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Powers You Don't Understand

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This is, unfortunately, a familiar scene: Tony lies on crisp starched sheets, still except for the shallow breaths that shift his chest and flare his nostrils. His eyes are shut. Monitors beep quietly next to him: his pulse, his oxygen, his all-important heartbeat.

This is different: Tony's hair is dyed a truly awful shade of blond that in no way matches the dark stubble coming in on his otherwise clean-shaven face. He makes a lousy blond, Steve thinks, with a tangled, annoyed rush of affection somewhere under his breastbone; Steve's never really figured out why Tony likes to go blond when he wants to be someone else. He doesn't want to think about it.

This is familiar, again: Steve is in the chair at Tony's bedside, waiting for Tony to wake up, because where else would he be? Tony's had him down as next-of-kin and healthcare proxy for almost a decade, and even if he weren't, he'd be here anyway. This is what they do for each other. After the worst battles, they sit in vigil for each other. He's been the first face Tony's seen a hundred times. Tony's was the first face he saw, out of the ice and again and again and again. And as long as they're Avengers together, they'll keep doing this, on and on into the future.

He's holding Tony's hand, lightly, gently, careful not to disturb the IV on the back of his hand with his own still-healing fingers. He does this too; he always holds Tony's hand, at least for a bit, and he thinks Tony often holds his. He knows men in this century, even good friends, don't touch each other so much, but Tony never seems to mind when it's him, and Steve absolutely never minds when it's Tony. He tries not to think about what else it could mean. He's good at not thinking about things like that. It's worked for him so far.

Sometimes one of them wakes up and they're still holding hands. Neither of them has ever said anything about it.

Tony's eyelashes flutter. He's starting to stir.

Steve knows what happens now; he knows Tony will open his eyes, blink, look around the room a few times to get his bearings, and then focus on Steve, who will be waiting at his side, who will always be waiting. He might look a little groggy. He'll probably smile, grinning at him with that bright-eyed gaze. He's always glad to see Steve there.

That's not what happens.

Tony wakes. He blinks a few times.

He doesn't look at Steve.

His eyes are dark all the way through, unseeing. His eyes are Extremis-black.

Something goes cold in the pit of Steve's stomach and he lets his hand fall away. Extremis just murdered people. Extremis just stopped Tony's heart. Tony killed himself with this. And this is what Tony woke up and reached for first, reached for before him--

"Tony," Steve says.

Tony blinks a few more times; his eyes are blue, and his gaze fixes on Steve, but it's too late. "Hi, Steve." His voice is low and hoarse. "What-- where am I?"

"Tisch Hospital," Steve returns, quietly. He's a little surprised Tony didn't just grab his location from a satellite. "You're in the ICU. What's the last thing you remember?"

Tony's eyes fall half-shut. "The Argonaut had you. It was wired up to me. I stopped my own heart to stop it." He says this neutrally, like it's any after-action report. But it isn't.

Steve stares at him and feels fear and anger twist through him in equal measures, because it's like Tony doesn't care, like Tony's first and only move is sacrifice, and it terrifies him. "You had no heartbeat for thirty-seven minutes, Tony. The EMTs were working on you for over half an hour."

Tony huffs out a sigh. "I think you mean thirty-seven minutes, Cap." A smile twitches at the corner of his mouth; it's Tony's favorite kind of -- well, Tony usually calls it "asshole pedantry" but Steve tries to be more polite about it. It never bothers him much, anyway, not usually.

It's bothering him now.

"No," Steve says, and the denial snaps out of him, harsher than he means. "I mean half an hour. Who do you think was doing CPR on you before the medics got to you?"

He'd been dizzy and half-crushed -- he thinks maybe he has a fractured rib -- but he'd dragged himself over the broken ground the instant the Argonaut had fallen. He'd ripped Tony out of the suit, tearing his hands open on the edges of the armor, watching Tony's face slacken and gray out. He'd been crouched there at Tony's side, hands on his chest, frantically trying to push the life back into him until the medics finally arrived, wondering if now would be the time when he'd lose him for good. The last time they'd talked they'd been fighting about Extremis. This couldn't be how it would end, he'd thought, not over some stupid argument. This couldn't be how he would remember Tony.

Tony's mouth against his had been lax and cold, lifeless.

"Oh." Tony's mouth now shapes the word. "Well, uh. Thanks for that."

Steve looks away, out to the corridor behind the glass wall; the SHIELD agents who'd been standing guard are no longer present.

"I don't want to do this anymore," he says, very quietly. "I can't take this, Tony."

"What do you mean, this?" Tony asks. When Steve looks over, Tony's eyes have fallen shut again, and Steve wonders if he'd see Extremis behind them.

Steve wants to shout. Instead his voice trembles with suppressed emotion, and he balls his hands into fists in his lap. "You stopped your own heart."

"Yeah, and?" Tony's eyes slit open; he gives Steve a sidelong glance. "This is so not the first time this has happened. You were there with me a couple years ago, remember, that thing with the nanotech insects? Stopped my heart to kill them too. Don't recall you objecting to that one."

"Then you had a failsafe," Steve says, and his voice rises; on the screen Tony's heartrate spikes. "You told me how to resuscitate you. It took ten seconds, and it worked. You didn't have a backup plan here."

Tony shrugs. "I'm alive now. What's the big deal?" He just sounds... apathetic. Like he doesn't care about anything. Like he's a machine.

"You've been telling me how Extremis is so wonderful," Steve says. "How it's the future. How you're something more than human. And in your wonderful new suit, you have no backups. No failsafes. You managed to kill yourself. And somehow this doesn't concern you." His voice, once quiet and precise, is now loud. "Well, it scares the hell out of me, Tony."

Tony looks away, and for once his face is twisted in emotion: disappointment. It's not what Steve would have wanted. This is not anything he wanted. This is what they're getting.

"I thought you of all people would understand," Tony says, softly, sadly. "You volunteered for Rebirth. You put yourself through an experimental procedure to change yourself, to make yourself better. I thought-- I thought you'd be happy for me."

"That was different."


"It did exactly what it was supposed to do," Steve says, after a moment's thought. "It did exactly what they said it would. It didn't give me unknown powers that left me vulnerable to attack, to... manipulation." It didn't make me murder innocent people.

"No one could have known what would happen," Tony retorts, and his cheeks are flushed, colored with anger.

"That," Steve says, "is exactly my point. What's next? You don't know. And I don't want to find out."

"I'm better!" Tony's voice is raised. "I'm better! God, Steve, I'm better than I've ever been. Sure, there were some issues--" Some issues? Steve thinks incredulously, and he can only picture the casualty lists-- "but I'm going to get better. I'm going to make sure this never happens again. We've got this whole amazing future ahead of us. You have no idea--"

"You're damn right I don't." Steve stands up. "Look, Maya Hansen and Sal Kennedy wanted to see you; I'll go tell your new best friends you're awake, shall I?"

"Steve--" Tony says.

Steve doesn't look back. Later, he wonders if maybe he should have.

The next time he sees Tony is in the aftermath of Stamford, the tragedy that breaks everything.

The time after that, they're on a battlefield, and he's pressing an EMP into Tony's open hand, and he knows Tony never saw the future coming.