It was an explosion in the lab that did it, when Tony was two. Howard never told him, or anyone, exactly what happened that day. Tony had already been speaking in full sentences by that point. Short sentences, sure, but sentences all the same. When he stopped talking after the accident, it took three days for anyone to notice. Even then, it wasn’t his mother or father who realized their son had gone silent, but instead was the old butler Jarvis, who’d just returned from a well-deserved vacation. It was this delay in treatment, they told him later, that was most damaging. If his father had sought out medical treatment for his son right away, they may have been able to save Tony’s hearing.
By the time Tony was three, he’d mastered sign language. At four, he’d built his first circuit board. After his first engine at age six, his parents decided to send him away to school. It wasn’t that difficult a negotiation, between Howard’s money and Tony’s genius. They sent him away, across the country, with only Rebecca, his minder. Ostensibly, she was there to translate for him, but Tony knew the truth: she was supposed to keep an eye on him, keep him in line. Even at six, Tony knew the reason he was being sent away. He was a disappointment and Howard couldn’t stand the constant reminder. Tony thought about this, as he hugged his mother goodbye and got an awkward pat on the shoulder from his father. He thought about it again on the airplane, Rebecca in the seat next to him, content to ignore him for the time being. It was his last thought before he fell asleep that night, all alone in a strange room that was supposed to be his new home. Tony didn’t know it, then, but it was a thought he would continue to have, almost daily, for the rest of his academic career.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, given his profession, Clint is the first Avenger to have a signed conversation with Tony. Clint apparently has known sign language for quite some time, so it’s not a hardship for him to have a snarking, sarcastic conversation with Tony. They talk about the shitty job Clint thinks Tony did on his new arrows, which Tony knows is secretly code for “yes, please, more.” Clint’s a total dick, but it’s okay; Tony has his number.
Tony didn’t make a single real friend his entire time at boarding school. He was sure it was partly Rebecca, with her judgy face and manicured claws. But the other part of it, the part he didn’t want to admit to himself, was that he was just super awkward. Most kids didn’t know sign language, which was why Rebecca was there, after all, but trying to have a conversation about anything cool was almost impossible with a middle aged go-between, especially one as bitchy as Rebecca. So Rebecca had to go.
The summer before he started at MIT, Tony invented himself a translator. It wasn’t really all that hard, given everything he’d already done. Its basic function was to listen to the professors and copy down notes for him. But for all the more Tony went to lectures, he probably shouldn’t even have bothered. MIT was a lesson in style. To be cool, he learned, you had to be rich, aloof, and an asshole. Tony was already all of those things; all he had to do was learn to project. It wasn’t easy with his limited methods of communication, but through a series of complex social manipulations, Tony managed to make his own niche. He gathered a sizable crowd of groupies, willing to do anything for him, including learn sign language. In exchange for their loyalty, he made them cool, too.
It was during those critical college years that Tony started sleeping with models, partying hard, and mouthing off to the press. He sat for interview after interview. After all, any press was good press. The magazines and newspapers always sent a translator with the journalist, someone good enough and professional enough to be able to understand and translate Tony’s snarky attitude and sly turn of phrase. Through it all, Howard turned a blind eye.
Of course, then Howard was dead, and Maria with him. Tony was left with Obadiah, who, unlike Howard or Maria, had actually made some effort to learn ASL. He was terrible at it, but at least he’d tried. It was just Tony and Obi and the company, then. And his father’s legacy, of course, but Tony’d always tried not to think about that part.
Natasha, too, knows sign language. Whether she’d learned it to spy on Tony when he was dying of Palladium poisoning or knew it before that, Tony has no idea. He doesn’t really care, either. Natasha makes him nervous, in the way that only someone who’s stabbed him in the neck can. They have conversations, at times, out of necessity, about extremely important things like who ate the last pickle then put the empty jar back into the fridge, and whether or not Tony modified her equipment without her permission. Tony maintains that he did neither of these things, while Natasha seems to think he did both, multiple times. So, yeah, communication may be an issue between them, but it’s not a logistical issue.
Tony hired Pepper because she was gorgeous and feisty and surprisingly competent. He also hired her because she was the only interviewee who’d been able to keep up with his signing. He’d done the interviews himself. Normally, he didn’t volunteer for that kind of busy-work nonsense, but Tony figured it only made sense. No point in hiring someone who couldn’t understand him or who’d be too put off by his foul language and bad attitude to work with him.
He’d been through three interviews and was seriously starting to get bored when Pepper walked in. She was beautiful, he noticed immediately. He gave her his most suggestive leer and implied at least twice during the interview that he wanted to sleep with her. To this day, Tony has no idea what made her accept the job when he offered it.
What he does know now, that he didn’t then, is how Pepper learned sign language. When Pepper was seven, her younger brother was born. He was deaf from birth, and Pepper’s whole family learned sign language for him. Tony felt a hot, tight thing in his stomach when he heard the story, and thought of Howard and Maria, both too busy to ever bother learning to sign. Tony never did meet the brother, but he did work with the Maria Stark Foundation to set up scholarship fund for deaf students in his name. Pepper cried when she found out, but it wasn’t a big deal. Tony probably should have done something like it years ago, and it was only money. Tony had plenty of money, and he also had Pepper. He had parties and alcohol and weapons designs, but underneath all that, making it all work, was Pepper, and Tony loved her for it.
With Thor, things are a bit sketchy, but only because Tony’s a natural-born skeptic. Apparently, Thor has something he calls Allspeak, which means he can understand and speak in any language. Tony can accept that, even if the thought of magic does make his eye twitch a bit. The problem, as far as Tony can see, is that for Allspeak to work, a person should actually have to be, you know, speaking. Tony talks all the time, nonstop, really, but almost none of it’s verbal. It just doesn’t seem right that Thor should be able to magically understand sign language. Tony tests him sometimes, using more and more obscure signs, but Thor always somehow understands him. He can’t sign back – apparently that’s too much for the Allspeak to handle- but Tony’s a champ at reading lips, and Thor enunciates beautifully. Almost too beautifully, in fact. Tony noticed right away, as soon as he met the guy, that Thor liked to talk loud. It should have been offensive. It happened often enough: apparently a lot of people thought that it would somehow help him understand them if they shouted. Tony can always tell, because it fucks up their facial movements. So there he was, all geared up to be offended and bitchy, had a good one-liner and everything. But then, he got a good look at Thor talking to other people, and noticed something. Thor hadn’t been talking loud for Tony’s benefit; he just talked loud all the time. Tony has a secret theory that it’s a glitch in the Allspeak, but maybe that’s just him projecting.
Yinsen was a man of many languages, including, surprisingly, American sign language. Tony never got around to asking him where or why he learned that particular language. He did wonder, later, in his darkest moments, whether the Ten Rings had picked Yinsen out specifically because he knew ASL. Either way, Yinsen was his translator during his three month vacation in the desert. Later, during the breakout, after watching Yinsen die, Tony only wished he had a way to say “fuck you” that the terrorists would understand.
He solved that problem during the production of the Mark II. Usually, in the workshop, Tony just signs and JARVIS’s cameras pick it up. When JARVIS wants to communicate with Tony, he brings up a holo-screen to type on. To get his attention, JARVIS uses a combination of vibrations and flashing lights. He does have voice protocols, but they’re mainly for Pepper’s benefit. In the suit, though, signing wasn’t an option. After some serious thought, Tony managed to design a new system, where he simply had to tap Morse code into the air with his gauntlet and JARVIS would pick up the pattern. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked. Tony became a boss at Morse code very quickly, and JARVIS learned to anticipate his needs. They were a team, and they were doing good work, making up for the sins of the past. It would never be enough, but it was something.
Bruce is incredibly shy, and therefore has an annoying tendency to mumble. Nothing, not even loud talkers, is more annoying to a deaf person that a mumbler. Despite this, though, Bruce and Tony hit it off right away. After all, science needs no language but its own. So they work, and they play, and things are fine, even with the mumbling. And after a while, the mumbling stops becoming a problem, at all. Tony’s not sure if it’s because Bruce has become more comfortable around him, or because he realized it was causing Tony problems and made an effort to stop. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is Bruce’s concentrated effort to learn sign language. Bruce is incredibly smart and learns quickly, but he’s never had any base in sign language at all. It’s not slow going, by any means, but sign language isn’t something you learn overnight. Most of their conversations, for the time being, are done with JARVIS translating. One day soon, they’ll be able to have a real conversation with signs, but until then, they’ll have science to get them through.
When Tony started working with the Avengers, things did get slightly more tricky. Really, the only thing that made it all possible was Tony’s genius and his ability to absorb large amounts of information at one time. Because, the thing is, there was a good deal more coordination involved in teamwork than Tony ever anticipated. JARVIS routed all communications across Tony’s HUD, and the tap-to-talk method still worked fine, but it still wasn’t easy. When things got busy or rough, Tony just didn’t have the time to tap out what needed said. And that was how the rest of the team learned what his voice sounded like.
Tony hated to talk, mostly because he knew it probably sounded ridiculous. That didn’t mean, however, that he didn’t know how. In boarding school, one of the classes Tony went to while the other kids were learning things like adding and subtracting was speech. It was hard going for a while, but Tony picked it up quickly, like he did almost everything. It didn’t sound great, he knew because Howard told him so every chance he got, but it was passable. So yeah, he could speak, but he didn’t especially want the team to hear him do it.
The first time Tony spoke on coms was during a fight against Dr. Doom. There was a Doombot gunning for Steve and Tony was sure he was the only one who saw it. He knew he was too far away to intercept in time. He also knew that, quick as he was, it would take far too long to tap out a warning and have JARVIS relay it. It was almost without thinking that he called out, “Cap, on your six!”
It was probably way too loud, judging by Clint’s cry of “Jesus, Stark!” that scrolled across his screen. It wasn’t too much trouble after that to say, “Fuck you,” out loud to him. After all, they’d already heard his voice, might as well make use of it, now. No one said anything about it in the debriefing after the fight, though Tony did catch Steve looking at him a couple times. And in the next fight, and the one after, Tony started speaking on coms. No point in wasting a resource, after all, even if Captain America probably thought he sounded like an idiot.
And then there’s Steve. Steve is a problem for Tony, in a lot of ways. Deaf culture took a major turn in the years Steve was asleep, mostly in that it stopped being such a Thing. Sure, Tony’s deaf, but that doesn’t mean he should run out and join a deaf culture club. He’s been integrated his whole life, and in all reality, was more isolated because of his genius than his deafness. It shouldn’t be a problem, but sometimes, Tony thinks he sees Steve watching him out of the corner of his eye, looking just the slightest bit uncomfortable. Still, Steve’s hang-ups aren’t Tony’s problem.
Steve has a fairly solid base in both military hand signs and Morse code. They come to an agreement early on to communicate in a method they both understand, though it’s far from efficient. That gets them through for a while. Tony knows it’s probably a hilarious sight, the two of them arguing with all they’ve got in Morse code. Steve drives Tony up the wall, with his upright stance on everything and his do-gooder attitude. Tony’s rude and obnoxious and as lewd as it’s possible to be through a series of taps on the countertop. His favorite part of the whole thing is getting to watch Steve’s face as he taps out his own rather more tame insults, with a dark flush of frustration high on his cheekbones, lips pursed in determination.
The first time they have sex is completely and totally an accident. They’re fighting again, in Tony’s room, because Steve followed him there after the debrief for the battle they just won.
“You can’t just ignore my orders, Tony!” Steve is saying, tapping roughly against the wall. Tony’s too busy watching his hands to realize how close they are. When he looks up, meaning to meet Steve’s eyes before tapping out something witty and mean, Steve’s face is so close their noses are almost touching. Tony’s not sure who initiates the kiss, mostly because he very quickly gets lost in a sex fog. He surfaces a few hours later, tangled up in the sheets on his bed, Steve beside him, tapping on Tony’s chest about how much he loves Tony’s sex noises. Tony wishes he could respond in kind; he imagines Steve’s sex noises are very attractive.
Because Tony’s life just keeps getting more surreal, they have sex pretty regularly after that. The weirdest part is how normal it all starts to seem. After the third time, Steve kisses him softly before leaving. After the fifth, Steve stays the night. By the time Tony realizes he’s lost count, he also realizes that Steve seems to have moved in. He’s got his sketch book on the night stand and his shield tucked up by the headboard. A solid third of Tony’s huge closet has been taken over by Steve’s chinos and button-downs. One morning, after Steve’s already left for his morning run, Tony stumbles into the bathroom to find Steve’s straight razor and old man aftershave have taken up residence. It’s weird, he decides, but not necessarily a bad thing. He has a slight, very slight, panic attack when he realizes they’re in some sort of committed relationship, but well, worse things have happened.
One night, about six months after they start sleeping together, Steve rolls over and signs something. Tony, who was seriously considering the possibility of going for round two, shakes himself out of his fantasy and makes the sign for “repeat.”
“I have to tell you something,” Steve says again, signing as he speaks. He’s been doing that more and more lately, signing and responding to Tony’s signs. Tony still slows it down for him, usually, but it probably won’t be all that long before Steve can keep up with him at full speed. It would be suspicious, but because Tony’s a genius (and has a world-class security system) he knows Steve’s been taking lessons from Pepper every few days. It’s a little touching and a lot ridiculous, but that’s just Tony’s life, now.
He’s so busy admiring Steve’s mad signing skills that he very nearly misses it when Steve signs, “I love you.”
It takes a few minutes, Steve waiting patiently while Tony freaks out about all the ways he’s going to fuck everything up, but eventually Tony composes himself enough to return the sentiments. It’s weird saying it; he’s not sure he ever has before. His hands shake like crazy, but he gets the words out. Then, for good measure, he taps them, too, right over Steve’s heart. It’s sappy and ridiculous and so very embarrassing, but it also somehow feels right.
Tony remembers being a child, alone in boarding school, then later a teenager, trying so hard to be cool at MIT. He thinks about Pepper and Yinsen, and about the team. His life has been ridiculous, and scary, and hard. He’s felt anger, fear, loneliness. And now, right here with Steve, he’s feeling love. The forever kind, he hopes. He’d never tell anybody any of this stuff, of course, but there’s no harm in thinking it. He finds Steve’s hand and laces their fingers together. This is his life, he thinks, and it’s the only one he’s got, so he’s gonna do whatever it takes to make the most of it.