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Prima Nocta

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Tony would have found fleecing Carl Westfahl at blackjack a little depressing--it was just so easy--if he weren't such a tediously awful person. They never bet money. Westfahl wasn't as rich as Tony was, but he was rich enough and stupid enough to make money meaningless to him.

They bet lives, instead. Tony had come to this party determined to get one particular life into the pot.

"Don't you raise me another virgin who's just going to cry all the time," Tony said, when Westfahl had hit the reckless part of the evening and Tony knew there simply wasn't an ace or a seven left in the deck. "Haven't you got anything interesting? At least broken in?"

Westfahl looked at the pot and looked at Tony. He got an expression on his face that said he was about to attempt to be cunning.

Tony sat back. Westfahl was actually pretty good at getting what he wanted in terms of the immediate outcome. It was just the second consequence that he usually couldn't foresee, any more than he could keep track of the way the deal was going to fall in the next hand, or next three hands. Tony didn't know enough about what he was gambling for to know whether Westfahl's cunning happened to align with his own goals, but the only way to find out was to play out the hand.

"Broken in, huh." Westfahl scribbled down a fresh IOU and tossed it into the pot.

Tony didn't look at the IOU. He scribbled down a name and tossed it in after Westfahl's, and he dealt the cards.

When Westfahl hit fourteen against Tony's twenty, he looked uneasily at the pot; Tony could see him actually thinking something through, which was possibly a first.

"You want another card?" Tony asked, tapping the back of the deck.

Westfahl frowned, thinking hard. But he wasn't looking at the cards; he was still looking at the pot.

Tony let himself glance at the IOUs at the top of the pile. Westfahl's was just a string of numbers, and Tony made his eyes flick lazily back to Westfahl's face, betraying nothing. "You already made your bet. You take it back now, I'm going to have to tell people you don't honor your debts."

Westfahl winced, but didn't rush to defend himself. "It's just--it was a gift from my uncle."

Well, shit.

The main reason Westfahl had survived to his magnificently stupid adulthood was that his parents had made friends of an array of terrifyingly powerful men who Westfahl called uncle.

"Which one?" Tony asked, leaning back, trying to look socially nosy and not uncharacteristically intel-hungry.

Westfahl shook his head firmly. "Nope. That thing's on a sealed record. No prior ownership information."

"But you do own it," Tony pointed out. "So it's yours to bet."

"I do own it," Westfahl said, looking down at his cards, Tony's cards, the deck, and back to the pot. His eyes wandered, greedily, to the IOUs Tony had tossed down, then back to his own stake. "I just... if I have to register a transfer of ownership, my uncle's going to find out. He always finds out."

"So we come back to you not honoring your debts," Tony prodded, nudging Westfahl neatly into the dilemma of immediate humiliation versus possible future fates worse than death in the form of an aggravated uncle. Maybe, if Tony was reading this right, an uncle whose slaves Tony very rarely had a chance to get his hands on. Maybe an uncle who Tony had had to program into the Machine as an automatic no-go to stop the flood of unrescuables from overwhelming his ability to do anything at all.

But that wasn't the point. The point was that he had to get that IOU from Westfahl, and get him to honor it.

"I suppose..." Tony said slowly. Westfahl looked up, eager for a solution.

"I mean, you'll still owe me one of your boring crying virgins to make up the difference," Tony said first. "But if you agreed to lease that one to me under private contract, it wouldn't have to be registered as a sale, and your uncle wouldn't have to find out. Unless he's been stopping by to check on it."

Westfahl beamed at Tony's suggestion that he give Tony everything he wanted. "Oh! Of course--just a loan, then if Uncle asks again I can just say a friend borrowed the thing temporarily."

"A lease," Tony corrected. "A private contract, as in a written contract. If one of your uncles is involved, I'm not taking that thing with just a handshake. I want verifiable legal possession."

"Sure, sure," Westfahl flapped his hand. "And if it dies, you can just send it back to me and I can tell my uncle that. He won't mind if I kill it, he said he wouldn't. He just wouldn't like it if I... you know."

"Regifted it?" Tony asked.

Westfahl made a face. "No, it's just--it's creepy. It stares at me, I don't want him thinking I couldn't handle it. Come on, come on, deal me another card."

Tony turned over a nine and smiled, raking in the slips of paper that meant half a dozen lives in his hands.

"Double or...?"

Tony glared and Westfahl deflated. "Okay, right, okay. I'll have security package them up, I bet you're going to take them all away tonight."

"I'll have a truck come for them," Tony agreed, tucking the fistful of paper into his pocket. "But I want to see the broken-in one before we sign the lease. If it's dead already you're going to owe me more than an extra virgin."

Westfahl looked longingly toward the main area of the party, then shrugged and nodded. "Might as well get this over with. I think my lawyer's here somewhere, or--"

Tony touched his ear, activating his phone in a visible way other people found less alarming. "JARVIS, write up a ninety-nine year lease on a slave, registry number..."

Tony dug in his pocket for the slip like he didn't already have it memorized. Wouldn't do to be sloppy, not even in front of Westfahl.

"Three two five five seven," Tony rattled off. "Zero three eight."

"Of course, sir," JARVIS agreed. "I shall send a printed copy with the truck for your winnings."

"Done," Tony said, tapping his ear again.

The condemned slave lay with his eyes closed and dreamed of Bucky with all his might. They would be together again soon, or at least he wouldn't have to miss Bucky anymore. That was the way it should have been all along; he had always meant for them to be together.

He remembered Bucky's hands, quick and clever and steady. So steady. Drawing had been one of Bucky's casually bountiful skills. Bucky could draw a straight line, even sketch a scene, effortlessly, while his own hands, driven by determined effort, had so often been shaky and uncooperative. He remembered Bucky's hands doing small things, simple things. Mending socks, resewing buttons. He could almost feel Bucky at his side. He could almost hear Bucky's voice--

The heavy lock on the door clunked open, shattering his hard-won illusion of being anywhere but here.

The slave opened his eyes and waited to see what was coming: yet another moment's release from his shackles to piss and drink more water? Or the end, at last? They had to be near it now.

The man who stepped through the door was the last one he had expected to see: his owner.

He had last seen Philip Coulson when the paramedics took him away, pale as death and smeared in blood, after extracting him from the wreck of his car. Coulson had gotten into that wreck pursuing his escaping slave, which made the escaping slave liable for the attempted murder of his owner.

Assault on an owner was, of course, punishable only by death, even for a slave who was not already under a suspended sentence. The slave had wondered why his execution was being delayed so long, but now it was obvious.

Coulson wanted to do it himself. The slave didn't know why he had had to be starved and restrained this way for days beforehand; maybe Coulson wanted to even the odds between them, to kill him in some hands-on way. It wasn't what he would have expected from Coulson.

The slave was glad to see Coulson alive, despite what was about to happen.

He should have kept running, of course, although in the days since--long days of solitary confinement as he awaited the only possible outcome of his latest attempt to escape--he had never been able to imagine a scenario that let him really get away. They were in the middle of the city. He should have waited longer. One of the other slaves had mentioned that Coulson sometimes vacationed in the wilderness, a small rustic cabin. He should have waited for summer, ingratiated himself so that he would be taken along, but he'd seen the chance...

And now here he was. And despite everything, he was glad to see Coulson alive. He wasn't such a bad guy, for an owner.

Coulson didn't greet him when he walked in. He was carrying a garment bag and a satchel; he hung the garment bag by the door and set the satchel beneath it, and then he walked over and started in on the restraints.

Coulson didn't flinch when the slave yanked his right hand free, just stood back and waved toward the rest. "Go ahead."

That made him stop, contrarily. "Not worried I'm going to try to finish the job?"

"You had your chance," Coulson said simply. "If you hadn't called 911 and put pressure on my chest until the paramedics arrived, you would have finished the job already."

He had heard the crash and reacted without thinking. You helped people who were wounded; that was what it meant to be human. He had clung to the knowledge of his own humanity in all of this. He had never meant to kill Coulson. He only wanted to be free.

Coulson moved a little way away as the slave unbuckled his left wrist and then his ankles. While he was bracing himself on his knees, waiting for his head to stop swimming, Coulson said, "Your paperwork gives your use-name as Damon."

The slave kept his head down and didn't respond, though it would have been correct to say yes, sir. His paperwork did say that.

"It also gives your registry number as 77239048," Coulson went on. "As if you had been newly enslaved in the state of New York about four years ago."

He didn't know why Coulson was bringing this up now. Regardless of his history, he had been liable for Coulson's near death. There was only one punishment.

"None of that is true," Coulson said. "Your name is Steven Grant Rogers, original registry number 12044. You surrendered yourself in 1935, when you were sixteen years old."

He sat up straight and stared. They had told him he had forfeited his name. They had forbidden him to acknowledge any part of his own life before he woke up in the future with a chip in his arm.

He was already about to be executed. What else could they do?

"You served three years in the wartime military under the slave draft. You were the subject of dangerous experimentation. You conducted dozens of successful commando raids," Coulson went on. "You went down crashing a plane full of bombs aimed at the Eastern Seaboard, saving millions of lives by sacrificing your own. And any one of those factors should have been more than enough to win you an honorable emancipation when you were found four years ago."

Steve was starting to feel as if he could see a door left unlocked, though he had no idea how it might actually get him out of here.

"It didn't," he said quietly. "They told me I hadn't completed the standard twenty years of service and that my disappearance in '45 constituted desertion, so I didn't qualify for emancipation for valor or inclusion in one of the general emancipations at the end of the war."

Desertion was, of course, a capital offense. They had--so kindly--suspended his sentence, though the existence of a death sentence stripped him of even the cursory legal protections most slaves were supposed to have.

"Desertion," Coulson repeated. "To the bottom of the Atlantic."

"I was apparently never more than a hundred feet down," Steve corrected, recalling what he'd overheard from the salvage crew. "Right under the ice."

"Ah, well," Coulson said. "In that case, I can see where being frozen but not quite permanently dead constituted an attractive getaway compared to serving until the end of the war and being emancipated during demobilization."

Steve nodded slowly. He was tempted to keep pretending this was the conversation they were having, but he broke when Coulson just watched him in silence. He looked right at Steve, like he actually saw him, in a way that almost no one had in the last four years. Definitely no one who didn't want something from him, and he didn't think Coulson would have bothered to find out his original registry number just to rape him.

"Why are you telling me this?"

Coulson sighed. "Well, I had written it all up, with a lot of footnotes and documentation. I was going to petition for your emancipation--act like the whole thing was a clerical error, give the registry office a chance to backpedal without looking like they were backpedaling. Maybe even threaten to leak it. But then you ran off before I could tell you about it, and I crashed Lola and just about killed myself, and it took me weeks to recover while Barton kept getting stays extended until I could deal with you myself, and now you're under a nonnegotiable death sentence and I'm out of the hospital and have twelve hours to turn in your chip with biomonitor evidence of your death."

Steve stared at the wall. A day. Less. He hadn't realized it was that close.

His stomach growled, hopeful for a last meal after all this starvation.

"So I had to trash the legal plan," Coulson concluded. "But I wanted to tell someone that I figured it out. Also, I hope it helps you believe that I understand the monstrous injustice of your situation, because I want you to do something for me."

Steve looked up.

Coulson gestured at the garment bag. "I want you to change clothes."

"I kept it in my rooms for a while, but--I mentioned the staring, right? So I put it down with my security guys, they keep an eye on it and use it. So it's not that I can't handle it, I just decided to put it to a different use, right? The guys like having a slave to use, and it does what I tell it to. But it's cage-trained, you know? It likes being in its little box. I'll have them just take the whole box to the truck, that'll keep it quiet for you."

Tony kept his hands in his pockets, fondling the scrap of paper that represented a life rescued from Westfahl's blithely cruel clutches. It was a good way not to strangle Westfahl before the contract was signed; if Tony did that, possession of 32557038 would revert to Westfahl's parents, who would probably return him to the uncle.

"Just through--ah, yeah, they're keeping it in the break room, here it is."

The break room was a comfortable space, with a table and chairs near a kitchenette, a couch and a TV in the opposite corner. And near the door, with a sheet of plastic spread beneath it to protect the tile floor, was a waist-high steel cage with a human being inside.

Tony was pretty sure, just from the particular quality of the smell, that it was a human being and not a corpse. It--he--smelled warm. He seemed feverishly hot, in fact, and there was a particular stomach-turning element to the smell that Tony had learned through a few depressing encounters meant infected wound.

The man in the cage was naked, huddled in the fetal position, which failed to hide the blood dried on the backs of his thighs or the too-exposed ridges of his ribs and spine. His dark hair was long, matted and filthy, and covered his face.

Tony looked automatically for his left arm; he could tell a lot from the chip-implant scar and the overlaid brands.

For a moment his brain wouldn't process what he was seeing. A slave's left arm was the most salient feature of their body, most of the time.

32557038 had no left arm.

No, correction, 32557038 didn't have much of a left arm. There was a stump, a few inches long, nearly hidden where 32557038 had his right arm curled up around himself. Tony crouched beside the cage, tilting his head to try to see, and caught a glimpse of angry red flesh, swollen under and around a row of surgical staples, distorting the brand that had been placed over it. The putrid smell of infection came from there; the amputation was fairly fresh, and the chip implant couldn't be older, since the arm didn't extend as far as the normal implant site. That wasn't much time to have accumulated a record interesting enough to seal.

Tony's gaze flicked up to the slave's face, and he was surprised to see a gleam of open eyes, fixed intently on him. Not the feverish distant look he'd expected from the condition of 32557038's body, but a profound alertness. Waiting. Watching.

Hello, there. Somebody's home.

Speaking to a slave Westfahl hadn't even allowed a gender wasn't going to get him through this as cleanly and easily as he needed to, given the rest of the night's plans.

Speaking of amputations and chips.

"32 prefix is kind of unusual," Tony said, standing and turning to face Westfahl. He was uncomfortably aware that it meant turning his back on 32557038 and that stare. "You have any idea where he came from?"

"Sealed record," Westfahl repeated, like the words were a magic spell. "32 is the prefix for a sealed record. Don't know, don't need to know. It's a slave, you can fuck it. It's not even dead. Okay?"

Tony smiled and touched the slip of paper and did not strangle anyone. "Okay. Anything I should know about handling it?"

"Oh," Westfahl said. "Where's..."

He walked around Tony to the wall the cage was pushed up against, allowing Tony to turn and watch 32557038 as Westfahl approached the cage.

32557038 moved, his body language altering abruptly. He turned belly down, pushing up on knees and his one hand, arching his back and tilting his chin up. His hair fell back to reveal a gaunt unshaven face, a nakedly pleading expression. His eyes, Tony saw, were blue, and the stare 32557038 fixed on Westfahl was nothing like the look he'd given Tony. This was adoration, however thwarted and despairing.

Ah, hell. The ones who'd broken so they imagined they were devoted to their masters were the hardest--but then it wasn't like this one was going to be easy anyway.

Westfahl didn't even glance at 32557038 as he took a loop of leather from a hook on the wall.

"Collar," Westfahl said, bringing it over to Tony and holding it out. 32557038 followed his motion, and his gaze fixed on the collar. Tony kept his eyes on the slave as he closed his own hand on the collar.

32557038's gaze jumped to his, and that darkly intent expression wavered, betraying a sudden uncertainty.

"Uh, let me see if I can remember," Westfahl mumbled, and then the tone and cadence of his voice abruptly changed. Westfahl was an idiot, but he was a pretty good mimic.

"Slave 32557038," Westfahl intoned, and Tony's suspicions were abruptly, horribly confirmed. He knew who Westfahl was imitating; this was as close as he'd ever gotten to taking possession of one of Alexander Pierce's slaves. "This man is your master now. He will hold your collar. You will obey him. You belong to him alone."

32557038 pressed himself against the bars, straining toward Tony, and the darkness was gone from his gaze, leaving only desperate intensity. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, his chin tilting back to show his throat. As if Westfahl had flipped a switch, reoriented a program from himself as an object to Tony.

How many times had Pepper told him, people don't work like computers? But four sentences from Westfahl--and before that, Tony would bet blood, four sentences from Pierce--and 32557038 was looking at him like he just might be the center of the universe.

Tony tugged the collar out of Westfahl's loose grip and took a casual step toward the cage. 32557038 backed off from the bars, taking up that same stance from before, knees spread wide, back bowed and chin tilted up. Offering himself. Tony could see his one arm shaking with the effort of supporting his rail-thin body.

Tony reached through the bars, advancing his hand slowly. The shaking in 32557038's arm spread through his whole body, a minute ceaseless shivering. Tony curled his hand gently around the side of 32557038's throat, and the slave went suddenly, perfectly still--not a further tensing but a sudden relaxation. His eyes didn't waver from Tony, open and clear as the sky.

"Hello," Tony couldn't help murmuring.

32557038 blinked up at Tony in silence. His lips moved slightly, but he didn't make a sound.

Tony dropped his hand and turned away, steeling himself for the hours ahead. He had a rendezvous he couldn't miss. The truck would come for 32557038; Tony would sign the contract. He already had the collar, and this wasn't the only life he was gambling for tonight, even if the next one wasn't going to be anything as simple as a card game.

He tucked the loop of leather into his pocket and said, "Right, okay, but you're still throwing in an extra virgin, don't think I forgot that part."

Tony couldn't resist looking back before he stepped through the door. 32557038 was leaning against the bars, watching Tony walk away like everything good in the world was slipping through his grasp.

Steve was allowed to wash up in the tiny sink and even shave with a flimsy safety razor before putting on the clothes Coulson had brought. He turned his back as he stripped out of his filthy uniform and Coulson stayed by the door, merely watching. Steve, for the first time in a very long time, didn't feel like much of a threat to anyone, so starved and weak from forced inactivity that his whole body felt slow in a way that he wouldn't have recognized before Erskine and Stark's first experiments on him.

Erskine's only, as it turned out. Stark's first. Though most of Stark's subsequent work hadn't been of a really experimental nature--more about how to contain what they'd made him into than anything else. Steve glanced down at his infib with a wry smile as he thought it, turning toward Coulson to get the clothes.

Coulson made an odd noise, his gaze dropping to Steve's crotch and then moving sharply away.

Steve stood very still. "Sir?"

Coulson's gaze darted back down to his infib. "Is that--no, never mind. Get dressed."

Steve's infib didn't look like anyone else's, he knew, although he'd heard of more exotic and decorative ones done to suit an owner's particular interest. His own, he thought, was unique in its obvious utility combined with its apparent overkill. The simple metal rings were all unadorned; it was just that there were four of them. And they were vibranium.

"I kind of... outgrew the original," Steve said, and was privately amused to see Coulson really determinedly averting his eyes rather than looking again at the turned-back curve of Steve's cock and its arc of restraining rings. "They replaced it with just the standard, but... that turned out not to be enough, and I'd rather have had the whole thing shot off than find that out again. After that they figured, more points of restraint, less pressure on any one of them, so."

Steve reached for the garment bag and unzipped it. He'd been vaguely expecting a uniform, but inside was a tux, crisp white shirt and inky-black pants and jacket, so smooth as to be almost shiny.

"Underwear's in the other bag," Coulson said. "If you think it can withstand the pressure."

Steve grinned and opened the satchel, pulling out briefs and a t-shirt, both of which fit snugly. He perched on the edge of the cot where he'd been restrained to pull on the socks, moving carefully as his head went light from bending. He set the shoes down beside him before he went back to the garment bag.

"Wait," Coulson said. "Arms out at your sides, please."

Steve felt the teasing, almost comfortable air evaporate. For all his mild tone, Coulson was his owner, and Steve was standing in the cell where he'd been confined under sentence of death. Steve turned toward Coulson and extended his arms out to his sides.

Coulson reached into his pocket and pulled out something that looked oddly like a wristwatch--a slim fabric band with a square of metal at the center. He wrapped it around Steve's left bicep, centering the metal right over Steve's chip.

When he'd first been enslaved, he'd had his original registry number tattooed there. 12044. But when he came out of the chamber after Erskine and Stark's experiment, the tattoo had been nothing but a smear of ink dripping from his newly muscled arm. No new tattoo would take, nor a brand, though they'd tried enough times. Even if they'd had microchips back then, they couldn't have implanted one without his body rejecting it as easily as the ink of a tattoo.

Stark had finally gotten the better of Steve's enhanced body by anchoring a stamped metal plate to the bone of Steve's arm with vibranium pins, the same metal as his infib. If he got hit in just the right way the raised metal of his registry number would bruise his arm from the inside, making the number temporarily visible.

Bucky used to fling his shield at him from odd angles, trying to hit him just right. Steve had gotten very adept at catching the shield no matter what angle it came in from. But he also got very good at knowing when to let it bounce off his arm in just the right place, so that for an hour or two his arm would bear a purple number to match the black one on Bucky's.

Steve had a microchip now, like any modern slave; probably a StarkChip. Howard had gone into the business of making sure slaves stayed marked, after the war. The anchoring he had developed especially for Steve was standard now; he didn't know whether they had used Howard's original vibranium pins when they put in the chip that made him into 77239048. He'd still been arguing when they put him under for the procedure.

Coulson fastened the strap around his arm, and then proceeded to fasten another to the same spot on his right arm, one to each forearm. Coulson knelt at his feet, fastening another one around each of his thighs, and Steve finally said, "Is there any point to asking what these are?"

"No." Coulson fastened the last ones around his calves and then stepped back, looking him over briefly before he nodded. "Go ahead."

Steve got dressed without further incident; the clothes fit unnervingly well, though they felt false on him, like anyone would look at him and know it was a costume, a trick.

And yet he had meant to be free one day. He had meant to be able to wear whatever he liked and hold his head high. He jerked his chin up, straightening his shoulders defiantly under the weight of expensive cloth.

"Yes," Coulson said. "Good. Just like that."

Steve blinked, some of the starch going out of him. "Just like what? Sir."

Coulson shook his head. "Just like you own those clothes and the right to wear them. You're walking out through the front door. You're getting in a car, and then I'll never see you again. But I want you to know that I've done absolutely everything I can to give you a chance."

Coulson extended a hand to shake. Steve stared at it for a long moment. It wasn't that he didn't believe Coulson, exactly, but the man still owned him, and still wasn't telling him what was going on, let alone giving him any actual choice in the matter. Even if he meant well, Steve was his property, and completely at his mercy.

Coulson lowered his hand after a moment and glanced at his watch. "Right. Come on. Time's almost up."

Twelve hours, he had said.

He led Steve out of the room into a bare corridor, concrete-floored with cinderblock walls. Steve had been transferred from the police holding facility some time ago--a week, maybe? They'd stopped feeding him at that point, so there was no way to count time. He didn't know where they'd brought him. Coulson's home, where he'd served as a superfluous security guard for the last year, didn't have anything like this underneath. He had guessed this was where he was going to be executed, but... that seemed not to be what Coulson had in mind.

You'll go out the front door, he'd said. You'll get in a car. I won't see you again.

It sounded like a plan, or at least like a chance. He had to have a better chance, dressed like this, taken away from here in a car, than he could get any other way.

They entered an elevator with sleek, shiny walls and a patterned floor. Steve stood beside Coulson, trying not to stare at his own blurry reflection. They looked like two owners.

Steve froze when the doors opened again on an opulent room full of people--full of owners, more than he'd seen in one place since he could remember. After another second his focus switched, and all he could see was the slaves: house slaves circulating with drinks and food, security slaves flanking their owners, pleasure slaves kneeling at owners' feet.

And one condemned slave standing in an elevator with his owner, wearing an owner's party clothes.

"Bar's this way, let's get you a drink," Coulson said, taking Steve's arm and tugging him along. Steve remembered to keep his chin up, his shoulders square, but he couldn't bring himself to shake off Coulson's grip. His stomach growled desperately as the smells of food wafted off trays, but Coulson kept him moving toward a bar in the corner. Steve hadn't been able to get drunk since Erskine's experiment, on the rare occasions when he was allowed access to alcohol, but he thought it wouldn't take much now. His head was already swimming, and even the illusion of escape would be welcome.

He leaned against the bar when Coulson pushed him toward it, and Coulson snapped his fingers authoritatively at the house slave behind it. "That bottle--there. Two glasses."

The slave brought over the glasses and a bottle of vodka--Steve guessed it was vodka, anyway. It was clear and all the writing on it was Cyrillic. Coulson slopped clear liquid into both glasses and pushed one toward Steve, glancing over Steve's shoulder as he did.

Steve felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck, expecting a grab, a shout--someone had to know who he was, what he was. He grabbed his drink, gripping the wet glass carefully, and his stomach burned with hunger as he raised it to his lips. The alcohol burned on his tongue, carrying him back to dark pubs, tinny flasks, to nights when he and Bucky had both been allowed liberty by their masters before the war. His eyes fluttered closed, remembering.

He just needed one shot, for courage, for strength, and then--

His elbow was jostled roughly, splashing the vodka over his face and up his nose. A bright, rough voice said, "Coulson! And your friend! You were going to introduce us."

Steve blinked and shook his head, feeling dizzy from more than just alcohol.

The man who'd bumped into him was stockier than his father, older than his father had been when Steve knew him, but there was no missing the resemblance, and no mistaking his identity.

Tony Stark, owner of Stark Industries, maker--perfecter--of the StarkChip technology that marked and controlled slaves all over the world. Stark himself was the owner of countless slaves. Hundreds, thousands. No one knew how many.

Even Steve, who had only been in this world for a few years, who had never had much luck making friends with the slaves around him, knew Stark's reputation. He bought up slaves of all kinds, but especially the damaged ones, the nearly dead. The slaves no one would miss. And then no one--no one but other slaves, if they dared to speak of it--missed them when they vanished. Slaves sold to Stark just disappeared.

Steve remembered the war. He remembered finding Bucky on that table, having been subjected to God knew what experiments, like the countless other men they captured who didn't survive as Bucky had. He remembered Howard with his goggles on, at the controls of the machine that had made Steve what he was.

And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Tony Stark had carried on the family business after his father died.

I won't see you again, Coulson had said.

Steve could take a lot of punishment. That was probably what he was worth to Stark--he would survive any number of experiments that would kill most slaves outright. The only question was whether Stark planned to cram all of those experiments into the next twelve hours, or if he had some way to beat the deadline and keep Steve as a lab rat indefinitely.

Coulson thought--Coulson said--that he was giving Steve a chance. He knew better than anyone just how hard Steve would try to escape. Prolonged torture, unknown experiments--it meant hours, days more of life. It meant more chances to get away somehow.

Steve looked at Tony Stark's smiling face and thought that he wouldn't mind killing this owner on his way out.

All of that flashed through his mind in the time it took Coulson to say mildly, "This is Grant, yes," and Tony Stark to say, "Grant! Grant, hey, come have a drink with me, I'm way more fun than this guy."

Steve nodded stiffly. He had to get out of this room first, away from all these owners and their guards. If it were just him and Stark, he'd have a chance. Even if he didn't, it would be worth it just to take him down.

Stark slung an arm around Steve's shoulders and steered him away from Coulson to a side room, slightly less brightly lit. He gave Steve a gentle shove, depositing him in a soft, deep armchair that gave up a scent of old leather and cigar smoke when Steve sank into it.

"Here." Stark pulled out a silver flask from inside his jacket, leaning across from a chair at an angle to Steve's. "I think this is more your speed than whatever Coulson was trying to feed you at the bar."

More your speed. Howard had said that, after Steve discovered definitively that he couldn't get drunk. After--after Bucky. After the war, when there's time, I'll find a way to cook up something more your speed. We'll get you good and plastered, my friend.

Steve searched Stark's gaze, but there was no hint of awareness there, no sign that he knew the meaning of what he'd just said. No sign that he had any idea who Steve was, that Steve was where this particular part of the Stark family business began.

Steve reached out and took the flask. There was no other choice. He watched Stark as he unscrewed the top and took a sip, but Stark made a show of not looking at him. His gaze darted around the room--for all his sprawling posture, he was observant in a way Howard had never been, even in the middle of a war. Stark was on his guard.

Well, he deserved to be. Steve was biding his time, but there had to be plenty of slaves who'd stick a knife in him any chance they got. It seemed like everybody, other than Steve, knew someone Stark had bought, or won in a bet, or cheerfully, blithely stolen, in the way that rich people could just get away with stealing things sometimes. Nobody knew a slave of Stark's who lived to tell about it.

Steve looked down at the flask as he swallowed. It felt like water in his mouth. There was a faint, chemical tang, which might have been from the metal of the flask, but probably wasn't.

"How much do you know about what my speed is?" Steve asked.

"Ah, he speaks!" Stark's attention returned to him. "Our mutual friend gave me some parameters about your metabolism and rate of healing. My medical staff made some recommendations about how to slow it down, which is why you haven't eaten or gotten any exercise in a while. So I know enough about your speed to know that that stuff should get you pretty relaxed, which is what we're going for right now."

"Relaxed," Steve repeated. "That's a pretty tall order."

"Yeah, well, taller if you don't drink up," Stark said, looking away again. "Our mutual friend also told me some things about your long-term planning skills, which is why you're wearing restraints that I control, so--"

The bands on Steve's right arm moved, dragging his arm up. He thought about dropping the flask, and what Stark would do about it if he did. He opened his mouth, and let more drugged water splash onto his tongue.

"Good," Stark said, still not looking at him. "Ah, excellent, better company. Grant, meet my lovely boss, Pepper Potts."

Steve stood when Stark did, not waiting to be forced. He bristled a little at the way Stark casually used a name that had been denied to him for so long, but he couldn't help smiling politely for the beautiful woman walking over--and then he saw another beautiful woman on her heels.

On her leash.

Ms. Potts had reddish-blond hair and warmly tanned skin, and wore a sleek blue dress. The leash in her hand was black leather, studded in gold, and attached to the collar around the throat of a woman wearing... very little. What there was of it was black leather like the leash. There were cuffs around her wrists, made of gold cylinders that looked, to Steve's eye, a bit like machine gun rounds on a very short belt.

Steve wondered what Ms. Potts could make the red-haired woman do with those. His polite smile flattened out to a grim line.

"Tony," Ms. Potts said. "You can't hide in here with your new friend all night, come on."

"Dance with me," Stark demanded. "Dance with me twice and I'll schmooze whoever you want."

"Half up front, half on delivery," Ms. Potts said. She unclipped the leash from the red-haired woman's collar and said, "Stay here and look after Tony's new friend, won't you, dear?"

"My pleasure," the collared and cuffed woman said, giving Steve a convincingly eager leer. He realized that he didn't look like a fellow slave to her. He looked like an owner, someone she had to perform for.

"He's not good at talking to girls," Stark said, which made a stupid curl of shame hook through Steve's guts. How dare Stark know that, and how dare he somehow make Steve care that he knew? "But you can keep him entertained, can't you, Natalie?"

"As I said." Natalie stepped around Ms. Potts and gave Steve a gentle push which somehow had him folding down instantly to sit in the chair again. When the second of blurred dizziness passed, Natalie was perched on his knee, holding Stark's silver flask to his lips. "My pleasure."

Steve drank, and barely noticed Stark and Ms. Potts vanishing back into the party.

"You should put your hand on my thigh," Natalie said, curling her arm around his shoulders and leaning close, the bare upper curves of her breasts almost brushing against his face.

Steve closed his eyes, trying to lean away, trying not to feel the sweet weight of her on his lap. He was practiced, by long necessity, at not responding, not thinking about this, but he hadn't had a woman in his lap in... ever, maybe, and somehow he couldn't focus to distract himself. She smelled really good, and her skin was really--

He jerked his hand off of her thigh.

"I, uh, I really shouldn't," Steve said, feeling that dangerous achy pulse between his legs--not pain yet, but the promise that pain was coming.

"Oh, but you should," Natalie murmured, her voice low and warm and going to his head even faster than whatever was in the flask. She tipped it up to his lips again and he drank. "It's so sweet of you, but I promise, my boss only cares that I keep you occupied. I'm the one who picked this way to do it."

"Yeah," Steve said, his voice a little strangled. "But I--I really. I shouldn't. I can't. Please."

Natalie tilted away from him, and he took a quick, deep breath, feeling abruptly like he could breathe again despite the knowing, calculating look on her face. "Well. Since you ask so nicely."

Steve swallowed hard, wanting to say more--that she was beautiful, that he'd love to if she really wanted to and if he could, that he understood how important it was to carve out those little pieces of freedom and he didn't want to take that from her, but--


Natalie rearranged herself on his lap so that she was perched on his knee, facing him, not touching him anywhere he couldn't help responding.

"Owner?" Steve muttered. God, he was tired. Natalie somehow didn't seem so dangerous anymore. She seemed like somebody who'd keep an eye out. Take a watch. It was like her breasts and thighs and beauty weren't aimed at him anymore, but weapons he could watch her wield against others. Like a rifle in Bucky's hands, a pistol in Peggy's.

"Like I said," Natalie agreed, though he could hardly remember what he'd asked her now. "Why don't you just tip your head back--there. Good."

Her hand was on the back of his neck. She was leaning really close, but everything had gone kind of fuzzy.

32557038 couldn't speak to say no, but he could still resist. He had complied, as best he could, with his master's standing order to do what his men wanted--but he had a new master now, and the old orders no longer applied. They were not his master's men; they should not touch him or use him in any way, and it was necessary to try to avoid being touched or used.

He could not resist the way he should have been able to, weak and crippled and caged as he was. They never came quite close enough for him to grab or kick or bite. He only hurt himself with his efforts, but he had to try. These men were not his master's, and they were not allowed to use him this way, even at arm's length.

Time passed in stutters and jumps, making it impossible to track who did what to him or why. They were jeering one moment, laughing the next--ominously silent--shouting.

The only continuity was the smell of come and his own blood, and the pain.

He closed his eyes and focused on what mattered. He had a new master now. It's a slave, you can fuck it, his no-longer-master had said, and his new master had been in agreement. His new master had only touched him after he became the master and took hold of the collar; he understood the protocols. He would wish to have possession of 32557038 in order to fuck him.

Therefore this would end. Time jumped and jumped and jumped, and eventually, the end arrived. Eventually he was on a truck, and a frowning man with a clipboard and a phone was outside his cage.

"Boss isn't gonna like this," the man said.

32557038 cringed, pressing himself against the back of his cage. Time stuttered forward again, but the awareness followed him.

He had come to his master already transgressing, and his new master had men of his own.

Steve never exactly lost consciousness. He was aware of people coming and going at times around them--Natalie would lean very close sometimes, and he knew she was hiding him, keeping him safe. He heard her speak to Ms. Potts once--or twice?--in an easy, unconcerned voice. Now and then she would raise the flask to his lips and he would drink.

"Oh, hey, Grant's still here!"

Alarm flashed through Steve and he tried to move, but his whole body felt heavy. Natalie was perched on his thighs, leaning in against him. She felt nice. Warm. He nuzzled at her hair, distracted. It smelled like some kind of flowers.

"Potts, are you seeing this?" Steve blinked his eyes open, even though Potts wasn't a name he'd ever had to answer to. Maybe it was now? But no--no. Ms. Potts was the tall lovely woman in the blue gown, and the man speaking was Tony Stark.

Steve wanted to hit him, but he was sleepy, and Natalie was still in his lap.

"Grant, did you kill that bottle by yourself?" Stark demanded.

Ms. Potts was fidgeting with a leash--Natalie's leash. She was going to attach it to Natalie's collar again. But there was something funny about it. The leash and Natalie and...

"I helped," Natalie said, passing the flask back to Stark, who weighed it in his hand and then tucked it back into his jacket.

"Well, he's wasted, and I haven't seen Coulson in an hour."

"I'm sure Westfahl has plenty of guest rooms," Ms. Potts opined.

It was a stage show, Steve thought. No one had given him any lines. But then no one wanted to hear a slave speak.

"No, no, I'm not leaving a friend to Westfahl's hospitality. Come on, bring him with--Natalie, you can get him up, can't you? That's your area of specialty."

Ms. Potts looked irritated, winding the leash around her wrist, but Natalie said, "This one's kind of a challenge, but I'll see what I can do. Grant?"

That was actually directed at him. Steve focused on Natalie.

"Come on, big guy. We're gonna go for a walk together."

Steve blinked at her. Just her. "Out the front door."

Her smile widened, and she darted in close to him; he barely realized that her lips had pressed on his until she was already popping up out of his lap altogether. "Out the front door. Come on."

Steve stood--he felt like something nudged at the backs of his thighs, helping him, but there was nothing there, just Natalie's surprisingly strong hand gripping his. Peggy's hands had been strong like that.

Natalie tucked her arm through his and stayed close to his side as they walked out the front door, bowed out by house slaves who seemed to see nothing strange in two slaves walking out arm in arm with two owners trailing after.

A car, sleek and black, was waiting immediately outside. A man waited, holding the door for them, and Natalie drew Steve inside immediately, drawing him to sit on a rear-facing bench.

"You don't get carsick, do you?" Natalie was leaning close, draping her legs over his thighs.

Steve shook his head, leaning back in the soft leather seat. Just like the chair he'd been in, but without the cigar smoke smell. "Iron stomach."

Ms. Potts slid in across from them, Stark following. He reached into his jacket as soon as the door was closed behind him. "Have some more of this, then."

"You need me more relaxed than this?"

"All the way relaxed," Stark agreed, holding out the flask. Natalie leaned across Steve to take it from him. "I'd say we should keep you awake so somebody can explain to you what's going to happen, but let's face it, it's not going to make any difference if you do."

"Thank you for the boon of your honesty, master," Steve said dryly.

Stark snorted as Natalie held the flask to Steve's lips again.

Ms. Potts was frowning into her phone, and not long after the car was in motion she glanced up and said, "Natalie, trade places with Tony."

Steve made a noise that started out in his backbrain as a growl but emerged from his throat as kind of an unhappy moan.

"You're right, I am much prettier," Natalie said, kissing Steve's cheek. But she half-stood and stepped across to sit between Stark and Ms. Potts on the forward-facing bench, shoving the flask at Stark and accepting a second phone from Ms. Potts, which immediately absorbed all her attention.

Stark sighed and moved beside Steve--not touching him, which was good. Steve might have tried to hit him.

He did hold the flask to Steve's lips. Steve tried his best to glare at him as he drank, but Stark was distracted, frowning into space.

"He what?" Stark said abruptly. "Hap--hold on, let me get--hold on."

Stark pulled his phone out of his jacket and held it in front of him, angled just enough so that Steve couldn't see the screen. He couldn't hear anything, either; Stark must have had some kind of in-ear thing synced to the phone.

"That is not the condition he was in when I saw him," Stark snapped. "What the fuck--no! No. Don't touch him. He's not bleeding out or going into shock, is he? No. No, don't hose him--what the fuck, Happy, listen to what you're saying. Don't do anything until I'm there, I'm swabbing everything, and no one touches him but me. No one. If he's cold get a heater, but don't touch him, not with your hands, not with anything. Is your phone on speaker? Put it on speaker, hold it where he can--I don't care if his eyes are closed."

Steve thought dreamily that he was really going to enjoy stabbing Tony Stark someday for leaving some suffering slave filthy and hurt because he didn't want anyone else playing with his toys.

"Slave," Stark said sharply. "32557038, listen to me. Are you listening--there you are. You are mine alone, and no one but me is going to touch you. Are we clear? Good. Close your eyes and stay still. I'll see you soon."

Steve opened his mouth to say something, probably about how Stark hadn't even bothered to learn his poor slave's name. Steve couldn't seem to remember even the number himself, though, even though Stark had just said it. Modern numbers were so long, Steve could never hold them in his head without seeing them. Always expected them to stop at five digits, and no one wore their number where you could see it anymore.

Stark put the flask to his lips, like he thought Steve was a baby bird, opening his mouth to be fed.

Definitely going to try to kill you before I go, Steve thought. For 32-whatever it was, and all the rest.

He just had to survive whatever they were sedating him for. Slowing his metabolism--that seemed like a hint, but Stark tipped the flask up, pouring more drugged water over his tongue, and Steve couldn't think of what it reminded him of.

Damon, or Grant, or whatever his name was, passed out at Tony's side and started to snore shortly after Tony got off the phone with Happy. Tony would have appreciated a little more of Grant's defiance--blurred but not extinguished by the drugs--to take away the sight of 32557038 staring into the phone in blank, uncomprehending terror. Tony somehow didn't doubt Happy's diagnosis of jizz and shock stick burns, even though he hadn't zoomed in the video feed very far.

32557038 was supposed to be safe once he was Tony's. He'd gotten good at not losing them in delivery; he shouldn't have trusted Westfahl, or Westfahl's security team, who had had 32557038 as their very own whipping boy until now.

Grant's snoring took on a truly assaultive pitch, and Tony looked over at him just in time to see Natasha prod him with one dainty-but-lethal foot, tugging her collar off as she did. Grant tipped sideways, slumping against Tony's shoulder, and his snoring immediately cut off into a happy, agreeable little noise, ten times as unnerving as the calculating I will not leave this one alive stare he'd been giving Tony at the start.

Tony sat very still under him while setting himself a tentative priority checklist for what to do with 32557038 once he got home and got him unloaded from the truck. Wash, obviously, swabbing as he went--he was going to DNA-test anything and everything DNA-testable. He might not be able to prosecute, but he still wanted to know; anybody who jerked off over 32557038 on his last night had probably been that much less restrained about abusing him before now. Tony didn't often have resources to spare from rescuing slaves to avenge them, but that didn't mean he wouldn't be prepared if the chance arose.

Clean, tend the burns--tend the infection--feed him, he looked like he was wasting away--water first, though, water was always the most important. Medical staff would be stretched thin; the ones he could trust would mostly be dealing with Grant, since he had a pending death sentence, and therefore a primed chip. Happy was bringing home nine other slaves along with 32557038 in the truck. Two of them had immediate treatment needs. The team for Grant would be ready as soon as Tony arrived, which would leave a few for the emergencies.

But Tony was going to be on his own with 32557038 for a while.

Well. He was never on his own. Not really.

"JARVIS?" Tony asked quietly. "You got that video from Happy of 32557038?"

"Uploaded, sir. Analyzing now."

"Start working up priorities for me," Tony said. "I'll look after him myself until there's intake medical staff free. Figure out what he can eat."

"Yes, sir," JARVIS said. "Food suitable for malnourished persons is regularly stocked at intake in appropriate portions."

"No, I mean nice stuff," Tony said and noticed that Natasha and Pepper were watching him with disturbingly identical expressions of interest.

Tony closed his eyes and told himself he didn't care. They hadn't seen 32557038; none of them was the one who 32557038 looked at the way he had looked at Tony. This one didn't just think he was devoted to his master; he thought he was devoted to Tony. The usual methods weren't going to work here.

And then too--this slave had belonged to Alexander Pierce. He'd had his left arm cut off. He'd had his record sealed, and almost certainly had his chip swapped as well. He had somehow been programmed not only to be intensely loyal, but to transfer that loyalty on command.

Tony had met and rescued plenty of sex slaves. He'd never seen anything--anyone--like 32557038. And he had to consider the possibility that 32557038 was some kind of trap. If Pierce suspected what Tony was doing with his slaves, if he had noticed how many of them Tony acquired from Westfahl (it was just so easy), it would have been the simplest thing in the world for him to plant 32557038 to see what Tony did with him.

Tony had to be very, very careful about what 32557038 saw until he figured out what was going on here. If he'd been programmed to accept new masters, there was probably also a backdoor somewhere--a way to pull his loyalty back, or a way to set him off on some other program entirely. That was certainly how Tony would have programmed a bot he intended to send out into the world to test his enemies. Tony remembered, again, that cool, watchful look 32557038 had first given him, before Tony became his master.

But he needed to play this even closer to the chest--ha--than most of his projects. If Pepper and Natasha thought he was being an idiot over a particularly sad case, fine. They were headed on to Malibu tonight anyway; they would be out of the blast radius while he worked out what he'd just won himself. And in the meantime, the safest way to handle 32557038 was going to keep him believing that Tony was his master. Just with more food and appropriate physical care and absolutely no rape or stun batons.

"He's going to be a special case," Tony said looking away from Pepper and Natasha. "Pull some stuff he can eat from my kitchen and send it down. I haven't eaten anything tonight either, I can snack with him."

"Very efficient, sir," JARVIS said, a bit stiffly. At least Tony could explain what he was thinking to JARVIS, once Pepper and Natasha were out of earshot. He'd have to; the first thing he would need JARVIS to do was scan 32557038 for tracking and recording devices other than a standard StarkChip.

The car stopped, and Grant twitched against him, the first hint of him waking. The door opened, and Pepper and Natasha quickly got out. Now that Natasha had done the job of keeping Grant camouflaged until they could casually remove him from Westfahl's property, Grant really shouldn't see her until he was in a better place to accept that she wasn't actually a fellow slave.

First, though, there was the little matter of Grant's pending death sentence. Tony didn't bother trying to move from under Grant, who kept twitching and shifting against him until Wilson came into the car to help haul him out.

"You helping with his thing?" Tony asked, tilting his head toward Grant.

Wilson shook his head. "Helping with the rest of the intakes, once they get here. For now, helping carry this guy--"

"I can walk," Grant mumbled, trying to lift his head and not entirely succeeding.

"Sure you can," Wilson agreed, pulling Grant's right arm over his shoulders. "Come on, let's go then. Ten mile hike starts now."

"Stretch legs," Grant muttered, and he actually did move his feet, helping to propel himself toward the door though his eyes were barely open.

Tony followed, holding Grant's left arm and helping steady him as he clambered out of the car. It was only a dozen steps to the elevator to intake, and it was obvious at a glance that they'd beaten the truck with the other rescues. Not surprising; any vehicle transporting that many slaves was bound to have been stopped for inspection at least once. But all the papers were in order, even the lease for 32557038, and Happy would have called for help if he'd run into trouble.

For now, Tony helped Wilson haul Grant to the elevator, propping him against the wall as soon as they were inside. Grant frowned at the wall as they rose from the parking garage toward the secure floor devoted to intakes.

"One of the other new ones is in a cage," Tony said, mentally inventorying the number of rooms against the number of newcomers. "I'm going to want him placed in one of the low-impact rooms, alone. I'll handle him."

Wilson raised his eyebrows, but before he could ask anything Grant muttered, "Fuck you, you fucking..."

Tony waited, fascinated, to see what Grant might call him, but Grant lost track of what he was saying and stood there, blinking in Wilson's direction for a moment before he said, "Not you."

"I know," Wilson said calmly, nodding toward Tony. "Stark. It's okay if you hate him."

Grant looked confused by that, although hating Tony seemed to be coming quite naturally to him.

It was one of the primary rules of the system they'd developed here. The first one was Don't lie to them, with the particular special case, Don't tell them they're safe now and it's going to be okay.

As far as Tony was concerned, It's okay if they hate me afterward, was basically rule two. They never had to be grateful to him; it was easier, honestly, when they weren't. They just had to survive and get away.

The elevator stopped, doors opening promptly at the intake floor, and Dr. Cho was waiting with a wheelchair and an IV stand and some nurses, none of them as burly as Wilson.

"Here we go, hike's over, you've got a ride now," Wilson said, maneuvering Grant around to sit in the chair. He was barely settled before JARVIS said, "The truck has arrived, sir, Mr. Wilson."

"That's my cue," Wilson said, stepping quickly back into the elevator, and leaving Tony with Grant and the handful of medical staff surrounding him.

Grant twitched like he wanted to struggle when Dr. Cho turned the chair toward the doors. He turned his head to glare distrustfully at Tony. Dr. Cho shot Tony a much less glassy commanding look, and Tony adjusted the restraints with the remote in his pocket and then figured: good time for a distraction.

"Hey," Tony said, moving around to walk backward as Grant was pushed toward the doors of the surgical suite. "As long as you're awake, I might as well tell you what's going on here."

Grant continued glaring at him in between slow blinks. Tony glanced at Dr. Cho, and she shrugged, so Tony figured she agreed with his guess that Grant was too stoned to remember any of this later.

"The problem is the death sentence," Tony explained, backing through the doors as they opened automatically. "We think we know a way around it, but I'm going to be honest, it requires us to do some terrible stuff to you and you might not survive. So if there's anything you want to say, any message for anyone--go ahead and speak now, just in case."

Grant glared harder as the chair came to a stop and four people teamed up to lift him onto a bed, but hating Tony seemed to be distracting him from everything else. Good.

Grant's expression changed as he was settled on the bed. Someone was working on setting up an IV, but it was much too soon for the drugs to be taking effect.

"I have a question," Grant said, obviously struggling not to slur.

Tony nodded, stepping up to the foot of the bed, a spot no one else seemed to need. "Go ahead. I'll answer you if I can."

Don't lie, after all, and its cousin, don't promise.

"Why'd he do it?" Grant asked, sounding almost plaintive.

Tony frowned. "Coulson? Why did he send you to me?"

Grant shook his head. "No, I mean. Howard. Why? How could he?"

Tony stared at him, speechless, until Grant's eyes closed and he went limp.

"Thank you for that edifying performance," Dr. Cho said, pushing a curtain back to reveal the steel tub of icy water. Two people in scrubs were busy cutting away Grant's expensive clothes, worn just once. They left the restraints in place, and at the sight of them Tony was reminded to hand off the remote to Dr. Cho, who took it with a nod of appreciation. "You can go."

"Is this," Tony glanced from Grant to the water and back. Someone draped a towel over Grant's midsection before they started cutting away the upper half of his pants. "Are we sure about this?"

They hadn't done this before. They didn't usually fuck around with trying to save already-sentenced slaves, but when Coulson made Tony an offer he couldn't refuse--save this slave for me, because I know exactly how many others you've saved and I'll use that information against you if I have to--Dr. Cho had promptly announced that she had a theoretically safe plan of action for just this situation.

The best--and without lethally tipping Tony's hand, the only--way to convince the chip's biomonitor that the slave had been killed was to kill the slave. The best way to get the chip out of the slave was to cut into the arm and extract it. Bleeding and shock could be minimized by carrying out that operation while he was still dead. They would sew the arm back up--back on, essentially, since the bone had to be broken through and multiple vessels severed to extract the chip--and then resuscitate the patient, whose cells would be preserved in the interim by immersion in freezing water.

They would also, for the sake of sparing the patient some trauma, make damn sure that he was unconscious before the process started. Coulson had warned them that Grant was unusually resistant to anesthetics of all kinds, so they'd spent the entire interval trying to lower his metabolism and therefore, hopefully, his resistance. The success of the semi-sedation thus far seemed to indicate that they were on track.

Now they just had to get it over with.

"Surgeons hurt people to heal them, Tony. This is what we do. Now get out of my way."

Tony nodded and backed off, then darted in to peer at Grant's left arm.

The skin was utterly unmarked.

"What the hell," he said, grabbing at the scanner in a nurse's hand. "Is he--"

But the chip registered, just like it was supposed to; he could see the pins holding it anchored to the bone, though they looked like a much older design than the chip.

"Save all the hardware for me," Tony said, glancing at Grant's unlined face. He couldn't be more than thirty. Tony's father had been dead since this man was ten years old, tops.

"The chip is supposed to--"

"Not the chip, you know where the chip goes. The rest of it--the pins, the microfilaments, everything, I want it. Save it for me."

"Tony," Dr. Cho repeated. "Get out or scrub in."

"Sir," JARVIS said. "32557038 is in Room B."

"Right," Tony said, and turned away. There was nothing he could do for Grant. And Tony couldn't ask him what the hell he meant by referring to Tony's father as Howard in that half-drunk familiar tone until he was done being dead and resurrected.

For now, Tony had to focus on 32557038. That one, at least, he could help. Probably.

32557038 did as he was told. He held still. He kept his eyes closed. His master had claimed him. No one else touched him. His master would see him soon. It would hurt--he would have to be punished, his master would not be pleased with his condition, and there was no way he could hide it while he was holding still and keeping his eyes closed--but that was his master's right. He would submit gladly to his master's will.

He couldn't tell whether time was passing smoothly or in jumps when he lay so still--the other slaves were nearly as quiet as he was, and the rumbling noise of the road was low and constant, broken only by the occasional stop for inspection. But before long the truck stopped completely, and he heard the voices of his master's men--and women--speaking to the other slaves.

Their voices were gentle. Kind. But they were not his master--they might even be slaves themselves--and they did not approach his cage. No one did, until all the other slaves were gone and the truck was quiet, and then there was the rattling of a cart and the close presence of two men.

One of them said, in the same quiet and gentle voice that had spoken to some of the other slaves, "Hello in there. My name is Sam, and I'm going to get you moved inside. You're going to be in a nice, quiet room by yourself until Mr. Stark comes to see you, okay?"

32557038 didn't move. He didn't open his eyes. He had his orders.

"Okay," Sam said, still gently. "Here we go."

The cage was moved with barely a bump onto the cart, which no longer rattled under the weight of 32557038 and the cage. They moved smoothly down a ramp--no shaking, no pretending to drop him, and the ramp was shallow enough that he wasn't rolled against the bars.

He could tell that they were in an enclosed space even before Sam said, "We're just taking the elevator up now, and I'm going to throw a cloth over the cage so no one else can see you when we're in the hallway, okay? It's gonna make it a little bit dark, but it's just for a minute."

Even when the light on the other side of his eyelids was dimmed, and he could sense heavy cloth covering his cage on every side, he kept perfectly still, and kept his eyes closed, as his master had ordered. There was a soft chime, a whoosh of doors opening, and the cart moved again, smoothly carrying him along a hallway. He could hear other people moving around on the other side of the cloth covering his cage--talking in low, calm voices, though he caught the edge of a female slave's scream and shivered.

Then he passed through a narrow place--a doorway--and the cart came to a stop. The cloth was taken away, the cage lifted down to the floor.

"Okay, man," Sam said, and 32557038 could picture him crouching just outside, looking down at him from a friendly angle. "You're gonna be by yourself in this room for a little while, and nobody's going to come in except Mr. Stark. He'll be here soon."

32557038 was badly tempted to nod, to show some sign of appreciation for the string of small kindnesses Sam had bestowed, to see whether Sam was a slave or some other kind of servant, but he had his orders. He did nothing. After a few seconds Sam stood up and walked away, closing the door behind him, leaving 32557038 alone.

Probably alone. There would be surveillance, of course, and his master--Mr. Stark--might already be in the room, watching quietly to see if he disobeyed. It would not make Sam's words untrue--not so untrue that a master would be troubled.

He breathed in and out slowly, getting a sense of his body as he waited. He was filthy and used; his master wouldn't like that. But it had been long enough since he was fucked that he wasn't really bleeding anymore. He could take more without embarrassing himself too much, if his master wanted him right away. He was feeling more hot than cold just now. He couldn't tell yet how dizzy he was--lying still always made that better. His lips were very dry; they would crack and bleed immediately around his master's cock. He worked on summoning up enough spit to make a decent effort at sucking if sucking was desired, but he hadn't gotten far when he heard the door open. 32557038 froze.

The door closed again, and easily audible footsteps crossed to the cage.

"Oh, look at you," his master said softly.

He didn't sound angry.

"You've been doing exactly what I said, haven't you? You've been keeping your eyes closed and holding still. You can look now. You can answer if I ask you a question."

32557038 opened his eyes, and saw his master sitting cross-legged on the floor outside his cage, careless of his expensive suit. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, head tilted so that he was looking 32557038 in the eye almost directly.

32557038 felt a rush of something warm and unfamiliar inside him. Something good. He licked his lips, wishing he could summon words to speak--but then he hadn't been asked a question since being given permission to answer, so he only looked at his master looking back at him.

"So, not in the form of the question this time, I observe that you've done an excellent job of following my instructions," his master said. "I'm very pleased with your performance so far, 32557038."

32557038 blinked rapidly, his eyes stinging and his heart beating faster. He wanted to move closer to his master, wanted to offer himself, to find a way to earn more of those kind words, but he hadn't been given permission to move. Only to look, and to answer.

"32557038 is kind of a mouthful," his master added, still tilting to one side to look 32557038 in the eyes. "Do you have a use-name? Nickname?"

That was easy to answer; he didn't even have to try to shape a word. 32557038 shook his head. He had no name. He was a slave, a useful object, a thing to be fucked and punished.

"Huh," his master said. "Would you like one?"

32557038 blinked uncertainly. That definitely required words, but he couldn't think of any. His lips moved, but even if he could make a sound he wouldn't have known what sounds to make.

"When I ask you a question," his master said gently, "you can answer yes, or you can answer no, or if you have more information you can give me the information you have. So let's try that again. Is there a name that you already know you'd like me to use, even if it isn't the name assigned to you?"

32557038 took a second to think that over, carefully examining the words to be sure the question was what he thought it was, and then, tentatively, he shook his head again.

"Excellent," his master said. "Beautiful question-answering, I know you probably haven't had a lot of practice at that, especially answering in the negative. You need a reward for that--I mean, you need a ton of rewards, you've already been so good tonight, but especially for that."

His master unlocked the door of his cage with a few deft touches and swung it wide open.

"Here, let's give you this first," his master said, leaning half inside the cage and holding a small plastic bottle to 32557038's lips. He put his other hand under 32557038's cheek, tilting his head up gently, to an angle that made it easy to swallow. He still didn't know if he felt dizzy; his master's hand held him so steady nothing else could spin him.

"Drink up--just a couple of sips, there you go."

The liquid tasted sharp and sweet on his dry tongue, cool on his throat. He swallowed gratefully. He wanted to kiss his master's fingers, kiss his feet, but he could only look. He pressed into his master's hand where it cradled his cheek so gently, and his master smiled.

"That wasn't even a reward, that was just something to drink," his master declared gently. "You'll get plenty more of that, but we need to go slow right now. Here, this is a better reward, try this."

His master touched something else to his lips--something small, held between thumb and forefinger. 32557038 opened his mouth for it, and his master pressed it to his tongue. "Eat up."

It was light on his tongue, soft and bright with flavor--blueberry. A blueberry. Time stuttered forward--his master was saying something and he missed the words, but the tone was gentle, and his master was using the hand not cradling his cheek to brush back his hair.

Maybe he hadn't done anything wrong yet. Maybe he hadn't failed to be grateful for his reward.

"Okay?" his master said softly. "Okay? Keep looking at me--that's right. We're going to do some more rewards in a minute, but I want you to come out of there, Threetoo, okay?"

It was enough of a question that 32557038 could hazard a nod, feeling warmed all over again by the way his master shortened his name. It made him sound as though he was special--as though a mere two digits was enough to distinguish him among all his master's slaves.

"All right. I'm gonna get a blanket, and you come up to the edge of the cage here, right? Not onto the floor just yet, but up to the edge."

32557038 nodded again to show he understood, and his master smiled and held the bottle to his lips again, giving him another two sips of sweet cool liquid before he took both his supporting hand and the bottle away, scooting back and then standing up.

32557038 had his orders, though. He uncurled his right arm from around himself and hooked his fingers around the edge of the cage, uncurled his legs slightly to brace his feet against the side, and scooted himself forward in a mostly-smooth slide, broken only by the way time stuttered on him a couple of times.

Soon enough he was perched in the opening of the cage door, and his master was there, crouching and spreading out a blanket on the floor in front of his cage. He saw another blanket folded beside his master, and two towels. He wondered if his master intended to make a mess; he would be good no matter what his master wanted. 32557038 would give him anything. His master might touch him gently again if he was pleased, might give him another sip...

His master held the bottle to his lips as he thought it, and 32557038's eyes fluttered shut as he took another two sips in a state of helpless bliss. His mouth felt almost not dry at all now, and he could feel the liquid reaching his cramped-tight belly, making it gurgle. He hoped any sounds it made wouldn't upset his master.

"Okay," his master said, patting the blanket. "Come on over here--take your time, it's all right."

His master popped something--a blueberry?--into his own mouth after he spoke. 32557038 lowered his gaze to the blanket and focused on crawling out of the cage and onto the blanket.

It was very soft. It was very warm. His breath went out of him gently as he moved himself carefully onto it, aiming for the place his master had patted. It would have been a sound, if he could make sounds; but his master only smiled at him. When 32557038 settled himself--lying on his right side again--his master held the bottle to his lips again, giving him another two sips.

"Good, that was so good--man, I am so behind on rewards, here, try one of those."

Another small thing was held to his lips; something firm this time, a taste he couldn't identify instantly. A nut--faintly bitter. The name came to him as he swallowed: walnut.

His master smiled at him and brushed his hair back again. Then he leaned over, reaching past 32557038 to tug up a fold of the blanket over him, covering his back, his ass. Another corner of the blanket was tugged up over the backs of his legs.

"Does that feel better or worse?" his master asked, sitting back, adding a thumbs-up and thumbs-down sign as he spoke. It was easy for 32557038 to answer: he curled the fingers of his right hand, poking his thumb up.

"Good," his master said. "Excellent. This is something I need to know as we go along--I have a lot of things to teach you about the way things work here, and I find that rewards are a much more effective way to teach than punishments--when you do something I like, I'll just reward you--" his master held something to his lips, and he winked when 32557038 opened his mouth for it eagerly.

Another walnut. 32557038 chewed slowly, savoring the pleasure of recognizing it as much as the morsel of food.

"So you'll remember to do it again the next time," his master said. "But I need to know how to calibrate rewards. I need to know which things are the best rewards, so I know to give them to you when I want to reinforce the most. And I need to know if I give you something as a reward that doesn't reinforce at all--if it doesn't make you feel good, it can't be a good reward, and it'll fuck up the whole process. I need clean data, so I need you to tell me if a reward is good or not-good, okay?" His master flashed his thumb up and down again, demonstrating how he wanted Threetoo to tell him.

Threetoo nodded. He would do as he was ordered. He would indicate good and not-good rewards if his master required it.

He couldn't imagine a not-good reward from his master, but that was all right then; if all rewards were good then all rewards served his master's purposes. Threetoo would serve his master's purpose.

"So," his master said, holding up another blueberry.

Threetoo put his thumb up.

"God, yes, you are so good at this," his master said, grinning, and he popped the blueberry into Threetoo's mouth.

Threetoo shivered with pleasure, at the bright flavor of the berry and his master's words, and time stuttered while he was chewing, making him jerk in surprise a little when it started again. He found his place, chewing up the berry and swallowing, and his master brushed back his hair again as he did, his thumb brushing the outside of Threetoo's ear.

"All right, so we're going to get a little more challenging now," his master said, looking searchingly into his eyes. "You don't need to hold perfectly still, but I'm going to start getting you cleaned up, and I want you to just lie back and let me. It's not going to feel great, but I don't want to cause any more damage or pain than I absolutely have to. I want to get you into good healthy shape, and hurting you would slow that down. Understand?"

Threetoo nodded cautiously. He was in suboptimal condition, even allowing for his permanent damage. He knew that. Too fragile, not good for any vigorous activities. His master wanted him to be stronger, so that he could be used properly, or for extended periods of time. His master would show gentle restraint now, so that he could take his pleasure later.

"Okay," his master said. "Good. So we'll do this a little bit at a time, and I want you to flap your hand--" his master flapped his, flexing it freely at the wrist, in demonstration, "when I do something that makes it hurt worse. Okay? That way I'll know to stop, or be careful, depending on what I'm doing. Show me your best handflap, Threetoo."

Threetoo flapped obediently. His master smiled, and Threetoo felt warm and good inside.

"Good, perfect, here," his master gave him three sips of liquid this time, and Threetoo put his thumb up. He remembered too late that his master had said the liquid wasn't a reward; he shouldn't have expressed his liking for it.

"Plain sweetened is a hit, good to know," his master said. "More data is more data, Threetoo, I'm always glad to have it. That calls for a reward, here, this is something different."

It was white, soft. Like... cheese? But not cheese. It barely tasted like anything at all. But it didn't taste spoiled or foul, and it was unmistakably food, and food from his master's own hand. Threetoo chewed and swallowed gratefully.

"Well?" His master said. "Verdict? Remember, I need good data. I need to know what's a better reward and what's not as good."

Threetoo lowered his thumb to thirty degrees above his curled fingers. The flavorless white stuff wasn't not-good, but it wasn't a blueberry or a walnut or plain sweetened liquid, either.

His master beamed at him, making Threetoo's thumb shoot up straight without thought. Best reward. But he hadn't been asked to rate that, either, and this time his master didn't seem to notice.

"Good, good, okay, fine gradations of feedback here, very nice. Tofu, still a reward but less preferred, huh? Have to give you a whole bunch of tofu before it's as good a reward as a blueberry or a soft blanket. Got it."

Reminded, Threetoo nestled into the softness of the blanket he'd already been given.

"Yeah, you stay right there for a minute," his master said. "Let me just get some stuff to clean you up with."

Threetoo watched his master as he stood up and walked away. It was the first chance Threetoo had had to really look at the room he was in.

Sam had told him it would be a nice, quiet room, and it seemed to be that. There were no windows, and sharp as his senses usually were, he could hear no sound of the many people he knew must be just on the other side of the door. His cage was the only metal thing in the room; there was a luxurious pallet-bed in the corner, what looked like two thick mattresses stacked on each other, with a pillow and sheets and two blankets.

Perhaps his master would use him there once he was clean enough to be acceptable--lay him down on something soft like that and take him gently, so that he might even find some pleasure in pleasing his master. Just until he was strong again, and could be used properly.

"Okay," his master said, and Threetoo's attention returned instantly to his master, who was turning away from a cupboard against the outside wall. He had a basin and several cloths, and a sort of plastic bucket that seemed to contain many other smaller cleaning supplies. He sat down facing the top of Threetoo's head, setting down the basin where Threetoo could see it--steam rose gently from the surface of the water, and he could smell the almost-nothing scent of hot water.

The other supplies were set down on his master's other side. Out of Threetoo's sight. He closed his eyes, accepting that he wouldn't see what his master used on him.

"Yeah, that's right," his master murmured. "You just relax a little. I'm gonna start at the top and work down, and you take it easy."

The first touch was something soft and small rubbing against his forehead, and then against his cheek. It was like a soft brush, but it was not being used in an efficient manner.

His master, Threetoo thought, didn't actually know how to clean things. Why should he? He was a master. He had slaves for that. Perhaps it would be only this perfunctory idea of cleaning. His master would get bored with the game soon, and move on to...

There was a soft splash, and Threetoo opened his eyes to see his master wetting a cloth in the basin, wringing it out with one strong hand. His master's nails were very short, and Threetoo couldn't help noticing that there was a small pink burn on the side of his master's thumb, and tiny flecked scars on his fingers and knuckles.

His master's hand was a hand that knew work and pain.

He closed his eyes, trying not to wonder what that meant, what sort of man his master was. It only mattered that Threetoo belonged to him.

The cloth touched him--warm and damp, not scalding or dripping--and his master was cleaning his face with steady swipes, gentle but quick. Now he was efficient. He patted Threetoo's face with a corner of the towel when he finished, almost before his damp skin could turn chilly.

"This is--we'll get to this," his master said, running his hand over Threetoo's hair and pulling it back from his face, tucking a cloth over it to keep it back.

The process repeated: his master used the ineffectual little brush on Threetoo's throat and over his collarbone, and then the warm cloth, rubbing his skin clean everywhere, bit by bit.

Then his master said, "Threetoo? I'm going to go behind--"

Time stuttered badly for him after that. One time when he came around he moved without permission, drawing his knees up and rolling over onto his face. His master didn't punish him, or even correct him. His master washed the right side of his face, which had been pressed into the blanket before, and behind his right ear, and down that side of his throat. He tucked a cloth over Threetoo's hair again.

He was caught off guard when the punishment started. The pain was--he had an instruction for pain. His hand was curled by his face, but he flattened it and then--flapped.

"Good, Threetoo, thank you," his master said, and he held something to the corner of Threetoo's mouth. "Here, that's reward territory, how about this."

Threetoo turned his head just enough to take what he was given. Salty, a richer flavor than the walnut, the same nut-firmness between his teeth. He stopped flapping his hand and put up his thumb instead.

"Cashew is a hit, good, fantastic," his master said. His voice was still warm and pleased. "And how about this?"

Another touch on his lips, something soft this time. Raisin--raisins. Two of them. He let his thumb sag very slightly, and his master laughed a little, warm and pleased. He put his hand gently on the back of Threetoo's neck.

Threetoo shivered with pleasure, jerking his thumb back fully upright.

His master let out a breath like a sigh and squeezed softly before he let go of Threetoo's neck.

"Here, one suck, there's a straw," his master said, tipping plastic against his lips--the liquid tasted the same as before, though it must be a new bottle.

After that sip, his master was touching his back again, near--ah. A fresh burn. That was where the pain came from. Not new punishment after all, just the last of the old.

"Okay," his master said. "This is going to hurt a little bit--go ahead and flap your hand for me when it hurts. I need to clean it off and then put some stuff on it and bandage it up. Okay? I'll tell you each thing before I do it."

Threetoo nodded, rubbing his forehead against the softness of the blanket under him.

His master talked softly through the process of tending the burn on his back, and when he said, "This is going to make it hurt a little less, hopefully," Threetoo didn't know what to expect.

There was a soft hiss, something spraying, and then--he exhaled a shuddery breath--the pain went blank. It meant he could feel the other burns more sharply, but on that spot where his master had promised to make it better, there was no pain at all.

He made the finger signs for master and please before he could remember that there was no one here who ought to see slaves' fingers signs.

"Threetoo?" his master said. "Was that--do you need something? Pick your head up for me, let me see your eyes."

Threetoo raised his head and saw his master looking at him, a line of concern between his brows.

"We okay?" his master asked, as if Threetoo were a thing that could be part of a we with his master. Cautiously Threetoo lifted his hand, turning it palm up, trying to make a beckoning gesture that was a plea, not a request.

His master offered his hand immediately, saying, "Show me?"

So Threetoo showed him, shivering all over with the pleasure of being permitted to touch his fingertips to the side of his master's hand. He pushed partially upright with his elbow braced under him, bending his head to kiss his master's hand, touching his lips as gently and expressively as he knew how to the scarred knuckles and sturdy clever fingers and work-short nails.

His master let him bestow five kisses--not nearly enough to show his gratitude. He would kiss his master's feet if he could reach them, would kiss anything his master would show to him. His master took his hand away after the merest sign Threetoo could give, pressing his fingers against Threetoo's lips in a way that meant stop.

Threetoo waited, watching his master. There was a rushing in his ears, and his vision narrowed to the sight of his master's face, waiting for what would come of what he'd dared to do.

His master leaned in and kissed his forehead. Threetoo would have made a sound if he could--would have cried aloud with shattered joy--would have told his master all the ways he would show grateful obedience to the end of his days in memory of this one kindness.

Except there wasn't much he could do; his body suddenly weakened and he curled to the side helplessly, sweat breaking out on his back and under his arms. His head went light, even with his master's hand on his cheek steadying him, and his master's voice sounded very far away. His master pushed his head back down to rest on the blanket, but the tide overtook him anyway.

Time didn't merely stutter. It stopped.

"Fuck," Tony snapped as Threetoo went limp. "Fuck, JARVIS did I fucking kill him?"

"I believe he has succumbed to a bout of syncope, sir," JARVIS intoned calmly.

So Tony had kissed his forehead and he'd fainted. Well, he could work with that. It wasn't permanent, at least. And he knew what not to do again.

Tony blew out a breath and looked for safe places to touch Threetoo. After a few seconds' calculation he got a hand on the top of his left shoulder, well away from the angry well of infection at the chip implant site, and one on his hip. He rolled Threetoo onto his right side, and his legs uncurled limply as soon as they weren't folded under him.

Tony tucked a couple of folded towels against his chest and thigh to keep him from rolling forward, and then spread the second blanket over him, no matter how tempted he was to hurry up and tend more wounds while it couldn't possibly hurt.

Threetoo wasn't going to wake up to discover that he'd been touched or hurt while he was unaware. Not on Tony's watch, not ever again.

Tony knelt there, studying Threetoo like he might be able to spot the malfunction from the outside. His face was already returning from grayish death pallor to its baseline of pale and gaunt. Tony tucked another folded towel under his cheek; the angle of his neck looked awful otherwise.

"So, JARVIS," Tony said. "Evaluation? Where are we at?"

"I find no evidence of implants or cybernetics other than his slave chip, which is, thankfully, a standard model StarkChip. Manufactured and numbered five years ago, but the sealed record is only about two months old and I find no trace of a previous unsealed record tied to the same chip."

Tony waved that off. "Yes, yeah, he's human, his chip is a lie, we'll get to that. Is he going to die on me? You said--seizures. He was having seizures."

"His vital signs are strong despite his severe malnutrition and assorted injuries, and the infection in his arm appears to be still localized. As for the seizures, an EEG will be required to confirm the diagnosis," JARVIS said. "But the brief periods of stopped motion would be consistent with absence seizures. These seizures are quite unusual in adults, and could, potentially, be a sequel to brain trauma."

Tony looked at the towel covering Threetoo's long, filthy hair. Would he find scars when he cleaned it?

"Along with the fact that he may not know his own name," Tony said. "They sealed the record and they also deleted--" Tony waved his hand over Threetoo's head. "The original recordings."

"It is a possibility," JARVIS agreed. "Although the human brain is quite complex, and we still know very little about 32557038's state of mind."

"Right," Tony muttered, "because he can't speak, can't pick his head up without fainting--"

"Speaking of which," JARVIS cut in. "His blood pressure has normalized, and I believe he's regaining consciousness."

Tony moved around to Threetoo's other side, where he could see Threetoo's face and Threetoo could see him. He sprawled on the floor, lying almost flat, so he could look Threetoo in the eye on his own level.

Threetoo's eyes fluttered open, and there was a second--just a second--when he was fuzzy and disoriented and he smiled. This wasn't the scary, brainwashed, I'm madly in love with you please abuse me, smile he'd been giving Tony so far. It was just a smile, like a normal person would smile as they woke up warm next to someone they were happy to see.

Threetoo, Tony was abruptly certain, had loved someone once. Someone real, someone who slept beside him at night and woke with him in the morning. Someone who knew his name.

I'm gonna get you home to them, Tony thought, though he would never say it out loud. It was too huge a promise, and almost certainly a lie a hundred times worse than You're safe now, it's going to be okay. That didn't mean he wasn't going to find a way to do it, though. I'm going to get you home.

In the same second Tony was arriving at that determination, Threetoo woke up all the way, and that instant of sleepy ease vanished into an anxious look. He mouthed something that might have been, I'm sorry, and there was a muffled motion under the blanket: Threetoo gesturing with his right hand, unseen.

Tony tugged the blanket back, freeing Threetoo's hand, but Threetoo didn't gesture again.

"It's okay, it's fine," Tony said, to the anxious look on Threetoo's face. "It was a blood pressure thing. You didn't do anything wrong. It just means we have some work to do to get you up to code. Gonna need to get you fed and watered, for starters, and--"

There was a knock at the door, and in Tony's ear JARVIS said, "Miss Carter is outside, sir."

"Well, there we go," Tony looked down at Threetoo. "Sharon is going to come in the room now, and she's gonna help me get you patched up. She'll only touch you if I tell her to, and only in the ways I tell her to, and I'll tell you everything that's going to happen. Okay?"

Threetoo nodded, but his anxious expression didn't ease.

Well, the only way to make him stop being scared, in the long run, was to show him they could be trusted.

Tony picked up a couple of cashews. "I like to reward courage. Here." He watched Threetoo eat each of the cashews from his fingers, and JARVIS murmured, "One hundred fifty-three calories now, sir."

"Good," Tony murmured, to Threetoo and JARVIS both, and he added an extra command to JARVIS by hand gesture. Threetoo's vitals appeared in glowing blue-green above him, out of his sight but readily visible to anyone else in the room.

"All right, here we go. Sharon," Tony raised his voice, though he knew she was waiting for JARVIS to signal and unlock the door for her. "Come on in, please."

Carter--who was as terrifyingly competent as her aunt had ever been, but less interested in dealing with upper-level administrative responsibilities--was combat-trained as well as being a fully qualified nurse. She was as safe as, say, Wilson, if a slave went suddenly out of control on her, but she looked a hell of a lot more harmless.

Also, Tony didn't think Threetoo was much of a threat to anyone except himself, given that he would pass out and add a concussion to his tally of injuries if he so much as tried to stand up in a threatening manner. To say nothing of the fact that three of the burns Tony still hadn't cleaned yet were on his feet.

But they still kept him in a cage, Tony thought, and filed that thought away for later.

Right now, Threetoo was looking rapidly back and forth from Tony to Carter.

She was also sizing up the scene. Her eyes darted to the stats floating above Threetoo's head--Height: 6'1 Weight: 118 was particularly eye-catching, even knowing that you had to spot him five percent for the missing arm. She quickly refocused, though, and showed no outward sign of alarm.

"Sharon," Tony said, looking over at her but not sitting up any further. "I've just been telling Threetoo that you definitely won't touch him unless I tell you to, and that I'll tell him first, before I ask you to do anything to help me with him."

Carter came over and sat down cross-legged, projecting good-natured kindergarten teacher with a warm, gentle smile. Even Tony was almost taken in. "That sounds right. Hi there, 32557038. My name is Sharon. I'm a nurse, and I just want to take a look at you to make sure we're taking good care of you. Sam told me your stump is looking pretty bad, do you think Tony and I could look at that?"

Threetoo looked back to Tony, eyes wide and beseeching, and Tony said gently, "It'll just be my hands, unless I need Sharon to help me with something, okay? I'm going to fold back the blanket so we can see your arm, and we'll take a look."

Threetoo nodded, and Tony scooted closer and carefully folded the blanket back, tucking it all around Threetoo's shoulder so that only the stump of his left arm showed.

It looked worse that way. With the rest of Threetoo's body covered, it didn't seem like just one more injury on a thoroughly mistreated body; it looked uniquely, horrifically obscene.

Carter, at his side, didn't recoil and didn't break her soothing intake persona. "Okay. There are a few things we need to do to get you feeling better, 32557038. The first one is that we need to start an IV--do you know what that is?"

Threetoo looked at Tony, and Tony said, "It's okay to answer Sharon's questions. I want you to answer--we need good data, remember."

Threetoo nodded to Tony, then deliberately refocused on Carter and nodded again.

"Okay," Carter said gently. "So we're going to need to get to your other arm."

Tony prided himself on having steady hands, but by the time they were finished he was drenched in sweat and clinging to the dignity of not having puked. He never wanted to debride anything ever again or even hear the word.

He would be back at it in eight hours when Threetoo's bandages had to be changed.

Threetoo tolerated everything better when it was Tony touching him, never flinching the way he did when Carter had to help. When Tony took a three-minute breather, leaving Carter to watch over him from several feet away where he could see her, Threetoo's heartrate and blood pressure skyrocketed. He'd had four probably-seizures ranging from five to eighteen seconds in duration before Tony came back in.

Tony hadn't left again after that.

Carter and JARVIS coached him through everything, and Threetoo just kept looking at him, trusting him, vital signs steady and safe. Tony got Threetoo cleaned up and bandaged, swabbed and sampled, hooked up to IV fluids and antibiotics.

"Okay," Tony said, when Sharon was gone and he'd given Threetoo his last couple of raisins for the night, bringing him up to three hundred fifty calories and no signs of gastric distress or allergic reactions. "We're done, Threetoo. It's time to get some sleep."

Something flickered in Threetoo's eyes, and Tony didn't want to know what else that phrase meant to him. Except he was going to have to know, because the horror show of caring for Threetoo physically was just the beginning. He still had to keep Threetoo convinced that Tony was a perfectly normal, if gentle, slave owner. He had to keep Threetoo safe, and he had to keep everyone else safe from whatever the hell Threetoo was programmed to do.

"You're going to sleep in this room for tonight," Tony said. "And I'm going to go upstairs and sleep in the penthouse."

Threetoo shrank a little at that, but this was where he had to be, near the actual medical professionals. At least for now. At least tonight.

"No one else will come in until I come back," Tony said quietly. JARVIS would alert him to any emergency at the same time he notified the medical staff; Tony could be here within about ninety seconds. If ninety seconds was going to make a difference, Threetoo wouldn't be in any state to tell whether Tony was there or not.

"No one will touch you except me, and for right now all I want is to get you healthy, so I need you to get some sleep tonight. Where in this room could I tell you to sleep that would be a good reward?" Tony asked quietly.

Threetoo rubbed his cheek against the towel his head rested on, opened and closed his hand on the blanket.

Tony was pretty sure that it was just that he was exhausted, but he wanted to cry.

"And what about there?" he pointed at the cage. "Good reward? Not-good reward?"

Threetoo's eyebrows wrinkled in thought, and he curled his hand into a fist with his thumb flat between his middle and ring fingers. Not good. Not bad. What he expected, probably.

He feels safe in his cage, Westfahl had said. But Westfahl had also transferred him into Tony's possession--

Tony reached into his jacket and pulled out the folded leather.

Threetoo's eyes went wide and his heartrate, still displayed in glowing green above him, jumped. His pupils widened.

"Good reward?" He didn't even get the question out before Threetoo's thumb was pointing straight up, and he was giving Tony his widest, most pleading eyes, tipping his head nearly off the towel to bare his throat.

Tony laid his hand on Threetoo's throat. His heartrate and blood pressure eased like they did every time Tony touched him.

"Like that, huh?" Tony asked softly. "It's a way for me to touch you even when I'm not here, isn't it. Something you can keep."

Threetoo nodded without hesitating, his chin brushing Tony's hand as it rose and fell.

"Okay," Tony said softly. "But if I give you this, I want you to lay your head on that pillow from the bed instead of a towel. Will you do that for me?"

Threetoo blinked rapidly and nodded again, smaller, more hesitant.

"Let's do this first." Tony made himself think of nothing, remember nothing, as he fastened the leather around Threetoo's throat. Threetoo's eyes shivered nearly shut and his lips parted softly as Tony tested the fit, tucking a finger between leather and skin.

"All right," Tony said. "A deal's a deal. Hold on, I'll be right back."

He went over to the bed--the bed that he didn't think had even occurred to Threetoo as a place where he could possibly sleep--and took the pillow. He brought it back and tucked it under Threetoo's head, combing his fingers through Threetoo's now-clean hair afterward. It was silky soft now, smelling faintly orangey from the dry shampoo. Threetoo's eyes closed and stayed closed this time; his heartrate had sunk to a steady slow pace. Resting.

"Okay," Tony said softly. "Sleep. If you get some rest tonight, we'll do more rewards in the morning."

Threetoo obeyed.

Tony got out while the getting was good.

He made it exactly to the elevator before he looked the other way down the hall, toward the surgical suite. He didn't know how long it took to crack a chip loose and reassemble the affected arm afterward--standard procedure in emancipation was to deactivate the chip and leave it in situ--but it was probably something he ought to know. Professionally speaking.

Someone would have told him if it went to hell, right? Not that he was usually immediately notified if a rescued slave in a life-threatening condition didn't make it, but...

"Grant has been resuscitated and surgery is complete, sir," JARVIS informed him quietly, without Tony having to decide to ask. "He is resting under sedation."

Tony blinked. "Sedation's holding, then? The lowered metabolism..."

"He did not regain consciousness at any time during the process, and shows no signs of doing so imminently," JARVIS assured him. "He had no opportunity to suffer either pain or fear."

"Then do they know if--"

The door to the surgical suite opened, and Dr. Cho said, "Do you want to just ask me questions instead of getting your AI to do it?"

Tony strode quickly over to her, and followed her inside when she turned away. "Brain function? Is he--"

"EEG is normal for the level of sedation, and we're using it to help calibrate the dose. We've started IV nutrition--"

"Refeeding," Tony said, because JARVIS had been very insistent on that point with Threetoo. Tony had been aware of the general concept before, but now he had tables and checklists at the forefront of his mind. "His phosphorus levels, are you--"

"Yes," Dr. Cho said, sounding a bit exasperated as she opened a door to a dim room. Tony stopped short, recognizing the figure in the bed inside. "Come in, we won't wake him. We've done all the bloodwork, we'll recheck it regularly, but since we're also monitoring his heartrate we'll know instantly if any kind of arrhythmia issue presents, and we're introducing nutrition gradually anyway."

"Right," Tony said, hesitating at a distance from the bed.

Howard, Grant had said. How could he?

Tony stuffed his hands into his pockets and made himself walk forward. Grant's left arm was thickly bandaged and surrounded by an airy-looking plastic brace rather than a cast. The doctors would need access to the surgical site as it healed; the bone was the least of it.

"The chip went back already?" Tony asked, studying the readouts. Everything looked steady and strong; it was strange to see after hours spent keeping an eye on Threetoo's erratic vital signs.

"Arrived safely half an hour ago, along with the body."

Tony had been calling it the cadaver in his head. A freedman's body, donated by his family, to give Coulson something to burn before he officially reported Grant's death. So the narrative was all complete: while Tony had been partying upstairs, highly visible doing his usual social rounds, and a friend of Coulson's named Grant was getting quietly wasted with Pepper's slave, Coulson was in the basement, drowning Damon as the final act of a cruelly drawn-out execution.

The man in the bed was no one, but he was free.

It would probably take him a while to figure that out. It would probably take longer for them to figure out how to make that freedom have any practical value, since it wasn't safe for him to leave the Tower. Saving his life could be all for nothing, between his lack of a legal identity and the danger of being recognized--there had been a little media flurry around Coulson's accident, with the slave's grim ID photo at the top of every story. Even if people didn't recognize his face, he was going to have a massive obvious scar on his left arm until he got his turn with the plastic surgeons.

Tony remembered Threetoo's arm--Threetoo's stump, and the raw flesh exposed nearly to the site of his new chip--and hoped Grant's healing went more smoothly.

Of course, he abruptly remembered, Grant hadn't had a scar to begin with.

"Was there anything unusual about the chip or the anchoring hardware?"

Dr. Cho picked up a plastic bowl from the bedside table and handed it to him: two metal anchoring pins, roughly standard size, and a plastic bottle of clear fluid that would contain the removed microfilaments. All of it had been entirely cleaned of blood and bone and whatever else had clung to it when it was pulled from Grant's arm.

"It was a flight risk model, as expected, and definitely primed with an execution order. The pins were surprisingly easy to remove, which is good, because they were impossible to cut. I don't know what they're made of, but it's not standard surgical steel. They were held in only by a basic hook end and the fact that the bone had healed around them. Pulling the chip out before the bone healed around the pins would have been fairly trivial."

Tony picked up the pins, rolling them between finger and thumb. They were very light for their size; his hand recognized this density, though he didn't know from where. "How long ago would you say the bone healed?"

"I really can't say," Dr. Cho said carefully.

Tony raised his eyebrows.

"There was no sign of regrowth on the bone. It was as if the pins had always been there."

Or as if the bone had grown around them? If the pins went in before puberty--in flagrant violation of the laws that said no one could be sentenced or surrender themselves into slavery before the age of sixteen--then the subsequent growth of the bone might have obscured any scarring.

Grant--or whatever his name actually was--would have been a child when Howard died. Why'd he do it? How could he?

"The microfilaments?" Tony's voice sounded pretty steady, he thought.

"Those looked completely standard, matching the age of the chip. They were inserted in and around the blood vessels quite normally, and we were able to remove them without any inadvertent damage."

Those couldn't have pre-dated any significant growth, then. Just the pins. Just the pins made of some strange metal or experimental alloy, relying on Grant to keep still and not try to remove them until they had healed in place.

Tony tucked the pins into his jacket pocket--the same one that had held Threetoo's collar for most of the night. It seemed a reasonable tradeoff. He looked at Grant's face, impossibly handsome and terrifyingly young. He was peaceful in sleep, that drugged confusion wiped away.

"Good work, Dr. Cho," Tony said, summoning up a smile as he shook her hand. "Looks like we got one out alive tonight."

She tilted her head. "Eleven, in fact. But I'll admit I'm particularly proud of this one."

In the dark and quiet of the penthouse, Tony poured himself a drink, and then brought the bottle over to the armchair as well as the glass. He sat for a while, staring up at the ceiling, the drink in his hand untouched.

When he'd waited long enough to prove whatever he was proving, alone in his own home, he reached up and slipped a finger between the collar of his shirt and his throat. His tie was still done up. He never loosened it in public, never neglected to wear one. Never let anyone see him refusing to have anything fastened tightly around his neck.

"JARVIS, I want to know if Threetoo needs me or the building is being evacuated, nothing else."

"Understood, sir. Privacy protocols are in place."

Tony exhaled and tugged his tie down, unfastened the first two buttons of his shirt, and downed half his drink.

"Collar," Tony muttered, rubbing at his bare throat. There wasn't a mark there. There wasn't anything at all to see. They had been very gentle in some ways. "It had to be a fucking collar that he wanted."

Tony had learned, very memorably, that you couldn't tell a slave what to want. You couldn't tell them to want to be free. First they had to know that freedom was possible. First they had to know that wanting things--things they hadn't been deliberately conditioned to believe they wanted--was possible. And then they had to trust you, and most slaves were never going to trust him.

Why should they? Tony Stark, CEO and chief engineer at Stark Industries, manufacturers of the StarkChips that served to monitor and control millions of slaves worldwide. Son of Howard Stark, inventor of the StarkChip, the man responsible for the whole idea of planting microchips in slaves to begin with.

Why'd he do it? How could he?

Tony took another burning swig and tugged open a few more buttons on his shirt. There was nothing to see under that but a smooth undershirt, white but perfectly opaque even when wet, unusually resistant to tearing.

Tony sat up and hurried out of his shirt and tie, hauling the undershirt up and off to reveal the faint blue glow that radiated from the Machine planted in his chest.

It sat directly over the sternal chip site preferred by many Middle Eastern countries. Stark Industries didn't sell directly to most of them, but a few were US allies. He'd developed several of the refinements that made it nearly impossible to remove a chip from the sternal site without killing the slave. He'd piously insisted that he was saving lives by discouraging ad hoc modifications to chips intended for implantation at other locations.

How very fucking clever he'd been. How proud of his innovations. How unforgivably naïve, to think that he knew who those chips were going to.

"Can't blame Dad for that one," Tony muttered, letting his eyes half-close until he could only see the blue glow of the tiny arc reactor. He had needed a reliable power source for the Machine; any tiny outage meant his chip would become readable--and this far out of its natural bounds, it would instantly start broadcasting a fugitive slave alert, which could endanger not only him but most of the occupants of this building--Grant, Threetoo, his staff, dozens or hundreds of others.

The Machine did a lot more than just block the signal, of course, but for tonight...

Tony rubbed his throat again and knocked back the rest of his drink.

Tonight he just needed to tell himself the lie he was so very careful not to tell anyone he helped to rescue.

"You're safe now," he muttered, rubbing his fingers over the tempered glass, making the blue light throw wild shadows. "It's going to be okay."