“Are you hungry?” my mom asked River and me.

“Yes,” River said. I could only imagine how hungry and thirsty she must be—I doubted she had eaten for at least a day. I was about to shake my head when for the first time I realized I was actually hungry. Really hungry. I didn’t even know if fae could eat normal food. If not normal food, then what? I’d gotten so habituated as a vampire to my body rejecting everything other than human blood, the thought that I might be able to eat real food again was beyond exciting.

We headed into the kitchen and sat down at the table.

“I made macaroni and cheese casserole less than an hour ago,” my aunt offered. “It’s still hot in my oven. It’ll be faster if I fetch that than your mom making something new.”

Xavier offered to fetch it, and in the meantime, River and I chugged down glasses of water while everyone bombarded us with questions. When Xavier returned with the dish, a delicious smell filled the room. My mouth salivated. I’d practically forgotten what food tasted like. As I spooned the first bite into my mouth, relief rushed through me. It didn’t taste like cardboard. It tasted like my aunt’s scrumptious cooking. I’d never thought I could appreciate casserole as much as I did then. I relished every texture, tasted every herb and spice. As hungry as I was, I chewed slowly, not wanting to rush the flavors swimming on my tongue.

I glanced up at River and my family to see that they were watching me.

“Well, one piggy sure is enjoying himself,” Rose commented, grinning.

I grinned back.

I realized as I munched that every part of my life would be enhanced from now on. It seemed I, like almost everyone else on the planet, had to be deprived of something before I could truly appreciate it. And appreciate I would; I vowed I wouldn’t let a day go past without feeling gratitude for every aspect of my life. From the people I loved, to the food on my plate, to the sand beneath my feet.

For dessert, my mother announced chocolate cake and homemade berry ice cream—made from berries plucked from The Shade’s own forests. Once River and I had finished that, we leaned back in our chairs, looking at each other with satisfied smiles.

My mother could hardly keep her hands off me throughout the meal. She’d been sitting next to me, reaching out and touching my hair or arm every few minutes, as if to reassure herself that I was still real. Still here. Still solid. I smiled at her now, and kissed her cheek. “It’s okay, Mom,” I said to her. “I’m here.”

She gave me a teary smile, and I could see how much she appreciated my words. Then she addressed my sister. “Rose, can you go fetch River’s family? Nadia’s been as anxious as me.”

“Sure.” Rose got up and sped out of the apartment.

We shifted to the living room and continued recounting everything that had happened since we had last seen them. Then Rose returned with Nadia and River’s three siblings. They had a gushy reunion before Nadia came to greet me.

They settled down with us, and we talked for hours, until River could no longer hide her sleepiness. Her head began to nod on my shoulder. Truth be told, I was feeling exhausted too. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept properly. And the huge meal we had just eaten did not help.

“River and I should get some sleep,” I said, bracing River’s shoulder gently with my palm.

“The apartment is set up like it was before the fire,” my mother said. “Even your old room.”

We bade everyone good night before I carried River to where my old bedroom had been. A double bed was in here now.

As I stepped inside with River and closed the door, I was fully aware that finally, we had time alone. But ironically, as I laid River down on the mattress and we curled up together beneath the covers… we really did just sleep.

Ben

When I woke hours later, I felt bewildered as to where I was. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept in a soft bed, much less with River beside me. My stomach filled with an instinctive dread, a dread I’d been accustomed to waking up with ever since I had turned into a vampire. It took me several moments to remember the reality.

I had reached the end of the tunnel. I was out. Free. Back home.

All was well.

River was still fast asleep in my arms, her right cheek pressed against my chest. Grazing my lips over her forehead, I took a moment to admire her before gently detaching myself and sliding out of bed.

As my feet touched down on the soft carpet and I gazed at my familiar surroundings, I wasn’t sure I’d ever felt so alive. So excited for the day ahead. So happy.

I moved to the window and looked out. This bedroom had a magnificent view of the back of the forest and the waves beyond. I gazed out toward The Shade’s boundary to see that the sun had risen beyond it. I glanced at the clock. Six AM. I drew open the window and inhaled the fresh air. A breeze ventured in, carrying with it the fragrant scent of damp soil. Pearls of water dripped from the redwood branches by my window. It had rained overnight. I breathed in deeply, filling my lungs with the pure air.

Then I headed to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth and took a shower. Gazing at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get used to seeing myself in this body. Though I looked mostly the same—my eye and hair color, and the general structure of my face—my features seemed to be slightly sharper in appearance. The tips of my ears for example, were more slanted… rather elvish. And then there was the fact that my body literally glowed. It had a faint, almost golden aura to it. I smiled to myself, remembering how River had mistaken me for an angel.

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