As Steph wasn’t sure if Alex had any other, possibly internal injuries, she didn’t want to jostle the other woman. After taking a deep breath, Steph rested her right hand against Alex’s cheek and caressed it. She applied a little bit of pressure as she moved her thumb across Alex’s cheek and pressed her fingertips against the side of Alex’s neck.
“Alex, please… You gotta wake up, we gotta get out of here.” Steph’s voice was barely audible, causing her to curse at herself internally. She cleared her throat and tried again, repeating herself but louder this time. “I still have to beat you again at foosball, you still owe me that trophy.” Steph choked out a chuckle as new tears welled up in her eyes. “I told you, you can’t get rid of me that easily, Chen. Come on, wake up.”
When Alex’s lips parted and eyelids fluttered, Steph felt her heartbeat accelerate and she bit her lip to hold back sounds that might scare Alex.
“Steph?” More tears flowed down her cheeks at the sound of Alex’s voice. The relief Steph felt was almost too much to bear, she had to actively fight the urge to scoop Alex up and squeeze her into a tight hug.
“Alex! Fucking hell, you scared the living shit out of me!”
“Sorry about that…” Alex muttered with a hoarse voice, “but what the fuck are you doing here?! Are you out of your damn mind? You could’ve gotten hurt—!”
“Alex… You’re kidding, right?” Steph interrupted, a little intimidated by the way Alex scolded her.
“Kidding? Steph, do I look like I’m kidding?” Steph bit her lip as she shook her head. “What were you thinking?!” Alex continued.
As Alex’s voice broke more than once and sounded more hoarse with every word she spoke, Steph let go of Alex’s face and grabbed the water bottle. When Alex opened her mouth to speak again, Steph pressed her finger against Alex’s lips. “You can yell at me after you drink some water. Can you sit up? Are you hurt anywhere else?”
Alex attempted to sit up, but nearly lost the strength in her arm. Steph caught her and supported Alex’s back with her arm, then held the opening of the water bottle against Alex’s lips. After a few careful sips, Alex started coughing but drank more water once the coughing stopped. Once she gestured that she had enough, Steph set the bottle down and put the cap back on.
“Yeah, I can sit up.” Alex sat up, albeit slowly and with a lot of effort. “How the hell did you—?”
“Look,” Steph said, interrupting Alex. She held up her hands defensively as she continued, “Alex, I get that you’re upset with me for coming here. Yes, I know it’s dangerous. I kinda faced some of the consequences for that already—” Alex tried to interject, but Steph shook her head. “I’m okay, for the most part. But Alex…” Steph let out a sad sigh as her heart squeezed painfully in her chest. “Why did you go all by yourself? Why didn’t you say anything to me or Ryan? We were worried sick about you…” I was worried sick about you…
The way Alex looked at her kind of scared her, there was a lot that had happened, apparently. She could tell Alex was thinking and she gave her that time, she didn’t want to rush her. While Alex was in thought, Steph grabbed the water bottle again and drank from it, herself. Once she set it down again, the bottle was barely a quarter full. Good thing Ryan had packed two bottles, she’d have to thank him once they made it back, for sure.
“Last night, I was about to go back to the festival.” Steph nodded encouragingly, indicating she was listening. “When I stepped outside of The Black Lantern, Pike found me. So I handed him the usb drive.” Alex closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh, “He told me I had to come to the station with him. Pike questioned me about the usb drive, because Diane had pressed charges.”
“Fuck…” Steph muttered under her breath, not intending to interrupt Alex.
“Yeah… He gave me a choice, or well… It wasn’t really a choice, he told me I should sign this affidavit from Typhon.”
Steph looked at Alex with widened eyes, her heart in her throat. Please tell me you didn’t sign it…
Alex’s lips curled up into a lopsided grin as she shook her head. “I didn’t sign it, but… I was close to signing it. They had pictures of us, Steph. In the apartment, on Main Street. They apparently monitored our activities on our computers, who we talked to, what we did… Everything, Steph.” Alex looked up at her with her brows knit together, the worry written all over her face. “He said they might go after you and Ryan if I didn’t… I couldn’t drag you two down with me any further.”
“Wait, but you didn’t sign it, right? Did Pike just let you go?” Steph asked with confusion.
“So, you remember how I can sense what others are feeling if the emotion is really strong?” Alex asked, to which Steph nodded in confirmation. “Pike was afraid, Steph. No, not afraid; he was terrified of Typhon. Thinking about how Typhon ‘disappears people’ and he was scared I’d be next and that they’d come after him too.”
“Typhon’s fucking scum!” Steph spat, her hands balling up into fists. Again she was reminded of the excruciating pain in her pinkie finger, but didn’t pay much attention to it. “Sorry, go on.”
“They are, which is why I didn’t sign their affidavit.” Alex reached out and took Steph’s right hand, giving it a little comforting squeeze. “I took his fear away.”
“You… Wait, what? You—? How?” The mental gymnastics Steph’s brain was doing right now nearly dizzied her.
“I’ll explain all that later,” Alex assured, “but after I did that, he said he would think about looking at the usb drive, for Gabe. He wasn’t sure how he would handle the whole thing about Diane pressing charges, but he told me to go back home. Which I did.
“Once I got back to the apartment and I processed what happened, I had a panic attack due to the fear… It was so terrifying, it felt like Typhon was watching me everywhere. But I just couldn’t drag you two into it any further with me, I was scared that—I don’t even know.”
Alex still looked scared to Steph, which made her squeeze Alex’s hand in return. Her thumb softly rubbed the back of Alex’s hand, a soothing gesture more than anything.
“Jed had shoved a note under the door, asking me to come see him when I had time. So I changed clothes and went downstairs, Jed was behind the bar and I sat down. Apparently he figured out we had been digging into Typhon’s involvement with Gabe’s death and said he knew what they were hiding, and that instead of telling me, he’d show me.”
As Alex remained quiet for a little bit, it started to sink in for Steph. Her skin was covered in goosebumps and her gut feeling was far from good, it put an extremely bad taste in her mouth. Instead of responding, she remained quiet as she tried to keep her emotions under control, for Alex’s sake. The thought of Jed doing anything to Alex made her blood boil, it was extremely difficult to keep her emotions under control; it took all of her willpower to do so.
“He took me to the mine shaft and told me that down there was where it happened and when I looked down I was met with pitch darkness. That’s when I sensed his emotion and asked him why he was sad… When I turned around he—he—”
“Take your time,” Steph said, trying to sound soothing and comforting as she rubbed Alex’s back gently.
Alex closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. “He was pointing a gun at me… Saying he didn’t want it to come to this, if only I hadn’t tried so hard to get to the truth, that—He shot me…”
Steph’s movements stopped as a cold sensation went through her, chilling her to the very bone. Her jaw was tense as she gritted her teeth, her brows furrowed as the cold was quickly replaced by burning heat. The anger she felt was so intense it was nearly all-consuming, it made her see red.
“Steph, please,” Alex pleaded, holding Steph’s hand with both of her own. “I’m still alive—”
“Thank fucking goodness you are, Alex! I don’t think I know what I would’ve done if you weren’t,” Steph said. “I can’t believe Jed… That fucking scumbag! He had everyone believe he was a fucking hero!”
“Yeah, he wasn’t a hero. Eleven years ago, you know what happened?” Alex asked, Steph nodded to confirm this. “Well, you probably know the fabricated version…” Steph rolled her eyes as she grumbled under her breath, but stopped to let Alex continue. “My dad… He was here, he… He was one of the men in Jed’s team, he was one of the men that were left behind.”
Steph just stared at the ground, shaking her head in disbelief. The fact that Jed had everyone fooled for over a decade, known as a hero when he wasn’t a hero at all.
“Some men told Jed to call it off because there was a lot of runoff moisture in the soil, that it was ‘fucked’ and they should get out. But Jed didn’t call it off and they kept digging, until pipes burst and—” Alex took a deep breath, wincing in pain. When Steph started to move in worry, Alex stopped her by holding up her hands. “He knew people were going to drown, but left them behind in order to save himself and some others. My dad was one of the people left behind…” Alex took out a locket and showed it to Steph, opening it and revealing the pictures of her and Gabe when they were younger. “I found this in the rubble… My dad had it, he—he died here…”
There was a mixture of emotions going through Steph, it felt like she was riding a rollercoaster she couldn’t get out of. She was furious at Jed, Diane and especially Typhon. But she also felt intense sadness, for Gabe who she remembered had told her about looking for their father in Haven Springs when he first arrived. For Alex, to find out she lost both her father and brother in the same town, due to the same company even. But most of all, Steph felt sick. She felt sick to her stomach that Alex went through so much in such little time, most of all being betrayed by someone they all thought they could trust.
“I think I passed out or something, I can’t remember…”
“Fuck, Alex… I’m so sorry…” Steph was as careful as possible when she pulled Alex into an embrace, holding her while caressing her hair. “You don’t deserve any of this,” she whispered, fighting upcoming tears.
“And then you,” Alex said, pressing her index finger against Steph’s chest, “get the brilliant idea to come down here all by yourself?!”
Steph let out a nervous chuckle, shrinking a little bit.
“What on earth were you thinking, Steph?” Alex’s voice didn’t have much of a bite, in fact it sounded more worried than anything. “You really are a disaster lesbian.”
Steph snorted and burst out into laughter, shaking her head while Alex looked at her with a very confused expression.
“Wanna share what’s so hilarious?” Alex asked with a little grin.
Steph nodded while simultaneously waving her hand, indicating for Alex to give her a few moments. Alex waited patiently for Steph to stop laughing and catch her breath. “Well,” Steph finally said, “I thought the exact same thing to myself, earlier.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Alex replied and let out a soft chuckle, only to wince and grasp at her side.
“Shit, we gotta get you home and get you looked at by a medical professional.” Steph got to her feet, grabbed her jacket off the ground and put it on after slapping some of the dirt off. “Which I am very much not, sadly.” When Steph noticed Alex was trying to get up by herself, she stopped her. “Calm down, tiger. Or… “ She took another look at Alex’s sweatshirt and smirked. “Or I should say ‘sabertooth’.”
Alex raised a brow as she looked up at Steph, then down at her sweatshirt and snorted once she realized the reference. “Nice one.”
“Yes, you are. Now let me help you, give me just a minute.” Steph quickly put everything but the flashlight back into the backpack, closed it and slung it onto her back and shoulders. She grabbed the flashlight and stuffed it into the front of her pants, eliciting a snort from Alex in response. “Listen, I need my hands to be free. This works, don’t judge me, Chen.” Steph grinned as she carefully helped Alex to her feet. Her grin quickly disappeared when she noticed the amount of pain Alex was in as she tried to stand, not putting much weight on her left leg. “Your left leg hurts?”
“No, my right leg does, though.”
Steph blinked a few times, then realized her mistake. “Yes, your right leg. For me it’s the left one, but yes, that one.”
“Damn right.” Steph had Alex put an arm around her neck and shoulder, so Alex could lean on her while walking. “Okay, so we’re gonna take it nice and slow. If you need us to stop and take a break, tell me.”
They hadn’t even reached the tunnel that supposedly was to lead them out of the mine, which Steph had walked past earlier, when Alex needed a break. Steph nodded and led them towards the wall, then carefully helped Alex sit on a large wooden crate that had been left there.
Steph crouched down and took the water bottle out, handing it to Alex. She waited until Alex drank the last bit of water in it, took it from her again and put it back into the bag. She took out the other, still full water bottle and drank from it.
“Hey, Alex?” Steph asked after returning the water bottle into the backpack. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, or if you don’t have the mental capacity to, but…” She looked up at Alex to gauge her response, biting her lip somewhat nervously until Alex gave her a nod. “Care to expand on the whole ‘taking Pike’s fear’ thing?”
Alex took a deep breath and closed her eyes with a nod. “It’s… It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try my best.” When Steph grabbed Alex’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, Alex’s lips curled up into a small smile. “It’s like… I sense the emotion so strongly and I reach out, grasp onto it and start pulling. And I keep pulling, until I’m holding it and it’s just being sucked into me.”
Steph looked at their hands and worried her lip, thinking. “That… Sounds scary… And kinda impressive?”
Alex shrugged. “I never did it like this before, the scariest for me was that I wasn’t sure what it would do to me.” She looked at Steph and her brows knit together. “I’m sorry for worrying you so much, I just—”
Steph interrupted and put her other hand on Alex’s knee, “I understand, Alex. I mean… I think I do.” She repositioned herself so she was in a more comfortable position, putting less strain on her legs and feet. “I can’t blame you for wanting to protect me and Ryan,” Steph said and gave Alex’s knee a little squeeze. “I just got really—” Steph cut herself off, not sure if she should burden Alex with it. Alex had been through enough already, had enough to deal with without her piling on top of it.
“Scared?” Alex asked, causing Steph to look up at her again. “I know, Steph. I can tell, you still are.”
Steph let out a deep sigh and nodded, “Yeah.” She swallowed hard as she felt her eyes getting glassy again, she didn’t want to cry. “I was just afraid that I’d…” The words were stuck in her throat, she could not get herself to say it, despite trying. I thought I was gonna lose you…
“Not a chance.” Steph looked up as Alex’s voice sounded confident, like stating a fact. “I won’t let Typhon get away with what they did. They can’t get rid of me and they can’t keep hiding the truth.”
Alex’s expression had completely changed from sad and guilty to determined. Steph was once again reminded that she did not want to get on Alex’s bad side. Although she couldn’t deny how attractive Alex was in this very moment, which seemed a terrible thing to be thinking at the current circumstances.
“You’re right.” Steph stood up and nodded with an equally determined look on her face, “I’ll be right there with you, Alex.”
“Thank you, Steph. I really appreciate that,” Alex said with a smile, “and you won’t lose me. Not if I get to have a say about it.”
Steph felt her heart squeeze in response, but in a good way. She felt her cheeks get warmer and she realized she was blushing.
“Fuck,” Alex cursed as she tried to stand again.
When Steph shot her a worried look, Alex winced right as she put some of her weight on her right leg. “Your leg…”
“Yeah, it—well, it hurts. Quite a lot…”
Steph gestured for Alex to sit down again, which she did, albeit after some protesting. “You can’t walk on it, Alex.” She handed Alex the flashlight, receiving a confused look from her in response. “I’m going to carry you, so you’ll have to hold onto the flashlight.”
“Steph, you can’t—”
“Yes, I can and I will, Alex. I told Ryan I would carry you if I had to and I meant it.” Steph waited for Alex to take the flashlight from her, then gave her a reassuring smile. “I promise you I won’t touch you anywhere inappropriate on purpose. If it does happen, my apologies in advance.” Alex snorted and Steph couldn’t help but let out a chuckle before looking a little more stern. “I mean it, Alex. I’d never take advantage of you like that, you mean too much to me.”
For a few moments, neither of them spoke. Steph waited for Alex to give her the consent she required, which Alex gave her about a minute later.
“I trust you, Steph.” Alex held the flashlight and indicated she was ready to be lifted up and carried.
With a deep breath Steph stepped beside Alex, who lifted her right arm and rested it around Steph’s neck. As carefully as she possibly could Steph wrapped her arm around Alex’s back and placed her hand on Alex’s left side, sliding her other arm underneath the hollow of Alex’s knees. With a bit of effort she managed to scoop Alex up into her arms without hurting Alex too much.
“You alright?” Steph asked, just to be sure. When Alex nodded to confirm Steph started walking further into the tunnel as Alex illuminated the path ahead with the flashlight. “Comfortable?” As soon as she said it, she mentally facepalmed. “I mean, like… As much as possible right now…”
The sound of Alex’s laugh was nice to hear, even though it was cut short by a wince of pain. “Yeah, I’m as comfortable as I can be.”
When they came across a large battered board that showed the layout of the mine, Steph let out a loud sigh of relief. Hallelujah, finally something useful.
“You can set me down for now, so we can take a look at it and probably drink something,” Alex said. Steph nodded and carefully set Alex down, not removing her arm from underneath Alex’s, offering support. “This mine is like a maze,” Alex muttered, “there’s so many tunnels…”
Steph took out the water bottle and drank a few mouthfuls before handing it to Alex, taking the flashlight into the hand with which she supported Alex. “Great. I love mazes!” Steph rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh.
“We’ll figure it out, I’m sure.”
“We don’t really have a choice.” Steph took the water bottle from Alex and handed her the flashlight again, then put the bottle back into the bag. They looked at the map and noticed the ‘x’, which was likely to indicate their location, which wasn’t very close to the exit, that much was obvious.
“So, if I understand this correctly, there’s some sort of elevator?”
“Huh? Where?” Steph squinted as she looked over the map again. It took Alex pointing at it for Steph to find it. “I hope it still works…” she mumbled. It was quite a bit away from where they currently were, but at least now they knew where to go, instead of having to wander around aimlessly. “I assume your phone’s dead?”
“Shit,” Steph grumbled, “otherwise we could’ve taken a picture of the map.”
Alex looked at her with a questioning look, “So that means your phone’s not working, either?”
With a sigh Steph shook her head. “Nope, I was not the brightest and may have jumped when I shouldn’t have and when I tried, my phone didn’t turn on.”
“Shit, that sucks—Wait, hold on… You jumped?”
Steph awkwardly rubbed her neck as she let out a nervous chuckle.
“I’m surprised your legs aren’t broken.” Alex shook her head with an exasperated sigh. “Very glad they’re not broken, because then we’d both have been stuck here.”
Steph felt her cheeks get even warmer as she realized she hadn’t even thought of that possibility. Alex was right, it could’ve ended very differently. “Well, uh… Let’s just be happy they’re not, I guess.” While still flustered Steph carefully picked Alex up again, carrying her.
“I am, dork.” Alex’s voice was quiet, but Steph heard it just fine and blew a raspberry in response. “We have to go in there, left.” As the flashlight illuminated another tunnel, Steph made her way there. Every now and then she had to kick some big rocks out of the way, but all in all there weren’t too many obstacles.
Steph came to an abrupt stop when they were faced with a closed off tunnel, which was the third time now that it happened.
“Maybe we should take a little break,” Alex said as she pointed the flashlight at the boarded up tunnel in front of them. Steph reluctantly put Alex onto her feet and sat down without looking before doing so. Her arms were tired but she was determined to carry Alex; she had been through enough and needed medical attention. Steph was willing to give up drumming for a few weeks if necessary, but she’d carry Alex as long as she’d be able to.
Steph had handed Alex the other squished granola bar that was in the backpack, ignoring the way her stomach growled as she watched Alex eat it. When they both had drank some water, she played with the bottle’s cap; passing it between her fingers and back repeatedly. Her left pinkie finger hurt more than she could put into words and the discoloration was becoming more and more obvious. Regardless she ignored it, figuring it was probably just sprained.
“You know…” Alex said, causing Steph to look up, watching as Alex carefully sat down beside her and ignoring Steph’s protests as she did. “You might probably think I’m—”
“I doubt it.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to say, Steph.”
“You were gonna say ‘crazy’, right? Or ‘insane’, something like that?” When Alex didn’t reply right away, Steph nodded. “Yeah, I figured. Again; I highly doubt it.” When Alex gave her a credulous look, Steph shrugged. “Try me.”
“Alright,” Alex said as she leaned against Steph a little bit for support. “So, I saw Gabe.”
“What was it like?” Steph asked, genuinely curious. Alex seemed taken aback by her response, but Steph didn’t falter.
“It was… Strange, but kind of nice?” Alex shook her head as she thought back, still not sure if they had been visions or hallucinations, or something else. “We were at the hospital where our mom was staying. I was ten and Gabe was fourteen, but we both looked the way we did before Gabe—”
When Alex stopped mid-sentence, Steph wrapped an arm around Alex’s shoulder, offering a gentle squeeze for comfort.
“He told me ‘play your part’, which I didn’t understand at first, until dad came out of the room and told us to behave. He sat down and told me to go to my mom, which I did.”
Steph noticed how Alex’s voice became shaky and she realized where this was going, but she didn’t say anything. She waited patiently for Alex to continue, gently rubbing Alex’s shoulder as she waited.
“The memory played out, but then Gabe was suddenly next to me and asked if I wasn’t forgetting something; if that was really how it went.” Alex sighed and took a deep breath before she continued: “The memory started over again, I went to check on my mom and when she started coughing, I brought her water to drink. She asked me to promise her something… To take care of Gabe and my dad, to be strong for them, because they’d need me. Mom gave me her locket… That was the last time I ever talked to her before—before she passed…”
Steph wanted to wrap Alex into her arms and hold her, she didn’t need to see Alex’s face to know she was crying. The way Alex’s voice sounded and the way her body trembled gave it away. Steph felt her heart break at the thought of a young Alex having to look after two men, of which one a full grown adult. It made her realize Alex probably didn’t have much of a childhood and had to mature really quickly.
“Suddenly I wasn’t at the hospital anymore, but at our house in Portland. Gabe told me I was eleven and he was almost fifteen, that he and dad were ticking timebombs and I kept trying to diffuse them both. Then he told me to ‘play my part’ again.” Alex wiped some tears from her face and took another deep breath. “Just like before the memory played out, only for Gabe to ask me if that’s how it really went down and the memory to start over again.
“Gabe and dad were fighting again, outside. I was listening to a record on my break from doing homework. Eventually I wanted to check on them, but when I was about to open the door, dad stormed in, followed by Gabe. They kept fighting and Gabe told me that dad lost his job again. I tried to offer a solution and said we could sell some records or my guitar. They kept fighting and… I’m pretty sure dad was going to hit Gabe, but hit me with his elbow instead.”
Steph was literally biting her tongue, forcing herself to keep her breathing even and not lose her cool. Hearing how much Alex went through upset her more than she could put into words. Nobody deserved that, nobody.
“I told dad that it was okay, I wasn’t hurt and I knew it was an accident, but he said he couldn’t ‘do this’ and started packing stuff. He went on to say that someone would come for us, perhaps the lady from CPS. I begged him not to, but he left. I broke down and threw the locket mom gave to me at him.
“He stopped, looked down and grabbed the locket off the floor. He just looked at us and then he… He just walked out… That was the last time I saw him…”
It took all of Steph’s willpower to keep herself from screaming, the fact that their dad had just up and left them, when Gabe and Alex were still children… Steph felt both furious and intense sadness, which made her think of what Alex must’ve been feeling. To practically become an orphan at such a young age…
“There’s more, but… I don’t think I can—”
“You don’t have to, Alex,” Steph interrupted and carefully wrapped both arms around Alex, pulling her into a hug. “I am so sorry that you had to go through all that.” Despite her best efforts, Steph lost the fight and the tears started falling. She cried until her nose became all snotty again for the second time this morning. She caressed Alex’s hair repeatedly, not just to comfort Alex, but also to soothe herself. To ground herself and not lose herself in the emotions she was currently experiencing.
She had no idea how long they sat like that, nor did she care. Steph didn’t let go until Alex moved and let go of her.
“Sorry about that…” Alex apologized, to which Steph shook her head.
“You have nothing to apologize for, Alex. Nothing.” Steph got up and helped Alex back onto her feet as well. “What d’ya say? Ready to get out of this hellhole?” she asked with a playful grin. The way Alex chuckled at her in response warmed her heart.
“Don’t think I’ll ever be more ready.”
Steph carefully scooped Alex up and into her arms, continuing their journey back to Haven Springs.
When the flashlight illuminated what seemed to be the manual elevator, both Alex and Steph let out a sigh of relief. The sound of chuckling filled the tunnel as they made their way to the elevator and Steph put Alex down.
“So, I guess this is our only way out, huh?” Steph mumbled as she stuck her head inside the open space and looked up. She took a step back and looked at Alex, “You think this thing still works properly?”
Alex answered with a shrug. “I mean, this mine was last used eleven years ago? Not sure how old this elevator is, but I’d guess it should still work…”
“Now we only need to figure out how this thing operates.” Steph looked around, trying to figure it out.
“We already know, Steph.”
Steph looked at Alex with a puzzled look, her eyebrows raised and head cocked to the side a bit. “We do?”
“Yup, it says it right there.” Alex pointed at the metal beside the opening, the light illuminating the text that was there.
“Right. I knew that, I saw it before you pointed it out.” Steph crossed her arms and pouted, eyes widening when she felt Alex pressing a kiss onto her cheek.
“I’m sure you did,” Alex said with a smile and started reading the text aloud. Some of the text was faded and impossible to make out, but Alex got the gist of it. “So on the side there’s something to make it go up and down, to get it down here. There should be a similar thing inside the elevator to make it go up or down while using it.”
Steph walked to the right and looked on the side where there was indeed a handwheel with a handle attached, sadly it did not indicate whether turning it clockwise was up or down.
With a grunt Steph managed to get the handwheel to turn, albeit slowly. Steph wasn’t too surprised by this, as it was to be expected to not turn smoothly due to disuse over the past decade. There was loud creaking as the handwheel started to turn, followed by a squeak that was nearly deafening. Thankfully it only lasted about two seconds before it was replaced by a sound that Steph couldn’t describe other than grinding.
“My arms better be extremely buff after this,” Steph huffed as she alternated between arms cranking the handwheel into motion. Little by little it turned a bit smoother, but it still took quite a bit of effort and strength. The pain in her pinkie finger was almost unbearable, but she didn’t quite have the luxury to worry about it right now.
“You need me to take over for a bit?” Alex offered, Steph shook her head. “Steph, come on.” Alex put a hand on Steph’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “You can do it once we’re in the elevator, deal?”
Steph’s hand stopped moving, and with that the creaking and grinding sound did too. She looked at Alex, gauging her expression and thought for a few moments. Her arms were pretty tired, but she wasn’t willing to admit it. It was hard to accept help, but she realized she didn’t really have much of a choice.
After letting out a sigh, Steph let go of the handle on the handwheel and took the flashlight Alex handed her. Steph stood beside Alex and helped to support her, so that Alex wasn’t putting too much weight on her injured leg.
It took a couple of, what Steph guessed to be, minutes for the elevator to arrive. It wasn’t impressive in the slightest, all it could be described as was an open metal box with a grate as a ceiling.
They made their way into the open elevator with extreme caution, Steph felt nervous as she expected the thing to simply collapse with them still in it. Not the time to think about that, Gingrich. You’re gonna make it out of here and back to Haven Springs, you have no choice. She took off the backpack and set it down, freeing herself from its weight.
When Alex chuckled Steph turned to look at her with confusion, wondering what exactly Alex was chuckling about. “Hmm?”
“You’re just really cute,” Alex replied, causing Steph’s cheeks to turn pink. “Especially when you blush like that.”
The temperature in her face rose in record time, making her forget about how chilly she had been earlier. Steph stammered, but gave up after no coherent words came out of her mouth and instead started to crank the handwheel inside the open elevator.
Thankfully, for whatever reason, the handwheel on the inside of the elevator let itself be turned with more ease than the one that was on the outside. The progress was slow, but they were moving up. The creaking sound was continuous and Steph had a legitimate fear of the sound being stuck in her head for days to come, it was nearly as bad as nails on a chalkboard. If only she had brought earplugs, alas she’d have to suffer until they got all the way up.
“I can’t believe Jed knew this whole time…” Steph looked up in surprise, as the statement was not what she expected. However, she felt the same way. She could relate to Alex on this particular matter, she never expected Jed to be a part in all of this. Let alone go to such extremes to keep the secret from getting out. “Do you think Ryan knows?”
The question struck Steph and her arms’ movement stopped, causing the elevator to stop; stuck between levels. “Fuck…” Steph mouthed and sucked in a breath of air as her heart squeezed painfully. Even though there was no way for her to be a hundred percent certain, her gut feeling told her Ryan didn’t know. She could not imagine him walking around with such knowledge and not crumbling under the weight of it, Ryan was a good person. The amount of times he’d told Steph about taking in an injured bird to nurse it back to health and releasing it again once it had made a full recovery; more times than Steph could count.
“You’ve known him for quite a while, haven’t you?” Alex asked and Steph nodded.
“For a little over a year,” Steph answered, “I really don’t think he knows…” She leaned back and rested the back of her head against the metal wall behind her. Suddenly Steph felt furious all over again, furious at Jed for keeping this hidden from everyone and for, as far as they were aware, lying to Ryan about it all. She knew Ryan looked up to Jed, as he had mentioned it a few times here and there. Even if he hadn’t, Steph could tell; it showed in the way Ryan talked about Jed. Her heart dropped at the idea of Ryan having to find out the truth about Jed like this, it made Steph feel horrible.
“Hey,” Alex whispered as she took Steph’s hand in her own and gave it a squeeze to gain Steph’s attention. “This is not your fault, Steph. The only one to blame is Jed.” Steph nodded, knowing full well that Alex was right. “And we’ll be there for Ryan, in whichever way he needs us to.”
“Right.” Steph’s voice was soft, barely audible. This whole situation was beyond fucked up, that much was certain. And as much as her entire being screamed at her to flee, to run away, Steph refused to. No more running. “Well, I better keep cranking this thing up. We have a meeting to go to.” It was like a fire had been lit inside Steph; filled with adrenaline as she was determined to make sure the truth came out and Jed would have to face the consequences of his crimes.
“I believe in you,” Alex said as she squeezed Steph’s hand again before letting it go.
When the elevator came to a stop and refused to move any further up, Steph nearly collapsed, letting out a deep sigh of relief.
“Steph!” Alex held onto Steph as she slid down against the back of the elevator, ending up beside Alex in a seating position. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m very gay.” As Alex didn’t reply Steph blinked several times, trying to get her brain to work. “Wait, what?”
Alex shook her head with a snort, although her expression was one of concern. “I asked if you were okay, not if you’re gay. I know you are, dork. The D20 shirt you wore when I first met you kind of gave it away, not to mention your reaction when I picked the ‘Unicorn Sandwich’ record.”
Steph’s eyes widened a little, her eyebrows rising as she looked at Alex, but not making eye contact. “You… You noticed?” she asked and was answered with confirmation in the form of nodding. “Huh, cool.”
“You still have to answer my question, you know?”
“Wait, question? What question?” Steph was genuinely confused. “Oh, oh! Yeah, I think I’m alright. My arms are a bit sore, though.”
“Remind me to massage them once I’ve had some decent sleep.”
“We’ll see about that after you’ve been looked at by a medical professional, Chen.” Steph hastily tried to get up in an attempt to hide the fact she’d gotten flustered by the mere thought of Alex massaging her arms.
She grabbed the backpack and put it onto her back and shoulders again, then helped Alex onto her feet and scooped her up into her arms once more.
“Steph, I can try to walk for a bit, your arms—”
“Don’t you worry about them, once the exit comes into view, I’ll put you down. I just don’t feel comfortable making you walk in this darkness with crap lying around everywhere.” Alex didn’t protest besides letting out a sigh and took her duty of holding the flashlight quite seriously. Steph stepped out of the open elevator with a grunt and paused shortly before walking down the dark tunnel ahead.
They only came across two entries to other tunnels, both were boarded up, so it made sense to just pass them. Steph followed the path as it bent and turned, the soles of her feet ached and burned, but she wouldn’t let Alex notice. Steph didn’t allow herself to complain, as it was nothing compared to the pain Alex must be in. And so she ignored the burning and aching sensation in her feet, continuing to walk and follow the path.
“You know…” Alex let out an airy chuckle and Steph hummed in response, encouraging Alex to continue. “If the circumstances were any different, this would be pretty romantic.”
The moment Steph processed what Alex had said, she nearly tripped. Once again her face was warm and her cheeks undoubtedly a deep pink shade. “Y-yeah…” she stammered and swallowed with effort while attempting to keep her breathing even.
After what Steph estimated to be about ten minutes, they took another small break and drank some more water. The bottle was now less than half full and Steph hoped they were close to the exit, preferably they’d get out of this mine before they ran out of water completely.
Once they were done and continued the journey, Steph started to notice how tired her arms really were. It felt like she was continuously being pricked with pins and needles, but she would simply grind her teeth and push through it.