their worst food experiences.

Bruce’s halfway through his salad when Teddy—already finished with his burger and most of the way through his fries—rolls his lips together for a few beats too long. “If you’re going to ask me for my leftovers,” Bruce warns, and he smiles when the teen laughs. At least, until something nervous flits across Teddy’s expression. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he says, and rolls his eyes when Bruce cocks his head to one side. “Really. I just— Well, look. I’ve lived in a lot of foster homes, enough that nothing should surprise me anymore, but meeting you and Tony, and moving in with you guys . . . ” He trails off briefly, his hand running through his hair. When he meets Bruce’s eyes, his expression’s so open and warm that Bruce can’t ignore the way his stomach twists itself into a knot.

They stare at each other for a beat too long before Teddy shakes his head. “I didn’t expect you both to be as good as you are,” he finally says. “Not just at being parents, but as people.”

For one, painful second, Bruce’s heart climbs into his throat, and the only thing he’s able to do is offer Teddy a limp, one-shouldered shrug. “I’m not sure we’re good all the time,” he says after too long, “but I know we try.”

“You do more than try,” Teddy replies, and when he steals a chunk of chicken off Bruce’s plate, Bruce laughs.

 

==

 

“I’m not entirely sure how it started,” Principal Behrens explains as she leads Bruce down the hallway, her bangles clicking as she gestures helplessly. “To hear the recess monitor tell it, Amy was fine one second and inconsolable the next. She flat-out refused to talk to any adults.” She shakes her head and sends Bruce a slightly hunted look. “I’m so glad you were available.”

“Luckily, I don’t handle hearings on Mondays,” Bruce replies, and Behrens forces an uncertain smile as she leads him into the front office.

Unlike Castle Rock Middle School in Union County, Edison Elementary on the east side of town is a brand-new building, the tile sparkling and the paint gloriously unchipped. Bruce surveys the scene as he signs into the office, studying the bright pillars of citizenship that are painted onto the wall as he accepts his visitor’s badge. There are photos of students hanging under each pillar, along with tiny blurbs about their various good deeds.

“We try to celebrate when they do good,” Behrens says, and Bruce blinks over to her. She’s young and pretty, in khakis and yellow-gold blouse. She smiles warmly as she nods toward the pillars. “Their teachers or classmates can nominate them. They come in, have their picture taken, get a book of their choice. At the end of the school year, we pick one representative for each pillar and recognize them during the promotion ceremony for the fifth graders.”

Bruce forces a smile. “That sounds nice,” he replies, but there’s no enthusiasm in his voice. Behrens hears it, too, her lips pursing, and Bruce pulls his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I’m just worried about Amy.”

“Understandably,” the principal says with a nod. She ushers him toward a narrow hallway. “This way.”

Each door is labeled with a name and title—Behrens’s office first, then ones with names Bruce’s never seen before—and he lets the letters run together in his vision and mind. He’d groaned when Jane’d announced that “the school” needed to talk to him, bracing himself for another solemn conversation with Daisy Johnson. Instead, Lilian Behrens had introduced herself with a worried sigh. “Doctor Banner, I am so sorry to bother you,” she’d said, her voice sticky with barely contained concern. “Jessica Jones is apparently in court today, and I need someone to come for Amy.”

Bruce’d choked on air. “Amy?” he’d asked, almost disoriented. “Is she okay? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Behrens’d replied in a rush. “She’s in with the school social worker, but she’s not interested in talking to anyone. She asked for Miss Jones, you, or your husband. Your name’s first after Jessica Jones’s on the emergency sheet.”

“And Tony’s in a meeting,” Bruce’d said. He’d already stood at that point, groping through the mess on his desk for his cell phone. Phil and Fury’d dragged Tony in for a discussion about the pending appellate case—the sticky, secretive one Tony keeps playing close to his chest—a half-hour earlier, and Bruce’d known from the silence that they were nowhere close to finished. He’d shouldered his office phone as he opened a new e-mail. “I’ll be there in twenty, if not sooner.”

“I’ll meet you at the front doors,” Behrens’d said, but Bruce’d hardly heard her in his haste to send a text to Tony and find his keys.

It’s twenty minutes later, and Tony’s still not responded.

The school social worker’s office is the last in the hallway, and Behrens shakes her dark curls as she places a hand on the doorknob. “The lunch monitors didn’t notice she was crying until one of the younger girls pointed it out,” she explains, catching Bruce’s eyes. “We tried separating them, but she insisted on staying with Amy until Amy calmed down. I didn’t want to force the issue.”

Bruce nods. “That’s fine.”

The principal smiles ruefully. “It might not be when you meet the other girl,” she says, but she opens the door anyway.

Unlike the other offices along the hallway, the social worker’s office is brightly painted and friendly, with light filtering in through the windows. Most of the tile floor is covered in a thick rug, and there’s a variety of toys and games stashed on the shelves that line one wall. There’s an art easel, too, and a small table for a child to sit at—probably, Bruce thinks belatedly, for all the hard conversations the social worker and other school personnel have in this office. Amy sits at that very table, her head bowed and her shoulders jerking in small hiccups, and next to her—

Dot Barnes is rarely shy, but if Bruce’s learned one thing about her, it’s that she knows how to read a room. She slackens her grip around Amy’s shoulders and smiles quietly. “Hi, Uncle Bruce.”

Bruce thinks he hears Behrens squeak in surprise—or, at the very least, he hears her echo the word uncle—but he’s too focused on Amy to notice. Because the second the door opens, the girl’s out of her chair like a shot and rushing toward him, arms outstretched. He catches her roughly, almost stumbling, and she buries her face in his shirt. She’s shaking lightly, and Bruce—almost as a reflex and definitely without thinking—scoops her up.

“You’re okay,” he says, and she shoves her face against his neck. Hides, he thinks, and he cradles her head against him. She’s heavier than Dot, but still lighter than most seven-year-olds, and she smells like baby shampoo.

At the table, Dot’s explaining, “My fairy godfather got married to my Uncle Bruce.” Bruce turns to glance at her—and then, at a puzzled-looking Behrens. He raises his eyebrows at Dot, but she ignores him. “They got Miles after a little while, and now they have my new fairy godbrother, Teddy and his sister Amy.”

“Dot,” Bruce warns.

Dot crosses her arms over her chest. “It’s what happened.”

Amy sighs against Bruce’s neck, her tiny, distressed sounds starting to fade into steady breathing, and Principal Behrens forces a smile. He knows he owes her a long explanation, but he can’t bring himself to start right now, not as he’s slowly soothing Amy. “Why don’t I take Dot back to class, and you and Amy can—”

“Is Tony a fairy?” Amy asks suddenly. Her voice’s momentarily muffled against Bruce’s shirt and skin; when she raises her head, her eyes are wet but curious. “Dot’s a fairy godsister, but—”

“No, you’re the fairy godsister,” Dot corrects. There’s a note of stubbornness in her voice, and Bruce sends her another warning glance. “Tony’s a fairy godfather, and all the kids who call him daddy are fairies because he’s a fairy. Even before they call him daddy, because Miles only used to call him his name like you do.”

Amy frowns. “But—”

“It’s time for Dot to go back to class,” Behrens informs both girls. She holds out a hand toward Dot, who leans back further in her chair. “If you hurry, you won’t have to miss art. Your dad says that’s your favorite.”

“Is Uncle Bruce taking Amy back to work with him?” Dot asks. When Behrens’s expression hardens slightly, the girl whips her head in Bruce’s direction. “Are you? Can I go with? Daddy said next time we have a day off, I can come to work, but if you’re taking Amy—”

Bruce narrows her eyes at her, and this time, she wilts a little. “You need to go back to class,” he tells her, sterner than he ever is with his one-and-only pseudo-niece. “Because if you don’t, either Principal Behrens or I will have to call your dads, and then—”

Dot heaves a sigh. “Fine, but I have to hug Amy first,” she says, and finally pushes her chair away from the table. Amy releases her grip on Bruce enough that he can set her back down. They girls cling to each other and whisper secrets while Bruce rubs his temple.

“I’m sorry,” he tells the principal.

She smiles tightly. “We’re quite used to Miss Barnes at this point,” she promises, and a few seconds later, she leads Dot out of the room.

The door closes heavily behind them, shutting Bruce and Amy in the silent, sunny room. Amy leans her head against his hip for a moment, but she focuses on her shoes instead of up on his face. “Hi,” she says quietly.

He strokes a hand over her hair. “Hi.”

“Miss Behrens said Tony had work and only you could come.”

“That’s true.”

Amy nods unevenly, her head bobbing under Bruce’s hand. She draws in soft, shallow breaths, still without glancing up. Something tight curls in the depths of Bruce’s belly, and before he even thinks about it, he’s crouching down in front of her and brushing hair out of her eyes. The helpless, frightened expression that flickers across her face nearly chokes him.

“What happened?” he asks after a couple seconds, and Amy shifts her weight from foot to foot. “Your principal said that you were crying at recess. Did someone pick on you? Did you get hurt?”

She shakes her head. “It happened before recess.”

“What did?”

“The lady with the funny hair came to talk to me.” Her eyes are damp again when she raises them, and he stops brushing hair from her cheeks to rest his hand on her arm. “She brought a man with a funny voice. They asked me a lot of questions, and I didn’t know the answer to any of them, and she kept writing things down—”

Her voice hitches, catching in the back of her throat, and Bruce forces himself to swallow. “Amy, honey, what lady?” he asks gently. His mind flips through all the people in Amy’s life—teachers, therapists, social workers, her mother, distant relatives, virtual strangers—but no one qualifies as the lady with the funny hair. The closest he comes is Darcy, and only because she’s started striping her hair with temporary dye on trivia nights.

Amy stares at her toes, and Bruce rubs his hand along her arm. “Amy,” he says, ignoring the thin note of dread in his own voice, “I can’t help you feel better if you don’t tell me who the lady is.”

For a few seconds, the girl stays silent. Her lips press into a tight, trembling line, and when she swallows, Bruce can hear it. She’s fighting against something—maybe tears, maybe fear, maybe both—and he briefly considers abandoning all his worry and just wrapping her up in a hug.

But then, she says, “The police lady with the white hair,” and rational thought races from Bruce’s body.

He feels the anger that charges through his veins, red-hot enough that his face flushes and his eyes widen, and within a half-second, he’s standing and pacing across the tiny office. He’s aware that Amy’s still standing there, staring at him, but more than that, he’s aware of the way his stomach churns. He curls his fingers into fists before running them through his hair; he rubs a hand over his face, but nothing helps the heat recede.

Ororo Munroe came to interview Amy at school. Without a parent, without a guardian, alone with “the man with the funny voice”—possibly Howlett, but more likely Kurt Wagner. And why not? Wagner’s a social worker, an easy in to “we didn’t break the rules” plausible deniability, someone to stand in as a parent while they picked apart Amy’s memories of the Pierpont’s house, of the fire, of—

“I’m sorry,” someone whispers, and Bruce only realizes that he’s still pacing, still fighting with the anger that’s rushing around in his gut and his mind, when he twists around. Amy’s crying now, her face damp and open, and every breath releases in a tiny pant. Bruce’s heart sinks like a stone, and suddenly all of that incandescent, barely contained anger fades into nauseating guilt. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to talk to them, and they started out nice, don’t be mad—”

“No, no, I’m not mad,” Bruce rushes to say. He somehow ends up on his knees in front of Amy, his thumbs carefully brushing her tears away. She flinches the first time he touches her, but not the second. Her whole body trembles. “You didn’t do anything wrong. They did. They shouldn’t have come, and I don’t— I couldn’t be upset at you, not about this.”

Amy sniffles and nods, but then she’s falling into his grip, her arms curling around his neck and clinging on tight. Bruce’s mind reels, filled with questions he can’t answer, but Amy’s shaking too hard for him to index them. Instead, he rocks her slightly, shushing her even as he wonders why Munroe visited her at school without either of her foster parents.

Without her foster parents or her social worker, he corrects, and he feels momentarily seasick.

“What do you mean, they interviewed our seven-year-old without anybody else present?” Tony spits. He’s stalking in circles in his office like an animal trapped in a too small cave, his hands frantic and helpless while Bruce massages his own forehead. Down the hall, Amy sits with Darcy and a box of crayons Bruce found in his bottom drawer, coloring; here, the room feels claustrophobic enough and suffocating enough that Bruce wants to scream. Tony’d started texting around the time Bruce’d corralled Amy into the car, but he’d been so focused on his thoughts and his own anger—never mind on the driving—that he hadn’t responded until he and Amy crowded into the elevator.

Tony’d greeted them in the hallway, his face bright with a grin until he’d noticed Bruce’s expression. When Bruce’d shaken his head, Tony’s face had fallen, and now—

“Somebody knows something, right?” Tony demands, dragging fingers through his hair. “Jess Jones, Jess Drew, someone knows why that silver-haired harpy and her lackey stormed into Amy’s school and—”

“Not a lackey,” Bruce cuts in with a shake of his head. Tony blinks at him, and he sighs. “Howlett wasn’t with her. It was Kurt Wagner.”

“Kurt?” Tony repeats. His brow furrows as he presumably flips through his mental rolodex to find the name. “The social worker with the accent? Skinny jeans every day of the year?” Bruce nods, and Tony scowls. “What the hell is Deutschland Über Alles doing interviewing a kid out of a different county?”

“I don’t know,” Bruce replies. Tony’s mouth pops back open, probably armed with a dozen different questions, but Bruce quiets him with a shake of his head. “They blindsided the principal,” he explains, watching as Tony’s shoulders soften. “Told her they were asking routine questions and that Kurt could step in. Maybe it was innocent, I don’t know, but she never thought to turn them away.” He meets Tony’s piercing, even gaze, and his breath catches momentarily in his chest. “She didn’t think there was anything wrong with a few questions—or with Amy—until she started crying at recess.”

Tony’s head jerks in a nod before he starts pacing again, a hand dragging over his face as he twists away. Bruce presses his lips together, but there’s a thousand questions all rushing through his head, each one louder than the last. Kurt and Munroe know better than to interview a child, even informally, without her parent or an approved state agent present, and Munroe definitely remembers the conversation from when she and Howlett visited Teddy at the house. Why, then, would she sneak in behind their backs? Did she talk to Jessica? Did she plan on talking to Jessica? And then there was Howlett and his records request, the tense tone of the interview with Teddy all those weeks ago, the secretive nature of the investigation . . .

Bruce only discovers that he’s aired some or all of this aloud when he realizes Tony’s staring at him, his lips parted and his hands slack at his sides. There’s surprise on his face, but it’s not as sharp or strong as the worry—worry that mirrors the sinking feeling in Bruce’s own stomach. Bruce tries to shake his head, to shrug, to show some sort of disinterest, but he mostly feels like he’s on a roller coaster that’s about to plummet out of control.

“Something’s going on,” he says finally, and he knows from the way Tony’s expression hardens that he’s said exactly what his husband’s thinking. “Something is happening with the case, and nobody’s telling us.”

“Nobody’s telling anyone,” Tony corrects. When Bruce frowns at him, he glances away, like a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “Half the reason my meeting with Coulson and Fury went long was because I was trying to drop in some subtle hints about the Pierpont case, and let me tell you: the last time I was cock-blocked so hard, it was because our kid didn’t know how to knock and announce outside your bedroom door.” Bruce snorts a little at that, but Tony’s half-second grin never reaches his eyes. “If Fury knows something, it’s his new best-kept secret, because he’s not saying a word. Same as Steve, same as Hill, same as the clerk’s office—”

“You harassed the clerks about this?” Bruce blurts.

“You say harassed, I say happened to be down in the cafeteria at the same time they went to lunch and had enough change for a couple sodas.” Bruce’s jaw tightens, but Tony dismisses his obvious distress with the flap of his hand. “The important part’s not who I harassed about the case, it’s that nobody knows anything—or if they do, they’re not telling.”

Bruce sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as silence sweeps back over Tony’s office. There’s dozens more things he wants to say—angry curses and frantic, helpless questions among them—but the longer he stands there, the more he feels the fight seep out of him. Really, the fight’d seeped out the second Amy’d apologized for something out of her control, her tiny body quivering in his grip as he hugged her. Now, he feels empty and helpless in a way he’s not felt for months.

Maybe even a year, he thinks, and something deep in his heart starts to ache. Maybe not since that first time Miles cried in front of him, and stole a piece of his heart.

He considers saying that, too—admitting that, the longer Amy and Teddy stay in their home and their life, the more Bruce feels connected to them and wants to protect them—but he’s interrupted by Tony’s hands finding his hips. His fingers spider out and hold on tight, and Bruce leans forward into his grip. They press together, not quite hugging but close enough, Bruce’s forehead on Tony’s shoulder and Tony’s cheek against his hair.

“The more they keep from us,” Bruce hears himself say, his voice low and uneven, “the more I worry about what’s going to happen with the investigation.”

“You’re not alone in that,” Tony replies, and Bruce can’t decide whether that’s reassuring or not.

 

==

 

“Wait, Detective Munroe did what?”

There’s anger, real anger, in Teddy’s face and voice when the words burst out, and across the kitchen from him, Tony presses a finger to his own lips. Amy’s asleep in Teddy’s bedroom with Jarvis, the door propped open “in case I need you.” Bruce knows it’s a fitful, restless sleep because he’s watched her toss and turn for the last hour; part of him still wants to hover over her, but instead, he watches the color drain from Teddy’s face.

“They didn’t come to talk to you at school?” Bruce asks carefully.

Teddy shakes his head. “No,” he answers, “but I know what I would’ve told them if they did.”

They’re all already in pajamas, ready for bed, but the house still glows brightly as Tony, Bruce, and Teddy all linger in the kitchen. Even without checking, Bruce is certain that Miles is sitting at the top of the stairs, listening into the conversation below him. Briefly, Bruce thinks he should check, shoo his son up to bed, but then he watches Teddy drag big hands over his face to hide his worry.

Better to let Miles stay up a half-hour too late than to leave Teddy this way, he thinks.

Teddy releases a shuddering breath and casts his eyes up at the ceiling.

They’d survived most of the way through their normal nightly routine before Amy’d wilted like a flower in too much sun, climbing onto Tony’s lap on the couch and promptly falling asleep. Bruce’d tried not to watch them too closely as he helped Miles with a homework assignment and cleaned up the kitchen, but his eyes and attention’d kept drifting over to where Tony sat, stroking Amy’s hair with one hand and playing on his iPad with the other. Miles and Teddy had both needled for details about Amy’s day, but Bruce’d shaken his head. “Later,” he’d said, until the word’d transformed into a mantra.

Later-later-later, until Amy’d woken up with a gasp and immediately started crying. They’d only coaxed her back to sleep by tucking her in Teddy’s bed, surrounded by familiar smells and the comfort of Teddy reading her the tail end of a Doctor Seuss book.

Teddy’d made it through his goodnight call to Billy before he’d asked, again, what’d happened. Now, leaning heavily against the kitchen counter, he shakes his head. “Why would they bother her?” he asks, his voice low. It sticks in the back of his throat, and his eyes dart between Tony and Bruce. “She’s a little girl. She doesn’t know anything.”

“She’s a witness,” Bruce reminds him, and Teddy huffs out a bitter laugh. Bruce sighs. “I’m not happy about it either, but from the detectives’ standpoint, they’re doing their jobs or—”

“Or stalking us?” Teddy cuts in. There’s a sharp edge to his tone until Tony raises both eyebrows. A half-second flicker of regret crosses the boy’s face before he shakes his head. “Detective Munroe came to the funeral. She came here that one night. I think she’s talking to Miss Jones, because Miss Jones keeps asking if I know anything, and—”

“Do you?” Tony asks suddenly. Both Teddy and Bruce blink in surprise, but the other man just shrugs. “I’m not accusing anybody of anything—hell, I’m the last person qualified to do that—but if Munroe’s sticking her fingers in where they don’t belong, it’s because she’s expecting something to come crawling out of those holes.” He stares right at Teddy, unabashedly meeting his eyes. “What’s in the holes, Teddy?”

“How would I know?” Teddy demands, throwing up his hands. The anger flickers back across his face as he pushes away from the counter. “God, it’s like no matter how many times I tell the story, nobody believes me. Nobody believes that I was there, that I watched the house burn, that—”

The words crack in half just then, and he twists quickly away. Bruce shoots a tight look in Tony’s direction, but Tony shakes his head. There’s exhaustion on his face, creasing all the fine lines around his mouth and eyes. It ages him, and Bruce’s unsettled stomach clenches at the thought. Then again, he feels like the day’s aged all of them, Amy and Teddy included.

Teddy draws in a thick, shuddering breath, and Tony sighs. “Look, Teddy, we don’t know anything more than you do,” he says after few seconds. “We don’t know what Munroe and Howlett are up to, we don’t know how anything with the investigation’s going. We’ve got nothing. Up a very smelly creek without a paddle, you know?” Still turned away, Teddy nods unevenly. “And so, if Munroe bothered you at school, or if you’ve had conversations that we don’t know about that we can help you make sense of, we should at least pool those resources. Put all the pieces together.”

“Except I don’t.” Teddy’s words are more a whisper than anything else. When he shifts to face them again, his expression’s solemn and serious. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes. “I wish I did. I wish this’d all stop, you know? They’re gone, and nothing’s going to bring them back. The detectives should just leave it.” He glances momentarily at his feet. “They should leave us alone to bury Ed and Sylvia, not rip the pieces back open.”

“Detectives aren’t always too good at that,” Tony says. When Bruce looks over at him, he shrugs. “Maybe not just detectives. Maybe the past in general, what with its nasty habit of rearing its ugly head when you least expect it.”

“Something you know from experience, of course,” Bruce deadpans, and he snorts when Tony reaches over and pinches his hip. It’s all for show, but it’s the exact show that Teddy needs; a tiny smile crosses his face, and when he shakes his head, his eyes sparkle with something other than tears. He wipes his face again, and Bruce purses his lips. “Munroe might still come see you at school,” he volunteers, and Teddy nods again. “If she does, you should ask to call Jessica.”

“Or us,” Tony chimes in. His pinching fingers are hooked in the elastic of Bruce’s pajama pants, but the whole of his attention is on Teddy. “We’re not as cute, but we serve the same sort of purpose.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bruce murmurs, and this time, miraculously, Teddy laughs.

They send Teddy to bed a few minutes later, Tony squeezing his shoulder in something dangerously close to a hug. Bruce trails the teen into his bedroom under the guise of checking on Amy. It’s that, he supposes, or letting the worry choke him.

Teddy’s halfway through toeing off his socks when he pauses. He studies Bruce for a moment in the near dark of the bedroom. “Can I—” he starts, but his voice catches. When Bruce raises his eyebrows, Teddy opens his arms awkwardly.

Bruce smiles. “Amy just takes hugs when she feels like it,” he points out.

Teddy snorts. “Amy’s tiny and cute, so she can get away with it. Me, on the other hand . . . ”

He shrugs, the words slowly slipping into silence, and Bruce walks over to gather him up in a hug. The teen’s tall, easily taller than Bruce and built not unlike Clint or even Steve, but it still feels like Bruce is the one holding him. Offering him momentary protection from whatever the night might bring.

Like any good parent, he thinks, and he pretends his heart doesn’t stick in his throat.

When Teddy loosens his grip and steps away, it’s with a tiny, self-deprecating smile. “Thanks,” he murmurs.

Bruce smiles back. “You’re welcome,” he says, and squeezes Teddy’s arm.

He lingers only until Teddy’s curled up next to Amy in bed, stretched out like a barrier between her and the rest of the world. The house is quiet and still as he climbs the stairs, and the dogs barely lift their heads from their plush beds as he steps into the master bedroom. Tony’s in bed but not asleep, his cell phone still in his hand as he flips through some news site. He only sets it on the bedside table when Bruce spoons in close and buries his face in the back of his neck.

“He okay?” he asks after a few seconds.

Bruce sighs as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Miles?”

“Promised to deliver us an itemized list of his questions tomorrow morning, when he’s less likely to be in trouble for eavesdropping.” Bruce snorts at that, shaking his head, and Tony shifts just enough to glance back over his shoulder. “What about you, big guy? The worry going to eat you alive?”

They study each other in the dim glow of the still-unlocked cell phone, Tony’s eyes soft and steady. Finally, though, Bruce leans forward and presses his lips against Tony’s skin. “Not tonight. It might eat me alive later, but we’re good for tonight.”

Tony settles a short while later, his fingers linked with Bruce’s and his breaths low and steady.

Sleep’s much longer in coming for Bruce.