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Winter's Heart

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It’s winter, outside, not that you could tell by looking at the city. Snow doesn’t fall here, any more. It’s just a humid mass of toxic poisons. Unrelenting. She didn’t know how she knows. It wasn’t the length of daylight, for the smog blocked out the sun, and there was hardly a change to the décor or temperature inside. Winter fell like a chill upon her soul, and even looking at the scorching tones of the world outside, she couldn’t get warm.

 

Doug wraps his arms around her shoulders, as they look out together through those vast windows that cover every wall of the office. In summer, she would push him off, unable to stand the close physical contact. His soul is as cold as hers, now, growing colder day by day, and put together it hits her tenfold, but something about sharing the weight between them made it easier, even if it was heavier than what she bore alone.

 

“It’s getting close to the solstice,” he said, as if she didn’t know, as if that was the only reason he hadn’t been shoved on to the ground for daring to touch her. The crime lord of Metropolis has a reputation to uphold, after all, and there’s ever the fear of watching eyes in this dark city.

 

“She’ll be back,” she whispers, an answer to a question unasked. “She’s never here beforehand, but she always comes back.” He doesn’t have the bond she does, memories flitting to when she held that sword in hand, the silver armor spiraling down her arm, but the doubts are equally theirs. She seems to leave longer each time. There’s always the fear that one year, she won’t come back.

 

“Feels like before,” he whispers in her ear, “like the old days. You never let me get this close, now.” He’s right, of course. Being this close to anyone, physically, emotionally, it sets off warning bells ringing in her ears. It’s the perfect opportunity for him to betray her.

 

He may betray her in any other season, but in winter, in winter they are bound together by more than the past memories, than necessity and usefulness.

 

“How far, before?” she asks him, gently, when normally it would be a sharp rebuke. “We never were like this, in the old days.” That’s what before means, to the rest of the world. It’s before everything ended, back when there were colorful heroes fighting monsters and saving the day. For her, before is earlier, back before Japan.

 

“The three of us, in that ratty apartment, while I pushed my way through law school, and you started building this.” He leaves other things unsaid. Back when we were scared and weak. Back when we were friends, still. Back before they made all those dark promises that lead them down this path.

 

She misses it, not normally, but here, in winter, it drifts from her memories. She doesn’t miss the feeling of being young and scared, of having seen the world destroyed and everyone she loved gone with it. She doesn’t miss the weakness. But, for all her power, she misses when Illyana was Illyana, when Doug was Doug, and when she still went by Kitty.

 

It’s all fake, of course, that version of her died long ago, back in Japan, and hung on for far too long, pretending. Just because it wasn’t real doesn’t mean it wasn’t lovely.

 

Back then, she would have hugged him back, or kissed him, or turned to other things, but here and now she lets him wrap his arms around her. There’s nothing to do. There never is. Her power is complete, and half the city falls to her, so many deputies and followers and people for every single task. Maybe that’s why she just stands there, because waiting with Doug is a step above waiting alone.

 

Winter grows deeper, the solstice approaches, and she abandons the office with its empty space and large windows for the bedroom, curled up in silk sheets and heavy blankets that do nothing to warm her soul, no matter how much she curls in to them. There are no windows here, no watching eyes, just warm lights and a sense of endlessness, a lack of understanding towards the passage of time. The clocks have long since been smashed aside, useless in this place.

 

Illyana arrives in a graceful step, in fire rising up around her. She is in that demon form, as the Darkchilde, red skin with wide horns and silver armor, cloven feet and a pointed tail, the epitome of every stereotype, the ultimate devil. Her human self falls back in place, cut off from that hellrealm, the armor falling, the sword vanishing, the demonic traits rescinding and her skin back to pink colored flesh. The circle of light disappears, and she falls, exhausted. The magic on Earth is weak, she said, long ago, especially compared to Limbo. Each passing, it hits her harder, the loss of that demonic grace. She is at her weakest, bare of everything, crumpled on the ground.

 

“What day is it?” she asks, for Limbo has no passing of time, at least, not in the same sense. She pulls herself up, ashamed only by the fact she must show weakness towards the pair of them, that they had to be here, lying in wait for her inglorious return.

 

It’s Doug who pulls out his phone to check the day, because even now he can’t be separated from the world outside. “Two days til the Solstice,” he says, which is all that matters. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you for being early, or chide you for being late.”

 

Illyana growls, inhuman, teeth bared and snarling, but the moment passes quickly, and she stands up, forever elegant, and falls down gently in to the rustled sheets of that huge bed. “Two days. Have you finished the preparations?” She sprawls, hands stretched between the sheets, savoring in the smoothness and the softness and the things that Limbo does not allow her.

 

“How long have we been doing this?” Kit asks, not bothering to waste the energy to sit up. “Everything has been prepared for. All we were waiting on was you.” Doug sets the phone aside, and they are left in that dark and rosy glow, staring up at a blank ceiling, limbs entangled in that mess of cloth.

 

In summer, they are full of warmth and they grow cold. Energy and passion, and they act cruel. The games they play then, at that solstice, are ones they never dreamt of in the before, not before Japan, or before the world fell, or in that ratty old apartment. But here, in winter, they are full of chill, and in that cold they grow warm. Fall in to the same old patterns. It isn’t what it used to be, of course. It isn’t love. But it fills the slot regardless, a level of closeness that forgoes most monikers.

 

They are at their weakest, before the solstice, all three of them, although it hits Illyana hardest. That is why she runs away to Limbo, Kit surmises. There, even at her weakest, she is powerful. Kit’s power is in connections, in fear, in human people, at least, that’s all her power is now, the other withered from disuse. Now, she forgoes all of that secrecy and all of those bonds, left weak and alone with only the pair of them. Doug’s power is in language and knowledge and words, and so often the closer they get the quieter he becomes, speaking more honestly and with less of that slick lawyer designed charm.

 

When the moment of the solstice comes, they sit together in that dark room with only candle light to guide, and with a knife held every year for so many turns. They make their cuts in places where none shall see the scars. Doug’s blood is human red, Illyana’s seems demonically black, although perhaps that’s just the lighting. She never stares down to see what her own looks like, only looking at it after it has been mixed inside that worn old bowl. She doesn’t want to know if she is more human or more demon. No need to break whatever illusions she still clings too.

 

Illyana chants, and they sit together, the three of them, forever bond. It is an oath of fealty, one that Kit is sure both of them have figured out a hundred work arounds too and haven’t shared. It is a link of power, and they grow strong together, stronger than any one person ever could. It is a blessing of shadows, as the darkness itself guards them from the ever-watchful eyes that prowl the city. More than that, however, it is a bond, unbreakable between the three of them, the thing that forgoes description and names and rings and others involving themselves. Their blood renews it, mixing, tying them to each other fast renewed, tying them to the contract even more so.

 

She doesn’t know what happens to them, in the final moment of the preceding, when the flames rise up, but she falls back in to the shadows and faces a demon long defeated, only to find the demon is herself. When she awakes, she looks just as human, leg bandaged and sprawled across the floor, smelling smoke and incense, but her mind is slowly falling in to darkness. They sit up, renewed, without that nagging chill and without that horrid weakness, eyes sharp. Back are the three of them, the predators that rule the city, replenished and sharpened and whatever else has happened on that eerie solstice night.

 

They do not part, exactly, because neither Illyana nor Doug is far from her side, her ever constant advisers in her shadow rule over the city. But in a way, they leave each other on that solstice, taking another step away from the people that they used to be.

 

It’s for the best. This world, if it saw them, soft and weak and open, it would rip out their souls and destroy them as easily as shredding tissue paper. There are no tears cried, for the children who grew up too fast. It was their choice, in the end, to put survival over the lesson of a man who helped to bring about the end of the world and died because of it. No regrets, for the distance between them, for the lack of trust and unity that at one point made them strong.

 

Time marches forward, slowly, trying it’s best to rise from this putrid, stagnating hell it has become. They march forward too, away from winter, back out in to the spring.