"This campus is crawling with demons," Tony declared over the din of the lunchroom in the dorms. He had his own tower, complete with robot chef and private cheese fridge, but liked to visit his friends in Avengers Dorm at random times. This was apparently one of them.
Natasha poked at her meal, lip curling slightly at it. "Why does it feel like I'm the only one trying to solve the mystery of this place?"
Janet had her pirate costume on, including the patch, and huffed at Natasha in exasperation. "I am doing my part with the Halloween treat bags, you know. I investigate them very thoroughly. No bad candy so far!"
"You on a sugar high is a very scary thing," Tony declared.
"Arrr, matey," Janet said, growling at him and leaning in closer. "Just you wait until I make you walk the plank!"
"I think you're taking this whole costume thing way too seriously," Natasha said.
"A T-shirt is not a costume," Janet declared, pointing at Natasha with her fork. "I don't care what your T-shirt says, it is not a proper costume. I'll have to make you one."
"This is me being festive!" Natasha insisted. "I can't have a costume that will interfere with my ability to search for clues on campus."
"My costume doesn't interfere with anything," Janet pouted. "Do you really think I'd make something that would ruin your style?"
"Probably not. But with everyone else in costumes, it seems rather silly for me to wear one, too."
"Steve loves being Cap Wolf, and I didn't even make that one. Or Sam's," Janet admitted. "It's pretty cool, though. I did make the zombie and Red Riding Hood outfits."
"Which is why they look awesome," Tony told her, grinning. "I know that the faculty got freaked out when they saw a zombie coming at them with a sword and shield in sparring practice."
Janet's laughter was actually maniacal sounding, and Natasha looked at her in concern. "Perfect! I knew that would be a fantastic costume."
"You are dangerous," Natasha told her in grave tones.
She preened and then snapped a selfie. "Absolutely. Now, I intend to practice some sword fighting myself. Tony, you said you were working on something so you couldn't help me..."
"Yep. New repulsors and automated targeting. Can't do it."
As soon as Janet turned to Natasha, she shook her head. "I need to keep solving the mystery, Janet, you know that. You'll have to ask someone else."
"Are you two working together?" Janet asked, eyes narrowed slightly.
Natasha snorted. "Tony isn't interested in this at all."
He shot her a wounded look and was nearly pouting. "Natasha, I'm really hurt by that. You know I've helped you every time you asked me."
"But you don't care what caused the time fog. Or what Fury's hiding."
"Clowns," Tony replied promptly. "Trust me, you don't want to see those videos on his computer. And his search history is frightening. Not worth the detention I got."
She sighed and shook her head. "I'm going to do what I do best and investigate," she told them, getting up from her seat. She frowned at her lunch, then decided to toss it. "I'll get something from the coffee cart, maybe."
"I'd suggest the ramen from the noodle shop," Janet chirped. "Tasty!"
"Assuming that the fire demons leave you alone," Tony said, concerned. "Do you want me to go with you? I have some armor plating on, I can protect you."
"No, Tony, I'm fine," Natasha said, rolling her eyes. "I can protect myself."
"Well, yeah," he admitted sheepishly. "But maybe I'd just like to help you."
"Then see if you can hack into Fury's security feeds so I can see what he keeps in those vibranium vaults beneath the campus. He's hiding something, and I'm going to find out what it is."
Janet and Tony watched as she left, and then she turned to Tony to smack his arm. "Hey! What was that for?!"
"Just ask her out, dummy."
"I did. She's not interested. And thinks I'm annoying, as you just saw."
"You know she dances with Loki or studies with him because he actually asked, right?"
"She just wants to use my computers."
"Show her what else you can do!" Janet urged.
Tony just sighed and leaned against Janet. "But she likes Loki more, right? I'm okay with being just a friend. Mostly. Maybe."
Janet threw an arm around his shoulders and squeezed tightly. "You big baby. You should tell her how you feel. She's all about mysteries and stuff like that, not feelings."
"You can handle the feelings for me, right?"
With an irritated huff, Janet shoved him off of her shoulder. "You should go right out there and say something. Now, before she decides that you're really nothing more than a friend."
"She already decided that, Jan."
"How can she if you never ask her out on a date?" She started making brushing motions with her hands. "Go on, shoo. Ask her out. Somewhere fancy in the City, not just hanging out with your computers and JARVIS, as much as I love him. Got it?"
Tony shot her a rueful smile and then nodded. "Got it."
Natasha bumped into Tony as she was coming out of one of the grates in the floor. He jumped back, startled by her sudden appearance, and she smirked at him. "Didn't expect that, did you?" she asked, her tone smug.
He gestured at the grate with a bewildered expression. "Who does that? People will go aboveground. Normal people, anyway. How do you expect someone to pop out of the ground every few minutes?"
"On this campus, with you and Rhodey and Wasp buzzing around overhead? At least I'm the only one going through these tunnels." Natasha shrugged and tossed her hair over her shoulder in an unconcerned manner.
"What about your suit?" Tony asked. "The armor on there is as tough as anything I put in my Iron Man suit. Or Rhodey's full War Machine suit."
"It isn't as clunky as I was afraid it was going to be," she admitted, nodding. "But not what I need right now. I've done a number of extended overhead scans, and I've still come up with nothing."
"Want me to help?"
"I work alone."
Tony sighed and shook his head. "But if you have two people scanning the campus for whatever traces the time fog leaves behind—"
"Don't make me hurt you," Natasha intoned.
"You saying that should not sound as sexy as it does."
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Tony, I have work to do."
"Well, let me hack the system and you can take the tunnels, okay?"
"Why are you trying so hard?" Natasha demanded.
"Are you that unused to getting help that you're suspicious?"
"I don't trust anyone."
Hurt, Tony backed up a step. "Look, if you're that determined to be alone, I'll quit bugging you."
She let out an irritated breath. "There has to be—" Her eyes widened and she reached toward him to push him aside. "Demon!"
Instead of letting her push him out of the way of the ghostly green fire demon, Tony twisted out of her grip in a pirouette-like move that would have made a ballerina proud. As Natasha lost her balance, he shoved at her back so that she would fall to the ground, below the level of the demon.
Unfortunately, that left him exposed to the flames.
The demon, thinking that Tony was about to attack it as Sam and Moon Knight had been doing, spat a jet of flames at him. It hit him right in the chest, right where his arc reactor was placed, and he was too surprised to even scream. The force of the jet knocked him over, and he fell backward over Natasha. He sprawled across the ground, unable to catch his breath. Satisfied, the demon smirked and floated away in a different direction.
Natasha made a frightened sound, which couldn't be right. She didn't do fearful. She didn't do anything other than confident and scary. Yet there she was, cradling Tony and checking his vitals as best as she could.
"Tell me you're okay," she demanded, a warble in her voice that sounded very much like fear.
Tony let out a choking sound, rather undignified. Still, it was even more undignified when she hauled him up and half carried him toward the infirmary in the Triskelion. He could feel her shaking, could see her eyes suspiciously shining when she gazed at him. "You can't be seriously hurt," she told him. This time, the ache in her voice was too obvious, even in his own distress and pain. "I won't let you. Do you understand me? You're going to be okay, Tony. I won't accept anything else from you."
He made another noise that might have been a snarky comment if he had been able to really speak. But his throat and lungs felt scraped raw, making it hard to speak.
The infirmary was staffed with robots and SHIELD agents trained at their medical facilities across the world. That gave them access to treatments that even New York City's medical colleges weren't aware of, and likely were alien in origin. He would probably have to see if he could study himself at Pym's lab when he was feeling up to it; the machines tended to go off and shock him constantly whenever he was there. Natasha wasn't allowed to come in with him, which was possibly just as well. She was all about secrets, but he wasn't about to share the secret of his arc reactor with her just yet.
Later, he was placed in a private room on one of the medical floors of the Triskelion. He couldn't quite explain the treatments he got, but he inhaled quite a bit of gas through a mask that felt like it turned into a liquid as soon as it hit the smoke and heat damage in his throat. The gas also had an effect similar to lidocaine.
"I think I got the good drugs," he slurred when he saw the shadows in his room shift into the shape of a person.
His hand was caught up tightly in someone else's. Then there was a kiss on the back of his hand, and he could feel the hot tears falling onto his knuckles.
"That should be me there," Natasha whispered, voice sounding raw.
"I definitely got the good drugs," Tony said, lips stretching into a smile. "You're here with me." And crying, but he wasn't suicidal enough to mention it to her.
"You shouldn't have done that, Tony. Don't you get it? You're better off without me in your life, and this just proves it."
Tony cleared his throat, shifting the lidocaine-like substance around. "Um. I'm high on pain meds right now, but are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Why do you keep sticking with me?" Natasha asked, that raw quality in her voice. "I keep pushing you away to save you, and you won't let go."
"Save me? Aw, Natasha," he sighed. "I don't need saving, Natasha, least of all from you. I know you're dangerous and kickass and all kinds of scary. But it's in a good way."
"I almost got you killed. And then—" Her breath hitched and she sniffled.
"Wait. I'm slow with drugs. Are you saying you actually do like me? Like me – like me?"
Natasha only sniffled a little in the dark, his knuckles pressed against her lips.
"You didn't get me killed," Tony insisted. "It was the demon. It had nothing to do with you. Even when you were all scary and possessed by the symbiote, you didn't hurt me. Scared me, sure. I'm not dumb even when I'm high and hopeful. You never hurt me, Natasha. I know I'm safe with you, always."
"Well, yeah," Tony scoffed, rolling his eyes. "So's everyone on this campus. That's the point of the Academy, right? We learn how to use our powers for good and be a hero. Right? Well, I was your hero today, is all." He tugged on his hand, hoping he could pull her closer.
Reluctantly, she let him pull her closer. "This is a bad idea."
"No, this is an awesome idea. And you can kiss it and make it better."
She sighed in that weary, almost disgusted way that she had, so Tony lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles in the same way she had kissed him.
"Look," he began, licking his lips nervously. "I trust you."
"You couldn't possibly—"
Pulling at his shirt, he exposed the arc reactor. "It's not just part of the suit, okay? It's not a flashy bit of light to throw it in everyone's face that I'm Iron Man." He shot her a rueful smile when she went very still. "I know you like secrets. So here's my biggest one. And I trust you with it. I know you won't hurt me."
"How can you believe that?"
"Because you care," he said gently, lips curling into a softer smile. "You doubt yourself, and I get it. Staying alone is safe. Shadows are safe. People can screw up and disappoint. They do it all the time without trying. It wouldn't hurt so much if you didn't care about them. Trust me on that one, I know what I'm talking about."
"You don't think I'd take advantage of this?" she challenged. But there was a waver in her voice, that edgy tone gone. "You don't think I'll be heartless and just take it from you?"
Tony tugged on her shirt so that she sat down next to him on the bed. "No. Because I think I get it now. People have disappointed you so badly. So you hang out with the ones that can't possibly disappoint you. But I know you love Jan. And maybe me, if my getting hurt upsets you this much," he added hopefully.
Natasha looked away, unable to meet his eyes. But she didn't move, and her shoulders were slumped slightly, a more defeated pose than Tony was used to ever seeing on her.
"Hey. If you can't say the words—"
"I should, though. You deserve them," she murmured, turning to look at him. The raw, vulnerable expression on her face took him aback. "I do l—care about you. I don't want you hurt. Not because of me or anyone else. Not because of fire demons or experiments blowing up in labs or because of armor failures."
"You've been paying attention to me."
"Of course I have," she replied stiffly. "It's what I do."
"Then go on a date with me. Not just dancing at Club A or going through the computer at Stark Tower. I mean, somewhere fancy in Midtown. Somewhere with a snooty waiter and black tie dress codes. Somewhere you don't have to put on a front to seem like more of a badass than you already are." He pulled on her arm, and she reluctantly let him draw her down onto the bed beside him. "I know you kick so much ass on the regular. You do so much from the shadows, Natasha. Let me do something nice for you for a change."
Her body melted a bit, fitting into his side easily. Her head rested on his chest, not far from the arc reactor, his arm comfortable around her shoulders. "I'm not used to that," she admitted softly. "I'm used to taking care of myself. I work better alone."
"Nope," Tony disagreed. "We work better as a team. Together, Natasha."
She let out a slow breath. "Maybe."
"No maybe. That's a definite. You and I? We're a kickass team. And if you use the Iron Widow armor? Definitely a kickass team."
"You and your armor," she huffed, though he could hear the smile in her voice.
"Stick with what you're good at," Tony said cheerfully. "Loving you is easy."
Natasha was still, as if the words shocked her. Surely someone had said them to her at some point? Surely she felt she was worthy of it?
He let his fingers brush back and forth across her shoulder. "You'll see. I'll be out of here soon, and we'll go to a swanky place in the City."
"If it doesn't work?" she asked in a small voice.
"Then we try again, somewhere different. Hundreds of restaurants in the City. Would you rather Chinese or pot stickers? A good pad Thai or a steakhouse?" He tightened his grip on her shoulders. "Wherever you want to go, whatever you want to try. I'm not going anywhere, Natasha. I promise."
"All right," she said after a moment, voice still soft and hesitant. "I'll try."
Tony grinned and let his eyes fall shut. "Awesome. Very me awesome. Can't wait."
Though Natasha wasn't there when he woke up in the morning, a single red rose was lying on the bedside table. Her phone number was on the card beneath the rose, and Tony couldn't help but grin in anticipation.
Good things came to those who waited after all.