Sam set down the box of supplies he'd checked out of the clinic and pulled his phone out to check whether he had time to start sterilizing and setting things up before he needed to get to his first group. He did--it wasn't even eight yet--but while he was looking at his phone a text popped up from Tony Stark.
Can you spare me an hour of your time in the middle of the day?
By me I mean 32557038, the caged slave you brought up to intake last week. Although also me.
Sam frowned. He hadn't given the caged slave a lot more thought once he left him in the room for Tony to come and deal with; given the obvious physical injuries and the scary malnutrition, he had figured that one was going to be under medical supervision for a long time. He'd also figured that Tony had some connection with the guy, knew him somehow, but Tony was referring to him by his serial number, which was pretty fucked up, and also not normal for Tony at all.
Sam glanced at the box of stuff he'd acquired so Steve could do unspecified surgery on himself. Given how cagey Steve was being, Sam had already concluded it had to be something both sexual and horrific.
It was just going to be that kind of day, that much was obvious.
Sam checked his calendar and texted Tony back. I'm free from 11 to 1. What's up?
Tony replied instantly. Threetoo won't eat solid food without being handfed. I want to see if I can delegate, or if I am literally the only person he can accept food from. You're the only person he's met other than Fox who he doesn't have negative associations with, and I don't want to make him scared of her too.
That sounded like Emily was seeing 32... Threetoo. Sam could sound her out a little about what he was likely to be walking into, and she could reassure him that Tony hadn't gone totally off the rails keeping this slave.
Any time after 11 would be great, Tony added.
See you then, Sam replied. He took a last glance toward his bathroom and mentally pushed that off to the end of his shift. If he didn't get the setup done before Steve turned up, Sam would just make him help, maybe tell him some exciting infection and contamination stories as they worked.
For now, he left the supplies in their box and headed for Emily's office by way of the Starbucks on the 12th floor.
Emily took the lemon bar and iced mocha and let Sam sit down with his own coffee and baked goods, giving him an only mildly skeptical look. "I assume this means you know I'm going to ask you about the stuff you checked out from the clinic and you're just trying to get the conversation over with early. And efficiently, while we both caffeinate."
Sam winced. "No, actually, this is me buttering you up in hopes you'll bend confidentiality for me a little."
Emily raised her eyebrows and fastened her lips on the green straw, obviously in no hurry to tell him anything.
Sam shook his head and looked down at his own slice of cake. "Tony asked me to come up to the penthouse a little later, help him with... Threetoo?"
He looked up at the sound of Emily's plastic cup hitting her desk. She was frowning down at its surface, but glanced up after a second. "Have you met Threetoo before?"
Sam nodded. "Sorta. Brought him in from the truck after I helped Tony get Steve up to intake. Tony asked me to put him in a low-impact room, said he'd look after him personally, and I figured... I dunno, they must know each other or something, and Tony wanted a word before he put the guy into the regular intake process, or knew he was going to be freaking out and meant to calm him down. He was in a cage. It was obvious by his position and posture that he was awake and alert, but he kept his eyes closed the whole time. I talked to him, told him what I was doing as I brought him upstairs. That's it."
Emily nodded and picked up her cup, still giving him nothing. Sam had been through enough therapy to know that meant it was still his turn to talk. She clearly wanted to know what he knew about Threetoo before she decided what else she could tell him.
"He was--he looked almost dead. Emaciated, burns, and you could smell the infection in what was left of his arm, it was nasty. Plus he--" Sam glanced at Emily, his voice faltering as he got a really bad feeling about what she wanted to know if he knew. "He... was obviously a sex slave, and obviously it hadn't been long since he was last..." Sam gestured vaguely.
Emily nodded. "He still believes that he is one, or will be once he's physically recovered. He adheres to a lot of hardcore protocol and refuses to wear clothes in Tony's presence--out of Tony's presence I think he honestly just doesn't notice that he's naked."
Sam opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. He couldn't doubt Emily's--or Tony's--commitment to rescuing slaves and getting them to safety. It was not possible that Tony was actually using, or planning to use, Threetoo as a sex slave.
But having eliminated the impossible, Sam had no idea what was left.
"Tony doesn't usually stick around the slaves," Sam said slowly, feeling his way. "Even when he sees them up close during a rescue, he backs way off as soon as they're here."
Case in point, despite that business in the elevator that Steve probably didn't remember, and despite Steve now working up on the 91st floor, Sam was pretty sure Steve had never seen Tony since the night he was rescued.
Once again, Emily nodded slightly and stayed silent, so Sam set himself to figuring out the Tony side of things, trying to put words to things he'd barely noticed, the joking-not-joking things Tony said sometimes. "He's borderline compulsive about keeping his distance. He expects all of them to hate him. He doesn't... impose his presence on them."
Between the magnitude of what Tony did for these people and the traumas they'd suffered beforehand, it was almost impossible for him to interact with them at all without implicitly seeming to ask them for some quid pro quo, if only gratitude. Sam thought Tony took it a little further than he needed to, in most cases, but taking things a little too far was Tony Stark's MO.
"Well, you don't usually pull buddy duty with newcomers, either," Emily pointed out. "And you definitely don't make off with medical supplies including scalpels for newcomers to make use of in private."
Sam looked away.
He wanted to say that Steve wasn't a duty, but the fact that it had started without Sam being officially assigned didn't change the nature of their relationship. Steve was freshly rescued form a horrific situation, and he needed someone to trust, someone to guide him. Sam knew he was doing that, and he knew, logically, that regular assigned buddies would feel this same fierce affection for their charges.
He still wanted to insist that he wasn't Steve's buddy but Steve's friend. He really, really didn't want to think about whether Tony struggled with making some similar argument about whatever was going on between him and Threetoo.
"Threetoo is nowhere near making the leap and figuring out what's going on here," Emily said. "I meet with him regularly, but he's definitely one of those for whom unexpected liberation is also a trauma. Given his physical condition and a psyche that I am still trying to get the least part of a handle on--we're not pushing him to take another trauma on board, not yet."
"Tony..." Sam frowned. "Tony doesn't deal with these people. He doesn't have training. Are you sure he knows how to..."
"No," Emily said frankly. "He's probably not getting everything right. But Threetoo is a hard case; I don't think anyone would get everything right with him. He feels secure with Tony and is sleeping at night, relearning how to eat, doing math I don't understand for fun, and hasn't been raped in eight whole days, so Tony's not getting everything wrong, either."
Sam nodded slowly.
"I'll send you some stuff to read about eating disorders and severe malnutrition, and the kind of protocol he's adhering to," Emily added, turning slightly away from him to indicate that they were done for now. "Oh, and I'm sure Tony will tell you, but don't touch him. He doesn't like being touched by anyone who isn't Tony."
Sam frowned, glancing down reflexively at his own hands and the chunk of pound cake he was holding. "I'm supposed to hand feed him."
"Hope you have steady hands, then," Emily said absently. "Because he really, really doesn't like being touched."
Sam managed to read most of the stuff Emily sent him--worryingly, she also sent a bunch of information on absence seizures and different kinds of dementia and memory loss--before his groups. It was a relief to close the files and go sit with his veterans and talk to them about the kinds of trauma and readjustment he was used to helping with. After a couple of hours he was back to feeling like he knew what he was doing and was some kind of real help to somebody.
Then he went back to his apartment to drop off his stuff and saw the box of medical supplies for Steve and his laptop open where he'd been reading. He itched to go cram a little more before the practical test, but he texted Tony instead.
I'm free now, should I come up?
Yeah, now is good. J might keep you in the elevator for a minute until Threetoo's ready for you to come in, don't be alarmed.
Sam snorted and headed back out of his apartment to the elevator that went up to Tony's private floors.
"Penthouse?" Sam said as he stepped into the elevator.
"Indeed," JARVIS replied as the doors closed.
"Did Tony not tell him I was coming until right now?" Sam was reminded of his sister planning trips for her kids, surprising them with the news when they came out of school so they wouldn't be worked up for weeks beforehand.
"He did not," JARVIS agreed. "But 32557038 seems to be accepting the news with equanimity."
Sam wasn't ready for the elevator doors to slide open and plunge him into this situation, but as it happened, he wasn't really plunged into anything. He stepped out into the huge soaring space of the penthouse... living area? Great room? It was bigger than Sam's entire apartment several times over even without counting the kitchen area he could see into, and there was nothing in it but some reasonably comfortable-looking couches and chairs.
There were strategically positioned pillows, he noticed, next to one armchair and one couch. They were flat and plush, the size of dog beds, and thanks to his rapid skim-reading about sex slave--bedslave, if you were gonna be that fancy--protocol, he had a really good idea what they were for.
"Sam! Hey, thanks for coming up." Tony appeared, jogging down the stairs in the casual clothes he had been wearing on the handful of other occasions Sam passed him in the halls somewhere above the 85th floor. This was the Tony Stark who Sam knew as a sort of colleague, unlike the suit-wearing slickly-smiling guy he saw sometimes on TV. Last week, when he'd helped Tony bring Steve inside, his suit had been profoundly obvious as a costume that the Tony he knew was wearing.
There was no sign of Threetoo; Sam glanced uneasily at the pillows and wondered if he wasn't actually mobile on his own. Or...
"He's not still in that cage, is he?" Sam blurted, finally running out of the ability to silently absorb all of this shit.
Tony stopped short at the bottom of the stairs, his expression startled for a fraction of a second and then a little pained.
"No! No, we are a totally cage-free environment up here. I don't know what happened to that thing, actually. Probably didn't just get tossed in the dumpster. JARVIS? Do we recycle cages?"
"32557038's transport cage has been placed in storage on the 90th floor," JARVIS said. "It was categorized as a personal item, out of an abundance of caution, and since he arrived with no other material possessions."
Sam winced. The 90th floor was all storage--paper files on slaves who had left, because the information was safer on paper than anything networked, a few unlabeled locked doors Sam didn't plan on asking about, and an endless series of rooms that warehoused stuff that rescues had come in with and didn't ask to keep with them. Up there in bankers boxes were a lot of collars and uniforms and body jewelry; they were held until the person they belonged to left Stark custody or until they asked for those things back, for whatever they might want to do with it. A lot of that stuff wound up getting burned in the little park on the roof.
Sam didn't know how Threetoo would go about destroying the cage, if and when he was well enough to want to, but if Tony was this involved he would probably be supplied with all the lasers and explosives he could want for the job.
Tony looked like he might also be contemplating laser-cutting that cage--which Sam remembered, from having to get the thing off the truck, almost certainly weighed more than Threetoo did. It had been solid enough that it seemed like it could hold back a rabid mastiff, never mind a toothpick-thin slave who was missing most of one arm.
Tony shook his head, refocusing on Sam. "No, he's just--I thought I should probably give you a better idea of what to expect than you have. Unless Dr. Fox did that already?"
Sam shook his head. "I mean, I have all of this totally nonspecific background knowledge about refeeding, bedslave protocol, absence seizures, and memory loss, and she did tell me not to touch him, but..."
Tony nodded and gestured over toward the couches. Sam sat down as far as he could from any of the strategically placed kneeling pillows. Tony gave him a wry look and kicked one over to rest beside his feet. He sat down at the other side of it, with most of the length of the couch between them. "He likes to be between my feet, but he doesn't belong to you, so he'll keep more of a distance."
Sam nodded. "Okay."
"He won't be wearing clothes. He remembers you putting a blanket or something over his cage when you brought him up to intake, and he is tentatively on board with you covering him with a blanket after I leave."
Sam looked around for blankets immediately.
Tony said, "He's picking out a few suitable candidates, he'll bring them down. He probably won't stand or walk in your presence but if he does, do not react. Act like that's normal and you didn't expect him to do anything else. He'll walk sometimes when I'm out of the penthouse--I tried to pitch you as someone on my staff and of lower status than Emily or Dr. Cho, to see if we can get him to categorize you the same as JARVIS and the bots--somebody he doesn't have to perform for who doesn't have power over him except to carry out my instructions."
"Which... I am," Sam pointed out.
Tony pointed firmly at him. "Yes. See? Works out great."
Sam glanced toward the stairs and back down. "And he has memory loss? Is he going to get confused about who I am? I mean--I guess not, if he remembers me from eight days ago?"
Tony nodded. "He remembers you. So far neither I nor Dr. Fox can figure out if he knows anything from before eight days ago, including his own name, except that he does math like somebody who's had some formal education in it. He does have a certain amount of baseline background knowledge, but there are all kinds of weird gaps. He gets agitated at any mention of stuff that happened before he came here, or anything that draws attention to everything he doesn't remember, so, you know, confine all small talk strictly to the present?"
Sam raised his eyebrows. "Wasn't planning to ask him where he lost that arm, man."
Tony's mouth twisted up on one side. "Yeah, definitely not that. And if you can, you need to avoid drawing attention to his seizures, too. Just ignore them, pretend they don't happen. He gets upset trying to watch any kind of video or movie because he can tell he's missing things, so the easiest thing, if you aren't practiced at spotting them, is to just not talk to him all that much. The seizures get worse when he's stressed, and this is going to stress him, so he's going to be having a lot of them; if you try to talk to him continually you'll get a bad feedback loop going. You know Heimlich, right? That's an exception to not touching him, obviously, if he chokes."
Sam nodded. That possibility had crossed his mind, reading the information on absence seizures, but he'd hoped that it was more remote than this.
"And I'll come back in right away, if that happens," Tony added. "He'll be upset, but I'll take over from there. And honestly if we get him that close to swallowing food without me in the room I'll count this as a success."
Sam nodded slowly. "So you're... not going far."
Tony gave him a look like he was crazy. "Well I thought about just giving you twenty bucks for pizza and hopping on a plane for Malibu, but then I thought maybe I should be a little closer than that the first time, yeah."
Sam elected not to point out that Tony had just made it sound like he was leaving Sam in charge of Tony's child rather than a slave Tony had somehow ended up taking charge of a little more than a week ago.
On the other hand, if Tony had been handfeeding Threetoo everything he ate every few hours for the last eight days, that was... a hell of a bonding experience. Sam wasn't willing to be out of earshot while Steve did whatever he needed to do tonight, and Steve was mostly in his right mind and shockingly physically resilient; he couldn't really throw stones at Tony for hovering.
"Yeah, okay, fair," Sam said. "You sure you don't want to try this with you in the room, first?"
Tony shook his head. "I'm going to tell him that you're watching him for me, and to obey you while I'm gone, and see if that works. If I'm here..."
Tony trailed off, staring down at the pillow on the floor for a moment.
"I... strongly suspect that if I'm here, he'll do it no matter what," Tony said finally. "Because I told him to do it and he wants to please me. But it fucks with him to go against all this protocol he's trained in, and I don't want to hurt him or... set him off."
Sam raised his eyebrows, sending a new kind of glance over Tony. He was a pretty strong guy, in the mostly-practical sense of somebody who liked to work on machinery and heaved pieces of it around while he did it, but he wasn't a fighter.
Sam couldn't see any marks, but that didn't mean much. "Does he get violent?"
Tony snorted, his gaze jerking up to meet Sam's, and he was smirking like that was a nasty joke. "No. Not like that. And not in any way you have to worry about; you're not a guest, I was very clear about that. No hospitality for you."
Sam felt a little sick at the implication. "Tony, if you're worried--"
"It's fine, he's fine, he didn't do anything bad," Tony said firmly. "It's--an abundance of caution, that's all. And anyway, if I have to be in the room for him to eat I might as well be feeding him, right? This is just a diagnostic test. If we have to get into prolonged food training so he can eat with someone else that'll be a whole other thing. Extended exposure therapy for a traumatic eating disorder isn't in your job description, as far as I know."
Sam shrugged. "Fifteen percent of my job description is Other duties as assigned, actually."
Tony snorted. "Yeah, well, remind me to write something for your personnel file, for your next performance evaluation. JARVIS--"
"Noted," JARVIS said. "And 32557038 is on his way down."
Tony twisted in his seat, looking toward the elevators, and Sam followed his gaze. The one on the left opened, and even though he had just done all the damn reading, Sam still looked at head height first and saw only a robot. He had to adjust his gaze downward to find Threetoo on his hands--hand--and knees. He was wearing a collar now, a gaudy red thing with one gold star to the side of the golden tag dangling from his throat.
He looked thinner than Sam remembered, which might be an artifact of him being up and moving, or just his mind refusing to hold on to exactly how thin Threetoo really was. But he had his chin up, his eyes open and bright, and he was clean and obviously well cared for, all his injuries now healed. Even the stump of his left arm was closed in a neat pink scar now, though Sam would have expected an infection like the one he'd smelled to take a hell of a long time to beat.
Sam's reading hadn't made him anything like an expert, but he could see the care Threetoo took with his posture as he crawled toward them, his head held high and back straight. It shouldn't have been possible for him to be graceful, but he was. And his eyes stayed fixed on Tony like he was the North Star.
Sam shifted around to face front, letting Threetoo, trailed by a large industrial robot making like a St. Bernard in nanny mode, make his way around to the front of the couch without him watching.
"Here, sweetheart, on the cushion," Tony directed, his voice gone soft and warm.
Sam glanced over at Tony, but he showed no sign of being aware that he'd said anything strange. Threetoo settled on the cushion between them, sitting on his heels facing the couch, so that he didn't have his back to either of them.
He looked up at Sam for the first time.
Sam smiled, raising one hand in a wave. "Hi, Threetoo. Good to see you up and around. I'm Sam. I helped bring you in the night you arrived."
Threetoo nodded, and raised one hand to sign in rapid fingerspelling. Green letters appeared in the air above his hand, JARVIS translating the signs. I remember. Hello, Sam. Thank you.
"Hey, no problem," Sam said, signing back, You're welcome. "Just doing my job."
Threetoo nodded acknowledgement and turned his attention toward Tony, who was beaming at him like he'd done a magic trick. Tony turned it down a notch as he said, "Okay, sweetheart, I've gotta head down--" Tony stopped abruptly, like a frozen video, and Sam looked and realized that he had reacted to Threetoo going unnaturally still.
"Is that..." Sam said.
"Yep," Tony replied, barely moving his lips, his eyes fixed intently on Threetoo. "Don't think you have to--" He suddenly became animated again. "To the lab now, like I said, but Sam's going to hang out here like we talked about. You're gonna be a good Threetoo while I'm gone, right?"
Threetoo nodded, darting another glance at Sam.
"And if Sam tells you to--" Tony froze again, and Sam looked down to see Threetoo was gone again. "He drinks!" Tony said in an entirely different, urgent tone. "By himself! Don't react to that eith--" Tony snapped into animated motion again, "do something, then he's telling you for me, and I want you to do your best to do what he tells you, right?"
Threetoo bit his lip but nodded again, looking cautiously at Sam, then glancing toward the stack of blankets on the base of the robot who had followed him out of the elevator.
"We both know I'm not your master," Sam tried, "I know it's not gonna be the same--"
"Stop," Tony put in.
Sam stopped, watching Threetoo's motionless face until he blinked, refocusing.
"It's okay," Sam offered awkwardly, not sure how much Threetoo had missed; he could see why Tony had told him it was better to just not talk to him too much, because he obviously wasn't going to pick up Tony's trick of stopping and starting along with Threetoo anytime soon. "I'm not gonna tell you to do anything weird."
Threetoo's blank expression got blanker, and Sam tried not to wince visibly. Tony put a hand out to stroke over Threetoo's hair and added, "JARVIS will be watching all the time. If anything happens that I need to know about, or if there's reason for me to come back, he'll let me know. But Sam is here because I want him to be here, and you're going to be a good Threetoo for me and do what Sam tells you while I go do some work."
Threetoo was visibly comforted by the promise of constant surveillance.
Honestly, Sam was relieved himself. At least he wouldn't be responsible for judging when things had gone too far wrong and he had to call Tony back.
Tony gave Threetoo a last few touches, leaning down to murmur something in his ear, and then left without further ado. As soon as the elevator door closed behind him, Threetoo was watching Sam, and Sam stood up and walked over to the robot.
Threetoo's eyes followed him, and when he crouched beside the stack of folded blankets, Sam looked back, meeting Threetoo's eyes. He didn't bother asking, he just watched Threetoo's face as he moved his hand down to the second blanket, then the third, then...
Threetoo bit his lip, eyes widening faintly, so Sam pulled out that blanket--a hot pink fleece monstrosity that was pleasantly hefty and soft as hell. He stood to shake it out, then draped it over Threetoo where he was sitting on the pillow.
He wondered why Threetoo had even brought the whole stack of blankets down, rather than just presenting Sam with either the blanket he thought was proper or the one he really wanted. Threetoo didn't look at Sam or the rest of the blankets once he was covered up, just curled down on his cushion and reached up to pull a StarkTab out from under a cushion on the couch.
There was no lunch in evidence, and Sam figured that when it was time for Threetoo to eat, food would appear, which meant they had some time to kill here. That was probably good. They could acclimate to each other, Threetoo could calm down from Tony leaving him alone with Sam and Sam could demonstrate that he really wasn't going to do anything weird in Tony's absence.
Sam grabbed the top blanket on the stack--the one that Threetoo probably considered the most presentable, like the towels his mom put in the downstairs bathroom when company was coming over. It was velvety soft, striped in muted brown and green that mostly reminded Sam of jungle camo. He went back to the couch and sat down where he'd been before, but now he turned sideways, leaning against the arm of the couch, and pulled the blanket over himself.
Threetoo didn't exactly pick up his head and stare, but he went really still for a few seconds, which Sam suspected was about as close to saying what the fuck as Threetoo was going to get with him.
Sam said, "Do you need this one?"
Threetoo unfroze and shook his head slightly, then, moving cautiously, he reached toward the blankets. U rolled closer, so Threetoo didn't have to stretch off his cushion, and Threetoo grabbed one of the remaining blankets. He rolled it into a little log to prop his chin on while he poked at the tablet.
Sam pulled out his phone and started checking his email, keeping half an eye on Threetoo as he did. There were a few times he went oddly still, but Sam wasn't actually sure whether he was having seizures or just thinking intently about whatever he was doing on the tablet. Emily and Tony had both mentioned him doing math, which seemed like the kind of thing that might require some staring into space. JARVIS didn't say anything to Sam and Tony didn't reappear, so if he was having seizures, it couldn't have been bad enough to worry about.
Sam had almost actually forgotten what he was there for--that he wasn't just chilling on Tony's couch, keeping Threetoo company, for no particular reason--when the robot abruptly whirred off to the kitchen. Threetoo froze in a different way, then, and Sam sat up, pushing his blanket aside and setting his phone down.
"Lunch will be served shortly, gentlemen."
"Okay," Sam said, looking down at Threetoo, using his most soothing patter-for-new-arrivals voice. "So, like Mr. Stark said, you--"
Threetoo actually looked up at him then, a direct steady gaze, and Sam stopped short, abruptly aware that he had been underestimating Threetoo. He wasn't stupid. All the song and dance Tony had done before leaving to make this okay for him didn't mean he didn't understand what they were doing here, and also...
Also, Sam was abruptly aware of why you might feel the need to put this man in a cage that weighed more than he did.
The effect wasn't spoiled, exactly, by the way the awareness went in and out of Threetoo's eyes twice in the minute it took U to come back with food, but it made something twist painfully in Sam's chest. His mind flashed on the polar bear in Central Park, ceaselessly swimming his figure eights in his little pool, an apex predator turned into public entertainment.
Then Threetoo looked away toward the robot, as it rolled up with a tray, and Sam was back to figuring out how to do the job he'd come here for. Sam set the tray down beside him on the couch, giving its contents a quick look. It had obviously been set up to make this simple for him--one half of the tray held his own usual lunch order at the building cafeteria: turkey sandwich, chips, vitamin water that he knew wasn't really any better than soda but drank anyway.
The other half was, therefore, obviously for Threetoo. Chicken cut into cubes, some kind of multigrain crackers, baby carrots, strawberries, and a bottle of luridly purple sports drink. Sam uncapped the bottle and handed it over to Threetoo, who sat up and took a sip, letting his blanket hang loosely around him. It covered his lap, which was all Sam really cared about.
"Okay," Sam said, watching Threetoo's face to be sure he was in there. "Here we go. Take your time."
He picked up half a strawberry and held it out, close to Threetoo's face but not trying to jam it into his mouth. Threetoo's eyes went blank before Sam even had the berry in position; he glanced down to see if Threetoo's drink was in danger of spilling, but he had it resting in his lap with his hand curled around it.
Sam flicked his gaze back up to Threetoo's face, and the emptiness of a seizure had been replaced by a frown of concentration. Sam opened his mouth to say something encouraging and then shut it again. Threetoo didn't want or need to be coaxed through this by Sam. He was going to try as hard as he could, and they both knew that already.
Sam looked away, instead, keeping his right hand steady and picking up his sandwich with his left. He took a bite, chewed and swallowed, and figured out how to get his chips and drink open one-handed. His arm was starting to ache with the strain of holding absolutely still, and then in his peripheral vision Threetoo swayed closer. Sam tried not to freeze unnaturally himself, but he made a little startled noise when Threetoo's lips brushed his finger as he took the strawberry.
He let himself watch then. Threetoo went absent almost immediately, but his mouth stayed closed around the strawberry. Sam forced himself to take another bite of his sandwich, giving Threetoo something like privacy when he came back to himself and started effortfully chewing. He swallowed like he was trying to choke down pills, and Sam saw the tell-tale jerk of gagging reflected in his belly and chest, but he didn't choke.
Sam nodded toward his drink, and Threetoo took a quick sip while Sam eyed the other options. Everything else was going to be harder to swallow, but there was no use putting him through this for the caloric content of strawberries, either. Sam picked up a piece of chicken and held it out, looking away again as Threetoo resumed his battle.
It was the same as before, except that Threetoo gagged twice before he even started leaning in toward Sam's hand, and Sam was in actual pain from holding his hand steady by the time Threetoo took his bite of food. Sam jerked his hand back to flex it a little, out of sight, and took another bite of his sandwich while he carefully didn't watch Threetoo chewing.
Eventually Threetoo took another sip of his purple drink, signaling that he'd won the fight with a one-ounce cube of chicken. Sam took a drink of his own vitamin water and picked up a carrot left-handed, twisting to offer it to Threetoo and give his right arm a rest.
His gaze crossed Threetoo's face as he did, and their eyes met. Threetoo's expression of grim determination softened for an instant into something like a gallows humor Sam could recognize. He returned a look of wry sympathy--I know, man, this is some serious bullshit--and Threetoo's eyes squeezed almost shut as he threw himself forward the few inches he needed to take the carrot from Sam's left hand.
It almost worked. Threetoo's face went slack with absence twice, but his jaw kept flexing mechanically both times, until the carrot had to be nothing but pulp in his mouth. His eyes opened wider as he finally swallowed, and he froze--the normal, startled kind--at the sight of Sam.
Then he gagged, hard, his whole body seeming to cave in from the center. He made a tiny wet sound as a glob of bright orange was ejected from his mouth onto the hot pink blanket.
Sam was already on his feet, hands extended, but he didn't know how to help without touching. Threetoo jerked again and threw up a dark stream of liquid that had probably started out, a few minutes ago, as purple.
Sam crouched lower, and got exactly far enough to see tears on Threetoo's face before he retched again, bringing up mostly bile this time. Sam didn't have time to pull back before he was being shoved firmly out of the way.
"Hey, sweetheart, here, I've got you."
Tony whipped the blanket--which had caught most of the vomit--out of the way, shoving it in the direction of a spreading spill and Threetoo's fallen juice bottle. Sam moved toward it to start mopping up the mess, but he couldn't help noticing that Tony had shown up with a damp washcloth, which he was already using to wipe Threetoo's face with one hand, smoothing his hair back with the other. He didn't seem to notice when Threetoo gagged again right over his hand.
"Shh, shh, easy, I've got you," Tony repeated, gathering Threetoo's naked, shivering form into his arms and wiping his face again. "Just breathe, baby, just relax, it's all right. You were such a good Threetoo for me, you tried so hard to do that. I know you did, baby, it's okay, it's just new data, right? New data. Now we know how that went. It's okay. It's okay."
Sam managed to bundle up the blanket with all the wettest and smelliest parts to the inside, and looked toward Tony, who nodded and tossed the washcloth. Sam flipped a corner of the blanket over it and stood up as he realized that the convulsive movements of Threetoo's body weren't gagging anymore, but sobbing--both equally silent.
"I know, baby, I know, that was nasty, but I'm so proud of you," Tony was murmuring, his cheek against Threetoo's hair, his hands moving in gentle, soothing patterns over bare skin. "Shh, it's okay, we'll handle it. It'll be fine. You'll be fine. In fact, I think you need a reward for this, what do you think? Something to balance it out?"
Tony tapped a thumb against Threetoo's red collar, the spot where there was a gold star on the other side.
Sam turned away, feeling like he'd seen way more than he should have. He tried not to listen to any of the other things Tony whispered as he walked to the elevators.
Still, he couldn't stop thinking of the awareness in Threetoo's eyes, that determined motion when he took his last bite; he couldn't imagine being down that far, and knowing it, and getting knocked down further. He was pretty sure he would cry in the arms of anybody who held still long enough if it happened to him.
He found himself back at his own apartment without having decided to go there. He still had more than an hour before his next group, but he couldn't face the cafeteria downstairs; the thought of food even without that many other people around was sickening. He took Threetoo's blanket and the washcloth into his kitchen, rinsing them under cold water to get the worst of the mess off.
His gaze fell on the box of supplies he'd picked up for Steve, and he glanced at the clock again. He had plenty of time to get started making a near-sterile space, and there wasn't anything better for him to do with his time right now.
As he got started scrubbing, thinking again about what was going to happen here tonight, he knew one thing for damn sure: he wasn't going to lay a finger on Steve unless Steve asked him to, no matter what he thought about Steve's choices. No matter how long he had to wait, watching out of the corner of his eye, or only listening if Steve wouldn't let him stay to supervise.
He also knew he would be waiting right outside the door in case it all went wrong.