Life with the Avengers ~Reader-Insert~

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4. October

October

"(Y/N)," Steve called absently. The days were slowly cooling off, the heart of autumn finally resulting in chillier temperatures, but the sun was out and the sky a gorgeous shade of blue. Steve had brought his art supplies outside, hoping to relax, and (Y/N) had followed him. The little girl dropped her dolls where she was playing in the corner of the patio and tottered over expectantly. Steve glanced up at her, smiling, and turned back to his sketchbook. "Can you tell me the time? I left my watch in my room."

There was a moment of complete silence and the lack of noise arrested Steve's attention. Looking up, he was surprised to find himself alone. He looked around to confirm this, rising to search for her, and suddenly, (Y/N) was holding his watch out to him. Slowly, he took it from her, his gaze vacillating between the watch and the fidgety little girl. As his brow furrowed, (Y/N) seemed to grow more distressed.

Steve set his pencil down and sat to face her, trapping her between his knees. "Sweetheart, why did you run all the way upstairs to get my watch? There's a clock in the kitchen."

(Y/N) was mute, staring determinedly at her sneakers. Steve frowned and pressed the issue.

"Didn't they teach you that in school?" She finally met his gaze at that, wordlessly pleading with him to understand, and the light finally clicked on. "Oh God, school!"

Steve stood restlessly, forcing (Y/N) to quickly retreat a few steps, and began to pace. "How did we forget about school?"

(Y/N) remained silent, but shot him a sardonic look that looked ridiculously out of place and adorable on her five year old face.

Whirling, he faced her again. "We can fix this," he promised her. "Just, give me a little bit."

She shrugged, as if it made no never mind to her, and set his watch on top of the sketchbook. Steve sighed as she returned to her dolls and scooted his sketches to the side. Pulling up the Internet on his tablet, he began his research.

"You have been silent all damned night," Tony accused as Steve returned from putting (Y/N) to bed. Natasha kicked at Clint's legs, forcing him to shift and open a spot for her on the couch. "What is wrong with you?"

Shooting the billionaire a pointed look as he dropped onto the open couch across from Thor, Steve sighed, rubbing a hand across his brow. "School."

Tony made an impatient gesture as the realization dawned on Bruce's face. He frowned at the soldier. "What about school?"

"Shit," Bruce cursed uncharacteristically, earning a surprised expression from Natasha. "How did we forget about sending her to school?"

Tony turned to stare at Bruce, brows furrowed. "School," he repeated numbly, glancing back at Steve. The soldier shifted, somewhat uncomfortable. Gathering his thoughts, he took a six pack of beer from the fridge and brought it to the group. Eyeing the group, Thor shook his head and quietly slipped out of the room.

"Her file said that she'd been to kindergarten, and I checked into some of the local schools. They've started up already for this year, but there's always next fall," Steve finally said, passing bottles to the team and sounded a little dejected. "We can't keep her here forever."

"The hell we can't," Tony replied, ignoring the beer in his hand. "I am not sending our little girl to some piss ant public school."

Steve frowned. "Why not?" He sounded defensive. "Public school treated me just fine."

"Sure it did," Tony scoffed, setting the bottle on the table with a decisive thud and heading to the bar.

"Hey," Steve began, his voice tight with anger.

Bruce stood, palms outward in a gesture of peace. "I went to a public school too, Tony," he interjected, trying desperately to soothe the two hottest tempers in the room. "And mine wasn't hampered by the problems of the Depression. It's not a bad idea."

"Are you joking?" Tony glared at Bruce, splashing two fingers' worth of scotch into a tumbler. "Public school is the worst idea ever."

"She's not you, Tony,'' Natasha pointed out, sipping delicately at her beer. "She doesn't have the Stark last name causing any kind of trouble for her with the other kids."

Steve glanced at Tony, suddenly curious, but shifted his gaze at the other man's black scowl. The billionaire tossed back half his scotch. "I'm not sending her to a public school, end of discussion."

"It's not really your choice, is it?" Everyone's attention swiveled to Clint, who was picking up his second bottle. He gave the room at large a wry, slight smile. "I'm her legal guardian. So I choose where to send her for school."

His statement echoed in the abrupt silence of the room, and then Tony launched into a diatribe about how private schools were better than public schools, but they couldn't send her to a boarding school ever. Steve simply glowered at Tony, and Bruce gave a quiet defense of America's public school system.

Natasha said nothing, but watched Clint's face grow more and more expressionless as he listened to the argument brewing. Setting her bottle on the table, she stood. "Shut up."

The other three immediately silenced, to her immense satisfaction. Glancing down at Clint, she inclined her head. Sighing, he rolled his beer between the palms of his hands. "We home school her," he decided.

Steve furrowed his brow. "I don't know what that means."

"Not that hard to figure out, Spangles," Tony muttered, throwing the contents of his glass back as he walked around the end of the other couch. Natasha slapped his shoulder in reproach.

"We'll find a curriculum online," Bruce answered. "And teach her lessons in the comfort of the mansion, rather than sending her out to learn from people that, admittedly, probably have IQs less than half of ours." He took a sip of his beer. "And because she's not in a public or private school, there's no record of her, right?"

Clint stared at him with curiosity, and Bruce smirked, tipping his bottle back. Natasha nodded in understanding. "You would know a thing or two about staying off the grid," she murmured, appreciative. He lifted his beer, saluting.

Steve finally sat down, pulling out a beer for himself. "I must admit, I like that plan better," he confessed with a sheepish grin. "I wasn't really happy about sending her off anywhere."

His admission seemed to appease Tony's irritation, and the billionaire relaxed, dropping to the couch beside Steve. He said nothing, but knocked his refilled glass against Steve's bottle in a gesture of apology. They sat in the stretching silence for a few minutes, until Bruce leaned back.

"So," he mused. "Who's going to teach what?" His question was met with blank stares. He rolled his eyes, setting his empty bottle on the table. "Come on guys," he entreated as Tony stood and returned to the bar. "We each have our strengths, so we should each teach her a subject. It's logical."

"I claim math," Tony spoke up quickly, glancing around at the others. "I'm great at math."

"I had no idea," Steve muttered dryly, causing Clint to snicker into his beer. Steve chewed his lip for a moment. "I can teach her history. I'm already teaching myself, anyway."

"Tash is good with languages," Clint volunteered, nudging Natasha with his knee. She speared him with a mild look, but did not disagree.

Bruce searched vainly for a pad of paper and a pencil. Eventually, he gave up and pulled a tablet off of the side table, quickly pecking out some notes. "Are you okay with that?"

She glanced back at Clint, holding another of their infamous silent conversations. Finally, she nodded. "Put me down for English, too," she advised. "I have excellent grammar."

Bruce grinned faintly. "Alright then. Science?"

"You take that, big guy." Bruce raised a brow at Clint, who he would swear was blushing slightly. "You're probably better at it than any of the rest of us."

Tony frowned. "I am excellent at science."

"Physics and engineering are parts of science," Natasha reminded him, sarcasm tingeing her voice. "Not the whole. Bruce is more well-rounded than you are."

The billionaire glared at his friend, and Bruce raised his hands in supplication. "I'm not part of this argument," he maintained. "What about art?"

"Art is not a subject," Tony scoffed, his pride still visibly wounded.

Steve gestured vaguely. "It's on the lesson plans for the schools I looked at."

"That doesn't mean it's useful," Tony retorted, polishing off his third glass. Steve frowned.

"If you keep being difficult, I'll dump your scotch down the drain," he threatened. "Be serious."

Tony snorted, unfazed by the danger Steve posed to his alcohol. "I have a back up stash, which you'd never find," he replied cheekily. "And I am serious. Why does she need art?"

"It's not about need, moron," Natasha scoffed. "It's about developing her creativity. And Steve's the artist, so he'll teach that too."

"Whoa," Steve exclaimed, holding out a hand. "I draw for fun. I have no idea how to teach someone else to. It's just something that I can do."

Clint smirked wickedly. "Since Tony needs to learn the importance of creativity, why not teach himself while he teaches the kid?"

"Excellent plan, Clint," Bruce asserted calmly. "Tony takes art and math."

Tony wrinkled his nose, but acquiesced. Turning to Clint, he frowned. "So, what are you teaching her, Man in Tights?"

"Common sense," Clint replied decisively. Tony opened his mouth, but Clint cut his tirade off. "Not a single one of you has thought about teaching her how to tell time, or the days of the week, or anything else that we've known for so long that we don't even remember learning. So I'll be handling that."

Tony's mouth snapped shut. Steve suppressed a smile. "That's a great plan, Clint," he said. Clint shifted, wary of the kind compliment. Natasha shook her head in silent answer to his air of mistrust. "Telling time is what sparked this whole thing to begin with."

"Meaning?" Steve turned to Natasha and told her the story. She leaned back. "Then we should get started."

"I'm already ordering workbooks," Bruce announced as Tony pointed to the tablet for emphasis. "We should have them within a couple of days."

"Well, until then," Steve began with hesitation. "Can we let her be a kid?"

Tony downed the last of his glass. "Absolutely."

Tony took Steve's request to heart and, when the packages containing the workbooks arrived, he confiscated them.

"Tony." Natasha's tone was distinctly threatening, to no avail.

"I need time to form some lesson plans," he told her with a slight degree of hauteur.

Her eyes flashed. "Then pass out the rest of the books so that we can make lesson plans as well." As he faltered, she pressed her advantage. "Or you'll find yourself teaching basic first aid, too."

Sniffing lightly, he cracked open a box and began rooting through it. "Just so you know," he said conversationally as he handed her a stack of English materials. "Bruce is much better at first aid than I am."

"Bruce wasn't the one that I was going to be injuring," she hissed back, taking her supplies upstairs. Tony shook his head at her and brought the rest of the boxes to the kitchen, passing them out.

(Y/N) squealed with delight as Thor played with her in the backyard, Steve keeping a watchful eye on the pair from the kitchen. Bruce handed Tony a glass of orange juice in exchange for the science textbook and smiled as Thor picked (Y/N) up with one massive hand, holding her tightly, and took off. Turning back around, he accepted a plate of breakfast from Steve while Tony began to peruse his math materials.

Tony's expression grew blacker and blacker as he scanned the contents of the workbook. Clint entered the kitchen and watched with amusement as Tony flipped to the end, now thoroughly scowling at the brightly colored book.

"Problem there, Iron Ass?"

Tony flung the offending item on the counter. "What the hell is this?"

Clint pulled the book closer, flicking through the first few pages. He arched an eyebrow. "It appears to be your standard first grade math homework," he replied, his voice dripping with mockery. "Addition, subtraction. The hard core stuff."

Tony frowned. "I can't teach that."

"Are you fucking kidding?" Clint snickered. "It's basic math!"

Tony shot him a pointed glare, unaware of the amused glances Bruce and Steve were shooting each other. "For normal people, sure. My basic math doesn't even have numbers anymore."

Clint choked on a laugh. "Fine," he allowed. "You want me to take math?"

"Yes," Tony replied firmly, shooting the workbook one last, offended glare. He picked up his forgotten orange juice. "I'll teach her physics."

Natasha walked back into the kitchen, plucking his juice from his hand and taking a sip. "You can't teach a five year old physics," she chided.

Tony scoffed, reaching again for his glass. "Why not? I built my first circuit board at four," he said, oblivious to Bruce mouthing the words in sync with him.

"You're you, Tony," Steve reminded him gently. "Why don't you try a few of the simpler points and see how that works."

The billionaire huffed. "Fine."

As Tony walked back down to the labs to sulk, Bruce turned to Clint, who was sipping at the cup of coffee that Natasha had set in front of him. He eyed the archer for a few moments with amusement. "Do you even have a plan?"

"Right now?" Clint gestured blindly with his cup. "Nope."

Natasha had worked out a morning schedule for lessons, leaving the afternoons free for play. Steve, as the early riser, taught history while he fixed breakfast for the team. After breakfast, Natasha took over with English and French. Bruce had science lessons when Natasha was finished, and Tony worked his physics class into the various projects that he and (Y/N) worked on. Clint taught in much the same manner that he took naps – randomly.

Steve was baking cookies and (Y/N) was sitting at the kitchen table with a coloring book when Clint dropped into the seat beside her. The little girl glanced askance at him, scooting slightly to the side. Clint frowned slightly, but ignored it.

"Math," he said succinctly.

Steve turned from the stove, smiling encouragingly at the pair. "Sounds like fun." He raised an eyebrow at Clint's empty hands. "No workbook?"

"Some things shouldn't be taught from books," Clint replied. "Sometimes, you have to learn in the real world. And Tony was right. That book is crap."

Steve chuckled lightly, dropping a dollop of dough onto the cookie sheet. "I promise not to tell him."

"I appreciate that, Cap," Clint said. Turning to (Y/N), he raised his brows. "Math."

Darting a glance at Steve, (Y/N) obligingly closed her coloring book and carefully placed her markers back in the box, setting them both to the side.

"Alright kid," he muttered, facing her more squarely. "Let's start with the beginning."

Clint patiently walked (Y/N) through the basics of math for the next half hour, quizzing her along the way. (Y/N) signed her answers to him, but Clint could tell that something was missing. The feeling niggled at the back of his brain and he grew more and more frustrated at time wore on.

"So two plus two is four," Clint said, watching for some sense of understanding from his pupil. (Y/N) wrinkled her nose as she held up four little fingers for the third time, and he sighed, running his hand through his hair.

"Something wrong?" Steve pulled out another batch of cookies from the oven.

Clint replied tightly, "She knows that two and two is four, but she doesn't understand it. And I don't know how to teach her that."

Steve eyed the distressed look on the little girl's face and frowned. "She likes the pictures in our books," he informed Clint, picking up the spatula from the counter. "She may be a visual learner. Try showing her what you mean."

Clint glanced around the kitchen, looking for four of anything, when his gaze lit on the last of the first batch of cookies. Reaching for them, he was thwarted when Tony picked the plate up and stuffed a whole one in his mouth.

"Seriously, Stark?"

Tony furrowed his brow as (Y/N) started giggling. "What?" he mumbled around a mouthful of cookie. Swallowing, he grinned at (Y/N) and ignored Clint's glare. "I was hungry."

"Here," Steve murmured, setting a new plate in front of Clint and effectively ended the brewing argument.

"Okay." Clint took four cookies from the plate and gave two to (Y/N), keeping two for himself. He pointed at her pair. "You have two, one, two." Showing her the cookies in his hand, he continued. "I also have two. See?" She nodded, her eyes fixed on the treats. "And if I give you two," Clint said, growing a little excited as he saw her beginning to understand. "You have four!"

She beamed at him, and he smiled back, oddly pleased at his success. Continuing the lesson, he pointed at the pile of cookies. "Now, hand me one."

Tony snorted at the expression of abject confusion on her face. Steve leaned back against the counter, amused. Clint frowned. "Come on, kid. Fork one over."

(Y/N) placed her hands around the cookies, pulling them closer to her end of the table. Clint rolled his eyes and leaned forward, intent on finishing the lesson. In a move faster than he expected from a five year old, (Y/N) leaned down and swiped her little tongue across each cookie. Steve and Tony burst into laughter, and she grinned up at Clint with vindication.

Helpless, Clint simply shook his head. "Okay, kid," he murmured, ruffling her hair and taking a cookie off the plate for himself. "No more for today."

"Mr. Stark, it is currently three twenty-nine in the morning."

Tony snuffled, rolling over and burying his face into the pillow. "Why, then, am I awake?"

"I thought it prudent to inform you that Miss (Y/N) has had another nightmare and is currently crying in your lab."

Tony was on his feet and out the door in half a second, tearing down the stairs to the lab. (Y/N) was standing in the middle of the room, tears streaming silently down her face as her body shook with sobs. JARVIS automatically unlocked the door for Tony and he slid to his knees, pulling her into a tight hug. "Oh, kiddo, I'm so sorry, are you okay?"

(Y/N) curled her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder, wailing louder now that there was someone to hear her. Tony sat cross-legged on the floor, rubbing a soothing hand along her back as she quieted her whimpers. Snuffling, she wiped her nose on the tissue Tony held out for her and looked up at him with watery, red-rimmed eyes.

"Do you want to go back to bed?"

She shook her head violently and a couple of tears leaked out.

"Okay, okay," Tony mollified, wiping at the wetness on her cheeks. "How about we go upstairs and watch some TV together?"

She nodded, sniffling a bit more, and Tony stood. He picked her up, letting her cling desperately to him, and walked back up the stairs to the lounge area. Clint was sitting on the end of the long couch and turned from his ubiquitous cop show to watch curiously as Tony plopped down on the other end. "JARVIS," the billionaire murmured. "Cartoon Network."

The television flipped immediately to the desired channel, which seemed to be in the middle of a Scooby-Doo marathon. Clint eyed Tony archly. "I was in the middle of that show," he said calmly.

Tony glared at him over (Y/N)'s head. "My house," he retorted. Clint simply sighed, settling in to the corner of the couch sullenly.

(Y/N) seemed to be slightly concerned with the ghost that was featured in the episode. At its appearance, she tensed, burrowing into Tony's side for comfort.

"Was there a ghost in your dream?" A tiny nod. "Well, pay attention," he said softly. At the big reveal, Tony grinned gently at her. "See? The ghost isn't really a ghost. He's just a guy. And if the ghost in your dream is just a guy, well, you live in a house full of superheroes. No guy is going to get to you." She smiled back, eyelids drooping tiredly.

She gradually shifted from Tony's lap to the cushion beside him, eventually drifting off to sleep with her head pillowed on his thigh. Clint leaned over, halfway through the fifth episode, and yanked a blanket from the pile on the ottoman, handing wordlessly it to Tony.

The billionaire accepted it with a nod, draping it carefully over her sleeping form. Smoothing the edges, he laid one hand on her shoulder, a small reminder that she was not alone. Clint watched with interest. After another quarter of an hour, he finally remarked, "You're good with kids."

"Not all kids," Tony murmured, running his hand along (Y/N)'s back as she snuffled and shifted to a more comfortable position. "Just this one."

Clint accepted that, turning back towards the television. Tony was in a rare form, and that threw Clint slightly off balance, unsure of how to proceed.

"I'm not."

His words echoed slightly in the space between cartoon and commercial. Tony leaned to the side, propping one hand on the back of the couch as the screen flashed colors into the darkness of the room.

"Not what? Good with kids?" The archer nodded once in acknowledgement and Tony half smiled. "No one is, to start with."

"Cap was," Clint felt compelled to point out.

Tony snorted loudly, rubbing soothingly at (Y/N)'s shoulder when she twitched at the noise. "Yeah, well, Spangles is good at most everything he puts his mind to. And he's a total sap, so the kid thing should be no surprise." He glanced sidelong at Clint. "It does take practice. And patience."

"Impressive that you can manage it then," Clint deflected.

"You have no idea." There was a lengthy pause. "I didn't have a great home life."

Clint huffed a laugh. "Did any of us?"

"Not my point," the billionaire admonished. "I'm not going to lecture you. You're a grown man, so you can do what you want. But Steve isn't the only one that's noticed your disappearing acts. So if they are because you're scared, suck it up. You think we're not terrified?"

Clint stared at Tony, surprised both by the quiet vehemence in his tone and the subject matter. Tony shook his head.

"Every last one of us is scared, on some deep level, that we're going to ruin this kid's life. That she'll turn out as fucked up as we are. But that's not keeping us away. Understand?"

"Somewhat," Clint admitted. "Mostly, I'm shocked that you're the one telling me this. It's very uncharacteristic."

Tony chuckled lightly. "I haven't had a decent night's sleep in four days, and that's affecting my brain-mouth filter."

Accepting the topic change with open arms, Clint raised a brow sardonically. "You have a filter?"

"Sometimes," Tony grinned. "And honestly? It's less of a filter and more of a sieve."

Clint snickered into his hand, and Tony sobered to some extent. "I'm not going to push if you don't want to be a part of her life. Frankly, I'm having a hard enough time sharing." Clint smirked. "But I can tell you this. There will come a day when you regret not being there."

Silent, Clint nodded in acknowledgement. Tony watched the screen for a few minutes more, before complaining softly that his leg had fallen asleep. More gently than Clint had thought him capable, he eased himself from beneath (Y/N)'s head and picked her up, carrying her upstairs.

Clint remained on the couch until well past dawn.

Steve padded downstairs in workout clothes and stopped short at the sight of him. "Everything okay?"

Jolted from his reverie, Clint turned to the soldier, somewhat startled. "Yeah," he assured. "I'm fine."

Steve nodded hesitantly. "Your, uh, phone is going off," he informed Clint, pointing at the table. As Clint answered the call, Steve moved into the kitchen and started the coffee maker. After a few non committals, Clint ended the call.

"I've been called in on a mission," he said bluntly. Steve nodded as the scent of coffee percolating began to permeate the air.

"Just you?"

"So far. Might have back up later."

Steve leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms. "Natasha?"

"Probably." Clint shrugged. "If she wants to leave the kid."

Steve smiled slightly. "She will, for you." Clint had no reply, knowing that it was true and hesitating to acknowledge it. Letting the subject drop, Steve lowered his gaze to his shoes. "When do you head out?"

"Probably today," Clint admitted. "The sooner I head out, the sooner I get back, right?"

"That is the theory."

Clint eyed the unofficial leader of the Avengers. "Something on your mind, Cap?"

"Nope," the soldier replied immediately. Clint smiled humorlessly.

"I'm calling bullshit on that one." He continued to watch Steve. "Is this about the kid?"

That earned him a frown. "Her name is (Y/N), and no, it isn't. You're part of my team, and you're leaving on a solo mission that I know nothing about. Call me a mother hen, but I worry."

Relaxing slightly, Clint shrugged off Steve's concern. "Not my first rodeo, Cap," he reminded gently. "I wouldn't be too concerned."

Steve was quiet, allowing Clint to draw the conclusion that, no matter what he said, Steve was going to worry regardless. Low voices and a thumping near the stairs alerted them to Natasha and (Y/N)'s arrival.

"She's up early," Steve muttered absently, his eyes on the staircase.

Silently, Clint walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. "She had a nightmare last night." Steve looked sharply at him. "Came in with Tony around quarter to four this morning and watched cartoons till she settled."

Steve nodded, and turned to Clint as the girls started down. "Be careful. On your mission."

Clint raised his cup in salute. "Always am."

With her lessons over for the morning, Natasha delivered (Y/N) to Bruce. The scientist grinned at the little girl, and something uncharacteristically devilish in the expression gave Natasha pause.

"What are you planning on doing today?"

"The Coke and Mentos experiment," he replied somewhat enthusiastically, turning an infectious smile to the redhead.

She snorted, crossing her arms as his excitement began to make more sense. "What on earth does that have to do with science?"

Bruce shrugged, rising to grab the materials. "I'll figure that out later."

Natasha rolled her eyes, the corners of her mouth turning up. "That's not a Bruce thing to say."

"It is rather a Tony thing, isn't it?" he asked with humor. Placing the supplies in a bag, he held out his hand for (Y/N) to take. "I find that Tony and (Y/N) have a lot of fun in art class. I think it's time for science to be fun."

"Define 'fun'," she requested warily.

Bruce smirked lightly, reading her concern. "They did abstract art last week, which consisted of covering the lab with drop cloths and throwing full cans of paint on a canvas." Natasha pinched the bridge of her nose, trying not to smile. "Also, finger painting."

"I understand. Have a good time," she said, leaving them to their lesson. "By all means."

When she arrived at her room, Clint was reclining comfortably on her bed. Raising her brow at him, she emptied her pockets onto the desk and gestured for him to move over. Leaning back against the headboard, she faced him. Wordlessly, he reached out to pluck two pencils from her ponytail and handed them to her.

They were silent for a few moments, before Natasha finally spoke. "Mission?"

Clint nodded. "I head out today," he murmured with a pointed look toward the packed bag beside her closet.

Natasha mulled his words over. "Need me?"

"I always need you for something," Clint teased, allowing Natasha to hit him in retaliation before he sobered. "Maybe. I'm not sure yet."

"I'll be there when you call," she said succinctly.

Clint glanced at her, then returned his gaze to the wall as well. "What about the kid?"

"The boys can handle her." Clint raised a brow at her nonchalance, causing her to shrug. "They're not that inept. Steve is positively skilled at child rearing. They can survive with her long enough for me to rescue you."

"I won't need rescuing," Clint replied firmly, pointing a finger at her. "I never need rescuing."

Natasha snorted inelegantly. "Indonesia."

"Does. not. count," he growled. She sniffed, settling more firmly against the headboard. Lingering, Clint fidgeted with the threads in her coverlet. "I'll call."

She pursed her lips. "I know you will."

Scooting to the end of the bed, Clint slid off the end and hefted his bag over his shoulder. Returning to the side of the bed, he leaned over and brushed a kiss to her temple. Turning to the door, he stopped short when he heard her soft voice.

"Are you going to say goodbye?"

Blinking at her, he asked, "To the team?"

She breathed in deeply, clearly trying to calm herself. "To (Y/N)."

Clint paused, staring at her. "Am I supposed to?" he questioned slowly.

"It might be nice."

"I'm still not a saint," he warned her.

She shook her head. "Saying goodbye to a small child isn't a saintly act, Clint. It's sweet."

"You should know by now, Nat. I'm not a sweet kind of guy," Clint murmured, walking out of the doorway. "I'm all full of vinegar."

Clint quietly slipped out some time before lunch, leaving a gaping hole at the table, and a surprisingly subdued (Y/N). In an effort to cheer her up, Steve and Natasha took her outside to play and left Bruce and Tony to retreat to the labs. Tony lost himself in his work immediately, pulling one of the cars outside to tinker with.

Bruce remained in his lab, immersed, and only looked up from his notebook at the sound of Steve and Natasha bickering heatedly.

"I told you that you were playing too rough with her," Natasha snapped. Steve rolled his eyes, too stressed to care that it would anger the assassin further. Turning sideways, he slipped through the door she held open.

"She's five, Natasha," he reminded her, cuddling (Y/N) closer as he spoke. "She's going to get scraped knees. It's part of the job, right, sweetheart?"

(Y/N) nodded faithfully into his shirt, but her pained sniffle only stoked Natasha's ire. Bruce calmly closed his notebook and set it to the side, watching Steve hold (Y/N) close and take Natasha's verbal beating.

"You didn't pitch this much of a fit when Thor took her flying a couple of weeks ago," Steve complained.

Natasha's hands fisted at her sides to keep from slugging Steve at the memory. "Thor didn't let her fall," she ground out.

"I didn't let her fall." He sounded uncharacteristically exasperated. "And," he retorted with a hint of smugness, "you can't lay a hand on Thor without breaking your own bones."

"I can hit you just fine," she snarled.

"Is everything alright?" Bruce stood, figuring it was best to interrupt the pair before Natasha made good on the threat in her eyes.

"No," she growled. "Steve let (Y/N) bleed."

"Hey," the soldier began to protest, but Bruce held up a hand. Smiling at (Y/N), he gently pulled her from Steve's arms.

"Why don't the two of you go settle this elsewhere," he said pointedly, setting her down on the countertop, "while I take a look at this little scratch?"

Shooing them efficiently out of the lab, Bruce regarded the little girl on his lab bench. Her tiny face was streaked with tears, scrunched up to try and stem the flow. Digging into his back pocket, he produced a handkerchief and began wiping at her cheeks.

"I used to live in India," Bruce said idly as he set about gathering the supplies he needed. "They speak Hindi in some areas, and one little girl, that you remind me of, taught me a pretty word. Shehad. Do you know what that means in Hindi?"

Glancing back at her, he saw her shake her head. "It means honey. We use it here as a term of endearment. Did your Uncle Phil call you something like that?"

She nodded, and Bruce smiled as he brought the last of the supplies over.

"I'm going to have to clean this up, okay, shehad? It's going to hurt, but you're a brave girl. I know you are." He tried soothing her with his voice as he dabbed some hydrogen peroxide on the scrapes. (Y/N) gripped the edge of the counter, whimpering.

He spread some Neosporin on her knee and carefully placed a large bandage over his work. Wiping away a few residual tears with his handkerchief, he smiled at her. "There we go," he murmured. "See there, shehad? All better."

She nodded and clung to him as he lifted her from the counter. She wrapped her arms firmly around his neck, unsubtly telling him to carry her. Obliging, Bruce carted her into the garage, where Steve and Natasha were engaged in a silent battle of wills.

"It was touch and go for a moment," Bruce announced, diffusing the tension. "But she was so brave." Letting her down and passing a hand over her head, he smiled when she leaned into his leg for comfort. He smiled at Steve and Natasha. "Everything's fine now."

"That's a relief," Natasha spat, reaching down and inspecting (Y/N) for additional injuries.

Bruce glanced at Steve, receiving another eye roll as an answer. Quietly detaching (Y/N), he left her to Natasha's scrutiny.

"Everything alright?" he muttered to Steve.

Steve suppressed a snort of derision. "Clint left today on a mission. Natasha wanted him to say goodbye, and Clint was Clint."

"Ah," Bruce said. "Then this makes much more sense."

"Something on your minds, boys?"

The two men turned to Natasha, eyes wide. "Nope," they replied simultaneously.

Her eyes narrowed. "Good choice." Turning to (Y/N), she rose and held out her hand. "Let's go see Uncle Tony, serdce. He won't say mean things about Aunt Natasha."

"Really?" Steve raised a brow at Bruce. "That's news to me."

"Don't start," she hissed on her way past. "Don't start."

Natasha was incorrigible for days, so much so that the men left (Y/N) to her care, as the little girl was the only one who could lighten the assassin's black mood. Sizing up the situation, Thor declared his intentions to visit Jane and promptly left his companions to her mercies.

"Traitor," Tony muttered beneath his breath when Thor informed him of his plans.

The demi-god grinned at him. "There is such a thing as strategic retreat," he replied laughingly. "Send word to Jane Foster when the Widow is less temperamental."

Steve nodded and Thor left. After a week of the rest of them walking on eggshells around the prickly redhead, Clint called her in and she was more than ready to go.

"Take care of her, or I kill you in the worst ways imaginable," she threatened as she threw one of Tony's cars into drive and pulled out of the garage. Tony scowled at the retreating taillights and Steve lifted his hand in mock salute.

Bruce rubbed at the back of his neck and shook his head. "She terrifies me," he confessed.

"She terrifies everyone," Steve placated. "She's supposed to." Turning to Tony, Steve raised his brows. "You want to take first watch?"

Tony grinned. "Kid's all mine."

The lights in the labs were on and music was blaring, covering up any noise that could have alerted Tony and Bruce to the arrival of Clint and Natasha.

"I can't believe you got hurt again," Natasha scolded lightly as she helped Clint from the car. "You're such a klutz."

"It's not my fault," Clint rejoined, groaning lightly as the thin scab on his wound stretched and tore. "That rebar was out to get me, Tasha. It had bloodlust in its eyes."

"Shut up," she muttered, throwing Clint's arm around her shoulder and supporting him to the hallway. "Let's just get you to the couch."

"It's just a scratch," he protested.

They slowly traversed the hallway, passing (Y/N) playing quietly on the way. Clint ruffled her hair as he passed, blood beginning to leak from the slash on his side. The little girl watched them continue down the hallway and turn into the lounge, moving slowly to accommodate Clint's increasing weakness.

Leaving her dolls in the hall, she trailed after them, peeking around the corner. Natasha settled Clint gingerly on the couch, darting into the kitchen for some towels. (Y/N) frowned at the scene and ducked back into the hallway.

Bruce and Tony were arguing about something involving Santa when she walked into the lab lounge, causing them to silence abruptly. Tony glanced at her furrowed brow with concern. "What's up, kiddo?"

She walked forward, wrapping her fingers around his pinky, and tugged him out of his chair. Looking back, she wrinkled her nose at Bruce, indicating that he should follow. Bemusedly, Bruce stood and walked up the hallway to the lounge.

The two men stopped short at the sight of Natasha wiping blood from Clint's exposed torso, a pile of reddened rags littering the floor. (Y/N) poked Bruce's leg, drawing his attention downward. "Fix him," she whispered, to the abject shock of the entire room. "Please."

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