Chapter Twelve: The Offer
Late that night, Natalie was woken by Loki, who was apparently having a nightmare, if his shaking was anything to go by. Natalie was worried; it had been a while since the last time he had had any nightmares, and she gently woke him up as she turned on the light. Unlike the last time, he recognized her almost immediately, and Natalie asked, "Was it the torture nightmare again?"
Loki shook his head. He had told Natalie a little about his time with the Chitauri and the torture he went through, but it was still painful and hard for him to talk about, even with Natalie. "This was different," he said. "I was in Asgard, and I was five years old again. It was more of a memory than a nightmare, but Odin was beating me again, this time in front of Thor and our mother. And they did nothing to stop him. Frigga at least looked uncomfortable, but she did not stop Odin, either, not even when he broke my arm."
Natalie was horrified, but she kept that feeling off her face as she asked, "Was that the first time he beat you?"
"No," Loki said. "I cannot specifically remember the first time he hit me, but I believe I was three years old at the time."
Only her training and sheer force of will kept Natalie from bursting into tears. Instead, she pulled Loki into her arms. "I am so sorry you had to go through that, Loki," she said softly.
Loki hugged back, but Natalie sensed his hesitation in doing so, and asked, "What's on your mind, besides the nightmare?"
"Natalie, do you pity me?" Loki asked.
Natalie pulled back and looked at him, thinking. Finally she said, "The only emotions I feel for you are love and a burning desire to help and protect you. While I'm sorry you had to go through so much pain, I don't really think of my feelings towards you as pity. I know that most people don't enjoy being pitied, and I think you'd hate it if I pitied you. It would most likely give you the idea that I believe you're weak, and I don't want you to think that, because you're the strongest person I know."
"You believe I am strong?" Loki asked.
"Of course," Natalie said. "You're very strong. If you weren't, you wouldn't be able to recover the way you are now. I want you to remember that, okay?"
"I will try," Loki said softly, and then yawned.
Natalie smiled. "Let's go back to sleep," she said. They curled up together, and fell back to sleep.
The next morning: Natalie went to her TA job after breakfast, and got through the morning with little trouble. She had another class to help with after lunch, and then she could go home. On her way home, though, she got a call from Tony and asked, "What's up, Tony?"
"Are you home yet?" Tony asked.
"Almost, why?" Natalie asked.
"When you get home, put something nice on and come over here," Tony said, and hung up before she could say anything.
Odd, Natalie thought as she walked into her apartment. Loki apparently wasn't home, so she guessed he was with Tony. She went to her closet and pulled out a sky blue cocktail dress that she almost never wore, but kept around anyways. She took a quick shower and put on a pair of skin-tone tights and the dress, then braided her hair out of her face and tied it off. Finishing her look with a sapphire pendant, she picked out the sky blue flats that went with the dress, grabbed her purse, and left again. She walked to Stark Tower, still puzzled about what Tony might want, and why he had told her to dress up.
When she reached the living room after being let in, she found Tony and Loki on the sofa. Tony was wearing a semi-formal suit, and Loki appeared to be sulking. They looked up as Natalie walked in, and she blushed when Loki looked awestruck and Tony whistled. "So, what's going on?" she asked. "And Loki, why were you sulking?"
"Tony is apparently taking you out for dinner and I am not coming," Loki said. "You look beautiful."
"Thanks," Natalie said. "Anything else I need to know?"
"I was banished to the lab while Tony had a talk with the other Avengers, but I do not know what that was about," Loki replied. "I still do not understand why I cannot come with you."
"You'll find out," Tony said. "You do look beautiful, Natalie."
"Thank you," Natalie said. "Where are we going?"
"Ristorante Morini," Tony said. "Loki informed me you like Italian food, so I figured that would be a good choice. It's a bit of a step up from the restaurant Loki told me about, which is why I had you dress up a bit."
"Is this fancy enough?" Natalie asked, tugging at the hem of her dress.
"It'll be fine," Tony said. "Come on, I called a car to take us there."
"Alright," Natalie said, still a bit hesitant. She looked at Loki, and said, "See you later, Loki."
"Sayonara," Loki said, smirking a bit.
Natalie grinned at him. Tony looked confused, and Loki said, "Natalie is attempting to turn me into an otaku. It seems to be working."
"You mean those people in costumes?" Tony asked.
"It's called cosplay, and not all otaku are like that," Natalie said. "I don't always do cosplay, but my brother does."
"Okay then," Tony said. "Let's go, you can tell me what your brother does on the way."
Natalie giggled and followed him out of the tower. She was shocked to see a limo waiting for them, and looked at Tony, who motioned for her to get in. She did so, and Tony got in as well. The chauffeur drove off, and Tony asked, "So what does your brother dress up as?"
"He's gone to Comic Con every year since he was five, and he goes as someone different every time," Natalie said. "He's gone as several different anime characters, but last year he got into superheroes."
"Do I even want to know who he went as?" Tony asked.
"He went as Captain America, but after Comic Con was over, he said the funniest thing," Natalie said. "He said, "What do these guys see in all that Spandex? It's kinda creepy, actually."
Tony started laughing. "So who's he going as this year?" he asked.
"Take a guess," Natalie said, smirking.
"You've gotta be kidding me," Tony said.
"Nope," Natalie said. "My brother Kevin is going to Comic Con as Iron Man. I believe he's already started working on his costume."
"He's trying to remake the suit? How?" Tony asked.
"Cardboard and metallic paint," Natalie said. "Kevin likes art, so it's perfect for him."
Tony looked slightly disappointed, and Natalie, guessing the reason, said, "Kevin would rather do it in metal, but when he suggested that to our mom, she went into a rant about how dangerously unsafe it would be, and I think I heard something about, 'you're going to burn your face off', too."
Tony snickered as the car stopped and the chauffeur opened the doors. Tony got out and extended his hand to Natalie, who took it and got out as well. She waited as Tony tipped the chauffeur, and then they went into the restaurant. "Have you come here before?" Natalie asked as they went in.
"Yeah, I've been to a few business meetings, and I took Pepper here for her birthday one year," Tony said. "They have really great wines here, and the food's amazing."
"You're not going to overdo it, right?" Natalie asked.
"No, I'm not," Tony said. "I learned my lesson, so I won't overdo it."
The hostess came over to them as they arrived, and asked, "Table for two, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, thanks," Tony said.
"Right this way," the woman said, leading them to a table near the windows. She set their menus out and said, "Your server will be right with you. Enjoy!"
"Thanks," Natalie said. She and Tony sat down, and Tony asked, "Why did you seem nervous when I mentioned wine?"
Natalie sighed. "I'm sure you noticed I was pretty collected and in control that day you got alcohol poisoning, right?" she asked.
"Yeah," Tony said. "I was surprised you weren't yelling at me."
"The whole thing was an act," Natalie said flatly. "I was terrified, Tony. Calling 911, telling Bruce and Steve that I would handle things, telling the doctors everything I knew- I did that all on autopilot, and I was only able to keep my cool because of the training I've gone through to remain calm in any situation. The four hours I spent in the ER waiting room? I didn't even notice how long I was in there; I was too busy wondering whether this was my fault, wondering whether you'd survive, and thinking back to my cousin's funeral. When I went into your room that morning, and found you like that, for a split second I saw my cousin. They did an open coffin thing before the actual funeral, so people could say goodbye. I saw what Andrew looked like, and you looked exactly like that when I found you. It took all my self-control that day to keep from breaking down again, and when I got home that night…. well, let's just say that's the first time Loki's seen me crying. You scared me half to death, because I've seen one too many people drink themselves to death, and part of me wondered if what I told you the night before had caused that. The main reason I wasn't yelling at you was because of my training. I knew it wouldn't help if I got upset; the only way I could see that would get you to listen was staying calm and collected, and I knew me getting hysterical or angry wouldn't do you any good. You have no idea how relieved I was when the doctors told me you'd be fine."
Tony was looking at her, shocked by her admission, and finally said, "I'm sorry. I've never had a friend who cares this much, though. I guess I'm not really used to people caring about me or panicking over what I do, so I don't think about it. I'm sorry for scaring you."
"I can't say it's fine, but thanks for apologizing," Natalie said, as a man came over with a pitcher of water, and filled both their glasses. "Can I start you off with something to drink?" he asked.
"Do you have root beer?" Natalie asked.
"Yes, of course," the man said, though he looked slightly surprised.
"I'd like that then," Natalie said. She noticed Tony looking at the wine list, and he said, "I'll have a glass of the Chianti, please."
"I'll have those right out," the man said, and left. Natalie looked at her menu, and Tony asked, "Would you like to share an appetizer?"
"What did you have in mind?" Natalie asked.
"They have a nice calamari dish here," Tony said.
"Sounds good, I've only had calamari once, but I remember liking it," Natalie said.
"Alright, and what do you want for the main course?" Tony asked.
"Their Spaghettini looks good," Natalie said. "I like seafood, but I don't get it very often. What are you getting?"
"Agnello," Tony said. Seeing her puzzled look, he said, "It's their version of lamb chops."
"Oh," Natalie said. She looked up as the waiter came back with their drinks, and he asked, "Are you ready to order, or do you need more time?"
"I think we're ready to order," Tony said. "Can we get an order of the calamari to start with?"
"Sure, and for the main course?" the man asked, writing that down.
Tony looked at Natalie, who said, "I'd like the Spaghettini, please."
"And for you?" the waiter asked Tony.
"Agnello, please," Tony said.
"Very good, I'll have those out to you soon," the waiter said, and left.
"So you mentioned you've done training to control your emotions," Tony commented after a minute. "Is that required to be a therapist?"
"No, but I've always been very emotional, and I needed to learn to keep my emotions in check before I could even think about getting into the psychology program," Natalie said. "When I first decided that I wanted to go into psychology, I was twelve. I'd been very emotional since I was little, and when I learned that therapists really aren't supposed to cry when their clients told them something sad, I decided I needed a way to make sure I wouldn't have that problem. My parents tried to tell me that I could just choose a different career, but as I told you before, I wanted that career more than anything. So I started looking for a way to center myself first, and found that apparently martial arts are good for centering yourself. I started taking lessons in both karate and Tae Kwon Do. I'd been doing gymnastics basically since I could walk, too. I found that martial arts actually do help calm your emotions, and soon enough I was able to control my emotions much more easily. I kept going, though, and eventually I became a black belt in karate and Tae Kwon Do. I still practice when I have the time, along with my gymnastics skills, but after a while my psych studies became top priority for me. My classmates are under the impression that I'm some kind of prodigy, but I got where I am through hard work and lots of studying. I'm the top of every class I currently take, and I've gotten a lot of good recommendations for when I graduate. I actually had two job offers before I hit my last year, but I turned them down because they were too far away from my family. I don't particularly want to leave New York City, at least until Kevin is done with high school, and maybe not even then. I love it here. By the way, why do you look relieved?"
"You wanted to know why I was taking you out, right?" Tony asked, seemingly ignoring the question.
"Yes," Natalie said.
"My main reason was that I wanted to thank you for saving me, and helping me," Tony said. "But Steve had an idea, which involves you, and I got elected to tell you about it, since I apparently have the best relationship with you. The others all agree to this idea, and I have to admit it's pretty good, as Steve's ideas go."
"What was the idea?" Natalie asked, curious.
"Steve pointed out that all of us on the team have bad pasts in one way or another," Tony said. "And he also pointed out that you're the only person who has ever come into our lives and actually tried to help us through our issues. Mainly me and Loki, even though Loki's technically not on the team, but still. You've helped all of us in one way or another. So Steve proposed- and the rest of us agreed with this- that we offer you a job when you're fully certified."
"What would this entail?" Natalie asked, surprised.
"You'd basically be the team therapist, and we'd be your clients," Tony said. "Loki said something about you wanting to join a clinic; you could still do that if you decided to take our offer, it would just be part-time for both. Steve is currently talking to Fury, that guy you threatened to castrate, about this, since we're technically part of SHIELD, and if you took the job, it would be SHIELD paying you, not me. Steve's apparently pretty confident Fury's going to like this idea, since I'll be honest, we're pretty messed up. I'm not asking for a decision right now, but I'd like you to think this over, maybe talk with Loki and your family about it, and get back to me when you make a decision."
"Do you know if I'd be asked to see other agents from SHIELD?" Natalie asked. "I don't mind, but I'm just curious."
"I don't think so," Tony said. "They do have other therapists around, and medical officials, and people like that, but Fury's problem with us is that we've all refused to go into some office and talk to people we don't know about our problems, confidentiality laws or not. We all hate hospitals, and we don't talk to just anyone. That's why Steve and the rest of us thought that since you're always at my tower anyways, it would be a good idea to offer this opportunity to you."
"I'll definitely think it over," Natalie said. "I think it's a good idea, but I should think it over."
"Completely understandable," Tony said.
The waiter arrived with their food, and they paused to thank him. After he left, Tony said, "So, are you planning on marrying Loki?"
Natalie squeaked. "We've barely known each other a month, I'm not even sure he'd be interested!" she said. "What brought this on?"
"You two are really close, I just thought I'd ask," Tony said innocently. "Besides, Frigga gave him rings for the two of you."
Natalie was bright red as she looked away and started eating. Finally she said, "I guess I haven't really thought about that yet. The problem I'm having with that is knowing that Loki is immortal, and I'm not. That's a big thing to think about if we both decide we want to take the next step at some point."
"I'm sure you'll work something out," Tony said. "But we can talk about something else if you want."
"What did you have in mind?" Natalie asked.
"What are your classes like?" Tony asked.
"They're difficult, but it's still fun," Natalie said. "My professors are really supportive, and they do a good job with their teaching methods. The funny thing for me is that everyone thinks I'm some kind of prodigy, since I'm the top of every class I'm currently taking. I'm smart, but the main reason I got this far is because I take my studies really seriously. When I first started out, I almost never went out with friends, and the only times I really hung out with people were study sessions. I loosened up after a while, but I still work really hard to stay at the top. The only class I barely had to work at to understand was the psychoanalysis class I took- which is ironic, because that's supposedly the hardest course in the program. As for the other classes, I enjoy challenging myself, and as I'm sure you're aware, I'm very motivated to get this right. My final exam, which will determine whether or not I get the certificate I need to practice, is in three weeks."
"That's coming up fast then," Tony commented. "What are your professors like?"
"I'm down to three classes a week, since I've passed all the others with flying colors," Natalie said. "So I have two professors, since Professor Chen teaches two of my classes. All my classmates, and my friends, are older than me. My professors don't acknowledge that I'm the youngest; they treat me like any other student, and I'm grateful for that. Some of my previous professors were kind of doubtful I'd be able to get the degree I wanted in such a short amount of time, but I proved them wrong. The professor who teaches my third class, Professor Markel, is really nice, and she likes me a lot. She actually called me in the day after you were in the hospital about the news report."
"News report?" Tony asked.
"You didn't know?" Natalie asked. "My mom called and said that the speech I gave you made the evening news. Professor Markel called me in to tell me that she and all my other professors were really proud of me. I was totally embarrassed, but I guess it's the thought that counts."
"Oh jeez, I forgot about that," Tony said. "Natasha saw it and told the rest of us."
"My friends were very curious about it," Natalie said gloomily. "I managed to distract them with Loki's irrational fear that my mother is plotting to feed him to something, and they haven't asked about you since."
"Do you have a lot of friends?" Tony asked.
"I have three, and I call them the Giggle Sisters," Natalie said. "Amelia and Marie are really into celebrities, but Katie's not, luckily. Katie's more into fantasy books than the real world."
"Your friends aren't fan girls, are they?" Tony asked warily.
"Amelia and Marie are sometimes," Natalie admitted. "I have no intention of having you meet them, though, so don't worry about it. Also, Marie is a lesbian, and she tends to keep her fan girl side to famous women. Katie's getting married soon; I'm really happy for her. My friends are nice to have, even though they're all in their thirties, and I'm only twenty-two."
"Is it hard having no one your age?" Tony asked. They had finished eating.
"Not really," Natalie said thoughtfully. "What's hard is the fact that I don't have anyone among my peers who I can go to for help with schoolwork. Being the top of the class does have its downsides, but luckily I don't usually need help."
"I'm kind of surprised you're getting such a high degree after only six years," Tony commented. "Doesn't it usually take longer?"
"I got my Bachelor's degree in two years rather than four, and skipped the Associate's degree," Natalie explained. "That's part of why I'm considered a prodigy; I'm young and I'm already almost to my Doctor of Psychology degree. If I pass the final exams, I'll have a ton of job opportunities besides what you suggested."
"How do you think you'll do on the exams?" Tony asked.
"Provided I get enough study time, I think I'll get a good grade," Natalie said. "I'm hoping for full marks, but only time will tell what I get, I suppose. We've got the whole weekend off before exams week, and I plan to spend it studying- not that I won't study before that, but it's good to revise and look things over."
"Sounds like you've got everything covered," Tony said. "When's exams week?"
"May 2nd through May 6th," Natalie replied. "Why?"
"So I know when not to bug you," Tony said with a grin. "When's graduation set for?"
"May 15th is the date they set for the doctoral candidates," Natalie said. "My grandparents on my mom's side are coming from Georgia for the weekend; it'll be good to see them. I'm picking up the tickets on April 30th, which reminds me, I need to fill out a form to get tickets for Loki and my grandparents, since they only give you enough for three guests, and they make six."
Tony appeared to be thinking, and then asked, "Would you mind if I came?"
"I don't mind," Natalie said, startled. "Any particular reason?"
"You're my friend, why wouldn't I want to come to your graduation?" Tony asked.
Natalie smiled. "I'll ask for four extra tickets, then," she said happily.
Tony smiled as the waiter came back, and asked, "Do you want dessert tonight?"
"I think I'm good," Tony said. "Natalie?"
"Same here," Natalie said. "Besides, if we leave Loki alone too long, you'll run out of chocolate in short order."
Tony chuckled and told the waiter, "I'd like the bill then."
"Of course," the waiter said. He left, and came back with the bill. Tony got out his wallet and took out his credit card, then signed the bill and left it out with a large tip. The waiter came back and took it. Five minutes later, he was back, and he said, "Thank you, and have a nice night."
"Same to you," Natalie said. The waiter smiled and left. Natalie got her purse and got up, followed by Tony, who led the way to the door. They hailed a cab, and went back to Stark Tower.
To their surprise, Steve seemed to be the only one there, and he looked up as they came in. "Clint and Loki are fighting," he said.
"What happened?" Natalie asked, worried.
"They had a dispute over something that I think was a chocolate bar, and I dragged them to the training room," Steve said. "I also talked with Fury."
"How'd it go?" Tony asked. "Natalie's agreed to think the idea over."
"Fury said, and I quote, "If it helps you lot, I'm all for it." Apparently he's sick of hearing complaints from the other agents who he actually succeeds in forcing into therapy. They're jealous that he doesn't do that to us."
"Cool," Tony said. "I guess we'd better go stop Reindeer Games and Legolas."
"Good luck," Steve said dryly, and went back to playing with Evergreen.
Tony sighed and led the way to the training room, where they found Loki and Clint beating each other up while rolling around on the floor. Natalie exchanged a glance with Tony, and suggested, "You get Clint and I get Loki?"
Tony nodded, and they walked over to the pair. Clint was currently on top, and Tony reached down, grabbed him by the collar, and yanked him off of Loki, while Natalie held Loki back from going after Clint. "So why are you two acting like this?" she asked sternly.
"Barton was under the mistaken impression that I would not mind if he took half my chocolate stash," Loki said.
"It wasn't YOURS, it was in Tony's pantry!" Clint said indignantly. "So technically, it's free chocolate!"
"So let me get this straight," Natalie said in a sweet tone of voice that caused the guys to wince. "You two were having a fight over CHOCOLATE!?"
"Yes," Loki said.
"And you couldn't wait till I came back so I could take you home and you could eat mine?" Natalie asked.
"The chocolate was begging to be eaten," Loki replied.
Tony snorted as Natalie asked, "Who started this?"
"Barton, I was in the kitchen eating chocolate and he stole some from me," Loki said.
Natalie looked at Clint, who looked disgruntled, and asked, "Do you deny this, Clint?"
"No…. but he had basically all the chocolate in the house!" Clint said defensively.
"You could have asked him to share," Natalie said reasonably. "Sharing is caring, you know."
"What makes you think I care about HIM!?" Loki and Clint asked at the same time.
Natalie sighed as Tony started laughing. "Clint, I want you to apologize to Loki for trying to steal his food," she said. "And then you two are going to shake hands and stop fighting, got it?"
"I do not want to shake hands with him," Loki said grouchily.
"Would you prefer the couch tonight?" Natalie asked.
"Oh, very well, but he has to apologize first," Loki groused.
"Wow, she's got you wrapped around her finger," Tony commented.
The others chose to ignore him as Natalie said, "Clint, what do you say to Loki?"
Clint sighed and said, "I'm sorry I tried to steal your food, Loki."
"Apology accepted," Loki said, and they shook hands. Loki came over to Natalie, and asked, "How was your dinner?"
"I had a really nice time," Natalie said.
"Why was I not allowed to come?" Loki asked.
"Tony had an offer for me, and I'm guessing he wanted to talk to me alone," Natalie said.
"What was the offer?" Loki asked.
"To see if I wanted to work for the Avengers as the team therapist after I graduate," Natalie said. "I'm considering it, and I think I'll talk to my parents as well."
"Just make sure they know they can't tell anyone about this," Tony said. "It could put them in danger."
"I understand," Natalie said. "I think I'll see if I can call a family meeting this weekend, and ask them what they think. I should get home. Tony, thank you for dinner, and I'll be sure to get you a ticket."
"Great," Tony said. "I'm glad you had a good time."
Natalie smiled, and she and Loki left.
As soon as they got home, Natalie called her mother, and when she picked up, said, "Mom, I'd like to talk with you and Dad in person; can I come over on Saturday?"
"What's going on?" Mrs. McKenzie asked.
"I got an offer I'd like to talk to you and Dad about- and can you make sure Kevin's either watching anime or not in the house? It's kind of a sensitive topic," Natalie said.
"Alright, your brother is taking a girl named Hanna out on Saturday at noon; come over then," Mrs. McKenzie said. "I'll let your father know. Is Loki coming?"
"Yes, and I'd appreciate it if you stopped trying to fatten him up, because he's now convinced you're plotting to feed him to something," Natalie said dryly.
"Oh, fine," Mrs. McKenzie said. "See you Saturday."
"Bye," Natalie said, and hung up.