"Right. So we've got one Hulk down for the count because the non-Hulk person apparently failed How To Duck Flying Objects 101. God of Thunder has our six, taking care of the latest mad scientist to try his luck against the Avengers, and seriously, what kind of name is Dr. Amazing?"
"Sir, we have incoming."
"Yeah, I see 'em. What are those things, anyway? They look like popcorn shrimp with wings. Glowy, sparkly wings. Anyway. Hawkeye's in the crow's nest, and I bet that's giving him some major cognitive dissonance right now. Which leaves Cap and Widow on the docks, and no, not in that way, get your mind out of the gutter, JARVIS."
"They seem to be emitting some sort of electrical pulse."
"Duly noted. Scan 'em, add 'em to the database. Let's try to draw them away. If those things get too close to the water, they'll fry our dynamic duo down below. Which reminds me. Steve. New motorcycle engine. Birthday present. Don't let me forget."
"Sir! One of—"
Steve has listened to the recording until he knows it by heart. And still he listens. He can't not listen.
It's the last time Tony ever said his name.
Over his head, Iron Man streaks past. Half the lightning bugs, as Clint has started calling them on the comms, follow closely on his tail. On the ground, Steve watches him fly by, then has to return his attention to dodging the metal projectiles the bugs are spitting. They're small, but each one explodes in a surprisingly large fireball when it makes contact with something. Across the pier, two ships are already crackling with fire and electricity.
He raises his shield seconds before one of the projectiles slams into the disc. It explodes in a spray of fire; flames rain down around him, but the shield protects him from harm.
He never does see the explosion in the sky. He hears it though, and he turns to look, and by then it's too late. The ball of fire and lightning is already dissipating, and Tony is falling.
Months later, he can still hear the sick crunch of impact.
There is no blood.
At the time he is grateful. Later, when he replays the moment in his memory when Thor tore the mask off and they all saw the nauseating new shape of Tony's skull, he wishes there had been. There should have been blood. They should have been able to see the words bleeding out, dying cold and alone on the ground.
Tony is in the hospital for several months. It is six weeks before he is able to speak at all, and when he does, his first word is, "Hat." No one knows why.
It isn't until much later, with some input from Tony himself, that Steve puts it together.
Steve is Captain America is Cap is hat.
Tony's first word, after weeks of fear and confusion, is Steve's name.
The medical term is aphasia. Every case is unique, the doctors say. There are no set rules. Each patient recovers at a different rate, and there is no predicting just how far that recovery will go.
Tony can understand what is said to him, as long as the sentences aren't too complex. He just can't respond in kind. When he does finally find his voice, his speech is slow and halting. He says one word when he means another. Nouns are the hardest; he stumbles over the names of things and sometimes can't get the word out at all. He knows what he wants to say – the frustration in his eyes leaves no doubt of that. He just can't say it.
For Tony, that's the worst part.
For Steve, it's the silence. When he first arrived at the Tower, it took him weeks to get used to living with Tony Stark and the other Avengers. Weeks to adjust to Tony's constant rambling and snide remarks, often while carrying on a completely separate conversation with JARVIS. What he learned during that time was to listen to the spaces in between the words, to know when the babble was real and when it was a front for a more genuine emotion that was scaring Tony to death. He learned to listen to what Tony wasn't saying more than what he did say.
Now, all that is gone. Tony labors to speak even the simplest of words, and grows frustrated and angry with his own failure. He turns away from them, closing himself in the workshop for days on end, avoiding the rest of the Avengers whenever possible. It's just easier this way, he says to Steve, struggling for agonizing minutes to communicate even this simple idea.
Easier for who, he doesn't say.
The therapists say it will take time. Brain injuries are complex and unpredictable. Tony is recovering well, but slowly, and it frustrates him endlessly. Not even open heart surgery in a cave could keep him down for more than a couple weeks. This agonizingly slow pace is more of a torture to him than if he were flat on his back with a physical injury.
"Just take your time," Steve says. "We'll all be here for you, until you're ready to come back." He ignores the glance Clint and Natasha share at this.
"Take heart," Thor says, clapping him on the shoulder. "Already you can demand your morning coffee from your machine servitors. This is good!"
Even Tony has to smile at that.
Steve comes back to the Tower one winter night, shaking snow off his hair and stamping it off his boots. He's never liked being the public face of the Avengers, but someone has to do it, and since Tony can't anymore, the job has fallen to him. He does what he can, smiling gamely at meet-and-greets, responding to interviews with rehearsed answers, looking noble and somber at charity events for war refugees. He's been told that he does a good job, but that doesn't make him like it. He's a soldier. He's meant to be out there fighting, not selling war bonds all over again.
Tonight's charity ball lasted well past midnight, and he's tired and stressed out. He could probably join Bruce in the lab or find Natasha awake in the library, but he doesn't want their company right now. There's only one person he wants to see – the one person who should have been with him tonight.
He heads down to the workshop and lets himself in. Even at this hour, Tony is wide awake and hard at work, standing in front of a holographic image of what looks like an enormous missile. It floats in mid-air, blue and hollow and deadly. Tony manipulates the image, turning it this way and that, tweaking things here and there. A faint frown line appears between his brows, which means he knows Steve is there, but he remains engrossed in his work.
Fighting as Iron Man is out of the question now; there are too many verbal commands for JARVIS, too many words on the HUD. But while words may stymie him now, pictures do not. Tony can work for hours down here, as long as he stays focused on images and wire constructs and actual physical objects. And even as Steve watches, this latest project slowly collapses down and he realizes that what he mistook for a missile is in fact an arrow.
The arrow hovers in the air for another few seconds, then Tony makes a curt gesture and it winks out of existence. He stands in the middle of all that empty space, looking very small.
Steve walks up behind him and puts his arms around him. He leans down a bit so he can nestle his chin on Tony's shoulder. "Hey."
Tony reaches up to clasp his wrist. "Hi," he says.
"It's cold out," Steve says. He turns his head and presses his cold nose against Tony's cheek. Tony yelps and bats at him, and Steve chuckles and pulls him closer. "I missed you."
"You…" Steve waits patiently, but Tony can't continue. Even now, months later, he still can't say Steve's name. He shakes his head, giving up rather than trying. Every line of his body is tight with tension and anger. He's always angry these days, made worse by the fact that he can't let it out in a torrent of ranting and cursing. Back in the beginning, when they all thought he would get better quickly and they could put this behind them, Clint joked that it was lucky Tony didn't have his own Hulk waiting to come out, or they would all be in trouble. Even Tony had smiled at that, although he had needed them to explain the concept to him in simple terms first.
There isn't much smiling these days. Mostly there's just anger and frustration.
Steve turns his head to one side again and nuzzles at Tony's neck. "I really did miss you." He presses a kiss to the underside of Tony's jaw. "A lot." He splays his hands flat on Tony's chest, possessively.
Tony turns in his embrace and grabs him, kisses him fiercely, steers him toward the workshop doors and the bedroom down the hall.
Some things require no words.
"I brought you something," Steve says at the end of March. He flicks his wrist, and the fedora sails across the room to land on Tony's lap.
"Funny," Tony says, rolling his eyes. He searches for the next word, finds it, loses it, snarls in frustration, then finds it again. "Very…funny."
Steve just smiles. It's hard to find much to laugh about these days, but he does his best. Even though he understands now why Tony's first word was "hat," he keeps making it a joke. It's one of the few they still share.
Besides, Tony does look good in a fedora.
In May they come home from another battle with Doom to find Tony in the kitchen, surrounded by scraps of paper and stacks of cookies in a wide assortment of flavors. "What happened in here?" Clint asks.
"It looks like Betty Crocker went crazy," Bruce says.
"Baked…" Tony shakes his head. He stops, takes a deep breath. "I baked…" He tries out several sounds, then finally says, "Marbles."
Cookies. Marbles. They're both round and small. It works.
Thor reaches for a cookie. "Careful," Clint says. "They might be poisoned."
Tony scowls at the recipe he's carefully copying over and over. He reads better than he writes, but he is still not very good at either one yet, and he promised his therapist he would work on that. The baking was probably her idea, to test his reading comprehension. The platters of cookies are just a welcome side effect.
"I'm sure they taste great," Steve says, and pops one in his mouth.
And he supposes they probably would, if Tony had remembered the sugar.
"No help! No…you…no help!" The crashing sound is incredibly loud in the otherwise silent workshop, and Steve bolts up from where he was sleeping on the couch. He's in time to watch Dummy skitter across the floor, arm waving wildly, while Tony gives chase, brandishing a screwdriver like it's a butcher knife.
It might be funny – except Steve knows right away that it's not. For one thing, he spots the open bottle of Scotch. For another, he's seen that look in Tony's eyes before.
He hurries to intercept Tony, stepping in front of him, forcing him to quit running. "Hey, hey. Stop. Just stop."
"Not help!" Tony snaps, pointing at Dummy.
This shorthand could mean anything. JARVIS could explain, but Tony hates it when the AI has to translate for him, so Steve knows not to ask. Instead he is left guessing at what Tony is trying to say. Dummy is of no help. Dummy was trying to help but only got in the way. It could even be a command to make sure the robot doesn't try to help with whatever project Tony was working on. Normally he would try to get to the bottom of things, but Tony is obviously too angry and drunk right now to even make the attempt. When he gets upset like this, speech becomes even harder for him and his frustration increases, which only worsens things still further. It's a vicious cycle, and a hard one to break.
"It's okay," he says calmly. He has no idea what Tony was working on just now, and really it doesn't matter. For whatever reason, Dummy interfered, and now he has to deal with this. "Just let him go."
"You!" Tony still holds the screwdriver tightly in one fist. "Don't…don't…ah, you don't…" He's so upset that he's almost shaking.
The very first thing the therapists taught them all was that they must never try to finish Tony's sentences for him. It was a very hard lesson to learn – and even now Steve forgets sometimes. "I'm not taking his side," he says. "And you know it."
"Fixing," Tony says. He glares hatefully at Dummy, who is hiding on the other side of the workshop, beside the little kitchen area. "I'm…trying…fixing, ah, fixing…" The hand holding the screwdriver lifts higher, and abruptly Steve realizes that bare inches separate the trembling blade from Tony's head. "Him. Trying him…fixing...him."
"He wouldn't let you," Steve says, guessing at what went wrong while he slept.
"I…fix…" Tony reaches up with his other hand and shields his eyes. His fingers tremble. "Me…I f--fix…" He utters an inarticulate sound of rage and despair. The hand with the screwdriver hovers closer, and Steve can't stand still and watch anymore. He takes hold of Tony's wrist, arresting any further movement.
"Don't," he says quietly. "Don't."
Tony fights him at first, trying to pull free. It's wasted effort though, and he knows it. He surrenders all at once, the screwdriver clattering to the floor. He slumps forward and allows Steve to hold him while he cries, his shoulders shaking. And all this, too, in near silence.
Steve shuts his eyes and lets himself shudder once, and then he is still, not wanting Tony to know that he is crying, too.
Later, just before they fall asleep, Tony whispers, "I can't…fix me," and it's the longest sentence he's said yet.
On Steve's birthday they go for a motorcycle ride. The new engine purrs beneath his legs; the bike feels like a cat ready to pounce. He's been given it a year later than anticipated, but he doesn't care at all. Tony sits behind him, arms about his waist, cheek pressed to his leather jacket.
They leave the city far behind and end up in the middle of nowhere, some empty field belonging to no one. Behind a sagging barbed wire fence, some cows stare at nothing and chew on the dry summer grass in need of rain. The sky overhead is brilliantly blue. They eat barbecue ribs with their fingers and lick the sauce off each other and roll over onto the corn muffins and squash them flat.
"Ew, crumbs," Tony complains, scrubbing at his hair. It's getting rather long, falling onto his forehead in graceful arcs. Steve likes it that way.
"My compliments to the chef?" Steve tries.
"No…stew…soup…for you!" Tony smirks.
Steve grins; months of watching old TV, and he actually gets that joke. "Oh yeah? Who's gonna stop me?"
For a moment Tony frowns, processing the question, then his eyes clear and he's playful again. "You…who think."
In a flash Steve is on his feet. "Nope!" And he's off and running.
They run through the grass like kids, like horny teenagers, like younger men who have nothing better to do on the Fourth of July than act like they haven't a care in the world. He trips Tony up, and Tony throws a squished muffin at him, and it explodes in his face in a spray of crumbs. "No fair!" he shouts, and they wrestle around in the grass and end up beneath a tree, making love under the summer sun.
After the stars come out, Tony sets off the fireworks he made himself. They paint the sky with colorful whorls and loops and spell out Steve's name in fizzy sparklers of red, white and blue. Steve's eyes grow very wide. "It's beautiful," he breathes in wonder.
"Name…in lights," Tony says.
"I could get used to this," he teases.
"Can't say…it," Tony grumbles.
"You will," Steve assures him. "You will."
In August Doombots wreak havoc on the city again. The Avengers go forth and handle it, the way they always do, and Doom reteats, vowing with predictable melodrama that they haven't seen the last of him.
Tony spends that month finishing up his work on new engines for the helicarrier. The launch for the carrier is a major event, and all the Avengers are pressed into publicity duties then; even Fury grimaces for the cameras and makes pretty alongside them.
The day after that, they have their own private celebration dinner and Tony accidentally blows up the barbecue grill. In a fit of peevishness, he spends the next three days inventing a newer and better one. This grill has a little robotic arm and a computer interface that asks the user to input the desired end result for their food. The little robot arm then flips the burgers all on its own, with only the occasional incident of flying half-cooked hamburger meat. For one full week, the team gathers around the grill and tests its new capabilities, eating like pigs and laughing and teasing each other, and it's like old times again.
Tony also starts to work on a new interface for Iron Man. Steve doesn't ask too many questions, but from what he can tell, this one relies more heavily on images and symbols, rather than words.
"You should stop him," Natasha says quietly. "It's cruel to let him get his hopes up."
"No," Steve says. "Let him do it."
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Bruce says in that careful tone that says he's trying very hard not to step on anyone's feelings.
"I don't care," Steve says. "If he thinks he can wear it again, then I believe him."
"It's not that good," he protests. It's late afternoon and his studio is full of early autumn light. He loves this room, this space all his own. He loves that Tony thought to give it to him even before they knew each other very well, when he first moved in to the Tower. They all have their places they hide when the pain gets too bad – Bruce goes to his lab, Clint perches on the rooftop. Steve comes here. There's an old sofa behind the easel where he sometimes lies and just watches the play of light in the room. In the very beginning, when they weren't even sure if Tony would live, he came down here and sobbed with grief and loss until he thought his heart would burst. Thor found him then and wrapped him in a warm embrace, holding him until he could breathe again.
He doesn't even remember why he brought Tony down here. Something to do with getting a second opinion, which suddenly seems like a very bad idea.
"No," Tony agrees, and for a little while Steve is crushed. He was actually thinking that the drawing wasn't half-bad. "This…amazing."
The knot in his chest loosens. Hesitant, he smiles. "You really think so?"
Tony nods. "She…" He struggles for the words, grimacing. "Like…will like." He takes a calming breath. "She. Will. Like."
Steve's smile broadens. It's not just the idea of Natasha appreciating his gift to her. He wonders if Tony is even aware of how much progress he's made recently, and if he should say something about it.
"I hope so," he says. "Because if she doesn't, I'm blaming you."
Tony's expression goes blank while he processes this – but it's a much shorter delay than there used to be, before he's grinning back. "She's scary."
"Don't let her hear you say that," Steve warns, deadpan.
Tony hands the drawing back. "Any…more?"
"Actually, yeah." He puts the drawing of Natasha back in his portfolio. It still needs some work, mostly shading, but he's nearly done with it.
He pulls out another. This one is complete, even colored. He's not sure why he's held onto it, why he hasn't given it to Tony yet.
He's even less sure why he waited when he sees the pleased astonishment in Tony's eyes. The drawing shows Tony hard at work, surrounded by glowing images of machinery too complex for Steve to have done more than hint at with a few wispy pencil lines. Tony's expression is rapt, lips slightly parted, completely absorbed in what he's doing. His arms are thrown wide, hands outstretched. Light streams from his fingertips. The arc reactor blazes like a star.
Tony looks up at him, stunned.
"I know what kind of names they used to call you," Steve says. "Before. But to me, you'll always be a creator. A magician."
Carefully, with the same kind of reverence he normally reserves for the newest and greatest technology, Tony sets the drawing down on the nearest table. Then he turns to Steve and kisses him. "Thank you. Thank you."
"I'm glad you liked it," Steve says. "And I want you to know, it's true." He takes Tony's hand and kisses the palm. "These hands are magic," he says. He cups Tony's face and kisses his forehead. "And this mind." Kisses his lips. "And this mouth."
"Magic," Tony murmurs, and closes his eyes.
"I love you," Steve says.
The first time he ever said it, Tony was still in the hospital, without words yet of any kind. He knew Tony understood him, though, because of the way tears suddenly filled his eyes. Steve climbed into the bed with him then, so carefully, and wrapped his arms around him, saying the words over and over. "I love you. I will always be here for you. I love you."
Since then he's said it a lot. It doesn't matter that Tony can't respond in kind. He still says it. He never wants Tony to forget.
"How about a different kind of magic?" He smiles, then glances quickly over his shoulder, sighting the couch.
To his surprise, Tony pulls away. "No," he says. "Ah, wait." He holds up his hand, palm out, in a gesture eerily reminiscent of Iron Man. It's his way of letting them know, I have something to say and I mean to say it, no matter how long it takes. Usually he'll hold up a number of fingers, too, to indicate how many words there are in his message, but this time he does not.
For a long time he just stands there, staring at the floor to minimize distractions, lips moving soundlessly as he tries out the words. Steve stands there patiently. If Tony wants to haltingly recite the Declaration of Independence for the next six hours, he will happily stand there waiting on him.
At last Tony looks up. His expression is calm, almost confident. A faint smile plays about his lips and brightens his eyes. The months roll back and he could be a visitation from the past, a ghost from a happier time, ready to start teasing Steve for his ignorance about the modern world.
With scarcely a pause between the words, he says, "I love you, Steve."
It's the most beautiful thing Steve has ever heard. His jaw drops. "Oh my God."
Tony grins, his whole face lighting up.
And Steve can't help whooping with pure joy, just before sweeping him into his arms.
Over his head, Iron Man streaks past. It's snowing harder now. If it doesn't all melt in the next few days – and according to the weather forecast it won't – it seems like Thor will get his first white Christmas after all.
"Got more incoming," Hawkeye says over the comms. "Ten o'clock."
"I see 'em," Steve says. Natasha has his back, the two of them circling about in a deadly dance, cutting down robots any time they draw too near. A few blocks over, the Hulk roars in aggravation. Lightning flares in the sky to the north, and that should put an end to Doom's latest device.
There are better ways to spend an evening than battling the latest round of Doombots, but right now Steve can't think of anywhere else he'd rather be.
"Watch that big one," Hawkeye warns. "I think that's the mother ship, so to speak. Give me a second to take its shields down, then take your best shot."
"I thought you'd never ask," Tony says, and the armor is a red blur, soaring through the spaces between the falling snow.