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The Better to Hug You With

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As he's stepping off the Metro, Steve catches a glimpse of waving tentacles in his peripheral vision. An octopus is wriggling onto the platform. For a second he thinks nothing of it; by the time the visual registers and Steve whips his head around, there's a crowd of commuters flooding out of the train cars. There's no sign of a cephalopod through the throng of bodies. Not that there would be. Clearly Steve needs more sleep.

He's entering the Triskelion when it happens again: a flash of tentacles in the corner of his eye, this time roping around a filing cabinet. Steve shakes his head and rushes for the nearest break room. His metabolism will process the caffeine too quickly for coffee to do any good, but maybe it'll have a placebo effect. Steve hadn't realized he was this out of it. Maybe he ought to have stayed in today.

When he opens the door of the tac-team's conference room, he finds Natasha shuddering at the table, trying to pry two octopuses from her legs with the aid of an inactive stun baton. Two small squids are on the floor nearby, slapping at each other.

Steve definitely should have stayed in today.

"What?" is all he can manage. And honestly, "what" sums it up.

"About time," Natasha snaps, managing to dislodge one tentacle. There are round indentations in her pant leg where the suction cups had been. "Fury ordered us in here an hour ago. Where were you?"

Steve's phone is on silent. Rumlow wouldn't stop texting him last night, flooding his phone with nonsensical, probably drunken texts like "juctoxslyfopyphclgsr." Steve had forgotten to turn the sound back on this morning just as he'd forgotten to check his messages.

"What's going on?" There's a choked edge to his voice he doesn't intend. Steve's not exactly fond of cephalopods. Fighting HYDRA will do that to a person. "And where's the rest of the team?"

The octopuses glance up at his words. The smaller one clinging to Natasha's thigh makes a squeaking sound and releases, pouring itself onto the carpet. The larger one on her opposite shin follows suit. They're both oozing in Steve's direction and he takes a step back.

"This is the rest of the team," Natasha says.

Steve can't even speak this time. There are tentacles wrapping around his legs but he's gone numb. "I—that—wha—"

"The giant one's Rollins." Natasha indicates the octopus winding around Steve's ankle. If the thing spread its tentacles out, it would span over ten feet. "It has his scar. That little one's Rumlow. You can tell because it smells like it bathed in Axe body spray."

Beneath the prevalent fishy odor, there is a definite scent of Axe. The little octopus, its tentacles each about a foot long, is climbing up Steve's torso. His skin crawls.

"And the squids are Anders and Murphy," Natasha continues. "Haven't figured out which is which."

Steve had assumed the squids were fighting but after another glance, he thinks they're actually attempting to high five. The trouble is, their suction cups keep sticking to each other. The octopus—Rumlow—is now at his shoulders. "I—this—how are they breathing without water?!"

Natasha barely has to move an eyebrow to express withering disdain. "Really? That's your first question about this?"

"There's an octopus winding around my neck, sorry if I'm not—" Steve can't fight a shiver, trying to dislodge the animal and only succeeding in getting his hands sucked in as well. "How did this happen when did this happen where's Fury how many agents are octopi? Octopodes?"

"Octopuses," Natasha says. She glances at the squids entangled on the floor. Her hand twitches as though she might reach over to free them, but then she seems to decide against it. "We don't know how, it happened at some point in the night, about a third of SHIELD staff seems affected so far. Sitwell's a cuttlefish."

Steve feels an overwhelming need to sit down. That proves difficult with a giant octopus around his ankles.

"Fury's attempting to keep things contained," Natasha continues. "Easier said than done. The Secretary of Defense turned into a colossal squid."

"This isn't happening," Steve mutters. He manages to untangle the octopus from his throat, only to end up with his arms entrapped in the cephalopod equivalent of a Chinese finger trap. "This isn't happening."

"As entertaining as it is to watch you question your perception of reality, Fury did task us with figuring out what the hell's going on," Natasha says. "Preferably before anyone else can be afflicted. Any ideas?"

No, Steve has absolutely no ideas. Alien invasions seem downright sensible in comparison to this. He just stares, dumbfounded, as the creature that was once his teammate squeezes the circulation out of his wrists.

"Rumlow tried to text me," he says finally.

"What?"

"Last night." Steve feels a pang of guilt. Sure, the messages were unintelligible, but that's no excuse. Even if Rumlow had just been texting drunk, that level of incoherence should have been more worrying than irritating. Steve should have checked in on him. Rumlow was trying to send distress calls and Steve had silenced his phone. Some leader he is. "He tried to text me. None of the messages made any sense."

"Operating a touch screen with tentacles will do that." Natasha stands up. "So you think they can communicate with the proper tools?"

"I think it's worth a shot."

They head to the nearest cubicle and swipe the dry erase board and markers. The nautilus struggling up the cubicle's desk chair doesn't seem to mind.

"All right, Rumlow," Steve says once they're back in the conference room. He places the octopus on the table next to the board and the markers. "What were you trying to tell me?"

The Rumlow octopus curls up around one of the markers like a cat with a new toy. Steve sighs, holding back a pang of horror. What if their minds have gone feral? What if there was a limited window of time to fix this and the opportunity's already passed?

Natasha tugs the cap off the marker, forcing all but one of Rumlow's tentacles from it and guiding the tip to the marker board. "Write," she orders.

One of the free tentacles makes a movement that would probably be an obscene hand gesture if Rumlow still had fingers. But he does press the marker to the board, moving it in three small, wavering strokes. H.

The marker keeps moving, but Steve doesn't see it. His vision wavers and the floor is reeling beneath him. H. Tentacles. HYDRA? It makes no sense; HYDRA's gone. Died with Red Skull. But he can't help the sickness growing in his stomach, the horrible what if in the back of his mind. What if HYDRA's still alive, what if he's let them hurt his friends again, what if—

The marker clatters on the table top and Steve braces himself, looking at the word the Rumlow octopus has scrawled.

HUGS!

There's a moment of silence.

"You think it could be an acronym?" Steve asks. He can hear the hopelessness in his voice.

"I think I might quit," Natasha says.

Rumlow glides off of the table and into Steve's lap.

*

Steve returns from his lunch break with takeout and a large shopping bag. "Anything change while I was out?"

"Kristen from Statistics brought in calamari for lunch." Natasha's perched on the table, glaring at the cephalopods below. None of them are trying to latch onto her. "All the squids there tried organizing a coup. Other than that, nothing's happened. Still octopuses. Still no idea why."

Steve sets the bags on the table as the things that were once his STRIKE team come shambling over the carpet. "Well, I hope they like shrimp." He doesn't put the food on the floor straight away, though, taking the stuffed animals from the shopping bag first.

"What are those?" Natasha demands. There's a twitch in her face as though she's torn as to what expression to use in reaction.

"Bears," Steve says, placing them before the cephalopods. "I figured it would be easier to work this out if we didn't have tentacles all over us."

"So you got them Captain Ameribear and Bucky Bear." Natasha sighs, sorting through the takeout. "Really, Rogers?"

"Those were the two closest to the cash register," he protests. On the floor, the squids and the Rollins octopus converge on the Bucky Bear, leaving the Rumlow octopus to curl around the Ameribear.

"Looks like you're not very popular." Natasha pops open one of the containers, the scent of sesame chicken flooding the air as she unwraps her chopsticks.

There's now a fight over Bucky Bear occurring: Rollins has the body in his grip while Murphy and Anders yank at the bear's arm. If they pull any harder, they'll tear the limb off.

"I'm perfectly okay with that," Steve says.

*

When he returns the next morning, there are coffee mugs strewn across the conference room floor and smears of jelly on the walls. The Captain Ameribear is pinned beneath the wheels of a chair; Anders and Murphy are struggling to pull it loose. Steve frees it for them and goes off in search of the octopuses.

He finds Rumlow and Rollins asleep in front of the break room refrigerator. The freezer door is ajar and Steve opens it to reveal the Bucky Bear sandwiched between microwave meals and ice cube trays.

"Good news," Natasha says, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "They have a lead."

"Alien technology?" Steve asks, nudging the octopuses away from the fridge. "Some sort of transformation ray?"

"Try drunken stupidity. Two interns from research and development were looking into the camouflaging abilities of cephalopods. Genetic enhancements, I think. They—along with all the other sea creatures—were at a party the other night. Current theory is they spiked the punch."

"With experimental serum that turns people into octopodes." He feels stupid just saying it.

"Octopuses. And yes." Natasha smirks. "I've never seen Fury so annoyed before. Though being crushed by a giant squid probably wasn't helping. The point is, they think they can find a way to reverse it."

Steve breathes a sigh of relief, taking the coffee mug that she offers. He glances down at the octopuses winding around his ankles. "But we can still call Rumlow Brocktopus when he's human again, right?"

"Of course."