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.
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.