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The doctors tell Tony that he may never recover the use of his voice. They tell him the shard of glass that went through his neck barely missed his jugular veins and carotid arteries. They tell him that the irreparable damage to his vocal cords is the best possible outcome. They tell him he’s lucky to be alive.

 

But Tony isn’t lucky to be alive. His mother is dead. His father is dead. And Tony, at twenty-one, cannot speak.

 

Obie tells him everything will be okay and that he’ll handle everything.

 

So Obie takes care of Stark Industries as Tony tries to get his feet back under himself.

 

Tony learns American Sign Language in a month. He hires an assistant that knows ASL. He builds an A.I. that reads his signs through a camera and then speaks them out loud. He proves to everyone in the fucking universe that even though he can’t speak he’s still a goddamn genius and he isn’t to be underestimated.

 

Tony builds an empire.

 

Tony tries not to think about how he’ll never hear his own voice again. Tries not to think about the little grunts and hums that are all that’s left for him now. Tony doesn’t focus on the vertical, two inch long, white scar just to the right of his Adam’s apple. Or the matching scar just under his left ear.

 

Entry and Exit.

 

Tony tries not to think about how his words make sense now. Tries not to think that the first thing his soulmate will say to him is about his disability. Tries not to flinch every time he hears someone say the same phrase he has marked on the left side of his rib cage, just under his pectoral.

 

Mr. Stark. They tell me you’re mute.

 

He hears it all the time. And no one will be able to tell him if they’re his. Because he’ll never give them a response to have marked on their skin.

 

Tony tries to move on. He doesn’t need a soulmate to be happy.

 

He doesn’t.

 

--

 

Somehow—some-fucking-how—Tony survives Afghanistan. The thought that stays with him through the entire time is ‘I survived the car crash that killed my parents. I survive being mute in a talking world. I will survive this.’ And he does.

 

But Yensen doesn’t.

 

It eats Tony up inside.

 

Tony survives Obie’s betrayal. He survives Palladium poisoning. Somehow, Tony becomes a super hero.

 

So when Tony meets Captain America in a glass-walled S.H.I.E.L.D. conference room and Steve Rogers himself says, “Mr. Stark. They tell me you’re mute,” Tony doesn’t flinch. He just signs, ‘Nice to meet you, Captain R.O.G.E.R.S.’ and waits for his A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S., to translate it.

 

Tony tries to tell himself that Steve isn’t his soulmate. He tries to tell himself that somewhere out there, there is someone who says the words that Steve keeps hidden under a brown leather wrist cuff that goes halfway up his forearm. Tony tries to convince himself that Steve isn’t his.

 

Tony was always bad at telling himself no.

 

--

 

Tony figures the one redeeming quality about his whole ‘silently in love with Steve Rogers’ thing is the fact that—ironies aside—no one knows he’s Ironman.

 

That is to say, the general public doesn’t know he’s Ironman. Nor the Avengers. Just a few higher ups in S.H.I.E.L.D. know.

 

And Pepper.

 

And Rhodey.

 

And Happy.

 

So, really, no one knows.

 

The big thing that really separates Ironman from Tony Stark—besides Tony having so much blood on his hands—is that Ironman can talk.

 

Well, no. Ironman can’t actually talk. But the suit does have a very hi-tech lip reading software calibrated to Tony’s musculature and lip patterns. And the vocal sounds are based one hundred percent off of every single sound bite of ‘Tony Stark from before the accident’ that Tony could find. So the suit talks for Tony just like J.A.R.V.I.S. talks for Tony. Just in different ways.

 

So Tony spends every moment he can spare in the suit, talking to Steve, to Pepper, and to the rest of the team. He pretends that this is what his life would have been like if he’d never gotten into that car that his father was driving. Pretends that there’s nothing wrong and that his life isn’t the goddamn train wreck that it is. Tony pretends he deserves the friends he has. Pretends that maybe whatever is under Steve’s cuff is something common, like his, but something that Tony could have said to him in the suit.

 

So being Ironman makes the whole pining thing easier.

 

Sort of.

 

Not really.

 

Not at all.

 

--

 

Tony doesn’t expect that Steve would actually want to be friends with him. With Tony.

 

Steve and Ironman are already great friends so it boggles Tony’s mind that Steve would want to be friends with Tony.

 

What does Tony have that Ironman doesn’t?

 

Ironman is a hero.

 

Tony Stark is a war profiteer.

 

Ironman can fly.

 

Tony Stark has several very fast, very sleek cars.

 

Ironman visits sick children in hospitals.

 

Tony Stark avoids doctors like the plague. Those assholes have never done anything for him.

 

Ironman has morals.

 

Tony Stark… doesn’t.

 

So there’s absolutely no reason for Steve to visit Tony’s lab besides maybe saying hello and asking for armor upgrades and then leaving. Nothing about Tony—or his lab—should make Steve want to stay and hang out.

 

But he does.

 

Steve, that is.

 

Stay.

 

And hang out.

 

Tony’ll be going on three hours of binge-building and Steve’ll trump down the stairs, platter of food in one hand and a book in the other and he’ll just set the food on the nearest clear space and sit in the nearest clean seat and just read or draw quietly.

 

It pisses Tony off.

 

No one—except Rhodey and Tony’s ex Rumiko—enjoys spending time with him down in the lab. Pepper hates the disarray. Happy gets mother henned by the bots. All of Tony’s exes eventually got bored of waiting for him to give them the time of day while he was drafting or creating things. One ex even told Tony that he hummed and it was ‘the worst, absolute most god awful sound’ they’d ever heard, ‘like a saw blade and a bag of broken glass got in a fight and the result is your vocal cords.’

 

But Steve either doesn’t hear his saw-blade-verses-glass humming—impossible—or he just ignores it. Even more impossible. It has to be the most annoying noise in the world.

 

Tony would know, he’s a genius.

 

Tony asks Pepper about it. About Steve and if he hangs out with the other Avengers like he hangs out in Tony’s lab.

 

Pepper just shrugs a shoulder and tells him he’s over reacting.

 

So Tony puts on a suit and asks Steve about himself.

 

And Steve just fucking shrugs tells Ironman that Tony always seems so lonely and he knows what that’s like. No one should have to be alone.

 

Ironman doesn’t say anything and just takes off to his lab to freak out in peace.

 

Hours later, when Steve wanders into the lab, Tony gives him a well-placed shove and signs, quick and angry, that he doesn’t appreciate anyone’s pity.

 

Steve has the good graces to look confused. And then, suddenly, he’s rubbing a closed fist over his chest in a circle and telling Tony it’s not pity. That he really does enjoy the time they spend together and that he likes being down in the lab because it’s the only peaceful place in the mansion some days.

 

Tony doesn’t know how to take that. The only person who’s ever been his friend because they enjoy his company was Rhodey. Even Pepper and Happy had to be paid to be around him, at least at first.

 

Tony touches his fingers to his forehead and then pulls them away, ending with his pinky and thumb extended.

 

Steve shrugs a shoulder and tells Tony he just does.

 

Tony grunts and tries not to cry—because why does Steve care—and then moves to the farthest corner of his lab and tinkers around with nothing and studiously ignores Steve.

 

Hours later, Steve drags Tony away from his welding torch. He touches his fingertips to his lips and then covers the back of his wrist with the hand that had touched his mouth.

 

--

 

After Tony notices, it takes him three weeks to ask Steve who’s teaching him ASL.

 

Steve’s signing can be a bit formal so Tony thinks maybe it’s Pepper. But occasionally he’ll throw in the initialized form of a sign so maybe it’s Clint, whose signs ASL to Tony, Signed Exact English to people who piss him off, and, once, Japanese Sign Language to Rumiko.

 

Tony asks Pepper about it first.

 

Predictably, Pepper rolls her eyes and tells Tony to ask Steve himself.

 

But Tony pouts and Pepper eventually admits that, yes, she has critiqued Steve on his signs once or twice and has shown him the signs for a few words he was wondering about.

 

Tony doesn’t bother asking Clint. The little shit wouldn’t give him a straight answer. Probably just tease Tony from across the room like he usually does. (Yeah, you keep making that open-closed hand motion over your heart and Tony’s gonna punch it.)

 

So when Tony finally asks Steve, Steve sort of blushes and stammers—adorably—and points to himself. And then Steve splays his hands out vertically, bends his middle fingers in and moves them back and forth against each other not quite touching them together.

 

Tony laughs, a deep gravely noise, like boulders shifting, and signs to J.A.R.V.I.S. to help teach Steve.

 

Tony spends the next few hours showing Steve his favorite signs.

 

--

 

Tony wants to say that the first time he and Steve kiss is an accident, but it isn’t.

 

Like many things that happen in Tony’s life, it happens in the lab, while he’s working on the next Ironman suit.

 

Tony’s hunched over the spinal circuitry, his lips moving silently as he mentally works through what he has dubbed ‘The Servo Problem’. He knows he can get the response times even faster, he knows he can. He just has to figure out how.

 

Tony’s so wrapped up in his own head that he doesn’t notice Steve’s moved from his corner of the lab and taken the seat across the bench from him.

 

When Tony finally looks up from the wiring, it’s like in the movies—where the whole world stands still and it’s just the two of them. Tony’s never seen that look on anyone’s face before. And certainly never directed at him.

 

Steve stands—doesn’t even bother walking around the table, just leans over it—and presses their lips together, soft and gentle and heartbreakingly sweet.

 

When Steve pulls away, slowly, Tony’s frozen, unsure if that really just happened or if he imagined it.

 

But in the silence Tony just bends his right hand at the knuckles and arcs his fingertips into his left palm.

 

Steve laughs once, a nervous sound, and walks around the table.

 

Tony wishes this was an accident. Wishes he feeling of Steve’s palms cupping his face wasn’t so addictive. Wishes he could push Steve away and snap a ‘no’ at him. Wishes he didn’t crave the feeling of Steve’s lips against his or Steve’s tongue in his mouth as much as he does. Wishes it was an accident so that when the whole illusion comes crashing down, maybe it won’t hurt as much.

 

But Tony’s hands betray him.

 

Tony grabs onto Steve’s shirt. He threads his hands through Steve’s hair and digs his fingers into Steve’s skin. Tony can’t help it as his hands clench on Steve’s hips and Steve trails kisses down his neck, the blonde’s teeth nipping at Tony’s exit scar.

 

Tony can’t help the desperate, grinding moans that slip out as Steve slips his own hands up Tony’s shirt, over his back, dragging them closer. He can’t stop his hips from rutting against Steve’s. Can’t find the willpower to pull his hands out of Steve’s pants.

 

And after, Tony can’t find the right signs to refuse when Steve asks him to dinner later. So he just nods and knocks his knuckles into Steve’s bare chest.

 

--

 

Tony imagines what it would be like if he could speak.

 

The first thing he’d say to Pepper would be to thank her for putting up with all his shit through the years. She deserves so much better than she’s gotten.

 

He’d tell Rhodey how grateful he is that the other man even exists. Rhodey learned ASL for him. They’d met before the crash that took his voice and Rhodey was the one to remind him ASL was an option. Rhodey was the one to get him through the resulting depression that is Tony’s life.

 

To Happy, he’d tell him every lame joke he’d ever thought the man would like but relied on homophones for the punch lines. They just didn’t translate as well in sign sometimes.

 

To the Avengers, he’d just thank them for having his back and being there for him, for Ironman. For being his first real friends.

 

And to Steve… To Steve, the first thing he’d tell him is that he loves him. That he’s been in love it him for years and sometimes it over whelms him, makes him feel like his chest is about to burst and all he can do is giggle his little broken giggle. Tell Steve that he wants to watch that slow, happy smile he gets curl over his face every chance he can. That he, Tony, wants to be the cause of it, always. He’d tell Steve how confused he gets sometimes because no one’s ever just gotten Tony like Steve does and it blows his mind. Would tell him that he’s never as great a man as he is when Steve’s at his side.

 

Tony would tell Steve, again and again, how much he loves him. Over and over until he loses his voice again.

 

It would be worth it.

 

--

 

Tony thinks about Steve’s words a lot, too. The cuff Steve wears—sometimes leather, sometimes fabric—goes halfway up his forearm. Whatever his soulmate has to say, it must be a lot. Must speak for a solid three minutes at least. Tony wonders if it’s a prompt or a response. He wonders if the writing is big or small, if it’s even legible.

 

Steve never takes the cuff off, not even for sex, and the one time Tony had asked what it says—because Steve’s seen Tony’s words curling across his ribs, has run his hands over them and pressed is lips to them in small, soft kisses—Steve says it doesn’t matter before pulling away, just slightly, just enough. Just enough for Tony to know that Steve still cares about them—both his words and his soulmate. Just enough for Tony to know that he doesn’t matter to Steve quite as much as he wants to.

 

But most of all, when it comes to Steve’s words, Tony wishes they were his.

 

--

 

Tony googles ‘speech therapy’, memorizes a few phone numbers, and then deletes the results from his browser history.

 

--

 

The woman Tony meets with, a doctor by the name of Veda Shankar, tells him that because he waited so long to seek therapy, he may never regain full use of his voice.

 

Tony shrugs and signs to her that that’s okay. That he only wants to be able to say one phrase, anyway.

 

He holds up a thumb, his index finger, and his pinky. Then he signs through a closed fist with his thumb bent against his knuckles in the front. Then a fist with his thumb under his index finger. His fingertips resting against his thumb. His index and middle fingers held aloft, like a peace sign. Then his fingertips resting against his thumb again.

 

The therapist nods and tell him that that, at least, should be doable.

 

They meet once a week every week. Pepper, when she sees the time blocked out in his planner, rolls her eyes and gives him a soft smile. She tells him she’s proud of him.

 

--

 

The day the Avengers find out that Tony is Ironman, Tony gets an exploding arrow to the faceplate.

 

The faceplate is strong enough that it protects Tony from any serious damage but it also explodes into a million damn pieces in his face. So the left half of the faceplate is completely blown away, ruining his lip reading tech and sending shards of glass and metal into Tony’s face.

 

It looks worse than it is.

 

So Tony rips the remainder of the faceplate off, throws it to the ground, and speeds off back into the fight.

 

It is, unfortunately, radio silence from Ironman, which is highly unusual. Half the team is worried about him and the other half is trying to get his attention and Tony is too busy defeating the bad guy to sign to J.A.R.V.I.S. to activate an alternate communication system.

 

After the enemy is defeated, Tony lands gently and quietly amongst the rest of the Avengers. His face is covered in his own blood, dripping red into his suit, and heart in his throat.

 

They’re going to throw him off the team. For sure, now that they know Ironman is Tony Stark, they’ll know he doesn’t deserve to be a hero. Tony’s too broken and dirty, his record far too bloody. They won’t let him be Ironman anymore.

 

Janet sees him first.

 

Tony can see her eyes widen and her jaw drop. Her hands fly to her face and in a second she’s crossed the ten feet that separate them and goes to press a bundle of gauze to his face.

 

Tony takes a step back before Janet can reach him. He splays his hand out flat and taps his thumb to his chest.

 

Janet shakes her head and moves to press a gauze to his face again. She calls for one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. medics. She tells them it’s Ironman and he’s hurt.

 

Tony’s looking over Janet’s shoulder as she speaks. Over her shoulder at the Avenger whose opinion matters most.

 

He looks at Steve.

 

Steve sees the blood first, covering half of Tony’s face. He sees the wiring and the jagged metal, sees the hole in the suit. And then—then—he sees who’s inside it.

 

Tony’s name falls softly, so softly, from Steve’s lips. Like a leaf falling from a tree in autumn. Like the end of things.

 

This is it. This is when that gently crafted dream where Steve will love him forever falls apart. Tony can see it in the shocked curve of Steve’s lips, in the aborted half step Steve takes toward him.

 

Tony can see it, but it doesn’t mean he has to stay.

 

Tony takes off before the medics arrive.

 

He heads to his lab and tries not to look at Steve's things, nestled in the corner like they belong there.

 

Tony has the bots get his suit off and heads straight for the first aid kit he keeps under the sink in the attached bathroom. Tony picks the larger pieces of glass and metal out of his face, rinses the blood off, and then scrubs the smaller debris out with a soft bristled brush. He rubs an antibacterial into his cuts and butterflies the bigger ones closed. The smaller ones will be fine, he thinks. The bruising can’t be helped. The ruptured blood vessel in his eye will have to have a cold compress.

 

Tony doesn’t notice all the blood that soaked into his ratty white tank top.

 

He walks to the freezer in the kitchenette to grab a towel and the ice pack for his face.

 

He paces, one hand on the ice, the other tugging at his hair or his shirt or pulling at his bottom lip.

 

He’s an idiot.

 

He should have just left after defeating the guy. Shouldn’t have gone back to the Avengers. Should have just radioed in from lab to say he headed straight back for suit repairs.

 

Such a fucking idiot.

 

Why the hell did he ever think he could be more than lowly, sissy, little Tony Stark? Just a weak, fleshy thing in a suit of armor.

 

What is Tony Stark without Ironman?

 

A murderer who designs killing machines and calls them peacekeeping devices.

 

And now that the Avengers know that, they’re going to want someone else in the suit. They won’t feel comfortable fighting alongside him anymore. Tony is nothing but a benefactor. Ironman is the hero. And Ironman isn’t Tony Stark.

 

And Steve…

 

Steve will know. Steve does know. Knows that there’s nothing good to Tony Stark. Will know, now, that there is nothing good to Ironman either. That both of the men Steve considered his friends are lies and he won’t want to even see either again.

 

Tony’s such a dumbass.

 

Tony never should have become Ironman in the first place. How could he even try to redeem himself? How could he think that being a hero changed anything he’d done? All the wrongs he’s committed? The people his weapons have killed? How did Tony ever even start to think he could make up for that?

 

Tony Stark is nothing but a self-centered murderer.

 

The door to the lab bangs open so suddenly and so loudly that Tony drops his ice pack when he nearly jumps out of his skin.

 

Tony bends to pick it up and almost faints from the head rush. He braces himself on a table and presses the ice to his face, an excuse not to look at Steve furious one.

 

Steve must have come to the lab straight from the debrief—or skipped it altogether—since he’s still in full uniform.

 

Tony focuses on the red leather of the boots.

 

Steve says Tony’s name and when Tony looks up at him Steve points at Tony’s face and then brings his index fingers together in a twisting motion.

 

Slowly, Tony pulls the ice pack away from his face. He takes in a deep breath and waits for Steve.

 

Steve winces, hands nearly cupping Tony’s face but stopping in time to just hover.

 

Steve asks why Tony never told him. Never told the rest of the Avengers. Steve tells him how mad he is. Mad that Tony just left after being injured. Mad that Steve, as leader of the Avengers, was never informed that Ironman had a heart condition. Mad that the arch reactor in Tony’s chest powered the suit, too. Mad about how much danger Tony was putting himself in. Mad because he cares so damn much.

 

Finally, after all the yelling and pacing and hair pulling, Steve asks who did know. Asks if he just wasn’t important enough to tell, says it with a little defeated half shrug.

 

Tony drops the ice pack to the table, cups Steve’s cheeks with his cold hands, and shakes his head. Tony feels tears prickle in his eyes. He shakes his head again, not willing to let go of Steve to explain yet. When Steve meets his eyes again, Tony catches a glimpse of the small boy from Brooklyn that Steve used to be. The one he still feels like some days. The one that’s used to falling short and not being enough.

 

Tony shakes his head again and then pulls back to explain. Signs out his reasons and beliefs and how he just wants to make up for his sins. Tony explains everything. About the suit and how it works and about Afghanistan and Yensen and the car crash and all the tech he created—the good and the bad—and about Obie and about Howard.

 

Eventually, Steve lays his hands over Tony’s, stilling them. Steve says that he understands. He tells Tony that he’s not a monster or a murderer or an idiot. Steve presses Tony’s hands to his cheeks and tells Tony how beautiful and brave and how smart he is. He tells Tony how proud he is that Tony looked at the empire he created and, when he saw that he didn’t like, he tore it down and started over. Steve wraps an arm around Tony’s waist and the other around his shoulders, a hand sinking into Tony’s hair.

 

Steve tells Tony how much he loves him.

 

Tony, with his chin hooked over Steve’s shoulder, can feel tears starting to roll down his cheeks. Damnit. Tony isn’t a crier but right now, with Steve’s face in his neck, he can’t help it. Can’t stop the burning feeling of being loved from tearing him apart.

 

Tony knows he hasn’t done his exercises or his warm ups but he needs Steve to know how he feels. Knows he needs to tell him. Even if they’re not Steve’s words, they need to be said.

 

Tony clears his throat as best he can, tries to make sure that the words he wants to say will come out clear and comprehensible. After all, that’s what his voice therapist, Veda, has been trying to teach him for the last few months.

 

So Tony concentrates and forces out a small, gravely, “Steve,” and he can feel Steve stiffen in his arms but he has to press on, has to get the rest out before Steve interrupts him.

 

“Steve,” Tony says again, “I love you.”

 

Steve sucks in a wet breath against Tony’s neck. Tony wishes he thought to ask to learn more than just those four words. Wishes he’d asked to learn them all so he could tell Steve how important he is. But he’d told Veda that those four words were enough. So he says them again.

 

“I love you, Steve.” Tony’s voice cracks and breaks and—oh, god—everything hurts but he said what he needed to say so it has to be enough for now. It has to.

 

And then Steve’s pulling back and pressing his lips to Tony’s and ow.

 

“Sorry,” Steve says as lets go of Tony’s face as if he’s been burned. “I forgot—uh, I forgot about your face.”

 

Tony starts to snicker but it hurts, lord, it hurts, and he stops, hand pressing to his throat.

 

“Do you need—?” Steve starts but Tony’s already grabbing the ice pack from the table and pressing it to his neck.

 

“How?” Steve asks.

 

Tony shrugs a shoulder, sets the ice back down and signs about his therapist. About the meetings and all the training because he wanted to be able to say something to Steve.

 

“You didn’t need to do that for me,” Steve says. But even as he says it, he’s fiddling with the straps of his harness and pulling the zipper of the uniform jacket off.

 

Tony gives Steve a confused look and raises his hands, palms up.

 

“I need—,” Steve starts, tugging his arms out of the sleeves. It leaves him in his t-shirt, jacket falling uselessly to the floor. And then Steve starts rolling the edge of his fabric cuff down.

 

Tony grabs Steve’s wrist, shaking his head desperately, because if those aren’t his words under there, then he doesn’t need to know.

 

But Steve leans into Tony and begs against his lips, “Please, let me show you.”

 

And Tony’s never been able to resist when Steve asks like that.

 

Tony nods.

 

Steve rolls his cuff off his wrist and shoves it in his pocket. He takes Tony’s hand and places it against his bare wrist and then presses his hand to Tony’s ribs, where his words are, thumb stoking lightly against his shirt.

 

“Look. Tony.”

 

And Tony opens his eyes slowly. He twists his hand around and there they are.

 

Steve’s words.

 

Dark and just as jagged as Tony’s voice is.

 

Steve

Steve

I love you

I love you

Steve

 

“I always thought—.” But Steve doesn’t finish because Tony kisses him, hard and fast.

 

Tony pulls back and holds his fingertips to his nose and then, as if flicking water off his hand, splays his hand out flat between them. He kisses Steve again.

 

When they part, Tony holds up his thumb, index, and pinky fingers. He presses them into Steve’s chest.

 

Steve smiles and curls his hand around Tony’s.

 

“I know,” Steve whispers. “I’ve always known, in a way.” Steve kisses Tony again.

 

“I love you, too, Tony.” Steve wraps his arms around Tony and draws him close. “But don’t think this gets you off the hook for the whole ‘secretly Ironman’ thing.”

 

Tony giggles and buries his face in Steve’s shoulder.

 

--

 

Every day, Steve tells Tony that he loves him.

 

And every day, Tony tells Steve the same thing back.

 

It might be the only thing Tony can say, but it’s also the only thing Tony needs to say.