It felt like the air had just been removed, like a vacuum was trying to suck all the air out of his lungs. Tony felt himself shouting something, the words lost in the maelstrom as Amora collected the swirling winds in her fist. The distant green figure was too far away for him to get a good weapons lock on in the chaos, the winds raging so hard as to blow away Cap’s shield and Hawkeye’s arrows, to stop Black Widow from moving in. Thor and the Hulk were destroying the last of the glowing super-bats she’d unleashed on the city, and there was no one close enough to get at her.
It was just the distraction she must have been looking for.
With a shout of triumph, Amora raised her hand, and the winds rose around her in a tight spiral before she cast the sphere of twisting air on the ground. It shattered and dissipated with an unbelievably loud sound of screams that blasted out in a shockwave. The shriek was loud enough to stun Tony straight through the suit, and he went skewing sideways, making a tumbling, sprawling landing on the rooftop.
He actually grayed out for a minute, and came to gasping for breath.
What the hell?, he said. That’s what he thought about saying. That’s what his lips did. But Tony couldn’t hear himself. He couldn’t feel the vibrations in his throat. He tried again at a shout, silence still ringing in his ears. Shit. Shit, had she deafened him?
“Sir, are you all right?” JARVIS’ voice in his ear was a godsend. He still had his hearing. If Amora had deprived him of music…
I’m fine, J. Nothing. No sound came out. What?
JARVIS, I can’t hear me, he said… “said,” panic starting to rise up unbidden.
“Sir, I can read your lips, but I cannot hear you,” JARVIS said almost diffidently. And yet there was a thread of something in his vocal inflection subroutines, a little hint of worry. Unbidden, medical diagnostics started flashing down the left side of the HUD.
Tony got himself upright and looked around, trying to find the others. Below, the Hulk was smashing something into the ground. The sound of crumbling concrete was perfectly audible. But the Hulk’s mouth was open in an utterly silent roar. Cap was at a semi-safe distance, making placating gestures, his mouth moving silently. Tony felt his heart sink; Steve was wearing a communicator, same as Clint and Natasha. He should be easily heard. Tony had designed those things to take a hell of a lot of abuse for a reason.
Clint was on a nearby rooftop, waving at someone down below, and Tony could see Natasha’s red hair as she waved back at him. Silently.
Thor landed next to Tony with a heavy thump, mouth moving, nothing coming out. Trying to fight the panic down to an acceptable level, Tony tapped his metal-covered throat and shook his head. Thor just looked at him helplessly, touching his own.
It was times like this that Tony really, really regretted the fact that SHIELD was gone. The convenience of not having to deal with Nick Fury’s secrets was negated by the fact that there was no pseudo-government agency to call for a little helping hand. Like, you know, medical help for random magical attacks. Not that the Avengers had had a lot of time to worry about those fine details, not when Asgardian megalomaniacs felt the need to drop into L.A. for fun and games.
Speaking of, where the hell had Amora gone?
JARVIS, Amora? he mouthed.
There was a delay, not that long, maybe a second, but it seemed like infinitely longer before JARVIS understood him.
“Sir, if you’ll examine the crater, you’ll see the Enchantress was violently subdued by the Hulk shortly after her last attack,” JARVIS said, his voice filtering through external speakers as well as internal without Tony having given the command. Thor’s shoulders moved and Tony saw him breathe in and out like a sigh of relief. Both of them looked down, where the Hulk had subsided into a very shell-shocked, and silent, Bruce Banner. He looked around at Steve with what had to be the same bewilderment they all shared.
“Sir, I have completed diagnostics,” JARVIS said, and Tony’s eyes moved to the human body outline. JARVIS had constant medical updates from reliable sources, and really, really, embarrassingly intimate knowledge of Tony’s body. He was the next best thing to a doctor, and Tony trusted him more than nearly every other flesh and blood professional in that field. “I cannot find anything wrong.”
Thor looked at him, having heard JARVIS’ pronouncement, and squared his jaw in stoic resignation. Or possibly to avoid screaming. That’s what Tony was doing. A bit. A lot.
Down below, Clint was waving his arms, and finally fired a loud signal arrow up in the air to get everyone to look at him. Natasha focused on him, hands on her hips, looking deceptively casual, but her back was as stiffly upright as Cap’s during a parade-ground salute. Clint spread his arms out and flapped them like a kid pretending that he was a bird, made a motion like turning a steering wheel, and then pointed back where they’d parked the Quinjet Natasha and he had “liberated” from SHIELD.
My God, we’re down to interpretive dance, Tony tried to say, and damn if that wasn’t very funny when no one could hear him.
But the message was clear enough – “Go back to the Quinjet.”
Thor pointed down at Amora’s limp form, and removed a pair of elaborate shackles from his belt. Natasha held up her hands, and Thor slung them down from his height, landing in her grasp unerringly. She had Amora trussed up within thirty seconds, and started dragging her back over the rubble. It looked damn uncomfortable. And Steve didn’t seem too worried about it, ignoring Amora’s treatment to guide Bruce in his post-Hulk daze, eyes fixed on his goal, not even making an offer to help Natasha.
It was only then Tony realized he wasn’t the only one on the verge of panicking.
It was impolite to leave Los Angeles in the lurch without an explanation or even a wave to the press, but quite literally Steve couldn’t explain what had happened. He stared down at Amora as the Quinjet sped back to the Tower, wanting to ask her questions and knowing he couldn’t was eating him up inside. Natasha was glaring down at her with frustration, probably thinking that if she had managed to twist truth out of Loki, Amora wouldn’t be much harder to deal with. But not silently. Steve didn’t know how much experience Natasha had in interrogation, how many techniques she knew, but it had to be a lot. And none of them did any her good now.
Thor finally leaned forward, grasping Amora’s arm and lifting her up, her head lolling back to reveal the bruises on her… everything. With his other arm, he tapped Mjölnir, then pointed up. Asgard. He wanted to take her back to Asgard. Bruce seemed to come fully aware, shaking himself out of his post-Hulk daze to fix Thor with a keen look. He turned and pointed at the caduceus, the snake-twined staff medical symbol emblazoned on the medical kit on the wall of the Quinjet, then pointed at Mjölnir, then up, pointing at his throat and raising an eyebrow.
The meaning of that was pretty clear - Is our muteness something Asgardian medicine can deal with?
Thor looked down at Amora, hesitated, and shrugged.
Steve strove not to look disappointed. Being a magician in Asgard seemed to be like being a scientist on Earth, and not everyone could be the equivalent of Tony or Bruce. Thor not knowing meant exactly that – he didn’t know, not that there wasn’t an answer. They could all be talking by tomorrow if Thor had a chance to go home.
He nodded encouragingly, and Thor firmed up his grip on Amora as Clint took the Quinjet into a gentle descent to the hangar Tony had installed on the roof of the Tower. He stood, hauling her up like she weighed no more than a kitten, and paused. Thor pointed to his throat, the caduceus, then Bruce, and then shaded his eyes as if searching for something on the horizon.
Look for an answer here. Or maybe, Look for an answer in human medicine.
Bruce didn’t even go through what would have to be an elaborate rigmarole to point out he really wasn’t a medical doctor, just nodding in resignation. Maybe Steve could try to get a hold of someone from SHIELD’s medical staff who hadn’t gone completely underground, or maybe Natasha, Clint, or Tony knew someone who could help. They were hardly without resources, even if they could no longer count on SHIELD.
He flicked his eyes up to the cockpit, where Clint was still slowly unstrapping himself, eyes fixed on some middle distance, Natasha beside him. Steve wondered if either of them knew of anyone they could talk to now to help Bruce; anything that could help them feel less isolated. He remembered what it was like to walk into a French village, a German town, some little place where no one spoke a word of English. If it hadn’t been for Gabriel and Jacques, they might have been in the same situation, unable to get across anything but the basics. Clint and Natasha had operated in a lot of countries, and had to have even more experience than he in crossing communication barriers. Maybe they knew something else that could help them bridge the gaps between them, at least temporarily.
Natasha leaned over to Clint and put her hand on his arm, and he froze in place. She reached down to take his hand, and turned his head with her other to make him look her in the eyes. She looked at him searchingly, and he slowly shook his head and flicked his eyes back at Thor. Natasha’s chest rose and fell in a sigh, and she nodded slightly before getting up out of her chair.
On second thought, maybe Steve could just give them all a little time to settle after the fight.
And if he kept focusing on solid goals like that, he could keep the swelling bubble of panic in his chest from overwhelming him.
Thor dragged Amora from the Quinjet, and walked over to where the floor had been permanently marked with Asgardian runes from Bifrost travel. He looked up into the sky, mouth moving automatically, Steve seeing the form of his words even if no sound came out, a familiar phrase he’d seen Thor use a dozen times.
Heimdall, open the Bifrost.
There was nothing for a long moment. Then Thor got a stormy expression on his face, and raised Mjölnir to the heavens. Steve had just enough time to shield his eyes as a brilliant bolt of lightning smote the hammer, and a roll of thunder peeled through the bright blue sky. A moment later the blinding colors of the Bifrost illuminated the hangar, and then Thor and Amora were gone.
In the echoing silence, (of course it’s going to be silent, we can’t talk) it was JARVIS’ voice who broke it, and Steve was utterly glad that Amora hadn’t been able to silence Tony’s electronic partner.
“Sir, shall I call for medical assistance?”
Tony hadn’t popped his faceplate open yet, and it was making Steve anxious. Tony had an expressive face and elaborate body language; Steve had been able to understand what Tony was getting at in the past without ever being able to understand what words are coming out of his mouth, but this just felt wrong. They were scared, they were all scared, but Tony liked to project his image of eternal cock-of-the-walk unless things were deadly serious.
Maybe he knew something they didn’t. And that scared Steve even more.
Bruce had managed to find a pad of paper and a pen tucked away somewhere in the hangar, and scribbled something down in a half-readable scrawl before turning it towards everyone else with a forcibly calm expression.
I have no firm idea what to do aside from a general examination. Anyone know someone in the right fields?
“I shall create a list of potential experts immediately,” JARVIS said, and Steve was one hundred percent sure he wasn’t imagining the urgency in the AI’s voice. Clint’s hands had been tight on the controls of the Quinjet, Natasha too still during the whole trip, and if Bruce hadn’t had as much experience as he did in keeping calm, he’d likely have been projecting something as well. Steve learned how to control a lot of fear in the face of combat, but he didn’t know how good he looked on the outside, not now.
Fear was something every Avenger lived with. Fear of themselves, of their backgrounds, their choices, the people they left behind, the skills and powers they had gained and the cost of them, the fear of using them for the wrong thing, and then the quiet, underlying fear of what would happen when all of that went away. When they would become useless, when the world no longer needed them.
Natasha understood that. She’d torn herself away from her makers and created a reputation for herself so she would have a purpose. She’d remade herself over and over again when Clint had opened up his hand to her and offered her a chance to walk in the light. And now she was facing another remaking, not with all her skills so painfully gained, but with a loss. Maybe only a temporary one, but still, a lack of that which she had leaned on for most of her life.
But she had done this before, and she would do it again, no matter her fear.
Natasha managed, by dint of nudges, pointing, and a few pointed looks of perfectly encapsulated exasperation, to get the Avengers all moving in the same direction, heading down to the large communal space near the top of the Tower. There were suites here, whole floors actually, for each and every one of them, and all of them virtually unused except for the rare occasions it had been easier to crash there instead of hauling themselves back to their own apartments, their own private spaces. But Natasha had made it clear, through practiced glares and sardonic glances, and finally a few pointed words on Bruce’s pad of paper, that she wouldn’t let them leave until they had an answer, wouldn’t let them hide away like wounded animals no matter how much they wanted to. She could feel it in herself too, all her training telling her to get clear until she could return to functionality, that fear gnawing at her as it had them. But she needed them, and they need each other – what could be an answer for one of them could be an answer for them all.
SHIELD no longer held jurisdiction over her or the Avengers, but that didn’t mean there still weren’t some functioning units of it clinging to life until someone decent could take on the task of rebuilding. And right now, SHIELD’s fragile remains did not need the weight of mute Avengers pressing on their limited resources, at least not publically. What was left of SHIELD could find their primary residences, and if they thought to look here, it would take the longest to try to get through Stark’s security. They couldn’t afford to waste time on long explanations they couldn’t deliver, and too many of Clint and Natasha’s circuitous ways of contacting people to call in favors required a verbal message at one or more parts in the chain. A written message, no matter how coded, wouldn’t be enough.
The Avengers got what she was doing almost immediately, for as strong as the desire to hide was, the fear of being alone and unable to communicate was stronger. Staying here was practical. It was also for their own sanity, for the hope that any solution would be gathered here first. Here, the only neighbors would be people that understood. The comfort of their private spaces couldn’t compete with that, not today.
Steve figured it out on the elevator ride down, borrowing Bruce’s pad of paper to write, We’re all staying. We’ll figure this out together, Natasha. The look of gratitude on his face, that someone else was stepping up to help herd a group of recalcitrant superheroes, was one of the bright spots of the afternoon.
After they dispersed to sit down in the common room, Natasha lingered to snag Tony after he got out of the armor, but before he could rejoin everyone else, holding up pages from Bruce’s notepad she’d already filled with questions. Some she was already certain of the answers, but Tony needed to be asked, regardless.
You took in some of SHIELD after Project Insight?
Anyone in the higher echelons?
Anyone who still has access to trusted medical personnel?
Anyone you can trust?
Tony looked at the questions for half a second, took the pen from her, bracketed the whole lot of them, and wrote, Maria Hill.
Natasha favored him with a perfectly raised eyebrow of impressed disbelief.
Tony countered with a smug little smile, refreshingly normal, and then broke out his phone to text instead of the entirely-too-archaic write. Let me contact my newest assistant to the vice president of applied science.
For long as Natasha had known Maria Hill, she’d rarely seen her in other than a SHIELD-issued jumpsuit, body armor, or workout gear. As Nick Fury’s right hand, she’d been clear of undercover field duty for years, and as good as Natasha’s imagination was, it was still a very strange shock to see Assistant Director Hill in a business suit and jewelry, tapping manicured nails against a StarkPhone instead of rapping out orders over an earpiece while garbed in combat gear, her Glock riding at her hip.
But if the choice was between that or being thrown on the non-existent mercy of a Congressional hearing, staying under the security of Stark Technologies was the far wiser choice, and Natasha couldn’t fault her for it. They’d all lost the security blanket of anonymity and had to replace it with something else.
“What?” Hill asked, her voice very flat at she looked at the text message that had come up from Steve just after she’d walked in. “I thought texting me across the room was something only my teenage nephew did…” Her voice trailed off as the full implications of Steve’s epic-sized text, more of a short story, hit her. The reason for the Avengers, plus one very concerned Pepper Potts, all sitting around a conference table with tablets and keyboards and smartphones in a parody of a board meeting suddenly became less a practical joke and more a disturbing confirmation of what Steve was telling her.
“What,” she said again, with no question in her voice, more to reassure herself that she had read things right than out of disbelief. She stared back at the text, the very thorough, detailed text, then back up at the Avengers. Took a deep breath. “No word from Thor yet?”
Nope, Tony typed, the words popping up on the screen at the front of the room with his name attached like a chat window. He looked embarrassed to exist in the same room with a chat window, but they really didn’t have a choice right now.
He’s only been gone a few hours, Steve reminded her. Ass- Ms. Hill-
“Ass-Hill?” she said, lips quirking a bit.
Steve actually slapped his hand palm down on the table, making enough noise to startle her, looking frustrated. He very carefully and precisely picked out his next sentence with one hand, the other one held up to prevent anyone else from talking or typing. Assistant Director Hill, which technically isn’t your title anymore, so I suppose I have to call you Ms. Hill – We called you because we need trustworthy medical experts and you, knowing most of the people still loyal to SHIELD, might know the right people.
Maria had the grace to look abashed, and Natasha was impressed by Steve’s polite scolding/not scolding. Whether he consciously realized it or not, and she was very much aware that Steve missed little, he could invoke nearly eight decades of authority by just a disapproving glance. And not even Maria Hill was immune to that.
“Richards and McCoy,” she said succinctly. “I can’t trust anyone else enough to keep their mouths shut, and they have the most weird medical experience. Anyone else either wouldn’t have the clearance or the knowhow you need.” And that cost Maria a lot to say. There simply wasn’t enough of SHIELD left to give the Avengers any support; they had to save their strength for rebuilding and stamping out HYDRA. And asking the Avengers to bring their might to bear against HYDRA would be like getting a sledgehammer to swat ants. HYDRA was dangerous, but the Avengers were more for large, property-damaging, extremely bizarre threats. Maria Hill wouldn’t let the world end on her watch because she’d asked the Hulk and Iron Man to go after amoral human scum and missed a world-destroying villain.
Tony smacked his hand on the table frantically and shook his head.
“They’re not petty enough to not help, no matter what you said to Reed during the last particle physics conference,” Pepper said pointedly.
Oh, they can help, no problem there. I just don’t want to broadcast our involuntary gag order to the whole scientific-superhero community-.
Tony, we’re not getting into an intellectual dick-measuring contest when Reed Richards and, yes, Hank McCoy are two the leading experts in strange, random things happening to people with wildly different body chemistries, Bruce typed, coming out of his habitual slouch, squaring his shoulders and meeting Tony’s stare head-on.
Steve, Clint, and Natasha were flicking back and forth between the two of them and the words on the screen, and it looked like Clint was about to go get a bowl of popcorn to watch the continuing fireworks. Then he looked back at Natasha and Steve and tapped the table to get everyone’s attention while he typed.
You know that part in a movie where the hero goes off with little-to-no backup because he “doesn’t want other people to get hurt,” and then ends up in deep shit because he has no exit strategy? Let’s not do that, Clint typed. Scientifically-speaking, or otherwise. Because that’s what got Nat and Steve in a world of hurt.
Yeah, that and HYDRA, Steve typed, looking a little sullen.
If you want Reed and Hank poking at us, then I’ll text them, fine. Tony picked up his phone and began to rapidly type out a text with short, sharp stabs of his fingers.
“Sir, if you wish, I can summarize what Dr. Banner has already surmised and transfer the appropriate files to Dr. Richards and Dr. McCoy,” JARVIS said. Tony stopped, his fingers going still, and heaved out a sigh.
Yeah, I figured, Tony typed, and looked over at Bruce, who just heaved a huge sigh of resignation. The professional rivalry between geniuses was intense, and despite their varied fields of study, Natasha hadn’t heard about those three being able to be in the same room at the same time without an argument erupting.
There was a cool, practical part of her that pointed out that without Tony able to make instant quips to keep the fires stoked, Richards and McCoy’s cooler heads would likely be able to make progress instead of infighting. A more sentimental person might have called that a silver lining.
“What are you guys going to do if something happens while this is still going on?” Hill asked. Her eyes looked hard as flint, and Natasha could see the set of her jaw was the same now as it was on the obstacle course when confronting an enemy.
We… will need some help, Steve typed after a moment. Tony mouthed something, she couldn’t tell what, but didn’t bother to transcribe as he looked away. If things work out, we could have a cure… I don’t know, a few days, but if they don't-
Talking in the field will be hard, Natasha put in. And without that, without some kind of communication, how were they going to know if someone needed help if they were out of sight? How could they warn their friends? How could they respond to a villain’s taunt with a well-armed quip or comment to distract him at a crucial moment? Silent operations could be done, but it required an immense amount of foreknowledge and thorough planning, and the things the Avengers were called for were generally always short notice and could be anything from an alien invasion to a rogue scientist with experimental technology. Most of what they did was, by necessity, improvisational, and that meant a lot of quickly-enacted short-term plans that could change in an instant. Communication wasn’t just a luxury, it was critical.
Yeah, but who’s going to step up to the plate and swing that five hundred pound bat? Tony typed, eyebrow up. Most of the other people in the Avengers’ weight class were already engaged fighting their own battles, their own enemies. Who could they ask?
“I could,” Pepper said. Tony’s hand stuttered to a halt, wordsmashing nonsense across the screen as he looked up at her. Pepper had her bottom lip between her teeth, her hand on his shoulder, and Tony could feel her tension along with the slightly-higher-than-normal heat of her body.
What? he asked, mouth moving silently out of habit, but Pepper had seen that look on his face before.
“I could,” she said again, not loud, looking at the rest of the Avengers. “Tony, you didn’t tell-?”
He shook his head. It was Pepper’s privilege to tell or not, but that had been one of the toughest conversations between them.
“I’m gonna get this out,” Tony said, tapping the cover of the reactor. “Pep, I’m getting the shrapnel out, I’m getting this out. The Extremis will keep me going, fix up all the crap I’ve done to myself. I can set it to regulate, burn itself out after the doctors are done. Same with you, I can get it out-.”
“Don’t, I want to keep it,” she said suddenly, and that stopped Tony dead in his tracks. Because Pepper had killed Killian, not just to save him, but for what Killian done to Happy, and for all the people he’d killed with his experiments. But she hadn’t exactly done it with a smile on her face. Pepper could be as ruthless as a lioness, but him suiting up and kicking supervillain ass on call had been one of their biggest compromises.
That she would want to keep that much power in her had Tony both terrified and more than a little hot. And confused.
“Tony, I know you need to be Iron Man, I know you need to save people. It’s good for you.” She squeezed his hands. “The last few times people have come after you, they’ve also come after me.”
And that was a nicely crushing weight of guilt, thank you very much, but Pepper lifted it off of him with her smile.
“You shouldn’t have to worry, and I don’t want to have to worry,” she said. “The next time someone tries to go after you, or think they can get to you through me, I want to give them a hell of a surprise. And you shouldn’t ever have to give away your suit in a collapsing building. Do you understand? You only have to worry that I’m going to take down more bad guys than you.”
Tony had laughed at that and kissed her and wanted to ask, Are you sure? Are you sure? over and over and over until she was sure to boot his metal-clad butt halfway into next week, and it took an enormous amount of willpower, but he didn’t. Because Pepper could make up her own mind, and Pepper had been in way too much danger and was still standing by him.
And Pepper could be trusted with that kind of power and not end up turning into some kind of megalomaniac.
“Extremis,” Pepper said in explanation.
Clint and Natasha exchanged glances and Steve looked a little guilty. Bruce looked a little bit sheepishly embarrassed. Tony resolved not to feel bad as he typed.
You know, when there were human bombs going off on American soil and Happy nearly died and my house blew up with Pepper and an old friend in it and the President got kidnapped and Rhodey nearly died?
Steve mouthed something at Tony, fast and irritated, then caught himself and typed, They had me looking for the Mandarin overseas, and I’m not nearly as mobile as Jim. I thought you were dead, Tony, and I was looking for your killer. He didn’t look away, but there was definite guilt in his expression.
“Thank you,” Pepper said, before things could escalate. She gave Steve a small smile, her hand still resting on Tony’s shoulder. “No one could have guessed what Killian was up to until it was almost too late. It was completely crazy.”
You’ll need someone to watch your back. I’ll ask Rhodey, Tony typed decisively.
Sam Wilson too, if he’ll agree. Until we figure out a cure here, or Thor comes back from Asgard with news, we need to figure out how to keep people safe from our kinds of threats, Steve typed.
Pepper spoke up, her hand tightening on Tony’s shoulder. “Thank you. JARVIS, if you could get me Sam Wilson’s phone number as well, I’d appreciate it.” She looked over at Steve, and he nodded his assent. He would have to communicate with Sam later, as he guessed Tony would be talking to Jim, but they’d be the ones watching Pepper’s back, and it was their decision to make if they wanted to go up against the insanity the Avengers faced on a regular basis.
Luckily Sam, who flew with jet-powered wings, or Jim, who wore a weaponized suit of flying armor, already knew and embraced a certain level of insanity. You had to, to do what they did.
Steve put his hand to his throat. He just hadn’t expected that insanity to take such a turn.
“I’ll go make some calls.” Pepper’s flawless poise as a businesswoman cracked a little bit as she turned to go, and Steve watched her clasp one hand over the opposite wrist to hide their trembling.
Maria Hill rose from the table as Pepper walked out. “I’ll go pull whatever strings I have left to get Wilson and Rhodes free to help.” Because that, at least, was something she could actually do.
SHIELD might not exist anymore, but that didn't mean all the good it had done for decades had been erased in an instant. Tainted, maybe, but for those who had been closest to its destruction, they knew that a few good people still remained. Maria Hill had dropped words in the ears of a few generals who still believed in heroes, and Sam Wilson and James Rhodes were suddenly free of their former assignments and ordered to get to New York as soon as possible.
Steve was not the tiniest bit surprised both had interpreted that to mean that it was completely justified for them to use the technology that set them apart as much as their bravery and brains.
He watched them alight on Tony's landing pad, first Jim, then Sam. Jim's faceplate immediately went up, and Sam pushed his goggles to the top of his head when they saw Tony, Steve, and Pepper through the glass walls of the penthouse. Since none of them were visibly injured, it didn't make Jim and Sam's expressions of confusion clear any faster.
“Let me,” Pepper murmured as the two strode down the walkway, one hand clenched inside the other, the slightly golden glow of her skin not from the kiss of the sun, but from the stress of the past day. Tony might have protested that he didn't need to be spoken for, Steve could see that clearly without needing any explanation, except that this would be, quite literally, partially Pepper's show. They all needed to show their trust in her, in them. This wasn't a contest, this was dealing with the threats no one else could.
“Tony, where's the fire?” Jim asked, War Machine peeling away from him so he could stop looming over everyone.
Pepper took a breath. And began to talk.
A few moments later, Sam had the Falcon wings set down on the ground by Jim's armor and had joined him sitting on the couch, their shock slowly giving way to determination.
“Have you found out anything yet?” Jim asked. A flicker of exasperation, probably reflexive, crossed his face as Tony took out his phone and began to type. When Sam and Jim's phones chirped at them, they checked the incoming text to see Tony had sent: Not yet. Thor's still at home, and Richards and McCoy are still working on it.
“Shit,” Jim said, shaking his head. “I was hoping this was a joke.”
But Jim knew Tony enough to know he didn't suffer people poking at him in his own house unless the need was dire. Tony just shook his head sharply, balling up his hand in an abortive gesture, almost opening his mouth and then catching himself before he tried to speak.
Sam looked over at Jim's armor, a flicker of jealousy crossing his face that even Steve could understand before taking a deep breath and closing his eyes for a minute. His expression cleared, and Steve wondered what he was thinking about. If there was any justice in the world, he was thinking about how he took on the Winter Soldier by himself, how he fought Rumlow and kept him from coming to Pierce's aid, how he survived the fall of Triskellion, how he had stepped up when no one else would or could and had made a difference, wings or no wings.
“I'm in,” he said shortly. “Is there anything you know is coming up?”
Steve shook his head, and texted quickly, Nothing coming up, but we don't always get a lot of notice.
“Do we ever?” Sam said, drawing a smile out of Steve.
“I'm in too,” Jim said, looking over at Tony, hesitating, and skipping his glance over to Pepper. Steve had seen Jim and Tony together enough that he knew there was a quip somewhere on the tip of Jim's tongue, held back until this was far enough distant to be funny instead of a potential disaster. Probably something about Tony's eternal motor-mouth and what it took to shut him him.
In some other circumstances, that would have had Steve guffawing on the couch along with everyone else.
In some other circumstances, Steve and Tony wouldn't be texting people sitting three feet away.
“Pepper, you up for this?” Jim asked instead.
Sam was striving mightily not to look skeptical, having seen plenty of women kicking plenty of ass, but all of them had been in the armed forces, or were someone like Natasha, with a reputation for deadly violence. Not someone who willow-slender and had, by all accounts, been a business woman all her professional life. He knew there had to be more to her, he'd seen some of the results of Extremis on the news if nowhere else, but he was also about to trust his life to someone with unknown abilities.
Steve caught Pepper's eye, and moved slightly to the stance he used when sparring with her. Without much effort, she grabbed him around the arm and tossed him straight across the room, right over Sam's head.
The look on Sam's face when Steve made a barely-controlled tumble to land didn't need any more explanation.
“Sir, there is a possibility that I could recreate your speech.”
Tony looked up into empty space, wishing he could just give one simple voice command. Damn it, he’d spent years making JARVIS a hands-free interface, just needing Tony’s voice to direct him to do anything he needed so he could work, think, and process all at the same time. It had been the only way to keep up with how fast Tony’s brain worked; he couldn’t be bothered with typing when he was busy with his hands, and he always did run his mouth constantly. Thinking about recreating his speech? JARVIS hadn’t needed to stretch far to consider that possibility. Tony had been looking up JARVIS’ own speech patterns when his AI had spoken up. It had been the first practical solution to their predicament he’d contemplated in two days.
Two days where the whole gang had practically isolated themselves, when Reed or Hank hadn’t been subjecting the lot of them to endless scans or blood tests. Tony supposed he could consider this sulking, but also figured he had damn well earned a good sulk. Normally he would have been invading Hank and Reed’s temporary lab space, and he was hacking into their results regularly, but mostly it was just too damn depressing. Because despite the battery of tests both mundane and some he was pretty sure those two had just whipped up on the spot, they hadn’t been able to find anything to fix.
And Tony hadn’t been able to think of anything they’d missed. He truly, honestly couldn’t. However much time he usually spent riling up his fellow geniuses, it didn’t mean he didn’t respect their skills. They were masters in their fields, and those fields were just as varied as Tony’s. If they couldn’t find anything…
Tony’s fingers were still for a moment, considering JARVIS’ proposal, and then he typed, Let’s do a test run.
“I have already pulled your verbal record, sir, and have been compiling sound files from them since shortly after the defeat of Amora.”
There were times when Tony knew he’d reached beyond himself with his technology, where what he’d created had gone beyond even his expertise. Like having an AI who could extrapolate what he’d need in the face of utterly insane Asgardian magic. He heaved a sigh of relief and nodded, slouching back in his chair and closing his eyes.
“If you would attempt to speak a short phrase, sir?” JARVIS asked diffidently, waking Tony some time later.
What are we gonna do, J? Tony asked, keeping his eyes shut and his hands still.
A moment later his own voice came from the speakers, “What are…we… gonna… do! J.”
He cringed at the differing inflections, each word culled from a different source with a different inflection for a different meaning. It was intelligible enough, the words are clear, and for something JARVIS put together in a few days without his input, it was really damn good. But it was not him.
“This would just be a prototype, sir…” JARVIS said, after Tony hadn’t made a single attempt to communicate. There was disappointment in the AI’s voice, and Tony turned back to the keyboard.
It’s all right. I remember it took six years to get your voice down.
Six years, and paying a very nice actor to say a lot of technical terms along with regular vocabulary so Tony could have a base to work from to get JARVIS where he was today, where he could pick and choose how he said things and still sound completely natural. He knew the kind of time it took to smooth out vocal irregularities. But this wasn’t… This… It wasn’t sour grapes, that if he couldn’t have something exactly his way, he wouldn’t have it at all. It was…
It wasn’t him. He didn’t want to be… regurgitated, no matter how much speech he had on record. Those old words weren’t him. The way he said some things, particularly important things, had changed a hell of a lot in the past six years. How you said things mattered, and it mattered to him what Pepper heard, how he said things to Rhodey, to Happy, to Bruce, to Steve, to anyone else he cared about. He didn’t want to be laughable, didn’t want to have important things come out in stupid, distracting ways. He didn’t want JARVIS to have to devote extra time and processing power to giving Tony a voice box that still wouldn’t be him.
J, don’t worry about a vocal program. Jettison my vocal commands, put them in storage, take what you need for lip-reading and anything else. Order keyboards for the tablets, and put them in every damn room, Tony typed, faster with his hands than JARVIS was with reading his mouth. Solving problems was what he did, and though he couldn’t solve this one on his own, he was going to try his best to work around it.
Bruce looked up at Tony as he came into the lab and slowly shook his head. Reed and Hank had finally left, and the lack of Bruce’s dulcet tones meant the news wasn’t good. Bruce handed over a short report, handwritten, with nothing encouraging on it, a summary of the results Tony had been stealthily checking up on for the past two days, when he could get past his own moping. The Avengers' vocal chords hadn’t vanished. There was no apparent nerve damage or trauma or brain injury. No sudden, mysterious implants. No auras of unexplained energies. No artificial means of generating sound was working either, not even an electronic voicebox. They couldn’t hum, or whisper, or even, for some inexplicable reason, whistle. Sound was simply something they could not make.
I am at the end of my expertise on the weird, and Reed and Hank reached the limits of their knowledge yesterday. And that’s, saying something, Bruce wrote on the bottom of the page in a slow, almost morose hand. I don’t think the answer lies in Earth medicine.
Tony snatched the pen from Bruce’s hand, and wrote with firm, heavy strokes. I. HATE. MAGIC.
Bruce nodded. I texted Dr. Foster earlier to get her to talk with Thor, to see if there’s any hold up, or if she knows when he’ll be back.
Tony kept looking over Bruce’s shoulder as he wrote, impatience at the slowness of the ancient medium of writing utensil and a flat surface. He tried to hold in his frustration, but kept straying his eyes up, towards the hangar where Thor’s Asgardian landing pad was. Bruce had just eliminated Plan A of their recovery with his news, and all of its sub-plans and sub-sub plans. Thor was now the only backup they had.
Bruce put his pen down and turned to look at Tony, taking a slow, audible breath in through his nose and out through his mouth.
Tony shook his head, snatched up the pen and wrote, I’m going to need more than deep breathing exercises to maintain my calm, Banner. He sighed, not quite imitating Bruce’s breathing, and tapped his watch.
Great. He hadn’t heard from Foster when Thor would be back either.
That had him worried for more reasons than just the personal. Even with just a sketchy explanation, Rhodey and Sam Wilson had been more than ready to join Pepper in Avenging, and all three of them were out in some distant desert obstacle course right now, learning each other’s moves and powers so they could step in if anyone decided to test the world’s defenses again. Pepper was out there, smashing cars and using giant I-beams as javelins as Rhodey and Sam were learning how to coordinate their different flying styles. He’d seen the footage JARVIS had been recording of their training; they all had. And those three looked really damn good.
But that was his girlfriend, his best friend, and that nice guy who’d stepped up to help Steve and Natasha save thousands of lives, all out there doing a job Tony and the others had sworn to do. All of them had taken up that mantle with both hands and settled it on their shoulders of their own free will, and having that taken from them was a pain Tony wasn’t sure he was ready to deal with.
Clint didn’t think of himself as a man who was obsessed. He got focused, he could shut out distractions, he could be driven, but not to the point of neglect or madness (because, God help him, if he started thinking about that, he’d get blue Tesseract dreams and then spend the night rigidly awake, staring at the ceiling. Or vomiting up his toenails. Or both. Those nights sucked).
But he had been haunting the hangar more than was really reasonable for the past two days. He sort of felt the need to do so. JARVIS would alert them all the instant Thor came back, but there was nothing like being able to see things for yourself. So he did maintenance on the Quinjet, cleaned its cabin with finicky precision, and minutely cleaned his entire arsenal at the workstation in the corner. That is, during the few hours when he hadn’t been subjected to blood draws and medical scans, with Dr. Richard’s face growing longer by the hour, and worry in Dr. McCoy’s furry blue face that he couldn’t hide from Clint’s keen gaze.
When the alert from Bruce came up on his phone, the unwelcome news that despite the best minds on the planet, nothing had come of it, he stayed ensconced in his little world, a bulwark of arrows and knives in between him and the rest of reality. That was not a terribly healthy way to cope, but Clint’s usual methods of talking things over with Natasha were a little curtailed. At least the way he wanted to.
He sighed, silently, inaudibly, with utter absence of sound, and squashed down the bubble of panic under his breastbone by concentrating on the radio playing mindlessly in the corner, some pop star vocoding her way through an obnoxiously catchy song about love clearly audible. He could hear that, so at least some things were still working in his life.
A thrown knife banged onto the table, missing his hands by inches and messing up his display of lethal objects. It would have sunk into the surface, had the table not been made out of metal. He caught the knife before it could slide onto the floor, its red and black handle wrapped with a piece of paper.
He didn’t bother to look behind him as he unwrapped and read it. Ah-hem.
Natasha sat down beside him in a spare chair, and Clint didn’t hide the little smile on his face when he saw it was just her. She quirked her lips, and pulled out her phone from a hip holster, and typed quickly.
You should tell them.
He shook his head vehemently, and slid his phone over so he could type a response. Not until we know for sure. If we don’t need to…
He bit the bullet at the entreating look in her eyes, and put the phone down to free up his hands. He turned towards her, pointing at his chest, then putting both hands palm up and waggling the fingers. I’m waiting.
She put her palms together and rested her head on them. Go to sleep.
He just looked up at the hangar ceiling, cracked enough to allow Thor’s passage. Natasha tugged on his arm, getting him to look at her. She put her hand flat, palm against her breastbone, and made a circular motion. Please.
He wanted to steal another look up, and forced himself not to. Natasha didn’t say please unless it was to fool a mark, or she meant it with a whole heart. He got up, intending to head straight for bed.
Right then, rainbow light and power slammed into the floor.
Bruce knew with absolute certainty what Thor was going to tell them before he started his pantomime. You didn’t need any special insight to see the morose expression on Thor’s face, the disappointed slump of his shoulders.
Thor took a deep breath, a useless deep breath that Bruce had caught everyone doing, in preparation for speech that couldn’t come. Couldn’t ever come, if he was reading Thor right. Thor raised his hands like Amora had, his fist slowly closing like hers when she had captured the winds of their voices in her grasp. He brought the closed fist to his chest, and nodded, tapping his throat. Then he held up a warning finger and repeated the gestures. Instead this time, instead of holding his closed hand, he made a motion like casting something to the ground, like Amora had. Then shook his head with finality.
Steve swallowed and wrote something very quickly, in a surprisingly neat hand, disdaining his phone for the reality of something tactile, at least for now.
If she’d kept our voices, we could have gotten them back… but because she… threw them away? They’re gone?
Thor nodded slowly, and pulled the nearest Stark pad to him. He typed quickly, always an amazing-looking feat for a man who could punch through walls and wielded a magical hammer. Asgardians were amazingly advanced, their science so far beyond Earth technology that the “cutting edge” items here could be hard for Thor to use, the equivalent of someone used to a graphic calculator being forced to use an abacus. But he’d learned from Dr. Foster how to use Earth’s retro devices, picking up the tricks as fast as Steve.
Amora was unrepentant. The spell she used was supposed to be the first of several meant to control us, to give her a private army of her own. But when the battle started to go against her, she destroyed what she gained instead, hoping for a quick, decisive victory on the battlefield. The process… is irreversible. It is through our strength of will and her haste that we did not lose our breath with our voice when she was so desperate; she said she meant to use the spell to kill us.
Bruce didn’t miss the silent intakes of air, the bitten lips, the masklike expressions as everyone tried to control the surge of emotion, disappointment, fear, despair, at suddenly being cut off from casual communication ever again.
There’s nothing Asgard can do? We tried everything from human medicine, Bruce wrote.
Thor shook his head dolorously. There are other magicians in my father’s court, and my father himself knows far more of magic than I do. Our silence… is like a scar. It is a mark of battle survived. I am sorry, I truly am. But I have no other news.
Clint looked over at Natasha, hesitated, and she nodded firmly. Clint got up, a look on his face like he was going to his own funeral, then his hands began to move in deliberate, practiced gestures. Not just the elaborate pointing and semi-ridiculous made-up signs the rest of them had been trying to use for the past two days when it wasn't too complicated to need to write or text, but something much smoother, comfortably worn after years of use.
Bruce forsook typing for just scrawling on his tablet with a finger fast as he could and flipping it around. ASL? Why? SHIELD?
That made something click as Steve saw the term. He hadn’t known many people who’d used sign language, at least not back where he’d grown up, but since he’d woken up, he’d seen a few people at his local coffee shop, or at Central Park, or even on the street having silent, expressive conversations with their hands. And that didn’t seem the sort of thing SHIELD would teach. They had a small handbook of military hand signs, a lot of them unchanged from the first time Steve had seen combat, but why bother to teach someone an entire language? Military jargon was by necessity short and sweet, replete with acronyms and nicknames, and you could condense a scouting report into a dozen words or quick signs with no need for the kind of detail from sign language.
Clint shook his head and heaved a sigh. He walked towards everyone, turned his back, and knelt, pressing the shell of his ears away from his skull so they could see the white of old scars there.
Cochlear implants? Bruce wrote as Clint stood up and turned around, furrowing his eyebrows.
Clint waggled his outstretched hand. Sort of. He cast his eyes around the room and pointed at the hyper-complicated espresso machine in the open kitchen, then at his ear again. Higher tech than that, Steve gathered.
Clint put his flat palm down by his hip, indicating a short height, then pointed at his ears and did a slow thumbs-down. It wasn’t ASL, but the meaning wasn’t too hard to figure out for the rest of them unfamiliar with the language.
Hearing started to go when I was a kid.
Hand raising slowly, hands moving in smooth sign language, then making a motion like firing a bow.
Grew up, learned sign language, learned how to use the bow.
Clint hesitated, and Steve knew he was coming up to that gap in between his childhood in the circus and his military service. He’d always avoided it, and Steve had the feeling it was too complicated, and probably painful, to have even gone into when they’d been able to speak, let alone now.
Instead Clint pointed to Steve, holding his arm across his chest like Steve did with his shield, and pointed at his ears again and made a thumbs-up.
SHIELD fixed my hearing.
Bruce rapidly scrawled on his tablet again. Teach us. I learned a little in some of places I went, but not ASL.
Clint swallowed and nodded, something unknotting inside him. He’d been worried that if they’d known... He could be an insecure bastard sometimes. They had to learn something to replace what they’d lost, and no one was going to disdain his experience, no matter where it came from, or why. He grabbed the tablet and wrote out, My name is Hawkeye. Then he pointed at his chest, and began to show them the signs.
There was an unbearably catchy jingle playing in the media room. No, more than a jingle, a whole musical number. The singing paused as a man’s voice began a packaged spiel about…
Natasha padded into the room to see Steve watching an old reel of his war bond show, the images cleaned up and beautifully colorized in an elaborate gag gift from Tony for his last birthday. Steve had just laughed a bit and shaken his head at the time, watched it once to be a good sport, and then, she would have assumed, managed to lose it down a trash compactor. Now he was leaning forward, watching himself on the screen with a peculiar intensity.
She deliberately made her steps heavier, more audible, enough for Steve to hear her, if he hadn’t already. He turned a bit and made a welcoming sweep of his arm. On his lap, she could see a pad of sketch paper, and in his other hand, a pencil. There was a series of squared-off panels filled with pictures and speech balloons covering the paper, showing Steve in his workout gear squaring off against Tony over the espresso machine. Tony seemed to be doing something illegal with the coffee machine’s innards, while Steve held his coffee cup with a pleading expression and exaggeratedly tired eyes.
There were, Natasha noted, no words in the speech balloons.
Steve’s eyes followed hers down to the comic panels, and he quickly flipped the page over.
It’s funny, but I can barely remember how my own voice sounds. It’s only been a week, he wrote.
Natasha knew Steve had picked up Clint’s lessons incredibly fast, thanks to a good visual serum-enhanced memory, but he seemed to like the physical sensation of a pencil in his hand, and who was she to judge otherwise?
I can speak six languages. I can swear in twelve, Natasha wrote, snagging one of Steve’s spare pencils to write below his own words. At least you can draw recognizable objects. It’s the universal language.
Steve’s hand brushed over Natasha’s words, and his expression softened. The transformation over the past few days has been strange to watch, not just with Steve, but with everyone. Most of them were used to hiding their expressions, guarding their feelings, letting things out with tone and inflection if they let them out at all. But without any way to quickly communicate, the masks were falling off faster with each passing day.
Natasha could feel herself doing it, fighting against her own training as a spy to let herself emote, because, damn it, for the first time in a very long time, she wanted people to know what was going on inside her. Because she couldn’t cover things up or deflect anymore, and there was a freedom in truth she was just starting to embrace. It was a special and specific kind of terror, that of an open heart, and one she was uniquely qualified to know.
I thought the universal language is mathematics. That’s what Tony says, Steve wrote, that boy-next door sweetness coming out in the embarrassed expression of a kid worrying he was not playing at the right level.
There was deliberate footfall behind them, and Bruce craned his head over the back of the couch to see what they were talking about. Steve angled the pad of paper and Bruce reached over to write, Tony is about as universal as we are, which is to say… not. Bruce delicately flipped the page back over to Steve’s comic, and smiled, then flipped back. I’ll tell him not to fix the coffee machines during normal people caffeination hours. He could get punched that way.
Bruce? Natasha stopped him with a written word and her hand on his arm. He hesitated, then leaned over to write again.
I’m used to living alone. And the other guy… well, he’s used to people not understanding him. I’m… dealing. Then he withdrew with deliberates steps, back to the stairs to the lab.
Steve flicked his eyes back to the screen, where he danced around on stage, selling bonds for the war effort.
It's going to make things harder... I hoped... If I found Bucky again, I hoped if he heard my voice... Steve's hand fell to the side, pencil loose in his grip, eyes going distant for a moment.
What you do is more important than what you say, Natasha wrote. I am the queen of that, Steve. Her words came out a little shakier than she would have liked, but she couldn't really correct them.
Why so worried, Natasha? Steve wrote softly. He didn’t even look down as he wrote, keeping his eyes on her face, and Natasha put her own response down as quickly as she could.
Sometimes we were silenced while we learned stealth. I know… I knew this, once.
Steve touched her words as Natasha silently left the room.
Asgardian runes didn’t make any more sense upside down than right-side up, Clint decided. He was uniquely qualified to make that decision, because was hanging from his knees from a bar in the gym, taking a short rest after a brutal workout. If he decided to rest hanging twelve feet above the floor, that was his prerogative. Thor didn’t seem to mind.
Clint stared down at the StarkPad Thor was writing on, filling it up with very impressive-looking markings of bold strokes and curves that looked a lot like the runes on the Bifrost landing zone. Thor looked up as Clint hung there, swinging idly instead of contorting himself into several ab-punishing positions.
Thor considered for a moment, and then tried to sign a few things, his signs stilted even for Thor's usual semi-archaic speech patterns, but pretty damn good considering he’d only been learning them for less than a week. Something about home, story, people… Oh, he was transcribing their story for Asgard’s library. Probably for Amora’s prison record. Clint’s jaw tightened, and he distracted himself by correcting Thor’s signs, and Thor nodded in gratitude, repeating them back to Clint before turning back to his runes.
He wrote a few more symbols down before setting aside his table and looking up again. Clint flipped down from his inverted position to land next to Thor as he plucked out his phone to type so he could be clearer.
This is far from my strength, Thor typed. I do not mind writing down my exploits for the sagas, but it is different writing about something that did not end in triumph. His thumbs hesitated over the number pad, and then he added sheepishly, I admit I had relied on the All-Speak of my people to smooth the way of words wherever I went. The All-Speak, it seems, was not meant for hand language. It has been a long time since I have had to struggle with words.
Clint smiled a little and gestures at the tablet full of runes. If SHIELD were still around, I would pay money to watch you hand an after-action report full of runes to Hill.
Thor smiled broadly at that. There is always good value in having privacy in your words. My brother... His smile died and Clint tried to keep himself from tensing, not entirely succeeding. Thor put a clenched fist to his chest and made a small circle with it.
Clint leaned his head back against the wall, breathed in and out in a long sigh, and repeated the sign.
Nine days after Amora rendered the Avengers mute, there was an escape of bio-mechanical giant razor-winged flying eyeballs from an underground research lab (literally underground, as in they set up shop in an old, abandoned subway station). They were too fast for the police, and too powerful for the National Guard, and JARVIS had the information on the threat on the screen in the central media room right before the desperate tweets and high-level phone calls started pouring in, begging for help.
War Machine and Falcon were on the scene in minutes, the TV cameras following their fast swoops and bullet blasts with frantic twists, trying to catch all the action. Pepper, her identity concealed with a mask, was glowing brightly with Extremis as she pounded falling foes back into scrap, was far easier to see, and the cameras lingered. The sounds of the fight were filtering in through two tracks, one from the cameras, the other from the communicators between Rhodey, Wilson, and a very special heat-proof one for Pepper.
“Left high!” “Two on your six!” “Jim, right!” “Pepper, two coming down!” “On it!”
It was like watching an action movie with real stakes, and it was horribly, horribly worse when they all knew the people on the screen who were spinning away from razor-edged wings. Steve kept making abortive little moves on the couch, hand clenching and unclenching like he wanted to put his shield in between his friends and danger. Of the three, Sam was the most vulnerable, sacrificing armor for more speed and maneuverability, and a wrong turn could sever a wing, or a limb. Tony found himself with his heart in his throat, as two of his best friends threw their bodies between civilians and danger. He trusted Rhodey, and he knew Rhodey was tough as nails with experience to boot, but he also knew the capabilities of the armor to a fault, and every hit it took he could feel it through his own body. And Pepper… He’d watched her kill Aldrich Killian with extreme prejudice and awe, and knew that she was practically tough as Thor, but he still found himself calculating trajectories and routes for Iron Man to keep those damn things off her back.
Sam had gotten upgraded body armor, upgraded wings, upgraded weapons, upgraded everything at Tony's insistence before they'd even started training last week, but no matter how much he'd done to help, and no matter how much Steve knew about Sam's skill, it didn't help the roiling in both of their stomachs.
The rest of the Avengers might not know them nearly as well, but they’d all met the three people who were taking up their load, and the strain of that was… It was suddenly understandable how people saw them and wondered why they did what they did.
When the last of the razor-winged eyes finally fell to a one-two War Machine-Falcon combo with Pepper finishing it off, there was a collective release of breath and tension that was nearly comical.
“Tony, we’re all right. We’re fine, we’re coming home.” Pepper’s voice was a godsend. Breathless, but still steady, she sounded all right.
It shouldn’t be all right. This was not Pepper’s thing. And Tony could only text back, You looked great out there. Come home.
Steve stared at the floor for ten seconds, then got up to face everyone. He picked up the tablet; despite Clint’s intensive lessoning in ASL, he wanted there to be no misunderstandings in what he wanted to say.
Can we still How can we fight? What can we do so we can communicate in the field? Steve wrote. He had his uniform helmet in his hand, and unceremoniously dumped it on the table. The tiny earbud communicator he wore during fights rolled out the eyehole.
That idea had been on everyone's mind for days, from the minute Amora had taken their voices, ideas that probably overlapped. Seeing their friends in action, doing the job they should have been doing, brought the need home with urgency.
Sound… code? Clint signed. He snatched up another tablet from the table and flipped through some of the candid shots civilians had taken during fights. (Answer to questions about why he had such a collection he would answer precisely never, or maybe later than that.) He found a good one of his bow and flipped the tablet around so everyone could see. He pointed to the buttons on the grip, the ones he used to tell his quiver which kind of arrow he needed at any given moment.
One button, Tasha, second button, Steve, Clint signed, adding an “etcetera” by waving at everyone else. Then direction. Left, right, up, down, behind. Use different tones.
You aren't Captain von Trapp, Tony texted, smirking.
Clint extended his middle finger in a sign that needed no translation. Though that also revealed he'd seen The Sound of Music. Luckily no one could rib him without revealing the same.
Thor leaned over the picture, frowning. Slowly, he signed, One cannot add things to Mjolnir. For his mystic hammer, Thor used the letter M, made quite large.
Or the Other Guy, Bruce added. He switched to texting to make things clearer. I've never found anything that delicate that survives a transformation.
Tony made a swooping double thumbs-up followed by a double-handed inward grasping motion Challenge accepted.
And I'm not sure the Hulk would have the patience to use it even if you did make one, Bruce continued texting in response, raising an eyebrow.
What do we lose by trying? Natasha texted, picking out her words as loudly as she could, her phone's sounds set on maximum. She flicked her eyes up as the others raised their heads from their screens, and Bruce nodded to her before looking away.
Not a damn thing, Tony texted back, getting to his feet and looking up at the ceiling.
“Shall I bring up the Morse code earpiece you made as a joke gift to Agent Coulson a few years ago as a base, sir?” JARVIS asked.
Clint grinned despite the quiet pain of the reminded loss as Tony blushed.
Tony started texting again, his words coming up on the TV screen for all to see, Yeah J, I'll be down right after the party.
Party? Clint signed.
Yeah, party. If you think Rhodey, Pepper, and Wilson are coming back to a not-party after their first joint Avenging, then you're very, very wrong.
Then Tony furiously started to bring up a playlist of music, heedless of the fact that everyone could see it on the screen.
Of course there was going to be music. Most of it Tony's beloved loud rock. Because those would be the only voices the rest of the Avengers could give.
There were no bruises on Pepper's skin. Tony made sure to check after the impromptu party was over, when they were finally alone again, just her, him, and JARVIS. He was certain enough of War Machine and the upgrades to the Falcon wings to be sure that Rhodey and Sam were as well as they said they were. Rhodey wouldn't hesitate to tell Tony if there was a problem, and if anyone had the power to resist telling Steve the truth when he put on his earnest face, it wasn't Sam Wilson (or any other person with a pulse).
But this was Pepper, who had never asked for this but had volunteered anyway, and yes, thank you, that was the same story with half the team, himself included, but that entirely wasn't the point.
He just wanted to make sure she was all right. He wanted to tease her into the best mood possible and laugh with her and commiserate about the entirely ridiculous ways bad guys tried to take over the world sometimes.
And Tony had tried with Rhodey at the party, texting using macros and a thoroughly-hacked autocorrect that actually freaking worked so he could try to recapture some semblance of their old banter. It had sort of worked. Tony and Rhodey had been doing a lot of cross-country conversations via Iron Man-War Machine HUD over the last year or two, so texting wasn't so far out of their comfort zone.
Steve, Natasha, and Sam had abandoned proper technology for the signing they'd been learning from Clint, because of course Wilson had a jump start on that from more than one veteran he'd worked with who'd come home minus eardrums as well as with ripe cases of PTSD. Since Tony had come home with an electromagnet in his chest, there had been several rather large anonymous donations made to organizations like Sam's.
So fine, Rhodey and Sam were doing well. Great.
Tony needed to be sure with Pepper. Because he could be a lousy communicator at the best of times, saying everything and meaning nothing. It was one of those things he was working on. It was one of the promises he'd made.
He ghosted his hands across Pepper's back when the door to their room closed, chasing his fingers with his mouth. Pepper froze, shivered, still hot under his lips, and turned to catch him up in a kiss.
“I'm fine,” she said, whispered, her arms going around him. Tony danced them backwards, wishing for another useless moment that he could even hum because he was struck by the impulse to really try a few dance moves to make things a little more lighthearted, but it would have taken all the fun out of things to have to pause to explain to JARVIS what he wanted.
Instead he just kept moving them back, swaying like they did during those endless galas and parties and fundraisers where they actually did dance until they both fell onto the bed.
“I'm fine, Tony,” Pepper kept whispering, holding him. He just kept touching her, unbuttoning buttons, getting clothing out of the way until he could see everything, making sure she was all right. Tony whispered uselessly against her skin, and Pepper murmured back at him all the words he wanted to say. Shivering a little, Tony slid lower against her hot skin to put his mouth to better use.
Pepper didn't need to speak at all after that.
“Are you sure that isn't 'after?' I'm sure that's 'after,'” Jane said, looking at Thor curiously as he repeated his signs to her over Skype. A gloriously useless bit of technology considering his current predicament, but at least he was able to see Jane's face, even if neither of them were particularly conversant in Clinton's sign language yet. Thor switched to the chat program to clarify himself, smiling as Jane's attention drifted to the side of the camera, probably seeking a website to confirm or deny his accuracy.
“Oh, that was 'after,'” she said sheepishly.
Indeed. After the battle, there was a party with excessive amount of music and a great deal of attempting to converse in every way but verbally. Considering the volume of the music, we might have been using the same techniques even if we still had our voices, Thor said. That brought a smile to Jane's face, and Thor echoed it gladly. His lady was still halfway across the planet, observing energy pattern echoes from the conjunction of worlds. She had been understandably annoyed that involuntarily bearing the Aether had prevented her from closer examinations during most of the event. Despite the outcome for him personally, the people he had lost, he knew how important it was for the people of Midgard to understand such things. And no one could understand them better than his lady Jane and Erik Selvig. Jane had grieved with him for his mother, but his sorrow for his brother was a private thing, best mourned in silence. He hadn't wanted to hold her back, and had encouraged her to go.
Better, perhaps, to fumble with smiles across half the world than to fumble in silence as some of his shieldbrothers still did. Both of them were determined to bridge the gap, and he hoped by the time they saw each other face-to-face again, there would be less misunderstandings.
“So, if that sign was 'again,' what's the sign for 'always?' Or better yet how about 'boneheaded astrophysicist,' because I need something to call Erik behind his back,” Jane asked with a grin. Thor smiled back at her, laughing silently.
The problem about supervillains was that they didn't take a day off.
Five days after the razor-winged eye incident, three days after the Avengers had started practicing with small, finger-activated connectors in their gauntlets or wrist cuffs for field warnings, automatons crawled out of the Hudson river. Shimmering blue and green, looking uncannily like pieces of Chitauri technology that had somehow taking on a life of its own, there were calls pouring in over 911 so fast that the Avengers didn't even need a heads-up from anyone else. JARVIS made the alert himself, the alarm ringing all over the Tower.
At the lunch table, Steve leapt to his feet automatically before stopping himself, Natasha's hand on his wrist as Sam and Jim were up and out of the room in seconds. Steve didn't think he was misinterpreting the sympathetic glance Sam gave him before he disappeared out of the doorway onto the launch pad, the glass wall just muffling the sound of the Falcon wings firing up. Pepper ran by a few moments later in fireproof clothing and her mask, Jim already armored up and ready to carry her to the banks of the river to where the automatons were emerging.
“Tony,” she said quickly, torn between going where she had to and knowing Tony and everyone else was struggling not to dive for their own suits and weapons to follow her. Tony pulled her in for quick kiss and thumbs-up, barely slowing her down as she braced herself for Rhodey's blast-off. Rhodey just nodded at everyone before his faceplate clacked closed, and lifted from the launch pad, following Sam towards the emerging disaster.
Steve clenched his fist and banged it against his thigh, frustration plain across his face as he followed their friends with his eyes. They'd been trying, they'd been practicing, but there just hadn't been enough time to really coordinate their fighting styles yet. Tony had misheard Clint's cues three times the last fight alone, Thor and Steve twice each, and Bruce really very much did not want to bring the Hulk out unless there was dire need. Not that that was any different than normal. All of which had resulted in them losing the simulations badly, their costumes streaked with colored chalk dust from simulated weapons killing them. One misheard cue could send any of them down, and they didn't want to head into the field only to get themselves messily dead.
It didn't mean it didn't burn though.
JARVIS turned on the TV automatically, finding the footage of the most foolish, daring news helicopter pilot as they swooped in dangerously close to the battlefield. The sound of Rhodey, Pepper, and Sam replaced whatever inane commentary was going on as the Avengers settled down to watch. All except Clint, who was staring at the screen fixedly. Suddenly he lunged forward, stabbing his finger at the screen, mouth moving uselessly. The picture shifted and Clint scanned it again, pointing at a building in the background some distance from the fight. He looked back frantically and pointed again, at tiny forms of people milling about on the building roof.
Natasha and Steve drew closer, and Tony rapidly texted a series of commands to JARVIS. The picture stopped, steadied, the building taking on more definition as JARVIS made a composite picture from all the live feeds in the area. The mosaic picture became clearer and clearer until they could all see what Clint had – the people milling atop the building weren't office workers watching the carnage, but men in combat gear setting up a series of very large guns.
Tony was mouthing something with a look of alarm on his face, forgetting to sign, but by the sharp gestures and expansion he was making with his hands, the weapons likely made some very big holes in things.
Steve only needed one clean look at the men assembling the guns to raise one finger to the sky and making a punching motion towards it with his opposite fist, expression grim. STRIKE.
It was HYDRA. The Avengers had dropped out of sight, so they were targeting the newest superheroes before they could get any better and more savvy, knocking out support before it could get established.
The Avengers weren't ready. Thor was still beating chalk dust out of his cape.
And no one hesitated when Steve made the sign for go.
Clint landed the stealthed Quinjet five buildings away from their target to keep them from noticing their arrival.
Everyone was signing and texting at once, and Steve didn't even know where to look. He banged his shield against the side of the Quinjet to get everyone to look up. He held out his arm, hand flat and palm down, and stroked up it with his other hand. Slow, he admonished. Then he cupped his hand by his ear. Listen. And pointed to Clint. He started, and then slid his eyes over to where they could see the top of their enemies' building. Clint had to coordinate them all if things got complicated. Right.
Steve traced a fast battle plan on one of the tablets, sending Tony and Thor high to destroy the guns, the Hulk with them if needed (Thor's lightning as Bruce's signal), with Clint on the opposite roof to help Steve and Natasha cover the ground and any retreating STRIKE members.
Simple. Easy. They could do this, voices or no voices.
Steve caught his shield on its last return flight, the remaining fleeing STRIKE member slumping to the ground. And suddenly he heard the rapid signal for Steve up. There were no more enemies in sight or sound, Natasha having chased down the last STRIKE member around the building a minute ago. Then Steve realized Clint hadn't called for Natasha. And Clint was the only one who was “up.” He turned to look at their eyes in the sky, his heart in his throat. It couldn't be; she had only been gone a minute...
Clint made the plucking motion of “take,” and then the palms-down, wrist-crossed, finger-writhing sign for “spider.” Add that to the fear Steve could see under his usual mien of hard determination, and Clint might as well shouted, “They’ve taken Natasha.”
They rounded up the others as they came at the sound of Clint’s signal arrow, and he abandoned every attempt at courtesy to start signing fast, taxing all of their inexperience and limited vocabularies as he frantically tried to convey what he knew.
She was on the other side of the building chasing that one one. The STRIKE team was coming up from below, their backup. She was coming up to get better ground, and someone had managed to get above her. She tapped SOS on her communicator before she went quiet. I didn't see where they went! They’re going to question her. Clint didn’t quite throw his hands up in frustration, but he wasn’t the only one feeling helpless.
But they can not question her, Thor signed carefully.
They. Don’t. Know. That. Clint’s signs were sharp, forceful, abrupt, and he clenched his hands into fists as the implications all hit them.
“First thing I do? I lie. I start talking right away, give them something plausible. I’ll give them something they want to hear. Then you can change that story as they try to ‘make you talk,’ letting the story develop as they ‘get the truth out of you.’ If they want you to scream, you scream. Some of these guys take it as a personal challenge if you clam up and try to be a tough guy. You’re not here to be stoic, you’re here to get information, to confuse the enemy, and to return with what you know. If you give them enough information, no matter what it is, they’ll concentrate on that. Give them something to work with, and you’ll spare yourself a lot of damage in the field.”
Clint sat in the back of the SHIELD seminar on the realities of fieldwork and gave Natasha a big thumbs-up with an ironic smile as the last of the agents filed out.
“And all that jazz,” he said with a straight face. “You know, just the fundamentals.”
She dropped in the seat next to him with a wordless smile.
JARVIS, do you see her? Tony mouthed. He signed, J, to the others in quick explanation.
“Sir, I will track the location of vehicles leaving the location,” the AI said aloud. Five seconds later, he reported back with, “There is only one vehicle which was parked in close proximity to the building where Agent Romanov was taken. That vehicle is en route to the waterfront, heading for a heavy concentration of warehouses.”
We’re going now, Steve signed, and pointed in the direction of the Quinjet. Hulk stared at Steve and snorted silently, looking in the direction of the louder explosions where Rhodey, Sam, and Pepper were destroying the automatons that had drawn them out. Too late, they realized it had been a distraction, a lethal one, but a distraction nevertheless. HYDRA had wanted revenge on the people to have brought them to their knees, and had been ready to get the Avengers' allies out of the way by any means necessary.
Clint waved to get Hulk’s attention, silently (always silently, forever silently) praying that the big man had managed to absorb any of the lessons Bruce had mastered. HYDRA has Natasha, he signed, using the sign for “head” repeated rapidly to substitute for the Nazi death cult, because he wasn’t sure if Hulk could spell.
Hulk got a grimace on his face, one that usually just preceded a goodly bit of smashing, and clenched his giant ham hands into fists, bringing them together in front of his face then throwing them apart, following by crabbing one of his hands. RESCUE BLACK WIDOW.
Oh thank God, he did understand.
“Sir, I have found the location where the vehicle has stopped,” JARVIS piped up.
They didn’t have time to argue, or to get their friends who were fighting on their behalf. The shattered HYDRA team was getting away as they were standing there, and to call Rhodey, Sam, and Pepper away from their fight would mean a lot of preventable destruction.
Pepper is going to kick my ass, Tony muttered silently inside his helmet.
“As you say, sir,” JARVIS said for his ears alone.
Tony took off, beckoning to the others. Thor whipped Mjölnir into a blur and followed, Hulk right behind him in a bound. Clint and Steve ran for the Quinjet, hearts in their silent throats.
The warehouse was quiet, the van the remainder of STRIKE has used parked in the back inconspicuously. If things had been different, this might have been the time to do more scouting, sneak in, and get Natasha back. If things had been different, this would have never happened in the first place. Steve had been texting Tony in the plane to accomplish the one thing they could do, checking the exits, all of them, as fast and thoroughly as he could. If one of them went in, STRIKE would and could put a bullet in Natasha's head before they could get to her. But if everyone went in together, suddenly things became less about the mission and more about immediate survival.
Thor kicked off that immediate survival with a hammer blow that caved in the front door.
The different chime-tones of everyone's designation began to ring across their comms as the Avengers stormed in, each one looking out for each other. Steve, down. Clint, left. Tony, up. Steve right, down. Thor, back. Adrenaline narrowed Clint's focus as he moved his bow to cover the widest arc, making every arrow count, and fast because he needed to keep coordinating the others, fingers dancing on the grip of his bow to speak to them. Whenever a warning came his way he tracked quickly, like his arm belonged to someone else for a moment.
No chalk dust. They couldn't afford it.
The few remaining heavies with their weapons probably back-engineered from You Don't Even Want To Know were learning why it wasn't smart to make the Hulk angry, particularly when that Hulk had Iron Man watching his back, while Thor, Steve, and Clint were still working their way in to the middle where a lone figure with red hair was tied to a chair in isolated splendor, bright splotches of blood on her skin as her captors ran for cover.
Steve left, right, up. Thor, left, left, right, Clint warned, and felt time slow down as one STRIKE agent popped up between crates in Natasha's blind spot and thrust his gun towards her. Clint somehow managed to get off, Natasha down!, praying she still had her earbud before the arrow left his bow, making the shooter snap backwards, his gun going flying as he collapsed. The last bullet passed harmlessly through the air where Natasha's head had been a moment before she ducked at Clint's warning.
Clint owed Captain von Trapp a thank-you.
She used the motion to continue the roll and break herself out of her bonds, now that she didn't have a gun to her head. Clint saw her hand moving as she scooped up a gun, and threw himself to the ground as he heard the tones for, Clint down! Natasha's bullet, Cap's shield, and Thor's hammer all flew over him to strike the man who'd thought to shoot him in the back. Clint stood again warily, shoulders tense and hands twitchy as he looked all around, seeing the Avengers as the only ones standing in an entire warehouse of heavily-armed commandos.
Thor’s big hand clapped on Natasha's shoulder with some care for what she’d gone through today. Before the Avengers had managed to arrive, the STRIKE team had taken special pleasure in getting artistic with pain. But they hadn't wanted her to die, not right away, and had taken her silence as a challenge. Thor took up one of the now-ubiquitous tablets from the bench in the Quinjet and began to write in his refined, almost runic way.
I thought perhaps today, you would wish a release from the frustration of our silence.
She raised a bloodied eyebrow at him, and Thor deliberately held her gaze. He beckoned to everyone, an all-inclusive sweep of his big arm. Come with me.
After the jet had landed, Thor led them up the stairs to the roof, the warm summer evening cloudy and muggy, heavy and oppressive. After today, the weather felt like they did, closed in. Even though they'd won, they'd proved themselves, it still hadn't changed the fact that none of them had been able to quickly explain what had happened to the police. The captain had been justifiably baffled when Captain America texted him the entire story of who the men in the warehouse were. Things weren't back to normal. They wouldn't be again. Some release from that, somehow, was more welcome than anything else.
In the dim light of the reflections from the city, Thor hoisted Mjölnir to the heavens, and a flicker of lightning chased through the clouds, followed by a rumble of thunder. Natasha kept her eyes nailed on the sky, her breathing growing faster as Clint saw her control slip a little. The thunder boomed louder, closer, and finally an eye-smiting bolt struck Mjölnir as Thor silently cried out with the blast of thunder.
It was a city-sized shout, a scream of gigantic proportions, and Clint saw Natasha open her mouth to scream out her anger, fear, and frustration as the next roar of thunder split the skies. In the flashes of lightning, Clint could see the rest of his friends taking the full-throated voice of the storm and using it to make the first sound they’d been able to claim as their own since Amora had taken theirs. Clint threw his head back as the next crash reverberated through the city, and imagined his own voice joining theirs.
Thor had kept them from being soaked to the skin, but there was no stopping some rain from falling from the storm. Clint had twined his hand with Natasha’s as they made their way down from the roof and to an elevator well ahead of the others. Or maybe, he realized belatedly, they had slowed their pace to let them have their privacy. Steve and Tony wanted to get back to Sam, Pepper, and Rhodey, and Bruce was understandably worn out from another appearance of the Hulk.
Clint turned to face Natasha in the elevator, eyes looking her over for the bruises and cuts he knew the HYDRA team had inflicted on her. With their hands entwined, signing was hard, but he didn’t want to let go quite yet. And Natasha allowed it, permitted it. Encouraged it. She turned her head from side to side, letting him see the bruises on her pale skin. They would fade fast, but for now they hurt, were reminders of her vulnerability. That they’d survived, silently.
He pressed his forehead against hers, eyes closed, breathing out slow, and let his entwined hand form a sign against hers, middle and ring fingers folded against his palm, index, pinky, and thumb extended.
The door opened, and Clint recognized by the smell of juniper JARVIS had brought them to Natasha’s floor.
Natasha covered his eyes with her hand as they stepped out of the elevator, and he could feel her pressed up against him, warm and with subtle perfume that made his heart race. She whispered something silent in his ear, her lips brushing against him in a tease that made him catch his breath. He didn’t know what she was saying, but her breath against his cheek made shivers go down his spine.
But he didn’t need to know what she was saying to know what she meant. He followed her into the darkened bedroom, and let the door shut behind them.