I admit, I'm a little nervous about this one. I typically feel better about the fluff I write, but I have a terrible leaning for darker tales. Thus, this came into being. I'm aware it's been done before, but everyone knows it's impossible not to want to attack it at a different angle. Right? Right.

Warnings: Language, bullying, mentions of physical and sexual assault. Absolutely nothing graphic.


A certain character is still alive, and I will continue to believe he is alive. No one will convince me otherwise.


Summary: Steve discovers something about his teammate he was not sure he never wanted to know. Now that he does, he's got to deal with it.

Meaningless Conversation

or the time it really wasn't

Chapter 1 of 3

There were many things about the 21st century that were different than the 1940's. Too many to count, really. Technology alone was enough to boggle the mind. Women were a common sight in the military. If anyone said anything bad about homosexuality, someone else would immediately rise up and rake that poor sap over the coals. Steve even had a telephone the size of his palm in his jacket pocket.

Some things, however, remained constant. Hobnobbing with politicians, for example, was still the primary method of gaining public funding.

"Why do we have to do this again?" Steve was not entirely comfortable in the tuxedo he wore. He was used to his battle armor, his military uniform, or jeans and a button-down shirt. Formalwear should be reserved for weddings and nights out at the opera. He thought his uniform would be more appropriate for dinner with a bunch of people in Washington, DC, but he had been overruled. "I thought Tony made all our stuff."

"If I didn't charge for my services, I would go bankrupt in a year with the way SHIELD spends money."

Tony looked perfectly at home in his tux. Freshly shaven, hair sleek, sunglasses despite the late hour—he might as well have stepped out of a fashion magazine. Steve should have known he would look good. It had been Tony who forced him to the tailor's a few days ago.

"Fury commissioned me to make you look good," had been the explanation at the time.

He held his tongue, but Steve would never be able to say he enjoyed schmoozing (Tony's term) with the brass. He was a soldier, through and through. War strategy and battle plans were all he was ever good at, and suddenly he was being thrust back into the circus of the public perception game. A small part of him resented it.

Another small part (he would not acknowledge) was glad he was not the only one to suffer through this event. Natasha Romanov looked, well, she looked like she did not care much one way or the other. Coulson was also along for the ride, but he always looked a bit out of place. Obviously he had not consulted with Tony on his wardrobe. That ill-fitting suit just made him seem that much more uncomfortable.

Their limousine (provided by Tony), pulled up to the curb outside a fancy looking hotel. It was also a convention center, with a ballroom where the dinner would take place. Coulson was out and waiting patiently by the car while Natasha slid out, her movements apparently not at all hampered by her form-fitting, slinky black dress. Steve clambered out next, much less gracefully, and reached back to help Miss Potts out. He received a gracious smile for his efforts and a raised eyebrow from Tony, who stood to her other side a moment later.

Tony and Pepper had apparently dated at one point, but Steve really could not tell. They behaved more like a well-oiled machine than a couple, or even an ex-couple. Tony was the core, and Pepper moved around him, knowing exactly what her boss would be doing and how to act, react, or counteract in the best way possible. She was an amazing woman, really, and Steve was fairly certain Tony was the reason they were no longer dating.

Tony was so abrasive, it was impossible for anyone to get truly close to him. Well, Steve was trying to forge a friendship, but there were definitely days where he fantasized about punching the man in the nose.

The soiree was just as Steve remembered them being. The fashion was a little different, and there were more women—many more women who were not simply the wives of the politicians—but overall, everything was the same.

Right down to people fawning over him. That was why he was attending the dinner. According to Fury, Captain America was one of the most recognizable and beloved heroes of their time. Children knew who he was, despite the fact that he had supposedly died seventy years ago. He was an honest-to-goodness legend, and people would fall over themselves to see him, let alone meet him.

For the most part, it was exactly as Fury said. The one part he had not mentioned was that Tony was just as popular in his own way. The instant they walked into the room, people flocked to them. Steve was immediately surrounded, but he noticed he was not the only one. Tony had cameras in his face and was smiling away, laughing and shaking hands, and Steve envied his natural presence in front of the press. He had never felt more awkward than when people were demanding him to act friendly for newspapers.

While the envy did not abate, Steve quickly lost track of Tony in the crowd. Natasha had disappeared with Coulson before they even got in, and even Pepper had disappeared. Steve forced a smile to his face and tried to answer the curious question slung at him without feeling too annoyed.

Because really, what kind of person asked such personal questions as how does it feel knowing almost everyone you had known is now gone? People in the twenty-first century press were assholes.

Fortunately, there were many other questions to answer, and Steve was able to pretend he had not heard everything in the wash of voices. The downfall was that he had come to this party already nervous. Now he was on edge, his heart pounding unhappily in his chest, his eyes moving a little too quickly through the crowd to be completely polite. He wanted out so very badly.

Someone must have noticed. At the very least, one of the team noticed because the cameras came up and started flashing madly, and Steve realized Tony was at his elbow. The man was about as stealthy as a brick through a window in his Iron Man suit, but in this crowd of wealthy investors, entitled politicians and press cameras, he was a ninja. Once again Steve had to reevaluate his initial thoughts on Tony. He was a genius playboy billionaire philanthropist ninja. At least, he was in this crowd.

"Give the man some room to breathe, folks," Tony said with his billion-watt smile. Quieter, Steve heard, "Smile, Cap. Cameras are watching." Even as Steve managed to pull forth what was certain to be a constipated grimace, Tony was guiding him through the crowd with a light touch to his arm. "Formal interviews can be scheduled through Stark Industries—for further information, speak with Miss Potts. I believe you all know who I'm talking about."

The press was still the press, and they were not easily deterred. They kept calling out questions, despite the fact that their potential interviewees were leaving them behind. Some of them were for Steve, some for Tony. None of them made Steve reconsider his belief that they were a bunch of piranhas trying to latch onto a scandal. Especially when someone called out something rude about the recent breakup between Tony and Pepper.

"Are they always so horrible?" Steve asked anxiously. This night was bad for his health. He would rather take on a bunch of well-armed Nazis than this room of supposedly harmless people.

"It's the press," Tony replied, his mouth hardly moving from its toothy smile. "It's their job to find every angle—good and bad."

"I don't like it."

"No one likes it. Here's our table."

Steve sat with a grateful sigh. Natasha and Coulson had already found their seats. They were the less recognized side of SHIELD. As Steve understood it, they were mostly present to make sure the event went smoothly.

"Do you want a drink?" Tony asked. Without pausing to wait for an answer, he plowed forward, "I'm going to get a drink. Natasha? Phil? Cap? No?"

"Tony." Natasha was frowning, which was never a good sign. Steve recalled that Coulson was there for the politicians. Natasha and Pepper were along to keep Tony in line. It was kind of strange that there was only one man for all the other people while Tony required two caretakers.

Tony was gone an instant later, and Steve felt the loss. Like he had lost his shield. With Tony near him, he felt less exposed in this crowd of curious people. Tony was larger than life. People looked at him whenever he was in the room, no matter who was with him. Even Captain America came second to Tony Stark's shining aura.

"How does he do it?" Steve wondered. There was water in front of him, and he poured himself a glass.

"Tony was born in front of a camera," Natasha said. She sounded disgusted. "Almost literally."

"Howard was pretty well-known," Steve recalled. And, if he recalled, Howard was similar in that he had been a bit of a showman. He had not been quite to Tony's level of super-confidence, had not drawn the attention to himself simply by existing, but he had definitely known how to handle a crowd.

"Mr. Stark knew how to handle the press," Coulson said. He sounded almost envious. Steve could hardly blame him. It was hard not to be jealous of someone who could manage such an impossible task. "He made sure his kid knew how to do it too. Even when he's eyebrows deep in scandal, people are fascinated by Tony Stark."

Although they had been nearly overrun by the press earlier, this dinner was presented by and for the politicians and the investors. Both were of a subtler class than the press. While they came and chatted, they did not swarm.

Pepper returned while Steve was politely listening to a House Representative talk about the stories his father had told him about the war. It was one he had heard before and would likely hear again. And again and again. My dad served in the blank regiment. He was friends with a person who saw you in action in this place. It was like listening to a recording with the numbers names and places changing up occasionally.

Natasha and Pepper talked quietly while Steve suffered through another reminder of the time he lost. This was not the time to get lost in bitterness. These people needed to like him, and he did not have Tony's talent for being able to run his mouth without making people irreconcilably despise him.

He kind of wished Thor had come. Between Thor and Tony, no one would think to look at Steve. But Thor was loud and frequently bad for flatware, and Fury had been doubtful of the God of Thunder's tolerance for the press.

Finally, things seemed to settle down. Dinner would be served soon, which meant everyone was required to find their table. The remaining three spots at their table were not to be empty, which was just unfortunate. Steve would have liked some downtime to just sit and eat his meal.

"Captain Rogers."

The use of his name rather than the title Captain America surprised him. He looked up, Tony's reminder to smile in his mind as he greeted the man who had spoken. The guy was big, about Steve's height, though the years had changed much of the muscle to flab. His gray hair was neatly styled, his suit impeccably tailored. Everything about the man screamed control. Kind of like Tony, actually.

"Senator Ronald Allen. I look forward to sitting with you and your companions tonight."

The woman on Allen's arm was attractive for a woman in her sixties. The dress looked expensive, her hair was probably dyed that golden shade, and she smiled mistily at him. It was because of her that Steve stood, shaking Allen's hand. After all, it was always proper to stand when a woman approached the table. (Coulson obviously did not think so. He just smiled his plastic smile and drank his water and waited for their dinner to be brought to them.)

"Senator," Steve said, then offered his hand to the woman. She took it, her smile never wavering.

"Barbara Allen," she offered. "It's lovely to meet you."

"Likewise," Steve replied.

It was probably the declaration that dinner was due to be served that brought Tony back. The man had a drink in his hand—bourbon on ice from the looks of it—and he grinned like a shark.

"Senator Allen," Tony declared, and there was something strange in his voice, something a little too sharp, a little too cold. Steve did not know Tony that well yet, but that tone was universal. Tony was smiling, but he was not happy. "I saw your name on the place setting. Who did you bribe to get put at our table?"

"Ever the charmer, Tony." Neither Tony nor Allen offered their hand to the other. Tony did not even offer to take the lady's hand, which was kind of unusual for the engineer. Young or old, Tony was never picky when it came to charming pretty women. "It's good to see you so well."

There was obviously some history here. Steve glanced at Pepper, but she was preoccupied with whatever she was discussing with Natasha. Coulson was the third wheel, sitting stiff and awkward and not at all paying attention to the conversations around him.

Possibly sensing his curiosity, Mrs. Allen leaned in, still smiling her vague smile, and said, "Tony and our son were friends back in high school. Tony got Roland through his algebra classes."

"Really," Steve smiled pleasantly. He liked learning things about his teammates. His life was an open book for anyone who cared to do a little research. Tony's life was similar, he supposed, being as he was raised in the public eye. But Steve was still uncertain about this era's technology, and no one was forthcoming. His last attempted conversation with Natasha had been a little one-sided, and she had walked away from him, leaving him feeling as if he knew less than he had before they started talking. He knew the contents of their SHIELD files, but that only covered their abilities in the field and basic projections of cooperative efforts. He knew a few things, though. "I was under the impression that Tony was homeschooled."

"Oh, Tony was in college already," Barbara said. "But Howard thought it would be good for him to keep friends his own age."

"Uh, yeah," Tony cut in abruptly. "Sixteen year olds are not allowed to associate with twenty-year-olds outside of class, apparently. And you say I got him through algebra. Actually, I just did—"

"Tony! Buddy!"

"Jesus." Liquor sloshed down the sides of Tony's glass and over his hand in response to the solid hand clapping against his shoulder from behind. Steve had seen the man approaching, but he only just now realized the family resemblance. Big—almost as big as Thor, really—and solid, the guy looked like a taller, less gray version of Senator Allen. There was some salt and pepper running through his hair, but he was still quite fit for a man in his forties. He looked like a football player. "Roland. God, don't—"

"When was the last time we saw each other?"

"Not nearly long—"

"Here comes dinner!" Roland's hand tightened on Tony's shoulder, and Steve again felt the loss when the man was pulled away to sit across the table from him. He had Coulson on his right, the senator, his wife and son on his left. Which meant his entire dinner conversation would be taken up by the politician, since Coulson was about as chatty as rock outside of business.

Roland and Tony were amusing to watch at least. It was obvious that Tony had been suddenly wrenched out of his comfort zone. His smile grew more ragged around the edges as Roland bullied him to his chair, and Steve wondered if that would work for him too. Tony never listened to anyone. Maybe he just needed to be manhandled a bit to get him to cooperate.

As anticipated, dinner was a trying affair. Steve took three times longer to eat than usual while spending the rest of his time recounting tales of his missions in Europe. He had rather hoped he would be allowed to sit next to Tony. That man loved to talk. He was talking now, with Pepper, leaning a little too far into her space to be completely proprietary for a couple that was no longer dating. Pepper looked used to it, though, if her longsuffering expression was any indication.

Natasha and Coulson were apparently content to ignore any and all conversations, which was no help at all. Steve kept glancing across the table, hoping Tony would burst in with his usual brash behavior and take over the conversation. Maybe bring it to something less… Captain America oriented. No such luck. He was preoccupied with Pepper and Roland.

It actually took until their dessert was served for Steve to realize how very bad the situation at the table had become. Coulson must have already noticed because his absently pleasant demeanor had changed. The half-smile he usually sported was missing, and Steve could feel the aggression in his posture. Natasha might have noticed as well, but she was harder to read.

Pepper, bless her heart, was looking anxious but not focused. She knew something was wrong, but she had no idea what it was. Most likely, she was just reacting to whatever tone was in her boss's voice, and from the deteriorating smile on Tony's face, it could not be good.

What Steve finally noticed was that Tony did not just dislike Allen and his family. Tony's distaste seemed to focus in on the man directly beside him.

It was in the eyes. Tony could smile all he wanted, but Steve could see the dark malice slithering behind the man's eyes whenever Roland spoke with him. From the looks of things, Tony would love to see Roland with his throat ripped out. Steve had seen hatred before, and that right there—that was it.

Another several minutes of fielding questions from the senator and Steve was starting to pinpoint other details in Tony's body language to back up that hazy expression. Tony was definitely leaning away. His elbow was on the table, and he leaned back whenever he had to face Roland. There was also a recoil, a small flinch whenever Roland touched his arm, his shoulder, his hand, or even made a gesture to do so.

Come to think of it, Roland was touching Tony an awful lot. It was possible the man was just a physical kind of guy. One thing Steve knew about Tony—about many of the people in SHIELD, actually—was that he rarely initiated familiar contact with anyone. Obviously someone who did would make him uncomfortable.

But Roland wasn't touching anyone else. Of anyone that he should be comfortable casually touching, his mother was right there, and he never once looked at her, even when she joined the conversation.

There was pressure building, all around the table. Even the senator had noticed. Steve knew he noticed. The man kept trying to distract him with comments and questions.

Steve focused on Roland. He decided his initial impression of the man was not far off. Despite pushing into middle age, he was a jock. The decades had not changed the core of the type. The jocks were overconfident and uncaring of those they viewed as beneath their class. They were at a certain social level, and they expected to be treated as such, no matter how they behaved. In short, they were bullies.

It was quiet, subtle even, but there was no mistaking it. Roland was bullying Tony right now. Just as Steve could see the distress and anger building in Tony's eyes, he could also read the haughty pleasure in Roland. The man knew he was making Tony uncomfortable and reveled in it. These two were not old friends. Roland was making a power play, and Tony, with all his arrogance, was the weak one.

This was unacceptable. How dare this man come to a place where they were supposed to be having a pleasant evening and launch a psychological attack on one of the Avengers team members? Steve had never liked bullies, and he never would. And he would not have it here and now.

Coulson stood.

Steve looked up, startled by the agent's sudden movement. He had known Coulson was unsettled, but he had not expected the man to act on it. Of course, maybe he just needed to use the restroom.

But no, he stopped between Tony and Pepper, and when he leaned down, it was Tony whose ear he spoke into. Tony blinked, equally bewildered by the interruption, and looked across the table. Steve frowned when suspicious brown eyes met his, but then Tony was standing, and Coulson was smiling at Roland, who just looked confused. Another round of low murmuring had Roland rising and following Coulson across the room to the bar.

Tony claimed Coulson's chair and fixed Steve with a challenging look.

"Phil said you had something you wanted to ask me," he announced.

Oh, Coulson was good. Really good. Steve glanced over at the bar, but Coulson and Roland had their backs to the table. Tony looked as well, and he snorted.

"If he recruits Roland, I am quitting," he announced. "You know what? I should go. I'm going to go. Pepper, call Happy."

"Tony?" Pepper was immediately alarmed. "What's going on?"

"Nothing. He's not going anywhere," Natasha said coolly. Tony shot her an offended look, which she ignored in favor of the one Senator Allen was sending her way. "Senator Allen, do we have a problem?"

"What's going on?" Barbara asked, finally breaking free of her hazy demeanor to look upset. "Tony? Honey, what's wrong?"

"Hmm? Nothing! Of course nothing's wrong," Tony flashed the briefest of smiles. "I'm just an innocent bystander here. Honest."

Steve was not quite sure what to do when Allen suddenly leaned across the table to glare at Tony. For the first time since they sat down, Steve was not the center of Allen's attention, and normally that would be a good thing, but now Allen just looked pissed.

"For once, Tony, can't you just act like an adult?" the senator whispered harshly.

Tony looked genuinely offended. Steve actually had not thought that possible. Tony was one of those people who took punches and smiled like he felt nothing. There was some history here, and it was rapidly bringing down the night.

"Me?" Tony snorted. "I haven't done anything. Besides, you're the genius who brought Roland along. He hasn't changed a bit, you know. Still the stupid jock."

"Don't you dare—"

"Don't defend him," Tony said right over him. "Don't challenge me, Allen. My public image is much less fragile than yours."

Allen paled and sat back. Barbara was at his arm, tugging and looking to both him and Tony for explanation.

"Tony, you need to stop. Right now," Pepper was visibly upset. Tony grimaced and drank the remaining water from Coulson's glass. The water was obviously not what he wanted, but Steve suspected he just needed to have an excuse for movement and the ability not to speak. Natasha leaned over and murmured in Pepper's ear, silencing any further inquiries for the time being.

Steve, on the other hand, was right beside Tony. He could see Tony's hands shaking, the paleness of his face. Under all that angry bravado, Tony was trying not to collapse beneath some stress Steve couldn't see.

"You okay?" he asked.

Tony raised an eyebrow at him. That was a no. A server set a glass of amber-colored liquid on the table in front of the billionaire, which was quickly drained. Tony coughed and indicated that the server should bring another.

"Tony," Steve rebuked gently.

"Fine, Cap," Tony bared his teeth in a vicious grin. It was aimed at the senator. "I'm good. Fantastic. SHIELD has pretty comprehensive files, you know. They know things about you, about me. Probably about Natasha. Interestingly, there are plenty of things in my file and Rogers' that would ruin many people's careers."

"You shouldn't know that," Natasha murmured.

"Oh, like you can keep me out of your files," Tony mocked. "Still glad you paid the big bucks to sit with us, Senator?"

"You're a dick, Tony."

"Noted," Tony was in full control now, on the attack. Steve had seen him in action as Iron Man, but this was different. This was truly Tony's element. The second drink came, and he drank it much more leisurely. "At least I'm not a sadist."

Allen spluttered. It was Natasha who rescued him, if rescue was the proper term.

"Your son is unwell, Senator," she said mildly. "You should tend to your family. There is an ambulance outside waiting."

"What?" Barbara was instantly on her feet, looking for her son. "Roland?"

"He'll be fine," Natasha assured them. "Senator."

The look sent their way was not friendly. Regardless, Senator Allen bundled up his wife and hustled her out the door. Coulson rematerialized beside the table and sat where Tony had been several minutes earlier.

"Did I miss anything?"

"Agent Coulson?" Pepper looked between everyone anxiously. "Tony? What's going on?"

Tony chuckled, for all the world completely amused by the situation. But his hand was shaking. Steve took the drink and set it on the table. So far they had avoided a scene, but there was still plenty of opportunity.

"I think that's enough," he murmured.

"You know, I should go too," Tony glanced at Natasha and Coulson. "An old friend of mine just collapsed, you see."

"Your old friend would want you to visit him during visitor's hours," Coulson said with that mild smile that was translated, sit your ass down and shut up, or I will have the Black Widow physically restrain and humiliate you in front of this crowd. Steve was getting pretty good at translating Coulson's odd mannerisms.

"Oh, fuck you, Phil."

"Tony! What is your problem?" Pepper had the sense to keep her voice down. Tony was being crude, but so far he had not spoken loud enough to be heard beyond the circle of their table. Steve was actually very impressed at the composure of everyone around him. He was not entirely certain what had passed, but he did know Tony had faced down monsters without batting an eye. That his hands were shaking now was truly a sign of his distress.

Which brought the question to front: what had Roland Allen done to Tony Stark? It must have been pretty gruesome to cause this kind of response.

"I hope my file reads like a goddamn porno," Tony said viciously. Steve startled. Where was this coming from? The anger had been focused before, but now it seemed to be lashing outward at anyone who dared talk to him. "Did it make you uncomfortable, Agent Coulson?"

"SHIELD files aren't as comprehensive as you think," Coulson said. Tony snorted and reached for his drink again, glaring when Steve picked it up first and set it out of his reach. "Relax, Mr. Stark. This was simply the most expedient way to diffuse the situation."

"The situation," Tony said, all wide-eyed innocence and mockery. "There wasn't any situation, Phil. Believe it or not, I can make it through an evening without causing a scene."

"I wasn't worried about you causing a scene," Coulson said, and his gaze shifted. Steve felt himself flush when the man's eyes met his. "I was worried Rogers would."

"Oh, um…" There was nothing to say to that. Coulson was right, he supposed. He had been a beat away from demanding Roland back the hell off of Tony. But then Coulson had separated them quickly and quietly, and he had not needed to do anything more than sit back and admire how efficient the SHIELD agent was.

"Goddamn it," Tony groaned. "Cap, if you don't give me my drink now, I really will leave."

Do I have a thing for torturing Tony? Why yes. Yes, I do.