Shadow & Light

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six feet under

Dominic Carter; 24 years old

In the past four months, Dominic Carter has traveled the commute between Sicily and Andalusia enough to assess the value of hundreds of locations, the mosaic columned structures of the Alhambra, the Moorish architecture in the south of Spain with its marble walls and central courtyards with delicately carved fountains and tiles, the castles of Castile, the Byzantine mosaics of Palermo.

The ten-year-old boy inside him only ever dreamed of nights like these, when he had enough money to travel the world, to wander aimlessly through the moonlit streets of Barcelona, to board a private jet in Paris and wake up in Milan. To climb so quickly to the top, that the little boy who used to sleep on a concrete floor in Brooklyn and wait for a mother who never comes back was nothing but a meaningless prelude to some other life, maybe from a movie he watched when he was younger.

But nothing Dominic does these days is aimless. Everyday is another negotiation, another advance. And despite making it to the top, that young boy, that worthless waste of space, is as present as every beat of his heart, always teetering at the edge of his subconscious.

Boarding the private jet back to New York City, knowing the packed schedule which awaits him only tightens the growing knot in the pit of his abdomen. But an even more pressing issue, one that has gradually forced its way to the forefront of his mind, loosens it.

January 23

The day before her birthday.

He runs a tense hand through the dark strands of his hair, pulling on the ends, before running his palms against the stubble which lines his jaw. As the plane emerges into the expanse of the night sky, the glowing city of Barcelona grows increasingly smaller, until it disappears entirely from not only his sight, but his mind.

Aurora Davis tends to have the opposite effect. The further he travels from her, the more her absence weighs upon him.

He imagines it quite like a star missing the darkness each morning, missing something intangible like her sweet smile, her melodic laugh when she would grip her little fists tightly to his shoulders while he spun her in the air above him.

He loved the way she could control him entirely with just one look, how he could make her smile and laugh so effortlessly, how she loved him so purely, so innocently, and never asked for anything in return. She taught him how to love, and he loved her twice as fiercely.

And he never stopped. Even if she did.

You left her, not the other way around.

He shakes his head in frustration. His security team rivals that of the U.S. president; he flies with two planes in tow so it’s unclear which one he boards, he travels alongside dozens of uniformed officers who shadow his every movement. Aurora, though, is still his most intricately protected secret, his most guarded possession. In spite of this, every mile he travels away from her, he feels he is abandoning something.

He leans his head against the leather headrest and shuts his eyes. Scotch burns warmly in the pit of his stomach as he runs his palms down the length of his Armani trousers, the suit jacket strewn across the only other seat beside him.

He wonders what she’s doing right now. If she’s drawing, if she’s smiling, if she still roams the house with charcoal smeared across her face and hands, acrylic paint dried in the loose strands of her braids.

If she misses him too.

He shakes his head. In a few hours, he will find out for himself.

Down the hall, office desk, third drawer down from the left.

Dominic repeats the steps in his head like a mantra, the buttons in the private elevator lighting individually as he approaches the top floor.

The moment the doors slide open, all eyes are on him. One cold glare turns everyone’s attention back to their respective conversations or paperwork.

“Mr. Carter?”

Down the hall, office desk, third drawer down from the left.

“Tristan Scott called in for 5:30, Mr. Carter.”

Dominic continues down the hall towards his private office, not sparing the secretary a glance.

“Push it. I don’t have time.”

“But your schedule has an opening-”

He halts abruptly, his hand pressed against the cold metal of the door handle.

“And I believe I said, I don’t have time.”

He enters his office, shutting the door behind him. The afternoon is bright enough, late sunlight glides through windows lining the walls, but the drawn curtains block most of it.

He circles the desk, before kneeling down in front of it.

Third drawer down from the left.

It’s been months since he last worked behind this desk, but it’s design is still second nature. His long fingers trail across the various nobs in the dark, until he finds the handle he is searching for.

Click.

The drawer slides open, and with it, the wrapped gift Dominic arranged for during his last trip to Italy. He lifts it out of the drawer with both hands, shutting it with his knee and moving to stand, placing the wrapped gift gently on top of the desk’s polished surface.

A knock sounds at the door.

“Yes?”

The new operations manager, he thinks his name is Evan Carson, though it could be Ethan Carson, pushes the door open hesitantly. At the sight of Dominic’s impatient nod, he speaks.

“The deed to the plot south of the Girona Province, Mr. Carter,” he waves the packet in the air. When Dominic makes no move to take it from him, he walks over to the desk and places it gently atop the mass of paperwork.

He looks up nervously.

“Is that all?” Dominic’s deep, cold voice pierces through the dark room. The young man runs his hands restlessly along the seams of his pants.

“Sir, I’m not sure if you’ve heard... I don’t think it’s common knowledge, though I may be mistaken. You very easily might be aware.”

He wrings his hands together, staring intently at the polished flooring.

“Do not waste my time, Carson.”

Dominic’s voice is tensely calm. In fact, he hardly ever raises his voice. He doesn’t need to. With one cold look he has everyone in his control, people scrambling to follow his every order.

Carson nods hastily. “It’s the Moretti account, sir. The company’s temporary head is taking steps to unfreeze it.”

For a moment, genuine surprise flashes across Dominic’s dark eyes, before being replaced by cold indifference.

“It’s being handed down,” the young manager finishes. He sets another, thicker file atop the land deed, prying his laptop screen open with one hand to an open tab. He gestures to the financial data report of the company, before Dominic turns the screen to examine it himself. “The account is set to be active now that the appointed heir is authorized.”

Dominic runs a tense hand along the stubble of his jaw, tired eyes scanning the screen. “Authorized?” he murmurs under his breath.

After a few tense moments, he steps back and turns to face the window, the noise of the bustling city below muffled by the glass, snowflakes catching on the frozen surface before disappearing into the growing thin sheet of ice. Walter Moretti, in the years before his death, was a reigning business magnate. The best of his practice. At his passing, the details of his will forced his company into a period of stagnation, should his child be too young to take up the business.

The issue was, Walter Moretti died young. He was killed in a jet crash before having children.

“You’re new here, Carson.” It’s more of a statement than a question.

“Yes, sir. This is my third week.”

Dominic nods, turning away from the window to face him, the light from the glass reflecting onto the planes of his jaw, casting shadows across his tanned skin. In this light, he is even more intimidating.

“I want you to find out everything you can about Moretti’s inheritor. If the account truly is opening, I’m interested in buying.”

The young man nods, backing away towards the door. “Should we draw up the contract now, Mr. Carter?”

Dominic straightens his tie. A ghost of a smile dances across his lips. It’s the look he gets when he is about to claim something.

“No. I have a prior commitment to attend to.”

Aurora Davis; 18 years old

Aurora stares tiredly through the third floor window. She watches as delicate flakes of ice cling to the glass, reflecting the early morning sunrise off of their surface. Few cars drive past; the ones that do, tread carefully, their headlights dulled by the falling snow as they drive down the narrow roads. Even fewer pedestrians roam the streets, the city riding out the lull of January with inactivity, as if everything seeks to establish a certain grounding as the new year settles in.

The air is so cold that, when she exhales, her breath fogs up nearly the whole side of the window. She tightens her grip around the blankets, turning over onto her other side to face a sleeping Junie, both girls enveloped in the mountain of wool blankets that Ms. Amy placed atop Aurora’s bed the night before.

Junie’s room is technically down the hall, connected to Aurora’s through their shared bathroom. But Junie always snuck down the hall and into her room when Aurora had nightmares, which seemed to be occurring more frequently in the past couple months.

Aurora rests her eyes, reveling just a few moments longer in the peace of the winter morning and the warmth of her best friend. When she knows she won’t be able to sleep any longer, she carefully unravels herself from Junie’s arms, tucking the blankets more tightly around her and sliding out from the covers.

A chill tickles her spine as her bare feet hit the cold floor. Pacing tiredly to her dresser, her thin fingers curl gently around the handles and pull slowly, to not wake Junie. She picks out what she needs, pushing the drawer shut and flicking on the bathroom light to change.

She pulls on her uniform: stockings, skirt, sweater, before brushing her teeth and then hair, which is still slightly cool to the touch from sleeping on it right after washing it. After pinning back a lock of the long, wavy strands, she shuts off the light, walking back to her dresser and reaching for the locket which lies on top. Clipping it in place around her neck, the pendant falls to rest in the center of her chest. The weight of his locket against her heart is comforting in a way in which his absence isn’t.

She turns it over in her hand, rubbing her thumb mindlessly against the surface. Stepping out of the room and into the short hallway, Aurora shuts the door gently behind her and starts down the wooden stairs of the group home.

Third floor, second floor, first.

She hops down the last two steps, enjoying the feeling of her heart skipping just before landing, even in her stocking clad feet. Ms. Amy, if she were awake, would shoot her a glare. She would say, you’ll give me a heart attack one of these days, little one.

Starting up the stove, she grabs two frying pans from the cabinet underneath and butters them. It’s a Monday, so she figures Ms. Amy might want to sleep in another thirty minutes or so. While eggs are frying on one stove, she sprinkles some seasoning over chopped potatoes and throws them on the other pan, enjoying the immediate sizzling, like cracking ice. She hums a soft tune under her breath, one that she makes up as she goes, so distracted by the crackling of the stove and the soft scraping of falling snow resonating through the chimney, that she doesn’t notice the small boy beside her until he is tugging on the end of her skirt.

Gabriel blinks tiredly, rubbing his tiny fists over his bright blue eyes.

“Happy birthday, Rora!” he whisper-yells, in the endearing way that small children do when trying to speak quietly. She smiles softly, bracing her hands under his arms and lifting him onto her waist.

“Thank you, Gabriel. Would you like to help me with breakfast?”

He nods excitedly, making grabby hands at the wooden spatula which she holds in her other hand. She hands it to him, and he flips the eggs one by one, just like she taught him. When he is finished, he smiles, looking to her for approval.

She giggles softly, running a gentle hand through the disheveled strands of his soft hair. Gabriel shuts his eyes. His mother used to do this.

“My little chef.”

Gabriel’s hair is too light to be blonde, white enough to be the absence of color itself. The soft strands soak up the light of the early morning, nearly glowing.

Like an Angel, Aurora thinks.

Gabriel leans his soft cheek against her shoulder, watching silently as she finishes preparing breakfast. His little fingers play mindlessly with her heart-shaped locket, pulling the clasp open and shut, until suddenly, he pauses his actions, inspecting the open pendant in his palm.

“Aurora?”

Her eyes don’t leave the stove. “Hmm?”

He lifts the locket directly in front of her face. “Is this your prince?”

Her eyes widen in surprise, red tinting her cheeks. After a moment’s pause, she gently grasps the pendant between her fingers, rubbing her thumb softly over the picture of her and Dominic. He has just graduated high school; he is lifting her up above him, her hands braced against his shoulders as she laughs carelessly.

She shakes her head, smiling, though it doesn’t quite reach her soft brown eyes. “What do you mean, Gabriel?”

He blinks at her confusedly, as though it’s the simplest thing in the world. “Margot and Aspen told me that Princess Aurora meets her prince on her birthday.”

She stares at the photo for few moments.

She stands beside the boarding train, people rushing madly around them as Dominic kneels down in front of her. He wipes a traitor tear away from her cheek, grasping her small hands in his much larger ones

‘Can you feel it, baby? Beating right along side your heart?’

She presses her fingers gently against the golden locket.

‘Yes, Dom. I can feel it.’

He smiles.

‘I want you to keep it there, always. Every time you breathe I want you to feel it there. I don’t want you to forget, promise me you won’t forget, baby.’

‘I won’t forget, Dom. I promise.’

She clasps it shut gently, clutching the pendant tightly in her palm.

“Margot and Aspen have been watching too many princess movies.” She sets him onto his feet, crouching down in front of him and ruffling his white hair. “Why don’t you go wake the others?”

He nods reluctantly, pressing a quick kiss to the side of her cheek before racing up the stairs to wake the rest of the kids for school.

Aurora stands up straight, standing aimlessly in the center of the kitchen, rubbing her thumb and forefinger over the metal locket.

Leave you?

Never.

Aurora tunes out the sounds of rushed footsteps and conversations around her, a skill she’d mastered years ago. Dialing the combination to her locker, she clicks open the lock and empties the contents of her backpack, replacing them with her notes and textbooks for next period. She reaches up above her and stacks the other textbooks neatly on the top shelf, steadying herself to shut the door just as another, much larger arm reaches out from behind her and does it for her.

She jumps nervously, turning around in surprise just before she is lifted in the air. She giggles as Everett spins her round and round and round, before setting her back on the floor.

She smiles. “Morning, Ev,” blinking away the dizziness, she peaks around his shoulder to see Leo leaning against a locker a few feet behind, the jacket sleeves of his uniform rolled up to his forearms. “Hi, Leo.”

He just nods. Aurora used to get really nervous around Leo. She never liked to be alone with him, until she realized that he just isn’t really a people person. She’s pretty sure he at least sort of likes her.

“Happy birthday, Angel!” Everett practically shouts, startling the students around them. He either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, as he holds out a small, wrapped box in front of him.

Her eyes snap to the box, then back to him.

“Leo and I picked it out together!”

“No, we didn’t.”

Everett sends a sharp look at Leo, then turns back to face a blushing Aurora. “He’s lying!”

She lifts her hands gently, effectively silencing them both as she hesitantly takes the gift between her fingers

“Thank you, guys,” her sweet voice rings out between them. “You really didn’t have to.”

“Of course we did! You’ll never have another eighteenth birthday,” he reasons.

She nods with a laugh, glancing up to meet his bright green eyes, his jet black hair falling over them, before he brushes it away.

Aurora pulls the red ribbon loose, lifting open the lid to see a dainty gold chain. She lifts the bracelet into her hands, letting it dangle from her fingers to see five tiny, gold-plated stars wire wrapped onto the delicate chain.

Her soft brown eyes focus intently on the glimmering stars, before she smiles excitedly. “My favorite constellation.”

Everett nods happily. “Lyra. Has five major stars.” He lifts her wrist, fiddling with the small clasp before it clips into place and rests against her tan skin. “One for you, me, June, Christian, and Leo.”

She moves her hand left and right, admiring the way the stars move and swivel to catch the light.

“It’s beautiful,” she murmurs quietly. She laces her arms gently around Everett’s waist, and he hugs her back almost immediately. “Thank you,” she says, before she steps back and smiles.

She peaks around his shoulder over to Leo, approaching him nervously. His expression remains cold and distant, but his eyes soften a fraction.

“Thank you, Leo,” she stands on her tiptoes and presses a gentle kiss to his cheek.

He almost smiles.

Just as red begins to stain her cheeks, Everett is taking her hand in his and practically dragging her to the dining hall.

“Lunchtime!” he shouts excitedly. Leo rolls his eyes, following behind them before falling into step on Aurora’s other side. He rubs his hand gently across her back for the briefest moment before his arm falls back against his side.

“Happy birthday, Aurora.”

The dining hall at Concord Prep covers almost the entire second floor of the east wing. Long, hardwood tables span the entire length of the polished floor, all the way to the kitchen at the other end, which is partially visible through the window where the kitchen staff serves lunch. The large room is enveloped in warm lighting from the stained windows near the skylight and chandeliers which hang from the apex of ceiling.

Concord Prep is one of the most prestigious prep high schools on the east coast. Aurora and Junie, along with a few of the older kids from the group home attend, only thanks to a mysterious sum of financial support which arrives each month, which Ms. Amy insists is from the state.

“There they are,” Everett points to a section of the third table, towards the end. He grabs Aurora’s hand again and pulls her along.

Soon as they arrive, a chorus of happy birthdays rings out from the table, and Aurora’s cheeks flush immediately.

“Thank you,” she smiles.

Christian, another one of Aurora’s close friends from the group home, smiles up at her, he and Ezra scooting further down to make space for Aurora to sit between Leo and Everett, across from Junie. It’s the same everyday.

Olivia, one of Aurora’s friends who she met junior year slides into a seat across from Aurora, sliding a lunch tray in her direction.

“Happy birthday, Aurora!” she smiles.

The group begins to eat, splitting into a few different conversations.

“Are you excited for your party tonight, Aurora?” Ezra asks from across the table. He had just moved to Concord Prep from another prep school in Maryland a couple months ago, but quickly became pretty good friends with Everett and Christian. She looks up and nods politely, though the thought actually causes a pool of dread to settle in the pit of her stomach.

“Yeah! I know Miss Amy’s been working very hard. She hasn’t told me a lot of details, though.”

Junie joins in excitedly. “She’s been prepping the house and decorations for ages. She hung a bunch of string lights from the trellis, and our neighbor is gonna help set up patio heaters around the dance floor so we can dance outside. It looks beautiful!”

Her friends all begin talking excitedly around her. Aurora remembers a time when Ms. Amy could hardly afford to keep the indoor heater running in the whole house during winter. She remembers sneaking food from her house and into their pantry before she went into the system. She remembers the floors basically coming apart beneath them everywhere they walked. It all seems like ages ago. It hasn’t been that way since Ms. Amy got more money from the state, which was oddly around the same time they transferred schools.

“Do I really have to wear a tie?” Christian’s face scrunches up in disgust.

Junie shoots a knowing look to Olivia, before answering. “Yes, Christian. It’s one night.”

“You’ll be the only one not wearing one,” Olivia chides.

“Do you have any idea how many people are coming?” Everett asks from beside her.

Olivia shakes her head, her dark, shoulder-length hair swaying with the movement. “I sent out the Facebook invite to, like, everybody, and I lost count of how many people said they’re coming.”

While everyone chatters excitedly around them, Junie notices the saddened expression which crosses Aurora’s face almost undetectably. It turns into a smile, and then a laugh when Everett begins poking at her side, avoiding her hand as she tries to slap his arm away. He smiles as she surrenders, rubbing his hand over her hair before looking to Junie knowingly. He noticed too.

“What are you going to do with your hair tonight, Rora?” she asks, hoping to prompt her into conversation.

Before she can answer, Olivia is practically jumping out of her seat.

“Ooh, what if I bring all my stuff and we get ready together? Could I do your makeup? I’ve been dying to try a nude half cut crease on you! And then I could curl your hair!”

Christian and Everett roll their eyes.

Aurora smiles, trying to match Olivia’s excitement. She has no clue what cut crease means. “I’d love that, Olivia.”

Olivia claps her hands excitedly. “I’m so excited!”

Junie nods, watching intently as the smile slips from Aurora’s face. She makes a mental note to ask her about it later, before she is interrupted by a voice behind them.

“Is it really your birthday, Aurora?” Cassidy Morgan asks sweetly, a small group of friends stationed at her sides. Her short blonde hair falls in waves to her shoulders, her neatly manicured nails gripping the straps of her undoubtedly designer backpack.

A few of Aurora’s friends look skeptically at Cassidy, then back to Aurora with a knowing look.

She nods. “Yes, it’s really today,” she responds politely.

Cassidy looks to her friends in exaggerated surprise, before turning back to her. “Well, happy birthday, Aurora! Eighteen, huh? That’s a big year!”

She nods again, meeting her eyes confidently, just like Dominic taught her. She tucks a strand of her long, soft brown hair behind her ear.

Cassidy’s eyebrows furrow in mock concern. “Wait, now that you’re a legal adult, doesn’t that mean you can’t leech off the state anymore?”

A tense silence falls over the table, Cassidy’s friends turning to her in shock. She just smirks.

Aurora’s expression, however, remains kind. “I have aged out of foster care, but I’m still partially the state’s responsibility under Title I. Until I’m twenty-one.”

Cassidy’s expression falters, and when she speaks next, her voice is no longer sweet.

“So you still get to be Concord’s charity experiment, then?”

Junie stands immediately, slamming her hands against the table.

“I’m sorry, what did you just say?”

Everett laces an arm around Aurora’s waist and tucks her into his side. Christian and Ezra stand as well. Olivia’s jaw practically rests on the floor.

“I said-”

“We don’t need to hear it again.” Leo’s voice rings out for the first time all lunch. Everyone, even Cassidy, looks to him in shock. The confrontation has garnered attention all across the dining hall.

Leo stands, his eyes burning into Cassidy’s all the while. “Leave. No one wants you here.”

Cassidy stares defiantly back at him for a few tense seconds. Finally, she rolls her eyes, turning and stomping off in the other direction. Her friends quickly follow.

The rest of the room, however, remains tensely silent.

“What’s wrong?” Leo’s voice booms. “There’s nothing to see here!”

Gradually, nervous conversation resumes throughout, as the whole group slowly sits back down. Aurora isn’t the only one intimidated by Leo; not only does his father own a major law firm in Manhattan and have enough connections to ruin anyone’s life, but Leo himself can and has sent a student to the ER with his bare hands and gotten off with barely a warning.

And he’s not the only one with notable family. Olivia’s mother is one of the most successful neurosurgeons on the east coast. Everett’s father is a state senator in New York City. Ezra, who’s parents died when he was young, says that his his uncle owns a few airlines, but they’re all pretty sure he’s actually a mafia boss.

Christian, Junie, and Aurora, however, come from nothing, but once they put their uniforms on they’re all the same. The whole group, save for Ezra, has been inseparable since freshman year, and is quite well-known throughout the school.

Aurora stares silently at the table, along with everyone else. Everett’s fists are clenched so tightly in his lap that they almost look white. He tries to act like it doesn’t bother him, but Aurora knows that any ill-meaning statement made towards her, Junie, or Christian really upsets him. He’s always been overly protective of the three, particularly Aurora. Her naivety and unwavering kindness tends to draw that out in people.

Against his protests, she wiggles out of Everett’s hold and turns to Leo.

“Thank you, Leo,” her soft voice resonates across the table, breaking the silence. He stares silently at her for a moment before nodding gruffly.

“Sure.”

“Now can I look, Olivia?”

Olivia’s arm shoots out and latches on to Aurora’s wrist, just as she turns to face the mirror.

“No! You have to put your dress on first!”

Aurora giggles, shaking her head before turning back to face the window in her room. From here on the third floor, she can make out the buzz of music and laughter from below, where the party is in full swing; from the window, she can just make out the figures of people parking outside, brushing the snow off their winter coats, and entering through the front door.

The past couple hours have been spent with Olivia fussing over Aurora’s makeup, then hair, and now her dress. Junie, having finished getting ready twenty minutes ago, waits on Aurora’s bed, Olivia insisting that they all make a late entrance together. Her face is practically pressed against the cold window as she announces the names of all the people arriving. Aurora listens as Olivia opens her closet door, pulling out the dress she had set aside.

The dress was a soft white, with sheer sleeves that ended with cuffs at her wrists. The sheer, lace detail continued around to her back and down to her waistline, where the dress cinched in and flowed out, ending a few inches above her knees.

“Raise your arms up, really quick.”

Aurora did as she was told, Olivia slipping the dress on over her head, straightening out the front before moving to the other side.

As she does up the buttons, the sound of the door creaking open resonates throughout the room.

The three girls turn to see two small figures in the doorway, smiling excitedly.

Junie shifts from her post beside the window, turning to face the girls. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?” she chides.

Aspen shifts nervously on her feet, curling a strand of her blonde hair around in her hand. Margot, however, steps further into the room.

“We wanted to see you in your dress, Aurora!”

Aurora smiles, just before Olivia grabs her shoulder, turning her to face the mirror and resting her head contentedly on her shoulder.

Her brown hair is curled softly, tumbling down her waist and against her back in soft waves, the pinned strands framing her face. She raises a cold hand to her cheeks, smiling as she sees that, despite the amount of time Olivia put into her makeup, it still looks very natural, with soft blush dusted across her lightly freckled cheeks and a nude lip gloss coating her lips. She feels beautiful.

She turns to face Olivia, her eyes lighting up as she smiles. “Thank you so much, Liv.”

“You look beautiful, Rora!” Aspen’s shy voice rings out.

“Thank you, sweet.”

“Like a princess!” Margot adds, her fiery red hair ruffled from the whole ten minutes she probably spent asleep.

Aurora’s melodic laugh fills the air. She turns to the girls. “Thank you! But you two better get to bed before Miss Amy finds you.”

“Too late!” Their pouts turn to giggles as Miss Amy sneaks up from behind them, grabbing both girls from the waist and lifting them up into her arms. She steps further into the room, scanning Aurora up and down. Her eyes soften in pride.

“Aurora, you look lovely, dear.” She blushes.

Miss Amy turns to Olivia, who rests her hands atop the black tulle of her dress, which flows out past the gold detail above it.

“Nice to see you again, Olivia.” Olivia nods, smiling politely. “You girls all look beautiful.” A chorus of thank you’s resonates throughout the bedroom.

She turns towards the clock. “Well, I’m taking these two to bed. Everything is set up downstairs, if you need anything, let me know!”

“Thank you, Miss Amy!”

She turns towards the hallway with Margot and Aspen in tow, before turning back towards the bedroom. “Oh, and you know the rules. If anyone brings alcohol, don’t drink it. And mind your safety, rules-”

“-manners and morals,” Aurora and Junie finish in unison. “We will, Miss Amy. Promise.” Aurora insists.

Miss Amy smiles, tears gathering in her eyes almost undetectably. “Alright, girls. You have fun. And happy birthday, sweet girl.”

“Thank you, Miss Amy.”

The door shuts softly behind them.

“Can we go down there now, Olivia?” Junie pleads.

Olivia looks to the clock for a moment before she nods. The next moment, Junie is practically tumbling off of the bed and rushing towards the door, her blonde hair bouncing against her blue lace dress in soft curls.

“Luca Conti got here twenty minutes ago, and I call dibs!”

Aurora maintains a steady grip on the banister, her movements so even, so fluid that she resembles a ghost, drifting gracefully down the wooden steps.

Second floor.

Around the other side of the banister lies the last set of stairs, leading to the first floor where the atmosphere has shifted from nonstop chatter and laughter to quiet, excited murmurs, Olivia and Junie having sped down the steps ahead of her and immersed themselves somewhere into the crowd.

She inhales a calming breath, holding it. Five, six, seven, eight, until she can feel her heart pacing less frantically in her chest. She knows what’s coming. She circles the banister, descending the first couple steps before the entire first floor erupts into a chorus of happy birthday to you.

She smiles, red flushing the expanse of her freckled cheeks all the way down to her neck as she stares intently at each step down the stairs, sneaking a shy look after every couple words of the song before focusing her gaze back on the ground.

She has never seen the home so full, so beautiful. The warmth of the moment floods her heart, tracing through her nerves and lighting up her eyes. She is radiant, emanating light like a glowing Angel.

As the song finishes, the crowd parts, and Caspar steps forward, his light brown hair gelled back neatly to frame his youthful face. He holds a cupcake in his hands, the candle atop it flickering from the movement.

Aurora rushes forward, blowing out the candle before stepping into his warm, familiar embrace. Everyone cheers, and the music and conversation gradually resumes around them, half the company returning outside to dance.

“I missed you, Cas,” she murmurs into his chest. He holds her tighter.

“I missed you too, sweetheart. Happy birthday.”

She nods, smiling.

He steps back, setting aside the pastry and straightening his tie dramatically before offering his hand.

“Could I have this dance, Princess Aurora?”

She slides her hand into his larger one, laughing carelessly as he all but drags her out to the back patio.

Almost instantly, the cool air pierces Aurora’s skin through the sheer sleeves of her dress, but the displeasure gradually lessens as Caspar leads her out to the center of the dance floor, where the air is much warmer.

She looks up above her, at the array of string lights which descend beautifully from the trellised ceiling, dangling down like falling stars. Caspar tilts his head above them as well, before turning back to meet her eyes, her cheeks glowing underneath the hanging lights.

He laces his hands around her waist, while she lifts her arms to rest gently against his neck. While the music plays, they sway gently to the soft beat, and Aurora scans his face closely. She hasn’t seen him in three months.

He is paler than the last time she saw him, his cheeks slightly more sunken in, the flickering lights above them casting shadows upon the dark circles which rest underneath his tired eyes. His seemingly carefree smile still manages to brighten his eyes slightly, though she can still see the exhaustion plaguing his expression.

“You’ve been working too much,” she states, more to herself than to anyone. Caspar, like Dominic, has done quite well for himself, far better than any orphaned boy would be expected to do. He owns his own software company, which thrives in partnership with Dominic’s firm, and had done so since graduating college. He probably has countless other things to be doing besides being here, but Caspar comes to every one of her birthday parties. As does his business partner.

His smile morphs into a sort of grimace, and he nods. “It’s been a long month. I’m closing a deal with a manufacturing company in Manhattan.”

Her eyes widen in concern; she didn’t even know. “Can’t you take a break after you’re done?” she asks hopefully.

He smiles softly, ruffling her hair gently. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, princess.”

She nods in understanding, turning her gaze towards the floor before Caspar gently lifts her chin between his thumb and forefinger. “I don’t want you worrying your pretty little head over me and Dom, princess. That’s our job.”

The sound of his name stings like a fresh bruise in her chest. If she shuts her eyes and listens close, she can almost hear his soft voice singing her to sleep. She can feel his hand envelop hers and guide her down Charter street, before the urge becomes too great to lift her up into his arms. But when she opens her eyes again, she can only think of how he left her and never looked back.

“I’m not worried about Dominic,” she states, as coldly as she can manage.

If Caspar catches the lie, he doesn’t show it, instead looking down at her with a pained expression.

“He loves you, Aurora. He really does.”

Aurora takes a step back, tugging her hands gently, but firmly from Caspar’s hold.

“He hates me.”

Caspar’s eyes soften in concern. “You really believe that, Aurora?”

Before she can answer, someone tugs gently on Aurora’s arm and she turns towards them. It’s Everett.

She turns back to face Caspar, who’s eyes focus on Everett’s grip on her arm in what looks like concern. He lifts his eyes to hers.

“Go ahead, Princess Aurora. We’ll be seeing much more of each other soon enough.”

Before she can dwell too much on his cryptic goodbye, Everett is tugging her towards Christian and Olivia, who move along together to the upbeat tempo of the music. “We were looking all over for you!” he practically yells over the noise.

She smiles up at him apologetically, before he takes her hands in his and starts dancing, his movements silly and unpredictable, just to make her laugh. It works quite well, and soon the four of them are out of breath from jumping and swinging each other around.

They continue like this for the next couple of songs, their circle of friends expanding to a group of eleven or twelve people, all students from Concord, though Aurora can only name a few.

As the last song transitions into another, Aurora rests her hand on the sleeve of Everett’s suit jacket.

“I’m going to go get something to drink, Ev. I’ll be right back.”

He turns toward her, leaning down to her level. “Are you alright going on your own?” he asks in concern.

She smiles. “It’s my house, Ev.”

He holds his hands up in surrender, with a shrug. “Just making sure, Angel.”

The crowd parts quite easily for her as she passes, and it’s not long before she is using both arms to pry open the heavy screen door. She hadn’t realized just how cold it was outside until the heat from inside tingles across her arms and the tip of her nose, her cheeks surely turning red from the exposure.

Music plays more softly inside as well, the ceilings and walls strung with lights to match the ones outside, a long table stocked with desserts and a hot chocolate dispenser, and a makeshift background for pictures, a small polaroid camera set on the table beside it. People talk together all throughout the kitchen and front room, over the bass of the music outside. Aurora brushes past a few more groups of people, responding to countless different happy birthday’s as she does so, towards the dessert table, where she pours herself a small glass of ice water.

Turning around to take a sip, she nearly chokes as her eyes catch on the tall, muscular figure of the man who just entered through the front door. From across the house, she watches in disbelief as he brushes the snow gently off his shoulders, sliding off his coat and hanging it on the coat rack as though it belonged there, as though he’d never even left. Under his arm he holds a neatly wrapped gift; he runs his free hand through his dark brown hair, which is gelled back neatly, and nearly looks black. He is devastatingly handsome, the ease in his dark expression infuriates her, how he acts as if he doesn’t even notice the attention he attracts, both male and female.

She falters, taking a shaky step back, as though retracting from a dream that she desperately hopes is not real.

He can’t see you. The room is dark, you could run up the stairs to your room and he wouldn’t even know.

She shakes her head.

He would look for you. Your room used to be his, he’d know just where to go.

“That’s Dominic Carter,” is the conclusive murmur she hears among the crowd. Dominic must hear it too, as he turns his gaze towards the main room of the party, across the house. His gaze immediately focuses on her, his eyes seeking hers out so quickly, as though he knew she had been standing right there, waiting there for him.

His eyes scan her entire figure leisurely, as though he is committing every single inch of her to memory. His eyes meet hers again, a smirk teasing the corner of his lips.

The next moment, she is sprinting up the stairs.

Her heart pounds so frantically in her chest, but she makes not attempt to calm it down, instead letting it match the rhythm of each step she takes.

Maybe he didn’t see you.

As she reaches her room on the third floor, she rushes inside, shutting the door gently behind her and leaning against it for a moment.

Maybe you imagined the entire thing.

She shuts her eyes for a brief moment, remembering her thirteenth birthday, the one after he left. For the first couple months, he had visited almost every other week. He helped her with homework, called her every night before bed. After November, the calls became less and less frequent, before stopping entirely. When he walked through the door on her birthday, she held him so tightly, clinging to him almost the whole day, worried he would disappear again. If she knew she was right, she would have held him tighter.

Her fourteenth was easier. He had hardly visited them that year: once at Christmas and again on her and Junie’s junior high graduation. She knew not to expect him to stay. Her heart clenches at the memory of her fifteenth birthday, the same year her mother died. She remembers his pained expression when she smiled politely at him, thanking him for the Macbook Air that he somehow knew she wanted, before wrapping it back up and hiding it in his car later the same evening. He must have found it the next morning, because it arrived back at the house the following day, with a note demanding she never return one of his gifts again.

She remembers her sixteenth, and how he lifted her up in his arms, spinning her one, two, three times, as though he’d never even left. He called her baby, he called her love. She told him to call her Aurora.

On her seventeenth, he approached her by the lakeside, a charming smile on his face and a diamond necklace in his hands. He told her that he missed her, that he wished he could make her understand.

She didn’t say a word. She didn’t cry until he left.

Aurora clenches her eyes shut, wiping a traitor tear from her cheek and releasing a shaky breath. When she’s sure no one has followed her up the stairs, she walks toward her bed, sitting on top of her white covers and folding her legs underneath her. She slides open the window to let the cool air calm her racing heart and flushed cheeks.

She hates how he still has so much control over her, and how she has none over him. She hates being a burden to him, a living memory of the past he worked so hard to leave behind. She hates how easy it is for him to leave.

A chill runs down her spine from the freezing cold air, yet she only curls her legs tighter beneath her, resting her head against the side of the open window.

She watches as the snow falls heavily outside, so caught up in her memories that she doesn’t hear the door creak open behind her. His soft, raspy voice, the same one that used to sing her to sleep, the one that would tell her he loved her, to the edge of the universe and back, calls out from behind her.

“Hiding from me, baby?”

She turns to face him, his muscular arms folded across his chest as he leans casually against the doorframe. He smirks knowingly.

“You’re gonna have to try a little harder than that.”

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