The offhand comment stuck with Tony for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. It was made at the end of a Senate Hearing, one called by the government to find out the full details of precisely why the Europeans politely despised them more than usual right now. Tony had been grilled by the Senators in charge of the hearing and while he hadn't been entirely forthcoming, he hadn't been obstructionist either. He’d answered their questions with as much detail as was necessary, even though that hadn’t exactly pleased all of them. The Senator who muttered the comment as he pushed past Tony on leaving the room wasn't exactly one of Tony’s biggest fans and maybe that was why it stuck.
“I liked you more before you met the Avengers.”
The Senator in question had never liked him so Tony couldn’t help puzzling over the comment and what it might mean.
He brought it up a few days later in the workshop. “Have I changed since I met the Avengers?” He wasn’t entirely sure whether the question was directed at FRIDAY or himself.
Silence greeted him at first before FRIDAY said very hesitantly, “I can't really say, boss.”
Tony made a harumphing noise and went back to his work, trying to dismiss the errant thought with only limited success.
It came back again the next day when he was slumped on the couch with Rhodey. They were ostensibly watching the latest Star Wars film but Tony hadn't been paying attention, too caught up in his own thoughts.
“Have I changed since I met the Avengers?”
Rhodey turned his head to look at him and FRIDAY obligingly lowered the volume of the movie. The expression on Rhodey’s face was one Tony had never seen before and couldn’t quite decipher.
“Yeah, Tones. You have.” He paused for a moment then continued. “And not for the better.”
Tony frowned, feeling almost offended. “What?”
Rhodey hesitated again as though he wasn’t sure whether he should continue. But he did and Tony appreciated that. Rhodey had never been afraid to call him out on his bullshit and he was glad that hadn't changed now, after everything that had happened.
“You let them turn you into a doormat,” Rhodey said bluntly and Tony could only gape at him in disbelief.
“What?” he finally managed when he could find his voice again.
“You let them turn you into a doormat,” Rhodey repeated, more confidently this time. “You let them walk all over you, take everything without giving anything in return. You do know they never fucking said thank you for anything you gave them or did for them? You do realise that, right, Tones?”
“I…” Tony frowned. “Didn't notice,” he finished lamely.
Rhodey sighed. “You did everything for them and they treated you like shit. They treated you like an annoyance they had to tolerate. And you let ‘em.”
“I… well…” Tony began, feeling rather off-balance, but Rhodey cut him off.
“No. There's no excuse for their behaviour.” Rhodes sighed. “I know Pepper and I sometimes forget to thank you for the things you do for us but we also know you break out in hives when things get mushy and emotional.” They exchanged quick grins before Rhodes continued. “But we also find other ways to thank you that don't make you break out in hives. And that doesn't excuse the Avengers’ complete lack of gratitude because they never thanked you at all. Not in words and not in any other way. I mean, it’s just common fucking decency and they had none.”
Rhodes frowned down at his knees and this time when he turned back to Tony, he looked worried.
“You diminished yourself for them and they didn't deserve it.”
“Diminished!” Tony squawked. “I thought I was being responsible.”
“You were,” Rhodey conceded. “But you were losing you to do it.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Tony said softly, hesitantly. “Most people don't really like me when I'm me.”
Rhodey wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him into his side. Tony took that as permission to snuggle in even closer, something which drew a fond chuckle from Rhodey.
“Screw ‘em. If they can't handle you as you are then they don't deserve you. And what the fuck do they know about you anyway? They never got to know you. They just judged you from… whatever the hell it was Rogers used. Probably nothing but his preconceived notions. Actually, probably Romanoff’s report,” Rhodey said sourly then he snorted. “If she’s the best profiler SHIELD had, no wonder HYDRA were able to infiltrate them so successively.”
That startled a laugh out of Tony then he blinked. “I never thought about it like that.”
“She’s the one that’s supposed to be able to pick people apart and find out all their secrets and she didn’t even notice that half her colleagues were fucking HYDRA,” Rhodey said derisively. “So any assessment she did of you could only be a load of horse shit and if that’s what the others were using to judge you without getting to know you properly and make their own judgement, then they’re idiots.”
Tony gave a lop-sided smile at Rhodey’s staunch support. “But still…”
“No,” Rhodey said firmly. “Whatever garbage was about to come out of your mouth, no.” His expression softened and pulled Tony in close to his side again. “You and your ridiculous guilt complex let them blame you for everything while they waltzed off without a care in the world. Fucking Rogers sloughed off half of his responsibilities as team leader onto your shoulders without a word of thanks or any direction as to what he wanted, then bitched at you when you did your best to take care of them.”
“Well, it was my fault,” Tony said softly.
Rhodes sighed. “Okay, so you have some culpability when it comes to Ultron but that mess wasn’t all your fault, Tones. I got FRIDAY to show me everything about Ultron.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t ready. I’m not the programming genius you are but I know my stuff. That AI was barely functional. There was no way Ultron could have woken up on its own. That was the mind gem and that’s not your fault.”
“I asked to keep the staff,” Tony countered.
Rhodes frowned. “Yeah, why did you do that? That wasn’t in the plan. You were going to give it back to Thor to take to Asgard. You were pretty wary about that thing when we spoke before the mission.”
Now it was Tony’s turn to frown. “I… don’t know.”
“You don’t do anything without a reason, Tony,” Rhodes said, now looking concerned. “It may be a stupid reason but you always have one.”
Tony’s frown deepened. “I… felt I needed it.”
“To help me create Ultron.”
Rhodey shook his head slowly. “That doesn’t make any sense. What put that thought in your head?”
Tony shifted uncomfortably. “I had a weird… I don’t know, flashback or something.” He jerked and frowned. “Wait. No. I don’t know what it was. I thought it was a flashback at the time, to the… the Chitauri.”
“The witch,” Rhodes growled. “Could it have been her? Didn’t she give the others visions as well?”
“But this was well before the others and why would she want me to take the sceptre?” Tony objected.
“Because that thing is fucked up?” Rhodes replied. “She’s not one of the good guys, Tony, no matter what Rogers and Barton might say. The mind stone made Ultron really work and she manipulated you into taking it. She needs to take her share of the blame for Ultron and so does Banner. It’s not all on you and you shouldn’t take on their blame as well. That’s for them to deal with.”
“But if I hadn’t started working on it…” Tony began.
“Then the mind stone would have found something else to use or manipulate,” Rhodey replied. “Like maybe one of the bots or even JARVIS.” He shuddered. “Or maybe you or Banner. Remember, Loki used it to mind control people.”
Tony shuddered as well and rubbed at his chest where the arc reactor had been. And where Loki had tapped the sceptre when he’d tried to mind whammy him during that invasion.
“But Lagos wasn’t your fault,” Rhodey continued. “The mess in DC wasn’t your fault. Hell, you weren’t even there for either of those and you’re the only one who’s been trying to clean up the mess Rogers and Romanov caused by dumping all those files on the net. And Rogers losing his fucking mind over Barnes definitely isn’t your fault.” He paused and shook his head with fond exasperation. “Okay, goading the Mandarin, yeah, that was your fault. That was stupid.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said ruefully. “You’ve already given me that lecture.”
“But Killian wasn’t your fault,” Rhodey said.
“Did what you’ve done to a hundred people, a thousand people over the years,” Rhodes said with a shake of his head. “Killian waylaid you at a party to try and sell you his idea. He didn’t make an appointment or do it through the proper channels. You’ve blown off a hundred people like that at a hundred parties and they never went full supervillian in response. Killian being a complete lunatic isn’t your fault. That’s on him for completely overreacting.”
Tony opened his mouth to reply but then closed it again. He didn’t really have a rebuttal for that because Rhodey was making sense. He had blown off any number of people who’d approached him like Killian did at parties over the years when he was drunk. He’d sort of made an art form of it. Killian’s reaction was not normal. Normal would have been snarky or snide comments and maybe a rude puff piece in a magazine or two.
“Not telling us you were dying is also your fault,” Rhodey continued.
“I thought it would be easier,” Tony protested.
“You thought…” Rhodey broke off and took a deep breath. “Okay, yeah, we’ve also had that argument and it doesn’t need to be rehashed. But the rest of it? The invasion, the Avengers stuff? It’s not all your fault, Tones.”
“They blamed me,” Tony said quietly.
“Yeah, because they’re jackasses,” Rhodey growled. “Selfish parasites and you owe them nothing.” He cocked his head and eyed Tony curiously. “What brought this on, by the way?”
“Senator… what’s-his-name. The one who looks like a dyspeptic clam,” Tony said, waving a hand. “At the hearing the other day. He said he liked me more before I met the Avengers.” He frowned. “He never liked me so it… didn’t make sense.”
“Huh,” Rhodey said. “Yes, it does. You stood up to them back then. You blew them off, you ran rings around them, you put on a show but you always had solid facts and reasons behind everything you did and said. You made no apologies for doing what you thought was right and if you fucked up, you owned up to it and tried to make things right. You didn’t let them intimidate you or force you to back down but you still made it plain you were willing to compromise on certain things. Maybe he liked that as much as he hated it. A lot of people do. They like an enemy who’s a challenge.”
Tony looked at him askance. “He liked me being…?”
“Tony Fucking Stark,” Rhodey said with a grin. “Yeah, why wouldn’t he? You put on a show. You were fucking annoying but it was always a hell of a show. And once you looked below the show to the actual facts, you weren’t unreasonable.”
Tony cogitated on that and Rhodey let him. FRIDAY turned up the volume again and they both pretended to watch the movie as Tony thought and Rhodey waited for the next round.
“So, the Accords?” Tony said after about half an hour. FRIDAY lowered the volume again.
“Were the right thing to do,” Rhodey said promptly. “Still are. Sure, there’s things that need to be fixed and amended and that’s going to be harder now than it needed to be but they’re the right way to go.”
Tony nodded, seemingly willing to trust Rhodey’s judgement more than his own. Then he frowned. “What did you mean about Steve sloughing off his responsibilities?”
Rhodes grimaced. “Something I should have spoken up about a lot sooner. And maybe done some of the poking around I’ve been doing since everything happened. I knew something wasn’t quite right but I bought into the Captain America propaganda.”
“I’m still not following.”
“You’re not military,” Rhodey replied. “Then again, as I’ve found out, neither is Rogers.”
Tony straightened and stared at Rhodes. “What?”
“He’s not military,” Rhodey repeated. “Sure, he did a few days of boot camp but he never finished it before he was sucked up by Erskine and the SSR. I’m not sure what his status was there, whether he was considered an agent or just a civilian consultant or contractor or whatever they did back in those days. Captain America was a stage name and after the rescue of the 107th, it seems everyone just whistled Dixie and let the whole ‘Captain Rogers’ thing stand because it was good for morale. I can’t get much information about how things worked in the Howling Commandos but I’m betting it’s not what the propaganda tells us. Because not only does he not have any basic military training, he doesn’t have any officer training either. Which explains a hell of a lot.”
Tony frowned at him. “He did fine in the field.”
Rhodey grimaced. “Yes and no. He’s good at coming up with a plan at the beginning. Where he starts to fall apart is when things don’t continue to go to his plan. He’s not good at adapting on the fly. He tends to lack situational awareness and he sure as hell lacks flexibility.” He waved a hand. “Now, that can happen to any commanding officer but the reason they make us go to whatever command school is appropriate for whatever arm of the military we’re in is because what we learn there is how to mitigate a lot of that.” He smiled wryly at Tony. “And we learn how to handle different personalities in such a way as to bring out their individual talents. A good commanding officer does not expect their people to be little cookie cutter soldiers, all exactly the same.”
He shook his head ruefully. “I should have picked up on it sooner but I wasn’t around consistently enough, didn’t go on enough Avengers missions, to really see it clearly. It was only after the fact, when I reviewed the missions I wasn’t on, that I started to see the patterns. Rogers could be a good commanding officer but he needs a shitload of training to get rid of his bad habits.”
Rhodey waved his hand. “But back to your question… being a commanding officer doesn’t start and finish with the action. Rogers was adequate at the before stuff. Analysing the intel he was given and making the plan, though he didn’t ask enough questions or follow the right process. Mostly because he didn’t know it. But the after action stuff… he was a complete failure. There are almost no mission reports after SHIELD fell and those that do exist are yours. Or well, whatever was written up by JARVIS and later FRIDAY and signed off by you. Even Romanov and Barton stopped writing reports and they should have known better.”
“Should I have…?” Tony began but Rhodey cut him off again. He glared at his friend but it had no effect. Rhodey was pretty much immune to his glares by now and he was apparently on a roll and not inclined to give up the conversational high ground. In fact, he had the air of a man who’d been bottling all of this up and was glad for the opportunity to get it all off his chest in a situation where Tony seemed inclined to listen to him.
“No,” Rhodey said firmly. “It was never your job to do anything other than pilot the Iron Man suit. It wasn’t your job to get intel, to deal with governments and relief agencies, any of that. Rogers wanted to be in command; he should have been doing all of that unless he had specifically requested it of you and backed it up with written orders, clarifying your extended role. Hell, it wasn’t even technically your job to be supplying the others with weapons and armour.” He snorted. “Unless they wanted to pay your consulting fees.”
“They couldn’t afford them,” Tony said automatically then he frowned. Now that Rhodey was pointing all of this out to him, he was starting to realise other things as well. It was as though Rhodey was stripping the scales away from his eyes and showing him things that had always been obvious but he just hadn’t been able to see before. “Huh. Not that any of them actually had jobs. Well, Wilson did. Sort of. I suppose Lang did as well.” He was a little startled when Rhodey actually growled. “Honeybear?”
“Pack of freeloading parasites,” Rhodey snarled. “Rogers and Maximoff were the worst. Rogers used your money, your resources to search for the murderer of your parents. And Maximoff was quite happy to live under your roof, eat food you provided and spend your money on shit, all the while hating you and poisoning the minds of the others.”
“You think she was doing that?” Tony asked, feeling a little sick to his stomach. “Poisoning the minds of the others?”
“Metaphorically? Sure,” Rhodey replied. “Literally? Using her powers? I don’t know. I know the others say she lost control in Lagos but I don’t buy it. This is a woman who had the kind of precision that allowed her to dig up the nightmares of the Avengers and control a city’s worth of people. That doesn’t speak of a lack of control to me. That speaks of a great deal of control. Maybe she could still be influencing the others unconsciously but if she is doing that, it’s far more likely to be because she wants to. And think about it... the only people who didn’t fall in line with Rogers’ madness were you and me, who didn’t spend much time at the Compound, Banner, who isn’t here, and Vision, who I’d imagine is pretty much immune to any mind control powers given by the mind stone given that he has the damn thing planted in his forehead.”
“What about Natasha?” Tony said, pointing a finger.
“I think we can safely say she was only ever in it for herself,” Rhodey said with a derisive snort. “And I think trusting her again is out the window.”
“Yeah, I’d already come to that conclusion,” Tony said sourly.
He’d given Natasha plenty of chances, more than she really deserved given the mess she’d caused in SI after her stint as Natalie Rushman. It had taken weeks to discover everything she’d had her hands in and sort out what they’d needed to do to ensure they were legally protected from the consequences of her presence. Her betrayal at Leipzig was the last straw even for him. He was prepared to utilise her talents if it was necessary – and by preference from afar – but he had no intention of ever trusting her again. He hadn’t seen her since she backstabbed him at the airport and he was quite happy about that.
“Anyway,” Rhodey continued. “I’m not saying Maximoff was definitely influencing their minds. Let’s face it, if she was going to do that, she’d have done it before. To you. And probably made you do something fatal. Since she hasn’t, I think we can safely say she isn’t.”
Tony shuddered. “Thanks for that, platypus. I needed another nightmare to add to the collection.”
Rhodey winced and drew him close again. “Sorry, Tones.”
“I have a large collection,” Tony said ruefully. “So it probably won’t show up too often.”
“I’m still sorry,” Rhodey replied.
Tony waved it away and stared at the TV for a while. Rhodey let him stew and FRIDAY obligingly turned up the volume and started the movie again. Tony didn’t speak again until the credits were rolling and then he straightened.
“Screw it,” he said abruptly. “And screw them. I’m Tony Fucking Stark. I’m going to fix the Accords, rebuild the Avengers and get ready for whatever’s coming. I don’t need them.”
“Now there’s the man Senator Dyspeptic Clam loves to hate,” Rhodey said with an approving grin.
Tony laughed and slouched back against Rhodey again. “You know I’m going to call him that to his face, right? And tell him you called him that first.”
Rhodey just shook his head and laughed. “This is your retaliation for the Tony Stank cracks, isn’t it?”
“You bet it is,” Tony said. “Fry my girl, fire up some Indiana Jones. I’m in the mood for adventure.”
“You got it, boss,” FRIDAY said and Tony settled in to watch the movie in a far better frame of mind. It wasn’t going to be easy but for the first time since he’d gotten back from Siberia, he felt like he could actually do this again.