It comes to an end.
Today wasn’t about me but I still found myself struggling to look my best. For the last three years I’d done nothing to make myself feel attractive, so when the time came I ended up poking myself in the eye three times before I perfected my eyeliner.
Brendon walked in holding Cassandra just as I was walking out of my closet, wearing the fifth thing I’d tried on that morning. “You look… fantastic.” He suspiciously commented.
Cassandra giggled, “Fan… tas… tic.” She repeated, though slowly. She had just recently turned three, but her speech was a little below average. It wasn’t that she wasn’t smart. I would never say that about my lovely daughter. She was my everything. She just didn’t share an interest in talking unless Brendon was talking, and then she would repeat everything. The day Brendon came home was the happiest day of her life, which surprised me immensely. While he was in prison they’d only briefly talked on the phone but I’d shown her pictures, and the connection was just instant.
“I don’t know what to wear.” I admitted, with a frown. “I know I’m not supposed to care Brendon, but I care.” Cassandra quietly repeated Brendon’s name, which caused him to smile.
“It’s okay that you care.” Brendon muttered, though his tensed shoulders gave away just how he felt about me seeing Ryan. He thought it was a good idea for Cassandra to know her father, but deep down I knew he was terrified that I’d get back together with Ryan.
I was too.
“So, then how do I really look?” I asked, needing his honest opinion.
“You look like you’re eighteen again.” Brendon answered, rolling his eyes. “You should wear something a little less… revealing.” He gestured with his free hand to what would be his cleavage area, if he had cleavage. I got the message and went right back in to my closet.
I reemerged wearing a loose black dress that was fairly conservative when it came to cleavage, though it did end right above my knees. I felt comfortable in it though. Brendon whistled, “That’s one hot mama.” He joked.
I rolled my eyes this time, “I’m pretty sure that as my brother you’re never supposed to say that.” Then I leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, “But thanks.” Cassandra giggled.
God, she looked just like Ryan.
Brendon just smiled in response.
I checked the time and sighed heavily, “It’s time for us to go. I wanted to get there a little early so that Cassandra and I could get settled.”
Brendon nodded, “Want me to come with?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Brendon didn’t say anything, but I knew how he felt. He didn’t have to explain anything, because just the night before I’d thought every single thing he was now thinking.
When it came down to it this was about Cassandra though, and she did deserve to know her father- not when she was older, when it would be awkward… but when she was young. They deserved that chance to bond because for all the pain he’d personally caused me… he was still a good man, and I knew he’d be a good father.
Cassandra and I showed up at the coffee shop fifteen minutes early. I figured Ryan would show up late anyway, so I probably had plenty of time to get settled.
When I walked through the doors Ryan immediately caught my attention though. He instantly stood as the door opened, and with a hesitant wave towards us my heart melted. He still looked the same. He was still every bit as handsome as I remembered.
Cassandra was holding my hand, completely oblivious to the firework display of emotions. All she knew was that she was going to meet her daddy finally, and that’s all that really mattered.
“Cass.” I leaned down before we reached Ryan.
Ryan apprehensively watched, as he stayed in place.
“There’s your daddy.” I pointed to Ryan.
Cassandra gazed at Ryan and her entire face lit up, “Daddy!” It was definitely Brendon’s influence that made her such a concern in the way that she would willingly run up to strangers. It was a blessing from Brendon that she accepted Ryan as her father so openly, because the look on his face meant the world to me- it was a look of love, one that I had known once upon a time.
Ryan caught Cassandra as she stumbled in to his arms. They hugged. I melted inside as I slowly approached them. Ryan stared at me, and I didn’t see hate anymore- though I’d completely expected it. I was the reason he went to jail. I was the reason he lost everything.
“Thank you.” Ryan mouthed, as he hugged Cassandra tightly. Tears filled his eyes and any hesitation I had that Ryan should be in Cassandra’s life evaporated. I couldn’t take this from either of them.
Cassandra giggled again, and the sound was so beautiful and so normal. Ryan chuckled, “Do you like hot chocolate?”
Cassandra nodded as Ryan released her.
“Good, because I got you and your Mom hot chocolate.” Ryan said with a grin. As he gestured towards the table I saw the three cups sitting for us.
“Be careful.” I warned Cassandra.
“I had them put ice cubes in hers.” Ryan notified me.
Cassandra reached for the cup and I sensed a complete disaster coming but Ryan grabbed her cup just in time, saving the spill. As he lowered the cup to her waiting hands all I could do was watch in wonder. It was as if he’d been in her life the entire time.
“How is…” Ryan paused, “… Brendon?”
“He’s doing well.” I answered, “He’s been working on music with Spencer for the last few months so I don’t see him much. He takes Cass on the weekends though. It’s her special time with him, and he wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
At that very moment my cell phone went off and I rolled my eyes. “In fact I’ll bet you anything that’s Brendon calling right now.” And as I pulled out my cell phone I was proven correct.
“What’s up Brendon?” I answered, gaining Cassandra’s complete attention.
“Is Ryan there?” Brendon sounded nervous. “How is Cassandra? I can be there in ten minutes if you need me. I kept my schedule clear today, you know, because I can totally be there.”
“Cass is fine.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Brendon being so nervous helped make me a little less nervous. “I was thinking of taking her to the park after this though so you could meet us at the park, if you wanted. We aren’t really ready to leave yet though.”
“How about I pick Cass up and take her to the park? Ryan and you could talk for a little while.” That was a surprising proposition.
“I thought…” I trailed off, not wanting to say anything in front of Ryan, “Besides this is Ryan’s time with Cassandra. I’m not going to interrupt that.”
Ryan shrugged, “If he wants to take Cassandra to the park then we could always meet them there after… we finished talking. I really need to talk to you Avery.” I flinched as Ryan placed his hand over mine, which caused him to immediately let go. “We’re in a public place.” He reminded me.
I closed my eyes and decided to take a chance, for Ryan. I’d ignored him for the last few years after all. “Fine Brendon. You know where we are at, right?” I’d only told him a million times.
“Be there in ten.” Brendon replied, promptly hanging up.
“He’s still really loud over the phone.” Ryan teased.
I nodded, but I didn’t feel like smiling yet. “You want to talk to me?”
“I do.” Ryan replied, “But not… not with Cass here. I have a lot to say to the both of you, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to say everything in front of her.”
“App-rop-“ Cassandra paused, “What?” Great, so the word thing would be with Ryan, as well as with Brendon.
Ryan blushed, “App-rop-ri-ate.” He said the word slowly.
Cassandra repeated him.
“Is… is it norm-“ Ryan stopped, blushing again.
“She wasn’t a big talker at first.” I admitted, “It took Brendon to get her to start talking, so she’s a little behind.”
Ryan just nodded.
I sipped my hot chocolate, which wasn’t that hot anymore.
Ryan slowly pushed his iced drink towards me, “Try it. You might like it.”
I bit my lip as I stared at the drink, but eventually I gave in. It was good. “What is it?” I wasn’t an avid coffee drinker, though the taste was quite enticing.
“Vanilla iced coffee.” Ryan answered.
I took another drink, “It’s really good.”
“It’s yours.” Ryan answered.
“Uh, thanks.” I awkwardly took another sip, finding that it was easier to drink than it was to talk.
When Brendon walked through the door I was a little too stunned to speak. Cassandra spoke for us all, “Uncle Brendon!” Brendon scooped her up in to his arms, a look of relief crossing his face. I knew he was quite attached to Cassandra, and having her away from him was a little hard. I had a suspicion that she was what saved him when he initially got released from prison. He seemed so lost, and so far away… and she just saved him from that.
Kids were heroes like that.
“Brendon…” Ryan awkwardly stood, and I did as well.
“Ryan.” Brendon nodded. His jaw was set firmly in place, and it seemed saying Ryan’s name had taken a lot out of him.
Cassandra leaned against Brendon, and I realized the only reason she wasn’t so chatty was that she was tired. The meeting time hadn’t been perfect, but I was too nervous to factor in her naptime when Ryan had called me back.
“She’s beautiful.” Ryan finally said, of Cassandra.
Brendon relaxed a little, “She is. She’s a mix of Avery and you.” With that said he smiled a little. “And seeing as how she’s got Avery in her that means she’s got me too. You can see it in her smile.” And it was true. When she smiled it was a lot like Brendon’s smile.
Cassandra promptly smiled, “I look like you Uncle Brendon?”
“You do.” Brendon informed her, with a grin. “Ready to go to the park?” Cassandra nodded, as she tried to hide her yawn.
Brendon sighed, “Its nap time, isn’t it?” Cassandra shook her head with a coy smile. “Don’t worry. We can nap at the park.” He winked playfully, “So… um, are we like all meeting up at the park or something?” He turned his attention to me.
“Yeah.” I held up my phone, “I can uh, text you- or you can text me?”
“Seeing as how we both have unlimited texting that shouldn’t be a problem.” Brendon answered teasingly, “Be safe Avery.” He glanced at Ryan, and Ryan completely got the meaning- his frown proving that.
“You guys too.” I responded, “Watch her near the other kids. She’s been hitting a lot lately.”
Brendon rolled his eyes, “It’s just because the other kids have toys that she wants.”
“You’re the one teaching her to do that, aren’t you?” It all finally slipped in to place.
Brendon didn’t respond as he made his getaway. “I can’t believe him.” I muttered out loud.
Ryan chuckled, “I do. It sounds like Brendon as a kid.” I jumped, having somehow forgotten that I was still with Ryan.
“What did you want to talk about?” I felt so vulnerable around him.
Ryan pulled my chair out for me and gestured to it. Awkwardly I sat down, scooting forward as he pushed the chair in. “You look good Avery, really good.”
I’d heard that constantly in the last year as Spencer tried, and failed, to set me up with friends of his. None of them made it sound as good as Ryan did though. I tried to hide how elated his statement made me feel. “Thanks. So do you.” It was true. “You look like you’re doing really well Ryan.”
“I’ve just been working out a lot.” Ryan grinned, “I have muscles now. Wanna feel?”
I couldn’t help but laugh as I leaned forward and poked his arm. “I think I have more muscle than you.” I joked.
“You always have been the stronger one.” Ryan pointed out. “No one could have handled the pregnancy better than you.”
“And seeing as how I’m the girl? I think that’s normal.” I awkwardly answered.
Ryan laughed, “Fair enough. I’ve been… taking anger management classes.”
“I heard it was a mandatory part of your sentencing.”
“It was, while I was in jail. The classes I’m taking now I started after I was released.” Ryan replied, surprising me.
“Oh?” I wanted to know more but I didn’t want to ask outright.
“Part of the program I joined listed exercise as a great way to let off stress, hence all the exercising. I don’t ever plan to go back to the way I was.” Ryan awkwardly looked down at the table, “And I’ve been taking a parenting class.”
“Have you?” Another surprise.
“I was hoping… maybe sometime I could like watch Cassandra or something.” Ryan proposed. His voice was trembling. “You could meet with my advisors for both classes. They can tell you what we’ve been doing, and I- I haven’t been with another girl since you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“I don’t plan to be.” Ryan spoke softly, “I mean, since I’m in love with you that would be pretty stupid. My heart is with you, and Cassandra.”
“You can’t just say that.” I whispered, feeling angry tears building. I was angry because I was alone and I was tired of being alone. I was angry because Ryan hurt me, and now he was making me feel like I was in control but I wasn’t in control. How could I just go back to him?
“I’m not stupid enough to think you’ll just come back.” Ryan informed me. “I wouldn’t want that anyway. I was just thinking… maybe sometime, like maybe I could take you on a date? We could go slowly, as slowly as you need. I just want you to feel safe around me again.”
Ryan shyly looked out the window, “I’m so stupid to suggest this. Are you… are you seeing someone else? I mean, I totally get if you are…” He trailed off.
I shook my head, “No Ryan, there’s no one else.” There never could be.
Ryan nodded, but continued with his low pressure tactics. “So then uh, maybe we could go on a date? I could take you and Cassandra to the fair next week?”
“I-I think I’d like that.”
Ryan smiled, “I’d like that too.”
We were silent for a second but then Ryan broke the silence. “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.” His voice broke, but still the statement tumbled free from his lips with too much emotion to be faked. I wasn’t a psychic. I couldn’t see my future. I didn’t know if Ryan would hurt me again, but I did know that I’d never let him hurt Cassandra. This time I would be stronger, but I wasn’t alone anymore.
I had Ryan again.
(I couldn’t help it. They just had to be together in the end. Ryan had to be better or at least had to be getting help to become better.)