We spent the rest of the evening relaxing around the house, enjoying not being cooped up in the truck anymore. I was very glad that Portia had lent us her house—otherwise, we'd probably be skipping from motel to motel for a while. But still, I did realize that this was only a part time solution, and that soon we'd have to look for some other kind of lodging. And by that point, I couldn't promise Alissa that we'd all still be together. Of course, I'd still be there for her.
As glad as I was to be out of North Dakota and have Loft out of my head, I knew that we were kind of stuck here now. My bank account was pockets of pennies now, and the little that Ryland had saved up was almost as dry. I severely doubted that Red had anything stashed away, so we were starting out at zero. Idealistically, all four of us getting jobs and renting a little house or a larger apartment would be nice. Probably not very realistic, but it was an option. I already knew that when signing up with a demon master, there's an upfront reward. I could ask for money, a job, or a house from the master. Of course, then I wouldn't be able to leave Louisiana unless I wanted a repeat of my boss trying to claw my brains out. Everything had its downside.
I tried to think about all this and approach it through Alissa's eyes. But just the thought made my heart hurt. When she had come to this new Beginning, she had hated it. Hated me, I think. How did I know that she didn't want to leave this Beginning? How was I sure that she wouldn't just leave me after a while? It was painful to think about. I scolded myself that I needed to talk to Alissa about what she thought. But I was way too selfish.
Once I got our living conditions and finances under control, then I'd ask her. Just so that she'd get a taste of this new Beginning, and make a measured choice. Until then, I'd have to play it by ear.
I opened my eyes as I was resting on one of the couches to see that Alissa was inches away from my face. Her closeness startled me, and I flinched a little.
"Oh, sorry," She smiled as she backed off a few inches. I noticed that she was sitting on her knees, her arms propped up against my side and the edge of the couch. "I didn't know you were sleeping."
I sat up on my elbows, curious as to why Alissa was sitting on the ground and why she had woken me. "No worries. What's up?"
"I found Portia's library," Alissa said excitedly, pulling her arms back to give me more room on the couch. "It's full of books like the ones you used to read to me. Remember those?"
"Right," I nodded. "Hey, um, Alissa, I need to ask you something."
Her smile faded a little as she watched me steadily. I felt like my heart was caged in cold iron.
I ran my hand through my hair as I tried to think. How exactly could I ask her something so incredibly serious? I didn't want to ruin anything between us, but I couldn't keep such an illusion up for so long. It just wasn't fair to either of us.
When I looked back at the kelpie, I could tell that she had completely fallen into seriousness. Her face looked cold without her smile.
"I think I know what you mean," Alissa said quietly. "About the Beginning."
The word made me wince a little. She was dead on to my worries.
"I'm not sure what you want me to say, Ben," She went on. "It's still a lot to process. But right now, I'm just trying to…"
The kelpie raised her arms and looked to her hands, just as she had done when she had first woken into this body. She flexed her fingers, then tightened them into a loose fist. "I'm just trying to cope."
I don't think another word could've crushed me as much as that one did.
The word was a sharp reminder that it was my fault—that I had done this to her—and she was doing her best to deal with it. To deal with the life I had forced upon her. How sickening it was, my motives. Just because I wanted her here with me. I was so, so selfish.
"No, I get it," She interrupted, bowing her head to watch her fist. There were rising tears in her voice. "I can tell why you did it, Ben. But I don't…I honestly don't know if I would've done the same."
A sharp pain rose over me and caught in my throat. This was the result of my carelessness. I had to do something about it.
I suddenly reached out and grabbed both of Alissa's wrists firmly. She looked up at me in shock, and there were brackish tears running down her cheeks.
"I panicked," I told her, choking on my own words. "I saw you in the window room of the house as it went up in flames—I didn't want you to die like that, Alissa! I couldn't do that to you, after I'd protected you all this time. I had to do something, even if the only option was this."
I bowed my head as well, letting out a deep sigh. "I had to do something, anything. Just to make sure you'd be safe again. Just…somehow. And I'm sorry that I forced you into this Beginning. I'm so, so sorry. I didn't want things to turn out this way."
It was silent between us for a few moments. All I could hear was the faint ticking of a clock somewhere in the house, counting the seconds that were quiet between Alissa and I. A small weight had lifted off my shoulders, now that I had voiced my worries. It was for the better, I knew that. Even if Alissa got up and walked out of the house and I never saw her again, just apologizing resonated so deeply in me. There were so many apologies that I couldn't make—could never make—and that had driven me insane for so many years. Even if this was somewhat different, I had said it. I wasn't happy with myself, but that was never an option.
I felt Alissa moving in my grip around her wrists, and it faintly passed my mind that as a ghost, she had had burn marks around them. I let go, my thoughts too numb to worry about her not wanting to be in my grasp.
But as soon as I let go of her wrists, Alissa seized my face in her hands. I noticed how cold they were, but that was just because she was a kelpie.
She sat up on her knees, leaned in and kissed me.
Her lips were warm, and I found myself being pulled into the kiss; I wrapped one hand around the back of her head to hold her against me. I didn't care that her hair was still drenched.
It felt like a jolt of electricity ran through me, racing through every limb. How long had I waited for this? How many years, how many times had I thought about it? And only once had I tried to act upon it, only to panic at the last moment.
This moment was perfect. This was the moment I had waited to have for such a long time, and it was all worth it.
Alissa gently pulled away after a few moments, and my hand behind her head fell to her bare shoulder.
She smiled at me, and I could see both sadness and happiness in her face. She rubbed her thumbs carefully across my jaw.
"I've wanted to do that for so long," She whispered, her voice on the verge of tears again. "So I thank you for giving me the chance to do that."
I let out a short laugh, squeezing her shoulder gently. My heart felt so much lighter from that one kiss. In that moment, I had forgotten all the pain and suffering I carried in me, all the worries and doubts that plagued my mind and sleep for so many decades. In one moment, Alissa had drawn that all out of me, and replaced it with such a warm and light feeling.
My hand traveled from her shoulder to her cheek, which I cupped gently. She leaned into it, her gaze still steady on me.
"I love you, Alissa," I said carefully. It was impossible to fit all my emotions into those simple little words, but they felt so natural.
Black tears spilled out of her eyes again as I said that. Alissa smiled despite her tears and held my face gently. "I love you too, Ben."
My other hand wrapped around her back and I pulled her into my arms. Such overwhelming warmth filled me, and I could only pray that it was the same for her. Alissa hugged me back tightly, her salty tears barely fazing me as they drenched my shirt.
"We're going to get through this," I told her warmly, leaning my head against her pale blonde hair. "Together. I promise."