It doesn't really hit him, the full extent of what he's lost, until he tries to talk to JARVIS for the first time.
It's only his second day out of the hospital. He's in his workshop. Hiding really, but pretending not to be. It's weird, being back here. It's almost like he never left. All those things he was working on before the accident are right where he left them. With some of them, he remembers exactly where he was in the fabrication process. Others are mysteries to be puzzled out later.
None of them matter right now. He sits at his main workstation, coffee cup at hand, Dummy hovering helpfully nearby, and he says, "JARVIS."
Or rather, he tries.
What comes out isn't even close. It's more like a droning ehhh noise, nothing that even remotely resembles the sounds he can hear so clearly in his head.
Fear uncoils in his chest, making his breath hitch a little. He refuses to think about it. He can't think about it or he'll go crazy. Instead he reaches for the keyboard. If he can't talk to JARVIS, he'll just have to do it the old-fashioned way.
But this is not an option either and really, he knew that, he just chose to conveniently forget it. He can't read anymore. The symbols on the keyboard are nothing to him now, just meaningless lines and curves. They do not correspond to sounds or letters. How can they? They don't mean a thing.
He moans a little then, finally getting it, finally understanding.
It's not just his voice that he's lost. It's not just the ability to read and write and speak. He's lost everything.
JARVIS. Iron Man. The Avengers. Stark Industries. All his work, the stuff that is finished, half-finished, or mere notes in a file. All those ideas he never got around to committing to a server or even so much as a scrap of paper.
All of it, gone.
Panic rises in his throat, thick and hot. He stumbles away from the workstation, turns and looks around. The workshop that he thought would be his safe haven has instead become a place of torture. Every computer mocks him with its useless, unreachable information. The Iron Man suit glowers at him, its mouth an angry frown, as mute as his own.
He buries his face in his hands, because he is not going to scream, he is not going to scream, he is not…
Everything sort of grays out then, sliding smoothly out of focus. Even the silence in the room goes strangely hazy, almost like the sound you get at the far end of the radio dial, not quite silence but not quite a sound, either. He's dimly aware that he's on the floor, underneath the table where the computer sits with its cursor patiently blinking, but he doesn't care. He thinks he might be crying too, and that's maybe why the room has gone so blurry and unreal, but he doesn't have the energy to reach up and touch his face to make sure.
In a way it's long overdue. He never allowed himself this kind of behavior before. Not when his parents died. Not after Afghanistan. Not when he first felt the pain in his chest and saw the dark lines of palladium poisoning. He always just got right to work, forcefully pushing the fear and pain down.
But not this time. This is too much. To touch this fear, even to try to compress it into a tiny ball and force it away, is to give in to it.
And it's already too late for that.
He loses time. One more thing to add to the Loss column.
After a while, Steve's face swims into view. Steve says his name, Tony, over and over.
Steve's arms wrap around him. The room shifts and tilts as he is picked up.
He closes his eyes. Lets himself sink into the haze.
He sleeps. A lot. In his dreams he's still himself, the great Tony Stark, Iron Man, Avenger. He rescues kittens from tall trees and flies nuclear bombs through portals to other worlds. He makes love to Steve and gets up and makes a pot of coffee and starts writing code for a new computer program. He's young and strong and handsome, and he can talk.
When he wakes up, everything is still out of focus. There is a warm body beside his. A second blurry figure sits close by, keeping watch.
He closes his eyes again. He sleeps.
During that period of lost time, he sleeps a lot. There is always someone there with him, though. Always warm arms wrapped around him. Someone who guides his faltering, half-blind steps to the bathroom, someone who offers him cool water and bites of his favorite foods.
Someone who does not speak.
He's grateful for that silence. For all of it.
It's a rainy afternoon when he finally emerges from the haze. He lays very still for a long while, then slowly turns his head.
Steve is sleeping beside him. Tony stares at that beloved profile for a long time before slowly easing out from under the covers. He feels tired and achy – but his mind is clear for the first time in…well, however long it's been.
He takes a long hot shower, scrubbing fiercely until he feels clean again. Human again. He forces himself to stare at his own reflection in the mirror until it becomes meaningless, two eyes and a nose and a mouth – not an actual face. Not an actual person.
I can do this, he thinks.
Not like he has much choice.
The others tactfully don't mention his breakdown. As far as he knows, it's never spoken of at all. He kind of loves them for that, even though he hates them for it, too.
After dinner, Steve takes his hand and leads him back down to the workshop. It's the last place Tony wants to be, but he goes willingly enough. It's the least he can do, he figures, after what he's put Steve through these past few months.
Steve sits them both on stools at the largest workstation, and then says, "JARVIS, I'm going to need your help here."
"Yes, Captain Rogers," JARVIS responds.
"You remember what I told you," Steve says, "about Tony's accident. That he has trouble speaking now."
"I remember," JARVIS says.
Tony clenches his jaw, because he's pretty sure he knows where this is going, and he wants no part of it. It's bad enough that Steve and his own AI have been talking about him behind his back, but this little conspiracy is far worse. They could do this without him. Why should he sit here and suffer this humiliation?
"Then you know we have a problem," Steve says. When he talks to JARVIS, he looks at the nearest computer monitor.
"I am aware of that, yes," JARVIS says.
"What we need now are solutions," Steve says. "Ways we can get around that."
Tony just stares at him. This isn't what he expected, after all. He suddenly finds it hard to breathe; it's like there is a great weight on his chest. He can't believe what he is hearing.
"I was thinking," Steve continues. "You have access to cameras, right? How many are in this room?"
"There are ten cameras," JARVIS says, "including the ones in the units designated Dummy, Butterfingers, and You."
His next words are meant for JARVIS, but now Steve turns to look at Tony. "Can you use them to watch Tony?"
"Of course," JARVIS replies.
Steve smiles. "That's it then. Hand signals. You guys will have to work out a series of hand signals."
Tony watches him. He can scarcely believing this is happening.
"Like this." Steve raises his hand, palm out, fingers pointing up. He bends his wrist and moves his hand so his palm is now parallel to the ground. "Could mean open a new file. Or this." He makes a walking motion with two fingers. "Could mean run program." He shrugs a bit sheepishly. "I don't know. Whatever you guys decide."
Clearly Steve has given this a lot of thought. And it could work. It really could. Already Tony can see the shape of the commands, the way he can translate words into gestures, into short actions. It will mean a lot of frustration, having to stop what he's doing in order to make the gestures, but he can do it. If it means getting even a part of his life back, he's willing to do whatever it takes.
"Oh, and um." Steve reaches into his pocket and pulls out a black marker. He draws a large dot on one of the keys on the computer keyboard. He looks back at Tony. "That's the J. I don't know, maybe tapping it twice or something, J for JARVIS…?" He trails off uncertainly.
It won't be the same, of course – nothing will be – but for the first time since he lay there in the hospital and truly understood happened to him, Tony feels like maybe there is a future for him after all. He isn't going to be a mute deadweight the rest of his life. He can still contribute. He can still work.
He has his life back.
He doesn't consciously decide to act – he just does it. In one motion, he slides off the stool and moves over to where Steve sits. He takes Steve's face in both his hands, and kisses him fervently, putting all of his love and gratitude into that kiss.
Steve hesitates for all of half a second before returning the kiss. And that's all the encouragement Tony needs. His hand still on Steve's face, his lips still on Steve's lips, he tugs Steve off the stool and starts walking backward.
There's an old couch in here that he uses sometimes when he's been working too long without sleep and he just needs a little break. They fall onto it together, still kissing, hands pulling frantically at clothing that is just in the way.
Tony looks down at Steve, and he smiles.
Now he's truly come home.
It takes time to come up with a working system, to figure out the right gestures that will get his point across. JARVIS has a few suggestions, and even the bots get in on the act, Dummy waving his arm up and down excitedly when he is tasked with learning a new gesture and its accompanying command.
The actual work itself takes longer to sort out. He can't use words reliably anymore, so he turns to pictures and icons. He spends two whole days creating a new computer keyboard that consists of nothing but symbols, then instructs JARVIS on what words or phrases they stand for. After that, things go much faster, and he's actually able to start thinking about what project he might want to work on first.
It's not the same, it's never going to be the same, but it's work. And he owes it all to Steve.
"Need...thank..." he says, and there he's forced to stop. Because no matter how hard he tries, he still can't say Steve's name.
"If I may make a suggestion," JARVIS says smoothly.
"Your last command to me was to remind you to begin work on a new motorcycle engine for Captain Rogers. It was to be a birthday present."
He has no memory of saying that. But then, he doesn't remember the accident either, or a good chunk of time before it, which would explain it. The doctors say someday he might regain some of those memories from the days leading up to the accident, but he will never remember the battle or the fall itself.
A motorcycle engine. Yeah, he can hear himself saying that, even if he doesn't remember actually doing it. And even now, in his reduced state, it's possible. It's definitely possible. He grins. "You…ah, you…genius."
"Thank you, sir," JARVIS says with that tone that says he's quite pleased. "I was created by one, after all."
Tony can't help laughing at that.
Well, no time like the present, right? "Glasses," he says, and damnit, that's not right. He shakes his hands in a swift erasing motion, letting JARVIS know that was the wrong word – although he's pretty sure JARVIS already knows because, really? Glasses?
After a few false starts, he manages it. "Specs." And there, that's better.
Immediately the image appears on the monitor, along with blossoming as a 3D display in the air around him. The current engine in Steve's motorcycle.
In that first glance he spots five things he can change to make it better. Another three jump out at him in the next second. He also sees a way to improve the bike's balance, and knows just what color scheme he wants to paint it, too.
It's not going to be easy. And it's going to take a long time. It's already October – he's got a long way to go if he wants to have this done by July.
But he can do it.
He knows he can.