Tony woke up, blinking his eyes open, at the low groan from beside him. It had been barely audible, even in the quiet of the room, but that was one benefit of how he was wrapped around Steve, serving as a human prop to keep him stable and balanced in the bed, his face tucked into the warm curve of Steve’s neck as he held him. He could hear every little noise he made. Steve was panting now, shallow huffs of air over Tony’s ear, and as Tony blinked his eyes open, Steve groaned again, low in his throat, without opening his eyes, and it rasped a little.
That wasn’t good. He was hurting again. Though he didn’t seem to be awake, which was something, at least. Tony lifted his head, brushed his lips against Steve’s dry, hot forehead, letting them linger against the damp tangles at his hairline, shifting his arm under Steve’s to run his fingers down over his back. He was feverish, his body overwhelmingly hot against Tony’s, creating pockets of sweat where they lay tucked in against each other, but that wasn’t a surprise; Steve always ran a high fever for the couple of days it took him to heal after getting hurt. (And it always felt like forever, however Tony knew that, objectively, it hardly took any time at all.) Tony reached for the pillows behind them on the bed and dragged them close, shoving one under Steve’s head, the other beneath his side, building them up behind Steve’s back as well as he could without disentangling from him entirely.
Steve trembled, shivered, shook his head, his forehead creasing, and Tony wondered if he was having a nightmare. He had them regularly enough, but the fever always amped them up. From what Tony could tell, anyway. Which made sense. Fever dreams were always more intense, in his experience. In the worst way possible. He put one hand on the back of Steve’s head, kissed his forehead more firmly, as if he could somehow kiss the fever out of the dry, tight, overheated skin. “Shhh,” he murmured. “It’s okay, Steve, sweetheart. It’s okay. You’re okay. It’s just a dream.” He ran one hand down over Steve’s broad shoulder. He felt so hot through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. “Just a dream,” he murmured, lower, more soothing. Steve was going to be okay. That was the whole point. He was fine, he reminded himself; he was going to be fine.
He was always fine. That didn’t change the way Tony’s mouth felt dry and ashy, as if in sympathy, the way his throat hurt. He kept thinking about earlier that day, the way Steve had set his face so tightly, his jaw clenching tight with determination even as he coughed, held his midsection tight, putting pressure on the injury, until his gloves were covered in his own blood, squinched his eyes shut in pain and breathed unsteadily but didn’t let go of the wound in his gut until he was practically unconscious, telling the others that he “had it.” Fuck. But he was going to be all right. He always was, all right, in the end.
In a way that made it even worse. Tony just—he hated seeing him like this, suffering, with so little he could do for him. Hated it, and knowing Steve would heal from it didn’t help. It didn’t make it matter less. It didn’t mean that Steve hadn’t had to suffer, however Steve tried to downplay it, push them all away so they didn’t see it. Have to see it. It twisted up in his stomach, until he was aching along with every hiss of breath Steve let escape him, every shuddering breath or heavy little grunt of effort.
Steve shifted as Tony moved, sighed under his touch, arm sliding heavily over Tony’s waist where it was thrown over him with all its weight, curled against his back. He groaned again, and it scratched, grated in his throat, in his chest. “Shh,” Tony told him, and glanced up at the clock. 5 am. It was close to when Steve would normally get up, no wonder he was restless. “Easy, honey,” he murmured, leaning down again to press his lips against Steve’s temple, sliding his hand down to entwine his fingers with Steve’s, curling them lightly together as he lifted Steve’s heavy, muscular weight of an arm off his waist. Steve made another aching sound, and his eyes screwed more tightly shut, he shifted as his brows knit, shivering and breathing unsteadily as Tony tucked Steve’s arm in against his chest so it clasped the heating pad there without Tony there to keep holding it against Steve’s painful belly, arranged him carefully so he was lying back on the pillows rather than risk him falling forward without Tony there to hold him. He needed to get a few things, and that meant getting up.
He worked his other arm carefully out from under Steve’s neck, brushed another quick kiss to the top of his head, then slid out of the bed as gracefully as he could when he was effectively trapped beside Steve by the twisted mound of blankets and pillows, even as Steve gave another low sound, a low rasping noise that scraped and rattled in his throat. “Shh,” Tony found himself whispering again, even though it made no sense, really; he just didn’t want Steve to hurt, straining his throat. He’d breathed in a ton of crap, dust, debris, when the building had fallen on him; his face had been covered in it when they’d found him and he’d been coughing and hacking ever since. Tony knew it was to get the dust and everything else out of his lungs, but it sounded so painful, straining, and he hated the raspy, raw way Steve’s breathing sounded now. Steve shouldn’t have to struggle like that. Of all people.
Surely he’d had enough of that before the serum. It just didn’t seem fair.
Tony got to his feet, headed in the direction of his closet. He’d designed a variation of a vaporizer a long time ago, when he’d wake up nights feeling like he was being crushed under the chestplate, like he couldn’t breathe, and he’d adapted it to suit Steve’s needs as soon as he’d realized how often Steve spent the whole night shivering and dreaming of ice, so of course he’d installed it in the Tower, too. It still came in handy for nights when Steve was shivering, unable to stop, and hot mist in the air around them would be something comforting, soothing, might make it easier for Steve to breathe, if more mentally than anything else. Tony had used it to increase the oxygen levels in the room for himself, but Steve didn’t really need that. It only took a few moments to input his commands into the control panel in the closet, and the hidden vents around the room started to pump hot steam into the room. He filled up a glass of water while he was at it and picked up a piece of soft cheesecloth from the kitchen, then brought back a dry towel, sliding it under Steve’s head, lifting him gently to settle him back down onto it. Steve mumbled under his breath, and Tony ran a thumb along his hot skin, over his cheekbone. “Sleep, sugar,” he told him, barely audible, not really concentrating on it himself, his brain consumed with Steve’s temperature, the rate of his breathing and his pulse, the grating roughness in his throat, his pained little noises as he shifted and pulled on his abdomen where the worst of the wounds were with every movement or cough, the temperature in the room and what else he could do.
He got up, got their other heating pad out of the drawer where he kept it, and wrapped it in a pillowcase like the one Steve was already hugging to his stomach, half aware. This one he slid in behind Steve’s back. He was already so hot, but heat was one of the only things that helped manage his pain at all, and the last thing Tony wanted to do was make Steve feel colder when he was already half-aware, at best, following a traumatic experience. He dug out the numbing salve they’d used on Steve’s bruises before with some results and put the jar on his own pillow, then headed into the bathroom to wet a towel under the water, carefully measuring the temperature until it was just on the lukewarm side of tepid. He squeezed out the worst of the drips and brought it back to climb back in beside Steve in the bed, sliding into the valley between the pillows keeping Steve relatively stable and pressing himself back in against the slumped wall of heat that was Steve’s body. It was easier to manage the worry when he was doing something.
Tony told his hands to stop shaking as he refolded the towel and stroked it gently over Steve’s forehead, behind his ears. He knew it was just a delayed stress response. He never handled Steve being hurt that well. It was so hard to stay calm, focused, when Steve was hurting right there in front of him. Steve of all people. It made Tony’s chest hurt. Like he was having a heart attack. Like it was caving in. Aching. Needy. And it wasn’t about him, it was about Steve. He just had to keep pressing forward, and the shakes would work themselves out again, he knew that.
He ran the cloth down around Steve’s neck, along the neck of his t-shirt, careful not to let it get too damp, back up to rest it at his nape. Steve sighed, and his muscles relaxed slightly, his lips parting. That’s it, Tony thought, there you go. It was an encouraging sign, at least, even if Steve’s breath was still scratching in his throat. He held the cloth at the nape of his neck a moment longer, sliding down in bed to press his lips into Steve’s hair, closing his own eyes as he took a deep breath, just for a moment, then forced himself to pull back, bathed Steve’s face with the cloth again, careful to keep it slow and gentle.
Steve made a soft noise, shifted his head in the bed, but without opening his eyes. “Tony,” he mumbled, barely audible, really, more of a hoarse little grunt. His fingers twitched, hand shifting its grip on the heating pad tucked in against his stomach, opening and sliding outward.
“Right here, cupcake,” Tony told him, in a low voice, holding the cloth against Steve’s forehead now. He reached down with his free hand, caught that searching hand in his own, and shifted himself in closer against Steve’s body, using himself to hold the heating pad against Steve’s abdomen wound and tugging Steve’s hand so that his heavy arm fell limply over Tony’s waist again, draped around his back.
Steve sighed out again in another low, raspy breath, and his hand went flat against Tony’s back, pressing in, arm curling around him. Something in that big, feverish body relaxed even further.
“That’s it, sweetheart,” Tony told him, soft, running his hand along that arm, moving the cloth down along over Steve’s nose, along his jaw, at the same time.
Steve made a soft sound, pressed his face into the cloth, into Tony’s hand. His tongue came out of his mouth, tracked along his cracked, broken bottom lip, leaving it sticky with how little saliva came with it. He looked so dry, like there was barely any saliva in his mouth, and he made a broken little noise of distress, panting for air.
“Shh,” Tony told him, and tucked the damp cloth in against his temple, where Steve’s head would hold it there against the towel, leaning over him to pick up the glass of water and piece of cheesecloth. He soaked part of the cloth in the water, until it was dripping, then tucked it between Steve’s parted lips with a careful finger. Steve made another noise and then Tony could see his mouth close around it, see him start to suck on it. This time the sound back in his throat was one of relief, almost grateful, and his hand shifted on Tony’s back, pressed in tightly, hot against his skin, but welcome just the same. Tony wondered if he was just being fanciful to think Steve meant it as a thank you, but then, Steve did that kind of thing, even when he was only half awake.
“That’s it,” Tony told him again, rubbing the hinge of his jaw, his neck, with one hand. Steve sighed, pressed his face in against that hand, again, the way he had earlier, into the palm of it. Tony could see his throat working as he swallowed. When Steve was more conscious, Tony would make him some hot herbal tea with honey in it, to coat that raw throat of his, but this would do for now. Just water was something Steve desperately needed at the moment, and the pure physicality of it would probably comfort Steve, Tony figured. Steve liked things concrete, especially when he felt sick, or, well, lost. Tony liked to think he knew his boyfriend well enough to know he’d take wet cheesecloth in his mouth over an IV in his arm any day. He gave Steve a moment, watching him swallow, then, when Steve was rolling the cloth with his tongue, working it to try to get more moisture from it, Tony tugged it gently from between his lips. Steve fought him at first, but only for a moment, before he sighed and his chapped lips parted with a quiet little breath, letting Tony draw it away. He soaked it the water again and pressed it back into Steve’s mouth, dripping, and Steve sighed. His eyelids fluttered without opening, and his mouth closed to suck on it again.
Tony set the glass back down on the nightstand and picked up the cloth again, wiping Steve’s face one more time to see the little creases in his forehead, the tightness around his eyes, relax at the feeling of wet, not-quite-cool. It probably felt very cool to Steve, he was so hot. He tucked it in against the front of Steve’s neck, just under the cheesecloth in Steve’s mouth, beneath his chin, and reached for the jar of salve, unscrewing the lid and slathering it on his fingers. He started with the arm that was lying loose and heavy over Tony’s waist, the strong, thick muscles in his forearm and biceps, buttery-soft under Tony’s fingers as he worked in the salve, massaging deeply into the muscle. Good, that spoke of relaxation in Steve’s body, rather than the tension that would have come if he’d been in a lot of pain still. Something was working for him, at least. He slid his hand up under Steve’s t-shirt sleeve, working the salve in up to his shoulder. Luckily this t-shirt was one of the biggest Steve owned, loose on him and chosen precisely because of that. Tony teased him sometimes that it had probably been made for King Kong. “Finally, I get you to lie still for a massage,” Tony murmured, not sure if Steve was awake enough to make sense of the words, but knowing the sound of someone’s familiar voice always comforted him when he was sick.
He could see the corner of Steve’s lips twitch, and his hand shifted on Tony’s back as he flexed the muscles in his arm slightly, teasing, Tony thought.
“You’re impossible,” Tony told him, smiling now, though he probably shouldn’t be. Steve should be sleeping, not fooling around with him. But it was good to see that sign of his irrepressibility, stubborn as ever. “Go back to sleep, gorgeous.”
“Mmm,” Steve said around the cloth, and his hand slid up Tony’s back again, along his spine.
“That had better be a yes, sir,” Tony told him. He reached down beneath the blankets and shifted the heating pad to rest against Steve’s hip, tugging his shirt up to reveal his thickly bandaged midsection. Tony was relieved to see the bandages looked as pristinely white as they had when he’d gotten Steve into bed, so he hadn’t been restless because he’d torn open the sutures, or anything. He ran his hand gently over the thick wrapping of gauze, barely touching Steve, just enough to let him feel Tony’s touch there, not enough for it to hurt, then slathered more salve on his fingers and slide his hand up onto the bare part of Steve’s chest, above the bandages, rubbing it gently into his skin. Steve sighed, and his lips opened slightly around the cloth in his mouth. “That feel good, honey?” Tony murmured, working the salve in deeply, feeling Steve’s muscles give and relax under him.
“’s nice,” Steve mumbled into the cloth in his mouth. His words were very slurred, barely understandable. “Good. Warm.”
Tony reached up with his other hand and tugged the cloth out of Steve’s mouth, wiping his lips with it. “More water?” he asked, running his thumb along Steve’s over-hot chest as he used the other to pat at Steve’s lips with the cloth, along his jaw.
“Mmm,” Steve said, eyes still shut, but going softer, eyelids fluttering easily, relaxed. “Please?”
“Sure,” Tony said, taking care to keep his voice low, soothing. “I’ve got you covered.” He reached up, got the water again, pressing a kiss against Steve’s forehead as he did, and Steve smiled slightly, softly, Tony could see it. He soaked the cloth again, brought it back and gently tucked it between Steve’s lips. “There you go,” he murmured.
“Mmm,” Steve said again, and his hand patted vaguely at Tony’s back as he sucked on it. Tony patted Steve’s chest gently in return and went back to his slow massage, pushing his shirt up further so he could get to his shoulders. He could feel Steve relaxing under the touches, and by the time he finished with Steve’s shoulders and chest to his satisfaction, Steve was limp in the bed again, mouth slack around the cheesecloth. Tony wet it again anyway, fed it back into his mouth, and sure enough Steve’s lips closed slowly, clumsily, around it as he instinctively sucked at the moisture. Tony put more of the salve on his hand and pushed Steve’s shirt up over his back, began to massage him there, smearing the salve over his skin and then rubbing it in in slow, easy movements, tucking Steve carefully against his own chest and shoulders, all the heavy limp weight of him, huge as he was.
It was easy to get caught up in it, the motions of rubbing deep circles into Steve’s strong shoulders, along his spine, breathing in the scent of him, hot and sickly but still smelling like soap, the shampoo Tony had used in his hair, the subtle scent of his skin. Steve was breathing easier now, and the steam was heavy, warm in the air around them, settling on Tony’s skin. Steve sighed again, moved closer to Tony, pressed his face into his shoulder, turning his nose inward along the blade of it, toward Tony’s neck, and pressing his cheek into the soft cotton of Tony’s old t-shirt. He felt so very warm in Tony’s arms, but his body was so much looser now, more relaxed. That was good. Tony reached up, tugged the cloth out of Steve’s mouth, and Steve just pressed in closer against him, practically nuzzling in against Tony’s shoulder. Tony draped it over the glass on the nightstand and ran his hand, the one not covered in salve, through Steve’s hair. “Honey,” he whispered, checking to see if Steve was asleep yet. “You there?”
Steve didn’t answer, and his hearing was more than keen enough to have picked that up, if he’d been conscious. Tony sighed, pleased with that, at least, and went back to massaging patterns into the skin of Steve’s shoulders, moving his fingers gently through Steve’s hair, over the back of his head. Steve needed his sleep. That was how things usually went when Steve was hurt, anyway. Steve would sleep heavily for a few days, with moments of restlessness, eat as much as he could in between while his body heated up, growl like a wounded bear when he was aware enough, stewing with frustration and impatience with himself, and usually push himself far too hard, unless something headed him off at the pass. Which was where Tony came in. He liked to think he’d gotten pretty good at it. At the very least, Steve seemed more willing to lie still in bed when Tony was curled up in it with him. It was the least he could do. Tony had spent a long time trying to figure out ways to help Steve feel better when he was hurt. It was almost nice, now that they were together, that he had a chance to refine them as much as he could, put them into practice in new, more intimate ways, and measure how well they actually worked, instead of just hoping Steve would take his advice, or trying to arrange things to help him out as much as possible around him. It was a relief to be able to do for him with his own body, his own hands, to be this close to him. To feel him breathe against his neck, even if it was still hoarse and a little scratchy. Tony had already let the office know that he’d be in late the next morning. He wanted to be certain Steve was settled comfortably for the day before he left, even if that meant Steve was still asleep in bed. At the very least he could change the bedding and make sure Jarvis was fully informed.
Steve blew out his breath slowly, and it did sound easier now. He pressed his face into the warm, damp hollow of Tony’s neck, took a slow, heavy breath, then blew it back out. Tony ran his fingers through his hair again, still rubbing patterns into Steve’s skin under his shirt, then decided that was enough for now, and tugged Steve’s shirt back down, tucked the heating pads back in against his middle, the center of his back, closed the jar and leaned over to set it aside as best he could without jostling Steve too much. He picked up the cloth at Steve’s neck, wiped his face with it one last time, then tossed it onto the nightstand beside the water glass.
He slid his fingers along the top of Steve’s head and looked down at him, the fuzzy tousle of blond hair messy against his own shoulder, the hunched shape of him where he was curled up around him, into Tony’s body. He sounded better. He was doing better. He was fast asleep, breathing evenly, his body relaxed. That was good.
Tony pressed one last kiss into his hair and felt some of the tension go out of his own shoulders, ease out of his neck. He slid down in their hot, sweaty nest of pillows and comforters and shifted close to Steve again, sliding his own arm carefully over his side, absently stroking his fingers up over Steve’s back, just beneath his shoulders, along his spine. He fell asleep listening to the strong, steady sound of Steve’s heart beating, stroking his fingertips in a rhythm along Steve’s back until he wasn’t aware of it any longer.