In her dreams, the princess Aurora was restless.
There was a presence looming at the edge of her consciousness, a dark shadow that was always there, always watching. And when Caradoc touched her, even in her sleep she remembered, remembered dancing with him, the tall, handsome stranger who so scared and excited her. She’d swayed in his arms, her heart fluttering wildly, in a way unlike anything Leo’s gentle caresses had ever made her feel. Leo, whose smiling face, tender kiss and nimble hands were the last thing she’d known before the black rose had pricked her and sent her into lonely oblivion. Leo, who would be long dead by now.
Caradoc touched her, lips and hands sliding over flesh that shivered in dark dreams, and silently Aurora’s soul screamed for her love to come and rouse her.
Years and years Leo had longed for this moment, had given up everything for it. Even his life, all for the chance of being once more with Aurora.
If it had still been beating, Leo was pretty certain his heart would have burst when the doors of the castle finally swung open. Soon, soon he would lie eyes on his love again, would kiss her beautiful lips, hear her voice say his name… Sometimes he feared he had forgotten what she looked like, felt like, sounded like. It had been so very long since he’d last seen her, on that fateful day of the garden party.
How happy they had been, how innocent their love. Their biggest worry had been the knowledge that her parents would never allow them to be together, but as Aurora liked to say, it wasn’t the 19th century anymore. If it hadn’t been for Caradoc and the curse, Leo liked to believe they would have found a way past the chasm of their different classes. Or maybe that was just a fairy tale he told himself in order to survive the endless years of separation, he wasn’t sure anymore.
He’d seen so much, done so much, the world changing around him while he remained forever the same. His kind barely needed sleep, but when he did close his eyes, memories flooded him, so many of them, spanning more than a hundred years of life and unlife. He’d grown up in the stables, his father the stable master, his mother a cook, and, being the only children in the castle, he’d been playmate and friend to the young princess. Of course, once Aurora reached a certain age, her parents and teachers had expected her to abandon the company of a lowly servant, but she’d never been a very obedient child and even then Leo had not been able to resist her. He reckoned it had been inevitable that they fell in love, could not imagine a life in which she did not possess him, body and soul.
Glancing at Count Lilac, loitering in the shadows as Leo made his way through the gates up to the castle, Leo felt a pang of doubt. Not over his feelings for Aurora, but whether maybe, somehow, the Count had managed to arrange it all. It was awfully convenient, since the Count’s counter-curse required true love’s kiss. All that had been required was one small bite, and there Leo was, a ready-made lover to kiss and wake Aurora once the required time had passed.
He could still feel that bite, sense the blood flowing from him, taking his life as he knew it with him. He’d wanted it, would have agreed to anything in order to be able to save his love. But in the darkness of the intervening years he sometimes wondered whether he would have said yes if he’d known what it was he would be facing, the loneliness and emptiness almost unbearable at times. And then he remembered the euphoria that had mingled with the pain, rushing through his body, increasing the shame he felt for betraying Aurora. Because what else than betrayal were his doubts, was the way his body had reacted, and the bitter comfort he had found in other people’s arms, their blood warming his cold body for a short moment while he waited for time to pass.
Shivering, Leo walked the still-remembered hallways of the castle, empty except for the shades he could feel in the air around him, and tried to abandon the all-too-familiar thoughts. All of this was in the past, from now on all that counted was the future, his future with Aurora, once he had kissed her and brought her back to life. It was only when he saw Caradoc waiting for him at the doors to the princess’ chamber that he realised it was not going to be that simple. He had been a fool to think it would.
Still, what choice did he have than to continue on, doing his best to ignore the dark presence looming with an air of silent mocking at the edges of his vision and instead focusing on his first glimpse of Aurora in a hundred years. She was unchanged, her beautiful face smiling as if in a lovely dream, the picture of untainted innocence, and suddenly Leo felt dirty, unworthy in a way he never had when they’d been servant and princess.
Caradoc still hovered behind him, and Leo felt ice grip his dead heart at the thought of this… creature in the same room as Aurora, year in, year out. Why had he allowed Leo to enter, knowing what it meant? Did he want Aurora to waken? Would he have laid hands on her? Leo could not tell, although there was something burning hotly behind Caradoc’s cold eyes as he watched him in complete silence. Searching, Leo looked around for Count Lilac, but for once the Count was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing to do but see things through, and slowly, hesitantly, Leo approached Aurora’s sleeping form.
His eyes traced the lines of her body, once so familiar against his own, and in spite of himself, Leo began to hope. Gently cupping her face in his hands, he leaned in, closing his eyes and taking in the faint smell that was uniquely hers before his lips met hers. She didn’t respond, so Leo kept on kissing her, pouring all his love, all the years of waiting and hoping into it. After a small eternity, he felt the smallest of movements and happiness flooded him, the emotion so unfamiliar it left him stunned. It lasted only a moment, however, before several dark creatures dragged Leo away at a gesture from Caradoc.
The last thing Leo saw before the door shut in his face were the look of triumph on Caradoc’s face and Aurora’s eyes flying open.
Finally awake, Aurora felt caught in a nightmare still, Caradoc’s eyes fixed greedily on her, catching her like a fly in a spider’s web. Every beat of her heart screamed that it could not have been his kiss that roused her, yet there was a whisper of doubt in her soul, remembering Caradoc’s searing touch on her skin. She let herself be taken away, allowed them to dress her in a wedding gown, moving as if she was a sleepwalker despite being awake now, utterly numb and exhausted. If this was to be her fate, she deserved it, for succumbing to Caradoc’s poisonous grasp, for losing faith in Leo and their love.
Except there he was, taking her in his arms as if she weighed less than a feather, while Count Lilac’s triumphant knife plunged over and over into Caradoc's fallen body, and Aurora gasped, like a woman rescued from drowning. With shaking hands she touched in wonder the mouth she had kissed so often, disbelieving until she felt lips part beneath her touch. There was no breath wafting against her fingers, and apprehension and shame shone bright in Leo’s eyes, even as his arms held her, strong and safe. No longer afraid, Aurora tilted her head, exposing the long line of her neck, feeling Leo’s hands tremble with want and longing against her sides.
Aurora smiled. Her love was here, and they would not be parted again, even if it meant her life. It was no less than he had given, after all.