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“I gotta break some devastating news to you, Chen: the way you like your coffee is vile.” 

Alex presses back into the overabundance of pillows on her bed, eyes following Steph as she carefully tiptoes her way across the apartment from the kitchen. In her hands is a steaming mug fresh from the tired old Keurig that Gabe had clearly used daily. “It really doesn’t need any sugar. Just a splash of milk and I’m golden,” Alex defends herself, murmuring a thank you when Steph safely delivers the drink to her without a single drop spilled. Alex pauses to take the first sip that inevitably scalds the roof of her mouth, then sits back with a thoughtful tilt of her head. “How do you take your coffee, by the way? I feel like you’d prefer it black.”

Steph smirks. “Black as my soul, baby.” 

“It does go along with the whole rocking a witch hat and owning a black cat vibe you’ve got going.”

Alex watches Steph hesitate before perching herself on the foot of the bed. It’s weirdly endearing to see such a headstrong person take pause at something so trivial— but whatever’s going through Steph’s head at the moment, it’s not intense enough to leak out in a technicolor display. Alex can’t decide if it’s better or worse for her sanity that she has to decode her friend’s body language and facial cues the old-fashioned way. But Steph would definitely give Alex a hard time for overanalyzing her right now; maybe she’d be better off turning herself inside out and picking apart her own emotions first. Self-reflection requires an idyllic rooftop garden setting at minimum, however, and since Alex is currently still injured and confined to bed rest for at least a day, she supposes it’ll have to wait.

“No, uh, actually,” Steph says after a few seconds, and if Alex had intact ribs, she would reach forward and shove her for saying actually like that, “I hate coffee, period. Shit’s nasty. No disrespect to you coffee drinkers, but if I ever use up my supply of natural charismatic energy, I’d rather just chug a Monster.”

Alex snorts. She likes this feeling of getting to know somebody for real, learning all their habits and quirks. She’s never really had that chance before. “But I didn’t think they sold energy drinks at the Magpie Emporium,” she teases.

“Of course not. At the Emporium we only sell the finest quality potions and elixirs with top-secret formulas. Take this brew, for instance,” Steph explains in her tried and true mysterious shopkeeper voice. She indicates the ceramic coffee mug Alex has her hands wrapped around (the well-loved mug, which reads Sabertooths on the side, is something of Gabe’s, of course— chipped and stained with the ghosts of coffees past, from all the countless mornings the Chen siblings spent apart). 

Alex holds up the coffee with raised eyebrows. “This brew?”

“That’s right.” Steph leans closer, one elbow digging into the mattress, her earlier qualms about sitting on the bed apparently forgotten. “That drink you’re holding, in hands scarred from years of plucking the strings of your sacred instrument, is crafted from mystical beans that only grow on the peak of the tallest mountain in the land. It is those beans alone that, when combined with fresh spring water, create a brew that provides all the sustenance a talented bard needs.” By the end of her spiel, Steph is lounging on her stomach on the bedspread, staring at Alex so intently that she can’t help wondering if maybe some of her mind-reading powers do have the ability to rub off on others. And what exactly would Steph find out if she had a window into Alex’s thoughts right now?

(Maybe she would notice what Alex has noticed, which is that her hand has come to rest dangerously close to Alex’s thigh, fingertips one twitch away from touching her. Not that Alex has noticed on purpose or anything. She just has, like, a very clear view of what’s in front of her in such an open-concept apartment. The placement of Steph’s hand in relation to her thigh is totally a minor detail in the grand scheme of things.)

Alex hides a giggle behind the rim of her mug. “You’re cute when you really get into your lore.” Fuck, too far, she thinks, but at the same time, she couldn’t help herself. While she takes a slightly-less-scalding sip of coffee, she gauges Steph’s reaction to the comment. And wow, it sure does take a while for Steph’s brain to reboot. Once it does, she suddenly seems to realize how comfortable she’s gotten on Alex’s bed, and she hurries to sit back up.

“And... how cute am I the rest of the time?” Steph murmurs. Faint purple ripples around her, but before Alex can investigate it, something sharp bites into her next breath. She grits her teeth around a groan. Instantly Steph jumps into action, leaping off the bed and darting to her side. Even through watering eyes, Alex can see her aura morph into a different kind of fear. “Alex, are you okay?” Steph demands, crouching to her level in an attempt to pin down her gaze. “Talk to me, do you need another pill or—”

“I’m fine.” 

Steph’s look hardens with disbelief.

“Really,” Alex assures her. She lets Steph take the mug from her hands and move it out of the way onto the dresser. “Just a little pain. It’s over now.”

Steph gives a heavy sigh, setting her hands on her hips and gazing absently around the apartment. “Just when you think you’ve been through enough shit already,” she mutters. The bitterness woven between her words rings loud and clear, and knowing that she’s feeling it on Alex’s behalf— dragging herself down too even though she doesn’t have to— really resonates with Alex. But it’s also kind of worrying that Steph is willing to do that for her. To feel for her. Alex doesn’t want her to feel obligated. Her guilt is fed even more when Steph asks after a minute, “Is there something I can do for you anyway? Anything at all? You name it, it’s done. Like strangling Typhon’s CEO with my bare hands, for example. Just a thought.”

Alex wishes she could laugh harder without it hurting. “Ex-CEO now. And they’ll just go cower in their mansion and wait for the whole thing to blow over, I’m sure... though I’d be down for it to never blow over.” Noticing a bothersome smudge on her glasses, Alex takes them off and risks the forbidden act of using her shirt sleeve to wipe off the lens. That’s when a hand lands over hers.

“Allow me,” Steph says. When Alex doesn’t move right away, she rolls her eyes. “Seriously, Chen? You think I can’t handle cleaning your sexy nerd glasses?”

Alex grimaces but acquiesces nonetheless, handing over the item. “Okay, fine. Thanks.” Before Steph can walk away, though, she lifts a scolding finger and says, “Correction: they’re fragile sexy nerd glasses, so be careful with them. Please.”

Steph shoots her a finger gun of understanding as she backs around the corner to the bathroom. When she returns a minute later with thankfully unharmed glasses, she comes to an abrupt halt just before reaching the bed and Alex’s outstretched hand.

Alex squints and drops her arm. “What is it?”

“I’ve, uh.” Steph clears her throat and shifts her weight. “Never seen you without your glasses before.”

Alex’s responding smile is small but genuine. “Well, I hope you don’t like it too much, because I have to admit, I prefer you when you’re not a fuzzy blur.” She wiggles her fingers expectantly, and with a breathless chuckle Steph moves as if to return the glasses, only to catch Alex by surprise and gently slide them back on her face for her instead.

Steph bends down in front of her with hope sketched onto her features. “So? How’d I do?”

“Hmm.” Alex makes a show of swiveling her head all around. “Looks perfect to me.”

“Yesss! Told ya!” With a triumphant pump of her fist, Steph straightens again and traces a restless circle around the apartment. “Okay, so, here’s the plan for tonight: I’ll go snag us some ice cream from Avalanche, then when I get back we could put on Aha Shake Heartbreak and vibe. Paint our nails and shit. Maybe I can convince Ryan to step away from the Lantern for a minute to eat with us later—”

“Wait, hold on,” Alex interrupts, a dent in her brow. “You’re— you’re not sick of me yet?”

“Pshh.” Steph waves off the question. “C’mon, Chen. Nobody around here is sick of you.” She kills her pacing and blinks over at her. “Least of all me. Just, uh, for the record.” Then she winks because, ugh, record. Of course that’s the word she would choose.

Alex’s heart swells until it takes up every bit of space in her bruised rib cage. Despite the drama that transpired since her arrival in Haven, she couldn’t be more grateful for and baffled by the support she’s received from the people here. Everyone has only known her for a little over a month, and yet they all stood up for her at the council meeting. Going against a community leader they’d trusted for years— all in her brother’s memory, and for her. It’s a foreign feeling, but Alex suspects that a lot of the love and loyalty in the town came pre-installed thanks to a certain somebody gushing about her before she ever even set foot in Haven Springs. Her eyes briefly float to the ceiling. Thanks, Gabe. 

The last thing Alex wants to do is send Steph away, but she’s also aware she can’t hold Steph hostage in her boring apartment for another several hours. The truth is that she’ll probably heal at the same rate whether or not Steph is in her company, though deep down Alex likes to think otherwise.

“You’ve already done so much for me today,” Alex tells her. “I really owe you one. You stuck with me through going to the hospital, leaving the hospital, and you kept the bickering with Ryan to a minimum during the car ride just for my sake. You must be beat by now.”

Steph grins. “Hey, that’s nothing. It’s easy not to bully Ry as long as he lays off the facts about, like, lark buntings or whatever.” Then she facepalms. “Shit, I actually remembered the name of a bird. That means I absorbed some of it.”

Alex is able to laugh once before the pain glares through again. Hmm, perhaps she should take another dose of pain meds and coast on a numb high for a bit. “Okay, lark buntings aside, you really don’t have to stay here. You should get back to the store, check on Val...”

“I hate to say it, but after yesterday I doubt anyone’s tuning in to the station right now. And I checked on Her Majesty Valkyrie when I grabbed lunch an hour ago— she was as perfectly content and bitchy as she always is. Trust me, she treasures her alone time.” Steph shrugs and points a thumb over her shoulder at the door. “But if you want me to bounce, I’ll bounce.” 

They both stare at each other for a little while, stuck in a denial-fueled stalemate (and if you asked Alex if it’s denial-fueled, she would deny it, thank you very much). Alex doesn’t actually want Steph to leave, but she feels the need to offer her an out. And on Steph’s end, nerves have manifested themselves into a new haze of purplish-blue all around her. Alex focuses on her and takes the plunge:

“Please don’t make me go, Alex. You know I don’t want to.”

Steph raises a brow. “Did you hear that?”

Alex snuggles back into her pillows with a dramatic sigh. “You’re the worst. Why don’t you just say it out loud?”

“Because.” Steph approaches the door and shrugs on her jacket before pointing back at Alex. “So what are you feeling?” Alex’s heart starts to race, but then Steph elaborates, “Rocky road? Pistachio?” She bobs her head up and down, narrowing her eyes as if she’s giving Alex a thorough appraisal. “I feel like you might actually fuck with pistachio.”

It’s about ice cream. Of course. Alex coughs out an answer that could be strawberry or could be cookie dough, hell if she knows— she barely hears herself speak. Then Steph heads out the door with the promise she’ll be back soon, leaving Alex all alone with her own mind. How intimidating.

Her eyes land back on the mug of barely-touched coffee sitting on the dresser. There’s a soft golden glow around it. Intrigued, Alex zeroes in on the unassuming object and uncovers a memory fragment.

“Here you go, buddy! One piping hot cocoa topped with the best marshmallows in the kingdom.” Gabe’s voice. Alex’s heart twists.

“Awesome!” That’s Ethan. “Ahh, that’s good. Thanks, Gabe.” 

“Anytime. Now let’s try to beat this level before your mom gets back...” 

The voices fade into oblivion. After hearing them, Alex is desperate for anything to push away the melancholy. Unfortunately for her yearning bisexual self, there’s no better way to do that than by turning her thoughts to Steph again. God, Alex really, really should’ve given her a rose at the Spring Festival. You’re a dumbass, Alex. That was the perfect shot, and you missed it. 

When she wakes up the following morning, they’re tangled up in the same sheets in the same bed, Alex’s body partially wrapped around Steph’s. And that’s when she knows they’re both in it deep.

By the next day, Alex is able to limp around pretty well without the use of crutches. (She’d rather lean on Steph or Ryan anyway, but that’s only after they insist on it.) That’s the same day Steph looks her in the eyes and tears up her bus ticket out of town without an ounce of regret. 

Later, Alex sits on the roof and converses with the Gabe living in her head— wearing the same clothes he died in, but his body unbroken. He’s still the same annoying brother who kept punching her arm while they waited in that stark hallway outside their mom’s hospital room. The brother who told thirteen-year-old Alex that he would hike to the ends of the earth to find her again one day.

But then the version of Gabe in her head— he and Steph really should start paying rent with how much space they take up in there— does something unexpected. He leans forward on the flimsy patio chair, one of his emergency supply beers settled loosely between his hands, and he tells Alex that she’s going to stay in Haven. Even after all that happened. (But it’s not all that surprising, not really.)

So Alex does something unexpected, too. She looks over at him with a dull chuckle, ignoring the stab of pain it causes. “I should’ve kissed her,” she says quietly. She turns her eyes back to the breathtaking view ahead of them— what had been Gabe’s personal slice of heaven for so long is now hers to admire.

Of course Gabe doesn’t have to ask who she’s talking about. He’s part of Alex’s own mind, after all. (And even if he was himself and this wasn’t such a small town, it would be obvious as hell.) He shrugs and takes a sip, eyes also drifting out to the living landscape portrait nature has painted for them. “Eh. You have all the time in the world to do that.”

Alex sits back in the chair and crosses one leg over the other, then uncrosses it. (One time Steph called her out and sent a “Society if Alex didn’t sit so gay” meme in the group chat with Ryan, and Alex couldn’t deny the accuracy of it. The joke became less funny, however, when they both then had to explain what it meant to Ryan, who is the most endearingly internet-ignorant 25-year-old one could meet.) “I had the perfect opportunity at the Spring Festival,” she laments. “Even without the roses, the atmosphere just felt... right. I already flirted with her a little during the LARP, and even though we were playing characters it was— it was natural to me. It wasn’t just tongue-in-cheek, you know?” (And there sure wasn’t anything tongue-in-cheek about a glimmering gold Steph and “I do, I do, I do!”) Alex sighs. “Then when I saw her at the Fest”— and she freaked about Alex’s skirt of all things, hello!— “we performed together, and it was just... electric.”

Gabe laughs heartily, throwing his head back. “You really are something, Alex. Please, don’t forget the part where you proposed marriage to a girl you only knew for a couple weeks at that point. And then winked.”

Alex swings her head in his direction. “Wait, how do you know— oh, right. You’re me.” She winces and hides her face in her hands. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I’ve ranted way too much, haven’t I?”

He shrugs. “I don’t mind listening.” He leans across the table as if to let her in on a secret. “It’s not like I really have anything better to do.” That earns him a playful shove, after which he adds, “Okay, look. I’m no expert, but—”

“Dude, you and Charlotte were smitten with each other,” Alex interrupts.

“But still,” Gabe says, patient as ever, “you should just make a move. That’s my advice to you as your super smart subconscious big brother.” His face grows more solemn. “Alex— I know how it is, okay? You’re in a new place, and you want it to be different from wherever you just escaped from. You meet somebody new, and you want to associate them with something good. So you fall. Sound familiar?”

Numb, Alex nods and slouches in the chair. She feels like she’s being stripped bare, all her inner workings exposed to be poked and prodded at. Mind-Gabe means well, but it’s still uncomfortable.

“Maybe you’ve repeated that pattern a little with Haven. But for the first time, there’s a break in the pattern.” Enter one Stephanie Gingrich. Gabe looks at her fondly. “I promise you she’s different, Alex. She was one of my best friends, so I would know. Be happy, please, and go for it.” 

Later that week, Alex and Steph are parked at the bar in the Black Lantern after Steph has closed the record shop for the night. It’s late, but Ryan is still bustling all around the place, pushing out the last couple of orders called in over the phone and dropping off checks at the table of a couple who have finished their burgers and beer. Alex had offered to help, but of course Ryan stayed firm on letting her rest some more before even thinking of getting back to work. Then Steph had walked in and proved to be an effective distraction. 

Although Ryan has developed an immunity to Gingrich distraction tactics over the years, he still can’t resist pausing in front of the pair on his way to the back. “Okay, no more shots of slime for you,” he says, swiping away the empty shot glass sitting in front of Steph that had previously held a mouthful of sour apple schnapps.

“Hey!” Steph protests. She thrusts out a grabby hand in pursuit of the glass, but Ryan holds it out of reach. “I only had one! Alex can vouch for me.”

Alex, who’s finishing out her round of pain meds and therefore is nursing a Coke, rolls her eyes. “It’s true, but that stuff really kicks your ass.”

“Yeah, you’re so...” Ryan takes a second to think of the right word. “... giggly.” He exaggerates a full-body shudder, then grabs a fresh pint glass off the shelf and turns around. After a minute, he places the glass, now filled with beer, in front of Steph. “There you go. And no, it’s not an IPA.” He exchanges an affectionate glance with Alex, who subtly winks; then he walks off to attend to another customer.

They spend several minutes in companionable silence, sipping and soaking in the sound from the jukebox. Alex briefly scrolls through Twitter, then skims over a hissy fit Mac decided to post on MyBlock for some reason— something about how the local grocery store should be ashamed for not having any Denver Broncos or Nuggets merch for sale. When Steph asks what’s up, Alex decides to do a dramatic narration of his tantrum, making them both dissolve into laughter. “I swear, his brain is a nugget,” Steph says mid-guffaw. Then the moment dies down, and something on her face changes. “Hey, um, speaking of bullshit.” She tugs on her beanie, a sign Alex has noticed indicates stress. Not strong enough to prompt an aura, though. 

“Yeah?” Alex puts her phone down and looks attentively at her.

“I still can’t believe Typhon’s wormed their way out of paying for your hospital bill. I mean, it’s fucking insane.”

Alex frowns and glances at her hands, idly running her thumb over her shooting star tattoo. She remembers when Chelsea, wide-eyed and beaming, convinced her to get it at the place around the corner from the group home. Sometimes Alex wonders if aging out of the foster care system was a blessing or a curse— one day a switch was flicked and suddenly they were on their own, too old to sleep in a bunk bed but too young to have any other option than to couch surf. She hopes Chelsea is okay now.

“Alex?” Steph’s voice brings her back to the present.

“Yeah, I...” Alex’s eyes dart around, still irritatingly flighty. “I know. It sucks. I’ll just have to pick up extra shifts, pay it in chunks. It’s the best I can do. And, well, Ryan did suggest something like a GoFundMe, but I wouldn’t really wanna ask that of anyone...”

Steph sits for a minute, uncharacteristically quiet as she considers. Then she tips back her glass, drains it, and slams it down on the counter hard enough that Alex half expects it to shatter in her hand. Steph looks at her, eyes unwavering as she says quite possibly the last thing Alex ever thought she would say at this moment: “We could get married.”

“Uh... w- what?” Alex sputters. The memory of her own (or was it Alwynn’s?) daring behavior during the LARP, of quite literally asking Steph for her hand in marriage, crosses her mind. In hindsight, it now seems like a bittersweet dose of irony, considering how blindsided she is at what is surely a joke proposal from Steph. But when Alex blinks, dumbfounded, at the girl sitting next to her, Steph merely blinks back with barely a trace of her trademark smirk. Alex can’t get a clear read on her, so she will have to probe a bit— which is weird, because Steph usually has an expressive rainbow of emotions around her. “Is this something you and Ryan thought would cheer me up, or...” She twists around on the stool in search of their friend, all too ready to give him shit for it. But a flash of movement and color from her other friend recaptures Alex’s attention.

“Nope. I’m dead fucking serious,” Steph insists. The briefest flicker of red traces her outline, melting into blue. Irritation, probably, that Alex’s first reaction was to deflect. But why sadness?

Alex fidgets, restless fingers finding a loose stitch on her sleeve to play with. “How would that help?”

“Well, you kinda fell down a fucking mine shaft, Chen. You could use some health insurance to help pay your hospital bills.” Steph raises one hand and waves it slightly. “And I have pretty damn good health insurance if I do say so myself. Thank my parents.”

As it fully sinks in that she isn’t messing with her, Alex’s heart starts to climb up her throat. “So... if I marry you—”

“— you get access to sweet, sweet financial relief.”

“And what’s in it for you? I mean, it’s...” Alex chews on her lip, drumming the bartop. “... it’s kind of a big deal.”

“Dude, who cares? You’re my best friend. I just wanna help.” Steph catches her eye again. “So what do you think?” And there it is— the full-bodied aura Alex has been waiting for. It unravels tentatively around her companion, a deeper and bolder shade than Alex has ever seen before, the color of the Colorado sky over Haven’s lake as it transitions from sunset to dusk— violently purple. 

“You’re an idiot, Gingrich. Why would you suggest something so batshit crazy? She’s not gonna say yes... and it shouldn’t matter if she does or not.”

Alex lets out a breath, and when they make eye contact again, she knows Steph can tell that she just took a quick dip in her mind.

“You don’t have to give me the empath treatment, Chen,” Steph tells her softly. “All that matters here is how you feel about it.”

“No.” Alex shakes her head before the words have entirely left Steph’s mouth. “No, that’s not true. Your feelings matter too. Of course they do.” There’s a beat of silence. “Maybe we should wait until you’re sober, then talk—”

“I am surer than sure about it.”

Something within Alex snaps— and sure, maybe it’s the pain meds, or maybe it’s the way her best friend looks tonight and always, but it occurs to Alex that there’s a chance this won’t be that risky of a gamble. So she closes her eyes and draws in a breath. “I- I guess if you wouldn’t be opposed to it, then...”

Steph’s jaw drops open. “So—”

“Yes.” Alex nods quickly, too quickly. “Thank you, Steph. This helps... so much.”

Next to her, Steph is a brilliant mix of violet and gold. Internally, Alex is flipping the fuck out. And to think she was so close to admitting her feelings! How can she do that now? Isn’t it pretty weird to, like, admit that she’s into somebody after the idea of marriage is brought up? There’s no way she can say it now. She’ll be doomed to flirting hell for the rest of her life, dancing around the subject like when she and Gabe were little and would jump from the sofa to the armchair in the living room, pretending the floor was lava. Shit. 

That’s the exact moment Ryan reappears, tossing a bar rag onto his shoulder. “Hey, guys,” he chirps, leaning on the counter between them. “Did I miss anything exciting in the past five minutes?”

“Oh, you sweet, sweet man.” Steph shakes her head. “You have no idea.”