Stark men have iron in their backbones.
Tony's gaze skims over the glowing blue battery in his chest. It's kind of unavoidable; he's under a desk, searching for a missing wrench and there's very little light to work by in the lab to begin with and his chest glows blue like a flashlight through his T-shirt. His arc reactor –
The arc reactor technology was never his. Like everything else important in his life, Tony's pride and joy had been done first by Howard Stark, and done better. He used to be able to look down at his chest and feel pride. He had done that. He had found a clean energy source, used it, made it bigger and better so everyone could use it and maybe he could make up for all the things he could have and should have done but didn't because he was too busy trying to outdo his father.
But the great Howard Stark was better than him at that, too. Howard Stark discovered arc reactor technology before him, synthesized a new element, worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. and was all-around the hero of the American public.
Howard Stark helped build the atomic bomb and he has shrapnel in his veins straining to reach his heart, held at bay by a glorified car battery.
Is that enough iron, Daddy Dearest?
Tony finds the wrench and scowls when it isn't even the size he needs. Why is he thinking such melancholic thoughts, anyway? He hates being melancholic, it makes his throat itch for something that will kill his liver. More importantly, Afghanistan taught him the value of life, and he sees no reason to waste his time moping over the father who was never there, because it's not like he needed the old man's approval anyway. So what if there's shrapnel racing towards his heart? He's turned his situation around and made something of himself. It's his terrible privilege, not a dead man's. It's his life on the line now, not a dead man's. So why is he even thinking about his Dad?
Okay, scratch that, he knows exactly what brought on his melancholic mood. First, if he's honest with himself, those fears and insecurities are always at the back on his mind, along with equations and schematics for the arc-reactor powered car he's been working on – it works fine, but it's pretty damn expensive, and doesn't run as fast as he'd like – and how to optimize Stark Tower's self-sustaining energy – a year is a great leap forward, but he can do better, he knows it. Second, the catalyst brining these thoughts forward is a six-foot-something Boy Scout with dirty blonde hair, bright blue eyes, the morals of a saint, and every character trait Tony should have had, but didn't.
Captain America had been his hero as a child, and one of the two things that tied him to his father. The old man was almost affectionate, his hard edges softening as he reminisced about his best friend, his hero, the personification of American virtue, the man who ran through Hell to save his friend and do the right thing. Tony used to think that his father was sharing something with him, reaching out to bond with his son the only way he knew how.
Then came that Halloween night when he was seven, and thought it was a good idea to run up to his father wearing a Captain America costume. The vicious and disgusted glare his father leveled at him stopped him cold in his tracks.
Take that garbage off! You're no Captain America, and you never will be!
That was the first time Tony realized his father wasn't reaching out to him, but reaching out and searching for Steve Rogers.
Tony stopped listening to Captain America stories after that.
Howard never stopped telling them.
And the sad part is, he can't hate Steve Rogers, not really. The man really is a saint. Brave and honorable and mature and all that good stuff. He's such a good little soldier. He's smart, too – a keen tactical mind, if not the sheer intelligence Tony has.
Big man, in a suit of armor. Take that away, and what are you?
Tony groans and crawls out from under the desk, settling himself against the side. He doesn't want to think about this right now, but the words are resounding in his mind. He is worth something beyond the suit. Maybe not much, but – no, this is why he doesn't listen to what other people say about him. Because he has enough issues without letting the words of a man who can't tell him from his father pierce his armor. The words percolate through his mind and he tries to focus on his response.
Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. That's who Tony Stark, the civilian is. That's what he can accomplish. He has money, he gets the girl – well, the one girl who matters, finally – he can invent things to make the world a better place, he can provide for others. He can actually do good in the world, even if it took him too long to start.
He has to.
You may not be a threat, but stop pretending to be a hero.
Tony swears. Really? Has his brain decided tonight's the night it's going to put his self-esteem through a blender? Because he needs alcohol for this – and a lot of it. There may not be a bar on the Helicarrier, but the kitchens probably have some, and he can get the blueprints for the place anyway – wait, why doesn't he have the blueprints already? And if all else fails, he knows there's enough ethanol in Bruce's lab for him to make his own.
He is a hero. He puts his life on the line for the people of the city often enough, and invests in making their lives better.
So why do the Boy Scout's words cut through him as deeply as his father's?
Because Steve Rogers looks at him the way Howard Stark used to. With disappointment. Like he doesn't measure up. Because he's looking for Howard Stark and instead finding everything Howard Stark would never be.
Tony's head falls back and hits the side of the desk with a dull thud and a bitter laugh rises in his throat. There's so much irony in that: Howard Stark looked for Steve Rogers in Tony Stark and Steve Rogers looks for Howard Stark.
Surprise, surprise, Tony is neither. Steve's looking for a dead man while
Tony's trying to claw free of his ghost.
"Damn you, Cap," Tony hisses, "Damn you and your sunshine and light and all that bullshit."
Because Captain America is everything his father claimed. The man wakes up in a completely different time that his own and instead of raging and complaining, he gets right down to training and preparing to save the world. Tony would be all sparks and sharp edges even if he tried not to. Steve Rogers is the light and hope that the world needs and where there's light, there's darkness, and Tony's demons are thrown into even sharper relief. But he can handle this. He's done it before. The fact that he's still alive to work on the Iron Man Mark VII is proof of that – though he really needs to update the internal heating on that, it tends to glitch when the remote control bracelet isn't activated within a meter radius.
It would be so much easier if he could just hate Captain America, but the crux of the matter is that he can't afford to, regardless of his personal feelings, because for the Avengers Initiative to work, Captain America has to lead the team. He himself is the last person to be a team player – he does like his limelight – but even he knows when to buckle down. He hasn't made it this far as a businessman without that skill – even if, okay, he uses it far less than Pepper wants him to. He won't make a good team leader, not for these heroes with their headstrong personalities and sharp edges. He's too manipulative for them to tolerate for long, and he prefers tinkering in his lab, anyway.
Most of all, he doesn't care enough.
He likes them well enough – and damn, Natasha's ass – but he doesn't care about them the way Steve does. Tony's more a big-picture guy, but Steve cares about people. He cares about the details, about pushing each member to their best. Steve managed to get him and Thor to simmer down and work together before they wreaked irreparable damage. If the roles were reversed, Tony would have bought popcorn and watched until one or the other gave up. And most importantly for their line of work, Steve has been in battle and knows how to make the tough decisions.
Thor isn't even human, Natasha likes her shadows too much, and from what he's heard, Barton likes his nooks and crannies more than conference rooms and team briefings, and Bruce? The man is brilliant, and Tony will get him working at Stark Industries, but a leader he's not. Steve Rogers is the only choice.
It all comes back to Steve Rogers in the end. The man his father never stopped looking for. The man his father wished he was. The man he'll follow into battle tomorrow when the sun rises and Barton wakes up, hopefully un-brainwashed. Natasha thinks it'll work, anyway, and she's known Barton longer. Either way, in a few hours, they'll have to hit the ground running and find Loki and stop whatever he's planning to do with the Tesseract – and avenge Phil Coulson, but he's stopping that train of thought right there, or he won't be sober when the time comes.
He wishes Bruce were still here; he could use someone to bounce ideas off to find a way to counteract Loki's mind-control powers, even if they don't have the staff anymore. He'll even settle for Thor at this point; the Asgardian might have some input on his brother's weapon. Wait, scratch that, the day he lets Thor into his lab is the day he owns the Empire State Building – though that begs the question why he doesn't already own the Empire State Building yet. And anyway, there's enough information on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s databases by now for him to think of something.
Tony sighs and pushes himself up. The wrench he's looking for lies on the far workbench. He's still got minor repairs to make to his suit, and if he can rewire the dashboard display, he'd be able to minimize the front mass and increase the aerodynamics – now there's an idea.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," Tony calls out, "Let's get some music in here."
"Of course, sir. Will Black Sabbath be to your liking?"
"You know me too well, JA.R.V.I.S. Also, why don't you own the blueprints for the Helicarrier yet?"
"They are highly classified documents, sir."
"I'll get right on that, sir. Will there be anything else?
"Make a note to start rewiring the dashboard display after this is over. And how much would it cost to buy the Empire State Building?"
"In the words of Miss Potts, 'More than any building has a right to cost, so don't you dare think about it.' "
Heavy metal starts blaring though the lab and the wrench reflects blue light as Tony twirls it and returns to his work.