With their uniforms sitting side-by-side like that, The Difference between them is clear. There are the obvious differences, like the fact that Steve’s is made of um spandex; like the fact that Steve’s has so much red white and blue that it couldn’t scream ‘AMERICA!’ any louder if it tried; like the fact that Steve’s was issued by the government, while Tony’s—
“Actually, sir, I believe Mr. Rogers’s suit was issued by S.H.I.E.L.D.” Jarvis’s voice cuts through Tony’s thoughts, and he wonders if he had been talking aloud.
“…Yes, I believe you were, sir.”
“Right, sorry Jarvis,” he mumbles without taking his eyes off the uniforms before him.
Because what Tony’s really looking at, what’s really bothering him, is the biggest, most obvious similarity between the two: they both have an enormous, glaring, honking, shiny thing on their chest. And that just won’t do.
“Jarvis, how’s that thing coming along?” His arms stay crossed over his chest. Jarvis knows what he’s talking about.
“Color me surprised. Thing One is coming along slowly, so let me guess—Thing Two is still in the Stone Age of development.”
Jarvis doesn’t dignify him with an answer, and Tony doesn’t blame him. He sighs, reaching out with cautious fingers to touch the spandex material of Captain America’s uniform. He traces one red stripe up up up until he hits a sea of blue and a sandbar of a silver star.
It’s so fucking heroic he could scream.
Captain America, hero extraordinaire, a living legend who actually lives up the legend, super soldier, the perfect human specimen, wears a uniform that embodies heroism, and it looks too much like the Iron Man suit for Tony to be comfortable. He can’t bear the thought of being compared to Steve every day, in every battle, in every—
“No one compares us, Tony,” Steve says quietly from somewhere behind him.
Tony accepted his tendency to think aloud a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t hate himself for it.
“You shouldn’t have snuck up on me,” Tony replies quickly, turning away from the uniforms to face Steve. He spits words as his armor when he doesn’t have the suit on. “That’s really not fair, you know. This is My Space, my private space—not MySpace, of course, not that you know what that is—do you know what MySpace is? No? Good, it’s better that you don’t.—and you came in without knocking. Poor form, Mr. Rogers, poor form. I think all of America might be disappointed in you.”
Steve has the grace to look embarrassed. For a second, Tony feels the familiar swoop of victory but that quickly gives way to the more familiar plunge of guilt. “Never mind, Cap, never mind, really, it’s fine. Was there something you wanted? Needed? Craved?” He waggles his eyebrows suggestively but doesn’t wait for the virginal blush he knows will paint Steve’s cheeks. “—Because I’m a busy, busy guy, Cap, and I can’t really—“
Steve steps forward cautiously, like he’s scared Tony will kick him out any second (which, for the record, Tony would never actually do. He makes empty threats all the time; he’s all bark with no bite, except when he’s in the suit, when his bite can kill you in three seconds flat).
“I just came for my uniform, actually,” Steve says, and he sounds ashamed. Tony pretends he doesn’t care, he pretends he doesn’t feel guilty, he pretends and pretends and pretends.
“Oh, yeah, sure, help yourself.” He gestures vaguely in the direction of the glass casing, but Steve surprises him by taking another step towards Tony, instead.
“You’re really self-centered,” Steve suddenly says, and ouch, ouch, ouch, isn’t that too close to the truth (ignoring the fact that it’s the actual truth, yeah, then it’s too close to the truth), and Tony flinches too quickly to stop himself. Apparently, Steve’s perfect eyesight catches the flinch, because when he speaks again, Tony can hear the regret. “No, god, it’s not. I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything, Tony.”
Doesn’t make it any less true, Tony thinks, and there, that’s a perfect summation of why Tony fucking hates the big, honking similarity between their uniforms. The center of Steve’s spandex is America. The center of Tony’s suit is himself. And everyone, everywhere, from now into eternity, will always be able to see those two truths, laid out in so many words.
“Tony,” Steve murmurs, and Tony barely manages not to bash his head on his workbench when he realizes that he’d said all of that aloud.
“Hey Cap,” Tony barrels over him, “I have an idea, and my idea is that we forget everything I just said, I’ll return your suit suitably unharmed—suit, suitably, it’s a joke, Cap, you can laugh—and Jarvis can whip up some margaritas or martinis or whatever the fuck you guys drank in the 40’s. Okay? C’mon, let’s go, the stairs are this way, come on now—“
“Tony.” Steve hasn’t moved, even though Tony has already taken like five steps in the right direction. There’s this shuttered, pinched, concerned expression on Steve’s face, and Tony wants to both scream and collapse at the sight. So he just stands there.
“Tony, you’re being ridiculous—“
“—Cap, you’ve been here for three months already, don’t say this like it’s news to you, I’m always—“
“Stark. Shut up.” The use of Tony’s last name surprises him; Steve hasn’t called him a variation of ‘Mr. Stark’ ever since their first mission. So he shuts up.
“You’re being ridiculous, because only you would ever think that people are comparing us just because our suits are kind of similar.” Steve’s hands are on his waist, and Tony could swear that in his eyes, there's some sort of fondness. (Condescension? No.) Affection. (Affection?!) “Honestly,” Steve continues, unaware, “Even I didn’t notice it until just now. I mean, I think our suits are different enough, don’t you? Yours is…” He flails in a flail-y enough way that only Captain America could make look good. “…modern,” Steve finally says. “You’re modern, and I’m—“ Steve pauses. “I’m not.”
Tony’s good at reading people, because he’s good at lying. (In fact, he’s exceptional at lying.) So he knows that Steve knows that he’s unintentionally unearthed one of his sore spots right in front of Tony: his fear of being outdated and useless. And Tony’s heart goes out to the guy, because out of all of the Avengers, Earth’s mightiest heroes, Steve is probably (definitely) the least useless one to Tony.
But Tony, being Tony, doesn’t say that.
“Well, you didn’t notice because A.) you’re dumb and B.) not me,” Tony says instead, wanting to slam his hand in a door only a second later.
Steve laughs and looks slightly less uncomfortable.
“I’m just saying. I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Tony.” And there, the affection in his eyes is back and confusing the hell out of Tony, but he stumbles on through the fog.
“Gotta disagree with you there, Cap,” Tony says, folding his arms and leaning against his workbench. “Anyway, Jarvis has already started outlining the schematics for a new suit without a big glaring hole for my make-shift heart, and that should be done within a few days, if not a few hours—“
“What? No, Tony, you can’t!” Steve looks panicked for a few moments before he seems to remember himself. “You can’t,” he says again, more calmly this time.
Tony’s left eyebrow quirks. “Fuck you, of course I can, Steve. It’s my fucking suit, and I’ll design it however the fuck I want, with or without your permission.”
“No, I mean.” Steve still looks slightly manic, and Tony can’t understand why. He hadn’t accidentally said that he was altering Steve’s uniform, had he? (A schematic for an alternative to Steve’s suit had been codenamed ‘Thing Two,’ but Jarvis seems to, curiously, struggle a lot with spandex.) (Anyway, that project will be a Great Big Surprise later on.) No, Tony had spoken correctly.
“It’s my suit,” he says again, just to be sure, but Steve doesn’t relent.
“Tony, you can’t.” There’s a helplessness to Steve’s lines, now (yeah, Steve has lines, even when not in uniform. They’re everywhere—in his hair, on his biceps, in his face—the man is more linear than anyone in the world), and Tony feels like he’s melting.
“Why the fuck can’t I?” He tries to reinforce his now-viscous spine with ferocity, but to his chagrin, he only sounds curious.
And then Steve makes this feeble little noise, and Tony wants to implode.
“Because… because you can’t just give up!” Steve suddenly shouts, and it’s so far from any explanation Tony had expected that he just stares.
“You can’t let yourself win on this, Tony,” Steve says, and it’s like he’s speaking another language for all the sense he’s making. (Tony should know; he speaks four languages.) “You’ve convinced yourself that you’re this awful, awful human being, and you can’t let yourself win.”
At this point, Tony would stagger backwards, except that his back is already against the workbench. But he’s terrified, all of a sudden, terrified that Steve has finally realized that Tony’s rating on the How Fucked Up Are You? thermometer is so off the charts that it could be in space for all that NASA knows; terrified that Steve sees him for who he is, and—
“You’re not fucked up, Tony!” Steve bursts through his thoughts, and Tony isn’t even surprised when he realizes that he’d started thinking aloud again. “You’re not fucked up, and if you are, then you’re no more fucked up than I am, or any other one of the Avengers, and if anyone ever tries to tell you otherwise, I will personally have words with them.”
“…Cap, did you just drop the f-bomb?”
Steve blinks. “Tony, that’s hardly the point—“
“Cap, did you just drop the f-bomb three times?” Tony feels giddy with accomplishment, because fuck it all, this is as big an achievement as that time he invented the Sock Folder 3000, because Tony Stark made Captain America swear.
Steve’s ears are bright red, but he plows on. “Tony, listen to me—“
“Yeah, Cap, I’m listening, continue, go on, please, I’ll just be over here whistling ‘God Bless America’— god, wait ‘till I tell the rest of the team! They’ll be so proud of you, Cap,” Tony crows with a cheeky grin.
And then suddenly Steve is right there next to him and they’re breathing the same air and Steve’s just looking at him with That Look, and Tony swallows against a lump that tastes like fear and something else.
“You don’t need to mess with your suit, Tony,” Steve says quietly. “Honestly, you don’t. In fact, I'd rather you didn’t.”
“Why?” Tony asks quickly, like he’s scared of the answer (which he isn’t. (He totally is.)).
A sad smile, and then, “Anything else wouldn’t be you, Tony.”
Tony blinks, because that’s the worst answer he’s ever heard in his life. Doesn’t Steve know that there have been other Iron Man versions before this one? This is the eighth model so far, and Tony has no intention of just stopping. Tony Stark doesn’t stop.
He’d said all of that aloud, so Steve says, “But all of those still had room for you,” which, yeah, is true in the actual, physical sense, because of course they ‘had room’ for him; he had to fit in each one. But Tony catches sight of Steve looking at the arc reactor, and he understands.
“Steve—“ He bites back the urge to vomit. “Steve, the arc reactor isn’t—it’s not me. It’s never been me, it’s just a metal thing that I made, that I pieced together here in a basement, it’s not—“ I’m not metal, he wants to say, I’m not a thing that’s just a product of someone else’s handiwork, I’m not, I’m Tony Stark and I can do anything I goddamn well choose, but I can never escape this, and I know I act like the most self-sure bastard on the planet, but there’s an actual, goddamn hole in my chest that can never be filled, how can you, Steve, equate me to the biggest black hole in my life—
Steve’s crying, and then his arms are wrapping around Tony, and Tony Stark made Captain America cry, and Tony is an awful human being.
“You’re not.” Steve pulls back, looking abashed. “You’re not. And I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—I didn’t, um, understand. I didn’t know you hated it so much,” he says quietly, and Tony can see the water still pooling in his bright blue eyes.
Tony’s hand finds his own neck, and he shifts awkwardly. “No, it’s not all that bad, I know. It saves my life every day, it powers the suit, etcetera.” He waves his hand vaguely and offers a weak smile. “It’d just be nice if it wasn’t here every day, yeah, but it’s fine.”
Steve’s expression is unreadable. “As unofficial team leader, I can’t order that your next Iron Man design look a certain way—“
“—Hey, if anyone’s the unofficial team leader, it’s me—!”
“—but I’ll just say, Tony—“ Steve shoots him a glare, and Tony shuts up with a sigh. “—that to me, the reactor is a part of you. It was one of the first things I ever noticed about you, and—“
“Cap.” Tony had never been good at staying quiet for long. “Are you about to get mushy on me?” He reaches for Steve’s hand and pretends to swoon. “I don’t think my heart could take it.”
Steve laughs, and that’s good, Steve’s laugh is good. “Just.” He shrugs. “The arc reactor has always symbolized your greatest strength, Tony: your mind. I don’t think it’s a representation of how self-centered you think you are.” Tony gapes, and Steve smiles. “That’s all.”
“Yup, yeah, there I go, I’m swooning,” Tony says, and he does, but Steve Rogers, goddamn Captain America, catches him like the hero he is, like Tony’s some damsel in distress, but Tony can’t bring himself to care.
“Is that offer of a martini still standing?” Steve asks with a smile, as Tony lies limp in his arms. Tony can feel every one of his nerves thrumming because damn he’ll never get over Steve’s strength.
“’Course it is, Cap,” he replies with a cheeky wink. Steve’s cheeks tinge pink as he stands Tony on his feet, and Tony wonders if this is what happiness feels like. “Jarvis,” he sings, as he and Steve move towards the stairs, “Captain America and I will be taking an eight o’clock martini break on the roof.”
“Very well, sir,” Jarvis replies.
With his right foot on the bottom stair and Steve three steps above him, Tony pauses. “Oh, and Jarvis? Be a dear and scrap the plans for Thing One and Thing Two, would you?”
“Consider it done,” Jarvis says, and Tony thinks he could light an entire world with the wattage of Steve’s smile.