“I love you,” she says, breaking the now hour long silence, and Tony just about splutters his coffee across the little table he’s sprawled today’s newest pointless project across. Instead, he swallows it with a loud gulp and sets it back down, clearing his throat.
“Excuse me?” he replies, glancing back at her.
“You heard me, Stark,” Nat snorts from where she’s leaning over a trashy magazine she’d pulled in to read while he worked. Her eyes flash up a moment, and she catches his gaze before licking the tip of a finger and flipping a page laboriously.
“Yeah, I just. I think I missed the whole,” and he picks up a screwdriver, turning back to his little drone and waving his hands in the air, “I don’t know, reason, I guess. Most people don’t just toss the L word at me. Not with all my clothes on. I mean, not usually.”
“Well. Get used to it, pal,” she jokes, staring down at her magazine. “That’s a fully clothed love bomb just for you.”
They sit in a half-awkward silence as Tony tightens some of the screws, with the awkward coming firmly from Tony only, as Nat’s perfectly comfortable where she sits. He turns, staring at her for a long moment.
“I thought you were the cold, heartless killing machine,” Tony says finally. “Remember? You’re the scary spider and I’m robot man? Not the random-L-word-using Widow.”
“It’d never fit on a business card,” she sighs, “too many letters.”
“Paragraph breaks, I’m telling you. Life savers. Look-”
“And it looks sloppy-“
“Natasha,” and the exasperation in his voice makes her look up. He looks a little panicked, and a little something she can’t really place. Conflicted, maybe. Shocked? Lost? She’s not sure, which is weird, coming from Tony “Open Book” Stark. “Cmon. Be serious.”
“I am being serious. I love you.”
“How’s this even a thing?” He does in fact sound panicked, and she realizes very suddenly why. She never says it, he never hears it. They’re the dream team. Nat purses her lips, trying to decide how to do this.
“It’s not like… romantic love. It’s not love the way you see in the movies. It’s not even really love, it’s just the only word I have to describe it.” Nat wrinkles her nose slightly. “I’m not sure how to explain..”
“Loyalty. But ‘loyalty’ isn’t strong enough. And it’s kind of just it’s own thing. Like…” Nat shakes her head. “No.”
“No what?” Tony shifts, cocking his head at her from over his shoulder.
“It’s like … when I love someone, they’re another letter in the word,” she explains, her tone almost disinterested in that classic Nat Romanoff sort’ve way, where she is actually extremely invested in whatever she’s saying but she doesn’t want to give it away. He doesn’t want to fuck this up, because it’s one of those moments where he can tell that if he doesn’t take this the right way he’s seriously going to fuck whatever weird friendship they have together up, so he just listens, tapping the handle of the screwdriver against his palm. “Clint’s been my friend the longest, so he’s L. He’s a big L.”
“I mean, if you were ever going to describe Clint Barton with a letter,” Tony laughs, and she flashes him a little look, the ghost of a smile on her lips.
“Well. You’re the big O,” Nat replies lightly, and Tony snorts.
“Again, perfect description. Right?”
“In your dreams, maybe.”
“In SOMEONE’S dreams, at least, I don’t really care whose,” and he pushes off the stool he’s perched on, standing in front of where she’s sitting and wiggling the screwdriver at her. “Hey, baby. I’m the big O on campus.”
“You’re insufferable,” she says, looking up at him, voice completely toneless.
“That’s why you love me. So- big O. Bigger letters. Who’s V?”
“I don’t have a V yet,” and she shrugs. “The O’s pretty new. I have to take it slow so it all balances out.”
“So you just had boring old Barton Love, then?”
“Yep. And now I have frustrating Tony lOve,” and the stress on the O sounds hilarious so he grins wider, which makes her grin a little too. “You say it like that. So you know who you’re talking about.”
“Ohhh, I see, I see.”
“Don’t laugh, I’m pouring my heart out here.” She’s only half joking. He holds his hands up in surrender. “So I have this… love, I guess, and there’s more than one person who makes it up.” A beat. “Now, anyways.”
“A group effort love? Nice. Sounds hot.”
“I don’t think Barton’d be into that.” She tries to go back to her magazine, but looks up, face vaguely concerned, instead. “Do you know what I mean?”
“No, not in the slightest. The whole, big L, big O thing? No clue,” he shrugs. “But I know you’re not the type to just say shit like that.”
“Right,” and then, so very quietly, “I’m trying to be.”
“I just don’t want you to feel like you’re alone. You’re- … too important,” Nat replies after a few seconds of silence, "to me," and the weight in her words settles on his heart like a warm blanket.
“Well. For what it’s worth,” Tony says softly, leaning over to tap his forehead to the top of her head, “I’ll be your big O any day.”
“Thanks, slugger,” Nat murmurs with a small smile.
She waits until he’s sat himself back down and settled into his work again, listening to his movements, feeling completely at home in his little lab. He reaches for his coffee cup and she decides to strike.
“Also,” she says, not a single second of her tone giving away the joke, “I think we should bang.”
God, that little splutter is worth it.