1964-01-11 - The Strangeness of a Sock
Summary: The Mystery of the Sock Thief is solved and the Sanctum gains a mouser - rather, a Bad Karma-er.
Related: None
Theme Song: None
strange wanda 


The front door to the Sanctum is cracked open, even with the wintry air that slips in to replace the dry warmth of the mansion. Slipping on his other glove, Strange adjusts the crimson scarf about his neck — and promptly rolls his eyes as it does its own adjusting. Maybe he doesn't want it up over his chin, COME ON.

"Honestly, you're a royal pain in the ass." The garment in question merely wiggles up a bit higher to cover his bottom lip. "Stop," the Sorcerer mutters as he pulls it back down to his chin; it's a compromise, at least. Stepping outside, he pauses with hand resting on the handle as he scans the street with the eyes of a guardian. Nothing seems out of place.

Then why does he get the distinct impression that he's being watched? Some might call him minorly neurotic, but then again, they don't wear a crimson Cloak as a target on their back. Frowning, the man glances to his right and then is subjected to a rather singular sensation of being ambushed.

With the front door cracked, the initial sound should reverberate around the foyer: "YOW!!!" His ankle is taken out from beneath him by the sturdy impact of something not much shorter in height than his knee and it leaves him abruptly on his back on the front doorstep of the Sanctum. "OW! GET OFF!" He's reaching down with gloves haloed in molten-gold magic, but is far too late to stop the ravishing of his pants and shoe alike. The blurring creature is fast and his whip snaps at empty air. The bushes rattle and then all is silent.

Wincing, he looks at the thin lines criss-crossing his skin beneath the tattered pants leg and bares his teeth as they begin to sting.

"Gods damn it!" Limping back into the mansion with shredded dress shoe and bloody ankle alike, he makes his way to a nearby bench and sits down, all the while muttering curses left and right. Peeling back the pants-leg reveals a rather nasty set of bite marks and neat slices, all in sets of four.

And his sock is missing entirely.

*

Fact: the ancients believed cats capable of perceiving spirits. When a feline stares off vacancy into space, folklore says to look between puss's ears and not blink to see the numinous activity for yourself. Thus feline eyes stare into the dimensions simultaneously, and what they learn, cats wisely keep to themselves. At least much of the time, but whetting their interest out of silky, sinewy arrogance is no easy feat in and of itself.

The astral figure of the witch flits through the corridors of the Sanctum undisturbed. Her body is perfectly intact, though practice while she sleeps off a particularly heavy meal of milkshake, two loaves of bread, vegetable soup, and three oranges never hurt. The disruption within the building means she can move far faster than her legs might normally carry her, allowing her to ghost around walls and peer at the top of the foyer down upon the cursing man and his equally carmine scarf cloak.

No miscreant there has apparently been chased from the streets of Greenwich. No ravenous tentacled monster eating faces, no ugly slug inching along. Just… Him. And the lack of a sock, whose very break in the pattern arrests her gaze. Strange receives an eyeful at least, and the best part of being astral?

Her amusement clicks against the wards as a fey dusting of moonlight, tinting vaguely blue.

«You rang.» Descending the steps as it seems safe to do so, she makes the motions of walking but more or less floats to her side. That heavy meal won't keep her asleep for long, to be sure, the way her body processes the energy at breakneck speeds. «Deep. Not good to use that orange liquid. I can brew a better tea to rinse with. Cats give nasty cuts. Easy to get inflamed. Pietro and I always had them.»

Eureka moment; the light wavers and she turns her starry eyes upwards, flitting in front of him in one of those rapid bursts of being no longer there, but here. «Have I said anything of Ebony?»

*

The damaged dress shoe lays beside him on the floor, a quiet victim left to future tending. Grimacing, he rotates his foot and lets out a chuffing sound as the shifting of muscle beneath torn skin hurts. The atmosphere of the Sanctum reacting to Wanda's Astral presence causes him to look up from his considerations (lots of cleaning, these wounds…lots and lots of cleaning with liquids that sting, but do so for good reason) and in response to her gentle good humor, she receives a glare.

"Hah-hah." The Sorcerer is not amused, prickly pride rearing up. Nobody ambushes him. Hmph. Still, he reviews the bite marks carefully, teeth bared as manipulating it brings more blood to the surface. "Yes, probably cat, though that was the biggest damn cat I've ever come across." And by 'come across', he means 'been ambushed by' — at least within this Realm. "And no, you haven't mentioned Ebony or explained why you and your brother always had scratches."

Curiosity rears its head, even in the midst of mild agony. While he listens, he reviews the type of teas she may have referenced for the rinse. No doubt the tea stands a chance to sting as much as the medical cleansers he was mulling over.

*

Rakshasi's job is often to distract the Sorcerer Supreme from the things that make his job unpleasant, or those elements that cause his inherent humanity to quiver in frustration. She applies the balm by kneeling, giving his ankle a better survey than he might gain himself, though who is the medical expert? No question there, for all that she runs an astral finger parallel to the cuts without actually touching them.

«Witches have animals as companions. Old story, just like all sorcerers have staff and pointed hats.» She tips her fingers lightly back and straightens up, floating in the air so it's less necessary to stare down or up at her. The other thing she guards: Stephen Strange's damnable pride. Her right to soothe or vex, no? «Yaga of course has them. Her most famous… You know it. But Ebony is her closest companion. After me. I am surprised she is not looking in on me now.» A thought for the wards; tie against ancient sorceresses, privacy guards, and all that. Consider it.

«Ebony is her cat. A small black cat until he is a very big black cat, one tall as you, heavier than you and Pietro together. Maybe me too if I rode on him. He is very bright, very loyal. I think as old as Yaga, or almost. Now these cuts look like what Ebony would give me when he was maybe this big, like an ocelot. Bigger. Not quite a leopard.» She inclines her head. «You start to see images, tell me. Then I know it is like his. We would go a little crazy sometimes. Inflamed.»…. By passion?

*

The Sorcerer Supremes of the past likely took old Baba Yaga into consideration when raising the Sanctums. If the current wards can keep out gods, they can certainly keep out an old Witch. Anyone resting their head within the New York Sanctum can sleep soundly knowing no large black cats will be found traipsing the corridors.

The idea of him suddenly seeing things — she must mean hallucinating — is an uncomfortable thought on top of the tingling pain radiating from scratches and bites alike. "You think a Witch's familiar bit me? That would be…a Malk? Malkin? Ugh." Second-hand stories memorized bring him the information pertaining to the giant cat-like creatures. "I'm still missing a sock," he grumbles as he rises to his feet.

Hobble-stepping takes him to the living room, with its tea set, and he collapses into his high-backed chair with a pained sound. Scrubbing at his face helps him become more composed before he asks, "«Beloved», you mentioned a tea to clean this…mess. Please, would you brew it? I want them completely sterile before I cast. No need to seal in any contagions."

Malk or Malkin can be of Fae ilk and theirs is a tricksy magic indeed. He's not certain of how his own will interact.

*

Sorcerers and sorceresses, witches and warlocks, they're a sundry lot of paranoid people who appreciate their privacy. Naturally this involves no little amount of shielding, warding, and banning to avoid unwelcome visits from their mentors, masters, and would-be apprentices. Imagine how many students would bang down the door of Bleecker Street's fine mansion if they knew it existed and what it offered. Psychedelic, man. Duuuude, that's awesome. Sleep soundly knowing no ruffians or stoners are on the doorstep either, right?

«I know not. It is hard to say. It could be a cat with no home, a cat of the street?» She doesn't quite know the word for stray. «Maybe it wanted home. Your home?»

His question warrants a shrug from her, and a tiny piquant smile. The lack of a sock is probably what irritates him most, the man gored by claws of a beast. «How did it look? Shape, size, colour? Either way I will make the tea. You do not drink it. You rinse it over the wound. Honey will help it.»

Agreeing to this, her spirit traces after Strange until he collapses in a chair and looks appropriately grumpy in his domain, the library home to all curmudgeons and social isolates, hermits and hermetics. Only suitable. He is given a kiss to his forehead and then she vanishes at speed, leaving a whirlwind of sparks dancing in her wake. Not quite so fast as the semi-sentient wards, her presence isn't so silvery either, crashing into her sungilded body and rousing herself from a stupor with a yawn.

*

While her Astral Form returns to her napping body, he's left to sit crossly in his chair. Good question, the one pertaining to what precisely he saw. It's a shame, how adrenaline can crystallize the moment but utterly shreds proper memories afterwards. Ask a dozen people if they saw a unicorn run down Greenwich Street and half of them will say it was a sheet stuck on the antennae of a car or a horse or admit they might have been coming down from an LSD high.

Even as Strange reclines there, trying to remember the color of the thing (Grey perhaps? The lighter end of 'soot', and the eyes were definitely glinting yellow — or was it green…?), he can feel the sensation of the stinging taking a turn towards an odd numbness. Resting his chin on one hand, he mutters something about stupid animals and shifts his foot again, eyeing it in the firelight. Everything's stopped bleeding, for now.

"Should have grabbed a tea towel…" Wanda will likely be thoughtful, as she always is, and bring down a rag along with the tea satchets or even the finished brew itself. A headache seems to be forming too, particularly in the muscles of his eyes, and it's infinitely more comfortable to lean back with closed lids. Thump-thump, thump-thump; little twinges about his temples in time with his heart and his hand shifts from resting place to massaging attempt at his temples to thwart the encroaching irritant. Wanda will find him still at this endeavor once she returns, albeit with both hands and a grimace.

*

Beholden to the rules of astral projection, Wanda needs a few moments to return to herself. An investigatory wiggle of her fingers and toes assures they are quite well, and then a tentative flex of her shoulders hoists her frame high enough to clear the mattress from brow to waist or thereabouts. Burning off the bread heavy meal takes far less time than one might imagine, even for a creature so surpassing in her nymph-like characteristics. Lithe elementals devour vast amounts of their native power source, after all, and she can easily deconstruct honey on carb rich bread, oranges, and pasta into essential nutrients to go, go, go. A roll to the side puts her squarely free to the ceiling, and she sits up, reaching about for her coat of all things. Naturally. It's never safe to wander through the house without it nowadays.

The pad of her feet mark a steady route down into the tea room where, naturally, the components of her art tend to dry or be prepared, and that allows a quick summary of what she is looking for. Honey will be necessary for its antibiotic properties, marigold and goldenseal for a wash, and some lavender just in case. A spot of garlic powder won't hurt either, and she goes searching for it, but for the moment, must make do with preparations on a more timely scale. Water to boil, herbs to measure out and then drop into a press, arranging a cup, and the like. It all transpires with care, and a speed that belies purpose.

*

The memories are still somewhat vague, but he pries through them as he waits. Yes, it was grayish, maybe even striped, but not in a domestic sense. More of a marbling pattern that one might find in a wild cat. Eyes of a color not too far off from the light given off by the Eye of Agamotto, actually. There's a crystalline still of the creature, when he was looking down his body and gearing up his other foot for a defensive kick at the thing. Scruffy, even maybe malnourished despite its size being towards a bobcat. Long-tailed, built with lithe muscle beneath the dusky coat.

The sensation of the crimson scarf is suddenly too much, even the weight of it about his neck seeming to exacerbate the growing headache, and Strange unwinds the garment to sling it across the armrest. It ruffles the fringes on its ends and he's taken with the sudden need to stop the movement. A scarred hand rests on the fringes and they cease their wiggling. Good. Back to his…

"Stop that," he mutters, slapping a hand down on the shifting garment. It squirms beneath his palm before becoming still once more. "Thank you."

He cracks one eye after a moment to ascertain whether or not the relic's cheeky nature is still rearing its head — all clear — so back to leaning back into the chair and kneading the tightening muscles of his temples.

*

Her brew and steeping take about five minutes, and until such time, Wanda waits irritably in the work room. She should put herself to better use: practicing tai chi forms, perhaps, or pretending to stretch. Maybe adopting more difficult mudras and yantras for practice, but instead, she simply wanders over to a given support post by the wall and scritches the itchy spot between her shoulder blades where an amorphous claw tried to puncture her lungs and steal her life. The healing is smooth and no real trace of a scar remains, but darn if the flesh does not prickle with itchiness. Even trying to reach back to scratch the afflicted area is impossible; her supple limbs still won't reach with any force. Therefore, the option is plain: use the post's corner to reach. See? It is stretching, sort of, requiring her to work her scapulae just so until the complaining patch of skin stops.

Heaven is all in the small things. She is not purely occupied by that for five minutes, the remainder of the four taken up with whispering to the wards: "Tell him I will come soon. Nearly there." Once more she prepares the cups for the infusions and pulls out a white cloth for good measure, folding it neatly over to maintain a clean surface. How long will it take to the squirming cloak to once more lie dormant, and assess the damage? Naught to say. All she knows is that when she carries out her herbal compounds on a simple tray into the library, she scarce expects him to be rubbing his temples and sighing over the cloak's bad behaviour.

Any more than usual, at this rate.

*

The misty sentinel spells whisk down not long after being bidden to bring word and the Sorcerer acknowledges them with a muted grunt. Perfect, he can be patient…patient…patience

FINALLY. The sound of approaching steps, the sensation of a familiar aura gently inquiring at the edges of his, and Strange lets out a slow sigh. "I've been trying to remember what the thing looked like and I think I have a rough memory. Blotted stripes, like an ink pen running too heavily. Grey-nearing-black, ratty ears, thin. Like a…"

He's now looking at her with an expression of confusion.

"Like…a…" Nope, can't finish that thought. His mouth opens and shuts and he blinks hard as if trying to clear his vision. "Stray. Like a stray — um, Wanda, do you…" An awkward laugh and he shifts in the chair, perhaps even slightly away from her as she approaches. "«Beloved», you…you have ears. And a tail. Cat. Cat ears and tail."

They are there, clear as day, furred and all, to him. He rubs at his eyes with the fingertips and thumb of one hand before looking at her again. The end of the tail curls towards him and he reaches out to touch it. Swish, just out of reach, and quickly, he curls his fingers into the length of his black coat.

To Wanda, it's probably clear as day: he's hallucinating.

*

The flicker of an illusory ear pivots towards him, the rounded point indicative she is no mere house cat. Silvery rosettes dapple the surface, so different from her tawny gold skin, but not that different from the same pattern inflicted subtly on her darker hair. In fairness, Pietro and Tommy themselves better resemble snow leopards, but she's the progenetrix of one; she wins. Bending slightly to set down the tray of tea without upsetting the cups or sloshing any of the cooling brew accompanies clinking and whispering, the sounds emanating in their hushed chattering stoneware chorus. Pouring a little into the cup, she dips her finger into the tea to test how warm it is. Obviously lukewarm beats boiling hot, but she needs to augment the temperature by charm instead of spell. One of the little coins at her waist is unhooked from the sash, dropped in with a hiss to the liquid. Immediately the steam lifting from the infusion speaks to the dissipating heat, and she can fish out the token only second later without a care.

"Grey animal, striped black. You are sure it is a cat," she answers, the sibilance rolling through every appropriate syllable catching not in a hiss entirely so much as a purr. It's the sibilance of rolled Rs and murmured Ms; of course he's going to require it in her throaty mezzo-soprano, which probably dips closer to alto as a necessity.

"A tail. On me." She glances behind her, and if she's taunting him, clearly it must be to examine the spotted, broad, and terribly too long addition. Again, snow leopards have ridiculously long tails compared to their size, and hers ends in white fluff, abundant fur like a paintbrush. It practically smacks him in the leg twice for good measure even after he retreats. There's strength behind that swat; how else is she going to run through the high Himalayan passes?

"Darling, I am going to wash the scratches out. It may sting a little. That will be the goldenseal, but we can add honey. Did you find your sock?"

*

She can't…she must be joking. She can't have a tail! She cannot have cat ears!!!

Strange winces at the near-slap of the tail and doesn't necessarily crawl back further into the chair, but it's clear that he's not completely comfortable with what he's seeing before him. It brings back memories of a time when he and Karl most definitely trespassed where they should not have in a majestic temple in the deep jungles of India and the locals were not impressed with their presence. His Consort bears the nickname of the creatures that nearly gutted them both before a quick Gate saved their hides — literally. Ferocious, agile, never to be underestimated, greatly revered and respected alike: Rakshasi.

"Er, yes — wait, no, I did not find my sock," the Sorcerer replies before rearranging the thoughts in his brain. "Yes, a cat-like creature, likely a Malk." He watches a rounded ear twitch with a squint of disbelief before closing his mouth once more. "And yes, «Beloved», a tail."

Even as she preps the cleansing tea, he winces and rubs at his temples once more. "I think I'm hallucinating…" The grumble is unamused and defensive. "It's not real. It could definitely be Fae magic, illusory. It makes me nearly convinced that it was a Malk. Malkin."

*
What light stride delivers Wanda across the room comes with sound, and she kneels on the floor adjacent to him where cleaning the scratches gored into Strange’s lower leg will be considerably easier than an awkward bend over the breadth of his lap with a rag soaked in the herbal tincture. At any rate, the light scent rises from the cooled tea, redolent of a springtime garden dappled in dew and the remnants of a tender rainfall evaporating away into eggshell blue skies. From there he cannot but be afforded the finest view of said rounded ears, pricked forward, and the fine hairs guarding the sensitive inner shell that gives her tremendous range of hearing.

The cloth doused in the tea again comes away dripping, and she maneuvers the leg of his pant out of the way before dabbing around the scored flesh rather than directly upon it. He may be the best judge of injury at this time, though she can manage the basic cleaning of a wound, its binding, and treatment by remedies older than the English language. Norman-infused English at any rate.

“I think you have a most alive imagination,” she says, then blots the liquid-infused cotton over his broken skin. A few light dabs and a pinch behind the wadded seam sends the goldenrod-infused tea with its drops of lavender oil and other botanical impressions running down into the nasty little red cuts. Easy for her to say when she’s using that tail to balance carefully, only the end twitching at sporadic moments to indicate her unease.

Fae magic, not unknown. “Mm. Fae magic is easy. A pinch of iron.” That she can provide, though it means laying the damp towel on his leg. One of her charms is always pure iron; another silver; another copper, and so forth. She has to fiddle with getting it free of the thin threads holding them fast, a snap, and then she offers it up. “Try. It may dispel it.”

*

There is the adolescent urge, one tied indelibly with his natural curiosity, to touch those soft-looking ears, but he's actually nervous as to what he'll discover. What's worse? Realizing that you're tripping out because of a Mystical rabid cat attack or that your Beloved is actually a cat-demon? He'll leave that particular truth lie.

The good Doctor does flinch at the cleaning around the wounds, but the stinging that occurs when the herbal tincture actually slides on and into the various scratches and bite marks isn't as terrible as he was expecting. He lets out a slow sigh and rests his jaw on his palm in a lean on the armrest. The other hand drums fingertips on his thigh.

"A most alive imagination…" The repetition of her words is soft and not mocking, an acknowledgement of sorts that this is certainly true. It seems a trait in the Mystical types. When offered the charm, Strange eyes it momentarily before plucking it deftly from her hands.

The immediate result upon being held up before him: the weakening of the Fae magic imparting the odd sense of illusory magic. The dappled ears and tail alike fade, but not entirely, blurring in and out of focus like a bad television signal.

"Ah-hah. Fae magic." A slouch of relief follows the triumphant statement and he smiles at Wanda. "Once you think everything's clean, let me know. Casting the healing spell while holding this should be more than enough to burn it from my system."

And then…he's going after that damn sock.

*
Demon would be unkind as a descriptor given it’s been firmly established she fights on the side of the nephilim, or failing that, the angels too busy negotiating contracts with the other gods. It certainly isn’t evil Wanda favours, though it bears noting, the Sorcerer Supreme named her Rakshasi.

The dish of honey she brought is next applied, scooped up by her fingers, mercifully free of claws. She slathers it with the soft pads of her fingertips, hints of calluses skimming against his flesh and working in the antibiotic rich nectar in molten gold where it settles in a sticky barrier. His armour hung upon a marble column, the honey’s sticky presence tugs on the unbroken skin.

She hums and examines her own work, then adds another dollop, spreading it out to properly across the reddened scores left in the wake of the malk. “You need this to heal.” Her ears flick forward and she raises her head up to consider him. Vertical slits pierce the equally sunshine goldenrod pools of her eyes, widened enough to allow for ambient light to pierce in. Springing to rings, reduced again to narrow apertures, the conundrum gives no proof of independent existence.

“Keep this in place. It will stop the cuts from going hot.” Not the ideal word but someone hasn’t been teaching her much in the way of English terminology. Nonetheless, she looks at him with an appraisal drawn rife over her fae features.

Oh Strange. Run. Run and hobble to hide in the privileged corner of whatever environment the right Window on the World shows. Huddle under some banana leaves. It might be safer. Marginally.

“Mrrrrfff?”

*
And Strange won't take it back either because it's entirely appropriate, even without the hallucinogenic properties of Malk scratches and bites.

The honey is incredibly sticky where applied and he worries momentarily about what type it is before realizing that she wouldn't use one of the gourmet jars he got her for Christmas for such a mundane task. Silly Sorcerer. But ooookay, those are different eyes than normal with the vertical slits and they are nearly alien in the face he knows so well. No doubt she catches when he stiffens; gripping the iron charm harder seems to threaten the integrity of the Fae magic once more and it reminds him that it's all an illusion.

"I assume by 'hot', you mean infected though you think the Fae magic will react like…what?" His expression is preciously incredulous. What was that sound that just came out of her mouth? She's been a bit difficult to understand with how certain consonants seem to be elongated and — ohhhhh. Right, a hallucination can take control of all the sense. He can't wait for this to be over. But…she purred!

"I will keep the honey there while casting though, yes." The metal charm so repellant to those of Malk ilk disappears into his fist and already, he can feel the pounding headache receding. "In your opinion, am I good to cast? Or does it need to sit for a bit?"

*
Love inherently calls for many sacrifices, at all levels of life. The modest ones amount to little individually but vast quantities over time, whether allowing one’s beloved to sleep later than the norm or handling those miserable day-to-day affairs that might trip him up. They eclipse, in their sense, the mighty acts in the eyes of gods and men, when a girl lays down her life in a cloud of wildly oscillating iron filings or declares to Death’s starry left kidskin-hand beast she will not back down.

But share the New Zealand honey for such poxed purposes as mending a cat’s scratches? Not a chance on his dimpled cheeks.

The bear-shaped bottle from a local supermarket serves perfectly adequately for these purposes, albeit they do source their honey from a commercial farm beyond Westchester County. For any consolation, the suppliers obtain their goods from local hives fed on the chemical slurry blown upwind from the Big Apple.

Her tongue traces over her lips and she forces herself not to deplete the last of the bowl, for all a bit more bread and honey might help recover from the energy burn. On the other hand, her reserves already owe much to a bakery’s worth of fresh loaves — two — and a generous splat of nectar for each. Thus it might be wise to refrain before tapping on her body’s resources, largely to prevent being too full.

“I think you should cast. It will not harm you? I have cleaned out what I can.” Her unsticky hand lands above his knee, pinning down his slacks for a moment as she leans over and Wanda dabbles her fingers in the tea, trying to cleanse them without making a sticky mess of the cloth. It might be simpler by far to achieve these ends with a stolen sock, though some indignities must be borne.

*
If she can’t get the excess honey from her fingers by the time he’s done casting, he’ll offer up the shredded pants leg of his slacks. After all, there’s really no point in saving them since they’ve gotten his blood on them. They should be burned and likely will be.

“Perfect.” With that, the Sorcerer closes off the uncanny view of the shadow-dappled tail and ears on the Witch and whispers that quintessential healing spell of his, “Changa.” The iron charm is tucked against his sternum within his fist while the sky-blue magic eddies down the length of an outstretched arm with palm resting not too far from her pause point above his knee. It’s his own magic, so the sensations aren’t too dramatic; it’s much like tracking one’s own heartbeat, as familiar as breathing. To the Sight, the thing to note is the additional weaving derived from the Witch’s talisman in hues of matte grey and rusty orange alike. These voraciously seek out the wounds. Heat floods up beneath his skin at points where the magic contacts any foreign jinxing. Not a fizzling like bicarbonate and vinegar, but still a sensation of minor discomfort that causes him to shift and grimace slightly even as he continues threading the strands through his own veins. Flesh knits at rapid speed, the cobwebbing of swollen skin retracts, and before two swats of a mad Malk, the skin beneath the glistening spread of golden antibiotic appears to be nearly good as new. A few lingering lines tell to the depth of the slices, but they look nothing more than the aftereffects of a focused scratching after an itch and will fade with time. No more throbbing of drums at his temples as well! Success, and his entire body relaxes along with his concentration on holding the spell alive. It dissipates in a silent evaporation, thrown loose from its bindings about the central line of his arm.

Opening his eyes just a titch, he looks first to Wanda to see if the hallucinated ears and tail still remain.

*
Honey, the great antibiotic ointment of nature, doesn’t hold a candle to magic but serves its purpose. She can lament its loss later, when Strange does not bleed from those deep scratches thanks to an apparent feline molestation she held no hand in, altogether concerning.

His arcane handicraft always deserves at least a passing look of interest. Under the circumstances, Wanda needs to contribute no additional support or strength. He slouches in a perfectly solid chair and the effervescent tinctures plying his chakras, at least to her enhanced Sight, add luminescent sparks as the unfolding of a particularly detailed lotus yantra. Mandalas created by Buddhist monks show the same glorious outpouring of coloured sands in whimsical and devoted designs, all quartered and quartered again to geometric puissance that channels the divine energies of the world into formative being.

Profound beauty needs more than breathtaking Himalayan vistas or the first glimpses of an unknown section of the solar system by a tiny rotating satellite, the depth readings in the Marianas Trench or a palimpsest brought to light for the first time in six centuries. It requires the mundane and the modest, too; how light shines warmly through an open window to render a given chamber homey and welcoming, and textured comfort of a soft blanket against skin. Those benign moments pepper life in abundance, more numerous and quietly satisfying, than the grand spectacles afforded by nature on the scale cosmic.

She reaches out, testing the state of the former perforations since filled in by an entire epoch of healing in a glittering of an eye, a mayfly season. “Better.”

*
“Much better, yes.” The man leans forwards in the chair, rotating his foot left and right to judge the intensity of the healing. Reddened scratches and puckered divots he’ll take over bloody gashes and gnashes any day. The rest of the healing can be done with time and rest by his body’s own defenses. Not only that, the weird hallucinations and the pounding headache are a thing of the past. He has to rake his immediate memory to see the ears and tail on her as his steel-blue eyes shift. “Thank you, «Beloved», for the cleansing tea. The, um…the visions probably would have progressed farther without the intervention of it and the charm.”

Resting in his outstretched palm is the iron charm, offered back to her in case his magics haven’t transmuted its original aspects beyond use.

“If you’ll give me a moment to change, we can attempt to track that Malk. Malkin. Whatever,” he grumbles, unamused still even if he can now shift muscles beneath skin without sharp pains. “It may be going after others of our kind, other Mystics, and I won’t have anyone wandering around seeing things that aren’t there all for the sake of a sock — and why would a Malk need a sock anyways?”

This is something he intends to figure out, just as soon as he’s out of his daywear and into his battle-leathers. The material stands up much more faithfully against claws and teeth than fine cotton.

*

“You do not prefer me with a cat’s ears and tail? That will change our next dressed up ball. The one where people wear different outfits.” Masquerade, thou shalt be ever less exciting for Doctor Strange now that snow leopard is taken off the menu. One day perhaps he will be able to attend with a snow leopard prowling behind him, but not today.

Instead, she gets up and takes the iron charm, worrying with the loop to fasten it back to her belt. “All is better. You have an idea where to find the cat? There are so many rooms in the sanctum. I do not know where you mean to start.” The last thing they need is a hidden lunar smile peering from the ceiling when the rest of the feline is invisible, merged into the shadows, pouncing out to scare the mailman. It’s already hard enough to get the postal service to show up.

“What does a cat want a sock for? It is clear. To make you unhappy or annoyed. This is what cats do. Ebony was just as bad. It would steal cities, but…”

Probably not telling the truth on that. Probably.

*
“There is a difference between a costume and a hallucination,” he reminds her with an arched brow and dimpled smile. “You dress however you wish for a costume ball, whether it’s as some cat creature or a queen or…an astronaut. As always, I’ll endeavor to keep up with your beauty and presence.”

Strange pauses in rising from the chair, hinged on the points where his palms grip the armrest, to eye her.

“It ran inside? I heard bushes rustling after it disappeared.” Now on his feet, his eyes go distant towards the Loft. With a glittering swish, the guardian spells appear and cyclone first around him, and then around her, before returning to mingle in a small cloud before the Sorcerer Supreme. “The wards haven’t reported anything. Still…” His gaze narrows. “Search the Sanctum for an intruder.” Silently, with mental images and impressions, the parameters are given to the silvery semi-sentient spells and they roil like freshly-risen steam for a second before disappearing up into the ceiling.

With a sigh, he begins working the Belstaff from his body, one button at a time. She has a point about the penchant for cats to annoy simply to…annoy. “I agree entirely considering it’s not a mere cat, but a Malk…in. Malkin. Why not both socks? Go for all the glory, not some half-hearted attempt.” A sudden snort, like an aborted laugh. “I hope I tasted terrible,” he mutters as he shrugs out of the coat.

*

Wanda shakes her head, the sepia veil of her hair stirred around her shoulders. She reaches up to check her headband, the jewel-threaded strands secure as ever. “I was not in a body, Stephen. There could be any number of possibilities for direction. My focus was more on you.” The failure to recall in perfect detail what happened in a blur frustrates her a fraction, and her eyebrows lower, eyes narrowed in speculative thought. “I thought it went past. Did it go out? Then we should start by going out.”

The flavour of socks will be left for the fates to know, and culinary savants in the Depression to expound in a few years, in books that will never headline the New York Times bestseller list.

A little shake of her head finds her rising, and she slips her hand into her pockets as she waits on him. “Could be a matter of a cat. Need not both socks, only one, for whatever purpose a cat would have. It is possible they have a quest set before them? Is there any enemy of yours looking for something of yours? Bloodied sock would be useful for sympathies.”

*
“If I find out that someone is using a Malkin to collect samples of Mystic’s blood, there will be some punishments to mete out.” Because that will not fly, not in his Realm and reality.

The return of the wards, empty-handed as the colloquial saying goes, solidifies his suspicion that this will become a test of his ability to track. Fortunately, it won’t be terribly difficult. After all, it’s his own blood drawn from his own bones that will shine like a distant immersion of cesium to water when called by name-self.

Dismissed, they flit away and he glances over at Wanda with a rueful smile turned towards roguish. “Care to track a Malk?” A graceful raising of a hand followed by a vertical gesture from sternum to waist causes a sussurus of magic to snake about him. The dresswear ripples and blurs into the storm-blue of the battle-leathers, boots and belt and all. Not a moment later, the scarf is no longer scarf. Silent and obedient on the armrest of his chair, it rises up and gains square feet of crimson and argyle’d fabric before clasping to his shoulders. Draped and framing, it riffles in sheer delight about his form.

A wonderful show on its part, truly, but Strange glances down at it and shakes his head. “Sorry, old friend, back to your previous form. We’re hunting down a sock thief, not taking on Chthon.” The collars seem to slump and, with regretful slowness, it shrinks back down and wraps itself about his neck once more as a fringed scarf. “I know, we’ll go for a flight later or something.” It’s a very quiet murmur, not really meant to be heard, but probably still so by the Witch. Perhaps it’ll make her smile, his affection for the spunky relic.

*

“It would be a good plan. Few ever look at animals. Crows stand out in a city. Cats, rats? No. Pigeon birds, also good, and the white ones.” Seagull is not a word that sees common use in Transian or English, and her willingness to consult a dictionary is limited somewhat in that Transian-English dictionaries are limited. Wanda worries her lower lip between her teeth, clinging to the notion painted against her thoughts. A rogue practitioner gaining sympathetic connections via a host of urban parasites, ones easily forgotten, would be a plague on all their houses.

She’s making a mental bookmark of that idea and reconstituting her usual spells to wipe out forensic evidence taught to her since childhood. Strange’s disturbance to the rigors and toil of her childhood might be jumping into apoplectic territory based on her next statement.

“I have been careless, not destroying this evidence. I am trained better than this, and your enemies have an advantage. It will not happen again.”

Old memories come welling up from the places of her being devoid of colour and joy, clad in iron and the endless dimness of long northern winters, the bleached short-lived diurnal hours spelling intense hunger and hiding. She forces herself into motion while the voices echo down the lengthy corridors from barred and sealed channels scripted through memory. Breaching her thoughts takes no time at all, and she paints a jagged sigil upon the air, the native crimson burning out into an ashen waterfall towards the ground. Embers fly in a broad radius around her, catching any remnant of organic material cast off — hair on the ground, flecks of skin shed, blood on cloth or tinging the floor.

It devours them from within, rendering inert or simply crumbling into nothing. Destructive magics might actually come to her more easily than some, but it’s a wedding of the elemental paths of earth, fire, and entropy. Pushing it further than herself takes somewhat more energy, but this is an old gift practiced to many times over it feels as comfortable as old gloves, if threadbare, stiff, and oversized at best.

She doesn’t touch the Cloak. The spell only afflicts the ground and starts erasing what it finds, whether his, hers, a distant apprentice, another wandering Sorcerer Supreme that managed to hop through during the last incursion of dimensions. Only in the vicinity, but enough.

“You can smother and wrap up the beast,” she murmurs to the Cloak, and one best hope no random byproduct of a revolution wanders past her. She’s the steel maiden, rather than anything remotely friendly, in that moment.

Maybe Chthon yelled at Mephisto, some interplanetary strife was spontaneously unleashed, and the Dark Dimension shuddered.

*
“«Beloved», I’m not terribly concerned about this currently. The wards of the Sanctum reflect all but the power of the gods — and I mean the direct intervention of the gods, not someone’s foolhardy attempt to charm a deity from some dark dimension with one of my silver hairs.” Shrugging on the coat once more, he gives her a worried glance nonetheless. “Let us hope that a god never attempts to break in — an actual god, not someone claiming to be one.”

He watches the surgical scrubbing of the Sanctum’s living room and especially the area around his chair with silent interest. Very, very thorough on her part. No small wonder she successfully hid away the small ornately-carved box that led them on to adventures in another realm entirely.

“It’s not your responsibility to keep me safe,” Strange adds, offering up a hand towards her in an attempt to bring some peace to her ruffled feathers. “I am honored, but please, don’t take that weight upon your shoulders. No, well, at least…” His voice fades out, knowing that wasn’t how he wanted to explain his thoughts. “I can’t ask you to not guard me. Can I ask you to be kind to yourself if I end up injured? It isn’t a failure on your part. Self-preservation is geared towards preventing damage to oneself and I should have enough experience in it to use it. Hmm?”

Should she take his hand, he brings her knuckles to his lips for a soothing kiss.

*
One doesn’t have to like the statement for it to be true. Wanda tips her head. “You existed well before me. Your gods give you protection. My promise is shadow to that, and I know you are strong enough to care for yourself.”

Is that enough? It will have to be close, because she will not promise to sit nicely and stitch her banner, or sigh about the high ramparts of Rivendell waiting a few decades for scruffy regent of all to appear and promise her a kingdom. Best find another route to take. She instead offers him her hand, anticipating they will walk to the door.

Strange might just mollify her a bit, but he cannot take away the fundamental laws of magic writ upon her.

She cannot save him more than he can save himself.
He will always outstrip her in knowledge, such must be accepted.
If the gods call, his answer is louder by far than hers. So it will be.

It doesn’t mean she accepts that as a potted plant, but some arguments will be met another day with better ammunition. Preferably useful ones in a time that matters.

*
If Wanda Maximoff is a potted plant, she’s one of those Piranha Plants from a future gaming saga. One of the ones with lots of spikes and razor-sharp teeth and terrifyingly-effective abilities. As if she would ever swoon about like a limp daisy. The Sorcerer Supreme wouldn’t entertain anything less than someone on equal footing with himself as far as defensive capabilities go — and they haven’t even addressed her abilities in full.

“Your promise means infinitely more, «Beloved»,” Strange replies with quiet conviction, attempting the weight of the words with a deeply-abiding affection in his gaze. A rare moment of softness in the face of stern business.

With her fingers intertwined within his, he leads the way to the foyer and no farther. “No need to walk, I think, when I can locate the bloody sock and then open a Gate nearby.” He doesn’t lessen or drop his grip; no need to when her presence won’t impact the initial process of locating his own life force. Standing tall, the Sorcerer centers himself and then places a hand over his heart. Tucking his chin, his expression takes on one of trance-like serenity. Summoned magic gloves this palm pressed flat over the beating point and shifts rapidly from silvery-blue to incarnadine-bright, the same color as freshly-spilled droplets.

Vittirku va,” he breathes. ‘Come home’, he calls out across the space of this Realm he guards, and beyond, not even outside the limits of New York proper, the beacon springs before his mind’s eye. Blinding-red, unerring, akin to the tracking spell indelibly woven into Illyana by the Vishanti, it cannot be missed by him. Outstretched now, the crimson light, so similar in hue to the scarf moping about his neck, takes on the shape of an orb with oscillating surface entire. “It’s a homing beacon,” he murmurs, glancing at her with Sight-brightened eyes. “It says we need to go to Central Park…of all places.” It hovers of its own volition even as he separates palm from its presence to summon up a Gate. “Keep an eye out for another ambush.”

If he gets attacked a second time, he will be so embarrassed. Please don’t tell the boys.

*
Even roses require pruning, Mister Doctor, and those flowers sometimes produce better blooms when forced. It cannot hurt to trim back the straying thoughts or artificially raise the temperature and sunlight to… no, let’s not use that metaphor.

She instead busies herself with the flopped scarf, its unhappiness signalling a retreat from the usual jaunty angle. Free hand unoccupied elsewhere, Wanda furtively pets the hemline in an encouraging sign that its suffering state for being unwanted in full splendour is a temporary matter. Her thumb races down the grain of the rubescent fabric, delivering a wordless commiseration for the unfairness in the present moment. Oh yes, poor scarfikins-made-cloak. You, too, have chosen well and sometimes need to endure the sting of will suppressed.

A cat in Central Park, a dog in Central Park, only leaves a few dozen hectares to examine carefully. Thank goodness for little spells which ease the burden upon an investigator. To think anyone would not rejoice in magic constitutes a confounding state for the likes of her.

“I use a similar light to find the family,” she answers simply enough. “Tommy and Pietro think they can outrun it.” Whether they can is Oshtur’s little secret, a flick of her shoulders settling into place. “Always aware. I trust nothing in this world but you and mine.”

*
The crimson scarf presses up beneath her touch, recognizing and returning commiseration. Gaudy and proud as it is, it knows when to bow to its master’s whims on the ever-present chance to expand fully once more into the relic so well-known to grace his shoulders.

He gives her a look of amusement gone mischievous. “We’ll have to compare evocations sometime. Tommy thinks he can run as well.” The twinkling in the Sorcerer’s eyes says otherwise — at least, according to his presumed powers. The cheeky note settles a bit, suffused by mellow affection, and he nods. “As do I.”

With that, he leads the way through the Gate to…

…a section of the Park they might be familiar with. Wait a moment, isn’t that… Those cattails, with their ragged spread along a small pond still darkened by pollution but not by demonic influence. Despite himself, Strange laughs, the sound showing physically in the puff of his breath. Behind them, the crackling lightning outlining the tear in reality collapses into nothingness.

“I’ll be damned,” he mutters, waiting to move in accordance with the homing beacon in blood-red, which seems to be calculating its current proximity to the Sorcerer’s sock. “Recognize this?” He squeezes her hand, teeth flashing in a bright grin.

*

Sorry, Cloak, busted. It will have to seek scritches another day, though the voluminous fabric deserves to be hidden beneath like a giant pillow fort, given how friendly it happens to be towards the Maximoff witch.

Said witch watches the gate open in a hailstorm of citrine sparks, and she steps through with far less fear than she might with anyone else. It helps her hand is still captive to Strange’s, her fingers interlocked with his as some deliberately esoteric puzzle waiting to be disentangled. When they are not, she can safely follow the tether of his arm towards the next step in the game of life.

She laughs not at all for the cattails and the memories of a quagmire, poison in a pond, means far more to her than some. Pietro took a spill in such a place, they met an angel deprived of wings, and the world twisted on its axis a little for the first time. But here…

“Yes.” It needn’t be said. “You hunted. I found the demon. The look upon your face…” Her lips part slightly, and she adds, “I called you a warlock. You did not like that, I think.”

Memory wouldn’t fail, how could it? A lifetime ago, a season ago. She pauses then, and pride turns into cinders, blown away, as she brings his knuckles to her lips. Stephen Strange, mere warlock in the way of her demon-hunting. Ah, no. Each one is given its due under petalled lips, imbuing heat through distance even as breath slips away and oxygen depletion reaches a critical height. Did he do this on purpose? A question not yet answered, but the time they come full circle is cause celebre. Always there are beginnings and ends from beginnings.

*
“Oh yes, that’s right.” A acknowledgement in mild amusement weaves its way into the relative silence of the area around them. Not many folks out and about on the paths these days, not with the threat of cold and aliens alike. It leaves him to observe the kisses pressed to his knuckles, one at a time, all by his lonesome. “Warlock. Hmph.” He can’t help the chuckle stifled behind closed lips. As if he were a simple Warlock. As if she were a simple demon-huntress.

It comes to him in a moment of rare introspection not in gloom, but in gladness. “Oh.” Looking around again, he frowns at the homing orb before glancing over at the Witch. “The invocation. I said, ‘come home’.” Does anything more need to be said? His heart does an odd little stutter-jump as he looks at her. “I guess you were ‘home’ after all.” He can’t be more eloquent than that, not with that pitter-pattering up in his throat now. Clearing it with a cough, he gives her an abnormally shy smile before focusing on the poppy-hued Mystical orb that now chimes low for attention. His gaze jerks to follow its arcing towards a distant thatch of thick brush and woods alike, one of the isolated stands of winter-wood within the Park, and those amaranthine eyes shift back to her. “Do you agree? In the bushes?”

*
Warlock; the most unfriendly of terms when translated, does hold a certain cachet in her circles, and always will. A name echoed down the years might yet land upon one Wiccan in future hours, do they hold.

Familiarity scrutinizes the scene, the cattails blasted by winter chill and the wounds inflicted by the Hellmouth restored by the Sorcerer Supreme in his prior battles. In the low light, a fringe of dying grasses and frozen, cold mud enfold the dim pond without much to commend it as a crown jewel in the treasury of Central Park itself. Forgettable compared to other great waterways, its existence for the pleasure of plucky mallard ducks puffed up against the variable temperatures of night to day might not be worthy of serenade. Nonetheless, it hosts its secrets and, moreover, a mark of Strange’s own blood against the patina of normalcy.

Reason enough for the witch to fold back her sleeves and tug on her fingerless gloves, raising her hands in delicate poise as though she intends to dance. Give her a knife and a spell-shield, she might blitz the ghosts of demonic forms even now, rotating through slashing attacks and blocks from high and low attacks.

“Home?” Her fey gaze lifts towards him, the gemstone sheen in her sungilded eyes softening to the rosy amber luminescence of the dawn over Uluru, casting a certain warmth to the severity of her features. “Yes, you are my home.”

Bushes? It takes a moment for her mind to turn over, and supply the necessary linguistic connections to his inquiry, and Wanda slants a look askance. Strange no longer holds her in total focus, impossibly magnetic. Clearing her throat, she murmurs, “The fae cat could be there, yes.”

So much for a romantic prelude. The malk’s going to pay for more than a sock, now.

*
Master of the Mystic Arts, master of picking up on Wandaisms, spoken and unspoken alike. Don’t cut losses just yet. He considers her in silence before the tentative smile lengthens in confidence.

“We’ll be home soon enough.” Wink.

With a come-along tilt of his head, he leads the way across the open space between pond and thicket. Not a long jaunt, barely two hundred feet, and no one is around to notice the proud way the crimson scarf captures the passing wintry breeze, as if longing to become so much more in sheer square inches of fabric. The blood-red beacon drifts like a bobber in water before darting off deeper into the woods and disappearing entirely. Strange eyes its path and calculates the easiest way through the leafless snarl of wild berry bushes, which is…doable, but nigh impossible to high-step through without snagging clothing left and right, if not skin. He grimaces and looks to Wanda.

“Any chance you can convince these sticker bushes to part quietly? We don’t want to startle up the Malkin. I want to see if I can capture it and entice an explanation from it.”

*

“Sooner home the better. It has felt empty and lonely of late.” Her darkening gaze, smudged by no obvious source of shade, causes her to turn mindfully towards the stand of reeds almost tall as a full-grown man. A head taller than her in some places, those fat chocolate-brown rods sway a little to the merest hint of approach, and the rustling is sufficient to cause all sorts of discomfort for those who attempt stealth. Wanda knows better than to try, lest she suffer unwanted paper cuts from the bone-dry leaves.

More problematic are the berry bushes, notably the imported Siberian blackberry that overcomes everything in its path. No one can withstand that sort of awful invasive species nibbling away at disturbed lands, growing at a prodigious rate. It’s the sort of perfect hideaway for a fullscale villainous operation, a lair of the likes of Kingpin or Loki, much less the common fae housecat.

Origins matter little to the witch. She nods to Strange and whispers in crackling tones to the earth, sending an exploratory tendril of power threading through the topsoil. It strikes the roots and spins up arching canes, warranting a shift, the supple boughs and branches parting, the stiffer ones leaning back as they can. So it goes.

“They ask we make the soil better before we leave. It is in poor shape after the demons came.”

*
“Easy enough to do. I’ll exorcise what I can from it once we’re finished dealing with the Malkin.” It’s a promise and Strange won’t renege on it, especially when the plants are behaving so nicely for the Witch and won’t tear them both to shreds on the way in. “Thank you, «Beloved».” A quick peck on the cheek and he leads the way once more.

The hem of his Belstaff snags only once on one longer thorn and he grunts in annoyance, but it gets removed before too much damage is done and finally they reach the more open spacing beneath the wintry trees, where the sunlight normally caught all by leaves prevents the thicker undergrowth from reaching too far back. At a distance, the ruddy light comes to a stop over a mound of gathered leaves, branches, and fabric detritus from who-knows-where — and blinks out.

Halting where he is, a single hand upraised, he glances to Wanda. “That must be it. If we can get close enough, maybe we can trap it inside,” he whispers.

Fate, however, isn’t playing on his side, at least. The next step he takes, after listening to any and all suggestions offered up by the Witch, cracks a twig with the seeming violence of a gunshot.

*
Hopefully the plants will hold their part of the deal. It might look bad for Wanda to thrust several weeks of pent-up winter into their roots and hit them with a shock of cold that throws the bushes into dormancy or induces immediate die-off, forcing the parks board to come in and slate the area for a bit more pruning and planting. Knowing who stands behind the parks department, it will no doubt involve drug-heavy plants and man-eating floral monsters.

Wanda follows after that kiss, and she has the advantage of patched and mended leather keeping her from several scrapes and scratches. Not from entirely being tripped up by a root or whipped by a cane, but the offending bush gets a pointed glare for its indecency and she scurries right along. Bending deeper allows her a better route through the branches intending to snag hair or clutch scarves, were they not already disposed to defend themselves.

The sorcerer’s plans go noted by a bob of her head. His crunching footfall stops her in her tracks, landing on her toes and looking about for evidence of motion summoned by the inadvertent signal. No birds float and no squirrel runs about, fattening itself on last month’s caches of poisoned nuts.

Her tense shoulders harden and she slides towards his back, dropping into a lower crouch out of habit. It may not be her job to keep him safe, but damn if she’s going to let a cat play claw tag. Note to self, bring five pounds of powdered iron every visit to Central Park.

*
Her shift in his peripheral towards his unprotected back is noted and appreciated without words, even if it’s something as innocent as a Malkin. While the general public might wail at the thought of being mauled by a sixty-odd pound Fae-cat, it’s actually on the lower scale of the Mystics’ personal scale of “terrifying”. No small wonder the Sorcerer attempts to keep the Art and general knowledge of magic within the community. The human tendency to dismiss the hard-to-believe aids, but not always.

Mudras gloved in golden light upraised before him, Strange waits in the silence that follows his misstep and…nothing. What’s worse, an immediate repercussion or the waiting for one? Inhaling and even holding his breath a little, he continues forwards towards the mound of leaves. No other sharp cracks of broken twigs greet his passage and they round the bend of the dwelling to find a dark hole for an entrance. It seems the size to admit entry for something as tall as his knee, possibly more, if the creature were hunkered down.

Glancing over at Wanda, he clearly considers something before speaking again, quietly. “I’m going to look inside. I’ll have a mandala shield up, don’t worry. The Malkin can bounce off of it and feel less like an apex predator and more like a fool.”

He intends to reach in as far as he can to see what’s inside; if nothing’s inside, the natural hovel is being dismantled to find that damn sock so it can be burnt.

*
A fae cat’s den curtails any sense of adventure, any hopes of exploration deeper into the thicket. Wanda answers the notion of a mandala shield for a malkin with a resoundingly high-pitched noise in her palate, a possible squeak clicking off bone rather than tissue. She may not have laughter for the grand affairs of things, but she can occasionally express herself without words.

Watching Strange scrabble on scarred hands and knees, with one hand in front of him, like some deranged mole is simply too much to bear. She covers her mouth over her hand, another of those atonal chirpy noises swallowed up with very real effort. He no doubt considers her at grave risk for choking on a mystic bone of some kind.

“Take sock. Put in front of the hole on a string. It will come out,” she manages to choke out, desperately seeking not to laugh in a fashion that will impede his noblesse hauteur or even worse.

*
“I’d rather get the sock myself,” he grumbles, in a half-hearted growl, even as he squints into the ambient darkness beyond the light of his mandala before his scarred palm. He’s shoulders-deep into the tunnel and his voice is muffled, issuing overtop the curve of his bicep. “If you have some easier way to do this, let me….wait.”

All of his movements still and his words are softer, harder to hear. “There’s…something back here, hold on…” Instead of retreating, the Sorcerer wriggles more forwards still and now it’s ridiculously difficult to hear him. “Looks like…” A sound of delight, as if he’s located something — “…found sock, but…others not…not all…the hell?” A cascade of leaves slides onto the back of his black Belstaff as he suddenly bucks against the passage’s ceiling and then freezes up. “…kidding me.”

Working his way backwards is obviously more difficult by him being blessed with such long limbs and breadth of shoulder, but eventually, the one spell-free hand emerges to dig into the forest floor and continue the retreat. “No, give it back!” A length of the crimson scarf remains within the shadows of the tunnel even as he shifts entirely out and sits back onto his heels. With leaves and twigs in his hair, a smudge of dark earth from chin diagonally up to nearly his ear, Strange eyes the Witch with an expression that begins with flat lack of amusement, but…

…as he yanks on the scarf, it changes to something more like rueful delight and…

…out pops a Malkin kitten, claws desperately entangled in the weave of a disgruntled scarf, given how it flicks back and forth to attempt disengaging. Fluffy, scruffy, and very much in love with the relic captured between its paws, it bites with milk teeth ferociously until it realizes that it is beneath the open skies rather than the warm darkness of its den.

Slowly relaxing its endeavors, it looks between the Sorcerer and Witch with wide, jade-green eyes and utters a tiny, confused, mew?

*
Mew will get you nowhere in life with the likes of Wanda Maximoff, whose hardened heart knows only the tendernesses of magic and honey, not fuzzy creatures hanging by the scruff from a man’s gloved hand.

Jade eyes meet amber, frosted in a rime of lilac amaranth. Those larger ones narrow slightly upon the wedge-shaped head of the pathetic sock stealing beast curling into a C, formidable oversized paws kneading at its beloved cloth even when deprived of it.

Cloak had best stop swooning in argyle delight, and banish the notion it has adopted another family member for itself. The lint brush and roller won’t be the business of the storm cloud cat. Its tufted tail boasts long dipped silver fur, the undercoat a furry white peeking through only as moonbeams.

Tigrine stripes more than tabby give patterning around her face, black dots converging upon her pink nose. Fierceness is indeed a mew.

She does not hesitate to reach for the beast’s paw, disengaging those hooked claws with the assurance of someone wearing gloves, and formidable leather ones at that. “Tch,” she mutters. “You must not ruin the cloak with this.” Any guesses if she’s responding to Strange or the cat.

*
A purrling ‘mrrrah!’ is the Malk kitten’s initial response, sounding as sassy as it seems, and it nibbles on Wanda’s fingertips even as each delicate claw is removed from the silky garment. The milk teeth, even of supernatural origin, don’t break the leather in the least. Once freed, the scarf rears back before darting inside the closure of the Belstaff coat, buttoned up near to Strange’s neck as it is. No more loose fringes on display, not whilst a wild Fae kitten hangs in an instinctive curl within batting reach.

Mystical mandala dismissed, the Sorcerer reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a leaf-littered, blood-spattered sock, the clear mate to the one remaining back in the Sanctum.

“This is what we came to get and here it is. No need to destroy its home,” he says, turning the Malk kitten left and right to observe it. Its jade-green eyes land on him and it utters another mewling cry, sounding more uncomfortable this time, and he grimaces lightly. “Might as well put it back. Its mother will return soon.”

One mitten-like paw reaches out towards the sock and the ratty piece of clothing is stuffed away once more. “Not for you. Back you go, get.” Carefully, he gets back down to elbows and knees and shoves the storm-grey into the gloom of the mound. That being done, he is in the process of getting up when the little fuzzball waddles out into the weak sunlight and cries at him again. Strange frowns at the Fae-cat and mutters, “No, go home.” Pluck, up by the scruff — shove, back into the passageway and a push to the hindquarters to boot. One could probably correctly assume that the little creature face-planted into loamy turf.

*

The jacinth-eyed beast warrants a thoughtful look from the witch, who apparently has no better way with animals than the sorcerer supreme does with apprentices, animals, and errant bus-drivers. Her lips twitch. She does not dare prick his pride with a blood-tipped smile, knowing the better what consequences that will entail.

“Have you considered it has no mother or father?” The question on that province is one she is well familiar with. A look about the shrubberies and canes studded in thorns, but precious little by way of foliage, warrants another closer look. “Why does it come to Greenwich Village to hunt? It is far away.”

The moment she asks the question, she sinks down to her knees, heedless of dirtying her leggings. They will be thrown into the wash at the end of the day anyways, and she can consider a job well done if she’s dirtied herself a little. Hands touch the soil and she peers into the tunnel with an eye for trouble, Sight frost flickering along the rims of her blasted pupils.

“Maybe a hole into the other world. Den realm. It comes and it goes? Or kicked out and now must find its way?” Questions without satisfactory answers, especially given a pair of bright eyes and a pink nose inquisitively poke out from the leaf mold and the mraaat becomes louder.

“Nyet, nein, no. I will not feed you, blood-drinker. You struck him, I am not amused.”

*
“The Malk that attacked me was much bigger, not this little rat.” Strange continues glaring down at it, even as it peers out once more. “This thing doesn’t have the coordination to remove a sock, much less hunt by itself. I remember the barn cats at our farm. They couldn’t much else at that age except fall off the hay bales in failed stalking attempts.” The Sorcerer scans the immediate surroundings and sees nothing amiss, with sight and Sight alike, through the maze of tall trunks and snow-dusted ground.

“Why would a Malk use socks as nest-padding? There’s nothing else the mother could have done — dammit.” A tugging sensation, not much different from being caught on a briar-thorn, makes him look down to see the smoky Fae-kitten attacking the hem of his Belstaff gamely, its little back feet wheeling and punching. Hands stuffed into his pockets, he looks back to Wanda and, in a surprising show of patience, allows the creature some moments more of the ridiculous flailing. “You think its mother abandoned it? Why? Okay, enough.” As if the Malk-ling could understand him. Reaching down, he scruffs it and places it once more at the entrance.

It sits there, looking between both of the Mystics, and the tone of cry shifts to plaintively-pitched once more. Then, in a damning move, it makes it way over to the inner line of one of the Sorcerer’s boots and leans heavily again it, all of its insubstantial weight, and blinks. Slowly.

Strange’s sigh fogs in the air as he glares down at the kitten. “I don’t even want to say this aloud, for fear of self-fulfilling prophecy, but…given what you know about the Fae — can these things…imprint on someone? Like a baby bird?”

*
“Faerie cats change size. It is common, yes? They do not obey the laws we know and these ones can be little until they take you, and then big. Ebony did it all the time.”

Sorry, kitten, when black cat turns into a deadly black leopard or death cave-jaguar, you can expect Wanda to exercise more than a little caution. Paranoia is her best friend, and especially when it comes to thumbing a cold iron charm and a silver blade, if need be, although she isn’t that far. Pinching some of the litter, she lifts up the leaves and looks them over.

“Wet. Frost. Piled together. It has been here for some time. More than week, less than a month.” That puts it at least to Christmas, for all that jogs her thoughts. “Not unlikely a shallow point opened here, on the solstice. The ley lines are near, after all. Could happen, maybe not.”

The question of imprinting is something he’s going to have to wait for her to parse out, because the slightly blank look of the English requires a transition into Tibetan, and Strange is subjected to a simple inquiry: “«Are you asking if they leave marks on you? The scratches will be permanent without healing by mystic means, as they always are. I have known some fae to leave tattoos, birthmarks, signs of claiming. But rarely the cats or the hounds, that would be more likely the members of the Dark Court.»”

The pathetic mewling and lean forces her to reach out and pick up the scruffy little beast. She runs hot and she knows it; it’s chilly out here. Paws are pressed together, hind legs pinned, and she squashes it above the rim of her corset where the dipping lapels of her jacket provide a direct line to warmth. “«Bite me at your own risk,»” she adds in Transian. The tone says it all.

*
“«From what I gather, Ebony is an adult, Beloved, and well-versed in…threatening.»” Strange frowns, never content with hearing of even a moment of past discomfort in the hands of her former tutor. “«I still don’t believe that this kitten could remove a sock with that level of surgical precision, but…I suppose it’s not entirely an impossibility.»” He watches how the Malk kitten snuggles in close, finding elemental contentment in the heat given off by the Witch’s skin, and a faint smile finds a home on his lips.

“«Imprinting happened with chicks sometimes, the offspring of chickens. They see another living being, their brain tells them that this is provider and protector, and they follow as if the being is mother. I don’t know the ways of Fae cats, but I wonder at the possibility that the blood is a method of bridging that connection. It has such properties, as we both know.»”

The Sorcerer scans the woods once more. Naught but the jeering call of a blue jay reaches them in the stillness. No sign of the mother, not hide nor hair nor Mystical signature. His sigh fogs in the air between them and perhaps she can seem him calculating behind those steel-blues. The timing does make sense; the solstice would have provided that short window for a mother Malk to slip through, perhaps hide a kit, and then escape back with every intent to return.

If the little thing is alone, in this winter and not aware of the abilities it should posses as Fae kin, with no mother to teach it…it will suffer — and he cannot abide with suffering.

“«Beloved…»” His eyebrows rise even as he hesitantly inquires, “«What say you to at least keeping it until springtime? We could return then, on the equinox, when the veils between the worlds are thin again.»” Reaching out, with only a moment’s pause, he buries fingertips into the plush behind the sleep kitten’s ears and massages carefully. It lets out a quietly-surprised ‘mrrrp!’ but makes no further movements, content to remain ensconced beneath Wanda’s chin.

*

“«Can you not detect any disturbances around here, or a scar? There are no shallowings but, then, I was not the one who crawled into a dirty tunnel to look for the missing sock.»” Strange, always willing to do the dirty work, receives limited amount of reproof from the brunette witch who now has a cat looking with huge gemstone eyes at Daddy, the big fuzzy, not holding little fuzzy.

Leather feels particularly odd to padded feed, and widening paws stretch out to encompass a volume large as a softball. The malk kitten’s wicked set of claws graze leather, score empty air. One aims for a track of gilt flesh and Wanda promptly pokes the tip of her finger into the starry nexus where all those toes converge. Fluff dances, fine hairs teased upon tender skin.

The malk’s paw snaps shut in the most ridiculous of ways, and it mews again with insistent vehemence usually reserved for tuna cans, leprechauns, and curses.

She tips her head to Strange. Blame will be levied where it is due. “«You know they are largely thaumivores? I can possibly feed this one curses and twisted hexes, if it’s anything like the cats in the northern forests. Not so far removed, maybe, though you might find it uncomfortable to have a faerie cat marching about trying to devour bad luck..? »”

Perhaps not. They have enough challenges in life, having something willing to level the balance as appointed by its own peculiar nature could be an amusement. It’s not like the snakes in the Sanctum do not slither about and devour the pitiful embarrassments of those fool enough to listen to them!

Oversized ears end up delicately flicked beneath the strum of her fingers, bluntly dancing up and down for a peculiarly satisfying rhythm. Whiskers droop and spark with moonbeams on dew, and leaf bits fall from hind legs given a bit of a bounding shake midair. Lofted and landing upon Wanda’s palm, the relentless monster patheta-mews at the good Doctor.

See me! I am pathetic. Oh so sad pussy cat. Save me, Doctor! Big fuzzy! I am hungry!

Hey, if it works for regular cats, surely a faerie cat is a master. Fuzzy wuzzy hasn’t counted on the witch being so hard-hearted as to poke its waterskin belly. “«Pot bellied. Not eating well. Might be other kittens about, or its mother is an idiot trying to feed it socks. I go with idiotic. The magic of the fool Asgardian has so thoroughly confused lesser cryptids, and arcanoi, and thaumivores, they will probably try to hibernate in the summer and eat rocks and fire hydrants.»”

She doesn’t know the word ‘deep’ in English, but she knows fire hydrant in Tibetan. Go figure.

*
The Sorcerer attempts to hide his grin, but only to a certain point; it still quirks his goatee to a visible extent. What’s this, does he detect concern beneath the cool attentions she gives the kitten, from preventing claws on skin to testing the stretch of a belly less than fed properly?

“«I detected no tear in the veils when I was searching for the sock, no,»” he replies as he tips his head to one side, eyeing the kitten’s pathetic attempts to reach for him with mild amusement.

Big Fuzzy doesn’t trust you yet, little munchkin, you get to stay with Momma Fuzzy a while more.

“«It might be useful to have one around the Sanctum, what with how we both drag in half-dead every now and then.»” Dry, dry amusement found there, mocking a bald and discomforting truth. “«I could imagine…were it to get big enough, it could act as yet another guardian?»” He can’t help it. Reaching out, he toys with one outstretched paw, tapping the toes and attempting to slip a fingertip between them. The kitten is not amused, at least not at first — before it gets to attempting to capture and bite his already-scarred digit. Strange clicks his tongue and isn’t aware of the lop-sided smile on his face in the least. “«Coming home and settling in with a cup of tea, this one curled around your neck, absorbing all the bad karma and feelings… It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?»”

Mind you, there might be a bit of a compelling impression, a breath of the adult creature’s Fae magics, given off by the Malk kitten. Neonatal sweetness is so hard to resist even in a standard mouser. Not only that, but it really does seem to have imprinted on the Sorcerer, for how badly it wants to be within his arms instead.

It is a double-edged sword, the ability of a Malk to take away the emotional discomforts of a bad day; perhaps it would make them lower their guard or miss a chance to correctly suspect a circumstance, but…

*

An arched eyebrow takes in the feline trying desperately to paw at the air or find warmth. Instinct is little different for a cat of the Otherworld than a mewling 9-week-old alley urchin deprived of the warmth and milk associated with mother. Little fuzzy belly grumbles in the absence of food, and how long since that was bloated with milk and stolen red threads or socks — whatever malks eat — instead of air, a bit of grass from the nest, and hunger?

No wonder the pathetic little thing gripes and seeks relief from whatever might ease the hunger pangs. Instinct drives it more than sense, and the point of her chin resting upon the kitten’s brindled head delivers half-strokes and crescent moon rubs, flattening its oversized ears.

It has no dignity; Wanda allows the mewling creature none. Perhaps the kitten ought to gather up itself and try behaving in a more noble fashion, if it wants to be taken seriously.
“Karma,” she says, “but maybe not feelings. Still, it is hungry and who knows where its mother hunts. No harm to us. We cannot leave it to die for not paying attention.“

Besides, it could be a great sock thief, lurking behind the dryers and laundromats of the city, wreaking havoc with commerce in a few years.

A roll of her eyes and she forms a single point of fuchsia light upon her fingertip, a bubble no bigger than soap suds. She holds the digit in range of jade eyes. “Eat.”

*
Strange watches the Malk kitten attempt to figure out how to consume the orb of magic at the fingertip presented to it. It’s clearly interested by how it ceases to consume his own and sniffs at the bubble, little tongue flicking out uncertainly at first until it makes contact with the spell. A ‘mrrr’ling utterance follows the more confident lapping at the energy, lipping and flashing white milk teeth that never graze the tawny skin.

“Interesting,” he murmurs, taking silent notes even as the bubble dwindles to nothing and the smoky creature licks its lips. A chirp and those so-green eyes lead the quick shift of focus to the Witch’s face.

Please, Momma Fuzzy, I want some’more!

“I agree. We can try returning it on the spring equinox. No sense in not attempting it, at least.” One final lingering consideration of the empty woods around them and he sighs, mild contentment on his face. “I think it’ll be good karma on us for keeping it from death.”

Of course he’d offer up that opinion on matters.

Off to one side, he gestures up a Gate that leads into the Loft. The crackling golden oculus expands to let a waft of incense-redolent air, warm and dry and much more appealing that the chill of the Park. “Home for now and with a lost sock to burn.” Outstretched hand offers her the opportunity to proceed through first, like the gentleman he is, dimpled smile and all.

*

“We can always teach Billy to control himself by feeding it, but he has Squiggly.” That’s right, they have a fae kitten and he has a shark, as is right for a teenaged boy. Another pinpoint of magic blossoms on Wanda’s fingertip, tilted more strongly to a deep love-lies-bleeding richness, concentrating the force of shifting luck a little firmer towards the negative side of the spectrum. She usually blesses, rather than curses, but one comes all the more naturally than the other.

The malk licks frantically at her finger, sandpaper tongue scouring down the digit and racing around her nail, the colour fading away as the tiny thing feasts on what amounts to a few good mouthfuls of food for a hungry little beastie.

“A sock too risky to leave in bed. We must not give this one the notion that socks are food and claws are welcome.” A firm tone and a pointed look onto the baby’s fuzzy grey head achieves little except a hasty gulping and frantic pawing if her finger seems to pull away.

Malk kitten has claws. Those claws knead and needle into the Witch’s hand to assure food will go nowhere without its happiest of diners. Huffing a sigh, she follows Strange to the oculus peering over the park.

“Cerhan, do not assume we are raising a whole family of these.” Here’s a line she never thought she would say: “We have enough of our own, now and coming.“

*
It’s a welcome they receive in the Loft, the swishing of the silvery guardian spells, and the wards linger before Wanda and the half-wild Malk kitten. The creature is distracted from its feeding and gives the wards a contemplative narrowed look, not unlike the one the Sorcerer gives to the Witch even as he dismisses the Gate. The crimson scarf peeks out from beneath the buttoned collar of his coat and quickly unwraps itself with care for his skin, though not much less beneath the friction required for a cloth-burn. Unfurling into the full majesty of the Cloak, it flits away to its hanger and becomes still once hanging. Hold still and the scruffy kitten with sharp claws can’t find it. Hold very very still.

“I’m sure Billy can divide his time evenly between this little monster and Squiggly,” Strange opines as he walks past towards the master bedroom. He glances over his shoulder, a thin smile on his lips, and adds as he works the coat from his frame, “I don’t intend to begin wearing socks to bed or bring another animal into the family. A white-tipped reef shark is enough to worry about. Would that Fish and Game never figure out about Squiggly…”

Pausing in the doorway with the coat slung over one arm, he observes the calm and continued interest by the Malk kitten to the silvery spells. They don’t seem to know what to do with the being, since it rests within the Witch’s arms, and he finally sends a mental flutter of pronouncing the little Malk as friend rather than foe. As the spells disappear once more, he sighs.

“«Beloved», you know the parable of the boy who cried wolf? Our son, Tommy, along with his new girlfriend, joked with me about the possibility of a future child. A joke. If that’s the intent of your wording, please understand that I’ll begin to assume that you jest — don’t take my lack of interest as insult in this case. Unless you mean something else?” After all, he recognizes that English is not her first language and grammar sometimes comes hard to her. It’s a messy business, English grammar.

*

Scruffy kitten is well on the way towards getting a bath, one that will no doubt involve piteous mewing and flattened ears dripping water, soap thick with rosemary, and not a jot of nip to induce an addiction to the behaviour. Leaf litter and red strings sticking to their newest pet will never do, not the least because the particular Cloak and its master boast their own sartorial majesty that a ragamuffin cannot impose upon.

Maybe the cloak will flick its hem out of the way in an endless little game between Malk and relic, the two of them performing an esoteric routine of kitten exercise until its wounded pride requires it to wrap up the beast so firmly that the kitten falls asleep. Or the forty pound cat it will become. Either way, the stealthy hunter is too busy nosing after her hands, headbutting Wanda’s fingers, having made the rapid, survival-oriented connection that they purvey food upon the hungry.

Albeit the fat little tummy speaks to a need for steady diet, a problem even in the likes of New York where scavengers frequent dumpsters and trash cans, but the littlest of them still fall prey to Death’s kidskin touch. Her bony hand is averted by another droplet of a curse puddling there, and frantic licking becomes infinitely more desultory as the malk kitten discovers less threat, less hungry.

Tomorrow morning, that’s another story.

Her gaze flicks up at his question while the sandpaper tongue runs roughshod around her already very clean nails. “No? But the story of boys and wolves are many. Usually they end up with the wolf eating a naughty child and his family shrugging, and having another. My world’s folktales are cruel.” It is stated with simplicity, though those parables of Koschei the Deathless and Morozko, Marinka the Witch, and more are not for the weak of heart, any more than their inheritance from the Indian and Aryan tribes on the steppe of old.

“Pietro and I have family here. Kin, maybe on our father’s side. It seems unlikely as our mother’s. It is close, too, but the lines are difficult to assess. Lorna Dane, a girl at the Frost Institute whom Pietro… drank… when he was a vampire, is in fact our cousin. Closer, on the face of it.” Distaste at her nearest and dearest’s transformation tells in the blackened lines of her silken voice, the sibilance rising. “Lorna has a father. Erik. The man who throws tanks at aliens and giants. They both manipulate metal, and Erik was… nonplussed to discover our gifts ran young. Too young, he said. He thought it impossible. I had to remind him he was impossible. He knows nothing of our darkest history, only we are both from the camps. Pietro, he, I.”

*
Ah, good, basic English grammar error and a mild one at that. He remains standing in the entryway to the master bedroom as he listens, brows knitting more so in slow increments. He knows of Lorna, yes, the young woman with Princess Crystalia from the Frost Institute — roommate to Illyana, if he’s remembering correctly. That meek young woman is related to his Hellcat? Huh.

Which makes this Erik person, Lorna’s father…related to his Hellcat as well. Uncle, perhaps? The Sorcerer shifts in place, idly running a hand down the hanging lines of the coat.

His expression grows acutely distressed for a moment — the camps — and the coat ends up hanging on a peg opposite to the Cloak. If the relic has an issue sharing its post with a simple Belstaff, it doesn’t show it in this moment. If the coat ends up puddled on the floor later, it’s a clear mark of jealousy on the part of the crimson garment. Post, mine.

Walking back over to her with brisk strides, he steps in close as if to examine the Malk kitten and its eating habits. It seems to be getting sleepy now, its motions slowing in contentment for a fuller stomach than likely in days. The line of his arm brushes against hers and lingers, a light pressure of presence and unspoken support.

“Would that I could erase the evil that occurred there…” Strange murmurs, three fingertips delving into the mink-fine fur. Outlandishly-sized ears flick once and it ‘mrrrls’ in a half-hearted warning before being soothed by his presence. After all, he is Big Fluffy. “Time-space paradox is a b…big enough issue to avoid.” A huff of a laugh and glance to her as he becomes solemn once more. “Let me know if you need my assistance in determining whether or not you have family beyond the walls of the Sanctum. If your search fails your personal expectations, remember that I am here.”

All the while, that squirrely mind blurs away. Notes taken, pensive assessments are made, and the discoveries of a branching line of Maximoff blood taken into account.

*

“You cannot undo the war. You cannot make the final solution vanish, and the men who could and did not act will remain forever a stain on my thoughts.” The child of the concentration camps and the working ghettos has questions no one can possibly fathom, especially for the remove of decades and an ocean. Her thoughts turn to the patchwork of names branded on the borderlands of Germany and Eastern Europe, a frontier between two superpowers stained by the names of Chelmno, Theresienstadt, Birkenau, Auschwitz.

Countless other massacres have almost no names, created by the interconnection of death squads and social activists, priests and serfs giving shelter to the damned. The Shoah leaves no stones unbleached by the stains and sins of its makers.

She cradles the cat to her chest, the grim light in her brilliant eyes dull and unfocused in its way. “You cannot undo man’s own essential wrongness. I cannot even tell you which ghetto they held him. Lodz? Lvov? Warsaw? I know Erik is Polish, which would not be my mother’s people. They are… were… Transian. I can trace their path a little better. My father was not so clear on the man they took material from. Us from.”

How on earth can she possibly explain the terrible truth of her and Pietro, in less than clinical barbarity, without pushing away someone raised to the comforts of American farm life and its essential goodness, the unchanging sculpted history of nodding grain and hunger in the dust, prosperity through hard work, and…

Work didn’t set her free. Not truly.

“I should tell you, he is not so old. Lorna…” Her breath catches, resolve spun and whirling to the facts she knows in her bones. No one else may trust them but she does. “Erik lost everyone in the camps. Mother, father. Maybe sister or brother? He has none. His only child is Lorna, who has a room with Illyana, and I am keeping an eye on them both. We are related, this is clear, and he is warm to the notion. He wants to meet Pietro. Lorna thinks his grandparents had children, children who were possibly our parent. And there is a strong chance, a bad one, we are the fruit of an evil committed on a young person. Maybe a child.”

She won’t look at him, or anything, except the black expanse of wasted history, paved in bones and lives, possibly all the way to the foot of Eternity guarded by the wispy moth-eaten cloak of Death to ask the one question on every gassed adult’s lips, every starving child’s fevered thoughts: Why?

*
Never mind the Malk in her arms. Never mind the fact that she has an uncle possibly younger than him. Well, not never mind that, but in this moment, it is set aside, something to be examined once the general atmosphere of the Loft isn’t consumed by shadows of lost faith in humanity and guttering spirits.

Within the encircling of his strong arms she goes, kitten included, and Strange rests his chin on those dark curls he knows so well, faint essence of black rose and all.

He could never answer Why?, not in a thousand years or reincarnations of his soul. He understands pride all too well; he understands the urge for revenge, even if it becomes less and less savory to consider as the years pass, a reaction from immaturity and impatience; he will never understand what came overseas in whispered stories of ice-blooded experiments in modern sciences and Mystical sciences alike, where humans became less than the white rabbits so carefully tended in their cages.

“I will listen to what you wish to tell me, «Beloved», in regards to your life before us.” His murmur is gentlest yet, offered up with ultimate forgiveness and lack of blame in the face of refusal. “Tell me what I can do to help, especially with locating the rest of your family.”

The Sorcerer understands family. He hurts for the childhood she never had and his fond memories take on a cast of unfairness in light of it all.

*
Grim words spoken from the child of a lost generation, those declared undesirable subhumans by the racial supremacists and purists who, even in this day and age, have their advocates from behind papers and essays, studies and journals.

Wanda bumps the head of the Malk kitten squished against her bosom and his arms, pulled in for an embrace. She can only halfway offer its return, her arm winding a path over his hip and angling upward. The drowsy kitten protests in a bleating mew, as is its helpless wont.

He represents security never had in the work camps and ghettos she barely remembers. Unlike that shadowy adoptive father, here is a sign of solidity and choice, proof of karma balancing the scale. Rubbing her cheek to his jaw and feeling the prickle of his goatee assures that time and space have not treated her as an idle plaything.

“This one needs a name. And a bed, yes? Or maybe it picks whatever it wants as a bed.”

Priorities, apparently, lie with squirmy mcsquirmypants trying to nest into her shirt. It may not be the best of choices. Its tail batters at Strange’s arm. She exhales, weary to a fault. “Then the story, however you want to hear it.”

*
“You share in your time and no sooner, «Beloved».”

Easy enough to press a lingering kiss of unspoken support upon her forehead and then he shifts attention to the Fae baby.

“Indeed, it does need a name. Rather, he — she? — does. Here, let me see it. My parents used to have me check the barn kittens every year. We didn’t want more than one female around.” The rescuing of the Malk kitten from the warmth elicits a grumpier mrowl from the creature and being turned topsy-turvy-upside-down-belly-up is enough to make it mew pitifully. No belly-up business, no! Little paws swim at the air as Strange squints and then nods. “Female, insofar as I can tell.” Tucking the critter against his chest, it’s clear that he’s not the space heater that is preferred as well as no giver of food. However, this is Big Fluffy, owner of the blood-scent on her favorite sock hidden away for now, and those tiny claws get to kneading at the tunic’s folds.

Bestowing a name is important business, especially within the Mystical world. A Name can grant many things: purpose, rights, sense of self — all that can be utilized against the name-bearer in the worst of circumstances. The Sorcerer tucks his chin to look down at the outlandishly-large ears and frill of white whiskers and then to Wanda.

“Any ideas for a female name? I admit, I wasn’t the one to name the animals we kept — well, except for Silver, but he was specifically my quarter horse. As far as sleeping places go…” The slow spread of his lips is full of fondness and takes years from his face as memories take him back as well. “We had one indoor cat, a kitten my…my family raised that was a runt. He chose to stay inside rather than be a barn cat. An orange one, almost red, stripes — pink nose, like this one. He had golden eyes though, not green. Anyways — that cat slept wherever he wanted and no one was going to tell him otherwise. If he was sleeping on your pillow, good luck moving him. I liked him, even if my brother and sister didn’t. He had spunk.”

The kneading at the storm-blue fabric has slowed and those jade eyes sealed off remain closed, an alto purr emitting from the baby Malk. Behold, Stephen Strange, stupidly-enamored with the very species that savaged his ankle not hours before. It’s very counter to his normal grave air of burden and responsibility.

“I don’t know…something to do with the color of her?”

*

Silver. They could name the cat Quicksilver… Mercury. She skims through a dozen options while Strange paints a most disconcerting view of living in rural America, somewhere as alien to her as New York was. She is not entirely a creature of cities, but agricultural communes are not a feature of her rebel lifestyle either.

Remarkable, those endless skies and chaff floating on the breeze, but also impossible. Stephen on a horse named Silver? Did he also say ‘Hi ho?’ Alas, a cultural touchstone fully lost upon her, but not the prospect of a younger sorcerer supreme rolling up on a four-legged beast and running around, carefree.

Something to treasure. Something for those dark hours, floating in the void, or facing the collapse of the familiar comforts of life thanks to a daunting horror of interdimensional proportion.

Flicking her tongue over the rose-petal hue of her lips, she half-closes her eyes. Subtle vibrations nuance a murmured sound rolling over her, giving thought to possibilities.

“Medea, Circe. Pearl. Little Moon. Athena, Artemis, Diana, Aralune, Cynthia. Inanna. What do people name cats?” Her head tilts. “I could say many names, but this is not a child. This is a cat. They are not the same, and I can only imagine how troubled I will be in some years guessing what the children must be named.”

Her gaze flickers up away from Strange to the cusp of the ceiling and wall, her fingers running up her neck and along her shoulder. “The benefit of future fates. We already know.”

*
Freaky, but true, Wanda’s thoughts on the future children that exist in the current time. Momentarily caught up in that conundrum, the Sorcerer’s fingertips nearly come to a halt between the Malk kitten’s ears, but he catches himself drifting into a thought-loop and pulls out before things become too complicated. He’ll indulge in that later, when the creature has a name and his Beloved has the twinkle back in her eyes.

“Er, cat names. People name cats here about their looks, normally, or if they look like a certain name. The orange cat in our house was named Dusty because he liked to roll in the dust outside in the driveway in the sun. Or maybe he came in dusty…I don’t remember.” Strange considers the Malk kitten, with her striping and coloration and shrugs. “Little Moon has a nice ring to it. Quaint, but I think…yes, maybe Little Moon. Or Aralune. Sounds better than Loon, though she’ll absolutely be called that if I find her doing anything remotely unsavory around the Sanctum.” Glancing down at the Fae cat, he wiggles an ear tip between thumb and forefinger gently. “You hear that? Behave.”

Muscles pull the delicate tissue from his light grip to flick back said ear and the Malk ‘murrs’ before headbutting him roughly.

Sure, Big Fluffy. Sure.

*
What does one call a cat from Central Park. “Socks?” There may be a horrible parity in the parallel when Strange’s description percolates through the internal translator and sinks home in Wanda’s brain. She no doubt expects a swat to the shoulder or a pointed look free of dimples, though the scratches bled onto his ankle bear the burden against humour.

“Leaves? Dirty? I do not know the other words. She is a grey cat. Mist, moonbeams, Buyan.” Throwing words together for a different respective, Wanda waits for the cat to give its own consent. One does not name a Malk. It accepts a title because humans are, evidently, too uneducated to know anything about the fae languages of the otherworld. Pitiful humans, so limited in their cognizance and comprehension of actual forms of communication!

Big fluffy has no hope. Warm fluffy on the other hand…

“Show her where her water and food will be?” It falls to her, rather than Strange, to make those arrangements.

*
“Ah-hah.” Mostly-devoid, the quiet immediate response to the suggestion of ‘Socks’, of amusement, though one might call it intensely-dry; Saharan but for the twinkle in the flick of a glance Strange gives her. Not Buyan either; the name and the memories attached must remain unsullied within his head, perfectly filed away without any other connotations.

“I’ll keep thinking of names,” he murmurs, swirling a pet from dome of skull back around ears and then forwards to chuck the little Malk under the chin until it’s disruptive enough to make her ‘mrrrrp’ and blink at her surroundings sleepily. “I remember reading that many of the Fae creatures could be considered semi-sentient if not truly sentient, so maybe she’ll tell us her name instead,” continues the Sorcerer, unconsciously echoing the Witch’s thoughts on the matter. “As to water and food…” He looks upon Wanda once again with an expression bordering on apologetic. “She seemed thrilled with what you offered her. I assume you can provide that again without putting too much of a strain on yourself?”

*

“When she tells us her name then I will honour it. Until this time she will be Aralune.” Araluned, perhaps, if she knew Welsh. Alas not, but Eiluned or Aralunette can be Merlin’s name for the malk kitten likely to sprawl herself out whenever he walks by and launch herself at his hat when he is deep in thought about how to tempt a fae kitten to pounce his pointed headgear.

Wanda slips her hands into the shelter of her sleeves, scratching at her wrists and dispelling the fine fluff left from the silky grey beast’s forays. “Yes. I can. There should be somewhere in the Sanctum I can do it? Or outside? I do not want again to be an offense to the wards.” She knows what her art does, and what the Vishanti tend to think, even if feeding a magical creature with magic that does nothing except metabolize into a ball of wildly amusing fur constitutes the lowest level crime imaginable. It’s on par with Tommy or Pietro whipping around the world so fast they meet their shadow in passing.

Her gaze slips away towards the vague direction of the Anomaly Rue window, no doubt imagining the cat chasing sunbeams and incarnations of Hoggoth around, or the odd butterfly made of mana. “But she does need water. And somewhere to do her cat things. It is best not to be where other things are a problem?”

*
“Perfect. I can call her a Loon when she’s being a troublemaker.” Said fluffy troublemaker settles along the length of his forearm like a hammock, hanging one lanky forelimb freely. A few blinks and she’s back to dozing, clearly tired by the whole ordeal and dealing with the fullest stomach in likely days if not a week.

Strange eyes the Loft around them and shakes his head in unconscious dismissal of the idea even before it leaves his mouth. “Not here, too many relics and the wards would always hover nearby if not over her. I can always create another room for her cat business.” He smiles despite himself; what a quaint way to put it. “Imbue it with properties of disposal, etcetera. I don’t think a cat door for her, to allow her to go in and out of the Sanctum. The Village doesn’t need an adolescent Malk out roaming with free will.”

Enough adolescents roam about the Village with free will, according to his lofty opinions. No wonder he drives the boys nutty.

Tiny paws flex in sleep and one ear twitches in counter-time once to the twitching tail. “The wards know of you and of her — Aralune,” he amends, “and they won’t bother you come feeding time. Consider them alerting like…smoke. Enough smoke means fire, ergo, you react to it. A little feeding won’t trigger them to counter you. I can keep an eye on their interactions for a few days and intervene as needed. Water can be kept in the kitchen, I suppose, near to the sink? Easy enough to charm it to refill as need be.”

Hopefully the little Fae cat doesn’t require running stream-water or sparkling eau de vivre because that’s a whole other ball game.

*
Aralune cat, Aralune cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to Greenwich to visit a mage.

The singsong hum of the kitten’s weary purr fills the air, revved up like a motor. Suspiciously loud, the malk kitten cannot resist nature’s call, no matter how much she wants. The food of a curse settles in her pot belly and the promise of warmth assures she drops off, ears and tail drooped, hint enough that she hasn’t long for this mortal world of cares. An unconscious world of mayhem awaits her.

Wanda stifles a sound of her own, the yawn behind her hand warranting a pause and reflection. “Put her somewhere safe, then, and let’s have a cup of tea or retreat somewhere to settle.” She is still fresh enough back to her body after a fairly long time apart, whilst he healed the grievous stab mark left by the lemur, that she truly might be into the honey stash faster than he can say boo.

“You wanted to know my story, yes? Then it would be suitable we prepare for it.”

*

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