When Steve had been lying still and quiet for a little while, he found his ears attuned to Bucky's breathing. He winced when he recognized the sound of it: carefully even and shallow, without the slightest accompanying sound of movement. That was Bucky in pain, or lying awake in the night trying not to give himself away.
Steve had always figured, when he lay in camp listening to Bucky breathing like that, that he was remembering the factory at Kreischberg--his imprisonment, and that table Steve had found him on. Now that Steve knew what Bucky had survived, he couldn't help wondering if it had been more than that keeping Bucky awake at night. Had he felt himself changing in slow motion the way Steve had changed inside Howard's Vita-Ray chamber? Had he known what Zola did to him, or had he been left to wonder?
Would he ever remember enough of those nights to tell Steve what his nightmares had been, or had other nightmares long since blotted them out?
After an agonizing three-quarters of an hour, the sound of Bucky's breathing changed to something even more familiar. The softness of sleep, real sleep, which Steve had heard in his ear and felt against the back of his neck more times than he could count. He fell into something like a doze himself, lulled by the sweetness of it and the sudden release of tension.
When a distant sound woke him, there was a second when he didn't know where he was, only that Bucky was near. Was it their day off, precious hours wasted drowsing in the park? Were they napping in camp ahead of a night raid?
He opened his eyes and saw the potted plant and the skylight, and recognized the soft pad of approaching footsteps. Stark--Stark the younger. Tony.
Steve got silently to his feet and strode out of the bedslaves' quarters and across the big bedroom. He reached the doorway into the hall when Stark was only a couple of steps away.
Stark stopped short. He was carrying a tray of food in assorted bite-sized pieces, including a little bowl of some kind of rainbow-colored bon bons, and for the barest instant he looked surprised to see Steve there. Steve held up a hand and stepped out into the hall, pulling the door shut after him.
"He just fell asleep, maybe ten minutes ago," Steve said softly. "The worst of the headache must've passed, but I don't think he'll be ready to eat until he wakes up on his own."
Stark looked past Steve, as if Threetoo might materialize behind him, and said, "The worst of what headache."
"Oh," Steve said. Right, he'd only recognized it himself from seeing how dark Bucky had made his sleeping area, and the plant, and what he'd heard. "Yeah, he... he made it pitch black where his bed is, and I could hear him being real careful drinking that juice, like he felt sick, so I figured... sick headache. I had a bunch of 'em when I was a kid, for weeks after I got my bell rung real hard in a fight. He hit his head yesterday, didn't he?"
Steve felt a little sick himself as his memory answered his own question with the sick sound of Bucky's head hitting the floor of Stark's lab.
"Sick headache," Stark repeated, shoving the tray into Steve's hands and turning half away to rub his eyes. Steve was a little glad to have something to hold on to and gripped it tightly. "Migraine. But it didn't start yesterday, did it? JARVIS, how did we miss this? The other day, he asked for dark--"
"He felt sick first, sir," JARVIS pointed out. "The headache appeared to follow after. He has made his sleeping area artificially dark twice before, but there was no reason to conclude that he was experiencing migraine symptoms."
"But now there is, so is he? Was he?" Stark demanded. "Did we--" Stark focused sharply on Steve again. "You're sure he's sleeping? He's not lying there in pain?"
"I mean, I can't guarantee he hasn't woken up in the last two minutes," Steve said, nodding toward the closed door. "But I know he fell asleep maybe ten minutes ago. His breathing changed. Relaxed."
Stark stared at him for a couple of seconds, utterly still, and then shook his head and turned away, muttering, "Right. You know the sound of his breathing. Of course. Okay. JARVIS, check with Cho about migraine options and what we can do without her physically examining him. And tell me the second he pushes the curtain back."
"Of course, sir," JARVIS assured him.
Stark didn't seem at all reassured. He took a couple of abortive steps, one direction and then the other, obviously worried about Threetoo and not knowing what to do with himself when he couldn't help.
Steve was familiar with the feeling. He raised the tray of food into Stark's eye line and said, "I'm guessing this was your lunch as well as his?"
Tony stopped, narrowing his eyes, and said, "I know for a fact that he did not have a chance to tell you it's your job to make sure I eat. And it's not your job. Or his."
"Okay," Steve said agreeably. "But there's this food that's gonna go to waste, since--"
Steve stopped short, experiencing a weird retrospective recognition as the words I know you're not going to feed this to him if it's not fresh occurred to him.
DUM-E had brought him blueberries, a carton discarded half-full. All the ones left had been crushed or oddly shaped or otherwise imperfect. And Steve knew that Bucky liked blueberries. He was willing to bet that Tony knew it, too, and only gave him the best.
Stark ran a hand through his hair and then nodded, gesturing toward the stairs to the lower level. "Yeah, okay. I want the actual story on you and him--and, hey, medical history. You know his?"
"Uh," Steve said. "Well, up to 1945, I guess. Roughly."
Stark raised his eyebrows, but didn't ask any more questions until they were down in the kitchen, the tray on the island between them. Tony waved Steve toward a stool, so he perched there while Tony paced around, fetching drinks and napkins and setting the dish of brightly-colored bon bons pointedly to one side before he picked up a cracker from the tray and popped it into his mouth, waving at Steve to follow suit.
"So," Tony said. "From the beginning."
"Well," Steve said, building a tiny cracker-and-chicken-and-cheese sandwich from the tray. "My folks were enslaved in exchange for passage from Ireland in 1916..."
He expected Tony to get impatient and tell him to talk about Bucky, or the war, but Tony just nodded, watching him intently and continuing to eat, so Steve kept talking between bites, explaining that his mother had been pregnant with him when his father was killed in the Great War and was emancipated, granted citizenship, as his death benefit. He told Tony how Bucky's family had been better off, how he and Bucky had lived only a few blocks apart but in subtly different worlds, since their flat had been quite a different place from the tenement apartment Steve shared with his ma.
"I always knew where I was headed," Steve said. "Ma didn't like it, didn't want that for me, but... times were hard--I was eleven when the Crash hit--and me being sick a lot didn't make it any easier. But when Bucky was sixteen, he suddenly just started talking about doing the same, and that--he didn't have to do that. His folks were getting along all right, even then. But I... I was already crazy about him, and he made it sound like an adventure, like we'd..."
Steve shook his head, dismissing all those pulp novel fantasies of emancipation and fame and fortune, slaves turning millionaires through luck and hard work. "So I didn't argue. And I didn't realize until after we'd done it that he... he was coming with me because he felt the same way I did. Then it was too late for us to--"
Stark was frowning into midair and rubbing a piece of cheese into fragments between his thumb and finger. Steve elected not to explain about the cock-lock.
"Well. We saw each other as much as we could, but service didn't leave us much free time. And then the war... Buck got put down for the slave draft right away, although they didn't take him for training until the middle of '42. Me, I kept trying to get myself on the list, but no dice. I was 4F, unfit."
That got Stark to look at him, his gaze raking meaningfully up and down as he chewed another cracker. Steve did not blush. He'd had far too much experience withstanding that particular kind of look.
"Before Dr. Erskine and Howard got involved, I was five foot four, maybe a hundred pounds dripping wet. Asthma, family history of diabetes, TB exposure, touch of heart arrhythmia ever since I had scarlet fever as a kid, half deaf in one ear. But they had this experimental program, and Dr. Erskine decided that I was the perfect test subject, so..." Steve made a little ta-da! gesture at himself.
"So that's how you got into the war," Stark said. "But Barnes was already in the 107th by then, straight infantry. Already deployed?"
Steve nodded. "I, uh... Erskine was killed by a Nazi agent--HYDRA, their deep science division--and no one could replicate what he'd done. They sent me to a lab for a while to study me, what the serum actually changed and all, see if they could find a way to reverse engineer it. No luck, and I was stuck there until Howard pulled me out and started bringing me around to look good in uniform for whoever he was doing deals with."
Steve hesitated there, but Tony didn't seem interested in his time as a toy soldier, and Steve was happy not to elaborate.
"He brought me with him to Europe, into Italy when he went to meet up with the SSR brass there, and that's how I found out most of the 107th had been captured by HYDRA's own shock troops. The ones taken were mostly slaves. No one was planning on rescuing them, and Bucky was... unaccounted for. So I, uh... I convinced Howard to drop me into Austria to go find them."
Stark stared at him. "Drop you..."
"From a plane," Steve supplied, although he had a feeling that that wasn't really what Stark was having difficulties with. "I mean, with a parachute, and some prototype gear. That was part of why he brought me along, to model and test some stuff he was developing for the Army."
Including the ridiculous combination thermal underwear and partial body armor which Howard had insisted on getting up in a gaudy American flag design, but Steve wasn't going to describe that to Stark if he could possibly avoid it.
Well. There was the silver lining to Bucky's amnesia, because God knew otherwise he would probably remember every inch of that outfit in loving detail and would feel no compunction about describing it. He'd probably lobby Tony to make Steve a new one. Bucky had had a funny fascination with that getup, even after Howard redesigned it into something Steve didn't have to cover with fatigue pants and a leather jacket to be halfway decent in public. He'd bitched from time to time about the hazards of Steve's anti-camouflage, but he never actually pressed for Steve to change to something more practical.
Stark had his head in his hands, and Steve dragged himself back to the point. "That's where--I think that has to be when he--he got... changed. So he survived what happened afterward."
Stark's head jerked up at that. "He wasn't..."
Steve shook his head. "As far as I know, the SSR never tried again after me. Erskine was dead, they didn't have the formula for the serum, and Howard sure hadn't dragged along his Vita-Ray machine to Europe. But Bucky had been taken away from the other prisoners--they said the ones who got taken away never came back, but I found him alive. Strapped down on a table. I think... Zola. Arnim Zola, one of the top HYDRA scientists, he'd--I think he'd done something to him."
Steve had known a part of it: that Bucky was cock-locked, after that. Steve hadn't pressed to know what Zola had done beyond that, and it was obvious now that that had been by far the least of it.
"Even at the time, I had an idea there was something, but I never... we didn't talk about it, and he said he wanted to stay in, wanted to come with me and keep fighting HYDRA. The SSR put us on that directly, a strike force that just went after HYDRA bases and destroyed them however we could. Behind enemy lines like that, it was better to send slaves--at least if we got captured by regular army, we had some protections under the Geneva Convention, more than free soldiers. Obviously HYDRA didn't care about that, but still better us than anybody else. We were trying to capture Zola himself when Buck--when he fell. But he survived, which means..."
Stark looked away. "You said... as a sniper, you said..."
"Yeah," Steve said, swallowing hard. "Yeah, I think... I never fought beside him before Zola got him, I'd never been in combat at all before that rescue. I didn't really know what a normal sharpshooter was like. But I think he... he was really something special. So maybe that was... a sign, and I just didn't get it."
There was a little silence. Steve forced himself to eat another few tidbits off the tray, thinking of rations and Bucky's lean and hungry look during the war, smoking all of Steve's cigarette rations as well as his own. Had he been starving then, the way Steve would on normal rations? Had Steve been letting Bucky go hungry while he wolfed down triple rations in front of him?
Steve thought of Bucky as he'd seen him an hour ago, every rib showing, collarbones like a towel rack. Tony hadn't known until yesterday how much Bucky needed to eat; Steve could see the same guilt on him as he stared down at the tray of food between them.
"Bone density," Stark said after another few seconds. "What about--bone density? Dr. Cho noticed something about his bone density that made her realize he needed the same stuff as you to be anesthetized. What was that about?"
Steve frowned, thinking about the way Bucky had held his rifle. Recoil couldn't have done what the shield did, could it? But then... she'd been working on what was left of his left arm. Whatever impacts that had been taking must have been after.
"My hands," Steve said, showing Stark his palms, as if it would be visible. "I, uh... I had this... shield. And I used to throw it, catch it on a ricochet--" Steve struck the palm of his left hand with the side of his right, demonstrating. "It hurt like hell at first. I got better at the angles, but... apparently my bone density is a lot higher right there, too. My body adapted."
Stark nodded, snagged a couple of cubes of cheese and slapped them into his mouth. "Okay. And the anesthetic thing? Tell me whatever you know about that, in case we need to tinker around getting him a headache remedy."
"Well, my metabolism is apparently four times faster than normal?" Steve offered. "I, uh... I had to have minor surgery once, at Alamogordo. Howard figured out how to keep me under--of course, that was ether gas, I don't think they use that anymore?"
Stark thankfully didn't ask him what the surgery had been, just started questioning him about the ether.
Threetoo woke up feeling groggy and halfway between sick and starving. Everything was dark and warm and wonderfully soft. For a moment he thought that he could just snuggle in and go back to sleep, and then the memory slammed into him like--
Like a fire extinguisher, knocking him flat.
Steve. His master had brought Steve to the penthouse, to be his second bedslave, for Threetoo to train. Instead of doing anything useful, Threetoo had been seized with the punishment-pain, worse than it had ever been, so bad he could hardly stay upright. He had begged off immediately, and left his master to show Steve around, to get him settled.
Threetoo's mind's eye supplied visions of Steve kneeling by his master's feet, his master gently explaining that he was safe here while feeding Steve his lunch, running his fingers through the dark gold of Steve's hair and running his hands over Steve's perfectly smooth skin. For a weak, cowardly moment Threetoo considered hiding until he provoked his master into coming to find him, but he rejected that thought as soon as it formed.
This was Threetoo's project, as much as his master's. And if his master was pleased to have Steve, pleased to touch and talk to him and teach him, then that was all to the good, because his master would be happy, and Steve would be safe and good.
Threetoo tugged his curtain back, letting in what turned out to be less light than he expected. That wasn't too bad. It would doubtless be brighter outside, but he was going to go and find his master and help teach Steve whatever he needed to learn, no matter how badly it hurt.
Before he could even climb out of the pillow box, JARVIS said, "Please stay where you are, 32557038. Mr. Stark is on his way to speak to you."
Threetoo winced, curling down, and the throb in his head that had only just died away started up again.
"Hey," his master said, only seconds later. "Hey, sweetheart. On a scale of zero to ten, with zero being "doesn't hurt at all" and ten being "I cannot move or sign because I am in so much pain and I need urgent medical care or I might die," how's your head right now?"
Threetoo raised his head to look at his master, mentally assigning ten to the otherwise indescribable experience of the day before. He raised two fingers.
"Mm, two means you only notice it when you focus on it. Is that right?"
Threetoo raised a third finger.
"Okay," his master said, smiling a little stiffly and settling a warm hand on the back of his neck. "Thank you for telling me that, Threetoo. Good data. I'll get you a copy of the scale so you can assign numbers consistently going forward. Before, when you came in here to lie down, what number was that?"
Threetoo winced. His master squeezed gently on his neck, rubbing firmly with his thumb and finger. "Let's say nine is 'can barely move or think because of pain' and eight is 'pain is so severe it's hard to think, talk, or listen, and very hard to move or do anything else.' Do I need to describe seven?"
Threetoo shook his head the tiny bit that his master's grip allowed and signed, eight.
"Eight is a lot," his master said quietly. "Eight is way more than I ever want you to feel without telling me about it, because eight means we should be doing everything we can to make it better as soon as possible. I mean, I'd like to be doing something about three right now, but Dr. Cho says all she can do reliably at this point is make you unconscious, so it's probably overkill for a three."
Threetoo stared at him. His master hadn't actually asked him a question, so he technically didn't have to reply. That was a good thing, because he had no idea what to say.
"Have you been having headaches that get really intense, that make it painful to see light? Make you feel sick? Maybe cause other weird effects? Make you feel too cold or hot, or see lights in your peripheral vision, or..."
Threetoo nodded slowly.
"Okay," his master said. "I wish you would have told me about that, but to be fair I didn't think to ask. Those headaches are called migraines, sweetheart. They happen sometimes if you've had a head injury, which I think you probably had even before yesterday. They also happen sometimes just for no reason. Lots of people get them, and I don't know if we'll ever be able to make sure that they don't happen at all, but we can at least get you some pain relief when they do happen, even if it's only making sure that we help you go to sleep right away when it gets bad. Being in pain isn't good for you, it's just like being punished--"
Threetoo's lips parted, his hand twitched, and then he looked sharply away.
His master's hand tightened, then went back to the slow, rhythmic rubbing.
"Threetoo," his master said quietly. "Look at me, please."
Threetoo dragged his gaze up to his master's, trying not to tremble, trying not to even breathe. His master looked tired again, the way he had yesterday, and nearly as unhappy.
"Threetoo, honey, project number one," he said softly. "Did you think you were being punished?"
Threetoo closed his eyes and nodded.
What else could it mean? It wasn't an injury--he hadn't known about migraines until his master told him--so it had to be a punishment, didn't it? Masters could do things from far away, through chips and... and other things.
"Threetoo," his master said, his voice very quiet and small now. "Did you think I was punishing you by making your head hurt like that? And not telling you why, or what you did wrong, and talking all the time about not wanting to ever punish you, and punishing you anyway?"
Threetoo squeezed his eyes shut tighter, feeling them sting with tears, and shook his head hard enough to make the pain flare and his stomach turn. He raised his hand to sign no, and then--because he knew his master needed good data--I thought maybe. At first. But you said. So I knew it wasn't you. Because you wouldn't.
"Okay," his master said quietly, and there was a press of lips against his forehead that didn't stop the throbbing in his head from rising into what was probably a four. "Okay, I... I'm glad. But... who did you think was punishing you? Or was it just... cosmic punishment, floating around randomly?"
Threetoo swallowed. He hadn't thought about it, really, but... he had thought--believed--known--that the pain was punishment, even while he knew his master wouldn't inflict pain on him. And no one else was authorized by his master to do so; no former master held that power over him any longer.
And that only left one person responsible. One person who had access to him and definitely had no right to interfere with his master's goals by inflicting pain on his master's number one project.
Me, Threetoo signed, before falling back to the safety of referring to himself by designation instead. 3-2. 3-2 punished. 3-2 knew 3-2 deserved.
"Oh--" his master moved, and then his arms were around Threetoo, drawing him up out of the pillows and into his master's lap, cuddling him close against his master's chest. "Okay, so. On the one hand--I really really don't want you to do that, Threetoo. Even if you know you've done something wrong, even if it seems really bad, I... I don't want you to hurt yourself, not in any way, ever. Okay? Because I want you to heal and get better and be safe. Right?"
Threetoo hid his face against his master's chest, nodding. He did know that. He did, and his stomach was a stone, his whole spine and skull ablaze with tension and pain because he knew he had done what his master didn't want.
"And on the other hand, and this is the really important hand right now--" His master's actual hand stroked down his spine and back up to the nape of his neck, then down again.
"I need you to remember that it was never punishment, Threetoo. It was never anyone's fault, including yours. Especially yours. Even if you thought you were punishing yourself--it wasn't punishment, and it wasn't your fault. It was just a fact about your body that we didn't understand yet. But it's not your fault."
Threetoo didn't want to contradict his master, but...
He raised his hand, enough so that JARVIS could see it if not his master, and signed, Occurrence not random. Correlated to infractions.
"Mm," his master said, still petting up and down his spine. "Well, hey, guess what, correlation does not equal causation. That's science, baby. I'm not gonna ask you to lay out for me what infractions you think you've been committing, but whatever they were, I bet your migraines also correlate with you being stressed because you thought you did something wrong. Stress, worry, that can do a lot of things to your body. Raises your blood pressure. Brings on migraines, sometimes, if that's what your body's predisposed to."
Threetoo leaned against his master, and breathed, and felt the pain and tension subsiding under his master's touch. That had happened before--his master had touched him gently, reassured him, and if the pain--the migraine--was only just beginning when he did it, then it might stop. Because he stopped being worried when his master touched him. Because it was early enough in whatever physiological process made up a migraine to short-circuit it. Sometimes his master's touch didn't help: when the pain was already very bad. When the process was too far along.
Not a punishment. Just a fact. Just his body.
Threetoo signed, Oh.
His master laughed a little. "Yeah. Oh. Hey, what's your plant doing over there? You want it back on the shelf before you have your lunch?"
Threetoo nodded against his master's shoulder, and his master stayed still for a moment before gently pushing Threetoo to sit up on his own. His master got the plant and brought it to Threetoo, and Threetoo waded through the pillows and set it back up on the shelf. When he came back to the edge, his master was holding a lunch tray with something new on it--little irregular balls, something dark studded with rainbow-colored bits like candy.
"Yeah, I see you eyeing the sweets," his master said, sounding amused. "One of the cooks made those up for you special to help you get blueberries and maximum calories at the same time. And in honor of you having such a rough day yesterday. You want to try one? It's got blueberries in it, but it's not an actual blueberry."
Threetoo nodded, curious and fascinated. A treat--from his master, but also from someone other than his master. Someone he'd never met, who was supporting his master's project, and cared that he'd had a rough day.
It was sweet, and the rainbow sprinkles were a little crunchy, but it was chewy and tart, too, a burst of intense flavor. Threetoo showed his master his upraised thumb.
"Good, well, the rest of them are for after you eat some protein," his master said firmly, and Threetoo nodded obediently and settled to the work of being fed.
Rogers wasn't waiting outside the bedslave's room, where Tony had barely managed to scrape him off after he followed Tony upstairs. He'd told himself, in the fraction of a second he had to think about it before he was wholly focused on Threetoo, that it was good to know he would have a chaperone for this.
Clearly that hadn't lasted long; he reran the conversation in his head, trying to work out what Rogers would have heard, as he walked out of his bedroom and looked around. He was nowhere obvious.
"You may wish to check the guest room."
Tony rubbed his eyes, feeling stupidly exhausted for a moment. Whatever was going on with Rogers, he didn't want to deal with it--but Tony had taken responsibility for him, and Rogers was a mistreated slave too. He deserved to be looked after, and Tony had separated him from everyone else who could do the job. It was necessary, in order to maintain the illusion that Tony was inflicting some suitable correction upon his would-be murderer, but it meant that Tony was the only person left to do this.
So. He would do this, obviously.
He tapped at the door of the guest room, and opened it a few inches when there was no answer.
It was nearly as dark inside as Threetoo's bed, but he heard a soft rustling of clothing: Rogers getting to his feet. "Mr. Stark? Did you need me for something?"
"Uh, not really," Tony said, but he pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped into the dim room. Rogers was standing in one of the near corners, where he might not be immediately seen from the doorway. "Were you... hiding?"
Rogers shrugged stiffly, looking away. "Seems like I shouldn't let him see me, don't you think?"
"No, it's good--" Rogers flinched, turning half away with his head down and shoulders up, and Tony stopped short.
Clearly Rogers had heard at least part of his conversation with Threetoo, and if he heard any of it at all, he'd have heard the part where Threetoo was at an eight on the pain scale earlier. When Tony thought he was having some kind of programming-tension-freakout which was, in reality, an excruciating migraine. Probably still caused by the stress of pushing at his programming, and therefore by the sight of Rogers.
"Okay, maybe we should be careful how much he sees you until he gets used to you, but that doesn't mean you have to hide in a dark room. He's napping again, for one thing, and JARVIS can help you avoid him if you really need to. God knows there's enough space in the penthouse for the two of you not to see each other."
Rogers shrugged stiffly. "Is there somewhere else I should be, Mr. Stark?"
Tony pressed the heel of his hand to his brow, trying to push back his own incipient headache. "Jesus, you live in my bedroom and I have to use your first name at least to Threetoo. Call me Tony, all right?"
"Tony," Rogers echoed, mechanically, dutifully. "Thank you."
Tony shook his head, turning away. "Okay, right, stand around in the dark if you--"
He'd made it just to the threshold when Rogers spoke behind him, his voice not flat at all now but expressive nearly to the point of desperation. "Tony, I'm sorry."
"I--I don't think I said that, before," Rogers went on. "But I tried to kill you and I'm so sorry. I would have--it was wrong. I know I was wrong about you. I knew that already, but listening to you talking to him--you're so good with him. Not just kind; you know how to help him. I couldn't do this for him like you do, I..."
The rush of hideous sincerity trailed off, and a second later Tony managed to snap out of his horrified paralysis.
"Well, hey, not everyone can be a billionaire playboy genius with a heart of gold," Tony said in his most careless style. "Don't beat yourself up just because you're not as good as me, no one is. JARVIS, lights."
The lights came up, and Tony walked out without looking back to see the results of his words, or the refuge he'd deprived Rogers of. He was too desperate to get back to his lab and find something, anything, to scour away the sound of Rogers being every bit as wrongly grateful to him as Threetoo was--and without the excuse of whatever combination of brainwashing and brain damage had made Threetoo who he was.
It had been barely more than a day, and he'd already managed to break Rogers from a berserker bent on freedom or death to... this. Apologizing to the man who made the StarkChip.
This was why he didn't meet the slaves he was involved in rescuing. This was why he definitely didn't move them into the penthouse. And this was why he needed to get Threetoo more attached to Steve than to his master as fast as humanly possible--so he could get both of them the hell away from him. So he could stop corroding them just by being who and what he was anywhere near them.
"J, see if you can get a thousand liquid calories into Threetoo in the next four hours? Things to do. Places to be."
Anywhere but here.
The pain scale Tony is using with Threetoo is this one. The bon bons are inspired by some that a friend sent me in real life around the time I began writing this story. :)
Threetoo dozed for a while, cuddled in his pillows and blankets where his master had left him. U brought him a bottle of juice and he sat up to drink it, pushing his curtain back to let some light in. Every so often as he sipped he would gesture to JARVIS to let more light in through the skylights, and by the time he'd finished the juice his plant was in full sunlight again.
There was a pillow and blanket on the floor, neatly folded and tucked almost out of sight behind the dresser. Steve's things. Threetoo looked at them, waiting to see if his head would start to hurt again.
Steve must have put his plant up on the dresser while he was hurting; Threetoo had only been able to move enough to put it outside the curtain, and his master hadn't known how it got there.
He had heard Steve there, when the worst of the pain passed and he could focus on anything else. He hadn't known it was Steve, exactly, but he had heard quiet breathing on the other side of the curtain, and knew he wasn't alone. That had felt right, when he was drifting toward sleep. That hadn't--caused him stress, which triggered a migraine.
But seeing Steve's face had... had it made him feel he needed to be punished? Or had his migraine started and then he thought it must be because he had to be punished, and that made the stress and the pain worse?
He needed more data. He needed to go and find Steve.
Steve was his project, his responsibility. Once Threetoo's bandages came off, it would be time to begin training Steve, and he couldn't do that while having migraines. So by the time his bandages came off, he had to figure out how to look at Steve without being so stressed.
He reached his hand out of the box to sign. JARVIS? Master?
"Mr. Stark will be out of the penthouse for approximately two more hours," JARVIS stated evenly. "He would like you to drink two shakes before he returns if you can do so without discomfort."
Threetoo nodded. He would go to the kitchen, then. Steve might be there.
He could ask JARVIS, of course, but that seemed like cheating somehow. He had a mi--
Time skipped a little, while he had nothing to gauge it by. The light had shifted slightly when the world steadied around him again, when he could move. He groped backward for his train of thought.
Steve. He wanted to find Steve. Steve was his--his assigned task. His project, and his responsibility. And so he didn't want to ask JARVIS for help. He wanted to find Steve on his own.
First he stood up, and waited for his head to clear.
He had to think, and think in ways that he never had to when he was only his master's Threetoo, his master's project. He had to think of how things looked to Steve, what Steve knew and didn't know, what he needed to understand. Just as his master always knew what Threetoo needed to improve, to be well, Threetoo had to know what Steve needed so that he could give it to him with that same calm authority.
It was as strange and dizzying as standing up after a long time on his knees. A very long time, in this case. He made himself focus on small facts, going step by step to work things out.
Steve clearly hadn't learned any kneeling or crawling protocol; he had stood even in their master's presence, and so of course he would stand in their master's absence. Threetoo could meet him on equal footing there--and it certainly wouldn't do to seem to be crawling or kneeling for Steve.
Threetoo stood still a while after the first dizziness passed, letting his body adjust to standing as he adjusted his mind to his new thoughts. While he did he looked down at his own body. Nudity was also a protocol that Steve clearly hadn't learned. If Threetoo continued his own usual habit of remaining naked but for his collar at all times, in perpetual readiness for his master, he wouldn't only be appearing submissive to Steve.
As the one in a senior position, he would be signaling the possibility of sex to Steve, who was under his authority. A naked master meant sex, or at least some intimate service, was about to be required; Steve wouldn't need any protocol training at all to know that. Threetoo approaching him naked and on his feet, without the visible submissiveness of kneeling or crawling, would look like a prelude to something Steve hadn't been trained for yet. Something his master had specifically told Threetoo not to rush into.
And then Steve might be frightened--wouldn't feel safe, or comfortable. Even if he wasn't quite the same sort of project for Threetoo as Threetoo was for their master, Threetoo knew he shouldn't make Steve feel frightened. His master had told him often enough that rewards, not fear, were the way to teach a slave how best to please his master. Threetoo would have to discover what things Steve would like as rewards, and he couldn't do that if Steve was frightened.
Therefore Threetoo would need to wear clothes.
He studied the chest of drawers. He had never opened any of the drawers; his master had never instructed him to do so. His master had never made any reference to this piece of furniture at all. Yet it would not be here without purpose. His master had offered him a robe, once, saying he wanted Threetoo to be comfortable and safe; his master had particularly authorized him to cover himself in Sam's presence. If his master had supplied the dresser, and placed it here, in the space that, through his master's indulgence, belonged to Threetoo...
With only a brief glance upward, Threetoo pulled out the top drawer, easiest to reach while he was standing.
He let out a little breath through his nose, blinking rapidly for a few seconds. It wasn't a surprise, or at least it was something he had been able to logically surmise once he started thinking about it, all of two minutes ago. Somehow it still took his breath away to see his master's care demonstrated by this crammed-full drawer, entirely filled with soft, bright things.
The right hand side held neatly-paired socks of every color and texture, from thin ones with a silky sheen that belonged under a master's shiny leather shoes to fluffy fuzzy things like one of his blankets cut up and shaped to fit his feet. Threetoo plunged his hand in among them, smiling helplessly at the unrelieved softness of everything he touched.
And on the left side, there was row upon row of smoother rolls of cloth. Threetoo dragged his hand from the socks to pull one out, then another, then another, shaking each out to see what it was, but they were all roughly the same thing, in different colors and textures and fabrics and fits. Boxer shorts. Some looser, some tighter, some silky and thin, some made of a flannel nearly as fuzzy as the socks.
No jock straps, no panties, nothing crotchless or assless, nothing... nothing for display. Only for covering, for comfort, for keeping warm. The very first day he belonged to his master, his master had offered him a robe--but he had cared to notice that Threetoo had wanted to keep his status as a bedslave even when he couldn't be used.
He had allowed Threetoo to stay nude in his presence, even when he had been far less ornamental than he was now, allowing him that mark of status. His constant availability to his master still marked him as a special favorite, free of mundane tasks which would take him outside his master's home or into contact with strangers who should not see him.
Despite that, his master had made all this available to him--not rewards, like his blankets and pillows, for the unnecessarily lush comfort they afforded. This was simply supplied, like the water he always had access to, like the curtain and the skylights and the soft rug on the floor.
His master had made sure that he would have clothes available, should he ever have a need for them, and trusted him to judge that moment. If his master had less forethought, Threetoo would have had to ask especially for clothes to wear in front of Steve, or go awkwardly wrapped in a blanket.
Instead, he had all these riches.
Threetoo looked up and signed, JARVIS? All for me?
"Yes, 32557038," JARVIS replied immediately. "Mr. Stark stocked a variety of clothes for your use before your initial arrival in the penthouse. You are free to make use of any of them at your discretion."
Threetoo nodded, looking down into the drawer again. JARVIS had said for your use, of course, because these things were not his, not like his rewards. They were simply equipment his master made available, making things easy for him in the same extravagant way as he did everything. There were five different varieties of shampoo in the bathroom and twice as many lotions; every possible grooming tool was stocked in a cupboard for his use. And he had a drawer full of fuzzy socks, too.
There were two more drawers below it, and he knew he would find more things there of the same sort, a variety of colors and textures, everything made for his comfort.
He looked down at the floor, at the single blanket and pillow, and thought of his first sight of Steve, wearing soft pants and a t-shirt. Comfortable, but plain, and he had brought nothing more with him.
He looked up again. Steve?
"Mr. Stark has made no arrangement for Steve's wardrobe as of yet," JARVIS said. "However, you are authorized to request any supplies you think necessary during Steve's training period."
Threetoo glanced at the bandaged stump of his left arm--no training until his bandages came off, but clearly this was already Steve's training period--and then down at the blanket and pillow again. No rewards--Steve hadn't earned rewards, he was here as an alternative to being punished--but Steve was obviously accustomed to wear clothes, and for as long as he continued wearing them, he ought to have access to clean ones, and some choice among them.
Clothes for Steve, please, Threetoo signed. Underwear in whatever style he likes, socks, six changes of each. Soft shirts, warm shirts, soft pants. Three of each, different colors.
If his master wanted Steve to have a whole dresser full, as Threetoo did, that was up to his master to arrange.
"I will take care of it," JARVIS said. "A delivery should be here by the end of the day."
Threetoo nodded and signed his thanks, and then returned his attention to his own supply of clothes, selecting thick, fuzzy socks, but a sleek and closely-fitting pair of shorts. He had to sit on the rug to get it all on, and his head and left shoulder were both aching noticeably by the time he was finished, but he did it.
He pulled open the lowest drawer next, and discovered a selection of soft pants, not unlike the ones Steve had been wearing except that their knees were all invisibly padded and reinforced. Next to those was a stack of three thick, soft sweatshirts, each with a hood, each with one sleeve tailored to be just long enough to cover his stump, while the other was a normal length.
His eyes prickled with tears at this evidence of his master's particular care--and the assurance that he need not share any of these things with Steve, as they were especially tailored for Threetoo. He wriggled into a pair of pants in a sprightly red-yellow-green plaid and a gray sweatshirt, which turned out to be cloud-soft on the inside, so he didn't suffer for skipping the effort of searching out an undershirt from the yet-unexplored middle drawer.
Threetoo curled up for a while and rested on the rug, raising one hand just enough to sign, Sweatshirt for Steve?
"Of course," JARVIS agreed. "I shall add it to the order at once."
Threetoo lay still for another several minutes, waiting for his breathing and heartbeat to settle, for the pain to ebb back down to a level where he could at least mostly believe that he didn't notice it. Then he crawled out of the bedslave's quarters and into his master's bedroom, listening intently for any sign of Steve's presence. He was not in the bathroom, or the closet, or the main area of the bedroom. His master's bed caught Threetoo's gaze for a lingering moment, but it was smooth and undisturbed. He crawled onward, turning down the hallway and continuing to listen carefully.
He heard breathing--deliberately steady, like someone in pain, resisting crying or making a sound--in the guest room, not far from the door. The lights in that room were off, and the windows must have been opaqued like Threetoo's skylight, because the room was dark though the rest of the penthouse was flooded with light.
The sound of breathing stopped when Threetoo was two meters from the door.
Threetoo closed his eyes and took a few careful breaths, and then he pushed himself up to standing, waiting out the dizziness and getting his thoughts and words in order. He looked up and said, JARVIS? Interpret signs for him?
"Of course," JARVIS said, softly, sounding now very close to Threetoo's ear. He thought that meant that the sound was aimed so that Steve wouldn't hear.
Threetoo gestured in Steve's direction and signed, Steve? Please stay where you are with the lights off. I want to talk to you.
He heard a faint murmur inside the guest room: JARVIS speaking in Steve's ear as he had in Threetoo's.
"Okay," Steve said aloud after a pause. "I'll... I'll stay right here. Are you... okay?"
He sounded genuinely concerned for Threetoo--even though Threetoo had all their master's favor and vastly more rewards and privileges than Steve did. Threetoo adjusted the hood of his sweatshirt to be sure the golden tag on his collar was hanging out, and that the top of the collar itself was visible even as he thought, This one has no idea how to survive. Any other household's slaves would eat him alive.
Threetoo didn't know what other households had taught him this truth, but he didn't have to think about that. He knew it was true.
It was also true that Threetoo would not destroy Steve that way. Threetoo would teach him to be useful. Maybe Steve would never have to learn to be careful, if their master was a fraction as kind to Steve as he had been to Threetoo.
I'm fine, Threetoo signed, and repeated it to himself as he took one deliberate step after another to the door and through it. He didn't look around--he didn't need to see to know that Steve was sitting on the floor, a meter and a half from the door, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, barely breathing.
Threetoo shut the door behind him, closing them into a dark room together, and walked directly to the bed, where he sat down at the foot. He faced ninety degrees away from Steve, leaving a good three meters between them. He took a few deep breaths, letting himself settle again as he marshaled his words.
Steve had both hands plastered over his mouth, and he barely dared to breathe. The light from the hall had been enough to show him Bucky--Threetoo--Bucky--on his feet, head up, walking confidently and wearing clothes, even if they were garish pajamas.
It was all the opposite of what Tony had told him to expect, and in the darkness, as he listened to Bucky sit down on the bed, his mind was a blur of hope and terror. What did it mean? Had Bucky somehow remembered already? Was he--
"Please breathe," JARVIS said in his ear, in the mechanical cadence he had used to interpret while Bucky was still out in the hallway, and earlier, when Threetoo talked to Tony. "I don't want to frighten you. We won't start training for at least six or seven days."
Steve squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands over them instead, blowing out his breath and taking another.
"I have migraines when I see you," JARVIS went on, continuing to interpret. "So I will need to sit with you without being able to see you for a while each day, until I don't get so stressed around you. That way I'll be able to train you without triggering a migraine when it's time to begin."
"Oh," Steve said, and struggled to steady his breathing, his voice. "Okay."
Not Bucky. Threetoo. But a Threetoo who walked and wore clothes and sat on the furniture, even if he wouldn't talk to Steve directly. "Um. Does your head hurt now?"
"You don't need to worry about me," JARVIS interpreted, and Steve wondered if he was imagining the slight softening of his tone, as if Bucky--Threetoo--were somehow intoning gentleness in his signs. "You're second to me. Our master looks after me, and I look after you."
After a short pause, he added, "It's not too bad right now. And it's not your fault, it's just the way my body is. It's not anyone's fault."
Steve thought of Alexander Pierce's too-casual voice and wandering hands, his careful checking that Threetoo couldn't speak. It was absolutely someone's fault.
But Threetoo didn't blame Steve, showed not the least inclination to be cruel to him, despite Steve being the cause of his pain even before the migraines. Steve wanted to apologize again, but Threetoo had just told Steve not to worry about him.
Steve took a few more breaths, trying not to think too much about the fact that he was, after all these years, alone with Bucky again. All these years without him, all the things he'd ever wanted to tell Bucky, all the things he'd imagined doing if he got just one more chance--and all he could do was sit quietly with him in a dark room, straining his eyes to pick out his silhouette from the black-on-black. There was a little glint of light on his throat, some kind of decoration attached to his collar.
"You should talk," Threetoo decreed via JARVIS. "So I don't forget you're there. Tell me about the service you performed before you came here."
Steve would have found it easier to speak with Bucky's hands--hand--locked on his throat. After a moment he managed, "Mostly--mostly just--manual labor. Mowed a lot of lawns, the last few years. Before that I was... I was in the Army."
There was a small noise he couldn't quite identify after that, and then a long pause. Steve just waited, winding tighter with every second he didn't know what was happening to Bucky--Threetoo--just out of his reach. Was he having seizures? Had his migraine come back?
Finally Threetoo said through JARVIS, "Strong, obviously. Well-muscled. But absolutely no etiquette or protocol."
He remembered Bucky tidying his uniform, scolding him for not knowing the basic parade drill that every normal recruit had learned in their earliest training.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Guess I've got a lot to learn. Do you... want me to talk more about anything?"
Another long pause, and then Threetoo said, JARVIS's voice gone utterly flat in interpreting, "No, I... think that's... enough for today. You... stay here, and I'll go... to the... kitchen. JARVIS will tell you when..." This pause didn't end until Threetoo slid off the bed, and Steve closed his eyes, hiding his face against his knees, as he listened to Threetoo crawl past him, reaching up to open the door and then continuing to crawl out of the room and down the hall.
One way or another, Steve had hurt him again, and he was the one person who absolutely couldn't help.
"JARVIS," he whispered. "Can you tell Tony?"
"Uh, you know this is my penthouse, right," Tony replied, making Steve jerk upright and look around. There was nothing to see, just Tony's voice being projected beside his ear. "My tower, my AI butler-assistant, my super-thorough surveillance built into every inch of the place. Obviously J told me something important was happening, what kind of amateurs do you take us for?"
Steve's fists clenched painfully around his ankles as anger washed through him at Tony's casual invasion--of what privacy?--and flip tone. A wash of smothering gray pointlessness followed on its heels, though, snuffing out that anger like a stray spark under an asbestos blanket.
It was Tony's penthouse. It was only by Tony's sufferance that Steve was even alive--at least twice over. Tony had every right to do what he pleased with Steve, no matter how much it reminded Steve of his time as a lab rat at Alamogordo, being constantly monitored and measured. And it was a good thing, really, that Tony hadn't needed to find out from Steve what was happening. It meant Tony would take care of Bucky no matter what. No matter how thoroughly Steve failed him, failed everyone.
For now the best he could do was stay exactly where he was, out of Threetoo's way but easy for him to find if he wanted to try again.
Steve would just have to wait for him to want to.
U came in and slightly rearranged the bedslaves' room in mid-afternoon, adding a second chest of drawers beside Threetoo's. Threetoo flashed a thumbs up at the bot, and U zoomed off, returning a few minutes later with a cardboard box containing clothes. There was a navy blue sweatshirt folded on top.
Threetoo clambered out of his pillow box to examine the box's contents.
The sweatshirt was as requested--considerably larger than Threetoo's sweatshirt, he thought, but equally soft inside and hopefully just as warm. There was, however, an object tucked inside the front pocket where both of Steve's hands would fit. Threetoo frowned and reached in just as JARVIS said, "32557038, that is not--"
It was plastic, but it looked like metal. It should have been metal, with a narrow edge that--
Time skipped and skipped again and then someone was gently taking the object from Threetoo's hand while using their other hand to shield Threetoo's eyes.
He didn't know how long time kept skipping after that; the warning throb of his head bloomed and waned in flashes, and finally he was able to put together that it was Steve. He had almost had a migraine, and Steve had come in to... to get his new clothes.
Threetoo pushed Steve's hand away by the wrist and signed, These are for you. I was going to look to make sure they were all right.
"Oh, thanks," Steve said. "Thanks, Threetoo, this stuff is... really nice. It looks really comfortable."
Warm, Threetoo signed, keeping his eyes on the box of clothes and not on Steve, kneeling beside him. Soft. Nice.
"Yeah," Steve said, digging through the box. Threetoo didn't know why he expected Steve to find something else, but all he pulled out was the clothes Threetoo had requested for him: soft pants in different colors and patterns, and warm socks, and several changes of underwear and undershirts. At the bottom there was something Threetoo hadn't asked for: a blanket.
It looked handmade, and Threetoo felt jealous even though he knew that was unfair. He had lots of blankets and Steve only had two.
Really he ought to... but Threetoo couldn't give Steve any of his own blankets. His master had given those to Threetoo; if his master wanted to give Steve his own rewards, that was up to him.
Threetoo risked a quick glance to see whether Steve was properly appreciative of the reward he had received. Steve was just staring down at it, looking more lost and cold than ever.
"JARVIS," he said, without looking up from the blanket. "Did... did Sam say..."
"He emphasized that the blanket is on temporary loan to you while he himself is away in California."
Steve frowned, looking up sharply at that. "California?"
"It is a state bordering the Pacific Ocean," JARVIS said stiffly.
Threetoo looked up with a frown of his own and signed sharply, Be nice.
"My apologies," JARVIS said, close to Threetoo's ear, and it struck Threetoo as he said it that JARVIS almost certainly outranked him--JARVIS wasn't a slave, was a direct conduit to their master. But he wasn't actually their master, and he had... apologized to Threetoo.
While Threetoo was still frozen by the enormity of that development, JARVIS said aloud, "Mr. Wilson has been temporarily seconded to assist with retraining and rehabilitation of Stark-owned slaves working at the corporation's facilities in California. His return date is not certain, but as his family reside in New York and slaves in need of his expertise are numerous here, it is unlikely that the move will be permanent."
Threetoo kept his gaze trained away from the slave at his side, but he saw the motion of Steve's chin dropping nearly to his chest. "Thanks," he said, barely a whisper, and then, a little louder, "Can you tell Sam? Thank him for me?"
"I shall relay the message, yes," JARVIS said, his voice somewhat softer than the chilly tone he'd first used with Steve.
"Thanks," Steve repeated quietly, and then there was a motion like his head turning toward Threetoo. "I'll, uh. I'll just put all of this away, so you won't... it won't be cluttering up the place."
Threetoo nodded, but he was still thinking about the fact that he had scolded JARVIS and JARVIS had apologized and altered his behavior. He had asked JARVIS to get clothes for Steve, and JARVIS had done it. And JARVIS would make it dark if Threetoo asked, so that they couldn't be seen. So maybe he could ask...
JARVIS? Could you not look at us?
"Would five minutes suffice?" JARVIS asked next to his ear. "Or will you need more time?"
That's enough, Threetoo signed. He still didn't look directly at Steve, but he could tell Steve had stopped, and was watching him--wondering why he was signing but JARVIS wasn't translating, maybe.
"Privacy protocol one in effect," JARVIS said, loud enough for Steve to hear too; his head jerked up, a sharp motion on the edge of Threetoo's vision. "Five minutes, from now."
"Threetoo?" Steve said.
Threetoo opened his mouth, tried to form the words, but--nothing came, and he wouldn't waste the time. He beckoned, and Steve hurried to him, kneeling right in front of him.
Threetoo kept his eyes averted. He couldn't let the time be stolen by his migraines, either. He reached for Steve's hand, and Steve offered both hands at once, palms turned up, as if he understood exactly what Threetoo needed.
Tracing with his finger, Threetoo spelled out letters as slowly as he could bear on Steve's skin.
"First thing," Steve read out. "Teach. You need to teach me something that JARVIS--"
Threetoo was already nodding, taking hold of Steve's left hand and shaping it into the proper form--but before he could guide Steve through it, Steve completed the motion, as if it were familiar to him.
Threetoo was startled into meeting Steve's eyes, just for a second; Steve looked away as quickly as he did, but the moment was enough. The connection and understanding took his breath away.
Threetoo still couldn't manage to make a sound--and wouldn't if he could, not for these never-spoken words, even if JARVIS had promised not to listen.
Until freedom comes.
Steve nodded, and made the slaves' sign again, without Threetoo helping this time, and Threetoo returned it--wrong-handed, because he had no other hand. It was enough to show recognition, though. Enough to return the gesture, to tell Steve that much: they were slaves together, and even if Threetoo was not the kind of slave who would ever, could ever, be free... still, the promise was there. Maybe for Steve, someday. Their master was kind; he might tire of Steve and free him instead of selling him.
Steve whispered, "I didn't think you remembered..."
Threetoo frowned and met his eyes again, for the space of a quick glance, then traced on Steve's hand. Every slave knows.
He couldn't say what other slaves he knew, to assert that, but Threetoo knew it was true.
"Oh," Steve said, barely a breath. "I didn't... didn't know that. I... they kept me away from all the other slaves, for... for a long time."
Threetoo frowned, wondering how Steve came to know the sign then, but he shrugged and traced a few more words. Even you. Every slave.
Steve laughed a little at that, and the sound of Steve laughing seemed to rattle inside Threetoo's head, setting off a deeper ache. He was still struggling against it when JARVIS said, "Privacy protocol ended, normal monitoring resumed."
Thank you, Threetoo signed.
Steve moved to put his things away, saying nothing more now that they weren't alone, and Threetoo's head continued to ache. He crawled back into his pillow box and pulled the curtain firmly shut. He'd looked at Steve enough for today.
Steve had been living in the penthouse for five days, and Tony had barely seen him in three, when he came out of the bedroom one morning after feeding Threetoo his breakfast and found Steve waiting for him.
He assumed Steve was waiting for him, anyway. Maybe he was just... meditating, cross-legged on the floor in the hallway with his hands on his knees. He didn't look up at Tony's approach.
Tony forced himself to actually look at his second rescue more closely than any of the fleeting glimpses he'd caught in the last few days.
He was wearing clothes--well, pajamas, basically, but Tony had been living with Threetoo long enough that that definitely and markedly counted as clothed. His feet were bare. He looked as big and over-muscled as ever; that t-shirt honestly might not survive if he took a deep breath. He seemed clean--no stubble, hair disordered but fluffy and shiny. His shoulders were slightly bowed, his head tilted down. He couldn't rise quickly to attack from that position.
Tony still stopped a good eight feet away. "Steve?"
Steve's fingers curled in, then he opened his hands again. "I... I don't know how to... I need to. I want. To ask for something."
It would have been remarkably fluent for Threetoo--any vocal sound at all would have been remarkably fluent for Threetoo, who still hadn't made a peep since Steve's attack on the Fourth--but it sounded badly scattered, for Steve.
Tony ran a hand through his hair, already looking past Steve to the stairs, wanting to escape.
Steve was supposed to be the one who had his shit together; he was supposed to be here to help Threetoo get better. Emily had visited both of them the other day, and hadn't raised any red flags with Tony or forcibly removed either of them from his custody. Steve was supposed to be okay, and if he wasn't, Tony didn't know what the hell he was going to do about it.
Well, except maybe answer the not-quite-question Steve had obviously gone to some effort to ask. Right. Tony should do that.
"Ask away, then," Tony said. "Mi casa es su casa, quite literally, so."
Steve flinched a little, but after another hesitation, he said, "I... JARVIS says I definitely can't go out on the roof. In case someone sees me."
Tony folded his arms. "Correct. You're on punishment or at least close supervision, as far as everybody who knows you're alive knows. And dead, as far as anyone else knows, so going out where you can be seen is a no-go."
Steve didn't flinch, exactly, but he tensed, and there was another pause before he nodded again. "Could I just... is there somewhere I could... run? I used to. Run. With Sam. Every morning. And it's getting hard to sleep because I... I don't do anything all day."
Tony squinted consideringly. "When you say it's hard to sleep... how long have you been awake, exactly?"
Steve shrugged. Tony made a beckoning gesture for JARVIS's input.
"Approximately 73 hours, give or take several possible instances of microsleep," JARVIS announced. "Exercise could certainly be beneficial."
Okay, well, that was a problem Tony could both understand and solve.
"Yeah, come on, there's a gym downstairs," Tony said, waving ahead of him.
Steve unfolded himself somewhat laboriously from his half-lotus or whatever it was, and turned and walked down the stairs ahead of Tony, not stopping until he reached the elevator.
When they were both inside, Tony looked Steve up and down again. "Where did you run with Wilson? That lower roof park? That path is gravel."
Steve nodded slightly. "I used to have shoes."
Right. Tony knew that. There was a box somewhere on the 90th floor with the work uniforms and phone that hadn't been returned to Steve when he came up to the penthouse. Tony had thought to make sure that he did get his little plastic apparatus back, since he presumably still needed it, whatever it was; when Threetoo ordered clothes for him Tony figured that meant all the basics were covered.
Except for stuff like sleep and physical activity and shoes, apparently.
"You get that I'm not actually into punishing you, right?" Tony demanded, as the elevator doors opened.
Steve just stood there, looking at Tony like there was some kind of very serious Divide By Cucumber Error going on behind his eyes.
Tony shook his head and led off along the curving hallway toward his private gym. "I mean, you can ask for stuff you need. What else do you need? JARVIS can hook you up with pretty much anything, you know that, don't you? Any kind of entertainment, educational material, information, life necessities. Do you have a toothbrush?"
"JARVIS told me to take one from the drawer in the bathroom," Steve said, clear but very quiet. He didn't comment on the rest.
"Steve has been extremely conservative in his requests, sir," JARVIS put in. "I believe it has not been clear to him what right he had to request anything not necessary to sustain life or basic hygiene."
Tony stopped right there, turning on his heel to look at Steve, who was darting a wary glance up at the ceiling, looking neither betrayed nor grateful at JARVIS's interjection.
"You didn't think I should know when he hadn't slept in 72 hours, J?" Tony demanded. "You get on my case if I crack twenty-four, and you don't let Threetoo go more than forty-five minutes without a rest break."
"You had not instructed me to monitor Steve," JARVIS parried. "In fact, you suggested that I should leave him alone."
Tony ran a hand through his hair. He had done that, because he figured JARVIS would kind of creep Steve out, and because he figured Steve was capable of sleeping without being nannied into it, or asking for things if he needed them.
"Get him some running shoes and some workout clothes that aren't pajamas," Tony said, turning in the direction of the gym again. "Remind him to eat and sleep if he doesn't; remind me if he's not responding to being reminded. Steve has permanent unlimited gym access. Okay?"
Tony turned again at the doorway to the gym, looking at Steve as the door swung open. He didn't exactly look like a kid at Christmas, but there was some life in his eyes as he looked around at the setup. "Ask JARVIS if you don't know how to use any of this stuff, and go easy on the punching dummy if you need to get some aggression out, it's calibrated for humans. Or, actually, go ahead and see if you can break it, so I can figure out how to calibrate it for you."
Steve's gaze shifted to Tony, and his expression seemed less grim by some tiny fraction as he said, "Thanks. I'll do my best."
Thanks that only comprised a single word were better ignored than rejected; Tony turned on his heel, calling out as he went, "One of you had better let me know if Steve breaks himself, I don't want to find out three days from now that he busted his knuckles open!"
Steve avoided the punching dummy, despite what he'd said to Tony, because he wasn't at all sure that he could stop punching once he'd started. He'd barely managed to handle Tony being offhandedly, impatiently generous; if Tony sat down with him and bandaged his hands for him--again--he would...
He didn't quite know what he would do, but he didn't think he could bear it.
Instead, he looked around until he spotted a station where a sort of conveyor belt seemed to be set up with a railing at one end. Tony had thought he could run here, and that looked like the likeliest apparatus for running in a contained space.
When he stepped onto the belt, a screen lit up on the front railing. One of the displays was labeled MPH, and there were up and down arrows near it. Steve started stabbing the up button. The belt started moving underfoot, and he stumbled a little as it accelerated, catching himself on one of the railings, but after a minute he found his stride and got the belt moving at a pace that allowed him to feel like he was stretching his legs.
It seemed to take no time at all before his muscles were burning and he was breathing in gasps, but he pushed grimly onward, bumping the speed up higher. He was well-nourished now; his body could do this. It just had to remember how. He gritted his teeth and kept running, faster and faster, going nowhere.
Tony felt like he'd just gotten into the lab--he'd barely found his groove--before JARVIS interrupted him. "Sir, the board meeting Miss Potts was so insistent about in her last eleven emails will be starting in half an hour in the 16th floor executive conference room."
Tony froze, trying to dredge up the details of emails out of his brain. He hadn't been sleeping well for the last five days--even worse than before, if one wanted to really split hairs, which meant he was barely getting more sleep than Steve was at this point--and his recall for nonessentials was... not at peak performance.
"Board meeting as in... Pep is in New York?"
"Miss Potts is in fact in the building presently," JARVIS informed him dryly. "She has stated her intention to come up personally and escort you to the meeting if I cannot assure her that you are on your way."
If Pepper came up anywhere she would go to the penthouse, which, thanks to a fit of prudence on Past Tony's part after one little mishap or another in the last few years, he couldn't order JARVIS to lock her out of. He'd installed miles of hard-coded roadblocks to prevent himself from doing it in exactly this situation--except he hadn't anticipated that his penthouse would have Threetoo and Steve in it. It hadn't mattered, while Pepper was safely in Malibu; he'd figured he would have plenty of warning to figure something out any time she came to New York.
Except apparently she had warned him eleven times, and he... hadn't noticed.
"Fuck," Tony muttered, rubbing his face. "Do I have--"
Butterfingers rolled up, brandishing a garment bag and fumbling a toiletries kit which DUM-E promptly tried to retrieve and ran over instead. Tony sighed and headed for the lab bathroom to make himself look close enough to presentable to keep Pepper off his back and out of the Pandora's Box in which Tony was currently living.
Threetoo did not feel relieved at all, only frustrated, when JARVIS said, "If you are looking for Steve, 32557038, he has gone downstairs for some exercise."
There was no reason to feel relieved. The day before he had managed to look directly at Steve's face--from the balcony, while Steve was sitting on the couch downstairs, seemingly unaware of his presence--for upwards of ten minutes without developing a headache at all. There was no significant possibility that today's exposure session, even if conducted face to face, would have resulted in pain worth noticing.
Not a migraine, anyway. He had noticed, throughout the last day's series of exposures, that his stomach twisted uncomfortably in Steve's vicinity, as if the stress had merely displaced itself from one body part to another. But that pain was nothing worth noticing, or feeling relieved to avoid.
And there was likewise no reason to feel anxious about the fact that his master had discovered his arm to be fully healed this morning, leaving him bandage-free again. His master had said nothing about deadlines, or about Steve's training, and had not inquired about the progress of Threetoo's exposure program. He had simply praised Threetoo's recovery and fed him his breakfast and gone away.
He was always going away, since Steve had come. As if he could no longer bear to look at Threetoo, or touch him, now that his flawless second bedslave was also in the penthouse. Threetoo had found himself filling his time between exposures--now that he had stopped napping nearly all the hours of the day, as he had for the first three days Steve was in residence--on obsessive grooming. He had exfoliated and moisturized every inch of his skin, groomed all fifteen of his nails to microscopic perfection, trimmed the dry ends of his hair and judiciously adjusted the shape of his eyebrows.
He knew it wouldn't make a difference, and it hadn't. His master didn't flinch from touching Threetoo when he fed and tended to him; he never had. His hands and his eyes conveyed the same unrelenting affection they always had, so Threetoo didn't know what to make of it.
He just knew that Steve was the cause of it, somehow, and that he had no good reason to be relieved that he couldn't find Steve, but he was relieved anyway.
He wasn't quite sure what to do with himself, though. He had meant to get the day's first exposure out of the way and then settle down to work on some calculus problems JARVIS had devised for him until his master returned or U pestered him with a bottle of juice, whichever happened first. But he couldn't quite convince himself that it was all right to completely neglect Steve and hide away with his math puzzles, and he didn't want to start a puzzle and then be interrupted by Steve's return. He had put clothes on for Steve and walked all the way from the elevator; he couldn't take his clothes back off until he was done being near Steve, and he didn't know how long he could stay upright.
He eyed the chairs in the kitchen and felt time skipping forward; by the time it steadied around him he found himself leaning against the counter, U hovering watchfully nearby. Well. That would do.
He signed at JARVIS, Could I have--
The elevator door opened, interrupting him, and Threetoo felt a strange surge of anticipation as we watched Steve step out into the penthouse. He was frozen, staring, his eyes seeking out every detail of Steve's appearance, which was... not good.
He had looked tired yesterday, when Threetoo watched him from a hidden vantage point, but he seemed to have advanced to something worse than tiredness today. He had just come from exercising, and his color was heightened as expected after exertion, his skin damp with sweat, but something looked wrong.
Threetoo thought that Steve--or anyone, surely, with such a strong, flawless body--should come away from a chance to use that body in a good mood, bright and warm and pleased with himself. But Steve looked exhausted, as if he had pushed far beyond his body's proper limits. His shoulders sagged and his head was bowed, though not enough for Threetoo to miss the faintly bruised look of the skin under his eyes.
He saw Steve hesitate, glancing toward the stairs across the expanse of the penthouse's great room, and then Steve shook his head slightly and turned on his heel, pressing the button for the interior elevator that served only the two floors within the penthouse.
Steve, Threetoo understood, was feeling too exhausted to take the stairs.
Something was very wrong. Threetoo was still standing there, reeling with the enormity of what he had seen, when Steve disappeared into an elevator and was whisked out of his sight, apparently never having noticed Threetoo standing in the kitchen watching him.
Threetoo's head still didn't hurt at all. His stomach twinged, but even that was nothing next to the urge to follow Steve, to demand to know what he'd done to himself, to tuck him in to sleep under a warm blanket and make sure he replaced the fluids he'd lost.
He should be doing those things. He was responsible for Steve, wasn't he? Steve was his to train, to manage, as his apprentice or second or intern. Threetoo knew full well that his master wasn't spending much time in the penthouse other than to care for Threetoo himself, so Steve wasn't being looked after by anyone at all. Threetoo had been remiss.
Of course, until today it had been hard for him to look at Steve, but that was no excuse. He could have told JARVIS to look; he could have seen better when he did look.
Threetoo turned to the fridge and immediately hesitated again, then signed at JARVIS. What are Steve's favorites?
He should have known. He should have been gathering this data. But at least he could start now.
"I believe his preference is for the blue flavored juice drink, or a vanilla shake. He has standing permission for solid food ad lib, and would likely enjoy any of the berries or cheeses kept in the refrigerator as well."
Threetoo nodded thoughtfully, opening the refrigerator and frowning into its depths. Steve ought to sleep as soon as he could, so something calorie-dense would be ideal. Threetoo selected the vanilla shake, then after a short hesitation--but Steve was allowed, as JARVIS had said, and if anyone should be feeding him, it ought to be Threetoo, and so he had to be allowed to take food for the purpose of giving it to Steve, twice over--he took the carton of blackberries as well, though he had to hold them and the shake against his chest to steady them. The blackberries looked the best of everything in the fridge, dark and juicy and enticing, and they would be a nice contrast with the shake if Steve could be persuaded to eat a handful or two between sips.
Threetoo headed to the elevator, concentrating on not dropping his precious cargo. JARVIS opened the doors for him before he reached the elevator and whisked him immediately up to the second floor, where he was just in time to hear the shower turn off. Threetoo frowned--Steve could hardly have been under the hot water long enough to feel it, let alone to relax and enjoy feeling clean--but then, Steve had two hands and rather less hair to deal with, so maybe he was just that much quicker than Threetoo.
Threetoo headed into the bedslaves' room as quickly as he could, setting down the things he'd brought for Steve on top of Steve's chest of drawers. Steve's pillow and blankets were stowed neatly beside it, and Threetoo considered whether it would be helpful or intrusive to set them out for them.
Steve appeared in the doorway before Threetoo made up his mind, and stopped short there, averting his gaze as if Threetoo wouldn't get a migraine as long as Steve didn't see him.
"Sorry," Steve said. "I'll--I just need--"
Steve was only wearing underwear--a bright blue jock with white straps; the bulge of his cock behind the snug-fitting triangle of fabric at the front was obvious, and if he turned around his ass would be utterly exposed. It wasn't the style of underwear Threetoo would have expected JARVIS to choose for him, or Steve to request, if JARVIS had consulted him, but Threetoo pushed that curiosity aside.
Water was dripping from Steve's hair, much like sweat had been dripping across his skin earlier. He hadn't been in the shower long enough for the warmth to lend a flush to his skin--or maybe he had taken his shower cold. Threetoo could see him trembling a little, and his nipples were drawn tight. Threetoo wondered whether he liked to be touched there, whether that would be a good touch reward for Steve, and then shook his head.
He was getting distracted. He had had a plan. He needed to take care of Steve.
It's all right, Threetoo signed, Jarvis interpreting for him seamlessly. I just wanted to make sure you got something to eat before you lie down and get some sleep.
Steve gave him a sidelong look, his face still turned partly away. "Oh, is that my plan?"
That's what you need to do, Threetoo informed him firmly. You're shivering, you're exhausted. You're the second of us. I am first. You're my responsibility. Sit down, eat this, I'll lay out your blankets.
Steve followed Threetoo's gesture to the shake and the berries, and something strange went across his face. "I can't--"
Sit, Threetoo repeated, putting full emphasis and authority into the sign as well as pointing to the spot where Steve should sit, out of the way of the best spot to lay out his blankets. Steve straightened up slightly and moved at once, brushing past Threetoo to sit where Threetoo had indicated. Threetoo grabbed the shake and handed it to him, then the carton of berries.
Steve nodded slowly and dropped his gaze, balancing the berries on one knee while he opened the shake. Threetoo left him to it, grabbing Steve's pillow and laying it down just outside the rectangle of light coming in from the skylight, so the sun wouldn't shine in his eyes while he should be sleeping. Blankets next; he shook the first one out with a practiced motion, spreading it as neatly as he could. He layered the second--Sam's blanket--over it, then knelt to tidy them up, smoothing the wrinkles away and fluffing the pillow.
Behind him he could hear the small sounds of Steve drinking, but he still hadn't opened the berries, hadn't tasted a single one. Threetoo turned to face him, still on his knees. Steve was sitting with his legs criss-cross; Threetoo, on his knees, was taller.
And fully dressed, while Steve had only a jockstrap, his bare ass on the carpet. This might create an incorrect impression, but Threetoo thought he had been clear enough about what he intended. Steve didn't seem alarmed.
He wasn't eating the blackberries, though. Clearly he needed to be persuaded.
Like always, never can do things easily. Threetoo frowned at the stray thought. He hadn't observed anything like that in Steve's behavior--had he?
He shook his head and took the untouched carton of berries, setting it down beside his own knee to open it. Steve was still sipping steadily at his shake; he only watched, saying nothing, his free hand resting open on the floor.
Threetoo scooped up a handful of berries, careful not to crush any, and offered them to Steve.
Steve lowered the bottle from his lips, looking from the berries to Threetoo's eyes and back. "I--I can't, Threetoo. Not if you're not having any. It's not fair for me to just..."
What, it's not fair for you to eat, when I've already had my breakfast and we both know our master will feed me all I can hold in another hour or two, while you're so run down you're about to drop? Threetoo couldn't say that, or anything else, with his hand full of berries.
He thrust them forward for emphasis, but Steve just set his jaw and shook his head. Threetoo had a feeling that he would have kept arguing, but he'd realized that Threetoo couldn't sign with his hand full and thus it wouldn't be fair.
There would be no shaking Steve from his ideas about fairness, Threetoo knew, somehow, the same way he knew Steve was always difficult. His head ached a little, but he thought it might just be the frustration of dealing with Steve, not a migraine starting.
He looked upward, even though JARVIS could see him from anywhere, silently searching for any guidance. But JARVIS said nothing--and didn't patch through his master to say anything, either.
Threetoo could put down the berries and actually ask, properly, for advice from JARVIS, or direction from his master. But as often as he'd received such direction without having to ask for it, he had to assume that there was a reason JARVIS was silent. Perhaps JARVIS didn't know what he should do either; perhaps his master was unavailable for some reason, or had decided not to interfere in Threetoo's project.
So he needed to figure this out himself. There were a few options: he could let Steve go to bed without eating any berries, even though they were right here and he obviously hadn't been taking care of himself properly and Threetoo knew that Steve would like them.
Or Threetoo could do something about Steve's stupid hang-up over fairness.
His master ate and fed Threetoo at the same time, from the same plate. If Threetoo was feeding Steve...
He did know that his master wanted him to be able to eat under other circumstances. There had been the whole Sam experiment, and anyway in general his master always wanted Threetoo to have more good things. To get fat. To drink his fill, all the hours his master wasn't nearby to feed him. Threetoo had made progress in the last few days, but he still had more weight to gain back than he wanted to think about. A few blackberries wouldn't make a dent in that, but it would be going in the right direction. It would please his master, maybe even surprise him, like Threetoo finding a way to make a sound without speaking.
If Threetoo could just speak right now--but no. One thing at a time. His master would want him to eat, doubly so in aid of making sure that Steve ate something. Threetoo knew that. He did know that. His throat closed up and his hand wanted to shake at the thought of actually doing it, of relying on his own logic to make such a decision, but he knew, he knew that he was right, as certainly as any geometric proof. The steps were all there, each one rock solid.
And if his body wasn't susceptible to logic, well, he would cross that bridge when he came to it.
For now, he fixed his aggravated gaze on Steve, letting him see just how much of a pest he was being, and raised the handful of berries to his own mouth. He only took a few, lipping them up carefully to keep from crushing any of the others, maintaining eye contact with Steve the entire time.
Steve, to his credit, looked fully aware of just how far he had driven Threetoo. When Threetoo thrust the handful of berries at Steve again, he took them hurriedly, cramming several into his mouth and snatching up the rest, leaving purple smears of juice on his fingers and Threetoo's palm.
Threetoo still had three fat, ripe blackberries in his mouth, and he was still pretty sure he couldn't actually eat them. But Steve was eating, at least, so he'd done what he wanted to do.
He flexed his tongue, rubbing the berries against the roof of his mouth, feeling the soft weight of them, the hint of flavor that would burst into life if he pressed harder. His mouth was watering--not painfully, not as it would if he were truly hungry--but he had to swallow.
Had he swallowed some blackberry juice? That was allowed, surely; he was allowed to drink things. But was that drinking, really, when it was whole food he'd put into his mouth, or--
"Threetoo, Steve," JARVIS said. "Please close the door and remain in your quarters. An unexpected guest is about to enter the penthouse."
Steve made a choked, startled noise and jumped up, brushing past Threetoo to slam the door.
Threetoo jumped up as well--he wouldn't kneel at Steve's feet, that was all wrong--and signed to JARVIS, Guest?
"There is no cause for alarm. He is a friend of Mr. Stark's who has privileged access to the penthouse," JARVIS explained. "He asked that Mr. Stark himself not be made aware of his visit immediately, but said nothing about yourselves. It will be best if you keep out of the way until Mr. Stark is able to return."
Threetoo shook his head, a flood of certainties overtaking his thoughts. He swallowed again without thinking, the tidiest way to clear his mouth in case it should be needed. His throat hurt a little, but he got the blockage down. He wiped his palm on his pajama pants--hopefully any lingering stain would not be noticed--and then hurried to remove his clothes.
There was a guest--a privileged guest. A friend of his master. Such a person must be offered the proper hospitality. Such a person must be welcomed. As a bedslave, Threetoo was free of all the other duties of running the household, but this... this was his responsibility. Of course, he was his master's own favorite, collared and kept apart from all others, and thus even a guest ought not to touch him, but...
Threetoo's eye fell on Steve, and a sick uncertainty flashed through him.
He could not offer Steve to a guest; Steve was untrained and not to be pressed. His master had said so. Steve was not to be hurried, and certainly not to be offered to another before their master had enjoyed him. But then their master could hardly be said to have enjoyed Threetoo himself, yet. Threetoo was not supposed to do that sort of work yet; he had not even begun training Steve. He had nothing at all to properly offer a guest.
But there was a guest. A friend of his master, a guest who had access to the penthouse even in his master's absence. Such a guest must be greatly valued, greatly trusted, by his master. To deny such a guest anything...
Threetoo finished undressing and straightened his collar. He stepped toward the door, but Steve was standing with his back to it, his heels dug firmly into the carpet.
Threetoo frowned. Out of the way.
JARVIS's interpretation came a second late, and with a particular flatness that Threetoo suspected was JARVIS expressing his own disapproval for what Threetoo was saying.
Threetoo looked up and scowled, then made an emphatic, unmistakable gesture at Steve, waving him away from the door, in case he had not understood that the intonation was JARVIS's and not Threetoo's.
Steve shook his head, determined. "JARVIS told us to stay in here."
Threetoo shook his head harder and didn't bother signing fuck JARVIS, JARVIS isn't in charge, lest JARVVIS refuse to interpret his words at all. He pointed to his own chest and the door. He had to go out; he had to greet his master's guest. He had to do this properly. He had to, or, or--
His head was starting to ache in a different way, his vision going sparkly at the edges. He stepped forward and grabbed Steve's shoulder, tugging at him. He didn't want to make a mess of himself, but if he couldn't make Steve or JARVIS listen, he would do what he had to in order to fulfill his duties.
Steve gave way after a few tugs, though, stepping aside. "Fine, but I'm coming with you."
There was no time to argue with him, and Threetoo couldn't force Steve to obey, not when it was obvious that JARVIS would come down on Steve's side. Threetoo glared at him, then up, for JARVIS's benefit, and signed, Stay silent and stay behind me. You're not trained for this.
JARVIS interpreted promptly, this time, though still without urgency.
Steve visibly clenched his jaw, but he nodded. He looked nothing like a bedslave--not one line of his body showed anything like a welcome, anything resembling submission, and if the guest saw him Threetoo wouldn't be able to tell him that Steve was not available for his use. And who would use Threetoo when Steve was available? How could he protect Steve at all if...
His head was throbbing, and they were wasting time. He turned his back on Steve and jerked the door open, hurrying across the master's bedroom, listening for the guest. He heard footfalls coming along the upstairs corridor and signed hastily at JARVIS as he fell to his knees and waved Steve down after him.
Introduce us, welcome him, Threetoo ordered, too frantic to wonder if JARVIS would refuse to speak for him, or say something wildly inappropriate.
And then there was no more time. Threetoo bowed forward onto his hand, and sensed Steve following suit at his flank, and a man strode into view from around the curve of the hall. He was a black man, perhaps a little older than their master, casually dressed. He drew to a sharp halt at the sight of Threetoo and Steve.
"What the actual hell," the man said, stopping well short of them.
Threetoo did not flinch where anyone could see. He knew he was not presenting properly at all, not offering a proper greeting--he was ugly, maimed, not what a guest should see first at all--his head ached more fiercely, throbbing in waves of punishment--no, not punishment. Stress.
"Colonel Rhodes," JARVIS said. "These are Mr. Stark's recently acquired bedslaves. 32557038 wears the red collar. Steve is behind him."
Steve, Threetoo saw, was ducking his head more deeply, sagging from a proper kneel and not even looking at Col. Rhodes. He was frightened, maybe, now that he finally understood what his refusal to stay behind might cost. As if Col. Rhodes would not desire him if he could not see Steve's face.
But foolish or not, he was Threetoo's second--Threetoo's responsibility. Threetoo had to protect him. He crawled forward, his body falling into a practiced sway despite the pain throbbing harder in his head all the time. He lifted his head to look up at the guest, and manufactured a welcoming smile. When he was just outside arm's reach, he stopped and sat back on his heels.
Welcome, he signed.
Col. Rhodes was staring at him in obvious shock and disgust. Threetoo's head throbbed harder.
He was vile, he was worthless; he should have been decommissioned. His brain was fried, his arm a stomach-turning deformity, his scarred, bony body a mockery of everything a bedslave ought to be. He was nothing, and his master's friend knew it. Threetoo was shivering and couldn't quite stop himself, but his fingers formed the signs anyway.
My master's hospitality is extended to you, and JARVIS did speak for him, but Col. Rhodes threw his arms up, shaking his head violently, before Threetoo could make any more explicit offers, even of the simplest things--a drink, a place to sit, a room to refresh himself.
"Nope, no, no, we're not doing this. J, tell Pepper never mind keeping Tony busy, I know what's going on and I want him back here now."
Rejected, utterly, and now his master's friend would tell his master how he had failed, how displeasing he had been, how unworthy an ornament for his master's home. What an unworthy use he was of his master's time--clearly Col. Rhodes was aware of all the time and attention his master had been lavishing on Threetoo and meant to put a stop to it. His master trusted this man, esteemed him highly. His master would--
Threetoo swayed as the pain in his head abruptly passed beyond bearing. As he lost his balance entirely he tried to sign a number for his pain, but his fingers shook and spasmed and didn't obey him, and if JARVIS was saying anything, interpreting or refusing to, Threetoo couldn't make sense of it.
Tony smiled and chatted and breezed through the milling-around-getting-coffee stage of the board meeting, and Pepper appeared to be so surprised by him actually showing up where he was supposed to be that she just went with it. He could see a certain look in her eyes, a look that did not bode well for escaping without a lot of uncomfortable questions, but first at least they had to do this board meeting thing with all these other people. Tony had a solid hour or two to come up with something plausible to tell Pepper.
His phone and hers both started vibrating furiously about two minutes into the actual meeting. Pepper frowned and reached for hers, so Tony grabbed his.
He only had to glimpse JARVIS's text--You are needed at once and something about severe pain--before he was on his feet, babbling out an incoherent excuse and running for the door.
He didn't realize until he was in the elevator that Pepper had been on his heels; she followed him straight in and he did not have time to argue.
"J? Is he--"
"He is considerably distressed, sir. I believe Colonel Rhodes--"
"Rhodey--" Tony dropped his gaze to Pepper, who was flushed, managing to look furious and worried all at once. "What did you--was this a fucking setup?"
"Tell me we were wrong to be worried!" Pepper snapped. "Tell me you haven't been acting really, dangerously weird for weeks now! Tell me that has never--"
The elevator stopped, and Tony stormed across to the one that would take him into the penthouse, Pepper still on his heels and still not missing a beat.
"--Turned out to be something we were really, really right to be worried about! There is a reason you can't lock either of us out of the penthouse, Tony, and you know--"
The doors opened again and Tony burst out to find Steve running toward him, Threetoo limp in his arms.
Tony noticed dimly that they both appeared to be naked, but it was a hell of a lot more worrying that Threetoo was letting anyone who wasn't Tony hold him the way Steve was holding him. There was no sign of blood--at his ears or nose, for instance--but Threetoo was horribly pale. Tony scooped him out of Steve's arms and folded down to his knees.
He could feel the warmth of Threetoo's skin immediately, and his shallow, too-rapid breathing; JARVIS flashed up a display of his vitals. His blood pressure was way too high and climbing. He was going to stroke out in a minute; he had to be in terrible pain, and his heart was stuttering like crazy, seizures warring with what had to be a ferocious migraine.
Tony curled down around him, pressing his lips to Threetoo's forehead, and he thought Threetoo curled toward him slightly. God, was he still conscious? But he had to be, with his heart rate that high, and it was no use hoping that the seizures were causing him to miss enough of this to matter.
"It's all right, baby, it's all right. Just rest, I've got you, you didn't do anything wrong. You're perfect, sweetheart, this isn't your fault, you just--"
He heard the soft whir of treads and felt a nudge at his arm, and he reached out without looking to grab the pen from U. Helen had set up a sedative dose in an idiot-proof injector so Tony couldn't fuck up administering it even when he was, for example, close to actually full-on panicking over how much pain Threetoo was in. All he had to do was press the INJECT THIS WAY arrow to the thickest part of Threetoo's thigh--such as that was--and press down hard.
Threetoo jerked in his grip but didn't make a sound. Tony threw the pen away and wrapped his arm around Threetoo again.
"Just your medicine, baby, gonna help you sleep until it doesn't hurt anymore. You know I never want you to hurt. Shh, shh, just relax, just keep breathing for me, you're being so good for me, you're my best Threetoo."
Threetoo melted a little and then went absolutely limp in Tony's arms. Tony jerked his head up to stare at the vital signs JARVIS was still projecting, and watched Threetoo's heart rate and blood pressure both drop off precipitously.
"Keep breathing, sweetheart, just keep breathing." Tony was barely aware of whispering the words, trying to match his own breaths to Threetoo's as they slowed.
But they didn't stop, and neither did Threetoo's heart. By all indications he was unconscious--out of pain--but stable. Tony closed his eyes and willed his own heartbeat to settle.
He opened his eyes at the sound of bare footsteps hurrying up and discovered Steve--not naked, as it turned out. He was in fact wearing a bright blue jock strap, and, more to the point, he had an armful of hideous fuzzy pink blanket. Threetoo's favorite. Steve knelt, offering it mutely to Tony, and Tony nodded vaguely toward Threetoo, maneuvering to let Steve tuck the blanket around him without actually letting go or jostling him.
Steve glanced to one side of Tony as he said, "Do you want me to--to take him upstairs, Mr. Stark?"
Tony just stared at him for a moment and then followed his gaze and found Rhodey--looking almost as breathless and freaked-out as Tony felt--standing beside Pepper, who had both hands plastered over her mouth, her eyes wide and a little shiny, like she might be about to cry.
Tony looked down at Threetoo again--still looking awfully pale next to the virulent pink--and said, "No, actually, I... I'm going to carry him upstairs, and you're going to come with me and give me your side of what just happened."
Steve nodded, extending a hand as Tony got his feet under him, ready to brace him as he stood up under Threetoo's weight. When Tony was on his feet, Steve gathered up the trailing ends of the blanket.
"Tony," Rhodey said, though he didn't follow it up with anything.
Tony shook his head. "I'm--I'm going to take them upstairs. Don't. Leave."
Rhodey raised his hands, yielding. Pepper dropped hers and gave a quick, anxious nod.
Tony turned, and Steve wheeled smoothly with him, like it was a military drill they'd practiced; it was a little uncanny, but mostly it was good not to be tripping over anyone or anything as they walked to the elevator.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, as soon as the doors closed. "I should've stopped him. JARVIS told us to stay in our quarters until you came back, but he--"
Tony shook his head, cutting Steve off just as the doors opened; the sound of his voice would carry, from here, to where Rhodey and Pepper stood. "Wait until we're in the room."
Steve nodded understanding and stayed at his side, still holding up the end of Threetoo's blanket like it was some kind of ceremonial procession. That would make Threetoo some kind of gutted sacrificial lamb, and Tony had to shut that train of thought off immediately.
"Rhodey--did JARVIS actually introduce you at all? Did that happen? Colonel James Rhodes, Air Force, but I call him Rhodey. I've known him since I was thirteen, we met doing undergrad at MIT. He was sixteen, the slacker."
They stepped through the door into Tony's bedroom, and Steve shut it behind them and said, "He didn't mean to hurt Threetoo. He just... didn't realize."
Tony nodded jerkily. "That is usually the way it happens, as we have both encountered. So JARVIS told you to stay in your room?"
Tony hadn't broken stride, and Steve was right on his heels as Tony carried Threetoo into the bedslaves' room. Steve brushed past him to push the curtain open on the pillow box, and then Tony could finally lay Threetoo down, making sure he was comfortable and his hair wasn't caught under his head before he tucked the pink blanket around him.
"Yeah," Steve said, when Tony remembered that he'd asked a question and dragged his gaze up. Steve had just been watching, hands at his sides.
On his way to looking Steve in the eye, Tony's gaze dragged over the bright blue jock strap. Some irrelevant part of his brain noted that the shape and present appearance were not quite right for the object he'd made to be a cup, but not far off, either.
"He, uh--Threetoo--oh God, I was so excited to tell you, for half a second before everything else--Threetoo wanted me to eat--" Steve flung a hand out, and Tony noted an empty shake bottle and a half-full carton of blackberries on the floor. Some blackberries had spilled out, scattering over the blankets that had to be Steve's, neatly spread out like he'd been about to take a nap.
Steve, Tony abruptly recalled, had not slept in... probably 74 hours, now.
"I drank the shake he gave me, but I said I didn't want to eat when he couldn't share, it wasn't fair, and he--he already had his hand full of berries, so he couldn't argue with me, but he just gave me this glare. God, I felt sixteen years old, it was Bucky to the core, and he ate three of them, just to make me stop arguing."
Tony looked up at him. "He..."
Steve's mouth quirked. "Well, he put them in his mouth, anyway. I don't think he'd really committed to chewing--and then JARVIS told us there was a guest, and he didn't spit them out anywhere and didn't choke on them, so." Steve shrugged.
Tony sat down on the edge of the pillow box and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So JARVIS told you there was a guest..."
Steve moved away. Tony heard soft sounds like he had knelt down on the blankets and was tidying up the spilled berries. "Yeah. He told us to stay in here, that it would be better, and the guest had privileges to be here. That's about when Threetoo, uh... he seemed like he had some really firm ideas about how guests should be treated, and he wasn't going to let JARVIS or me tell him otherwise."
"Oh, God," Tony said faintly, feeling sick and dizzy as he put together what must have been going through Threetoo's mind, what kind of programming he must have fallen prey to. Tony didn't think he moved, but there was a hand on his arm suddenly, the big solid presence of Steve at his feet.
"Put your head down, Tony," Steve instructed firmly. "Lower--lower than your heart, come on, bend over a little, you're okay, you just lost all the blood pressure to your brain, happens to everybody sometimes."
Tony folded, letting Steve guide him. Steve's voice fuzzed in and out a little, and he said, his mouth feeling a little numb, "It's just the adrenaline finally really kicking in."
"It's a bitch when it's late like that, isn't it?" Steve agreed easily. "Worse than useless. You're okay, just keep breathing."
It was, Tony thought, almost dreamily, almost exactly what he'd been saying to Threetoo. For a half-second he entertained the ludicrous fantasy of leaning forward further, tumbling into Steve's arms and being held the way he'd held Threetoo. It might feel nice, to have someone else take his weight for a moment.
But Steve couldn't sedate him out of his problems; Tony was going to have to stand up and go talk to Pepper and Rhodey in a minute. He would need to be calm and convincing and stop this from blowing up any further than it already had.
"I'm okay," Tony said. Steve's hand squeezed firmly on his bicep, and Tony took a couple of breaths, shook his head, and uncurled. "No, really, I am, I'm fine. Obviously it was fine; no matter what Threetoo thought he was obligated to offer, Rhodey would never take him up on it."
Steve winced. "No, he... clearly had no intention of doing that. Threetoo didn't even get through welcoming him before he just kind of--shut things down, said he wanted you back right away, and... I think Threetoo, uh... he thought he'd done it wrong, or... I don't know exactly, I was behind him, I didn't get a good look at his face. But it seemed... bad. And then--" Steve waved toward Threetoo, indicating the state Tony had seen him in.
"Fuck," Tony muttered. He knew Rhodey and Threetoo both well enough to have a pretty good--well, awful, but very vivid--mental image of how that played out. "I should..."
Steve nodded, sitting back on his heels, clearing Tony's path. "I'll stay here."
Right. That was Tony's cue. Steve could handle the pointless hovering over Threetoo as well as anyone could; JARVIS would be doing the necessary medical monitoring via Threetoo's chip readings. Tony had to get off his ass and go fix the rest of this.
A moment later he did it, pushing up to his feet and shaking his rubbery arms like he'd just gone a few rounds with Happy in the ring instead of having a breakdown all over the guy he was supposed to be rescuing. He could do this.
He hadn't actually boxed with Happy in ages. As Tony headed back out to his bedroom and took the long way around the penthouse's upper level, making for the stairs instead of the elevators, he considered when he could make time for another session. He'd been slacking off on his gym time, too; maybe he should get back into the weights-and-cardio groove before he got back to the boxing. He had the padded shirt to protect The Machine, and Happy knew not to hit him right there anyway, even if he didn't know why; it would be fine.
Then he was trotting down the stairs, and Happy and boxing and his general cardiovascular fitness were all forced right out of Tony's head by the sight of Rhodey and Pepper whispering together. Pepper was tapping rapidly at her phone; Rhodey had one hand on his hip, the other running over his head.
"Hey," Tony called out, and they both jerked around to focus on him. "So, uh..." As he walked closer he couldn't help running the calculations. "I guess this whole ambush was your own idea? If Sam tipped you guys off it wouldn't have been this much of a clusterfuck. Or, you know, if you'd asked--"
"Uh-uh, no, you're not putting this on us," Rhodey cut in, low and stern, and Tony raised his hands in surrender. "Because you could have warned us--you had a responsibility to warn us, if you had any idea that somebody showing up here would--would--"
Tony winced and dropped into a chair, waving them toward seats. He saw them both clock the new kneeling pillows; Rhodey nudged one aside with his foot before he sat.
"Okay so I guess we're skipping over the it's not what it looks like part," Tony said, rubbing his forehead. It was too early for Scotch, wasn't it? It was. Definitely too early to be drinking this early in front of Rhodey and Pepper.
"It looks like you taking some kind of crazy level of personal responsibility for two of the rescues from that haul a couple of weeks ago," Pepper said briskly. "Which I guess isn't totally surprising, all things considered, but, Tony--you have people who do this. People who have training, experience--"
"Clothes," Rhodey muttered, which made Pepper stop short and have to collect herself.
"I know," Tony said. "I know, I know, I--look, this is not a trend, okay, I didn't just decide to try my hand at this stuff myself, I'm not going to start bringing them all home with me. These two... they're special cases. Sort of the same special case. And it's complicated, and delicate, and I wanted to make sure it was handled right."
Pepper raised her eyebrows. "And you know how to handle it better than all the professionals you've painstakingly recruited to do this?"
Tony closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering how to explain the fine line between caring about Threetoo and Steve's wellbeing and trying to contain the damage their very existence could do, to say nothing of the damage they were capable of inflicting. "I, uh... I read some books. And it's more complicated than just..."
Sitting there with Rhodey and Pepper, his truest, deepest, most trusted and most culpable coconspirators, it occurred to him sharply just how complicated this was, and just what was going to happen if the whole ticking time bomb of Steve and Threetoo and Alexander Pierce actually did blow up at some point.
"Fuck," Tony muttered.
"You just, you get attached," Pepper said. "You act like you don't, but that's--"
Tony shook his head, holding out a hand as he realized exactly what he really should have warned his nearest and dearest about before they showed up and got counter-ambushed by it. "No, it's--it's not that kind of complicated. Or, it is, but me getting attached is really, really not the scale of problem we have to be worried about here, it's--"
Tony raised his head and looked Pepper straight in the eye. "This is Grand Finale stuff, Pep. This is... if this goes down like it could, it's going all the way, and I need you to be ready for that."
Her mouth worked a little, and he watched the faint telltale signs of her going pale under her perfect makeup. "You--you're serious. Are you being serious? Tony, you can't just say Grand Finale because you don't want to talk about your feelings."
"Have I ever," Tony said, holding her gaze. "Pep. I mean it. I need you ready. I need everything ready. I--I should have said sooner, I was--you know, forest, trees, I was in the weeds--but that's the kind of complicated they are."
Pepper shook her head. "We're--Tony, I don't know if we're there yet, you--you should just send them away if they're that dangerous! There are people who could--you could get them out, I know you could, you--"
"That might not solve anything," Tony said slowly. "That... really probably would just make it all happen faster, no matter where I sent them. So however close you can get to ready, I need you to get there, and--if we're not there we'll wing it. It'll be fine."
"Tony," Pepper pinched the bridge of her own nose now, blinking rapidly. "Tony, you--it will not be fine if--"
"Well, whatever, it'll be what it is. It's always been a gamble, okay?" The weight of the Machine in his chest, and what it hid, seemed heavier than ever. If Pepper wasn't ready, if there was nothing to catch him on the way down...
Tony shook his head sharply. He knew Pepper. He knew the way she worked. "You've got this, Pep. I know you do. But I need you to be focused on that."
She met his eyes again. There were faint marks on the sides of her nose where she had been squeezing. "You're serious. Tony, you have to swear to me that you're not just trying to distract me."
"I am very, very serious," Tony said. He swallowed, thinking about times when he might have been tempted to tell her this lie, wondering how the hell he could ever prove that this wasn't that. "I'm... Pep, I really mean it. I swear. I swear on JARVIS. On DUM-E. On your life. And you'd better have that part down cold, Pep, or--"
Pepper waved a hand, cutting him off. "Yes, Tony, I have my exit strategy, you do not need to audit my exit strategy again because you have already checked it fourteen times in the last five years. But if you're serious that it's coming--"
"I mean, maybe we get lucky, maybe we get really really lucky--"
Pepper shook her head. "Okay. Then I have things to do, starting with that board meeting downstairs. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter how you feel about these guys, okay? And it doesn't meant that I'm not going to be checking in with you, but next time I get worried and can't get you to talk to me, I'm going to send Natasha."
Tony winced, but nodded. He probably deserved that.
Pepper stood and bent to kiss his cheek before looking back and forth between him and Rhodey. Tony just looked up at her, waiting--she knew that there was stuff he was going to tell Rhodey and not her, and she knew that he knew that she knew.
She sighed and shook her head and walked away, and JARVIS closed the elevator as soon as she was inside. If only it was that easy to actually get her out of his vicinity in a way that meant she would be safe.
"Okay, my turn," Rhodey said, jerking Tony's attention back. "What the fuck, Tones."
Tony drew a breath and then let himself deflate, slumping back into his chair. "Pep told you about the thing a couple of weeks ago?"
Rhodey's eyes were unwavering; Tony could only meet them in little glimpses. "She told me about the blond one, said that was some Bond-flick shit, walking him out in plain sight with Nat for camouflage. And she thought the naked one had been in pretty bad shape, said you won him in a bet or something."
"Blackjack," Tony said, waving a hand. "Against Westfahl. I might as well have won him by passing freshman Calculus."
Rhodey tilted his head, acknowledging but refusing to be moved.
Tony sighed. "Steve--the blond one--is ex-Army, and he was under an execution order. And I have reason to believe that Alexander Pierce was personally interested in assuring that it was carried out."
"Alexander... Pierce," Rhodey said slowly. "The Secretary of Defense. The guy who's one step below the president in my chain of command."
"Yeah," Tony said, drawing out the word. "Yeah. That one. Also, not very coincidentally, the guy who gave Threetoo to Westfahl. 32557038," Tony added. "Sealed record, and he doesn't know his own name."
Rhodey's eyes narrowed, and Tony sank into his chair a little at the sheer relief of talking to somebody who followed him.
"Yeah, see," Tony said. "You get it. Westfahl had him in a cage, and he looked like he was ready to come through the bars and take me out--and then Westfahl says the magic words, literally a sentence, and bam, I am the center of Threetoo's universe."
"That's... not normal," Rhodey said slowly. "That's... some kind of conditioned response? Brainwashing?"
Tony nodded slowly, making a circular gesture with his finger, keep it coming.
"For a sex slave," Rhodey said, glancing toward the upper level, where he must have had his encounter with Threetoo. "Hell of a waste of effort, unless..."
"Rhodey," Tony said, knowing he wouldn't have to say more, "he's got brain damage, he has seizures and migraines, he doesn't know his own name or who the president is, but his spatial skills give mine a run for their money, and he is really, really good at calculating trajectories."
Rhodey got it. Rhodey one hundred percent got it, and he did not look happy at all. "And he belonged to Pierce."
Tony nodded. "I don't think Pierce... made him like this, except for the end state, which must be a coverup after they broke him too much to keep using him but wanted to keep open the possibility that he'd recover enough to be useful again. What he was when he was useful, I think Pierce... bought, or possibly inherited."
Rhodey looked sickened. "What about the other one, did Pierce..."
Tony shook his head. "He was a special case. Pierce didn't want to mess with his head, or didn't know how to, maybe, to get what he had with Threetoo. But Pierce tried to recruit Steve for some... special projects."
"Tried," Rhodey said. "That means he failed. You're hiding a slave who thwarted Alexander Pierce. Who Alexander Pierce thinks is dead."
Tony grimaced and gestured in the direction Pepper had gone. "You heard what I said. Finale's coming."
"This isn't just the Grand Finale, Tony. This isn't a powder keg you're sitting on. This is a nuke."
Tony spread his hands. "Yeah, but I can't exactly sink them in the ocean under a hundred tons of concrete, Rhodey. They're people, they needed rescuing. They still need rescuing, no matter how the rest of this goes down." That sounded more or less rational, but Rhodey gave him a skeptical look that meant he had definitely not forgotten how Tony reacted to seeing Threetoo in pain.
Tony grimaced, allowing the point, but said firmly, "I'm just trying to keep the fallout off everybody else."
"Sure," Rhodey said. "Just don't forget that when the fallout hits you, it hits me. And Pepper, and a lot of other people. You're not expendable, Tony, you--"
Tony shook his head firmly. "I need to--there are layers to this. I'm working on--on being able to send them somewhere safer, but for right now, they need to be here. They're a package deal, and Threetoo needs to be with me for a little longer. As soon as he..."
The words stuck in Tony's throat for a minute, but he forced himself onward. "As soon as he's stronger, and the programming is cracked a little more, I'll send them someplace safe."
Rhodey studied him, and Tony reconsidered being glad to talk to someone who really understood him. "You gonna build them a safe place, first? Because there aren't actually a lot of places in the world that are safe from the guy directing the United States military."
"Should that guy be directing the United States military, though? If that's the question you're asking?"
"Tony, that's--I mean, I know you have that whole Finale plan, but a guy like Pierce, he's--you can't just--"
"Not without more information," Tony agreed. "Not without something I can point to other than a traumatized slave on a sealed record, and a guy who's supposed to be dead."
Rhodey sighed and sat back. "I'm not a spy, Tones. And I can't just slide Natasha into a meeting with the Joint Chiefs."
"I'm not asking you to spy," Tony said quickly, raising his hands. "I'm asking you to just... keep your eyes open, knowing what you know. If you see something that suggests that the Secretary of Defense is somebody who really should not be the Secretary of Defense..."
Rhodey stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Then I'll tell Pepper, and let her figure out what to do about it."
"Yes," Tony agreed. "Thank you, yes, perfect, that is exactly her area, doing things legally and stuff. Press, lawyers, whatever. Shutting down somebody like Pierce is not really my forte."
Case in point, Obie. Tony had, eventually, managed to shut him down, but even that had required a hell of a lot of help from Pepper. And Pierce had to be at least an order of magnitude beyond even Obie's brand of evil.
Rhodey nodded. "So that means you're going to stay way the hell away from him, and from Westfahl, right? You're going to keep your head down, stay safe, let me and Pepper figure out how to handle this?"
Tony struggled to think of how to phrase an answer Rhodey would be reassured by, and then gave up. "Is there any correct way for me to answer that question? Is your hypothesis that I'm going to do something stupid here remotely falsifiable?"
Rhodey sighed. "I just need to know that you're not going to--I don't even know what. Try to handle this whole thing completely on your own, again. I know you wouldn't have said a word about it to me or Pepper if we hadn't shown up here today."
"I... eventually," Tony said, wincing at the unconvincing sound of his own voice. "If there was something you needed to know, or--I don't know what I would've done, but--look, I--I've seen Pierce with Threetoo. I've seen him--"
Tony's throat went tight, thinking of Pierce's casual, proprietary hand, the careless way he spoke about maybe killing the man before him. "I get it, okay? I realize that he's dangerous, more than I can say. I don't want anything to do with him. But I'll do what I have to, to keep him underestimating me for as long as possible. This playboy shtick has done the job so far, I'm not abandoning it until I have to. If that means I have to pretend to be playing nice with him, I'm not going to go out of my way to fuck that up."
Rhodey tilted his head, acknowledging the point.
"But he's--he's not right," Tony added, at a loss to fully describe what he'd seen. "He's... I mean, look, I used to not get how bad slavery was, I used to be able to pretend that it was okay, but this guy really did not see Threetoo as human. And if he could be as close as he must have been to Threetoo and just--just shut that off--it's not like I didn't know he's treating his slaves badly, but I think he's really evil, Rhodey. I don't think there are any brakes on that guy; if he's doing something he's going to take it all the way."
He didn't know exactly what he meant by that, couldn't put his finger on what the hell Pierce might be doing, but Tony knew that what he said was true. Rhodey nodded thoughtfully, seeming to take in the warning, and that was really the best Tony could hope for.
"I'll see what I can do, Tones," Rhodey said. "I'm not promising anything, but... I hear you, okay? I hear you."
Tony nodded his thanks and Rhodey stood up, beckoning for Tony to stand up too. "Come on, come here," Rhodey said, somehow stern and coaxing at the same time.
Tony stood, opening his arms, and Rhodey stepped forward and tugged him in, holding him tight for a moment. Tony remembered that flicker of a wish when he was upstairs with Steve, longing for someone to take his weight, and he let himself lean into Rhodey, just for the space of a breath or two. He was allowed, with Rhodey. Rhodey could bear it.
But after another moment Tony stepped back, smiling crookedly. "So, would you rate your recon op successful?"
"Not my best work ever," Rhodey said, letting his gaze drop to the center of Tony's chest, "but, yeah, not a bad--" Rhodey glanced at his watch, "Half-hour's effort. Just about lunch time, though. Come grab a slice with me, actually see the sun for a minute."
Tony didn't let himself look upstairs, but he saw Rhodey spot him wanting to. "I, uh, I've got some..."
"Tony, come on. Give me twenty minutes where we pretend to just be people, you ask me if I've been up to anything interesting lately, met any nice ladies, we'll talk and eat pizza. I know you worry about these guys, but they're safe here, right? They're safe if you leave for a little while."
What was he going to do if he stayed, anyway? Obsess over what Pepper and Rhodey were going to be doing, and try to think of ways to help that they probably wouldn't appreciate? Loom over Steve and Threetoo while they slept?
God, he hoped Steve was sleeping.
"JARVIS," he said. "Could you, uh, gently encourage Steve to get some sleep? Dim lights, white noise, bump up the temperature a little?"
"I shall employ all the tactics in my arsenal, sir," JARVIS agreed. "Let us hope he's more suggestible than you are."
"Let us hope," Tony agreed, and then, with a gesture of surrender, he headed to the elevator with Rhodey, staving off the moment when he'd be alone again for another twenty minutes. "Hey now, what's this about you meeting nice ladies?"
Threetoo was barely awake before he was shoving the curtain back, scrambling out of the pillows and over the ledge, lurching forward into the darkness only to stop short when instinct warned him he was about to--to--
To trip over Steve. Threetoo folded to his knees, reaching out a careful hand, and touched warm skin. An arm, which he followed to a hand, which curled around his when Threetoo touched.
Steve made a sound between a hum and a moan, low and warm and drowsy. "Y'okay?"
"Yeah, pal, I'm good," Threetoo whispered. It was the correct thing to do, but the calculations only caught up to him when he was already speaking: Steve couldn't see him sign in the dark and would be startled to hear JARVIS interpret. Speaking out loud was the quickest way to soothe Steve back to sleep, and Steve needed to sleep. "Close your eyes another minute, you got time."
The words were, somehow, exactly the right ones to do what Threetoo had meant to do. Steve went limp again, relaxing into sleep, except for his grip on Threetoo's hand. Threetoo stayed crouched there, letting his eyes adjust and watching Steve sleep while his brain caught up with that first half-panicked impulse he'd had on waking.
He had to be sure that Steve was okay. Steve was okay. Steve was sleeping. Nothing had happened to Steve.
No one had hurt him, or used him in ways he wasn't ready to be used.
Threetoo closed his eyes, remembering his determination to meet their master's guest even when JARVIS told them to stay away. The guest's disgusted reaction, and his own collapse into uselessness and pain. Through the immobilizing intensity of it, he'd been able to make out the guest's voice, clipped and sharp with worry, but not with anger. He hadn't touched Threetoo, though.
That had been Steve.
Threetoo opened his eyes and looked down at his hand holding Steve's hand.
It didn't trouble him at all to touch Steve or be touched by him, the same way it had been easy to speak when Steve needed to hear him. Even now that he was aware of it, his flesh didn't crawl with unease at the touch of Steve' hand around his. Even when he had already been--not punished, but stressed and in pain from a migraine--it hadn't made it hurt worse to be gathered in Steve's arms, held against Steve's bare skin.
It was permitted, of course. Steve was his project, assigned to him by his master; obviously he would need to touch Steve to train him. But he hadn't thought about that at all. That wasn't why it was easy to touch Steve. It was just... easy.
Pressure throbbed warningly in his temples--not pain yet, but pain was coming. Stress. He needed to calm down if he wanted to head it off from turning into a migraine. Steve was safe, and now that he was assured of that, Threetoo could go look for his master, who would want to know that Threetoo was safe. Who would want to help Threetoo be safe.
Threetoo pulled his hand free of Steve's grip, gently enough not to disturb him, and stepped across Steve before he folded down to his knees to crawl out through the open door into his master's bedroom.
As soon as he passed the threshold, he could hear his master's breathing coming from the bed. Threetoo was tempted to back up and check where the sound became audible, but that wasn't nearly as important as the fact of his master's clearly audible breathing, which sounded rough and quick and unhappy. Even as Threetoo crawled toward him, moving as fast as he could, the sound advanced from rough breathing into something near sobs, a high pained sound accompanying each breath.
Threetoo knelt up at the edge of the bed, hesitating. He had not been invited into his master's bed, and he could not intrude upon it. He parted his lips, but his throat squeezed tight at the thought of trying to speak aloud to his master to wake him, to take such a liberty while his master slept.
His master moved abruptly in his sleep, turning over and lashing out with one arm. The bed was wide, so his master's swinging hand came nowhere near him, but Threetoo still flinched back from the violence of the motion.
But his master had never struck him, never. His master was not angry but frightened--but he could not fight his way out of a dream. He needed help.
His master's hand closed into a fist, clutching the sheets, well within Threetoo's reach. He could touch his master there without getting into the bed, with his knees still on the ground. Once he was awake, his master wouldn't be angry with him; he might send Threetoo away, into the bedslaves' room where Threetoo wouldn't be able to hear him, but at least he would be awake.
When he was awake he would remember that he was a master, that he had the power to save people and protect them. He wouldn't have to be frightened anymore.
Threetoo could give something back to his master. Threetoo could be useful, could help.
He tucked his hand behind his back--he knew better than to grab--and bent forward carefully, not letting his chest touch the mattress as he bowed his head over his master's hand. He closed his eyes as his cheek pressed against his master's knuckles, and he rubbed gently against them, firm bony points pressing against his face. There was a faint rasping sound--Threetoo's five-o'clock-in-the-morning shadow against his master's skin--and for a moment Threetoo felt the fist under his cheek clench harder.
Then his master gasped and moved; Threetoo dared to look up through the fall of his hair to see his master's other hand approach. His master pushed Threetoo's hair back, then caressed his cheek, and Threetoo's eyes closed in pleasure at the gentle touches. No matter what happened next, he had pleased his master, had brought him back safely to wakefulness.
"Hey, sweetheart." His master's voice was a little hoarse, shaking over the syllables, and Threetoo turned his head to kiss his master's palm, then the other way to kiss his knuckles. His master withdrew his hands only to sit up and scoot toward him, reaching for him again.
"Hey," his master said softly, running his hands over Threetoo's head and neck. "You need something, Threetoo? You okay? J, bring up the lights a little, have U bring in a snack. You missed some meals, baby, but I figured you needed to sleep it off."
The mention of what he'd had to sleep off reminded Threetoo that his master's friend had come to visit today, and been greeted, not with the proper courtesies Threetoo had intended, but with something that shocked and disgusted and worried him. Just when he could see his master's expression of concern, Threetoo dropped his gaze, his shoulders tensing under his master's gentle touch.
Threetoo raised his hand to ask, Master's friend?
"Rhodey's not here, but he wasn't upset with you, baby, just worried. He was just dropping in for a little while, so I went and had lunch with him once you were squared away--I figured Steve and JARVIS could look after you for me for a little while. Were you okay?"
Threetoo shrugged, smiling wryly. Just woke up.
His master smiled and petted him, and Threetoo wondered whether he was entirely awake. He looked tired.
His master needed someone to take care of him, someone to be close by, in his bed--to wake him more gracefully if he had another nightmare. Someone who could be a pleasure, as well as a project.
He needed Steve.
Not Steve as he was now, or as he had been today, untrained, unsure, but the slave Steve could be. Would be, when Threetoo had finished teaching him.
And it would be good for Steve, too. He had to be bored; he was waiting on Threetoo's recovery, Threetoo's desensitization. If Threetoo had been strong enough, he could have started training Steve the day he arrived--he could still remember the golden perfection of Steve's body, strong and flawless.
Then too, if Steve was fearful of any part of what was to come, he would be glad for it to finally begin, so the anticipation could end. And he would learn that their master was kind, and eager to be pleased, not cruel or fault-finding. So Steve had nothing to fear, really, and the sooner he learned that the better.
Steve would be safe, then. Safe in their master's affections, safe in his place here. That was important, just as it had been when the need to check on him yanked Threetoo from his bed. Steve would suit their master well, and their master would be good to Steve.
And Threetoo... Threetoo would get well, or at least better. And he would always be his master's Threetoo. That would be enough. That had to be enough. His master couldn't wait for Threetoo to get all the way better, and Steve couldn't be left untrained, unprepared for such contingencies as a guest arriving.
A soft mechanical whir alerted him a moment before the door swung open, and U rolled in with a tray.
"Right," his master said, sounding more alert. "Snacks! Here we go, sweetheart, can you scoot back a minute for me?"
Threetoo could, and did, of course. His master moved to sit with his feet dangling, knees at the edge of the mattress. He gestured in the familiar way for Threetoo to take his place between his master's knees as U rolled up with the tray. The whiff of a warm sweet drink and the food that accompanied it made Threetoo's stomach twist on its emptiness, and his awareness slid back to center on his own body. He was hungry and tired, and he could feel the blunted residue of the pain he'd endured still resting heavy on his head.
He let his cheek rest against his master's thigh, and his master stroked a hand over his head. "I know you must be tired, baby. Just get a few hundred calories down for me and you can go back to sleep, okay?"
Threetoo nodded, more or less, rubbing his cheek against his master's thigh--covered, as always, though in thin pajamas instead of sturdy jeans or the wool of a fine suit. Threetoo turned his head a little, breathing in silently through his nose to get the sleep-warm scent of his master, stronger than he was usually able to smell.
It was a comforting scent, familiar and good, belonging to the particular body of the particular man who was his master. Who liked him to kneel just like this, who petted and murmured to him--who was gently tapping something against his lips. Threetoo parted them to take the offered morsel, which was firm and dense, a little sweet but mostly tangy and rich on his tongue.
Threetoo looked up at his master just in time to see him popping a bite of something into his mouth. He smiled and picked up a steaming mug, which he passed to Threetoo, and Threetoo took a sip of his hot, sweet, milky drink, and then opened his mouth for another bite of something. He got a raspberry next, and beamed up at his master as he chewed.
His master needed more than him, but just for tonight... tonight Threetoo had been enough, and tonight he could let himself luxuriate in his master's attention. For just a little longer, he could hold his undisputed place as his master's favorite.
Tomorrow was soon enough to tell his master that it was time to start training Steve.
Steve lay still a while with his eyes closed, listening to Bucky breathe behind the curtain and trying to identify the source of the lightness in his chest. He'd gotten what felt like a solid night's sleep, or possibly more, since he was pretty sure he'd lain down around noon and there was dawn light against his eyelids now.
It came to him suddenly: he'd dreamed about Bucky talking to him in his own voice instead of JARVIS's interpretation, kneeling by his bed and holding his hand, telling him to rest. And what he was feeling now was an eagerness to begin the day, because it was a day he would spend with Bucky, or at least near him. He used to feel this just about every day. But he hadn't, not in a long time.
He pressed a hand to his chest and glanced toward the closed curtain. He felt faintly guilty that he was feeling like this because he'd dreamed of Bucky, and not in reaction to the person Bucky really was now.
It was a good feeling, though. And he did get to spend the day with Bucky, after all. For now, though, Bucky was still asleep, and Steve had access to something almost as good.
He had Tony's permission to go to the little gym and run as much as he pleased. Steve sat up and opened the drawers of the dresser Threetoo had indicated was for him.
There were new clothes in it since the last time Steve had looked. There was one pair of actual jeans, and some other pants that, though they were nearly as soft as the ones Threetoo had supplied him, were clearly intended for activity instead of sleeping. He pulled on a pair of gray pants and a t-shirt, and then discovered, in the bottom drawer, a pair of oddly sleek, brightly colored running shoes.
He glanced toward Threetoo's curtain again, feeling guilty to have shoes when he had none.
On the other hand, it was pretty obvious that if Threetoo ever decided he wanted shoes, Tony would buy him shoes in every color and style imaginable, and then probably design some new ones just to round out the collection.
Steve shook his head at himself and his wild thoughts and pulled the shoes on. They fit perfectly, of course, and they were light on his feet, springy and flexible as he tested them out. Running would be a pleasure anyway, but these would make it even more of one. Steve got to his feet and jogged out to the elevator, bouncing on his toes all the way down to the gym.
The feeling stayed with him through the run, as his body warmed up and he managed to nudge the machine up to a speed that felt like an effort. He stopped when he'd done 26.2 miles exactly, and as he moved restlessly around the room, stretching and letting his body settle, he looked up. "JARVIS?"
"At your service," JARVIS said, and almost didn't sound sarcastic about it.
Steve smiled a little, feeling oddly at home with that level of animosity. "I know I'm not allowed to have a phone anymore, but could you send a message to Sam for me? Just--just how far I ran, how fast. No other message."
"Sent," JARVIS said after a second's hesitation.
Steve wondered if that meant Tony had had to review the decision, or if JARVIS had just been considering it himself. Either way, Steve couldn't do anything but grin and say, "Thanks, JARVIS."
He jogged back to the elevator, but when the doors slid smoothly and soundlessly open, he heard Bucky's voice coming from the direction of one of the arm chairs not directly visible from where Steve stood in the elevator.
Haltingly, he said, "Please, master. It's. Important."
Steve froze where he was. The elevator doors stayed open.
"Aw, hell, sweetheart," Tony said. "You didn't have to--I mean, hey, you know I love to hear you, you know that, you're getting rewards for that. But you don't have to talk out loud on purpose to convince me that you're serious about this, okay? I get that you're serious, believe me. I just... I just don't want you to feel rushed. Either of you."
Without really considering it, Steve found himself pressing against a wall to stay out of sight. What--but he knew, didn't he? There was only one thing Tony would be telling Threetoo not to rush Steve on.
"Master isn't rushing us," JARVIS said, in Steve's ear, interpreting for Threetoo even though Threetoo was obviously only intending to speak to Tony. Steve looked up and made one of the gestures he'd picked up from watching Threetoo. Thank you.
"Master wants us to be safe and comfortable and fat and healthy," Threetoo went on, via JARVIS. "But Steve needs work. Needs to know what he's for. Whose he is. Protocol so he knows what to do."
Tony sighed, long and weary, and Steve pressed his hands to his hot face, his stomach turning and heart racing with another feeling he'd forgotten though it used to as familiar as his own breath. This was Bucky seeing him, Bucky knowing him down to his bones, all the shameful things that no one should know. Even now, not knowing who Steve was--Threetoo knew him.
"You have a point," Tony said slowly. "I've noticed he wasn't doing well with, uh, idleness. But you're still my Threetoo. You're sure you're ready to take that on?"
"Yes," JARVIS interpreted, the emphasis carrying through from what must have been a very sharp sign from Threetoo. "Ready."
"Okay, baby, okay. You're feeling ready. Steve?"
It took Steve a few seconds to realize he was being addressed, but... of course. Of course Tony knew he was there, listening. Steve let out a little sigh of his own and stumbled over to the open doors of the elevator, stepping half out and gripping the doorway to steady himself.
Tony was looking over his shoulder at him with a blandly inquiring sort of expression, giving Steve no hint as to whether he was expected to say yes or no, here.
Threetoo, on his knees at Tony's feet, was giving him the same purse-mouthed narrow-eyed look that Mrs. Barnes used to give girls who wore their skirts short enough to flash their knees when they walked. She would never say anything in judgment, but it was perfectly clear that no daughter of hers would be setting foot out of doors in such a getup.
Steve ran a hand over the sweaty back of his neck, intensely aware of how badly he needed a shower. That was probably the least of Threetoo's objections, of course.
The thought flashed through his mind of how Threetoo would look at him if he got things right, and before he thought any further than that, he opened his mouth and said, "I'm ready."
Tony just stared for a moment at Steve, one foot out of the elevator with that flush on his cheeks, his hair tousled and a little sweaty. Ready.
Then he closed his eyes. This was the plan; this was always the plan. This was how Threetoo--Bucky--and Steve could have sex, which was more likely than anything else to help Bucky remember who he was, and what Steve meant to him. He'd already assured Tony that he didn't get headaches from being close to Steve anymore; despite what had happened yesterday, he might be that close to breaking his programming in a big way.
And, hell, given how soon this might all come crashing down, Tony had no right to drag his feet on this. The sooner Threetoo--Bucky, Bucky Barnes, born in 1917--broke through the programming, the better. The sooner he and Steve could be safe.
If there was anywhere safe for them--but there had to be a way. Once Barnes was himself they could figure it out.
There was a touch on his knee, and Tony shook himself out of his thoughts and looked down, automatically putting on his usual gentle smile for Threetoo.
Threetoo was frowning at him, looking worried.
Tony shook his head a little and brushed a hand over Threetoo's hair, tucking it behind his ear as he said, "I guess you're both ready, then. New project, that's good, huh?"
Threetoo was still frowning, but he turned his head to press a kiss to the inside of Tony's wrist while he raised his hand to sign. Tired, sir?
Tony huffed out a breath, making a goofy, exaggerated frown back and appreciating how Threetoo looked amused and pleased by it instead of intimidated. Of course Tony was tired, he was always tired. Though he'd honestly slept pretty well, after finishing the snack-and-petting session with Threetoo and sending him back to bed. Probably because of whatever was in that herbal tea, or the late-night carb-fest.
"Don't you start," Tony said. "JARVIS hassling me about bedtime is enough, I don't need to hear it from you, too."
Threetoo dropped his gaze, tilting his head so his face was partially curtained by his hair; the easy amusement disappeared at once into a demure pose as he signed, Of course not, master.
Tony swallowed, his throat gone suddenly tight and his chest aching, because he was pretty sure that he was being teased, and he was pretty sure he loved the guy teasing him, and that was why he was going to send Threetoo to have sex with the guy he really loved. That was why he was going to send them both away, just as soon as he could.
"Well, if we're all clear on our plans for the day, I'm going to head down to work. I'll be back at noon for your lunch. Let JARVIS know if you need anything for--anything. Okay? And stay hydrated, both of you."
Threetoo looked up again, smiling sunnily, and nodded, and Tony over at Steve, still hovering in the doorway of the elevator, watching with an expression Tony couldn't read. Tony looked back down at Threetoo, making his own expression serious and his voice soft.
"Remember what I said about not rushing, okay? If there's anything that you're feeling weird about, or Steve's not comfortable with--you call it a day, or ease into it real gently, okay? Take your time. Learning new things should be a good experience, or it's all gonna be garbage when it comes to using it."
Threetoo nodded solemnly. Understood. Positive feedback only.
"Yeah," Tony said. "Yeah. That's--you're gonna be good at this, baby, you're--"
Tony cut himself off before he could say anything stupid like I'm going to miss you, and leaned down to kiss the top of Threetoo's head. "Okay, I gotta go, and you've got a curriculum to get started on, so I'll get out of your hair."
As soon as Tony left, Steve felt the hollowness of his own words. He was alone with Bucky--with Threetoo--in exactly the situation he'd expected when Tony first offered him this plan. Threetoo was going to teach him to be a sex slave, today, here, now.
"I, uh," Steve forced himself to look away from Threetoo, who was still gazing up at Steve, disapproval fading into even more alarming contemplation. "I'm gonna. Shower. I'm all..."
Threetoo nodded, the motion slow, still thoughtful. His hand flashed through some signs and in Steve's ear, JARVIS interpreted. "Have you eaten yet today?"
"No," Steve said. "I... I can..."
Threetoo shook his head and waved Steve away, a graceful gesture of dismissal.
Steve turned and went, telling himself that he was absolutely not running away.
It didn't feel much better to think that he was doing what he'd been told, so he tried not to think anything at all. He retrieved a fresh jock--red this time, instead of blue--and took it into the bathroom, where he stripped out of his workout clothes and the blue jock from yesterday. He cradled his dick close to his belly with one hand, checking the water temperature with the other even though it was always perfect.
He washed, alternating using one hand for soap and the other to hold his dick in place, lowering his hand a little every few minutes to let his dick sag away as far as it could without hurting more than he could easily bear. He was making a little progress, he thought, though he hadn't been measuring.
Tony would measure and track progress with graphs and charts, Steve thought. His face went hot as he realized all over again that very soon now, Threetoo was going to see him naked, see the rings still planted in his belly and observe the state of his dick, and... this might hurt in ways he hadn't considered before, and be humiliating in directions he hadn't expected. If Threetoo decided to straighten out his dick by force, all in one go...
Well, Steve would heal. He always did.
Steve shut the water off and quickly dried himself with alternating hands, a procedure that had already come to be automatic, right down to the careful swipes across his abdomen to keep from jostling the rings too much.
Would it be different tomorrow? Would he be?
He slipped into his fresh jock and snugged it up, breathing a sigh of relief at the doubled fabric holding his dick in place. He was so glad JARVIS had given him a selection of underwear styles to choose from, and that he'd thought to actually look through it and find these.
Then he wondered whether he should even have bothered putting them on. He looked up. "JARVIS? Could you ask Threetoo what I should wear for training?"
There was a little pause, and then JARVIS said, "It appears that you ought to be fully clothed to begin. He says he'll tell you when he wishes you to remove clothing."
Steve nodded. "Thanks."
He brushed his teeth, shaved, got his hair into decent order, or as much order as this modern cut allowed, halfway between a proper short slave's clip and an officer's combable length.
By that standard, he thought as he went to find clothes, Threetoo must be downright princely, with his long hair brushing his shoulders.
Steve shook his head, pushing that thought away, and pulled out clothes, not letting himself think too much about his selections. He took the stuff Threetoo had given him this time, fuzzy flannel pants with a pattern of brightly colored cats and a soft t-shirt in plain light blue. He considered socks or a sweatshirt--looked longingly at his brand new running shoes--and then forced himself to stop stalling and headed downstairs at a brisk jog.
He stopped short when he got a sightline on the kitchen, because Threetoo was not only there, upright and clothed--he was sitting on a chair at the kitchen table.
There was a large breakfast across from him, eggs and bacon and toast and potatoes all gently steaming, a bowl of fruit alongside. Threetoo had a bottle of vibrantly orange juice. There was a glass of water and a bottle of purple at the other place.
Threetoo looked over at him, and gestured toward the chair opposite his and said aloud, with none of the obvious effort Steve had heard when he spoke to Tony, "Steve. Come eat."
Steve opened and closed his mouth and then nodded and hurried over, barely taking his eyes off Threetoo the entire time he was fumbling his way into his seat. Face to face Steve could see the faint signs of strain on his face. It was costing him to sit like this, to present himself to Steve in this way. To speak aloud, probably, even if it didn't show in his voice.
"Eat," he repeated, with a slight smile, pointing to Steve's plate.
Steve nodded again and finally forced his gaze down. There was a fork and a knife. A napkin--a cloth one, even. Steve took a sip of the water, first, but his stomach was growling with the scents of rich good food rising up, and he didn't hesitate any more about digging in.
He kept stealing glances at Threetoo as he ate, watching to see if he was going to get that disapproving look again. But Threetoo apparently didn't find much fault with his table manners--though Steve thought there were a couple of times when Threetoo went more still than still. That had to be those seizures Tony had warned him about. They didn't seem to last long, though, and JARVIS would probably say or do something if they were worse than usual.
After Steve had gotten through about half his plate--almost exactly half, like that was the moment Threetoo had been waiting for--Threetoo said, "I want to tell you what's going to happen. So you know what to expect. I'm responsible--" he froze, and Steve froze too, watching, until Threetoo came back and continued talking as if nothing had happened. "For you, and for your training. Our master believes that the best way to teach is through positive feedback. You learn faster when you're happy and you want to learn. So the first question is," another brief freeze, "are you really sure you're ready to train? If you're scared or angry about this, I want to help you not be scared. Or angry."
Not wanting to be trained at all was not an option.
The food turned heavy in Steve's stomach at the reminder of just how far Threetoo was from the Bucky Steve remembered. He would train Steve to this, implacably, however much kindness he dressed it up with.
For a moment Steve was tempted to say that, yes, he was angry, he was scared, he wasn't ready at all. Maybe that would be better--to make Threetoo spend time coaxing him toward this in whatever way he meant to do that. Maybe that would give more time for Bucky's brain to heal, for Bucky to break through this programming and remember.
Maybe he owed that to Bucky, to make sure that Bucky wouldn't return to himself and remember doing that to Steve.
But Steve was the one who could choose, and Steve... Steve didn't want to sit and wait anymore, even if this was going to hurt, even if it was going to be awful in ways he couldn't predict. At least he would be doing something, and if Bucky was upset later, Steve could reassure him that he had understood, and it had been his own choice to go ahead.
Still, Steve couldn't resist raising his left hand to make the old familiar gesture. When freedom comes.
Threetoo huffed, his mouth twisting into a half-smile, and he returned the sign right-handed. "But until then, Stevie, we've got jobs to do."
Steve's breath was taken away all over again; everything about that, from the nickname to the look on his face, was purely Bucky. That wry pragmatism had carried him through the years of their slavery before the war. Steve had thrown himself against it like a brick wall again and again, but Bucky had always kept himself up, and Steve too.
The war had seemed to snuff it out, but there had been hints of it, now and then. And here it was--here Bucky was again, shining through like light through a keyhole. He was in there.
Nothing else could have firmed up Steve's resolve like that. This had to be the right course; if he stuck close to Bucky, being trained, he would catch more of those glimpses--draw out more, maybe. Bucky was still recovering. This was the best way Steve could help him.
"Yeah," Steve said, ducking his head and going back to his food. "All right, then. So how does the training start?"
He felt himself flushing as he said it, a barrage of images running through his mind.
"No sex stuff or naked stuff today," Threetoo said first, and Steve nearly choked on his eggs in surprise.
Threetoo laughed, a weird rusty bark of sound, and shook his head. "You got a lot to learn first." There was a pause, and Steve wasn't sure whether it was a seizure or Threetoo considering his words, and then he shook his head slightly and said, "A lot."
Steve couldn't help grinning. "Hey, I know things."
Threetoo gave him a deeply skeptical look, and Steve went back to his eating before he was forced to admit that... he didn't know a lot of things, actually.
Like... how fellas went about having sex with each other, exactly.
Bucky had been going to teach him when they were both free, and before then he'd avoided what few opportunities he might ever have had to learn. It had seemed better not to know what he was missing, and anyway learning about it would have meant picturing it, which would probably have meant getting hard, which would have hurt.
And since he'd woken up in the future, where he had the impression that people talked about this stuff more, and had more blue pictures and things on the internet... First he'd been kept cut off from any opportunity to learn anything, during all his time with his various military owners, and then... well, the last week or so had been a busy one. And asking JARVIS was the same as asking Threetoo or Tony, so... he was just going to have to learn as he went.
His cheeks flushed hotter, wondering. He knew a few things--he had a fair idea what the word fuck meant, for starters. He couldn't quite imagine how that could ever be compatible with being happy and eager to learn and not scared or in pain, but he was the one who had things to learn, as Threetoo had already pointed out.
"Today," Threetoo said, "we will begin with why, and then try to teach you some manners."
Steve frowned. "Manners, like..."
He couldn't bring himself to say it; he didn't want Threetoo to hear scorn in his voice, and he didn't think he could say crawling and calling somebody master without it.
"Like showing respect for your master and your function," Threetoo said. He opened his mouth and then froze again, twice, before he managed to continue. "You need to under--" He froze again, his voice seeming to get stuck so that he made a weird little droning noise until he came back to himself.
Threetoo shook himself, huffed, and raised his hand, grimacing as he signed. With Threetoo right there, looking him in the eye, it was almost easy to forget that JARVIS's flat voice wasn't Threetoo's own. "I guess that's all the words I get for now. Like I was saying, you need to understand what we're here for."
Steve dropped his gaze to his food and started eating again, hoping to keep his mouth too full to argue with whatever theory of Righteous Slavery had been burned into Threetoo's brain. Hopefully he wouldn't choke on it.
"We are slaves," Threetoo said, fingers flashing, his expression still holding some of that wry understanding. "We are owned. That is the way things are--" JARVIS didn't translate the next sign. Until freedom comes. "Like it or not. But we are also lucky. Lucky to be here, with this master, as his bedslaves."
Steve dared to look up. Threetoo was staring off over Steve's shoulder, his forehead furrowed and jaw working. His eyes were sharp; this wasn't a seizure, but Threetoo struggling to put something into words. Whatever it was, it looked like it hurt.
Steve set down his fork and gripped the table edge instead; he was less likely to bend that entirely out of shape.
Threetoo parted his lips and spoke aloud, and the effort, and the corresponding force of will, was obvious in every word though they came out flat and oddly paced. "Our master is--a--good man. He needs--us. He needs--care. He--shapes--the world, and we are--lucky--to help him."
Steve stared. There was something familiar in there--that turn of phrase, he shapes the world, that was odd--but...
It was also true, wasn't it? More than Threetoo knew. Sure, Tony was a genius and Threetoo must have seen him working on inventing things. But Tony was changing the world, quietly, secretly, for all the slaves he helped.
Sam had said that, after Steve had nearly killed Threetoo while he was trying to save him from Tony. This whole slave-rescue operation that had saved Steve--had saved Bucky from the likes of Alexander Pierce--it all relied on Tony. He had personally intervened for Steve and Bucky, and probably for others, and he used his money and his position to buy--how many others? Hundreds? Thousands, by now?
But Tony was alone at the top of this grand tower, except for Steve and Threetoo. Even Colonel Rhodes hadn't stayed for long when he showed up, and it wasn't like Tony went out to parties or to spend time with anyone; he was in the penthouse every three or four hours at most, patiently feeding Threetoo.
He didn't have any family--not even a glittering trophy wife to put up some front around strangers. He had money, he had employees, but he didn't have a team.
Steve remembered how he had felt when he found himself strong and healthy like he would have given literally anything to be, and stuck in Alamogordo doing nothing until Howard came for him. Even after Howard took him out, he was just kicking his heels as Howard's toy soldier, until Howard and Peggy conspired to help him to his first mission. And after that, when he and Bucky and the others were actually fighting--theoretically he could have been sent out alone as a saboteur and assassin, but Steve didn't think he could have survived that. He'd had Bucky; he'd had a team.
And now Tony was fighting a secret war while still pretending in public that his enemies were his friends, and his real friends were thousands of miles away. He was as brave and as much in danger as any secret resistance fighter in the war, and as isolated. There was no one on his side, no one to be concerned for Tony himself--except Bucky, and Steve.
Threetoo might have been programmed and broken to this, but Steve could choose it. He could choose to help Tony, just like he chose to be trained by Threetoo. It wasn't right, in the scheme of things, that Tony should be getting his support from men he held a master's power over, even if he wasn't technically their owner. But it hadn't been right for a lone slave to go out on a rescue mission to save hundreds, either.
Once again, Steve was the man on the spot. And if no one else was able to be on Tony's side, to help him keep going, then Steve could.
Steve met Threetoo's eyes and nodded slowly. "I think I understand. So how do we help? I'm guessing it's not just sex."
Threetoo smiled, wide and proud, and raised his hand to sign again, his fingers flashing quickly and fluidly. "The first thing we do, is we pay attention."
Threetoo explained as much as he could think of: the ways of attending to a master, the postures and forms, the principles that guided a bedslave's behavior. Steve listened intently, nodding along. He asked questions once or twice, but it seemed as if he'd truly come to understand his place, because the questions were only clarifications, not arguments.
Steve had long since finished eating, and each of them had emptied their bottles of juice. It was time to begin really teaching Steve what he needed to know.
I know you'll remember what I've told you, Threetoo signed. In your head. But you need to know it in your body, so that you don't have to think about it. So you can focus only on our master, not on your own behavior.
Steve nodded understanding, his expression intent. "That's... I didn't get all the training I should've, but in the army, that's... soldiers drill all the time so they don't have to think when it counts."
Threetoo frowned, nodding even as his stomach twisted and his temples throbbed. He didn't like Steve thinking of it that way; their position was the opposite in every way of being soldiers. Their role was for pleasure, comfort, enjoyment, healing, not fighting, hurting, killing. If Steve thought that being a bedslave was about pain--or about rote actions, for that matter--well, then they would have a lot of training to do.
On the other hand, it wasn't a completely wrong comparison, as far as it went, and at least it meant that Steve was entering into this properly. If being a soldier was all he had to compare this to, then he needed to learn something different, that was all.
A little different, Threetoo signed. Not drilling--teaching. Not shouting and doing the same thing over and over, but rewarding when you do the right thing. So we need to figure out the best rewards, to help you learn and be happy learning.
"Oh," Steve frowned now, looking like he meant to resist for the first time. "I don't need--"
Threetoo slashed a hand through the air and spoke. "I decide what you need. I'm teaching."
It's important, he went on, switching back to signs. If you don't understand how it's important, that's something else you need to learn.
Steve frowned more, looking down at the table, but after a moment he nodded, his expression relaxing as he looked at Threetoo again. "I guess it's just--I'm gonna be glad to be learning something. To have something to do. That feels like a reward all by itself."
Threetoo huffed, shaking his head. You need to learn to be greedy. You won't survive if you don't take what you can get. You're a slave. You don't turn down gifts.
Steve nodded slower, still looking thoughtful. "I guess I just don't know what to ask for, then. I, uh... I've never earned many rewards for good behavior."
Threetoo was somehow not surprised.
Still, this was something he could explain, as his master had explained to him. Three main kinds of rewards. Food reward, object reward, touch reward.
Steve glanced as his clean breakfast plate. "Okay, well, I guess I know what a food reward is--special food? That you... you give to me? But the other stuff, I, uh... I'm not sure I..."
Threetoo nodded, not pressing the point of whether he would hand-feed Steve any food rewards; it would be enough if he was the one to give them to Steve, probably, and he couldn't tell yet if that would make it a better reward for Steve. He hadn't even been able to say "touch reward," let alone think of a touch he'd like.
Well. His master hadn't chosen Threetoo because he was going to be easy; if Steve wasn't easy either, that would only make their master more interested in him and give Threetoo more good work to do.
"Object reward," Threetoo said out loud. "Special things. Clothes or blankets or pencils--"
Steve's face went strange at that, and Threetoo frowned. He had meant to say pillows. His throat felt tight and he raised his hand to his own collar, touching his tag--the very first object reward his master had ever given to him. He looked at Steve's throat, utterly bare. Nothing to show who he belonged to.
Well. That wasn't a reward Threetoo could give him, and he didn't think Steve would exactly ask for it, either.
"Or touch," Threetoo redirected, raising his hand and waggling it; it felt strange sometimes to move his fingers in not-signs. "I could rub your back, or--or--"
Threetoo faltered, partly because he wasn't sure what other touches he could offer, and partly because, far from the distaste or fear he had expected, a look of desperate longing had just flashed over Steve's face. He ducked his head in the next second, trying to hide it and succeeding not at all.
"Put your hands on the table," Threetoo said quietly, and Steve closed his eyes and then obeyed, turning his hands palm up. It was a begging sort of gesture--Steve's hands knew how to ask for good things even if the rest of Steve didn't. Threetoo wondered who the last person to touch Steve was, other than to punish him.
Threetoo laid his hand gently over Steve's left hand. The stump of Threetoo's left arm twitched a little with how badly he wanted to reach out with his other hand, too, but he did his best with what he had, moving his hand lightly over Steve's, rubbing his palm and fingers. Steve's fingers twitched, and his other hand closed into a fist. Threetoo didn't think he was breathing at all.
Threetoo took hold of his hand after a few passes and squeezed, and Steve's hand tightened hard around his for just an instant before he let go. Made himself let go, Threetoo was sure.
"Touch reward," Threetoo said, dragging his hand away from Steve's. It felt cold when he pulled back, and he pressed his hand to his lap; Steve drew his hands back and seemed to do the same.
He stared down at his lap as he nodded. "I... okay. That's. Okay."
Threetoo nodded back, studying the hard set of Steve's shoulders. He was tense, almost vibrating with it. "Do you want to stop training?"
Steve's head jerked up. "What? No, I can--I'm fine. I haven't even done anything yet."
Threetoo took a careful, even breath while he considered and rejected the idea of pointing out to Steve that listening and learning was doing something, and an important something. Threetoo had been fully prepared for that step alone to take days to get through, if Steve didn't seem to take in what Threetoo wanted him to understand. If Steve was insisting he hadn't done anything yet, then he wouldn't feel like he'd earned a break--or a reward. Threetoo definitely didn't want to send him off alone to be tense by himself while worrying about what would happen next.
Still. "Do you feel safe right now? Happy? Ready to learn?"
Steve grimaced, visibly clenching his jaw. "I'm fine. I can do more."
Threetoo sat back a little and switched back to signing, because the sight of Steve was threatening to make his own body go just as tense. Quiz: what are the purposes of a bedslave's nudity?
Steve straightened up a little, but his posture was showing alertness--eagerness where Threetoo hadn't expected it. Steve liked being tested, clearly.
"Threefold," Steve said promptly, and raised three fingers to count off. "Ornament--to be pleasing to the master's eye. Availability--to show the master that his slave is ready to serve him at any time. Dedication--to remind the slave and all who see him that the slave has no other duties which will be permitted to interfere with his direct, personal service to his master."
Threetoo nodded approval of the answer, which was prompt and exact but not simply a repetition of the precise words Threetoo had used.
Good, Threetoo signed. One reward, later. Keep count.
Steve nodded, intent, settling into himself. He obviously expected more quizzing.
Threetoo shook his head slightly, but signed, How many of those purposes apply to you right now?
Steve opened his mouth and then faltered, looking away and swallowing visibly. "But I'm... I'm only..."
Threetoo raised his eyebrows and folded his arm across his body.
Steve darted a glance at him and then ducked his head, chastened. After the space of a few breaths he straightened up, lifting his chin. Steve spoke with obvious determination, words coming out quick and precise, in sharp contrast to the blush that rose on his cheeks. "Two purposes of nudity could apply to me: as a reminder of dedication, and as an ornament."
Threetoo smiled without thought, pleasure and pride welling up in him at Steve's response, not only correct but showing the spirit Steve would need to survive this. Neither buckling nor fighting uselessly.
"Good," he said. "That makes two rewards I owe you."
Steve smiled back hesitantly, now obviously completely off balance.
You're correct that you are not available until your training is complete, Threetoo signed. But you need to get used to the idea that you will be, and the other two purposes already apply. So if you want to continue training today, you will remove as much of your clothing as you can while still feeling safe. Leave on your underwear, at minimum. When you are ready to continue, come here and kneel by my chair.
Threetoo stood as soon as he'd finished signing and turned away to the refrigerator. When he opened the door, the soft hum of its workings gave him something to listen to that was not waiting for any sound from Steve--reaction, or clothes being removed, or his knees hitting the floor.
Threetoo counted off a full three minutes while staring sightlessly into the refrigerator, and then he grabbed a bottle of the juice Steve had been drinking and turned around.
Steve's clothes were piled up neatly on the table at the place where he'd been sitting. Steve was wearing only a jockstrap; this one was red where the last one had been blue, though still with white straps. He was kneeling beside Threetoo's chair with his hands at his sides, fingers and thumb all pointing rigidly to the floor, betraying his effort not to close his hands into fists.
Threetoo wanted to kneel beside him, to throw his arm over Steve's shoulders and tug Steve into his side, to make Steve swat at him and grumble and lose some of that stiffness. He didn't just want it; he saw it happen in his mind's eye, felt it somehow. But when he imagined it the shoulders under his were bony, the body he tugged close was slim, and that was all wrong. He was the one who would blow away in a strong wind, and Steve was an immovable column of perfect flesh.
But however strange and wrong the expectation was, the impulse was still correct. Steve had given obvious indications that touch rewards would be powerful reinforcement for him, and he deserved to be richly rewarded for this show of courage, before anything else.
"Good," Threetoo said, and Steve's head jerked up, eyes wide, and an odd flush of pink across his cheeks. That blush on Steve's fair skin made it even easier for Threetoo to smile warmly. "For that you get a reward right now."
Steve's gaze darted to the bottle in Threetoo's hand, and Threetoo shook his head, the words for this rising easily to his tongue, practiced already. "This isn't a reward, this is just something to drink. You always get something to drink, no matter what."
Threetoo dropped smoothly to his knees, setting the bottle down before he put his arm out to offer. "Hug reward, is that okay?"
Steve nodded frantically but stayed otherwise still and silent, so Threetoo leaned in, pressing their bodies together from knees to shoulders and wrapping his arm around Steve's back. Steve held his rigid pose for another couple of seconds, and then he moved all at once, wrapping his arms tight around Threetoo and pressing his face into the top of Threetoo's shoulder.
"That's it," Threetoo murmured, as Steve started to tremble against him; Threetoo recognized his body's last resistance as it shivered away. "That's good. You just enjoy your reward, we're not in any hurry." He rubbed his hand over Steve's back and held him as best he could, and Steve didn't let go.
Tony didn't know what he expected, when he returned to the penthouse for each of Threetoo's meals, but he didn't find it. Threetoo seemed chipper and Steve was out of sight. He heard faint sounds from the kitchen when he was upstairs with Threetoo that seemed to suggest that Steve was eating at the same time Tony was feeding Threetoo, but that was all he got. Threetoo didn't volunteer, and Tony really, really didn't want to ask.
Still, by the time he was headed up to the penthouse for the night, the combination of curiosity and neglected responsibility overcame his dread, and he asked JARVIS, "Is Steve okay?"
"He is physically unharmed and has indicated a strong preference for privacy," JARVIS said, in a no-nonsense kind of way that meant he wasn't going to give Tony more than that.
So that was... fine, right? Probably fine. Stomping all over Steve's request for privacy to satisfy Tony's morbid curiosity would obviously be the wrong thing to do. He wasn't sure that leaving Steve alone somewhere right now was therefore right, but then none of this was actually right.
"You'll let me know if there's any reason to think he's a danger to himself, or has some basic need he's not speaking up about."
"Of course," JARVIS agreed, and then there was nothing for Tony to do but step out of the elevator and into the penthouse with the tray of bedtime snacks.
Threetoo was waiting for him, of course, kneeling on the cushion by his armchair and beaming with excitement.
Tony was going to have to ask. Threetoo obviously wanted to tell him, and obviously would tell him a hell of a lot more than JARVIS would.
That was also definitely not right, but Tony wasn't even going to bother to come up with a justification when he could be feeding Threetoo his snack and finding out how things had gone today.
"Okay, sweetheart," Tony said, sitting down and balancing the tray on one arm of the chair, the motions so practiced as to be automatic. Threetoo knew it too, knew just when it was safe to scoot in and take his place between Tony's knees, leaning his cheek on Tony's thigh and smiling luminously at him. "The deal is, you talk with your hand and eat with your mouth, okay?"
Threetoo nodded, raising his hand in readiness, already shaped into an S.
Tony kept his own smile firmly in place and allowed himself to look away long enough to select a halved strawberry so deeply red it was almost purple. "Gotta be eating while you're talking, Threetoo." He put the berry to Threetoo's lips, teasingly, and Threetoo playfully snapped it from his fingers--progress, except that he'd put food in his own mouth with his own hand yesterday, when he was with Steve.
Steve was the answer; Tony could only give him palliative care. He knew that.
"Okay," Tony said as Threetoo chewed, still holding that S in the air, still waiting. "Go on, tell me how it went, tell me whatever's got you so excited."
Steve did beautifully, Threetoo signed. He was so good, he's so bright, and touch rewards are very effective for him. He loves to be touched, he's very responsive.
Tony kept on smiling and absolutely did not picture Steve being good and bright and responsive. It was an observer effect, anyway; Steve would never be like that for Tony, only for Threetoo--for Bucky. Not that Tony would want him to, obviously. It was enough that Threetoo was fucked up so badly, Tony didn't need to drag Steve down as well.
He's doing very well in all the formal postures, Threetoo went on. And we're working on graceful movement. Do you have preferences for body service?
Tony blinked at Threetoo, suddenly reminded of him crawling while U held his leash, looking proud and graceful. He thought too of that night not long after Threetoo came here, when he'd woken up to Threetoo abasing himself beside the bed in a series of ritualized bows.
And body service, of course, was distinguished from bed service: a truly skilled bedslave was a masseur and manicurist and God knew what else.
"Uh," Tony said, glancing down at himself. "All evidence to the contrary aside, I do actually dress myself well when I want to. And nobody else shaves me, I handle this myself." Tony scrubbed a thumb through the edge of his goatee and did not think about anyone else that close to his throat with a blade of any kind.
Threetoo smirked a little but nodded. No clothing selection or shaving assistance required. Assistance in relaxation?
"Uh, sure," Tony said, reminding himself that it was just for them, that Steve was never really going to do that stuff for Tony. No need to picture it; no need to consider what he would have to hide for it to happen. It wasn't going to happen, except between them. "If... if Steve's okay being trained in that stuff."
Steve is eager to learn, Threetoo assured him.
"Sounds like a go, then," Tony said, smiling and running his hand through Threetoo's hair before he remembered to get back to feeding him.
Threetoo started signing again as he chewed. There is something I would like Steve to have. For his training. To help."
"Sure," Tony said. "Anything you need, just tell JARVIS--"
Threetoo bit his lip, and Tony's breath caught at the sight of Threetoo very, very carefully not saying, No, you've got it wrong, to his master.
"Oops," Tony said. "That's minus one reward for me, interrupting and answering a question you weren't actually asking, huh?"
Threetoo looked like his brain fuzzed out for a second there--not like a seizure, actually, just like he'd experienced some kind of basic computation error and got hung up. Then he smiled and signed, Infinity minus one is still infinity.
Right. Because Tony was the master and therefore existed in an entirely different universe of action and consequence than Threetoo, and, fuck, he wasn't supposed to act like they were actually the same species. But if Threetoo could roll with it, so could Tony. "Anyway, tell me about the thing Steve needs, to help with his training?"
Threetoo nodded, visibly settling back into his mental script for how this was supposed to go. He smiled.
He pointed to his collar.
Tony's jaw dropped a little.
Threetoo's smile dimmed and he quickly signed, Not like mine! Not a real collar. A training collar, to show that he is learning. To help him remember his place and to mark him.
That did not actually help as much as Threetoo seemed to think it should. "So you think, like... I'm just trying to picture it, sweetheart, what..."
Threetoo looked to the left and U rolled up like he'd been waiting for his cue--obviously he had been waiting for his cue--to deliver a coil of blue ribbon on a tray. It was satiny, about an inch and a half wide, and someone had already affixed Velcro tabs to each end to close it into a loop.
"I... see," Tony said. "So you just... need the okay from me, huh?"
Threetoo nodded, ducking his head a little to look up shyly at Tony, like he was worried he'd overstepped.
"Hey, you're in charge of training. If you think this will help Steve--and if Steve is ready to wear a training collar--then that works for me. But thanks for talking to me about it first, Threetoo. It would have been kind of a shock to see Steve wearing a collar I didn't put on him."
Threetoo nodded emphatically to that, so Tony didn't mention the part where seeing Steve at all might also be a shock, given that he hadn't seen a hair of him since he'd declared himself ready to be trained.
Tony smiled instead and put his hand to Threetoo's throat, running his thumb over the point of his gold reward star. "Does he get gold stars when he does something good, too?"
Threetoo grinned triumphantly and shook his head. He picked up something Tony hadn't seen before--meticulous little card-stock cutout stars, every point sharp and perfect. Threetoo with a geometry project had clearly been in his element.
"That's perfect, honey," Tony said. "Now, c'mon, you need to eat. Tell me what else you did today, huh? Nothing but Steve-training? No math?"
Threetoo smiled, pleased, and signed, A little math.
"Yeah, okay, let's hear about that," Tony said, picking up the next morsel to feed to Threetoo, and not looking anywhere near the almost-collar waiting for Steve.
Steve had very good hands. Threetoo was tempted to put a star on his collar just for good hands, but he thought that wasn't quite right. It would be like rewarding him for having muscles or pretty gold hair. On the other hand, he was performing beautifully. It couldn't be wrong to acknowledge excellent performance.
"'Nother reward," Threetoo mumbled. "How many's that?"
Steve laughed softly, and kept up the firm motions of his thumbs, digging along the muscles on either side of Threetoo's spine, forcing them to unclench. "Fourteen, I think? But you've given me five in the last ten minutes, I don't know if I should count all of those."
Threetoo raised his hand, one finger extended.
"Sorry, sorry," Steve said, not laughing this time but not sounding exactly apologetic either. "The first rule is take what you can get, never turn down a reward or a gift. Thank you, then. Fourteen."
Threetoo never wanted this to end. Steve's hands were big and warm, and while his master was generous with touch, it was something else again to be caressed and massaged like this.
But this wasn't about his own gratification. He was supposed to be teaching Steve to serve their master, and for all that Steve was evidently a natural at basic massage techniques, there were things Threetoo did have to teach him.
"Okay, stop," Threetoo made himself say. Steve's hands jerked away from him instantly, making Threetoo sigh mournfully before he pushed himself up to sit. Steve had been up on his knees, but he quickly sat, hunching down a little to put his head lower than Threetoo's. The last few days of constant posture rehearsal was having its effect on Steve's instincts.
"When you do this for our master," Threetoo said, "you must never, ever touch his chest."
Steve blinked at him, looking startled.
"There's something there that hurts him, or--I don't know, exactly. But he doesn't want to be touched there, so we never touch him there," Threetoo said, patting his own hand against the center of his chest for emphasis. "We do not ask about it. We do not look at it. We do not try to figure out why. We do not touch him there."
Steve nodded quickly. Threetoo had a feeling that Steve was going to have a problem with unseemly curiosity, but that was marginally better than Steve putting a hand where it wasn't wanted because he wasn't as good as Threetoo was at picking up the subtle cues for do not touch.
"He does not speak of it," Threetoo emphasized. "So we do not. Just. Don't. Touch."
Steve nodded again, slower now, still frowning, but he said only, "Anywhere else?"
Threetoo had a brief flash of the bathtub, of never do that again. He still didn't know what that had been about, exactly.
"Be careful around his neck and throat," Threetoo said. "It is a delicate thing for a slave to take the active role in this way to serve his master. You must never make him feel as if you are attempting to take control, rather than serving."
Steve nodded again, just as quickly and emphatically, and Threetoo studied him for a moment. Steve was big, and very strong, and had done violence before in their master's presence. Naturally their master was still, always, the one in control, but...
"Don't push for anything beyond what our master asks you for," Threetoo said firmly. "Even if you think he needs more, or wants more, you never push. And you serve him only with your hands for now. Nothing sexual until you're trained, or when he hasn't invited sex. If he becomes aroused, you ignore it. If he pushes you away, you go."
Steve was still nodding, like his head was on a spring.
"Let's practice," Threetoo said, lying back on the plush carpeting in the spot where Steve slept at night. It was late enough in the day that the light through the skylight was indirect.
Steve stopped nodding, his gaze moving up and down Threetoo's body. Threetoo had already taken his shirt and socks off--Steve was good at feet as well as backs and shoulders--but he still wore a pair of soft pants. He doubted their master would undress even this much to be tended to, but he had wanted to get a sense for Steve's skills.
No. He had been greedy for touch, for hands on his bare skin. But he was allowed to get what he wanted when it was part of training Steve, and his master wanted him to have good things. So it was all right to lie here and wait for Steve to touch him some more, to feel this humming anticipation in his body. As much as his master wanted Steve to enjoy learning, he surely wanted Threetoo to enjoy teaching.
Threetoo opened his mouth to say it and the words wouldn't come. He spelled it instead, and even that was an effort. Touch me as you would our master.
He saw Steve's eyes widen a little, his pupils widening as he bit his lip, looking up and down Threetoo's body again. "Yes, sir."
Threetoo was the one who had to struggle to control his breathing then. It was not just foreign but a little terrifying to hear such words addressed to him, even for practice. It was wrong in some way that went beyond breaking rules.
But it was what was necessary to train Steve. He gave a little nod, inviting Steve to get on with it.
Steve scooted a little closer, frowning in thought as he considered his approach. He was still sitting with his legs curled under him, still trying his best not to loom. Surely if he did this with their master, their master would lie on the bed or couch or a massage table--anywhere but on the floor of the bedslaves' room--so that Steve would have an easier time making himself suitably small. So it didn't matter if the way Threetoo felt, looking up at Steve over him, wasn't the way their master would feel.
Steve reached out and hesitated with his hands hovering to either side of Threetoo's hand. "May I, sir?"
Threetoo mentally tallied a reward for thinking to ask, and also for zeroing in on a place that their master must surely need massage. He nodded, raising his hand slightly to offer it.
Steve's hands closed gently around his hand at first, just pressing it warmly between Steve's palms and strong fingers. Threetoo closed his eyes at even that much touch, feeling nearly overwhelmed already. Then Steve began to move, stroking lightly at first, which made Threetoo tremble all over, his skin drawing tight from his nipples to the crown of his head. Steve followed that with firmer touches, exploring each finger and digging into the muscle at the base of his thumb.¬¬¬
Threetoo let himself drift a little, enjoying Steve's very good hands and not thinking too hard, until Steve had worked his way up to Threetoo's shoulder. Steve's hands hesitated then, and Threetoo opened his eyes to find Steve watching his face, waiting for a cue. Being careful not to intrude too far.
"Reward," Threetoo mumbled, and then traced a line from his armpit to the base of his throat. Steve nodded understanding and continued up over the top of Threetoo's shoulder, scooting to one side to avoid even leaning over Threetoo's chest. Then he moved to the other side and hesitated again, his fingers resting lightly on the point of Threetoo's left shoulder.
This was a different hesitation, but it still took Threetoo a moment to put it together. The spot where Steve was touching was just above the spot where the star-shaped bruise had finally faded, from their master using Threetoo's former collar as a tourniquet. The bone under Steve's fingers was the one that had been completely dislocated when the fire extinguisher hit him. And Steve had thrown the fire extinguisher.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, his voice very small. It seemed different now, with Steve touching him there, than it had the first time Steve offered an apology on his knees. When Steve had been a stranger, and Threetoo had thought he was being punished.
Threetoo reached over and laid his hand on Steve's, pressing down gently so that Steve's hand cupped his shoulder, warm and firm. "It's healed," Threetoo said. "Go ahead."
Steve closed both hands around Threetoo's left shoulder as gently and warmly as he had held Threetoo's hand. When he did move his touch further, his fingertips probed gently, carefully, tracing the lines of muscle and tendon and bone, reassuring himself that everything had knit back together. His fingers traced down the stump of Threetoo's arm, too, as Steve continued carefully watching Threetoo's face. His thumbs stroked over the thick line of the ugly scar at the end, the place where the flesh was oddly puckered and pitted from the infection. Steve didn't flinch from any of it, and when he set to work massaging the abbreviated muscles he didn't avoid any of it. Threetoo's eyes prickled at the same time his dick started to stiffen, a confused muddle of reactions.
Steve politely ignored both, and when he'd done all he could for what there was of Threetoo's left arm, he glanced toward Threetoo's lower half and blushed as he said, "Should I...?"
Threetoo glanced down his body. He wasn't all the way hard, but there was a much more prominent bulge at the front of his soft pants than there had been earlier. He probably ought to say no--their master would surely say no at this point, if not earlier--but he ought to see what Steve would do. It was a test, he told himself, and he knew it wasn't only a test for Steve.
He nodded, waving his hand to shoo Steve downward.
Steve shuffled sideways on his knees and watched Threetoo's face again as he laid his big warm hands over Threetoo's thigh. He felt out the muscle there, from hip to knee, never letting his touch stray to Threetoo's crotch. Never looking there.
But his touch tightened the flannel, and sent sparks throughout Threetoo's body. It wasn't long before Threetoo had to shake his head sharply.
Steve stopped at once, sitting back on his heels and drawing his hands into his lap.
"Go, um," Threetoo waved his hand toward the door of the bedslaves' room. "Go. Shower."
Steve nodded obediently, a quick jerky movement. Threetoo barely waited until he was through the door before he scrambled into his pillow box and jerked the curtain shut. As soon as he was properly alone he was wriggling out of his pants, closing his hand on his cock and stroking himself fast and tight. Touch reward, touch reward, touch reward. Best reward.
He came all over his own belly and hand, and it was only when he lay panting and limp, staring up at the skylight, that it occurred to him to wonder if he should have told Steve he was allowed to do the same.
It was an actual ambush. Tony was sitting in the armchair, feeding Threetoo and chatting with him, and then Threetoo glanced past Tony at the stairs and nodded slightly. Before Tony could look around he heard the sound of someone crawling across the carpet, although the sound was wrong somehow.
He did look, then, and saw Steve--who else?--crawling toward him. He realized that the sound was wrong because he'd gotten used to the cadence of Threetoo crawling on three limbs, and Steve had four.
All of them were bare. Steve was wearing nothing but a bright blue jock strap and that strip of blue ribbon around his throat. He gave Tony a wry smile, faintly apologetic, and shrugged a little as he continued crawling.
Tony looked down, to where Threetoo was still sitting between his knees, beaming proudly up at him, because as far as Threetoo was concerned this wasn't an ambush but a lovely surprise, showing off the results of Steve's first three days of training.
"I, uh, didn't realize you'd gotten this far in teaching Steve, sweetheart."
Threetoo nodded quickly, and signed, Very bright, very responsive. Very good hands.
"Hands," Tony repeated blankly, and then jerked as Steve rose up onto his knees at Tony's side.
Steve was holding his hands out mutely, the apology gone out of his expression, which had turned earnest now.
Because he didn't want to spoil it for Threetoo. He was going along with the lovely surprise idea, even though that crooked smile meant he knew perfectly well that Tony wouldn't see it that way. He knew Tony didn't want this, let alone require it.
Tony looked at Threetoo's eager expression again. "What exactly is he going to do with his hands, sweetheart?"
Threetoo beamed and raised his hand to hover over Tony's left hand, beckoning toward Steve. Steve's hands moved to hover on either side of Tony's, not quite touching it. Steve's earnest expression turned inquiring, waiting for permission to proceed.
Tony closed his eyes and nodded. He couldn't take that smile off Threetoo's face either, and... just letting Steve touch his hand, that wasn't a bad thing, was it? Not in the scheme of things. Not really bad. Not when Steve knew he didn't have to do this to please Tony, when they both knew it wasn't about Tony at all. He wasn't going to stand in the way of Steve doing something to make Threetoo happy.
Steve's hands closed around Tony's, big and warm and strong, pressing just slightly, and Tony let out a groan at the pleasure of the touch. He opened his eyes and found Threetoo looking up at him a little knowingly, almost smug.
Very good hands, he signed again, leaving a little emphatic space between each word.
"Yeah," Tony said, as Steve's hands started to move, sliding firmly from the base of his hand to the tips of his fingers, once and then again. "Yeah, you are not wrong."
Steve kept going, working over every finger, finding the tension around the base of his thumb, and Tony couldn't help wondering if, say, a shoulder-rub wouldn't be equally innocent. Threetoo would want him to. Steve might even offer.
But he'd have to take off his jacket, and maybe even his shirt--and if he didn't take off his shirt, the friction and pressure would make it pull in unusual ways. With Threetoo still right between his knees, he didn't dare. He couldn't.
Still. A hand massage, that was safe enough. He voiced no objection when Steve moved around to his other hand, his eyes fluttering half-closed. All he could see, the whole time, was Threetoo gazing up at him, looking like Tony had given him a whole truckload of gold stars.
Threetoo had pronounced himself satisfied with Steve's performance, and Steve thought that he had managed to thread the needle with Tony. He hadn't been able to say anything, obviously, but that one look exchanged seemed to have gotten across what Steve wanted to tell him.
We can't let him down. He wants me to do this for you, and I don't mind.
And if it was a little more than not-minding--if using his hands to make Bucky and Tony each feel good, or at least a little better, was making Steve feel more alive than he had in weeks... Well. No need to tell Tony that. He'd liked having his hands massaged, anyway, and Steve had smoothly detected that he didn't want anything more and withdrew after that.
Bucky had hugged him three separate times for that, and Steve had fallen asleep with a smile on his face for the first time since he could remember.
Now they were embarking on another day of training, downstairs in the main room where there was plenty of space. Threetoo had quizzed him on a few points, had him move through some ritual postures while reminding him that their master didn't actually require or even like the strictest of them.
Now Threetoo was on his feet while Steve knelt. He was studying Steve thoughtfully, obviously considering what step in his training ought to come next.
You're making excellent progress, Threetoo signed. You did very well last night, of course, and you pleased our master very much. Are you ready to begin training for the rest of your duties? He will not require those services until you are completely ready, and we will continue to practice the rest, but we can get started on sexual service whenever you're ready.
Steve had been anticipating that, in every sense of the word. He nodded quickly, and put his hands to the top of his jock strap, feeling suddenly uncertain again. "I, uh... I don't know if... my appearance might not be..."
Threetoo moved closer, sitting down beside him. Steve automatically mirrored his posture, tilting himself just so to be gracefully slightly shorter, and Threetoo smiled and patted his knee. "You're beautiful. That part may look odd to you, but--"
Steve shook his head, choking back a laugh, and peeled down the top of his jock, to reveal the rings still set into his abdomen and the head of his cock tucked up between them.
Threetoo frowned, reaching out, and hesitated short of making contact. Steve's face went belatedly hot, but he nodded. "I, uh, I was cock-locked. Emphatically."
Threetoo met his eyes for a second, frowning slightly, nodding. He remembered what it meant to be cock-locked, obviously. His fingers trailed gently over the rounded front ends of the rings, rocking them only slightly inside.
These are healed? Threetoo asked. No pain? No infection?
Steve nodded. "It twinges a little if something pushes hard on one of them, but it's not bad. I think I've probably scarred up pretty well around them. I don't know how to get them out. And I've only been out a week, so..." Steve gestured at his cock. "It's, uh..."
He scooted back from Threetoo so he could wriggle out of the jock, keeping one hand protectively over his cock to hold it in position as he did. "It's shaped this way now," Steve explained, turning so Threetoo could see. "It won't go down and it hurts to let it flap around. It hurts some even to get hard."
Threetoo was frowning more intently now. Again he looked up for permission, and Steve bit on his lip and nodded. Threetoo's fingers traced lightly up the underside of Steve's cock, making Steve catch his breath. His blood all surged in that direction, sharpening the ache of his cock as it did its best to harden for Bucky's long-awaited touch. Steve's head felt light and everything seemed too bright, all his skin as sensitive as the place where Threetoo was touching.
Threetoo curled thumb and forefinger around Steve's cock, just behind the head. He tilted Steve's cock this way and that, like it was the control stick of a plane. Steve made a small noise when the bewildered pleasure-pain was too much to swallow, and abruptly Threetoo looked up, meeting his eyes.
His serious expression softened, and he gave Steve a gentler touch, obviously intending to provoke a reaction now. Steve bit down on his lip and breathed through his nose, his cock thickening, blood pounding under Threetoo's fingers.
"Well, it all seems to work just fine," Threetoo said, his voice so easy it was nearly Bucky's teasing drawl. Steve's eyes prickled with the threat of tears at the same time his cock was hardening further under Threetoo's fingers, the ache turning sweet as it twisted together with pleasure. "It'll probably improve with practice--if you have something to heal, something that's been hurt a long time, a week is way too soon to know whether it's going to get better. Master might want to remove the rings, but that will be up to him. He'll know how."
Steve nodded, his breath shaking in and out of him. Threetoo's hand was still on his cock, just holding it.
Threetoo gave him a smirking sideways look. "Have you been practicing, since you got out?"
Steve shrugged, shook his head. "Once?"
"Once," Threetoo said, shaking his head and giving a little tsk. "You ought to, from now on. Practice, and find what feels good now, not just what will feel better later."
Steve nodded jerkily. "This feels good. Now."
Threetoo smiled. "Our master wants you to enjoy this, so we'll make sure there's lots of touch rewards as we go, but for now..."
Threetoo took his hand away, leaving Steve semi-hard, the constrained curve of his cock obvious in the slightly uneven way it swelled. Steve put a protective hand over it to keep it safely in place, but didn't quite touch himself.
"This isn't a real obstacle to training," Threetoo said. "Although we'll want to take certain things slowly. But first I need to know what training you need. What have you done before?"
Steve bit his lip, feeling a curl of unease at Threetoo's automatic assumption that he had some kind of experience, even knowing he'd been cock-locked until a week ago. "Well, uh. I practiced by myself. Jerked off. The other day."
Threetoo's whole posture went tight, his expression suddenly utterly serious as he met Steve's eyes. Steve felt cold even before Threetoo raised a hand to sign instead of speaking his next words--always a sign that Threetoo was feeling stressed, when he'd been so much at ease, so nearly Bucky a second ago.
What sexual experience do you have with other people?
Steve swallowed and gestured to Threetoo's hand. "That. That's it. No one, uh. No one's ever..."
Threetoo actually scrambled backward from him, putting a meter between them, his eyes wide with shock. Steve felt sick and a little angry at the same time. Bucky wouldn't have reacted like this. Bucky would have known already; Bucky would have been glad. Bucky had always meant to teach him, to be his first.
"I was never a bedslave before," Steve snapped. "I never--what's it matter, anyway? You knew you had to train me."
You're a virgin, Threetoo signed, his gestures turning visibly emphatic on the last word. Does our master know that? Did he know that when he told me to train you?
Steve winced and looked down. Tony definitely did not know that. Tony thought precisely the opposite, that he was reuniting lovers after a long separation. Steve had let him think it, because he wanted it and he didn't care about his own stupid too-long-kept virginity. He wanted to lose it, and he wanted to lose it to Bucky, and Tony had set things up so that could happen.
"He asked me if I was willing to be trained and I said I was," Steve tried. "I am, Threetoo. I don't mind."
Threetoo's expression turned severe and he shook his head sharply. Virginity is of value. It is a part of you, and therefore it is a thing of value which your master owns. I cannot damage or steal what our master owns.
Steve swallowed the urge to shout, to argue. Threetoo didn't look angry, not really. He looked scared, like there was a rule here that he didn't dare break. Steve tried to make his voice soft, gentle. "So... what then? I can't... can't be a bedslave? Can't be trained? Can't..."
Can't earn your touch? Can't have you? Steve couldn't say any of that.
Threetoo's expression gentled too. Of course you can, he signed. Once our master has taken your virginity.
"Sir," JARVIS said. "I believe you ought to be aware of a developing situation in the penthouse."
Threetoo knelt before the elevator, waiting. It wasn't long before his master appeared, looking pale with something that wasn't quite anger, but was a long way from his usual kind patience. Threetoo felt sick and shaky inside at the loss of that, and he bowed his head, trying to ignore the throbbing pain that was starting in his temples.
It wasn't punishment; it was a migraine. It was happening because he was stressed, because that was what his body did sometimes. It didn't mean his master was angry with him, and it wouldn't stop if he just managed to placate his master sufficiently.
His master came close to him, laying one hand on the back of his neck. "Threetoo, sweetheart. JARVIS told me, uh... you were going to start training Steve today, and then..."
I'm sorry, Threetoo signed, trying to clench enough muscles to still the trembling he could feel inside, the feeling that he was teetering on the edge of some unfathomable abyss. He'd come so close to ruining something that could never be put right. Steve's virginity was precious, so valuable as to be almost sacred, and it would only exist once. It couldn't be thrown away on training.
It couldn't be thrown away on Threetoo.
Anything given to a slave to use up, to destroy, had to be given because it was of no greater use or value to their master. And Steve, golden and beautiful and untouched--every part of Steve was useful, valuable. Their master hadn't known of Steve's virginity, hadn't realized what a precious thing Steve still held for him, but once he knew, he would know the worth of that. He wouldn't just throw it away like it was nothing. He wouldn't just throw Steve away.
It was just that he hadn't known. But he liked Threetoo telling him things. Good data. He would understand. Threetoo just had to summon the words to tell him, and then it would be all right. Nothing was lost yet, nothing broken or sullied beyond reclaiming.
Steve is a virgin, Threetoo signed, his gaze on the floor, unable to watch his master's face as he learned of this. He is pure. He is yours to take first. It is your right.
There was no response at all for a moment, and then his master's hand tightened on the nape of Threetoo's neck, and he felt movement as his master shifted position. Threetoo started to look up and then hesitated, but his master tapped a finger under his chin. "Look at me, Threetoo."
Threetoo looked. His master was crouching, his head only a little higher than Threetoo's where he knelt. His brown eyes were warm and kind now, and he rubbed his thumb along the back of Threetoo's neck. Threetoo still shook inside. His head still hurt.
"A lot of things are my right, aren't they?" His master said gently. "I could do a lot of things that I don't do, because they don't fit the way I like to do things."
Threetoo dropped his gaze. Pain surged in his head--stress, migraine, not punishment for wanting to argue with his master, for wanting to say no, you don't understand, why can't you understand, this is important.
Only his master's desires mattered. Only his master's priorities mattered. He knew that. He knew nothing as firmly as he knew that.
But Steve mattered. Steve's virginity mattered. It was worth something. It should not be wasted.
His master was still speaking, his voice still gentle and quiet and the only thing Threetoo could hear despite the pain and the storm in his mind. "I sent Steve to you to be trained because I don't want him to have to worry about pleasing me until he knows exactly what he's doing. I don't want to set him up to fail, or be frightened or stressed. I don't want to hurt him. And if I... if I take him, his first time, he will be scared and it will probably hurt. He'll be stressed, just like--" his master's voice altered. "Sweetheart, what number is your pain right now?"
Threetoo struggled to calculate, to think of the pain chart when he was being torn between two absolute imperatives. He signed, Six.
"Okay, so this whole thing is stressing you out pretty bad, isn't it? So let's move over to the couch. You're gonna lie down with your head in my lap and I'm gonna see if I can't do something cool with that article I read about pressure points."
Threetoo didn't know what that meant, but his impossible dilemma dissolved into the luxury of a single, simple order to obey. The pain eased a little just at that reprieve, and he crawled over to the couch and up onto it once his master was seated. His master's hands guided him into the desired position, on his side with his shoulder snug against his master's thigh.
His master set one hand over the top of his skull, holding his head in place, and his other hand moved over the back of Threetoo's neck. His thumb pressed experimentally down the line of Threetoo's vertebrae, which was a vague distraction from the throbbing pain in Threetoo's head until suddenly it was a bolt of fire as his master pressed against a particular spot.
Threetoo flapped his hand wildly, and his master's hand on top of his head flexed gently, but his thumb kept pressing. "Hold on sweetheart, hold on, give me a few more seconds to see if this works. You know I'd never hurt you, but sometimes when you're already hurting, the things that help hurt, too, like--"
Threetoo's eyes flashed open as he gasped. He quit flapping his hand to sign, Three.
His master exhaled above him. "Awesome. Okay. I'm sorry I stressed you like that, Threetoo, I didn't mean to do that."
Threetoo's mind rushed back to the impossible quandary, but right here, lying where his master had put him with his master's hands holding him still and stopping his pain, he felt precariously balanced instead of torn apart. He signed, Master doesn't want me to hurt.
"That's right," his master said, loosening his grip to pet Threetoo gently. The pain didn't rush back in. Threetoo closed his eyes and let himself go a little more limp. "I just, ah, I think I need more..."
"Sir?" Threetoo's eyes opened at Steve's voice. Steve had been upset at the postponement of his training, so Threetoo had sent him away while he talked to their master.
He looked calm now. He was kneeling beautifully, hands perfectly still at his sides, fingers gently flexed, shoulders and spine just the right kind of softly aligned, graceful but not rigid.
"Steve," their master said. "You, uh, did Threetoo discuss this with you?"
"He did," Steve said. "And I didn't understand right away, but now I do. He told me that," Steve swallowed, his cheeks tinting pink. "That my virginity has value. And the way my master can acknowledge that value, if he chooses to, is by being the one to take it, rather than allowing it to be lost in training, like it was nothing important."
His master's hands paused, and then resumed the gentle petting. "I... see. And I imagine that the value of your virginity is closely connected to the value of you? And Threetoo knows, of course, that both of you are very important to me, so he wouldn't want me to miss something like that, even if I wanted to do things another way. He knows that sometimes even a master needs more data than he has to make a good decision."
Threetoo shivered, feeling suddenly exposed as the rock and hard place both melted away. He let his eyes close. It wasn't necessary for him to speak now. His master understood, and Steve understood.
"And with all that considered, sir," Steve said. "I just wanted to tell you that I--I wouldn't be scared, or worried about pleasing you, if you wanted to... exercise your rights. I understand what it's for, and that's what's really important."
There was some note in Steve's voice that wasn't quite right--he hadn't said that in a properly submissive way at all--but their master grunted agreement. "I see. Well, then. I assume there are... preparations you'll want to... take care of, before we get to that? And I have some work I need to go finish downstairs. Threetoo, can you... help Steve get ready?"
Threetoo opened his eyes at the direct question, looking up to see his master looking down at him. Threetoo nodded, already considering all they would need to do to get Steve properly groomed and prepared. I'll have him ready for you at eight.
Steve had intended to get at least a minute alone with Tony to make sure they were on the same page. It didn't matter so much to him--he was prepared to go through with it however far Tony wanted to--but Tony had been looking a little wild-eyed at Threetoo's suggestion. Steve's reassurance had made him smile, but even that had looked plastic, rehearsed.
As soon as Threetoo settled on a time, though, he bounced into action, grinning happily at Tony and shooing him to the elevator. Before Steve could find a moment of privacy to ask JARVIS for help speaking to Tony, Threetoo turned on him with an expression that was familiar already from the last few days of training. Threetoo was eager to get to work whipping Steve into shape.
When is the last time you ate solid food? Threetoo signed. When was your last bowel movement?
Steve felt his face flame red hot and felt a faint, cowardly urge to take it all back, much too late. He stammered out answers, wishing he could retreat into sign language like Threetoo did.
Threetoo nodded thoughtfully, showing no sign of embarrassment at all, and herded Steve to the bathroom. He retrieved a little box from a closet along the way, pushing it into Steve's hands, and Steve read the instructions for the enema kit with an odd combination of mortification and familiarity. It wouldn't be his first, for a certainty; this had been the preferred remedy for half of all ailments when he was young, and he'd had plenty of ailments.
Not yet, Threetoo signed. We can work on other things first. Show me your hands.
Steve set the kit down and showed Threetoo his hands, and Threetoo nodded and signed decisively. Manicure first.
Threetoo had mentioned that keeping his hands and nails neat was part of his responsibility for taking care of his appearance, and had mentioned in passing that their master would not require manicures as a service. Steve hadn't thought about it beyond that; the word conjured up memories of Agent Carter's red nails, and the bevy of secretary-showgirls Howard had sometimes had around him.
"Does that mean," Steve said, and stopped, sure that it was a stupid question in one direction or the other.
Threetoo raised his eyebrows and said gently and in cadences that sounded almost eerily like Tony's, "If you don't know what I mean when I say something, I always want you to ask. I don't talk to hear myself speak, I want you to understand what I'm saying."
Steve blinked for a moment, stricken silent by the words and their source, by the knowledge that Tony said that to Threetoo, to Bucky, and that Threetoo accepted what Tony said as truth enough to turn around and say it to Steve.
And even if Steve had agreed in part because it was what Bucky wanted--he had meant it, too, because it was Tony. Steve was bound to be a lousy lay and the whole thing would probably be awkward as hell and probably painful. Steve still had only the vaguest idea of what was going to happen--the enema, at least, meant that one of his more alarming suspicions was correct.
But Tony would be kind about it, and he deserved whatever pleasure Steve could offer him. Steve knew firsthand, after all, that he and Threetoo were the only slaves Tony kept anywhere near him. Given what he was really doing with all the slaves he bought, and the way he treated Threetoo, Steve was sure Tony wasn't visiting bedslaves elsewhere--and even a free bed-friend seemed unlikely, when Tony slept alone and was never away from the penthouse for more than a few hours at a stretch.
Steve might not be any good at sex, but he was bound to be better than nothing.
Steve looked at Threetoo, and realized that he was not only watching Steve, but holding perfectly still with a tolerant smile on his face, waiting for Steve to return to the conversation. That, too, Steve would bet was something Threetoo had learned from Tony. Steve played back what Threetoo had actually said, and realized what he was waiting for Steve to say.
"Oh. Uh, I was just wondering if... if I'm getting a manicure, does that mean..." Steve wiggled his fingers. "Paint?"
Threetoo hummed thoughtfully. "That could be a look, but it's not really your style, I don't think. And we haven't got any on hand, anyway. The manicure's just about making sure your skin is soft and smooth and your nails are shaped and tidy. Maybe buffed a little to make 'em shine. We'll see."
Threetoo went to a closet and got out a wire basket containing a variety of little brushes and sticks and several plastic bottles and jars with various brightly colored contents. "We'll use my stuff for today. I should've thought to get you your own--tell me what you think of the scent of these, we can get you something else if you'd like."
Steve nodded, fascinated, and already wondering how Threetoo managed to do whatever a manicure involved with only one hand.
It turned out to mostly involve Threetoo gripping stuff between his knees or in his mouth, judging by the way he instinctively did things at times before remembering that he could have Steve lend a hand. Steve insisted that he wanted to try doing everything on Threetoo, as well, so the manicure process turned into a sort of mutual grooming, like the monkeys he'd seen in the Zoo picking at each other's fur.
There was a gritty paste they rubbed all over their hands and wrists, followed by a silky cream, and then there was the filing of nails--Threetoo's were nearly perfectly smooth already, but Steve's nails, clipped tidily short, were apparently far below Threetoo's standard and required much fussing and filing with different tools before Threetoo was satisfied.
Steve would have been happy to let Threetoo squint critically over his nails forever, because he did it while leaning in close to Steve's body, warm skin to warm skin since Steve was nearly as naked as he was. He'd almost stopped noticing that there ought to be clothing between them.
Threetoo finished his work eventually, and Steve took a moment to marvel at the slightly shiny smoothness of his fingernails. He'd always assumed that rich folks' hands just looked like that because they didn't use them for work; he'd had no idea it was a thing you could do.
Threetoo grinned at him and said, "And now the pedicure."
They repeated the whole process on their feet instead of hands, which seemed somehow even more bizarrely decadent. They were feet. They went in shoes, you walked on them, they didn't need to be pretty.
Except, of course, Threetoo walked on his hand as much as his feet around Tony, and never wore shoes at all. And being pretty was the whole point of what they were.
However embarrassingly pleasurable the pedicure was, the next step was only more so. Maybe more embarrassing, but Steve couldn't deny enjoying it, either. Threetoo sat him down on the bench seat of the enormous bathtub. He didn't actually fill the tub, because it turned out he just wanted to minutely examine every inch of Steve's body. He ran his hands up Steve's legs, humming thoughtfully as he petted the sparse blond hair into place. Steve's ankles and knees were treated to the same abrasive scrubbing his feet and hands had gotten, until Threetoo was satisfied with the smoothness of his skin.
Then Steve removed his one remaining scrap of clothing, and Threetoo moved between Steve's thighs, kneeling in the tub to examine his crotch at eye level. Steve bit down on the tip of his tongue. Even knowing how this had ended last time and where this was going, he couldn't help responding to the lightest touches of Threetoo's fingertips, to Threetoo's gaze.
It was a little startling when Threetoo leaned in and sniffed him. He barely had time to worry about how he smelled before Threetoo made an approving noise. "Nice and clean."
Surely, at some point, Steve was going to exhaust his own ability to turn red over this stuff. He hadn't yet, though, and when Threetoo grinned and winked, Steve's stomach twisted with the Buckyness of that expression.
Threetoo didn't notice, though, returning his attention to Steve's crotch. His fingers brushed lightly over the rings still protruding from his belly, a breath away from touching the head of Steve's cock. He'd automatically sat with his hips curled under him, tipping his cock back against his belly where it rested most easily. Threetoo just barely touched it now, sniffing again before making another approving sound. He scrutinized the edges of the dark blond hair that grew around it, tugging this way and that at the skin to see God only knew what.
Steve tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling as Threetoo moved lower, brushing Steve's balls with that same light, assessing touch. Evidently they passed muster, because Threetoo moved back and said, "Turn over. On your knees."
Steve moved, bracing his knees well apart without having to be told, exposing his asshole. He put one hand down to cradle his cock, but that left him a whole other arm to hide his face in. He twitched at the light touch of fingers between his ass cheeks, but managed not to make a sound.
"Very nice," Threetoo murmured after a moment. "You do keep yourself very clean."
Steve wondered, feeling a little hysterical, if he should just say Thank you, or try to explain about having to keep clean enough not to offend his own extremely acute sense of smell.
Then Threetoo slapped his ass, and Steve's mind went entirely blank of words. A second later he jerked his head around to say, "Did I--"
Threetoo was looking thoughtfully at Steve's ass, where a pink mark was rapidly fading from his skin, and looked up, startled. "No! Not punishment, Steve. Never that, it's counterproductive. Just--checking how you responded."
"Oh," Steve said, and a shiver ran through him as he realized what that could mean. His cock twitched against his palm, and the muscles of his thighs and ass tensed and released as he struggled to keep still. "Do you want to, um..."
"Maybe later," Threetoo said, patting Steve gently where he'd smacked. "Let's finish looking you over."
Steve earned his first tsk when Threetoo examined the backs of his ears, which led to the strange intimacy of having his ears cleaned, inside and out, with minute care. Threetoo sat in front of Steve, still kneeling in the tub, and he moved Steve to rest his cheek on Threetoo's thigh as he worked, first one side and then the other.
When that was done, Threetoo squinted critically at Steve's--forehead? eyebrows?--for a moment, then ran his hand all through Steve's hair. Steve didn't know what he might be looking for--surely it was obvious by now that Steve didn't have nits--but he wasn't going to object, either. Especially not when he knew what the next step in the process was.
Still, eventually the time came. Threetoo nudged him up and pointed to the little box. "You know how?"
Steve grimaced but nodded.
Threetoo nodded. "Okay. Make sure you're good and clean, wash up nicely again, and then come on out. If you're quick you'll have time to lie down and rest beforehand. You won't sleep, but you can collect yourself a little."
Steve nodded. "I--thanks, Threetoo. For all of this."
Threetoo gave him a smile, fond and gently superior and so familiar it took his breath away. "What else am I for, huh, pal? Somebody's gotta teach you things."
Threetoo leaned in and pressed a kiss to Steve's forehead, which allowed Steve to shut his eyes. He kept them closed until Threetoo--and Bucky, who he carried inside him and who showed up sometimes like a radio signal suddenly coming in clear for just a moment before the static swept it away--was gone.
Tony wanted very, very badly to be drunk, and so he had eaten something with protein in it--whatever it was JARVIS had sent for him--and a lot of coffee and a large number of antacids and absolutely no alcohol.
He could get drunk after this was over. He would doubtless be getting very, very drunk when this was over. But right now he had a performance to deliver, and he wasn't going to stray one centimeter off his marks.
Granted, he was also going to have to make up his lines as he went along, but he could do that. He was Tony Stark, engineering on the fly was what he did. And if engineering never really worked on people who weren't Threetoo--it only really had to work for Threetoo. Steve would be fine.
Tony wasn't going to touch him, so there wouldn't be anything for Steve not to be fine about. Steve had only suggested it to get around Threetoo's weird prima nocta idea, so that Steve and Threetoo--Steve and Bucky--could get on with having sex and helping Bucky remember who he really was, and who he really was in love with.
Tony kept repeating those assurances--those obvious and inescapable facts--to himself as he thoroughly washed his hands, as he changed into clean clothes, as the elevator carried him up to the penthouse.
Threetoo was, naturally, waiting for him when the door opened, kneeling directly in his path.
Tony couldn't help smiling, because Threetoo was smiling and looking healthy and present--his weight had been up again this morning, and his seizure rate was down over the last few days. He was healing. Tony wasn't fucking that up so far, at least.
"Oh," Tony said, brain jumping tracks. "Uh, you need to eat, don't you, I didn't even--"
Threetoo grinned, shaking his head, and said, right out loud, without hesitation, "I'm all right, sir. JARVIS helped me calculate, I can drink enough shakes to stay on target tonight so you can take as much time as you need with Steve."
Tony totally intended to drop to one knee like that. He did. No one could prove he didn't. He wrapped his arms around Threetoo--Threetoo who was managing his own caloric intake, who had just spoken two or three sentences without a single hesitation, who had contradicted Tony.
Tony kissed the top of his head and gave him a squeeze, and Threetoo leaned into it happily, his fingers pressing briefly against Tony's side as if he was trying to return the hug.
"You are," Tony said, and had to clear his throat. "You are my very best and favorite Threetoo, you know that? You are doing so well, sweetheart, I'm so proud of you."
Threetoo gave a happy little wriggle in Tony's arms, and muttered, "You haven't even seen what I've been working on all day."
Right. Because Threetoo was feeling confident and happy today for a specific reason, and Tony needed to get through the rest of the evening without ruining that.
"Well," Tony said. "I guess I'd better go get a look, huh?" He pulled back from Threetoo and stood, looking around. "Where is he?"
"Waiting for you," Threetoo said smugly, kneeling up straight and tall and fearless. "Upstairs. I'll stay down here, sir, so I can get my drinks from the kitchen without... interrupting anything. I brought some of my extra pillows and blankets down, so I can sleep here if you're not finished until late."
Threetoo, making plans. Telling Tony what he was going to do and where he'd sleep. Tony's smile was helplessly genuine, because this was good, this was a huge leap forward; if it was also all wrong, well, Tony would handle it.
"You've thought of everything," Tony said. He ran a hand over Threetoo's hair, flicked a fingernail against one of the gold stars on his collar. "Excellent work, Threetoo. Enjoy your evening off, huh? Although I doubt this will take all night."
Tony even managed a wink, feeling a little dirty as he did it; it was only as he turned away from Threetoo that he realized it was because it felt so much like talking to the public, mugging for the press, playing the role of Tony Stark, careless playboy billionaire.
If he was going to be playing a role, he much preferred the one he usually played with Threetoo, all kindness and affection and patience, the Good Master out of some fairy tale. And now--well, at least he didn't have to play a role with Steve. They'd have to agree on some story for Threetoo, but Tony couldn't disappoint Steve. Steve, at least, knew what Tony was, and what a farce this night was.
Tony kept that firmly in mind as he went up to the bedroom. He hesitated just short of the closed door. Should he knock? Steve wouldn't thank Tony for walking in on him in some inadvertently suggestive pose--or intentionally suggestive, if he didn't realize Tony had arrived and thought it was Threetoo coming in.
"J?" Tony said under his breath.
For his ear alone, JARVIS said, "Steve is awaiting you, sir."
Well, okay. That had to mean Steve knew. And on that side of the door was where all of Steve's clothes lived; he had probably put on everything he had in layers to make sure Tony didn't get any funny ideas.
Tony opened the door and stepped through with his eyes on the door to the bedslaves' room; it was only when he realized it was dark and, presumably, uninhabited, that he shifted his gaze toward the bed.
Steve smiled sheepishly and waved, his cheeks turning pink as Tony looked.
He was in a centerfold pose, stretched out on Tony's most garish red silk sheets, which had been helpfully turned down. He was wearing that blue ribbon collar around his throat, and a matching blue satin... pouch, or thong, or something. And that was it.
After a second Tony remembered to shut the bedroom door behind him, turning away as he did it. He gave it a minute, but there was no sound of Steve moving off the bed or even sitting up or covering himself with that ridiculous folded-back sheet.
Tony squeezed his eyes shut for a second and then turned back to face the music.
Steve's flush, and his smile, had both faded, replaced with pale, miserable uncertainty. He'd curled his legs up a little, as if instinctively trying to protect himself, but he was still lying there, waiting.
"Threetoo's downstairs," Tony tried, grasping at the last sane possibility here. "He can't hear anything, so you..."
Steve did sit up then, his shoulders curling a little in obvious shame.
The posture made his Threetoo's-master voice rise in his throat, but before it could take over, Tony blurted out all by himself, "Did you volunteer for this thinking that I would actually--"
Steve's shoulders jerked like he was absorbing a body blow, and his face flamed a painful-looking red before he looked away. "Sorry," he mumbled, "Sorry, I'll--"
Tony just stared for a moment, frozen by conflicting impulses and frank disbelief. Then Steve moved, making to scuttle sideways off the bed to, presumably, go hide so he could die of shame in private. Tony finally pulled it together enough to lunge forward, hand outstretched.
He caught Steve by the bare and very muscular shoulder, and Steve's head jerked up. There was a wariness in his eyes now--not the hostility of the night they met, but something older and smaller. He was bracing to be ridiculed, to be told he wasn't good enough, and Tony felt that one in the pit of his stomach.
It felt wretchedly familiar, from the other side: his father chasing Tony out of his office, out of labs and workshops, out of anywhere Tony tried to follow him. What are you doing here, you're too young, you don't know what you're doing, go away and let the grownups do this.
"Not like that," Tony said. "Because obviously you're gorgeous and I'd be lucky to have you in my bed, except that it would be some variety of rape right now and I'm pretty sure you'd kill me in my sleep afterward, so. That's why not. Not because I wouldn't want to. And I thought you knew that I wouldn't force anything on you. I thought you knew you were safe from me."
Steve's expression softened, and his shoulder relaxed under Tony's hand. Belatedly, Tony let go, closing his hand into a fist at his side.
"I do know that," Steve said. "I'm not... Threetoo. I understand that I can say no to you and you'll listen. Doesn't that mean I can say yes?"
Tony squeezed his eyes shut and did not think about how desperate Steve must be, to even think about it. "I... I'm pretty sure I still have the power of life and death over you, practically speaking, so. Let's say no."
Steve made a slightly dubious noise at that, but when Tony opened his eyes, he seemed to have regained his equilibrium. "So if you're not going to actually," Steve said, moving to sit on the edge of the bed, his posture transforming to something perfectly normal, as if he'd forgotten he was practically naked. And wearing a collar. "We just have to figure out how to convince Threetoo that you did."
"Right," Tony said, and sat down next to him, a careful six inches between their thighs. "What, uh... do you think he's going to..."
"Well, he's going to expect you to have seen me naked, for starters," Steve said, looking over with a crooked smile.
Tony made himself glance down matter-of-factly at the only covered part of Steve's body. Where had Threetoo even found that thing Steve was wearing? It looked like a bodybuilder's posing pouch from the 80s; it was ridiculously shiny. "I think I can probably guess what it looks like."
Steve snorted, shaking his head a little. "You can't, actually."
Tony opened his mouth and shut it, his mind racing through assorted horrifying possibilities. That object he'd made for Steve, what--
Steve made an amused little huff, and said, "It's not that bad, it's just..." With no further ado, he peeled the pouch down, cradling his--still attached and not visibly mutilated--dick with one hand.
The interesting part, presumably, was the metal hoops jutting out of his abdomen, right near where he was holding the head of his cock pressed close to his belly.
Tony frowned and turned to look more closely--at the peculiar metalwork, not Steve's genitals. "What..."
"I had a, uh, cock-lock? Infib?" Steve said, easing his cock away a little. There were four of the little silvery hoops, and Steve nudged one with his thumb, making it sink in deeper; when he let go it slowly pushed back out.
"Infibulation," Tony said. It had been mostly illegal since before he was born, in the United States. Elsewhere... "Why are there four..."
He stopped and looked up to Steve's face remembering the last time Steve had mentioned that specific number to him, regarding his overpowered metabolism; Steve was looking slightly sheepish. "I, uh, yeah. When I--" Steve waved his free hand at himself. "I... broke through the one I had originally. How--um--these are the replacement."
Tony held his gaze for a moment. "Howard. Howard did this to you?"
Steve shrugged, grimacing. "It was--I agreed. I wanted him to, really. I didn't want to be without one, not looking like this. Too many people wanted a piece of me already, and at least that way I was off limits. And my arm wouldn't hold a brand or a tattoo, so the only evidence I had that I was enslaved was," Steve gestured downward. "That was enough to bring me under the jurisdiction of the Geneva Convention slave-soldier articles, if I managed to get myself captured by anyone who cared about that sort of thing."
Tony's mouth worked, trying to make sense of a mindset where being a slave--being identifiable as a slave--was a rational calculation, where self-mutilation was the logical option.
"What," Tony said, giving up on that and focusing on the engineering problem. "You were infibulated. How..."
Steve shifted the position of the hand cradling his dick--keeping it close to the position it must have been formerly trapped in, Tony realized, not shielding it from Tony's gaze. With his other hand he pointed to a spot just behind the head, two on the head of his dick, and another on the opposite side. "The rings were attached there. I, uh, cut them free. A week ago. They've healed well."
"You cut--" Tony's thighs pressed together reflexively and he felt a little sick. "Why--" and then his brain caught up. "That metal--it's the same as what was in your arm, wasn't it. You couldn't cut the metal, not with anything you could get your hands on. So you had to cut yourself."
Steve shrugged, nodding. "I was etherized when they went in, so I'm not sure how exactly it was done, but I'm pretty sure the rings are looped around... tendons or something. Ripping them out on that side would've been a lot messier, but this way at least I got free. Howard said it was a... vibranium alloy? Same stuff he put into my shield. My big shield, not the, uh..."
Tony silently cupped his hand into the shape of the little plastic object he'd made for Steve, and Steve nodded, his cheeks going pink all over again.
So he'd had one of those before too. Well, if his dick had been hoisted up like that he'd have needed something to manage basic bodily functions. And even now, if his dick wouldn't flex easily...
"Do you have to keep it in that position?" Tony asked. "I mean--does it hurt if you don't? Because I could probably fix up something to help..."
Steve smiled wryly. "Jock straps work okay, and I figure eventually I'd like to, uh, improve my range of motion. But, yeah, it, uh... it's not comfortable to..." Steve waved his free hand vaguely. "Threetoo thought you might want to get the rings out, anyway, and... now that I know you a little better, I'm less nervous about you and some kind of industrial cutter in immediate proximity to my crotch."
"Thanks," Tony said, returning a crooked smile of his own and swallowing the urge to make some kind of rude joke about that expression of trust. It was trust, and not lightly given. And for whatever it was worth, he was pretty sure that he could be trusted not to fuck up that one thing. "And, yeah, if dear old Dad managed to forge these and put them in place in 1943, I can definitely cut them apart for extraction. We'll probably want Dr. Cho standing by just in case, and to do a scan so we know exactly what structures are involved internally."
Steve nodded briskly, and Tony sat back to say, "J, remind me--test precision cutting on the pins from Steve's arm, consult with Cho about a good time for minor abdominal surgery."
"Yes, sir," JARVIS said, packing a particular quantity of stiff formality into two words that reminded Tony of what was actually going on here.
He straightened up, scooting fractionally away from Steve as he asked, "Is Threetoo okay?"
"He is drinking a milkshake and doing a little light calculus," JARVIS said dryly. "His seizure rate continues at the observed low levels of the last two days."
"Good," Tony said, nodding, and flicked his fingers to dismiss JARVIS. That just left him and Steve sitting in silence on the foot of Tony's bed which was still very much made up with red silk sheets.
"So," Tony said, staring straight ahead. "We'll wait a while, and then I'll tell Threetoo you did such a great job that I'm going to take care of removing those rings before you continue your training."
Steve nodded, then cleared his throat. "He'll, uh... want to... inspect me. I don't know exactly what he'll expect to see, blood or--"
Tony's head whipped around involuntarily. "Blood? What the fuck does he--"
Tony stopped, his gaze dropping to Steve's crotch, where his hand was now protectively covering his dick. The rings were still visible, though. What had he said? He broke the first infibulation he had when he got experimented on, and Howard put in a new one, presumably pretty quickly afterward. Before that--infibulation had been common, and JARVIS had calculated that Steve had been, what, sixteen or seventeen when he was first enslaved.
What the hell kind of sex ed had a poor kid gotten in the 30s, before he was sixteen? What had anyone told him about gay sex? He was a virgin, that was the whole point, but--
"What did Threetoo tell you I was going to do to you, exactly?" Tony tried.
Steve shrugged, flushing again and looking away. "He... we didn't get very far in, uh, training, before... I think he figured you would tell me whatever you wanted me to know. He was more focused on, uh, making sure I was... clean everywhere, today."
Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and told himself he was just conveying information. Operating instructions. "There should never be blood, not if your partner has any idea what they're doing or gives a shit about you."
Neither of which a slave could take for granted, of course. Tony closed his eyes, feeling sick, thinking of the bedslaves he'd fucked when he was a teenager, and the ones who'd been offered to him as enticements.
He did not press a hand to his chest. The ache there was normal; the Machine was functioning perfectly. He'd just run diagnostics an hour ago.
"Sex can be a lot of things, hands or mouths or just friction. But I assume," Tony went on, fixing his gaze on the far wall, "that the virginity Threetoo is mainly focused on is, ah, being penetrated. For anal sex, that requires artificial lubrication and... stretching, okay? The muscles there have to relax, and for some people that's easy and for most people it requires the right circumstances and some... easing into it. Especially the first time."
He glanced over at Steve, who was frowning in concentration, nodding a little, taking technical details on board.
"I can supply you with lube and a toy, and JARVIS can show you... instructional materials... and you can try it out, okay? And then whatever Threetoo is looking for, that's what he's going to find, because," Tony made a vague gesture and dropped his hands firmly to his lap before he tried to be more illustrative, "you'll have done your side of it, for all intents and purposes."
Steve nodded slowly. "How, uh... if it's... just me doing it to myself, how... how long should I--I mean, how many times...?"
Tony honestly didn't understand what he was talking about at all for a second, and then realized that Steve was asking how long he was supposed to just keep jamming something up his ass to get the proper effect, because the concept of his own pleasure being involved had completely escaped him. Until you come would sound like until hell freezes over. And until it doesn't feel good anymore would sound like an instruction not to do it at all.
"You, uh," Tony was dimly certain that of all the things about his actual life people would find shocking if they only knew, the idea of him at a loss for words when speaking to a naked bed slave about sex would probably be near the top of the list. "JARVIS can..."
"Sure," Steve said, voice going brisk as he took mercy on Tony. "Okay. Uh, what... toy?"
"Right," Tony said, trying to think of where he'd put all that stuff when Threetoo moved in. He'd moved it from the usual ready-access drawers because he wasn't going to have privacy to use it, and...
God, did he even have lube that wasn't obviously half-used and psychically if not actually sticky? Why had he wasted all that time trying not to think about this instead of preparing?
Then he thought about Steve using one of his toys, using his lube, having his very first time alone in Tony's bed, and... Okay, right, not thinking about it was in fact the only survivable strategy here.
Tony cleared his throat. "JARVIS? Where, uh..."
"In anticipation of this eventuality," JARVIS said primly, "there is a kit in the lower drawer of the nightstand."
Tony practically dove for it, suddenly desperate to put some space between himself and Steve. He knelt in front of the drawer and, jeez, JARVIS hadn't been kidding. There was a neat little cardboard box, and when he set it on the bed and opened it, it held everything anyone might need: bullet vibrator, four dildos in a modest range of sizes from "training wheels" to "lifelike," all blandly flesh-toned and cursorily realistic. All brand new. And there was a fresh bottle of lube, plus condoms and gloves and a couple of small towels.
It was indeed everything a curious virgin needed to figure out anal on his own.
Tony looked up with a grin and saw Steve's face. He looked grimly focused, but more than that... hopeless and resigned. He didn't think this was going to be fun--he knew it wouldn't be--and if he went into it with that attitude, he was going to be right. He wouldn't ask JARVIS for advice, wouldn't take his time and explore. He'd do this all grim and joyless and--and lonely--and--
Jesus, Threetoo was going to be pissed at Tony if he sent Steve back to him in that condition. And he wasn't going to know what to do with himself if he was pissed at his master.
But Tony had already told Steve he wasn't going to do this, and he couldn't--God, now he was fucking up not fucking a slave, but he couldn't see any way out of this. Somebody was going to get hurt here, and it absolutely shouldn't be Steve, but Tony couldn't see how to prevent it.
"I think I can take it from here, sir," Steve said, his expression hardening into simple determination, without that glimpse of bleak vulnerability. Then his gaze darted around the room, and he added, slightly less briskly, "Where will you be while I'm taking care of this?"
Tony felt a deep, visceral urge to go bury himself in Threetoo's pillow box.
But he'd promised Threetoo that he would never cross that boundary without Threetoo's invitation, and Threetoo could not know about this. And even if Threetoo would allow it--because Threetoo would no doubt allow Tony anything he asked--that comfort wasn't for him.
The only other obvious place to go was the bathroom--which Steve would need access to when he was done, to clean up. Tony looked at Steve again, saw the brittle edge to his determination, and spread his hands in surrender. "Where do you want me to be, Steve?"
Steve's lips tightened--he'd heard the innuendo Tony honestly couldn't keep out of the words at this point. He looked away, glancing around the room like he was considering exactly where he'd like Tony to be.
"I know you don't want to get your hands dirty," Steve said after a moment, the words stiff and flat, inviting nothing. "That's your choice. But we also both know I'm going to do this no matter what you do, and I..." Steve's jaw worked; it looked like it physically pained him to spit out the last few words. "I would rather not do this alone."
Tony opened his mouth and nothing came out; Steve's gaze darted to him, and he seemed to take his silence for refusal. To Tony's deep, everlasting relief, Steve actually got angry this time instead of just quietly resigned.
"You touched him," Steve said, low and cold. "When he just asked you to, you got him off, even though you know how compromised he is. I'm not even asking for that, I--"
Tony put his hands up. "No, I. Okay. I can, uh, provide... not moral support. Immoral support? Technical support."
Steve snorted, the anger in his face being replaced with a wry smile. He said, in a slightly mechanical tone, "Good evening, thank you for calling StarkTech Support. My name is Tony, and I'll be assisting you as much as I can over the--" Steve's gaze dropped to the bed, and he cut off with a half-stifled laugh.
Tony just stared. For a moment he was trying to figure out how Steve knew that he took the occasional batch of tech support calls just to keep his hand in, and then he realized that that was not at all what Steve was saying. "Oh, Jesus, is that what they had you doing for work? Tech support? No wonder you were ready to murder someone."
Steve's smile faltered. "I liked it. Helping people."
And it wasn't like Steve's life was currently giving him a lot of opportunities to do that. He'd said he was bored, that he didn't have anything to do and didn't know what to do with himself. "Well, if you miss it that much JARVIS can probably set you up with a shift if you want. If you, uh, have time for that once you and Threetoo--" Tony waved a hand to indicate are free to occupy yourselves with 24/7 sexual delights.
Steve's expression actually brightened, and Tony suspected it was not, for some reason, at the prospect of 24/7 sexual delights with the guy he was in love with. He actually looked up right then and said, "JARVIS? Could you?"
"I shall consult you regarding scheduling tomorrow," JARVIS said, with a certain tone of finality which meant that he'd noticed they were stalling.
Steve evidently heard it too. He looked to Tony, and down at the box of supplies. "Okay, so. Where do I start?"
"Have you tried turning it off," Tony said in his best deadpan, "and then turning it back on?"
Steve glared at him almost like he had the night they met, and Tony thought they might just both survive this.
Tony had him half-reclining on the pillows at the head of the bed, his ass planted on a towel that was nearly the same satiny crimson as the sheets. The kit was set out at his right hand, and Tony sat beyond that, still fully clothed.
Steve had dispensed with the fancy jock strap. The position allowed his cock to rest against his belly, at least, so he wouldn't have to worry about it moving too much.
"Okay, so, step one is usually try to relax but I'm assuming that that's a wildly useless instruction at this point. So we'll just go to rule one, which is: no such thing as too much lube. Always use more than you think you need. If you manage to use that entire bottle in one go, I will--" Tony stopped short, wincing and looking away. "I will find some way to express my opinion that you've done a really good job."
Steve raised a hand to touch the ribbon collar fastened around his throat. If he'd been Threetoo, Tony would have promised rewards; Threetoo had promised him rewards, pointedly fingering the gold stars on his own collar. Which Tony had given him, of course. Round and round they went, blundering into walls and smashing their toes and noses every time.
"That's a handsome offer," Steve said after a few seconds, and Tony looked at him again, meeting his eyes. "I'll keep it in mind."
He didn't think he could bring himself to use up the whole bottle--it would surely just end up making a mess, which would be a waste as well as... slimy--but he would remember the principle.
Tony nodded, and then blurted out, like he'd been holding the words in and they'd finally escaped under the accumulated pressure, "Are you sure this is a good idea? Humoring him? I mean. We're reinforcing the programming, aren't we?"
Steve blinked, and realized that Tony had entirely the wrong end of the stick about why they were doing this. "The programming that made him defy his master because he believed a slave deserved to be treated as though he had more value than his master might choose to acknowledge?"
Tony frowned, like he somehow hadn't noticed he was being defied even when Threetoo nearly gave himself a migraine doing it.
"You think Pierce wanted him to have opinions about something like this?" Steve prodded. "We're not doing this because Threetoo wants it, Tony. We're doing it because Bucky had the guts to insist on it."
Tony frowned harder. "Bucky is in love with you, why would he..."
Steve sighed. "Bucky's a slave, Tony. Bucky's been a slave since he was eighteen years old, and he's been best friends with a boy who meant to surrender himself since he was eight. And he probably read a thousand of those pulp novels about beautiful virgin slaves whose masters fall in love with them and free them and marry them and lavish them with beautiful things and pots of money, and let them buy their friends free too."
Tony's jaw dropped.
"You said his programming is basically his idea about how stuff's supposed to work, right?" Steve smiled a little. "This is Bucky's idea of how it's supposed to go."
Tony covered his face with one hand. "We're acting out a cheap romance novel from the Twenties to keep from destroying his illusions."
"I mean, I personally plan on giving him about a hundred miles of shit about it once he's in a position to care," Steve said. "But yeah, that's our Buck."
Tony went very still, peeking through his fingers at Steve, and closed his mouth firmly when he realized what he'd said. Our Buck.
Steve hadn't meant it like Tony had obviously heard it--he just meant the one we both know--but... Bucky who belongs to you and me both wasn't really wrong either. He was Tony's in the literal, obvious sense; on the other hand, Steve was the only person alive who remembered the person Bucky had been when he was Bucky, and had been his friend since they were little kids and Bucky was a halfway reasonable nickname. Between the two of them they had about all the claim anyone could have in the world to knowing and caring for him.
Steve cleared his throat. "So we might as well get on with it, right?"
He picked up the bottle of lube from the box, feeling the cool weight of it in his hand. He was doing this. It was happening. It might be embarrassing, but Tony wouldn't deliberately humiliate him, and anyway he'd survive. One awful hour and then he could be with Bucky. Someday they'd laugh about this.
Steve looked to Tony again, and caught a glimpse what he'd seen before, before the war and during, in slaves and resistance fighters and his commando team and himself. He saw a man trying to make his peace with all the dishonorable compromises that had to be made to survive, to complete a mission. I'll go that far, but no further. That's the line I won't cross.
But if the mission was important, if you wanted to survive, if the moment came--you crossed the line or you failed. You crossed the line or you died. And if you were still around after that, you tried to find some other line to draw.
Steve wanted to tell Tony that he understood, but he was pretty sure he wasn't supposed to have seen it. He was pretty sure that if Tony knew he'd seen, he would only retreat further. So Steve would pretend he didn't know, that he believed Tony was... whatever Tony wanted Steve to believe he was. Nothing like a slave or a soldier or a spy, and no one Steve should want to give aid or comfort.
"It works better if you actually open the bottle," Tony said, jerking Steve out of his thoughts. Steve met his eyes and saw no conflict there at all, just wry amusement. It had to be a mask, but Steve had to let himself believe it for now.
He smiled back and nodded. "Right. Uh."
He focused on the bottle, fumbling it open, and got some of the stuff--thicker than he was expecting, almost like good old Vaseline--on his fingers. His eyes fell on the gloves in the kit as soon as he'd done that. "Was I supposed to use those?"
Tony shrugged. "You could, to spare washing your hands after. But otherwise it's not going to hurt anything not to as long as your nails aren't going to scratch."
Well, that made the manicure actually practical as well as pretty, didn't it? Steve shrugged and dismissed the gloves, returning his attention to the main event. His first two fingers were smeared with lube now. "Right. Here goes."
He put his hand down between his legs, letting his knees splay out wide, and pressed his fingers to his asshole.
"Slowly," Tony said, before he could move past that. "Don't force anything, okay?"
Steve didn't manage to hold back a scornful huff of breath at that, but Tony just raised his eyebrows.
"I've spent hours now preparing for this," Steve said. "Thoroughly preparing. This isn't the first time my finger's going up my ass today."
Tony's lips parted, and he stared into Steve's eyes for a moment, so intently that Steve could see the effort he was putting into not looking lower.
God, Steve wanted to make him look lower. For Tony's sake, because he deserved some pleasure in his life, and for his own sake, because... after all this time when a master's desire could only ever be a danger to him, there was Tony. Steve wanted to know if Tony would look at him the way Threetoo had looked at him, admiring and pleased and interested--or maybe even the way Tony looked at Threetoo sometimes, hungry and devoted and so sweetly careful.
Steve shut his eyes. Tony wasn't going to look at him, and Tony wasn't going to touch him, and Steve just had to finish the job. He could figure out how to help Tony later.
For now, he circled the lube over his hole, took a breath and reminded himself to let go and bear down, and then slipped his finger inside.
"Did you enjoy it?"
Steve's eyes snapped open, meeting Tony's, which were now showing a smile, wrinkles at the corners and all. "What?"
"The other times you had your finger up your ass today," Tony said easily. "Did you enjoy the feeling?"
Steve just stared at him, mouth hanging open, but Tony didn't laugh or take it back. "No."
Tony nodded. "So, okay, before the first rule, which is...?"
Steve rolled his eyes. "No such thing as too much lube."
"And before the first step, which we're skipping for now anyway, there is the first principle, which is, see if you can follow this, sex is supposed to feel good."
Steve just stared at him for a second, then looked down at his hand, then back at Tony.
"For everyone involved in it, ideally," Tony went on. "There are guys--lots of guys, including myself on many occasions--who get fucked voluntarily, because they like it, okay? Not everybody likes it, it's possible you're going to find you're one of those guys who hates it no matter what, and if that turns out to be true, we're going to tell Threetoo that because you getting fucked is not the only way this can work. And it's not a way this works at all if it never feels good to you."
Steve went on staring at Tony. He couldn't think of a single thing to say. He supposed it had to be true--why would Tony lie about such a thing?--but still, he felt as if the whole room had tilted sideways.
"So," Tony said. "Since you're the only person having sex here, you should definitely be showing yourself a good time, and if you don't want me here for the fun parts I can leave once you've got the hang of it or something."
Steve shook his head. He could have figured out how to get one of those toys up his ass. He doubted he would succeed in making himself feel good any more than he would succeed in flying around the room, if Tony left him to figure it out on his own. "I... how?"
"Well, one way is to do the stuff you know feels good along with the new stuff," Tony said. "You've got two hands, use both."
Steve actually looked down at his left hand, currently gripping the towel beside his hip. "You--you're telling me to..."
"Pleasure yourself," Tony said. He looked like he was starting to enjoy this, like it was a genuinely interesting conversation. "I mean, if we were actually doing what we're pretending we're doing, I would definitely start there. It helps with the relaxing, usually. Admittedly it's easier to coordinate when you're using your hands on someone else, but I'll bet you're ambidextrous, aren't you?"
Steve glared at Tony; he could feel the cheerful challenge in the words, even if Tony hadn't actually said, what, are you scared?
Steve looked down at his left hand again, at his cock lying against his belly. He wasn't not scared, to be honest. He'd only done this once since he freed himself from the infib, and... "You know that part's going to hurt too."
"It... what?" Tony sounded like that had taken the wind out of his sails.
Steve grinned fiercely and closed his left hand around his cock, giving it an encouraging little squeeze. "The whole point of the infib is that it hurts to get hard in that position, and it becomes self-defeating. Only I'm sort of... stuck that way. Still hurts. Getting better, though, I think," Steve allowed, giving himself a little stroke.
He felt it everywhere, tightening his nipples and prickling his scalp. Steve took a breath in and out through his nose and then did it again, sliding his hand up and down the short length of his cock, careful not to change the angle too much. The pleasure tingled through him like it was just waking up from a long nap, like his body was remembering how to feel this.
Another careful stroke, and then Steve froze at Tony moving beside him, scooting closer and reaching out. Tony went still too.
"It's better with lube there, too," Tony explained, gesturing to the bottle he'd been reaching for. "But your hands are full so I figured I could flip the top for you. If you want."
Steve nodded jerkily, and Tony picked up the bottle and then seemed to realize that Steve's hands were still full and he was going to have to come even closer to be any use. Steve bared his teeth at Tony and rocked his hips a little, wiggling his fingers in the tight grip of his ass, rubbing his palm over his cock. "It works better if you--"
Tony huffed and rolled his eyes, then leaned in to squirt lube right on the head of Steve's cock, unmistakably looking at it as he did. Steve hurriedly shifted his hand down, then rubbed his fingers through the stuff, a slippery stroke right over the bottom of the head. His breath caught at the new sensation, and his cock twitched under his hand.
Tony put down the lube and sat back again, but he wasn't as far away as he'd been before. "That's--good. Keep that up."
Steve nodded and moved his hand a little faster on his cock as the lube got everywhere, easing the way. It was better without the friction of dry skin on skin, and the slippery-wet touch seemed to go straight to his balls. His hips twitched involuntarily, his whole pelvis tight with wanting, and his fingers in his ass changed position, sinking deeper. He wriggled them without thought, and a sudden bolt of pleasure shot through him, from something inside to the tip of his cock, curling his toes and stopping his breath.
"What," Steve gasped. "What--"
"Yeah," Tony said. "That right there is why people do this on purpose.
Steve looked over at Tony reflexively and twitched his fingers again, glancing over that spot; his eyes locked on Tony's like a lifeline as that pleasure rushed through him, his cock stiffening in his other hand.
He saw the way Tony's eyes darkened, the flush rising on Tony's cheeks, and an entirely different pleasure rushed through him.
There had been a few times during the war--when he was doing his toy soldier routine with Howard, and afterward, when he was actually fighting--when he had been looked at admiringly and, instead of feeling like he had succeeded in an awful lie, he felt as if he actually had earned it. Deserved it.
This felt like that.
Tony wanted him, and Steve wanted Tony's desire almost as much as he wanted to keep feeling this. Steve had earned that look from Tony, and it wasn't the predatory hunger he'd seen sometimes, the ugly covetous gaze that had always made him glad he was cock-locked. Steve didn't need protection from that look in Tony's eyes. Steve wanted more of it, closer, even if he wasn't exactly sure what he'd do if he got that. Tony would know; that was half the point.
Steve tipped his head back and almost closed his eyes, watching Tony through his eyelashes as he gave his cock another little squeeze and stroke.
Tony's lips parted, and Steve felt a surge of something, hope and triumph and desire and a pleasure born far below his own skin.
Tony looked away sharply and cleared his throat. "So, uh, just--just keep that up, both hands, until you're as hard as you're gonna get."
Steve gritted his teeth and returned his attention to his own hands. Right. Tony didn't want to want him, and Steve wasn't some... expert seducer who was going to get Tony over that in five minutes.
Threetoo would train him how to do that. He just had to play a long game. And for now...
He worked his fingers inside himself, thrusting, twisting. He spread his fingers a little, tentatively, just to see how much give there was. Enough, he thought, looking down at the smaller toys, but Tony had said he should be hard, too, and Tony was the expert.
So Steve worked his slick hand on his dick some more, panting a little with the mingled pleasure and ache as it hardened. He stroked at that spot inside, too, for the twinges of weirdness and jolts of pleasure. It didn't take long before he was hard, his dick rising off his belly at a slight angle; it felt sore and dangerous and so, so good.
"Okay," Steve said, trying to sound matter of fact around his breathlessness as he stole another look at Tony. "Now what?"
Tony looked, then, his gaze darting to Steve's dick, down between his legs, and away again. "Now--now you're going to need an extra set of hands, I guess. Which toy do you want to start with? You can always go bigger if it doesn't feel like enough."
Steve reflexively skipped over the smallest of the options and picked up the second one with the hand he'd had on his dick.
Tony snorted, seeming unsurprised by that choice, and picked up the lube bottle again, squirting the stuff all over it. "Kind of, uh--spread it around, before you--"
Steve slipped his fingers free of his ass, wrinkling his nose at the sensation as he did, and smeared the lube on the toy. It also meant smearing lube all over his hand, but he supposed there was no way around making a mess. He put the slicked hand to his cock, curling his hips up to an easier-to-reach angle as he moved the toy between his legs. His feet came off the bed, and Tony made a little noise, somehow scoffing and almost pained at once.
Steve didn't look, concentrating on getting the rounded end of the toy to his asshole. He took a breath, exhaling carefully as he willed himself to relax, and pushed the toy in.
Something made him stop there, the toy just far enough inside him that he could loosen his grip on it. He stared at the ceiling, trying to identify why he'd stopped, and he realized he had expected something to happen. He was officially being fucked by something that at least looked like a cock, even if it wasn't really one--he was even getting fucked with another person involved, albeit at arm's length. He was almost definitely not a virgin now.
But nothing happened. It didn't feel all that different from fingers, or from the enema nozzle, even if it was a little bigger. A different shape, a different density inside him, but nothing... special.
"Huh," Steve said, and then pushed the thing in another inch or two.
Tony snorted. "Not impressing you yet?"
Steve shrugged, frowning as he wiggled the thing around inside him, pushing and pulling in small increments. "It's... not that different?"
"Well, keep at it," Tony said blithely, waving a hand. "Give yourself a few minutes before you go for an upgrade. And keep using both hands, there's a--" Tony circled a finger in a way that probably shouldn't have made Steve want to have that finger in his mouth, or... somewhere else. "Synergistic effect. The more aroused you are, the more everything feels good."
Steve grunted acknowledgement and let his gaze settle between his knees as he tried to get a rhythm going with both hands. It wasn't a natural talent of his--not like Bucky--and it was made more difficult by the way his hands' movements hitched at every odd little jolt of pleasure from inside. Every time he lost his rhythm he expected Tony to tell him what to do, how to do this better, but Tony stayed quiet, so Steve let go of the awkwardness and the feeling of expecting this to be something different and settled into it.
He did find a sort of rhythm, then, shifting from a sequence of separate touches to his cock and his ass to an ongoing stimulation. The perpetual ache in his cock got lost in the rising pleasure, especially the irregular jolts from inside his ass, when the toy inside him slid against that spot at just the right angle, with just the right force.
It felt good, and better, and better still, making him forget everything beyond his own body and friction and touch and heat until he abruptly realized that this had an ending. He was going to come.
He was going to come, and he didn't know if that was what he was supposed to do. He turned his head to look at Tony, to ask or hope that Tony could guess what he needed from the look on his face.
Steve was caught instead by the look on Tony's face--the bright fascination in his eyes, his knuckles pressed against his mouth like he was physically holding back words, the flush rising on his cheeks, the faintest suggestion of sweat at his hairline. The sight of him jolted Steve right over the edge, and he was coming, helpless noises falling out of his mouth, his eyes fixed on Tony as he was racked by his climax.
He closed his eyes as it ended, letting himself go limp for a moment.
Only a moment, though. The toy was still inside him, Tony was still sitting arm's length away, and he wasn't actually finished with whatever he was supposed to be accomplishing here. He'd only taken the second-smallest toy; there were two more in obvious progression, plus a smaller thing to one side that Steve had no idea about, and Tony had only told him to take a few minutes to get used to this one before moving on to another.
"Okay," Steve said. "What next?"
"Uh," Tony said, sounding so baffled that Steve opened his eyes. Tony was frowning. "A shower, probably? But, you know, personal preference."
Steve gritted his teeth. "It wouldn't end just because I got off if we were doing this for real, would it?"
Tony raised his eyebrows in a sardonic expression, but that flush still lingered on his cheeks. "If we were doing this, then it would end right about when I said it ended, I'm pretty sure. And if I were deflowering a virgin and just wanted to make sure that he got introduced to sex in a way that left him aware that he could enjoy it? Yeah, I'd probably decide to go out on a high note."
"And does the virgin in question get a say?" Steve was glaring, and he knew, vaguely, that it was ridiculous, and even more he knew that he was approaching that line he hit with every master where they stopped finding him entertaining and started actually trying to break him.
Tony just snorted. "You want to start pushing for consent when I want to stop--hypothetically--fucking you? Because you wouldn't be here in the first place if--"
"I volunteered," Steve snapped. Masters never entirely understood all the shades of willingness that could exist within slavery, how even a slave's service could be a gift if he chose to make it one, the same as he could resist without ever saying no, but Tony was being particularly obtuse.
Tony shook his head, waving a hand in a gesture that was probably supposed to be casual, but Steve spotted a tremble in his fingers. Tony snatched his hand back and pressed it flat to the bed. "Look, the point is, that's hypothetical. We're not actually fucking, so the only one who's deciding this is you. You want to shove more toys up your ass, that is literally what they're here for. Knock yourself out."
Steve's determination faltered at the abrupt surrender. He looked at the toys again, trying to figure out whether he should go straight to the largest one, or...
Tony's finger tapped against the small rounded thing, and his voice was mercifully neutral. "That's, uh, it's called a bullet vibrator. You might want to try it out. Threetoo will probably want to have you try something like that, so you might want to get an idea of how you react to it."
Steve picked it up. It had the same kind of smooth plasticky surface as the other toys, but it felt heavier. Well, judging by the name it vibrated, so there must be some kind of... machinery inside, unimaginably tiny. Steve felt around for some control and the end of it clicked down slightly under pressure, like a mechanical pen; instantly the thing started buzzing against his fingers, such a startling sensation that he dropped it to clatter around the box, buzzing and twitching. He stared.
Was he supposed to put that inside him? His ass was still clenching in odd little twitches around the toy he'd already used, and even that felt like almost too much sensation to bear. That thing would make him come out of his skin.
"Yep, okay, now you know: no vibrators when you're already oversensitive," Tony said, capturing the thing with a deft hand, turning it off and dropping it back into the box. "And the already-oversensitive thing is also why you might want to stop with the dildos, or why you might want to keep going. Everything's going to feel more intense, which can be painful but also, you know..." Tony waved his hand, a little more smoothly this time. Steve didn't look at his face. "More intense. Up to you."
Steve studied the toys another minute, idly pushing at the one still shoved inside him as he tried to decide how much bigger the next one would be.
Well, what the hell. He knew where he was going with this, and it wasn't like he'd really hurt himself with this blunted little toy in his own hand. Steve picked up the biggest one with his free hand and tipped it toward Tony. "Could you?"
Tony made a little caught-breath noise, then said quickly, "Yeah, yeah, of course, here." He squirted lube all over the thing, even more liberally than before, and then grabbed a towel and tossed it down, giving Steve a place to put the... used one.
Steve worked it free and dropped it, wincing at the variety of strange sensations from his ass--the sense of emptiness combined with the fluttery feeling of muscles still twitching wasn't as unpleasant as it probably should have been, which only made it weirder.
Still, it was a weird kind of relief to push the bigger toy against his opening. His body was starting to know this already, and he had always loved mastering some new physical skill. He laughed a little at that thought, pushing it deeper as he remembered the delight he'd had, in the middle of all the clinical awfulness, in trying out his new body.
"That good, huh?" Tony murmured, low.
Steve heard it but thought that maybe he wasn't supposed to, so he just let himself grin wide as he pushed the thing further. It hurt a little, and felt good too much, so that hurt too, and the pain wrapped right back around to pleasure, the exquisite feeling of finding his body's limits and pushing past them. He fucked himself with the toy and his other hand found his dick without having to be reminded; he was already stiffening again. There too the ache was worse but the pleasure more intense, and he got hard faster than he had since he was a kid who'd never been cock-locked.
Within a few breaths it was more than he could contain, driving out thought, driving out everything except chasing still more of the feeling. His heart pounded and his hands felt like they were moving almost as fast as his racing pulse, and it was so much, and there was more and more and more every second. It hurt and the pain was clean and bright and good, and the pleasure was a wave crashing over him, and it didn't end. It just kept going, even when he could hardly breathe, even when his eyes were watering and his breath turned ragged and desperate.
He tried to say something--apology or plea--but all that came out of his mouth was noise, desperate and urgent.
Tony spoke back to him, though, low and calm and almost, almost in that tone he used with Threetoo, warm and fond and sweet. "Hey, you got this. You're almost there, just keep doing what you're doing, you've got it just right."
Tony's voice was a lifeline, or should have been, but it only heightened the pain and pleasure both, only raised yet more inside him that he didn't know how to bear. He arched half off the bed, struggling to get to the end of this, to finish, and yet he never wanted it to end. It didn't end and didn't end and Tony kept talking to him softly every time he made a noise, and he couldn't--he couldn't keep feeling all of this, but he did feel it, and--
Eventually, it did end. Coming was a relief as much as a climax by then, and afterward he felt emptied out, scoured clean. It took him a while to feel entirely like he was inside his own body again, and longer to notice that he was lying on Tony Stark's bed, staring at the ceiling, and that Tony was sitting beside him, looking down at him with a tiny line of concern between his brows, running his fingers through Steve's hair.
Steve closed his eyes. He knew he should speak, or move, and above all he desperately wanted to do something to make that worried little crease disappear from Tony's forehead, but he wasn't a hundred percent sure he could feel all of his limbs yet and he didn't want to stop feeling... this, whatever this was.
Tony's fingers moved through his hair a few more times, and Steve wondered if he could make a pathetic noise and get Tony to talk to him again. Before he could try it, though, Tony tapped gently on Steve's face--between his brows, right where that little frown line was on Tony's face--and said, "Rise and shine, champ. Time for phase two."
Steve opened his eyes, frowning as Tony drew his hand away. "Phase two?"
"The part where you tell Threetoo all about your experience getting deflowered and how ready you are now to get on with his training regimen," Tony explained. "We, ah, should probably get the evidence of faking it out of sight first, though."
Steve's whole face scrunched up at the realization that there was still a toy inside him.
Tony laughed a little and scooted away. "I'll take away the evidence, but you gotta actually get it to the towel, all right?"
"Typical," Steve muttered, tilting his hips and hissing a little at the sensation kicked off even by that much movement, never mind pulling the thing out. "Masters always make us do all the work."
"Yes, that is literally how slavery works," Tony agreed, but he was also bundling up the used toys in a towel and tucking it neatly under his arm. "I'll leave the rest of this stuff, uh, somewhere--JARVIS, have U put it away?--so if you want to use any of these again, or if Threetoo wants some, uh, teaching props or whatever..." Tony lifted the box illustratively and then turned and slipped out of the room.
Steve stayed where he was, lying on the bed, feeling very sticky and very tired and strangely still and weirdly, persistently good.
Then he heard Tony's voice from downstairs, in that soft tone he used only for Threetoo.
Steve closed his eyes. Right. Time for phase two.
Threetoo huffed quiet frustration at the tablet showing his math puzzle. He'd barely gotten through three in the first half hour after his master went upstairs to find Steve, and he couldn't make sense of the fourth one at all. It wasn't markedly more difficult than the first three--JARVIS had assured him when he asked, even though he'd already known--and it wasn't, for once, that time was stuttering or that his head hurt or his eyes wouldn't settle.
It was just that his brain wouldn't settle, wouldn't let him lose himself in the puzzle. And it wasn't even fear or anything like that; if he felt bad, he would easily sink into the puzzle and the certainty that he was doing something his master liked him to do.
This was something else. He wanted to be up in the master's bedroom with them, of course, because he wanted to know what was happening and because he thought something good was happening, something beautiful, something he wanted to see as much as he longed to be a proper part of it. He felt nervous, but in a good way. Excited. Maybe even... hopeful.
He shook his head at himself and tugged his blanket up to his face so he could hide a smile in it, staring down at the math puzzle he still couldn't make heads or tails of.
And then he heard a little sound: a door opening and quietly closing again, and soft footfalls on softer carpeting.
Threetoo went still, made himself nothing but a listening thing, not breathing, not moving, not hoping or fearing. Just waiting. There was no knowing what it meant, not yet. The footfalls went aside into another room--the master's office?--and, after a silence in which Threetoo took several measured breaths, returned to the corridor.
Threetoo's stillness failed him when he knew his master would be in sight. He looked up to see his master at the balcony railing, dressed but rumpled, smiling tiredly, the lines of his body loose and easy. Threetoo smiled back, his heart suddenly racing; he thought time stuttered a little from sheer joy, but after a moment the world steadied around him and his master was still standing where Threetoo could see him.
He beckoned silently, gesturing toward the elevator, and Threetoo wriggled out of his blanket and hurried over to it, letting it carry him up to his master, who was waiting right outside it when the door opened. Threetoo crawled forward and his master crouched down to meet him, running a hand over Threetoo's hair, cupping Threetoo's cheeks in his hands.
"Thank you, sweetheart," his master murmured, while Threetoo breathed in the new smells of sweat and sex on his master, and something plasticky-chemical that was probably lubricant. "You did great, I'm so glad you made me understand that this was important, okay? Steve did beautifully, and I'm so pleased with both of you. I want you to go talk to him now, I know he'll tell you a lot more about how he feels than he'll tell me. Make sure he knows he was good, make sure he gets lots more rewards. And if some of those rewards are rewards for both of you, that's okay, I owe you some too."
Threetoo shivered with pleasure, leaning into his master's touch and already anticipating the touches he would give to Steve, the touches that would be rewards for Threetoo as well, because his master decreed it.
"Thank you, sir," Threetoo whispered, leaning in as much as he dared, almost putting his face against his master's shoulder.
"Only what you deserve, baby," his master assured him. "I'm gonna go shower in the other bathroom so you can get Steve cleaned up, okay? Take your time. I've got a little more work to do, and J will tell me when you guys are back in your quarters. I won't come back in to sleep until then--I'll see you and Steve in the morning. The rest of the night is yours for whatever debriefing and rewards you need to do."
Thank you, Threetoo signed, his throat tight with gratitude and gladness and the warm certainty that no one else had ever been so lucky in their master as Threetoo was in his.
"Okay." His master let go of him and straightened up, taking a step back. "Go on, shoo, go get your Steve. He was kind of overwhelmed, we shouldn't leave him alone too long."
Threetoo nodded and signed a quick Yes, sir, before he crawled away where he had been sent. He was out of his master's sight once he turned down the hallway toward the bedroom, but he stayed on his knees until he was actually through the door and closed it behind him.
Then he stood, and walked slowly toward the bed as he drank in the sight of Steve, sprawled naked on the rumpled red sheets, his legs still spread, his dick resting soft now on his belly, which was marked with come as well as damp with sweat. A flush lingered on his skin, and the smell of sex filled the air.
Steve had his eyes closed, but as Threetoo approached the bed he turned his face toward Threetoo, opening his eyes a beat later. He smiled, sleepy and slow, on the beat after that, and Threetoo wanted, for reasons that had nothing to do with protocol, to fall to his knees again.
He managed to keep moving forward until he reached the bed. Threetoo hesitated at the edge--it was his master's bed, and he still had not been explicitly invited into it--but his master had told him to go to Steve, hadn't he? And he knew exactly where he'd left Steve.
Threetoo climbed onto the edge of the bed, moving carefully across the silk until he could sit beside Steve, who was smiling dreamily at him.
"Hey," Steve paused, swallowing visibly. "Threetoo. I'm not a virgin anymore."
"So I hear," Threetoo said, running his fingers through Steve's hair, then brushing his knuckles over Steve's warm cheek. "Our master didn't tell me much more than that, though. You want to tell me about it?"
"He..." Steve waved down between his legs, turning his eyes down bashfully as a fresh flush rose on his cheeks. "But he was so... careful? And patient, and... he said it's not supposed to bleed, or even hurt. I didn't know that. He said it's supposed to feel good, and then he... he made it feel really good. Twice."
Threetoo's heart squeezed, his smile widening. "You mind if I take a look, just to make sure? I know he was careful, but..."
Steve nodded agreeably, drawing one foot up and shifting the other leg wider. It made Steve's cock shift where it lay on his belly, and light glinted off the metal there.
"Did he say anything about--" Bucky ghosted his hand over Steve's abdomen, not touching. Steve's cock gave a visible little twitch anyway, like it would have started getting hard again if Bucky had touched. That was a good sign--both for his stamina and for the fact that his encounter with their master had left him eager for more.
"Yeah, he says he can get them out. Dunno when exactly. And he didn't mind about it, otherwise."
Threetoo smiled and patted the top of Steve's thigh, then moved around to kneel between Steve's legs, using one hand to urge him into curling his hips higher. And there was the evidence: Steve's hole was shiny with lubricant, closed again but a little swollen and even pinker than his cheeks. Threetoo didn't think, just brushed his thumb lightly over it, and Steve gasped and pushed into the touch, shivering all over.
Just to be sure, Threetoo said gently, "Are you sore?"
Steve shook his head at the same time he was saying, "Not really. Not in a bad way. I like it. You can, if you--if you need to--I don't mind if..."
Steve wasn't looking at him, and now his face nearly did match his ass, bright pink and probably just as hot with rushing blood.
"I don't need to," Threetoo said firmly, putting his hand on Steve's thigh. "But you've earned lots of rewards, our master said so particularly. So if you'd like a very special touch reward..."
Steve raised one hand to press to his mouth and peeked at Threetoo through his eyelashes. He nodded.
Threetoo smiled. "Was it a lot, the second time?"
Steve nodded harder.
"I'll be gentle," Threetoo promised. "If it stops feeling like a reward, if it hurts or it just isn't good, you can--" Threetoo flapped his hand in the pain-signal that was one of the first ways he'd actually communicated with his master. "And I'll stop, okay?"
Steve put his thumb up, and Threetoo grinned and folded himself down between Steve's legs to press gentle kisses to the tops of his thighs, the glistening smears of drying lube on his smooth pale skin. Muscle jumped, tensing under his lips and then, deliberately, releasing again as Steve settled.
Threetoo moved in closer then, blowing a cool breath over Steve's balls and the pink furl of his hole. Steve twitched harder at that, gasped half a word that Threetoo didn't quite hear and then, "Threetoo? What are you--"
"Shh," Threetoo said. "Just tell me if it doesn't feel nice, don't worry otherwise. We know you're nice and clean down here, don't we?"
"But it's--you--" Steve had his hands pressed to his face, but Threetoo could still see that his flush had risen to a hectic red.
"Mm-hm," Threetoo said, letting the warm breath of his words gust against Steve's cock. "No matter how nice a master is--some things we can only get from each other, hm?"
Steve peeked through his fingers at that. He was looking a little wild-eyed, turned on and scared and hopeful all at once.
"You don't have to for me, unless you like it," Threetoo said patiently. Of course he would have to make sure Steve knew how, but that wasn't what this was about and mentioning that now would be counterproductive. "I'm doing it because I like it, not because our master said I had to, or because I think it's the only way to reward you."
Steve nodded a little, his expression settling, and his hips curled up another degree, inviting. Threetoo grinned. "Okay."
He lowered his head again and didn't play coy, licking a stripe up over Steve's hole and nearly up to his balls. Steve twitched again, and made a little noise that sounded almost despairing--but he had his hands at his sides, signaling nothing, so Threetoo got down to it, licking him again and again, nuzzling at his perineum and his balls.
Threetoo felt himself responding just as strongly as Steve did. It felt so good, finally being able to put his mouth to its best use, to give something instead of only ever being given. And he'd have to be made of ice not to respond to Steve's little noises and wriggles and the twitches of his cock fattening up just from this, just from Threetoo's mouth.
Threetoo considered the angles and what he could do with one arm and said, "Can you get up on your knees for me?" Threetoo circled a finger, indicating how he wanted Steve to turn, and Steve did it without hesitation, getting on all fours so Threetoo could kneel beside him and keep eating him out and have his hand free for Steve's cock. Steve's hand was already there when Threetoo reached for him, just holding himself steady, but he took his hand away when Threetoo touched him, letting Threetoo take over.
He remembered the way Steve had reacted to having his cock moved away from his belly, so he kept it close at first, just rubbing his palm up the underside, fingers brushing teasingly at the head and then away. Steve whined, and his cock got heavier and hotter in Threetoo's hand, not lengthening much but thickening until Threetoo's fingers almost wouldn't close around it. It was hard and yet even more obviously vulnerable than cocks usually were. All Threetoo had to do to hurt Steve beyond bearing was let go.
Threetoo tightened his grip instead, curling his fingers around as he kept up his gentle pleasuring of Steve's ass. Steve pushed into his grip, then jerked back toward his tongue, and Threetoo laughed softly against him and wished for another hand or two to hold Steve's hips steady.
He thought of telling Steve not to move--he knew, with a certainty that made his own dick twitch eagerly, that Steve would hold utterly, perfectly still for him if he asked it--but that was a little advanced, and a little complicated for a reward right now.
Maybe next week.
Threetoo didn't bother to vary what he was doing; Steve was hard and eager and happy and however long this reward stretched out, that was fine. Their master had already made him come twice. A third time was pushing it, but Steve seemed eager to push, and it really didn't take all that long before he was gasping, "Threetoo, I--can I--I'm--"
Threetoo swirled his tongue and twisted his wrist and Steve went rigid and came, spurting all over the sheets, his asshole twitching hungrily against Threetoo's tongue. Steve stayed on all fours, panting, sides heaving like a racehorse's, until Threetoo moved around next to him, giving him a gentle shove to tip him onto his side.
Steve went over easily, and lay there for a moment looking dazed, eyes unfocused, mouth still partly open. Threetoo felt a fierce pride and gladness that he had helped to ensure that Steve's introduction to sex left him looking like that. It had been only and entirely good, overwhelmingly good, and he would feel good about it from now on. That was as it should be, and all too rare for slaves.
Then Steve's gaze focused, going directly to Threetoo's cock, which had gotten hard while he was pleasuring Steve and hadn't gone down. Steve's expression showed only interest and a guarded hopefulness. His right hand rose a little, then hesitated short of touching Threetoo, and he looked up to meet Threetoo's eyes.
"Can I?" Steve asked. "If--if I want to?"
Threetoo raised his eyebrows. He wouldn't tell Steve no, but it wasn't the sort of thing someone was usually interested in when they were thoroughly fucked out, especially when this was all new to him.
Steve bit his lip, then said cautiously, "I--when--"
Easy, Threetoo signed, smiling warmly. Take your time. No rush.
Steve swallowed, composing himself a little, and tried again. "Our master, he--he did everything. I didn't really get to... touch him. I just... I'm curious? And I'd like to... I know it won't feel as good for you as, as--"
Threetoo curled his hand around his own cock, and watched Steve's eyes follow it. "It'll feel plenty good, sweetheart, if you wanna give it a try."
Steve licked his lips, and Threetoo gave himself a hard squeeze and then lay down next to Steve, propping himself on his elbow. "Hey, did he kiss you any? Would you like--"
Threetoo stopped, all the words draining away from his tongue at the hungry look in Steve's eyes--not predatory, but desperately yearning, starved for what Threetoo offered him.
"Aw, honey," Threetoo said softly, and leaned in to brush his lips lightly over Steve's without asking anything else. It was clear that Steve needed this--it wasn't even a reward, just a bandage on a wound, just food or water for a neglected slave. Something he'd been lacking too long and shouldn't have to earn.
Steve made a wounded noise at the first contact, grabbed at Threetoo and just as quickly jerked his hands away.
"Shh, shh," Threetoo nudged Steve onto his back and climbed astride him, pressing him down into the vivid red of the sheets. "Hold on as tight as you want, Stevie, that's what I'm here for."
Steve's pupils were pools of black, his color a hectic fevered red, and his arms wrapped around Threetoo like steel, like he was never going to let go. Threetoo smiled down at him, made another soft hushing noise and kissed him again, coaxing his mouth open this time. Steve made more sweet broken sounds into Threetoo's mouth as Threetoo licked into him, only yielding at first and then kissing back with sweet, pure need.
His hands began to move over Threetoo's body, caressing and clinging at once. Threetoo wriggled happily under the touches, rubbing himself against Steve's belly, already wet and sticky with half-dried lube and Steve's come.
Steve made a new sound, an eager sound, and pulled back. His lips were wet and shiny and starting to be swollen with kisses, his eyes bright and excited. "Can I? Show me how?"
Threetoo couldn't help but smile back. "Greedy," he said fondly, and kissed the bridge of Steve's nose, then moved off of him to sit up against the head of their master's bed, leaning back into the pillows.
A little burst of worry tried to rear its head--it could be dangerous presumption, being so abandoned in his master's bed, taking a master's place--but his master had told him to give Steve what he wanted. His master would be happy that they were happy, that Steve's first experiences in their master's bed were good ones, to help him learn with eagerness. Threetoo was filled with a warm certainty, and an even warmer anticipation of having Steve's touch on his cock.
"Here you go," Threetoo said, presenting his hard cock and parted thighs with a sweeping gesture. "Have at it. I'll tell you if there's anything--"
Threetoo's words vanished again as Steve flung himself down between Threetoo's legs and got his hands on Threetoo's hips, ducking his head down to nuzzle and sniff at the hair around Threetoo's crotch. Threetoo spread his legs wider and watched, bemused and not at all turned off.
After a moment Steve looked up and offered Threetoo a sheepish smile. "I just--I like your smell."
"Yeah?" Threetoo said, smirking, though he suspected it looked more affectionate than amused. "Well, you know how it is. If you like the smell, you just might love the taste."
"Well," Steve licked his lips, smiling more confidently at Threetoo. "Only one way to find out, right?"
Steve's hand wrapped carefully around Threetoo's cock, cautious, like--well, like he didn't even know all that well how to handle himself, let alone anyone else. His eyes darted back and forth from Threetoo's cock to his face, trying to see everything at once. Threetoo smiled and ran his hand through Steve's hair, petting without pushing. "That's fine, Stevie. You're doing fine."
Steve shivered all over at the scrap of praise, and then he licked tentatively at the head of Threetoo's cock.
Threetoo had intended to exaggerate his reactions a little to encourage Steve, but the sensation startled a real gasp out of him. He found himself remembering his master's touch, and his eyes half-closed as he imagined the two experiences merged, his master at his back, murmuring his ear, while Steve sprawled between his legs. Steve's hand was moving in short strokes over the base of Threetoo's cock while he licked and licked again and then tentatively closed his mouth around the head of Threetoo's cock.
"That's good," Threetoo murmured, imagining their master saying it, praising both of them for their parts in this. "So good, perfect, that's it."
Steve looked up at Threetoo through his eyelashes and sucked experimentally, and Threetoo's grip on his hair tightened involuntarily. He still didn't let himself push, but Steve pushed himself, taking a little more into his mouth and sucking lightly, then harder. Threetoo groaned and Steve pulled off. "Is that--am I--"
"Perfect, sweetheart, keep going, please, you're so good," Threetoo babbled until Steve's mouth was on him again, and then he could only gasp and pant and occasionally make encouraging noises. Steve tried to take more, choked a little and pulled back, hauling in a huge wet breath but keeping his hand on Threetoo. "Okay, you're okay, breathe, just--"
Steve's grip on him tightened, moving easier over his cock now that it was wet, and Steve leaned forward to kiss him again, tasting of where he'd been. Threetoo groaned and clung to him, kissing back, and came over Steve's fingers in hard pulses.
Steve kept kissing him afterward, soft and sweet, until Threetoo noticed his own stickiness and squirmed. Steve must feel considerably worse, and probably at least a little sore--with overuse, if not from being fucked for the first time. Threetoo tilted his head back to break the kiss, keeping his hand where it had fallen on the back of Steve's neck.
"Hey," he said softly. "Let's get you cleaned up, huh? And then we can get to bed so we're not keeping our master out of his bed."
Steve drew back enough to look at him, and Threetoo saw some of the bright joy in his expression fade into something softer, something tired. Not unhappy, but not as happy as he'd been before Threetoo spoke, either.
"Yeah," Steve said softly. "We shouldn't keep him waiting."
He sat in the almost-darkness of the locked office, illuminated with the blinking lights of the handful of server racks he kept up here.
For hours before he came up to the penthouse, he'd been trying not to think, and now, finally, he'd achieved it, or something so close to it as to make very little difference. He hadn't even had to get drunk. It was a miracle of efficiency.
He'd been here before; it happened when the angling of smoke and mirrors got so elaborate that he came face to face with the thing at the center of the labyrinth, the thing way down at the bottom.
What was he, really? Tony Stark: his father's son, a name, an image, an office, a company. The machines he made, the Machine in his chest, the chip under it. But alone in the dark, with no one to perform for, no one to fool, what was left?
He'd been here before. Enslaved, constantly surrounded by people he was desperate to help and couldn't trust, frantic to get himself out and take as many with him as he could.
But himself, first. Always himself first, because what he was, down at the bottom of everything, was the guy who kept surviving. He'd survived his father and mother, survived Obie, survived the terrorist assholes who enslaved him, survived Yinsen, survived five years of lying and cheating and stealing--survived, survived, survived.
He would survive this too.
He wouldn't have to hang on much longer, anyway. The Grand Finale was coming, sooner or a little less soon, and at the end of that, well... whichever way it turned out, at least he probably wouldn't have to lie to anyone about anything anymore. He wondered vaguely what that would be like.
In the meantime, there was still work to do. He tugged his shirt buttons open and his undershirt up, then loosened the cap off the Machine, spilling its blue light into the gloom. "J, run a fresh analysis. Anything interesting in the data dumps lately?"
"A few cases which may benefit from your personal attention," JARVIS said. "Also, Dr. Cho will be available to operate on Mr. Rogers the day after tomorrow, pending equipment testing."
"Right," Tony said, thinking again of those rings in Rogers' belly, the ones Howard had put there. Vibranium alloy, Steve had said. Same stuff he put into my shield.
All those pre-digital papers and records his dad had kept, all gathering dust out at the mansion, which had been mostly closed up for years now, only a skeleton staff looking after the big house in the midst of the even bigger grounds. Everything he'd left there was very secure in its obscurity. Its... privacy.
"JARVIS," Tony said. "Have whoever handles the grounds at the mansion make sure that the pool is ready to be used by tomorrow, would you? And then I want everyone off the grounds, no later than nine in the morning. I want to go have a look at the old place, and I want total privacy while I'm there."
"Yes, sir," JARVIS said.
He'd take a car. He could drive himself, let Happy ride shotgun for security purposes. And if Tony Stark had his bedslaves in the backseat, who would know the difference?
If there wasn't much time left, he wanted to see Threetoo's face under the sun, just once, and Threetoo had surely earned something special today. One day out at his father's house, by his father's pool, and then Tony would get back to work.
Steve felt over-sensitive, raw, like he was teetering on the edge of something. Not just physically, either. He avoided Threetoo's--Threetoo's--eyes as they headed to the bathroom.
"Do you want..." Threetoo said, hesitating at the door of the shower, looking a little concerned, a little less uncomplicatedly happy.
"You need to wash up too, don't you?" Steve offered, pulling together the best smile he could without making it insincere.
It wasn't Threetoo's fault that he wasn't exactly Steve's Bucky, and that, just for a moment when he wasn't thinking at all, Steve had forgotten that. And it wasn't as if he'd expected Bucky to be returned to him with just a kiss or a roll in the hay.
And of course he was Bucky. It was Bucky and all Bucky's damn pulp novels that had made this whole night happen to begin with. Steve felt his smile brighten a little, and Threetoo smiled back and reached for him.
"Better not wear this in the shower, though." Threetoo gently tugged at the ribbon around Steve's neck, pulling it free.
Steve had forgotten it was there; he made himself look at the collar Threetoo was wearing and actually see it. It was half invisible by now, so familiar that Steve hardly noticed it. As he thought it, though, Threetoo reached up to the fastening, pushing at the stiff leather with his thumb while his fingers wrapped around the buckle.
"Do you want," Steve offered, reaching out in turn with the one hand he had free. Threetoo smiled and nodded, tilting his head to give Steve access, and between the two of them they got it undone. Steve tried not to let it mean anything special as they unfastened the collar, the mark of slavery, from around Threetoo's throat. But he couldn't help staring when that skin was bared, the only spot on Threetoo's body that was ever hidden.
Steve leaned in to kiss him there, his hand reflexively shaping the slaves' sign, when freedom comes, down at his side. Threetoo let out a shaky breath and made the sign against the back of Steve's neck.
"Shower," Threetoo murmured, taking his collar from Steve's hand and setting it down, along with Steve's ribbon, on the bathroom counter. He paused to sign something at JARVIS that JARVIS didn't translate for Steve's benefit, so Steve turned away to start the water, checking that there were towels on the rack by the shower door.
Steve had a vague idea that showering together in this sense--as opposed to, say, in a huge communal shower in slave or army barracks--was supposed to be a sex thing, or at least sex-adjacent. He and Threetoo had already had plenty of sex for one night, though, and they just washed up close together, passing soap and shampoo back and forth and brushing against each other, skin slipping easily against skin. Threetoo insisted on making sure Steve washed everywhere, not quite as rigorously as earlier in the day; Steve watched him wash his own hair and tried not to wish too obviously that he could do it for him.
Maybe soon, though. Maybe that was something Threetoo would want to train him to do.
Then he thought of washing Tony's hair, of being easy and close like this with Tony--of seeing Tony naked, and getting him as relaxed and sweet as he felt and Threetoo seemed to be right now.
Yes. He would ask Threetoo to train him on that if Threetoo didn't suggest it.
They dried off together and then Threetoo smiled and tugged him over to where their collars were lying on the counter. Threetoo's was exactly as it had been before, adorned with what looked like solid gold stars. Steve's, a flat blue ribbon, had a new addition: a single white star attached to the bright blue.
Steve stared at it. The star was just paper or card, something like the little decorations he used to make for Christmas at his ma's apartment when he was young. It was perfectly five-pointed, and against that bright blue ribbon it reminded him of nothing so much as the getup he'd worn during the war, Howard's experimental armored thermal underwear. He'd done the whole thing in a ridiculous red white and blue design; there had been a white star at the center of Steve's chest, on a field of blue almost exactly that color.
Bucky had found the outfit hilarious. He'd loved it.
Steve closed his eyes, remembered Bucky saying, You're keeping that outfit, right? after the first time Steve had worn it in the field, rescuing Bucky and the others.
It might be an accident--it certainly wasn't deliberate, not like that--but it was also Bucky, still dressing Steve up in that damn outfit the first chance he got. Bucky was here, so close to the surface. Close enough to kiss.
"Yeah," Steve said, opening his eyes again, smiling. "Is that--a reward?"
Threetoo grinned and nodded. "Pretty soon you'll have a real collar, once you're trained, but for now." He picked up his own collar and Steve's, making no move to put either one on. "We don't wear them to bed, though. Master's rules. Come on."
Steve followed Threetoo from the bathroom to the bedslaves' room, where Threetoo set their collars down together on a shelf and Steve got into a jock so he could stop holding his dick up. Threetoo went over to the curtain and pushed it open, then turned back, looking thoughtfully from the folded blankets and pillow on the floor to Steve and back.
Steve stood very still, hands at his sides.
"This is mine," Threetoo said slowly, gesturing at the space behind the curtain, mounded with pillows and blankets, with the little green plant safely up on a ledge on the far wall beside a water bottle and a pair of sunglasses.
"But... you did really well," Threetoo said. "And I could... share. At least for tonight. If you wanted to share."
Steve nodded, his throat too tight for words.
"Come on, then," Threetoo said, with a sudden bright grin. He waded into the pillows and Steve followed, hesitant, watching every inch of the way to be sure of his welcome. Threetoo just leaned past him to push the curtain shut and said, "JARVIS, lights."
The light faded from the cozy little space, and Threetoo tugged him to lie down. There was a moment of shifting around, and Steve's eyes prickled with tears as he remembered lying on couch cushions on the floor with Bucky, a lifetime ago.
Now, just like then, they settled facing each other. Steve reached out tentatively toward Threetoo and rested a hand over the ridges of his too-prominent ribs. Threetoo's hand settled on his arm, and Threetoo said softly, "So, what do you think? Now that you've been with him?"
Steve tightened his grip a little, that half-considered shower fantasy flashing before his eyes, and the memory of the way Tony had watched him while carefully keeping his distance--until right at the end, when Steve had been mostly too far gone to notice.
"I think..." Steve took a deep, careful breath, and felt Threetoo match it. "I think he needs... us, even more than I thought. No one takes care of him but us, and he worries so much about taking care of us. No one worries about him, and no one ever lets him stop worrying."
Threetoo's hand tightened on his arm and Threetoo scooted closer. That had been a good answer, then, as well as an honest one. "You're right," Threetoo murmured, and brushed a little kiss across Steve's mouth. "But we're going to take care of him. I'm gonna show you everything."
The hair stood up on the back of Steve's neck, and Bucky murmured against his lips, "Gonna show you every damn thing you can do, Stevie. Just you wait."