Epilogue – Act I
Steph had her arm around Alex’s waist while admiring their work, it was still recognizable, but The Black Lantern was nearly ready for its grand reopening. With the help of Charlotte, Eleanor, Duckie and Ryan they had cleaned the entire place. The floors, the tables, chairs and barstools as well as all the decorations, the bar and the arcade game and pool table. None of the reminders of Typhon nor Jed were left. All of them had been thrown out.
Ryan had struggled a bit, but he was the one to finally put his foot down. “No, it has to go. Having reminders around won’t do anyone any good.”
Everyone hugged Ryan, sharing the pain. It still hurt, the fact that someone the entire community looked up to had been hiding a horrible secret for years and attempted to keep it hidden by committing an unforgivable crime… It would take a lot of time for those scars to heal, but it had brought the community together and made them even closer.
“I can take care of it for you, Ryan,” Steph offered.
“No,” Ryan declined with a shake of his head, “thanks, Steph. But this is something I need to do.” His expression was sad, but determined. With a soft sigh he lifted the box off the floor and rested it on the bar while he took the keys to his truck out of his back pocket.
“I know what you mean, Ryan,” Alex said with a sad smile. “It’s part of the grieving process.” She rested a hand on his arm and gave it a gentle, supportive squeeze. “Just let us know if you need any help?”
“Will do, but I think I’ll manage. Thanks,” Ryan replied, putting his hand on top of Alex’s and giving a squeeze in return. As he picked up the box of things from the bar, Duckie went over to the door to hold it open for Ryan.
As Steph, Alex, Charlotte and Eleanor went over the decorations for the walls, Duckie unsurprisingly volunteered to tackle the space behind the bar. Although he had to promise he wouldn’t be drinking until they were all done, which he’d done with a lack of enthusiasm.
The string lights on each side of the entrance to the back area and around the railing of the staircase really added a sense of coziness, as well as fighting off the gloomy aura that hung around the place. The small pots with flowers that Eleanor provided were beautiful and added a nice touch to the tables.
It took them nearly the entire day, but the result was one they were all proud of. They had all worked hard to breathe new life into the bar that served as a community hub of sorts, by and for the community.
“And as a reward, I made cookies!” Eleanor stated excitedly, “With a little bit of help from Charlotte.” She took out a large cookie tin and set it on the table they sat around, taking off the lid to present said cookies.
“Those look delicious, Eleanor!” Duckie exclaimed before taking a sip of his drink.
“They really do, can’t wait to try one,” Alex chimed in with a smile.
Eleanor smiled and gestured at the cookies invitingly, “Well, go right ahead!”
When the casts were removed from Steph’s fingers and Alex’s leg it was a huge relief to both of them. Regardless, it still took them some physical therapy to regain full strength and control. Especially Alex’s leg took a while to fully get back to full mobility, but Steph helped where she could. Charlotte was being a real mom and checked in with both of them frequently, making sure they did their prescribed exercises and took breaks when needed.
For Alex there was an additional relief; her glasses had finally been fixed. The cracked lens glass had been replaced and the frame repaired as it had been a little bit bent in two places. Steph had surprised her and gotten her an additional pair, the same style but the color was a dark blue instead of red.
To celebrate they organized a small barbeque dinner, just Steph, Alex, Charlotte and Ryan. Steph was in charge of the drinks and the music while Alex and Charlotte went over the food other than the meat. And with Ryan as the grillmaster, which he seemed to take quite seriously.
“Bird boy becomes Grill boy, nice upgrade!” Steph teased as she handed Ryan a beer.
“Can I be both?” he asked as he took the beer from Steph and set it to his lips to take a sip. “Ah, nothing better than an ice cold beer while grilling.” He savored the flavor so much that he forgot to pay attention to the meat on the grill.
“Not if you let the meat get burnt like that.” Steph nodded at the grill and took a sip of her own drink, nearly spitting it out when Ryan almost dropped his bottle when he noticed.
“I’ll leave you to it without any further distraction.” Steph shook her head and made her way back to the tables. They had brought the table from downstairs and pushed it against the round one that was already on the rooftop, to offer enough space for all the food and for everyone to sit comfortably.
Steph sat down and looked out over the lake ahead, enjoying the view as she listened to the music that played.
Alex had filled the open position at the record store, working the counter when Steph was in the booth. Sometimes Alex would join her in the booth and was slowly warming up to it, which Steph enjoyed seeing.
The Black Lantern hosted game and open mic nights, along with a variety of other events. The reopening of the bar had been quite a success, everyone who had come out said nothing but kind words about all the work that had been put into it.
In a little less than a month there would be a bonfire at the park, where everyone was welcomed to bring food, music and stories. Steph was looking forward to it as she and Alex were planning to perform together, which would be the first time since the Spring festival that they would perform in front of more than two people. Regardless of how excited Steph was, she was also nervous. Her pinkie finger had fully healed, but sometimes it would spasm a little at random moments.
“Steph? What’s wrong?” Alex asked.
Steph hadn’t even noticed her coming back onto the rooftop until she heard Alex, followed by the way her hands had wrapped around her neck from behind. “Just a little nervous,” she confessed.
“Nervous? About eating barbecued meat?”
Steph chuckled at Alex’s confused question and shook her head. “No, I’m stoked for the food! It’s the performance I worry about.” She took another sip of her drink, huffing when Alex took the glass out of her hand to take a sip of it. “Hey, that was my drink!”
“Sharing is caring, Steph,” Alex whispered softly into her ear, sending shivers down her spine. “But it’s okay to be nervous. If it’s of any help, I’m super nervous, too.”
“Just hope my finger won’t give me any issues this time.”
Alex let go of Steph, only to walk around and take a seat on Steph’s lap sideways. She wrapped her hands around Steph’s neck while Steph’s arms wrapped around her waist. “I know you’ll be amazing, Steph. You always are.” Alex softly kissed Steph’s cheek and smiled. “As long as we’re having fun, right?”
Steph looked at Alex and the way her eyes looked more of a golden hue in this light, the scar on her temple less pronounced as it had closed up completely. There was just a line now, which was a bit darker than the rest of her skin. She leaned closer and tenderly pressed her lips against it, leaving a kiss behind. “Yeah, you’re right.”
After negotiating with Ryan and the fire department, it had been decided to move the location of the bonfire to the small sandbank bordering the river. It had not rained for nearly two weeks and the risk of having the bonfire in the park and causing it to get out of hand was just too great. Luckily it was a small adjustment without too many consequences, the small stage would be on the grass which had the benefit of everyone having a good view of the stage and the people on it.
There were bags of marshmallows, corn on the cob, sausages and biscuits in order to make smores. Besides some bottles of beer, most of the beverages were non-alcoholic, partially because Ethan was present too.
As people were laughing and talking, Steph and Alex prepared for their performance. It wasn’t as extravagant as during the Spring Festival, this was more intimate. There was only a small speaker which sufficed. Steph’s drums had been set up, Alex’s guitar had been tuned and the microphone plugged in.
“Ready?” Steph asked as she looked at Alex with a smile, trying to hide the fact that she was still somewhat nervous. She held her drumsticks loosely in her hands, twirling the one in her right hand a few times.
Alex smiled back at her and nodded, “Yeah, I’m ready whenever you are.”
Steph just looked at Alex for a few moments, admiring her girlfriend. No skirt this time, but rather short shorts, really short shorts. In all honesty Steph was amazed at the fact she was still able to somewhat focus, although her eyes didn’t wander very often. The tank top with open sides was quite distracting as well, not to mention the silvery gray bra Alex wore underneath. The way Alex looked at her was simply exhilarating, it still caused butterflies to flutter in her stomach and chest.
“I’ll follow your lead,” Steph said, her cheeks flushing when Alex winked at her before turning around.
When Alex cleared her throat, everyone turned to them, a silence following. “Hope everyone is having a great night so far,” Alex said and was answered with excited cheers. “Steph and I practiced and thought it would be cool to perform for you tonight.” The cheering became even more exciting, joined by some people applauding.
Steph couldn’t help but snicker when Ryan was whooping at them, just as everyone else fell silent again. She shook her head with a grin and repositioned herself when Alex started playing. The intro was slow, this part Steph could play with her eyes closed. Instead, she just watched Alex as she played.
“And I’d give up forever to touch you
‘Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be
And I don’t want to go home right now.”
Alex turned around to face Steph with a smile that hid a tinge of sadness, Steph noticed it and felt the exact same way.
“’Cause all I can taste is this moment
And all I can breathe is your life
So and sooner or later, it’s over
I just don’t wanna miss you tonight.”
Alex’s voice was beautiful and the way she sang the words gave it even more meaning. Steph was proud to see Alex embrace it the way she did. But she also loved seeing how much Alex enjoyed performing in front of a small audience that consisted of more people than just her.
When Alex’s strumming picked up Steph couldn’t help but grin, this was her favorite part; she got to go all out. She softly sang along, her cheeks nearly aching from the grin she still wore. Performing with Alex was so much fun, almost as much as seeing Alex completely lose herself in it.
The moment Alex stopped playing, people cheered and applauded. With Ryan whooping once again. When Alex turned around to face Steph again they beamed at each other, reeling from the exhilarating feeling. Steph got up, put her drumsticks on her seat and made her way over to Alex who was already putting her guitar back in its case.
“You were amazing,” Steph whispered and softly kissed Alex’s cheek. “That was so much fun.”
“It really was, and it sounded like your finger didn’t give you any issues.” She closed the lid of her guitar case and closed the clasps before looking at Steph again. “You sounded great too.”
“You mean my drums? I didn’t sing.”
Alex let out an exasperated sigh and playfully pushed Steph’s shoulder, nearly knocking her over. “Smartass.”
“You love it.”
“Oh, you know I love your ass,” Alex responded with a smug grin, flustering Steph once again. “Especially in those shorts.”
When Alex put her hand on her thigh, her cheeks became an even darker pink. She bit down her lip and swallowed with quite a bit of effort, struggling to keep her composure. The struggle became even more intense when Alex gave her thigh a teasing squeeze, despite her best attempts Steph was unable to hold back a soft whimper in response.
Wearing a smug smirk Alex stood up and held her hand out to Steph invitingly, “Let’s join the others at the bonfire again.”
Before taking Alex’s inviting hand Steph blinked several times, baffled at the way she’d looked so casual after the moment of tension that had built up between them. “Y-yeah, let’s.” She laced her fingers between those of Alex as they walked back and took a seat beside Ryan, who handed them a stick to put marshmallows onto.
“That was amazing, both of you sounded great,” he complimented and put his arm across both Steph and Alex’s shoulders, squeezing them into a sideways hug.
“Thanks, Ryan.” Alex smiled brightly as she held her marshmallow over the fire, turning it slowly every now and then.
“Dude, your timing is way off though,” Steph teased playfully, bumping her shoulder against Ryan’s. “But I’m glad you enjoyed the little show.” She turned her head to look at Alex, who was talking with Ethan and Charlotte, her lips curling up into a smile. Deciding to stay in Haven Springs was the best thing she did, her heart skidding as if to confirm. She watched Alex laugh, admiring the way her entire face lit up, her girlfriend looked even more gorgeous in the light of the fire.
The summer had only just begun officially and Steph realized she’d never been so excited for the hottest season of the year. All because she’d be spending it with Alex.
Autumn crept up on them and Steph struggled to hide the anxiety she experienced, which got more intense as October approached closer and closer. It was hard to focus and stay present as she was swallowed by the memories that haunted her year after year.
Despite her best efforts, she was unable to hide it from Alex. Every now and then she’d catch Alex looking at her with an expression that was hard to decipher, but she simply didn’t have the energy to try and figure it out.
The night terrors went from bad to worse, often causing her to wake up from crying and screaming. Alex would simply hold her while she cried until she fell asleep again, never letting go of her.
Alex was amazing, she always was, but especially as Steph battled with inner demons Alex was caring and patient. When it had been several days since she’d taken a shower, Alex would convince her to take a shower together. Alex made sure Steph wouldn’t starve and that she drank enough water. Not once did she nag about Steph’s clothes or papers littered around, or when Steph didn’t respond during conversations.
But even Alex reached a breaking point, which nobody could blame her for. It finally sank in for Steph when Alex bursted into tears in front of her, a desperate look in her eyes that broke her heart.
“Steph, I know you’re hurting. I can tell that you’re hurting,” Alex said as she took Steph’s hands into her own, “but please, talk to me,” she pleaded.
Seeing Alex like this, with the knowledge that she was the cause of it broke Steph on an entirely different level. She broke down sobbing, her knees giving out underneath her. Alex sat down with her, still clasping her hands tightly.
“Steph, please let me in… Don’t shut me out…”
She could barely see Alex through the tears, but she didn’t need to see to know Alex looked beyond desperate.
It took all the strength and willpower she could muster to break her walls down so she could let Alex in. It was time to tell Alex, no matter how hard it was.
“I—I’m s—sorry…” Steph’s voice was hoarse and shrill of disuse as well as due to the sobbing, her throat felt scratchy and raw.
Alex shook her head while using one hand to tenderly wipe away the tears from Steph’s face, “I know, baby. I know.” She leaned forward and softly kissed Steph’s cheeks, kissing away the remnants of salty tears. “I know you are, but please tell me so that I can try to understand. I want to help. Your aura is such an intense blue that it hurts, but I need you to tell me yourself.”
Steph nodded and desperately tried to get her breathing under control, to which Alex squeezed her hand and they breathed together. Deep inhale, hold and slowly exhale.
“It’s really hard to talk about this…” Steph muttered, unable to speak at a normal volume. However Alex didn’t seem to mind, she nodded with understanding. “Before I moved here I moved to Seattle from a small town in Oregon.” She let out a shaky breath, eyes closed and brows furrowed as she tried to keep her anxiety in check. “Arcadia Bay.” It took a lot of effort for Steph to swallow the lump in her throat in order to continue.
When she heard Alex move, she opened her eyes and saw Alex reach for the water bottle on the coffee table. After Alex took a few sips of the water and handed the bottle to Steph, she too took several sips.
“Six years ago, on October eleventh, there was a tornado,” Steph nearly choked on the word and received an encouraging squeeze to her hand from Alex. “I wasn’t there when it happened and my dad was out of town for work, but my mom…” The tears started spilling again, she simply didn’t have the energy to try and fight them. “I was stuck in Seattle, in my dorm room while playing a tabletop game with my friend Mikey. He was so worried and I just… I just brushed it off, saying it would be fine.
“The tornado was unearthly, it was there so suddenly… I was on a call with my mom and she said she was going to take shelter and—” Steph balled her hand into a fist and was about to punch the floor when Alex stopped her, her expression showing nothing but compassion. “She said she loved me and—and the line was disconnected…”
Alex caught her when Steph’s body no longer supported itself. Alex held her tightly and softly caressed her hair while she cried.
“S-she died all by herself in a fucking tornado, which appeared out of fucking nowhere!” Steph cried, desperately clinging to her girlfriend. “I didn’t even tell her I love her before the connection was lost…”
After a little while when Steph regained her composure, she took a deep breath and looked at Alex. The expression was not one of pity, but one of understanding. “It was extremely rough for me, but it got even worse.” She turned her eyes away from Alex and stared at the floor without seeing it. “There was this girl… I had the biggest crush on her, she was loved by many people honestly.” She let out a deep sigh as the image of Rachel popped into her mind, exactly how she remembered her. “She went missing not long after I went to Seattle for college, but I figured she finally went ahead and left for Los Angeles.”
She didn’t realize she had started crying again until she felt Alex dab a tissue against her cheeks. Steph took the tissue from Alex and blew her nose into it, making a face as she saw the amount of snot that was now in the tissue.
“After the tornado… They found her body… Buried in the fucking junkyard like a piece of trash.” Steph ground her teeth, jaw tensed and her heart squeezing painfully. It still stung, every single day. “The photography teacher—He—”
No matter how hard she tried, Steph couldn’t get another word out. Her throat had closed up and her body had started to tremble. Once more Alex took Steph into her arms and simply held her.
Eventually they made it to their bed and Alex helped Steph get undressed. She pressed a kiss to Steph’s forehead with the promise she would be back in just a few.
Steph wrapped the covers around her as tightly as she possibly could, listening to the shower being turned on. It was impressive how fast Alex showered and made it back to the bed, Steph felt relieved.
Alex had brought the water bottle and made Steph drink some of the water before putting the bottle onto the night stand.
“Thank you, Steph,” Alex whispered softly against Steph’s forehead, “for telling me.” Steph watched how Alex got under the covers with her after the glasses were put on the night stand safely. “If you need to take off from work that day, do it.”
Steph snuggled close, her head resting against Alex’s chest. She nodded and tried to focus on the way Alex’s fingers brushed through her hair, it was soothing. The fatigue caught up to her and her eyelids started to flutter, she simply didn’t have the energy to fight it and thus she let herself drift off to sleep.
The night is for remembering
The morning is for starting again
You are for remembering
I will remember you
When I forget
Steph was incredibly relieved that Alex and Mikey got along so well, she had planned out a separate campaign for them. Mikey was on the laptop screen in front of them, Alex was sitting to Steph’s right hand side. For the first time in years Steph actually got to use her DM screen again, which felt right.
“Oh, Alex!” Mikey said as Steph checked on some of his stats. “Hope it’s okay that I drew your character?”
“You did what?” Alex asked with genuine surprise. “That’s so cool! Please show me?”
Mikey rummaged around for a little and held up the drawing in question, to which both Steph and Alex beamed with amazement. “Did I draw them correctly? I can still make adjustments if needed—”
“No, no! They’re perfect, you captured them perfectly, Mikey!”
When Steph turned to look at Alex she saw her beaming, causing her heart to flutter in her chest. She reached out her hand on the table and took Alex’s hand, their fingers intertwining. She smiled lovingly while watching Mikey and her girlfriend talk, not really processing anything that was said.
“Steph, how about those stats?” Mikey asked, pulling Steph from her thoughts.
“Uh…” Steph looked at her notes and realized she had totally forgotten. Luckily Mikey simply laughed and waited patiently while Steph checked again.
As the workday was over they walked out of the record store. Both of them were wearing a beanie and a scarf as well as a coat, as the temperature had dropped quite a bit. Alex shivered and shoved her hands deep into her pockets to keep them from getting too cold while Steph closed the door.
“Come on, stupid door!” Steph grumbled as she pulled as hard as she could to properly close the door. Finally it closed and she locked it, which went less smooth than usual due to the cold. After pocketing the key, Steph turned around to join Alex on the sidewalk when she noticed the snow. “Well, guess winter has officially begun,” she said as she looked up at the sky.
When she lowered her face again to look at Alex she froze. Her heart started beating rapidly as she saw the enamored expression on her girlfriend’s face. Alex was still staring up at the sky with the biggest grin of pure glee, glowing with excitement as she watched the snow fall. Steph felt her heart slowly melt into a puddle as she continued to watch her girlfriend being in awe.
A thought that popped up into her head a little while ago resurfaced and remained on the foreground. She bit her lip with excited anticipation as the decision was made in her mind and she walked over to Alex.
When she took Alex’s hands out of the coat’s pockets and held them in her own hands, Alex looked at her with an excited grin. The way Alex’s eyes shone and both nose and cheeks were a deep pink was so gorgeous that Steph lost herself in it a little.
“As much as I love the snow,” Alex said while visibly shivering, “I think my body wants to get inside and get warm again.”
Steph nodded and held Alex’s hand. “Yeah, sounds like a plan.” She leaned in and softly kissed the tip of Alex’s cold nose, letting out a soft giggle when she saw the way Alex’s nose scrunched up in response. “Gotta keep my girl warm.”
Main Street was already decorated with fairy lights and garlands strung between the buildings, lighting up the heart of the town. Steph saw decorated trees in some of the buildings and the occasional Kinara and Hanukkah menorah in the window. It was cozy and caused Steph to actually look forward to the holidays. Especially because she would be spending it with Alex, Ryan, Charlotte and Ethan would join them for one of the days, but the rest of the days would be just for the two of them.
“Kind of hard to believe the year is almost over…” Alex mumbled, causing Steph to turn her head to look at Alex. “This is the first time in years that I’m not really dreading the upcoming holidays.”
As Steph wasn’t quite sure how to respond she remained quiet, but the words definitely affected her. Her heart squeezed painfully as she imagined Alex being alone during the holidays, without family or friends to spend them with. On the other hand it made her even more determined to make sure this year would be different. To make this year’s holidays ones that Alex would remember for years to come.
“I’m not even quite sure what to expect,” Alex continued, then tugged at Steph’s hand as she stopped walking.
Steph cocked her head to the side a bit as she stopped walking, a step ahead of Alex. She turned to face her girlfriend, noticing Alex was biting her lip somewhat nervously. “Want me to tell you? Tell me what I can do to help,” she offered, giving Alex’s gloved hand a gentle squeeze. When Alex nodded Steph smiled and let go of Alex’s hand, cupped her face and kissed her softly. “So Charlotte, Ethan, and Ryan are coming over on Sunday. The Monday after that there’s the community celebration at The Black Lantern, and the rest of the days are completely up to us how we spend them. Oh and there’s New Years, which we’ll be spending in the booth.”
“Okay.” Alex nodded, seeming somewhat relieved. “And I should get everyone a gift, right?” she asked.
Steph shrugged, “If you want we could do it together?” she offered. Assuming from Alex’s expression in response, that idea was appreciated. “Okay, then that’s settled.” Steph kissed Alex again, although this time their lips lingered a little longer. Temporarily forgetting about the cold they were trying to get away from and losing themselves in making out in the snow.
“Except when I’m getting your gift,” Alex whispered after breaking contact, letting out a soft chuckle.
“Naturally,” Steph replied, “I don’t want to know what you’re getting me until I get to unwrap it.” She took one of Alex’s hands into her own again and nudged Alex’s shoulder with her own. “Come on, let’s keep going so we can go inside and warm up properly.”
When they got inside The Black Lantern they were greeted by Duckie, Eleanor and Ryan. Both Alex and Steph shrugged off their coats, causing some of the snow to fall on the floor.
“Isn’t it enough for you that it’s snowing outside?” Ryan joked with a warm laugh. Steph simply stuck out her tongue as she took off her gloves and scarf, hanging them on the back of a chair, but kept the beanie on. “Coffee or hot chocolate?” he asked as they sat down at their usual table.
With one glance in Alex’s direction Steph knew which one Alex was going for. “Some hot chocolate sounds amazing right now,” Alex said, proving Steph’s assumption to be correct.
“Make it two, Bird boy.” Steph grinned when Ryan shook his head with a snort. She knew he didn’t mind the nickname, but his reactions to it never ceased to amuse her.
As Steph caught Alex rubbing her hands and blowing against them she put her hands around them, offering the desired warmth. “Better?” she asked as her thumbs caressed the skin underneath.
“Yeah,” Alex sighed with relief, “much better.”
Steph unabashedly stared at Alex while warming her hands, feeling her heart hum in her chest happily. After everything they went through, both individually as well as together, Steph was incredibly grateful to have Alex as her girlfriend. Alex made her happy, but also challenged her in a healthy way. She’d never told anyone about Arcadia Bay before, for one. The walls she’d always kept up had started crumbling down, little by little.
But she also really appreciated the fact that Alex willingly watched the movies she liked, despite not quite understanding why she liked them. The fact that their music taste was very similar definitely helped. And even though Steph wasn’t likely to admit it openly, she loved wearing some of Alex’s clothes sometimes. Especially because of the response it elicited from her girlfriend upon noticing.
“Two hot chocolates for the lovely couple,” Ryan said as he set down two steaming mugs on the table. “Enjoy.”
“Thanks, Ryan.” Alex smiled and wrapped her hands around the mug, eyeing the small mountain of whipped cream on top with excitement.
They made some small talk with Ryan while drinking their hot chocolate, catching up on things as well discussing the upcoming activities. Ryan obviously fished for info, which Steph figured was to come up with gift ideas. It was honestly really cute how dedicated he was and didn’t realize both her and Alex were well aware of what he was doing.