We met with a few complications along the way—such as getting lost—but eventually we arrived at the Texan jail where my father had been transferred.
Fortunately, the lighting inside was garish, and Ben’s natural aura wasn’t too noticeable. I enquired as to whether my father was here, and I was relieved to learn that he was. Indeed, I managed to make an appointment to see him this very day. Back on Rikers Island, I doubted I would have been able to do this. I wondered if his visiting times had been relaxed due to good behavior.
As we moved into the designated meeting area and my father appeared behind the glass, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu washed over me. I hurried to the window, gazing at him through the barrier. He wore the same orange uniform, and his ragged face—far too old for his age—lit up as he took me in. He was blinking as he stared at me, as if he couldn’t believe I’d really come. Pain and guilt stabbed me.
“River,” he rasped, his hands pressed flat against the glass.
“Dad,” I breathed, my voice choked up.
“Darling, how are you? I thought I might never see you again.”
Tears brimmed in my eyes. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” I gasped. I could barely even bring myself to make an excuse for why I had left it so long. I should’ve found a way.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I-I’m fine,” I said, forcing a smile. “Never been better, actually. H-How are you?”
“I’m…” He hesitated, wetting his lower lip tentatively, as though weighing his words. “I’m… doing better, I think,” he said. “At least, I think I am. They give me more privileges now. Things that I couldn’t do before. You know, extra time outside the cell.” He paused again as his eyes fell on Ben. “And who is this?” my father asked curiously. “You brought a friend?”
I reached for Ben’s hand, and pulled him closer. “Dad,” I said, finally managing to steady my voice, “meet my husband, Ben.”
My father’s jaw dropped open. “Your… husband?” he gasped. He gaped at me, then narrowed his eyes as if wondering if this was some kind of joke.
“Yes,” I said, smiling more broadly. “We got married, like, a week ago.”
“Oh,” he breathed, gazing at Ben in wonderment. I wondered if he had noticed a strange aura around Ben, or if he was just sizing him up. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, his hand hitting the glass as he moved instinctively to shake Ben’s hand. He can’t even shake the hand of his new son-in-law.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Giovanni,” Ben said, moving closer to the glass and placing his own hand against it, where my father’s was. Ben couldn’t have known how much that small gesture meant to me.
“H-How did you meet?” my father asked, still looking in a daze.
“Oh… we, uh…” I began to stammer. I really hadn’t been prepared for that question, just as my father really wouldn’t be prepared for the answer.
“In a sauna,” Ben answered for me smoothly.
I grinned at Ben in appreciation. Brilliant.
After that, my father asked some more questions about Ben—what his interests were, what he did for a living, and other such things—which Ben just as deftly answered without actually lying. Then, after my father asked after my mother and siblings, our time with him was drawing to a close.
When the guard called to him, urgency filled my father’s eyes. “I love you, River. My strong, beautiful girl. I need you to know that I’m proud of you. Please, don’t ever forget that… And I-I hope that I can see you again. Sooner, than last time. You know, I really think that if I manage to keep up my behavior, I might be let out earlier.”
I smiled faintly. “I promise I’ll come back sooner. And remember that I love you, too, Dad.” Then the guard took him away.
My father’s last words lingered in my mind, long after the door had closed. They reminded me all too much of the hopes he’d used to instill in us before dashing them to the ground. I’d heard words like those too many times before to take them seriously. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t.
Whatever the case, my happiness did not rest upon what he decided to do with his life anymore. And neither did my mother’s or siblings.
We had found a new life. A home. Happiness.
We had found The Shade.
And I… I had found Ben.
It took a while for Sofia and me to come down from cloud nine after our son’s wedding. It had been not only a beautiful experience, but also an intensely nostalgic one—more so for me than Sofia, I suspected. Watching my son look upon his new bride as she walked toward him down the aisle… he reminded me so much of myself. The day I had stood at the end of the aisle, gazing at my beautiful bride, the love of my life, approaching me in her trailing white dress, her auburn hair in curls. I knew exactly how Ben had felt in that moment, and I saw the same look in his eyes. I saw the profound love and affection he held for River, and I sensed in that moment that they would be just as happy together as Sofia and I were.
While we were in dragon country, Lucas had also done as he’d promised. He’d found the time to talk to Sofia—while being sensitive enough to have me present also—and he’d given her as heartfelt an apology as a man could. Sofia had nodded, accepting, and assuring him that if he kept up his good behavior, there was no reason he could not fully earn her forgiveness. I sensed from the look in his eyes that he did not take her words lightly and in the coming weeks, we would see him make amends for a number of grievances he had caused us—I guessed beginning after his promised trip with Jeramiah to visit Jeramiah’s mother’s tombstone.