Shadow & Light

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stranglehold

Aurora

She doesn’t turn back. She doesn’t see him reach mindlessly for her wrist, and she doesn’t see him stop himself, force himself to just watch as she walks away from him and through the door which is too heavy to slam behind her; she turns and leans her back against it, anchoring her feet against the ground and forcing it shut.

She tugs anxiously at the knitted scarf until her neck is finally bare, then shrugs Dominic’s jacket off next, throwing both into the coat closet until she is left in only her school sweater and dress, yet still she feels unbearably warm.

Almost mindlessly, she stumbles through the empty kitchen toward the back patio door. She had lied to Everett earlier, when she told him she had to help Miss Amy at home. The guilt at doing so had settled in the pit of her stomach, and returns for the briefest moment as she remembers the hurt in his expression.

The patio door rattles along the doorframe as she shuts it behind her. She trudges quickly through the fresh snow, soaking her thick stockings almost instantly as her legs pace mindlessly toward the thick forest of trees ahead.

The air settles beneath the canopy of leaves where the snow falls less heavily, catching on the branches high above her. Once the forest engulfs her completely, she quickens her pace to a run. The towering woods seem to reach up and wrap around the dark sky, blurring together in one mass of color as she sprints past. The few loose branches which do nick at her freezing legs hardly bother her; it was winter anyway, and her stockings would cover anything. Cuts and bruises would be fine. She can handle that.

Scrapes leave ugly marks, Aurora. She can hear her mother’s disproving tone.

She sucks in a breath. “I’m sorry, Mama.”

She runs until she reaches the lake which spans the length of nearly half a mile across, nestled peacefully in the shadows of the surrounding trees which tower so high and grow so densely that she feels even smaller than she always does.

Gripping her small hands to the sides of a familiar tree, she uses all her strength to lift herself up, her shaking legs swinging around each branch like second nature as she climbs.

“You’ll wreck your pretty little hands, climbing trees all the time.”

I know, Mama. I know.

She climbs until she is too far up to jump down, but not so far that she is afraid to climb down. She swings her legs over the branch, watching as they dangle down.

“Look. Ugly bruises all over your arms. What will Dominic say?”

Stop it, Mama. I understand.

“What would Papa say?”

“I said stop it!” her voice echoes across the dark clearing, muffled slightly by the falling snow.

She hears the quiver in her voice, feels the cold wind where it tingles against the wet skin of her cheeks. It isn’t until she lifts her fingers to her face that she realizes she is crying.

She wipes angrily at the stubborn tears which stream down her face and neck. She can’t cry. Dominic would never cry if he was in her place. He would keep a straight head.

Your tears are precious, baby, he had said on her thirteenth birthday, when she jumped into his strong arms and buried her head into his chest. Why are you wasting them on me?

The hurt in her chest is buried so deeply she can’t cry out. She leans back against the rough bark, her shallow breaths clouding the air in front of her before they dissipate and die. She looks down at the state of her torn stockings and cut up skin. The angry red mars nearly every inch of her pale legs, the soaked fabric of her stockings make each cut feel like it’s burning. She bites her lip as the pain settles over her.

Maybe this is why Dominic left. That would make sense, because life dealt her out after her father’s accident, but Dominic was always intelligent, so filled with promise and meaning, eventually he must have found it wasn’t enough to be everything to one person, that he had to be everything to everyone. All she had ever been was a sick reminder of a life which only ever squandered his every opportunity, so why did he ever love her in the first place?

Maybe the answer is that he never loved her. Maybe she was right to fear him in the beginning. Men like Dominic didn’t have time to waste on girls like Aurora, girls with bloody knees and torn stockings, who couldn’t write properly or cry properly. Maybe she just never had enough sense to realize that.

That makes sense. She’s got the answer all figured out, simple and neat and sensible.

And then she thinks about Dom, how he waited outside her classroom every day to bring her home, how he would brace her sides with his strong hands and lift her in his arms to spin her one, two, three times, how he beat Brennan Anderson to a bloody pulp when he pinned her against the locker and called her skitzo, forced him to apologize before he knocked him out cold. She thinks of how he sang to her, held her each night until she fell asleep tucked between his strong arms, and there is no more answer. If she were with him now, he would open his arms and lift her into his lap, run his calloused fingers through her hair and talk through it with her until everything she didn’t understand made perfect sense.

Now, there is nothing for her to do but to shut her eyes, to think about these things and organize them neatly in her mind so that everything could be clear and an answer deduced from there. But there is no answer because there is no pattern and all she could feel was that she was nothing to him: nothing compared to him, and of no importance to him.

She reaches mindlessly for a locket that isn’t there. She had given it back because he had broken his promise to her.

She curls up against the branch of her tree, leans her head back against the rough bark and clenches her eyes shut. The tears fall down the length of her cheeks and down her neck but she can’t find it in her to cry out. She wonders if he broke her too.

It is even darker than before when her eyes flutter open. She hadn’t fallen asleep, but her muscles all cramp together as though she had, her skin so cold from the piercing air that it nearly burns.

Slowly, carefully, she climbs back down the giant tree, balancing herself on shaking legs as she reaches the ground. She braces her hands against the bark and looks to the sky. The clouds are darker and angrier than before; it will storm soon.

Luckily, she knows the way back. The walk would be an easy one if it weren’t for the clenching of her muscles from the cold. She takes the walk slowly.

It feels like ages before she finally reaches home. A few lights are on inside, reflecting along the fresh snow in the back yard and glowing warmly. She rushes up the steps to the back patio and steps inside, the warm air enveloping her like a heavy blanket and tingling all along every inch of her skin.

The next moment, Christian comes rushing into the kitchen, his ocean eyes wide with panic, light brown hair sticking out in every direction. He is dressed for soccer practice, though his practice uniform is free of dirt and grass stains, as though he hadn’t played at all, which is odd considering practice would have been at 5 and its 6:15.

She expects him to tell her he fell asleep after school and forgot to wake up for practice, that Coach Valenzuela will be furious with him. She will tell him that maybe he can still make it for the end and make morning practice tomorrow and everything will probably be fine. No need to worry.

What she doesn’t expect is for him to run up to her, scoop her up into his shaking arms in one fluid motion.

Something’s wrong.

“C-Chris?” she murmurs nervously, melting easily into his comforting hold. “What’s wrong? Did-did you miss practice?”

He lets out the breath he’d been holding in something which sounds close to a laugh, but as he tightens his grip on her waist and head she knows it’s closer to a cry of relief.

“It’s okay if you did,” she rubs her hand comfortingly along his shoulder, “You-you never miss, Coach Val knows that.”

He leans her back in his arms, just enough to meet her eyes but not enough for her feet to touch the ground.

“Practice got canceled because of the storm, Rora,” his voice is low, raspy, as though he’d been yelling, or crying, but Christian never ever cried. “I tried calling you, but your phone was here... I couldn’t find you anywhere and the storm, I thought...”

He sets her gently onto the ground, his hands running down the length of her arms and examining her scraped hands in his own. “Aurora you’re freezing!”

She looks down at her fingers which are bright red from the sudden change in temperature.

“I... I am?”

His brows knit together in confusion, as he leans down to meet her at eye level. He brings a hand up to feel her forehead.

He releases a shaky breath and wraps his arm around her waist, leading her to the stairs “Why don’t you lay down, Rory? Miss Amy’s out with the kids buying groceries before the storm starts, and June is with Ezra at the bio review session at school. You’ll have some quiet until they get back.”

She is asleep against him before she can even answer.

Dominic

He takes the empty roads impossibly fast. His hands are bruised and sore: his right from punching a wall, his left from a bar fight the night before. Because of this he refrains from gripping the steering wheel too tightly. Instead, his pent up aggression manifests in his foot against the gas pedal.

The faster he drives, the heavier the still air weighs upon his shoulders. It takes every bit of his focus not to let his thoughts drift to her. They couldn’t move an inch without bumping into some piece of her.

It’s only 6 PM after leaving Aurora, but it looks much later. Storm clouds cover every inch of they sky, casting dark shadows along the oceanside. The sea glides along the side of the road at high tide, the waves tumbling forward to envelop the rocks on the icy shore and swallowing the ice flakes which seem to pour from the dark sky.

He was hurting her. He knew this, because he felt her hurt as though it was his own. When she tucked her bottom lip beneath her teeth and averted her eyes from his, he could feel her sadness and confusion in his chest.

He knows how it feels to be abandoned. He thinks of the cold, undersized boy with inky brown hair and ears too big for his face who slept on a concrete floor, crying for a father he never met, waiting for a mother who might have loved him if she could have put the needle down long enough to focus her cold, lifeless eyes and just look at him.

Did that make him like her, in a sense? Can neglect be inherited?

The blaring of his phone hardly brings him from his thoughts. It takes several rings for him to force his eyes away from the road and down to the screen on the dash to see Caspar’s name glowing there.

He answers wordlessly, his eyes falling back to the dark road and gray sky ahead. He can’t bring himself to offer any sort of greeting.

“Dominic.” Caspar’s voice resonates throughout the car. “You there?”

“I’m here, Caspar.”

A small part of him regrets how cold his voice sounds. A larger, more defeated part of him can’t find it in himself to care.

“Exchange Street, Providence. You near there?”

He was. Having just left Cambridge, he took route 16 until Auburndale, though he wasn’t quite sure why. After leaving Aurora at Amy’s, he’d had intentions to leave the Audi at his other house in Chatham and take the private plane to New York. It occurs to him now that he never stopped driving.

Exchange Street. He had an office there.

“Dominic?”

“I- Yeah, I’m driving there right now.” Lie.

“Driving?”

If he was being honest with himself, a small part of him didn’t trust himself in Chatham, so close to her. He needed to feel his foot against the gas pedal, to feel each mile he put between them or else he’d just turn around and go straight back to her, lace his bruised fingers through her impossibly soft hair and worship every precious inch of her skin with his hands and lips.

“Yeah. I’m getting on the 95. I’m an hour out.”

“You know you own half a building here?”

Anything he could say would sound entitled, pretentious. I forgot? Even if it was the honest truth. He could buy the entire city if he wanted.

“Yes, Caspar. That’s why I’m driving there. The fuck are you calling me for?”

A heavy sigh on the other end. Dominic can practically hear Caspar roll his eyes.

“I have the data check you needed on Walter Moretti. Ungrateful son of a bitch.”

If he was being honest, he’d forgotten about Moretti entirely until Caspar brought up the file.

It’s 7 PM now and completely dark outside, the floor to ceiling window offering no light as the snow storm rages in full swing. The light from his macbook screen casts shadows along the planes of his jaw, illuminating the darkness beneath his eyes and the stubble along his chin.

Walter Moretti reads the top of the page. Nothing more than a simple Google search; he left the intel hacking to Caspar, who should be here any minute.

Born: November 8, 1971, Corinaldo, Italy

Died: December 17, 2003, Lake Placid, NY

Nationality: Italian

Alma mater: Columbia University

Net worth: US$7.8 billion

Cause of death: Jet crash: drowning and other undetermined factors**

The last entry has a forced active link through the software Caspar installed on his computer, which expands on the information regarding his death, but everything else is limited to the Google search. He types in a series of codes to access the attached file, scanning quickly over the contents.

The door slams open as Caspar walks in, shutting it behind him before he throws a haphazard set of files onto Dominic’s desk.

“Are we even?” Caspar asks dryly, regarding last week when Dominic had to send him backup to a club in New York City. Caspar had gotten into a fight which quickly escalated into a media frenzy. It was 12 AM there, but 6 AM in Barcelona.

All to say, Dominic had not been too pleased.

“Depends. What did you find?”

A heavy sigh from Caspar as he slumps down into the leather seat across Dominic. He runs his hands through his dirty blonde hair, grabbing and pulling at the ends.

“It’s a really secure account. Whoever’s inheriting, they don’t want anyone to know.”

“So you didn’t find anything, then.”

His silence is answer enough.

“We’re not even, then.”

“Dom, c’mon!”

“Don’t,” he lets out a tense breath, “call me that,” he tosses the file back onto the polished wood of his desk. “It was fucking six in the morning, Caspar. I didn’t get home that night until three AM.”

“Next time I’ll just get pummeled alive, then. Is that what you want?” He stands, flattening the wrinkles in his suit jacket as he stands, slamming his hands on the desk dramatically. “Couldn’t you help your own brother out of the goodness of your heart?”

“Who said there was goodness in my heart?”

Caspar crosses his arms stubbornly. It’s the look he gets when he isn’t backing down.

“Who shoved Evan Morales down the stairs when he called you a half-breed? Huh? Who dragged your drunk ass home every night junior year at NYU, and who broke every protocol to make sure-”

Caspar’s speech is cut off by the sound of his personal phone, vibrating against the desk. Both of them look down at the glowing screen to see Aurora’s name, along with a picture of her and Caspar at his college graduation.

His eyes lose their humor suddenly, glancing up at Dominic who stares intently at the phone.

“Answer it.”

Caspar looks hesitantly between the phone screen and Dominic’s dark expression.

“I’ll call her back later.”

“Answer it.” The command is more forceful this time, leaving no room for Caspar to argue. “And put it on speaker.”

On the last ring, Caspar answers, lifting his eyes hesitantly to Dominic’s as he does so. He watches intently as the screen changes to count the seconds of the call.

Neither speaks a word.

“Cas?” her voice calls out in question.

The sweet innocence in that one question has Dominic clenching his fists at his sides as he forces himself not to take the phone.

“Caspar, are you there?”

“Y-yeah Aurora, I’m here.”

“Oh,” there is a muffled sound on the other end, like she was sitting up on her bed and just moved to lie down. “You’re busy, aren’t you? I can call back later...”

Caspar bites his lip in contemplation before speaking. “No, sweetheart, I’m not busy. Did you need something?”

There is silence for a moment before she sighs lightly, her voice softening even further. “No, not really. I... I’m not really sure why I called.”

She couldn’t sleep. That’s why she called.

“That’s alright, Princess Aurora. Why don’t you tell me whatever’s on your mind.”

More silence on the other end. Dominic can hear the window being propped open as she rests her head against the frame to clear her mind. He used to do the same thing.

“I’m sad, I think,” she says finally. The bed creaks as she moves atop it. “I’m also scared that the snow storm is gonna knock down the tree in the front yard. It would smash right into my window, probably.”

Caspar shakes his head, a sad smile teasing the edge of his lips. “That tree is rooted deep, it can handle a little wind,” he assures her. “Why are you sad?”

A pause. Aurora shuts the window and sinks down into her pillow.

“I just miss you is all.”

Caspar sees straight through the lie, and from the looks of it Dominic can too. Aurora Davis’ voice was not made to lie.

“I miss you too. I’ll call you out of school sometime next month, and we’ll have a Cas and Rora day, how’s that sound?”

She giggles softly, but it’s forced.

“That sounds good.”

The soft murmuring of conversation on the other end resonates through the phone. “I have to go, Cas. Christian thinks I’m running a fever and now Miss Amy wants to take my temperature.”

“Do you feel sick, princess?”

The phone shifts in her hand as she sighs in annoyance.

“No.”

“You lying to me?”

“No Cas, honest.”

His brows furrow in concern as he grabs the phone. “Okay then. Tell Miss Amy I’ll be by the house later next week.”

“I will. Bye Cas. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

He ends the call, looking up to gauge Dominic’s reaction. He looks deep in thought.

“You went to see her today, didn’t you?”

He nods, not pulling his gaze away from the phone.

“You can’t keep doing this to her, Dominic. It’s not right.”

That gets his attention. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“It’s not yours either.”

A warning look from Dominic has him glaring straight back. “She won’t forgive you easily. It’s not fair to her that you expect her to.”

“I don’t expect her to forgive me easily.”

“Right. You expect her to comply, regardless.”

“I don’t expect anything, Caspar!” Dominic’s voice raises to a yell, shocking Caspar into silence. He rarely ever raised his voice, never let his emotions get the best of him. If he didn’t know him any better, Caspar would think he didn’t have any.

Dominic stands abruptly, moving to pace in front of the window. He folds his hands together, pressing them against his mouth as he thinks deeply. He learned to expect nothing from everyone a long time ago, but Aurora was different. A small part of him expected her to never grow out of needing him.

“You love her, don’t you?”

His eyes are dark when they meet Caspar’s.

“What kind of fucking question is that?”

“I don’t mean like that,” his voice is soft like his eyes, and suddenly he is eighteen years old again, all new money, just like him, and the closest thing he had to a brother.

“I mean you love her more than you should.”

His mind works quickly, seeming to consider the gravity of what he’s just discovered.

Dominic just watches him intently.

“She isn’t ready for that, Dominic.”

He slips his hands into the pockets of his trousers. He knows this. It’s why he left. He had no intention of rushing anything, but she would be his. Willingly and happily. He would accept nothing less.

“I’m a patient man.”

“A patient man,” Caspar nearly laughs, but a piercing glare from Dominic has him thinking better of it. “You mean that?”

“For her? I’m willing to wait.”

“Are you prepared to wait long?”

“I’m prepared,” Dominic’s voice rises suddenly, “to wait until I can’t anymore.”

Aurora

“Aurora?”

Gabriel’s loud whisper fills the cold hallway. He rubs tiredly at his eyes with the back of his hands. “The sky is still asleep.”

She smiles, walking with quiet steps to where he stands outside his door. He reaches up for her and she lifts him into her arms. He grips tightly to the fabric of her uniform sweater, which makes it difficult to place him back into bed.

“I’m taking the train to school today, Gabriel. So I have to leave early.”

“So no pancakes?”

She smiles softly, shaking her head. “Tomorrow. I promise.”

He lifts his hand to lock his pinky with hers before rolling over onto his stomach. She sits on the edge of his bed, running her hand gently through the ruffled strands of his white-blonde hair until his breathing evens out and he is asleep again.

Pressing a soft kiss to the back of his head, she tucks the blanket back over him before walking quietly into the hallway.

She takes the stairs carefully, gripping the banister tightly so her stocking-clad feet don’t slip on the polished wood. She is halfway to the floor when she hears the sound of eggs frying on the stove and the groan of the coffee maker running.

Her heart sinks. She was hoping that Miss Amy wouldn’t be awake yet, that she could slip through the door and into the street to the metro and no one would ever know. Now, as she steps cautiously down the rest of the stairs, she rehearses the words in her head which she hoped she wouldn’t have to use.

I’ll stay with large groups, I’ll text you when I get on. I’ll text you when I get to school. You let Christian take the train when he was sixteen.

And she would have to let her go. She was eighteen now, a legal adult.

She walks into the kitchen the way Caspar taught her, back straight and chest out like a soldier. She paces quietly across the entryway, bracing her hands against the wall as she peaks her head around the corner.

A small voice on the back of her mind told her that Miss Amy only ever started breakfast when the sun had risen enough to mask the stars, that she would never be found cooking silently in the kitchen, that the sound of crackling atop the stove was always accompanied by the record player spinning Sinatra or Bobby Darin. So when the sight of Dominic meets her eyes, his large, muscular back tensing beneath his white dress shirt with the movement of his arms as he moves the wooden spatula atop the frying pan, she is many things, but not surprised.

He works fluently, his every movement made with both a mindless rhythm and an intense calculation. He has always worked this way.

“You shouldn’t stare, baby,” his low voice rasps over the sound of eggs frying on the stove. “It’s rude.”

When she doesn’t answer, he turns over his shoulder, his eyes running over the flushed skin of her lightly freckled cheeks. A smile teases his lips before he turns back around.

“That little blush,” he shakes his head. “Fucking precious.”

Slowly, cautiously, she steps further into the kitchen, her eyes watching him closely as she walks behind the counter. From here she can see the side of his face, the part that isn’t hidden by his floppy hair. The veins on his forearms tense with the movement of stirring what looks like chopped red potatoes. He shakes his head and laughs silently to himself and she realizes it’s because she’s staring again.

She climbs up onto the stool behind the counter. Her stocking-clad feet dangle back and forth as she stares down at her cut-up hands. A heavy silence settles over the kitchen as he cooks and Aurora tries not to stare. It is odd seeing him in this house after so long, like this new Dominic doesn’t belong here.

“You’re here to take me to school again,” she says finally, looking up to see him shut off the stove and reach for a plate. “Aren’t you?”

He nods, using a wooden spatula to scoop the eggs and potatoes onto a plate. He pours a cup of coffee next, adding milk and a little vanilla before bringing the plate and mug over to her.

“Why?”

He doesn’t answer, just sets each one down in front of her, reaching into the drawer beside him and setting a fork next to her plate. He places a soft, featherlike kiss on her temple before backing away to make his own plate.

She watches him intently before looking down at her plate. He made her eggs just the way she likes them, no milk, just a little butter. She can tell because they’re fluffier that way.

He taught her how to make them like that, but hers never turned out the same. She takes a bite and tries to hide her smile. She shouldn’t be smiling. She hates him.

Dominic leans against the counter and eats his breakfast in front of the fridge, his eyes studying Aurora’s most recent calculus test which Miss Amy has hanging on the fridge. It says 102 percent in bright red ink at the top. He picks it up and flips it over to look at the second page, the extra credit problem on the back. When he looks over at her, his eyes are smiling with pride.

She averts her eyes quickly, staring down at her half-empty plate.

“All done?” he asks softly.

She nods, playing nervously with her hands. “I couldn’t finish.”

He walks over to her, looking down at her plate before looking back at her.

“That’s fine. Go ahead and get your things.”

He stacks her plate atop his empty one and begins eating what’s left over before washing off both plates in the sink.

She hops off the stool and begins gathering her books for school. Her physics notebook is on the counter, she slips that into her bag before sliding grabbing her spanish book from the study and slipping that inside as well. Last is her psychology textbook.

She kneels down by the pantry, zipping her backpack shut and standing to sling it over her shoulder. Before she can, Dominic is behind her, prying her hand away gently and sliding the black strap on his shoulder. He steps back so she can lead him to the entryway.

Before she can open the front door, Dominic’s arm is around her waist, holding her back as he opens the coat closet with his other hand. He holds out her coat so she can slide her arms through.

“I don’t need it, Dominic.”

He says nothing. She watches intently as his long, bruised fingers slide the zipper almost all the way up to her neck. The blue and gray scarf is next, a shiver tickles her spine as he wraps the soft fabric around her neck and ears with careful, gentle hands until he nods in content.

His eyes meet hers for the briefest moment before he reaches for the door, grabbing her hand as they walk down the porch and onto the snowy pavement.

He leads her to his car which is no longer an Audi R8, but instead an all black McLaren. It lights up as Dominic presses unlock, glowing beautifully underneath the light from the street lamps.

He opens the door for her, allowing her to slide into the leather seat. She reaches for the seatbelt, but he beats her to it, his knuckles brushing against her stomach as he buckles her in.

The engine starts almost silently, and the next moment he is navigating the quiet roads with an ease and effortless precision.

She tucks her legs underneath herself, staring out the window as the sun peaks over the horizon, turning the sky a dark blue instead of pitch black. She turns forward; out of the corner of her eye she can see Dominic rest his hand casually against the gear shift, his black and gold watch glimmering under the light from the dash. He stares ahead at the road, his shoulders relaxed as he leans back against the leather seat.

It angers her how he can be so normal, so unaffected. Part of her wants him to feel her pain too, so she wouldn’t be so lonely with it, but part of her is glad he can’t. She doesn’t want him to know how much he affects her.

“Something on your mind, little one?” he asks finally, breaking the heavy silence which had overtaken the car.

She shakes her head.

He shifts his grip on the steering wheel, running a tense hand through the thick strands of his hair.

“How do you like your school? Caspar says you’re at the top of you calculus class.”

She blushes, running her fingers along the soft fabric of her sweater. Did Caspar also tell him she nearly had a C in AP Literature?

“Does everyone treat you well?”

He means: do they care that you’re a foster kid?

She nods.

From the corner of her eye, she can see him clench his jaw, his brows knitting together thoughtfully as he taps his thumb against the gear shift.

She turns to look at him, really look at him. How his eyes spoke both an intensity and honesty, a gentleness despite the darkness in his expression. Maybe this is what Miss Amy meant when she called him a gentleman, not a man of weakness or politeness, but one of spirit. Her eyes stray to his bruised hand gripping the steering wheel, filled with the urge to run her fingers along the purplish skin there and see if it hurt him, if anything could ever hurt him.

His eyes stray from the road for a moment to meet hers in question.

“I know Miss Amy didn’t receive a grant from the state,” her soft voice resonates between them. “You pay for me, June, and Christian to go to private school.”

Dominic doesn’t answer, his hands resting on the wheel as he focuses his eyes on the road ahead of them.

“Why do you do that?” she asks, staring at the side of his face.

His expression hardens and if possible he looks even more handsome, the veins on his neck protruding from his tanned skin and the lines of his jaw and cheekbone clenching tightly. She’s caught him off guard and a small part of her delights in that.

“Because I love you. And I want the best for you.”

She turns back toward the window, resting her head against the cool glass. His words chip away at the wall she built around her heart, and she knows it will only be harder when he leaves.

“Is that what you think? That I couldn’t love you without an ulterior motive?”

She doesn’t answer, shutting her eyes as the cold surface of the window cools her forehead.

“I am not like your father, Aurora. You say the word and I’ll sell everything I own if it’ll make you happy.”

She lifts her head from the window, her brows knitting together as she thinks deeply.

“Would you leave me?” she asks quietly. Dominic turns to face her, his eyes widening in confusion.

“What?”

“Would you leave me if it would make me happy?”

He leans back against the cool leather of his seat, his eyes darkening as though he is considering his answer. But she knows this face. It’s the one which says he already has an answer, but doesn’t know how she’ll take it.

“No,” he says finally. “I would not leave you, even if it would make you happy.”

“Why not,” she whispers, though she is pretty sure she knows his answer.

“Because I love you.” The words settle heavily in her heart every time he speaks them.

“I’m a selfish man. I’m fucked up in ways your precious mind could never imagine, but I can make you happy, Aurora. I’ll spend my whole life trying.”

“But you left me before,” her voice rises slightly in volume as she struggles to wrap her mind around his words. “And I wanted you to stay, remember? Why didn’t you come back?”

He runs his hand through his hair and pulls at the strands, shutting his eyes tightly before the light turns green.

He says nothing. She thinks it would have been easier if she never met him.

“It’s gonna be fucking insane. Last time we played Winsor, Elias lost a tooth, and Angelo Ricardi had to get eight stitches on his head, it was bleeding like mad!”

Olivia’s nose scrunches up in distaste at Christian’s vivid description. The lunchroom is alive with excited chatter and laughter as the group sits in their usual long table next to the window. “Christian, that’s gross.”

He nods excitedly, hazel eyes alight with enthusiasm. “Yeah but the scar is fucking sick, you should ask him to see it some time.”

“I’ll pass, thank you.”

“Aurora, you coming to the game, Friday?”

She looks up to meet his hopeful expression. She can’t help the smile which teases her lips.

“I think so.”

“Well good, because I’m goalie, Leo’s captain, and Ev is finally starting, so you didn’t really have a choice anyway.”

She turns to Everett beside her, who picks silently at his food. “You’re starting, Ev? What position?”

He keeps his eyes on his tray, his words cold and direct. “Right striker.”

“That’s awesome! I can’t wait to watch you guys.”

Everett drops his fork on the table, turning toward her before his brows knit together in mock confusion.

“Sure you won’t be busy elsewhere?”

“Enough, Ev,” Leo says calmly, though the dark look in his eyes is warning enough.

The bell rings, signaling the start of passing period as students all around begin packing up their things and heading to class. The twelve of them at the table shift awkwardly in their seats, no one wanting to be the first to break the tense silence.

Suddenly, Everett shoves his seat away from the table, flinging his backpack over his shoulder and starting toward the door. Aurora grabs his shoulder gently, only for him to shove her arm away.

Leo follows quickly after him.

“Everett,” he breathes out, exasperated, “You’re acting like a fucking twelve year old girl.”

“Fuck off, Leo!” he turns suddenly, shoving Leo by his shoulders until he stumbles back in surprise. The few students left in the cafeteria stop what they’re doing to stare as the scene unfolds.

Leo clenches and unclenches his fists at his sides, stepping back to create distance between them.

“Ev,” Aurora says his name softly, grabbing the attention of the entire group. His eyes fall on her glassy ones, guilt flashing across them for a brief moment before they turn hard again. He turns and storms off into the hallway.

She follows quickly after him, calling his name. When she catches up to him, she grabs the end of his backpack and plants her feet as firmly as she can against the floor.

“Ev, please just tell me what’s wrong.”

The desperation in her voice has him turning around to look down at her, his eyes softening as he sees the hurt in her glassy brown eyes.

“Dominic Carter is not a good man,” he says, his previous anger gone and replaced with an expression overcome with worry and something she cannot put a name to. “I don’t want you around him.”

“Is... is that what this is about?”

He shakes his head, pulling his arm out of her grip and backing away.

“Everett, please!”

He ignores her, acts as though he can’t even hear as he disappears into the crowd of students.

She feels Leo’s hand rest comfortingly on her shoulder. Before she realizes it her eyes begin to water with tears and she hurries to blink them away. She knew tears would lead to sympathy and sympathy would lead to more tears. And tears meant you were weak and couldn’t make decisions for yourself.

“Aurora, it’s alright to cry.”

She turns into his chest, hiding her face inside as she grips onto his jacket. She feels his strong hands grip the sides of her waist and lead her gently into the single bathroom next to the cafeteria. She doesn’t miss the way people whisper around her, though, and it makes the tears fall even more fervently. She can’t stop them.

He closes and locks the door behind them, lifting her to rest atop the counter. He moves silently across the empty bathroom, grabbing a few paper towels and folding them.

He walks back over to her, runs the cool water from the sink over them before shutting off the tap. His eyes meet hers again as he presses the cool water against her cheeks and neck and her breathing eventually evens out.

“Leo, you’ll be late to class-”

One harsh look from him silences her quickly.

The cool water feels good against her flushed cheeks. His hands are rough and calloused, but he works gently, wiping away any trace of her tears while she works to calm her breathing.

“Better?” he asks finally. She nods, stepping down to the tile with his help. The bell rings for sixth period and she looks up at him nervously.

“I’m taking you home.”

The car ride is mostly silent, except for the 80s rock which plays softly from Leo’s phone. She finds herself drifting in and out of sleep during the entire car ride to the soothing sound of him singing quietly along.

She doesn’t realize how long it’s been when she wakes up to the feeling of her seatbelt being taken off, a hand rubbing her shoulder gently.

“We’re here,” Leo murmurs gently. She nods, blinking away the the tiredness before hopping down and out of the car.

He walks her up to the front porch. Before stepping inside, she turns to him suddenly, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist in a hug.

It takes a moment, but soon he is wrapping his arms to tightly around her, smoothing down her hair gently.

“Thank you, Leo,” she mumbles into his chest. “I’m sorry you missed class.”

His lips turn up slightly in what is close to a smile. “I’m not.”

She laughs.

Miss Amy isn’t home when she walks inside; no one is. Her eyes still burn from all the crying she’d done in the past 24 hours. She trudges up the stairs, having promised Leo she would at least try and lay down for a little while. He was hesitant to leave her there alone otherwise.

The door to her room opens with a creak, and everything looks just as she left it. Her comforter tucked around her bed, her prismacolors all laid out atop her desk, the pile of clean clothes she’s yet to put away,

the present from Dominic, which lies still wrapped and completely untouched atop her bedside table.

She has an idea.

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