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when the light breaks and the spirits fade

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Paranormal investigation isn’t a line of work Alex Chen had originally seen herself in, but fate’s always had some odd destinations lined up for her: back-alley detours to abusive group homes, forty-eight hour holds in psychiatric wards, bad drug trips on stranger’s living-room floors, one-night stands creating guidebooks to lessons she wishes she’d never had to learn.

All of it leading to Haven Springs, where she’s reuniting with her long-lost brother after years in foster care and therapy. She’s ready, she tells herself as she disembarks the bus. She can live a normal life, be a normal girl. She can control her emotions, even if other people can’t control theirs. She can breathe cool mountain air and keep her head settled on her neck. She can rebuild from ash, even with the ghosts of the town still covered in it.

That’s her plan, at least, but as we’ve established, fate doesn’t tend to take her suggestions into account. No, no; it wants more from her, and it takes just as much as it needs to get it. Until it’s full and pulsing and blues and reds are running up and down her veins like a current.

And, Alex realizes - the day after witnessing her brother’s death in a freak mining-caused avalanche - death has a funny way of feeling like home.

(It happens so fast and suddenly; it’s the slowest she’s ever seen time move. The sirens, the blast, the rocks tumbling from the mountain - the sickening crunch as one strikes Gabe - his dead weight, pulling her closer to the edge of the ravine. The knife, cutting the rope. The sound of her own screams. The dust settling, and Gabe, gone as quickly as he’d been found.)

It’s his two best friends who turn her onto the idea; one more so than the other.

Ryan’s a quiet guy. Soft-spoken until he’s riled up, and then he can’t let go. It wasn’t an accident, he says, and anger spills from his skin. He made the call. Gabe made the call, and those Typhon fuckers detonated the blast anyway.

As the man who cut the rope, Ryan’s guilt is so deep it may as well drown them all.

Alex doesn’t want to be here, at Gabe’s wake-turned-witch trial, watching Ryan relive Gabe’s death and Mac deny it even happened, watching Charlotte dig her nails into her palms so hard she threatens to break her own skin. Watching a group of people mourn the one who held them together.

“Yeah,” Gabe says from beside her, observing the scene as it unfolds. “I wouldn’t want to be here, either.” And then he laughs. “Oh, wait. I’m not.”

Alex takes the stairs two at a time. The only one who notices is Steph.

(Yeah, that becomes a trend; Steph’s always, always, the one she can’t ever get away from.)

The knock at her door is a surprise. Nobody here knows her. They don’t owe her anything - not their sadness, their sympathy, their pity, their comfort. And yet; and yet.

“Alex? It’s Steph.”

Steph, who she’d only met the previous week but talked to her like she’d known her forever. Steph, who runs the radio station and works the record store and plays tabletop games. Steph, one of Gabe’s best friends, who literally wouldn’t be here without him.

Alex opens the door. “Hey.”

“Fuck those guys,” Steph says.

“Yeah,” Alex says.

“Are you okay?”

The words are stuck on Alex’s tongue like they’ve been glued there. She wants to lie - she’s been doing it her entire life - but Steph glances down and away, shaking her head in this miniscule, inconsequential motion as she waits for Alex’s response, and Alex can’t bring herself to fake another feeling.

Steph’s lips are slightly parted; her eye makeup’s probably a day or two old. Everything about her echoes of sincerity, and in the face of it, Alex is only left with the truth.

“No,” she confesses. “But I will be.”

“It’s not your job to keep it together,” Steph says intensely, stepping forward. This is the first time she knows exactly what to say, like she’s the one with the power; like she’d opened Alex’s soul and plucked the words directly from her past.

“Thanks,” Alex says, softer than she intends to, and opens the door wider. “Do you…want to come in?”

“Yeah,” Steph says, and tentatively brushes by her, gaze wandering around the room. She makes it just past the entryway and stops, hovering on her feet. “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot,” Alex says, finding her movements curious. Maybe it’s the familiarity with a space she no longer feels welcome in; maybe it’s the fact that she seems like she’s searching for something, a clue, an answer.

“Since his death,” Steph starts, turning around, “have you…I mean, have you seen anything…weird?”

“Weird?”

“Like, you know, things moving. Voices. Shadows.” She looks a little awkward as she speaks, but more than that, she’s deadly serious. Not mocking or insensitive. “Stuff like that.”

Alex thinks about lying again. Thinks about keeping her ghosts to herself, the same way she’s always done, but Gabe isn’t hers more than he’s anyone else’s. And if Steph’s asking, there’s obviously a reason.

So Alex says it mostly as a formality. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

And for the first time since the record store, since the jukebox game - Steph smiles. A wry turn of the lips, but real. “Gabe didn’t tell you what we do, did he? Like, on the side.” She uncrosses her arms as Alex shakes her head. “We were - are - paranormal investigators.”

“Oh,” Alex breathes out. “Well. I guess I’m in the right place.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Alex says. “Considering Gabe was with us downstairs, watching his own wake.”

I don’t see him all the time, she’d explained. It’s - it’s like - triggered by emotion. Strong emotion. Normally it’s only with living people or objects, but…

“Objects?” Steph asks.

“I can see their memories,” Alex says quietly. “Their emotions. What they’re…attached to.”

“And with people?”

“Like an aura,” Alex says. “I know what they’re feeling in that moment and why they feel it. And if I’m too close, or…it’s too strong…I feel it, too.”

“But ghosts are a new one,” Steph infers, like she’d be jotting this down in a notebook if she could. It’s strangely endearing. Alex’s spent her entire life thinking she was a freak - unsalvageable, unwanted, unnecessary - and here’s someone who sees her power as an opportunity. As a way to contact and contextualize what’s been left behind.

“I think so,” Alex says, idly twirling one of the foosball handles. It’s easier if she has something else to focus on. “But, to be fair, I - before this, I’m not really sure I was in one place long enough to really notice ghosts.”

Some days, she wonders about her mother. If she’d developed her power sooner, would her mother have been there, waiting to say goodbye with a smile? Would she have held Alex’s hands and made her promise - again - to keep their family together? Or would death have given her a certain clarity, made her take it back, say Dear, I’m so sorry, you’re so young and I didn’t know what I was asking of you. I didn’t know how long you’d take to heal.

“Yeah,” Steph says, and her gaze is far-off. “I get what you mean.”

Alex almost asks, but something holds her back. After all, you don’t get into the paranormal without a few ghosts of your own.

(Before she gets too bogged down by them - oh, how they haunt, how they pull - Alex challenges her to a game of foosball, and if Steph knows she’s been read, the only indication she gives is a tiny quirk of her mouth.

So, Steph says. Are you into girls, or what?

Yeah, Alex says, grinning. Girls are pretty rad.)

They tell Ryan the next day, once he’s calmed down some. He and Steph sit at the bar nursing beers, lost in thought and implication. He’s as easy to convince as Steph had been, primed to believing a power like hers exists. If ghosts can exist, he says, I don’t see why you can’t. It’s like, with birds–

Please, Steph interrupts, do not teach us any more bird facts. Alex seeing ghosts is not anything like the Blue-Breasted Titface, or what the fuck ever.

That’s not a bird, Steph.

Okay.

Alex can’t stop herself from laughing, and she doesn’t really want to; Steph looks a little too pleased. She’ll dig into that another time.

“Gabe always said he’d come back,” Ryan says suddenly. “He said he’d give us a sign. I guess it must be you.”

“If it is,” Steph says, leaning her head against her hand, “what’s he trying to tell us?”

Alex freezes; the hair stands up on the back of her neck. A chill like a wind. A presence where there previously wasn’t one, and a voice.

“Well,” Gabe says from beside Steph, visible only to Alex, “what went wrong on the mountain that night, Alex?”

It takes her a moment to find her footing; Steph notices something’s off immediately. (Alex wonders when she even had the time to learn what’s off and what’s not.) The room is simultaneously too loud and too empty; too close and too vast. She’s white-knuckling the edge of the bar, afraid the wood beneath her will split into a chasm. Afraid the sky will open into a storm.

A hand covers hers.

“Alex,” Steph says, and her concern is evident. “What is it?”

“He said,” she starts, and focuses on Steph’s thumb covering her falling star tattoo, “something went wrong on the mountain.”

“Yeah,” Ryan says, trying to cover the thickness of his voice. “The call.”

“I think,” Steph says, voice low, “he’s telling us that a lot more happened than we know.”

They have jobs; they have lives. Not like Alex, whose entire world grinds to a halt when her tether to it is lost. Steph has her record store and radio station; Ryan has his birds and his bar. Alex has an empty apartment and a rooftop garden and an inconsolable, aching hole between her ribs. No friends, no family, no–

Steph’s voice takes back over the softly-playing radio. “That was Byegone by Volcano Choir. I bet the acoustics of a place like that would be awesome, minus the lava and inescapable heat-death. This next song goes out to a girl who’s probably stuck a little too deep in her own head right now, and should come down here and see me. If she isn’t listening, well, it’s still not embarrassing because none of you will know otherwise. Here’s Honestly by Bantams.”

And Alex laughs.

She’s surprised to hear herself do so, but there’s no mistaking the sound, the feeling. Like finding a lantern in a graveyard.

There’s dishes in the sink; there’s a half-eaten frozen meal on the coffee table. Her bag’s still only a third of the way unpacked. It’s difficult, but she knows where she needs to start, and there’s a hand waiting for her at the end of it.

She changes her clothes, runs a comb through her hair. She cleans her glasses and brushes her teeth. The dishes end up drying on a towel; the leftovers go in the garbage; the dirty clothes find their way to the hamper. And she feels a little like a person again.

At least Gabe hasn’t been there, talking to her. She doesn’t know if that makes it worse or better.

The bell chimes when she steps through the door of the record store. Steph’s in the booth, which, Alex is realizing, is like a second home to her - if not her first one. She’s sorting through albums, looking so much like she did the first time Alex saw her - bobbing her head, reading the song titles - glowing. Steph has this natural pull to her that Alex can’t look away from; like the entire world would kneel at her feet if it could. Like she’s more music than blood, more concept than reality. Alex thinks Steph is the kind of person everyone looks at and secretly envies - how are you so sure of who you are? How do you know yourself so well that you make me want to know you, too? Know you better. Know you best.

Her aura’s got that anxiousness to it, underneath the euphoria of a good beat. Hope she’s okay, Alex hears. Hope she was listening.

Alex knocks on the booth window; Steph’s head jerks up at the sound, and she breaks into a smile so bright that Alex’s automatic reaction is to blush. She isn’t used to having that kind of effect on other people - eliciting excitement at her appearance rather than unease, after years of group homes where active avoidance seemed like the safest solution. Hell, she barely likes being alone with herself.

“Hey!” Steph says as she opens the door, her anxiety easing immediately. “You heard me?”

“I heard you,” Alex confirms, offering her a half-grin. “Thanks.”

“I don’t have a superpower,” Steph says lightly, “but I get grief. Sometimes, you just…need a distraction, you know?”

And she extends her hand, inviting Alex into what seems like a sacred space.

“Yeah,” Alex says, and takes it. “Are you sure you’re cool with this?”

“Fuck yeah, dude. You’re the only other person who actually, like, gets music around here.” Alex lets herself be tugged inside, and the door shuts. The red On-Air sign glitters differently through the other side of the window; the space is close and warm and vibrant. Full of life, full of Steph, her presence dripping down the walls like paint. It feels like the kind of tent she and Gabe would build as kids to hide away; their own secret place where nothing bad could get to them.

“Go ahead,” Steph says, gently pulling on her arm until she’s in front of the records. “Pick something. Anything you want.”

Maybe it’s the tender way she’s being touched: not like glass about to shatter, but the still surface of the water. Maybe it’s the way Steph’s voice unravels like a ribbon, caught on softness in her throat. Maybe it’s because when Alex searches Steph’s thoughts, the only thing she finds is her own name and a strange, desperate desire: I want to make you smile. One more time. I miss it when it’s gone.

And suddenly, Alex wants to do exactly the opposite.

She wants to collapse on the couch, curl up in Steph’s arms and cry. She wants to pour out her soul and hope Steph catches it in her hands. She wants more - so much more than she even knows how to admit at this moment, too early and too fragile.

Steph in her black beanie. Steph in her red sweater. Steph in her ripped black jeans and her worn-out boots. Steph with her choker and necklaces and bracelets and tattoo.

I wanted it to be you, Alex thinks, trying hard not to look at her. Her own thoughts are curling in at the corners, becoming a sphere. I’ve always wanted someone like this. Someone like you.

She pulls out the first artist she recognizes, having enough faith in her own music taste that she knows it’ll be good, even if she isn’t completely coherent at the moment. Steph takes the album from her, nodding approvingly.

“And now, a song picked out by a special guest DJ,” Steph says into the mic, flipping the record onto the turntable. “Alex Chen would like to educate you all with Devils in the Canyon, by The Strike.”

It’s upbeat and energetic; it has Steph rocking out within seconds, playing the air-drums so convincingly that Alex might’ve almost believed they were actually there, just invisible. She’s fun. She’s beautiful. And she’s alive.

“C’mon, Chen,” she yells over the music. “Don’t tell me you can’t play a sick air-guitar.”

And, finally, Alex smiles.

Steph falters - it’s only a split second, but it’s there - and her aura flashes purple.

Oh, no, Alex hears. I’m fucked.

But they have more important things to worry about.

Mac, for one, who winds up admitting to Alex that the call did come through, and he’d passed it on, only to be stalked by some Typhon freaks determined to keep him quiet. Then there’s Gabe’s second memorial, where Diane is the only one with a chip on her shoulder large enough to be the mountain itself.

And unrelated to Typhon’s massive mystery: Charlotte, whose grief and anger is threatening to eat her alive; Riley, constantly debating between her dreams and her family; and Eleanor, slowly forgetting it all.

Oh, and the ghosts. Alex can’t forget about those.

It isn’t just Gabe, anymore - and he’s only around sometimes. But she’s started looking, now, around corners and behind cobwebs, under earth just a little too fresh to be natural. Under rocks that never should’ve crashed.

It’s a mining town, so it makes sense that she’d see the occasional old-timey spirit wandering around in overalls with a pickaxe or something - but it’s stranger than that. It’s a modern-looking man by the docks, shoulders covered in dust and dripping water where he walks. It’s the sound of desperate pleading with no discernable source. It’s a group walking into the mountains, never to return.

She tells Steph and Ryan about it on a late Friday night where they’re passing around a bottle of Fireball on the floor. They exchange glances, less secretive and more troubled.

“We’ve had reports of that before,” Ryan explains. “Mostly from tourists. We’ve tried capturing it, but…”

“Since it’s outside, and the location reports are all random…” Steph continues.

“Yeah,” Alex says, understanding. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

“And it’s not like the town’s got some fucked-up history, either,” Steph says, and takes another swig as the bottle’s passed to her. “I mean, not that we know of, I guess. Just your regular tuberculosis outbreak and occasional mining accident.”

All three of them pause, settling on the same theory at once; it’s insane until it’s spoken aloud, and then it becomes a little too plausible. She’s heard the phrase that there are no coincidences in a murder investigation, and even though its likely origin is somewhere in Law & Order: SVU, it seems like a sound statement.

“Do you think they’re related?” Alex asks, sitting up.

“Dude,” Steph says. “Like a cover-up?”

“It must be,” Ryan says. “We’ve never thought about it like this before, but it does make sense. Why else are there so many sightings in a place this tiny?”

A small, picturesque town in the mountains with a deep, dark secret. Ghosts waiting to have their stories told. And Gabe - Gabe staring at them from the bottom of the stairs, smiling.

(Of course, there’s only one historical event of note that poses even a slightly plausible explanation - the rescue of nineteen miners from the old mine, led by Ryan’s own father, from twelve years previously. How Typhon bought him the bar; put up plaques in his name. Made him a modern-day hero to an event he tries to never mention again.

None of them can say it. That’s a dam that - if it breaks, when it breaks - won’t ever stop pouring.

Ryan stares at his hands, their calluses and lines, like he’s unraveling his own skin, decoding his DNA. Who he is, who his family is; is it possible, Alex feels him thinking, that there’s more to the story than he’s been told? Or is she crazy, and he’s in too deep, too used to sirens and warning signs?

We don’t know enough, Alex says, sparing him from fate the way she’s never been. Even if it’s only a delay, any time is better than none. All we know is that if anyone’s to blame, it’s Typhon.

He looks at her and doesn’t speak, but she can see the appreciation in his eyes.)

They decide to work on a plan, between their real jobs and what Steph likes to call their “horror story side hustle.” A handwritten list finds its way onto Alex’s fridge, including plans such as break into Typhon headquarters (courtesy of Steph, which gets a resounding no), and watch Nightmare on Elm Street (which gets a resounding yes, and has them all cuddled on the couch, fingers covering their eyes). She and Steph wind up in a heated debate over which of them would be the Final Girl in a slasher flick, ninety percent of which goes straight over Ryan’s head and basically puts him to sleep.

It’s one of the first nights they both stay over. Ryan passes out on the couch, still in his jeans and flannel, and they’re too drunk to make him move. “Besides,” Alex says, “I have a bed. A queen bed. So as long as you aren’t a blanket hog…”

“I’m not,” Steph says.

“Too bad,” Alex says, grinning, “‘cause I am.”

“Well,” Steph says - flirtatiously? - “I’m sure we can compromise.”

And when they wake up in the early hours of the morning - hungover, exhausted, too fucked-up to care - Steph’s arm is thrown around Alex’s waist, and her breath tickles the top of Alex’s spine. Every inch of Steph is curled carelessly around her, without thought, without practice, without intention; magnets, Alex thinks. No, too cliche. Puzzles. No, even worse. Gravity, maybe. Belonging.

“Some compromise,” Alex murmurs, Ryan snoring away across the room, and Steph laughs breathlessly against her skin.

Alex is getting pretty good at controlling her own emotions, nearly three weeks in. Between Steph and Ryan, her job and Jed, Riley and Eleanor, Char and Ethan - she’s learning how to keep busy. How to solve other people’s problems when she can’t solve her own. It’s not counter-intuitive; sometimes, the closer you are, the less you actually see. Life’s funny like that.

But she slips. She can’t hold herself together all the time, and in the pregnant, silent moments of her’s - Gabe’s - apartment, the grief extends its claws and sharpens its teeth.

It’s always Steph who finds her in the darkness. Always Steph who throws out a hand like its lifeline is a rope. Alex’ll be one beer away from a night of lonely regret and crippling self-doubt, and her phone’ll buzz, and it’ll be Steph, saying something like how about a foosball rematch chen. unless you’re too scared. (She types these like statements and not questions, so Alex has no choice but to accept the challenges.) Or hey, wanna bring your guitar over and jam? (Alex hasn’t played in front of other people in forever, but Steph’s infectious enthusiasm is impossible to deny.) And it’s just enough to shake Alex away from whatever spiral staircase she’d been about to crawl down.

She wonders, sometimes, if Steph likes her for her and not for Gabe. She searches Steph’s feelings for the truth, and most of the time walks away with more questions than answers.

Because most of the time, Gabe’s nowhere in her thoughts at all.

And if that’s the root of it - that Steph’s so focused on Alex herself that the grief doesn’t even compare to the joy - well, Alex doesn’t really know what to make of that, either.

(She does, actually, but it’s too soon. Or too fast. Too predictable; too misguided. Too good to be true. Not even a month in, she thinks - it’s gotta be something like that.)

She starts to push boundaries. Starts to draw lines, and step right over them. Starts testing what she can do, just to see if she’s right. They may be in the middle of a ghost-story-turned-murder-mystery, but it doesn’t mean Alex can’t have fun.

It’s all innocuous, at first. Resting her head on Steph’s shoulder; touching her arm; letting their fingers brush. Steph’s aura flutters from purple to gold, looking like a firework. She likes it, Alex perceives, but it makes her nervous. Ryan only looks on, mostly oblivious - until Steph gets a little flustered, and then he smirks at her like he’s acquired blackmail.

But Steph doesn’t think enough to be incriminating. Get a grip, Gingrich, Alex hears once, and has to hold back a laugh. Her smile quirks anyway. She hopes Steph doesn’t notice.

It shouldn’t be at the top of her priorities - flirt with Steph until she gives herself away - and it isn’t. But the more Alex does it, the more addictive it is, and the higher it climbs. It’s so satisfying, seeing the physical evidence of someone wanting you.

It’s another late night at the bar. Their current target is Diane, who they know is hiding something, but they’re at a standstill until she returns with her work. She’s always in the corner, typing away - pretending Typhon’s doing all they can to solve Gabe’s death.

“Yeah,” Gabe says from over Alex’s shoulder. “I always thought she was okay. Transplant, like me, you know?”

Alex starts, glancing behind her, but this time nobody’s there.

“We could start recording,” Steph offers, noticing Alex’s unease. “Ghosts aren’t really…reliable. They just kinda show up, you know?”

“How do you record?” Alex asks curiously.

“Electronic equipment often picks up things our ears can’t hear and our eyes can’t see,” Ryan explains. “We have voice recorders, electro-magnetic field meters, video cameras, thermal imaging cameras…Steph basically put me through bootcamp before letting me touch any of it.”

“Tech is delicate…and expensive,” Steph says without apology. “What’d he say, anyway?”

Alex replies, “Just that he always thought Diane was okay, because they were both transplants.” She pauses. “He’s not here anymore, though.”

“Yeah,” Steph says, seemingly unaffected by the fact that their dead friend’s talking to them through his sister. “I mean, I guess we all did.”

“So,” Alex says, changing the subject, and innocently meets Steph’s eyes. “Video cameras, huh? Only for professional use, or d’you sometimes take your work home with you?”

The insinuation drips over every word, and Steph’s lips part. Her aura’s pulsing like a strobe light, flickering so fast between her feelings that Alex starts getting dizzy.

“Um,” she says (super eloquently), “uh, that’s - I mean, um, I’ve never–”

Ryan laughs so hard he almost falls out of the booth.

(She thinks Gabe would really struggle with his big brother role in this kind of situation. On one hand, she’s his little sister flirting with his best friend, but on the other–

Well, nobody else has ever flustered Steph Gingrich this badly.)

The next day doesn’t go as planned - but nothing ever does.

Steph and Ryan come up with some absolutely ridiculous, insane, dumb-as-fuck plan for distracting Diane by hitting on her - Alex really shouldn’t be so surprised; there’s barely a single brain cell between the two of them - but it’s all they’ve got, so it’s automatically in Alex’s back pocket. She picks Steph, of course, with multiple motivations: one, because it’s the truth - Steph really is hot - and the other, well…just to see Steph’s aura flare. It’s Alex’s new favorite pastime, after all.

Talking seems to be a good first step. Make Diane feel; dig through it like the mines she’s blasting. Unearth her sadness and her guilt and her fear. Who knows, Alex thinks. Maybe Diane’s being haunted, too.

“If she is,” Gabe says from beside her, “I can’t take credit.”

“Don’t you miss him?” Alex asks her quietly. “He was like you. Just trying to start over, somewhere new. Don’t you want the truth?”

No, Diane’s fear is loud. No, because I know. I know exactly what happened. Gabe, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Alex is silent for a moment. And then–“He says he’d forgive you, if he were alive to do so.”

Diane stares at her, shocked. The corner of her mouth curls, brow furrowing. “Is this a joke?” she asks, her voice an octave higher. “Because it isn’t funny, Alex.”

Alex meets her eyes and doesn’t flinch. Diane’s smile falters, searching her expression for the truth, her aura spreading outward. Fear, sadness, fear, fear, fear.

“What happened on the mountain that night, Diane?” Alex murmurs, leaning forward. “What are you trying to cover up?”

How does she know, Diane’s panic hits the forefront of Alex’s mind. We’ve been so careful. How could she know - but the inspection of the old mine - we didn’t have a choice but to set it off–

“What’s in the old mines that needs burying so badly?” Gabe says.

“Diane,” Alex says, and behind her eyes is the dark, ominous weight of knowledge that nobody should ever have to carry. “What’s in the old mines that needs to be buried this badly?”

Diane stands up, her chair scraping against the wooden floor. Her jaw is tight and her eyes are wild; purple stains Alex’s vision. She slams her laptop shut, reaches for her bag, where a USB stick brilliantly matches her hue–

“Woah, woah, woah,” Steph says, approaching from behind and holding up her hands; Diane stops just short of the strap, turning to face her. “You okay, Diane? You look a little freaked.”

“I–” Dianne starts, stops, searching for the exits. “I - I need to get out of here. Sorry.”

“Hey, relax,” Steph says, and puts her hand on Diane’s arm. “I was actually coming over here to see if I could interest you in a drink, which - no offense - you kinda look like you need.”

The statement throws Diane for another loop, with Steph’s intentions so clearly insinuated. Her aura’s fluctuating wildly, her panic mounting, her confusion following. Maybe she’s overreacting, she starts to think. Maybe Alex is just guessing. Maybe she’s trying to freak Diane out, get her to take her skeletons out of the closet, one by one.

Alex reaches over the table, and slips the flashdrive out of her bag.

It doesn’t matter if she gets the truth straight from Dianne’s own mind. She still needs tangible proof to get justice.

When Diane leaves, she doesn’t look back.

She hands the flashdrive to Ryan when they meet upstairs, but it’s a hollow victory.

“The old mines,” Alex says flatly. “The explosion that killed Gabe was a cover for another one - one they set off in the old mines. Because of an inspection they had coming up, or something.”

Ghosts of miners who can’t move on. A million-dollar company with a pristine record. An avalanche meant to hide the evidence adds another victim. Typhon sponsoring the Spring Festival in a few days, Typhon donating to the town, Typhon creating jobs. The narrative’s transparent, like glass, like the horizon from up high.

And Gabe’s still gone. Gabe’s still here. Gabe’s dead and standing by the window, Gabe’s dead and she’s still got all his furniture, Gabe’s dead and he just can’t leave her alone.

“You’re the one who keeps calling me, Alex,” he says. “You want to know why, just as much as I do.”

“You’re right,” Alex says. “I want to know why. I want to know who.

“Well,” Ryan says, “I’ll get this to Riley, and once she cracks it open, maybe it’ll tell us exactly that.”

(He isn’t ready for it, but in their line of work, he almost never is. Ghosts can talk - he’s always known this, just as he’s known he won’t always like what they have to say.)

Steph only looks on, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth. When they leave, she lifts a hand, runs her fingers down the side of Alex’s face. Ryan spares them a single glance back, and shuts the door behind him.

“Hang in there, Chen,” she says softly. “You know I got you. If you need anything…”

And it hits Alex, in that moment, how desperately she needs to be distracted. How her emotions are starting to blur at the edges like a vintage photograph, worn and frayed. She’s absorbed too much from too many people, pushed her own grief aside and compartmentalized it in favor of finding the truth. The room threatens to swallow her whole; the bricks crumbling from the walls, the ceiling cracking and caving in.

“I do,” Alex says, and she steps into Steph’s space, exhausted. She doesn’t mean to hug her, but she can’t stop her raising arms, the way they loop around Steph’s shoulders while her head rests in the crook of Steph’s neck. “Can you stay?”

“Yeah,” Steph says, and returns the embrace. “Of course.”

It’s not a game; Alex isn’t trying to fluster her, get her aura refracting like a kaleidoscope. She’s searching for peace, just for a singular moment, in a world that spins so fast Alex swears it’s trying to throw her right off of it. She wants to lie in the grass and feel the dirt underneath her fingers and breathe until trees take root in her lungs. She wants to stare up at the night sky and count the stars until their patterns are tattooed on the backs of her eyelids. Until she closes her eyes and can’t see Gabe anymore, or the rock hitting him, or the rope being cut away.

“What do you want, Alex?” Steph asks, so gentle it almost hurts. “Anything, you know. I’ll do anything you want.”

“I don’t know,” Alex says, because what she wants isn’t feasible. “I’m just…tired, I guess.”

“Why don’t we watch a movie?” Steph suggests, pulling back. Her hands rest on Alex’s upper arms, rubbing comfortingly. “Something stupid. Like, some horror movie that we don’t have to think about.”

“With beer,” Alex says.

“Well, duh,” Steph agrees.

“Okay,” Alex says, and offers her a tentative smile. “Thanks.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” Steph says, and her left hand drops to Alex’s wrist. “C’mon, Chen. I’m thinking…drinking game.”

It’s how they end up a little too close together on the couch, drinking every time a death is a little too predictable or a character follows their tropes too closely. It’s how she ends up with her legs in Steph’s lap, who spends the remainder of the movie gently brushing her thumb back and forth across Alex’s ankle without realizing it. It’s how Steph laughs and Alex thinks, just for a second, that maybe everything isn’t so bad, after all. Maybe she can live with the ghosts.

By the time it’s over, they’re both significantly tipsy, and Alex is nearly falling asleep. Steph stands, stretches, and says, “Do you, like, have anything more comfortable I can borrow? Obviously I didn’t plan on a sleepover.” She makes a face, recalling the many times she’s now passed out in Alex’s apartment. “Maybe I should start, though. Like, keep a shirt here or something.”

Alex laughs, but her blood feels strangely hot against her veins - burning paths and digging grooves - Steph’s clothes in her drawers, Steph’s toothbrush in her bathroom, Steph sleeping in her bed. Yeah, it’s a vision that can easily run away with her, but it isn’t something either of them are ready for.

“Sure,” Alex says, and Steph busies herself looking through Alex’s drawers, pulling out a black shirt with a minimalist cat design on the front. She strips her own shirt off, stands there in a black sports bra and too much skin. Alex stares idly, because she’s a little too drunk to remember she shouldn’t be. Steph’s shoulder blades are sharp - cut like glass - and despite how slender she is, she’s got more muscle from drumming than Alex expects.

She’s facing away, humming something to herself. Her fingers find the hem of her sports bra, and then that’s gone, too. Alex is left with the arch of her spine, the dip between vertebrae, the dimples of her lower back.

Alex wonders what her tattoo looks like when it’s the only thing on her body.

She slips Alex’s shirt overhead, tosses her beanie on the desk, unbuttons her jeans. She barely seems to notice that she’s ruining Alex’s life, and this can only be some sort of karmic payback for all the times Alex has ruined hers with a sly grin, or a well-placed touch, or a sexual innuendo.

Red boyshorts and Alex’s shirt; the end of the fucking world. Steph finally turns around, running a hand through her hair, and catches Alex staring, staring, staring. Alex, who forgets she’s not supposed to watch the closest thing she has to a best friend get undressed, doesn’t manage to tear her eyes away in time - and Steph smirks. Like the devil, teeth and all.

“Like what you see?” she teases, crooking an eyebrow.

Shit, Alex thinks, you have no fucking idea.

“What’s not to like?” Alex says, recovering - hopefully turning tables. “Musicians are hot. Speaking also for myself, of course.”

“Of course,” Steph says seriously. “So I guess you won’t mind if I just sleep like this, right? It’s what I do at home.”

And Alex’s plan fails spectacularly. Or succeeds, depending on how you look at the situation. “Sure,” Alex says, gunning for nonchalance. She’s not sure she’s achieving it, but she can’t stop trying. “Comfort comes first, after all.”

Steph observes her for a second, smirk growing. “Hmm,” is all she says before tugging back the blankets, aura glittering mysteriously - and that’s something Alex can’t stop herself from reading.

Actually, Steph’s thinking, you should be the one coming first.

“Have to brush my teeth,” Alex manages, and nearly slams the bathroom door.

(It’s a miracle either of them actually fall asleep that night, when Alex’s entire body feels like simmering coal and Steph’s bare legs keep brushing against her own. In her dreams, Steph’s mouth opens against her neck while the jukebox plays in the background, and the sun is applauding from behind the bar.

When she wakes up, Steph’s wrapped around her, like always, breathing steadily against the top of her spine.

Not for the first time, Alex wonders what it’d be like if this was how she started every day. It’s nice not being greeted with the memory of the dead, all their hollow words and horrors.)

She finds a note from Jed underneath her door that morning; he’s apparently noticed some disturbances in her behavior, and wants to know if there’s anything he can do to help.

“He wants to see me before my shift,” she says to Steph, who’s washing her face in the bathroom.

“Damn,” she replies. “Called on by the bossman. That blows. Want me to come?”

Alex half-grins, catching her eye in the bathroom mirror. “Thanks, but I think I can handle this one on my own. What would my excuse even be?”

“I’m, like, your emotional support person, or whatever.”

“As true as that is,” Alex says, laughing and ignoring the way her heart skips into her throat, “you’ve got to work.”

“Fine, fine,” Steph says, holding up her hands. “You’ve won this round, Chen, but I expect an update by text when it’s all over.”

“I’ll send correspondence by carrier pigeon as soon as I’m able.”

“I’ll leave my window open.”

They could probably do this all day, if left to their own devices. They both love a last word and hate backing down from a challenge. Steph seems to think something similar, because she clears her throat and says, “Anyway, d’you mind if I shower while you talk to Jed? I’d feel a little less grimy if I could do that before putting on the same clothes I wore yesterday.”

“Yeah,” Alex says, hand already on the doorknob. “Feel free. Towel on the left side of the rack’s clean.”

“Thanks.”

Honestly, it’s probably better that she leaves before her imagination runs away with her. She’s got enough on her mind without tackling just how much space Steph takes up there in the first place.

Something’s wrong when she gets downstairs.

Jed colorless, hands on his hips and imposing. Tall and firm and steady. He says, I heard from Diane, Alex. You’ve been asking questions, and I think I can answer them.

His thoughts alone aren’t incriminating; his emotion isn’t strong enough. Maybe that should’ve been the first red flag. But when she looks at him, she doesn’t suspect him - too caught up on corporations and capitalism, in business before breath - and all she feels is close. Close to the answers; close to Gabe. Close to putting him to rest.

From her perspective, it feels like Jed’s finally rising up against a chokehold he’s been put in. Naively - ridiculously - beautifully, Alex still likes to believe people can do the right thing.

“That’d be nice for you, wouldn’t it?” Gabe says, leaning against the bar. “If everyone just said exactly what they meant.”

She ignores him. “Okay,” she says. “I’m listening.”

“It’ll be easier if I show you,” Jed says.

That probably should’ve been the second red flag, but she’s never been the best at picking up on those.

(Before this - before Haven - Alex would’ve put good money on her cause of death being murder. She’d been a foster kid in a bunch of fucked-up homes with fucked-up kids with fucked-up emotions she couldn’t control, and it’d been a great way to make nothing but enemies. People she’d hurt; people she’d rejected; people she’d left.

She never would’ve predicted this: Jed Lucan, town hero, pulling out a gun in front of the old mine’s ventilation shaft and firing, forcing her backwards and right down into it - all to protect the truth, rather than unearth it. Falling and falling, rotten planks snapping against her weight and dust billowing up around her. Blood in her eye; pain blooming over every inch of her body.

And when she lands, there are ghosts.

Many of them - all men - staring at her with somber faces, tight-lipped mouths. Wearing helmets and coveralls and big, thick boots. What they feel for her - if they feel at all - pity, sympathy, regret. Does she remind them of their own fate, somewhere in the dark, covered in rubble? Or is she a beacon, the only one capable of giving them a voice?

One of them stands farther away than the others, his face shrouded in shadow. There’s the urge to follow him, dig up his bones from wherever they’re buried, and find something familiar.

But her eyelids are heavy; her head is a therapist’s office, an orphanage dormitory, a dingy alleyway. Her leg’s numb; her ribs twinge like they’re full of splinters. When she touches her temple, her fingers stain red.

Get up, Alex, Gabe says. Get up and fight.

Why didn’t you warn me? she asks.

I’m not psychic, Gabe says, I’m dead. And I’m not gonna let the same thing happen to you.

Get up, he says again, and fight.)

A locket in the debris with a photo of her own face. A man whose features reflect her own and never says a word. A man who disappears when she picks it up, its cold silver surface giving way to its memories; the soil runoff, the dangerous depth, the unstable walls, the flood and the cave-in–

–the truth. The bitter, aching, destructive truth.

“Alex?!”

The voice sounds far away, a tiny echo against a landslide. She’s so used to speaking to the dead, it takes her a moment to realize what she’s hearing isn’t - that her name is falling from the lips of someone alive.

Someone’s come looking for her. Someone knows she’s here. Someone actually noticed she was gone.

And she has a pretty good idea of who.

“Alex?!” the voice comes again, joined by another, and another. Until there’s a chorus of them, desperately yelling her name. Clanging, scraping, metal against metal; Ryan, Riley, Char, Pike, Steph, all calling out into the darkness.

And then, the last voice she expects to hear:

Jed’s.

There’s a light ahead; she hopes it’s not the wrong one, hopes she isn’t walking into an afterlife instead of a sun. There’s a red glow hidden deep inside her eyes, the inside of her soul. There’s a dark past she’ll make sure sees the sky, and the trees, and the flowers growing in the valley.

There’s a man she’ll never, ever let get away with what he’s done.

“Holy shit - Alex!”

She limps through the old barred gate and back into the sun.

(He isn’t expecting anyone to know, and certainly isn’t expecting Steph Gingrinch to walk down the stairs, calling out for the girl he’s just murdered. He’d seen Ryan leave the previous night, assumed Steph would follow; the three of them were tied at the hip, most days, and he had no reason to believe in anything segmented or deeper.

His self-preservation instincts kick in, just as they always have - he begins to panic, tells her Alex fell down the ventilation shaft and he ran back for help. Tells her he’s looking for Pike, who overhears it all anyway, Charlotte and Ryan and Riley at his side. Leads the group of them to where she’d disappeared, believing they’d find her dead.

His word. It’s always his word that holds power, that can create whatever truth he wants. Sure, he’d hurt some people, but he’d saved more. That’s what he tells himself, and when he looks at his son, he easily believes it. Twelve years is far past long enough to rewrite a narrative.

But Alex - Alex just doesn’t fucking die, and now it’s his word versus hers, versus the strange flicker of color in her eye, versus the hold she has over his soul, versus the flashdrive of evidence Riley’d cracked open just hours before. And then it’s his word that collapses, his word that can’t face Alex without flooding his veins with guilt so thick he can barely move, without the ghosts of the men he killed standing behind her like an army. Her father, her brother, his friends, his partners.

And it’s his word that is forgiven.

For the rest of his life, Jed never forgets the red in Alex’s eyes.)

She’s pretty sure she can’t really be on the roof, but it’s such an excellent rendering of it that she wonders if the mine was all a dream. Maybe she’s dying, too, and this is her last conscious thought of peace.

“Nope, sorry,” Gabe says from the chair on the other side of the table, cracking open a beer and sliding it to her. “That all happened. This is definitely the dream.”

“How can you be so sure?” Alex says, feeling the condensation from the can against her fingertips. The mountain air, the trees in the wind, the river babbling in the distance–

“Well,” Gabe deadpans, “I’m dead.”

“Never stopped you before.”

“Yeah, but now you know, Alex,” he says, and stares out at the sunset. “You know what happened.”

“Does it help?” Alex replies. “To know?”

“I think I should be asking you that.”

She thinks for a moment; the imagining is a kind of mourning. The life she could’ve lived with Gabe, if he’d survived. Trading shifts at the bar; having game nights with his friends. Falling in love with Steph naturally, without the fresh layer of grief clouding every emotion, without wondering if all she was doing was taking Gabe’s place.

“Yeah,” she says quietly. “It helps, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re gone.”

“That’s okay,” Gabe says. “That was always inevitable. But I’m okay now, Alex. I’m okay.”

She knows what he means - she doesn’t need his ghost anymore, and he doesn’t need to haunt her. Whatever unresolved trauma she has left is for her to heal on her own: take her life by its face and ice away the bruises, stitch up all the cuts. Wipe the blood from its split lip and crooked nose. Learn to be touched again without the expectation of a hurt following after.

“Well, maybe not alone,” he says, and smirks at her. “You think I haven’t seen you and Steph?”

“Speaking of,” Alex says, and she doesn’t have time to be embarrassed, “what d’you think about that? You know - me and Steph.”

Gabe laughs. “Oh, I think I would’ve had a lot of fun fucking with the two of you,” he says, and his expression is laced in affection. “Steph’s one of the good ones. Keep her around, okay? You’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” Alex says, and looks away with a smile. “I plan to. Thanks, Gabe.”

“Will you do something for me?” he asks, uncharacteristically serious. “Can you tell Charlotte I’m sorry, and that I love her?”

That’s what stings, more than anything else. Not that he’s leaving her, or the brutal cut of the bitter truth, but the reminder of the people he couldn’t say goodbye to. She’s lucky, in a way. It seems insane to say, even inside of her own head: that she’s lucky for this.

“Yeah,” she whispers, blinking back the tears. “I will.”

“You’re gonna do great things, Alex,” he says softly, and his hand brushes the top of her head. “You’re gonna have a great life.”

When she turns back to face him, Gabe is gone.