Shadow & Light

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surrender

Aurora

Morning. Early enough to still be dark outside. Dominic’s arm rests heavily against her waist. It is a comforting kind of weight, the kind that makes her want to breathe out and feel all the tension flood from her shoulders and curl in closer to his chest so she can listen more closely to the strong and steady thumping of his heart. The kind that makes her almost forget she is supposed to hate him.

She blinks away the blurriness in her eyes, pausing for a moment before pushing reluctantly at his chest in an attempt to release herself from his hold without waking him. She freezes as he shifts beside her, watching as his brows knit together while he searches the bed next to him blindly. When his hands find her abdomen, he pulls her back into his chest with a strength she wouldn’t think possible this early in the morning, an arm around her waist and a hand laced through her hair.

“Don’t leave,” he mumbles out softly into her hair, his voice thick with sleep. He presses his lips firmly to the side of her neck, breathing in deeply. “I can’t sleep if I’m not holding you.” His eyes remain closed though, and his breathing stays even.

He is asleep, she realizes. She can tell because his dark brows are relaxed for once, his eyes shut peacefully rather than open and piercing everything with their intense gaze. His lashes rest gently against the tan skin of his cheeks, tickling her softly from where he rests his forehead in her neck. There is a scar running down his arm, then another from the top of his shoulder to the center of his chest; it is jagged and angry-looking, the white scar tissue marring his chest in stark contrast to the tanned surface of his skin, the intricate tattoos which decorate the surface. He didn’t have them before, the scars or all the tattoos, but the last time she had seen him without a shirt on had been two nights before, and it had been dark then. And the last time before that was six years ago and a lot can happen in six years.

Still, he is beautiful. In an aching sort of way. She is glad in this moment that his eyes are shut because if they were open then he would probably run his hand over her back and through her hair. He would do this for a while, lose track of time. And when the silence stretched on for long enough he would begin to speak softly to her, in a voice reserved only for her and she would be gone. She would look at him without thinking because sometimes it still felt natural to listen to him, to be close to him, for him to wrap his arms around her and hold her like a paper doll who could at any moment slip through the spaces between atoms and never be seen again. His eyes would hold onto hers and she would forget to breathe.

But his eyes are closed now, and his chest rises and falls in a slow, steady rhythm against her shoulder, one that tells her he is most certainly not awake. And without his dark eyes on hers it is much easier to slide out from his hold and stand on the cool hardwood and slip on the gray sweat pants which had made their way onto the ground sometime the night before and tie the strings as tight as they can go and pace quietly through the giant hallway with the polished wood floors and towering ceilings until she finds a set of elegant glass doors which open to a balcony she hadn’t noticed when he carried her upstairs in the dark. She sees it now, though, and is extra careful to shut the door quietly behind her so that she doesn’t wake him.

For the first time in over a week, it isn’t snowing. Aurora turns her head up to face the dark, cloudy sky and breathes out softly, watching as her breath clouds the air above her. The ice which covers the surface freezes through the fabric of her socks as she crosses the balcony to the rail where she sits and slides her legs through the openings, gripping tightly to the posts on each side of her so she doesn’t fall. The frozen ocean is a short walk from here, the white waves crashing and sliding against every inch of the icy shore.

She closes her eyes and breathes through her nose and out through her mouth so the pain is in the back of her head. She thinks about comets and impact events. She thinks about the ocean, how the moon is most but not entirely responsible for forming its tides, how the sun’s gravitational force on Earth is only forty-six percent that of the moon even though the sun’s diameter is four hundred times larger, how something so small can have such a devastating impact simply because it is always so close. She thinks about Gabriel and how she’d promised to make him pancakes, how he’ll stumble clumsily up the stairs and into her room, slip under her covers to slide between her arms only to find her bed empty. She thinks about her father and how he would never leave for work without letting her tie his tie first, and how, if he had only just stayed alive, Mama would never have driven the knife through her heart and left her only daughter to find her lifeless body on the bathroom floor.

And then maybe Dominic could have stayed her best friend instead of becoming her everything.

As if on cue, Aurora hears the glass door creak open behind her. She doesn’t bother with turning to meet his eyes.

Dominic’s steps are cautious, she can practically feel his conflict as he steps closer to where her legs dangle off the edge. He kneels down beside her like she is six years old and he is bending down to her height and introducing himself all over again. If only this were that easy.

She turns and looks up to face him. His chest rises and falls rapidly, as though he’d sprinted all the way here. He releases a tense breath before a forcing a smile.

“You scared the hell out of me,” he says.

She turns her head back so she is staring out at the ocean. She hears him shift behind her until his hands are gripping tightly the sides of her waist. “Alright, baby girl, back inside.”

Her arms grip the post on her side but she knows it won’t stop him from prying her away if he truly wants to. Still she shakes her head defiantly enough to make him pause for a moment.

“Just a little longer,” she pleads softly without facing him, “I want to watch the sun rise.”

He pauses for a moment with what seems like conflict, when in reality he is gone the moment she pleads softly with him. How could he ever deny her?

He smooths her shirt down around her waist and moves to sit down beside her, his shoulders tensing as he tries hard to ignore the flushed skin of her cheeks and nose from the bitter cold. She only wants to watch the sun rise.

Aurora can’t deny that it felt odd sitting without him next to her like he had been for the past few days. When you live with something long enough, it’s weird when it changes. But they sit together in silence and suddenly the night before and every day before that feel like a vague dream where she had something to say to him even if it was only to yell at him. Now she is painfully awake and there is nothing.

“Do you always watch the sunrise?” His voice is deeper when he isn’t yelling at her or commanding her, rich and melodic and resonating deep within his chest.

She lifts her shoulders lightly in a shrug and leans her head against the cold wood. The sun is just beginning to peak over the edge of the horizon, bathing the frozen water in a beaming golden light. “Not always.”

“Not always,” he repeats quietly to himself, his eyes focused intently on the water in front of them. “Today is special, then?”

She hums in the back of her throat, watching the faint colors diffuse through the water. “Not special. Just different.”

“Why’s that?”

“I needed to clear my head.”

“Of...?”

Her hands gripping tightly the wooden posts, she turns to look at him.

You. Her precious brown eyes say to him. I needed to clear my head of you.

She says nothing, turning back silently toward the water. Her arms tremble with the task of holding herself steady so she doesn’t tumble to the frozen ground two stories below, yet she can’t bring herself to tear her tired eyes away. He lifts his calloused hand to tuck her hair behind her ear only for her to flinch away from him. His heart clenches painfully in his chest.

“I won’t hurt you,” he murmurs, with enough conviction to almost make her forget why she feared him in the first place. “Nothing’s going to hurt you ever again. Not while I’m here.”

And her eyes are on him again. Looking straight through him in a way no one else could even if he allowed it.

“You being here hurts me.”

The words are meant to hurt him and that hurts almost more than it would if she had meant them.

The sun has risen almost completely. She sees him beside her, his dark features and empty promises and finds herself struggling, hardly for the first time, against a competing image, one of a tall and lanky boy who looks and acts older than he is, sprinting down the icy pavement of a new town she doesn’t know the streets of, sprinting straight into her or her into him, it’s blurry now, but he clutches her tightly in his arms even as she struggles naively against him, painfully unaware of just how important this boy is going to be. He is warm and he is kind and he is hers and he looks hauntingly similar to the man next to her now, the color of his eyes alternating between a dark and golden brown as the rapidly moving sun brings him from light into shadow and shadow into light.

And she is backing away. Scrambling to her feet and stumbling backwards toward the glass door. He rises slowly to his feet, watching her carefully.

“Baby-”

She rests a trembling hand on the cool door handle.

“Aurora.” He speaks her name like a warning.

She opens the door quickly, trying to close it behind her only for Dominic to fling it back open. He steps inside and slams it shut behind him, grabbing her wrist and tugging her back to stand in front of him.

“I want to go home,” she says before he can say anything. He shakes his head.

“Not until we figure this out.”

“That will take forever.”

“I have forever.”

Her face is flushed in anger as she tries to tug her wrists from his hold. “Dominic, let go.”

“No.”

“You’re absolutely impossible.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“You probably deserved it!”

“You missed me,” he says, ignoring her efforts entirely. Just last night she had rested her little head against his chest and calmed his mind and heart in the tide of her breathing. One step forward; he would wrap her in his arms and drag her with him before he let her take two steps back. “You said so, remember? When you were slamming your fists at my chest, you said you missed me when I was gone.”

She shakes her head, trying to block out his words by shutting her eyes. “I don’t care,” she digs her feet into the ground and tries to pry his fingers away. “I don’t care what I said, you’re confusing me.”

“You missed me,” he says again, trying hard to disregard her attempts to shut him out. How her every effort to push him away seeps through the cracks in his heart and burns him from the inside. “And I’m here now, see? I’m right here. And I love you. Isn’t that enough?”

With one last tug at her wrists he lets her go willingly. She stumbles back a few steps before staring up at him.

“Isn’t it, Aurora?”

She has nothing to say to him. He always knows exactly what to say, how to make himself out to be the patient and loving one, the one without any fault who did everything right. She turns away from him and toward the long hallway, only for him to grab her waist and turn her to face him.

“Don’t walk away from me.”

She tugs her arm away. “Don’t talk to me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m a child!”

“Maybe if you would listen to me like an adult, I wouldn’t have to.”

“You never listen to me!”

“I’m listening, Aurora!” his voice rises suddenly, echoing darkly through the wide hallway. “I’m listening to you tell me you hate me, that I hurt you, that you don’t want me here, that it would be easier if I stopped loving you- and it fucking hurts!”

Dominic always was the strong one. He could make anyone tremble in fear with only his eyes, but he hardly ever shouted, always knew the right thing to say. Even now, every word he speaks steals the air out of her lungs while he keeps his composure.

“But you didn’t think that was possible did you? You thought nothing could ever hurt me? Is that right?”

She clenches her fists at her sides, red rimmed eyes staring deeply at him like she wants to be anywhere else but right here. But he would take her anger. Her frustration. He realizes in this moment that he would even take her hatred if it meant he didn’t have to experience her indifference.

“Go ahead, Aurora! Tell me how you feel!” he steps closer, lifting his arms in surrender. “Scream at me, hit me again if that’s what you need! Tell me how it felt to lose the only person that promised to be there for you. I’ll tell you how it felt to do what was right for both of us, knowing you’d hate me for it. Go on!” he’s yelling now. “Shout at me, call me names, tell me that none of it was enough. Let’s have this argument we should have had five years ago!”

Silence. He waits for her to look away. For some sign in her eyes that she’s rehearsing in her mind what she could say to make him regret ever living. But there’s nothing there but heartbreak.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she breathes out, so quietly he has to pray to her God that he didn’t imagine it. The only other sound is the faint echo of the ocean outside, crashing against the shore with an even rhythm that makes each second pass like an eon.

“Leaving you,” he says, “hurt me.”

And he knows her next question before she even asks it. He can see it in the way her brows knit together as she stares at him like he is one of the books she was assigned in first grade, the ones that used to make her tug frustratedly at the ends of her loose braids until Dominic would sit down and read through them with her, one word at a time.

“Then why did you leave?

It’s an emotional rather than logical question. One which asserts that a man’s ambition and a young girl’s love add up to silence.

He backs away, turning toward the glass wall which faces the ocean. He slides his hands into the pockets of his sweats, his eyes calculating, focusing forward at the frozen shore but seeing something different. For once he can’t bring himself to meet her eyes.

“I left because I had nothing to give to you,” he says, the words burning like acid on his tongue. “And that hurt more.”

“Dominic,” she speaks his name like an apology.

She steps closer to him, cautiously, like at any moment he could punch through the glass just to watch it shatter in front of them. He doesn’t. He keeps his focus forward on the tide, his shoulders tensing as Aurora approaches him quietly.

She places her cold hand gently on his neck, and he is already gone.

“Dom,” she murmurs softly, begging for his attention, for his eyes to be soft again. He clenches his eyes shut, breathing in deeply and shaking his head.

“Please,” she asks.

His eyes are bloodshot, her heart clenches at the pain in them.

“You’re mine, Aurora,” he breathes out, gripping the side of her neck tightly but not enough to hurt. “I can’t lose you. And I won’t.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me you understand.”

“I understand.”

“You’re the only good thing about my life.”

“Dominic-”

“I’m nothing,” he says, leaning down and burying his face in her shoulder. She tries to pry him away so that she can meet his eyes only for his hands to wrap around her waist and hold her in place.

“That’s not true.”

“It is,” his lips brush against her shoulder as he speaks, his dark curls brushing against the side of her cheek. “It is and I thank your God every single day that you can’t see that.”

She shakes her head in a defiance that looks a lot like resignation.

“The longer I was away from you, the more I saw it. I knew the moment you started resenting me for leaving. I called before your art show your freshman year and I could hear it in your voice on the phone but you tried so hard to hide it, and then suddenly it hurt to even be around you because you were trying so hard to understand-”

“Dominic, I was fourteen,” she says, running her hand gently along the side of his cheek. “Of course I wanted you there, but I understood why you couldn’t be. I didn’t resent you for leaving. I resented you for never coming back.”

“You started hating me,” he says quietly, mostly to himself now. “I knew it then, too. After graduation, when I got that first internship, I thought I would come back and that we’d be okay, but then...”

She watches silently as his brows knit together, in fascination as his blood shot eyes stare intently out the window and his fists clench tightly at his sides, so hard that his palms turn white. She looks back up to him to see him focusing that same intense gaze on her.

“But then?” she asks.

But then you were sixteen, he wants to say. You were sixteen and suddenly I needed you differently.

But she wouldn’t understand. She could never understand what it is to look at a tiny girl with flushed cheeks and teary eyes and see your entire future laid out in front of you, what it is to have that same girl stare up at you like you hold the answer to every question her innocent mind could conjure up. It’s a simple question, really, a simple question with a really complicated answer- but how could he ever deny her?

“Then it wasn’t enough to just be enough for you,” he says, his voice is lower now, suppressed. “I needed to be everything to you. Because the more I was gone, the more you hated me, and the more I needed to be for you to love me again. I wouldn’t come back until I knew you could love me again.”

She laces her arms around his abdomen and holds him as tightly as she can. They stay this way for a moment, Dominic shaking his head against her shoulder until Aurora steps back slightly, lacing her hand gently through his dark curls and prying his head away from her shoulder. She braces his jaw in her small hands and forces his tired eyes onto hers.

“I see it now, ” he is saying before she can even speak. The words spill out before he can stop them, his composure shattering more and more with each one. “You would have loved me if I had just stayed and been no one for you. I see that now, Aurora, and I love you so much for that. But it wouldn’t have made it right.”

“Why not?” she asks quietly, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. “Why wouldn’t it have been right?”

“Because I would’ve been taking advantage of you.”

She shakes her head emphatically, trying to back away from him only for him to lean down and brace his hands firmly against her neck.

“That wouldn’t have been fair to you, Aurora.”

Aurora rests her head softly against his chest, her ear against his heartbeat. Her fingers grip tightly the fabric of his gray t-shirt and she feels the warmth of his chest through the fabric and it sends a chill down her spine but in a comforting way.

“You’re scary when you yell.”

“I’m sorry, baby.”

“Can you just stay now?” her precious voice settles between the cracks in his heart and his every nerve has an impulse. “I want you to stay, Dominic, please.”

The next moment his hands are beneath her arms and he is lifting her up onto his chest and gripping her tightly, burying his head inside her neck. He presses his lips against her skin, breathing in deeply and clutching her tightly to him the way he’s wanted to since the moment he saw her in her bedroom on her birthday.

“I’m never leaving you,” he speaks each word with an overwhelming conviction, one she can’t entirely wrap her mind around. “Never again.”

“Do you promise?”

His eyes clench shut in something between pain and overwhelming joy. When he opens them again she is looking expectantly at him, her chocolate eyes staring innocently into his, her long, dark hair tucked messily behind her ears as he holds her on his waist. God, she is so beautiful, how can she be so beautiful?

“Dom?”

“I promise,” he says finally, lifting his pinky to meet hers. He locks them together, bringing her hand up to his mouth and pressing his lips firmly against the inside of her wrist, gripping tightly even when her cheeks flush a bright red. There is something about his lips against her pulse that is incredibly intimate.

He shuts his eyes for a moment before opening her hand and guiding it to rest on his cheek, beneath his own.

“I love you, Aurora.”

She doesn’t say it back. She doesn’t say anything. But she doesn’t flinch away when he runs his thumb along the soft surface of her cheek and for now that is more than enough.

Dominic

Aurora slept the entire ride back, her dark waves tumbling messily around her shoulders, her chest rising and falling softly beneath her sweater. He can still picture the early sunlight covering her face and hair, even now as he holds her hand tightly in his own and walks with her up the paved steps to the group home.

She rubs her fists tiredly against her eyes as he turns the key into the lock, the door creaking open with a soft familiarity that makes him pause for a moment in the door before pulling Aurora gently inside with him.

Dominic is just untying Aurora’s scarf when Miss Amy makes her presence known by clearing her throat in the entryway.

Aurora looks nervously to Dominic in front of her, who turns briefly toward Miss Amy before returning to the task of undoing her scarf and coat. He hangs them up silently in the coat closet before returning to her side and facing Miss Amy.

“Where’s Junie and Christian?” Miss Amy asks before either of them can speak, arms crossed and dark hair piled messily atop her head.

“Probably still at Olivia’s-”

“Don’t you lie to me, Aurora Davis,” she cuts in, speaking her name with enough anger to make up for the fact that she is only thirty-six and not exactly the face of intimidation. “Junie and Christian were home last night at three AM, why weren’t you with them?”

He can feel the way Aurora’s hand trembles lightly in his own. He slides his arm comfortingly around her waist and she leans into him, almost like second nature. Miss Amy’s eyes focus intently on their proximity with an emotion Aurora can’t put a name to.

“She was with me, Amy. Aurora, would you go upstairs for a minute?” he directs the question toward her, but his eyes remain focused on Miss Amy. Aurora looks confusedly between the two of them. When she pauses by his side for long enough, Dominic turns toward her with a look that says I’m telling you to go upstairs.

Her brows knit together stubbornly but he doesn’t budge. With one last look between them, she reaches her hand into his back pocket to grab her phone and disappears upstairs.

He turns toward Miss Amy, who turns on her heel and storms into the kitchen. He isn’t sure if this is an invitation to follow her but he takes it as one, leaning against the wall as she tidies an already clean countertop.

“I picked her up from that party and I made her stay the night. She did nothing wrong, I didn’t give her a choice.”

He purposefully leaves out the part about getting shot at.

“You put her in a lot of danger doing that, Dominic.”

“Do you know where I found her the other night?” he interjects, raising his brows as Miss Amy looks at him in confusion but also distrust.

“The night it stormed and you were waiting for her in the kitchen when we got back, do you know where I found her?”

She crosses her arms but says nothing.

“She was getting on a train for Cambridge from Hartford. It was pitch black out and she took the train to Hartford to give me back her birthday present. Alone.” He watches intently Miss Amy’s expression as she listens to him. “Do you let her take the train by herself?”

“That is none of your business!”

“None of my business?” he asks, his voice calm and steady, even as she raises hers. “She could have gotten lost, or hurt, someone could have taken her and it’s none of my business?”

“You forfeited any place in her life when you stopped speaking to her,” she says. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, and I certainly don’t have to justify my decisions on how I’ve raised her to you!”

Dominic shakes his head, stepping away from the doorframe as his shoulders tense as if preparing for a fight not against her but against an idea.

“My paying for her school, paying for her to have new clothes when she needed, paying for legal help so you could guarantee custody, that was me reserving my place in her life. I forfeited nothing.”

Amy is silent for a moment after that. Her brows knit together as she thinks deeply about something. Strands of her dark hair fall from the loose knot at the top of her head, framing her still youthful face. She looks young for thirty-six. But it seems as though this moment has aged her.

He speaks when she doesn’t.

“I’m taking her to New York with me. This weekend.”

Her tired eyes snap up to his, anger flooding them again.

“No.”

“I wasn’t asking your permission.”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“She is eighteen years old, Amy.”

Silence. Miss Amy runs her hands down the length of her face before grasping them together in front of her. She stares intently out the window where Christian has been playing with the younger kids in the fresh snow for the last hour. He takes Aspen onto his shoulders and runs away from Gabriel who chases them, falling over every couple steps into the snow. She turns back to face him; it seems like just yesterday Dominic was doing the same with Aurora but now he is here telling her he is taking her away and this will only be the beginning because she can see the look in his eyes and it’s the same look he got when he was accepted to business school, the one that says I know what I want and it’s as good as mine.

“The precious girl up there,” she points to the stairway Aurora had disappeared through just minutes before. “That’s my baby.”

He nods understandingly. “I know.”

“She’s cried enough over you.”

“I know.”

“I want you out of this house, Dominic.”

He flinches slightly but quickly regains his composure.

“I’ll leave,” he says, backing away and sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “And then I’ll come back. She’ll come to New York with me, and I’ll bring her back here. And nothing will change except that she’ll learn to tolerate me again and then maybe you could do the same.”

With one last look at her, he turns toward the doorway before glancing back over his shoulder.

“Because who the fuck was I, right? Trying to provide for everyone.”

He walks out without another word. Through the empty hallway and the front entryway. He digs his keys out from his coat pocket and shoves it frustratedly into the lock before something catches his attention from the corner of his eye.

There, her nervous gaze fixed intently on him, her stocking clad feet shifting nervously on the stairway, is Aurora. Their eyes meet suddenly and she wrings her hands together to keep them from fiddling with the loose strands of her hair and reveal her nerves even more.

Slowly, silently, he removes the key from the lock and stuffs it back inside his coat pocket. He walks quietly toward the stairway, his eyes not leaving hers as he stops inside the stairway and walks up the first two steps to stand at her same height.

He opens his mouth to speak but Aurora beats him to it.

“You only told me to go upstairs for a minute,” she says, watching carefully as a tiny smile teases the edge of his lips.

“You’d make a great lawyer someday.”

She scrunches her nose adorably before shaking her head. He looks down to the ground and laughs under his breath before grabbing her hand in his and starting up the stairs. She trails behind him.

First floor. Second floor. Third. When they reach the room they used to share he opens the door and shuts it behind them, staying behind as she crosses the room and plops down into her desk chair, spinning one, two, three times. When the world balances steadily on its axis again she tilts her head up to look at him leaning against her dresser, looking thoughtfully at her. It’s his default setting, she decides: either thoughtful or pensive.

She slides to a sitting position and crosses her legs beneath herself.

“She missed you a lot, you know,” she says, referring to the conversation she’d overheard between Dominic and Miss Amy. She watches intently as his expression doesn’t change at all, save for a slight raise of his brow.

“Did she?”

She nods. “She used to stand by the phone and start to dial your cell, but then she’d always change her mind.”

“I see.” Please never stop speaking, he thinks to himself. How long has it been since she spoke this freely with him?

“You hardly called her, though.”

He nods.

“Why?”

The way her chocolate eyes stare so innocently up at him. The way she tilts her slightly as she searches him for answers. Each a thing he hopes never to forget.

“There are some things,” he says, focusing his eyes out the window, “that I am meant to know, and you are meant not to worry about.” Immediately, he sees the disappointment flash across her eyes and he smiles sadly. “I’m sure you keep similar things from me. The scrapes and bruises all over your knees, for example. I’d like to know where they’re from,” he watches intently as she stretches her socks to cover the angry bruises and redness. His eyes meet hers again. “Would you tell me, if I asked you?”

She pauses for a moment before shaking her head lightly.

“We’re even, then.”

“Are you really bringing me with you to New York?”

“If that’s okay.”

“It doesn’t sound okay with Miss Amy.”

“I’m not asking Miss Amy,” he says, but there is still an unmistakable gentleness in his expression despite his tone. “I’m asking you.”

“What will we do there?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“You’ll like this one.”

“Please just tell me?”

He smiles but only with his eyes, before crossing over to her and lifting her up and off of the chair. He braces her beneath her arms and stands her on top of her bed so they are the same height, his hands bracing her neck lightly.

“There are some things that I am meant to know-”

“And I am meant not to worry about,” she finishes.

“I love you,” he says.

Her brows knit together lightly before she regains her composure.

“You hardly know me.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I know you very well. And you know me.”

Aurora

Just like the last five days, Dominic showed up early that Monday morning before anyone else in the group home was awake. He took the long way around the city, the one with the view of the water partly so that Aurora wouldn’t be too early to school, but mostly so that he could glance over at her every couple minutes and see her legs folded beneath her as she stared out the window, the rising sun bathing her face and hair in a beaming golden light.

The effects of that quiet drive manifest in the blush on her cheeks and smile in her eyes as she walks down the hall after third period and into the lunchroom to see Olivia, Junie, Leo, Christian, and Everett sitting at their usual table at the end of the long corridor; Everett meets her eyes from across the large room and suddenly the events of the other night all come rushing back.

No one’s watching, baby.

She freezes for a moment before Everett waves her over, his usual carefree smile plastered on his face. Her legs move on their own accord, bringing her towards her friends.

“Angel!” Everett smiles excitedly as she reaches the table. He pats her usual spot between him and Leo and she eyes him confusedly. He doesn’t seem to notice or it just doesn’t bother him.

She forces a smile and slides into her seat, pulling out the sandwich she packed from home. On Mondays they served chicken salad sandwiches, and Aurora couldn’t stand them.

Her mind mutes out all the conversations around her as she becomes uncomfortably aware of Everett’s presence beside her, the sleeve of his sweater brushing against her shoulder. His arm draped around her shoulders as he tries to get her attention.

“Aurora?” he asks, bringing her back to Earth. She looks up to see this half of the table staring curiously at her. “What’s wrong?”

Had she imagined everything the night at Luca’s party? Was Everett really drunk enough to not remember it? She turns to face him, his eyes displaying a genuine concern that usually comforts her but in this moment, causes a certain unease to settle in her chest as she looks up at him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” she says finally. “I- I was thinking about something for English that I might have forgotten-”

“Our presentation tomorrow,” he cuts in, “For Hamlet. You should come over after school so we can work on it.”

Conversation has resumed around them, save for Leo, who stares silently at his phone. She can see him glance skeptically toward them out of the corner of his eye, and maybe that’s why she says,

“Sure, that sounds good.”

Because maybe she did imagine everything. Maybe it was all just some weird dream and she and Everett would be fine. He speaks across the table to Ezra about the game this Friday, his hand resting casually on her thigh and inching up only slightly before settling where it normally does.

Loosen up, Aurora.

She can’t.


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