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They’re back, and Tony tries not to think about it too much. It’s not easy, not with them all over the news constantly and every other reporter in town trying to get Tony to give an interview about them, but he tries.

He knows that if they’d come back earlier, a year or even just a few months ago, he’d have been a lot more of a mess. He’d still been blaming himself then, feeling their loss, wishing he could have them back. If they’d come back then, he’d likely have let them step all over him again, let things go back to “normal,” except with even more derision and blame and outright hatred aimed at him by them. He’d have given everything to them, just like he did before, and accepted their treatment of him as something he deserved.

Now, though, things are different. A year away, time to be on his own with his real friends, the good team he’s built, and the therapist Rhodey and Pepper finally convinced him to start seeing. Time to heal from what was done to him, and more importantly, to understand exactly how bad it was. To come to realize that real friends and real teammates don’t act like the Avengers did, and don’t treat each other the way they treated Tony. That he deserved better from them, and that there’s nothing holding him back from cutting ties completely.

So he does. He’s built the Avengers back up within the revised Accords to be a real, sturdy team with real processes and procedures in place, not just a group of vigilantes that does whatever they want and hopes one member of the team takes care of it all behind closed doors. They’re a functioning team that’s handling their assignments well—better, in fact, than the old Avengers ever did—and the additions of others like Stephen, Hope, and Carol have only made them stronger than ever. They certainly don’t need any of his former teammates.

He’s not an idiot; he knows pardons for them are in the works. But he knows how to fake ignorance, to pretend he doesn’t know anything about it, so that when the politicians eventually approach him, he can fake surprised hesitance and make it sound genuinely apologetic. He keeps out of it, lets them happen—he likely wouldn’t be able to stop the pardons themselves anyway—and doesn’t offer to lift a single finger for them.

Eventually, the people bringing them back conclude that he’s not going to offer anything on his own, and instead approach him, just like he expected. They explain the pardons like he’s never heard of the concept, trying to convince themselves that the reason he’s been absent from their proceedings is his ignorance of the pardons, not his indifference.

He listens with politely detached interest, and when they’re done, simply says, “Thank you for informing me of the development. I suppose we’ll be expecting a reduced workload from the Council, now that there’s going to be another team operating in the area.”

The others look surprised; he sees one of them shift uncomfortably. “Another team?”

Tony raises his eyebrows. “I assume that the pardoned criminals in question are going to be staying together to operate as a team. Am I mistaken?”

He sees the way they flinch slightly at his use of the word criminals and keeps his face carefully neutral. “Well, ah…” one of them begins hesitantly, “we assumed they would be integrating back into your team, sir.”

Tony sits back and pretends to contemplate this for half a second. “The Avengers aren’t currently looking for new members, and while we’re always on the lookout for potential recruits, I don’t believe we have any interest in or need for any of the people in question.”

He can see that they’re taken aback and resists the urge to roll his eyes. “But they were Avengers already,” one of them offers, to which Tony shakes his head.

“Under an old system, one that was unprofessional and unsustainable, and which caused an unacceptable amount of damage. The new policies of the Avengers are very different, and they require thorough physical and psychological evaluation for any new members, as well as a trial and training period. Any or all of the former Avengers are welcome to submit an individual application, which will be reviewed and voted on by the Board, if they truly wish to rejoin the Avengers. I’m simply informing you that I believe, realistically, the chances of every one of them being approved are not very high. Additionally,” he adds as one of them opens their mouth, “I was also under the assumption that the… team in question is willing to operate only under the leadership of Mr. Rogers, and if they were to apply to join the new Avengers, they would be required to defer to the current leadership. As no leadership roles are currently unfilled in the Avengers, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Rogers would find himself in such a position again. However, if they form their own team, they are welcome to structure leadership and assign roles however they would like.”

There’s a few moments of awkward silence as they fidget, trying to find some way around what Tony has said. To spare them from having to come up with another way to phrase their requests—and spare himself the wasted time and headache dealing with them—he surreptitiously has FRIDAY send him an alert on his phone. When it beeps, he looks down at it and back up at his guests. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I’m needed elsewhere. If you have any other inquiries about superhero work, I would suggest you contact the Council.”

Let the Council deal with them. He feels a little bad dumping them on the Council—its members weren’t responsible for bringing the Rogues back, after all—but he will not have them anywhere near him or his team, and he knows there’s nothing the Council, or anyone else, can do about that. It was one point he was extremely adamant about when he was working to revise the Accords: that new members of any teams were to be added only by the team members themselves, not anyone outside the team. And while the Accords couldn’t require specific structures for all teams, he did make sure that the Avengers required a unanimous vote—with the possibility of exceptions based on clear bias as proven by evidence and a third party analysis—by the Board to add new members. He would not have another Maximoff.

He clears his former teammates from his thoughts as soon as the meeting is done, and doesn’t let the news ruin his day. He goes back to his team, his work, his wonderful girlfriend, and he forgets about them.

They’re back in the country a week later. It’s international news, of course; with more than a few loud protests even within New York itself, not to mention how many other countries the US has just pissed off—though Tony supposes that’s none of his business, he’s not a politician after all—it’s hard not to see it everywhere he goes. But he ignores it, ignores the dozens upon dozens of reporters trying to get a comment from him, refuses to make a public statement about their return, and goes on with life.

He’s sure that his former teammates think it’s some sort of petty tantrum, but he really doesn’t care what they think. He’s washed his hands of them, and the rest of his team agrees. None of them want anything to do with the Rogues.

Not that they can avoid it. The entire team of assholes shows up at the Compound two days after their return, probably came straight there from the end of their meetings with the Council and the government. They don’t get past the front gate, of course. Strange’s warding and Tony’s tech ensure that. When they claim that they have a right to be there, stomp their feet like little children and demand to be let in to see Tony, FRIDAY calmly informs them that only members of the Avengers and approved staff or guests with appointments are allowed into the Compound, and that if they do not leave, they will be trespassing and she will involve the police. Thankfully, they leave without a fight, though Carol and Rhodey are ready to run out and blast their asses.

A request is submitted less than an hour later to arrange a meeting at the Compound. Their idea of a meeting, of course, is every one of them barging into the Compound and bullying Tony into being their doormat again. They’re politely and professionally told by the staff that meetings must be arranged on an individual basis. After some pointless argument, Rogers arranges a meeting with a member of Avengers leadership. Obviously Rogers failed to remember that the Avengers leadership is not just Tony.

Rhodey later reports that the majority of their meeting time was taken up by utterly fruitless and increasingly frustrated requests by Rogers to see Tony himself. It was only when Rhodey suggested that Rogers had nothing of importance to discuss with the Avengers and they should cut their meeting short that Rogers finally accepted that he wasn’t going to talk to Tony.

The first thing he asked (demanded) was about their living arrangements, a bullheaded argument that the Compound was the Rogue Avengers’ “home,” which Rhodey quickly and coldly dismissed, pointing out that they neither paid rent nor had they ever signed an official contract of any kind, so no, the Compound was not their legal residence. Rhodey tells Tony and the others that they wasted pretty much the rest of the meeting arguing about that.

With only a few minutes left, when Rhodey warned him that their time was almost up, Rogers finally seemed to realize that his gang of freeloaders wouldn’t be coming back to live there, and instead demanded to know what had happened to all of their stuff. Rhodey told him that anything they personally owned was put into a storage container and that they could go and claim it whenever they wanted, as long as they paid the fee to the Compound management to transfer ownership of the storage unit.

Before Rogers could express any of his frustration at that, Rhodey told him in no uncertain terms that their meeting was over and that if he wished to discuss anything further, he would need to schedule another meeting. He then had security escort Rogers out. The story is told over lunch with the team, told and received as nothing more than a joke, an amusing run-in with an entitled, selfish dick who thinks he’s owed something he doesn’t deserve. Watching their reactions to the retelling and laughing along with them, Tony feels free.

Tony isn’t surprised when that’s not the end of it, of course. Rogers requests another meeting within a day, and this time it’s Strange that agrees to see him. Tony watches the feed from the room in one of the lounges this time, half amused and half worried—not for Strange, who can definitely take care of himself, but mostly for his poor Compound and any employees who might possibly be in the line of fire should Rogers decide to handle his frustrations the way he usually does, with violence.

Rogers sighs the moment Strange enters the room and introduces himself. “I’m sorry, thank you for taking the time out, but I really need to speak with Tony,” Rogers says mulishly.

Strange just tilts his head and turns to leave. “Well, then, we can cancel this meeting, if you don’t actually have anything to speak about concerning the Avengers. It would have been nice of you not to waste my time at all, but I suppose that would be asking too much of you.” Tony can’t help but snort a laugh at that. Strange already has a tendency to be abrasive, dismissive, and condescending in conversation, and his general dislike of Rogers and his gang is bringing those qualities out in full force.

Rogers crosses his arms. “No, I have Avengers business to discuss. It would just be much easier to talk to Tony about this. If I could just—”

“If you have business with the Avengers, it can be discussed with any member of the Avengers Board, myself included,” Strange interrupts, “and if you have personal business with Mr. Stark, then that is a matter between yourself and him, and you’ll have to find a way outside of abusing the Compound systems to deal with that. Now, if you really do have anything to say that’s worth my time, let’s get to it.”

He sits down, and for once Rogers looks so offended that he doesn’t immediately reply. Rogers sinks into the seat across from Strange and looks disgruntled. “Tony’s an Avenger. I don’t understand why I can’t discuss this with him.”

“Well, this might come as a shock to you, but the Avengers leadership is now comprised of multiple people, who share duties and responsibility equally, as well as have an equal say in the decision making. If you have something to discuss, you can do so with any one of us, and if you arrange a meeting it will be with whoever is available at that time. Since Mr. Stark is one of the busiest people on the Board, he doesn’t have much free time. But I assure you, if you have anything relevant to say, assuming you didn’t come here just to waste my time making me explain basic policies, it will be passed on to every other member of the Board.”

The rest of the meeting goes pretty much the same way, with Rogers making idiotic statements or demands and Strange working an insult into pretty much every answer. Tony can practically see Rogers grinding his teeth and isn’t sure whether to laugh or to send a subtle text to Strange reminding him that if Rogers loses it and breaks the furniture, Tony is going to make Strange pay to replace it.

The vast majority of the meeting time is wasted on this pattern, as well as rehashing the same arguments about their living arrangements and personal items. At that one, Strange actually rolls his eyes, reminding Rogers that the fee for transferring ownership of the storage container their things are in is very small, certainly not worth the trouble he’s going to to argue about it, and that with them having become international fugitives with no clear intent to legally return to the US at the time, they were lucky that Compound management hadn’t just thrown out or donated all of their things when their rooms were repurposed.

When Rogers tells Strange in his “disappointed Captain America” tone that they should all be living together and making an effort to “move past this” if they want to work together, Strange asks what he’s talking about and that brings Rogers up short.

“The Avengers need to be a functioning unit,” Rogers says.

“The Avengers are a functioning team, Mr. Rogers,” Strange tells him, “but since you seem to be operating under a false impression, let me make it clear: you and your… colleagues are not a part of that team.”

“What? Of course we’re Avengers. We started the team.”

“SHIELD started the Avengers, not you,” Strange says impatiently, “and did whatever poor souls who are responsible for you now not tell you, or did you simply refuse to listen, since that seems to be a habit with you? You are not Avengers. You used to be, under the old team. You gave up that position when you became fugitives from the law. While you were away, the team was restructured, and now that you’re back, if you really want to be a part of the team known as the Avengers again, you can submit an application and go through the evaluations required for every member.”

Rogers stands, looking like he wants to throttle Strange, but settling for looming over him instead. Strange just sits calmly in his chair and looks up with a bored expression, and Tony admires his guts. Not that he couldn’t just banish Rogers to another dimension with minimal effort if he wanted to, but the fact that he’s not bothered at all by Rogers’s little power display is something Tony’s not sure he could do. Tony would rise to the bait, but Strange just continues sitting there.

“That’s ridiculous,” Rogers snarls, “we’re Avengers. We’ve been pardoned. You can’t just kick us out.” And god if he doesn’t sound like a whining toddler getting their toys taken away. Obviously Strange feels the same way, because he sighs loudly.

“You may have been pardoned by the US government, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t commit the crimes in question. It also does not in any way negate your having quit the Avengers. If you are really so attached to the name, I suppose no one can stop you from forming your own team and naming them the Avengers as well, though that would create a lot of unnecessary confusion within the Council, I imagine. Nonetheless, whatever you decide, you are not currently members of this team of Avengers, nor will you be unless you choose to submit an application, go through the necessary evaluations, and are accepted by the Board.”

Rogers shakes his head. “Is that really how Tony’s going to play this? He’s really going to be that petty?”

Tony can feel himself clenching his fists just listening to it. Strange just sighs again and stands, moving toward the door. “I can assure you, Mr. Rogers, that Mr. Stark has no more or less control over the workings of the Avengers than any other member of the Board. Unlike in your day, perhaps, one person cannot choose membership on a whim without consulting with the others. Now, it’s clear that you have nothing of worth to discuss with me. This has been a waste of your time, and more importantly, mine. If you have an issue to discuss in the future, I’m going to have to ask that you submit a detailed agenda to the Compound management office before scheduling another meeting with any of us. Security will escort you out.” He sweeps from the room without another word, and Tony turns off the feed, sitting back in his chair and shaking his head.

Of course, everything came back to him in Rogers’s mind. He couldn’t handle the idea that the positions they’d willingly given up wouldn’t just be handed back to them without a second thought, and so of course it had to be Tony’s fault. What a ridiculous, self-righteous moron. He allows himself a few moments to dwell, then once again puts them out of his mind.

Management reports two days later that after quite a bit of argument over the phone—Tony quietly arranges for a gift basket to be sent to the secretary of their office—the Rogues finally paid the small fee and reclaimed their personal items. Clearly they didn’t like what they found, because there are calls asking to set up another meeting the same afternoon. At least this time they seem to have gained a few brain cells, because it’s Romanoff they’re trying to set a meeting for, not Rogers. She’s at least capable of keeping her head and staying on topic in a meeting.

She doesn’t get a meeting, though. Considering their reputation and how the past two meetings went, Carol elects to simply call her and ask about her concerns. She’s on speakerphone in one of the offices at the Compound; Tony and Rhodey are in the room as well, though warned on pain of death to remain silent.

Romanoff gets right to it, at least. “Where is all of our gear?” she demands immediately. “None of our weapons or equipment were in the storage unit.”

Carol is a master of military formality and has a commanding tone perfect for dealing with something like this. “I was under the impression that you both left and arrived back in the US armed, Ms. Romanoff.”

Romanoff makes an impatient sound. “The rest of our gear. What we happened to have on us when we left was a small fraction of what we own, and most of it is worn down, anyway. The rest of gear, our backup equipment, everything else was stored back at the Compound, and it wasn’t returned to us.”

“That is not the concern of the Compound or the Avengers,” Carol says matter-of-factly. “When you broke the law and became wanted criminals, any potentially dangerous items you owned were seized by the US government. Those items created and technically owned by outside companies were returned to them. Anything belonging to government departments was kept by them. You would have to contact them to find out what’s happened to it.”

There’s a short pause on the other end. “So that’s really how you’re going to act, Stark? They gave our stuff back to you and you’re just going to keep it until, what, we kiss your ass enough? Cater to your ego, come crawling back and ask to be Avengers again?”

Tony knows without a doubt that Romanoff’s mediocre hacking skills aren’t enough to break past the Compound defenses, especially without him knowing; there’s no way she actually knows for sure that he’s there, she’s just bluffing, assuming that he’s listening in. And she’s not wrong, but Carol gives him a look that clearly states he’s to remain silent. Bless her poker face, voice, whatever, because without missing a beat, she says, “Perhaps you’ve already forgotten our introduction, Ms. Romanoff. I am Colonel Carol Danvers, not Stark, member of the Avengers Board. And since your inquiry is not the concern of this Board, I believe our conversation is finished. Have a good day.”

Carol hangs up and turns to Tony, shoulders dropping as she loses the stiff-backed professionalism she’d kept through the conversation, despite it being just a phone call. “Really? Did they really expect their stuff back, stuff you made? After everything? Next thing you know they’ll be asking you to pay for everything again.”

Tony gives her a rueful smile. “They already have.”

She and Rhodey both give him incredulous looks. “You’re kidding. They didn’t actually—?”

“Got a visit yesterday from one of their government representatives, asking about funding for equipment and housing. Poor guy obviously didn’t want to be there, but it was clear they insisted he try. I honestly wasn’t sure he was serious at first. They’re not actually that stupid, right? But apparently the bar is even lower than I thought.”

“He didn’t bother you?” Rhodey asks, and the look on his face is hard.

Tony pats his arm. “Took less than a minute. I didn’t have to say it more than once. I’d actually prefer they send the guy for everything from now on, it was infinitely more pleasant than dealing with any of them directly. At least he expected and accepted the answer he got and wasn’t an ass about it.”

Rhodey still shakes his head. “You’re right, the bar is pretty low. They’re not going to quit, are they?”

“I’ll have to see them eventually, for sure,” Tony sighs. “Maybe when I do, they’ll finally get their heads out of their asses and leave us alone. Probably not, but one can hope.”

It takes two more weeks for that to happen. Rogers has stubbornly refused to create a new official named team and insists on referring himself and his gang as “the Avengers.” Tony blames Strange for giving them the idea. The media and the general public, however, have christened them the “Rogue Avengers,” as well as various less flattering variations on the name. With the Avengers—the real ones—operating successfully for the last year without any of the Rogues, no one but the most die-hard Captain America supporters are thinking of his team over Tony’s as the “real Avengers.”

The Council has sent the Rogues on one mission rather than the Avengers, but Tony’s pretty sure it qualified as a disaster. Thankfully, lives weren’t in danger—he has a feeling the Avengers would have been called as backup at least if that were true—but Rogers and his team caused twice the damage the Avengers usually did on a mission half the scale and length. When asked about it by the press, Rogers actually had the gall to blame faulty equipment and give a speech about being held back by “dangerous grudges” that couldn’t be more clearly aimed at Tony. To top it all off, some of the Accords liaisons employed by the Avengers report that the responsibility for the cost of the damage they’d caused is being shunted around between different government departments—apparently, the department put in charge of them hadn’t anticipated the true scale of the damage they caused without Tony footing the bill.

So he’s not all that surprised when he finds himself cornered by Rogers and his entire team in a parking garage after a late meeting with a charity organizer. He’d driven himself and come alone, and while he didn’t exactly advertise the meeting, it was hard for him to go anywhere without someone seeing him and posting it on the internet. It couldn’t have been too hard for them to figure out where he was.

The rest of them are standing in a loose arc behind Rogers, but it’s obviously the ringleader who wants to talk to Tony. Rogers doesn’t try to fake being polite, doesn’t try to pretend they’re meeting by accident or that Tony is in any way a willing participant in this conversation, just crosses his arms and steps closer, trying to tower over Tony.

The only one who looks like he wants to be there even less than Tony is Barnes, who’s standing at the very back of the group, shoulders hunched and head down like he wants to just disappear into the wall and be forgotten. After an entire year, it only stings the tiniest bit to look at him. Tony knows his parents’ deaths weren’t a conscious choice on Barnes’s part—not like the choice his “friend” made to hide the fact from Tony, let him be told in the worst possible circumstances, and take away any chance that he wouldn’t react badly to the news—and far more of his anger and hurt, by now, are directed at Rogers.

“Let’s go through this in fast forward and waste less time, why don’t we?” Tony says, putting on his best carefree face and resisting the urge to fidget. He doesn’t owe them anything, and he knows it. They have nothing on him. “‘Tony, you’re being selfish, Tony your ego is enormous, Tony how dare you not pay for our entire existence, blah blah,’ how am I doing? Then I tell you to go fuck yourselves, you call me some names, and we all leave. Great, are we done?”

“This isn’t a joke, Tony,” Rogers says. “We’re the Avengers. People need us, and you’re endangering them with this petty grudge.”

Tony narrows his eyes at that, though he keeps his composure. “Petty, huh? Is that what you call lying to me for years, using my money to go looking for your best buddy there without bothering to tell me that he murdered my parents? That what you call nearly killing me and then leaving me stuck in a dead suit in Siberia? Is all that just a ‘petty grudge?’” He manages to say it all with a straight face, without his voice wavering, and he’s proud of himself for that.

Barnes looks like he wants to sink into the floor more than ever when Tony mentions him, but Tony can’t quite bring himself to feel bad about it. Maximoff scoffs and Romanoff just maintains her neutral expression, but both Wilson’s and Lang’s eyes widen and they turn to Rogers, saying “what?” nearly in unison.

Tony lets out a humorless chuckle. “Didn’t tell them about Siberia, huh? Or didn’t tell them the truth? I see you haven’t dropped the lying habit.”

Rogers actually manages to look guilty for a second before the stern, disapproving expression is back. “I’m sorry, Tony, I made a mistake. But you made mistakes too. You can’t let this get people hurt.”

Tony laughs again. “That’s great, really. Very sincere. And as for ‘getting people hurt?’ I’m not. The Avengers are working just fine, helping plenty of people. We’re a perfectly functional team who gets good results. You just don’t seem to understand that that team doesn’t include you. You’re not Avengers, and the Avengers have no need for a bunch of criminals who only answer to a man who was willing to commit acts of terrorism, to get innocent people killed, all to save one man.”

Barnes actually takes a step back like he can’t stand to be so close to them, but Rogers looks furious. “That’s not true!” he says loudly, stepping even closer into Tony’s space. Instead of trying to step back, Tony just holds his ground. He’s not letting Rogers intimidate him.

“What part isn’t true? The part where you got a hard-on for Barnes and went running off after him, leaving me to clean up all your messes? The part where you killed twelve people in Bucharest, nine of them completely innocent civilians who had nothing to do with your little street fight? The part where you destroyed an airport that, if not for my call, would have been full of people? Or maybe where you dropped your responsibilities, refused to listen to the people asking you to take accountability, and were willing to tell the whole world to go fuck themselves as long as you got Barnes?”

Rogers’s face reddens more and more as Tony speaks, by the time he’s done, Rogers is even closer, breathing heavily into Tony’s space. Again, Tony refuses to back down—but when Rogers reaches for him furiously, Tony is ready. He intercepts the reaching hand; whether Rogers plans to grab his shirt or punch him or something else, it doesn’t really matter. Tony grabs his hand with one of his own and gives him a light push that sends him stumbling back a few steps and nearly lands him on his ass.

As Rogers stands there, obviously stunned by Tony’s unexpected strength, Tony takes the opportunity to talk. “Yeah, I’ve picked up a few new skills, learned a few things while you were away. You want to know one of them? I learned how bad it was with you. How enabling and damaging it was to spoil you rotten and let you bunch of freeloaders walk all over me. I learned how a real team functions, and how real friends treat each other, and there’s no way in hell I’d ever go back to how it was with you.”

Tony advances on Rogers, who’s still just staring at him, wide-eyed. “You want to know something else I realized? Between my charity work, my donations, my work as Iron Man, and my willingness to actually listen to what people want, I am morally above you. I'm a better person and always have been. I donate a larger percentage of my personal money than any of you, during the years we worked together I put in more hours working on reconstruction and relief efforts than every one of you combined, and when the people asked us to take responsibility with the Accords, I listened to them, because I actually care about what people want, not just whether I can feel like a hero.”

He smiles. “So you? You have nothing on me. Because I’ve finally realized the truth. I have always been smarter than you,” he steps even closer, “better than you,” another step and he’s right in Rogers’s face, “and now?” He stops and spreads his arms, grinning broadly. “I’m stronger than you, too.”

For once, Rogers has nothing to say, and neither do any of the others. They all just stare—except for Barnes, who’s refusing to make eye contact, backed up as far as he can and staring at the ground—and Tony just strides past them. “Don’t bother contacting me or the Avengers again,” he says as he leaves, waving a hand nonchalantly. He gets in his car without another word and leaves them behind, in every sense.