You, Steph Gingrich, do not do feelings.
It’s so much more convenient to flit through life with an easy grin and an even easier attitude, to take what comes and let it leave when it wants. It’s how you’ve handled most things - but most of all, it’s how you’ve always handled relationships. Flings. Because even relationship is a little too heavy of a word - a little too big - to be anything but casual. Easy. And easy is what you like.
So you don’t do feelings. And you had plans to do the exact same thing when one Alex Chen breezes her way into Haven. There are winds of a hurricane behind her, but those are easy to ignore with some playful banter, some casual teasing.
Then her brother dies. Your best friend. And it doesn’t take long for the storm to drench you both.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere in the space after Gabe’s death - Gabe’s murder, you try not to think - things shift. Of course they do. How could they not?
But you didn’t expect things to shift exactly like this.
You, Steph Gingrich, suddenly realize that you’re in deep. That Alex Chen means something to you - and worse, she might’ve meant something to you the second she stepped into your record shop.
That’s totally not easy. Or casual. It’s… terrifying, if you have to put a word to it. You’d rather not. Because - well. If you think about it for more than a second? You realize that there’s something wonderful about it all, too.
Then you take a risk for maybe the first time in your life when it comes to feelings.
“So come with me.”
You put the rest of your nerves underneath something selfless, because that’s who you are and you need something easy to lean on in the midst of something so terrifying. You ask her what she needs because you can’t say that you need her - or something much more than that. You’ll say it someday, just… not yet.
You settle on something simple instead. “Obviously, I like you a lot, Alex.”
She kisses you and you think about how someday is going to be a lot sooner than you had ever counted on.
When you leave her on the rooftop, you find yourself wondering if she’ll be able to follow the glow emanating from you for miles, much less back into middle of the festival that’s still going on down below. You think about damsels getting rescued, of tired soldiers following a familiar beacon home and about how, finally, your life has become more fantastical than any of the best planned LARPs you’ve ever participated in.
It’s a nice feeling. It’s a feeling you want to hold onto.
Ryan catches you grinning to yourself as you sit behind your drum kit, tapping out a little beat to yourself on the empty stage. “Things went well with Alex, I assume,” he says, and it’s the way that it’s not a question that has your heart bursting like a giddy schoolgirl.
“She might propose any day now,” you waggle your eyebrows back at him, purposefully drawing out a hyperbole so that he doesn’t ask anything else serious. Because you’re starting to want to tell him, tell someone, anyone - someone’s finally caught ahold of the one and only Steph Gingrich’s heart!
But there’s also a part of you that wants to hold this golden secret in close for a little longer, just until you know what it really means. And it wouldn’t be fair, you reason to yourself, to tell anyone but Alex herself first that she has your whole heart.
So you hold onto it, and wait for her to find you.
Dusk has long since fallen, and there’s no sign of Alex.
You feel like a frozen statue, petrified by dark magic, as the festival crowd thins and disperses in groups or pairs or one by one. Alex still hasn’t shown up.
You try not to panic. You try not to get angry. This is why you don’t do feelings. To put yourself out there, to make yourself vulnerable and - for what? It’s pointless. Stupid. Worthless.
It’s not true. Deep down, you know that this is all just a defence mechanism. You found someone who was worth the risk, someone who made you want to try for once in your life and - well. Here you are now, a scared little girl sitting behind an empty drum kit, shaking too hard to even grip your drumsticks properly.
Ryan had offered to help you pack up your things for you, to drive you home. You accept, but mostly you’re pretty sure that he’s only offering because he’s scared too, and just needs someone to help shoulder the load.
It helps. At least, it does until he has to leave.
There’s nothing for you to do in your stupid apartment, in your stupid bedroom but worry. Worry and think. And pace. Worry and think and pace. And think. And worry. And think. And try to breathe through the rising panic.
You’ve sent out a million texts, or maybe just one that resonates in your head like an echo chamber - Alex, text me back when you can. I’m worried - and there’s only so much of this shit you can take before the truth starts to seep in. Why you’re so worried. Why the doubt and panic is starting to settle in your lungs like it’s choking you. And you can’t hide from it any longer.
Alex means something to you. Deeply. You had known on the rooftop and you still hadn’t said it then. Something about being too afraid of commitment or too scared to open yourself up to something big and meaningful, something that might hurt later if you let it in.
But you can’t ignore it now. Because you’re already hurting now. Alex is gone and it’s so unlike her and she wouldn’t leave someone behind -
She wouldn’t leave you.
So. You lay in bed, barely undressed aside from unlacing your boots, the ringer on your phone cranked as high as it will go because - well. Because she might call? Because she might need you?
…because you want her to need you? Because you need her to want you? To be the first one she contacts when things go wrong, when she just wants to hear someone’s voice?
So you have to admit to yourself that this isn’t some crush. That Alex never was some crush. That more than I like you a lot you have to tell yourself that you love her, that you actually love her and it isn’t so scary to admit that than it is to sit with the knowledge that she’s gone and you don’t know where she is because she didn’t tell you.
So. You lay in bed, phone clutched against your stomach as you stare at the ceiling with wide eyes and a pit deep in your stomach. And you wait. You wait, holding out the hope that she will call - soon, very soon, any minute now - because -
You have something very important to tell her. And if she doesn’t call, if she doesn’t come back, it might just ruin you because you love her. You actually really love her, more than anything. And it scares you because you never got to tell her. And now there’s a chance you never will.
Except, you do get the chance.
When everyone’s gathered inside the Black Lantern for the town council meeting - as if nothing’s wrong, as if your world isn’t slowly splitting at the seams - she finally comes back. She’s bloody and broken and bruised but she’s back.
Honestly, you’ve never seen someone more beautiful.
You tell her that seeing what she did was the bravest thing ever, and you tell her that it makes you want to be brave too. Because it did. Because it does. Brave. You watched her stand there, unflinching in the face of her own ruin, and she took on the world. So fucking brave.
So you tell her it makes you want to be brave too. There have been things piling up in your chest. Feelings crowding inside your ribs. They’re all some terrifying variation of I need you, I want you, I love you. Brave. Alex took on the world, you can do this. Even though, right now, standing in front of her with variations of those three little words clinging to your tongue, she’s your world.
“So, here it goes…”
I want you.
“I want to be with you.”
I need you.
“I don’t care about playing music, or seeing the world…”
I love you.
“I mean, I do, but… only if it’s with you.”
So, maybe it’s not exactly what your heart has been saying the entire time she was gone, but for now, it’s something. When Alex throws herself into your arms, it feels like the beginning of the world.
And it makes everything else worth it.