The doorbell sounded at around three o'clock on Saturday.
James, making another pot of coffee in the kitchen, glanced out back to make sure the children were still occupied with the sprinkler before heading to the living room. Glancing through the glass doors, he could see Sharon standing on the front steps, holding what looked like a cake box.
"Hey," James said as he pushed open the outer door. "Glad you could make it."
"Thanks for the invitation," Sharon said. She came into the house, standing awkwardly in the hall while James locked the front doors again. "Where can I put this?"
"There's a bit of room left in the fridge." James headed back to the kitchen, cursing inwardly at the messy state of the living room. He hadn't had a chance to tidy up after the children's morning whirlwind.
James push that thought back. Sharon was a parent, she knew how kids were. She'd especially know how messy Clint could be when he was having fun.
"I also have some sorbet," Sharon was saying as they entered the kitchen. "The cake has dairy in it, and I didn't know what was for dinner so I got something for Abraham."
"That's a good idea," James said. Why hadn't he thought about dessert? "We got hamburgers, salads and stuff. Nothing fancy."
"Well." Sharon eased the cake box onto the counter. "I am always up for a good cheeseburger."
"Hang on a sec." James pulled open the fridge door, to move things out of the way for the treats. "Kids are out back if you want to go say hi."
"I will in a minute. I wanted to talk to you first."
Head still in the refrigerator, James let out a sigh. How the hell he let Steve talk him into these things, he didn't know. "Yeah, about what?"
"About Clint, when he's here."
James stepped back, reaching for the cake box. It was a challenge to balance the bottom on his prosthetic hand. "Yeah?"
"Yes." Sharon took a deep breath. "It's about safety."
James slid the box onto the shelf. "Safety?" he echoed. "Steve and Abraham are out back with the kids, things should be fine."
"No, that's not…" Sharon shook her head. "I'm doing this all wrong."
"Pass me that ice cream." James held out his hand for the small plastic bag, and Sharon handed it over. "The house is old, but it's safe for the kids."
He forbore from mentioning Clint's little excursion out the bathroom window in the first part of the summer; if Steve wanted to bring that up with Sharon, he could do so.
"It's not about the house," Sharon said while James was shoving the sorbet containers into the freezer. "When Clint stayed over with me last weekend, he talked about you a lot. He likes you."
James shut the freezer door and turned around. Sharon was leaning on the island, looking very put together with her perfect hair and her light-blue sundress. James, on the other hand, probably looked like a hobo who had been dragged backwards through a hedge.
Stop it, James told himself firmly. "I like Clint a lot, too," he said.
Sharon smiled, and it took some of the worry out of her expression. "Clint tells me that you used to be in the Army."
"Rangers," James said. He had no idea where this was going. "Oh-one to oh-nine."
Sharon ran her hand along the edge of the counter. "Do you keep any guns in the house?"
James stared for a moment. If anyone should be asking about guns in the house, it was him, after Sharon had brought a pistol into his house concealed under her blazer, that first time she'd come to see Clint.
Still. It was a legitimate concern for Sharon to raise. "A few," he said. "They're in the gun safe upstairs. Ammo's in a separate safe in the basement. The kids can't get into either one."
Sharon gave a nod. "Can I ask what kind of safe?"
James rattled off the make and model number. "I can show it to you, if you want."
"Yes," Sharon said immediately. "I would."
"Sure, just a sec." James pulled out his phone and sent a quick text off to Steve in the backyard. Sharon here im gonna show her the gun safe then well come outsid
Pocketing his phone, James ushered Sharon back into the living room, then up the stairs. "Thanks for this," Sharon said as they reached the second floor. "I know Steve's probably got this covered, but it's for my own peace of mind."
"I get it." James pushed open his bedroom door. "I, uh, I saw you were carrying concealed that one time."
"Ah." Sharon paused in the middle of the room while James headed into the closet. "Yeah. Well, real estate can be a dangerous business for women."
"Yeah, I know the statistics." James moved the ironing board out of the way, then stood back to let Sharon see the gun safe built into the wall.
"Oh, nice," Sharon breathed, coming closer to inspect the safe. "You got the model with the fingerprint scanner."
"Top of the line," James said. While Sharon's attention was on the safe, he could kick the underwear lying on the ground underneath the bed, out of sight. "Nat was super curious when she was little. She knows not to touch guns now, but… kids, you know."
"I hear you." Sharon rapped on the safe door, nodding appreciatively at the sound.
James waited until Sharon had backed out of the closet before asking, "That hotel you're staying at? They got a place you can lock up at?"
"They do, but now that I have an office, I can lock my sidearm there after-hours."
"That's handy," James said, putting his hand on the bedroom door. Sharon took the hint, and headed back for the stairs. James took one last look around the room before following her.
On the way down, Sharon asked James what he had meant about 'statistics', so James told her about Winterhill Security Consulting and Maria. Sharon mentioned that her company was always looking for security consultant for their real estate clients, so James swung into his office to retrieve a business card.
"Might be worth calling Maria on that stuff," James said as he returned to the kitchen. He plucked a pen from the junk drawer to write his partner's phone number on the back of the card. "She's better at the consulting piece. I just stand around and look like I know what I'm doing."
Sharon took the card from James. "I doubt that's true," she said as she slipped the card into her purse. "Steve speaks very highly of you."
James hesitated. He wasn't quite sure he wanted to have this conversation with Steve's ex now, or ever, but he also wasn't sure how to get out of it. "Yeah, well, Steve's a smart guy. You want some coffee?"
"Yes, thanks." Sharon waited until James was putting a mug of coffee in front of her before saying, "Steve is a good judge of character, especially when it comes to people who are around Clint a lot."
James poured coffee into his favourite mug, then set the carafe back in its place. He wasn't sure if this was some sort of maternal warning talk or if Sharon was just trying to be nice. "You don't have to tell me about Steve," James said. "He's always been the guy to say what he thinks. I always know where I stand with Steve."
A small smile spread over Sharon's face. "That is a very good way to describe Steve Rogers." She took a fortifying sip of coffee. "All right, I think I'll head outside now."
"Not if you want to keep that dress of yours dry." James slurped at his coffee. "The kids are all wet. I got your twelve o'clock with a towel."
"I learned my lesson years ago with Clint," Sharon said while James retrieved a dishtowel from the cupboard. "Never wear anything around him that isn't machine washable. He's always been a bit of a chaos monster."
"Yeah, well, now he's a chaos monster with a longer reach." James opened the back door and called, "Hey, guess who's here?"
In the sprinkler's spray, Clint spun around, nearly falling over. "Mommy!" he shrieked, and ran dripping wet towards the stairs.
Steve caught Clint mid-flight with a bath towel, wrapping it around his body, but nothing would stop Clint. The boy kept moving, bumping into James before ricocheting off to crash into Sharon. James gave Clint's wet hair a few swipes with the dishtowel as the boy hugged his mother tight.
"Mommy!" Clint exclaimed.
"Hi there," Sharon replied, giving Clint a big hug. "Have you been having a fun time with Natasha and your grandfather?"
"Yes!" While Clint pulled back to talk excited to his mother, James walked down the steps to the grass. Natasha was standing stock still in the sprinkler's spray, hands clenched, glaring daggers at Sharon.
James paused where Steve was helping Abraham to his feet. "There's coffee in the kitchen if you want any," he told the other men. "Feel free to head on it, I'm going to try to head this off at the pass."
Abraham patted James' arm. "Best of luck," he said consolingly before he walked up the steps.
Steve lingered by James for a moment. "Is everything cool?" Steve asked. "Why did Sharon want to see the gun safe?"
James shrugged his right shoulder. "Clint mentioned to her that I was in the Army and she wanted to make sure he was safe when he was here."
Steve clenched his jaw. "She doesn't think that I'd think of that?"
James looked at Steve for a moment. "I think she thinks more about guns that you do, so she'd want to make sure." He stepped away. "I gotta deal with my kid, do what you want."
James moved to the side of the house to turn off the sprinkler, then went to get Natasha's towel. He unfolded it and knelt down.
"Nat, honey, can you come here please?"
Natasha stalked across the grass, only looking at James once Sharon had carried Clint into the house. She walked straight into the open towel, letting James wrap her up like a burrito.
"Did you have fun in the sprinkler today?"
Natasha leaned against James, her wet hair soaking through his shirt. "I was until she got here."
"Natasha, we talked about this."
Natasha sniffled. "Why does Clint's mommy have to come here all the time?"
Privately, James was wondering the same thing, but that was nothing to talk to a child about. "Because Sharon is friends with Abraham and Steve invited her over for dinner so we could all have a nice dinner together and spend time together."
Natasha muttered something indistinct.
"Can you repeat that?"
Natasha wiped her nose on James' shoulder. "Do I have to spend time with her?"
"Absolutely not," James said firmly. "You don't have to spend time with anyone you don't want to. But you do need to behave politely towards her."
Natasha looked down. "I don't know what that means."
James sighed. "Oh, yes you do. Come on, get ready for up." He put his right arm around Natasha's legs and waited for her to put her arms around his neck before standing, picking Natasha up with him. "Being polite means saying please and thank you, and not hitting or kicking anyone."
"I know that, Daddy," Natasha said.
"It also means no being mean."
To this, Natasha was suspiciously silent.
Natasha sighed. "I won't be mean."
"Good." James kissed the top of Natasha's head. "But if you ever feel like you're having a rough time, you come sit with me and we can hang out together."
Natasha squeezed James' neck. "Okay."
James carried his daughter into the house. Abraham and Sharon were in the kitchen, talking as Abraham poured sugar into this coffee. Sharon caught sight of James and Natasha first. "Steve went up with Clint to get him out of his bathing suit," she said. "Hi, Natasha."
Natasha clutched at James' neck and said nothing.
"Natasha, being polite means saying hello when someone says hello to you."
Natasha let out an almost inaudible growl. "Hello."
"And we're going to get Natasha changed," James said. "Be down in a few."
James headed off. When he got to the stairs, he set Natasha on her feet. She wiggled free of the towel. "Daddy, why'd I gotta be polite?" she demanded as she stamped up the steps.
"Because Sharon is a guest in our home," James said. "When someone is our guest, we are polite to them."
"I don't like her."
"You don't have to like someone to be polite to them," James said. "That's one of the hard things about growing up. Sometimes we have to be polite to people we don't like."
Natasha swung her arms menacingly.
"Are you pretending to be a gorilla?"
"Yes!" Natasha stomped and swung her arms some more. "A big gorilla. Like King Kong!"
At this moment, Clint and Steve emerged from Clint's bedroom, with Clint dressed in fresh clothes and wearing his glasses and hearing aid. The boy beamed at Natasha. "I'm going to go talk to my mommy!" he exclaimed, then dashed for the stairs.
Natasha glared after her friend, then growled as she gorilla-walked to her bedroom.
James sighed. It was only three-thirty, and he was ready for a nap.
"Bucky?" Steve said. "I'm sorry about earlier."
"About the gun safe." Steve pushed his hair back out of his eyes. "And Sharon. I just…"
"I think I'm being more defensive about Sharon coming back into our lives than I need to be."
James shook his head. "Look, like I told you yesterday, I'm with you forever, all right? I'm on your side, you and Clint, and that means that Sharon is going to be in our lives a bit. I'm okay with her looking out for Clint, and I think you should be too."
"I am." Steve put his hand on James' wrist. "I am okay with that."
"So what's the stick up your butt on this?"
Steve looked down at James' collar. "I've been trying really hard with Clint, you know, being on my own so long."
James turned slightly, wrapping his arm around Steve's shoulders and pulling him into a hug. Steve returned the embrace, breathing against James' cheek. In spite of all the chaos of the last few days, James felt himself relax. "Listen up, all right?" James said quietly. "You're doing awesome with Clint. You've raised a happy little kid, you're doing all the right things with him."
"I know," Steve muttered. "That's what Abraham keeps saying."
"So listen to your dad, all right?"
Steve breathed out. "You remember how I said, back a while ago, that Sharon not being here wasn't a big deal or anything?"
James ran his hand up and down Steve's back in reassurance. "Yeah."
"Maybe…" Steve turned his head against James' neck. "Now that she's back, I'm starting to think that maybe it was a big deal."
James kissed Steve's cheek. "It's hard, raising a kid on your own."
Steve tightened the hug for a moment, then pulled back. He blinked a few times, then leaned in to kiss James, a brief touch of lips that sent happy shivers down James' spine. "You're one to talk."
"Hey, I ain't just talking out my ass on this one." James ruffled Steve's hair, making the other man move back in mock protest. "Why don't you go make sure that my kitchen is still standing, and I'll make sure my kid isn't in there plotting Sharon's demise."
Steve smiled, visibly calmer than he had been all morning. "Good luck with that."
James elbowed Steve in the ribs on the way past. "Cut up some orange slices for the kids, will ya?" he called as a parting shot as he headed to Natasha's bedroom. Steve chuckled as he went downstairs.
James paused in the doorway. Natasha had taken off her bathing suit, leaving it in a damp pile on the floor, and was standing in her closet, a blanket draped over her shoulders as she stared gloomily at her wardrobe.
"What's the plan, Stan?"
Natasha turned to scowl at her father. "I am not Stan, I am Natasha," she pointed out. "I want to wear my princess dress."
"That's one option." James slumped into the armchair. "Or you could wear your polka-dot sundress, that's a lot less scratchy."
Natasha considered this. "Can I wear my green underwear?"
"And can I wear my blue butterfly barrettes?"
"Sure." James heaved himself to his feet. "I'll go get the brush, okay?"
James picked up Natasha's bathing suit on his way to the bathroom. He hung it by one strap in the tub beside Clint's swim trunks. He then picked up Natasha's brush from the shelf, making the mistake to glance at his reflection. With the bags under his eyes and the five o'clock shadow, James wondered what the hell Steve saw in him.
James turned to head back to Natasha's room. Like Steve said, raising a kid alone was hard on a guy.
By the time he returned, Natasha was dressed, holding her barrettes. She jumped up when he entered the room. "You took a long time," Natasha informed James. "Make me pretty."
"Natasha, you are always pretty," James said. He sat in the armchair and waited until Natasha was standing at the ready before gently brushing out her hair. "You are pretty on the outside and you are pretty on the inside."
"How can I be pretty on the inside?" Natasha demanded, turning to eye him skeptically. "On the inside, it is dark."
James stopped and stared. "Huh?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Inside me." She pointed at her belly. "It's dark. I cannot be pretty in the dark."
James blinked. "Let's finish your hair," he said. Natasha obediently turned around. It took James a few minutes to get Natasha's hair to a state she was pleased with, then he popped in the barrettes and stood back to let Natasha look at herself in the mirror.
Natasha preened. "Daddy," she said, twirling her skirt. "Am I prettier than Clint's mom?"
James, who had been about to stand up, collapsed back into the armchair. "Crap," he muttered. "Nat, honey, come here."
Natasha gave one last twirl in front of the mirror before bounding across the room to jump up into James' lap. "Am I?" she asked again.
"Natasha, we have to have a serious talk," James said. He wished he had at least had some warning so he could have prepared for this conversation, but, like most parenting, he was going to have to make this up as he went along.
"About…" What had Maria called it that one time? "About weaponized femininity."
Natasha looked puzzled. "What's that?"
"It's…" James rubbed his eyes. "Look, I'm gonna talk straight, and if you don't understand, tell me and I'll try again."
"Right." James ran his hand over his face. Jesus Christ, he had no idea what to say. He'd just have to wing it and hope he didn't mess his kid up too badly. "So, when you asked me if you're prettier than Sharon."
"Am I?" Natasha perked up. "I want to be. So Clint will look at me and not her."
James wanted to swear. "Honey, one of the most important lessons in life that we learn is that people like us because of who we are as people, not what we look like."
"And Clint likes you because you're Natasha, not because you look any particular way."
Natasha's eyes were beginning to narrow.
"Just like you like Clint," James went on desperately. "You like him because he is a nice boy, and he is funny, and smart, and you guys have the same interests, and you play well together."
"Yes, that is why I like Clint," Natasha said. "Also because we like the same stuff, like dinosaurs and water parks."
"Yes, I know." James took a deep breath. "Would you like Clint any different if he looked any different?"
"No," Natasha said impatiently. "Daddy, that's silly."
James nodded. "So you understand that Clint likes you just the way you are, not because of how you look."
"He likes you because you are his best friend," James went on. "And he likes Steve because Steve is his dad."
Natasha began to fidget.
"And Clint likes his mother because she is his mother." James watched Natasha closely. "And I am going to guess that you like me because I'm your dad."
James raised his eyebrows. "No?"
"No, Daddy, I do not like you."
James' stomach dropped.
"I love you because you are my daddy," Natasha corrected, and James felt relief surge through him.
"Okay, that's good." James pulled Natasha into a hug. "I love you too."
"Yes." James gave Natasha a gently shake. "And how you feel about me, that's how Clint feels about his mom. You don't love me any more or less because Clint is your friend, right?"
"No," Natasha said. She poked at his shirt buttons. "But Daddy, you're wrong. Clint is not my friend, he is my best friend."
"I know." James kissed Natasha on the cheek. "And you're his best friend, that's never going to change."
"Can I say something else about being pretty?"
"I don't want you thinking about being prettier than other people, okay? You can want to be pretty yourself, like wearing nice clothes and doing your hair nice. But don't compare yourself to other people."
Natasha sat up to look James in the eye. "But what if I want to?"
"Natasha…" James sighed. "When we compare ourselves to other people, all we're doing is passing the buck on ourselves."
Natasha's face screwed up in confusion. "What?"
"Like, okay, maybe I think to myself, Steve is a handsome guy."
"He is," Natasha said quickly.
"See? We agree on that. But if I start thinking that Steve is a handsomer guy than me, then that makes me feel bad. Not 'cause of Steve, but because I feel like I'm ugly."
Natasha pondered this for a moment. "You are not ugly, Daddy," she said finally. "So you shouldn't feel bad. But Steve is handsomer than you are."
James supposed he had set himself up for that one. "Thanks."
"But you are pretty too," Natasha said loyally.
"Exactly." James held his hand up for a fist bump. "Don't go making other people a competition. Other people are people, just like you're a person, and everyone has feelings and stuff. Just like you."
Natasha bumped his fist, then opened her palm for a high five. "Because everyone is a person with feelings."
"What if someone is mean to me?"
James set Natasha on her feet. "They're still a person with feelings, but if someone's mean to you, you don't have to spend time around them, and you don't have to take it."
"So what do I do?"
"The same thing we talked about before when someone's mean to you." James stood, holding out his hand. Natasha took it. "You tell them to stop, or you walk away from them. And why is that?"
Natasha sighed theatrically. "Because being mean is wrong," she recited.
"Good job." Father and daughter walked together to the stairs. "Good talk, Natasha. You're getting really grown up."
"Being grown up is hard," Natasha bemoaned.
"Tell me about it," James replied. "You think you got it tough, I've had to be a grown-up for way more years than you ever been alive."
"That's because you are old," Natasha pointed out. She let go of James' hand to hold the banister on the way down.
James caught Natasha before she ran into the kitchen. "Nat, can we talk about Sharon for a minute?"
Natasha nodded grudgingly.
"Okay. I said you need to be polite, but if you ever want to take a break today, you and me can take a break together."
Natasha twisted in place. "When is she going to leave?"
"After dinner," James said. Hell, if it looked like there was going to be any additional Rogers' family bonding, James would tell Steve to pack everyone up and head back to his place with it. "It's nearly four now. We're eating dinner at five, okay?"
"Okay." Natasha took James' hand again, and it was a subdued little girl who accompanied James into the kitchen.
Clint was in his element. He was holding the attention of his mother and grandfather, telling stories and asking questions as he coloured patterns on construction paper. When Natasha approached, Clint pulled her up onto his chair so they could colour together, but most of his attention was on his mother.
Natasha coloured grimly.
James joined Steve at the counter, where the other man was slicing apples and oranges. "How did things go?" Steve asked quietly.
"Nat's working on her jealousy issues," James replied in the same low tone. "She told me she wanted to be prettier than Sharon."
Steve layered the fruit slices into a small container. "What did you tell her?"
"That beauty is not something to be weaponized."
Steve stopped what he was doing to stare at James, aghast. "You did not."
"Not like that, I didn't." James kicked Steve in the ankle. "Don't look at me like that, you're not raising a little girl."
"That's one hell of a conversation to have with a kid," Steve said, going back to his cutting board.
"Like the talks about bullying are any easier."
"Yeah." Steve put the lid on the container of fruit. "I'll just give this a wash."
"Thanks." James looked over at the table. Clint was laughing at something Abraham had said, but Natasha was still grimly colouring. Sharon caught James' eyes and opened her hand in a question, but James could only shrug back at her.
He wasn't about to force his daughter to pretend she liked Sharon, and he also wasn't going to make her do something she didn't want, as long as she was polite about it.
Abraham tried to engage Natasha in the conversation, but she just shook her head. Her "Excuse me" was audible across the kitchen, as she took her piece of conduction paper and slipped off the chair, carrying it over to James. "Daddy, I want to make a break," she said in a stage whisper.
"Sure thing." James waited as Natasha put her artwork on the fridge, then picked her up. "We'll be around," James said in an undertone to Steve, who nodded. Only then did James carry Natasha out into the living room.
"I wanna go up to my room," Natasha said.
"Okay." James headed for the stairs. "Thank you for being polite to Sharon just now."
"It was hard," Natasha confessed. "Clint didn't want to talk to me and I felt sad."
"Clint's excited that his mom and Grandpa Abraham are here."
"I still feel sad."
James put his prosthetic on Natasha's back to keep her balanced. "Talking about your feelings and understanding them is a very good thing to do," he said. "When I was your age, I didn't know how to talk about my feelings."
"Down." James set Natasha on the floor, and she headed for her bedroom. "How come you didn't know?"
"My family didn't talk about feelings." James followed Natasha. "And then I went into the Army and no one talked about feelings there."
"That sounds bad," Natasha said. She went to her bed and hopped up on it. "If I didn't talk about how I feel, I would feel badder."
James smoothed a strand of hair back on Natasha's forehead. "How did I get so lucky to have such a smart kid?"
Natasha shrugged. "I guess I was born this way." She looked around the room. "Daddy, I have an idea."
"I want to build a fort."
"A fort?" James echoed.
"Yeah," Natasha said, warming to her topic. "A blanket fort. A super secret blanket fort! Where there are…" She slid off the bed and struck a superhero pose. "No grown-ups allowed!"
"Hey, you came to the right guy," James said. "I been working construction since I was twelve years old."
Natasha pointed imperiously to the hallway. "Bring me blankets!"
James went to the linen closest to get an armful of sheets. Maybe if he kept Natasha occupied with her latest idea, she would burn off some energy before dinner. Then James would just have to keep her from kicking anyone over the meal.
When James returned to Natasha's room, he found that his daughter had pushed the armchair over to the wall across from her bed. "Daddy!" Natasha exclaimed. "This is where the fort will go!"
James dropped his armful onto the bed. "Yes, ma'am!" He snapped to attention and gave a proper salute. Natasha giggled. "Ready for your instruction, ma'am!"
With several "Put it there," and even more, "No, that's wrong!" James managed to arrange most of the sheets to Natasha's satisfaction. He stood back while Natasha pulled aside the entrance cover with solemnity, and crawled inside.
"How does it all look?" James asked.
"Can I take a peek?"
Natasha appeared in the entranceway to glare at James. "No!" she cried. "This is my fort! No grown-ups allowed!"
"So I can help you build it, but I can't come in?"
"Fine. You want me to get you a book or anything?"
Natasha hesitated. "Yes, please," she said in a normal voice.
Plucking a few of Natasha's picture books off the shelf, James handed them into the fort.
"Thank you, Daddy. Now go away."
"You're welcome. You can come down whenever you want, okay? Or else I'll come get you when it's dinner time."
"Go away, please!"
James headed downstairs. He stopped in the doorway of the kitchen, just to take things in. Clint was still at the table, focused more on drawing, while Steve sat beside him, answering questions, while Sharon watching them both.
For a sudden, terrible moment, James wondered what the hell he had been thinking, in imagining that he would really be able to make a place in Steve's life.
He loved Steve so much, but was he enough?
The spell was broken when Abraham shuffled across the kitchen. "Ah, how is little Natasha?" he asked. Clint looked up at the question, his eyes eager.
"Nat's fine," James said. "She needed a little break, so she's upstairs hiding in her super-secret blanket fort."
Clint's stunned gasp was loud in the room. "A super-secret blanket fort!" he exclaimed.
"Yeah," James said. "And guess what? In this super-secret blanket fort, there are no grown-ups allowed."
"No grown-ups allowed!" Clint's excited screech was nearly supersonic. "I gotta go!"
Clint nearly fell in his haste to get to the floor. Steve caught him and put him on his feet, cautioning him to be careful, but Clint didn't appear to hear his father.
"Natasha, I'm coming!" Clint yelled at the ceiling. "Wait for me!"
"Hang on," James said, diving for Clint. "Take up a snack with you." He shoved the little container of fruit slices into Clint's arms.
"Natasha, I'm coming!" Clint called again, pounding a path to the stairs. "I wanna go play in the blanket fort!"
James waited, listening, as Clint's footsteps sounded up the stairs and overhead, but there was no outraged screaming or crying, so James assumed that the children were going to be able to get along.
Steve sat up in his chair, groaning as he let his head fall back. "Kids."
James waved his hand. "They're fine. Just figuring out how to grow up, I guess."
"I have no doubt that you two were the same way," Abraham said with a smile.
"Hey, I'll have you know that I was a very respectable young man," James said. He headed over to the fridge to pull out the burger patties. "Steve Rogers walked into my life on the first day of second grade bringing nothing but trouble with him."
Sharon smiled at James. "Did he get into a fight with you?" she asked, ignoring Steve's embarrassed groan.
"Nah. It was his first day in the new school and one of the other kids—"
"Billy Perkins," Steve put in.
"Yeah, Billy, he goes up to Steve, who's this high," and James made a motion to indicate that Steve had been very short indeed, "And starts picking on his because of his second-hand clothes."
"Fourth-hand," Steve muttered.
"And so Steve, who ain't never backed down from anyone in his life, not even bullies who are like twice as tall as him, gets right in Billy's face and tells him where he can shove his opinions."
Abraham shook his head. Sharon put her chin into her hand. "Steve, did you punch a bully on your first day at a new school?" she asked patiently.
"Nah," James said before Steve could protest. "I punched a bully on Steve's first day of school." He set the burger platter on the counter. "Steve just kicked him when Billy knocked me down."
"He had it coming," Steve said, unperturbed. "And me and Bucky've been friends ever since."
Sharon smiled. "Good."
Abraham was still shaking his head. "I don't like to hear of you fighting," he said. "I worry about you."
"Did Steve get into fights in New Jersey?" James asked, going back to the fridge for salad fixings.
"Ah, don't tell them that story," Steve said, but Abraham ignored him.
"When he first arrived, twice." Abraham fixed Steve with a stern look. "Once at school when a bunch of boys tried to steal his new shoes."
"They didn't want the shoes after I got blood all over 'em, did they?" Steve retorted. He caught James' glare. "One of them popped me in the nose, it was no big deal."
"And wasn't the other time at Scout camp when you were thirteen?" Sharon asked. She came around the counter to James' side. "Can I help? I'm good with a knife."
"Sure," James replied, stepping aside to let Sharon have at the vegetables. "Steve, did you punch someone at Scout camp?"
"Sure did," Steve said. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Some kids were calling some other kid a faggot, so I told them to fuck off and if they wanted to punch a faggot, they could go and punch on me."
James stared at Steve. "What the fuck?" he demanded.
"Yeah," Steve said, sounding angry at the memory. "So they got in a few licks but I held my own. Scout leaders kicked me out on the spot for starting it. Abraham had to drive up in the middle of the night to come get me."
Abraham crossed the kitchen to pat Steve on the shoulder. "And we drove home and stopped for milkshakes at an all-night diner and I told you that you are going to be a good man when you grow up, as long as you keep standing up for what you believe in. And also to try to find another way dealing with bullies."
Steve put his arm around Abraham, almost dwarfing the older man. "And I said I'd stop punching them when I had some other way of stopping them."
Abraham patted Steve's back. "Ah, you have always been a stubborn boy."
"So," Sharon said as she diced a carrot with military precision. "I assume you're not telling the kids these stories."
"God no," James said. "Maybe we're hypocrites, but we're telling 'em to solve their problems by using their words. I think Clint gets it, but Nat can get sort of pushy at times. Maria think she should go into karate or something."
"Good idea for any little girl," Sharon said approvingly. "All right, what's next?"
The next little while was spent preparing for dinner. Sharon displayed an unnerving dexterity with a knife in preparing the vegetables, which only made James doubt her real estate story more. After a while, Abraham and Steve went outside to deal with the grill, which left James to set the table.
Occasionally, James would hear footsteps overhead, so he assumed the children were getting along well. He had too much to do before dinner to pay them much mind; they were usually fine to amuse themselves.
"Can I ask you something?" Sharon said as she sliced a red onion into paper-thin spirals.
"Sure." James wondered if he should get out the disposable utensils for Abraham. He hadn't used them the last time, but maybe James would have them ready, just in case.
"How are you and Steve doing?"
James' hand slowed on adjusting the plates. "We're good," he said cautiously. What was this about?
"Yeah?" Sharon let the onion spiral rest on a plate. "Good." She picked up a tomato. "Clint's really happy right now. That means a lot to me."
"It means a lot to me too," James replied.
Sharon held James' gaze as she dug the paring knife into the tomato's red flesh. "Steve wants the best in the world for Clint. So do I."
James was starting to get a little nervous. "That makes three of us, then."
"Good," Sharon said, setting down a perfectly formed tomato rose on the cutting board, and smiled.
James was impressed.
"Hey, Buck," Steve said, coming back into the house. "We need a bit more…" His voice trailed off. "What's going on?"
"Sharon's working on salad garnishes," James said. "Hey, is your dad going to want paper plates, or are regular ones fine?"
"Regular's fine." Steve was looking at Sharon. "Sharon."
She looked at Steve with an innocent expression, and James lifted his hand to hide a smile. "Salad is a very important dish."
Steve shook his head. "Were you talking about me?" he asked.
"Why would we be talking about you?" Sharon asked in apparent surprise. "We were talking about Clint."
"Clint," James repeated. "Short guy. Glasses. Lives in your apartment and hasn't paid a day's rent in his life."
Steve pinched his lips together in constipated annoyance.
"Ah, so you do remember him." Sharon said.
"The last thing in the world I need is you two ganging up on me," Steve muttered. "Bucky, you got any more briquettes? The bag's a bit low."
"There's more in the basement," James said. "I can go…"
His voice trailed off, as his practiced ear picked up a sound both familiar and unwelcome at the same time.
And not just any crying; it was Natasha's full-bodied sobbing of sadness.
"Shit," James muttered, heading for the living room.
"That doesn't sound good," Steve said, on James' heels. "What do you think happened?"
"We'll find out."
In the living room, the wailing was getting louder as Natasha climbed down the stairs, a very worried Clint at her side. Natasha reached the ground floor as James was halfway across the living room, and she broke into a run to get to her father.
"Oh, boy," James said, going down on his knees to catch an armful of sobbing child. "What's wrong?"
Natasha cried against his shoulder, her words incomprehensible. As she sobbed, Clint came up to James and tried to pat Natasha's hair. "I'm sorry," Clint was saying, his eyes wide with panic.
"There, there," James said as he hugged Natasha tight. "Are you okay? Did one of you get bopped on the noggin or something?"
Clint shook his head. As Steve crouched down beside James, Clint backed up against Steve's side, clutching at his shirt in obvious distress.
"Nat." James rubbed Natasha's back. The crying showed no signs of abating. "Natasha, can you take a few deep breaths with me?"
"No!" Natasha wailed into James' shoulder.
"Oh dear." James settled back on the floor. He knew from experience when Natasha was this worked up about something, it would take a while to get her calmed down. "I'm going to take a few deep breaths anyway. I'm going to breathe in," and he took a dramatically large breath, "And out." He exhaled loudly.
James repeated this for a few minutes, and thankfully after a few times Natasha's sobs stuttered as she tried to copy James' breathing. Once he was certain that Natasha was calming down, James was able to look around. Clint was still clinging to his dad, looking more than a little scared. Sharon and Abraham were standing in the kitchen entranceway, both wearing expressions of parental worry.
James would have sighed, but the deep breathing exercise was making him lightheaded. But at least Natasha had stopped crying.
After another deep breath in and out, James lifted Natasha around so the girl was sitting against his side. "Hey, sweet pea."
Natasha glared up at him with angry eyes, then pressed her face against his shirt.
"Can you tell me what happened to make you so sad?"
Four feet away, Clint whispered, "I'm sorry."
Natasha made a hiccupping wail into James' chest, but it sounded forced to James' ear. James ran his hand over Natasha's hair. "Natasha. Can you use your words?"
Natasha turned her head to glare up at James. She was red-faced, like she usually was after a tantrum. "Clint said that only mommies give the best hugs!" Natasha exclaimed. "He said that! The best hugs!"
"Uh huh," James said, not sure what the problem was.
Natasha's face crumpled, the harbinger of another round of tears. "I don't have a mommy so I'll never have the best hugs!" The last word ended on a wail as Natasha mashed her face against James' chest.
Clint wrapped his arms around Steve's neck. "I'm sorry," he whispered again.
James rolled his eyes to the ceiling, wishing for strength. "I'm sure that Clint meant that—"
Natasha's hand slapped against his sternum. "Never!" she wailed.
James reached for Natasha's hand to prevent another punch. "Natasha, I need you to calm down so we can think about this clearly," he said. "You're a big girl now, and I need you to think about this with your big girl brain."
Something touched his shoulder, startling James. He looked up to see Sharon holding a box of tissues and a glass of water. James took a tissue and gestured with his head for Sharon to set the rest of it down on the coffee table. She did so, then knelt beside Steve.
James had a passing thought that it was interesting, after Clint declared that mothers gave the best hugs, that the little boy stuck to his father in a crisis, but he supposed that made sense. Steve had been there for Clint while Sharon was away, and he was a more stable presence in Clint's life.
He shook those thoughts away. He had other problems at the moment.
"Here, blow your nose."
Natasha took the tissue and blew her nose loudly. She handed the wet tissue back to James, who set it down with a grimace.
"Do you want some water?"
Natasha nodded, so James handed her the glass. The little girl swallowed a few sips, spilling only a few drops on her dress. James put the glass back on the coffee table.
"Oh, boy," he said dramatically. "What an afternoon. Lots of stuff is happening, isn't it?"
Natasha huffed angrily.
"So, you're upset that you won't ever have the best hugs?"
"I won't!" Natasha declared, with almost as much drama as her father. "Only mommies give the best hugs, Clint said so!"
Clint shrank back against Steve's side. Steve hugged him in reassurance. "Clint," Steve said, "Did you tell Natasha that?"
Clint stuck his finger in his mouth and chewed at it for a moment before nodding.
"Huh." Steve looked at James. It was obvious that the man had no idea what to do next, and if James was to be honest, he was in the same boat.
In retrospect, he really should have insisted that Natasha take an after-lunch nap.
"Can I say something?" Sharon asked.
"Sure," James said, putting his arm around Natasha's shoulders just in case she got upset again.
"Natasha," Sharon began, not faltering in the face of the Natasha's glare. "I think what Clint meant was that, to him, mom hugs are really super great."
"That's not what he said!" Natasha burst out.
"Sometimes, when we're excited, we say things without saying everything that we mean," Sharon went on. "Grown-ups do that all the time."
Natasha narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Like when?"
"Like…" Sharon faltered.
Abraham saved them all. "Like when you have an ice cream cone and you say, 'this is so good, I am only going to eat ice cream for the rest of my life'." He sat down on the couch. "What you say, is how you feel in the minute. Everyone understands what you mean, but no one thinks that you will really only eat ice cream forever."
"And today, Clint's really excited to have everyone here," Sharon said. "Me, and Grandpa Abraham, and you."
"Yeah!" Clint burst out. "You're my best friend!"
"You're my best friend!" Natasha cried. "But you said!"
Clint's lower lip began to tremble.
"Natasha, don't yell at Clint," James interjected.
"I know!" Sharon said. "How about an experiment?"
Both children looked at her.
"I'm a mom. How about we test Clint's theory about a mom hug?"
Natasha leaned forward.
"Because I think that the best hugs we get are from people who we love so much," Sharon said. "I think for you, that's your dad."
Natasha stood up. "Clint said it was a mom hug," she said.
Sharon refused to be daunted. "And for Clint, a mom hug is probably pretty great," she agreed. "Do you want to try?"
Natasha looked at James. "You don't have to," James said.
"I want to try an esperiment," Natasha said as she shuffled over to Sharon. "It's for science."
"Anything for science," Abraham said.
"Okay," Natasha said when she was in Sharon's personal space. "Do the hug."
Slowly, Sharon put her arms around Natasha in a delicate hug, squeezing very gently for a moment before letting go.
Natasha looked at Sharon, a large frown on her face. "I think you did that wrong," the little girl said. "That was not a good hug."
Sharon was obviously fighting to keep a straight face. "Would you like to try again?"
"Yes." This time, Natasha put more effort into the hug, but when she stepped back, she was still frowning. "You don't do hugs good at all."
James put his hand over his face.
"I think we should try the second part of the experiment," Sharon suggested. "Go hug your dad and see if he gives the best hugs."
"Okay." Natasha launched herself at James, wrapping her little arms around his neck in a choking hold. James put his arm around Natasha's back, holding her tight as he rocked her from side to side, making her squeal with laughter.
"Oh, the biggest hug!" James growled, making Natasha laugh even more. Over Natasha's head, James watched as Clint went up to his mother for a hug, collapsing against her in relief. Sharon kissed Clint's hair, letting him play with the shoulder strap on her sundress.
"Daddy, that's a good hug!" Natasha exclaimed as she attempted to extricate herself. "I think that is a good science."
"Good." James smoothed down her hair. "Is there anyone else you think would give a good hug?"
Natasha pondered this for a moment, then said, "Steve!" She jumped at the man, giving him a big hug.
"What about me?" Clint asked shyly, standing up. "Natasha, can I give to you a hug?"
Natasha turned to face Clint. "Yes, you can give a hugs," she said solemnly. "And I can give a hug back to you."
The children embraced. Around them, the grown-ups looked at each other, faces all registering vague relief that the storm had passed.
After a long minute, the children released each other. "Do you want to go play more in the blanket fort?" Clint asked hopefully.
"No, I want a hamburger," Natasha said. "I am hungry."
"Dinner's going to take a little while," James said. "We gotta get the grill going."
"Is that with matches?" Clint asked. "I wanna do that. Can I do that?"
"You can both help me with that," Abraham said. "Can we go outside together?"
"In a minute," James said. "Me and Nat need to make a detour to wash her face."
"I don't wanna wash my face," Natasha whined, but she let James pull her into the kitchen and to wipe her cheeks with a wet cloth. "Daddy, I wanna go light the grill."
"After I get the briquettes from the basement."
"I got 'em," Steve said, walking through the hallway with the bag of briquettes over his shoulder. "Nat, want to come help me and Clint and Abraham?"
"Yes!" Natasha skipped along after Steve, as merry and happy as a clam.
James rested his hand on the counter, letting out a long breath. "Ugh."
"That was interesting," Sharon said as she carried the water glass over to the sink. "Does she often ask about her mother?"
"Biological mother," James said reflexively. "She's adopted. And no, this has never happened before. I think it was just a long day with no naps. Thanks for helping out, by the way."
"Any time," Sharon said. "That was a whole lot easier than calming Clint down when he was a toddler."
"Steve said he was a pretty chill little dude."
Sharon tilted her head to the side, considering. "I'd say ninety-five percent chill, five perfect bottle-rocket."
"That sounds like him."
Steve came through the back door. "Hey, Sharon," he said. "Can you give me and Bucky a minute? Abraham could use a little help with the kids."
Sharon glanced between Steve and James. "Sure thing." She moved toward the back door, slipping around Steve's bulk.
Once the two of them were alone, James leaned back against the counter with a long sigh. "What the hell, Steve."
"Natasha doesn't normally get so worked up." Steve came around the kitchen island to James' side. James put his arm around Steve's neck to pull him close. "What do you think it was?"
James breathed against Steve's cheek. "I think she was upset about Sharon being here, and not being the centre of Clint's attention for ten minutes," he said. "I really hope this doesn't happen again at school on Tuesday, Jesus Christ."
Steve ran his hand down James' chest. "I'm sure she'll be okay."
"Is Clint okay?" James asked. "He looked pretty freaked out."
"I think he's fine. What Sharon said helped him too." Steve let his hand rest on James' stomach. "Abraham said he'd try to get them talking. Maybe we can talk to them after dinner if Clint's not doing too good."
James breathed out, relaxing against the curve of Steve's body. "This sure has been one hell of a weekend."
Steve brushed his lips against James' ear. "It's only Saturday."
"Ugh, don't tell me that."
"We have two more days to go before school starts," Steve went on.
"And you know the kids aren't going to sleep the night before school." James was tired just thinking about Monday night.
"Unless they collapse from nervous energy at seven." Steve kissed James' earlobe, then nuzzled in the spot just behind his ear. James' breath caught in his throat. "Which reminds me, I need to ask you something."
James was having a hard time thinking, given the way Steve's fingers were running over his hipbone. "Yeah?"
"On Monday night, before school." Steve pulled back to look James in the eyes. "You still good with me and Clint staying over?"
James blinked. "Of course. Why you asking that?"
Steve reached up to run his fingers over James' cheek. "I know we talked last night about it, but I wanted to make sure it was still okay, after what happened today."
"It's always okay." James turned his head to kiss Steve's palm. "You and Clint can stay over any night you want."
Steve's eyes were shining. "Thanks," he said, then kissed James.
James melted against Steve, his senses overwhelmed by Steve's closeness, the press of his body against James', the way his hand cupped the back of James' head as they kissed.
This was just perfect.
An electronic ringing brought James back to the present. He pulled away from Steve as the other man dug his phone out of his pocket. "What the…" he muttered, then tapped the screen before bringing the phone to his ear. "Sharon."
There was quiet for a moment. James glanced out the window to see Sharon, standing well back from the grill with the children at her side, on her phone while Abraham puttered around with the grill.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be right out," Steve said, and put his phone down. "Abraham needs help."
"Why'd she call?"
"She thought we might be busy," Steve said, putting finger-quotes around the last word.
"Huh." James pushed off the counter. "Go on, don't keep your dad waiting. The last thing I need is for my house to burn down over some hamburgers."
"Ha ha." Steve slapped James' arm on his way to the back door.
"Oh, and Steve?" James called after him.
Steve paused, hand on the door-handle.
"The next time you want Sharon to come over for some family time?"
"Let's go out to eat instead."
Steve's face cracked into a grin. "Deal."
James followed Steve outside, and while Steve went to assist Abraham with the grill, James sat on the edge of the steps to observe. It only took a moment for both children to rush James.
"Oof," James said, holding his arms out so the children could settle in his lap. "Are you two having fun out here?"
"Uh huh." Clint took hold of James' prosthetic hand to play with the fingers. "I wanted to go in the sprinkler again, but Mommy and Grandpa Abraham said no."
"It's too close to dinner time, peanut." James looked down at where Natasha was yanking on his collar. "Yes?"
"Daddy," Natasha said urgently, "Clint and I are best friends."
"No, we are best friends always," she insisted.
"Yeah," Clint agreed. "Always and forever."
James kissed the top of Natasha's head, then the top of Clint's head. The children giggled. "I'm glad to hear that," James said. "I'm so happy that you two are friends."
"Yeah." Natasha settled back against James' chest to watch the scene around the grill, where Sharon had joined Steve and Abraham in their battle with the briquettes.
James sighed, letting go of some of the lingering worries from the day. Sharon coming over to spend the afternoon hadn't been a disaster, and in retrospect it was probably good that they had gotten some of their issues out on the table. Clint was recovering well from Natasha's freak-out, and Natasha herself seemed to be back to normal.
"Daddy, what is it?"
"What is what?"
Natasha poked him in the chin. "Why do you do this?" She made an overexaggerated sigh of her own.
James smiled down at her. "Well, you know, I was just thinking about how happy I am."
"Oh." Natasha resumed her vigil of the grill set-up. "I'm happy too."
"I'm happy three!" Clint chimed in.
As Saturdays went, it was turning out okay.