A Cold and Lovely Darkness
The world looked iced-over, drenched in eerie half-shades. Darcy felt as if a heavy curtain had been drawn down around her head, like the gray sky was pressing in and laughing. In recent years, something had begun to happen to her in the winter, a strange sickness that started creeping along her spine sometime in November, getting progressively worse until the early new year.
Coffee helped. Or rather, buckets of coffee. As did sleeping for twelve to fifteen hours a day, but that was hardly practical. And even when she could sleep, it wasn't restful, it was jagged and choppy, with nightmares breaching through like tips of icebergs. Her hands fumbled and shook sometimes. At work, Jane would talk and talk and it all was so disorienting—her boss had begun to make much less sense than usual, it seemed. Darcy would lose her after a few words and then give up and just sit there, nodding absently and saying ''yes,'' and ''hmm'', and ''oh,'' in the places where it seemed appropriate.
Jane would stare at her with a blend of annoyance and concern, then sigh. And that would be the end of it and Darcy would be very, very relieved.
But the early winter was particularly awful, mainly because of all the parties. Normally, Darcy loved a party. This time of the year, they seemed exhausting and unnecessary to her. Still, she was obligated to go—and not necessarily just socially obligated either—most of the parties were thrown by Tony Stark, who donated huge amounts of money to fund the research that she and Jane were doing. The entire month of December was a sparkling, gift-wrapped, wine-drenched nightmare. The world looked like it was cut out of paper, flimsy and off balance. A dark whirlpool formed in the center of her, pulling and pulling until she almost wanted to slip down into its coaxing arms.
Darcy tried not to be pessimistic as she half-heartedly dragged on her trusty little-black-dress, not caring that it was a bit wrinkled, or that her stockings might have been sporting a minuscule rip. That was the only nice thing about this sickness—the profound, almost comfortable layer of apathy that it brought along. She put on some lipstick, tried to smile at herself in the mirror. The resulting effect was so grotesque that it nearly sent her head reeling. Maybe she wouldn't be smiling tonight. Standing around and pretending to be human would have to be enough.
Unfortunately, it wasn't. Darcy was not one of those consistently stoic people whom nobody bothered to ask what was wrong, or suggest that they looked tired. Another thing about the winter sickness was the seemingly abrupt personality change and resulting barrage of statements and questions like ''are you feeling alright? You look pale. You don't seem like yourself...'' She'd already heard that one about a thousand times. People that she scarcely recognized seemed ultra-keen on telling her how she didn't seem like herself. It made her dizzy and angry. So did all the colors and lights at the ridiculously elaborate party. Stark always had to put on a show, and the whole place was giving Darcy a migraine.
Jane looked alarmingly neat and put-together in a dark blue dress and matching wrap, smiling and laughing like she belonged in a catalogue. She tutted over Darcy, trying to smooth out the wrinkles in her dress and fix her hair as if she were an unruly doll. With a bit of a worried expression, she took a tissue out of her purse and wiped a stray smear of lipstick from the corner of Darcy's mouth, then felt her forehead. ''I'm worried that you might be coming down with something,'' she said, shaking her head a little, frowning. ''It's flu season. And you just don't seem like yourself.''
Luckily, then she was pulled away by Pepper Potts, who looked taller and more sparklingly aloof than usual. Darcy hesitantly sipped at her glass of wine. Drinking seemed like a novel idea, just not in front of all these people. She'd probably wind up curled beneath a table, rocking and mumbling gibberish. That sort of thing was fine at home, but not in mixed company.
As she turned to view the room, her eyes caught on someone in a corner. The tall, pale, unsmiling figure stared back at her. It took Darcy a few seconds to register who he was. It was Thor's 'adopted' brother, Loki. A menace, supposedly. Dangerous, they said. Supposedly. He'd made quite a name for himself in recent years by trying to take over the earth. Then he'd been taken back to Asgard. Then Asgard apparently didn't want him because now he was back, working for SHIELD as some kind of weird penance. Or so she'd heard. He looked utterly miserable.
Maybe it was this mutual unhappiness, but something made the two stare at each other for what seemed like an unnaturally long time. Darcy felt a strange, sudden shift, a rush of oxygen to her mind bringing a fleeting clarity. It made her want a cigarette, for some reason, so she gathered her purse and slid out onto the balcony. It took several moments of blinding cold to realize that she'd forgotten her coat. ''Shit,'' she mumbled half-heartedly, turning to go back inside. Just as she did, she felt warm fabric come down around her now-shaking shoulders. Looking over, Darcy saw that Loki was now standing beside her in a grey shirt and black pants. His elegant jacket was now, obviously, wrapped around her.
''Thank you,'' she said, staring down at her unlit cigarette. A long-fingered hand moved in front of her face, flicked a lighter that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Darcy took a long drag, felt the buzz of nicotine flood her system. It gave her a brief, lively feeling in the back of her mind just for a moment, and then it was gone, flicked away with the ash. ''Again,'' she said, ''thanks. I'm Darcy, by the way.''
He gave a brisk half-nod, then they were both silent for a moment. It was an almost pleasant, cold quiet that hung in the air between them.
Then Loki said, ''You want to leave.'' It was much more of a statement than a question.
''So do you,'' she told him, equally matter of fact.
He nodded again. Then he said something rather unexpected. ''You leave first. Go inside, tell...whoever that you aren't feeling well. Then wait downstairs for me.''
Darcy took another very long drag on the cigarette as she found herself whispering, ''Ok.'' Flicking it over the balcony, she slid the jacket off of her shoulders and silently handed it back to him before reentering the party. Picking her way through the sparkly, tipsy throng as if guided by a thread, she recovered her coat and pulled it on. Jane shimmered by, flush-faced and laughing. ''Oh,'' she said, noticing Darcy standing halfway to the door, ''You're leaving?'' She seemed almost relieved.
Darcy nodded blankly. ''Well, ok then,'' the scientist said with a calm smile. ''Take care of yourself. Get some rest, you don't look...'' Darcy was out the door before Jane could finish her thought.
A few minutes later she found herself sitting on one of the ornate, uncomfortable chairs in the heavily decorated lobby of the building, absently twirling her hair in her fingers, waiting for her random companion to arrive, blearily wondering what the hell was going on and then realizing that she simply didn't care. Villain, god, can of spinach, pole dancer—what did it matter who she left a party with? It didn't, at least not to her because she couldn't feel much of anything anymore. Then Darcy heard footsteps and looked up to see that she was no longer alone. Strangely, even with his icy white skin and otherworldly blue-green eyes, Loki seemed realer than their surroundings, thrown into a sharp, cold relief against all the seasonal gaudiness.
They simply looked at each other for another moment until, almost hesitantly, he stepped forward asking ''Shall we?'' and gesturing to the door.
''Ok. Yes. Thank you.'' Darcy got to her feet with a sigh and then they walked outside into the cold evening air. Her teeth were chattering after about a minute. Loki seemed rather unaffected. ''Do you want my jacket again?'' he offered stiffly.
''No, that's fine.'' Darcy fumbled in her purse for another cigarette. Sticking it in her mouth, she looked over at him with an almost guilty expression. ''Don't tell Jane or anybody about the smoking, ok?'' she mumbled. ''It's just something I do in the winter.''
''I assure you,'' he said dryly, ''your secret is safe with me. Where do you live?''
He rolled his eyes. ''So I can take you home, obviously.''
''Oh,'' said Darcy, blinking and smoking, distracted by all of the lights. ''Just up this way a block or so. Thanks. So...you don't like parties, I take it.''
''Neither do you. I take it.''
''Just not in the winter.'' Her shoulders slumped a little against the chilly wind.
Loki removed his long coat and draped it firmly around her shoulders. ''It's cold,'' he said, then reached over and plucked the cigarette from between Darcy's lips and put it to his own before flicking it out into the street.
''Why aren't you cold?''
''It doesn't matter to me.'' He shrugged. ''I don't feel it, really.''
''Oh,'' she said. They stopped in front of a building on the corner. ''This is me.'' Darcy pointed upwards. The sleeve of Loki's coat practically covered her hand. She liked it though, big enough to hide in. And it smelled nice. Like snow and smoke and something else she couldn't place. Unfamiliar earth.
Suddenly, she felt very, very lonely.
''Would you like to come up for some coffee?'' she asked politely, expecting him to decline. To her great surprise, he nodded.
She led him through the door, over the weird, plum-colored carpets in the lobby and onto the rickety elevator that made an uncomfortable click-rattle-hiss sound as it moved. Darcy wondered vaguely if she should feel at all strange about this. The wondering made her even more tired, so she let it go as she opened the door and let them inside.
''Sit anywhere,'' she said, gesturing to the small sofa and few chairs, shrugging out of the coat and hanging it in the closet. Then she sank down onto the sofa. He joined her, after a moment. They sat like that, their elbows barely touching.
''Why don't you like the winter?'' he asked.
She took off her shoes. ''I want to like it,'' Darcy admitted. ''But I just get so...sort of blank. Tired. Depressed, I guess, but it's more of a numb. A lack of feeling, like I'm frozen. Nothing makes sense and everything moves real slow.''
Loki nodded. ''It's the darkness,'' he said, sounding very nearly sympathetic.
''Yeah, the light and the serotonin and the whatever in the brain.'' Darcy leaned her head back against the cushions. ''I should get a light box.''
''A light box. It's like...a special lampy thing with a bright light that you look at. Like artificial sunlight.''
''A box of sunlight.''
''Yeah. Fake sunlight. We've got lots of cool stuff here on Midnight, or whatever you guys call it.''
''Yeah, that.'' She looked at him. ''You know, the thing that bothers me the most is people asking 'what's wrong?' And I get that they care, but I don't really have an answer. Not everyone understands this. I keep getting told that I don't seem like myself. It's so frustrating. I'm just really tired.''
''Do you sleep?'' Loki asked, leaning just a little closer to her.
''Not well,'' Darcy admitted. ''That's the problem. I want to stay in bed all the time but I can't sleep at night. I wake up. In the dark.''
Silence followed. Then he said, ''I think that I can help. If...'' he continued, and she cocked an eyebrow and looked at him, ''you give me the next two nights.''
''What does that mean?''
''It means that I'll come to see you each night for the next two days, as the world continues to darken. I'll offer your mind some relief, see to it that you sleep well.''
''What's in it for you?'' Darcy stared at the ceiling. Loki didn't answer at first. ''I may be half-crazy, but I'm not stupid,'' she added.
''Let's just say that's not for you to worry about. You won't be harmed in any way, you have my word. Quite the opposite.''
''Fine,'' she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. At that moment, Darcy was so bewildered and fatigued that she might have offered up her soul for a few night's rest, for the creeping near-madness in her head to quiet.
She thought she heard Loki laugh and then felt the brush of fingertips against her forehead. A quiet calm began to spread over Darcy; she found herself relaxing and some of the crackling under her skull eased. Then a cool and inky darkness surrounded her and the next thing she knew it was morning and she was in bed. The curtains let in a cold, gray light. Her head felt surprisingly less heavy. Darcy blinked, momentarily unable to remember how she had gotten home. Yes, there it was: the memory swam up, gasping to the surface. She'd walked with Loki. And then she'd invited him upstairs and they'd sat on the couch talking. Also, she vaguely remembered agreeing to something, but the whole night was rather foggy and illusive. Darcy considered that this all might have been a rather bizarre dream; possibly she'd gotten drunk and passed out at the party. Jane and Thor must have brought her back and dumped her into bed. But there was the curious absence of a hangover—no headache, no queasy, acidic stomach. She felt...weirdly well-rested. Turning over, she noticed a piece of paper on her night table. In neat, elegant handwriting it said: ''I'll see you tonight, after it gets dark.''
''Are we friends?'' Darcy asked, pouring two glasses of wine. She'd felt better for much of the day, but after the light began to fade from the sky she was filled with an uneasy emptiness, almost like a craving for something.
''Does it matter?'' Loki responded, taking one.
''I don't know. I guess not.'' She shrugged limply.
He studied her with his sharp green gaze. It felt like pinpricks along her skin, trying to stab her into alertness. ''You look like you're sleepwalking,'' Loki remarked.
''That's how I feel,'' Darcy said, drooping. She folded inward, set her head down on the counter. ''I'm glad you're here,'' she mumbled against the linoleum.
Strong hands gripped her shoulders, lifted her. ''Up you go,'' he said firmly.
Her head lolled back, she looked him in the eyes. ''Is this how you typically spend your time?'' she asked him sardonically. ''Babysitting seasonal depressives?''
''That's really no concern of yours,'' Loki said, loosening his hold on her. ''I can leave if you want.'' He sounded almost hurt. ''I'll just let you alone with your thoughts...''
''No!'' she said, the word like a bullet. His eyes softened.
''You're like a dream,'' she noted, looking him over as if seeing him for the first time.
''Yes, a winter dream,'' he chuckled. ''You've gone utterly mad, and I'm not really here now.'' He grinned, showing his teeth.
''Don't joke about that,'' she snapped, and a light briefly came back into her eyes, flaring away the fog. ''Even if I was crazy, I'd never be able to concoct anything this strange. Why would I imagine you?'' she added pointedly.
The grin dropped off his face, collapsing his lips into a thin, sneering line. ''I don't know,'' he said rather bitterly. ''Why would you?'' He moved away from Darcy, the cloud over her head pressed down violently, threatening to close in.
''No,'' she said again, pressing her fingers to her temples, trying to hang onto the crisp lucidity he could inexplicably give her.
Loki's hands came down over hers, pulled them away from her face, holding them almost gently. ''Winter is unforgiving,'' he explained, leading her over to the couch and helping her to sit down. ''It can be cruel and icy. Winter is hard to love. It has few devotees, so it will take what it can get. Dark, cold things so desire company, but it rarely comes willingly.''
Darcy thought of bare trees scratching at a grey-white sky, of glistening snow, of smoke-like breath hanging in the air.
''It can be beautiful,'' she admitted. ''It can. That's not the problem. It's just the lack of light.''
''Why does it only affect some and not others?'' His tone was conversational, but Darcy could tell that Loki was trying to get at something.
She shrugged. ''Different brain chemistry? I don't know.''
''Perhaps, but I think it's more than that.''
Raising an eyebrow at this, she asked, ''You think that winter...selectively chooses people to be depressed by it? That makes no sense, and it negates years of medical research.''
''But your research hasn't gotten very far, has it? The best they can do is a box of fake sunlight.''
''That's the treatment that works!''
''So...'' Loki made a show of looking around the apartment. ''Where's your sun-box? If that's the 'treatment', then why are you sitting here with me instead of staring at the light?''
She looked down at the floor. ''I don't know.''
''You almost like it, don't you? Such a dangerous beauty there, in the darkness. Where everything seems so much more sharp and real. You like feeling the edges of it against your skin. Not everyone understands that desire. The push-and-pull. But you can't fight it. The relief will come at last when you slip down and let it take you under.''
Darcy wasn't sure why, but she moved forward then, as if in dizzying slow-motion, and brought her mouth against his. It reminded her of pressing her lips against a cold window. For just a half-moment, she felt Loki reciprocate, then he pulled away almost violently.
''Don't be stupid,'' he said, eyes blazing. ''You don't mean it. Not yet.''
Her head buzzed. Her stomach also hurt, just a little. ''Oh,'' Darcy said, blinking.
Loki gripped her suddenly, dragged her close to him. Bringing his hands up around the back of her head he threaded his fingers through her wavy tangle of dark hair and tugged a little—hard enough to make her really look at him. It was the realest thing she'd felt in weeks, like the cold sting of sleet along her skin. ''You have to mean it,'' he added softly, his lips less than a breath away from hers.
''Yes,'' she said, her head bobbing in a nod of understanding. He released her. ''Would you like to go to sleep now?'' Loki asked in a thick, sad-sounding voice.
He lightly put his arms around her, the touch full of pained restraint. She remembered the feeling of his hands on her, then she tumbled into dreams. Darcy dreamed of a silky, cold darkness that slithered possessively and insistently over her body, like icy lips. It held her, moved around her. She thought she saw a cold moon far off in a black night sky, snow and stars falling. Then it clutched at her even more tightly, pulled her under, kissed her. Savagely.
Her head and neck felt splintered. This was the worst night of the year—the darkness of the winter solstice made Darcy's mind fly apart with a violent beauty. She felt at the tipping point of near-catatonic fatigue and blistering agitation. He still hadn't arrived. She was beginning to believe that Loki was perhaps as heartless and sadistic as most supposed. Or perhaps she had dreamed him, all along, a phantom conjured by some need in her addled mind. Darcy rested her burning head against the cool window. Then she felt fingers on the back of her neck. ''Thank god,'' she whispered.
He gave a low chuckle. ''Not really.'' Loki turned her around to face him, his hand still against her throat. ''In a few hours,'' he said, absently stroking her skin, ''the light comes back. The darkness begins to die.'' Now he ran his fingers along her cheek, the gesture disturbingly affectionate. ''It will start to pull back from your mind. And you will begin to seem like yourself again,'' he added, sounding oddly pained. ''This is the very last time you're going to want me. Until next year. Oh, tomorrow you might, just a little, but something will slowly have begun to shift and I won't be anything to you come June. But in October, when you feel that first cold chill against your skin and the days grow darker, as the world around you begins to entomb itself, then you will start to think of me again. When late November creeps up and holds a knife to your pretty throat, letting you know that it really means it—then you will need me. And I will come to you.''
The burning in her head was getting worse. He brought his lips down next to hers. ''One last journey into the darkness, then.'' He almost smiled, but it might have been a shadow. ''If you will come willingly.'' In response, she kissed him, letting the cool relief slide over her skin, absorb into her blood. It was so dark. And cold. And quiet. And lovely.
She did forget, after that. It peeled away like layers of clothing. Darcy smiled again and nobody asked her what was wrong. Those few days in December were now safely encased in a dreamlike fog in the back of her mind. She vaguely remembered making some strange choices, but then again, she hadn't been feeling like herself.
Loki watched her all year, right from the moment she began to slip away. Summer was good to her, he noticed. And she did look so lovely when she smiled.
One day, in very late August, she and Jane took a ride out of the city to see a friend from the University. It was the last good day for swimming, they were told, and the house had a very large pool which would soon be closed up for the season. Darcy stood in her bathing suit, looking at the trees surrounding the water, how the leaves were already beginning to change thanks to a few cold nights, now the sunlight even looked different on the water. She shivered a little, not so much with chill but rather a strange familiarity that whispered up from the back of her mind. She felt it along her skin like fingers, it coaxed up some strange and haunted longing from the pit of her soul.
October began velvetly, an evening settling around her mind. Tremors ran through her more and more now when she looked at the changing sky, saw her breath begin to form in front of her face for the first time one morning. Impulsively, sometimes she pressed her lips against the cold glass of a window, not really understanding why.
Until one day in late, late November when the heavy numb buzz began in her head, when the darkness seized her gently, almost lovingly pulling her under. Everything began to look unreal again, bright and muted and too-shiny. It made her want ice, dreams, the crispness of snow, soothing cold hands against her skin. The demanding burn of winter had never pulled so hard before and she hated and craved it. But what was there to do but succumb, sink down down down until it possessed her, until she joined with it, until she wasn't herself. Until she was his again, for a few frozen days.