Minimising risks of infection required proper wound disinfection and thereafter, observing hygienic habits. Nebula had taken care to conduct Stark’s surgery under aseptic conditions – quite an achievement given current circumstances – and the suturing tools had been sterilised. But, under the thick swathes of fresh dressings and bandages, Stark was filthy. She could peel the layer of muck and congealed blood off his skin, flay him without a beg of mercy from those delicate Terran lips. Perhaps she should place him prostrate on the table? That would simplify the procedure if he couldn’t see and thus, question what she was doing. But having him seated in this chair, though exhausting on his part allowed her better access. How unlike her to factor his wellbeing in her decision making.
She fetched a pail of water – collected from the engine room and filtered to keep pathogen levels to near nil – and a sponge. A new one. Looked like the sort of thing Gamora would use to pamper her Zen-Whoberis skin after an enviable adventure with the Guardians. She wouldn’t be needing this anymore.
Stark was only half-aware when she dabbed the wet sponge across his forehead. Stray, dark hair that had stuck to his skin was gently combed upward with her fingers. The faintest scent of shampoo remained discernible, and Nebula swiped her sponge down his cheek. A Terran who had the time and tools to groom himself wasn’t much of a warrior, was he? Five days had passed since they boarded the Benatar, and his facial hair was only starting to get unruly. Had he been trimming his goatee mere hours before Thanos laid waste to his city?
Nebula refreshed her sponge with a rinse of water. She carefully avoided the ugly bruise on his cheekbones before tucking a corner of her sponge behind his ears. Stark opened his eyes then, though he had trouble focusing on anything tangible within his arm’s reach. Even Nebula. His breathing quickened when she ran her sponge down his throat.
He hadn’t seen her yet, but his arm groped weakly about until he caught her offending wrist. A pathetic grip that she had no problem breaking away from, but she yielded and did not move.
“Do you remember where you are, Stark?”
His eyes sought hers, but they were unseeing. Hazy. “Nebula?”
“I’m washing your body. Your immune system can’t withstand another bout of infection. Hold still.”
She wanted this to be over as much as he did. There was no pleasure in looking after a Terran whose name she only knew from the wizard who wielded Time, and who remained stubbornly on the brink of death that she sacrificed half a week’s worth of sleep so he could.
He shuddered when the sponge dipped into the crook of his shoulders. The water had been heated, but with the ravaging fever he was having, it made no difference. All he had to preserve his warmth was thick layers of blankets Nebula had stolen from the private cabins of the late Guardians, and a couple of shirts that used to be Quill’s. Stark’s own was so bloodied and torn that she saw no value in saving it. A cheap sacrifice so she could access the stab wounds and littering lacerations before he bled out on her table.
She crossed over his thigh and knelt between his legs. Stark cranked open his eyes again, brows knitted and throat working up.
“You broke two ribs,” she said simply as she returned her sponge to the pail. “Tell me when it hurt.”
His hands gripped the armrests tighter, but he made no complaint. She was careful around the housing of his chest reactor. That was the best bit about Stark’s frail form. That tech was advanced even by Kree’s standard, and never would she had guessed it was Terran handiwork until she witnessed Iron Man’s stand on Titan. After the fight, the suit of armour dissipated into a core – his – and this was her chance to see it again. She slid up his body, eager to get a closer look and he hissed at the unwanted pressure.
“I apologise,” she muttered, and resumed her ministrations. The dark bruises scattered about his thorax were telling of multiple unhealed ribs, and she navigated between them skilfully. Her sponge left a wet trail in its wake, indistinguishable from a thin sheen of sweat. Stark’s shivering had yet to cease, and each time it racked his body, he drew air between his teeth like there was none in their vicinity. He was hurting, and no amount of tender attention could help.
The worst on the sundry list of injuries was next. His left side bore the worst of infection that it nearly exhausted all of Nebula’s medical knowledge to get it under control. She didn’t dare to agitate the immediate area and glided swiftly past it, also to Stark’s relief. He had painkillers just the hour before, but there was only so much drugs could do for a wound this extensive.
She cast her attention to his defined abdominal packs. Here, she could risk applying more pressure. Scans showed that nothing underlying was harmed in the battle. Still, he squirmed in discomfort when her sponge threatened to wet his waistband, having gone too far south and out of bare skin to scrub.
With her free hand, Nebula unbutton Stark’s pants and was just about to pull the zipper down when once again, shaky fingers stopped her from going further.
“No, that’s alright. I can do it myself.”
She narrowed her black eyes, a direct challenge against the half-smile he was wearing. She called it bullshit. She could bet the rest of their food stash that there was no way Stark could even bend down and reach his toes, concerns that were proven right when he took the sponge but made no effort to do more. So, she waited, watched and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Well?” Nebula challenged. “Step one. Take your pants off.”
“I’ll help you.”
She was this close to knocking him out so they could do away with the wishy-washy and get right down to business. There were other aspects of their misfortune that demanded her attention, and the longer she played babysitter, the lesser time she had to dedicate to studying the galaxy and mapping their route to Earth. Whatever stunt Stark was puling was not helping.
She popped his button before he could bat her hand away and pulled his pants down mid-thigh. What exactly was Stark so afraid of revealing escaped her, because she’d seen him bare when he was still coated in grime and knocking on Death’s door. She wondered if he was hiding more injuries under his pants, if she’d missed any so she searched him. She pinned his flailing arms down with absurd ease and looked for clues of fresh bleeding or contusions.
“What are you not telling me?” she asked. There was no difference in the areas that were exposed to her, save for the piece of flesh between his legs that was half-erect. It wasn’t this shape and size during surgery. Was this ailing Stark?
“Nothing is wrong, not really –” And Stark swallowed a gasp when she fiddled with his cock. She ran her fingers along the shaft, recalling if there was such a sign in Gamora’s textbook on Terran pathology. The rigidity intensified in her grasp, and she reached lower to the tautening sacs.
She looked up to a flushed, breathless Stark in need of something unfathomable. Half-slouching in his chair, his chest rose and sunk at a rhythm that must’ve been painful. He looked at her with a piercing gaze despite the sedatives coursing in his veins.
His explanations – if they were – died on his lips and he shook his head. Hesitantly, he squeezed at the sponge and ran it haphazardly down his inner thighs, between the nook and cranny of his pelvis and Nebula sighed. Stark’s absolute incompetence at washing himself properly was grating. She would commandeer the sponge and the pail if she wanted it done her way. She would pull a blade against his jugular and threaten him to endure the next five minutes of her washing the lower half of his body. She could. Efficiency demanded it. She also knew that if she did, a part of Stark would break, a part that a half-machine like her would never understand.
“You can’t reach your feet,” she said at long last, somewhere between Stark’s umpteenth curse under his breath and gritted out groans that he thought she couldn’t hear. She took the sponge that he held out willingly and leaned back in his seat. So, Nebula resumed his work. Washed his calves and ankles with the depth of patience she never knew existed.
Stark’s cock was leaking by the time she was done. She could bring her sponge up to his erection, wipe away the precum and rinse it all in the pail of bloody water. And he could shoot a hole through her heart if he wanted to. Betting her life on it, she crept closer to him, still on her knees between his legs, and locked eyes with his.
She made it damn clear what she was about to do. She held the sponge at the base of his cock and glided up. Slowly, all the way up along the trail of his own bodily fluid. She wrapped the wet sponge around the head – heard Stark gasp at the sensation – and squeezed. Water and blood flowed down the shaft, and Nebula chased at them again with the sponge. For as long as he let her, she knelt and pumped, laboured for his sake, until Stark clasped a bandaged hand over his brows and his free hand reached down.
“OK, that’s enough,” he said breathlessly. A weak chuckle escaped him, and he winced. “Gonna break a few more ribs if I finish.”
Nebula nodded and took a step back from his chair. That was an interesting aspect of Terran biology that she would quite like to investigate further, if not for her own amusement. For the moment, Stark was right, this sufficed. The exertion would soon exhaust him. Perhaps for the better. Somebody needed to check if the Benatar remained on course to Stark’s home.