His mind was like a dull, heavy haze, a mist hanging over him, turning everything gray, making it hard to focus on what he was doing. It wasn’t the pain of his injuries that bothered him, it was that strange weariness that seemed to make everything so much more difficult than it should have been, exhausting to stand up, exhausting to process the sound of Tony’s voice, to look up and focus in on his face. He was trying, he really was, but he was . . . he was so tired, and after leaving medical, and the need to grit his teeth against the pain, to stay still, was past, all the strength (all the focus in the way he’d stared into the faceplate of Tony’s armor as he held him down and gritted his teeth in order to stay still, even if not quiet) had left him in a rush. He’d found himself flinching away from the sounds of work on the helicarrier, the loud rush of wind and the clanging bang and grind of metal against metal, and forced his shoulders to square, forced himself to stop, got his chin up and set his jaw and just—concentrated on that, grateful for the way Tony led him, unobtrusively but steadily with one hand on his shoulder, warm through the fabric of his uniform, the way he was talking to him normally even if Steve couldn’t seem to manage to concentrate on the words. He’d flown him to the tower, and Steve hadn’t argued, even if it had hurt, a little, to hold on with one arm gripped tight around the armor’s neck. Tony had held him securely, and it was so much faster than anything else they could have done. Steve pressed his face into the neck of the armor and concentrated on that, the thrumming warmth of the power underneath the smooth metal against his forehead, the way his breath misted across the surface, his face was pressed so close.
And then he didn’t have to hold on anymore, and Tony was there, out of the armor, pressing one hand to Steve’s forehead and talking rapidly—his eyes dark and concerned and brightly, sincerely blue, Steve focused on them, his long, thick eyelashes, for some reason, rather than the words he was saying. But then Tony’s hand was back on his shoulder, nudging him forward, and he went, trying to keep himself steady, to just keep going, stay calm, and even, and not react to anything too much—steady. Tony was still talking, still as if Steve was responding, he could catch a few sentences if he strained to concentrate, but he seemed to be talking about science fiction, teasing Steve a little, he thought. He couldn’t help letting it, the words, slip away again. Sometimes Tony leaned in a little closer than normal, and his breath would feather, warm, over Steve’s ear, sending a little twist of warmth through the chill that still seemed to grip his body. That was easier to focus on.
They were in Tony’s bedroom before Steve noticed much of anything about the Tower except the need for him to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Tony pushed him lightly down onto the bed, left his hands on his shoulders, just for a moment, looking at him in what looked like concern, then stepped back, went and got something, and put it in Steve’s hands. He looked down at it, saw it was a bottle of water, and opened it, started to drink. Tony said something else, and started for the bathroom, Steve thought.
Steve finished the water, then stared down at his hands, turning the plastic bottle idly, and tried to catch his breath. It was still coming harsh and heavy in his chest, for some reason, and he couldn’t get a good breath in past that tightness and the squeeze of it, almost pain. He tried to ignore that and breathe evenly anyway, hoping that would push the haze in his head away, start to clear it. It worked a little, enough that he noticed the sound of water running in the bathroom before Tony’s legs and torso came back into his field of vision, and Steve looked up into his face, though he still felt dazed, slow and cold and heavy and far away.
Tony didn’t say anything right away, though his face was strange, soft with the way he looked at him but tight around the eyes and jaw with sharp edges, not quite twisted up with them. Instead, he touched his fingers to Steve’s jaw, tilted his head up toward him, then leaned down and kissed him, his lips pressing gently against Steve’s, mouthing over his bruised, split lips and licking soft and warm and wet between them, gently back into his mouth. Steve gasped, surprised at the sudden jolt of warmth, of feeling, the warm, intense connection. His eyes slid half-closed despite himself, his hands coming up to rest at Tony’s sides, curling hesitantly in his shirt and pulling him closer as he pressed into the kiss, despite himself. He must have dropped the water bottle on the floor, but he didn’t think of it. His hands felt a little sore, but he ignored the dull flare of pain. Tony’s hands came up to cradle his jaw, gently, and he pursued the kiss, deepening it gently, heady and warm, until Steve was breathlessly gasping under his lips, and only then did Tony pull away, slid his arms back around Steve’s neck, resting on his shoulders, but very lightly, and linked them at the back of his neck, palms cupped against the soft skin there.
“Hey, there, honey,” he said, lips curving in a smile. “You feel like a bath? With me, I mean.” He winked, and the smile turned knowing and warm. “It’ll be fun, promise.”
Steve blinked. Running water, he thought. Right. Bath. Of course, that made sense. “With you?” he said. His voice sounded scratchy and hoarse, thick. God, he thought. He sounded like shit.
“Well, yeah, naturally,” Tony said, smiling a little more, and moving one hand up to gently, very gently, brush Steve’s hair back from his forehead, behind his ear, fingers careful over the bandages taped into place there. “We’ll have to tape you up again after, of course, but with your healing they said it would be all right to get everything wet. What do you say?”
“Uh,” Steve said. Warm water did sound nice. With Tony sounded even better, now that he thought of it. He doubted he was up to much of that kind of thing, but . . . it still sounded nice. Either way. “I . . . sure thing.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Tony said, smiling at him some more. “All right, up and at ‘em, on your feet, soldier.” He got his hands beneath Steve’s elbows, pulled at them slightly, until Steve was heaving himself up, wavering on his feet, and then Tony’s arm was around his back, steadying him, pulling him forward to let him balance himself against Tony’s body for a moment. Steve was careful not to lean on him too heavily, concentrating on it with as much focus as he could muster—he was too heavy, to lean on Tony when he wasn’t in the suit. He knew that.
Tony’s hand came up a little, stroked a line down his spine, gentle and undemanding, then settled on the small of his back and nudged him toward the bathroom. Walking over there didn’t seem as difficult as the walk to the room itself had been, at least. Once they were in the bathroom, warm and steamy from the running water, making Steve’s head spin, Steve helped Tony pull his uniform off him—they hadn’t put it back on entirely, not with all the fasteners and buckles done up, just enough to keep him decent, so it wasn’t as hard to get off as it might have been, though he ended up having to sit on the edge of the bath while Tony pulled the tight pants off him and undid his boots—leaning down to get them made him gasp for breath, dizzy. Tony teased him, while he did it, about taking his pants off, of course, as his clever fingers peeled the leather deftly down over Steve’s thighs, his eyes sparkling with mischief, kissing the top of Steve’s knee and making innuendos, tracing the backs of his fingers up his thigh, until he blushed.
“I think we’ll leave the bandages on for now,” Tony said, his voice considering as he traced a finger beside one of the bandages on Steve’s chest, then abruptly shifted back into movement, grinning at Steve, warm and bright. “Okay, sweetheart, into the tub.” Steve didn’t think to resist, just moved to obey, and Tony took Steve’s arm as he slid his legs over the side and into the water, but didn’t make his support too obvious. Steve hissed a little at the warmth, the steam hitting his face making his head swim with the heat of it. It felt incredibly hot against his skin, though he knew Tony would have been careful with the temperature. It felt amazing, all the same.
It was a huge tub, of course, more than big enough for both of them, and luxurious enough to make Steve blush all on its own, like a bath in a hotel, with jets and all, though they weren’t on just then. He lowered himself into the hot water, gingerly, sighing, half-wincing, as the water covered him to the neck, feeling scalding hot against his skin and stinging his injuries through the bandages, but somehow in a way that wasn’t unpleasant at all. He closed his eyes and just sat there, letting himself feel the wet, all-encompassing heat, for a moment, his head falling back to rest against the rim of the bath.
He wasn’t sure how long he just sat like that. He lost track of time, a little. He just sat there, feeling warm, so, so warm, prickling and flushed, with the water surrounding him, and after a few moments, it was seeping into him and he started feeling that warmth all through, in a way he hadn’t exactly forgotten, just . . . forgotten to expect, almost. He only came back to himself, a little, when a hand—Tony’s hand—brushed softly along his collarbone up to his shoulder, against his neck, and warm lips gently covered his again. “Mmm,” Steve said, surprised, despite himself, and tilted his head into the kiss, reaching forward for Tony as his eyes fluttered open. When they got there, he could see that Tony was now entirely naked as well, sliding in beside him in the bath. “Hey,” Steve said, this time, smiling a little at him.
“Hey,” Tony said, back, and winked at him again, taking Steve’s hands and settling them against Tony’s own bare sides, under the surface of the water. Steve smiled at that, rubbed his thumb against Tony’s skin on instinct. “Like what you see, big guy?”
“Always,” Steve said, sincerely, with a smile, relaxing into it as Tony kissed him again. Tony ran damp fingers up into his hair, combing them through the strands and cradling the back of his neck in his hands, and Steve just slid his arms around his waist and held on, feeling warm all the way through, now, and almost like he was floating, in the water, on the sensations of the kiss. He closed his eyes and just let himself focus on that. It went on for a long time, and even when Tony pulled away, he pressed soft, open-mouthed, wet kisses along Steve’s neck, his mouth even hotter than the easy warmth of the water, mouthing along his jaw, up under his ear, and making him shiver, his other hand tracing patterns down over his neck. Steve found his own hands sliding along Tony’s sides, along his back, up over his shoulders.
They must have kissed for a long time. Steve felt half asleep by the time they stopped, hazy and heavy, only half-aware, but not in the thick, cold way he had before, more lazy and loose. And warm, all the way through, now, so warm. He let Tony stroke his hands over him, lather him up with soap and rinse him off, pressing kisses to his shoulders, his neck, over his throat, wherever he felt like it, as he did, hands wandering and brazen enough to have Steve smiling a little.
His smile faded when he blinked and realized that Tony was trembling, just a bit, under Steve’s hands, at times when Tony touched him. “Tony?” he said. “You—you’re shaking?” He peered at him, a little concerned, only to see Tony shrug it off, smiling ruefully.
“Sorry,” he said. “Shh.” He grabbed Steve’s hands, pulled them away, placed them back on Tony’s shoulders again, but not before Steve noticed the little tremor in Tony’s grip. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry, everything’s fine—I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Steve frowned. They’d been through this dance before—had Tony been hurt, too? He knew he would hide it, if he thought Steve had been hurt worse, of course he would, he did things like that, and that just never helped. But he was sitting right there in front of him naked, and it didn’t look like anything was wrong . . . . Steve squinted at him, trying to clear his vision.
Tony sighed, looked down. “Just . . . a little rough, watching them cut into you, babe,” he said, in a low voice. “That’s all. It’s . . . it’s not a big deal, just a little . . . I mean. I’m fine.”
“Sorry,” Steve said, and meant it. “But thanks for . . . I mean.” He shifted a bit, uncomfortable with how something that had helped him so much had apparently hurt Tony, but it was the truth. Tony deserved to know that, what he’d done for Steve. “I was . . . it. It helps.” And it did. It had, so much, to know that it was Tony’s hands holding him down, even, to be able to fix his gaze on Tony’s face during surgery, whether it was the faceplate of the armor, or later, when he’d opened it, told Steve to focus on him, come on, baby, focus in, focus good, look at me, just look at me, that’s it . . . .
“I’m glad,” Tony said, lowly, looking straight at him. “Then it’s worth it.” He cupped Steve’s face in his hands, running callused fingers lightly over his cheeks, making Steve tingle with the touches, leaned in for another kiss, slowly, soft and light, before he pulled away.
“I’m still sorry,” Steve said, apologetic as he could manage, trailing his fingers down over Tony’s chest.
“Shh,” Tony said. “None of that, now, all right?”
“But I—” Steve started, only to find Tony’s gaze fixed on him firmly.
“No, Steve,” he said. “I’m fine. You went through—a—you went through a lot back there, okay? I know you did. And you’ll be okay, I know that, you know that, it’s just . . .” he shook his head, straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath, “let’s just focus on what we’re doing here. Bath, all that stuff—I still need to wash your hair.”
“That’s all right,” Steve started, but Tony just shook his head.
“Believe me, it’ll make a bigger difference than you think to how you feel,” he said. “You won’t be smelling plastic and the operating room in it anymore, for one thing.” He smiled a little, that coaxing, charmingly crooked smile Steve had a lot of trouble denying, even at his best, and ran one hand up into Steve’s hair, stroking it through the strands, dripping water through them, but in a way that felt good. “Besides, I’d like to. You know, getting my hands all up in your hair, an excuse to feel you up, rub your shoulders . . . . You’re not going to deny me, are you?”
“Fightin’ dirty,” Steve said, slowly, but he was smiling, all the same. He kind of liked it when Tony got sneaky on him, if it was for a good cause like this. It was kinda sweet, somehow.
Tony winked again.
“Okay,” Steve said, with a put-on sigh. It was hard not to smile a little at him all the same. “You win.”
Tony smiled at him. “That’s my boy,” he said, rubbing his thumb over Steve’s cheek, and the soft touch, the affection in his voice, coupled with what he’d said, made Steve’s cheeks heat. But he let Tony lay his head back against his shoulder, put an arm around him, and lean back, dunking Steve’s head in the water, enough to get his hair wet, but not to cover his mouth and nose, and then propping both of them against the edge as he shampooed Steve’s hair—slow and so deep and thorough that it was more a massage then anything, letting his fingers drag slowly through his hair, scratching lightly against his scalp in between working them through the tangles. Steve sighed, let himself relax into it, barely aware of anything but the easy warmth, the soft pleasure in the touch of Tony’s hands as he rinsed off the shampoo. He put something else in it then, after, whatever he used to make his own hair so soft, Steve figured, but he was practically half-asleep by that time, letting his face rest against Tony’s neck and just breathing evenly. He smiled a little, sleepily, when he felt Tony brush a soft kiss against his forehead, and curled his arm a little more tightly around his waist, but didn’t open his eyes.
“You planning to wake up anytime soon, sport?” Tony whispered against his ear.
“Mmm,” Steve said. “Nah, I don’t think so.” The words came out slurred and thick, and he didn’t even care. He pressed closer, tucked his face in against Tony’s neck. It felt good there.
Tony chuckled a little, and put both arms around him. “Okay,” he said, to Steve’s surprise, then turned the water back on so that newly hot water poured in around them.
The sound of the water was surprisingly soothing. Steve hadn’t actually intended to fall asleep still in the bath, but the next thing he knew, he was waking up to Tony’s fingers gently tugging through his hair, steam wafting around them anew and still-hot water lapping at his shoulders and back, and Tony’s voice in his ear, low, saying, “Okay, now it is time to get up, hon.”
“I fell asleep?” Steve said, blinking his eyes further open, a little surprised, mostly at himself.
Tony grinned. “For about fifteen minutes,” he said. “Give or take. But c’mon, now, you can sleep in a bed, too, right?”
“You let me sleep that long?” Steve asked, frowning.
“Why not?” Tony asked, shrugging. “Not like you’re going to slide in and drown with me here. Feel any better?”
Tony was right, Steve allowed. He did feel better. The pain of his injuries had been eased by the hot water, and by this point, all he felt was a kind of warm, easy, almost cotton-soft lassitude, all through him, like warm blankets, and the only pain he felt was far off, floating around the edges of that. Without painkillers doing anything for him, it was the best he was going to get. And much better than he’d expected. “Yeah,” he allowed, pushing himself up. “I do.”
Tony smiled. “Good,” he said. He pushed himself to his feet and stretched with a groan, giving Steve an eyeful that he couldn’t help but appreciate, injured or not, then reached down for Steve and helped him up to his feet. Steve was feeling unsteady enough, and sleepy enough, that he didn’t have much energy to fight Tony drying him off or getting him boxers, lounge pants and a t-shirt that actually were his and he kept lying around Tony’s room, and a robe, didn’t try to get into them on his own, let Tony help him. He didn’t even fight it as Tony checked and reapplied his bandages and whatever salves and medications they’d given him, giving Steve a mess of pills while he was at it. Steve was pretty sure they didn’t make any difference, his body chemistry being what it was, but it would make Tony feel better, so he took them without making a fuss. Eventually, he brushed his teeth, too completely exhausted to watch Tony going through his own nightly rituals at the same time or do anything but focus on his own actions, and let Tony lead him into the other room to collapse on the bed. Tony got him situated on his better side, in a position that barely hurt, and then crawled in behind him and took him carefully in his arms, and Steve sighed with contentment.
“Thanks, Tony,” he said, on a yawn that he tried, and failed, to bury against his hand and the pillow.
“Mmm,” Tony said, voice low from behind him. “Think nothing of it.” He stroked one hand carefully down the front of Steve’s chest, gentle over the new bandages.
“Thank you anyway,” Steve said, stubbornly. It needed to be said. “I feel a hell of a lot better now, and that’s thanks to you, today.”
“Okay,” Tony said, and smiled a little against the back of his neck, Steve could feel it. “Okay. I can accept that. You’re welcome.”
“Good,” Steve said, firmly, then yawned again. He could feel Tony’s grin against the back of his neck. But he wasn’t quite done. He just didn’t know how to say quite what he meant. “Today was rough,” he finally settled on. “But I feel better, now. A lot better. Because of . . . because of you lookin’ after me. That’s all.”
“Really, Steve,” Tony said, a little more strongly this time. “I just wanted . . . to help. You know . . . it goes without saying, that I don’t want to see you hurt.” He kissed the back of Steve’s head, sweet and chaste. “Now just take it easy, okay?” He sighed a little. “I know you won’t,” he said. “But I have to say it, those are the rules.”
Steve grinned, this time, heedless of the battered state of his mouth and the way it pulled on his lips. “They sure are,” he agreed, because it went both ways. “No promises, though,” he added, just so Tony didn’t think he’d promised something he hadn’t.
“Haha,” Tony said, “that’ll be the day,” but he sounded amused, not really upset. “Seriously, though,” he added, a little more gravely, a moment later. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Better than I had any right to expect,” Steve said. He smiled a little to himself. “Really,” he said. “I feel great. Barely feel a thing.” The fact that he still felt drained and dizzy and half-asleep probably had something to do with that, but hey, he wasn’t complaining. Tony’s arms were warm around him, his body sturdy and solid against Steve’s, his breath warm against his ear. Steve felt relaxed, tired, not even afraid to relax because he might hurt if he let his guard down, which was the most amazing part of all of it—his head was foggy again, but this time just with sleepiness and warmth, almost, more than anything else. He rarely felt this exhausted. He hesitated, blew his breath out, and then just said it. “And if you stay right there, all night, I’ll be . . . I’ll be just fine.”
“Sure,” Tony said, quiet and low, and pressed a kiss against the back of his neck. “Of course.”
Steve blew his breath out, relieved, more at how Tony had taken that confession than anything, and relaxing even further. “Thanks,” he said, low, and closed his eyes. He always felt safe like this, with Tony behind him. Tony holding him. Tonight was no different. But he knew he’d need the reassuring warmth of that hold, tonight. Surgery wasn’t . . . fun for him, even at the best of times, and today . . . hadn’t exactly been the best of times. But just like he’d focused on Tony’s face, his voice, to get him through it—he still felt focused on him, zeroed in on him like that, and that was fine. It was good. It helped a lot.
He’d be all right tomorrow, Steve knew. He knew he needed this down time, too—even he needed it, sometimes. It was hard to accept, though. From himself. But if he was going to be good for anything, tomorrow, he needed to rest now. Even if he didn’t want to admit it.
But he knew Tony understood that too well to let him get away with any big ideas. Tony knew it because he wasn’t any better about it himself. Hypocrisy was something else sometimes, Steve thought with some amusement, on another yawn.
“I’m comfy here,” he said again, sleepily. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Ha,” Tony said. “Fat chance of that, baby, but okay.”
Steve grinned. The same went for him, and Tony, he knew. “Fine, fine,” he said. “If you can’t help yourself.”
“I can’t,” Tony said. “Now shh. Sleep, Steve. Go to sleep.”
“And you say I hover over you,” Steve muttered, but he couldn’t deny he was mostly there, already. He shifted back against the pillows and leaned back to kiss Tony, though he only really got the corner of his mouth. “Good night, Shellhead,” he said, smiling up at him.
Tony smiled, and gave him a much more centered good night kiss, soft but full on the lips, before letting him lie back, half propped against his shoulder and half against the pillow, so that their heads rested close together. “Good night,” he said, and found Steve’s hand with his, linked their fingers, and squeezed. He looked at Steve, and his eyes were serious, sincere where they found his. “Sweet dreams,” he said, quietly.
Steve smiled a little, nodded, and closed his eyes as he leaned forward and let his forehead rest against Tony’s shoulder. “You too,” he murmured.