In any other situation, on any other day, in any other fight, he couldn’t have gotten away with it. Luckily, the shot of magic from Loki had been a final petty act of frustration after being captured. It wasn’t part of the fight that had blown both of them into an office building. It wasn’t even more than a four on the Avenger’s sliding scale of danger. But Tony had knocked him on his ass and started taunting him.
The bastard had rolled his eyes and muttered “Oh do shut up, would you?”
There was a brief flash, and when Tony opened his mouth to snark back… nothing.
It was definitely magic. He could feel his vocal cords vibrate. He could feel the air pass by them. The physics Tony learned in grade school assured him that sound should happen.
But. Well. Magic.
And since the team was going to be more smug than normal if they found out, Tony flipped up the mask to glare.
Loki smirked, despite the whirring gauntlets raised towards him, and answered around panted breaths, “What’s the phrase you humans use? Cat got your tongue? Don’t worry Stark, it shouldn’t last more than two weeks, maybe three.”
Tony very nearly broke his promise to Thor not to brutally murder his brother before the blond god sauntered into the room and set mjolnir on Loki’s hands as a temporary restraint.
“My thanks, Tony Stark, I am heartened to see that my brother caused you no harm.”
No harm. Right. Except for pulling a Sea Witch, stealing his voice, and leaving him at the mercy of his team, their mocking, the ridicule, and three weeks of jokes about Tony and magic that he didn’t want to hear.
Tony sneered. Loki smirked.
Then he snapped the visor shut, nodded to the rest of the team as they jogged closer, and flew home.
It wasn’t hard at first.
Everyone knew Tony Stark hated magic. He was pretty sure there were men herding yaks on the Russian steppes, who, if they heard his name would say, ‘oh yeah, that guy, he hates magic.’ Except they’d say it in russian. So it wasn’t hard to play for time using a bad mood as a shield.
There was a lot that could be said with an eyebrow and a long drink of coffee.
Then there was the fact that most of the team sent him texts when they needed his attention since they knew Jarvis would display them over Tony’s current project until he read them and responded.
For the first two days, he was convinced they were going to have an epiphany, and the taunting would begin. He was braced for it, but it never happened.
Then came three days of realizing they weren’t as smart as he thought, and the subsequent concern because intelligence seemed important for superheroes.
Then came two more days of fear after he remembered they were actually very smart.
Then started the creeping recognition that something had changed.
It was around day eleven of his enforced silence that he put his finger on what he was seeing. Or, well, not-seeing. And not-hearing.
Damn near half of his interactions with the team ended with strained smiles from the not-Tony members of those conversations. They always looked a bit annoyed, which was usually his cue to return to the lab. The team wasn’t doing that anymore. They were smiling, clear through to the end of the – well, it wasn’t a conversation since Tony was 271 hours in mutism – but to the end of the interaction at least. They smiled. The entire time.
His team was one of the prickliest groups of people he had ever met. Not a day went by that at least one of them wasn’t hip deep in trauma and memories. There was always someone who was two steps from putting a chair through a window. They were the Avengers, it came with the territory.
When he talked to them before, they’d get progressively more terse and standoffish until Tony took the hint. Now? They never did that.
He pushed aside the assessment, his stress induced, over wrought emotions and a mild, simmering panic attack. That night, he started collecting data. Jarvis brought up feeds of the common room over the last months, and Tony knew it was behavioral observation, and so was definitely a soft science, but it was all he had to go on. Bruce didn’t get a stressed look as long as Tony talked about science. Anything else got him green around the edges in about half an hour.
Clint always looked a bit annoyed, but usually walked away before Tony could see it get bad enough to count as a data point. Of course, then he realized he had cameras everywhere, and found Clint’s frustration, visible the minute he was out of Tony’s sight.
Steve kept up the facade of politeness decently well. But Steve was who Tony had thought of first. He was who had jumped to the front of Tony’s mind, with stress-wrinkles around his eyes and a grimace doing it’s best to look happy.
Natasha was a Black Widow and a super spy, she wasn’t going to have any clues in the moment. Tony skipped watching their interactions, and found what she did once she was alone. Similar enough to Clint to be a problem.
Even Thor. Garrulous, gregarious, speaks only in capslock even when whispering, Thor, looked increasingly drawn while speaking to Tony.
He’d listened to his own voice rambling on for almost thirteen hours. It was too fast, too jarring. His line of thought jumped too fast for them to follow. His subjects were either boring and superficial, or they were too technical, or they were flat insulting when he watched them from the outside. He was too loud, too pushy, too sarcastic, too glib, too pedantic.
They tolerated him talking as long as they could, but all of them eventually started to look like they’d rather be handed off to a supervillian to have their fingernails ripped off.
Somewhere around dawn Tony had a working hypothesis and the criteria to observe his interactions going forwards.
By day sixteen, he confirmed the hypothesis.
That night, Tony’s voice came back.
Thereafter, he chose not to use it.
His voice returned on a broken sob while Tony sat on the floor behind his work bench. His hands clapped over his mouth, trying to shove the sound deep enough it couldn’t escape again.
He would be fine. Everyone would be fine.
They’d be so much happier if he just stopped. They had enough problems. He didn’t need to add to that. They needed him around, but they’d be better off if he stopped talking.
He could do that.
Besides, now that he’d seen how much they hated it, now that he’d actually listened to himself speak? He couldn’t stand his own voice. Even the muffled whimpers of suppressed tears grated on him.
He could do this.
He was Tony Stark.
He could do anything.
Eye tracking software, which was the foundation of text to speech programs for most of the world, was laughably pathetic. It was barely functional. “Was” being the key word there. For about three days after Tony first tried it, it was still pathetic. Then there was a patent quietly filed, and a release sent to all the major organizations that they could use it freely, forever, and to contact him if they had any suggestions for improvements.
He routed the whole thing through a charity subsidiary so it wouldn’t tie back to him, and refocused on developing an interface for inside the Iron Man helmet. The eye tracking software was great, but he couldn’t type out individual words all the time. He needed to go much faster.
That was going to be a problem. He needed to be able to respond to the team. He needed to be able to analyze threats with Jarvis.
The first part was solved when Tony realized that having Jarvis replay something he’d previously said didn’t make him feel like clawing his skin off his face. So that was that. The inside of the helmet had a set of standard replies he might need, sorted by who he was talking to, accessed through the newly improved eye tracking tech.
The second part. Well, it took most of a week, and there was an argument to be made that he’d just found a way to directly interface his AI with his brain which was the start of at least five sci-fi dystopias he’d read, but, he didn’t have another solution. Worst of all, it was amazing. It was even faster working that way. Jarvis was basically watching his thoughts, and could pull out threads and extrapolate the information Tony needed before Tony knew he needed it. They developed a shorthand where Jarvis would display information or queries on the screen, and Tony thought his response, or eye-typed something if it was particularly specific.
So that was that solved. Two weeks and he’d revolutionized two industries. He wasn’t planning to share his AI mind-meld, but that was beside the point.
He’d done it.
There wasn’t a third part, because he didn’t need a way to communicate with anyone outside the suit. Iron Man needed basic communication, Tony Stark didn’t.
Rhodey was somewhere top secret and could only message in text form. Pepper lived and died by emails because then she could pull out proof of his agreements. In the lab, when he didn’t want to wear the helmet, Jarvis understood sign language. The team was in the building, but didn’t notice he’d stopped speaking.
Didn’t notice. Right. Sure. Two brilliant minds, two super spies, and a god didn’t notice when the chattiest man they knew stopped making sound. They just seemed happier than before. Brighter and more cheerful than before. They just seemed like they were more comfortable with him around when he was stone silent.
He knew they noticed.
And he knew they liked him better this way.
“Good job today Iron man. And thanks for keeping our comms clear for once.” Steve joked, clapping his hand on the shoulder of the suit.
It had been a good day. They fought an army of tiny robots. Like if the scarabs from the mummy were made of steel and were equipped with tiny lasers. It was hard, but it was good. He had to write a computer code while snatching them off civilians.
Tony and Jarvis found a way around them, Jarvis read the others in on the plan while Tony got it ready, and not once did he have to bring up a keyboard to send a more specific reply to the team. The drop down lists on the side were perfect.
“Sure thing Cap.”
“On your six.”
“Headed there now.”
He cringed when he used them, feeling like each word he used, even repeating old ones, was eating up a reservoir. If he used them too fast, the others would – well, they’d get that look like they wanted to put a spoon through their eardrums. Which, incidentally, was how Tony felt seeing that look in their eyes: like he wanted to cram his hand down his throat and scrape away his vocal chords so he could never bother them again.
It had been two weeks since his revelation.
The team was doing great. Evil was once again defeated. The Avengers won the day. Yadda yadda, and for once, no blah blah blah.
On the inside of the HUD, Jarvis displayed a question mark that faded into sight like a gentle concern.
Tony ignored that bit of non-verbal inquiry from his greatest creation, and saluted Rogers.
Then, since Steve was getting that look he got when working up to a conversation he dreaded, Tony walked away to help clean up of fifty thousand two-inch robots.
It only made sense that if they didn’t want him to talk them, they didn’t want him to hang around them.
That was logic. Boring, simple, scientific logic.
He ran through the alternative conclusions and discarded them. This was the one that fit the data.
They were a group of gorgeous bastards, so it wasn’t like he’d be wanted as eye candy. They were, across the board, stronger and hotter than he was. Despite it not being entirely true in a linear sense, he was the oldest of the team. Thor was a millenia old undergrad. Steve was a ninety year old twenty-something. They liked different movies. They came from different lives. Fine, he covered their living expenses and had the bots deliver new gear to them, but didn’t need to be around them for that. Jarvis had all their measurements, and had wireframes of each, including their gait and fighting styles.
He didn’t ever need to be around them.
He’d always been an outsider. He’d always been the last resort.
Yeah, sure, he noticed it because of the talking, because Loki was a great big bag of dicks, and petty as hell. He noticed it because of that, but, once he did, it wasn’t like he could un-see it.
Anyway, the less time he spent around them, the less he had to strain himself answering them without letting the barest utterance slip out of his throat. The one time he accidentally grunted after colliding with Thor, he spent the night in an anxiety attack, hearing it echo in his ears, and trying to listen to Jarvis’ reminders that he not break skin as he clawed at his arms.
So he stayed out of their way.
It was better that way.
He got a lot of work done. Pepper’s emails were ecstatic.
He updated his data after three months.
Because science didn’t count if you trusted to emotions.
He watched his team’s interactions without him there, and watched their interactions with him there. Then all of it was compared to the old videos where he would babble and jabber and ramble at them until they looked miserable and invented excuses to get away from him.
That was how he heard the conversation between Clint and Steve.
“You know I haven’t had a conversation with Tony in ages.”
“You talked to him two days when there was the guy with the lava.”
“That guy was so cool. Hot. Whatever. And I wasn’t complaining, I was announcing. I feel like I should bring him a cake or something.”
“That – Clint – that would – don’t do that.”
“Awww, Cap. Just a little cake? I just wanna thank him for not making me listen to him explain the quantum physics he worked through while developing the new exploding arrow heads. They go boom? That’s all I need to know.”
Steve frowned on the display, but nodded, “It has been nice not to be reminded how far out of touch I am. Pepper told me he does this. Gets his head into whatever he’s working on and doesn’t come up for air for a while. It’s normal.”
“Normal for Tony, “ Clint corrected.
“Don’t argue with small mercies, Cap.” They both laughed, and went back to talking about other things. According to Jarvis, the conversation lasted another seventy eight minutes. Average time for conversations between Avengers not named Tony was forty-three minutes. When Tony was involved, before, average time was twenty one minutes.
So. Tony got new data.
The hypothesis held.
They were happier like this.
See, he didn’t consider it a problem.
Jarvis did, and presented him with scenarios in which speaking would be non-optional at least once a week, ostensibly to give him an opportunity to solve for them in advance; in actuality, to try to demonstrate the breadth of the danger.
Silent wasn’t a problem. It was a change, but it wasn’t like it was being forced on him. He made the choice. He chose to stop bothering his team.
And he still texted them. He still got photos of things Steve didn’t have a name for, asking for an explanation. He still got queries about tech. He still sent Lonely Island gifs to Thor.
And yeah, there was the time he slipped with the welding torch and blasted the back of his hand. He sobbed out a curse at the pain, then collapsed, no longer aware of the blisters growing on his skin, lost in a panic attack, trying to shove the sound down deeper and deeper. It needed to be gone. Dead. Buried so far in his chest it couldn’t get out, not for an accident, not for an injury. Not for torture or death or mourning. It had to go away. All of it, always.
It was better that way.
If he hadn’t pushed so hard, he knew the sounds that would have gone with his sobbing would be grotesque, painful, and utterly obnoxious to everyone around him. Jarvis reprimanded him, but sent Dum-E with the first aid kit.
Tony let the tears dry on his cheeks, fighting to keep from letting his breathing get loud enough to hear.
It was better like this.
It wasn’t a problem.
They were happier.
It wasn’t a problem.
It wasn’t a problem.