By the time Threetoo managed to stop crying, the punishment pain had taken over his skull, the worst since he had come to his master. His master was still holding him, petting him and whispering to him, telling Threetoo that he was proud of him, that it wasn't his fault.
The punishment pain that filled his skull with a sensation like buzzing fire meant that it didn't matter whether it was his fault or not. He had failed in his duties—failed to eat, the simplest thing in the world—and he had to suffer for that.
Threetoo went limp and quiet in his master's arms, keeping his eyes shut and trying to breathe shallowly. If he didn't move at all, the pain at least stayed almost the same from one second to the next. It was still unbearable, but as long as it was steadily unbearable he could endure it without giving anything away.
His master's reassurances trailed away into quiet, and for a while his master simply held him, touching him gently. It might have been pleasant if he hadn't been struggling not to vomit again from the pain, and if even his master's gentlest touches hadn't felt as if they might unbalance him off some precarious edge.
Threetoo made himself as limp and heavy as possible. That was always safest, being boneless and unresisting with the lowest possible center of gravity.
After a while his master sighed and said, “Yeah, you're out.”
He stood up, heaving Threetoo into the air with him. The movement made Threetoo suck in a breath, struggling to stay properly limp. His head was jostled a little, and the pain sharpened and sloshed, drowning out anything his master might have said at that instant.
The next thing Threetoo knew was a sickening gentle swaying movement—his master was carrying him—and then they were rising on a smooth, precise vertical that still made him feel dizzy and even more wretched. More swaying as his master walked, and then he was lowered into his pillows.
He shivered at the loss of his master's warmth and the smothering, too-kind softness of the pillows around him. His master settled a blanket over him, which reminded him that he'd vomited on his favorite one, lightly touched his hair in a way that made the fire in his skull roar higher, and then vanished from Threetoo's awareness.
He still felt dizzy and sick, as if the pillows were swaying under him. It made everything hurt worse, but he shoved the second-best blanket away and burrowed deeper, slipping down under the layers of pillows until he reached the padded floor of the box. There the heat and stuffiness built up quickly, but at least he felt sure that he was on solid ground.
Tony gave Threetoo an hour to sleep it off—which was not entirely coincidentally the time it took to get Threetoo's blanket back from Sam and get it cleaned—and then went to wake him. He was bound to be hungry once he wasn't just feeling sick and miserable, and Tony didn't want him missing meals, losing ground, just because Tony had gotten impatient with his feeding schedule and had to experiment.
Especially not when he had told Threetoo that eating was his job. Threetoo would be beating himself up over failing to do his job. Tony needed to get him back on track, give him some successes to feel good about, ASAP.
He was going to get right on that as soon as he finished having a heart attack, because when he walked up to Threetoo's pillow box the blanket Tony had settled over him was on the floor and Threetoo was nowhere to be seen.
After half a second of blind panic, Tony noticed Threetoo's toes sticking out of the drift of pillows and recognized the displacement that made the pillows mound up higher than usual.
Depressingly, Threetoo didn't actually make much of a lump under all his pillows and blankets.
Tony put his face in his hands and forced himself to breathe, summoning up the calm to be Threetoo's master of all positive feedback all the time. Then he sat down on the edge of the pillow box and reached in, squirming a hand down through the pillows and blankets until he found Threetoo's stick-thin wrist, his fingers closing easily around it.
He gave it a gentle squeeze. “Hey, sweetheart, can you come up to the surface for me?”
He felt Threetoo jerk in his grasp and immediately let go. He sat back and watched Threetoo flail his way to the surface only to wince like a mole man at the light.
“JARVIS, opaque the skylights, lights to 50 percent.” The room turned dim as a restaurant in romantic evening mode, and Threetoo relaxed onto his cushions with a visible, if not audible, sigh of relief.
Tony reached out again, running a hand gently down Threetoo's spine as Threetoo's eyes sagged shut. He was obviously exhausted by the whole ordeal, if reassuringly more alert and responsive than he had been earlier. He had passed straight from sobbing into unconsciousness in Tony's arms, with maybe a turn through one of his poorly-quantified fugue states on the way.
Figure out how many different problems he has with maintaining consciousness later, Tony reminded himself. Get fluids and calories into him now.
The prominent bones under his hand were a pretty solid reminder of the priorities involved.
“Here, baby, I want you to eat something for me,” Tony said, reaching into his pocket for a little pod of energy gel. It was a sugary orange flavor that ought to be similar enough to the hard candies he'd enjoyed to be somewhere between unobjectionable and pleasant. “Just a little, you don't even have to chew, okay?”
Threetoo started to sit up and wavered.
Tony winced. “No, hey, you can stay in your pillow box to eat, just this once. I can see you're not feeling good, huh? Just—lie on your side. Come a little closer, okay?”
Threetoo sank back down as he nodded. He scooted over and through the pillows until he was curled toward Tony with his knees against the lip of the pillow box. He seemed like he was shivering again, though he'd evidently rejected the first blanket Tony covered him with and JARVIS always kept Threetoo's room warmer than the rest of the penthouse.
“Baby, you know I love to see you, but it's almost too dark anyway, and I think you're cold,” Tony said softly. “How about a blanket, huh? You can have your big pink one.”
Threetoo blinked, and then signed, Sorry. Made a mess on it.
Tony shook his head, beckoning U to come in from the doorway where he was hovering. “No, hey, messes are no problem. Look, it's already clean, we took care of it.”
Or rather, Sam had taken care of it and then some high-powered laundry machines had finished the job. Tony had folded it, though, so that made it a team effort. It was still toasty warm from the dryer. He laid the violently pink blanket over Threetoo, tucking it gently around him, laying one fold loosely over his arm so he could keep warm and still be able to sign.
Thank you, sir, Threetoo signed.
“You're welcome,“ Tony murmured. "Just want you to be warm and feel good, even when you're having a hard time. You know you didn't do anything wrong, don't you, baby?”
Threetoo bit his lip, looking up at him, and Tony ran a hand very gently over his hair. Threetoo went still under the touch—suppressing a flinch, Tony thought, hiding a wince of his own.
Right, back to business. He tore open the energy gel and held it to Threetoo's lips. “This is gonna be kind of a funny texture, just hold it in your mouth. Kind of swallow around it and let it go down slowly, okay? It shouldn't be too hard on your stomach that way.”
Threetoo parted his lips obediently, and Tony squeezed half of the packet into his mouth, just a little squirt of the stuff on his tongue. He watched the movements of Threetoo's mouth as he got the taste of it, moving it around his mouth. He looked puzzled by it, but at least not like he was going to puke again.
He licked his lips when it was gone, and Tony said, “Let's give that a second to hit your stomach, huh? You feel like it's gonna stay down?”
Threetoo signed, yes, sir, rather than nodding, and Tony realized that he probably had a headache, on top of any lingering feeling of sickness. That could explain the flinch at Tony's touch on his head, and his burrowing down to hide from the light.
“Your head hurting you, baby?” Tony tried running a hand over Threetoo's side.
No flinch this time, and Threetoo signed, Yes, sir, again, and then, Sorry, sir, and a half-hearted hand-flap to belatedly signal the pain.
“It's all right, you don't have to be sorry for hurting,” Tony said. “Go ahead and close your eyes if that feels better.”
Threetoo did, immediately, though he kept his face turned toward Tony. Tony could feel Threetoo's attention still on him, his face a little crumpled with tension or pain.
“Don't worry about not telling me, I should've asked sooner. It's not your fault. You're probably dehydrated. We'll get some fluids in you and then let you sleep some more, okay? J, check with Dr. Cho about what we can give Threetoo for a headache, please.”
“Checking now, sir,” JARVIS said, and U's arm extended through the door, holding a bottle of yellow-green calorie-boosted sports drink and a straw. It was a flavor Threetoo didn't drink often but showed no sign of disliking, so they wouldn't ruin a favorite for him if he was still feeling sick.
Tony took the cap off and tossed it back to U, sinking the straw into the bottle. He reached down to tuck the bottle between the front wall of the pillow box and the nearest pillow, then guided the straw to Threetoo's lips.
“Just a sip, sweetheart, just like when you first came to me. You remember that?”
Threetoo took a careful sip and signed, Yes, sir, and then, opening his eyes to look up, start over?
Tony remembered him signing those words before—right after Tony introduced him to DUM-E. Tony shook his head, running his hand over Threetoo's side again.
“No need to start over, Threetoo. This is just a temporary setback. We'll take it easy for the rest of today, but you've already made lots of progress, and we'll get back to it tomorrow. You're eating a lot more than you were on your first day, and you're doing great on your tests. Take another sip when you're ready, there.”
Threetoo took another sip, his eyes slipping shut again. U stuck his arm back in through the door and tossed the bottle cap back to Tony, now with a slightly-larger-than-straw-sized hole punched through it. When Threetoo had swallowed Tony gently removed the end of the straw from his lips so he could screw the cap on over it, then guided the straw back into place.
“There, basically spillproof, so you can just lie quietly and work on that. J, what's the word on headaches?”
“If the pain is not too severe, Dr. Cho prefers not to medicate at this time,” JARVIS said. “If the pain is intense enough to require it, she will need to examine—”
Threetoo's eyes squeezed shut more tightly and he quickly signed, please, sir, don't need.
“Okay, okay. Just look at me for a second, can you do that?”
Threetoo opened his eyes, turning his head a little to look at Tony straight on.
“Baby, if it hurts too much for you to sleep it off, you need to tell me.”
Threetoo winced, but shook his head. He signed, It will go away, sir. Please.
“Does it hurt in one spot, or only on one side?” Tony asked.
Threetoo signed, No, sir.
His pupils were the same size, appropriately wide in the low light, and both sides of his face moved symmetrically when he winced. Tony reminded himself that there was no reason to think Threetoo had had a stroke or a concussion or anything major. He'd done something stressful and thrown up and then cried himself out and now he had a headache: he was a fucking human being.
“All right. I'll stop bugging you and let you sleep it off,” Tony said. “You keep on sipping that juice whenever you're awake. Come on out if you're feeling better, otherwise just rest and I'll come and bring you a little more to eat when it's time.”
Thank you, sir.
“Just taking care of my Threetoo,” Tony murmured, squeezing gently on Threetoo's shoulder. “Anything else I can do to help you feel better?”
More dark please? Threetoo signed, his eyes opening to show the slightest glint of gray-blue in the already-dim room.
“Sure thing. J, just a night light.”
The overhead lights in Threetoo's room went completely dark, and no light came in from the bedroom. A little red light glowed inoffensively near the door.
Threetoo croaked out a very low, “Thank you, sir.”
Tony squeezed his own eyes shut, then curled down and kissed Threetoo's fingertips. “No problem, baby. Get some rest.”
Threetoo was able to obey his master, so he hadn't lied to avoid a visit from Dr. Cho. He rested, taking periodic sips from the straw, and the punishment pain slowly ebbed from his skull. He even slept, on and off.
He woke up and his master was beside him, a dim shape lit by the gentle red light. The pain was mostly gone by then, leaving behind the kind of exhaustion that weighted down his whole body, and an after-pain feeling like his skin was too thin, his whole body just an emptied-out eggshell. Any touch might shatter him.
But his master's hand, coming to rest on his knee, still covered in his blanket, only made him feel steadier.
“Hey, honey,” his master said, very low. “You think you can eat a little bit for me?
Threetoo nodded cautiously instead of signing his answer, and glimpsed his master's smile, the whiteness of his teeth reflecting the dim red light. "Good, that's good. You've got a fresh bottle of juice there, so take a sip first, this is pretty dry.”
Threetoo tilted his head slightly and found the straw, taking a careful sip. Red flavor this time, tasting sharp-sweet and cool. He let the straw slip from his lips, turning back toward his master.
His master held a plain salted cracker to his lips, and his mouth watered for it like he'd been starving. Threetoo closed his eyes and chewed it very carefully, focusing on feeling hungry and not sick. They were too close together sometimes. But his master's steadying hand helped him remember.
“Ready for something else?”
Threetoo looked up, and only realized then that his master had been utterly quiet and still while Threetoo chewed and swallowed. Normally he talked to JARVIS, or to Threetoo, during meals, or he was looking at a tablet or some other work. He was never this still, never silent. But he was sitting here in the dark with Threetoo, doing nothing but waiting for him to be ready to eat.
Threetoo blinked rapidly as his eyes watered, and he nodded.
“Okay, here we go.” His master touched something cool and round to his lips, and Threetoo squeezed his eyes shut at the thought of a blueberry, now, for this. But it was a simpler sweetness that took him a second to identify as a green grape, readily washing the rest of the cracker down his throat when he swallowed. There was another when he parted his lips, and then another cracker. Threetoo closed his eyes and almost dozed again, rousing only to eat what was touched to his lips, lulled by the quiet and his master's care.
Tony stayed there, perched on the edge of the pillow box, even after he'd hit the absolute volumetric limit on what Threetoo's stomach could handle in a thirty-minute window, and he could let Threetoo's drowsing between bites settle into actual sleep.
It was weird and uncomfortable being in the penthouse in daylight without Threetoo nearby. He should have gone to the lab, or at least closed his office door, but he couldn't bear to be too far away in case Threetoo needed him, and he couldn't concentrate on much of anything. He was constantly listening for Threetoo's approach, as if JARVIS wouldn't warn him—by shutting all the lights off, if nothing else—as soon as he stepped foot outside the pillow box.
Finally Tony scrubbed his hands over his face and forced himself to leave. Sitting in the dark watching Threetoo sleep crossed several creepiness lines he really shouldn't be crossing, even if Threetoo had had a rough day.
“Dim lights, everywhere,” Tony said as he opened the bedroom door, and when he stepped outside the whole penthouse was pleasantly twilight-dim, all the windows opaque. He went down to the main room and put on five different TV windows, all with the volume down low enough that he could only make them out if he concentrated, before he called up a schematic to work on. The babble of voices and the seeming darkness made it feel almost normal, like his life before the last eight days. He'd been an expert at pushing past feeling like something was missing, last week.
JARVIS actually didn't warn him, which Tony was going to feel a little betrayed by when he had time. Tony just saw a flash of hot pink out of the corner of his eye, and looked up to see Threetoo crawling around the end of the couch, clutching that hideous fleece blanket and trailing it behind him as he came. He hesitated, frowning, at the absence of his cushion near Tony's feet.
“Sorry, baby, didn't get that washed yet.”
Threetoo blinked and looked up at him almost in slow motion, like he was still half asleep and couldn't figure out what to do about not having a cushion to curl up on. He glanced toward the cushion by the armchair.
He could almost see Threetoo trying to work it out. Lay down there? Lay down on the bare floor by Tony? Pull the cushion over to Tony's feet? He was obviously too tired to even decide what he should do, let alone do it.
In the absence of Threetoo's usual certainty about what was correct, it felt dangerously like it wasn't protocol at all. Like it was just something Threetoo wanted enough to get out of bed for.
Tony shoved that thought away and focused on solving the problem.
“No, hey, come here, come up here.“ Tony patted the couch.
Threetoo looked uncertain. And, okay, they didn't share pieces of furniture… ever, but tonight was different, right? Even if it was… actually about five pm, whatever, it felt like the middle of the night, a little oasis of dim unreality. And it had been a rough day. For Threetoo.
Tony patted his thigh. "You can lie down and put your head right here, okay, honey? Nice and handy so I can pet you while I'm thinking and you can keep resting, I still want you to rest.”
Threetoo nodded, and dragged his blanket over, abandoning it on the floor as he crawled up onto the couch without ever raising any part of his body higher than Tony's lap. He eeled over and set his head exactly where Tony had indicated, resting on his thigh.
Tony leaned over him and grabbed the blanket.
“I still think you might be cold, so it's still blanket time. That was a good thought, bringing it down with you.” Tony flipped the blanket out expertly to cover Threetoo where he lay curled up on the cushions, and Threetoo's eyes were already closed by the time it settled into place.
Tony sat back and ran a hand gently over his hair, and Threetoo just snuggled closer, tucking his face in against Tony's thigh. Tony squeezed his eyes shut, not letting himself wonder what that could mean, if Threetoo was awake enough for it to be deliberate—or if he wasn't.
“TV off. U, bring me a gold star for Threetoo?”
U brought him the entire box, as well as the soldering iron, and Tony set them both on the arm of the couch. Threetoo was still wearing his collar, and Tony wouldn't take it off him until he was awake enough to know that he was getting a reward. But this way everything was ready.
Then, settling his hand gently on Threetoo's head, he got back to work. This time it wasn't hard to concentrate at all.