Author name: jaune_chat
Beta name: brighteyed_jill
Characters/Pairing: Clint Barton/Natasha Romanov, Tony Stark/Pepper Potts, Thor/Jane Foster, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Sam Wilson
Fandom/Universe: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Word count: 15,403
Warnings: R for violence, and implied consensual sexual situations
Summary: The Avengers are rendered mute by Amora the Enchantress. As a search for a cure grows more and more dim every day, the Avengers have to deal with the reality of learning to communicate with each other in a whole different way. Uncertain if they'll be able to fight again, they enlist the help of their friends, and learn some surprising things about each other as they struggle to hold onto their identities as the World's Greatest Heroes.
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.