Tentacle monsters are usually...bigger. And more threatening.
This one is curled up in the corner of its enclosure, at the back of a Hydra lab, and watching them with big, brown eyes.
Nat’s at the computers, Clint’s got the door and outside, Hulk and Thor are playing catch-the-helicopter. There’s no one left to hit, so Steve’s shield is back on his harness and he’s poking around the lab, looking for hidden doors and filing cabinets to pass the time.
The tentacle monster creeps slightly towards the glass to keep him in sight then backs off right to the other corner when he turns to look at it full on. Brown eyes, dark brown and cream striped tentacles, and a round face peeking from the only tentacle-free part of its main body, it doesn't have any suckers or a visible mouth, and it's dry-skinned, matte and slightly wrinkly.
Steve leans over the tank, down the side, to check that the thing is secured, and yeah, the tank is latched, though it doesn’t look very substantial.
It taps on the glass and Steve pulls back, warily. Big, brown eyes peer up at him imploringly, then it points to a carrot, sitting on a stack of...polar fleece cloths on the bench. What?
Steve quirks his head in bemusement. “What the hell?”
It wilts, its limbs all slumping to the glass bottom of the tank, and rolls back into its far corner, where it tucks all its limbs into a ball around itself and hides its face. Slowly, the ball slumps down until it’s more like a pile, and Steve can just see its eyes staring off into the middle distance, blinking slowly at nothing.
It’s...kind of sad, actually.
The exchange puzzles him enough that he rifles through the desk next to the tank, looking for the number painted on the side of the cage. He finds a lab diary labeled with it, and another three with sequential numbers. Those have beginning and end dates, like the experiments didn’t last long. Alpha-Sierra four-seven has the same start date, but no end date. He flips it open to the first page and. Yeah, there’s the tentacle creature, photographed unconscious and pale brown and white rather than mahogany and cream.
‘Subject retrieved from dig site at 06:37, origin unknown, resemblance to subjects --’
The notes outline initial observations, measurements that Steve can’t interpret, and it’s clear the creature isn’t known to science. It’s been here almost a year, though, kept in its little glass enclosure and fed raw vegetables.
“Nat, is there anything on archeology coming up? Digs?” he asks, leafing forwards through a sequence of tests involving image recognition and positive and negative reinforcement. Another photograph falls out, showing the little guy clinging to one of those snake-handling sticks with wide eyes and holding a carrot in what seems to be his only free tentacle.
‘Subject shows high level intelligence and reasoning; understanding of English increasing.’
Puzzled, Steve flips back a few pages.
‘Subject demonstrates knowledge of the words ‘lunch’, and ‘blanket’. Will complete tasks on command if promised reward.
Does not respond to negative reinforcement; behavioral extinction--’
And it goes back to unintelligible test results.
“I’m seeing a few, yeah,” Nat responds eventually. “A bunch of trenches opened...last year, in June, but they didn’t find what they were looking for, just...four biological samples.”
Steve snorts and closes the lab book, deciding to take the tentacle monster back with them. “I may have a ‘viable biological sample’ over here. Hawkeye, get back here and help me secure him for evac.”
The beastie peeks out, tentacles coiling around its body to make himself smaller, and rolls to the front of the glass. It makes a question mark out of one lonely tentacle and Steve nods. “Yeah, you’re getting out of here.”
It shoots up onto the tips of its tentacles, barely half as tall as the tank is high, eyes wide. It quickly rolls around its enclosure, grabbing a scrap of fabric, and what looks like a pet water bottle and bundling them all up together, ready to go.
Steve gapes. “How much English do you understand?”
It draws a circle, and then another inside it, on the glass.
“I don’t know what that means, lots?”
The beastie bobs up and down in what is obviously a nod.
Clint bumps into his shoulder. “We rescuing a sentient creature here, Cap? Because there’s all kinda rules about that. International mandates.”
“I don’t know, Clint.. Better safe than...accidentally abusing a sentient creature.”
But, he still isn’t letting it loose, not a chance. The Avengers have fought off one too many Hydra creations for that; there is every possibility that it’s programmed or conditioned to attack them, or has a poison beak hidden in those tentacles.
“Ah, hello, yes, sorry.” Steve turns to look at it, nervous now. It’d be just their luck if it was both some alien dignitary AND programmed to kill them all.
It points at the carrot and beckon towards itself. Steve grabs carrot and the neatly folded pile and has a look; blankets, only a few feet across, and freshly washed. “You want these?”
“Okay, go to the back of the tank, away from th-- yeah. That’s good. Here.” He lifts the lid quickly and drops the stack inside. The carrot rolls off the top and bruises against the glass, leaving an orange smear. The monster only moves once the tank’s latched again, rolling to the fallen-over pile and refolding the blankets into a stack.
It plops a tentacle on top of the neat stack and retrieves the carrot, wrapping it in a tentacle that flattens slightly and hides it completely from view. It shivers a little and Steve doesn’t catch where the food goes, but it vanishes.
Satisfied, it settles its belongings around itself, and looks up at him expectantly.
“Okaaaay, so, that’s not creepy at all. Uncanny valley territory, right there,” Clint comments from the cabinet next to the desk, holding something. “I found a carry crate, with a lock. Think it’ll do?”
“Yeah. Is there a stick with a hook on the end in there?”
“There’s a snake hook, if that’s what you mean.” Clint tosses it over and holds up the pet crate, door open.
Steve takes a second to consult the lab diary --he wishes Bruce was available, but they can all hear the Hulk playing with Thor, they’ll be a while-- and then unlatches the tank. Heart beating a little fast and ready to slam the lid back down any second, he offers the creature the hook.
It looks at him, tentacles wriggling in so it’s a very spherical shape, and climbs onto the hook. It can’t bring all the blankets, dropping a few as it gets organised, and watching them with sad, droopy tentacles. Clint holds the crate as close as he can and Steve moves quickly to drop it inside, twisting the hook to make it fall off. Clint closes and latches the crate as soon as the hook is clear.
The crate’s pretty dark, only small airholes casting angular light over the monster's tentacles as it tucks itself in with one of the fleeces, its water bottle carefully arranged next to it.
Clint puts it on the desk and gestures that they need to talk away from it.
“Well, this is a first,” he comments, leaning against the desk Natasha’s working at.
Steve grimaces in agreement. “That it is. We’re lucky it even attempted communication. I was just going to leave it.”
Clint looks at him dubiously, grinning just a little bit. “Steve, you couldn’t have left a lab rat in a burning building, why you lie?”
“...fair. But rescuing a tentacle monster? From Hydra? Fury is going to live up to his name.”
“Potential sentient creature,” Natasha adds, still focused on the computer systems, her portable hard drive on the desk beside her. “UN mandate beats Fury’s instincts any day.”
Comforted, Steve nods. “Okay, nice to have consensus. You almost ready to pull out?”
She nods, scrolling and clicking still. “How about you? It just the one?”
“Yeah. That’s it,” Steve says, heading back for the pet crate and double checking the wall of dark tanks, just in case. They’re empty and disinfected, even their labels cleaned off. “Hawkeye, grab the paperwork. When you’re ready, blow the place. I’ll get this guy to the jet and round up the others.”
They disperse to finish up and ten minutes later, they’re leaving the tiny, two-room compound smoking in the rearview mirror.
The pet crate sits motionless and secured in cargo netting, with one brown eye peeking out of the bars.
They take it down to containment and leave it there with the team. It was an easy mission, sure, but Steve still wants some food and a shower. He’ll get on the paperwork to register his suspicions about the creature while he’s eating and pass it along to Coulson to get it registered with... whoever handles the sentient aliens they capture. It’s not like they’re a no-kill shelter for interdimensional beings, it doesn’t happen automatically, but generally people can be trusted to keep an open mind.
And that's when they’ve actively been trying to kill people.
This one’s harmless.
He eats quickly and does his paperwork quicker.
“Phil! Here, I’ve got--” he juggles his folder and holds out the report.
“Cap, evening. That was quick; debrief isn’t for another hour.” But Phil takes the paperwork and helps Steve shuffle his requisition forms back into the folder.
“I think you need to see this one though, before anyone signs off on tests with the captive we brought back.”
Phil quirks an eyebrow, already looking at the form. “I thought it was a ‘sample’.”
“Yeah, that was how Hydra labeled it, but might need to reclassify, ASAP.”
Phil smiles wryly. “They’d call you a ‘sample’ too.” He grips Steve’s shoulder reassuringly and Steve is, reluctantly, reassured. “I’ll get on it. Good catch, Captain.”
Steve watches him go back down towards containment, frowning slightly. Maybe he should have picked up the rest of 'subject AS47's blankets, it’s freezing down in the bowels of the building. He has to fill out the munitions report still, because they used Steve’s C4 and he discharged his firearm, but maybe he can do it in the lab. He heads down after Coulson, once he’s grabbed a pen off Darcy’s desk.
Turning the pen over in his fingers to put it in his pocket, he pauses. It understood English, so maybe...
He grabs a drywipe marker too.
In the elevator on the way down, he shifts uncomfortably; it’s a tentacle creature. It’s cute, sure, in the strange, faintly disturbing way that blue-ringed octopuses are cute, but still. He’s got to brace himself for a weird mouth full of, god, rotating teeth and venom to be hiding under those arms, and a distinctly non-human mind in control of it.
He’s got a tactical mind, he reminds himself, he can hold both concepts in his head at once; stranded, imprisoned sentient being, and potentially murderous tentacle monster.
He just won’t get too close, won’t give it any chances to do damage.
The elevator slides open onto the lab floor and he weaves his way back towards containment, through the open air space of Engineering and the more enclosed bubbles of Bio. The alien mineral formation they brought back from Peru is growing in one of the clear plastic tents that he passes and its flowers shrink away from his shadow as he passes. His life couldn’t get much weirder.
‘AS47’ is visible through thick floor-to-ceiling plexiglass, the cubic room sealed concrete on the other five faces. Containment is designed for humanoids (another new term for him) but AS47 seems to be enjoying the bed anyway. There hadn’t been anything in his tank at the base, just the bottle the creature is still holding and a scrap of soft fabric, and he’s feeling over the soft surface, patting it with a tentacle and letting his limbs spread out.
He reaches maybe...three feet across, like this. His central body is more visibly spherical this way, too, smooth creamy skin with big brown eyes and a pair of little holes behind them. The stripes make it hard to tell which arms are doing what, but somehow he/it unscrews the water bottle lid and, discarding the pet-sippy spout thing, sticks a tentacle into the water. It goes fuzzy and fat; fine hairs maybe, it’s hard to tell from a distance. The observing scientist, Mitchels, makes notes and zooms her camera to take a photograph.
There’s water available in there, but he’s not sure if anyone’s told ‘subject AS47’ that, because he pulls the tentacle back with a distinctly sad look and caps it carefully. The fuzzy tentacle vanishes into a wriggle with another couple, and when he spreads out again, it’s smooth and dry.
Steve taps on the glass.
AS47 looks up, shrinking into a smaller sprawl, and he waves at it. He takes the marker out and pulls the cap off with his teeth then realises, damn, he had to write everything backwards. Painstakingly, he scrawls: Do you read english? on the glass.
Visible excitement makes 47 wriggle, tentacles coiling on themselves as he tries to make his way over. It’s slow going until the wriggling dies down a bit and he can roll up into a ball and trundle to the glass.
Steve grins and sits down in front of the glass. There’s even carpet.
Can you write? he tries next. 47 nods awkwardly; it’s not a natural gesture for him, obviously. There’s a box that lets you pass things to the occupant, and a hatch under the door for food trays. The guy’s tentacles aren’t long enough to reach the box though.
“Back away from the glass for a second, okay?” He asks. 47 backs out of arm's reach, tucking them all under itself until just his eyes peek out. Steve rolls the pen through the hatch and then relocks it. “Okay, there you go. Give it a try.”
He, she, it, whatever, takes the pen -- Steve kept the cap -- and holds it in two coils. He writes like a toddler, shaky and ham-fisted, and not corrected for the glass, so Steve’s reading backwards, but it’s words. English too.
Hello. I am Tony.
“Wow. Uh, I’m Steve.”
Tony regards him solemnly, his eyes expressive enough to know where he’s looking. Nice place. Bigger. But, no sunlight. :(
Steve winces. “Well, we can get you a lamp? And go from there?”
10-400nm + 600-780nm, he writes, then draws a picture of a lightbulb and a ...stick figure of himself, a circle, two dots and a bunch of wriggly lines leaning towards the light. He circles the whole lot and draws a check mark.
“Okay, I’ll-- Mitchels? Could you talk to botany about that?” he asks. She’s set up a camera to catch the conversation from this side of the glass, and looks wide-eyed with excitement. She nods though, and toggles her comm, talking quietly.
“There’s water in the tap, if you need it?” Steve asks, pointing. Tony can draw a cartoon lightbulb, he probably knows what a tap is.
Can’t; Poison NH2Cl
“Shit, I’m sorry. That’s uh... actually illegal. For you not to have access to clean water, I mean. I’ll get you another bottle, without the uh, additives,” he puts a hand on the ground to push himself up, but someone puts a hand on his shoulder and he stops, sitting back down and looking up instead; there’s a group of grinning scientists watching them now.
“I got it, Cap, you keep on chatting,” Mitchels tells him, beckoning a lab assistant over.
He turns back to see Tony waving, another human smileyface drawn on the glass. He points to it, then to himself, then undulates two legs and points in a sweeping gesture at the scientists. It’s adorable, and not even slightly conducive to movement, Tony almost falls over, though he rights himself quickly.
“Is that a smile for your species?” Steve awkwardly copies the movement with his hands.
Tony undulates more intensely, tapping the smile and nodding enthusiastically.
A bottle of water appears near his shoulder and he takes it automatically. “Oh, great. It’s clean?”
“Well, it’s distilled, so,” the scientist says. Green badge on her labcoat tells him she’s from Bio, but the angle's bad to see her name. “No guarantee it’ll taste any good, but it won’t have anything in it either.”
“Okay, thanks.” He pushes it through the hatch and it’s only when it’s tugged right out of his hand by a tentacle that he realises his mistake. He forgot to get Tony to move away-- he whips his hand back out and slams the hatch shut. Everyone is still.
Sorry Tony writes, the bottle rolling away from him and every tentacle except the one holding the pen droops to the floor. I should stay away from the hatch, huh.
“Yeah, it’s...just in case you’re poisonous to us, like our water is to you. Sorry.” Steve feels so awkward he could crumple in on himself.
We should test that. I don’t want to hurt anyone. He writes it very clearly, slow and deliberate with every letter.
“Okay, sure. There’s probably a scientist around here somewhere who’d be happy to help you out.”
Tony pulls back from the glass by about half a foot and pulls his tentacles in under himself. His eyes close and he...wobbles in place, the little dark holes on either side of his head flaring and relaxing. They might be for breathing, he does seem to get slightly bigger and smaller in time with the movements.
The scientists start to mutter-mumble behind him and Steve shifts uncomfortably.
Eventually, Tony opens on eye a crack and suddenly looks exhausted. His colour is less intense, and he’s limp on the carpet. Rather than rolling, he just pulls himself back to the glass, slowly, and lifts the pen.
Hydra had lots of scientists.
Steve’s heart sinks through the floor.
I was hurt. Poisoned. Cut. But. I’m a scientist, I study things. I will try and trust. Please be nice.
Steve realises his hand is shaking. He’s angry, and the words written on the glass don’t go away in the way spoken ones do; he just keeps reading them.
“It doesn’t have to be today,” someone behind him says. “We can’t let you out of containment until we satisfy the boss-man that you’re not a threat, but you can have your lamp, and clean water, whatever food you want, yeah? And do the questionnaire and scans and stuff tomorrow.”
Tony nods, curling in on himself into a smaller space again. OK. That would be good. Hydra didn’t have good lights. No UV. I, he pauses for a long time, the pen wavering, don’t feel so great.
The words spur a little whirlwind of activity and the components of a lamp build up on the floor near Steve. With the woman from botany supervising, an array of LEDs and an old fashioned lightbulb are cobbled together. While they’re working, Steve gets out of the way, leaning against the glass near the edge, where the wall meets the viewing window. Tony joins him, rolling sluggishly into the corner. The glass is clear here, too. Enough space for more conversation.
“I’m sorry that... My species has been awful to you, I’m sorry.”
Out now. Bigger box. He taps the glass with the back of the pen. Do you really have laws that apply to, a pause. Species like me?
“Yeah. We’re called ‘SHIELD’, we’re supposed to protect people from...everything.” He decides not to mention that the first time they used the laws was to put an alien on trial, not to rescue them. It’d be pretty unfortunate.
It’s not easy to see Other as people though.
Steve shrugs. “You learned English, that’s pretty eye-opening.” He watches a tech drill a small gasket into a replacement food hatch and thread a cable through. “You can’t call yourself ‘Other’ though, what’s your word for your species?”
Doesn’t exactly have sounds to make into letters. It’s pronounced-- He coils two tentacles together over his head, in a spiral. We have our own writing system, so I learned to write english pretty quick, once I worked out your sounds. We call ourselves -- He draws a double helix, not quite exactly like a DNA symbol. In conversation.
“How about I use...” Steve hooks his two index fingers together, which is the closest hands can get to a spiral, “as your species name?”
Tony stands up, all the way up, on the tips of his tentacles and peers at Steve’s hands. Visibly flustered and unable to decide whether to use the pen or wriggle his tentacles in what Steve’s realising are words, Tony falls over. He bounces off the floor, and Steve’s ass can attest to the fact that it’s not exactly soft, and curls his tentacles tightly over his head.
“Are you okay? That looked uncomfortable.”
You can TALK you never
Your hands are crap but wow I had no idea
your species could make proper words!
The tentacle writing gets more and more scrawled, but it stays legible.
“Uh, I have a friend who can’t hear, so we learned sign language. Are you okay? You hit your head.”
technically it’s my body and ow. Tony turns and shows Steve his other side, which is slightly pink. I’ll be fine, just a bruise.
Steve glances over at the lamp-assembly process, which seems nearly complete. “Will the UV help?”
Tony nods and looks back towards the bed, longingly. The crate they brought him back in is still sitting in the corner and it gives Steve an idea.
“Hey, where do you want the lamp? I’ll bring it in, put it whereever, if you go back into the carry crate while I do.”
Sure. On the he pauses, dithering with the pen, blanket desk?
“Bed. B-E-D, I can do that.”
Bed. good to know. I’m tired. He underlines the ‘ow’ he wrote earlier, and circles it. Steve winces sympathetically.
“Yeah, looks like we’re nearly ready,” Steve says, at a gesture from one of the scientists. “You go on, and I’ll set it up.”
Tony drops the pen with a gesture he’s done before while he was nodding --hah, he’ll have to talk to linguistics-- and rolls to the crate. He’s slow, and tired now, like the excitement has worn him out. He takes his time clambering inside and pulling the door close. Steve worries. First sentient and peaceful alien and he’s sick on their watch.
“We’re ready, captain.”
He nods and pushes to his feet. He’s not afraid of Tony, so it takes him a second to establish enough situational wariness. Watch the crate door, take the lamp, through the door.
He has it set up in less than five seconds, standing on the floor but angled to shine on the bed, where Tony’s mussed the sheets already. And then he leaves, out the door and closing it behind him without ever seeing a hint of Tony.
They all stand back and watch once the locks are engaged and Tony slouches out of the crate and crawls back to the bed in a ripple of pale brown and cream. He heaves himself up the leg and flops onto the pool of light. The people around Steve mutter worriedly; they’re good people, able to see the personhood in a ball of tentacles.
Slowly, while the scientists start to drift back to their own experiments or start theorising, Tony changes colour. His tentacles flatten out, going leaf-shaped and the cream stripes turning a warm autumn orange. They turn towards the light and spread wide for maximum surface area. They fold up and over, covering Tony’s main body and just as he goes out of sight, Steve sees his eyes close.
He looks asleep and at the very least, he’s resting.
A tightness loosens in Steve’s chest.
Steve twitches and steps away from the containment unit. He hadn’t noticed Coulson arrive but he must have been here the whole time. He’s got another folder in hand and this time it’s labeled ‘Tony’ with a double helix underneath.
“He’s registered. Good work with him, Steve, the transcript will be very interesting.”
“Good. Can we get Clint down here? Or a linguistics expert who knows signing?”
Coulson nods, making a note like this is an official meeting. “I’ll see about getting him a keyboard too, but we’ll have to find out his level of technological understanding first. I don’t want him making a beacon out of spare parts.”
Steve feels the urge to defend the little yarn-ball but holds it back. Situational awareness, Rogers. Buck it up. “He said he was a scientist.”
Tony hasn’t had a bath in a year. The light is almost perfect, there could be less yellow-wavelengths but there’s plenty of heat and UV, and his leaves ache with relief. He wanders in and out of sleep and the ache in his side from falling fades away. Warm contentment is a novel sensation after all the time in Hydra’s little glass box, where everywhere he could sit was cold and unforgiving. The raised cushion is like a cloud in comparison. He’s got the blankets, all bunched under himself, and he can wriggle full leaves under them to digest and it’s incredibly comforting.
Eventually, he pulls the thick not-so-soft blanket that was covering the raised cushion over himself and, with only the heat coming through from the lamp, puts all his leaves away and goes to sleep properly.
He dreams of Steve’s fingers making real words, words he hasn’t seen since the other members of his expedition died, locked in those cold little boxes. Their images blur with static and flash between furious indignation at their capture and the weeks after as they all got sicker and sicker, Tony’s vision fading and winking in and out.
The water is poison, and he tries to show their captors, he bangs the glass and tries, but their words are these weird vibrations in the air, he can’t translate, he doesn’t think they even know he’s speaking, they never say more than ‘go’, or ‘hello’ or ‘yes’ with their bodies.
Yinsen is the only other captive he can see clearly and they talk desperately, trying to work out how to communicate--
They feed him plant material, some kind of cooked animal, and he draws as much water from them as he can, his vision stabilises and Yinsen tells him to sleep, as much as he can, he’ll last longer--
He looks back at him to check he’s okay, they take them out sometimes, shoot them with little needles of sedative and cut them while they’re sleeping, just to look. Tony’s nursing an incision on his underside that went right through one of his hearts and dangerously near his lungs, can’t put any weight there--
But the other tanks are empty when he looks.
He jerks awake, tentacles flailing against cloth and exposes himself to the light in a sudden, blinding flash.
Son of a frigging fish, he swears, following up with imprecations about the state of the Hydra scientist’s parent’s bonding status. Breathing hard, he flops back to the blankets, closing his eyes against the light of his lamp and letting his hearts calm down. They race for ages, leaving him feeling clammy and unpleasant. Maybe Steve can be talked into letting him have a bath.
He flails out with one lazy tentacle and pulls the socket out of the base of the lighting unit thing they cobbled together for him. In the resulting dark, he blinks at the ceiling, its big light tubes turned off.
Rolling over laboriously, he takes a look out the glass; it must be early morning, the lights over the different lab spaces are coming on. They have an engineering lab, he’s just itching to make improvements to his lamp.
His? He can keep it right? They have to feed him, it’s in their laws.
A cephalosapien can hope.
But first, he needs a rub down. He hasn’t exactly had enough water or light to excrete much for a while, so he’s filthy now he’s eaten. He wets his wash cloth with the scentless, tasteless water they provided and rubs it over his roots, twining them over and over until he feels clean. The cloth is nearly beyond using, but with more water around, and the promise of extra, he hauls himself up to the waterproof bowl with the drain and rinses it out with the old, stale water he brought with him from the prison.
The brown-topped human that had been watching him before Steve arrived is watching through the glass when he finishes, and he shows them hello. They wave back and push a tray through the slot under the door.
This is a much more efficient system for delivery than the lid of the tank. He shows gratitude and puts his washcloth away before ambling over. They sit down at the observation table, camera trained on him again.
He’d start trying to show them words in a bit, but first he wants to see what they thought he ‘ate’. The tray is filled with a range of objects in white polymer, and a scoop shaped object he recognises but doesn’t know the term for. A bit like a spatula for weighing chemicals.
The half-sphere polymer object contains a simple solution of sugar and water, with cubes of unidentified fruit floating in it, which bob amusingly when he pokes them. The beaker’s more clean water, with a mineral content that feels delicious.
Okay. So. They’re the nicest fucking people. He’s going to turn yellow, he feels like he’s going to vibrate across the floor. He’s in a glass box again, trapped underground, alone with nobody to talk to on the entire planet and he’s so happy he could melt into a million pieces. It’s ridiculous, he should at least be careful and test things for more than five seconds before eating them. He steels himself, he really does, and puts careful tentacle tips on things, instead of wrapping them all the way up.
There’s a carrot, whole but with the tough outer layer removed by a sharp tool, like a knife or scraper, and the stems of some kind of plant he hasn’t encountered before. Coiling around both, he sucks on them curiously. When his root stays feeling normal, he swallows the juice with a pleased shuffle. The plant saps are wet and tasty, so he coils around the rest on the platter and settles back to enjoy his breakfast.
His caution goes well rewarded.
Once he’s done, he puts the dehydrated husks back neatly on the ceramic platter and dips a root into the sugar water, sucking absently while he reaches with another arm for the pen. With it in his grip, he looks up at the glass and hesitates. It’s dense with writing, and the arm he held the pen with yesterday aches just at the thought. Long term goals; find a way of communicating that didn’t require cramping up one of his limbs and doesn’t rely on writing surfaces.
Short term? Courtesy. Wherever Pepper is a year after the expedition was captured, she’d be proud.
He draws a grid and fills it with common terms he’s spent the whole year painstakingly putting together. Hydra had given him paper, rather than the much more convenient glass-writing pen, and it occurs to him that he’s forcing his new ‘friends’ to read mirror, but it is hard enough as it is.
hello, thank you, water
yes, no, please,
ow, yum, stop,
go ahead, Steve, Hydra
He stops writing, his pen arm shaking. He leaves the pen at the bottom of the glass wall and retreats along the line of the limb still drinking sugar water. Those are the important ones, he can stop there.
The polymer vessel is nearly empty so he mops up before tipping the clean water into the vessel and climbing in. He doesn’t exactly fit in the hemisphere, half his limbs overflowing, but sitting actually in water, having drunk and eaten more than enough, feels like heaven.
He feels strong enough to look out at the wider lab, now. Especially with his roots in water. The brown-topped human is at their desk, fiddling with the camera, and he watches curiously. They’re adjusting the focus with a piece of paper taped to the glass, presumably to capture the conversation still up from yesterday.
He waves when they make eye contact.
“Good morning. The food okay?” they ask.
He points to water and yum, followed by thank you, and they seem to understand immediately. Score one to the matrix.
“Great! I’m just getting set up, then is it okay if I ask a few questions? Or I can get Captain Rogers down here to do the interview, he stayed on base overnight.”
He would like to have Steve back, point of familiarity and all that. But he can handle it without, so he shrugs as close as he can to their noncommittal gesture without having shoulders.
“Do you know what this is?” they ask, pointing to the camera.
Yes, he indicates, then points to his pictograms from yesterday, and at the device. They look puzzled, so he lifts up on his tentacle tips, pulling the bowl up off the tray and shamble-walks it over to the glass to write. Plunking it down in good reach of the pen and his grid of useful terms, he settles back in without spilling a drop and writes; Image capture object.
“Yeah. I’m taking photographs of your writing. And I’ll take film --moving pictures?” he nods “-- of your signing, if you don’t mind?”
He points at ‘go ahead’ and she does the face gesture that means good feelings. The one that has a digital picture that he copied.
Hydra never told him the word for it, but Steve had called it a smile.
Maybe they have murals he can study, or scrolls. Their computers probably have libraries of their words, like a pictionary. He wants one.
“Okay, I’m gonna start, you answer what you can,” they tell him, “there’s no pressure to keep talking if it gets uncomfortable, okay? This is prelim stuff. And I can get the Captain any time you change your mind.”
Go ahead, he points.
“So, let’s start with your biological needs.”
He settles in with a whiffle of expelled air and dredges up his early schooling in biology. The air on this planet is fine, according to Yinsen, and the gravity is kind of strong for him --it takes a few sentences to wheedle their word for it out of the interviewer-- but the padded raised platform thing makes up for it a fair amount.
What’s your name? he scrawls absently, still thinking about how to convey thermal data in a common form.
“Mitchells, here, it’s spelled on my badge.”
He peers at the square of polymer they hold against the glass; the name is printed next to some biometric data --they’re female, and authorised to use weaponry-- and copies the name into his grid of useful words, then taps thank you.
“You’re welcome. You were talking about temperature?”
He returns to the sentence he left off at. My homeplace is warmer, wetter, than here. But I am resilient. They used the term ‘endothermic’.
“That’s in the notes Hydra made. It means you generate your own heat, maintain a constant temperature despite environmental fluctuations?”
He indicates understanding, the description matches his understanding. Though, cephalosapiens do have to use shade and light sometimes to stay in the right temperature zones. The cloth wrappings the humans all wear presumably share the same function.
“I’m not going to take their word on anything though, even if it means going over things twice. We...don’t trust anything Hydra says. Ever.”
He flushes a little yellow in glee. Hah, fuck Hydra. Yeah. If you pass me a temperature measuring device, you can have your own, bastard-free data.
“I have a little pack of things, actually. If you want to poke through them, I can tell you what to do through the glass, no physical contact required.”
“Swabs, mostly. Do you know the term ‘genetic material’?”
He does; Hydra sequenced his genome, and in the process he learnt all about how humans do that particular kind of science.
You can sequence my genome, sure. I would like to see how it compares to human; we are related somehow, I know, but how is-- not my area?
She goes slack and floppy after he’s done writing, mouth open. He peers at her teeth; he thinks humans are omnivorous, but their teeth are weak and small looking. Of course, having teeth is bizarre enough all by itself; he’s having trouble getting his head around the concept of putting things inside your body. Presumably the inside of their mouths acts a bit like his roots, filtering and absorbing, but where he’s from there are no sentient consumers so the philosophy of putting things inside what makes you who you are isn’t exactly a topic he’s come across.
Mitchells closes her mouth, uses the limb inside it to make her lips shiny, and picks up a flat, white case from her desk. Tony sighs a full breath and heaves himself out of his nice, clean water to roll out of reach of the hatch. He gets it, he does; foreign organism, potentially deadly and, let’s face it with both eyes; traumatised, imprisoned and potentially playing a long game to win his freedom at the expense of anyone who gets too close.
Well. Yeah, maybe Obie would have done that, but not even Obie’s brutal, immoral abhorrent asshole behaviour could save him from captivity. Obie starved to death in a Hydra cell and Tony is not Obadiah Stane.
He rolls back over once the hatch is closed, and pokes at the objects in the case. A cotton swab in a sterile case; obvious. She talks him through their procedure and since he doesn’t have any...cavities like their mouth, he pops the top off and coils a root around it, rubbing just hard enough to feel a little sore and give a good sample. He shoves it back in the box, capped.
There’s a self adhesive sensor, probably a thermocouple and a transmitter, that he sticks to his skin with a long-suffering undulation. She reads something on her device and smiles at him again. Sample pots, testing if he’s in any way poisonous; one he fills from the water he was sitting in, because why not. It would show their science people that he wasn’t a contact poison, at least. He caps that too, and prods at the second pot.
“It’s for blood, the dome houses a needle. But I’m obligated to stress that this is voluntary. If you don’t want to, don’t, okay?”
He does. The needle is truly miniscule, more like a lance than a hypodermic, and it draws a drop of blood into...some kind of preservative in the bottle.
Disconcerted, he pushes it all back to the hatch and rolls all the way to the padded platform for a break.
“Thanks for your cooperation, Tony. I’ll get this to testing.” He waves with a spare leaf as he clambers up the platform to sit under his lamp for a bit. He settles in for a doze, but the ache in his scar picks up and he rolls over to put his face in the blankets, lifting the scar off the bed.
His rest is fitful, his body aches in all kinds of weird and wonderful places. It’s deeply unfair; he’s just gotten away from deprivation, he should be feeling better. He’s full, he’s watered, he has light, what more does his body want him to do?
He finds a position that’s comfortable and watches people doing science.
If it weren’t for the eerie stillness of their bodies, and strange angularity of limbs, it could almost be back home.
Eventually, Mitchells talks into a device, looking at him through the glass briefly, and Steve appears not long after. Tony suspects he looks pitiful and rolls over to face the aggregate wall instead.
“Hey, you okay?”
He may be sulking. A bit. He flops a tentacle in Steve’s direction, flattening it to a leaf for a second before letting it droop to the bed again.
“Um. I’ll be back in a bit, I just-- yeah. One second.”
And he’s gone. Tony rolls back over hurriedly and scoots down the platform and over to the glass; he didn’t mean Steve should leave, he really didn’t, he has a hundred questions, and -- Steve’s out of sight around a corner. Tony slumps into a pile.
He’s drawing a crude picture of a person in a bath, their tentacles hanging out in his best approximation of bliss, when Steve returns. He drops the pen and grins up at Steve, pointing to the smiley face for good measure too.
Then, points at ‘Steve’ repeatedly.
The guy grins and, arms full of something squashy looking and delightful, unlocks the big door.
Tony, alarmed, bundles himself up, arms over his eyes, and rolls by feel all the way under the bed. It’s dark, dusty, and well away from the door; they can’t see him as a threat to their Steve if he’s all the way over here.
The door closes with a faint air pressure sensation and Tony risks a peek; Steve is inside, door closed and the floomfy pile scattered on the floor around him. He’s peering after Tony with a wrinkle over his eyes that might be the word for ‘concern’, Tony can’t be sure.
“Oh. Sorry? Uh, I got permission to come inside, you’re non-toxic and, apparently don’t have any teeth? So.”
Tony signs ‘teeth are fucking bizarre and that is no good reason to burst in on someone like that you uncultured dugong.’
Steve blinks uncomprehendingly.
With a flail of inexpressible irritation, Tony rolls back out flicking Steve away from himself with a shoo gesture that’s got to translate. Steve, the son of a prickly pear, grins and backs off to his pile of stuff. Tony follows, a careful arms’ length away at all times.
“So, Mitchells was sorting this lot out when she called me down and said that if I wanted, I could bring it in. I’m pretty much bomb-proof, you can’t hurt me even if you tried.”
Tony bristles in indignation; of course he wouldn’t try, what did they think he was?
...traumatized and having nightmares? Tony signs violently that Steve’s an idiot and that if something happens, it’ll be his own damn fault.
“Here, cushions, and more blankets. Because of our heavy gravity? No more bruising yourself, okay?” Steve plops a large padding-filled bag next to him and Tony pokes at it dubiously. Steve shoves another one the same under himself and Tony cautiously follows suit. It really is soft, and he settles in the middle with his tentacles coiled around himself.
“Aw, stop glaring at me, okay. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
Tony stubbornly refuses to leave the cushion to write on the glass and signs ‘you are a rash, foolish dumbroot with a deathwish,’ instead.
Steve watches intently, but Tony flails in derision. Steve only has two hands, and human fingers are bizarrely stiff and jointed, he won’t be able to learn cephlish.
It’s uncomfortable, suddenly; there’s a warm body in the same space as him, no glass in between them, and that’s a first in three hundred days. His skin is prickling like fury and he wants to reach out and touch just to feel the warmth of another living person.
The scar on his underside, the throbbing mis-beat of his injured heart, out of time with the others, tells him not to.
“Um, if you like,” Steve starts, “I can talk in signs at the same time? How good are you with languages?”
Tony blinks up at him; the idea of speaking two languages at the same time is baffling at first but he dips his body in an uncertain wobble.
“Linguistics gave me a sheet of... well. We should start there. You seem to have worked out pointing and waving.” Steve’s hands move in words, which Tony does recognise. An open palm and spread fingers moving from side to side. “This is hello, and ‘I see you there’ and ‘good bye’ so...” He looks uncomfortable and shifts on his pillow, referring to the piece of paper.
“It’s weird without you talking... do you want to write? We can move to the glass.”
Tony wriggles no, then pointedly settles down on his cushion. At least one of the two words is understood, and Steve huffs.
“Okay, I’ll just talk and if you really have to bitch me out, you’ll have to shift your own pillow.”
Tony turns yellow in glee.
“See! That, what does that mean? Do I need to bring my paints down here and colour my fingers, because I will, I swear.”
Tony picks up gesture body language in about ten minutes, and Steve suspects he’d picked up most of it from the scientists at the Hydra base. He moves on to his own limited ASL vocabulary next, and tries to give Tony the signs for the words in his grid, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, etc. It’s not a case of just teaching him though, first they have to translate the gestures into sixteen-tentacles-and-a-face.
‘Please’ isn’t too bad, Tony makes a circular motion over his body, below his eyes, with two twined limbs, and ‘thank you’ works well, too.
“Do you have a name-sign? ‘Tony’ can’t be how you say it,” Steve asks once they reach Steve’s name on the grid.
Tony signs ‘yes’ haltingly, it takes three tentacles and doesn’t look anything like the tentacle language Tony’s been berating him in. To Steve’s surprise, Tony makes a low hum sound, the first noise Steve’s heard from him, and he misses the sign completely.
“Sorry, could to do that again?”
A hum, combined with a coiled tentacle with a second looped through the center, like a capital Q, or a Y. Hesitantly, just incase he says something insulting and butchers it completely, Steve makes an ‘OK’ sign with his left hand and hooks his thumb through the O. “Like that?”
Tony wriggles and then signs ‘yes’ three times in a row, then ‘no’, and then a wobbling non-comitant gesture that's partly both signs. He reaches over and adjusts the angle of Steve’s wrist so it’s not hiding the circle and--
He’s warm. Warm, soft and dry, like the soft skin on the inside of someone’s wrist. He goes really still when he realises what he’s done, but Steve doesn’t pull away. They’re safe, it’s fine. Its for the sake of language, right?
He’s gone yellow again, and the touch lingers for a moment, Tony staring at the end of his limb like it’s mesmerising. Then, he flashes light blue at the very edges of his cream stripes, and pulls away. He’s shaking a little bit, limbs drooping to the cushion.
“Are you okay?” He humms the tone and makes Tony’s name sign, followed by the question mark.
Tony nods slowly and finally picks up the pen to write.
‘Been awhile since I touched anyone. Felt like electricity. I’m fine.’
“Do you ...want a hug?”
Tony flushes yellow and blue and coils up small, the smallest Steve’s seen him go. He can barely see his body, he’s just a bundle of limbs hiding from the world.
Slowly, he gets his colours under control and creeps tentatively towards Steve’s legs. He looks scared, Steve isn’t sure how he knows it, but he’s pretty sure. “Here, just thump me when you want to get down, okay?”
He holds his hands out, near the floor and Tony coils first one, then three, limbs around his fingers. Steve cups his hands around him --he’s about the size of a soccer ball-- and lifts gently, tucking him into a hug.
Tony goes very limp, eyes closed and hidden against Steve’s shirt. He’s warm, breathing, and thrumming slightly with an unfamiliar heartbeat. Steve leans back against the glass and hums the sound part of Tony’s native name. The ball hums back, one tentacle curling around Steve’s thumb.
“Not designed to be on your own, are you?” Steve mumbles, slouching more comfortably. “Don’t tell my team but...me neither.”
“Agents Rogers, Barton and Coulson, conducting. The date is Thirteenth March, twenty sixteen. Please type your name for the record.”
Anthony Edward Stark.
“Reason for entering the country-- I know it’s ridiculous, Mr Stark, please, it’s just for the paperwork.”
Kidnapping, unlawful detention, and illegal sentient being testing.
“Great. That’s... life-affirming. Okay, uh, next one is... ‘Please state your species, in your native terminology.’”
Cephalosapiens. Alternate terminology; tentacle monster, ‘species Alpha-Sierra’ sample four. Just fill it out for me. I don’t see why--
“You’re on the record Tony, please? Just answer.”
Fine. Interrogate away.
“Ahem. Uh, ‘Date of birth’?”
May 29, 1970.
“Really? I figured you must be a baby--”
“Focus, Agent Barton.”
Are you calling me short, feather-brain?
“What? No! I-- you are perfectly proportioned?”
“Oh god. Stop talking. Reason for asylum claim?”
Desire to be less kidnapped. I mean, also the desire to throw Hydra off the planet, but being protected from illegal kidnapping is also very much in there.
“Yeah, that’ll do. As a member of a non-humanoid species you will be assigned a protection and concealment detail for the duration of your application process, and thereafter for as long as you request. Form Echo Charlie six can be filled out upon receipt of green card to make this request. Do you understand?”
Egg-sitter, check. Further paperwork, check. Can I make a request?
I’d like Captain Rogers, please. Good with a slow cooker.
“That is the plan. We don’t want to uproot you at this stage, though you’re welcome to seek gainful employment and independent living at any stage--”
--providing I adhere to section bajillion of document ‘tell no one’. Yeah, I get it. Alien species unearthed, panic in the streets, Cthulhu, etc., etc.
“Tony! I’m back!” Steve yells, dropping the shield by the door and beelining it for the couch.
A greeting beep sounds from Tony’s side of the living room, somewhere amongst the many levels and multitude of blankets, pillows and electronic components, and Steve dumps himself down on the cushions secure in the knowledge that Tony isn’t buried in them.
Hey babe, Tony types, big blue letters floating over the coffee table. How was your pow-wow?
“Fury’s still pissed that the UN granted asylum, but!” He lifts his ass off the couch and fishes his wallet out. “He had to hand it over or it was technically an infringement of the sentient rights act, section blahblah, etcetera.” He pulls the ID out of his wallet with a flourish, flashing the green plastic and it’s shiny hologram in Tony’s direction.
The screen fills with a long line of ‘oooooooo’s and Tony appears over the edge of a platform, scrambling down the net towards the floor. He finally drops the last two feet, bouncing a little, and rolls over to Steve’s side of the room, leaving a trail of abandoned electronic components. He can’t sign and move at the same time, but his colours ripple yellow and orange; he’s relieved. Excited maybe, because he’s usually much more careful about dropping to the floor like that, but mostly relieved. He wriggles and clings his way up Steve’s leg and rolls into his lap to take the card, blinking intently at it.
It’s really official, he signs eventually. Wow.
“Holographic and everything.”
I can finally employ someone! And get patents! Tony adds, tentacles long with enthusiasm, his body wobbling from side to side.
Steve cups his hands on either side just in case and Tony grabs his thumb with one arm, pushing it up and down like a handshake. “You’ve done it, Tony. First non-humanoid sentient life form to be recognised as a person.”
Well. I had help, he wriggles forwards and wraps his arms around Steve’s chest, laying his head down and squeezing. Thank you, he signs awkwardly, blindly with his face hidden in Steve’s pecs.
“Any time, Tony. Anytime.”