elioenai (unto god are my eyes)
Well, Tony thinks, blinking back dust and dried blood. This is different.
There's a cat sitting on his chest. An honest-to-god, shaggy-furred cat, blinking down at him and hissing at the sky.
Captain America looms somewhere just overhead, and there's a wolf at his side. Her—and it is a she, Tony knows it right away—fur is dark, but her eyes are gentle, almost worried.
The cat sitting on his chest purrs. Tony blinks. He's not entirely sure how he's supposed to react to that.
(Somehow, he feels like saying hey, can someone tell me where the fuck this cat came from, and also, Rogers keep that thing away from me, it might have fleas is inappropriate.)
So instead he says, "Shawarma?"
The cat laughs.
Tony gets better. The concussion and the shock of travelling between universes fade gradually, and life settles back down to its usual pace.
But the animals don’t go away.
Tony’s the only one who can see them. He’s watched other people—and he’s observant, when he wants to be—and no one else seems to notice that they have animals at their sides, or perched on their shoulders, or tucked inside their clothes.
I’ve gone crazy, Tony thinks, very, very calmly. Okay. We all knew it was going to happen one day.
The cat—his cat, he supposes—laughs, his tail curling. “You’re not going crazy,” the cat says. (Oh, yeah, it talks to him too.) “You’ve just woken up.”
Tony never answers the cat. He’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to talk to sentient imaginary animals. That’s weird, right? One of those societal faux pas things Pepper’s always telling him not to do?
He can’t help but see the cat, though, always dogging his footsteps, slinking in his shadow. He tries not to watch it too much. It worries Pepper, when she catches him staring at the wall or a spot on the floor, fascinated by something only he can see.
He wishes Pepper could see the animals. Hers is beautiful. It—he—is a dog, a border collie with a sharp, intelligent face and glossy fur. The collie chases Tony’s cat around the room whenever Pepper’s trying to coerce him into working, and flops on his back whenever Tony and Pepper curl against each other.
When they kiss, Tony feels warmth pool in his chest, right below the arc reactor, and his cat is purring and swaying into Pepper’s collie and it feels good, it feels strange and wonderful and new, and it scares him so much he doesn’t look at the cat for nearly a week.
But the cat’s there, just like Pepper’s dog and Steve’s wolf and Fury’s motherfucking monster of an owl.
They don’t go away.
“Hate to break it to you,” says the cat smugly, stretching and splaying his sharp claws, “but we’re here to stay.”
“We’ll see about that,” Tony mutters. “We will see about that.”
After a few months, Tony has to give up the ghost. He’s tried everything, science, medicine, electroshock therapy, but the animals don’t go away.
So he adapts. He’s nothing if not flexible, after all, and he’s dealt with worse.
The cat becomes a part of his daily life. He makes sure that he doesn’t step on Pepper’s collie—he’s not sure yet how solid these things are, because he’s afraid to touch the cat—and never bumps Bruce’s own cat—a she-cat, bob-tailed, and nearly as ragged as his own—when they work together.
Tony starts watching people, and their animals, and he starts building theories in his head as to what they are and why this person has this animal and so on and so forth.
It’s like people-watching for the mentally unstable.
Scientist types tend to have cats over any other animal. Some have dogs or birds and one particularly foul-tempered intern in R&D has a hyena, but mostly it’s cats of every size and color.
Nick Fury has an owl, and it is the meanest son-of-a-bitch Tony’s ever seen. She’s a ratty, one-eyed, battle-scarred thing, more callous than feather, and she clacks her beak imperiously every time she sees Tony, which follows Fury bellowing for new tech.
The cat always hisses at the owl. At least it has its priorities straight.
People like Pepper, highly organized, meticulous, and good at following and giving out orders (loyal to the bone, whispers the cat, inside Tony’s ears), are usually dogs, though Pepper has the prettiest one.
Coulson would have a dog, Tony catches himself thinking one night. The cat is settled near his elbow, watching with his bright, amused eyes. A big one.
“A strong one,” the cat rumbles. “Can you see her?”
And yeah, Tony can just imagine what she’d look like. Shaggy, a mutt of some kind, something that looked unassuming, but huge, with shoulders wide enough to carry even Fury’s owl around.
The cat laughs. “See? Now you’re getting it.”
Tony ignores it for the rest of the night.
In the winter, months after his adventure between worlds, Tony learns, very abruptly, that the animals are, in fact, solid.
It’s an accident, really, it is. He didn’t mean to do it. It’s just that the Avengers are there, crowding in his space, and he’s tired and angry and fucking fed up with all of them and their bullshit, and Barton’s needling him about something or other, his hawk—how predictable, really—zooming past Tony’s head—
Tony reaches up without even thinking about it, and bats her out of the air.
It’s like the breath has been punched out of his lungs.
Clint doesn’t seem to notice, but Tony feels flesh and blood and feathers under his fingers, and the hawk cries out and tumbles away from him.
It’s like touching a live wire with bare skin, that jolt of wrong that shakes his arc reactor, and the cat yowls, pressing against his leg.
“Hey,” says Steve, concern darkening his face. His wolf whines. “Are you alright?”
He reaches forward and Tony stumbles back, the hair on the back of his neck sticking straight up. The cat’s fur is cragged, his spine arched and claws digging into the carpet. “Leave,” he—they—snarl, but only Tony can hear the cat, only he can see these animal-things, only he can touch them and know they’re there, and what if they aren’t?
What if crossing through that portal ruined him, like it ruined Loki? What if, what if—
The cat is a warm, solid weight against his legs, and he staggers into the workshop, sinking against the door.
The cat, for the first time, jumps into his lap, pressing underneath his fingers. He’s warm, and his fur, despite being tattered, is soft.
Tony laughs, and it bubbles out of him like a bleeding thing, thick and sticky. “We’re so fucked,” he says.
The cat blinks solemnly. “That’s one way to put it.”
It’s almost worth getting drunk again to see the cat stagger around, tripping over his own paws and giggling helplessly.
Tony says almost because hangovers are twice as bad when he’s feeling it through two heads, and Pepper tsks at him sadly in a way that makes him feel small. (He thinks it’s because while she looks calm as ever, her collie’s ears droop and his tail stops wagging. This, somehow, is awful.)
“Sorry,” he mutters.
The cat hisses.
“What’s wrong?” she says gently. The yelling will come later, he thinks, when he’s more conscious and not quite so pathetic.
Tony smiles crookedly. He can tell Pepper a lot of things, but he’s pretty sure he can’t tell her this. She’ll never believe him, and besides telling someone that you see a talking animal following them everywhere they go is generally considered Not a Good Thing.
“It’s nothing,” he lies, and lets her haul him to his feet. “Just got a little carried away, didn’t we, JARVIS?”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS says dutifully. Tony really needs to remember to offer him a vacation or something, assuming hyper-intelligent AIs even want vacations.
JARVIS probably does. Everyone wants a vacation away from Tony, sooner or later. (Not me, says the cat like he does, between Tony’s ears. I’d just be bored.)
Pepper sighs because she loves him, and lets him lean on her on the way to the couch.
The cat and the dog curl up together, sending warmth racing through Tony’s chest, and they stay like that until they can’t hide any more.
Steve’s animal is a wolf. Tony, as he learns more and more about these things, isn’t all that surprised.
If smart, curious people—and, let’s face it, arrogant assholes—have cats, and loyal, hardworking people have dogs, of course someone as stupidly brave as Steve would have a wolf following them around.
She’s pretty. A little too dark-furred for Tony’s taste—after Afghanistan he has unfortunate associations with darkness—but kind, always trotting ahead of Steve and nudging the smaller animals out of the way.
The cat likes her.
Tony thinks the cat is stupid.
“Am not,” the cat says crossly, cleaning his whiskers. “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have, remember? I know what I’m doing.”
“It’s Rogers,” Tony argues. “He’s, he’s—”
“She isn’t so bad,” the cat sniffs. “She’s very nice to talk to when you’re not bothering Steve.”
Tony snorts, disgusted.
“You’ll get used to it,” the cat promises.
“Yeah,” Tony mutters, going back to (violently) correcting some errors on the Mark Seven. “I guess I have to, don’t I?”
Natasha’s boobs have eyes.
Not that Tony’s looking, of course, because he is very happy with Pepper thank you, and besides he hasn’t gotten over the whole Natalie Rushman thing and he’s pretty sure Barton’s with Natasha now and he does not want to cross that guy.
Or her. Natasha’s fucking scary.
Even the cat agrees. He’ll wander around the meeting room chatting with Steve’s wolf or Bruce’s cat or Fury’s owl-from-hell, but he won’t go near Natasha’s boobs to try and coax whatever lives down there out into the open.
If Tony had to guess—and he’s really getting quite good at this—he’d say that her animal is a reptile of some kind. (He’s not nearly so cliché as to say a black widow spider.) A lizard, maybe, something with claws and serrated teeth. Or maybe a snake, cool and dry, a slip of scales against her skin, a tongue flickering, trading information in an unintelligible hiss.
“What do you think?” he asks the cat, running a hand over his ragged fur. “Lizard or snake?”
The cat gives him a withering, but fond, glare. (Strange, how many expressions the cat has. It’s only a cat, but it looks like a person.)
“I think,” he says, tail twitching, “you should mind your own business.”
Tony grins. “You know I’ve never been good at that,” he says.
“Oh, don’t I know it,” the cat mutters, but spends the better part of a whole day trying to spy on Natasha with him anyway.
Thor doesn’t have an animal.
Before the cat, this wouldn’t bother Tony at all.
After, it sends shudders rippling down his spine whenever he sees Thor, tall and happy but alone, horribly alone when the rest of them have cats and birds and wolves tucked to their sides and nausea burns in his gut.
“It’s okay,” the cat mutters, crouched at his shoulder. His fur fluffs up and his teeth are bared.
“It’s clearly not,” Tony mutters back. He smiles when Thor looks at him, and he might be showing too much teeth but he can’t help it.
“It’s alright,” the cat says again, clawing into his shirt. “It’s just—he’s an alien, right? Maybe they don’t have us on his planet.”
“Yeah,” Tony says, stomach rolling. He turns away, focusing on Steve’s pretty wolf instead. “Maybe.”
They don’t touch Thor, if they can help it.
Three months in, Tony goes flying. He hasn’t, in a while, and to his horror he realizes that he can’t possibly take the cat with him.
“There’s nowhere for you to hold on to,” Tony says, verging on panic (and he doesn’t know why). The thought of separating from the cat—going more than a few feet from him, even—makes Tony sick deep down inside, like the arc reactor’s been pulled out of his chest and he’s left with just a hollowness where he should have a heart.
There’s no way the cat can survive the g-force of the suit, no way he can hold on and stay with Tony, and Tony can’t leave him here but he can’t stop being Iron Man either, because what is he without Iron Man?
“Stop,” the cat says, jumping into his arms and pressing against his neck, head nestled beneath his chin.
The cat has a heartbeat, and he is warm and soft.
“It’s okay,” the cat says. “I’ve gone with you before.”
The cat shows him, jumping down and poking at the armor with a clever paw. “Here,” he rumbles, pressing at a flap between the rockets below his shoulder blades. There’s a shallow space between them, tucked underneath a few moveable plates of armor. Tony needed that space there for wires and to allow the rockets room to kick.
It is the perfect size.
“You see?” the cat says, pressing into his slightly-shaking hands. “You knew what you were doing, when you designed the suit. You knew I was there.”
Tony closes his eyes. “How?” he whispers helplessly.
The cat’s eyes soften. He doesn’t answer.
It, as it turns out, is really stressful trying to watch out for a bunch of tiny animals on top of keeping his teammates alive.
He’s pretty sure the Avengers can’t feel it, if their animals get hurt—Tony can, but then, he’s the only one who can see them—but still, he’d really rather not see the wolf or even Barton’s hawk (the most annoying bird on the face of the earth) get crushed.
Natasha he doesn’t worry about, because even in battle her animal’s only a blur, a shadow even Tony’s suit-enhanced eyes can’t keep track of.
Bruce is fine too. When he Hulks out the cat disappears, melting into him. She’s fine because nothing can hurt the Hulk.
Steve and Barton, though, are exposed and vulnerable, though Steve’s wolf snaps and fight like twenty and the hawk moves so fast she’s little more than a blur of feathers.
Tony’s cat is safe, tucked in that little compartment he doesn’t remember building.
The rest of them, well. Tony won’t let anything near them.
Fire and debris rain down, shattering off buildings and splashing to the pavement. Civilians scream, panicked, caught up in a fight they can barely understand, let alone help in.
“Iron Man, help them!” Steve barks. (His wolf’s fur is streaked dark and sticky.)
There’s no time to do anything but obey. Tony peels down, breaking as much of the large debris as he can, repulsor light flaring even as the reactor aches in his chest.
“Sir,” JARVIS says, worried, but Tony ignores him. There’s no time.
He races half a building to the earth, and he stops most of it.
Most is not enough.
He can’t stop one razor-sharp chunk of window from flying out, glittering faintly, and burying in a wide-eyed man’s chest.
For a moment, the world is still.
The man’s eyes go wide and blood flecks his lips. His animal, a fluffy-tailed lemur, cries out. And then, as the light goes out of his eyes, she bursts into dust.
Tony howls, reaching out, but they’re gone.
The man and his animal are gone.
After that, the fight’s a blur. They win, barely, and limp home. Tony can’t feel his entire right arm and even Steve hobbles. His wolf cradles one paw gingerly.
“What happened out there, Tony?” he tries. The wolf’s eyes are gentle.
Tony feels the cat, bristling, angry, curled against his back. Their hearts cry out together. “Nothing,” Tony says. He still can’t get over it, the man, his animal, dust and ashes both.
(That’s the way it is, the cat says, a growl in his voice. When you die, we die too.
Why? Tony challenges, and gets no answer.)
“Nothing at all.”
After that, Tony goes to a hospital.
Steve tries to talk him out of it. Barton and Natasha don’t care. Bruce makes a vague noise that means he and his cat are focused on science. Pepper, bless her, sighs and lets him go. (The dog whuffs a goodbye, and Tony very nearly answers it. That, he thinks, would be awkward.)
So they go, just Tony and his cat, and they wander around the hallways in jeans and a t-shirt. No one tries to stop them. The hospital is busy, twice as crowded now that Tony can see the animals—and there are some fucking huge ones too, like lions and tigers and yes, even a bear—crowded up against their people.
The cat hops up onto Tony’s back, avoiding other people like the plague.
“Does it hurt you, if they touch you?” Tony asks, out of the corner of his mouth. The last thing he needs is to be involuntarily committed to a psych ward, even if he is hallucinating talking animals. Psych wards suck.
“Yes,” says the cat.
“Will it hurt me?”
Tony thinks that over. The cat’s weight is real and undeniable, even though he’s tried to weigh him and measure him and record some proof of his existence beyond what he can see and feel and hear.
So far, no luck. He can see and talk to the cat, feel his ragged fur under his fingers, but machines can’t. This is Tony’s private delusion, and while he usually likes feeling special he would much rather have proof that he still has most of his marbles.
The cat chuckles, amused. Tony can feel it in his chest, a warm curl like arc reactor light. The cat purrs.
And then they find the OR.
The room is open for observation and Tony can’t help it, he’s curious (like a cat, says the cat. Tony ignores it) and he wanders in to watch.
There’s a man on the table, fifty or sixty years old and his animal is a beautiful little fox, her fur snowy white. She’s curled in against his neck, asleep. He’s knocked out—the doctors with their clever little monkeys and sharp-eyed birds and glimmering snakes are busy doing something in his chest—but peaceful, and Tony just watches.
The man dies seven minutes later. Tony can tell because the machines start beeping wildly and the doctors panic. Fur and feathers fly.
Tony knows the exact moment the man dies, because he’s watching that pretty little fox that no one else can see, and he sees her eyes open, and he sees her burst, golden dust swirling upwards into the lights, and she’s gone.
Tony can’t help it.
He chokes out a cry, pulling the cat close, and looks away.
“Why does that happen,” he gasps, heaving like he’s run a marathon. His head spins. “Why—why do you disappear?”
The cat meets his eyes. “We’re nothing but dust,” he says. “You hold us together. Without you, we fall apart.”
Tony doesn’t know how to respond to that. He pulls the cat—is he really just dust? If he is, he’s heavy—close, and goes home.
Four months after Tony goes to another universe, Loki comes back.
They don’t know how long it’s been on Asgard—even Thor, who Tony still has a hard time looking directly at—but somehow, he feels like it’s been a long time.
Loki looks older. Wilder, too. His hair is longer, his eyes meaner, and there are scars around his lips now, tiny little delicate ones, almost as if they were drawn by a pencil.
Loki also has an animal.
Tony sees it by accident, almost. It—she—is hiding inside Loki’s suit jacket as he stares the Avengers down, her eyes bright and wicked.
She’s a snake of some kind, a thin one, the perfect size for hiding, and the cat sees her and yowls a warcry.
Tony doesn’t have time to think, Thor doesn’t have an animal. Thor doesn’t have one, but Loki does, what does that mean. Tony doesn’t have time to think, because the animal inside Loki’s jacket suddenly is not a small snake, she’s an enormous, roaring tiger, charging straight for Tony’s head, and Loki’s eyes flash.
Tony does the sensible thing and gets the fuck out of the way, diving to the side and curling over his cat.
Loki, to his surprise, pauses. The tiger returns to his side, becomes a slender-necked heron, head canted, beak wickedly sharp. Tony watches her, and then realizes he’s not supposed to. From the shelter of his arms, the cat spits and hisses.
“How quaint,” Loki murmurs, running a thumb over his animal’s feathers. “How quaint indeed. The universe has given you a great gift, Man of Iron. You’d be wise not to waste it.”
“What do you mean by that?” Steve snarls aggressively, taking a step forward to stand in front of Tony. All the fur on his wolf’s neck sticks straight up and she looks twice her size. “Leave Tony alone.”
Should’ve brought the armor, Tony thinks dizzily.
Loki’s animal changes again, a skinny, white-furred she-wolf, and Tony’s stomach rolls. The only animals he’s seen change belong to kids. Adults all have ones that stay in one shape. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, and Loki’s is—
Loki’s is different.
“Watch over him, Tony Stark,” Loki calls, a laugh like a winter breeze in his voice. “You’ll miss him, when he’s gone.”
Loki and his horrible-wrong creature are gone in a flash of light.
Thor roars, swinging his hammer and lunging after him, but it’s too late.
Tony climbs to his feet shakily, the cat pressed close, and Steve turns bright, concerned eyes to him. “What was that about?” he asks. “What did Loki mean, you’ve been given a great gift?”
Tony swallows. Loki can see them too, then. He knows what they are. Somehow, the thought that at least he’s not alone doesn’t make him feel any better.
The cat buries his head in Tony’s neck. He’s bristling.
“I dunno,” he says dully. He’s not going to tell Steve, not going to explain the wolf and the cat and Natasha’s boob-eyes, no. He can’t. He doesn’t even want to, not anymore.
The cat shudders.
Tony wants to go home.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks, concern lacing his voice.
“Yeah,” Tony says, turning slowly, deliberately.
“We need a drink,” the cat mutters. For once, Tony agrees with him.
Tony spends the next two weeks trying to protect them, the animals. He and the cat both have nightmares of Pepper’s collie turning to dust, Steve’s wolf boiling golden and gone. It hurts them.
So Tony does what he can. He watches the animals more often than their people now, rushes into battle with his armor dented and scratched, leaping in front of Clint’s hawk and Steve’s wolf without thinking of anything else but those nightmares.
The cat doesn’t try and talk him out of it. Tony thinks he’s rather pleased, in a grim, ragged sort of way.
“This is good,” the cat will tell him, licking his wounds after he takes a hit over the hawk. “This is what we’re supposed to be.”
Tony laughs and spits out blood. If Pepper sees him like this, she’ll kill him. He rubs the cat’s tattered ears, smiling sharply. “You sure about that?” he says. “What about us before?” He means before the Avengers, before Iron Man, before Afghanistan and caves and sharp hot pain in his chest. He means Tony-the-playboy, Tony-the-drunk, Tony-the-screw-up. Tony who didn’t have a possibly imaginary cat following him around, warm and real and solid like his armor.
The cat blinks, his amber eyes solemn.
Tony grins again, broken, wild. Two weeks of terror and worry and please, whatever’s out there, don’t let my teammates die bubbles in his chest, stinging like a cat’s claws. “It’s a good thing you didn’t know me then,” Tony tells the cat. “You would’ve hated me.”
The cat snorts, curling against his throat. He, for the first time since Tony saw an animal—there has to be a name for them, he thinks, calling them animals is just wrong, it doesn’t fit, it’s not right—go up in dust, purrs.
The sound rattles through Tony, and it almost hurts. He can’t stop from winding his fingers in that ragged fur, holding the cat close, tight.
“Oh Tony,” says the cat, and it’s the first time he’s called Tony by his name. “I’ve always been here. Always.”
Tony laughs because that’s ridiculous. He would have noticed a talking cat following him around. “Have not.”
The cat sniffs. “When you were seventeen, you built JARVIS because you were angry and lonely and wanted to prove you could. When you finished, Howard was dead. His animal was an ocelot, by the way. Your mother’s was a very small leopard. When you were twenty-five you thought you ruled the world. You met Pepper that year, and tried to sleep with her.”
Tony splutters, startled, but the cat keeps going.
“When you were thirty-six, you spent three months in a cave in Afghanistan. Our heart was torn out. You built a new one. You loved Yinsen, and his Zahira—she was a mongoose—and we built armor out of scraps and learned to fly.”
“Anyone could know that,” Tony says, but his hands are shaking because he knows that’s not true. JARVIS, Pepper, the cave, his new heart, sure, but Yinsen—
“Don’t lie to me,” the cat says, gently. “You can’t lie to me, Tony.”
“Why not?” A whisper, an admission, more resigned than anything Tony’s ever said to the cat—his cat—before.
The cat purrs, pressing close to him. Tony can feel the cat’s heart beat in time with his own. “Oh Tony,” he rumbles, ragged fur and tattered ears and sharp, gleaming eyes, “I’m you.”
Tony decides to call them daemons. Animals isn’t good enough, and familiar sounds off. The cat isn’t something he summoned to his side, isn’t something that serves him. He tries other words, fylgia ( meaning someone who accompanies, which is close but not exactly right) and dís from Old Norse, the Irish fetch, even the Native American totem, but none of the names fit.
He doesn’t have a word for the cat and its kind, not for a long time. Soul might fit, heart, too, if the cat is to be believed, if it has been with him always.
(Has it been with him? Really? Always? The thought of it is terrifying. Someone has seen him through his darkest, his lowest, all the way up and back down. Someone was with him when his parents died. Someone was with him when he nearly burned himself out.
Someone was with him in the caves, when he howled and howled over Yinsen’s body and threw himself wild into the air.)
“You’re not an animal,” Tony tells the cat one day, when they’re alone in his workshop with bits of the armor scattered around them.
“No,” agrees the cat. He’s amused, Tony can tell. He can tell a lot about the cat, these days. They’re growing closer together.
“But you’re not my soul either. Not all of it, anyway.”
“About half,” the cat agrees. “A little less, since Afghanistan.”
Six months ago, Tony would have laughed and thrown the damn thing out the window for daring to suggest that it was part of his soul. Now, though. Now, he’s seen the animals die, go up in dust the moment their person breathes for the last time. He’s seen them follow into fire, through knives and bullets and crumbling buildings. He’s seen them yell and fight with their humans, and seen them love them unconditionally.
They are souls, or part of them. The cat is part of Tony.
The cat blinks, languid, amused. And then, Tony gets it. He smiles. “What do you call yourselves?” he asks, and the cat shows him a row of tiny, snowy white teeth.
“Daemons,” he says, tail curling. “We call ourselves daemons.”
There are theories out there, in the vast depths of the Internet. Wishes and prayers, most of them, some genuine delusions, but there are theories.
Other people can see their daemons. A blessed few—a woman in Malaysia, a teenager in the Andes, a little old lady in San Fran—can see these creatures, and know what they are and what they mean and how to handle them.
The little old lady has some kind of bird daemon. She has a picture. To Tony, her bird is wonderful, sleek black feathers and intelligent eyes. To Steve, who wandered past, there was just the lady. Her phone number is on the website, and she offers advice to anyone who calls.
Tony deliberates for something like three days, fighting with himself over calling up this little old lady.
The cat is all for it. “She could help you,” he says. “She’s like you. Who else are you going to talk to, Loki?”
At the thought of Loki’s changeling daemon Tony shudders, lets the cat press up close to his neck.
“I don’t need to talk to anyone,” he mutters sullenly. “I’ve got a handle on this.”
The cat scratches his neck, a quick swipe that makes him glare and feel like a little kid again.
“Knock it off,” he hisses.
The cat rolls his bright eyes. “Call the damn lady already. You’ll feel better.”
Tony gives in. Arguments with the cat haven’t gone so well for him and it’s sort of like arguing with Pepper. He can pretend all he likes that he’ll get his way, but eventually he’ll cave in.
The cat knows it too, the smug bastard.
He calls the woman. The phone rings, and rings, and rings. For what feels like days it rings, and the whole time he’s fighting the urge to put the phone down and go back to pretending this is all an elaborate delusion.
It’s only his cat’s eyes, gentle and fond, and the weight of him on his neck, that keep him on the line.
Finally, she answers. “Hello?”
Tony swallows, licks his lips. “Hi,” he says. “I saw your ad on the internet, you said I could call you anytime, oh god I just realized it’s like two a.m. in California, so sorry about that, I hope you weren’t asleep, I’ll send you a private jet or something to make it up to you, don’t worry about it, I’m good for it—”
“Young man,” the old woman laughs. Somewhere in the background, a cat is purring. “Calm down. It’s alright.”
“You were asleep,” Tony says apologetically. He should really hang up the phone now.
“I sleep all the time,” the old lady reassures him. “It’s quite alright. So, how long have you been able to see yours?”
She laughs. “My Aaren has been with me nearly fifty years,” she says. “We’ve learned to know when others have found their souls.”
Tony licks his lip, suddenly nervous. “Aaren,” he says cautiously.
“My daemon,” the old woman explains, a laugh in her voice. “His name is Aaren.”
“I saw him,” Tony says. “In the picture. He’s a bird?”
“An alpine chough,” the woman explains. “Devil birds, they told me back at the convent, but he suits me just fine. What’s yours?”
“A cat,” Tony says. He looks down at the cat, and it blinks lazily at him, self-satisfied.
“Clever creatures, cats,” says the woman. “What happened to you? How did you meet him?”
Tony chokes on a laugh. “I traveled to another universe.”
“That’ll do it,” the woman says, and he doesn’t know if she’s making fun of him or not. He’s angry and hurt; he pulls the cat close and his finger hovers on the end call button.
“Look, lady,” he starts hotly, and the cat’s fur is cragged. “If you think this is just some big joke—”
“It’s not,” she soothes. “It is an unconventional method of meeting one’s soul, but not unheard of. There are thousands of universes, young man. Traveling between them is possible. It means you’re special. You’ve been given a great gift.”
Tony can’t help it, he outright laughs. He laughs and laughs, doubling over with it, shoulders trembling. The cat laughs and it’s a yowl.
The old woman lets him laugh patiently, and he thinks he hears the rustle of feathers. “Come and visit me,” she says, once he’s done. “Come visit me in San Francisco. We have much to talk about, I think.”
“Okay,” says Tony. He’s having a spur of the moment, he knows he is, but he’s talking to a crazy old lady about animals that might be souls, that shouldn’t even exist at all, and he can’t really be bothered to care. “Where? When?”
“Tomorrow,” she decides. “My house. Look up Mary Malone, dear. I’m always here.” She hangs up.
Tony looks at the cat. The cat looks at Tony. “We’re going,” Tony says, and it’s not the question he frames it as.
The ragged cat nods solemnly. “We’re going to San Francisco.”
They don’t go to San Francisco. A situation crops up in Houston—Loki again, and his daemon is a roaring she-tiger, snowy white and clawing at the air.
The Avengers go. Tony holds the cat close and flies for all he’s worth, and they put down the godling’s latest plot with fire and blood.
Loki’s daemon, the changeling, shifts from tigress to snake to little sickly rat, then to tigress and wolf and a lizard at last, hiding in his clothes as he slips through a hole in the sky.
A portal, the cat whispers. A doorway into another world.
Tony watches him go. A hole in the worlds. It’s possible. It’s not just Tony, it’s possible to travel to another place. So that’s how Loki can see his. He fell through dimensions too, entirely by accident. His daemon came from the same place.
“What are you looking at?” Steve says curiously, padding over with his wolf. The wolf—Tony gets a flash of a name, Hadassah , suddenly, and he knows it’s from the cat—noses the cat anxiously, making sure he’s okay.
Tony blinks. The hole between worlds shimmers, raw like a wound, then slowly seals itself shut. “Nothing,” he says, turning to Steve with his faceplate up, a bright grin on his face. “Nothing at all.”
The cat cleans his whiskers, smugness in every line of his shaggy body. “We’re ready,” he purrs.
Ready for what? Tony doesn’t ask. Instead, he smiles. “Yes,” he says, ignoring Steve’s strange look, “we are.”
Mary Malone’s house is nice. Cute. Quiet and out of the way, even if it looks like it was carved from a giant bean pod or something.
Tony takes a deep breath. He knocks.
“Wait,” the cat says, pressed up against his leg. “Wait, Tony, I’m—”
“Scared,” Tony says, and smiles. He is too. “It’s okay.”
The cat hisses, fur cragged, but lets him knock again.
Suddenly, something occurs to Tony that he never thought of before. For the first time, he feels special. Glad that he’s not and never will be alone. “What’s your name?” he asks.
The cat stares at him.
“Mary’s has a name,” he says. “Steve’s has a name. What’s yours?”
The cat, if cats smiled, would be so widely his furry little face would crack. “Elioenai,” he says. “Our parents were pretentious. Eli.”
“Eli,” Tony says, rolling it on his tongue. Eli, Eli. His Eli. He smiles. Eli.