Tony didn’t spy on his teammates. Legitimately, he didn’t; he wasn’t even just trying to bullshit himself out of responsibility for something this time. The AI system kept tabs on their locations at all times they were in the tower for security purposes, and dumped them all onto a list in Tony’s lab for the sake of convenience. The odds of anyone or anything that severely disliked them getting inside in the first place were slim to none, but Tony knew at least a couple of them would never be familiar enough with the tower to call out where they were while being unexpectedly attacked. And, in real live genuine actual truth, Tony didn’t use that information to watch them. He didn’t want to know what most of them got up to, so long as they weren’t breaking his stuff or each other. If one of them went somewhere that didn’t make any sense, he might pop a camera on to make sure nothing bizarre was going on, but other than that, not a damn thing.
And not one of them would believe him if he told them that. So he still kept the tracking list pretty close to his vest.
See, one of those bizarre things was happening now. It was 1:30 in the morning, and Steve was in an elevator heading up past the residential floors, and then past the R&D floors he didn’t even have access to (not in a ‘don’t let the jock in the nerd clubhouse with all the expensive toys’ kind of way, it was just keycarded by department and only Bruce and Tony could unlock the top two). Tony watched the elevator go up, curious, tilting his head a bit when it went all the way up to the rooftop terrace. “Huh. JARVIS, open up the video feed on the roof.”
“Of course, sir.” The picture popped up on a second monitor, and Tony saw Steve -- wow, storm out of the elevator onto the rooftop. “Christ, he’s not gonna dive, is he? Can he survive that?”
“According to our existing data on Captain Rogers--”
“Will you please stop taking me seriously?” Tony’s brow furrowed as he watched Steve stop abruptly, leaning hard on the railing and staring daggers out at the lights of Manhattan. Some twinge of something uncomfortable poked at the back of his mind. It took a lot to get Steve this angry. “Did something... happen to him tonight? Someone kick his dog?”
“It appears he spent most of the evening browsing Wikipedia on the GUI that Dr. Banner and I programmed for him. Most of the articles were related to warfare and military technology, with several direct inquiries into Stark Industries’ developments. He read a significant amount of the company’s publicly available history, and much of what he could access within the company without an employee security clearance.” JARVIS paused for a moment. “This was followed by an approximately 90-minute conversation with Ms. Potts, after which he moved to the rooftop.”
Steve was pacing now, and talking, not quite softly enough to be to himself. Tony hesitated a moment before activating the microphone on the camera and turning the volume up.
“--waste of time,” Steve growled, having trouble pulling words together. “Just. Waste of time and effort I could have spent, I dunno, respecting someone who deserved it!” He folded his arms against the chill night air, eyes narrowed. “Someone that could -- could put his own ego aside for half a minute and pay some attention to what was going on around him. Smart enough to fix the whole planet and that’s what comes of it? That’s what you decided to do with yourself?”
He stared down the side of the building at the massive sign. “Name a hundred feet tall on a skyscraper. Right up your alley, huh? I’d tear it off myself I didn’t know the Stark who earned it.”
Tony let out a slow breath, smiling thinly. “A-ha,” he laughed brusquely. “So I kicked his dog. Got your patriotism right in the bajingos, huh, Rogers?” He leaned back in his chair and reached over to cut the camera off.
Steve spun around, gripping the railing again, leaning over it like he was preparing to attack.
“YOUR OWN GODDAMNED SON, HOWARD!”
Tony’s hand stopped in midair.
“Of -- out of every single person in the world someone that brilliant could be born to, it was you, and you... you... wasted it!” Steve practically spat the words, his knuckles going white on the railing. “He hates himself and his body’s trying to give out and he’s drinking himself to death and he’s still done more for the world than you ever did!”
“Since when do I hate myself,” Tony murmured, but his expression was blank.
“The hell would you have done, huh? Built a bomb shelter somewhere? Hidden away with your money and... and I don’t know what else, certainly not your wife and child, and just let everyone else rot?” Steve smacked his left forearm with the back of his other hand. “Think this stuff would save me through that? Let me wake up with everyone I care about dead, again? Because I know damn well that bomb would have hit if you’d been in his shoes!”
He leaned back on the railing, running a hand through his hair. “Why... why didn’t he deserve the Howard I knew? Because he wasn’t me? You seriously, seriously thought, everything I fought for and stood for and had every intention of dying for, you thought that justified kicking your own kid around? If you’d raised me like that I wouldn’t have been Captain damn America either!”
Tony swallowed hard, barely able to blink, to breathe. He managed to force his mouth closed when he realized how dry it was. His hand finally fell from halfway to the video controls to his knee, unable to do anything but absorb the words being screamed from the screen.
“Boys don’t grow up to be their heroes. They grow up to be their fathers.” Steve’s voice was shaking. “Some of us aren’t lucky enough to have them, we find other ways to grow. And -- the first thought I had, I didn’t even see him, when they told me he existed, was how lucky he was. What I would have given to have a dad like you. And, God, if I had I might not have made it.” He sat down hard on the tiled floor. “If little crazy genius Tony wasn’t good enough for you, what about a skinny little runt like me, huh?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling slowly. “God, how was he supposed to be me,” he growled. “He didn’t know me. He knew you, and it’s taken all his strength not to be you and thank God for that, you know?” The raw anger was fading from his voice, easing into a deep frustration. “If I’d just come home. Married and settled down and moved in next door. I wouldn’t be here now, or I’d be a hundred and something, and...” No, you’d be here, we’re pretty certain you can’t age, Tony thought, desperate to give his brain something to spin on other than what he was hearing. “I don’t know. Maybe goofy uncle Steve could have made it less awful. And who even knows what the world would be like if he didn’t spend so much time undoing what you did. If you managed to work together. They think I’m lost now? I can’t even imagine that world.”
Steve fell silent for a few long moments, while Tony struggled to breathe deep enough to push the unexplained weight from his chest.
“Hell, Howard,” he breathed, staring up at the sky. “I wanted to be grateful. I... I wanted to feel like... you still had my back, somehow, all this time later. Like--” He choked softly on the words, and Tony was pretty certain that if Steve started crying he was going to have to break something. “Like if I couldn’t have you, I’d have your family. Like I never had. Like I’m never going to have. Thought I’d find a sweet little Stark family with a couple of kids running around and... they’d be my family too. Because of you.” He looked down for a long moment. “And... I guess I did, somehow. It’s just in spite of you instead.”
He stood up, dusting his pants off, then looked up again, his voice louder. “Well don’t worry about your legacy, buddy. Still your name on this building.” His jaw set. “That’s sure all of it that’s yours, though. Hope you’re not too proud, wherever you are, ‘cause none of this is you. It’s all your... your lousy kid, that wasn’t good enough.” He took a deep breath. “And me? And all of this? This... saving the world, honor, justice, all that stuff you puffed me up for?”
Steve jammed his hands into his jacket pockets. “Well. If I had to choose, I’d sure as hell rather have Iron Man by my side than your damn shield.”
He looked deflated as he walked back to the elevator. Nearly as deflated as Tony felt, as a breath he didn’t know he was holding escaped his body in a long rush. He slumped back in his seat, burying his face in both hands for what felt like an eternity.
“Shut down the lab, JARVIS,” he mumbled, standing up and walking away from his half-finished project. “I’m going to bed.”
“...yes sir.” The AI said nothing else as the equipment and lights clicked off one at a time.
That was the first long night’s sleep he’d had since... probably puberty, so Tony was a little groggy most of the next day. Bruce noticed (of course) and refused to let him near any of the fun equipment, so he was confined to running numbers most of the day.
He’d finally made a simple formula complicated enough in retaliation to send back over to Bruce’s computer when JARVIS piped up almost timidly. “Mr. Stark, Captain Rogers is heading to the lab to speak to you.”
“Let him in,” Tony replied, waving a hand in the air, not looking up until Steve was a few feet away, then fixing him with a bright smile. “Gooood morning soldier, how you feeling?”
“Er, fine,” Steve stammered, a little taken aback by the kind greeting. He hoisted his shield from his side, holding it in both hands. “Was just gonna see how busy you guys were today. The old girl’s not flying as easy as she used to--” He rapped the shield with his knuckles. “--and, well, science and all, new stuff every day, yeah? Thought I’d see if you wanted to play with it some.”
Tony was quiet for a long moment, remembering stories of discs more machine than shield, stripes and spangles and dozens of complex features, and the immaculately polished plane of vibranium being held out before him now.
“Oh man,” he said, breaking into a grin. “I dunno how much we can do about basic composition, the thing’s pretty solid, does its job. But we could definitely play with some of the suit alloys, see about improving a few resistances. And yeah, the shape--” He patted Steve briskly on the back. “Tell you what, you head down to the gym and I’ll be right behind you. We’ll clock some numbers on your stride and swing and all, put you through about sixteen thousand simulations, and we’ll have it flying so light you could dual-wield the things.”
“Like marching band cymbals?” Steve said, grinning, and then grinning wider when Tony laughed. “No, that sounds great. I was figuring you’d want to put a laser gun or a coffee maker or something on it.”
“Please. You know I don’t give the good toys out to anyone else.” He grabbed a tablet and a couple of tools off a nearby table, slowing down a bit as he walked towards the door. He stopped and turned back to Steve. “Besides... the shield. You’re the protector, you know? The schtick works, why change it.”
Steve looked taken aback. They looked at each other for a long moment before Steve smiled softly. “That makes sense. You and me, the sword and shield.”
“Where would you be without me, Stevie-Pants?” Tony flashed him a reckless grin. “Come on, kid. Crazy uncle Tony’s gonna make you a shiny new toy.”