The Sacrifice Play

by Dira Sudis

Warning: The consent issues inherent in the system are coming to a head in an exciting variety of ways, violence takes a few different forms, and no one is having a good day although some are having a worse day than others. Oh and everyone gets to have an orgasm at some point. So, uh, proceed with caution! I'm happy to chat if you have specific questions about content/triggers/etc.!

Many thanks to Frostfire for beta, and to alby_mangroves, feanorinleatherpants, AgentMal, and Ylixia for constantly encouraging and helping with this.

Chapter 1

Steve woke up sharply in the darkness. For a moment he was only aware that he needed to be up now, having slept hard and dreamless as he always did before a mission.

Then he rolled to his side and felt the softness of the bed under him, which meant the war was a long time ago. Even more new and unexpected than the mattress, his movement made his dick slide against his belly. After two days, he was nowhere near being accustomed to the absence of the infib.

The motion didn't really hurt, though. He reached down to touch himself cautiously, but his fingers confirmed what the absence of pain already told him. He was as healed up as he was going to get. There was nothing at all to stop him from celebrating his birthday with the one bit of real freedom he had won for himself.

Steve reached for his phone just to confirm it, but the display told him what he'd expected. It was 4:00 AM on July 4. The sun wasn't up yet, and he was still in bed. This was still only his birthday; there was no other part of the day he had to confront just yet.

Steve tipped onto his back, drawing his knees up to tent the covers over himself. With his eyes closed, he slid both hands down into his shorts and tore the strips of medical tape free, getting rid of the little web he'd made between the rings still poking out of his belly to hold his dick in place.

If he lay still on his back, it rested naturally where it felt normal, the head snugged right up to the rings and the shaft bent back in a tight curve. Steve rubbed the last bits of adhesive from his fingers and then carefully peeled down his shorts. That was all he'd worn to bed, so now he was naked under the covers.

It still felt more like a mission than it probably should. There was a good chance this was going to hurt, even if everything went right, but finally--finally, after all this time waiting, the moment for action had arrived. He didn't know if the impatient restlessness he felt was the normal way to want this, but God, he wanted it. To finally do this, now that he was free to, quite aside from the distant prospect of finding pleasure in it.

He hadn't been able to do this since he was sixteen--nearly half his life, since he was more or less thirty today. Any anger he'd felt at not being able to do so had dulled into insensibility a long time ago, and he didn't remember anymore what he missed. Not really.

Only one way to find out.

He settled one hand over his dick, just cupping it in place, and even that made his heart beat faster.

He touched his thumb to the underside of the head and his breath caught. A shiver ran through his body, and he felt a thrill of unease and thought that this might not be a good idea--he didn't have to bite this apple, open this box. He could wait until something happened on its own, let nature take its course. Wait for the time to be right.

Steve gritted his teeth. He had waited for Bucky, waited for Peggy, waited to be free. He was done waiting.

He curled his hand around his dick and his stomach swooped like he was on the Cyclone again. He thought of Bucky pressed against his side and let himself chase a memory. Not that day at Coney Island, but the war, when he and Bucky had finally stopped waiting, as much as they could.

They had bedded down together whenever they could, in camps or billets. Even if people didn't know they were both cock-locked, no one much cared what two slaves got up to, sharing blankets. He had plenty of memories of spending nights with Bucky, waking up pressed together with him. His own body was well-trained enough not to bother him with what he couldn't have, and Steve usually woke up before Bucky so he could shuffle around and make sure Bucky wouldn't get woken up by his own less-accustomed dick trying to rise to the occasion.

But if they didn't have to do that--if Bucky were here with him now, the solid heat of Bucky's body pressing against him here, in this bed, and they were both free, both healed... He could tug Bucky closer, wake him sweetly, with kisses brushed over his lips while they were soft with sleep.

The surge in his cock felt dangerous, but it didn't actually hurt, or not much. There was a deep ache, like stretching a tight muscle, but it was satisfying, too, the stretch releasing something that had been cramped too long. And the little motion of his hand, just a shiver of movement up and down, felt better than anything had in a very long time. He felt like he was coming alive, his whole body lighting up like a busy switchboard, and he was the operator, frantically trying to make the right connections.

He felt seized with a momentary fear that he would get it wrong, that he didn't know how to do this, that he would wind himself up and not be able to finish. He gritted his teeth and pushed the thought away. This felt good enough, if it came to that. If this was all he could have, it was still more than he'd ever had before. He focused on the fantasy again and kept moving his hand up and down.

Bucky, that was all he wanted to think of. Bucky here with him, kissing him, and Bucky's hand on his face, his neck, the warmth of Bucky beside him. Bucky wouldn't have to wince and pull away this time; this rush filling his body would fill Bucky's, too. They would both feel just this good, they would both feel the delicious stretching ache. His cock was hard under his hand now, standing away from his body slightly, and when he brushed his thumb over the head it came away slick and wet.

His eyes flashed open, fearful for a second that one of the cuts had popped open and he was bleeding without even feeling it, but the liquid was clear, welling up from the opening of his cock. It seemed vaguely familiar, something he'd heard of, maybe even something he'd seen before, one of the handful of times he'd jerked off before his first infib. Those memories were all blurred with time and the imperfection of his pre-serum memory, to say nothing of the hasty, shameful nature of the acts themselves.

No more haste now, and no more shame. This was his, earned fair and square--protected by a Supreme Court ruling, of all things. He rubbed the clear fluid with his thumb, and the slipperiness of it made the touch shockingly better.

He closed his eyes, reaching for his memory of Bucky again. Kissing deep and fast and frantic the way they had sometimes after a battle, unable to pay attention to anything but the fact that they were still alive, still together. The hot, heavy press of Bucky's body against his came to him, vivid and sudden enough to make him gasp and his cock jerk in his hand. He tightened his grip and pulled, an instinctive motion that felt so good his toes curled and the top of his head seemed to lift off.

"Oh, God," he gasped. "Oh--Bucky--"

He could feel Bucky against him, could hear Bucky's voice in his ear, low and rough. That's it, Stevie. Just like that, just like I promised. Good, huh? You like that?

Steve bit his lip and repeated the tugging motion, slower this time. He moaned as he did, no more able to hold back the sound than he had been when he was cutting himself. The pleasure was as sharp and overwhelming as the pain had been, and his hand kept moving without conscious thought, slower or faster, tighter or looser, but always driving toward some peak.

He did know how to get there, as it turned out.

It took his breath away when it arrived, a flood of sensation--pain as well as pleasure as his cock jerked and spurted, his tight balls emptying, his whole body moving with the rush.

When it was over he lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling and remembering the moment he'd first stepped out of Howard's machine, feeling tall and strong and painless, transformed.

He noticed the ache in his face before any other and realized he was smiling--grinning so widely it hurt. Another unaccustomed stretch of underused muscles. He slung one arm over his face, cupping the other hand protectively over his dick as it subsided into softness against his sticky-wet belly.

He couldn't say that had been worth the wait, exactly, but it was a hell of a birthday celebration. Fireworks had nothing on it. He laughed a little to himself and lay there, reveling in the sensation for a while. It was still dark. He had time.

Tony's hands clenched in the sheets, his breathing reflexively cutting off as his eyes opened in the dim room.

"It is 5:12 AM," JARVIS informed him, pitched to his ear only. "Saturday, July 4th. The current temperature in Manhattan is sixty-seven degrees, and sunrise will occur in eighteen minutes. Subtracting periods of wakefulness, you have had five hours of sleep; perhaps you would like to celebrate and/or protest the holiday by staying in bed past dawn?"

Tony pressed his face into his pillow, unclenching one hand to slide between his chest and the mattress. He turned his palm to the hard circle of the Machine through the t-shirt he'd worn to bed. Two weeks into the new routine, he was almost used to sleeping in clothes on purpose instead of because he'd passed out in them.

He shook his head and surfaced again, rolling to sit up and waggling his fingers to tell JARVIS to continue the morning status report.

"32557038 is still sleeping peacefully." Tony let himself glance over his shoulder toward the open door of the bedslave's room. Tony never shut the door on Threetoo, in case it made him feel closed in, and Threetoo had still never closed it against Tony, so they weren't cut off from each other overnight. Threetoo hadn't come out of his room in the night since that dream, or whatever it had been, sent him to kneel and prostrate himself by Tony's bed a week ago, but it was always a possibility.

JARVIS was under orders to wake Tony at the first sign that he was having a nightmare, so he couldn't make a noise in his sleep that would wake Threetoo. JARVIS was getting increasingly emphatic about encouraging Tony to sleep more, though, which probably meant he was going to start refusing that order for Tony's own good soon. That was fine; Tony could set up some kind of noise-canceling system to use overnight.

It wouldn't solve the problem if Threetoo got up in the middle of the night on his own, but... Tony was a genius. He would think of something.

Later. After coffee.

"He has had no seizures," JARVIS continued, "and has shown no signs of distress. All vital signs are normal."

Tony nodded and got up. JARVIS proceeded through SI stock prices and news headlines and into the highlights of Tony's various inboxes while Tony went into the bathroom, where he not only closed the door but locked it. JARVIS started the shower for him without Tony needing to say a word. Tony stripped down and tossed his clothes into the hamper, only to be caught by the sight of himself naked in the mirror.

He'd gotten more careful about covering up with Threetoo in the penthouse, but it had mostly made him conscious of how rarely he had to do anything differently than he always did. He hadn't been naked, or even shirtless, in front of anyone but Pepper or Rhodey in years now; other than routine maintenance and upgrades for the Machine itself, he kept covered up most of the time even when he was alone.

Tony raised his hand to brush along the scarred flesh around the casing set into his chest. The opaque cover he'd started using on the Machine in the last couple of weeks blocked the arc reactor's glow as well as concealing its inner workings, making a black box of the thing in his chest. As for the rest of him...

He raised his hands overhead, stretching, studying his body as he did. Not the machinery in the center of his chest, but all the flesh that surrounded it. Seeing and petting and praising Threetoo's naked, mutilated, painfully malnourished body every day made the sight of himself--strong and sturdy and effectively whole--somehow new.

Tony ran a hand down his own chest and side, registering the well-fed padding on his ribs, the hard-earned definition of his abs. He gave his dick a casual squeeze and noted the glints of silver in the hair around it as a fact no more meaningful than any other.

His lips parted, reflexively starting to say something encouraging to the body under his hand. Touch reward?

He met his own gaze in the mirror and clamped his mouth shut.

He shook his head hard, scrubbing both hands over his face. He needed to wake up. At the very least he needed to remember when he was talking to himself and not Threetoo; he kept finding himself thinking in that coaxing tone even at the rare times when Threetoo was nowhere around.

He stepped into the shower, turning his face into the hot spray, but his brain continued stubbornly in the same track; it was hard not to feel this as a reward too. He let himself relax under the water, unseen and unheard. The door was locked. He only had to worry about himself for right now, this little slice of time.

He washed his hair and face, scrubbed himself clean. He tried not to think of anything. This wasn't a reward, just a routine, automatic, the same as every morning.

Just like any morning, when he was standing clean and warm under the spray, his hand found his dick again. This was definitely not a reward--not anything he'd earned. It was hardly anything at all, just another part of the morning routine, a daily dose of physical release whether he needed it or not. A jolt of happy brain chemicals to start the day; he was a rat pressing a lever here, really, but the lever worked.

Or it would, once he got hard. No surprise if it took a minute. Perfectly normal. He was over forty, and he was exhausted. It had been a long couple of weeks, and Threetoo...

Tony opened his eyes wide and stared at the wall. He was definitely not thinking about Threetoo right now.

His brain went blank for a few oddly terrifying seconds as he scrambled to remember what he was supposed to--liked to--think about when he jerked off.

Tits, right? Tits, he liked tits, he--

Tony let his eyes close as a familiar highlight reel started up, favorite strippers and dancers and the hottest people he'd ever had sex with. All the best times, all the...

The vague mental collage refused to solidify into any particular memory or fantasy. It all felt far away, worn thin with the repetition of remembering. He hadn't touched anybody like that for real in... months? It was starting to feel like more and more of a hassle, lately, getting laid without letting anyone see or touch him in the wrong places, and he couldn't quite remember the last time he'd bothered, or even looked, or flirted beyond the mechanical necessity of keeping up his public image.

He gave up and tried something private, the fantasy of not having to hide. God knew he had enough fantasies about Pepper and Rhodey, separately and together.

He hadn't seen Rhodey in a couple of months, but Pepper had been in town for the thing two weeks ago, wearing that dress, consenting to dance with him if he promised to behave. He summoned up the faint warm smell of her perfume, the feel of her body under his hands, the knowing look in her blue eyes and the firmness in her voice. She'd had that leash wrapped around her wrist, she could--

But when he imagined her in his arms he imagined just one arm around him, and the body in his arms wasn't slim, it was starved.

Tony struggled for another sense memory, but Pepper had always been smart enough to mostly keep her distance even before the whole thing became terminally impossible. When he managed to remember the warm weight of a body against his side it was heavier and bigger than hers--Rogers, drugged to semi-consciousness and still glaring daggers at him.

Tony's dick jerked in his grip and, okay, yeah, he could work with that. God knew enough of his fantasies about Pepper were about her getting fed up with his bullshit and telling him how he could make it up to her.

Rogers out of the collar and restraints, off the drugs, alone with him for some reason and free to do what he wanted, say what he wanted. Shoving Tony up against the nearest wall, the weight of that big body not slumping against him in sleep but used on purpose, grinding against him, and--

Tony was jerking off fast now, desperate to just finish before he could ruin this for himself too. He was so close he could taste it when he found himself imagining Rogers' hands on his throat, Rogers growling How could you?

How could he? How dare he get off on being rightfully fucking hated by a slave?

Fuck, fuck, no--

He was still jerking himself despite the sick curl of self-disgust in his belly, still frantic to find some way to get there before he ruined it completely.

The next image that popped up was one he'd been trying not to think of ever since it happened, nearly twenty-four hours earlier. He'd dozed off on the couch in the middle of feeding Threetoo his breakfast and eating his own, and drowsed half-awake with a warm, naked weight pressing against his legs.

Eventually he cracked his eyes open just enough to see Threetoo's head resting on his thigh. Threetoo had been completely at ease between Tony's feet, slumping against him. He'd obviously known that Tony was asleep, and Tony had closed his eyes again, not even aware enough to be trying to pretend he was still asleep, just heavy-eyed and warm and inert.

Threetoo had shifted against him and pressed a kiss--a whole row of kisses--to Tony's hand where it rested on his leg. Tony had felt more awake with each sweet press of lips, his mind booting up to notice how lightly Threetoo was touching him, how little Threetoo was moving. He wasn't trying to wake Tony or get his attention. He wasn't trying to earn a reward with an ostentatious display of affection. He was just lounging between Tony's knees, kissing Tony's fingers while Tony was asleep.

Tony's hand kept moving mechanically while the memory overtook him, blooming vivid as a dream in his brain. He came with the feeling of Threetoo's faint little kisses against his fingertips, and slumped against the wall when it was over, as limp against the tile as Threetoo had been against his leg.

There was a moment where he couldn't think at all, his brain blanked out in the bliss of the endorphin rush.

"Fuck," he muttered, as reality rushed back in. He'd crossed a line, there.

Ten days, though. That was probably longer than anyone would have bet he'd last. And it didn't matter all that much: he knew it was sick and pathetic to get off on the thought of someone as helpless as Threetoo, who only seemed to like Tony because Tony was the object of his programming. He wasn't going to change the way he actually behaved toward Threetoo because of this.

He was just going to have to live with knowing this about himself for longer than he would have liked to. He gave himself another few seconds to regret that, and then he straightened up and got on with his shower. Threetoo would probably sleep for another few hours, and he had work to get done.

Steve waited a little past the usual time when Sam came to his door for a morning run. He got up, gave himself a quick wash and pissed with his dick pressed up against his belly, still using the little shield to aim. Then he taped his dick securely in place, running some strips of tape through the rings in his belly to make a sling.

He got dressed and put his shoes on, listening all the time for Sam's footsteps and Sam's soft tapping on his door. It didn't come, and didn't come.

Well, it was Saturday, and a holiday--Sam's holiday, if not Steve's. Steve hadn't been sure whether to run or not, now that he was acknowledging the day as the Fourth, but Sam's absence made up his mind.

Steve still climbed the five floors up to the roof, but he took every step slowly, dawdling even with this to get himself into the spirit of it. He glanced at the ledge where Sam had found him the night they met, but steered himself away from it. He was done with that.

He went to the eastern edge of the roof instead and stood with his hands on the waist-high wall, watching the stars vanish from the sky out over the water, the black fading to blue as the horizon became visible. The long-memorized words bubbled up in his thoughts. He had no one to share them with--he was even more alone than he had been on his previous Fourths here in the 21st century. So he stared into the coming dawn and spoke for his own ears, remembering what he was, and what this day was, and bracing himself to carry that through the coming hours.

"This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God..."

Steve is reciting from Frederick Douglass's 1852 address, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Chapter 2

Threetoo woke up in his pillow box and stretched all over as he blinked up at the view through the skylight, pale blue and clear. It was earlier than he usually woke up, but he was hungry, and he knew he wouldn't get back to sleep now.

He sat up and adjusted the position of his plant to take advantage of the early sun. As he filled his water bottle he tilted his head this way and that, studying its green leaves. There was a tiny new one sprouting.

Good work, he thought. Reward for you. He leaned in and kissed its leaves gently, breathing in the green smell of them and the dark, rich smell of the dirt in the pot.

He drank enough water from his bottle to quiet the grumbling of his stomach, then poured water for his plant.

This isn't a reward, he assured it. This is just something to drink. You always get something to drink, no matter what.

The plant was his to take care of--his project, just like he was his master's project. Even if it never sprouted a new leaf again, he had to take good care of it. Every day he must give it water to drink and sunshine to eat.

When he had tended to his plant, Threetoo waded through the pillows to the other side of the box and climbed out. JARVIS greeted him as soon as he passed over the edge.

"Good morning, 32557038. The time is 6:14 AM and today is Saturday, the 4th of July."

Threetoo frowned, tilting his head. That date sounded... different. Important. He looked up, twitching one finger in a question-mark motion.

"The 4th of July is celebrated as a holiday in the United States, and is also called Independence Day," JARVIS informed him. "As the holiday commemorating freedom and liberty for Americans, it is protested by many slaves in America with work slowdowns or other forms of passive resistance."

Threetoo frowned. None of that sounded right; none of it touched the niggling sense of importance in his head.

How could he resist his work, anyway? His work was to get fat. He could refuse to eat, he supposed--something about that seemed familiar--but it would upset his master, and his belly clenched at the thought of it.

He shook his head.

"Understood," JARVIS said. "Mr. Stark is in his office on this floor. He had not expected you to wake quite so early, but I shall notify him and order breakfast if you wish to begin your day at this time."

Threetoo bit his lip. JARVIS told him when he was expected to do something or not do something--reminded him to drink milk or juice when his master was gone for a couple of hours, told him when he had to stop napping and do a test or stop doing tests and do stretches. So if he was supposed to go back to bed and let his master get more work done, JARVIS would tell him. Wouldn't he?

Threetoo signed cautiously, Master busy?

"His present tasks will take him some time to complete, but not much more time than will be required for you to perform your usual morning hygiene and for breakfast to be prepared," JARVIS assured him. "I have already informed him that you are awake and he expects you to be ready for breakfast in approximately thirty minutes."

The relief of certainty--a gift from JARVIS and his master--flowed through him. Threetoo was able to stand, then, signing Thank you as he did.

He walked to the bathroom, not pausing to examine himself in the mirror before he went to use the toilet. He couldn't help looking down at himself, though, scrutinizing every sharp angle and concavity. Maybe today? He found himself trying to guess how much weight he was losing by relieving himself, and shut that thought off. JARVIS calculated around those variables anyway; it wouldn't make any difference.

He washed his hand and proceeded to the shower, trying not to look directly at the bathtub as he passed it. He had made a bad mistake there, four days ago, though he still couldn't entirely remember what he had done. He had known it was right, whatever it was, necessary and good, but his master hadn't liked it, and wouldn't bathe him again no matter what rewards he earned.

But his master was kind to him in every way, and gave him more rewards than he knew what to do with, even if that one wasn't on the table anymore. Threetoo had accumulated a surplus of pillows and blankets, and had started storing some in a closet near the master bedroom which U had shown him. His pillow box would overflow, otherwise, and now he had a backup supply in case of accidents.

For now, he needed a shower. He washed himself from head to toe with the bottles his master had left for him, sweetly citrus-smelling shampoo and soap. When he was good-smelling and clean all over, he got out and dried himself with some assistance from U. He left his hair only half-dried and tangled, returning to the bedslave's room when JARVIS said, "Two-minute warning."

He knelt down by the shelf where his collar awaited him, and a moment later he smiled at the sound of his master's footsteps approaching. They were accompanied by the faint rattle of a well-laden tray carried by someone who had never been trained to give flawlessly silent service.

His master was smiling as he stepped through the door, showing no sign of displeasure at Threetoo's unscheduled early rising. "Hey, sweetheart, good morning. Are you having a good morning?"

Threetoo nodded. "Good morning, sir."

His master smiled wider, a silent reward. His fond tone was another one as he went on. "Looks like you missed something while you were washing up."

Threetoo widened his eyes, making an innocent face, and his master huffed and shook his head, still smiling. He set the breakfast tray down and sat on the stool, beckoning Threetoo closer. When Threetoo shuffled over to kneel between his master's feet, his master picked up a bite of eggs and fed it to him, then put his hands to Threetoo's throat, checking for any sign of irritated skin where his collar rested through the day. He would be able to wear it longer today, since he'd woken up early; that felt like another reward.

"Looks good," his master murmured, one hand resting firmly on the side of Threetoo's neck. "Here we go."

He fastened the collar in place, checking the fit with one finger and settling it carefully so that the tag was exactly centered. Threetoo shifted a little once his master's hand drew back, feeling the balanced weight of the collar with its two gold reward-stars fastened to the band.

"Very good," his master agreed, tapping one knuckle under Threetoo's chin to make him tilt his head up again. Holding Threetoo's gaze, his master said, "JARVIS? What's the magic number today?"

Threetoo licked his lips and bit down in anticipation. Please, please, it had been ten days and he'd done nothing but eat and sleep and take tests.

"One hundred fourteen point nine," JARVIS said.

His master's mouth stretched in a grin, showing all his teeth.

Threetoo felt himself grinning back. That was the same number as yesterday. He hadn't lost any weight. He was going to turn the tide. He was going to get better.

"Fucking fantastic, beautiful," his master said, putting one hand on Threetoo's cheek as he leaned in to press a quick, whisker-scratchy kiss to his forehead.

He raised a hand to Threetoo's messy hair and added, "This needs work though, huh? And you need the rest of your breakfast."

His master passed him his juice glass and then popped a bite of toast into Threetoo's mouth.

Threetoo bowed his head as he chewed, and his master ran his fingers gently through Threetoo's hair, making the worst of the tangles fall apart. Threetoo tilted his head up slightly when he'd swallowed the first bite, and his master put an orange slice between his lips and went on fixing his hair, carefully running his hands through it everywhere before he used the comb to smooth each lock to damp neatness.

"You'd be a menace in a lab, you know that?" His master tugged lightly at Threetoo's hair, drawing it back into a ponytail and then combing it out again. "Have to put you in a hairnet or keep a welding mask on you all the time. DUM-E would be following you around as a fire hazard non-stop."

Threetoo grinned up at his master, knowing already that there would be no threat to cut all his hair off. He raised his hand and signed, I'll be careful.

His master snorted and gave him more food--eggs, this time. "I know you would, sweetheart. We'll see, huh?"

Time skipped forward a little, maybe. The eggs were chewed to nothing in his mouth, but his master was still looking at him with the same promising smile, so Threetoo hadn't missed anything important. He swallowed, and his master's smile shifted into something gentler. His master brushed Threetoo's hair back, tucking it behind his ear.

"Drink your juice, there," his master said, eating a few bites of breakfast himself while Threetoo did.

After that his master tipped his head back and said, "JARVIS, have I left anything hanging that Pepper's ready to strangle me over?"

"Would you like them in chronological order according to lateness, or likelihood of inciting Ms. Potts to do you harm?"

Something stirred uneasily in Threetoo, trying to surface. He drank more juice, and his master saw and gave him another orange slice as soon as he swallowed it.

"Surprise me," his master said to JARVIS, and JARVIS began reading out a long, complicated message that didn't have anything to do with anyone hurting his master. Threetoo leaned against his master's knee and ate what his master gave him, taking sips of juice whenever his master paused a while between giving him bites.

When his master started composing an answer, Threetoo closed his eyes and tilted his head subtly, asking without asking. His master's hand settled on top of his head, fingers alternately rubbing gently against his scalp and running through his hair to smooth it out again.

Threetoo's belly was full, and his master's voice rolled on steadily over his head while his master touched him, kindly and gently. The touch reward seemed to echo through his entire body today, making him feel warm and shivery and good everywhere, not just where his master fingers met his skin.

His master kept touching him, and the good feeling just kept getting better, concentrating between Threetoo's legs. He felt a squirm of guilt and pushed it away. This wasn't like it happening at night while he slept. This was because of his master, for his master, a response to his master's touch. It couldn't be wrong if his master was the one making it happen.

Threetoo opened one eye just enough to see his cock starting to rise up as it hardened; he curled his hand into a loose fist and tilted his thumb higher and higher along with it, smiling to himself at his wordless joke. Best reward, sir.

His master was still talking to JARVIS and petting Threetoo, showing no sign of having noticed Threetoo's reaction. Threetoo closed his eyes and waited for a better moment to draw his master's attention. Good data was important, and he was sure this was a significant data point, but he didn't need to interrupt his master's train of thought.

His master's gently scratching fingers made it all the way down to the nape of Threetoo's neck, nearly to the hard line of his shiny red collar, and Threetoo shivered.

"Hey, sweetheart, are you co--"

His master's words cut off sharply. Threetoo tilted his head up to see his master's reaction, letting his thighs fall open wide so his master could see clearly what effect he had had on Threetoo.

His master's lips stayed frozen in an o as if he were going to finish saying the interrupted word in a moment--as if time had stopped for him, while it still rolled forward for Threetoo. But his master's eyes were very alert, and they were fixed on Threetoo's cock.

Steve didn't pack any food before he headed up to the 91st floor. None of the master's food would pass his lips on the masters' holiday.

He did stop in the break room, which had no coffee brewed and no fruit laid out.

"My apologies for the lack of the usual amenities, Mr. Rogers," JARVIS said. "Several areas of building services are running somewhat behind schedule today."

"Huh," Steve said, filling a mug from the tap and taking a sip of water. "Weird."

"Indeed," JARVIS agreed.

JARVIS definitely knew exactly what was going on today.

Steve stood at the sink a while, slouching against the counter and sipping his water. He refilled the mug, then took a wander around the floor, wondering which door DUM-E might be waiting behind. All the glass panels were darkened with no faint suggestion of light behind them, and everything was silent, without even the faint vibration that sometimes suggested heavy machinery in use or music playing very loudly along the eastern side of the floor. That made sense. No reason for Tony Stark to be awake and at work at six-thirty on a Saturday morning.

Finally Steve made his way around the loop to his own door, which stood open, the lights inside already on.

"I must warn you," JARVIS said. "A double incentive bonus does apply for commencing work so early on a Saturday which is also a holiday."

"Huh," Steve said. His own bonuses were entirely theoretical, as far as he knew, but then so was his enslavement, and he was still protesting. In principle, if Steve earned a bonus he was costing his master something. "That kicks in as soon as I start work?"

"As soon as you turn on your computer station, yes."

Steve nodded and pressed the button, then pushed back his chair and spun it in lazy circles a while. The screen popped up, asking him if he was ready to take a call.

For the first time since he had begun his training, Steve pressed No, and then he went back to spinning until he got bored.

When he was good and ready and not a second before, he put his headset on and touched Yes.

"Thank you for calling Stark Industries Tech Support," Steve said in his flattest monotone. "Please hold."

He hit the hold button, and then he got up and went for another walk.

Don't fuck this up for him. Don't you dare fuck this up.

Tony's gaze was riveted for an endless, frozen moment on Threetoo's dick, which looked ridiculously, impossibly huge between his too-thin thighs and concave belly. Tony couldn't help being aware of the lazy, inviting sprawl of those thighs, and the confident, pleased smile on Threetoo's face.

Threetoo was sure of himself and his place right now. He was happy. Which he fucking should be; Tony had spent a majority of his waking moments for the last ten days with Threetoo, and Threetoo had been constantly naked, but Tony had never seen him hard before now.

This was a good sign, physically--and probably a good sign emotionally, mentally, too. Tony couldn't even conjecture to himself that this was some kind of adrenaline stiffy, a product of fear or desperation. Threetoo felt happy and comfortable and turned on, as well as having the physical strength to get it up.

Threetoo also really liked having his hair played with, which Tony had known already from the way Threetoo silently invited the touch, but. Wow. Okay. Noted.

He wasn't coming on to Tony, wasn't trying to start anything. This wasn't like that disastrous bath, with Threetoo's face pressing into his crotch while Threetoo ignored Tony's no, stop that like he hadn't heard it at all. That had been like he was a thousand miles away with some other master.

Right now, Threetoo was thoroughly aware of Tony. This was because of Tony, because Threetoo felt good with him. Threetoo was turned on by him.

That didn't make him any more able to meaningfully consent than he'd been yesterday, but... he liked this. He liked Tony, if only because he was still too damaged to understand why he shouldn't.

And if Tony moved his hand, set it by Threetoo's lips, would Threetoo press those sweet little kisses to Tony's fingers in gratitude for what Tony had given him?

No. Not that. None of this was for Tony. Taking any advantage of this, even just to make himself feel better about it, would be sick. Monstrous.

But if Tony said no now, if he said stop that, he would blight Threetoo's easy pleasure in his own body. He could do more harm in the next ten seconds than he'd undone in the last ten days, if he ruined this for Threetoo.

So he had to say and do exactly the right thing, and he had to say and do it before Threetoo took his lack of reaction as a negative reaction.

Calculation, reaction, and counter-reaction, all flashed through his mind in a second, and then Tony jerked his gaze up to meet Threetoo's eyes, returning Threetoo's happy smile with one of his own.

"No, looks like you're not feeling cold at all, are you? Looks like you're pretty warm, Threetoo."

Threetoo nodded and raised his hand for Tony to see, thumb pointing straight up as his eyebrows lifted.

Tony barked out a startled laugh at the wordless joke, mentally filing away another instance of Threetoo's sneaky brightness. "Yeah, I get it, thank you for the data point. I already know you like that."

Threetoo wriggled happily, bringing his knees back almost together, but still slouching at ease between Tony's legs. Tony smoothed a hand over the crown of his head and said, "Guess that means you're feeling pretty good this morning, huh? Maybe eating breakfast early is good for you."

Threetoo nodded contentedly again, and Tony took his hand off Threetoo's head. There were a few orange slices left on the tray; he picked up the largest, scraped off a stray bit of pith with his thumbnail, and then popped it between Threetoo's parted lips.

Tony tilted his head back instead of watching Threetoo's mouth or... anything else. "J, was I finished with that message for Pepper?"

"Nearly, sir," JARVIS said promptly. "Shall I go back over the draft?"

Tony let his eyes close. "Yeah, please."

JARVIS read back the email for him, and Tony forced himself to focus on the words instead of Threetoo's body folded up between his knees. Tony rattled off his last few points at the end, and then finally allowed himself to open his eyes.

Threetoo's smile had eased off to something quiet and relaxed. His hand rested on the carpeting, in a comfortable position but also well away from his body--telegraphing that he wasn't touching himself, and wouldn't without permission. Without knowing that it was for his master's pleasure, not his own.

Tony ran his hand gently over Threetoo's hair again, and Threetoo's attention sharpened on him, quietly hopeful. "Hi, sir."

Tony couldn't help smiling back. "Hi, Threetoo. Very nice talking out loud without prompting, there."

Threetoo smiled--bracing himself to the effort, hopeful for a reward. "Thank you, sir."

Tony was going to crack in some embarrassing and terrible way if he kept dragging this out, but there were things he had to be clear about. "Tell me what your job is, Threetoo."

Threetoo's lips twitched, and Tony glanced toward his hand, silent permission to stop talking. Threetoo immediately raised his hand and signed, To get better. Eat and rest and do puzzles. Get fat.

Well he'd nailed that, at least as far as one part of his body was concerned.

Tony just nodded. "Good, that's right, that's just what I want you to be focusing on. And what do I want you to be when you're better?"

Threetoo squirmed a little, like he always did when they went over this point, but he signed the shortest version of his own name: 3-2. Healthy 3-2.

"Threetoo," Tony agreed, echoing his own words with the sign. "Just the way you are, because you're the one I chose."

Threetoo nodded, still leaning against him. Calm and comfortable. Tony didn't think he'd even had an absence seizure--none worth noticing, at least--since he'd brought his dick to Tony's attention. He'd only had two or three while Tony was feeding him; it was a good morning.

"I want you to do something for me today," Tony said. "You hit a milestone today--you're making good progress, so we can start on a new data collection project, if you can spare some time from your puzzles and naps. Think you can do that for me, sweetheart?"

Threetoo nodded eagerly, still hopeful.

"Good," Tony said. "There's a procedure you'll need to follow. I want you to go back in your bed and pull the curtain shut, because I want to make sure the data isn't contaminated at all--this has to be just from you, by yourself, when you're all alone, okay?"

Threetoo was sitting up slightly, glancing toward his bed and back to Tony, but he nodded without hesitation.

"When you're all by yourself, behind your curtain, I want you to touch yourself. Anywhere you want, any way you want, as much or as little as you want."

Threetoo's eyes were impossibly wide, his cheeks flushing pink in a way Tony could not let himself attach an adjective to.

"The goal of the experiment is for you to determine, empirically, what would be the very best touch reward you could get," Tony went on. "You can try out anything you want, as long as it feels good to you. It's up to you what feels the best, okay? This is about your judgment, just like blueberries or tofu. I'm gonna want you to try all the different things you can think of to figure out what you like the best--not all today, this project will take some time. But I want you to start today, because I think you're ready. Do you think you're ready?"

Threetoo was biting hard on his lip, but he nodded quickly, raising his hand to sign for emphasis. Ready.

Tony smiled. "Okay. Go on, sweetheart. I'm gonna be down in the lab for a few hours, so you have plenty of time to get comfortable and make your first trial. Remember to stay hydrated, huh?"

Threetoo nodded quickly and twisted over onto his knees, crawling back toward his bed. He stopped halfway there, kneeling upright as he turned back to Tony and--oh, hello, yeah, all of him was still upright. Tony got his eyes on Threetoo's face--smirking--and then his fingers. Need to record observations. That's what makes it science.

Tony wanted to kiss him right on that smirking mouth. The desire struck him with a force and clarity exactly like a bonesaw to his sternum.

He forced himself to snort and shake his head, smiling normally. "I'll have U bring a tablet. Go on, I have work to do and you have an experiment to set up."

Yes, sir.

Tony turned away and walked out. "JARVIS."

"Of course, sir," JARVIS said, no censure in his voice at all; U was on his way in with a tablet and a bottle of Threetoo's new favorite energy drink--red had displaced purple since the vomiting incident a couple of days ago--before Tony was even out of the bedroom. He went directly to the elevator, walking in without breaking stride, and JARVIS shut the doors behind him like he was being pursued.

Tony put his face in his hands and let himself think, for just a couple of seconds, about kissing Threetoo like that, touching him. God, he had a gorgeous dick, and he would probably come at the mere idea of Tony putting his mouth on it, so they'd have to try a few times before Tony could actually--

The elevator stopped with just enough of a jolt to make Tony drop his hands and slam a bank vault door on those thoughts. None of that was for him, not even to think about.

The doors of the elevator did not actually open. "Uh. J?"

"I beg your pardon, sir. Mr. Rogers began work early today, and he has been taking regular breaks to stretch his legs."

Tony closed his eyes again and let his head thump forward to rest against the doors. Of course. Of course Rogers was at work, doing his very own slowdown protest, when Tony really needed to get to his own work and escape everything that existed outside of some clean, mechanical problem.

"I could encourage him to remain in his office, now that you--"

"No," Tony said sharply. God, he wasn't locking another slave in just because he needed to stay away from Threetoo.

He remembered that look Rogers had given him, half-conscious and so bewildered. How could you?

Tony shook his head. "Jesus, no, he can go where he wants today."

"Understood, sir."

Tony waited, and while he waited he thought again about Rogers saying his father's name, the question he'd asked, the device he'd asked for, and that weird number on the pins in his arm. 12044.

Rogers was right there, on the other side of the door, looking for any excuse not to do his work. Tony could walk over, introduce himself to his lab neighbor. Shoot the shit. Ask him, casually, if he had ever met Howard Stark, if Howard had illegally enslaved him as a child, maybe experimented on him, maybe betrayed him in some unforgivably intimate way.

Except that, even if Tony could figure out the mystery there, he couldn't really solve anything. If Howard had done something hideous to Rogers, something that led to the situation Tony had semi-rescued him from decades later, Tony couldn't fix that. He couldn't make anything better for Rogers than it was already being made. He could only impose his masterly presence on a slave who certainly wouldn't welcome it, on this day of all days.

He could hardly bear his masterly presence himself.

Tony rubbed his hand against the center of his chest and thought wistfully that Rogers might not let him get a word in edgewise before he threw a punch.

The doors opened and Tony stumbled forward, jolted once again out of his thoughts. There was nothing good there, either.

He headed toward his lab in quick strides. There had to be something here somewhere that he could make better. He was supposed to be a genius, after all. He had to be good for something.

Threetoo's heart was racing, and his skin felt shivery all over, his stomach full of fluttering. He took the tablet U brought for him, and the bottle of red juice.

Stay hydrated, his master had said.

He intended to follow all of his master's instructions.

He set the tablet on the shelf and the open bottle of juice beside it. He adjusted his plant's position slightly, making sure it was centered in the rhombus of sunshine, so that it would continue getting the best available light if he paid it no attention for a while.

Threetoo took a deep breath and pulled the curtain shut, closing himself alone inside his pillow bed, as his master had told him to do. Only you, when you're alone, his master had said. It was the same as the way he wasn't to look at his master when he talked to Emily. His master wanted good data.

His master wanted to know how he would like to be touched. The best way he would like to be touched, the very best reward.

He knew that this wasn't only science, or data collection. This was a gift from his master, a reward like the pillows, like his own special bed. He would collect the data carefully, so that when his master decided he had earned such an extravagant reward as his master's touch, he would be ready. But he knew that this part was a reward too, this freedom of his own body, the promise of some far-off day when he would earn the real reward.

He was getting better, and someday he would be of real use to his master, as more than just a project.

He rearranged the pillows and blankets to make a perfect hollow that would keep his face in shade and most of his body in the sunlight, as though it could nourish him as it did his plant. Finally he lay down and looked down at himself.

His body was far from perfect, or objectively pleasing. The absence of his left arm was a glaring defect, and his ribs and hipbones jutted unpleasantly under his scarred skin. Even his knees and ankles were too prominent, with hard wiry muscle running down the long bones between them.

But it was Threetoo's body, the body of the slave his master had chosen to keep and make a project of, and his job was to make this body, his body, healthy and happy. Happy meant feeling good, meant pleasure, enjoying the privileges and rewards his master dispensed.

Threetoo squirmed in his nest, feeling the various soft textures against his skin. His cock, resting against his belly, twitched a little at even that indirect sensation. Threetoo raised a hand to his head and tried to replicate his master's touch, scratching lightly against his scalp and down to the nape of his neck.

It felt good, but not the way it had when it was his master's hand.

He brought his hand to his throat, running the backs of his fingers over the shiny red leather, pressing his thumb to each point of each star. That made him want to squirm--and he could do anything here, as long as it felt good, so he did squirm, exaggerating it into a deliberate, luxurious writhing. His cock bounced a little as he explored his collar with his fingers, tugging at it and tucking his own fingers under it.

It was his master's mark, his master's touch, fastened around his throat. Anyone who looked would know who he belonged to; Threetoo knew who he belonged to.

When he thought of his master touching him there, giving him the reward of playing with the collar and tugging at it, his hips jerked, pleasure tingling in his balls and drawing his nipples tight. His mouth fell open as he took a quick breath, and he raised his hand to his lips, tracing them with one fingertip.

His master's fingers sometimes brushed against his mouth as his master fed him. Not often. His master's hands were very steady, his movements precise, and he did not encourage Threetoo to lick his fingers clean, or insert his fingers into Threetoo's mouth like--like--

Threetoo did not think of other masters. Only this one. And this one only rarely touched his mouth. Just brushes against his lips sometimes, while feeding him. Once or twice Threetoo had let a morsel of food escape his mouth, and his master had brushed it away with his thumb. Threetoo had tried not to show how much that brisk, businesslike touch felt like a reward.

His master's mouth had touched him several times. Not too often, but when his master was very pleased, there might be a kiss on his forehead, the press of smooth lips and scratchy-soft whiskers against his skin.

Threetoo pressed his fingers harder against his lips. He had dared to kiss his master's hands sometimes. Yesterday, he had done it many times while his master dozed, but sometimes even when his master was awake he had been allowed that liberty. His master's hands were strong, scarred with work, and always so kind. If Threetoo were allowed other kinds of kisses--to touch his lips to his master's lips--

He could almost feel the sensation rushing through him--a body close to his, lips on his, tense at first and then softening as Threetoo--

But Threetoo wouldn't teach his master to kiss, or guide him--

But he could taste a mouth that opened to his when coaxed, slanting against his to fit lips to lips so sweetly, bodies pressing close under blankets--

Something hurt, warningly, in his head or his belly, and his cock ached, untouched. Threetoo opened his eyes and bit his lip, pushing the incorrect imagining away.

Kisses were irrelevant. He couldn?t test his liking of kisses--a flaw in the experiment's structure, maybe, because he might like kisses better than anything else. But this was the experiment his master had set him to conduct. Kisses were outside its scope.

He brought his hand down to his chest, felt the pounding of his heart behind his too-prominent ribcage. His fingers found the hard nub of a nipple, and he gasped at his own touch on the sensitive flesh. He stroked gently, then squeezed, trying to determine which sensation was best, but all of them were good.

All of them made his hips twitch, and increased the ache in his cock, and he decided to stop dawdling. He knew which touch he really wanted, didn't he? He had to test the first hypothesis, the obvious candidate for the best way he could be touched.

He skimmed his hand lightly over his cock first. The shivery-sweet pleasure of it felt dangerous, forbidden, but it didn't make him hurt anywhere, and he knew why. This was his master's will, his master's instruction. Touching himself, rewarding himself, served his master's purpose.

Threetoo repeated the barely-there touch until it felt like not enough instead of maybe too much, and then he closed his hand on his cock. Something slipped into place then, a certainty of how to proceed. He gave himself a slow, tight stroke, then a quicker one with a looser grip, all the way up over the head and back down in a twisting motion.

He tipped his head back, breathing faster now, harsh enough to hear himself making faint voiceless noises. He could hear the friction of his hand on his cock, too, and the same instinct that guided his strokes made him let go completely for an instant, spitting into his palm twice before he brought his hand back down to smear the little wetness over himself.

He only had to feel, didn't have to think at all as his hand moved on his cock, obeying the unerring instincts that guided it. Pictures and sensations flitted through his head again, making every touch feel brighter and sharper. He felt lips against his again, the way a groan from another man's--his master's, of course his master's--throat would make their lips vibrate together. The tentative touch of teeth--

Yeah, pal, now you're getting it.

The voice in his head sounded like and unlike his own, but the incongruity stopped all the pictures in his head. He would never say something like that to his master. He would say...

Nothing at all. His master wouldn't require it; his master would know. It would be him who cautiously scraped his teeth over his master's lips, and his master's low, hot voice would rasp over the words as he spoke. Yeah, baby. That's good. That's perfect. That's just what I want.

Threetoo's hand twisted, a hard fast stroke, and a little sound broke from his throat.

That's it, baby, good noise. Let me hear you now. Let me hear you.

Threetoo stroked himself faster, twisting onto his side and pressing his face into the pillow there as if it were a strong, broad shoulder. He leaned into the idea of a body pressed close to his under the blankets, radiating heat and a scent he could almost taste as he stroked himself closer and closer to the peak. He panted, letting out a little noise on every exhalation, and his master's voice kept up the encouraging patter just at the edge of his hearing.

You've got it, baby, that's so good. Keep going, all the way now.

He tilted his head as if he could find one more kiss, one more brush of soft lips against his, a flirting touch of tongue as his balls tightened and the rush of pleasure flashed through his body. Kissing and kissing and a hand on his cock and a body beside him and his master's voice, Yes, that's right, come for me, sweetheart, come.

He obeyed, as always, letting out a last hoarse little cry as his cock jerked in his grip, spilling come over his fingers and spurting against the pillows.

He didn't open his eyes. He didn't want to see that there was no one else there. He didn't want to reach for his tablet and record his results.

But that was all right. The curtain was closed, and his master had told him to take his time. He could stay here, curled in his nest, and imagine that the hand still loosely grasping his cock wasn't his, that it was a body at his back and not a mound of pillows.

He lay still with the sun shining down on him, and let his reward stretch out until it dissolved into sleep.

Chapter 3


JARVIS's voice rang out in the sudden silence--he'd cut off Tony's music, jerking Tony's attention abruptly out of his energy-capture modeling and back to the lab where his actual body happened to be located.

Tony looked around as he tried to place what JARVIS was drawing his attention to. The glass across the front of the lab was darkened, and he frowned at it for a few seconds before he remembered: today was the Fourth of July. Rogers must be stretching his legs.

Threetoo, upstairs, would be stretching--

Tony pulled up a more mundane display beside his gorgeous new energy flow models and checked the time. Nearly nine o'clock, which meant going on three hours since Threetoo had eaten, which meant that Tony had to go back to him and feed him again.

It wouldn't have to be like breakfast, at least. He could feed him on the couch, or in the kitchen, or--

Tony opened his eyes and looked again at the glass, all darkened for privacy. He looked at his beautiful models, so perfectly distracting, so safely mechanical. He thought of Threetoo signing, I'll be careful.

"Where is he? Has he pulled the curtain back yet?"

"An hour ago," JARVIS assured him. "He's positioned himself where he can see all entrances and for the last several minutes has made no progress on a proof well within his demonstrated abilities."

"Patch me through." Tony spun to face the holographic screen that popped up, showing a still image of Threetoo smiling, which rapidly changed to a somewhat up-the-nose view of Threetoo beaming eagerly down at him.

"Hey, sweetheart," Tony said. "You getting hungry? Time for second breakfast?"

"Yes, sir, please," Threetoo said, the words coming out rushed. Tony tried not to look for any special brightness in his eyes or looseness in his body. He looked happy, just like he usually looked when seeing Tony again after a few hours apart.

"Okay, well, I was thinking about what I said earlier, about you visiting my lab."

Threetoo's expression turned even more delighted, and Tony couldn't help smiling back.

"Is that a yes, then?" Tony prompted. "You want to come eat down here?"

Threetoo signed, Please, sir. And then his expression turned uncertain, and he glanced toward the elevators.

"U can bring you down," Tony assured him. "Tell him when you're ready to go, he'll show you where I am, okay?"

Threetoo nodded again, his hair flying everywhere, and Tony added, "Pull your hair back first, okay?"

Threetoo grinned and nodded, signing quickly, No fire hazards, sir.

"Right," Tony said. "See you soon, sweetheart. Go on."

Threetoo touched his fingers to his lips like he was going to blow a kiss, or press one to the tablet's screen. Tony waved a hand through the image to cut the connection before he had to see how the gesture ended.

Threetoo crawled fast to the elevator--it was quicker than adjusting to standing in order to walk, and he had not experimented with running yet. The door was open for him when he reached it, and as soon as he was inside he knelt up to sign to JARVIS.


His master hadn't presented him with one to match his collar, but if he was going to leave his normal boundaries outside a cage and without his master's direct supervision, he had to be secured in some manner.

"You will not be leaving Mr. Stark's private floors, and Mr. Stark did not specify one, so a leash is not strictly required," JARVIS informed him. As the doors opened, JARVIS added, "If you prefer one, however, Mr. Stark has a small selection he has previously used for public occasions when accompanied by a personal slave. The leashes are in a drawer in his closet, if you wish to peruse them. I believe there are one or two which would match well with your collar."

Threetoo hurried into the master bedroom, and then to the door he had never passed through, to his master's closet. It was open for him, a light inside illuminating one set of drawers, so Threetoo did not dawdle over the sight of his master's clothes and the concentrated familiar scent.

"The lowest drawer," JARVIS directed, and Threetoo drew it open carefully.

Six leashes were coiled inside. Four were black leather with various fittings, ordinary and unobtrusive for formal occasions--any of them would have gone with his old collar, which his master had so readily dismissed as insufficiently distinctive.

The other two leashes were certainly distinctive.

One was a coil of shining gold links, as if the whole length of it was made of reward stars. The handgrip was a rod of shining chrome red, the most formal traditional style. That was a leash for the utmost formality--only the very finest slave, a truly perfect slave being displayed as an ornament to his master, would merit that leash. Threetoo didn't dare even to touch it, and tore his gaze from it to the one beside it, a more familiar shining red.

It was a more supple leather than the stuff of his collar, but that was normal for a leash--and the fittings were all gold plated, just like his collar. It could only have matched more perfectly if it had been adorned somewhere along its length with a reward star, but Threetoo couldn't be greedy.

Threetoo pointed to it and looked up.

"An excellent choice, 32557038," JARVIS agreed. "It will match very well, and I don't believe Mr. Stark has ever had occasion to use that leash with any other slave."

Threetoo grinned, straightening up on his knees. He picked up the coil, touching only the sides of the leash so that he wouldn't leave fingermarks on the mirror finish of the flat or the fittings.

He hurried back out on his knees and found U already waiting for him. He shook the leash loose in a practiced motion and gave the loop end to U, who grasped it neatly with his claw.

Right back, Threetoo signed, and pushed up to his feet to step into the bathroom. He combed his hair quickly, grabbing a hair tie and gathering it behind his head. He pulled the tail into a little loop rather than letting it swing. It wasn't perfectly tidy, but he tucked the stray locks behind his ears and put his chin up. Good enough for an informal occasion; hair pulled back, collar shining. He couldn't do anything about the rest of his appearance, so he reminded himself firmly that he was as his master wished him to be and returned to U, kneeling down to attach the clip of the leash to his collar.

U turned, leading him toward the elevator, and Threetoo followed, settling into the perfect posture of on display, as was appropriate in any space not entirely private. His spine was perfectly parallel to the floor, head carried high to show that he understood the honor of rendering private service to his excellent master. He maintained his exact relative position near the back of U's left tread, creating an aesthetically ideal curve in the leash between U's claw and his collar.

He could not hold back a smile of pride. He could not be anything but grateful for his master's many indulgences, but it felt good to give fully correct service, if only in knowing just how to follow on a leash.

He had to compromise slightly on positioning to fit into the elevator with U, but resumed his proper place as they emerged from the elevator into a wide curving hallway. The elevator was clearly on the inside of an elliptical loop, and glass walls on both sides of the corridor indicated many rooms on either side. All appeared darkened, but he there were some signs of light and faint sounds to his right.

U turned toward the left, waiting for Threetoo to stop dawdling--clearly his master's lab was that way. But just as clearly, there was someone else here; this was one of his master's private floors, so it could only be a slave or trusted servant--perhaps Emily or Sam, or someone like them.

Threetoo signed to U, let's go the long way.

The hallway was clearly a loop; either direction would bring him to his master promptly, and his master had not directed him to hurry. Threetoo thought he wouldn't mind being seen like this, perfectly turned out and correct, just passing by as he answered his master's summons.

U chirped agreeably and reversed direction, leading Threetoo to the right.

Steve was actually taking a call--reading very slowly through the flow chart--when the glass wall facing the corridor suddenly went black and the lock on the door engaged with a faint click.

"Please hold," Steve said, with more expression than he'd spoken to a customer all day. He stabbed the hold button before he quite finished speaking, shaking off the headset as he stood. "JARVIS? What is this?"

"I do beg your pardon," JARVIS replied. "Another slave is passing through the corridor. As he is not aware of your identity, he cannot be allowed to see your face, and his privacy also deserves to be protected."

Steve didn't bother trying the door, but walked over to the darkened glass panel closest to one wall. By leaning his face against the glass and closing the eye further from the wall he could achieve the same effect as shading his eyes without being obvious; within a half-second his open eye adjusted enough to see the outlines of things in the brightly-lit corridor outside.

JARVIS didn't say anything. JARVIS didn't know how sharp Steve's senses were; no one here had ever really bothered to test them.

What kind of slave did Stark have coming up here who Steve wasn't allowed to see? Whoever stocked the break room--if it wasn't a robot after all--probably wouldn't be allowed to see Steve, but JARVIS had said that the slave's privacy was being protected too.

A robot--like DUM-E, but not quite identical--rolled into view. For the tiniest fraction of a second Steve thought he'd been all wrong.

Then he saw the line of the leash the robot held one end of, curving gracefully down to the height of a crawling slave, and a cold flush of adrenaline rushed through him. His view through the darkened glass seemed impossibly sharp, though still colorless.

The slave came into view, crawling behind the robot--apparently Stark demanded that high protocol be extended even to his robots. The slave's silhouette was flat-chested--naked--thin as a greyhound. Starved, while Stark threw out berries that weren't pretty enough to eat.

It took another second for Steve to perceive the absence of the slave's left arm, and he carefully didn't give himself away to JARVIS with a gasp or a touch to his own left arm.

They had done it to him, after all--faked his death, cut his arm practically off to get his chip out. They could much more easily have cut an arm off entirely--the slave would disappear, as far as the registry was concerned, and then Stark had himself a nice little secret slave, hidden away in his penthouse. Probably a secret even from the people working a few floors below to rescue slaves, while Stark had this poor starved soul crawling around naked for him. Did he feed the slave only whatever scraps were left over from his own meals, to conceal the extra presence?

It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning, and Stark was having his sex slave delivered to him in his lab.

Steve did not allow his hands to close into fists. He stood there, unmoving, showing no reaction, until well after the slave had passed out of his field of view. Until the glass became abruptly transparent again, and Steve reeled back with an unfeigned wince at the brightness of the light suddenly pouring through again.

"Thank you for your cooperation," JARVIS said, sounding far away, on the other side of the rushing of blood in Steve's ears.

He went back to his chair to think, although there wasn't really that much to think about. He had never been offered a mission so simple when he was fighting the war, never felt anything as pure as this white-hot rage focused on a single, identifiable target.

Tony Stark was, behind both his public profit from slavery and private crusading against it, personally abusing a slave, nearly to death by the looks of that skeletal frame. Today, of all days, when the masters went around talking about freedom, Tony Stark had that mutilated, starving slave crawling at his beck and call, more grotesquely unfree than any slave Steve had ever seen.

Steve turned in his chair to stare unseeing at the prompt screen before him. He was filled with real purpose--not the faint simulation of it he had gotten from helping people with their phones, not the selfish adrenaline rush of jerking off for the first time in years, but the real thing.

He had a mission.

He would free that slave or die trying. He would kill Tony Stark.

Steve would doubtless be executed for it for real this time, but as long as his death served to make one slave free, it would be worth it.

Death was nothing to fear, anyway. He knew who was waiting for him there.

All he needed now was a plan of action, and that wouldn't take him long.

Tony managed to keep his eyes on his models and off the tray at his elbow until his music shut off again and the glass panels turned translucent. He spun toward them with a smile, eager to see how Threetoo liked the place.

His smile stiffened at the sight of the red leash U was holding, but his early training, to say nothing of all his recent practice, held up. And then Threetoo himself came into view, head up, posture perfect, beaming with obvious pride, and Tony felt his own smile melt into something undeniably, horribly sincere.

Everything about this was wrong, but Tony couldn't miss the fact that Threetoo looked incandescent with happiness. He couldn't help loving the sight of that. Threetoo looked more than happy, in fact--he was smug, vain, his chin tipped up to show off his collar. Tony stood up and walked over to meet them as U lead him through the door.

"Hey, beautiful, thanks for coming down. Lemme see this." He took the leash from U, and unclipped it from Threetoo's collar as Threetoo settled back to sit on his heels. Tony coiled up the leash without looking at it; even the feel of the thing in his hands called up memories of the handful of nerve-wracking occasions every year that required him to have a slave at his heels. He never dared to get drunk at those anymore, but he had to pretend to be, as well as pretending to be all over someone who pretended to belong to him.

He'd bought this leash years ago, before, when he thought nothing of making use of bedslaves as long as he didn't physically hurt them and made them come if it was reasonably convenient and asked them whether they'd like to be emancipated when he was finished with them. He'd wanted something to match one of his cars, or possibly he'd meant to buy a car to match the leash; he couldn't remember anymore. He'd never used it before he made that trip to Afghanistan, and then... then.

He'd kept it, but he'd never used it. He trotted out various plain black leashes, when he was required to use anything. He made no gaudy personal shows of possession--he hadn't, anyway, until he bought Threetoo a collar that perfectly matched this leash. He hadn't thought of it, consciously, but his own tastes hadn't changed so much. Maybe nothing about him really had.

He handed the leash back to U. "Take that. Put it away, we don't need that. You don't need that, sweetheart, I know you're not going anywhere I don't want you to."

Threetoo preened a little, raising his hand to sign, It's pretty, though. Sir.

Tony turned away, leading Threetoo back to his workstation and hiding his face for half a second. When he sat on his stool and gestured to the place at his feet, he managed to say smoothly, "You're prettier, sweetheart. And in the interests of keeping you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, let's get you fed, huh?"

Threetoo swung his hips a little as he crawled over--wagging an imaginary bushy tail, Tony had no doubt. He almost managed to avoid seeing what Threetoo was wagging around with that motion. Threetoo knelt at his feet--further down than usual, the stool not being exactly designed for this. But Threetoo seemed untroubled, kneeling upright instead of sitting back on his heels as he usually did.

That was good, really. Tony was better off without Threetoo slumping at ease against his calf or resting his head on Tony's knee.

Tony tucked a stray lock of hair behind Threetoo's ear, confirming for himself that he could still reach easily to feed Threetoo, and didn't have to move to a lower chair.

Threetoo smiled up at him and Tony smiled back. "You had a pretty good morning so far, huh, sweetheart?"

Threetoo nodded, smirking a lot like he had before Tony left him upstairs, and signed, Good data.

Tony snorted and let himself look away to tear a piece off a flaky, buttery pastry--since Threetoo was squeezing in a whole extra meal today, this one was about calories, not nutrients. "Well, here, continuing our celebration of today's milestone, try this."

Threetoo took it neatly from Tony's fingers, and Tony raised his hand to quickly lick his own fingers clean when Threetoo's eyes closed in obvious bliss. Tony tore off another piece and stuffed it into his own mouth, reaching with his other hand for the bottle of green drink--not Threetoo's favorite, but an acceptable alternative to red. He passed the juice to Threetoo, and Threetoo took an obedient sip while Tony smeared cashew butter on a cracker for him.

He set down the juice when he opened his mouth for the cracker, signing to Tony as he chewed. Should I make a report?

Tony tsked. "No, no, you never report just one data point, one trial is nothing. You need a decent n value before it means anything. I'm adding stats to your puzzle rotation--I hear geometry wasn't really holding your interest this morning anyway."

You're more interesting, sir.

"You," Tony looked away, tearing off another piece of pastry, this one with a nice jewel-bright dollop of apricot filling attached. "Are full of beans, sweetheart."

You must have, Threetoo signed as he chewed, and then his eyes went distant, his mouth still moving mechanically, his fingers flexing in and out of the sign he'd stopped on.

Tony waited, holding exactly still, keeping his smile in place as he said, "J? How many today?"

"Seven in your absence that registered as such," JARVIS reported.

Seven seizures in almost three hours was in the standard range for a low-stress morning. That meant there had been no remarkable cluster of absence seizures when leaving the penthouse--in the company of U and on a leash, crawling proudly as if he were in a parade. This seizure wasn't unusual, either--one data point never was--but if it turned into a cluster it might suggest that Threetoo found it stressful to sass Tony.

...Fed me a lot of beans, then, Threetoo signed, a faint frown crossing his face as he registered that he'd lost some time--about twelve seconds, not outside the usual range.

Tony grinned. "Yeah, I've got no one to blame but myself, do I?"

He ran a hand over Threetoo's hair and reminded himself that this was the first step to real recovery--losing his fear of Tony, his reverence of the master, would prompt Threetoo to start considering his own preferences, his own desires. From there, he could be coaxed toward the idea of wanting his freedom. From this beginning, Threetoo could move toward the kind of life where he would someday look back and hate Tony for all of this.

Threetoo swallowed his thoroughly-chewed bite of pastry and beamed up at him. Tony took another bite of food himself and glanced up at the power-flow models again.

Threetoo bumped his knee in the way that meant hey, feed me and Tony fixed him another cracker, bringing it to his lips without quite taking his eyes from the model. He reached up with his other hand to make adjustments, listening with half an ear to Threetoo drinking, and said absently, "Hey, sweetheart, should we put on some music?"

"Yes, please, sir."

Tony looked down to give Threetoo the grin that deserved, and said, "Hey, look who needs a food reward."

Threetoo beamed. Tony unwrapped a salted caramel, buttery and richly sweet, and said, "J, Threetoo's playlist."

The title music started up while Tony was watching Threetoo's face as he savored the candy, and he hummed along under his breath as he went back to work. He kept one hand resting on his knee for Threetoo to bump his cheek against when he felt Tony was being slack in feeding him, and hardly noticed the couple of brief pauses in the music when JARVIS stopped it during an absence seizure.

By the time they got to "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead," Threetoo was making little not-quite-voiced breath sounds along with the music while Tony absently sang along.

He was just wondering whether to tell JARVIS to skip "If I Only Had a Brain"--JARVIS would probably skip it without being told if he felt it was insensitive, wouldn't he?--when something slammed hard against the glass, sending spiderweb cracks through the entire panel from a point just about head high.

The music stopped and JARVIS said, "Sir--"

"Handle it," Tony snapped. Rogers, obviously, and he could only have one intention here. It was the fucking Fourth, after all.

Tony didn't blame him, but his timing was shit. He dropped his gaze to Threetoo, who was staring toward the panel as another impact sent the cracks spreading further. Tony put a hand on his face, trying to stop him from looking, but Threetoo didn't turn his head at the touch. "Close your eyes, baby."

The glass gave way under a third blow and Tony knew that whatever Rogers meant to do, he was about to do it, and Tony was in no position to stop him.

"Put your head down," Tony said, eyes still on Threetoo. Rogers wouldn't hurt a slave. He probably didn't even know Threetoo was here, didn't know Threetoo existed. He was only here for Tony. "It's gonna be okay."

But Threetoo still hadn't closed his eyes.


He shook off his master's hand as the glass fell, revealing the attacker in the act of drawing his arm back, holding a large red missile. The slave was afforded some cover by his low position, partially behind the lab table, but his master was high, exposed.

He stood, raising his right hand to catch his master by the shoulder, yanking him down off the stool and issuing a mission directive. "Down."

At the same time he removed his master from the line of fire he turned his left side toward the attack, to the projectile already flying. He raised his left hand to stop it, but--


32557038 hit the ground hard, punishment-pain engulfing him. He'd been hit--he must have done something awful, though he didn't know what. He usually didn't, when it was very bad, and this was very, very bad. The pain was too massive to make any sense of.

Someone screamed--not him, he wasn't making a sound, he knew better than that. Not his master, either. His master said, "Threetoo? Threetoo, baby, oh god, JARVIS!"

His master was kneeling over him. His master didn't look angry. Maybe it hadn't been such a bad thing? But then why did it hurt so much?

Threetoo raised his hand with an effort, signing Sorry, but it was too late. His master was already unfastening his collar from around his throat.

He had done something very bad to make his master take that from him.

Don't ever do that again, his master had said to him once. He couldn't remember what he did that time, either, but it hadn't hurt this much after, so it couldn't have been this bad.

Threetoo closed his eyes and waited for the punishment to end, barely aware of his master's frantic voice above him, jumping around wildly as time skipped forward again and again.

There shouldn't have been time, between the moment the fire extinguisher left his hand and the time it hit, for anyone to move. Stark didn't even look like he meant to, just looking down at the slave at his feet as Steve drew his arm back--and then, when it was already out of Steve's hands, the slave moved. He was fast, too fast for anyone who wasn't Steve to even follow with their eye.

The slave surged to his feet and yanked Stark off the stool with his right hand, spinning to put his left side toward Steve, keeping himself in front of Stark. But the left side was where the arm was missing.

His face turned toward Steve as he did it. In the fraction of a second before the fire extinguisher smashed into that scarred little stub of an arm, Steve saw.


His movements and stance were so utterly confident that even as the fire extinguisher crashed into him Steve thought he might not be knocked off his feet, never mind that he was skeletally thin--naked--and that Steve had thrown it with enough force to cave in a skull.

Then he was flying backward, going down in a heap, his head striking the ground with an awful melon thump that was almost worse than the sound of a heavy projectile smashing into a defenseless body. Steve surged forward through the broken glass panel, screaming, "Bucky!"

There was blood on the floor, pumping out fast, and Steve could see his face. It really was Bucky, dazed and pale as his lifeblood pumped out of his smashed arm. Stark was kneeling over him looking just as pale, babbling at him--Steve couldn't hear the words over the howling wind in his ears, the freight train roar--but he saw Bucky looking up at Stark.

Bucky raised his hand, signing something Steve didn't understand and Stark didn't see; he was busy unfastening that damn gaudy collar from around Bucky's pale throat. He twisted the strap and yanked it tight around the--the shoulder, because the stump of Bucky's left arm was just a shapeless mess of blood, now--to make a tourniquet.


Steve's arm was out, reaching for Bucky, but he couldn't move, couldn't reach him. He struggled, but something was holding him back. Bucky was just lying there, pale and still, his eyes fluttering shut as Steve watched, helpless.

The bone must have been fucking shattered, along with the chip and its deadly microfilaments, because Threetoo's stump was just a pulpy mess on his shoulder now, gushing blood in lethal pulses. Tony flipped Threetoo's gaudy collar inside out to put the hard leather against his skin--more pressure, the whole point of the inner lining was that it didn't exert pressure--and pulled it tight around the narrowest point he could find in the mess.

The cherry red leather clashed nastily with the dark red blood; one star still gleamed in the gore, the other hidden against Threetoo's skin somewhere. But the spurting blood slowed to a trickle, which was all that mattered.

"Baby, please, please, look at me," Tony repeated, dimly aware of JARVIS talking overhead. JARVIS would handle everything else, summon real help. Tony just had to keep Threetoo alive until they got here, try to reach him from wherever he'd gone. Please, God, let the light going out of his eyes be a seizure and not fatal blood loss. "Sweetheart, I'm here, we can fix this, I just need you to look at me. It's gonna be okay. I'm right here, please--"

Blue gloved hands appeared in his field of vision like pigeons descending to the sidewalk. Helen's hands covered Tony's, tugging to make him let go of the tourniquet, to let someone with gloves on check Threetoo's neck where Tony's hand was cradling it.

"Tony, we've got him."

"He hates when you touch him, I can't leave him." Tony grabbed Threetoo's limp hand and pressed it to his own chest, just to the side of the Machine, where he could feel it.

He would feel the first twitch of fingers, as soon as Threetoo tried to sign anything.

Tony moved to let the doctors get Threetoo into a cervical collar and onto a stretcher, but he never took his eyes off Threetoo's face, even when they were up and walking, even when Happy called out to him.

"Boss! What do we do with the perp?"

Rogers. Tony didn't need to look at him, didn't need to see that defiant glare. He remembered it just fine.

"Hold him somewhere," Tony snapped, still walking with the stretcher, Threetoo's hand motionless against his heart. "He attacked me; he's mine to kill."

Chapter 4

Bucky was gone.

They'd taken him away--Stark had gone with him, snapping out something entirely inevitable about meaning to kill him--but Steve couldn't raise his gaze from the pool of blood on the floor, shining under the lights in the room. He heard Sam's voice and stumbled obediently along as he was pulled away, out into the hall, but Steve just kept staring at the blood, remembering another time.

Another pool of blood.

Steve had already wrenched his shield from the tree it had buried itself in after it struck the HYDRA soldier, but he couldn't look away from the pool of blood. He had thrown the shield like a discus at head-height, with something close to all of his strength. This was his first mission carrying it, and he'd only used it to stop bullets--and thrown knives, and anything else the guys threw at him--until now. But he'd seen the man raise one of those blue-fire guns, saw Bucky flinch in his peripheral vision, and threw it.

He didn't have any doubt he'd done the right thing. He also didn't have any doubt he'd taken the man's head off with his shield.

He just couldn't look away from the blood.

A hand came down firmly on his shoulder, and Steve jerked his head up to meet Bucky's gaze, steady and serious. For a second Steve felt frozen with the fear that Bucky would call him Cap, and he would have to square his shoulders and pretend to be unaffected.

Bucky just squeezed and said, "That prison break was your first time in combat, wasn't it."

Steve nodded. "I, uh--I didn't really. Notice. I guess. At the time."

Bucky nodded back. "It's not a bad thing, feeling like this after. Means you still feel things. You're still alive in there."

With none of his other men in earshot, he had let himself be Steve rather than Cap for another moment, talking to his best friend who was a step ahead of him in this as so many things. He glanced back toward the blood of the man he'd killed, the first one he really knew for certain he had killed personally. "What do I do, though?"

Bucky slung his arm around Steve's shoulders, turning him bodily away. "You clean your damn shield, and you check your gun, and while you're doing that you say an act of contrition. Okay? Say you're sorry and move on to the next thing."

"And if the next thing is another guy I have to kill like that..." Steve said, though with Bucky's arm around his shoulders he was already remembering that he had had to do it and would do it again.

"Then you do the next thing," Bucky said. "And you clean your shield and you say your act of contrition and you get on to the next thing. Eventually the next thing's gotta be something better, right?"

Steve summoned up a smile and murmured, already watching for Bucky's laugh, "Eventually the next thing's gonna be you."

Steve was dimly aware that he was being dragged once they came out of the elevator. Each of his arms was held in a grip harder than a hand, propelled too smoothly for footsteps. There were footsteps ahead and behind him, voices talking back and forth over his head, but Steve just stared down at his own feet bumping over smooth gray linoleum.

He had to say he was sorry. An act of contrition. He couldn't fold his hands with his arms pinned like this, and he couldn't make the words come to his mind. He knew that if he could just get started the words would come to him, but he couldn't think of how it went.

He shaped his mouth into a silent o. Oh God--

O my God--

I'm sorry, I'm so sorry--O my God--Bucky--

He was jerked to a halt. He raised his head to see a heavyset man in a suit unlocking a door, and he realized that his arms were being held by two of Tony's robots. He closed his eyes and didn't look more closely to see if one of them was DUM-E.

I'm sorry, I am--I am heartily sorry--O my God, I am--

"He a suicide risk?"

It was the heavyset man speaking, standing in the open door. All the words fell out of Steve's head, and he struggled to find them again. O my God, I--

"Yeah," Sam said from behind him, and Steve flinched, his eyes opening involuntarily. "Yeah, extremely high risk. He's come close before."

"Yeah, you're not getting away from this that easy, pal." The heavyset man stepped in, grabbing Steve's belt. Steve jerked instinctively in the hard hold of the robots--no, not that, don't let him see. He was flooded with the sick awareness of his new vulnerability, nothing but those little strips of tape holding him in place.

Without the slightest hesitation the man drew back his arm and punched Steve in the mouth, hard enough to snap his head back.

"Hey," Sam came around in front of Steve, and his voice was low and stern. "No, man, we don't hit bound prisoners. Steve, we're taking your belt and your shoes so you don't do anything stupid. You copy?"

Steve pressed his tongue into the split of his lip. Sam stared back at him without expression, without the least trace of friendliness or understanding. Steve couldn't think of any words to say at all, to tell Sam what he'd seen, what he'd done. Sam obviously knew how bad it was.

Steve nodded.

Sam unfastened his belt and pulled it free in quick, businesslike movements, patted without comment at his pockets, then moved to his side--half-shielded by the robot holding Steve's arm--to grab his ankle and tug the laces of his shoe free. So Steve couldn't kick him. As if he expected Steve to fight, to try to hurt him.

Because he had seen what Steve did to Bucky.

Steve squeezed his eyes shut again, struggling to find the words. He had to make his act of contrition. He had to say he was sorry. He had to prepare himself to die.

O my God, I am heartily sorry--

"Are you fuckin' crying?" The heavyset man again. Steve turned his face away, flinching from a blow that didn't come.

Sam tugged his shoe away, then took the other. When he stood up he moved around behind Steve and put one hand on the back of his neck, gripping tight. "You gonna fight me, Rogers?"

Steve shook his head, keeping it ducked down as much as he could to hide the trickling tears; he could feel the furious presence of the other man, and he knew struggling was pointless. Everything was pointless now, except to say that he was sorry, and he couldn't remember the words.

Sam pushed him forward, toward the doorway, and the hard grips on his arms let up.

The heavyset man was waiting on the other side. The room was mostly full of cardboard boxes, but the man was waiting for him by a heavy steel cage. It was waist high, with no solid sides, even on the bottom. Steve had been put into a cage like that a time or two, and the reflex to resist that particular punishment took over. His hands closed into fists, and he tried to plant his feet only to have them slide on the linoleum as Sam shoved him forward; he just barely kept his hands down when the heavyset man grabbed him by the front of his shirt.

He remembered to go limp then, letting them stuff him inside the cage. His head bounced off the bars as the door was slammed.

"Fuck," the heavyset man snapped. "The fucking lock's busted--hey! Get a chain and a lock, move it."

Steve lay curled awkwardly in the cage for a moment, then shifted over onto his knees with his head still down, folding his hands under his face to hide his eyes. He just had to remember the words. That was all that mattered anymore--not the cage, not chains or locks or what was coming.

He heard the rattle as if from a distance, the lock clicking home. The overhead lights shut off, and darkness fell around him as the door of the storage room closed.

When he was alone, he licked his lips and whispered, "O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins--"

He could almost hear Bucky's voice, praying at his side. He could almost remember what it had been like not to be alone. He couldn't ask for more than that. Not now. Not after this.

At least it would all be over soon.

Everything around him--sound and smell and touch--changed again and again as time skipped forward without him, but the pain was constant, and the fear of what the pain must mean. He kept as still as he could and kept his eyes closed, even when he was aware enough to open them.

But then his master called his name.

Threetoo opened his eyes and saw his master looking down at him. There was blood on his cheek. Threetoo wanted to touch it, to wipe it away, to care for his master as his master always cared for him. He tried to focus on that, on his master and the touch he wanted and shouldn't want, because everything else was worse. His left shoulder and everything beyond was a blaze of pain, and his head throbbed in time with his pulse, and his whole body felt weak and useless, and time kept skipping and people were touching him, shouting all around him, and he didn't know why.

So he looked up at his master, and waited for his master to tell him what he needed to know.

"Tell me if it hurts, baby, you remember how to tell me that?"

Threetoo couldn't nod, there was something around his neck--not his collar--his master had taken his collar away--but he remembered the signal his master had taught him, and he flapped his right hand as well as he could. He realized as he did it that his master's hand was curled around his, holding it lightly against his master's chest. There was something else, too--tubes punched in at the back of his hand and on his forearm, and something plastic was clipped around the end of one finger. It made a little thump against his master's chest when Threetoo flapped his hand.

"How about your shoulder, specifically, can you show me how bad that hurts?"

Threetoo flapped his fingers faster and harder against his master's chest. His master's mouth curved up, but his eyes stayed intent on Threetoo.

"Good, sweetheart, that's good, we're gonna try to make everything hurt less, okay? Especially that. You just keep looking at me, just ignore everything else and stay with me."

There were people touching him, so many hands all over him, but his master was right here, holding his hand and looking into his eyes and telling him that none of that mattered. So Threetoo couldn't let it matter. He shaped his hand into an approximation of okay against his master's chest.

"Good, yes," his master ducked his head for just a second, pressing a kiss to Threetoo's fingertips where three of them splayed upward. Threetoo kept his gaze on his master and tried to breathe with the pulses of pain.

The pain eased slightly as his master picked his head up again, and Threetoo flattened his hand again, tapping a slower cadence against his master's chest to reflect the change.

"Okay, hurts a little less now?" His master's hand slid down toward his wrist, giving his hand more freedom to move.

Threetoo knocked a yes.

"Okay, good data," his master said. "That's good, baby. We're in medical now, do you remember where we were before? Spell it for me if you can?"

Threetoo bit his lip, trying to think back before the stuttering of time and the chaos and the pain to before. He had been kneeling, and his master had been up higher than usual as he fed Threetoo.

L-A-B, Threetoo spelled slowly against his master's chest, giving time for him to recognize each sign. 2-N-D B-R-E--

Threetoo caught his breath as the pain roared back in full force, and he switched to flapping his hand hard.

"Shit, his pain's back, all the way up," his master looked away, and Threetoo couldn't help following his master's gaze to a figure nearly unidentifiable under a mask and cap. "Give him more, give him something better, that's gotta be an eleven, he--"

"Keep talking to him, Tony, I'm giving him as much as I can without risking respiratory arrest."

The muffled voice belonged to Dr. Cho. Not a stranger, at least, not--

Time skipped a little more and his master's hand was on his forehead, stroking back his hair, as his master spoke to him again, "Look at me, baby, I'm sorry, I got distracted, I'm here, just look at me, that's all you have to do, right here, stay with me."

Threetoo flapped his hand a little again, and his master nodded. "I know, baby, I know it hurts, they're doing everything they can. They're gonna fix it soon now, can you just scrunch up your toes for me, baby?"

Threetoo knocked another yes, and this time remembered to spell S-I-R after it as he curled his toes down tight.

"Good, good, perfect, baby, you're doing so well for me, I know this is hard. Do you remember how you got hurt, baby?"

He struggled for something between before and now. His master wasn't angry with him, wasn't saying don't you ever do that again, but what had happened? His master had taken his collar from him, but that was after. He had--

Something had knocked him down. He had been standing, he had--

His mouth shaped the word he had spoken, out loud, unbidden. Down.

And then he had--stood? He must have stood--and something--a blur of red flashed through his mind's eye, and a blurred glimpse of a man's face, a big blond man--something had knocked him down.

He was still struggling for words to summarize it when Dr. Cho abruptly said, "Fuck me, there's no break at all, it's a dislocation. Alan, brace him--yeah, there. Tony--"

There were more hands on him, suddenly, including his master's. His master curled low over him, so that they were nearly face to face, his hand pressing Threetoo's tightly against his chest. "Okay, baby, just breathe for me, just keep breathing--"

Threetoo gasped in a long breath as the pressure and pain in his shoulder rose to a dizzying new height, and then--fell away. He let out a breath and his master's eyes met his, so close, so--

His master sat up, glancing quickly over toward his stump, which hurt only bearably now. Threetoo attempted to pat slowly under his master's tight grip.

"Tony," Dr. Cho said sharply. "Based on Threetoo's bone density and reaction to analgesia, I want to give him something experimental. Consent, yes or no."

His master frowned and looked at Dr. Cho. "Based on his bone density?"

"It's unusual and suggestive. Yes or no," Dr. Cho repeated. "We need to get him into surgery to re-seat his chip, close that artery, and reassemble all the connective tissue in his shoulder. Am I doing that while he's conscious, or am I trying an experimental formulation with some back-of-the-envelope weight ratio calculations?"

His master looked back at Threetoo. "We're gonna make it stop hurting, baby. The doctors are gonna fix you up. You just keep looking at me, and keep breathing, and I'll be right--"

Threetoo tried to keep his eyes open, but a dark painless tide swept him under, and then there was nothing.

"I'll be right here," Tony said, but Threetoo was already gone--safely into the arms of anesthesia, he could see from the blinking monitors above Threetoo's head. All the blood he had left was staying on the inside, and they were pumping more fluids into him.

"Tony, he's under, you need to get out of here now," Cho said briskly, still working on something on Threetoo's left side. "We need to get him into surgery."

Tony realized that he was still clutching Threetoo's limp hand against his chest, staring at Threetoo's slack face. This wasn't like watching him sleep; it was total absence, like one of his seizures, only his eyes were mercifully closed and it didn't stop. Tony realized a second later that he was holding his position, poised to start his sentence again in midstream so Threetoo wouldn't notice that he'd lost time when he woke up.

"Mr. Stark," a linebacker-sized nurse whose name escaped Tony appeared at his side. "We need you to let go of him, Mr. Stark. He has to go into surgery now."

Tony nodded and shook his head and carefully, gently, lay Threetoo's hand down at his side, giving it one last squeeze before he stepped back from the bed. He glanced down and saw blood on his shirt, a smudge from the heel of his own hand and an indistinct oblong from Threetoo's, plus extra random spatter.

Threetoo had saved his life. Threetoo had pushed him to the ground to save his life. And now he was going into surgery.

Tony stood a short distance away, watching while they ran a tube down Threetoo's throat. He looked impossibly frail in the hospital bed; even Cho probably outweighed him. But he'd had the strength to haul Tony out of the line of fire, to stand up and take the blow in Tony's place.

Tony stood there staring for a few minutes while the last of his forced calm for Threetoo's sake cracked and fell away.

Then he spun on his heel and headed for the stairs. He was going to find where Happy had stashed Steve Rogers, and he was going to kill him for what he'd done to Threetoo. No ifs, ands, or buts. No second--third--thousandth chances for that guy, not now, not when he'd put Threetoo on the ground in a pool of blood, not when Threetoo's blood was still drying on Tony's shirt while Threetoo was whisked off into surgery.

"Where is he," Tony demanded as he pushed out into the corridor, leaving medical behind.

"90th floor, Room 16," JARVIS replied promptly, and Tony pushed through the stairwell door and started up, taking the stairs two and then three at a time. He was running by the time he popped out into the hallway on 90.

The door of Room 16 unlocked as he reached it, and he shouldered through almost without breaking stride. The lights came on automatically as the door crashed against the wall beside it, and Tony stopped short at the sight of Steve Rogers, sitting with his hands between his updrawn knees, his face an ugly blotchy pink and his eyes swollen from crying.

He was in a cage. He was in Threetoo's cage, the one Tony had broken the lock on so Threetoo couldn't get trapped inside. Happy had wrapped a chain around the latch to keep it closed.

For a second Tony felt a stab of something like pity, something like grief, and then rage roared up to cover everything.

"How fucking dare you," he snarled, rushing up to the cage and shoving at the whole goddamn thing. It was heavy, but not heavier than, say, DUM-E, even with Rogers inside. He had to weigh twice what Threetoo did.

"How dare you sit there and fucking cry, you could have fucking killed him."

Tony shoved again, and again, rattling the cage and Rogers inside it, until he managed to tip the whole thing over with an almighty, awful crash. That still wasn't louder than the sounds echoing in Tony's ears, of a fire extinguisher hitting Threetoo and Threetoo's head hitting the ground.

Tony stood over it in the resounding silence that followed, panting for breath. "You want to stick it to the man with a high-velocity blunt object, fucking fine, but hit what you're aiming at, you--you--"

He could not think of a word bad enough for Rogers, who was lying curled on his back with his feet against the bottom of the cage, now one of the sides. But there was no point calling him anything; he needed to get him out of Threetoo's cage and kill him.

He looked around for a key, or something to cut the chain, and Rogers said hoarsely, "Is Bucky alive, then? Is he gonna make it?"

"Who the hell is Bucky?" Tony snarled, turning back to face Rogers as he moved to sit upright in the overturned cage.

But as soon as the words were out of his mouth he realized exactly who Bucky had to be, and why Rogers might have been crying. It had all happened so horribly fast. He'd been stunned by Threetoo pushing him out of the way; Rogers wouldn't have seen him until the last second, maybe until it was already too late.

Rogers tried to scowl, though the effect was muted with his face all tear-stained. "You're ready to kill me for him and you don't even know his name?"

"He doesn't know his name," Tony snapped. "How the fuck do you know his name?"

He could be lying, of course. This could all be some cold-blooded scheme to get around Tony, to win another chance at life.

From the guy who had run back to Phil Coulson's crashed car, and got caught because he stayed to give first aid to the master he was trying to escape instead of taking off and leaving him to die. From the guy who'd been as blatantly obvious as you could be without the assistance of dancing girls and a PA system about wanting to kill Tony from the minute they met.

"He's my best friend," Rogers said, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. "James Buchanan Barnes. What--what happened to him? Why doesn't he know his own name?"

"You're his best friend, you don't know?"

Rogers lowered his hand and looked up at Tony. "I could make some guesses, maybe, but I haven't seen him in a long time. And I don't know if you're gonna believe me about what I do know."

A few more things snapped into place. "Does it have something to do with how you knew my dad? Did--" Tony's voice suddenly choked off, connections piling up rapidly. "Did he know my dad?"

Howard, what the fuck did you do?

Rogers nodded slowly. "James Buchanan Barnes. File number 12043. Brooklyn registry. Look him up."

12043. 12044. Consecutive registry numbers, from... what had JARVIS said? 1935?

"What the fuck," Tony snapped. None of this made any fucking sense, and he was still spoiling for a fight, but Rogers just sat there, shoulders slumped, eyelashes wet with tears.

"Look him up," Rogers repeated wearily. "Kill me if you're gonna kill me, but if you give a damn about him, look him up. James Buchanan Barnes. He's got a name. He's got family, or at least he used to. He..."

Rogers just shook his head, closing his eyes again.

Tony wasn't going to stand here and watch him cry, and he didn't have the stomach to knock the guy around any further, or the means to kill him cleanly.

And apparently he had some research to do.

Tony headed out of the room and back to the stairs, up to 91. He went to his own lab automatically, stopping short at the sight of the shattered glass panel. He turned sharply away before he could catch sight of the pool of blood on the floor.

"It will take a little time to arrange proper cleanup, sir," JARVIS informed him. "The holiday is having a regrettable effect on maintenance staffing. Perhaps you would prefer to work elsewhere for the time being. The gym, for instance."

"You're managing me," Tony informed him, but he turned on his heel and headed toward the lights and open door JARVIS had waiting for him.

"As Ms. Potts has abdicated that responsibility, someone must," JARVIS replied evenly, and Tony gritted his teeth and went on into his personal gym, making a beeline for the boxing dummy.

"At least tell me you're on this," Tony said, slamming a fist into a target without bothering to set his feet properly. His impact rating popped up and Tony swiped it away with one hand and threw another punch and another as he said, "Brooklyn registry? 12043, 12044--you told me it could've been a registry number, did you check Brooklyn?"

"Since we had no reason to believe Rogers was from Brooklyn until just now, I had not; as it turns out they have not made their pre-war records available online," JARVIS informed him.

"And you didn't--" Tony fists thudded in again and again, and he could feel that he was doing it wrong and he didn't care, at least he was doing something, at least he wasn't fucking up anything else right this second.

"You didn't check that? How long's it been? Ten days? You didn't follow up on getting access to their records? Brooklyn's in our goddamn backyard, it's not like you had to check the entire country."

Tony hadn't told him to, hadn't thought it was a priority until right this second, and he'd been keeping JARVIS's processing cycles pretty busy with the amount of detailed monitoring Threetoo required. He was being an asshole, and he knew it, and all he could do about it right now was punch harder.

JARVIS said only, "Despite the office being closed for the holiday I have taken the liberty of dispatching a researcher from Legal to bribe an archivist for immediate access to their local files, sir. If I may say so, sir, an actual human administrative assistant--"

"Nope," Tony replied, slamming his fists into the targets like he could punch the idea right out of the room.

Nope, nope, he wasn't having anyone that close to him, knowing all his business, monitoring his movements, not even if Pepper and Rhodey and Happy all signed off. Even if they could find someone who wouldn't be a danger to him, to the operation, being this close to Tony would be a risk for them. Threetoo was plenty of company; maybe Tony could train him to--

He slammed the door shut on that thought and hit harder, faster, until he could hear his father making snide remarks about his form in the pounding of his pulse. Until he could almost feel the weight of the chip in his ribcage, and wondered what its blocked transmissions were saying about his state of cardiovascular health. Until he managed to throw himself off balance and slammed shoulder-first into the dummy, grabbed at it with cramped, half-numb hands to slow his slide to the floor.

No blood on his knuckles though. Score one for beyond-cutting-edge impact-absorbing design.

"Sir," JARVIS said a while later, when Tony was starting to shiver from his sweat-soaked shirt going cold. "You may want to see this."

Tony got to his feet, caught himself on the dummy, and then nearly fell over DUM-E, who had suddenly appeared with a--ruggedized, thankfully--tablet in his grip.

"No, out, go," Tony said, waving off the bot as he snatched the tablet.

He sank awkwardly to his knees in the next second, his eye falling on the photo taking up the tablet's entire screen. Round-cheeked with baby fat, hair cut in an unfamiliar old-fashioned style, trying to look serious but failing to suppress a twinkle in his eyes. The photo was black and white, but Tony could fill in the gray-blue color easily enough.


James Buchanan Barnes, file number 12043.

Tony swiped to the next image, a photo of the top sheet of his file. He'd surrendered himself for the next-of-kin payout, to one Winifred Barnes, on March 11, 1935: the day after his eighteenth birthday. First sold to some private citizen in Brooklyn, changed hands a few times, then... drafted, of course, in 1942. US Army, the 107th. Expert Marksmanship Qualification.

Missing in action, presumed killed. 1945. They hadn't noted a more specific date.

"This doesn't make any sense," Tony said. "He's not..." Tony swiped again, finding more pages of the same file, more detailed notations on his service. None of it meant anything, until he got to the line after the record of his marksmanship qualification.

Transferred from 107th to SSR, 11/13/1943.

SSR was the Strategic Science Reserve. Howard had done a ton of work for them, developing all kinds of shit. Just a few years ago Tony had gotten a package from the Army, prototypes they'd run across somewhere that properly belonged to his dad. Tony had sent them out to the mansion to gather dust with the rest of his father's things.

So what the hell had an infantry slave been doing for the SSR? And what had Howard done to him once they got him?

"What about Rogers?" Tony asked, swiping again only to be brought back to the photograph of Threetoo. Barnes. Bucky, Rogers had called him.

"The contents of the file are missing," JARVIS informed him. "There is no information available about who was assigned the number 12044. The archivist discovered the file missing when they attempted to fill my request but stated that further investigation would have to wait until after the holiday. However, the 1920 and 1930 censuses list a Steven G. Rogers born in 1918 in Brooklyn, and in 1940 a slave of the same name is listed in private service in Brooklyn."

"He was younger than Barnes, then?" Tony swiped to the page showing the date of birth, getting himself away from that smiling, healthy boy's face. "He would have had to have parental permission."

"Sarah Rogers, only living parent of Steven G. Rogers in 1920 and 1930, is listed as a freedwoman and head of household," JARVIS informed him. "She does not appear in the 1940 census."

Tony put his head in his hands. It fit. Slavery wasn't inheritable, but it ran in families anyway; a single freedwoman with a young child--whether she was freed because someone knocked her up who had no right to, or because her husband's death won her manumission--would have been poor and struggling. She might have seen slavery as a decent option for her son, or had no choice but to agree to it, by the time he was sixteen or seventeen, and if he'd been orphaned that young he would have been offered the option of slavery. Especially in 1935.

"He doesn't look like he spent his adolescence on a freedwoman's wages or slave rations during the Depression," Tony muttered.

But he'd known Howard. Howard had done something to him. He was resistant to sedatives--and so was Threetoo. Dr. Cho had recognized something in Threetoo's bone density that told her how to sedate him--and she'd operated two weeks ago on Rogers' arm, which had no visible scar from his chip implantation.

They were the same. The connection was there. 12043, 12044--but apart from those tiny engraved digits, somebody had made Rogers' identity disappear, even before Tony faked his death, which meant there was something fucking weird about him, something important. And Threetoo had belonged to Pierce, and had a sealed record that was probably only the first layer of obfuscation of his identity. Two slave boys from Brooklyn caught up in the war; first they'd met his father, and then, seventy years later and looking miraculously younger than they should be, they'd met Tony.

Howard, how could you?

"Fuck," Tony muttered, letting the tablet slide from his fingers as his eyes closed. "Fuck."

Chapter 5

"Dr. Cho reports that the arterial repair is complete and 32557038's chip has been restored to proper function."

Tony looked up and winced as he became aware of the clamminess of his sweaty, bloodstained clothes. He ran a hand through his hair and then resigned himself to going upstairs; he needed to grab stuff for Threetoo, anyway, for when he woke up.

"There's still the shoulder reattachment?" Tony asked, recalling what Dr. Cho had rattled off earlier. No break, a dislocation, but the shape of his shoulder and stump had been so distorted that the bone had to have been knocked totally out of the joint socket, tearing everything that normally held it there.

"Yes, sir. Ligament and muscle repair is expected to be relatively straightforward."

Not much time until he would be awake, then. Tony hustled up the nearest staircase and into the penthouse, not giving himself time to think about anything beyond that. Threetoo's surgery would be over soon, and Threetoo would wake up from whatever sedation Dr. Cho had figured out, and Tony needed to be there when he did.

He scrubbed himself clean in the shower, and had just stepped out and started drying off when JARVIS said, "Sir. You have an incoming call from Carl Westfahl."

Tony froze, then started drying off faster. "Stall him, I'm not doing this naked."

"Understood, sir."

Westfahl technically still owned Threetoo; Tony hadn't been able to talk Westfahl into signing him over free and clear, because Threetoo had been a gift from Westfahl's "uncle" and Westfahl didn't want to upset him. Tony was nearly positive that the uncle in question was Alexander Pierce, and he didn't want Pierce's attention on him or his slaves any more than Westfahl did, if for entirely different reasons.

But Westfahl's ownership meant he still showed up in the official registries as the person responsible for Threetoo. The chip would have registered a possibly fatal injury when it was knocked out of place--and it would also have sent an all-clear signal once it was reconnected. Westfahl had wanted to know if Threetoo died--wanted the body to show to his uncle if that happened--but short of that, he shouldn't have been taking any interest at all.

Which probably meant it wasn't only Westfahl taking an interest.

Tony darted into his closet, still damp around the edges, his hair still dripping down the back of his neck, and hauled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. "Put him through, J. Audio."

He was pulling on another shirt as Westfahl said, "Tony? You there?"

"Yeah, sorry, you caught me, ah, in the middle of something. To what do I owe the pleasure of having my pleasure interrupted?"

Westfahl let out a nervous little laugh. "I, uh, I suspect it got interrupted once already today? I got a call from my uncle... did something happen to that sealed-record slave I loaned you?"

"Leased to me," Tony corrected firmly. "We signed a contract."

No more legally valid than any other contract Tony signed, but now was not the time to start letting anyone guess that inconvenient little fact.

"Right, yeah, but I still own it, so I still have access to its registry information, right? Only, uh, I let my uncle use my access, because he likes to keep an eye on that one. Sentimental about it, you know."

Tony actually stopped dead with a sock in one hand. He had to sound out the word before he could trust himself to say it with anything like calm. "Sentimental?"

"No accounting for taste, I guess, I know it's a wreck--but the thing is, my uncle called, and he wants to see that's it's really all right. I told him it was nothing, obviously it's fine now, but he said he's going to come by and check on it--I tried to stall him, told him it was upstate at my summer place, and he told me he'd send a helicopter, so I had to tell him it wasn't that far, I just left it at a friend's place, but--anyway, he's going to be here in two hours, so I need you to bring it over here."

Tony signed Threetoo's ETA? and sat down in a very calm and controlled fashion to put his head between his knees.

Pierce had access to Threetoo's registry information.

"Westfahl," he said, trusting JARVIS to clean out any muffling from the sound of his voice. "Why did you even try to lie to him about where Th--the slave is? He's got access to the registry information."

"Yeah," Westfahl said, dragging the word out like Tony was the one being stupid here. To be fair, Tony was incredibly stupid, because somehow this eventuality hadn't occurred to him at any time in the last ten days.

Pierce had access to Threetoo's registry information, which meant he had access to the tracking data from Threetoo's chip. Which meant he knew exactly which friend of Westfahl's had Threetoo. Even if Tony somehow left him convinced that he was using Threetoo for totally normal purposes, Pierce's eye was going to be on him, now. If it hadn't been already, for the last ten days.

Sentimental. Yeah, he'd bet Pierce was real sentimental about an experimental slave who excelled at the mathematics of trajectories and dropped his sex-slave programming for suicidal-protection programming when his master was threatened.

Twenty minutes to close up, JARVIS murmured in his ear. Unknown when he will be awake after that.

Tony nodded to his knees and said, since Westfahl didn't seem to get it, "If your uncle has registry access, he has the tracking data from the chip. He knows exactly where the slave is. Why would you try to lie about it?"

"It's on a sealed record," Westfahl said impatiently.

Tony opened his mouth to explain that a sealed record only meant the slave's history was sealed, but Westfahl didn't pause.

"Sealed record, sealed tracker. There's no location information in the registry for him."

It was an eerily physical sensation, having his father rise up out of his memory and speak--snarl--through his mouth, in his voice, words Tony had heard from Howard more times than he could count.

"The only reason to put a StarkChip in a slave is so you can find him if you lose him."

There was a little silence, and then Westfahl said, "Well, I guess you should probably quit making ones that have sealed trackers, then."

Tony signed mute at JARVIS so he could scream a little instead of pointing out to Westfahl that he didn't and that chips that didn't track location were fucking illegal.

Pierce was definitely going to want Threetoo back if he realized anyone knew what he'd done to the chip, let alone what he'd done to Threetoo--to Barnes, to make him into Threetoo, and whoever, whatever else he'd been in between.

"Yeah," Tony said, dragging his public manners forcibly into place. "Good point. That was just something my dad always used to say, guess we're past that now. So your uncle wants to see the slave?"

"Yeah, he's gonna be here in a couple hours, so if you could just bring it back, he can see it, and then he can go off to his million Fourth of July things he has to make appearances at, and I can go back to sleeping off this hangover, right?"

"Right," Tony said, feeling a mile away from his own light, smooth voice. "Well, I guess that's the least hassle for everybody, isn't it? I'll bring him over."

"Thanks, Stark, I knew you'd understand," Westfahl said, and then, an obvious afterthought, "what happened to it, anyway? Uncle said it nearly died?"

Tony bit down hard on his fingers for a moment. "It, ah--it has seizures? Did you notice that? I was playing with it and it had some kind of fit, fell right off and landed on that stump of an arm. It's still unconscious, I think, but I've got a doctor putting it back together."

Westfahl snorted, and Tony felt the urge to take at least six more showers. "You did say you like 'em broken in, huh? You're gonna get as sentimental about that thing as my uncle is. See you, Tony."

Tony gestured emphatically, and JARVIS said, "Connection closed, sir. You'll want to leave within the hour, if--"

"Yeah," Tony said, pressing a hand to his face. "Yeah, I just--just need to have a heart attack or possibly a stroke first, give me five minutes."

JARVIS put a timer up, and Tony didn't even bother to wave it away. He really couldn't spare more than five minutes; he was already multitasking his hyperventilation with working out everything he needed to do in the next hour.

He hurt only dully, but his whole body felt heavy, half numb, and before he knew anything else he felt the tube snaking up his nose and down his throat.

It was over, then. He was going to be put away now, and he wouldn't see his master again. He wouldn't--

"Hey, baby, open your eyes for me."

Threetoo blinked rapidly, clearing tears from his eyes as he saw his master standing over him. His master's hand settled on his chest, just enough pressure to tell him to stay down. Despite the weary aching of his body and his dread of what it meant--despite the tube--Threetoo smiled.

His master smiled back, though he looked tired and drawn. "There's my Threetoo. I know you probably don't feel so great right now, so I'm gonna give you a little something to eat through that goofy tube in your nose, and then we'll get it out of the way, okay?"

Threetoo bit his lip and nodded slightly, though his other masters had never--but there were no other masters, only one master. His master. And his master was going to feed him through the tube--and then take it out. Maybe it was just this once, just because he--didn't feel so great. Maybe his master would still keep him, and continue the project of making him better.

The memory of the last few hours unfolded in his awareness then, in the little space while his master was turned away from him, picking something up from a nearby table--a feeding syringe, he saw, while his mind's eye flashed disjointed images of disaster.

"Okay, just try to relax, and if you feel any pain or you have trouble breathing, you flap your hand for me," his master instructed.

Threetoo flexed his right hand cautiously. There was still a tube piercing the skin at the back of his hand, but nothing else impeded his movement.

He felt the tube turning heavy and stiff in his throat as it filled with liquid. He swallowed reflexively around it, struggling not to cough or choke.

"Easy, baby, breathe through your nose," his master instructed. "Follow my count--in, two, three, four, now hold, hold--"

He closed his eyes and focused on his master's voice, breathing only as directed and ignoring everything else, including the feeling of his stomach filling without him swallowing anything. His master's hand rubbed gently over his chest, and his master's voice was a steady guide to cling to.

"And we're done," his master said softly. "We're gonna give that a few minutes to settle and then we can get the tube out. I need to talk to you now, this is important. Can you look at me?"

Threetoo did at once, and his master moved closer, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Threetoo was partially propped up, so it was easy to meet his master's eyes.

"Do you remember how you got hurt, sweetheart?"

Threetoo nodded. That memory was clear enough. He signed, Man threw something through the glass.

He couldn't remember the man very well--it had all happened fast--but Threetoo thought he would recognize the intruder if he saw him again. Tall, well-built, light-colored hair and eyes, expression twisted with some emotion. JARVIS must have seen, anyway, so his master wouldn't be depending on him to identify the intruder.

Threetoo couldn't remember how he'd come to be in the right position for the man to hit him--it seemed to him that he had been level with the man--but that didn't make sense. He had been on the floor, between his master's knees. Unless his master had moved him up onto a table for some reason--to look at his collar? He wasn't wearing it now. He couldn't remember where it had gone.

But his master wasn't angry with him, and his master had been there when it happened, so Threetoo couldn't have done anything bad. His master hadn't told him not to do that again.

Threetoo made a questioning face, asking his master if he had it right without having to form words.

His master's expression was tense, studying Threetoo. "Yeah, a man--a slave, actually, who works on that floor--he broke the glass and threw a fire extinguisher. Do you... do you know why, sweetheart?"

Threetoo frowned, then shook his head. The reason hardly mattered. A slave who committed even the vandalism against the glass, let alone harming a slave who was special to his master, could only be punished.

Guessing, Threetoo signed. At me?

His master shook his head slightly. "I think... I don't think he meant to hurt you. But he definitely is the one who did that, so we'll... have to decide what to do about him, because no one is allowed to hurt you."

Threetoo's temples throbbed with warning pain, and he had the feeling that time was skipping though there was no visible sign of it happening. It didn't make sense--why else throw something like that, if the other slave hadn't wanted to hurt him?--but he couldn't hold on to the thought.

"No, don't worry about it, baby," his master said, after a pause that might have been several seconds or... longer. "That's not your problem, don't worry. There's something else, though. I need you to make a choice."

Threetoo stared up at his master, something uneasy stirring in his head, the throbbing in his head getting worse.


"I know," his master murmured, petting his hair gently. "I know it's hard, but I need you to try for me. Here's the situation: there are some people who know that you got hurt, people who think they have a right to see you, to see that you're okay. They don't. I'm the only one with rights to you, I'm your master, but they think they have a right. Do you understand?"

Threetoo nodded, though he couldn't put the understanding into words. It was like knowing where the wind was blowing, knowing which way gravity pulled. It was pulling at him now, tugging him toward a dangerous drop. He understood.

"I'm not gonna let anybody hurt you, I swear. You're mine and I'm not letting you go. But they could create a lot of trouble if I don't let them look at you."

Threetoo squeezed his eyes shut, and his master leaned down low over him, kissing softly at his forehead, his temple, brushing tears from his cheek.

"I know, I know, I hate it too. It scares the hell out of me, literal nightmare stuff. And I don't ever want you to be scared if you don't have to be. I don't want to let those people talk to you, or scare you, but I have to let them see you."

Threetoo flapped his hand against his master's chest. His master made an awful little noise as his hand settled gently over Threetoo's, but didn't stop him from keeping up the motion, the signal of pain.

He wasn't supposed to remember his other masters, but he remembered, abruptly, a metal briefcase being smashed down on the fingers of his hand when they tapped too much.

Set the ---- finger, he doesn't need the rest, someone said. Index? Pointer? He knew which finger, but he couldn't remember the word they used.

"Baby," his master said. "It's me. It's just me, and I need you to make a choice, okay? If you want, we can make it so you sleep through the whole thing, just like you were sleeping a little while ago while Dr. Cho fixed your shoulder. Do you remember any of that, when they operated?"

Threetoo shook his head, looking over at the stump of his arm to find it swathed in bandages and strapped tightly to his side. He only remembered his master leaning over him before, and his master leaning over him now, but nothing between.

"You could sleep through it," his master repeated. "I'll be there with you, I'll make sure nothing bad happens, just like nothing bad happened while Dr. Cho fixed your shoulder, and you don't have to be awake. Or, if you don't want to go to sleep again, then you'll stay awake, but... it will be scary, and I won't be able to stop it from being scary for you, or keep them from talking to you."

There was something about that. Sleeping. The tube. Being put away. Something... cold, and very bad.

Threetoo blinked away fresh tears and signed, will I wake up?

His master's eyes went wide, and then he looked away for a second before he answered. "Yeah. You will, Threetoo, I promise you will wake up. You will wake up in an hour or two, and I will be with you. Just a little nap, and then it's over, and they don't get to see you anymore."

An hour or two. His master would be with him. This master, his master, who would still be his master afterward. That wasn't... he didn't know what he'd been thinking of, but it wasn't that. He nodded, then signed, Sleep before the tube comes out? Please?

His master laughed a little and kissed his forehead. "Sure thing, baby. You don't have to do any more unpleasant stuff today, you can sleep through all of it."

He nodded again, closing his eyes and tilting his head toward his master. He was aware of a soft touch like a kiss on each eyelid, and then nothing.

Steve sat in the tipped over cage, dimly thankful that the lights were on this time.

Stark... hadn't killed him.

And apparently Steve hadn't killed Bucky. Despite the smears of drying blood on Stark's shirt, he'd only said you could have killed him. He had been talking about Bucky in the present tense.

He doesn't know his name.

Bucky was alive, and Steve was alive. Stark seemed to have at least heard what Steve told him, whether he believed it or not.

For whatever that was worth. Bucky was still a slave, missing an arm and hurt and starved and crawling on a leash when he wasn't suddenly standing up and planting himself like a tree in Steve's way. Steve was still as good as a slave, and had to be condemned all over again for what he'd done. And who the hell knew what Howard's kid was going to make of any of this.

But Bucky was alive, and Steve was alive, and they were both in New York, in a sky-high tower in the future.

"I gotta remember to ask him if he likes the robots," Steve whispered, and then he started laughing, loud and wild and uncontrollable until he was crying, too. The noise he made echoed off the walls, wailing and howling, and his breath caught painfully in his chest again and again.

He was starting to think that he had to pull himself together when he heard the door open and slapped a hand over his own mouth, one last choked-off noise muffled to something like a cough. He forced himself to take slow, shallow breaths as he listened for whoever was at the door to come closer.

After a few seconds he heard a familiar stride. He closed his eyes and quickly wiped his hands over his face as Sam approached.

In a low, measured tone, Sam said, "You had anything to eat today, Rogers?"

Steve felt the words boil up--Are you my keeper, Wilson?--and then realized that of course Sam was his keeper.

He might not have been sent to retrieve him from the roof that first morning they met, but that was what Sam had done for him ever since, and their friendship hadn't been a secret from Dr. Fox or anyone else. Sam had told Steve that his job was working with former military slaves, and here Steve was, getting all kinds of one-on-one attention.

He shook his head, keeping his eyes shut and his hand over his mouth.

"Stark came in here," Sam said, still in that low, careful tone, like something practiced. Like he was reading from a flow chart. "I can see he knocked the cage over. Are you hurt? Did he harm you in any way?"

Steve shook his head, reflexively moving his hand from his mouth to rub at the back of his skull. He had been more mentally stunned than physically, even right after Tony did it.

"What about--from the other night," Sam said. "Where you had to cut. You okay there?"

Steve glanced down at himself, startled to realize that in the midst of everything he'd forgotten that. He curled his hand into a fist to keep from cupping himself there, but he could feel that everything was still in place, between his snug uniform pants and the cradle of tape between the rings in his belly.

He cleared his throat with an effort. "It's fine. I'm not hurt."

"Sit up, please," Sam said. "You need to at least drink water."

Steve sat up straighter, keeping his hands open and his eyes on Sam the whole time. Sam passed him a plastic bottle of water. Steve hadn't thought he was thirsty, but he was guzzling it down as soon as it touched his lips. He drank half the bottle, until his stomach turned a little queasy. He knew the sensation would pass in another second, but he lowered the bottle and offered it back to Sam.

Sam shook his head.

Steve looked down, turning the bottle in his hands. "He's alive, isn't he?"

"Not that that's a condition of you getting humane care," Sam said, lowering himself to sit on the floor facing Steve. "But yeah. Looks like he'll be okay, more or less. He wasn't in good shape to begin with, and what you did is gonna set him back, man. What the fuck were you thinking?"

Steve winced, ducking his head lower. "I was thinking I saw Stark abusing a slave, and the only way to stop someone that powerful is the old-fashioned way. Kill him. I thought--if you or Dr. Fox or Dr. Cho knew about it, you wouldn't stand for a slave being treated that way."

Steve looked up to catch Sam's wince at that.

Sam shook his head. "First of all, you could have told us, then. Second, if you think I'm doing good work, Emily's doing work, Dr. Cho's doing good work--throwing a damn fire extinguisher through Tony's head would have put us all out of a job. You got any idea who's in charge of Stark Industries if Tony drops dead?"

Steve opened his mouth and then closed it again.

"Yeah, I don't actually know either, which is my point," Sam said. "If you'd actually taken Tony out--leaving aside the fact that you're wrong about him abusing Threetoo, which you would've known if you didn't make a two-second judgment about the situation and decide you were the only person who could do anything about it--you would have put hundreds more slaves in danger. We couldn't do what we do if we didn't have Tony funding us and covering for us. Tony personally got you out, man, you didn't think it might be worth keeping him around for the next guy who needs him to do that?"

Steve flinched, shook his head a little. "I didn't think of it. I just... he's starving, and he was crawling--on one arm--naked--on a leash."

Bucky, what did they do to you? Steve felt sick all over again at the thought of everything he had seen of Bucky before the instant when he stood up to protect Stark.

"Like I said, he's not in good shape, and it's as much mental as physical--that's why he needed rescuing. He was about as close to dying as you were, that night."

"That..." Steve picked his head up. "It was the same night? We came here the same night?"

Sam frowned a little, but nodded.

Steve sat back against the wall of his cage. Bucky had been here all the time he had been here. When he'd perched on the edge of the roof, one floor down from here, Bucky had been in the tower above him. If he'd jumped--if he'd succeeded in dying--

Well, Bucky wouldn't have gotten a fire extinguisher to center of body mass today, so he'd probably be doing better right now.

"He was a sex slave," Sam said, and Steve's whole body jolted with horror. It had been obvious, with the nakedness and the crawling and everything--even back when slavery was halfway honorable, when Steve was young, that danger had always existed. He knew it was worse nowadays, done openly, but to hear it said so baldly about Bucky...

Steve let out a little sob, remembering his fantasies of just that morning--the innocent touches and kisses that were all he and Bucky had ever been able to share, though Bucky had promised him more, later.

"He's--hey, man, Tony's not gonna do that to him, I swear. I know how it looked, but Tony's helping him get better, nothing else."

Steve shook his head, actually feeling like he might be sick and struggling to steady his breathing.


"He's--he's Bucky," Steve whispered. "My... Bucky. I didn't know until too late, I didn't see his face, but he--"

"Oh, shit," Sam said, horrified, but there was no disbelief. Sam didn't know how old Steve was, how long ago he had lost Bucky; it wouldn't sound so farfetched.

"I saw him fall," Steve whispered. "I saw him fall and I thought he couldn't have survived and I left him--"

Sam had told him not to feel guilty about leaving Bucky behind, but neither of them had known what would come of it. What had already come of it, while they stood on the roof and talked. Bucky had only been a couple of floors away, naked, crawling.

"And then he lost his arm and lost his memory and got turned into a sex slave. And then to top it all off, I almost killed him," Steve finished, staring down at his hands. O my God...

Sam's hand appeared in his field of view, slipping through the bars to rest lightly over one of Steve's hands.

Steve sucked in a breath to say something and choked on it, his whole body seizing tight as the real pain hit. He'd hurt Bucky, who had already been hurt so unimaginably because Steve left him behind. He made an awful barking cough of a noise, struggling to breathe as tears welled up again. The shame of letting Sam see him like this welled up sickeningly, but he couldn't make himself stop. He sobbed helplessly, struggling for control with every breath and finding none.

The door slammed open and Steve choked off his breath with an effort that hurt like the impact after falling from a height. He looked up through his tears at Tony Stark standing in the doorway.

Rogers was looking at him in bewilderment, tears on his face and his whole body shaking with the effort of holding back more. Sam had a carefully neutral expression, like he thought he might need to talk Tony down from murdering Rogers with his bare hands.

Tony shook his head. "Sorry, I know you're having a moment, everything sucks, but we don't have time for feelings right now."

Sam's lips thinned into annoyance. Rogers blew out a breath and seemed slightly steadier. Tony, reasonably sure that more crying was not about to happen and honestly out of time to worry about it if it did, strode inside. He went straight over to the cage and, specifically, the chain wrapped around the closure where Tony had disabled the original lock.

The lock on the chain opened for the key Happy had given him; he could see Sam and Rogers both registering surprise, and shook his head again as he unwound the chain.

"I need this cage. I need one or two people physically able to lift the cage. Someone who's willing to do absolutely anything necessary to protect Threetoo might come in handy, if anybody fitting that description is in the room."

"His name is Bucky," Rogers said, sounding a little stuffed up but basically functional, his gaze steady on Tony though Tony didn't go anywhere near meeting it.

He did not contest the rest of his qualifications.

Tony pulled the last of the chain away and tossed it away to clang loudly off the nearest set of shelves and rattle to the floor. "Wrong, Rogers. As far as he knows right now, his name is Threetoo. As far as anybody outside this room knows, he is unidentified except by his latest serial number, which reflects a sealed record, which reflects very, very powerful people who don't want anyone to know anything about who he was or who he belonged to before two months ago. That may or may not have been connected to his former name, but I'm not going to risk it. So his name is 32557038 and people who know him call him Threetoo. Clear?"

Rogers nodded. Sam nodded, slower, giving Tony a wary look. Tony lifted the door up to open it.

"People capable of lifting the cage who want to make sure Threetoo and every other slave in the building stays safe beyond the next couple hours, pick up the cage and come with me."

"Tony," Sam said, in a let's all be reasonable voice, while Rogers was standing up and climbing out of the tipped-over cage. "What are you--"

Tony moved back toward the door as he spoke, half his mind already on every other part of what might laughably be called his plan.

"One of his former owners wants to see him. They've got partial access to his chip information, they know he almost died but not where he is right now. They want to make sure that he is alive and, just guessing here, still unidentified the way they went to very great lengths to make him. I really don't want to let them know I have anything to do with him, because there's a non-zero chance that that would get him and me killed and this entire anthill kicked over if they don't just nuke it from orbit, so we're taking him somewhere else to be looked at. Now bring the cage and let's go."

Rogers tipped the door of the cage shut and picked it up by himself, neatly verifying Tony's suspicion about how strong a person would have to be to break through the hardened glass at the front of his lab that quickly. Sam grabbed one end of the cage, and Tony turned away and walked out, letting them figure out how to maneuver the thing.

They reached the elevator right behind him, and Tony punched the button for 88. He couldn't go back to his lab yet. He didn't need that many tools to fix the latch anyway, and he didn't like being away from Threetoo.

"Rogers, you're going to control yourself around him," Tony announced. "He's sedated, for one thing, and for another I do not have time for your displays of emotion. Understood?"

"Understood." Rogers' voice was hard and expressionless this time.

The clock was ticking: they had to leave for Westfahl's place in the next twelve minutes or so to get Threetoo there on time with a survivable margin of error, and Dr. Cho had been pretty dubious about being able to finish hooking him up with a discreet source of continuous sedation and make the actual bed-to-cage transfer that fast.

By the time they walked into Medical with the cage, Happy was waiting for them just outside Threetoo's room, holding two garment bags and the little case for the remote-controlled restraints, plus a briefcase at his feet. His grim expression turned downright murderous when Steve came into view, but Tony didn't have time for that, either.

"Nope, no, not doing this right now," Tony said. "Hap, give the guys their clothes. Rogers, you're wearing the exact same ensemble from the other night, got that?"

"Got it," Rogers said stiffly.

"Great. Happy, help me bring in the cage. You guys get changed. Rogers, don't think I won't check you're wearing all of it."

Tony went to Rogers' end of the cage, and Rogers maneuvered quickly but scrupulously to keep from touching him as he let Tony take the weight. Happy draped the garment bags over a chair and pointedly took the remote from the case and pocketed it before he dropped the restraints on top. He had the briefcase dangling from two fingers while he took Sam's end of the cage and didn't say anything at all.

Tony took that as a win, nodding to Happy to lead the way into Threetoo's room.

The curtain was drawn around the bed, but there was a bare gurney set up to receive the cage. Tony busied himself securing the cage to the gurney, the briefcase sitting beside it.

He tried not to listen to the low murmur of voices coming from behind the curtain, or any other sounds.

"Boss," Happy said quietly, glancing from the curtain to the door. "I still think I should..."

"You drive, that's it," Tony said firmly. "I don't want you coming inside, you don't have anything to do with that part. Period."

He was not putting Happy inside the potential blast radius of himself, Threetoo, and Alexander Pierce. That was, God help him, what he had twice-condemned-to-death Steve Rogers for.

"Everything's in the briefcase? Gimme the remote."

Happy nodded, still looking displeased, but he handed over the remote for Rogers' restraints.

"You want me to help with..." Happy gestured from the curtain around Threetoo's bed to the cage.

Tony shook his head firmly. "I've got that. Go get in the car, we'll be down as soon as we can and we need to be on the road as soon as Threetoo's loaded."

Happy nodded and headed back outside. Tony spared half a second to hope that Sam and Rogers were out of his way changing somewhere, and then he pushed the gurney over to the edge of the curtain.

"Come on back," Dr. Cho said. "We're just monitoring now."

Tony braced himself and then pushed past the curtain, maneuvering the cage up alongside Threetoo's bed. Dr. Cho and Sharon were the only ones standing by the bed.

Threetoo had been disconnected from all the normal monitors, the IV and NG tube removed. He was naked, curled on his side--there was a loose webbing of ace bandage keeping his legs curled up. It was strikingly similar to the position he'd been in when Tony first saw him, curled up in that very same cage.

There were just a couple of additions: the bandages and strapping that covered the stump of his left arm, securing his whole shoulder while it healed, and the visible end of a sizable black butt plug between the cheeks of his bony ass.

Tony forced himself to look at it, to see the obscene violation, for all it had been Dr. Cho who did it, not him, in the name of medical necessity.

The worst part of it was that Tony knew that, in Threetoo's twisty, programmed, damaged brain, it would seem crueler than Tony doing it himself, for his own pleasure.

But the whole point of doing it was that Threetoo didn't have to think or feel anything about it at all, along with not hearing or remembering any commands he might receive. Tony and Dr. Cho had only been able to think of one place to conceal a continuous source of sedation strong enough to keep Threetoo unconscious through what was about to happen.

"Here," Dr. Cho said, swiping an icon from her tablet into the air. Tony grabbed it and transferred it to his own phone, and discovered a readout of Threetoo's vitals and the flow rate of the sedative--all from monitoring in the hastily rigged pump device, bypassing any signal from his chip entirely.

Tony nodded and looked at the cage again, bracing himself to do this. He shook his head after a second. "Have you got a really threadbare towel or a horrible sad hospital blanket around?"

Sharon didn't miss a beat, handing over a felt blanket in a particularly institutional beige, smelling faintly of bleach. Tony spread it over the bottom of the cage, and then said, "Ready?"

"As he'll ever be," Dr. Cho allowed. "I don't like moving him--I formally object to all of this, as his physician--but he's in remarkably stable condition considering what he's been through today."

Tony nodded and didn't hesitate anymore, leaning in to scoop up the curled bundle of Threetoo's rail-thin body in his arms, straightening and turning all in one motion to bring him to the cage. With Threetoo curled up so small, it was fairly easy to slide him inside, settling him on the blanket. As soon as that was done, Tony pulled the bandaging free from around his legs, letting them uncurl the extra few inches they could in the cage.

Tony opened the briefcase then and took out a duplicate of Threetoo's favorite hot pink blanket, a heavy fleece thing in similarly eye-searing orange. He spread it over Threetoo, tucking it down over his feet and up to his ears, making sure to tug a loose corner through the bars so he could pull the blanket out of the cage without opening it again.

Huddled under the thick, soft blanket, Threetoo looked almost normal. Tony didn't let himself enjoy the illusion. There wasn't time.

He had to swing the door shut on Threetoo and do what Tony had promised never to do to him, locking him back inside that cage. Repairing the locking mechanism was a simple matter of a minute with lockpicks and his smallest soldering iron, both of which had been packed in the briefcase along with a laser cutter and a few other little items that would come in handy in the next few hours.

It only took a few extra seconds to jam the lock completely, so no one could easily take him back out of the cage, short of, say, cutting the entire lock right out with a really excellent laser cutter.

Tony glanced at the time--almost three minutes to spare--and Threetoo's vitals--steady, and still reflecting his state of total sedation.

"How long will the dose in the reservoir last?" That had been a tradeoff--putting the smallest possible object into him that still gave them enough room for a sufficient supply of sedative.

"Two hours. I wouldn't want to keep him under longer than that anyway."

"He's stronger than he looks," Tony said, maneuvering the gurney around without jostling Threetoo.

"If he weren't he'd already be dead," Dr. Cho agreed. "Which is why I wouldn't want to try to keep him down more than two hours. I suspect he might start requiring higher and higher doses to stay under within a matter of hours. Without being able to monitor and manage that directly... I don't like the odds of keeping him under safely."

"Two hours, then," Tony agreed. "Starting..."

"Six minutes ago."

Tony nodded and pushed the gurney through the doors, revealing Sam and Rogers on the other side, both dressed in the kind of slightly ill-fitting suits that would make them look right at home in Happy's department. Tony shoved one hand into his pocket and touched the remote for Rogers' restraints, forcing him to wave his left arm.

Rogers' gaze was jerked away from Threetoo to give Tony a poisonous glare.

"Right," Tony said. "I did tell you I would check, don't start with me. Come on, time's wasting."

He pushed Threetoo toward the elevator that would take them down to the parking garage, and Rogers and Sam fell in behind him.

Chapter 6

Steve honestly hadn't registered, at first, that the small lump under the bright orange blanket was Bucky. The tumble of straight dark hair wasn't what he expected, and the shape of him was no bigger than a dog. For an awful second Steve wondered if they'd amputated more of his limbs, and then he made sense of the curves--shoulder, hip, foot pressing against the bars with the blanket tucked between--and he understood that Bucky was curled on his side.

He'd only gotten a glimpse before Stark was pushing past them, keeping his body between Steve and the cage. Between Steve and Bucky.

Wanting to avoid the indignity of being made to do it with the damned straps on his arms and legs, Steve took the furthest corner of the elevator and kept his gaze averted. Still he couldn't help listening for the sound of Bucky's breathing, trying to filter out the mechanical sounds of the elevator, the sounds Sam and Stark made.

He hadn't managed it by the time the elevator stopped and the doors opened. A big SUV was waiting there, back doors standing open, and the man who'd punched him earlier--Hap, apparently--waited by it.

"Sam, you're riding shotgun," Stark announced. "Rogers, you're in back with me and our cargo here, help me lift him in."

"Boss," Hap said, but Stark didn't even look at him, just shook his head.

Steve followed Stark around to the back of the truck. Stark released some straps securing the cage to the big cart it was on and then climbed up into the back of the truck, kneeling and hooking his fingers through the cage's lower bars. Steve moved around to lift it from the side, nudging the cart out of the way as he took its weight and slid it smoothly onto the floor of the truck, pushing while Stark pulled. He just barely had time to notice that it was only a little heavier than it had been empty.

"Good, perfect," Stark said, in an oddly caressing tone that vanished in the next second. "Get in and close the doors, we gotta get him tied down for the trip."

Steve obeyed, trying not to look at either Stark or Bucky, and then Stark touched his wrist and said, "Okay, Happy. Roll out." He looked up and added, "We're not going far, just sit."

Steve nodded and sat, knees to chest and his back against the side of the truck and a tinted window. Stark sat down across from him, looking at him through the bars of the cage.

Steve dropped his gaze, and--there was Bucky.

His face was turned toward Steve, and Steve could see it perfectly because someone had tucked his long hair back behind his ear. Bucky looked horribly gaunt and pale, and his face was slack and empty in the way Steve had seen a few times before, in people who were etherized. Sedated, that would be the modern word. It was uncomfortable to see Bucky looking that way, and yet...

He was alive. He was right here, and he was alive. Steve still couldn't hear his breathing, but he could see the tiny motion of it, a little shift in his shoulder, a faint flex in his nostrils. He was pale, but only winter-pale, not the gray-green color of death; his lips were pink, and his skin still had a little of its natural olive tint. His eyelashes looked exactly the same as they always had.

Bucky was alive, and Steve was breathing the same air he was.

Steve looked up to meet Stark's eyes again and discovered that he'd leaned in without noticing he was doing it. Stark had leaned in opposite, keeping a sharp eye on him.

"Can I." Steve had to clear his throat, struggling for words under that hard, watchful gaze. "Please. I don't want to... to hurt him, or do anything... please. Can I touch him?"

Stark's eyes narrowed. "He's sedated, Rogers. Not just sleeping. He won't feel it, even subconsciously. He's not in there."

Steve shook his head, looking down at Bucky again, struggling not to expose himself to Stark more than he already had, to keep calm as ordered and not get himself sidelined from protecting Bucky. His words came out staccato and incoherent with the strain; he felt like he was trying to make himself understood in the grip of some roaring fever, and could barely hear his own voice over the pounding of his own heart.

"When he--when I lost him. He fell. I couldn't catch him, couldn't go back to find him. His body. I didn't see how he could have survived. He fell, and he was reaching for me and I was reaching for him, and--even if he were dead. Just to touch him one more time, just to catch his hand once, I would... Please. Mr. Stark."

Stark moved, drawing Steve's attention up. Steve leaned back, giving ground as Stark folded himself over the top of the cage, reaching down between it and Steve. Then, just as abruptly, he slid back down to sit on the other side. Steve looked down and realized that Stark had uncovered Bucky's right hand, which lay palm up, fingers slightly curled, close to the edge of the cage.

"Nowhere the blanket covers," Stark said briskly. "And you stop when I tell you to stop."

The fiat was emphasized by a little push of the strap around Steve's upper arm, in case he might forget that Stark could make him stop any time he chose to.

Steve nodded agreement and closed his eyes, leaning forward to press his forehead against the bars. He slid his hand between them, and he could feel the trembling of his outstretched fingers, shaking like he was small again and frozen half to death.

But he was not numb. When his fingertips touched flesh he felt it more vividly than anything he'd ever felt in his life, the sensation rushing through his whole body, tightening his throat and stopping his breath. He opened his eyes then to see his fingertips just brushing Bucky's. He let his hand fall a little lower, his fingertips crossing Bucky's palm--mostly soft, now, his old gun calluses gone, but the heel of his hand was hard and slick. A new callus--from crawling.

Steve closed his eyes again and brought his other hand through the bars, sliding it under Bucky's so he could hold on from both sides. There was a little bandage on the back of his hand; he must have had an IV. He still ought to be in a hospital bed.

Steve pushed that thought away, focusing on this moment. Bucky was alive. He moved his right hand, searching out the familiar feeling of Bucky's hand in his. He had known Bucky's hands so well; he could call up a thousand memories of them, could draw them down to the last hair, the lines of every knuckle. But would he know this was Bucky's hand now, without seeing, when it was so changed? He ran his thumb up every finger, finding with a breathtaking sense of loss that Bucky's ring finger was perfectly straight and smooth, his writing callus gone.

A sex slave wouldn't need to write much, would he? Not as much as he would need to crawl.

Steve swallowed the words he wanted to say. He focused on learning Bucky's hand all over again, the way it was now, the firmness of the heel--a new kind of strength Bucky had had to learn. His fingers were the same, slender and clever...

"Time's up," Stark said, accompanying the words with a tug at the restraints on Steve's forearms.

Steve opened his eyes, nodding, not letting himself argue, not letting himself say any last things to Bucky. He hadn't asked for that and Bucky wouldn't hear it, anyway--only Stark would. Steve set Bucky's hand down gently, and tugged the edge of the blanket back over it. He probably got cold easily, as skinny as he was; Steve always had, when he was small.

Steve forced himself to sit back, even past the point where the prodding of the restraints stopped. He looked through the cage at Stark, who had opened up a briefcase on his lap.

"Now that we're done with the heartwarming reunion part," Stark said without looking up. "I need to brief you on what we're going into. Did you hear the part where I said I need someone who's willing to do anything necessary to protect Threetoo?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "From... a former owner?"

Stark nodded, still not looking up as he fiddled with something in the case. "Not just any former owner. I said very, very powerful, right? Because we're talking about the Secretary of Defense."

Steve frowned, glanced down at Bucky, and back to Stark. "Alexander Pierce?"

Tony did look up at that, obviously startled. "You, uh. Oh shit, you clearly know him. Why the hell do you know him?"

"He tried to recruit me," Steve bit out.

Stark's eyebrows twitched higher. "Recruit? Not buy?"

Steve snorted and shook his head. "Can't buy what he wanted from me. He wanted loyalty, wanted everything I can do under his command. Some strike team, not even regular Army, not even pretending it was going to be anything honorable, although he tried to give me this line about the two of us being men of the world, doing what needs to be done for the greater good."

Steve looked at Bucky again. Even as thin as he was, there was no mistaking his face, and Pierce had done his homework; he'd known about the team Steve led in all but name during the war. He couldn't have owned Bucky and not known who he really was, who he was to Steve. Had that been what he'd meant, the first time he made the offer, all that smooth, slick talk about We could make your off-duty hours very comfortable, every amenity...

Bucky would have become a hostage to Steve's good behavior--but Pierce had never tried to use him to get Steve in the first place. Pierce had apparently been content to let Steve keep doing menial labor for one military officer or another for as long as he refused to kneel and swear loyalty so they could trust him with live weapons.

That had to mean something. Steve couldn't think of what, just then. He could only think of one thing, and his hands curled into fists, his whole body vibrating with urgency.

"Please tell me you need me to kill him."

"Uh," Stark said, and Steve felt the grip of the restraints tighten. "Well, I might. And, just so we're clear, if you do, there's no dodging the death penalty. I'll have to carry it out myself, on the spot."

"It would be worth it," Steve said, shaking his head. "He has to have known who he had. He knew about me, my real identity, what I did in the war. He had to have known who Bucky was. And he did this."

"Okay..." Stark drew out the word until Steve looked up. "Yeah. I mean, Threetoo's not the only slave he's done awful things to, for the record. I'm with you on the guy being an evil shitbag. But we have a big picture to think about here, okay? Because if you can't at least pretend that you get that, I'm not letting you out of the truck when we get there. And if it's not you, I'm gonna have to ask Sam or Happy to be the one to go after Pierce if I need someone, and then they end up dead. Just so we're clear."

Steve squeezed his eyes shut. "We're clear. What is the scenario where I kill him?"

Stark blew out a breath. "We're gonna be watching remotely. I'll get Westfahl to put us somewhere nearby, somewhere you can get to him pretty quick if you have to, but... Listen to me, Threetoo's out, okay? And this is why. Because Pierce is gonna say stuff, maybe even do stuff, and it might make you sick, but none of it can hurt your friend here, okay? Nothing can hurt him right now. He's on the same drugs you were on when they operated on your arm, he can't hear or feel a thing."

Stark slid the case to one side and moved to kneel up and look at Steve directly, over the top of the cage. "Unless Pierce actually intends to kill him or take him away, at which point--yeah, I'm letting you off the leash. But nothing less than that is worth killing him and everything that would follow, okay? Do you get that?"

Steve gritted his teeth, but couldn't quite tear his eyes from Stark's gaze. "So we just--what, we just stand there and watch while Pierce--while he--"

"Yes. If we have to, that's what we do. We don't turn a blind eye, we make sure to take the very best care of him afterward, but Threetoo's been surviving this for decades, apparently. He will survive one more time if it comes to that, while you absolutely will not, cannot, survive killing Pierce, so that makes the math pretty easy even before we start calculating all the second-order effects."

Steve wanted to argue that his life didn't balance that simply against Bucky's, not when it was his fault Bucky was in danger in the first place, but his thoughts snagged on the enormity of what Stark had implied. "Decades? You think--all this time..."

Stark raised his eyebrows. "He went missing in '45, officially. You think he was somewhere else for a while?"

Steve shrugged. "He... it was icy where he fell. We were in the Alps. He could've been frozen for a while, like I was."

Stark dragged a hand over his face. "You were... frozen. Well, that would explain..." Stark's gaze darted over him, sizing him up. "...nothing, really, but okay, frozen. Where? How?"

"I, uh," Steve rubbed the back of his neck. "Crashed a plane full of bombs that had been aimed at the Eastern Seaboard. Each of them could have taken out a city on its own, so I put the whole thing down somewhere in the North Atlantic. Didn't have a chance to bail out, or..."

Tell me where you are, Howard had shouted on the radio, even after Steve explained that the instruments weren't working. Give me something, tell me what you see, I know how good your eyes are--

And it was true; Steve had made dozens of maps in that year and a half, could describe terrain well enough for anyone properly trained to map it just as well from his descriptions. But he'd only been able to say, I see ice and snow, that's all, and then Peggy had gotten on the horn.

Steve squeezed his eyes shut, fighting down the memory, but he might have drowned in it if Stark's harsh little bark of laughter hadn't yanked him back. When Steve opened his eyes Stark had his head tilted back, looking up and shaking his head.

"The North Atlantic," Tony said. "Of course. Dad's annual fishing trip."

Steve frowned. "Annual..."

Stark nodded, looking at Steve through his eyelashes. "Every year until he died, I'm pretty sure. He shipped me off to boarding school when I was seven, so I wasn't exactly up on his vacation plans those last twelve years, but yeah. Every year. Looking for you, I'd bet my life."

Steve dropped his gaze, struggling to square that with anything anyone had told him after he woke up. Property of the Army, they'd told him, and the Army wasn't emancipating him because they hadn't gotten twenty years of service out of him yet. Stark hadn't figured into it; they said Howard had given up all claim when he let Steve join the Commandos and go back under military command.

But Howard had looked for him. Every year, for decades.

"You're not gonna tell me what that was all about?" Stark Junior prodded. "He didn't even get married until 1970, was he carrying a torch for twenty-five years while he scoured the ocean for you? You and my dad, did you..."

Steve looked up at that to find that Stark had looked away, his face etched in hard lines, and he remembered asking Howard a question oddly close to that one. He'd been just as unable to use a proper word, hedged around and finally mumbled out a question about fondue.

"Just cheese and bread, my friend," Steve muttered, making Stark's attention snap back sharply to him. He realized a fraction of a second too late that his tongue had twisted into an approximation of Howard's voice, and Howard's son, of course, would recognize the mimicry.

Wouldn't he? Despite being sent to boarding school at the age of seven, and Howard dying when he was just nineteen?

Steve shook his head. "It wasn't anything like that, he just... I don't know if he ever officially owned me or not, but he had possession of me for a while. He felt..." Steve's gaze dropped involuntarily to Bucky, sleeping between them covered in a blanket, because Tony Stark was sitting in the back of a truck, personally escorting Bucky to be seen by Alexander Pierce.

"Responsible," Steve said softly. "For someone who depended on him. I would've spent the whole war being studied as a lab rat if he hadn't bailed me out, claimed me as a prototype and dragged me along to Europe with him."

Stark huffed out a breath and muttered, low enough that he might really have meant not to be heard, "Yeah, he always got along better with people he could own."

Steve dropped his gaze to watch the shallow rise and fall of Bucky's breathing.

Stark spoke again after a moment, his voice brisk and bright. "Anyway, that's the answer to your question. Mystery solved."

Steve looked up, trying to remember what question he'd asked that Stark could think had now been answered.

"You probably don't remember," Stark said, looking down into his briefcase again, his voice light and careless while every line of his body screamed tension. "You were drugged to the eyeballs. But I asked you if there was anything you wanted to say, or ask, before you went under the knife, and you said--you asked--Howard, how could he?"

Steve did remember it, sort of--a confused nightmare of anger and fear, and Howard standing by his bed letting it happen. He wondered why on earth Stark remembered, why he had cared to remember Steve's exact words, but Stark didn't give him time to think about it.

"That's how," Stark went on. "He never quit searching for you, and as soon as he could invent the technology for it, what does he make, and make a million of? A chip that makes sure you can always find a slave when you lose him."

Steve met Stark's eyes, stunned at the thought that StarkChips and everything that came with them could have come about because of him.

Stark returned a bitter smile. "You may not have been anything else to my dear old dad, but you were definitely his inspiration."

It was a relief to give Rogers the digital mask. It would have conveyed a transformed version of Rogers' desolate look perfectly, but it also reminded Rogers that they were headed into enemy territory, and his expression turned grim and focused.

Tony could deal with that one, even if it did nothing to quiet the voice in the back of his head that said, That was no kind of pep talk but you did succeed in getting him prepared to die.

While Rogers was getting the mask in place and slicking back his hair, Tony attached his unobtrusive little bugs to eight different spots on Threetoo's cage. Whatever happened, he was going to know. He could at least control that much of this situation.

Then they were at Westfahl's, and Tony had to pull Threetoo's blanket off him, leaving it in the truck for later. Rogers' masked jaw clenched tighter but there was, as planned, no time for him to say a goddamn word. Tony donned his own mask--behavior, not technology, alas--by being loudly annoyed as he bossed definitely-not-Rogers and Sam through carrying the cage inside after Westfahl's security guy.

Tony had never asked JARVIS for the list of people who matched the DNA samples he'd collected from Threetoo, that first night. He didn't know whether this guy was one of them. It was probably better that way.

Still, if things went to hell, Tony made a mental note to consider all of Westfahl's security highly expendable.

They wound up in Westfahl's bedroom--and then, of course, in the little closet of a room that constituted a bedslave's quarters. Half the space was taken up by a narrow little bed, and the light came from an overhead fixture little better than a bare bulb.

"On the bed, then," Tony gestured impatiently, and Sam and Rogers set the cage down carefully on the thin mattress.

Tony had to back out of the room immediately to let Sam and Rogers come out, and now Westfahl was standing by his security guard, wringing his hands. "You barely made it in time, he's almost here! Why is it just lying there like that? Haven't you been feeding it?"

Tony gritted his teeth, gesturing Sam and Rogers away from the cage; they both came and stood behind him, expressionless and unhesitating.

"It doesn't seem to handle food very easily," Tony said. "And I told you, it had some kind of seizure and it's been unconscious ever since. I had my doctors patch up that stump and the chip, but it's still out. They said it might take a while for it to come around but it's probably fine."

"Oh, food," Westfahl said, looking enlightened and sheepish all at once. "There's a trick to it. You're supposed to--"

"Sir," Westfahl's security guy murmured. "He's arrived."

Westfahl's eyes went wide. "Go, get out!"

"I'm not going far," Tony said. "I'm not leaving without my property."

"Yes, fine, just--" Westfahl made a frantic shooing motion, and Tony nodded and headed for the door. There was another bedroom suite across the hall.

"You get back to the truck and wait for us with Happy," Tony directed Sam. Waving at Rogers, he added, "Dolph Lundgren, with me, in here."

Sam gave Tony a look that Tony had seen on Pepper and Rhodey's faces a fair number of times before--I don't like this but I realize I can't actually make you do anything differently. He touched Steve's shoulder and then turned and double-timed down the hall.

Which left Tony alone with Rogers. He gestured for Rogers to precede him into the guest suite and locked the door behind him, herding Rogers into the bathroom for a little extra sound-blocking from the rooms across the hall.

Plus, the mirror would make a handy projector screen. Tony attached the micro-projectors to the corners of the screen. Rogers stood against the door, arms folded across his chest, head down so Tony couldn't see his face too readily. He pretended not to notice Rogers tugging the mask off.

Tony checked that he had the remote for the restraints in his pocket, and then switched on the feed.

Their reflections disappeared into a life-sized view, composited from all the bugs, that made it seem as if the glass formed the back wall of Threetoo's cage. Threetoo was right there, looking close and real enough to touch; Tony could see the tiny motions of his breathing, could count every knob of his spine and the creases on the backs of his heels.

Rogers didn't move, didn't seem to look directly at the screen, but he muttered, "You were feeding him, weren't you. When I..."

Tony glanced over but Rogers kept his head down. With Threetoo out of his reach, Tony found himself in possession of gentleness he didn't know what to do with; Rogers wouldn't appreciate the style he used with Threetoo, not by a long shot. He tried to make his voice brisk as he said, "He's not as bad off as he looks. We're still in the refeeding process."

"If he... if he's like me," Rogers said slowly. "His metabolism's probably..."

Tony glanced back at Threetoo, wondering where the hell that if came from if they'd both been in his dad's orbit during the war, but he said only, "Yeah, we'll probably try stepping that up once he's feeling better. Especially if I can get Westfahl to tell me--"

Tony stopped short, resisting the urge to recoil from the screen, as Alexander Pierce walked into the room on the other side of Threetoo's cage.

Pierce immediately made a noise halfway between annoyance and disgust and turned toward Westfahl, who was hovering uncertainly in the doorway. "You haven't been feeding it! What did I tell you? Nasogastric tube, four thousand liquid calories per day, or you designate an overseer for feeding. Did I need to write it down?"

"It, um," Westfahl muttered. "The tube looks so gross, and with the liquid--it would scratch at its belly for three days and then have the shits everywhere."

Pierce pinched the bridge of his nose; Tony felt an unwilling, furious sympathy.

"Anyway, the overseer thing, I was going to do that and I just forgot," Westfahl put in. "I'll do that. I swear. Uh. Soon as it wakes up."

"Yes, that is also concerning." Pierce turned back and leaned down to peer into Threetoo's cage, reaching a hand through the bars to tug up an eyelid.

Then, just as casually, Pierce slapped Threetoo's face hard enough to make his head bounce.

Tony could sense the effort Rogers was putting into not moving, and switched the restraints on to help him.

"How long has it been like this?"

"Uh, since--since it happened," Westfahl said. "It's been having these... little tiny seizures, I guess? But today there was kind of a huge one, fell down and shook, the whole thing. That's what messed up the chip, it fell right on that stump and pounded it into pulp. Doctor said they ought've just taken the thing off at the shoulder but it would've made it harder to put the chip back."

Westfahl was an idiot, but he did have a kind of native genius for telling the right lie to keep himself out of trouble. That had to be why he'd survived this long.

Pierce's mouth tightened, and he drew his hand out and reached in again between a different pair of bars to run light, careful fingers over the bandages. "The doctor was correct. I don't want anything removed from it without you discussing it with me."

Thoughts flashed through Tony's mind--Threetoo's reaction to the idea of a prosthetic, the fact that Threetoo had taken the impact squarely on his left side--but he pushed them aside, grimly focused on the movement of Pierce's hand. It trailed lightly down Threetoo's ribs, into the concavity of his belly above the exaggerated jut of his hipbone.

Tony had seen people--had seen himself--touch cars that way. And guns.

"It may not matter much," Pierce added absently, clearly speaking more to himself than Westfahl. "If it's slipped into some kind of coma... and continuing seizures, too, I thought those might've cleared up by now. Maybe I should just take it with me. Or put it down now, get it over with."

Steve surged against the restraints, but Tony didn't loosen them. "Steady," he hissed. "Wait."

"For what, a weapon?" Steve snarled back, but his voice stayed low. "You want me to stand here until he's got a knife--"

Tony kept watching Pierce's eyes and hands. They weren't threatening. Not like that. Not yet.

Pierce shifted position, drawing his hand away from Threetoo, only to slip it through the bars further down. He leaned to one side slightly as he ran a hand down the length of Threetoo's thigh. "What's this? You're keeping it ready to use even when it's out cold?"

Pierce's hand traveled back up and slid between the scant cheeks of Threetoo's ass, prodding at the plug with two fingers.

Steve made a noise that raised the hairs on the back of Tony's neck, but he forced himself to ignore that. The restraints were holding.

Tony yanked his phone out of his pocket, pulling up the monitoring app. If Pierce pulled it out, or even just moved it enough to fuck with the pump mechanism... God, could he push an overdose, somehow? What if he broke the reservoir and it flooded?

For now, Threetoo's vitals looked okay and the flow rate was steady. Westfahl was cheerfully lying away. "Oh, well, it's not worth taking it out just because the thing's unconscious, is it? Just about fucking strangled my cock the first time--"

Tony's hand jerked toward the remote, and Steve was leaning hard against the restraints, and Pierce--Pierce laughed, and patted Threetoo's ass. But at least that meant his hand wasn't on the plug.

"You just have to take your time, I keep telling you," Pierce said, turning away from Threetoo's cage to shake Westfahl by one shoulder instead, the picture of avuncular fondness. Tony kept perfectly still, Threetoo's pulse beating steadily on his phone's screen, Threetoo still curled safe inside his cage on the display in front of him.

"It's probably as loose as it ever gets now, if you want, you know, for old time's sake--"

Pierce groaned, shaking his head. "No, no, I've--what time is it?--Christ, I've gotta be down at the damn sheep meadow officiating a sack race or something, traffic's gonna be a nightmare. No, you hang on to it--it'll probably come around in a day or two, you'd be surprised how resilient it is."

"Okay," Westfahl said, moving eagerly toward the doorway.

"Just--one thing," Pierce said, his voice dropping back into seriousness from that hideous ease. "Did it make a sound? Any sound at all? During the seizure, when it was hurt? Anything?"

Westfahl was already shaking his head. "No, nothing. You told me it couldn't."

Pierce nodded, clapping Westfahl heavily on the shoulder. "It can't, it can't. But if it does, then... something is very wrong, and you should let me know immediately so I can get it fixed, okay? This thing was very special once, and... well. Just let me know if it does anything unexpected, right?"

"Yeah, of course," Westfahl said, ushering Pierce out of the bedslave's room. He was out of sight, the sound of his voice indicating that they were walking away as he added, "Don't you think it'd be less creepy if it made sounds, though?"

Pierce snorted. "No, son. No, as a matter of fact, it would not."

Which meant that Pierce had deliberately conditioned Threetoo's silence. That wasn't just as a preference in a bedslave, that was--Pierce must--Threetoo--

He heard the bedroom door close in the audio pickup, the silence that meant Threetoo was alone now.

Tony set his phone down and gripped the edge of the counter in both hands and tried to breathe as everything that had almost just happened, could have happened, could still happen, all rushed through his head.

Steve was lost for a moment in controlling his own rage, but then Stark's ragged, too-fast breathing yanked his attention away from the image of Bucky curled up in that cage. He was clutching the edge of the counter like he might fall, the line of his shoulders hard under his expensive shirt.

Steve tried to reach out for him, and came up sharply against those damn restraints, still locking him in place. "Mr. Stark?"

Nothing, except that Stark's breathing took on a nasty staccato rhythm that made Steve's chest ache in sympathy and memory. But he was pretty sure Stark didn't actually have asthma, so this was something else--the kind of waking nightmare he'd seen soldiers have sometimes, maybe.

Tony Stark wasn't a soldier, but he'd just sent Threetoo into danger, knowing he might lose him, knowing he might lose Steve as well. It probably wasn't all that different.


Still nothing, and the restraints were still holding Steve in place. Every second they stayed here was a second Bucky was alone, undefended, naked in that goddamn cage. Steve had to snap Stark out of this somehow, and couldn't reach him to touch. He had to...

He was speaking before the thought formed, his mouth twisting into Howard's accent as he repeated the words Howard had repeated so many times to him. "Come on, pal, the show must go on."

That did get a reaction. Stark's head snapped up and he stared at Steve, not seeming to breathe at all now. His face was deathly white under the darkness of his goatee, and his dark eyes were wide as a lost child's.

"What--" it was barely a whisper, barely a breath. Stark inhaled in a huge harsh gasp and shook his head sharply. "Don't--don't ever fucking do that again."

"Sure thing, boss," Steve said briskly, much the same as he would have said to Howard when he was drunk or hungover or otherwise being unreasonable. "Now can we go get B--Threetoo, and get the hell out of here?"

"Yes," Stark said sharply, though he looked down at his phone as he said it, tapping at something before he seemed certain. "Yes. Let's."

The restraints released so sharply that Steve stumbled away from the wall, barely catching himself from colliding with Stark, who had turned away to pull down the little projector-buttons he'd attached to the corners of the mirror. His hands were shaking; Steve stepped aside and pulled two of them free in the time it took Stark to fumble one down. He waited while Stark got the last one, then held out his two.

Stark stuffed them into his pocket and then covered his face with his hands, taking a few deliberate breaths. Steve looked away, letting him pull himself together.

"Okay," Stark said more strongly. Steve looked up and was startled by the quickness of the change; his color looked much better already, and he was standing straight and strong. "Right. Retrieving my property and getting back to enjoying my Saturday. Holiday. Hey, happy Fourth, get your fucking mask back on. What's your name again?"

"Dolph, apparently," Steve said, swallowing irritation at Stark's sudden insouciance as he got the digital mask back into place. But it wasn't as if he could expect Tony Stark to confide in him.

He wasn't Howard. They weren't fighting a war together, no matter how much like a mission it had felt for the last hour.

Steve followed a couple of steps behind as Stark strode out through the bedroom to the corridor, across and into the room where Bucky--Threetoo--waited in the cage. No one else was around, neither Westfahl nor his security.

Stark paced back and forth a few steps outside the bedslave's room, then said, "No, fuck it, let's just go. Can you lift that with him in it?"

Steve didn't speak, just hoisted the cage up, bracing the bottom edge against his hips and trying not to tilt it so much that Bucky would be jostled out of place.

Stark wrapped a hand around the front edge as he led Steve out, bearing about as much weight as a leash. He didn't let go even when they finally ran into Westfahl coming back down the hall toward them.

"We're done, I'm leaving and I'm taking my property with me," Stark said briskly, waving one imperious hand in dismissal as he kept right on walking. "Go sleep it off, I'm going to email you later about the feeding thing and you're going to give me fucking detailed instructions."

"Yeah, yeah," Westfahl said. "Hey, I'm going to a poker thing at my uncle's--my other uncle's--"

"Text me details later, shut up now," Stark said. Another minute and they were out the doors, Sam and Happy and the truck in sight and Bucky still safe between his hands, and Steve could almost be grateful to him.

Chapter 7

Stark took Bucky, already wrapped up in the orange blanket again but still completely inert, into his own arms when they left the truck. Happy stayed with the truck, the empty cage still inside, but Steve and Sam followed Stark into the elevator. When they were on the way up, Stark glanced over at him and said, "We still need to keep you on suicide watch?"

Steve pressed his lips together and shook his head, glancing at Bucky and then down at his own feet. If there was any chance he'd survive to see Bucky again, to apologize to him, to try to help him... he wouldn't squander that. Stark had said that, before they'd seen Pierce with him--we'll take the very best care of him. We. If there was a chance Steve could get himself into that we...

"Put him in a low-impact room, then," Stark said, obviously speaking to Sam now. "Room B, if it's open."

Sam snorted like there was a joke in that, but said only, "Sure."

When the doors opened Dr. Cho was waiting with a softly padded gurney, and Stark stepped forward first. Steve stood frozen, watching the care with which Bucky was laid down, Dr. Cho's hand cradling his head while Stark lowered him and rearranged the blanket to cover him as his legs unbent. Then he was disappearing down the bright, sterile corridor, and Sam's hand was on Steve's arm, gently propelling him forward.

They went the other way down the hall, to a plain door marked B.

The room behind the door seemed like another world from the bright, bare corridor. The lights were dim, and the room, half the size of his apartment a few floors up--not his anymore, surely--was windowless. There was soft, short-napped carpet underfoot, an open door showing a bathroom on the other side. A bed in the corner consisted of a box spring and mattress stacked together on the floor, but the pillow and blanket looked comfortable and inviting. There were cupboards along one wall, but nothing else.

"Just... stay here," Sam said quietly. "I'm sure Tony will be back to speak to you, so whatever the hell is gonna happen to you now, you'll know before I do."

Steve turned to look at him. "Sam, I--" I'm sorry. I owe you. I wish...

Sam grimaced, not quite a smile, and nodded. "Just--hang in there, man."

Steve nodded, and Sam left. The door locked audibly behind him.

After a while, Steve went and sat down on the bed to wait.

He woke and slept again and again, muzzy and vague. His master was always there, encouraging him to sip from a straw, telling him it was all right to go back to sleep. So he did.

When Threetoo woke up fully, the first thing he saw was his collar--his shiny red collar, with its gold stars attached. The stars were gleaming softly, the buckles perfectly polished, but there was something not quite right about it. It took a moment before he spotted it, and then he reached out one finger to touch the pristine, identical holes punched through the leather for the buckle to slip through.

One of them should have been slightly worn, rounded out with use.

"Yeah, you caught me," his master said, and Threetoo jerked his gaze up from the collar, draped over the rail of the bed Threetoo was lying in, to his master, sitting in a chair just beyond it.

Threetoo felt a rush of gladness and nervousness all at once at the sight of his master. His master didn't look well--maybe it was the shadows cast by these unfamiliar lights, but he looked pale and tired. He smiled, though, as Threetoo looked at him.

"New collar," his master said. "The old one wouldn't come clean, so it had to be replaced. The stars are the same, though, you earned those fair and square. I detached them from the old one and put them on the new."

Threetoo blinked at his master, and then the pieces began to fall into place. His collar... he remembered his master taking it off him, didn't he? He had been without it the last time he was awake. There had been pain, bad pain. Someone--a big blond man--had hurt him somehow. He threw something. And then--something else had happened. Something he had been allowed to sleep through.

He felt the soreness, then, between his legs. Someone had been inside him. Gently, without injury, but it had been a long time since he was penetrated, and he could feel the residual ache.

Belatedly, Threetoo glanced around. They weren't at home in the penthouse. The room had the smell of an infirmary; there was a sink and a biohazard disposal box on the wall opposite, and rows of cabinets. But there was also a door, firmly closed. Only his master was here with him. Only his master would touch him now.

Threetoo smiled at his master, letting the relief wash through him. Whatever had happened, it was over. He hadn't had to be present for it, and he had awoken as his master had promised, and his master was here with him. His master was still his master, still held his collar--was giving his collar back to him, shiny and clean and new, still with his reward stars in place.

Threetoo touched the collar, and then his throat, then made the small circular pleading motion that his master did not dislike. Please?

His master nodded, standing up to lean over Threetoo. "Yeah, sweetheart, it's all yours. Here we go."

He fastened the collar around Threetoo's throat, testing the fit with his finger, though the inside of the collar was padded like the last one had been, soft and gentle against his skin. He fiddled with it afterward, making sure that it rested symmetrically around Threetoo's throat with both of his gold stars showing.

"So, listen," his master said, when he finally stopped fussing and raised his eyes to meet Threetoo's. He was leaning one hip against the mattress of the raised bed Threetoo lay in, and he still looked pale and tired and stressed. "I, uh... there's no reward for any of this, anything that happened today."

Threetoo blinked and bit his lip, feeling himself go a little cold.

"No, hey, not like that." His master's fingers tapped gently against his chin, making Threetoo look up and meet his eyes and then resting there. "Not because you didn't do everything the very best you could. The best any Threetoo could."

Threetoo gave a tiny nod, because he could see that his master wanted him to understand something, to believe it.

"Because rewards are for when I ask you to do something and you do it," his master said. "Rewards are for a job well done. And this whole shitshow today--this wasn't your job. If I could have stopped this from happening, if I could have made it so you didn't have to do any of this, I would have. I never would've asked you to endure one second of this if I had any way around it. Okay?"

Threetoo nodded a little more emphatically.

"Your job is just to get well. Today was a setback, but that doesn't change anything. None of this was your responsibility."

His master's hand shifted from his chin to curl firmly around the nape of his neck above his collar, cradling the base of his skull. His voice was rough and a little shaky as he went on.

"But I am so fucking proud of you, Threetoo. I am so proud. You have been so brave, and so good."

Threetoo's whole body went hot, head to toe. He couldn't want any more reward than that: his master's touch, his master's words, and that bright, intent look in his master's eyes.

"So that's not a reward thing," his master went on. "That's--I want to give you a present, okay? I want there to be something good for you in this shitty, shitty day. Something special, not just like the regular stuff I give you. So you don't have to decide right now if you can't think of anything. I'll ask you again later if you don't know right now. But I at least want you to know that that's gonna happen. I want you to choose what you'd like for your present, okay? Sky's the limit."

Threetoo just stared.

Present? he signed.

His master squeezed gently at the nape of his neck and then let go, folding his arms across his chest but smiling. Getting ready to negotiate, Threetoo somehow knew.

"Yeah, a present. Anything. You get to ask."

Threetoo raised his fingers to where his master's hand had just been, the skin that already felt lonely and cold without his touch. He thought of asking for just that, for his master's touch, and then he remembered that morning. Before the blur of pain and fear, before whatever had made the ache between his legs, before everything went wrong, there had been something good.

His master had told him to start figuring out the very best touch reward he could possibly receive. And even if it was a gift, not a reward... even if he didn't have much data to work from, he thought he knew what would be the best thing his master could give him right now.

It was the thing he wanted the most, even if he couldn't be sure it was the best.

Touch? He signed. Please?

His master went so still it was like time was skipping for him while it flowed on for Threetoo. Threetoo held very still, waiting for his master to come back.

After several seconds he did, raising one hand to rub his mouth, his eyes narrowing as he looked at Threetoo. Not frowning, but not smiling, either, just thinking.

"What kind of touch are we talking here, Threetoo? You mean something pretty special, don't you?"

Threetoo nodded. He remembered the way he had made his master laugh the first time his master asked him to make a noise. His master probably expected him to sign what he wanted in words, or to point where he wanted his master to touch.

Threetoo bit his lip and curled his hand to a familiar diameter before making a perfectly clear jerkoff motion.

He didn't get his master's startled laugh, but he got a smile, still hidden behind his master's fingers, his eyes going bright.

"Well, okay, that's pretty clear. And just so we're clear, that's my hand you're asking for?"

His master repeated the gesture and Threetoo shivered at the promise in it, the room seeming to brighten suddenly as his pupils flared wide, his whole body going hot and his pulse thudding in his cock.

He nodded, remembering that his master would want an actual answer.

His master blew out a breath. "Right. Okay. You're sure that's what you want for your present? Not... anything else?"

Threetoo shook his head firmly. He realized as he did it that, if his master weren't the particular master that he was, that might have been a signal that his master wasn't pleased with his choice, that he should choose something else. But his master had said sky's the limit and anything, and if the request had been a mistake his master would have told him so plainly. He would have said--don't do that again, like the time in the bath when Threetoo had done something wrong.

But Threetoo hadn't done anything wrong this time, with this master. He was safe, and he was going to get his present. His master was standing up, lowering the rail on the right side of Threetoo's bed.

Threetoo heard the faint electro-metallic sound of the door locking, and knew that JARVIS was guarding them. He turned his hand toward the ceiling and flashed his fingers through the secret sign of a slave's thanks, though he still didn't know whether JARVIS would understand.

"Okay," his master said. "You at a comfortable angle there? You want to sit up more, or lie back?"

Comfy, Threetoo signed in ordinary letters, nodding. He was propped up at an easy angle, lots of his pillows tucked behind and around him, and his pink blanket covered him from his chest down past his toes. Other than that he was bare except for his collar, available as always to his master's touch.

He wriggled in anticipation, and his master leaned in and kissed his forehead. "How about I kind of sit next to you, put my other arm around you, that okay?"

Threetoo nodded rapidly, his breath speeding and skin flushing hot at the thought of having so much of his master's touch. And then it was happening, his master perching on the edge of the bed, tugging a couple of pillows away to scoot in against Threetoo's right side.

He guided Threetoo's hand to rest on his thigh, warm and firm under the soft old denim. "You can sign, or you can leave your hand there, but you don't touch higher than there. Got it?"

Threetoo nodded again, and then his master's left arm was curling around behind his shoulders, his master's hand coming to rest on his side, over his ribs. He wondered if his master could feel his heart pounding. His master's shoulder was tucked behind his, his master's face was right beside his; they would have almost the same vantage point on the place where his master touched him, which seemed like a waste--better to have another pair of eyes able to cover a different sector--but that was the point of a present, wasn't it? To use resources on it, without concern for practicality. To enjoy something. And he certainly wouldn't have wanted any less of his master's touch, the warmth of his master's body curling around his.

"Now, where did you want me to touch again?" His master's right hand came over to rest against his chest, just above the blanket.

Threetoo hastily raised his hand from his master's thigh to push the blanket down to expose his cock, still resting against his thigh but getting thicker and stiffer every second.

"Ahh, yes," his master murmured. "Got it, our goal is in sight."

Threetoo shivered, something that could have been a laugh bubbling in his midsection. He let out only a soundless breath as his master's fingers found the little trail of dark hair below his navel and traced downward along it.

"So, this is your present, and you should absolutely go ahead and enjoy it however you want," his master said, low, right in his ear. "But you know me, I like data, I like feedback. So if you want to make some sounds, or just, you know, show me how you think this is going, that would be useful information."

Threetoo snapped his fingers, and he felt his master's submerged laugh quake through his body.

"Yeah, that's good, that's a start," his master murmured, moving his fingers down into the curly patch of hair above Threetoo's pubic bone now. Threetoo's cock was rising, eager to meet his master's hand, but his master's fingers got there first, two of them curling around the base.

Threetoo inhaled sharply, tilting his head to rest against his master's as he got suddenly dizzy with the rush of lust. His cock sprang up hard, flushing darker before his eyes, and his master's thumb curled around to make a circle with his fingers, pulling up his shaft so that his whole hand was wrapped around it.

Threetoo snapped a few more times, mouth open so that he could pant silently. It was hard to keep his eyes open, but he also couldn't tear his eyes away from his master's hand on his cock. Just the sight of it felt better, hotter, than anything he could remember, and the actual touch was melting his bones.

"Now, let's see." His master's voice in his ear, low and warm, was like another touch, everywhere at once, inside and out. He wriggled, his throat tight to stop what might have been a whine. "You wanted me to touch, huh?"

His master squeezed gently on the base of his cock, but didn't move his hand. Any second he would, any second he would stroke. Threetoo was trembling with anticipation, but it didn't happen.

His master's breath puffed against his ear. "You're very patient with me, sweetheart. But maybe you'd better show me, huh? What was it you wanted, after this?"

Threetoo bit his lip, but he knew his master wasn't cruel. His present wouldn't be full of traps and tests--not the bad kind of tests, anyway. It might be the fun kind. Mass, velocity, acceleration.

Threetoo raised his hand from his master's thigh and brought it close to his master's wrist. He hesitated there; it was not for him to touch, uninvited, but he didn't trust himself to remember the right signs to use, and he didn't know how else to make it clear.

"Go on, that's it. Show me, sweetheart. Show me how to make it good for you."

Threetoo's breath hitched with a little sound that made him tremble even harder, but his master's arm stayed firm around him, his master's hand still gripped his cock. His master nudged against Threetoo's temple with his nose, but didn't prod him in any more pointed way.

Threetoo rested his hand on his master's wrist. When nothing happened, he curled his hand right around his master's hand and drew it up the length of his cock, fully hard by now.

His toes curled under the blankets, his knees falling wider, and his head tipped back against his master's shoulder. He could hardly bear the pleasure of that slow stroke from his master's hand, hard and calloused but gentle as always as it dragged over his most sensitive places.

"Oh, yeah," his master said, as Threetoo guided his hand back down. "Yeah, I think I got this."

Threetoo let his hand fall from his master's--not because he didn't think his master would like it there, but because he couldn't spare the concentration to keep his grip. The pleasure of his master's touch blotted out everything else in a white-hot rush of sensation. His whole body wanted to move in response to that touch, but he wasn't sure if his master would know that it meant pleasure, when the urgency felt almost like pain.

He remembered to push his thumb up, then, to tell his master it was good, utterly and completely good.

"Glad you like it," his master murmured. "I was thinking it might feel a little dry, but--"

Threetoo knew the answer to that. He brought his own hand to his mouth and licked as wetly as he could; his master's hand paused at the base of his cock and Threetoo smeared the wetness over the rest of the length.

When his master's hand didn't resume moving right away, Threetoo tugged up on his wrist.

His master laughed low in his ear. "Right, got it. Problem solved, good thinking."

Threetoo pressed his hand to his mouth, trying to stifle a moan at the wet slide of his master's hand.

"Ah-ah, sweetheart, remember what I told you, I want to hear you," his master murmured, stroking faster, tighter, pushing him along. Threetoo remembered imagining this--only this morning?--his master's voice coaxing him to completion, a warm body at his back, holding him close. And now it was happening.

He squeezed his eyes shut and let his fingers curl into his palm, pushing his thumb up again. He didn't moan aloud, but his breaths got noisier, and his master murmured, "That's it, baby, that's perfect, you come whenever you're ready."

He was barely aware of being on the edge before he was going over it, the pleasure twisting to a peak with his master's words, his master's encouragement. He made a single high, helpless noise and his cock jerked in his master's grip. Come splattered down on his belly as his master stroked him through it, telling him again and again how good he was, until Threetoo was entirely spent.

Threetoo drifted for a little while, aware only that everything was good and he couldn't wish for anything else. He half-opened his eyes at the sensation of his master moving from behind him, settling him back against his pillows.

Thank you, he signed.

His master was smiling a little, but sadly, and he looked more tired than ever, though his voice was warm and kind as he said, "You're welcome, Threetoo."

Threetoo wished he could offer something more than just the words of thanks--a present, to make the day less shitty for his master, too. But nothing was his to offer, not even the kind of gift his master had given to him. His body, his entire self, already belonged to his master, for any comfort or use his master could find in him. His master had told him he wasn't to do anything like that until he was well. His master had been very clear.

Still. Threetoo wished there was something he could give to his master, to make him feel as good as he had made Threetoo feel. Threetoo curled his hand into a fist so that he would remember not to touch.

His master wiped him clean and then tugged his blanket up over him. "Go to sleep, sweetheart," his master said. "We're done with today, huh? Tomorrow will be better."

Threetoo nodded, thinking as he drifted off that today hadn't been all bad.

Tony allowed himself to wash his hands exactly once, for thirty seconds, with the high-grade antibacterial soap at the sink in the observation room. He was not going to go all Lady Macbeth about this. He hadn't done anything really bad, in the scheme of things; given all the real--metaphorical but real--blood he had on his hands, a little spit and jizz was nothing. God knew no one had ever deserved a nice orgasm more than Threetoo did. Tony had provided it upon request. That was all.

Okay, the handwashing lasted more like forty-five seconds, but he was stopping now. He was done.

He dried his hands very thoroughly and then gripped the edge of the sink and stared into it instead of watching Threetoo sleep.

He had to report this to Fox, obviously, although he had a sinking feeling that, even if he also confessed to sort of liking it before being crushed under a tidal wave of guilt, it wasn't going to surprise her or convince her to take Threetoo away.

Also, he couldn't let anyone take Threetoo away. Especially not now, Jesus. Pierce could...

Tony squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to see Pierce's hand, hear his casual voice. If he had ever wanted to make Threetoo come...

Fuck him if he had. Fuck him and fuck all of this. Tony wasn't letting him or anyone like him get their hands on Threetoo again, and even in his wildest flights of self-hatred, he knew there was a material difference between himself and people who called Threetoo it and forgot to feed him because his needs were inconvenient. Threetoo had already broken so much of his programming in just a week and a half with Tony; if Tony could just keep him safe and help him recover physically for a while longer, he was bound to keep getting better.

And if Tony wanted someone to hold him accountable for this without being able to take Threetoo away from him, he knew exactly where to go for that, didn't he? Conveniently located just down the hall.

He turned away without a last glance at Threetoo sleeping peacefully in a hospital bed, and headed straight for room B. He checked the time, considering the lateness of the hour versus the likelihood that Rogers would have slept at all without knowing what was going on with Threetoo--Barnes. He knocked.

There was a few seconds of silence, and then Rogers said, "Come in."

Tony opened the door, and hesitated for a few seconds himself. After all the time he'd spent in this room with Threetoo, it was startling to see Rogers on his feet facing the door, shoulders square and jaw clenched.


Tony stepped inside, shut and locked the door, and said, "JARVIS, privacy protocol one."

"Stopping all recordings and remote observation," JARVIS confirmed.

Rogers' eyes darted up toward the ceiling, then back to Tony as his hands closed into fists, though he was still keeping them at his side.

Tony flapped a hand dismissively. "No, hey, I'm granting wishes tonight. Just gave your best pal a handjob, I figured I could complete the set and let you punch me in the face to celebrate the Fourth. Offer's good until midnight, so you have about seventeen minutes."

Rogers's expression turned stony and his face flushed red; his arms flexed, his fists bobbing up and down a little, but he didn't move.

"What, you want a play by play to get you in the mood?" Tony prodded. "I thought just the fact would be enough for you, not to mention everything else--you did try to kill me this morning, you can't have completely lost your--"

Tony jerked back involuntarily when Rogers burst into motion, but he swung around, turning his back to Tony, and slammed his fist into--through--a cabinet door.

Those things were only wood on the outside, Tony knew; they were steel on the inside, to keep precisely the thing Rogers just did from happening, since the stuff in the cabinets was often restricted.

Rogers dropped his hand, and all Tony could see was blood running down it, like a red glove covering him from halfway up his wrist.

"Jesus Christ," Tony snapped, darting forward. Rogers flinched away from him, raising both hands, eyes wide, and Tony flapped a hand at him in irritation. "Elevate that higher, I'm just getting the first aid kit. Unless you want me to wake up Dr. Cho for you?"

Rogers winced and shook his head. Tony grabbed a sterile towel instead of the kit, stepping up close to Rogers to tightly wrap his wrist. "Hold that, okay? And go sit down on the bed. Fuck," Tony added, finally getting a good look at the cabinet door. "Okay, uh, maybe I'm taking back the punching offer a little early."

Rogers snorted softly, but he went and sat down. He kept his good hand wrapped around his bleeding wrist, and both of them above his head, leaning against the wall, which looked like...

Like something Tony could not stand and look at from above or he was going to have to go find someone else to punch him in the face. He went and sat down instead, at the furthest end of the bed from Rogers, back against the wall, holding the first aid kit in his lap.

Maybe they could just sit here in manly, stoic silence until it wasn't the Fourth anymore, or at least until Rogers stopped bleeding. Tony closed his eyes and hoped.

Rogers proved the uselessness of hoping a few seconds later.

"Granting wishes, huh?"

Tony blew out a breath, but found that for once he really did not want to talk about it.

"That sounds like he asked you to," Rogers went on meditatively. "And I can't imagine that you were so desperate to touch somebody's dick that you pressured him into asking. To say nothing of coming straight in here looking to be punished for it."

"I couldn't," Tony heard himself say, and stopped short.

In his peripheral vision, Rogers turned his head to look at him.

"Today, I..." Tony gestured vaguely. "I couldn't protect him. He pushed me out of the way when you--and then Pierce, and I couldn't stop that from happening, either. I didn't even figure out how to keep him sedated, that was Dr. Cho. If someone had to stop Pierce, it would have been you. All I did was watch, like that made a goddamn difference."

Rogers didn't say anything for a while, which was fair. Tony had been answering the question Rogers hadn't quite asked--why would you do that?--but it wasn't an excuse, it was... he didn't know what the hell it was. He really should have just gone upstairs and started drinking.

"The whole last year and a half we had together during the war," Rogers said quietly. "The whole time that he knew I loved him, and I knew he loved me--"

Tony closed his eyes, because he'd known, hadn't he? He'd seen Rogers' face when he just touched Threetoo's hand, and still taunted him with what he'd done.

"I was commanding him in combat. We were on a strike team together, under the SSR's command. Technically I couldn't lead the team--on paper that was Gabe, he was the senior free American on the team--but they all listened to me."

Rogers turned his head, looking forward again. "Even Bucky. Especially Bucky, maybe. He could've gone home. He'd been a prisoner of war, he hadn't pissed anyone off like I did. At the time no one even knew he was--whatever he is, to have survived this long. He would have been emancipated, they would have just let him go. But he stayed, following me. And it was him watching my back in battle, most of the time; there wasn't much I could do to protect him."

Tony winced, mentally filling in the end of that story from what Rogers had said earlier--Barnes had fallen and Rogers had missed his catch and watched him fall, and then sometime later, Rogers had crashed a plane full of bombs into the ocean.

"But when we..." Rogers cleared his throat, and his voice was carefully level when he went on. "After, whenever we got back to each other, when it was over... we didn't have much privacy, ever, but all I wanted to do was hold him, touch him, just..."

Tony carefully did not fill in the rest of that statement, thinking of that baby-faced version of Threetoo in the file photo and a younger Rogers, hyped up on adrenaline and taking advantage of whatever dark corner they could...

He tightened his grip on the first aid kit. "You stopped bleeding yet, you think?"

"Yeah, just about," Rogers replied immediately, clearly as happy to change the subject as Tony was. He turned toward Tony, lowering his hands and holding them out, and Tony turned to face him, popping open the first aid kit as he did. He opened the biohazard bag first, then gloved up and ripped open a couple of individual packs of disinfectant wipes.

"Keep the towel there, I'll start with your hand," Tony directed, and Rogers nodded and turned his bloodied hand knuckles-up for Tony to start cleaning away the mostly-dried blood. He tried not to disturb the actual cuts and scratches, leaving the blood in place to clot while he focused on cleaning up the rest enough to see how many injuries needed to be bandaged.

"So," Tony said, because he couldn't do this in silence and it was the most harmless topic that came to mind, "tell me, because I'm like 99.8% sure on this but you can actually confirm--was he a sniper, or was he a scarily accurate sniper?"

Steve gave an unsteady little laugh. "He'd always had a hell of an eye and an arm, even when we were kids--Buck was a terror with a slingshot. Never broke a window or hit a single thing he didn't mean to, but he could hit a fella from a block away, just about. He was in an infantry unit before he was captured, so he qualified as a marksman but didn't specialize, although everyone knew he was the best shot around. After..."

Tony tossed wipes into the biohazard bag and opened more, started cleaning off Rogers' knuckles so he could check the wounds for splinters, and maybe that was enough reason for Rogers' breath to catch, and for him to go silent.

"He really likes math, is the thing," Tony said. "He, uh--he has these--they're called absence seizures, but it's not like a seizure where he falls down and shakes or something. He just sort of... stops for a few seconds, and then starts again. But it makes it hard for him to watch TV or movies, or any kind of game where things move, because he can tell he's missing stuff and even if he might be able to follow, he gets upset. But math problems hold still for him, and he's really--really not at all bad at math, especially when it comes to anything like a trajectory calculation."

"He..." Rogers' voice seemed to fail, and Tony just focused on cleaning up his knuckles. "He was always... real good in school, top of the class. Not me, I was always having trouble, but Buck seemed to just pick things up in a second. He loved to read, too, he would..."

Rogers' fingers tightened hard on his wrist and he turned his face away. Tony gritted his teeth and focused on bandaging, and said nothing more.

Cleaning and bandaging was sort of familiar, after the last couple of weeks with Threetoo. Somehow it wasn't difficult at all to remember not to fall into the reassuring patter he usually used with Threetoo. He said nothing but the occasional, "could you--" or "other side?"

Rogers responded smoothly, always moving exactly the way Tony needed him to, or holding what Tony needed him to, without any commentary at all. He barely seemed to breathe, and the muscle of his forearm was rock-hard under Tony's hands. If it were Threetoo under his hands Tony would have soothed, coaxed, reassured, wrapped his hands around that arm and massaged some of the tension away.

Rogers might not punch him for that kind of presumption, but he certainly wouldn't thank Tony for it, either. He bundled up everything into the biohazard bag and closed up the first aid kit, taking it over to leave out on the counter for restocking.

As he was shoving the biohazard bag into the disposal container, Rogers finally spoke, behind him. "Is it after midnight yet?"

Tony half-expected JARVIS to answer and then realized the privacy protocol was still in effect.

"JARVIS, end privacy--put a clock up on the wall?"

A holographic replica of an analog clock appeared on one wall, showing the current time was eleven minutes after twelve.

Rogers exhaled in something like relief. "Day's over, then."

Tony nodded, heading for the door as he said, "Good riddance to the inglorious Fourth, huh?"

Rogers let out a bitter little chuckle and said, "Not just that. It was my birthday."

Tony stopped in his tracks and stared, but Rogers had already stretched out on the bed, his head on the pillow and his bandaged arm slung over his face.

"That is... wow," Tony said. "That is impressively terrible, Rogers."

"Thanks, Stark," Rogers muttered. "That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

Tony figured he might as well end on a high note, and let himself out without another word.

Chapter 8

Tony slept for about two hours before he woke up already in the process of hurrying to Threetoo's room to look for him, his mind gluey and slow but full of the certainty that something was wrong. Threetoo needed him and he was already too late.

Threetoo wasn't there. Tony reached into the pillows, stirring his hands through the blankets, calling for him frantically, and he was just starting to think, No, it's a nightmare, I'm having a nightmare, I just have to wake up when the lights brightened sharply and he became aware of JARVIS talking to him.

"--is in Medical, sir. He is safe. If you'll go back to bed I can show you the video feed. Please return to bed, 32557038 is perfectly safe under medical observation."

Tony sat back onto his heels and covered his face with both hands. "He's not, though, is he, J."

JARVIS said nothing.

"Lights," Tony said after a minute, and when he perceived only darkness he lowered his hands and pushed himself up to his feet to stagger back toward his bed.

He didn't lie down. There was no point; he wasn't going to sleep. "Give me the feed from the lab this morning. I want to see exactly what Threetoo did after I told him to keep his head down."

"Sir," JARVIS tried. "You need to rest--"

"So help me I will cut you down to a DOS prompt," Tony said, head in his hands, feeling as empty as the threat. "Show me the video."

He looked up at the faint flicker of light, and stared. There he was, looking down at Threetoo, shielding the side of his face, and he could see the change go over him from this high, remote angle. There was a second when Threetoo was the Threetoo Tony knew, frightened and confused and quiet under his master's hand, and then something sharpened in his gaze, stiffened in his posture.

That was a sniper's gaze. A veteran's. A survivor's.

Threetoo surged powerfully to his feet and grabbed Tony by the shoulder, pushing him forcefully off the stool. "Down." The word was calm, flat, with no resemblance to Threetoo's hesitant and effortful instances of speaking aloud. He was twisting as he moved, his right arm sweeping Tony out of the way, and he brought his left side to face the threat, and--

Tony stared.

It wasn't that he'd turned his left side to take the impact. He'd raised his left arm. It was a small motion of a small limb, but that naked, scarred stump rose up perpendicular to his body as Threetoo planted his feet. For just one beautiful second he looked like he was carved from stone, like--

"J," Tony said hoarsely, gesturing to freeze the video right there. "Extrapolate his arm."

It appeared at once, a tracery of silver light extending from Threetoo's shoulder, a scant swell of bicep around and beyond the shrunken length of the stump, an arm extended out straight, a hand raised, palm out. Stop. Or as if that hand could catch anything anyone might throw at him.

"Bone density," Tony said, staring. "Did Dr. Cho file any notes about the surgery?"

Notes duly appeared, the relevant section highlighted: The amputation appears to have occurred years ago at least, as the end of the bone is nearly fully capped. The density of the remnant humerus, especially at its distal end, is especially high, suggesting chronic impacts or load-bearing.

He'd had a prosthetic before, all right, and no wonder the idea of having one again was enough to send him into a meltdown. No wonder Pierce didn't want what was left of his arm removed, now that it was adapted to anchor a heavy prosthetic. Pierce had taken his left arm from him, taken his voice, taken his memory, hid everything else under the programming that made Threetoo behave as a perfect sex slave--because he could no longer function as a weapon? Or wouldn't? Was this retirement, or punishment?

Either way, he was still too valuable for Pierce to kill, too dangerous for Pierce to tolerate the idea that he might ever breathe a word of who he was and what he'd seen.

Too dangerous to be allowed to know what he was capable of.

It was pretty obvious that he had no memory of doing this, and Tony was pretty sure that that wasn't just the concussion and trauma talking, given how much he remembered of the rest. It had to be the programming forcing him to forget something a good bedslave couldn't and wouldn't have done. Threetoo had no idea that he had saved Tony's life, that he was this strong, this fast and smart and brave, even now. But he was. Tony was the living proof of that.

And now it was up to Tony to protect him. Somehow.

Tony unfroze the image; the ghost arm stayed in place just long enough for the red blur of the fire extinguisher to plow through it, and then Threetoo was flying backward, hitting the ground hard, blood flying, and there was a scream from outside the image's frame as the Tony in the video scrambled up to kneel over him.

Steve Rogers screamed, "BUCKY!"

Tony froze the video again on himself crouching over Threetoo, and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

He had to do something about Rogers. Among other things, Rogers knew altogether too much about who and what Threetoo was--and, fuck, he'd spilled at least part of it to Sam.

And Westfahl, and Westfahl's security, had seen Sam's real face.

"J, we gotta send Wilson to Malibu for a while or something." Tony's thoughts kept spiraling--Fox and Cho were locked in, they knew too much about everything anyway and comparatively little about this, but he could maybe get Sam clear. Rogers, though, what the fuck was he going to do about Rogers?

"Sir," JARVIS said, and Tony jerked upright, realizing he'd been about to topple off the end of the bed, his head resting on his hands. "Please, just lie down."

He did sleep, eventually. He dreamed of Yinsen covering his escape, Yinsen lying dead in a pool of blood with one arm inexplicably missing. The next time he struggled to wakefulness JARVIS didn't argue with him about getting out of bed.

Threetoo woke up in his nest of pillows and then froze at the sight of an unfamiliar ceiling overhead. His skylight was not just opaque but not there. He was not in his pillow box, but in a raised, railed bed, though one that was piled high with his own familiar pillows and blankets.


"Good morning, 32557038. The time is 7:38 AM and today is Sunday, the 5th of July. You are in a private medical observation room on the 88th floor, and Mr. Stark will be with you shortly."

Threetoo looked over and saw the bandages wrapping his shoulder and stump. The day before came back to him in a jumbled rush of memory: his present from his master, the experiment his master had asked him to undertake, the blond man throwing something heavy at him, the ache in his ass he had woken up to. It was gone now, already healed away; his master had truly been careful with him, to be sure that whoever used him had done so gently.

Before that, there had been an ordinary morning. He had woken up in his pillow box, where he was supposed to be, and had done all the things he was supposed to do.

Frowning, he signed to JARVIS, Plant okay?

"I believe it will be fine," JARVIS said. "You have only been away from your plant for a day. Even if it is a little parched by now, you will be able to attend to it soon."

Threetoo nodded and settled back against his pillows to wait for his master. JARVIS had said he would be here soon. Threetoo raised his hand to his throat and found his collar still fastened there. His master didn't usually let him wear it overnight; perhaps leaving in place was an extension of his present, or simply a way for his master to indicate his ownership when Threetoo was in this medical room outside the penthouse.

He didn't have long to wonder before there was a tap at the door, which swung open a few seconds later to reveal his master. He looked a little better rested than last night, at least, and was wearing fresh clothes. He had touched up his goatee, too.

"Hey, sweetheart. You look like you're feeling better."

Threetoo smiled but didn't sign back, So do you. Instead he replied, Thank you, sir.

"Nothing but the truth," his master said firmly, smiling briefly before he was looking around the room, rummaging in a cupboard.

"So, here's the deal, Dr. Cho likes the looks of your vital signs, but she wants me to check over your bandages and do a quick scan so she can see if you're starting to heal up. I can do that now, and then we can go upstairs for breakfast, or we can do breakfast here and bandages after that."

Threetoo was already signing, Bandages first please before his master had even turned to look at him. JARVIS would make sure his master understood.

His master turned toward him when he was halfway through signing, holding a scanner and smiling. "Yeah, thought you might say that. Get it out of the way so we can go home, huh?"

Threetoo nodded emphatically, smiling at the thought of it. Home, with his master.

His master handled the bandage-changing and wound-checking like he always had, keeping up an easy flow of words as he worked. He narrated everything he was doing and made frequent use of the anesthetic spray when he had to do anything that might hurt.

Threetoo looked over curiously to see the state of himself.

His entire shoulder and stump were darkly bruised, purple and red, with a black imprint that looked like one of the stars from his collar had been pressed into his flesh. A line of fresh stitches showed where his newly-healed scar had split open and been torn or cut further.

It had been something red. The man had thrown something red. Threetoo had tried to raise his hand--had thought he raised his hand to stop it, and it had--had--his hand was--

He was lying back against the pillows, and his master was almost done bandaging up his arm. Threetoo's gaze caught on the shiny silver chrome of the sink tap across the room, and he stared at it as time skipped and skipped again, until his master's hand came over his eyes and gently closed them.

"We're all done now," his master told him. "You're doing great, sweetheart, and now we're going to go home and you're going to have some breakfast. I don't want to make you crawl all that way today, and I don't know where U put that leash of yours anyway. So you just hold nice and still for me..."

Threetoo barely even moved enough to breathe, and then he was gathered up in his master's arms, his blanket still covering him. He stayed completely still, waiting for his master to set him down again on a cart or stretcher for the robots to carry or push, but his master murmured, "Relax, baby, I've got you. It's not far."

Threetoo hid his face against his master's shoulder and let himself enjoy being carried. He was aware of an echoing space around them--hallway?--and then the familiar elevator, and then they were in the penthouse, and his master was laying him down right on the big curved couch, resettling his pink blanket over him.

"You can keep resting until the food gets here," his master said, crouching in front of him and stroking his hair. "You ready for breakfast now, or do you need to sleep some more first?"

Threetoo blinked at his master, and then wormed his hand out from under the blanket to sign, Plant?

His master glanced up toward the ceiling, as if asking JARVIS to clarify. Threetoo didn't hear JARVIS say anything, but his master nodded and looked back down at him. "How about if U goes and gets it, okay? Then you can check on it from right here, and we'll water it if it needs water, and after breakfast you and it can go back in your room and get some sunshine."

Thank you, Threetoo signed, and his master smiled softly and moved to sit by Threetoo's head. Threetoo let his eyes close and stayed still. His master kept running a hand gently over Threetoo's hair.

Threetoo opened his eyes at the sound of U's treads approaching, and found U coming to a halt in front of him. The robot was holding Threetoo's little plant at the end of his long arm, so that it was right in front of Threetoo's face, in easy reach of his hand.

He pushed up on his elbow to study the plant, glancing up at his master as he did. His master smiled, taking his hand away from Threetoo's head and gesturing toward the plant. "Go ahead and check, you're the one who takes care of it. I'll go get some water."

His master stood up and headed toward the kitchen, and without him watching Threetoo didn't feel too shy to brush his lips over the soft green leaves of his plant, breathing in their good green scent. The little soon-to-be-leaves he'd seen the day before had sprouted further, young and confidently pointing skyward. Some of the bigger leaves were drooping, but they hadn't gone yellow or brown or curled with dryness, so he hadn't left his plant alone too long.

Beautiful, he told it silently, nuzzling his face into the spreading leaves, very gently, so he wouldn't break any. You're doing so well, I'm so proud of you.

He drew back and looked up to see his master just turning away from the sink with a glass of water, and Threetoo dropped his gaze back to his plant, touching it with his fingers here and there, testing the soil around the roots.

"Here you go, I figure you can drink whatever your friend there doesn't need, right?"

Threetoo nodded, signing thank you, sir before he took the glass. He poured carefully into the plant's pot, and then took his own sip of water.

He couldn't sign with the glass in his hand, but he could squirm out from under his blanket and kneel at his master's feet, opening his mouth like a baby bird.

"Oh, I'm guessing that means you're done resting and want your breakfast, huh?" He could hear a smile in his master's voice. "U, set the plant down and go pick up the tray which is arriving--" the elevator chimed, "Now."

U set the plant down in the middle of Threetoo's blanket. When the robot rolled away his master leaned over and rucked up the blanket to make sure that it was wrapped securely around the plant before he sat down on the next cushion, not jostling it. He sat with his knees wide apart, and tapped the inside of one of them. Threetoo shuffled over, sliding his cushion with him, and settled into a comfortable kneel between his master's thighs, leaning against one calf and knee.

His master ran a hand over his hair again and said, "A little more water, sweetheart. You're bigger than your plant, you need more."

Threetoo sipped obediently, and U rolled up with a breakfast tray full of familiar good-smelling things. Threetoo's stomach grumbled eagerly, and he opened his mouth again, birdlike.

"All right, all right," his master grumbled, playfulness obvious in every syllable and every line of his body as he spooned up blueberry yogurt and delivered it to Threetoo's mouth. Threetoo made sure to clean the spoon completely before he closed his eyes, savoring the tangy, rich mouthful.

His master didn't speak while feeding him, and the playfulness ebbed from his body language, replaced by quiet thoughtfulness. He wasn't distracted, the way he often was; his eyes were intent on Threetoo himself. Threetoo tried to look back as much as he could--his master liked him to look--but by the end of the meal he was dropping his gaze more often than not, and the food sat heavy in his belly.

His master sighed and set the tray aside, having eaten less than he usually did. He leaned forward and ran both his hands over Threetoo's hair, then brought them to his cheeks, holding Threetoo's gaze all the time. Threetoo couldn't look away now.

"One more thing, before you and your plant head to your room to get your day's supply of Vitamin D and photosynthesis. Respectively."

Threetoo licked his lips and waited for it.

"Yesterday," his master said. "A man hurt you. He threw a fire extinguisher right through the front wall of my lab, and it hit you. It dislocated your shoulder and tore it up pretty badly. You had to have surgery to stop the bleeding, to get your chip back into place, and to reassemble the connective tissue of your arm and shoulder."

Threetoo nodded as much as he could in his master's gentle grip. He remembered parts of that; his master's words made it all fall into place, a series of calmly-stated certainties instead of confusing flashes of painful memory.

"He hurt you," his master repeated. "He hurt you very badly. And that's unacceptable. No one is allowed to hurt you. And since this man who hurt you is a slave under my authority, I have to decide what to do about that. What to do to him. And there are a lot of moving parts to it, but that part is very important to me. I refuse to treat this like it wasn't important. He hurt you, and something needs to happen in response to that."

Threetoo was his master's property, and his master had been... somewhere nearby, because he had been kneeling over Threetoo a moment later. He had...

Threetoo's fingers rose to his collar. No, he had his collar on. But his master...

His master had been nearby, when the slave threw the fire extinguisher. The slave had damaged his master's property--the wall of his lab, the fire extinguisher itself, and Threetoo. And if his master had been struck, he would have been badly hurt. It could have happened as a result of the slave's disobedient actions.

That meant the slave should be put to death.

Threetoo bit his lip. He couldn't even sign a question that suggested that.

"I know," his master said softly. "I know the legally correct thing would be to kill him--terminate him, I think, is the polite term. But he's special, he's smart. I don't think he's really bad, deep down. I don't think hurting you was what he really wanted to do, and I've spoken to him, I know he regrets it very much. When he realized how badly you were hurt, he was..."

His master shook his head, his face tensed, and Threetoo thought he understood what his master wished to convey: a distress beyond words. If Threetoo had hurt someone...

Time skipped, but when it settled again his master was stroking Threetoo's cheek with one thumb, looking away over his head.

"Normally, I don't like to punish," his master said. "It's not actually the best way to improve outcomes, to teach and motivate desired behavior. And killing is just a waste. This slave, he's definitely not going to hurt you ever again, that seems like a lesson he's learned. But he did something reckless, thoughtless, that was very dangerous, and he needs to learn not to do that, which I'm not sure he has. And... for the sake of everyone else who saw what he did... he has to be seen to suffer some consequences."

His master lowered his gaze to meet Threetoo's eyes again. "And that includes you. That most especially includes you, Threetoo, because he hurt you. So... I'm trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, but one of the pieces of data I need is to know how you feel about this. I need to know what you think ought to happen to this guy. He hurt you. It was sort of an accident, but he chose to do something that had the potential to hurt somebody, and you're the one who had a really, really shitty day because of it."

Threetoo stared up at his master, trying to work out the right answer. There were a lot of variables, and none of them worked out neatly to numbers or formulas.

His master smiled and gave a little shake of his head. "Sorry, that was a lot, wasn't it? You don't need to know all of that. The question for you is just--what do you want to happen with the person who hurt you? Do you want him to be punished? Do you want to be sure you'll never have to see him again? Something else I'm not thinking of?"

Threetoo frowned in thought. His master had probably thought of nearly every possibility; his master was very clever.

But his master was also kind, perhaps to a fault. His master liked to fix things, to gather as much information as he could and understand. He liked data. He liked to reward and teach instead of punishing. He thought it would be wasteful to kill a slave; he had never reprogrammed his faulty robot, never mind breaking it up for parts and building a better one from it.

His master wanted to make it clear that no one was allowed to hurt Threetoo--because he wanted Threetoo to be safe from harm, and to know that he was, so that he could be healthy and happy. And everyone else had to know that such transgressions were punished, to keep order, and to make it clear that his master was kind and merciful, but not foolishly soft.

But his master wanted that other slave, who had hurt Threetoo, to get better too. To learn better.

That slave had been near enough to his master's own lab to reach it without being stopped; this meant that he was already being kept close to his master. He was already special in some way, even if not as special as Threetoo.

He had been standing upright, to throw the fire extinguisher, and... Threetoo strained for memory. Blond hair, fair skin--eyes... blue? Lower than that... a blur of color. Clothes. And he had been kept in the area that was all offices and work facilities, not a private, personal area like the penthouse. But that area still belonged to his master alone; almost no one else had been there, when Threetoo...

Oh. The slave must have been the one who Threetoo showed himself off to, making that circuit around the 91st floor. The slave had seen him, and not long after...

If the slave hadn't really meant to hurt Threetoo, what had he meant to do by throwing a fire extinguisher into his master's lab?

Threetoo looked up at his master, studying his face. His master was looking down at him, patiently waiting for a response.

His master was patient and kind and clever and also handsome. A phrase drifted up from some long-forgotten instruction as Threetoo studied his master and considered that other slave.

They're just trying to get your attention.

Was that what the blond slave had been doing? Trying to get his master's attention?

If Threetoo had been sent to some empty floor of bedslaves' quarters, big enough for an entire hospitality staff but containing only himself, what would he have done to get his master's attention? And if there was just one slave who did have his master's attention, would that push him to try to get his own share? Might he not ignore the danger of harming that slave, if only it meant his master would pay attention to him?

His master, worried about teaching the blond slave to be better, was already thinking of taking on another slave as a project like Threetoo, whether he named it that way or not. And the slave clearly wanted his master's attention, even if he did regret hurting Threetoo to get it.

Slaves who were classified other than bedslaves often considered it a punishment to be reclassified as such; that would satisfy everyone else.

It would answer for the damage the slave had done to Threetoo, as well; he had set back Threetoo's recovery, and the time when Threetoo would be useful to his master. But that slave was evidently healthy if untrained. He would be able to be useful much more quickly.

Threetoo lowered his gaze. He didn't like that thought. He didn't like the idea that someone else would be pleasing his master when he could not, that his master wanted another project to pay attention to in addition to Threetoo.

But Threetoo had wanted to give his master a gift, something to make him happy. Work made his master happy. Projects made his master happy. So Threetoo could give him a new project, and a solution to the dilemma that was troubling him. It would cost Threetoo something, but that was the way of gifts; they had to cost something, even if it was only effort or attention, or they didn't mean anything at all.

This would be good for his master; it would be good for the other slave. His master would not be cruel to that slave any more than he was to Threetoo, and the other slave would be able to learn to be useful.

And... it would be Threetoo's project, in a certain way. He glanced toward his plant, which he was responsible for taking care of. He could be responsible for his master, too, in this secret way. And being first, and properly trained, he would be responsible for the new slave, too. He would have projects of his own, data to gather, problems to solve.

That was what Threetoo wanted.

He raised his gaze to his master's face and signed, Solution.

Tony watched, with JARVIS murmuring translation in his ear, while Threetoo laid out his solution, as tidy and logical as a geometric proof.

Tony's jaw had dropped by the time he finished, and he just stared for a couple of seconds.

When Threetoo dropped his gaze and raised his hand hesitantly, obviously meaning to take it back, Tony shook his head and bent down to kiss the top of Threetoo's head. He didn't know another way to say it fast enough. He leaned his forehead against Threetoo's hair so he wouldn't have to make eye contact, dropping his hands to Threetoo's shoulders.

"Sweetheart, that is--that is a really good solution. Really, really smart and creative. I'm so proud that you thought of that, and that you told me."

Tony sat back up to gauge Threetoo's reaction to the praise, and found him smiling, but still looking uncertain. Tony took a breath.

"I didn't ask you to solve it for me, though, Threetoo. I asked you what you want to happen. Just you, not considering anything else."

Threetoo dropped his gaze, the wrinkle of thought reappearing on his forehead. Tony sat still to wait again; it was really nothing like waiting out an absence seizure, watching Threetoo figure something out. Tony could just about feel the activity running through Threetoo's body and brain.

Without raising his eyes, Threetoo signed, I want the best thing to happen, sir. I want the right thing.

Tony drew a breath, and Threetoo looked up at him with wide, pleading eyes, and signed, I want to help solve it. Not make a problem for you to solve.

Threetoo dropped his gaze and dropped his hand, too, putting it behind his back. His shoulders hunched in slightly, and Tony took one hand off him to rub over his own face.

"I don't deserve you, you know that?" Tony said quietly. "I don't--I don't deserve someone as good as you, trying to be so good for me."

Threetoo looked up at him, fearful but hopeful, still trusting him.

The hell of it was that it was a really good solution; it took care of problems he didn't dare to tell Threetoo about. Tony had zero doubt that Rogers would be on board, given what the reality of the situation was bound to be, and what the alternatives were.

More than that--out of the fucking toxic swamp that had created him, Threetoo was trying to be a good person here. To do the right thing, instead of the easy thing or the personally satisfying thing.

He could have asked Tony for Steve's head on a platter, or for Steve to be hurt as badly as he had, or just to never see Steve again. Instead he offered up this elegant solution, and was pleading for it like he'd never begged Tony for anything before.

If Tony gave a single damn about actually helping Threetoo--Barnes--find himself again at the end of this... he had to support him in trying to do the best thing for everyone. That was a thousand times more important than encouraging him to eat, or have preferences, or walk upright.

"I just--I want you to feel safe here," Tony said helplessly, because he couldn't say no. He brought his hand back to Threetoo's cheek, tracing the too-prominent bone with his thumb. "I want you to be comfortable. This is your home. Are you gonna be comfortable if he's here? Are you gonna feel safe?"

Threetoo looked up at him for the space of a breath, and then turned his face into Tony's hand. Tony kept his hand still--this was obviously not just random affection--and watched as Threetoo pressed precise kisses to four of the most obvious scars on his hand, old soldering burns and sharp object mishaps.

Threetoo looked up at him again deliberately and signed, Comfortable? Safe?

Tony closed his eyes and didn't think too hard about what Threetoo was telling him, because he didn't know what he was going to do with that information if he let it sink in.

He dropped his hand to Threetoo's shoulder again and squeezed when he opened his eyes. "I am going to keep you safe, you know that. You're my Threetoo, and we are still working on this project of getting you better, so I need you to be safe and healthy. This is my number one project, and anything else comes after that."

Threetoo nodded, still watching him intently.

"And I need you and your plant to go get some sun," Tony went on. "I'll see you in a few hours and... we'll see."

Threetoo smiled, exactly like Tony had completely and unequivocally caved and promised to do what Threetoo wanted.

Tony shooed him away, because it was the only way to make himself let go. "Go on, go to your room! I'll bring your plant and your blanket, just--go."

Threetoo crawled away, slower than he would have yesterday, throwing a shy smile over his shoulder as he went. Tony just waved him off.

Steve slept like... well, like he'd just come off a bad mission, and was healing one or more injuries. He had passed out almost as soon as he was alone and didn't wake up until after eight, and, apparently left to his own devices, used the bathroom and showered. His hand and wrist had healed cleanly, only a few pink lines showing where the worst cuts had been. He was reluctant to raid the first aid kit for medical tape when he didn't have any visible wounds to bandage, so he improvised a sling to hold his dick in place with a web of dental floss, padded with a dismembered tampon.

He heard a little ding from somewhere inside the room and opened the bathroom door with a towel wrapped around his hips, to find that one of the cupboards he hadn't punched through was actually a dumbwaiter. He smelled food, and was abruptly aware of the tight ache in his stomach and the creeping weakness in his limbs, reminding him that he'd fasted all the previous day and burned a hell of a lot of energy while he was at it.

The breakfast tray was accompanied by a clean t-shirt and pair of scrub pants, familiar from Steve's stint down the hall in Medical. Did they dress patients and prisoners the same, or had he always been just one of those? And if so, which one?

He forced himself to put on the clothes before he sat down on the floor and dug into his breakfast. They had given him very nearly enough food to satisfy him. He wondered if that meant Sam reported on what he normally ate at breakfast.

He returned the empty tray to the dumbwaiter and then paced the room, waiting to find out his fate.

Stark wouldn't kill him, he was nearly certain of that--not unless something forced his hand. Judging by last night, they really had made it away from Pierce clean. If Bucky--Threetoo--were still in danger, Stark wouldn't...

If he was reading Stark right, anyway. If any of this was what he thought it was. Steve kept pacing, trying to work out the angles when he knew full well he couldn't see a tenth of the board, and then there was a little tap at the door, the same that had announced Stark's arrival last night.

Steve turned to face the door and kept his hands open at his sides. It was only when the door opened that Steve considered how soft and thin these pants were, compared to anything else Stark had ever seen him wearing; the bulge of his restrained dick was obvious like this.

But Stark's up-and-down look, when it did stall out, seemed to be a different kind of interested. Once he closed the door behind him, he said, "Don't need help changing the bandages on your hand, huh?"

Steve shook his head, twisting his hand and flexing his fingers to show it was healed.

"Okay, down to business then. JARVIS, privacy protocol eleven."

Steve raised his eyebrows at that. It had been one last night.

"Might I remind you, sir," JARVIS said, in a warmer, more human tone than Steve had ever heard from him. "There are still only five levels."

"Yeah, well, plus six layers of heightened paranoia," Tony said, and he waved Steve toward the bed.

Steve was reasonably certain that Tony Stark wouldn't bother with heightened paranoia for anything that would normally be associated with a bed, so he sat down where he'd sat the night before. Sure enough, Stark sat down in his own spot from the night before, and immediately twisted to half-face Steve.

"Here's the problem I'm facing," Stark said, without preamble. "A bunch of my most trusted people know that you tried to kill me, and that you almost did kill Threetoo. You are surprisingly singular in your interest in murdering me, so they're not thrilled about that. I mean, I can only spend so many hours every day arguing with Happy about whether his job description as head of security includes breaking people who try to hurt me into tiny pieces. Also it was kind of a dick move and I can't be encouraging that kind of behavior. So I have to do something about it."

Steve nodded. That seemed clear enough to him--Sam didn't seem to have entirely forgiven him, and Steve had to expect worse from every single other person who knew what he'd done. If Happy was head of security, then everyone else in security would be taking their cues from him, without getting personal counterarguments from Stark. And any leak, any betrayal, even one as justified as turning Steve in or killing him without Stark's permission, could undermine the cohesiveness of the team and thus the security of Stark's entire operation.

And for the other half... well. For once Steve wasn't exactly seething at the injustice of whatever punishment he might be about to receive.

"Standard tactic would be to ship you out somewhere," Stark went on. "Semi-literally, there's a whole smuggling procedure, we get you to a non-extraditing free country. There are whole networks of people who can help you get settled in, start a life there; at this point there are enough refugee slaves in some places that they make their own America-town, so you'd be right at home."

Steve shook his head. "Not unless you can smuggle me seventy years into the past, Stark. And even then... home is where he is."

Steve was acutely aware that he couldn't actually say no, all the same. If that was what Stark decided to do about the problem he presented, Steve was going to wake up in Argentina tomorrow. Sure, he'd start walking north as soon as he figured out which way that was, but he suspected he was going to have a harder time prying Bucky out of Stark Tower than that Austrian factory.

On the other hand, Stark wasn't acting like a guy who'd made up his mind about what to do.

Steve settled his shoulders back against the wall and looked over at him, really studying him. He looked... exhausted, and he kept picking at a tiny scar on the side of his thumb. "So what's the non-standard tactic?"

Stark huffed softly. "Well, I've had an extremely non-standard suggestion presented to me. I asked Threetoo what he wanted--not even what he thought should happen, just what he wanted, as far as the person who hurt him so badly. For you to be punished, or never to see you again, or what."

Stark fell silent, and Steve had to look away, his heart in his throat. Bucky would forgive him, he was pretty sure, if he understood what Steve had been trying to do. But Threetoo...

Threetoo didn't remember his own name, let alone who Steve was. And Threetoo had stood up in the path of that fire extinguisher faster than Steve would have thought anyone could move, to protect Tony Stark.

"He offered me a solution," Stark said finally. "That's what he called it. Like he solved for x and he wanted to show me his work."

Steve looked over at Stark, but Stark kept staring down at his hands, working a short-bitten nail against the skin.

"His logic was: you need to be seen to be punished, and you need to be more closely supervised so you don't go around impulsively hurting people. You need to learn good, useful new skills instead of focusing unduly on the very bad mistake you made, which you already regret. And you need to make up for the damage you did and inconvenience you caused your master--his word, not mine."

Steve nodded slowly. That all sounded... logical. And like Bucky had gotten the same speech Steve got when he first arrived about training on new skills--but he must have, for Stark to know how good he was at math.

"And, personally, I'd like to see you stay close to him," Tony said, speaking with a little more animation now. "You can't just go in guns blazing and start telling him stuff he doesn't remember, but it seems like if you're around, that's gotta increase the odds that he'll remember you, remember himself, and break whatever programming Pierce put into him to convince him he has to act like this. All the protocol--he just does that, he freaks out if I try to stop him, you know? Somebody convinced him he has to do that, and I mean--we're not just talking like he got lessons."

Steve looked over at Tony, frowning a little, but Tony barely seemed to notice, the torrent of words flowing on. Privacy protocol eleven. Six layers of heightened paranoia. This was the part that Tony couldn't tell to anyone but a dead man.

"It is, very literally, programming, like nothing I've ever seen before, the things they did to his brain--we don't even know the half of it. I told you he doesn't know his own name, but he--he also doesn't know what he did yesterday. He doesn't know he saved my life. I think he can't know."

Steve's hands curled into fists, and he wanted to kill Pierce all over again, for taking that from Bucky, the knowledge of his own courage, his own choice.

"But, hey, he's only been here a couple of weeks and he's been getting better--and if he's like you," Tony waved toward Steve's hand, "Clearly he's gonna keep getting better, he's gonna get there. And you can help with that, which is good. Because until he can make that breakthrough, I can't let him go to a non-extradition country, or out of my possession at all. Pierce may have some way to call him to heel and debrief him, or use him again, and he won't even be able to resist."

Steve looked down at his own hands, rocking a fingernail against the faint pink trace that was all last night's deepest cut had left behind.

"So, his thinking is..." Stark fidgeted for a few seconds in silence, then went carefully still. "Your punishment should be reclassification and reassignment. You become my second bedslave, to be trained by him before you actually take up your duties, since you have delayed his recovery and it will now take longer before he's fit for service."

Steve would have liked to have recoiled from that in every possible way, but his dick gave a traitorous twitch behind its protective padding at the same time he jerked stiffly upright. He stared openmouthed at Tony, who looked back with wide eyes, raising his hands in a placating gesture.

"My bedslave in name only, obviously! I am fully aware that you would kill me if I tried anything. I already planned on setting up extra hurdles for him to jump to keep from declaring him ready to do his job until he was actually healthy enough to realize he doesn't want to. You and I can definitely conspire to keep pushing back your, uh, start date along with his, and I thought..."

Tony looked away again and cleared his throat. "I figured. If he wants to train you, that... that's a way I can give him permission to... do things with you. Normally he doesn't like people other than me touching him, but if it's for this, for me, I think he'll be okay with it. And if it's his job to teach you, he'll feel like he's in control of the situation, so whatever he does with you, it'll be his choice, which... I figured that'd be a plus for you, in this situation."

Steve plastered both hands over his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut, his knees drawing up reflexively to his chest as he thought of every time Bucky had promised to teach him, show him, all there was to feel, everything they could do. To let Bucky finally do that, when he had no idea who Steve was...

But maybe he would remember. What was more likely than that to help him remember, to bring back the Bucky who Steve remembered?

"And, hey, a little more privacy than you guys probably had in the old days," Tony went on, his voice light and easy in a way that had to be forced. Steve had spent a lot of time listening to Howard do over-rehearsed patter; he knew the cadence.

"Depending on what we shake out to with his eating schedule as he improves, I'll be free to get back to doing my actual job most of the time. You guys will have plenty of time with the penthouse to yourselves so you can... get reacquainted."

Tony definitely did not realize that Steve and Bucky had never actually had sex before.

Steve thought for a second about trying to explain that to him, and immediately decided that he was never, ever going to do that. He would infinitely prefer to lose his virginity to a stranger wearing Bucky's face, in Tony's opulent bed, than ever explain any of it to Tony himself.

Steve lowered his hands and took a breath, fighting down the rush of mingled terror and delight. Bucky wants me. I'm going home to him. Bucky asked for me and I'll be with him. Bucky doesn't remember me and I'll be alone with him because he asked for me and I'm going home to him.

"Okay," he said, when he had himself mostly under control. "I think I could do that."

Tony nodded and didn't look at him. "I need to brief you on what he's like, then. He has all this protocol he follows--I don't know how much is programmed, how much is just him being self-protectively perfect, and, uh, how much is him... actively trying to impress me because his programming tells him he should. It's kind of a mess, and not something I can untangle from my position as his... his master. You might actually have more luck working on him from a more equal footing, so that's another plus. The eating thing is the most pressing..."

Steve closed his eyes and concentrated on memorizing every detail of the briefing. He was clearly going to need it.

Chapter 9

Threetoo froze, cutting off in midstream, when U pushed the bathroom door shut. Threetoo looked up as he signed, JARVIS?

"Mr. Stark has just entered the elevator, and he is not alone."

Threetoo's heart began to race, and he pressed his hand over his mouth to cover a wild grin. He ducked his head and focused on finishing what he'd been doing when he was interrupted, listening intently for the sound of his master's arrival.

Not alone.

That had to mean he'd accepted Threetoo's solution. He had brought the new slave to the penthouse, and now Threetoo would be responsible for teaching him to please their master.

Threetoo shook off and cleaned himself, washed his hand, and neatened his sleep-tangled hair before he walked to the door, pulling it just ajar before he lowered himself to his knees and crawled out.


His master was approaching the door to the bedroom, and Threetoo could make out a set of footfalls following.

The new slave didn't understand protocol at all.

Threetoo knelt up straight and waited, and in a few more seconds his master stepped through the doorway, smiling at the sight of him. He looked anxious, tense, and Threetoo smiled brightly back to show his master how pleased he was.

His master stepped clear of the door, and then--

The man seemed to fill the doorframe. Big and blond and blue-eyed, wearing soft light green pants and a white t-shirt. His hands were harmlessly at his sides, but his strength was obvious, and he was staring right at Threetoo with an intensity that made Threetoo's breath come short, his head giving a warning throb of pain. Threetoo forced his own gaze to focus on his master, hoping to show the other slave by example where that intensity should be directed.

"Threetoo," his master said, gesturing sideways to the big blond slave, who seemed to glow like the sun in Threetoo's peripheral vision. "This is Steve." His master spelled the name with his fingers as he said it, the same as when he had introduced Threetoo to JARVIS and U and DUM-E. STEVE. "He's going to be your second. Trainee? Intern? You guys can decide on the job title."

Threetoo nodded, signing back Steve, sir to show his master he understood.

He saw the downward motion, heard the soft thump of knees hitting the carpet, and couldn't help returning his gaze to Steve, who was on his knees now, still looking unwaveringly at Threetoo. It made it seem as if it were for Threetoo that he got down on his knees, not simply because he was following Threetoo's good example.

Threetoo's stomach turned uneasily at that idea, and the beginning ache of punishment-pain in his head swelled into something undeniable. A sharper pang struck him as he wondered if it would be like this all the time until he got the slave trained properly--would the punishment always strike him instead of Steve until Steve knew well enough to know when he ought to be punished?

Steve crawled toward him, and even that was wrong; every swing of every limb was a show of strength, smooth and easy but not a graceful display. Not submissive in the slightest.

But he was beautiful. Threetoo couldn't look away from him as Steve crawled closer, mesmerized by how he managed to do the correct thing so incorrectly, and he couldn't miss Steve's physical perfection. He wouldn't just be a healthy, strong substitute for Threetoo in their master's bed; he was gorgeous, unblemished, glowing golden in every inch. Threetoo didn't have to see him without his clothes to know that there wouldn't be a single scar on him, not an unattractively prominent bone to be seen.

Threetoo gritted his teeth and swallowed, willing his stomach to stay in place. He would not vomit. Not for no reason, not when it wasn't even an experiment that might result in vomiting. He was just watching his master's second bedslave crawl across a room; how could it make him feel so sick, make his head pound and the floor under him seem to tilt into a sheer cliff?

Threetoo hid his hand behind his thigh as his fingers curled into a fist, and dug his toes into the carpet as if that would help him hold on.

Steve stopped in front of him and knelt upright, putting them eye to eye. Steve's eyes were the blue of the sky above Threetoo's skylights. The feeling of tipping, of being about to fall as he looked up into those eyes, only increased.

He forced his gaze down to Steve's hands. That was... less bad, and Steve was raising his hands to sign as he cleared his throat to speak.

"I'm sorry," Steve said aloud, and his hands signed, I'm sorry in the signs JARVIS and his master knew, not slave signs. There wasn't so much as a finger's curl of added information, not the slightest tilt of a wrist toward the slaves' greeting of when freedom comes. All Steve added was a meaningless gesture toward Threetoo's bandaged shoulder, as if Threetoo wouldn't know what Steve had to apologize for.

Threetoo signed back in the same straightforward signs, angling his arm for rigid, furious correctness as he signed, You made a mistake. Now you can learn better.

He had intended to say more about that, to make sure that Steve knew he was safe, that there would be no punishment. Threetoo just hadn't anticipated his own punishment descending on him at just the sight of Steve, and the sick misery of knowing he would be displaced by this golden figure. If Threetoo could ever teach him any protocol, he would be the most perfect bedslave who had ever lived--and even if Threetoo couldn't, perhaps their master would like that.

Their master liked challenges, after all.

"Hey, Threetoo."

Threetoo turned reflexively toward the sound of his master's voice, his master's outstretched hand. When his master stepped a little closer, Threetoo leaned bodily against his thigh. Better that than succumbing to the dizzy unmoored feeling of looking at Steve. He hid his face shamelessly against his master's hip, and his master ran a gentle hand over his hair that almost didn't hurt, though it also didn't ease the punishment-pain still proliferating through his skull the way it often did.

How could it, when Steve was probably still kneeling behind him being useless and beautiful?

"Can you look at me, sweetheart?"

Threetoo looked up before he could even think. Showing Steve the proper way to respond to his master's request, he told himself, but in truth he was greedy for the sight of his master's face, his master's eyes on him.

His master gave him a little smile and cupped his cheek with one hand. "Who's my number one project, Threetoo?"

Threetoo tilted his hand into his master's hand and raised his hand, willing it not to tremble as he signed. 3-2.

"That's right. We needed to bring Steve here right away, but I don't want you rushing into teaching him just yet, okay? You got hurt badly yesterday, and it was a rough day all around. You've got a lot of eating and resting to catch up on to make up for it, so for the next while you're going to do your thing and just let Steve do his, okay? He's not going to bother you, and you don't worry about teaching him anything or doing any training at least until your bandages come off. Maybe just think and plan how you're going to train him, what he needs to know."

Threetoo exhaled, letting his eyes close. His bandages would last for days, maybe a week--the last round had lasted nearly that long, and the ones on his arm had lasted longest. What he remembered of his glimpse of his arm told him that these would last at least that long.

And he certainly would need some time to work out where to even start training Steve.

He nodded, opening his eyes to look at his master, and signed, Yes, sir.

His master smiled and lowered his hand to rub at a star on Threetoo's collar. "And we're going to have to get you a reward or two for being so clever to think of this plan, aren't we? Another star or two, I think. Make you a four-star, how about that?"

Threetoo had to smile for that, absolutely not preening in Steve's direction. Smugness and competition were not proper behavior, at least not in the master's presence.

His master's hand came back up, tracing his cheekbone. "It's not time to eat again yet, but you should probably have some juice. You want to go get it, or you want Steve to bring it to you?"

Threetoo closed his eyes again as he signed, Steve, please, sir? Tired, sir. Please.

"Yeah, you go and rest, baby," his master murmured. "I'll show Steve where the juice is, get him set up. You just rest, that's your job for now."

Threetoo nodded gratefully to his master and turned away, crawling to his room.

The bedslave's room. Bedslaves' room, now.

But his pillow box was his alone; his master had promised that. All his pillows and blankets were his own rewards, not Steve's. Steve would have to earn his own somehow. He wouldn't learn if he got rewards for behaving incorrectly, after all.

Threetoo pulled the curtain firmly shut behind him when he climbed in, pausing only to sign to JARVIS, Dark behind curtain, please. He opened his eyes as the light started to dim, and saw his plant in the disappearing sunshine.

It needed light to eat. He was starving it, by keeping it in the dark. But his head was throbbing, his stomach roiling, and the light was like knives. He had to rest. He needed the darkness.

But the plant was his responsibility. His first project, number one. He couldn't keep it in the dark when it needed light.

He waded through his pillows, feeling sicker and dizzier every time they shifted under him, and lifted the plant down from his shelf. Cradling it against his chest, he struggled back through the pillows. He pushed it between the curtain and the wall to sit on the ledge of his pillow box, and tucked the curtain in behind it to keep the darkness complete.

It still wasn't in direct light, but it was the best Threetoo could do right now. He crumpled down into the pillows, panting with the effort, and waited for the pain to stop.

It ebbed a little, enough for him to think that that had not been a very auspicious beginning to his new project.

But his master had promised him new stars, and his master had told him it was all right to wait, to rest. He would get stronger. He could do better then. He would.

He just had to rest first.

Steve held his position like he was on the parade ground until Bucky disappeared through the open doorway of the bedslave's room. He let himself sit back on his heels then, his hands closing into fists as he stared at that doorway. The light coming through it dimmed somewhat, and he heard the distinct sound of a curtain being drawn.

Stark made an odd little flinching motion at the sound, drawing Steve's attention.

"I'll give you the tour, then," Stark said, so softly Steve didn't know if a person with normal senses could have heard.

Steve nodded, and pushed himself up to his feet with an effort. He felt as if those few minutes in Bucky's presence had been a beating, a barrage of bullets, from Bucky's blank, unrecognizing stare to his obvious discomfort with Steve's presence to the way he all but flung himself at Stark for comfort. And the comfort Stark offered...

Steve pushed the thought away, aware that he had intruded on something intimate, private, even if Stark hadn't appeared to feel any shame at speaking to Bucky that way, touching him so sweetly, in Steve's presence.

It was obvious that Bucky welcomed those touches and words--more than welcomed them, craved them, needed them. He had seemed to be strengthened by Stark's closeness, like a wilted flower uncurling in the sun. And Steve had been the one who left him needing Stark's strength and reassurance.

When Steve was on his feet, Stark took a few steps toward the bedslave's room, pausing at the doorway and directing Steve with a gesture to look inside.

The room was sunny and pleasant--bigger than the grim bedslave's quarters at Westfahl's, with a wide skylight letting the summer sky in. There was a curtain drawn across the back wall; Bucky's bed must be back there. Steve could hear him moving around on the other side, a fabric-on-fabric sound like he was rearranging his covers.

One edge of the curtain moved as Steve stood there, but Stark tugged his arm and he turned away, not lingering to see what Bucky was doing.

Stark gestured through the open doors of a walk-in closet and bathroom as they passed, obviously trusting Steve to see for himself what they were, then led him out of the bedroom. He closed the door silently behind them.

"Curtain closed means privacy," Stark said as soon as they were outside. "Back there is his space, you don't go through the curtain or even talk to him through it if he's got it shut. Understood?"

Steve nodded, and Stark let go of his arm like he'd forgotten he was holding on to it.

"Right. Uh, kitchen, that's back downstairs." Stark set off at a brisk pace, naming a guest bedroom and his office as they passed the relevant doors.

"J, have U grab a fresh pillow and blanket for Steve from supply," Stark said as they walked down the stairs. To Steve he added, "Threetoo's got a ton of 'em, I give them to him as rewards for stuff, so he'll probably be a little territorial about those? You can just ask JARVIS if you need more, we've built up kind of a stockpile, or... do you want a mattress or something? Bedroll? I didn't really think this through. You could sleep in the guest room if you want, or on one of the couches, or we could refit the closet, knock out a wall. When I redid that room for Threetoo it only took a day."

"I'll share. If that's okay." Steve said as they reached the kitchen. Stark opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of some kind of energy drink, the liquid inside luridly red. Steve took it when he held it out. "I'd... rather be close to him. And I don't mind sleeping on the floor."

It was carpeted and padded up there anyway; he'd slept on harder beds, he was pretty sure.

Stark nodded, and a robot rolled up--U, the like-DUM-E-but-not one who had been leading Bucky on the leash when Steve first saw him. He was carrying a pillow in a pale blue pillowcase, and a darker blue fleece blanket. Steve took them with his free hand, tucking them against his side.

"Right," Stark said. "Help yourself to whatever you want to drink or eat, I already locked up all the booze and I know you must need more than four thousand calories a day."

Steve pressed his lips together, knowing that Stark was quoting that figure from Pierce.

"I had a big breakfast," Steve said evenly. "I'm fine. I'll just take this up to... Threetoo."

He had to practice saying it. That was Bucky's name here, now. If Steve wanted to help him, help keep him safe, he couldn't forget that.

Stark nodded. "Good. Excellent. I said don't bug him, right? Just push it through the side of the curtain if he's got it pulled shut."

Steve nodded, looking down at the bottle in his hand.

"Believe it or not it's a good sign," Tony said abruptly. "The things that freak him out the most are usually things that push on the programming. He wasn't bothered by the idea of you before he saw you, so--there's something happening there. It's... it's a good sign."

Steve opened his mouth to say something--he had no idea what, half-choked by the kindness of Tony's brusque reassurance--but Tony rolled right on without a pause. "Right. You're oriented now. I'll be back in an hour or so when it's time for him to eat, but in the meantime I've got some work to do."

And with that, he turned and walked to the elevator, disappearing into it without a look back.

Steve stayed where he was until U tapped his metal claw against the back of Steve's hand--the hand holding the bottle of juice. Right. Bucky--Threetoo--needed something to drink.

Steve turned and hurried back up the stairs, back to the bedroom and the bedslave's quarters inside.

The curtain was still drawn, blocking off the back of the room and hiding Bucky's bed, but there was a small green plant perched on a low ledge like the side of a bathtub, right beside the wall. The curtain was carefully tucked behind it, preserving the privacy of the space on the other side.

Steve stood there for a moment, trying to puzzle out what the plant was doing there. It hadn't been there before; it must normally be in the area behind the curtain. Steve studied the curtain, and remembered the way the light coming from the room had dimmed.

There was no light at all coming from behind the curtain. There logically must be at least a lamp back there, if not another skylight, but nothing at all showed through the curtain. Stark had told Bucky to rest--and Bucky had certainly looked like he was tired enough to go straight to sleep.

Steve remembered his mother pinning a blanket over the window when he had sick headaches, when he couldn't bear even the distant glow of streetlights coming through the window at night, never mind the sun.

Steve looked up and mouthed, "JARVIS?"

A glowing keyboard appeared in front of him, and he picked out the letters of his question. Can I make it dark in here too? Just for a minute?

The skylight overhead dimmed, turning opaque, and the light from the bedroom outside also disappeared. A low red glow emanated from near the doorway from the bedslave's quarters into the bedroom, just enough to navigate by.

Steve picked out the letters for Thank you.

The keyboard disappeared. Steve wondered if--how much--JARVIS was still angry with him for what he'd tried to do to Stark.

Then he considered that JARVIS was apt to take that just a minute literally, and hastened to use his window of darkness. He hurried over to the curtain and picked up the plant so that he could put the bottle of juice in its place, pulling the curtain out over the ledge so that the bottle would be on Bucky's side of the divide.

The lights brightened as soon as the curtain was safely back in place, and Steve set the plant on top of a dresser, where a corner of the sunshine from the skylight fell on it. Bucky must have wanted to make sure it stayed in the light where it belonged.

He set his own pillow down on the floor beside it, in the same square of light, and for lack of anything else to do he lay down and settled the blanket over himself. He kept his eyes closed, breathing as quietly as he could, listening with all his might.

After a long time he heard movement from behind the curtain, fumbling that went on long enough for Steve to realize that Bucky only had one hand to uncap the bottle. Steve should have done it for him. Before he could think of how to offer without making things worse, he heard it come free, and then the sound of a few cautious, carefully-spaced sips. Definitely a sick headache, then.

Steve would be quiet, and guard his rest. He could do that much for Bucky, at least. It was a joy to be able to do that much.

He lay very still, and kept telling himself that until it sounded true.

The lab was clean, pristine, as if nothing had ever happened. The only thing out of place was the red leash, coiled neatly beside Tony's welding mask and heavy gloves. Categorized as safety equipment, presumably.

Tony left it there, untouched, while he paced around the lab in search of a project to settle on.

In search of some distraction from the project he didn't want to think about right now--the two projects he didn't want to think about.

It was absolutely true, what he'd told Rogers, but the fact that this was going to be good for Threetoo in the long run didn't mean it was going to be a picnic in the meantime. His distress had looked almost like physical pain, and his seizure rate had gone through the roof once Steve was in the room. And Tony couldn't fix that, had to just let it happen, because sooner or later the dam was going to break.

And when it did, the two of them would be riding off into the sunset together, like they should.

With the amount of time the two of them were going to have together, Threetoo might break through before he even had the bandages off his shoulder and stump. Even if he didn't remember all the way, he was bound to have some kind of subliminal feelings about the guy he'd been in love with, back when, once the first shock wore off.

Tony remembered the way Threetoo had smiled, waking up under a blanket, the very first night he was in Tony's care. It had been the smile of somebody waking up next to someone they loved. And now Tony knew who that was, and now the two of them were sharing quarters. Once Threetoo got over the initial weirdness of having Steve around, he'd probably invite Steve into the pillow box, and...

Right. There was a project Tony could work on--an urgent one, in fact.

"JARVIS," Tony said. "Two-way sound-canceling for an open doorway. Let's have the state of the existing tech, I need this ready to roll by bedtime."

JARVIS brought up an array of relevant tech specs, and Tony started sorting through them, losing himself in the one part of this problem he could actually solve. They wouldn't hear him having nightmares, and he wouldn't hear... anything they were doing or saying. Steve would be right there in the room if Threetoo needed something, after all. Tony wouldn't have any business intruding.

It was much better that way, really. With Rogers around, there would be no danger of Tony overstepping, letting his pathetic emotional attachment get in the way of what was best for Threetoo.

It really was an elegant solution. A+. Gold star. Problem solved.