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Could Never Prepare You

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Bucky, of the three of them, does the best job of being just Teddy's Parent when he has to go to Teddy's school. That's usually the reason that he's the one who goes when the emergency call comes from the school, saying Teddy's been in a fight and needs to go home. On this particular day Steve and Sam are out of the country, so Bucky's on his own anyway.

As soon as he walks in, though, he can feel that this isn't just about his kid getting into a fight.

Teddy's had a few scuffles already. Kindergarten with regular kids is a big adjustment from daycare and preschool on campus at Avengers HQ. Bucky and Sam and Steve all agreed that Teddy had to learn to live in the actual world, so they're sticking out the adjustment period.

Teddy only turned five a week before the school year started, so he's the youngest kid in his class, but one of the tallest and easily the best-trained when it comes to fighting hand-to-hand. That combination--never mind having three dads, two of whom are Avengers and the other one of whom is Bucky--gets him into a lot of situations that remind Bucky of finding Steve in back alleys all over Brooklyn. Teddy talks his way out of a lot, which Bucky figures is Sam's influence, but he's a kid. Kids fight.

The principal doesn't think that's acceptable, so Bucky's not exactly her favorite person. He was braced for a judgmental look from her, but it's not just her. The whole walk to her office, every adult he passes is averting their eyes. The school nurse steps out of her office, just down from the principal's, sees him, and immediately goes back in and shuts the door hard.

Bucky's pretty sure he hears the lock turn.

He clenches his fists and forces himself to relax. There aren't any cops, so Teddy didn't kill anyone. There aren't any ambulances, so Teddy didn't do any serious damage. Whatever this is... maybe they'll have to put Teddy in a private school after all, but it's going to be fine. He just has to get to Teddy, get things straightened out enough for Sam or Steve or a lawyer to do the mopping up later, and get Teddy home.

When Bucky steps into the principal's office the first person he sees is the secretary, Lorna. He's chatted with her ruefully about his kid the last few times he's come in.

She's blotting her streaming eyes with the side of her hand.

Bucky breaks stride and stares. She looks up and stares back, her eyes horrified-wide, and then they fill with something like pity and something like guilt.

"Mister--Mr. Barnes," she says, her breath hitching nearly in a sob as more tears spill. She definitely called him Bucky last time he was here. "I'll--um--Teddy is--Teddy is--I'm so sorry, I'll just--"

Bucky closes his hands into fists again and nods sharply.

Lorna presses a button and says, "He's here."

Bucky hears Teddy's voice answer, a hurt, furious wail. "POP!"

Bucky doesn't think; he pushes through the swinging half-door that marks off the private part of the office. He's ready to shoulder through the principal's office door when it swings back.

All he sees then is Teddy, with a black eye, blood caked over his chin and his shirt torn half off, running toward him. Bucky darts in and swings Teddy up into his arms. He keeps going, jamming them into the back corner of the office where there's just enough room to stand behind a potted plant, a big solid desk between them and the door. Teddy wraps both arms around Bucky's left arm and frantically rubs the unhurt side of his face against Bucky's sleeve.

Bucky looks around for the principal, but Mrs. Edwards is in the doorway. When Bucky looks toward her she gives him nearly the same horribly apologetic look Lorna gave him and backs away, pulling the door shut behind her.

Bucky struggles out of the right side of his hoodie. He shrugs it down his left shoulder until Teddy notices and shoves Bucky's t-shirt sleeve up so he can press his cheek to the bare metal.

"Papa," he sobs.

He only calls Bucky that when he's being deliberately silly, these days, pretending to be a baby. This is no kind of play; he's clinging, shaking. Bucky can feel his own body wanting to shiver in sympathy. He holds himself steady with a conscious effort.

"Papa, papa--" Teddy tries to get out some other words, but they're mangled by his crying.

Bucky gives up on finding out what the hell happened until Teddy has settled down. Bucky slides down to sit and spots the circular indent in the carpet--normally this is in fact the potted plant's spot. Somebody moved the plant recently. Today, he thinks. For Teddy. So he could choose the safest spot in the room while he waited for his pop.

"Baby bear," Bucky murmurs, running his right hand over Teddy's brown curls. "I'm here, I'm here. It's all right now. You're safe--"

"YOU," Teddy wails, clinging harder.

Bucky rubs his back and considers.

Him, indeed. Every adult was telegraphing that there was something about him going on, and nobody seems to be mad at Teddy. Teddy obviously came off worse in the fight than he usually does, which means he went up against more kids, or bigger ones, or angrier--and they made Teddy upset enough to be no good at defending himself or getting away.

"Shh, shh, little bear," Bucky murmurs.

He realizes as he speaks them that the words are coming out in Russian now, but that's just as well. Teddy understands about five words of Russian, and медвежонок is one of them.

"Shh, hush, it's all right now."

Teddy goes on sobbing and clinging for a while, and when he starts to settle Bucky realizes he's going to have to find out what this is about. After he knows, he's going to have to somehow get out of here without killing anyone.

"All right," Bucky says, when Teddy's settled down to shuddering breaths interspersed with the occasional sob, resting heavily against Bucky's arm. "Tell me what happened."

Teddy's grip tightens at that--Bucky would be losing circulation if his left arm had any. Teddy shakes his head hard, frantic.

"It was about me?" he prompts, rubbing Teddy's back with his right hand.

"They were hurting you," Teddy wails, clinging tighter, and the penny starts to drop just as Teddy says, "they hurt your arm, it was all--all broken--"

Bucky goes absolutely cold as the image forms, perfectly vivid but grainy like a video that was copied a half-dozen times before it was digitized.

He barely recognizes his own perfectly level voice as he says, "Who was hurting me, baby bear? I was at home. I was doing the laundry."

"They had a--they said--" Teddy wails again and it sounds like I'm sorry.

Bucky has to hug him tight, tucking his chin over the crown of his son's head. He wraps his whole body around Teddy's small, suffering one.

He lets go when Teddy wiggles. Now that the words are flowing, he knows from experience, they won't really stop.

"They said they had a video of you and, and, and there's never videos--not like Dad and Sam, but they said it was you, and I wanted--I told them I wanted to see, I said I wanted to but they said no no I'm too little it's scary and only big kids can look and I said no I could, I said it's my pop and I wanted to see--"

"Oh, hell, pal," Bucky says under his breath. He kisses the crown of Teddy's head and then pushes him back enough to look him in the eyes. The left one is swollen, but not badly enough to keep it closed; that's something.

"They tricked you," Bucky informs him. "They tricked you on purpose to make you see something bad."

Teddy's face crumples, more tears streaming down, and Bucky wipes them away. He clears away the blood while he's at it, with the side of his right hand. "They were hurting you, Pop. They were--they were--why were they doing that?"

His voice goes baby-high, bewildered as much as hurt, and Bucky swallows back the easy, vicious answers.

There are about six video clips of him being abused by HYDRA that have ever escaped onto the internet; they get scrubbed if they hit a high-profile site, but they're never all the way gone, and there must be thousands of copies out there. Every so often one of them gets loose again. He's known for years that the clips are circulating.

Only one of the clips shows him with visible damage to his arm.

It also shows him being raped.

"What were they doing to me in the video?" Bucky asks, trying to put a little more natural expression into his voice. He needs to be calm for Teddy. He needs Teddy to know that he's okay now.

Maybe he didn't see the whole thing. Maybe it was just the arm, the stun batons. There's no audio on that one, so Teddy wouldn't have heard him screaming.

"They were making sparks on your arm," Teddy says mournfully, petting the bare metal of Bucky's shoulder. "But then they--they were--"

Teddy's face screws up to something between horror and bafflement. "It showed your butt, and they were--they were putting things in it."

"Yeah." Bucky draws the word out slowly, trying to quell the images, the disjointed flashes of sense-memory. "Yeah. I know."

"There was blood and they were hurting you, your arm was all broken," Teddy insists, his hand still on Bucky's shoulder. "And, and then one of those boys said when one of them put his penis in you it made a baby and that's how I got born from them hurting you and putting their things in your butt and it probably hurt you even worse when I was born--"

Bucky's jaw drops a little. That is... not a direction he expected this to take.

"But you said I was made from science," Teddy says, looking up at him pleadingly. The effect is more pitiful with the black eye, or maybe it just enhances his resemblance to Steve.

"Pop, you said. It wasn't from that, was it? From them doing that to you? I didn't hurt you when I was born, did I?"

"No, baby bear," Bucky says firmly, after a frozen second. "No. You never hurt me, it wasn't like that at all. You were made with a lot of science. From me and from Dad, that's why you're like both of us. That video was a long, long time ago, when Dad hadn't even been found yet. You didn't grow inside me. That's not how it works, only a woman can do that. We went and met the lady who carried you, remember?"

"But she's not my mom, I don't have a mom," Teddy recites, because he'd been fixated on that for the last six months and why should today be any different? "But they said you--they said--"

"No," Bucky repeats, hoping to skate by the whole thing without explaining why anybody was fucking him. "No, pal, it wasn't like that--"

"But they said Dad does that to you! They said Dad and Sam do that to you every night!"

Bucky has never seriously considered murdering children before, but it sounds like a reasonable option right now. If they're in the nurse's office, she'd better not have just locked the door, she'd better have it barricaded. She'd better be sneaking them out a window to be flown to Argentina to adopt new fucking identities.

"They said Dad and Sam hurt me?"

Teddy sniffs and nods, looking lost, "And I said they wouldn't but they said you're gay and you all sleep in one bed and that means at night when it's dark they do that, they, they rape your butt--"

"Whoa, no," Bucky says sharply. "No. Teddy--"

"But I heard you making noises in your room one time," Teddy wails. "But I didn't know they were hurting you, why would they hurt you--"

"No," Bucky repeats harshly, shaking his arm free of Teddy's grip so he can put both hands on Teddy's face, hushing him and holding him still.

"Teddy. No. No. They have never hurt me. They would never hurt me. Rape means hurting someone, it means doing something they don't want. Sam and Dad love me and they would never hurt me, and I love them and I would never hurt them."

"But you--but they were..." Teddy is crying too hard to speak again.

Bucky really, really wishes Sam were here for this instead of him. He doesn't even want to kill anyone now, he just wants to die himself so he doesn't have to know how much Teddy is confused and hurting because of him, because of what he once was. For all the ways he ever imagined HYDRA hurting his child, this one never crossed his mind.

But he's all Teddy's got today, and all Bucky's got is Sam's months-ago assurance that the right way to handle any questions Teddy asks about sex is to answer them simply and honestly, without more information than he's actually asking for. Bucky doesn't think Sam considered the possibility that Bucky was going to have to explain his own rapes to Teddy before he had a chance to tell him anything about normal sex, but here they are.

"Listen," Bucky tries. "You can do a thing in a nice way or a mean way, right? When I hug you, or when Dad or Sam hugs you--like when they get home from being away, you like that, right? You run right up to us and you want a hug?"

"But that's not--they were--"

"Shh, shh," Bucky says, dropping his hands to Teddy's shoulders.

"Just listen a minute. Do you like it when you run up to me for a hug and I hug you? Today, right, I walked in and you were scared and you wanted me, and I gave you a hug, and I held you, and that was what you wanted, right?"

Teddy sniffs and nods. As if reminded, he snuggles in against Bucky's chest, wrapping his right arm around Bucky's left shoulder. He works his hand up the sleeve of Bucky's t-shirt to tuck his fingers against the seam where metal meets flesh, the familiar old position. Bucky kisses the top of his head again and rubs his back.

"And if Dad or Sam had been here instead, it would have been the same, wouldn't it? You would want them to hug you, and they would, and that would be good."

Teddy nods slowly against Bucky's chest.

"But you didn't want Mrs. Edwards to hug you, did you?"

Teddy picks his head up enough to shake it hard, his fingers hooking tighter against Bucky's scars. Bucky doesn't bother to tell him to be gentle like Steve always does when he sees Teddy doing that; it really doesn't hurt.

"Right," Bucky says. "So Mrs. Edwards didn't hug you, because she understood that you didn't want her to. But if some stranger put their arms around you and held you still--that would be the same action as a hug, right? Arms around you, holding on. But it would be bad and mean, because you wouldn't want them to, and you would probably try to get away from them, and if they really held on they would probably hurt you."

"You hug Dad and Sam," Teddy reasons out slowly. "You like hugging them."

"Yeah, I do," Bucky agrees. "I wish they were here right now so we could both hug them."

"But they were putting things in your butt," Teddy repeats. He lets go of Bucky's shoulder and sits up to look at his face; this time he's definitely more confused and grossed out than upset. "That's not like hugging, that's--that would hurt, and it's dirty."

"Yeah, well," Bucky smiles wryly. "Sometimes, for grownups, if the person doing it is doing it in a nice way--uh, and if they wash up a lot first--if you want them to, sometimes it feels good. Not every night..."

Bucky realizes even as he says it that this is not the part he should be answering. Sorry, Sam.

"Because usually we're too tired. But sometimes, yeah, if that's what we want to do together, it feels good."

He does, at least, stop short of telling Teddy anything about who actually prefers to be on the bottom most often. Definitely something a five-year-old doesn't need to know about his dads.

Teddy's face is screwed up in disgusted bafflement. "But--Dad? And Sam?"

Bucky smiles wryly. "Sometimes, pal, yeah. It's a grownup thing, people's bodies change when they grow up, it feels different. And if anybody touches you in any way, anywhere, that you don't like, you know what to do, right?"

"Scream and hit and run away and tell a teacher and tell you and Dad and Sam," Teddy recites. "That's what I did. I screamed and I broke their phone and I, I--"

One more sudden, shaky sob escapes. "I told, I told what they did to you, I told--"

And now every adult in the school either has seen that video or has their own imagined version fresh in their minds when they see Bucky. Well, fine, as long as it means Teddy gets through this as unscathed as possible and those kids get punished for showing torture-porn to a five-year-old.

Although, Bucky realizes, feeling a little sick, the big kids in question are probably, what, eight years old? Nine? Somebody needs to be punished for showing torture-porn to them, Christ.

"But why," Teddy asks abruptly. "Why were they--is that--Pop, is that what bad guys do to people? Is that why, why--"

Bucky winces. He never realized until right now that they've never actually explained what it means that Steve and Sam go off and stop bad guys.

"Some of them, sometimes, yeah," Bucky says. "Bad guys got me for a while when Dad was lost, and they hurt me a lot of ways. That was one. They did it because they didn't care what I wanted. They thought I was--like a machine, a thing. But when Dad came back he found me, and he helped me get away from them, and he and Sam and Auntie Nat stopped them from hurting anybody else."

Teddy reaches up to touch Bucky's left arm again. "Because you--because your arm is metal? They thought you weren't--weren't really--"

Bucky realizes that someday he's going to have to tell his kid that the part of his pop's body that is the most comforting and familiar to him is the part HYDRA grafted onto him against his will.

Not today. That, at least, he doesn't have to do today.

"No, baby bear," Bucky says. "That's just the way bad guys think. They don't care what other people want. They hurt people."

Teddy scowls. "Those kids didn't care what I wanted. They tricked me and hurt me. They didn't care that those bad guys were hurting you, they thought it was funny."

"Well," Bucky says, biting back most of the things he could say about child sociopaths. Eight, nine years old. Kids. They wouldn't have really understood. "You broke their phone and got them in trouble, right?"

Teddy nods savagely, looking pleased with himself for the first time. God, he's Steve's kid in every bruised, defiant inch of his little body.

"Good," Bucky says. "Normally, we don't want you getting in fights at school, but it's not your fault if somebody tries to hurt you, okay? It wasn't--"

Bucky swallows. "It wasn't my fault when the bad guys hurt me, even though I hurt people because of it. And it wasn't your fault today. You were right to fight back. I bet when we tell Dad, he'll tell you just this once, that's exactly what an Avenger would've done."

Teddy beams, sniffing unselfconsciously and with no sign of more tears. "Can we call Dad and Sam now?"

Bucky rolls his eyes. "Not yet, pal. After school, two more hours. They're not done early just because you got sent home. We'll just about have time to wash your face and put some ice on your eye before they see you."

"It'll heal," Teddy sniffs. He runs his hand over Bucky's arm one more time and says, "Your arm's all better, right?"

"Yeah," Bucky says softly. "Yeah, baby bear, that was a long time before you were born. My arm's fine."

"Can we get pizza?" Teddy asks abruptly. "If I'm like an Avenger, did I do a mission? Then I get to pick food, right? Can we get pizza?"

Bucky closes his eyes and thanks everything in the universe that they've somehow made it through this alive.

"Sure, pal. We can get pizza."

Bucky's not thinking and makes the usual pizza order, which means enough for him, Steve, Sam, Teddy, and a satisfying quantity of leftovers to snack on later. It's six pizzas, and with delivery it's going to take more than an hour, which is fine because it's way too early to eat dinner anyway.

Teddy is smirking when Bucky puts the phone down, so obviously he's realized that this is going to be a four-day supply of pizza.

Bucky shakes his head but doesn't scold. Anything Teddy can be happy about right now is fine with him.

"Come on, baby bear, you interrupted my daily routine. You're going to have to help me out with it."

"Laundry?" Teddy asks, and Bucky stares for a second, and then remembers that he said that while Teddy was trying to explain--that he was doing laundry when they called him.

"Laundry's done for now," Bucky assures him. "You gotta come help me practice video games."

Teddy's eyes light up and he bolts toward the couch. "I'm gonna beat you!"

"I didn't even tell you what we're playing," Bucky calls as he follows. "What if I'm practicing something you've never even played, huh?"

"We should play Mario Kart," Teddy informs him, "and then I can beat you."

"Oh, is that how it is?"

Teddy just grins. Bucky pulls up Mario Kart and hands Teddy a wheel. Thank God he has enough bad days--and so does Steve, and so does Sam--that Teddy doesn't even notice the ways it's been modified from the standard game.

None of the options that electrocute other players are available, for instance. Bucky focuses on the screen and pushes away that image of sparks dancing along his broken arm.

Video games are useful on bad days, his doctors told him, back when he was in regular treatment. Especially after seeing something traumatizing, it's useful to see something else instead of letting the awfulness keep replaying behind your eyes. Video games make him focus and stay focused, instead of drifting back to the memory.

So he knows what to do for Teddy right now, and if none of this would have happened to Teddy if Teddy's pop wasn't this particular kind of damaged--well. He knows what to do for Teddy now, and that's what counts.

They've switched from Mario Kart to a puzzle game by the time Bucky gets a text-message warning from the gate that the pizza's coming. Bucky tries to leave Teddy to work on the puzzle, because he usually hates being interrupted. Teddy shuts off the game as soon as Bucky stands up, though. He tucks his hand into Bucky's pocket and comes with him all the way to the door.

This is going to be a problem, Bucky thinks, but he still has time. The phone call window is coming up, but it might have to be pushed today. Anything could be happening where Steve and Sam are; they don't leave the country for anything routine.

Teddy sits on his lap to eat pizza, and makes it through a slice of pepperoni as well as eating half of Bucky's slice with all the extra toppings in "can I try one little bite" increments before Bucky's phone buzzes again.

It's set out on the table, so of course Teddy sees it and sits straight up. "Dad and Sam!"

"Hold up," Bucky says, wiping his fingers before he reaches over and confirms that, yes, it's the text from Sam saying that it's okay to call. "Teddy, I have to talk to Sam and Dad about what happened at school today."

"I have to, too," Teddy says slowly. His eye is looking worse; they're still a few hours off from when it starts looking better. "I have to tell them. I told a teacher and I told you but I didn't tell Dad and Sam."

Bucky winces. "I know, pal. But I need to talk to them first, before you talk to them."

"But I was there," Teddy snaps, voice rising abruptly toward a shriek, all his upset rushing back. "I saw."

"I know, I know you did," Bucky says gently, swallowing the childish impulse to snap right back, I was there first, I got raped.

"I know you need to tell them, and I want you to, and they're gonna want to hear it from you. But I have to talk to them first, okay? You're the mission, I'm the briefing."

Teddy's thwarted anger collapses all at once, and he slumps against Bucky. He winds his fingers into Bucky's shirt, pressing his cheek against Bucky's shoulder.

"We're gonna go sit on the couch while we call them," Bucky informs him. This is not a time to offer too many options. "You're gonna put headphones on and play puzzles while I talk to them for a little while, and then when we're all ready to talk to you, we'll put them on the TV."

"I don't wanna play puzzles, I wanna talk to Dad and Sam," Teddy says, almost a moan.

"You don't have to play," Bucky allows. "But you have to have headphones on, and you can't look at my phone while I talk to them, not until we're all ready. Are you done eating, or do you want some more?"

Teddy shakes his head, burrowing into Bucky and keeping his face pressed to Bucky's shoulder. Bucky forces down the rest of his slice of pizza and then another one, and he picks Teddy up in his left arm when he stands. Teddy stays limp against him while he puts the pizza away; he doesn't move at all until Bucky sits down on the couch and lets go, and then he slides down to puddle miserably against Bucky's side.

Bucky offers him the headphones. Teddy hesitates one last stubborn second before he yanks them on. He picks up the controller, turning the game back on and going back to the puzzle he was playing before.

Bucky keeps his arm curled around Teddy and hits the button to call Sam. There's no way out of this but through, and no point hesitating.

"Hey!" Steve says eagerly as his face appears on the screen, grinning his Teddy-grin.

The expression evaporates at the sight of Bucky. To be fair, Bucky isn't really managing a smile of his own.

Sam leans into the frame already frowning. "Bucky? Everything okay?"

Bucky's brain flickers through a lot of ways he could answer, modes of response and words and images, but he knows what he needs to say. He practiced this. He keeps his voice fairly normal as he spits it out.

"Teddy's okay. Something happened at school today and I need to talk to you about it first."

Steve looks worried, Sam carefully calm. They know Bucky wouldn't be troubling them with something minor while they're away. They know it's bad.

Bucky tilts the phone so they can see Teddy--they won't get much of a look at his eye from that angle, so they won't freak out too soon about that part--and then turns it back to focus on himself. He wants them both here with a depth of hunger that's terrifying, and even more he wants them here with Teddy so he can--

He pushes those thoughts away.

"Some bigger kids got to Teddy on the playground," Bucky says. "Told him they had a video of me, made him want to see it. Made him beg them to show him."

Steve's eyes go wide, nakedly hurt for a second before he turns grim and quiet. Sam just looks down.

"And?" It's Steve who speaks, his voice clipped off tightly.

Bucky's starting to feel cold, and the thoughts that never entirely go away are rearing up. As soon as Steve and Sam come back, he can--he can--

His arm is still around Teddy, and Teddy nestles into him just then, a warm, trusting weight.

"Yeah," Bucky says. "It was, uh--it was video number four."

Steve stands up abruptly and disappears from the frame, and the image swings wildly before Sam steadies it, leaning in. His eyes are warm, full of anxious concern, almost too much for Bucky to look at.

"He saw at least a couple of minutes of it," Bucky reports. "Saw my arm, saw them shocking me. Saw the rape--blood, people fucking me, all of it."

Sam covers his mouth with his hand and closes his eyes for a second. Bucky comes totally unmoored without Sam looking at him. He says what's in his head even while he knows it's the wrong thing to say and he's not supposed to think it anymore and he doesn't really. The words just spill out, even while Teddy's weight is resting against his side, as much a part of him as the arm curled around him.

"I could leave," he says, and Sam's eyes flash open. "It won't make him forget, but I could just go, I could--I could get away from him so no one can use me to hurt him again, and I--after a while, he'll start to--"

The phone image swings again and Steve is back, looking furious.

"Stop that," he snaps. "Stop it right fucking now, Bucky. Don't you even talk about that, don't you dare."

Bucky feels Steve's anger like a punch to the center of the chest--like an impact that makes him steady himself, makes him set his feet and find his balance. He takes a short breath and nods. "Sorry, I just--"

"You're his father," Steve rolls on. "You'll always be his father. This wasn't your fault and you can't make it better by taking the person he loves most away from him right when he needs you."

Bucky opens and closes his mouth, wanting, stupidly, to insist that Teddy loves Steve and Sam just as much.

"Can you tell us some more about what happened?" Sam interposes gently.

Steve visibly calms himself, settling at Sam's side again. Bucky tilts his head to rub his cheek against Teddy's hair before he goes on. Teddy takes one hand off the controller and starts tracing along the seams of Bucky's arm with his fingers. Bucky glances up at the TV screen and sees that Teddy's still manipulating the puzzle one-handed.

"He was upset about my arm," Bucky says, keeping his voice level while Teddy's little fingers are feeling out each plate of his forearm. "And the kids who showed it to him, they used the word rape, which I--"

Bucky shrugs, ducking his head. "I think I kind of explained it to him, but it's probably gonna be one of those new words he tries out on stuff to see if it fits, so try not to overreact when he does. And they told him that we do that, that you fuck me, except I don't think they used that word at all, just rape, so he's gonna ask you about that. I told him it's not like that, we do stuff together that we like--"

"Did you tell him we don't fuck?" Sam asks, his voice very neutral again.

Bucky shakes his head. "I remembered what you said about talking to him about sex. No lying, even if it's awkward. So I just told him it's nice when it's people you want to do it with and bad when it's people who want to hurt you, and he sort of got it, but he was really worried that you guys hurt me in bed at night so--don't--don't--"

Steve's face goes shuttered and Bucky can't take it. It's the same expression Steve had all the time after the videos first came out. Bucky hadn't actually told Sam or Steve about this stuff before then. He hadn't remembered much of it--still doesn't, not in any way he can distinguish from nightmares or the images from the videos themselves--and it hadn't seemed more important than anything else HYDRA did to him.

Bucky shakes his head. "Steve, go punch your shield five more times or something. Maybe run around the block."

Steve walks away again, and Sam's eyes follow him far enough for Bucky to know that he hasn't actually left the room. After a second there's a muffled clang.

"Did he wrap his hand?"

Sam's eyes meet Bucky's with a sad smile. "Yeah, he's--he'll be okay. So you got to have the consent talk and the sex talk with Teddy all in one go."

"I probably fucked it up, I don't know," Bucky admits, and before Sam can correct him he amends it. "I mean--it was fucked up before I ever got a chance to talk to him, but--it's gonna be a mess for a while, he's gonna be freaked out about this. He--"

There's a flurry of dull clangs in rapid succession.

Bucky soldiers through it. "He also got told that the guys raping me got me pregnant and that's where he came from. I already told him that wasn't it, it was me and Steve and science and a surrogate."

Sam nods slowly. "You didn't tell him..."

"No," Bucky said shortly. "He doesn't--it's true that it had nothing to do with me being torture-raped, I'm not having the fucking... brainwashing talk and the--I don't even know what Steve's was, the medical consent nonexistent due to your doctor working for HYDRA talk. We can save that for when he's old enough to realize he was born before the helicarriers went down."

"So he's going to ask me if I raped you and got you pregnant," Steve says, sitting down. There's still a sock wrapped around his right fist, like he thinks he might need to get up and do some more punching. "And he's going to ask if we rape you, or each other, all the time, and--what else?"

Bucky shrugs his right shoulder. "Something I haven't thought of, probably, you know it's always some sideways thing. I told him they did it because they were bad guys and they didn't care what I wanted, and he asked if they thought I was a machine because I have a metal arm, and I just... told him no, that's not why."

Sam and Steve both nod, understanding what else Bucky didn't admit to. The conversation about the arm is definitely getting put off as long as possible.

"If you guys need more time before you can talk to him without scaring him, just... call us back when you're ready, we'll be here," Bucky continues. "I'd've called without him knowing so you could have some lead time, but I'm not going to be able to pry him loose anytime soon."

Steve is already shaking his head. "Buck, we can talk to him if he's ready to talk to us--if you're ready for him to talk to us."

For a second all Bucky really notices is Steve's confidence in making that statement for himself and Sam. He can see in every line of both their bodies that Sam is with him, that neither of them needed to even consider consulting the other on that answer. He remembers, distantly, that he and Steve were like that once. They knew each other, could rely on each other, with that unquestioned ease.

Then Bucky shakes his head. "I'm--I'm right here, Steve, I'm ready--"

"Bucky," Steve's voice is so gentle it stops him dead. It's not the kind of gentle he is with Teddy, the uncomplicated tenderness he has for someone tiny and defenseless. Steve only uses that tone on Bucky; it's the voice of the open hand offered to someone half-wild.

Bucky hasn't heard that one in a long time.

"You're doing fine," Steve says softly. "Bucky, you're doing so well right now. I'm so glad he has you for his pop."

Bucky shakes his head a little, feeling knocked right into some other year, but Teddy is sturdy under his arm--the solid shape of a little boy and not the fragile softness of a baby.

"And the thing you haven't told us at all," Sam adds, a little more briskly, "is how you're doing with this. We're worried about Teddy, man, but however upsetting he finds this, ultimately it's a scary thing that happened at school and ended with going home with his pop to cuddle on the couch. That's not what this is for you."

Bucky swallows and looks over at Teddy just in time to see him break into a huge smile. He looks up at Bucky and says, too loud because he can't hear anything, "Pop, look! Show Dad and Sam, I did it!"

Bucky looks up at the TV. Teddy has finally beaten that goddamn puzzle he's been stuck on for five days. He's only been trying it on and off, going sideways to others when he gets frustrated, but of course he's tried again and again and again.

Bucky turns the phone to show Sam and Steve the TV screen, smiles and makes a thumbs up with his left hand in front of Teddy before giving him a little squeeze.

When he looks back down at his phone, Sam and Steve have identical expressions of gentle concern.

"We'll tell him that's great in a minute," Sam says. "But first, man, we love you and we're worried about you. You gotta tell us something about where you are with this."

Bucky shakes his head, not quite meeting eyes with either of them. "I'm doing better than Teddy. I didn't kill any eight-year-olds. That's what I've got."

There should be more, he knows. There will be more, probably, but he can't think about it now. He's taking care of Teddy, keeping his arm around Teddy at just the right level of firmness, keeping his whole body at ease for Teddy to snuggle against.

Steve's lips compress, unhappy with that answer, but Sam nods. "All right, man. That's something to work with."

Bucky nods back and says, "Ready?"

Steve runs a hand over his face and comes up Full Dad. Sam just widens his gentle smile a little and that's all he needs to be perfectly Teddy-appropriate.

Bucky knocks gently on Teddy's chest with his left hand. Teddy looks up, and Bucky turns the phone toward him, letting him see Sam and Steve waiting for him.

Teddy lights up, beaming. He looks like this is any day all of a sudden. The black eye only makes it harder to ignore the comparison between the look on his face now and his crumpled terror when he greeted Bucky.

Teddy shoves the headphones off and pushes the controller over to Bucky so he can transfer the call from his phone to the TV; a second later Steve and Sam are sitting across from them, life-size and just as clear as if they were there. Bucky clamps down on the stupid back-brain impulse to lunge toward them, to be where they are. They're still thousands of miles away, and that hasn't changed just because they're suddenly projected on a larger screen.

"Hey, Teddy," Sam says, while Steve gives that same mutely delighted wave he always gives Teddy on a video call. There's something in the angle of his fingers that says I really love living in the future where I can see you from half a world away every time.

Teddy waves back and says, "Sam! Dad! I beat the star-sphere."

"Yeah, Pop showed us," Steve replies easily. "That's really great, I know you've been working hard on that one. Your eye doesn't look so good, though, what happened there?"

Teddy's delight implodes all at once; he shrinks into Bucky's side, tugging Bucky's arm tighter around him. He shrugs stiffly, and Bucky looks from Sam and Steve's steady, patient gazes to Teddy's ducked head.

He's not in one of those moods where he really tries to wait them out, so after a few seconds Teddy says, "Pop told you."

"He didn't, actually," Sam says. "He didn't tell us one word about what happened to your eye."

Teddy looks up at him first, and Bucky nods seriously.

Teddy looks up at Sam and Steve, tilting his chin up a little. "I got the phone away from them and I threw it hard, right at the wall, and it broke in a million pieces, but then they got me. I wasn't thinking about getting away, just breaking the phone, that's why they caught me."

Bucky feels cold at Teddy's calm. They've all taught him to do that, to be able to talk about what happened and why when he gets upset or gets into a fight, but this... this sounds very much like an after-action report. Bucky hears the echo of his own expressionless voice, but he can't let himself chase that memory, or any memory.

Bucky glances up at Steve, and he sees the slight freeze in Steve's expression. Steve heard the same echo, or one like it.

Sam steps into the breach. "Why'd you have to break the phone, sweetheart?"

Teddy shrinks again, and his voice is even smaller. "They had a video of Pop. But it wasn't like the videos of you and Daddy. They were hurting him. Bad guys were raping him."

"I'm so sorry you had to see that, pal," Steve says. "And we're gonna talk about it some more, but before we do, can you do something for me?"

Teddy looks up, meeting Steve's gaze. Steve looks like he's about to issue orders for a night raid.

Of course Teddy nods, straightening up bravely for Steve.

"I need you to give Pop a big hug and a kiss for me, okay?" Steve says. "Because I really wish I could do that right now and I can't."

Teddy nods again and scrambles up to his knees, flinging himself at Bucky for a hug. Bucky keeps his eyes on the TV while he closes his arms around Teddy's small, determined body and Teddy smacks a kiss against his temple.

Steve holds his gaze, reaching out toward the phone they're talking to so that his fingers seem to touch the inside of the TV screen.

Teddy doesn't really let go of Bucky before he twists to look back at the TV. Steve's hands are in his lap again.

Teddy says, "Sam? Should I hug Pop for you too?"

"Yeah, give him a big squeeze for me," Sam says, and Teddy's grip tightens hard around Bucky's ribs, almost replicating the tightness of Sam's grip. Steve is always conscious of his strength, always a little careful when he hugs. Sam knows he can go all out, and he does.

Teddy kisses Bucky's other cheek and the bridge of his nose. "That one's from Sam and that one's from me."

"Thanks, baby bear," Bucky says, smiling helplessly. How are you mine, how did they ever make you from me.

He turns Teddy, settling him on his lap. Teddy relaxes against his chest, tugging Bucky's left arm across him like a safety belt.

"Do you have any questions about what you saw, Teddy?" Steve asks. "Or do you want to tell us anything about it?"

Teddy fidgets a little. "Did you see that video, Dad?"

Steve nods.

"Is that how you knew you had to come find Pop? Did you make those bad guys go to jail? Did you kill them?"

Steve takes a deep breath. "I didn't see the video until a long time after it happened, Teddy. Pop was already safe by then. But all the men who you saw hurting him--they are all dead now."

There is a shade of certainty in Steve's voice that catches Bucky by surprise. It's not just a reassurance for Teddy. Steve knows that.

Steve looks away from Teddy to meet Bucky's eyes, and his gaze is steady and sure. Sometime in the years since the videos first leaked, Steve identified those men and tracked them down, so he could know.

"But you made them stop hurting Pop, right?" Teddy insists, pleading. Bucky can feel the subterranean vibration starting in Teddy's chest, the foreshock of more tears. "Samma, Daddy, you saved him, right? You made the bad guys stop?"

Bucky squeezes him a little, wanting to physically pull him back from this line of questioning and knowing there's not a goddamn thing he can do to protect him from another dose of the truth.

"As soon as I knew where he was," Steve says firmly. "I tried to find him and help him. But Pop got himself away from the bad guys."

"We did stop the bad guys from hurting a lot of other people," Sam puts in. "But Pop's the one who got himself away."

Teddy looks up at him, wide-eyed, and then back to Steve and Sam. "Is that why you have to be far far away now? Are there bad guys like that hurting people?"

Sam ducks his head, looking away abruptly and rubbing his eyes. Steve slings an arm around Sam's shoulders. "We don't think it's quite like that this time, Teddy. But they're hurting people in other ways."

Teddy nods, sinking more heavily against Bucky's chest. "I wish you already got all the bad guys. I wish you could come home."

Sam picks his head up and says, almost steadily, "Soon as we can, sweetheart, I promise. We'll be there."

They get through the rest of the day without the wheels totally coming off. Teddy winds up crying over the next puzzle he tries, and, an hour later, because he's hungry from not eating enough dinner and can't choose whether he wants his pizza cold or heated up. Bucky picks him up and cuddles him while reheating the pepperoni pizza, and eats it slowly until Teddy pulls himself together and asks for some.

Teddy eats half a slice under his own steam and then says, "Help, Papa," and opens his mouth like a baby bird.

Bucky smiles more with relief than amusement at Teddy pulling out the silly baby play now. "Should I chew it for you, too?"

"I'm a baby bear," Teddy insists, chomping his teeth together.

"All right, baby bear." Bucky tears off bite-sized pieces of pizza, blows on them, and drops them into Teddy's mouth, one by one, until the two of them have finished off the reheated pizza. Teddy's on a more even keel with a full belly, and Bucky manages to wind him down to bedtime safely.

It's no surprise when they get all the way to the point of Teddy actually getting into his bed, and he says, halfway between plaintive and mulish, "I want to sleep with you tonight, Pop."

Bucky just nods. "In the big bed?"

Teddy hesitates, looking up at him, so Bucky swings Teddy over his shoulder and carries him down the hall. Bucky still thinks of this as Steve and Sam's room--his own, with his own private bed, is a windowless room directly opposite Teddy's with a weapons safe carefully camouflaged in the closet--but he can't remember the last night he slept anywhere else.

Bucky makes to swing Teddy down onto the wide expanse of neatly-made bed, and Teddy yelps, "Pop, wait!" while Bucky has him overhead.

Bucky stops there, holding him exactly steady, and says, "Wait for what, pal?"

Teddy looks from him to the bed, and then says in a stage whisper, "Did you and Dad and Sam... have sex on it?"

Sam spent ten minutes of their phone call going through vocabulary for this stuff with Teddy; he'll be so proud.

"Not recently." Bucky brings Teddy down to perch on his right hip, and uses his left arm to yank all the covers off the bed in one huge sweep. There's a massive drift of sheets and comforter around his legs when he's done, but the clean sheet beneath is revealed.

"Here," Bucky says, tipping Teddy toward the surface. "See? Nice and clean. You look around and see if there's anything you don't want to sleep on, huh?"

Teddy bounces down onto the bed and crawls back and forth over its surface, peering at the sheets carefully. He circles a few times and then starts playing bloodhound, sniffing instead of looking.

Bucky gathers up some of the covers, dumping them on a corner of the bed and climbing on himself. He changed into pajamas when Teddy did, anticipating this, so he's just as ready to go to bed. "Well? Did you find anything?"

Teddy is near the head of the bed, and he flings himself down on the middle pillow.

"I found Samma's pillow, and--" he scrambles across it to the next one, "I found Daddy's pillow--"

"But where's Papa's pillow?" Bucky asks, crawling over as Teddy scrambles toward it. Bucky catches him at the hips and armpits and tosses him in the air, catching him lightly.

Teddy is giggling as Bucky says, "Here it is, here's my pillow. What a nice, soft pillow."

Bucky drops him in the middle of the huge empty bed and lies down crosswise in the space where Steve and Sam aren't. He settles his cheek on Teddy's belly, still shaking with laughter and happy squirming.

"Hmm, my pillow is wiggly tonight," Bucky says, patting around gently with his left hand. "Maybe I need to squish it a little more."

"Shh," Teddy says, patting right back, smacking his way lightly over Bucky's face. "Go to sleep, your pillow is just right."

"Oh, all right," Bucky squirms around like he's getting comfortable, presses his cheek harder against Teddy's softly rounded middle. He can hear Teddy's heartbeat, and the contented internal gurgles of digestion. He falls still for a moment, and Teddy does too.

"I'm not really a pillow, though," Teddy says.

Bucky picks his head up and looks him in the eye.

Teddy is looking back, serious and a little anxious. "You wouldn't really squish me like a pillow, right? Or, or put a pillowcase on me and cover me all up. I'm not a pillow really, I'm a boy, I'm just pretending."

"I know, baby bear," Bucky says softly, trying not to feel sick-scared at the comparison, at how much he might have gotten wrong just playing around. "It's okay to pretend a little bit when you're playing. As long as everybody's having fun and nobody's getting hurt."

Teddy nods and then squirms under him, pushing up to sit. "I'm not a pillow anymore, I'm a teddy bear. I'm a Bucky bear."

"Oh, Bucky bear, that's good," Bucky says, dragging Teddy down against his chest and curling his left arm around him. "Bucky bear will help me get right to sleep. House, dim lights."

Teddy has had his Bucky bear since he was two years old. Steve and Sam got it made specially for him since, all things considered, there was no interest in actually manufacturing the things again. Teddy's Bucky bear, unlike any of the ones made back during the war, has a left arm made of shiny silver fabric, seamed from the shoulder down to the paw to imitate plating.

The silver arm is worn dull gray with rubbing on the outside, the star just a scattered constellation of red flecks. Bucky makes a mental note to check on it when Teddy's at school tomorrow to make sure there's no danger of the bear's arm splitting at the seams anytime soon; the last thing Teddy needs is to see the damage to Bucky's arm in the video replayed on his stuffed bear.

In the meantime, with the lights down low enough for sleeping, he curls his right arm around so he can rub up and down over Teddy's left shoulder. It's the same way Teddy usually pets his bear when he's falling asleep. Teddy's hand sneaks out to rub Bucky's left arm in the same cadence, and Bucky smiles and presses a kiss to the top of Teddy's head.

Bucky closes his eyes and slows his breathing, willing Teddy to follow him that way, too. Time to sleep. Time to let this day be over. If they both fall asleep early enough even the inevitable nightmares won't stop them both from getting enough rest to function tomorrow.

Bucky's nearly dozing when Teddy's hand stops and he wriggles out of Bucky's grip.

Bucky lets go, opening his eyes as Teddy sits up and says, "I'm a boy now."

"Okay," Bucky says. "But you're a boy up past his bedtime, then."

"I have to tell you something," Teddy insists seriously. "Okay? Listen, Pop."

Bucky lies still and looks up at him, waiting. Teddy leans over and puts his small hands on Bucky's cheeks, holding him steady.

"I won't let anybody hurt you," Teddy says, and Bucky's blood runs hot and cold with the mixture of absolute love and absolute terror that he never felt before Teddy.

"If those bad guys come before Dad and Sam get home," Teddy goes on, "I'll fight them. I won't let them hurt you again. Auntie Nat says being little is an advantage sometimes, so--"

"No," Bucky croaks, when he finally pulls himself together to speak.

He sits up and catches Teddy's hands in both of his. He's so small--not a baby anymore, maybe, and tall for his age, but even an unmodified human adult could crush the bones of Teddy's hands with a few well-aimed blows.

Bucky would only have to squeeze.

"Teddy," he says, using the stern voice he rarely has to bring out. "You listen to me, now. The answer is no. Absolutely not. I forbid you to try to protect me, from anyone, ever. No."

Teddy pulls against his grip, eyes filling with tears. "But Pop, if they try to hurt you--"

"No," Bucky says, not tightening his grip at all but holding on implacably. "Teddy. I am telling you the answer is no. Do you hear me?"

"But there's nobody else." Teddy's voice shakes, tears spilling over yet again. "Pop, they'll hurt you again, they'll rape you--"

Bucky swallows, pushing the image away. "Teddy, do you remember what you said to Sam last year when he was hurt?"

"It's not the same," Teddy insists wildly. "Sam's Falcon."

"And that didn't stop him from getting hurt, and taking three surgeries and two months to get better, because he doesn't heal like we do," Bucky says. "But when you told him that maybe he shouldn't be an Avenger anymore so he wouldn't get hurt, what did he say?"

"No," Teddy wails, and Bucky knows full well it's a protest and not the answer.

Bucky adjusts his grip, pulling Teddy in to sit in his lap. Teddy struggles for a second in that way where he's obviously not sure if he wants to get away or get closer, and then he gives up and presses himself against Bucky's chest, squirming one arm free to curl around Bucky's left arm. "Pop, no, they'll hurt you again--"

"They won't, pal," Bucky says softly. "Nothing like that is ever going to happen to me again. Those guys are gone, and they can't hurt me."

"But they did," Teddy sobs. "I saw them. I saw them hurting you!"

"I know." Bucky tightens his grip, pressing kisses to the top of Teddy's head and eyeing the clock. He wonders if Teddy actually dozed off just long enough to have a nightmare that kicked this off, or if it's just one of the inevitable aftershocks.

"It was a long, long time ago. They won't hurt me ever again. I'm safe now." It's strange to realize, as he says the words, how much he actually believes them. "But it's even more important to me that you're safe. Just like Sam said, some things are worth getting hurt for."

"Not like that," Teddy insists, sagging defeatedly against Bucky's chest and shaking with the force of his tears. "Pop, not like that."

"I won't let them hurt me like that again," Bucky agrees. "But I don't want them hurting you at all. Not even a little, not even touching you. If there are bad guys, your job is to get away."

"But they hurt you," Teddy whispers. "You couldn't stop them and they hurt you so bad."

Bucky closes his eyes. Apparently he's having the brainwashing talk tonight after all.

"Teddy," he says quietly. "You know I'm as strong as Dad is, and I heal as fast, right?"

Teddy tenses in his arms. "You're not like Dad, Pop. You're not a 'Venger."

Bucky huffs softly. "I am, though. I'm the secret Avenger."

"No," Teddy shakes his head. "No, you're my pop."

"Just your pop, huh? Nothing else, not ever?"

It's a nice fantasy. He always wanted Teddy to believe it. He never realized until now the downside of actually succeeding.

"Never." Teddy burrows in against him, fingers tightening on Bucky's arm. "Just my pop. You don't go far far away and you don't fight bad guys and, and--"

"I don't go away." Bucky rubs the hard little lump of his shoulder. "Because my mission is always right here. And I don't fight bad guys because I don't have to, lately. It's been a really long time since anybody tried to stop me from carrying out my mission."

"You don't do missions," Teddy insists. "You just take care of me."

"Yeah," Bucky says. "Yeah, pal, that's what I do. I'm your pop, and I take care of you, and if anybody ever tried to hurt you, they'd find out in a big hurry what I can do. I'm the Avenger who protects you all the time, so Cap and Falcon and all the other Avengers don't have to worry about whether their favorite little boy is safe when they go away."

And he's done a hell of a job of that today.

"But you, you couldn't stop them," Teddy says, leaning back enough to look up at him. "You weren't strong. You couldn't fight."

Bucky nods. "The bad guys hurt me in ways that you can't see on the video, baby bear. Not just my arm. They made me forget things, and they made me confused about things, so I didn't know what was right or wrong. I knew how to fight, but I didn't know that I could fight back against them. I just did what they told me to do, even when they hurt me, even when they made me hurt other people."

"But you're better now," Teddy says anxiously, petting Bucky's arm a little frantically. "You're all better."

"Yeah, I am," Bucky promises. Close enough, anyway. "But when I first got away from the bad guys, everybody just remembered all the bad things I did and the people I hurt. Even though it wasn't my fault, because the bad guys made me do it, they couldn't trust me for sure. I didn't even trust myself. I thought if I got confused, or if I got angry or scared, maybe I would do those things again. Maybe I would hurt people who didn't deserve to be hurt."

Teddy makes a tiny wounded noise, and Bucky kisses his hair again, cuddling him closer.

"There was just one person who trusted me to be a good guy again after I got away," Bucky says softly. "Do you know who it was?"

"Dad?" Teddy tries. "Daddy always knew you, you were best friends. He knew you were good."

"Dad knew it wasn't my fault," Bucky corrects gently. "And he knew I could get better. But he wasn't sure if I was better yet."

"Sam," Teddy is sure now; if the answer isn't Steve of course it must be Sam. "Sam always understands when I do something bad."

"Sam understood," Bucky says. "But he didn't know if he could trust me any more than dad did. Do you know who it was, baby bear?"

Teddy, in the hesitant tone of a wild guess, tries, "Auntie Nat?"

Bucky's not going to touch that one. He shifts Teddy in his arms so he can tip Teddy's chin up and look him in the eyes.

"It was you. You were so little, but you already knew I was your pop, and you knew I would never ever hurt you. You knew I would take care of you."

"You are my pop," Teddy insists, falling back against Bucky's arm like it's baby bird feeding time all over again. Bucky gathers him up, cradling him against his chest.

"Yeah," Bucky says, brushing tears away with his thumb. "Yeah, I am. That's how I learned to be a good guy, and it's how everyone else learned to trust me, because I was your pop, and I always will be. And I need you to keep trusting me, Teddy. I need you to trust that I will take care of you. You don't need to worry about taking care of me. Okay?"

"But," Teddy sniffles. "But Pop, if there's bad guys..."

Bucky kisses his forehead and his cheek, and then whispers in his ear. "If the bad guys come, you're my spy, pal. You see what happens, quick so no one catches you, and then you get away and you tell Dad and Sam and Auntie Nat what happened so they can do the heavy fighting and get me back before the bad guys can hurt me. Understood?"

Teddy sniffs harder and curls into Bucky's grip, pressing his cheek to Bucky's shoulder. "I will, Pop. I'm little and quick, they won't even see me."

"That's right," Bucky says, rocking him gently and watching his tear-wet eyelashes sink. "You just get away. We'll do the rest."

Bucky waits until Teddy is asleep for sure before he says the rest. There are still, even tonight, things his son doesn't have to know.

"As long as there is one spark of life in my body," the man who isn't the asset anymore breathes to the boy who began as Specimen Six, the only living child bred to be a more perfect weapon than his fathers. "They will never have a chance to find out what they can make of you."

Bucky slides down flat on the bed after a while, resting his head between Steve's pillow and Sam's. Teddy is starfished on his chest, right arm wrapped around Bucky's left, left hand clutching the sleeve of Bucky's shirt. Teddy's sleeping breaths turn to pathetic little snuffles from time to time, but he's sleeping hard, the total collapse of the exhausted child.

There's a little time yet before the nightmares will start. Bucky closes his eyes and tells himself to catch some sleep in the lull. He can, as long as he doesn't let himself think--as long as he doesn't fall into the trap of believing he's really alone, really off-duty.

Really safe.

The thought has barely formed when he hears a small noise at the front door, and then carefully quiet footfalls entering the darkened house.

He begins to shake. He knows what's coming, and he knows that his reprieve is about to come to a very abrupt end.

He closes his arms around Teddy, squeezing him firmly enough to loosen his sleeping grip. When he feels like he's being held on to safely, Teddy tends to switch from clinging to cuddling, and right on cue, Teddy draws his arms and legs in and curls up against Bucky's chest.

The bedroom door is pushed open silently, and the approaching shape hesitates, peering in. Bucky keeps his eyes nearly closed, so no gleam will give him away. He doesn't move.

Steve unslings his shield as he comes over to the bed, and Sam comes into the room on his heels, moving to the right side of the bed while Steve takes possession of the left. Flanking him.

Bucky presses his face down against Teddy's hair, trying to deny it for one more moment, but Steve's hands are on his wrists, coaxing him to let go. He can feel Sam close on his other side, sliding his arms into Bucky's grip to close on Teddy.

Bucky doesn't want to know how badly he caused them to blow this mission. He doesn't want to know what this cost. They came home. For Teddy. For him. He shouldn't have called; he couldn't have not called. And somewhere, deep down, he knew what would happen. He knew they would come back. They always come back for Teddy.

And for him.

Bucky relaxes into Steve's grip, letting his head tilt back as Sam lifts Teddy away. He watches Sam lift Teddy away while Steve's hands slide down his wrists to his hands, squeezing gently. Bucky's gaze stays on Sam and Teddy; he watches Sam hug Teddy tight for a moment and press a kiss to the top of his head, and then Sam leans in.

They hand off smoothly, Steve taking Teddy and hugging him while Sam's hands drop to fold together around Bucky's right hand. When Steve has had a moment to hold Teddy he lays him down gently, settling him with his cheek exactly on the star at the center of the shield. Teddy's hand slides fondly down the curve and hooks around an edge. He sighs contentedly and keeps sleeping.

He's the only kid in the world who can identify vibranium at a touch in his sleep; the shield is the only substitute for Bucky he'll almost always accept.

Sam slips something into Bucky's ear, and he can hear the slightly metallic sound of Teddy's breathing up close; Steve must have planted a bug on the shield, so Bucky can listen to Teddy from a safe distance.

He closes his eyes and lets himself shake. He doesn't worry about what will happen next. Steve and Sam's hands are on him, levering him up off the bed; he stands between them for a moment and he knows they're waiting to see what he'll do. He has exactly enough time to think, This is all right, they're here, it's fine and then he bolts.

They keep pace with him, a stride behind out of kindness. They follow him into his room, and he doesn't bother to try to keep them out. He's not really running away. He couldn't do this if they weren't right here with him.

He throws himself at the bed. It's not a matter of hiding, not really. He can't hide from the shaking. He can't hide from the knowing, the feeling. When he reaches out his arms close around Sam, and he hides his face against Sam's chest.

Steve's arms close around him, and Steve moves in behind him. There is this to say for being years on from the videos first leaking: Steve and Sam know not to be delicate anymore. They know that distance doesn't help.

Steve molds his body tight against Bucky's, hips pressed to his ass, chest against his back and pushing him into Sam. There's a still moment where Bucky trembles in their combined grip and thinks it might be enough, but he can hear Teddy's soft, even breathing in his ear.

He can still hear Teddy sobbing in bewildered, horrified hurt.

Sobbing feels very much like vomiting, breath and horror forced suddenly out of his center. He doesn't do it gracefully; he fights against it too much to even fall into a rhythm. Each racking spasm is an individual failure of control, and the struggles between are sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. His mind replays jumbled details of his son's distress, mixed with the few flashes he remembers of the abuse from the video: Teddy clinging to his arm and the sensation of being pinned down, the rising pitch of Teddy's voice asking questions amid tears and the whine of the stun baton.

There's nothing that feels coherent enough to be a thought in his head when he hears a word forming in the wet barking heave of his breath. "Why? Why--"

Steve's arms tighten around him. Sam's hand cups the back of his neck. He's shaking harder now, but he's just like Teddy; once the words start they won't stop.

"Why, why did they, why the fuck--why--he's just a kid--"

Words aren't enough. He's making helpless animal sounds of pain against Sam's chest, dimly aware of them making comforting noises above him, rearranging him so they can hold him closer, tighter. But he still hears Teddy's voice: Why were they doing that? Why would they hurt you?

He doesn't fight it. Doesn't resist or try to hold himself steady. Steve and Sam are here now. He can be wounded, a trapped animal, bleeding and helpless. He doesn't have to understand. The hurt is pure for a moment, without meaning, without memory; just the fact of hurting and nothing else, which is almost easy by comparison.

But reason pushes back in after a while. He recognizes what he is doing, where he is--not just in his room and tucked safely between his lovers, but In A Moment Of Crisis, when he cannot yet (or any longer) muster the practiced procedures for coping and moving forward. Moments Of Crisis are allowed. But the line between recognizing it and beginning to feel that he is indulging in it is a narrow one. Soon he is counting his breaths, trying to steady himself. The familiar words, rehearsed so that they become automatic, fall into place.

Teddy is safe.

You are safe.

It wasn't your fault.

You did your best.

You did your best.

The words feel false and foreign the way they always do at a time like this; there is some bleak, weary comfort in knowing that this is part of the process.

He tries to match his breathing to Teddy's, slow and shallow in his ear. He picks his head up to inhale cool air.

"That's it," Steve murmurs, and another sob shakes out of Bucky.

He twists toward Steve's hand, brushing his hair back, and something damp and soothing touches his cheek, salt-soaked and flushed. He sniffs his nose clear and recognizes the smell of the baby wipe Sam is using to wash away his tears. He sobs out a shuddering laugh. Steve's lips press against his forehead while Sam finishes cleaning his face.

"He was so scared," Bucky says in a small, strangled voice, laughter evaporating as fast as it arrived. "He was so fucking scared, for me, because I--"

The rest is lost in a keening sound. He struggles to sit up and they let him, rearranging themselves around him as he draws up his knees and wraps his arms around them. He wants to be holding Teddy, but nothing in the world is more important than Teddy sleeping safely down the hall.

"Those fucking--those videos, those fucking videos, he saw, he knows--"

That's the center of it. That's the awful exposure, the place where he's newly raw.

"He knows I can't." Bucky forces the words out. "Can't protect--"

"Hey," Sam says softly, like he's going to argue with that.

"I can't," Bucky insists. "Not from--not--from bad guys, yeah, from somebody hurting him, from--but not from the internet. Not from knowing, not from mean kids."

Steve's lips press to his temple.

"Bucky," Steve says softly, and there's an ache in his voice that matches the feeling in Bucky's chest. He knows that if Steve's holding it together now, it's not because he doesn't feel this. "How old was I when we met?"

"F--fi--fuck," Bucky says helplessly.

Five. Steve was five; Bucky was six. Steve's father was dead in the war, Bucky's father inscrutably wounded by it. Steve was getting in fights over the things people said about his mother, Bucky was dodging fights over the things people said about his father, and they weren't any older than Teddy is now.

"He's so small," Bucky says, the words shaking on something closer to a laugh than a sob.

Sam laughs outright. "I bet Steve was smaller."

Bucky shakes his head--Steve was always bigger than he looked, always big enough to fight. He was never so small that Bucky could truly have any hope of shielding him. Not like Teddy.

"He's strong, Buck," Steve says softly. "I wish to God he didn't have to be, but we've given him that--you've given him that. This shook him, but it won't break him. It just hurts."

"Fuck you it hurts," Bucky mutters, but he can feel himself settling down. It just hurts. A lot of things have hurt. This is another; worse in some ways, but mostly just the latest. "Fuck."

"Dad?" Teddy says sleepily in his ear. "Daddy? Where's Pop?"

"Teddy," Bucky says, and Steve and Sam don't get it right away. He can feel them waiting for him to finish the sentence. He tries to gesture, hampered by the way they're both wrapped around him and his own reluctance to push free. In his ear Teddy gives a little grunt of effort, getting into motion.

"Teddy," Bucky repeats, louder. His bedroom door is open; he hears it twice when Teddy calls out, "Pop!"

There are little running footsteps, and Bucky recognizes why they sound unbalanced at the same time Steve does. Steve jumps up, darting to the door just as Teddy reaches it.

Teddy stands there in his favorite pajamas, which he's nearly grown out of but refuses to give up, hair all rumpled with sleep and cheek creased from the sheets. He's holding Steve's shield up with both hands on one strap, so it won't drag on the ground.

Bucky lets himself fall heavily against Sam as Teddy's eyes go wide--the shield told him Steve was home, but Sam is a surprise.

Steve scoops him up, taking the shield from him. Teddy lets it go, wrapping one arm around Steve's neck and yelling happily, "Samma! You came back!"

"I promised, didn't I?" Sam says, his words only shaking a little, his fingers digging in against Bucky. "I said we'd be back as soon as we could."

Teddy turns his attention to Steve. "Did you get the bad guys already, Dad?"

Bucky's heart squeezes, but there's no sign of hesitation from Steve. "Yeah, pal, we did."

He brings Teddy back to Bucky's bed, setting the shield aside before he snuggles in beside Bucky with Teddy still in his arms.

"After we talked to you, we moved up the timeline," Steve is saying, and Sam gives a little reassuring squeeze against Bucky's ribs, telling him to believe it. Bucky sags harder against Sam. "We hurried up and got the bad guys all squared away so we could come home quick."

"Good," Teddy says definitely.

He lunges out of Steve's arms and shoves heedlessly at Bucky, making space for himself to lean across and hug Sam. Sam obligingly wraps an arm around him, and Bucky adds his left arm around Teddy's hips. Teddy snuggles in contentedly, his face smashed against Sam's chest where Bucky was crying five minutes ago, his body impossibly angled on three different planes with Bucky's knee under his stomach.

Everything is still for a moment. Teddy droops like he's going to go to sleep right there. Then his eyes flash open and he jackknifes up to sit awkwardly on Bucky's knee, looking back and forth between Sam and Steve.

"Pop told me the secret," Teddy says solemnly.

Bucky tries to look calm while frantically trying to remember when he used that word. Teddy's ideas about secrets have more to do with operational security than most five-year-olds', so....

"He told me he's really a 'Venger," Teddy explains. "A secret 'Venger, and I'm his mission."

Bucky cuts a glance at Steve, who smiles and leans over to give Bucky a brief, soft kiss before he turns his attention to Teddy.

"You're Pop's mission, huh?"

Teddy nods. "He takes care of me. Right? He said that's it."

"Yeah," Steve agrees. "That's how we worked it out. Pop stays here with you, Sam and I go with the team when we need to do missions somewhere else."

Nobody mentions the times Bucky has had other missions in the last few years: twice while Sam was recovering from surgery and once while Teddy took a surprise week-long trip to visit Barnes cousins in Indiana. Sometimes protecting Teddy means making sure Teddy has a survivable world to grow up in.

"But he really is, right?" Teddy says, looking back and forth from Steve to Sam while his fingers trace seams on Bucky's arm. "He's a real 'Venger and he's strong as Dad and he heals fast and his arm is special like Dad's shield."

Bucky's breathing stutters and Teddy twists to look straight at him. "It is, isn't it? It's like Daddy's shield."

"Yeah," Bucky says. "Yeah, made of the same stuff. And nobody else has an arm like this, just like nobody else has a shield like Dad's."

"Only my pop," Teddy says, nodding and patting Bucky's arm with proprietary fondness. "Nobody else."

"Yeah," Sam says. "You got it, Teddy. Your Pop's pretty special, and he's definitely an Avenger."

Teddy nods, but it's obvious that that's not the whole answer he wants.

"So it's not a secret from me anymore," Teddy points out, and then looks at them expectantly.

Bucky huffs, a smile stretching his mouth involuntarily. "I don't have a costume, pal. Sorry."

"But you could now," Teddy says eagerly. "You could make one for 'Venger things. And I could see, because I'm with you when you're on a mission!"

Bucky realizes what Teddy's really asking for with that hopeful look. It cuts him to the bone, almost too sweet to hurt.

Steve's the one who manages to put it into words while Bucky's still trying to breathe.

"You want to see Pop doing Avenger stuff? You want to see how special and strong he is?"

There are videos of that, Bucky thinks, dazed. But if you watch those you're going to see me trying real hard to kill your Dad and Sam and Auntie Nat.

And that, he realizes with a sick lurch that's almost relief, is probably what those bigger kids were looking for to show him. Footage of the Winter Soldier, to take Cap and Falcon's kid down a peg. Scare him a little, knock the shine off his pop--probably bring up all the tabloid hysteria surrounding a trial that in actuality had been a few weeks of formalities, neatly scheduled so he could be home every day by the end of Teddy's afternoon nap.

"Can I?" Teddy pleads. "Pop? Can I see? Tomorrow?"

Bucky takes a breath. He can feel Sam and Steve's waiting silences; they'll back up anything he says now, but they're leaving it to him. And God, but he wants to say yes. He wants to say yes right now, to prove himself to Teddy before Teddy shuts his eyes again. And even more than he wants to impress Teddy, he wants his hands on a rifle. His fingers are hungry for it like his body gets for Sam and Steve when they're gone too long.

But this is not a good time to be guided only by what he wants, no matter how willing Steve and Sam are to humor him. Teddy needs him to be not just an impressive dad, but a sane one. He takes a deep breath and focuses on the normal things. Rules. Boundaries. He made Teddy stand on the other side of the door while he took a piss this afternoon; he can do this.

"You've got school tomorrow, baby bear."

Teddy's eager look collapses at that, but he doesn't argue. He doesn't beg not to go back there.

"This is your week to feed the rats," Bucky prompts gently. "You're responsible for them. You can't skip that. And tomorrow is music, too, you've been wanting to try out the drums."

Teddy looks a little brighter, disappointment shifting to bargaining. Bucky smiles, waiting for it. There's a way to make this work, and Teddy's going to make sure they find it.

"At lunchtime, though?" Teddy tries. "Ben and Zoe leave at lunchtime, and after lunch is just nap and quiet time and reading and art and I can do art with Dad because Dad's home now, so there would be time. I could do 'Venger stuff with you."

Bucky gives him a stern look. "You're a long way off from being Avenger material, pal. But if you want to follow directions, and stand where I tell you to stand, and watch--"

Teddy nods frantically.

"Then I'll pick you up at lunchtime," Bucky says. "We'll come home and have lunch with Dad and Sam, and you'll do art with Dad and read with Sam, and then you can come to the rifle range with me and watch target practice."

Bucky has a feeling he's going to spend the whole morning in meetings at Teddy's school anyway; might as well not have to make another trip to get Teddy at the end of the day.

"And for now," Bucky says, "it's way past your bedtime, and you need to get to sleep. Come on, back to bed."

He throws Teddy over his shoulder as he stands, and Teddy wiggles cheerfully in his grip as Bucky carries him back down the hall to the big bed, Steve and Sam falling in behind them.

"We should be in the middle tonight, Pop. Sam, can Pop have your spot?"

"If he wants my spot, he's welcome to it," Sam says. "But that's up to Pop. He sleeps on the end because he usually feels better there."

Teddy's wiggling takes on purpose. As they step back into the big bedroom, Bucky swings Teddy down to his hip. "Pop?"

"Yeah," Bucky says. "Yeah, middle sounds good tonight, baby bear. Now come on, you're supposed to be asleep already."

Bucky drops him on the bed, and Teddy scrambles up to lay smack in the middle. Bucky lies down beside him, head on Sam's pillow, and Teddy immediately cuddles in against him, settling his head on Bucky's left shoulder. Sam and Steve disappear into the bathroom and soon reappear in appropriate kid-in-the-bed pajamas. Sam settles in at Bucky's right side, and Steve takes his place on the other side of Teddy. They curl in close, bracketing Bucky and Teddy.

Teddy tugs at Sam's t-shirt sleeve where his arm is draped over Bucky's waist. "Sam, Sam, you gotta tell me good night."

"Oh, good catch," Sam says, and he pushes up and leans across Bucky to curl his arm around Teddy while Bucky's still holding him. Sam presses his cheek to the top of Teddy's head and then kisses him. "Sweet dreams, Teddy. I love you. Good night."

"I love you, Sam," Teddy echoes, "Good night."

Sam settles back down beside Bucky, tucked even closer now, while Teddy rolls over in the curl of Bucky's arm to face Steve.

Steve scoots in without prompting to hug Teddy and kiss his cheek. "Good night, Teddy. I love you."

"I love you, Daddy," Teddy says, snuggling back against Bucky. "Good night."

Steve stays propped on his elbow, looking down at Teddy. "Should I tell Pop good night, too?"

"Give him a kiss and a hug," Teddy instructs. "You said you wanted to before, and now you can."

Bucky can feel the submerged quake of Sam's laughter, and he's smiling as Steve leans across Teddy to give him an extremely chaste kiss and a one-armed hug.

"Good night, Bucky," Steve murmurs. In all the years they've been saying this the nice way for Teddy's benefit, it hasn't stopped being a little bit funny and a little bit overwhelming every time. "I love you."

"I know," Bucky says, just to make Teddy elbow him.

"Pop! That's not what you say!"

He can look away from Steve's eyes then, glance down at Teddy and grin. It clears some of the tightness from his throat. "Okay, okay, pal. I'll say it."

"Don't say jerk," Teddy adds.

"It's past your bedtime, baby bear, you're not allowed to boss me around when you're supposed to be sleeping."

"Ahem," Steve says. He doesn't even clear his throat, he actually just says ahem.

Bucky gives a big showy sigh and raises his gaze to Steve's. He's done this a thousand times but it still takes an effort, tonight, to keep his voice steady. "I love you, Steve."

"Now Sam," Teddy says as Steve's lying down, curling an arm around him under Bucky's arm.

"Sam's already hugging me," Bucky points out, patting Sam's arm around him.

Sam snuggles closer, tightening his grip, and says, "Yep, I'm on it, Teddy."

Teddy gives him a wide-eyed beseeching look, and Steve, out of Teddy's eyeline, gives him a wide-eyed beseeching look that means something else completely, which isn't going to get him anywhere for the next twenty-four hours.

"Okay, okay, I got this," Sam says, and he pushes up over Bucky and leans in so slowly for a kiss that Bucky thinks there should probably be a dramatic flourish of strings. Even with Teddy wriggling impatiently against his other side, Bucky's heart is beating faster by the time Sam's lips brush his, and he sighs into it and pushes closer.

Teddy makes a sound that sounds like he tried to say Pop! Sam! from behind Steve's hand, and Bucky grins and tilts his head, prolonging the close-mouthed kiss until the muffled sounds from Teddy are just squealing giggles.

He cuts a glance toward Teddy, who is peeking through his own fingers at them and giggling behind Steve's hand. Steve is bright-eyed and smiling warmly; he always did like watching.

"I love you, Sam," Bucky says without hesitating; it's not less true, but it's carrying less freight. "Good night."

"Sweet dreams," Sam says, very firmly, like he can make it happen. He settles beside Bucky again and throws one leg over his before he adds, "I love you, Bucky," and presses a last kiss to his temple.

"There," Bucky says. "We're all loved up, baby bear."

"Nuh-uh," Teddy says, flinging his arms around Bucky's neck and giving him a smacking kiss on the chin. "I love you, Pop. I'll be right here if you have bad dreams. Night-night."

Teddy stole his line. Bucky didn't realize he'd said it that many times, but he hears his own voice in Teddy's words. He hugs his son close, as tight as he dares with his left arm, until he can push him back and kiss his forehead.

"I love you Teddy," he says quietly. "I'll be right here. Always. Good night."

And before he has to meet Steve's eyes, before Sam can whisper anything in his ear, he adds, "House, lights out."

He listens to them breathing around him in the dark, Teddy held safe, Sam pressed against the whole length of his body, Steve's arm tucked under his. He thinks about tomorrow: not the inevitable meetings, not the awkward conversations, and definitely not, with Teddy lying against his chest, how much more interesting bedtime will be tomorrow night.

He thinks of the rifle range, and Teddy in the sun, safely behind the firing line. Even before he sleeps he's dreaming of steel under his hands, the kick of recoil and a perfect trajectory.