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Chapter One

 

Steve woke well before his alarm was set to go off. He didn’t bother turning his phone over to check the time, just listened to the tick-tick-tick-tick of the clock on the wall. Tony had called him a dinosaur when he’d brought it home from the antique shop. No one put a clock on the wall because they actually needed to know the time, he’d insisted (why have a phone otherwise?). Clocks were for interior decoration only, and it was best when they didn’t even work. Steve had seen the clock in the window of the antique shop and it had reminded him of his mother. She had dragged her clock around for years, from one shitty tenement to another. Her grandfather had brought the simple timepiece with them from Ireland, taking up the precious little space he had for personal items on the ship.

Steve had gone to sleep to that clock for years, first tucked into a drawer lined with blankets, and later in the single bed that he got at night and his mom got during the day. It had kept him company during the long nights while his mom was working at the hospital, had provided soothing background noise while Steve sat on the floor with his slate and a snub of chalk, meticulously practicing his letters. She had been forced to sell or trade away everything else – the tea service her mother had been so proud of, her great grandmother’s wedding dress, her jewelry – but the clock had stayed on the wall, tick-tick-tick-tick through every storm, every stifling hot summer night, every breathing fit, every sickness. It wasn’t until after his mom’s death that Steve had been forced to give up the clock to pay for her grave.

He’d stood in front of the antique shop’s window for several minutes, staring at the simple wooden panels and the tarnished brass plate on the front, the elegant shape of the hands, the careful formation of the numbers and thought about his mother’s grave in the pauper’s field, and Bucky standing next to him in the rain, and how he’d had trouble falling asleep for months afterwards without the steady tick-tick-tick-tick in the background.

Even after teasing him about it, Tony had helped him repair the clock and Natasha had helped him hang it so it was centered and level on the wall. He had thought that it would be easier to go to sleep to its gentle ticking, but it had kept him awake for hours every night for weeks. In the darkness, the ticking was no longer gentle but as loud as hammer blows on the wall. It wasn’t quite right, the tick just a little too long, the tone not striking the same note. He’d thought about throwing it away, about telling Tony that he was right – he didn’t need a clock to tell him the time, he had a very intelligent phone for that – but Steve didn’t give up, and it had somehow become a matter of honor for him.

It had taken months, but the clock had finally stopped reminding him of the way the rain sounded on grave markers. Somewhere beyond the sleepless nights it had started reminding him of the way his mom had crawled into the bed in the early hours of the morning, moving him carefully so he didn’t wake up, and laying down with her hand over his chest as she drifted off to sleep.

The alarm went off. The musical ringtone was jarring after the tick-tick-tick-tick of the antique clock. Steve winced, but he let the sound continue for several seconds before dragging his phone off the end table and canceling the alarm. The ticking of the clock swelled in the resulting silence, and Steve counted out fifty-five blows of the hammer, and then swung his legs over the side of the bed and forced himself to get up.

He took a long run through the park, and waved at a flagpole on the way past, his lips jerking into a smile. As much as being in the right place at the right time, as much as jumping on a grenade, that flagpole had changed his life. Peggy’s carefully repressed smile had been almost as good as a full breath when he’d climbed into the back of her jeep. He’d wanted to talk to her, and spent the entire ride thinking of clever things he could say, comic book one-liners and movie quotes, but it took the entire trip back to base to just get his breath under control. By the time he felt calm enough to speak, the jeep had pulled up to the admin building, and Peggy climbed out of the front seat with a polite smile, and a terse, “Good job, Rogers.”

“This looks like a job for Superman,” Steve muttered under his breath as he left the flag behind him, shaking his head. Peggy would have loved it, though he wouldn’t have known at the time. She had kept herself shielded around the recruits, and even Steve had only seen glimmers of what must have been beneath her shell. More than anything, he regretted not getting the chance to know her better, to know what she was like out of uniform and off the battlefield.

Back at the tower, he found Nat already at the stove. He’d been surprised the first time he’d walked into the kitchen and found her putting away a lumberjack’s breakfast, but after a few times joining her for a workout, he’d understood where she put the calories.

“Morning, Steve,” she said over her shoulder, flipping a pancake in the griddle. It landed with a soft plop and immediate started to puff up, perfectly golden on one side and pale on the edge. She twisted around to give him a smile. “Pancakes?”

“As many as you can fit on a plate,” Steve answered, pulling the bag of potatoes out of the pantry. They worked side-by-side in companionable silence, moving around each other with practiced ease. Steve washed and peeled potatoes and chopped them into tiny neat squares while Natasha scooped pancakes off the griddle by the half dozen.

Between the two of them, they ended up with giant stacks of golden pancakes, corned beef hash mixed with bacon, scrambled eggs smothered in cheese, and cups of yogurt.

“You two disgust me,” Tony said when he stumbled half-asleep into the kitchen, and then left with his face in a coffee mug, and a bag of cookies stuffed under his arm.

“You don’t disgust me,” Clint reassured them, just as sleepy, grabbing a plate and scooping out piles of breakfast for himself.

“You’re doing the dishes,” Nat said, pointing at his plate with her fork as he sat down.

Clint flopped his hand vaguely in her direction. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered drowsily and tucked into his stolen breakfast.

Steve cleared his plate, leaned over to kiss Nat’s temple, and said, “Thanks for pancakes.”

“How come I don’t get a kiss?” Clint demanded. He had his mouth full of eggs and potatoes, and his expression was adorably confused. His hair was crushed to his skull on one side and raked up into a mess of spikes and tangles on the other, and his eyes were still only half open.

Steve thought about kissing Clint’s forehead, but he would probably never hear the end of it if he did. “Because you don’t make me pancakes,” he said, rinsing his plate and forcing himself to put it in the sink instead of loading it in the dishwasher himself. Nat’s rule was very firm: the chefs didn’t clean, and the penalty was just as strict for the chefs as the non-chefs if her rule was broken. She gave him a satisfied nod and a smile from behind her glass of orange juice.

~*~

The weights chimed with each repetition, cl-clink, cl-clink, cl-clink, just a bare ping of noise under his music. Steve tried to remember not to let the weights touch, but he liked the way they chimed like a clock. It was an auditory anchor that helped him remember where he was – or more importantly when he was. He had earbuds pressed into his ear canals, soft white doughnuts of rubber connected to a wafer of hard plastics and wires. It played Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, and Bing Crosby interspersed with Adele, Pink, and Bruno Mars. It was still amazing to him that he could carry so much music around in his pocket, but he had to admit that he missed the community aspect of music from his time. There were a few radios in his building when he was at art school, and sometimes they would be set out in the hall so everyone could enjoy the music. Music back then hadn’t been something to enjoy alone, but with friends or neighbors, or total strangers briefly connected by the melody.

Bucky would’ve loved modern dance music. He’d always liked the loud tunes with the fast beats, and he would have fit right into a 21st Century dance club. Bucky had been proud of his dancing, and he might have mourned the loss of the specific dance steps, but Steve didn’t think he’d’ve minded the new dancing either, with his body pressed so tight to a lady’s he might as well have been in bed with her. Steve tried to imagine himself standing at the bar in one of those noisy clubs and watching Bucky sway with a girl or three. He didn’t think he could’ve done it, not like the dance halls of their youth when Steve could watch Bucky’s feet kicking up the latest steps instead of his hips gyrating to the beat.

Maybe, if they’d been born into the right century and Steve had come by his body honestly, he could have been out in the crowd with Bucky, back-to-back as they danced with strangers, or maybe they would have danced together. The thought made him flush in embarrassment and hint of shame, and the weights smacked together, off beat with Moves like Jagger. He let go of the handles and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck as he straightened his legs out again, feeling the subtle burn in his thighs and abdomen.

Steve tried to imagine himself on the dance floor with Peggy and couldn’t quite bridge that gap either. It was easy to picture wrestling with her on the mats, even sparring with her in the ring, but the idea of that kind of hip grinding exhibitionism always made his knees feel weak. The back of his neck warmed up under his fingers, and he let the weights chime back together. He moved the pin down to the bottom, putting him at a level that required genuine effort. It was a special machine that Tony had designed for him a year before and kept adding extra weight to whenever he got into a tinkering mood. The heavy weight dragged his mind of off Peggy, but reminded him that Tony was an excellent dancer.

Adele’s Best for Last came on, and Steve turned his attention to counting. Some modern music was a horror to him, but he liked the diversity and the depth of the sounds, the beats and the excitement, and that Adele had some pipes on her. His mom would have loved her music. He kept a running count – 18, 19, 20 – remembering to breathe, extend his legs fully in front of him, pull them slowly back, 21, 22, 23.

The music cut with an abrupt bing! Followed by his phone’s pleasant voice announcing, “Priority alert, emergency notification from SHIELD.”

Steve curled his legs in, letting the weights come to rest with a final k-ching! Tugging the earbuds out by the cord, he fished his phone out of his pocket. Steve hastily wiped his hand off on his thigh and pressed his right thumb to the flashing red exclamation mark in the center of his screen. It flashed his fingerprint briefly on the screen, and then an emergency alert came up from Coulson. There were no words, just a minute and twenty-two second video clip. Frowning, he used his pinkie to push the play button.

He let the video play through, and then stared at the last frame still frozen on the screen for several seconds. If it had been anyone other than Coulson, he would have thought it was a horrible joke. After Tony had convinced him that Jurassic Park was based on a true story, and the rest of the team had let him rant about the irresponsibility of it for a week, he was suspicious of almost everything. Bruce had finally filled him in on the prank minutes before Steve had gone on a talk show, where he probably would have mentioned it. He’d felt stupid for believing it, but then again, space aliens invading through an interdimensional portal, and a thunder god. Not much really registered on the incredulity meter after that.

Swiping the video out of the way, he got back to the home screen and tapped on the giant red and blue icon that read Avengers Assemble! In cartoon text. (It was a cartoon. Clint enjoyed it, so it played frequently in the common area). His screen flashed blue and then a tiny box with his own face staring down at an unflattering angle popped up in the corner. A year ago, he would have jumped right out of the exercise machine and started shouting orders, but he wasn’t in the War anymore, and running around shouting usually just got him into a fight with Tony and made Bruce nervous.

“Hold it up high, Cap, selfie angle,” Tony coached, his own little box coming up in the opposite corner. Steve could just make out the workshop behind him. From the angle of the camera, Dum-E or Jarvis was recording for him.

Steve ignored Tony’s selfie advice and got himself out of the leg extension machine, heading for the locker room at a jog. “I need everyone in the jet, on the double.”

“Already on the way,” Clint said. His box was black and his voice was muffled, phone probably still in his pocket.

“Does everyone mean me?” Bruce asked nervously, holding his phone up in front of his face.

When he could, he tried to leave Bruce behind for technical support. Being in the field made Bruce nervous at the best of times, and a nervous Bruce Banner made everyone else nervous. “Sorry, Doctor Banner. I think we might need you on this one.”

“Me, or the Other Guy?” Bruce asked for clarity, his voice a cross between resigned and suspicious.

“Can’t tell,” Steve answered. He set the phone down on the bench and pulled his uniform out of its cubby. He wished he had time to shower, but he hadn’t gotten the impression that Coulson was willing to wait for him to de-sweat.

The uniform was SHIELD’s most recent redesign. It was a one-piece suit that was supposed to be (or so they’d told him) faster to put on. It was worse than his old USO get-up: just as tight, but made of a thickly woven ballistic fabric that made getting into it in a hurry a problem. He’d been assured that there was a practical reason that it had to be skin tight, but he suspected that the practical reason had more to do with Captain America’s media presence than it did with battle performance. He wasn’t a stranger to being dressed up to his ‘best advantage’ and paraded for the masses, but he’d hoped that he’d reached the end of that when he’d been given his own command during the War. Apparently no one had told Twitter or Facebook.

He shucked his workout clothes as fast as he could manage without tearing them, and shoved one foot into the uniform leg. He tugged at it ineffectually with one hand while he felt in the cubby for his earpiece and shoved it into his right ear.

“-apsicle, seriously,” Tony was in the midst of complaining as Steve got the comm turned on, “We are dying with the suspense here. Way past the point of the artful dramatic pause, though I applaud the effort –”

“There are tentacles,” Steve interrupted in a rush, “In Central Park.”

A beat of silence followed. Steve used it shove his other foot in his uniform and pull it up to his hips. It bunched up uncomfortably around his knees like his tights always had until they were stretched out all the way. He shuffled his feet apart and squatted down, trying to get the crotch to settle correctly while he twisted the inseam into position.

“Did you say tentacles?” Bruce asked very hesitantly into the silence.

Before Steve could answer, Tony broke in with, “Is this an ‘octopus has escaped from the zoo and is hanging out in the Reservoir, call the Avengers for the PR’ type of situation? Because I would just as soon as sit that one out. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good tentacle as much as the next guy, but I’m kind of working here.”

Uniform up around his hips, Steve sat down to get his boots on. He paused long enough to drag the video into the group chat and let it handle the explanation for him. He wasn’t sure what else he could say about it except that there were tentacles in Central Park. He watched the video out of the corner of his eye as he finished lacing up his boots. It was camera-phone footage, shaky and grainy, but it showed a writhing mass of appendages that varied widely in thickness and color reaching out for running civilians. From what Steve could tell, the attempted grabs looked almost lazy, and the footage didn’t show if anyone had actually been caught.

Boots laced up, Steve pulled the top of the uniform up high enough to buckle his utility belt around his hips. He stuffed his phone in the pocket that had been designed for it, snagged the shield of its hook, and made a run for the hangar bay. The arms of the uniform slapped against his knees as he ran, the Tower’s cool, dry air pebbling his skin with goose bumps as the fine sheen of sweat dried.

“Everyone accounted for?” Steve asked, sliding around the corner and using one wall as a bumper to keep himself on track. It left a chilly brand on his skin that he rubbed at absently as he ran, the fwapfwap of his uniform sleeves hitting his legs keeping pace.

“Just waiting on you,” Natasha answered.

“These are tentacles,” Clint said numbly. “Has anyone ever run into a giant tentacle monster before? Is this something that just missed the story telling round at Team Bonding Night?”

“YouTube is calling it live-action hentai. Sex Invaders From Space!” Tony announced with a snicker.

It had taken Steve almost a year to figure out when Tony was trying to bait him into asking questions he didn’t want to know the answer to, and when Tony was being serious. It had been slightly over two years, and Steve usually had a pretty good handle on Tony’s bullshit level, but he floundered while trying to come up with a response.

“Do I even want to know what hen tie is?” Steve asked cautiously as he made it into the hangar with one arm in the uniform. Tony waited for him at the base of the loading ramp in the armor, but his helmet was folded back. It was a new model, Steve noted in passing, or at least newly painted. That made thirteen new versions in the last ten months. Tony’s lips curled into a mischievous grin as Steve approached, his eyes flickering briefly over Steve’s bare chest.

Steve held a hand up to forestall his answer and amended, “Just tell me it doesn’t involve chickens.”

Tony laughed, waggled his eyebrows, and didn’t answer. He held a hand out for Steve’s shield, stepping out of the way so Steve could get onboard. Clint was twisted around in the pilot’s chair, and only waited to turn around and lift off until Steve was clear of the ramp. Steve spread his feet apart for balance and struggled to get the other uniform sleeve up over his shoulder while Tony watched him avidly.

“We really need to work on something you can get into faster,” Tony mumbled, eyes flicking over the dimensions of Steve’s body. Steve was used to having eyes on him, but somehow Tony’s eyes always made him feel… something, something other than shy embarrassment, or shame, or like he was being picked apart. His attention should have done all of those things, but it only made Steve feel prickly, like Tony’s gaze was a physical thing drifting over his body. Having a hundred percent of Tony Stark’s attention was like staring into the sun, and Steve always felt like he was going to burn up under the heat of it.

Steve cleared his throat as if he could banish the ghost of Tony’s eyes on his skin. “That would be nice,” he admitted, reaching forward to take the shield back. It had taken an unacceptable seven and a half minutes to go from the alert to the hangar, and Steve had only been half dressed by the time he’d made it to the jet. Despite SHIELD’s PR team having put the stamp of approval on Steve’s newest uniform, it would have to go, just like the three before it.

“I thought you were working on something the Other Guy couldn’t tear out of,” Bruce commented, thankfully taking Tony’s attention away while Steve secured the zipper and sealed the Velcro panel over it.

“Your other half lives for no reason other than to annoy me on that front,” Tony snarked, pointing at Bruce, and then slashing his hand through the air and turning his face away. “I don’t even want to talk about this. This is us, not talking about how much you like to be naked.”

With Tony thankfully distracted, Steve slid the shield out of his hand and moved into Bruce’s ‘Science Zone, Hands Off the Buttons, Barton’ to get an update from Coulson while Clint turned the jet toward the park. They would be on site in less than three minutes, but Coulson already had a bulleted list ready for him.

“You could just ask Reed,” Natasha suggested sweetly from the copilot’s chair.

Steve glanced up for Tony’s reaction and found him looking at her with comically wide, predictably horrified eyes. “That sounds like a terrible idea. I thought you were better at good ideas than that.”

“He has managed to make a textile that stretches to any shape and size,” Bruce added, voice gently coaxing. Steve stifled a smile and wondered how long Bruce had been waiting for an opening to suggest approaching Reed.

“I am under attack from all sides,” Tony sputtered. “I feel attacked. The day will never come when I can’t out-engineer Reed Richards.”

“He’s already –”

“Not listening!” Tony declared. He put both gauntlets up to his ears. “Lalalala, I can’t hear you. Cap, don’t we have a briefing or something we need to be doing?”

Steve leaned around the alcove. They were already in sight of the park, but he stood up and gently tapped his phone on the main screen. It picked up Coulson’s list and displayed it, projecting a transparent picture against the windshield for Clint.

“Some kind of portal opened up over the park about twenty-five minutes ago, dropped the… creature, and closed. The alien hasn’t tried to leave the park, hasn’t done any damage, and no casualties so far that we know about,” Steve summarized. He frowned at the video, playing silently at the bottom of the list. As he watched, half of the tentacles lifted in the air, twisting around as if examining the scenery, and the other half reached out for a running teenager. When it missed, several of them stilled and ‘stared’ after her. Steve tilted his head and tried to puzzle out what seemed so off to him. “It seems very…”

“Confused?” Bruce offered.

Steve nodded. “Confused,” he agreed. “But we’re not going to take any chances. At this point, the plan is for containment. We need to get it to SHIELD HQ to figure out what it is, and where it came from.”

“And to do that we’re going to…?” Tony prompted, moving up to stand next to him. He peered at Coulson’s succinct list.

Tony could have read the paltry makings of the plan himself, but Steve gestured to the last short paragraph and answered, “SHIELD has a cargo container en route. The park should be evacuated by the time we get there, SHIELD has eyes out for any more portals. We’re going to try and herd the creature into the container and get it out of reach of civilians.” Steve had no idea how they were going to do that, but he’d gone into worse situations with less of a plan before.

“Good plan,” Tony said, patting Steve gently on the shoulder. Tony as Iron Man was as careful with his strength as Steve had to be all the time, even though Steve was one of the few who could handle his strength in the suit. He grinned, rocking back slightly. “Somehow,” he said with definite glee, “This is Richards’ fault.”

Steve let out a long sigh and didn’t answer. He didn’t know what had happened between Tony and Reed Richards to make them rivals, but it seemed like they were always in some kind of competition. Steve didn’t want to ask what the issue was and get brought into the middle of their war, so he let the comment go.

“Thor would be a nice addition right now,” Clint muttered.

“I guess the tentacle monster didn’t get our calendar reminder that Thor would be out of town until Tuesday.” Bruce had one ankle crossed over the opposite knee with a tablet braced on his leg. He tapped away at it, a small furrow forming between his eyebrows as he adjusted his glasses

“Rude,” Clint whined in response.

Steve put one hand on the back of Clint’s headrest and gave it a gentle nudge. “We can do this without him.”

“Famous last words,” Clint sing-songed in reply. “On approach,” he added before Steve could respond.

Steve felt the grind of the landing gears lock into place as the quinjet reversed thrusters in a brief hover, and then set gently down. He collected his shield from Bruce’s station and flipped it over his shoulders, letting Tony’s magnets catch onto it and heading for the loading ramp. Coulson was standing calmly at the rear of the jet, and didn’t even flinch when the ramp thumped to the ground inches from his impeccably polished shoes.

“Sitrep?” Steve asked as he stepped off the ramp. Coulson fell in step beside him, his long wool coat catching a breeze and fluttering over to brush Steve’s calves as they walked around the jet. Steve could hear Clint cursing softly over the comms and ignored him. When he rounded the jet and caught the first glimpse of their otherworldly visitor in the flesh it was all he could do to bite back a curse of his own. Natasha said something in Russian that made Clint choke on a laugh.

After a brief moment of silence, Bruce muttered, Wow.”

The tentacle creature was a mass of vibrant limbs that ran the color spectrum from sea foam to sunset, some as thick as modest trees, others fluttering in the wind like so many strands of hair. The tentacles weaved in the air, apparently not contained to a specific shape. In the space of a few seconds, it stretched up into a long column that easily topped the tallest of the surrounding trees, and then sank down into something more like a lopsided ball of loose rubber bands. It looked like something that belonged on the bottom of the ocean, and it was strangely beautiful.

Coulson cleared his throat, gave Steve one of his trademark bland smiles, and turned his gaze over to the alien, tipping his head to examine it. He had one eyebrow hiked and Steve imagined Coulson mentally writing up a reprimand on the alien for not adhering to the Guidelines for Intergalactic Visitors established (allegedly) sometime after Thor’s initial arrival. Coulson sighed, shook his head, and then said, “Park is clear of civilians. It still hasn’t grabbed anyone as far as we can tell, and hasn’t made much progress moving from its landing site.”

“The balls on that man are seriously impressive,” Tony commented over the comm as he rounded the side of the jet and stepped up behind them.

“I am wired into your network, Iron Man,” Coulson reminded him without turning around. A bare hint of a smile twitched across his lips, but he was otherwise stoic both in the face of Tony’s casual sexual harassment, and the waving bundle of space tentacles fifty yards away.

Tony laughed. His voice turned solicitous. “Giant balls, Coulson. Giant. Incidentally, what are you doing this Saturday?”

“Paperwork on your next social disaster, no doubt,” Coulson answered without so much as a change in tone. He stepped out from beneath the shelter of the quinjet and moved towards the alien.

Steve clenched his jaw at Tony’s careless flirting. He didn’t say anything, knowing that Tony would only take it as a challenge and turn the upcoming engagement into one big sexual innuendo. Steve glanced up at the writhing mass of tentacles and guessed there wasn’t much chance he wouldn’t do that anyway, but at least it wouldn’t be aimed at Agent Coulson. Steve made a mental note of the interaction and thought about how to bring it up, or if he should bring it up at all. That kind of talk among the Commandos wouldn’t have been anything worth remarking on, but Steve had sat through eighteen separate trainings on workplace diversity and sexual harassment, and he didn’t really want a nineteenth. Still, if Coulson didn’t mind the attention, and it didn’t make anyone else uncomfortable, did he really have to make an issue out of it?

Clearing his throat, Steve glanced over at Coulson. “ETA on the container?”

Coulson pulled a pocket watch out and clicked it open. The sight of it made Steve’s ribs compress down, and set a dull ache throbbing under his breastbone. His old watch had been in the plastic box of personal possessions that had been recovered from the wreckage of the Valkyrie. He’d left it there, sealed up and pushed under his bed where he wouldn’t be so tempted to just sit and stare at Peggy’s faded picture for hours on end.

Snapping the watch closed, Coulson tucked it into his pocket and folded his hands together in front of his hips. “Four minutes.”

Steve forcefully cleared the distractions from his head, told himself to get it together, and edged closer to the tentacles. They seemed to have gotten the creature’s attention, as much as he could tell without anything even remotely resembling a face to look at it. Most of the tentacles waved in their general direction, twisting around each other and investigating the ground between them and the quinjet. Several of the larger tentacles had burrowed into the ground and wiggled as they dug in deeper, some of the tips poking up through the grass like sentient mushrooms. Steve frowned and eyed the largest of the buried tentacles, trying to gauge how much of it had burrowed underground, and how likely it was that the tip was about to explode up under his feet. He shifted back a step and watched the ground for any unevenness or motion. It reminded him of Bugs Bunny tunneling through the earth, and the visual was not comforting.

“I’m… going to go park,” Clint decided when the whole mass moved several yards closer to the jet.

Steve took another step back and had to agree with Tony’s assessment of Coulson’s metaphorical balls when he only ran a quick glance over the thing, and determined that he was still plenty safe enough. He checked his watch again, clicked his phone display on and dragged his finger across the screen. Clint waited for the rest of the team to unload, and then lifted up and took the jet over the trees and out of sight. The tentacle mass stretched up as if watching him go. It still seemed mostly curious, and Steve wasn’t sure why he didn’t feel more alarmed by it. It had a quality of innocence that he found refreshing. Most of the new things he’d encountered since the serum hadn’t been innocent, or curious, or beautiful. Then again, he’d run into plenty of things that were beautiful and far from innocent.

“So.” Tony stepped up next to him, his helmet up and faceplate drawn down. His voice sounded slightly flat through the modulator, missing a sort of music that Steve had always appreciated. “This is happening.” He made a vague gesture to the tentacles.

“Sure is,” Steve agreed. He was at a loss for anything else to say, and he desperately missed the days when enemies were clearly uniformed and decision making was easier. The tentacles seemed to realize that Clint wasn’t bringing the jet back and sank down into a loose mass that once again took a little more interest in the Avengers than Steve would have liked, but it made sense. They were the only humans in the area who weren’t running away. Steve supposed he would be curious too if he’d landed on an alien planet and all the tentacle balls had started rolling away except for a few. It crept closer to them and Coulson finally stepped away, executing a perfectly timed turn with one hand against his ear. Steve wasn’t sure if he was retreating from the approaching alien or just politely stepping away to take a call.

“Container inbound,” Coulson announced after a brief exchange. He stepped back up to Steve’s side and gestured toward the helicopter just coming into visual range, though Steve had been listening to the whompwhompwhomp of the rotor blades getting closer for several minutes.

Steve put one hand on Iron Man’s warm chest to push him back a few steps as the tentacles covered more ground. It was amazing that Tony even let Steve push him back – a year before and he would have started a shoving match just for the heck of it. Steve reached out belatedly to pull Coulson back with them when it looked like the agent was getting ready for a game of chicken. The tentacle mass moved in a strange shambling roll, the larger tentacles gripping the ground and the smaller limbs undulating over them to move the whole forward. It was both disconcerting and interesting. Obviously captivated, Tony moved away from Steve’s hand, strafing sideways to get a better view of the way it moved.

“Are you seeing this, Bruce?”

“The locomotion is fascinating,” Bruce agreed.  “Maybe herding won’t be a problem – it seems to move towards anything new. It might go into the container on its own. There are biologists of all descriptions who would kill to be here right now.”

“You’re a biologist sometimes,” Tony noted.

Bruce snorted a laugh. “Good thing I don’t have to kill anyone to be here. Can you fly up and try to get behind it? I really want to know where its central body is. Or if even has one; it could be a fully cooperative collective.”

Tony lifted up obligingly and carefully arched around it, Steve keeping a close eye on the motion of the tentacles as several of them perked up. About half of the mass reached out toward the landing helicopter, and several others turned toward Tony. Three of the large tentacles popped out of the earth, leaving deep trenches of overturned earth and uprooted plants behind. The helicopter set the container down as close as it safely could, and Tony rerouted over the mass of tentacles to unhook the chains as the helicopter hovered. The tentacles, startled by Tony’s abrupt departure, reared up in one column and curved toward him, reaching out a slender appendage.

Steve startled forward a step, the shield coming up automatically. “Iron Man-!”

Tony executed a smooth lateral roll and slipped out from under the mass. “You have so little faith in my abilities, Cap,” he chided as he landed on the container. True to Bruce’s prediction, the tentacles started moving in his direction.

“There’s a door in the back of this thing,” Tony noted. “I could fly in, wait for it to follow me, and then fly right out the back.”

“Too risky,” Steve said immediately, wanting to cut that idea off before Tony fell into his habit of carrying on both sides of their conversation by himself, deciding that Steve should be okay with his plan, and then going through with it. It used to make Steve as mad as a hornet in a rainstorm, but he’d eventually realized that Tony wasn’t (usually) intentionally being insubordinate. His mind moved faster than just about anyone else’s, and Steve was apparently his mental sounding board. By the end of the conversation, he was often genuinely under the impression that Steve had been speaking to him the entire time. He probably shouldn’t have, but Steve found the concept of being the voice of a genius’ conscience (of Tony’s conscience) strangely flattering.

That didn’t mean he wanted Tony trapped in a metal box with an unknown alien organism.

Tony made a soft sputtering noise. “Cap, I can-”

“This thing has to be able to move faster than it is right now, and I’m not going to have you locked up in a metal box with it,” Steve said firmly. “Just get above it and see what it does with the container.”

The line was quiet for a moment, and Steve knew that Tony was running through the scenario where he disobeyed orders and went into the container anyways. The outcome must not have been favorable, because he finally lifted off of the corrugated metal container and several yards into the air. For its part, the ball of curious tentacles stood up straighter, several hundred arms reach up towards Tony even as the main mass continued to move towards the box.

“If that isn’t one of the more disturbing things I’ve seen today,” Tony said, firing his thrusters to move up a few more feet.

“Maybe it’s attracted to shiny things,” Natasha suggested. There was a curious note in her voice as she thought aloud, “How does it even see?”

“Open the back door on that container and throw in some glow sticks,” Steve ordered, guessing it was worth a try. She jogged around the container and Steve listened to the grate of the metal as she pried it open. A dozen familiar snaps and then a clatter heralded the chemical glow sticks landing on the metal floor. He listened for the door to slam and latch before diverting his attention back to their guest. The first of the largest tentacles were still a dozen yards away from the container as Natasha ran back to the cluster of equipment boxes that Bruce had set up as a base.

The creature came to a rambling stop in front of the container, several tentacles exploring the inside. Steve held his breath, praying to the universe in general that just this one could be easy. His journal entry could read, “Nonthreatening tentacle creature appeared in Central Park, and instead of eating half the city, calmly went into the box, made no trouble at SHIELD headquarters, and then went home. No muss, no fuss, no collateral damage.”

It almost looked like he was going to get his wish. Though several of the tentacles still stretched toward Tony where he hovered a good forty yards above it, the bulk of the mass appeared to be investigating the shipping container. Given another few minutes, it might have completely pulled itself in and they could have close the doors and headed home. It was still early enough to catch a show, eat some leftovers, and maybe sketch the strange encounter for his journal.

Just as the creature was rolling into the container, several loud, panicked shots rang out in the crisp autumn air.  Steve jerked back in the direction of the shots while the world seemed to slow down. A whole group of junior agents, apparently on a field trip, stood a safe distance away with two stunned senior agents standing among them. In the front of the group, a terrified young woman stood with her feet braced apart, handgun out, shooting rapidly. The world jumped back into motion and the tentacles, up to that point curious and moving at a sedate pace, became an angry nest of lashing limbs. It made a noise that set Steve’s teeth on edge and made his spine lock up. It was not quite a roar and not quite the sound of nails on chalkboards. Before Steve could even open his mouth, the ball of tentacles shot toward the junior agent, who continued to fire rapidly into the mass.

Steve was aware of the flurry of motion as his team responded, saw Iron Man streaking after the tentacles out of the corner of his eye, and moved without thought. The thing was every bit as fast as Steve had suspected, but Steve was closer to the agents by a hundred yards. The main group had already scattered, and were running at the strident urging of their superiors. One of the senior agents squared himself against the oncoming freight train of angry death and fired measured shots into the main mass while the other agent darted forward and snagged the junior agent around the waist. She had her mouth open in a soundless scream, pale hair whipping around her face, still pulling the trigger though the gun was empty. The agent got her out of the way just as the first of the tentacles reached them. Her companion, still providing covering fire, was right in the path of the alien. He stood firmly, expression set in the resignation of someone who could see death closing in on them, could hear the Valkyries singing their name. He saw Steve at the last moment, acknowledged his approach with a twitch of his lips, but didn’t move while his fellow agents were still in danger.

Steve barely got in between the agent and the leading tentacle at the last moment, trusting the agent’s training to keep him from shooting him in the back. Steve brought up his shield and one tentacle the size of a small tree fell on him. His whole body vibrated with the force of it, and he dropped him down to one knee under the weight. An earthy scent like dry wood and fresh grass overwhelmed the area around him, and the creature put out enough heat to make Steve shudder at the abrupt temperature change.

“GO!” he shouted around his teeth. Training and experience moved the agent’s feet for him, even if he had meant to stand his ground. The agent dodged around the dozen other tentacles quickly catching up with the largest one still pressing down on Steve’s shield. Steve tried to twist the shield to get out from under the weight while his teammates’ shouted that the area was clear, but Steve couldn’t turn the tentacle away without being crushed by it.