Chapter 1: not sure why i feel so dumb (the best of my years are yet to come)
“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—”
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.”
Chapter 2: love is just a matter of timing (and never deciding, and screaming and crying)
Ryan gets involved. Somebody here needs to have a brain cell.
ummm okay so you guys honestly blew me away with all the love and kindness on the first chapter. i'll never be able to thank you enough! it really means a lot to me.
apologies for keeping you waiting on this next part— between class and work and moving houses, i've got a lot going on right now. this has actually been written for a couple days but my desire to obsessively proofread is unfortunately stronger than the urge to immediately hit post. anyways, thanks again for reading this lil fic, like seriously. y'all rock.
chapter title taken from "object permanence" by sydney sprague.
Steph is no stranger to jumping into things. Hell, she ended up here in Haven by throwing the names of several small-town record shops into a beanie, shaking it up, and picking one at random. And many moons ago at her old high school, this place in tiny Arcadia Bay, Oregon, she found her footing in life by jumping into her imagination. She would play games that seemed to outgrow the size of the table she’d play them on. Sketch characters and settings and scenarios that were more than just pieces of a bigger story. She would imagine that the brave and beautiful girl with the long blonde hair and blue feather earring could maybe like her back. Fantasy was a fun rabbit hole to fall down, but painful once she hit the bottom.
She never really thought that the battles she brought to life with pencil and paper could end up reflecting into real life. Not through role play, but through the girl who walked into her life just over a month ago, bringing nothing with her but a beat-up duffel bag filled with all she owns and a face that kind of looks like the rest of Steph’s life. She hadn’t known it when Gabe eagerly showed her the pictures he had of his little sister, old and faded and outdated. But she knew it when she saw that face outside of a photograph for the first time, through the glass of the broadcast booth— older now, a bit broken. Steph had pressed the vinyls onto the window between them, her hands framing the face she already knew was Alex Chen. It could only be her.
(Of course, having an internal gay breakdown and calling her “some chick” hadn’t exactly been the first impression Steph wanted to leave, not that it ultimately did any harm. Still, she isn’t typically a useless lesbian. For the first time in a long time— maybe ever— somebody has made Steph falter before taking the plunge.)
Anyway, Alex’s battle isn’t with swords and shields and sapphires. It’s with herself, her memories. She’s fighting a whole different beast. Grief. Steph feels it too— Gabe was her best friend. But how must it feel to lose someone for years, to have them back for a matter of hours, before they’re ripped away and lost again? Permanently. It feels almost wrong that Steph and Ryan and everyone in Haven technically knew Alex’s brother better than she did.
The worst part was at that fucking council meeting. The door of the Lantern swinging open, Alex stumbling inside after being missing for hours. Steph still can’t get the image out of her head. Alex, covered in cuts and blood and bruises. Wearing a sweatshirt bearing the town’s name, something that should’ve signified she was finally home. But instead she was hurt. It haunts Steph. Makes her ache like the phantoms of Alex’s wounds have scarred her own body as well. She wishes she could fully understand, take the pain away from her.
So thank god, Steph thinks, that she never actually sketched out a map to guide herself through this whole game of temptation and resistance that she’s been playing with Alex. Because if she did have some sort of logical plan, she would be going waaaay off-course right about now. Actually, scratch that— she’s already been lost for a while.
Ryan comes to an abrupt stop in the middle of the trail, gravel spraying around his boots as he whirls around to face his hiking companions, both of whom are lagging quite a distance behind. It’s the day after the, um, proposal, and somebody (certainly was not Steph, definitely was Ryan) thought it would be fun to have this important conversation out in nature. “I don’t understand,” he says. “You guys want to... get married? Like, married married?”
“So glad we waited until we were halfway up the fucking mountain before telling you,” Steph says, somewhat out of breath when she catches up to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. “You were so loud saying that, I’m hoping all the bears and deer and downy woodpeckers up here aren’t into gossiping.” She grits her teeth. “Damn it. Another bird name.”
Ryan scoffs and crosses his arms. “Forgive me for being a little shocked that my friends have suddenly decided to tie the knot without any rhyme or reason. As if there hasn’t been enough chaos lately.”
Steph opens her mouth to retort, but Alex, still a bit slower than usual, reaches the pair just in time to placate. “Ryan, let us explain,” she says. “I know it’s a lot to absorb. It’s...” She tilts her head one way to the other, trying to pick the right word. “... it’s batshit crazy.” Her eyes briefly flicker over to Steph, then back to him. “But it’s not such a bad idea. Probably.”
“Well, go ahead then,” he says. “Please explain. I’m all ears.” He looks back and forth between Steph and Alex, who then look at each other.
Without thinking, Steph reaches down, finds Alex’s hand, and gives it a squeeze as if to say I got this. Understanding immediately like she always does, Alex allows Steph to take the floor. “Dude,” Steph sighs, “you know how much she owes in medical bills. She can get on my insurance if we... if we do this. I mean, it’s just signing a paper, right?” She lifts and drops her shoulders in a breezy shrug, even though it doesn’t really feel like a shrugging kind of moment. “That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Ryan’s look softens, the flare in his gaze dying down, but he doesn’t lose the skepticism. “But what happens later? You just divorce and continue being friends?” He directs an irritatingly knowing glance at Steph for the last question, which totally isn’t fair. Who the hell gave him mind reading powers that conveniently target only her? Trapped in the web of questions, Steph can only scowl at him in response.
Meanwhile, Alex winces and rubs her arm. “Er, we... hadn’t really thought that far ahead, but... I... guess that’s the plan?” Steph is just praying her inner emotions aren’t betraying anything to the literal empath standing next to her. The last thing Alex needs is to suspect there’s any room for doubt on Steph’s end. And, fuck, it’s not that she doesn’t want to be married to Alex Chen— that’s a fuckin’ dream. But— no, nope, stop thinking about it.
A thoughtful look forms on Ryan’s face, which is concerning because that must mean he’s currently using the single brain cell he and Steph tend to swap back and forth. Without a word, he turns and resumes moving up the tree-cloaked path at a hella quick pace, the thick soles of his boots gnawing up the gravel like there’s no tomorrow. “Hey, could you not go into rugged mountain man mode right now?” Steph asks, starting after him and sincerely regretting her choice to wear chucks to this outing.
But when she lunges forward, Steph realizes something kind of important: her hand is still attached to Alex’s. Alex looks equally surprised by it, but with a mumbled apology and averted eyes, she unfolds her fingers from Steph’s and crams both of her hands into her hoodie pocket, safely separating them. And Steph only wants to die a little bit. Call it progress? Or it could be a giant step backward. She can’t really tell, honestly.
Lucky for them, Ryan doesn’t witness their little scene— otherwise Steph would never hear the end of it later. He drops his speed maybe a couple miles per hour and calls back, “Clearly you guys need to plan this out more, and I want to help, and I plan things best when I’m moving, so...” He walks backwards for a few strides, flashing them a charming smile. “Come on, ladies.”
“But do we have to be moving uphill?” Alex asks at the same time Steph snipes, “Call me a lady again and I’ll—” Her statement is killed mid-syllable by Alex’s hand on the small of her back as she passes Steph to go after Ryan. Steph starts coughing hard enough to prompt Ryan to offer her his water bottle— a pine-green Hydro Flask covered in Colorado state parks and Haven Sabertooths stickers, because of course it is— and she takes it for the sole reason of being able to press the cool surface to her flushed cheeks when the others aren’t looking. If asked, she’d blame it on overexertion.
Thankfully Ryan only insists on going a little farther up the trail, claiming he needs to make sure the mile marker at the halfway point hasn’t been graffitied or whatever.
(And Steph can’t blame him for wanting to feel like his usual park ranger self again; he’s been so focused on setting aside his beloved occupation to manage the Lantern lately. Earlier this week he’d admitted as much— “All of a sudden the Lantern’s lost its two core people... and I just feel like I have to take care of it, you know? The Lucans have owned it for a couple generations. And I know I can’t replace Gabe as star bartender, but—”
Of course Steph had to interrupt him there before he spiraled into self-doubt. “Dude. You’re doing great. Honest.” She’s not especially talented at most types of real talk, so she usually just lays a few blunt words out on the table and hopes for the best. When it comes to Ryan, she knows he will take her offering to heart. To each other, they’re both like the siblings they never had, and Steph treasures the hell out of that bond. Even when he calls her out on shit.)
A short time later, the trio have turned back downhill, deep in discussion to sketch out the mental blueprint that builds a convincing— and very much fictional— whirlwind love story.
“Okay, so if anyone asks, you can say you were texting for months before you actually met in person. And you met through Gabe, that’s believable and accurate. By the way... who exactly is allowed to know about this? Besides me, obviously,” Ryan says. “I mean, Haven’s tiny. One peep gets out, it spreads down Main Street like wildfire, and someone at the other end of the block will know within five minutes. The last time there was a wedding in town, the local paper actually covered it.”
Steph hums and subtly elbows Alex. “That is true. When there’s nobody calling out a giant corporation for their shitty cover-up, every day is a slow news day here.”
Ryan nods. “People eat up gossip like candy.” He shoots a sheepish glance at Alex. “And if it involves you, well... that’s twice as juicy.”
“In that case...” Alex stops to take a breather, hands on her hips. “We could maybe get it done a little ways from here?” She’s looking in Steph’s general direction, but not directly at Steph, and it’s driving her crazy. “Because it should stay a secret, right?”
“Oh, for sure,” Steph agrees all too easily, not seeing any other logical route to take here. “And it’ll be something we can all laugh about years from now. No biggie. No sweat. No...” At that moment, Alex innocently turns her face into a ragged strip of sunlight filtering through the treetops overhead, making her eyes gleam a brilliant bronze that really should be illegal. Steph’s train of thought derails catastrophically.
Picking up on her loss of function, Ryan steps in. “We could drive up to Denver or something. Make a day of it.” Encouraged by Alex’s nod of approval, he adds, “Everyone’ll just think, ‘Oh, three friends taking a fun little trip together. So what?’”
Alex squints mischievously at him. “Careful, don’t want to make it sound too romantic,” she teases. Next she directs her attention to Steph, who sort of feels like the little ball being kicked around by the players on Gabe’s foosball table. “What do you think, Steph?”
Eager to pin down something among her stampeding thoughts, Steph forces herself to brighten and toss a lighthearted glare Ryan’s way. “Cool with me. But remind me why he has to come?”
“Because I’m the only one who has wheels and a valid driver’s license,” Ryan replies, “and you need a handsome witness for the ceremony.”
Steph ducks her head grimly. “So I’m stuck with you.”
“You’re stuck with me, Stephanie.” Ryan narrowly dodges a swing she aims at his chest, then smoothly transitions back into his downhill trot.
By the time they make it back to the trailhead, Steph’s feelings about the whole affair have had a little more time to bake and seem like less of a gooey mess. As long as she’s not flashing like a panicked gay strobe light to Alex, she thinks she’ll be alright. As they wander across the mostly empty parking lot, kicking at pine needles and pebbles with their toes— and trying to resist sparking a life-size game of foosball with a pine cone in the starring role— Steph affectionately bumps Ryan’s shoulder with her own. Keeping an eye on Alex just ahead of them, she drops her voice to a murmur. “Thanks for helping us sort this shit out, Ry. You’re a real one.”
Too damn humble for his own good, Ryan rubs at his facial scruff and stares ahead. “Anytime. Just can’t stay away from craziness, I guess. Not that I particularly mind.” Then he catches her eye. “And you’re sure you’re okay with all of this? Seriously.”
Steph drags her foot over a small rock slightly harder than necessary. “It’s not—”
“I’m just checking in,” he says, tone steady as ever. “I wanna make sure this is really a good idea, Steph. What are your feelings—”
“Let’s not bring the F-word into this, okay? I’m cool. It’s all good.” Steph shrugs off his unnervingly heavy stare and caves to the urge to mess around, spotting a nearby pine cone and sending it sailing toward Alex with a powerful kick.
Alex stops, looking from the pine cone to her. The puzzled wrinkle in her forehead smooths over to make way for a playful smirk. “Is this a challenge?” she asks, already lining up her foot with the side of the pine cone.
“You bet your ass it is, Chen!” Steph shouts, crouching into an exaggerated defense stance. (Chen— god, how often did she used to call Gabe that? At least it hurts a little less knowing that the surname still very much has a role in her vocabulary.)
Alex laughs. “Okay, it’s on.” And with an alarmingly beautiful toss of dark hair, she brings her leg forward, colliding with the pine cone at an intensity that briefly makes Steph fear for injury as it comes flying towards her. It ends up just barely missing her, only scraping the fabric of her shirt, but her heart still takes a little damage.
A few days later, the Lantern and the record store are closed early, and Steph, Alex, and Ryan pile into the latter’s pickup truck for the roughly hour-and-a-half drive up to Denver. Since they cemented their plan, Steph has tried her hardest to accept that whatever she may or may not feel for Alex exists on a separate plane from the fact that she’s marrying Alex. It’s mad difficult to reconcile those facts, but Steph only has herself to blame for it.
For the past few days, she spent more time apart from Alex than she would have preferred to, just because the thought of her beloved empath sniffing out a trace of the wrong kind of fear or joy about this whole thing makes Steph want to hurl. So instead she threw herself into work the way she used to in college, only leaving the booth to deal with a customer or feed Valkyrie (and feed herself too, as more of an afterthought).
Of course, Ryan tried to make it into a whole thing again when she bailed on dinner with him and Alex last night, but Steph didn’t take the bait. She’s fine— and she really does feel a lot better by the time she’s climbing into shotgun in Ryan’s stupidly swanky truck. Alex had surrendered the front seat before Steph even thought to ask— “I’ll take the back. I think I’ve finally come to accept that I’m the most fun-sized one in the group.”
Steph couldn’t tell you if Ryan’s truck is a Chevro-yota or a Model C-3PO or whatever, but what she does know is that it has a bomb ass sound system. She barely has her seatbelt buckled for five seconds before her phone is connected to the car and playing out the rest of whatever song she’d been listening to when she fell asleep the night before. Not that she slept that much. Or at all.
Endlessly patient, Ryan rolls his eyes as he shifts into gear and pulls away from the curb onto the quiet street. “Sure, Steph, of course you can plug your phone in,” he says.
“Ryan, you’re my actual best friend ever, but if it was up to you, we’d have silence or a podcast the entire drive up,” says Steph, thumb flicking rapidly through her Spotify.
“And may I ask what’s wrong with that?”
Without looking up, she reaches over and pats his shoulder. “I think enough’s been said, buddy.” He flips her off, but she pretends not to notice. Eventually Steph settles on Everything In Transit from Jack’s Mannequin— it sounds sexier on vinyl, but oh well. She queues up the entire album in order because anyone who shuffles an album on purpose is wrong. Then she slouches down in the roomy seat and sighs. “How’s it hanging back there, Chen?” she asks the quiet backseat.
“Yeah, you have enough leg room?” Ryan asks, brow furrowed slightly as he glances in the rearview mirror. “Too hot? Too cold?”
“I’m good. Thanks, Ryan,” Alex chuckles softly, leaning forward in the middle seat to gaze out the windshield. “Great album choice, by the way. Now I’m actually glad you took the aux without asking,” she teases.
Steph raises her hands in a gesture of humility. “Had to be done.” She stiffens when she feels curious brown eyes flick over to her.
“Not even a little bit,” she lies through her teeth.
“Hmm.” Alex sits back a little. Steph wishes she could bring herself to look at her face. Aura-wise, she shouldn’t be giving anything away; her stomach isn’t doing backflips like it was before. For now at least.
Steph turns and presses her cheek into the fabric of her seat. Now she’s kind of able to see Alex, see the dark strands falling in her face as she scrolls absently through her phone like she just needs something to occupy her hands. “Are you nervous?”
“Um...” Alex lifts one shoulder. “... maybe.” Shifty eyes sneak over to the opposite window and settle there, leaving Steph no option but to look out her own window too. Maybe. What the fuck does that mean? She could take it at face value, sure. But Alex is different. It’s deeper with her, like everyone else Steph has ever known were kiddie pools and Alex Chen is the ocean.
Steph leans her head on the glass and watches Haven Springs start to dwindle, the small but robust collection of shops, cafes, and residences sliding in then out of view. The speed limit along the main drag is twenty-five, and of course Ryan obeys it like Pike ever actually pulls over speeders. Ironic considering how fast Ryan walks on foot.
Every time Steph gets to leave Haven for a little while, she feels a pull to just skip town entirely. And she’s gotten close to it several times. But this time, as her distant gaze clings to then lets go of all the landmarks she’s come to know by heart— blizzard-beaten building facades, benches with plaques for dead people, familiar parked cars and statues and signs— she only thinks about returning, and how different things will be then. A few short hours from now, she’ll be someone’s wife. Alex Chen will be her wife. Holy fucking fuck.
“Stop,” Steph says suddenly, jerking upright in her seat and putting a hand on Ryan’s arm. “Can you pull over?”
“Please. Sorry, I just— I thought of something I wanna do before we split.” Ryan guides the truck to the nearest open curb and Steph wastes no time kicking her door open. Her feet hit the sidewalk with a sting. Throwing a hopefully comprehensible string of words over her shoulder— “I’ll be right back, I swear”— she takes off back down the street, leaving her door hanging wide open. Behind her, the opening notes of “La La Lie” bounce cheerfully from the truck’s speakers.
When Steph enters Lethe Flowers, she doesn’t expect to see Riley behind the counter, laptop open in front of her while she flips through a thick spiral notebook marked up with detailed notes.
“Oh.” Steph is already halfway through the store when she stops hard enough for her shoes to squeak against the floor. She’s not sure why she thought Eleanor would be here; apparently she’s taken a step back from running the store for now. “Uh, hey,” Steph says, preparing to choose her words more carefully as she closes the remaining distance between herself and the back of the shop. She likes Riley, of course, who the hell doesn’t— but Riley is smart, and Riley likes questions.
“Hi, Steph.” Riley straightens from where she’d been hunching over her summer coursework. “What’s up? I figured you guys would be out of town by now. Did something happen?”
Yep, that confirms everybody in Haven knows that they’re going. Thanks, Ryan, for giving a super hella specific reason on MyBlock for the Lantern being closed. Steph squeezes her hands together and leans forward onto the counter, meeting Riley’s gaze evenly. “I kinda need some flowers,” she tells her. “Can you hook a girl up?”
A bemused giggle comes from the younger girl. “Oh, sure, I think I can score you a couple grams,” Riley says, deadpan in a way that would have chased out a snort from Steph if she wasn’t so laser-focused on the task at hand. She comes out from behind the counter and faces Steph directly. “What are the flowers for?”
Steph’s smile is stiff and polite. “A thing. That I’m attending.”
Riley leans closer, eyes narrowing. “Are they for someone specific?” A beat. “Are they for Alex?”
Nobody needs to be an empath to see through Steph’s gritted teeth and darting eyes. Without answering, Steph raises an arm and blindly points at the nearest arrangement of flowers. “How about these? These look nice. I’ll take these.”
Riley blinks at her. “Are you sure?”
Slowly Steph pivots her head toward the bouquet she’d indicated. A hard-to-miss “Sorry For Your Loss” balloon is tucked right in the middle of the flowers. Disguising her cringe into a continued smile, Steph actually takes the misstep in stride. Probably helps that Alex isn’t physically in the room. “Well, I was buying for something else, but hey, now I can add the death of my dignity to today’s list of events! And you can bet I’m very sorry for that loss.” Dropping the act, she adds, “Maybe you could point me to something better?”
Riley hums and peers around the small shop, considering their options. “A helpful hint would be nice,” she says.
Steph crosses her arms with a sigh. “Fine. Yes, they’re for Alex. She’s been talking about getting some flowers to brighten up the apartment and I thought it would be nice to get them for her.”
“But aren’t you going on that trip today? Seems like a weird time to get flowers.”
Fuck. Might as well sink into full-on desperation. “Riley, please, I’m begging you. I don’t have much time. If you can just help me out here, I’ll...” Steph picks through her brain until she finds something. “I’ll find a way to rush that Taylor Swift vinyl that’s been on backorder. Okay? Promise.”
She’s met by a gentle laugh. “Aw, Steph, we don’t have to make a deal or anything. I was only teasing.” Riley scans over the selection for a moment, then shoots one last devilish glance at Steph, who’s hovering cluelessly just behind her. “But I have to ask, do you two get exhausted from flirting nonstop? I mean, even Mac and I don’t flirt that much, and we’re actually dating.”
Traitorous bile rises in Steph’s throat, and she forces it back down. Resisting the impulse to inform Riley that Mac is, well, Mac, she instead glowers away the question and waits for Riley to work her magic. When she holds up a freakin’ remarkable bouquet on the first try, Steph can’t get her hands on it fast enough. She practically throws her money at Riley before scooting out the door. When she makes it back to the truck in record time, Steph decides to hide the flowers under her jacket for now. She wants to have the best possible view of Alex’s face when she sees them for the first time. Not a big deal; Steph just likes making Alex react, likes searching for the slightest changes in her expression as they unfold. Doesn’t mean she feels something for her or whatever.
“‘kay, I’m all set,” Steph announces as she hops back in and shuts her door. Ryan’s wearing his confused puppy mask like she just got back in the car naked. But when Steph offers no explanation, and Alex stays quiet except for her super fucking loud staring, Ryan merely shakes his head and shifts back into drive. One feeling Steph is sure of is that this is going to be a looong trip to the city.
Chapter 3: this love asylum, like an island, just me and you
Some things are unexpectedly simple. Others are hella convoluted.
ok so i have MANY thoughts on wavelengths, but all my mushy bi brain can come up with at the moment is "steph gingrich is my wife and i love her to pieces" so. there's that. and of course you already know i'm gonna be throwing some details from wavelengths into this fic now. it's just. it's inevitable, guys.
also, speaking of you guys— you continue to amaze me with your kindness. thank you, a million times over. the support means a lot to me. so, without further ado— and now that my search history thinks i'm planning on getting married in the state of colorado— here's a chapter!
chapter title from "feelings" by hayley kiyoko.
Next to Ryan’s neutral mood, Steph looks like a fireworks display. Sparks and flashes of purple, lightning crackling in the passenger seat. Okay, so she is also an absolute nervous fucking wreck. Good to know.
As soon as Steph gets back in the car, Alex caves to the temptation to read her. She can only withstand her power for so long before it consumes her, and in the confined space of Ryan’s truck, she’ll drown in the nearness and obviousness of Steph’s fear. And Steph is different. She feels so much, so deep and powerful. She affects all of Alex’s senses, floods her vision with color, touches her with an electrical buzz. Makes Alex wonder what she tastes like. (But Alex shelves that last thought, shoves it between parentheses and makes it an afterthought, buries it in the deepest drawer in the disorganized filing cabinet that’s become of her brain.)
So while Ryan merges onto the highway, Alex chases the storm brewing in front of her. Subtly leaning forward, she rests her elbows on her knees and looks Steph’s way.
“I hope she likes them. I hope she doesn’t think it’s overkill. Or take it the wrong way. Fuck, what even is the right way?”
Alex bites back a sigh and drops back against her headrest. So much for heightened empathy providing clarity. Even in her private thoughts, Steph is craftily evasive about whatever she left the car for. Alex closes her eyes and focuses on the steady vibration of tires rolling over asphalt. This is going to be a long ride.
Of all the areas Alex has bounced around— all the places that were dressed up like homes, but really weren’t, and all the couches she slept on using her ratty thrifted winter coat as a blanket— Denver is one location she hadn’t yet reached until today. As they cross over the city limits, she soaks in every last molecule of what she sees through her window. The sidewalks are busy enough that she’s able to pick out a handful of stronger auras from the crowd. Some colors leak out of passing cars, too— including a flare of red when the driver next to them is cut off by a remiss cyclist.
Her observations include the background noise of Steph and Ryan having what sounds like a rather intense discussion over a drum-smashing track on Paramore’s Riot! Alex turns away from the window and grins softly at her two companions. Above everything else, the thing that hugs her heart the most is the fact that for once, she isn’t encountering a new place all on her own. Sure, technically she wasn’t alone arriving in Haven for the first time, but naturally everyone around her was already familiar with their own town, especially Gabe. This time, the thrill of exploration can be shared with her friends— friends who won’t be whisked out of her life anytime soon as far as she can see. The future doesn’t look all that cloudy anymore.
(It’s also not like the clear skies Alex sees on her rooftop chats with Gabe, either; but she doesn’t mind having a little bit of harmless mystery in her life. For example, a few hours from now when she’ll be the spouse of a real, living, breathing human who’s taking up more than her fair share of Alex’s thoughts? Alex couldn’t tell you a single detail of what that will be like. But she’s buckled in— loosely— and the ride has already left the station. So, uh, here goes nothing.)
As for the subject of the ongoing debate in the front row, it could range anywhere from Ryan sharing some ideas to get Valkyrie to stop hissing at him on sight to Steph cheekily insisting that sex burns more calories than hiking does. When Alex tunes in to the conversation, however, it turns out that she’s wrong about both theories. This time, the pair have found something far more mundane to squabble over: where to park.
“Dude, let’s just park in a garage,” Steph is saying. “There’s a bajillion of them. If the price is super whack, I’ll pay.”
Ryan taps the steering wheel hesitantly. “I dunno, I think it might be better to park on the street and just feed a meter. I’m seeing a lot of open spaces.”
“Uh, do you remember the last time you tried to parallel park? I still don’t think that curb has forgiven you—”
“But if we park out here then we’ll be closer to one of those rent-a-bike stations, and we could ride around the city and sightsee a little—”
“If you think I’m gonna ride a bike, you’ve officially lost it. Organic granola poisoning, I’m calling it now.”
There’s a pause during which they stop at a red light and Ryan takes his sweet time turning his head to aim a mischief-laced grin at her. “Stephanie Gingrich— do you not know how to ride a bike?”
Now Alex can’t resist inserting herself. “Soon to be married and yet she never learned how to ride a bike. Or how to unexpire her driver’s license.” The teasing words tickle her mouth pleasantly, and the shot of adrenaline they provide has a chemical reaction with the blood bubbling in her veins. Married. You really just said that, Alex. What the hell.
Steph glares at her. “I bet I could say the same about you, Chen— oh wait, I can.”
“Hey!” Alex protests. “I learned how to ride a bike when I was, like, six... and maybe never made it past the training wheels stage. But still, I tried.”
“To be fair,” Ryan says, letting off the brake and easing into a left turn, “I’m sure it’s a lot more fun to get a marriage license, anyway. Those don’t involve unflattering pictures taken at the DMV at 8 AM like some people’s driver’s licenses do.”
His comment is met with an affronted gasp and an arm slap. “Hell no, you swore to never bring up that photo again—”
“Okay, well, now I obviously have to see it,” Alex says. “Are we talking hungover, bad hair day, or...?”
“In my defense—”
“It was definitely both of those things,” Ryan interjects.
Steph swears under her breath and tries again. “In my defense, I was, like, bed, bath, and beyond a disaster that day. Let me remind you that it was eight in the fucking morning, and the only reason I got there right when they opened was because I didn’t wanna spend half my day waiting in that terrible line. And the only reason I got there on time was because Gabe loaded my ass into the car and drove me there. We may or may not have pulled an all-nighter drunk Mine Haunt and foosball tournament the night before. Jury’s still out on that, there’s no tangible proof of it.”
“I’m tangible proof,” Ryan says, raising a hand. “It absolutely happened. I was there, and I was also trashed, but not trashed enough to forget.”
“I don’t remember calling a witness to the stand to shit all over me,” Steph bites back, “but thank you, so much, for your input, sir.” She smirks back at Alex. “Anyway, long story short, I misplaced my license a while ago. I’m thinking Val might’ve accidentally inhaled it while in the midst of a wicked catnip high, but nobody knows for sure.”
“I’d bet this truck that it fell down between the cracks somewhere in the radio booth, but since dusting under there is considered an unforgivable sin—”
“Fucking hell, Ryan.”
By the time they finally settle on a parking spot, Alex is doubled over in her seat, laughter gripping her entire body. It feels like flowers blooming in her lungs.
With the marriage application already filled out online, the next step comes easy. Next thing Alex knows, they’re at a desk in a city office building, watching as an apathetic-looking clerk pulls out some documents. “Alright, Stephanie Gingrich, sign and date here.” He indicates a blank line under a paragraph and slides a pen across the counter.
Behind them, Ryan stands quietly, ever the dutiful witness. For the most part. “So,” he says, lowering his voice when the clerk shoots him a look, “are you guys gonna hyphenate your last names just for the hell of it?”
Alex jerks upright from where she’d been scanning over the form, which Steph quickly signs without any evidence of second thoughts— something Alex supposes she should be flattered by. “All the stuff we talked about, and we forgot to touch on that...” she mumbles. Her eyes follow the movement of the pen in Steph’s hand as it glides across the paper like it’s the easiest decision she’s ever made. The absence of a strong aura also suggests it hadn’t taken much deliberation for her. Alex’s heart rate spikes.
Steph shrugs as she sets down the pen and glances from Ryan to Alex. “Pfff. Please, Ryan. We can do better than that. Combine our names in a cooler way,” she suggests lightly. She raises her palms, spreading them apart as she says, “How about... Chengrich.”
There’s a loud sigh from the clerk, who remains thoroughly unimpressed with them. “The gay ceremonies can never be boring, can they?” he grumbles, not sounding unlike Roz from Monsters, Inc. Or a solid Squidward impressionist. When Alex looks back at the guy, she notices a tinge of green blurring his edges. Huh. Jealousy. That’s a rare one. She briefly dips her toe into his mind.
“Look at these girls... I wish I could find something like what they have. The way she looks at her like they can barely stop themselves from being all over each other...”
Alex can’t help having a physical reaction to that. She stumbles back hard enough for both Steph and Ryan to automatically offer an arm or hand to catch her with. Of course they’d think it’s something residual from her fall injuries, and Alex is fine letting them think that. “You okay?” Steph asks softly, a dent in her brow erasing all traces of amusement on her face.
Ryan, meanwhile, catches the stewing clerk’s attention and chuckles awkwardly. “Never a dull moment with us,” he replies. The clerk doesn’t even crack a smile.
“Yeah, all good. I’ll... I’ll tell you about it later,” Alex manages to answer. Successfully pushing what her powers overheard out of her mind, however, is a whole other task. Swallowing, Alex fastens her hands on the edge of the desk and steadies herself. By some miracle, she’s able to remember the last thing Steph said before Alex’s brain momentarily blacked out. “And for what it’s worth, I think Chenrich flows a little better,” she says. Just as an extra safety measure, she throws in a discreet eyebrow lift and wink combo that is guaranteed to get Steph’s mind off of Alex’s minor episode.
Sure enough, it does the trick. Steph’s breath visibly hitches, and she steps back, putting a cautious distance between them. “Oh shit, that’s good. M- maybe we’ll, um, have to consider that.”
Alex grins at her. “Maybe we should.”
There’s a beat. Ryan fidgets in Alex’s periphery. Then the clerk clears his throat and goes, “Now that that’s settled... Alexandra Chen, sign and date here.”
The pen rolls in her direction, and as a reflex Alex mutters “Just Alex is fine” which, of course, is an inconsequential matter to this disgruntled employee. So she does as told, scrawling her signature below where the ink on Steph’s has barely dried. For a second she can’t help thinking about the affidavit she’d refused to sign, and the agreement Typhon had tried to pressure Charlotte into signing. Somehow this document Alex has just made official with her friend is both the most and least intimidating one of all.
Steph crosses her arms and directs an expectant gaze at the clerk. “Sooo... now what?”
The man blinks at them (which is great news, because Alex was genuinely concerned that he wasn’t blinking). “It’s done,” he tells them.
Alex frowns. “I’m sorry, what?”
“What exactly is ‘done’?” Steph demands.
The long suffering clerk doesn’t look at them while he shuffles his papers and hands over a few copies. “You signed the marriage license. You’re married. Congrats.”
Never has the word congrats been enunciated so flatly, but nonetheless— it really is done. Even Ryan looks stunned. “Wait, that’s it?” he asks. Forehead crinkled, he shakes his head and again drops his voice to a whisper, since apparently this is a library. “That was kind of underwhelming.”
“You’re telling me,” Steph says with a snort. Pinning one last stare on the clerk, she goes, “Uh, thanks, man. And I sincerely hope we were the last people you had to marry today.” She turns away and adds to herself, “Or ever.”
“No, I have seven more couples before five,” the clerk responds, serious as shit. He’s still reliably detached when he asks, “So no kiss or anything?”
The gleam in his eye is uncomfortably icky, so Alex makes a face and turns to leave. “Hate to disappoint,” Steph says, tone acidic, “but no action for you, buddy.” She’s right behind Alex out the door. Ryan takes up the rear, offering a more polite wave of farewell to the man before joining them outside on the front steps of the building.
“Could you get a load of that guy?” Ryan exclaims the moment the doors are closed. “I can’t believe he’s working for our state government! Personally I’m proud to represent Colorado as a park ranger—”
“Says the dude who’s never set foot outside Colorado,” Steph interrupts, delivering a friendly flick to his earlobe.
Ryan throws his hands up in the air, leaping away when she continues her earlobe assault. “I mean, c’mon. Have we forgotten so soon that Coloradans were the first ones to legalize recreational weed? We’re freakin’ awesome!”
“Coloradans,” Steph mocks.
“Valid point. But about that guy— I had the misfortune of hearing his thoughts in there,” says Alex. “He was actually super jealous.” To say the least. “But then again, who wouldn’t be jealous of people with our kind of wedding attire?” she jokes, hoping to steer away from any questions about specifics. “I mean, check out Steph over here, rocking a white tee and beanie-free outfit. If you squint, you can almost see a veil and a diamond ring.”
Steph bends forward, at first cackling hysterically into her hands, but then she gives up and unleashes the rest of her laughter on any passersby close enough to hear— who are some hella lucky people, if you ask Alex. Strands of hair fall in Steph’s face as she succumbs to the irrational joy of the moment, and her eyes are greener than Alex has ever seen them before. It’s beautiful. And Alex laughs too, because aching from joy is the best way to ache. Then Steph straightens and, almost as if by magic, reveals a small bouquet of flowers from inside her jacket.
Alex freezes, staring at the flowers and unable to form words. They’re roses— because of course Steph has to dismantle her self-control piece by piece. Roses, tie-dyed with countless different colors.
“The devastating truth is that sometimes I’m a sucker for the basic and traditional. So I thought this wedding could use some flowers.” Steph steps forward, offering the roses for Alex to take. “And I didn’t want this thing to be, like, an irredeemable level of lame.” She inches even closer, and all Alex can think about is how it would take just the slightest movement onto her toes to be able to kiss her. The next word Steph speaks is Alex’s name, and it’s so gentle. Questioning. Alex peeks into Steph’s shades of violet.
“Please like it. Oh, god, please like it. I won’t know what the fuck to do with myself if she doesn’t like it.”
Alex figures she might as well go for gold or go home. It’s her favorite color on Steph, after all.
“I don’t like it, actually,” she replies, reaching out and accepting the bouquet. The dethorned stems press snugly into her palm, still warm from Steph’s grasp. Alex suspends them in a state of in-between for half a second, and right when Steph’s face starts to fall, she completes the thought. “The truth is, I love it.” She carefully separates some of the flowers and returns half of them to the woman nearly caving in on herself with relief. “And it’s very un-lame of you,” Alex assures her. With that, her desired result gradually fades in, completely blotting out the fear. It’s a blinding gold, like the sun has chosen this moment to sink all the way down to earth and shine directly behind Steph. When this is the sight in front of her, it’s pretty difficult to still call this whole thing anticlimactic.
Steph lightly hits her arm with the hand holding her half of the bouquet. “Okay, just a quick dose of real talk for a sec,” she says, swatting away Ryan’s feigned gag of contempt, “I’m really stoked I can help you out, Alex. That’s... um, that’s all I wanted from this, you know? So we’re gonna have it all figured out and everything’s gonna be okay.” Her face sobers, eyes locked gently on Alex in a way that is so overwhelmingly fond and, frankly, new. “And not to brag or anything, but I did dabble in some minor psychic abilities in the past, so...”
In the background, Ryan scoffs playfully. “Oh, here we go with that again.”
“Have some fucking respect, Lucan. I’m retired,” Steph continues with special emphasis on the last word, “buuut I do have a distinct feeling... call it an itch in my brain, or perhaps it’s a few remaining drops of undeniable foresight... that if I rolled the dice on us— I mean, on you and your situation, obviously, duh— I’d see a future that’s hella bright.”
Alex hesitates, then thinks Screw it and goes all-in on a bear hug, pulling Steph close and squeezing her as if she might fly away. She never thought she’d know what luck looks like, but here she is right in front of Alex, five-and-a-half feet tall with a swallow made of ink flying across her chest. “We can take it one day at a time, right?” Alex mumbles into Steph’s shoulder. She leans back to reinstate eye contact. “Living in the moment and not stressing so much would be... so nice,” she admits, because maybe if she says it out loud, it will actually start to happen for her.
“I...” Steph shakes her head, looks down, then restarts her thought. “... yeah. I think I can roll with that, Chen.”
“C’mon, you guys deserve to celebrate being lawfully wedded friends over some good food and drinks,” Ryan says. Friends. Right. When Alex looks over at him, he’s in the middle of a short-lived staring contest of some sort with Steph. After a second, she’s able to catch his eye.
“Thank you for being here, Ryan,” Alex says. Just like Steph, he’s been such a good fucking friend; she can barely wrap her mind around him being her friend, honestly. Someone willing to put up with her, spend time with her. There was a passing moment— very short, but still notable— where Alex had entertained the possibility of something with him. She has a feeling he considered it, too. And then Steph came crashing into her life a few minutes later, and Alex has been stuck in the quicksand ever since.
“Of course,” Ryan responds. Alex detects an inexplicable flicker of blue on him.
“It’s the least I can do after what Dad pulled... not that I can even call him that anymore. I still don’t get how he could lie to everyone like that. And hurt Alex like it was no big deal.”
Alex untangles herself from the faint aura, keeping her smile intact. He’s still struggling with what happened. I don’t blame him. She resolves to sit down with him and have a good conversation about it later when they get back home.
“Lawfully wedded friends,” Steph repeats, leading them away from the building and to a yet undetermined restaurant. “Jeez, we really are fucking nuts, aren’t we?”
Her arm brushes Alex’s— or maybe Alex’s arm brushes hers— as they turn onto a new block. And fuck, Alex could burst with all of the things she wants to say. Needs to say. But instead of saying all of those things, she plucks only one from the pile: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
When Alex opens her eyes and discovers she’s hanging out on the rooftop with Gabe again, she doesn’t think much of it. It’s a regular occurrence for her by now, a recurring date set in some abstract calendar. They sit in silence and survey the never-not-magnificent view; in the distance Alex can see the flower bridge and the bus stop where her feet touched Haven soil for the first time. Wordlessly he passes her a beer, which she cracks open and takes a long sip of before speaking.
“I guess there’s some stuff I could update you on,” she begins. “But you already know, don’t you?”
Gabe shrugs, leaning forward on his chair and staring ahead. “You can tell me anyway, if you want. Or don’t.” His eyes glide over to her, an easy grin on his lips. “Either way, I’ll listen.”
Alex hugs her knees to her chest and perches her chin on them. “I know you’re not really... you, but... why are we sitting here, now, together? Is this just to make up for the years we lost?”
The figment next to her, evidently comfortable with whatever purpose he serves in Alex’s subconscious, is unfazed by the question. Still, he doesn’t answer directly. Instead he poses his own question in return. “What happened today, Alex?”
“I... married Steph. For a very specific reason,” Alex says. The words roll along slowly, clumsily, like her tongue is cobblestone. “I’m just... not too sure if the reason I say out loud is the same reason I’m feeling inside.”
“And what reason is that? The one you’re feeling?”
She groans, pressing her forehead into the back of her hand for a minute. When she surfaces, her brother is still patiently waiting for her answer— because of course Dream Gabe isn’t required to satisfy any of her questions, but she has to answer his. “I think... I think I really like her. It feels different than what I’ve ever felt for anybody else before. Is it... weird that I’m kind of terrified?”
“I mean, you can’t be that terrified,” Gabe replies. “You did marry the girl.”
Alex drowns an exasperated sigh in another gulp of beer. Might as well drink up— it’s not like imaginary beer can get her tipsy, right? “She offered, Gabe. Because paying for my hospital stay would’ve drained what little savings I have. Steph’s just being a good friend, and I shouldn’t mess shit up by thinking too hard about what marriage traditionally means for two people. It’s not fair to her if I complicate things now.”
Unfortunately for her, Gabe is dedicated to giving her a hard time today. “Eh, maybe you’re right. Why would you want to date the person you’re married to?” He sets down his drink to gesticulate with both hands, because apparently he wants to create more reasons for her to punch him. “Who even gets married for love anymore? That’s, like, so last year.”
“I hate you,” Alex hisses through a reluctant chuckle. “Which I guess means I hate myself.” She drinks again, lets her tongue bathe in the malty carbonation for a heartbeat or two before swallowing. “I’m young and stupid and I fucked up. But I don’t want to scare her away.”
“Mistakes happen,” Gabe says. “Don’t know if I’d call this one, though. Maybe you jumped the gun a little, but who cares? The feelings are there, Alex.”
“But feelings aren’t why we signed that certificate,” she points out. “I think... sometimes I forget how to actually communicate with somebody, because usually I already know what they’re thinking. So then I just don’t say anything at all. I don’t mean to do that, but...”
She doesn’t realize she’s been clenching her hands into fists until one of Gabe’s hands lands on hers, instantly making her relax. “Hey, take advantage of that ability of yours,” he murmurs. “It’s yours for a reason. And maybe, I don’t know, try telling Steph what you just told me?” Gabe taps his temple and smirks at her. “It’s only right up here, after all. Not that hard to access— just reach up, Alex. Reach up.”
Alex wakes right as Ryan’s truck shudders over a rough patch of road, her head gently bumping the window. It’s hours later and they’re driving back to Haven now— back home— and the dark of night is a soothing canopy overhead. She blinks away the sleep and nudges her crooked glasses back into place, immediately lulled by the soft phone conversation Steph is having up front. It doesn’t take long to gather that she’s talking to Charlotte, who checked in on Valkyrie during the day while they were gone.
“... well, if she only bit you three times, then that’s a goddamn achievement,” Steph is whispering into her phone. “And— yeah, sorry, I’m just trying to shut up a little ‘cause Alex is asleep— mhmm. I mean, I don’t wanna speak for her, but... I think she’s doing okay. It was a fun day. Just saw some sights, explored the city a little, whatever.” A longer pause, then Steph snorts. “Oh yeah, you bet. So glad to hear you’re on that bandwagon, too, Char. Feel free to hop off anytime— oh yeah, yep, you and the whole fuckin’ town. Anyway, how’s Ethan?” Another chuckle. “Aw, he helped feed her? What a brave, brave man. Tell him Steph has never been so fucking proud, and be sure not to omit the profanity.” Another pause. “Okay, tight. Thanks a lot, Char. Catch you later.”
When she hangs up, Alex can’t resist letting her heavy eyelids fall again, and she resumes her previous position leaning her head on the window in the backseat. Sure enough, she senses Steph twisting around to look at her. “Still dead to the world, huh?” Ryan asks.
“Yup. Or maybe that’s what she wants us to think,” Steph replies, a teasing lilt to her voice. Alex feels an investigative finger poke her knee, but she remains firmly “asleep.” It’s not like she isn’t genuinely exhausted, anyway— that informal therapy session with Gabe, despite being leaps and bounds superior to the formal therapy sessions she’d have with Dr. Lynn, doesn’t exactly make for restful slumber. Besides, it’s fun to prank Steph and Ryan even in the smallest of ways.
So they continue letting her pretend to sleep, turning down the music a little more and limiting their neverending banter to a dull roar. It doesn’t feel like that much has changed since they left town this morning. And to all of their friends and acquaintances outside of Ryan, everything is still the same. But today Alex got married wearing jeans and a cat-patterned button-up and she made Steph radiate happiness like a literal goddess and she had a good time with her friends like she isn’t harboring the biggest, fattest crush on one of them. Maybe everything will be alright, sure. But she can’t deny that everything has indeed changed.
It doesn’t have to be weird if she doesn’t make it weird, right?
Chapter 4: oh, you would swear i lost my mind, the things i do
Things take a spicy turn.
took a little creative liberty with this one. it kind of did its own thing, really. and i might've accidentally wandered into a mini character study? oops. please note that there are direct references to wavelengths in here, so be mindful if you haven't yet watched/played! also i have not a clue how radio/dj-ing stuff works, but uhhh i tried haha.
as always, thank you for the love <3
chapter title taken from "soft" by babygirl.
A daily routine is probably a pretty fucking ridiculous thing to be scared of. But Steph isn’t worried about ridiculous.
Open eyes. Roll out of bed. Brush teeth. Stare into fridge. Walk to work.
She’s worried about falling into a pattern again. Familiarity is what she’s always strived to sprint away from. If someone wants Steph Gingrich to run, all they have to do is put someone she knows at the starting line and put someone new at the finish line. Jog around and around the track. Limp through a few stretches. Rinse, repeat.
For a little while, she had somebody jogging alongside her, and it worked. Steph was one half of a two-person band, and there was never a final destination for Drugstore Makeup’s tour. It was soothingly perpetual, different every day. Steph ate up all of the new like candy and loved Izzie in every spare moment. Then they ended up in Haven Springs.
Steph is currently at the staring into the fridge part of her morning, but she isn’t really looking at the sparse offerings in front of her. Instead she’s stuck staring into the memory of 2018— the year that brought her here to Haven and this job and these friends. The year that took Izzie away.
Steph’s second home was the KRCT booth. She burned away every waking second taking calls and playing records and rolling the d20 for a cast of strangers who wouldn’t even recognize her if they saw her face. Some parts were less shitty. She tamed Valkyrie— or at least took her down a notch from “wild animal” to “mild threat”— and composed a pretty sick song. Last year also brought her closer to Gabe and Ryan and Charlotte, and reunited her with Mikey, but most of the time Steph would find herself flicking over to that fucking dating app rather than returning her new friends’ texts. Steph. 24. Haven Springs, CO. Just looking for somebody.
Steph. 24. Haven Springs, CO. Just looking for anybody.
Steph. 24. Haven Springs, CO. A warm body in bed with me. Someone who’s down to cuddle.
Steph. 24. Haven Springs, CO. Desperate.
And now she’s Steph. 25. Haven Springs, CO. Hopelessly into my dead friend’s sister who I’m married to solely for insurance purposes. NBD. She’s officially lost it worse than Valkyrie did when Steph made the fatal error of feeding her three minutes behind schedule that one time. Do not mess with that cat’s internal clock.
Her fingers reach out indecisively, grazing the cool, smooth side of an energy drink can— but then she retracts her hand and backs away. She’s out the front door before the fridge door shuts all the way. Bag on shoulder, headphones on, music loud.
One pattern that never fails to repeat itself in Steph’s life is the pattern of thens. First she was just a dumb teenager with an oversized imagination, the school’s resident bootleg DVD dealer— then two of her friends died and her picturesque hometown felt more like a prison. Next she was doubting herself in Seattle, frequenting gay bars more often than the grocery store— then she met Izzie and started a band. Later she was skimming through job openings to get her out of Haven— then she glanced to her left and saw a beautiful girl wearing a denim jacket with a patch reading bootleg above the right breast pocket, and wow, Steph would’ve laughed the rest of the way through 2019 if she’d been able to pick her jaw up off the floor. She was looking for any way out of the familiarity she’d accidentally mined from the gorgeous mountains here— then Alex Chen appeared at that precise moment with an inquisitive frown on her face, and she gave Steph a concrete reason to stay in the second small town that’s come to haunt her in strange ways.
At this point Steph has reached the part of her routine that takes up the entire rest of the day: trying to figure out what the fuck to do with all this information. That for the first time in her life, somebody has her convinced to stick around and see what happens. She has no road map, no directions, just feeling her way forward through the dark. And she’s bracing for the next installment of the ever-repeating pattern: when Alex leaves.
Steph is a firm believer that there’s a reason the Black Lantern sits in the exact middle of the route between her place and the record store. So today, like most other mornings unless she’s reaaally running late, she slows her brisk pace and breezes inside the restaurant. If she’s the tiniest bit disappointed when she doesn’t immediately glimpse Alex upon entering, it doesn’t actually mean anything. She just likes seeing Alex’s face and hands and the spark of recognition in her eyes when she notices her— anyway, it doesn’t matter.
She walks up to the bar and lets her bag drop to the floor as she hoists herself onto a seat in front of where Ryan is polishing glasses. “Morning, Ging-grinch,” he greets her. Steph grunts, slumps over, and rests her cheek on the cool surface between them. Ryan sets aside his cleaning cloth to press his palms into the counter and tilts his head at her. “Whoa there, don’t start doing cartwheels or anything.” He lowers himself to her eye level and whispers, “You’re kinda living up to the Ging-grinch name right now.”
Okay, so maybe she isn’t hiding her disappointment that well. So what? Steph raises her eyes to his and stares icily until he decides it’s safe to speak again.
Smartly stepping back so he’s out of flicking range, Ryan winces and asks, “Honeymoon not going too well?”
Steph may not be able to flick him, but she sure can flip him off. She does so wholeheartedly. “Spare me the harassment, Mr. Lumber-whack,” she grumbles.
“Hey, I’m just picking up what you’re putting down.”
“Who the fuck made it your mission to be a smartass this morning? I miss golden retriever Ryan,” says Steph. “Also, my excuse is that it’s not even ten yet and I’m running on an empty stomach and... wait.” Slowly she sits up, scrunching her brow and taking in her surroundings as if she’s never been in here before. “Do my feeble old eyes deceive me, or is this... a restaurant?”
“Damn,” Ryan hisses, throwing his arms in the air. “I really thought I disguised this place well. Foiled again!” Dropping the act, he blinks at her with the eyes of a genuinely concerned friend. “Really, though, since when do you eat breakfast? A solid breakfast, that is.”
A heavy sigh whistles through Steph’s teeth. One by one she puts her elbows on the bartop, slotting her head between her forearms and massaging the back of her neck as she stares at her friend. “I don’t,” she admits. “I mean, I’m not, I...” She bites her tongue so it can get it the fuck together, then restarts. “It’s just been one of those more... uh, introspective mornings, y’know? I, like, can’t get my brain to chill out and I dunno why.” She can’t stop herself from perking up a bit ahead of her next question. “So where’s Alex?”
“Bingo,” Ryan replies, and if Steph had Val’s mannerisms and, frankly, claws, he would be reduced to a shredded strip of flannel by now. “Oh, come on,” he says at her glare. “You mean to tell me you’re not overthinking stuff with her? You guys tied the knot less than a day ago.” He drops his gaze and mumbles ruefully, “Only knots I’ll ever be tying are survival knots...”
Steph’s fists pound the counter in a steady rhythm like she’s holding phantom drumsticks. “I am... well aware of what happened yesterday, thanks.” (And what does it matter if she arranged her half of the roses in an empty soda bottle and filled it with water and put it next to her bed? That’s nobody’s business but hers.) Restless, she twists around to check on the staircase to Alex’s apartment; when she turns back to find an arched eyebrow and a bearded smirk, Steph groans. “What? I thought I heard something!”
“You won’t find her up there,” Ryan finally clues her in. “She came through earlier saying she was going for a walk. And then she insisted that she can work a shift today, so I guess as long as Diane doesn’t wander in, there’s no reason to worry?” The end of his sentence shifts into a higher pitch, dressing it up as a question instead.
“Only Alex will know if she’s really ready, but...” Steph shrugs, adding confidently, “She’s totally got this.”
Ryan gives a rapid nod. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”
They let silence join them in the empty restaurant, basking in the nonpareil vibes of a sluggish morning. Steph grabs her phone and mentally organizes today’s playlist in her head, dropping some track titles in her notes app in case they fade from her mind before she gets in the booth. She’s definitely kicking off with Arcade Fire. It’s that kind of day. Then she looks up from her phone and catches Ryan taking a tentative sip from a steaming mug. She considers for a moment, then indicates the coffeemaker behind him and asks, “Hey, could you pour me some?”
Ryan frowns and points at the mug in his hand. “Coffee?”
She snorts at him as if she’s always been a java aficionado. “Duh.”
“You, Steph, want to drink coffee?”
“You got it. Need to ask a third time?”
Amazed, Ryan retrieves a serving and sets the cup in front of her. “Who even are you?” he teases.
“Still the same old me. Can’t get any cooler than this.” Steph brings the rim of the mug to her lips, tests the temperature. Some of the hot drink makes it into her mouth, causing her to pull a face and hurriedly return the mug to the counter. “Um, people, like, put stuff in this normally, right? To tone it down?”
Ryan chuckles. “You’ll drink green acid out of a shot glass but can’t handle black coffee.”
“Fuck you, you sound like Alex.”
“Ah, a compliment. Thank you!” Ryan crosses his arms. “Normal people will put some combination of sugar and milk in their coffee, by the way.”
Steph takes a second to think, though she doesn’t really need to think about it. Cracking half a smile, she nudges the cup toward him and says, “How about a splash of milk? Please.”
“That was ‘Ordinary’ from The Preatures. Bit of a throwback tune, but when you consider the fact that we’re a station literally located inside of a record shop, are you really that surprised? Also, like... 2014 wasn’t that long ago, was it? Aaaand now your favorite self-proclaimed award-winning DJ is having a minor existential crisis. Hopefully I’ll have reached acceptance after these next few songs. Catch ya on the flip side!”
Steph steps back from the mic and taps a button, watching the record she set up at her left spin into action and work its magic. Foster The People’s “I Would Do Anything for You” filters into the booth, upbeat and pleasantly mindless. She lets out a purposely inaudible sigh— after that slip-up last year revealed her talent in bullshitting job interviews outshined her skills as a radio DJ at the time, she’s still always somewhat paranoid that she’s forgotten to take herself off air.
As expected, it’s been dry as a desert here since she opened the store at eleven. Not even the slightest trickle of customers, which is just how Steph likes it. She’s impressed that Rocky Mountain has managed to stay open for decades, even during the tragic vinyl slump of the 2000s. She has to give Beatrice credit where it’s due; the shop owner managed to stay flexible and keep up with the times, introducing the unspeakable (cough, CDs, cough) to their inventory when necessary. T-shirts, comics, stickers, guitar picks. All the little things add up and somehow keep them from going broke. Still, the main indication that the shop has an active fanbase is the chronically crowded hold list.
Steph gets lonely, sure, but she has her phone and the people who call in to the show and, if it’s a better day, Val will allow Steph to entertain her for a few minutes with a catnip-stuffed mouse. And there will always be the part of her day when her shift is over and she can show her face wherever in town there’s something happening.
Maybe tonight she could show her face at Alex’s apartment. Steph just wants a chance to see her since she didn’t get to this morning. And it’s totally normal for a woman to want to see her wife.
Steph hides her face in her hands and kicks at the empty air. A whispered curse is swallowed by the music as she whips off her beanie and spears shaky fingers through her hair. Where the hell did that thought come from? Alex is your friend, Gringrich. Your grieving friend who doesn’t need any of your bullshit right now. Her eyes drift over to the glass separating her from the store. How many times was she in this exact spot, standing by while her life slowly transformed on the other side of that wall? What if she goes back to that?
A minute later, something tells her to check the window again. And when she sees Alex standing on the other side, Steph is convinced that she’s an illusion. Nothing more than an image projected by her mind, made of fantasy and desire. A free shot of serotonin for her brain to feast upon while she’s alone.
Then Alex grins and holds up what looks like a bag of food, and Steph’s heart stumbles over its next beat. In an instant she’s out of the booth and back in the rest of the world and before Alex can even say anything, Steph engulfs her in a hug.
Alex stiffens at first, but melts into her touch the very next second, arms folding over the taller girl’s back. Steph hadn’t pondered the drawbacks (merits?) of wearing a tank top when she threw it on this morning, but now it’s definitely something on her mind when Alex’s fingers are grazing the bare skin covering her shoulder blades and there’s not a single thing she can do about it. It can best be summarized as fucking torture, actually. And she can’t decide if it’s for better or for worse that the embrace lasts longer than what most would perceive as normal.
“Not that I’m not psyched to see you,” Steph says as they separate, “but what are you doing here?”
Alex’s smile returns with a shadow of amusement. She leads Steph to the front counter, where she sets down the bag and starts pulling out its hot, delicious-smelling contents. “So somebody might’ve told me that you haven’t eaten anything yet today.”
Steph crosses her arms and hopes she isn’t noticeably drooling over the food. “I don’t usually eat anything until lunch, Ryan,” she says pointedly. Still, her eyes eagerly track the movement of Alex’s hands and rings and little tattoos as her fingers seize one takeout container after another. Steph doesn’t even have to ask to know there’s a cranberry feta salad, a tavern burger with provolone, and a portion of the Lantern’s famous jalapeño poppers.
“You do know it’s lunchtime now, right?” Alex asks, leaning her elbows on the ledge so that she’s gazing up at Steph with a neat little curl at one end of her mouth. Steph can think of more than a few ways to wipe that expression off her face, all of which begin and end with Alex lifted onto the counter and Steph’s lips somewhere on her body.
Banishing her unhelpful gay thoughts, Steph lets her shoulders give an innocent little jump. “Is it, though?” she fires back. With the way Alex’s eyes narrow at her, it could be the philosophical question of the century. “Maybe sexy and cool people such as myself eat lunch whenever. Like at midnight, for example.”
They stare at each other, locked in some kind of internal war that hasn’t even been declared yet. Several heartbeats come and go, reverberating through Steph’s ribcage like a knocking fist. Is Alex... actually inching closer, or is Steph’s imagination just trying to sketch fantasy into reality again?
The moment is shattered when Alex abruptly pushes off the counter and tears open one of the containers. “More for me, then,” she says. “I’m okay with not being sexy and cool.” Steph swears there’s a hint of a wink before Alex tosses a jalapeño popper into her mouth. Her mask of casual indifference is immediately run over by a flash of panic. “Oh fuck, that’s hot,” she rasps, covering her mouth and furiously chewing through the spicy goodness.
A prickly blush crawls up Steph’s neck at those words, but she hurries to hide it under a victorious laugh. “You’re no match for the spice gods, are you, Chen?” She reaches over and indulges in not one, but two jalapeño poppers, both of which are deposited directly into her mouth. Alex makes an alarmed noise as she watches, eyes bulging and face still partially concealed behind one hand. Steph, of course, is barely affected by the pepper’s kick. She chews slowly, enjoying the temporary stinging sensation as it nibbles at the insides of her cheeks. It’s nothing compared to the Alex-fed flames licking at every other part of her.
“I’ll admit defeat if,” Alex says mid-cough, “you get me water o- or something so I can”— she pounds at her chest— “maybe save my voice before it’s too late?”
Steph swallows her mouthful, unable to prevent her face from splitting into another dopey fucking grin. “You don’t have to worry about that. The Almighty Jalapeño has already accepted your easy defeat at the deep-fried hands of his pint-sized minions.” Without thinking it through, she grabs Alex’s wrist and pulls her toward the booth. “Also, water makes it worse, dumbass. Buuut I think I have something better.”
Lunch forgotten, she leads her inside and shuts the door. When Steph turns back around, she’s never seen anything as utterly glorious as Alex Chen on this side of the glass, all up in Steph’s space. There’s a thrill in knowing that she shouldn’t be bringing Alex in here, and seeing her immersed in one of Steph’s favorite songs the way she is now— it’s like magic. Memories of the Spring Festival tease her mercilessly. Alex’s fingers light and deft on the guitar strings. Alex’s voice blending with the microphone, effortlessly shaping “Blister in the Sun” into something all her own. Alex glancing over her shoulder at Steph while she sings, like she’s checking to make sure she’s still with her. As if Steph would want to be anywhere else.
Anyway, she did bring Alex in here for a reason, and death by jalapeño popper is a rather disagreeable fate. Steph does her best to shake off the memories, but they’re like dust, briefly fluttering into the air before settling back down again into the folds of her static-filled brain. “Uh, hang on a sec.” She crouches down and rummages around under the desk for a minute. When she finds her prize, she sticks up an arm and waves it around perhaps a tad too enthusiastically.
Alex’s poor reaction to the pepper has now mostly subsided to panting like a dog— and how dare she make even that look cute— but upon seeing the bottle in Steph’s hand, another round of laughter-laced coughs explodes out of her. “Steph! How the hell is tequila supposed to help?”
Steph grimaces at her. “Do you want me to try the mini fridge in the back? I might still have a half-finished bottle of super flat champagne in there from New Year’s.”
“Damn it,” Alex hisses, snatching the alcohol from her. She unscrews the top and gulps down barely a shot’s worth, then holds the bottle at arm’s length and screws her eyes shut. Steph waits, breath suspended in her lungs as she risks a step closer to her. If it did what she’d hoped it would, the strength of the tequila should distract from the fading effect of the jalapeño.
“Seriously, are you okay? Did it... do the trick?”
Alex’s eyes open into a wickedly adorable scowl. “You suck,” she says, shoving the bottle back into Steph’s arms. “I can’t believe all you have to drink here is subpar alcohol.” She meets Steph’s gaze with an overtly serious look and places a hand on her shoulder. “My heart goes out to you.” Steph blinks a few times as an unanticipated wave of affection nearly drowns her in one fell swoop. And with it comes a realization that intrudes her conscience before she can stop it: Actually, I think it’s the other way around. You took my heart. And I’m not sure if I even want it back.
The playful smirk that had been forming on Alex’s face falters, as does the relief that had been gathering in Steph’s gut. For the second instance in such a short span of time, they’re engaged in a staring contest that Steph could foresee spending the rest of her life in. Fuck. There’s no way Alex didn’t just read something incriminating from her. Steph’s feelings right now, whatever they may be, are currently intense enough to knock her over. And Alex has the ability to dig out that truth. She could break down all of Steph’s walls if she so chooses.
... what would she choose?
Steph draws in a sharp breath and wrestles the cap back onto the bottle before she casts it aside carelessly. She clings to the familiar lyrics of the song currently playing on the broadcast. If she doesn’t do an ad break soon, the owner of some local business is bound to be pissed. But those couple of thoughts only occupy her for so long before she inevitably drifts back to Alex, who is still a statue in front of her. What does she know? What if her insight into Steph scares her off?
At long fucking last, the spell breaks and she speaks, and Steph’s heart is able to resume its rickety beat. “I’m okay,” Alex says, simple and delicate. “To answer your question.” She clears her throat one final time and lets the rest of her smile bloom.
Steph grins back. “I’m glad you’re okay.” The words have more weight to them than expected.
All of a sudden, they seem to realize their close proximity to each other in the tight space of the radio booth. Even though it’s the last thing Steph wants to do, they both back away politely. In doing so, however, Alex hits her head on the mic by accident. She yelps and leaps forward instinctively, putting her back in a collision course with Steph. Alex swears under her breath and moves away again, though this time Steph has a hand on her shoulder to steady her. “... sorry,” Alex mumbles, eyes darting anywhere else in the compact room. “Gross motor skills do not seem to agree with me today, apparently.”
Considering Alex just made impact with her chest and giggled on top of that, Steph can’t say she minds the mishap. In fact, never has there been an awkward situation so tortuously harmonious. Alex Chen is her own goddamn art form. “Trust me, that’s not the first time that’s happened,” Steph admits, pointing at the mic that never fails to be in the way of her own poor, bruised head.
They share another chuckle, then silence falls as Alex takes some time to explore the space with her eyes only, soaking in the shelves of records and the eternal glow of the buttons on the controls. One song ends, another begins. Steph fidgets. Itching to say anything to her, she pipes up, “Thank you for coming by. To— to see me, I mean. Here. At the record store. I’m happy you did.”
Something in the way Alex looks at her tells her she already knows, and Steph’s inner cringe starts to wane. Then Alex replies, “Of course I would. I didn’t... I hoped things wouldn’t be weird between us now. Just because of...” She trails off, lets the wealth of possibilities that could complete that sentence disappear into nowhere.
“Yeah.” Steph nods quickly, too quickly. “Yeah, no, it’s all good. Nothing weird about it.” She hooks one thumb in her jeans pocket while her other hand gives a friendly punch to Alex’s shoulder. “We’re still the same us.”
When Steph’s hand lingers, Alex wraps her fingers around it and squeezes. “Still on the same wavelength,” she promises. Then she breaks contact and drags a curious stare around the booth. “I’m honestly kind of surprised you let me in here. I feel like this place is even more precious than your drum kit.”
Steph waves off the comment. “Who cares? It’s you.” When the ambiguity of that statement sinks in, she scrambles to distract. “Even though you are a total klutz today. But it’d be mean for me to judge someone who got her ass handed to her by a jalapeño popper.” She wanders over to the controls (not that there’s much space to really wander around in here) and absently grazes her fingertips over them. She feels Alex’s eyes on her back like hot coals. “It was a most valiant fight, Alwynn,” she adds, winking over her shoulder at her.
Alex stoops into a proper bow. “Why, thank you.” She crumbles out of character right away, however, caught in a laugh as she rises out of the bow. But in the span of the next ten seconds, something genuinely batshit crazy happens. First Alex switches subjects, saying, “So I have to get this off my chest”— cue more heart palpitations— “I don’t know how I’m gonna tell Ryan, but... I don’t think working at the Lantern is the right fit for me.” — o h.
That’s when Steph realizes Alex is about to repeat the same accident with the mic. So she jerks out an arm— “Hey, watch your head”— and really, Steph will never be sure how it happens, but somehow, one way or another, Alex ends up pressed against her, chest to chest, eyes locked, breath mingling. Only this time, instead of apologies slipping out of mouths and limbs flailing to get away, neither of them moves.
Silence. Then Steph says, “You know... I never did hire anybody. I was going through resumes, but...”
“Maybe you could be a good fit here.”
Alex nods. “Hypothetically.”
“Yeah.” Steph’s throat trembles. “Hypothetically.”
Alex is near enough for Steph to see every detail on her face, like approaching a masterpiece in a museum and examining each stroke of paint up close. There’s easily a million shades of brown in her eyes, and there’s the faintest scar along her hairline from her fall. Steph doesn’t even know where her own hands are until she feels them scraping the fabric at the hem of Alex’s shirt, seeking the warm skin underneath. Her heart throbs like a migraine in her chest. She’s beautiful. It’s devastating.
And then Steph notices something else: there’s no longer any music in the room with them. Fuck, my queue ran out! Dead air is bad. Dead air is very, very bad. So she does the only thing she can think of. Holding Alex’s waist steady with one hand, she has the other navigate the controls and mic with barely a glance— she could do this shit in her sleep at this point. (Considering their rather compromising position, Steph wouldn’t doubt she actually is dreaming right now.)
Her free hand yanks over the mic. “Howdy there, KRCT listeners. It’s Steph— but you already know me. Now if I’m not mistaken, you guys haven’t yet been acquainted with my friend ‘Technical Difficulties.’ It looks like you’ll be meeting him in just a sec, though, so, uh, bear with me while I try to figure out what the issue is. Please stand by!” She shoves away the mic, flicks a switch, and returns her attention to the girl in her arms.
Steph can’t lose her. But she also can’t resist her. When Alex is touching her like this and those lips are that small of a distance from hers, it’s hard not to let her feelings run wild— so fuck it.
Go ahead. Break down my walls, Chen.
Chapter 5: i'm a beautiful wreck, a colorful mess (but i'm funny)
A new color to add to the rainbow.
this should be the last update i post before leaving my current job, so soon that'll be one less thing on my plate, haha. ha. (please help me)
i love you guys <3 enjoy dialogue at its peak lis-esque cringe! i was THIS close to using "shaka brah" this chapter so don't test me <3
lyrics in chapter title taken from "honey" by kehlani.
“I want you. So bad. But... I can’t lose you.”
If the splotches of violet weren’t there— messy and indistinct watercolors unfurling behind Steph like illusory wings— Alex would feel her fear in her heartbeat. It slams violently, as if her pulse has gained sentience and wants to break through her skin. And fuck, Steph’s skin. She’s soft and warm and vaguely vanilla scented and if Alex gets any closer to her they’ll meld into one flustered disaster of a person.
“Steph,” Alex says. Forming her lips around the name is a strenuous effort, and it’s all she can do not to stumble through the one syllable.
“Alex,” Steph replies. Her eyes narrow, lashes low as she looks down at her. Alex can see the way Steph’s tongue curls around her name like it’s the first bite of a long-awaited dessert. Like it’s the first time she’s ever spoken it. Like she’ll never get to say it again. Savoring it.
Alex needs to think. With her eyes glued onto Steph’s, her mind takes the responsibility of sweeping up the details of the day so far. She got back to the Lantern after her walk, worked for a few hours. Ryan mentioned Steph was acting a little off this morning, but told Alex it likely wasn’t anything to worry about. It didn’t take much detective work for Alex to reach her own conclusion: She regrets marrying me. So she’d cooked up a hasty excuse to go see Steph, grabbed some food, and booked it over to the record store. And now they’re here in the booth. And the radio show is paused due to fabricated technical difficulties, which probably isn’t great news for Steph’s employment status.
She regrets marrying me. And why wouldn’t she? It’s a batshit crazy, half-baked idea that... well, admittedly it was Steph’s idea. But still! Alex never should’ve said yes, never should’ve put her in this... extremely compromising position they’ve currently gotten themselves into. Sure, maybe that certificate they signed yesterday doesn’t directly have anything to do with this. Maybe this would be happening anyway, in any universe. And yet, as Alex stares up at her friend— who is unequivocally, legally her wife— it’s hard to doubt that this scam marriage has thrown some kind of wrench to stop up the cogs in Alex’s brain.
(And scam marriage doesn’t seem like a fair descriptor for their situation, either. It feels harsh and repugnant and not at all like what it is— but then, what is it?)
It’s also difficult to believe the whole Steph-actually-hates-her-and-regrets-marrying-her theory when Steph lets out a measured breath and bends down, her tailbone pressing harder into the desk as her entire body curves magnetically toward Alex’s. The only sound in the room is hearts and lungs working overtime to control feelings and urges. Steph’s nuzzling into her neck, and Alex is tipping her head to give her better access, and Steph’s lips are millimeters from her skin, and that’s when the phone rings.
A weak laugh rasps out of Alex, abrasive in its artificiality. “Well, the show must go on, right?” She barely hears the words leave her mouth.
Steph’s face is still buried in her neck. She sighs, her breath waking goosebumps all over Alex’s body, then retreats in a clear display of reluctance. “Which show?” she asks, catching her eye with a subtle eyebrow lift that could end Alex’s life right then and there. When Alex says nothing, Steph tucks her bottom lip under her teeth and twists around, officially severing their accidental embrace. She steadies herself with another deep breath, then plucks the old phone off its stand and cradles it to her ear with her shoulder. “Hey. You’re on with Steph.”
While she converses with whoever’s on the other end of the line, Alex takes a few steps back, smoothing out her shirt. Trying to explain to herself what the hell just happened is impossible, let alone trying to explain it to Steph. But as Alex watches Steph hang up the phone, fiddle with some controls, get a few more songs loaded up— and no, watching Steph do her DJ stuff is not the least bit attractive, not at all— she realizes that she might not have to explain anything. Because when Steph looks at her, her face is as neutral as can be, and her aura has scaled down to barely a flicker. She’s moved on.
One corner of Steph’s mouth grins, and Alex tries desperately not to think about where that mouth was mere moments before. “So, uh.” Steph tosses her head at her, illustrating the dictionary definition of casual. “I... probably should get back to work. Since I just got screamed at by a guy who was pissed I left him hanging on a Radiohead song.”
“Right.” Alex looks everywhere else in the room before she lets her gaze return to her. She’s moved past it. So can you, Alex. “I’ll... be on my way, then.” She fastens one hand around the doorknob, but pauses. “Does the offer still stand, by the way?”
Steph blinks. “Offer?”
“To work here.” Alex rubs her arm. “Unless you were joking? I don’t—”
“Hell yeah, it still stands.” Steph is fully beaming now. “You really wanna work here, Chen?”
Alex hates this game she’s playing with herself, this contest of trying to keep a lid on her excitement. Don’t look too into it. Don’t look too in love with the idea of spending several hours a day working here with her. “Sure,” she responds. “I mean, why not? Seems like it’d be pretty cool to make money off of being a music nerd.”
“You do know another way we can make money off of being music nerds is by becoming professional musicians, right?”
Alex sticks out her tongue. “Pshh. That’s too easy. I could release an album and tour the world in my sleep.” For a second she worries the comment hits a little too close to home— that ripped-up bus ticket will not be soon forgotten— but Steph just stares fondly at her. Swinging open the door, Alex goes to leave only to hesitate again, because god forbid she ever makes up her mind about anything. If she was the star of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, the book would be a mile thick. “So, um, yeah. I’ll think about it.” Actually, there’s nothing to think about except how to tell Ryan that she quits. That might suck.
“Word.” As if she read her mind, Steph adds, “Don’t worry too much about Ryan, okay? He’ll understand.”
“I hope you’re right.” Alex points an admonishing finger at her. “And hey, please eat that food. I did the very hard work of putting it into containers after it was cooked and carrying it all the way down one block, so...” She clasps her hands in a pleading gesture. “Don’t let my efforts be in vain.”
Steph puts a hand to her chest and gasps. “I would never dream of it.” Already halfway turned back to her screen, she fires one last finger gun over her shoulder. “Now get outta here. Go, uh, cuff your jeans or something, you funky little bisexual.”
Alex’s pointing index finger smoothly transitions into a middle finger, and with that she backs through the doorway then makes her way through the store. Every step she takes to the exit feels like she’s wading through wet cement. And once she’s outside and walking back down the street to the Lantern, all she can think about is when she’ll return to the record store next.
Now she has two more problems on her increasingly crowded plate: what she needs to say to Ryan, and what she probably can’t ever say to Steph. They don’t have to talk about it, right?
(Steph is scared of losing her, is so deeply purple about it, and as unsteady as her own footing still feels in only her second month of being in Haven, Alex isn’t sure what she would do if things went sour between them. So she can’t make the first move, she can’t make that choice for Steph, she can’t, she can’t—)
The jukebox is blaring and the restaurant is packed to the rafters when Alex slips through the front doors of the Lantern. The blast of activity is startling compared to the peaceful atmosphere of where she just was on her break.
“Oh, Alex, you’re back! Great. I have Erika on tables eight through eleven and Katie’s on three through six, can you take over the ones between those?” Ryan appears and disappears as if blown past her by a gust of wind. His words almost don’t register with Alex until one of her coworkers comes by and shoves a pen and notepad into her hands with barely a glance. ... okay. Guess I’m taking orders, then.
As she ventures deeper into the restaurant, heading toward her assigned section in the back by the pool table, Alex spies Duckie parked in his favorite seat at the bar, nursing the coveted couple sips of his preferred potent beverage. All Alex can recall about her sample of the whiskey is that it felt like fire burning a trail down her throat, so she’s nothing but impressed that he can withstand it, and barely an hour into the afternoon. Not that she’s one to judge about day drinking.
“Alexandra! What a delight it is to see you up and about,” he roars as she passes behind his stool.
“Hey, Duckie. It’s nice to see you, too,” Alex greets him.
She continues to the back of the restaurant and nearly collides with someone as she swerves into the farthest room. After a double take, she realizes it’s Ethan on his way back from playing with one of the arcade games in the corner.
“Sorry!” the ten-year-old shouts, but he stops in his tracks when he sees who exactly his averted obstacle is. “Oh, hi, Alex! You won’t believe the score I just got on Arkanoid.”
“Oh yeah? I bet you didn’t beat my high,” Alex teases as she follows him over to where his mother is sitting.
(Sometimes— in the not-so-far reaches of her mind— Alex worries that she’s inserted herself into Gabe’s place a little too neatly. Best friends with Ryan and Steph, talking video games with Ethan, literally working where her brother worked. But if Charlotte resents Alex for getting to live a life like the one her boyfriend now can’t, she doesn’t show it, inside or out. And really, Alex knows Char has to be above such bitter feelings, right?)
“... maybe not,” Ethan confesses. “But I’m still number one in the racing game!” He noisily drags out his chair and drops into it.
“You are the master at that one,” Alex tells him sincerely. “I can’t even play it. Every level is like Mario Kart Rainbow Road on steroids.” She nods at Charlotte’s wave of hello. “Hey, how’s it going, Charlotte?”
“It’s going,” Char says, grinning through a sigh. “I just picked him up from his father’s, and he was getting pretty antsy at the dispensary so I thought I’d bring him here for lunch. Gotta love summer vacation.”
“It’s the best!” remarks Ethan, who already has his half of the table covered with half-finished comic pages. One of them includes a detailed full-body panel of what looks like a furious Thaynor. I’m definitely gonna get him to show those off to Steph later.
Charlotte raises a brow, and Alex laughs. “But anyway, how have you been, Alex? I feel like I haven’t seen you for a minute.”
“Um—” Alex is cut off as she’s jostled from behind by a large group of people making their way to what must be the last available table. “Is it... always this mobbed here, like, all the time, or...?”
Charlotte offers a sympathetic grimace. “Honestly? During the summer, yeah. Tourists flock here for the views and small town charm. Plus the— the incident— well, it definitely put us on the map.” She drops her voice to an inconspicuous murmur. “But like they say, with the mining industry here still being sorted out, Haven needs all the tourism it can get. Once lunch is over, they’ll descend on the rest of town like locusts.”
“Like... good locusts?”
Charlotte clicks her tongue. “Totally.”
Alex forces a smile. Fuck. “So, uh, what can I get for you guys?”
Even after the end of the so-called lunch rush, the “rush” never really lets up. The Lantern is constantly packed for the entire rest of the day, and by the end of her shift Alex feels like putty that’s been stretched too thin and then stomped on. She knows that work is work, of course— but when it entails tripping over her own feet carrying a platter of drinks and lying through her teeth to enthusiastically recommend the jalapeño poppers, it’s a kind of hell that’s gotten quite personal. (Not to mention she feels Gabe’s ghost every time she passes by the bar, patting her on the shoulder and calling her kiddo like he knew she hated.)
But when she walks up to Ryan late that evening after close, he’s already got the difficult part covered for her. It’s a weird stroke of luck that makes Alex question whether Gabe truly is watching over her from beyond the inside of her head.
She’s hardly sat down across from Ryan at the bar before he sets aside his rag and fixes a resigned stare on her, jaw squared and shoulders set. “You hate it here, don’t you?”
His question is so blunt that Alex can’t see any other way to respond than in kind. “... sort of, yeah,” she admits. He hangs his head and groans, and she hastens to make him feel better: “It’s not you, it’s me.” Okay, not a great first attempt. “What I mean to say is... I like getting to see you, and it’s nice having a job that’s right downstairs from where I live. But it just... this isn’t the right fit, Ryan. I’m sorry.”
A moment passes before he raises his eyes to hers again. “You can tell that Gingrich girl at the record store that I will gladly be a reference for you if needed,” he tells her, placing a solemn hand on his chest.
Alex frowns. “How did you—”
“Check the group chat. She’s already this close to naming you employee of the month,” Ryan says, smirking as he holds up his thumb and index finger with a sliver of space between them.
A short spurt of laughter seizes her lungs. “I should’ve known.” There’s a pause as the mirth fades from the room. “Well... thanks for having me here, Ryan. I seriously appreciate it. And, um...” She leans closer to him, maintaining his gaze. “Promise me you won’t let this place take over your life, okay?” He shifts his weight and tries to untangle himself from her steady stare, but she won’t let him. “You don’t owe him anything, Ry. You know that. You don’t have to put aside doing what you love to fill his shoes.” Alex seeks out his hand across the counter. “And you won’t.”
Ryan sighs. Tired strands of fair hair flop over his forehead. “But he left big shoes to fill.” His blue aura is more pronounced now, bleeding into the air around him. “Listen, Alex, I... I don’t wanna overstep by saying this, but... I feel like you might kind of understand where I’m coming from.”
“Because of Gabe?”
“Yeah. I mean, obviously I’m not comparing Gabe to— to him. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I guess it’s just the... the pressure of stepping out from the shadow of someone in our family, someone who had this magnetic rapport with everyone in town. Then trying to figure out who the hell you are when that person isn't around anymore to remind you.”
Alex gives a contemplative nod. “I think I know what you’re saying. For the longest time I was just ‘Gabe’s sister’ to everybody here, right? This mysterious figure who nobody knew what to expect from. And now Gabe’s gone, and I’m still me, but part of that identity will always be Gabe’s little sister.” Her throat becomes thick, almost too thick to handle what she says next. “Dead Gabe’s still-alive sister.”
“Exactly!” Ryan enthuses, so relieved that she relates to him that it’s enough to make her heart ache a bit. “All this time I’ve just been his son. Little Lucan who’s not so little anymore. And I’m me, but people will see me and still see him, too.” He scratches at his stubble. “I guess... one way to fix that is by distancing myself from the Lantern, huh?”
“All any of us have time for in our lives is to just be ourselves,” Alex agrees. Subtly she tilts her head at him, observing the decline of his blue as it makes way for a color that’s harder to place at first, until it settles into a striking orange. Alex recalls the times she’s seen this same color form the faintest ring around Steph, so barely perceptible that she’d always thought she’d imagined it. But nope, here it is in full force, almost reminding Alex of the first time she saw the color of joy. But this is different from happiness, decidedly its own thing. Orange, orange. So close to the golden of glee, somewhere in between that and red’s deep anger. What’s the pathway between those feelings? Frustration to fulfillment. Wanting.
Hope. It hits her, sizzles in her blood. Hope is orange.
Even while Alex is hugging Ryan good night and shuffling over the creaky floorboards to the staircase, she’s still reaching frantically for an explanation behind Steph’s weak grasp of hope. The way her orange had crouched behind other colors, hardly even there. Like it didn’t want to risk being seen, heard, noticed. There could still be so much Steph hasn’t told her yet about her past. There must be. And suddenly Alex wants to know all of it, wants to write a book on Steph’s highs and lows. What happened to her to make her so afraid of hope? But you shouldn’t push her. Because then you might push her too far away.
She’s on the third step when Ryan calls out to her one last time. “Hey, Alex?”
Alex peers back at him, a questioning slant to her brow.
“Gabe would’ve loved working with you,” Ryan tells her. “But he also would be excited for you to find your own place.” His head dips forward, Adam’s apple bobbing. “I... hope you don’t mind me putting words into his mouth, but I swear, that’s just who he was. And you really deserved to get to see that.”
She smiles in return. “I know this might not make much sense, but... I imagine putting words into his mouth a lot. Probably more than is healthy, to be honest. Sometimes I think it’s the only way I’ll ever see him, like, beyond the grown-up brother I knew for a day, but...” Alex shrugs one shoulder and brings a foot up to the next step. “Anyway, night, Ryan.”
Ryan’s expression reflects hers like a mirror. “Night, Alex.”
When she reaches the top of the stairs, she notices something glowing among her keys— or rather, among Gabe’s spare set of keys he’d passed on to her that she then attached to her worn My Neighbor Totoro-themed lanyard. Alex shakes aside the other keychains until she finds the culprit: the key to the apartment. She stares so intently at it, it’s a wonder the lenses on her glasses don’t melt.
“Whoa, dude. This place is incredible! I mean, look at these fantastic bones. And open concept, too! Any lady who digs HGTV will dig this, you know what I’m saying?” Ah, her beloved idiot brother.
“It’s all yours.” Ryan’s voice, words formed around a chuckle at Gabe’s lame joke.
“Are you sure?” Gabe sounds serious now. “You and Jed really don’t have to do this—”
“Nah, man. We want to do this.” There’s the briefest of pauses, and Alex can only imagine what their faces looked like. “Welcome home,” past Ryan says, then the memory recedes back into the key like the last of a wave returning to the ocean.
Alex folds her fingers and squeezes the small object in her palm until its ragged teeth bite into her skin. She doesn’t care much about the marks it leaves behind— like the needle that etched little tattoos into her skin, these welts remind her that she hasn’t gone completely numb all over again. But when she flicks through her phone and reads the texts from Steph that Ryan had mentioned, she remembers there could be another way to evade the paralysis of loss that she’s been running from for over half of her life. Something that isn’t pain.
“Question: do you always have to have the same kind of beer?” Alex asks as she slides her thumbnail under the tab and bends it back. “I feel like you could switch it up a little, no offense.”
“No offense? I am wounded,” Gabe says, dramatically clutching his chest. Just to really sell the act, he slams his can down on the patio table. “Damn, your verbal offense is even better than your foosball offense.” He points at the drink in her hand, which is always perfectly frosty here, wherever they are— a few steps outside reality, but evidently still close enough to earth to appear as the rooftop garden she had been sitting in by herself a moment ago. “For your information, this— this I-forget-what-it’s-called Lite— is the finest alcohol to ever grace the market.”
“Mm-hmm.” Alex pretends to savor a sip. “I don’t know. I think you had a superior taste in beer in life. I saw that fancy stuff in the back of your fridge.”
Gabe scrunches his nose at her, and she copies him. “I can only know what you know, remember?”
He allows her a moment before he gets into it. “So what happened today, Alex?”
“Um.” She sits back in her chair, drums her knees. “I worked one exhausting shift and promptly quit, so... maybe not my most admirable move.”
One of Gabe’s eyebrows inches higher, looking not unlike The Very Annoying Caterpillar. Or whatever that book was called. “We both know that’s not what I was talking about.”
“Really?” Alex intends the word to be deadpan, but it comes out more like a soft whine instead. “Do we have to do this? Can’t I just sit up here and be left alone for once?” Perhaps the dock by the lake should be her new spot— she can self-reflect while actually staring at her reflection in the water. What a terrifying thought.
“— fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean— I’ll go.”
Wait, what? That’s not Gabe. Alex shakes her head, blinks hard, and all of a sudden the person on the other chair is no longer her brother. It’s Steph, hunched over with her ripped jeans and an unbuttoned flannel covering shoulders that had been bare earlier. The neck of the tequila bottle is held loosely between woven fingers. Alex stares stupidly, trapped in her struggle to discern when exactly her conversation with Gabe morphed into a conversation with Steph. Steph, who Alex all but pressed her entire body up against mere hours ago. What happened today, Alex? Who asked that?
“Yep, I’m gonna...” Steph claps her thighs and springs out of the chair as if it’s electric. “Catch you later, Alex.”
She’s already got her hand on the door when Alex finally snaps out of her stupor. “Steph, no, wait—” She goes after her, hands straining to capture any molecule of Steph that will keep her here. A scrap of fabric, a belt loop. Steph stops, turns in Alex’s grasp. Alex drops her hands and jerks her head toward the door. “Could we, um, go downstairs? I think I’d rather be in the apartment.”
Steph’s red ebbs. “Are you... down to hang?” she asks, holding up the bottle.
Alex grins. “Definitely down. I, um... have some explaining to do, anyway.” She opens the door and motions for Steph to lead the way, earning her a haughty “guess chivalry isn’t dead” comment. Alex threatens to push her down the stairs for that alone.
They settle into the apartment with ease, falling into their well-practiced ritual. Steph snags a couple shot glasses off the shelf in the kitchen and brings them over to the coffee table. Alex throws on a record, going for Elastica’s self-titled because she can recall by heart a rare time Steph opened up about her former band and cited “Connection” as a favorite track to cover. Steph sprawls on the couch and obediently lifts her legs so Alex can duck underneath and slide into her comfortable slouch.
Alex takes Steph’s ankles and brings her feet back down onto her lap. “So... how was the rest of your day?”
“Not bad. Played music, had many gay thoughts about Dua Lipa for about an hour straight— no, don’t you dare say it,” Steph says, shoving a sock-covered foot in Alex’s snickering face to prevent the is-it-really-straight-though joke. “Then I sold a grand total of three items today, so go ahead, be impressed. Oh, and I did polish off that grub. Thanks again for that.”
Alex looks down and hopes she’s not blushing as she lands a shy blow on Steph’s calf in response.
“And how was your day? Did you... talk to Ryan?”
“It was good,” Alex says. Steph’s mouth flattens into a line of disbelief, so Alex retries. “It was kind of stressful. But I talked to him, and though he begged and cried for me to stay...” She closes her eyes, affixes the most earnest expression she can manage onto her face, then opens them. “... I told him I had a new quest to embark on. And then...” She draws out the imaginary drumroll, holding up a hand to put Steph’s incoming quip on hold. “... I rode off into the sunset on my trusty steed, eager to seek new horizons.”
Steph hums, eyes darting rapidly over Alex’s features as she evaluates her tale. “Hm, not bad. I give it an A-.”
“A-?” Alex sputters.
Steph nearly loses her composure as she twists open the tequila. “That’s being generous. You gotta throw in all the details, Alwynn, c’mon. Like— what kind of quest? What’s your trusty steed’s name?”
“I’m gonna kill you.”
“Well, that’s a bit of a mouthful, but...” Steph considers the shot glasses, then leaves them be and takes a swig right from the bottle instead. “... it’ll do.” She passes the drink to Alex, who accepts it and winces around a slightly prolonged gulp. “So many threats of violence tonight, Chen,” Steph continues. Her gaze has no end to it when she looks at Alex the way she is right now.
Alex looks down at the bottle, picks at the label starting to peel from the glass. Threats of violence. She’d nearly beaten Mac to a pulp not ten feet from where they’re lounging. She bloodied her knuckles on his face and then she felt hands hauling her away and she swung back and—
No. She’d rather Steph not know what she’s capable of with or without the backup of her powers. Even though withholding the information feels wrong, it’s not the only truth Alex is keeping from her. What happened today, Alex?
Thankfully, when she lets the silence unwind between them, Steph doesn’t prod any further at the sleeping bear of a subject. There’s an intimacy in this, in enjoying each other’s company with nothing but good music and semi-decent drink to accompany them. Simply alone together in her apartment. Alex’s eyes wander over to the bed, where they’ve awoken in a platonic tangle more times than is probably typical for two people who have only known each other for a couple months. And that was before Steph became her wife as a fucking favor. Coming to Haven was supposed to mark Alex turning over a new leaf. A fresh start, as uncomplicated as possible. But that leaf gets heavier every time she meets Steph’s eyes. The attraction is undeniable, and even less resistible. And yet she persists in resisting. Why?
What. Happened. Today. Alex.
“You know what?” Steph pipes up after a while. “I say we conduct a mock interview for your new job.”
Alex throws her head back over the cushions and groans.
“Hey, it’s only fair to all the other thousands of applicants who lost to you,” Steph jests. She waits until Alex looks at her again, then begins, “So what interested you about this position, Ms. Chen?”
Alex snorts. “Frankly, Ms. Gingrich, it was you who interested me about this position.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” Steph bites the lip of the bottle and pretends to scribble copious notes into her palm. “And what exactly are you hoping to get out of this job?”
The chance to look at your face a lot more than I already do. “Um, experience listening to some good ass tunes.”
“Ah, yes, a compelling point. Fabulous.” Steph mimes putting a cap on her invisible pen and discarding it over her shoulder. “One last question for you. Are you willing to sacrifice your entire day tomorrow to help me deck the store crusty-carpet-to-ceiling in rainbows and a bunch of other gay shit?” A gleam of guilt flashes through her gaze, but all Alex can focus on is wondering if anyone has ever had a more flawlessly sculpted nose than her. “I may be getting a bit of a late start on pride month. Yes, I’m ashamed of myself.”
“Tsk, tsk.” Alex holds out her hand. “I’m gonna have to revoke your gay card.”
Steph gives a desolate sigh. “I knew it was coming.” Unable to produce any kind of lesbian ID, however, she presses the tequila into Alex’s hand in its place. “You didn’t answer the question, by the way.”
Alex holds the bottle to her lips. Refuses to indulge herself in thinking about who else’s lips have repeatedly touched where hers are. “You bet your foosball-losing ass I want to help,” she answers, washing down the tease with another hearty swallow.
Steph’s jaw hangs open. “Okay, well now there’s no way we’re not gonna play, you bully.” She jumps up and Alex laughs and clambers off the couch in pursuit of her. When she deposits the bottle back into Steph’s arms, turbulent amber waves sloshing within, Steph’s eyes twinkle as she tilts more liquid into her throat. “I think it’s safe to say you’re now a part of our two-person team at Rocky Mount—” A magnificent belch rips through her words, spilling cackles out of both of them. “— Mountain Record Traders. Oh, fuck.” The bottle is tossed back at Alex, who miraculously catches it. “Wooo! Cheers!” Steph shouts. The next instant, she’s bent over the foosball table, clumsily searching for the ball that is, unbeknownst to her, already hidden in Alex’s hand.
Maybe she really could spend the rest of her life like this. Having a good time. Holding back her truths from the girl who was the first to accept her unfathomable truth at that council meeting.
“Cheers,” Alex says. She holds her fist over the table and drops the ball.
Chapter 6: don't wanna know if i'm wrong or right (kinda wanna burn everything in sight)
Fine, we can make out a little. But we're not gonna talk about feelings. That's going waaay too far.
trying to advance the plot and accidentally spewing two and a half pages of banter bullshit instead? couldn’t be me! anyways, i finally got to use several lines that i wrote before i even wrote the first chapter, so that's a huge relief. we're gettin' somewhere, folks! and i love you all for sticking with me (and alex and steph, those fools) through it <3
lyrics in chapter title taken from "goodness gracious" by kelsy karter.
The first memory that comes to mind when Steph wakes up the next morning— a pretty memory, idyllic and wrapped up neatly with a little bow— is dancing. Her and Alex dancing around the apartment with nobody but Shu Shu as their witness, half the time not even hearing the music they were moving to. For just a second, whatever came before or after that doesn’t matter; all that stands out to her is all the parts of her that were touching parts of Alex.
It comes back to her one abstract detail at a time. Fingers tangled together like a handful of forgotten necklaces at the bottom of a dusty jewelry box, a million irreversible knots binding them. Alex’s hair taking on a life of its own each time she jumped, brushing Steph’s cheek or arm, beckoning. Her skin, warm, heart pounding a drum-like beat beneath. There’s a reason Steph was drawn to drums as her instrument of choice when she wasn’t daydreaming about other worlds. She likes creating a beat, a steady rhythm that’s the safety net for nearly every melody. A thrumming presence in the background of a song, providing so much yet left relatively unappreciated unless someone listens more closely.
The same is true of human heartbeats. Steph has known this for a while. She knew it when she was with Izzie, her only truly serious relationship in the quarter of a century she’s been on this planet— which, jeez, that makes her seem old as dirt.
But now, as she emerges from hazy dreams full of slippery shadows overlapped with laughter, Steph rediscovers her appreciation for the sound of a heartbeat. Particularly Alex’s. Not only at this moment, when they’re sprawled in a hungover heap on the sofa with Steph’s head on her chest, but during every second of every day, all of her heartbeats that have happened and all of her heartbeats that have yet to occur. All the ones that happen when they’re in the same room, and all the ones that happened before they knew each other existed. Every single beat has preserved Alex Chen, has kept her alive at the bare minimum, has ensured she would keep going even when it was winter in her soul, the vessels extending from her heart like bare, skeletal tree limbs. Each beat a repetition, a flow of oxygen, a tiny rescue, again and again. The rest of the surviving part, of course, she did all on her own.
And Steph’s heart has done its job too, has kept her functioning through shitty times, has fluttered above her head and drummed too quickly and given her away. But Alex’s—
She shuts her eyes, pretends she’s still asleep on the off chance Alex still is. Shuts her eyes and snuggles closer into her friend, as if the couch they’re on isn’t cramped enough and they’re not already as close as they can possibly be. Subtly presses her ear to the rising and falling chest below her. Listens through the soft yellow flannel separating her from bare skin.
— Alex’s heartbeat is different. It’s her favorite pattern. Steph couldn’t ever thank her enough just for breathing.
“Mmm...” Alex stirs with a groan. Steph feels her arm wriggle free from where it was pinned beneath body weight and cushions. One of her own limbs is trapped somewhere, numb and fizzing, but she can’t be bothered to move it and disrupt this scene she woke up in. If she could encase it in a snow globe and tuck it somewhere inside her ribs for safekeeping, she would. Another minute passes as Alex presumably adjusts to the fierce sunlight that had blinded Steph earlier. Then she mutters, “Fuck, my head.” Pause. “What time is it?”
Now that they’re both very much awake, it’s harder to ignore how aware Steph is of the extent to which their bodies are connected. It’s not exactly weird— they’ve cuddled while sober before, even— but there’s still an annoying little bird in her head, one that’s definitely not friends with the swallow on her chest, demanding with a deafening chirp, What the fuck are you doing, Gingrich? Get off of her! Give her some space!
She’d almost forgotten her mission to feign slumber by the time an inquisitive finger pokes her forehead. “C’mon, Steph. I know you’re awake.”
Steph can’t bring herself to ask how exactly Alex knows she’s awake. To distract from that terrifying trove of possibilities, she caves in to the gentle pressure of forehead pokes and pivots her head so that her chin is now resting somewhere at the north end of Alex’s sternum. Their faces are dangerously close, but Steph has never minded the tang danger invites into the top of her throat. “Hey,” she says, voice still swayed by a drowsy drawl. “Top of the morning t’you, Chen.”
Alex could land a starring role in The Hangover, playing the part well with mussed hair and glasses askew. Steph doesn’t even try to talk herself out of fixing them; she lets one hand wander over to Alex’s face and slides her glasses up the bridge of her nose, bringing those orbit-stopping eyes back into focus. And really, how could eyes that bronze not trip up space and time? It’s certainly enough to interrupt the pattern in Steph’s chest.
“Morning,” Alex murmurs. Her expression is a textbook example of someone smiling through the pain. “You feel as shitty as I do?” Her eyes drift down, evidently trying to locate her other arm in the mess of themselves they’ve made on this poor innocent couch. They’re the next scene of a music video that nobody sees because it’s never filmed— the morning after all the partying and booze, when the carefree innocence fades.
“Eh.” Steph would shrug if she didn’t currently feel like kindred spirits with a sloth. She’s had a couple more years under her belt to build up a tolerance than Alex has— not to dunk on Alex’s iron liver, because it definitely deserves an honorable mention here. And though they did finish the bottle last night— the damning empty evidence is lying on the floor across the room— about a third of the tequila was already gone when she found it yesterday. So yeah, Steph isn’t in tip-top shape at the moment, but she’s more inclined to just serve as Alex’s human blanket all day than to crawl to the bathroom and cough up last night’s poor choices and a half dozen organs while she’s at it. Or in simpler terms, she wants to be lazy as fuck today, which isn’t an ideal forecast for her previously postponed plans to decorate the store for pride month.
A soft snort escapes her companion. “‘Eh’? That’s all you got, huh?”
“Nope. I also wanna say that...” Steph sits up a little, raids the last of her energy reserves, and rambles, “I’m so fucking glad you exist. I don’t care if it’s too early in the morning to say shit like that. I just wanna make sure you know it, okay?”
Alex blinks at her. “Uh, are you still drunk?” Her blush is so severe, Steph swears it’s leaking off the edges of her face. Maybe that’s the closest she will ever get to knowing what a real aura looks like.
“Stone cold sober,” Steph clarifies. “And kind of wishing I wasn’t, because this just got awkward, didn’t it?” To add to the pile, she suddenly pinpoints the whereabouts of her other missing hand, the one not buried under Gabe’s crusty couch cushions: it’s resting not far from her face, touching Alex because of course it is, touching Alex right along the curve of her breast—
Steph snatches her hand away. Christ, dude. You could at least try to get it together before she realizes you’re not together, like, not even a little bit.
“No, no, I just— I’m sorry, I’m still waking up,” Alex says, and it sounds as genuine as genuine can get. She doesn’t give any indication of noticing where Steph’s hand had been. “You...” She clears her throat, a gross noise that isn’t gross when it comes from her. “You know you mean the world to me, Steph... and the fact that you still like me when I undoubtedly have noxious fumes coming from my mouth says a lot.” She smacks her lips and grimaces. “Like really, why were we drinking that stuff?”
“Oh, shut up.” Please never shut up. “Your morning breath isn’t that bad. It’s only like Val’s after she’s destroyed a can of her favorite tuna.”
Alex rears back a fist as if to knock her off the couch. “You’re the worst.”
“Hey, not my fault you have bad taste in friends.” Steph raises her eyebrows at her. “Sooo... exactly how opposed would you be to wasting the whole day laying here? And completing approximately zero mentally-stimulating tasks?”
“It wouldn’t be a waste if it’s with you.” Alex winks. “Or with a nice, steaming hot cup of coffee whenever I stop feeling nauseous. That’s what I’m really here for.”
Steph’s face pinches into a scowl. “You suck.”
“You suck more.” One set of Alex’s fingers finds their way into Steph’s hair, sweeping russet strands out of her face. Of course they fall right back over her eyes again a second later, as they’re prone to doing when she’s not wearing a beanie.
“I suck more what?”
Alex curses and retrieves a pillow that was wedged between Steph’s flank and the back of the sofa, promptly pushing it into Steph’s face. In retaliation, Steph bites down on the cushion, wrenches it out of Alex’s grasp, and drops it on the floor. Jaw agape, Alex tries to keep a straight face for the sake of whatever game they’re playing, but she breaks after only half a second. Steph smirks, soaking in the sweet treat of her laughter.
“For the record,” Alex says as the humor subsides, “I did mean what I said. About it not being a waste.” Steph’s breath snags in her throat. However, the moment is finally killed when Alex goes, “We really should get up, though. We’re supposed to decorate the store, right?”
Steph is tempted to press her face into the nearest surface and scream. The only thing stopping her from doing that is the overly apparent fact that the nearest surface happens to be Alex’s, um, chest.
That’s when Steph feels wiggling hands dig into her side, and she yelps, toppling off the couch in an effort to escape the tickle attack. She curls into a ball on the floor and blindly raises an arm, prepared to thwart any additional ambush attempts.
Alex peers down at her. “So you are ticklish.”
Steph grunts and starts to get— very begrudgingly— to her feet. “Might I reiterate that you suck, Chen.”
A minute and about a million heartbeats march past as Steph steadies herself against the wall while Alex rolls off the couch and stretches. Steph tilts her head down, eyes squeezed tight as she quietly mumbles memorized lyrics to an old song in an effort to calibrate her thoughts and distance herself from the faint throbbing blossoming in her temples. It’s a tried and true hangover method for her, though it’s not working as well as it typically does. No need to hazard a guess as to why.
“I... I don’t think I’ve ever actually tickled someone before.”
Steph blinks open her eyes and glances over at Alex. “Really?”
“I just realized. That’s... a dumb thing to point out, I guess. But it’s true. I never really...” Alex shakes her head and goes around the couch toward the kitchen. “Anyway. I’m sorry, I won’t do it again if it’s too intrusive or any—”
“No-no-no, it’s not dumb.” Steph follows her across the apartment. “And I don’t mind.” She crosses her arms and casually leans a hip against the counter while Alex sluggishly hunts through the fridge. “You can tickle me anytime.”
The top half of Alex’s face pops up from behind the fridge door, appearing wholly unimpressed.
Steph purses her lips and nods. “Yep. Definitely didn’t sound as weird in my head.” Without a word she begins preparing the coffee, and when she pours herself a cup as well after making Alex’s serving, Alex gives her a curious look but doesn’t question it.
A new dilemma arises soon after, though, once coffee has been choked down along with a fair share of aspirin. They’re still wearing the same clothes from yesterday— the same outfit Steph was wearing when she was seconds away from kissing Alex in the radio booth. (That was far from the first time she’s condemned that stupid phone in there.)
It’s something that had seemed easier not to discuss at that moment, especially when the interruption brought a small sense of clarity back into the room. But Steph has spent every minute since it happened wondering what Alex must’ve read from her, what Alex heard to make her hesitate and back away from something they were both so close to letting happen.
And now the clothes serve as a reminder of that, of what Steph wants so badly but isn’t sure she deserves to have. She picks at a tear in her jeans and glances around the apartment in a half-hearted search for her missing beanie. She finds her red and black flannel rumpled carelessly under the foosball table, and after another sweep she tracks down her hat buried deep in the couch cushions. She throws the shirt over her shoulder and crams the beanie in a back pocket.
“It’s only nine-thirty. You can take a shower or something if you want,” Alex offers. She’s elbows-deep in her dresser, clearly eager to pick out a fresh outfit of her own.
“Are you saying I stink, Chen?”
“I’m not not saying it,” Alex teases back. Apparently satisfied with what she finds in the drawer, she bundles the clothes under one arm and turns back to her, brows lifted. “So...” she draws out the word. “Do you wanna...?”
Steph considers. Her place isn’t that far away, obviously— this is Haven, after all— but it’s also in the opposite direction they’ll be heading to go to the record store. “Eh, why not?” she decides, all at once eager to peel off her rather musty tank top. “I guess these clothes will feel better for a second day if I’m at least clean.”
Without even the slightest wrinkle of deliberation on her face, Alex replies, “Oh, you could borrow something of mine to wear. I don’t have much, but...”
“You...” Steph needs a moment. “Y- you want me to—?” C’mon, brain. Do what you’re supposed to do. “I can wear your... clothes... like, actually put them on and wear them.” It’s more of a statement than a question, not that it makes it anything less than a total car crash to get through.
“I...” Something shifts on Alex’s face, and her eyes narrow to better accompany the smirk that’s formed below them. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it.”
Fucking hell. Not fair. “Yeah...” Momentarily forgetting that breathing is a required thing, Steph rakes a hand through her admittedly crunchy hair. “I’ll do that. Thanks!” By the time the last word leaves her mouth, she’s bolted and shut herself into the small bathroom just in time for the panic to crush her. Then there’s a delicate knock on the door. Steph rubs the back of her neck and opens it a crack. “Yeah?” For the love of god, Gingrich, try to expand your vocabulary before you’ve gone completely braindead.
“Need a towel?” Alex holds one up for her to take, and fuck, she sounds like she’s trying not to laugh. That, or she’s as lost as Steph is here. Maybe it’s both.
Steph grabs the proffered item, hugging it to her chest while stiffly grinning like a maniac. Out come the finger guns, resulting in her nearly dropping the towel. “Thanks again, Chen.”
Alex gives her a single nod. “See you in a few.” Then she disappears back around the corner.
Steph closes the door, presses her back against it, and slides down to the floor. She dedicates a solid minute to biting her knuckles and cursing every choice that’s led her to this exact moment. Her palms are like slip-n-slides.
Eventually she regains her footing and sets the towel on the counter. She can’t stop her eyes from scanning over the vanity and the minimal possessions scattered across it. She’s been in here before, of course, back when it was Gabe’s bathroom and she’d use it while crashing at his place after a late night. But now it’s Alex’s bathroom, and it might as well be a different bathroom in an entirely different apartment anywhere else besides Haven Springs.
And then she’s standing in the shower’s steady spray, warm water dribbling down her back and plastering hair to her head. She blinks droplets out of her eyes and finds herself staring at Alex’s shampoo bottle. And body wash. Conditioner, face scrub. Steph pops open the shampoo and inhales the familiar green tea and cucumber scent that she could get drunk on all over again. She lets her eyes slide shut as she massages the soap into her hair, imagines the hands touching her are the hands of the girl who’s probably chilling right on the other side of this wall, somehow a million miles away if she’s not in here with her.
“I’m gonna pass the fuck away right here in her shower,” Steph hisses to herself. She thrusts her head under the spray and scrubs out the soap with fingers like claws.
Soon after she emerges and starts toweling off, she hears another knock. “Are you... decent?” Alex calls out in jest.
Feeling slightly more like herself in the refreshing aftermath of a scalding hot shower, Steph snarks right back, “Always am!”
“Ha, ha.” The door is nudged open by the tiniest sliver, and an abundantly cautious arm slips through, bearing a neatly folded shirt and sweatpants. “Here,” Alex’s disembodied voice says. “Thought you’d appreciate a reliable old band tee. And the pants have a drawstring, so they can be as snug or loose as you want.”
It’s a minor gesture in the grand scheme of things, but it’s so incredibly considerate that Steph almost isn’t sure how to respond in a way that isn’t painfully robotic. She accepts the outfit from the waiting hand, then watches Alex’s arm retreat through the narrow gap. Steph steps into the sweatpants and turns over the t-shirt in her hands. It’s for a smaller indie band she’s heard of once or twice, with a rough logo on the front and a modest list of cities and tour dates on the back. It could totally be something out of her own wardrobe. Steph shimmies into it and shouts through the door, “Thanks for the sick ‘fit, wife!”
A long, lingering silence from the other side forces Steph to confront the utterly unwise words that just exploded out of her heart. She’s already opening her mouth to bumble through an apology when Alex answers, “No problem, wife.”
Steph almost doesn’t make it out of that bathroom alive.
They practically trip over each other in their haste to get downstairs and through the first floor of the Lantern, where Ryan is going through his pre-opening duties. From the jukebox, soft country music pervades the atmosphere with an unmistakable twang.
Ryan peers up from the stack of papers he’s flipping through— which, if Steph isn’t mistaken, looks a hell of a lot like resumes for potential restaurant managers. “Slept over last night, huh?”
Steph makes a show of covering her ears as they pass by the bar. “Sass and country music? Watch it, Lucan, or else I might take my business to the Brown Bear Diner.”
A gasp. “You wouldn’t.”
Alex hangs on to Steph’s arm and yanks her toward the exit. “Hi, Ryan. Bye, Ryan,” she chirps seconds before crashing her shoulder into the door and pulling both of them out into the misty mountain morning.
“Shit, who are we racing, Chen?” Steph chuckles as she allows herself to be dragged down the block past sun-drenched storefronts.
“... no one. I’m just... excited, that’s all.” Alex slows her gait and loosens her grip on Steph’s— arm? Hand? Wrist? All Steph can determine is that Alex is touching some part of her body, and that’s where the tracks for her train of thought end.
“You should be,” Steph says, framing it as a promise. She takes the lead and picks up the pace again, and by the time they reach the record store she can’t tell if they’re more out of breath from jogging or from laughter.
It’s only a few hours later, when they’re surrounded by a million and a half mostly unpacked boxes of pride stuff, that it hits Steph how strangely momentous this occasion is. Around this time a year ago she was in here alone, hanging decorations and posters by herself. Trying her hardest to ignore the outside world that wouldn’t stop lurking on the other side of the door, constantly making its presence known like the talon-esque tree branches that would scrape at the window panes of her childhood bedroom. That was the entire rest of the world to her— something innocent and trivial posing as something far more sinister. And when repeatedly knocking on the door didn’t work, the world found a way through her phone, unleashing an onslaught of “Are you okay?” texts from new and old friends and “why did you ghost???” messages from that useless fucking Smolder app.
But now Steph isn’t alone anymore. Alex is here with her, unwittingly acting out a scene that feels movie-worthy every minute she kills with Steph. Only they’re not in a movie or a show or a game; this is real life. And Alex doesn’t seem to be acting.
Steph pauses mid-rummage through a newly cracked open box and steals a moment to observe her new coworker/subject of her bothersome crush/center of her goddamn universe. Alex is teetering on top of a stepladder, balancing on one foot in order to reach the spot where she wants to hang one end of a rainbow garland. As if she can sense Steph looking at her, Alex glances over her shoulder while holding the garland in its prospective position. “Does this look okay?” she asks.
Unfortunately for Steph, she’s just so happened to take notice of Alex’s arms, particularly the one pinning the hella gay decoration in place. Rolled-up sleeve, taut muscle peeking through smooth skin. Those arms could fuck somebody up, she thinks idly. And that somebody is me.
“Earth to Steph?”
You... sure do have arms, Chen. “Sorry, wha—” She shakes herself and refocuses her gaze on Alex’s face, not that it’ll do anything to help unwind the coiling in her core. “Uh, yeah. Looks great.”
Alex squints down at her, then turns back to the wall and tilts her head. “It’s definitely crooked, dude.”
“I think that’s because you’re tilting your head.”
A balled-up wad of tape is sent sailing in her direction, and Steph lets it hit her squarely in the chest. “Woman down!” she croaks, sinking to her knees.
“Maybe save the theatrics for that introductory dnd session you owe me,” Alex retorts, one eye falling into an easy wink. “The ever-enigmatic proprietor of the Magpie Emporium still has yet to get back to me on that valuable proposal of mine.” Something flashes over her face. “Of Alywnn’s, I mean.”
Steph mulls over her words, then kicks off her turn in this informal session. “What if I told you... there was a whole other realm out there?” she begins, sliding into a pompous strut. “A universe where dragons and bards and magic are mere fantasy?” She slinks down one aisle and the next, gradually approaching where Alex listens keenly from atop her perch. “A world where marriage can be performed at the drop of a hat by an ornery city clerk whose office smells suspiciously like cheese.” Now she’s reached the base of the ladder, straining to hold onto the twinkling eyes above her. There’s a beat of silence before Steph’s practiced dungeon master composure shatters, and she wipes a hand over her brow. Nearby, Valkyrie watches her with slitted yellow eyes and a twitching tail which suggest that in her opinion, Steph’s performance left a lot to be desired. “That got... progressively worse as it went along, didn’t it?” Steph winces.
“That got very real.” Alex grins. “But you do have a point... I guess that means the proposal was accepted.” Both pairs of eyes dart away from each other at the same time, and in place of eye contact a raging blush spreads across both faces. It takes several minutes— during which Steph pretends to make progress on their project by moving around boxes at random— before Alex finally speaks again. “It would be super cool of you to grab me some tape. I think I’ve got it just straight enough now.”
Steph blinks at her. “You did not just say that super gay rainbow garland is straight enough.”
Alex mirrors her teasing glare. “Fine.” She moves her hand, setting the garland at the slightest angle. “Better?”
“Much.” Steph props a box on one hip and maneuvers her way back over to her to deliver the tape. Not long after, Alex hops down from the ladder and brushes past Steph in her path to hang a rainbow flag over the front door.
“Just so you know...” A sneaky hand sticks something onto Steph’s bare arm as it flexes around the weight of a heavier box. “... you sure do have arms, too.”
“Wait, I didn’t say that out l— damn it. Freaky empath powers strike again.” Steph smiles behind a lip bite, then checks her arm to discover that Alex labeled her with a little sticker reading “Move, I’m gay.” She catches Alex’s eye as the latter stands on her toes at the door, stretching her height to its tallest limit to position the flag. “Looks crooked to me,” Steph calls to her from the back of the store.
“From all the way over there?” Alex demands. Amused exasperation oozes out in between her words, and there is no sweeter nectar on this earth, Steph thinks.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten so soon that I’m technically the one in charge here, Chen.” Steph makes a tsk, tsk sound and pretends to busy herself sorting through a basket of guitar picks striped with various LGBTQ+ colors. “Don’t wanna get written up, do you?”
“Forgive me, boss, for not possessing the twenty-twenty vision you have when it comes to detecting how straight something is,” Alex replies, and with that said, she lets the flag fall crooked over the door and tapes it into place.
Please. I’m so gay I can’t even see straight— and my vision doubles when I look at you. Quadruples, even.
(And if Steph swings behind her later and discreetly affixes a “Good-BI, haters!” sticker on an unsuspecting Alex’s back, then that’s nobody’s business but hers.)
“You know I spent New Year’s Eve here alone?”
Alex turns her head, eyes falling on Steph like feathers. “Really?”
“Yep,” Steph says, popping the p. “In here, actually.” She drums her fingers on the floor of the radio booth. It’s where they’ve ended up at the end of a long shift, several less-than-pleasant customers and two dispensary-sourced gummies later. “Rang in 2019 with just me, a bottle of champagne, and music. At least the music was good.” Alex chuckles. Steph continues drumming her hands while looking down. “Didn’t know it’d be the year I met you.” Finally she lets her stare float up to Alex, who gives her shoulder an affectionate bump. “I think if I did... I might’ve celebrated a little better.”
“I should’ve known, though.” Her fingers slide up her shins until they’re drumming her knees. In the edge of her vision, she sees Alex’s hand twitch. “Gabe called me that night. Called in to the show. Back when I did my— my d20 fortune-telling bullshit.” She presses her head against the wall and snorts out a laugh. “He wanted to know how it would go, meeting you. Reaching out, if it was the right thing to even do after so many years. I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but... god, I’m so fucking grateful he found you again, Alex.”
A tentative hand folds into hers. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else now. Being with anyone else—” Alex cuts herself off and worries her lower lip.
Maybe it’s the weed, or maybe it’s the arrangement of those words, or maybe it’s the fact that they’re sitting on the floor in the exact place where they met a few months and a million years ago, but some sort of combination has been spun into one of the locks on Steph’s heart, a key eased into an empty space. And she says, “Sometimes it’s like I’ve never wanted to bolt so bad. But then I look at you, and you don’t even have to say anything at all, and I’ll be like... no. I’m staying right here.” She skims a thumb over Alex’s knuckles. “Things don’t really end well when I care a lot about someone. I’ll meet a girl, I’ll tread lightly— maybe too lightly. She feels like I’m not really present in the relationship. So I run away before she comes to her senses and runs away from me. It’s... a pattern.”
She sifts through her foggy mind for the next piece to the puzzle inside her chest, and in the silence Alex goes, “I... I know what you mean. It’s scary to be your best self for someone you care about, because that means opening up.”
“Exposing the defective parts,” Steph agrees. “And Alex, I— I can’t guarantee I won’t fuck something up. That’s what freaks me out about this, that we’ll go all-in and I’ll scare you off.”
Alex angles her entire body towards her, resting her other hand over their joined ones. “I should break it to you, Steph. I’ve seen some shit over the years, so... you’d have to try really hard to scare me away.”
(That’s the worst part of this, really, knowing all that Alex has been through only to end up stuck with her, Steph “Flight Risk” Gingrich. Her, with a girl who— until this morning— had the part of her that comprehends the simple joys of a tickle fight rusted over from disuse.)
“So I haven’t been trying hard enough already?” Steph’s joke miraculously doesn’t crashland in the middle of their heart-to-heart, and she relishes the grin that frays the edges of Alex’s solemn expression. “Real talk, though, I, um...” A sigh struggles through her lungs. “It’s up to you, okay? What I don’t want is for you to make a quick decision based on what I want. You deserve way better than some kind of casual, indecisive bullshit.” What she doesn’t say is I don’t think I’m capable of something casual with you. I already care too much.
“But it would be your casual, indecisive bullshit,” Alex says. She draws in closer, and Steph is powerless to her allure.
“So, uh, to sum it up...” First foreheads touch, then noses nudge. Alex’s lips are literally ghosting over hers, her every breath becoming Steph’s, and still Steph mumbles like an idiot over her mouth, “... I’ve never been so fucking conflicted in my life.” Only one thought screams inside her barren skull, a ghost town where every last brain cell has long since packed up and moved out: Are you really that conflicted?
And then Alex closes the distance and kisses her, and they’re still on the floor in the radio booth in Haven Springs’ dusty old record store, but they could also be anywhere else on the fucking planet and Steph wouldn’t even notice. Alex Chen is kissing her and their lips are moving in this provocative rhythm like they’ve rehearsed this before, in daydreams and thoughts and pangs of want.
Then they part. Alex’s face is still as close to Steph’s as it can possibly be, and she whispers. “Steph, I’m telling you the whole truth when I say this, okay? You are amazing. And to say I want you with every bone in my body is an understatement.” Brown eyes pop open and meet hers, impossibly, deliciously dark, dark as Steph’s ever seen them. “So if you need time to figure out how you want to define this... I’m fine with that. Seriously.”
“Are you sure?” What she doesn’t say is I hope you’re more sure than I am.
Only a fragment of a second passes before Alex assures her, voice cracking around the words in a low whine that jolts lightning below Steph’s belly. “So fucking sure.” Lips find hers again in the dim light, as hands trace their way to cradle cheeks and fingers carve paths through soft hair. Steph has never been so intoxicated.
Morning arrives and they wake up in the same place again. Steph looks at Alex and Alex looks at Steph.
“Do you... still feel the same?”
“Yeah.” A pause, then “You?”
There’s a frantic nod followed by an even more frantic kiss, like they’re making up for lost time. Under the thin fabric of Alex’s borrowed (read: permanently stolen) t-shirt, Steph’s heart hums.
Chapter 7: it was a bad idea ('cause i can't think straight)
Hey google, are there any advice books out there that list the normal ways to touch your best friend after you've kissed her? Or ones that like, explain how to act around her in general? Oh, there are none? Cool.
reminder that i love y'all to pieces <3
lyrics in chapter title taken from "bad idea!" by girl in red.
This is a great idea.
Steph swings her up onto a small patch of empty space on the desk, both of them moving instinctively to help the other where needed— Alex hopping backwards to ease Steph’s lifting, Steph shoving aside the keyboard and some knick-knacks to make way for her.
The booth is probably the tightest possible area they could choose to clumsily (sexily, Steph would counter) entangle themselves via limbs and mouths. But it’s also the most convenient— and soundproofed— location to flee to while “working,” which is a term Alex admits can only be applied very loosely to what she and Steph do while in the record store’s dusty clutches from eleven to six-ish every day. Their confines only become more apparent when the radio mic, which is fulfilling its duty to be in the way as much as possible, smacks the side of Steph’s head. “This fucking thing,” she growls, landing a sloppy cuff on it in retaliation. Alex is about to ask her if she’s okay, but then Steph’s lips are on her neck and the brief flash of concern fizzles out like a cheap sparkler.
Yeah, this is the best idea ever. Possibly the best idea they’ve ever had in their entire lives, even. It’s absolutely the best decision Alex has ever made. She gets to put her face on the face of someone she’s really, really into, someone who just might be the bestest friend she’s ever had, and it feeds a tremendous amount of dopamine to a brain that is otherwise overwhelmed by the trail of chaos that tends to be right on her heels no matter where she goes. But this, what her and Steph are willingly participating in, this isn’t chaos. Low stakes, no pressure, because Steph is on the exact same page as her, right? We’re just feeling it out— and I can’t even lie to myself, it feels pretty fucking amazing.
“Hey, don’t disrespect your super cool DJ equipment just for my sake,” Alex mumbles, which is quite the task to complete when Steph is busy tattooing a hickey along her throat. This is prompted by Steph’s hand briefly leaving Alex’s hip, shortly after followed by the sound of something probably expensive clattering to the floor.
“Shh, you’re worth it,” Steph replies, taking a detour from her journey south to peck Alex’s lips, “especially ‘cause you just called my equipment super cool.”
“Well, duh. That goes without—” Alex is cut off by her own gasp when Steph hits a sweet spot. “— saying. Fuck, Steph.” Usually she’s coherent enough to reciprocate what’s given to her, but Steph Gingrich has completely unraveled the coils of her brain like a ball of yarn. Still, she wants to return the favor, wants to make Steph feel even better than she’s making Alex feel, wants to twist her insides into knots in the same way— if such a feat can even be accomplished. Without any need to spare a glance, she slides her hands under Steph’s shirt, enjoying the pleased shudder that ripples across the endless expanse of skin under her fingertips.
The song that’s been playing on the radio (and providing not-so-accidentally-selected background music) reaches its final chorus. Steph pulls away with a soft swear, nearly taking Alex’s wandering hands with her. “Damn it, I gotta do the...” Still caught somewhere between turned on and breathless, Steph rakes a hand through already messy hair and stares over Alex’s shoulder at the computer screen. “Gotta do the thing.”
“The thing, hm?” Alex lifts her brows, wiggles them a little. “So that’s what you’re calling me now?”
Steph groans. The way she looks when she’s trying to hide a smile is second only to when she actually cracks a smile. “You’re lucky you’re cute, Chen.”
Alex reluctantly gets off the desk and moves away, allowing Steph to hop back on air for a minute to improvise something out of whatever advertisement blurb she was told to recite. This time it’s something along the lines of “Don’t be afraid to hit up the Brown Bear Diner anytime day or night, Havenites— because this is one bear that doesn’t hibernate!” At first Alex listens to her, but then she gives in to the sunshine-like aura that’s been teasing her all day from nearly the first minute she saw Steph this morning. Gold with just a hint of orange that buries itself inconspicuously.
“God, she drives me crazy. I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”
But then while Steph’s setting up a fresh record, Alex watches her aura melt into something different. Something more like the sky at dusk.
“I also can’t believe she just said that... does she want more than what I’ve been giving her? Or— no, no, chill the fuck out, Gingrich. You’re reading into it too much, as usual.”
It’s all Alex can do not to flinch away from the surge of fear that often arrives with overthinking. So maybe her comment hadn’t been all that thought through. Everything they’ve done these past couple weeks has been an exercise in extreme self-control. The rest of June slipped away in a haze of kissing and touching, exploring their bodies in restrained doses of pleasure. Thinking about taking the next step... well, that isn’t exactly good for the health of Alex’s heart at the moment.
Steph’s purple subsides, and she peers over at Alex without so much as a glimmer of what was just on her mind. If she wanted to talk about it, she would, wouldn’t she? Suddenly transparency doesn’t seem so clear...
“So...” Steph begins. “I was wondering...” She acts as if she’s going to creep closer to Alex, but holds her place by the desk instead, fingers drumming a rhythm that Alex is starting to become familiar with. “Got any plans for your birthday?”
“Oh.” Alex blinks. “Right. That is coming up.” She winces and shoots a sheepish look at her friend, somehow feeling guilty for forgetting something about herself. “Is it obvious that it completely slipped my mind?”
“Hey, no judgement. I’m definitely planning on forgetting my twenty-sixth this year. I’ll be, like, crossing the bridge from my early twenties to my late twenties, and that is something I wanna remember to forget.” Steph leads her out of the booth and towards the back room, where she fetches a couple cans of off-brand sparkling waters and tosses one underhand at Alex.
“If that qualifies as old, then I’m a little apprehensive about what qualifies as young,” Alex says. She cracks open the drink she didn’t even have to ask for and takes a sip.
“Yeah, sooo... verdict’s in. You are a certified baby, Alex Chen.” Steph points at her, smirking around the teeth she has fastened on the curved edge of her drink can.
In that case, why don’t you start calling me baby? Alex, of course, doesn’t bring that thought to life, because that is absolutely the worst possible thing she could say now that they’ve... um, intensified things between them. (Intensified even more than their sham marriage did, which holy shit, Alex is now reminded that that’s still a thing. A thing that exists. No big deal.)
“Swinging back to your birthday for a sec...” Steph continues. She creates a performance out of walking around and feigning interest in the shelves of unstocked merchandise, which reminds Alex that she mentioned serving as stage manager for various productions her high school put on. (Secretly, she’s a little relieved that Steph never got into the actual acting part of those plays.)
“Yes...?” Alex prompts. She observes as Steph picks up a vintage concert poster and proceeds to unravel and examine it for all of three seconds. Anything to keep her eyes and hands busy, Alex notices. It’s... actually kind of cute. Is it really that hard for Steph to resist her? Alex shoos away the notion. Jeez, Alex, no one’s ever been that obsessed with you before, so who would start now? Jump down off your high horse before reality shoves you off.
“I was thinking...” At last Steph’s eyes flick over to hers again as she wiggles her shoulders playfully, the restrained eagerness in her voice lacking compared to her body language. “I could maybe throw you a party of some sort? Not some huge rager, obviously— I mean, we’re in Colorado’s version of Narnia here— but it could be a little get-together with Ryan, Char, Riley, whoever else you’d want to see. Doesn’t even have to be a party, either. Just dinner and drinks or something, no pressure—”
Alex cuts off her rambling with nothing but her index finger pressed to Steph’s lips. “That sounds great, Steph. Just as long as you promise not to take me to a restaurant where all the employees clap and sing a song for your birthday.”
Steph freezes at first, then her forehead crinkles with mischief and she lightly bites the finger covering her mouth, making Alex gasp as if it actually hurt. “But what about the free dessert you get?”
“In exchange for what sounds like absolute torture? I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Sounds like? Wait, have you— are you saying you’ve never been subjected to the horror of a perfectly mediocre birthday dessert at an Applebee’s?”
Alex shrugs. “Nope. And I plan on keeping it that way.” What she doesn’t add is And I don’t think anyone has planned a birthday party for me since I was eight or nine. Maybe younger. That realization is all it takes to blind her with a burst of gratitude. She reaches out to Steph, squeezes her shoulder. It’s a lame gesture, but that’s a part of her that seems safer to touch now, after everything. Less loaded. (Not, however, to discount the effect that Steph’s nearby collarbone has on her, the way the swallow on her skin takes flight when the bone flexes underneath.) “Really, thank you. Knowing that you’d plan something fun for me... that means a lot.”
A muscle twitches under her hand, but Steph looks anything but agitated when she replies, “Hey, you know I’ve got you.” A quick pause allows some humor to seep back in. “So uh, if you could go back to forgetting your birthday again, that would be sweet, ‘cause that way I can call it a surprise party.”
“Sure thing, dork.”
Then they hang there in limbo, and if Steph is pondering the same thing Alex is, it’s whether or not they should kiss right now. Alex is certainly game. And the back room of the record store would be a new location to check off the mental bucket list she totally isn’t etching onto her brain.
When they fall into a hug instead, disappointment, relief, and joy commence a fight to the death in her head.
By some miracle of nature— or, more appropriately, by some miracle of poor mental health— Gabe is still able to wedge himself comfortably into Alex’s mind alongside all her warring emotions. When she goes up to the roof to watch the sunset by herself a few nights later, he beats her there and looks quite smug about it too, if that goatee-surrounded smirk is anything to go by.
“Come on, dude,” Alex sighs, taking her unspoken assigned place in the right patio chair. “Don’t get me wrong— you know I miss you. But I miss the real you. All I ask is just one week without this. One.”
His gaze is soft, subdued, easily ducking around the verbal spears she throws. “And all I ask is just one week without you being a total ignoramus.”
“One week where you don’t completely bungle your relationship with Steph.”
Alex scoffs. “Really? You’ve stooped low enough to use words like ‘ignoramus’ and ‘bungle’ now?” She stares coolly at him. “And where can a girl get an ice-cold dream beer around here?”
“Here, let me just pull one out of thin air for you,” Gabe says, and she can’t tell if he’s snarking or bragging. Nevertheless, he procures the requested drink and pushes it across the table. “Also, you’re the one who’s using those shitty eighth-grade English class vocab words.”
“... yeah, whatever.” Alex picks up the beer and rolls it over in her hands, but doesn’t open it. “Whoever you are—”
“Again, I’m you.”
“— you have a spot-on impression of him. Or, well— what I think he’d be like, from what little info I harvested from the eight hours we got together.”
(For a second she thinks about what Steph told her recently, how Gabe was so intensely worried about seeing her again after eight years, how he fretted here in Haven at the same time Alex was so sick with nerves she could barely eat for a week straight before boarding that bus. He was here, begging for a crystal ball, for just a tiny glimpse into the future to make sure they would be alright, and suddenly it becomes more understandable how she could miss someone she barely had.)
“Thanks. I... guess I should be flattered?” Gabe tilts his head at her, one corner of his mouth quirked in a charmingly similar way to his left eyebrow. The grief-stricken bruise that’s steadily expanded through her bloodstream is pressed again, briefly, harshly. Then he smooths over his expression, and the pang recedes. “So let’s get back on task, shall we? I know you’re avoiding the subject. Which is ironic when you consider that making out with Steph tends to be the very last thing you avoid doing these days.”
“Can you really blame me? Am I crazy for not wanting to discuss this ad nauseam with my brother?” Alex snaps. He just blinks at her, so she rolls her eyes and mumbles, “Brother, for... lack of a better word.” She forces herself to slide out of her trademark slouch to get a better look at the sunset unfolding just past the roof’s edge. If she could dive into its colors, wade among the oranges and pinks like they were nothing more than innocent fluffy clouds of cotton candy, she’d do it in a heartbeat. “And I don’t have any answers for you. For her. For myself,” she tells him. “I’m kind of... coasting along, I guess. Enjoying something that just feels good, without doing a deep dive into it. Maybe it doesn’t have to be complicated.”
“It already is complicated. You guys kind of signed a document professing your devotion to each other.”
“A no-frills document in a drab government building with a creepy asshole presiding. It’s not like it was a destination wedding in Hawaii or—”
“Tell me, Alex, why exactly does it feel good?” Gabe’s words aren’t explosive, but they sting anyway. “You know why.”
Because it’s her. “I’m not pushing her into something she’s not ready for,” Alex says firmly, staring at her feet. “Something I’m not even sure I’m ready for. Because with Steph, it’s...” She can barely say her name without her tongue losing its grip, like the letters of Steph’s name are off-limits to her, a foreign pronunciation. Forbidden.
As expected, Gabe can’t let a sentence die. “It’s what?”
“Different.” Her fingers play with a thread unspooling from the hem of her hoodie. “There’s still a lot I have to learn about her. And I don’t think we’ve been with that many people before. I know I haven’t. I’ve had one good relationship and one shitty one. But dating Steph— like, actually dating her— something tells me it would be the realest relationship I’ve ever been a part of. And I think I’m still stuck in the phase where Haven itself, everything and everyone in it, feels unreal to me. Like some kind of fever dream. Like soon I’ll wake up and I’ll be back in the group home or on Isaac’s fucking couch and it’ll all be gone. I never came here, never reunited with you before...” She scrubs her sleeves over her face. Only the rims of her eyes are wet, the tears unspilled, but it’s still enough to make her glasses fog up. She whips them off and tosses them on the table. “I just wanna be with her. Pretend it’s not that deep. It’s easier that way.”
Gabe taps his fingertips together and scoots forward, the legs of his chair screeching in protest over the ground below. “You know what my advice is?” he murmurs. When he has her undivided— and largely blurry— attention, he says, “Tell her everything you just told me. If you only knew me for eight hours and can vent all that to me, then who’s to say you can’t tell Steph? You two are well on your way to knowing each other better than anyone else.” He winks. “Move over, Ryan.”
Alex finally frees her dream-beer from its confinement, popping the tab and pouring a generous swig down the hatch. “Sure,” she scoffs. “She said she didn’t want to scare me off. Little does she know how easily I could scare her off instead.”
“God, you’re dull,” he laughs, and she isn’t sure whether she should be offended by or appreciative of his tough love. If it has to be tough love, at least it’s from him, served warm like a coffee in a cozy cafe.
“You know, there are more creative insults—” Alex’s words hit a snag when she glances over and sees that the person they’re addressed to is no longer there. She leans over and presses her palm onto the just-occupied chair, and the metal’s cold surface sinks its jaws into her bones. He was never here, she reminds herself. He’s at the bottom of a fucking ravine with a thousand pounds of mountain on top of him. He’ll never be here.
When her traitorous mind starts trying to illustrate the unsavory reality of her brother’s whereabouts— pebbles skittering, broken rocks tumbling inches away from her head, roaring like meteorites as they go past, Ryan screaming, her screaming, Ethan crying— she knows it’s time to go back downstairs. Maybe one day it’ll stop, but today’s not that day.
(Alex has this ongoing debate with herself about how traitorous her mind is when it’s Steph who takes up all the valuable real estate that could’ve been held by brain cells or, at the very least, something helpful like common sense. But no, it’s just Steph, always Steph, smirking and flicking hair behind her ear, tugging on her beanie too low over her eyes to make Alex laugh, carrying Alex’s hand in careful fingers as she raises it to her lips, painting invisible affection over the little stars and arrows scattered across Alex’s skin like her own personal constellation, something that Steph is customizing further with every kiss she adds to the canvas.)
“I feel like I might be walking into a trap.”
Next to her— or maybe behind her, or maybe in front, since Alex’s spatial perception is currently crippled— Charlotte hums in amusement as she guides Alex out the front door of the dispensary. “What would make you say that?” she asks.
Alex pats the blindfold covering her eyes by way of explanation, then proceeds to stumble over the threshold.
Charlotte rushes to apologize. “Sorry, sorry! I forgot about that step, and I’ve tripped over it a million times.” She grips Alex’s shoulders more tightly and directs her to what is presumably the sidewalk outside. “And that’s a valid concern,” she continues, keeping pace with Alex’s slow motion, uncertain steps, “but I promise you’re in good hands.”
“Well, this is definitely a fantastic trust exercise,” Alex chuckles, grinning when she feels Charlotte give her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
As they pick their way down the street, Alex strains to make out anything useful in the sliver of light peeking through the bottom of the bandana pressing into her eyes. She’s distracted from her quest to cheat, however, when her ears pick up on the sound of excited feet slapping over the sidewalk— and really, all that stuff she’s read about other senses being heightened in the absence of one is absolutely true. The thunderous running comes to a stop what seems like mere centimeters in front of her, immediately followed by a new deafening noise: “Happy birthday, Alex!” The uber-charged voice and restless scrape of sneakers on pavement is unmistakable: Ethan. His next words are directed at Charlotte: “Everything’s set up at the secret place! It’s showtime!”
She can hear the little breath that Char usually takes before telling her son to settle down, but before she can get it out Alex drops her jaw and asks, “Thaynor, is that you?” She adopts a stage whisper and adds, “You must rescue me, I’ve been captured! They’ve sworn to leave me to rot in a dank dungeon deep within the bowels of the kingdom—”
“You become more like Steph every day,” Charlotte mutters. Alex’s heart meets her ribs with a particularly hard thud.
“Duh, that’s ‘cause they like each other!” Ethan responds to his mom’s comment like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Before Alex can start sputtering like a broken sprinkler, he adds, “They’re, like, each other’s bestest friends.”
“Uh-huh, that’s right,” Charlotte says lightly. If Alex could see anything, she has a sneaking suspicion that Char would be sneaking a specific type of capital-L Look at her right this second.
Ethan leans in and tells her, “Have no fear, Alwynn. With my sword and battle smarts, I’ll get you freed in no time.” The boy launches into a flurry of sound effects, hopefully pummeling empty air rather than his mother.
“Baby, we don’t have time for an impromptu LARP right now,” Charlotte says, resuming their route down the block. “If I don’t get Alex to the secret spot on time, Steph will have my head on a platter— and then we’ll all be doomed.”
“Fiiiine,” Ethan acquiesces. “But this isn’t over, wicked captor who munches bards for breakfast.”
“I appreciate you using my full, flattering title,” Charlotte bounces back, “but please, Lord Thaynor, call me Lady Wicked for short.”
“Lady Wicked,” Alex repeats. “I like it.”
“Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?”
Easy conversation is passed around for the remainder of the block until they reach their undisclosed destination. Alex hears a door start to creak open. “Ready?” Ethan chirps.
Her mouth stretches into a grin. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” Let’s see the latest reason to fall for Steph— not that any reasons are necessary. Damn you and your mind-fucks, Gabe.
“Okay, here we go.” A gentle push is delivered into Alex’s lower back, and she steps out of the July heat into sweet, sweet air conditioning. Just from the feel of the floor alone— the familiar give and groan of old wood beneath the soles of her shoes— Alex knows right away where she is. But before she can voice a guess, the blindfold is untied and lifted away, replaced immediately by her glasses, which had proven to be an obstacle when the blindfold was first put on.
At the same instant the Black Lantern blinks into view, there’s the sound of a record needle being dropped, inviting a recognizable opening guitar tune into the room. Alex’s gaze naturally gravitates to Steph before anyone else, finding her toward the back near the Wall of Shame photos, where a record player and speakers have been set up on a table. She jabs a thumb in the direction of Riley, who’s perched at the bar with Mac’s arm around her shoulders. “Guess whose mediocre Taylor Swift vinyl finally came in!” Steph announces in a sing-song voice, earning her a mildly affronted “Hey, Taylor is a genius!” from the younger redhead.
Laughter dances in Alex’s lungs. Of course Steph would find the most on-the-nose song to play for her twenty-second birthday. And right on time for the chorus, Steph twists the dial and blasts it:
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22
Everything will be alright if you keep me next to you
You don’t know about me, but I’ll bet you want to
Everything will be alright if we just keep dancing like we’re
If Alex wasn’t laughing already, she sure would be laughing now at Steph’s utterly confounding lip syncing and dance moves. With the way she’s purposely bending her body in all kinds of unrealistic proportions, Alex has half a mind to call a chiropractor to the scene. She knows Steph can actually dance— she’s been gifted with fleeting glimpses of her talent, when she lets herself loosen up and shake out her bones amidst a jam session in the apartment or at work. Then she’ll notice Alex is staring and she’ll get all stiff and gangly again like she forgets she can be made of graceful rubber. Like she’s worried about Alex perceiving a deeper layer of her, what’s buried under the cool and casual flirt.
She walks further into the bar, taking in all the amicable faces of her friends and neighbors, their birthday wishes mingling with the music. It’s quite the sight to a girl whose only family was Shu Shu for so long. Alex keeps saying thank you until her mouth is numb, practically tripping over the gratitude spilling out of her as she approaches where Steph and Ryan are waiting in the back.
“Happy birthday, Alex.” Ryan beams and pulls her into a hug. “Okay, let me just say one thing, and I’m totally not saying this because Steph threatened me with non-intimidating violence if I didn’t—”
“Dude, I said I’d unleash Val on you, how is that not—”
“Weaponizing poor innocent cats aside,” he interrupts Steph, “I should tell you, Alex, that Steph did want to transform the Lantern into a temporary cat cafe for your party. And I”— he places a solemn hand over his chest— “had to be the meanie who shot her down for health code violation reasons.”
Steph blows a raspberry. “Lame. That would’ve been perfect.”
“But hey, we did do the cafe part of it.” Ryan points out the short-term coffee bar set up at the actual bar, stocked with selections of flavored syrups and creamers and even hot chocolate. There’s also a collection of mouthwatering pastries that look like they could have come straight out of a bakery case.
In true witch form, Steph conjures up a hot mug of coffee out of seemingly nowhere and offers it to Alex, who wastes no time shoving the caffeinated goodness in her face. “What, uh... what do you think?” Alex spots an orange flicker before she closes her eyes around a generous sip.
“Mmm,” she moans. “You have it at the optimal temperature and you didn’t try to give me disgusting iced coffee just because it’s summer? I love you.” The words are already out in the open before Alex can even think of the implications lurking behind them. It’s not that loaded of a statement, is it? People say they love their friends all the time... right? That’s a thing that happens.
When she finally reveals herself from behind the cover of the mug, all she finds are the unfazed, grinning faces of her two favorite humans. Then Ryan gets pulled into a conversation with Duckie, and Steph’s gaze lingers on Alex for another moment before she shouts across the room, “Hey, Ethan! Switch up the song for me?”
“You got it, Steph!”
“Thanks, little dude.” Steph holds out a hand to Alex, brows perked in question. “May I borrow your hand in a dance, m’lady?”
“Sure,” Alex says, delicately folding their fingers together. “As long as you promise to show off your real dance moves, Gingrich.”
“Oh-ho-ho, okay. Challenge accepted,” Steph laughs. She pulls them into an open space where tables have been pushed up against the walls. It makes Alex think of the long-ago dance parties of her childhood, clearing away furniture to spin in circles and balance on her mom’s feet when she was still little enough for it. It’s a profoundly visceral memory that rises to the surface as soon as she and Steph are mimicking formal dance positions. It clashes a lot with the rock song currently playing, not that either of them care. Still, they only maintain it for a short period before they relax into something more them, and Steph whisper-shouts in her ear, “You gotta bring out that sick air guitar, Chen.” She sways back, hands clasped in hers, arms stretched out between them. “Pretty please? For me?”
Without a word, Alex snatches Steph’s beanie and throws it on crookedly, then plays the sickest air guitar she can muster. Steph cheers, and then the others around them are inspired to start jumping around too, and suddenly they’re in the heart of a dense, lively crowd, auras blinking like fireflies that swallowed holiday lights, and all Alex can see is Steph close in front of her, untamed hair falling across eyes green like spring rain, and all Alex wants in the world is for her to always know how beautiful she is.
In place of that, the only thing Alex lets leave her heart are the same words she’s told everyone else here: “Thank you.”
The mosh pit they sparked has calmed down now, so Alex can hear herself think again (which sucks) as well as hear the spirited gold gleaming around Steph, popping and fizzing like fireworks (which doesn’t suck, not even a little bit.)
“I’d say this is the best day I’ve had here in this town, but every day is the best day when it’s with you.”
Alex’s throat trembles around a swallow. She’s used to seeing joy like rays of sun, but this— it’s so animated, so full of life and feeling, so full of Steph. She wishes she could feasibly explain what it looks like to her.
“I’m just happy you’re happy with it,” Steph responds out loud. “I was... kinda freaking out about how you’d react, not gonna lie.”
“The fact alone that you wanted to get a bunch of random cats and put them in a room together in the hopes that it wouldn’t be a bloodbath, all for me, is super cool of you,” Alex says. “Well, way more than that, really. I’m just shit at words.”
“No, you’re not.” Alex tips her head, puzzled, so Steph elaborates, “You mentioned you write songs a little while back. Or... did I imagine that?”
Alex grimaces. “Let’s just say you imagined it.”
“Aw, come on,” Steph says, but she doesn’t belabor the subject. Before anything else can be said, a muffled ringing starts up from her pocket. She fishes out her phone and glances at the screen. “Aw, come on,” she repeats in a much different tone. Her joy dissipates, eaten away by a wave of violet-tinged red. When Alex reads the colors, her power transcribes one single word:
Alex takes a stab at lightening the stormcloud that’s rolled in above them. “I’m going to take a wild guess and assume you’re not thrilled about whoever’s calling.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Steph sighs. “I... I should probably take this. I’ll be right back, I promise.” With one last hand squeeze, she turns and jogs to the front door to answer the call outside.
Alex floats around the restaurant-turned-coffee-shop, allowing herself to be pulled into any conversation that invites her. She wins a game of darts with Ryan, who is apparently shaky as hell when he’s over-caffeinated. Afterward, she swims through a new memory attached to the dartboard—
“Suck it, Chen!”
“You snooze, you lose, Stephanie Ruth!”
“I sincerely hope you don’t think that’s my middle name...”
Just as past Steph’s voice fades into the chatter of the party, present day Steph reappears, practically drenched in color. Alex is so stunned she nearly has to take a step back.
“Hey,” Alex greets her. She has this sensation of treading water over the deep end of a pool with no discernible bottom. “Is everything good?”
“Uh, no. Actually, I’m kind of flipping the fuck out right now.” Steph rakes a hand through her hair, reminding Alex that she still has possession of the looted beanie.
Alex frowns. “Steph, what’s wrong?”
(God, it’s such a strong glow of orange, the strongest Alex has ever seen on her. It’s a sunrise, almost, the birth of a new day yawning just beyond Steph’s inexplicably sexy shoulders— don’t get Alex started on those, by the way.)
“Damn it.” Steph presses a palm to her forehead. “Alex, I... that was my parents. They, ah... they finally noticed that I kinda-sorta married you? And updated our health insurance to reflect that? And now they kinda-sorta want to meet you. And I kinda-sorta acted like it was real and kinda-sorta caved and told them we can visit soon. But!” She raises a placating hand before Alex can fully react. “I haven’t, like, booked plane tickets or some shit, so I can totally go by myself and play it off as you being busy with work or whatever. Or we can tell them we’re getting a divorce. No sweat, okay? It’s just...” She groans as her eyes slip shut. “I’m overdue for a visit back there anyway.”
Alex doesn’t miss the way she says back there instead of back home. “Steph...” And then she’s waffling. Fuck, she doesn’t want to waffle. But the word vomit Steph just spewed is nothing short of anxiety-inducing.
Then it hits her— Steph’s hope, orange as a sunrise. A new beginning. Maybe that’s the next scene of this infinity-act play they’re starring in— the part that’s rewritten, the part where they can say they’re in love and have been in love and were so in love that they decided to get married because of it. The part where the hickeys she’s hiding on her neck aren’t so confidential. The part where Steph’s hope that this visit will go well is wrapped in bubble wrap and kept secure so that it will come true.
It’s still scary as hell, but Alex hasn’t lost her life to fear yet. So she takes Steph’s hands in hers again and says, “You know, I’ve never been on a plane before.”
Chapter 8: don't say you love me (that line, it's blurry)
Babe, we should go stargazing. And hold hands. And maybe talk about everything terrible and wrong that's happened in our lives.
**very very slight content warning for this chapter, just some brief & non-explicit descriptions about a part of alex's past (think isaac) it's nothing that shouldn't be familiar if you've watched/played the game, but better safe than sorry
i love you guys, so allow me to apologize ahead of time for this mish-mash of angst and cringe flirting i'm about to throw at you. and since i've been staring at this mess for hours now, here *throws chapter at you and runs away, leaving behind a cloud of dust like a cartoon character*
lyrics in chapter title taken from "don't say you love me" by transviolet.
“Hey, so, hope you’re having a fantastic day. I”— Steph pounds an emphatic fist against her chest— “am in crisis mode, Mikey.”
“Steph, you know I love you to pieces, but it’s kind of hard for me to do damage control when you’re a few states away.”
“Well, soon I won’t be.”
It’s like Steph just reached through the roughly thousand-mile-thick screen between them and slapped him. “Uh, come again?”
First she’s drumming intricate patterns into her coffee table with fingers equally as antsy as her heart. That turns into rising from the couch and pacing like a madwoman around her pint-sized living room. Then that leads her and her laptop over to the galley kitchen, where she perches Mikey’s dumbfounded face on the counter and resumes her pacing.
“Steph,” he says. The unexpected force applied to her name brings her feet to a standstill. “Take a breath, okay? Tell me what’s up.”
“Frankly, dude, I don’t know what’s up or down or in between.” Steph leans heavily against the counter, absently drags a finger through the thin layer of dust on her neglected stove. Any kitchen that has ever been Steph’s is lucky to see even the microwave take a spin a couple times a month, especially since she’s been a resident of Haven. When there’s takeout this good available, and it’s discounted because her friend owns the place, what point is there in choking down box mac-and-cheese that she inevitably fucks up the proportions of milk and butter for? (The people at Kraft really expect her to have actual measuring cups laying around her poor excuse for a kitchen? A room that really only has the right to be called a kitchen because it happens to have a fridge and an oven? Come the fuck on.)
“Whatever direction it is, we can start somewhere, right?” Mikey says, and how does he always know the right thing to say? It’s kind of unfair, honestly, how her lovable geek of a high school best friend has grown into a lovable wise man. What progress does Steph have to report about herself? Is it bad if she admits her favorite feature of herself is the part of her that admires Alex? Which, yes, would be every part of her. Wait, so does that mean loving Alex makes her love herself more—
“Steph. You gotta give me some details, come on.”
“Right. We were talking. Um.” Steph sweeps her eyes over the room and the cloudless sky through the little window above the sink. “Alright, so don’t kill me for not telling you sooner—”
“— sure, but no promises from Elamon,” Mikey interrupts, pushing up his glasses which never seem to lose their wanderlust.
“— fair enough,” Steph says. “So... you know Alex. Gabe’s sister who moved here and wasted no time getting allll up in my thoughts.”
“Mmhmm. Way up in your thoughts.”
“Yep, way up in there.” Steph winces at the poor choice of words and continues, “Anyway, you also know all the shit that went down in May after Gabe... after what happened to him.” She swallows hard and starts drumming again. “And Alex— she got really hurt. She nearly died, honestly.” Just mentioning it makes bile bubble in the back of her throat like a poison. “She spent some time in the hospital, but... she didn’t have any insurance, and they really gouged her, and she... I just wanted to help her out. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal or be weird or anything.”
Mikey stares at her for so long without any signs of blinking or movement, Steph has to swipe a thumb over the mousepad to make sure her computer hasn’t frozen. Eventually he unclogs the rare roadblock in his brain and mutters, “You’re not... saying what I think you’re saying—”
“We got married so she could get on my insurance and ease the burden from those bullshit bills. And now my parents found out and think it’s the real deal, that their Stephanie has finally settled down.” Steph rubs a knuckle into her temple. Usually this would entail nudging her beanie out of the way, but she’s currently beanie-less at the moment— the last time she saw her favorite one, it was looking quite comfortable and perfect nestled on Alex’s head. But sure, she can keep telling herself she’s not wearing one because of the heat.
“I know, it’s heavy. It’s a whole fucking lot. But you should’ve heard them when they were talking to me on the phone. My mom sounded over the moon, all ‘What’s she like?’ this and ‘How did you meet her?’ that. They don’t even seem to care that I kept it a secret, and I can’t tell if it’s because they’re waiting until I’m back in their house to drop the ‘What the hell, Steph?’ bomb on me.”
Mikey hums. “Don’t want a repeat of the tattoo situation?”
A dry laugh crawls up Steph’s throat with all the gentleness of a rake. “There’s been enough of these ‘situations’ at this point that I couldn’t give less of a shit if the bomb’s dropped on me.” She holds up one hand, examining the nails that Alex had carefully painted a matte mauve some weeks ago. Somehow they’re only just starting to chip, which is wild considering her newfound habit of drumming any nearby flat surface. (By now it’s starting to overtake her actual drum playing.) Steph figures Alex has some kind of technique with the nail polish— she must, with the way her own blistered fingers see plenty of abuse from guitar strings.
“I just... don’t want any of the shrapnel to hit her,” she finally mumbles. “Not that my parents are the devils incarnate or anything, but... this is gonna involve some hardcore faking. And they’re good at sniffing out my faking. They saw right through me after Rachel, and— and Chloe.” She drops her hand to her chest, linking her little finger with the ring on her necklace. “And when they knew I was faking being okay, they smothered me with appointments and interventions and all this crap when all I wanted was to be able to deal with it on my own. Be independent rather than a fucking dependent. Not that it felt any better, but just to know I was strong enough to accomplish it, get over the bump in the road.” She shakes her head. “At least escaping to Seattle helped me forget for a while that I could never see Chloe or Rachel again.”
Mikey’s frown is so intense, he might as well be in the room with her. “You know relying on others isn’t a sign of weakness, right? For some people it’s the only way to work through something, even if their ‘other’ is a total stranger. It doesn’t mean you’re helpless. It just means you can’t be expected to scale the world’s tallest fence without someone to help tie some wings around your back first. You can’t always do what feels impossible just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers to emphasize his last point.
“Yeah, well, nineteen-year-old me didn’t believe in miracle wings when she was obviously part of a mortal world.” Steph lets go of the necklace and digs her palm into the sharp corner of the counter. And sometimes I’m still nineteen. “But you’re not wrong. Some shit you just can’t forget permanently, and... and I realized that it might be nice to have a person you can be emotionally ugly around, you know? You can be a complete wreck and they don’t care that you’re a wreck. And if she ever needs to be held for a while, I’m there for her in a heartbeat.” That’s why this visit can’t go wrong... but if it does, I’d still tie those wings around her back to help her fly. Even if it means flying away from me.
Mikey absorbs her venting like the world’s most supportive sponge, nodding sagely while Steph takes a minute to catch her breath. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that shift to specific pronouns at the end there,” he says. Steph scowls at him. “So... Alex has really agreed to go all the way to the ol’ Bay with you? And fake a relationship? For what reason?”
“I dunno.” Steph lifts a shoulder. “So that my parents aren’t disappointed or annoyed about the whole thing, I guess. And to make sure she stays on my health insurance for now, until...”
“Until you divorce her, or annul it, or however it goes.” The pixels composing Mikey’s face look suspiciously smartass-adjacent right now, but Steph could never hate him for it. He’s never failed to inspire her in any aspect of life, and the little whine of self-doubt echoing in her skull still asks why the hell he keeps her around after the periods of ghosting she’s put him through. They’ve talked it over about a million times already, but she still wonders.
“You care about this girl a hell of a lot, Steph. Even a mouse could see that.”
A mouse does see that, Steph thinks in amusement as Shu Shu drifts across her mind. That’s one mouse she would never sacrifice to Val.
“So,” Mikey continues, “what’s stopping you from telling her how you feel? Clearly you guys are comfortable with putting yourselves in what is arguably one of the most romantic agreements you can bind a person to.”
“Romantic to some,” Steph snorts. “My entire life, my married parents have acted more like semi-casual friends than people in love who decided to have a kid together.”
“That’s not you and Alex, though, is it? Maybe it’s too early for ‘the big L-word,’ as you’d call it, but you’re more than ‘semi-casual friends.’ If you’re actually dating, won’t it make playing the roles of a married couple in love much easier? Why fake it at all? Just exaggerate a bit. Stretch the truth.”
“I hate how you know me so well,” Steph grumbles. He prompts her with a nod, so she reluctantly explains, “We’ve been fooling around a little. Haven’t put a label on it. And I wouldn’t say it’s complicated, buuut...”
Mikey simply looks at her for another solid minute, though this time he’s at least thoughtful enough to not resemble a reptile as much and include blinking. Then he says, “If we’re gonna dissect this, can we at least get distracted from a dnd session first?”
Steph pins him under a playful glare. “You haven’t given me any time to prepare! It takes more than five minutes to fine tune my craft, North.”
He rolls his eyes, but the gesture is underlined with a grin. “You’re the fussiest DM I know.” Pause. “But hey, I guess we can play in person soon enough, right? Is your, uh, wife into this kind of thing?”
“And how! She’s an expert LARP-er. Like, you’d seriously be impressed. If you ever hear of a bard who goes by the name of Alwynn around these parts, you better watch out.” Then the full impact of his last question slams into her like an eighteen-wheeler. Unable to string together a properly indignant response, Steph just displays her middle finger and calls it a day.
Steph feels kind of bad that she’s always at Alex’s apartment and it’s never really the other way around. Still, she can’t control the objective, indisputable fact that Alex’s apartment is far superior to her fixer-upper rental. Gabe knew what he was doing when he furnished the place with good games and comfy, broken-in furniture; somewhere along the way, he must’ve unlocked secrets to home decor that Steph never found the key to. And to put it plainly, she figures it’s better to honor Gabe’s memory by spending more time in his old abode rather than avoiding it. Plus Alex living there makes the deal even sweeter.
One night roughly a week after Alex’s birthday java jam (name coined by yours truly) finds them seated on the couch, clamor from the bar downstairs worse than usual. They have a playlist on to counteract the noise, but it’s still noticeable between and during songs.
“I swear I can hear every single empty shot glass that lands on a table down there,” Steph complains. “Ryan better kick that new manager’s ass into gear soon or else I’ll kick it for him.”
Alex’s fingers tap out unseen words on the keyboard of her laptop, which sits crookedly on top of a pillow over her lap. She lets Steph reach over and briefly bend down the screen to check out the collage of stickers on the back, as if she hasn’t ever checked them out before. Steph cocks half a grin at the Haven Sabertooths decal, which is clearly the newest one of the bunch with its neat, clear-cut edges. Her smirk fades into an offended jaw drop, however, when Alex speaks— “The odds of you or Ryan kicking anything bigger or more alive than a pebble are laughable at best.” Alex tilts her head back over the sofa cushion, an oversized shit-eating grin cutting into her cheeks as her eyes fall on Steph. “I say with love and admiration,” she adds.
“Excuse you,” Steph retorts. “As the coolest weird kid in high school and the resident hot nerd of this town, it helps to have imagination, Chen. Like imagining that I would actually throw hands with some dude.” She wags an admonishing finger at her fellow couch potato. “Don’t dunk on imagination.”
Alex shuts her computer and crosses her arms. “Are you suggesting I don’t have an imagination, Gingrich?”
“Tell me, could your pint-size ass actually kick ass?” Steph challenges, tucking mismatched-sock-covered feet underneath her butt and scooting imperceptibly closer to her.
Strangely, Alex’s gaze flicks elsewhere when she says that. “I never said I couldn’t,” she mutters, innocent as a goddamn teddy bear.
When Alex offers no further explanation, Steph peers at her with a pensive frown. Man, curiosity is one hell of a drug, she thinks as she slides noticeably nearer, moving until Alex’s end of the couch sinks under the added weight of Steph’s knees pressed into it. Alex’s body heat surrounds her like an aura, a lust-driven fever beckoning to her. “What secrets are you keeping, huh?” Steph murmurs, half-teasing and half not.
“What can I say? I’ve lived life on the edge,” Alex says. Her avoidance of Steph’s stare is now more purposeful, crafty, her chin raised but eyes downcast as she transfers her laptop to the coffee table. “And besides, I could ask the same of you.”
Steph’s stomach lurches, but it’s a pleasant thrill, the kind found before that first big drop on a roller coaster. She leans and leans until there’s a hair’s breadth of space between their noses. “How much gold do you have stashed in your lair, o fearsome dragon?” she whispers. Her thighs serve as a ramp for her hands to glide down toward Alex’s, but even as her hands and tongue act confident, that wretched emotion-muscle in her chest is peddling a frantic thousand beats per minute.
She can see the muscles in Alex’s forehead work together to smoothly push her eyebrow down the slightest millimeter. “Fearsome?”
“O sexy dragon,” Steph corrects herself.
A crack appears in Alex’s mask of repose. “Why is that always your go-to?”
“Because it’s all I can think of around you, duh,” Steph replies. She pauses just long enough before adding, “Just kidding. Because it’s fun to say.”
“Well, this sexy and fearsome dragon,” Alex says, sliding back into flirty talk that could only ever be flirty talk between the two of them, “is seeing a lot of gold right now”— she twirls a wrist, indicating Steph’s entire outline— “and it’s not from my lair.”
Steph is still stuck on the wrist-twirling part— god, how do musicians unfailingly have the most captivating, talented hands? But she gets herself back on the same page quickly enough to respond, “So I’m happy? Huh, weird. Not sure where that’s coming from.”
Eyes shut, Alex’s forehead presses into hers, steady and gentle. “I wanna kiss you like crazy right now,” she whispers.
“I won’t stop you,” Steph mumbles against her lips. They move at the same second to complete the connection, and their rhythm doesn’t end there. Steph’s mouth fits perfectly over hers, and when her tongue wanders deeper Alex welcomes it, weaving an unbelievably fervent moan into her next exhale, where it settles between Steph’s lips with a satisfying tingle. With a firm little push to Steph’s sternum, Alex urges her onto her back, stretching across the sofa so Alex can straddle her torso and press weight into all the right places. It’s so unreal that I get to see this side of her. This is actually happening.
This time Alex takes special focus on Steph’s lower lip, tugging on it with teeth that lightly punish, then with lips that soften the bite. Meanwhile, Steph tries not to let her touches run astray, but when those nimble hands make their way under Steph’s shirt, she’s struck powerless by her body’s innate response to Alex’s body.
The hands go up, up, tantalizing tools of temptation traversing Steph’s stomach as it flutters rapidly both inside and out, overtaken by quiet panting breaths. Her fingertips are so close to the lower rim of Steph’s bra— but as long as they’re not undoing the clasp, they might as well be across the room. The only command that emerges from Steph’s muddled thoughts screams like a train whistle, and she’s helpless but to obey it. She brings her hands down to Alex’s hips, then hooks both thumbs under the waistband of her shorts, skimming the pads of those fingers along the warm, smooth skin underneath her navel.
The velvety warmth abruptly recedes out of her reach. Alex drops her forehead onto Steph’s chest, a soft swear hissing through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry, I—”
“No, no, shh. It is one hundred percent okay, don’t even question it.” Steph props herself up on her elbows, dragging herself back to one end of the couch so Alex can roll off of her and take up her original position in her own corner. She meets Alex’s eyes seriously and resists the urge to squeeze her hand. “If you’re not comfy with something, I’m not comfy with it either. Full stop.”
“It’s just...” Alex tries again, but still can’t shine a light on the right words.
“We only have to talk about it if you’re ready to. Otherwise, I don’t need an explanation.” God knows I still have a shit load to get off my chest, too. Maybe one day, ideally, all of the weight will be gone. But I don’t want to burden her with it, that voice argues. Then Alex’s hand rests tentatively on her knee, and Steph drapes her own over it, thumb automatically brushing over the shooting star. I wonder if there’s such a thing as a healthy balance. I want that to exist for us.
Alex works her jaw a few times before replying. “Thank you.”
“C’mere,” Steph tells her. Alex does, sliding over so Steph’s arm fits across her shoulders. She relaxes her head against Steph’s bicep, and the world resumes spinning.
Then Steph’s phone chimes from its rather precarious place on the arm of the couch. She halfheartedly tilts her face toward it. “My mom,” she says. There’s a beat of silence charged with the electricity of everything unsaid. “You sure about this?” she asks next.
“Yeah,” Alex says. “Really. I’m looking forward to meeting your family, even if it’s... sort of under false pretenses.”
The other half of Steph’s partial smile from earlier is found. “It means a lot that you’re up to doing this for me... keeping them happy for now and letting them think that it’s...” She had been about to say real, but at this point there’s nothing about her relationship with Alex that feels fake. Even with the whole real fake marriage thing.
And from the way Alex is blinking earnestly at her, Steph doubts she disagrees.
“You guys are spending all this time together and still can’t ask each other out?”
“Lucan, I will pull a reverse Smokey Bear and start a forest fire if you try to go there.” Behind her flippant words, Steph hopes she doesn’t accidentally cough up the ulcer of guilt she harbors in the pit of her stomach. I swear I’ll tell him about the update in me and Alex’s mutually beneficial arrangement... not now, but soon.
Ryan tips his head slightly off-center. “Steph, forest fires are no joke...”
She waves her outstretched hands impatiently. “Pretty please with inflammable forests on top can I borrow it? I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need wheels to take her where we’re going. Unless you want us to hitchhike and get picked up by some creep—”
“Inflammable still means flammable, I think, but... ugh. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Looking close to hurling, Ryan averts his eyes and lamely tosses the desired set of keys over the bar.
“Yes! Thank you, Ry. You’re a real one.” Steph beams and tucks them in her pocket. “And for what it’s worth, I’m the one doing the dumb thing here, so it’s not on you, okay?”
“Right, right,” Ryan mumbles half to himself, burying his fingers in those swept back locks that will always be softer than Steph’s. “All I’m doing is giving you access to my truck for the night, risking potential injury or death to you, Alex, and any other living things within a nearby radius. It’s fine.”
Steph sighs. “It’s not that deep and I’m not that bad of a driver, I promise you. We’re just going, like, five miles out of town to that spot you showed me.”
“I know, but... I still really regret not being able to make it. Even though going with you to a place that has heavy romantic undertones like that is easily the last thing on my to-do list.”
“Aw, there’s always next time.” Steph smirks, taking his car keys and twirling them around her finger as she makes her exit from the Lantern. “If I don’t kill myself and everyone around me with my apparently explosive driving skills, that is.”
He fixes pleading blue eyes on her. “Please make sure to go easy on her.”
“On... her?” Steph pauses with one hand on the door, peeking over her shoulder with a furrow dug into her brow.
“Jeez, Steph. I mean go easy on the truck,” Ryan explains. “Try not to screw up my seat adjustments too much. Oh, and don’t flood the engine when a traffic light turns green— it’s not a rocket ship, you don’t have to blast off—”
“Okay cool thanks so much for letting me drive it I’ll catch you later bye!”
She hears only the opening note of Ryan’s fearful groan behind her before she shuts the door on that discouraging song. She loves her surrogate brother to death, but sometimes Steph wishes he wouldn’t pull the whole zero-to-sixty, easygoing lab puppy turned worrywart ranger rottweiler act. Especially when he pulls it on her.
Steph turns the corner and approaches the slate-gray pickup parked a short distance up the street. As long as she can get through this evening without crashing this huge unwieldy machine, then there’s no way things with Alex can crash or burn, right?
“Who the hell am I asking, anyway,” Steph grunts. She climbs in and turns the key in the ignition, and the engine roars to life.
Approximately two hours and a miraculous zero close calls later, nightfall’s ink has blotted out the sunny sky and Alex and Steph are reclined on a blanket spread in the bed of the truck. Empty paper cups that once held scoops of Avalanche ice cream— Cake Batter Batter Swing and If You Like Piña Coladas...— roost on the edge of the tailgate, dangerously close to being knocked off by fidgety feet.
They’re pulled off at a lookout point which, true to Steph’s word, is not more than five miles outside of Haven. When Ryan pointed it out to her while driving past one day, Steph knew she wanted to come back and visit it at night, and bring Alex with her. And now here they are, exposed to the lingering mid-summer heat and the best cluster of stars this side of the Rockies. Even with the view readily available overhead, Steph is still drawn to the girl laying next to her— the way Alex has her ankles crossed, the way she’s wearing Halloween-themed socks in July which peek around her thrifted high tops, the way her piercing glints when it catches on passing headlights, the way she plucks absently at the guitar that had been a present from Gabe but seems like it could have always been hers.
Steph’s eyes follow the methodical movements of that beautiful hand, tendons occasionally flexing through skin while the pink, purple, and blue striped guitar pick is dragged across the strings. Alex had brought the instrument along with the loose promise that she’d sing something, and though no song has come out of her yet, Steph doesn’t mind. She could lay forever like this, the two of them and Alex’s tiny melodies, brought thoughtfully into existence only to be swallowed instantly by the night.
Steph turns her face toward the void at their left, where the cliff runs out. “This place kind of reminds me of the lighthouse in my old town,” she says, voice gravelly from not speaking for some time.
She feels Alex shift a little, shoulder bumping hers so softly it might not have been on purpose. “Tell me about it,” Alex rumbles, fingers stilling. “Did you spend a lot of time there?”
“Eh, not really. I was only ever there once or twice, but,” Steph says. Her head lolls back in Alex’s direction, her inner compass’s true north. “I have these moments of deja vu about that lighthouse all the time. The little bench up there, the trees rustling, the breeze that always seemed to blow around no matter the season. I’ll be standing somewhere and I’ll think, Wait, have I been here before? And my mind always traces back to that fuckin’ lighthouse.”
Alex’s eyes meet hers, reflective in the way Haven’s lake mirrors the sky. “So it haunts you.”
“It haunts me.” For a moment Steph forgets that curiosity killed the cat when she asks, “What haunts you?” As soon as it’s out of her mouth, misfortunes begin rolling around Steph’s skull like marbles: Alex’s mom, Alex’s dad, Alex’s upbringing, Alex’s brother, Jesus Christ, Steph, how insensitive can you get? Cue the spluttering. “I— shit, I’m sorry, I should’ve thought before—”
“No,” Alex interrupts, and Steph tenses, but Alex seems to be the opposite of offended. Steph doesn’t want to assume, but the impression she picks up on in place of hurt is something like gratitude, like Alex appreciates being asked such a loaded question. “I guess my gut response is obvious,” she says after a while. His name leaps from their lips at the same time: “Gabe.”
“Yeah,” sighs Steph. “He haunts me too. In a different way from you, I’d imagine.”
“He haunts me because he represents the could’ve beens. The what ifs. All the puzzle pieces of life you don’t get a chance to put together when you die at twenty-five. And he already had a delayed start to begin with.” Alex fills her lungs, holds it, lets it go. “The worst part about haunting, though? Ghosts don’t even have to be dead. And once you carry enough of them with you, there’s this... ache. Like they’re all crammed into a backpack and you’re hiking up the steepest hill.”
Steph’s hand finds hers in the dark blue air between them, and when they attach it’s with a sense of finality, at least for the night. “The ache will go away,” she tells Alex, and she sounds so certain about it because she needs to be certain for her. “You know it does, I swear it does. We— you’ve made it through before.” She smiles like Alex could actually see it through the dim starlight. “You know how to tell grief to fuck off.”
“But what happens when you can’t make it through?” Fingers grip hers tighter than ever before. Steph can feel the guitar pick still enveloped in Alex’s palm, warm plastic sliding against skin. “What do you do with the ghosts that aren’t dead?”
Steph’s unseen reassuring smile slips. Falls.
“I, um.” Alex gulps. “I get deja vu with some things, too. Even something I love, something with you, reminds me of something that makes my skin crawl, and...” Steph squints over at her, desperately trying to make out Alex’s twisted face and Alex’s eyes darting all around the sky like she’s playing a game of connect the dots with stars. “I had this... bad experience with a guy, in what I like to think of as my old life. He’d do a favor for me, let me sleep in a warm place when I had nowhere else to go, and... he expected something in return.”
The contents of Steph’s stomach roil like an angry, storm-lashed ocean. “Fuck, Alex...”
“I let it happen. Multiple times. And it... it fucked me up.” Their hands are bound together so closely now, the pulse in Steph’s wrist is amplified with a tingly numbness. “But it... it felt nice to be wanted. Just for a second, then the disgust came crashing in a little too late.” Alex remains still, sketching new constellations with her eyes while Steph watches. “Why do you want me?” she whispers. “Not even as this... this warm body to kiss and touch, but just... why do you want me as a friend? Why do you want me to take up so much of your time?”
Steph stares. She can’t feel herself blink, as if a sudden winter has lined her eyelids with frost and numbed them. “Why would you ask something like that?”
“Because nobody’s...” Alex’s head sways back and forth, bangs falling over her forehead. “Because it’s been a long time,” she says, amending her statement.
Sometimes Steph would give anything to have Alex’s power. This is one of those moments. Without it, though, the best she can do is pull Alex close to her and press a kiss into her forehead. If she’s at least doing this one thing right, then in this kiss she’s planting the promise of a million future ones.
Chapter 9: all my scars are golden (glue me back together)
Meet the parents, 2019 gay edition.
happy belated halloween, lovelies! you bet your ass i dressed as a witch <3
chapter title taken from "kintsugi" by gabrielle aplin.
When the bus that took her to Haven Springs crossed out of Oregon, Alex had kind of doubted she would ever return to the state she grew up in. Boarding that route out of her home state had marked not only the next chapter of her life, but an entirely new volume in the series. She could never fully turn her back on all of it— her mom and Chelsea especially come to mind here— but there are still so many memories from Portland that are tainted with loss and streaked with sorrow, like she’s staring into a mirror she can never fully wipe clean.
(Still, though, a part of her wonders— if she experienced loss and sorrow in Haven, and in Haven she stays, then why can’t she give Oregon just one more chance?)
And then all of a sudden it’s August and here she is, helping Steph write out instructions for the literal army of Havenites who volunteered to fill in for them at the record store while they’re gone. (Nearly all of whom, of course, are under the impression that Alex is joining Steph on the trip as a friend to help her go through some childhood possessions as a friend. They might be very loosely under that impression, judging by some of the looks they’re getting particularly from Duckie and Riley, but this excuse seems to be a hill worth dying on to Steph, so it also is for Alex.)
Next she helps Steph write out separate instructions for Ryan, who will be checking on Valkyrie for them. Val, of course, stays at the record store as always, partly because she’s a fixture of the place and also because she’d forcibly fashion her claws into a painful pair of earrings if they tried to remove her from the premises. Alex has now progressed to being permitted to lightly pet the middle of Val’s back with two fingers, and she doesn’t want to risk undoing all that. (She simply can’t go back to the outstretched hand death trap, she can’t.)
And here she is, stuffing Shu Shu and a couple outfits into a backpack, just enough for a weekend visit, and here she is, climbing out of Ryan’s truck alongside Steph at the drop-off area of the airport, and here she is, folding herself into one of two economy seats they’d snagged on the cheapest flight out of Denver.
After a little under three hours with her head on Steph’s shoulder and her eyes bouncing in wonder from one cloud to the next through the small oval window in the plane, here Alex is. Hesitant lungs breathing Oregon air, ragged Vans scuffing Oregon sidewalks as they wait at the pick-up curb at a different airport.
Next to her, Steph is a cluster of nerves with arms, legs, and a pretty face. Alex is tempted to lean a little too far into her aura, absorb the fear from her. It had worked on Pike, and yet. Doing the same to Steph, her best friend, legal wife, and real wife for the weekend— it doesn’t feel right to her, makes a sense of shame twist like barbed wire around her spine. As much as she wishes Steph could relax and be okay and possibly even enjoy the short time they’ll be spending here, as much as Alex wants that for her, she can’t just make her immune to a natural emotion. Well, she can, technically— but not in good conscience.
Alex is sure Steph must be aware of the purple she’s bleeding, but she gives a voice to her worry anyway, something Alex can always appreciate.
“I feel like I’m gonna hurl,” she sighs, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “And die, maybe. Then come back to life. Then die a second time.”
The back of Alex’s hand brushes the set of taut white knuckles to her right. “And I’m here to make sure none of that happens,” she tells her.
“You have no clue how much I really appreciate that,” Steph replies. A wry grin tugs at the threads sewing frown lines in her face. “Well, maybe you have some clues,” she admits. She stares ahead at the throng of faces, travelers shouting into cell phones and hugging loved ones. A yellow taxi speeds past, horn blaring at any obstacles in its way, and the hot, tar-scented gust of wind it stirs up tousles strands of Steph’s hair.
“Yep, I have all the clues,” Alex jokes. “I know literally everything ever.” Any attempt to lift Steph’s spirits is worth it, even if it’s in vain or composed of cringe.
Steph crinkles her nose, directs an impatient glance at her phone for any incoming texts. “You wish.”
“I definitely do not. I think my head would explode.”
Veering off the comedic track, Steph pockets her phone and presses a searching gaze onto Alex’s face. “Okay, but can I check in on you real quick? I’m sure the way I’m acting isn’t helping anything, but... this visit isn’t all about me, you know.” Her throat visibly trembles, eyes following a passing car for a second before darting back to Alex. “I mean, you— you grew up in Portland. Is it... I hope it’s not too weird for you. Being here again.”
Normally Alex’s first instinct is to smile and shrug, brush away someone’s concern for her like it’s crumbs on her sleeve. But anything that comes from Steph Gingrich could never just be crumbs. So she peels off her thicker skin and answers honestly, “I was... kind of counting on you not noticing?” Her light sigh bounces easily off of Steph’s mild scoff. “Which was stupid, I know. But, um... yeah. It’s pretty wild to be back here. A little bittersweet, maybe.” It’s just a matter of balancing out the bitter with the sweet.
Steph blinks a couple times and shifts the strap of her duffel bag further up her shoulder. The swallow ripples just under her collarbone, slight like a pool disturbed by the landing of a fallen leaf. “Yeah,” Steph says softly. “That’s exactly how I feel.” Traces of orange begin to dance among her purple. Alex grabs onto a stray tendril that beckons to her.
“Just say the word and I’ll go back inside and buy us the next flight back home, however much it costs. We don’t have to stay here. We could go anywhere. Salem, Berlin, bottom of the fucking ocean. All you have to do is ask, Alex.”
Oh, Steph. Alex is suddenly too aware of the taste of her own mouth, the skin still covering her bones, the hair tickling the edge of her forehead. As amazing as that sounds... you have to know I couldn’t ask that of you. Not now. As they continue to look at each other, Steph’s orange slips out of her aura and seems to press behind Alex’s eyes instead, a persistent, overwhelming hope that this visit doesn’t completely go to shit.
Before she can plug something into the silence, Steph looks somewhere beyond her and tenses. “Dammit,” she mumbles, taking Alex’s hand without explanation and squeezing it hard. As it turns out, no explanation is necessary, because the next instant a small, beige, nondescript SUV pulls up in front of them and jerks to a halt, a woman in the front passenger seat frantically waving at them. Steph makes a point of raising her and Alex’s joined hands in a mutual show of greeting. The last thing Steph mutters in Alex’s ear before they fully commit to their devoted wives act is “Remember, just be grateful they’re not raging homophobes.”
Alex barely has time to widen her eyes at the remark before both front doors of the car swing open and Steph’s parents spill out onto the sidewalk with big voices and open arms and rays of gold shooting out of them at all angles. Huh, this doesn’t seem all that bad so far. But then again, we’re only five seconds in.
“Oh, you must be Alex!” Arms close around Alex’s middle, on the borderline of being too tight, too much. “Stephy’s told us so much about you.”
Alex can’t help stifling a snort and catching Steph’s eye over her mom’s shoulder. “Stephy, huh?”
Steph merely sticks out her tongue at her. But when her mother pulls back and can see her daughter’s face, Steph frowns and says, lighter than whipped cream (and far too casual to be genuine, Alex notes), “Let’s try out just ‘Steph’ this weekend, yeah?”
By now her dad has made his way around the back of the car and already has the cargo door propped open for their luggage. He rolls his eyes and says, “Sure thing. Nice to meet you, Just Steph.” His amused expression tilts toward Alex next. “Alex. Pleasure.” The handshake he extends to her feels warm and long enough to rival an actual embrace.
Steph turns razor-sharp eyes onto him, but it’s more like a razor that has cotton balls stuffed between the blades. Alex knows she’s too observant for her own good, but she’s especially fascinated by this. Quite the family dynamic you’ve got going, Steph.
“So, uh.” Steph’s hand finds its way back to Alex’s like it’s in a race to get there. “Alex, these people do happen to be my parents, George and Lita. Just in case you were worried we were shooting the breeze with a couple of randos or something.”
Alex wears a smile that, surprisingly, feels less like it’s plastered on and more like it’s a naturally sculpted feature of her face. “It’s great to meet you guys,” she says. Maybe it’s something about them being Steph’s family, she wonders, that makes this skew closer to authentic and farther from the stilted, disingenuous interaction she’d been expecting— after all, she’s never done the ‘meet the parents’ thing before. But these people she’s meeting are Steph’s parents, and aside from the fact that Steph has done everything in her power to shape herself into something Alex finds absolutely beautiful, the bottom line is that she wouldn’t be around to hold Alex’s hand and make her laugh if it weren’t for her folks. So Alex wants to try her best with them. For Steph, I owe all three of them my best.
Lita clasps her hands and beams, evidently used to Steph’s brand of commentary. “Please call me Lita, okay? Or ‘Just Lita’ if you like. None of that ‘Mrs. Gingrich’ crap.” She starts to turn back to the car, then gasps and spins back around, looking pleased when she adds, “Oh, I almost forgot my pronouns!” She places an ardent hand on her chest. “She/her for me.”
While Steph groans and introduces her palm to her forehead, Alex nods and grins politely. “Same here,” she responds.
“Sure is a shame Mikey couldn’t pick us up, isn’t it,” Steph mutters.
Ignoring her, Lita shoots Alex a discreet wink before opening her door and climbing back inside the car. Her eyes are Steph’s eyes through and through, and a twinge prickles through Alex at the reminder that any features she shared with her mom are only found in memories. Steph will never meet her parents, never pick up on similarities between different generations of the Chen family. On the other hand, Alex feels a renewed surge of appreciation that Steph at least got to befriend Gabe. I’m so glad I only harbor gratitude towards them being close. Better that than jealousy.
With their bags loaded in the car, Steph and Alex scoot into the backseat and George navigates them out of airport traffic. “So, uh, we’ve been told a good deal about you, Alex, but I’m sure there’s still a lot to learn. Hopefully by the end of this weekend we’ll all have a better idea about each other. One thing I’d love to find out is how the hell you charmed Stephanie into tying the knot.” His eyes find Alex’s in the rearview mirror, and she makes sure to smile and nod. At the same time, she squeezes both of her hands around one of Steph’s while the latter grumbles under her breath.
“What he’s saying isn’t anything against you, honey,” Lita clarifies, twisting around in her seat to flash a smile that decidedly doesn’t match her daughter’s. “You’re cute as pie, that’s not up for debate. We just mean—”
Steph volunteers to fill in the blank she created in her mother’s sentence. “I’m your gay, wayward only child who ran away to Seattle instead of waxing poetic about my ‘feelings’ to the latest therapist on a long list of failed ones. Hence, how and why in the world could she possibly be with me?” She grins syrupy sweet and slouches even lower in her seat.
There’s a sigh from Lita. “Steph, you know that’s not—”
“Hey, we all have something,” George interrupts as merges them onto the highway leading out of the big city. “I mean, Alex, weren’t you an orphan?”
A flare of red. Steph bolts upright and shoves herself between the front seats, seatbelt straining against her chest. “Dad, what the f—”
“I was,” Alex says, calm enough for the both of them. She closes a hand over Steph’s shoulder, gently guides her back into a relaxed position beside her. “Am. Actually, I... never really thought of myself with that label, since for a long time... I always had this hope that my dad was still out there somewhere. It’s kind of funny now, in a morbid way.”
Now Steph’s anger isn’t boiling as much as it’s simmering, the flame lit within her ribs reduced to a lower heat. But she isn’t as sullen and silent on the inside as she is on the outside.
“It’s not funny at all, and she shouldn’t have to lighten the mood about death just for my parents’ sake. Fuck, I wanna get us out of here.”
Despite the itch in her gut to soothe Steph’s inflammatory thoughts, Alex returns her attention to the front of the car. “I also lost my brother recently. It was hard, but... Steph has been my rock through it.” She runs a thumb over Steph’s knee, hoping the gesture might resemble rubbing a balm into wounds that seem to be slowly reopening since they left Colorado. “And she was close with him, too, so I can only hope I’ve been the roll to her rock these past couple months.”
Thankfully, most of Steph’s aura withdraws while Alex speaks. She doesn’t even check to make sure one of her parents are watching before she lifts Alex’s hand to her lips and presses an affectionate kiss between her knuckles. “Of course you have, baby,” she murmurs. All the fire has transferred to her eyes, a different kind of fire than what blazed around her in color. “Honestly, when are we not rocking n’ rolling?”
Alex’s brain nearly quits on the spot when Steph calls her baby. Chill, Alex, she’s just upping the ante for her parents. It’s not like she wants to get married tomorrow or anyth— oh. Right.
She’s saved by Lita, who says gently, “We did hear about Gabe. He was such a wonderful friend to Steph. We’re so sorry he passed.”
“Thank you,” Alex replies. She’s used to all the mumblings of sympathy from the people in Haven, but what she hasn’t gotten used to is the singular stiff response she’s capable of coming up with in return.
Then George says, “I’m sure you know all about what happened with Rachel and Chloe, so losing another friend, especially one as fantastic as Gabe was... we worried about the toll it might take on Stephanie. And he was your brother— I can’t even imagine.” He drums his fingers over the steering wheel, a familiar mannerism. “But when she told us about— about you two being together, young and in love and married... it’s given us the same kind of hope that we’re sure you girls have found in and with each other.”
Lita hums her assent. “It’s another step in the recovery process, right? Not an excuse to distract or forget, but a lovely new reason to remember who you both loved.” She gives a humorless chuckle. “Nobody’s really figured out the art of grief yet, so.” She shrugs. “Whatever works, works.”
Alex gives a thoughtful tilt of her head that results in her leaning on Steph’s shoulder. Yeah, that five stages of grief thing probably works for some people, but it’s always been bullshit to me. How was I supposed to map out getting over Mom when her cancer refused to have any kind of clear trajectory? Better, worse, better, better, worse, worse, worse.
“And I apologize for overstepping with that orphan comment,” George tells her. “I should warn you, I tend to speak before I think.”
“So that’s where Steph gets it from,” Alex teases.
A revenge poke is pressed into her cheek. “Watch it, Chen, or else I might start thinking, period.” Her gaze is fleeting as it passes over Alex’s face, but it drills into her with precision.
Alex turns away to stare out the car window the way Steph is. Her eyes get the ultimate workout, jumping from one blurry landmark to the next as Portland gets smaller behind them. All the while, the two unfamiliar names Steph’s dad mentioned get bigger and bigger in her mind. Rachel and Chloe. Who were they? What happened to them? She glances back at her friend who’s now curled herself into the opposite side of the backseat. It’s not unlike the way they’ve put distance between themselves on the couch in Alex’s apartment after they sit a little too close and kiss each other a little too crazy and let their thoughts run a little too wild beyond the boundaries of friendship.
Alex skims her eyes over Steph lightly enough to ensure she can’t feel her stare. The cool air coming through the car’s vent plays with the baby hairs curling off the top of her head, free to dance without the confines of a beanie over them. And most importantly, Alex thinks, how much did losing Rachel and Chloe affect her?
Up front, gold has faded into a soft blue as eyes avoid each other. “Next stop, Arcadia Bay,” George announces. “Stay buckled, girls. It’ll be a little while.”
Alex figures she must’ve fallen asleep when she starts swimming through the weird, sleepy thickness that could only be in her subconscious. Steph had told her the drive to the town isn’t all that far from the airport, but they also had an early flight this morning, and that lack of sleep has been steadily catching up to her all day.
Her suspicions are confirmed when she opens her eyes and pivots away from the window to discover Gabe has made himself comfortable in the middle of the backseat. He’s sandwiched between her and Steph, who appears to be fast asleep with her head lolling back on the headrest. Her face is slackened, serene, free of stress lines while she slumbers. Anyone else might look funny with their mouth hanging open the way hers is, but all Alex recognizes is how breathtaking it is to simply watch Steph, to watch her breathe and not worry for a little while. As for the occupants up front, Alex couldn’t check on them even if she tried; it’s all conveniently obscured by dream fog.
“I’m afraid we can’t have a drink this time,” her brother greets her, all smirk and wink as he places an arm over the top of the backseat. “That whole ‘open containers of alcohol are illegal in a moving vehicle’ rule tragically applies to our dream beer.”
“Really?” Alex throws her head back and sighs heavily. “Damn. I hate my mind.”
“Yeah, that one’s all on you, kiddo.”
Alex elbows him away, suddenly hyper-aware of how tight the space feels with him back here too. “Shut up.” She bumps her knee against his. He bumps her back. “Stop manspreading, dude,” she protests. “Total dick move.”
An easy silence slips into the narrow gap between the siblings. Alex lets herself be lulled by the thrum of the road below them, and she’s pretty sure she almost worms her way out of the inevitable conversation. But when minutes pass and Gabe remains steadfast beside her, leg hitting hers whenever the car shudders over pockmarks in the pavement, she knows she can’t get out of this one that easily.
“Why are you here?” she eventually asks, swinging her gaze back onto him.
“In general, or—”
“There’s no way I can possibly know that,” Alex says dryly. “I meant why you’re here in the car. Why aren’t we on the roof?”
Gabe’s shoulders lift then drop. “I’m not sure. We’re not anywhere near Haven, are we? Guess I figured I’d invite myself along for the trip.” He strokes his scruff with an insightful thumb. “Or maybe... this is all in your head and nothing really matters.”
“Us Chens,” Gabe says, touching his chest oh-so-humbly, “are renowned comedians. It runs in the family.”
Alex snorts and tosses her eyes to the car ceiling. “We’re all a bunch of clowns, huh? Sounds about right.”
“It’s up to you to pass down the clownery. No pressure.” He grins broadly at her for a moment, then says, “Happy belated birthday, by the way. I salute you with twenty-two of these.” He kisses both his middle fingers and extends them to her.
“Aw, you remembered.”
Gabe’s expression abruptly converts into something more ruminative, and Alex’s stomach stumbles with dread. “You always hoped I remembered you on your birthday, didn’t you? Every single year you hoped. Eight July tenths,” he continues, tapping out eight fingers on his denim-covered thigh. “Eight different ages I never saw you at.”
“I liked to think you remembered.” Alex looks down. “Loved to think it, actually. It was something I clung to. Just like how I thought of you a little extra every December second.” She reaches into the blurriness ahead, feels her fingers latch onto the seatback pocket. “You know, um. Steph told me what you did. How you called in to her show worried about meeting me. I... I hope she put your mind at ease.”
“I think you know the answer to that.” Gabe glances fondly at the still asleep Steph, and Alex does the same. “Here you are, meeting her folks. Going to her hometown. Eating family dinner with the parents, pretending to be in love with your wife.” One end of his mouth flicks upward. “Oh, wait— I didn’t mean to say ‘pretending to be’ for that last one.” Alex scowls but doesn’t argue. “Let me say this with brotherly love, Alex— get your shit together, man. I’m getting desperate here. I’m talking to you like I would to Ryan. You’re on her turf,” he says, jerking his head at Steph, “and you know she might shut you out here. Not through any fault of her own, it’s like an instinct for her at this point. But if you can help it, don’t let her.”
“I don’t want to push her—”
“Don’t push her, then. That’s not what I’m saying.” Gabe raises his eyebrows at her, earnest as ever. “Just let her know you’re there. Not as her therapist, but as more than an average friend. Listen, Alex.” He tilts his head with a sheepish grin. “But I don’t have to tell you that,” he says. “You’re a little too good at listening, aren’t you?”
Arcadia Bay isn’t far off from what Alex had expected it to be. It’s the small town Steph had described, akin to Haven in some ways and a total contrast in others. Arcadia Bay is worn in more places, Alex thinks— crumbling curbs, swaying traffic lights. Its energy is also laidback, but in a way that’s fitting of Oregon— more parallel to the ocean than the mountains, a tourist haven missing its tourists, covered by a stubbornly gray sky that isn’t really its fault.
It’s raining delicately as they roll through the center of town, translucent flecks coating the outside of the car half an inch of glass away from Alex’s nose. They drive by a building accompanied by a large sign that’s storm-battered on the outside, but its interior tells a different story. Inside, aglow with warmth and light and chatting people, the place is a cracked-open geode revealing a diner that’s clearly popular with locals based on the packed parking lot.
They pass a school, a gas station, a street leading into a modest neighborhood. They come to a stop at a red light, and Alex scans over a telephone pole heavily gnawed at by years of residents hammering in nails, putting up and taking down signs. One flyer catches her attention, not laminated and exposed to the elements, flapping proudly in the breezy drizzle like a little flag for its own private nation: Friday, October 11 — All Welcome — Revered Arcadia Bay-raised photographer to give speech at—
“Well, I think you’ve just about seen it all,” Steph’s voice gets her attention. “You saw Blackhell, you saw the beach. Now you just need to see somebody yawn out of desolate boredom, then the tour’s complete.” She breaks into a yawn and points at her gaping mouth. “Hey, it’s your lucky day! Now we can go back home.”
Alex gives her a funny look, and Steph aims one right back. Then Alex points past her out the window. “Is that your lighthouse?” she murmurs.
Steph twists around, hesitates. “Uh, yeah,” she says. “That would be it.”
Soon enough they pull into the driveway of a pleasant two-story home that looks tidy, but not to the point it seems stuffy. As they climb out of the car, Alex feels secure in the belief that the initial ice has been broken between her and Steph’s parents. Now she just has to take her icepick to the thin layer that Steph has frozen over herself ever since they stepped off the plane.
Then they enter the house.
“What the hell?” Steph demands. She whirls around on her parents, who had allowed the younger two to step inside first. “What’s going on?”
There are boxes everywhere. Most of them sit open, clearly in the early stages of being unpacked— or, on second thought, packed. Alex frowns and stands stiffly. She sees no other option than to act as the uneasy witness to whatever explosion is about to occur in front of her.
Strangely, Steph’s parents are as collected as can be, all folded hands and neutral features. They give off no distinct auras as George announces, “Your mother and I are divorcing, sweets. I’ll be moving back to Oakland by the end of the year.”
“Is this some kind of fucking joke?” Steph digs her hands into her hips, then crosses her arms and hugs herself, staring at her feet with bulging eyes. “This has to be some kind of joke,” she whispers to herself. To Alex, she’s a rainbow missing a few of its rays.
“We thought it would be best to not make a big deal out of it,” Lita explains. “We’re still friends. We’re just not in love anymore. It happens. Nothing wrong with it.”
Steph stares at her. “So I’m supposed to be automatically okay with it? Is that the role I’m playing here? Be an adult? Be fine with Dad moving to California, and, oh yeah, not mind at all that we’re having this conversation in front of—” Her words hit a wall, gaze barely sweeping in Alex’s direction before it darts elsewhere.
“It— it doesn’t have to be embarrassing,” George tries. “It’s not meant to be. And Alex, well—” He flashes her a barely perceptible grin, a hint of an apology somewhere between the lines in his forehead. “— Alex is your wife. There’s no reason she shouldn’t be part of this discussion. She’s part of the family now.”
“And we’ll all still be a family, of course,” Lita supplies. Her smile is shaky, but has a stronger foundation than his does. “We’ll just be spread across three states instead of two.”
Steph stands there balking for a long minute, long enough to crawl under Alex’s skin. She sounds like a robot when she finally states, “I’m going to my room.” Nobody is dumb enough to try stopping her, and Alex lingers for only a second before going after her up the stairs. She tracks Steph down a short hallway, then into a room on the left. Alex approaches the doorway, keeping a distance that isn’t too close nor too far.
She finds Steph perched on the edge of a neatly-made bed, one that seems like it hasn’t had its covers disturbed by a warm body for some time. Steph only stays in that position a moment longer, however— then she’s back on her feet and pulling Alex into the room and slamming the door behind her and pressing her up against it, foreheads, noses, lips touching, hands settled in previously agreed-upon safe places.
It’s safe to say Alex hadn’t expected her first time in Steph’s childhood bedroom to be like this. Steph’s lips meet hers in cautious pursuit, in an obvious attempt at holding back something more intense, risky, passionate. Alex melts into her like it’s second nature. They move in desperate tandem, hungrily seeking purchase on lips and tongues, singing a quiet symphony of breaths in the burning air between them.
Then Steph lowers her head, breaking it. “I... needed that. Thanks.” She pushes off the door and swings into a frenetic back-and-forth pace over the carpet, leaving Alex flattened to the door feeling like a tornado blew her there.
Alex takes a second to settle back into her bones, then gingerly takes a seat on the foot of the bed. “Not the sexiest words a girl could hope to hear,” she jokes.
Steph pauses, blinks, then shakes her head and laughs. “Damn it, Chen. Don’t tell me I killed the mood, what with my actively divorcing parents right downstairs.” She also sits on the bed, making quick work of untying her shoelaces. “Don’t know why I’m taking my shoes off when I wanna split so bad.” She groans, bending forward with her elbows on her knees, one shoe still tied. “I’m sorry you’ve landed in the middle of crazy.”
“I’m not,” Alex says, prompting a shallow crease in Steph’s brow. “I don’t regret coming here, Steph. I know it’s not easy for you, so... I appreciate you letting me into this part of you.” Pause. “Well, I am sorry about your parents—”
“Don’t be. I should’ve seen it coming, honestly.” Steph chuckles. “On a scale of one to yikes, how bad is it that I’m kind of annoyed they waited until now, when I’m too old to get showered with all the make-up presents separated parents get for their kids?”
Alex smirks. “I think I’d be the same way,” she confesses.
Alex starts to think she’ll have to shower Steph with presents just to convince her to go downstairs for dinner. When she finally does, they sit down to a blessedly short and informal meal, with the light at the end of the tunnel visible from the start. Over salad and pizza picked up from a local place, Alex and Steph tackle their fabricated love story like a haphazard arts and crafts project, piecing together details between excuses and ums and sips of water. They already planned it out a while ago with Ryan, and then rehearsed some of it on the plane, but nothing compares to the actual event— especially as Alex shoves a forkful of romaine into her mouth and realizes that not much of their “story” is fabricated at all.
(The conversation hits a relatively unstable point when they’re quizzed about their absent wedding rings. An exasperated Steph ends up taking Alex’s hand and momentarily sliding the mysterious ring around her necklace onto Alex’s finger, where it totally isn’t the perfect amount of snug, not at all.)
After helping with dishes, they retreat upstairs, feeling drained and grubby. Alex insists Steph takes the first shower, so by the time she tiptoes back into Steph’s room, squeaky clean in a loose t-shirt and thin, summer-friendly joggers, Steph is stretched out comfortably on the bed in her pajamas, feet propped up on a pile of cast-aside pillows. Engrossed by her phone and the music that’s undoubtedly pulsing through her headphones, she doesn’t notice Alex come in at first. But Alex notices her, and definitely notices the tighter stretches of fabric that accentuate her lack of a bra. She recalls that time Steph was fresh out of the shower in her apartment, damp hair dripping intrusive thoughts into her brain...
Check yourself, Alex. Just because we made out a little earlier doesn’t give you a free pass to stare at her boobs.
Alex shuffles farther into the room. A candle has been lit on the windowsill, its flame wobbling as it paints restless shadows on the ceiling. She drags her eyes over the mix of fantasy and band posters on the walls, then ends up right back where she started: Steph. She’s scrolling continuously through her phone, the screen’s whitish glow filling her eyes. The black comforter is wrinkled beneath her, probably looking more lived-in than it has since— well, whenever she visited last, and Alex isn’t sure she wants to know how long it’s been. Not that she blames her.
Taking advantage of the downtime, Alex is confident to explore the bedroom within Steph’s view. So she does, wandering from one corner to the next, picking up some items and skimming her fingers over others. She comes up to a desk cluttered with an assortment of knick-knacks and belongings not unlike her desk in the KRCT booth. An array of imaginative sketches are spread over the surface, fantasy come to life at the end of Steph’s pencil. Dice in various colors and sizes are sprinkled among the papers like they spilled out of a carrying pouch that’s nowhere to be found. Perched on the edge of the desk is a framed photo of Steph and her friend Mikey, who they’re meeting for lunch tomorrow, posing at a picnic table on a pretty campus. The frame itself reads “Class of 2012,” suggesting the picture in it might not be the first one it’s held.
As closely and curiously as Alex looks over the outermost layer of Steph’s things, however, the only memories that speak to her are innocent and mild. Still, they provide amusing snapshots of younger Steph’s life that certainly aren’t unwelcome.
She’s just about finished snooping when nineties rock suddenly begins to pour out of a nearby speaker. Alex jumps, then turns around to find that Steph has taken off her headphones to listen more loudly. “I know, I know, I’m a vinyl enthusiast using a Bluetooth speaker,” she says, turning down the volume just a notch. “Arrest me if you must. But this was worth sharing.”
Alex returns to Steph’s side of the room. In doing so, she’s reminded of the fact that they were put in one room to sleep in together— which, duh, of course the young married couple should want to stay in the same room. And, yeah, they’ve shared the bed and the couch in her apartment a few times maybe-accidentally, but that doesn’t mean sharing a bed here, now, in Steph’s childhood bedroom, isn’t at least a little strange. It’s not a twin-size, but her mattress doesn’t appear to be bigger than a double either, and the thought of climbing under the covers next to Steph completely premeditated is— well, it sure is something. Maybe I should grab a pillow and blanket and sleep on the floor...
“You’re judging me, aren’t you?” Steph speaks around the song. Her eyes are steady on Alex as she loiters at the side of the bed.
“Shut up. ‘Acquiesce’ is a masterpiece.” Steph slides over and pats the covers. “C’mon, I’m not Val. I won’t bite.”
Alex swallows and crawls onto the bed, already able to feel Steph’s body heat before she even sits down. The blue waves rippling around her are equally palpable. “You’re sad,” Alex murmurs. “Why?” Steph stares at the candle, twin flames in her eyes. “I... I just want everything to be okay for you, Steph,” Alex presses on, words tumbling out of her without being thoroughly processed beforehand. “Whatever I can do for you. Anything—”
“Hey, hey,” Steph seizes Alex’s hand, catches her gaze and holds it. “Don’t look at my colors,” she pleads, her voice barely a voice at all. “If we’re gonna talk about this, just... look at me, okay?”
“Okay,” Alex says. “I promise.” When Steph doesn’t respond right away, she adds, “But to be fair, the music alone would’ve been a dead giveaway.”
Steph bows her head in subdued laughter. “Touché.”
She waits until the last of the song fades out; then she hauls a heavy look around her old bedroom before squeezing her eyes shut.
“Where the fuck do I even begin?”
Chapter 10: the faint possibility of having hope in this insanity
Steph continues contradicting her way to a breaking point.
i know not a thing about tabletop roleplaying games nor am i sure about the stability of my memory of lis1 and bts but what i DO know for sure is i love you guys a lot
lyrics in chapter title taken from "reflections" by misterwives.
“I just want everything to be okay for you, Steph. Whatever I can do for you. Anything.”
The words would sound brittle and hollow coming from anyone else. Not when they’re from Alex, though. She’s waiting patiently right here next to her on Steph’s childhood bed, which is small enough to seem like it doesn’t have separate sides to it. No Alex’s side, no Steph’s side— they’re just sharing another new space together, existing intertwined the way they always are.
While Alex tries to make herself comfortable among the pillows, in her mind Steph tries to reassemble the shards of this shattered snow globe of a town. (Alex, she notices, has her own methods of fidgeting that somehow appear like a graceful ballet compared to Steph’s restless habits. And Alex’s fidgets are on full display now: rubbing her arm, crossing and uncrossing her legs, picking at the black nail polish that never wears out its welcome on her hands.)
“I couldn’t even speak at her funeral,” Steph says. It’s not how she planned to start narrating the whole ordeal, but it’s what leaves her mouth regardless. That heart-to-heart she had with Mikey last year helped a lot, and this is one specific detail from that talk she feels the need to give to Alex first. “After all that happened— I couldn’t think of one thing to say.”
Alex’s hand still holds Steph’s, forming a protective cloak around fingers that have begun to tremble. She doesn’t say Tell me how that makes you feel like a robotic therapist. She doesn’t ask Why didn’t you tell me before? like an offended friend. She just holds Steph’s hand as she carves her own trail through this discordant jungle of feelings. Steph wonders if the names— their names— have been on the tip of Alex’s tongue all day since the car ride here. Rachel and Chloe. But she doesn’t mention them, either.
(And her parents’ voices come from a boombox in her brain, overlapping in a cacophony, so resolutely confident in the relationship she’s made with the girl she married. Not an excuse to distract or forget, but a lovely new reason to remember who you both loved... I’m sure you know all about what happened with Rachel and Chloe... She’s part of the family now...)
Maybe they’re right about us, Steph thinks. Maybe they’re just wrong about the order of things happening.
“They... died. Murdered. Within a few months of each other.” Steph swallows, rubs her nose with her free hand. “And, um, they were killed in probably the most awful ways you can imagine. You can google the names of their killers, of course, find a ton of articles about them. Mark Jefferson, Nathan Prescott.” Her mouth twists, puckering around the names she can barely spit out. “Fuckers are more famous than their victims, just because of what they did and who they were. Because it was so unexpected, because it was a scandal that ‘rocked’ the town.” She snorts and folds one leg so she can rest her chin on her knee. “It fucking leveled the town. Some places, people, they never really recovered. Families moved away. School’s still steeped in stigma. Look this place up online. It’s a shit stew, and it’s all the truth. No wonder Dad finally wants to skip town.”
“It’s no wonder you did,” Alex says.
“Th— they weren’t my best friends or anything.” Steph’s gaze quickly flashes to hers, then drifts back to the candle on the sill. “Rachel and Chloe. We were all classmates at Blackwell. Rachel, she was this... this bundle of infectious energy. An angel even before she died, you know? Talented. Beautiful. And you can bet I crushed on her, hard.” Even now, mentioning her old unrequited crush makes crimson rush into Steph’s cheeks, but Alex’s responding smile, soft and rounded at the edges, makes her feel like less of an idiot about it.
“She and Chloe became inseparable. Kind of felt like they happened overnight, but... they happened. And Chloe Price, she was a total spitfire. Acted like she gave zero fucks, but you could always tell deep down she gave a few, and pretty much all of them went to Rachel. They both had tumultuous home lives— that was where I could never relate to them. Well, I couldn't relate in a lot of other ways, too. I did some dumb shit in high school, but at the end of the day,” Steph says, sliding a careful smirk Alex’s way, “I was still that girl wearing the beanie and the cool-ass dragon pendant, camped out indoors with Mikey. Sometimes I was on their sidelines... but usually I stayed on the bleachers, watching the game they played from a distance. They dared to do the things I’d only dare to imagine. Hitched rides on trains, hung out in a junkyard.”
A smile traces Steph’s face, a specific smile unearthed after years of being buried. “I remember when we did The Tempest— Chloe got pulled into it against her will, but Rachel could convince you to do anything— and I was standing just offstage, watching them in their act... they were magnetic.” Her face falls again. “They shouldn’t be defined by their deaths. But it was the only thing people talked about, how they died. Like their identities were stripped away the fucking second their hearts stopped, like they just became these— these bodies to gasp and gossip over. Fucking numbskulls asking ‘How could this happen?’ It was happening right in front of us! Jefferson? One of Blackhell’s most admired teachers, barf. And Prescott— a kid our age. His family still acts like they run the town.”
“Fucked up is an understatement,” Alex murmurs.
“You can say that again,” sighs Steph. “And I... I could never shake this feeling that I missed something. Some clue I should’ve picked up on.”
“You couldn’t have known, Steph,” Alex says firmly. “You were a teenager. You can’t be expected to be a hero when those men were impossible to sniff out.”
“Impossible to sniff out ‘til it was too late.” Steph shakes her head. “It’s like... it’s like there’s this monster, and it lives inside me and it tells me I suck for not being okay already— it’s been six years, Steph, what the hell? Grow up. But then it’ll tell me I don’t deserve to be okay anyway, because I’m not the one who died, I’m not the one who lost a family member.” Her cheeks are slick with tears before she even realizes they’ve fallen. “A- and Alex, knowing what you went through—”
“We’re not talking about me,” Alex interrupts gently. She brings Steph’s eyes to hers with an irresistible pull. “Please don’t undermine your pain. It sucks to lose anyone in your life, no matter how near or far. Love doesn’t always reserve itself for someone expected.” Steph’s heart throbs at her words, at the way Alex’s gaze briefly flicks away before returning to her. “And it can hurt like hell,” she whispers.
Steph squirms, eager to lift them out of the fortuitous, personal trench they’ve both stumbled into. “I guess—” She sniffles, tries again. “I guess I know how you feel now.” Alex frowns, brow furrowing as she tries to connect the dots. “My vision is blurry as hell right now, dude,” Steph says. The end of the punchline breaks off into a raw laugh, and Alex joins in almost immediately, to Steph’s immense relief.
“Can’t believe you still found the room to make fun of me in the middle of a serious conversation, Gingrich.”
Steph’s giggle sounds weak, but it does wonders to wake up fluttering wings in her chest. “Had to squeeze it in somehow,” she replies. Her body kind of does its own thing when she falls forward into Alex. She nestles her face into the warm place at her neck just above her shoulder, still lightly perfumed with shampoo.
Tangled into a single snuggling unit, they lay down on the small bed, stretching out their legs and playing footsie midair for a few peaceful minutes. Then the thought that’s been bugging Steph all day comes bubbling to the surface.
“I know I just said no color talk, but... what did my parents’ auras look like today?” She tilts her chin, finding her way back into strained eye contact. “At the airport, and when we got home, and during dinner?”
“You want the honest answer or the nicer answer?”
“I think you know.”
Alex slides her arm until she has it wrapped over the pillow supporting Steph’s head. Her fingers lightly stroke Steph’s hair once, twice, then stop, to Steph’s dismay. “They were super happy at first,” she says. “Then they were just... dipping in and out of sadness. I thought about maybe absorbing some of it. Try to understand them better. But I didn’t want to overstep.”
“Oh,” Steph hums. She considers for a moment, then adds, “Probably shouldn’t absorb anything from the ol’ Bay, anyway. I’m sure there’s this heavy blue fog over the entire town. I don’t want you to get bogged down by it.”
“It can’t all be bad.”
“It’s a suckfest,” Steph asserts.
“This is where you grew up and spent a lot of your life. I’d like to keep an open mind about it. Really.” Alex chuckles when Steph wrinkles her nose and buries her face in the pillows. “We’ll get through this,” Alex says. “You know how I know?”
Steph repositions her face so only her eyes and expectantly elevated eyebrows can be seen.
“I brought Shu Shu,” Alex tells her. She bends over the side of the bed and retrieves the beloved, well-worn mouse from her bag. She balances the stuffed animal on Steph’s arm and explains, “Shu Shu has always gone wherever I go. We’ve been through everything together, and somehow we make it through each time. Maybe down a whisker or two, or needing an eye sewed back on. But still alive.” She grins as Steph flips onto her back and rests Shu Shu on her chest, softly running a finger down the mouse’s back. “I’m sharing my good luck charm with you,” Alex offers, and when Steph’s gaze catches on hers, she notices Alex’s encouraging grin falter. “If— if you want it.”
“Of course I do,” Steph says, striving to keep that smile in view. “I’m honored you’re sharing Shu Shu with me. Thank you.”
“Yeah.” Alex visibly relaxes, the slight hunch of her shoulders melting away. A period of dangerous silence follows as Alex leans nearer and Steph’s eyes flicker down to her lips. And to the steadily decreasing gap between those lips and her own.
Then, like an idiot, she panics and shoves a hand into the perfectly-laid path. She raises her little finger and says, “So, um, after all that stuff I told you... promise I’m not crazy?”
“Definitely not crazy,” Alex assures her. “I’m glad you shared all of that with me.”
Steph’s mouth twitches around the beginnings of a smirk. “I trust you all the way to the moon and back, dude. And then some.” I just wish it hadn’t taken Dad mentioning their names to get the ball rolling.
Alex holds up her own pinkie, then hesitates. “What if... what if we swear neither of us ever has to hurt alone again?”
Steph blinks. Definitiveness scares her— she’s well aware of the fear, aware of its presence in the waiting room in her brain, always on deck and ready to be called upon. But.
“Cross my heart,” she murmurs. Alex gives a breathless laugh and when she links their fingers together, Steph can’t stop herself from sealing the promise with a kiss that’s lighter than a feather.
Steph supposes she shouldn’t be that surprised Alex wakes before she does the next morning; she had obviously achieved a much deeper sleep during her nap in the car yesterday. (Steph had gotten as far as closing her eyes, but didn’t progress much from there.)
She just doesn’t expect to be alone in the bed when she rubs the drowsy glue out of her eyes. She’d kind of been counting on rolling over to find Alex still fast asleep with her cheek flat on the pillow, the imprint of rumpled sheets in her skin, the touch of sleep just barely keeping her eyelids shut. Glasses off, hair a beautiful mess. Calm down, Gingrich. It’s not like you need a spooning session more than you need oxygen.
Instead, she flips over to a cold other half of the mattress. Sunshine fights to be seen through the partially-drawn shades, oozing through the cracks between the slats, but it does little to warm the Alex-shaped emptiness in the bed. Steph scoffs at herself as she sits up and eases into a luxurious stretch Val wishes she could attain. She’d been so close to insisting Alex take the bed last night, insisting she could sleep just fine on the crusty, seen-better-days carpet. Somehow they had ended up drifting into dreams before a final decision had been made on that issue. Who knows, maybe she woke up and realized she made a mistake and bought a plane ticket home—
Her phone chirps. Steph knows exactly who it is based on the type of chime, but what she doesn’t know is where the hell her phone ended up after last night. She’d misplaced it somewhere in the middle of their tender, tired mumblings to each other. She glances at the bedside table— nope. Pats around the blankets— nada. After a couple minutes of searching, the text announces itself again, and the noise gives her a clue. She dives forward and extracts the chatty device from the mountain of pillows that had been tossed overboard in order to accommodate two people on the bed. The screen flicks on, displaying a battery at nineteen percent and a lovely good morning text from her very own hunky Haven himbo.
Morning! You know, a great place to re-propose would be on those rocky Oregon beaches. I hear they’re beautiful this time of year.
Steph growls and momentarily considers slipping into character to try and conjure Ryan into the room so she can throw something at his stupid blond head. Fuck, it’s like he knows something he shouldn’t know yet.
fuck u for continuing to use proper grammar in ur texts
also yes, lemme just go propose real quick to gabe’s little sister who’s only been gracing our lives for 4 months, nbd
Literally EVERYTHING you just said in that last text tells me all I need to know.
Also, grumpy much? Didn’t get much sleep last night huh 😉
can we not?? like pls?? i just woke up & still have hella jet lag. go take a hike, mountain man
Already did. Woke up at five this morning. It was very refreshing.
And right, jet lag. From a one-hour time difference.
would u cut a girl some slack
alex and i signed this paper that made her able to pay some bills. THAT IS IT BRO.
ik u dont have my fantastical mastermind abilities but. just think of it as part of a larp, like its some magical treaty signed with the blood of a defeated werewolf. just a mutually beneficial agreement that has zero adverse effects or feelings. perfectly harmless. well besides the dead werewolf but oh well sux to suck
God, I wish I could understand the way your mind works. And how you spelled all of those words right with spell check turned off.
Could you elaborate on the mutually beneficial part of that? How does it benefit you exactly?
Well, at least he called me god. Steph sends him a middle finger emoji and plugs in her phone to charge. After wriggling into a hoodie to combat the air conditioning’s wicked chill that she remembers all too well, she slips out of the room, freshens up a tad, then makes her way downstairs.
Before she even reaches the landing, however, her ears pick up on a lively exchange coming from the kitchen. Tugging at the hem of her pajama shorts, she pauses between steps and latches onto the voices.
“... and she would always do that?”
“Always. If Stephy wanted to do something her own way then that’s how it was going to get done. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
“Right, but— Steph is creative as hell. You’d think she’d come up with more ways to express it.” Alex’s voice is broken up by amused laughter, still slightly thick from sleep the way Steph has become accustomed to each time they accidentally wake up together.
Their words are lighthearted, the definition of meaning well, but something about it makes itchy, uncomfortable fuzzies burrow into Steph’s gut. Thundering the rest of the way down the stairs, she swings into the kitchen and waltzes right into the climax of whatever tale her mother is spinning about her. Alex and Lita stare at her, caught red-handed with coffee mugs in those red hands, looking like a couple of deer facing a semi.
“Do I want to know?” Steph asks.
“Don’t worry, I’m not showing her any embarrassing baby pictures,” her mom says. “Though I do have plenty of those, too.” She gives Alex a playful nudge. Fucking hell.
“No, she was...” Alex’s explanation is tripped up as she observes Steph trudge over to the coffeemaker and pour herself a cup. “She was telling me about—”
“— me coming out. Of course.” Steph drowns her groan in a gulp of coffee that is still far too hot to be gulped and far too bitter to be enjoyable.
“More like your coming outs.” Lita smirks. “It’s like you thought your dad and I didn’t understand. But we did. We’d known for a while at that point, and there you were, stomping out of all the different closets in the house, scaring the crap out of us half the time—”
“— wearing a rainbow boa, a feathered cap, and wielding a sword,” Alex fills in the remainder of the delightful details.
“Question: is it too early to get drunk?” Steph wonders.
“Oh, hush. It was cute,” her mom insists, waving off her aversion to the subject. “And your wife is very amused, aren’t you, Alex?” She lowers her voice mischievously as she turns to rinse out her empty mug in the sink. “Isn’t that the goal, to keep her falling in love with you, Stephy?”
If I don’t want her to get hurt, the goal should be to keep her from falling in love with me. Before Steph can protest further, Alex steps in with her own response to Lita’s teasing query. “Didn’t think I could be any more in love already, but I guess I was wrong.” Her eyes only snag on Steph’s long enough for a wink before she abruptly spins away to copy Lita’s motion of rinsing out her mug and cramming it in the top rack of the dishwasher.
What... Steph shakes herself and takes another sip of unpalatable coffee. No, she’s only playing up the act. That’s why she winked, right? It’s all a joke.
“So how would you lovebirds feel about a couple of omelettes, some bacon—”
“Actually, we should get going. Gotta meet Mikey at the Two Whales.” Steph abandons her coffee on the counter, seizes Alex’s arm, and all but drags her out the front door. She only allows ten seconds to run up and grab her phone on their way out. Neither of them are dressed yet, and Mikey isn’t due to pick them up for another couple hours, but fuck it. They can walk there and make it an early brunch. She sends Mikey an update.
hey so lunch is actually gonna be brunch. pls bring ur dnd stuff n all the paper u got
Ok, something’s definitely up bc you hate the word brunch
They only make it halfway down the block before Alex becomes an anchor on the other end of Steph’s arm, yanking her to a halt. “Steph,” she says. “Hold on a second.”
“I just— I had to get out of there,” Steph tells her, barely twisting around to meet her probing stare. Whatever you’re reading into right now, Alex, please don’t.
“Okay...” Alex mumbles in a tone that’s not okay at all. The remainder of the brisk walk to the diner is quiet.
“It’s official,” Alex announces. “I would lay down my life for these Belgian waffles.” She shovels in another bite of said waffles while Mikey takes his turn to roll the dice.
“Nobody else makes them like they do here,” he agrees. The d20 clatters on the table and he looks down at it. “Three. Shit.”
“Elamon and Alywnn approach the gaping cavern. They risk one final glance at each other, then venture inside,” Steph chronicles the adventure, drawing out a rough sketch of the momentous scene as she speaks.
“I really didn’t want to go in there,” Mikey sighs. He aims a rueful look at Alex. “I hope you’re willing to lay down your life for Elamon like you would for those waffles.”
Steph rolls her eyes at his dramatics and continues, “Ghosts of past companions, both living and dead, drift across their minds. An elf barbarian’s brave sacrifice; a mighty warrior’s triumphant quest. It is these thoughts that provide comfort and accompany Elamon and Alywnn the deeper they go into the cave...” She pauses for a glug of orange juice, then resumes mapping out the story. Alex and Mikey listen, enraptured, until the next fork in the road is reached and it’s Alex's turn to roll the dice on fate.
Steph hides a smile behind her hand as she watches her two favorite glasses-wearing dorks deliberate over their next move. In the past couple hours they’ve been camped out at the diner playing their dnd session, it seems like some of the ice from this morning has evaporated. Luckily, Mikey and Alex have really hit it off. They’d spent several minutes talking about their older brothers (Drew now coaches football at a college a few hours away) and Mikey is super patient with the learning curve Alex still has to get around when it comes to dnd stuff. He’s even helped her expand on Alwynn’s background based on details she and Steph already established. The one downside is that he is very similar to Ryan in that he won’t let up about the whole marriage thing— that is, until Steph got him super invested in the game. Gingrich distraction tactics strike again. Steph 1, Mikey 0.
“Here’s a thought: would the cave-dwelling troll object to an offering of...” Alex peers around, then brightens and pushes her plate in Steph’s direction. “... a half-finished plate of gourmet Belgian waffles?”
Steph gapes at her, then narrows her eyes. “Might I remind you that the lives of you, your comrade, and the entire nearby village are at stake? I suggest you take this mission a little more seriously, Alwynn.”
Alex plants her hands on the table and leans across the spread of food, papers, and figurines. “Make me.”
Mikey lifts a not-so-helpful hand. “To be fair, it is a valid question. Trolls are known foodies who enjoy a good nibble. And Two Whales waffles are a good nibble.” Thanks for the input, dude.
Steph’s eyes slide back to Alex as she weighs her options. She tries to communicate with her eyes, but Alex simply stares in return, honey gleaming in her gaze, giving nothing away on her expression. Steph has an inner battle against the urge to lunge across the table and bring Alex’s lips to hers. Tense electricity crackles between them, its static sticking to Steph’s skin and raising hairs. She can’t tell what part of the conflict is real and what’s fake. For a moment she seriously considers dropping the act and making sure Alex isn’t genuinely pissed at her. I didn’t fuck things up that bad this morning, did I? It was weird seeing her all friendly with Mom. I don’t even know how to feel about it. Something tells me that whatever way I feel is the wrong way.
And something else tells her that she should probably vent these thoughts; last night, they promised not to let each other suffer in solitude ever again. But this is dumb. There’s no reason to get all freaked out about seeing Alex chat with her mother, a seamless part of Steph’s family. She should be overjoyed by it.
Maybe she is overjoyed by it. Maybe that’s what is scaring her the most.
“Fine,” Steph says, recomposing herself. Two can play at this game. I can bargain. “Roll a number and I’ll determine if the troll accepts your rather underwhelming and... soggy offer.”
One of Alex’s eyebrows flicks up as she closes her fingers around the dice Steph presses into her palm. She wishes Alex’s brain could just be a mirror sometimes. At least one person here has to know what’s swarming Steph’s mind, and it’s not Steph.
“No matter what happens, I’ve got your back,” Mikey says. His words express support for his fellow player, but his gaze goes to Steph as he speaks.
Alex takes her time shaking the d20 inside cupped hands, eyes trained on Steph the whole time. The dice skips across syrup-stained paper placemats, Steph watches it with bated breath, and the cord stretched from her to Alex tenses, tenses, snaps.
Chapter 11: mind over matter, i'm in tatters thinkin' about her
They get their act together.
again, i cannot possibly express enough how much the support from you guys means to me <3 the chapter after this one will be a slight departure from the typical pace of the story, then from there we should be coasting on fluff avenue until the end... well with one possible detour through angst alley again. and by possible i mean definite. in other words, if you've hung on this long then you really do have the patience of a saint and i so appreciate it. thank you
lyrics in chapter title taken from "mind over matter" by young the giant.
There’s a storm in Alex’s stomach that matches perfectly with the lush rainforest thriving in Steph’s eyes. Alex had thought she’d briefed herself on the risks that came with venturing into that forest— but something has changed. And the parameters they’d set for their arrangement never really made it past the rough draft stage. Wait, did we ever discuss guidelines? Alex wonders. I don’t think the problem is that a rule changed... it’s that there weren’t many in the first place.
For one, there wasn’t any rule against falling for each other. Too fearful to touch on the subject that much, they’ve danced around it instead, the way they dance around the apartment or the store when it’s filled with a song. As for the rest of it, certain benefits had been highlighted, of course: making out, feeling good, tearing down some walls while building trust in each other. Low stakes.
But now Alex sits in a diner in Steph’s hometown next to Steph’s high school best friend, eating food Steph probably enjoyed when she was younger, and she realizes something she’s kind of known from the start of this: she’s in way too fucking deep. There was never any such thing as low stakes. Not with Steph Gingrich. This girl has a hold on her completely, and she’s helpless to the helplessly captivating. And maybe it’s par for the course, considering their vast collection of winks and flirts and caught breaths. Considering that her name is scrawled beside Steph’s on a certificate that has proven to be binding in more ways than just legally.
There are things Alex is unwillingly acquainted with, things she wishes she couldn’t say “I know” about. There’s also that small number of things she is glad to know about. But this— all Alex can say to this is Oh. And in an instant, that single, tiny, monosyllabic word launches her into a freefall of feeling, so unlike her fall down that mine shaft because this fall doesn’t have any snags nor does it seem to have a bottom. She might spend the rest of her life falling for Steph Gingrich. But instead of telling her that, here Alex is, silently marching over cracked sidewalks with her, going back to her parents’ house after bidding goodbye to Mikey. Steph outpaces her by a step or two, back hunched against the cold front that grows between them. Despite all the body language that screams anger, Alex knows otherwise. There’s no incandescent cloud of fire surrounding Steph. All she sees is blue.
“I can’t live like this anymore. All this fucking pretending. Why did I think I could handle this? I was never that good at acting to begin with.”
“I know,” Alex replies. Steph slows, peers back at her. Alex thinks of this morning in the kitchen, Steph drinking bitter coffee she swore she hated, a tormented mix of orange and blue and green as they went out the door. Green was a new color on her.
“You know what,” Steph mutters. It’s meant as a question, presumably, though she doesn’t enunciate it like one.
“That I can’t pretend anymore,” Alex tells her. She refuses to put the words into Steph’s mouth, refuses to inform Steph about how Steph is feeling. Only Steph should do that. Alex’s worst nightmare is anyone she loves being resigned to her powers. “Can we pick up the pieces?” she asks softly. The pieces I thought we put together last night... I guess that was only the beginning of the repair.
Now Steph stops, kicking at loose gravel with the scuffed toe of her shoe. Then she huffs out a laugh. “We swore to only hurt together from now on, didn’t we?” Those eyes flash up and latch onto Alex like they’re just another feature of her face. “I think we’ve already been doing that for a while,” Steph admits, still scraping pebbles around a discarded cigarette butt. “Didn’t think it would go this far. Hurting together, hurting each other without realizing it.”
“Steph, I...” Alex draws in a deep breath that challenges the capacity of her lungs. “When we met, neither of us were whole. After all that happened, how could we be? And we still aren’t, not really.” She lifts her shoulders in a limp shrug. “Who knows, maybe we never can be unbroken, but as long as we keep going down this path... I don’t think we’ll ever reach a point where feeling complete seems possible.” She bears all the heaviness of Steph’s stare while the deadness of the town closes in on them. There’s barely even any cars, as if they’re mere pixels in a primitive video game that can only be bothered to generate a few moving objects at a time.
“For me,” Alex goes on, “it’s... it’s familiar, to feel incomplete. And now that I’m the only one left in my original family, it’s easy to convince myself I’ll never be complete again. But Haven.” She shakes her head, caught in a pleasant web of awe. “You and Ryan and Char and Ethan and Duckie and Riley and Eleanor— in a span of a few months I’ve found my chosen family. I don’t use that word lightly, either. I forgot what it meant for a while.”
“And you, Steph... you’ve changed me. Before I preferred pain— embraced it, even, because anything was better than being numb. Hurting filled in some of the holes, so even when I started to hurt you, hurt with you, it— it wasn’t unwelcome, because sometimes it’s like I’d rather feel some type of way about you than have you feel nothing towards me at all. But now I know that’s not right. Still, it’s what I was doing. And I promised you the truth.”
Steph is quiet. Alex watches her suck on her teeth, toying with the same lower lip Alex has now gotten a taste of. Even if I could rewind time, I wouldn’t undo any of it. I can’t return to a life before her. Then, finally, she responds, “Better to know someone painfully than to not know them at all.”
“Even if,” Alex murmurs, inching closer to her, “it’s insanely hard to just be friends with them.”
Steph’s gaze darts back and forth rapidly, running a million mini marathons over Alex’s face, like she has all the rest of the words she wants to say printed across her skin. “You scare me, Chen,” Steph admits.
Alex freezes, trying not to crumple like a cupcake liner without a cupcake. “I do?”
“Only because you turn me inside out in a way no one ever has before. And that’s fucking scary, having to turn around and look at yourself for once. That’s not how I operate. I— I don’t ever look over my shoulder if I can help it. But the past still chases me anyway. I know I told you to think about what you want— and, um, clearly you have,” Steph says around a slight chuckle, “but I’m guilty of being a big fucking hypocrite, ‘cause I still haven’t let myself think about... about us, in that way. It’s like I need some kind of permission from the critic living in my head, to— to develop those thoughts more.”
“Yeah, I understand that.”
“And then, um, my famous let’s-marry-for-insurance idea— legitimately, all that was on my mind in that second, drunk or not, was helping you. The panic didn’t crash in until the very next second after that. But by then, I was—”
“— in too deep?” Alex suggests, and Steph nods her agreement. Alex takes her next step verbally rather than physically. “Can I... let you in on a little secret?”
An amused puff leaves Steph’s nose. “Go for it.”
“I’ve been so busy just... existing with you, and loving every minute of existing with you, that sometimes I... kind of forgot about...” Alex trails off and taps her left ring finger.
The cloudy shadows on Steph’s face flicker and fidget, somehow turning her away without her needing to move at all. “Really?” she asks. Icicles protrude from the word. “You didn’t seem to forget about it when you told my mom this morning you thought you couldn’t be any more in love with me.”
Fuck. “I was—”
“— just playing a role, right?” No! Alex wants to scream. I was— I was stretching the truth. Things can still be exaggerated when you’re speaking from the heart, right? “It’s what you agreed to do by coming here,” Steph continues, “and I appreciate it, but it’s hella weird for me. Seeing you hamming it up for Mom like it’s Christmas morning, and— and trading puns with Dad at dinner last night. At this point I’m expecting you guys to show off matching pajamas tonight or something, it’s— it’s real. Too real, too fast. And if it’s real, then that means I’m going to break you, because I’ll run like I always do and we’ll leave my parents this destroyed relationship to try and make sense of retrospectively. But if it’s not real...”
A breath cuts through Alex’s lungs like a knife. As scary as something real is, something not real feels worse.
“Can I just...” Steph starts swinging one leg again, the sole of her shoe chafing the sidewalk hard enough to leave rubber behind. “I need a minute alone, okay? To think about shit. Please.”
Alex stares at a vacant parking lot across the street, at the clouds rolling in above it. “Sure,” she mutters.
“Can you find your way home?”
Alex blinks at her. If Steph notices anything particular about her word choice, she doesn’t show it. “Yeah,” Alex repeats. “It’s a small town.”
Steph brushes past her back the way they came. Right on cue, the skies open up. It’s only spitting rain, but the drops are a heavy, bitter syrup, and Alex absorbs every last bit that lands on her as she heads in the opposite direction. True to form, Steph Gingrich has confounded her yet again. Any more curveballs, and Alex might stop trying to anticipate them and just start letting them pelt her instead.
Alex arrives at the house to find that Lita is out somewhere and George is holed up in his home office, apparently eager to work even on the weekend. (No surprise, since Steph had mentioned his philosophy that “There’s always some fledgling project waiting to be edited, so might as well make it its best now rather than later.”)
Alex goes upstairs. An hour passes without any sign from Steph. Then two. Not even a text, not even stones thrown at the window in morse code. She doesn’t even attempt telepathy to tell Alex she’s okay and fuck. Alex cuddles with the pillows and the cold air conditioning and puts on her headphones. She goes through all of the Vampire Weekend albums one by one, bobs her head to “A-Punk” thirty times in a row.
Then she finds herself calling Charlotte. She answers on the second or third ring, and her voice sounds like it’s being squeezed through a pasta strainer. Alex can’t see auras through the phone, so she can only imagine the color of surprise. Confusion. Hesitancy.
“Hey, Char,” she says to Charlotte’s hello. The abbreviation of her name flows easily off her tongue, precisely as automatic as the way she thinks of herself as simply Alex rather than the unwieldy Alexandra. “How are you?”
“Um, good. Ethan was just raving about the story Steph helped him plot out for his latest comic. His artistic ability already far surpasses mine.” Pause. “How’s Oregon?”
“That’s awesome, but...” Alex falters at the line she’s about to blur. She knows that, obviously, Charlotte is her friend— but she doesn’t quite feel like one, as if they’re both still subconsciously marking her as Gabe’s girlfriend above all else. Dead Gabe’s still-alive girlfriend. That’s not fair, of course; yet there Charlotte is, perched on the highest rung of the ladder to Haven, the person who (alongside Ethan) reached above even Steph and Ryan to mean the most to her brother in the life he was building there. As much as Alex adores Steph for making loving her effortless even when it aches, she also appreciates a bit of a challenge, a harder nut to crack. So she crosses that line. “I was asking how you are.”
“Oh.” Charlotte gives a slight, breathless laugh. “Well... surprised, honestly.” Aha! No heightened empathy necessary. “I guess I thought you and Steph would be pretty busy out there, and— there I go again, not answering your question.” Her sigh fills Alex’s headphones. “I am... surviving. The dispensary is doing great, and on the side, my stuff has been selling well on Etsy. I’ve had a lot of inspiration lately, so... that’s nice.”
Alex grins, thinking of the little wooden cat statue roosted on a shelf back in the apartment, something Charlotte had chiseled not long after she arrived. She knows the exact words of the memory that could be attached to it, in Charlotte’s voice— “I saw the cute cat pattern on your shirt, and thought you might like something like this.”
“But, still.” Alex can practically feel Charlotte’s grip stiffening on the phone, trying to maintain a tidy facade. “He’s gone.” Not gone from my head, though.
Right then, Alex glances up and spots her brother in the corner opposite from her, lounging in Steph’s scruffy old papasan chair. He grins and waves. Speak of the devil.
Like she’s in the room with her, Charlotte asks in a small voice, “Do you ever... see him, Alex? Not necessarily in your dreams, but in other places too? And not a malevolent spirit or anything, just... there. Hanging around, reminding me he can’t possibly be real.”
“Truthfully?” Alex chuckles. “I thought you’d never ask.” She frowns at Gabe, eyebrows dropping, but he’s unfazed, staring steadily at her in return. “I see him right now. It used to be in the same place every time— the rooftop. But now he follows me wherever I go. I can’t decide if he— if it’s more of a blessing or a curse. Mostly feels like an unreachable itch I can’t scratch away.”
“Oh, Alex,” Charlotte whispers. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one.” There’s some rustling on her end, or maybe a sniffle, a wiped away tear.
“Does he...” Alex watches Gabe lace his fingers together, jump his leg a bit like he’s waiting for her to be done. “Does he speak?”
“Sometimes, yeah. He’ll ask about Ethan, tell me about a fun time we had that I’d pushed to the back of my mind. Does he talk to you?”
“Yeah.” Alex cracks each of her knuckles one at a time, keeping her eyes occupied with something other than the ghost on the other side of the room. “A lot, usually. But he’s only a fragment of our minds, right?”
She can picture Charlotte’s shrug. “Doesn’t mean he’s not worth listening to. Maybe the only way you can listen to yourself is through him. And it’s okay, if that’s how you understand things right now. Everything’s still so fresh.”
Alex sticks out her tongue at Gabe, and he crosses his eyes at her in return. “So kind of him to help me make sense of shit,” she mumbles. Charlotte offers a hum of acknowledgement, and in the brief period of silence, the reality of where Alex currently is comes flooding back. In Arcadia Bay, in Steph’s old room, on Steph’s old bed, surrounded by everything Steph except for the woman herself. “How long have you known about me and Steph?” Alex eventually asks.
“Wasn’t expecting that question.”
“I figured you had to know by now,” Alex replies. “No offense, but moms seem like they’re able to figure anything out.”
“Or they act like they are.” Charlotte laughs. “You flatter me, Alex, but I hope you don’t think I’m the only one who knows. In a town like Haven, the truth spreads just as fast as the rumors do.”
Alex throws her face down into the pillow. “Oh, god.”
“Even Gabe had an inkling,” Charlotte tells her. A teasing lilt leaks into her tone. “You know what he said to me the day you came here?” (Alex likes that, thinking of it as the day she started over rather than the day his start-over ended.) “He got this funny look on his face and whispered, ‘So I’m pretty sure both of my best friends are smitten with my sister. Steph especially. She looks like she’d be distracted enough to tie her shoelaces around her ankles and trip over her own heels.’”
Flames lick Alex’s cheeks. She looks up again, but the chair in the corner is empty.
Hours later, she hears something at last.
hey, i promise im ok. i swear x infinity that im fine
so dont worry about me. be home soon
Alex knows Steph well enough to take her extremely belated texts with a grain of salt. Still, she taps out a reply, the lightheartedness of which only rubs her sore in this context.
Ok. If you’re not actually home soon I’ll be sending out a search party
And by search party I mean me mikey and a bag of flamin hot cheetos as steph bait. Maybe fly in ryan too, just to keep you on your toes
Oookay, Alex, stop typing. She locks her phone and tosses it aside, but right when it lands on the blanket, the screen lights up again, a new text partially blocking the background image of her, Steph, and Ryan in their booth at the Lantern, the two of them asleep while Alex flashes a double thumbs up. It was the first time in history she’d changed her phone wallpaper from its default.
u wouldn’t dare
Alex lets go of a breath. Even in a sea of misunderstandings, they still can break the surface.
At a knock on the door, Alex hurries to put down the device. “You can come in,” she says.
George nudges open the door, poking his head through the gap in a display that proves amusing thanks to a The Nightmare Before Christmas poster Steph has taped up on the interior side of the door. Your dad seems like a pretty cool guy, Steph, even when he’s head to head with Jack Skellington. Way to go for the mainstream taste in movies, by the way.
“Hi.” Alex grins tightly. “If you’re looking for Steph, she’s—”
“Out.” He gives a curt nod. “I won’t say she’s out on a bender, because that’s not fair. She just, uh.” George leans a shoulder on the threshold. “She needed a breather, huh?”
There can’t be that many bars within walking distance in this town. Or Uber service... probably. “Yeah,” she answers. “I think she’s okay, though. We were just texting.”
“Right, right.” He looks down, then abruptly claps his hands and says, “Well, I just threw together a little dinner, and I hope it goes without saying that we’d love for you to join us.” George pretends to investigate a button on his shirt while creamsicle-colored feelings swell around him.
“Stephanie better be okay. She has something really great going for her. I’d hate for her to lose it before it’s really had a chance to begin.”
Drawn to his hope, Alex reaches a little too far into it. It swallows her whole, bathing her in an orange glow that’s both liquid and air, lapping waves and wisps of soft cotton. This emotion is still fairly new to her, so she’s never been immersed in it before. It’s wonderful. People are so naturally caught up in events that have already happened, they rarely take the time to dwell on what’s yet to come. And now Alex is treading through the elements of this wonder, grabbing onto solid bits as they drift by: her and Steph visiting George in Oakland, her and Steph hugging Lita, her and Steph holding hands and walking, her and Steph dying laughing over something that could be anything.
Heart hammering, she forces herself to back out of the aura lest she accidentally suck his hope away.
“Of course I would,” she says. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
After dinner, the rain outside picks up in intensity. Steph’s parents retire upstairs with resigned creases in their faces that Alex’s weak reassurance does little to resolve. She sets up camp in the living room, soaking in the dark and the silence with her eyes on the front door. A little poking around had unveiled a linen closet in the hallway, from which she grabbed a towel that now waits in her lap, fabric twisted where her fists clench onto it.
Steph arrives a short while later, simultaneously loud and quiet as she kicks off her sodden shoes and lets a soft swear tumble off her tongue. The door shudders back into place behind her, and she looks up only to be met by a faceful of towel. Alex shoves it at her, but when a stunned— and trashed, Alex realizes after a second— Steph makes no move towards drying herself off, Alex does it for her. Remembering all the cartwheels Steph had done to make sure Alex was comfortable while she healed from her injuries, Alex spares no effort in return. She slides the towel over Steph’s bare legs, along goosebump-coated arms where her sleeves are bunched up, all the way to her face, where she swipes a towel-covered hand across her cheek. The hardness in Alex’s eyes balances out her gentle ministrations. “What the fuck, Steph,” she whispers.
“I’m sorry.” Steph sniffs, scrunches up her nose to keep it from running. “I fucked up. I bolted. It— it’s my go-to move, what can I say?” Her stare is glazed, unfocused, though it appears she’s trying to counteract it. “Admitting it is step one, right?”
More like step two— it comes after disappearing for hours to get blitzed. Alex bites her tongue to keep the salty response at bay. That’s not what Steph needs to hear right now. Instead she asks firmly, “Are you okay?”
“Mmm. That’s debatable.” Steph lets Alex drape the towel over her shoulders and lead her to an armchair. She staggers like a mannequin that’s just gained mobility for the first time. “I made a bet wi— hic— with bedazzled kiwi schnapps,” Steph informs her while Alex peels off her saturated socks. “Think I might’ve lost.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Alex can’t help chuckling. “One of these days you’ll have to accept that nasty potion doesn’t mix well with you.”
Steph frowns. “And if I don’t?”
Alex throws the icky socks over her shoulder, still kneeling so she has to gaze up at Steph in the chair. “Then I guess I’ll just keep reminding you for all eternity.”
“For all eternity, huh?” Steph flops back and giggles. “Sure sounds like wedding vows to me, Chen.”
Alex’s heart slips during its climb up the ladder in her throat. “Does it really?” she prompts.
Rather than a direct answer, Steph offers her a shit-eating smirk. “So here’s the truth,” she says. “Unlike most people, I— I think I make my best decisions when I’m not sober. Sober Steph? She thinks too fuckin’ much.”
“Hey, that’s not true—” Alex tries, but Steph shakes her head rapidly, stopping her protest in its tracks.
“C’mon. I wasn’t sober when I fake-proposed to you. Wasn’t technically sober when we kissed that first time. And now I’m this— this pathetic fucking drunk girl,” Steph rambles, eyes clinging to Alex’s face, “telling you that I wanna be with you, Alex. God, I wanna be with you so bad it hurts, b- but it’s a better hurt than the way it hurts to not tell you.”
Alex loses control of her breath for a moment. She can think of nothing else to do besides take Steph’s clammy hands in hers.
“I— I thought about it,” Steph continues, slow and breathless, “and it hit me that I’d rather get to love you in the best way possible, even if it’s terrifying, ‘cause loving you like that is better than loving you only halfway. I’ve spent these past couple months just, like, stewing in this jealousy of the life I think we could have if I just... spoke up. But I’m done doing that. You’re worth the risk. You always have been.” Her eyes squeeze shut. “But I— I know I hurt you tonight, by taking off like that. It wasn’t cool of me at all, a- and you know that normally I am super cool, so...”
Alex gives a teary laugh at the lame joke.
“So I guess what my useless gay ass is trying to— to say is...” Steph reopens her eyes, brings their foreheads together. “If you’ll have me, warts and all, I’d be the happiest nerd on the planet, because I adore every part of you, Alex Chen. I— I can’t guarantee I’m not gonna make mistakes. And I’m sorry for the ones I’ve already made. But if that’s too much, I get it.”
Alex closes the gap and captures her lips without any thought necessary. “It’s not too much,” she murmurs. “Also, I should mention that you make some pretty damn good decisions when you’re sober, too.” A strangled sob of relief crawls up Steph’s windpipe. “But, hey... let’s get you out of these wet clothes and go to bed. Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day.”
Steph’s whine of protest tickles her lips. “Guess it’s safe to assume you don’t plan on removing my clothes in a sexy way...”
“Not in a sexy way, unfortunately, because you are very drunk,” Alex snorts. “We’ll talk about it in the morning, okay? We’ll talk about everything. But for now, your breath kind of stinks and you need to sleep.”
That earns a mock gasp of indignation. “Hey!”
“For what it’s worth, though, I am super impressed at how articulate drunk Steph can be.”
“She appreciates the compliment,” Steph quips.
Alex proceeds to pull a reluctant Steph to her feet and brings her to the staircase, whereupon they dedicate a solid minute per every single step. By some miracle, they make it to the second floor before dawn. Alex helps Steph back to her bedroom and makes sure she changes and brushes her teeth before collapsing into bed. They take turns getting ready, still bashful to shed clothes in front of each other, but it’s kind of fun to have her heart rate spike around Steph and to fully own up to it. For the first time, the sensation is now paired more with joy than anxiety.
The remnants of a blush still sting Alex’s cheeks by the time she falls on top of the covers next to the rest of her life. The house is steady and still around them, drenched in night and swaddling them in sleep. Alex is pretty sure Steph is already knocked out, but when she turns her heavy head over on the pillow, she discovers a new color. It’s something she could have easily blinked and missed, as it fades each second Steph drifts closer to slumber.
Alex could call it pink, but it’s more than that— it’s like a magenta, a pink as deep as the ocean, affection and passion illustrated, the petals of a rose unfurling. Alex thought she had a favorite color on Steph, but this. This.
She stays awake until Steph no longer is, her rosy glow slipping back inside her, ready to stain Alex’s thoughts at a later time. Utterly enthralled, Alex takes off her glasses and scoots closer to her bedmate, pressing her forehead into Steph’s back and resting a hand on her waist. She falls asleep just like that.
Alex wakes up to find that she’s become the little spoon. Behind her, Steph curls into her back, yawning out her complaints about the sunlight falling over their faces. A warm arm is slung over Alex’s torso, skin touching skin where her shirt has ridden up, and a face is burrowed into her neck. Never has Alex been so thrilled to be linked with someone else in so many ways.
“I need a bottle of ibuprofen,” Steph announces, her moving lips a painful tease above Alex’s sensitive pulse point. “Or maybe an entire jug.”
“For what?” Alex mumbles, eyes still closed as she plays dumb. “To use as maracas?”
“If I had any desire to initiate physical activity right now, I’d kill you.”
Alex lifts a brow even though she can’t see it. “Physical activity, hm?”
“Fuck,” Steph moans. “Maybe you’ll kill me first.”
The day that follows is a flurry of non-sexy physical activity, including but not limited to: dragging themselves out of bed, getting Steph well hydrated, and going on a small excursion around town with her parents before returning to the house, packing up their things, and driving to the airport. The entire time, Alex and Steph hardly spend a single second without touching each other in some way. Naturally, both George and Lita work in remarks about it at various points, and every time Steph’s parents refer to them as each other’s wives, Alex is convinced she’s about to combust.
When they’re dropped off, the Gingriches tell Alex it was a pleasure to meet her, and she tells them the same. Steph says she’ll miss them, and then, as a final jab, yells “Good luck with the divorce!” right as she slams the car door shut.
It’s only when they’ve boarded the plane back to Colorado that the events of last night truly sink in to Alex. With her head on Steph’s shoulder, she watches as they taxi parallel to the sunset, the runway’s lights stretching into long, blurred lines thanks to a smudge on her glasses that she’s too lazy to wipe away.
She then raises her eyes to Steph’s face, dazedly admiring each stray strand of hair she hasn’t yet pushed out of the way. “How are you feeling?” Alex asks. “Too tired to think straight?”
“Yeah,” Steph sighs. Her gaze slides slyly over to her, darker than usual in the dim light of the plane’s cabin. Alex loves how her eyes can change colors like a mood ring. “Not too tired to think gay, though.”
Alex purses her lips and shakes her head. “Damn it. I should’ve seen that coming.”
When her laughter subsides, Steph shows a more serious expression. “So... now that we’re actually alone...”
“— along with the two hundred other people on board.”
“Along with the two hundred other people on board,” Steph adds graciously. “Um, about all that word vomit I spewed last night— I still stand by it.”
“I’m glad,” Alex tells her. The beginnings of a grin tug at her lips; it feels very much at home on her face when she looks at Steph, so she barely even notices the pull of it. “Because I also stand by what I said.”
“That my breath stinks?”
Alex shoves off of her playfully, taking the opportunity to lean back and get a better look at her. “I wanna be with you too. Not just legally— which is, er, a whole other thing— but actually.” She’ll never forget all the tiny motions Steph’s face makes here, subtle twitches of muscle that add up to exhibit pure euphoria. “We’re human, Steph. We’re gonna make mistakes. We just have to talk about it, right? I’ve been in places where... where the best method of communication was with my fists.” She swallows, knuckles briefly throbbing like they would when bruised. “I’m never going back to that. Ever. But I could go the rest of forever talking about anything with you. That sounds really great.”
“Alex,” Steph breathes, brows sticking together like strips of velcro. “I...” She rolls her shoulders and nods resolutely. “Okay. Okay, yeah. I’m down for that.”
Somehow their hands have already found their way to each other, and Alex’s little inked shooting star, she notices, is aimed directly at Steph. She has never seen anything more perfect, more fated, than that star soaring towards her favorite person.
“Down for something real?” Alex asks.
Cleared for takeoff, the plane picks up speed, quaking above and below and beside them as if they’re nothing more than pills being shaken inside a bottle. Still perturbed by the unfamiliar and jarring rumble, Alex squeezes Steph’s fingers through the entire experience. And then they lift off the ground out of Oregon and Steph smiles at her, filling the darkened cabin with rosy gold. “You bet, Chen.”
Chapter 12: sit so high until i see ya (confident that you're my weakness)
Steph's side of things. She doesn't overthink it at all.
screaming crying throwing up at your incredibly kind comments here in this barnes & noble cafe... i’m so happy, i don’t even care that they’re already playing holiday music. oh, and to anyone who might’ve been reading over my shoulder in the panera where i wrote part of this chapter: i'm sorry if your face is permanently stuck in that cringe...:/ also how bad is it that “never gonna give you up” came on right as i was finishing the last scene and i was jamming to it so hard the entire time. that's normal right
anyway this kicks off with steph's side of events from the last chapter!! thanks for sticking with me, guys :)
lyrics in chapter title taken from "overthinkin" by carly bannister.
The day before
“Can you find your way home?”
The way Alex is looking at her could bring down an empire. “Yeah,” she tells Steph. “It’s a small town.”
Every step Steph takes away from her triggers a screaming impulse. What are you doing? Don’t leave her. Quit self-sabotaging. But still she continues walking barefoot over the hot coals, heart molten and lava in her veins.
She needs to focus for a minute, that’s all. And being alone helps that. Or so she keeps reminding herself. The conversation she just had with Alex had flung open literally all the doors in her interminable hallway of a mind, setting free all the questions that, until now, Steph has refused to truly answer. These include such winners like How serious was Alex being this morning in the kitchen? Oh, and the classic favorite Do we even have a sliver of a chance of not breaking each other’s hearts?
If that sliver does exist, of course Steph wants to cling to it, wants to keep that painful what-if splinter embedded in her skin until she can’t take it anymore. Because for so long, she’s figured that extracting it might mean losing Alex. Pulling that final thread loose, unraveling the sweater of their just-friendship for good— what are the odds that they could spin it back again, into something new, something better, something real? Steph’s never been that great at sewing, so to speak. How strong would the fabric of romance be at this point? They can only dance around it for so long. Maybe it’s too late. She’s missed her chance.
Aaand now there’s another several questions to mull over.
The specks of rain sinking into her sleeves are adding up. It seems as if it’s precipitating harder only in her personal space bubble, a petty little reminder of where she is, her presence in this town a physical representation of being stuck back at square one. “Fuck,” she mutters, gritting her teeth around a shudder. Time to get inside somewhere.
She ends up returning to the very place they just left. The Two Whales is exactly as it was ten minutes previously, its booths and counter packed with patrons chatting and sipping and chewing. Overlapping conversations, scraping silverware, and the song from the jukebox— a faint Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”— create an oddly soothing din that hangs over the diner like a low blanket of mist. Steph imagines herself as the mountain peak rudely breaking through that mist while she moves past all the tables and squeezes onto the last available stool at the far end of the counter. She checks over her shoulder, but as expected, the booth that she, Alex, and Mikey had occupied with their game for a few hours is already taken again. Mikey is nowhere to be seen, either, having left at the same time she and Alex did.
Despite the rush of needy customers, the girl behind the counter tends to Steph’s request in record time. Steph perches her elbows on her little corner of counter space and watches as a plain white mug is placed in front of her and filled with coffee. The plume of steam coming off it is tamped down slightly by the splash of cream Steph tosses over it from a puny saucer. The swirl of white disappears in an instant, and when she tilts the cup back and forth a couple times, the coffee settles into the desired caramel color, and only then does Steph raise it to her lips and give it permission to scald her tongue. Maybe if she tries hard enough, she can burn off the memory of Alex’s kiss. Erase the way it felt to taste her. Only have her live on in a bittersweet aftertaste that Steph couldn’t bear to rinse away. If I even deserve that.
Aftertaste. Usually sound is the sense that resonates with Steph the most. For Alex it’s sight, surely, with her ability to view things even legends can’t see. But sound is what haunts Steph: drum beats, heartbeats, and everything that occurs in between to make that music happen. Yet here she is in the diner Chloe’s mom used to work at before she left town, hunched over the counter in the poorest, gayest posture of her life, scorching the tender tissue in her mouth with fiery, disgusting coffee, and maybe taste is what sticks to her now, after Alex. After Alex. She doesn’t want there to be an after Alex. That after is the shadowy figure that lives inside the closet in her nightmares. And Steph doesn’t know what she’s trying to prove by choking down this coffee she just can’t make herself like— besides the fact that maybe, by developing a preference for this bitterness, she’ll always have that tiny connection with Alex. That chance that somewhere, somehow, they’ll be tasting the same exact thing. Something to share, even if it’s not each other.
Steph forces down another sip, then two, repeating the action until the flavor and heat become somewhat more pleasant. She appreciates muscle memory, the little pockets of familiarity it provides despite her efforts to make the world around her less familiar. And, she realizes, it’s a luxury Alex probably hasn’t had for over half of her life now— even small comforts like the particular click the front door of a home makes as it unlocks, or the fine-tuned knowledge required to turn the shower faucet so it lands on the perfect temperature. No matter how far Steph sprints, she’s always been able to return here to Arcadia Bay, to the house she grew up in, to the same silverware drawer and the same creaky step. When was the last time Alex had something like that?
Muscle memory, of course, also comes in handy for other situations. The bite of dice enclosed in her palm, followed by an urge to shake it. The smooth vibrations traveling through drumsticks, prompting her to bring them down again and again. The sparks in her lips every time she kisses a girl. Even Izzie, who Steph killed a few years with, was never more than a name mentioned in passing during rushed phone calls to her parents— she’s part of that list, that pattern. Up to now, it’s always been the same kind of kiss, the same movement of hands, the same short-lived blaze of satisfaction below her belly.
Steph sucks down more coffee. Yeah, until Alex. With her, Steph is completely retraining herself, overriding all previous instincts and rewriting the code that’s programmed her one-trick-pony, flirty approach to potential partners. It’s a whole different type of new that Steph didn’t know she needed. And maybe doing things all out of order, maybe marrying Alex Chen, maybe being cool with her parents loving Alex— maybe that’s the boost Steph has been waiting for to kickstart the rest of her life.
What sort of mind-fuckery does it take, Steph? She’s it. She’s the last stop, the one where I board the bus that takes us to... wherever.
Well. She isn’t sure whether to sink into further panic or to celebrate at this revelation. But she still has herself alienated from Alex at the moment, so either way, it sounds like an excuse to do something dumb. Good thing Ryan isn’t here to convince her to let off some steam by going for a hike. (Or if it was Gabe, he would talk her into staying in and playing tipsy foosball instead. She can still hear the exact inflection of his voice when he called her a sore loser before they’d even finished the first game.)
It’s this rather flawed mentality that guides her as she drops a few bills on the counter (leaving a tip that definitely adds up to more than however much the coffee itself cost) and scoots out of the diner.
mikey mikey mikey
michael andrew north ANSWER ME
U do know that’s not my middle name right?
ofc i know that
i was just saying that ur the MAN
get it?? bc the intitals
Where are u Steph? I’m picking u up
“You know, when you told me you were coming back to Oregon for the weekend, I didn’t think one of your two nights here would be spent doing... well, whatever this is. Not alone, at least.” Mikey leans across the console to push open the passenger side door for her. Steph— whose blood currently consists of ninety percent “boozy slime” as Ryan calls her poison of choice— climbs into Mikey’s beat-up little Scion (the same car he’s had since high school, which hey, respect for keeping Sir Archibald running this long) and doesn’t comprehend half of what he’s just said.
“We— we should lay some ground rules. If I have to puke,” she says, clumsily dragging her seatbelt over her chest, “do you want me to lean out my window or yours?”
“Try to think logically on that one.”
“Um.” She rolls her head over the headrest, trying and failing to prevent her stomach and head from turning along with the car. “Yours?”
Mikey shakes his head patiently and continues cruising through what little of town there is. “So I’m going to assume that you didn’t set out to drink on the curb in front of the Bay’s only liquor store.” His eyes flash over to her briefly before returning to the road. His next question comes out more subdued, like he doesn’t want to risk disturbing the dust that’s barely settled over her most recent Alex-related fuck-up. “Where’s Alex?”
“Not here,” she answers flatly. “Unless she’s hiding in the backseat or something, I dunno.”
“Do you wish she was?”
A short spurt of a sigh. “Yeah. I really do.”
Mikey doesn’t even have to ask about the specifics of what happened. All he does instead is focus on driving her safely back to her parents’ place. (No joke, this guy comes to a full stop for every single stop sign, so he and Ryan could totally compete in the safest, slowest drag race ever.) Steph isn’t sure how the hell she manages to repeatedly befriend the most incredible people who she would die for in a heartbeat. Common denominator or not, she can’t give herself credit for attracting such fucking awesome friends. It must be something in the air, or... something. Fuck, I’m drunk.
“So what would you tell her if she was here right now?” Mikey asks, because of course he does.
“I’d tell her that— that if it’s not too late, I’m ready.” Steph watches traffic lights bleed through the window, listens to the rhythmic hum of the windshield wipers. Such mundane features of a rainy world, and yet she knows they would be ten times more beautiful to her if Alex happened to be in this picture. “If it’s not too much,” she murmurs, “I’m ready.”
“I’m curious how you would define ‘too much,’” Mikey says, “considering that she’s already your wife.”
Despite the nauseating blur that her surroundings have been reduced to, Steph cracks a smirk. “Scratch what I said before... I’m gonna puke into your lap.”
When Steph departs Oregon without puking into Mikey’s lap and with a (tentatively) wife-turned-girlfriend, only then does she consider the visit a success. And with her goodwill towards her parents at least partially restored, she can’t push down the optimistic outlook that grows like a tree inside her chest, its branches pushing up between the gaps in her ribs. It’s odd, honestly, having that sensation of near completeness surrounding her heart, all the holes that had been leaking insecurities plugged up for the time being.
“Down for something real?” Alex wants to know, and for once in her fucking life, Steph knows. No more hurdles to jump. The road’s been cleared. She can see ahead of them for miles.
The plane rumbles around them as it roars down the runway, gaining speed before takeoff. It’s hard to hear even her own thoughts, so Steph leans in and grins around her reply: “You bet, Chen.”
It’s Charlotte and Ethan who arrive to pick them up from the airport back in Denver. Steph offers shotgun to Alex so she can sprawl next to Ethan in the backseat, which feels like a first-class lounge after those hours cooped up in that hamster cage of a plane seat.
“This is so cool! I’ve never been to an airport before,” Ethan exclaims as they inch their way through traffic, caught up in a jam of travelers cramming in their last vacation fix before the end of summer.
“Believe me, it sucks,” Steph replies at the same time Alex says with a touch more discretion, “It is pretty cool, huh?”
Charlotte delivers a Look through the rearview mirror, but in Steph’s opinion, she should be grateful she remembered to hold her tongue and not say it sucks ass in front of the fifth-grader. (Or sixth-grader? Shit, she can’t remember which ages correspond with which grade.) “It’s only ‘cool’ because we’ll be getting home past his bedtime,” Charlotte fills them in.
While Char and Alex fall into conversation about the trip and the assortment of “sightseeing stoners” Char has encountered at the dispensary recently, Steph sets her sights on her backseat buddy and his profuse amount of half-finished comic pages.
“... and then this part,” Ethan explains, flipping over a paper roughly halfway through the stack, “is the beginning of chapter fifteen— ‘The Proprietor’s Choice.’”
Steph gives a curious frown at the mention of (presumably) her LARP persona. “Uh, is it ‘Proprietor’ as in—”
“She’s your character,” Ethan admits shyly. “I hope that’s okay.”
Steph can’t deny she’s pretty touched that he thought to revive her role. “Aw, that’s awesome! Of course it’s cool, dude. I’m psyched you remembered her.”
Perking up at her approval, Ethan leans closer under the mellow glow of the car’s overhead light. He points out a panel near the bottom, which contains a sketch of a woman not dissimilar to Steph peering out from under the brim of her witch hat. “She was one of the best characters in the LARP, but she’s still so mysterious, and there was that one part left open-ended,” Ethan gushes.
“Yeah!” His finger moves to the next panel. “After Thaynor and Alwynn complete their quest, they return to the Magpie Emporium because of a summons received from an unexpected courier.” Steph chuckles at the drawing of a black cat who is undoubtedly Valkyrie, her dark fur colored in with heavy-handed graphite and a rolled-up letter grasped in her jaws. But then she continues reading the page, and her laughing heart takes a tumble: “The proprietor has a humble request for the bard, and there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of dark magic behind it. When Thaynor and Alwynn walk into her shop, she announces that she has reconsidered Alywnn’s proposal, and that—”
“— she hopes there is still a chance for her to have Alywnn’s hand in marriage,” Steph recites aloud. Her gaze immediately darts to the front, but Alex is still engrossed in Charlotte’s story, so Steph returns her attention to Ethan. “Since when do you like love stories?” she asks him, wondering if it’s possible to hear her blush in her voice. I mean, not that this is one or anything. Stop playing with fire, Gingrich, before you lose all brain cell privileges forever. And if you’re overhearing my utter terror right now, Alex, I am so sorry.
“I don’t really,” Ethan answers. “They’re super lame. But they’re also kinda fun to write, and as long as it’s not Thaynor having to kiss anybody, then...” He wrinkles his nose in momentary disgust, but the expression melts away as he shrugs. “Besides, who wouldn’t want to find out about all of the ‘associated benefits’ Alwynn mentioned? That’s the next part I have to come up with...”
If Steph was currently sipping something, it would now be coming out of her nose. Face ablaze, she sits back and lets him continue to ramble on about his story, precariously innocent to the disputable meaning lurking behind Alex’s clever innuendo from that day. Fucking hell, Steph thinks. Even then, we were idiots. And just when we get our shit together in real life, we’ll now be torturing each other in fiction. If she passes away right here in this backseat, she doesn’t want to blame the kid, buut...
When Ethan begs for a pit stop a little later, Alex offers to escort him inside the convenience store to the bathroom, leaving Steph alone with Charlotte in the dark car. “So I’ve heard Alex’s thoughts on the trip,” Charlotte pipes up. “But how was it for you?”
Steph grins slightly, staring at the sparse crowd of cars milling around the parking lot. “Wasn’t that bad after all,” she confesses.
“So you two idiots finally got together, I take it?”
Steph scoffs. “Hey, don’t dunk on us for taking the scenic route to get there.” She pokes Charlotte’s shoulder. “Shortcuts are totally a bummer.”
Charlotte hums a reluctant laugh at her subpar humor. “Uh-huh. Anyway, when’s the wedding?”
“Fuck that noise! How dare you read us for filth?” Tossing herself back against the seat, Steph folds her arms and sighs. “Okay, I have something I should tell you. You’ll be judging me harder than you’ve ever judged before in your life.”
Brow dented, Char twists around in her seat to get a better look at Steph, hunting for her gaze in a patch of harsh fluorescent light from outside. “That’s a bold statement.”
“You will,” Steph claims. “You’re both the designated and literal mom friend. It’s kind of your job.”
Charlotte says nothing, waiting for more.
“A few months back, when shit hit the fan with Jed...” Steph gulps and tugs the suddenly suffocating seatbelt off her chest. “Alex needed help with the medical bills after— what he did.” After he grazed her with a fucking bullet, but that’s another story. She fixes her eyes on the car’s ceiling, unable to take Char’s relentless stare. (She loves her friend a lot, but damn is her mom look unnerving sometimes; hilarious when it’s aimed at Ryan, not so much when it’s directed at her.) “And we got married so she could get on my insurance,” Steph mumbles, barely audible on purpose.
No explosive outburst comes from Charlotte, of course. Instead she blinks, sucks in a breath— then laughs, of all things.
Taken aback by her reaction, Steph can think of nothing else to do besides glare. “What, did Ryan tell you already?” she accuses.
“So Ryan knew?” asks Charlotte. She’s still giggling.
“It was nothing against you,” Steph clarifies. “Ry’s just as respectful about secrets as you are, but this was one thing we didn’t need everyone in Haven to know. And we figured you had enough on your plate already.” A wince contorts her features. “Guess we shouldn’t have decided that for you.”
“Please, Steph. It’s fine. We’re all adults here. Presumably.”
“That ‘presumably’ is fair. Ethan has more maturity than I do. Definitely has more functioning brain cells.”
Charlotte’s teeth flash in the dark as she smiles. “Hate to tell you, but I knew something smelled fishy about the reasons behind your trip. Also, my son and his imagination clued me in to your secret marriage sooner than you’d think.”
Steph groans. “You also got a sneak peek of the latest Thaynor installment, huh?”
“I wish I’d been a fly on the wall for that part of the LARP. According to him, it was pretty... how should I put it... intense,” Charlotte teases. A few seconds of silence allows room for her to murmur more seriously, “In all honesty, I’m thrilled for you two. You look happier, Steph, happier than I’ve ever seen you before, when you’re with her. And if you guys can handle a little legal commitment like that already, then... I think you’re all set.”
“Right. Set like Jell-O,” Steph says drily.
Charlotte tilts her head. “You don’t seem so sure.”
“Actually, I— I’m more sure than I’ve ever been. And I can tell she is too, but... there’s still some doubt squeezing in there, making everything feel... wobbly. I know it’s the past getting in my head like it always does. I can’t even let myself fully enjoy this next part of the ride. It’s like— I’m strapped in, ready to go, but I can’t stop clinging to the lap bar even though all I want is to let loose and raise my arms up in the air and scream my joy to the universe.”
“I felt that way with Gabe, at first.” Charlotte’s expression is bittersweet, though the sweet is layered over the bitter. “When it’s still so new, it’s easier for past relationships to influence you, make you question and worry. But time will do its thing.” She turns away partially, and both pairs of eyes trail to the well-lit interior of the convenience store, where Alex and Ethan can be spotted perusing the aisles with the type of energy only possessed by people who are still wide awake well past ten-thirty at night. “And one day, instead of comparing, all you’ll do is marvel about where you’re at now and how far you’ve come. You’ll be out somewhere, either a mile down the road from where he is or maybe farther, and you’ll see something that makes you think of him, something that inspires a gift idea for a birthday or holiday that’s still months away. And it won’t hurt. You’ll be okay, because you have a future, with or without—” Her voice cuts off as recognition dawns in her eyes, and though Steph hadn’t minded the direction they were going in, Charlotte switches tracks regardless. “You guys will be okay, Steph,” she tells her, words reduced to a whisper now. Then she adds knowingly, “It’s nothing you need to roll the dice over.”
Steph springs forward, wrapping her arms around her in a somewhat awkward hug from opposite corners of the car. “Thank you, Char.” She exhales with her chin on Charlotte’s shoulder, then pulls away and settles back into her sprawl. “Those Chens really are something, huh?”
“They really are.”
The moment the last word leaves Charlotte’s lips, two of the car doors swing open and Alex and Ethan slide back in, arms laden with snacks.
“I got gummy worms!” Ethan announces like it’s his greatest achievement.
Alex wears a sheepish grin as she tosses a bag of flamin’ hot cheetos for Steph to catch. “We were hungry,” she says by way of explanation.
“Remind me of that thing you said about us all presumably being adults?” Steph asks Charlotte. As they turn back onto the road, Alex glances over her shoulder at Steph, memorably beautiful when she winks and pops a pretzel in her mouth, and if this is what love feels like, Steph doesn’t ever want to forget it.
Chapter 13: i wanna be the one that you would put up a fight for
Roasted, fluffy marshmallows.
i love you all
chapter title taken from "flamin hot cheetos" by clairo.
September brings along the first whispers of winter. The temperature drops seemingly overnight, the tourists passing through Haven Springs start carrying around skis, and Alex dusts off her meager but beloved hoodie collection from where it had been stored in drawers for the summer. Steph is shamelessly disposed to mooching off of said hoodie collection, but Alex doesn’t exactly have room to protest when she has a condition that predisposes her to stealing a certain someone’s beanies.
An especially nippy morning finds Alex climbing the stairs between the apartment and rooftop to check on the garden. Most of the perennial blooms are wilted by now, and have been pruned to make way for their successors next year. Any remaining petals are borderline frostbitten, but their stems remain strong and hardy to the mountainous Colorado bite. Alex walks around and takes a few mental notes on Ryan’s behalf, which more likely than not will end up in her physical journal later, because punny plant poetry lends itself surprisingly well to songwriting.
Steph joins her soon after, noisily shoving a shoulder into the door while balancing a full mug in each hand. This, of course, is nothing new— these little shared mornings have been implemented into their daily routine for a few weeks now, as it’s gradually becoming less and less rare for Steph to just spend the night here, no questions asked. In fact, the only time she doesn’t stay over is when she— in a painfully obvious way, Alex might add— talks herself out of it “because I don’t wanna, like, smother you or anything.” As if that’s even remotely possible. We’re together all day at work and still can’t make ourselves sick of each other. But it’s nice, she decides, getting to make memories up here on the rooftop with someone other than Gabe. Scab over the wounds.
“Good morn’, gorgeous gardener. How’s that not-so-green thumb of yours?” Steph’s voice is carried a few paces ahead of her by the breeze, reaching Alex’s ears like the opening chords of a new favorite song, over and over again. “I come bearing hot liquids.”
“Hot liquids? What a... peculiar way to put it.” Alex pops her head up from where she’d been bent over to inspect Ryan’s hibernating buttercups. She accepts the cup held out to her, and though a deep, fortifying inhale identifies it as her usual coffee with a splash of milk, she decides to tease a little. “This could be anything,” she hums, pairing an inquisitive frown with a dubious dent in her forehead.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing it’s not,” Steph replies, bringing her own drink up to her lips. During this, all Alex can see are craftily narrowed green eyes, so green that they seem to have sucked all the color from the surrounding garden. Then Steph lowers the mug and says, “Hot cocoa. Because that’s all mine now. ‘Tis the season.”
Alex lifts her eyebrows. “Oh, yeah? An A.M. cup of cocoa is reserved for only the Stephys of the world?”
She receives a middle finger in return. “I thought we agreed that name must never be spoken in this house.”
“I recall no such agreement,” Alex retorts, blowing on her coffee and testing the temperature with a tiny sip. “And besides, we’re not technically inside any house, so that rule can’t apply.”
“Hmm.” Steph nods slowly, sweeping an appraising stare over the empty rooftop. “So we’re in the heart of lawless territory up here.”
Alex punches her shoulder. “Don’t you like the danger?” Then she glances down and finds something else to rib her about. “I’m assuming it’s also the season to take my clothes every single day,” she says, inching closer, “and look unfairly good in them, too.”
Steph smirks down at today’s borrowed hoodie, a charcoal gray one emblazoned with some brand name Alex couldn’t care less about. “Riddle me this,” she responds. “If I look this good in your hoodie, then how do you look wearing my hat?” She taps the pom-pom on top of the knitted, Steph-sourced winter cap Alex had tugged on before coming outside.
“I don’t know,” Alex feigns innocence. “How do I look?”
That blushing gold returns in full force, unique to Steph and too irresistible to ignore.
“Super fucking cute.”
Alex appreciates the colors, but this is one of those moments where the emotion-reading aspect of her power really isn’t needed, because a second later Steph repeats the exact same thought out loud. “Super fucking cute,” she whispers before setting her mug on the closest ledge (only because passionately letting go of it would create a mess neither would rush to clean up) and cupping Alex’s face in her hands.
“Kiss me already,” Alex mutters, too impatient to think of anything more generous. When their lips collide, they’re both swallowing each other’s laughter.
“... and so she sent me what looked like a link to a site called Fun Feathered Facts— y’know, about birds. But when I clicked on it, it just pulled up some eighties music video,” Ryan explains. Despite the humor of the situation, Alex’s heart twists for him. He just looks so upset about it, all these concerned crevices carved in his face as he waves his hands around.
“Dude,” is all Steph says.
“What, dude?” he mocks.
“Are you offering free tours of the rock you’ve been living under, Patrick Star?” Steph asks, leaning forward on the table and layering her chin over clasped hands. “It must be fascinating under there.”
Next to her in the booth, Alex elbows her in the ribs.
“Hey! It was a light, gentle roast,” Steph defends herself. “A nice golden-brown at best. I didn’t burn him alive.”
“Sure, I’m offering tours, but they’re not free, Mr. Krabs. Also, I am so lost,” Ryan says. “Someone throw me a lifeline here.”
“You got rickrolled, ‘nuff said,” Steph tells him. She takes a pull of her hot cider, an autumn speciality of the Black Lantern. “I’m sorry. I’m sure this is devastating news.”
Ryan turns desperate eyes onto Alex, who of course caves and tosses him a life ring. “It sounds like that girl played a prank on you by linking something different than what she said it was. So, um, she’s probably not the one.”
“Damn,” Ryan sighs, hitting his palms on the table in defeat. “Oh, well. We weren’t really vibing anyway, I guess, if that went right over my head.”
“Hey.” Voice softening, Steph catches his gaze and bumps her knuckles against where his sad, limp hand rests on the table. “Don’t make me remind you that it’s your literal birthday today, Lucan.” She slams down a defiant fist. “And we are gonna celebrate, dammit.”
Alex grins broadly. “Celebrate that you’re old.”
Ryan rolls his eyes but visibly brightens, gold gleaming around him like a lion’s mane. It’s always the sweetest relief when Alex sees this color on him, like it’s really possible that the mistakes of their fathers can diminish into distant memories once and for all. “When do you two not want to raise hell? Never?”
“Never,” Steph echoes. “And you, sir, promised us a game of truth or dare down by the lake, so let’s get our asses in gear.”
As they polish off their food and make their way out of the restaurant, Alex catches Ryan’s apprehensive head shake and mumble of, “And we’ll be lucky if one of us doesn’t drown.”
They spread a large picnic blanket on the shore and then spread themselves on top of it, their weight sinking into the cold, soft earth below. Next to them, the lake is the sky’s mirror, its water like glass, nary a ripple on its silky surface. In the distance, a couple of ducks paddle across, occasionally bobbing their heads beneath the glossy black liquid.
By the time nightfall settles over them, they’re in the late stages of an unmistakably boisterous party game, rolling and falling all over each other, embracing laughter in its purest, simplest, stupidest form.
“Truth or dare, Birdman?” Alex asks between snorts, still recovering from the results of the previous dare.
“Hmm...” Ryan tips his head. “Let’s go with truth.”
“Ugh, you always pick fucking truth—”
“Shhhh,” Alex soothes, pressing her hand over Steph’s mouth. It’s quite the feat to accomplish when they’re already partially draped over each other, legs tangled and heads resting on indeterminate soft, warm surfaces. “Okay, Ry, my question is: would you... risk planting a big, fat kiss... right on Val’s nose... for twenty bucks?”
Ryan twists his mouth, amusement glittering in his gaze as he gauges her question. “Why does that sound like a dare disguised as a truth?”
Steph pushes away Alex’s arm and whisper-shouts, “That’s because it is!” Alex cusses her out and replaces her hand.
“So, what do you say?” she prompts.
Ryan strokes his chin. “I say... make it two hundred and we have a deal.”
Steph manages to swat away Alex’s hand thanks to a well-aimed sprinkling of tickles under her left lowermost rib. “So you’re pricing your own death at just two hundred bucks?” she demands.
“As long as it’s worth something,” Ryan says with a shrug. Stretching back onto his elbows, he directs a nod at Steph. “Truth or dare, Stephy?”
“You will rue the day you told him about that,” she hisses in Alex’s ear. It sends a fresh wave of ticklish tingles down her spine, sticking to her skin like static electricity. With an undying smirk still comfortably at home on her face, Steph glances back at Ryan and replies, “Dare.”
“I dare you to... hmm...” He makes a performance out of sifting through the presumably prolific supply of options in his brain, doing both the head tilt and beard stroke thing.
“If you pull the ‘I dare you to get married’ card again, Ranger Danger, I swear—”
Ryan shushes Steph and then, at long last, aims an index finger in the girls’ general direction, subtly darting it back and forth between them. “I dare you to get a matching tattoo with Alex.”
And all of a sudden Alex’s mind is a blank slate, wiped clean of any rational thoughts. Her eyes slip down to her right hand, to her existing tattoos, to the million dots of ink that for a while she let define her mental state, her wellbeing. Which way are the arrows pointing? Is it a rising or falling star today? But to imagine something new printed on her skin, something that illustrates this beautiful thing that thrives between her and Steph... she doesn’t even have to question it.
And, apparently, neither does Steph. “Sure,” she says, eyes flicking to the girl who’s woven so closely together with her, neither can tell where one ends and the other begins. “If you’re in, I’m in, Chen.”
Alex wallows in Steph’s eyes for just a moment; then she notices something— some one— over her shoulder. Alex focuses her stare, and—
Gabe. He’s here with them on the blanket, reclined beside an unwitting Ryan, blinking at his little sister with something a few steps behind happiness. She chews on the inside of her cheek until she tastes copper. Hey, she says to him. He says nothing back. When the rest of his face catches up to what’s in his eyes, he’s gone with the next blink.
Alex returns her attention to Steph as if she never left at all. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
(Hours pass and Alex lays where she’d flung herself down next to Steph on the bed in the apartment. She’s drunk on staying up late, and she can feel the piercings prickling in her ears and her nose, and there’s a new bandage wrapped around the base of her right ring finger, tucked just above her knuckle.
Her phone floats ostensibly into view above where they’ve painted themselves over each other on the sheets and blankets. Her hands drift to it, swipe to a neglected text conversation.
Ya know, I’m surprised you guys didn’t go with little twin lucky cats
Hmm. Maybe it’s not that neglected after all. Gabe definitely never said that when he was alive.
Her fingers type a few seconds ahead of her brain.
thought that might be a bit on the nose
And what you did end up getting isn’t?
your point is?
I’m sorry about earlier btw
For not speaking
Figured I’d let y’all enjoy your moment
thanks... but I wasn’t mad or anything
I guess I thought
that maybe I was done torturing myself thru you
not really cool of my subconscious to use you as a marionette tbh
but here we are. here I am. texting you in my dreams
Alex stares at the screen for a while. When no ellipses bubble pops up, she prepares to surrender to the heaviness in her eyelids. But her hands have developed brain cells of their own, and they move over the keyboard in lieu of giving in to restful sleep.
I think charlotte’s doing better
a lot better actually. better than she was
On that note, I don’t think I’ll be able to let her know this, so if you could pass along how much I miss getting her I’m Sorry Flowers, that would be rad
Maybe get some Gabe Is Sorry He Died Flowers. What a concept, huh?
so. you say rad. you’re one of those people
... oh wait
We’re one of those people
The bed jostles slightly, pulling Alex’s curiosity from the phone for a moment. Steph flips over with a slight, sniffly snore, the top sheet resembling a web stretched taut between her legs. Particles of rose-colored joy are suspended in the dream-thickened atmosphere, remnants of the fun night they had. Alex’s nose crinkles at the amusing reality that Steph Gingrich never completely stops being restless, not even in slumber. Then the screen brightens again, beckoning her back to it.
I should go, Alex
She hesitates. Her fingertips are nothing more than fizz and sparks and nerves loosely bundled together. Somehow, they have enough awareness to hit the right letters.
and thanks. the flowers mention just gave me a great idea
Thank yourself 😉
Alex lays there for another few minutes. She picks at the edge of the bandage covering her new ink. Then her eyes squint through the dark to pinpoint the same bandage circling Steph’s right ring finger. She decides to leave her bandage be. This way, they’ll both wake with it in the same place.)
“So... do you regret it?”
Steph’s question travels to her from around the corner, where Alex can picture her frowning in the bathroom mirror as she rinses her face free of sleep gunk and snore lines.
“Do you?” Alex counters.
“Alex Chen answering a question with another question? What is this sorcery?” The faucet squeaks, cutting off the hiss of streaming water. It’s replaced by the shuffle of damp laundry being dumped into the dryer, then the door slamming shut before Steph starts up the machine, creating a different gentle background racket as the aged mechanism heaves wet clothes in repeated circles.
So. Here they are. Steph Gingrich is prowling around Alex’s apartment (wow, Alex’s apartment— she’s never been so sure of that title until now), doing laundry, and to top it all off, looking incredibly hot while doing so, even when she’s on the other side of the wall. Not domestic in the least. Fuck off, Alex, you sap.
When Steph appears after passing through the laundry area with her hands on her hips and a stubborn case of bedhead, Alex offers her a cloying grin and says, “Thanks for dealing with the laundry.”
Affectionate joy ripples around Steph. Alex basks in it while she watches her crawl back onto the bed. Mischievous hands slither across the covers, only coming to a stop when they’re cradling either side of Alex’s face. (There’s been a recent shift in Steph’s colors, she notes— an absence of orange. Not that it isn’t completely gone, but maybe, Alex wants to believe with every fiber of her being, it means that Steph doesn’t need to hope anymore. Could it be they’ve reached the part that she— they— have been yearning for all along?)
“It’s the least I can do for kidnapping half of your hoodie supply and making them my own,” Steph hums, skimming a thumb over Alex’s lips before leaning in. Right when she lets Alex think she’ll be getting a taste of what she’s been craving this morning, Steph backs away and tortures her with the subtlest eyebrow lift. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
Alex sighs, but obliges her. She folds her fingers over Steph’s right hand and pulls it down, holding their hands between them palms down. Matching shrunken Shu Shus dance across corresponding fingers, a tiny figure between the lower and middle joints, completely whole despite a missing ear. Not too bad of a dare, Ryan. “No,” she answers. “I don’t regret it. Do you?”
“Impossible,” Steph reinforces what Alex already knows, courtesy of her colors. “Gotta say, though, I wish you warned me more about how much hand tattoos can hurt. I cried like a bitch.”
Alex chuckles. “You did.”
“I did!” Steph says. “But so worth it for this little guy. I think the swallow was getting lonely by herself.” She draws closer to reignite what she started, magenta petals around her— but Alex snatches the opportunity for revenge, pivoting out of Steph’s reach and rolling off the bed.
“You know, you should really go open the store.” Alex stands on her toes, casually picking through a dresser drawer for an outfit.
A combative whine exits Steph’s mouth. The pink petals accenting her aura wilt somewhat.
“If this is part of your master plan to get me hooked, Alex... it’s working.”
Ignoring her thought, Alex continues looking down and pretending to search. Truth be told, she’s already chosen what she’ll be wearing today. “You don’t wanna be laaate,” she sings softly. A burst of vivid emotion latches on to the edge of her vision.
“How, um.” Steph’s voice is strangled. “How seriously do I have to take that suggestion?”
Alex slams her drawer shut and fixes a stare on her that’s harder than diamond. “Very seriously.” Then for good measure, she winks.
Steph raises her palms and mimes waving a white flag. “Okay, okay. I’m out.” She hurries to gather the couple of belongings scattered around the apartment, then scoots to the door. “I’ll see you?”
Alex bobs her head, unable to prevent the corners of her lips from reaching up. “Yeah, I’ll be in,” she says. Steph pauses only half a second more, then leaves with a dorky smile and fluttery nod.
And scene. As soon as she’s gone, Alex relaxes. The relief won’t last long, however. Not with what she has in store for today. She carries her clothes to the bathroom. First she steps into the famous black skirt, followed by a button-up that an ephemeral friend had once referred to as “the object of a bisexual’s wet dream,” something she has been unable to un-hear since. While she tucks it into the skirt, a fretful breath blows out of her that’s comparable to a balloon popping. It’ll be fine. You’re fine.
Before she heads out, she tunes in to KRCT real fast to make sure Steph is settled in there. She is, if The Strokes song currently playing is anything to go by. Alex grabs her keys. It’s showtime.
There’s an elated quiver in Alex’s chest when she strolls into Lethe Flowers and spots not only Riley behind the counter, but Eleanor as well. The cheerful jingle set off by her entrance is noticed by both women, who respond in kind to Alex’s wave and warm hello.
Once Alex reaches the back counter, she takes some time to admire the bunch of carnations the shop owner is trimming. Meanwhile, Riley splits her time between floral busywork and online schoolwork, her laptop displaying what looks like a screen divided into halves: one side flower financials, the other side a work-in-progress essay.
“How are you, Eleanor?” Alex says gently. “It’s great to see you back.”
The older woman beams, shooting a thrill of gratification straight into Alex’s soul. Not that she necessarily needs it, but there’s something about being liked by the older residents of Haven that makes warm fuzziness expand in her ribcage. Duckie (who Alex is fairly confident she secured the fondness of during their dance the night of the Spring Festival) and Eleanor— honestly, they’re the grandparent figures she didn’t know she’d been missing.
“Thank you, Alex,” Eleanor replies. “It seems like I’ve been heading in a better direction lately, so I thought I’d come in a few days a week and help ease the burden on Riley’s shoulders while she’s studying.” She gives her granddaughter’s arm a loving squeeze. “Though that isn’t the only reason I’m feeling fit as a fiddle.”
Riley tenses up, immediately guessing what Eleanor is referring to. “Nana.”
“What?” Eleanor gives an innocent shrug, cocking a grin at Alex before disappearing into the back of the shop.
Alex flicks an anticipatory glance in Riley’s direction. “Well, I’m on the edge of my seat now,” she jokes lightly.
With a good-natured toss of her braid, Riley lowers her laptop screen and places her full attention on her only customer. “It’s nothing that exciting,” she divulges. “Just that Mac and I called it quits.” She busies herself shuffling the already neat stack of papers by the computer. “It was about time to finally make a decision between on or off, so... I made the decision for both of us.”
“As long as you’re happy, then that’s all that matters,” Alex tells her. And you really are. The hesitant gold peeking out seems to coincide with that assessment.
“I feel so much... lighter without him.”
Out loud, Riley asks, “So what can I help you with?”
Alex braces herself on the counter with a grimace. “As you’re more than aware, I don’t know the first thing about flowers. The only thing I do know for sure is that I want to get some for Steph. I... I’d like to finally return the favor.”
Riley laughs, the definition of cool and collected. “Where one door closes, an even better one opens, huh?” Her brow scrunches in thought. “How redundant would it be to go with tie-dyed roses again? It’s a creative twist on a romantic classic. I feel like that goes with you guys.”
Alex puts on a thankful smile and slides a couple notches closer to calm. Step one, check. “That would be perfect.”
Chapter 14: all i want's right in front of me
can confirm there are 2 chapters left!
lyrics in chapter title taken from "i want to be with you" by chloe moriondo.
Sometimes Steph really wishes she could put herself on mute.
“... the second you walk in the door, you’ll be hit by a whole avalanche of different flavors to choose from, and that’s a frozen-solid fact. Allow me to recommend my personal favorite, Chocolate and Jalapeño In Love. It’s topped with a swirl of cayenne-spiced Nutella that will be sure to open up those sinuses well in advance of cold season. Be sure to walk, hike or ski down to Avalanche Ice Cream today, and if you tell them Steph sent you, you’ll get twenty percent off your order! Well, probably. They definitely should do that now that I said it on air.”
With a cringe no one can see, Steph throws on some Muse and steps back from the mic so she can breathe a little better. She shoots a furtive glance through the glass— still no sign of Alex. Oh, and speaking of Alex... Steph checks her phone to find a text waiting from Ryan confirming the plan she has set up for tonight. It’s no big deal (as long as all goes according to plan, of course); just an intimate little dinner date, the entire Lantern reserved for her and Alex alone, so Steph can pop the question that officially confirms their relationship status. Yeah, no sweat at all.
alex was acting kinda weird this morning fyi
so my theory is: what if she decided she actually hates me & tonight will be a disaster
Pick your battles, Steph. Chances are there’s nothing wrong at all, okay?
... u know something i don’t
what is it. tell me
Right when the song wraps up, the station’s phone rings. Her fragile semblance of self-control is fractured instantly by the ear-grating sound. Sucking her lower lip between her teeth, she drops her own phone and grabs the old receiver. “You’re on with Steph, retired fortune teller and active radio connoisseur. What can I do to take the static out of your life and make some music magic?” She speaks the greeting like she’s reading out of a dictionary, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?
“Hmm. I think there’s something you can do for me.”
Steph startles at the voice she would recognize anytime, anywhere. “Alex?” she laughs. “What are you— what’s going on?”
“This will be a little unorthodox, maybe, but... bear with me? Please.”
Please. That single word is all it takes to do Steph in. So heavy yet so weightless, simultaneously a wax seal over an enveloped promise and also a pile of ashes that could disintegrate with one poke. If I say no, I’ll always wonder what would’ve happened if I said yes. She shakes her head at herself. ... as if I would even dream of interrupting this.
With no indication from Steph to stop, Alex proceeds through the blaring green light. And holy fuck, she’s singing, and her voice is like the honey in her eyes. She’s singing right in Steph’s ear like a lover murmuring secrets, except this is being broadcast on the radio for all of Haven Springs to hear, and wow. No more holding feelings hostage. Maybe— maybe it’s time for them to stand on the proverbial rooftop and scream about each other to the world. Or at least to their little corner of it. Their haven.
Music encyclopedia that Steph is, it doesn’t take more than two lines from the first verse to identify the song. Gabrielle Aplin’s “Home.” Alex moves gently through an abbreviated version of it, treating the melody like she’s wading through breakable liquid, holding lyrics on her tongue like she would hold Steph’s hand.
As long as we’re together
Does it matter where we go?
Something sounds different about Alex’s voice now, though Steph can’t quite place it. Then her head shoots up. Wait a second...
She turns toward the window and finds Alex Chen standing on the other side, casually a living, breathing dream while Steph is wide awake. Guitar slung over her chest, phone nestled between shoulder and ear. Right in the exact spot where they first laid eyes on each other. If Steph could focus on the glass rather than through it, she would see the smile on her own reflection practically tearing her face in half. Then Alex ends the song, using her eyes instead of words to beckon Steph out of the booth.
“Um...” Throat cracking, Steph compresses her feelings for a moment to utter into the mic, “Well, guys, that was Alex. If you don’t know who she is, then where the heck have you been?” She chuckles feebly, barely able to restrain herself from bursting through that door for another second. “She’s... she’s someone who’s very special to me, and that’s the understatement of the century. So... I know it’s pretty tough to follow up that performance, but let’s have this classic Firewalk hit give it a shot. Catch you in a few, Havenites.”
Another few seconds and then she can finally be with Alex, bolting out of the booth at teleportation-like speed. “Holy fucking shit,” Steph begins, “you were...” Her praise hits a wall, however, when she gets a full-body view of Alex— and a specific black skirt. “Holy fucking shit,” she repeats, voice reduced to a lightheaded whisper.
“Given your obvious hotness,” Alex says, stepping closer as she continues strumming the song’s instrumentals, “I’m still just insecure enough... to feel the need... to make sure...” Another step and the guitar is pushed aside, and then her body is pressed up against Steph’s. Chest to chest, foreheads well on their way to touching, and if Steph is lucky, lips not far behind.
“To make sure...?”
“That you... want this.” Alex’s hands slide into hers. “And here I am, giving you a desperate bard’s serenade, so I can ask—”
The faulty filter that’s been hastily installed over Steph’s mouth quits its job. “Alex, will you be my girlfriend?” she blurts out. While the girl in her arms folds into laughter, Steph grits her teeth and squeezes her eyes shut. “Shit, I— I didn’t mean—”
“You didn’t mean to ask that?” Alex teases. “Because it’s exactly what I was about to ask.”
Steph holds onto her tighter, struggling to stay upright in the shockwaves of her confession, of the many events packed into the past five minutes. It takes her a minute to come up with something semi-logical. “You know what... color me impressed, Chen. Or maybe I should say, color me gold.” A corner of Alex’s mouth ticks up. “I guess we’re on the same wavelength, then, because... I kinda-sorta had a nice dinner date in mind for us tonight?” Steph says. “A- after our shift. Which, I dunno, maybe that’s dumb, since we’re not really formal people, but then again, it’s dinner at the Lantern, so is it really...” The stream of words trickles dry as those brown eyes reel her in again, bringing her back to sweet reality, to the feel of solid ground beneath her feet. Right. Paging my inner normal person... she’s gotta be here somewhere...
“Normal’s pretty boring,” Alex says, and Steph never thought someone having the power to crack through her skull would be such a welcome thing. “But with you, Steph,” Alex continues, “a dinner date at our favorite haunt will never be boring. And I love—” She stops short, collects spilled thoughts, restarts. “I love that we both happened to pick the very same day to do this. That must be a good sign, right?”
Now it’s Steph’s turn to harvest a little confidence from the ridges of her brain. Skimming a thumb over Alex’s hand, she taps a finger over each of her tiny tattoos, ending with the newest one, the exact match of the Shu Shu that still stings somewhat on her own hand. “I think it’s a great sign,” she affirms.
At the same time, Alex’s phone vibrates and Steph’s phone chirps. Steph grumbles a curse. How dare someone hit us up right the fuck now? Both devices are reluctantly pulled out of pockets and unlocked to the same text:
So have you guys got things figured out yet?
“Ryan,” they both groan at the same time, only to dissolve into giggles. “So he was in on both of our things, huh?” Alex asks.
“Bastard was an accomplice for both of us. Total traitor.”
“But a well-meaning one,” Alex points out. “And if I can get sentimental for a second...” She takes a noticeably deep breath. “I’m so glad my brother had you guys on his side. Total traitors, mysterious witches, and all.”
“Don’t forget Val, the wicked bitch of the west.”
“Of course. I could never forget the almighty keeper of the records.” Alex lays a hand on her chest. “I am an ally.”
Steph scrunches her nose, and Alex scrunches hers back. “Watch it,” Steph warns. “The dark side might have cookies, but once you run astray...” She wiggles her fingers dramatically in the air before returning them to Alex’s waist. “... you can never go back.” She drops the narrator voice. “Real talk, though— Gabe did have us, but now you do, too. And so long as we have you... all’s well that ends well, for the most part.”
The other half of Alex’s smile finishes loading. “Right,” she agrees.
Another combined ding and buzz.
I forgot I was in this group chat, but Ryan told me to tell you that in case you forgot, you two are MARRIED. Emphasis on the married
He also said that if you take much longer to work things out, your dinner will be cold and the jukebox will be replaced by a... bird box? Does he know that’s a horror movie?
“He dragged Char into this? Tree cop is playing a cutthroat game here. I’m gonna flip shit on him.”
Alex winces. “I may have gotten Riley involved too? A very small role that’s already been played, and come to think of it... now that I know about this date tonight, I’ve just thought of an even better role for my next surprise for you.” Steph’s jaw sags open, but all Alex offers her is a frustrating wink and shrug. “You’ll just have to wait until tonight, I guess.”
“How can you be so aggravating while making me want you even more?” Steph complains. (In the unraveling labyrinth inside her head, however, she’s a little softer: I’m so lucky to have you. She hopes Alex gets the message.)
Alex stretches on her toes and pecks Steph’s cheek before going behind the front desk to grab the inventory clipboard. “And in all fairness,” she says, already scribbling down something as she approaches the comic rack, “Ryan was right to remind us about the marriage thing.”
Steph channels every urge to kiss Alex’s neck and take her on top of the store’s 70s records into staring at her nimbly writing hand instead. “Yeah?”
That smirk might be permanently etched onto Alex’s face. Not that Steph would take any issue with it. “It’s cold, hard, legal proof that we’re interested in each other, right?” Alex explains.
Steph nods, catching on. “That we know of each other, at the bare minimum.”
“That we’ve possibly even talked once or twice.”
“Or that we could’ve been acquaintances in a past life.”
Then Alex turns around in that skirt and fuck it, Steph is going to kiss her right here, right now, unidentifiable consequences be damned. There must be something in the air in this record store, she thinks, something slowly driving her insane. In the corner of her eye, she spots a twitching black tail. May the ancient cat gods have mercy on you, Valkyrie, if you’ve intentionally drugged me with your catnip...
It takes only a moment for Alex to speak again. “Oh, and to answer your question...” Though she could spike Steph’s blood without any contact necessary, Steph already has Alex swept back up in her arms anyway, super-important inventory clipboard tossed aside. “Yes. Of course I’ll be your girlfriend,” Alex tells her. The last of Steph’s doubt erodes, the dopamine kicks in, and she leans close to claim those lips as her own.
“Good evening, Miss Chen,” Ryan’s smiling voice greets Alex the moment she pulls open the door to the Lantern later that night. “May I get your coat?”
Alex appears to swallow a guffaw at the contrived formality. “Sure, you can... take my nonexistent coat,” she replies. Together they participate in a gesture of invisible coat removal, then Ryan directs her to the only occupied booth— which is, of course, their preferred one adjacent to the staircase. The entire rest of the restaurant around them is deserted. Lights low, empty tables marked by candle centerpieces with silently thrashing flames. Hushed alt rock is piped from the jukebox, the perfect ambiance. Apart from the rest, the booth by the stairs is moderately better lit, a plain taper candle bleeding wax in the center. This is where Steph waits, fingers drumming and leg bouncing under the table. However, as soon as Alex walks up bearing an understated gorgeous grin and something unknown held behind her back, Steph puts a leash on her fidgeting.
“Hey,” she says, then laughs despite herself.
“Hey,” Alex chuckles. She still doesn’t sit, and Steph’s heart takes over the fidgeting. But that’s when she notices Alex’s hands, still concealed, moving in an odd way before they emerge from their hiding place. In a single, smooth motion, she extracts a small bouquet from what seems to be somewhere within her sleeve. “For you,” she explains simply, presenting the tie-dyed roses to a stupefied Steph. “Thought the occasion called for some of these.”
Steph snorts and motions for her to slide into the seat across from her. “I don’t like them,” she says, accepting the flowers and carefully separating a few to return to Alex. “I love them, dude. Here.” She presses some neatly-trimmed stems back into her favorite pair of hands. “This way we can both keep a piece of tonight.”
Alex’s eyes are bottomless pools in the dim light. She raises her water glass, condensation weeping around her fingers. “To our first real date?”
Steph clinks their glasses. “Cheers, baby.” Alex’s eyebrows flutter up slightly while she drinks, but she says nothing to dispute. Steph wonders what color Alex would be right now, if she could see such things. “So, uh, where’d you learn that magic trick?” Steph asks abruptly, leaning forward with her chin resting on a fist. “I had no idea this bard was also a practicing mage.”
“Believe it or not, this bard does have a few tricks up her sleeve,” Alex responds. She grins away Steph’s pretend booo at the joke. “Actually, Duckie helped me out. He showed me how to do it right before I came here.” Her gaze darts down, floats back up again. “I really love the way your face crinkles when you laugh. So... carefree. I just wanted to see that again.”
A blush crawls up Steph’s neck. She swears Alex’s eyes are tracking it. “I l—” She’s interrupted by Ryan swooping in to deposit their appetizer on the table, as well as a random vase which he fills with water, then drops the roses in with a flourish. He disappears again before Steph has even closed her mouth all the way. “What the— how did he do that so fast?” she sputters.
“Maybe it’s the early morning uphill jogs,” Alex ventures a guess as she drags a mozzarella stick through the dish of marinara sauce.
“Yeah,” Steph hums thoughtfully, already reaching for a second stick. “The man is like a Coloradan cheetah.”
“But he’s our Coloradan cheetah.”
The small talk continues through the appetizer course and the salads that come after it (though using the term “salad” to describe the Lantern’s creations is very generous, since they consist of more dried fruit and dressing than anything green.) Steph is pretty sure this is the only documented time she’s ever enjoyed small talk with somebody. While Alex periodically gifts her with unwanted cashews from her salad, she reveals that Riley ended things with Mac, prompting an “About time she dumped that grade A asshole” remark from Steph. Then while Steph tries and fails to draw a heart-shaped drizzle of vinaigrette over Alex’s salad (it ends up looking more like an unidentifiable blob, which, oops), she recounts the time she fell asleep in the KRCT booth and was startled awake by one of those shrill emergency broadcast tests, which totally did not make her piss her pants a little. This mutates into them trading a series of arbitrary questions back and forth, trivial things they somehow haven’t learned about each other yet. What’s your opinion on the color pink? Can you tie a cherry stem with your tongue? How murderous do you get while playing Monopoly?
By the main course, Steph is about ready to burst, not from excess of food but for... other reasons. She’s been watching Alex’s index finger and thumb mess around with the buttons on her shirt for an hour now— the top two are already undone, and she’s tormenting Steph with the prospect of undoing the third. Fuck, I’ll dive in there and make those buttons regret existing. Immediately she slaps a hand over her mouth as if the thought had been spoken aloud. It might as well have been.
“You’re very red,” Alex observes. “In more ways than one.”
“Yeah, I’m... uh, frustrated,” Steph replies unhelpfully. Let’s leave it at that. No need to traumatize our waiter. In an effort to distract, she puts down her fork and takes up twirling one of the rose stems between antsy fingers. “Here’s a fun fact: I am utterly incapable of keeping a houseplant alive,” she admits quietly. “So how the hell can I keep a relationship alive?”
Alex doesn’t recoil or hesitate. “I can pick up the slack,” she answers easily. “But, somehow... I have a feeling there won’t be much to pick up.” Her hand blankets Steph’s over the table, a feeling now more natural than her own hands touching each other. Alex’s face lifts up, bringing Steph’s with it. “Call it a hunch.”
Steph chews her lip. “Okay,” she says to Alex and Alex’s eyes and Alex’s undying grin. “And right back at you. Promise. We’ll balance each other out whenever we need to. You and me and my laundry list of fuck-ups.”
Alex rolls her eyes. “Don’t forget about my secret stash of fuck-ups. Those count, too.” She tilts her head. “I think we’ll balance out just fine.”
That earns her a grateful smirk. Aaand an incoming monologue, so it seems. “I really like you, Alex,” Steph begins, as if this is not a commonly-known fact around the entire town. “A whole fucking lot. And, um, just hear me out here— I also hate you. I hate you, only because you had to go and make me like you a million times more than what made sense to me.” Alex gives her hand a squeeze, showing she’s still with her. “I know I spook like a horse sometimes. A lot of times. But I’m getting better. I’m trying. And... you almost make me forget that you deserve bet—” Like a feather, a finger is placed over Steph’s lips, stilling them. She stares wide-eyed at Alex, wishing, waiting, wondering.
“Hold that thought,” Alex mutters. Artfully angling her hand under Steph’s chin, she leans over the table and their forgotten food and brings their mouths together, and only then do Steph’s lips move again, this time for a much better reason. Alex breaks the kiss to add, “Actually, don’t finish that sentence. It isn’t accurate, anyway.”
“Damn it, Alex,” Steph whines, chasing after her lips. Fuck, I’m such an addict. Then she registers a hand that isn’t Alex’s brushing her arm.
“Since it looks like you ladies already found dessert, I’ll go ahead and drop off the invisible check,” Ryan announces, still infuriatingly kind even when making fun of them. “This one’s on the house, so no worries.”
Alex frowns. “Are you sure—”
“Yep. Please, don’t even think twice about it.”
It takes every last ounce of strength to wrench herself away from Alex’s face. “Thanks, woodpecker whisperer,” Steph tells him. “But also, way to kill the mood.”
“Shhh,” Alex scolds her before focusing a fraction of her attention on their friend. “Thank you, Ryan. This was amazing. We’ll be out of your hair in a minute.”
Ryan feeds his hands to his pockets and subtly arches his brow at Steph. “You see? You can cool it, insult factory. Soon you guys will be up to, er... something.” He grimaces and starts to back away. “And on that note, I’m going to be...” He tosses an aimless thumb over his shoulder. “... somewhere. Over there. On that side of the room.”
Once he retreats, Alex and Steph both contribute to a generous tip left on the table. Then one hand is fastened onto another, and they clumsily laugh their way up the stairs to the apartment. Steph’s skeleton is gone; she’s made up of only quaking knees and a stuttering heartbeat.
The door slams shut and they’re safely on the other side of it by the time lips are reunited and hands are wandering. Steph digs into the sweet spot along Alex’s collarbone, and Alex endeavors to solve the dilemma of Steph’s jeans still being on and zipped up.
“Fuck,” Steph grunts, lips rubbing skin. “Alex, are you— you’re positive about this?” Disregarding the greedy instinct pleading her not to, she lowers a hand to Alex’s and puts a pause on her excitement. She meets eyes that are barely visible through glasses fogged up by heated breaths. “You want this?”
As if she read her mind about the glasses, Alex whips them off and places them on the nightstand. No need to correct her nearsightedness when she’s super near to Steph, apparently. “Are you my girlfriend?” Alex deadpans in response. Now she’s very interested in the hem of Steph’s shirt and what happens when she tugs that hem upward. Her eyes snag on Steph’s again and she answers seriously, “Yes, Steph, I want this.”
The backs of Steph’s knees hit the mattress, and shit, she hadn’t even realized they’d staggered all the way over to the bed after coming in. Kind of hard to tell what my feet are doing when literally every other body part is busy. Still, she tries to swat away some of the arousal fogging her brain. She needs absolute clarity. “Good,” she breathes. “Great. I’m— I’m only ready if you are.”
Alex’s nose nuzzles hers. “I am.” Her eager nods are accompanied by quick, gentle exhales that warm Steph’s face. “I’m ready for this. All of it. I’m ready for spending nights in where you cry at sad commercials and talk back to movies. I’m ready to let you win a million games of foosball. I’m ready to laugh at the most ridiculous shit with you, and,” she goes on, more breathless with each word, “and please know that your least favorite parts of yourself are my most favorite parts of you.” Her voice splinters. “I just wanna be with you, Steph. I’m ready.”
The only words pressing behind Steph’s teeth are ones she’s worried are too soon to say yet. So she saves them as a keepsake for now, in a little box in her heart. With a shaky sigh exploding from her lungs, Steph falls back onto the bed, pulls Alex on top of her. They hadn’t bothered to flip on the light on their way inside, but Steph’s hands don’t need any light to seek out the soft strands of Alex’s hair. “I’m gonna make you feel so good,” she swears, making sure her words ghost over the shell of Alex’s ear, elicit goosebumps and shivers.
Biting her lip to prevent something cringe-worthy like “You’ll be begging for an encore” from slipping out— which, shit, let’s hope Alex didn’t hear that anyway— Steph untucks Alex’s shirt and slides her fingers below it, taunting the skin underneath with chilly fingers. A pleased gasp shudders through Alex’s ribs, and a wicked grin cuts into Steph’s face at the knowledge she caused such a reaction.
(And she’ll never, ever admit that the black skirt she’s currently guiding down Alex’s legs caused such a strong reaction from her. She has a feeling Alex already knows, anyway.)
They’re tangled among limbs and loose sheets and covered in unseen pathways of languid kisses. A single lamp has been turned on for the sole purpose of admiring each other, and Kings’ “California Waiting” is barely more than a murmur coming from the other side of the living room.
“If you were wondering,” Alex speaks up, tracing undefined shapes around Steph’s navel, “I’d be up for an encore.”
Steph wipes disheveled hair out of her eyes and peers over at her. There isn’t a single universe out there where she would turn down that request.
Chapter 15: if we're headed for the cliffside, i'm ready for the fall
How many gays does it take to say "I love you"?
ahhh it's almost over guys!! y'all are some real ones
lyrics in chapter title taken from "green eyes" by joseph.
As if it isn’t already enough of a treat that she gets to call Steph Gingrich her girlfriend, it’s also pretty special to see various things of Steph’s gradually integrate themselves into not only Alex’s apartment, but into her awareness in general. There’s, of course, the fabled toothbrush-left-at-significant-other’s-place on the bathroom counter, along with various beanies bequeathed to Alex’s loot, plus a growing bevy of shirts pulled on to act as pajama tops, then taken off and forgotten about for a while, left to be absorbed by the couch or bed or rug until one way or another, it ends up in a load of laundry with a bunch of stray socks used as soft projectiles.
“So how much longer are you going to pretend you like coffee?” Alex wonders one morning. They’re at the end of a week that seems to be sinking its teeth into October as slowly as possible, like Valkyrie deciding whether it’s worth it to chomp down all the way on an overly errant hand.
“Yeah, I guess I should stop drinking it if I don’t want to stunt my growth or whatever,” Steph replies. Her voice comes from behind Alex where she’s getting dressed over by the bed. “Don’t wanna follow in your footsteps and turn out small but mighty.”
Alex hums in amusement as she stretches to retrieve two mugs from the cabinet. “Ouch. See, the method to my madness was actually preventing a growth spurt that would give me giant clown feet like some people may or may not have.”
She’s already prepared for the object that comes hurtling across the room towards her in retaliation. It actually has enough momentum to make it to its target destination, hitting her square in the shoulder right as she turns around. Alex swipes up the weaponized bra from the floor, dangling it in front of her like it’s some sort of consolation prize for the burn. “You know, all that this accomplishes is me getting to touch your bra.”
Steph clicks her tongue and arranges one hand into a finger gun. She’s shrugging on a flannel that is huge enough to have been stolen from Ryan. It probably was. “And I know you’re not mad about it.”
Alex lets her eyes linger on Steph for a minute, gets a glimpse of rose gold rays (and if her soul was a tapestry, Alex imagines it would have every color woven into it, but that one especially) before she turns back to the coffee. She could die to stay in these moments forever, where they riff off each other with words the same way they riff with instruments and skilled hands. She pours two cups and carries them over to the sitting area, where Steph is messing with one side of the foosball table. Alex puts down the mugs and takes control of the opposing team, initiating an impromptu match.
“This one time, Gabe and I drew tiny mustaches on them.” Steph cracks half a grin, bending down to peer at the wooden foosball players as they somersault and kick about. “Little facial features, tiny angry eyebrows for each tiny dude. He said he made one look just like me, but I could never figure out which one— and he wouldn’t tell me.” Her eyes narrow as she examines more closely. “Never did get around to telling me.” The dry laugh that escapes behind the anecdote doesn’t do much to lighten the sudden melancholy in her voice, so different from a few minutes before. But Alex doesn’t let it anchor them underwater; rather, she takes the opportunity to lift what’s been let down.
“Then let’s try to figure it out,” she says. Stilling her movements of the rods, she also lowers herself to inspect the crude faces of the foosball players, something she had never noticed until Steph pointed it out just now. Together they search through every last teammate while their coffees cool on the table nearby.
Steph remains dedicated to the hunt until she loses grip on her patience, straightening with a sigh. Alex’s eyes catch on the two necklaces layered around her neck: a choker, then the chain with the ring that Alex still has yet to ask her about the origins of. “I dunno, maybe he was fucking with me,” she says, giving another humorless laugh.
“Wait,” Alex says. Immediately Steph circles around the end of the table to see from Alex’s perspective, welcoming the gentle arm Alex snakes behind her waist. “Here.” With an index finger, she tilts up one of the miniature men and indicates a marking on his chest that, at first glance, seems to be nothing more than a random shape thanks to the thick point of the marker it was drawn with. But if one were to look closer—
“Whoa,” Steph breathes. Her hand joins Alex’s in holding up the chosen player. “That’s—” Now her laugh is genuine, sparkling, warm like clothes fresh out of the dryer. “That’s my swallow.” She shakes her head and steps back, face stiffened by awe. “Of course he wouldn’t lie to me.”
Alex jabs an affectionate elbow at her, then retrieves the coffees. “Drink before it gets cold. And before we have to go out into the cold.”
“We should just stay in all day, actually. I hate people.” Steph wraps her hands around her “I ♡ Art” mug and takes a deep inhale of the liquid wobbling within it. “How can something smell so sweet but taste so bitter?” she remarks. “Fool me once...” Alex watches intently as her girlfriend tips the mug forward, and Steph watches her back, a slight wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. “If you poisoned this, at least let me know beforehand so I can revise my will and leave everything to Val.” Alex rolls her eyes, prompting Steph to snort into her coffee while she takes a sip.
“So?” Alex asks. “The chef requests feedback for her efforts.”
“It’s...” Steph pulls the mug away from her lips, holding it out in front of her as if she’s never seen such a thing before. “What the fuck. This tastes good. Like, gooder than it ever has, literally ever.”
Alex grins. I love when she has a lapse in grammar. “I think you’re a fan of coffee,” she explains, “when it has sugar in it. Not just milk.”
“Ohhh.” Steph frowns at the drink, then flicks astonished green eyes up to Alex’s face. “Has that been an option this entire time?”
Alex isn’t positive what led up to her falling asleep in a heap of exhausted bones in the back of the record store. The last event she remembers is hazy, stuck to her brain on a sticky note. She’d relieved Steph from her opening shift— she knows that much. Then she spent the afternoon stammering her way through reciting ads on air (Alex fiercely maintains that the radio show is more Steph’s strength than hers— where Steph shines in expanding beyond the bland guidelines given, Alex reads directly off the script and spends several minutes in a row despising the sound of her own voice.) Later, she’d sorted through a box of neglected records that appeared to have been stowed away since before she was born, then fed Valkyrie her dinner and prepared to close the store. Or, at least, she thinks she closed the store...
“Hey, Alex, the front’s still unlocked—” Steph never completes her statement, because that’s when she discovers her equally confused girlfriend in the back room, slouched on the floor with her spine digging uncomfortably into a shelf. The box of records she’d been going through is half unpacked, its dust-kissed contents scattered around her splayed legs. Steph comes to a halt at her feet and gives the toe of Alex’s shoe a light kick with her boot. “Tired?”
Still trying to make sense of what’s up and what’s down, Alex attempts to sit up, but finds she’s pinned by something. Nudging her glasses back into place, she coughs out a response mangled by the cobwebs of unplanned sleep. “Huh. This isn’t my bed.”
Steph kneels down next to her, fingers laced loosely between her knees. A smirk reaches either side of her face. “You have the right idea here, Chen. We should convert the back of the store into a bed and breakfast. I bet we’d make bank.” Then she dips her head toward Alex’s lap. “Also, I hope you really like the color black, ‘cause Val sort of just made a whole new sweater for you.”
“Val did what?” Alex’s voice is sandpaper on asphalt, but within a matter of seconds Steph shoves a soda from the mini fridge into her hands. Alex gratefully chugs half to rescue her throat. Only then does she finally look down.
Curled up on her thighs is Valkyrie in the flesh, a dark ball of fluff who seems quite content being in direct contact with a human being, as if this lap she’s discovered is the equivalent of a luxurious California king mattress. Alex’s jeans, the t-shirt that could’ve been hers or Steph’s to begin with, and even the unfastened button-up layered over that are all painted with a thick blanket of black fur to the point Alex can’t recall what color her actual clothes are. But the weirdest (best?) part of this conundrum is that Val happens to be purring. Purring. Alex can only blink. This is one hell of a mystery.
“How much catnip did you two snort together?” Steph teases. Alex pretends to throw her drink can at her. “Really, though! Nobody’s ever tamed this hell-panther. How did you do it?”
“Hell-panther?” Alex echoes, trying not to shake too hard from laughter lest she wake the hell-panther. This proves futile, however, as in true feline fashion, Valkyrie suddenly decides she no longer wants to be where she is. Pale, owl-like eyes flying open, she gives a contemptuous growl, lashes her tail, then stretches and prances out of the room, paws silent over the old threadbare carpet.
Steph hangs her head in defeat. “Why do I feel like she’s outsmarted us somehow?”
“She got the better of us for sure.” Alex grins and hugs her knees to her chest, reaching instinctively for Steph’s hand. It’s fitting, she thinks, that they tattooed the place on their bodies where they touch each other the most. “Honestly, I don’t know how that happened. Maybe I unknowingly hashed out a temporary truce with her when I gave her food earlier.”
“Ah, you gave her food,” Steph says. “That’ll do it. Unless you’re me. It doesn’t do shit for me.”
Alex gives her hand a small tug, and Steph responds aptly, using her arm to give Alex a boost off the floor. And if Alex indulges herself with inappropriate thoughts about how Steph’s arm flexes to lift her, then that’s fine, because Steph Gingrich is her girlfriend and they’re dating now and they’re still legally married and that’s fine (more than fine, actually, it’s kind of fucking fantastic, and wow, talk about batshit crazy.)
Alex stumbles like a fawn taking its first steps, but Steph catches her, both of them tumbling into laughter as they inch back out to the front of the store. Ahead of them, the windows display a drowsy town enrobed in the inkiness of night. “I feel like I was asleep for years,” Alex yawns. “Are you relieved the place didn’t burn down on my watch?”
They slip through the front door and Steph locks up. “Shocked, actually. I even left a box of matches out for you to mess with. ‘Fuck around and find out’ is a philosophy I strive to live by.”
“Huh, really? I never picked up on that,” Alex quips, leaning hard on Steph’s arm. They set off into the night, ambling down the street like their feet have forgotten where they’re meant to go.
Without a word, Steph blows a raspberry and buries her face in Alex’s hair, making her shriek. Alex pushes into her again, Steph shoves her back, and they find a happy balance for the rest of the way home.
Steph runs by her place to scoop up some things, while Alex, drained, goes straight up to her apartment. She opens the door and falls into bed, not even bothering to change out of her cat hair-infested clothes. Before she can let herself drift off, however, there’s something she needs to check on first.
Sliding a hand between the mattress and bedframe, her fingers roam around the tight space until they hit what they’re looking for. Pinching the edge of the flat object, Alex pulls it out and grips it in both hands, arms hanging off the edge of the bed. Preserved in the middle of two strips of wax paper is one of the roses from their first date, firmly sealed away from the oxygen that would accelerate its demise. Gliding her fingers over it, Alex lets out a fatigued sigh and retrieves her journal from a nearby drawer, opening it just a crack and sliding the souvenir safely between two pages. She can’t wait to see a memory from it someday. If what she hopes for comes true, then her powers will open up a tiny window in her mind, provide a crystal-clear view of Steph nervously tapping her fingers in their booth at the Lantern, blushing when she leans in to kiss her. It’s nice to know I could relive that night whenever I want— not that I need to, though, when every day I get to live a life with her that’s better than any dream my mind could make up.
Thanks to another long day, sleep once again claims her without permission; then, after what feels like only a couple minutes, sleep roughly ejects her from its clutches. Alex is reduced to a panicked mess of nerves, partially swathed in the sheets like a burrito that couldn’t fully commit to its role. She lays suspended in momentary paralysis, lungs sprinting to catch up to her brisk breaths, mind spinning in the worst kind of whirlwind. She wipes her palms over her face, tasting salt on her skin that could be sweat or tears. “Fuck,” she gasps. Her throat closes around the single word. I was just there. Five seconds ago. He pointed the gun at me, then I fell backwards and the mine was swallowing me whole and—
“It wasn’t real,” Alex whispers to herself, struggling into a semi-seated position. She gropes around the twisted blankets until her claw-like fingers close around Shu Shu, squeezing their plush body in time with her heartbeats. “Wasn’t real, wasn’t real.”
The next thing she grabs is her phone, employing muscle memory to swipe to Steph’s contact and call her. In her haste, she misses the text on her home screen revealing that Steph got held up back at her place.
The call is answered so quickly, Alex has to wonder if it got a chance to ring at all. “Steph?” she murmurs into the screen. Slowly laying back down, she puts it on speaker and tosses the device somewhere next to her on the tornado-struck bed. Alex can’t help glaring at it through vision distorted by a lack of glasses. Steph on the phone sure is a poor replacement for her actual girlfriend. “Wh- where—”
“I’m sorry, babe, I texted you that my mom called and—” Steph stops, presumably picking up on the abnormality in Alex’s voice. “Alex,” she says carefully, “Alex, what’s wrong?”
“I...” Alex blows out a ragged breath, still feeling like her thundering heart has broken into her skull. “Can you...”
“Gotcha. I’ll be there in a few.” There’s some rustling in the background, the chime of keys being grabbed. “Do you want me to stay on while I walk?”
“If— is that okay?”
“Of course it’s okay,” Steph assures her with a contagious laugh. Alex hears the door of her apartment whine open, then slam shut. “We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. But I’m here for you. I’m on my way.”
Alex draws in another breath, annoyed that she has to keep track of them. Love when my body’s so useless that it can’t even do the automatic things properly. Reminds me of when I’d question if I’m even worth the air I’m taking in. “Fuck,” she mutters again, rolling over to face the front door. Another perk of living in a pint-sized town is that Steph should be reaching the Lantern any second now. “What time is it?” Alex asks suddenly. A needle of guilt pricks her at the thought of her girlfriend hustling through the cold at three in the morning because of her.
“Nuh-uh, time is irrelevant right now,” Steph replies. “We currently exist in our own personal vacuum where we’re too cool for sleep. And nothing else matters except for me—” The call cuts out abruptly, and another cuss slips off Alex’s tongue as she ponders taking her stupid phone for a spin in the washing machine. But that’s when she hears the spare key wiggling in the lock, and the door falls open, revealing Steph with sleepily smudged eyeliner, mismatched socks, and a jacket with its collar flipped inside-out. All at once, Steph collapses into the apartment, kicking the door closed behind her and finishing her sentence: “— being here with you.” She raises her eyebrows. “How smooth was that?”
Alex spreads open her arms, and Steph drops into them, shedding her coat onto the floor and cuddling close. “Thank you,” Alex whispers, and in the same breath, “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, hey.” Steph pulls back, caressing Alex’s jaw and meeting her eyes, and fuck, she’s so beautiful. Alex will never need perfect vision to see that. “No more hurting alone, remember?” A kiss is planted on her forehead. “You’re the one thing I’ll never be late for.”
They stay that way for a while, existing in their private void where time isn’t real and the absence of words isn’t really felt when there’s hair to be stroked and kisses to be given. Neither of them fall back asleep, but Alex is content with this— holding her face in the tender crook of her girlfriend’s neck, resting so deeply with her that it’s enough to convince her they have discovered the closest alternative to sleep.
“I was so close to confessing my feelings to you,” Alex pipes up eventually. She pulls away, albeit barely, so Steph can hear her better. “That night, at the Spring Festival.”
Steph stares at her like she can’t tear her eyes away. “Why didn’t you?” she asks. A hint of fearful curiosity shimmers around her, drawing Alex into it.
“I could be asking myself the same question.”
But when Alex lets her lips twitch into a sheepish grin, Steph’s fear finds solace in orange and gold, her momentary midnight absorbed by the inevitable sun.
“I don’t know,” Alex hums. “I wanted to give you a rose, but—”
“Shit, me too,” snorts Steph, all her tense seams plucked loose by the relief of transparency.
“But...” Alex repeats, stalled by the enigma of what words could be plugged in after that. “Well, everything that happened after that. And then all of a sudden you were my wife, under the pretense that it was only because of... you know.”
Steph’s eyebrows slant downward. “Truthfully?” she murmurs. “I don’t regret it for a single second, Alex. None of it. Maybe... it all played out the way it did for a reason. I think we needed that time.”
“Yeah. I feel the same way.” Alex’s thumb follows the little movements of Steph’s face, traces over quivering eyebrows and amused wrinkles. “Hey, um. There’s something I wanna share with you.” Steph’s eyes brighten into portraits of spring rain, and her mouth quirks, and Alex’s hand is right there to graze over that too.
“Sure. What is it?”
Alex removes herself from Steph’s embrace for merely a second, though it feels like the longest second in history as she dips into the cool air of the apartment, outside their bubble, to get her guitar. She scooches up into a cross-legged sit, and Steph waits for her, transfixed, as Alex tunes up the instrument and makes sure the correct adjustments are made, unwilling to rush into this sliver of time she’s fought so hard to get to live in. “Something I wrote,” she answers. “I think I’m gonna call it ‘every wave.’”
“We are such good friends,” Steph grumbles, hugging her puffy coat closer around her body as she marches a pace or two behind Alex. Semi-bald tree branches whisper around them, just starting to shed their rusty leaves for the season.
“Uh-huh,” Alex says. She tugs Steph’s cap down over her eyes, and Steph gives an uncharacteristic indignant squeak, slapping her away.
“Seriously. We’re the best fucking friends ever,” Steph reinforces her point. With flawless timing, a stray leaf decides to smack her squarely in the face. “Listen, obviously I enjoy being outside. I mean, look where we live.” Alex motions for her to lower the volume a few notches, eyes darting to Ryan a short distance ahead of them on the trail. Steph obeys, adding, “But going out on a hike when it’s cold as balls out? Not exactly a thirst I need quenched. I’m only on board with this so I can be here with you guys.”
Alex is no outdoors-woman either, but she can’t say she’s not enjoying this excursion with their charming gang of three. Today is unusually mild for October, but it’s not too warm either. And there’s something special about being all bundled up, and the cathartic crunch of leaves under her feet, and seeing Ryan traipsing along like a dog that’s been cooped up in a cage for too long. He’s a kid in a candy store— if candy was pine cones and animal tracks— living out his Colorado cliche, and Alex loves that for him. She knows that below the surface, Steph loves it too; the delicate tendrils of gold glowing around her, a natural complement to Ryan’s, prove her deeper emotions to be just as beautiful as all the rest of her. “Well, I’m glad you came along,” Alex tells her.
Ryan spins around on his heels, arms spread wide.
“Dude looks like he’s about to go hug a tree.”
Alex smirks over at Steph and her aura, steadily growing bolder out of pure amusement at the happy-go-lucky labrador they’re accompanying up the mountain. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
“Are you ready for the hike of your lifetime?” Ryan raves as if they haven’t visited this exact trail before. “It’s going to blow. Your. Mind. You’re gonna see squirrels, you’re gonna see blue spruces, maybe an elk if we’re lucky—”
Steph raises a hand. “Is it too late to preemptively call out sick?”
“Cut it out, Steph. You’re gonna have to lie a little harder than that,” Ryan says. “We’re coming into the best seasons of the year. Fall and winter are great,” he insists, “especially when you have some snow, a comfy coat, and your best boots on.”
Alex pats her hoodie pocket. “And a hefty supply of granola bars,” she adds, giving Steph a nudge. “She’ll be fine.”
So off they go, cycling through silence, chatting, and teasing. The teasing produces several winning comments such as the following—
“When I trip on an acorn and eat shit all the way back downhill, you better name your firstborn after me in my memory. Or else I’ll, like, haunt you and shit.”
“Pipe down, booger breath.”
“If I hear your poor innocent mouth call us a ‘threesome’ again, and then you look at us blankly when we laugh at you, I’m stripping away your ignorance for real, Lucan.”
— and the list goes on.
But then something strange happens. One minute Alex is right in front of her best friends, reaching out a hand behind her for Steph to latch onto. And the next instant, she’s catching empty air in her fist and she’s alone in the woods. Creasing her forehead, Alex does a complete three-sixty, then another. “Steph!” she calls. “Ryan?” She takes a few steps. The leaves giving way noisily under her sneakers feel abruptly hollow. Fake. “Are you hiding? Come on, that’s so unoriginal, guys! You can come out now, I promise I won’t be mad.”
Out from behind a tree— almost as if he’d been implanted there just for her, or something— walks Gabe. Remarkably stoic as always, and still wearing the same clothes from that day as always.
The tension in Alex’s muscles subsides. “I was wondering when you’d show your face again,” she mumbles, landing a painless blow on his shoulder. “Here to save the day?”
A few short months ago, seeing her brother like this would’ve set alarm bells ringing in her head. A warning that she’s crazy, that she needs to become literate in reality checks, that she needs to accept he’s gone not for eight years, but for always. That’s the thing, though— Gabe doesn’t have to be gone. Granted, he’ll only ever live in her head from now on. And Alex can tell he’s moving into a new section of her soul, the place where the fond memories dwell. He won’t be in her present or future, though she can still think of him during these times. But it’s about time she regains complete control of the rather unsteady steering wheel that drives her train of thought onward.
“Now you’re getting it,” Gabe says. A wan grin takes hold of his face, expanding when she smiles back. “You know... you never stopped being my sister, the years we were apart. But there were times I worried that somewhere along the way, I stopped being your brother.”
Alex needs a second to unpack that. It’s somewhat of a departure from what in-her-head Gabe would say, almost as if he’s—
“And before you say ‘never,’ let me finish,” he continues. “I was your ultra-cool older brother, but I was also Charlotte’s boyfriend. Ethan’s stepdad-in-training. Steph and Ryan’s best friend. Jed’s second son, or so he told me.” Gabe inclines his head, maintaining her gaze, and briefly Alex wonders if death is really what it takes to be so wise, to finally comfortably know things. “I was a lot of things, but, well, I was. And if you ever need me to stop being your brother for a few minutes, if that makes the ‘was’ part easier on you, Alex, then please.” His head tilts again, impossibly serene and imploring all at once. “Separate yourself from who I was here in Haven. I’d tell you it’s okay, but you don’t need my permission to do that. You already are.” He brightens, the white autumn sun cutting through the trees and showing itself solely in his eyes. “So enjoy Colorado. Enjoy all of the muddy Subarus and insufferable fans of the great outdoors. Soak it all in, kiddo. I can tell you’re already in love with it.”
Alex blinks hard. She hadn’t expected to cry on this hike. “You’re not wrong,” she says quietly. “I don’t have to go far to find beauty.”
“Let yourself be happy, Alex, and be you. That’s all I could hope for you.” Alex just nods at him, knowing that communication isn’t always spoken. It’s my priority now... because that’s exactly what I want for Steph, too.
She tries to steady the long, slow breath passing through her lungs, to no avail. It comes out as a shuddery sob, like a car engine that won’t start. “I— I really hate to see you go,” she admits. At first Alex crosses her arms to hug herself, but then she notices he has his arms spread. Open arms are still a sight that takes some getting used to.
“So,” he says, stepping closer, “what’s the protocol for a long-lost brother saying goodbye to his long-lost sister?” Gabe bumps his fist to hers. “A handshake? Oh, Steph and I had a wicked cool handshake, by the way. You should ask her to show you.”
Alex furrows her brow, straining to recall when that was mentioned. I don’t think I knew that. She shakes off her questions and tells him instead, “There’s no good in goodbye.” Then she falls into his arms and hugs him like he’s leaving, because he is.
“I’m sorry this is the way it’s gotta be,” he rumbles, squeezing her back. “But don’t agonize over it, alright? Please, Alex. Let’s keep it good.”
Alex keeps her face buried in his chest until he doesn’t let her anymore. “I love you.” She barely feels the words as they pass through her lips.
“I love you, too.” Somehow, he’s already several feet away, backing into the undergrowth. Eyes still twinkling, feet still moving away and away, he drops one last bomb on her: “Oh, and here’s something else you wouldn’t know: there’s a secret compartment in the guitar case.”
The realization only hits her once he’s blended back in with the bushes and branches. It was him.
“Alex! What the hell?”
Alex whirls around and finds herself covered in Steph, arms and kisses and scent and warmth. Purple becoming gilded relief. “I’m right here,” she laughs. “It’s all good.”
“Honest to god, I thought a spy from Typhon kidnapped you or some shit. I was so ready to stomp on some necks.”
“Aw, would you really do that for me?” Alex hums, skimming her fingers over her chest. “You big softie.”
“Hey, you know how close I was to spraying ‘Fuck Typhon’ on the side of that ugly-ass building of theirs—”
“Which I talked you out of, and it took barely any effort at all to do so,” Ryan jumps in. Even he’s a bit out of breath as he jogs up to where Steph quite literally collided into Alex with all the force of a foul-mouthed, worried sick tsunami. “Even though I do strongly back that message, I’ve kind of hoped to retire from a life of crime after the whole USB-stealing mission.”
Steph scoffs. “Whoever said graffiti is a crime? It’s art, actually. And ‘fuck you’ is the only thing I’ll ever have to say to that company. They were privy to the bullshit for years. Fuck that.” She creates a spray of pine needles with her foot, then shoots a slight smile Alex’s way. “But yeah... you’re right. I’m a big softie, huh?”
“My softie,” Alex clarifies.
“You know, for a minute there it was suddenly like we couldn’t find you anywhere,” Ryan backtracks. “Were you lost?”
“No,” Alex says, thoughtful about the placement of each kiss she leaves on Steph’s cheek, nose, jaw. “I was found.” When she receives two funny looks in response, she just jerks her head and urges them onward.
While they hike higher and higher up the damp, muddy path, Alex considers something she remembers her mom telling her years ago. This was somewhere among the brighter spots of her childhood, the pieces that were saved away so long in her brain, hibernating. “You have so many people still to meet, Alex. But don’t just meet them; see them too. Whenever you see two people together, take notice of what they do when they approach an obstacle— a puddle, maybe. Do they walk around it on the same side? Do they jump over it holding hands? Or do they break apart, avoiding the puddle separately?”
“Up here, guys! We’re almost there!” Ryan yells. He’s just around the corner, buzzing with golden energy on the other side of an outcropping of rock. The afternoon has aged finely, the sky mellowing into a melty orange. Sunsets, Alex thinks, are the closest description of an aura she could get her loved ones to visualize.
“Hey,” Steph murmurs. Alex feels a tug on her hand. She follows her girlfriend’s stare, looking down at their feet where a perfectly-placed puddle awaits them, murky and cold and uncertain. A smirk sits neatly on Steph’s face. “Wanna get your feet wet?”
This is when Alex knows for certain that she’s fallen in love with Steph’s heart. She’s fallen for all of her. The set of her shoulders, her stupid confidence, her fear in unexpected places, the beautiful simplicity of a life here in Haven with her. There’s no other person Alex would want to stomp through an icky puddle with. Besides, haven’t they done this before?
“ Or— the rarest and most exquisite of all— do they splash through it together, hand in hand?”
“Hell yeah I do,” Alex says. So they splash through it together, hands squeezing, screaming with laughter at how dumb of a thing this is to do. Water seeps into her socks. She doesn’t notice it.
When they join Ryan at the peak a few moments later, Alex loses her breath all over again. Haven Springs is spread out in front of them, a miniature town seemingly a million miles below. Its streets are like ribbons, the cars like little candies, and the people are ants.
“Whoa. It’s like we’re on top of the world,” Steph breathes, thumb brushing over the back of Alex’s hand.
Yeah. Alex eases the thin mountain air through her lungs, leans her head on Steph’s shoulder. I think we really are.