It starts, as these things do, with a series of secretive phone calls; disappearances in the middle of the day, little lies about whereabouts, unfamiliar names – it’s strange, in retrospect, how clichéd it all seemed.
It all comes to a head on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, one of those nothing days that are just another blip in the creeping forward of time. Steve is supposed to be at SHIELD all day for a team-building workshop but an unexpected crisis had called half the agents away and he’s suddenly found himself with a free afternoon.
He drops his bag in the front hall and makes his way to the bedroom, intending to stop long enough only to change his clothes so that he can take advantage of the gorgeous spring weather.
A sudden loud groan stops him in his tracks.
Cocking his head, Steve creeps silently towards the bedroom door, which is slightly ajar. The groans have turned into little breathless gasps, coming out in short bursts, almost as if they’re being forced out. Underneath that Steve’s enhanced hearing picks up the subtle slide of hands over skin.
That last gasp turns into a guttural groan, too deep to be mistaken for something other than a sound of pain and Steve bursts through the door.
Tony catapults to his feet, tugging the sheet desperately around his waist.
Steve, for his part, can do nothing but gape.
“It’s not what it looks like!” Tony says because of course he does. He’s always had a thing for drama.
“You mean you’re not getting a massage from this terrified-looking woman in the middle of the afternoon?”
“Oh. Uh, yeah. I guess it is what it looks like.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “I can see the massage table behind you.”
“Right.” Tony clears his throat and hitches the sheet up a little higher with one hand. “Uh, Steve, Gladys. Gladys, Steve.”
Steve nods at her, spares a second to shoot her a tight smile before his gaze snaps back to Tony.
“Er,” Gladys says, looking cautiously between them. “Should I go?”
Tony’s rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. “No Gladys,” Steve says, “you stay. Finish what you’re doing.” He squeezes his lips together, takes a deep breath. “I’ll go.”
And then he turns on his heel and does just that, ignoring Tony’s calls after him.
They’ve only been together a couple of months but they’ve spent almost all those nights in Tony’s bed, enough so that when Steve retires to his own room that night, it’s not unnoticed.
Tony, surprisingly, gives him his space…for a little while at least. He holds out longer than Steve’d expected, showing up to Steve’s room late on the third night, a mulish look on his face.
“What’s the problem, Steve?” he says when Steve answers the door.
Steve raises an eyebrow at him.
“Don’t give me that look. You’re barely speaking to me. Hell, you can barely even look at me!” He shoulders past Steve and into the room. Steve sighs but closes the door with a quiet click and turns to lean up against it. “And listen, I know I screwed up. I shouldn’t have lied to you about what I was doing. I get it.” He whirls around and stabs a finger in Steve’s direction. “But you’re not even giving me the chance to apologize!” Steve just continues to look at him and he drops his hand back to his side. “I’m sorry, okay? I just, I didn’t know how to tell you.” He heaves a deep sigh, suddenly looking weary. “I’m old, Steve. My body isn’t what it used to be. Hell, I can’t even walk ten blocks without my knee starting to ache. And my neck? Have you seen me when I’m hunched over my desk? Does that seem like a shining example of good ergonomics? So I just, I need a little help, alright? Once or twice a week, Gladys comes over and she helps me out. And I didn’t tell you because, well, to be honest, it’s because I didn’t want you to think it was a problem in the field. Because it’s not.” The thought seems to spark him again and he spits the next words. “I’m old, I’m not an invalid. I can still fight. And let’s try and get some perspective here okay? Because it’s not like I was cheating. That’s probably what you thought, right?”
Steve shakes his head, finally having heard enough but Tony doesn’t seem to notice, or more likely care. “I mean, why wouldn’t you? It fit the mold, didn’t it? The sneaking around?”
“Tony I didn’t think—” Steve tries.
“And me, being who I am.” Tony waves a hand, gesturing vaguely at his whole self. “I get it. I know what people say, you don’t have to explain. But what I don’t get is why you’re still mad?”
“And I know it’s pathetic okay? I do. But I can’t sleep another night like this so please Steve, just tell me—”
“I THOUGHT YOU WERE DYING!”
Steve slumps against the door and buries his face with one shaking hand. “Jesus, Tony, I thought—” He takes a deep wobbly breath and raises his head. Tony is frozen in place, mouth still hanging open mid-word. “I thought you were dying,” Steve repeats, the words much quieter.
Tony’s mouth snaps shut. He approaches slowly, treating Steve like the skittish animal he very well feels like. Every bit of him feels stretched thin, worn out after days, weeks of this horrible feeling building inside of him, solidifying more and more with each passing day until it felt less like a ridiculous overblown concern and more like an absolutely certainty.
“I never thought you were cheating, okay?” Steve murmurs once Tony’s within arm’s distance. “I could never think that, not in a million years. But don’t you think—“ His voice is wobbling again and he clears his throat. “Isn’t there something off when instead I did think without a doubt that you were terminal? That I could be losing you a little more everyday and you weren’t even going to tell me?”
Tony is still staring at him. Steve lifts his hands and cradles Tony’s face, swipes his thumb back and forth over his cheekbone. Tony’s hand clamps onto his wrist desperately.
“Steve,” he chokes out. “I…” He can’t seem to find the words for more.
“Why won’t you let me take care of you?” Steve whispers, aching. “Why don’t you trust me?”
“I do trust you, Steve, of course I do, are you kidding me, I trust you with my life—”
“No, don’t you lie to me about this Tony. Not this. You love me, I know you do. You love me so much that sometimes I—I can’t even comprehend it. You love me Tony, believe me, I know.” He takes his hands back, tugging his wrist free of Tony’s. “But you don’t trust me.”
Tony doesn’t have anything to say to that. Steve isn’t sure if he expected anything else.
Steve’s just digging into a piping hot bowl of oatmeal when a giant bottle is slammed down on the table in front of him. He looks up to see it’s massage oil and Tony swings into view behind it.
Somewhere over his shoulder, Clint groans. “C’mon guys.” There’s the sound of a spoon clattering against a bowl. “At least keep it out of the kitchen.”
Tony ignores the outburst, keeping his gaze squarely on Steve. Steve tilts his head.
“My shoulder’s all knotted up,” Tony says. “I’ve got some soldering to do, detail work, and my hands aren’t cooperating well enough.”
He’s being so deliberate with every word, as if to ensuring Steve gets exactly what he’s playing at and it’s ridiculous because this is just about as subtle as anything else Tony does – which is to say, not at all. Still, it warms something in Steve’s chest and he pushes the oatmeal away, pulling the bottle of oil towards him instead.
“C’mon then,” he says with a little swing of his head and Tony grins.
Steve’s not an idiot. He knows this means nothing in the grand scheme of things – Tony’s still going to lie through his bleeding teeth with every hit he takes in the field – but it’s progress. Tony’s trying and that’s all Steve can ask of him.
He thinks he should reconsider that when Tony waves a hand in front of the wall beside his bed and reveals a secret room stocked full of therapy equipment. Steve just stares while Tony tugs out a chair, one of those backwards ones with a hole at the top for the face, meant for upper body massages.
Tony sets it in the middle room and swings one leg over the top, settling comfortably into the seat. He tugs his grimy shirt over his head and tosses it uncaringly over his shoulder.
Steve should be annoyed by that – he’s told Tony a thousand times that dirty clothes belong in the hamper – but it’s hard to care when he’s faced with an unobstructed view of Tony’s broad shoulders, the muscles shifting subtly beneath gorgeous tanned skin as he settles himself firmly against the back of the chair.
“Whenever you’re ready, big guy,” Tony says and even though his voice is muffled slightly by the cushions around his face, Steve can still hear the knowing smirk in the words and it’s enough to snap him out of it. He rubs some oil into his hands to warm it up and goes to work.
Tony wasn’t kidding about his shoulder – the muscles around his right side are so tense that the whole thing feels like one big knot.
“Don’t be afraid to get in there,” Tony says after a couple of minutes. “I know the deep tissue stuff is painful but ‘s what I need.”
Steve nods and starts to dig in a little deeper, enough that he can feel Tony start to hold his breath each time Steve gets into a knot. He starts to make the little noises Steve had heard the other day – unwilling gasps and groans that he tries to stifle. Steve’s infinitely glad he can’t see Tony’s face because he’s not sure he’d be able to keep doing this then. He’s spent a lot of time really learning how to adjust his strength to the situation, even more so since he and Tony started doing this properly, but it still frightens him how easily he could slip, how much damage he could do if he let himself get too careless.
Still, he knows the value of a good deep tissue massage as much as anyone. Plus this is something he’s actually had some practice in from back in the war. Constant combat, dehydration, and horrible sleeping conditions did not for loose muscles make and the last thing Steve needed was for one of his guys to fall behind because of something as trivial as a Charley Horse.
Steve works methodically at Tony’s problematic right shoulder and spends some time on his left just to balance it out. He rubs at Tony’s neck briefly and then smoothes his hands down over his back. “Alright,” he says finally with a little tap to Tony’s shoulder. “You’re done.”
Tony gets out of the chair, rolling his shoulders as he stands. He turns to Steve with a blissed out smile on his face. “That was amazing,” he murmurs and Steve smiles.
“I guess Gladys is out of a job then?”
Steve laughs and Tony grins at him. “Thanks, Steve,” he says.
“Anytime,” Steve replies easily. He leans forward, catching Tony’s eye. “Seriously Tony, I mean it.”
Tony nods sharply, suddenly seemingly shy. Then he claps his hands, snapping himself out of it. “Alright! Back to the grind.”
He doesn’t get more than half a step away before Steve’s hand shoots out and snags him by the bicep. “You know what else is good for your body?” Steve asks.
Tony turns back and raises an eyebrow at him. Then his face changes. “Oh, Steve, honey, sorry, I should’ve thought. Look, I know massages are supposed to be super sensual and whatnot but have you ever had a deep tissue massage? Because that shit is painful. And not that I’m opposed to that in the right circumstances but I’m really not feeling it right now and—”
“Rest, Tony!” Steve bursts out, his face hot. Wow, that was— did Tony really like— okay, he wasn’t even going to think about that right now. “I was gonna say rest.”
“Oh,” Tony says, thrown. “Well, not really feeling that either so I guess I’ll just be going then—Hey!”
Steve feels momentarily bad about manhandling Tony this way but really. “I know you’ve been up all night Tony, even if I wasn’t in your bed with you.” He lays Tony gently down on the bed and grins at him. “Besides—” He goes around to the other side and climbs in beside Tony, careful not to jolt him too much. “I think we’ve got some lost time to make up for.”
Tony sighs but burrows deeper into the pillows propped up behind him. He arcs an eyebrow at Steve. “Happy?”
Steve pecks him on the forehead and pulls back with a smile. “Very.”
He reaches over to the bedside table for his tablet.
“What’re you doing?” Tony asks, frowning.
“Putting on a movie,” Steve says, swiping through the list.
“On there? Have you seen the home entertainment system we’ve got in the living room?”
“I’m familiar,” Steve replies dryly. He cues up the movie and folds his legs, propping the tablet on his knees. “I like this,” he says, leaning deeper into Tony’s side. “It’s cozy.”
“Hmph,” Tony replies but he drops his head onto Steve’s shoulder and turns his gaze to the small screen.
Steve tugs one of Tony’s hands into his lap and starts working at the muscles there as the opening credits roll.
“Oh god,” Tony moans in a tone not unfamiliar to Steve.
“Nope.” Steve smirks. “Just Steve.”
Tony bats him in the shoulder with his free hand but it’s a weak attempt at best. He’s fading fast though he’s doing his damn best to fight it, his eyes snapping open every time they flutter close.
After a few minutes, Steve trades one of Tony’s hands for the other, cautious not to jar him too much. It’s not too much longer before Tony’s out for the count. Steve gives it another ten minutes, then quietly moves the tablet off to one side. He hooks one arm carefully under Tony’s knees and the other around his shoulders and slides him down the bed so that he’s resting properly on his back. Tony shifts slightly and Steve catches his breath, but he just re-settles with a deep sigh. Steve looks down at him fondly, feels his lips curl up at the way the wrinkles that perpetually seem to live on Tony’s forehead have all been smoothed away in sleep. He leans forward and presses a light, lingering kiss to the skin there.
“Thank you,” he whispers when he pulls away. He lies down on his side, gently rests an arm over Tony’s stomach and buries his face in Tony’s oily skin and gives himself over to a decadent morning spent in bed.