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The Silences (Spaces) Between

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The snow is coming down pretty hard now. The weather forecast says it's going to get colder, so it's starting to look like Thor just might get his first White Christmas after all.

That would be pretty cool, Tony has to admit as he flies through the falling snow.

"Got more incoming," Hawkeye says over the comms. "Ten o'clock."

And yep, there they are. Doom's latest group of bots. The guy actually put some effort into this batch, which Tony appreciates. It's always nice to feel like your efforts are worth something.

"I see 'em," Steve says. He and Natasha are back to back in the midst of a circle of Doombots. The Hulk is a few blocks over, smashing his way through the ones Doom hasn't activated yet. To the north, lightning flashes bright in the winter sky as Thor puts paid to Doom's device.

There are better ways to spend an evening than battling the latest round of Doombots, but right now Tony can't think of anywhere else he'd rather be. He's waited way too long for this.

"Watch that big one," Hawkeye warns, as if it weren't blindingly obvious. "I think that's the mother ship, so to speak. Give me a second to take its shields down, then take your best shot."

Tony streaks through the air, aiming for the large bot that controls the smaller ones Steve and Natasha are currently fighting. He might be laughing, he can't tell.

"I thought you'd never ask," he says.

****

Warm autumn light fills the studio. Steve looks uncharacteristically nervous as he shows off his drawings. It took a while to persuade him to share them at all, which Tony finds incredibly endearing; he likes it when Steve gets shy on him.

"It's not that good," Steve says, handing him a drawing of Natasha.

"No," Tony agrees. The woman in the drawing is so life-like she might step off the page and into the room at any second. Her eyes are full of determination; she is intently fixed on her goal, whatever that might be. "This…amazing."

Steve smiles like he can hardly believe it. "You really think so?"

He knows so, and wishes he could say that. "She…" The rest of the words twist away, just out of his reach. He clenches his jaw and lunges for them. "Like…will like." He inhales deeply and lets it out slow. It's a trick, turning each word into a single sentence. "She. Will. Like."

Steve's smile gets even wider. Tony has an idea that it's not just about his opinion of the drawing.

He's doing better these days. A lot better. Sometimes he can almost hear the tumblers in the lock inside his head turning. It's getting easier and easier to find the right words; he hardly ever says one thing when he means another anymore. Now the battle is just to say the words at all.

But he's winning that battle more and more often, and with fewer bloody scars to show for it.

Steve knows better than to say anything, though. He keeps the conversation focused on the drawing. "I hope so," he says. "Because if she doesn't, I'm blaming you."

Conditional clauses like that still trip him up sometimes. It takes him a moment to sort that one out. "She's scary." And hey, that sounded almost perfectly normal. Go him.

"Don't let her hear you say that," Steve says, widening his eyes in mock alarm.

Tony hands the drawing back. "Any…more?" He knows there is; he's seen the bulging portfolio Steve likes to hide in here.

"Actually, yeah." Steve puts the drawing of Natasha away, hesitates, then pulls out a new one. He looks like he wants to say something, maybe offer a few words of context or explanation. He doesn't, though. He just hands it over.

Tony takes it from him without thinking – the days when he would have balked at Steve handing him something are long in the past. He looks down at the drawing, and then he can only sit there in shocked astonishment.

This drawing is colored in, blue and white and black. The subject is himself, in the workshop, surrounded by glowing images of machinery too complex for Steve to have done more than hint at with a few wispy pencil lines. His expression is rapt, lips slightly parted, completely absorbed in whatever it is he's doing. His arms are thrown wide, hands outstretched. Light streams from his fingertips. At the center of his chest, the arc reactor blazes like a star.

Stunned, he looks up. He knew Steve was a good artist, but this is proof of a talent he never even imagined.

"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."

That is a very apt description. In the drawing, it looks like he's performing some arcane bit of sorcery. He sets it down gently. "Thank you." He kisses Steve. "Thank you."

"I'm glad you liked it," Steve says. "And I want you to know, it's true." He picks up one of Tony's hands and kisses it. "These hands are magic."

Well. He's been told that before, but it's always nice to hear. Especially coming from Steve.

Steve reaches up to cup his face, leans in and kisses his forehead. "And this mind." Which is…so very not true, but he's willing to let that one slide.

Steve kisses his lips. "And this mouth."

"Magic," Tony murmurs, and closes his eyes. The fact that he actually hates magic is insignificant. He can be a sorcerer for Steve.

For Steve, he can do anything.

"I love you," Steve says.

And suddenly it's time.

He's been practicing this for days now, ever since he first managed to blurt it out. He was alone in the workshop when that happened, surrounded by images of the new HUD he's still hammering out. In the old days, he used to talk to himself all the time while he worked, or to JARVIS, or Dummy. These days he does his best to mimic that old routine, trying to lip sync the words that still run and tumble through his head at a million miles an hour. Sometimes he even says some of them out loud. He's realized that when he's focused on the work, it can be easier to speak, as though the language portion of his brain needs the diversion of mathematics and wire constructs to be able to function properly.

But he can't always rely on that, and so he's been practicing. He's almost certain he can do this.

"How about a different kind of magic?" Steve says with a suggestive smile. He glances over at the couch.

"No," Tony says. "Ah, wait." A few stray sounds want to escape, and he clamps his jaw shut. He holds up his hand, a silent signal for whoever might be around to just shut up and give him some time, because he's got something to say, by God, and he's going to say it, no matter how long it takes.

He stares down at the floor. He remembers how it felt to stand in the middle of all that blue light, the words coming so easily. He mouths them, getting the feel for them, making sure his voice and his brain are on the same page for once.

He knows when he's got it. He can feel the words in the back of his throat – and this time he knows that instead of getting caught halfway, they are going to roll right off his tongue. He looks up, full of confidence and already brimming with happiness because he knows, he knows he's got this.

He says, "I love you, Steve."

Steve's face goes slack with shock. "Oh my God."

Tony grins, and it's worth it in that instant, all the pain and rage and hard work, just to see the pure joy in Steve's eyes. To hear the words still ringing in his ears, perfect and normal and everything he's wanted to say for so very, very long, filling up the silences and all the spaces in between.

****

In August he finishes the new engines for the helicarrier that he promised Fury a few months back. The launch is a major event, press all over the place, all the Avengers come out to play. It's been a while since he was at the epicenter of a media frenzy, and it's kind of nice to blink under the explosion of camera flashes and hear reporters shouting his name, all of them wanting to talk to him.

Of course, he can't talk back, but that's okay. He doesn't have to. He just stands on the deck of the helicarrier, flashing peace signs and brilliant smiles, and it's all good.

Back at the Tower, they have a more private celebration, one that does not involve reporters, but does still contain a bright explosion.

The barbecue grill is a total loss. Ticked off, Tony retreats to his workshop and vows not to come out until he's produced a bigger and better one. JARVIS does most of the work on the computerized ordering system, but he does stop and take a long hard look at it. Over and over he reads the choices the system offers, saying them out loud until the words sound natural.

The grill is a success (naturally). Buoyed by the results, he goes back to work.

This time, he does not make any confident promises. He just buckles down and gets to it. He's got a lot to do if he ever wants to suit up again, but he's starting to think that maybe, just maybe, he can make it happen.

****

It's only one year late, but he finally gets to give Steve that motorcycle engine for a birthday present. Steve is appreciative and grateful, and immediately suggests they go for a ride.

Tony can definitely get on board with that.

So they take the bike out. They leave the city behind and end up in the middle of nowhere, some empty field belonging to no one. The sky is perfectly blue and it's so pastoral there are even cows staring dully at nothing as they chew the dry summer grass.

Tony brought a few things, enough food to last them for the day. They eat barbecue ribs and get messy with the sauce in creative ways. When Steve lays him down, he accidentally rolls over on the corn muffins, mashing them flat.

"Ew," he says, trying to swipe the crumbs out of his hair. "Crumbs."

Steve's eyes are alight with humor. "My compliments to the chef?"

That would be some nameless stranger working for one of Midtown's better groceries, but Tony wouldn't say that even if he was capable of it. Instead he smirks. "No…stew…" Damnit. "Soup…for you!"

That's a joke even Steve gets, having been introduced to the wonder of old syndicated TV shows. "Oh yeah?" he teases. "Who's gonna stop me?"

The question is worded in such a way that it momentarily throws him for a loop as he tries to puzzle out what exactly Steve is saying. Then it clicks, and he's grinning. Exactly who you think, is what he wants to say. It comes out, "You…who think."

Fuck it. Close enough.

"Nope!" Steve jumps to his feet and runs off. For about one-tenth of a second Tony just stands there, wondering if he's really going to do this, act like he's four years old again, out playing on a Saturday afternoon. Then he decides that oh yeah, he is.

It's a great day. They do indeed act like kids, wrestling around and having a food fight. They grow up a little and turn into horny teenagers, rutting at each other with their clothes still on, then mature somewhat and make long slow love under the accommodating shade of a tree. Between them they speak maybe half a dozen words, and Tony can't remember the last time he felt so good in his own skin.

After the sun goes down and the sky gets dark, he brings out the fireworks he made when no one was there to witness and potentially give the surprise away. They are incredibly loud, and very big and shiny. Fizzy sparklers of red, white and blue spell out Steve's name, and he will never ever say how long he labored over that one, more concerned with getting the spelling right than with the colors or the design.

Steve's eyes grow very wide. "It's beautiful," he breathes.

"Name…in lights," Tony says as they lay together on a blanket on the grass.

"I could get used to this," Steve says with a smile.

"Can't say…it," Tony complains. It's certainly not the only word he still can't say, but it's the one that bothers him the most.

"You will," Steve says with complete confidence in him. "You will."

****

One of Dummy's servos is starting to fail. It's a routine bit of maintenance he should have done months ago, but priorities being what they are these days, he's fallen behind on that kind of thing.

On a warm day in June he finally finds time for it. Steve is in the workshop with him, soundly asleep on the ratty couch, giving off delicate little all-American snorts from time to time. It's been a pretty shitty day, one that has so far required several glasses of Scotch, but still, Tony figures he can get Dummy back up to speed in no time.

Except Dummy won't stay still. The bot keeps trying to reach for the motor in question, forcing Tony to push that clawed hand away in irritation. "Stop," he orders, stumbling slightly over the sibilant. The words are coming easier these days, but it's happening far too slowly for his liking. "Don't…h-help."

Again Dummy reaches for the servo exposed in his side. Tony slaps at the mechanical arm, his palm making a loud smacking noise as he strikes the bot. "No!"

Rationally he understands that it's not really Dummy's fault. There is just too long a pause between his words, and Dummy perceives that single word "help" as a new command that must be followed. He could tell JARVIS what is going on and in turn JARVIS could pass on the new information to Dummy – but he doesn't want to do that. He hates having to use JARVIS as an interpreter.

So yeah. Not Dummy's fault. He knows that. But what he also knows is that he simply cannot take one more day of this.

The silence is tearing him apart. He is living in hell, condemned to a torture he would not inflict upon his worst enemy. Night and day they race inside his head, questions and answers and theories and entire dissertations of words.

And he can't say more than two of them at any given time.

Rage sweeps over him and he's suddenly standing up, swinging the screwdriver at Dummy like it's a butcher knife. "Not help!" he shouts. And there, maybe that command will register, that one sounded good.

Dummy runs away like a frightened child, arm waving wildly and knocking into things. A lamp on one of the workstations crashes to the ground.

Tony doesn't care. He runs after Dummy, poisoned with sick rage and frustration and the terrible, horrible fear that he is never going to get any better, that this is the best he can ever expect. Two-year old kids talk better than he does, and oh my god, he's going to be like this for the rest of his life isn't he, and he can't do this anymore, he can't.

"Hey, hey." Steve suddenly steps right in front of him, forcing him to stop running. "Stop. Just stop."

Dummy is nearly at his charging station now – no doubt having been ordered there by JARVIS. "No help!" Tony snaps, pointing at the bot. He's so angry he's ready to dismantle Dummy with nothing but his bare hands and his teeth. He'll do it, too, if Steve would ever get out of his way.

"It's okay," Steve says calmly. He's got marks on one side of his face from lying on the couch. "Just let him go."

Damnit, he doesn't want to listen to this right now. He doesn't want calm and reasonable. He wants to scream and curse and shout and give voice to the million words that are locked inside his head. "You!" Don't you take his side! Don't stand there so calm and nice, like this is just another patented Tony Stark temper tantrum. Don't just stand there! Help me! "Don't…don't…ah, don't…"

And God listen to him, it's disgusting, it's beyond pathetic. He grips the screwdriver so tightly his entire arm is shaking and rigid with tension. He has to grit his teeth to keep from screaming out his rage.

"I'm not taking his side," Steve says. It's kind of amazing, the way he always just seems to know what he is trying to say. "And you know it."

He's got to calm down. He knows this. Over and over his therapist has explained the link between emotion and physical action. Stressing himself out only makes things worse, makes the words that much more elusive. If he can just explain the situation to Steve, maybe by then he'll have calmed down and Steve can help him get Dummy back over here, and he can finish what he started.

"Fixing," Tony says. "I'm…trying…" And no, that's not the right word. It is, but it isn't. It fits, but it's not the one he wants. "Fixing, ah, fixing." He raises the screwdriver as proof. "Him. Trying him…" Damnit get it right!! God, why the hell is this so hard, he just said it, why can't he say it now? "Fixing…him."

Steve's eyes are dark with compassion. Not pity, though. Never pity. "He wouldn't let you."

And he just…he can't do this anymore. The last of his anger drains away and he knows what's coming next because he's been here so many times over the past few months, but there's not a damn thing he can do about it. He can't even blame it on the alcohol.

"I…fix…" He covers his eyes with his free hand. He doesn't want to look at Steve anymore. If he could find a way to hide from them all, not let them see him and the pathetic thing he's become, he would do that, too. "Me… I f—fix…"

God, please could he just get one sentence out! He gives vent to a strangled moan because he can't even do that right, like a normal person.

"Don't." Steve's hand wraps around his wrist. "Don't."

No. No, he doesn't want this. He wants to be alone. And no, he doesn't. He's always alone now, trapped inside his head with that mountain of unsaid words, navigating that labyrinth with no one to guide him out. He tries to pull back, to get free of Steve's grasp, but it's just wasted effort. He's never going to get free.

He lets go of the screwdriver. Lets go of everything.

He cries in silence too, because this is his life now.

****

Ask Tony to write the alphabet and he'll do it quick as you please. His handwriting hasn't changed; still the same neat capital letters he used back when he drew up blueprints by hand just for the fun of it.

Ask him to write "cat", though, and he can only stare helplessly at the blank sheet of paper.

Back at the beginning, someone (he doesn't remember who) handed him a pencil and a piece of paper and looked at him with such hope that he wanted to shrivel up and die. He knew even then that it would not work. The fall that smashed his skull in and scrambled his brains affected all his language abilities, including reading and writing.

Speech comes first. Always has, always will. His therapist has been on his case lately though about his reading and writing skills, admonishing him for neglecting them. To challenge him, she came up with a novel idea for working on his reading comprehension, one that also gives him a chance to attempt some writing.

He's no slouch in the kitchen – when he wants to put forth the effort. Which frankly is not very often. Cooking is just a waste of time. Why spend two hours on a meal that takes fifteen minutes to eat? In that two hours he could have redesigned a cluster bomb, written software for the next generation StarkPhone, and still had time for a quickie with his latest one-night stand.

Well, back in the day it was like that. Not anymore.

Nonetheless, the basic principle still stands. He's not a big fan of cooking. Now baking, on the other hand, can be fun. Flour all over the place, raisins smushed on the floor, plates of warm cookies just waiting to be eaten.

The other Avengers are out in the city, fighting off Doom's latest and not-so-greatest attempt at taking over the world. Tony doesn't really mind missing it; lately Doom is not that creative anymore. It's like the guy's heart has gone out of it.

So he bakes his cookies, puzzling over the words of the recipes, pausing every now and then to admit defeat and ask JARVIS to read them to him. Each time he has to do this, his hands curl into fists of rage and it's all he can do to keep from throwing crockery at the walls just to watch the pieces shatter and go flying.

He's angry a lot these days. It's a damn good thing he doesn't have his own green rage monster. That beast would be in control almost all the time now, Tony Stark gone MIA along with all his words.

When the team comes back, they are awestruck by the sight of what has happened to their kitchen. "What happened in here?" Clint asks in wonder.

"It looks like Betty Crocker went crazy," Bruce says, and damn him, it would almost be funny if Tony could remember how to laugh at himself.

"Baked," he says, because he's become Captain Obvious, compelled to point out in miserable, halting shorthand what everyone can already see. "I baked…" And the word disappears. He stares right at an entire plate of them, and he can't remember the name for them. No word association game is going to work this time. Still, he tries, testing out a few sounds to see if he can't just make the word come, sort of trick himself into saying it, and what finally comes out is, "Marbles."

It's wrong, he knows it's wrong, but it's the best he can do.

The Avengers ignore his error. No one can look him in the eye, either.

Thor breaks the awkward frozen silence by reaching for a cookie. Clint rouses himself to the occasion. "Careful," he says, the joke forced and stilted. "They might be poisoned."

Tony scowls at the recipe he's been copying, because fuck you Clint.

"I'm sure they taste great," Steve says, predictably coming to Tony's defense. He takes a big bite out of one of the cookies. For half a second he goes still, his nose crinkling up, then he's manfully chewing again like nothing is wrong.

Tony just stares at the lines of the recipe he's faithfully copied, and imagines throwing a platter against the wall, how satisfying it would be to see everyone duck and cringe from the shattered pieces.

****

"Can I ask you something?" Steve says.

Sure, if you don't mind waiting half an hour for me to spit out the answer.

"Sure," Tony says, and he's pretty certain Steve hears the rest of it, the part that goes unsaid.

It's the middle of March. Gray, cloudy, rainy, oppressive weather. He misses Malibu. He's not stupid enough to think that the California sunshine will suddenly make him able to talk normally again, but he still wishes he was there.

They're in Steve's studio, curled up on the couch beneath a somewhat ratty purple blanket that has paint stains on it. Earlier Steve was drawing and he was watching, but it was obvious that Steve wasn't really interested in art today, and so they ended up here, watching the day draw to a dreary close.

"In the hospital," Steve starts, and Tony tenses up. He doesn't like to think about that time, when his brains were so scrambled he couldn't even remember who Steve was, or Steve's name, or even the basic idea of what a name was. "Do you know why you said 'hat' that first time?"

Actually, he does. His therapist led him to the answer, but he had figured it out on his own before then. (He's still a genius, after all, and he grasped the concept of aphasia even before he could say the word.)

He elbows Steve in the chest. "You," he says. He skips the next step. He still can't say Steve's name. It drives him crazy, but he just can't do it. "C-Cah—" He stops. Takes a deep breath. Pushes the self-loathing and fury down deep, where it can't interfere. "C—Cap."

Steve gets it then, he knows it; he can feel it in the sudden frisson of comprehension that skates over Steve's body. But Steve does not say it.

"Hat," Tony says. He shrugs. It's just a stupid game of mental connections, but at least he's laid Steve's curiosity to rest.

A couple weeks later, when Steve tosses the fedora at him, he can only scowl. "Funny. Very….funny."

Even though it kind of is.

****

He's hard at work, because it's the only salvation he has anymore.

He's spent a lot of time with JARVIS, striving to make the workshop a place he can still call home. His computer monitors and 3D displays are heavy on pictures and images now, not words. He spends hours hunched over a workbench, creating and forming a physical model to manipulate – there is much less tangible light in his life now.

Tonight he's working on a new arrow prototype for Clint. He's been testing out different materials, trying out tensile strength and flexibility. He's pretty sure he's found the one he wants, but there are more tests to be run first.

Steve enters the workshop, smelling like winter; his hair is damp with melted snow. There was a charity function tonight, Tony remembers. Steve didn't want to go.

He frowns, trying to stay focused, but it's no good. He can't work when Steve is here. He makes a curt gesture, and the image of the arrow collapses down from nuclear missile size to genuine arrow size.

Steve takes his cue, and walks up behind him. "Hey," he says, embracing him from behind.

"Hi," Tony says, because that one's easy.

"It's cold out," Steve says, and to prove it, he turns his head and presses his nose to Tony's cheek. The sudden cold is like a shock, and he yelps and smacks at Steve's arm where it crosses his chest.

Steve chuckles and hugs him tighter. "I missed you."

He takes a breath. "You…"

There is no more. He can tell already. The words have dried up, withering on his tongue and crawling back down his throat. They taste bitter.

Steve is still, patiently waiting on him. Tony shakes his head. He is not going to humiliate himself by stuttering and making those disgusting gaping fish faces, his mouth open but no sound coming out. Not tonight. He's done, thank you very much.

"I really did miss you," Steve says. He nuzzles at Tony's neck, then kisses him. "A lot." He spreads the fingers of one hand wide on Tony's chest, displaying an aggressive possessiveness that once upon a time would have had Tony laughing and teasing him about how he didn’t know cavemen still existed in the 1940s.

Instead he just turns in the circle of Steve's arms and kisses him fiercely. He walks backward, taking Steve with him as he leaves the workshop and heads for the bedroom down the hall.

Some things need no words.

****

Coming home is a blessed relief. Here he can sulk as much as he wants. Here his broken, pathetic attempts at speech do not bring raised eyebrows, impatient frowns, looks of pity.

No one has asked, and that's a good thing, really it is, but it's only his voice that he's lost. He can still think just fine. His inner monologue is still running wild and free, except now it has no outlet. All those words circle and chase each other inside his head, piling up high, their weight pressing down, turning the lower layers into immovable stone, a huge mountain of words that will forever sit inside his brain, unvoiced.

He hates it. Hates himself. Hates his life and what he's become.

His therapist is encouraging. She says he's already making progress. Maybe that's true, but the pace is excruciatingly slow, and the frustration and anger are enough to drive him insane. He follows her instructions and does his best to break the silence, even though it takes an eternity to say anything more complicated than a two- or three-word sentence.

The stuttering and long broken pauses while he searches desperately for the right word are bad enough. Worse, in its weird way, is when he says one thing but means another. Most of the time, he knows when he makes this kind of mistake. Sometimes at dinner he'll point to the salt and say, "Give blinker," and remain completely unaware of his lapse. Other days he says, "Want diamond", and then he looks down at the glass he just picked up (light reflecting and shiny and sparkly and diamond goddamnit GLASS) and his hand tightens so convulsively that he fears it will shatter in his grip.

The Avengers are all patient with him, which is somehow the worst thing of all. JARVIS of course, does not mind one bit that it takes him a good five minutes to issue even the simplest command. The AI does not guess at what he is about to say and suggest the words out loud. JARVIS does not look away with mingled sympathy and pity when he can't manage even those halting words, but just a terrible droning ahhhh noise that in no way resembles human speech.

Thor tries to cheer him up. "Take heart," he says, clapping him on the shoulder. "Already you can demand your morning coffee from your machine servitors. This is good!"

And this is true, he reminds himself.

It makes him smile. A little.

****

He can do this. He knows he can. He used to do it all the time. He remembers that much.

Steve.

Just one syllable. Four sounds. So easy.

So impossible.

"Hat," he says, and it's wrong, he knows it's wrong as soon as he hears it. But Steve and the therapists all grin and laugh and congratulate him.

He hates them all.

****

Words are the key, and speech is the lock they fit within. If he can just find the right words, he won't be so afraid all the time.

It's no good at first. They all talk too fast. He watches their mouths moving, but it's no help. The words chase themselves around in his head, garbled sound and meaningless pauses, questions without answers and gestures that do nothing to enable comprehension.

Then one by one, the sounds start to form themselves into words.

…you…here…

…what…you…

….him…

…yes.

One word. Two. Six, twenty, fifty. Words become sentences.

I don't know.

Hard to say.

Have to be patient.

He hears his name Tony and suddenly he has an identity again. A past he doesn't like to think about, a present he definitely doesn't want to think about, and a future he can't bear to think about.

He hears September and just like that, he recaptures time and makes it his own. A little while later the numbers on the clock swim into focus and from that point on he fiercely guards his knowledge of dates and times.

He hears Steve say, "Tony," and he looks up and Steve is smiling so brave, so kind, so sad. Steve smiles and says, "I love you."

He comprehends. A rush of blazing light in his mind like a door swinging open. Tears fill his eyes when he sees what lies behind that door. All the things he forgot, because he had no words for them.

Carefully, so gently, Steve climbs onto the bed and lies down beside him. Steve takes him in his arms and says, "I love you" and more words he cannot understand yet, and "I love you. I love you," over and over.

He clutches at Steve, shaking all over, wondering how he could have ever forgotten this.

****

For a long time there is nothing.

Then there are random patches of consciousness. Hazy blurs broken by more long stretches of nothing. Over time, the nothing retreats and the haze becomes constant and he understands that he is awake now.

That is not much better. All there is now is a jumbled confusion of sights and sounds and everything is meaningless.

After a while, though, the faces start to come into focus. One by one, he recognizes them, remembers them.

Steve, that one is Steve, and he thinks maybe he smiles at Steve, and maybe he does, because Steve's entire face lights up, his entire body, and he smiles back, big and bright and beautiful.

The sounds are much slower to fall into place. He knows he should understand them – but he doesn't. Sometimes this knowledge frightens him and he stares desperately at their mouths as they talk to him, trying to catch the sounds as they escape. Sometimes the fear deepens into outright terror and he reaches out with his hands, trying to physically grab those elusive sounds. He thinks they might have weight, might be like tangible light. He remembers that he used to touch light and manipulate it and maybe this is like that and all he needs to do is be quick enough to grab the sounds.

But no matter how hard he tries, he never does touch them.

****

Clint has started calling them lightning bugs. It doesn't really matter what they are. There's a ton of them, and they are setting things on fire and they need to be stopped. Like, right now.

"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," JARVIS says.

"Yeah, I see 'em," Tony says. He flies past a group of them, noting the quick way they spin in mid-air to follow the trajectory of his flight. "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."

JARVIS, of course, does not respond to this juvenile jibe. "They seem to be emitting some sort of electrical pulse."

"Duly noted," Tony says. The group of lightning bugs is hard on his tail, and there's another batch straight ahead. "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." Looking down at Cap in action, a thought occurs to him. "Which reminds me. Steve. New motorcycle engine. Birthday present. Don't let me forget." It's already the first of July, which only gives him three days to work on it, but that's fine. He's always thrived under pressure.

"Sir!" Alarms sound within the suit. JARVIS raises his voice. "One of—"

He sees them coming, all lit up, but it's all happening fast, too fast.

There is a brilliant white flash, and then nothing.

Just the long, silent fall.