Finding my way home
There was a lot of delicious food, laughter over stories and jokes and of course the gifts everyone got each other. The fireplace was lit and the small tree decorated, with help from Ryan and Ethan. Charlotte, Ryan, and Ethan sat on the couch while Alex and Steph sat on the loveseat that had been added to the interior a little while back.
Ethan was extremely happy with his new drawing tablet, along with a spare stylus pen and nibs. It was definitely going to help him with creating future Thaynor comics, which would of course be sold in the record store. Charlotte had approached all of them about the idea a few weeks ago and they all agreed to chip in, which proved to have been the right decision.
Ryan received a new pair of binoculars, a CD with bird calls, a painting of numerous different kinds of birds, as well as new rope and some carabiners from Steph.
“Steph, I told you not to worry about it.” Ryan shook his head with a chuckle before hugging her.
“I know, that’s why there’s another gift,” she said with a mischievous grin. She exchanged a knowing look with Alex and was barely able to hold back a snicker as Ryan started to unwrap the gift.
He eyed both Alex and Steph suspiciously before looking at his, now unwrapped, gift. There was a silence as he read the text before his expression turned into one of confusion.
“Why don’t you read it aloud?” Charlotte offered with an amused grin.
“‘Best and most loveable himbo of Haven Springs award: Ryan Lucan’,” Ryan read. As everyone else burst into laughter he looked increasingly puzzled. “Wait, so that’s a good thing?”
“Yes, very good,” Alex assured. “You’re the loveliest himbo, Ryan.” She hugged him while still laughing, “Sorry, but your expression was just perfect.”
“I’m not sure I understand…” he muttered.
Steph almost felt bad, despite the tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks. “And that’s exactly why you’re the best himbo, Bird boy.” Once Alex let go of Ryan, Steph took her turn to hug him. “Just know we love you, Ryan. Never change.”
“Sorry Ryan,” Charlotte said, still grinning, “but when Alex and Steph came to me with the idea I just couldn’t refuse.”
“I just watched while mom worked on it,” Ethan said before hugging Ryan, “she was grinning the whole time.”
That’s when it was Charlotte’s turn to unwrap her gifts from everyone, which she did with almost agonizing precision.
“Are you planning on reusing the paper?” Steph asked with a snort, to which Charlotte turned to her with an unreadable expression.
“Maybe.” Charlotte continued to carefully take the wrapping paper off her gift, almost as if to spite Steph. “Why? Are you in a hurry, Steph?” Charlotte wore a sly grin that caused Steph’s cheeks to take on a pink hue.
“No! Take your time!” Steph could see Alex look at her with curiosity from the corner of her eye and tried her best to keep a nonchalant demeanor. She wasn’t quite sure it was working.
Charlotte ended up with a beautiful necklace from Ethan and Ryan, a voucher for a spa day from Alex and Steph, as well as another gift from Alex that Charlotte was currently unwrapping.
Alex wore a nervous expression, which caused Steph to wrap an arm around her waist to comfort her. Steph knew what it was and why Alex was so nervous for Charlotte to find out what it was.
“She’s going to love it,” Steph softly whispered into Alex’s ear and pressed a kiss against the scar on her temple. Alex simply nodded in response, though the nervous expression remained.
When Charlotte finally removed the wrapping paper and held the frame in her hands, tears welled up in her eyes. She placed a hand over her heart and looked at Alex with an emotional smile.
“Alex, thank you…” Charlotte whispered as she looked down again, tenderly brushing her fingers over the glass. “This means so much…” The rose she had given to Gabe at the Spring festival when they had started dating was still exactly the way it had been on the wall.
“It makes a lot more sense for you to have it,” Alex replied, “but I wasn’t quite sure how else I was supposed to return it to you. Steph actually came up with the idea for me to give it to you this way.”
“Hey, no,” Steph protested, “the credit is all yours. I just tossed it as a suggestion.”
“Either way,” Charlotte interjected, “thank you. I already know where to put this.” She put the frame safely aside and hugged Alex tightly. As she hugged Alex she softly whispered: “You better hang up Steph’s rose in its place.”
Steph grinned mischievously as she overheard Charlotte, as she was way ahead of her on that already. The rose was already pressed and framed, it just had to be put up on the wall.
Alex got a number of records, a really nice and warm flannel jacket from Ryan, a deluxe limited edition of Thaynor comic bundle from Ethan: “You’re the only one who has it.” And a small statue of Gabe from Charlotte.
“Char…” Alex muttered with tears in her eyes as she admired the gift. “This… This is amazing, it looks just like him…”
“I honestly wasn’t quite able to think of a better gift,” Charlotte said as she hugged Alex. “I’m glad you like it.”
None of them were able to keep it dry, but laughed when Ryan passed around a box of tissues. They took some time to think of Gabe and share stories about him, which Steph could tell meant a lot to Alex. She held Alex’s hand almost the entire time, squeezing it every now and then.
Once everyone had dried their tears, Steph handed Alex her additional gift, which came in the form of an envelope.
“What is it?” Alex asked, intrigued.
“The only way to find out is to open it, babe,” Steph answered with a nervous chuckle. She was hugging her knees and biting her lower lip in anticipation. She hadn’t told anyone about this, although she’d asked Charlotte for advice and was fairly certain Charlotte had an idea but simply didn’t say anything about it.
It felt like it took minutes for Alex to open the envelope, only causing Steph’s anxiety to spike. She had no idea how Alex would respond and she couldn’t properly brace herself because of it. When Alex finally took out the folded sheet of paper, unfolded it and started reading Steph’s heart was racing in her chest. Her throat felt tight and dry, her hands clammy and her lip stung from being bitten onto.
“Wait, so…” Alex looked up at Steph, then back at the letter again. “You got me a gift but it’s not ready yet?” she asked.
“Y-yeah…” Steph replied with a tremor in her voice from the nerves. “It’s being custom made, that’s why.”
Alex studied her face closely, which caused Steph to think about something random. I’m so glad Ryan is happy with his gift. Also can’t wait to see the next Thaynor comic, looking forward to seeing Ethan put his tablet to use. Oh, I should probably do the laundry later on, too. And check on Valkyrie, make sure she’s doing alright.
“Interesting…” Alex muttered and shook her head with a smile. “Thank you in advance, Steph,” she said and kissed Steph softly on the lips. “I’m sure I’ll love it.” She carefully folded the letter again and returned it into the envelope.
“If you love it even half as much as you love me, I’ll count myself a happy gal.” Steph grinned and stole another kiss, which was met with an exasperated groan from Ethan.
“Enough with the kissing, Steph! Open your presents already, I’m hungry,” he complained, grasping his stomach to emphasize his statement.
Steph threw her head back as she laughed and held up her hands in surrender. “Okay, alright, alright!” She got up and grabbed the remaining presents, which all bore her name. “Any particular order on which one to open first or last?” she asked.
Everyone looked at Alex, causing her to blush and nod. “Yeah, this one last,” she answered while pointing at one of the gifts.
“Got it.” Steph started ripping the wrapping paper off of one of the gifts with excitement. Her eyes widened as she found three pairs of new drumsticks, one of which was signed by the drummer of one of her favorite bands. “No fucking way! This is awesome! I’m never going to use these!”
Alex started laughing, “See, I told you guys!”
“Yeah, you did…” Ryan said and let out a chuckle, “but that’s why we got the other two pairs as well.”
“Thanks, these,” Steph said as she held up the other two pairs, “I will be using, for sure!” She carefully put them aside and started unwrapping the next gift. She grinned smugly when she found a small stack of printed shirts and beanies, looking at them all individually. “You sure do know my style, I love all of these!”
“This one is from Ryan, Ethan, and me. But a lot of others from the community also contributed to it,” Charlotte said while handing Steph a thin gift that was not quite an envelope.
This one Steph unwrapped a little more carefully, not wanting to accidentally rip what might be inside. When the wrapping paper came off, she simply dropped it to the floor and inspected the box with raised brows. “Gift for two?” she read aloud and looked up at Charlotte, Ryan, and Ethan.
“Yeah, it’s actually for you and Alex,” Ryan said with a smile.
“Babe, did you know about this?” Steph asked, to which Alex shook her head.
“No, of course not. It’s a gift for you and Alex, duh.” Ethan playfully rolled his eyes, eliciting chuckles from everyone in response. “Open it!”
Steph and Alex opened the box together and read the text inside, eyes widening and jaws dropping simultaneously. They stared at each other, then at the others.
“Dude, what?!” Steph exclaimed, reading the text aloud to make sure she read it correctly.
“Dear Steph and Alex, this is your gift from all of us.
“After what you two have been through, we all thought you deserve something special. The choice is yours, this voucher is valid for a year, so plenty of time to decide.
“Happy holidays from your friends in Haven Springs.
“Voucher for airfare within the continental US to a location and date of choice, overnight stay with breakfast included, for two adults. Terms and conditions apply. For more information, visit the website mentioned on the back.”
“Damn it, I shouldn’t have said my gift should be last,” Alex chuckled while wiping at her eyes after pushing her glasses up. “It doesn’t quite measure up to this gift.”
“Oh Alex, don’t be silly,” Charlotte chastised and offered both Alex and Steph a hug.
Steph put the gift aside and stood up along with Alex to be hugged by Charlotte, Ryan and Ethan. “This is incredible, you guys,” Steph said, feeling her heart warm in her chest. She was incredibly grateful to have such amazing friends in this town she truly got to call home.
“You deserve it,” Ethan said as he looked up at her. “Heroes deserve to relax too, you know.”
As Steph was too choked up to speak, she simply smiled at him as she ruffled his hair while nodding.
Once the emotions had settled a bit again, Steph looked down at the last gift that was still wrapped in her lap. “Okay, let’s see what this is,” she said while looking at Alex. She didn’t miss the way Charlotte grinned mischievously, realizing Charlotte had probably helped with this particular gift.
As the wrapping paper fell onto the floor and revealed the gift, Steph simply stared for a second or two. She started to grin, then laughed. “You actually did it!” She looked at Alex who winked at her.
“Told you.” Alex had the most smug expression on her face, which amused Steph even more. “Had help from Char, though.”
“Yours truly,” Charlotte chimed and bowed playfully. “Now it’s official.”
Steph looked at the metal paper-sized plaque which read: ‘Lesbian disaster certificate: Steph Gingrich’. “Yeah, this is awesome. And accurate.”
“Alright kind listeners, the time has come…” Steph looked at Alex with a loving smile while holding out her hand invitingly. She watched as Alex got up from the couch and joined her by the microphone, feeling Alex’s arm on her lower back and hand take hold of her side. “The new year is nearly here, so grab your bottle of bubbles and get ready for the countdown!”
Alex grabbed the bottle off the desk and started to take the wrap off, then carefully started to undo the metal guard that kept the cork in place.
“Ten, nine, eight…!” Steph looked at Alex with a lovestruck smile before pressing her lips on those of her girlfriend.
“Four, three, two, one… Happy new year, Haven Springs!” Alex and Steph said simultaneously.
Alex popped the cork from the bottle and poured the bubble wine into the two glasses that were on the desk. Once she set down the bottle again and was about to reach for the filled glasses, Steph stopped her.
She gently cupped Alex’s face with her hands and kissed her deeply, feeling Alex’s hands on her lower back and pulling her closer.
“Happy new year, babe,” Steph whispered softly before pressing another kiss on Alex’s lips.
“Happy new year, Steph,” Alex replied and handed Steph a glass, while taking the other for herself.
They downed their drinks, took care of one last ad and closed off the live radio show. After Steph put on the automatic playlist, they took the drinking glasses and walked out of the booth. While Alex put the glasses in the sink in the back of the storage, Steph locked up the booth. Valkyrie received her special meal and fresh water and then both Steph and Alex bundled up.
With the bottle of bubbles in hand they made their way out of the store, locked up and headed home through the fresh layer of snow.
“So, any resolutions for this year?” Alex asked with a grin, taking the bottle from Steph to take a swig.
Steph shrugged, “I honestly haven’t really thought about it?” she said, which was true. She hadn’t really thought about it. “More therapy.”
“Fuck, ow!” Alex complained, receiving a worried look from Steph, “you made it come out of my nose,” Alex clarified while coughing and wiping her nose.
“I’m so sorry.” Steph softly rubbed Alex’s back with concern, “I wasn’t joking though…”
“I know, and you’re right. You and I both.” Alex handed Steph the bottle and pushed her glasses up after they had slid down a little. “Definitely gotta use that gift we got.”
“Dude.” Steph beamed with excitement, “We will, we just have to figure out where we’ll be going. But wherever it is, I’m super stoked for it.” Steph took a swig from the bottle and looked up at the starry sky. It was a perfectly clear night, ice cold, but clear. The thick layer of snow crunched underneath their snow boots, a sound she knew Alex loved, she came to appreciate it more because of Alex.
As they got closer to The Black Lantern Steph could see the beginning of the lake was frozen over, which gave her an idea. When she looked at Alex with an excited, wicked grin, Alex stopped dead in her tracks.
“Oh, no. No, Steph.”
“But Alex! It’s been frozen for like a week, come on! It’ll be fun!” Steph excitedly hopped around Alex in a circle. “Please?” she asked with pleading eyes.
Alex let out a deep sigh and took the bottle from Steph’s hand and drank from it, then wiped her mouth with the back of her gloved hand. “Steph, it’s freezing!”
“Exactly, it won’t melt anytime soon!” Steph exclaimed, grinning like a little kid. She set the bottle to her lips and drank until there was just a little bit left for Alex. “Last bit’s for you, my love,” Steph said and offered Alex the bottle.
With a shake of her head Alex emptied the bottle and held onto it while watching Steph circling her with contagious excitement. “I don’t know, Steph…” Alex set the bottle down on the dock as they reached the pier. “How can you be sure it’s not going to break?”
After coming to a standstill Steph thought for a bit. I can’t be sure, but the ice looks pretty thick… Maybe I can test it? She walked down the pier and looked down at the frozen water, not seeing any cracks as far as the eye could see. “Hmm,” she muttered as she inspected the ice. She wrapped both of her arms around the wooden support beam at the end of the pier while she lowered herself until the toe of her right foot’s boot was on the ice.
“Steph, what are you doing?!” Alex asked, trying to keep her voice down as it was late. “Fuck, hold on.” Alex rushed over to the end of the pier and held on to one of Steph’s arms. “Grab my hand, dumbass.”
With a smug grin Steph took Alex’s hand and playfully gave it a tug, not enough to actually force any movement. “So, you’re joining me?” When Alex rolled her eyes at her she laughed, “That’s not an answer.”
“You haven’t even put your full weight on it yet, I don’t really know if I can trust it.” Alex’s expression reflected her statement, which only made Steph more determined to prove it was safe.
Steph set down her foot so that the entire sole of her boot was on the ice, nothing happened. Without saying anything, she set down her other foot as well, evenly distributing her weight on both feet. When she looked up at Alex she was met with an anxious expression, though it slowly changed into one of relief.
While Alex still held onto her hand Steph used her other arm to lean onto the pier for support. She lifted herself up a little while pulling on Alex’s hand, gesturing for her to lean down. It took some convincing, but Alex eventually gave in; kissing Steph on the lips. Their warm breaths were a stark contrast to the cold air around them, making it even more enticing not to break the kiss.
Steph failed to hold back a giggle when she felt her boots slide backwards on the ice, she pulled back only to fix her stance. “Want to give it a try?” she asked softly, looking at Alex with anticipation.
“I don’t know, Steph…” Alex looked down at the ice again, visibly tossing the idea around in her mind. “Are you really sure it will hold?”
“Yes,” Steph replied with confidence, “as sure as I am about loving you.”
That seemed to convince Alex enough to give in, as she pulled her legs from underneath her and sat on the edge of the pier. With Steph’s arms stretched out to catch her Alex set herself off the pier and onto the ice.
Steph caught Alex into her arms and held her close as they stood on the ice together. The only sound that they could hear was that of their breathing and some distant sounds from within The Black Lantern. She looked into Alex’s eyes with a loving smile, admiring her girlfriend.
“Okay, now what?” Alex asked with a nervous chuckle, not breaking eye contact. “Or did you not plan that far ahead, hmm?”
The question struck Steph by surprise, although she couldn’t deny Alex had a very good point. She had in fact not thought that far ahead, as she hadn’t been sure Alex would join her on the ice. Her jaw moved, but no words came out of her mouth. Nothing she could say would help defend herself, which was frustrating to say the least.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Alex shook her head with a smug grin, “you really live up to your title.”
While Steph was trying to figure out what title Alex was referring to, she felt Alex kiss her softly on the nose, filling her stomach with familiar flutters. If she had any hope of her brain clearing up her confusion it was now gone, as all thoughts left her mind.
“You’re so cute,” Alex whispered and winked playfully, causing Steph’s blush to intensify even more. “Especially when you’re flustered.” Alex kissed her on the nose again, then on the lips.
Steph almost literally melted in Alex’s arms, feeling the warmth in her core spread throughout her body. She barely even felt the cold anymore, despite the fact that it was without a doubt freezing. When she felt Alex’s gloves creep underneath her coat and sweatshirt a shiver went through her, skin erupting in goosebumps at the sudden cold.
They slid over the ice carefully, making sure not to wander too far from the pier as Alex still felt a little anxious. Steph held her tightly, her arms securely wrapped around Alex’s waist from behind.
The quiet was oddly soothing, it gave them a sense of serenity. The stars shone brightly in the night sky, a few blinking every now and then. The sky stretched out above them the way the new year did ahead of them. A whole new year, new opportunities and new adventures.
There would undoubtedly be plenty of hardships and struggles, but Steph was optimistic about the future; about her future with Alex. With everything they went through, she was confident that they could overcome whatever came onto their paths.
Steph lifted her chin off Alex’s shoulder to press her lips against Alex’s cheek for a kiss while humming encouragingly.
“Can we get inside? I would like to keep all my toes and right now I can’t feel any of them.”
Steph threw her head back as she laughed, receiving a playful glare from Alex who had turned around to face her. “Yes, of course. Let’s get cozy,” Steph finally replied and shuffled back towards the pier. Her hands on Alex’s waist and pushing her, the ice was smooth enough for it.
“That’s one way to do it,” Alex chuckled while holding onto Steph.
“Escort at your service!”
They made some small talk with the people who were still in The Black Lantern, wishing everyone a happy new year. After some convincing they had another glass of bubble wine before heading upstairs. Once their coats and scarves were hung on the coat hooks, they took off their gloves and snow boots.
Steph made her way into the bathroom and brushed her teeth, soon joined by her girlfriend. When Alex bumped her hip into hers, Steph bumped back playfully. It continued until they were done and put away their toothbrushes. They took turns using the toilet and finally headed towards the bed.
Before Steph had the chance to start undressing, Alex removed Steph’s hands and started to undress her instead. Their lips met and only parted long enough for clothes to be removed, which were haphazardly thrown to the floor.
It didn’t take long for both of them to get into the bed and underneath the covers, continuing to explore each other’s bodies as if it was the very first time.
“Happy new year, Steph,” Alex softly whispered into Steph’s ear, receiving a soft whimper in response. “I love you.”
“Happy new year, babe,” Steph breathed, her eyes still lidded, “I love you too, so very much.”
The last bits of snow had now melted, flowers started to sprout from the grass and the chill in the air was slowly disappearing. Winter was over and spring had begun, which also meant giving the record store a proper, thorough cleaning. Jesse had done the prep the day before by making sure the floor was cleared, save for the big furniture. He had also tackled the small fridge in the back, along with the rest of the small kitchenette.
All the surfaces were already dusted off, Alex had grabbed the vacuum cleaner while Steph temporarily put the records in boxes. The displays got cleaned out with the vacuum cleaner as well, they fell into a rhythm that made the work go much faster.
Once all the records were returned into their displays Steph sneaked up behind Alex, wrapping her arms around Alex’s waist.
“Sheesh, Steph!” Alex dropped the vacuum cleaner and let out a sigh, “you startled me!” she said loudly in order for her voice not to be drowned out by the vacuum cleaner that was still going.
“Sorry, babe,” Steph replied into Alex’s ear, “couldn’t resist.” With the toe of her shoe she shut off the vacuum cleaner, causing the noise to stop. The music was now a bit loud, but it didn’t bother either of them.
“We’re not done yet,” Alex muttered, not removing her hands that rested on top of Steph’s.
“Thank goodness we’re not.”
“I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing,” Alex replied with a snort. “I was referring to the cleaning.”
Steph nodded before letting her lips brush against Alex’s ear as she whispered: “I know, just taking a small break.” She closed her eyes as she gently started to sway to the music, feeling Alex join in.
When the song changed to a one with a faster tempo, Steph turned Alex around and invited her to dance. The way Alex narrowed her eyes suspiciously at her was amusing to say the least, though eventually Alex accepted the invitation. They danced around the store like nobody was watching, forgetting about cleaning for a little while.
The store looked almost like new and smelled rather nice, meaning their hard work had truly paid off. Steph was ready to get out of the store and into the shower before eating a warm meal. She made sure to check Valkyrie had enough water and food, turned off the lights and headed towards the door with her hand in Alex’s.
As warm as it looked, it was still a bit on the chilly side. Steph popped the collar of her jacket up before taking Alex’s hand into her own again with a smile.
“Hey Alex,” she said, earning her girlfriend’s attention.
“What?” Alex grinned, already suspecting where this was going.
“You’re pretty awesome, did you know that?” Steph smirked when Alex rolled her eyes in response. “And I love you, quite a bit.”
“I love you too, you dork.” Alex pulled Steph to a halt and leaned up, pressing her lips against Steph’s. “You’re pretty damn awesome yourself.” Their lips met again for another kiss, although it was a rather short one. “Especially when you show off those arm muscles of yours by lifting stuff.”
“Wait, what—?” Steph blinked several times while the pink color in her cheeks intensified. It didn’t help that Alex was now feeling up her arms, as if she wasn’t flustered enough yet.
“Oh, you heard me.” Alex teasingly winked at Steph before starting to walk again. “Are you coming or are you just going to stand there?” Alex called without looking back.
Steph shook her head to clear it, her lips forming a grin. “On my way!”
Everyone had responded with eager excitement when Steph announced she was planning a LARP, like she had done a year ago for Ethan. All the people who missed out on participating last year were now the first ones to officially sign up, along with Duckie.
While Steph was planning and brainstorming Alex would occasionally bring her water and food, along with a kiss for encouragement. Alex also made sure that she’d get enough sleep and not pull any all-nighters.
Alex also helped by making sure everyone filled out their character sheets in time, sending them reminder texts if needed. She also helped with props and decorations, following Steph’s instructions closely.
As the day got closer and closer, Steph grew increasingly more nervous. It seemed like the LARP would be even bigger than the one from last year, which was awesome but also nerve-wracking.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay. You’ve been planning for weeks now,” Alex said, holding Steph’s face with a loving smile. “You’ve worked so hard, Steph. Everyone’s going to have so much fun, you have nothing to be worried about.”
The way Alex looked at her convinced her that Alex was probably right. All their prepping wouldn’t have been in vain, they both worked hard. She was looking forward to the LARP and simply hoped everyone would have as much fun as they had the year before.
“Thanks babe,” Steph replied and pressed a kiss against one of Alex’s hands, “guess you’re right.”
“No guessing needed, I am right.” The smug expression on Alex’s face was one Steph never got enough of.
“If you say so.” Steph leaned in to kiss Alex softly on the lips, leaving the LARP prep for what it was right now.
“You deserve a reward for all that hard work.”
“Oh? You have me intrigued,” Steph replied, shooting Alex a challenging look.
“Shh,” Alex whispered, pressing a finger to Steph’s lips. “Just relax.” And so, Steph did.
As Steph was about to head out to prepare the record store for the LARP, Alex stopped her by grabbing her arm. “Wait!”
Steph halted, then turned around to face Alex. But as she saw Alex’s facial expression she relaxed, “What is it?” she asked and patiently waited for Alex to respond.
Alex pulled Steph closer and kissed her deeply, causing her heartbeat to accelerate and her cheeks to grow warm. They’d been together for nearly a year but Alex still had this incredible effect on her, Alex made her happy.
“See you in a bit,” Alex said when she let go of Steph, the corners of her lips curling up into a smile.
It took Steph a few moments to fully recover, her brain still a little hazy. “Yeah,” she sighed dreamily. “I mean, yes. You’ve got everything?”
Alex nodded, “Yeah, got the hat and will bring my guitar with me. Now go, mysterious shopkeeper.” Alex winked before ushering Steph out the door.
“Farewell, for now, my fair bard,” Steph said with a dramatic bow, not standing straight again until she heard the door being closed.
She made her way down the stairs and saw Duckie already behind the bar, a beerpull in his hand. As much as she realized this probably wasn’t the best idea, she couldn’t deny him his fun.
“Ah, Stephanie,” Duckie greeted, “as soon as Alex is out the door, I will get to the agreed upon decorating.”
Steph smiled widely with a nod, “Awesome, Duckie. I know you’ve got this!” She handed him the stack of posters that had to be hung up throughout, pointing out the back of one of them. “It says on the back where they should go, you know where the tape is, right?”
“Got it right here,” Duckie replied with a nod and held up the tape dispenser as proof. “You have nothing to worry about, Stephanie! Except for the record store, that is in your hands.”
“Yup, so I’ve gotta run! See you later, Duckie!”
The record store now looked similar to the way it had a year ago, although there was now a curtain blocking off one of the aisles instead of wooden crates. It was a beautiful dark blue velvet fabric with silver stars and moons on it, which fit the theme perfectly. Once more Steph went behind the curtain and made sure everything was the way she wanted it to be.
“Perfect.” With a satisfied smile Steph pushed the curtain aside and walked towards the counter. Everything was prepared and in place. The music softly played in the background while Steph posted on the MyBlock app, announcing that The Magpie Emporium had once again returned.
The only thing she could do now was wait, which was probably the hardest part. She managed to keep her nerves under control for a whole five minutes, which was actually kind of impressive. She paced back and forth behind the counter, checked over all the scrolls and other items again and repositioned some of them by just a few millimeters at most. Her dress was smoothed out and her hat tilted back and then down again a number of times.
Valkyrie made an appearance and jumped onto the empty spot on the counter, sat down and meowed at her.
“Oh, hey Val,” Steph greeted the cat and started petting Valkyrie on the head. “What is it? I filled up your food and water bowl already.” When the cat meowed again she frowned with confusion. “What is it, Val?”
Valkyrie meowed again before turning her head to face the door, facing Steph again and then hopped down. Steph watched Valkyrie walk over to the corner by the record player and lay down.
Before Steph could wonder what that had been about there were two knocks on the door, causing her heart to accelerate. She nearly forgot how to breathe for a moment and closed her eyes. Calm down, Steph. You’ve got this.
“What is the password?” she asked loudly while making her way to the door, her fingers lingering on the lock. She had to fight back a chuckle when she heard Alex and Ethan stumble over their words in hushed voices, then straightened herself as she heard Ethan clear his throat.
“For the magpie treasures all that shines, we wish to admire its finds.”
“Come in.” Steph unlocked the door and made her way back towards the counter while she heard the door open, unleashing the flutters in her stomach and chest. “Sorry about the lock and password, one can never be too cautious,” she said, “welcome to The Magpie Emporium.” Steph spread out her hands while locking eyes with Alex.
“We were told there’s a special scroll for us here,” Ethan said as soon as he got to the counter.
“Ah, yes.” Steph bent down a little in order to grab said scroll. “Beware Thaynor, for you are the only one to read this scroll.” She watched Ethan’s eyes widen before looking at Alex.
“Not even Alwynn—?”
Steph shook her head, “You are the only one to read this scroll, Thaynor. I was given very specific instructions, please follow them closely.” She handed him the scroll but didn’t let go and looked at Ethan intently.
Ethan grabbed onto the scroll with a determined expression and nodded. “Understood.”
Steph let go of the scroll and smiled when she watched Ethan walk to the side before breaking the wax seal on the parchment paper. She watched Alex look around and appreciate the decor while Ethan read the scroll, nearly missing it when Ethan turned around with an excited grin on his face.
“So, good news, Thaynor?” Alex asked as she turned around.
Ethan nodded as he beamed from ear to ear, “It’s a secret quest, which I have to do by myself.”
“So that means we’ll be parting ways here?” Alex asked.
“For now, yes. But I shall return, Alwynn!”
“Hold on, Thaynor,” Steph said as Ethan was already heading to the door. “Are you sure you aren’t forgetting anything?” She hinted by nudging her head towards his sword.
“Oh! Right, I would like to purchase the magic elixir.”
Steph winked at him and handed him a small glass bottle with an almost fluorescent blue liquid in it. “Three gold please.”
They exchanged the gold coins and elixir and said their goodbyes.
“Good luck, Thaynor!” Alex encouraged him, receiving a determined nod from Ethan in response.
As the door closed behind Ethan, Alex looked over to Steph with a suspecting look. “Was there a reason Thaynor was sent on a special secret quest?” she asked.
“Of course, but I cannot share its details with you, I’m afraid.” Steph dug her nails into the fabric of her dress in a desperate attempt to not break character and keep a calm demeanor. “Do you wish to peruse the items I have for sale?”
“Do you have anything of interest for me?” Alex mused as she walked closer to the counter, causing Steph’s cheeks to grow increasingly hotter.
It took great effort for Steph to swallow the lump in her throat, while simultaneously making sure not to think of anything that wasn’t random. It was tricky to say the least. “I think I do, Ale—Alwynn” Steph internally cursed herself for the slip-up.
“Hey,” Alex said, putting a hand on Steph’s arm. “Are you alright?” There was genuine worry audible in Alex’s voice, “Steph?”
“Yeah, no, I mean—” Steph let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes for a moment in order to recollect her thoughts. “May I show Alwynn some items that may be of interest?”
“You’ll have to follow me,” Steph said and held out her hand for Alex to take, the nerves rushing through her like a whirlwind.
Alex placed her hand in Steph’s with a smile, “Lead the way.”
Steph walked from behind the counter, holding Alex’s hand, then made sure to lock the door. “Just to secure both our safety during these tumultuous times.”
“Of course,” Alex replied with a nod.
Steph grinned when she walked them towards the curtain and turned around to face Alex. “Are you ready?” Alex nodded in response. “I have to ask you to close your eyes and trust me,” she said and was slightly surprised when Alex instantly closed her eyes. She pulled the curtain aside and led both of them through the opening before letting go of the fabric, causing it to fall back into place.
She stopped and turned around to face Alex, who still had her eyes closed, patiently waiting for Steph for any further instructions.
“May I take your instrument and hat? To ensure no harm will come to them.” Steph bit her lip as she watched Alex quirk one brow in response, fearing Alex wouldn’t go along with it.
“If you feel like it is necessary, you may.”
Steph grinned triumphantly and carefully took the guitar off of Alex’s back, placed it on top of the records in the display cases and put Alex’s bard hat on top of it. She then took off her own hat and placed it so that it leaned against the guitar and took a deep breath while wiping the palms of her hands on her dress. Alex was still waiting patiently, although Steph could tell she was very curious.
“I will sit you down, then I will show you what I have that might be of interest to you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alex replied with a mischievous smile, causing Steph to nearly choke on her own spit. “Sorry, is that out of character?”
“N-no, you’re fine,” Steph squeaked and cleared her throat. If her cheeks weren’t red before, they surely were now. “You have nothing to worry or fear, Alwynn. I mean no harm.”
“Hmm, usually that would be quite alarming, but I trust you.”
Steph carefully sat Alex down on the chair she had placed there earlier, then sat down across from Alex on the other chair and filled up the two glasses on the table beside them.
“For this spell, I need you to drink this elixir I have prepared.” Steph handed Alex the glass, which she took. “Drink it whenever you’re ready.”
When Alex put the glass to her lips, Steph did too. They both drank until their glasses were empty and Steph took Alex’s glass to put it onto the table.
“Now, before you open your eyes, I must inform you that you are no longer Alwynn. You have traveled to a different dimension where you are known as Alex.” Steph noticed the way the corners of Alex’s lips curled up into an amused grin and couldn’t help but grin as well. “You may open your eyes.”
Steph watched Alex closely, the way her eyes slowly fluttered open and took in their surroundings. The way Alex’s eyes looked around, admiring the fairy lights and small candles spread all over. It caused Steph’s heart to beat faster in her chest until it was nearly humming.
“Wow…” Alex breathed, still looking around. “Steph, you did all this earlier?” she asked in awe.
“Yeah, I did. Do you like it?” Her leg wouldn’t stop bouncing, despite her best efforts, she simply couldn’t help it. The nerves were rushing through her system, it became increasingly more difficult to keep her thoughts away from it.
“Yeah, it looks amazing!” Alex looked at Steph, then followed Steph’s gaze until it fell on the little chest on the table. It was rather familiar, with the small dragon perched on the lid. “So, you had something that would be of interest to me, hmm?”
Steph nodded and grabbed the small chest, holding it in her hands without opening it just yet. “I do, but I must ask you not to utilize your powers at this time.”
At this Alex’s brows rose with surprise, then lowered again with intrigue. “Alright, I will not use them.”
Steph let out a soft sigh of relief, no longer having to fight off her own thoughts. It was quite literally a weight off her shoulders.
“This is quite hard, so please be patient with me.”
“Of course, take your time,” Alex replied and offered Steph a loving smile.
With a short nod Steph took another deep breath, clutching the small chest in her hands like her life depended on it. Which felt like it did. “I’m probably gonna mess this up and I want to apologize in advance.” She let out a nervous chuckle and cleared her throat, sorting out her thoughts. There was a lot she wanted to say, but didn’t intend for this to be long-winded.
“The day you walked into my life, everything changed. My world shifted, my perspective shifted. I honestly didn’t think I was going to stay in Haven Springs much longer, until you walked in here.
“You intrigued me from the moment you looked at me and I saw you, and the better I got to know you, the stronger that intrigue became. You make me so happy, Alex. You help me overcome my fears and face things without running away.
“During the holidays I gave you an envelope. Your gift wasn’t ready yet, but it is now. And there’s a reason I feel like now is the right time to give it to you, if you still want it.
“Exactly one year ago, during the LARP, you offered me your hand in marriage. I unfortunately had to decline and I found myself often wondering if you really meant it.
“So I would like to offer you, Alex Chen, my hand in marriage.” Steph opened the little chest as it was facing Alex, showing her the ring inside. She really hoped that the tears that welled up in Alex’s eyes were good ones, because she wasn’t quite sure what to do if they weren’t.
“Wait, what?” Steph shook her head, not sure if she heard Alex correctly.
“I said,” Alex said with a snort, “I accept.” She took off her glasses and wiped the tears from her eyes before getting up and cupping Steph’s face into her hands. “I accept your proposal.”
“Fuck,” Steph muttered with frustration, “I forgot what I was going to say next.” She couldn’t keep herself from chuckling when Alex laughed and shook her head at her. “Sorry, I was just really nervous and not even sure if you’d—”
“Steph, I say this affectionately: Please shut up.”
Before Steph could speak, Alex’s lips were firmly pressed against her own. Her eyes closed on their own accord as she lost herself in the deep kiss, feeling her heart humming contently in her chest. It felt like she was floating, her head swimming as she realized what just happened.
Steph couldn’t even pretend she wasn’t crying as she put the ring on Alex’s finger with shaky hands, smiling happily the entire time.
“Steph, what on earth are you anxious about?” Alex asked, taking Steph by surprise.
“Hey, you’re cheating!” Steph said with a soft chuckle, “No using your powers!”
“Right, sorry.” Alex leaned forward and kissed Steph on the forehead, “But to answer your question: I love it, Steph. It’s beautiful.”
“Just like you,” Steph whispered while holding Alex a little tighter.
“Have you seen yourself?” Alex protested while still admiring the ring on her finger.
“Yeah, but I’d rather look at you.” Steph smirked when Alex rolled her eyes at her. “Hey, just being honest!”
“Well, I’m glad you enjoy the view,” Alex whispered before pulling Steph into another deep kiss.
Enough time had passed for it to be time for Alex to get back to Ethan to battle alongside him against evil and save the village. Steph leaned against the doorframe as she kissed Alex goodbye, for now. “Fuck ‘em up, babe,” Steph whispered softly, smiling dreamily.
“I will. You’ll be there to celebrate the victory?” Alex asked while fixing Steph’s hat by tilting it back a little bit.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, I’ll be there,”Steph promised. When Alex winked at her, she swore she melted right then and there.
She didn’t close the door until Alex was out of view, sagging down against it with a smitten expression plastered on her face.
“I can’t believe she said ‘yes’…” Steph muttered, “Alex accepted!” She let out a dreamy sigh and giggled softly when Valkyrie jumped in her lap. “Are you proud of me?” Valkyrie responded with a soft meow and curled up in Steph’s lap, and started purring when Steph started to pet her.
When there was a knock on the door Steph got up, with a quick apology to Valkyrie. “Sorry, Val. Gotta answer the door.”
Steph brushed down her dress, fixed her hat and cleared her throat. “What is the password?” she asked.
“For the magpie treasures all that shines, I wish to admire its finds.”
Steph unlocked the door with a smile and let Ryan inside, “Come in.”
“I come to bring the news that Thaynor and Alwynn have defeated the evil that plagued our village! Come with me to celebrate their victory!”
Steph was proud of Ryan for staying in character so well, it seemed like he’d grown to really enjoy LARPing. She nodded with a bright smile, “I never doubted they would conquer!” After quickly putting the papers and glass bottles on the counter safely away from Valkyrie, she grabbed the store’s keys, took the sign off the door and walked out after Ryan.
The sun was shining brightly, with few clouds to be found in the sky. The temperature was pleasant, which Steph was grateful for. Her hat actually came in handy, as it shielded her eyes from the sun’s brightness.
“So, did everything go okay?” Steph asked as she playfully elbowed Ryan.
He responded by bumping her in return and smiling widely. “Yeah, I felt like it did! Ethan is such a bright kid, he figured out all the puzzles in no time.”
“Good to know, means I gotta step up my game,” Steph mused as she already thought of ways to increase the difficulty for the next LARP. “Did you have fun, too?”
“Yeah, you did an amazing job once again, Steph! You really outdid yourself,” Ryan answered with an excited grin.
They reached the park not too much later, where most people were already gathered around the stage. The flowers everywhere made it look truly ethereal, Eleanor had done an absolutely incredible job once again.
Duckie stepped onto the stage and cleared his throat, causing everyone to go silent and turn to him. “Dear fellow villagers, thank you for gathering here. I have the most wonderful news to share with you all.
“It is thanks to the brave Thaynor and his friend Alwynn the bard that we are safe once more from the terror that has been looming over us. Together they faced and conquered evil, allowing peace to return to our beloved village!” There was applause as Duckie stretched out his arm, gesturing for Alex and Ethan to join him on the stage.
Steph grinned from ear to ear when Alex looked at her and winked, releasing the butterflies in her abdomen once again. She watched Alex and Ethan get onto the stage and stand beside Duckie, receiving even louder applause from the small crowd.
“We would like to thank both of you for your bravery, for saving our village from harm,” Duckie said and bowed. “We would like to thank you by offering a reward.”
Charlotte approached the stage with a chest, opening it in front of Ethan. Steph saw Ethan’s eyes widen and jaw slack with excitement, shooting a quick glance at Alex before turning back to the open chest in front of him.
“Thaynor accepts this reward,” he said and held out his wooden sword.
Charlotte closed the chest and set it down in front of Ethan on the stage before turning to face Alex. “As for you, Alwynn,” she said, but Alex held up a hand, causing Charlotte to step back.
Alex looked directly at Steph and nudged her head, gesturing for Steph to come over to the stage. “Actually, Notheria,” Alex said with a smirk, “I have already received my reward.”
“Y-you have?” Charlotte asked, audibly confused.
Steph swallowed the lump in her throat as she pretended not to see the way Ryan looked at her, searching. She made her way over to the stage where Alex was still standing with her arm stretched out.
“The greatest reward I could dream of,” Alex said while looking at Steph as their fingers intertwined.
There were whispers in the crowd, a soft murmur as they watched Steph step beside Alex and both Ethan and Duckie step aside.
“Only if you’re okay with it,” Alex whispered softly, her lips close to Steph’s ear while giving Steph’s hand a gentle squeeze.
Steph lowered her head a little, causing the brim of her hat to shield her face a bit more. “As long as you’re sure, I’m in,” she replied. “I just didn’t want to ask in front of people because I wasn’t sure you’d be okay with it…”
“I know, that’s why I’m asking you first.” Alex winked at her again, causing Steph’s cheeks to take on even more of a pink hue than just a moment ago.
“Go for it,” Steph encouraged with a determined nod, squeezing Alex’s hand.
“Is when this incredible woman offered me her hand in marriage,” Alex said as she faced the small crowd in front of the stage, wearing a loving smile. “An offer which I accepted, happily so.”
There was silence for no longer than two seconds, then everyone erupted into loud cheers and applause. When Steph looked around she saw Charlotte beaming at her while giving them an approving nod. Ryan’s jaw was slacked, but he had the most amazed expression Steph had ever seen on him, which was absolutely priceless. PIke seemed a little surprised, but offered a smile regardless as he applauded. She felt a little guilty when she saw Eleanor wiping away a few tears, but the smile eased her worries. When she turned her head to Duckie and Ethan, Steph couldn’t help but chuckle when she watched Ethan pump a fist into the air. Duckie’s expression was similar to that of Eleanor’s; his eyes watery, but with a big smile on his lips.
And then there was Alex. Looking at her like they were the only ones there, as if Steph truly was a prize Alex had won. It made Steph weak in the knees, but she couldn’t find herself caring in the slightest. She didn’t care whoever saw how much of an effect Alex had on her, it wasn’t something she wanted to hide.
She knew with an incredible certainty that no matter what would happen, no matter what life would throw at them; as long as they had each other, they’d be alright. There was nobody else Steph could imagine herself with, nor did she want to.
Thank you, Gabe, for bringing her into my life. I promise to treat her like you would want her to be treated, and then even better.
She didn’t think this moment could’ve been any more perfect, until she felt Alex’s hands tilt back her hat before cupping her face. They stared at each other, seeing the way they looked at each other with admiration, how happy they made each other. As Alex got on her tippy toes Steph wrapped her arms around Alex’s waist while leaning down, softly pressing her lips on Alex’s and forgetting about everything and everyone around them. The applause slowly ebbed away, fading into the background until it was no more than a low murmur.
Everything had been worth it, all the fear, the pain and the sorrow. Alex was worth it and if needed, Steph would do it again. And she knew Alex would do the same for her if necessary. Steph couldn’t wait to see what their future would bring, but whatever it was; she’d be ready.