The voice was what finally woke him. His eyes shot open as he sat against the wall, panting muffled by the cloth in his mouth. It had happened before and most nights ended much in the same way after all. But, for just a moment he had the added element of confusion of waking up in a place he briefly didn’t recognize.
He tried standing only to remember that what strength was in his body was limited Aurora fell backwards with a grunt, cursing and trying to breathe against the panic that fluttered in his chest.
His head dropped back against the stone, eyes still wild with a dreamy terror that hadn’t gone away even if he was awake. It was difficult to breathe, to focus on the frantic shuttering of his lungs. However, the longer he sat just trying to fight back the darkness skirting on the edges of his vison, the worse the panic became.
He couldn’t breathe.
Terror gripped at his chest, squeezing tight enough to snap ribs. He couldn’t move, couldn’t get away and instead he could only sit there in horror while he struggled to suck in air. A pit grew in his stomach, painful in a way that was different from the agony of his wounds.
He couldn’t concentrate.
It wouldn’t go away.
However, it didn’t last long enough for him to try calming himself down.
He was even more confused when he woke up the second time, slumped forward with knees aching from the awkward position he’d fallen into. Aurora sat up groggily, feeling sick and leaning back heavily against the wall. It was a number of moments before he realized he’d blacked out shortly after waking up from a nightmare.
Chewing at the inside of his cheek, he tried pushing himself back up again.
He hated being afraid of something that truly couldn’t hurt him. It was just a dream, a hallucination of something that had long since been banished to the past. But, even if it was just a nightmare, he still sat trembling in the darkness. He was powerless against them, having no way of fighting back or escaping him. They were the one thing that stayed with him even if every other part of himself had almost disappeared completely.
Breathing out a sigh, he leaned his head back against the wall.
It had been the first time he had slept in days but Aurora wished he’d never even tried to begin with. If sleep was nothing but a time filled with terror, what was the point? He eventually decided that there wasn’t one.
If he could, he’d stay awake.
There were still times he failed.
Elizabeth was the most common thing he dreamed about, often times the night in which he’d held her bleeding in the snow. However, the dream was still fading but, something felt different about it. He remember a sound, like thunder, and a brief moment of excoriating pain before he woke up. For a moment, he thought it had been the day when Rowena shot him but, the sound was far too loud and the pain even more intense.
But, he knew for certain it was Elizabeth’s voice that called out for him.
He looked up, hearing footsteps behind the door that led into his dark domain. Aurora straightened himself as best he could, grunting and reaching with shaking fingers for his hat. After all the time he’d spent with nothing else to focus on, he should have known the limits of his own mobility, but his body still ached when he reached too far.
The door opened and there was light, a lantern that came patting forward with the light footfalls of who carried it. He tried speaking only to choke on the grating pain in his throat. Leaning back against the wall, he tried focusing on the lantern, waiting for Daniel to say something but there was only silence.
However, the closer the lantern got, the more a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t Daniel began to cross his mind. A silhouette flashed across the wall, a shadow of a small hunched figure flickering into sight. Aurora’s eyes widened in alarm as he shrunk back, confused and unsettled by whatever had snuck into his prison.
Then came a giggle, muffled by something and Aurora only pulled himself further back against the wall. Quite honestly, he didn’t want to admit he was afraid but, the closer the light got, the more fear rose in his throat. For the first time in a long while, he thought back to Silas.
But, while he wished it was something nice, he could only think about a story his older sibling had once told him to frighten him. Silas hadn’t done it on purpose and truly it was a joke between the two of them but, the image of a creature sent to punish the wicked flashed into his mind. Aurora told himself he never did believe it.
It got closer and the sound came again, a wicked sounding cackle.
If some small demon was coming to kill him, he just hoped they’d do it quickly. The chortle came a third time, softer as it neared the bars and Aurora let his eyes slip closed.
Frowning, he cracked an eye open cautiously. What he saw was even more surprising than any vigilante demon ever would have been. She was small, blue eyed with an expression that somehow was both innocent and ornery simultaneously. Aurora squinted at the lantern light reflecting on her hair, the same color as Daniel’s if not a touch lighter.
Daniel didn’t have any children, or so he thought.
“Are you all tied up?”
Aurora stared, raising his hands slowly to show his hands had been left unbound.
She stood on her toes to reach for the lock. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out.”
He stared in horror, trying as best he could to stop her before the door came clanging open and the girl stepped inside. His heart thudded in his chest, panic returning once again as she walked forward carefully towards him.
“Get away from me,” he cried, terror flashing through him. “This place isn’t safe-“
“Who put you here?”
Aurora shrank against the wall. “Get out!”
The girl fell back with a surprised shriek, stepping back a few paces carefully and staring down at him. Aurora swallowed, guilt striking him in the gut when he realized he’d scared her. He cleared his throat hoarsely, nodding towards the door with his head. “Step out of the cell, please.”
“Just do it,” he said, half begging. “Shouldn’t you know better than to come close to something in a cage?
She shuffled backwards, walking out of the cell and closing the door with a small grunt of effort. He thought, almost wishing, she would just turn and flee right there. Her hands went to grab at the bars, peering over at him in curiosity rather than fear anymore. “Why are you in a cage?”
“Why do you think?” he grumbled.
A frown crossed the girl’s face. “Who are you?”
“I could ask you the same.”
She leaned forward against the bars, one arm swinging lazily. “You looked scared. Are you scared?”
“You need to leave,” he warned, eyes flashing to the door.
The girl was quiet, pulling the scarf she was using as a shawl up over her shoulders. “Are you scared?”
He snorted, somewhat taken aback by her response. “Do you want the truth?”
An eager nod.
“I thought you were a demon.”
A giggle sounded from the girl. “You’re a funny man to believe in demons.”
“Well, I’ve seen stranger things. Honestly, a demon wouldn’t be the most terrifying or surprising thing I’ve had the pleasure of laying eyes on recently-“
“I’m not supposed to be here,” she said, cutting in suddenly.
Aurora shook his head. “Who are you?”
“My name is Sarafina but, I like Fina better. You can call me Fina if you want to. What’s your name?”
“Aurora,” he answered, wincing at how dry his throat felt. “I’d shake your hand but, I’m a little tied up at the moment.”
“I can come in and-“
“No,” Aurora called firmly. “Don’t open the door again.”
“Why not?” she asked, arm still swinging back and forth.
He swallowed, looking down at the ground. “Don’t you think I would only be chained for a reason? I’m dangerous, Fina.”
“You don’t look so dangerous,” she replied with a smile. “You have a silly name. Why don’t you have a better one? I’ve never met an Aurora before.”
He laughed. “And I’ve never met a Fina before. Why don’t you have a better name?”
“Fina is a good name,” she scolded.
“It is,” he agreed.
For a few moments, she only stared back at him with a pout before her face dropped into a smile once more. She giggled, nodding her head and then glancing towards the door to the prison. “Why are you in a cage, Aurora?”
He just shrugged.
She only chewed at her lip, glancing down at the hat that sat a few feet away from him on the ground. “Is that your hat?”
“I like it. Where’d you get it?”
“It was a gift from a friend of mine. But, it’s a very long and complicated story.”
Fina moved to sit then, dusting off the stone before she plopped down cross-legged. “I like stories.”
Aurora smiled. “Some other time, perhaps?”
She was quiet for a minute, fidgeting with the lantern. He was still confused as to who she was but he doubted any answer useful answer would come from a girl that looked no older than six.
“How did you get the key to my cell?”
Fina craned her neck to look behind them, pointing towards the door. “There’s a table over there.”
“Was the key on the table?”
“Uh huh,” she answered with a nod then frowned. “Are you a bad man?”
He shrugged, laughing breathily. “Why do you ask?”
“Did you hurt someone?” Fina asked then, looking somewhat alarmed by her own question.
Aurora was struck by the look in her eyes, fear that only made guilt churn in his gut again. He had seen others back away, cower in fear whenever he grew near, but the thought he’d scared her made him feel terrible. He shook his head. “No, no, I haven’t hurt anyone…not on purpose. I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
“Then why are you in a cage?” she asked cautiously.
“I don’t think hurting anyone is why I’m here.”
Fina was silent, shifting uncomfortably in front of the bars.
“Do I frighten you? I’m sorry if I have.”
He nearly stopped himself at the apology, surprised it had even crossed his mind to consider it in the first place. Sighing, he let his head drop back against the wall again. A sigh sounded from the girl, an obvious mockery, before she broke into a fit of laughter. Aurora looked back again, smiling. “Is something funny?”
“I like you, Aurora. I haven’t met anyone who lives in a cage before. Did someone put you in here?”
Aurora shook his head then. “Oh, no they didn’t. I just thought it would be a pleasant place to live, quaint if you will.”
“Of course,” he answered smartly.
“Why?” she asked, laughing.
“Why not?” he retorted.
Fina’s nose wrinkled then. “Really?”
“No,” he replied, chuckling softly. “But I don’t know why I’m here.”
She shifted on the floor, reaching out to tap on the bars with her fingernails. Aurora was quiet, leaning back and groaning softly when his bandages tugged at his still healing skin. Fina looked up then suddenly. “You should meet my papa. You two could be friends. Do you have any friends?”
Aurora wasn’t sure how to answer, laughing at the question. “I wouldn’t exactly call anyone my friend.”
Fina nearly gasped. “Really?”
“Most of it is my fault,” he admitted. “I don’t mind it too much, truly.”
“You should meet my papa,” she repeated, more enthusiastically the second time. “You really could be friends.”
He smiled. “Well, perhaps we can arrange a meeting-“
“I could be your friend too. Do you want me to be your friend? I’m a good one,” she declared, smiling proudly. “I don’t have friends too. My papa doesn’t like it when I go far away. He says it’s dangerous, but I don’t think so.”
“We can be friends,” she interjected before he could stop her, “if you want.”
Aurora couldn’t help but keep the grin from his face. “I would be honored.”
“See? Now you have a friend,” Fina beamed. “It’s not so hard.”
He smiled again, leaning back with a sigh. “Yes, I see. And now you do too, Fina.”
Fina looked towards the door again, climbing to her feet slowly. “I think I should go home. Papa will find out I went outside soon. I’ll come back, okay?”
Biting his lip, he held back a warning snap. Aurora shook his head calmly, rustling the chains at his back. “No, I don’t think you should, Sarafina.”
“Fina,” she cautioned. “Not Sarafina.”
“Alright, Fina, you can’t come back.”
She looked hurt. “Why not?”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble with your father. It’s not safe to be out this late-“
“I’m not scared,” she stated firmly. “The dark doesn’t scare me. Does it scare you?”
He couldn’t help but smile again. “No, it doesn’t scare me. But I wasn’t worried about your fear of the dark or…lack thereof. Don’t sneak off again. You wouldn’t want to get hurt, now would you?”
“No,” Fina replied in a huff. “I’ll bring my papa next time, okay? Is that a good idea?”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” Aurora replied with a nod. “But, who is your papa? You didn’t tell me his name.”
She turned towards the door, scooping up her lantern and skirting off before she answered. Aurora frowned, cursing softly. “Fina! Who is he?”
“Oh, do you want the lantern? The moon is really bright so I can see if you want it-“
“No, that’s alright. You take it and hurry home,” he replied. “Did you hear my question about your papa’s name?”
“Oh yeah, Daniel,” she replied at the door. “Goodbye, Aurora. I’ll come back soon.”
The door closed before Aurora could try replying but he doubted he could have even if he tried. He stared off into the darkness, figuring there had to be some mistake. Daniel didn’t have any children and certainly not one that was her age. It didn’t even sink into his mind as a possibility.
However, the thought still rolled over and over through his head.
Daniel couldn’t have had a child when they had spent the last ten years with the Dravara. He hadn’t left, possibly fearing what would happen if he left Aurora alone. Every day, save for the ones he was ill or off duty, had been spent at Aurora’s side. His nights, however, were a different story but, it still didn’t explain the girl.
None of it, the girl or the name of her father, made any sense.
Aurora let his expression fall into a frown. He thought back to what the girl had said about their supposed friendship and a flicker of a smile returned for a moment. There was no denying how harsh and apathetic he’d become towards most others but, the girl was different. She was too kind, too innocent, to snap at. He’d never forgive himself if he did.
For some reason, she reminded him of a time well before the Dravara. A time when he was with Silas, the brief childhood he had. He had left that part of himself behind long time ago. It had disappeared, forced away on the night that Silas had disappeared.
And yet, for just a moment, he felt it once more.