Chapter 1: Pandæmonium
Nobody is sure how it happens. It just does.
There is no explosion that rips apart the sky. There is no sonic boom that makes the crowds flinch and cover their ear drums. The power doesn't go out, ominous clouds don't loom overhead.
And there's nobody to blame. Absolutely nobody to blame. Nobody with flying capes are rushing about overhead, no masked vigilante is jumping around buildings and towers chasing after someone dressed in equally ludicrous lycra and cackling like a maniac. There are no alien spaceships, no disease outbreaks, no shooting stars crashing to earth.
It just happens. One minute everything is normal. Then there is an itch, like a scratch or the prick of a claw trailing down people's spines, over their chests.
That's just how it starts.
That's the first thing Matt feels. A cramp in his stomach that makes him want to double over and gag.
He ignores it. Forces it down. He's been through worse, after all.
In his office Foggy groans. Karen sways slightly over where she's still trying to get those fax machines she bought to work. The air shifts around her, warm and pulsing. There is the dry cough from Foggy's office.
"Are you okay?" Matt slides smoothly from his chair and latches one hand to the doorframe. He tells himself it's not because he's suddenly dizzy, or that his stomach is beginning to cramp almost painfully.
"Yeah," Karen's voice, usually soft and warm is strained and faint. She shakes her head, "Just a head rush…" she cuts off, and bites her lip. Hard. Matt can hear her teeth clamping on flesh, the sharp intake of breath from her and the click of her heels as she steps backwards.
"Hey, I'm not feeling so good," their friend calls through to them, "Are you two okay?"
"Ye--no," Karen's face twists, mid-word. There's a rustle of flesh on fabric and a pulse of fear in the air as she scrambles at her chest as if she can't breathe. She's gasping, and Matt is about to move forwards and call for someone when his own body seizes up.
His stomach churns, but that's the least of his worries. He slides down, latching onto the door like a life-line as something red-hot stabs into him. It's a phantom pain, short and sharp and gone, just like that. He checks frantically for wounds, but there's nothing. His skin, his clothes are all intact.
Karen screams. It's more of a short yelp, but it's sharp as if she's pricked a finger, as if she's fallen down the last few stairs.
There's another stabbing pain, and this one twists a little. Matt gasps for breath, telling himself he's not going to collapse. He drags himself upwards, trying to focus beyond the pain. Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
Karen's on her knees, shaking with small half-sobs. Foggy is leaning over his desk, wood slipping under sweaty palms. Outside there are screeches of brakes and tires as car halt abruptly. Cries of pain and hurt reverberate around his head.
There's a TV two houses down and he tunes into that, focussing just for an instance. The newscaster is speaking through clenched teeth, and the camera shakes. No doubt they'll air it later, the moment this mysterious illness strikes the whole nation down at once.
And Matt has never felt more helpless. He sways; balance slightly off and just like that, the red hot pain is yanked out, leaving him reeling.
It's gone. His head clears and he stops moving because something…
Something has changed.
And it's not just the outside world, which is filled with its usual sounds. It's not that the cars have mostly pulled over and parked regardless of where they are, it's not even that there's a plane several miles above them that is making quick adjustments to avoid a crash, there's something different.
He draws it in closer. Nearby. In the office. Karen is on the floor, on her knees, the carpet making indents in her skin. Foggy is leaning over his desk, breathing as if he's just run a marathon. And Matt is standing there, trying to piece everything together.
Something shifts. It's tiny. Small. A warm pulsing heat nestled on Karen's lap. The gentle rustle of feathers and click of claws.
In Foggy's office, there is something larger. Soft. Claws on the desk. A furry tail moving.
There are no scents attached. But at the same time there is the soft scent that Matt has come to associate with Karen but not…
There is the rustle of something smooth on his shoulder. He feels the weight as if it's always been there, and it doesn't scare him. He reaches for it, and feels the moment the creature slips from his suit sleeve to his palm. It's large, cool and smooth, scales clinking ever-so-softly together. He feels it on his hand and he feels it in him.
It's not a stabbing pain this time. It's a gentle soothing feeling, like a warm towel or soft caress.
It's a snake.
No, he thinks, she is a snake. She's sitting in his palm, tail still half-way up his arm.
"I think," a woman says. Voice low, sibilant, with just a trace of wonder, "I think we should check Karen and Foggy are all okay."
The voice isn't Karen's, and there is nobody else in the room.
It's the snake.
She is a snake and she talks.
There is a horrible, terrible ripping pain that has him doubling over and clawing at his chest. Every breath is a struggle. It feels like someone stuck their hand into his chest and is ripping out his heart.
Then he wants to laugh because of the irony of that. He tears at his chest, trying to see the stitches, trying to peer down, wondering if he can see his heart breaking. They must have missed a piece of shrapnel, it's the only thing he can think of. They missed a piece of shrapnel and now it's tearing its way into his heart.
But there's nothing there. Two jagged scars where his skin is stretched together, his chest heaving for breath, no blood, nothing.
Tony gasps for breath, trying to work out what is going on. He looks up, around at the room. Nobody is marching in, no villain is quoting Disney movies at him…
The pain vanishes.
It releases him so suddenly he rocks with the force of it, falling to his knees. It leaves him sucking in lungful's of air, trying to get used to the sudden soul wrenching twist of something…
A flash of movement catches his eye and his head snaps up, but there is nobody there. He's still alone in the room. There are no other humans…
Another brush of movement and something inside him pulses warmly. The pain is all but a memory, lost in a sea of emotions that wash over him like a cool breeze then pass.
There is no human in the room. But in front of him hunched over on the ground is a small, tiny little black and white cat. It blinks up at him with wide, blue eyes, shaking as if dumped down in front of him painfully and brutally.
It lowers itself flat to the ground, looking alarmed, "Tony?" and this time he sees the jaws open. The words twist out somehow from the tiny jaws, and it's definitely coming from the cat.
He looks at it - she, the voice is female and besides that he just knows that the little black and white cat sitting in front of him is a female. She blinks back at him, and he reaches out a hand towards her. She shifts closer, her fur brushing his hand and…
And he just knows. It feels like coming home, like warm fireplaces and soft hugs and smiles and…
She's purring, pressing up again him. "Hello," he says, feeling rather stupid, "I'm Tony."
"I know," she sounds rich and important, like a queen. Like him, in a way. There is an odd noise and it takes him a few seconds to realise the little cat is laughing, "Oh silly," she purrs, "That's because I am you."
She's a wolf. A beautiful, golden eyed wolf with dark grey fur and lethal looking fangs. Her muzzle is scarred and she bares her teeth slightly, looking wary. Her ears are flat against her head.
A name catches in his throat. It's an old name, Irish, he thinks. He doesn't know where it comes from, but it's like it's always been there.
The wolf stiffens, and slowly… oh, ever so slowly, her lips curl down. Her ears prick forwards in interest and her head tilts to one side, watching him.
"Alannah?" he steps forwards, reaching out one hand. It's wrong, the hand. It's silver and metal and cold, cold, cold, but the wolf steps towards it.
There is something missing. Some distance between them that he doesn't think has been filled. They've been miles apart before when they should have been right next to each other.
She pressed forwards so her fur collar rests under his hands. Even through the metal he can feel it, warm warm warm.
And his. Returned to him.
"Oh James," she growls softly, gently, "Where have you been?"
"Alannah," he drops to his knees, "Oh god. Oh god, I remember."
"What the hell?"
"Oh my god. Oh my…"
"Karen?" Matt goes to her first, because she's nearest and she's still on the floor. Her heart is also beating the fastest out of alarm, terror and the slight skip of a beat of wonder.
There is a soft cheep and Matt stops, inches from reaching out to her. There's something in the way. Something he can't touch.
"Sorry," the bird moves. The bird. The small little songbird in Karen's lap. It takes to the air, flitting to her shoulder. It's small, the wing-span only four inches or so, the air barely rustling around it. "Come on, Karen, get up…"
Their voices are soft and Matt thinks he shouldn't be intruding. He feels awkward, as if the bird and Karen were lovers.
But they're not. Impossibly, they're something more.
The snake around his hand tightens. He holds out his other hand, and this time Karen takes it, letting herself be pulled to her feet. She spots the snake with a soft gasp. The bird on her shoulder gives a quiet meep, but shows no fear of the snake. There is no rumble of hunger, no scent of dirt or animal. The bird is not an animal, just like the snake is not a snake. Their hearts beat, but they can see and speak and feel and…
"What the hell." It's not even a question. Foggy staggers out of his office, taking in Matt and Karen. He looks from one to the other, hair rustling. Soft paw steps can be heard as the animal - his animal, Foggy's animal, walks forwards.
"This shouldn't be happening," Foggy's animal is also a girl, "What… what happened?"
"Are you okay?" Matt asks.
"Why is there a snake on your arm?" Foggy asks, as if that's the first thing on his list of priorities.
"A snake? That's the biggest thing you have to worry about?" Karen asks, "I have this bird and he…" she falls silent, "And what's that?" she turns to Foggy, "A racoon?"
"I… she…I think it's a racoon dog actually"
"Everyone has one," Matt says, and he's aware of Foggy focussing on him intently. He nods, just enough to demonstrate that he's been listening. It's not just them.
Someone outside in their car has a large golden retriever sitting next to them, tail thumping loudly on leather seats. The person two houses to their left has a lemur curled around their shoulders. Or a monkey. Matt has a horrible feeling he's going to have to get used to recognising them.
He can't even touch them. There is just something… wrong with that thought.
The snake is his. A part of him. "Xexilia," she says, quietly, "I like that name."
His lips twitch and he reaches out his other hand to stroke it over her. He can feel each and every individual scale. She's beautiful. She's his and in some way, he is hers as well.
"He's my bird," Karen whispers, "A finch. A zebra finch, I think."
"We should have a name," Foggy's racoon dog states, proudly, "I'd like a name, I think, if I'm here to stay."
Foggy shakes his head, still in shock. He reaches over for their TV, turning it on. Matt just listens. The newscaster is talking in an awed tone and… "She has a koala," Foggy describes, "Clinging to her shoulders. And other people… they all have something."
"It appears this is a worldwide phenomenon and that these animals are actually intelligent…"
The static flicker of a channel change. Even the usual day time soaps have been replaced by news, "Each person has an animal that belongs to them… someone once told me I was like a cat but I never thought they meant literally…"
"Do not panic, this appears to be something that is happening to everyone and is being looked into…"
"Doctors can't give any reports on what happened… Scientists are baffled…"
"If you're me…" Matt says, not bothering to talk quietly to his snake. To Xexilia. "How come I can see you now, when I couldn't before? What changed?"
"Whatever it was," Karen's bird says, "It happened to everyone."
"It shouldn't have," Xexilia's scales rustle, "But I was always here, but not here, and then I was actually here and it hurt…"
"But it… it's a good thing, isn't it?" Karen asks, "This… if they're us… isn't it good?"
Foggy sighs, "You'd think so, wouldn't you?"
"You're my cat. You're me." He can't wrap his head around it.
"We are all of us," she teases. We, Tony thinks. He likes the sound of that. "I don't have a name," she says, tail curling over her back, "I never needed one."
"Well you'll need one now," he stands slowly, and almost as if she's always been there, the cat leaps to his shoulders and settles there. She's tiny, and he barely feels her sitting there. "Okay," he steps forwards, "We're going to need to think of something spectacular and amazing and…"
"Edie," she decides, just like that, seemingly out of nowhere. He feels whiskers against his cheek and he turns to see her gazing at him stately. It's really the only word for it.
"Really? Out of all the names you want…" he stops suddenly when he realises where she got the name from. She's a girl, but really it's the only name easily derivable from Edwin that he can think of that's an actual name. A pretty name. An appropriate name. The little cat - his little cat who is somehow inexplicably him - just got there first.
Now he has no argument.
"I'm going to put it on a little collar," he says cheerfully, and claws dig into his shoulder, "Okay, no collars. A cat bowl?"
"I don't need to eat," she sounds amused, "I'm not a real cat, you know?"
"I…" he sighs, "I know. What are you?"
"Oh silly," she seems to like calling him that, "I've already told you. I'm you. I'm yours and you are mine and we are us."
That's when Tony's phone rings. It's the other side of the room and he moves towards it, Edie sliding from his shoulder to the ground. He gets half-way there when there is a jolt and he stops, hand to his chest and feeling like…
Then the pain is gone and Edie is there. "I'm sorry," she says, "I didn't know… we can't…"
The phone stops ringing. Tony just stands there and tries to process it. It's one thing when the tiny, perfect little cat tells you, but it's another thing to feel it, to suddenly have that understanding…
She's a physical part of him.
The phone rings again. This time he answers, "Pepper?"
"Tony? Are you…?" she's crying, he realises. But she's not distressed, "Did it happen to you too?"
He stiffens, and around his ankles Edie stops circling, as if feeling his distress, "What do you mean: 'me too'?" he asks.
"Turn on the news," Pepper whispers, and she sounds amazed. As if she's discovered something wondrous, "He… his name is Marin." There's someone with her, another person… no, Tony thinks. Not a person. He can hear a masculine voice, soft and gentle like a breeze.
"She's called Edie," he whispers back, "She's this little cat…"
He hears Pepper laugh, and it must be because it's perfectly him, "He's a setter. An English setter."
Edie finally finds the remote, dabbing at it with her paw. The television sparks to life and Tony thinks it doesn't matter what channel. They're all broadcasting the same thing, if anything. People in the streets with animals, breathed into life next to them. A colourful parakeet sits on a newscaster's shoulder as if it has always been there, a terrier trots at someone's heels and…
And a child sits on a bench, laughing as their other half flits from butterfly to robin to mouse, as if showing all the potential futures ahead of them.
"Oh god," Tony murmurs, barely aware of Pepper still on the line, "It's happened to everyone."
And yet somehow he can't find it in him to be upset, can't lose that sense of wonder.
He thinks, looking down at the cat next to him, that maybe this is what people mean when they talk about soulmates.
It feels like he was always meant to be there.
But at the same time, he obviously isn't.
There is something different about them. Natasha knew that already but this? This just proves it.
Wanda's bird, the beady eyed shrike, can't fly more than twenty metres from her before he has to turn back to her. Sam's hobby can only make it four metres, and she's been watching the pair leap off rooftops all day, trying to perfect the art of Sam flying, and the small bird of prey keeping in time and sync with him.
But Natasha… her Fyodr can go across the room. Across the base. And keep going. They feel no pain, no discomfort. No unease, no tension. They don't double over in pain, or begin to wince. They feel nothing.
It's something they did to her. Something that changed her. She's always known and this is just the proof.
He's not with her now. He's out wandering, exploring, dark eyes classifying each and every person and their animal. The more they look, the more she is beginning to see how the two are mirror images, the same but different.
She's seen Clint's animal. An owl. It's not what somebody expects it to be. But then she dug deeper, found the species. The Rufous Owl is in a genus of hawk-owls. Excellent hunters. Excellent vision. It's almost too easy.
Fyodr arrives back in a soft click of claws and a leap to her shoulder where he curls around her neck like a scarf of dark, almost black fur. He doesn't say anything. He doesn't need to. They might be inexplicably linked, but they still have their secrets.
He's a sable. She thinks. Some sort of marten. Shaded fur, dark, almost black eyes and a smooth, sleek body. In a way she hates him, hates that he's here in the open, exposing herself to the world. It feels like some hidden, secret part of her has been dragged out into the open.
But across the room there is the Vision, watching Wanda and her shrike with an almost fondness. And he? And he doesn't have an animal. He wasn't born, he was made out of the gem embedded into his forehead, the database of JARVIS and Ultron and the lightning of Mjolnir.
It feels wrong. Everybody has an animal. Ever since that day, everybody has one. Even her.
She named him fyodr to mean gift of god.
He is her gift of god. He has convinced her she still has her soul.
And she can't hate him for that.
"What is she?"
That's how Tony greets him, by ignoring him entirely and looking at the small creature trotting at his heels. Tony steps back to consider the animal, even as a small dark furred cat slips forwards to touch noses with the other animal. Then, in a flurry of tiny paws, the cat darts back and leaps up Tony like he's a tree trunk, settling on his shoulder.
"She's a mongoose," Steve can hear the cat tell Tony, "And don't be rude."
Steve doesn't care though what his animal is. She's perfect either way. Together they named her Magali. It's a name that means Maggie. Maggie for Margaret.
Tony stalks into the new Avengers base as if he owns the place. Maybe he does, or maybe he's just used to stalking around the tower. The cat on his shoulder flicks her tail, looking smug. At some point she slides off Tony's shoulder to the ground and stalks along behind him in what, even in Steve's time, still remains a cat walk.
"Nice," Natasha examines the cat with sharp eyes. Her sleek furred… Steve isn't even sure if it’s a pine marten or some kind of weasel, but either way, it is nowhere to be seen, and not for the first time Steve thinks Natasha's soul animal should have been a snake.
"Thank you," Tony's cat speaks, which is unusual. Magali, sitting at his feet, has so far been reluctant to communicate to anybody beyond him. She chatters something that has no meaning, but outwardly shows frustration, anxiety and just a touch of fear.
That's why they're meeting after all. Because something happened, something changed and nobody has any idea what caused it.
Steve thinks maybe something is broken. The world got knocked out of balance or something, but even more disturbing is the simple fact that there is nothing they can do.
This time there is no bad guy to fight. There is no enemy lauding about the end of the world. No metal robot, no caped trickster. Someone, somewhere, knocked the world on its axis, but whoever they are, they're keeping quiet. Steve half-feels like he's still waiting for the hammer to drop, for the bad news to hit, because it can't be this good, can it? They can't have caught a break, not now.
Besides - there's nothing wrong here. People are adjusting. Slowly, with difficulty (Steve's seen the pictures of people trying to avoid all the extra dogs and birds on the streets of New York) but its getting there.
The Avengers were put together to protect the world. To keep it safe.
It is safe.
There is nothing to fix.
The soul animals are anything but a problem, and as if sensing his unease, Magali presses herself to his legs. He wants to scoop her up, but refrains. She's quiet, reminding Steve of himself before the serum. Quiet but with a nasty bite, she prefers to be on the ground, to find her own way around.
She also doesn't need his help.
The new Avengers are elsewhere in the facility. For now it's just the three of them - Captain America, Black Widow and Iron Man. Steve knows Barton is somewhere around, he saw Clint and Natasha together a while ago. Thor is off-world and Bruce…
Bruce is still nowhere to be found.
With a sigh, Steve moves after where Natasha and Tony are talking together.
This is revolutionary," Tony is saying, and he seems excited, but it is his cat that really demonstrates it, the tiny thing bouncing around happily.
"How so?" Steve asks, almost cautiously.
"Don't you get it?" Tony asks, excitedly, "Our soul animal settles! Picks a form, one that represents who we become. Who we are!"
"You're a tiny alley cat?" Steve sounds unimpressed, but Tony has gotten to the point when he knows the other guy is teasing him, even if Magali doesn't give him away by letting out a sound that sounds like a snort, giving him away.
"You're a mongoose," Tony waves a hand at Magali, "Doesn't look like much, you were - what? Twenty-one when you got your serum? She'd have settled by then. Small, looks like prey, but I've heard those things can take down snakes. Venomous snakes," he's grinning like a madman, which, Steve thinks, he is probably. A mad genius.
Natasha's lips twitch, and Steve just knows she wants to make a joke about killing snakes and hydras. "Don't," he snaps at her, and his gaze wanders to the shadows where he thought he saw a flicker of fur. If Natasha's animal - Fyodr she named him - is there, he can't see him. He keeps quiet, and instead of trying to analyse the enigmatic assassin, he just meets her gaze and nods.
There is surprised gratitude in her eyes, and the super-soldier turns back to Tony. "I still don't see how it’s a good thing."
"I never said good. Did I say good?"
"Revolutionary," Edie purrs.
"That," Tony points wildly, almost knocking his small cat off the table she is perched on, "You can look at someone and--" he clicks his fingers, "--like that you know what they're like. Shy, loyal, brave, fierce…"
"But does someone with a rat…" Natasha interjects, "Are they sewer-level scum who carry fleas and disease, or are they smart, clean and a lot nicer than you think?" As Tony's face falls the assassin shrugs, "It's all a matter of perspective and opinion."
Natasha has no right to look so smug. Tony is just brushing the surface of how crazily wonderful the soul animals are. It's not just the physical representation of someone, it's the science, the facts, the data, the hows and whys and when and…
Steve looks worried, "Have you heard what they're saying? Some people believe what happened was unnatural. Others think they were always there, we just couldn't see them."
"Socrates claimed he could see and talk to something that people think now was a soul animal, although he never gave it a name," Tony says, in a voice that suggests he's about to start lecturing. "I agree. I think she's always been here… we are one entity in two bodies. I die, she dies. I sleep, she sleeps. We breath together!"
There is a thud and Clint drops down from the ventilation shaft, almost giving Tony a heart-attack. In a flurry of feathers, something follows him. It shouldn't even startle Tony by now, and neither Natasha nor Steve even flinched. They probably knew he was there, bastards. Clint had once hung around asleep on the fridge in the tower with the sole purpose of startling Tony the next morning. There were times Tony hated his friends.
The archer brushed dust off his jacket, "That's not true," Clint announces in response to Tony claiming they were 'one', "We have separate heartbeats and if they have their own respiratory and circulatory systems they're essentially disconnected from us, at least to some extent. Then again, nobody can check to confirm that. You'd think people would be terrified of the occasional lion or tiger walking the streets, but we can't even physically touch someone else's animal. It's like the worst breach of etiquette imaginable or something. I've seen the pictures of people trying and they are physically sick afterwards. It makes me not want to try."
Tony glanced at Edie who nods, "Even mid-fight, wearing the suit," he says, "It hadn't even crossed my mind but… we wouldn't be able to do that."
It should be an advantage, Tony thinks, in a fight, to be able to control the other person so completely and utterly. But it's not. It's a violation.
He tries to think of using that to win a fight, but then thinks of it being done to him. Of somebody grabbing Edie and--
The little cat has barely existed a week. Three days, she's been there, and already the thought of her not being there is painful. The thought of someone snatching her away from him…
He knows there is a reason for the hour long government meetings about laws regarding these new creatures.
She remembers a time back in the Red Room, even though she tries to forget. She remembers a time when something happened. When something changed.
When she changed.
Or rather - when they changed her.
Tony's right. Touching someone else's - she settles with fylgja for now, it's Icelandic for follower, she read it in one of the reports - touching someone else's fylgja is wrong. It's a rape of the person, of their mind and of their soul.
"That must make travelling on the subway difficult," she deadpans, "They're corporeal. Solid." As if to prove a point, Tony's cat bats a stack of papers off a nearby desk. Magali looks annoyed, tail twitching. "They can interact with each other, and other objects." Several metres away Fyodr is talking quietly to Clint's bird.
"For all extents and purposes they are real," Tony agrees, "She is real. Except she isn't. Not on her own at least. Not… without me," and in a grand gesture, totally fitting of Tony Stark, he waves a hand at himself and then takes a bow just for good measure.
"How do you know that, though?" Steve looks uncomfortable with the conversation. Natasha decides it’s not a good time to make a comment on the religious views on the animals being angels or devils.
Or demons. That's another popular term. The rustle of fur is the only sound Fyodr makes as he appears on her shoulder, and without speaking, she knows he kind of likes it too.
"They've been reports…" Tony waves a hand and pictures and newspapers flash on screen, "When somebody dies, their animal dies. Poof. A burst of gold light and its gone. Which means animal and human are tied together."
"I wish you'd stop calling us animals," Tony's cat bristles. It's unusual, Natasha thinks. Most of the animals are quiet and talk only to their person, but Edie is outgoing and bright-eyed. A lot - she thinks - like Tony.
"What do you want to be called?" Tony scoffs, "Soulmates? Abominations? Demons? There are a lot of names floating about, take your pick."
The tiny cat's tail twitches, but she says nothing.
"Children don't appear to have a fixed form," Tony slides right back into lecturing mode, "They can change at will to any animal they want, often depending on their mood. It's the same right up until people around sixteen and older where the form becomes fixed, almost stuck. Permanent. Settled." His hand scrolls the screen from right to left, "There are a few interesting cases of people with mental disabilities where their…" he stops himself, seconds before he says the term 'animal', "--familiar…"
"We're not witches," Natasha notes, critically, but beyond crossing her arms, nobody says anything else.
"I'm working on it," Tony promises them, enlarging an image. A man wearing a white gown and behind him in a small--
"Is that a dragon?" Steve asks, wide-eyed.
Tony scrolls the screen to the side, "Dragon, phoenix, one crazy serial killer even had a manticore." His face twists and he looks uncomfortable. Natasha can understand why, she feels the same. The idea of someone being so… not right, that it even affects their soul? It makes her feel sick.
She just hides it better than the others.
They know nothing.
It's painfully obvious, even if the news wasn't broadcasting scientists researching like mad, government officials promising explanations, horror stories already appearing. Steve knows this is just the start: of people killing themselves by going too far from their soul animal, of some people with dolphins and sharks being chained to the water, of small ladybugs being crushed, their human dying instantly.
Everyone keeps talking about how people will adjust. Steve knows it's just a matter of time before talks will start about how to make it all go away.
"I don't want to go away," Magali says. She's in his arms now, not small, not small at all, not really. "Everyone feels this," she says, pressing a paw against his shirt, "we were born from you and that? That just doesn't need an explanation."
Steve thinks she is right. But he knows it's not going to be that easy.
He's still waiting for the other shoe to drop. And then it does.
With a loud roar, the sky crashes down on top of them.
That is, at least, what it feels like. There is a violent flash of light. Not just light - lightning. Then a roar. Thunder. Not even seconds after, it's like a storm has appeared right on top of them.
Not a storm.
There is a crash. It's loud. It shakes the whole base, rocking it to its roots.
Footsteps thunder as Steve, Tony, Natasha and Clint race to the door and out to where the world is lighting up from the sky down in a beam of light. Magali chatters around Steve's feet, Edie is clinging to Tony's shoulders, Fyodr is running over to where Sam and the new crew are also running towards the disturbance. Clint's Temis spreads her wings and takes to the air, wheeling and soaring in the wild winds.
"Well, he certainly knows how to make an entrance," Natasha says dryly to Steve. Next to her, Tony looks put-out.
It's Thor, hair blowing in the breeze, hammer in hand.
But he's not alone. There is a small shape with its pelt pressed to Thor's hammer. It's a dog of sorts, with a blunt, long snout and small rounded ears. It was squat, low to the ground with an almost vulpine body and stripes that started about mid-way down its back and grew in size right down to the tail. It wasn't a dog tail either - more like a cat's long tail that dropped down behind it.
"Fierce," Edie is profiling the animal, "a pack animal, I think, but I don't know what species… he? She?"
"She," Tony murmurs nearby to his cat, "From even small surveys it's obvious that the ratio of people with familiars that are gender opposite to their own greatly outweigh those otherwise."
"We'd need more information," Edie's whiskers twitch, "Has there been talk about people registering their familiars…?"
"It's been three days, give it time…"
Steve turns away. He doesn't like the idea of registering the gift that has been given to them. It's still new and strange, and while some of the stuff is instinctive, there is a lot that nobody knows.
Like this, for instance. He finally realises the implications of Thor stepping towards him, a small dog-thing at his heel.
Thor is a god. An alien. Not human. Not even of the same planet.
But he has an animal too.
"It's not just us," Steve realises it first, "It's not just earth. It happened everywhere."
And that? That's too big to even think about, even more so for him when space travel was still a dream and a fantasy. But this? It goes beyond earth. Beyond humans.
It's not just them.
It happened to the whole universe.
Chapter 2: Malakim
Clint's fylgja - as Natasha calls them - is a rufous owl. She's unmistakably an owl, with a flattened face, but there is a curve to her beak and a sharpness to her eyes that makes everybody think twice. Clint had shied away from her at first, away from the new and the unknown (and humans fear the unknown after all). It was only later, after he had calmed down Laura and the kids that he allows her to settle on his arm, allowed himself to begin to explore the new link.
It's hard to describe, Clint thinks. There's a familiarity about them, a sense of belonging and ownership that allowed him to know instantly that she was his. It's like someone ripped out his heart and offered it up bloody, except she isn't a heart, she's a bird with characteristics and intelligence and…
He finally settled on the name Artemis for her. It's not as fancy as Natasha's Fyodr, nor as personal as Steve's Magali or Tony's Edie. But it's a name and Temis, fierce and proud, loves it.
"Not exactly a virgin goddess," she had joked, "But I like it."
Thor calls his dog-thing Dagný, telling them it means 'new day', and that this is the dawn of a new age that will be remembered for years to come. Steve doesn't look so sure. Natasha is hard to read, but Clint's had a lot of practise. She's apprehensive. Slightly scared, and Fyodr keeps slipping away, and it makes Clint uneasy when he can't see the polecat, or whatever he is.
The conference room is thick with tension. Clint feels like he should be able to slice it with a knife, and Temis keeps ruffling her feathers, displaying just a slight gesture of nerves. Tony's little cat glances around, as if picking up on that. Tony himself is sitting in front of a computer, tablet in hand. The screen looks full of data.
Natasha stands nearby with Steve. It's the old avengers together again.
Except for Bruce.
Clint's not sure what happened to him, but he thinks the good doctor might be out of touch for a while. He wonders what happens to Bruce's fylgja when he transforms. Unconsciously, he glances over to the Vision, who has nothing at all.
The new Avengers look even more nervous than the old ones. Except Pietro.
There is a rush of air and the speedster appears next to Clint, chewing on a chip. Obnoxiously, he takes another one from the packet in his hand and crunches it loudly. There's a small hummingbird, tucked against his throat, and Clint stifles the urge to jump at the other man's sudden appearance. He's already regretting naming his child after him.
Tony looks mildly startled at his appearance, "I thought you were dead," he actually spins around, away from his laptop and data.
"He told me to walk it off," Pietro nods at Steve, then grins, "Bet you didn't see that--"
With a flutter of feathers the chip packet is snatched from his grasp as Sam's hobby flaps past, circling once before landing the other side of Clint, only after dropping the packet into Sam's hands. Sam - Falcon - tightens his grip in them, offers one to the Vision who just sort of blinks at them.
It's weirdly domestic, and for a moment Clint is slightly freaked out. That's about the moment Tony lets out a loud 'aha' that startles where Rodey is pacing behind him.
"You!" Tony points wildly, "That's not possible," Tony looks up from his tablet to adjust his wildly pointing figure to Thor. No, Clint thinks, not the god, the animal next to him.
"Explain!" Thor looks mildly threatened by Tony's confusion, "She is my dís, as that feline is yours," he waves his hammer in Edie's general direction. The cat looks up, ears pressed against her head. She whispers something inaudible to Tony, then moves a few steps forwards to sniff at Thor's fylgja. Or dís as the god calls her. Goddess, Thor will tell them it means later. A ghost, spirit or deity involved in fate.
"She's a thylacine," Tony says, as if that is meant to mean something. Clint doesn't recognise the name. Tony elaborates, "a tasmanian wolf. Or tasmanian tiger. One of the largest marsupial canids to have existed."
Maybe it's something in the way that he says it, or maybe something in Clint's memory was triggered, but either way he gets what the billionaire is saying, "It's an extinct species."
"So are you saying somebody could, theoretically, have a dodo?" Temis' claws clink on the table she is perched on.
"But they're aliens!" Sam argues, and then turns to Thor, as if to ask him something, before pausing, looking intimidated.
Thor shakes his great blonde locks once, "The dísir are many species. Many not native to your planet, but all confined to a form."
"So yours took the form of an earth animal because you're familiar with earth," Natasha reasons, "More familiar than perhaps some of the other Aesir."
"Is there a source?" Tony asks, spinning his chair around and standing, "Something changed," he clicks his fingers, "Something had to change to result in this."
"That…" Thor looks grave, "that is why I am here. We, on Asgard, although we can’t say what exactly has changed, have picked up an origin signal.”
“And let me guess,” Tony drawls even as Clint meets Nat’s gaze silently across the room, “It originates on earth.”
Thor shrugs apologetically, “I hope now I am here we can pinpoint it more accurately.”
"Do you think HYDRA…?" Pietro queries, but is shot down violently by his sister.
"Not entirely," Steve looks grim, "But we can check it out," their leader turns to Thor, and Clint realises they're all waiting for him to make the last call. The Avengers - both old and new - are waiting for him to decide what to do, "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
Thor nods, "I believe we can track the signal to find the energy source and find out what happened to cause this… change.”
“But do we want to undo this change?” Steve seems anxious, and his mongoose presses against him. “Is undoing this actually going to fix anything?” Clint glances at Temis who looks nervous. He tries to imagine her suddenly not being there, and finds it's not impossible, but it's hard. Harder than he'd thought.
Because what if this time there is nothing to fix?
"We've always been here," Fyodr drops down from somewhere, to the right of Clint. Sam startles at the polecat appearing so close to him, "Whether you'll see us…"
“What’s wrong?” Tony speaks up suddenly, “I mean… this…” he gestures to Edie, “This is good right, so there must be a bad as well. What’s the bad news?”
“The bad news?” Thor shakes his hair out of his face, and his wolf - his extinct wolf steps forwards, picking up the rest of the sentence with a flash of fangs.
"Because something changed here. Something entered this universe allowing us to take a form, take a presence in this world," Dagný says, her long cat-like tail wagging slightly, "And if something already slipped through, then it means something else, something worse might follow."
Clint just lays a hand on Temis' feathers, "We'll get that tool shed finished eventually," he murmurs to her, "Just… maybe not this week."
For some, their soul animals have changed their lives. For Matt it makes no difference. Not to his work, not to his fighting, nor to his intense parkour routines around his corner of the city. Xexilia wraps herself like a bracelet around his arm, curls into a pocket, slips under his armour with ease. She doesn't get left behind, nor is she in any more harm than Matt puts himself in on a regular basis.
He counts himself lucky, observing someone with a prowling lioness trying to navigate the busy streets of New York. People scatter out of their way, and the same innate feeling that allows Matt to recognise the soul animals, allows other people to realise that the top predator of Africa's plains is not a real lion and won't eat them. Indeed the soul animals don't appear to need to eat at all.
They can. Xexilia swallowed a mouse whole, but it doesn't provide her with any kind of sustenance. She's real enough to have a beating heartbeat and working lungs, but she's too much a part of him to have to go through the boring daily motions to keep herself alive.
His gloved hands grip the edge of a building and he pulls himself up and over, rolling to his feet. He can feel the air, cool and gentle blowing the sounds and smells of the big city over him.
At times he wonders why he never decided to move away to the country - to some quiet, backward town where his senses could cope.
Then he hears a cry of alarm. A child's scream. And he realises why.
He finds the source of the discontent three blocks down and between two large hulking tower blocks. A child - a young girl of about seven or eight is huddled in the entrance to the alleyway, heart racing. Further in is another heartbeat -the mother, but it's oddly slow and sluggish.
The child's soul animal is a cowering kitten, meowing pitifully. Matt drops down from a nearby building, pausing by the child to crouch down, analysing the situation.
He can't see anything wrong. He can’t… "Hello," he says, gently to the girl. She squeaks slightly, and Matt hopes the new costume isn't too intimidating. Maybe he should save it for when there are more gangs and guns involved, revert back to his old black ninja wear for his street patrols. "What happened?" he asks, trying to appear non-threatening.
She appears to realise this because the kitten's one ear pricks up. "She said there was something there," the girl whispers, "Mommy…"
Matt turns to where the mother is sitting. She's probably shell-shocked, because she's still not reacting. He straightens, focussing his senses on the mother. "Go to her," he says, "I'll look for thing that attacked you."
The girl doesn't move, shaking her head and the kitten in her arms shrinks down smaller.
"What's the matter?" he asks.
"She's all wrong," the girl says, "Seb is gone and she's…"
It takes Matt longer than it should to work out what the girl is talking about. It isn't until Xexilia slides her way around to his neck, tongue tasting the air, "He's not there," she whispers to him.
Matt looks towards where the mother stands, further in the alley. She's still not moved since he arrived. She sits there, huddled, sounding almost comatose and alone.
Matt realises then, staring at the woman who could just as well be dead because her animal isn't there. No furred cat or dog, no sleek scales or insect wings on her shoulder. He casts his senses towards her but there's nothing.
People without an animal are dead people. This woman is still breathing but her animal…
It's gone. She's a dead woman walking.
Except she isn't. Not really. Matt approaches her with light footsteps, stopping in clear line of sight but there is no recognition. There is no sign of life.
Something about the woman makes Xexilia's scales shudder and Matt's spine crawl.
She's lost her soul animal.
Behind him the child is still cowering in the shadows of the alley entrance, so Matt moves. He pushes aside the revulsion he feels and reaches for where the high pitched whine from the woman's left jean pocket signals her phone. He pushes a button and then pauses, turning back to the child.
"Can you unlock this?" he asks, moving away from the woman.
The girl nods.
"Call someone. Your father. An aunt or uncle. Tell them the street name. Tell them what happened… can you do that for me?"
"We can," the kitten speaks up, rather cautiously.
"What about the thing?" the girl asks, taking the phone from him.
"Which way did it go?" he asks, "I'll go make sure it doesn't… that this can't happen again."
"I don’t know" the girl says, pitifully, "I couldn’t see it. Mommy said there was something there but… there wasn’t."
"That's okay," Xexilia appears near his wrist, addressing the girl, "We don't tend to rely much on sight anyway."
Sandalphon is an angel. Darcy thinks she prefers the theory that the animals are angels, as opposed to devils. He is quite literally, the angel on her shoulder, and she enjoys the pun.
He doesn't look like an angel. He looks like a bat. A bat with large ears almost the same size as his head. His soft leathery wings brush against her cheek when she turns her head, and it shouldn't be comforting.
It's a bat sitting on her shoulder. She wants to ignore the fact he's even there except she can't. He's a bat. Does that means she's a bat? She got a bat because she's blind and nocturnal? Okay, so not blind, maybe, but why a bat?
Okay, so the whole thing kind of freaks her out. She's a scientist - okay, she's an intern - and there is no rational explanation. She's just spent the last week watching Jane run around in a frenzy trying to figure it all out.
Jane called hers Arrin. Darcy isn't sure if the lemur is named for some isolated place in Scotland, the Hebrew to mean 'lofty and exhausted' or a weird derivation of 'aaron' to mean 'light-bringer'. Jane got a lemur - a bright eyed, bushy-tailed intelligent animal with soft fur and clever hands. And Darcy isn't jealous, she isn't, but she'd thought her inner animal would be something more than a bat.
Jane, at the moment, looks annoyed, "I'm an astrophysicist," she declares, knocking a pile of paper over with a grand gesture, "I'm not cut out to deal with experimental physics!"
"I'm in political sciences," Darcy laughs, "If you're underqualified, look at me!"
Jane pauses, head resting on her hand, "What happened to your intern?"
"Ian?" Darcy takes half a moment to try and remember, "Oh, he's somewhere around." She hopes she hasn't lost him again. That would be bad.
There is a beeping sound from one of the devices sitting sprawled out on the table in front of them. Darcy has lost track of what they all do, Jane has collected half a dozen over the past two years at least.
"That's odd," Jane says.
"Is it bad?" Sandalphon asks, surprising Darcy. Mostly the animals don't like to talk to anyone beyond their human, but this is still new and strange enough that the rules are still being established. Some things, it appears, just aren't done.
"I don't…" Jane picks up the device then shakes her head. Then she shakes the device.
"Is it…" her lemur reaches for it, and the beeping increases, "Oh," he says, tails twirling into a spiral as Jane looks at him in disbelief, "So that's what changed."
"What changed?" Jane asks.
"The report," Sandalphon says, "Darcy, that report…"
She knows what he's talking about. Not that she knows what the report means, but she knows which one her bat is referring to, and she throws herself towards the desk, rifling through it. Arrin looks a bit affronted at the flying pieces of paper, but that's before Darcy wields the report with triumph, thrusting it at Jane.
Jane begins to page through it, and her lemur peers over her shoulder, taking it in as well. It makes Darcy wonder how intelligent they are, "What's five times five?" she whispers to Sandalphon.
"Really?" he sounds unimpressed, readjusting his position on her shoulder.
"Just answer the question."
"Twenty-five, Darcy, I've always been here. I've learnt what you have, been with you through your childhood, your teenage years…"
Darcy feels a blush on her cheeks suddenly, "Even…"
"Yes." She doesn't even need to finish before he knows what she's saying. It feels invasive. Too personal, especially for a bat.
But then again, this is hers.
With a sigh she leaves Jane and Arrin to pour over the physics paper, letting Sandalphon crawl onto her hands and pulls up a webpage. She doesn't look up bats to start with, she looks at lemurs. They represent different things depending on which website she goes on, but all focus on a strong sense of family, knowledge and being able to find your way. She glances at Jane and wonders how accurate that is.
Then, with the warm body of Sandalphon on her palm, she looks up bats.
The words flash up on screen: free spirit, regenerative, the idea of death and rebirth, sociable, adaptable…
"I'm sorry," he whispers, "I'm sorry you don't like what I am."
Darcy turns the computer off decisively, "I don't care," she tells him, "Not really… I mean… how can I? You are me and I…" she takes a deep breath, laughing slightly, "I guess I was just hoping I would have a soul animal I could cuddle to me."
"You're not that cuddly of a person, Darc," Sandalphon chitters softly, "I think you proved that when you tasered a Norse god."
Darcy hums, because her little bat has a point.
Nearby, Jane lets out an annoyed sound, "All the world's best scientists working on this, and we still know nothing about you guys," she slumps down, Arrin still trying valiantly to sort through sheaves of paper.
"What have they found now?" Darcy asks, trying to sound sympathetic.
"Some guy in the UK published a paper on a particle surrounding these…." again there was a pause, a search for a word, "surrounding our psyches." Jane's ring-tailed lemur rustles, obviously uncomfortable with the word.
"Really? Out of the related Greek theories you go for the psyche?" Darcy sounds outraged. "Personally, I prefer anima. Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato used to believe in the anima. The soul. From the Latin to mean current of air or wind, but if you take it to mean breath of life it kind of works… Anima mundi is the idea of a world soul, a world consciousness that the very earth is alive."
Jane takes a deep breath, and then continues talking over Darcy. She's kind of used to it by now, and falls silent to listen. "The particles can't be identified. For all intents and purposes, this guy is theorising they’re conscious matter.”
“Conscious matter?” Darcy repeats, awed because why is Jane trying to downplay this? This? This could change everything. It's breath-taking, amazing, unbelievable... "If that’s true - and I’m honestly willing to believe anything at this point - then theses religious activists on the TV might actually have a point when they talk about our psyches being demons that we can only see because Eve ate the apple.”
"We just discovered original sin," Darcy's long-eared bat shudders, "God help us."
He finds nothing.
Whatever the girl had seen; whatever thing had hurt her mother Matt doesn't find it. He scours the city to no avail. It's useless, made even more so by the next morning when he wanders into the office to find Karen and Foggy staring at the TV. Rincalion and Niamh are sitting on the desk, and the racoon turns as he enters.
"Matt," Foggy says, "Have you seen this? I mean… have you heard…?"
Matt pauses to listen, and Xexilia winds her way to his collar bone. The news is talking about the soul animals. It's all they talk about. They're reporting about several cases of people without animals appearing in hospitals, lifeless and non-responsive.
"People are theorising they… they're more than just an animal. But if they're our souls… the church doesn't like that," Karen whispers.
Rincalion flutters to her shoulder, saying something to Karen that Matt probably shouldn't hear. "But they have souls too… don't they know? Don't they realise?"
"Maybe they do," Karen whispers back, "Maybe they just don't care. Maybe they're as scared as the rest of us… maybe they've thought through what this means."
On the news someone shouts out, "They're wrong!" Their sleek furred mink keeps silent, wrapping himself around her legs as the woman waves her sign at the cameras, "They aren't angels, they're demons sent to deceive us! To lead us astray! For now we see the true form of our dæmons, our eyes have been open, we have committed original sin once more by seeing that which should stay hidden, obtaining knowledge that should stay lost!"
Foggy turns the TV off at that point, and Matt leans back, listening to the smooth rattle of scales, the shifting of feathers and click of tiny talons on a desk. Karen's tiny bird seems nervous, he thinks. Karen is nervous, he reasons, still trying to figure out how they link together.
"They're calling them demons," Karen whispers, "But how can they be a bad thing?"
"The word actually originally meant 'to divide'," Matt informs her, "From the Latin 'daiomai' meaning 'to split'. It later spawned the Greek 'dæmon' which were spirits of fate. This was years before the Christian use turned it into superstition and evil connotations with strictly malicious intents. Greek dæmons were often benevolent or benign, often invisible guardians. They're like ghosts, or spirit guides, and they weren't even dangerous until Plato came along. Nowadays demon means something less than divine, a false idol, natural evil."
Foggy clears his throat, as if not to be outdone. "In psychology daimonic is a natural human impulse within everyone to affirm, assert, perpetuate, and increase the self to its complete totality."
"You got that off wikipedia, didn't you?"
Foggy scoffs, "Of course."
Matt's Xexilia slides from his arm to around his neck. He reaches out, laying a hand on her smooth scales, as he speaks, "Empedocles used the term daimone to describe the psyche or soul. I think it sounds appropriate, don't you?"
"Do you think I'm a demon?" the snake whispers to him. He hears a sibilant hiss to the undertones, hears her twist and feels her sliding up his arm, "Snakes are the tempters, after all."
People see a snake and they'll assume it is because he's a lawyer. Because he's clever and sly and tricky.
People will see a snake and make the common assumption that it's suitable, a blind man having a snake as his soul animal. As his dæmon. Snakes can't see after all. That is, at least, what most people think.
They couldn't be more wrong he thinks, silently smug as he strokes Xexilia's slightly ridged head, "It's only suitable that you're a snake," he breathes to her, barely audible but he knows she can hear, "I'm a devil after all."
His pit viper dæmon laughs.
New York should be familiar to Bucky.
It's been over sixty years; he couldn't have really expected it to stay the same. What he does recall doesn't match up, and what he doesn't remember probably didn't matter that much anyway. He stalks the streets, wearing too-big hoodies and a worn, stolen bag slung over his shoulder. Alannah trots along besides him and he sees the looks people give him.
They're not even looking at him. They're looking at the wolf first and foremost, then their gazes slide to him. Everyone's thinking is changing already and it's been a week. A week with new companions and the world still turns.
The animals define who people are. Two parents wander through the park hand in hand, a yellow lab following along and a marmot sitting on the push chair the mother wheels.
The woman is the lab. Protective, loyal, the dog keeps making eyes at the baby, ears on alert. The marmot is timid, the guy making puppy-dog eyes at the woman, carrying her bags for her as they move along. She smiles back and the lab's tail wags.
Between them the child sleeps with a wisp - a faint shadow, really - just visible next to him. The baby yawns, reaching out with pink hands towards his mother. Bucky knows what the wisp is, what it will become. It will solidify, form a baby kitten or puppy, mewling and crying at the world it's been forced into. The parents will coo over their child while the lab and marmot will watch over the still undefined animal.
The child has a million futures ahead of him, none of them even formed fully yet.
Bucky's heart animal presses up against his still flesh hand in comfort. Bucky's fingers tighten in her fur, and it's the only support he'll allow himself.
"What do you suppose Steve is?" Alannah whispers to him.
"Something brave," he says, "Something brave and something small and something fierce."
The wolf growls softly in agreement, and then stiffens. Bucky feels her spine under his hand tense, and her ears prick, focussing on something behind him.
He turns slowly, catching sight of the man walking through the park. He looks like a business man on his way to work, busy and talking into his phone and…
"James…" Alannah's lips curl.
That's when the man's gaze finds Bucky, eyes widening just that tiny bit and hand twitching as if for a weapon and--
Bucky doesn't wait around. He turns and takes off running, almost walking straight into a coffee vendor parked along the walkway. He ducks around it. Now he's looking he can spot those who aren't meant to be there. Alannah's hackles rise, and she looks like she wants to take them all on, tear them all apart, the men with their dog dæmons and hawks and cats and…
Bucky knows who they are. He knows what they'll do to him. To them. They'll take Alannah away again and then… "Come on!" he says, turning and running.
His heart wolf takes off after him, paws thudding on the ground.
They'd been with HYDRA. They'd been with HYDRA for far too long
They weren't going back.
She's conscious of every little thing she does, shuffling papers and trawling through information that isn't in her field of science at all. Normally Jane just gets on with things but now…
Arrin reaches out one black hand, clawing it through the rough coat of Thor's psyche. Dagný's tail wags slightly, and nearby Thor watches her with clear adoration. His gaze doesn't change the least when he turns to Jane. She turns back to where Darcy and Sandalphon are flipping through newspapers.
"I don't know what we're looking for," Jane admits, because she doesn't. She can't find out what they don't even know. "We know so little about these parts of us… I mean there are obvious rules…"
"Distance," Darcy lists off, "With a few exceptions that usually appears to be down to something being done to the person, we're limited by how far apart we can be from them."
"Children's aren't settled," Sandalphon says, quietly, "Adults are. Usually around puberty they pick a shape to stick to."
"Here," Darcy throws two pictures on the table, "People theorise that some people could see these animals before… before the event. Da Vinci himself painted this 'Lady with an Ermine'… look at the way she's holding it, the way it's looking at what she's looking at… it's like it's part of her. And here again, some guy called Holbein painted this 'Lady with a squirrel'." She shrugs, "We're finding out more about them all the time, but we still don't know much…"
"What about when they appeared? Were there any energy signals then? Any world rifts? Space-time continuums opening up…?"
Jane casts an annoyed look to where Tony Stark has invaded her lab to pester them with questions. He is leaning back against a desk, a small black and white cat pacing behind him.
"I'm sure we'll figure out all the intricacies of our familiars in time, but what we really need to know is what happened to cause this?"
"Do you want to fix it?" Jane narrows her eyes, not sure how she feels about that.
"We're not something to be fixed… are we?" Arrin asks, quietly.
Dagný for the most part is silent, quiet where Thor is loud.
"It could pose harm in the future," Tony shrugs, "Or y'know, it might be natural. There might be nothing we can do about it. But when is something like this ever natural? We have to check it out."
"That's the thing," Darcy leans back, her bat perched on her shoulder, "What are we checking out? There's nothing. No energy signals. No signs. One second everything normal…"
"The next everyone screaming in pain," Tony finishes with a sigh.
"There are myths," Thor says, turning to Jane, "It is believed in Asgard if you cross the land of the dead, or through the walls in the world you will leave part of yourself behind. Although torn away, it will still be a part of you and you'll be able to see it. It is believed a ritual in some species."
Jane shakes her head, "I did that," she says, "I fell through loads of portals, but nothing like that ever happened to me."
Thor shakes his head, "There are doors to places much further than Yggsdrasil."
It takes Jane a moment to place the female voice, before she turns to see Tony's cat talking.
"We fell through from deep space. Deep and dark and far into the outer rim, but I don't remember existing in this form until I was torn from Tony's heart."
"Hang on," Tony turns with a frown to his psyche, "Are we now saying you'd have to cross not just across the galaxy, but across the universe? Across the very fabric of space?" he shakes his head, as if weighed down by the concept.
This is making Jane's head hurt. Arrin moves away from Thor and his Tasmanian wolf to stop by her, reaching out and carding his fingers through her hair. She grabs onto his warm paw, feeling the pulse beneath the skin there. "I don't think we can solve this one," he whispers to her, quietly.
"Maybe that's because there's nothing to solve," she whispers back.
"Nothing," Arrin repeats, "We haven't found anything…"
"Nothing to find," she reminds, but his wide brown eyes are staring at her, "Arrin?"
"Nothing to find… because maybe we've found it. We've found nothing. Nothing. We've found nothing because that… that's what we found. Something that doesn't exist."
"Oh," Jane says.
"What?" Darcy appears to have noticed something is wrong.
"We found nothing," Jane says, looking up from Arrin, "And maybe… maybe that's what we found. Nothing."
"I'm afraid you speak no sense," Thor says, rather gently.
Tony narrows his eyes at her, genius that he is already processing ideas, "You're talking about dark matter, aren't? Anti-matter?"
"She's clever," a new voice announces, that has them all spinning around. Because this voice is neither Thor or Dagný, Darcy or Sandalphon, Tony or his small cat… this voice is familiar and dreaded and Jane's fist hurts with the memory of punching his smug face.
Thor chokes slightly on the word "Brother" and Jane hears Dagný speak for the first time in a low growl of "Loki."
Tony's half-way to standing with a metal hand already in place, aimed at the Trickster God's head.
The Trickster God in the middle of Jane's lab with a red furred fox, sitting in front of him.
He's a magpie and a fox and a coyote. He's a tiger with sabre teeth and a black and white bird that butchers meat. He's a serpent and a spider and a wolf and anything he wants to be.
Thor's a small wolf-cat, something primitive and very, very earth-like. Thor's beloved is a nimble monkey, while the man of iron is a feral cat with jewelled eyes.
It's telling. All of their forms are, but not his. He's a hummingbird and a lion and an elephant and a falcon. He's a warg and a leviathan and a sphinx.
He's everything and nothing and he loves it. He's everything and nothing and nobody can look at him and know him. He can be whoever he wants to be, he can change personalities like new skins.
Jarl's a fox now, red coat and black eyes as he examines everyone in the room with slight distaste. Stark looks seconds away from turning the glowing white light on his metal hand into an extremely painful exit. Loki doesn't even bother to look scared when he raises his hand.
"She's right," he says again, "Clever girl that she is, you do know how to pick them, Thor," he flashes a grin at his brother who just levels a glare back. Ah, right, he hasn't dropped in since the whole 'Loki is dead' fiasco.
Whoops. It must have slipped his mind.
"Shakespeare in the park - excuse me while I beat your brother into the ground."
"He's not my brother," Thor's words sting despite everything.
"Not in my lab," Thor's girl snaps, looking annoyed.
Stark actually pauses there, looking a bit sheepish. The cat at his side hisses something, and Tony slowly lowers his hand, presumably noting that Loki is unarmed.
"What do you mean 'she's right'?" the short angry brunette asks, eyes narrowing at him and then to where Jarl stands still watching.
"She's right," Loki drawls, "Nothing happened. Or rather… you won't find any effects, energy readings or signals because it went the wrong way. Not into this world."
"And by world you mean 'universe'?" Stark questioned, still sounding so, so suspicious.
"There's a hole," Jarl gnashes his teeth together, "We almost fell through the damn thing… just thought you'd like to know."
"He's a male," Stark notes abruptly, and his tiny cat tilts her head to the side considering the Trickster God and his soul partner.
"Why, so he is," Loki drawls, "I hadn't noticed." On the table top Jarl's brush tail flicks from side to side almost tauntingly.
"A hole?" Foster asks, gaze narrowed on him. "A hole in space?"
"In the universe," Loki drawls, "Thought you might want to know."
"A hole in the universe?" the three humans all chorus together. They're so adorable when they do that, Loki thinks. So mindless, so simple, so…
"Loki… what did you do?" Thor growls.
"What makes you think I did anything?" Loki manages to sound hurt.
Stark rolls his eyes, "You really want an answer to that?"
Loki shrugs, "Well…"
"Where is the hole?" Foster is still there asking the important questions, "Where does it go to? What came through?"
"You already answered what came through," Loki shrugs, "Nothing."
"We call it dust," Jarl says, surprisingly Loki. The fox' one ear flickers, "You call it dark matter. She called it nothing. It doesn't matter what it's called, but it gave you all what you needed to see us."
Foster looks exhausted, sliding down a little in her seat. Thor still has one hand on Mjolnir with his small wolf eyeing up Jarl warily. Stark look torn between revelation and a need to summon that absurd metal armour of his.
"So let me get this straight," the girl - Lewis - seems to be the only one taking this all in her stride, "There is a giant split in the sky somewhere and something leaked through, called dust, that is essentially dark matter, and it allowed us to see our…" she struggles for a word and eventually gives up, throwing her hand up in the air, "Okay, so why are you telling us this? What do you want? What's your deal? And why is this a bad thing?"
They're like children, Loki thinks, even Thor doesn't appear to realise the real problem here. But then Loki has fallen through hundreds of galaxies, travelled for lightyears and seen things his brother can't begin to imagine.
"There's a problem with holes," Loki says, slowly, "They let something in, but they also let something out. And that? That's not good."
"Why are you telling us this?" Thor's pretty little wolf asks him, quietly, with all the wariness in his brother and a strange note of hope Loki thinks he's imagining.
"Because it doesn't just affect you," Jarl answers for him, even as Loki takes a step backwards, preparing to leave. He's outstayed his welcome already. "It affects everyone. You primarily, because you're closest to it. But eventually everyone everywhere."
"You guys kind of like the hero shtick," Loki shrugs, "But it's not my deal. I've got other things to do."
"You're leaving?" Thor asks, abruptly.
"Places to be. People to see," Loki waves one hand, preparing to click his fingers and depart.
"Hang on!" the girl with the bat soul shouts, "You didn't tell us where it was!"
"I don’t know precisely. That’s your job. It’s a big hole with lots of rips,” he shrugs, “I’m sure you’ll find it eventually.
And then he's gone. He wonders for a moment if he should have stayed to help but…
Nah. He's not interested. Not really. It's just…
Everything's changed. His soul walks besides him and there is a hole in the world. A door between universes and doors let things through that shouldn't be let out or in.
The heroes in this case just needed a helpful hint and if Loki had to provide it well…
"Come on," Jarl whispers, "We should check out Asgard."
"Fun," Loki agrees, because it is. It will be fascinating to see everyone's exposed personalities out in the open, even while his own flitters from a red fox to a black and white magpie that settles on his shoulder.
Loki is everything and nothing and as much as he enjoys it, he hates it too.
Because even now, he'll never know who he truly is.
Bucky bounces off an alley wall, using it to swing himself around the corner and down the narrow street it led onto. Alannah skids around, and the gun shots pepper the wall above her.
The men are shouting into radios, and Bucky doesn't stop. He keeps moving, keeps running…
There is the roar of an engine and more men appear ahead of him. Bucky still doesn't stop running.
The first guy to appear gets a metal fist around his throat, Bucky's momentum slamming him back into the car he had emerged from. Bucky throws him away, discarding the guy like a rag doll and grabbing the gun of another grunt who tries to shoot him. The grunt's cougar dæmon leaps for Alannah and she meets it with open jaws that close around the large cat's throat.
The man with the gun goes limp and with a sparkle of dust the cougar is no longer there.
Bucky swings the rifle around, aiming towards the men who had been chasing him and causing them to scatter. Some of them attempt to shoot back and so he aims for them and…
Someone from one of the vehicles reaches him, but it's not Bucky he gets to first.
The man lays out a gloved hand and touches Alannah.
It's like someone slapped him. It stings, hurts him like a physical blow but also an emotional blow, shaming him and humiliating him. It feels like someone had shoved a hand into his chest and touched his still beating heart.
It's intruding. It's personal. It's the worst thing imaginable, and Bucky knows, just knows, that it's not something that should be done.
It's a violation. Not just of his body, but of his soul.
He feels weak, like he's seconds away from collapsing, but years of training and fighting keep him standing.
And Alannah rounds on them.
She's a wolf. She might be him, and they might not be supposed to touch others, but they broke that rule first.
It hurts. But this time, it's a good pain. A necessary hurt. She rips out of the throat of the man who first touched her and then throws herself as far away from them as possible.
Bucky tosses the rifle away, nailing another grunt in the head and without thinking too much about it, he throws himself into a roll over the stopped car. Alannah leaps up and over with him, claws chinking on the metal and he is on her heels when they fling themselves back out into traffic.
He reaches the other side to screeching brakes and angry taxi drivers. He has to get off the ground, he thinks, grabbing a fire exit staircase and swinging himself up. Alannah follows on nimble paws, pausing only to leap for a too eager raptor heart bird and throwing her back to the ground.
One of the men chasing them stumbles.
Bucky pulls himself up and onto the ceiling. Now several stories up his options for running are limited both by his own limitations, and those of his heart wolf. He takes a running jump onto an adjacent roof, and the wolf follows him, clearing the gap with ease. Bucky takes a few more steps before he realises that the only way on from this rooftop is another leap across an alley to a fire escape hanging across it.
"Go!" Alannah barks, and for a moment Bucky hesitates. He's lost Alannah already, he can't lose her again.
But at least she won't be in HYDRA's grasp.
Bucky goes for the fire escape and Alannah goes for the alley below. It tugs at him, but it doesn't hurt. He thinks it should but it doesn't. He's over thirty feet away from Alannah before he even realises it. It doesn't hurt. Vaguely he knows that it should, that there was probably a time when this wasn't natural for them.
But Bucky and Alannah aren't natural anymore.
He can hear behind him his pursuers halting, confused by their quarry splitting into two. Their animals quiver, because they can't separate. Not the way Bucky and Alannah can. Which means the men chasing them have to split up if they want them both. Or even better they have to go for Bucky. For the Winter Soldier, leaving the wolf behind.
Bucky would rather it came to that than Alannah was captured.
He's over and onto the taller rooftop, running across the flat level. The adjacent building is a tall tower block and Bucky doesn't even think. He jumps across the gap, cold metal fingers making their own hand-hold in the bricks to give him time to kick in the nearby window.
The people still at their office this time of day scatter back in surprise as he crosses their desk space. He can make out shouts behind him but he doesn't stop to find out how far behind him HYDRA are. He tugs open a door and heads for the stairs.
Cool scales press against the warmth of his neck as he shoves an unwieldy piece of cardboard box off him. It smells a bit.
Okay it smells a lot. Dumpsters, it appears, are Matt's specialities.
"This is disgusting," Xexilia would probably wrinkle her nose at the smell if she could. As it is Matt does it for her, batting aside a black bag threatening to fall on him and trying to gain purchase in the shifting garbage. It's like sand, sliding over each other and each movement just succeeds in making him sink in a bit deep. It is with triumph that Matt latches onto the edge of the bin and begins pulling himself up.
"How do we get into these situations?" he mutters to himself.
His dæmon answers for him, "You pissed off a gang trying to pawn off alien parts. Then you had to leg it when the agents in black turned up."
"If I didn't know better," Matt says, "I'd have said they were S.H.I.E.L.D."
Except he does know better, and he knows that S.H.I.E.L.D are gone.
At least, they're meant to be gone.
So, he will reflect a few hours later, are HYDRA and long dead wartime heroes, but that doesn't stop one hurtling out of the sky to land practically on top of him. His senses clogged by rubbish, Xexilia notices before he does, lithe body twisting and Matt moves out of the way just in time as someone crashes down with a thud next to him.
"You're not the only one who falls in dumpsters," Xexilia sounds like she's almost trying to reassure him. It's not at all reassuring. Even less so when Matt finally attunes to the guy who fell in on top of him and realises the man is just that. A human.
There is no dæmon with him.
Unlike the woman from before, this man is alive. He's conscious, he's aware, he's shoving aside the same cardboard box that plagued Matt minutes earlier and turning to him. "Who are you?" the guy sounds angry. Hostile. Wary and there's a hint of fear and the sounds of slight shifting as the guy glances upwards.
"Daredevil," Matt says, because he's kind of liking the name.
The guy who landed in the dumpster with him has no sense of humour or understanding of the latest news because there is no reaction. Not even a snort at the name. "What are you--?" the guy starts to ask, but is cut off when someone shouts out. It's quiet, and Matt can hear it fine, what surprises him is that the guy can too.
"Winter Soldier located…"
Someone is standing in the mouth of the back-end alley, talking into a phone. The guy-in-the-dumpster moves then, with speed and a fluid grace that is almost deadly as he vaults out of the garbage bin and towards the new arrival. New arrival draws his gun, aiming it at garbage-guy who doesn't appear at all cowed. Instead as the gun fires, it's deflected by a whir of mechanics and a spark of metal that despite what Matt's logical mind says, appears to be his arm.
New arrival himself gets a hand around his throat, choking his windpipe and strength that is not human throwing him back against a brick wall. Hanging onto consciousness, Garbage-guy is too busy focussing on New Arrival to notice the second man in black appear.
But Matt and Xexilia do. Matt doesn't make a big thing of it. He uses the edge of the garbage bin to leap silently down onto the second bad guy, hand finding his head and punching. This person has a larger dæmon - a hound of sorts - and it whimpers as Matt uses the hard ground to bash the guys head in.
When he straightens, Garbage-guy has finished with his own enemy and has turned back to Matt in confusion. "Why are you helping me?" he asks, "I don't even know you."
Matt shrugs, because he doesn't know. Nothing other than an innate instinct is telling him this man - this man with the metal arm and no visible dæmon - is the right guy to help.
"Daredevil, huh?" Garbage guy huffs, "You can call me… Bucky." There's a slight hesitation but Matt doesn't comment on it.
"Bucky," he repeats, "Bucky and…" he pauses, because it's not like people always introduce their dæmons. They are a private, personal thing and Matt's not sure if this guy even has…
"Alannah," Bucky replies, and that's when Matt hears footsteps from the alley. Four paws and soft fur. A pounding heart and lots of sharp teeth. She's a canine of sorts, Matt's not quite there with identifying her but Xexilia whispers to him.
"She's a wolf."
Ah, Matt thinks. That fits.
"Bucky…" the wolf is saying, "We need to go… we… is he…"
"He's trustworthy," Bucky says, "Did you lose them?"
"I think so…"
"No," Matt says, moving forwards to where he can already hear someone approaching, "No, there's one just…"
There is a snarl from the wolf dæmon as she rounds back on her pursuer and an answering hiss from the grunt's feline dæmon. The latter turns abruptly into a yowl of surprise and Matt freezes, sensing something else in the alley mouth.
It's not so much as there's something there. It's that there isn't anything. There is a void of air, a space where there are no smells or noises. It's hovering near the man's beating heart and the cat yowls.
Alannah flinches back and Bucky frowns at her, "What is it?"
"I don't know," the wolf snaps her jaws together.
The man approaching hasn't sensed it. His feline does, but he doesn't attention focussed on Bucky and Matt, gun up and sliding a tranquiliser dart into it. Full of sedatives if the smell is anything to go by.
Matt knows what it is. He can't see it, but he gets the terrible feeling that not many people can. He takes a step backwards, away from the void.
None of them can see it, but they know the moment it hits the man. His feline yowls and the man's gun falls to the ground. The man himself chokes, a horrible tormented cry that reminds Matt of when their dæmons first appeared.
Except in this case it's not appearing. It's disappearing. The void is near the cat, around the cat, and Matt listens to the breeze through fur and a thudding heartbeat and then it fades.
"It… his soul…" Alannah sounds like she's been stabbed.
"Go," Matt says, moving away from it, "Bucky, go, trust me…"
"But the guy…"
"He's as good as dead," he says, even as the body slumps down, heart still beating and blood still pumping but… it's like a puppet with its strings cut. There's no life there anymore.
It vanished when the cat did.
"Where… I don't…"
"He should stay with us," Xexilia hisses softly, coiled like a chain around his neck. Matt knows Bucky can hear but the other man has the decency not to comment on it.
But Matt agrees with his dæmon. "I think you should come with us," he says gently, "You need somewhere to hide for a bit, right? We can provide that." He's already got ten routes in his head back to his house planned, all of which avoid the void that hovers over the entrance to the alley.
Bucky glances at Alannah and then to him, "We'd like that," he says, as if he doesn't really know how to be grateful. His tone is stiff but there is genuine relief and gratitude in his voice.
"Ok," Matt says, kicking open one of the doors of the nearby building and holding it open for the pair before turning back, "Oh, and by the way - my name is Matt."
Chapter 3: Grigori
"I almost got that shed fixed," Clint grumbles. Nat just sort of hums, not really having any words to say to fill the silence. It doesn't matter. Clint does it well enough on his own, "Next time," Clint says, "Next time I'm gonna’ get this girl I know to help out so I can get that damn shed fixed. I might as well, she stole my damn dog, she can have my job for free."
With a grunt, Clint kicks out, foot connecting with a metal grating. It falls loose, and there is a metallic clang as it drops down into the corridor below.
"Smooth," Temis deadpans, feathers ruffled from where she's cramped into the ventilation shaft.
Clint just rolls his eyes, levering himself out and dropping near silently into the corridor. Temis hops out with a flap of wings, soars around once before coming to land on his shoulder. It's the same shoulder the leather guard for his bow is built into, and Clint can't help but wonder how much of that is coincidence.
Nat drops down behind him, her companion landing on her shoulder with light paws. In the bright light of the corridor Fyodr looks more like a mink or a marten of some sort. Clint's still not sure and at this point he thinks it's a bit late to ask.
"Which way now?" Clint asks, "And remind me again: what are we doing in the White House?"
With a roll of her eyes, Natasha stalks past him, Fyodr leaping across to Clint's shoulders before either of them have even realise he's done it. Once there Fyodr looks a bit uneasy, and Clint just doesn't dare move because did Natasha's fylgja just leap to him?
"We're breaking in," the marten says, "What does it look like we're doing?"
"Breaking in," Clint says, gravely. Over his head Temis angles herself down the corridor. It becomes uncomfortable when they are too far away, but she can still travel further than most other fylgja. He moves down after Tasha to keep up with the pair.
As he nears Nat, Fyodr leaps down, slinking away into the shadows and Temis lands on the shoulder he had vacated, "And why are we breaking in again?"
"Tony's gone with Thor to try and find out about the signal. Steve's looking into who did this. And we're left to track down some dusty old senator who apparently should have been locked up to start with."
"They let him go," Temis says, "Our job is to follow him and see where he goes."
"He's a big deal senator who got arrested by the FBI and they're letting him go?" Clint frowns, "That's asking for trouble."
"I can't believe nobody noticed," Temis' feathers ruffle slightly.
"They can't actually get him for a crime," Nat says, pacing down the corridor, "You can't arrest someone for being an asshole."
"Not even a HYDRA asshole?"
"Remember," Nat reminds him, "If we get caught you're deaf and I don't speak English."
Clint snorts, "Nat, we don't get caught," he reminds her.
She shrugs one shoulder because Clint's got a point there.
They got put on this job for a reason, after all.
"We're what?" Peter Parker's jaw must drop open slightly. He's staring at Gwen in what is probably amazement, but it might also appear a bit like he's been totally blindsided. Which he has been, but usually he doesn't let it show so blatantly as he stares at her.
"She's crazy," Elysia says, her tail flickering from side to side. "So, so crazy."
Gwen almost overbalances carrying a tray filled with flasks and chemicals and stacks of paper, but manages to right herself with clumsy grace, dropping it on a table where her er'el - her animal, her companion, her angel - sniffs at it. Caderyn's eyes are bright with whatever it is that Gwen is planning.
"And you aren't worried something might explode?" Peter asks, almost hesitantly.
"Oh, I hope so," Cade barks in obvious amusement. The small grey fox begins to nose at things covering the already full workspace so that Gwen can put down her latest acquisitions. The fox is as smart and clever as Gwen herself is. Half the time he acts like a cat, the other like a puppy.
He's almost the opposite of Elysia. Lys is feline, although Peter's not sure what kind. He thinks she's part bobcat, but he can't really tell. Her fur is shaggy, long and brown, and her eyes are a warm amber that seem constantly shaded in worry as she observes Peter and Gwen's exploits.
"We're gonna’ try and identify something I found theorised in a paper," Gwen says, tone brimming with excitement, "I'm not 100% on the science, but the mechanics of it make sense."
"Is this safe?" Lys' tail flickers slowly from side to side as she paces the desk. She doesn't stop moving, and it doesn't worry Peter. Maybe it should. His er'el shouldn't be so far away from him and it hurts. It always hurts. But Peter has a duty and Lys understands she can't be there with him all the time.
It doesn't stop the pain or emptiness the further away she is, and after pacing the desks for several more seconds she comes back to him.
She always comes back to him.
Gwen is dropping chemicals together in a petri dish, and they bubble together fiercely. Peter is dying to know what is in there, but he's dying to know what this is supposed to do more.
"How did you come up with this even?" he asks.
"Oh, you know," Gwen smirks, "I'm amazing."
He lets out a breathless laugh, "Why yes, yes you are, and what is this meant to do exactly?"
"I'm not sure," is her bright answer, "It's just… oh…" she drops the dish on the table and moves to where Cade is sitting on the piles of paper, sifting through them, "This guy theorised all about these particles of consciousness that were attracted to conscious beings. Our er'el are manifestations of these particles."
"Particles don't have a conscience," Peter frowns.
"But we do," Lys pressed her spine to her palm, "You do - haven't you ever wondered why we think the way we do? Why we're different from animals, why you're not just a mindless ape?"
Peter's lip quirks, "Evolution was more my father's forte," he says, and then has to duck the book Gwen throws at him.
"Stop bragging and come grab a burette and help me."
He's back in the ventilation shaft.
Because of course.
Contrary to popular opinion, Clint does not actually enjoy crawling through small spaces and years’ worth of dust.
One would think the security in the White House was better than this. Then again, Clint muses, contorting himself around the corner in what would probably be an uncomfortably movement had he not spent time in the circus, most people probably wouldn't be able to do this.
Most people weren't Clint and Natasha.
Natasha who had ditched him.
"How come she can pull off secretary?" Temis grumbles, shaking dust from her russet brown feathers as she hops after him ungainly on the ground once more.
"Fyodr isn't with her," Clint says through gritted teeth, "All Nat needs to do is pull on one of those big chunky necklaces that people have taken to wearing to keep their insect fylgja safe and nobody looks twice. You're a large bird of prey, people are going to look. It won't be long before we'll have to register your shapes. Soon anyone could be identified by their partner animal. Criminal with a white tiger? Yeah, we know who that is."
"And that's another reason why we're here," Temis grumbles, talon tapping on the metal below her, "Times like these I wish I was a cat."
"I don't," Clint says, and its maybe the most truthful thing he's ever said to himself, "How else would you keep up with me if you didn't have wings?"
Temis clicks her beak together appreciatively.
Clint tries to work out how other people do it. How people are coping, suddenly chained to the ground or to the ocean? He can't even begin to imagine it.
He wonders if there are others like Natasha who can separate. He knows it's not natural, that something in Tasha is different now. Her and Fyodr are still the same but they are separate too.
He and Nat tested it. There appears to be no limit on how far they can split. Miles, states, countries...
"Clint," Temis' claw clicks on the metal of the air duct, head tilted to one side, "Can you hear that?"
Clint wants to retort that 'no, he can't hear that, he's deaf didn't you know?' but then he realises what she's talking about.
In the room below him is the target: Stern. Clint's not even sure if he's a senator still, but he walks the halls of the White House as if he hadn't been arrested and fully investigated by the FBI. As if he wasn't part of HYDRA.
Stern is alone in the room, but it's definitely his voice echoing up to Clint and his fylgja in the air vent. Gesturing to Temis, his huntress moves slowly forwards on lethal talons too stand by the grating leading into the room. She glances back at Clint just as stern lets out a loud and frustrated sound.
"No!" Stern snaps, "What are you talking about? How is that even relevant...?"
There is a pause and Clint daren't move. The target is obviously on the phone to someone.
Maybe even another HYDRA agent. Clint tugs out his phone and begins to diligently blue-jack the line for Stark to play with when it suits the billionaire. The archer is sure that Tony will find plenty of use for an active HYDRA cell phone.
"No, I don't care about these Cross particles," Stern sounds annoyed, "Look, do you know how to contact anybody or not?" Another pause, "No, I don't want to talk to this young upstart. You said he's got a shrike - a magpie shrike; I want to talk to him even less even if he is redesigning his own HYDRA cell. How about... yeah, no, I guess I'll just find them myself then."
Abruptly Stern hangs up, stalking towards the door, it slamming behind him.
"So much for believing he'd changed his ways," Clint snorts, dialling Nat on his phone to report Stern's movements.
Clint almost jumps through the ceiling at the soft male voice that appears near his head. Fyodr materialises from the shadows - his dark brown-black fur still invisible. The only thing Clint can see is his wide amber eyes, blinking lazily at them, "Tasha's finished stalking out the government," he says, "She's found something too."
"Next time we're getting Stark to just hack the system," Clint grumbles.
"We could try," Fyodr says, "But this place knows technology has its faults. All records are paper copies."
"Of course they are." He rolls his eyes. "Stern is heading out. Want to follow him?"
Fyodr looks uneasy, "I think that this... I think this might be more important."
It's deviating from the mission but changing things up is what Clint and Natasha are good at.
He gestures to the marten and begins the long arduous process of sneaking back through the ventilation shaft, Temis grumbling in complaint behind him.
Clint finds her busting up a guy's tires. Natasha tries not to look guilty, letting the air out of another rubber ring before straightening, stepping towards him.
With one raised eyebrow and crossed arms Clint blinks slowly at her, "What did that guy ever do to you?"
"Oh, this is Stern's car," Natasha hopes her grin is as satisfied as she feels, " It should slow him down enough for someone else to stalk him for a change. I sent Stark a message."
"And we are...?"
"We've got other things to worry about," Natasha hums, as the pair fall into step on the sidewalk. She tears away the clunky necklace around her neck, but pockets it. She'd much rather have Fyodr besides her, every time, but it's useful to be able to pretend, just for a little bit, that she's a different person with a different soul.
Not that she'd ever be disappointed in Fyodr. He is her and she is him and she could never feel badly towards him.
"Nat?" Clint asks, as she turns around the block. His voice carries just the hint of a question, which he then proceeds to answer himself, "That guy?"
"Yes," she says simply, because Clint has already spotted him. He's a tall, balding guy. Natasha didn't bother to catch his name, that's not important. What is important is the briefcase he's carrying full of documents.
Natasha's seen them and they're not pretty.
"I hate HYDRA," Sam mumbles.
"Don't we all," Magali whispers in Steve's ears, "Cut off one head, more grow back. We've hunted down so many cells already looking for Bucky and all we find are more and more."
The infection went deep. So deep, its roots planted so long ago that when the tree had been uprooted, all the soil was dislodged. S.H.I.E.L.D came tumbling down with it.
Steve takes a slow breath and tries not to think about. He can't be worrying about Bucky and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. Not now.
Tony and Thor had taken the technical, unworldly mission. Natasha and Clint were stalking down politicians.
And Steve was doing what he did best. Taking out HYDRA bases, and dragging poor Sam with him.
"There are dozens of the smarmy bastards," Sam says, peering through his binoculars, "I count at least six on the front door and another four patrolling in groups of two and--" He stops talking, probably around the time he realises Steve isn't standing next to him anymore. Sam turns to look, but by then Steve is already by the main door, shield flying.
"Well," Steve says, moments later, giving his shield a swing, "That wasn't too hard."
Sam shoots him a look. Steve knows it too well, recognising the 'what the hell look?' because Bucky and the Commandos used to give it to him a lot.
He shakes the thoughts from his head and glances down to where Magali is circling his feet, sniffing at the HYDRA operatives.
"Is that all of them?"
"Is that all of them? he asks," Sam rolls his eyes, a small smile tugging at his lips. Aya flutters down to his shoulder as Sam goes to work on the door, stealing a key card from one of the unconscious guards and opening it. “I bet in your days they didn't have electronic locks," Sam snipes over his shoulder as he leads the pair into the building.
Steve snorts, "In my day young people didn't talk back to their elders," he mocks back as they head down the corridor.
"Oh, yes, when was that again?" Sam laughs breathlessly.
Steve is just waiting for their presence to be noticed. After all it’s not like their break in was at all subtle. He's not in the mood to do subtle, not with HYDRA.
His mind is already calculating shield angles and throw patterns when some poor hapless grunt rounds the corner. He's obviously not expecting them at all. His eyes widen and his animal - a bright-eyed spaniel - leaps backwards, lips curling slightly even as the guy shouts out a warning.
Moments later Steve's shield hits him in the head, but it's too late. The guy's dog slips past and moves around the corner, and moments later a loud ringing alarm goes off. There is the march of approaching footsteps and the dog reappears, going to her person. Behind her are three armed guards who think they stand a chance again Steve.
"These are mine," Sam takes off at a run, wings snapping out as he jumps, spinning into a kick that lands on the first unlucky HYDRA grunt's face.
Steve doesn't hang around to see the rest. He throws himself forwards, dropping at the last moment to skid along the floor under them. The guy who had been preparing to punch him in the face gets Sam's wing snapping out into his chest instead, sending him flying into Steve. The soldier shoves him off, bouncing off the corner and around as he breaks into a run down the corridor, alarms ringing.
There are times like these that he's never felt more alive. Magali keeps up with ease, at his heels and occasionally scrambling up and around his body as he literally throws himself at the next HYDRA goon he sees. The woman was guarding a door, and she manages to hit him in the face with the butt of her rifle when she suddenly stills.
"Don't try it," Magali bares sharp teeth over the woman's snake. The woman slowly lowers the rifle and steps back, not even daring to argue.
Steve snaps open the hinges and steps into the room. It's large and brightly lit with blinding white lights.
Steve's emerged out onto a catwalk that runs around the room with a set of stairs leading down on the one side. Steve is too far away though and already there are guards on the catwalk between him and the stairs.
"Let's just go over," Magali suggests, already leaping for the gap between the railings. Steve vaults over; landing with a crash on a desk surrounded by HYDRA scientists who scatters as he rolls off the desk and onto his feet. He straightens just in time to catch Magali who lands, blinking a bit.
"Good catch," she chirrups, before finding her way to his shoulder just as Steve throws the shield off the walls, trajectory patterns running through his head.
There is a loud crash and Sam appears several floors up, wings snapping out as he takes a tumble right over the catwalk. The guys chasing him are not so lucky.
Sam lands neatly by Steve, his hobby curling around in mid-air to soar past, tackling into a guard's cat familiar even as Steve takes the guard himself out with his shield. "Nice of you to show up," he remarks to Sam. Falcon's wings fold away neatly and the dark-skinned man shakes his head.
"You ain't gonna’ lose me that easily," he laughs, breathlessly, and that's when the gunfire breaks out.
Steve's moving already, shield between him and the bullets but there is an awful shriek. No sooner do the bullets raining down on them end than Steve is leaping forwards, skidding over the desk and paper and computers and kicking the first soldier down with a boot to his head. His shield slams down, across and around, taking out three more.
Behind him there is a mechanical whine as Sam's wings fly out, deflecting further bullets. He's wincing, clutching his shoulder where there is a dark red wound. He's been shot.
The shriek though - that hadn't been from Sam.
Aya - Sam's small falcon - is dragging her one wing as if it hurts. It obviously doesn't, because she manages to take off again, but only makes it a flap or two to where Sam stands, beak clipping as she begins to fuss over him.
If Steve ever wanted proof that they were undefinably linked before, well, now he's got it. Even as he swings his arm backwards, knowing without looking there is a HYDRA agent behind him. The man goes down, his cougar snarling menacingly before Magali appears, all teeth and fury and the still conscious familiars draw back. A human still there runs, his gun clattering on the floor as he flees.
Steve does not give chase.
"Are you okay?" Steve asks Sam, but the man shrugs him off with a wince, staring past him to something in the middle of the room.
"Can you see that?" he asks, "Steve?"
Steve turns, following the other's gaze. In the middle of the room is a projection of an object. A weapon. It's not particularly big or intimidating but there is something about it that draws Steve's eye. Maybe it’s the way it vanishes into nothing on one edge, or the wicked look to it. Or maybe it’s the hairline fractures in the blade itself.
Beyond that it's nothing special, and Steve doesn't understand the problem.
It's just a knife.
One train ride and a lot of stalking later briefcase guy finally arrives at his destination.
Clint peers suspiciously at the building, "What kind of HYDRA agent sneaks out of the White House with important documents and goes straight to a government building? Because Nat... This facility isn't HYDRA. So that means that agent is either in really deep which wouldn't make sense because all their sleeper cells woke up so that means this guy..."
"This guy isn't HYDRA," Natasha sounds grim. "The building is government. It's CIA."
"So what are we doing here?" Clint frowns at her, "Nat, what were you looking at?"
Natasha doesn't answer. Fyodr does, padding up silently to Clint, "Separation," he says, "We were looking at what the government had found about separation. The twins are separate from their fylgja. You and Steve appear to have a stretched bond. But everyone else..."
"Did you find anything?" Clint asks, but he already knows the answer.
Natasha nods her head in more of a jerk towards where briefcase guy is vanishing inside the front door. "I found him," she says, and Clint runs his gaze over the building in front of him.
A little bit of him dies inside when he realises what their way in is going to consist of.
"Please to god tell me we're not going to use the ventilation shafts again."
"That..." Peter takes an unconscious step back, "That doesn't look good."
Even Cade is moving away from where whatever Gwen has created is bubbling over merrily. Gwen is frowning deeply and consulting her notes, before with a sigh turning the gas leading to the Bunsen burner. She flicks through her notes again and shakes her head, "Too much of this is theoretical," she mourns, "It's pseudo-science at best and--"
"And you just tried to... what? Identify these particles that from what I can tell..." Peter waves the paper Gwen has been referencing in her face, "…are a theory."
"It just... made sense," Gwen shrugs.
Lys paces over to where Gwen's mixture is still bubbling slightly, "What even is this? Oil?"
"It's a lacquer," Gwen sighs, "I mean... it should be. I based this mostly on the paper..."
“Oh, yeah, let's talk about this paper," Peter's read it through. Twice.
Gwen's been spending several long hours in the lab already. Very long hours.
"Firstly - the whole format is entirely theoretical."
"But if you notice; it slips into the real," Gwen argues, "Almost as if the author... Malone or whatever her name is... she actually believes it is real."
"It reads more like a fantasy story. This is to be expected I suppose. There aren't many other ways to explain the theoretical science behind how conscious thought developed and how trepanation actually increases consciousness by letting this... particle into the brain... Gwen, it's just a bit far-fetched." Peter looks with concern to where the blonde girl stands, still gazing at her notes.
She sighs, throwing the papers down. Lys scrabbles to get out of the way as they almost fall on her, and her scrambling paws collide with where the beaker of amber liquid sits. It teeters for a few moments, before going straight over.
Gwen flinches away and Peter reaches for it and misses. He's too far away and the beaker spills all over the desk, Gwen's notes and Peter's glasses that sit there quickly coated in warm amber liquid.
"Oops?" Lys steps back, "I'm sorry, Gwen."
"No, it's okay," Gwen shakes her head, "Peter's right, this isn't working." For a moment Peter thinks she's given up the failed venture, but then a light sparks in her eyes. "I've been going at this the wrong way; I've been looking at chemicals when I should have been looking into filters. Filters and different light frequencies and...'
Peter tunes her out, fishing his glasses out of the rapidly cooling liquid. Its hardening on the glass and frames, and all he can think is at least the genetic changes helped to improve his eyesight. He doesn't need them anymore, thankfully, but he still feels somewhat sentimental over them.
"What did you even put in this?" he pondered, turning the glasses this way and that. The liquid which appears to be some sort of resin has almost entirely coated the glass.
"Oh, well I was aiming for a kind of epoxy resin and so..." Gwen starts off on another spiel but Peter’s not listening.
He's staring at the glasses. Or more accurately - he's staring through them. Through the lens - which is now transparent, albeit slightly yellowed - Lys blinks up at him, her slightly tufted brown ears twitching.
"Peter?" she meows, curiously, "What is it?"
Peter doesn't answer, instead pulling the glasses on and looking around.
Gwen looks mildly amused, 'They look nice," she says dryly, "But the yellow doesn't suit you."
"No..." Peter pulls them off, "No, Gwen, I think you did it. I can see... stuff. I think I can see this mysterious particle.”
It's not the ventilation shafts, but Clint's still not happy with the awkward space in between the ceiling and the ceiling tiles. It's more awkward than the one time he attempted a fling with the S.H.I.E.L.D agent. Morse... or maybe Moore, he seemed to remember her name was, and wondered whether she had survived the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.
And wasn't that just morbid, thinking how deeply infected the company had become. Potentially it had spread to the government, or maybe Natasha was just being paranoid.
Then again it wasn't the first time governments had attempted top secret research into things they probably shouldn't be looking into. Not that Clint should ever mention that around Steve.
"Stark is going to be pissed at us," Temis mutters, "The Captain sends us to stalk down the Senator who is a snake and we end up finding flaws in our own government."
"Hey, Clint?" Nat pauses just ahead of him, "Ever wondered if maybe this... our fylgja aren't such a bad thing?"
"How are we going to be a bad thing?" Fyodr scoffs, and if a marten could roll his eyes slightly then Clint swears Natasha's animal just did, "No, we mean... what if by trying to find out what happens we reverse it?"
"We can't reverse it," Temis clicks her beat together "If you do that then we..."
"We vanish," Fyodr finishes for her, 'And that's the point."
Clint glances at Temis who looks nervous. He tries to imagine her suddenly not being there, and finds it's not impossible, but it's hard. Harder than he'd thought.
"Here," Natasha pauses, peering downwards as if the floor holds all the answers. It's probably not the floor. He's proven right when Natasha twists and vanishes, seemingly into the floor. Fyodr's tail swishes from side to side as Clint and Temis move over to where she vanished. The crawl space dips as the terrain far below them no doubts shifts, and there's a gap leading out. Natasha is already through and down and Clint follows.
He drops down into a records room of sorts, Temis following him. He sneezes, brushing dust off his suit. Natasha hasn't even waited. She's moving with determination and already cracking the door open.
"Woah, slow down," Clint says, because Natasha is beginning to move with single-minded determination that is almost terrifying in its certainty, "Nat!"
She stops, and for a moment, so brief Clint almost misses it. But if he hadn't been mistaken Clint would have thought it was fear.
"We can separate," she says, briskly, mask back in place, "And I want to know why."
"Okay," Clint agrees with her, “But we do this my way."
Natasha doesn't really know what she should be thinking. But Clint's right.
She's not thinking straight. This has become too important to her, too close to her. She’s made herself too invested.
Fyodr is still up in the ceiling, she thinks, right up until he reappears on Clint's shoulder. It's a funny feeling, and Natasha knows contact with another person's soul should be painful. But when Fyodr balances himself lightly on Clint's shoulder all she feels is...well....
Content would pretty accurate. She feels settled, and more herself than she has in a long time. It doesn't feel wrong. Not with Clint.
Then again he's her best friend. He's more than that, almost.
It shouldn't surprise her. Not really.
"Here," Clint leads her, ducking and slipping quietly along the corridor through a door and ducking down. This, Natasha supposes, is how Barton prefers to act. Well, this and shooting arrows.
"Clint," she begins slowly, but he holds up a hand and ducks around and back up over the crate in the warehouse he appears to have led them too, "Clint!" she snaps.
Clint pauses, still balanced on the crate, and Fyodr balances on his shoulder for a long second and then leaps forwards onto something Natasha can't see.
"Nat," Temis flutters from Clint to her, "Nat, you should see this."
The hawk owl takes off again, circling almost anxiously, Natasha thinks as she vaults up to join Clint. He's peering at the wall - no, not at the wall - through the wall, she realises. There is an air vent with spinning fans, and Fyodr is balanced in the slight indent at the wall, peering through the fan blades.
They are peering straight into a laboratory of some sort. It's big and white and no wonder they need ventilation, the room is filled with machines. Government operatives and scientists bustle about, their souls all concentrating upon their duty.
And in the middle is something that makes Natasha tremble. She's never seen it before, but she knows, inexplicably, what it does.
"The whole air is full of souls," Fyodr whispers, "We call them dæmones and heros, and it is they who send dreams, signs and illnesses to men."
"They're trying to cure us," Clint whispers, "Natasha... their fylgja... their dæmons..."
They are lifeless. There is a certain dull quantity to all the animals in their room, a sort of mindlessness that Natasha quite can't explain.
And in the centre of the room is a machine. It's a kind of box split into two, separated by wood and metal and glass.
And dangling above, with wires trailing from it, is a silver blade.
Not a blade, Natasha thinks; a guillotine.
And Fyodr presses just that bit closer to her.
Chapter 4: Er'el
"What is that?" Sam asks, peering at the holographic projection. It's not actually there. Steve wonders where it actually is located - this old broken knife that doesn't even look important.
It looks like a knife. Not much else to it.
Sam steps forwards, examining the blade with obvious interest. "What would HYDRA want with this?" he asks, turning to Steve, "It's not even whole, look," and Sam leans over the control panel for the holograph, changing it.
The image of the blade shatters before them. The tiny hairline fractures become gaping wounds. It's in so many pieces it's hard to envision the blade from the broken parts.
"HYDRA must be trying to fix it for some reason," Magali whispers to Steve, even as Sam changes the image back to what it were before. This time he can see the way the pieces of the blade slot together like some really complicated puzzle. The ugly, obvious fractures meld with a faint blue glow of electricity and then they're gone.
"Get this to Tony," Steve decides. The billionaire genius can have a look and try to determine what this blade actually does, "Tell the others to look out for it. Especially if Natasha and Barton found another base."
Sam nods, already pulling out his phone.
Steve looks once more around the remnants of the HYDRA base, a small pit forming inside him.
"He's not here," Magali whispers, "That's a good thing, right?"
"I hope so," Steve tells her back, "I hope so."
There is a hole in the universe.
It sounds impossible to believe, but then again Tony has recently discovered stranger. He leaves Thor with Jane and Darcy, still debating the concept of dark matter. Tony is pretty sure that much of the conversation makes little sense to the Norse God. Thor understands things in cosmic terms beyond their comprehension, while the science of it and the intricacies are something the Æsir never have to consider. It doesn't matter. The whole situation makes little sense to Tony as it is.
"Phone call for you, sir," FRIDAY tunes in over his com, a pleasant and warm Irish voice that no matter how welcoming, doesn't stop the slight pang of sadness and regret for the loss of JARVIS. At the small of his back where Edie is curled up next to the rockets, she presses just that little bit closer to him.
"Who is it?" Tony asks, Mark 45 suit carefully wrapped around him as he continues his journey, flying towards where Pepper was no doubt working and not expecting him to visit. It's a short trip up the coast to where the Avengers tower is amazingly, still standing. Pepper's staying there while she's in New York. "If it's Rhodey tell him his suit will be upgraded when we're done figuring out what these familiars - no, you're right, I don't like familiars... how about totems? Nah, too Native American..."
"I believe it is Captain Rogers."
"Put him on," Tony blinks, the screen in front of him moving and although there is no picture, Captain America's voice tunes in through the speakers.
"Tony! You and Thor found anything useful?"
"Yeah," Tony replies, "We've got a giant hole in the universe."
"A hole. A tear. A rip. A..."
There is something in Steve's voice that makes Tony pause, "Now what would make you say that, Capsicle?"
"Sam and I have some HYDRA data you might be interested in. We're sending it your way. We think we might have just found what made your hole."
"Tony," Edie says, suddenly, distracting him from the images that are opening up on his screen. he had thought she'd fallen asleep in the warmth of the armour. He catches sight of a knife, a blade in many pieces of then-- "Tony!"
His vision focusses on where he's flying, on the dark shape in front of him and--
Tony rolls. He feels claws in his back but doesn't complain, righting himself and spinning around mid-air to see what he almost hit. "Woah," he says.
"Stark?" Steve sounds worried, "You okay?"
"Almost hit something," Tony manages to make it sound casual, "Not to worry, it's just-- holy--!" the thing drifts towards him and he wheels away from it, a terrible cold washing over him, "It's a dementor," Tony decides, "A real life actual dementor..."
"What's a dementor?" the Cap asks, but Tony's too busy trying not to find out because there isn't just one...
"I'll call you back, Cap," Tony manages before rolling again and flying higher. The dark cloak shaped thing lingers, the second one drifting slowly upwards.
It's not really a cloak. But it's hard to tell what it looks like. On his sensors it's a hole. There is no heat signature, no heartbeat, nothing. To his human eyes it looks like a shimmer of distorted air wrapped around a deep dark pit...
It reminds Tony of the wormhole suddenly. The startling clarity of that revelation has the Mark 45 dropping alarmingly as Tony's mind is pulled to where it does not want to go.
"Tony!" Edie is scrambling madly in the limited space she has, "Tony, move, get away you can't fight this... TONY!"
Tony veers off course, rolling and dropping and he can still feel the things behind him. The holes. The ghostly apparitions, the spectres of the nothingness they appear to echo... "You okay back there?" he asks Edie. He can feel her shaking and he's still heading for the ground.
She is silent. She doesn't answer, not even when he touches down on a familiar tower.
'Edie?" he asks, feeling panic overwhelm him. It's stupid. He knows she's there but-- "Edie? FRIDAY, disassemble the armour... Edie?"
The mark 45 begins to unlock and as soon as he feels air on his face Tony's out, turning and looking to where the small black and white cat lies curled. She's still there, she's shaking and Tony isn't even thinking about it when she's in his arms, his hands. "Tony?" she whispers, "Tony, I... it..." she doesn't speak, butting her head against the scars on his chest where the arc reactor had once sat.
He spins around at Pepper's voice, spotting her walking briskly towards him. Her heels clip on the floor and behind her is a beautiful gentle orange setter. "Pep?" he asks, Edie still gathered up in his arms.
"Is she...? Are you...? Steve called, said there was trouble..."
"Come on..." Tony grabs Pepper's arm, herding her away from the rooftop balcony, "I'll report into Cap once--"
"What is that?" Pepper's English setter says suddenly, backing away from something. Tony's gaze focusses abruptly well considering the fact he's focussing on nothing.
"Get away," he says, voice sharp, "Marin, get away...!"
"Tony - what?" Pepper tugs her hand out of his grip, and she can see it's serious but they're too exposed, they're too close to it, they're...
The nothing that Tony had focussed his attention on becomes more than nothing. He sees it the same time Pepper does because he sees her gasp, and by then he's already moving, just as the warm cat in his arms scrambles free.
Edie drops to the ground, landing on all four paws and bolting forwards, "Don't go near it, come on, let's move!" she bullies Pepper's Marin, and the pair skid slightly, turning towards where Tony and Pepper stand, just as the shimmering in the air, the distortion, the dark shadow hanging there comes into focus.
With a metal clang Tony's gauntlet closes around his wrist and it fires. It's near instantaneous, and one minute the shape is there, the next it's on fire and then the fire is out. Like a void extinguishing the flames, the spectre sucks it up, but the explosion has forced it back. Edie and Marin scramble past and Tony's second shot hits the other shape. He doesn't stay to see what happens to this one, hastening off the rooftop and away from the open air.
"Tony, what is that thing?" Pepper is asking, but it's Edie he turns to first, the cat throwing herself onto the nearby table and from the table to his shoulder.
"I thought you were..." Tony fell silent.
"It reminded me of Afghanistan," Edie tells him, "Afghanistan and the ocean and that icy forest and the wormhole and everything bad that's ever happened to us."
"You're okay?” he presses his non-gauntlet hand to the cat's warm fur. Her whiskers tickle his skin.
"I'm okay," she says, as if he didn't just avoid having a panic attack because she had it for him.
"Can it get in?" Pepper asks, because that's a sensible question even though they're a floor down and the door is closed and--
"FRIDAY, scan the building for voids of life and if any are detected lock down the floors."
"Of course, sir," the AI replies, "The only two voids detected are currently the two on the roof and both have rapidly dissipated in size."
"Okay, okay, that's good..." Tony descends an extra floor just to be away from the roof, Pepper and Marin following him.
"Tony," Pepper catches his hand and for a moment he pauses, letting his racing heart slow down. Pepper doesn't have to ask, she just watches him as patiently as the dog besides her with those wide, gentle eyes, "Okay?" she says, after a moment.
Tony nods, leaping back into action, "FRIDAY, dial Steve. Also scan the city for any such anomalies..."
"Already done that, sir," Tony loves it when his AI is one step ahead of him, "If I may..."
The AI brings up a hologram of the city, and two red blips appear highlighted on his rooftop where the Mark 45, sans gauntlet, still sits. But it's okay, because if he's right (and he usually is) then the spectres won't care about the metal suit.
A red light appears along the block, and then another in the air. Tony blinks and Edie jumps from his shoulder, landing right in the middle of 17th. Her tail waves from side to side and then stills, and Pepper takes a step closer to him.
"So-" Tony says, slowly, as the red dots multiple and multiply and just don't stop, "I think I know what Loki meant about something else coming through."
"Something not good."
"No," he agrees with Pepper, staring at the array of red voids in New York. "This is very, very not good."
Darcy's crossing the street to get some coffee. That is, at least, what she's telling herself, and it's not because she's been chased out of the lab by Jane and Thor's soppy eyed looks at each other.
Now successfully carrying two coffee cups, she heads back, hoping the bug guy has departed already. As much as she enjoys the excitement that the Norse god brings, she could do without any more surprise visits from Tony Stark or Loki. What was next? Bruce Banner?
She's crossing the road, and has just stepped onto the sidewalk, turning towards the labs she and Jane have been working from when someone brushes past her.
‘Brushes’ is too nice a word.
Somebody walks into her.
Her shoulder is jolted sharply, sending her stumbling. The coffees would have spilled had they not been sealed tightly, but as it is the one still slops out slightly. In the same movement something grips her wrist like a vice, and she twists to see a man holding onto her and preventing her reunion with gravity. She tries to pull away but the guy is strong, he just tugs her closer.
"You need to find it," he says, insisting as if she knows what he's talking about.
"Find what? Let go of me!" Darcy snaps, Sandalphon taking off from her shoulder to circle in panic only for something to leap up and bat him out of the air, sending the air from Darcy's lungs.
"Listen to me!" the guy shakes her. He's British, she notes, well-spoken and actually kind of handsome if he wasn't staring at her with those serious eyes and desperation in his voice, "Find it and make sure they never reconstruct it. They can't make it again - that knife destroys life itself. The stuff that comes through seeks out dæmons, seeks out their Dust, their consciousness, call it what you will and destroys it. Eradicates it."
"What--?" there is something in the way the man talks. He uses the words dæmons like there isn't even a question about it. There are no other words, and now he's said it… it feels right. Her dæmon.
And dust. No… Dust. She heard the capital letter in his words.
"Find the blade," the man says, "Make sure it is destroyed, otherwise things will just get worse."
Get worse, how? Darcy wants to ask, but then her wrist is free and she's falling the last half-metre to the ground, the coffee finally meeting it's tragic end. It startles her, and she lies sprawled there for several seconds before looking back up for the man.
If he was there he's not anymore. The only thing Darcy can see is a large silver cat seconds before it vanishes too into the crowd.
One coffee down and more confused than ever she arrives back at the lab to find Thor gone and Jane staring at a holograph. "Do I have the strangest thing to tell you," Darcy announces, and is then distracted by what her friend is looking at, "What is that?"
"Something Captain Rogers found," Jane steps aside to look at Darcy, frowning at the lack of a second coffee. Behind her, Arrin, her dæmon, reaches out as if he wants to touch the image, then pulls his hand away, obviously considering possibilities. "What happened?"
Sighing, Darcy relishes the lone coffee to her friend, "Well firstly there was this asshole guy and then--" she stops talking, realising what the image in front of her is.
It's a knife. A blade, sharp and looking like it's been glued together but--
"Oh," she says, blinking, "Hey, Jane? Can I have your boyfriend's phone number?"
"It looks like dust-motes in the sun," he says, pulling his glasses off and handing them to her, "Not everywhere but just..."
"Around conscious beings," Gwen finishes for him and he nods.
"This is amazing," Peter tells her, "You’re amazing," he says, and then realises what he just said and blushes, "Uh... you should try and recreate it, if you present this to anybody..."
"I can't," Gwen says, taking her glasses off. There is a sad smile on her face that looks almost wistful.
"Why not? It's breakthrough knowledge, I'm sure there is somebody somewhere who would like to see these particle, study them..."
Wordlessly Gwen lifts up her notes, sticky with the resin that had fallen on that, "I could try," she shrugs, "But my notes are gone and I... I didn't even follow them, I improvised and while I made notes I don't remember them and..." she pauses, frowning and it is Cade who finishes for her.
"This stuff... this dust is good," he says, "We can't... it's too new... with people still not sure whether we're good or bad... if we threw this into the mix then... well..."
"We can't," Gwen finishes, "We can't tell people. Not yet, at any rate."
It makes sense, Peter thinks, his gaze flickering through the golden lens to where Lys sits. Her one ear twitches, and a flurry of golden particles vibrates around her. It's intoxicating. It's not just a simple element like oxygen or nitrogen, Peter thinks, watching as it forms swirls and eddies around him and Elysia and Gwen and Cade and it's more.
Gwen's right, Peter thinks, and the proof is in his blood and DNA and in the falling cities and monsters that crawl out of the sewers with new and more horrifying skills every day.
Humanity isn't ready to know about this.
Because only God knows what they will do with it.
It makes her feel sick. Natasha didn't think she could still feel such revulsion but...
"Nat?" Clint's voice is in her ear and she turns to him. But Clint isn't looking at her, he's gazing upwards. Nobody ever looks up. Nobody that isn't Clint Barton, at least.
"Give me a lift up, will you?" he asks, and Natasha doesn't even question it as she scoops her hands together. The archer doesn't even hesitate, he steps into her grip and accepts her boost up, latching onto a ridge in the wall and pulling himself up to a window that looks into the adjoining workshop. Temis flutters up to join him.
"Enjoying the view?" Natasha asks, and above her, Clint glances almost distractedly back down at her. He gestures silently for her to come up, moving to give her a hand up.
The ledge is narrow, but it's long enough for them both to perch on. Looking out, Natasha can see why Clint called her up to the higher vantage point. There's a commotion going on near the door and as they watch, someone enters.
Enters, Natasha thinks, is a nice word for it. There are two people flanking him and he's being dragged. The man's reluctance is obvious in the form of his otter soul being manhandled by a baboon and a large dog. Natasha can't hear what they're saying but it's obvious he is protesting.
"There is something wrong with their..." Clint pauses, not sure of the word.
"Dæmon," Natasha says, quietly, "I liked that one."
"Look at them," Temis says, "There is something... lifeless about them."
In the room they are dragging the man to the machine. He's wearing orange, Natasha notes, and he's obviously a prisoner of some sort. He fights the men holding him all the way to the machine sitting in the middle of the room.
Without too much effort they throw him into one side of the box. His dæmon gets thrown in the other side.
"Cedar wood," Clint frowns at the box. Natasha raises one eyebrow and Clint shrugs helplessly, "It's written on that file down there," he says, "I may have shit hearing but my eyesight is okay."
"Anything else?" Natasha asks, "What about the...?"
"Guillotine made from a manganese-titanium alloy," Clint reads out, "Wonder why they call it a--"
Someone in the room flicks a machine on and with a hum, the blade lights up a gleaming, white with electricity dancing over it as it descends.
"Oh," is all he says to that.
It's really all they can say. Natasha watches silently, expressionlessly as the blade descends and the prisoner screams. His dæmon curls up, pressing to the glass to be as close to her human as possible.
Then the blade falls, and with a cry the pair fall apart.
He's not dead. Natasha can see his breath rising and falling but he's not struggling any more either.
"They did that to me," Natasha whispers, staring as they open the box. The man falls out, no longer struggling. "Or something to that effect. It's why we're..."
"It's not the same," Clint says, "You're not... it's not the same."
"It's sick," Clint whispers, “But it's... all I can think about, sometimes, is what would happen if someone tore Artemis away from me and we couldn't go far enough. Isn't... isn't it a good thing?"
"Not like that," Temis replies, "That can't be."
"We need to let the others know," Natasha decides, leaning away from the window ledge and dropping down to the crate they had been standing on. She lands lightly and there is less than half a second before Fyodr flows to her shoulder. He's shivering slightly as he presses to her. Natasha doesn't react, but one needs only to look at her dæmon to know she's shaken.
If Clint and Temis notice they don't comment on it and Natasha is silently grateful for that.
Her fingers are cold and slightly numb. She curls them into her palms and then curls her hands against her chest. Her soft-furred racoon takes over, dexterous paws tapping out the last few lines of code for her, confirming only a few times what he has to do.
"You're tired," he turns to her, "Staying up and wearing yourself out won't help Coulson any more than if you take a break for a few hours."
"I'm fine," she insists, and then decides it's not really much use to lie to her own soul partner.
Coileáin presses a cold, dark nose against her cheek and Skye sighs, her head dropping into her arms. He doesn't say anything; he doesn't have to.
"I just... I want to know all we can about this. About you... Coulson said this was important..." Important enough to tell her to make it a priority. Important enough to tell her to stop hunting down Inhumans, they need to work on the formula. They need this code, and they need Fitz's machine, and together they need to find out what changed.
The gang all have bets going. Hunter's predicting it's temporal, Skye has her money on a wormhole. Bobbi still thinks the aliens have dropped something on earth that shouldn’t be here. Again.
"Daisy," Col chides her, voice gentle, "Just take a break, if only for a little bit."
Coulson still calls her Skye. She doesn't know if he even realises he's doing it anymore. It makes no difference to her. She has been Skye, Mary Sue, Daisy... she changes names easily and often. But for the others; it's harder. Names have more meaning to them.
Names have meaning. It's why she and many others went to such lengths to find the right name for their soul animal. Coileáin is Celtic. It's old. Rarely used. She calls him Col for short.
He likes it. They both do; they chose it together after all and they chose it for a reason.
If there is one thing Skye has learnt it's that the names you make for yourself always mean more to you in the end.
She must fall asleep because the next thing she knows someone is calling for her. Her neck is stiff and there is warm fur curled up next to her.
"Daisy? Are you awake?" There was a pause and then: "I think she's dead."
"Almost dead. There is a difference," a female voice interjects.
Col shifts at that, and although Skye can't see him, she knows he looks disgruntled.
Skye raises her head, blinking blearily, "I have no loose change in my pocket," she says, her voice warning, "Don't even try."
She hears Fitz laugh and turns around to look at the scientist and the monkey that hangs off his shoulder. She's a white-headed capuchin monkey; pretty, Skye thinks. Fitz named her Ula. She doesn't know what it means, but it must mean something important. Most of the names do. These animals aren't pets.
"You look exhausted," Fitz comments.
“Thanks," Skye says, voice dry still from sleep. She hears movement as Fitz wanders to the sink and then back, offering her a glass of water. She accepts it gratefully; thirstier than she realised.
"How’s it going?" Fitz asks. Skye pulls a face and that answers his question. He stands next to her, moving the mouse and destroying the bubbling screensaver that had popped up during her nap.
"It's going," she shrugs, stretching. Col yawns slightly, little teeth opening cutely. "Slowly, but I think I've managed to work out a basic code that you can feed into your machine-thingy to make it work."
"It's not a machine-thingy," Fitz sounds offended, "It's a... a..." he stumbles for the word and Skye wants to help him, except she can't. This hasn't happened that much recently, and instead of finding the word, Fitz just falls silent, his monkey whispering something to him.
Skye concentrates back on the code, giving Fitz space as she tries to round it up, Col muttering suggestions to her.
"How you two crazy kids getting on?"
Skye startles and Fitz drops whatever machine part he had been fiddling with. In the doorway Mack holds up his hands, a red panda draped over his shoulders.
"I'm sorry, am I interrupting the club?"
"Nope," Skye says, cheerfully, "Not interrupting anything. In fact..." she types in a few more lines before Col nudges her out of the way to finish it, allowing Skye to examine the full thing, "I think we're done. This is as good as it's going to get."
"Gimme," Fitz appears near her elbow, already peering at it. Skye shifts back, exchanging a wide-eyed glance with Mac.
"Best let him do his thing, Tremors," Mack shrugs, the flowing red form on his shoulders hopping down to greet Col. His red panda is a clever thing, with bright eyes and clever tongue. Mack watches her interact with Col with warm eyes, and Skye realises she's never doubted the form his animal had taken.
Mack had named her Allegra. If there is a story to that name, Skye doesn't know it. She doesn't ask: she respects people's privacy. It's a pretty name though for a pretty animal.
"We're going to get it," Col tells her, but Skye isn't sure who he's trying to reassure, "We've done it before, we can do it again."
Skye hopes he's right.
All she can do it wait and hope.
Matt leads them to a house. Its several floors up and has a beautiful view of a neon sign right outside it. The man hardly appears to notice it.
His heart-wolf surveys the area and she appears satisfied, tail swishing as she settles down, relaxed; for now.
Matt doesn't turn on the lights... in fact there don't even appear to be lights, other than the neon glare of the sign. Underneath the mask the man beneath is well built, with tousled reddish-brown hair. "Make yourself at home," Matt gestures to the space, "Do you need a first aid kit? I've got one. You'll be safe until you find what you're after and nobody should find you here---
There is a knock at the door. It has Bucky and Alannah stiffening. Matt appears at ease, his head tilting to one side as if he's listening.
Bucky almost kicks himself when he works it out. "You're blind," he says abruptly, "Aren't you?
Matt stiffens, and Bucky's heart-wolf turns to look at the masked vigilante to Bucky and then back, "How did you know?" Matt asks voice suddenly carefully guarded and almost cautious.
"You don't look," Bucky shrugs, "You listen. I almost didn't notice it but..." he pauses, and then laughs when he realises something, "She's a pit viper, isn't she?"
This time Matt laughs, and the snake wrapped around his shoulder moves, her scales leaving only the faintest hint of rustling, "Yes," Matt says, "She's a pit viper. Appropriate, don't you think?" The man reaches out, running a finger over her scales, "Some species of snake have... a sort of sixth sense. They have pit organs on their heads that allow them to see heat sources. Like infrared. Like a world on fire." he laughs again at something Bucky doesn't understand.
"We won't tell anyone," Alannah says.
Matt shrugs, "I kind of figured, what with being a super soldier on the run with a metal arm and all."
Bucky nods; grateful and awkward. He wonders if he should offer an explanation, but that's when the door rattles under the force of someone's knocks again.
"Uh..." Matt looks, excuse the term, blind-sided.
"Matt! I know you're in there you crazy bastard, let me in!"
Matt moves for the door then hesitates, looking at Bucky. But this man has already trusted Bucky with his name and home, Bucky just gestures, shrugging slightly before he remembers that Matt can't see it. The man seems to understand it anyway, and he must be able to 'see' more than he lets on, especially if he's running around the city dressed in red body armour.
At least, Bucky reflects, it's not like Steve's blue, red and white spangled suit he used to wear during the war.
"Oh thank god, I thought you were dead, because y'know, that's usually what happens when you don't answer the door."
Someone enters, a rounded faced man with long, thin hair and warm eyes. A small dog-like animal trots at his heels.
"Are you okay? You're not injured are you, I can never tell. Also I found this - I'm sick of having to fish these things out of dumpsters, you know that? I'm sure you're sick of losing them too, can't you just..." that man stops talking, because by now he's noticed Bucky.
"Foggy," Matt says, following his friend into the room and headed towards his kitchen area, "This is--"
"Bucky Barnes," Foggy breathes, staring with wide eyes at the man. His gaze flickers, looking for the animal and finally settled on where Alannah sits a bit too far away to be normal by the breakfast bar. "This is Bucky Barnes; Matt what did you do?"
"What makes you think I did anything?" Matt grumbles, "He fell on me."
"He fell on you?"
"Well..." Matt frowns, "He fell into a dumpster. That I happened to be in."
"No wonder I'm always fishing your canes out of dumpsters considering how much time you spend in them," Foggy grumbles, "But that doesn't explain how Bucky Barnes is alive and in your apartment."
Bucky just shrugs, "It's a long story," he says, and decides not to mention that he doesn't like to think about it. It's probably a bad thing, shoving it away, but the fact of the matter remains that he spent years as a brainwashed, amnesiac assassin until the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.
What terrifies him is he isn't sure how long it would have taken for his memories to return, had his soul not returned to him with teeth and claws and fangs.
His heart-wolf is all sleek muscle and deadly predator as she stands, slinking gracefully over to Bucky. He notes the small racoon dog turning her head to keep track of the wolf's position. She's dangerous, deadly. It's only up close that it's clearer to see her ribs showing through her pelt, the raggedness to her breath, the way she's half-starved and hiding it behind a lethal outlook.
But by the time you get close enough, it's too late anyway.
She's looking better, since they found each other. Bucky feels better inside of him since he found her again.
They're better, stronger together.
They're gathered around like it's some sort of war council.
If it is making Fitz nervous he doesn't show it. Hunter is looking sceptical, but Bobbi looks genuinely curious. She's standing with her arms crossed by Hunter, but her soul animal - a lethal looking breed of harrier that Skye hasn't yet identified - has flown to where Fitz's capuchin is talking to her human.
May doesn't get involved. She watches from a distance, face a mask. Wrapped around her neck like a necklace is a large snake, crisscrossing patterns running down his back.
"Aha," Fitz says from somewhere. His head reappears moments later and Ula leaps up to his shoulder, "Got it. Jemma... if you could..."
Simmons presses a switch, stepping back as the holograph turns on, projecting the data Fitz's small buzzing machine is producing. On the desk next to her a small armadillo lizard watches the data with a mechanical tilt to his head. "Oh," the lizard says, "Wow."
"I think that's an understatement," Jemma says, and then grabs for a pile of papers stepping towards Fitz and already talking in a language that goes straight over Skye's head.
"Well?" Mack asks, not at all worried about admitting the fact he doesn't know what any of the information means, "Is it good, or...?"
"Can you see all the holes? Can you...?" Bobbi stops talking as Fitz pushes a few buttons, putting the information into a readily visible format. It flickers and reforms into a map of the world, and gradually blue lighted areas appear.
"New Mexico," May observes, and Skye looks at a large patch of blue in the south of the USA. "That's to be expected given the Bïfrost opens there, unless directed elsewhere..."
"I think your thing is broken," Hunter says, "There are way too many blue lights...."
"It's not broken," Fitz says. Ula looks offended at the suggestion.
Skye shakes her head, Col shivering into her, "It's right," she agrees with Fitz, "There are just this many holes. Portals. Tears..."
Fitz and Simmons begin pulling out files, falling into a sync born out of knowing each other better almost than they know themselves. Fitz knocks off the light in New Mexico.
"It's a potential portal," Ula is telling Col, "Like a closed door."
The New Mexico light vanishing knocks off several dozen others, assumedly other connections to the Bïfrost. Jemma drops half her papers and points out at least five others that Fitz can get rid of - confirming them to be known portals that are being monitored. One Skye takes off herself - the monolith portal, or what remains of the location.
"That looks a little less daunting," Lance comments, unhelpfully. Bobbi elbows him and he huffs as the breath is knocked out of him. "But there are still far too many holes. What are we meant to do about them? How are we meant to work out which wormhole is the new one that fucked everything else up?"
Bobbi tries to elbow him again, but this time he dodges out of the way.
"Okay," he admits, "Bad choice of words, but I know everyone's thinking of it. Do we want this closed?"
"Yes," May doesn't even hesitate, her diamondback rattlesnake lifting up his head to gaze at Hunter's bull terrier. There's an odd mutual respect between the two of them.
Skye tries not to look like she's watching the soul animal's interactions too closely. But they're fascinating to observe.
"So it's probably best to start with the big one," Skye gestures to the biggest remaining piece of light. It hovers over Alaska, crossing into Canada on a diagonal and then hitting the arctic. It keeps going like a scar over the top of the pole. "To check it out, if not to fix it. Because if this is new then it should be pretty obvious. And then we can..." she hesitates to say 'fix it'. "Stop whoever is doing this."
Simmons raises one eyebrow, "You mean HYDRA?" she asks, "Because it's always HYDRA, isn't it? It's always fucking HYDRA."
"This is big," Fitz says, as Ula reaches out and paws at the hologram, "Does this mean we're going to go up against this whole faction of HYDRA by ourselves?"
Everyone looks up to where Coulson is standing in the doorway, a wide smile on his face. His giant anteater is sitting on her haunches, and everyone can quite clearly see her large dangerous claws. Fitz frowns, and Simmons' lizard rattles his scales, "What do you mean, not us?" Fitz asks.
"This is bigger than us," Coulson says with ease, "I think it's time we phone in the Avengers."
There are times that Skye forgets Coulson had once played with superheroes.
He looks a bit smug, "Huh," he says, "I've always wanted to say that."
Chapter 5: Anima
The universe, Tony reflects, is like nothing he can really comprehend. There is nothing he can ascribe to it, no analogy, no metaphor that make explain it any easier.
He's going to lose Steve the moment he opens his mouth and Romanoff and Barton not long after. Thor might follow his explanation, but Tony really misses Banner's ability to keep up with his intellect.
There is a hole. A rip, a tear, a fucking knife wound in the fabric of the universe. Through it a particle leaked into their world, allowing their souls to take on a form outside their body.
But Loki had been right. Not that you'd ever catch Tony admitting that to anyone, least of all the Trickster God. Loki had been right and something else had come through.
Or rather, Tony ponders, something had slipped out.
He sits at the table, legs crossed and resting on the woodwork while Edie curls against his calf, her tail thumping. She's the living, breathing proof echoing in his heart that something came through.
But there were holes - voids - spectral shadows all over New York and growing more all the time. Tony doesn't have a name for them, but they came following the particles that entered.
How can you fight something that isn't even there? How can he be expected to protect people from a void? From the nothingness of space that creeps out through the tear?
"It doesn't matter," Edie blinks wide, amber eyes at him, "We have to stop them. They're weak. They're small. We... you can stop them while we work on fixing the cause of the problem."
And once again his cat is on the same wavelength. She's right. Provided the patches of sentient void don't get to a person's soul, their spirit, their dæmon then they live.
(He's been to the hospitals. He's seen the reports. He knows what will happen if they don't act now. In his head he can see a future of broken cities and scared people, hiding from the ghosts in the sky. The dead still breathing while they rot from the inside out, alone with no soul.)
(The children aren't affected. He's noticed that too. Only older teenagers and adults can see the wreathes of void stuff.)
(Only those whose soul has a settled shape.)
"There's a hole, somewhere," he whispers to Edie, "We're gonna’ have to fix it."
"Like last time," she responds, "We did it once. Tony..."
"Yeah," he tries to control his breathing, "Yeah, we did it once... it should be... should be..."
He's thinking of wormholes and falling falling falling and...
He sucks in a shaky breath and then lets it go. Edie uses his legs like a plank and hops across, settling in his chest. She's a warm spot, a bright light in the darkness and he uses it. He takes another stumbling breath.
"Better?" she asks. She doesn't pity him. She understands. She knows. She remembers.
Tony's breathing hitches, but this time it isn't a panic attack. He reaches out, carding his hand through the cat's fur and not letting go.
The door opens and he looks up as Barton and Romanoff appear. Temis whirls in on russet wings and if Natasha's polecat is around; Tony can't see him. Clint raises an eyebrow at the way Tony's still pressed against where Edie is curled.
She's sitting right over where the reactor used to hum and whirr in his chest.
The archer shrugs and pulls up a chair for himself. Natasha stays standing, arms crossed and leaning back against the wall.
"Good," Tony would straighten except he's kind of comfortable, "You guys are here - I've got some information..."
The door slams open again and Steve appears; his small mongoose - Magali - by his ankles. "I need to talk to you," Steve blurts out.
Now Tony sits up and Edie slides back to the table, landing on all four feet and spinning to blink at where Steve's mongoose has hopped up. Tony leans forwards, elbows on the wooden desk, "Uh, excuse me, but I was talking. Wait 'till your turn."
"I don't have time, Stark. This is important," Steve shakes his head.
Clint looks mildly affronted, "What about our news? You guys aren't the only people who found stuff out."
"So we all share," Tony shrugs, "Me first."
Steve looks like he wants to roll his eyes, "You know?" Steve's head tilts to one side.
"Know what?" Tony snaps, because the last thing he wants to deal with is Steve's better-than-thou attitude.
"You're just like Howard," Magali says, the mongoose staring up at Edie, and for a minute Tony can see his father, leaning lazily on a table while a cougar sits at his feet, tail flicking from side to side.
Tony flinches. He probably should have expected something like that eventually. He wonders how often Steve makes the comparison, and wishes the other man wouldn't because Tony has tried to be nothing like his father.
He doesn't know if it worked. Howard died before Tony could look at him and compare the two. Not that Tony wants to do that. He doesn't want to be his father. Howard had married and had Tony because he needed a heir. He wasn't the kind of man who knew how to be a father. Oh, there was no doubt that Howard had loved him but he never knew how to show it.
Howard had no idea how to love people. All he loved were the things he created.
"Low blow," he shrugs it off, even while Edie is still glaring at Magali. They don't get on, he realises suddenly. Edie and Magali don't like each other. Oh - they can work together. They are friends but at the end of the day...
They're nothing like each other.
And in this case he doesn't think it's a good thing.
"How about we share our news first," Natasha says, neutrally.
"Or how about I share mine."
Tony hadn't noticed someone else come in. Judging by the way Barton's owl and Steve himself swing around the other two men hadn't.
Natasha doesn't flinch and a shadow detaches itself from the man by the door, running across and leaping up to join his human. She had known. Of course.
He stands in the doorway small and unassuming. His dæmon is a Eurasian badger with black and white stripes and dark eyes.
Bruce Banner clears his throat, hands in his pockets as he shuffles nervously in the doorway.
"They were cutting them," Clint says to the Avengers, minus Thor and the new guys. "They had a box with a manganese-titanium alloy and whatever they did separated the bond. Completely. It was like they were dead."
"Or like--" Tony stops, frowning. He's obviously dying to share his news, but he's relented thus far for Clint and Tasha to explain theirs.
"The government were doing this?" Steve confirms. He somehow manages not to stare at where Bruce has joined them. He wonders where the other man has been. He looks good. Good as in alive, healthy, and no news reports about smashed up cities.
Clint nods and his owl - Temis - rustles her feathers, obviously uncomfortable with the idea. Even Magali - no longer in a staring match with Tony - has backed up until she presses against where Steve sits at the head of the table.
"They call it intercision," Bruce says, nodding as he looks at Clint and Natasha. Steve can't see her, but he knows Bruce's badger is curled up under the table, "The process," Bruce clarifies, pushing his glasses up his nose, "It's a permanent separation of the bond between a man and his Gênio."
"Gênio?" Steve is unfamiliar with the term.
"Portuguese for familiar. I... I can't find anything better..."
"Dæmon," Tony blurts out, then pauses, as if hesitant by it. Steve doesn't like the connotations of the word but he can see both Clint and Natasha nodding at it, "I think that seems to be the most popular."
Bruce considers it, blinking.
Clint clears his throat, "Intercision," he says, "You were saying?"
"It breaks the bond," Bruce says, "Snaps it permanently. It's not stretched or elasticised as Natasha's is, it's gone. The process of breaking the bond releases a burst of energy which can be harnessed."
"What happens to the people?" Tony asks, looking a bit queasy, "Those who have been separated - permanently separated," he corrects with a nod to Natasha, "What happens to them?"
"They die," Bruce's voice is bleak, "They wither away. They... they're alive... but there's not life. It's like all the creativity has gone from them. They're apathetic to everything, they just don't care. In a way, death is almost kinder in the end."
"How do you know about this?" Steve asks, frowning.
Bruce pulls a face. "I ran into a HYDRA group using the process. I told you - it produces energy. HYDRA have been using that energy to fix something. I don't know what, but I know they used to make this whole mess in the first place."
And that's when things click into place for Steve, "A knife," he says, and Tony's eyes widen slightly. Steve isn't sure how to bring up the image, but Stark does it for him. With a flick of the billionaire's wrist an image appears hovering in mid-air.
It's the same image Steve and Sam found in the HYDRA base. It's the same image Darcy recognised.
"Æsahaettr," Tony's cat whispers, "That's what Thor called it. Angel Killer."
"It's a knife," Clint frowns, "What's so special about it."
"You mean beyond the fact that HYDRA want it?" Tasha shrugs.
"They're fixing it," Steve says, "They really, really want it."
"It cuts through the fabric of the universe," Tony says, and then just blinks as everyone turns to him, "Oh, you didn't know that, did you?"
Steve looks at the broken blade, not yet whole. It looks sharp. It's hard to say - it's just a projection. It isn't pretty. It's dull, it's a weapon, it looks like it's already been broken once.
Bruce nods slowly in obvious agreement, "That would make sense. It would explain how they made the first tear, if they had this. Now they want it whole to... I don't know. Make another tear?"
"If they had this," Steve whispers, "They could get to any universe. Any world."
Needless to say that's a bad thing. A weapon in the hands of their enemy is always a bad thing, even before Tony Stark opens his mouth to give them more bad news.
"The knife let dark matter through," he says, gesturing at where his black and white cat sits, "But it's also letting something else out. I almost flew into one over New York. It's void. It's like bits of the space in-between space are sentient and seeking out the dark matter."
"Sentient void-stuff?" Clint repeats, tone deadpan.
"Spectres," Stark clarifies, "Feeding off of souls - like dementors."
Stark frowns at him, "Remind me to get the Cap to watch Harry Potter sometime. Or better yet - he can read the books."
"So what do we do?" Natasha ignores whatever crazy thing Stark is saying, "How do you fix it?"
Steve pulls a face, because he doesn't like the option, "We close the tear," he says, "We close the holes and we find the knife before HYDRA finish building it."
"But if we close the hole..." Clint stops talking. He doesn't need to finish for everyone to hear what he says. Steve's hand sneaks out, resting on Magali's warm, coarse back.
If they close the hole, what will happen to their souls?
"It's freezing. Why is it so freezing? And what happened to 'we'll assemble to Avengers'? I don't see any Avengers. I bet they're all safe in the warmth and southern sun, hell they're probably on holiday. Where are they when you need them, huh? Oh, right, they're making evil robots and dropping cities out of the sky..."
Skye tunes out Hunter's annoyed grumbling. They can all tell he doesn't mean anything behind it - he's just cold and frustrated and...
"I don't understand," Fitz sounds confused wrapped in a warm parka and Ula not even visible. She's just a fluff of black and white fur hidden underneath his jacket. Much like Ula, Col is wrapped around Skye's neck like a scarf. "My machine is sensitive to all space anomalies which is why it picked up signals in New Mexico and from the monolith, even though they're not stable doorways. It showed such a big signal from up here I was expecting something..."
"There better be something," Hunter grumbles. His bull dog is barely visible above the thick snow on the ground.
Skye really wishes they hadn't had to fly all the way up to Canada and she's inclided to deal with the ex-mercenary. Weren't the Avengers meant to handle this?
"The Avengers are in New York," Coulson says, voice level but clearly hiding something. He stands by May, watching Fitz adjusting dials on his hand-held device.
"Maybe I'm wrong," Fitz blurts out something, looking up with wide-eyes at them.
"You're not," Jemma says, from where she's standing right behind Fitz, "You're never wrong."
"Next time," May says, "We'll send the Avengers to Canada while we take New York."
"Why is it always New York?" Coulson mumbles.
"There was a portal above New York once before," Jemma says, "I guess it's just... a favoured spot. But I don't see anything like that in this... wasteland..."
"It's a forest..."
"I don't even know what we're meant to be looking for," Coulson admits, "I never even saw the wormhole over New York."
"I did," Skye says gravely, "There's nothing like that here. Just..." she stops, looking up at the sky above her. It's dark with dusk and a long night. It's clear above her with the chill that has the team so fed up and...
Huh, she thinks. The sky.
Except it's not the sky.
"Oh," Col says, huddled against her neck, following her gaze upwards, "It's not a wormhole."
Coulson's large anteater turns her head to look at them, and Skye clears her throat, repeating it louder, "It's not a wormhole that made the signal," she says.
"Well something had to make the signal," Fitz's Scottish drawl echoes over the snow.
"Something did," Skye agrees, turning and gesturing to the sky above her.
Except it's not sky. (She's not skye, she's daisy now and it’s all in the names).
"It's not a tear," she says, "It's the fucking aurora borealis."
Clint stands near the window looking out over New York. Tony's tower is in some sort of lockdown mode apparently, because there are none of the void-spectres in it. But looking over the city he can see blurring and shimmering that shouldn't be there.
"There are too many people," Temis sits perched on his shoulder.
"Which is why we're going to close it," Clint tells her, "Before the infestation spreads."
She doesn't reply. Clint half-turns back to where Natasha and Tony are staring with scarily similar faces at a blue screen, waiting for the report to come in.
"This is comfortable," Clint says, trying to sound nonchalant, and not like he's worried not just his soul and those in the city below him, but those of the ones he loves. He thinks about Laura's jay and his kid's still unsettled dog-cat-birds.
Natasha glances at him, and then looks away again.
'This is boring," Tony sighs, "Bor-ring."
"What do you want to spice it up?" Clint scoffs, "Loki on the roof with a wormhole?" Tony flinches, "Or how about that one time a guy once nuked his chimichangas in your microwave and then threw himself out of the window?"
Tony splutters with indignation just as the door slams open. Clint's impressed; especially as the lift doors are automatic. Steve's in and half-way across the room before the archer has time to blink. Tony flinches as if he's expecting Steve to go for his throat and Edie hisses slightly at Magali but the pair ignore them.
"We've evacuated who we can from the areas most affected,' Steve reports, "I think we can move in now. Tony, how much longer is it going to take?"
"Do you even know what I'm doing here? I'm searching for something that doesn't even exist, here."
"Tony," Steve's voice sounds strained, "How much longer?"
"I don't know."
Clint meets Natasha's gaze. Her gaze flickers back to where Tony and Steve are now blankly ignoring each other while their dæmons look affronted. He doesn't want to get between the two. Clint isn't sure what it is but the pair just fundamentally have opposing views. Sometimes it works - they think of ideas and plans the other doesn't - other times they clash.
"Well you let us know when you have a location," Steve sighs, because despite their differences they are friends. "We're going to head out and try to thin down those creatures a bit."
"You’re going to leave me here?" Tony sounds plaintive, almost whining.
"We can do more outside," Natasha agrees, shrugging helplessly at Stark.
"Go," Edie's tail flicks from side to side, ignoring Tony's frown, "We'll catch you up in the suit."
Steve pauses half a second longer, meeting the billionaire’s gaze to see Tony's acceptance, and then nodding, heading to the door.
"Hey, wait up!" Clint follows at a jog, scooping up his quiver and bow, Temis wheedling in the air above him.
Natasha follows him, stopping only to look at Bruce. "Are you coming?" she asks.
Bruce wrings his hands, fingers laced together, "I'm going to stay far away from the battle. I... I just can't..."
"Thank you!" Stark says, "I have one friend out of you! The rest of you suck!"
Clint is the only one close enough to see Natasha's gaze slide over to where Bruce's badger sits, "What happens to her?" she asks quietly, as if under the illusion that Eli can't hear, "When you transform - what happens to her?"
Bruce's smile grows strained, and his badger looks up at Natasha, then Bruce, then away. "She disappears," he says, voice flat and emotionless, "When I'm the Hulk, Eli is... she's not."
And neither Natasha nor Clint really know what to say to that.
Matt wonders how he came to be hiding a one-armed assassin in his apartment.
Oh yeah, that's right: dumpster.
Bucky looks asleep, but Matt knows the difference in breathing between genuine sleep and the hyper-aware state of consciousness that the ex-assassin has put himself into. Foggy keeps blinking at the snoozing man and wolf in amazement then turns back to Matt, mouth open as if he doesn't know what to say.
"Why didn't you tell me you knew Bucky Barnes?" Foggy is probably make puppy-dog eyes at him, but Matt can't see them, "I did a history project on him once."
"Foggy," Matt says, "I don't even know what Bucky Barnes looks like, let alone that the man who fell on top of me in the dumpster was him."
"He fell on you"
"That's what I said."
"A historical figure believed long dead fell on you. In a dumpster."
"Captain America was believed long dead too before he appeared in the Battle of Manhattan. He managed seventy years dead, Tony Stark managed three days. Its a thing superheroes do."
"Don't die on us," Nia warns Matt, and Xexilia shifts, scales rattling where she's coiled in his pocket.
"I'm a vigilante," Matt shrugs, "Not a superhero. Faking my death seems a bit pointless."
Foggy scoffs, looking around for a distraction. There's no TV, but Foggy locates with unnerving precision the lone radio sitting on top of the microwave. "You're house is depressingly under-furnished," he complains.
Matt shrugs, "Who needs more obstacles to trip over?" he jokes.
Nia at least seems amused, her brush tail flicking from side to side and then almost jumping a mile as Foggy finally works out where the volume button is. Matt, of course, doesn't need it on loudly but then again he doesn't have normal human hearing. The volume blares for a moment that makes both Matt and Foggy's racoon dog flinch before the other man manages to turn it down.
Still lying still on the sofa Bucky doesn't move but Matt catches the sound of Alannah's ear twitching impatiently.
The voice on the radio is adamantly preaching something with passion. "People used to talk about something," the voice stresses the word: "A 'voice' or what we now call a 'conscience'. This is it! They are our souls, our new-found self-consciousness! Heraclitus says 'character is for a man his daimon'!"
"Oh, not this again," Foggy groans, flicking channels, "Come on - some news or weather, weather is good..."
"Further following the evacuation in lower Manhattan there have been reports of strange creatures on the streets."
Matt stiffens and in a movement that looks almost planned Bucky sits up, just as Alannah hops up onto the sofa.
"That's what we saw, isn't it?"
"The what?" Foggy frowns.
"I don't know," Bucky says, voice tense, "But it eats dæmons. And it..."
"There are now reports that the Avengers have been called in..." the radio presenter continues.
"The Avengers…?" Foggy blinks, "This sounds big - what's next - Spider-Man? Why is it that every time someone opens a portal into our world it's always in lower Manhattan?" Foggy grumbles. There is a bang and Foggy looks up from the news.
"I think they've gone," the racoon dog says. "Bucky was gone the moment they said 'Captain America' and Matt went after him."
"You think?" Foggy blinks, "Wow, they can move quickly - what prompted it?"
"Avengers," Niamh remarks, deadpan, "I think they're fans."
"I hope they get Captain America's autograph."
He stays with Bruce until he can't bear it anymore. Bruce's badger is standing pressed to her human. Bruce himself appears to be alternating between breathing exercises and steadfastly ignoring the world around him.
He stays with his friend until the explosions and shouts in his com mean he can't remain standing around waiting for a machine.
"FRIDAY, send me the location when it comes through," he instructs, mentally already willing the Mark 46 suit to his limbs.
"Of course, sir," the AI says readily, but her voice is wrong and Tony tries to supress the slight shudder of loss from the British AI.
"I'm not going to..."
"Stay here," Tony says, so Bruce doesn't have to say it, "Watch my machine. Watch out for Pepper."
"I... okay yeah, stay safe."
Tony laughs as Edie claws her way up his back to perch on his shoulders, seconds before leaping down, settling this time in the gap where his arc reactor used to connect. She sits there where his mechanical heart used to beat, and Tony feels his chest grow warm. His mind teeters and then settles, "Safe?" he laughs, "Aren't I always?" second before he steps out of the window.
There is nothing quite like the open rush of freefall, even as the last few parts of the suit assemble around him. He's falling for less than ten seconds and then the repulsors kick in, sending him zooming off through New York. He angles this way and that, avoiding sky scrapers.
FRIDAY isn't hooked up to this suit. Not the way JARVIS was. There is no voice whispering in his ear.
No mechanical voice at least.
"Left," Edie instructs, "Head downtown... there's a void shape at your four..."
Tony fires and the yellow light vanishes from his sights. “Woohoo!” he cheers, approaching the area the other Avengers are, “Hey, E? I think we’re getting the hang of this.”
“We’ve got a location too,” she replies, purring against his chest, “We should probably let the others know.”
“Already on it,” Tony says, turning the suit into the com system. He could ask Steve for the frequency code but hacking in was always more fun. “Hey guys! How’s the party?”
“This isn’t a party!” Natasha shouts, in between bouts of gunfire. “What is your definition of a party, Stark?”
“Well…” Tony sounds smug, “We’ve got a location. And I’ve got an invite.”
“Point us at it,” down below he can see Natasha shooting at the folds of the universe that are threatening to suck bits of them into it. Barely visible in the corner of Tony’s eyes is Fyodr, running along in the shadows.
“Yes,” Clint agrees, almost enthusiastically, “Point us at it.”
“What are you planning?” Steve asks.
Tony’s got the same idea, “Should I be scared? Because I feel like I should be scared right about now.”
Clint’s laugh echoes over the coms.
The explosion rocks the street. Temis wheels in the sky and in his hear Steve sighs, “Who gave Hawkeye explosives?” the Captain asks almost rhetorically.
Tony’s whoop echoes over the speakers and Clint can just about see the red and gold blur through the dust around him. Has Clint still had perfect hearing the explosion probably would deafened him. As it was the vibrations made his body shake but he heard nothing.
He still probably damaged his ear drums, but it was worth it just to watch one wall of a seemingly innocent apartment building collapse.
“I hope there weren’t people in there,” Steve sighs. He’s at least three blocks away, Natasha somewhere in between. She’s heading back to join him, pausing to sink her electricity imbued fists into a piece of void.
“That,” Tony seems to by dying of laughter, “That was awesome.”
"Spicy enough for you?" Clint asks, voice a bit too loud through the ringing in his ears. Temis banks upwards steeply and Clint throws himself into action, rolling under a spectre that materialises through the dust. Throwing an arrow like a dart into the void the spectre folds in on itself shrinking in size. It’s like... well... like a piece of drapery. A piece of folded fabric of the universe.
But Clint is pretty sure the fabric of the universe and the in-between is not meant to look like spectral humans, but maybe that’s just his mind just playing tricks. There’s nothing there after all. What else is his mind meant to see to perceive the conundrum hovering in the air around him.
“Spicy?” Tony laughs, “This isn’t spicy; this is hot.” Iron Man’s voice sounds a bit distorted, "Too hot. Hot hot ho--" there is a crackle and then static.
"Tony?" Clint asks, worried, "Stark?"
“I don’t have eyes on him,” Natasha sounds worried, although she hides it well.
“I can’t see him,” Temis flies as far as she can from him and then circles back, “I can’t see him?”
“Tony?” the Captain sounds just as wary, “Tony, come in.”
There is nothing but dead silence over the com.
Tony’s gotten good at flying over the years. He’s gotten skilled at learning the air currents, and manoeuvring and dodging and circling and--
This is really testing his patience and skill.
“Land!” Edie tells him, and really it’s his only option except he can’t even see the ground for the yellow that flickers over his HUD. Tony shoots a blast downwards and hits one of the creatures. It does nothing to clear his way to solid earth.
“Guys, a little help?” he asks, but the voids surrounding him are blocking the signal. Gritting his teeth Tony activates the lasers and takes out at least five in one shot.
“Jackpot,” Edie laughs, and Tony tries to smile, tries to feel like he’s not going to die, he’s not going to lose this wonderful beautiful cat curled to his chest and…
And overhead the sky rumbles ominously, lightning flashing.
“How suitable,” Tony says dryly, “A storm.”
“It’s not the lightning,” Edie says, and he can’t understand why she’s so excited, “It’s what happens next that’s important.”
Lightning, Tony thinks, is followed by thunder.
Oh, he realises, seconds before a dozen Spectres are electrocuted out of the sky by the Norse god descending from the heavens.
“Brother Tony,” Thor greets, his hammer swinging in one hand and his other arm scooped around Dagný and that’s not how physics works, “I apologise for my delay.”
Tony would laugh with pure relief, but it’s all he can do to blast several more spectre out of his way so he can descend to the ground without accidentally flying into one of them. “About time,” he says, the cement cracking a little under the weight of the suit as he finally touches down, “Where have you been?”
Thor drops down, electrocuting a Spectre. His Tasmanian tiger leaps to the ground with a snarl and Thor whirls around, tossing his hammer in an arc down the street. “I was,” Thor says, far too calm for someone who has just leapt straight into a battle with piece of sentient void, “Consulting my brother. Or at least that was my plan, had I managed to locate him.”
“Loki?” Tony whirls around, firing his repulsors with two quick consecutive blasts, “What for?”
“I desired to know how to destroy the weapon that caused this in the first place,” Thor says, not even looking as with a whistle Mjolnir whistles back towards him.
“Five on your six,” Edie says to Tony, “Should be able to get a com signal back then.”
She’s right, and with Thor’s hammer and Tony’s arc powered blasts, he hears a crackle in his ears.
“--think you can find your way to the knife?”
“I’m not going to know what to do with it when I get there,” Clint is saying.
“Hi guys,” Tony chimes in.
“Oh thank god,” Clint says in his ear, “I have no idea what I’m meant to do with the magic blade, do you?”
“I can do it.”
“You okay?” Steve asks, “What happened?”
“The Spectres blocked the signal,” Tony shrugs, “Lightning McQueen helped.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Natasha sounds stressed, “Stark - how do we close the rift?”
Tony repeats the question to Thor who gives his hammer another mighty throw. With a high pitched whine is vanishes down the street and around the corner. The god looks troubled, “I don’t know.”
The genius sighs. Edie shifts, “So we’re going in?” she asks.
“Looks like it,” Tony tries to sound blasé about it, “It will be a blast.”
“Tony - don’t do anything reckless,” Steve’s voice almost sounds worried, he thinks with amusement.
“Who, me?” Tony laughs, “Does that sound like me?”
“Yessir,” he snaps a salute, even though Steve is two blocks away, and leaps back off the ground, “Now where is this hole everyone’s been talking so much about?”
Tony’s checking out the wormhole. Natasha and Clint are in the midst of the storm of Spectres in the rubble of the explosion and that’s the last time Steve lets them near explosives.
It’s a lot like the previous invasion. Mindless monsters practically begging for target practise. Steve’s just thankful there aren’t civilians around because he doesn’t think he could bear to see what happens when one of these monsters finds a dæmon. It’s bad enough with Magali on his shoulder, trying to stay away from them. It’s worse when he keeps seeing Fyodr and Temis, ducking and dodging through the spectral figures.
Because the truth is if they don’t get this rift closed this is what the world will be like. Hundred, thousands of these creatures, people hiding in gutters, running for their very souls.
With a hefty flick of his wrist Steve throws his shield. The rounded vibranium bounces in the arc he had predicted, spinning through the air and into one of the shapes. But instead of spinning back like he had intended, the spectre's distorted cloak like wraith sends the shield bouncing off in a wild arc around the block, hitting two more spectres on the way.
Steve shrugs, activating the device Tony made to recall the shield to him. In the interim he picks up a chunk of the building Nat and Clint had blown up and uses it as a baseball bat. Once again the spectre's very existence distorts the weapon, but the force of the blow sends it spinning back.
"Behind you!" Magali can't fight, but she calls out warnings from where she's sitting on his collar. Occasionally she has to drop down, unable to hang on while he spins and throws himself at the enemy. They can't hurt him but her? Her they can hurt.
"Shield's coming back," she tells him as something clangs around the corner. Just in time, he thinks, reaching out for it. Something hits his hand and he swings, expecting the spectres to be flung backwards.
The hammer in his hand knocks them across the street into a building. They just kind of fall through the building which, hey, no property damage, and they don't emerge again either.
"Is that..." Magali sounds amazed, "Hey, does this mean we can rule Asgard now?"
Steve has no idea, but he knows he has a weapon now - it's awfully well balanced as well - and with a grin he turns back to the spectres.
Mjolnir hums in his grip.
He strings another arrow, drawing and firing it.
"Do those even do anything?" Natasha sounds sceptical, hitting at a patch of Spectre that looks like it’s recuperating with an electric baton.
"You ask me," Clint shrugs, "We're shooting at monsters that are essentially anti-matter. Void stuff. I don't really know - I wasn't listening when Stark explained."
Nat rolls her eyes.
"I'm out of arrows," Clint grumbles, using his bow a physical weapon to knock some back.
"How many did you bring?" Nat snarls, Fyodr up and running as she follows, electric gauntlets packing a hell of a punch to the void creatures.
"All of them," Clint shrugs, smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, "Like... eleven."
"There are over a hundred thousand of these things out there.”
"And I killed eleven of them," Clint banters back with a grin and a laugh, "You're welcome. My quiver only holds eleven arrows. Twelve if I really cram them in there..." Temis drops a spare arrow and he snatches it out of mid-air, throwing it like a dart to spear another creature, "I killed twelve!" he announces happily, bounding off down the street to retrieve some arrows. He can practically feel Tasha rolling her eyes at his back.
"Hey, Clint?" Temis whirls overhead, dropping an arrow into his quiver and landing near something glinting silver in the rubble, "Is that Steve's shield?"
"Huh," Clint picks it up, "I think it is... wonder when he lost it--?" He spots the movement, the distorted air just in time to bring the shield up. The spectre hits it and he knocks it back. "Fuck it," he says through clenched teeth, "It's just like a Frisbee, right? A giant, patriotic Frisbee..."
He throws it. It crashes into the one spectre and ricochets off into another one. Clint thinks it's going to lose momentum but Temis spins mid-air, talons outstretched and grabbing for it. She drops it over Clint and he catches it, shifting it to a more comfortable position.
"Well, until we meet the Cap..." he shrugs, throwing it again. This time he's calculated the way it bounces off the spectres and he takes down three before the shield comes back to him, "I like this," he hums appreciatively, "Think Steve will notice if I borrow it from time to time?"
Then Temis is warning him about more spectres behind him and he's spinning with the shield, too busy to think.
Chapter 6: Daimon
I forgot what my plot was, and at this point with exams looming and this thing sitting here 90% finished I just wanted it complete. I kind of like it, but I'm pretty sure there are about half a dozen un-answered questions at the end, so feel free to ask. This wasn't meant to be amazing plot, it was meant to be a way to explore the daemons of the MCU characters in a believable way.
Enjoy the last chapter!
Oh god it’s Steve. And not the man with those familiar eyes on the bridge. His friend. His brother.
Matt must sense his desperation, because the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen stopped only to grab a black bandana, hiding everything but the lower part of his face. It hides his eyes, and for one moment Bucky wonders if Matt can see through the thick fabric before the super soldier realises he doesn’t need to.
Xexilia is just visible in a pattern of scales under Matt’s dark shirt. Bucky’s own heart-animal, his dæmon, runs ahead. Alannah remembers for him the gap and the holes from the years. Bucky was the Asset, the Winter Soldier, the Ghost. Alannah was everything that made Bucky him. She was his heart, his soul, his.
And now they were them and they figured it was time to see their friend again.
They take a shortcut through the park, across the streets and over two rooftops. Coming out onto a pavement, Bucky almost runs straight into a woman who unpredictably steps into his pathway. Her dark hair falls in her eyes as she glares at him, the iguana on her shoulder snapping his teeth.
The woman barely moves. She's like a solid, unmovable object and Bucky ponders how she stood upright what with him being a super soldier and all.
But there is no time to think and Matt's already across the street. Bucky has to vault over two cars and narrowly avoid being run over by a bicycle and a pram before he catches up to the other man and Alannah.
His heart wolf wags her tail when he gets to them, "What took you so long?" she teases.
“I stopped to admire the view," Bucky shrugs, adrenaline rushing through him. This is his job, he recalls: rescuing Steve.
It's what he does best.
The Thunder God lands with a crack that shakes the earth and would probably put cracks in the concrete except he leaps up again almost immediately. Normal humans shouldn’t be able to jump that high, but Steve has long ago given up finding a baseline for ‘normal’ in his life.
Thor takes out two Spectres with violent punches that sizzle with electricity. Steve takes out two to match with Mjolnir and the next time Thor lands it’s to stare in bemusement at the hammer in Steve’s hand.
Steve’s about to offer it back, worried suddenly that he’s crossed some sort of line in taking Thor’s hammer, but then the Norse God just shrugs. Turning away, Thor grabs at a chunk of concrete, hefting it up with a violent war cry. Steve is about to apologise just on principle, but Magali shouts out a warning.
“Steve! Behind you!”
He turns; hammer ready expecting more Spectres in a shimmering of air.
The hammer might be useful, but it’s not his shield when it comes to stopping bullets. Steve flinches, bringing his arm up reflexively to deflect the metal pellets that flash towards him from the men in black moving down the road towards him. He throws himself to the side behind a parked car. Sparks fly, following his path.
A few bullets hit Thor. The demi-god looks mildly annoyed, like there is a fly buzzing around his head or something. He takes a step forwards, just as Dagný whirls around, snapping at the air behind them.
They’re pinned down with Spectres crowding the street behind them and HYDRA soldiers at their back. Steve grits his teeth, and he feels claws dig into his shoulder in wordless agreement.
Tossing Thor back his hammer just in time for the Norse God swipe out at a Spectre swooping towards Dagný, Steve throws himself over the parked car and into a roll, straight into the middle of the HYDRA soldiers.
Matt can’t see the danger, but he senses it none the less. He can feel the heat, the noise, and the echoes of heart beats as men move down the streets, footsteps ordered and muffled as if they’re trying to sneak up on the battle.
Nobody can sneak up on Matthew Murdock.
The pair fighting notice the men, even as the gun shots ring out. A whistle of air and bullets on metal: someone ducks and the other doesn’t even bother to move. Matt wonders with only a fraction of annoyance at which Avenger member this is, who can ignore things like bullets. Things that kill normal people.
Probably Thor. Or Stark in his metal suit, but Matt can’t hear the whir of electronics. He hears the snarls and fur of dæmons, the rush of wind, moving heat of the men and--
Something mechanical hums, but it’s not a metal suit. There is a loud clang and one of the Avengers cries out, as the mechanical hum closes around a beating, pulsing limb. It must be the Captain - it can only be the Captain really, because of the noise Bucky makes. It’s like a cross between a kicked puppy and a wolf.
A snarling angry wolf who is already hurtling towards the men attempting to subdue a super-soldier.
They turn, noticing the approach of Matt and Bucky. Bucky of course, doesn’t have to worry about bullets. They ping of the whir of his one arm harmlessly.
Matt dodges. He feels the flares of heat against his skin, feels the air moving and twists, pulling his whole body through the air and around. With a spin he puts himself out of the line of fire and into the cover of the buildings. The air is colder in the shade, slightly tangy with the metal of the parked cars and gunpowder still in the breeze.
And then he’s there among the men. Moving with reflexes Matt will never know if he inherited from his father or from the chemicals, he’s a whirlwind of limbs and perpetual motion. One soft body goes down under a kick and with a spin Matt’s got another one down in the same swing. He bounces back to his feet, falling into the old boxer stance and taking the next guy head on. Matt feels something crack beneath his fist, taste the tang of blood and hear the mess of feathers that crumple over itself as the man’s dæmon flies headfirst into Xexilia’s waiting fangs.
Matt moves before the guy hit the floor, almost disappointed. He’d have thought HYDRA would have had better goons than this.
He hates those metal contraptions aimed to pin him down. He wishes HYDRA would find some new toys. Steve is one arm down, no shield, no hammer and goddamn it where is Thor--?
Magali is snarling and she’s fierce, not going down. Several dæmons wince away from her, and Steve feels a sliver of pride for his beautiful brave soul, seconds before someone’s hands close around her.
All the breath rushes out of him in one. It’s like someone has reached down his throat, and he chokes, gags, can’t breathe…
Magali has gone limp, shuddering with revulsion. The man who grabbed her wears gloves, but it might as well be burning, searing ice hot hands that grab at her. Steve is helpless, completely unprepared for this kind of attack, and that’s when the other magnetic band appears, about to clamp down.
Something snarling materialises right in the middle of the group of grunts. It’s a wolf: snarling and dangerous and wild and it’s the most beautiful thing Steve has ever seen. It’s a dæmon, but it disregards social etiquette, already broken, and goes straight for the man who is holding Magali. Teeth meet warm throat and then Magali’s free, and Steve can breathe again.
She’s at his side in an instance; a warm, shaking mass that Steve scoops up with his free hand. He wants to hold her to him forever, but she’s already moving, already up his arm, teeth set into the smooth metalwork at his wrist with a vengeance.
The wolf whirls on the HYDRA grunts, and one raises a gun as if to shoot her. His head whips back violently, neat gun hole through his head and he drops, animal fading into golden light.
Steve chokes. The golden dust swirls upwards, and then it’s gone. The man’s dæmon is gone, and the wolf bares her teeth, a wild light in her eyes that is almost terrifying.
“Why does that happen?” he asks, as the magnetic cuff clicks and breaks off and Magali slides back down his arm to his shoulder.
“We’re nothing but dust,” she whispers, “You hold us together. Without you: we fall apart.”
“Are you okay?”
It takes Steve a moment too long to realise it’s the wolf speaking to him. Her voice is lilting and soothing, with a slightly gruffness of a growl still present. Magali jumps down, staring at the wolf dæmon with wonder in her eyes, as if she recognises the wolf. How can she? Steve doesn’t know her hasn’t seen her before, but there is something…
“Are you okay?” the question is repeated, but not by the wolf, but by the man who appears behind the wolf, eyes wide and gun in his hand ready. He’d been the shooter, Steve realises, the man with the gun, the sniper, the…
The name is torn from his throat, broken and awed, “Bucky?”
The man looks sheepish. Worried, scared, a hundred other things Steve can’t name flash across the face of the man standing in front of him. But he meets Steve’s gaze steadily, and nods.
There is recognition in his eyes.
“It’s really you?” Steve chokes, and it’s like someone’s touching Magali again, except it’s not. On the ground Magali touches noses the wolf - Bucky’s wolf, Bucky’s soul - “Bucky? You’re…”
“Ugh, guys?” Someone else appears in Steve’s peripheral, lip bleeding but not dampening the tired, almost grim joy there, “Fight now, reunion later.” The man can’t say anything more because the guy’s right; there are more grunts. He turns his head towards them, black mask angled at the enemy and can he even see in that, Steve can’t see eyeholes-- It doesn’t seem to matter, because the guy is like some sort of ninja, whirling off the wall and then using two Hydra grunts as spring boards before landing with only a slight huff to signify he’s pretty much human beneath the mask.
“It’s okay,” Bucky says, lifting his gun up and shooting one grunt who was about to throw a knife at the black-masked ninja. The guy falls to the ground clutching his leg in pain, “I think you and the Norse god have things handled.”
Behind them, Thor throws a screaming grunt into another guy.
“You’re meant to be helping, Barnes,” the masked guy growls, “Otherwise next time I’ll leave you in that dumpster.”
Bucky laughs - actually laughs - and turns to Steve with the same sort of giddy happiness Steve is feeling himself, “What do you say? Want to clean up these streets a bit?”
“Till the end of the line,” Steve says back, and the wolf snaps her jaws together.
“Seriously, can you two help me out; I’m quite literally blind over here…”
Bucky whirls back to the fight with a laugh and feeling complete for the first time in a long time, Steve turns to the enemy with his best friend at his back.
"The thing I don't get," Clint frowns as they duck away from the street and into the building Tony insists is the location of the knife, "Is where Asgard actually is. I thought it was in a different universe, so how is the giant rainbow bridge any different from what Tony theorises has happened now?"
The building isn’t empty. The HYDRA goons that have already poured out to head after Steve could have told them that, but the group they meet in the corridor prove Clint’s theory.
"I think…" Natasha ducks a punch, dropping to the ground and flinging herself around in a spinning kick. "Earth and Asgard are in different dimensions. Like… a folded cloth with different creases. We're in one, Asgard…" she punches a guy in the nose, "...in another."
"Yggdrasil being the cloth, right?" Clint gives up notching an arrow, just flings his bow out and clubbing the nearest grunt to him. When the guy tries to stumble up, Temis surges forwards, wings outspread and talons arcing towards the man's fylgia.
"I think so. It's a nebula that connects nine worlds, ours and Asgard included. It's why they appear to us as gods, and their magic actually works."
"And the rest of the universe?" Clint grabs an arrow. He's in too close quarters to aim, so he stabs with it instead.
It does the trick.
"You should join NASA and find out!" Nat growls, leaping towards three more approaching guards. She reminds Clint of the marten that follows her in the shadows. With a grin he hoists up his bow and reaches for the shield clipped to his back.
They take the corner of the corridor together, the shield lodging in the wall. Natasha uses it as a foothold, leaping off and around, kicking out at a HYDRA goon who is too close. She lands neatly, spinning and almost lazily getting another guy in the chest with her gauntlets, “Any idea where Tony wants us to go?”
Clint’s about to answer with a shrug, but there’s a crash and the sound of gunfire sparking off something metal from in front of them. He gestures down the corridor, “Where else?” he shrugs, “Follow the explosions.”
The building Tony is in isn’t much a building anymore. Not with the hole in the one wall and ceiling from where he crashed straight through. He’s trying to pull up schematics, and wield off the few Spectres that followed him down.
That’s about when the gunfire starts.
They shoot at him as if they don’t realise that most of it just pings off his armour. Tony pauses, turning to look at them and he wishes they could see his expression. He’s disgusted. Fed up. Can’t they see they’re chipping his paintwork?
“Don’t forget the soul sucking dementors,” Edie says in the suit, a warm ball against his chest.
“How could I forget our old friends?” Tony asks with a sigh, and he fires a repulsor at what is left at the ceiling. Bits and pieces rain down on the HYDRA goons, but it has the added bonus of getting rid of the Spectres swooping in.
Now he only has one enemy. Men scurrying out with guns and animals and is that a grenade launcher…?
“This might hurt,” Tony says, as with a whistle it fires towards him. His HUD screen down wild and he tries to move, to sidestep but at this close quarters…
Something flings through the air sending the missile veering wildly off and - oh, that’s another wall down. Tony blinks, and the red and blue blur spins up and grabs onto the edge of the hole in the ceiling, using it to propel himself into the middle of the men with the explosive weapons.
“Is that spandex?” Edie asks.
“I don’t know,” Tony admits, and he punches with a metal fist at someone who tries to run. The guy drops like a stone upon running into the titanium alloy, “Who are you?” Tony asks, raising said fist towards the new arrival.
The new arrival looks stressed. Not that Tony can really tell, considering he’s wearing a costume covering his whole body and his eyes look like sunglass lenses of sorts, but sort of bug-like and white facets. “What do you mean ‘who am I?’” the guy - and it’s definitely male - sound indignant. He straightens, lanky and thin, maybe quite young - casual enough to shoot something from his wrist at a grunt who is too stupid to stay down.
“I mean ‘who the hell are you?’” Tony reiterates, “And are you wearing spandex?”
“You don’t…” the kid - he sounds young, youngish - looks visible frustrated, kicking one of the unconscious men with annoyance, “How can you not know who Spider-Man is?” he splutters, “The one Jameson is always banging on about?”
Tony blinks, then realises the red and blue guy can’t see him, “Nope,” he admits, “It’s a new one to me.”
“A new…” the kid throws up one hand, “is that a good thing, not being on the Avenger’s radar? I think it is, I don’t know?”
Tony shrugs, spreading out his arms, “You’re asking the wrong person, buddy.” Maybe he should look into these other superheroes encroaching on his territory. It was stupid to think the Avengers are the only ones. First this kid and then…
His mind races, trying to calculate, to categorise… maybe that’s it, maybe they need to categorise, to register…
It occurs to him only then that if the kid - Spider-Man - has a dæmon, Tony can’t see him. Edie shudders against his chest.
The kid snorts, hopping up and grabbing back onto the ceiling, swinging himself up with one hand to the roof above, “See you around,” he says, “Or not.”
Then he’s gone.
There are footsteps and Clint and Natasha appear from wherever they’ve been hiding. “Oh good,” Tony says, somewhat relieved, “People I know, not in spandex.”
“What?” Clint blinks.
“Are you high?” he always appreciates Natasha’s dry humour.
“Never mind,” he shrugs it off, “My sensors are picking up the knife this way.”
In the distance, a red blur spins and swings out of a building, kicking a blur of air on his way. Gwen watches through a shimmering gold pair of glasses that are slightly too big on his petite face. The world around her sparkles, gold streams rushing like a river around the building Peter just exited. Gaps in the gold float around. They’re like hoovers, sucking in the gold until there is nothing but dark shadows around them.
They’re easy to see. So are the Avengers with brilliant gold streams connecting them to the animals with them.
Next to her, Gwen’s own gold stream connects to the arctic fox curled up with his head resting on the back of the cat next to him. Cade looks half asleep, but Gwen knows he’s paying attention to everything Lys relays to them.
Lys bathes in gold. There is no bond stretching out, there is just a glittering of an amber blanket that mirrors Peter wherever he might be, swinging and saving people.
“Captain America and Thor have two newcomers helping them out,” the cat relays, “Iron Man and the assassins are in the building. I think I saw Falcon down south trying to keep this contained.”
“Let’s just hope my dad doesn’t find out I’m hanging out on rooftops taking photographs for Peter,” Gwen admits, clicking a picture of Captain America and his companion (who looks suspiciously like the man who tried to kill him in DC a year ago) fighting back to back, “He better give me at least a 50% cut from these,” she mock-threatens.
“I’m sure he will,” Cade tells her, ear twitching. He blinks open his amber eyes, growling slightly, “Uh, Elysia? How quickly can Peter get here?”
“I’m not a radio---oh,” at the cat’s sudden silence Gwen turns to see what the pair of dæmons are looking at. Cade flinches back, dislodging the cat and Gwen’s on her feet in an instance upon seeing the Spectre behind them.
“I didn’t think they could go this high,” she says, “But just in case…”
There is a glass in her hand with liquid, and she takes a moment to steel herself, to try and ignore the fact she’s standing on the edge of a rooftop with a soul sucking ghost in front of her because she convinced Peter she could handle it and--
“Did you just Molotov it?” Lys sounds impressed, “That… how does that even work?”
Gwen’s hand is sweaty and she tries to be calmer than she feels, “It works,” she says, “That’s the important thing, because I have plenty of these around.” A whole bagful in fact. She narrows her eyes at the shape in the air. The fire goes out pretty quickly as if sucked into a void, and said void shimmers back as if avoiding her. The Avengers are still fighting around her as if nothing happened. "Maybe I should find a new rooftop," she says, "Hey, PETER!" she calls out.
"You're human is amazing," Lys meows to the fox next to her. Cade just looks rather smug.
The knife sits in the Centre of the room Tony, Clint and Natasha burst into. It’s connected to buzzing machines and above it…
“Not again,” Clint mutters, staring at the large gloomy hole of black in the air above it. Next to him Natasha’s skin crawls at being so close to something abhorrent. She doesn’t have words to describe it, the feeling nor the sights that lie through the void.
“Not exactly,” Tony’s already at the computers, “It’s not a portal as much as a hole.”
“Even better,” Clint’s tone drips with sarcasm, “It’s a black hole…”
“It’s part of the Spectres. Or they are part of it. So how do we get rid of it?” Natasha asks, “There’s no convenient sceptre this time.”
“I’m on it,” Tony says, fingers already flying over the keyboard. She leaves him to what he does best, turning to face the HYDRA grunts behind them. With a gunshot, the man dies and his dæmon fades into gold. It’s somehow more violent than blood splatters have ever been, and it’s for that reason her next shot clips the grunt in the knee.
“Incoming…” Clint’s got arrows strung and he’s watching her back. Like always.
Even if the world is upside down and sideways, Natasha can always count on his steady presence at her back, the sound of feathers on wind and claws on tile as Fyodr and Temis slip into movement around them.
Some things never change.
Tony doesn’t know what to do.
Almost every incident in his life when he’s encountered a problem he’s managed to solve it. Now should be no different.
His heart. Getting out of that cave. The palladium poisoning.
Every corner he got stuck in, he got himself out of with barely a scratch.
And he can get himself out of this corner just as easily but this time…
He can see a route out. But this time it will leave far more than a scratch.
“It will close,” Edie finishes checking his calculations scrawled down on the back of a piece of paper that looks like plans for some big fancy HYDRA weapon powered by the knife that sits in front of them. The math is correct, but then again they both already knew that. They’re always right. “If we have a big enough energy source it will close.”
“We can grab the arc reactor. I’ve got some spare…” he’s scrambling for other options, even as Edie sighs.
“Tony, we need something bigger. And not just bigger, but different. You know what we need. You saw Bruce’s reports.”
“But…” Tony stops. His gaze slides past to where Natasha and Clint are fighting. Natasha has Steve’s shield, and Tony has no idea where she got it. She’s using what should be a defensive implement with great lethality, and there’s the flowing brown-black shape of Fyodr dancing in her shadow as she holds off the HYDRA grunts.
Behind her Temis wheels and circles in the air. Clint is leaping off the walls as if he has wings of his own. There is no point where the human ends and the animal begins. Not really. They are. That is all.
“Tony,” Edie says, voice trembling, fur on ends so close to the wormhole.
“How can I?” he asks her, “How can I just… how can I lose you?”
“All living things must die,” the cat says, warm beneath his hand.
“This is like the Battle all over again,” he wants to laugh, but it catches in his throat, “Are you sure?” he asks, and he hates that he can’t stop his voice from trembling.
She doesn’t answer him.
She doesn’t need to.
“I can’t do this,” he says.
“Yes, you can. We have to.”
“You’re half my soul.”
“A bit less since Afghanistan,” she tries to shrug it off, “You managed then. You’ll manage now.”
Tony slows his breathing to a regular pattern, all too aware that his friends are still fighting around him. In front of him the wormhole pulses and seems to breath, sucking in the oxygen around it until there is nothing left. They’ll choke soon, if they don’t stop it. It looks threatening. Terrifying. He tries and fails not to think of last time he fell through a hole in space. Of that memory
vision of his team the Avengers dead at the end of everything.
“You’ll find me again?” he asks her.
“I promise,” her tail brushes his hand like an oath, “In this life or the next, we’re still the same.”
“I can’t…” he tries to think of how to say it, “I can’t follow you,” he says.
“That’s the idea,” she replies.
It's kind of a terrifying thought that she has been with him, always, throughout his darkest hour, his lowest point, in the dark when he thought he was alone.
He was never really alone.
He realises this now.
After this he will be.
Peter drops her off on a rooftop just above the streets the Avengers have already cleared of Spectres. He takes out the few that threaten to follow them, then swings off again, leaving his discarded web shooters for Gwen to fiddle and play around with, watching them spin around and around and…
Around her the gold river continues to rush. She can see it more clearly, can see the eddies that are the Avengers fighting. Where they are the gold clings to them, trying, failing to stay in the world. Consciousness, Gwen thinks. Sin. Understanding. An actual particle that made them different from the mindless animals. An actual thing that existed in the realm of pseudo-science, dark matter and theoretical physics.
“Do you think we’ll vanish?” Cade asks her, sliding up next to her so she can feel her fur against her arm, “When the Avengers fix things…”
Fix, Gwen thinks, is a subjective word. Fix implies something is broken.
Then again looking at the gold pouring out of the world maybe there is something wrong here.
“Can we?” Lys asks, the feline pacing the perimeter of their new roof like a guard, “We’ve been ripped from you, exposed to the world. Can we go back to what once was knowing what we know now?”
Gwen doesn’t know, and she sinks her fingers through the soft fur of the arctic fox next to her.
She doesn’t notice when it changes. She’s tracking the movements of Captain America down below, watching as he kicks out at a bad guy with his whole body, dropping to the ground and rolling out of the way. He needs to learn some moves from the ninja who is currently parkouring over parked cars.
Maybe Gwen should invest in self-defence lessons or something, the last thing she needs is to get kidnapped by some idiotic supervillain or something.
Captain America’s friend - the one with a metal arm - appears to be doing a fine job of taking out the men with a gun that ran out of bullets about ten minutes ago. He’s been using it as a blunt implement and so far been very successful.
Gwen can’t tell whose daemon is whose - the wolf and mongoose are here and there so quickly and fluidly, moving among the pair of super-soldiers with such ease they could belong to either.
She takes a picture of Steve punching a guy in the face. That’s the American justice system for you, she thinks, enjoying the view. It’s been hard to see things down below with all the gold rushing past and--
It’s not rushing, she realises suddenly, her head turning to scan the road.
“Gwen?” Cade realises there’s something wrong as she turns to look again, “What is it?”
“Caderyn?” she asks, but he’s there, warm fur and soft amber eyes and the gold…
“What happened?” Elysia paces over, fangs flashing.
“I… nothing… I… the gold…” she looks around, trying to work out what she’s seeing, “It’s stopped running out,” she realises, scrambling to her feet, raising the camera before she remembers that she can only see it because of the lacquer covered glasses she’s wearing. “It was racing away, like a rushing river. And now…”
“A stream?” Lys guesses.
Gwen shakes her head, “No… it’s like… like leaves. In November. Like snow in the spring. Like…”
She can’t describe it. How can she explain how the gold river is now falling snowflakes of light, pouring from the sky. Golden petals drifting slowly down and sparkling and…
“The voids… Spectres…” Lys realises first, “They’re… they’re less. They’re fading…”
Gwen is left staring at a world of falling fireworks. An angel has flown overhead and scattered glitter over them, and now it falls like snow on the city.
No, she thinks, not sparks, nor snow.
There are some places where dæmons can't go, said Thor. Similarly there are some places where humans can’t follow their souls.
It hurts. He remembers that, for as long as his body allows him to remember the pain. Humans never quite remember pain properly. It’s fleeting. An impression. Then it’s gone.
Tony vows to remember the feeling of his soul being torn in two as Edie throws herself through the small square portal the knife cut into another world and the knife closes it behind her. It drops to the ground as he lets it go, the wires sparking. The blade burns blue and flashes and Tony falls back, is pain and blinded.
He hears cries of alarm from the HYDRA members and Nat and Clint who are still fighting. Then he blinks back his vision and looks up at the ceiling above him.
The hole is gone.
So are the Spectres.
So is Edie.
Tony’s heart aches, even as the arc reactor keeps it beating.
She’s not sure what Tony does. When she turns around and sees the inventor without the black and white cat that has hounded his heels for the past few weeks she thinks she can guess.
“Oh god,” Clint staggers with the force of the vibration that travels outwards from the closed hole. Without even paying that much attention he knocks a passing grunt out with his bow, hitting the guy over the head neatly. Temis dives down, claws out as she lands on the guardrail.
Her feathers ruffle, the only sign that she’s noticed what Natasha has already seen.
Tony… god, Tony--
Tony’s shivering. He looks cold and in pain and Natasha wants to hug him. Fyodr must be thinking along the same lines because he’s ditched the fight to trot over to the man, as close as he can get without touching. Tony isn’t Clint. Fyodr won’t let him touch him, but he’s there, a part of her but separate.
Tony’s hand shakes as he straightens. His voice doesn’t waver, “All the grunts gone?” he asks. Natasha’s sable backs away, moment gone, but the wound still there.
“Tony…” Clint doesn’t know what to say. Neither does Natasha, not really, but she’s a spy. She’s been doing this as long as she can remember (longer even) and she knows how to ignore things.
“We separated,” Tony shrugs, as if he’s trying to pretend it doesn’t hurt, as if she isn’t gone, isn’t separated… “Did it work?”
Clint looks at Natasha, then around at the room. There’s no hole. There’s no Spectres. The last of the grunts are groaning on the floor. “It worked,” Clint says, shortly.
“Good,” Tony says, straightening but looking all the worse from it, “We should... we should…” there’s a pause that has become far too familiar in the past few weeks, waiting for a second voice to speak up.
“She’ll find you again,” Natasha says, a sliver of warmth in her voice as she reaches out and lays a hand on Tony’s shoulder. He knocks it off but the gesture it there. “They always do,” she adds, eyes glancing to the sable in her shadow.
“Let’s go, where’s Captain Cold?” Tony says, injecting fake cheer into his voice. He pauses, taking a breath. Natasha eyes his facial movements, his unexpressed emotions waiting for the moment he’s going to break down but…
It doesn’t come.
“Tony,” Clint says, voice serious, “Edie’s gone. Are you okay?”
Tony’s chin straightens and his eyes light up with a spark of stubborn defiance that makes him the man who made the first Iron Man armour in a cave in Afghanistan with an electromagnet buried in his sternum. “She’s not gone,” he says, “Well, she is, she’s not here, but she’s still out there somewhere. And I’ll find her. You’ll see.”
And with the way he talks Natasha can’t help but believe him.
Peter’s senses, always so bright-loud-stimulating since the incident twitch, and just like that he knows something is different. It’s not instantaneous. There are still patches of air lingering and shimmering with the void monsters but they’re still. They’re still and lacking the hunger they had before like their purpose is gone.
He swings around, carefully avoiding the Avengers. He doesn’t want any of them taking pot-shots at a moving target, nor does he particularly want to stop to explain who he is and what he’s doing.
He makes his way back to the rooftop he last dumped Gwen on. Down in the street below Captain America and Iron Man are talking. The two men who were with the Captain are gone, and Peter can only wonder what happened to them.
Gwen doesn’t jump when he lands on the rooftop next to her. Cade twitches with annoyance, and Elysia moves to greet him with a purr. He picks her up, letting her drape herself over his arms as he crouches down to watch the street below.
“So it looks like the Avengers saved the day again,” he says lightly.
“And our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man,” she says, taking off the glasses and handing them to him, “Take a look, hero.”
Peering through them, Peter takes in the streets, bathed in gold rain. “So,” he says, Lys purring against his chest and Cade and Gwen sitting watching him, “This is what our souls are made of.”
Matt’s fighting when it happens.
He doesn’t feel any different. Not this time. But there’s a subtle shift and the voids he’s not so much been fighting as just plain out avoiding no longer turn his impressionistic painting of sight into Swiss cheese.
Xexilia hisses softly against his skin, the air current whirls and eddies like a river and without even thinking Matt turns around to punch the guy who was trying to creep up on him in the face.
But beyond that…
“I think Tony managed it,” Rogers rays, voice ragged with relief, “I’m getting to old for this.”
“You’re not even thirty, punk,” Bucky’s accent slips in and out of a Brooklyn drawl.
“Technically I’m over a hundred,” Rogers replies, emotions colouring his tone now he’s no longer concentrating on fighting, “Bucky…”
There’s a silence that hangs heavy and awkward in the air.
Matt’s heard enough. He backs away with a silence that he knows the two enhanced super-soldiers can’t hear, if they even notice.
Bucky must notice, because Matt’s barely rounded the corner than there are paw steps and the shift of muscles of a smooth, sleek predator and the ruffle of fur.
“You’re leaving?” Alannah asks, and Matt pauses.
“City’s saved,” he says, shortly, “I don’t really want to hang around to socialise. I prefer working alone.”
She doesn’t argue with him. Matt likes that about Alannah and Bucky, they never try to change his mind, just accept his own choices, “Don’t be a stranger,” the wolf says, teeth clacking together.
“Oh,” Xexilia curls her tail around Matt’s bicep a little tighter, “We won’t. Visit us. We shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Thanks for the help,” the she-wolf steps back, heading away from them towards her human, “If we need to… how can we contact you?”
Matt lets out a small huff, taking a springing jump onto a nearby wall, “I’ll hear and if not, well… you might want to invest in a phone.”
Then he’s gone, back into the shadows, leaving the wolf in the street alone.
"I don't think it covers the whole aurora."
"Are you sure? Because the electromagnetic field here throws off most of my calculations..."
"But it can't be that big, there's just no reason for it..."
"I have no idea what you guys are saying," Daisy says, crossing her arms and leaning back. Next to her Bobbi shrugs.
"Don't look at me."
"Is it a danger?" May asks, always on the ball. "And if it is, what can we do about it?"
"I don't think it's a hole or a tear," Fitz says, his monkey curling around his neck like an elaborate scarf, "I think it's just a piece of weak fabric."
Lance scoffs, "Weak fabric?" he asks, "Are we comparing the universe to an old jacket now?"
Jemma and Fitz both pull a face, "If you want to put it that way..." Fitz says, "But really it's more like..."
"The walls of the universe are just thinner," his monkey finishes.
"But it's safe, right?" May questions again.
Jemma nods, "It should be perfectly safe," she says with a smile, just as the machine behind them starts bleeping madly.
Daisy straightens, and Col leaps down to the ground with his fur bristling. Coulson steps forwards, "Fitz? Simmons? What's happening?"
"I don't know," Fitz' Scottish drawl just gets thicker, "I didn't touch anything."
"The hole..." Jemma says, "Maybe..."
And then, as suddenly as it had started the frantic screaming of the implements fall silent with a short, sharp hiss. Fitz jerks away on reflex, and as he does so the air in front of them distorts. It's like Daisy is really, really drunk. Or like someone has poured oil over a window she hadn't known was there. One minute she's looking at a view of a snowy landscape, then it's blurred and unfocused and warped.
Something dark appears in the warped space, and with a rippling shimmer like water in a lake, the scenery gradually fades back into focus.
Coulson and May's guns come out, raised and ready and Bobby and Hunter step to flank them when Daisy sees what it actually is that the hole spit out.
It's a cat.
A tiny, skinny, well-groomed black and white cat.
It's a daemon.
Daisy doesn't know how she knows that but she just does. She never would have been able to mistake this for a normal cat, it just... it wasn't possible. It’s all too obvious, and Daisy is surprised how easy it is becoming to recognise the souls from the animals.
She wants to go and help the poor thing, but at the same time…
At the same time she can’t see a human.
The cat is just a huddle of black and white fur lying in the snow. Fitz and his monkey flinch away, and despite herself Daisy steps towards the poor thing. Col makes the last few steps, nudging the furball with his nose. The cat startles then uncoils from its huddled ball, hissing at Col. He bounces back, but doesn't run from the tiny thing.
"Does that mean there's someone nearby?" Fitz asks the question that they already know the answer to.
"I think it's alone," Coulson says, slowly.
"Do we have a policy on what to do with daemons yet?" Daisy asks, slowly.
"We should," Col says, pointedly, and Coulson's anteater cuffs at the ground, even as her human steps forward, clearing his throat in preparation to address the cat that had fallen through the portal. The cat looks up, claws out, fur bristling like it's going to fight them all and then it sees Coulson.
Coulson stops with mouth still open to talk as the small cat blinks up at him, eyes narrowing and tail flicking from side to side before it relaxes. “You,” the cat says, staring at Coulson with narrowed eyes, “Have a lot of explaining to do.”
Coulson stiffens, staring at the cat as if he recognises it. Or rather, recognises who she is a part of. “Oh?” he says.
The daemon arches her claws, tail flickering gently over her paws, “We thought you were dead,” she says, voice dangerous, “But you don’t look very dead to me, Agent.”
There’s something in the way she says ‘Agent’ that sounds almost like a name. “Ah,” Coulson sighs, shoulders slumping just slightly, “Throwing himself through portals again aside, I should have known Stark would be a king cat.”
“Queen,” the tiny thing corrects, trotting forwards with only the regality that a cat can have, “And my name is Edie.”
“Queen,” Coulson mumbles, “Cat. Of course. Suits him to a t.”
“Hang on,” Fitz shakes Daisy’s shoulder, eyes wide and voice sounding in awe, “Did Coulson just say ‘Stark’?”
He throws the blade down at the man’s feet. It clatters, metal against stone until coming to rest still humming slightly, vibrating as if it can sense who stands before it.
A calloused hand wraps around the worn handle, three fingers curling around it like an old friend.
“Are you going to keep it?” the silver cat watching from the shadows asks. Loki tries not to flinch away from her. “We could visit…” she stops before saying the words.
“I know, Kirjava,” the man says, sadly, “But this knife isn’t made for men,” the bearer says, reaching out and snagging a tip into the fabric of the universe and pulling…
The knife blade shatters. A million shattered pieces fall down, and the silver cat slips forwards to help collect them all. Loki’s bright eyes watch as they’re slowly gathered piece by piece. On his shoulder Jarl is a magpie, ruffling his feathers that sparkle with the light of a thousand galaxies.
“Here,” a single shard is offered up to the Tricksters, “For services rendered… or whatever you want to call it.”
“You’d split up the pieces?” Loki questions, just to make sure the man is sure. The power the blade could hold…
“We’ll toss them in the deepest ocean,” Kirjava snarls, tail lashing, “We’ll bury them under the tallest mountain, melt them, break them, and scatter them. If men wish to assemble it again it will take a lot more than a dead organisation and some channelled energy.”
“Take it,” the man - Will - offers again, “Throw it into a black hole, into a nebula. I don’t care.”
Loki closes his fingers around the shard, tightly until blood oozes out. The man, the doctor and his sharp-eyed moonlit feline collect the rest, piece by piece, and Jarl watches, form shimmering magpie-to-fox-to-raven-to-rabbit.
Loki leaves them too it. The puzzle is broken now, shattered. The shard bleeds into his ice-cold skin, and mists under his breath. The air around him is silence. Still.
The rabbit leaps to the ground, morphing into a wolf bigger than he is with jaws that could snap a man in two.
“They’ll regret chaining us,” Jarl promises, the voice of reason, of cunning and ideas. The pair have come to know each other so well in their time together, but there’s still so much more to learn, more to do…
The creature whom he supposes must be his heart turns to him, gold eyes waiting for a reply that doesn’t need to be verbalised. The wolf grins, hungry and starved and Loki curls his hand around the bloodied broken shard of a knife that can cut through worlds.
They’ll bring the heavens to the ground for what was done to them.
They’ll bring Ragnarok on them all.
Chapter 7: Daemon
Just a list of all the daemons and the explanations for why I chose them:
Peter Parker - Elysia (Lys) - Bobcat - I struggled but he seemed to suit a type of cat. I'm still not sure on this one. Also: although he had his powers before the Cataclysm, he and Lys are separated. The genetic enhancement to Peter's body caused him extreme pain due to the separation. My alternative form was a spider monkey which although it would suit him - I thought it was too obvious.
Gwen Stacy - Caderyn (Cade)(welsh for battle king) - Grey Fox - Again I felt she fitted a cat. But that felt boring so I went with a fox. Not sure on this one but I couldn't find any previously establish dæmons for her in fic, so I just went with it.
Natasha Romanoff - Fyodr (it means 'gift of god') - Sable - I considered a snake. I really did. But I wanted Natasha to be separate from her dæmon from what was done to her in the Red Room. Also in fights when she's flinging herself around New York, having a land bound dæmon that can't separate would have been a challenge. What's the point of a snake dæmon being able to go far away? Or a spider? They'd be able to curl around her and stay with her. So I went with a Sable. It's a type of marten as Clint eventually realises, but everyone else thinks it's anything from a Polecat, Mink, Ferret, Weasel to Pine Marten
Clint Barton - Artemis (Temis)(from the Greek huntress) - Rufous Owl - He needed a bird to be able to cope with his rooftop exploits. Either a bird or a very deft animal. I went bird, and tried to be clever by going for a genus of owls known as Hawk Owls. The Rufous Owl just looked the prettiest.
Tony Stark - Edie (From Edwin) - Feral cat - there is a beautiful fic out there called Elionai (I've spelt that wrong) where after falling through the wormhole Tony can see dæmons and his is a large ugly shaggy furred brown feral cat called Eli. The cat thing stuck, and she's small purely on the basis that she can fit in his suit.
Pepper Potts - Marin (a type of breeze) - English Setter - She's a dog or a bird and I went with the dog. A setter was obvious, and I decided not to go with the Irish just because it was pretty and red and went for the English which are just are pretty.
James 'Rhodey' Rhodes - Gryfalcon - One of the fastest falcons, again I needed a bird to either fly with him as War Machine, or to tuck into the machine somewhere. That said Gryfalcons are quite big…
Howard Stark - Mountain Lion - As Tony pictures, his dad would have a cougar. Tony would always think he'd disappointed his dad having a small, weak feral cat instead of the sleek, perfect predator she is.
Thor - Dagný - Tasmanian Wolf - In a universe where dæmons are the norm, I imagine the Aesir are like the Psanbjorne where their armour is their dæmon. Here I wanted the dæmons, so to make it interesting his is an extinct animal. I imagine the rest of the Aesir have dæmons that aren't earth animals but I don't know any marvel world beasts. He was going to be a dhole or a maned wolf until I found this.
Loki - Jarl - Shapeshifter - This one doesn't really need to be explained. If I had to pick a single form it would have been a fox of sorts. Male is because Loki has magic. Scandinavian form of Old Norse Erlingr, the legend name of a mortal son of the god Ríg, meaning "earl, nobleman."
Darcy Lewis - Long Eared Brown Bat - Sandalphon - I considered a rat. Something plain and boring but actually really clever. I wanted something nicer though, so I went for a bat which is often described as a mouse with wings.
Jane Foster - Ring-tail Lemur - Arrin (from Aaron, meaning 'lightbringer') - indirectly named after Thor, I wanted something to mean thunder. Anyway - I was trying to find a dæmon for my friend who is similar to Jane, and she was a lemur, so I gave Jane a lemur as well.
Matt Murdock - Black-headed Bushmaster (pit viper) - Xexilia - I wrote this whole story for his dæmon. A snake. A snake that can sense infra-red. And it’s believed (not as widely as it once was) that snakes are blind. I am so happy with myself. Also she can curl around his neck or in a pocket during a fight. So happy. I was looking for a name that had some reference to blind/blinding and Xexilia is Spanish for 'blind of self beauty' which fit (I may have read it as blind of self, but oh well).
Foggy Nelson - Raccoon Dog - Niahm - raccoon are wickedly smart, and the dog aspect is for his loyalty. I don't think Foggy's a plain boring dog through, he's quite humorous and has other aspects that I think a small raccoon dog reflects.
Karen Page - Zebra Finch - Rincalion - her being a small bird made sense to me. It just does. She'd probably be a more dangerous bird because I still can't believe Karen just shot that guy, but you go girl.
Jessica Jones - Iguana - Don't know if anyone noticed, but Bucky ran straight into Jessica in his haste to get to where the fight was. She's a cold-blooded reptile, but they're actually quite friendly lizards.
Steve Rogers - Yellow Mongoose - Magali - her name is from Margaret. In case you didn't know: Peggy's name is actually Margaret. Mongoose are small little things but quite deft and they're really fierce. They take down snakes with ease. Also I love Kiplings story of Rikki Tikki Tavi. An eagle felt cliché, a wolf was too fierce, a dog was too nice.
Peggy Carter - Brown Hare - Okay, so I really considered a swan, but I wanted something plain and boring but actually not. Also Lee Scoresby's dæmon was a hare and he was a war veteran so it seemed appropriate. She's not in this story, but she would have had a hare, had she been here.
Sam Wilson - Hobby - Aya - a small falcon so she can fly with him. The pair have trouble because they aren't separated, and have to time their flight so they don't pull too hard. Yeah, a land bound creature wouldn't have worked for Sam. At all.
Bruce Banner - Eurasian Badger - although he doesn't appear, his dæmon is a eurasian badger. Sweet, fumbling, but when angry… I didn't want to bring Bruce in because the Hulk is who knows where in the MCU, and I also haven't decided what happens to her when he transforms. Does she just look lost and confused, or does she vanish? Wasn't sure, and both would have taken time to explore properly. So he doesn't transform.
Coulson - Giant Anteater - So it eats ants, looks like a weird lumbering beast but the claws on that thing are lethal. I wanted Coulson to have an impressive dæmon. It was either this or he got a small terrier of sorts.
Melinda May - Diamond-back rattlesnake - Finally a badass S.H.I.E.L.D agent who I give a snake too. May deserves it. She also doesn't show her emotions that much, so it fit. Also: rattlesnakes are dangerous, but they try to warn you away. I liked the irony of that.
Leopold Fitz - Ula - White-collared monkey - he was originally a lizard, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised Fitz is too soft to be a lizard. So he got a monkey which fits scientists really well. Her name means 'jewel of the sea'. Jewels, of course, more commonly known as gems, are used as a name as well - Gemma.
Jemma Simmons - Armadillo Girdled Lizard - Regulus - So this was originally Fitz's dæmon. But it just fit Jemma better. In reality - most scientist types fit several animals - cats, reptiles, foxes, birds - I finally decided to use a lizard and I gave it to Fitz but I just kept envisioning Jemma with this rougher, sharper little lizard. He's named after one of the stars in the constellation of the lion.
Lance Hunter - American Bull Terrier - Lance after that HYDRA initiation fight reminds me of one. They're not my favourite breed, but they fit him well.
Bobby Moore - I never decided - I might have hinted she had some sort of bird of prey, but I never decided on a particular type or a name.
Alphonso Mackenzie - Red Panda - Allegra - she's named after a woman in Mac's comic bio who seemed important to him. Of course the comics have no relevance on the Cinematic Universe, but I liked the name and it had meaning. I was going to give Mack a bear, but that was too big, too scary, so I downsized. And a red panda was perfect.
Daisy 'Skye' Johnson - Racoon - Coileáin - Celtic form of the name Colin. She shortens it to Col, which is one letter away from Cal. A racoon was obvious to me for Skye - clever, quick pawed, intelligent and something that tends to be found in the garbage but is not the pest you really think it is. Also I think of her as 'Skye' even though I like the name 'Daisy', I still use the former. It's just easier.
Grant Ward - Magpie Shrike - also doesn't make an appearance, but I saw this somewhere and it was perfect. Shrike's again. For those who don't know some species of shrike eat small mice and insects and stab them onto a tree 'butchering' them. And actually, I lie, he had a mention. Kudos to those who spotted it.
Nick Fury - Eagle Owl - doesn't make an appearance but just imagine those two watching you with three good eyes between them, all equally terrifying
Pietro Maximoff - Hummingbird - something small and fast that can keep up with him and tuck away when he runs.
Wanda Maximoff - Gorgeous Bush Shrike - a really pretty bird (because she's a witch) and shrike's have a reputation. This isn't quite the Butcher Bird, but it's close.