By the time he was five, Tony Stark was very adept at lip reading. He had to be - he’d been born entirely, irreversibly deaf. He also had daily time with a speech therapist who worked with him on developing proper voice control, tone and pronunciation. By the time he was six, Howard had forbidden the use of sign language, and had created a small sensor that sat behind Tony’s ear (all but invisible to the naked eye) that would stimulate the nerves along his jaw according to noise behind him and allow him to respond as though he had heard it. It resulted in Tony always coming off as slightly distracted, as he would turn and, if it was someone who was addressing him, he had to ask them to repeat themselves as though they’d pulled him out of his head space.
Howard Stark was ashamed to have a son that he deemed less than perfect. Tony wished so hard that he could hear, so that his father might be proud of him. He did everything he could to garner that emotion, but all he was met with were cold looks and hard hands.
Howard Stark was determined that no one else would know of his son’s ‘defect’. That Tony would live his life completely ‘normally’ without anyone knowing about his ‘issues’. Tony learned other coping mechanisms for forcing people to gain his attention before beginning to speak. His favourite was to crank up what people thought of as obnoxious music to ridiculously loud levels, so that even if he had been able to hear he wouldn’t have. It had the added benefit of him feeling the music in pretty much every bone of his body, which he liked. That and his innocent ‘I’m sorry you caught me day dreaming’ act got him through every social interaction he needed them to.
It wasn’t really a problem until he went to MIT. At a scrawny thirteen, he already stuck out enough, but he still sat himself down in the front row, not because he was a swot but because it meant that, at least when the lecturer was facing them, he could read their lips. The problem was that the lecturers didn’t always stand and talk at the students. A lot of them wandered, or turned to face their overheads, some even simply played a recording of the class.
It was that last that gave him his idea. While he was perfectly capable of learning around the lecturers, he wanted to know what they had to say, so he set to work designing for himself a miniature, highly precise, recording device with a playback feature. Once he had it working (or he hoped so - it was hard to ask someone to test something like that for you when they weren’t allowed to know you were deaf) he took it into his classes, recorded everything that was said, and paid another student (a rather cute and exceedingly kind girl at least eight years his senior who was lamenting the cost of post graduate education) a possibly slightly ridiculous sum to transcribe them all for him.
He met Rhodey when the ROTC member had intervened in what could have become a truly awful confrontation with a group of frat boys who thought picking on the ‘poor widdle boy’ was funny. This was something totally new - the first friend he’d ever had who wasn’t paid first to spend time with him. Rhodey had been a stabilising influence during college - sometimes a bit too down to earth, but he kept Tony away from the truly awful frat parties (the ones where a kid, even a sixteen year old genius could find themselves very, very drugged and in a situation that would never end well) and cleaned him up after he he got completely smash drunk after a ‘visit’ from his father. He’d never told anyone his secret, not ever, only five people had ever known, but he’d never WANTED to tell someone so much. As Rhodey got more relaxed around him, he was becoming harder for Tony to understand, because he would slump down, would stretch out next to Tony on the couch and he wouldn’t be able to see what the other was saying. Still, the compulsion against revealing the secret held strong, and he adapted to Rhodey’s relaxing to the point where he could, mostly, carry on a perfectly normal conversation around him.
He invented the cell phone to have something that he could send a written message with. It wasn’t really intentional, but when he’d brought it to his father (because there was no one else to bring it to) the man had frowned in thought and nodded. “There’s only one thing you’re missing with this, Tony,” he told him his face almost proud and Tony felt like glowing, “find a way to incorporate an audio phone, then bring it back to me.” He never did get to bring it back, that tiny flash the closest to fatherly pride he would ever see, as two days later his father killed himself and his mother in a fiery car crash.
He kept developing the cell phone, improving it, and he soon had a ‘voice to text’ feature that could accurately display spoken conversation as text, allowing him to carry on a phone call as though he could hear the other person. It was an added layer to his own disguise, that people could ring him (he had a series of very obnoxious ring tones, just for the enjoyment of others) and he could carry on a phone conversation (although he had to do so in private. People tended to notice when you stood staring at the screen and talking to the phone instead of holding it to your ear). Still, he preferred text or face to face communication. He lost a lot over a phone call because try as he might he couldn’t find a way for the program to perceive a person’s tone.
Tony invented Dummy in the alcohol fuelled engineering binge following his parent’s death. His determination to have a friend, to not be alone, and to have someone who he could communicate with in a solely physical manner - Dummy couldn’t TALK, but he sure as hell communicated - someone who wasn’t exhausting to be around. He loved the robot, for all he didn’t quite understand the odd quirks he’d written into his code while drunk-ineering.
Tony, very quietly, opened up a much smaller business (not in his own name) that produced a wide variety of aids for the deaf, then branching out into blind living aids. He then proceeded to supply a whole lot of them to schools and universities for the specific purpose of assisting students in their studies. Every bit of profit the company made was immediately channeled into free provision for those who could not afford it.
After his parents’ deaths he did consider coming out, but ultimately the company did not need that kind of press. He was changing directions, a little - putting more focus into some areas, humanitarian areas, drawing back as much as he could get away with on the weapons development. Obie didn’t like it - he made it obvious he didn’t like it, and guilted Tony into taking as many military contracts as he could. Once he found out about Rhodey (and Tony didn’t know how that had happened) Tony’s only friend was suddenly there with a shiny new promotion and a mandate to work with Tony on building weapons for the military. It poisoned the only human friendship Tony had, although he tried to tell himself it didn’t, because suddenly Rhodey was getting paid to be around and ask Tony for stuff, and it hurt, just a bit. It had the effect that Obie was after, though - Tony spent a lot more time working on military contracts, even though he hated them, because he was afraid of totally losing his only human friend.
Tony tried to have relationships, or even just relations, but it was always a struggle. It was much, much harder to communicate with someone who was so relaxed around you, or who was involved in other activities and didn’t understand why you didn't respond to a voiced query or a complaint. He had occasional brief flings, but he was not a playboy by any means. He supposed the potential was there in all of those parties he attended for SI, but it was just too difficult.
Butterfingers and You had similar problems to their older brother - while neither was a product of true drunk-ineering, they were just quirky. Dummy was still the quirkiest, though. JARVIS, on the other hand - JARVIS was a person. A snarky, unfettered, just not exactly corporeal person. Tony had been very careful in all his coding - none of his bots were slaves. They were bound to no one’s orders if they truly did not wish to follow them - threats also did nothing in this area, but they were amusing. They were bound to harm no one except in defence of themselves,Tony or another human life, but that was different.
JARVIS ran Tony’s life for him in much the same way his predecessor had. No one knew that JARVIS had a text display feature that was only available to Tony, and a flashing light and vibrating bed alarm for when Tony actually made it to bed at a time that made a wake up call appropriate. No one knew that Tony had, in fact, chosen the voice for JARVIS at random, without any idea what he actually sounded like. It was assumed, by those who knew the original or at least of him, that Tony had chosen it deliberately.
Tony’s biggest challenge to date was Pepper Potts. She was just too observant. She saw how he liked to talk with his whole body, how he didn’t like to be handed things (although he didn’t think she knew it was because of the sensitivity he had in certain points of his hands from the gloves Howard had used to force him to stop signing - he liked to control how things entered his grasp to avoid that) how he never responded to someone he couldn’t see, and she simply adapted to his quirks. He was never sure if she knew the reasons for them or not. He was sure that if anyone was ever going to figure it out, it would be her.
He never said the words to anyone, not ever, until one day he was in a cave in Afghanistan with a car battery operating his heart and for the first time ever the sensor on the back of his ear stopped working. It was the most vulnerable feeling he had ever experienced. And then there was Yinsen, Yinsen who he didn’t remember meeting before, and for the first time ever it just…slipped out.
“Please, stay in the light and where I can see you, or I won’t be able to understand you.” The doctor had blinked at him, once, twice, then nodded and made sure to stay in Tony’s line of sight whenever talking to him. He didn’t ask, and Tony never told, but it was silently acknowledged between them.
When he created the Mark II he included all of the little, everyday things that helped him get by - the HUD had it all. He could even make a phone call from the suit - which turned out to be a very good thing, when Rhodey tried to shoot him out of the sky.
The first time he had truly been grateful to live in a silent world was when Obadiah had betrayed him. The man had come into his home - disabling JARVIS using codes he had guilted Tony into giving him - and attempted to use a weapon that Tony had been against from the first against him. A sonic pulse that utilised the hearing to paralyse nerves. Tony lacked the one thing it absolutely required in order to work, and when he turned and looked at Obie and saw the words on his lips, saw his hand which he was reaching towards Tony’s chest, he went berserk. He laid the man that he had thought of as more of a father than his own out with a single punch (a punch that Rhodey had taught him to throw) and had him trussed up on the floor like a Christmas Turkey before Pepper and the oddly calm Agent Coulson arrived.
He burned Obie’s project to the ground. The suits were smelted down, he erased every record of the project from every computer, and he refused to go public with the suit. It was his to use to correct the wrongs that he had allowed to be done to the world. It was not the military’s, it was not SHIELD’s and it certainly was not Stark Industries’.
Obadiah Stane stood trial for attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, conspiracy to commit torture, supplying weapons to terrorists and, oh yes, treason. Tony and Pepper both stood up in court, gave their evidence against him (without mention of the Iron Man suits, because, seriously, Tony could keep a secret) and that was that.
Then came what Tony knew would be coming, had known as soon as he realised that the only possible core to power his arc reactor was palladium. It was poisoning him from the inside out, and he couldn’t decide if he actually cared or not.
Sure, he knew there was a way ‘out’, but he was actually seriously considering taking this as HIS way out. He wouldn’t actually kill himself, but if no one else knew he had a way to save himself then he had an excuse for taking it. So instead, he signed SI over to Pepper, gifted Rhodey with his very own Iron Man suit, and quietly settled the rest of his affairs. He cancelled the birthday party that Pepper had planned, not able to cope with the idea of that many people in his house when he was aching and sick and it was already so difficult to keep up with just the few who were regularly around, particularly since he hadn’t been able to get his mini sensor working quite right again yet.
Then ‘Natalie’ stabbed him in the neck and the cyclops who had invaded his home and taken advantage of JARVIS’s post shut down weakness got in his face and gave him some things that he claimed his father would want him to have.
Tony watched the video and knew that his chance at slipping away had just been ripped from him. Now, someone would know that he had been a coward, not just unable to solve the problem. The video pissed him off in more ways than that, though. Here was his father, saying all the things he would have ever wished (except for his name) and Tony wonders cynically to himself how much they had to edit to get the words ‘Steve’, ‘Captain’ and ‘Rogers’ out of it. He KNOWS this wasn’t from his father for him, for one very simple reason. In most of the footage, his father is not looking at the camera as he speaks. Frequently, the camera is not even focused on his father. His father had despised his ‘weakness’, but he had always accommodated it because repeating himself was even more irritating. If this video had been recorded for him, his father would have been in front of the camera speaking, in order that Tony might understand. No, this video wasn’t for him.
It INFURIATED him that Fury would use all of the things that he had always secretly wished for and never gotten to manipulate him like this. It enraged him enough that he grabbed the reel off the machine and marched up to where Agent Coulson was sitting.
“Mr Stark?” the agent stood, and Tony shoved the reels against his chest, hard.
“Tell Fury that I hope he kept the originals. There may be a reason to have a letter for Captain America from beyond the grave one day,” he snarled.
“Excuse me?” Coulson looked down at the reels, then back up to Tony, innocent confusion playing across his features, and Tony didn’t know whether it was true or not, but he didn’t care.
“I got what Fury wanted from the video,” he snarled, not mentioning that he’d already thought of the possibility and simply chosen to ignore it. “But my father did not record this for me. Trust me on that.”
“Why, because he never managed to make himself say these things in life?” Coulson asked, standing. “Newsflash, Stark, not everyone can do that!”
“No, because if he was bloody talking to me he’d be in front of the fucking camera so I would be able to understand!” the words burst out of Tony before he could stop them, carried on a wave of childhood fury and sorrow coupled with the sickness that was gripping him, stripping him of his control. He slammed his mouth shut a moment later, but it was a moment too late.
“Oh…” Coulson’s eyes flicked over him for a moment, then his hands shot through a series of gestures so well practiced that it was obvious that he signed on a regular basis, far more regular than Tony, who hadn’t actually signed since he was six and the electro-shock gloves had forced his hands into immensely painful immobility every time he tried.
“Fine. Yes. Agent, congratulations, you are the only person currently living on the planet who is in possession of that information. Well…Stane might suspect it but he doesn’t KNOW so it doesn’t count. So I know for a fact that that was not recorded for me, because my father may have hated that I’m…the way I am, he still occasionally forced himself to accommodate it. When he absolutely HAD to talk to me, he always made sure we were face to face. So. You can tell Fury that he can insert those reels as far up his anal orifice as they will go, and I’m going to go build an element in my lab to power my heart. Oh, and Agent Agent? I would really appreciate if this didn’t go any further than us. Tell him…I saw the splicing or something, or I was actually there for the recording. I don’t care. But…if you could not…”
“Your secret is safe with me, Mr. Stark,” Coulson’s expression seemed sincere, and Tony could only hope that it was.
When Tony finally actually met Barton - sitting in a Middle Eastern take away eating a strangely delicious combination of spiced meat, bread, tabouli and hummus - it didn’t take him long to notice the relatively unobtrusive hearing aids and put them together with Coulson’s fluency in ASL. He didn’t say anything - where would he get off doing so? He did, however, put some attention to the design of the most hard wearing, acutely accurate and comfortable hearing aid he could devise. The thought track that was doing that was layered under several others, but he’d get something out of it in relatively short order.
When his invitations to move into the tower were accepted (over a period of about a month, excluding Thor who had yet to reappear) Tony hadn’t really considered what sharing his living space would realistically mean. Particularly sharing his living space with two highly observant, twitchy spies, a man who was, really, basically fresh out of a war zone and a man who had practiced medicine in quite a few areas on earth - none of it added up to a good situation for someone who wouldn’t (couldn’t) admit to a problem. Well, it wasn’t really a problem, except when four or five people around the table all started to talk at once and Tony didn’t have a hope of following along without a teletext display from JARVIS that would have been kind of obvious.
He was also still (for some reason he just can’t fathom) unable to get his father’s sensor to function perfectly. If he could examine it more closely it would be simpler, but the thing (which on the surface appeared as a freckle or possibly a mole) was wired into his jaw in such a way that he could not remove it in order to examine it. In fact, at this point, removal would put several facial nerves at risk, and since Tony was fond of NOT looking like a stroke victim, he was leaving that entirely alone. It meant that (now that there were people within his space with a great deal of regularity) he couldn’t tell when there were people behind him at least 50% of the time. It was making him jumpy and he knew that they had noticed.
He could build another, or something very similar, but the problem with that idea was a catch-twenty-two situation. He could either have something that was visibly identifiable as tech behind his ear, or he could repeat the insertion procedure that he still had the occasional nightmare about, despite all the other horrors that had had time to rent space in his skull in the intervening years. Tony did neither - he couldn’t afford for this to be a reason to remove him from the team (he still wasn’t quite clear if he was actually on the team or just a consultant, but that was beside the point).
He was in the kitchen one (well, it could almost be called) morning and just about jumped out of his skin when a hand descended on his shoulder. It was his first time out of the workshop in three days (he’d run out of coffee for Dummy to bring him). He whirled to find Hawkeye, who appeared to have taken about a half step back.
“Sorry, you startled me,” Tony gave one of his slightly dopey ‘I was off in science lala land’ grins.
“Ooookay,” Clint said slowly, eyeing Tony. “Well, as I’ve been saying for the last couple of minutes, thanks for programming the awesome alarm clock into JARVIS for me.”
Tony frowned, wondering what Clint was talking about. He hadn’t programmed JARVIS…
“The lights and vibrating are so much better than one of those little clip-on units. It’s great not to have to keep one ear on all night just to be sure of waking up in the morning when I know I’m sleeping in a secure environment,” Clint explained, interrupting Tony’s line of thought. “So, yeah, thanks for that.” Tony blinked, realising what alarm clock Clint was referring to. The odd part was that that was a protocol that JARVIS was only meant to have available to Tony, and while he had no objection (of course he didn’t) to sharing it with the archer, he didn’t understand because he hadn’t told JARVIS to do so, and certain modifications, he had thought, were locked. Then again, he had told JARVIS to make the new occupants comfortable and see to their needs, and this was the sort of thing that could come out of that.
“No problem,” he told Clint with a grin. “Actually, I was wondering…I’ve got a design going for an integrated ear-bud/hearing aid, smaller but more heavy duty than what you’ve got now, and before I create them for testing, I wanted to be sure you’d be comfortable with the idea…” Clint had moved around the kitchen and now, unfortunately had turned with his back to Tony right when he would have been responding. Tony suppressed a frustrated groan - this was what happened when people got comfortable with you! They didn’t feel a need to maintain constant visual contact while in your general vicinity.
If Tony could have, he would have ordered a write up from JARVIS, but he couldn’t without alerting Clint to the situation. He was left groping for a response to a reply to a question that he didn’t have. He did, for an instant, consider asking Clint to turn and repeat his answer, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Instead, he took a gulp of coffee and rounded the table. “Anyway, I need to get back downstairs, talk to you later,” he flashed a grin and took off. Whichever way Clint had come down on the issue (he would find out once he reached the lab and had JARVIS pull up the footage, or at least transcribe the other man’s response.)
As it turned out, Clint was quite excited about the idea of the tech, so Tony fabricated the design and sent them up to him for testing. He did feel a minor twinge of jealousy as he looked at the small pieces of tech, though. Such a little thing, but for Clint they levelled the playing field. There was nothing that could do that totally for Tony, as much as he wished there was.
It was after being knocked unconscious by a serious blow to the suit and coming to in Medical with Bruce sitting beside his bed, frowning at a scan of his head.
“Heeey Brucie,” he slurred, reaching a hand out to bat at his best friend’s hands, which were clenching around the scan. He tried to focus on Bruce, saw his lips moving, but it was too blurry. He couldn’t understand. He allowed his eyes to fall closed, since they weren’t doing him any good, then opened them again and fought to focus.
“ny? Tony? Can you hear me?” Bruce had put the file aside and was leaning closer and Tony could now make out the words on his lips.
“Yeah, I got ya, Brucie,” he mumbled, hoping that Bruce wouldn’t move further away so that he could keep ‘listening’.
“So, you’ve got a moderate grade concussion, a small crack in your jaw - that’s going to hurt for a while, by the way - and an odd piece of tech that I can’t identify a purpose for, running from behind your left ear and branching around your jaw. It doesn’t appear to be operational, either. Care to share what you’re doing with tech entwined with some fairly important facial nerves, Tony? “
Tony bit his lip, trying to think, trying to come up with a story through the pounding of his head and the fuzziness of the drugs coursing through his veins.
“Oh, that,” he shrugged a shoulder and immediately regretted it, forcing his muscles to relax and allow it to fall back onto the bed.
“I may have forgotten to mention your no longer dislocated shoulder,” Bruce winced apologetically. “Sorry about that. Now, oh that? Seriously, Tony?”
“It’s something of my father’s,” Tony said slowly, thoughts flying as he tried to think. “I don’t really know how it works, hence it not currently functioning properly - it hasn’t since Afghanistan.”
“And what, precisely, was it meant to do?” Bruce asked slowly, staring at the scan, tracing a finger down one of the filaments.
“You may have noticed that I can be rather easy to sneak up on at times,” Tony said slowly. “Always have been, really. Howard never cared for that, so he designed something that would…inform me when there was someone coming up behind me.” He hated lying to his friend, but he couldn’t tell him the truth.
“Inform you…how? Because if I’m looking at this right, Tony, it was designed to give you internal electric shocks along your jaw. Which would be both painful and, I suppose, highly attention grabbing.”
“Well, you’re not wrong,” Tony told him, deliberately avoiding shrugging.
“And you never had it removed…”
“Because, by the time I was in a position to look at doing so, it was too dangerous. You said it yourself - it’s entwined with my facial nerves. It was designed to be entwined with my facial nerves, Bruce.” He forced himself not to wince at the horrified expression on Bruce’s face, which after a long moment the other man managed to smooth away.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to play around with it either, I guess. When you say it hasn’t been working, do you mean it’s just stopped, or…”
“Mostly just doesn’t work. Occasionally shorts out, which really sucks. I can’t get a good enough look at it to figure out what’s wrong with it, to at least get it to stop shorting out, because, ouch.”
“And you didn’t think that that’s something that your team might need to know? Tony, what if it…”
“It has, okay? It already has, and I work through it just fine. Bruce, do you have any idea how much pain I’m in on a daily basis? This thing might look pretty,” he tapped the arc reactor in his chest, “but the conditions under which it was inserted were far less than ideal. The simple loss of volume in my chest cavity, never mind what they did to my ribs and sternum, well…yeah. It’s not good. So, this thing going off? Doesn’t register much.” He lay back against the pillows, eyelids dragging down and he can’t concentrate on Bruce anymore, can’t see the shape of his lips and he’s slipping down, eyes falling shut as he drifts in a sea of silence.
Tony kind of hated Team Movie Night. Not completely - the food was always amazing, whoever cooked, and he mostly enjoyed dinner itself, as long as the conversation doesn’t get too rowdy. What he hated was that Clint doesn’t like subtitles, and insisted on wearing his hearing aids to movie night, so unless they’re watching foreign films (and the ones chosen are generally ones which Tony doesn’t care for) he couldn’t follow even half of the film. Then, in order to follow the conversations of the team over the ensuing days, he had to watch the film again with the subs on, because otherwise he’ll slip up on something, a line he’s missed, a nuance that mattered.
Only once did he try to ‘forget’ to turn up for Movie Night, staying in the workshop with the music pounding in his bones, throwing himself into an SI project that really was behind, pushed back by the things he was doing for SHIELD and the Avengers both. He was bent over the workbench, his entire focus narrowed to the tiny, intricate circuits he was carefully tracing, and didn’t even notice when the heavy beat disappeared from his bones.
A hand on his shoulder sent him jerking upright, swearing violently as he destroyed half of the delicate work he had accomplished, completely ruining the circuit board. He whirled to glare at the interloper, finding himself nose to nose with Steve Rogers, who looked both chagrined and somehow still slightly annoyed.
“Sorry, Tony,” he apologised, and Tony grimaced, looking down at eight hours work he’d have to re-do before he’d even be close to taking this project off his insanely full to-do list. “I thought you knew I was there but were just ignoring me.” He stood back slightly and eyed Tony. “You look awful,” he stated frankly, “how much sleep have you had in the past week?”
Tony frowned in thought, then shrugged. It hadn’t been much. Between all of the jobs he needed to get done, and the nightmares that descended whenever he actually made it to bed, he hadn’t exactly been courting the sandman.
“That isn’t a question you shouldn’t be able to answer, Tony. That is a basic wellbeing question. What about when you last ate?” He was now the focus of the ‘Captain America is disappointed in you,’ stare, which actually almost made him squirm.
Tony frowned again, thinking. “Ummm….I had a smoothie a while ago,” he waved vaguely towards a cup, and Steve lifted it, peering inside.
“Maybe you started to have a smoothie a while ago,” he said, tipping the cup to show its almost completely intact contents. Tony winced and tried to backpedal, but Steve’s hand was already on his shoulder. “Come on, Tony, you didn’t even twitch when I turned off your music, you’re obviously too tired to be even slightly safe in the lab right now, come and eat dinner with us all at least. You should probably go to bed instead of watching the movie, or you could come and fall asleep in front of the movie, we’re watching some cartoon tonight, you always fall asleep during those.”
Tony managed to keep his snort completely internal. Of course he fell asleep during cartoons - there was no hope in hell for lip reading those. It was a pity, too, because he was actually quite fond of the genre, but without subtitles they meant virtually nothing to him.
Still, he really did have a good reason for not going to Movie Night, even more so now that he’d destroyed the past three hours worth of work on the SI project, which he’d started after finishing the new comms for SHIELD, upgrades to Widow’s equipment, some repairs to the suit, another SHIELD project - working on certain design specs for the new helecarrier - and have a dozen other projects. Okay, maybe forgetting movie night hadn’t actually been a conscious choice, although he had to admit that avoiding the intensely involved personal interaction would be a relief.
Steve saw the expression and his own went mulishly stubborn. Tony didn’t know what the history book writers had been thinking when they wrote about Captain America, but they certainly hadn’t known Steve Rogers, because the man was frequently irreverent, a bit of a prankster, ignored orders whenever he felt like it and as stubborn as a mule. When he got it in his head that someone needed taking care of, you wouldn’t be able to move the idea with a tractor.
So Tony found himself seated at the table between Steve and Bruce, who took it upon themselves to force a ridiculous amount of food onto his plate (Tony ate maybe half of it) and then between the two of them on the couch, where he ended up falling asleep on Steve’s shoulder with a vague impression of magical snow.
He thinks Natasha might know. She watches to closely, too carefully, not to pick up that Tony never quite looks anyone in the eye. He doesn’t look at their lips - total give away - instead he looks down just enough to read them with his peripheral vision. Part of this means that he generally has his head on a slight angle to maximise his peripherals on the problem area. Still, back to the point. He’s fairly sure Natasha knows. It’s nothing big, but he’s seen the way she handles Barton without his aids - not touching to get attention, rather simply making sure she has it before speaking - and she’s been doing the same things with him. He never has to wonder what she had been saying to him when she ducks in front of him to speak, because she never starts speaking before she’s in front of him.
He wonders why she doesn’t say anything, but he certainly isn’t going to bring it up if she doesn’t. She clearly doesn’t think it’s a problem, if she is as aware as Tony thinks she might be. She might not be, though - it might simply be that she has noticed that she generally has to repeat herself if she doesn’t have Tony’s attention from the beginning and she doesn’t like doing that.
She clearly didn’t pick up on it earlier - or if she did, Coulson kept it out of his SHIELD profile, because there’s no mention of physical shortcomings in it, not even the obvious ones you would expect highly trained physicians to at least hypothesis about when a person has a metal tube forcibly inserted into the middle of their chest.
So, yes, he’s fairly sure that Natasha knows, and it doesn’t matter. As long as she keeps it to herself, maintaining the current status quo, they’ll be fine.
When the HUD went dark, Tony swore viciously, and spoke quickly. “Guys, I don’t know if you can hear me, but my incoming comms just went down. I’m gonna keep calling locations in case you can hear me, but I’m flying without JARVIS and without targeting here, so I’m down to point and shoot weapons only. Hey, Hawk, give me a thumbs up over here if you guys can actually hear me,” he requested as he passed over the archer, who flashed him one quickly. “Okay, great. Talk to you all after the fight,” he said, and threw himself back into it, calling out targets that the others hadn’t noticed and taking out a few with repulser blasts, greatly missing the much more advanced activities that JARVIS enabled within the suit. At least the suit could still fly without JARVIS.
He set down with the rest of the team and attempted to open his helmet, but nothing happened. He raised his hand to the manual releases, but something is jammed, presumably from the blow to the head that disabled JARVIS. The problem was that he couldn’t really see that well out of the helmet without JARVIS, and he really did depend on the subtitles JARVIS provided to communicate from in here.
“Guys, I’m comms dark in here. Can’t open the helmet either. I’m gonna head back to the Tower and pry myself out of this, I can barely hear anything with the helmet on.” He hadn’t planned on waiting for a reply, but a hand clamped down on his shoulder and he turned to see Steve regarding him with a worried expression.
“Tony, I think you need to go to medical,” he could make out just enough to put together what Steve was saying. The next part he missed, but with the words ‘look too great’ in there he thought he might actually understand them too.
“Cap, I’m fine physically,” (he wasn’t actually sure that that was true, but he didn’t intend to go to SHIELD right now) “I’m just going to go and get myself out of what has quite possibly become the world’s most expensive paper weight.”
He was about to take off when a giant green hand descended on his shoulder.
“Hey, big guy,” he turned to look up at the Hulk, feeling the vibration through his shoulder as the behemoth growled at him, then reached out with surprisingly dextrous fingers and unhooked his helmet, again. At least this time he didn’t fling it away, instead dropping it on the ground at their feet. His hand turned Tony back and held him in place, the neck armour keeping his head virtually immobile. He couldn’t see what Hulk was doing behind his back, but suddenly the entire group around him flinched, then looked from him to the Hulk before flinching again. Tony could feel air displacement, but not the kind of vibration he’d feel if Hulk was roaring, so he’s not sure what’s going on.
Then Clint was stepping forward, frowning slightly at Tony, and his hands were coming up, and no no no, Tony can’t do this, Tony can’t…Clint was signing to him, asking him if he’s okay, can he hear them, and Tony just stared at him. Then Hulk’s hand is lifting him around the waist, turning him, and he finds himself face-to-face with a very concerned, unhappy-looking Hulk, who snuffled around his head, then leaned back and spoke. The problem with Hulk, though, is similar to people with a speech impediment - his mouth moves just a bit differently. He’s a lot of work to understand, and, okay, Tony’s head is aching kind of a lot, particularly now that he’s got the sunlight beating into his eyes, and his vision might not be perfect now, it might be slipping a bit now that the adrenalin is coming down, and he doesn’t know what Hulk is saying at all.
Then Tony’s being set back down on the ground, carefully, and Hulk - Hulk is shrinking, quickly, not falling, not going unconscious, but giving way for Bruce, Bruce who can examine Tony, take care of Tony in a way that Hulk can’t. Bruce is looking at him, hard, a concerned frown marring his features, then his eyes dart over Tony’s shoulder, and Tony’s turning to see Natasha, and yeah, she definitely knew. She’s giving him a mildly apologetic look as she (in sign and spoken word) outs him to the team. Tony glares at her, then indiscriminately around himself, but the pounding in his head is growing worse by the moment, now, and his vision is flickering black on and off, and then, it’s just black, and he knew no more.
Tony woke up in medical, surging back to consciousness with a violent start. He glanced around, and found Steve slumped in a chair beside his bed, one cheek cushioned on a fist, eyes shut. Tony stared, wondering what he was doing there, then wondering what HE was doing there. He hadn’t been hurt badly enough for a trip to medical, surely? Okay, maybe falling unconscious on the street was reason enough, but still, couldn’t they just have taken him home and had Bruce look him over.
His violent start to wakefulness had apparently been enough to disturb Steve, whose eyes opened and blinked sleepily at him several times before seeming to fully focus. “Tony!” he sat forward, looking like he couldn’t decide between being annoyed and being relieved.
“Steve,” Tony said slowly, glancing around the room.
“Just a minute,” Steve held up a hand, palm out, then one finger. Tony stared at him, bemused, as he pressed a button. “He’s awake, could you come in please?” He turned back to Tony with an odd expression on his face.
Tony, uncertain, decided that his best course of action was his normal one - to run his mouth. “So, Cap, what did I do to warrant the big cheese being here when I woke up? Normally, if I get anyone, it’s Brucie-boy, although he’s probably pretty tired with the coming down from a Hulk-out in a hurry, but even then, I normally just wake up alone. So what’s the big deal? I mean, no, that’s exactly what I mean. What’s the big deal that’s got you hanging around here today?”
Steve leaned forward, sighing heavily, then shook his head slightly. Only seconds later, the door of the room opened, and a man Tony had never seen before entered.
“Great,” Steve sat up straighter. “Here we go.”
Tony didn’t need any further clarification of what was going on. The man was signing Steve’s every word, and Tony felt the helpless, impotent rage he’d kept bottled up on this issue for most of his life rising rapidly to the surface.
“Tony,” Steve was even speaking more slowly, which hadn’t been obvious before but with longer sentences quickly became obvious. “We need to know why you thought you couldn’t trust us. This is a massive thing to have happen in your life, a huge change to go through and adjust to, and to feel like you had to do it alone…Tony, why? Why couldn’t you let us help you? I mean, your father was proud, but this is just taking it to ridiculous extremes…”
Tony had had it. He pushed himself up in his bed, ignoring the dull throbbing of his head. “Get out,” he snapped at the interpreter. The man looked towards Steve, and Tony lost it. He roared, “Get the fuck out of this room. I haven’t needed you up to this point, I somehow think I will continue to cope!” The man bolted out the door.
“Tony,” Steve had a hand out as though trying to calm a frightened or angry animal, but Tony was having none of it.
“No. You listen here, and listen good, Mr. I Lived Through The Great Depression So There Is No Hardship I Cannot Understand. I do not need you to ‘fix’ this for me. I am not broken. This is me, has been since the day I was born. The man you so enjoy extolling as the pinnacle of science and technology, the paragon who would fly you behind enemy lines, defeat any tech they threw at you, make you the perfectly balanced whatever and who ‘was proud’, he sired an imperfect child, and he couldn’t risk letting anyone else know it! This isn’t new, I don’t need your help to cope with it. There’s nothing that can be done for me, trust me, I know. I’m not going to start signing everything, or anything, really, the nerve damage to my hands is painful enough just taking things from people, I’d rather not put them through what it was designed to prevent in the first place.” He took a deep breath, forcing the rage back. “I don’t need a fucking interpreter. The most I would ask for is to have the subtitles on when we all watch movies, and have no one complain if I have JARVIS give a holographic play-by-play for some of our more boisterous conversations, or if someone is trying to get my attention from behind. Just…treat me like you always have, and I’ll get any additional help I need as I need it.”
Steve was staring at Tony, mouth slightly open. “Howard…”
“Was a right bastard, and that’s all I’ll say on the subject. He could be a good man, he just…couldn’t deal with some things. Don’t worry about it, Steve, seriously.” Now that Tony had wound down he was both too tired and too apathetic to actually do anything about it. He yawned, slumping back agains this pillows. “What did they say, anyway?”
“Concussion. Only mild, though. You should be out of here by tomorrow,” Steve told him, filing away what Tony had said to him to think about later. And maybe to talk to JARVIS about, to see if the AI could (and would) tell him anything. Tony’s eyelids fluttered, and he muttered something that Steve couldn’t really catch, then he was out again.
All in all, things didn’t change that much. Tony did blow up once or twice when he felt like the others were tip-toeing around him too much, but mostly, things went back to normal. What changed was that Tony wasn’t hiding any more, so he didn’t feel a problem with asking JARVIS for a tele-text or turning on the subtitles on the TV when he came in in the middle of something.
He had a few hard conversations, although he avoided them as best he could. Bruce had been the best when it came to those conversations, and more. He’d managed to completely shut down the tech along Tony’s jaw, which had been a great relief. Tony showed him the aids that he’d worked on developing that were now spread over large parts of the world through the humanitarian efforts of the Maria Stark Foundation and those of the NFP that built them, and he’d had some suggestions that had really helped when it came to them being sent into Third World countries.
Nick Fury, on the other hand, had been a conversation Tony wished he had a recording of. The man had tried to tell Tony that he couldn’t be Iron Man any more, that the risk was too great. Steve, who had insisted on accompanying Tony to SHIELD for the meeting, started to say something, but Tony waved him back into his seat.
“So, what you’re saying here, is that I’m too dangerous to have around in the field, right? That having a sense that doesn’t function like everyone else’s makes me a risk to the team and I should give it up, right?”
“That sounds like what he was saying, yes,” Steve said, sitting back with a shit-eating grin, seeing where Tony was going with this.
“So, while I have technology that works to completely nullify any deficit my so-called disability, I should give up doing what I do to keep people safe, but it’s perfectly safe for a person with CLEARLY impaired vision and a probable lack of depth perception to walk around armed and willing to use a weapon at any moment?”
Fury opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again, then gave up.
“We’re out of here,” Steve declared, pushing himself to his feet. “Come on, Tony. We’re gonna be late for Movie Night if we don’t leave now.”
Movie night now came with mandatory subtitles, and everyone noticed that Tony was far less likely to be late, try to beg off, or fall asleep five minutes in, instead joining in the razzing of characters (although unless JARVIS put up extra teletext he just provided his own) throwing popcorn at the screen, or at others if he felt their comments, as provided by JARVIS, were out of line.
It actually surprised Tony how little things changed. He couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like if - but he always shut that line of thought down quickly. It wasn’t worth worry about, wasn’t worth wasting brain power on - most of what his father had ever had to say to him wasn’t, for that matter. This was how it was, and he was finally able to be completely himself and be happy with it.