The grand magus made the final adjustments, and nodded to himself. What better proof of Hydra's total power, than to have the blessing of a god?
There were many gods of course, but this one – this one would truly be a part of Hydra. A terrible, many-tentacled god. Horrific deaths were attributed to him, and gruesome sacrifices his requirement. Both of which were exactly aligned with Hydra.
Order would come about, with a god on their side.
That night, the ritual began. The great and good of Hydra filed into the room, taking their places around the circle scribed in blood and oil, gleaming slickly in the torchlight. Two of them marched the Winter Soldier into the room.
He was the pride of Hydra, the Asset. Stronger than any man, able to fight through any pain, a vicious, skilled killer. He was the only sacrifice worthy of the tentacled god. They would be able to make dozens – no, hundreds – of Winter Soldiers.
Chants echoed around the room, filling it with an eerie wall of sound. The sigils glowed, and the sacrifice was shoved into the center of the circle, ready to be killed. He didn't react, of course. Tools never did.
The grand magus intoned the last required words, and held his breath.
And then he was there. A man, tall, golden. Well; a man to his waist, and then. Tentacles, below and behind him, all different shapes and sizes, a thousand colors, coruscating. Moving constantly, waving, curling through the air.
The grand magus stepped forward, and gestured towards the Soldier. “Your sacrifice, my lord.”
The god sighed.
“He is our greatest Asset. The finest warrior of all time.”
“He's a brainwashed shell,” the god said slowly, as though tasting something. “You've stripped his free will. You made him into a weapon.
And then the god got angry.
The Soldier didn't flinch. He didn't seem to be paying much attention – he'd been told to wait for his death, that this would be the finest honor and glory. The last step to total world order.
When the god finished with the people in the room – which took some time – he turned to the last one left alive, his sacrifice.
“You're free,” he said gently, and the Soldier looked at him.
The Soldier was tall and slender. He had blue eyes and dark hair and a haunted face. The god gave him a little poke with one of his longer tentacles. “You're free,” he repeated.
“I was supposed to die for you,” the man said.
“Well you're not,” the god said, and got a blank look for his troubles.
This was wrong. This was so very, very wrong. This man had been abused; the god could taste it in the air. Beyond abused. No one should ever have to suffer this, and a white-hot flame of anger grew in the god's belly. He had killed the others in this room too slowly.
“Do you want to come with me?” he asked gently, careful not to startle. “I can take you home with me. Give you food, and a place to rest.”
The Soldier considered this, and then nodded. He needed to maintain the body, until his new masters arrived.
“All right, the god said, and reached out. A hundred tentacles wove themselves around the Soldier, holding him gently, securely, and they returned to the god's realm.
The god let go as soon as he could, not wanting to harm the man any further. The man looked around curiously.
“So, uh. This is my realm,” the god said.
The man looked at him.
“Do you...have a name?”
“I did. Once.” The man looked away. “Now I'm the Asset.”
“Well, I'm not fucking calling you that ,” the god said firmly. “How about Winter?” They had called him the Winter Soldier. Winter was a time of rest, when the earth renewed itself; the god knew that much. Names had power; the god definitely knew that.
Winter shrugged, but didn't protest.
“You can call me Steve,” the god said.
Winter gave him a dead-eyed stare. “Steve?”
“Are you...tired?” Steve tried. Most of his encounters with mortals involved being summoned to kill someone or rule this world or bring on the forces of darkness or blah blah blah. But he was pretty sure that humans slept.
“No,” Winter said.
“Uh. Hungry? Thirsty?”
Winter paused. “This body must consume calories,” he said.
“I'll take that as a yes,” Steve said dryly, and extended a tentacle, branching it out from his shoulder. It was pale green and sparkled in the light – they were in the cave that Steve had made his home, infinite rooms joined together, impossible light sources filling the huge space.
“Suck on the tip of it,” Steve said, and the Soldier obediently opened his mouth.
Steve felt warm, chapped lips close around the soft skin of the tentacle, and tried not to jump. It had been a long time since he'd been touched.
Winter closed his eyes and suckled, startling when the nutritious goo started to flow. He opened his eyes, wrapped a hand around the tentacle to hold it in place, and pulled his head back to meet Steve's eyes. “It's sweet. It tastes like plums.”
“Good?” Steve tried. He'd selected the one with the best range of nutrients. Winter wasn't healthy. Steve wasn't entirely sure why, but he could feel it on the man. Something was terribly wrong with him, and Steve fought to hide a surge of protectiveness.
Winter ate for a long time, but finally, delicately, pulled the feeding tentacle free. He licked his lips and watched Steve.
“I made you a room,” Steve said. “Would you like to see it?”
Winter just watched him, so Steve reached out with another tentacle; this one was lavender, with tiny suckers all along the underside of it. He wrapped it lightly around Winter's wrist, and started to pull him along. The tentacle, sometimes, could heal. He wasn't always sure how it worked himself.
Steve's realm was a vast cave. It had started out solely underwater, but grew with Steve's power, and now it encompassed hundreds of realms. He'd made Winter's room close to where he spent most of his time himself.
It was decently sized for a single human, a perfect hemisphere. Steve had made the walls and ceiling blue, with gold stars. He'd seen things like that before on earth, and hoped the human liked them. There was a thick, soft carpet on the floor.
The bed was big and soft, with many pillows and blankets, and there was a desk at the foot, with a chair.
Winter looked around, just a flicker of curiosity in his face. There were windows all around the room; they could show whatever Steve wanted, but they were dark for right now.
“This is for you,” Steve said. “I mean, all of it is, you can go wherever you want. But this is just yours. I won't even come here if you don't want me to.”
“I don't mind,” Winter said, and looked surprised at himself.
“Well,” said Steve. “Anyway. I guess you'll need clothes?”
“I'll get you clothes,” Steve said. “Oh. Are you hurt?”
Winter shook his head.
“Good,” Steve said softly. He had wonderful healing powers, but rarely got to use them. He disliked the idea of Winter being hurt, though. “What do you want to do?”
Winter cocked his head to one side. “I am not clean.”
“Oh. I can take care of that,” Steve said a little proudly. “Take your clothes off, Winter. Please.”
Winter undressed automatically. He was well-built; strong and slender, his only real bulk in his shoulders and arms. Arm, really – how had Steve missed that his left arm was metal?
“What happened to you?” he asked, concerned. The lavender tentacle reached out again, attaching to the scarred skin where metal joined flesh. It tasted like pain, and Steve sent out another arm to wrap around Winter's shoulder and secrete a pain-killing substance.
Winter looked at the dark red tentacle with some curiosity. “I don't remember,” he said, and paused. “I don't remember...anything.”
“We'll work on that,” Steve said gently. “Let's get you clean, first.”
More tentacles, then, a cluster of pearly-white ones with big suckers squirmed all over Winter's body, secreting a sweet, floral goo. Winter smiled at the scent, and held still while he was soaked, then the arms scraped and suckered him dry. He had watched the half-dozen or so tentacles wrap around his body, firm enough not to tickle. The whole process had been over in moments. Steve wondered what he could do to draw it out next time; Winter had relaxed as the tentacles wrapped around him, and seemed to enjoy getting clean.
“Thank you,” he said politely. “I should rest now.”
“Of course,” Steve said. “If you need anything, call for me.”
Winter nodded and climbed into bed, still wholly naked. Steve made his uniform disappear. No more hard leather for this man. That was his past; he had a whole future, where he did not have to be a weapon. Not if Steve had anything to do with it.
Steve waited until he was in bed, and lowered the lights until the room was in twilight. “You can control the lights with your voice,” he said gently. “And please, Winter. Please, tell me if you need anything.”
“I need very little. That's the point of me,” Winter explained, and paused. “But thank you,” he added automatically.
“Sleep well,” Steve wished him, and let himself out. Clothes first, for his human. Then...well. He could make Winter's food himself, and heal him in body. Steve had never healed a human's mind before, but he was going to try. What had been done to Winter was wrong , and what was the point of being a god if you couldn't make it better?
Steve spent the next few hours trying to figure out what clothes he should get for his human, and finally decided to just provide a selection. He was pretty sure he managed to narrow everything down to the last century, at least, and probably the rough part of the world the guy was from. He thought? Humans were weird.
There was not a single scrap of black leather involved. He even rejected the stiffer silks, preferring comfort for his human. And Winter had seemed to like the bed, and really seemed to like being cleaned by Steve's soft tentacles. So it was the Steve gave him a vast closet, and filled it with clothes for moving easily.
The man slept for long hours, enough so that Steve began to worry if he was getting enough nutrients. His body was thin, ropy muscles barely covering bone. He was hard and weaponlike.
Steve decided he was going to change that.
The man woke just as Steve was fretting over whether to wake him to eat. He didn't seem particularly surprised at Steve (carefully appearing in fully human form) standing next to his bed.
“Hey.” Steve smiled at him, trying to be welcoming and encouraging. “Are you hungry?”
“I...” The man sat up, then went very pale, and put a hand to his forehead. “Shit.”
“Shit!” Steve was at his side in a moment, helping him lie down. His legs disappeared, became a mass of tentacles, and he summoned one quickly to wrap around Winter's wrist. The substance it secreted would help regulate his blood pressure, make sure he was getting enough oxygen, all those strange little things that humans needed.
Steve also manifested a deep green tentacle, and slipped the tip into Winter's mouth. “Eat,” he ordered tenderly, and started the nutrient flow.
Winter suckled, drawing the tentacle further into his mouth, while Steve fretfully monitored his pulse. Winter was terribly malnourished, it was obvious. Weak and underfed.
Well. Steve could do something about that , at least.
Winter ate the nutritional goo until he was almost too full, then gently let the tentacle go. He felt...better. Not so gray and dizzy, and the weird octopus-deity who had apparently adopted him was kind so far.
Once Winter was able to take it, he was sure he would be a weapon, the mortal hand of the god. That's what he was .
“Better?” Steve asked tenderly. A soft lavender arm, the tiny suckers gentle on his skin, slid across Winter's forehead, and he was filled with a sense of warmth and peace. He was safe here, somehow.
“What are you doing to me?” he asked. These were not feelings he had had since
the smell of roasting chestnuts
the crack of a baseball bat against a ball
Winter blinked. The memories. They'd come back before.
“I'm healing you,” Steve said quietly. “The way you've been treated isn't fucking right. Winter, it's okay. I promise, you're safe here.” He hesitated. “If you want to leave, you can. Anytime. Just tell me, and I'll take you where you want to go, and leave you, and you'll never see me again.”
Winter peered at him curiously. A test, of course. Probably? No matter. “I'll stay.” He licked his lips. “Can I have more to eat?”
“Of course,” Steve said warmly, and picked another tentacle, a big thick one, one of his favorites.
Winter wrapped his mouth around the smooth appendage, and suckled happily, going by the sounds he was making. He ate for just a minute, before reluctantly pulling away.
“I'll stay with you whenever you're awake,” Steve said. “You can have food anytime you want.”
“Thank you,” Winter said politely.
“Do you want to get dressed?” Steve asked, feeling strangely anxious. He wanted this man to be happy. Hell, he'd settle for content.
Winter shrugged, so Steve took that as a yes.
“Can you stand? Here, I can help you,” Steve rushed to assure him. Huge tentacles, a deep golden orange, surrounded Winter and cradled him, easing him into standing. His heartbeat stayed steady, though, and he nodded his thanks.
Steve kept the diagnostic tentacle wrapped around Winter's wrist, though, until he absolutely needed to unwrap it.
Winter regarded his vast closet with some bemusement. He reached out, and pulled back.
“It's all yours,” Steve said softly. “And if you want anything else, all you have to do is tell me and I'll make them for you. It was...fun, coming up with these.” He smiled ruefully. “I don't really need clothes, you know?”
He was taller than Winter, bare and human to the waist, and a roiling mass of tentacles below, unless he particularly chose to appear human. (Or chose anything else, for that matter.) Any clothes he ever needed appeared at a thought.
Winter looked at him, and surprised Steve (and possibly himself) with a smile. “Bit pricey when it comes to trousers, I guess.”
Steve stared at him.
Winter stared back.
Winter flinched . And Steve's heart broke.
He laughed, because it was funny, and because Winter should never flinch at anything, least of all telling a dumb joke. “Pretty much,” he said, and grinned, and Winter gave him the faintest ghost of a smile and it was the best thing to happen to Steve that millennium. It really was.
“C'mon,” he said warmly, and wrapped a tentacle around Winter's shoulders, adjusting the tip so it draped over the seam of scars near his metal arm. It would emit a painkilling substance, just in case. “Let's get you more comfortable.”
In the end, Winter chose loose silk pants and a soft, long-sleeved shirt, both in dark navy blue.
Steve lead him out to the big main room, where he'd recently added a set of very overstuffed chairs. They were dark corduroy, rather cozy he thought, though admittedly a little dull in the vast, glittering cave.
Winter smiled when he saw them, so they were definitely staying.
Steve showed him around briefly (including the small bathroom he'd remembered would be a good idea to attach to Winter's bedroom), reassuring him that he was allowed to wander anywhere he wanted.
“Is there anywhere you want to go?” he asked anxiously. “I can take you anywhere in the universe.”
Winter cocked his head, curious at that. “Can you...I want to see stars. Please?”
Steve grinned. “Is that all? Winter, look up.” He made the ceiling of the vast room fade away, replacing it with his favorite view. Countless stars dotted an impossible deep velvet sky, with galaxies visible here and there, all of it clear. All of it there ; it wasn't a projection, he had simply moved them, and the room, to a new place in the universe, and made the curving ceiling clear.
Winter's jaw dropped. “ Oh ,” he breathed. “It's beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed softly, seeing it through Winter's eyes. It was beautiful, all the spiraling galaxies, the endless stars, and the impossible distance of space. Quietly, he tied this place here, and changed Winter's room so he could see stars through his ceiling.
Winter reached out and Steve coiled a tentacle around his arm, just holding his forearm. Two more, big and thick and strong, came to rest on Winter's back in case he needed the support. And the little lavender one coiled around one ankle, seeping the substance to make him smile and relax and, hopefully, heal.
Winter startled at the soft touch around his ankle, but looked down and smiled. “Hello there.”
“Is this okay?” Steve asked softly. “It can help. If you don't feel well.”
Winter laughed softly. “Steve, my brain is fucked up . Does that count?”
“I think so.” Oh, this man was amazing . Steve fought back the urge to wrap him up further, protect him from everything.
Winter giggled when the tip of one tentacle tickled him, and stroked it with a gentle fingertip. “Everything is so nice here.”
“Good. I want it to be nice for you,” Steve said. “Is there anything you want? Anything at all.” He smiled, trying to encourage. “I can give you jewelry, if you like, or different clothes. A bigger bed?” What did humans like? The ones who summoned him usually wanted power and riches, but Winter hadn't summoned him. “Uh. Something to read?”
He perked up considerably at that one. “Books? You have books?”
“For you, yes.” Steve gestured to one wall, and it opened onto a cozy library. He had added a fireplace, because why not? The windows looked out onto a desolate stretch of the Yorkshire Dales, just to add to the effect.
“ Oh ,” Winter breathed. “Steve, you're so lucky. This is yours?”
“It's for you, too,” Steve said.
Winter looked at him, eyes blank. “What do you want in return?”
“What?” Steve asked, dumbfounded.
“No one gives things away,” Winter said quietly. “You're giving me such nice things. Too nice. What do you want?”
“There's not a fucking thing in this universe that's too nice for you,” Steve said without thinking.
Winter just looked confused.
Tentacles came around him, gentle, just barely touching, and Steve even uncoiled the one around his ankle for the moment. If Winter wanted, he could be enveloped in affection and touch, or he could turn and walk away. “People did terrible, terrible things to you,” he said quietly. “You know yourself that your mind is...broken. That you're underfed, and your arm is in great pain.” Steve paused, and thought a little while. “I suppose you do give me something. For as long as you choose to stay, I'm not lonely.” He smiled a little. “And if you want me to, I can help heal you. I'm good at that, but no one ever asks me to. I like it – like seeing the pain get drawn out, all of that.” He reached out, two tentacles just resting on Winter's arms, smooth and coral-colored. “You can leave anytime you want. Here.” Steve made a door appear; a plain, wooden door. It opened onto what was unmistakably Central Park. Winter could just make out Belvedere Castle.
“Oh,” he said.
"That will always be there,” Steve said, and closed the door. “I promise, Winter. You can always go home.”
"I don't want to,” Winter said quickly, and reached out, coiling his hand with a tentacle and smiling. “I want to stay here. Thank you, but I want to stay with you.”
“I like you here too,” Steve agreed, and reached out with the lavender healing arm. Winter smiled and met him halfway, encouraging it to wrap around his wrist and petting gently.
“Can you feel it?” he asked suddenly. “When I touch them?”
“Yes, of course. They're me, too,” Steve explained.
Winter looked afraid. “I'm sorry. Am I hurting you? Or bothering you?”
Steve laughed and wrapped a thick tentacle around Winter's waist. “No, not at all. I promise.”
Winter smiled and petted the big tentacle. “Will you come with me into the library? I like...the touching. From them. You, I guess.”
“Of course,” Steve said gently, and they walked into the big room together. Steve kept plenty of space between them – Winter had asked for the tentacles to touch, not Steve – but found himself drawing closer, just to enjoy Winter enjoying the books.
He just walked at first, eyes scanning the shelves, reaching out to touch the spines, pulling back, and then finally resting his hand on a book. Winter pulled it down and, mindful of the healing tentacle around his wrist, started to read.
His smile only grew, and he read as he walked, Steve extremely bemused to take over steering Winter to a big, comfy chair. He got the distracted man settled, and even propped his feet up on an ottoman by the fire.
Winter made a noise that might have been thanks, but was clearly mostly absorbed in the story. Steve ducked down to look at the title – oh, The Once and Future King.
He settled in the other chair, content to watch the fire, and summon a book to his hands if he got bored. He remembered, barely, to settle one of the feeding tentacles on Winter's shoulder, and tickle his ear until he looked up, smiled, and opened his mouth to eat.
Steve granted himself a few minutes to watch Winter, comfortable in soft clothes and with his feet up, eating hungrily then letting go to get lost in his book while the fire crackled between them, and he occasionally, absentmindedly, petted a tentacle.