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Time moves slower, after.

Her phone still rings with calls from hungry reporters - usually warded off by Steph’s far-from-calm, “Fuck off already,” answer when she snatches the phone from her whenever they’re together - and her shifts at the record store always seem to end way too fast, but the days themselves linger, and Alex is grateful for it in a way she’s never been before.

She can still remember turning sixteen at one of the many orphanages, treated to a bland, boxed vanilla cake from the closest convenience store that was stolen away by the other girls before she could have a bite. She remembers the paper party hat, string pressing into her chin as she was forced to ‘socialize’ with people who weren’t sincere. She remembers wanting the day to end as fast as possible, and feeling as though time was spiting her on purpose the longer she sat there, alone in a room full of people. 

Haven Springs takes its time with her, and Alex clings to every second.

 

 

 

 

June is a flurry of colors in sweltering weather. 

The record store is absolutely bursting with them, and so is the town, full of new people and new emotions. No one expected the news to bring so many people looking for a story, expecting a myth, receiving mom and pop shops and a close knit community rattled by the reveal instead. It was good for business - the town peppered with coupons and discounts - but hard for the people who called this new source of tourism a home. 

And the colors, well, they were blinding.

Can you believe such a thing happened in a small town?

That bar was owned by the killer, I think.

Can you even call him a killer if he didn’t kill anyone?

How could you even say that? It says what he did right there in the paper.

I think that’s her, the girl...

Alex was starting to learn her power better than ever before, but even with that experience, the colors were too much, and she found herself avoiding Main Street as much as she could. Steph noticed something was off with Alex almost immediately, the first week people started to arrive, asking far too many questions and demanding far too many answers. It was when she asked to change her shifts around that Steph finally asked, and it didn’t take much convincing for Alex to spill her truth right then and there. 

Steph walked with her to work from then on, and glared at the tourists that got too close, treating the townspeople of Haven like animals of a zoo exhibit with their flashing cameras and curious eyes and awed smiles. The emotions wandering about were still strong as ever, but having someone at her side, fingers brushing softly at their side as they walked, grounded her more than she thought it ever could.      

 

 

 

 

As the leaves start to fade into the washed colors of a russet sunset, the hustle and bustle of summer finally begins to slow. Alex finds herself in the radio booth often, rather than running the front of the shop, like she’s supposed to be doing. Steph never seems to mind, and nothings been stolen yet, so why stop? 

So she finds herself sitting on the couch, watching Steph run an entire radio station with perfected ease.

She dances around the studio to nearly everything when she isn’t busy setting up playlists for any absences, and interacts with her listeners like she’s been DJing her entire life. She’s always smiling, always shooting Alex looks and laughing at the responses, sliding close whenever she has a second just for Alex to chide her and push her away playfully, and Alex can feel how much she loves music without even trying. They’re connected this way, through their love of drum beats and guitar strings, through acoustic and rock, through feeling the music in every single part of you instead of just listening to it. 

Steph’s pure, unadulterated joy reaches Alex without her even using her power, and through years of broken homes and a guitar that always got taken away from her, limiting her happiness, always holding her back, she hopes to feel that same way one day. Because she loves music, understands it in the same way, breathes it in and out, but she’s never gotten her hopes up about it. She’s never allowed herself to be free with it, to love it without fearing it, and she can’t wait for the day when that finally happens.    

Because this joy? This bright, golden, warm glow?

It’s the best feeling Alex has ever known.

 

 

 

 

Ryan takes over the bar, after. 

He apologizes to her in person on a Wednesday evening, sun dipping low into the horizon. She had responded to his texts a few weeks before, but that wasn’t enough for him, and she thinks her forgiveness overwhelms him as he sits at the end of the dock, forest-worn boots hovering inches from the rippling water. 

“Just like that?” he asks, eyes stuck on something far, far away. Their shoulders brush as Alex adjusts herself so that she’s closer to him, body a beacon of warmth in autumn’s chill.

“Just like that.”

Her voice bounds across the lake, attempting to reach whatever it is he can’t take his eyes off of, but she already knows it’s something she’ll never be able to grasp. Ryan has been lost somewhere between Haven and San Miguel and all Alex wants is for him to come back, because she misses her other best friend. There’s a part of her that still hisses in the darkness, snarking that she’s not enough, that she’ll never be enough for anyone, not ever, but it quiets abruptly when he drops the news.

“I’m gonna take over Black Lantern,” he says, voice solid. Alex tears her gaze away from the mountains to look over at him, at the stubble that’s growing and growing and growing. If he keeps it, he’ll look just like Jed, just younger, with more heart and less creases. She doesn’t want him to. It wouldn’t fit who he really is. A million questions race through her brain the longer she looks, but different words are tumbling out on autopilot. 

“I think new management is just what that old dive needs.” 

Ryan scoffs, head shaking. The corner of his lips twitches into a small smile. “The only dive around here is the record store. Dusty old instruments, outdated posters,” he fakes a shiver, “records…”

Alex gapes, appalled, hand to her chest. “How dare you,” she gasps. “You’re lucky Steph didn’t hear you say such lies.”

Because this is them. Joking, smiling, laughing. Two lights in the darkness.

Ryan finally turns his head away from that lost point in the distance, chuckling. “That’s why I said it to you and not her.”

Alex stares at him for a long second. Then, a knowing smile curves her lips. “I’m totally telling her you said that.”

“What? No!”

“Hey man, who am I to hide truths?”

“You can literally see people’s emotions, hiding truths is all you got!” 

They bicker for a few more moments, Ryan attempting to save his ultimate death for another day, and then they settle into a comfortable silence, the newly raised moon their only company.

“I’m glad you stayed,” he admits a while later, catching her attention. “Things are better with you here.” 

Alex leans her head on his shoulder in lieu of a response, and wonders how such a brave son came from such a cowardly father.

 

 

 

 

She has dreams sometimes.

She has dreams sometimes of violent colors; angry reds, drowning blues, deep purples. It startles her awake, sometimes, those colors pulsating around her head until it’s the only thing she can see, the only thing she can feel, like a second skin that doesn’t fit correctly. It leaves her gasping and confused, sometimes, fingers shaking as she lifts them up to card through her hair, only to pull them back and see blood; blood on her nails, blood on her palms, blood dripping from her head onto her covers, sliding down her cheek from eyes that bleed, blood that’s cold, cold, cold as it slips down her skin, carving a new path.

She reaches for her phone, sometimes, trembling and sweating and unsure if the blood she smears across the screen is from her or her brother, breath stuttered and dangerously uneven. 

Texting is hard, sometimes, so she calls and waits for the moment when she’ll hear nothing but an emotionless voicemail box on the other end, but that never comes. Steph never falters, never allows a sometime like that to happen, and answers before the third ring. 

A call is enough, sometimes, but Steph is there before she can realize five minutes have passed, the main key still hidden outfront from the other sometimes. A hand grips her arm, firm, gentle, steady, Steph leaning over her with enough distance between them so that she’s not crowded - this is a dance they know all too well already - and she exhales all the air she didn’t know she was holding.      

Steph smiles, that I’m so proud of you smile as the colors slowly fade from her vision, peeling away until only the apartment is left, colorless as it should be.

When Alex wakes up the next morning, she’s far from alone.

Steph is fast asleep at her side, fingers twisted in Alex’s own.    

 

 

 

 

The newly owned Brown Bear Diner is homey.

Almost too homey, dare Alex say it, but she won’t, because she likes it here a lot. Different colored bear pictures adorn the wooden walls, and there’s even a sketch from Ethan among them. The booths are colored orange and white, the tables between them reminiscent of a log from the way it’s designed, with smooth rugged edges. You can see the kitchen through a wide open window behind the counter, and postcards sit in a stand on the left corner, a dollar each. 

Alex’s favorite booth is in the back corner, close to the always-running coffee machine that sits in wait across from her. She finds herself sitting and thinking some days, practicing her power on others. The diner had been the perfect place to start, home to regulars and any lingering tourists, and it was easy to take her time, and gain more of a control though little things. 

Mac found a home at the counter nursing a mug of steaming joe every evening, flicking through a magazine when his phone didn’t occupy him enough. Alex still didn’t like him, no matter how pressured he was from Typhon, but he wore his emotions on his sleeve, which made it easy for her to practice holding and exploring genuine sadness. His life was quiet now, void of Riley, void of an overbearing job now that he had found work at the bike shop down the street, and all that was left was a hue of blue that usually staggered her if she were to run into it on the street.

She pratices until she can hold it for a few minutes, able to order food and function normally even if the world around her feels empty, even if her skin crawls in discomfort at the paranoia of people around her, held strong by the weight she feels pressing into her heart.

A part of her wonders if Mac needs more help than Haven can offer, but she always finds herself far from brave whenever she feels the urge to ask him.

Eleanor comes to the diner for lunch during the week, sitting a few booths down from Alex. She orders Alex a slice of chocolate cake whenever she catches the younger girl staring, and never accepts any money for the cheeky deed, no matter how much she insists. 

It’s when she’s waiting for her lunch to be served that Alex gets practice with the fear of the unknown. It’s endlessly suffocating when she first tunes into it, breath catching in her throat as she struggles to focus, focus, focus, until things fade into cracked clarity. It’s there that she learns Eleanor is fearless in everything but memories, because she can feel that Typhon, though it still haunts the back of her thoughts, never truly scared her, and neither did Jed.   

What truly scares her is the loss of everything she’s ever known. 

Everything closes in and expands all at once, and she hates the feeling but she’s not forgein to it by the time she gets a better grip on it, able to inhale and exhale, though it’s still more shaky than she likes. 

Mastering the emotion of fear is going to take a long while, though she’s happy with the slow progress she’s making.

Training with anger, by far the toughest emotion for her to control still, comes easily every Friday at six o’clock, when the bald man - who she should probably learn the name of - comes stomping through the door, always angry about one thing or another. His anger is always red hot, burning if you could reach out and touch it, and it takes hold of her every limb and pulls until everything feels detached, and the only thing she can feel is pure rage. 

It’s strong enough to nearly make her have an outburst, and a lot of her time goes into learning how to deal with that, how to cool it down and disrupt it until she can see through eyes that only see red, and try to understand how to live with so much of a consuming feeling coursing through every part of you. 

She’s grateful for the time to be able to practice any of it at all.

 

 

 

 

There’s a bullet in her shoulder.

Or, at least, there was, until she was taken to the hospital and they had plucked it from deep within her skin like it was nothing more than a nuisance and not something that people used to kill other people.  

The doctors had told her then that the only reason she was able to move as much as she did was the adrenaline, and if the bullet had gone clean through, well, she would’ve bled out before she so much as made it to the bottom of the mine that was meant to be her graveyard.

It’s ironic that the bullet meant to kill her saved her.

But.

There’s a bullet in her shoulder.

She swears she can still feel it on the days when she doesn’t feel much at all.

 

 

 

 

Valkyrie can see into her soul.

Steph laughs whenever Alex suggests it, but the empath knows it’s true, because whenever the goddamn cat looks at her, she doesn’t move until Alex moves first, and she still can’t pet her, no matter how hard she tries. There were many reasons why she was a dog person, but this cat had topped them all.

So the cat hates her, she secretly hates the cat, and life goes on.

Until it doesn’t.

Steph, ever the genius, has the bright idea to bring Valkyrie over for a sleepover in Alex’s apartment one night, and then leaves her there for a whole week. She swears she just forgets to grab the mangy thing every time she leaves, but Alex can see the smile she fails to hide as she hurries out the door before either human or cat can follow, and Alex and Valkyrie have a very steady deal where they stay away from each other at all times.

(This deal is only broken when Alex forgets to feed her once, which is quickly remedied by a hiss or three when she’s strumming a lonesome melody.)

But then she has a nightmare one night, one that actually gets her to scream as she awakes, and as she shudders and gasps for air she can’t find, Valkyrie climbs into her lap like it’s the simplest thing in the world. She pushes against Alex’s shaking hands until she starts to pet her, lungs still rattling with the horror of her dreams, and Valkyrie...stays.

She stays where others have not.

 

 

 

 

The new flourishing of the bar fits it better.

It fits the town and the people held within, and it becomes more of a hangout than it ever was before. It’s no longer filled with old memoirs - all but Gabe, that is, whose plaque Ryan shines weekly - and instead covered with things everyone helps pick out together. 

It’s an old place with a new start.

Alex helps out Ryan whenever he needs it, and he slips Steph tips to hide in her apartment because Alex refuses to take them herself, and then there are the nights where she and Steph are playtesting new story scenarios with Ethan. Outside is cold with a gripping winter chill, and though her relationship with Charlotte is better than it was months ago, she still promises to text with updates. And while the two are busy rambling details and characters, she glances at them both, and feels whole in a way she’s never felt before.

Her eyes wander to Gabe’s plaque, and she wonders what life would be like if he was in the seat beside her.

 

 

 

 

There’s a scar on her shoulder.

It’s not big, and it’s not small, but she finds herself tracing it in the mirror anyway, transfixed by a memory that’ll never be forgotten. A lot of things will eventually be forgotten one day, pain mended by scar tissue, pieced together bit by bit until it’s bearable in a way it never was before.

That memory though, of a certain kind of pain she’d never felt before exploding in her shoulder before her body had tumbled toward certain death, grasping planks that broke like dust under her fingers...that was a hard thing to forget.

She can still feel Jed’s sudden wave of sadness if she puts her mind to it.

She tries her best not to think of it.

There’s a scar on the side of her head that stays, through and through. Small in it’s injury, substantial in its meaning, heart aching in a way she can’t fix every time she catches it staring back at her in the shine of the mirror.

The times she starts to see blood instead of a skin, she anchors herself by thinking of the small world enclosed around her, and the sound of creaking wood and the smell of weeping wounds fades into the background until she hears nothing at all. When she blinks, her own face stares back at her, clean of any dirt, clean of any blood. 

 

 

 

 

Gabe’s right about the apartment. 

It actually annoys Alex somewhat, about how right he was.

She rearranges a few things, hangs up others, tacks Steph’s postcards to the wall above her bed. She fixes the leaking faucet with minimal help from Ryan, and stacks the heavily used shot glasses nicely on the small shelf they sit on. She takes an entire day to beat the high score on the arcade machine, resets it just so she can do it all over again because Gabe’s name deserves to be there, always, and moves the foosball table over so that it’s not in the middle of the floor. 

She buys pretty sheets, donates the old ones, paints the walls a different color, makes a pillow fort with Ethan that stretches from the door all the way to the far window and laughs the hardest she has in years when Steph opens the door after work and just looks at them, expression stuck somewhere between excited and disappointed, but mostly the former.

She buys Valkyrie a cat tower, hopes that maybe she’ll like her a little more for it, and is surprised when the cat takes up residence in her place for longer than a week because she just likes it that much. She cleans, she cooks, she orders takeout, she plays guitar, she skips laundry day just because she has the freedom to do whatever she wants, and some days, she just lays in bed and wonders when this apartment became a home to her.

She can’t pinpoint an exact moment - maybe that night Ethan beat her three times on that video game, maybe when Steph had brought her dinner for the first time, flowers hidden behind her back. Maybe that day Ryan and her binged the newest season of that nature show he was into, maybe that evening where Riley and her attempted to cook one of Eleanor’s family recipes and failed, hilariously.

She finds the very moment it happened doesn’t matter, as long as she gets to continue living every moment that comes after.

 

 

 

 

The emotions well up and bleed over sometimes.

After all, taking someone else’s emotions wasn’t probably the best thing to do, and it still affected her from time to time. Charlotte’s anger made her nails dig into her palms so hard that she bled, and Pike’s fear paralysed her, freezing her limbs. 

Steph was always there, steady at her side when her chest felt like it was about to cave in, when her heart promised she couldn’t take anymore, when her breath caught and she swore people were watching through the windows because privacy was never guaranteed in a town so open. 

She was always there, an anchor to hold onto while Alex struggled to swim back from the depths of the sea, drowning and begging and pleading and pushing and shoving and hating until a breath of fresh air was shoved into her lungs, and she was no longer drowning. Instead she’s being held close, and her emotions are calm against the warmth of Steph’s calm strength, and everything that was heightened begins to dull into something much more manageable.

“You’re okay,” Steph whispers, voice still loud in the silence of the apartment. “You’re here with me, and I got you.”   

“Yeah,” Alex exhales, fingers still trembling, heart still thundering with heartbeats that were not her own. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”

She only believes it when Steph repeats it back and they stay pressed together until Alex can believe it herself.

 

 

 

 

She visits the mine, after.

The gate is still ajar, even after the investigations and reporters, footprints stamped into the dirt on the other side. She stops short, staring into the darkness that beckons her forth, and hears the echoes of Jed’s voice, cursing amidst preventable chaos. 

Human nature always fell back to flight or fight, fear or bravery.

She stares at the mine, and hates how so many people were lost to such flight.

When she turns away, she doesn’t look back, and closes a chapter on her life she doesn’t plan to open ever again.

 

 

 

 

She tells Steph she doesn’t want to stay in Haven Springs forever. 

Forever is too permanent of a word, no matter how comfortable she gets in this quaint little town, and neither of them will ever fully belong there, one foot left jamming the door open so that when they want to leave, they can.

The town, and the people within, have a way that makes you feel like you belong, no matter who you are. Alex has never felt like she’s belonged anywhere, and all she’s ever wanted was a place to call home, once and for all, without having to worry about it being swept out from under her. 

Haven was the perfect placeholder, until she grew close to the people inside of it, and realized her home would never truly be a place. 

When she was little, after her mom died, her house didn’t feel right, it never did, and that was because her mom was no longer around to light up the dark corners Alex had always been afraid of. Her father was always working, her brother there but not, and then they were both gone, but that house still stood. And as she was taken away by people with kind smiles and gentle hands, badges clipped neatly to the bottom of jackets, she wondered if whoever lived in their house after would think of it as a home, or as the dark place it had become.

She tells Steph to give it some time and then they’ll both hit the road anyway, because they’re still young and the world is theirs to explore, a freedom Alex has never had.

“Okay,” Steph says, glancing away from the far horizon so that she can look over at Alex, half-emptied beer cans resting on the table between them. She could never bring herself to replace it with something nicer. There’s a certain twinkle in her eye as she smiles. “To Salem?”

“To wherever we want to go,” Alex replies easily, because this is one the easiest decisions she’s ever made in her life. For the first time in a long time she thinks of Gabe, of his smile as he had sat in Steph’s chair, genuinely happy as he had watched the sun disappear behind massive mountains, reunited with his sister at long last. She doesn’t feel as much grief as she used to, when she pictures him. 

“I’d like that,” Steph whispers, and there’s an emotion emitting from her that Alex hasn’t felt before, and she doesn’t know what to do with it, so she quietly holds it close, because something about it just feels right

“Me too.”

Time moves slower, after. 

She appreciates the chance to finally live every second.