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Float like a butterfly (sting like a bee)

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Steve checks the address on the business card and picks up the pace: it might rain and he doesn’t want to do this soaking wet. Meeting Nick Fury is the right thing to do, if only to hear what he has to offer. Steve’s got to find a new team and a new gym to train at as soon as possible since staying at Joe’s is impossible now that the old man is retiring; his son Alec is way too close to the criminal underworld for Steve’s taste. Getting out means Steve has left without the money he’s owed from the fight that marked his big return, but he’s ready to give that up to keep a clear name. Fury’s been trying to get him to sign with him for months anyway, urging him to come and meet the team and see if he’d like it, promising that he could orchestrate Steve’s climb to the top ranks of boxing after a five year break, way better than Joe or Alec could ever do. It’s about time Steve investigates.

Fury's boxing gym is in an unassuming brick building in a semi-rough neighborhood, but the first thing that hits Steve when he enters is how modern looking the place is: lots of open space, plenty of light, mirrors all over the place and equipment that looks brand new. There are three rings, at least half a dozen heavy bags, and the far corner seems set with several weight and training machines. It’s such a contrast to the stuffy and all around cliché look of Joe’s gym that Steve feels as if he’s just stepped into the future. He’s still taking it all in, undoubtedly with wide eyes, when there’s a voice behind him.

"Steve Rogers! I hope you didn’t have problems finding the place." Furry walks over with a smile, offering a hand that Steve shakes firmly.

"No, not at all. Thank you for agreeing to meet me, Sir," Steve says.

"The pleasure is all mine, glad you finally agreed to come and have a look," Fury says.

Steve gives a little gesture to encompass the space around them. "Very impressive."

Fury laughs. "We recently redecorated. It’s nice facilities, but our strength has always been and will always remain the people: the trainers, the coaches and our medic team. Speaking of –"

Another man, thin but wiry with a slightly receding hairline, is walking towards them. He’s got sharp blue eyes and smiles as they shake hands.

"Phil Coulson, Steve Rogers." As Fury introduces him, Steve recognizes the guy. Coulson is one of Fury’s coaches, and a great one at that if the grapevine is to be believed.

"Mr. Coulson," Steve says with a nod.

"Phil, please. I’m very happy to meet you," Phil says.

Fury’s phone rings and after checking the caller ID, he makes a face.

"I’m sorry, I have to get this," he says. He answers, barks a "hold it a second" in the phone and then looks at Phil. "You’ve been asking that I recruit this guy for months, now’s your chance. Steve, there’s no pressure but if you find yourself interested in what we offer and want to discuss a possible contract afterwards, I’ll be in my office. I’m sorry, but this can’t wait," he continues, jiggling the phone.

"It’s fine." Steve watches as Fury stalks towards a staircase that leads to office space on a mezzanine.

"So, huh," Coulson says, "As Fury said, I was, huh, following your career attentively, and I’ve always like your style. A lot. You’re good, very good, fast for your size and you never back down. Very admirable."

He sounds a little star-struck and Steve wonders if this is going to get weird. "Thank you." It's almost as a question and Coulson visibly shakes himself.

"Right, right, you must hear that all the time. But I’ve watched the tapes, all of them, I have a collection you see, of the amateur fights, and I think I could help you with your jab and your stance. You take way too many hits for nothing, especially with what I saw this last time, when you started boxing again."

Steve is intrigued by that affirmation because no coach since Erskine has had any complaint for his technique. He’s been trying to work on his jab on his own though, but all of what Joe, and then Bill who replaced him, cared about were his power punches.

"So you’d be my coach?" Steve asks, and Coulson nods.

"Yes, though I’m telling you now that I ask a lot of my fighters. You’d have to be ready to work hard."

Steve can deal with that. "I take training seriously."

"Good. Because I wouldn’t go easy on you," Coulson says and already Steve can see the admiration slip to the side and an evaluating gleam take over. "Do you want to try a bit of focus mitts and see how we work together?"

"I haven’t got my stuff," Steve says, though it’s a shame.

"That can be arranged," Coulson replies with a smile. He then whistles sharply and shouts, "Barton! A minute?"

The gym is almost empty, but a guy who’s been relentlessly hitting the speedbag, while not so subtly keeping an eye on their conversation, trots over. Phil introduces them but Steve has seen him before, he was on his last boxing card; since Clint Barton is in a lower weight class, Steve has only seen him box that time on the monitor while he was warming up, or on TV. Barton is a good fighter, intense. One of Coulson’s too, if Steve remembers right.

"Captain." Barton's grin transforms his whole face.

Steve can’t help but feel uncomfortable. "I’m not in the Army anymore," he says, cursing Joe who never discouraged the press and let the nickname stick. "Steve’s fine."

"Okay. Then call me Clint. Pleasure."

"Why don’t you show him the lockers," Coulson tells Clint. "And get him a kit, we’ll go in the ring for a bit."

"Yes, Sir," Clint says with a cheeky salute.

The locker room is just as sleek and beautiful as the rest of the gym, finished with lightly colored wood - probably pine - polished metal and warm ceramic.

"Nice," Steve says, noticing a massage table.

"I know, right?" Clint says, going to a cabinet and looking through what seems like piles of workout clothes of the same design. "Tony had the place overhauled. Here, this should fit you, they were made with Thor in mind."

He's handed gym shorts, red with a gold waistband and lines on the sides, with a red sleeveless top that has a white and blue SB logo emblazoned in the middle of the chest. It tugs at a memory but it’s gone just as fast. Clint has those same shorts but a black tank top that shows off his arms very nicely. Steve quickly averts his eyes because he learned a long time ago that you should never look too long no matter how much you enjoy the view.

"Thor’s training here?" Steve says, perking up when he processes the information. He has never faced the guy, but Steve’s met him before and he’d loved his broad smile and no-nonsense attitude. Steve watched his fight in Atlantic City the night before, and the "God of Thunder" as they call him all but destroyed his adversary to retain his WBC championship belt. Steve knows Fury manages Thor, but he was under the impression that he trained in New Mexico.

"Yeah, he followed Jane, who took a job at NYU. He’s been here for a couple of weeks now," Clint says. "Great guy, lots of fun. His brother has a stick up his ass, but what can you do, it’s a two for one. I’m ready to admit Loki gets the best out of Thor in training though."

Steve nods; he’s met Loki too, always a shadow of his brother, who acts as agent and trainer. Steve’s distracted from the conversation by a shiny metallic half sphere with several lights, maybe nine inches across, which is buzzing in a corner. He’s a bit baffled and it must show on Steve’s face because Clint laughs.

"Oh, that’s Watch Out," he says and the machine chirps, then turns and comes when Clint calls to it, rolling with a clicking sound. "Hey boy," Clit adds, petting it. The thing makes more sounds, but it doesn’t help Steve at all.

"What is it?" he asks.

"He cleans the floors, and does a good job of it," Clint says with another encouraging pet and smiles up at Steve. "He used to be silent, but there were several near accidents where people almost backed up and tripped on him. We kept having to yell 'watch out!' at each other and this loon decided it was his name."

The robot, that’s the best description, makes sounds again as if it understood its name.

"It's okay boy," Clint declares. "Good thing you're pretty."

Steve finds it a bit strange to talk to the robot as if it’s a pet or a sentient being, but he doesn’t know Clint well enough to say so. He settles for saying, "Okay..." while dragging the syllables and Clint laughs.

"You'll get used to him, he's part of the family. Hey, Watch Out! I think I saw spilled water near ring number two!"

Immediately the robot whirs and speeds out of the lockers, making urgent clicking sounds. Clint sniggers and Steve blinks.

"Was that even true?" he asks.

"Nah. It’s going to drive him nuts though, but he can’t go cry to daddy 'cause he’s not here right now." Steve’s about to ask who said daddy is when Clint shoves the workout clothes at him. "Here, Coulson doesn’t like to wait, and I don’t want to get blamed. What’s your shoe size?"

And lo and behold, there are several boxes of new shoes at the bottom of the cupboard and Steve begins to think that it could be really nice to train in a place like this.

***

Fury brings the stack of papers to him and Steve can’t help but stare. Most of what they discussed are standard clauses, but he can’t believe the paperwork is done so fast. As they talked and negotiated, Fury had steadily fed info into his computer, and there is their agreement, already printed in three copies.

"I suggest you bring these to your lawyers, have them go over it and call me if there’s something," Fury says.

Yeah, right, Steve hasn’t had that kind of support since the Army and even then, he didn’t have much of a say on the matter. It’s certainly not Matty who does the accounting for Joe - and who mostly robbed him - who would be of good counsel. With the amount the contract is worth, Steve could get someone to examine it for free in return of hiring them for these kind of things in the future but... he feels like this is right. He’s read a lot, studied the few available contracts he’s been able to put his hands on to avoid getting screwed again and he’s pretty sure the deal is fair.

"Give me a minute to read it over before I go?" Steve asks.

Fury nods. "Sure. I’ll leave you to it."

Steve starts from page one and takes his time, going over the structure and the language on top of the amounts and percentages written, and he makes his way through it all. Fury barely blinked at his demands, which Steve figures is a sign that he could have asked for way more. On the other hand, Steve refused to sign anything that kept him in one place for 5 years - who knows if he’ll still want to box then, he just really needs the money right now - so it’s a two-year contract with a clause to prolong if both parties agree.

The contract is set between SB Inc., who Fury said is the holding company financing his operations, and Steve as an individual, even though Fury suggested he should set up his own business for his protection. All in all, Steve’s not getting the impression that they are trying to take advantage, and once he finishes reviewing the whole thing, he’s still convinced in his gut that this is right; he finds a pen on Fury’s desk and signs and initials everything. Okay, it’s true that he’s just come down from a great endorphin high from having trained with Coulson and trying out the equipment – pretty amazing tech, efficient, different from anything he’s ever seen before - but Steve’s got a good feeling about this.

Steve gathers the signed contracts and the pen and exits the office space, going down the stairs. Clint is in the ring under Coulson’s supervision and currently sparring with a younger guy that is quite frankly in over his head. Clint’s joking nature seems to have completely disappeared at the moment, as he listens to Coulson’s requests and executes them flawlessly. Fury is watching them, arms crossed over his chest in a way that reminds Steve more of the captain of a pirate ship overseeing his crew than of a boxing promoter (the all black getup and the eye patch helps).

"Here," Steve says when he slides up next to Fury, giving him the papers. Fury flips through them and raises an eyebrow at the signatures.

"Are you sure, son?" he asks, which cements the decision for Steve.

"Yeah, unless you want to up the bonus."

Fury laughs and takes the pen Steve offers him, then puts the contacts on the ring’s surface to sign them too. He then gives a copy back with his hand to shake on the deal.

"Welcome to the team, Rogers," he says with a grin as they seal it.

"Thank you," Steve says, and he catches Coulson smiling wide too.

Just then there is a commotion as a little group comes in the door, speaking loudly and laughing. The first in is Thor with a little brunette woman he’s got an arm slung around, followed by his brother Loki and a short man with glasses and curly hair. There’s also a man Steve recognizes as James Rhodes, a light heavyweight fighter, and a slight woman with red hair who moves like a dancer. Clint whoops as they come in and jumps over the ropes and down out of the ring to greet them.

"Hey guys, congrats! Wish I’d been there!" he says, hugging and/or fist-bumping everyone.

"It has been a good event for us indeed!" Thor says, squeezing Clint until he squeaks. "You would have enjoyed the celebrations!"

Steve hangs back while Fury goes to congratulate his boxers, most having won the night before.

"Tony threw an insane party again, didn’t he?" Clint says plaintively. "I miss all the fun!"

As he says so, another man and a second red haired woman come in, or more to the point the guy swaggers in, all smiles and dark shades even if it’s now raining outside.

"You do miss all the fun, sweet cheeks," the guy tells Clint with a smirk. "You know me: party big or go home."

There is no mistake to be had with that attitude and Steve can’t help but frown as he recognizes Tony Stark. The boxing press has been eating up the story of the young billionaire playboy, said to be a genius, but who has decided on a whim to try out boxing. His success and his supposed jaw of steel earned him the nickname of Iron Man, but he makes the headlines a lot more with the string of starlets he dates and his excesses in everything else, than for his boxing career. Cocky to the extreme, Stark plays the press, mocks and taunts his opponents until they snap, but generally ends up winning his bouts. Steve has always hated fighters who disgrace the sport like he does, turning it into a freak show with fireworks and mostly naked dancers when he enters the ring. What is worse is that the public adores him.

Steve’s got another reason for his annoyance: he knew Tony’s father, Howard, back when he was in the Army. Stark Industries were their armament suppliers at the time and Howard would often come into the field for weapon testing. After a while they’d become acquaintances, if not friends, and after a drink of three Howard would often talk about how Tony was wasting his potential and giving everyone around him grief, being a rebellious and difficult son. Howard died five years ago, just after Steve went off the grid after leaving the Forces, when the convoy he was part of was attacked in Afghanistan. Steve often wonders if he could have protected Howard if he hadn’t quit, and since he learned about the attack he couldn't quite shake a measure of guilt about it.

The conversation has gone on as Steve has been lost in thought, Coulson saying Clint couldn’t party until he's won the fight set in four weeks and Tony accusing Coulson of being smothering and no fun right back. Steve’s presence has been noted though, and one of the women walks right up to him, tilts her head and offers her hand.

"Natasha Romanov," she says.

"Steve Rogers, nice to meet you," he answers and he’s distracted enough by her dissecting gaze that he reacts with a start when the papers he’s been holding in his other hand are snatched away from him.

"Is this what I think it is?" Stark is saying, going through the contract. He’s grinning, almost bouncing on his toes.

"Hey, that’s private," Steve snaps, trying to get the contract back.

Stark smiles up at him, throwing a wink in for good measure, and goes back to reading. "Sorry, gorgeous, not to me. I thought that Fury was yanking my chain. Good job, Nick, by the way. And sheesh, it’s pretty much a bargain."

Steve is frowning. "Give me that," he says. "The contract terms are between me and Mr. Fury, I don’t appreciate..."

Tony gives the papers back but rolls his eyes, and extends a hand to Fury who... gives him his copy? He looks slightly sheepish about it, at least, then leaves for his office, phone on his ear again.

"See this?" Stark says, pointing to the SB lettering on the contract’s header, and then poking the same design that’s embroidered on Steve’s shirt. "SB, that’s for Stark Boxing. The company is mine, this gym and many more like it are mine, the clothes on your back are mine and, dare I say, this," he shakes the papers, "says that your pretty ass is mine, too."

Steve gapes, but yeah, he knew he’d seen that logo before. Red and gold, a dash of blue, those are the colors Stark favors, too, why didn’t Steve ask more questions? His shock must show on his face because Stark’s smile turns more friendly.

"Look, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, I’m just thrilled to know you’re with SB now. My dad used to talk about you all the time."

Steve huffs, annoyed.

"Yeah, he used to talk about you, too," he replies with scorn and the effect is immediate on Stark who startles as if he’s been slapped, before his face shuts off.

Steve doesn’t know why he said that, and in that tone, but he can’t find it in him to be sorry right now if the effect is that Stark turns on his heels and walks away. It’s only when he notices how everyone else is staring at him in disbelief that Steve realizes he’s crossed a line and just insulted his new employer. Shit. It’s James Rhodes who reacts first, shooting daggers with his eyes at Steve before running after Tony.

The first to speak up is the strawberry blonde woman, wearing a sharp business suit and four-inch heels.

"Was that really necessary?" she asks, looking at him up and down, her mouth a thin line of disapproval as if she just witnessed him kicking a puppy.

Steve is frankly mortified that his temper got the better of him, and he feels himself blush from embarrassment.

"Pepper..." Phil starts, trying to get in between them. Pepper Potts, then. The most successful boxing agent out there, tough as nails and not an enemy to make in the business. Shit.

"I’m sorry," Steve says, rubbing his neck. "I have no idea why I said that. He was in my face and-"

"Newsflash, Rogers, being in people’s faces is what Tony does," the man with curly hair says, roughly cleaning his glasses with the edge of his shirt. Judging by his physical shape it’s pretty clear the guy’s not a boxer, but he gives the vibe that he’d be dangerous when angry. Which he is right now, clearly, though he doesn’t get in Steve’s face more than that before picking up a tool chest and following Pepper towards the locker rooms where Tony and Rhodes disappeared. Oh, damn, that must be the doctor. Getting on the Doc’s bad side is such a bad idea.

Clint, who’s been nothing but friendly since Steve arrived, doesn’t even look at him and tows away a confused Thor with the help of Coulson, Loki and the brunette, which is a relief. Steve was wondering if someone would end up punching him next. Steve’s not quite sure why a remark about Howard is getting such a reaction, but what is clear is that he doesn’t have the whole story.

"Care for advice?" Natasha asks. She doesn’t even wait for Steve to answer. "Call it a day."

Judging that it would be a bad idea to go back to the locker room to get his street clothes right now, since that’s where Stark retreated with his friends, Steve just nods and leaves.

***

He’d set off for his apartment at a quick jog, got soaked through in minutes, but half way there Steve remembered that his keys and his wallet were still at Fury’s gym. Or Stark’s gym, as it happens. He's had time to think and yeah, Steve’s ashamed to have said to a guy he just met that his dead father thought bad of him, it was really tactless and it’s no wonder that his friends were mad. He has to go back to get his stuff, but more than that Steve needs to apologize as soon as possible and clear the air between Stark and him. If Stark doesn’t accept his apology, Steve thinks he might have to try and break the contract: he can’t train somewhere everyone hates him.

There isn’t much light in the gym when Steve gets back, but the door is unlocked so he’s able to enter. The main area is deserted so he goes to the locker room to at least get his personal belongings. They are still in the locker he used earlier, and Steve quickly towels off and changes into his dry clothes. He’s about to leave when he hears a voice coming from a slightly ajar door in the very back of the room.

"There you go, baby. New and improved, how about that?"

There are whirring sounds and when Steve walks over and peaks through the door he sees that Tony is there, observing Watch Out gliding in figure eights on the ground. Stark is grinning, watching the robot click happily with all of its lights flashing as if it’s showing off, while absent-mindedly twirling a screwdriver. Since Steve left, Tony has gotten out of the suit jacket he had earlier, lost the tie and rolled up his sleeves, looking more casual and a lot more vulnerable, which doesn’t help with Steve’s guilt.

The room where Tony is working isn’t finished like the rest of the gym, and consists mostly of bare walls and a cement floor. It’s approximately 20 by 20 but filled with weird metallic shapes that Steve guesses are workout machines in development. The corner where Tony is sitting has several computers and some very impressive holographic displays floating in the air. Tony whistles at the robot and then throws a bolt on the ground past it, that Watch Out hurries to go and hoover up before coming back to get petted. It’s oddly reminiscent of a guy playing with his dog, and after a minute Steve clears his throat to get his attention. Stark startles and Steve doesn’t miss how he changes his grip on the screwdriver in a way that it could now be used as a weapon. Tony only marginally relaxes when he recognizes Steve.

"I’m sorry, the gym’s door was unlocked, I came to get my stuff," Steve says.

Tony nods, then turns towards his displays, flipping through screens and shapes rapidly before he makes them disappear.

"Yeah, okay, that’s fine," Tony says, not looking at him. The message is clear: you are dismissed.

"I’m glad you are here," Steve carries on, "because I wished to apologize, for earlier."

That makes Tony turn towards him again, at least. He's finished closing his displays and he gets up and starts rolling down his shirt sleeves, mindless of grease stains, then puts on his jacket and pockets his tie. It’s plain as day that with every passing second Stark is composing himself, as if putting on a suit of armor. The smile he gives Steve doesn’t go past his lips.

"Ah, no need for that, it’s alright," Stark says with a small wave. "Everyone overreacted, it was stupid."

Steve shakes his head. "No, I was out of line and I’m deeply sorry."

Tony scoffs lightly as that.

"No harm done," he says with a dismissive shrug and Steve feels even worse because it’s obviously a badly covered lie. "I’ll make sure to tell the mother hen squad you groveled, don’t worry. Just be here bright and early tomorrow, to show that you want to make this work." Tony pauses and blinks. "Or do you want out? Now that you know I’m the one who holds your contract?"

It doesn’t look as if Tony wants that, and even though Steve briefly thought about the possibility, he really had a positive feeling about the gym and Coulson until the incident.

"Not unless you or everyone else want me gone," Steve says.

"Of course not!" Tony's got a plastic smile in place again. As he walks by Steve, Tony hits the back of his hand on Steve’s arm. "Don’t worry, I’m gonna make a world champion out of you. Just wait and see, Cap."

Steve swallows the urge to correct Tony on the nickname and follows him out, and hopes the residual unease blows over soon.

***

It’s been a week now since Steve signed the contract, and mostly everything is going well. After a couple of days of hard stares from Tony’s closest friends, Steve’s been more or less accepted in the team. Training wise, everything is going great as Coulson is driving him hard but fairly, having planned a very strict regimen of work out, shadow boxing and sparring for him. Steve has had the humbling experience of getting in the ring with Thor, which hammered the point home that he wasn’t ready to face top contenders for the title right this second.

Steve’s zoning out a little while doing some stationary bike – he still has twenty minutes to do – when he notices Tony entering the gym. He’s not been around much, and if he has, he locked himself in the tech room in the back or with Fury in his office; Steve wonders if it’s normal or if he’s trying to avoid him. To his surprise, a disembodied voice called JARVIS once addressed Steve when he entered the workshop, and since then he's learned it acts as Tony's assistant or something. He didn’t ask too many details. Right now, Tony’s focused on a computer tablet, barely conscious of what is around him. As usual Watch Out comes out of nowhere and starts making excited sounds while skidding laps around him, which Steve is starting to find endearing.

"Hi baby," Tony says distractedly.

Clint, who had been doing some focus mitts with Coulson in the ring, makes Tony look up with a loud whistle.

"Hey, Richie Rich," Clint shouts. "Why don’t you bring your pampered ass up here?"

Tony shakes his head but he’s smiling. "Can’t right now, I’ve got companies to run. Two of them."

Clint shrugs and takes a sip of water from the squirt bottle when offered by Coulson. "Ah, it’s okay. I understand. No one wants to be humiliated."

The taunt makes Tony’s eyebrow rise in an expression of disbelief.

"Fuck you, Barton. You know I could take you if I wanted. I just have more important things to do right now."

"Blah blah blah," Clint says. "All talk, all the time. We’re used to it."

That barb seems to hit and Tony’s jaw clenches. "Fine, but don’t go crying to Fury if you get hurt three weeks before your big fight."

"Bring it on," Clint says, gesturing.

Tony turns and stalks towards the lockers; meanwhile Steve overhears Coulson chiding Clint. "Why the hell would you do that?"

"He needs to get out of his head once in a while, you know that," Clint answers. "Plus he’ll give me a good workout."

When Tony gets back, he’s got one of the red and gold kits and a determined expression on his face. It’s the first time Steve has seen him in training gear and he can’t help giving an appreciative glance. Tony is a middleweight, so at most 160 pounds when in fighting weight, but he’s got nice shoulders, well-defined arms, a tiny waist and a fantastic ass, from what Steve can see. The mere thought has Steve quickly looking away, blushing in embarrassment, though he can’t keep from looking for long as Clint and Tony start to spar.

Clint is in great shape and a good ten pounds heavier than Tony, but they are surprisingly evenly matched. Steve doesn’t think that Clint is going easy on Tony, though he’s sure not going all-out, and they trade blows that must hurt. They are both fast and powerful for their size and it’s great to see them dance around each other, trading insults and hits in turn. Tony goes all-in from the get go, but he seems to tire after a couple of rounds, his guard slipping down. Coulson stops them before it gets unbalanced and to Steve’s surprise, Tony doesn’t protest. Clint brings him in a hug and says something in his ear that makes Tony throw back his head and laugh, and Steve is hit by how beautiful he is. It’s really not the time for him to develop a crush on a man he doesn’t even get along with, but from the way Steve’s blood is running faster without being due to the exercise he’s doing, he might already be in trouble.

"Have you been slacking off with your training again?" asks a stocky man Steve hadn’t even seen enter the gym, enthralled as he was with the sparring. "Guard slipping down after three rounds? Really?"

Tony brightens up even more and hurries to get out of the ring to greet him.

"Happy! I thought you were coming back Wednesday!" Tony exclaims, giving him a hug.

There is only affection on the man’s face as he ruffles Tony’s damp hair.

"It is Wednesday, you idiot. You’ve not been sleeping again? How do you even survive when I’m not there?" Happy says.

"You know me, Coach," Tony says with a wink. "I need your, and Pepper’s, gentle nagging to function."

"And he admits it." Happy shakes his head. "Look at what that does to you when I take a vacation. You lose all of your stamina."

Tony laughs again, towing Happy towards the locker rooms. "Oh, I don’t know about that, no one ever complained about my stamina, if you know what I mean!" he says, crass but, so help Steve, charming nonetheless. Tony sees him staring, and only hesitates a fraction of a second before bringing the man closer. "And look who’ve we’ve managed to sign," he adds, pointing at Steve.

Happy blinks as Steve gets off his bike, extending his hand while Tony does the introductions.

"Happy Hogan, my coach," Tony tells Steve, then adds. "And the one and only Steve Rogers, back from his cryogenic sleep, or wherever he was in the last five years."

"It’s a pleasure, Captain," Hogan says, and at long last Steve decides to let the nickname thing go, as he obviously will never get rid of it.

"Pleasure’s all mine, Mr. Hogan."

***

Steve’s about to leave for the night, and he’s the last one in the gym – save for Tony, of course, who’s in his workshop (he calls it his third favorite, as it seems genius billionaires must own several workshops). Tony is always the last one to leave, at whatever hour that is. Steve suspects that some nights he doesn’t leave at all. Steve doesn’t like to leave Tony lost in thought while the gym’s door is open for any thug who’d want to get in, so he peers in the workshop’s doorway once he’s ready to go.

"Hey, Tony," he says to get his attention away from whatever he’s tinkering on. "I’m done, but I’ll lock the door behind me."

"Yeah, okay, sure thing, though JARVIS checks security," Tony says, distracted, shuffling things around on the holographic display.

That’s pretty much the bulk of their interactions, impersonal but civil, and Steve’s about to leave when he notices that Tony’s not working on complex mechanical schematics but has dozens of little pictures with text floating around. Curious, he walks over and Steve sees that he’s in one of the windows with what appears to be his stats. The other ones are all current heavyweight boxers in the circuit, from the whole alphabet soup. As he watches, Tony rearranges the images and checks his computer screen.

"What is this?" Steve asks, and Tony jumps in surprise, putting a hand on his chest.

"Jesus Christ! You almost gave me a heart attack, I thought you were gone."

"Sorry. So?" Steve asks again.

"That’s my secret, if you need to know," Tony explains. "How I find the best fighters for the company and manage to bring them to the top in the most effective way. Or, you know," he adds, winking at Steve, "How to put myself in the least number of fights for the maximum results. JARVIS? Put all of the cards out and show the rankings."

At the command, the air fills with even more photos, many hundreds of them, and several listing the best ranked fighters for the WBA, the WBF, the IBF, and the WBO, plus the combined chart in all weight classes. Tony sweeps everything away but the middleweights, where he figures as fourth contender in the IBF.

Tony blows his own picture bigger so Steve can see some of the information that is compiled with it.

"JARVIS has everything in his databases about everyone that’s relevant. Fights, against whom, at what date, what the fighters are worth in marketability, all the stats from win and loss to the scores given by the judge – and which judge - at each round, the number of punches thrown broken down by type, by round, by sequence, etc., etc. I also have the amateur data if it’s available, training regimen, coaches history, what he likes to eat, strength and weaknesses, everything."

The amount of information it represents, for all of the fighters, is enormous and it makes Steve’s head spin a little. "You use it to make predictions?"

Tony smiles at him and for once it’s genuine. "Exactly. I programmed the algorithm myself and it can be used to predict results for a specific fight. The accuracy rate when I have all of the data is 92 % in a sample of 200 bouts this year, and frankly the only thing that throws the program is an unknown injury."

Steve whistles in admiration, because holy shit, ninety two percent accuracy? Some people in the gambling industry would kill for a tool like that. Maybe that’s why Tony’s so rich.

"I rarely bet, if you’re wondering," Tony says after watching him and obviously reading his mind. "Well I do, sometimes, but I also put money on fighters I know will lose not to raise suspicions. I’d appreciate if you didn’t talk of this because that’s just a nice collateral bonus. The real purpose of the program is to establish patterns and detect which fighters will rise, and at what pace. Most boxing promoters are predictable, so I’ve been able to determine what the main fights in most boxing cards would be this year as far back as three years ago. There is the occasional wild card, like you coming back, but in general it’s pretty accurate even with the up and coming."

"So with that you know, for example, which fighter to put Clint against so he rises faster in the ranks," Steve says.

Tony nods. "Yeah. You’ve got to select a good adversary, strong enough so the fight is tight because it will give a good show, but that your guy will win, too. Right now I’m trying to figure out the best path for you to get the WBA title, without stripping Thor of his in the WBC." He gestures away his profile and brings back the cards from when Steve entered the room. "The most probable course has you there in three years and five fights, show it JARVIS."

On a previously empty space, a timeline unfurls with Steve’s profile matched with various adversaries, where he always wins before going to a new one. Up and down his timeline, the progression of the other guys are illustrated, too, and when Steve starts to follow them, he has to agree with most of the predicted results, even though some of the victories surprise him. All in all, it seems doable and it makes something flutter in Steve’s stomach to see a possible future where he could be world champion in as little as three years. It brings a certain amount of pressure, too.

"I’m not sure I should be seeing this," he says, hesitant. What if he loses and throws everything out of whack?

"Well you’re right about that, no fighter ever sees this, only me and Fury," Tony says. "But it’s okay, because I’m going to do better than that."

"Better?"

Steve blinks as Tony sweeps the air clean, leaving only his picture.

"I’ll admit it’s a long shot, but with a good marketing strategy, that you will surely hate with every fiber of your being, I predict you’ll have your belt in six months," Tony says, eyes gleaming.

"What?" Steve exclaims. That’s downright utopic. He’s not even back to full fighting form, yet.

Tony selects a card from the virtual deck beside him and throws it forward so it joins Steve’s profile. It’s Victor von Doom, nicknamed the Doctor, renowned for his surly temper but terribly effective right hook, ranked 5th right now in the WBA and therefore a very big bite for Steve to take. Tony’s program puts a 65 % chance for Steve to win next to the match-up.

"Tough, but doable. He was supposed to fight Ben Grimm in a couple of months but for some reason the deal fell through. I’m ready to offer Doom a shitload of money so he accepts fighting you instead, and he’s so arrogant that he’ll think beating you is going to be a piece of cake. Then, and again it all banks on that marketing shindig I was talking about, there comes the big one."

Tony flips his wrist and sends the picture of Johann Schmidt beside Steve’s in place of Doom. Schmidt has been the undisputed WBA champ for the last 3 years and Steve’s blood runs cold. He knows the guy and if he had one nemesis back in the days, it was Schmidt. They’ve boxed against each other often enough in the amateur ranks, and Steve lost to him in the most high profile bout he had managed to land in pro boxing before his, well, temporary retirement. Steve went off the grid right afterwards for a number of unrelated reasons, but he’s heard the coverage that Schmidt had bragged about having broken him for good. That’s rich coming from a fight decided by a split decision where Steve is convinced he should have won, but that’s typical Johann Schmidt for you.

Right beside this new match-up, the percentages are at 50-50.

Steve is stunned, stuck in a loop of what once was and could be again, until something Tony mentioned comes back to him.

"And what, exactly, would be that marketing shindig I would hate so much that you mentioned?" Steve asks wearily.

Tony grins, wicked. "I thought you would never ask. We take you, ex-Army Captain Steve Rogers, Olympic gold medalist and darling of America at the time, and exploit your image of the ultimate good guy: respectful, sympathetic, wholesome, a little bit old fashioned, and a white knight in a world of bums and show-offs like me. We make you irresistible to kids and the good folks as you once were. But forget about banking on the image of the super soldier: we turn you into the war vet, who’s seen too much, a superhero with boxing gloves who fights the good fight and who gives back to the community." Tony pauses for effect. "If you’ll let me, I’ll turn you into Captain America."

Steve gapes, speechless. Tony’s right, it sounds like a total nightmare.

The man has the audacity to cackle as he blows Schmidt’s image bigger. "Trust me, Schmidt won’t be able to resist the urge to fight you if only to bring you down from your high horse and mess you up."

It could be only Steve’s residual uneasiness about his and Tony’s false start talking, but that last statement sounds a tiny bit too much like wishful thinking for Steve’s taste.

***

Steve learns that unless one’s close enough to a fight, it’s mandatory to attend all boxing events where someone from the club is fighting. Moral support, he’s told, and as Steve finds himself cheering for Clint like crazy, he can see how it tightens the bonds of the team to be right there. Stark’s contacts and money assures they have almost ringside tickets, which makes it one of the most involved experiences Steve’s had as a spectator. Clint sticks to the program and boxes his heart out, winning the bout by a TKO in the seventh round, and winning over the crowd while he’s at it.

To say Clint is stoked when he’s done would be an understatement; back in the prep room, Clint keeps whooping and hugging everyone, still bouncing on the adrenaline high. When Tony gets caught, he laughs freely, which is such a far cry from the snark he usually wraps himself in that it strikes Steve all over again, how little they see Tony lower his guard.

"That’s my boy," Tony croons, hugging right back. "Did I tell you that moron wouldn’t be a problem for you or what?"

"Yes, yes you did," Clint says with a grin, before bouncing over to Natasha, who lets herself be glomped, too.

Tony, still smiling wide, then claps his hands.

"Okay, everybody out, let’s get going to the second floor, you know where, while our champ here washes the sweat and grime off," he orders, before throwing up a dual 'V' for victory sign. "As usual, the party’s on me!"

There is a cheer at that, and even Steve finds himself looking forward to it.

***

A Stark party in Las Vegas consists of a semi-private salon, where the guests are screened before they're admitted. There’s even a bouncer at the door – bigger than anyone else, including the night's heavyweights, where did Tony even find that guy? - who checks a StarkPad to see if people wanting in are on a pre-approved list, unless of course they are young and hot. Those, and probably several professional escorts, Steve is sure, get a free entry.

Three lovely girls tried to chat Steve up when they first got in the room, almost in succession, but after Steve politely turned down their advances, he's been mostly left alone while nursing a beer. He's never been good with mingling and cruising, and anyway he's not interested in a hook up. Steve has always been more attracted to men anyway, even though he rarely acts on it, first because there was Don't Ask Don't Tell in the forces and he was afraid of getting thrown out, and afterwards because he's not interested in one night stands, which seems to be the easiest way to meet gay men. There had been the three months dating Danny, a couple of years back, but that's it. He'd had a couple of relationships with women too, even truly loved Peggy and thought they'd marry and settle down at one point, but unfortunately it hadn't worked out either and she'd moved back to England. Steve often misses her; he should call her and see how she's doing.

Apart from the who’s who of boxing and the pretty people, alcohol is flowing, music is thumping and there are endless trays of delicious finger foods being passed around by a catering service. A slightly less exuberant Clint soon joins them, followed by Coulson who surprisingly looks a little bit flushed. Tony intercepts Clint and guides him around the room to be congratulated by the guests. It’s done so effortlessly that it takes a bit for Steve to catch on that Tony is working right now and barely sipping his champagne glass; he's probably setting up feelers for future fights. Clint plays along for maybe half an hour, but then gets restless and Tony lets him go.

From then on Clint all but squats the dance floor, mostly dancing with Natasha in a way that speaks of a long familiarity with each other, while Coulson – never very far away – looks at them with affection. Steve hasn't asked, but he’s been wondering if Clint and Natasha were a couple for weeks now. The way they dance is almost too suggestive and Steve, who gets embarrassed easily, turns to watch the crowd instead. His attention is automatically drawn to Tony, as it has been lately, and Steve watches him continue to walk from one group to the other with grace, shaking hands and having short conversations with pretty much everyone who showed up. He’s also flirting outrageously with every woman present, young and old, and quite a few of the men as well. Steve is man enough to admit that his effort not to let Tony get under his skin has failed spectacularly: for better or for worse he's fascinated and he can't keep his eye off him for long, no matter how much he tries.

"See something you like, Captain?"

The voice over his shoulder makes Steve jump and his heart skips a beat. It's Loki, all sleek lines and impeccable taste in his perfectly tailored suit and silk scarf, leaning against the bar right by Steve's side; he didn't even notice when Loki got there, that's how entranced Steve was. It's embarrassing to get caught, and Steve feels a blush rising to his cheeks. He doesn't bother denying what Loki said either, but maybe he can redirect his attention to something less embarrassing than a hopeless crush.

"He's not what I expected him to be," Steve says, and realizes the thought has been brewing in him for a while.

Loki hums in agreement. "Stark is a man of many masks."

"True," Steve admits and with a nod Loki drains his martini and ambles to his brother's side, who's gesturing expansively while he converses with James Rhodes.

A man with multiple masks is one of the best descriptions Steve's heard for Tony Stark: he gratefully hides behind the adjectives and epithets people throw at him, flipping through them at will, while doing his best to hide everything else. It doesn't take much observation to realize it's an elaborate defense mechanism and Steve wonders how Howard, who only seemed to focus on Tony's flaws, could have missed it. Maybe Howard saw right through it too, Steve has no idea; he's beginning to believe he didn't know the man at all.

Right now Tony has stopped his mingling and has sat down in a corner, where he's every inch the carefree billionaire playboy Steve's heard about, two gorgeous women all over him with coy smiles and bold touches. Tony just lounges in his seat and flirts back while doing tequila body shots in the dip of the blonde's collar bone, then on the bare midriff of the brunette, making them laugh and squirm. For how many years now has Tony had women throwing themselves at him, either for his charm, his fame or his money? It's the mask Steve hates the most, if only for the pang of longing that hits him when they start trading kisses, shameless, playful and the three of them of so beautiful together it hurts.

***

Steve might be used to dealing with unrequited feelings and attraction – he grew up with Bucky, after all, and nursed an epic crush on him until the tragic end – but that doesn't mean he's a masochist. When the public making-out session between Tony and his two new lady friends became almost soft-core porn, Steve hightails it out of the party.

He's lost in thought and even though he sees a couple kissing passionately as soon as he turns into the corridor leading to his hotel room, it takes a couple of seconds for Steve to realize it's Clint, too busy with his partner to get his door open. It makes sense: the man had several offers downstairs after all, winners always do, but a fraction of a second after that it's clear that he's making out with a man. It shouldn't be, but it's a shock: the boxing world is, in Steve's experience, not gay friendly at all. He's heard homophobic slurs since he started fighting ten years ago, and Steve's always been careful to hide that part of himself, as he didn't want the complications that came with someone knowing about it.

Steve's wondering if he should turn around and leave until Clint manages to get in the room and then pretend he never saw anything, when he recognizes who Clint is trying to climb like a tree at the moment: Phil Coulson. His coach. Clint's coach. Steve freezes, probably gapes a little bit too, and it's too late to turn tail as they've finally noticed him back.

Phil is the one to notice, and he breaks the kiss, making Clint whine as he pushes him slightly away. Steve feels himself blushing bright red and he starts backing off, raising his hands.

"I'm sorry, I didn't want -" he stammers.

Clint whips around and stares at Steve, morphing from wanton to fight-ready in a fraction of a second. He's flushed and tousled, but instinctively raises his fists and keeps Coulson protected behind his back which makes Steve stomach drop. Did Clint or Coulson ever get beaten up for being with a man, with them reacting like that? The snarl on Clint's face tones down to a scowl when he recognizes Steve, but he's still defiant when he speaks up.

"D'you have a problem with this?" he asks.

"Clint, calm down," Coulson says at the same time, putting a hand on Barton's hip. He looks calm even if flustered, but his face is closed off, too.

Hands still up in a non-threatening manner - or at least he hopes so - Steve shakes his head no.

"I swear, no problem at all. I'm just sorry I intruded," Steve says, then waves his keycard. "My room is right next to yours."

At last Clint brings down his fists, though he's still coiled tight. "Oh, okay."

Since turning around now would look stupid, Steve walks carefully towards them until he reaches his door, then opens it, while Clint stays between Steve and Phil at all times, to Coulson's obvious annoyance. Their eyes don't leave him, and it's pretty unnerving. He's almost home free when Steve dares to look at them again, just before closing the door. He's got to break the tension, in some way or the other.

"I hope the rooms are soundproof, I need my beauty sleep," Steve says, before pointing at Phil. "And don't forget, we have a training session at 0700, before the plane."

It was the right thing to do because both men relax and Clint smirks.

"Aye aye," he says. "I'll make sure the headboard doesn’t hit the wall too hard."

Surprisingly, Coulson blushes a deep red at that, but he smiles at Steve.

"I'll be there, see you tomorrow."

Steve makes a face. "Later, you mean." It's already 2am after all.

"Hey, you could reschedule and sleep in for once!" Clint tells Phil who starts to shake his head.

"That's fine with me," Steve says hurriedly. He's inexplicably relived to learn that the two of them seem in a relationship and not just hooking up tonight. "Heck, you guys won, a break is fine for tomorrow. Plus I get to sleep in too, maybe order room service. This room is bigger than my whole apartment!" He'd been shocked by the opulence, to be honest.

"Okay, fine," Coulson agrees. "Good night, Steve."

"Night," Steve answers, smiling at how the two men slowly gravitate back towards each other without seeming to realize it. He winks and adds: "Have fun," before closing his door.

Steve's heart is hammering in his chest and he's two seconds away from laughing hysterically. In the last five minutes, his whole world flipped: his coach is gay. His teammate is gay, too. They are gay together, and it seems to be working. Steve won't get kicked out of the gym if someone learns about him. He's not alone. The weight that comes off Steve's shoulders at that, that he didn’t even know he carried, is noticeable.

***

If he had to stop to consider his life right now, Steve would say that he feels like he's right where he belongs for the first time in years. He'd lost that feeling after the Olympics, not long before leaving the Force, when Bucky died on a mission in the Middle East. Losing his childhood friend was a terrible blow, of course, but Steve's subsequent disillusion with the Army unbalanced him so much that he started wondering if he was still where he had to be. Not even boxing had brought him peace anymore, which is a concept most people don't grasp when he tries to explain it.

Steve remembers how the press loved to present his story, when things were bright and shiny, as the ultimate example of If You Want It Enough, You Can Make It. He'd joined the Army not long after Bucky enlisted, even though Steve himself was at the time tall but skinny as a rail. Basic training had put some meat on his bones, but under Erskine's advice, who'd patched him up after a few scuffles with jerks, he'd entered the All-Army Boxing Team. A lot of people had laughed at him with his 6 feet something frame but barely 150 pounds at the time.

From there things had snowballed. A couple of wins in his unit – because like it or not, Steve had heart and he had an awesome reach for his weight class - and Steve had thrown himself into training and a high protein diet, where he'd finally earned the muscle mass that had eluded him all of his life. Then he'd registered as an amateur with USA Boxing, got half a dozen fights in his Passbook to prove a point, then got in the All-Army Boxing camp, where, as Steve always said, shit got real. His determination and commitment got him the advance to the Armed Forced Championship, where he'd won gold, moved to Nationals and the Word Military Games from CISM and from there to the World Class Athlete Program where Steve got to prepare for the Olympic trials.

It's right about then that the Army had started to cash in on the potential to use Steve as a recruiting tool. He'd been conscious of it, but it was fine with him at the time. He worked hard, was proud of his accomplishments, but still went back to his soldier duties on the field in the off-season before training started for the trials. As much as he loved the boxing, Steve still considered his real work and purpose to be a member of the US Army and to serve his country, side by side with the men of his unit. He kept his opinions of the places he was sent and the sometimes shady purposes of his missions to himself, did his job to the best of his capabilities, and earned a couple of medals for bravery (or, as Bucky had always called it, stupidity) in the process. It's around that time that Steve had gotten to know Howard Stark better and developed a somewhat friendship with the man.

When Steve went back state side for his training, he was thrown in a public relations loop, where the brass made Steve tour schools and the media where he'd gladly tell people how the Forces and the Boxing Program had been good for him. Everything whipped up in a frenzy when Steve had actually won the Olympic trials and got sent to the games. Suddenly all of America knew of him, from his sad orphan past to how he'd gone from a skinny runt to a war hero, even though that exaggeration always got on Steve's nerves. A tabloid even got wind of his romance with Peggy and Steve's face was all over the place.

He'd been sheltered from most of the tidal wave of publicity by the Army, up until he fought and won the heavyweight Olympic gold. Steve still remembers that night as one of the biggest rushes he's ever felt, everything slotting into place perfectly. He was 23 years old, in the best physical shape he'd ever been, he was sure at the time that he'd found the love of his life and now he was an Olympic gold medalist. Life didn't get better than that, or so he thought, and unfortunately the Universe clearly decided it was too much and threw him the curve ball to end them all. A week after his win, in the middle of a whirlwind of promo and receptions and shaking hands with the president, Bucky went MIA and then was pronounced quickly KIA, shattering Steve's world. Steve had been too busy basking in his glory to have Bucky's back, and he was plagued with nightmares about the 'what if's' and how different things could have been if he'd been there.

Steve wanted out of the spotlight, but drama sold, so the Army had kept him training and touring. Boxing could have been cathartic to deal with his grief, but instead he got more and more irritated at everything. The war didn't stop for marketing strategies, and when Steve's unit had been sent on missions without him and some of his men had gotten injured, Steve had started talking back, which hadn't pleased the brass. Steve could deal with being used as an example, but being kept from doing his real job was endlessly frustrating. Add to that Dr. Erskine, who'd been his first boxing coach, had been killed in a freak attack, his break up with Peggy after one too many screaming matches, and so once Steve had reached the end of his contract, he'd signed the discharge papers and left.

For a couple of months after that, Joe, a friend of a friend, had lured Steve into pro-boxing. Steve's name was still hot enough to draw crowds, but then he'd lost that fight to Johann Schmidt, and it was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, though it had nothing to do with the loss itself. Steve had left everything behind and had been running since, never staying in one place for long. He'd made do with little jobs here and there, and it was only six months ago and after five years of reclusiveness that Steve had finally headed his bike back to New York City and Joe's, and had decided to officially get back in the ring again. But here, in Fury and Stark's gym, Steve remembers what it is to have a home and a team and it feels good.

Steve thought that things would be better with Tony after they’d talked about the prediction program and that train wreck of a plan for Steve's future, but things are still strained. Basically, Tony Stark is a sarcastic asshole at all times but he teases people he likes and mocks everyone else. Unfortunately, Steve is still firmly out of the circle of trust and therefore gets the smirks and the light verbal jabs, when it's not complete avoidance... and that's what grates the most, because how is Steve supposed to make things right if he doesn’t have the chance to do so? Mostly his plan is to give Tony some time and take things slowly. At some point, he hopes Tony will lower his guard and start relaxing around him.

As it happens quite often, Steve and Tony are the only ones in the gym after 2200. Steve doesn't mind since it's easier to focus when there are no distractions, and Tony is generally holed up in the back with his machines and robots, anyway. Unless he's bored and looking for a fight, like right now.

"No, really, it's touching how you like it old school," Tony says, mocking smile in place as he leans on the wall, watching Steve doing his seventh round of jumping rope.

Steve's tired, sweaty and just about done for the day. He has no patience left for a spoiled brat.

"Perfectly good exercise," Steve says. "Doesn't need a five thousand dollar machine and it helps with agility, you should try it."

"Ohhh, feisty," Tony replies. Watch Out is rolling around Steve's feet now that he has stopped skipping, cleaning out the drops of sweat on the ground. "I wonder if we could bottle that, maybe market it as 'Eau de perfection'. It would just need a good catch phrase, like – "

"Okay, that's enough," Steve interrupts. He can't take this anymore: so much for being patient and taking things slow. "Let’s get in the ring."

Surprised, Tony blinks and then laughs.

"What? No. I don't need JARVIS to tell me that would be stupid. I'm many things, Cap, but not stupid."

"That's what you say," Steve mumbles, but he walks to Tony and then points towards the ring. "Come on. Let's get that frustration off your chest. I'll even let you hit me."

Tony sneers. "Yeah, right, just to humor me. How big of you."

"Don't worry, I’ll hit back enough to stun if you're not fast enough," Steve says.

That does it and Tony's scowl turns into a sly smile. "You'd like that, huh? To put me in my place?" Okay, so he's totally misunderstanding his intentions here, but Steve's so out of options to make things change, he'll go with it. "You’re on."

Tony whips his t-shirt off and puts on some gloves, though he doesn’t put on a practice helmet. Steve does the same and gets in the ring and stretches, waiting for Tony, and he sure hopes this won't degenerate. It can't be really worse, in his opinion. They start circling each other, hands high, and Steve waits for Tony to make the first move. Tony is uncharacteristically silent, which is unnerving and makes Steve speak up to fill the void.

"Where's your smart mouth now?" Steve asks as best he can with the mouthguard. "No joke? Nothing clever to say to make fun of me?"

That gets a reaction, at last.

"D'awww, did I hurt your feelings, Cap?" Tony asks. "I'm so sorry."

Which he is absolutely not, that's clear. Annoyed, Steve jabs him hard, which makes Tony reel back and wipes the smirk off his face.

"You're not sorry one bit, punk," Steve says. Goading Tony is probably a bad decision since the overall idea is to make things better between them, but the result is that Tony morphs into that determined being Steve saw against Clint the other week and suddenly the fight is on.

Steve is surprised at how hard Tony hits for his size when he starts throwing punches at his turn, and he immediately proceeds to stay as close as he can so that Steve cannot use his reach advantage. It's clever and Steve shouldn't be surprised that Tony's going all in, with no regards to the risks he takes to take hard blows at his turn. He's fast, all fluid movements, and Steve is rapidly distracted by how much Tony clings as soon as he's tired instead of stepping back and risking getting hit. Steve could use his considerable weight advantage and shove him away, but since the goal is to let Tony work though his aggression, it would be counterproductive.

Tony's been mostly silent apart from grunts and curses, especially if a punch from Steve lands – he tries not to put his whole mass into the shots, but it must hurt nonetheless – but as the fight progresses he starts talking in cut off sentences that make no sense.

"No wonder."

"Just wouldn't shut up."

"I was trying."

When Steve hears "I wish I could hate you!" he's stunned enough to forget his guard for a moment and Tony lands a uppercut directly to his face that makes his head snap back. The pain is sharp, intense and way, way too familiar: Steve immediately knows his nose is busted and blood starts gushing out. At the sight of it Tony refocuses as if coming out of a trance.

"Oh, shit! Are you okay?" Tony asks, visibly shocked.

Steve waves and gets his towel, trying to not to make a mess. A couple of drops of blood fall on the ground by the side of the ring and Watch Out, who was hovering around, get's frenetic as he cleans it off, lights flashing as he makes distressed sounds.

"I don't think it's broken," Steve says, towel still firmly pressed against his nose. "Well I hope."

Steve gets out of the ring and once in the locker room Tony helps him take off his gloves and brings him a bag of ice before hovering close, shifty. Watch Out does the same and Steve would smile if he wasn't busy feeling the bridge of his nose and wincing at the pain.

"I'm sorry," Tony says, and at least this time he sounds like it.

It's not the best opening, but maybe the guilt will make Tony listen for more than one second, so Steve risks it.

"Well I am still sorry about what I said on that first day," he says and Tony immediately crosses his arms defensively over his chest, looking ready to bolt. "Would you let me clarify what I’ve said? But please don’t punch me on the nose again right now."

Tony is scoping the exit and even starts to walk towards it. "I’m not sure I want –"

"Every time I’d see Howard, for the time I knew him, he’d talk about you," Steve says.

It seems to pain Tony, who's shaking his head.

"Look -"

He's making it so difficult, and Steve cannot help that his tone gets a bit desperate.

"Sit, please, let me talk," Steve says and if Tony doesn't sit, at least he stops moving towards the door. "One time, when an engineer messed up when programming something on a new radar system, Howard sneered at how his son could have done that at eight years old, or even before."

That makes Tony smirk and relax marginally.

"Probably. He’d really talk about me?" The hope on his face that it wasn't all bad things is heartbreaking.

"He did," Steve assures. "He'd tell me how you were doing great in school, even though he didn’t understand why you’d party so hard. Talked about the plans he had to leave you his company, and how you’d do great things. I won’t lie, the last couple of times he seemed frustrated, but it was more about how you had refused to work for him and preferred to hang around Hollywood."

Tony rakes his fingers in his hair and sighs loudly. He finally sits down and picks up Watch Out, petting it as it whirs softly.

"Jesus, I know, I know. I was a big disappointment. But for god’s sake, he wanted to make me vice-CEO of Stark Industries at seventeen years old! It was a lot to handle at the time! Plus I had just started Stark Boxing, so it wasn’t like I was only doing coke and fucking starlets. But, you know, it seems like my dabbling in entrepreneurship in a field where my dad’s name wasn’t worth a dime was clearly not deemed worthy."

Steve freezes at this information that paints everything in a different light. When complaining about how his son refused a position some men would kill to get, Howard definitely had left out that part. The most jarring is how young Tony said he was.

"You were seventeen?" He repeats, awestruck. How is that even possible, with everything he'd heard about? "But Howard said you had graduated from MIT!"

"Yes, with a double PhD, being a genius and all," Tony says with a wave, as if it's unimportant. Jesus. "I felt like the board of directors would eat me alive, and since Dad’s philosophy was 'swim or die', I wouldn’t have had any support from him at all. Mind you, I had to do it anyway since he got himself killed," Tony adds, putting Watch Out back on the ground.

"You took up the reigns of Stark Industries at seventeen?"

"Just about to turn eighteen, yeah. Had to." Tony looks at Steve with curiosity. "It was all over the news, especially when I shut down everything that had to do with weapons manufacturing."

Steve blinks, shocked: he had no idea. One day he might be able to talk about how he lived those years after the Army and why he felt like cutting all ties to the real world was necessary, but not right now. When he chose to come back everything had changed, and the fact that Howard was long dead was just one of the thousand of facts that Steve had missed.

"I didn't know," Steve admits.

"Where were you? Frozen in an iceberg?" Tony looks amused. "You really fell off the face of the Earth, didn’t you? But yeah, I had some investigating done on the convoy attack that killed Dad, independently from the military. Since it turns out Dad had been blown up by Stark Industries weapons, I took the executive decision to shut it all down." He cackles, as if what comes next is a good memory. "You should have seen the board and Obie, they almost had a coronary on the spot. They even tried to have me sidelined for temporary insanity caused by grief or some shit."

"How did that turn out?" Steve finds himself charmed again by the mischief and deep intelligence in those dark eyes.

"You really are totally clueless about what happened in the last 5 years, aren’t you?" Tony says fondly, smiling at him genuinely for the first time in weeks. "Stark Industries survived. I refocused on green energy and high tech electronics, like the Stark phone and tablet. It was rough for a couple of years, but SI is back in the top 20 industries in the country and doing better than ever. Having morals about what you produce pays off. Who knew?"

***

Steve heals fast, so he's mostly okay the day after their impromptu tussle, even if his nose is still sensitive. Steve good-naturedly lets Tony brag about how he's the one who hit him in the face and it has the side effect of relaxing the last of the hackles of the rest of the team, mostly Rhodes and Pepper.

A bloody nose and an almost black eye is a good trade off in Steve's book, because it did clear the air between them. Later that night, once cleaned up, Steve had gone to an Internet café near his apartment and did a little googling on Tony. There was lots of gossip and rumors about women and substance abuse, several articles about how he was one of America's top minds too, but if you dug a little deeper, the whole story started to shape up and it was not a particularly happy one, starting by losing his mother as a child and his father at seventeen. Another shock for Steve, apart from having his misconceptions realigned, is that he abruptly realizes that Tony is only twenty two years old now, even though he has tons of baggage and acts like someone who could easily be ten years older.

From that point they start to hang out together a lot more, at the gym or going out to eat, and if that doesn't help Steve get over his crush even the slightest bit, well he figures it's his problem to deal with.

***

Steve studies the list Pepper gave him and nods.

"Yes, okay, I'm all for that."

She smiles at him. "Excellent, so I'll have the paperwork done so half your purse from the fight with von Doom goes to those charities."

"I could give it all," Steve says. He's thought about it, and his contract with Fury pays enough that it wouldn't be a problem. Plus, on top of the fight against Victor von Doom that they managed to set up, Steve signed a generous sponsorship agreement with SB and Tony to promote his new sneakers. It's suspiciously generous, in fact, though Tony had assured him that as a businessman, he wouldn't get into a deal to lose money, even for a friend. Which Steve doubted. But to come back to his fight against von Doom, he could afford giving away the whole check.

"What? No, no, that's not good." Steve turns to him with a frown as Tony begins to protests. If he wants to give it all, who is Tony to object? "Not publicly, anyway," Tony says with a calming gesture. "It's your money, you do what you want with it. But if you give it all in a public gesture, you will go from commendable to suspicious to many people and we don't want that. It's more effective if you give half of it."

"I agree with that, unfortunately," Fury says with a shrug.

"But if you want to give more, anonymously, I could set it up," Pepper adds.

"Thank you," Steve says with a smile. She's truly a remarkable woman; they're lucky to have her.

"Boy scout. Okay, enough with the boring stuff." As Tony speaks, Steve is filled with a sense of dread, which always happens when the guy gets that particular gleam in his eyes. "We've set the charities, we've gone over the promo plan, now it's time for the costume."

"The costume?" Steve all but squeaks.

With a big flourish, Tony fishes a pair of shorts from the bag he's been fiddling with for half an hour now. "Tah dah!"

Steve opens his eyes wide at the horror that are the revealed boxing shorts: they are totally sequined, flashy as hell, and form a big red, white and blue American Flag. With long white fringes at the hems and on the sides.

"Oh hell no!" Steve breathes and Tony is grinning like a lunatic.

"But Steve," he says, gazing lovingly at the shorts. "They are perfect!"

Steve gets up with every intention to put his hands on the monstrosity so he can make sure it's never seen again.

"Give me that!" he orders, going to Tony who jumps out of his chair and weaves to get to Fury's office door, laughing.

"Nope!" he says, getting out and running down the stairs. "Look guys, Captain America shorts!"

Fortunately the only ones in the gym at the moment are the regular team, but they all start laughing, the traitors. Steve, running after Tony, manages to squeeze him against a mirror to retrieve the offending garment.

"Oh, come on, Cap! I made them myself. Well with JARVIS and Dummy. You don't like my gift?" Tony says, batting his sinfully long lashes at him and Steve huffs and finally grabs the shorts out of his grip. That's when Steve realizes how close they are, touching from chest to calves and he freezes for a moment, derailed, before stepping back. Tony stays slumped against the mirror, flushed and grinning - so proud of his joke - and he's so beautiful that Steve is flummoxed. He covers it by jabbing his index finger in Tony's chest.

"Tony? No," he says firmly.

Tony pretends to pout, as if long-suffering "You're no fun, old man." He straightens up and winks at Steve before going back to the stairs leading to Fury's office.

Steve shakes his head to get his brain on straight - ha, right - and blinks in surprise when Clint pats his arm as he strolls by.

"You know he's just pulling your pigtails, right?" Clint asks, looking amused.

Sighing, Steve nods. Yeah, he knows, there is no malice in the jokes anymore. Which doesn’t mean it can't get annoying from time to time.

***

When Tony and Fury secure the fight with Victor von Doom, it is in an event where Tony is fighting in the undercard. It has the advantage that Steve now has the perfect excuse to force Tony to run with him, and they get in the habit of training on the machines together and spotting for each other when needed. Coulson is a bit stricter in the diet regimen than Happy is for Tony, but all and all it works out pretty well. Steve does a lot of sparring with Thor, which is enlightening in many ways, while Tony and Clint spend countless hours in the ring.

Steve has never boxed in Las Vegas, though he saw how much a media and a bling circus it can become with Clint's fight a couple of months before. Phil decides that it's better if Steve is cut from all distractions, which means they hole up one of Tony's many houses, this one in the desert right outside of Vegas, for the last weeks before the fight. Steve is focused, ready to kick ass but he misses his team. He's not surprised that it's Tony he misses the most, crush still firmly in place.

Being a heavyweight has the advantage that Steve doesn't need to dehydrate himself before the weigh-in, where the posturing and trash talking is thankfully kept to a minimum. Von Doom predictably declares that the fight won't even be a challenge and Steve just smiles tightly and repeats time and time again that he worked hard and is ready to fight, may the best man win.

***

The big day finally comes and being the last fight of the night has the downside of stretching the evening endlessly. Steve warms up and shadow boxes in his prep room under Coulson's supervision, and they go over the game plan. There's no TV in the room, so Steve has no idea how the other fights are going, but he knows that by this time of the evening Tony should be close to climbing in the ring. He's not sure, but he thinks that he hears fireworks popping, which is probably Tony making his big entrance.

Steve should focus on his own preparation but not knowing is bugging him. It's obvious enough that at one point Phil rolls his eyes.

"Where's your head, Rogers?"

"It's just... Tony should be done by now, right?" Steve asks.

With a sigh, Phil relents. "Let me check."

He takes out his phone, checks it intently, and then brings it to his ear.

"Hey, Rhodes, Coulson here," Phil says, before he pauses, running a hand through his hair. He doesn't look worried but he's avoiding eye contact with Steve at the moment, which is worrying. "Steve's asking about Tony, how is he?"

After a couple of hums, Phil thanks Jim and hangs up. "Tony's done okay, he’s perfectly fine."

It's a relief, and Steve feels his shoulders relax.

"Good, good. How-" he starts to asks.

"Steve, you're fighting in less than one hour, can we focus here? You'll have all the details later, okay?" Phil pleads.

He's right: the mother hen routine is not professional. Steve nods and gets back to work.

***

Obviously, Doom didn't think Steve would be a real threat, and he spent the first three rounds tiring himself while trying to bring down Steve, who kept his guard high and rolled with the punches. It's obvious as early as the third round that Doom is losing stamina, and that's when Steve starts hitting back, relentless in his pursuit. He keeps the center of the ring at all times until he gets Doom in the ropes and just brings out the power punch combos, one after the other. Body blow after body blow, Doom curls in on himself and he tries to grab Steve to rest as often as he can. Thankfully, the referee breaks them off often, urging Doom to box.

In the middle of the 8th round Doom had no guard to speak of left, and when Steve sees the opening he puts all of his weight into a right hook that hits Doom on the temple: it brings him down like a sack of potato. Panting harshly, Steve hurries to his corner, but a medic is throwing a towel on the ring and even through the blood pounding in his ears, Steve hears the crowd go wild.

The next minutes are a blur of people jumping in the ring to congratulate him, followed by the official announcement of his win: a thrill goes down Steve's spine when the crowd starts chanting 'Captain, Captain!' as his hand is raised. After that there are mikes shoved in his face and all that Steve finds to say is that he's thankful of having been given a chance, that Doom fought well – it's not true, but it doesn't cost him anything to say so – and that all of the hard work with his team paid off. He blows kisses to the crowd and when Steve walks back to the lockers it's under the cheers and congratulations of the fans right by the alley and with his team, buzzing around him.

Everything is laughter and whistles, and Steve is grinning wide, adrenaline still coursing through his system. There is something missing though, or more someone and Steve doesn't understand why Tony's not leading the march here, he's usually one of Steve's most vocal cheerleaders. He's absent from the locker room too, the same as Rhodes, and Steve begins to worry. Did Tony get hurt in his fight and Coulson lied to him? He grabs Coulson by the arm as soon as he can get a hand on him.

"Phil! Where's Tony?" he asks. "What is going on?"

Coulson winces, which makes Steve stomach drop.

"Tony’s fight was a draw, he didn’t take it so well," he explains. "Just let him be. Rhodes is watching over him."

"Oh, okay," Steve says, letting go. "He's not hurt?"

"No, he's fine. Don't worry," Phil adds.

That's not so bad, after all. Well it sucks that Tony didn't win, and his ego must be bruised, but at least he's fine and he's with a friend.

"Ready for the vultures?" Phil asks and Steve nods, taking a deep breath.

He's got to get through the press junkets now. Even though the initial reaction interview in the ring with HBO went well, Steve wishes Tony was at his side right now to deal with the rest of the journalists: he knows how to deflect the stupid questions with style. On the other hand, right now is probably not the best time to mix Tony Stark and the press, so he'll make do.

***

Later, Steve manages to escape to his room with minimal presence at the party that has been organized for the team. The ambiance isn't the same without Tony, and even though everyone is happy about Steve's win, he doesn't feel like partying. He foolishly says that he has to go because he has a headache, and then has to convince a fussing Bruce that it was a lie and that he's perfectly fine and just wants to be alone.

Their casino offers PPV reruns of the evening, and Steve queues them up as he orders room service. He fast forwards to Tony’s fight and gapes at how the result is a total steal: it’s obvious that Tony should have won that fight. It enrages Steve so much that he doesn't even finish his burger and he's absolutely certain that going to bed now would be pointless.

Las Vegas never sleeps anyway, and Steve dresses in a plain t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap and decides to roam the Casino, knowing he shouldn't draw attention: it’s near 4 o’clock and people are either too drunk to care, or zombies fixated on their slot machines.

Steve’s about to go out to get some air on the Strip when he spots Rhodes, propped at a bar with a coffee cup. His attention is focused on something deeper in the room and as Steve gets closer he sees Tony, laying on his back in a booth, his head on a gorgeous blonde’s lap who’s carding her fingers in his hair as he gestures in the air, babbling about something or the other. By the look on the girl's face, he lost her a long ago and she’s only indulging him.

"He looks okay," Steve says and Rhodes nods.

"Mostly. He’s pretty drunk, but it was to be expected," Jim says.

"I saw the fight. I don’t know what happened there," Steve adds, still disgusted.

"He had him," Jim agrees. He then grins up at Steve. "Oh, and congrats to you! Can’t wait to watch the tapes!"

"Thanks," Steve says with a smile. "Go to bed, I’ll take over. I can’t sleep, anyway."

"Too wired, huh? That happens to me, too," Rhodes says, sympathetic. "Tony refused to let me fuss over him, so I let him be, but he’d probably listen to you."

Steve doesn’t know why Jim would say that, but it’s a nice sentiment.

"I’ll try."

They do a side hug and Rhodey goes, while Steve takes over as watchman. A drunk Tony can get in all sorts of trouble, like spontaneously buying a casino or deciding to go on a helicopter joy ride, only to start dismantling said chopper to ‘make it better’. It has happened before, he’s heard all the stories. In the bar, Tony is still gesturing away and Steve can’t help the pang of jealousy that this stranger is the person he turned to for comfort, as little as it is she’s offering. At least, Steve thinks, he didn’t take her to bed – yet – though it’s really not his business. Maybe he should intervene? He’ll back off if Tony says so.

Steve walks to the booth and the girl sees him first. She raises her bored face at him and he can’t help the scowl; that seems to wake her up as she blinks. Rapidly, Steve covers with a smile.

"Miss," he says with a nod, and then leans as to get into Tony’s field of vision. "Hey Tony," he adds.

Immediately Tony breaks in a huge smile.

"Hey, Cap! Hi!"

It’s impossible not to smile back just as widely. "Hi buddy."

Tony twists and turns until he manages to sit up, which doesn’t look an easy feat. He’s drunker than Steve’s ever seen him. "Was I right or was I right? I knew you’d win!"

"You did," Steve agrees.

"Oh, you are the incredible, amazing, out of this world Captain America!" the girl says, having found her missing enthusiasm in the last minute.

Steve winces. "Just Steve, please."

Tony laughs. "He haaaates it when someone calls him Cap. Don’t you, Cap?"

Steve has to nod. "I do."

Steve wonders if the girl is about to change prey but she just smiles at their exchange. "He just never shuts up about you, did you know that?"

"Hush, Stacey," Tony says, putting a finger on her lips that she bats away with a snort.

"It’s Lisa, you lush," she retorts.

"Lisa, lisa, bo-lissa," Tony singsongs. "I like you, Lisa. I wish I’d met you in another life, where, you know, there is no Situation," Tony adds, making clumsy finger quotes around the last word.

She laughs and kisses Tony’s forehead. "I know, I know. It’s been fun, Tony Stark, and no clothes were shed. How many times did a girl get to say that after an evening with you?"

Tony laughs again and even Steve has to smile. She does seem like a great girl.

"Very little, oh Lisa-Bobissa," he agrees.

Lisa escapes Tony’s clutches, who’s trying to snuggle up to her again, and puts a hand on Steve’s arm before she goes.

"Take care of him, eh?" she asks.

"Sure thing," Steve promises. He turns to his friend. "You okay?"

Tony sighs. "Yeah."

"I don’t get what happened," Steve says. "You won that fight fair and square."

"I know, right?" Tony exclaims, wind milling a little. "But don’t worry about that, that’s my problem."

"What do you mean?"

Tony gets closer and he whispers, "The judges, they hate me."

"No, they don’t," Steve replies, shaking his head.

"They really do." Tony nods vehemently. "But not because of my awesome, no, they’re just worried that it will look as if I’ve bought them off."

"You’d never do that!" Steve exclaims.

It makes Tony smile softly. "No, no I wouldn’t, but you might be the only one who’d believe me on this. But anyway, if I don’t KO my adversaries, this is the sort of result I expect."

Could it be true, or is it a drunken man's delusion? Unfortunately, Steve saw the results, and it's one explanation.

"That’s so unfair," Steve says, tightening his fists. "Can you go in appeal?"

"Bah, it's not worth it," Tony says with a wave. "I've already got a reputation as someone difficult, I don't need to add to it.”

Which is... probably true. It doesn't mean it's not frustrating.

"Are you ready to go?" Steve asks.

Tony grimaces. "Not yet? Please?"

"Okay, we can stay just for a bit," Steve agrees, unable to resist the doe eyes.

Steve sits down, and to his surprise Tony happily flops back down until he has his head in Steve’s lap now. It’s a disconcerting turn of events, but Vegas is Vegas and at this time in the morning, no one will care.

"I was just telling Melissa –" Tony starts.

"Lisa," Steve corrects.

"Yeah, Lisa, about the new machine I thought about."

"Ohh, I get it now! That’s why she looked bored out of her mind!" Steve teases.

"Oh, shush, you. I’ll have you know that my machines are the best, okay? And you know why? Because I’m awesome. Because I’m great. Everything I do is top-notch quality and the design makes the product sleek and gorgeous. Then, then, I take the price they are worth, add a regular profit margin, but that’s not enough. What makes SB stuff irresistible is that once I’ve found the price at which I should sell it, then I double it and bam, game over. Everyone wants them because it’s cool and quality and for people with money."

Tony barely stopped for air; it’s impressive and Steve can’t resist the taunt.

"So, you’re telling me you took your business tips from Apple," Steve deadpans.

As he predicted Tony gapes, splutters in outrage, and then points a finger directly in Steve’s face that he has to bat away. "What? What? You take that back, right now! NO! You did not just compare me to Steve Jobs. Oh, no, you didn’t!"

Steve laughs. "Of course not. Why would I do that? He doesn’t invent training machines and sports gear."

"Damn right he doesn’t! Or didn’t, may the bastard roll in his tomb," Tony says, conveniently glossing over the fact that Apple is a direct competitor to Stark Industries in the electronics department. He rapidly starts some kind of technobabble that makes even less sense than usual to Steve, who counters with strategically placed 'hu huh' sounds, proving he's no better than Lisa. He resists for a full five minutes, but eventually Steve lets his fingers slip into Tony’s hair, who doesn’t protest and even turns into his touch like a cat, though he doesn't stop talking.

He just won a big fight, so Steve figures he can indulge in a little personal reward. Anyway, Tony's bound to forget all about this, drunk as he is. It's not like it has to mean anything.

***

Steve's doing press-ups on one of Tony's new machines when there's a commotion at the door.

"My dear friends," Tony shouts as he gets in, because of course it has to be Tony showing off. "Tell me who's the genius in this room?"

Curious, Steve sits up and he wonders what happened to make Tony so manic. The man is all but jumping on his heels, a smug smile plastered all over his face.

"I don't know about genius, but I know who's the most annoying," Clint says, not stopping his training on the speedbag.

Tony gestures as if Clint's opinion isn't worth a dime and instead strides closer to Steve, still grinning.

"There you are, Cap! Are you free on October 13th?" Tony asks.

That's four months and change away, and Steve has no idea where this is going.

"As far as I know, I don't have anything planned," he answers.

"Well now you do!" Tony says, shaking his phone towards Steve. "Atlantic City, Bally's, top of the bill: one championship match against Johann Schmidt coming right up!"

Steve blinks as his heart rate picks up. "Say that again?"

"My nefarious plan worked, baby!" Tony croons. "Schmidt is all but frothing at the mouth at the idea to destroy all that is good in America, also known as you, on pay per view! It was way easier to cut the deal than I thought it would be!"

"He agreed to put his belt in jeopardy against me?" Steve says, a bit shocked. It's one thing to see a computer put odds on something happening, but another thing entirely when it's cemented in.

"Yep! That and he really has to defend his title, so he needed an adversary," Tony says, and the others, who'd come closer to hear the news cheer at that.

"That is fantastic!" Thor says. "I had wished to defeat the Red Skull myself, but it is a great opportunity for our friend Steve!"

"Holy crap!" Steve's mind is already whipped into a frenzy. He's got a shot at the belt!

"October 13th?" Phil checks with Tony, and then throws his hands in the air in an uncharacteristically overt display of emotion when Tony confirms. "Jeez, last minute much, Stark?" Phil then turns to Steve. "You, take the day off, but we're starting an intensive program tomorrow morning. Seven sharp."

Steve grins. "Yes Sir!"

He'll be ready.

***

Eighteen weeks of training for a championship bout is not that much, so Coulson makes every day count. Of course there are some days off, it's essential, but Steve's life comprises of training, training and more training. He loves it, don't get him wrong, but he's being pushed hard and even he needs to do something else at one point or he'll go crazy. Steve has convinced Tony to leave his workshop and come with him to the Children's Hospital for story hour and play time. Over the months that he's been doing charity work, Steve has grown very fond of that particular time with the little kids from the cancer ward. It's heartbreaking from time to time, but there are also fantastic tales of reliance and courage to be found there.

It's clear that Tony came only because Steve insisted, but after an awkward beginning where Tony was in PR persona, he finally relaxed and started genuinely interacting with the kids. He made a huge spaceship with the ward's Lego – a big hit - and then drew a cool looking futuristic suit of armor for a little girl (coloring it red and gold). Immediately, Tony was commissioned by at least half a dozen more children for more drawings of the same kind. Like in everything else, he's gifted.

"You're quite the artist!" Steve says, after Tony finishes off a sketch of the armor landing, a fist down on the ground.

Tony smiles. "Nope, this is technical design. I might have an eye for schematics and stuff, but I know nothing about art."

"Could have fooled me," Steve says, as he finishes the drawing he's working on himself, a large hooded figure with a round shield fighting an octopus monster.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Stark. I was told I would find you here."

They look up to find a kind-looking middle-aged woman in a green business suit wanting their attention. She offers her hand that Tony kisses with a playful smile.

"Mrs. Mason, my favorite charity campaign manager," he says. "Admit it, there's a portrait in your attic, it's the only possible explanation for you looking better every time I see you."

The woman laughs. "Mary, please, you incorrigible flirt! I'm sorry to interrupt."

"It's okay, I'm almost done. Aren't I, munchkin?" Tony asks the girl waiting for her drawing of the armor.

Eyes wide, the little girl nods. Tony make a finishing touch to his drawing and signs his initials, before giving it to the still silent child who smiles wide before clutching the paper to her chest and running out of the room.

"My pleasure," Tony shouts after her, but he's smiling too. When he turns back to them Steve has decided to introduce himself.

"Hello Mrs. Mason. I'm Steve Rogers, a friend of Tony's," he says.

The lady smiles at him as she shakes his hand. "Oh, yes, of course. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rogers, and I cannot thank you enough for everything you've done with us lately. The kids love you."

"Of course they do," Tony says fondly. "Steve's the best."

A grown man shouldn't blush as easily as Steve does, but it's a curse he has to live with. Fortunately, Mrs. Mason and Tony are now busy discussing an upcoming benefit for the hospital and don't mind Steve, who finishes his own drawing and goes to little Joey's room to read him a story as he promised earlier. When he comes back to the common room, Mrs. Mason is gone and Tony looks ready to go, fiddling on his phone. Steve points to the door and Tony heaves a relieved sigh.

"Okay, great, let's go," he says, walking fast.

Steve frowns. "Oh, I thought you had a good time. You didn't have to stay."

"I did, I did," Tony says. "It's just... cancer, you know? I usually only throw money at it and hope it's used in the best possible way."

Unfortunately, it takes a minute before Steve gets it. When he does he feels terrible.

"Oh. Oh, sorry, that's how you lost your mother, right?"

Tony has a pained smile. "Yeah. I was six."

"That's terrible, I'm sorry," Steve repeats.

"Ah well, what can you do? I was sent to boarding school afterwards, and life goes on," Tony says with a shrug.

Steve doesn’t know what to say at that. He feels like Howard should have kept his son close, even if it was a hard time for him too.

"Howard told me you reminded him of her," he offers.

It surprises Tony. "Really? I don't know what he was talking about: it's clear I look just like him, I'm not blind. She was blond, for god's sake."

"I think he meant your energy and how everyone is drawn to you, your charisma," Steve says, remembering how Howard would say that his late wife always was the focus of a room just by her personality. She definitely transmitted that to Tony.

"Oh. That's nice, thanks," Tony says, quietly. "Hey, did I ever tell you why I started Stark Boxing?"

"No, you didn't." Steve did wonder, though.

"I did it because, at the time, boxing - or well you in particular to be perfectly honest - was the only thing I could talk about with my old man," Tony says with a wry smile. "We'd argue on the most pointless things, but following your career? Especially when you made the selection to go to the Olympics? That was safe. I was in awe that my dad knew The Captain Steve Rogers"

"Really?"

"Yeah. Until I said I wanted to be a boxer just like you, and oh boy did that blow up in my face!" Tony says, laughing. Steve doesn’t think it's funny, but Tony doesn't seem too bothered. "Oh well, that didn't turn out so bad for me, after all."

"I'm sure he's proud of you," Steve says. Who wouldn't be? "I think you're doing great."

The smile Tony gives him is bright and pleased. "Thanks, Cap. It means a lot."

***

A rabbit punch fucking hurts, that's for sure, Steve thinks as he shakes his head to dissipate the pain. Unfortunately the ref didn't call it - or didn't see it, he's not sure - but Steve's not surprised that Schmidt risked doing it. JARVIS had predicted a close fight, and he was right because it's a trench war. Steve and Schmidt have been exchanging hits almost blow for blow and now, in the 10th round, they are both tired and ready to finish this.

Phil keeps saying that he's doing good, that he needs to continue landing blows but Steve knows the fight is too close for him to win. You don't take a belt from a champion unless you clearly show you've beaten him. One thing is for sure, Steve doesn't want to lose to Schmidt again. So instead of being careful, Steve charges, steps in – fuck Schmidt's left is wicked – and does his best to connect. Jab, hook, hook, jab, he just needs to find an in, past his guard, and try to wipe that maddening smirk off Schmidt's face. Steve receives a cross to the face and the crowd reacts, a dull roar in Steve's ear. A moment later, Steve has something in his eyes and when he wipes it he sees the bright red of blood shine on his glove. Shit, he's cut, that's not good. Schmidt smiles around the mouthguard and Steve's about to attack when the bell rings, signaling it's time to go back to his corner for the pause.

"Let me see this," Bruce says as Steve sits on his stool, opening his mouth so that Phil can give him water. "Dammit, we've got to close it."

Steve lets them fuss, and he soon has ice on his neck as Bruce mops his forehead, uses the Enswell, and fiddles with the cut. It stings, whatever he puts on it, but then it numbs.

"You're taking too many hits, Steve," Phil is saying. "Jab and keep your guard up!"

Breathing deeply, Steve accepts more water and nods. He should listen to Phil but he knows he needs to take chances.

"Okay, okay, it's closed. I didn't want to test this new vasoconstrictor today, but what can you do," Bruce says. "Be careful, okay?"

Steve nods some more: he's going to do his best.

The eleventh round is about to start so Steve gets up and... shit, he's tired, he's so tired. He prepared for this but it's been more emotionally draining than Steve thought it would be, facing Schmidt again. His thoughts keep straying to that dark place he was before, when Bucky's death was still raw and his life was falling apart.

"Come on, Steve, go go go," Coulson says. "You can do this, you are ready for this."

The bell is ringing and Steve advances to the middle of the ring, gloves high. Yes, he can do this. The next minutes are a blur of hits and feints, jabs and trying to land power punches. Schmidt is like the unmovable object, and even though Steve knows he's hit him, hit him hard enough to send his head back a couple of times, he doesn't seem bothered, perfectly cool. Steve feigns the same, but he hurts, his ribs on the right side are possibly cracked. He makes a tactical error and Schmidt has him backed into a corner, where he goes all out. Steve hides his face and for a while it's all he can do, hits landing hard on his gloves, arms and body. There is blood in his eyes again and Steve focuses on standing up, just staying on his feet because he heard the 10-second tap and knows the bell is about to ring and get him out of this jam. When it comes, it's a relief.

"You're done, Rogers," Schmidt says as he backs away. "I'm going to bring you down."

He should have kept quiet because it's like a jolt, clearing Steve's head as he goes back to his corner. The fight is not going well, not at all, but he won't go down easy.

"What was that, Steve?" Phil asks. "Stay with the plan, don't let him back you up."

That's easy to say from the outside. Bruce is back and makes disapproving noises at the cut, that he closes again.

"I'm warning you, Phil, if it reopens and gets worse, I'll stop that fight," he warns, then presses ice on the side of Steve's face.

"Fair enough, but it won't come to that," Phil says.

Steve is taking deep breath, trying to focus, eyes drawn to his shorts. There's blood on them, his blood he realizes. The shorts were a gift from Tony, he's sure, they were in the prep room before the fight. They're simple, a beautiful blue color with an almost discreet patch on the bottom on one leg: it's red and white concentric circles with a white star on a blue background in the middle, and Steve had immediately recognized the design of the shield he had drawn at the hospital. There's some blood on the white star and it bugs him, but trying to wipe it way only makes things worse. It's still a lot prettier than the weird skull with an octopus Schmidt has on his stuff.

"Steve, focus!" Phil's voice cracks through the haze like a whip and Steve starts. "Can you continue?"

"Yes!" Steve says, wondering how many seconds he lost in contemplation. It's bad, he knows that.

"Steve, hey, Cap!"

"Stark, it's not the time!" Phil says, annoyed, but Steve is looking for the voice, for Tony, and a hand lands on his ankle. There he is and Steve looks down at Tony by the side of the ring.

"Listen to me, Cap," Tony is saying, intent. "You're losing."

"Stark!"

"Shut up, Coulson, you know it too," Tony snaps, but he grips Steve's ankle. "I know it hurts, Steve, but he's hurting too. Body blows. That's your best shot."

Steve nods and gets up, because it's about to start again, the final round. Tony's hand is still on his ankle and Steve wishes he could absorb some of Tony's strength through his skin.

"Do it for me, baby. Okay?" Tony asks. "Whatever you want, I'll give it to you. Just win this."

That's just a figure of speech, Tony's way to try and bribe people into getting him what he wants (another champion in the team), but it steels Steve's resolve. He can do this, he can. When the bell rings he's got a burst of new energy and he's ready for Schmidt, who's overconfident and keeping his hands a bit too low. This is the time where Steve needs to give all he's got.

He's done backing down, he's done running from his problems, from his emotions, and Steve just marches on and hits, hits, and hits again. He jabs to bring Schmidt's guard up and follows with hooks to the body, relentless, never backing down. He brings back Bucky's ghost, Erskine and Howard's too, and puts extra strength in his punches. Schmidt might be an unmovable object, but he's going to be the unstoppable force and if Steve is to lose this bout, he's going to be able to say he's given it all. He's boxing for the kids in the hospital, the teens at the homeless shelter and the Vets he knows are watching him right now. He fights for the new family he has found, and he's going to make them proud.

In the background, vaguely, he's conscious that the crowd is chanting 'Captain' again, and he fights for them too, to give a good show, to prove that boxing is a great sport and that yes, yes, when you want it, you can make it. He's being hit in return, but with the level of adrenaline in his system it hurts less than it did only one round ago, what seems a lifetime away. Steve sees doubt in Schmidt's eyes and finally, finally, he has the perfect opening and swings a left hook to the liver with everything he has. There's an 'oomph' as the breath is knocked out of Schmidt, and time stretches as he falls to his knees. The referee pushes Steve away; he got him good, but will it be enough?

Steve backs a couple of steps towards the corner and watches as the ref counts, and how Schmidt is just not getting up again. As the count progresses, awareness comes back in waves for Steve, too, first with the noise that is deafening. He tries looking at his coach but there are flashes everywhere, blinding him for a moment, and then he looks back and Schmidt is still on his knees and the count is to ten and it's over. He won. He won. If it's possible the noise kicks up a notch and Steve whoops, raising his fists in the air. He runs to his corner and into Phil's arms who has just scrambled up between the ropes.

"You did it!" Phil yells, jumping around and Steve laughs, elated.

"We did it!" Steve replies and he waves at the crowd before finding himself with an armful of Clint, who decided he wanted in the celebrations, too. Then it's Nat, and Thor, even Fury and Steve is on cloud nine, so happy. He looks around and spots Tony dancing on the side of the ring, fist pumping in the air like a mad man. Steve gestures for him to get in the ring too but Tony grins and shakes his head no.

"Your time to shine, Champ!" he yells. "I'm admiring the view from here!"

Anyway there's the MC trying to get Steve to come in the middle of the ring, so he follows and goes to stand beside the ref with a Schmidt who looks thunderous.

"And the winner, by the way of knock-out in the 12th and final round, the new WBA Champion of the World, Steve 'Captain America' Rogers!" The MC announces with flourish, setting another wave of flashes.

There are also fireworks popping and Steve looks up to see they are red, white and blue and he laughs, knowing it's Tony's doing. At least he didn't get him dancers dressed as USO girls from the forties as he had threatened at one point.

Schmidt mumbles that he's going to get his revenge before storming off, then there is the ridiculously large WBA belt to take pictures with, the reporters for an interview he forgets as soon as it's done and already things are starting to blur. It's too much sensory input and slowly the adrenaline is draining away, bringing back the aches. Steve cannot stop smiling though, and he can finally make his way back to the prep room. Many people are trying to grab him or tap his shoulders or his arms, meaning to congratulate him, and it's a bit much. Pepper is at the locker's door and she's keeping the reporters at bay like the angel she is.

"Fifteen minutes with your team and I'm sending them in," she says and Steve nods, hurrying in the room. As promised Pepper lets only the team in and the door closes, bringing a sharp relief as the sound level drops. Well it doesn't drop entirely because Thor and Clint just won't stop crying out in joy, outdoing each other in a way that makes even Loki smile.

Steve feels on top of the world right now and it's great. But there is one thing, one thing that could make it even better and he feels reckless enough right now to go for it. He turns to Tony, who's right by his side, and then backs him up against the wall, a hand square in the middle of Tony's chest to keep him there.

"What?" Tony says, surprised, before looking up at him.

"I won," Steve declares, intent.

Tony laughs. "Yes, I saw that! And it was awesome!"

Steve wants to smile back but his heart is jack hammering in his chest again, as if he's back in the ring.

"You said... you'd give me anything I want," he says, looking intently into Tony's eyes and praying he's not making a terrible mistake.

Tony blinks, but he's a genius and he gets it, even without Steve saying anything. His eyes widen a fraction but then a slow smile spreads on his face.

"Anything you want, baby," he confirms. "All yours."

It's invitation enough and Steve surges forward, moving his hands up to cradle Tony's head as he kisses him. There will be time for slow and tender another time, but this kiss rapidly turns wet and hot as Steve all but crushes Tony against the wall in his quest to get closer, to get more, to get it all.

It's the hollering and the catcalls that make Steve break the kiss – certainly not Tony's groans and the way he's clinging – and it's with a lot of effort that he resigns himself to step back.

"No no no, where are you going?" Tony protests, making grabby hands.

Steve grins. "Later, I promise."

"Fucking finally," Clint is saying behind him. "The unresolved sexual tension was killing me, seriously."

When Steve turns there's nothing but smiles on their friend's faces, and it's another reminder of how lucky he is. They are team, they are family, and Steve doesn't need a stupid belt to prove that he's made it and gotten it all (but hey, he'll take it!)