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“So, are you distinguishing a pattern, genius,” Rhodey asked as he sipped on his beer, affectionately using Tony’s college nickname. Tony was letting Dum-E spin him around on his stool.

“That’s enough, Dum-E. What kind of pattern,” Tony asked, reaching for his own beer once Dum-E puttered away.

“Well, Cap and Romanoff didn’t bother calling you in during that Shieldra fiasco even though you could have easily handled the tech side without any property damage or loss of life,” Rhodey shrugged. “Why not?”

“Romanoff said they didn’t have a clear line of communication,” Tony said looking at Rhodey seriously.

Rhodey took a long swig of his drink.

“You believe that, genius,” he asked, not looking at Tony.

Tony sighed.

“No. They clearly trusted whatever tech Fury handed them off before he did his disappearing act. If she could handle checking that upload for bugs then she could handle checking the special issue phones I gave all of the Avengers. And, miraculously, I didn’t have to go after Clint and his family even though everything else got dumped,” Tony said, shaking his head. “It was a choice and a poor one at that since she burned EVERYone else.”

“Right,” Rhodey said, raising his drink in a mock toast. “And Barton has a family? Since when?”

“For a while. He just hid it from everyone, not that I blame him. And I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t started digging through all of the crap Romanoff dumped. She left a clear line in the code where she picked out Barton’s info before dumping everything else.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. She only dumped about a quarter of her own info too. Probably enough to make it look like she had nothing else to hide. I found a shitload more that she buried, though,” Tony said seriously.

“Have you finished data-mining it all?”

“No. Got sidetracked by the Mandarin debacle. And now Pepper’s got me on lock-down.”

Rhodey rolled his eyes.

“OK. I’m gonna say a couple of things, genius,” Rhodey said, getting up from the lumpy old lab couch and walking over to hip check the brunette that he had claimed as his own all those years ago back at MIT. “First, the Avengers aren’t your team. They don’t like or even respect you, Tones. Not a damn one of em’.”

“Tony was fiddling with a piece of metal on his drafting desk, but he looked up briefly at Rhodey and gave a brief nod. The sight and sound of his Adam’s apple bobbing was the only tell of how hard it was to acknowledge the truth that Tony was too smart not to know. Only Rhodey would know what it cost him. “This next one is gonna be hard, Tones,” Rhodey added, gripping Tony’s hand.

“You only knew Pepper for a bit before Afghanistan. She doesn’t really grasp exactly how much that nightmare changed you—at your core, Tony. When you say that you are Iron Man . . . Pepper doesn’t really get it. To her, it’s Tony Stark: Yes, Iron Man: Not Recommended. You get that, right?”

This time Tony didn’t nod or shake his head, and he avoided looking at Rhodey altogether.

“Genius,” Rhodey said affectionately. “She doesn’t get it. And she will keep trying to change you. You have to make a choice here or you’re both gonna get hurt, Tony.”

“I want something real. I want someone to want me,” Tony whispered.

“You know that I will always be here? I will never leave you, Tony. But I can’t stand watching you disrespect yourself and tear yourself apart for people who want you to be something you’re not,” Rhodey sighed.

“You don’t think Pepper gets me?”

“I think Pepper has forgotten two things. First, being in a relationship means that you take your lover as they are. You can grow and develop, sure, but you don’t date potential. That’s what all this “You’re not the suit, Tony” crap is really about. She wants you to put a ring on it and, here’s the part I’m really not liking, sit down and shut up.
Tony, she’s handling you, pure and simple. That’s not a partner.”

“She does,” Tony nodded with a shrug. He’d known that for some time now. “But I think I need that, Rhodey.”

“OK. I’m gonna give to you straight, man. Ever since the palladium and Romanoff’s bullshit profile, you’ve been spiraling. Pepper treats you like a toddler, Tony. She may be a CEO now, but you were running SI for years before you blessed her with that gift. And she has everyone believing the hype that she is SI, Tony. She encourages Romanoff’s and Roger’s bullshit everytime she acts like the poor, put upon girlfriend who can’t get her unruly boyfriend to grow up and act responsible,” he said.

He went on. “She actually has about half of SI believing that shit. Only the lifers and R&D know you and know better. She’s acting as CEO, but treating you like she’s still your personal assistant because it suits her—and let’s be frank, she needed you watching out for her as she took the reigns. You’ve been right beside her as she transitioned. She gave you no credit for the incredible opportunity you gifted her by trusting someone that had nowhere near the experience she needed to fill that position. Then she gave you no credit for anything you did to help her. And now she acts like you don’t do anything, instead of acknowledging that you guys have been tag-teaming all along while you ARE STILL the head of RD. And if we’re still being real, that’s the most important job in SI, Tony. You can put someone else in the CEO position, but your ideas and your ability to inspire the others in various fields and bring them together to innovate is what is keeping SI on top. Pepper doesn’t really have to work very hard for it because you make SI’s success happen by being the best. I’m sick of her acting like she’s doing you some great favor to stay.”

“Rhodey?”

“The Avengers have been pissing me off, but everyone is blind to Pepper’s faults, Tony. I just don’t get it. If I walk into the Tower one more time to hear how sorry everyone is for poor Pepper,” Rhodey said, shaking his head. “It’s time to decide. You need to cut the dead weight, man. I think it’s obvious with the Avengers. They sure didn’t call to see if you were really dead or alive, even though it was a matter of national security. But I think it’s time for you to seriously think about kicking Pepper to the curb too. She’s getting worse, not better. I’d say she’s a better friend than a partner, but she’s got to do some serious soul-searching before she even cuts it in that department, Tones.”

“Let me think about it” Tony said, with a decisive nod. And then he was building again and Rhodey went back to his seat to watch the magic happen.

Chapter Text

Tony was in a smart, three-piece suit of dark navy with a shiny satin tie of silver. His characteristic shades were tucked away in his pocket. He had his security watch on, and his phone and tablet set neatly on the table before him. Rhodey walked in and paused to take in the sight of his best friend being so serious.

“What’s this,” Rhodey asked as he pulled up a seat beside Tony.

“You know, the first thing I learned when I took over SI was that when you hear good advice, you take it,” Tony said softly. “I have two meetings scheduled today. The first will be the hardest,” Tony said, swallowing. “I’d like you here for both of them though,” he added with a shrug.

Rhodes reached over and squeezed the back of Tony’s neck affectionately.

“You don’t even need to ask.

**
Rhodey didn’t bother asking which was the harder of the two meetings. He could have guessed all along, but he had no idea what Tony had decided to do with Pepper. She strode in with purpose, smiled at Rhodey, and gave him a peck on the cheek before sitting on Tony’s other side.

“What’s this about, Tony,” Pepper said with a huff. “I had to reschedule all of my morning appointments for this, and I know that I told you I’m not ready to discuss us again yet,” she said with a sigh.

“We’ll start there, but we’ll finish with a discussion about SI, Pepper.”

Pepper pulled up abruptly when she saw how serious Tony was.

“What about us,” she asked, her brows pulling together in a frown.

“Did you know that Happy called me just after you met with Killian?”

“Tony, I don’t have time for this,” Pepper said, pinching the top of her nose and closing her eyes.

“Ms. Potts, your morning is clear. You just said,” Tony said without raising his voice, but his anger was clear. “Did you know?”

“No, I didn’t,” she said, sitting back and crossing her arms and legs.

“He called me because he could tell that you were interested in Killian, the man, and because he was sure that I was going to lose ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to me’—his words,” Tony said.

“Where are you going with this?”

“When I thought about it as I sat with Happy in the hospital, it occurred to me that what he said that day hurt. He assumed that you would be more than willing to dump me for Killian, but it didn’t really feel great that he didn’t seem to think I was the best thing to ever happen to you either,” Tony said.

Rhodey and Pepper both pulled back, surprised by what Tony said.

“Tony, you’re so important to me,” Pepper started, reaching for his hand.

“But not the best thing that ever happened to you,” Tony said with a shrug and a sad smile.

“I’m . . . I’m just not at a point in my life where I can handle your drama, Tony. You know I love you, but” she started, but Tony interrupted her easily.

“I heard a lot of buts there, Ms. Potts. And that’s what I needed to know. Pepper, you’re right. I’m not what you need, but I think it’s more to the point for me that you’re not what I need. I’ve been through a lot the last few years. I’ve accomplished amazing things, even viewed through the lens of Tony Stark. I did what I could to support you even as I struggled, but there’s been a lot of judgment and only a little support from you.”

“I can’t believe you!”

“I’m being honest. My point is, that you were right that we can’t be together. I just don’t see a future for us,” Tony said, shaking his head.

“Are you . . . are you breaking up with me? With me,” Pepper asked, incredulous.

“I am,” Tony smiled. “Come on, Pepper. You knew it was heading this way.”

“You said you would change,” she said dangerously, tears beginning to form in her eyes alongside the obvious disbelief that Tony would take this step.

“And you shouldn’t have asked that of me. I never once asked it of you because I loved you just the way you were. I can’t be in a relationship with you, Pepper,” he sighed.

“That’s it then,” and tears were rolling down her cheeks as she cried silently.

“On to SI,” he asked.

“I’m not going to like this, am I? Are you taking the company back,” she asked, her voice quivering.

“No, I was serious when I said that I thought you would make a good CEO. This meeting is to inform you that you need to start handling all aspects of that job now. I’m stepping back for real this time.”

“How dare you!”

“Ms. Potts,” Tony said, raising his voice for the first time. “You’ve been acting as CEO for two years now, Pepper, but you’ve been handing off a lot of that work onto me and pretending that you just can’t get me to do my job. Pepper, my position is no more demanding as a part owner than any other board member. You don’t go to them expecting them to handle the things that you approach me for. I know you know this. Moreover, the head of R&D has a much more active role in that department than I’ve been able to handle because of other demands.”

“Because of Iron Man and the Avengers,” she said snidely.

“Partially,” he shrugged. “But I’ve been doing about 40% of your job while you run around chasing me like you’re still my PA. That’s not Iron Man, the Avengers, or R&D, Pep, that’s your fear.”

Tony sat forward and took her hand.

“This is me telling you that I’m stepping back because you can handle it, Ms. Potts. You are the CEO of SI. It’s time to own that,” Tony said sweetly.

Pepper looked down for a moment, and when she looked back up Tony could see that he had gotten through to her.

“I’ve been a bit of a bitch,” she said softly.

“I let you, if I’m honest. Pepper, I wanted us to work, but I can’t change who I am for you. And you deserve to be CEO, but that means that I need to step back so that you can.”

“OK,” she said finally. She was still crying, but it was more controlled now. He passed her a tissue and she smiled wetly. “Came prepared, did you? I hate that I’m an ugly crier,” she sighed.

“You’re always lovely, Pep.”

“I’m going to go,” she said. They both stood, and after an awkward moment, followed by a laugh, they hugged. “We’ll be ok,” she asked nervously.

“We will.”

“Will that be all, Mr. Stark,” she smiled.

“That will be all, Ms. Potts,” he returned, and smiled as she left.

“That was well done, Tony,” Rhodey said softly.

“Now comes the hard part.”

“The next meeting is the hard one,” Rhodey asked quirking an eyebrow.

“Well, it will be the loud and annoying one,” Tony said with a sigh as he flopped back into his seat and groaned.

Chapter Text

Steve, Nat, and Sam wandered into the boardroom to the same sight that Pepper had found, though tony was sipping on a bottled water. Sam and Steve were laughing and Sam clapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder with one more chuckle before they took their seats.

“Tony, is this about my proposal,” Nat said with an easy smile, like she and Tony were friends. It was clear to Rhodey they thought they were being called to receive good news. “Because my widow bites could use an upgrade before we start on any more missions too.”

“Yeah, Stark,” Sam added with a smile like he had known Tony for more than the five minute conversation they had outside of Steve’s hospital room after SHIELD fell. “I really would appreciate it if you could take a look at the Falcon Wings as well. I know that your R&D department developed the project, but I’ve heard from these guys that you’ll be able to make it even better,” he added with an eager smile. Rhodey closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply. The sheer presumption of these people was astounding.

“I’m sorry, will you remind me who you are, Mr.?”

“Oh, right! Sorry,” Sam said, sitting up straight, and Steve frowned at Sam’s sudden unease. “Yes! Mr. Stark, it’s nice to see you again. I’m Sam Wilson,” Sam said, holding out his hand. Tony took it and shook it briefly while Steve’s look grew darker.

“Tony, you met Sam. He helped Nat and I with SHIELD and Hydra,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

“I have no idea why you think that explanation clears anything up. I was kept separate from that maneuver quite deliberately, if you recall,” Tony said seriously.

“I told you why, Tony,” Nat said softly in the voice she used as a handler. It was the opposite of Pepper’s sharp, barking instructions, but Tony was familiar with the many methods of manipulation that the people around him used.

“You gave me an excuse, not a reasonable explanation, Nat. The fact remains that I was left out of the loop and really have no idea why you’ve brought Mr. Wilson to this meeting.”

“Don’t be rude, Tony. Sam helped us, and he’s going to continue to help the Avengers in a part-time capacity as we continue hunting Hydra,” Steve said sharply.

“That’s a good starting point, Captain. Why are you two approaching me now about the Avengers? You certainly didn’t call me to aid with the Mandarin.”

“I . . . something had come up,” Steve said, looking away uneasily, and Tony made a note to get back to Nat’s data dump.

“We knew that you could handle it, Tony,” Nat sat, putting a calming hand on Steve’s as if to settle him.

“Right. Everyone thought Tony was dead.”

“Well, AIM isn’t really at the same level as Hydra,” Nat shrugged. “The idea that Tony Stark could get taken out by them seemed ludicrous,” she added with a quirked eyebrow, as if judging Tony’s need for any help in the first place.

“Sure. Not on the same level at all. It was only an attempt to assassinate the President and overthrow the entire United States government, and start a third world war,” Rhodey muttered, eyes rolling. Nat’s face was blank, but Sam looked disturbed suddenly.

“I didn’t know anything about all that!”

Tony looked at all three of them in shock.

“You have been working as a world defense force. Don’t you watch the news,” Tony erupted. “Nevermind,” he said, waving his hand as if batting away a fly. “Let’s get back to Nat’s proposal. Explain this to me.”

“Well, you’re an Avenger,” Steve said, perplexed. “And we need your support since SHIELD fell.”

“Captain, SHIELD didn’t fall, it was felled—by you,” Tony added turning to Nat.

“We did what we had to do, Tony. SHIELD needed to be brought down in order to weed out Hydra,” Nat said, face still blank. Tony knew that meant she was feeling hunted.

“At the cost of the other agents.”

“Sacrifices had to be made,” Steve said, raising his chin.

“And what sacrifices did you make, Captain?”

“Nat gave up her own secrets just like everyone else. She risked everything!”

Tony reached out and touched his tablet. A hologram appeared before them of several rotating files. Nat’s face reappeared again and again throughout in various disguises mixed among the text. Tony tapped again and a second file appeared with Clint’s information. The hologram cycled through the info and repeated on a loop as they all watched.

“What is that,” Nat whispered dangerously.

“These are the files that you miraculously had the time to separate and bury, Agent Romanoff. I’m insulted that you thought yourself capable of hiding anything from me. That’s quite the ego you have, and it appears that you didn’t feel it was necessary to sacrifice your friend and his family though no one else was as lucky. And I wonder how and why you felt these specific 215 mission files needed to be protected out of all the data that was dumped when you sank SHIELD? Well, I don’t really wonder because I’ve read them, agent,” Tony said. “You didn’t make any sacrifices, but you did sacrifice plenty of others when it suited you. And it only suited you because Tony Stark wasn’t recommended. Right, agent?”

Tony knew there was more, but he kept his face just as blank. He knew that Nat would be banking on this meeting being about his “ego” and wanting to put them in their place. She would expect her proposal could go either way based on that, and that’s where her manipulation would come in. If she suspected that he was really putting things together, though? That might be a game changer.

Nat and Tony were in the middle of a very dangerous staring contest when Steve spoke up.

“But Nat put everything on the Web! We agreed that full disclosure was necessary. And we didn’t have time to contact you Tony!”

“But you did have time to go meet up with someone that you had only just met and help him steal government property before taking the time to infiltrate SHIELD, get on the helicarriers, and bring them down. I could have done all of the last bit in exactly 5 ½ minutes, Steve, and Romanoff knew it.”

“What’s happening here” Sam asked nervously.

“So, the question is, why did you need that information on the Web, Agent Romanoff? What was the real purpose behind the fall of SHIELD,” Tony asked.

“I don’t understand,” Steve said, shaking his head.

“Romanoff, you move and I blow you away,” Rhodey said, raising his arm above the table and pointing and cocking his gun at Romanoff who still had not looked away from Tony. “I know a threat when I see one, agent. And I don’t have the same sort of sentimental nostalgia that you’re hoping will protect you from Tony. I don’t hesitate—EVER.”

Romanoff finally glanced away, looking at Rhodey for a moment while everyone else looked on tensely. Steve was staring at Rhodey like he’d never seen him before, but he hadn’t moved to rise from his spot yet. Tony knew that if he felt either Nat or Sam was in danger that would change. Then Nat abruptly sat back and a sigh wooshed out of Sam and Steve.

“Put your weapon on the table,” Rhodey said, refusing to lower his gun.

“Not on your life,” Nat sneered while Steve sputtered.

“No, on yours. Do it now, Romanoff,” Rhodey said. “Jarvis,” and suddenly the entire boardroom was weaponized, Tony’s trademark lasers lowering from the ceiling at various points. “You might survive me, but the house always wins,” he finished.

“We didn’t bring in weapons!”

“Widow is always armed, Steve,” Tony said simply.

“What is going on here!” Sam looked completely out of his element.

“You didn’t get to know Peggy as well as you might have Steve. You knew her when she was a soldier, but I’ve lived my life with spies. They’re a different breed altogether, something that Nat and Fury were both betting you wouldn’t notice. Fury counted on it, in fact, when he passed you Nat’s profile of me at the start of all of this. Peggy was one of the best spies in the business. Though I don’t want you to be to proud of that as it isn’t really a compliment to her humanity. But that’s not the point. You see, in the spy business there is always more than one way to do things, and once you’ve settled on an action there is always more than one reason why that is the step you take. Howard learned this the hard way. It was why he originally stepped back from SHIELD, and that was when Peggy became a less significant part of my childhood. You know what happened with SHIELD, Steve, but you only know one reason why it had to fall. And Romanoff’s instinct to bury certain info is a tell. It let’s me know that your reason and Romanoff’s reason are not the same even if they aligned in that moment.”

“Nat?”

“Has a meeting with the CIA downstairs, Steve. She won’t be leaving with you today. Sgt. Wilson, you’ll be leaving those experimental military grade search and rescue wings with Colonel Rhodes, who had agreed to return them to the Air Force without seeing you dishonorably discharged for the theft of those devices.”

“You didn’t really believe that Captain America, a soldier in the Army, or the Black Widow, a retired KGB operative, had the authority to take Air Force property off base, did you SGT,” Rhodey asked severely, and Sam cringed a little.

“Steve, I’m sorry, but the Avengers are through. It’s time for you to move on with your life and learn to live.”

“What! No,” Steve said hurriedly. “You can’t! Not now. I need this!”

“This is non-negotiable. After the fall of SHIELD—which you were correct that it needed to happen, Steve, it’s your methods that I find unacceptable—the Avengers only continue if Romanoff’s hail Mary proposal was accepted . . . and I’m saying that it wasn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” Steve said, shaking his head and clutching at his hair.

“Yes. That’s it exactly. You simply don’t understand. You are a lovely person, Steve, but you aren’t fit to lead a team of this nature. You never were,” Tony replied.