Once I had dressed in jeans and a T-shirt—which my mother had thoughtfully left for me in the closet—I glanced at River again. She had turned over, her face buried in a pillow. Still fast asleep. That suited me fine. I had things that I wanted to do while she was still asleep.

I needed to have another discussion with my parents, but first, I needed to talk to River’s mother. Properly.

Leaving my bedroom, I found my mother roaming around in her nightdress. I wondered if she had gotten even a wink of sleep, or whether my return had made her buzz too much. I hugged her good morning.

“I need to go out for a while,” I said, drinking down some water. “I should be back within an hour. And then I need to talk to you and Dad.”

“Okay,” she said, eyeing me curiously. She was obviously wondering where I was heading off to, but didn’t ask. She would find out soon enough…

I left the apartment and descended in the elevator, even as I reminded myself that I could just fly… but I’d had enough of drifting for a lifetime. I wanted to enjoy the walk through the forest to the Vale, feel the ground beneath my feet.

The town was still quiet when I reached it. Beautifully quiet. I passed the gushing fountains in the cobblestone square before heading down River’s road. I had considered that River’s mom might still be asleep at this time, but if Nadia was anything like my mom, she would in all likelihood be up.

I was right. Pressing my ear against the front door of their townhouse, I heard talking from inside. It sounded like Nadia and Jamil.

Standing up straight, I cleared my throat, feeling suddenly nervous. I reached out and rapped on the door. The conversation faded and footsteps approached the door. It swung open to reveal Nadia standing in the doorway. Her face lit up as she laid eyes on me.

“Ben!” she exclaimed, opening the door wider. “Come in, come in. Where’s River?”

I stepped inside. “She’s still sleeping.”

I followed her through to the kitchen, where Jamil was sitting, sipping from a glass of orange juice. He stood up and shook my hand, smiling broadly.

I sat with them at the table, both of them eyeing me curiously.

I cleared my throat, feeling on edge… and incredibly exposed. Just get on with it. God knows you’ve had to do harder things than this in the past year.

Forcing myself to maintain steady eye contact with Nadia, I confessed, “I’m in love with your daughter.”

Warmth rose in Nadia’s cheeks, encouraging me to go on.

“I wish to marry her. In fact, I have already proposed to her. I don’t believe River had a chance to tell you before we left; and I hope you’ll excuse me for not getting your permission first.”

I could see Nadia’s full set of front teeth through her beaming smile. Tears glistened in her eyes. She glanced at her son, who was also smiling.

She stood up, and pulled me into a hug, kissing my cheek. “All is excused,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “The happiest I have ever seen my daughter is when she’s with you. You have my blessing, Ben, from the very bottom of my heart.”

“Thank you,” I said, breathing an internal sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure why I had been so anxious. Maybe it was because this was all such unknown territory for me. I’d had a number of girlfriends before River, but I’d never gotten anywhere close to even thinking about marriage in a distant future. Proposing to River, however, had felt so natural that it had slipped from my lips before I’d even fully thought it through.

Jamil pulled me into a hug and clapped me on the back. “And the unhappiest I’ve ever seen my sister is when you were away.”

My heart soaring, I thanked them both once again, before leaving the townhouse. I raced back through the forest to my parents’ apartment. The door was unlocked, and the kitchen and living room were empty as I strolled in.

“Mom?” I called softly, still not wanting to wake River in case she was still asleep. “Dad?”

The door to my father’s study opened. He stepped out and beckoned me inside. I walked in to find my mother sitting at my father’s desk along with Jeriad.

“Would you prefer to converse alone with your son?” Jeriad asked my parents, always the gentleman.

“We would, actually, Jeriad,” my father replied. “I’m sorry; if you could just wait in the living room we’ll be with you shortly.”

“Certainly,” Jeriad said, strolling out of the room.

Alone with my parents, I took a seat in Jeriad’s chair across my father’s large wooden desk. This desk… This room… A wave of nostalgia rolled over me. Standing in this room and writing a hurried note was one of the last memories I had of this island before leaving in the submarine all those months ago. I remembered how much it had killed me to write it; I’d known how much pain it would cause my family to leave. When I’d made that decision, I never could have imagined in a billion years what a ride I was about to go on.

“How are you feeling?” My father smiled, looking me over. It must have been so strange for my parents to have their son leave and return months later as an entirely different species.

“Better than I’ve ever felt,” I replied. “I just went to see River’s mother, actually.” I paused, wetting my lower lip. “I asked her for permission to marry River.”

My mother positively squealed as she leapt from her chair and smothered me in a hug.

I guess that’s a sign of approval…

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