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Dog Days Are Over

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Man, that kid made fucking up look cool

Cavanaugh Park // Something Corporate

 


 

Later, it seems crazy that she owes everything to Polly.

So strange to think that if Polly had never dated her brother, never came to their house on a long weekend, never come out to the back porch to smoke and found Piper sitting there with a book on her knees, none of it would have happened. Piper would have probably just continued to attend boring old Edison High School, and her entire life would have probably been different.

Except Polly does start dating Danny, and she does come home to visit for the weekend of New Years’ Eve, and she does sneak outside with a pack of cigarettes in her coat pocket - it’s also strange to think that she probably got those cigarettes from Alex, except Piper didn’t know yet that Alex existed, which feels like the strangest thing of all.

 


 

“Oh, hey,” Polly grins at her, waves her cigarette pack. “Want one?”

“No.” Just that, blurted out and nervous, sounding like a goody two shoes who would never smoke a cigarette. To be fair, that’s exactly what Piper is, but she doesn’t want Polly to think that. She’s been staying with the Chapmans for two days, but they haven’t talked much.

Polly is the same age as Piper, but she seems older, even before the cigarette. Maybe because she’s dating Danny, and Piper’s used to thinking of her brother and his friends as much older, even though they’re only a grade apart. But maybe it’s just the boarding school thing; she’s here, after all, spending a holiday with her significant other instead of her own family. That seems like a grown up thing to do, somehow.

“What’re you reading?”

“Um…” Piper tilts the cover for her to see. “The Great Gatsby.”

“Oh, nice. We did that in Lit. It was fun.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, we had a Gatsby style party at the end of the unit. Got to raid the theatre dept for 20’s clothes.”

“That sounds cool,” Piper tells her, meaning it. As far as she knows, everyone in her class is printing SparkNotes off the internet. Even though it’s Honors English.

“Yeah.” Polly tilts her head at her. “You’re a freshmen, too, right?” Piper nods. “How come you don’t go to Litch?”

“Oh, I dunno…” She trails off, voice vague, already embarrassed by the question. “Dad went to Overbrook, so it was basically always decided that Danny and Cal will go there. But no one went to Litchfield, so they didn’t really push it.”

“Gotcha,” Polly replies, but Piper can tell from the look on her face that she thinks it’s weird. And maybe it is, now that Piper’s thinking about it. The schools are across a lake from each other, brother/sister boarding schools who do plenty of social events together, and Litchfield has just has as prestigious of an academic reputation.

They had asked her, to be fair. Back in eighth grade, an application packet had come in the mail, and her father had asked if she had any interest in going. But Piper had never really thought about it before, not even when her brother had moved away at the beginning of the year, and at thirteen, the idea of giving up her friends and starting over had seemed like the end of the world.

But now she’s almost fifteen, a semester into high school, and a little change doesn’t sound all that bad.

The thing is, ninth grade hasn’t exactly been everything Piper had hoped it would be. With one semester down, she’s already as bored as she was in middle school. Besides, with Katie obsessed with her cheerleading friends and Olivia only ever wanting to hang out with her boyfriend, it’s really only Piper and Gina and Rachel. Those two exchanged BFF necklaces back in, like, second grade and still wear them almost every day. So it makes sense that they’re used to sleeping over at each other’s house just them, and don’t always think to invite other people.

And anyway. They’re part of what’s boring. She remembers when she and her friends - all five of them - used to have so much fun, even just last summer: night swimming in her pool before falling into five sleeping bags laid out like the spokes of a wheel on the basement carpet, giggling into the night, taking magazine quizzes out loud or playing Uno or making up nonsensical stories one word at a time.

Now all anyone wants to talk about is boys and make up and other girls at school, usually in a mean way. And Piper knows they think she’s a nerd; they always act like it’s some cute little quirk that she likes to read all the time, but she gets the feeling sometimes that Rachel-and-Gina talk about her, too, maybe the same way they do the weird girl in the cafeteria, the one who always goes back to the line to talk to the lunch lady.

“You should apply for next year,” Polly says, blowing cigarette smoke in a huge fat clump. “Danny says you’re a total brain, you should get in easy.”

“He said that?” Piper asks, surprised; it’s not like her brother to compliment her.

“Sure. Said you read all the time.” She smiles and nods at Piper’s book. “Clearly he was right.”

“Yeah…” Piper smiles, too, because Polly doesn’t sound like she’s making fun of her for it. “Maybe I will. Apply, I mean. My school sucks.”

“I mean, Litch sucks sometimes, too. The uniforms and the study hours and everything. But there’s still so much more freedom, you know? I’m totally dreading having to go home and live with my parents again this summer.”

The words seduce her slowly, their appeal becoming more and more evident as the day goes on, finally peaking at the family's New Years Day dinner as she watches her parents put on their act for relatives (and Polly). Then Cal rolls his eyes at her from across the table as their mother lauds some accomplishment of Danny’s, and Piper realizes with a stab of panic that in a year and a half Cal will be gone off to Overbrook, too, leaving her alone and free of allies in their parents’ house.

She looks up the application online that night.

 


 

Her school friends don’t seem sad when Piper tells them she’s going away to Litchfield Academy next year. They’re only shocked and appalled at the prospect of an all-girls boarding school.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“That’s completely boring!”

On Litchfield’s website, there’s an entire section with the heading “Why All-Girls?” Apparently there all kinds of reasons, and studies to back them up: most of them are about the environment fostering more confidence and fewer limitations, allowing girls to see every leadership opportunity as open to them, or skewing the learning style specifically toward females, but there’s also a paragraph about putting academics over socialization: concentrating on work instead of “flirting” or “applying lip gloss”.

But Piper doesn't say any of that, obviously.

She just makes a face like the question is dumb, and tells them, “My brother’s school is right across the lake.” She knows that will shut them up - most of them, Gina especially, had crushes on Danny back in middle school. “And we do social events with them all the time. And we can go to their football games and everything.” She smiles, modest. “There are even two formal dances every year, and you don’t have to wait until you’re an upperclassmen to go.”

This grants her a respectful, envious silence; Piper’s friends are currently deep in some major prom envy.

After a moment though, Olivia wrinkles her nose and breaks the silence. “But you have to wear uniforms.”

 


 

Polly visits twice over the summer, and even though she and Danny are usually locked downstairs in the basement or off somewhere in his new car, she manages to find stray moments to talk excitedly to Piper about school, giving her the run down on teachers and class selection and the campus.

Once, on Polly’s second visit, she and Piper end up trouncing Cal and Danny in a tennis match, and when it’s over Polly grins at her. “You’re good. We could use you at Litch.”

“You’re on the team?”

“Yeah, everyone has to play a sport, you didn’t see that? Just like everyone has to pick an arts concentration…I do drama, by the way. Ms. Rogers is the shit.” She takes a long gulp from a water bottle, then asks, “Do you play any other sports?”

“No. Just tennis.” Piper had been ranked sixth on her high school team, pretty good for a freshmen. 

Polly taps Piper’s racket with hers. “Cool, then it’s perfect. Maybe we can even be a doubles team.”

Piper smiles. “That’d be awesome.”

With only ten or so conversations between them, she and Polly haven’t exactly had a chance to become close friends, but it makes Piper feels better that she’ll know someone at school, a tiny head start in the daunting task of rebuilding her social life from nothing.

 


 

She wears her uniform for move in day, even though Danny never does, but there’s a Welcome (or Welcome Back) Assembly that night and Piper decides it’s best to be prepared.

Specifically, she wears the formal version, which isn’t required for class, only official assemblies: blue and white checked skirt, white button up, skinny blue tie, and navy blue blazer. However, Piper quickly realizes this is the least practical outfit for unpacking a car at the beginning of August. Her dorm, Kerman House, is a Georgian style building with three floors plus a basement, and no elevator. Her room is only on the second floor, but she’s sweating on the very first trip, weighed down with a duffel bag full of books and dragging a rolling Coach suitcase up the stairs behind her.

Polly had told Piper most girls keep their same rooms and roommates year to year, so she would likely be placed with another new sophomore - unless the number of transfer students are uneven, and then there's always a chance she could get stuck with a freshmen.

Piper fervently hopes that isn’t the case; she’s a little nervous about having a roommate, the first time she’ll ever share a room with someone beyond single night sleepovers, but mostly she’s hoping it will be an easy way to make at least one immediate friend.

She’d gotten the name of her roommate in the packet that had arrived a few weeks ago, but Alex Vause’s Facebook account was almost completely private. Her profile picture, the only thing Piper could see, featured four different girls with their arms slung around each other, so she had way to tell which was one was her future roommate.  On the plus side, none of them looked younger than Piper. Probably another sophomore transfer.

But when she puts her new key into the door, half of the room appears to be very lived in.

There’s no one inside, but even if Alex Vause had arrived early this morning, as soon as the dorms officially opened, it seems unlikely that she would have decorated so much already.

It makes Piper’s side of the room look clinically blank, like a patient room at some rehab center: a single twin bed, lofted about three feet off the ground, with a smooth wooden desk and single chair positioned at the foot of it, plus a matching dresser. The walls are dull white plaster, a drab mirror to the wall on Alex Vause’s side, which have been plastered with posters of bands Piper’s only vaguely heard of: Tegan and Sara, Sleater-Kinney, Marina and the Diamonds.

Piper throws her suitcase on the bed while her mother drops a hamper full of sheets and pillows, her dad setting down the two plastic cartons full of books. Though her mom does take a moment to sniff disapprovingly at the somewhat messy other side of her room, her parents move quickly outside again, heading back to the car. They’d dropped Danny off first and are obviously ready to get the unloading part of the day over with.

But Piper lingers for a moment, peeling off her blazer and setting on the bed. The hallways are full of other girls and parents moving in, and she hadn’t seen anyone else in uniform. Carefully rolling up the sleeves of her shirt, Piper takes in the rest of her roommates’ side.

Every inch of the desk and dresser’s surface is covered in stacks of books and, occasionally, DVDs, many of which have a yellow “Used” sticker wrapped around the spine. It’s rendered the desk a completely unworkable space. The comforter is deep red with black trim, sloppily made, a laptop open on the bed, which is lofted as high as Piper’s, a mini-fridge tucked into the space beneath it. On top of the fridge is a power strip, chargers and laptop cords dangling from almost every outlet.

“Hey, Dad says to come help,” Cal says from the doorway, dropping what's easily the smallest bag they’d packed. “He’s about to bring up your shelf or whatever.” He glances over at the other side of the bedroom and widens his eyes. “Damn, your roommate seems way cooler than you.”

“Shut up,” she says with no real menace, shoving him a little as she pushes past.

“Did you see her yet?” Cal asks eagerly, falling into step with Piper.

“No.” She’s glad to have him to talk to walking down the hallway. A few other students are giving her curious glances, maybe just because it’s easy to recognize someone new (the current sophomore class is only 48 students), but she’s feeling self conscious in the uniform.

They clear the rest of the car trunk in one more trip, but the bags and and cartons everywhere make the room much too crowded for four people.

She’d kind of like to go ahead and get the goodbye part over with - she’ll deal with her own slowly descending stress better on her own, but her mom insists on putting the sheets and comforter on Piper’s new bed, while her father quickly reassembles the short, three tiered bookshelf she’d brought from home and fits it snuggly under her lofted bed. Piper stands uselessly beside her brother while they do all this, scanning her own walls and worrying that she doesn’t have anything to decorate.

The whole day has been an endless stream of questions and last minute reminders, many of which took place during a three hour car ride Piper couldn’t escape from, and as a result she’s spent most of it thrilled for her family’s impending exit from her day to day life.

But when it actually happens, it feels too sudden, too soon. She’s not ready, and panic hardens in her gut when her father puts two hands on her shoulders, giving her a dramatic last look before pulling her into a hug. “We’ll miss you, baby. But I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” she whispers, crushed against his shoulder and feeling five years old again, afraid to be left at kindergarten all day long.

But she doesn’t want to cry, so she grinds her teeth together and smiles without opening her lips when he lets go. She hugs her mom, and it’s over faster, punctuated with a crisp peck on the cheek.  Finally Cal, with prompting, hugs her quickly, which is weird because they almost never do that.

His real goodbye comes fives minutes after they left, her iPhone buzzing with a text.

CAL
[you realize I’m basically an only child now. just me, Bill and Carol. kinda h8 you]

She smiles and quickly texts back.

PIPER
[Sorry about that. You know you’ll be here in a year.]

CAL
[At the all girls school?! Fuck yes!!!]

Cal punctuates the text with an emoji that, coupled with the statement above, manages to looking shockingly pervy considering it’s just a cartoon smiley face.

Piper laughs out loud, but her throat still feels kind of tight.

Most of the doors throughout the hallway are propped open, and she can hear the occasional squeal of a frenzied reunion, or a bluntly shouted name, but Piper walks over and closes her own door, too overwhelmed at the moment to make a good impression in case anyone decides to mingle.

The admittedly small space of the room between the two beds is currently crowded with Piper’s stuff, so she sets about unpacking, trying to set every bag with clothes on her bed.

It’s probably the least pressing thing, but Piper can’t help it, she starts in on the books first. Not everything she brought will fit on her shelf, so there's a lot of decision making involved.

Harry Potter takes up almost half of the first shelf, and she fills the rest pretty easily with her other favorites. The second shelf provokes more debate; once she lines up her narrow set of Jane Austen, she starts debating between young adult novels and short story anthologies and classic literature. It’s not the best motivation, but she wants to display the books that make her look smart, but cool: like someone with good taste.

Glancing at the closed door, Piper stands up and walks to her roommates desk, rotating one of the piles of books so she can read the titles.

She doesn’t recognize everything, but enough to know there isn’t a particularly narrow selection here: a Gillian Flynn book stacked on top of William Faulkner, a collection of poetry sandwiched by a copy of Peter Pan and Tina Fey’s memoir.

“Hey.”

It’s a greeting, not an accusation, but Piper whips around guiltily anyway.

The girl in the doorway grins when she sees her, not seeming bothered that Piper was creeping through her stuff.  She's got white earbuds in, snaking up from her pocket, but plucks one out to talk to Piper. “Wow, you went formal right off the bat, huh?”

In all the agonizing book related choices, Piper had forgotten about her stupid uniform. Her cheeks heat instantly. Alex Vause is wearing a thin black tank top and jeans with gaping holes in the knees, rolled up a few inches above what appear to be…bowling shoes?

“I thought we had to wear them for the assembly.”

“Well, yeah, but you got like five hours.” To Piper’s surprise, Alex reaches over and tugs teasingly at the knot of Piper’s tie. “Release yourself from the chokehold of Litchfield oppression.”

For some reason, this makes her face feel even hotter. She loosens the tie and tugs it over her head. “I, uh, take it you don’t like the uniforms.”

“Nah, they’re alright, I’m just fucking around. So.” She folds her arms, mock stern, but her eyes are distinctly amused. “We’re already at the snooping level of roommate-hood? Impressive, considering we haven’t even formally exchanged names.”

“Sorry.” God, talk about a ridiculous first impression. “I was just organizing my bookshelf, and, uh…” She trails off, unable to think of a normal way to explain that she wanted to see what books might be considered lame enough to be hidden under the bed, but luckily Alex’s gaze move to Piper’s unpacked cartons of books, which seems to distract her. 

“Jesus. We’ll never have to go to the library again.” She crosses the room, bracing her hands on her knees to get a better look at what’s already on the shelf.

“Maybe we should exchange names before you snoop,” Piper says, pleased when it makes Alex laugh.

“I’d say this is only fair, but fine. Alex Vause.” She holds out her hand, a parody of formality.

Piper smiles and shakes it. It’s an awkward gesture but somehow doesn’t feel like it. “Piper Chapman.”

“Ah, right, the name from my packet. You're not how I pictured. Thought there’d be eleven of you, playing music.  And you’d be followed by a dozen drummers drumming.” Piper stares at her. “Twelve Days of Christmas? Sorry, obscure reference, I know.”

Piper laughs, taking a second to just observe her new roommate. There's a tattoo on her right arm (later, Piper spots another on her shoulder blade).  Alex has winged eyeliner and black glasses and bowling shoes, and Piper likes her already.

“Are your parents still here?”

“Just left. Yours?”

“My mom had to work, so I took a Greyhound last night. Not supposed to let anyone in the dorms yet, but Red made an exception.”

“Red?”

“Headmistress Reznikov. We call her Red, you’ll see why, but never say it to her face. Anyway. She’s a hardass, but I’m friends with Nicky, so the special treatment occasionally rubs off.” Before Piper can ask who Nicky is, or why she gets special treatment, Alex gives her this long, scrutinizing look that makes Piper feel overly aware of her own skin and asks, “You’re a sophomore, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Thank God. Was worried they’d stick me with a freshmen.”

“So…who was your roommate before?”

Without missing a beat Alex tells her, “Last semester it was no one. The semester before that I had my randomly assigned freshmen roommate, but she begged to be moved.” Piper’s expression must register unease, because Alex says, “Don’t worry, I drove her out on purpose. It wasn’t just my natural habits that were impossible to live with.”

“That’s comforting,” Piper says, just dry enough that Alex smirks.

“You need help unpacking anything?”

“I can get it, really. Thanks though.”

So Alex sits on her bed and watches while Piper hurriedly finishes her bookshelf, then sets about hanging her clothes in the small closet. As she works, she and Alex exchange basic information: hometowns, sport of choice (Alex plays soccer), and Fine Arts path (both of them are in drama, though Alex is much less enthused about the teacher than Polly was).

Piper’s almost done arranging her jewelry tree and makeup case on top of the dresser when there’s a knock at the door. Without getting up from her bed, Alex yells, “Come in.”

Two girls tentatively enter the room, closing the door behind them. They glance at Piper but don’t introduce themselves, just look expectantly at Alex as one asks, “Is it too soon, or…?”

“Never,” Alex says amiably, hopping off her bed. “What do you need?”

The girls exchange looks. “Two joints?”

Piper turns around, startled, giving the scene her full attention.

“Coming right up.” Alex starts opening her desk drawer, nodding across the room as she does. “Tara, Mel, this is Piper. She’s new.”

“Hey, nice to meet you.”

“Welcome to Litch.”

Piper nods back at them, too distracted to properly be introduced. Did they really say -

But Alex is pulling out a box of tampons, and Piper’s extremely confused, but then she pinches the top of the plastic wrapping into an opening and tilts it, two perfectly rolled joints falling into her palm.

She hands them over, and one of the girls passes her a stack of bills. Alex pockets it and nods. “See ya later.”

“Thanks.”

Then they’re gone, without Piper even figuring out which one is Tara and which one is Mel.

“So about that,” Alex says conversationally when the door is closed again. “I’ve sort of got a whole operation going here.”

It dawns uneasily on Piper that she may have, through no fault of her own, been assigned a room with a member of, as her mother would say, the Wrong Crowd. “Is this why your old roommate asked to leave?”

“No.” Alex's face turns a little harder, a little more distant, with the word. “This was the only thing she fucking liked about me, actually.” She exhales. “Look, it’s all on my side, you’re never gonna get blamed for anything. But it’s really all good. Almost everyone buys stuff.”

“Stuff? Like what else?”

“Weed. Cigarettes. I even take booze orders.” She starts to smile a little again. “Basically I overcharge the rich kids for stuff they don’t know how to get….and don't know what it should actually cost. But as my roommate, you pay face value.”

Piper frowns a little at that. She’d assumed that Alex - that everyone here - was a rich kid.

“I, uh. Don’t really smoke. Or drink.”

“Yeah, most people don’t before they come here. But then they figure out it’s easier to hide from dorm counselors than parents. Especially Fisher. You met her yet?”

“I think she checked me in. Susan?”

“Right. She’s clueless. We did one of those Dirty Santa things for the whole floor last year, and at least a third of the gifts were novelty flasks and she didn’t notice. Someone even got a tie flask. Same color as the official one. Bet it makes assemblies way more interesting.”

Alex grins, her eyes glinting, and it’s like it blinds Piper to any of the warning signs. Alex Vause sells drugs from their room and drove her roommate away, but she seems funny and smart and Piper’s filled with an almost frantic desire to make Alex want to be her friend.

 


 

Alex is aware she’s gone into full charm mode, all snark and smirking, her usual schtick around pretty girls, pretending that it’s enough to simply make them laugh.

And her roommate is frazzlingly pretty, in a way Alex’s perfunctory scan of Facebook and Instagram hadn’t prepared her for. Piper Chapman’s smile in photographs is fine, whatever, but the real life, unposed version is a kind of wonder.

So Alex keeps working for it; sometimes she even gets a laugh, which is like hitting the jackpot, and this could get dangerous really fast.

Her friends’ group message is exploding on her phone, mainly Nicky demanding she come down to the basement lounge with everyone else, but Alex finally texts back that she’ll just meet them for dinner.

NICKY
[4:33 pm | Whats your deal Vause? Is the new roomie so hot you don’t care about seeing us?]
[4:37 pm: JFC VAUSE ARE YOU FUCKING HER ALREADY?]

Alex texts back the middle finger emoji and then puts the phone on Do Not Disturb.

“In an hour or so we can go over to the dining hall for food…I’ll introduce you to everyone. And by everyone I mean the three people I can stand to be around more than its required.”

Piper smiles, but it’s hesitant, like she’s not sure whether Alex is kidding.

“Though you might want to change out of that before we go,” Alex says, nodding at Piper’s uniform (she’d actually grabbed her tie earlier…talk about being fucking obvious). “Everyone tends to avoid the uniforms until the last possible required minute.”

Alex doesn’t tell people this, but she actually likes the uniforms. Not so much for style reasons, just the general policy. The year before she started at Litchfield, in middle school, she'd still been getting made fun of for her clothes with their patches and duct tape covered rips and off brand names.

Here, everyone dresses the same for class and official activities, then, for most people, makes it a point of rebellion to wear the most casual, bummy clothes possible when free dress is allowed.

There’s a knock on the door, and Alex supresses a groan. There’s a good chance it’s Nicky, likely tugging Janae and Poussey along, here to gawk at Piper and give Alex shit.

But when she opens the door it’s Polly Harper, nodding awkwardly at her. “Hey.”

“Oh, hey. Come on in.” Alex gives her a businesslike nod, because there’s no way Polly’s here for anything but business.

Behind her, Polly says in a surprised voice, “Oh, hey, dude.”

Alex glances over at her, questioning, but Polly’s looking at Piper.

“Hi.”

“I was just about to text you…Danny told me you’re in this dorm.”

“How’d he know my room number?”

“Oh, no, I didn’t know you’d be…I’m actually here for, uh…”

Polly gestures at Alex, and there’s a moment of general awkward confusion before Alex asks, “You guys know each other?” She doesn’t quite succeed in keeping the displeasure out her voice.

“She’s my boyfriend’s sister,” Polly answers before Piper can, which strikes Alex as somewhat dismissive, but then Polly smiles genuinely at Piper and adds, “Plus I’m the whole reason she’s here.”

“You made a compelling case,” Piper says, smiling back.

Alex turns around to hide an eyeroll, speaking to Polly, “So what do you need?”

“Oh. Two packs, I guess? The usual.”

Alex smirks, not so nicely. “Jesus, couldn’t even sneak cigarettes back in your luggage?”

“My parents caught me smoking last week,” Polly tells her, defensive. “They’ve been super paranoid.”

Alex swings open her closet and starts digging in the pocket of a hoodie. She smacks two packs of cigarettes down on Polly’s waiting palm then holds out her own hand for cash.

The transaction done, Polly gives her a perfunctory thanks and returns her attention to Piper. “I gotta go finish unpacking, but find me in the dining hall if you want, okay?”

Alex shoots a scowl at Polly’s retreating back, not happy with this development. All she fucking needs is her new roommate getting an instant talking to from Polly Harper and her friends - i.e. Jessica.

“So. Holly dates your brother?”

“Polly,” Piper corrects, but she sounds almost amused. Which is encouraging. “Yeah, he’s a junior at Overbrook. She's visited a few times.”

Alex gives a neutral nod.

“First time we talked she was smoking on our back porch. Guess she got those from you?”

“Yeah, did you notice she barely even inhales? I think she just likes the aesthetic…half her Instagram is smoke with black and white filters.  So artsy.”

Piper laughs, and Alex feels her smile let loose, satisfied that they at least don’t seem close enough that Piper seems put out by Alex making fun of Polly.

Checking her phone, Alex sees the group message has continued on without her paying attention, mainly Nicky’s increasingly crude guesses about what she’s up to right now. She’s also got a few separate texts from students asking if she’s open for business yet. Alex smirks, pleased with herself. She’d thought things might be slow for awhile at the beginning of the year, other students having come prepared with their own stash, but of course they hadn’t felt the need. The customer base here is perfect - as long as most of these girls can pay for something with money, they don’t question the price. They’re not used to anything being too expensive.

 


 

Piper changes from the uniform into a casual, summery dress before she and Alex head to the dining hall. It's a short walk, but Alex points out a few buildings on the way, a library and a few other dorms and, in the slight distance, the main academic hall.

It’s a small campus, the cluster of dorms on one end and the Fine Arts Center and auditorium on the other, and Alex says it’s only a fifteen minute walk, “twenty if you’re Nicky, you’ll meet her, she’s slow as fuck”, from one end to the other. The lake starts behind the auditorium, and from there a few main buildings of the boys’ school are visible.

A few people nod and say hi to Alex when they walk past, but no one seems inclined to stop and chat until they get into the dining hall and the three girls at a corner table start shouting her name before they even go for food.

Alex rolls her eyes at Piper, but she’s smiling fondly and eagerly leads her over to the table. Piper watches while she hugs each of the three girls - though one of them seems more interested in scrutinizing Piper, elbowing Alex with a smirk that Piper doesn't like; it seems like an inside joke is happening at her expense.

“Piper, this is Nicky, Janae, and Poussey. Guys: Piper Chapman. Be nice.”

After a quick round of greetings, Piper follows Alex to the other end of the cafeteria, Alex pointing out the various food stations. Piper’s unspeakably grateful that Alex seems to slipped automatically into her tour guide with no qualms about it. She’d been expecting a roommate who was new, and therefore just as clueless as she is, but this makes her feel much better.

They split up to different food stations, and when Piper finishes Alex is still in line, so she makes herself linger at the table for drinks, not ready to head back to Alex’s friends on her own.

“Hey, Piper! C’mere.”

She turns around and sees Polly nearby, at a table with four other girls, so Piper walks over but doesn’t sit. “Hey.”

Polly smiles reassuringly at her, then says to her friends, “Guys, this is Danny’s sister I was telling you about.  Pipe, this is Jessica, Bailey, Madison, and Sarah.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Sarah and Jessica are on the tennis team, too…I told them you’d probably join.”

“Oh, yeah, cool. When does that start?”

“Second week of classes. You want to sit?”

“Thanks, but Alex was gonna introduce me to some people.”

The blonde girl next to Polly, Piper thinks she was the Jessica in the quickly rattled off list, raises an eyebrow. “Vause?”

Polly gives her a significant look. “That’s her roommate.”

Jessica winces, then looks at Piper sympathetically. “Sorry, that’s kind of my fault.”

Before Piper can ask what that means, someone’s elbow nudges against hers. She glances back to see Alex, tray in hand, warily eyeing Polly’s table. “You ready?”

Piper nods, just wanting out of the awkward situation. She smiles at Polly. “See ya later.”

Just as she and Alex turn around, though, Jessica calls after them, too loud, “Hey, Piper, just a tip: don’t change clothes in front of her.”

Piper reflexively glances sideways at Alex. She tightens her jaw, eyes narrow and blazing, and retorts over her shoulder, “Like I ever wanted to fucking look at you.”

But she looks flushed and upset, and Piper’s not sure what to say.

She thinks she knows what that Jessica girl was implying, but isn’t sure if it’s true or if she’s just the kind of person who thinks that’s a mean thing to say about someone. But Jessica was obviously Alex’s old roommate, and Alex said she drove her out on purpose, but -

“Jesus, Vause,” Nicky says loudly when she and Piper sit down at the table. “What’s going on with your face?”

“She got Wedged,” Janae says, nodding toward Polly’s table.

“Ah, good, the Wicked Bitch of the East Coast,” Poussey says.

Piper frowns, confused. “Wedged?

“As in Jessica Wedge,” Nicky says. Alex isn’t really looking at her. “You’re in her old bed. Although…” She smirks. “New kid roommate, Vause, better watch out. They’ll imprint on you, like a baby duck.”

At that, Alex looks at Piper to roll her eyes, the tension draining a little from her face, and the strength of Piper’s relief is surprising. “Ignore her, she’s full of shit.”

“You a freshmen, Piper?”

“Sophomore.”

“Damn,” Nicky makes a face. “I was hoping for an in with the freshmen class. Gotta do a sapphic survey. Our year is tragically lacking.”

 


 

Nicky and Janae are apparently roommates, living on the floor below Alex and Piper, while Poussey’s on their hall, rooming with a girl named Suzanne who the others call Crazy Eyes and say her parents practically bought a new building for her to get in (though she’s apparently really amazing in drama). They all walk back together to change for the welcome assembly, but once Piper and Alex are alone Alex grabs her uniform off a hanger and heads for the bathroom down the hall.

Piper changes quickly in their room, and then just stands there feeling awkward until Alex finally reenters in her skirt and button down. She’s carrying her other clothes, shoes included, and just to have something to say Piper nods at them, “Are those bowling shoes?”

“Yeah.” Alex half-smiles. “I worked at an alley over the summer. Stole them as an employee bonus.” Her smile drops and she sighs sharply, suddenly determined. “Okay, so here it is. Jessica Wedge was my roommate at the beginning of freshmen year. She’s a dumbass, but her parents are board members, so whatever. That means she somehow knew coming in who’s on scholarship, which isn’t supposed to be public knowledge. She obviously wasn’t thrilled to be rooming with me, but it probably wouldn’t have looked good for them to ask her to be reassigned.

“But you know how it is when everyone’s new at a place…nobody knew each other, so there was this whole scramble to see who was going to be friends and who was going to be popular or whatever. And I kind of got a head start because I had weed…powerful ice breaker, especially to a bunch of sheltered fourteen year olds suddenly let loose. So I was cool for maybe two weeks, and that meant even Jessica was trying to be friends. Which, fine, better to get along with your roommate, right? But then she makes some offhanded homophobic comment to me…her cousin thinks anyone who’d live at an all girls school ‘must be a dyke’.”

Alex’s voice turns mocking, imitating Jessica. “As if, right? Totally disgusting. She goes on and on about it since we were such good friends, except she didn’t know I was gay.”

Piper nods, careful to keep her face expressionless. “So…what happened? She found out?”

“Yeah, she found out. Because I started shoving it in her face. Talked about how hot girls were all the time. Put up some posters…I ordered a huge The L Word poster from Amazon. I’ve never even seen the show. Just wanted the room to be as gay as possible.”

Piper laughs; Alex looks undeniably pleased with herself. It’s the kind of careless recklessness Piper wishes she had, the ability to provoke and push without caring about someone thinking badly of you. “That’s kind of badass.”

Alex shoots her a surprised smile. “Glad you think so. So obviously it freaked her out. She started demanding to be moved…not even to Fisher, she went straight to Red with this shit. So they let her change rooms, I guess cause her family’s so fucking important but she, like…she told everyone - literally, everyone - that I’m a lesbian and I made her super uncomfortable to live with or whatever. It was all bullshit, just…” She draws a breath, meets Piper’s eyes. “If you hear anything like that, from Polly or whoever, that’s why. But I was an asshole to Jessica on purpose. You don’t have to worry about me making anything weird.”

“I’m not,” Piper says, almost immediately, which maybe isn’t very shrewd of her. She has no substantial reason to trust Alex’s story over the one Jessica apparently tells, except for the fact that Piper knows she likes Alex.

And even that’s strange in a way; Piper’s not usually so quick to like people, mostly because she’s too busy worrying they won't like her.

“I mean, I’m straight, but I don’t give a shit if you’re gay, Alex. I promise.”  The curse word sounds stiff and forced, but the rest is entirely sincere.

Alex’s smile is small and grateful. “Good. Then The L Word poster stays under the bed.”

Piper grins. “I mean, hang it if you want to.”

“That’s okay, I’ve started to think of it as a declaration of war.”

“Could always go on my side. I’m worried my walls are gonna be too blank.”

Opening her smile up completely, Alex replies, “It’s yours if you want it. But there’s usually a poster sell downtown within the next few weeks, close to the college. We can take one of the weekend buses and go, that’s where I got most of these.”

Alex is knotting the tie around her neck with quick, habitual motions - Piper had spent two hours last week in front of a youtube tutorial, learning how to do it, and she isn’t anywhere near that fast.

It's almost funny, Alex in the uniform. The tattoo on her right forearm is peeking out from under the button down sleeve until she shrugs into her blazer. It maybe shouldn’t look right, the stiff school uniform on this girl who sells drugs out of tampon boxes and hangs posters like declarations of war, but it only makes her seem even more formidable;  Alex exudes a magnetic sort of power. 

Piper thinks she wouldn’t mind learning how to do that.

Alex reaches out and flicks Piper’s tie on her way to door, giving her a warm, teasing grin. “Let’s go, baby duck.”

 


 

The Welcome Assembly gives Piper her first real glimpse of Headmistress Reznikov, aka Red, aka Mom, but apparently it’s only Nicky her refers to her as that last one.

It’s nearly an hour long and absurdly dull, but Piper likes sitting there with Alex and the others, amazed she’s managed to avoid even a single where do I sit who do I talk to moment here. Alex has led her into their little cluster of friends as though it was simply a given, like they’ve been waiting for Piper to make the group complete.

After the assembly, she walks with the others back to the dorm basement, the only room in the building with a television. There’s also a cluster of couches, a pool table, a ping pong table, a closet full of board and card games, and an old piano. A small kitchen is set just off the large lounge area, apparently stocked with the all important microwave and toaster oven.

There are groups of girls already settling around the basement, the couches fully occupied, but Janae and Nicky, at the front of the group, don’t even stop to survey the room, leading them instead to a door that opens to the back of the dormitory. Piper can see the fenced in tennis courts and three different playing fields down the hills behind Kerman House, but they go past them and toward a cluster of woods, talking the whole way.

“You made a good call starting sophomore year,” Janae says to Piper suddenly. “Missed out on all those dumbass icebreaker questions they make freshmen do.”

Poussey clutches her chest, mock wounded. “You’da given up a whole year of our friendship just to avoid icebreakers?”

“You remember those damn questions? How the fuck am I supposed to get to know anyone talkin’ about what kinda animal I think I’d be?”

Alex swats Janae’s arm. “You’d be a fucking cheetah, easy question. Then you got to brag about your track medals like it’s all part of the game.”

“Fine, but that wasn’t even the worst one. What was it, like…would you rather be brilliant or attractive? Bitch, why can’t I be both!”

They all crack up, Piper included, and then Nicky says, “Maybe we should ask Chapman the questions. She shouldn’t have to miss out on us getting to know her.”

“You already gave me the animal,” Piper reminds Nicky, feeling a small thrill at the quickness of her own response. “Baby duck, remember?"

They laugh and it feels really good, like she’s proving she belongs.  She glances at Alex, checks that she's smiling.

They walk just a short ways into the woods before coming to an old, half rotted tree trunk with a smattering of rusty lawn furniture surrounding it, and Alex produces a joint from the front pocket of her button down, hidden by her blazer. Piper hadn’t even seen her add that.

The sight of the weed provokes sighs of contentment and relief. Alex sits next to Piper on the tree trunk, and Piper watches closely while she inhales deeply and holds it for a long moment before finally breathing out a thin trail of smoke. She offers it to Piper. “Wanna try?”

Even though they are living in two hours between a required assembly and a strict Dorm Curfew, Piper is feeling a welcome, pulsing sense of freedom. There is no singular adult who needs to know precisely where she is right now, or who might later ask what she was doing.

So she takes the joint between bold fingers and sticks it between her lips. Alex grins in proud approval as she inhales carefully, trying not to cough. She thinks Danny probably does stuff like this all the time.

The night still holds the heavy warmth of fading summertime, and soon they’ve all ditched their blazers and rolled up their sleeves, aiming smoke toward the star speckled sky to keep the smell off their uniforms. The others all look roguishly cool, and at some point Piper loosens her tie and happily imagines she looks the same.

 


 

“The first night can feel kind of strange,” Alex says to Piper once they’re both in bed and she’s flicked off the reading lamp clipped to the edge of her bed. “But you get used to it really quick.”

She doesn’t say that this is strange for her, too, but in a really good way. She’d gotten used to the quiet last year, had gotten used to spreading her stuff across the whole room, Janae and Poussey and Nicky using the empty bed as a couch during study hours.

But she likes having Piper to talk to, especially like this, trading words through the dark between their beds.

“Yeah…” Piper answers, her voice lazy and thin, right on the edge of sleep. “When my brother’s home for break, my grandmother always says it must be good to sleep in his own bed again, but he says his bed at school feels more normal now.”

Alex thinks about that for a second. “I guess that’s true. I wouldn’t ever say that to my mom, though.”

She hears the faint rustling of sheets across the room, like Piper’s turning to face her even though it’s too dark to make out more than an outline. “You miss her when you’re here?”

“Yeah,” Alex answers. “A lot, actually.”  A lot, as in, sometimes Alex doesn’t understand how she can love it here and still miss her mom that much. It feels like one should cancel out the other. “But it’s good for both of us that I’m here.”

“How come?”

“She works all the time, so I was alone at home more often than she was there. But that meant she felt like she had to spend all her free time with me, and she doesn’t have a ton of that anyway. Now at least she goes out with friends sometimes. She even gets to have dates.”

“I bet she still really misses you.”

“Yeah…we text a lot though.”

There’s a pause, and then Piper says, “My dad works a lot, too. Travels for work all the time…” She hesitates, and in the silence Alex is thinking that Piper’s dad’s work is probably very different from her mother’s multiple jobs, but then Piper says, “Actually that’s probably not just about work so much as having affairs.”

Alex turns on her side, too. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. Well, I mean, I’m sure it’s happened before.  I saw him with another woman when I was in sixth grade.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah…I’ve never told anybody that. Besides my mom and my grandmother, right after.”

“Damn, good for you. What’d your mom say?”

“Basically nothing. We’ve never talked about it again. I don’t know, I don’t really understand her.  Don’t think we’d ever have anything to text about.”

Alex remembers meeting Nicky last year, listening to her constant bitching about her mother, and how slowly that snide derision had constructed the real story of neglect. Alex hadn’t been able to stop a secret rush of relief - Nicky is probably richer even than the kids in middle school who tortured Alex constantly, but it hadn’t meant her life was perfect, and ultimately, Alex would rather have her mom than Nicky’s money or house or clothes.

But hearing Piper talk about her parents just makes Alex feel sad for her.

“What about your brother?”

“Danny’s okay, he’s always been way cooler than me, and he knows it…but my younger brother Cal’s pretty hilarious. He’ll start Overbrook next year.”

“That’s cool.”

She waits a minute or so, snesing the natural end of conversation, then says softly, just in case Piper already fell asleep.  "Goodnight."

"Night, Alex," comes fast and soft from across the room. 

Alex turns onto her stomach, pressing a smile into her pillow.

 


 

Text Message, Monday, 7:43 am

 

MOM
[morning babe. hope u have a good first day back! miss u already.]

ALEX
[Thanks. Miss you too.]

MOM
[hows the new roommate??]

ALEX
[Kinda great, actually. I like her a lot.]

MOM
[thats awesome Al. never liked u being the only one living alone.]
[I wanna hear all about her when u call me.]
[aka u better call fuckin SOON.]

ALEX
[Will do. Love you, Mom.]

MOM
[Love u2 baby. <3]

ALEX
[the band?]

MOM
[lol]
[dont be a smartass]

 


 


The five of them compare class schedules at breakfast - well, Alex and Piper and Janae do, forcibly taking Poussey and Nicky’s to peruse.  Those two don’t seem to have adjusted out of their summer schedule of sleeping late.

The sophomore class is small but so is the average Litchfield class size; still, you’re almost guaranteed to have at least a few classes with everyone. The first thing Alex checks is her schedule against Piper’s, and they have four out of the seven together.

Including English Lit, the first class of the day, which turns out to be an incredibly fortunate gift. Piper’s erred understandably on the quiet side around the others, but seems unaffected by shyness in classes, English especially.

One of their summer reading assignments, amid the novels, was How to Read Literature like a Professor, about literary patterns and symbolism. That’s what they start out with, and Piper’s usually the first person with her hand in the air, rattling off multiple books with examples of just about every trope they discuss, and she seems to have read everything anyone else mentions to.

Alex is both amused and impressed listening to Piper's excited, overly detailed answers, and she shouldn’t be surprised considering her well stocked bookshelf back in the room. They’re sitting in desks beside each other in the typical semi-circle, and at one point Alex nudges her foot against Piper’s ankle and teasingly mouths, “Show off.”

 


 

Piper has math with Polly just before lunch, and it’s the only class she’s in without Alex or any of her friends - she’s pretty sure most of them are in science together at the time - and after class Polly comes up to her desk and smiles.

“So how’s everything going so far?”

“Good.” Piper slings her messenger bag over her shoulder and stands up. She has no reason to be distant with Polly, but she can’t help wondering what she thought back when Jessica started badmouthing Alex.

But there’s nothing edgy in her voice when she says, “You seem to like Alex.”

“She’s been really nice.”

“That’s cool. I don’t really know her that well. And like, I love Jessica, but she can be dramatic.”

That makes Piper feel a little better. “Gotcha.”

“And obviously it doesn’t matter to me if she’s gay or not. I can see how it would be a little awkward living at an all girls school. Like, on my floor, people walk from their rooms to the bathroom basically half naked.”

“I don’t think it’s awkward with her.”

“I don’t just mean her. Nicky’s gay, too, right? I don’t know about the other two - “

“Janae has a boyfriend,” Piper reports, a little pleased with herself for knowing something Polly doesn’t.

“Cool. Like I said, I seriously don’t care. Just know you’re totally welcome to sit with us, too, whenever. They’ve all met Danny and love him, so they’re super excited you’re here.”

“Thanks, Polly. I’m definitely looking forward to tennis team and everything.”

“Yeah, you’ll like Sarah, she’s sweet. And Jessica really is cool when you get to know her. You should have lunch with us.”

“Actually, I’ve got a free period after lunch, so Alex wants to show me the coffee shop in town.”

“Oh, nice. You’re lucky your free period’s after lunch, mine’s right before the last period of the day. Barely does me any fucking good.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah. Anyway. We should hang out later, though…maybe go down to the courts and hit around sometime.”

“That’d be awesome. Anytime.”

“Cool. I’ll text you.”

 


 

Text Message, Monday 12:02 pm

CAL
[howz dat fancy boarding school lyfe grrrl]

PIPER
[ew stop I don’t like that]

CAL
[LOL. Seriously, you liking it?]

PIPER
[A surprising amount actually]

CAL
[NERD]
[I spent the whole car ride home hearing about what a great example you and D are setting, so THANKS FOR EVERYTHING as always]

PIPER
[not that great of an example. guess what I did last night?]

CAL
[read several textbook chapters ahead just to be safe?]

PIPER
[Fuck you, no. I smoked weed]
[maybe i shouldn’t be texting that. Delete it just in case.]
[You there?]

CAL
[YOU DID DRUGS????]
[ON THE FIRST NIGHT?]
[AND YOU LEARNED THE F WORD??]
[WHO ARE YOU?????]

 


 

Text Messages, Monday, 12:17 pm

DANNY
[Hey PB Cal said I should ask you how your first night was??]

PIPER
[don’t call me that.]
[it was fine, I don’t know what he’s talking about.]

DANNY
[did you hang out with Polly? Did something happen?]

PIPER
[NO. I haven’t seen her much yet.]

DANNY
[ok w/e. We’re probably gonna try to come over there this weekend.]

 


 

Text messages, Monday, 12:57 pm

DANNY
[PB, Polly says your roommate is that girl who sells all the contraband]
[see if you can get me and her some free shit for saturday????]

 


 

Alex, Piper, and Poussey walk the fifteen minutes off campus to get to a little coffee shop and bakery that’s apparently the only decent place in easy walking distance of campus to hang out. When they get there there are already a few students in line, and several more sprawled out on the course and armchairs, probably students whose free period is the one right before lunch.

Nearly everyone in sight in outfitted in the casual version of the Litchfield uniforms: the skirt with a short sleeved, collared white shirt. Most of the students are able to let some personal style leak through with these: Poussey’s got big hoop earrings and one wrist jangling with bracelets, while Alex is wearing navy Converse that match the blue on their skirts exactly.

They buy toasted specialty sandwiches and manage to claim a loveseat and one leather chair as a couple of other students pack up their laptops to go. Poussey bites into her food and lets out a dramatic, satisfied moan. “Swear to God, I thought about this bread all summer. Had dreams about it.”

“Lunch here is a dangerous precedent to set, but.” Alex grins at Piper. “Special occasion.”

Poussey huffs out a psh sound. “Dangerous precedent, my ass. I’m coming here every day this semester. Lunch adjacent free period is a gift.”

Alex and Poussey’s phones buzz simultaneously, and in a move that practically seems coordinated, they look down at their respective screens and laugh. Alex looks up at Piper and explains, “Nicky and Janae are shit talking us.”

“They jealous as hell,” Poussey says, looking delighted by the news. “See?” She holds out her phone so Piper can see the torrent of angry abuse on the text message thread.

“Oh, you know what, we should add Pipes to the group message,” Alex says offhandedly, and Piper’s chest warms at both the unthinking nickname and the suggestion.

“You don’t have to do that,” Piper protests, trying like not to smile.

“Nah, you already in this,” Poussey tells her with a grin. “We gotta claim you before Wedge & Company.”

“So adding me to your group texts, that constitutes a claim?”

“Sure does.”

Laughing, Alex adds, “What, they didn’t teach you that in your old civics class?”

“Thank God she’s getting a Litchfield education now.”

 


 

The first week feels both slow and fast: slow because by the end of it Piper feels like she’s lived here for much longer, and fast because every minute feels interesting and absorbing.  She even likes most of the classes; the teachers are obviously smart, but also informal and often funny.

She plays tennis with Polly on Thursday before dinner, warming up for the start of practices next week.  It's fun and not at all awkward; she still likes hanging out with Polly, even though she's less sure about her friend group, and wouldn't ditch Alex even if she was. 

There’s a bus on Saturdays that goes to and from the school and a shopping center that includes a movie theater and restaurants, as well as a music store that’s currently the host to the temporary poster sale Alex has mentioned. They all go, and everyone buys something, but Piper loads up the most and when they get back she and Alex stand on her bed and desk and tape up posters, only a few of which Alex makes fun of.

“I like Pitch Perfect.”

“That’s not what I’m laughing at.”

“Then which one?”

“Guess.”

“This is so mean. Pretty in Pink?”

“I wouldn’t laugh at John Hughes. Even though Ferris Bueller is the best one.”

Alex.”

“Fine, the music ones.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Well, first of all, they’re all guys with J names. Second of all - “

“Jason, Joshua, John…not Ed.“

“ - do you find all your music by walking into Starbucks and Shazamming whatever’s playing?”

“You’re a snob.”

“Don’t worry, Pipes. I can help you.”

 


 

Text Message, Saturday 5:14 pm

DANNY
[PB: you gonna hook us up with some weed tonight or what?]
[I’m bringing friends you should hang out]

PIPER
[Wow, suddenly I’m invited?]

DANNY
[As long as you’re cool with a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy with mom and dad.]
[Speaking of which is it true your roommates a lesbian???]

PIPER
[ugh stop]

DANNY
[I mean I don’t care I was just gonna say you should flirt if it’ll get us some stuff]

 


 

“Pooh Bear!”

Piper grimaces as her older brother accosts her from behind, throwing arm around her in what’s more chokehold than hug, and practically yelling what was, to everyone except for him, a short lived childhood nickname.

“Don’t call me that. Jackass.”

“Ooh, one week away and she’s learned to curse.” He musses up her hair and Piper bats his hand away. Danny has a unique knack for acting like the single year separating their ages is somehow more vast than most 365 day years. 

She’s sitting at an outdoor patio table with Alex and the others, playing Cards Against Humanity, and her friends are all watching this display of brotherly condescension with gleeful, undisguised amusement.

Behind Danny are Polly, Jessica, and three other guys, but Danny makes no attempts to introduce them, just scans Piper’s table and asks, “Which one of you’s the roommate?”

Alex flicks a hand in a sardonic wave.

“Sweet, nice to meet you. I’m Piper’s big brother.”

“I gathered.”

“Heard you got a decent stash.”

Alex’s eyes cool, and flick over to Polly. “Your girlfriend knows the drill.”

“There maybe a friends and family discount?”

“Sure. But we’re all family here at Litchfield, right, ladies? And you guys are our brother school, so. Technically family discount just means: normal price.”

Piper laughs in delight at the way Danny’s full charm smile flickers instantly.

Jessica steps up and tugs on his arm, not letting go. “C’mon, Dan, I told you I’ve got enough Grey Goose in my water bottles.” At this lingering physical contact, Polly’s eyes narrow slightly and she shuffles a little closer to Danny’s other side. Under the table, Alex foot presses subtly against Piper’s, her lips twitching at the bit of drama.

“Nah, I’ll pay. Let’s go see what you got.”

“You can’t come into our dorms,” Piper blurts out, irrationally annoyed at both his continued presence and the interruption of the game.

“Not this early, anyway," he says, winking at Polly. Piper rolls her eyes.

“I’ll go,” Polly says, all smiles again after the bit of flirting. Danny hands her some cash, and Alex gamely gets up, telling the others to wait.

“We’re going to the lake tonight, if you want to come,” Danny says to Piper after a moment. His girlfriend safely out of earshot, he smiles winningly at Nicky, Poussey and Janae. “You ladies are all welcome, of course.”

“It’s past the hours,” Piper tells him, knowing she sounds prissy but unable to help it.

“Not on our side,” one of the other guys says with a snicker.

“Hard pass,” Nicky says, not even bothering to look up from her cards.

The only guy who hasn’t spoken suddenly leans around Danny to make eye contact with Piper. “I’m Larry, by the way, your brother’s - “

“Roommate, right.” She awkwardly maneuvers her arm to shake his offered hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” Mainly that Larry is supposedly kinda nerdy, but a good dude.

“Same here,” Larry says, though Piper kind of doubts that’s true.

Polly and Alex come back then, Polly smiling at Danny and discreetly patting her pocket.

“Awesome.” He nods at Alex. “Thanks, dude.”

“Sure thing, bro,” she says, just at the edge of mocking. Beside her, Janae snorts in amusement.

“Let’s go,” Jessica says impatiently, looping her hand through the crook Larry’s arm, seemingly because he’s closest.

Polly looks at Piper, lowering her voice a little. “Hey, we’re gonna try to sneak over to the unsupervised part of the lake later, after room check, if you wanna come.” Her eyes lift briefly to the rest of Piper’s friends, and she adds, “All of you.”

“I told her,” Danny says.

“I think we’re good. Thanks though.”

“Okay. Text if you change your mind.”

Danny messes up her hair again. “See ya, Pooh.”

Larry nods at her.  “Nice meeting you.”

Piper watches them walk away, sensing an anticipatory silence settling between her friends.  Finally, Piper sighs. “Just say it already.”

“Whoa, calm down, Pooh Bear,” Nicky says with a smirk, and they all lose it completely, laughing hard. It takes Piper thirty seconds - and Alex’s dancing eyes locking on hers - for her to join in.

 


 

Sports start the second week, and just as Polly had told her, everyone’s required to do at least one, though only one of the two semesters is an actual intense season.

Poussey plays volleyball. Janae runs track and cross-country, is here on a track scholarship and is apparently the star of not only the school but their entire region. Nicky does the same thing, although apparently on the opposite end of the spectrum: the running sports are apparently a dumping ground for the least skilled athletes, so low ranked on the team that their times never count.

And Alex plays soccer, as goalkeeper, apparently, although as she explains to Piper, the starting goalie is a senior so she usually doesn’t get into the game until the second half. “Next year’s all me, though.”

Soccer’s main season is spring, so for the first semester Alex practices a few times a week and only has occasional exhibition games with the schools that are closest, but tennis is a fall sport, so Piper has practice almost every day after class.

It’s a stacked sport, apparently highly ranked at regionals - unsurprisingly with a fairly wealthy student body, all growing up with private country club instructors - but Piper ranks eighth in singles and she and Polly manage to crack the Top Six as a doubles team.

The cross country team often runs down by the tennis courts and playing fields, so Piper will sometimes see Janae leading a pack of the frontrunners; she always smacks the fence near Piper’s court, letting out an adrenaline fueled whoop of a greeting that makes Piper laugh.  Nicky usually jogs by about a half hour later, but she usually seems too run down to do much in the way of acknowledgment. 

The best is that she can see the soccer fields from the courts, and it’s easy to spot Alex in her neon orange goalie jersey (the other goalie wears green). The first time they both suited up for practices, they’d smirked when they saw each other.

“You look like a highlighter.”

“You look like the first stock photo that pops up when you google the phrase country club.”

“You also kinda look like you’re playing a geek in an 80’s movie.”

“Wow, going with the four eyes territory? Beneath you, Pipes.”

“I didn’t say four eyes. This is beyond normal glasses jokes…those look like lab goggles.”

“I understand your sport is largely about fashion, but I need these to see.”

“Why don’t you just get contacts?”

“I hate sticking my finger in my eye.”

Piper’s first home tennis match, her brother and some of his friends show up to watch, which she can’t help but find sweet for about thirty seconds before she remembers her partner is Danny’s girlfriend. Volleyball and Cross Country are competing the same day, but Alex shows up after practice on her own, sweaty and flushed with two red circles around her eyes from her ridiculous sports goggles.  She's the one Piper keeps checking for, every time she hits a particularly nice shot or aces a serve, trotting back to the baseline holding back a proud smile and making sure Alex was watching.  She always is.

 


 

Group Text Message, Tuesday, 3:41 pm

POUSSEY
[Piper & Janae - good luck today!]
[I guess you too Nicky]
[for whatever it is you do]

JANAE
[Ya girl don’t need luck motherfuckers]
[also HAAA BURN]

PIPER
[You, too!]
[the good luck I mean]

NICKY
[how dare you. I’m feeling an underdog moment. gonna come from behind and beat Watson]

JANAE
[You woulda had to qualify to compete to do that dumbass]

POUSSEY
[hahahaha]

PIPER
[at least her spirit is admirable]

NICKY
[Vause seems quiet, whose game we think she’s gonna show up for?]
[anyone wanna venture a guess????]

 


 

Private Text Message, 3:44 pm

ALEX
[Fuck off asshole]

NICKY
[OOPS STRUCK A NERVE]

 


 


She’s just rounding her first full month at Litchfield when the school hosts a screening of Vertigo in the Fine Arts Center. There are movies there most Friday nights, everything from old Hollywood classics to culty films from the 90’s, though Piper hasn’t been to one yet. But they have no other plans and it’s been raining on and off all day anyway, so rather than sit in the overly crowded basement, or hang out in someone’s room (the dorm rooms seem to shrink if you put all five of them in the same one), Piper and Alex and the others decide to go, along with, it seems, most of the student population.

There are free bags of popcorn, and Solo cups of diet coke.  Poussey and Nicky disappear into the bathroom to spike theirs with rum purchased off Alex. Piper’s found out by now that Alex has a fake ID she can usually gets away with (for some reason, that doesn't surprise Piper - it's not that she looks so much older.  It's that power she has.).  She’ll take orders for booze and, every few weekends or so, somehow manages an under the radar ride to a liquor store.

Piper’s never seen any Hitchcock films, and she enjoys Vertigo, though two thirds of the way through, rain and the like-clockwork crash of thunder joins the movie’s dramatic score.  When the movie’s over, a teacher’s voice she can’t quite place comes over the speaker system and says, “Students, be aware it is raining profusely outside, so please be careful heading back to your dormitories.”

Profusely turns out to be a massive understatement.

It’s a torrential downpour, a biblical, Noah’s Arc level rain, so thick and constant it doesn’t seem like the rain is falling in separate drops. The thunder makes it sound like the world is caught between two cymbals, and Piper is trying to remember the rule about counting the seconds between thunder and lightning, what it means about how close the storm is.

Except the storm is clearly right the fuck on top of them, and Piper looks instinctively for Alex, who’s looking back at her, squinting through the downpour. She takes off her glasses and hooks them over the front of her shirt, then grabs Piper’s hand just as Janae takes off running. Alex tugs Piper into following her, Nicky and Poussey somewhere behind them.  Alex lets go one they get onto the path, and Piper's hand feels empty. 

The crowd from the movie is moving as a throng, so even Janae can’t get too far ahead. Piper stops at one point to take off her flip flops, sees several other people doing the same. The brick walkways on campus are unstable on the best days - no one even laughs at people stumbling over loose bricks, aware it could easily happen to any of them. 

They’ve barely been running for a minute and Piper already feels like she’s been dunked into a pool.  Her phone's in her purse, and she sticks it under her shirt in a mostly futile extra protection.  It seems like every few seconds that lightning cracks with actual sound, illuminating the whole world for a heartbeat of a moment in eerie white light, though when Piper looks up she can still pick out the distinct bolt, a spiderweb of electricity cracking the sky.

Alex looks over at her and grins, and Piper can’t help it, she smiles back. Her heart is spinning in circles, her blood humming and electrocuted, and maybe it’s just adrenaline but damn, this feels amazing.

But the campus seems too small, and they make it back to their dorm soon, dozens of girls crowding into the small foyer with its outdated furniture and huge rugs over the hardwood floors. Piper squeezes her hair into a ponytail and it spits water like a faucet. She’s shivering and laughing out of some dizzy, breathless reflex but she's also obscurely disappointed.

“Pipes!” Alex tugs on her sleeve, a sly smile on her face like she’s about to say something other people would find crazy. Alex’s eyes are rimmed with smeared makeup, her hair soaked and inky black. She looks like a storm, maybe always, with her lightning eyes and voice like thunder, but now she looks wild and a little startling, and maybe it’s a weird thing to think but she’s beautiful.

“Let’s go back outside,” Alex says, just to Piper.

Yes,” she nods her head like it’s the best thing anyone’s ever said.

They go, pulling Nicky and Poussey and Janae along. Janae is especially reluctant, muttering about wet ground and possible injuries, but even she acquiesces, and the five of them end up pioneering a mass movement, as other girls reemerge into the rain and head down to the playing fields.

There is nothing really to do but just take it all in, all this strangely gorgeous disturbance.  Piper wishes there was music, but of course everyone left their phones in stacks on the dorm lounge couch.  On the edge of the soccer field, someone starts a trend of mud sliding, but Alex and Piper don’t join in. It feels like enough to simply be there, daring to exist in the center of a storm.

 


 

It’s a group of dorm counselors that eventually usher them all back up the hill to their dorms, rattling off uncertain statistics about lightning deaths.

Piper and Alex go back to their room, bright eyed and giddy and dripping water on the floor. Piper sticks her head close to Alex and shakes out her own hair, spewing water like a dog shaking itself dry. Alex actually squeals, a sound Piper wouldn’t have thought her capable of making before tonight, and shoves her off, against the edge of the bed where she leaves a huge spot on her dangling comforter.

Alex opens the mini fridge under her bed and takes out the gray plastic thermos she always carries to soccer practice, taking a huge swig before offering it to Piper. “Drink?”

Piper accepts, taking a big gulp of something too sweet and carbonated that makes her face twist in distaste. “Is that wine?”

Alex laughs at her. “Yeah, but I don't blame you for not being sure. It’s the super cheap pink shit. Practically soda.”

Piper takes another sip, and it’s better this time.

Alex grabs a towel and starts drying her hair. “Showers are probably fucking packed.”

“Good point, I’m too cold to wait.”

“Keep drinking that, it’ll warm you up.”

They change to warm, dry clothes in the room, each facing their own wall, backs to each other, still talking.

“Did you see Nora Frost twisted her ankle?”

“Fuck, I know, did you see her trying to get up the stairs?”

“She looked like a shipwreck victim.”

Yes, crawling her way to shore…”

When they turn around, still passing the wine back and forth, Alex swipes her fingers under her eyes, rubbing away some of the black. “Wanna watch a movie or something?  I’ve got DVDs." 

“Sure. We could also use my Netflix password.”

“Oh, in that case, log it in on my computer. And make sure to press save.”

Piper grins and does so, just so Alex will have it, but then she goes over to Alex’s modest stacks of movies and starts surveying their choices.  Piper laughs at her because they’re mostly a little arty and pretentious but then Alex also apparently owns Elf - “you’ll thank me at Christmas, asshole.”

They watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World because it’s the title that most gets Piper’s attention, and they have to refill the thermos halfway through. Even though the movie turns out to be romance instead of just friendship - between Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, can’t blame her for not seeing that coming - there’s a line at the very end, you’re my favorite, favorite thing, that reminds Piper, in her happy and tipsy state of mind, of Alex.

They’re sitting on Alex’s bed, leaning on pillows they put against the wall, each of their thighs supporting half the laptop, and when the credits roll they move the computer but don’t get up, just keep sharing the wine and listening to the storm outside, still going strong.

“Can I ask you something?” Alex says after awhile, her voice slower and thicker than usual. The syllables come out all slippery, and though Piper’s seen her smoking and drinking a dozen times by now, this is the first instance she's actually noticed an effect. 

“Sure.”

“Did you really come here cause Polly told you to?”

“No. I mean. Technically kinda, but that makes it seem like her presence is the reason. We barely knew each other. She just asked me how come I didn’t go to Litch since Danny goes to Overbrook, and I was kinda like: why dont I?”  Piper’s drunk, too, she can tell from her messy syntax. 

“Why didn’t you?” Piper looks at Alex, uncomprehending, and she clarifies, “Start last year, I mean”

“I don’t know. I think I was scared to leave home.” She shakes her head, annoyed at how babyish that sounds. “I get scared of too much stuff.”

But.  You’re sure as hell not scared of thunderstorms.”

“True. I actually think I might love thunderstorms. That’s something I’ve learned about myself.” Alex laughs, and Piper looks over at her. “What about you?”

“I also love thunderstorms.”

“No, I mean. You and Litchfield. You started here as a freshman and you didn’t even know anybody.  How’d you decide to come?”

Alex tips her head back on the wall, a slight frown on her face. It takes a moment before she answers, “You know I’m on scholarship, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Right. Well, that’s a big fucking deal. Full academic rides to a school you already have to be a brain to get into…they hardly ever do that. But I had this teacher back in seventh grade, my language arts teacher. She used to work here. She got it in her head that I should go, and spent all year making it seem like I had no choice. She gave me extra books to read and made me keep writing essays and stuff about them, and they had to be good ones. Sent all that shit into admissions.  Along with an entrance essay, had to give the whole trailer park kid spiel.”

She must see the surprise on Piper’s face. “Oh, yeah, we live in a trailer. My mom works two jobs, three at Christmas, but this way I go to a great school without paying, and maybe get into a college without paying, too. But who knows.”

Piper’s quiet, absorbing that, silently rearranging her understanding of Alex.

Alex adds suddenly, “Hey, Pipes, don’t tell Nicky or anyone else about that, okay? I mean, they know I’m on scholarship - Janae is, too, but for sports, so it’s different - but there’s still a big gap between the trailer park and the way Nichols or you grew up. Rather them think I’m closer to the middle.”

Piper nods, eagerly agreeing.  "I won't say anything." 

She should maybe say something reassuring about how none of their friends will care, that of course the kind of home Alex grew up in doesn’t matter, but the delight of being offered this as a secret is too good to sacrifice. She smiles reassuringly at Alex, and the moment feels hushed and glowing - something just between them.

She always catches herself wanting that from Alex, some sense of being special.  She is her roommate, of course, and no one else can say that, but it wasn’t Alex’s choice. 

So Piper strings together every instance of being singled out like they’re jewels.  When Alex makes a point to catch her eye when the whole group is laughing.  When Alex makes a joke directed at her on their group text.  Every time Alex comes by her tennis match or waits for her after class.  Every time she's the one being chosen. 

With a fervency that's probably embarrassing, what Piper wants most is to be Alex’s favorite, the person she’s closest to, the first one she calls or looks for or even just thinks about.  Sometimes, when Alex smiles at her, Piper even thinks maybe she is, but it's hard to shake the fact that the others have a headstart.

“I wish I did start last year,” she mumbles mournfully, shaking the thermos a little. It’s empty again.

“But you wouldn’t have been my roommate,” Alex reminds her.

“Tha’s true.”

“And then we probably never would have been friends.”

“Yes, we would have.”

“I don’t know about that.”

Alex. We would have.”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.”

 


 

 

Piper falls asleep on Alex's bed somehow, wine drunk, her hair knotted up from drying on its own.  She's still leaning against the wall, half sitting up, legs dangling off the bed and head tilted like she's perplexed.  Alex grins to herself and gently nudges her roommate into a normal human sleeping position, her cheek barely hitting the edge of Alex's pillow. 

Briefly, stupidly, Alex thinks about stretching out beside her, forcing herself into the minimal space left on the mattress and sleeping that close.

Instead she stretches out on top of the sheets on Piper's bed.  The pillow smells like her, and Alex tells herself that's almost as good. 

 

Chapter Text

Part of the beauty of falling in love with you is the fear you won't fall.

The Fear You Won't Fall // Joshua Radin

 


 

"Out!"  Jessica Wedge yells from the other side of the tennis court, her determined sprint seguing into a lazy jog to chase the tennis ball to the fence.

"What?"  Piper says incredulously.  She's standing at the net, close enough to see where ball hit.  "It wasn't even on the line!" 

Jessica turns back and shakes her head.  "Just over." 

Furious, Piper twists around to look at Polly, back at their baseline, shrugging uncertainly.  On the other side of the net, Sarah, Jessica's partner, isn't saying anything either.

"Fine, whatever."  Piper smacks her racket down on top of the net, annoyed.  That had been a blistering fucking return, just after Jessica had made the mistake of running for the net too soon. 

It's a challenge match, and the coach isn't nearby to police their calls.  Jessica and Sarah are coming for Polly and Piper's ranked doubles spot, but they're losing 3-1 in the second set (first set: 6-3) and obviously getting desperate. 

Piper glances hopefully toward the soccer field, but their practice is still going.  Alex had really been hoping to get out early enough to come watch Piper "kick Jessica's ass", which she'd promised to do and, so far, is expertly accomplishing.

In real matches, Piper's usual response to someone making bullshit calls is to go a little rogue at the net, slamming shots purposefully at her opponents bodies, but that seems like bad form playing against her own teammates, especially since she's still relatively new.

But if Alex were here to see, it might have been worth it.

She never shows up, though, and Polly and Piper win the second set 6-2, a wide enough victory that Jessica and Sarah should probably be embarrassed for challenging them at all.  Sarah shakes the loss off quickly, smiling genuinely when she shakes Piper's hand with the perfunctory "good match" and immediately slipping into easy conversation with Polly, but Jessica is obviously pissed.

The losers have the embarrassing task of reporting the outcome to the coach, and as they head off, Polly and Piper go for their water bottles and tap their rackets gently together.  "Nice one," Polly says with a grin.  "I think Jess really thought they'd beat us."  

"A foolish undertaking," Piper intones solemnly, and Polly laughs.  "She gonna be pissed at you?" 

"Nah, she'll get over it.  She just never likes to lose."  Polly takes a long swig of water, then says.  "Hey, we're all going to the football game at Overbrook tonight.  Want to come with?" 

Automatically, Piper looks away.  "That's okay," she says lightly, and inadequately, as if Polly is offering to do her a favor.

"You never want to hang out," Polly says, and there seems to be genuine hurt in her voice.  "Is it because Jessica will be there?"

"Kind of," Piper mutters, a little chagrined at the straightforward questioning.

"You know, she's only ever been nice to you."  Polly rolls her eyes.  "Not counting very recent poor sportsmanship." 

"I know that."  It's true that Jessica's never treated Piper badly, not that she's given her much chance.  Even hanging around Polly and Sarah at practice, Piper tries not to interact with her directly.  "But, c'mon, Pol...Alex is like my best friend here."  Pride swells in her voice at the words.  She feels like a fifth grader, so eager for the label.  She'd even wear one of those cheesy half heart necklaces from Claire's if it meant solid proof of reciprocation. 

"But their shit shouldn't have anything to do with us being friends."

"I know.  And it doesn't."  She sticks her racket in her tennis bag and slings the strap over her shoulder.  "We're allowed to leave after challenge matches, right?" 

"Yeah," Polly says, still looking put out.  "You know, basketball starts soon.  You'll go to those, right?"

She means because Danny plays.  "Yeah, I'll definitely watch some."  Honestly, Piper spent more than enough time of her childhood and preteen years sitting bored through Danny's games and tournaments, but Janae's boyfriend plays, too, so she figures her friends will probably attend. 

Piper waves at Polly, feeling slightly guilty as she heads off the courts.  She's always assumed Polly's main motivation in befriending her is about Danny - she definitely likes to talk about him - but she always seems genuinely disappointed when Piper turns down an invitation to hang out or sit with her at meals. 

She shrugs off the guilt pretty easily, though, when Piper sees the soccer team is finally breaking apart and heading for the sidelines.  She stops walking, absently scrolling through apps on her phone to kill time until Alex trots over to join her.  She's flushed and sweaty, her knees especially grass stained today, plastic sports glasses looped around her neck, pink circles rimming her eyes.  Piper smirks and aims her phone, snapping a photo before Alex can protest. 

"I'm instagramming that.  Caption: glamour shot." 

"Asshole."  Alex makes a grab for the phone, and Piper snatches it out of reach.  "How'd it go?"

Piper smiles, smug as hell.  "We killed her." 

"Nice.  Was she pissed?" 

"Oh, yeah.  Started calling lines wrong just to save her dignity and it still didn't help." 

"Damn it, I wanted to see that.  Today had to be the day for a full scrimmage." 

Piper's phone buzzes, and she glances down.  "It's the group."  Rather than take out her own phone, Alex leans close to read on Piper's screen. 

JANAE
[Any of y'all wanna go to the OB game tonight?]

"Polly asked me to go with them," Piper tells Alex. 

"She needs to give up trying to steal you," Alex pulls a dramatic face.  "I'm starting to feel like we're gonna have to have a duel or something." 

Piper laughs a little, inordinately pleased with the possessiveness, even if it is a joke.

POUSSEY
[I'll go w/you if you promise not to ditch me to make out with Marcus all night]

JANAE
[Not sure if I can make that promise.]

POUSSEY
[anybody else gonna step up then?]

"Here, let me answer."  Alex takes Piper's phone like hers isn't six inches away in her bag, and quickly texts.

PIPER
[Zero interest in dude sports, sorry]

NICKY
[Bold admission Chapman]

PIPER
[Piper's phones been hijacked.]

NICKY
[Christ, then I guess I'll go, too.  Not gonna be stuck here third wheeling you two all night.]

Alex returns Piper's phone with a satisfied look on her face.  "Sorry, did you want to go?" 

"No," Piper answers immediately.  "I actually don't have much interest in dude sports."

But mostly she just likes the idea of it just being her and Alex on campus tonight.  She loves their group of friends; the five of them always laugh a lot and have fun together, but she also kind of likes the moment they split up for the night, because she and Alex are always heading for the same place.  Sometimes her favorite part of the day is the few hours before bed when they're shut in their room, even if they're just chatting occasionally while doing homework. 

Nearly two months in and Piper is still inexplicably greedy for Alex's presence.  She's never spent this much time with a single person, not even a member of her family, and yet she always finds herself craving more.

So later that night, after an early dinner with the others, the buses leave for Overbrook - unnecessary in terms of the distance to their brother's school's football stadium, but an easy way to keep track of the Litchfield students who go - leaving the campus much quieter than usual. 

Alex insists they spend time outside while it's still warm enough at night to do so, but once the sun sets they still need jackets.  Alex buys them two cokes from the dorm lounge's vending machine, and they end up stretched out on the grass outside their dorm, Alex's phone between them playing music, that Tegan and Sara song Piper's always trying to figure out with the weird lyrics about a koala bear. 

She never used to do stuff like this with her old friends, this kind of quiet contented nothing.  The point of those friendships was always about doing and talking; there always had to be something happening.  She doesn't remember ever being so satisfied by anyone's mere presence.

 


 

Text Message, Tuesday, October 16, 10:23 pm

MOM
[Hey baby.  U okay today?]

ALEX
[Yeah I'm good, how are you?]

MOM
[fine.  how was ur game]

ALEX
[We won. 2-0. And I played the whole game cuz Fiona was sick.]

MOM
[u didnt poison her did u??]

ALEX
[Yeah, actually, I saved my murder plot for an off season exhibition game.]

MOM
[I read a book once where an understudy murdered the starring actress to get her part]
[just makin sure youre not doing the sports version]

ALEX
[stop buying books at the grocery store check out line.]

MOM
[anyone ever told you you're a snob?]

ALEX
[Piper does actually.  But about music.]

MOM
[well that I'm proud of u for]

ALEX
[Hypocrite.]

MOM
[lol how is Piper?]

ALEX
[She's good.  We're just in our room studying for a history thing tomorrow]

MOM
[well I won't distract u.  just wanted to say hi]

ALEX
[Thanks.  Is work ok?]

MOM
[no complaints here kiddo.  love you.]

ALEX
[Love you, too.]

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, October 17, 3:11 pm

DAD
[Hi sweetheart.  How are you?]

PIPER
[Hey, I'm good.  You?]

DAD
[Just fine.  Classes still going well?]

PIPER
[Yeah, just busy getting ready for midterms.

DAD
[Did you get that essay back yet?]

PIPER
[Yep, got an A.]

DAD
[That's my girl.]
[I transferred some money your debit account, didn't like it getting too low.]

PIPER
[Thanks.]

DAD
[No problem.  Try to call home sometime this weekend.]
[And call your grandmother, too, please.]

PIPER
[I will.  Sorry.]

 


 

Piper shows up for lunch one Saturday wearing one of Alex's Litchfield Soccer T-shirts, and Alex brings them both drinks from the beverage station, so she's not sure which thing Nicky's pointed look is referring to.  "You two are like an old married couple." 

Alex rolls her eyes for show, and kicks Nicky under the table for sincerity.  "So are you and Janae.  Just an ornery, unhappy one that maybe should have gotten divorced already." 

"I found her hair on my track pants this morning," Janae says blithely, her most common complaint about rooming with Nicky.  

"Case in point," Alex deadpans while the rest of them laugh. 

"Speaking of couples," Nicky says, breezily changing the subject.  "Excellent news: Laney Dorse is single.  Heard she dumped Sylvie last week."  

"Nice," Alex replies carelessly.  "Go for it." 

"Oh, no, I meant good news for you, Vause.  She's much more your type." 

"That's your type?"  Piper asks, frowning slightly and twisting around in her seat like she's hoping to double check what Laney Dorse looks like - which is tall and curvy with a wild mane of dark hair.  And dead sexy. 

"You don't know me," she tells Nicky.

"Hey, I'm just going on past experience." 

"What, one person?"  She assumes Nicky's referring to Casey Thompson, the one girl here she'd had a brief, ill defined something with last year. 

Poussey snickers.  "Yeah, Nicky, doesn't seem like you're factoring yourself into figuring out that type." 

Piper's head snaps up at that.  "What?  You two - "

"Sexiled me all'a first semester?  Yeah, they did," Janae says with an epic eyeroll. 

"Calm down, it was barely a month," Nicky is saying, but Alex's eyes are on Piper.  She looks flushed and almost irritated - almost jealous.  Alex really doesn't want to be this person, analyzing every little moment and allowing them to swell in importance, but sometimes she can't help it.  There is a tiny, candlelight flame of hope that lives in some secret hatch inside her head, and it's things like this that make it talk to her, whispering maybe maybe maybe. 

"I was just doing my civic duty.  Initiating the baby dyke." 

Alex rolls her eyes, because Nicky's lesbian bravado act is probably the second most annoying thing Nicky does.  To Piper, she says, "We were just messing around.  Shockingly I managed to avoid falling for all this."  She waves a derisive hand at Nicky, and everyone except Piper laughs. 

After lunch, Nicky and Poussey go off to meet with a biology study group, and Janae goes on a run because that's what Janae does even on off days.  Alex looks at Piper as the others scatter.  "Want to see if the ping pong table's free?"

Piper shrugs like she couldn't possibly care less.  "We can." 

She's not making eye contact, and Alex has to bite back a smile as they head down the stairs to the basement.  "You're acting like Snow White's eighth dwarf."  She waits, forcing Piper to finally turn around with an impatient, questioning look. Alex smirks and clarifies,  "Pouty." 

"I'm not pouting."

"You are."  The basement is mostly empty, two girls on the couch watching a movie.  Alex leads the way to the ping pong table on the other end of the room, mostly out of earshot.  "Are you mad I never said anything about Nicky?" 

"Kinda," she mutters.

"It wasn't a big deal.  It didn't even mean anything."  They grab paddles and start hitting the ball back and forth - with some unnecessary force on Piper's end.  "I'd only kissed three girls before.  They were all older, and straight, and playing this stupid drinking game at my neighbor's trailer.  They mainly did it because boys were watching, but I didn't care at the time...I just wanted to kiss a girl.  Nicky and I started being friends after the whole Jessica thing, and she talked a big game...told me none of those counted." 

Nicky at fourteen had been all puffed up, hollow bragging - she'd apparently kissed five girls, and claimed to have done "serious stuff" with two of those.  Only when she and Alex were making out the first time did she admit that serious just meant making out horizontally, plus some under the shirt action. 

"We never had feelings for each other or anything," Alex says.  "It was just, like, we'd get kinda drunk and then hook up a little." 

"So you were friends with benefits," Piper practically spits out, like the concept is beneath her, and even though Alex should probably be annoyed at the judgment, her head just keeps chanting maybe's. 

"I guess, if you need some annoying rom-com label for it," Alex says with a smirk. 

It had always been very clinical and deliberate with Nicky, fun for the month or so they'd kept it up, but they'd gotten bored and let it peter out without regret. 

Alex's phone buzzes, and she plays out the volley until Piper slams the ping pong ball past her.  "This isn't fair, you've got the tennis skills." 

"I don't think they really apply.  You just suck." 

Once she's chased down the ball, Alex pulls her phone out of her pocket.

NICKY
[Pipes cooled off yet?  Somebody seems pretty jealous of our hot heavy affair]
[but seriously if you ever want a reminder of what benefits youre missing with your platonic gf, we can always have a relapse.]

Alex grits her teeth and ignores that. 

For the record, Nicky giving her shit about Piper - especially this "platonic girlfriend" brand of shit - has recently become the most annoying thing Nicky does.

 


 

But okay, maybe sometimes she has a point.

Because stoned Piper is very...tactile.  And it's possible Alex positioned herself here on purpose, sitting on the ground in front of the overturned tree trunk, leaning back on Piper's legs while she plays absently with Alex's hair.

"I don't think I like gin," Piper says, putting her cup on the ground and turning both hands' full attention to Alex's hair.  "It tastes like...yellow." 

The others slowly splutter into high induced giggles. Alex tips her head all the way back to look at Piper.  "What color does vodka taste like?" 

Piper's face pinches into intense concentration.  "Blue," she declares at last.  "But like a really light blue, you know?"

"Rum?"  Poussey prompts.

"Burgundy.  No.  No.  No, maroon." 

"Important distinction." 

"Whiskey?" 

"Haven't tasted it."

"Tequila?"  Alex's head is still tilted, practically in Piper's lap. 

"Gold," Piper says right away, particularly emphatic.  "And silver.  Silver and gold." 

Alex grins upside down at her.  "You're only saying that because you love tequila." 

Piper smiles back, then takes the proffered joint from Janae.  Instead of smoking, she places it between Alex's lips and holds on while she inhales. 

Nearby, Nicky lets out a theatrical groan.  Alex covertly gives her the finger, though she's fairly confident that Piper is too high to think anything of it. 

 


 

Group Text: Janae Watson, Poussey Washington, Nicky Nichols

NICKY
[Taking final bets on how long it'll take Vause and Chapman to bang]

JANAE
[We sure they aren't already???]

NICKY
[actually bang and/or fall apart completely]
[both options are on the table]

POUSSEY
[Ah leave them alone]

JANAE
[Can I go fuck by Christmas and THEN fall apart??]

NICKY
[YES thank you for actually participating]

POUSSEY
[you're both terrible ppl]

 


 

"Come here..."  Piper's got her phone held out with one hand, in classic selfie position, and she's beckoning Alex with the other.   Dutifully, Alex leans in, close enough that Piper's hair brushes her cheek and she can smell the cinnamon gum Piper always chews after they smoke.

Alex smiles automatically and Piper takes the photo.  Alex stays close enough to see the screen, watching her debate between filters on Instagram. 

It's a good picture, featuring Piper's real smile, the one that takes over her entire face.  Alex watches while she thumbs out a caption:

#RoomieLove.  I guess we get along or whatever.

"You're a dork," Alex informs her, resting her chin briefly on Piper's shoulder. 

Piper twists around to look at her, eyes still full of leftover smile.  "Shut up, I'm the only one maintaining your social media presence." 

"Nah, you're just still in Freshman Facebook Frenzy.  You'll slack off."   

"I'm not a freshman, and I don't know what that means." 

"But it is your first year, so you're still trying to prove to people back home that you've made friends." 

"Are you complaining?" 

"Nope, I completely understand.  They should be jealous of us."

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2:48 pm

ALEX
[what's your shoe size]

PIPER
[um.  why?]

ALEX
[getting you a christmas gift.]

PIPER
[you don't need to buy me shoes for Christmas]
[oh wait are you working at the bowling alley????]

ALEX
[HA knew you'd figure it out]
[but yes I should have said STEALING you a Christmas gift]
[size please]

PIPER
[9 1/2]
[but don't steal if it's going to get you in trouble]

ALEX
[ I think you should know by now I'm good at being covert]

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 4:11 pm

PIPER
[I'm so bored.]

ALEX
[Chez Chapman not have the appeal of the esteemed Kerman House?]

PIPER
[Not quite.  I wish we could've all stayed at the dorm and cooked our own Thanksgiving like characters do on TV]

ALEX
[tbh I don't think I'd trust that oven with a turkey.]
[or any of us w/cooking one.]

 


 

 

Text Message, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 8:20 pm 

ALEX
[how was dinner w/ the old crew]

PIPER
[Awkward.]
[They didn't really wanna hear stories about school but I don't really care about gossip on people we barely know.]
[like I tried to explain the thunderstorm thing and they were just like "what's the big deal"]

ALEX
[They're just jealous.]

PIPER
[what have you been up to?]

ALEX
[Oh I'm living it up.  Haven't moved from the couch in hours.]
[that's a lie I went to the fridge for a beer]
[#exercise]

PIPER
[but you worked earlier?]

ALEX
[no just stopped by to see if they'll give me shifts over Christmas break.]
[and then I bowled a game.]
[I am not good.]

PIPER
[we should all go bowling when we get back.]
[isn't there an alley somewhere?]

ALEX
[yeah but trust me you don't want to see Janae bowl.]
[she fucking sucks at it and hates sucking at anything so she just starts messing around.]

PIPER
[Messing around how?]

ALEX
[Granny style bowling, pushing it w/ her foot, etc.]
[She starts out super serious and then as soon as she starts to lose just goes into all that bullshit so you know she's not actually TRYING]
[and then she makes us all play air hockey until she feels superior again]

PIPER
[This actually sounds really amusing let's do it.]

 


 

Text Message, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2:01 pm

PIPER
[Happy Thanksgiving!]

ALEX
[you too.  I feel like there should be a turkey emoji]

PIPER
[there is, see]

ALEX
[that's a rooster dumbass.]

PIPER
[close enough.]

 


 

Text Message, Thursday, Nov. 24, 5:39 pm

PIPER
[there is wine]
[I can SEE the wine]
[but I can't drink the wine]
[That + my grandmother and my mom passive aggressively fighting about food = torture]

ALEX
[If you need an emergency relaxation break, check your left sneaker.]

PIPER
[What did you put in my shoe???]

ALEX
[go see for yourself]
[a gift, courtesy of the Thanksgiving fairy.]

PIPER
[ALEX!!!!!]
[what the hell what if my mom had found that?]

ALEX
[why would your mom be looking inside your shoe?]
[ps if you're about to eat dinner, smoke first...it'll make it the best thanksgiving meal you've ever had]

PIPER
[I can't smoke this all myself.]
[and I can't smoke this HERE]

ALEX
[1. share w/your brothers then]
[2. sure you can just open an upstairs window]
[I assume your house is many many floors.]

PIPER
[you're insane.]

ALEX
[but correct]

 


 

Text Message, Thursday, Nov. 24, 7:51 pm

PIPER
[I'm so full right now, I feel gross.]
[have you eaten yet?]

ALEX
[No. Mom's still at work.]

PIPER
[have you been cooking?]

ALEX
[fuck no.  She brought home a ton of food from the restaurant yesterday, just waiting on her to heat it up.]
[that's Thanksgiving trailer park style, Pipes.  Don't be jealous.]

 


 

Text Message, Thursday, Nov. 24, 9:04 pm

ALEX
[my mom says to tell you hi]

PIPER
[should I say hi back???]

ALEX
[uh that tends to be the polite response Pipes]

PIPER
[I know but I've never met her so I didn't know if that's weird.]

ALEX
[she said it first she's never met you either.]

PIPER
[ok tell her I said hi.]

ALEX
[too late she thinks you're rude for waiting.]

PIPER
[I hate you.]

 


 

Text Message, Friday, Nov. 25, 12:17 pm

PIPER
[you need to download snap chat]

ALEX
[aw you miss my face?]

PIPER
[haha I want to show you the hiding place I found for your 'gift']

ALEX
[The FBI's not gonna flag a text if you say POT]

PIPER
[I also think I packed one of your shirts by accident]

ALEX
[which one?]

PIPER
[if you had snap chat I could show you.]

ALEX
[yea too bad a shirt's such an impossible thing to describe]

PIPER
[Distressed looking gray one.]

ALEX
[*sigh* and now I am also distressed.]

PIPER
[wow]
[you are much less cool than I originally thought.]

ALEX
[fuck you I'm hilarious.]

 


 

Text Message, Friday, Nov. 25, 6:24 pm

PIPER
[I can see you watching Parks and Rec without me you jerk.]
[It's MY Netflix account]

ALEX
[I was gonna go back and rewatch them with you.]

PIPER
[we were supposed to be binging together]

ALEX
[and like I said.  I'm happy to rewatch.]

PIPER
[no never mind, I'll catch up now...the only reason I haven't watched is bc I was gonna wait for you like a COURTEOUS person]

ALEX
[oh really cause it looks like you were just too busy marathoning One Tree Hill]

PIPER
[ok we need to make you your own profile]

ALEX
[please do then I can stop switching over to Danny's when I watch movies from the Gay And Lesbian section.

PIPER
[hahahaha]
[wait but do you really do that?]

 


 

Thanksgiving break is less than a full week, but time at home passes at a glacial pace compared to time at Litchfield.  She and Alex text constantly, at least, and it's the only thing that gets Piper through it. 

She goes to a dinner with her old friends the first full day back, and they sound so genuinely excited to see her in the group message Gina starts that Piper's actually looking forward to going, but within fifteen minutes it's painfully clear she doesn't have much to say to them anymore.

They don't know who Alex is, or Janae or Nicky or Poussey, and so Piper's stories aren't interesting to them.  But even when she recognizes the names in their stories, all people she grew up going to school with, none of it feels like it has anything to do with Piper.

So she doesn't make follow up plans with them, even though she's incredibly bored the entire break.

On Saturday, one day before they get to head back to school, Piper knocks on her older brother's bedroom door.  Alex had texted explicit orders that she wasn't allowed to return to Litchfield with her "gift" unsmoked.  "Hey."

"Sup, Pooh." 

She gives him the obligatory sigh and eyeroll at the name.  "Can we go somewhere in your car?" 

"Where?" 

Discreetly, she closes the door behind her and pulls her hand from the pocket of her jacket.  "Anywhere we can smoke this."

Danny's eyes light up.  "Damn, Pooh Bear.  That Alex girl is a terrible influence on you.  What d'you think Mom and Dad will say if I tell them your roommate's the school dealer?"

"Probably something similar to their response when I say that your girlfriend is one of her biggest customers," Piper shoots back, a thrill chasing the words up her throat.  It's the kind of quick, perfect response Alex would come up with.  She'll have to text it to her.

Danny flashes his teeth.  "Touche."  He stands up, slamming shut the textbook he'd been reading when she came in.  "Let's go."

She figured her brother would know a safe place to smoke, and he does: they end up on the kind of out of the way cul de sac that looks like a make out spot from an 80's movie.  He shuts off the car, rolls down the windows, and they light up.  Piper only takes three hits before she waves away her brother's attempts to pass it back; Danny's more than happy to finish the joint off himself.

Piper doesn't dislike weed, but there doesn't seem to be any point of it here, like this, without her friends around sharing in a gleefully broken rule.  Piper wants Alex to know she smoked it, that she wasn't too afraid of her parents to sneak away and do something bold, but without Alex actually here, sharing it with her, the actual high isn't nearly as fun.

 


 

"Alex!" 

Piper drops her duffel bag and leaps up on Alex's bed, hugging her with her knees on the mattress.  Alex laughs, giving her a sardonic pat on the back.  "Aw, poor thing didn't have a good trip home?" 

"It was so long," Piper moans, dropping her head on Alex's shoulder in mock exhaustion.  "Do I have to go home for Christmas?"  

"Afraid so.  Well.  You have to leave the dorms, at least.  But you could always hide out in the trailer park.  I'll take you hostage." 

"Yes, please.  I'll hang out at the bowling alley while you work." 

"Speaking of..."  Alex grins and leaps off the bed  There's a bag draped over her desk chair, and she reaches in and emerges, triumphant, with a pair of bowling shoes identical to her own.  "Officially the most fashionable item you own." 

"Wow, thanks.  Now I can be a hipster, too."

Alex screws up her face, offended.  "I'm not a hipster.  I stole these from my place of employment, I didn't raid a thrift store."

Piper laughs.  "I missed you."

They spend a lazy Sunday night in their dorm room, still in vacation mode.  Piper stays on Alex's bed, and at some point they stretch out on their stomachs with Alex's laptop in front of them.  Alex is reading out loud from a blog of one of the other sophomores, McKayla Franks, whose entries read like a parody account, satirizing Rich People Problems and Humble Brags.  They follow her blog with great amusement, and recently there have been an influx of paragraphs that build up to a reaction gif, so it's actually necessary that Piper stay close enough to see the screen even as Alex does her usual dramatic read. 

"...meanwhile, everyone is posting photos of their good 'ol fashioned American Thanksgivings, which does make the Le Chateaubriand in Paris taste a little bittersweet.  God, I hate when that happens."

Piper's laughing quietly as Alex reads, and then all at once her fingers land on Alex's forearm, stroking gently, making her skin shiver. 

Alex's voice stumbles a little but she keeps reading on autopilot.  For a second she thinks maybe this was some planned move, something Piper's been working herself up to, but then Alex glances away from the screen and sees Piper's just studying her tattoo. 

"Did it hurt to get?"  Piper asks when she realizes Alex has stopped reading. 

"A little." Her voice comes out kind of hoarse, and Alex has to swallow before continuing.  "Why, you want one?" 

"My mom would freak.  Start screaming about wedding photos."  She lifts herself up on an elbow, using the other hand to push back the shoulder on Alex's tank top, reaching over to touch the salt shaker on her skin. 

Alex's breath catches in her throat.  She's afraid to move.  Lots of people have some strange need to touch tattoos, she knows that, but surely Piper doesn't need to linger this long, the pads of her fingers skimming over every grain of spilled salt made out of ink.

"I like this one a lot," Piper says, still touching her.  Alex has perfected the telling of the story behind the tattoo, both how and why she got it, but right now she's afraid to talk too much, doesn't want to interrupt the string of maybemaybemaybe unraveling in her head.

But then she lifts her eyes to meet Piper's, and there's nothing there but sweet, sincere Piper Curiosity.   There's no possibility in her face, and all at once the moment feels wrung out and used up in a way that's almost unbearable, so Alex sits up and hops off the bed, all jerky, sudden movement.  Her heart feels like a pulled muscle, sore from too much racing, and she needs to get out of here.  "Would you eat popcorn if I made it?" 

"Sure," Piper answers, so easy.  "Want me to come with you?"

"Nah, you're fine, it'll just take a few minutes." 

Alex grabs a bag from the half full basket of snacks beside her mini-fridge and heads downstairs to the basement kitchen.

The thing is, she's not delusional.  This isn't all in her head, it can't be.  If someone could check Alex for evidence, they'd find Piper's fingerprints everywhere, proof of countless lingering, any-excuse touches.  Maybe it's pathetic that Alex catalogs each one, notices and overthinks and remembers, but that isn't the same as making it up. 

 


 

"So we'll check your name off on the bus sheet riding back, and you hang around for another hour so,"  Alex tells Janae.  The five of them are sitting around Nicky and Janae's dorm room, waiting until it's time to go to Overbrook for a basketball game, and Nicky and Alex are making a passionate case for rule breaking in the name of getting some

"And when she says hang around, she means in his dorm room," Nicky adds.  "With a jock strap on the door or whatever disgusting shit men use." 

Poussey and Piper laugh at that, but Janae just frowns, checking her face in the mirror for the dozenth or so time since they've been here.  "Eh, I don't know.  If they catch me and I have to miss practice, then it'll be a meet - "

"Christ, that's your whole problem," Nicky says.  "You run a hundred miles a week and yet no one's getting the benefit of your hot bod."  

Alex raises her eyes eyebrows and smirks suggestively.  "Pretty soon you're gonna come knocking on my door, Watson.  And I may not say no." 

Janae snickers.  "I'll just try like fuck to resist." 

Alex and Nicky do that sometimes with Poussey or Janae, mock flirting as a way of giving compliments, never anything serious.  Nicky does it with Piper, too - always calling her baby duck and managing to make it sound lewd - but Piper's noticed Alex never does.

Maybe it's just because they're roommates, and after the Jessica incident last year she doesn't want to even jokingly give Piper the wrong idea.  But it's just as likely that she doesn't think about Piper that way, even in a teasing manner; that's not the way you joke with your tagalong, first year roommate who's imprinted on you. 

Piper's not sure why it bothers her, but it does.  She sometimes still feels like a naive little kid compared to the others, but she especially doesn't want Alex to see her like that. 

 


 

They're not even through the first quarter of the basketball game, Piper and Alex more occupied with the plate of concession stand nachos they're sharing than the action on the court, when Polly texts.

POLLY
[u gonna come hang out??]

Piper twists around on the bleachers and catches Polly's eye, several rows up and over.  She makes a mock pouting face, then smiles, jerking her head for Piper to come up.

"I think I gotta go put in an appearance," she tells her friends, nodding in Polly's direction.

Nicky barely looks up from her phone.  "More power to ya." 

"Ya don't want drama with the sister-in-law," Poussey says with a grin. 

Piper makes eye contact with Alex.  "I'll be back."

"Okay, but I'm gonna finish these," Alex tells her, ostentatiously licking cheese off the end of her finger.

 


 

As Piper maneuvers her way awkwardly up the bleachers, Alex reaches for her purse and pulls out headphones.  She's barely plugged them into her phone when Nicky gives a shout of a laugh.  "Wow, you're not even subtle, are you?" 

"What?"

"Baby Duck's gone, and that's it?  You're not even gonna pretend to engage with the rest of us?" 

"You two've been on your phones the whole time."  Alex doesn't even bother mentioning Janae, who's at the end of their row, avidly watching the game and shouting at Marcus in a way that sounds more like a coach than a supportive girlfriend. 

"We're taking a Buzzfeed quiz about which celebrity baby we should date," Poussey informs her helpfully.  "When they grow up, obviously." 

"Exactly.  Not good company."  Pointedly, Alex starts untangling her headphones. "Don't know why we even come to these things." 

"You came because you're whipped," Nicky says cheerfully.  "And we like to watch." 

"Shut up," Alex mutters, not in the mood for this. 

"I'm telling you, Vause.  Go for Laney.  Or, hell, Sylvie...sure, she's a little nuts, but she's always been into you." 

"Yo, I heard Sylvie straight up went into Laney's room and broke the arms off all her volleyball trophies."  Poussey leans around Nicky to look at Alex.  "You don't wanna mess with that." 

Nicky shrugs.  "Still, a crazy girlfriend's better than platonic girlfr - "

Alex cuts her off.  "If you say that one more time, I'm gonna fucking punch you." 

"Okay, ladies, let's keep the peace,"  Poussey gets up and forces herself in between Alex and Nicky.  "But real talk...Piper's into you, Al.  For sure." 

Before this welcome validation can settle, Nicky makes a scoffing sound.  "Of course she's into her. It's embarrassingly obvious.  But the question is, does it matter?  Chapman doesn't know she's got a huge crush, so she'll probably realize it in fifteen years when she's got her husband and two point five kids living in suburbia...she'll be telling her wild boarding school stories and think, holy shit, I should've lady banged my roommate when I had the chance!  At least then I'd have a good story to  - "

"Fuck off," Alex snaps, meaning it, more annoyed than they usually get at each other.  She puts in her earbuds and turns up her music, fixing her eyes on the court and not even glancing over at Nicky.  She does, however, look back to where Piper's sitting with Polly and Jessica and a couple of boys from Overbrook.  One of them she vaguely recognizes from that day Piper's brother came to buy weed is sitting beside her, the two of them talking, and somehow that just makes Alex feel worse.  

 

Chapter Text

I get so jealous that I can't even work.  There I am in the morning, I don't like what I see.
I don't know how it's become such a problem.

So Jealous // Tegan and Sara

 


 

 "So what do you think of Larry?"  Polly asks her as soon as they get out of the gym, heading for the concession stand set up in the hallway.  Her voice is all hush-hush conspiratorial, and Piper belatedly clues in to why Polly spent the whole last quarter alternately cheering for Danny and facilitating conversation between Piper and Larry Bloom.

"He's nice," she says, meaning it.  He's actually so nice it's surprising Danny's friends with him.  He's never really surrounded himself with that sort of guy, the sweet, fumbling, trying-really-hard kind.  Her brother's friends are more the over-confident asshat type;  Piper assumes only through the chance of random roommate selection are those two friends. 

She frowns a little with that thought, hoping that isn't true of her and Alex.

"Good," Polly says, satisfied.  "Cause I think he's totally into you, and you need a reason to start coming to Overbrook with us."  

Piper makes a face as they get in line.  "I can't date my brother's roommate."

"Why not?  Danny won't care, and even if he did you don't need his permission."

"I know.  But it's just weird."  

They reach the front of the line; Polly gets a diet soda, and Piper orders two.  Off Polly's look, she lies, "Alex texted me to get her one, must've seen us going out."  

"Oh."  Polly quickly gets back to the matter at hand.  "Listen, Larry's like the best guy.  You guys would be adorable."  She lowers her voice.  "He asked me if you were coming to winter formal.  You are, right?" 

"I think so, yeah," she says, even though it's a week away and none of her friends have brought it up. 

"You're coming," Polly says decisively.  "Even if Alex and everyone don't go, you can come with us."

They get back to the bleachers, and Piper catches Alex's eye from across the crowd.  She waves the extra soda can at Polly.  "I gotta take this to Alex." 

"Come back up after?"

"Um.  Maybe in a little while, sure."

Polly rolls her eyes good-naturedly.  "If you don't, I'm just going to spend the whole time talking about you to Larry."

Piper laughs a little as they split into different directions.  She steps over legs to get to the middle of the row, and Alex grins up at her as she settles back in her spot and hands over a soda.

"Fuck, thanks for asking if we wanted anything," Nicky says loudly. 

"Didn't have enough cash," Piper says, making a mock sad face at her that makes Alex and Poussey laugh.  "Hey, do you guys go to winter formal?" 

Alex turns to look at her, eyebrows high.  "Why wouldn't we?"

"I don't know.  You kind of seem like you'd be that girl who thinks prom's really lame." 

Alex's lips curve into a half a smirk.  "You know I hate being predictable." 

"It is lame," Poussey clarifies.  "But we pregame and throw down." 

"Why you ask, Chapman?"  Nicky leans around Poussey and Alex to look at her.  "Harper set you up with a hot Overbrook date?"

"No," she says firmly.  "She just asked if we were going." 

"Fuck, I gotta do a liquor store run," Alex mutters absently.  "Demand is about to get crazy." 

Poussey exhales a scoffing sound.  "The fuck is it about your magic ID that makes a fifteen year old look twenty-one?" 

"It's not the ID, babe."  Alex says with a smug grin.  "It's confidence." 

Heat fans out in Piper's gut, some strange surge of jealousy, and the need to get Alex's attention again seizes her, but before she can think of something to say, Janae turns toward them, face screwed up in skepticism. 

"Whatever, this bitch pays seniors to drive over an hour to this liquor store in the boonies where the dude don't give a shit."  She looks right at Alex, smirking.  "Bet she wears a low cut shirt when she does it, too." 

"Oh, now you want to contribute to the conversation?"  Alex shoots back, throwing a nacho at her that misses and hits Nicky.

"Fuck, Vause!" 

"Um..."  Piper's voice cuts through the banter, seeming out of place.  "I'm gonna go back up and hang out with Polly for awhile."  To just Alex, she adds, "I just wanted to bring you that." 

The mirth on Alex's face clouds over, and she pulls on Piper's sleeve even though she hasn't even stood up yet.  "Oh, c'mon, you put in your time.  Stay here." 

Piper feels herself start smiling.  "Okay."

Alex grins back over the top of her soda can, pleased with the easy acquiescence.  It makes Piper realize this was all she really wanted - not to leave, but to be asked to stay. 

 


 

Everyone is coming to their room to covertly pregame the dance, but they get ready on their own, Alex's music playing while they put on makeup, still in ratty T-shirts and soffee shorts, bouncing on the balls of their bare feet while they lean close to the mirrors that hang on both closet doors.

Piper glances sideways at Alex, her glasses on top of her her head, carefully winging her eyeliner.  "So you went to both dances last year?" 

"Mmm-hmmm." 

"Do you dance?"

Alex turns to look at her, amused.  "What is your deal with this?  Why are you so surprised I'm even going?" 

Honest, Piper blurts out, "You seem too cool for dances." 

That makes Alex laugh.  "This dance made me a lot of money this week."  That much, at least, Piper can attest too - people have been coming in with backpacks every afternoon, picking up booze orders.  "But don't worry...I saved some that's definitely going to make this a cool event for us."

She straightens up from the mirror and opens the closet door, rummaging around inside for a moment before spinning around to smile at Piper.  "Only the finest jewels for you, m'lady," she jokes, brandishing a bottle of tequila with the formality and fanfare of a game show girl presenting prizes.  "Silver and gold."

Piper laughs.  They've all started referring to liquor by colors, her own idiotic, weed induced assessment of their taste apparently immortalized in an inside joke. 

She pads over to the mini-fridge and pulls out a carton of orange juice.  "You need a mixer?" 

"Um...for now." 

"Yeeeah, Pipes.  That's the spirit."  She pours a tequila orange juice mix, more tequila than not, into two cups and walks one over to Piper.  "It's actually a good thing it's Overbrook's turn to host this shindig...they always manage to spike the punch.  Too fucking vigilant over here."  

"Nice," Piper says, taking a generous gulp of the drink.  She studies Alex while she drinks; she's got more make up on than usual, and even without her dress on she looks gorgeous and grown up.  "Could I borrow that? 

"What?"

"The, uh..."  Her cheeks warm slightly, and Piper stupidly touches a finger to her own lips. 

Alex grins.  "Sure."  She grabs the tube of lipstick off her desk and tosses it to Piper.  "I'm gonna change real quick." 

"Kay."  Piper leans close to the mirror again, keeping her eyes on her own reflection, painting her lips the same bright red as Alex's.

"Okay, fully clothed."   

Piper turns to look at Alex, her black dress and red lips, swallowing silver and gold.  "Wow, you look amazing." 

Alex's smile floods her whole face with light.  "Thanks." 

 


 

Alex is finished getting ready, so there's really nothing for her to do perch on the edge of her desk, drinking and watching Piper carefully curl her hair. She's not the one with the Instagram obsession, but she kind of wants to take a photo right now.  It's something about the contrast between Piper's face, made up and sophisticated, hair falling around it in soft golden waves, and her middle school tennis T-shirt with a hole in the neck hanging low over her short purple shorts. 

Piper glances over at her, maybe sensing the staring.  "Are you doing anything with your hair?"

"Nah, my hair's pretty come as you are." 

"C'mere, let me at least curl the ends or something." 

"I'm good." 

"Alex..."  Piper sets the curling iron down on her desk and crosses the room toward her.  

"Pipes," she mocks back, a precise echo. 

"I promise you won't hate it." 

"Oh, that's comforting," Alex snarks, but then Piper touches her wrist and wins the argument, simple as that.

Alex sits in Piper's desk chair, and Piper combs her fingers through her hair.  Alex likes it, likes it so much she'd probably let Piper do anything, whatever stupid bun or up-do or fucking fairy princess braid she wants, as long as her hands stay where they are. 

She keeps her drink within reach and keeps sipping from it, until Piper taps her on the head and admonishes, "Stay still, I don't wanna burn your neck." 

"I'd take an injury in the pursuit of alcohol," Alex says, and she feels Piper's laugh hit the top of her head. 

Piper takes the cup from her hand and puts it out of reach on the dresser.  "Drastic measures." 

Alex tries not to smile.  "Better hurry up, then.  I'm already sitting here against my will."

"Aw, you poor, tortured thing," Piper says, and Alex can hear her smiling, too.

She thinks about Piper telling her she looks amazing, the way she'd practically exhaled the words, and that look on her face, like maybe maybe maybe -

It's so stupid to think like this, like they're in some teen movie when the dance is the climactic moment where everything changes and feelings get exposed, but all week Alex has been catching herself looking forward to tonight like it really, really matters.

On the desk, her cell phone vibrates.  "Am I allowed to look at that?" 

Piper hands her the phone.  "As long as you don't flail your arms around when you text." 

MOM
[big dance tonight?]

ALEX
[yeah, getting ready now]

MOM
[have fun babe]
[and send me pics!!!!]

"Is that Nicky?  Are they on their way?" 

"It's my mom," Alex replies.  "She wants photos."

"Good, we need to take some anyway.  Aaaand..." She steps around in front of Alex and bends down, studying her hair head on.  She and Piper spend a lot of time this close to each other, but more shoulder to shoulder than face to face; it makes Alex very aware of her own breathing, all of a sudden.  "I'm all done." 

She has to swallow hard before she says, "You better get dressed.  Everyone'll be here soon."

Piper checks the time on Alex's phone, back on her desk now.  "Shit, you're right.  One sec." 

Alex pivots the chair toward the mirror, checking her hair while Piper opens her closet and gets her dress.  Her hair is in loose waves around her shoulders, nothing too different, but she likes that Piper did them. 

"Done." 

Alex looks over, sees Piper in this gorgeous, champagne colored dress with a skirt that looks like she should be twirling.  "Wow," slips out, and she stumbles a bit before continuing.  "You look...great."  It comes out small and inadequate, because she means beautiful and is afraid of what her voice will give away if she says it.

Piper looks pleased anyway.  "Thanks."  She keeps checking her reflection in the mirror, and then she grabs her phone.  "C'mere, we need a picture." 

"We're not gonna be able to get the dresses in."

"So we'll do another one when everyone gets here." 

Alex never actually says no to this, so she puts her face close to Piper and smiles.  It takes three photos before Piper's satisfied. 

"I'll send it to you, you can send it to your mom." 

"Thanks."  She shakes her nearly empty cup at Piper.  "You need to catch up."

Suddenly the door bursts open, and Janae and Poussey dance into the room, Nicky shoving impatiently between them.  Everyone's loud and hyper and excited, and even though Alex's instinctive response is a surge of disappointment that she and Piper are no longer alone, she gets over it pretty quickly, playing the hero as always by providing the drinks.

"Thirty minutes until we have to head for the bus, people," Alex announces, passing around cups.  "Make 'em count." 

 


 

The bus takes them the four minute drive to Overbrook, and the process of loading the buses and signing everyone in is about five times that long, but Piper doesn't mind; she feels tipsy and warm sitting against Alex on the bench seat of the bus, and Piper kind of can't stop looking at her. 

She's so pretty it's a little ridiculous.  Piper keeps getting strange, sudden urges to tell her that, but that would definitely sound weird.   

Polly walks down the aisle with Jessica and Sarah and the rest of their friends.  She catches Piper's eye and grins.  She's been going on about formal - and Larry - all week.  Piper hasn't said anything to Alex, or any of the others, about it.  She doesn't feel particularly invested in Polly's matchmaking plan; Piper thinks she'll be perfectly happy spending the night with her own friends. 

"Too bad there's no room in these dresses for flasks," Alex murmurs, close to Piper's ear.  She laughs and turns to look at Alex, their faces close together.  She can smell the mints they'd all popped on the way out the door, thanks to Alex's reminder that chaperons tend to stand at the door and check breath for booze if anyone seems suspicious.  

Alex must read something in her face, because she squints her eyes a little and asks, "What?" 

"Nothing."  Piper's voice is soft.  "I'm just having fun." 

Alex's smile is slow and sweet.  "Already?  Fuck, Pipes, just wait until the dancing starts." 

Piper smiles back at her because she can't not, when suddenly Poussey pops over the back of their seat with her phone extended.  "Photo bomb!" 

"It's not a bomb if you're the one taking it, dumbass." 

 


 

They all expertly pass inspection walking into Overbrook's banquet room, somehow managing to appear entirely sober for their entry. 

"Punch?" Piper says eagerly once they're inside.

Alex's buzz must be doing its work, because she slings an arm around Piper's shoulder when she laughs at her.  "Appreciate the enthusiasm, kid, but you gotta give it an hour or so before the punch is really worth it." 

"Damn it," Piper jokes, leaning into her side, not seeming to mind the contact. 

Then Nicky, damn her, grabs Piper's hand and lifts it up, drawing her dramatically away from Alex.  "Until then...we dance." 

Behind Piper's back, Alex gives Nicky an annoyed look.  She just smirks.

Poussey jerks her head toward the dance floor.  "C'mon, let's get out there before Janae abandons us for the night...leaves me with all y'all and your white people dancing..."

Looking up from her phone, Janae says, "Marcus is still smoking, apparently, so we got a few minutes."

"Good, then let's fuckin' go."  She grabs Janae and Piper by their arms and hauls them toward the dance floor.  Alex thwacks Nicky with the back of her hand as they follow.

They find a space among the throng of already dancing students; these dances are always overcrowded - all the students in good academic standing from both schools - and far too packed with boys, but it's kind of nice that there's never an awkward period.  Most everyone present has been through these before, and feel no need to hug the wall and warm up to the dancing portion of the evening.  Everyone jumps right in.

Including her friends, the music and their dresses and Alex's tequila mixing together for this frenetic good feeling that seems to pulse between all five of them.  They dance together, more of a clump than a circle, and Alex ends up face to face with Piper, and she's not even certain if she orchestrated that or if it just happened.

Piper looks like someone not used to dancing; she seems overwhelmed, looking at Alex for instruction, and before she can stop herself, Alex winks at her. 

Jesus

She goes easy, moving her hips and arms in a way Piper can easily follow.  They dance through that song and into another before Piper seems genuinely comfortable, biting her lip against a smile. 

A song they know comes on, the kind with a chorus that begs dancing to turn into jumping, and they start singing along, turning a little to share it with the others - save Janae, who's pressed against Marcus three feet away - but Alex and Piper's eyes keep seeking the other out, their bodies occasionally brushing at the edges, clumsily magnetic.

They're six songs in before they all venture off the dance floor, throwing off their heels to join a comically large line of shoes lining the perimeter of the room.  Piper takes a photo of it, and then someone Poussey knows from volleyball team comes by and tells them the punch is "really good", so they head for the snack table and help themselves to what tastes like Kool-Aid and ginger ale with a harsh bite of cheap vodka.

Back in their spot with full cups, they dance and half sing to any song that's even kind of recognizable.  Piper's completely loosened up by then, and her full out dancing turns out to be dorky in a way that's almost unfairly adorable.  Alex loves this about her, the way her enjoyment of any given moment just takes her over, so she's open mouth smiling and bobbing her head with the music.  She keeps dancing closer, her eyes all lit up like someone who just discovered their favorite song, and Alex's hands can barely stand not touching her. 

 


 

They've been dancing for over an hour, so Piper's sweaty and sore in the best way. 

At some point, Janae's disappeared to find a make out spot with her boyfriend, Nicky's off dancing with some freshmen girl, and Poussey gets pulled into a group of her volleyball teammates, but she and Alex stay where they are.  

Alex is a good dancer, her movements fluid and effortless in a way Piper doesn't think she'll ever be able to pull off, but when it's just the two of them she gets a little goofy.  It's contagious, and soon they're both giggling madly beneath the sound of some Top 40 song Alex would probably never listen to voluntarily, over exaggerating their facial expressions and doing too much with their arms.  Every once in awhile Alex seizes Piper's hands, or maybe Piper reaches for her, and they do some brief parody of a swing dance move that makes Piper laugh like she's too happy to stay quiet. 

It's so much fun with her, and Piper really likes that she's drunk right now, the way it gives her tunnel vision so she isn't even thinking beyond the immediate, awesome moment. 

But then Polly grabs her arm and pulls her out of it.  "Oh my God, dude, what the hell?  I've been texting you all night." 

"My phone's in my purse, we left them at the front - "

"Well, you and me need photos.  Come hang out."  Her pause goes on just too long before she adds, "Alex, you, too." 

Alex lets out a sarcastic, single syllable laugh.  "Yeah, no thanks." 

At that, Piper says to Polly, "I'll just come find you later."

"No way, c'mon it took forever to find you.  And..."  Polly smiles suggestively.  "Larry's asking where you are." 

Hesitant, Piper turns to look at Alex.  She only nods shortly, but all the smiling has gone out of her face.  "Go ahead if you want."  

"I don't have to - "

"You clearly do," she says in a low voice, angling her face away from Polly to roll her eyes at Piper.  "It's fine, I'm gonna go find Poussey."  

"I won't be long," Piper tells her, probably a little too loud as Polly practically pulls her away.

"Have you had the punch in the last half hour?"  Polly shouts over the music as they weave through the crowd. 

"Oh, yeah." 

"Excellent.  Though I guess you're nice and set up for pregame, huh?  With Alex as your roommate, I mean." 

"Yeah, we were well prepared."

"Pooh Bear!"  Danny's hands clamp down on her shoulders as they reach Polly's group.  "Look at ya all dressed up...let's take a photo to send to Mom.  Pol?" 

"Got it."  Polly aims her phone and Danny throws an arm around Piper.

"Say sober!

Piper actually laughs a little at that, and the flash of the phone's camera catches it.  A second later, though, she wrinkles her nose.  "Jesus, Danny, did you bathe in Axe?"

"Had to cover up the weed smell, Pooh.  They wouldn't have let us in." 

"You should smell our room," a voice says from beside her, and she turns to see Larry Bloom, his suit jacket off and his tie loosened, shooting her a wry, lopsided grin.  "I might choke to death tonight....death by Axe.  And not the cool, badass murdery kind."

She laughs, surprisingly glad to see him.  With her brother and Polly wrapped up in each other - literally - she'd rather talk to Larry than anyone else in this group.  The guys are all Danny's usual brand of friends, the kind that make her feel like she's always the butt of some joke, and she can't help but see the girls as Jessica Wedge's minions. 

"Should I be disturbed that you called ax murder cool or what?" 

He grins.  "Wait, is that not impressive?  I gotta rethink some things..." 

"Smile, you two!"  A second later, Polly's camera goes off again, and then she's leaning into Piper to take one of the two them.  Piper wants more punch so she takes her brother's: he curses at her and she just smirks while she downs it, causing a bunch of the other guys to ooh and generally act lame.  Danny gives her the finger and then pulls Polly back to the dance area, everyone else following.  Her brother and Polly starting grinding in a way that is, quite frankly, disturbing to watch.  Other guys start pressing against the girls like there was some unspoken agreement, but Larry turns to her with a sheepish smile and asks if she wants to dance, which seems sweet of him, so Piper tells him she does. 

 


 

Alex makes the rounds for awhile, dancing with a few of the girls from the soccer team for a couple songs before grabbing another cup of punch and joining Poussey and a group of her volleyball friends who are definitely benefiting from their recent purchases from Alex. 

She makes another trip to the punch bowl, but it's obviously been recently refilled and is no longer alcoholic. 

There are two different hallways off the banquet hall, open for bathroom purposes only, and Alex heads down the hall to see a smattering of couples kissing, probably stealing moments in between chaperon patrols. 

She's washing her hands on the sink when suddenly Sylvie Barrett comes to the sink beside hers, grinning sideways at her.  "Hey, Alex." 

"Oh, hey." 

"You're looking good." 

She glances over, reading her expression, hoping Nicky hasn't given her any ideas.  She hasn't seen Nicky for about forty-five minutes, so there's no telling how much havoc she could have wreaked by now. 

"You, too," Alex says neutrally.  She usually flirts pretty casually with Sylvie - and Laney, and a handful of other older, upperclassmen lesbians - but doesn't feel much like doing it in a crowded bathroom. 

"Thanks."  Sylvie grins.  "Decided to rock the suit this time.  You should try it."  She glances around, then opens up her jacket, revealing an inside pocket and the silver flash of a flask peaking out of it.  "Plenty of advantages." 

Alex arches an eyebrow, suddenly a little more interested. 

Five minutes later, they've slipped out an exit and are trading sips of whiskey from the flask, leaning back against the brick building. 

"You and your girlfriend looked like you were having fun," Sylvie says oh-so-casually after the first few sips. 

"She's not my girlfriend," Alex recites, not the first time she's said that tonight.  But with her soccer teammates, they'd seemed to be genuinely assuming - Sylvie's just fishing.  "She's my roommate." 

"My mistake.  Did you hear about my girlfriend?" 

Alex has a sudden vision of Laney Dorse's purportedly armless volleyball trophies and has to bite back a smile.  "Heard you don't have one anymore." 

Sylvie points a finger at her.  "Correct.  Laney wanted to break up now so we wouldn't feel obligated to 'influence each other's college decisions'." 

"So practical."  Alex says, leaning against the building and holding her eyes.  "She figured you'd pull a Legally Blonde and follow her to Harvard?" 

"Please."  Sylvie rolls her eyes. "She's not fucking getting into Harvard.  None of the Ivy's...she'll be lucky to pull Smith." 

Alex turns her smile teasing and sharp.  "It's nice you're not bitter." 

"Actually..."  Sylvie's voice slows a little, and she leans close.  "Right at this moment?  I'm not remotely bitter." 

Alex takes a swig of the whiskey, and as soon as she lowers the flask they're kissing.

Sylvie's mouth is confident and sure, her fingers slipping beneath the straps of Alex's dress, and it's good, it's fine, this is the sort of thing she's supposed to be doing, but Alex can't get out of her own fucking head and give herself over to the moment. 

She can't shake the fact that this isn't who she wants to be kissing. 

So she backs away, turning her head and trying to act like she's taken the kissing to a natural end rather than cut it off almost immediately.  "I have to get back inside, but, uh...thanks for the drink." 

Sylvie's eyes flash genuine anger and hurt, too much for the ten minutes they've been talking, but she twists her mouth into a sardonic smile.  "Sure you do.  Off to see the roommate, right?" 

"I am," Alex says before she can stop herself. 

Because Alex chooses Piper over free whiskey, over kissing a girl who isn't her, over just about anything; and if even Sylvie is noticing something between them, then it's not just in Alex's head.  

Alex heads back into the banquet hall, polka dots of light spiraling over the dance floor as she starts searching impatiently for Piper.  She feels dizzy and warm blooded, and drunk enough to maybe use the word beautiful this time.

And then she walks right into a scene from one of those stupid teen movies, after all, except it's not the good kind, the happy moment in the spotlight. 

It's the sort of clichéd, predictable moment she should have fucking seen coming.

Piper's kissing some boy on the dance floor, her arms wound around his neck, hips still half heartedly moving to the music against his.  And even though Alex was doing the same thing two minutes earlier, it's still a sudden, gut-punching kind of awful.  The kind of awful that brings you to your knees. 

She waits it out for a moment, giving it a chance to end the way her and Sylvie's kiss did, but it just keeps going and going, long enough that Alex has to figure out how to breathe.

Self preservation finally kicks in and she drags her eyes away as soon as they start to sting, turning to push her way blindly through the crowd. 

Alex has never, ever felt so stupid. 

She thinks about finding Sylvie again, for her flask and for the kissing, but she already feels sick to her stomach and neither of those would help.  But Alex has less than an hour to get herself together, to get okay again, because when the lights come up and the dance ends, there is no avoiding Piper. 

 


 

"Yo, Bloomer!  Get off my little sister, dude!" 

This loud, half serious command from her brother provokes another chorus of lame noises from his friends, and interrupts a good two and a half songs worth of making out, definitely the longest Piper's ever kissed anyone. 

It was nice, and not a bad milestone for her first ever high school dance, but they'd been kissing long enough for it to become unexciting, so she's not that pissed at Danny for interrupting even though his method is obnoxious.  She scowls at him and thumps her knuckles against his chest.  "Shut up, asshole." 

Larry's looking a little embarrassed, but he doesn't address Danny's demands, just meets Piper's eyes and says, "You want to maybe step outside or something?"

She can't imagine there's any point to going outside beyond kissing more, in a slightly more private location.  She runs a hand through her hair, feeling the mess of it.  "Um, I should probably find my friends, actually.  My roommate." 

"Oh."  He nods, face falling in slight disappointment.  "Okay.  Maybe find me later?" 

"Yeah, if I can."  She catches Polly's eye to wave goodbye, and Polly gives her a congratulatory grin. 

She spends a good ten minutes cutting random paths through the dance floor, looking for everyone, mostly Alex, suddenly a little annoyed with herself that she spent so much time with Polly and Larry.  The dance must be almost over, and all that dancing they'd done at the beginning still feels like the best part.  She wants more of that. 

She finds Poussey and Nicky dancing with some girls she only vaguely knows.  "Where's Alex?"

"Great to see you, too, Chapman," Nicky says dryly.

"We figured she was with you," Poussey tells her. 

"No."  Piper's suddenly and obscurely worried.  If she's not with any of them, and almost certainly isn't with Janae and Marcus - who've probably snuck off to his dorm room by now - then who else is she with?  "I better go look for her - "

"Relax, Ducky," Nicky tells her, the most unfortunate variation on her baby duck nickname.  "You guys can survive ten minutes away from each other."

 


 

Alex waits a few minutes after she sees Piper, Nicky and Poussey load back onto the bus before she heads for it herself.  There's a seat beside Piper, just in front of Nicky and Poussey, and Alex reluctantly drops into it.  She doesn't read into the smile Piper gives when she sees her. 

"Hey!  Where were you?"

"With soccer people."   

The lights are on in the bus, harshly exposing everyone's end of the night looks: makeup half sweated off, hair flat and matted.  Piper, of course, looks prettier somehow, all flushed and big eyed.  Damn her.  Alex can't really look at her, doesn't trust her own face not to give her away in all this light.

Janae runs onto the bus at the last minute and has to sit in the front, but she twists around to grin at them, her facial expression identical to one she has winning a race, and a few merciful moments later the bus pulls off.

"I was looking for you," Piper says to her in a quieter voice when they pull onto the road.  Alex has only been quiet for a minute or so, but there's already worried confusion laced through Piper's voice, and Alex knows why: she sat down beside Piper like she was anyone else, not immediately seeking a connection. 

"Ah, sorry,"  Alex says, and her voice at least sounds completely normal.  "I thought you were with Polly." 

"Not for awhile," Piper says, still cautious.  She's staring hard, seeking eye contact. 

Alex bites her tongue and gives it to her.  "How was she?"

"Fine..."  Piper frowns a little, scrutinizing her.  "Did you smoke?"

"Yeah," Alex lies.  "Got a hold of a flask, too.  I am kiiiiinda fucked up right now."

"Gotcha."  Piper says, her face relaxing, writing Alex's weirdness off to a cross buzz.  Good.  

Back at the dorm, they change clothes and sneak downstairs to Janae and Nicky's room, along with Poussey, for the traditional post-dance round up.  Alex is glad for the crowd, and she takes a thermos with the rest of the tequila and doesn't offer it to anyone else.

She perches on top of Nicky's desk and the others settle onto both beds to discuss their escapades: first, the report of how far Janae and Marcus got in grand, heterosexual detail (further than before, not all the way) and how they nearly got caught heading to the dormitory.  Next up, Nicky regales them with her tale of seduction with some freshmen girl on the track team. 

Alex can feel Piper's pride, and her eagerness to be included - just another teenager doing what teenagers are meant to do at dances - when she blurts out, "I kinda made out with my brothers roommate."  

Janae and Poussey make over the top scandalized noises, but Nicky just looks right at Alex in this almost-sympathetic way she hates, so Alex doesn't even let Piper's admission settle before she says right to Nicky, "And you were right about Sylvie.  I made out with her for awhile in exchange for some whiskey."  

Nicky laughs. "Told ya she has it bad for you, Vause," Poussey lets out a low whistle, mutters about how she hopes the whiskey will seem worth it when Sylvie starts vandalizing her dorm room.  Alex wants to check Piper's reaction but doesn't.

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 10:04 am

LARRY
[Hey Piper it's Larry Bloom.  Polly put your number in my phone last night, hope that's okay.  Just wanted to say I had a really good time with you.]

PIPER
[Oh yeah that's totally fine.]
[I had fun, too.]   

LARRY
[Awesome.  Would you maybe want to hang out again after break?]
[We don't have to wait all the way for spring formal to do it haha]

PIPER
[Sure, sounds good.]

LARRY
[Great!!  I'll text you.  Have a good break, and a good Christmas.]

PIPER
[Thanks, you too!]
[I mean, a good Hanukkah]

LARRY
[haha thanks]

 


 

They leave for Christmas break the day after formal, and Alex tells herself that's really good timing.

It's two weeks without Piper, and that should be enough time to get herself ready for what has to happen next.  She came up with the plan for the last hour or so of the dance, standing outside on her own and berating herself for her stupid, childish hope. 

She will stay friends with Piper - she has to stay friends with Piper - but they can't keep this up, the almost-couple, platonic girlfriends act.  That's what fools her, what gets her twisted up in hollow maybes.

So Alex plans to come back from Christmas break and begin a friendship with Piper that's no different from the one she has with Nicky or Poussey or Janae.  All of those are still good.  It's not nothing

She's getting a ride home with Poussey and her mom, and they leave before Piper's parents have come to pick her up.  They've been hungover and hurriedly packing all morning, which makes it easier to keep conversation at a surface level.  

Piper bemoans the length of the coming break and hugs her long and hard when she leaves, and for just a second Alex wants to cry because it feels like a different sort of goodbye than Piper thinks it is. 

 


 

"Hey.  You okay?"  Poussey asks in a quiet voice when her mother's in the bathroom at the restaurant where they stopped for lunch.  

Alex is looking at Piper's Instagram; she'd chosen a photo of just the two of them, her one upload from formal, even though there were tons of photos of their whole group, and surely more with Polly and her brother and probably even fucking Larry.

"Yeah.  I'm good." 

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, 3:23 pm

PIPER
[twenty minutes into this drive and I'm regretting this whole 'home for break thing']
[can't we just squat in the dorms this summer?]

ALEX
[haha]
[don't think my mom would like that]

PIPER
[fine, but when I get my license in June I'm inflicting myself on you]

ALEX
[Nicky says we should all spend a week in her many vacation homes]
[assume most of you guys will have cars by then]

PIPER
[right I think I'm the last to turn 16]
[and I could come pick you up]
[we could have taken you home today btw.  If you ever need a ride.]

ALEX
[it's fine, it's on Poussey's way, they're only half an hour from me.]

PIPER
[does she take you to your place?]

ALEX
[No.]
[My mom will still be at work when get there, I have them drop me off at the restaurant.]

PIPER
[gotcha.]

 


 

Alex drags a rolling suitcase and stuffed backpack into Friendly's, getting a few stares from customers but a grin from the familiar hostess, who nods toward the back of the restaurant.  "In the kitchen." 

"Thanks."  She finds her mom dropping off dishes, and waits until the plates and glasses are all out of her hands to say, "Hey."

Diane Vause whips around and gives a happy little shriek before engulfing her daughter in a hug.  "Hey yourself, babe...that's no way to make an entrance." 

Alex grins into her mom's hair, instantly feeling better than she has since last night.  She feels bad for people who don't get along with their moms. 

Diane pulls away and looks at Alex.  "You look tired."  She smirks.  "Does that mean formal was fun?"

"It was...a lot," Alex says, glancing around at the rest of the wait staff having to move around them.  "I'll tell you about it later." 

But her mom can always tell when she's off, so Diane's head tilts, her face folding into concern.  "Something happen?" 

"Not really."

"Okay," her mom says, in a way that makes it clear she's only dropping this temporarily. "You hungry?  Here..."  She heads for her purse and hands Alex her keys.  "Put your stuff in the car and go grab a table.  I'll put your usual order in."

 


 

Alex eats lunch at Friendly's, then takes the keys on her mom's insistence and drives home - a technically illegal drive, since she only has a learner's permit, but they only live ten minutes from the restaurant, and Alex practiced this way all last summer.  According to Piper, her dad has been pushing for them to "put in some driving hours" over this break, and he's apparently an awful passenger seat driver, so Alex almost texts Piper to brag about her own lack of instructor, but she checks the instinct. 

She never bothers to fully unpack when she's home, just sets her suitcase in the small space between the bed and the wall  The bedroom is barely bigger than the bed, and Alex has to duck down a little to get through the doorway.  When she first gets home from school, the trailer feels claustrophobic for the first few days, and she always feels guilty about thinking that.

Between the bedroom and kitchenette there's a living area, and Alex sits on their old yellow couch and watches TV, killing time until she has to head back to pick up Diane. 

Half an hour before her shift ends, Alex calls in a pizza at a place near Friendly's.  Her mom had told her she'd taken tonight off from Wal-Mart, so she orders Diane's favorite and pays with her weed/liquor/cigarette money. 

"Get a load of you," Diane says when she gets in the car, inhaling the pizza and breadstick smell.  "First night back and you're cooking.  Gonna fucking spoil me, babe." 

"You know my specialty."

Diane starts counting through a wad of bills; tip money.  "How much was it?"

"On me."

"Al." 

"Mom.  I mean it.  I got this."

Diane shakes her head at her, mock exasperated.  "What do you get up to at that school?"

Alex smirks.  "I've got an entrepreneurial spirit.  And I'm surrounded by kids with trust fund sized allowances."

"Mmm-hmmm," Diane hums skeptically.  "Just tell me you're not doing anything too risky, yeah?  You worked hard for that scholarship." 

"I know.  I wouldn't mess it up." 

"Good."  Diane reaches across the seats and brushes back the hair on Alex's shoulder, her voice warm and teasing,  "You know I love when you're home, babe, but we don't need ya kicked out."

"Don't worry."

Her mom waits until they're home, on the couch with the pizza box between them, and Alex is hooking her laptop up to the television and scrolling movie options on Netflix.

"Hold up, kiddo...we got catching up to do first.  Come sit."

Alex breathes out a sigh, not sure how she wants this to go.  Officially, she is trying not to be upset, but her mother has a way of drawing truth out of her. 

"So..."  Diane raises an eyebrow.  "The dance?"

"It was fun," Alex says carefully. 

"You know I need to see more pictures than you sent." 

"Here..."  Alex hands over her phone, open to photos.  "Don't get sauce on it." 

"Yes, ma'am..."  She starts scrolling, but cuts knowing eyes at Alex and says, "So tell me what happened." 

"It's not a big deal."

"Okay. But it's something." 

"Just...Piper."

"Ah."  She doesn't sound surprised.

"She made out with this Overbrook guy, her brother's roommate.  And I don't know, I...I'd just started to actually think the night might...go a different way." 

"Oh, babe."  Her mom's face softens in this way that makes Alex feel maybe five years old, like she wants to crawl into her lap.  "I'm sorry." 

"No, it's fine, I mean...I think we just got really close really fast, living together and everything, and it started to feel like something it wasn't."  She pauses.  "Nicky calls her my platonic girlfriend." 

Her mom's quiet for a second, her eyes back on the phone.  "I can sorta see why."  She shows Alex what she's looking at: a photo of the two of them at the pregame, not a posed selfie but one Poussey took just before the bus.  Alex is laughing, enough that her face is motion blurred, and Piper is looking at her with this big, face scrunching, eye sparkling smile.  "You sure you're wrong?"

For the first time since last night, Alex feels her throat tighten.  "I'm sure I'm not the one she was kissing last night." 

"Right," her mom says quietly, putting down the phone to comb her fingers through Alex's hair.  "That's shit, Al.  I'm sorry." 

"It's not her fault."

"No.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't suck." 

 


 

Christmas break goes slowly.

It's way worse than Thanksgiving, long enough that Piper actually falls back into the routine of home.  And it kinda sucks. 

There's work she could do - finals start less than two weeks after they get back, the less than ideal schedule making winter break a bit inconvenient - and Piper used to be perfectly fine shutting herself in her room for hours, reading and studying on her own, but now that feels too lonely and dull.  She's gotten used to being around her friends constantly - if nothing else, she and Alex are almost always together.  

It doesn't help that Cal's still in school the first three days after she and Danny get home.  Danny's hardly company, always taking his car and going off to meet his Overbrook friends who live semi-close, making Piper incredibly jealous in the process. 

She ends up going to see her grandmother a lot; she always seems genuinely glad Piper's home, and likes to hear about boarding school beyond grades and teachers and a laundry list of extracurriculars. 

Not that she can say everything, of course - Piper leaves out the smoking and drinking, the first time she's had anything to censor - but her grandmother wants to know what her friends are like and what they do for fun, subjects Piper's more than happy to ramble about. 

So Piper tells her all about the lightning storm and movie nights and laying outside the dorm under the stars.  She keeps catching herself saying we instead of I, like a habit, like she's barely even a singular person anymore, and she keeps having to clarify: "We, I mean, me and Alex, roasted marshmallows over the dorm oven one time...put it on coat hangers and held it over the flames, it totally worked..."

She says it so much it starts to sound like one word, meandAlex;  it's her favorite way to start a story.  With Cal, too, when he's home from school and she doesn't have to censor herself at all. 

"We do miss you around here, sweetheart," her grandmother says once, patting Piper's hand.  "But I can tell you're happy there.  Every time you call, I can just hear it in your voice." 

"I am happy," Piper agrees earnestly.  For a second, she wants to say more, explain that the word itself even means something different now.  Before this year, she'd have said she was happy, and all she would have meant was that there was nothing wrong, that she wasn't especially sad or angry or stressed.

Now, though, happiness is so much more than just an absence of anything bad. 

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, 2:39 pm

PIPER
[isn't this the creepiest nativity scene ever?]
[look at the baby jesus's face????]
[did the photo come through?]

Text Message, Wednesday, 7:04 pm

ALEX
[yeah, it did, sorry]
[Been at work]

PIPER
[oh nice]
[how's that going?]

ALEX
[it's okay.  Super dead, not a shocker.]
[has me wishing I'd only applied for jobs with no public restrooms]

PIPER
[but then we wouldn't have such weird shoes]

 


 

Text Message, Friday, 11:22 pm

PIPER
[Get this Danny drove an hour and a half to take Polly on some carriage ride her town does around Christmas]
[and apparently the carriage only goes like around the block]
[so: three hour round trip]
[two minutes in a horse and buggy]

ALEX
[wow that's not even enough time to fool around under a blanket]
[actually maybe it is idk your brother]

PIPER
[hahahaha]
[ew though.  Did NOT need that image.]
[what are you up to?]

ALEX
[shopping for Mom.]

PIPER
[aw nice what are you getting her?]

ALEX
[not sure yet.  hopefully find a couple really good gifts]

PIPER
[well good luck.]

 


 

Text Message, Tuesday, 8:27 am

PIPER
[Hey, Merry Christmas!]

Text Message, Tuesday, 11:16 am

ALEX
[Merry Christmas]
[do you like...get up early to check if Santa came?]

PIPER
[ha ha]
[we do breakfast at my grandmother's pretty early.]
[what are you guys doing?]

ALEX
[um I'm still in bed]
[which is my idea of a happy holiday]

 


 

Text Message, Sunday, 4:49 pm

PIPER
[Hey you back yet?]

ALEX
[yeah got here around one.]

PIPER
[Awesome we're about to drop Danny off, so I'll see ya soon!!!]

 


 

Text Message, Sunday, 6:11 pm

PIPER
[hey where are you?]

ALEX
[Nicky and Janae's room.]
[Come hang out if you want.]

 


 

The things is, Piper has been a little worried about this semester, ever since she heard Alex made out with Sylvie. 

It bothered her more than it should, probably, but she doesn't want Alex hanging out with a bunch of seniors all the time.  It's different then her and Larry - even though he had texted her a few times over break, and when they dropped Danny off he'd asked her if she wanted to hang out next weekend - because he's not even at the same school.  If Alex starts dating some girl at Litchfield, she could practically disappear. 

So Piper's relieved when, the first day back, Alex answers Nicky's incessant pestering with the firm insistence that the kiss was "purely party behavior, motivated by alcohol".

But then something starts changing anyway. 

At first she thinks it's just finals.  They're all stressed, and intently studying, and it's not like Piper's ever seen Alex in hardcore academic mode before.  Maybe she's always like this, a little quieter and less engaged.  And maybe she just likes working in the study bays in the library with everyone else, instead of in their room.

But then testing ends and classes change and this gaping, awful lack between her and Alex only becomes more obvious. 

It makes Piper's bones feel hollow, all the time, like she's done something wrong. They rarely hang out just the two of them anymore, and when they're all together, she's almost certain Alex talks to her less than anyone else. 

When it can't be helped, in their room after curfew, Piper becomes annoying in a way that's fueled by pure panic.  She can't shut up, asking Alex constant questions - stupid ones, prying for details about soccer practice or biology lab that can't possibly be interesting - or wringing anecdotes out of every little moment in her day, searching and searching for what used to be so easy between them.

It's not that Alex seems angry; anyone overhearing the two of them wouldn't think anything was wrong.  She just never once takes the conversation further than she has to.

Piper doesn't know what she did wrong, but she really, really wants to fix it.

 


 

After Christmas, Alex covers herself in flame retardant and tucks all her feelings inside her sleeves, but it sort of feels like she's bandaged her bloody hands just to start punching Piper instead. 

Even without looking at her, Alex can feel the hurt confusion coming off Piper in waves, and it makes her feel like the worst kind of asshole. 

But Piper's seen Larry four times that Alex knows of since finals ended, and Alex still spends the length of every date alone in their room feeling like her chest is being pried open. 

So the wall she's put up between her and Piper stays necessary. 

It takes Piper until February, a few days before Valentine's Day, to say anything about it.

Alex has had her headphones in for the last hour, doing math homework.  Out of the corner of her eye, she's aware of Piper closing her books, packing her bag for the morning, and finally turning off the light clipped to her bed.  So Alex closes her textbook, homework stuck inside, and drops it unceremoniously to the floor before reaching for her own light.

"You don't have to turn it off," Piper says, like they both don't know by now that light doesn't keep her awake.

"I know, I was done anyway."  Alex says, sliding further under her covers.  "Goodnight."

She's spent the past two months building a dam in her throat, keeping everything she's feeling from flooding into her voice, so "goodnight" just means goodnight, not I'm so glad you're here, today was great, I'll see you tomorrow.

She's been lying there, listening to Piper breathe for a few minutes when a small, tentative "Alex?" comes crawling across the room to reach her. 

They've gotten good at reading each other's voices at night, and there's a weight to Piper's that says this is serious, that it's something she's been building to.

Alex goes very still, and for a second she thinks about feigning sleep, not answering - but they know each other's nighttime silences, too, and Piper won't be fooled.  "Yeah?" 

Piper seems to take a second to string her question together.  "Are you mad at me?" 

It makes Alex's chest ache, the way she says it so small and worried.  "No, Pipes," she answers, the nickname just slipping out. 

When Alex doesn't follow up, doesn't explain, Piper tries again.  "Did I do something?"

"No."

"Then what's wrong?"  There's a hitch to her voice that just makes Alex wish she could take all the hurt back for herself. 

She exhales slowly, and she can hear Piper's sheets rustle like she's turning toward her.  Alex could feign confusion, insist everything's fine, but the moment already feels too honest. 

"Okay...you know how I said I made out with Sylvie at formal?" 

"Yeah..." 

"Well.  I...barely did."  Alex's mouth feels dry, but it's easier to talk like this, the words slipping out of her and into the darkness, pretending there isn't anyone listening.  She's pretty sure that's why Piper chose this moment to confront her.  "She kissed me, and I kissed back for a second but...the thing is, I just wanted to find you again.  More than I wanted to keep kissing her."

"I don't get it," Piper says.  "Sometimes I'd rather be hanging out with you guys than Larry. Why is that such a bad thing?"

"Because, Pipes.  Sylvie's hot, and  gay, and she likes me.  I should want that.  But I'm not going to as long as you and I are...as close as we were."  Alex's cheeks feel hot, and she's glad Piper can't see her face.  "It messes with my head.  And you didn't do anything wrong, but...I just need some space until I can get over it." 

The silence that follows is painfully long, as Piper picks apart the sentences and finally says, "Get over it, like..."  She huffs out a disbelieving breath.  "You like me?" 

Alex screws her eyes shut, needing to see even less.  "Jesus, Pipes, I'm already embarrassing myself here.  Can you maybe not make me spell it out?"  

"Sorry," Piper says, her voice spilling out fast.  "I just never would have thought....shit, I'm sorry, I only asked because I thought maybe I did something and pissed you off."

"No, it's okay," Alex assures her, swallowing and swallowing against the hurt rising in her throat with the extinguishing of some last bit of hope she didn't know she was still holding onto.  "I'm sorry I've been an asshole, it's really...it's not a big deal."  Belatedly, the potential consequences of honesty make it to her stomach, twist it into knots.  "I don't want to make it weird."

"You didn't, Alex.  Really. I just....I missed you," Piper says, soft and warm and too easy to love. 

"Sorry." 

"If...I won't talk to you about Larry.  And I'll never bring him here or anything.  Not that it's anything serious, I don't even know if we're gonna keep dating....but if I'm careful about stuff like that...can we be friends again?"

Alex is so stunned that Piper doesn't seem uncomfortable that she blurts out on instinct, "Yeah, of course."  Then, quiet, "Sorry I ever made you think we weren't." 

"So are we okay?"

"Yeah.  I mean, I am." 

"Me, too."  

"Okay." 

They're quiet until it settles into something more familiar, and Piper says, "Goodnight, Alex."

"Goodnight," she answers softly, the word packed with dozens more. 

 


 

Piper can't sleep.

Because Alex likes her.

Alex likes her.

It barely makes sense.  She's been turning over explanations for Alex's behavior obsessively for the last month and a half, and not once did that one occur to her. 

She's not sure what she's supposed to do about it.

And she's not sure why she kind of can't stop smiling. 

Chapter Text

Show me why you're always smiling, laugh again and make me fall in love.

Humming // Turnover

 


 

Alex wakes up the next morning to a quick descent of embarrassment and regret.  It hits her like a hangover, and she closes her eyes again immediately, resisting the day and this new reality where Piper knows.

She can hear Piper moving around, and Alex waits until she hears the door to their room open and close as Piper goes to shower before she gets out of bed.

She's dressed in her skirt and collared shirt and is leaning toward the mirror putting on makeup when Piper comes back in, wrapped in a towel. Her face tinges pink when she looks at Alex, but she smiles, shy but genuine, and it doesn't even seem awkward compared to the last few weeks of Piper tiptoeing around Alex in hurt, nervous confusion.

"Hey."

"Morning."

"You have a game today?"

"Yeah. First official one of the season." She flashes a quick smile. "You coming?"

Piper practically beams at her. "Yeah, for sure."

"Don't rush to ditch practice or anything. Unless Fiona is playing especially shitty, I'm the second half keeper."

"What, I can't come and watch you bench warm?"

"I do bring a certain flair to it."

It's so easy, to slip back into this with her.

Maybe it's not smart, for Alex to just abandon her entire strategy of moving on and getting over it just because Piper asked her to...but Piper asking hits Alex right in her weak spot; and anyway, now that she's told the truth and didn't hear the answer she wanted - the oh my god guess what I like you too - that's a pretty good strategy on its own.

And the thing is, Alex wants to be Piper's best friend again. She kind of can't believe she's even allowed to be, that Piper hasn't run off to Fisher or even Red to request a new roommate, one who doesn't have a stupid crush on her.

For the past month or so, that's how Alex has been making herself think of it, as a crush, the connotations all small and silly and teenage, as if the word itself doesn't bring to mind destruction.

Piper's putting notebooks into her bag, and she glances over at Alex. "You finish the math homework?"

"Uhhh, gonna need to do that at breakfast."

Piper rolls her eyes fondly. "Of course you are.  And you'll still probably get a better grade than me."

Then she smiles this utterly fatal smile, and Alex dies a little bit, just like always.

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, 2/12, 8:23 pm

POLLY
[Hey! has Larry texted you yet?]

PIPER
[What about?]

POLLY
[Friday night]

PIPER
[Nope]
[Whats Friday]

POLLY
[You are IMPOSSIBLE]
[Valentine's Day????]

PIPER
[oh that]
[I doubt we'll do anything for valentines]

POLLY
[ummm why wouldn't you]
[Danny's taking me to dinner/movie]
[You guys are doubling with us]

PIPER
[Why would you want to double date with us? You've been dating Danny for over a year and Larry's not even really my boyfriend.]
[Oh wait is this about Larry's car?]

POLLY
[NO]
[ok maybe a tiny bit]
[but come ON we NEED a car for a decent date]
[taking the shuttle to the shopping center isn't romantic]
[and anyway we can split up at the movies ;) ]

PIPER
[why hasn't Larry said anything to me about this]

POLLY
[because boys suck at this stuff]
[I'll take care of it]

 


 

Text Message, Wednesday, 2/12, 8:57 pm

LARRY
[so apparently Polly asked you out FOR me for Friday]
[for the record, I was going to anyway]
[didn't mean for her to beat me to it haha]

PIPER
[yeah Polly tends to...take initiative]

LARRY
[haha so true]
[but anyway are you free?]

PIPER
[yeah I am]
[but seriously don't feel like we have to just because Polly makes Valentines Day a whole thing]

LARRY
[it's not like that Pipes trust me]
[I really was going to ask you out either way]
[I'd actually prefer it wasn't a double date but supposedly we have no choice haha]
[I'll make it work anyway though I promise]

PIPER
[haha ok]

 


 

Piper doesn't really want to go on a Valentine's Day date with Larry.

It's not the date itself, that's fine, she likes Larry, but it makes it hard to follow the rules she's set herself, the ones she'd promised Alex. She lies when the time comes - says she has plans with Polly, probably overdoes the eyerolling and reluctance of the whole thing - but it's a Friday night and Valentine's Day and Piper knows Alex isn't that stupid.

But she pretends, too, acts like she believes it, so Piper hopes that means it's okay. That she hasn't screwed up, made Alex need to back away from her again.

Because it's so good having her back.

And it's...nice. Knowing Alex likes her. Liked her. Whichever it is by now.

Alex is always so certain about the things she likes. Her books, her movies, her music...there is an undeniable high quality to it all.  And to Alex herself: gorgeous and smart and funny, the coolest person Piper knows. Piper's favorite person.

So why her?

Piper never really questioned someone like Larry liking her. That felt expected, like they were just about on equal ground, but someone like Alex choosing someone like her seems nothing short of astonishing.

 


 

Overbrook and Litchfield have the same policy about cars: all seniors have the option to pay an added fee for a parking spot and bring their vehicles, but juniors have to enter a lottery for the more limited number of spots.

This year, Larry had gotten a spot, and Danny hadn't. Hence the double date.

"Was this your whole motivation for setting me up with him?" Piper asks Polly dryly while they're signing out to go off campus for the evening. "Car access?"

"Of course not," Polly answers with a grin. "If Larry had nothing to do on weekend nights we could have borrowed his car anyway."

Polly's wearing a black dress - not a formal one, but still - under a leather jacket, plus dark red lipstick, and she's making Piper feel under dressed. She hadn't wanted to change into anything that would scream date! at Alex, so Piper just kept on the clothes she'd changed into after class, jeans and a red sweater, and even that seems a little too aggressively Valentiney.  She at least put on a long necklace, and a bracelet that's technically Alex's but she's borrowed it enough this school year that it feels almost like hers. 

Larry doesn't seem to mind her casual appearance; he gets out of the car when they pull up and comes around to greet her, giving her a light kiss and shyly saying, "You look great."

"Thanks..." Piper's already looking over his shoulder, wrinkling her nose as Polly and Danny make out against the backseat door in their usual soldier-returning-from-war fashion after a few days of separation. "Not sure how I feel about double dating with my brother."

"Don't worry," Larry says with a smile, opening the passenger door for her. "We're splitting up pretty soon. They're just using me for transportation."

"Yeah, I picked up on that."

Larry raises his voice as he heads for the driver's door. "Cab's leaving, guys."

They drop Danny and Polly off at a fairly nice steakhouse, and Danny leans toward Larry's rolled down window to slap his shoulder.  "Thanks bro."

"You're good to uber to the movies?"

"Yeah, yeah, we'll text when it's over." He makes a mock stern face, eyes shifting to Piper. "You better have Pooh Bear home by a decent hour, young man."

Piper groans. "God, would you go already?"

"Be safe!" Danny says, way too loud, before smirking and finally heading off to catch up with Polly.  Piper shakes her head as Larry shifts the car into drive again. 

"Where are we going?"

He smiles. "You'll see."

Piper smiles back automatically, but it feels forced. She's suddenly nervous, for some reason, like him teasing out a surprise makes this a bigger deal than she wants it to be.

Larry drives, and switches the music to something quieter, something Piper would like, but they don't talk much. Piper pulls her phone out of her purse, vaguely hoping to see a text from Alex, or any of the others, but there's nothing.

Soon, Larry's pulling into the parking lot of the shopping plaza, half outdoor shops and half indoor mall, that the school shuttles go to every weekend anyway. She throws him a questioning look.

"Trust me," he says. "I have a plan."

She doesn't particularly want him to have a plan.  Not beyond the usual dinner, movie, normal stuff, anyway.

She gets out of the car before Larry does, then turns back to see him twisted around, reaching into the backseat. He emerges soon with a red gift bag Piper hadn't noticed before, and she blurts out in a panic, "Wait, no, I didn't get you anything - "

He gives her a strange, amused look. "You didn't have to."

Piper exhales, suddenly, weirdly, wishing they had stayed with Polly and Danny, awkward as that might have been. The most alone she and Larry have really been so far has been watching a movie in his dorm room, and there weren't many silences they had to fill with conversation. 

Larry holds the gift bag in one hand and takes Piper's in the other, smiling sweetly as they walk through the outdoor shops, strings of naked bulbs hung across the path and slightly staticky music playing from speakers half hidden in bushes. 

"So." Larry looks over at her. "Where do you want to eat?"

Piper frowns, confused. "We're just here to eat?"

"No. But I figured we should do that first." He nods his head toward the entrance of the mall. "They opened an ice skating rink in there, just through the rest of this month, have you seen it?"

"Um. Don't think so."

"I thought it'd be more fun than a movie. Valentine's Day, might as well do something a little special, right?" He grins, proud of himself, and Piper's not sure why it feels like such an effort to return the smile with one of her own. "But we can eat first. So. Where to?"

The mall's high end cuisine is somewhat limited, so they end up putting in their names at The Cheesecake Factory and a family style Italian restaurant, each clutching a pager to see which can seat them first. The Cheesecake Factory wins out, after over half an hour, and Piper thinks briefly of bringing a piece of cheesecake back for Alex before she remembers Alex isn't supposed to know she's out to dinner.

It's not actually difficult to talk to Larry, at least. In fact, the dinner reminds Piper why she liked him in the first place: he's funny and sweet and he tries just enough, the sort of trying that shows he actually gives a shit but not so much it seems desperate.

After dinner, they've ordered two different flavors of cheesecake and are sampling liberally from each one when Larry looks up and says, "Oh, I guess I should go ahead and do this..." He passes her the gift bag, white and pink tissue paper peeking out from the red. "Happy Valentine's Day, Pipes."

Piper accepts the bag, abrupt anxiety coiling around her stomach. She's pretty sure there's some sort of teddy bear in this bag, a heart shaped box of chocolates, maybe even a piece of jewelry - a necklace with a heart, or her first initial, maybe.

She knows because that's what teenage boys are supposed to give girls on Valentine's Day. And she's supposed to want that, supposed to post her gift haul on Instagram, the holiday affording her the bragging rights.

Abruptly, Piper sets the bag back down on the table instead of opening it.  She's fiddling nervously with Alex's bracelet.  "Larry, isn't this kind of...a lot?"

His brow furrows. "What do you mean?"

"Just. Dinner and ice skating and gifts for Valentine's Day...we hadn't even been on a real date before tonight."

"Okay...so, are you saying you want to do more real dates?"

"No, I just mean...I'm not really looking for a serious relationship right now." Larry's eyes widen in surprise, his eagerness visibly deflating. Piper stammers out, "It's my first year away, and I wasn't necessarily trying to find a boyfriend - "

Recovering, Larry quickly jumps in, "Hey, that's fine with me, Pipes. I'm not in some big hurry to define things." When she doesn't immediately answer, he adds, a little desperate now, "Polly's the one who said Valentine's Day needed major plans, I wasn't trying to pressure you..."

"I know."

"So we can just keep hanging out, okay? Without making it a big deal."

"I...I don't think this is what I want right now."

She just ends it, that fast, without even planning it. Piper's not sure she's ever made a decision like this without planning.

But for the past few days she's been thinking about what Alex said: that when she was making out with Sylvie at winter formal, she'd have rather been hanging out with Piper.

And Piper gets that, because right now, at her perfect Valentine's Day with this sweet guy who's everything she's supposed to like, Piper would still rather be hanging out with Alex. Even just in their room, lying on their beds and talking, or blowing through a full season of some sitcom on Netflix.

And if that's what she wants to be doing, then why the hell isn't she?

"I'm really sorry." She hands the gift bag back to him, face swarming with more apologies than she has time to voice. "I can pay for dinner and, and I'll just take the next shuttle back to campus - "

"Hold up, Piper..." Irritation is seeping through the bewilderment on Larry's face. "You're not making any sense. I wasn't...this isn't some declaration that I want to be your boyfriend - "

"I know."

"Polly told me you'd like all this stuff, and I listened cause she's your best friend - "

"Polly's not my best friend," Piper corrects, pointlessly.

"Whatever. You know what I mean!  We don't need to do all this stuff..." To illustrate the point, he snatches the gift back and drops it to the floor, out of sight. "We can just keep it chill."

"I just don't think it's a good idea." The waitress comes and, smiling obliviously, leaves them their bill. Piper starts rummaging in her purse. "Here, let me - "

He forcefully grabs the bill. "I'm not letting you pay.  And I'm not letting you take the shuttle, either, your brother will kill me - "

"He literally won't care - "

"Plus am I supposed to just wait around by myself until their movie's done, like some fucking chauffeur?"

"Sorry, I'm sorry...." Piper throws down the twenty bucks she has in cash and stands up, just needing to be out of this horrible, stupid moment.

 


 

Text Message, Friday, February 14, 9:02 pm

PIPER
[so I probably owe you more of an explanation]

LARRY
[ya think?]

PIPER
[I didn't mean for it to happen like that]

LARRY
[I don't even get what the problem is Piper]

PIPER
[it's not you, you didn't do anything wrong]
[it's hard to explain]

LARRY
[TRY]

PIPER
[being here at school...this is the first time ever I've had really great friends]
[and felt like I really fit in and belonged somewhere]
[and right now it's like...that's enough. I don't NEED a boyfriend because I'm still getting used to getting to be around them all the time.]

LARRY
[do you have to NEED a boyfriend to have one?]

PIPER
[I guess so]
[or maybe it's just that since I don't need one, I don't even want one right now.]

LARRY
[I told you I wasn't trying to make us official or anything]

PIPER
[I know. But even just what we were already doing felt like it could get serious soon.]
[because I do like you]

LARRY
[you know you could have said any of this before tonight]
[as in, instead of leaving me alone at a restaurant with a gift bag like an idiot]

PIPER
[I know. I'm sorry. I suck.]

LARRY
[Kinda, yeah.]

 


 

Text Message, Friday, February 14, 9:19 pm

PIPER
[Hey where are you?]

ALEX
[Basement. Turned into a kind of spontaneous Singles' Movie Night.]
[Why?]

PIPER
[Just got back to the room.]

ALEX
[Early night.]

PIPER
[Yeah I was bored. Took the shuttle back by myself.]

ALEX
[Wanna come down?]

PIPER
[On my way.]

 


 

Because Alex isn't a complete moron, she knows Piper isn't really hanging out with Polly. She's obviously on a Valentine's Day date with Larry Bloom - although, to be fair, Polly might very well be in attendance. That girl seems to consider herself a third party in Piper's romantic life.

Alex is less certain about what it means when Piper comes home early, apparently having taken the school shuttle back all on her own.

Alex is on one of the basement's couches with Nicky and Poussey, a dozen or so other girls stretched out on the floor or draped over the other couch. They're watching Pretty Woman, not Alex's choice, but it is her mom's favorite movie - and thus one Alex has seen at least a dozen times; they even have a fucking VHS copy - so she's been texting Diane throughout the screening.

They're at the opera scene when Piper comes downstairs, and Alex jams an elbow into Nicky's side so she'll slide over to make room.

"Hey," Piper whispers, wedging herself beside Alex on the couch.

"Hey." Alex glances sideways at her. "Good night?"

"Not really." Piper shrugs, and she's trying a little too hard too sound casual. "I just wanted to hang out with you guys. So I came back."

Alex can't help smiling. "Good choice," she whispers. "We're obviously real exciting here."

"I like this movie."

"So does my mom."

"Ssssh," Nicky hisses loudly. "We are watching a film."

Alex and Piper's eyes meet; Alex rolls hers, and feels Piper's laughter more than she hears it.

 


 

It's crowded on the couch, and Piper's shoulder to shoulder with Alex; their legs touch every time they shift even a tiny bit.

At some point, Piper glances down, sees Alex's hand limply splayed across her thigh.

Out of nowhere, Piper imagines holding her hand. Really pictures it, just reaching over and slipping her fingers through Alex's. She wonders what it would feel like, them laced together like that.

Piper thinks she'd like it.

 


 

Text Message, Friday, February 14, 10:42 pm

POLLY
[Piper what the hell happened????]
[Larry said you just left in the middle of dinner?]
[did he do something?]
[????]
[???????!!!!]

 


 

There's a knock on their door, even though it's after room curfew, and Piper closes her eyes and groans. Polly's been blowing up her phone for the past hour, but Piper didn't think she'd risk a strike to come accost her in person.

Alex is looking curiously at the door, so Piper hurries to beat her to answer it, throwing an eyeroll and a, "Sorry," back over her shoulder.

Polly's standing in the hallway, still in her date clothes, her face a portrait of highly exaggerated shock. "What the fuck, Pipe, you can't even text me back?"

"Just...c'mere." With another apologetic glance back at Alex, Piper practically shoves Polly into the hall and closes the door behind her. "What?"

"Did you really dump Larry for giving you a gift?"

"No."

"Did you really leave him in the middle of dinner?"

"No. The check had already come."

"Piper."

"Look, it wasn't the best way to handle it.  But he was acting like my boyfriend. And I...don't really want a relationship right now."

"But why not?" Polly whisper-screams, her face all twisted up like she can't fathom such a thing.

Belatedly, Piper lands on a better sounding explanation. "I don't think I like him like that, Pol. I tried, cause he's a great guy, but...I don't have that kind of feelings for him. And the whole Valentine's Day gift and ice skating plan...it seems like he did."

Polly sighs, shoulders slumping a little. "Well. Okay. I guess that's fair." She rolls her eyes. "I still can't believe you did it like that. You're harsh, dude."

"I kinda panicked," Piper admits, probably the most honest thing she's said the whole conversation.

She isn't sure why all her reasons for dumping Larry feel like lies.

Polly laughs a little, which is a relief. "Sounded like it. Geez."

"What'd Danny say?"

"That you're crazy."

"Of course he did."

Polly finally leaves for her own room. Alex is sitting on her bed with a book, but she looks up and raises her eyebrows when Piper comes in. "Everything okay?"

"Yes," Piper says firmly. "She's just a drama queen."

"I wasn't eavesdropping, but I was listening for sounds of a throwdown. Had to know when to rush out and have your back."

Piper grins. "Appreciate it. But I could take her."

"You're probably right."

 


 

"Hey, Pipes?"

The lights have been off for about five minutes.

"Yeah?"

"You didn't...break up with Larry or something because of me, right?"

Piper swallows. She's not even sure of the answer herself.

"I didn't break up with him at all," she evades. "We weren't together."

"You know what I mean, though. I don't want you to think...like, you can't have a boyfriend without me turning into a distant asshole."

"Oh. That. No, that had nothing to do with it.  Promise."

"Okay. Good."

 


 

The next week, she and Nicky go to one of Alex's soccer games. They sit low on the bleachers, Nicky joking that they're in prime position to check out Alex's ass while she rides the bench for the game's first half.

When the teams finally start to line up for the game, Alex and the other subs jog off the field. Alex isn't in her goalie pullover yet, only the regular blue jersey, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail that's already half falling down, like she doesn't even know how to do it.

Reaching the bench, she's close enough to glance up and seek out Piper's gaze. Piper grins at her.

"Jesus," Nicky mutters. "I'd tell you two to get a room, but you already fucking have one."

"What?"  Piper twists around to look at her, already feeling her face heat up, giving her away. "I...I'm not gay, Nicky."

"Wow. You jumped right on that one." Nicky clucks her tongue. "I'm inclined to believe you, Baby Duck...would be the only explanation why you never salivate over my fine ass. But you are definitely some kinda gay for her." She nods down at Alex.

Piper rolls her eyes. "What does that mean?"

"Dunno. Maybe you're gay. Maybe you're bisexual. Maybe just Vause-sexual."

Piper's quiet for a moment. "Did...do you know Alex likes me?"

Nicky snorts. "Um, I'm a person with my fully functioning five senses, aren't I?"

"But did she tell you?"

"She didn't have to tell me." Nicky glances over, and slowly her voice eases toward something almost serious. "She told you?"

"Kind of. Yeah."

"Whoa.  Guess that explains why you two are being maximum levels of annoying again." She pauses. "Wait...are you guys together now?"

"No. God."

"So you didn't declare your love back - "

"She didn't - "

" - but you two are bestest friends again. What's up with that?"

"I told her that I wouldn't rub things with Larry in her face or do anything to make her feel bad if we could be okay again."

"And have you?"

"I broke up with Larry." Nicky starts laughing, and Piper ignores it, talking over her. "Not really broke up, because we weren't together, but I ended it."

"And how many days after Vause confessed did you end it?" Piper doesn't answer, but Nicky doesn't seem to need her to. She makes a low humming noise. "Just an astounding coincidence, I'm sure."

The smugness in her voice irritates Piper into silence for awhile. She faces forward, pointedly away from Nicky, and her gaze gravitates as always to Alex: her back to them, number 11 on her jersey, shitty ponytail. Piper wants her to turn around.

It takes her a few minutes to work up to the next question. "Nicky?"

"Mmm?"

Piper lowers her voice. "How did you know you liked girls?"

"Uhhh, well.  I looked at a girl, and I thought: I'd like to fuck her." Nicky pauses for a beat. "I was seven."

"Nicky."

She laughs. "Fuck, Duck, I don't know. Girls are hot? I notice? I want to put my face on their faces, and also some other areas if they're into it."

"Jesus Christ...."

"Fine, fine." With obvious monumental effort, Nicky stops laughing at Piper. "What makes you think you might like Alex?"

Nicky using Alex's first name makes Piper take her seriously.

"I just..." She can't hold eye contact. "When she told me she had feelings for me...I was really happy about it. Like, really. Maybe just because it meant I hadn't done anything wrong, you know?  She wasn't mad. But I'm not sure. I like knowing that she likes me. And I think she's beautiful. And smart and funny, too, obviously. I don't want her to like anyone more than me, either...when I thought she might date Sylvie, I hated it. And even when I was on dates with Larry, even when I was kissing him, I would have rather just been hanging out with Alex.  I would stop a date if it meant texting with her.  And I'd probably choose staying in our dorm room all night watching pretentious movies than doing anything with anyone else.  Even if we've been doing that exact thing for like ten nights in a row." 

A moment of silence follows this pronouncement. Finally, Nicky lets out a low whistle. "Fuck, Chapman. You might be gayer than I am."

"Nicky."

"I'm kind of serious. Person with five functioning senses, remember?  I've seen how you look at her, too. Even before that whole Nicholas Sparks monologue you just performed in my face."

Piper leans forward, braces her elbows on her knees.  Her voice is small. "What if I'm wrong?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like...if I think I want something more, but it turns out I don't like it...and then I lose her for real?"

"Yeah..." Nicky exhales slowly, and there's no humor in her voice anymore. "This isn't my usual advice, Duck, but maybe don't rush it. You're never going to be a hundred percent certain about anyone, but...if you only think you want something, don't do anything just to see, you know?"

Piper nods, but she can't help but feel disheartened, and maybe Nicky notices, because she adds, "But at some point you gotta just trust yourself to know what you want."

 


 

It's not just the hand holding.

For the next two weeks, Piper takes any little thread Alex gives her and sews it into dreamy, hazy fantasies of the two of them: Alex with an arm around her while they watch a movie, Alex's fingers swimming through her hair for no reason when they study, falling asleep tangled together in one of their beds.

Bridging the increasingly small gap between them and kissing her.

It still freaks Piper out, sometimes, to catch herself wanting that. It doesn't seem like something she could really do.

But then she imagines Alex living her daydreams with some other girl and it turns Piper's stomach to a rock.

 


 

"I wish there would be another thunderstorm."

Alex smiles. "You're so wild, Pipes. Craving lightning."

The way she says it makes Piper shiver a little.

They're on Alex's bed, watching a movie and drinking a little, the same way they were the night of that storm.

Piper lets her eyes sidle sideways to Alex. Her lips look soft. They must taste like red wine.

Piper could do it. Right now. Just take Alex's chin in her fingers and turn her head and do it.

She takes a swig of wine from the thermos like it's gasoline for the fire of her nerve.

She could kiss her.

But she doesn't.

 


 

During the first weekend of April, spring weather finally trying to break through, their dorm has one of its social events, starting with a waffle dinner in the basement.  Alex and the others have traditionally deemed all dorm sanctioned events uncool.

But they have pretty much the opposite stance on breakfast for dinner.

Still, the superior, food centric portion of these nights tend to be followed by overly organized games. So they make their usual decision to inject more fun into events: pregame.

Alex and Piper do tequila shots with their music turned up loud, then meet up with the others with flasks zipped into their jacket pockets. Piper's already buzzed and giggly and acting like a smitten idiot, flicking waffle mix at Alex's face so she threatens her with a bottle of syrup and Piper goes darting around the kitchen like a giddy kid in a game of tag.

"Get a room," Nicky says between her teeth, just to Piper.  "Or, rather, go to yours."

The five of them sit in a circle on the floor in the basement living room and eat waffles with their fingers. Then Fisher gets everyone's attention and announces a campus wide game of Sardines, and that's all for the fun part of the night.

"Does that mean running around?" Nicky mutters in an undertone. "Don't I do enough of that in practice?"

"Not really," Janae responds flatly, and the others suppress laughter.

"I'm going to pass around this bowl," Fisher is saying after she's explained the rules and boundaries. "Everyone take a folded piece of paper...one has a star on it. Whoever gets the star is the first hider!"

Alex rolls her eyes at Piper. Piper makes a face at her, like her flirting skills - because that seems to be what she's doing, flirting with Alex - stopped developing when she was eight.

The bowl gets around to them. Piper's piece of paper is blank, but when Alex unfolds hers she lets out a muttered, "Fuck."

A minute or so later, the bowl's empty and Fisher raises her voice. "Okay, who's the lucky star?"

Piper looks at Alex, and so do the others, but she says nothing. Piper raises an eyebrow in question, and Alex leans over and whispers, "Let her think she forgot to mark one."

Fisher's obviously getting concerned, big eyes sweeping the room. "Anyone?  Someone has to have the star..."

Alex schools her face into a mildly curious expression, and Piper purses her lips together to keep from laughing. Then, Nicky raises her voice, pointing at Alex with both hands. "Vause has it! We got a star over here!"

"Great!" Fisher beams in relief while Alex throws Nicky a murderous look and Janae and Poussey crack up. "Alex, we'll give you a ten minute head start...and be sure to pick somewhere roomy enough for other sardines to join you!"

Alex looks mildly horrified at this statement, and Piper can't help but join the others in their poorly smothered laughter.

"Timer's starting...now!"

Alex meets Piper's eyes and pats her jacket pocket, the one concealing her flask. "Least I've got company," she murmurs, clapping a hand to Piper's knee before she stands up to go.

The room erupts into hyperbolic, almost parodying, whoops and applause for Alex as she crosses the basement to go outside.

Piper flops down on her back to wait out the timer.

"Poor Alex," Poussey says with a smirk.

"Aw, screw that, she's gonna hole up somewhere and drink out of sight," Nicky retorts.

"This is kind of a fucked up game to pick," Janae observes with obvious disappointment. "There's not even a damn winner."

"Nah, just one loser still wandering around at the end."

"If there was a winner, though, it'd be us, let's be real." Nicky nods at Piper. "We've got Chapman on our side. We can just point her and she can, like...smell Vause's pheromones, or whatever."

Piper scowls. "I'm not helping you."

 


 

She does stick with the others when Fisher finally gives them the go ahead. They wander off from the crowd, brainstorming places to look with no real urgency, passing flasks back and forth.

"We're going about this all wrong," Nicky says after awhile, plopping unceremoniously down on a grassy part of the quad. "We just gotta sit back and wait. As soon as anyone else finds her she'll text begging us to join."

No one can argue with that logic, so they all sprawl out on the grass with their phones close by to wait. Piper rolls onto her stomach to take a covert sip of tequila. There's still a slight bite to the night air, but the alcohol is warming her insides and making her feel a nice kind of hazy.

Idly, Piper thinks that this is the first time she's been around the other three, all at once, without Alex. A class with just Janae and Nicky this semester is the closest she's come, but never this.

She misses Alex.  Which is a dumb thing to think, but Piper's drunken brain wants to text it to her, anyway.

She opens up their message thread and is about to text, but then the three dots appear showing that Alex is typing. Piper waits.

ALEX
[So bored, come find me]
[Backstage, auditorium]

Piper shoves her phone back into her pocket and keeps her expression determinedly blank for about sixty seconds. Then she sits up. "I'm going to go look for Alex."

"Hold up." Janae sits up, too, squinting at her. "You know somethin'." She starts to stand. "I'm coming, too."

"Nah, let Baby Duck do all the work," Nicky protests, tugging on her roommate's sleeve until she's back on the ground. "We really wanna cram into some small space for the next hour?" She looks at Piper. "Text us when almost everyone's found her, kay? Or maybe we'll just collectively lose."

"I don't know where she is," Piper lies, pointlessly emphatic. "I just wanna look."

"Sure you do."

Piper heads off, and she hears Janae call after her, "You seem damn confident about that direction!"

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 9:21 pm

PIPER
[how am I supposed to get backstage without anyone seeing?]
[Ms. Rogers always sits in the front row]

ALEX
[don't go in the front dumbass, I cracked the back stage door open.]
[that way it's barely cheating]

 


 

Some of the students who aren't partaking in incredibly lame dorm events are in the auditorium, a white screen pulled down in front of the stage curtains with The Wizard of Oz playing as this week's movie.

Piper initially goes in the front entrance of the Fine Arts Center, through the lobby and peeking into the auditorium before realizing that obviously everyone assembled will notice her walking to the side of the screen and slipping backstage.

With Alex's instructions, she goes outside again and circles the building, finding the side door that leads backstage. It's pitch dark, the thick red curtains preventing any light from the movie from filtering back, so Piper turns on her cell phone's, scanning the backstage area.  Ms. Rogers holds their drama class in the auditorium sometimes, has them do improv exercises or read scenes onstage, but Piper has only been backstage a few times, and usually only to take a shortcut out that door after class.

Then, during a pause in Dorothy's dialogue, she hears a hiss of, "Pipes."

Her head tilts up, in the direction of Alex's voice, and sees a beam of light from up on the catwalk. Alex then turns the phone's light on her own face, smirking and gesturing for Piper to join her.

In the movie, the Cowardly Lion is singing, the music too loud to hear Alex anymore without shouting, so Piper turns her phone over and texts.

PIPER
[Seriously???]

ALEX
[stairs to the left]
[be careful]

With her phone, Piper shines a path to the narrow metal staircase that leads up to the catwalk. She's less sure of crossing the platform itself, but Alex keeps her own phone lit up as a destination, and Piper clasps her hands on both rails as she eases her way over.

"This is definitely cheating," she whispers when she's close enough for Alex to hear, sitting down beside her with their legs dangling over the edge.

"Fisher said no dorm buildings."

"Because nothing else is even unlocked at this hour."

"So she forgot about movie night," Alex says with a shrug. 

"We're supposed to text her when we find you."

"I wouldn't do that if I were you. You'll be the only one...very suspicious." She feels Alex shuffle a little, then shake her flask at Piper, liquid sloshing. "Want a sip?"

Piper has a little left in her own, but she takes Alex's and downs a swallow anyway.

"Thought maybe you'd bring the others."

"They're too lazy. Probably asleep on the quad by now."

"Typical." They're quiet for a moment, and when Alex speaks again, Piper can hear the smile in her voice even though she can't see it. "So basically it's another weekend movie night, just me and you."

Piper smiles, too. "Mmm-hmm. Luckily I've seen this one enough to fill in the visuals for myself."

"Me, too."

Piper leans forward a little, folding her arms on one of the rails in front of her.

"You know we're up on a platform...in the dark...drinking alcohol."

"And?"

"Not the safest combination of elements."

"We're not high enough up to die.  Would only break a bone or something."

"Break a leg. Get it?"

"Hilarious, Pipes," Alex says sarcastically, but her voice is still smiling.

They're quiet for awhile, listening to the movie.

"When I was little I was so scared of the wicked witch. Danny used to do her laugh to freak me out."

"For me it was the flying monkeys. Creepy fuckers."

Piper smiles. Talking to Alex like this isn't much different from their room at night, swapping words through darkness. It's always made Piper just a little braver, being hidden like that. It helps her say things she's scared of.

So after awhile, she takes a deep gulp from her flask, draining the last bit of it.  "Alex?"  She swallows hard, then breathes out the next part in a slurred rush.  "Would you kiss me?"

Alex stiffens beside her. Piper can feel it, can feel the heat of her body but her voice is almost cold when she says, "Okay, you're obviously drunk."

"No, no, no..." Protests tumble frantically out of her, not making a great case for sobriety. "It's not that. That's not why. I've been trying to figure out how to kiss you for like...weeks now."

The moment that follows is terrifying; not even the sounds of the Emerald City can drown out Alex's silence.

Then, soft, just a little shaky, Alex says, "Figure out how?  You don't know how to kiss someone?"

"I...I've never been the one to start it."

She feels Alex turning on the platform, bringing her leg over the edge and folding it under her, turning so she's facing Piper, what feels like her knee touching Piper's hip; she can just see the outline of Alex's face, close enough to be easily found in the darkness. "So try."

Before something fails her, brain or heart or courage, Piper licks her lips and leans forward, and presses her lips gently to the corner of the smile she could hear in Alex's challenge.

It is blind and soft and tentative, but as soon as they make contact Alex starts kissing her back, and the first kiss becomes another, then another, more and more and more. At some point Piper remembers her hands, that they're allowed to run freely through Alex's hair, bring the pads of her fingers to Alex's cheek, wrap around the nape of her neck, every place she hasn't gotten to touch yet.  Alex smiles against her mouth again; Piper thinks she already has Alex's smiles memorized, after nearly eight months of basking in them, but it's so good to know them like this now, too, recognizing the shape and taste of her happiness.

They kiss for so long that when Piper opens her eyes she's startled to find more darkness waiting; for a dizzy, disoriented second she forgets where they are and how this started and it seems like Alex just kissed her blind.

She can hear Alex breathing hard. She leans her forehead on Piper's, fingers wrapped gently around her wrists like she needs to keep her close. Voice rough, Alex whispers, "We keep going we're going to fall off the goddamn platform."

 


 

They climb down as carefully as they can manage, and Alex has four text messages from Fisher - that ultimately inform her they're starting a fresh round because no one found her so she should leave her spot and go look for Tara Morris - and five on the group message asking if she and Piper are even alive.

Alex is barely sure of that answer herself. Not that she feels dead - God, it's the opposite - just like she's left this planet or universe or maybe this realm of consciousness, slipped off to a place where things like this aren't impossible.

She uses her cell phone light to avoid the cords and cables impending their path to the door, and without really thinking about it reaches back to grab Piper's hand while she leads the way.

They step outside and the world is familiar again; the same familiar campus under the same familiar moonlight.

And Piper. Always, always Piper. She is smiling shyly and she is breathlessly pretty and they only kissed for the first time maybe ten minutes ago but Alex is pretty sure she loves her, how goddamn stupid is that?

Reckless wanting stampedes through her, stomping firmly on her nerves, and Alex pulls at the front of Piper's shirt and kisses her, making sure she's allowed to do it again.

The response is instant and enthusiastic, and this time Alex gets to feel the full length of Piper's body pressing against her own, and God, she is actually, literally weak kneed from it.

Piper's the one to pull away, but it's not fast, and she's still touching Alex's face when she does. "What now?"

Alex bursts out laughing. "You tell me, kid. You started it."

Piper smiles and her eyes widen a little like she can't quite believe herself.  "Do we have to go back to the game?"

"Nah, I'll just text Fisher and say I'm not lost forever. We can - " She cuts herself off abruptly.

"What?"

"I'm just," Alex tries not to grin. "I don't want to sound like I'm doing a sleazy let's take this into the bedroom kind of move. But the thing is, it's our room. And we do have to go back there eventually."

Piper laughs, like Alex had hoped she would. "Let's go."

They don't hold hands on the walk back. They don't really talk, either. At some point Alex is filled with the sudden, childish urge to break into a run, like speed matters, and they need to hurry on to the next stage of this really fast before all of the possibility dissolves.

But she doesn't start running, just lets herself move a little closer to Piper, who lilts sideways into her side so their arms brush. It's nice.

They make it to Kerman House and up the stairs and down the hall and as soon as they're in the dorm room with the door closed behind them, Piper kisses her again.

It goes on like that for a few minutes before Alex's nerves start to pick themselves up and she reluctantly pries herself away. "Pipes?" Alex worries a strand of blonde hair between her fingers, just in case this conversation ends in a way that means she shouldn't do that ever again. "What is this?"

Piper's face folds in nervous confusion like the question needs to be multiple choice. "What?"

"If this is some sort of 'everyone experiments in college, and boarding school feels like college' thing, then you need to tell me now." Alex sets her jaw, bracing herself. "I won't be mad."

"It's not that," Piper tells her, face open and earnest. "I just...I really, really like you."

Alex's heart hitches, believing it, even though her brain is still wary. "But when I told you...you didn't say anything."

"I didn't know yet," Piper says.  Her voice is small and guilty and it makes Alex kiss her again, soft and fast this time. A kiss that knows it isn't the last one. 

"That's okay." Alex stays close, their noses bumping together. "Do you know now?"

"Yes," Piper breathes out, nodding her head against Alex's. "But is this still the stage where I'm supposed to play it cool and act like I haven't thought about it at all?" 

"God, no," Alex grins at her. "I want to know everything you've thought about. In grand detail, please." Piper laughs, and Alex feels it on her lips.  She feels it warming her blood.

 


 

"Alex?"

"Mmm?"

"I...I don't want my family to know.  My parents would freak out, they might even hate me, and it's just...I can't yet."

"That's okay."

"But...you know, that means Danny, too."

...

...

"Which means Polly."

"I think so.  I know that sucks, but she'd tell him, and - "

"I know.  It's alright."

"Really?"

"I'm not gonna make you be out if you're not ready, Pipes.  Promise."

"Thanks."

"What about...with Janae and Nicky and Poussey?"

"I want them to know.  Actually, Nicky said she'd kill me if we started a secret relationship."

"Wait, you talked to Nicky?"

"Yeah...she kinda helped me figure it all out."

"Damn. I hate owing Nicky for stuff."

"Sorry bout that. So when do we tell them?"

"Hmmm.  How about we have some fun with it?"

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 12:32 pm

MOM
[hey babe! hows ur weekend going?]

ALEX
[Honestly?]
[Kind of incredible.]

MOM
[ooh do tell]

ALEX
[It may be more of a phone call worthy story.]

MOM
[ugh u cant do that to me kiddo]
[just got to the restaurant dont leave me hangin 4 a 8 hr shift]
[short version?]

ALEX
[Fine]
[Piper and I kinda got together]

MOM
[what?!!!!  awwww babe thats awesome]
[just last night?]

ALEX
[Yeah she kissed me.]
[Kind of a long story but she knew that I like her]

MOM
[u kno I wanna hear all about it]
[u happy?]

ALEX
[Yes. It's kind of crazy.]

MOM
[doesnt seem crazy 2 me]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 2:51 pm

DAD
[Hey, sweetheart. How was your week?]

PIPER
[Pretty good. Nothing too eventful.]
[How are you?]

DAD
[We're fine. Did Cal tell you about his trouble at school?]

PIPER
[No...what happened?]

DAD
[Antagonizing a teacher in Civics...wouldn't hurt for you to speak to him. Tell him he'll be lucky to get into Overbrook with things like this on his record.]

PIPER
[Okay.]

DAD
[Thanks. You know we're proud of you, Pipe. You need anything?]

PIPER
[I'm good Dad. Thanks.]

DAD
[Ok. Love you. Call us sometime soon.]

PIPER
[I will. Love you too.]

 


 

Somehow, they manage to put on a front all Saturday around the others, easily quelling the curiosity about their whereabouts during Sardines with the explanation that they'd simply gone into the auditorium and joined the audience for the movie.

They all decide to order a pizza for dinner, possibly try to commandeer the basement television to watch a movie - if not, they can always go in Nicky and Janae's room, since Nicky brought back a flat screen TV after Christmas - and off Alex's suggestion, go to the woods to smoke first.

Piper sits in one of the dilapidated lawn chairs and Alex settles onto the tree trunk with Poussey and pulls out a joint.

They let it go two rounds, Nicky and Poussey dominating the conversation complaining about the third girl they're stuck with for some history presentation, and then Alex casually raises an eyebrow in Piper's direction, joint pinched between two fingers. "Pipes, you wanna shotgun this?"

"Sure," Piper says, just as casual, and her cheeks actually hurt from holding in a smile as she stands up and saunters over to Alex, who's inhaling the joint until the moment Piper gets there.  She sits on Alex's lap and winds an arm around her neck as Alex takes her by the jaw and seals her lips over Piper's, the smoke rolling from her throat and into Piper's mouth.  She barely remembers to inhale, yanking it into her lungs. Alex keeps kissing her, and when Piper jerks back to exhale out of necessity, she accidentally coughs smoke in Alex's eyes. 

Piper twists around, triumphant and delighted, to bask in everyone's reactions.

All three of their friends are staring at them, entirely nonplussed.

After a beat, Nicky pounds out a painfully sarcastic slow clap. "Wow," she deadpans. "We're so shocked.  What the hell.  What is life."

"Hey!" Poussey yells out suddenly, her eyes lighting up in genuine delight. "It's before Easter weekend! Pay up bitches!"

"Fuck," Janae growls, face twisting into her usual I-hate-to-lose scowl as Nicky launches into some complicated excuse about how they never defined the terms of the bet.

Piper turns around to look at Alex. "That wasn't as much fun as we thought."

Alex smirks, holding up the joint for Piper to take a hit. "The making out part was though, right?"

Piper grins her agreement, and after she exhales she leans down to kiss Alex again.

Their friends let out a chorus of theatrical groans and boos.

"So, our lives are basically ruined, huh?  You two are gonna be obnoxious."

 


 

Sunday night they both sit on Piper's bed doing homework, music playing on Alex's laptop, and they keep glancing sideways and catching the other sneaking smiles.

After lights out they make out on Alex's bed, both in pajama shorts and thin tank tops and tasting like toothpaste. Alex is stretched out on top of Piper, her hands slipping under her shirt and skimming up the ladder of her ribs; she doesn't sleep in a bra.

She feels Piper's stomach muscles contract beneath her touch, and Alex stills her hand, pushing herself up on one elbow to look down at Piper. "Want to stop?"

"Um..." Piper's eyes are bright in the dark. "With you and Nicky...how soon did you sleep with her?"

Alex extracts her hand completely and frowns. "Why does that matter?"

"Or that girl Casey you were with last year..."

"Casey and I barely even..." Alex stops, shaking her head. "None of that matters, Piper. We don't have to rush." She cracks a smile. "Even though we are cohabitating two days in, which kind of takes the lesbian U-Haul thing to new heights." Piper wrinkles her nose, obviously not getting the joke; Alex will catch her up on that later. She softens her voice, weaves her fingers through Piper's hair. "You don't have to worry about catching up to Nicky, okay? Or Casey, or anyone else. You're already way ahead."

Piper's whole face relaxes with her smile, and Alex gives her a quick, easy kiss and then slides over to far edge of the bed. "C'mere," she offers with a smile. "Come be my little spoon."

"You're such a dork," Piper tells her, sounding delighted about it as she turns on her side and shuffles back, folding herself against Alex, who drapes an arm around her.

"Wanna sleep here tonight?" Alex whispers right against her ear.

"Yeah," Piper agrees right away and Alex smiles into her hair.

"I never did this with anyone else," she informs her. She smooths some hair back from Piper's temple and lets her lips rest there for a moment before repeating, "Told you.  You're way ahead."

She doesn't tell Piper that she's had everyone else, anyone else, beat pretty much since the first day they met. 

 


 

The best part is how happy Alex is.

Piper's happy, too, of course; she thought she'd revised her definition of happiness last semester, but now she's redefining it again, and her current vocabulary isn't enough. She needs more than words, needs sound and touch and taste: happy is the way Alex says her name, turning it into a smile; it's the apple smell of Alex's shampoo and her wet hair touching Piper's cheeks when they kiss late at night; it's the taste of red wine coating old smoke on Alex's tongue.

But Alex's happiness feels like the real miracle, because it's all over her, leaking out of her eyes and smile and voice all the time, and Piper can't believe she's the reason for it.

It feels like the greatest accomplishment of her whole life, finally something real to be proud of.

 


 

Nicky was right, it turns out, about them being obnoxious.

Their friends give them no end of shit for PDA - even though it's only in their very limited public - or whenever they say anything sweet or teasing to each other.  Sick looking emojis get a lot of use on the group message...and they don't even know about the most sickeningly adorable things Alex and Piper do as they fall into their rhythm as a couple.

Like, how every morning before they leave for breakfast, Alex sends a song to Piper's phone but she's not meant to listen to it until third period, the first class of the day they don't have together. They split up outside the drama classroom and Piper walks to Spanish with her headphones in; some of the songs she knows already, but usually not, and the choruses always sound the way kissing Alex feels.

Piper wants to return the favor, so she starts putting Post-It notes in Alex's French binder, for the class she has that period. Sometimes she merely picks out a favorite lyric from the previous day's song, but she tries to pull mostly from books, giving Alex words while she gives her music.

She catches Alex writing some of her favorites along the white edges of her Chuck Taylors, which is how Piper ends up in English class, nudging her toes against part of that The History of Love quote about the moon becoming a coin that's winding around Alex's heel.

The two of them have become pretentious as hell, and truly fucking corny, but they're too blissfully together to give a damn.

 


 

"That song you sent me today..."

"Humming?"

"Yeah. This is going to sound really weird - "

"I love it already."

"It reminds me of that night in the rain. The storm."

"Damn, Pipes, you're obsessed with that fucking night. You're gonna leave school to be a storm chaser, aren't you?"

"Shut up."  

"Make me." 

"So immature -"

...

"Alex!"

"Too slow, made you instead -" 

"You win.  But seriously, do you know what I mean?  Listen..."

...

...

"Yeah. Yeah, I can kinda hear that night in it."

"I think..."

"What?"

"I think maybe that was the night I really fell for you."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Mmm-hmm. I didn't know that's what was happening, but...looking back, I can tell. Or at least, that's when I should have known."

"You fell asleep in my bed that night, remember?"

"Oh, yeah..."

"For a second, I wanted to stay and just...lay down beside you."

"You should have."

"I slept in your bed instead. And kept thinking it smells like you."

"Creepy."

"Um, okay then, Pipes, you just told me I should have been spooning your drunkenly unconscious body."

 


 

The girls soccer team is having a good season, so when one of the regional play-off games is held at Litchfield, all of them, even Janae, who as far as Piper can remember has never shown up for anyone else's sport, comes to watch.

They're playing some team from The Hollander School, and it's more of a crowd than usual, with even a smattering of parents populating the crowd, but the four of them manage to find a cluster of the bleachers secluded enough that Nicky still gets to tease Piper about the "congratulatory-or-conciliatory orgasm" she'll have to give Alex after the game.

It's stuff like this that fucks with Piper's head: hearing Nicky, who has almost certainly given Alex actual orgasms (ugh), just assume they're having sex already. Apparently that's what the bet was for, when they'd finally fuck, and Piper has no interest in clarifying that it technically shouldn't have been settled yet.

When the warm-ups are over and the starters get in position, Alex looks over and waves at them, winking just at Piper.

It's a rough, intense game right from the start - Piper's been to enough now that's she starting to be able to recognize things like that - and the score stays drawn at zero for the first fifteen minutes, but the opposing team's offense is dominating, playing mostly on Litchfield's half of the field.

On the sidelines, Piper sees Coach Mendoza say something to Alex, who nods and stands, pulling her bright orange goalie jersey on. "Hey, I think Alex is going in," she says to the others.

"Damn," Janae says with a low, impressed whistle. "See, that's how the fuck you can tell Al is actually better. Fiona's good, and they give her priority cause she's a senior...but Mendoza thinks they're gonna get shot on a lot, and she feels better with Alex at goal."

Piper smiles proudly. She knows Alex is excited for next year, when she'll likely be playing full games.

 


 

And she is good, pulling off what look like several very impressive saves even with Piper's limited knowledge of soccer. She thinks that playing goalie must be terrifying; the last line of defense, the only player who can usually be directly responsible for giving up a point.

Once on a corner kick, which always seem super chaotic and stressful, Alex jumps higher than anyone else and bats the ball backwards, several feet safely above the crossbar of the goal.

Which just results in another corner kick, but still. It looked really cool.

The score's still 0-0 at the half. Piper pulls out of her phone, figuring Alex may have a chance to check hers while she's getting water and orange slices, before the coach gathers them into a circle for what Piper always assumes is a mid-game strategy session.

PIPER
[You're playing awesome.]

She watches Alex for the minute and a half it takes her to pull her phone out of her soccer bag. She looks at the screen, then turns around to shoot a grin in Piper's direction.

Beside her, Nicky groans. "You guys are the most codependent couple I've ever seen. It's been like, what, an hour since you talked?"

"Two," Piper corrects absently, eyes on her phone.

ALEX
[Thanks babe]

PIPER
[Will you play second half?]

ALEX
[I think so. Fiona's pissed.]

PIPER
[Too bad soccer isn't like tennis...you could have had a challenge match a long time ago and settled this.]

ALEX
[HA!  I should've pitched that to Coach earlier in the season]

Sure enough, Alex is back in the goal in the second half. About fifteen minutes in, Litchfield finally scores on a lucky break away. 1-0. Five minutes after that, there's a close call on Alex's goal, when she blocks a shot but doesn't get a solid hold of the ball, bringing an instant scramble of Litchfield defenders and Hollander forwards and Alex, the knot of players too clumped up for anyone in the stands to even see the ball, until finally the ref blows the whistle.  Everyone scatters, and Alex picks herself up from the ground with the ball held firmly against her stomach.

Piper exhales hard. "This sport makes me nervous. Alex making mistakes seems to matter more than anyone else."

Janae rolls her eyes. "No one really thinks of it like that...if Alex even gets shot on, it's cause the defenders fucked up first."

"Still. How much time is left?"

"Probably like fifteen minutes."

The last quarter so of the game turns scrappy and rough, the opposing team obviously pissed a game they've dominated could end in a loss. There's a noticeable uptick in fouls, and twice the aftermath looks like it might turn into an all out brawl.

"Hmmmm," Nicky narrows her eyes salaciously at the field as a Litchfield midfielder is forcibly pulled away from an opponent. "Never noticed, but Lowry's got a certain sex crazed, wild animal thing goin' on."

Poussey snorts. "She's not sex crazed, fool, she looks like she's out for literal blood."

Katie Lowry's foul gives the other team a free kick, barely past the center of the field. One of the players launches the ball toward the Litchfield goal. It lands several yards outside the penalty arc, centered in the field, and three players brawl roughly for contact before a Hollander forward manages a shaky pass to the left side of the penalty box, a side most players had prematurely cleared with the direction of the free kick.

Except a Hollander midfielder making a hard run for it from up the left side, at the same moment Alex starts sprinting out of the goal, a desperate race for the loose ball, both on them only building speed and momentum.

Then Alex dives, and Piper actually shoots to her feet, and she's not the only one - Janae and Poussey stand up, too, caught up in the excitement, only Nicky still slumped back on the bleachers like she can't quite give a shit.  Alex lands hard on the ball - it looks like it hits her chest - at the same moment the midfielder gets there, swinging her foot and tripping over Alex with the kick no longer aimed at a soccer ball.

The Litchfield side of the bleachers erupts into cheers, Janae in particular acting as though she herself made the save, but Piper’s eyes are still fixed on Alex, her insides starting to fold inward.

“She’s not getting up.” She doesn’t mean to whisper but that’s what comes out.

The cheers go quiet with a kind of sickening abruptness as all the spectators have the same realization, the ref blowing the whistle repeatedly as Mendoza and her assistant coach run onto the field and all the other players take a knee on the grass.

Piper jerks forward, getting down one step of the bleachers before Janae firmly fists the back of her shirt. “Hey, hey nope. Hold up, Pipe, don’t be the hysterical girlfriend running on the field. Nobody wants that noise, and I’m sure she’s fine.”

Ripping free of her gasp, she rounds on Janae, furious, her whole body shaking. “Fine? I think she’s unconscious!”

“Nuh-uh.  Look,” Janae says calmly, nodding past Piper.

When she turns, Alex is sitting up, Coach Mendoza knelt in front of her while the athletic trainer finally runs toward the field.

The screams stuck in her chest slowly quiet, but Piper still doesn’t sit down. It feels like an unbearable wait until the trainer and Coach Mendoza finally help Alex up and she walks shakily off the field to subdued, polite applause.

The game starts up again, Fiona jogging out to take Alex’s place in goal, but Piper’s full attention is on the sidelines. Alex sits at the very end of the bench, the assistant coach  wrapping ice in towels while the trainer starts holding up fingers in front of her face.

Piper gives Janae a look, daring her to argue. “I’m going.”  She starts clattering down the metal staircase without waiting for an answer.

Her momentum stalls when she gets to the sidelines, and she's tentative rounding the bench meeting Alex's eyes. “Hey.”

Alex looks pale and a little dazed, but when she sees Piper her whole face softens, lips curving into a weak smile. “Hey. You okay? You look terrible.”

Piper stares at her. “Me?  There’s blood in your hair.”

“Oh.” Alex’s eyes dart straight up, as though she'll be able to see the blood stained towel the trainer’s assistant is currently dabbing on the top of her head.  Her voice oddly monotonous, she intones, “Yeah. Fucker kicked me.”  The trainer gives her a half-hearted stern look that Alex ignores.  “I think she had metal cleats maybe…can someone check that?  I think it's against the rules.”

“Are you okay?” Piper asks, a catch in her voice.

“Yes.”

“Don’t jump the gun on that,” the trainer tells her. “I want you to see a doctor, worried about a concussion…”

Alex groans and sounds a little more like herself when she says, “Does that really have to require a doctor?” She looks at Piper. “Pipes, can you get me my actual glasses?  They’re in my bag.”

“Yeah, sure…” Piper walks around the back of the bench, checking the identical soccer bags lined underneath it for Alex’s number. A minute later, she goes back with Alex’s glasses and a bottle of lukewarm gatorade. “Here.”

“Oh, hey, my glasses.  Good thinking,” she smiles briefly at Piper, her eyes little unfocused.  Her plastic sports glasses are around her neck. 

Uneasy, Piper glances at the trainer, who explains in an undertone, "Some disorientation and confusion is normal this soon after the blow." 

On the field, the ref blows three long, low shrieks on his whistle and Alex leans around the trainer to see. “We won, right? They didn’t blow my shut out?”

“Your shut out’s safe,” the trainer says, rolling her eyes but obviously amused. “I’m telling Coach you need to go to the hospital.”

“Can I go with you?” Piper blurts out, causing the trainer to look back at her again.  Alex does, too.

“My roommate,” Alex explains, sort-of-winking at Piper. “She should come...and she’s enough of a worrier that there’s not even any need to call my mom.”

The trainer shakes her head. “You know the rules."

 


 

The Rules turn out to be that if there’s any suspicion of a concussion, players must be taken to see a doctor - “it’s a covering their ass so we don’t sue kind of policy,” Alex explains - and that parents have to be informed of any medical visit or treatment.

Coach Mendoza - Ms. Mendoza to Piper, who’s in her Spanish class - drives them both to the hospital but Alex, who'd seemed much more alert in the car, smoothly talks her into letting her call her mom herself once she’s seen a doctor, as long as the coach is there to make sure it gets done.

She doesn’t protest at all about Piper joining, saying it’s a good thing for a roommate to hear the relevant info: “You do have a concussion, then she’ll be the one watching that you don’t slip into a coma for the next 24 hours."  Piper doesn’t exactly find that reassuring.

Alex has to ice her head the whole car ride, but she says it’s not bleeding anymore.

It’s stupid, because Alex seems fine and not at all scared, but Piper really wants to hold her hand.

She finally gets her chance when Mendoza goes outside the hospital to phone the school, leaving Piper and Alex alone in her curtained area in the ER.

“Hey…” She slips her fingers through Alex’s and squeezes gently. “You kinda freaked me out out there.”

Alex half smiles at her. “I was fine.”

“Still. I don’t like this sport. Gonna make you play tennis with me next year…no contact.”

“I don’t know…I’ve seen some of those matches. The way you play, someone could end up blinded by tennis ball.”

Piper manages a real smile at that. From the edge of the curtain, she sees a doctor approaching and drops Alex’s hand automatically, even though there’s no real reason to hide anything from him.

Coach Mendoza returns halfway through the doctor’s diagnosis of a mild concussion, and Piper open Notes on her iPhone, thumbing out all his instructions of what to watch for and how much Tylenol Alex should be taking for how long.

When the doctor leaves, Mendoza gives Alex a no-nonsense kinda look and points a finger at Alex’s soccer bag. “Alright, chica, deal’s a deal. Call your mom.”

"Not supposed to use phones in a hospital.  Screws up the medical equipment.  Or something."

"Well, then I guess you better talk fast." 

Alex sighs dramatically and makes a big show of reluctantly digging around for her phone. Mendoza shakes her head in exasperation at Piper. “Don’t know how you stand living with this one.”

Piper grins a little at that, because she knows Alex likes her coach a lot.

She looks back at Alex, the phone to her ear, waiting for Diane Vause to answer, and Piper can see she really is nervous, genuinely doesn’t want to worry her mom.

“Hey, Mom….I’m good…” The coach shoots her a Look at that, already silently protesting. Alex ignores it. “Yeah, we won, one to nothing…I played most of the game.…Mmm-hmm…This girl kicked me in the head second half, but it was an epic save…no, no I’m completely fine.”

At that the coach actually snaps her fingers inches from Alex’s face and she sighs. “But they made me go to the hospital to get checked out so we won’t sue.” Mendoza mutters something in Spanish under her breath and Piper can’t help but laugh. “Because I didn’t want to worry you until we’d talked to the doctor, and it’s totally fine, we’re about to leave now….Coach drove me, and Piper’s here….he said it’s a mild concussion…mild as in, I didn’t even vomit…no, Mom, I swear, I’m totally fine…that’s not even a real thing, actually, you’re supposed to rest after a concussion...Piper has to wake me up every few hours, but I can still sleep…What?  No…” Alex’s face reddens the slightest bit. “Because she’s not gonna tell you anything different…seriously? Fine. Here.”

Alex pulls the phone away from her ear and Mendoza steps forward to take it, but Alex shakes her head and holds it out to Piper instead. “She wants to talk to you.”

“What? Why?” She can feel the heat rising to her own cheeks now. Piper’s usually really good at talking to adults - teachers, her friends’ parents, her parent’s friends have always liked her - but this is a big deal.

Alex is obviously super close to her mom, to the point that disapproval from Diane Vause would probably make her rethink any relationship. And this is the most awkward way ever to sort of meet her girlfriend’s mom…on the phone, in a hospital, with her Spanish teacher right there listening.

Alex just shrugs, offering her an apologetic grimace, but she’s still holding out the phone. Piper takes it. “Hello?”

“Piper? Hey, honey, it’s Diane.  No Ms. Vause for you, understand?"  Diane’s voice is loud and warm, with the slightest thread of a Boston accent.  "Nice to finally meet ya…sorta kinda, anyway.” 

“Um, hi.  Diane.  Nice to...talk to you, too.”

“Listen, how worried should I be here? Al tends to downplay everything, so all I’m getting outta her is a total epic save….how bad was it really?”

Piper hesitates, aware of Alex watching her closely. “It was...pretty scary when it happened, on the field.” Alex’s face sharpens into an admonishing look. “But I went down as soon as the trainer got her on the bench, and by that time she was mostly joking and making sure they didn’t screw up her shut out.”

Diane laughs over the phone, and it reminds her of Alex.  Which makes Piper smile at her, even though Alex is still scowling at her in displeasure.  “Sounds about right.”

“And the doctor really did say she’s fine…she can’t play for the next week or so, but I wrote down everything he said so I can make sure it doesn’t get worse and that she takes it easy.”

“Now, that is what I needed to hear!” Diane exclaims, sounding impressed. “I bet she listens to you, huh?”

“She does,” Piper says firmly, and it makes Diane laugh again.

“Well, good. Do me a favor, though, Pipes, and get my number from Alex.  You can call me if she starts being a stubborn ass about it, or just if anything else happens…I trust you to tell me more than her, stubborn thing.” 


Piper smiles into the phone. “I will.”

“Okay. Thanks for looking out for her, baby.” For a second, Piper’s startled into silence, both from the endearment and the genuine warmth in Diane’s voice, like it’s that easy to earn her affection. “You come see us sometime this summer, okay?  We need to step it up, meet in person.  You're welcome to stay anytime you want.”

“Definitely.” Piper agrees eagerly, because she’s ninety percent sure she’ll get a car for her birthday in June, and she and Alex have already talked about visiting each other over the summer as much as possible. “Thanks.  Here’s Alex.”

“Thank you, kiddo.”

 


 

Alex takes the phone back. “Me again.”

“I like her,” is the first thing Diane says, and Alex feels her face getting hot.  Again.

Mom,” she grits out.  "Not the time."  Jesus, her freaking coach is right here.

“And, most importantly, I believe her. Because she admitted it was scary, none of that I’m totally fine, it was an epic save bullshit you give me.”

“But it really was though.”

“Great. I hope they wrote that on the medical form.” Diane sighs. “Call me tomorrow morning, alright? You know I don’t like not being there when you’re sick.”

For no real reason, Alex’s throat narrows, that little kid, I want my mom feeling flaring up in her chest. “I’m really okay.  Promise." 

“You better be, babe. Call me tomorrow. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

 


 

Group Text Message, Wednesday , 6:03 pm

POUSSEY
[Hey Al hope everything's alright.  Keep us posted k?]

NICKY
[yeah dude that looked fucking brutal]

JANAE
[She was barely watching]
[but she's right, it did. fucking HELLA game, though.]

NICKY
[Mind your business Watson]
[Just text us when you guys leave the hospital]

PIPER, 8:20 pm 
[Mild concussion, on our way back now]

ALEX
[Thanks for the concern, everybody, but I have Pipes to nurse me back to health]
[Don't come near our room, possible role play/sponge bath happening]

JANAE
[GROSS]

POUSSEY
[Tmi]

NICKY
[Called it.  Fucking obnoxious.]

 


 

When they get back to their room, Alex is still smirking from her jokes on the group message.  She raises a coy eyebrow at Piper.  "Nurse?" 

"That's me.  Top notch nursing," Piper tells her with a straight face.  She turns her voice seductive.  "I'm setting an alarm on my phone....it goes off every time you have to take more Tylenol." 

"Sexy," Alex hums, pressing teasingly up against Piper and kissing her cheek.  

Piper smirks and gently pushes Alex's face away with her palm.  "You heard the doctor.  No major physical or mental activities."

"Fine. Separate beds tonight, then."  She smirks, but it fades into a wince.  "Can we turn off the overhead light, maybe?" 

Piper pounces on that.  "Why?  Is your headache worse than it was two hours ago?" 

"No, it's the same.  Which still isn't pleasant."  She stretches out on her bed and grabs her laptop, but Piper promptly snatches it away before going to turn off the main light, switching to the reading lamp clipped on her bed and turning even that to face the wall.

"No music, no TV, no reading tonight, remember?" 

"So what am I supposed to do?  Lay here in silence?" 

"You might as well go on to sleep.  I have to wake you up every three to four hours, this way you get some in before I even go to bed."  

"Pipes, seriously, I don't like you doing that, you still have to get up and go to class....Coach said I can go spend the night in the infirmary - "

"No," Piper cuts her off.  "I told you, I don't mind.  I have my alarms set for that, too.  And I'd rather you were here." 

Alex tilts a smile at her, eyes warming.  "See?  Told ya you're my nurse." 

"Here..."  Piper climbs up on Alex's bed, and Alex sits up to allow her room, but Piper guides her gently back down, pillowing her head in Piper's lap. "Close your eyes."  She slips her fingers across Alex's forehead, gently sweeping across her skin without weight for a moment before she finally starts kneading Alex's forehead in the most gentle massage possible.  "That okay?" 

"Yeah..."  Alex exhales, almost dreamily, but after a moment she says, "You can still talk, you know." 

"Okay."  She pauses.  "Janae was kinda mean to me tonight." 

Alex smiles with her eyes closed.  "Do I need to kick her ass?" 

"No physical activity, remember?"

"So otherwise you would want me to?" 

Piper smiles a little.  "No.  Not really.  She just wouldn't let me run onto the field when you got hurt."

"Good call, Janae." 

"You weren't getting up.  And bleeding from your head."

"No way you could see blood from the bleachers, Pipes."

"Well.  I remember it bloody.  And you were unconscious for - "

"Hours?"  Alex teases. 

"Pretty much.  Close your eyes." 

"Fuck, I'm glad you didn't tell my mom this version of events with me lying in a pool of blood for hours...she'd have driven down here and I would've had to will myself into a coma just to get you both to leave me alone."

"Asshole.  I don't know why we even care so much." 

 


 

Alex recovers from her concussion, and the soccer team wins their Region but gets knocked out in the second round of State.  Piper's glad when it's over, because the away games had started to be pretty far away, and Alex wouldn't get back on campus until nearly dorm curfew, and she had to spend the evenings without games catching up on homework and studying.

There are two weeks between the end of soccer season and the start of finals, and even though there are still papers to write and projects to finish, it still feels like the last chance to just soak up each other's presence relatively stress free. 

Two weeks before the semester ends, Alex and Piper come in from smoking in the woods with the others on a Friday night, still holding onto a little bit of their high, and they end up on, somehow, in a giggly breathless tangle on the floor between their beds, kissing until their shirts and bras come off.  They've been together for almost two months, and this is the current peak of their make out repertoire.  

Piper's got her knees on either side of Alex's legs, straddling her lap, and Alex's hands keep drifting down, thumbs circling Piper's hipbones, barely teasing the waistband of her shorts, but never fully going anywhere uninvited. 

Piper is warm and wanting between her legs, a feeling that still thrills and frightens her a little, and in a rush of bravado she arches back enough to maneuver her hands between them, holding eye contact with Alex as she unbuttons and unzips her own shorts. 

Alex's eyes widen a little in surprise.  "Sure?" 

Piper nods; she's trembling slightly, and angry at herself for it, but the moment of daring is worth it when she sees the smile bloom across Alex's face.  Bracing her hands on either side of Piper's hips, Alex guides her up, murmuring an instruction, "Here, straighten up a little..." 

Piper arches an eyebrow.  "Straighten up?  Right now?" 

Alex starts laughing and Piper follows; she likes when they laugh during this stuff, the way it reminds her that this is just Alex, her best friend, the person she trusts more than anyone. 

"I need to get your shorts off, you idiot," Alex says, her voice slightly husky even in the teasing. 

Obediently, Piper raises her thighs so Alex can pull her shorts down, maneuvering them over the knees and down past her ankles with some difficult shifting and contorting given their position on the floor. 

Before Piper lowers herself again, Alex hooks her fingers to the sides of Piper's underwear, about to discard them, too, and Piper inhales sharply, caught off guard. 

Alex's hands go still, and her eyes flick to Piper's, seeking permission.  "Okay?" 

"Yeah," she says, but it comes out thin and uncertain, enough so that Alex moves her hands up to safer territory. 

"It's okay if you want to stop."  She sounds like she means it. 

Piper isn't sure what to say.  She doesn't want to want to stop.  "I...I don't know..."

"What is it, Pipes?"

"How long were you hooking up with Nicky before you did this?" 

There's a silence, and then Alex takes her hands off Piper completely, actually backing away, face bricked up with irritation.  "Why do you always do that?  Stop fucking talking about Nicky...or Casey...I don't fucking ask you about Larry Bloom." 

"I only ever made out with him."

"So what?!  You chose to make out with him before you ever wanted to kiss me, for the record.  And I haven't asked you to catalogue every time it happened." 

"It's different." 

"Why is it different?" 

"I've never slept with a girl before." 

"So?  You haven't slept with a guy before either." 

Piper shakes her head hard, unable to figure out how to explain.  It still feels different, like with guys at least she had a road map, laid out in every movie or TV show or young adult novel ever: guys want sex right away, girls usually want to wait for awhile. 

With Alex, she isn't sure what's expected.  She doesn't want to do anything wrong.

Alex looks away, teeth clenched in frustration. "I want you to have sex with me because you want to, not because you think you have to meet some deadline on a completely made up timeline.  And just so you know, this whole thing you're doing makes me feel like you think I'm pressuring you somehow, even though I know I'm not." 

"I know you aren't,"  Piper's voice wobbles slightly, warm, embarrassed tears starting to gather in the corners of her eyes.  "I'm sorry." 

Alex softens completely at that, and she moves close again, tucking a piece of hair behind Piper's ear.  "You know what your problem is, Pipes?"  Her voice is so gentle it makes the threat of crying more persistent.  "You never ask the right question." 

Piper sniffles, feeling utterly pathetic as Alex brushes a thumb underneath her eye.  "What's the right question?" 

"You're always asking what I did with them, or when I did it, or how fucking often we did it...that doesn't even matter."  Alex touches her chin.  "Ask me if I loved them." 

Swallowing against the lump in her throat, Piper asks quietly, already knowing the answer.  "Did you love them?" 

"No."  Her eyes are so open and earnest, like they're laying something bare.  "But I love you." 

Inside her chest, Piper’s heart feels like it’s being unfolded, uncrumpled, and smoothed out. Every crease gone.

Small, disbelieving, she asks, “You do?”

Alex nods, a smile rippling across her face, turning her so beautiful it aches.  Piper reaches for her smile, wanting to touch it. 

"I don't say that to everyone,"  Alex tells her softly, the words laced with nerves Piper sometimes forgets Alex has.  "You have to say it back." 

Piper huffs out a laugh at the idea of there being any doubt.  "I love you, too." 

Then she kisses her, all heart and courage, and after a moment Piper reaches down and peels off her underwear, taking Alex's wrist with her free hand and giving her permission to keep going. 

"Really?"  Alex asks again.

"Yes," Piper tells her firmly, and this time she sounds certain. 

She raises her eyebrows, needing more.  "Why?"  

"Because we're like...in love," Piper tells her with a sheepish grin.

Alex laughs and Piper follows, so much that her forehead tips forward and rests briefly on the bridge of Alex's nose, where her glasses usually sit.  Alex nudges her up, lips finding Piper's again, the kiss slow and deep and then Alex's fingers slide into the juncture between Piper's legs and Piper starts to move against her hand.  

In the road map they give you, the one for boys and girls, the first time is supposed to hurt, but this...this is the opposite of hurting.   This makes her doubt that pain even exists anymore. 

Chapter Text

She lit a fire, and now she's in my every thought.

She Lit a Fire // Lord Huron

 


 

The spring formal that closes out the year is on Litchfield territory; they hold it outside, down by the lake, under white tents and strung light bulbs and several outdoor dance floors.  The whole thing must cost a fortune - so, like, one student's semester tuition - but on Saturday it will be turned into a luncheon area for the teachers and board members to schmooze with the richest parents slash donors before the academic awards ceremony.  It stays up for the post-graduation lunch on Sunday, at which point Alex and Piper and the rest of the underclassmen will have already gone home.

Everyone pregames in Alex and Piper's room, and the two of them drink right to the edge of drunk and kiss in front of the others, tasting like tequila, like silver and gold.  Piper's in this yellow dress that makes Alex teasingly call her Sunshine.  Janae and Marcus broke up two weeks before, so the five of them stick together and don't leave the dance floor all night.  Well, except for Nicky, who's back and forth to the turntable flirting with the female DJ, and even though Alex gives her shit for it - "Keep it in your pants, jail bait." - it works out, because songs keep playing that she knows Nicky requested, Betty Who and Icona Pop and Halsey. 

The dancing feels like drawn out, teasing foreplay, and Alex and Piper don't even have to be very careful; the crowded space keeps them pressed together anyway, their hands hidden in the swaying throng of bodies.

Still, there comes a point - namely, when Piper runs a hand through Alex's hair and steps pointedly between Alex's legs, her eyes hazy with tipsy, unrestrained longing - that Alex grins and makes the executive decision that it's time for some privacy. 

They don't even have to lie in promising the chaperones they're going straight back to their dorm. 

Heels in their hands, they hurry barefoot across the grass and brick of the campus.  When they're far enough away that the lake and dance is out of sight, Piper actually grabs Alex's hand, tugs her against one of the columns outside the library to kiss.  The night air is warm and summer scented, the dark around them dotted with fireflies.  Alex gently tugs Piper's hair free from her updo, tangling her fingers amid loose bobby pins.

They can't hear the music anymore, but Piper's laugh against her lips is the best sound; it feels like maybe the best day of Alex's life, but then she's had that thought at least once a week since she and Piper got together.

 


 

"God, I love this dress on you..." 

"Oh, so you want me to leave it on?"

"Not for another second..."  

"Fuck, I love drunk Pipes..."

"You also love me sober." 

"Got me there, babe." 

"Your bed or mine?"

"Do you really care right now?"

...

...

"Fuck."

"You alright?"

"Stupid...fucking...loft bed." 

"Here, drunky, we'll just...voila!"

"Oh my God."

"Get down here." 

 


 

They're lying in a tangle of Alex's comforter and sheets, spread messily on the floor between the two beds. 

"You know at the last dance?"

Piper tips her head up to make eye contact.  "Yeah?" 

"I saw you and Larry kissing." 

"Really?"

Alex nods, quirks her lips into a gentle smile.  "It sucked." 

Piper's face falls, and Alex wonders if she's going over that night in her head, filling in the blanks to explain Alex's long absence, the red eyes that weren't actually from smoking pot.  "I'm sorry." 

"Jesus, Pipes, nothing to be sorry about.  I'm just thinking..."  She lets her fingers swim through Piper's sweat matted hair.  "I had no idea how good it was about to get." 

Piper's smile sends relief rippling across her face.  "So good."  She's still a little drunk, dragging one finger the perimeter of Alex's face, currently rounding the curve of her chin.  "I love you." 

It's been two weeks, and still every time they say it Alex feels a flickering threat of tears dance across her throat, just for a second.  "Love you, too." 

They kiss again, and keep it going, just revving up when their phones vibrate a few seconds apart. 

Piper pulls away and wrinkles her nose.  "We're supposed to meet up with the others." 

"Do we have to?" 

They're quiet for a moment, debating how important being a good friend is right now.  

"It is a tradition," Alex says at last.  "They'll make a huge thing if we don't go." 

"And Janae saw Marcus dancing with that Amber girl...we should make sure she's okay."

"Oh, yeah.  That's a nicer reason than mine." 

Alex kisses her again before they get up and start hastily pulling on clothes, a kiss that feels like an ellipses, like to be continued

 


 

They pack their suitcases with two or three of the other's shirts.  Piper likes the idea of wearing Alex's soccer T-shirt around like a secret, claiming it just got mixed up with her clothes by accident.  

Her parents meet Alex.  She's still in her blazer and skirt from the awards ceremony - they'd both been called up for Honor Roll, along with Poussey - so they can't see her tattoos.  It's all very polite and friendly, but Piper knows that would change if her parents found out any detail about Alex beyond their easy assumptions. 

She pretends to have forgotten something in her dorm room, leaves her parents and Cal idling in the car and impatient to get over to Danny's school, so she can run back up and kiss Alex one more time. 

"No getting sad," Alex reminds her when Piper's fingers latch onto the front of her shirt with no intentions of letting go.  "I could see you in a week." 

That's when Piper's birthday is.  She nods.  "As soon as possible." 

Alex arches an eyebrow and grins.  "If you fail the driving test I'll never forgive you." 

"I promise to study the handbook the whole ride home." 

 


 

Polly actually rides with the Chapmans to Overbrook so she can tell Danny goodbye. 

"I feel like we haven't hung out in forever, Pipe," Polly gripes beside her in the backseat.  It's kind of true, especially with tennis in off season, just two practices a week.  "I was looking for you the other night at the dance."

"Yeah, sorry..."  She lowers her voice, glancing at her parents in the front seat.  "Just figured it might be awkward."  It's been her excuse for getting out of hanging out with Polly since February - her plans inevitably involve the group of Overbrook boys, Larry included. 

It's not like she's lying, anyway; it would be awkward to see him after the disastrous Valentine's Day.  In fact, Piper's thinking about requesting to just stay in the car while they move Danny's stuff out of his dorm room.

But Polly shakes her head.  "He's over it, I swear.  I think he knows now he moved kind of fast."

"It wasn't really that," Piper says, the slightest bit of guilt nudging against her stomach. 

It's still so strange, having to lie like this.  Alex is her girlfriend, Piper loves her, and she never really thinks of it as dating a girl.  

But because of that, she can't just say the simple truth: I liked someone else.

No, that's not quite right.

She can't say, Turns out I was ridiculously in love with my roommate all along.

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 8:17 pm

PIPER
[Miss me yet?]

ALEX
[Yes.]
[Too much.]

PIPER
[Call when you get home?]

ALEX
[Facetime.]

PIPER
[YES, even better.]
[We can do that thing where we stay on the phone and watch a movie together.]
[Like in When Harry Met Sally.]

ALEX
[As long as we don't actually WATCH when harry met sally]

 


 

Piper's never liked her birthday. 

Well.  Maybe not never.  She always looks pretty happy in the really old photos, like when she was turning four or five and only cared about cake and presents. 

But for all the birthdays she can vividly remember, Piper's been aware of a certain strain to the day, her parents cranking up the Happy Family appearance to the point that it becomes even harder to believe, a theater troupe overacting their roles.  

She kind of hates being the reason for that.

But this year, she turns sixteen.  Her dad takes her the morning off to take her to the DMV, and she gets to gloat at Danny for passing the test on the first try - he'd failed the written, hadn't even gotten in the car until the next week.  When she comes home, there's a baby blue Volkswagon Beetle parked in the driveway with a bow on the hood, and she thanks her parents over and over.

Because the real gift is the ability to get to Alex.

 


 

Text Message, Tuesday, 11:16 am

PIPER
[I passed!]
[and I got a car!]

PIPER, 11:29 am
[you're still asleep aren't you??]
[SO LAZY]

ALEX, 11:43 am
[I was asleep]
[Because it's SUMMER]
[And you texting me first on your birthday kinda ruins it]
[I'm supposed to text you.]

PIPER
[you called at midnight that counts]

ALEX
[Still.]
[Happy birthday.]

PIPER
[Did you even see what I said]
[I have a car...hold on I'll get a photo.]

ALEX
[Forget the photo, just get your ass over here already.]

PIPER
[I'll be on my way in the morning]

ALEX
[FINALLY]

 


 

Group Text Message, Tuesday, 1:32 pm

POUSSEY
[Happy birthday, Pipe!]

JANAE
[Yeah happy birthday dude]

NICKY
[Yessss sweet sixteen]
[baby duckling's become a swan]

ALEX
[you don't know much about how animals work]

PIPER
[Aw thanks you guys]

POUSSEY
[Special thanks to me, for doing this on the group message]
[otherwise these two wouldn't have remembered]

JANAE
[WRONG already wrote on her facebook]

PIPER
[She did.]

POUSSEY
[So only Nicky sucks.]

 


 

With her new ticket to freedom - and its horrible photo of her - tucked into her wallet, Piper leaves the day after her birthday and drives the hour and a half to Alex's.  She plugs her phone into the auxiliary cable and puts on a playlist of all the songs Alex sent her last semester, one for nearly every day they've been together. 

She is giddy with excitement, and also feeling viscerally, vividly grown up: alone in a car with her hands on the wheel, the highway a ribbon of freedom taking her back to Alex. 

Even then, in the last ninety minutes before she sees her, Piper's wanting Alex beside her in the passenger seat, the only thing that could make the moment better.  Her pulse starts skipping out a chorus of soon soon soon as she pulls off the exit for Alex's hometown.  She passes a Friendly's and wonders if it's the one where Diane Vause works.  It must be; this seems like a one-restaurant-per-franchise sort of town. 

The address takes her to a trailer park; she has a space number, too, but Piper isn't quite sure how to tell, and anyway Alex had just told her to look for the light blue trailer.  There's no car outside, so Piper kind of awkwardly parks hers off the dirt path winding through the park. 

The layout of the trailers seems mostly haphazard, and even though this is clearly a light blue trailer with (mostly dead) potted plants lining the outside, just like Alex had said, Piper's still hesitant to knock on the door.  She can't be sure she didn't see another place that matches the description, so she turns off her car and gets out her cell phone, about to send a text message when the door swings open and Alex is there, grinning at her. 

Piper smiles like an idiot and gets out of the car.  Alex is barefoot and obviously just woke up, hair mussed and yesterday's eyeliner faded and smudged over her lashes; it's a familiar, comforting sight, and Piper practically throws herself at her, kissing her hungrily before they even say hello. 

It's been nine days since they saw each other.  And okay, she used to make fun of Polly and Danny for this sort of behavior, but those two weren't used to being together every day. So it's totally different. 

"So,"  Alex says when they finally pull back to grin at each other some more.  "How's sixteen feel?"

"Pretty amazing at the moment." 

Her eyes flicking over Piper's shoulder, Alex smirks.  "I can't believe this fucking car.  Is that what you asked for?" 

"No.  I never thought about it enough to have a dream car in mind." 

"I feel like some salesman probably told your parents this is what all teenage girls love.  It's almost too adorable. "

Piper gives her new car a fond look.  "I don't care how adorable it is or isn't.  As long as it got me here." 

Alex grins.  "Good point."  She tugs Piper by the front of her shirt and kisses her again, quick and sweet.  "How long can you stay?" 

"I didn't give my parents a specific day I'd be back.  And I don't think anyone'll miss me." 

Alex's eyes go soft at that.  "I've missed you." 

"Me, too." 

Something falters in Alex's expression, all of a sudden, and she runs a nervous hand through her hair.  "I, uh.  Know you're probably not used to all this."  Sher jerks her head a little to indicate the trailer park, and Piper's chest knots up a little; she's not used to seeing Alex embarrassed.  "Wish I could say it's bigger than it looks, but...not so much." 

It takes Piper a moment to figure out the right thing to say.  "You're here," she tells Alex finally.  "That's literally the only thing I care about."

Alex's smile turns her instantly familiar again.  "I love when you get all corny." 

"Hey!"

"I said I love it."  She takes Piper's hand.  "C'mon." 

Inside, the trailer is actually bigger than Piper was expecting.  Or at least, there's more to it: on one end, a small fridge and a sink with an attached stove and oven, just across from a built in table and booth.  The bulk of the trailer is a living area with an old sofa and a recliner, right beside each other against one wall, across from a television that's surrounded by cluttered shelves, books and CDs and plastic storage containers stacked on every available surface.  She can see a bed with red sheets set in a small compartment on the other end, flimsy wooden doors on either side. 

"Here, I'll just put your bag beside the bed, Pipes"  Alex tells her, but there's still something strained in her voice, and her gaze is running around the trailer like she's hoping to see it differently.  Piper wishes she could figure out what to say to make her stop worrying. 

So when Alex steps around the the foot of the bed, Piper drapes her arms over her shoulders.  "Your mom working?"

"Yeah."  The pitch of Alex's voice drops a little.  "Won't be back til tonight." 

Piper twists her mouth into a smirky little grin, leaning in as though to kiss Alex and then pushing her back onto the mattress instead. 

Alex laughs up at her, wiggling back on the bed as Piper arches over her, shins on either side of Alex's thighs.  "The place may be small," Alex teases  "But this is a bigger bed than when we're used to."

 


 

Group Text, Wednesday, 1:04 pm

NICKY
[Yo "Vauseman"]
[I'm not sure if you can call it a REUNION if it's only been a week]
[and yes offense is intended]

ALEX
[Your jealousy in unattractive]

JANAE
[The fuck she talking about?]

POUSSEY
[Check Piper's insta]

JANAE
[Ah]

NICKY
[Thanks for the invite btw]
[RUDE]

JANAE
[Speak for yourself I don't want in on their sex visits]

ALEX
[Sure J?  I'm not opposed to adding a third ;)]

PIPER
[DISAGREE]

ALEX
[that offer is not extended to Nicky]

NICKY
[You both wish]

PIPER
[DISAGREE x100000]

NICKY
[Hurtful.]

POUSSEY
[I was gonna say we do need to plan a meet up soon]
[but maybe I take that back, don't wanna accidentally agree to an orgy]

JANAE
[Pipe you get a car for the bday?]

PIPER
[Yeah.]

JANAE
[So we're good to meet up.  I probably need some notice so I can get dibs on the car instead of my sisters]

ALEX
[Uh no car for me, rich kids]

JANAE
[I SHARE a car calm down]

NICKY
[So we'll all go to Vause.]

POUSSEY
[Sure that's super close for me anyway]

PIPER
[I can give her a ride anywhere though]
[Plus Nicky I thought we were going to your lake house or something.]

NICKY
[Oooh right.  It is always empty.  Pick a weekend bitches.]

 


 

Alex glances over at Piper; they're lying beside each other on the bed, phones in their hands.  "Thank you for that." 

"Sure," Piper says easily, not an ounce of pity in her expression.  "Although invite 'em to stay here if you want.  We can all just share the bed, since you basically offered up an orgy anyway." 

"Nah."  Alex grins, rolling onto her side and slinging a leg between Piper's, easing her thighs apart again.  "I was just kidding.  I like all my focus to be on you."

"Good.  Cause I really don't wanna share."

 


 

"What do you feel like for dinner?"  Alex asks after they've spent an entirely lazy day in bed, making out and having sex, going back and forth between naked and half dressed, the laptop alternately on the bed playing episodes of The Office and slid off the mattress onto Piper's open suitcase.  "My mom's off in a few hours, we can pick something up before she gets home." 

Piper thinks for a second.  "Or we could cook."  

Alex laughs lightly.  "Really?" 

"Yeah, why not?  I don't have a huge repertoire, but I know some stuff."  

"Don't mean to doubt you.  I've just only ever witnessed your microwave skills." 

They ride to the grocery store, and Piper spends the ride reciting her culinary specialties.  They decide on baked ziti, salad, and garlic bread, and at the cashier, Piper insists it's her treat. 

Alex frowns, uneasy at the firmness of the offer.  "Pipes, you know I have money.  Just because you've seen my place doesn't mean you have to suddenly pay for everything - "

"I know that," Piper gives her an impatient look.  "But I'm a guest, okay?  I want to impress your mom." 

Alex rolls her eyes, but she feels less defensive.  "She already likes you." 

"She hasn't actually met me yet, though.  Don't want to take any chances."  She rattles a box of pasta before adding it to the conveyor belt.  "Hence the food." 

Alex starts smiling in spite of herself.  She bites it back.  "I just hope the oven works.  Genuinely not sure if it's been used in the last year or two." 

Piper looks from the full bags of groceries to Alex, expression mildly horrified, and Alex can't help but laugh at her.

 


 

The oven works, fortunately.  Piper puts Alex on salad duty; "And garlic bread!," she insists cheerfully, like Alex is a five year old who won't catch onto the fact that her "job" is just lining frozen bread on a pan. 

Alex texts Diane an hour before her shift ends: don't bring home food, we got dinner covered.

Alex also puts herself in charge of music, and the kitchen fills up with Florence + the Machine.  Piper's wearing one of Alex's shirts and her own pair of bowling shoes, and she sings while she cooks. 

It all feels very adult and domestic, especially when Alex pours them both glasses of white wine and assures Piper her mother won't care.

After awhile headlights flood light through the trailer, and Alex glances out the window to watch her mom's shitty car pulling in beside Piper's gleaming new one, and for some reason that is what starts Alex's nerves jangling. 

Piper twists around from the stove and it looks like she's trying on different facial expressions, a quick succession of poised but nervous smiles.  Alex puts a hand between her shoulder blades, smiles reassuringly through her own anxiety. 

They probably look ridiculous, posed at the oven and staring at the door, but Diane makes everything easy, breezing into the door with a smile that's warm and safe.  "What the hell, kid, this doesn't smell like your takeout specialty."  Her eyes move to the kitchen and widen in hyperbolic surprise.  "We have an oven?  Since when?" 

They both laugh too much considering Alex made the same joke earlier, and then Diane's grin eases into something soft as she approaches Piper.  "Bout time we met in person, Pipe." 

"Hi, Ms - Diane."  Piper stumbles endearingly over the first name, and she awkwardly holds out a hand.  "Thanks for letting me stay." 

Diane waves away the handshake and pulls her in for a hug.  "None of that, Piper...we've texted enough, I think we're at this level."

Alex frowns.  "When did you text?

"Your concussion," they both answer, practically in sync, and Alex grins big at the sight of the two of them as her mom pulls away from Piper and winks.  "This smells fuckin' amazing.  Tell me you cooked it."

"Alex made the salad," Piper says loyally. 

"Well, feel free to stay and spoil me all summer...or at least until you can teach Al how to do this."  She pauses, looking at her daughter with smirking eyes.  "So, all summer." 

Piper laughs, and Alex meets her mom's eyes, feeling like a little kid on her rare good days at school, after a whole afternoon of waiting for Diane to get home so she could show off a red 100 on her spelling test or the one time she received an invitation to a birthday party.

Look, Mom, her eyes are saying, so damn pleased with herself and the way her life is right now, so eager to share it.  Look who picked me

The way Diane smiles back, all gentle and knowing, shows that she understands: her daughter is a heap of adoration for this girl, and that's the most important thing she needs to know.

 


 

The three of them sit close in the booth seat of the kitchenette, eating and drinking wine, and Alex's mom doesn't talk to them with the polite distance of a parent, but something about being around her mom still makes Alex seem younger.  She transforms unmistakably into a daughter, Diane's kid, all glowing adulation.  It feels like a welcome final piece to Piper knowing all of her. 

She can't imagine the reverse is true; there is nothing true Alex would learn from seeing Piper around her parents. 

She likes Diane a lot, though. She's pretty like Alex, funny and foul-mouthed and effortlessly welcoming, talking to Piper like they're old friends.  

After dinner, they move over to the living room, Alex and Piper on the couch, Diane in the recliner, and Diane smiles warmly at Piper and asks, "Pipe, did Alex show you what she got me for Christmas?" 

"I don't think so." 

Diane reaches behind the chair and grabs an acoustic guitar leaning against the wall.  "Hadn't touched one 'a these since high school, can you believe her?"  She looks at Alex and shakes her head in fond exasperation.   "Remember maybe three goddamn songs..."

"I printed you out so many tabs," Alex insists.

Diane starts strumming on the guitar; she doesn't sing, just quietly, barely hums, but after a moment Piper recognizes the song anyway, the Joni Mitchell one about clouds.  It shows up sometimes on Alex's quiet, study session playlists, and Piper always thought it seemed out of place with most of her music. 

She turns to Alex in recognition, and Alex fits herself against Piper's side, her smile settling into this heart snatching contentment that Piper can't look away from. 

 


 

Diane leaves around nine for a late night shift somewhere else, thanking Piper for the dinner a bunch of times and telling Alex, "You two take the bed tonight, kay babe?" 

When she's gone, Alex tilts a smile at Piper.  "She likes you."

Delight sweeps through her chest.  "Yeah?" 

"Mmm-hmmm."  Her hand is tangled up in Piper's hair, it feels so damn good.  Piper leans a little more of her weight against Alex and her eyes move over the guitar, now sitting in Diane's spot on the recliner.   There's something almost painfully sweet about Alex buying that for her mom. 

After awhile, Alex looks down at Piper and bites her lip.  "Hey.  I have your birthday present." 

Piper smiles, kind of can't believe there's more.  "Okay." 

Alex stands up, reaching behind some books and pulling out a small wrapped box. "I don't know if it's...I'm not really good at gifts."

Piper nods at the guitar.  "Your mom would probably disagree."

"Yeah, well.  She's easy.  She never buys anything just for herself."  She sits back on the couch.  "Anyway...here.  Happy birthday, Pipes." 

Alex's sixteenth birthday had fallen during the strange, awkward time between them, so Piper had just gone in on a Birthday Basket with the others, a mix of gag gifts (flasks disguised as tampons, a reusable solo cup, and a truly horrifying lollipop the packaging referred to as a "Pussy Licker"), and decent ones (a movie theater giftcard, a novel).  

So she's not sure what to expect here.  The box is so small, and her fingers tear almost nervously at the tight wrapping paper. 

Inside the small white box is a necklace: thin and delicate silver chain, and at the end, a deep red charm of Dorothy's ruby slippers. 

"Because of the first night we kissed," Alex explains needlessly. 

"Yeah..."  Piper breathes, her eyes tearing over for some stupid reason, because she already knows, that fast, that she's going to wear this every day, this tiny tribute to the best day of her life, and maybe it will make her as brave as she had been that night, brave as being with Alex makes her feel almost always.  "I love it, Alex."

She goes to put it on, and Alex reaches out to help.  "You do?"

She nods fervently, knocking Alex's hands off balance in her attempt to clasp the necklace, and they both laugh before Piper kisses her.

 


 

The next day they take Piper's car and switch off driving.  They stop at a shitty gas station and buy slushies and just set off directionless, blasting music and rolling down the windows, basking in summer freedom and each other. 

Piper stains her teeth and tongue Blueberry Blaster blue and winds her fingers around her necklace, smiling just to herself while Alex drives and drums her palms on the steering wheel.  Her singing is loud and terrible but the song is perfect.  

In the early afternoon Alex pulls the car over at the end of a narrow street surrounded by woods.  She twists around, critically surveying the backseat of Piper's car.  "Should have asked your parents for a roomier vehicle, Pipes.  We have a teenage rite of passage to complete, and this clown car's not gonna help."  

They manage anyway, and fifteen minutes later they're contorted between seats when Alex comes hard with Piper's fingers inside her.

 


 

Alex has to work that night, so Piper goes with her to the bowling alley.  "Don't wear your bowling shoes.  I'll rent you ones for free, but. Better not arouse suspicion." 

It's kind of funny, Alex in her black polo and a nametag, doing a job that doesn't mean providing illegal substances to the underage.  She tells Piper she can go bowl for free, but it's no fun by herself so she just stays close to Alex, bold and proud every time Alex introduces her to her mostly college aged coworkers as her girlfriend.

Spare Room Bowling Alley is obviously a very chill work environment, and no one cares that Piper sits on top of the counter Alex's whole shift, save for when Alex sends her over to the refreshment stand for free food.   They share a plate of disgustingly good cheese fries. 

It's a steady crowd, but Alex's job is pretty easy - renting out shoes, assigning lanes - and she still has more downtime than not.  They play Slap Jack and Speed on the counter beside the register, and Alex sighs loudly at customers who interrupt a game when she's winning. 

A group of teenagers around their age come in at about ten o'clock, five guys and three girls, and spread themselves out over two lanes.  Most of them give Alex nods or muttered hey's of recognition when she hands them their shoes, and it takes Piper a second to pick up to tightness of her jawline, a slight wariness in her eyes.  

It's all fine until the last girl gets her shoes and gives Alex a huge fake smile.  "Thanks so much, Pigsty." 

Alex keeps the neutral, bored employee expression set on her face until the girl turns, and then it slips away, her eyes narrowing in loathing. 

"Who the hell was that?"  Piper asks, already offended on Alex's behalf. 

"Jessica Wedge before there was Jessica Wedge,"  Alex mutters before turning to face her.  "Middle school mean girl." 

"Bitch," Piper declares feelingly.  She remembers what Alex had said to her after her soccer injury, when she'd claimed Janae had been mean to her, and offers, "Want me to go kick her ass?" 

That coaxes a grin out of Alex, but it quickly turns grim and determined, a wartime smile.  "Nah, I have other methods."   She nods for Piper to come stand beside her, in front of the main monitor.  She pulls up the scoring for the lane Mean Girl is on.  After a second, her name is entered in as the second bowler: Gabby.

It takes awhile, but Alex is patient, and in the third frame, Gabby gets a spare, resulting in audible squealing and cheers from their lane.  

Calmly, Alex erases the score.

They wait a second, eyes on the group, Gabby craning her neck up at the monitor.  "What the hell?"   

Piper smothers a laugh against Alex's shoulder, and Alex smirks but tells her, "Give it a second." 

Sure enough, Gabby comes stomping over.  "Yeah, hi, the little scoring thing isn't showing my spare." 

"Which lane are you on?"  Alex asks.

"Five."

"One second..."  Alex moves her eyes onto the monitor, the lane already pulled up.  She waits.  "Doesn't say that you've gone yet."

"Well, I did, and I got a spare." 

"Says it's your turn now, so if you just go bowl - "

"I'm not giving up those points!"

Alex makes an awkward sort of face.  "Is your Thursday night bowling score, like...super fucking important in your life?  For some reason?" 

Piper chokes back a laugh, and Gabby's eyes slide to her for the first time.  "Who are you?" 

She moves a little closer to Alex, still relishing the anonymity of all these strangers, as Alex answers, "She's my girlfriend.  From boarding school." 

Surprise and distaste flicker across the other girl's face.  "Look, can you fix my score or not?"

"Sorry."  Alex shrugs apologetically.  "It'd throw off everyone else's scoring.  You're just gonna have to re-roll."

Gabby scowls and flounces away in a huff. 

Alex grins.  "Hope she gets an actual strike at some point...though she'll probably start to suspect something after that." 

 


 

The bowling alley closes at eleven, and Alex and two other employees are assigned to close up, but after about half an hour of cleaning, Alex waves the others off early, saying she'll take care of the rest.

This is apparently common practice, because they only grin and tell her to have fun.

"There's a whole bag of tokens under the counter," says the hipster looking guy who's been manning the arcade station all night.  "Just know if you win tickets that way you can't redeem them for prizes."

"Sure thing, Chris," Alex calls after him as he leaves.  As soon as he's out of earshot, she turns to Piper.  "Screw that.  I'm winning you that giant giraffe, babe.  Not going home until I do." 

Piper laughs.  "Or we could just take it." 

"No way, Pipes.  I want to feel the rush of victory.  I just don't want to pay money for that rush."  She flashes a grin.  "So should we bowl a game?" 

They do.  Alex isn't great, considering the expertise implied by her job, but Piper is terrible.  Alex puts the bumpers up for her after the second frame of gutter balls, and by the halfway point starts letting Piper start halfway down the lane, laughing at her the whole time.  

There's one of those computerized jukeboxes, and Alex keeps feeding quarters from the refreshment stand tip jar into it and picking songs, so soon they're showing off and dancing on the lanes like idiots while Robyn plays.  They play two games, and Piper loses both spectacularly in spite of all the handicaps Alex offers. 

"Okay, arcade time," Alex declares when they're done.  "Maybe you can earn back some pride..." 

 


 

The bag of tokens under the prize counter turns out to be huge, so Alex grabs plastic cups from the refreshment stand and they duck them into the bag, filling them with coins. 

She's kind of serious about the giraffe, so Alex sticks to the machines with jackpots and big ticket wins for awhile, even though Piper keeps whining for her to stop and come play air hockey. 

But Alex is determined and hunched over one of those Cyclone games with the plastic dome, a light darting around in a circle while Alex poises her hand over the Storm Stopper button.  With the comforting knowledge that it's costing her nothing, Alex stays there playing for almost fifteen minutes until she finally succeeds in stopping the light between the jackpot arch.

Piper is unimpressed, so Alex cheers for herself and takes a video on her phone of the seemingly endless stream of tickets (456 total) spitting out of the machine. 

"Now will you come play me in air hockey?"

Alex raises an eyebrow.  "What is this?  Are you weirdly good at air hockey or something?"  She turns around, leaning back against the game and pulling Piper toward her.  "You know if you're some sort of air hockey champ, you have to tell me."

Piper huffs out a laugh.  "Why?  It's not like being a cop."

Alex feigns shock.  "Are you a cop?"

She smirks.  "How fucked would you be if I was?"

"Shit, you are, aren't you?  Jesus, Pipes, you're a total 21 Jump Street style narc!"  Grinning, Alex puts her hands on Piper's hips and pulls her even closer.  "Except you fell for me, the badass criminal, and I turned you onto the dark side of dorm room dealing." 

Piper's laughing over her, and she leans her forehead against Alex's and says, "Well, you better keep convincing me not to turn you in," just before Alex kisses her.

 


 

Piper crushes her in air hockey.

Three times.

 


 

Competition heats up after that.

Alex wins at the arcade basketball game:

"Not fair, you're taller than me."

"Whatever, the hoop's like six feet off the ground!"

But Piper dominates at skeeball:

"Do you want to maybe step up on the lanes, it might help you out to just drop them in." 

"Least I don't need bumpers." 

"Because you're terrible even without gutters."

They leave tickets trailing from just about every machine in the arcade, and Alex's visual estimate determines they probably have enough for the giant giraffe.  

That done, they give up the more competitive games and play Hit Me With Your Best Shot on the arcade version of Guitar Hero, and even though there aren't microphones they sing at the top of their lungs, and then Alex drags Piper over to Dance Dance Revolution. 

"I kinda can't believe we're not drunk right now," Alex laughs breathlessly after about three songs.  Piper grins at her and promptly leaves her half of the game, stepping between Alex's pink and blue arrows and pressing herself close while Alex leans around her to feed more tokens for another song.

Piper twines her arms around Alex's neck and they dance closer than they ever did at school dances to some bizarre remix of a Cher song.  Their score is terrible, and at some point Alex just leans against the arched poles on the back of the game and pulls Piper into her. 

She keeps slipping her hands under the hem of Piper's shirt, and she's thinking of pulling it off completely when Piper suddenly moves away, her face lit up with a wild sort of smile.  "Where do you wanna go to college?"

Confused, Alex makes a face.  "You sure know how to kill a mood, kid." 

Piper swats her arm, pushing her lower lip out, almost pouty.  "I'm serious, Alex.  What's your top pick?"

She sighs, impatient.  "You know I need a scholarship, Pipes.  So if I go...I gotta go wherever offers me money."

"You'll get a scholarship," Piper tells her, so damn confident.  "And listen...I wanna go where you go."  

A surprised laugh flutters out of Alex's throat, and she shakes her head a little.  "What?  Piper - "

"I mean it.  C'mon, Al, you got a full ride to Litch, your grades are awesome....you'll get a scholarship somewhere good."  Piper's eyes are big and roving Alex's face, searching for excitement.  She keeps talking, a rush of words and hope, "I don't know what I want to study anyway, so it's not like I'll be looking for schools with a specific program - "

"Pipes, it's still two years away -"

" - and I've never had a dream school in mind anyway.  But I know I wanna be with you."  She smiles crookedly, eyes shining with dreams and futures so bright and beautiful that Alex can feel a spark trying to catch in her own chest.  "C'mon.  What are we supposed to do?  Graduate and room with other people?  What fun would that be?" 

"You're right," Alex says softly, tucking a strand of Piper's hair behind her ear.  She likes following the thread of this conversation backwards; one moment they were dancing and making out in an empty bowling alley, and the next Piper's trying to secure their future.  Like she just had to stop and make sure they get to keep this.  "That would suck."

 


 

It's almost three in the morning when they drive home, the stuffed giraffe riding in the backseat of the car.  Piper drives, with Alex sitting in the passenger seat recklessly flinging herself down the rabbit hole Piper dug for them: past college dorms to off campus apartment buildings and holding Piper's hand on some green university quad, to diplomas and careers and maybe even Piper with a ring on her finger.  

For just a few minutes, driving empty open roads and Neko Case playing quiet on the radio and their hands tangled over the center console, everything seems breathlessly possible. 

 


 

Piper stays at Alex's for five days before her dad texts and asks - in that way that isn't really asking - when she's coming home.  Luckily, they've settled on a trip to Nicky's lake house in a few weeks, so leaving Alex doesn't have to feel that dramatic.

Her last night there, Diane works late again, and Piper and Alex make out on the couch for awhile, directionless and lazy, keeping their clothes on like it's some sort of challenge. 

Later, when they're curled around each other and flipping through the television without much luck, Alex suddenly stops and glances over at her with sudden purpose.  "Can I show you something?" 

Piper's not sure what that means, but she nods, and Alex moves away from her laptop and toward a shelf full of CDs surrounding an outdated CD/tape player. 

Alex grabs one and carefully takes the disc out before closing the case and bringing it over to Piper.

It's a 90's grunge band, one of those ones everyone's heard of because of one or two hit songs that persist even a few decades later.  Alex points at one of the long, stringy haired men on the band photo on the inside cover, the one holding drumsticks.  "So, that's my dad."

Piper gives Alex a startled look, stupidly blurting out, "Really?" 

All Piper knows about Alex's dad is that she's never met him, he and Diane weren't together very long when Diane was seventeen and got pregnant, and that Alex had sounded entirely casual when she told Piper that.

"Yeah.  He was the drummer.  Mom met him at a concert and he took her on tour for a few months."  Alex's voice is a strange mingling of pride and self consciousness. 

"You never told me,"  Piper says, kind of quiet. 

"Yeah, sorry.  I just..."  Alex laughs a little, embarrassed.  "I know it's kind of weird. Since I've never met him.  But Mom never makes it sound like he was a jerk or anything...I just don't think they were that serious.  She says it was so fucking cool on tour, though." 

"I bet," Piper murmurs absently, but she's not really sure how that works.  Mainly the part where Diane has at least two different jobs and lives in a trailer park even though Alex's dad was some rich famous rock star.

With, if Piper's remembering I Love the 90's correctly, some sort of drug problem.

Alex goes back to the CD player and turns on a song.  "I don't listen to them much anymore, honestly, but I loved this one when I was a kid.  Dad wrote it, actually..."

Something about that, the way she says Dad like he's a person she knows, pangs hard in Piper's chest.

Alex settles back on the couch beside her, and Piper plays absently with her hair.  There's a feeling scratching at the walls of her chest that reminds her of that day at Alex's soccer game, her on the field looking small and hurt, nothing Piper could do to stop it.

She presses her lips to the top of Alex's head, and Alex tilts her neck to smile at her, fastening her hand to Piper's chin and easing her down to kiss.  Piper pulls away after just a few moments of that, smiling sheepish.  "Um, I don't know if I can make out with you with your, uh, father's band playing." 

Alex laughs. "Good call.  That's kinda just asking for therapy." 

 


 

Text Message, Monday, 2:51 pm

PIPER
[Hey just got home.]

ALEX
[Thanks for texting.]
[Miss me yet?]

PIPER
[No.]
[But Neck does.  He's being a total baby about it.]

ALEX
[You named the giraffe Neck?]

PIPER
[Cute right?]

ALEX
[Wrong.]
[Sounds like the name of a gangster in a bad mob movie]
[Like one who strangles people.]

PIPER
[Shit.]
[It does.]

 


 

Group Text Message, ten days later

NICKY
[Vause you're in charge of booze etc. for this trip right?]

ALEX
[I figured all your residences would be stocked with wine cellar/liquor cabinet/etc]
[i.e. basic amenities]

NICKY
[Possible but mother's preferred the beach house for years, not even sure the last time anyone checked the lake.]

JANAE
[Shit why aren't WE going to the beach house]
[Lake water's nasty]

POUSSEY
[You saying the oceans clean???]

NICKY
[Beach house is in a resort area where the security actually gives a shit]
[they bust parties constantly]
[Lake house there's a ton of private property, no one will bother us]

PIPER
[Is it just me or does that sound like the beginning of a horror movie]

ALEX
[100%]
[No one around for miles....]
[to hear our screams]

PIPER
[lol]

JANAE
[at least your girlfriend laughs at your jokes]

NICKY
[hahahaha]

ALEX
[and at least NICKY laughs at yours]
[I feel like you have more to be embarrassed about]

NICKY
[are you bringing booze or not asshole]

ALEX
[Fine I'll save the day as always]

POUSSEY
[And none of those jacked up prices]

ALEX
[I don't jack up prices for you guys]
[...much]

 


 

Nicky's family lake house is the expected level of luxury, a sprawling house with a stone exterior for a faux rustic look, floor to ceiling glass windows, a wraparound porch, six bedrooms plus a fully finished walkout basement that leads outside and right down to the pier.  The front of the house not facing the lake is surrounded by trees, giving it the feel of a private hideaway, while the backyard includes a boathouse that's bigger than Alex's whole trailer. 

"There's one bedroom in the basement," Nicky announces when they walk in.  "I'm assigning that to Mister and Missus Comes-Alot." 

Alex raises an eyebrow in mock offense.  "Mister?"

"That's incredibly hetero-normative, Nicky," Piper informs her primly, cracking everyone but Nicky up.

"I was going for pithy, but fine...The Missus Comes-Alots can sleep in the basement so we don't have to hear them."   

"Good call," Janae mutters.  

 


 

That night, Alex lifts her head from between Piper's legs, wet lips crooking into a mischievous smirk.  "Feel free to be as loud as possible."

 


 

The next day passes in a good seven or eight hour haze of sunburned summer glory. 

They take the jet skis out and Piper presses against Alex's back, arms tight and trusting around her waist, both of them sticky with sunscreen and sweat, hair thick and stringy from lake water.  They swap places so Piper can drive; her hair's twisted up on top of her head, so Alex leans forward and sucks a slow, patient hickey into the side of her throat that makes Piper giggle and hum.

They have beers that turn lukewarm too quickly, drinking lightly but steadily throughout the day so the buzz is a constant hum in their blood, pleasant and sloshing like the lake water.  They line drinks up along the very edge of the pier and turn Marco Polo into a drinking game, somehow. 

When they get out of the water and pad into the house, trailing wet footprints into the kitchen to make sandwiches for lunch, Piper touches a finger to Alex's shoulder, pressing a pale white circle amid the pink.  "You're already kinda burning, make sure to reapply before we go out."

Poussey lets out a throaty, scoffing laugh.  "Y'all sound like an elderly couple on a retirement cruise."  

Nicky flicks the side of Piper's neck, making her yelp.  "Yet Chapman's hickey is straight outta middle school." 

Back outside, Nicky attaches an inflatable raft about forty feet behind one of the jet skis and they take turns driving and being dragged, two at a time.  Piper's half on top of Alex on the raft when it's their turn, and at one point Janae cuts the jet ski too sharp and Piper's hands grip on the slippery skin of Alex's back, scrambling for something to cling, too, and she ends up nearly pulling her bikini top down. 

Alex smirks sideways at her.  "Sneaky."

They all share a joint mid-afternoon, and afterwards Piper and Alex slip under the pier, making out slow and stoned between slits of light filtering through the wood, all spinning ebb and flow, kissing and being kissed, until the others, in an obviously coordinated move, start stomping their feet directly above them. 

 


 

No one can decide on a movie to watch during dinner, everyone's film taste clashing too much, so they end up deliberately picking a terrible one, pulling up Netflix on the giant flatscreen and scrolling through the horrible made for television rom coms.  They pick some ABC Family Christmas thing, and make up a drinking game as they go, drinking wine one sip at a time, so everyone's pretty drunk by the time they head to the basement.

The bedroom Piper and Alex are sharing is set off to the side of a huge game room, equipped with yet another flatscreen monstrosity, pool and ping pong tables, a poker table, and a closet full of games.  They take the net off the ping pong table and set up pyramids of solo cups.  Alex and Piper prove an adept beer pong team, defeating every combination of Nicky, Poussey, and Janae.  They're all sore losers, Janae especially, and so they vote a switch to flip cup just because they know Alex sucks at it.  

Later, they peruse the game closet, with a tacit understanding that it's probably time to take a break from drinking - or, at least, game mandated drinking - and pull out a Twister mat.  The five of them rotate in and out, one person always on spinner.  The game Alex is spinning ends up with Piper crab sprawled across the mat, and "Left hand on yellow" puts Nicky's hand right between Piper's knees.  She makes a poor attempt at wiggling her eyebrows at Alex.  "Get over here and join us, Vause, and the three of us could have a real party." 

Stone faced, Alex intones severely, "Left hand on blue."

"You didn't even spin." 

"Fine."  She flicks the spinner, waits for it to stop.  "Ooh, player specific.  Pipes, right foot in Nicky's face."

Twister ends shortly after that.

Janae brought a set of Jenga with her, and when she breaks it out Nicky nods at the well stocked game closet.  "Pretty sure we have that."

"Not like this you don't," she insists, tossing a tiny wooden block at Nicky.  They all crowd around to see what she means: it's Sharpie scrawled with Dare: blindfolded shot. 

Turns out the whole set marked, so when they build up the Jenga tower, whichever block is pulled out during a turn has a truth or dare.  Nicky and Poussey are on the couch, Janae, Piper and Alex on their knees on the carpet, surrounding the coffee table where the tower looms. 

Alex goes first, pulling out a block from the bottom marked Dare: Kiss Someone in the circle.

Everyone groans.  "Like we don't see enough 'a that,"  Janae gripes. 

Alex smirks, turning to meet Piper's gaze right beside her.  She's been drunk and handsy for the last hour, not even in a particularly suggestive way, just seeking constant contact, hand gliding absently across Alex's forearm, or gently walking her fingers the length of Alex's spine, sometimes just pulling at her shirt for no reason at all. 

Alex leans toward Piper, but swerves at the last second and ostentatiously grabs Janae's face in her hands.  Poussey and Nicky whoop in delight, and Janae shrieks and squirms away from her so Alex's lips collide quite forcibly with her cheek.

When she pulls back, smirking smugly, Piper's the only one not laughing, her face folded in an adorably grumpy expression, and Alex eases her smirk into a smile and hooks a finger around the neck of Piper's T-shirt.  "Bonus," she murmurs with a wink before pulling her in for a real kiss, keeping it up despite the ensuing boos until she feels Piper laugh against her lips. 

Poussey brings the tower down with a block labeled Dare: Act out giving birth, but they declare her more winner than loser for her masterful performance, sunk into the back couch cushions with her legs in the air, screaming out a litany of obscenties at an imaginary father - "FUCK YOU DARIUS!!! FUCK YOU AND YOUR PENIS FOR UNLEASHING THIS HELL!!!"  - until they're all cracking up.  Piper's slumped into Alex's side, boneless from laughter, and Nicky sloshes half her beer onto the couch and flings what's left at Janae for making fun of her, and for a second Alex feels bowled over by how much she loves these idiots. 

 


 

"Truth or dare, Pipes," she asks later, dizzy and drunk and rolling her hips down against Piper's, pinning her tighter to the bed.

Piper licks her lips, eyes bright and gleeful.  "Dare," she answers, correctly.

Alex grins, takes her wrists and pins them above her head.  "No hands." 

 


 

"Truth or dare," Piper whispers even later still.

"Truth," Alex says softly.  She's plastered against Piper's side, the two of them taking up twin sized space even in the queen sized bed. 

It takes Piper awhile to follow up, like she didn't even have anything in mind.  Finally, she just asks, "What are you thinking about?" 

Alex smiles into her collarbone.  "Thinking that I love you," she tells her, the words like a sigh, just on the edge of sleep.  "I'm always thinking that." 

Chapter Text

Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold.

Stay Gold //  First Aid Kit

 


 

 

Text Message, Saturday, 11:52 am

ALEX
[Morning sunshine]

PIPER
[I'm literally having lunch right now]

ALEX
[And I just woke up]
[Time of day is all a matter of perspective]

PIPER
[Brilliant logic]

ALEX
[You guys left yet?]

PIPER
[No, dad's still loading the car...and get this, major drama]
[Danny and Polly broke up]

ALEX
[WHAT]
[Who dumped who??]

PIPER
[Guess]

ALEX
[Poor Polly.]

PIPER
[Exactly.]
[She's already called me crying]

ALEX
[Ah geez]

PIPER
[I feel kinda bad for her.  They've been together for like a year and a half]
[He pulled the whole 'it's my senior year may as well split up now' thing]

ALEX
[Fuck college gets a lot of people out of relationships]
[In this case, conveniently the day before he leaves to meet Hotties In The Hamptons]

PIPER
[He did flirt with a lot of girls last year.]

ALEX
[YOU better not be looking for a vacation fling]

PIPER
[This isn't even my idea of a vacation.]
[My vacation fling was you at the lake house.]

ALEX
[So I'm a fling now?]

PIPER
[Shut UP you always ruin my banter.]

 


 

Text Message, Monday, 10:20 pm

POLLY
[Hey Pipe what's up]

PIPER
[Not too much.  How are you?]

POLLY
[Everything just really sucks right now.]

PIPER
[I know.  I'm sorry.]

POLLY
[Has he said anything to you?]

PIPER
[Not really.  You know Danny and I don't really 'share']

POLLY
[I just don't understand why NOW.]
[Like he visited two weeks ago and we were FINE.]
[We were just US.  Like always.]
[And to do it like this, I don't even feel like I get the chance talk to him about it.]
[To really understand.]

PIPER
[Yeah, that's tough.]
[School starts back in a couple weeks, maybe you can meet up to talk then.]

POLLY
[Maybe.  If he even wants to.]
[Do you think maybe I could come visit YOU?]
[Would that be weird?]
[Sorry, that was dumb.  Forget it.]

PIPER
[I just don't want to seem like I'm getting in the middle of it, you know?]
[He is my brother.]

POLLY
[And even you think this is crazy right?]

PIPER
[I think he owes you more of an explanation, yeah.]

POLLY
[I'm sorry.  I shouldn't put you in the middle you're right.]
[I'm just kind of a mess right now and I don't know who else to talk to]

PIPER
[what about Jessica and those guys?  You haven't told them?]

POLLY
[They saw it on facebook.  But you know Jess, she borderline flirted with Danny all the time.]
[She doesn't care.]

PIPER
[Right.]
[I'm sorry Pol.  Wish I could be more helpful.]

POLLY
[You've been great already.]
[Just tell me...is he even sad?]

PIPER
[Oh for sure.  He definitely seems off]

 


 

"Hello?"

"I'm a terrible lying person."

"Summer salutations to you too, cheery.  Jesus."

"Polly keeps texting me about Danny." 

"Ew.  Like wanting you to spy?" 

"She doesn't come out and say it, but probably."

"And what would be in the report?"

"Not that I'd give it to her, but.  He met some girl on the beach on Sunday and is currently off at a bonfire with her."

"Yeah, I wouldn't pass that along."  

"He really is such an ass.  They've been together for that long, she's a crying wreck and he's off sewing wild oats." 

"Euphemistically speaking."

"Gross.  But, seriously.  Do boys our age just have no emotional depth?"

"Wouldn't know, babe.  Enough about them.  How's your day?  Sneaking off to any bonfires?"

"God, no.  Mostly just lying on the beach and going through the summer reading list."

"I hate you."

"Do not.  You still haven't started?"

"Nope."

"Al!"

"Pipes." 

"We're back in like two weeks."

"I know, I've got a countdown on my phone." 

"Aw.  That's so lame."

"Sure, asshole, like you don't have one."

"Duh.  But we know I'm lame.  For some reason, your reputation still suggests otherwise."

"I save the lameness for you, Pipes.  Be flattered." 

"Sixteen days." 

"My countdown includes hours and minutes."

"Mine, too, but I can't look when I'm on the phone with you."

"Fair point."

"I'm so ready to go back.  I miss our room."

"Our room, huh?" 

"And our bed..." 

"Mmm-hmm."

"And you." 

"I miss you, too, Pipes." 

"I wish you were here."

"Me, too.  Well, kinda.  Your parents didn't seem to like me as much last time." 

"Don't take it personally, my mom doesn't approve of tattoos.  On anyone.  The school uniform hid them the first time you met."

"There was also the cursing thing."

"One slip up was better than I was expecting from you, to be honest."

"I treasure your faith in me."

...

...

"I should probably go."

"Hang up on me to text Polly, I see how it is."

"Right.  I'm just tired."

"Uh-huh, I hear days at the beach take a lot out of you."

"You laugh, but heat exhaustion is a real thing."

"Fine, go to bed.  Keep me updated on the Polly gossip.  I wasn't very invested in their relationship, but I'm enjoying how fraught the split has been."

"Now I'm imagining you just like...settling in with popcorn to read my texts about it."

"Basically.  I wish you could have live texted the fight."

"It was over the phone."  

"Oh, well."

...

"I'll let you go.  Night, Pipes."

"Night.  I'll call you tomorrow."  

"Love you, babe."   

"I love you, too.  Bye." 

"Who were you talking to?" 

Piper whips around, the warmth in her chest evaporating instantly, her pulse launching into overdrive as she sees Cal smirking at her from the front door of the beach house.  She'd been sitting on the porch steps on the phone with Alex, and now Cal is giving her triumphant, 'caught ya!' sort of look that chills her insides.

"I, um..."  There's no lie that makes sense, and she can feel the pause growing too long.  "It was Alex." 

She's all ready with an explanation - that they always say it, half as a joke, it's just the way girls are friends, nothing like that - but Cal doesn't seem to need it.  As soon as he hears her roommate's name, boredom and disappointment wipe the smugness off his face, his scoop lost.  "Oh.  Thought you had some secret boyfriend or something."

It is, objectively, a huge relief, but Piper frowns anyway. 

She knows the way she says love to Alex: soft but so full, like the word has a heartbeat.  It is nothing like how she says it to anyone else, even her family.  It is not the way she'd say it to a friend. 

Is the idea of her Alex together really so crazy that it never even crosses Cal's mind as a possibility?  Not even a tiny flare of suspicion?

She's been to Alex's place a lot this summer, but Alex came to stay at the Chapman's a few times, too; the very first visit, Piper had been jumpy and anxious anytime they weren't alone, like she needed to shed her own skin to hide the way she glows around Alex. 

It feels so obvious.  But no one in her family suspects a thing, not even Danny, who at the very least knows Alex likes girls. 

Piper should just count herself lucky, really.  It's not like she wants them to suspect the truth. 

But it makes her uneasy, proving just how far from the realm of possibility the truth is to her family.

 


 

"That's everything, kid," Diane says, setting Alex's backpack down on the bed.  Her eyes move to Piper's side of the dorm room.  "Pipe close?  I'll stick around and say hi if she is."

"They might still be awhile," Alex tells her, closing the closet door behind a duffel bag full of contraband before turning back to her mom.  "Her younger brother's starting at Overbrook so they were heading there first." 

"Did the other brother graduate?" 

"Nah, Danny's a senior."  Alex climbs up on Piper's bed and stretches out across the mattress without bothering to take off her shoes, her eyes fondly roaming the familiar posters on Piper's walls.

Diane smirks a little.  "Which bed do you guys sleep in?"

"We just kinda alternate." 

"Never thought of pushing them together?"

"RA does room checks.  Pretty sure if they got suspicious we wouldn't be allowed to room together anymore."  Which, actually, is a perk of Piper's selective closetedness.  "Dudes aren't even allowed inside the dorms when they visit, so.  Don't think Red's down with any sort of sex.  Her poor husband."

Diane snickers at that.  "Smartass."  She gestures for Alex.  "Alright, babe, come give me a hug.  I gotta hit the road." 

Alex's own smile fades as she slides obediently off the bed; she hates this part.  Diane opens her arms and hugs her hard, and like always Alex thinks of the empty, empty trailer back home and wants to apologize for being back here.  More than that, this year especially, she wants to apologize for being so excited about it. 

She feels a pang of regret for the end of summer, where there were full weeks she had Piper all to herself, every minute of the day, and still got to be waiting for her mom at the end of it. 

"I love ya, kid."  Her mom draws back to smile at her, and her voice is easy and cheerful, like she can sense Alex starting to tangle herself up in guilt and wants to stop it.  "And don't forget to lemme know when you get a game schedule.  I wanna try to get down to Burton this time," she tells her, referring to an opponent school slightly closer to Alex's hometown.

"I'll tell you next semester, Mom, you don't need to take off work for a fucking exhibition game."

"No offense, babe, but I couldn't give less of a shit what kind of game it is.  I just wanna see you play, yeah?" 

"Okay.  Text me when you get home." 

"Will do."  She kisses the top of Alex's head and winks.  "Be good, Al."

"I always am." 

"Yeah, yeah." 

"Love you."

"Love you, too.  Tell Pipe I said hey." 

"I will." 

Then she's gone, and Alex lays back down on Piper's bed and thinks about this time last year, when Piper was just a stranger picking through Alex's books wearing a full school uniform, until she feels better. 

She puts on her headphones and stays where she is, half falling asleep to music until she feels a hand on her arm.  Alex slits her eyes open to see Piper, leaning over her and smiling sideways, her eyes bright and familiar. 

Alex grins.  "Welcome home." 

 


 

About a month into the new semester, their class officers - elected at the end of last year - call a meeting of the whole junior class, around fifty girls clustered in the dorm basement. 

Piper and Alex sit with Nicky, Poussey and Janae in a corner of the room, practically underneath the ping pong table.  Alex is sprawled out on her stomach, Piper absently braiding a section of her hair and talking to Poussey over Alex's prostrate form.

"So do know what this about?"

"The upper classes get part of the social budget every year to throw some kinda bonding thing.  Usually just a G-rated party with pizza or something."

"I don't see any pizza."

"This is probably just to announce it.  There's always some lame ass theme we'll have to dress up for." 

"Pass," Alex puts in, half muffled against the carpet.  She turns her face, cutting her eyes toward Nicky.  "Speaking of parties, Nichols, I need a liquor store run soon." 

Nicky was the only one of them to get a parking spot in the junior lottery (a coincidence Janae is strongly suspicious of it, given Nicky's status as Red's favorite), and Alex plans to make Nicky's car her sole transportation for product acquisition.

"Only when we figure out my compensation." 

Alex scowls.  "Like you need it."  She cuts her eyes over, sees Nicky's unwavering expression.  "Fine, I'll start charging you face value."

Janae pops up from the carpet at that.  "You said you were already charging us face value." 

"Yeah, sure, J, what kinda good business sense is that?"  

"Bet Piper pays face value," Janae grumbles. 

Alex catches her eyes and winks, while Piper wrestles her face into a disapproving expression. 

"Okay, everybody, let's get started!"  Molly, the chipper junior class president, claps her hands for attention.  Vice-president Jessica Wedge stands beside her with a smugly bored expression. Alex rolls her eyes, reaching up to unwind the loose braid in her hair - she doesn't mind Piper doing it, but always refuses to leave it in.

"So you know the tradition is to have a party for class bonding at the beginning of junior year...but since there are already so many dorm socials that include us all anyway, we decided to do something a little different."  Beaming, Molly nods at Jessica, who reaches for a box on the couch and pulls out a small, green plastic Nerf gun, still in the packaging.  "So we're going to play a little game of....Assassins." 

Janae visibly perks up, whispering "Oh, hell yeah." under her breath, but no one else has much of a reaction. 

Alex makes a soft scoffing sound, muttering to Piper, "So they spent the whole party budget on dollar store guns?"

As if they could hear her, Molly adds, "Some seniors did it a few years ago, and it lasted about two weeks....at the end, there will be one winner who will receive a very special prize...we're keeping it a secret, but it's valued at almost three hundred dollars." 

This causes a palpable uptick of interest in the room, and Molly smiles in satisfaction before going on to explain the game set up, which are surprisingly complex. 

Everyone will get a Nerf gun and another student as their target.  There's a facebook page to keep track of who's still in the game, and any student who gets 'killed' by their target has to text the class treasurer, who's apparently in charge of updating it. 

Alex sits up at one point and nudges Piper's elbow with her own, nodding amusingly at Janae and her avid attention as Molly goes over specific rules: class time and official school activities like practices or rehearsals are forever off limits, while buildings like the dining hall, libraries, academic buildings and dorms will start off as safe zones, with the bans gradually lifting as the number of active players drops. 

Jessica moves gingerly around the crowded room passing out the Nerf guns, with four yellow foam suction darts in each pack; she tosses Alex's unceremoniously at her still prostrate form, and Piper has to reach out and snatch it mid-air before it hits her in the head. 

Poussey's already ripping hers out of the pack, experimentally loading a dart in and brushing her finger on the trigger.  "So, what we thinkin'?  Alliance?"

"Fuck no," Janae scoffs.  "We don't know what target we're gonna get.  I'll kill any a'you bitches."

"Your wartime loyalty is beautiful," Nicky mutters.

Something hits the side of Piper's head.  She turns around just in time to see Alex flicking another dart in her direction, bouncing off her nose. 

Nicky lets out a groan.  "God, please let me get assigned to kill you two."

 


 

"Where's Janae?" Piper asks the next morning when Nicky shows up in the dining hall for breakfast alone.

Rolling her eyes, Nicky plunks her tray down between Alex and Poussey.  "She wouldn't leave with me."   Piper understands instantly; Assassins officially starts today, and at the moment the only acceptable shooting locations are outdoors and off campus.   "She's figuring out..."  Nicky's voice turns mocking, a poor attempt at channeling her roommate's.  "Discreet routes around campus." 

Poussey points a finger.  "Don't do imitations of other races.  Just a pro tip."  Alex and Piper laugh as Nicky's face reddens, but Poussey's gaze slides past them.  She smiles in the direction of another table, full of her fellow volleyball players.  "Hey, I'mma go over there for a few minutes." 

"Is it cause Nicky's racist?"  Alex asks as Poussey smirks and takes her tray. 

"More cause she wants to flirt with that freshmen," Nicky mutters as soon as Poussey's out of earshot, referring to Brook Soso, who Poussey's gotten friendly with the first few weeks of the season.  

Piper glances at her, surprised, while Alex throws her a look.  "Shut up."

"Wait, she like girls?"  Piper says in an undertone, the heat rising to her cheeks the moment she says it.  She's been friends with Poussey for a year, and it's only just now occurring to her that she's never heard her so much as mention a crush on anyone else. 

She's embarrassed she'd just assumed that meant Poussey was straight. 

"We don't know that," Alex says, a note of admonishment in her voice directed at Nicky. 

"Wellll," Nicky counters.  "We kinda do."

"Not your place to say," Alex tells her calmly, rolling her eyes at Piper. 

"What up, losers?"  Janae drops her tray in Poussey's vacant spot.  Her Nerf gun is visibly stuffed into the waist of her skirt. 

Alex grins.  "Shot anyone yet?"

"Haven't had a chance.  Y'all?" 

They all shake their heads.  Piper's got her Nerf gun in her bag, along with the folded piece of paper with her target's name (Felicia Montez, who's in her second and fifth period classes today).  Alex is fairly disinterested in the competition, and next to Janae anyone's intensity would pale in comparison, but Piper's been secretly strategizing herself.

It'd been kind of awesome to win.

"Alex," she says suddenly, nudging their knees together and dropping her voice to an unnecessary whisper.  "Look."

Alex follows her gaze to her own target, Meredith O'Grady, moving out of the dining hall with her roommate.  "Oh, yeah."

"Go you can catch her before she gets to another building." 

Alex's eyes flare as she smiles, touching Piper's leg under the table.  "Fine.  But only to impress you."  She slings her bag over her shoulder, unzipping the front pocket where her Nerf gun is stored.  "Be back."

Piper twists around her chair, grinning to herself as she watches Alex speed walk across the dining hall after Meredith.

Janae flicks her on the arm.  Hard.  "Ow!  Jesus, what?"

Dead serious, Janae informs her, "You're not supposed to know anyone else's targets.  Even your girlfriend's." 

 


 

Alex slides back into her chair three minutes later, proudly displaying an envelope with a brand new target.  She grins, hooking her ankles around the legs of Piper's chair, tugging it close to her own.  "Target vanquished, m'lday.  All in your honor."

Piper smiles back, leaning close to her.  "Guess I'll have to reward you later." 

Alex's grin turns wolfish.  "See, I like that motive better than the three hundred dollar prize."

Behind them, Nicky holds her Nerf gun under her chin and dramatically clicks the plastic trigger.  Janae sighs, long suffering.  "You can't have that out in here.  We're in a safe zone."

"Don't be bitchy to me just cause Vause killed someone before you did." 

Janae's face freezes at that realization, then quickly turns stony and determined.  "I'll have two dead by lunch.  Fuckin' make a note." 

 


 

Though it's early in the semester to make a definitive call, but so far, in a shocking twist, drama has actually become Alex's favorite class of the day.  It's one of only three classes she has with Piper, and now that junior year has hit, Ms. Rogers holds frequent classes in the auditorium, which gives it the feel of a barely chill hangout.  

Alex also enjoys catching Piper's eye in the middle of 'performances' and flicking her gaze suggestively up to the catwalk where they first kissed.  Every time it makes Piper smile, blush, and touch her fingers almost unconsciously to the ruby slippers charm of her necklace.

They've started the year with a Shakespeare unit, and after a week of mere play discussion that felt more like being in an English class, they've been doing scene work, spread around the auditorium reading lines in groups of two. 

Alex's tendency to view this as a flirtation opportunity really clashes with Piper's rigorous academic work ethic, so that's been pretty fun, too. 

But today, day one of Assassins, they have to actually perform in front of everyone, which is and has always been Alex's least favorite part of drama.  

After reading both, half the class has been working with Much Ado About Nothing while the other half handles The Taming of the Shrew.  Piper and Alex have been (with varying focus) practicing the latter, and are the third pair to get called up to do their scene.

Piper is reading Katherine, with Alex taking the male lead Petruchio; after two years taking drama at an all-girls school, everyone's used to girls performing all the roles, including romantic ones, but Alex can't help but be pleased by Piper's complete lack of hesitation in picking their scene, especially with Polly in the class. 

And, okay, it's been kind of fun seeing how far Piper can get into the reading without blushing. 

Today, though, she's focused and committed to the role, so to have any fun at all, Alex is forced to step up from her usual drama class method of underacting and actually try.

"Thou hast hit it," Alex reads out, the words clunky and awkward in her mouth; she never really adapts to the Shakespearean language.  She smirks, then, waggling her eyebrows.  "Come sit on me."

A few soft giggles ripple through the class.  Alex watches Piper bite her lip for a second before saying, loud and full of overdone snark.  "Asses are made to bear, and so are you." 

Alex reads the next line silently to herself, abruptly deepening her voice and spontaneously taking on a mocking douche bro cadence.  "Women are made to bear, and so are you."

More laughter, including Piper's for a split second before she smooths her expression back into character; Alex never did that voice in rehearsal - mainly because she never really cared about rehearsals. 

"No such jade as you, if me you mean." 

Alex keeps going with the douche persona, which sounds particularly hilarious with all the thou and arts.  It's pretty fitting, anyway; Petruchio does seem like an asshole.

It has the class giggling throughout the scene, and she can see Piper's eyes sparkling with laughter even as she valiantly makes it through without breaking. 

Only after a few minutes, when Alex dips her voice into a bit too familiar territory on the line, "Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed.does Alex catch a bit of discomfort leak into Piper's eyes, her gaze darting worryingly to their audience.  Alex takes a step back, instinctively going bigger and broader with her recitation, even more obviously playing for laughs until Ms. Rogers finally cuts them off, chuckling a little when she does.

"Okay, that'll do, ladies."  She smiles. "Piper, you've got a great grasp on the language, and Alex...interesting interpretation.  It's nice to see such effort from you."  She leads the class in obligatory applause as Alex and Piper take their seats in the front two rows with the class.  "Suzanne, Maureen...you're up next."

Alex tunes out the next scene, propping a notebook on knees and scrawling out a note before poking Piper in the arm with her pencil to draw her attention to the page.

Proud of me for making an effort?  More rewards tonight?

Piper smirks but doesn't answer, pointedly moving her eyes back to the stage and affecting an expression of concentration.

Alex hurriedly writes out something else, then pokes Piper harder. 

In thy bed?

Piper's body jerks with a quickly suppressed laugh.  Alex flips her notebook shut, pleased with herself. 

 


 

Poussey's back at their table for lunch, though predictably Janae isn't there; Piper had the last class before the period with her, and Janae had stayed firmly in her seat after the bell rang, pointedly waving Piper away.  She'd stayed in the dining hall after the official end of breakfast, too, and has apparently taken to sprinting between buildings at the last possible moment to avoid ambush.

So they've already been eating for nearly ten minutes before she comes in, stopping by their table before she even goes through the line for food, slamming a sealed envelope down in front of Alex and speaking mainly to her when she announces, "Two kills this morning.  Just the fuck like I said!"

Alex wrinkles her nose.  "I didn't challenge you, psycho."

Nicky eyes her roommate pointedly.  "And how many classes have you been late for?"

"One.  Just made the bell for the others.  Suck it."   Smiling smugly, she heads off, leaving her bag at the table but carrying the envelope protectively with her.   

"She scares me,"  Poussey states flatly.  

"You got a plan yet, Pipes?"  Off Piper's surprised look, Alex smirks. "Oh, c'mon, I saw that steely glint in your eye when you got your target."

"I may be planning something for before tennis practice."  

"So sinister.  It's kinda hot." 

"Felicia's never gonna see me coming."

Poussey straightens up and, in perfect Janae cadence, intones, "Don't tell anyone your target, you're ruining the integrity of the game!"  As Alex and Piper laugh, she gives Nicky a significant look.  "See, I can do the impression." 

"Lesson learned, geez." 

Janae rejoins them, then, and when the lunch period ends, she actually gets up to leave when the rest of them do. 

They've gotten three steps out of the dining hall when Janae calmly shoots a dart into Nicky's arm, then without missing a beat holds out her palm.  "Target, please?" 

Alex, Piper, and Poussey crack up, howling with laughter while Nicky stares at Janae with her mouth hanging open.  "You bitch."

Janae waggles her fingers impatiently.  "Target."  

Muttering expletives to herself, Nicky rummages in her back for her envelope, while Alex gives Janae an admiring look.  "Fuck, J, why didn't you warn us so we could film that?  I would have watched it every day for the rest of my life." 

"Integrity of the game," Poussey reminds her.

Nicky slams a new envelope into Janae's hand and the group starts moving again.  Piper lilts slightly into Alex's side, glancing habitually around to check for other assassinations in progress - she saw five this morning between classes - and nearly slams into Janae's back when the other girl stops walking suddenly.

"Fuck, Nick, now I don't even feel bad about killing you."

Poussey snorts.  "You didn't feel bad in the first place."

Janae ignores her, waving the piece of paper holding her new target's name in front of Alex.  "Cause I'm a better friend than Nicky, I'm making you an offer:  you want to trade with me." 

Piper leans close to read the name, a slow grin creeping across her face as she does.  She flicks her eyes up and meets Janae's.  "Nice."

Janae is holding a piece of paper with Jessica Wedge written on it.  Alex's expression is skeptical, and she's not making a move to take it, so Piper accepts it for her.  "Al, this is perfect.  You'd get to eliminate her from a game she helped come up with." 

"I dunno, I'm not exactly playing very aggressively."

Piper sighs impatiently.  "You can muster some aggression for Jessica."

Loudly, Janae clears her throat.  "Uh, could ya just accept the good deed and give me your target?  I don't like being out in the open like this." 

"Fine."  Alex rolls her eyes.  She hands over her own envelope, giving Janae an almost sarcastic, "Thanks." 

Janae smirks in response, then takes off sprinting for one of the academic buildings, calling over her shoulder, "Don't forget to text that you're eliminated, Nick!"

"Sleep with one eye open tonight, asshole." 

 


 

Piper and Alex sprawl out on Alex's bed that night in front of her laptop, open to the official facebook page for the game, checking out who got eliminated - including Felicia, whom Piper took out by hiding by the dorm entrance between her last class and tennis practice.

"That's like a fourth of the class just today," Alex observes.  "How the hell is this supposed to take over a week?"

"I bet today just got rid of everyone who doesn't care." 

"And yet somehow I survived."

Piper lays down and rolls onto her side, grinning up at Alex.  "You had to survive to take out Jessica Wedge once and for all.  It's your purpose."

"I don't know if a dart to the throat is a permanent solution to bitchiness, Pipes." 

"And yet you've already picked out where to aim." 

Alex's lips curl slowly.  "Fine.  I wanna shoot her." 

Piper hooks a finger around Alex's T-shirt and pulls her in for a kiss, just because.  She stays close when she murmurs, "You know what I want?"

"Me?"

"Yeah, but besides that." 

Alex presses a smile along Piper's jawline.  "Tell me."

"I wanna win."

Leaning back to grin at her, Alex says, "I knew it.  You got that look."

"I could give Janae shit about it for years."

"You really could."  Alex slips her hands under Piper's shirt.  "I love how diabolical this is making you."   She pulls the shirt over Piper's head and then diips her fingers under the bra straps before slipping them off Piper's shoulders.  "We should form an alliance.  Just me and you..."

"I wonder what poor soul has her for a target...if I got her I think I could get around her strategy -"

Alex pauses with her hands on Piper's back, drawing back to look her in the eyes.  "Pipes?"

"Mmm?"

"We've reached the point in the evening where you stop talking about Janae."

She grins, curling her fingers under Alex's chin and bringing her lips close.  "Got it." 

 


 

"So, get this.  Danny texted me last night."  

Polly sidles up to her and delivers this revelation the first chance she gets at tennis practice; they're in line for a serving drill, their coach on the other side of the court and barking corrections and criticisms one player at a time.  Both Piper and Polly had cracked the top six in singles this year, too, making practices even more intense. 

Except when Polly uses them to talk about Danny. 

"He texted you?"  Piper blurts without thinking.

"Well, I texted him this article about a movie we had talked about wanting to see.  But then he kept texting me back.  Like, he's definitely the one who turned it into a whole conversation, y'know?" 

"Hold on..."  As the girl in front of her finishes up, Piper steps up to the baseline.  The coach has her serve five times before waving her along.  She trots off the court and waits for Polly to take her turn.

Polly rejoins her in the back of the line.  "We've definitely been talking more since school started back.  And I haven't heard that he's with anyone else.  Have you seen him?  Has he mentioned anything to you maybe?"

"I haven't seen him since we dropped him and Cal off, Pol," Piper tells her honestly.  "Cal and I text sometimes, Danny and I...not so much."  Polly's face falls into disappointment, and Piper hastily adds, "Which is kind of a good thing, though...last year I usually only saw him when he came over here, to see you.  So the fact that I haven't seen him means he's not over here seeing some other girl." 

"That's true..."

"And if he's texting you a lot, that's gotta be a good thing."  Piper's not sure where this instinct comes from; she spent the last few weeks of summer watching girls in the Hamptons and, later, girls from their hometown follow her older brother around, and yet she can't stop telling Polly exactly what she wants to hear. 

She looks cheered by Piper's agreement.  "If I could just see him, I could at least gauge it, y'know?"  She grabs Piper's arm, suddenly urgent.  "We should go to an Overbrook football game sometime.  Please?  If you're with me it's not like this huge pressured thing for us to hang out, cause obviously you're gonna say hey to your brother." 

They're at the front of the line again, which saves Piper from having to answer.  She's distracted as she steps up to the baseline - second serves this time, no faults accepted.  She managed to go all of football season last year without going to a single game; it's not a streak she's eager to break.

But when Polly goes through the drill and meets Piper back toward the fence, her eyes are still shining with renewed purpose.  "Please, Pipe?  Come with me?  We haven't hung out at all outside of practice this year anyway."  She lowers her voice, glancing a few spots ahead of them where Jessica's talking with Sarah.  "It can be just us."

"Really?"  Piper says skeptically.  "Cause you guys all go every home game." 

"We don't have to hang out with them, though.  I swear." 

Polly's not breaking eye contact.  There's obviously no out here.

"Okay, fine.  I should check in on Cal anyway," Piper relents, already disproportionately bummed at giving up several Friday night hours with Alex. "One thing, though, can we wait until this whole Assassins game is over?   That's a pretty limited off campus space to be walking around in."

Polly splutters out a laugh.  "Wait, so you're seriously into the game?" 

"You're not?"

"Dude, no, I'm already out.  Like...literally right after breakfast yesterday."  She pauses.  "Actually, funny thing, Alex was my target."

"Oh, yeah?  And...who shot you?" 

"Nora Frost." 

"Good to know."

"....sure.  But, yeah, it's an away game Friday anyway.  So hopefully by the end of next week the shooting thing'll be over, and we can go to the game?"

"Sounds good." 

Practice ends half an hour later.  Polly's reading Piper texts from Danny while Piper thumbs out a message to Alex about Nora Frost when Jessica walks up to them, Sarah trailing behind her, and addresses Polly like Piper's not even there.  "So I'm hitting some major dining hall fatigue.  Wanna walk to the bakery and get dinner stuff?"

"Sure," Polly says easily, putting her racket carefully in its bag.  "Now?"

"Yeah, if I fucking go back to my room right now I will not move all night."

Sarah and Polly laugh at that, and then Polly looks at Piper.  "Wanna come?"

She opens her mouth to refuse as she usually does, but her phone buzzes in her hand, Alex replying.  Suddenly inspired, Piper bites back a grin.  "Yeah, sure."

Polly's eyes widen in undisguised surprise.  "Really?"

"Yeah, if that's cool?  I'm starving." 

"Of course."

 


 

Text Message, Tuesday, 5:21 pm

PIPER
[FYI: Nora Frost had your name as of yesterday.]
[So beware]

ALEX
[Hey, good looking out, babe.]

PIPER
[Unless someone's killed her since then.]

ALEX
[Very possible.]

PIPER
[RED ALERT JESSICA IS GONNA BE HEADING TO THE COFFEE SHOP WITHIN LIKE TWO MINUTES]

ALEX
[Okay?]

PIPER
[Actually we're leaving now]

ALEX
[You're going with her???]

PIPER
[And Polly and Sarah.]

ALEX
[Ummm why is that happening]

PIPER
[Oh my GOD I'm behind enemy lines for you dummy]
[If you leave in five minutes you'll make it by the time we're in line.]
[And you can take her out.]

ALEX
[Oooooh.  Ok.]
[Nicely done.]

PIPER
[How did you not get that?]

ALEX
[Nicky and I might be smoking a little bit.]

PIPER
[Without me???]

ALEX
[Neither of us had practice.]
[You know I get bored when you're not around.]
[But I got this, I'll leave in a few minutes.]

PIPER
[Good.  Watch out for Nora Frost.]
[Also for the record....I don't feel like this alliance is MUTUALLY beneficial so far.]

 


 

Alex takes one more deep hit from the joint before handing it back to Nicky and leaving her in their smoking spot in the woods.  She has to stop by to the dorm first - unlike some overzealous participants, she doesn't carry her Nerf artillery around everywhere - before she heads to the edge of campus toward the coffee shop/bakery that serves as Litchfield students' only off-campus gathering place.

She's got her headphones in, and just for fun she pulls up Hit Me With Your Best Shot on Spotify, takes a screen capture and sends it to Piper with the text: war music

She comes up on the little street that runs parallel to campus, the coffee shop being the only place of interest amid a bank, post office, and a few T-shirt shops that mainly sell memorabilia for the university a couple of miles away.  Her last hit of weed obviously through her a little further behind, and Alex can see Piper and her tennis teammates already sitting down in the square of plush armchairs, sandwiches on the coffee table between them. 

Jessica's back is to her, the chair directly across from Piper.  Alex waits at the window until Piper notices her, her mouth twisting into a close lipped smile that probably isn't as subtle as she means it to be.  She looks away pretty quickly, though, refocusing her exaggerated interest on Polly in the seat next to her.

Alex smiles to herself; Piper has a shitty poker face.

She tucks the Nerf weapon, dart loaded, into the back pocket of her shorts and pushes through the entrance.  The bell dings but no one looks up - except Piper, Jesus - as Alex strides calmly to Jessica's chair and, with a shit eating grin, holds the Nerf gun to her temple. 

"Any last words?,"  she asks, mainly because Piper is watching now with unabashed glee and seems to want this to be entertaining.

Jessica twists around, and okay, yeah, Alex will have to thank Janae more sincerely for this trade, because it is gratifying as hell to watch the other girl's face contort into utter shock for the few seconds before her eyes narrow in loathing.  "You fuc - "

Alex clicks the plastic trigger and the foam dart bounces harmlessly - but comically - off the center of Jessica's forehead.  "Sorry," she tells her with a smile.  "But that didn't sound like it was gonna be very nice." 

Jessica's face is bright red, her teeth practically bared, but it takes Piper spluttering out a too loud laugh before she whips around, understanding what happened.  "You bitch," she grits out in Piper's direction.  "That's some bullshit and you know - "

"Hey, fuck off her," Alex growls, all traces of amusement gone from her voice.  She accidentally brandishes the gun when she says it, which makes her feel more threatening even though the thing is made of highlighter green plastic.  "Don't wanna be seen as a sore loser in a class bonding game, right, madame vice president?"   She smirks, holding out a hand.  "I'm gonna need the name of your target."

For a moment she thinks Jessica will outright refuse to give it to her, which would be fun - the pause is long enough that Alex starts mentally composing an email to Molly, helpfully informing her that the class veep isn't following the rules - but then Jessica pulls out an envelope and drops it on the floor at Alex's feet.

"Cute," Alex tells her, a smile on her face and the word dripping with the acidic flirtation that had become her specialty toward the bitter end of her tenure as Jessica's roommate.  She smoothly retrieves the envelope, repockets the toy gun, then looks at Piper.  "Pipes?"  

She nods toward the door, and Piper stands up, slinging her tennis bag over her shoulder and looking relieved to get away.  Half her sandwich is still on the plate in front of her, so Alex picks it up and takes a bite before giving a general grin to the group.  "See ya."

Piper makes eye contact with Polly, murmurs, "Sorry," out of the corner of her mouth, sounding half-sheepish and half-amused.  Alex leads the way to the door, and she can feel Piper's laughter in her ear and Piper's hand on her back, an unchecked instinct.  It makes her smile, even moreso when they hit the sidewalk and round a corner and Piper threads their fingers together, swinging their arms a little in a rush of giddy adrenaline.

"That was incredible.  Her fucking face."

"Gotta admit, that felt good."  She tugs on Piper's hand and backs her up against the far side of one of the columns outside the post office, kissing her quickly.  "You make a good undercover agent.  What do ya say we go back and celebrate a mission complete?"  She arches an eyebrow, drops her voice.  "We coulda died out there, solider."  

Amusement and arousal dance together across Piper's expression; she bites her lip and squints, eyes on Alex's.  "You're still stoned, aren't you?"

"Very much so."  

 


 

By the end of the week, over half the class has been eliminated, leaving about twenty players still competing.  Poussey got ambushed during a free period on Wednesday, but Piper, Janae, and even Alex are still in the game.  

Alex's continued survival is mainly a consequence of sticking close to Piper.  While she isn't taking it to Janae levels - which still include sprinting between buildings like she's running a track event, and refusing any non-school sanctioned social hangout that isn't in a safe zone - Piper has been careful about her movements around campus, making her routes unpredictable and discreet while Alex follows along indulgently. 

On Sunday night the Facebook page updates with fresh rules: the library and all rec/lounge rooms around campus are no longer safe zones. 

They don't study in the library much, so Piper just nods her head and comments, "So we just stay out of the basement next week.  Easy." 

"They better not lift the ban on the dining hall, or you and Janae are gonna go on a hunger strike."

Their phones buzz at the same time, always an indicator of group message activity.

 


 

Group Message, Sunday, 7:23 pm

NICKY
[FoL in our room tonight?]

POUSSEY
[I'm down.]

PIPER
[Me too!]

JANAE
[I'm in.]

ALEX
[Aren't you in the room with her?]

JANAE
[Yeah but I figured y'all would be more excited to come if you knew I'm here]

ALEX
[Fair.]

NICKY
[Thank fuck.]
[Between Poussey ditching us for vball friends all the time and J refusing to leave safe zones I've been third wheeling the octopussies all week.]

PIPER
[Octopussies?]

ALEX
[Explain.]

NICKY
[My wit is clearly over your heads.]
[Octopus = you two are disgustingly handsy]
[Pussy = gay]

PIPER
[wow you're right that was so nuanced]

NICKY
[Come over in five minutes.]

 


 

Toward the end of the summer, Nicky had made a late night (possibly drunken, though she's yet to admit it) Amazon Prime purchase of the entire series of The Facts of Life on DVD.  She brought the collection back to school with the very gleeful proposal that they watch the whole show together.

Alex assumes this is the kind of spontaneous, half joking purchase people with unlimited cash can make.  She'd also assumed the irony - boarding school students watch outdated Boarding School Sitcom - wouldn't sustain the activity beyond a few viewing sessions, but their invented FoL Drinking Game has made it a fun, regular event.  She's not even sure if their enjoyment of the show itself is actually ironic anymore.

It does help that the Drink When rules are vague enough to be frequent and open to interpretation - such as "Tootie has no chill" or "Everyone obviously hates Blair."

Alex and Piper are on Janae's bed, leaning against the wall and facing the TV.  Their legs are wound together and Piper's got her head on Alex's shoulder, causing Nicky to pointedly declare, "See?  Octopussies." 

Onscreen, the house mother, Mrs. Garrett, makes a comment on a boy Blair brought over who's obviously into Jo. "What a well mannered young man." 

"I know," Jo replies.  "Doesn't he give you the creeps?"

"Jo displays obvious lesbian behavior," Alex and Nicky recite in tandem, lifting their cups in a cheers.  The others drink dutifully; it's a frequently hit item on their Drink When list, especially this episode: Jo's already showed distaste for a boy flirting with her and mentioned her motorcycle. 

Alex adds a little more rum into her quickly depleting rum and coke, then pours a fresh splash into Piper's cup for good measure. 

"What if we spent as much time with Red as they do with Mrs. Garrett?"  Poussey muses.

"You mean Fisher," Piper corrects.  "Mrs. G's more like their dorm counselor, she's not the headmistress."

"That'd be even worse," Nicky mutters.

"Speak for yourself, we're not all Red's pet," Janae says.

Alex snaps her fingers, pointing at the screen as Jo walks into the common room wearing a motorcycle helmet and leather jacket.  "Obvious lesbian behavior!  Drink!"

"I thought we said we were maybe overkilling it counting every motorcycle reference,"  Poussey says, taking a gulp nonetheless. 

"Look at her, you gotta count that." 

"Think they'd let a student have a motorcycle here?"

"Only if they're lucky enough to get a damn parking spot."

Piper's playing with the edges of Alex's sleeve.  Just to her, she says, "You'd look hot on a motorcycle." 

"Simmer down, Chapman, save your sexual fantasies for the bedroom." 

Alex smiles and kisses the top of Piper's head, endeared as always by the soft, loose way her words slip out when she's tipsy.  "Maybe I can just get the outfit." 

The others groan and boo and gag, predictably, but then they fall silent for a few minutes (save for a "Tootie has no chill" sip)  as Jo gets asked out by the boy Blair liked.  Jo is - of course - unbothered at the prospect of giving up the guy.

"You want him, you got him, I won't take your guy," she says to Blair onscreen.

"Take my guy?" Blair overacts incredulously.  "Listen, when it comes to men the only thing you can take from me is lessons."  

For some reason, Blair delivers this very close to Jo's face and, halfway through, drapes an arm around her shoulder as if they're dancing, prompting all five viewers to yell out, "GAY!" and then drink.

"God, when are they gonna hate fuck?"  Nicky laments from her own bed across the room. 

Alex grabs the current DVD case, looking ahead at an episode called "The Secret."  She nudges Piper and points at it.  "Please tell me the secret is Jo's hidden sexuality." 

Onscreen, Jo says the line, "Who cares about hairstyles?" and Janae waves her cup around in response.

"Obvious lesbian behavior!"

Alex throws her a mock offended look.  "Hey!"

"I mean, your hair's fine, but look at Nicky." 

"Okay, I'll give you that."

"Fucking assholes." 

 


 

Monday rolls around, and Piper decides she needs to get a bit more proactive in the offense part of Assassins.  She only took out three targets last week, and no one since Thursday. 

Fortunately, her current target, Darby Wallace, is on the volleyball team with Poussey, and they've got an away game on Monday.  Even more fortunately, Poussey doesn't like Darby that much, and is easily talked into passing along intel in the form of texting when the team heads back to Litchfield.

So Piper's waiting near the parking lot when the bus pulls in, and by the time Darby's about ten feet away from it - and no longer participating in a school sanctioned event - she gets a dart to the back. 

"Whatever," she says, gritting her teeth around instinctive anger and rolling her eyes before handing over her envelope.  

Piper grins in triumph, catching Poussey's eye behind her and mouthing a thanks.  Poussey's with Brook, though, walking a little separate from the rest of the team, so Piper opts not to join her - better not arouse Darby's suspicions anyway - and heads off on her own. 

She's almost back to the dorm before she remembers to open the envelope and check her new target.

Alex Vause.

 


 

Text Message, Tuesday, 3:13 pm

PIPER
[Hey, I'm gonna be late back to the room later...reserved a study bay in the library for after practice, I really need to knock this paper out.]

ALEX
[Ugh that's no fun.]
[Want me to come up for a study break?]

PIPER
[See that would defeat the entire purpose of me working OUT of the room]

ALEX
[So is that a yes?]

PIPER
[Fine.]
[But you can't stay.]

ALEX
[Quick and dirty, huh?]
[I feel so used.]

 


 

Alex leaves the dining hall after dinner and walks to the library.  She starts to put in headphones, but remembers Piper's recent admonishments about that - apparently Assassins now requires constant vigilance. 

She texts Piper for the number of her study bay; there are a dozen or so of them, small private rooms meant for study groups.  She finds Piper in room five, sitting at the table that takes up about seventy-five percent of the room's space, typing away on her laptop.

Alex closes the door behind her and leans against it.  "You know getting it on in the library is on my boarding school bucket list."  Piper looks up and smiles, closing the laptop immediately. "I always kind of pictured it happening in the stacks, like in the movies, but this works, too." 

"So glad it's acceptable to you,"  Piper jokes, walking around to the furthest corner of the room, the one that isn't visible through the window of the door.  Alex meets her there, fastening her hands to Piper's hips and pressing her against the wall.  She's still wearing her clothes from tennis practice, these short track shorts that drive Alex crazy and a red tank top over her gray sports bra.  She tastes vaguely like sweat and she bends her leg back, heel pressed against the wall, and fits her knee in the juncture of Alex's legs, earning an immediate and surprised moan of pleasure, rolling up from the back of Alex's throat. 

She lifts her hands to Piper's face, catching her bottom lip lightly between her teeth, sinking deeper and deeper into the moment, into Piper,

when she feels something hard jab into her stomach.

Alex disentangles their lips, raising her eyebrows at Piper from two inches away.  "Um.  I'm not used to this feeling."

Piper's eyes are sparkling, and she's badly suppressing a smirk.  

Alex glances down to see Piper holding her Nerf gun between them. 

Blowing out a lengthy, beleaguered sigh, Alex gives Piper an exasperated look; she looks smug, thoroughly kissed, and infuriatingly hot. 

"Et tu, Pipes?"

"This is gonna hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you," Piper replies smoothly. 

Alex can tell she practiced that line. 

She takes a careful step back, holding her hands in the air, and gives a slow pivot away from Piper.  "Fine," she intones with a level of drama that would make Ms. Rogers proud.  "Do it.  Stab me in the back."

"It's a dart in the back.  No stabbing."

"We had an alliance." 

"I got your name.  Can't choose my orders." 

"Whatever helps you sleep at night." 

"You know I love you."

"That's so wrong, Pipes."  Alex twists her head to meet Piper's eyes, watching her lose the fight with her smile as she pulls the trigger.  The dart hits Alex's between the shoulders, but she splays a palm instantly across her chest, letting her face pinch in a hyperbolic wince.

Piper touches the back of her hand to Alex's cheek.  "You were so beautiful...and so very young..." 

"Fuck off..."  Alex swats her hand away and Piper breaks into laughter that Alex can't help but follow. 

"I'm sorry!"  Piper says between giggles, tugging on Alex's T-shirt and pulling her closer. "I couldn't resist, it was too perfect..."

"That was cold, kid."

"I know," Piper says with wicked grin, kissing Alex to punctuate it.  "So who's your target?" 

Alex hesitates for a heartbeat of a moment, then looks away.  "Actually...it's you." 

Piper's eyes widen.  "What?"

"Yeah, this is awkward but...I was gonna just hold onto it until I was eliminated...keep you in as long as possible.  Y'know.  For the alliance."  She smiles, sadly.  "And because I knew you wanted to win."

Horror and guilt are starting to cast long shadows on Piper's face.  "Fuck I'm...Alex, I didn't even think of that, listen, you don't have to text that you're out, we can just pretend I never shot you..."   The ramble is flooding out of Piper, fast and nervous, only slowing when Alex feels her lips twitch, betraying her.  Piper stops talking abruptly.  "Wait, are you...are you fucking with me?"

Alex bursts out laughing, and Piper shoves her lightly against the wall.  "You ass! I felt terrible!"

"I'm sorry," Alex mocks, parroting Piper's words back at her.  "I couldn't resist, it was too perfect..." 

Piper's lips are pulled tight, determined not to laugh.  "I hate you."

"Did you think we were gonna just hold onto each other's names until the game ended, refuse to kill each other, like, Hunger Games style?"

"Shut up," Piper orders, kissing her roughly to enforce it. 

Alex complies happily, though after a few moments she angles her head away enough to murmur, "You know you totally deserved that."  

 


 

"Twelve juniors left,"  Alex informs Piper later that night when they're back in their room with the lights off.  They're curled up on Piper's bed, Alex's phone glowing above them, open to Facebook.  "I feel like it's basically a race to see if you or Janae has to kill each other first." 

Piper muses on that.  "If one of us gets the other, we'll probably be able to do it.  So really I just need to start knocking out as many people as possible so I get her name before she gets mine."

"Probably be harder to kill now that everyone'll know who to look out for."  Alex heaves a dramatic sigh.  "Unless you're planning to seduce everyone into a sex trap."

"All's fair in love and war." 

"Uh-huh."  Alex leans back to set her phone on top of the dresser, then rolls over, straddling Piper and smirking.  "You're lucky I'm finding your whole take no prisoners thing sexy."

Piper smiles in delight.  "I am a force to be reckoned with." 

Alex arches her hips enough to reach between them and ease Piper's pajama shorts down her legs.  "So prove it." 

 


 

"Janae has asked me to inform you that your friendship is temporarily suspended," Nicky tells Piper in a bored voice at breakfast the next morning.  "She refusing to be in the same room as you until this is over."

"Fine, but after I tell you the incredible story of how I eliminated Alex yesterday, would you repeat it for her?  I want Janae scared of me." 

"Wait, you killed Vause?  Tell me everything."

"You don't have to sound so proud of it, babe.  Plus, your strategy with me isn't gonna work with J."  

"Your strategy?"   Nicky props her elbows on the table, placing her chin in her hands.  "Now you really gotta tell me everything." 

 


 

By Wednesday, Piper's only seen Janae during classes, four more people have been eliminated, and safe zone designations have been lifted from both the dining hall and dorms. 

Alex, Nicky and Poussey are the only ones at their table for a few meals.  Nicky observes Alex packing food into a ziplop bag to go and comments, "Behold, the perks of sleeping with your roommate."

"You're not bringing Janae food?"

"Fuck no, I'm trying to starve her out.  I'm ready for this shit to end." 

There are only five players left on Thursday, until Piper follows Jess Sherborne out of the bathroom in the math corridor and shoots her the second she gets outside. 

As soon as Piper gets her target, she goes sprinting off to find Alex, just coming out of another building.   Piper loops a hand through her elbow.  "I got her," she hisses in a stage whisper, not bothering with a greeting.  "Janae's mine." 

"Yeah?"  Alex grins, delighted with the impending drama.  "You got a plan?"

"I'm skipping tennis practice today.  But you know who would never skip a practice?" 

"Oh, I see what you're thinking.  Clever girl." 

"If we get back now, I can make it to outside her room while she's changing for track...can you keep watch for me?  Maya and Chloe are the only ones we need to look out for now."  

Alex rolls her eyes.  "Yes.  But I don't know why the fuck I'm helping you after what you did to me."

Piper makes an attempt at fluttering her eyelashes.  "Cause you love me."

"Yeah, that.  My Achilles heel....that you kinda grossly exploited in battle, by the way." 

 


 

Piper's leaning on the wall outside Nicky and Janae's dorm room, and she has to stand there pretending to polish her Nerf gun for fifteen minutes before it pays off.

The door opens, probably at the last possible second Janae can leave and still make practice in time, and Piper has about two seconds to smirk maliciously and slightly lift the gun before it slams in her face.

Piper looks down the hall, where Alex is sitting bored at the other end, keeping watch at the top of the stairwell.  She shoots her a thumbs up, then raps her knuckles against the door.  "May as well get this over with, Janae.  You and I both know if you miss practice today they probably won't let you run in the meet tomorrow." 

"You got practice too, bitch," comes her voice from the other side of the door. 

"Yeah, but no matches til next week.  So I'm not that bothered about missing it."

"How bout I text Maya and Chloe and tell them right the fuck where to find you."

"A) I have Alex on lookout, and b) then they'd just be standing right here with you as their target."  

Silence follows that pronouncement, and Piper smirks, leaning against the door frame. "I can stay here all day."  She pulls out her phone, keeping the Nerf in one hand.  "Did you know there's Facts of Life fanfiction?  Alex and I looked it up.  Here..."  She starts scrolling on her internet browser.  "If we're gonna be here for awhile, I'll read you some."

She can hear Janae groaning on the other side of the door, and Piper struggles to keep the grin out of her voice as she starts to read.  "This is called just gonna stand there (and watch me burn) - watch me burn is in a parenthetical, Janae - and it was written in 2011.  I think it's nice people still cared that much about the show in 2011, don't you?  Anyway..."  She clears her throat.  "If there's one thing Blair Warner knows, it's that she has VERY good taste..."

 


 

"Watching Blair laugh her stupid laugh and toss her stupidly perfect hair, Jo felt her hands curl involuntarily into fists.  She felt sick in a way that reminded of the time she wiped out on her bike - the wind knocked out of her and her chest hurting..."

"Uh.  Whatcha doing, Chapman?" 

Startled, Piper glances up to see Nicky standing over her, Alex behind her.  At some point during the last fic, she slid down to a seated position.  She's gotten a few odd looks from neighbors coming and going, but it hasn't stopped her from reading.

"Waiting out Janae." 

"And doing some light reading," Alex adds with a smirk.

"Hey!"  Piper gets to her feet, looking eagerly at Nicky.  "Can you let me in?" 

"Fuck that, dude, I don't wanna get killed in my sleep."  She gives her a sardonic look, waving an impatient hand.  "Back the fuck up."

Piper sighs and takes a step backward.  Nicky unlocks the door and slips inside without widening the gap enough for Piper to even glimpse the room.  The door slams after her.

Alex props her chin on Piper's shoulder and grins.  "Feel free to keep going." 

Clearing her throat primly, Piper returns her attention to the screen, rapping the Nerf gun on the door a few times for good measure.  "If Jo didn't know any better, she might actually think she was jealous - "

The door opens and Nicky sticks her head out.  "Hey, yeah, she's gone."

Piper aims at the doorway.  "Don't believe you."

"See for yourself,"  Nicky opens the door all the way and gestures for them to come in.

As soon as she's inside, Piper starts opening the closets, checking for Janae's hiding place and finding nothing until she hears Alex say, "Did she fucking go out the window?" 

Piper turns to see Alex and Nicky peering outside, the screen having been popped out and propped against the wall. 

Nicky looks incredulous.  "You think she made it to the tree?"  She leans out a little.  "At least there's not like a body." 

Alex shakes her head.  "Sorry, Pipes, but I'm impressed by her commitment."

"Fine.  You can be impressed."  Piper flops down on Janae's bed.  "But I'll be here when she comes back." 

Nicky blinks at her, belatedly realizing her mistake.  "Aw, fuck."

Piper smiles sweetly.  "Al, would you bring me my homework?" 

"Ah, c'mon, Piper," Nicky pleads.  "You gotta get out, she'll assassinate me for real if she knows I let you in." 

"You're welcome to take off.  I'll say I got in through the window."

Alex is still leaning on the windowsill.  "Yeah, no, babe, I don't think you or anyone else could climb up that tree." 

"I bet Janae's planning to."

"If she's coming back at all."

"She has to," Piper reminds them.  "By room check at least."

Alex sighs, coming to lean on the edge of Janae's bed.  "You're really going to stay here until dorm curfew?" 

"Yes.  It's not like I can go to dinner anyway."

"Alright."  She hoists herself onto Janae's bed beside Piper.  "Guess I'll chill here until I have to go fetch you sustenance."

Nicky crosses her arms and scowls at them.  "I could go get Fisher, you know.  Tell her you guys are doing a fucking sit-in in my room."

"We're in your room all the time, she's not gonna buy you throwing a fit about it now." 

Tipping her head back and groaning, Nicky finally seems to acquiesce.  She gets on her own bed and starts pulling out textbooks.  "Just...don't touch each other." 

Alex grins at Piper.  "Wanna fuck on Janae's bed?  Kind of a power move sort of thing?" 

 


 

Alex and Nicky leave for dinner after a few hours; Alex brings Piper back food, as well as her history textbook and laptop, but Nicky's insisting on going to Poussey's volleyball game as a way to get out of the room and gain "plausible deniability".  Alex declares it creepy to sit in their dorm room when they're not there, so she kisses Piper and smirkily wishes her luck before taking off.

So she does homework alone on Janae's bed for three hours.  It's sort of eerie - Piper keeps the lights off so Janae won't suspect her presence, and she doesn't want to put in her headphones and miss the entrance. 

Her patience is rewarded around nine o'clock when, better than Piper could have hoped, Janae does in fact hoist herself through the window, track bag and all.

Piper hoists herself up on her elbows, playing idly with the Nerf gun and shooting a winning smile at her friend.  "Evening, J."

Janae freezes, her eyes darting back like she's considering diving back out the window.  

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Piper says mildly, taking aim, finger ready on the trigger.  "Not worth it."

"Fucking Nicky," Jane mutters, furious.  

"You left the window open.  Maybe I got in that way."

"Yeah, right.  I had to climb a fucking tree on the other side of the building and go around the roof to get back up here.  No way Alex let you do that."   She hurls her bag across the room and crosses her arms.  "Just get it over with, asshole.  And get off my damn bed." 

Grinning broadly, Piper hops down. "It's nothing personal.  I even killed Alex a few days ago."  She lifts the Nerf weapon.  "Bye bye." 

She sends the dart flying at Janae's chest, but she twists out of the way at the last moment, throwing herself against Nicky's bed and then, before Piper can register what happened, turning back to bat her hand at the gun.  Piper manages to keep a grip, and they wrestle messily for the hunk of plastic for a moment, Janae pulling it from the barrel so that the trigger digs painfully into Piper's finger.

"Fuck, get off - "

"I'm not makin' this easy - "

Piper accidentally steps on one of Janae's feet - "Aye, watch the shoes!" - and it seems to distract her just enough for Piper to wrench the gun away and fire a dart at Janae's thigh.

"Got you!"

"FUCK!"

Piper lets out an excessively triumphant laugh, figuring she deserves to gloat after that struggle.  "Final three, right here!" 

Janae stomps past her and starts rummaging in her track bag, muttering angrily to herself, "Fuckin' cheap ass shit...waiting in my room..."  She flings her envelope at Piper, who doesn't bother checking yet if she's to take out Maya or Chloe next. 

Forcing her face into a serious expression, Piper holds out her hand to shake.  "You fought a good fight." 

"Screw you."  Janae shoves her hand out of the way.  "You gonna wanna clear outta here now."

Piper gathers her laptop and textbook, along with the empty bag that had held her dinner.  "You know you're not allowed to be, like, actually, mad about this."  Janae ignores her.  "I mean, that would just be childish.  Janae?  Don't you agree that'd be childish?"  

"You want me to be a good sport, I'mma need at least 24 hours to get there,"  she clenches out between her teeth.

Piper smirks.  "That's fair." 

 


 

Piper wins Assassins the next day after lunch, in a harrowing chase and shootout on quad between her and Maya Clark.  It draws a lot of spectators, and Piper gets lucky more than anything - Maya was overzealous, had to stop and reload, chasing darts around in the grass. 

Her friends are all watching, and with the exception of Janae they lead a round of applause when it's over.  Piper's so dizzy with victory and adrenaline that she goes running for Alex, who has the good sense to only hug her briefly before passing her over to Poussey for the same treatment.

Only Janae refuses to hug her. 

They go with her after classes to meet with Molly and find out her prize, which turns out to be four tickets to Six Flags theme park, good for any time before next summer.

"So."  Poussey grins, rubbing her hands together.  "Who has to miss out?"

"Janae does if she doesn't get way more happy for me really fast," Piper replies, throwing her a pointed look. 

Janae gives her the finger.   "I told you.  Twenty-four hours."

Alex drapes an arm around Piper's shoulders, curling one finger around the eges of her hair.  "Don't worry about it, the four of us can split a fifth one.  It'll be like twenty bucks each, that's still a good deal." 

"I'm down for some roller coasters," Nicky says. 

"We'll have to figure when's a good time to go." 

"They're good for a year, could always go next semester when it gets warm again..."

Piper listens to Nicky and Poussey debate the best Six Flags season - with Janae eventually chiming in an opinion - and she leans a little closer to Alex, smiling to herself. 

"Hey," Alex says in an undertone, the two of them slowing back behind the others.  "Stay in and celebrate tonight?" 

"Yes, please."  Piper's grin fades.  "Ah, fuck, actually...I forgot, I told Polly I'd go to the football game with her."

"What?"  Alex makes a face.  "Why?"

"I don't know, she wants to talk to Danny."

"Fucking of course.  You know you don't have to say yes to stuff like that."

"I know, but I hardly ever say yes when Polly invites me to things.  She kinda cornered me at practice, said we didn't have to go with Jessica or anyone else...I felt bad."  She leans back enough to look at Alex.  "You guys can come if you want." 

Alex wrinkles her nose in obvious distaste.  "Do you...want me to?" 

Piper smiles, lightly hip checking Alex.  "Well, I want you to come with me everywhere," she teases.  "But it's okay, you don't have to.  I'll try to ditch early." 

 


 

Text Message, Friday, 7:43 pm 

ALEX
[How are things?]

PIPER
[Well we haven't texted Danny yet because we don't want to 'seem desperate']

ALEX
[Yeah I hate when sisters are overeager to run into their brothers at a sporting event]

PIPER
[Speaking of, Cal isn't even here yet.]
[The only good thing about coming was checking in with him and finding out how school's going]
[What are you guys doing?]

ALEX
[playing Catchphrase in the basement]
[Janae's taking it even more seriously than usual, I think you broke her pride]

 


 

Text Message, Friday, 8:11 pm

PIPER
[Get down to the football stadium dude]
[I'm third wheeling weird sexual tension between Polly and Danny]

CAL
[Fine, I'm walking from the dorm now]

 


 

"Hey, I'm gonna go meet Cal," Piper cuts her older brother off mid-sentence.  She's been standing with him and Polly for the last ten minutes, largely ignored while they have a mundane conversation that somehow seems loaded with tension.

"You got the kid to show his face at a school event?"  Danny asks incredulously.  "Nicely done.  Want me to come with?"

Out of the corner of her eye, Piper catches disappointment dart across Polly's features, so she shakes her head.  "No, it's cool.  I'll maybe bring him back this way in a little while."  

"Okay, Pipe," Polly tells her with a small, grateful half smile.

"See ya, Pooh."

She turns away from them and promptly released the eyeroll she's been suppressing for the past hour or so.  Piper moves through the groups of students, Litchfield and Overbrook, clustered in the grass behind the actual stadium seating, and wanders around near the entrance until she sees Cal coming in.

"Hey, bud!"  She grins at him, and he makes a face at the enthusiasm.

"Sup." He shrugs out of her half hug and offers a fist bump.  "I'm not staying long, some of my suitemates are playing Settlers of Catan."

"Wow.  Nerdy."

"We're smoking weed when we do it."

"Oh, so I take it back, very cool.  So does this mean you're making friends?" 

"A few.  The ones that aren't douchebags."

"You want something from concessions?"

"You buying?"

They get in line, and Piper asks, "So do you see Danny much?" 

"I see him around, it's not that big.  We don't really hang out though...seniors are way too cool for that."

"Hey."  She waits until he looks at her.  "You not liking it here?" 

Cal heaves a sigh. "It's okay.  But it's ninety percent stuck up douche bros.  And I miss having girls in class.  Like, a lot."  He looks at her.  "You don't miss guys?"

"Not at all, actually."

"Weird."

Piper buys her brother a hot dog and gets them each a soda.  As they walk out of line, a group of boys that look like they're Cal's age walk by, and Cal visibly shifts so his back is to them, avoiding eye contact.  Piper frowns a little, worry pinging in the back of her mind, but then his phone buzzes and he smirks down at it.  

"I gotta go, Pipe, they're almost done with this game, don't want them to start another one without me."  

"Fine, but let's get lunch or something soon, okay?"

"Yeah, sure..."  He drops his voice, smirking.  "Or we could smoke together.  Be a real sibling bonding experience."

"Does that mean we invite Danny?"

"Nah.  I don't feel like I really need to bond much with him." 

 


 

Text Message, Friday, 8:56 pm

PIPER
[Hey I'm on the back left row of the bleachers whenever you're done talking to Danny]
[But take your time]
[And if you guys wanna just be alone I don't mind heading back to school]

POLLY, 9:09 pm
[No need, coming to you now.]

 


 

"Hey."

"Hey." 

"How'd it go?" 

"I mean, you saw," Polly answers, her expression set in disappointment.  "He didn't change at all when you left...just kept talking about basketball and fucking college applications." 

"He seemed glad to see you," Piper ventures carefully.

"Yeah, but like I was just some old friend or something.  Not like..."  She sighs shakily.  "Not like he misses me.  And when I asked if we could hang out just us sometime, he totally brushed it off." 

"I'm sorry, Pol," Piper says.  "He can be kind of a jerk."

"That's the thing!  It wasn't even like he was a jerk.  I don't even have anything to get mad about it, it was more like he just..."  Her voice breaks.  "Didn't care." 

"I know he cared."

"But not anymore." 

They're in a fairly secluded section of the stadium seating, and Polly puts her feet up on the seat in front of her, folding her arms over top of her knees and resting her chin on her wrist, sniffling pitifully, a few stray tears rolling down her cheeks. 

Piper puts an awkward hand on Polly's shoulder, feeling her inadequacy as a friend right now.  She isn't close enough to Polly to be the one here in this moment.  "Do you, um...I can find Jessica and Sarah - "

"No," Polly bursts out, like a tiny wail.  "I can't talk to them about this, that's why I wanted..."  She trails off, shaking her head.

"What?"

Polly sucks in a deep breath.  "I know you don't like them, Pipe, but...do you even want to be friends with me?" 

Piper's stomach swerves unpleasantly at the sudden change in conversation.  "What?  Yeah, Polly, of course."

"Because...I've been inviting you to stuff since the beginning of last year, and like...you never want to come."

"You know that isn't about you," Piper mumbles, eyes sliding nervously to the field.  "Jessica was horrible to Alex, and she still is when she has the chance, I don't...and I never clicked with Madison or Bailey either - "

"I get that, and...I just invite you to stuff with them because it's the only plans I have, but, like....you've never once asked me to hang out with your friends." 

Polly's voice is small, but it drops a heavy brick of guilt in Piper's stomach, because she knows she has a point.  She and Polly are good friends at tennis practice, or in the few classes they've had together without any of Piper's other friends.  But Piper's never once gone out of way her to see Polly at any other time, even though her year's worth of invitations to Piper make it clear she'd like to.  

When Piper doesn't say anything, Polly adds, "I know Alex doesn't like me - "

"It's not...that's not it, Pol, I...honestly, I always just kinda thought you mainly wanted to hang out with me because of Danny."

Polly's face falls. "You really think that's the only reason?  Still?  I thought we were friends - "

"No, no, we are, I meant more, like...when you'd invite me to stuff with your whole group."

"You don't get it, with Jessica and all of them...I was really nervous about making friends, starting here, with all new people.  And when you start as a freshmen, everyone is new, and there's this whole scramble....Madison was my roommate, and then she met Jessica, who kinda knew Bailey and Sarah.  We were all sitting together within like a week of getting here, and I was just so relieved to have people, you know?  An actual group.  But it just kind of got stuck that way, before I could even really figure out if we had anything in common and...I'm not really close to any of them.  And I always figured that was fine, because I had Danny, but then when we broke up it felt like none of them really cared...."

Polly pulls her lower lip between her teeth, the muscles in her face contracting as she tries not to cry.  "God, sorry, Piper...this is awesome, right?  Like, I'm trying to make you feel sorry for me until you have to be friend."

"We are friends," Piper says quietly. 

Polly rests her cheek on her knees and looks up at Piper for the first time in several minutes.  "It's just been a really lonely semester," she admits, small and embarrassed.  "And sometimes I see you guys, and you're so tight knit...it makes me kinda jealous."

"I'm sorry."  Piper isn't sure what else to say.  "I didn't know you were having such a hard time."  

"Not your fault."

"Y'know...whatever my issues with Jessica and everyone, I'd be totally down to hang out with just you more.  Whether you're with Danny or not." 

Polly smiles a little.  "I'd like that." 

Piper smiles back, but she knows part of Polly wanted more from her. 

"You wanna head back to school?" 

"Yeah."  Polly wipes her eyes and stands up.  "Let's go." 

 


 

 

Text Message, Friday, 10:14 pm

PIPER
[Almost back to the dorm, you in the room?]

ALEX
[Facts of Life in Nicky and J's]
[Comeee]

Piper can feel Polly's eyes on her as she checks her phone.  "What are your friends up to?" 

She can hear the slightest note of hope in Polly's voice, and Piper's chest goes cold because she can't do it, can't make herself offer an invite.  Janae and Nicky's room - anyplace it's just the five of them - is a safe zone, and Polly makes it unsafe.  Piper doesn't want to sit there and pretend like Alex isn't her girlfriend.  God, even just the thought of Polly there while they make jokes about Blair and Jo's sexual tension makes her uneasy. 

"Doesn't seem like much of anything," Piper lies.  "I may just go do some reading before bed...but text me later this weekend, okay?" 

"Okay, sure...and thank you, for tonight."

"No problem at all.  Anytime.  Seriously." 

Polly gives her a hug, and Piper feels her phone buzz just before she pulls away.

ALEX
[You coming?] 

PIPER
[I don't know.  Kind of a weird night]

ALEX
[I'll meet you in the room]

 


 

Alex is already there when Piper gets back to their room, in pajama pants and a tank top and her face folded into concern.  Piper's chest warms at the sight of her, and without a word she moves in for a kiss; Alex's lips taste like vodka. 

"Hey..."  Alex draws back, frowning a little.  "Something happen?" 

Piper's keeps her hands gripped around Alex's shirt.  "Do you think I'm a bad person?" 

She grins.  "I think you're the best person.  But you're asking a very biased source, so I don't know if I can be trusted." 

"Al, I'm serious." 

Alex's face gentles.  "Pipes.  What happened?" 

They sit on Piper's bed and she gives a detailed account of her conversation with Polly.  Alex listens patiently, no interruptions, just plays absently with Piper's hair while she talks.  

"I just feel really bad," Piper says when she finishes, eyes searching Alex's for reassurance.

"You know Polly going through a hard time isn't on you.  Not at all, Pipes.  And you didn't even really know about it." 

"Yeah, but she's right.  She used to invite me to hang out all the time, so I know she wanted to.  And I like Polly!  We are friends, but I only act like it at tennis because...I don't want her finding about us.  Just because she's dating my brother." 

"She's not dating him anymore." 

"Yeah, but they still talk." 

Alex doesn't say anything.  She tucks a piece of Piper's hair behind her ear, and there's something so calm and knowing in her expression it makes Piper want to know everything she's thinking. 

"What?"  Piper prompts softly. 

"It's just...Janae was dating Marcus all last year.  He's kinda friends with Danny, right?  On the basketball team?" 

"Yeah..."

"Did you ever, like...remind her not to tell him?  Did you ever worry it'd be get back to him?" 

"No..."

"Have you ever worried that Poussey might say something to Brook or one of her other volleyball friends?  Or that Nicky might make a joke about it during one of her rando conquests?"

"No," Piper's voice is soft.  "So what are you saying?"   

"Just...if you and Polly were as good of friends as she thinks you should be...you'd trust her.  Even if she was still dating your brother."

"Yeah.  Maybe."  Piper takes one of Alex's hands in both of hers, tracing the lines of her palm.  "I just think part of it is that I met her in the context of Danny, you know?  She's always going to feel like his girlfriend first." 

"Makes sense.  But you can't help that, Pipes." 

"But now she's opened up and told me all this and I feel like I have to figure out how to help her.  I want to help her." 

"See?"  Alex gives her a soft smile, threading their fingers together.  "You are a good person."  Her eyes flash, spreading humor across her face.  "When you're not being a ruthless and victorious assassin, I mean."

That revives Piper's smile, and she leans gratefully against Alex's shoulder.  "I love you." 

"I love you, too, Pipes.  And, hey, if you and Polly need to start going on regular coffee runs or...hanging out tat Overbrook games, I guess I can spare you."  She touches her lips to Piper's forehead.  "Just not too often, okay?" 

 


 

The next month of school feels quiet compared to the high stakes weeks of Assassins.  They have their first round of mid-terms.  Piper and Polly go on an undefeated streak at doubles, and once or twice a week they hang out after practice without any of their other friends.  It gets cold out earlier than usual, and they all decide to hold off on a Six Flags trip until spring.   

Ms. Rogers finally starts to wrap up their Shakespeare unit.  After two weeks of talking about various re-imaginings of Shakespeare plays, their final project is to pitch their own. 

They work in groups of two, and Ms. Rogers tells them to spread out around the auditorium to discuss ideas.  Alex tugs on Piper's collar and points up at the catwalk.  "Old times sake?" 

Piper's eyes light up, but she hesitates before following.  "Are we allowed?" 

"She didn't say we weren't." 

They climb up without being noticed; the curtains are open today, unlike on movie nights, so they can see groups of other students spread across the theater seats. 

Alex reaches over, touches the charm on Piper's necklace and winks.  "Ah, memories." 

Piper smiles, and she has to look away until the fierce need to kiss Alex passes.  "So.  Any ideas?"

"Yeah, actually.  So I was thinking about Romeo and Juliet."

"Cliché."

"Hear me out, Pipes, damn.  So, you know that scene in the beginning where Romeo is whining about that other girl he liked?  Rosaline?"

"Yeah."

"So Rosaline doesn't want Romeo because she plans to remain chaste and become a nun, right?  And she can't be more than fourteen or fifteen, like they are.  So what kind of fifteen year old wants to be a nun?" 

"Um, a devoutly Catholic one?  It's like the sixteenth century."

Alex rolls her eyes.  "Or a secretly gay one...in the sixteenth century."  She smirks.  "How else are you guaranteed to avoid marriage to a guy?" 

Piper starts to smile.  "So what are you thinking?"

"Rosaline meets Juliet instead of Romeo.  Come on, lesbians in the 1500's?  Much better star crossed love story than wah our parents don't like each other."  She grins, obviously pleased with herself.  "Awesome, right?"

"It's pretty good..."

Deflating slightly, Alex makes a pouty face.  "Pretty good, Pipes?  What's the problem?" 

"Just..."  She makes an apologetic face.  "D'you think it'll look weird?  If the two of us do a whole...girl-girl love story presentation?" 

"I think it'll look weird if I don't do something super gay." 

That makes Piper laugh. "True."  Alex had recently presented an English paper arguing that Charlotte Lucas was a lesbian and probably in love with Elizabeth Bennet.

Alex props an elbow on one of the bars of the catwalk and looks at her.  "But if it makes you nervous we don't have to." 

"No, I'm overthinking it.  It's a good idea."  Her mind starting to run ahead with the idea.  "We should make it as many female characters as possible..."

"Oh, yeah, good call...gender swapped Tybalt?"

"Yes, and Rosaline could have a whole bunch of other, like, young nuns in training or whatever they are.  Instead of the Montagues.  The only guy we need would be Paris.  And maybe the priest." 

"Nice.  What's our style?  Classic Shakespeare or do we wanna do some sort of postmodern steampunk thing?" 

"Wait a second...aren't Rosaline and Juliet related, though?"

"Are they?" 

"Yeah the whole reason Romeo goes to the Capulet ball is to see her.  I think they're cousins or something."

"So it's a plot device detail.  Rosaline isn't even seen in the original play, we'll just make them...not related.  Anyway, I think cousins got it on with each other all the time back then, right?"

"I guess.  There's a lot of cousin stuff in Jane Austen and that's way later than Shakespeare." 

 


 

They have two weeks to work on the project, and it's due just before Thanksgiving break.  One Wednesday night Alex and Piper stay shut up in their dorm room, hunched around Piper's laptop, open to Photoshop, debating actresses to use on each character page of their presentation. 

"So we said Sarah Paulson for Juliet's nurse, right?"  Alex murmurs, leaning over the keyboard to type her name in to google.  In their version, the nurse advises Juliet by strongly implying she had her own fraught history with a woman she'd loved. 

"Yeah..."  Piper slides back on the bed, letting Alex type and dropping her head onto the mattress.  "My neck's starting to hurt." 

"Me, too."  She rubs her eyes.  "You at all interested in a smoke break?"

Piper lifts her head, appalled.  "We can't do homework high." 

"We're just picking photos at this point," Alex points out reasonably.  "C'mon, we've got an hour before dorm curfew.  And it's been awhile."

"We all smoked last weekend before movie night." 

"I meant it's been awhile since it was just us." 

Piper rolls over on her back and looks up at Alex, her smile undeniably enticing.  "Fine." 

Alex grins, pleased, and kisses her.  "Love the enthusiasm." 

She bounds off the bed and crouches down in front of Piper's bookshelf, going straight for an orange spine on the second row of books, flipping between the pages and pulling out a small ziplock bag of pre-rolled joints. 

Piper sits up, shaking hair out of her face.  "Um, since when are you keeping weed there?" 

Alex holds up the book in her hand.  "I hid it in On the Road."

Rolling her eyes, Piper plucks the book from Alex's hands.  "You know I don't like your product stashed with my stuff."

"But it's such a clever literary reference."  Piper raises her eyebrows, and Alex grins.  "Fine, we can just say those are for personal use.  As much yours as mine."  She holds one of the joints between her fingers, then pulls aside the neck of her T-shirt and tucks it under her bra strap.  "Ready?"

Piper can't help but grin, touching her hand to the spot, dragging a finger along the curve of Alex's collarbone.  "Let's go." 

They shrug into coats and head outside the dorm, leaning instinctively into each other against the bite of November air.  Winter nights empty out the campus, and they don't see another person on the walk to the woods, don't even go all the way in to the usual smoking spot.  It feels isolated enough in the dark of the trees.

"Kinda regretting this," Piper whispers, teeth chattering.

"We'll be fast," Alex tells her, hunching over the joint and a lighter. 

They trade long, deep drags, bouncing on the balls of their feet, pressed together in a tight, warm knot. 

"So fucking cold," Piper says for no real reason, her breath fogging the air between them. 

Alex grins, coughing out a cloud of smoke and offering what's left of the joint.  "Finish it off fast." 

She does, letting the stub of paper drop to the dirt and grounding it in with her foot before she grabs Alex's hand.  A thrill floods through her, seemingly from nowhere, that makes her feel like a rebellious little kid, hovering out of bounds.  She squeezes Alex's fingers and whispers, "Let's run."  

She takes off without waiting for an answer, pulling Alex along.  It feels crazy and freeing; she hasn't sprinted full speed like this outside the tight confines of a tennis court in years, since neighborhood wide games of hide and seek and a certain tree that was always home base. 

The cold air knifes pleasantly to her throat, and she can hear Alex breathing hard behind her.  The high hits Piper all at once, breathless giggles bubbling out of her. 

Piper pulls up short - it feels, for some reason, like she can't laugh and run at the same time - and Alex slams into her back, sending them both toppling onto the stiff grass. 

The laughter just keeps coming, even with Alex on top of her.  "Jesus, Pipes..."

Piper curls her fingers around the neck of Alex's shirt and pulls her down to kiss.  "We should've just had this kind of study break..."

She feels Alex's smile against her own.  "You make a good point."  

 


 

Their laughter is overlapping as they walk up the dormitory stairwell, Alex on a high induced ramble, "They'll begging to put on Rosaline and Juliet as an actual play, Pipes, mark my words."

"Would you audition?" 

"Of course, watch this..."  They start down their hall, Piper awkwardly walking backwards so she can face Alex, intoning dramatically at her, "Move not not, while my prayer's effect I take...thus from my lips, by thous my sin is purged." 

"You're just doing Romeo!"

"Yeah, but it's so much better coming from a formerly aspiring nun, right?  Her sin is purged?  Please."  She starts again with the recitation.  "Sin from thy lips!  Oh - something about trespasses.  Give me that sin again..."  Dramatically, she draws Piper in for a kiss, laughing against her lips, nearly sending them both to the ground again.  

Piper stumbles slightly, giggling as she carefully straightens up and regains her footing. 

She catches a flash of movement out of the corner of her eyes and glances over to see Polly, hovering awkwardly outside her and Alex's dorm room. 

The bottom drops out of her stomach.  And her lungs, her bones. 

The bottom drops out of her insides.

Polly's already walking away, her face pinched in awkward apology.  "I'm sorry, Pipe, I was waiting for you...I just texted - "  She holds up her phone, uncertain.  "I'll go.  Sorry." 

She hurries down the hallway to the stairwell, heading for her own floor.  Piper's brain is clouded with panic; the light of the hallway seems too bright, an interrogation.

It’s not like she’s never thought about it, being caught; they’re not always careful.  So of course Piper’s pictured it before, tried to decide what she’d do.  

Sometimes she even likes to imagine herself smirking and smug, triumphant the way anyone who gets to kiss Alex Vause should be.  It would be so good, to get to the moment and realize she actually doesn’t care, to smile and shrug and go right back to kissing her girlfriend.

But that’s not what happens.  

Instead it’s like tripping, clumsy and distracted, landing hard on her stomach and spilling carefully packaged truth everywhere.

Alex's hand comes to rest on her arm.  She doesn't look scared.  Only concerned.  "It's okay, Pipes." 

"I gotta catch her,"  Piper mumbles.  "I have to talk to her before she texts Danny - "

"Piper, she's not gonna text -  "

Piper ignores Alex, running in the direction Polly headed, pounding wildly down the stairs.

"Polly..."  Piper catches up to her on the first floor of the dorm.  "Pol, listen, that wasn't...it's not what you think."

"Pipe, it's okay," Polly tells her in a calming voice.  "I don't care if you guys are gay - "

"We're not.  I mean, Alex is, but not...with me..."  She can feel herself flushing.  "Look, we just smoked -  "

"Yeah, I can tell," Polly says with a smirk.  She mostly sounds amused, but nothing about this feels funny.

"And...did you hear us, we were talking about our project, you know, for drama.  We're doing Rosaline and Juliet, it was Alex's idea, anyway...she was just stoned, and messing around with a scene."

"Okay..."  Polly frowns slightly.  "But, Pipe, honestly, it wouldn't be a big deal.  It's not like people haven't wondered..." 

"What?  Why?" 

"You know.  You guys are so close, and haven't even gone out with anyone else in like a year...and Alex used to be a major flirt freshmen year." 

Piper's mouth feels unbearably dry.  "You're saying people talk about it?" 

"Just sometimes."

"Has Danny ever heard that?" 

"I...yeah, I think Jessica asked him about it once."

"What'd he say?" 

"He said it was crazy, that there was no way you were into girls."  Piper's throat tightens, and Polly barrels on, oblivious.  "I figured he'd know, but if you are...I won't say anything to anyone, Pipe, and I seriously don't care." 

It takes Piper a second to shake the words loose from her throat. "I care."  Piper swallows hard, hating herself for reverberation of truth ringing through the words.  "I'm not gay, and I didn't...know she was gonna do that."  She pushes a hand through her hair, her voice shaking.  "I hope it was just that she was stoned and...caught up in the joke." 

"I get it," Polly says, serious now, and Piper can tell she mostly believes her.  "And I hope so, too...that's kind of awkward, otherwise." 

"Yeah," Piper echoes dully. 

"Oh!  Also.  What I came to tell you..."  Polly grins, holding out her phone for Piper to look at.  "Danny asked me to go to winter formal with him!  Just out of nowhere, can you believe it?"  

"Wow, that's awesome.  Glad he finally came around."

Piper's voice sounds like it's coming through a tunnel.  Inside her head, Piper is curled up and trembling and trying not to cry; outside, she smiles, and says everything she's supposed to in an easy, cheerful tone before she finally tells Polly goodnight and heads back to her own room. 

 


 

Alex is sitting on her own bed with her legs dangling off the side, hands playing nervously with her cell phone.  Her shoulders sag with relief when Piper walks in, but her voice is tentative as she asks, "Everything okay?" 

"Yeah."  Piper sits up on the bed beside her, the need for comfort drawing her as close to Alex as possible even though some part of her still feels like they're being watched.  She tells herself it's just the weed, just paranoia.  "I told her we were just stoned and joking around about our project."

Alex raises an eyebrow.  "She bought that?"

"I think so.  But..."  Piper's voice falters slightly, and right away Alex rests a soothing hand between her shoulder blades.  "She said there have been...rumors.  About us." 

"Oh." 

Piper turns to look at her, can't help the hint of accusation weaving through her voice when she asks, "Did you know that?" 

"Some of the soccer girls have asked me.  And it just doesn't surprise me, Pipes. I haven't even tried to date anyone else since you got here, and you never hang out with Overbrook guys.  That's the kind of thing high school rumor mills notice."  

Piper's quiet for a long moment before she admits quietly, "She says Danny's heard the rumors." 

"Does he believe them?" 

"No...Polly said he was like...there's no way, that's crazy, she doesn't like girls." 

Alex hears the catch in her voice.  She slips her fingers through Piper's hair, and prompts gently, "Pipes?"

"I was just really hoping to hear that he'd just said...who cares if she does?"  Piper whispers, the words splintering out of her.  "Or maybe that he made some joke about how I could get him free weed now.  But he just...refused to believe it.  Like it should be completely impossible...in our family it pretty much is." 

She starts to cry then.  Alex slides back on the bed, pulling Piper with her and letting her bury her face against her chest.

"It's okay," Alex murmurs, close to her ear, holding her tight.  "It's gonna be okay, Pipes..." 

When Piper's sobs start to slow, Alex touches her chin and makes her look up.  Her face is pained as she thumbs away tear streaks and says tightly, "I'm really sorry, Piper, I wasn't thinking earlier...I should have seen her there." 

"It's okay."  Piper's eyes fill up fresh, and she adds, "I'm sorry I turn you into this secret."

"Hey, no, don't do that.  It's not about me.  I just wish your family wasn't such shit.  I wish you didn't have to be scared." 

Piper feels like crying again, and she hides her face in the crook of Alex's arm, shielding the uncomfortable truth she's afraid is all over her face. 

Something struck her out in the hallway, when Polly told her she didn't care, a vague, half-formed thought only now beginning to crystallize.  

It's not just her family Piper wants to hide from.  She'd believed Polly, in that moment: she wouldn't tell anyone, even Danny.  Yet Piper had still felt weak with the need to convince her it wasn't true.  She hates the idea of rumors swelling, of it being talked about by anyone outside their carefully protective circle.  It feels dangerous, and it scares her.  

Piper doesn't want to care, but she knows now that she really, really does.  

Chapter Text

Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me.

Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl // Broken Social Scene

 


 

Text Message, Monday, 3:45 pm

ALEX
[Hey so my mom said I can take the car all day tomorrow]
[Wanna meet in the middle somewhere?]
[Have lunch or see a movie or just find something random to do]

PIPER
[Yes and yes and yes]
[I think there's a website that tells you the exact midpoint between two addresses]

ALEX
[Excellent, but no cheating]
[Let's say we have to go to whatever dinky ass town it tells us]

PIPER
[Deal]

 


 

For the first time since starting Litchfield, Piper hadn't been entirely dreading a break.  Spending the week of Thanksgiving stuck at home still wouldn't be as good as being with Alex, with all her friends, but there was a guilty flicker of relief in her gut to leave the campus for a few days. 

Since the near reveal with Polly, Piper's head has been all gray static anxiety, paranoia shifting around in her stomach.  She feels, suddenly, overly conscious of her behavior around Alex outside the safe confines of their room, or Janae and Nicky's, or the woods in the low light of dusk. 

She's gotten too comfortable, let their boundaries get all smudged and flexible. 

The last few days have been about redrawing them, but it doesn't come naturally; it means Piper has to be tense and alert at all times, holding herself in tight control against instincts like lilting too far into Alex's side when they walk, leaning close and flirtatious in the cafeteria. 

Their presentation in drama, the Friday they left for break, had been excruciating.  Piper had already felt overly scrutinized, so actually standing in front of a classroom full of wide, staring eyes - talking about turning Romeo and Juliet into a play about two girls - had been overwhelming.  It felt like one of those bad dreams where you show up to school naked, or are pushed out onstage for a play you haven't rehearsed for. 

Alex seemed to have sensed her discomfort, and had smoothly taken all the sections about the actual love story, switching from their original plan and letting Piper talk exclusively about sets and costumes and tone.

It made Piper feel gross, like suddenly she's a person who can't even talk about a story if it's too gay.  Her stomach hurt the whole rest of class, but Alex hadn't been mad.  She'd just raised an eyebrow as they filed out of the drama classroom and asked in an undertone, "Cool?"

Piper had just nodded, swallowing the apologies she'd had all ready between her teeth.  Then they'd split up for separate classes, and by lunch, Alex's easy laughing eyes made the whole awful thing feel past tense.   

But Piper had still felt a guilty gust of relief blow through her when she crawled into the backseat of her father's car that afternoon, the first time being driven away from school hadn't felt vaguely like she's being taken hostage by her family.

Three days into break, the relief is gone, leaving only the guilt behind, so Piper's thrilled by Alex's suggestion that they meet up midweek. She wants to make up for the weirdness of the last few days at school.

They figure out their midpoint town, an hour and a half away for both of them, and meet at an IHOP off an exit around eleven on Wednesday morning.  Piper hugs Alex in the parking lot and feels her muscles release the last bit of tension. 

Alex gets waffles and Piper orders pancakes, and when it comes they switch half their order.  Under the table, Alex hooks her foot around Piper's heel, her eyes flashing with a smile.  "So.  How's winter settling into the Chapman household?" 

Piper rolls her eyes.  "I hate this break," she says, meaning it again.  "Long enough to feel like I'm going crazy with boredom.  Too short for Mom and Dad to let me actually come visit you."

"At least they gave you a day pass."  Her eyes move out the window into the mostly empty parking lot.  "But I don't think we've stumbled into a major cultural center." 

"We'll find something to do," Piper tells her, barely caring if they do. 

After brunch, they get in their cars and stay on speakerphone as they drive through the town.  They pass a few unexciting shopping centers and chain restaurants.

"Hey, that mall has a movie theater,"  Alex's voice comes through the phone after a few minutes of driving.  "We'll remember for later.  If all fails we can just go and watch all the movies."  

"There's hardly anything good playing."  

"So we'll sit in the back row and make out." 

"Sounds fun, why is it a back up plan?" 

"I'm still determined to find something better...but hey, wanna leave one of the cars?  It's probably fine at the mall." 

So they leave Alex's mom's crumbling old Toyota in the parking lot and continue on with just Piper's car.  Alex hooks her phone up to the radio and picks songs, and they're both talking so much that Piper keeps forgetting to pay attention to what they're driving past.

Something Piper loves about her and Alex, the two of them as a unit, is how, improbably, they never run out of things to say to each other.  They don't even need conversational segues.  It's just thinking out loud, when they're together.

Alex is in the middle of telling Piper about a movie she'd watched with her mom on Sunday night when she stops mid-sentence, a slow grin taking over her face.  "Pull in there."

Piper looks to the left, and the first thing she sees is a huge plaster giraffe. 

It's a minigolf course, the theme apparently a wide range of large animals with the paint chipping off.  And in November, it's mostly empty, though still optimistically open for business. 

They put coats and beanies on to play, gloves in their pockets so they can properly grip the putters.  Alex gives Piper a wry look as they grab a mini pencil and score card.  "Should I have not picked something competitive?  I don't need Assassins: The Sequel." 

"I'm only competitive about things I'm good at." 

Alex laughs, full and loud, then smirks.  "That explains your complete indifference when we go bowling."

Turns out they suck equally at putt putt, and after about four holes they give up on playing seriously.  Sometimes they start at the same time, not worrying about how many putts so much as who gets their ball in the hole first, shouldering each other aside on the narrow green.  Sometimes they put one ball aside and battle it out for one, more hockey than golf.  A few holes they crouch on their knees and roll with their hands.  

They skip a couple of the more boring holes altogether, opting instead to take photos with the towering menagerie and send way too many Snapchats to their friends - the more Nicky complains, the more she gets.

After over an hour of goofing around the course, they still haven't seen anyone else playing.  They don't finish the eighteenth course - Alex's idea, dropping both balls (one red, one purple) into Piper's purse instead of the seemingly infinite hole that returns them.  

"We gave them their only business today," Alex rationalizes, sitting down in the middle of the green and grinning up at Piper.  "We can take a thank you."

Piper smiles and settles beside her.  They stretch out on their backs, the view of an elephant looming between them and the sky. 

"Where to now?"  Alex asks, turning her head so her beanie slides up off her hair. 

"No idea."  Piper checks her cell phone.  "We didn't kill that much time." 

"Too soon for the movie theater?" 

"I'm very okay with that." 

The theater is the best kind, taking tickets at the door to the building rather than at the individual screening rooms, so Alex buys two tickets and they use them to half-watch three different movies, purchasing popcorn and gummy bears and a giant soda as a junk food dinner in between the second and third film.  

It's dark out when they emerge into the mall parking lot, momentarily disorienting in the way the daylight disappeared while they weren't looking.  Piper leans against the driver's door of her car when Alex kisses her goodnight, sweet and slow like they haven't been making out for the past six hours.   

"I'll see you Sunday."  

"Can't wait," Piper whispers, meaning it as much as she always does.

 


 

Things feel normal again, being back at school after the break.  Piper's relearned to be careful in public, instinctively holding back on anything that might fuel speculation, but the nauseating paranoia seems to have receded; she doesn't feel so watched anymore. 

But then winter formal rolls around again, a night full of traps that are so easy to fall into.

Alex is busy the week leading up to it, the usual pre-dance rush of booze orders that necessitates her pestering Nicky into several different liquor store runs off campus. Tennis season is over, and it's already too cold out to want to play recreationally, so she and Polly have to make specific plans to hang out.  They end up walking - briskly, hugging their coats tight against the wind announcing winter - to the bakery one day while Alex and Nicky are off using Alex's fake ID.

Polly's practically giddy with excitement for the dance, and it's all she wants to talk about -  she's going with Danny, they've been texting a lot more lately, did he say anything about it to Piper over Thanksgiving? - and the whole time it feels like Piper's stomach is balling up on itself.  

She thought she was done picking over that night, the one when Polly saw them kissing, but now its echoing in a way that's making her obsess.

It's not like people haven't wondered.

You guys are so close, and haven't even gone out with anyone else in like a year.

You never hang out with Overbrook guys.  That's the kind of thing high school rumor mills notice.

At last year's formal, she'd made out with Larry on the dance floor in front of everyone.  At the spring dance, she'd danced drunkenly with Alex the whole time, eye fucking and barely hiding their wandering hands in the crowd.

Nothing had happened, but it still feels like a mistake.  One she can't make again.

 


 

They pregame in their dorm room, as always, all music and laughter and styrofoam cups.  Piper finishes her first drink - vodka with a few splashes of Sprite - too fast, and then nurses her second until its time to leave.  

Alex notices, of course.  "Going sober on me, Pipes?"  

She smiles, tense.  "No, I just.  Kept getting distracted." 

There's something in Alex's eyes like she knows the rest of it, the part Piper doesn't want to say: I don't trust myself to be drunk around you in front of everyone.

Mercifully, she doesn't call Piper on it, gifting her with a change of subject, "Cal coming tonight?"  

"Last I heard.  Won't be shocked if he opts out at the last second."   

"Should I have provided him with some illegal motivation?  Of both your brothers, he's the one I could probably be persuaded to discount."  

"He and his friends seem to have a supplier already.  Pretty sure he brought weed home over Thanksgiving." 

 


 

The five of them hit the dance floor together, the way they always do; it seems smaller than usual, and Piper keeps inadvertently surveying the groups in her eye line: girls from the tennis team, or from drama class, and then, not as far away as she'd like, her older brother, Polly plastered against his side, Jessica and the others milling nearby with Danny's friends, Larry included.  

Strange, sharp resentment starts to stab between her ribs, leaving Piper irrationally annoyed at everyone here, like they're the ones who have stolen her ability to properly lose herself in the moment.  It's never been this hard before.  It sours her mood.

Alex stops dancing at one point, wraps a hand around Piper's arm and pulls her close enough to say into her ear, "Are you okay?"   

Piper's throat tightens as an unwelcome instinct to pull away from Alex zips through her.  She can tell by her girlfriend's voice that it's not really a question, but just the easiest way to express concern.  

Still, Piper just nods, and tries to make her smile look okay.  She leans close to Alex, just so she can hear her.  "I might go look for Cal.  See if he's having an okay time."  

"Oh.  Okay.  Want me to come?" 

"It's okay, I'll be right back.  Just gonna...circle the room."  

Piper moves to the outskirts of the dance floor.  It had just been an excuse to walk away for a minute, but she really should check on Cal, at least say hello.  Predictably, she finds him with a couple of other boys leaning against a wall not far from the table set up with punch and refreshments.  

She's hit with a warm rush of fondness for her little brother, looking young and awkward in a suit their mother made him buy over the summer.  She doesn't approach his friends, just waits until he catches her eye and beckons him over.  

"Hey." 

"Yo."

"Having fun?" 

He wrinkles his nose.  "It's lame.  Shitty music."  

Piper rolls her eyes; she'd take the Top 40 hits tonights DJ seems to favor from the screaming-as-singing music that had been blaring out of Cal's room their last break home.  "You should stop hugging the wall, buddy."  She nudges his shoulder teasingly.  "Didn't you say you missed having girls around?" 

His face tinges red.  "Yeah, but, come on.  Like I'm going to first meet anyone here.  You're supposed to go to dances with girls you already know.  Not like...the first time you talk to someone is asking 'em to dance."  

Piper grins a little.  "Like a Jane Austen novel."  

"Huh?"

"Never mind." 

"You know it's weird meeting like this.  That's the only you woulda ended up dating one of Danny's friends.  Cause they were the only ones you had an 'in' with." 

The last traces of her smile vanish.  "I never dated anyone."

"He said you went out with his roommate." 

"Barely." 

"And no one since.  See?  Hard to meet people."  

Cal obviously doesn't mean anything about her not dating anyone: he's got his own point to make, but Piper stiffens anyway. 

She wonders idly if Larry ever heard the rumors about her and Alex, if it had finally made her abrupt rejection on Valentine's Day make sense.

"You should talk to someone," she tells Cal, trying to shake off her own anxiety.  "Just introduce yourself, awkward or not." 

"Uh, gee, thanks, Mom." He scowls at her, but it fades abruptly into a leer.  "Wanna hook me up with one of your friends?" 

"My friends are juniors."  And mostly gay.  "But maybe you'd have a chance with Polly when Danny goes off to college and inevitably dumps her again."

"Are they back together?" 

"Seems like it tonight, at least." 

"They're dumb," Cal mutters without explanation.    

He lumbers back to his friends soon, and Piper wanders to the refreshment table for some punch.  There are a couple teachers standing close by, pretty much guaranteeing it's not spiked.  She's glad.

"Hey."  

Piper glances over just as Alex rests a hand on the arm that isn't ladling Kool-Aid into a cup.  "Hey.  Sorry, I just left Cal." 

"All good.  Just got bored without you."   She glances around, as though checking if there's anyone in earshot.  "Hey, do you maybe just want to head back to the dorm?"  Alex arches a single eyebrow.  "Doesn't seem like you're feeling this."  

There's an unspoken sentence stacked beneath that one, an entreaty to go back to their room and be normal again, and Piper wants to agree.  She wants to hide behind the safe doors and walls and get as close to Alex as she wants.

But a new instinct whispers through her head: what will people think?  

How would it look for them to leave a dance so early?  Why would they prefer to be in their dorm room alone? Those questions carousel through her thoughts, around and around, and surely the answer is obvious.  Piper doesn't want to create more evidence in the case against her.

So she says, "No, it's fine.  We should stay."  Then, as if Alex is someone else, someone who can't read her like an open book, Piper pastes on a smile.  "Sorry, I don't mean to be weird.  Worried about Cal." 

She can tell Alex is barely suppressing a sigh, but she goes along with it.  "Okay then.  He's not having fun either?" 

"He's wallflowering it with a couple of other guys."  Grateful for the change of subject, forced or not, Piper nods in the direction of her brother and his antisocial buddies.  "Just kept going on and on about how hard it is to meet girls this way."  

Alex grins, and it loosens the knot in Piper's stomach.  "I sympathize.  I'd be going a little crazy, too, if my school hadn't literally dropped a pretty girl right in my bedroom.  Poor kid."  She pauses.  The opening bars of a slow song is playing, the first of the night.  Suddenly, Alex smirks.  "I got an idea.  Can't hurt to try to bolster the kid's social standing."  

She taps her knuckles lightly against Piper's elbow, and then strides over to Cal and his cluster of awkward freshmen.  Piper watches as her girlfriend holds out a formal hand to her brother, his friends opening gawking.  Cal's red faced and biting back a smile as he sheepishly follows Alex onto the dance floor.  She winks at Piper over his shoulder.

A smile creeps slowly across Piper's lips as she watches the two of them, Alex with her arms draped lightly on Cal's shoulders, saying something Piper can tell is meant to make him laugh.

It's a sweet sight, but jealousy quickly chases Piper's contentment like a sharp, bitter shot of alcohol.  She should be the one dancing with Alex.  

But it's her own fault that she isn't.  

She watches them for the rest of the sickly sweet chorus before looking away, angry and embarrassed in a way that makes her wish she was drunk after all.  

Then Larry Bloom sidles up to her. 

"Hey, Piper." 

"Oh.  Hi."   She hasn't talked to Larry at all in the last year, beyond a few vague greetings at Overbrook basketball games.   "Um.  How's everything going?"  

"Good, yeah.  Ready for this semester to be over so I can coast.  Early college acceptance is a beautiful thing." 

"So you know where you're going?"  

He grins.  "Yup, decided on UPenn."  

"Wow.  Congratulations, that's awesome."  She frowns.  "You're not rooming with Danny again, are you?"  

"If he goes there, we might.  He's still considering Cornell."  

"Jesus, why do that to yourself again?" 

That makes him laugh.  "C'mon.  We've lived together four years. I'd miss the guy if we end up at different places....though that might just be senior nostalgia.  It's already hitting me, like...ah, last ever Overbrook football game - even though I never gave a shit about them anyway."  Piper laughs, letting her gaze dart to Alex, checking if she's watching.  She isn't.  

For something to say, she jokes back, "Does that mean you're filled with sentiment about your last ever winter formal?"  

"A little, yeah."  He tilts his head and smiles.  "Wanna close out this song with me?  For old time's sake?"  

Reflexively, Piper glances back at Alex.  

There's no reason for her to say no.

It's just a dance.

What will people think? 

"Sure."  

Piper follows him out to the dance floor, telling herself she agrees because it's harmless, but the truth simmers in her stomach: she'd rather be seen dancing with a boy than refusing one, even if it is her sort of ex.  Even if her girlfriend is one of the people watching.

 


 

"...and here's another thing you should do.  Once you start talking to a girl, figure out which sport she plays, and ask about her next game. No big deal, keep it casual.  Just show up with some friends.  Litch girls traipse their asses over to your school like every single dude sport is an important social event.  Guys never return the favor.  It'll score you points."

"Got it, okay."  Cal nods seriously.  His obvious nervousness about being on dance floor with a human female has long faded, and now he's regarding Alex with intense concentration, like he wants to memorize every bit of advice she gives him, the slow dance position of their conversation completely irrelevant.  "Anything else?"  

"I might be tapped out.  Those are all my Litchfield secrets."  She smiles.  "Just work that natural Chapman charm.  You gotta have it, right?"  

He snorts, an odd mix of self-deprecating and derisive.  "I'm nothing like Danny.  And Piper...she's been single the whole time here, too, right? Except that thing with Danny's roommate forever ago."  

Alex makes a non-committal noise, cautious now, and ready to let the subject die, but then Cal raises his eyebrows and nods at something off to the side.  "Maybe I spoke too soon on the forever ago." 

She turns, just in time to see Piper and Larry getting into slow dance position.  

The sight of it stings in her chest, and the first few seconds are all sick, shaky panic that throws her back in time to a year ago.  

But then her good sense kicks in and Alex just feels pissed.

But she can't go storming off without arousing the suspicions of Piper's brother, so she grits her teeth and finishes the dance in silence that quickly turns uncomfortable. 

"Hey, uh, thanks," Cal says when the fading music finally releases them.  "You're cool." 

She manages to grin at him, though she can feel Piper pointedly avoiding her eyes from across the dance floor.  "No problem, dude.  Remember what I said." 

He mocks salutes before retreating back to his friends.  

Alex walks purposefully over to Piper, her face a mask of carefully controlled calm.  She can see the regret seeping into Piper's features even before she gets there, but she doesn't even break stride, just says softly, "I'm gonna take off." 

"I'll come, too." 

"Nope, you said you wanted to stay.  So stay." 

Piper trails pitifully after her anyway.  They don't see any of their friends on the way, and Alex leaves the building without looking back, pretending Piper isn't right there at her heels.

They're almost back to the dorm before Piper finally speaks.  "It was just a dance." 

"I know," Alex replies, clipped and dismissive.  

They're quiet until Alex forcefully closes the door at the dorm's front entrance.  Then Piper tries again, "It wasn't a big deal, and there's no reason for you to be mad.  He asked, I was just being nice - "

"Okay." 

"So you're just going to get pissed off and passive aggressive?  Say what you want to say." 

Alex clenches her teeth.  "I didn't think I should, seeing as we're not safe in the room, right?  Aren't we being super fucking careful now?" 

That shuts Piper up, and Alex has to swallow against the first tastes of guilt. 

When Alex closes the door to their room behind them, pained, nervous silence engulfs the two of them for a long moment.  Alex walks to her side of the room, changing out of her dress.  She hasn't looked at Piper since the dance floor.

"Can we just get it over with?  Please?"  

"Get what over with?"  

"The fighting."

"Now you're gonna tell me when I have to fight with you?" 

"Only because you're already mad.  It's not fair to ignore me and not say why - "

"It seems like you should know why." 

"I...I know what you're mad about.  But you shouldn't be.  It didn't mean anything - "

Alex finally rounds on her.  "I fucking know it didn't mean anything, Piper!  That's not the goddamn point."  

"Then tell me.  That's what I'm saying.  What is the point?" 

"The point is that I've never asked you to do anything you don't want to do, that's going to make you uncomfortable.  Including dance with me at a dumbass school formal.  That's fine.  But I just thought maybe you'd have the bare minimum of decency to not dance with your ex as an alternative." 

Piper gapes at her for a second, face flushed.  Eventually, she stammers out, "He's not my ex, we were never - " 

"Oh my God, are you fucking kidding me?  That's what you feel like responding to?"

"He came up to me and asked...I didn't want to say no, I didn't want anyone to think..."  She trails off, eyes lowering to the floor.  

"Explain this to me, Pipes...you're saying the mindset of heterosexuals is such that...if you refuse to dance with a singular boy, whom you've already broken up with...they're gonna know you like girls?  That's what we're going with?"  

"I don't know..."  Piper's chin trembles, her eyes over bright.  "I don't know what to say about it.  It was a dance.  I knew you could see us, I wasn't trying to...it wasn't anything."

Alex leans back against her bed, exhaling a sigh and pushing a hand through her hair. "We gotta figure this out, Pipes," she says eventually, her voice quieter and less combative than before.  "I know Polly seeing us freaked you out.   But that was a month ago and nothing has changed.  It's all okay!  I can't promise you no one is ever going to wonder, but you're never gonna be sure about that no matter what you do."

"I know."  A few tears are rolling down Piper's cheeks, sober, silent crying that smudges her thicker than usual makeup.  "I'm sorry."

It's hard, not to go to her when she's crying, looking so lost and scared, but Alex makes herself stay where she is, throat narrowing with her own fears as she forces out, "Pipes.  Are you still sure about this?"  

"About what?"  

"This.  Us."  

Piper looks horrified.  "Yes.  Alex.  Jesus.  I love you." 

"I know you do.  But I'm still asking.  Maybe you're thinking this isn't what you want, or it's not worth it, or whatever...I don't know, if that's where this is heading, I just want you to tell me now, so we can jus - "

Then Piper's lips are on hers, fiercely kissing the question away.  

"Okay, okay," Alex murmurs against her lips, reaching up to take Piper's face in her hands, thumbing away tears.  Her voice scrapes out a rough whisper.  "I'm sorry.  Shouldn't have said that."  

"I love you," Piper repeats, thick and desperate.   

"I know.  Me, too."

She slips her arms around Piper's waist and hugs her hard.  

"Hey," Alex murmurs after awhile.  "You can tell me, you know, if there's anything I can do to make you less nervous.  That Shakespeare project was too much, I know, we won't do anything like that again - "

"But you were right, nothing happened after that project.  I'm just being stupid."

"You're not.  Well."  Alex gently tucks a blonde strand of hair behind Piper's ear.  "Dancing with Larry was a little stupid." 

 She bites her lip, still contrite.  "I'm really sorry." 

"No, it's fine.  I just.  You know, it sucked last year, seeing you with him.  Wishing it was me.  I guess I just got...re-jealous."  She makes a face at her own phrasing, and it puts some of the smile back in Piper's eyes.

"So...you did want to dance with me at a 'dumbass school formal'."  She turns abruptly and goes to her side of the room, grabbing her phone off the desk and holding it up to Alex.  "Would you maybe take a dumbass dorm room afterparty?"  

Moving close to Alex again, Piper scrolls through her phone until a song starts to play, and she looks up at Alex, expectant.  She is an aching kind of beautiful: her eyes red and rimmed with black, her smile scattering hope across her face.  It makes Alex's chest hurt.  

"Mmm-hmm," she hums out in lieu of talking, swallowing hard as she wraps her arm around Piper's neck.  "But you gotta lead."  

Piper rolls her eyes and laughs in relief, setting the phone on the nearest surface before linking her fingers at the small of Alex's back, chin tucked over her shoulder.  The song is some soft, sweet plucking of an acoustic guitar, more Piper's type of music than Alex's, but it's somehow perfect for this: a barely swaying dance in full light, Piper still in her dress and Alex wearing an oversized T-shirt and no pants.  

 


 

"Is it Polly?"  Alex says out of nowhere, later, when they're in Piper's bed with the lights out, having skipped a post-dance hang out with their friends for the first time ever. Piper stiffens slightly; she'd been lulled into believing they were finished with the bad part of the night.  

Not that Alex sounds angry, or like she's gearing up for another argument.  It's just that Piper hates talking about this.  She doesn't know how.  Her fears always sound so obviously ridiculous when she tries to put them into words.  It doesn't match the way they feel in her head, or sloshing around in her stomach.

"What about Polly?"  She half buries the words against Alex's shirt collar.  

"That she might be getting back together with your brother.  I thought maybe you're, like...afraid she's gonna tell him about seeing us kiss."  

"Yeah.  I kinda am," Piper murmurs, trying to make her voice sound near sleep.

But then Alex says, "Maybe you should talk to her," and Piper's alarmed reply comes out all too awake.  

"What?  No, I can't, I don't even want to...bring that up to her.  Ever." 

"Okay.  I get that.  I just meant, if you're seriously afraid it's a real possibility.  If you told her it's important to you that he doesn't hear shit, she'll probably listen.  You guys are pretty good friends now, right?"  

It's true she tries to hang out with Polly, just the two of them, fairly regularly now: she has ever since Polly's breakdown at the football game months ago.  And it's also true that Piper's anxiety swells every time Polly mentions talking to Danny more.

But it swells at the thought of having that kind of conversation with Polly, too.  Because surely she'd know exactly why Piper was concerned...

"I doubt she even thinks about it," Piper tells Alex.  "I'm just being paranoid."  

"Okay.  Totally your call, Pipes," Alex replies, but Piper can hear the slight note of disappointment, and it forces her to remember the worst moment of this whole night: Alex asking her if she was sure about them.

Fuck, Piper wants to forget she ever said that.  She hates that she made Alex doubt it.

"You okay?" Alex whispers against her temple, like she can feel Piper tensing around the memory.  

"Yeah.  Sorry," she answers, the apology automatic and not nearly enough.   

 


 

Piper and Nicky are the last two at the dorms the next day, the others already on their way home for break.  Nicky's got her car and promised to wait until the last straggler, even though it meant she had to witness Alex and Piper's goodbye - "Holy shit, you'd think you were about to get on separate lifeboats on the goddamn Titanic.  It's less than three weeks."  

Piper's phone buzzes with a text from her dad, and she looks up at Nicky, sitting across the dorm room from her on Alex's bed.  "You can head out, my brother says he's finally leaving Overbrook now."  

"Believe me, Chapman, I'm not in any hurry to head home.  May hang out for awhile even after you're gone."  

They're quiet for a moment, Nicky concentrating on her phone, fielding texts from some sophomore she'd made out with last night.  Then, hesitant, Piper says, "Nicky?  Your mom knows you're gay, right?"

Without looking up from her phone, Nicky replies, "Think so.  I've definitely told her, but she has a tendency to forget little personal details about her daughter.  My birthday, middle name, et cetera."   Piper falls silent in the face of that blunt honesty, but after a moment Nicky looks up.  "Why?  Oooh!"  Her eyes light up, gleaming with interest.  "Are you planning a Christmas Coming Out?  Making the Chapman family yuletide gay?"  

"No." 

"Fine, fine.  It's not like that's a ridiculous question.  You gotta do it eventually."  

"What?  Why?"  

"Uh, cause you and Vause are clearly on track to have some really obnoxious wedding someday I'm going to have to give a toast at." 

Piper smiles slightly at that image.  "Oh, well yeah.  Obviously.  But that's like...way off, after college."  

It's far enough away that it's easy to imagine.  She has this vague, unformed notion that adulthood will bring an obvious moment when she is too old to care what her family or anyone else thinks.  It's safe to believe that moment will come - Piper's got years to get herself there.  

 


 

Christmas break brings none of Thanksgiving's guilty reprieve.  Even though it hadn't lasted long, Piper kind of hates being away from Alex so soon after a fight.  When her brain tangles itself up remembering the things they said to each other - are you still sure about this are you are are you? - merely texting Alex isn't as effective a relief.  

The day after Christmas, she's restless and edgy and debating convincing her parents to let her go visit Alex, even though they've got plans to meet up at Nicky's lake house with the others for New Year's Eve in less than a week.

She's in her bedroom, one of Alex's playlists coming through her laptop speakers as she halfheartedly reviews for her history final.  There's a knock on the door, and Piper frowns slightly.  "Come in?"  It comes out like a question: Cal's the only person who ever comes to her room, and he never bothers to knock.

"Surprise!" Polly bounds into her room, grinning, and for half a second Piper's heart stumbles with empty panic, like she's been caught at something.  She even scans her room in a wild instinct - but of course there's no evidence of Alex there.

"Hey!"  She stammers out after a moment of recovery.  "What are you doing here?"  

"Riding with Danny to the ski trip," she answers like The Ski Trip is something Piper should know about.  "You guys are closer to Ryan's cabin than my place."  

"Oh.  Nice.  When are you guys leaving?" 

"In like an hour?  Hopefully.  But listen: you should come with us!  Apparently the cabin is like huge, and it's right on the slopes.  You ski, right?"  

"No.  I mean, yeah.  I can ski.  But I can't come.  I'm supposed to meet up with Nicky and Janae and everyone on Thursday.  Nicky's family lake house." 

"Ugh, we're all such obnoxious boarding school kids, huh?  Meeting at empty vacation homes across the state."  Polly says with a mock groan, flopping comfortably onto Piper's bed.  "But anyway...you should still come.  Just drive your car separate.  We're staying through New Year's anyway.  You can hang out with us for a few days and then drive to Nicky's."  

She has to drive to Alex's first, actually, to pick her up, but Piper doesn't say so.  "Where's the cabin?" 

"Sugar Mountain.  Danny said that's where you guys used to go?"  

"Yeah..."  

Polly seems to sense the slightest chance of acquiescence, and she seizes onto it.  "Please come.  Danny talks a big game like he's going to be on Double Black Diamonds all weekend, and I'm not on that level.  I need someone with less macho bullshit to ski with."  She rolls her eyes talking about Piper's brother, but she's obviously pleased to have slipped right back into the established girlfriend role.

Piper refrains from pointing out what she feels is a safe assumption that Jessica and the other girls in Polly's crowd will probably be present, and uninterested in machismo based skiing.  

The thing is, she's considering it.  Piper knows how her parents think: if she tells them she wants to leave for Alex's early, it will inspire a passive aggressive guilt trip about how she sees her roommate every day of the semester, and yet wants to spend the bulk of breaks with her as well?  

But leaving early for a separate event - especially a ski trip with Danny and his friends - would be much more acceptable, even though she'd be spending the same amount of her break away from home.

She could go tonight, stay just long enough to appease Polly, and then drive to Alex tomorrow. 

"You're thinkin' about it," Polly half sing-songs at her.  "I can tell.  Say yeeess." 

"Okay, yeah.  Why not?"  Polly lets out a victorious whoop, and Piper hastily adds, "I don't know if I'll stay very long, though."  

"It'll be more fun than you're thinking," Polly assures her.  "This is so great, do you realize we've never been drunk together?" 

"That is true."  Piper closes her laptop.  "Give me a few minutes, I gotta pack."  

"No problem.  I'm gonna go tell Danny you're coming with." 

"He'll be thrilled," she deadpans, watching Polly practically skip out of her bedroom before she grabs her phone to text Alex.

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 4:34 pm  

PIPER
[How do you feel about a slight change of plans]
[If I go with Danny and Polly to a ski trip tonight...I can bail tomorrow and come straight to your place.]

ALEX
[Color me intrigued.]
[I don't understand how the ski trip factors in, but I like the part about seeing you tomorrow.]

PIPER
[Idk my parents are weird.  If they think I'm on two separate trips, they won't make me feel bad about being gone for a whole week over break.]

ALEX
[Faulty logic but I won't complain.]
[Please don't hurt yourself skiing.]

PIPER
[Don't know if I'll even stay long enough to hit the slopes.]

ALEX
[Who all's going on this thing?  Or are you crashing a couples getaway???]

PIPER
[I don't know exactly.  It's Ryan Bassett's family place.]

ALEX
[Ooh la la.]

PIPER
[I know right?]
[Sure to be all our favorite people]

ALEX
[Do you have to actually go?  Could it just be a cover?]

PIPER
[I feel like I should.  Vouch the excuse with Danny]
[Plus Polly's almost as good as guilting me as my parents.]

ALEX
[No comment.]
[Keep me posted.  Not often we get glimpses of life beyond our superior social circle.]

PIPER
[Oh I plan to live text this whole experience.]

ALEX
[Accompanying snapchats too please]

 


 

The mountain house - cabin turns out to be a highly inappropriate descriptor - is as big as the Nichols' place at the lake, and there are more people there than Piper expected.  

She'd predicted some of the attendees, of course: Jessica Wedge and the rest of Polly's crowd, plus Danny, Larry, and their group of friends.  But there's also a whole group of senior girls Piper doesn't know that well, and what seems to be a large mix of male basketball and baseball players.  

Within about five minutes of getting there, Piper's convinced she could sneak off right then without her brother noticing for the next week.  Polly, though, seems intent on sticking close, leading Piper over to Jessica, Madison, Bailey, and Sarah, none of whom bother to disguise their surprise at her presence. 

But she's already made eye contact with Larry, and she'd prefer to limit their interactions to a wave and smile across the room, so Piper sticks it out with the girls for now.   

There's a massive pizza delivery around eight, and by then the scene around her resembles every house party Piper's ever seen in a movie.  It's strange to think how foreign this is: she's been drunk, and stoned, plenty over the last year and a half at Litchfield - much more than she likely would have been if she'd stuck at her old high school - but boarding school doesn't really lend itself to huge parties.  The closest they've come is winter and spring formal, where the drinking has to fly under the radar.  

Tonight, though, it's all on the surface - literally, bottles and solo cups becoming the house's primary decor shockingly fast.  There are beer pong and flip cup games on anything remotely resembling a table top, music playing through the giant flat screen television with its surround sound set up.  

Piper makes herself a few drinks just to have something to do, and regrets it by the time she finishes the third, pizza gone and chaos peaked: if she was sober, she could have slipped out and gone right to Alex's.  She may not be very experienced with parties, but this seems like the kind that's going to rage on for hours.

Polly finds her in the corner texting and links their arms together, dragging Piper toward of circle of people sitting on the floor.  "Come play Circle of Death.  It's a skill-less game, just excuses to drink."  

"Didn't think anyone here needed excuses," Piper retorts, and Polly snorts in amusement.  

"You sound like Alex sometimes."  

"Huh?" 

"All sarcastic."  

They join the outskirts of the circle, and Polly nudges some guy Piper kind of recognizes from Danny's basketball games to make room.  In the center of the circle is a tall can of PBR, a few cards stuck underneath the tab.  The rest of the deck is splayed face down around the beer.  

A senior girl across the circle is drawing a card from the floor as Piper folds her legs under her and sits.  She holds it up, revealing a six of hearts.  "Six.  Chicks." 

"Drink, ladies!"  A guy beside her announces.  The girls, Polly included, lift their cups to drink, and the guy on Polly's other side leans around her to look at Piper in interest. 

"Hey, you're Danny's sister, right?"  

Another boy overhears and turns toward them, too, adding, "Don't you date Alex what's-her-name?  The girl who sells weed?"  

Chills breeze across Piper's skin at the question, but before she can answer, the first guy counters, "Nah, I thought Alex dates that Nicky chick." 

They look at Piper, expectantly.  She's aware of Polly listening, too.  "Um, I'm just Alex's roommate."

"Wait, is she with Nicky?"  Polly asks, eye suddenly bright with interest.  

It's a knee jerk reaction, to hear Polly's question as an opportunity and blurt out, "They're just, like...it's not anything serious."  She remembers her conversation with Alex at the ping-pong table, way back in her first month of Litchfield, jealous without the ability to name it as jealousy.  "Friends with benefits, I guess."  

Polly smirks.  "Good, cause I was gonna say, Nicky cheats on her a lot."  

Piper stares down at her drink, suffocated by contradictions.  It's a harmless lie.  It turns her stomach.  

Someone in the circle draws an eleven of spades, and everyone in the circle seems to know that means to hold up three fingers for 'Never Have I Ever'.  They're past two relatively harmless ones - "had a tattoo" or "gotten caught drinking at school" - before Vella Sadler, from Piper's chemistry class, smirks and shouts out, "Never have I ever....eaten pussy."  

There's some jeers of unfairness from the boys, all of whom lower a finger (though there are probably some liars among them), and Piper's face heats up.  She's afraid Polly is watching her but doesn't dare check.  

She drains the rest of her Solo cup - tequila and lemonade and sprite - just for an excuse to get up, nudging Polly and muttering that she needs a refill.  After, she sinks onto a free corner of one of the brown leather couches rather than return to the game, pulling out her phone like a security blanket.

PIPER
[Ugh.]

ALEX
[Uh-oh]
[Not having fun undercover?]

PIPER
[I was an idiot and drank and now I can't drive to your place to escape them.]

ALEX
[Don't blame you for needing alcohol around that crowd.]
[Just gotta stay camouflaged.]

"Hi."  

Piper hits the side button of her iPhone, darkening the screen, as Larry Bloom collapses onto the couch cushion next to her.   "Hey."

"I didn't know you were coming."  

"Polly convinced me last minute.  As in, an hour before they hit the road."  Larry looks pleased by this information, and Piper quickly adds, "I'm only staying tonight.  It's on my way to Nicky's, we're all meeting there for New Year's."  

"Nice."  Larry's quiet for a moment, sipping from his own cup.  "So.  You having fun tonight at least?" 

"Yep," she replies automatically, but it's so unconvincing that he immediately starts laughing at her.  She makes a face, amending, "Well.  It's okay."

"Not into parties?"

"I don't dislike them on principle or anything.  I can kind of see the appeal, if it's a party made up of your actual friends."  She says that harsher than she means to, and a little loud; she's well on her way to properly drunk. 

But so is Larry, judging by how long he nods before finally answering, "This doesn't really seem like your friends' kinda scene, though." 

"I dunno...Nicky and Poussey like anything where there's drinking.  And I bet Janae and I could be a kickass beer pong team." 

"Wellll.  Would you have any interest in being a mediocre ass beer pong team?"  Off her blank look, he clarifies, "With me.  Sorry, did you not get that?  I shoulda said it." 

"Oh.  Like, you wanna play?'

"If you want."  

"Ummm..."  She glances over at the closest, and largest, beer pong table in the dining room; her brother and Ryan Bassett have been playing for at least half an hour.  

Piper has no idea if she'll be any good at beer pong.  But she really likes beating Danny at stuff.  

And playing a game surrounded by a drunk and captive audience is probably better than staying alone on this couch with Larry.  

"Sure, let's do it." 

"Sweet."  He beams, getting up off the couch.  "One sec, I'll go tell them we got the next available round."  

There's another pair waiting in front of them, so it's another fifteen minutes before the play, but Larry spends the interim explaining the House Rules...beer pong turns out to be more complicated than Piper had assumed, but she decides not to worry too much about what bonuses can be achieved from bouncing balls or landing in the same cup as your partner.  For her first time playing, she'll be lucky to be able to get a ball in a cup at all.  

Danny and Ryan are still the standing champions when she and Larry step up to the table.  Danny's obvious wasted, his bravado and natural obnoxiousness cranked up to eleven. "Uh-ooooh, Pooh Bear's stepping up to the plate!"  

She grits her teeth and scowls at him. "Don't call me that."  

He ignores her, practically yelling, playing to the crowd.  "You know we're five and oh, Pooh, so don't feel bad if it's a crushing defeat.  I'll try not to skunk you."  

His partner, Ryan, slings an arm around Danny's shoulder and points right at Piper.  "You know skunking means streaking, right?  That's the punishment."  

Danny thwacks him in the chest.  "Dude, fuck off, you're not making my little sister streak."  

Ryan's eyes widen.  "That's your sister?"  He looks at her again, as though reassessing.  "You never told me you had a hot sister."  

Piper grimaces distastefully as Danny corrects him, "Don't even bother, Ry, not gonna happen.  Ask Bloomer if you don't believe me."

Piper narrows her eyes across the table.  "Fuck off, Danny."  

Beside her, Larry flushes and mutters in an undertone, "I'll just refill these..."

As he pours his beer into the triangle of Solo cups, Piper pulls out her phone and promptly googles, Beer pong tips.   

She really, really wants to beat him.  Th ere's no time for a learning curve.  

But it does takes her a few tries to adjust to the unfamiliar motion - reciting the internet's tips silently to herself, thumb and middle finger, throw in an arch, all in the wrist, eyes on the back rim of the cup - but Larry keeps them even with Danny (two cups for each team) until Piper finally scores one. 

Larry whoops beside her, pulling her into a sideways hug that's probably a little patronizing - like it's an amazing accomplishment for her - but Piper's elated enough to reciprocate.  

"Don't get cocky, Pooh," Danny warns her before chugging the beer from the cup she'd landed.  

"Don't get nervous, Danny," she counters.  "Remember your first year of YMCA basketball."  

His smile drops into a murderous, warning look as his friends ooh and demand to know what happened at the YMCA.

"Will you go already?"  He snarls, directed at Larry, who tosses the Ping Pong ball without much preparation and misses.

After that, Danny seems to shift into an altogether more serious phase of his beer pong game, all intensity and concentration, no longer joking or trash talking between turns.  It doesn't do much to help his game, though, and Piper and Larry both score additional cups before Danny and Ryan do, leaving them with only one left to eliminate.

"Oh my God, are you winning?"  Polly sidles up to Piper, then raises her voice so Danny can hear.  "Please beat Danny, this game makes him so fucking antisocial."  

"No problem," Piper says sweetly, directing the response at her brother rather than Polly.  

It takes a few rounds, with Piper cursing loudly every time she throws and misses, and Danny and Ryan nearly catch up - aiming at a singular cup is harder - but she beats him.  It's her throw, a perfect swish into the center of the red cup that results in cheers from the crowd, Danny's jaw clenching in fury, and Piper's own obnoxious victory dance as she calls over the noise, "Hey, Danny, how do your basketball skills not help you out here, like, at all?" 

He tries to save face - "You won one game tonight.  One.  You caught me five in already."  - but the crowd is definitely ooh-ing at her burns, not his.  It's a triumphant, glowing feeling.  She takes out her phone.

PIPER
[Just crusehd my brother in beer pong.  Broke his winning streak and ruined his night, no big deal.]
[So the party is looking slightly up]

ALEX
[Congrats, babe.  Go Assassins on his ass.]
[His ass-assins? Idk there's probably a pun there.]

"Kind of a kickass team after all, huh?"  Larry says, nudging his shoulder against hers and making Piper quickly put her phone back in her pocket.  

"Yeah, that was fun.  Thanks."  

"You know we play again, right?  Winners stay up."  He nods across the table, where Jessica Wedge and some guy are setting cups back up.

And, hell, Piper would really enjoy beating her, too.

 


 

Text Message, 12:13 am

PIPER
[update: Just wonk game 4]

ALEX
[That's super hot.]

PIPER
[I know right pretty prod of myself]

ALEX
[As you should be]
[Who's your partner?  They pulling their weight or are you carrying all these victories?]

PIPER
[Polly.]
[Shes fin but its mostly me]

ALEX
[A little drunk there, Pipes?]
[You're not winning any textual spelling bees tonight.]

PIPER
[Drinking a lot of beer.]

ALEX
[Hence the name of the game I guess.]
[Keep crushin it, babe.]

PIPER
[Just for you]
[;)]

ALEX
[HA I know you're drunk when you start using emojis.]
[Such a flirt.]

 


 

Piper and Larry lose on their fifth game, which brings Danny some comfort, even though he isn't the one to beat them.

She ends up on the couch with Larry again; he's drunk and slurring out hyperbolic recaps of their victories.  It's darker in the house now, the living room getting by with dim lamps and Christmas lights, and the music seems louder.  

Without preamble, Larry suddenly nudges her elbow and says, voice full of beer soaked confidence, "So I know why you broke up with me when you did."  

"I didn't technically break up with you," she says.  It's always been important for her to clarify that.  

He clutches his chest.  "Oh, wait...so we're still together?"  

Piper giggles; everything he says seems funnier right now.  "I mean because we weren't technically together."  

"You walked out of a Cheesecake Factory on Valentine's Day," he insists, and hearing it stated outright like that makes her keep giggling.  Larry starts, too, talking around laughter, "So I get to call it a break up, since that's the kind of self... self-deprecating anecdote I can tell to make girls feel bad for me in college."  

"Why would you want girls to feel bad for you?"  

"I'm planning to play the whole Nerd thing for all I can.  It's pretty much what I've got to work with."  

"True." 

"Hey!"

"I was just agreeing with you."  

"Fine.  But back to what...the thing I started to say."

"You started to say something?" 

"I said I knew why you broke up with me.  It was because you were still in freshmen mode."  

"I was a sophomore."

"Yeah, but.  But.  You started as a sophomore.  So it was still your first year here.  So you were still in freshmen mode even without being an actual freshmen." 

"What does freshmen mode have to do with the Cheesecake Factory?" 

"See, I have a theory."

"A theory."

"Freshmen at boarding schools hardly ever get into serious relationships.  Basically for all the reasons you said.  It's all so new, it's like...who needs more?  Freshmen are getting so used to the new friends and the new school that having to cross the lake all the time to see a significant other is a pain in the ass."  

"You've thought this out a lot,"  Piper murmurs absently, only half-listening.  

"'S why I called it a theory.  And here's where it gets interesting.  That's freshmen mode, right?  And then it comes full circle by senior year...same thing.  Seniors don't wanna start new things.  They're on their way out.  And freshmen don't wanna start new things cause they're...on their way in."  

"Wow." 

"Yeah.  I'm thinking of writing a thinkpiece for the paper." 

"You think the fact that freshmen and seniors aren't likely to get into relationships is groundbreaking enough for an article?" 

"Not particularly, but Overbrook's school paper has a very low bar for groundbreaking." 

Piper huffs out a laugh.  Larry's arm has ended up flushed against hers, and he's tilting his head a little so his breath lands on her cheek when he talks.  The pitch of his voice dipping, he says, "So, what I'm saying...there would be no reason for you to leave Senior Me alone in a Cheesecake Factory."  She turns to look at him, finding him closer than she expected.  His furrows his eyebrows, poking out his bottom lip in an exaggerated pout.  "All alone.  With an unopened gift.  On Valentine's Day.  Alone.  Valentine's. Cheesecake."

Piper laughs.  Then he kisses her.

She doesn't stop it.   

 


 

It could go a long way to calm Piper's anxieties, back at school.  The knowledge that this room full of people, including her brother and Polly, have seen her make out with a boy, on a couch in the middle of a house party while The Chainsmokers play.

It's a safe choice, because Larry is graduating at the end of the school year, and going off to a college out of state.  This can just be a one time thing, he's not going to try to take her on dates or be her boyfriend.

This party doesn't even count, none of this is PIper's real life.  She's undercover, she's camouflaged.   She's not even supposed to be here.

But Piper doesn't think any of that until after they've finished kissing.

In the middle of it, and even at the beginning, she's too drunk to try to rationalize.  All she knows is this is easy.  To kiss a boy without thinking about it or caring who sees.  And she likes Larry.  Only that, only likes him, for these few hours at the beer pong table and Ryan Bassett's leather couch, and that's easy, too.  

After awhile, though, he moves away from her enough to mumble out, "You want to maybe move to a bedroom?" 

"I think, um, that all the bedrooms here are claimed." 

"I meant for just...for like a little while."  He raises his eyebrows, a question.

Piper blinks up at him, her thoughts all clouded with alcohol and the strange, lazy disconnect that comes from kissing for too long - eyes closed, surroundings blocked out - but it only takes a second for brutal, shrieking clarity to level her.

"No.  No."

"Oh.  Okay, that's fi - "

"No, no, no, I can't...I can't have done this."  

Larry frowns, face twisting in confusion like he can't possibly make sense of her verb tense.  "Huh?"  

"Sorry, I'm sorry..."  Piper stammers, though she doesn't mean to apologize to Larry.  Her hands are shaking.  She shoots up from the couch, stating firmly, "I'm really drunk."  

It's an absolution too late, a request for off the record after she's already spilled secrets.  

Fuck fuck fuck fuck.  

It's okay.  It's not so bad.  It's not like she slept with him.  

It's not like it mattered.  

It could go a long way to calm Piper's anxieties....

It's a safe choice, because Larry is graduating...

This party doesn't even count....

 


 

She stumbles out a side door in the kitchen and vomits into the snow, emptying herself of every stupid, worthless kiss. 

Then she sits on the very edge of the porch, her shoes sunk into the slush, shivering in her jeans and thin sweater against the harsh, punishing chill in the air, and Piper gets out her phone and calls Alex.

"Hey, you."  Her voice is so warm.  "Does this mean you finally lost a game?  Or did you retire in a blaze of glory?"  

"We lost," Piper says softly.  She closes her eyes, lets her forehead drop into her palm. She's dizzy and her throat feels scraped raw.  She wonders if Alex can hear it in her voice, hear that she's different, hear what she did - 

"You okay?"  

"Yeah, I, uh...just feel kinda sick." 

"Fuck, Pipes, do not puke on the phone with me, okay?  I love you, but I can't listen to that.  I'll get vicarious nausea."  

"Don't need to worry about that.  I did it before I called."

"Ooh, wow, seriously, babe?   Shit, you hit it hard tonight...trying to make up for your sober formal?"

"Ha."

"Hey, listen.  How about you go get some water and go to sleep, okay?"  

"No.  No, I want to talk to you." 

"Okay, if you're sure.  Just remember the rule...avoid your mouthpiece if you're gonna throw up again.  And I mean that in the most loving way possible." 

"I didn't wake you up, did I?"  

"Nah.  I've just been watching TV and enjoying your updates." 

"Is your mom working?" 

"Yeah.  Stuck with late shifts for the next week since she got Christmas off." 

"I'm, um.  I'm gonna come straight to you in the morning, Alex.  I don't wanna ski or anything, I'll just get up and get in the car." 

"Uh.  You know I can't wait to see you, Pipes, but maybe wait to assess the hangover situation.  Don't want you driving when you feel like shit." 

"Yeah.  Okay.  I think I'll be good to go though."   

They're quiet for a long moment.  

"Pipes?"  

"Hmm?  What?"   

"Are you crying?"  

"No, I just...my nose is running cause it's fucking freezing out here." 

"You're outside?!"  

"Yeah.  The music is still on in the house so I had to go where I could hear you." 

"Piper.  Go inside now." 

"But - "

"It's like thirty fucking degrees out.  And you're in the mountains, so it's worse.  Go in.  We'll text, okay?"  

"I wanna stay on the phone." 

"You sure everything's okay?  Did something happen?" 

"No, I just...I don't want to be here."

"I know.  Shit shows with people you hate aren't fun."  

"No."

"Do you have somewhere to sleep?"  

"I'm not sure."  

"You know I'd come get you if I could, right?" 

"Yeah.  I know.  Cause you're the best." 

"Damn right.  But listen.  We'll see each other tomorrow, okay?" 

"Okay."  

She hears Alex sigh into the phone.  After a moment, she says, "Fuck it, you know what?  Give me a few minutes, let me call Nicky or Poussey." 

"Wait why for them?" 

"I bet Nicky's still awake, it's kind of far but...I'll tell her I'll cover all the New Year's booze if she comes and gets me.  We can take her car to you, and then go straight to the lake house.  She'd probably be thrilled to leave early. I would have to drive your car...yeah, that could work.  It'd take her like an hour to get to me, though, and then another two for us to get up to Sugar..."

"Alex, no, you don't...you don't have to do that.  No.  Thank you but that's a lot of extra driving and we still wouldn't get to the lake until morning.  It doesn't make sense."  

"I don't like you miserable and sleeping on the floor."  

"It'll be fine.  There's at least one couch per person, seriously.  I'm just drunk and whiny.  I'll be asleep before you can get here."  

"Sure?"  

"Yes. Thanks." 

"Okay...maybe go stake a claim on one of those couches just in case.  And get out of the damn cold."  

"Okay."

"Text me when you're up in the morning."  

 "I will." 

"But again: not while you're puking."

"I won't." 

"You good?"

"Yeah." 

"Love you, Pipes."

"I love you, too.

"Night."  

"Night, Alex.  Goodnight."  

She waits until she hears Alex's side of the line go dead, then drops her head into her heads, loosening her throat enough to thoroughly cry.   

 


 

By the time Piper goes inside, her hands are numb, her face stinging from wind and sticky with tears.  The party had actually wound down quite a bit while she and Larry were on the couch - Fuck, how long had they fucking made out?  - and by now the music is off and more than half the crowd seems to have dispersed to other rooms.  

Piper half stumbles into the kitchen, the only room still fully lit, and grabs an empty Solo cup to fill with tap water, rinsing the taste of bile and shame from inside her mouth. 

The furniture in the living room is occupied, the carpet spread with sleeping bags and, in the corner, an air mattress set up by people who were obviously more prepared for this sort of trip.  

She doesn't see her brother or Polly anywhere.  Or Larry, thank God.   

Her stomach feels clenched and watery, but Piper still wants to drink more, wants to force alcohol into her bloodstream until it washes out the memory of this whole night.  She's never blacked out drunk before; the idea of it has always kind of scared her, but now she's craving the obliteration.  

If she can't remember kissing Larry, it's like it never happened.  And Alex won't be able to sense it on her, won't realize anything's wrong if even Piper herself manages to forget something is.

But it's too big to get rid of, like alcohol can't drown the worst parts of her.  She just manages to drink enough to fall asleep on the living room carpet, blanketed only by guilt.  

 

Chapter Text

I never wanted you to hurt too much to touch.

And I Drove You Crazy // Banks

 


 

Text Message, Sunday, 9:32 am

POLLY
[Hey you awake yet?]
[I didn't see where you ended up last night and don't want to go creeping into every bedroom]

Text Message, Sunday, 10:07 am

POLLY
[You okay???]

PIPER
[Yeah, sorry...I actually left already]
[Would've texted back sooner but I've been driving.]

POLLY
[Wait you left like for good?]

PIPER
[Yeah on my way to Nicky's.]

POLLY
[I don't get it.]
[I thought the whole thing was you staying to ski with me.]

PIPER
[I know, I'm sorry.]
[The house was so crowded]
[I literally slept on the floor.]
[I felt weird being there.]

POLLY
[Seemed like were having a good time last night with Larry.]

PIPER
[We were both pretty drunk.]
[Sorry I gotta go, I'm about to be driving again.  Just stopped for gas.]

POLLY
[Fine.]

PIPER
[Sorry about the skiing.  Probably too hungover for it anyway.]

POLLY
[K]

 


 

Over New Year's, Piper drinks herself wasted every night to forget about what she did last time she drank.

Yet it's easier than she thought it would be, to slip back into normalcy around Alex and the others.  She fits so well inside their group and all its warm familiarity - playing board games and sharing joints and watching deliberately shitty movies.  Being at the lake house makes that night at the ski cabin, surrounded by near strangers, feel like some hazy dream.   

The first day or two after, she does get stuck in a few breathless moments of panic and ends up in the bathroom scouring Facebook and Instagram for photos of the party, making sure she and Larry aren't in the background somewhere.

But soon, the feeds she's checking fill up with chair lift selfies and evidence of subsequent party nights, and Piper breathes a little easier.

On New Year's Eve, she kisses Alex at midnight, to the taste of champagne and resolution.  It feels like good timing, this holiday that's all about fresh starts and resolve to improve yourself.  She kisses Alex like it's a promise written across a blank calendar, a countdown to being better and braver.  

She leaves her mistake back in December, staining mountain snow she hopes has melted by now.

 


 

"God, I'm so sick of this," Alex groans out, dropping her forehead against her open text book, nose in the crease.  After a moment, she sits up and jumps off her bed, coming over to sit on Piper's desk instead.  "Can I cheat off you for our Euro final?"  

Piper smiles down at her thick stack of notecards, determined not to be distracted.  "I think Clover might notice if we have the same answers on essay questions."

"Oh, c'mon..."  From her perch, Alex crosses her legs and shuffles her ass to further obscure Piper's textbook.  She pointedly raises her notecards in response, but Alex just barrels on, "We'll figure something out.  We can make a trade...I'll let you copy my chemistry test in return." 

Piper pauses, frowning, and then lifts her gaze.  "What's that supposed to mean?"  

Alex feigns confusion.  "What's what?"

"Why would I want to copy your chemistry test?"

Alex tilts her head, eyebrows up.  "I mean.  You know." 

Folding her arms, Piper keeps her expression challenging.  "I don't, actually.  Explain yourself."  

Smirking, Alex uncrosses her legs in favor of straddling Piper's desk chair.  "I really don't want to rehash a semester's worth of test scores." 

Piper scoots her chair backwards, rolling her eyes.  "Fuck you." 

"We all have our strengths and weaknesses!  That's why I'm asking you for help."  

"Yeah, but in history.  You only don't know it because you never do the reading." 

"Which is one of my weaknesses."  She manages to hook her heels around the front legs of Piper's chair and pulls her close again.  

Piper nearly tips forward, has to stretch her arms across Alex's thighs.  She leaves them there, grins up at her.  "I feel like you're angling for a study break." 

"I was genuinely just angling to cheat off your Euro exam, but a study break would work, too."  

Piper lets out a shout of laughter as Alex lands on her lap.  She lets her notecards drop and scatter onto the floor when Alex kisses her, and everything is so, so good.

 


 

The first week or so after they got back to Litchfield after break, Polly had seemed residually annoyed with her for bailing on the ski trip without ever doing any skiing.  She gets over it pretty fast, but Piper still throws herself into finals and uses it as a prolonged excuse to avoid Polly.  There are a couple nights where Piper wakes up in the middle and can't get back asleep, kept awake by the peaceful sounds of Alex breathing and her own imagination, spinning scenarios where Polly walks up to her in front of Alex and makes some jokey comment about Larry and what happened in the mountains. 

So it feels safer to just stay away from Polly for awhile.  

But a month into a fresh semester, Piper starts to feel truly, properly removed from the ugliness that ended last year, and she and Polly are able to have a perfectly pleasant post-class conversation, no longer shadowed by either of the damning kisses Polly's witnessed.  

"What are you up to tonight?"  Polly asks her as they file out of their last period class, the only one Piper has this semester without any of her usual crowd.

"Nothing really.  Alex has an away games on a Friday, for some reason, and no one else has made any plans." 

"Wanna go to movie night?"  

"Sure," Piper agrees easily.  "Do you know what they're showing this week?"

"No.  I'll find out.  Worst case we can just watch something on Netflix in my room."  

"Okay, just text me."  Piper definitely owes Polly a proper hang out, so she's grateful for the innocuous plan...and the fact that it won't even interfere with her hanging out with Alex.  

When she gets back to their dorm room, Alex is already there, changing from her uniform into her soccer jersey.  Piper smiles at her.  "Hey, glad I caught you.  Wanna wish you luck."  

Alex looks at an imaginary watch on her wrist.  "Thanks, but I don't think we have time for a proper send-off.  Gotta head to the bus in two minutes."  

Grinning, Piper catches the sleeve of her jersey and pulls Alex against her.  

"Best I could do," she hums out when they finally pull away from a staggering, lengthy kiss.

"Damn impressive."   

"I still wish I was coming.  This is technically your first start in a regular season game."  

"True, but it's Benningdale.  They're kinda shitty, doubt I'll even get shot on much.  Nicky has limited tolerance for attending any and all sports events, so you're better off saving your rides for better games."

"I could always just borrow her car.  She doesn't have to come."

"Good luck with that.  You may notice no one else is allowed to drive her precious Beamer.  That's why she chauffeurs me to the liquor store instead of just letting me drive on my own."  Alex stuffs her orange goalie jersey into her duffle bag and slings it over her shoulder.  "Fuck, I need to go.  I hate that this is on a Friday.  What are you guys up to tonight?"

"I don't know about everyone else...I told Polly I'd go to the Friday movie with her."

"Ugh, have fun.  I think it's another gay week in the student councils make movie nights more inclusive crusade...and they've run through of the two decent lesbian movies, so now it's like that dumb Katherine Heigl thing where she and Rory Gilmore act like the first gay people to ever exist."  

"Damn.  I didn't even known what was playing when I agreed."  Piper hopes her unease doesn't show on her face; low quality or not, she doesn't especially want to watch a lesbian film with Polly.  

"Try to get out of it," Alex suggests.  She kisses Piper one more time, habitual and soft.  "Either way, do wait up."  She winks. 

"Of course.  Good luck.  Text me score updates."  

"Will do.  See ya tonight...to award my victory."  

"Obviously."  

Piper keeps her smile on until Alex closes the door behind her, and then she quickly pulls out her phone and spends a few minutes crafting a casual text to Polly.

PIPER
[Hey, Nicky says tonight is some Katherine Heigl movie that isn't supposed to be very good.  Wanna maybe pick an alternative?]

POLLY
[So glad you said that, I was about to text you.]
[Found out Overbrook's showing Ferris Bueller.  Wanna go there instead?  ]

Piper grimaces down at her phone, trapped now.  She absolutely does not want to go to Overbrook, for any reason, but now she's left withouta plausible excuse.  Polly obviously knows she's free, and she was the one to complain about movie preference.  There's no way to get out of this without raising more questions.   

PIPER
[Yeah that's fine.]
[Unless you want to just go with Danny.  Seriously that's cool.]
[We could just raincheck and do something else later this weekend]

POLLY
[No way, I haven't even asked Danny if he wants to come.]
[Not trying to make it some big date or anything.]
[Wanna meet to walk over there at like 7:30?]

PIPER
[Sure.]

 


 

Danny does come to the movie.  Piper knew he would, it's one of his favorites, but she's less prepared for Larry showing up.  It's pretty much the nightmare, worse case scenario - like she planned it this way, the four of them on a goddamn double date - but Piper's acutely aware she can't object in front of her brother or Polly. 

When they get to the Overbrook auditorium, she tries to hang back in order to orchestrate the seat order, but it seems like Polly and Larry are doing the same thing, and they outnumber her with their identical objective, so she ends up between them.  

As soon as they're sitting, though, Polly pivots away from her to drape her legs over Danny's lap.  Piper rolls her eyes, annoyed.  Larry keeps trying to engage her, as though she hadn't ignored three texts from him in the week after the ski trip.  It's harmless conversation about senior traditions at Overbrook, but even just talking to him now feels like she's doing something she shouldn't.  

Her phone buzzes, and she keeps it in her purse to check.  It's a text from Alex: the Litchfield soccer team is apparently up 2 - 0 at halftime.  

It's a relief when the movie starts, so Piper can focus on the screen and pretend she's watching it alone.

Larry waits until the art museum scene, and then he very abruptly drapes an arm across the back of Piper's seat.  His arm isn't exactly around her - it's just touching the seat - but then he lets his hand drop onto her left shoulder, index finger absently tracing loops against her shirt.

Piper stiffens at the touch, and she cuts her eyes to the other side to check if Polly's watching.  Even entangled in her boyfriend, she catches Piper's eye and grins approvingly.  

She goes very, deliberately still, like if she doesn't relax into his touch at all than it isn't really her choice to let this happen.  But she's got that same selfish feeling from the party, like this isn't a terrible image for people to have of her - at a movie, a boy's arm around her - even if the only people are Danny and Polly.  

But it's not actually cheating...this is less touching than that slow dance.  It's fine.  She's not even doing anything. 

Convincing herself how fine it is takes most of her focus for the rest of the movie, and sometime after Cameron's father's car gets destroyed, Larry whispers, the word warm against her ear, "Hey."  

She turns on instinct, and then he's kissing her.

This time, Piper feels and tastes the wrongness right away. There's no liquor to coat it over...or to excuse her behavior, but she lets it happen for a moment, anyway.  

But only a moment, and then Piper wrenches away, face burning.  "Um..."  Her voice is shaky and thin.  "There are teachers walking around."  

He nods, but apparently takes the fact that she kissed him back as automatic permission for him to hold her hand.  

Somehow, that feels more strange than making out with him, his hand like some misshapen, foreign object that doesn't fit right.  Piper pulls away after less than a minute, and this time doesn't offer an excuse, staring fixedly at the movie.  

She has to end this.  For good.

When the movie ends and the lights go up, Polly and Danny conduct some sort of complicated, eyebrows based conversation, and then Polly turns to Piper. "We're gonna go back to the dorm room for a little while, okay?"   

Piper clenches her jaw, irritated at what this evening has turned into, and unfairly blaming Polly for all of it.  "Dorm curfew's in like an hour." 

"I know.  Swear I'll meet you in time to walk back."  

Danny gives her a fake chuck under the chin - "Good seein' ya, Pooh Bear." - and then he and Polly are gone.  

Larry turns to her, rolling his eyes.  "So...I guess I'm not allowed in my room."  He raises his eyebrows.  "You want to, like...go hang out in the dorm rec room or something?"

"Um...can we just take a quick walk?"  Then, before she can talk herself out of it, Piper blurts out, "We need to talk, anyway."

 


 

"This isn't a good idea.  To keep doing this...whole thing."  

They're sitting on the steps of Overbrook's main academic building, even though it's dark and cold, but Piper's dead set against going inside a dorm building with Larry, even just to the rec room.  

"Okay..."  Larry frowns like she's said something absurd. "That's fine, Piper, but I, uh, didn't think we were doing a thing.  I meant what I was saying at Ryan's place...graduation's not that far off.  Not interested in anything beyond casual." 

It's miles and miles from the point, but Piper can't help herself.  "Hand holding during a movie doesn't really casual.  Just so you know." 

His face burning scarlet, Larry sheepishly ducks his head.  "Yeah, okay.  I'm not really good at just hook ups.  Doesn't come naturally, I guess."  He rubs the back of his neck, nervous.  "Especially since, um...I do still like you." 

Piper slumps back against the step, suddenly exhausted.  "You don't even know me."  

"I know some.  Your brother and I have been best friends for four years."  

"Danny doesn't even really know me..."  She closes her eyes.  "Look, casual or serious isn't really the point...what happened, on the ski trip, that was a mistake.  I shouldn't have done it, and I can't do anything like that again.  Fuck, I shouldn't even be hanging out with you." 

"Oh."  Larry's face folds into a bewildered sort of hurt.  "Okay.  That's...pretty clear."  

He stands up, and Piper does the same, the whole moment like an exhale of relief, but then he turns to face her again.  "Can I ask why?  It's just...I never really understood what happened the first time.  And it's kind of intense to say it was some huge mistake to make out with me...I mean, it was just a party."  

Piper's throat narrows.  She's got this feeling, all of a sudden, like she has to tell the truth.  As though it's the only way to make what she's done okay, to turn this big, twisted fuck up into something that had to happen for her to finally claim her relationship out loud.

Larry misreads the silence, adding, "If you're worried about leading me on - "

"It's not that."  Piper's voice catches, an unmistakable precursor to crying.  "It's just, um...it's really complicated, and..."

She can't say it.  Her voice is quivering and her eyes are soaked and she still can't say it.

Larry is staring at her.  Slowly, hurt and confusion recede from his expression, realization taking over.  

"Oh."

There is an entire epiphany balled up in that single syllable.  

Because of course if Danny's heard the speculation then Larry has, too.  And of course Piper is acting like someone who cheated, not at all like an unattached single girl who only made out with an unattached single guy at a party.

She should say something now, either to deny or confirm, feign confusion, maybe.  But all she does is stand on the steps with her arms wrapped protectively around her own stomach, sniffling and trying like hell to blink back an onslaught of tears.  

Larry huffs out a disbelieving, laugh-adjacent breath, staring down at the pavement for a second, but by the time he looks up, his expression has softened.  "Um. Listen, forget it.  If Danny says anything, I'll just tell him we don't wanna start anything when I'm about to graduate.  He should honestly take that advice with Polly, anyway.  It's...it'll be okay."

Piper just nods.  

After an uncomfortably long silence, Larry turns to go.  He's down the steps and onto Overbrook's cobblestone walkway before he looks back.  "Uh.  Do you know Ben Soloway?"  

The seemingly randomness of the question catches Piper off guard.  "What?  No.  I don't think so." 

"Oh.  Well.  He's on the basketball team, he's one of Danny's good friends.  Mine, too, but that doesn't really...what I'm saying is, a lot of the team kinda gave him shit when he started dating Owen West, but Danny never did.  He didn't care."  Larry shrugs, awkward.  "Just telling you.  Night."

When he's out of sight, Piper sits down on the steps again, overwhelming relief and anxiety twining nauseously around her intestines.   

Her fingers are trembling when she pulls out her phone, checking it for the first time since the movie started.  She's got a series of texts from Alex.

ALEX
[5-0 in the second half]
[Mendoza just took me out to give that freshmen she's training as my eventual replacement a chance.]
[Ah just realized you're probably in the movie now.]
[Watching Katherine Heigl attempt to muster up chemistry with a woman]
[Tragic]
[Whoops now it's 5 -1.]
[I know I should be pissed she blew my shut out, but I kind of like the reminder that I deserve to play full games]
[5-1 final score, heading back now]
[There's a singalong of Party in the USA happening on this bus, save me]
[Back in our room.  Would come join you for Heigl time but I don't wanna crash your date with Polly.]

The texts take up the entire screen.  Piper presses her thumb to it, evidence of Alex unthinkingly sharing every part of her night, touching base even without answers.

She quickly types out a reply, then stands up and walks off, not interested in waiting for Polly.

PIPER
[Ended up going to Overbrook to see their movie instead.]
[Ferris Bueller, better choice.]
[On my way to you now.] 

 


 

She takes the shortest, lakeside path from Overbrook's campus to Litchfield.  The cold is starting to sting her cheeks, and she doesn't want to think about anything but getting back to Alex, to their room, where she can hide inside their normal.  

"Piper!  Hey, Piper, wait up!"  It's distant enough that Piper doesn't immediately recognize the voice, and she winces before turning, steeling herself for Polly, but it's Janae, jogging easily to catch up to her.

"Oh, hey," she says, relieved, when Janae's within earshot.  "What were you doing at Overbrook?"  

"Trevor invited me to hang out." 

Piper raises her eyebrows.  "Trevor Vann?  Didn't know that was a thing." 

"Yeeeeah, we been texting a lot.  He was flirtin' hard at the dance."  

"Nice.  He's cute." 

"Uh-huh."  

They start walking again, and after a moment of quiet Janae clears her throat and says, "Listen, there's not a not awkward way to get into this, so I'm just gonna tell you:  Trevor and I were at the movie.   We were like two rows behind you, and...I wasn't trying to get in your business, but I saw."  

A cold block of dread forms in Piper's chest.  She keeps walking, but it's happening on autopilot, and for a few seconds all she's doing is waiting for this moment to reverse itself, to just...stop happening.

"Piper?" 

"It's not...it's not anything."  Panic shoves the words out, the pitch of her voice jumpy and erratic.  "J, it really isn't, he kissed me...and I stopped it, and then I talked to him, just now, he knows.  Like, about me and Alex, he knows now, which is kind of...scary, because he's my brother's best friend, but I had to tell him I couldn't do anything like that, I swear I told him..." 

They've stopped walking now, and Janae shifts awkwardly.  "Okay...my thing is, though...he had his arm around you at least half that movie.  And when he kissed you - the time I saw, anyway - "

"It was only once - "

" - it just seemed like a guy who already knew it was okay to go for the kiss.  Know what I'm sayin?"  

Piper takes a breath and it comes out this terrible, crooked noise.  She covers her face with her hands, trying to get herself together.  "Okay.  Okay.  Toward the end of last semester, right before Thanksgiving break..."  Janae's eyes go wide, like Piper's about to confess she's been carrying on some affair with Larry for that long, and she hurriedly finishes, "Polly saw me and Alex kissing.  And I...I played it off, but it freaked me out.  She told me that there were all these rumors, people already wondering if me and Alex are together."

"Uh, you didn't know that already?"  

"No.  And she told me my brother had heard them, and...with them getting back together, it scared me that she was going to tell him what she saw, and they were going to decide it was true..."  Piper's voice falters.  Her heart is pounding so hard it hurts.  She should be back by now, Alex will be wondering where she is.  

Janae's just watching her, waiting for more.  

In a small voice, she finally finishes, "That night I went to that ski cabin with them, it was this huge party...and I got drunk, just...wasted drunk, and Larry and I made out."  

Janae sucks a breath through her teeth.  She's bouncing on the balls of her feet, and there's not exactly judgement in her expression yet, but maybe it just can't break through how obviously uncomfortable she is to be having this conversation.  

"But that's it.  I was drunk, and I only did it because I didn't want my brother to think...it would not be okay if my family found out, and ever since Polly saw us it's like I can't breathe right.  I just wanted to not be worried anymore, to stop obsessing over what they think about me.  So I did it, and I haven't seen him since until tonight and I didn't even know he was going to be there, even though it looked like a double date it was supposed to just be me and Polly and then he kissed me and I stopped it and then I talked to him and he knows now and you can't tell Alex." 

Janae sighs, tipping her head back.  She's quiet for a long moment.  "Look.  It ain't like I'm dying to run to Alex and tell her all that.  Not my place.  But...c'mon, now.  You can't ask me to just...know this secret forever.  That's messed up."  

"But it's not a big deal!"  Piper insists shrilly.  "It's done."

"So tell her that."

"I can't fucking tell her any of this!  I can't."  

"It'll be better coming from you than me." 

"So, what, you're just...threatening me now?  If I don't tell her, you will?"  

Janae grimaces.  "Come on, Pipe.  Don't say it like that.  Don't make this worse than it already is.  You're both my friends.  I don't wanna go behind your back and narc to your girlfriend.  But I don't want to keep this from her, either.  It'd feel like lying.  So I'm telling you, as your friend...do the right thing here."  

Piper's crying now, and she just keeps shaking her head in desperate, staunch denial.  Janae sighs again, softening slightly.  "Look.  You can't know it's over.  What's gonna stop Polly from making some comment someday in front of Alex?  Or, hell, your brother could...she stays at your house sometimes over break, right?  The only way it's really over is you tell her yourself.  And maybe it'll be okay."

"It won't," Piper half-sobs.  "You know it won't, she'll never...she's gonna hate me."  

"I don't know about that.  But...she has a right to know."

"Fuck that.  Fuck you."  Piper is so goddamn scared - that's what this feeling is: visceral, blood draining fear - and it's making her mean.  "You have no fucking idea what this is like....I didn't cheat because I thought it'd be fun.  You can't understand how shitty it is when the best thing in your life sometimes feels like it's gonna just..."  Her voice trembles and snags on spiky, painful truth.  "...blow up the rest of it."  

Piper wipes her eyes with her sleeve, and Janae just stares at her, solemn and unyielding.  Finally, she agrees quietly, "You're right.  I can't understand that.  And I know you love her."  She gives Piper a conciliatory pat on the arm.  "But this already sucks.  You gotta not make it worse."  

They're quiet for a long time.  Piper's desperate, hoping for some kind of plea deal, a way to bargain this down.

But Janae just checks the time on her phone, only breaking the silence with normalcy.  "It's ten til, we gotta jet to make curfew...wanna walk?"  

Tight throated, Piper shakes her head, and Janae nods slightly and then jogs off without her.  

Piper stands alone in the quiet cold, stunned.  She has to go back to her room, right now, and ruin her own life.  She doesn't even have the option to put it off, to take even a few last hours where she and Alex just get to be happy, because she can't stop crying and she has to go straight back to their room for dorm curfew check.  Alex is going to see how wrecked she looks, and she'll ask what's wrong, and that'll be it.

Overwhelmed, Piper stumbles over to the nearest tree and leans against it.  Her phone buzzes a few times in a row.

ALEX
[Two minutes til curfew....cutting it shockingly close, Chapman.]
[Really, though, you okay?]
[I'm starting to regret making a joke, please respond so I know you didn't get attacked by the lake]

Piper stares at the screen.  She needs to answer, but she's paralyzed by the realization that this could be the last nice text Alex sends her.

She can't text back.  She can't walk back to the dorm.  She feels a little kid sort of scared, like she wants to just sit stubbornly on the ground and curl up in a ball until someone comes to pick her up.

Her phone buzzes again, the long, drawn out vibration of an actual call, Alex's name lighting up on the screen.  It take a few moments before reality breaks through the fog surrounding Piper; if she's not back by curfew and Alex hasn't heard from her, she'll tell Fisher when she comes around to do check.  And there'll be a search, except Janae will be right there on their hallway, and she'll know where Piper is, and she'll tell Alex...

PIPER
[Sorry almost there.]

 


 

"Jesus, Pipes, finally.  You texted you were on your way like an hour ago, I was kinda freaked out."  Alex's face falls when she gets a good look at Piper.  "Hey.  What happened, what's wrong?"  

Piper ignores her, avoiding her gaze.  "Did Fisher come by already?"

"Yeah, a few minutes ago.  I told her you've been sick and are probably in the bathroom, so you should go see her pretty fast.  But - "

"I'll be back.  One sec."  

It's over too quickly;  Fisher takes one look at Piper and believes the sickness lie, so Piper's left wishing the walk from Fisher's room to her and Alex's would last longer, that she could get stuck in it.

Alex is sitting on Piper's bed waiting for her when she gets back.  "You get in trouble?" 

"No.  She just thinks I'm sick now."

"I can see why that worked, you look kinda terrible.  C'mere."  Alex's nods her head for Piper to come sit beside her.  

Fresh tears are already biting at her eyes when she hoists herself up on the loft bed, and she nearly loses the fight with them when the first thing Alex does is take her hand, a gentleness to the gesture that matches the tone of her next question, "What's wrong?  Did something happen with Polly?"  

"No," Piper says, the word tight and strained with the effort of not sobbing outright.  "It's not her..."  

"Then what?"  

Piper shakes her head.  There isn't enough time: she should have been able to plan, figure out the best way to say this.   How to start at least.  Alex's thumb is skating back and forth on the edge Piper's finger, and she lowers her eyes to watch it.  She thinks for a second of just refusing to let this happen, call Janae's bluff, or maybe just try harder to get her to see Piper's side.

But then she feels a tear hit her cheek and Alex prompts, "Pipes?" and the moment is already too honest, so Piper breathes out the truest thing she can.

"I am so, so, so, so sorry."  

She can't bring herself to look at Alex, but she feels her hand go stiff, and a second later she untangles their fingers and pulls away.  Her voice isn't gentle anymore.  Just really, really quiet.  "What did you do, Piper?"

She doesn't really decide to start here. Piper just instinctively knows it's the biggest, worst thing so she just blurts out, "I....at Ryan Bassett's mountain house, that night I was there, I was really...really drunk, Alex, and I made out with Larry."   

The confession reverberates around the room like a gunshot.  Piper leans back against the wall, and she doesn't look at Alex.  It takes a long time before a reply comes, vibrating with controlled fury, "That was over a month ago."

"I know - "

"Have you been seeing him since then?"

"No.  God, no, Alex, of course not." 

"Bullshit.  Bullshit 'of course not',"  Alex spats.  "Like I should have any idea.  Jesus, Piper."  

"Alex - "

"Did you fuck him?"  

Piper flinches.  "No.  Alex, no.  I didn't...I didn't mean for this to happen.  We'd been playing beer pong all night, and I was so drunk...he kissed me, I just didn't stop it right away.  But nothing else happened." 

"Really?  Because you told me you were playing beer pong with Polly."  

Piper's stomach coils.  "That was...that was just because of the dance, I didn't want you to worry - "

"I fucking should have been worried.  Would you fucking look at me?" 

Piper does.  Alex's eyes are wet and blazing, the rest of her body held tight.  There's a muscle pulsing in her jaw.  She looks like something about to rupture.

Alex squeezes her eyes shut for a second, breathing sharp through her nose.  Slow and measured, she demands,  "Explain this to me.  Why are we talking about this now?  What happened tonight?  At his fucking school."  

Piper slides off the bed.  She can't stand being so close to Alex while she tells her all this.  She leans her elbows on the mattress and holds her head in her hands.  "I didn't even plan to see him.  Polly wanted to go see Ferris Bueller instead of the Katherine Heigl thing and...she invited Danny.  I guess he brought Larry, or maybe Polly told him to, I don't know, but I didn't know he was coming.  I haven't seen him all semester, I swear, but I guess he thought because of the ski trip...he put his arm around me during the movie, and he tried to kiss me again, but this time I stopped him and after the movie I told him I'm not interested in anything, that kissing him was a mistake, and he figured out why.  He won't tell Danny, but he also was telling me about some gay guy at Overbrook Danny's friends with."  

When no reply comes, Piper risks a look at Alex again, trying hard, "So see....now there's nothing to worry about.  And Larry knowing...that's a big deal."  She swallows.  "Maybe I needed that to feel better about talking to my brothers." 

Alex's face screws up in fury.  "Do you hear yourself?  Are you seriously trying to sell me on this as a good thing?  Like CHEATING is just some required part of your fucking journey?"  Her voice cracks clean open, hands literally curling into white knuckled, shaking fists.  "God, you are such a manipulative cunt."  

The word guts her.  It's a blade, shoved rough and deep.  Piper physically reels back from the bed, choking on a rising tide of sobs.  

"You can't say that doesn't matter," Piper gasps out when her throat has to open enough to breathe.  "It's not the same as if I just did it because I like him, or because you're not enough.  I was scared."

Alex barely even seems to be listening.  She's on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched, staring hard across the room.  "Oh my God, you called me that night.  And I knew you sounded weird, but I thought you were just drunk, and cold, and...Jesus.  Did you call me after or before?"

Piper slumps back against Alex's bed.  Admitting the answer makes her feel small.  "After."  

"Fuck."  The word breaks into pieces, and Alex is finally crying, too.  Piper thinks, suddenly, of that soccer game when Alex got a concussion, the most hurt she's been until now.  She's never seen Alex cry before; it's worse than watching her bleed.      

"Alex, please.  Please..." 

"Please what?!  What are you asking me to do?  Act like nothing happened?" 

"No, just...just let me explain."  

"You explained.  It's just not good enough.  You came to my house the next day and acted like everything was fine.  You spent that whole night lying to me over the phone...why the fuck should I believe you didn't hang up and go back to sleep with him?"

"I would never do that." 

Alex pushes herself off the bed and lands right in front of Piper.  "I don't know what you would do! I don't even fucking know it won't happen again...you apologized to me for dancing with him and then two weeks later did something monumentally worse."

"I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry,"  Piper chants, soft and frantic; she can't think of anything else worth saying, but she's afraid to stop trying it.

Alex teeth are clenched so hard it must hurt.  She presses her fists to her eyes for a moment, and when she speaks her voice is quiet again.  "Why did you even tell me now?  It sure as hell wasn't a guilty conscience."  

Piper sits down at her desk chair, overwhelmed that there's still more to admit.  It takes a second to catch her breath.  Her head hurts and her throat is aching; it feels like she's been crying for hours.  "Janae was at the movie.  She saw us." 

Alex lets out a bark of unhinged laughter.  "Wow.  So you got caught.  That's the actual story here, right?   Otherwise you were never going to say anything.  And you could have kept doing whatever you needed to with Larry Bloom, as long as Polly or Danny were around to see it -"

"That's not true," Piper says weakly.  "I told Larry nothing else could happen before I had any idea Janae saw me."  

Alex looks her dead in the eye.  "Give me a single reason why I should believe you."   

Her voice is cold, and hard, and it makes her feel unfamiliar.  It makes Piper want to reach out to touch her, find a spot on Alex's skin that she knows.  

"I love you," she answers finally.  "You know I'm not lying about that."  

"Yeah, I do."  Alex sounds hollow, now, even out of anger.  "But it doesn't really seem to make any difference to how you act."

"I wasn't trying to hurt you."  

"Must just come naturally."  Alex runs a hand through her hair, and for a brief, flashing light of a moment Piper thinks they're through the worst of it, but then Alex gaps out out a low, smothered sob and mutters underneath it, "We're done here." 

"Wait...wait...we're done talking or we're done, like...we're over.  Alex?  What do you mean by done?"  

"I mean you don't have to worry about what anyone thinks anymore, Pipes,"  Alex's back is to her, she's stuffing something in her socer bag, and it sounds like she's crying."  You're free to let the whole fucking school see you with Larry now.  Make if Facebook official if you want.  Nothing stopping you."    

Piper's voice is a landslide, collapsing, and she grabs Alex's arm when she tries to push past her.  "Alex.  Alex, please, let's maybe take a day before we make any decision."  

Alex whips around to look her, rage and hurt swarming her expression, her next words both a weapon and a wound.  "This isn't me making a decision, Piper.  I physically cannot stand to look at you right now."  

 


 

Alex is in the hallway with the door closed behind her before it occurs to her that there's nowhere to go.  The basement is probably still full of girls, spending the gap between dorm curfew and light's out, which is about ten minutes away and thus rendering a covert escape to the woods useless - the building's silent alarm will be activated soon.  She sure as hell isn't going to go running to Nicky and Janae's room...facing them is impossible right now.  She doesn't want to hear the non-sugarcoated truth about whatever Janae saw, and she doesn't want to hear Nicky rail on Piper as another teasing straight girl.

She goes to the hall bathroom.  It's crowded, several of the showers running and a line of pajama clad girls at the mirror removing their makeup.  Alex keeps her head down and shuts herself into the end stall.

She really needs to cry, or maybe scream; she needs to do something until she blacks out from agony, but she can hear the chatter of conversation at the sink, reminding her there's an audience.   

It makes her nauseous, rewriting that night in her memory.  Piper texting her the whole party about beer pong games like she wasn't playing with the guy she'd be kissing later.  Piper on the phone, sounding miserable...Alex thought it was just drunkenness and the company of those idiots.  

Jesus, she'd offered to come pick her up.  She'd gone to bed worried.

Eventually the showers cut off and the voices are replaced by footsteps.  Alex looks at her phone; past light's out, and the bathroom is empty, but it feels like she's past the point of tears.  She's just exhausted, and there's nowhere for her to go.  

Because her room is actually their room, and she meant what she said; she can't stand looking at Piper right now.

Alex is afraid it will make her forgive her.

 


 

Piper sits on her bed with her knees to her chest, staring at the door and waiting for Alex to come back.  She's wracking her brain for some explanation or apology that didn't occur to her in the moment, some magic promise she can make.

An hour after light's out, she has to accept the fact that Alex isn't coming back.  She's probably sleeping on Janae and Nicky's floor.  

A fleeting thought about her friends, and what it will mean for her place in the group, skims through Piper's head but doesn't catch.  She can't think past Alex right now.

Piper turns off the light in case Fisher does a walkthrough and looks under doors, but she doesn't change out of her clothes, just sits on top of her comforter and tries to write a text to Alex.

She deletes and retypes a dozen times before she finally settles for the unedited, graceless honesty that comes in the middle of the night like uninhibited tears.  

 


 

Text message, Saturday, 2:21 am 

PIPER
[I'm sorry.  I love you.  I'll hate myself if I lose this.  I hate myself anyway.  All I've wanted for the past month is to take back what I did.  I didn't want to lie, I just wanted to pretend it didn't happen, that it didn't count for some reason.  Nothing but you counts for me.  Please come back.  Just talk to me.  I don't even know how to be here without you.]

 


 

It's 5:50 in the morning when Alex finally goes back to her room, moving quietly to avoid waking Piper, but she's barely closed the door behind her when she hears, "Alex?"  

She doesn't answer, even when Piper's desk lamp turns on.  She's still in her clothes, looking rumpled and wrecked, but Alex doesn't let her eyes settle.  She grabs her shower caddy and a change of clothes.

"Where'd you sleep?"  

"Not your problem," Alex mutters.  

"Can we just...talk or something?"

"I think we're done talking." 

"Did you see my text?"  

"Deleted it."  

There's a silence, and then Piper lets slip a quiet keening sound.  Alex grabs her headphones off the desk and sticks the earbuds in even before she plugs the other end into her phone.

A few minutes later, she turns the shower water so hot it turns her face red when the spray hits, and for the first time since last night she starts crying, in the worst way: painful and silent, her vocal chords stretching and straining for noise where there isn't any left.  

 


 

Group Text, Saturday, 9:44 am

NICKY
[AHEM Vause, Chapman, are you having some marathon session of morning sex that's keeping you from breakfast or what]
[There's only three of us at a table we look like losers]
[Did you ELOPE maybe?]

POUSSEY
[Uhhh if they ever elope we better be invited]

NICKY
[True we definitely have had to put up with a lot.  We deserve a trip to Vegas for our trouble.]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday 9:56 am 

ALEX
[Can you tell the others what's going on?  I can't take Nicky's shit right now.]

JANAE
[Yeah if thats you want.  I'll give em the short version.]
[You ok?]

ALEX
[No.]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 10:24 am

NICKY
[What the fuck Chapman.  Really???]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday 10:25 am

NICKY
[Where are you?  Need to come escape to our room for the weekend?  We'll harbor you, WWII style.]
[Or I could go give Chapman a reality check if you'd rather.]

ALEX
[Don't say anything to her.]

NICKY
[Seriously where are you?]
[Come on, sounds like you need to get very drunk right now.]
[You know we got your back on this.]
[Vause?]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 10:41 am

POLLY
[Hey, sorry to ditch you last night.  I barely made curfew haha.  Everything cool with you and Larry?]

 


 

 

Text Message, Saturday, 11:08 am

NICKY
[Where the fuck is Alex?]

PIPER
[I don't know, she's been gone for hours.]
[I thought she was with you.]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 11:11 am

PIPER
[You can come back to the room. I'll clear out for awhile.]
[Like as long as you need.]
[And then maybe we can talk?]
[But we don't have to, you can just have the room.]
[I hate this so much Alex.]
[Just tell me where you are.]

 


 

Her friends find her in the woods sometime after lunch, their usual smoking spot.

Janae and Poussey approach carefully, sympathetic expressions on their faces, but Nicky strides right up and sits down on the tree trunk beside Alex, scrutinizing her with a frown.  

"Jesus, Vause, we've been looking for you for hours. You know it's still technically winter?  The fuck?"  

"It was worse this morning when my hair was still wet," Alex mutters, her voice edgeless and slow the way it gets when she's stoned.  

"Shit.  You are baked," Nicky observes.  

"This is where I live now," Alex informs them lazily, closing her eyes and tapping pointedly at her earbuds.  "You can only stay if you don't talk to me." 

Poussey settles into one of the old lawn chairs.  "You got anything to get us on your level?"

"Nope.  All gone."  

They follow the no talking rule - or, at least, no talking that she can hear - for three songs.  Deep down, if she were to ask herself, Alex probably wants them to go away.  But she's high enough to not consider the question.  At this moment, with her headphones on and head tipped back, her friends are as inconsequential as the rusting patio furniture.

But then Nicky reaches over and rudely plucks her earbuds out.  "Okay, Vause, enough of your sad music wallow.  Let's go inside." 

"You can," she replies blandly.  

"Come to our room, alright?  No Chapmans allowed."

Before she can refuse, Janae asks tentatively, "So...did y'all break up?" 

"Of course they broke up," Nicky scoffs.

Poussey rolls her eyes.  "Were you there?"  

Alex puts her headphones back in, starts her music.  She knows now she wants them to leave, but can't come up with the words to demand it.  She's been here since practically sunrise, smoking weed like it's anesthesia.  She knows it will hurt later, that there is still lurking pain she'll have to feel, but it's like how surgeons always put patients under for the worst of it.  You shouldn't have to feel yourself being cut into and gutted.  It doesn't mean you won't wake up sore.

Her eyes hurt.  The inside of her mouth is stale and dry.

She tunes out her friends for another few songs.   Then:

"Vause.  Hey.  Alex."  

She looks blearily at Nicky.

"We're going in, it's cold.  Come with." 

"Nah."

They exchange looks.  Shrug shoulders.  Mutter.

"Fine.  But text us if you need anything, okay?" 

"Phone's dead," Alex replies, but not loud enough for them to actually hear her. 

 


 

Piper's never been so acutely aware of time passing.

She stays in the room the entirety of Saturday, waiting for Alex to come back.  It doesn't really feel like a choice; she can't move forward from here, so Piper puts herself on pause until Alex comes back and gives her some clue on how to fix it.

Her stomach starts to squeeze and roll in queasy protest around two o'clock, so Piper forces down a lunch of goldfish crackers and Coke Zero,  but mostly she just lies on her bed and watches the minutes slowly slowly rise on her phone's lock screen.  

She doesn't know where Alex is, and it's strange and wrong that she can't just text her and ask.  As it is, she starts to so many times, but the stinging memory of Alex saying she deleted her late night text stops her from sending anything.  

Sleep never really took hold last night, and by the time the sunlight starts to fade in the room, exhaustion has pried open some gate in Piper's head and flooded the room with memories.  

The first time she fell asleep in Alex's bed, drunk on bubbly pink wine and a thunderstorm soundtrack.  The two of them in her own bed, the laptop sitting on the dresser and playing Netflix, drifting off in the crook of Alex's arm to the sound of the Friends laugh track and the low vibration of Alex's laughter.  Alex reading Catcher in the Rye out loud for English Lit, her old white copy all smudged with fingerprints, the first time Piper had ever kind of liked that book.  

What the fuck is wrong with her?  

What the fuck?

What if she has to give up all that, the remarkable happiness she and Alex have always managed to carve out of the ordinary.  How could she have ever thought anything was a worthy risk?  

Eyes damp, Piper turns her face into her pillow in case one of the screams slashing up the inside of her chest rips free.  She only ever smells Alex on either of theirs beds.  She wonders if Alex only smells her. 

 


 

Alex finally comes back two minutes before Saturday night dorm curfew, and the sight of her briefly shocks Piper's pulse back to life.  

"Hey!"  She hops down from the bed.  "I was worried."

Alex doesn't answer.  She's pink cheeked and shivering, even in her coat and beanie, and her eyes are cloudy and unfocused.  

They go outside in the hallway, standing on either edge of the door frame to wait for Fisher to come by and do check.  Alex doesn't glance over at all, but it doesn't seem like she's forcibly ignoring Piper so much as not even registering her presence.  

When Fisher gets to their room, she gives Piper a sympathetic look.  "Feeling better today?"

"No," Piper says honestly without thinking.  

"Do you need to see the nurse?"  

Piper shakes her head, sneaking a look at Alex.  She's staring straight ahead with a vacant expression.

When Fisher moves on, though, Alex follows her back into the room, and Piper's momentarily encouraged. 

Alex goes to her side of the room and wordlessly starts changing clothes.  Piper leans back against the door like maybe she can trap her there.  "Al?" 

"I'm not here to talk to you.  I'm here because my stuff is in the same place as your stuff.  That's what we are now."  

The bland finality of the statement demolishes any hope Piper was holding.  Something wilts inside her chest and she can feel her face crumpling; she has to bite the inside of her lip to keep from crying again.

She's silent until Alex is in front of her, wearing pajama pants and a tank top and an unzipped hoodie, but she's carrying her messenger bag.  Her eyes are too red for it to just be weed.  

"Move."  

"Where are you going?"  She sounds so young, a little kid about to be left alone somewhere unfamiliar. 

Alex's eyes thaw for an instant, just long enough for them to look like living things again, but then she grabs Piper's shoulder and pulls her roughly out of the way, like she'd do anything to leave. 

 


 

Text Message, 1:13 am

PIPER
[Is Alex staying in your room?] 

JANAE
[No....]
[Haven't seen her since this afternoon.]
[She's not here at all?]

PIPER
[She came back for check but not for lights out.]

JANAE
[Oh.  I don't know then.  Sorry.]
[How are you doing?]

PIPER
[Shitty but thanks so much for asking.]

 


 

Text Message, 1:16 am

PIPER
[Hey is Alex staying in your room?]

POUSSEY
[Nope.]

PIPER
[Seriously?]
[I'm not trying to come after her or anything I just wanna know she's got somewhere to sleep.]

POUSSEY
[I haven't seen her.  Promise.]
[You try J and Nicky?]

PIPER
[Yeah.]

POUSSEY
[She was there for check though right?]

PIPER
[Yeah.]

POUSSEY
[Well, she's gotta be in the building then.]
[Maybe just waiting for you to fall asleep.]
[I'm sure she's fine.]

PIPER
[K.  Sorry to bother you.]

 


 

At 1:45, Piper's eyes are burning and her muscles feel heavy with exhaustion, but she can't get the knot of fear out of her throat and she can't fall asleep while it's there.  

Piper leaves their room with her key tucked in the waistband of her pajama shorts.  She doesn't even remember to put on her shower shoes, walks barefoot down the hallway and onto the disgusting floor of the hall bathroom.  It's dead quiet, but she checks behind every stall door and shower curtain just in case.

Then she takes the stairwell down to the basement and immediately feels dumb for not coming here first.  Alex is asleep on one of the couches, her hoodie spread over her like a blanket, tiny sofa cushion as a poor pillow, her glasses off but socks still on.  

The sight of her here unravels some final stitching in Piper's chest, severing a few lone heartstrings she wouldn't have thought were still holding together.  

 


 

Alex stirs awake to Piper's hand shaking her shoulder, Piper's voice saying her name, so thick with tears it needs to be wrung out.

"Alex?  Alex."  

"What?"  She's not awake enough to sound mean yet.  

"You don't have to sleep down here.  You really don't, just...just come back up to the room.  Please?  You can..."  Piper's voice twists and she sniffles.  Her eyes are shimmering; Alex thinks maybe it's only safe to look at her like this, nearly in the dark.

"God, would you go away?"

"I'll...I'll sleep down here, I should be the one to."  

"I don't care where I sleep, just get away from me."  The words are a scrape across her own throat, but at least they come out sounding rough.

She's staying right where she is, and good fucking riddance if Piper thinks that means she'd rather sleep on a couch than be anywhere near her.  Not that the idea of sleeping in her bed alone, but still close enough to hear Piper's breathing, is pretty much unbearable.  

Alex squeezes her eyes shut, trying to will Piper away like she's some sort of reverse nightmare, escapable only in sleep.  

But she's still there, kneeling on the carpet next to the couch, on her goddamn knees like a beggar.  She's sobbing like she wants Alex to hear it, and really, that is some kind of bullshit...

"Stop it!"  The words wrench themselves from Alex's chest, skin ripped off a scab.  She bolts upright with the force of them, and she has grip the couch cushions with both hands to keep herself from shoving Piper away.  "Stop fucking crying like I'm the one hurting you."  

She sees Piper make a visible, failing effort to contort her face into something unshattered.  She swipes at her cheeks and chokes out, "I'm sorry.  I don't want this, I don't want this to be over."

Alex looks away.  "Be careful," she clenches out, all bitterness and scorn.  "We're not safe in the room, someone could hear us, you wouldn't want that."  She can't help it, wanting to hurt her, even if she can't bring herself to watch the punch land.  

"I'll tell," Piper says suddenly, too loud and insistent.  "I'll tell everyone, Polly, Danny, I don't care, if that's what you want - "

"Fuck you, Pipes,"  Alex hurls back.  "Fuck you, you don't get to say that shit.  Don't act like this was ever about you keeping it a secret, like that's what I needed from you.  I'm not that person.  And you don't get to turn this into anything but you fucking it all up."

Piper sits flat on the carpet, like her legs can no longer support her.  "Okay," she whispers, like a chastened child: small and defeated.     

Her throat thickening with tears, all the fight abandons her and Alex pleads softly, "Please just leave."

It's come to begging, now.  Alex is so tired, and she can feel the weakness at the center of her own heart, wanting Piper so much it will break if it doesn't get to her.  It is a few aching beats away from giving in, from forgiveness....but that isn't smart, or fair.

Mercifully, Piper nods and staggers unsteadily to her feet.  Alex looks away, curls back onto the couch and tries to sleep on top of the crack in her chest.  

 


 

Sunday, Piper sleeps until almost noon.  When she wakes up, the pajama bottoms Alex was wearing last night are crumpled on the floor next to her laundry hamper, so Piper knows she's already come and gone.  She tries to tell herself that's for the best.

It's later than she usually sleeps on weekends, but still the day stretches dauntingly in front of her.  She's never been at Litchfield without Alex, not even before they were together.  

It's not like Piper has a lot of experience with this, but she knows one thing: when you break up with your girlfriend, you're supposed to get to run and cry to your best friend.  

But Alex is both.

Piper feels disgusting and unwell; she needs to leave the room today, try to resemble a normal person who eats and showers.

To do that, she needs to make plans with someone who will force her to pretend to be okay. 

 


 

Text Message, Sunday, 12:49 pm 

PIPER
[You up to anything today?]

CAL
[Not really why?]

PIPER
[Wanna hang out?]

CAL
[Why?]

PIPER
[Um because you live a ten minute walk away and I never see you.]

CAL
[And?]

PIPER
[And I was thinking we should remedy that.]

CAL
[Did Dad ask you to spy on me or something?]

PIPER
[No.]
[Jesus.  It's not like I asked to come look at your homework or anything.]

CAL
[Fine, just had to check.]
[What do you want to do?]

PIPER
[I don't know.  I could come over there and hang out.]
[Or we could see if Danny will let me take his car, go see a movie or something.]

CAL
[Are you on crack?  Danny's not letting you drive his precious car.]

PIPER
[Fine, then I'll just come to you.]

CAL
[I guess you could play Settlers of Catan with me and the guys]

PIPER
[I don't know how.]

CAL
[It's not hard to learn.]
[You'd probably prefer that to us playing D&D]

PIPER
[Yeah I would.]
[I may stop by the bakery and get a sandwich to go on my way, you want anything?]

CAL
[Oh you mean like you're coming now?]

PIPER
[If that's okay.]

CAL
[Yeah thats cool.]
[Get me a steak and white cheddar panini]
[Please and thanks.]

 


 

"Hey, books closed, nerd, we're taking you to a movie."  

Nicky dangles her car keys in front of Alex's face while Poussey and Janae lean on the opposite side of the library table, trying to look enticing.

"I don't want to go to the movies."

"Sure you do."  Poussey lowers her voice.  "We're bringing flasks and spiking our sodas.  Le's go." 

"Alternate plan is Facts of Life marathon," Nicky adds.

"Either way it's drinkin' and watching something shitty."  

Poussey and Nicky both whip around to look at Janae, mock offended.  

"Did you just besmirch the sacred name of FoL?"  

"Take that sacrilege back, child!"  

Alex nearly smiles, but it fades immediately as she realizes that this is the group now.  No Piper to make eye contact with every time she wants to share a laugh or an eyeroll.

"Thanks, you guys, but I'm not in the mood."

Poussey sighs.  "Al, you can't hoard up in the library or the woods all day every day."

"But since you can't even wallow in your own room," Nicky adds.  "Let us take your mind off it.  It's ridiculous you haven't gotten drunk yet anyway." 

"I'm smoking a lot of weed."

"We noticed."

"Cross buzz won't hurt." 

Alex sighs.  "Fine.  But. I don't want to talk about it.  Blanket rule, don't mention her."

"Agreed."

"Got it."

"Yes.  That's the spirit.  Points for enthusiasm."  Nicky raises an eyebrow.  "So, pick your poison:  Facts of Life home viewing or movie theater?"  

"Movies," Alex says firmly.  "I need to get away from here for awhile."  And she needs to not spend an entire Facts of Life drinking game instinctively turning toward Piper, having to remember over and over again that's she not there.

"Sweet."  She pats her backpack.  "We already packed supplies." 

 


 

Piper's been back from Overbrook for a couple hours, doing homework in their room when dorm curfew brings in Alex's brief appearance.  Her heart clenches like a fist, but she doesn't say hi or desperately request a conversation.  

But when they're standing outside their door, waiting for Fisher, Piper can't stop fidgeting inside the wrongness that she doesn't know what Alex did all day.  

"I played Settlers of Catan with a bunch of freshmen boys this afternoon,"  Pipers ventures conversationally, raw hope carrying the words.  "Lot of erection jokes."  

She pauses.  No response.

"Because wood is one of the resources you trade for.  And Cal and his roommate have a predictably mature wit."  

Piper checks Alex for a reaction.  She's staring at the floor.

When they've been confirmed present, Alex goes to shower.  She comes back with her hair wet and her pajamas already on, and Piper tries not to stare when she packs her messenger bag for the next day, something she usually does in the morning.  She leaves it on her desk chair, then grabs her phone and heads for the door.  

"You really don't have to - "

"Yeah, I do." Alex closes the door hard, a firm punctuation.  

 


 

Text Message, 11:02 pm

PIPER
[I was gonna say...you can sleep here, I promise I won't try to talk.]

 


 

Piper is glad for a weekday, the forced return to a structure and routine that will force her out of a room that feels too big and empty.

But she hasn't really been clearheaded enough yet to truly consider how different everything will be.  She and Alex were the thread that knit her whole life at Litchfield together, and now it's all coming unspooled.

That's how she ends up holding a tray with her breakfast, standing in the dining hall with nowhere to sit.  She's never had this moment before, not even when she was a new kid; day one, Alex was already beside her.  

She's got a gut feeling that there's no point in even trying to sit at her usual seat with her friends.  Alex can't even be in the same room with her at night, she isn't going to sit across a table from her and pretend that just friends is something they can ever pull off.

Drifting inconspicuously to the side of the room, Piper spots Polly out of the corner of her eye, heading to her table with Jessica Wedge and the others.  She could sit there.

But what would people think?  

She's ashamed of the thought as soon as she has it, but it's stuck in her head now, anyway, an annoying jingle.  People don't break up with friends like this, so quick and clean.  Friends gradually grow apart.  

How is she supposed to explain this? 

Piper's face is burning.  She wants to go home.  And for the first time in nearly two years that word seems to mean home home, Mom-and-Dad-and-childhood-photos home.  Boarding school doesn't work for her like this.  It doesn't work without Alex.

She sets her tray down on a counter by the drink station, grabs the apple off it, and heads to first period half an hour early.  

 


 

Alex doesn't mean to, but she looks up at the wrong moment and sees Piper standing in the front of the dining hall, seemingly paralyzed by the realization that she doesn't have a place to go.  

It makes her chest constrict.  She can't manage to get angry enough to enjoy this, to think Piper truly deserves to lose all her friends on top of everything else.

No.  Not all her friends.  She still has Polly.  And if what Polly thought was worth Piper going behind Alex's back with Larry fucking Bloom, then she'll just have to be enough.  

Still, Alex keeps her eyes on Piper until she leaves the dining hall, leaving most of her food behind.  When she turns her head, the others have obviously been watching, too.  Nicky's expression is impassive, but Janae and Poussey both look conflicted, at least a few shades of guilt.  

They follow the rules, though, not bringing up Piper or even acknowledging the break up by asking Alex too pointedly if she's alright.  

Class is the worst.  She spends all of Monday morning toeing the edge of tears anyway, but classes with Piper feel like she's dangling her legs over and leaning into the wind.  They share more than half of their class periods, and sometimes the seats they chose the first day of class became mandatory, so she spends history in the desk beside Piper's.  Alex never looks at her, but she can feel her there, like heat radiating off a fire.  It's excruciating. 

Alex's free period is before lunch, and she spends it smoking in the woods again.  She's got two more classes with Piper in the afternoon, and no fucking way she's going to endure them sober.  

 


 

Text Message, Monday, 3:21 pm 

POLLY
[Hey girl.]

PIPER
[Hey what's up]

POLLY
[Not much.  Fucking Monday, you know.]
[Everything okay with you?]

PIPER
[Why do you ask?]

POLLY
[Didn't see you at breakfast or lunch]
[And you and Alex didn't sit together in Rogers class.]

PIPER
[Oh yeah.  There's kind of some drama in the group.]

POLLY
[But with you and Alex???]
[I didn't think you ever fight.]

PIPER
[It's a long story.]
[I don't wanna get into it, it kind of involves some of her personal stuff.]
[But it's better if I take some space for awhile.]

POLLY
[Oooooh.  I think I gotcha.  Say no more.]
[You know you can sit with us at dinner.]

PIPER
[Thanks.  Maybe.]
[I just don't want Jessica to talk more shit.]

POLLY
[I'll tell them to be cool.]

 


 

"Well.  Who didn't see that coming?  Didn't take long."  Nicky nods across the cafeteria at the Jessica Wedge table, where Piper is sitting down beside Polly.  Alex grits her teeth, looks away.  

"I wonder what she told 'em?"  Janae murmurs, prompting a pointed throat clearing from Poussey, presumably a reminder of Alex's ongoing rule.  Janae sighs.  "I'm sorry, but c'mon, is nobody curious?  How's this look like anything but a break-up?"  

"Bet I know," Alex mumbles, surprising all of them.  She hasn't said much all day.  Three pairs of expectant eyes turn toward her. "She's probably saying I have feelings for her and can't handle just being friends anymore."  

"Christ."  Nicky rolls her eyes. 

Janae looks uncertain.  "Really think she'd even admit that?"

"It's the only thing that makes sense.  And it fits...Harper saw us kiss last semester.  She probably had to put that all on me, too."  

None of the others seem surprised at that anecdote; Janae must have included it when she told them what happened.  Which means Piper told Janae, probably as an excuse.  Whatever.

Alex closes her eyes.  She doesn't feel like eating.  She hasn't showered since Saturday, but she had soccer practice this afternoon, so she'll have to tonight.  She'd sucked at practice, still a little stoned from earlier, the weed turning her sluggish in the goalie box.  Coach Mendoza had been watching her, confused and a little disappointed, but it's hard to care.  

There's this voice that's always sighing in the back of her head, a broken record: What's the point?  

Why shower; no one's looking at you, anyway.  Who cares if you win a pointless game; there's no one waiting for you to text the score, no one who's going to congratulate you.  Why eat; it's not going to make you happy.

Alex still has enough vague awareness to know this is a dangerous way of thinking - she takes a bite of grilled chicken just to defy it -  but it's only been three days and she hasn't figured this out yet.  She'd even been short with her mom in texts all weekend because there's no way to tell her what happened yet without worrying her.  If she sends it as a text - actually Piper and I broke up so my weekend was only okay - her mom will drop everything and call.  She'll hear the fractures in Alex's voice before she finds a way to hide them.  

 


 

It's hard to sleep alone in their room.  

Being around Polly and her friends during the day forces Piper to find some semblance of okay, but at night it's just her and the jagged edges of Alex's absence, cutting her with every movement.  

She can't stand Alex sleeping on a basement couch.  She can't stand knowing Alex hates her that much.

 


 

Text Message, Thursday, 4:11 pm 

 

POUSSEY
[Hey, what you up to right now?]

PIPER
[Nothing.]
[Is everything okay?]

POUSSEY
[Yeah, just wondering if you wanna grab a coffee or something.]

PIPER
[Yes, definitely.]
[Now?]

POUSSEY
[You in your room?]

PIPER
[Yeah]

POUSSEY
[K I'll come get you in a sec.]

 


 

Piper already knew Alex has an away game on Thursday, and when Poussey texts her, she figures out pretty quickly that Janae and Nicky are traveling with the track team, as well.  

She has to change clothes quickly; since she got back from class, she's just been listlessly sitting on her bed, still in her uniform.  She's hurriedly pulling a sweater over her head when Poussey knocks on her door.

Piper throws it open and smiles.  She is stupidly glad to see her. "Hey."

Poussey grins back fondly.  "Yo, girl.  Missed you this week."  

"Yeah?"

"Mmmm-hmmm."  Piper had kind of thought they all must hate her now, or at least think terribly of her, but there's only warmth in Poussey's expression when she tilts her head and asks, "How you doin'?"  

The unexpected kindness and painfully sincere concern wallops her.  "I'm, um."  Piper's voice wavers and then collapses, tears arriving that fast.  "God, I'm sorry..."

Poussey's eyes widen.  "Whoa, okay, maybe we'll skip the coffee.  C'mon..."  She touches Piper's arm and guides her inside her own room.

They sit side by side on Piper's bed, and Poussey just lets her cry for awhile.  It's comforting to be upset next to someone, like her friend's mere presence acts as permission to lose it, an acknowledgement that yes, you're allowed to be sad.  Sometimes, Piper worries she doesn't have the right.  

As it is, when she can talk again, the first thing she says is, "I'm really sorry.  I know I'm awful, I shouldn't be acting like this..."  

"It's okay."  Poussey leans her shoulder against Piper's and pats her knee.  "I don't think you're awful."

"You should," she chokes out miserably.  "Maybe Alex didn't tell you everything."

"Alex didn't tell us at all.  She told Janae to.  So we know what you told her, I guess."  

Piper blinks out more tears.  "I ruined everything.  And Alex, God.  She hates me, she won't even sleep here.  She's sleeping on the basement couch..."  The whole mess of feelings is spilling out of her now, like they've been floating in her chest just waiting for release.  "I've never seen her face like that,  I can't believe I did that to her.  I don't know what to do without her, I keep thinking, I'll just explain, if I just explain it all, but Alex is right, I already explained, it just wasn't good enough.  I'm fucked up and a coward and that's the only explanation I have." 

Poussey's quiet for awhile, then says in a low voice, "It musta freaked you out, though.  When Polly saw you guys together.  Especially with her dating your brother, shit.  Makes me glad I don't have any siblings around here to see me and Brook together."

Piper looks over at her, surprised.  "You and Brook are together?" 

She arches an eyebrow.  "You didn't figure that out?"  

"Well.  Kinda.  But it's different when you tell us." 

"Fair enough."  Poussey smiles a little.  "It's not that serious yet...not like you and Alex, you know.  We've just been hanging out a lot since volleyball." 

"Nice...do the others know?" 

"Janae does."

"Oh."  Piper hesitates, then asks, "Sorry if this is weird, but...why just her?  When she's the only one who's straight?"  

"That's kinda it, actually.  Nicky and Alex, from the beginning of school...they're so sure, ya know?  To hear Nicky tell it freshmen year, she'd spent seven minutes in heaven with every girl at her middle school.  And Alex had kissed a few straight girls.  Even you...anyone could see how you felt about Alex, even before anything happened."  

Piper's heart contracts at that statement, and she fights herself to keep from diving into memories that used to be good.

"I'd never kissed a girl,"  Poussey continues.  "Or even had feelings for anyone that I was sure were those kinda feelings.  Ya know?"  Piper nods.  "I didn't know if I was allowed to not be sure and still talk about it.  Like they'd ask me to prove it or somethin' stupid."

She smiles, a little self-conscious, then shakes her head slightly.  "Anyway.  Just know...I get it.  My parents....I haven't figured out how I'm gonna tell them yet.  They love me, they're not gonna like...kick me out of the family, or anything.  They'd never even stop talking to me.  But they're old school, ya know?  Like military old school...even if they eventually tell me it's all okay, I don't think it's what they want."  

It takes Piper a second to find her voice.  Quiet, she admits, "I....I'm not sure my parents won't stop talking to me."  She wipes her eyes with her sleeves.  "My brothers won't, though.  And even if they would...I didn't have to kiss him.  I didn't have to hurt Alex."  

"Nah, you didn't," Poussey agrees, almost gently.  

She's afraid she might cry again, so Piper forces out a trembling smile.  "Kinda funny Janae turned out to be the only straight one out of all of us.  A heterosexual minority." 

Poussey snorts.  "Not like that's a coincidence."

"What do you mean?" 

"When Jessica spread all that shit about Alex, it was a big fucking deal.  Everyone heard, like, immediately.  Pretty sure that's what put her on Nicky's radar, and Janae was her roommate so she got dragged along to make friends.  And I thought maybe being around them would help me figure my shit out."  She smirks, then, swatting Piper playfully on the arm.  "Guess your bi ass getting roomed with Alex was the only real coincidence in the group formation."  

Piper doesn't smile.  "And now she's sleeping in the basement and I'm eating lunch with Jessica Wedge."  

"Yeah....that's sort of an insult added to injury, don't ya think?"  

"I don't know what else to do.  Polly's the only other friend I have here."

"I know.  But it ain't like we're all just done with you, ya know?  I mean, Nicky's definitely taking sides, but I'm obviously not ignoring you.  Neither is J - "

"I don't really wanna talk to her." 

"Hey." Poussey gives her a look.  "You can't be pissed at her, she didn't do shit.  She's not happy she got involved in any of this."  

"I'm not mad," Piper mumbles, her face tightening.  "It's just humiliating...she saw me letting him act like my fucking boyfriend."

Poussey pauses. "Is it true he knows now, though?  Larry, I mean."  

"Yeah.  Because he guessed.  I couldn't even tell him." 

"You worried?  He rooms with your brother, right?"  

"He does, but I don't know.  He seemed to get I didn't want Danny to know.  Honestly, I barely care now.  Which, I know, is fucking ironic."  

They're quiet again for a moment, and then Poussey claps her hands, buisnesslike.  "Okay, here's the plan.  We're gonna go and get food.  Then we're gonna come back here and watch a movie.  Easy and friend-like, aight?"  

Piper shoots her a small, grateful.  "Yeah, okay.  Thanks."  

Poussey hops down off the bed, but Piper stays where she is.  "Problem?"

"Just....how is she?"  

Poussey's face folds into sympathy again.  "I don't know if I should be talking about it with you, ya know?  But...c'mon, Pipe, you've seen her in class."  

"Yeah, I know." Piper says.  Her voice is brittle, and she looks over at Alex's empty side of the room.   "I keep wanting to check on her, but I'm not even allowed to ask."  

"C'mon," Poussey says softly.  "Let's grab dinner, okay?"  

 


 

Alex stops outside the hallway of their dorm room, searching herself for resolve like she always does before going in.  She's been treating it like a way station for the past week, or maybe just a storage unit: she changes clothes and drops off books, only lingering for the few minutes she has to for curfew check.

She's got about half an hour until then, but she's just spent forty minutes on a bus with her sweaty, demoralized teammates, and she wants a shower.  Really, she wants her bed, and has worked herself into bitter resentment over the fact that she can't sleep in it without having to endure Piper's presence.  

Turning up the volume of her music a few notches, she stalks angrily into the room, eyes already aimed away from Piper's side.

But it's unexpectedly dark, and for a few seconds she thinks it must be empty, but then Alex turns her head to see Poussey sitting with Piper on her bed, both of them eating from a bag of chips and watching something on Piper's laptop.  

"Oh, hey."  Poussey grimaces a little, not exactly guilty but definitely awkward, glancing back and forth between Piper and Alex.  

Alex tugs out one of her earbuds.  She makes eye contact with Poussey, making it clear she's just speaking to her.  "Hey."  

"How was the game?"  

"Lost two to one," she says flatly, dropping her soccer bag onto her bed.  

"Sorry.  That sucks." 

"I guess."  Alex grabs the towel and shower caddy off her desk, already heading out of the room again, muttering, "Gonna shower."  

She walks down the hall, not sure why she feels so sick.  It's not that she minds Poussey hanging out with Piper - actually, some stupid, weak part of Alex is kind of relieved that an actual friend is checking in with her.  

But Alex felt so much more deliberate, ignoring Piper when someone else is there.  For those forty-five seconds, for the first time, it felt more like cruelty than self-preservation.  

 


 

Poussey's wary around her the next morning, but neither of them mention it in front of the other.  After they go through the main breakfast line, Alex follows her to the cereal station.

"Hey.  Can I talk to you for a sec?"  

Poussey exhales slowly, like she'd been afraid of this.  "Look, don't be mad.  I just feel weird pretending we were never friends with her, ya know?"

"What?  No, I don't care about that.  Jesus.  You're allowed to still talk to Piper."

"Oh.  What's up, then?"

"How is she?"  

Poussey sighs, exasperation tinged with affection.  "She asked me the same thing about you."

"What'd you say?"

"Told her it felt weird talking about you."  She pauses.  "For the record, though, if I had answered...I'da said you're stoned all the time and kinda worrying everybody." 

Alex shifts uncomfortably.  "Point taken.  But seriously...is she okay?"

Poussey chuckles, empty of humor.  "I mean, no.  Course not.  Torn up about hurting you, mostly."  

Alex nods and sets her jaw, determinedly stoic.  She shouldn't have asked.  It was never going to be what she needs to hear: she's fine, she's just fine without you, so you can go ahead and hate her now.    

She sleepwalks through another breakfast, sad in a bone deep way that begs for numbing.  There's weed hidden in a torn seam of her bag; she could ditch breakfast early and smoke before class, but a very different impulse suddenly emerges and wins out.

As they walk out of the dining hall, she falls into step with Nicky.  "Hey, any way I could borrow your car for a few days?  I kinda need a weekend home."  Nicky can't prevent the instinctive distaste at the request from flickering across her face, and Alex quickly adds, "I'll fill it with gas when I'm done and I'll come back with lots of alcohol.  No charge."  

"I dunno, Vause...I've never even seen you drive."

"Because you never let us,"  she snaps.

"Truth be told, I can't even confirm you have a license..." 

"Jesus fucking Christ, forget it, I'll fucking ask someone else..."

"Hey, wait."  Nicky grabs her arm, drags her back.  Alex's face is tight with more anger than is probably warranted.  "I'm sorry.  All yours, okay?  Go see your mom."  

Alex nods.  Swallows hard, then forces a smirk.  "If I wreck it, your mother has to pay for repairs.  Win, win."  

"Huh.  Never thought about it like that."  

The promise of leaving campus right after class makes it the easiest day to get through yet.  She'll have the whole drive to work out how much to tell her mom, but Alex needs to see her.  She needs to see the trailer, her old room, even her usual booth at Friendly's.

Being here with Piper feels like being homeless; Alex needs the comfort of somewhere familiar.  Somewhere that still feels okay.  

 

Chapter Text

Your name is the splinter inside me, while I wait.

Winter // Joshua Radin

 


 

Text Message, Friday, 3:22 pm

ALEX
[Hey, Mom, I'm heading home for the weekend.  Sorry for the last minute notice, didn't know until today if I could borrow Nicky's car.]

MOM
[I don't need notice for u babe.  everything okay?]

ALEX
[Yeah.  Piper and I broke up last week though, and I need a break from the dorm room.]

MOM
[Al.  what happened???]
[Why didn't you call me???]

ALEX
[Can we just talk when I get home?  I'm about to leave.]

MOM
[yeah, baby, you drive straight here.]
[I'll try to get off early and meet you.]

ALEX
[Don't do that.  No rush.]

MOM
[be home as soon as I can.]
[be careful.]
[I love you.]

ALEX
[Love you, too.  See you soon.]

 


 

After her last class of the day, Alex goes straight to Fisher and signs out for the weekend, gives them her mom's cell number to confirm that she does, in fact, go home.  Pulling off campus, her breathing goes sideways for a second with the unbidden realization that Piper won't know she's gone until Fisher comes by tonight and says so.

But there's a soothing monotony to the drive home.  Alex plugs her phone into Nicky's car radio and puts on an album she loved in middle school, listening to songs she hasn't sought out in years so they don't make her think of Piper, not a single note or lyric tied to her.

The dirt driveway outside their trailer is empty when Alex pulls Nicky's car in; her mom must not have been able to leave her shift early.  Alex is relieved to have gotten breaking the news over with in a text, a few hours before she'll actually have to see her mom's reaction.  

She hasn't been sleeping well, only a few shallow hours on the couch every night, so the first thing she does is drop her bags on the couch and drop heavily onto her bed.  It's really her mom's, now, even though she always insists on giving it up when Alex is home.  It smells like Diane: vanilla lotion, french fry grease, and cigarettes.

Alex burrows under the comforter and presses her face to the pillow, letting herself drift off to the scent of childhood comfort, evoking a time when her mother was the only person in the world she loved, which meant never getting her heart broken.

Later, she wakes up with Diane's fingers combing through her hair, and just like that Alex's barely open eyes tear over. 

"Hey, Mom."

"Hey, baby," she murmurs, tender as a bruise.  "You okay?"  

"Yeah."  She says it like there's no other answer to the question.  

It is the white lie wrapped gift Alex gives her mom, ever since she was around ten years old and slowly began to realize other people's parents didn't work as hard as hers did.  That's when she stopped complaining to her mom about things she couldn't fix anyway: other kids at school, how bored she got alone in the apartment, shoes she didn't have.  

She never wants to be another thing her mother has to worry about.

Diane half smiles like she doesn't believe her, but doesn't say so.  Maybe this is her own white lie; letting Alex think she's protecting her.

Instead, her mom straightens the collar of Alex's shirt, grin turning more sincere.  "Don't think I've seen you wear this thing since your freshmen year."

"Oh, yeah...I left straight from class, so.  No time to change."  She'd packed hastily during her free period.  These days, that's the only extended time she spends in the dorm room.  

"I brought home food.  Want to come eat?"

They have burgers and fries on the couch, and Alex loves her mom for not immediately bombarding her with questions.  Instead, she asks about last week's soccer game, and an essay Alex turned in recently, and then catches Alex up on her friends from the restaurant and her new manager at Wal-Mart.  It's like she can sense Alex needs the relieving balm of her presence for at least a little while before they peel back the band-aid and examine the wound.

The food is gone and plates thrown away before Diane reaches out and covers Alex's hand along the back of the couch, her voice gentle.  "Ready to tell me what happened?"  

With obvious reluctance, Alex nods, and her mom quickly adds, "Short or long version, whatever you want...and then we're gonna sit here and watch something dumb and funny."   

Eyes downcast, Alex hesitates to start, already dreading the way sympathy will take over her mom's face once she does.  All day, since she decided to come here, Alex has wanted her mother in the most simple, childish way possible, like she's four years old and can crawl into her lap.

But now that she's here, Alex can't shed the instinctive need to seem tough enough to handle this.  

"Al?"  Diane moves her hand to Alex's hair.  "Babe, what happened?"  

For the first time, her voice betrays a throb of genuine shock, and Alex sinks lower onto the couch.  "It's just been...kinda hard.  For awhile.  Because, um.  You know Polly, the girl who dates Piper's brother?" 

"Mmm-hmm, her tennis partner, right?"  

"Yeah.  Well, before Thanksgiving break last semester, she saw us kissing, outside our dorm room.  It was when we were doing that Shakespeare project, and Piper made up some excuse...she didn't tell her the truth, anyway, and I guess she bought it, but.  Piper's been freaked out ever since, worried about people finding out, especially her brother, I guess, so...she was kind of pulling away, and weird in public, especially at the dance..."  Alex stumbles, pauses, then makes a decision.  "I don't know, I guess she got tired to worrying."  

"She just ended it?"  

"Yeah."  Alex's voice is thin, and barely audible, so her mom doesn't hear how furious she is at herself.  

She can't tell her mom about the cheating.  There is a foolish, traitorous need boring into her skin: to preserve Diane's good opinion of Piper.  Which must mean some small part of Alex still believes what her mom thinks of Piper might be relevant again someday.  

Alex swallows and searches for a compromise, some way to make sure Piper still sounds like the bad guy.  "It was really out of nowhere and just...no negotiation, you know?" 

"I'm so sorry, Al.  That's shit."  Diane's quiet for a moment, her fingers still dipping through Alex's hair in gentle,  consoling strokes.  "Hey."  She waits until Alex drags her eyes sideways.  "She still love you?"  

Unwilling tears knot up in Alex's throat, because of course she can't get through a single conversation about this without them making an appearance.  Biting her lip, she nods.  

Diane makes a low, humming affirmative noise.  "Then I'm sad for both of you."  She slides closer on the couch, wrapping an arm around Alex's shoulder.  

Alex ducks her head so it tucks neatly under her mom's chin, out of sight when the tears brim over.  

Maybe this is just another weakness, that she's got all this anger for Piper burrowing between her ribs, but there's still some deep rooted loyalty stopping her from passing that anger to anyone else.   Alex keeps wondering that, how it is that love got so strong it made the rest of her weak.  

Because even her anger can't sustain for very long; it keeps losing its voice.  Alex knows Piper too well - she loves her too much - to be as mad as she needs to be, mad enough to drown out how much she misses her.  

She loves Piper all the way through: her good parts, but also the scared pieces.  Even the selfishness hidden in her corners.    

"How's it been this week?"  Diane is asking now.  "I know it's gotta be hard...fuck, you share a room, have the same friends..."

"She's not really hanging out with us anymore," Alex mutters.  "I...I can't be friends with her, Mom.  It won't work."  

"I get that.  That's tough."  Diane kisses the side of her head, then waits, giving Alex the choice to fill the silence.  When she doesn't, her mom cheers her voice up and says, "So what do we wanna watch?  I took off tonight and tomorrow, so I'm all yours."  

"You didn't have to do that."  

"I know I didn't.  But I never get to see you on random weekends in February.  Gotta seize the days."  She grabs the remote.  "Hook your laptop up, babe, we can pull up Netflix." 

"It's Piper's account." 

"I don't think she's changed the password on you."  

 They put on old episodes of Cheers, and Alex leans into her mom's side to watch.  It feels safe here in a way that school hasn't for the past week.

 


 

Text Message, Friday, 5:45 pm 

POUSSEY
[Hey just wanted to give you a heads up Alex went home for the weekend.]
[Just so you're not worried when she doesn't show up for check]

PIPER
[Oh okay.  Thanks.]
[Is everything okay?  With like her mom and everything?]

POUSSEY
[Yeah I think she just wanted to see her.]

PIPER
[Got it.]
[How's she getting there?]

POUSSEY
[Nicky loaned her her car.]

PIPER
[That was nice of her.]

POUSSEY
[You mean shocking.]

PIPER
[Ha.]
[You wanna hang out tonight maybe?  Watch a movie or something?]

POUSSEY
[Actually I think J and Nicky and me are gonna order a pizza and do a bad movie night.]
[You could maybe come if you wanted?]

PIPER
[Probably not a good idea.]
[Don't wanna put you guys in a weird position with Alex.]

POUSSEY
[You sure?  I feel bad.]

PIPER
[It's really fine.  Don't feel bad.  I should feel bad.]

POUSSEY
[I'll hit you up tomorrow, k?  We can chill at some point.]

PIPER
[Okay.  I'm good anytime.]
[Thanks.]

 


 

Piper's spent a lot of this past week feeling physically off kilter.  It's like a full body version of a crick in the neck, the kind that comes from sleeping wrong - sleeping alone when she's not used to it, maybe.  

The sick sensation redoubles after Poussey tells her Alex went home for the weekend:  none of them have taken a random weekend home in the year and a half she's been here.  It's proof of how upset Alex still is.  

And, God, that means she'll tell her mom everything.  Diane will hate Piper.  The kind of hate that's powerful enough to reach back in time, retroactively destroy any approval or affection.  She'd been proud that Diane Vause liked her so much, that Alex's mom so clearly believed their relationship was a good thing.  

Piper stays in her room and eats a granola bar instead of going to dinner; she's been skipping meals periodically all week.  Her new dining hall routine involves sitting with Polly's group, while her old table and her old friends and her old life are right there watching, and Piper can't always face it.  

Even though it's Friday night, she does all her homework for the weekend, and then turns off the lights and opens her laptop.  Cheers is in the Continue Watching section of her Netflix page, and Piper's heart skitters foolishly, as though Alex still using her account is something much more deliberate, something that counts as a broken silence.   

She'd never seen that show before visiting Alex last summer; they'd watched it on the few evenings when Diane was home for a a couple hours between shifts.  Stupidly, Piper turns it on now, watches the last few played episodes, desperate for even that tenuous a connection.  

That night, she sleeps in Alex's bed.  She's thought about it before, but hasn't been able to entirely shake off the hope that Alex might come back to the room in the middle of the night.  

 


 

The weekend is good for Alex.  True to her word, her mom is off all Saturday.  Alex sleeps past noon, making up for the last restless week on the dorm couch, and then she and Diane go to a movie and out to dinner at a halfway decent restaurant.   Her mom doesn't make her talk about Piper anymore, which makes her presence all the more comforting.  Nearly as relieving is the certainty that Alex won't see Piper at all today, freeing her of the conflicting dread and anticipation usually thrashing against each other inside her chest.  

On Sunday she goes with her mom to work, setting up at a table with her laptop and textbooks as though Friendly's is a coffee shop.  Diane brings her cheese fries or milkshakes throughout the day while Alex catches up on her homework.

She orders a burger for her actual dinner at six; she'll have to leave from here in an hour to check back into campus on time, so Diane goes on break and comes to sit across from her.

"We gotta talk serious for a second, babe," her mom says almost apologetically when Alex's plate is nearly empty.

A heaviness settles into Alex's stomach right away, but she nods in acquiescence.   

"Okay.  Here's the thing, Al.  I know things must be shit at school right now.  And it's okay to be sad.  Fuck, of course you're gonna be sad.  But...you gotta promise you'll tell me if it gets too bad.  If it starts...you know, getting in the way of school, or soccer, or even just you having fun with your friends...we'll figure that out.  But you gotta let me know, okay?"  

"Yeah.  Okay," Alex murmurs, wilting a little at this confirmation that she's not fooling anyone.  Of course her mom can see how mangled she is.  Swallowing, she makes her voice stronger and adds, "I'm gonna be fine, though.  Promise."  Only after the words have passed her lips does Alex vow to make them true.   

She owes her mom more than turning into a fuck-up who can only cope with the world when she's stoned.  

 


 

 

Her mom walks her to Nicky's car in the restaurant parking lot and hugs her for a long time.  

"It was so fuckin' good to see you this weekend, baby."  She pulls back, her smile gentle.  "You come home any weekend you want, okay?  If you can't always borrow a car, we'll work something out.  Just say the word, I'll come and getcha."  

"Thanks, Mom.  I will."  

"Text me when you get back safe.  I love you so much."  

"Love you, too."  

 


 

The ride back to Litchfield is sickening, anxiety thumping in her chest like a fist, so much so that when she's twenty minutes away, Alex pulls over and composes a text to Fisher claiming car trouble, so she can get away with checking in after light's out. 

Before she sends it, disgust at her own impulse rolls through her stomach, so strong that Alex overcompensates, deciding to sleep in her own bed tonight. 

 


 

Alex parks in the student parking lot and takes Nicky her keys just time to get back to her and Piper's room for check.  

She puts on headphones, turns her music loud enough that she can't hear whatever Piper says when she walks in the room, though Alex doesn't miss the quickest glimpse of Piper's expression: an instinctive flicker of being glad to see her.   

She unpacks with her back to Piper's side of the room and changes into pajamas.  She doesn't look at Piper again, not even in the periphery, and keeps music on until they're standing outside the dorm and Fisher comes by for count.  

"You were supposed come sign back in with me right away," Susan lightly admonishes her.

"Sorry.  I've literally been back for twenty minutes, knew you were about to come by."  

"Just remember for next time."  

"Sorry," Alex repeats, and when Fisher moves onto the next room, Alex vaults off the corridor wall and heads to Nicky and Janae's room and stays there until past light's out.

It's dark when she creeps back into her room, save for for the glow from Piper's laptop.

"Hey."  Piper's voice floats down from her bed, brimming over with surprise.

Alex closes the door behind her without answering, waiting until she's climbed into her own bed before saying flatly, "I'm sick of sleeping on a couch because of you.  That's all this is."  

She can hear Piper's breathing turn rough, like she's having to forcibly drag air into her body.  Alex turns on her side and curls her arm over the side of her head that isn't pressed against the pillow.  She can fucking smell Piper's shampoo, the scent clinging to the pillowcase.  She'll do laundry tomorrow.  

Her bed is so much more comfortable than the couch downstairs, but Alex still barely sleeps.  

 


 

Alex stays overnight in their room now, more often than not, but sometimes she still disappears after check and doesn't come back.  Piper can't pick up on any routine or pattern, now way to predict which days Alex apparently can't stand to sleep near her.  

But she's got her own routines to rebuild, messily gluing together new ways to exist at Litchfield.  

Piper sits with Polly and her friends at meals, and after a few weeks of that even starts tagging along with them for other things: lunches at the bakery, study sessions, movie nights.

She goes to Overbrook to see Cal more often, at least once a weekend.  His nerdy, freshmen friends get used to her, and sometimes she spends whole Saturday afternoons playing elaborate strategy based board games with them.  It's a strange sort of solace, feeling the empty weekend hours fall away without effort.    

Her favorite class becomes the one she has with Poussey and none of the others.  Both of their sports are on their off season, only a couple short practices a week, and they hang out for a few hours on the afternoons when their days off correspond, plus whole evenings when Alex, Nicky and Janae all happen to be traveling for away games and track meets.   

When the soccer team plays at home, though, Piper goes to the games.  She sits by herself in a corner of the bleachers and watches Alex.  It doesn't hurt like it does everywhere else:  classrooms, the dining hall, their room.

Here, the distance between them is expected. 

 


 

One Wednesday night in the middle of March, just over a month since the break up, Piper goes down to Poussey's floor and knocks on her door.

"Oh, hey. 'Sup?"  Poussey smiles at her. Dorm check begins in ten minutes, so Piper figured it would be the best bet for catching Poussey on her own.  Behind her, she can see her roommate, Suzanne, watching them curiously.  

"I wanted to give you these..."  She thrusts an envelope at Poussey.  "It's those Six Flags tickets.  Remember, from the Assassins game?"  

Poussey arches an eyebrow.  "Why you giving them to me?" 

"We were all gonna go..."  Piper shrugs helplessly. She had pretty much forgotten about the prize until she found them in her desk drawer over the weekend.  "We were one short, remember?  Without me you guys won't have to chip in on an extra." 

Heaving a heavy, beleaguered sigh, Poussey comes into the hallway, shutting her down behind her and leaning on the wall to give Piper a look.  "Real talk.  Are you trying to make us feel bad?"  

"What?  No."

"For real?  Because I still hang out with you, and even I feel bad.  Like...we're supposed to take your tickets and go to Six Flags without you like that's not the saddest thing ever?"  

"I didn't really think about it that way," Piper says honestly.  Though, now that Poussey's spelled it out, she doesn't hate the idea.  She's worn guilt like a heavy coat this whole semester; it wouldn't be the worst thing for Janae, Nicky and Poussey to put on a fraction of that.  

"They're yours," Poussey points out reasonably.  "Not some shared possession y'all divvied up during the divorce.  Take Polly and all them."

Piper's expression sours.  "God, no.  That's a full day.  I can't hang out with them for that long.  It's exhausting."

Poussey gives her a knowing look but doesn't comment on that.  "Well, take whoever then.  Your brothers, maybe?  As long as you're included in the group."  

Sensing there's no point in trying to argue, Piper just nods.  "Alright.  If you're sure."

But there's no way that trip won't be depressing, with whatever group of threadbare friends she manages to throw together.  So, that Saturday, Piper walks over to Overbrook and offers them to Cal.  

"Are you serious?"  He asks, wide eyed, when she hands them over.

"Yeah.  I know none of you drive yet, but I think there are park shuttles that run not far from here."  

"Do we have to pay you?"  

"No, I told you.  I won them for nothing."   

"Sweet.  Thanks."  

Piper nods and sits down on her brother's desk chair.  The dorm furniture here is identical to Litchfield.

"Hey, Pipe?"  Cal says in a tentative voice after a moment.

"Hmmm?"  

"How come you don't hang out with Alex anymore?"  

She looks away.  "How do you know I don't?"  

"Well, I mean....you're always at the basketball games with those other girls.  Not your old friends.  And you're over here kind of a lot this semester.  Which.  Cool with me.  But it's weird."  He waves the tickets at her.  "And apparently you don't even have three people you can invite to a theme park. For free."  

It's dumb, but there's something both stark and silly about that statement that Piper's eyes start to sting.  

Cal's eyes widen with the instantaneous alarm of a teenage boy confronted with a crying girl.  "Sorry, sorry, my bad," he backpedals.  "You don't have to tell me."  

For a second, though, Piper wants to.  

She's so damn lonely.  It's not a lack of people; Piper has always been able to find people.  

But when she was with Alex, the biggest and truest thing about Piper was being in love with her.  And most of the time, she was allowed to let that spill over so Alex, and Poussey and Nicky and Janae, could all see it. 

Now there is a lid closed tightly over her heart, almost always.  It diminishes her, feels like huge swaths of her days don't even count because she's just spending them hiding. 

Sniffling, Piper wipes her eyes and stands up to go, but she lingers in the doorway.  "Something happened with Alex..."  Hesitant, she lets her eyes track up to meet her brother's.  

She lets the easiest possible version of this moment play out in her head, waiting for Cal to have the same sort of realization as Larry, to figure out the obvious truth without her having to say it.  But he's just quiet.  

Piper closes her eyes.  "Just...don't ask me about it anymore, okay?"  

"I won't," Cal agrees quickly, his relief palpable.  "You don't have to go though, wanna, like...play X-box or something?  

"It's okay, I need to head back.  I'll see you later."  

 


 

Alex always disappears between dorm check and lights out.  Sometimes Piper spends that gap lying on her own bed, fantasizing elaborate apologies - tonight's: wallpapering their room with Post-Its scrawled with I'm sorry and I miss you) - big, sweeping gestures that belong in romantic comedies to fix softer, less destructive mistakes.  

Tonight, though, it feels like all the lights have gone out in her chest, not a single flickering bulb of optimism to generate an idea.

She has to stop letting the hope of forgiveness be the only thing icing her bruises.

 


 

It took a few weeks for the worry to leave Alex's friends eyes, but by the time a month has passed, the novelty to the breakup and Piper's absence has worn off for them.  

They don't talk to Alex with cushioned voices anymore, stop treating her like she's wounded.  For the most part, it's a relief, but every once in awhile it provokes a twisted sort of shame, like Alex shouldn't still be feeling like she is. 

She stops going to class stoned, but she's lost the ability to drink without careening all the way off an edge.  She learns by heart the kind of drunk that makes you understand why someone chose the term wasted for it.  Her friends must take note, because they suggest alcohol less frequently.  Even the Facts of Life  DVDs stay in Nicky's drawer, the door firmly closed on the drinking game accompanying them.  

The day that would have been their anniversary passes, one year since that kiss to The Wizard of Oz.  Alex wishes she didn't notice; she's always thought that word, anniversary, sounds so silly when teenagers use it.  

But she does, of course.  In general, Alex is shit at not noticing things.  Like Piper, still a constant fleck in the corner of her eye.

Piper's absence is something that piles up, the pain of it compounding.  Alex doesn't understand the general assumption that it should get easier the longer they're apart. Missing someone is not an injury that gradually heals, never as bad as the moment it's inflicted.  Alex misses Piper like blood loss, a lack of something she needs: if bleeding for a week is bad, then two weeks, three, a month, is even worse, causing more and more damage.  

 


 

They've been broken up for six weeks.  Piper hasn't tried to talk to her since Alex got back from seeing her mom, over a month of silence.  Surprisingly, Alex is the one to truly shatter it, more scream than whisper.  

It's a Tuesday, and their drama class is reading The Importance of Being Earnest.   They're in the classroom, not the theater, the desks arranged in a circle.  Ms. Rogers gives them all parts for reading Act One out loud, the usual routine.  

Alex gets assigned Gwendolen.  Habitually, she flips ahead in her book and sees the character doesn't actually enter for ten pages, so she tunes out the start of the reading, disinterested.  

It takes a few minutes for her to clue into the fact that Piper - who sits across the circle, now, in the desk next to Polly - is playing one of the male characters and, apparently, Alex's love interest.

She starts reading ahead again, hoping they don't actually share a scene together until Act Two, when other students will take over the parts, but Alex ends up barely catching her own cue.   

"I am always smart," she rushes the line out with no major inflection. "Aren't I, Mr. Worthing?" 

"You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax," Piper answers, and Alex can't help but glance over at her.  Her elbow is propped on her desk, forehead resting in her palm, practically hunched over the book.  

Alex fumbles through her next line, and there are some exchanges with other students.  She turns the pages, sees a whole page of dialogue between GWEN and JACK, apparently Piper's character. 

And it's not even a romance, really, just some dumb, absurd comedy that's over a hundred years old, but Piper so clearly can't stand this; she's lost her usual Good Drama Student inflection that Alex used to tease her about, each line reading stiff and uncomfortable.  

"You really love me, Gwendolen?" 

"Yes, passionately," Alex says between her teeth.  

Across the circle, Piper's eyes dart to Ms. Rogers, like the teacher might rescue her from this apparent torture.  She lowers her head to the book again, struggling to find her place.  "Um.......Darling.  You don't know how happy you've made me." 

An electric sort of fury is starting to spark in Alex's chest, because she fucking knows Piper's discomfort isn't coming from talking to Alex for the first time in like five weeks as other characters; it's having to read a scene as a couple in front of Polly and everyone else.  

Like an Oscar Wilde play is going to fucking expose her.  Like that's even still something to worry about.

Really, that's the worst part.  The strongest anger Alex has that's still standing, that hasn't been cut off at the knees, isn't even over the cheating, or the lying...it's that Alex knows she would forgive Piper for all of it in a second, if she could only be certain it would never happen again.  

Moments like this - Piper practically cringing over the line  "You know that I love you, and you led me to believe, Miss Fairfax, that you were not absolutely indifferent to me."  - just keeps reminding her that it could.  

"Hey," Alex says harshly, breaking from her next line, startling Piper into actually looking up at her - because suddenly Piper's the one trying not to look, like she doesn't spend every night in their fucking dorm room desperately searching for eye contact...  

Their eyes lock, and all that fury rushes through Alex's veins, coming to a hot, angry peak between her eyes as she clenches out, the words scraping at her throat like she's swallowed razor blades,  "It's just a fucking play."  She punctuates the sentence by slamming her book shut and slouching low in her desk.  

A hush sweeps around the circle.  Alex glares straight ahead, not focusing on anyone in particular.

After a moment, Ms. Rogers prompts, calm but firm, "Alex.  It's still your line." 

She doesn't say anything, the muscles in her throat too taut.  She's a breath away from sobbing or screaming, and the middle of class isn't the place to find out which will win.

There is an unbearably long pause before Rogers clears her throat and says smoothly,  "Deanna?  Take over Gwendolen, please."  

Haltingly, the scene starts again.  Piper sounds strained for only two lines before she remembers she's performing, her voice quickly threading itself back together to sound wholly unaffected.  

For the rest of class, Alex lets the words of the play turn to white noise while she holds herself in careful stillness.  Her whole body feels like a hair trigger about to be pulled.  She doesn't want to let herself go off again.

The bell tower chimes the end of the hour, followed by the rhythmic scrape of chairs as everyone gets up, packing their things to go.  Alex slings her bag over her shoulder without bothering to put her book of plays into it, just moves straight to the door. 

"Alex," Ms. Rogers keeps her tone light.  She's the kind of teacher who makes a point not to embarrass students if it's at all avoidable.  "Can you hang back for a second, please?" 

Alex stops walking but doesn't turn around until she feels the flow of students dissipate around her.  She sets her jaw before facing her teacher, impatient.  

Annoyingly, Rogers doesn't look angry.  Just concerned.  Her voice is soft.  "Anything you want to talk about?"

Alex huffs out a scoffing sound, tempted to ask if any students ever takes her up on that offer.  She's getting pissed off again, imagining how pleased with herself Ms. Rogers probably is right now, seeing through an outburst and offering help instead of punishment to a poor, troubled student.

"You know..."  There's a determined smile in Ms. Rogers' voice.  "People want to act like teenager's breaks up aren't so bad.  I say it's easier as an adult...you're not usually stuck still seeing someone every day.  Boarding school, it's even worse, I'm sure."

Alex's eyes flare, torn between irritation at this massive presumption and a dark amusement - what would Piper say if she knew even teachers could figure out their shit?  

"Hey..."  Rogers gentles her voice, almost sweetly condescending.  "I know it must seem like the end of the world right now, Alex.  I understand that.  But -"  

"You're not a counselor," Alex interrupts loudly, fresh anger seething in her voice.  "Punish me if you want, but that's it." 

She keeps a hard, defiant glare fixed on Ms. Rogers, hating her because it's easier than hating Piper.  And anyway, fuck her for thinking she understands, thinking she knows what it's like to have to exist right alongside the thing that ripped you open - and still being unable to stifle the desire to reach out and touch the blades.

Rogers blinks first.  "We'll call it a warning.  But it'll hurt your participation grade for the day."  

Alex nods, harsh and stoic, before turning to leave.

 


 

"Shit.  She's intense, isn't she?" 

"I guess," Piper mumbles.  She feels sick and unsteady, walking through the throng of students changing classes next to Polly, the venom of Alex's words still burning in her ears.  

"Look, I know you haven't wanted to talk about it, Pipe, but can I just say...Alex is being really unfair to you."  

Too out of it to think about what Polly means, Piper instinctively replies, "She's not." 

"Come on, dude.  You've basically had to stop hanging out with all your friends.  What, just because you don't like her like that?  You can't help that."  

Piper's face heats up; she's known that's what Polly assumes happened - she's let her assume it - but hearing it out loud feels different.  More willfully deceitful.  "I never told you that's what happened." 

"Well, yeah, but it wasn't hard to guess."  

For just a moment, the chance to deny it hovers between them.   

Piper swats it away, muttering instead, "It's not her fault, I...I didn't handle things well.  At all." 

"It's still fucked up of her to freak out at you in the middle of class." 

Piper stays quiet after that.  Her chest feels hollow, a cave with Alex's name and her own secret echoing between its walls.  

 


 

"Hey..."  Nicky and Janae come into US Government together and sit in their desks on either side of Alex.  "Heard things got weird in Rogers class.  You okay?"

Alex suppresses a groan.  She's really been hoping the rumor mill wouldn't churn this one around.  It's been nearly two hours, and her stomach has started to tilt every time she replays that moment.   

"It's not a big deal," she mutters curtly, and neither of her friends push because they're used to it. 

She doesn't talk about Piper, even with her best friends.  

Something in her is too damn protective of their history, wants to keep the time when they were happy preserved.  Ranting and raging and picking apart the breakup would be like taking a hammer to glass and stealing what's behind it, turning the ending into the only part that matters.

Though there might be a downside for the lack of talking about it.  It's maybe why she ended up snapping at Piper over a stupid play, with a whole audience of their classmates watching.

  


 

Alex exhausts herself at soccer practice, and afterwards she sits on the sidelines bench watching the rest of the team scatter, heading up the hill toward the dorms or dining hall.  There is weed at the bottom of her bag, and she's toying with a craving.  It would be easy, to just slip off to the woods and smoke for awhile, numb herself for the rest of the night.

She absently pulls out her phone, waiting for her teammates to get safely out of sight, and ends up pulling up her message thread with Piper.  It's been awhile since they texted, but it's still visible without scrolling, at the very bottom of her screen.  

She thumbs through the string of unanswered texts from Piper, back to the long one from the night they broke up, the one she'd lied about deleting.  Alex has that text memorized by now, but she still pulls it up to actually read every now and then, like digging out a time capsule of Piper's raw, desperate regret.

It hooks right into Alex's gut, like always.  

The apology wasn't enough to save them then, and it isn't enough now, but there is a beautiful sort of bravery to that much honesty.

Alex has been keeping all her honesty to herself, and it's starting to gnaw at her, demanding to get out.

 


 

When Alex returns to the room, Piper is sitting on her bed.  She looks like she's been crying.  

"Hey," Alex starts softly.  

It is objectively heartbreaking, how startled Piper looks at the simple greeting.  "Hi." The word sounds almost like a question.

Talking to her again, especially here in their room, is disorienting in a way that stalls Alex's momentum, makes her feel bruised on the underside of her skin.  She turns, dropping her soccer bag by her desk, undoing her ponytail with nervous hands.  "Look, um...about earlier, in class - "

"Do you hate me?"  Piper blurts out the question like she's been holding it under her tongue for weeks now, and is afraid this might be her only chance to ask.

Alex closes her eyes, the urge to run shivering through her.  She shakes her head.  

Then, tears coating her voice, Piper says, "Because it seems like you do."  A moment passes, and she adds, "You can't even look at me anymore, Alex." 

It feels like Alex's throat splits open and this is what spills out:  "That's not because I hate you, Piper!  I fucking wish I could, God, it would be easier..."  Her voice wavers.  "I was so mad at you today.  But you know what's fucking pathetic is...it's not because you lied to me for a month or because you fucking cheated on me.  I'm pissed off because I want to forgive you and go back to normal, I want to so bad, Pipes - "

"So do I  - "

" - but I can't because I can't be sure you're not going to do the same fucking thing again."  

Piper slides unsteadily off her bed, coming to stand in front of Alex, her eyes wide and teary.  "I won't, Alex, I know I won't - "

"I don't know that." Alex's voice cracks. "I know you, Piper, but I still didn't think you would do something like that the first time.  And today...you were so freaked out reading that stupid play -" 

"I'm sorry."  

"No, that's the thing, Pipes, you shouldn't have to be sorry.  Not about that.  I didn't have any right to snap at you, not in front of everyone, and I really hope it didn't make anything uncomfortable with Polly or anybody else."

Her face starting to morph into panic, Piper is shaking her head before Alex even finishes talking.  "You didn't, Alex, please, I don't care about that."  

She's even closer now, her hands reaching, seizing onto the hem of Alex's T-shirt, and Alex arches away instinctively like Piper's fingers are lit matches.  

Quiet, pained, Alex pleads, "Just let me say this, Pipes, okay?"  

Piper takes a step back and nods.

"It's, um..."  Alex swallows, her throat constricting like it's stuffed with everything she hasn't been able to say to Piper for the last six weeks.  "It's been really weird, not getting to talk to you.  

Faintly, Piper whispers back, "I know."  

"Even being pissed at you...you're the only person I wanted to rant to about it."  

With obvious effort, Piper's lips hitch into a smile.  "You still can, if you want.  I probably deserve to hear it."  

"No.  I think I hit my limit today."  Alex sighs, leaning back against the door.  "I know this sucks.  What you did wasn't fair.  But...none of this has been fair.  Including the fact that you've basically had to give up your friends on top of...of everything else.  Or what I did in Rogers class today.  And...it's probably even unfair for me to be in the same room with you and act like you don't exist."  

Tears and ache fill Piper's eyes, and it makes Alex feel like shutting up.  It makes everything so much harder to say, like she has to carve through her own muscle and tissue to find the feeling again.  

"But the thing is...I have to do that, Pipes."  Her voice catches, threatens to break.  "I can't be friends with you.  I don't even know how to be your roommate.  I can't be around you without wanting...to be with you, so...at the end of this semester, I'm going to go to Fisher and request a room change."   

Piper's face goes slack, and for some reason, that's the moment Alex notices she's still wearing the ruby slippers necklace.  Her birthday present.  

Warm tears hit her cheeks, and for the first time Alex allows herself to look away from Piper.  She rushes to finish, "I, I just think that's for the best.  But I do want you to know that it's not because I hate you.  It's just...the only thing I can do."  

"But it's not, though," Piper protests thickly.  "Alex, if you have to work that hard at not wanting to be with me, then maybe you should just...stop." Her voice moves closer.  "We are both miserable, Al, so what's the point of this?  Just to punish me?"

"Stop it - "

"I know I don't deserve to have you back - "

"Piper - "

" - but is that really enough of a reason for you?"  

"This isn't something you get to argue, Piper," Alex snaps, frustrated.  "I'm being honest with you because I feel really shitty about the way we've been lately, but you have no right anymore to fucking talk me out of it -" 

"I just don't understand how you can be okay with not having this anymore!"  

Alex falls silent.  Piper's voice is loud and agonized, her eyes wildly desperate and unshakeable.  She's close enough to kiss.  To shove.

"Fuck you,"  Alex growls.  "You don't get to do that, Piper.  I'm nowhere close to okay, and it's your fucking fault - "

"I know it is."  Piper's fully crying now.  "Believe me, I know, but you're the one making the choice, Alex."  

"Are you fucking serious?  You think any of this has been my choice?  Okay, yeah, Pipes, I can barely look at you without wanting to just...fuck everything that happened and go back to how it was before.  Except...that's not actually possible.  I could never feel sure about us again.  And stuff like what happened today in class...that just proves why.  And it's not because you don't have any right to feel uncomfortable or whatever...it's because any moment like that is always going to remind me of what you did. And make me wonder if it's happening again."   Alex can feel her face crumpling, her voice coming completely untethered as she chokes out, "We can't put it back together, Pipes.  It wouldn't be good enough anymore." 

Piper's spine is arched, hunched over like she's weighed down, and she gasps out apologies draped with sobs.  "I'm sorry...I'm sorry..."  Alex leans back against their door, covering her face with her hands.  She feels Piper's fingers pull at her wrists, searching for eye contact.  "I'm so sorry..."

Then Piper's lips are on hers

For a moment, Alex gives into it - this salty, hopeless kiss.  Her back is still against the door, Piper leaning into her; she doesn't want to actually touch her, but Alex's hands don't seem to understand that, it's like they have to grab onto something, so she ends up hooking two fingers over the silver chain of Piper's necklace, just above the charm.  The touch starts gentle, but after a moment Alex is filled with a plunging urge to yank it off.  

She lets go instead, entirely: wrenches her face away.  "Piper."  Her voice is pained.  "Piper, you can't...this isn't fair." 

"But you already said," Piper nearly whines, sounding like an exhausted, tear spent little girl.  "None of this is gonna be fair." 

There is an inescapable truth to that.  It isn't fair for Piper to kiss her.  It isn't fair if they don't get to kiss each other anymore.  

"I'm gonna go," Alex grits out roughly.  In some vague, messy way, she's angry again, even though she'd hoped this conversation, all this honesty, would help dispense of the need to stay furious at Piper.  

"Wait, but, but, what you said before..."  Piper's obviously stumbling, words tripping and bumping into each other that she's afraid to stop talking but hasn't figured out what there is to say.  "You said it's been weird not talking, and maybe - "

"Piper," Alex cuts her off in a low voice.  "Stop.  We can't keep fighting just so this doesn't end."  

Piper visibly flinches.  She meets Alex's eyes, and Alex feels her anger softening, that fast.  A defeated sort of understanding passes silently between them, the acknowledgement of truth: since Alex walked into the room, they've cried and they've yelled but something about it feels right.  Not good, just correct, to finally stop shakily navigating around each other and let themselves crash.

After a long silence, Alex clears her throat of too much feeling and says, "I'm...gonna have to talk to Fisher kind of soon.  So.  I just want you to have a heads up."  

"Okay."  Piper sounds drained.  

"I'm gonna go to dinner," Alex says awkwardly.   It doesn't seem right to snap right back into acting like strangers.  She'll have to leave the room first, reset herself.  "I'll see you." 

Piper nods.  She isn't looking at her.

Out of reasons to stay, Alex slips out the door, swerving out of Piper's path yet again.    

 


 

For the past month and a half, every time Alex came into the dorm with headphones and a lowered gaze, or sat three feet away in a class without her eyes once touching Piper, vivid, searing pain left scorched through Piper's chest. 

But the hurt that comes next might claw even deeper.  In the days after their kiss - because, somehow, it's the kiss and not the fight that defines the day for Piper - Alex stops ignoring her completely.  It isn't much, a polite greeting when she enters the dorm and then an acknowledgement when she leaves, but somehow the distance in Alex's voice, saying Hey and See ya like she's talking to a stranger, clings to Piper far longer than the silences.  

 


 

On Saturday, she takes the bus to the mall with Polly and the others, following them around stores while they pour over anything exorbitantly expensive and debate the best choices.  Piper's worn out and moody, and it's making her think spiteful, ungenerous thoughts about these girls and their shallow concerns. 

It's not really fair.  Piper's got plenty of high end, name brand clothes, and she's seen some of her old friends - especially Nicky - spend money like it's nothing.

Besides that, she's spent enough time with Polly's crowd by now to know that other than Jessica - and maybe Madison, her closest sidekick - there's nothing to dislike about them.  She probably owes Bailey and Sarah much more credit then she's given them; they'd cheerfully accepted her sudden presence in their long established friend group, not once made it seem like something strange or disruptive.  

But it's been a brutally awful week, and the drama class incident had gotten around.  Jessica apparently took it as permission to talk freely about Alex in front of Piper - she's long assumed Polly warned everyone against it when Piper first started hanging out with them.  

It's actually impressive, that whatever Polly said held even Jessica off for so long - though, to be fair, Jessica and Piper still don't interact directly very often - but its power has finally waned.  The first meal Piper sat with them after Tuesday, Jessica had given her an approximation of a sympathetic smile and said, "Well, you lasted much longer than I did, but I could've told you it would end like this.  It's like Alex just can't help herself...which would maybe be understandable if she knew how to not make it so creepy."  

"She didn't do anything creppy," Piper had gritted out.

Jessica had ignored her.  "I know it probably seemed like a good idea to be friends with her, but you probably just gave her the wrong idea.  I had to shut it down as soon as I figured out what was going on." 

Piper had been furiously composing a blistering speech in her head, and it was all she could do not to spat it in Jessica's face - fuck you you don't get to claim something you never had she would never choose you - but all she did was mutter, "Whatever." 

She can't explicitly disavow what Jessica was saying without making everyone reevaluate what happened in Ms. Roger's class.  So she just had to sit there and listen to Jessica talk shit and lies about her best friend - weirdly, in those moments, that's how Piper thinks of Alex, not as her ex-girlfriend, but her best friend, like it's the one title kept for life, even after vacating the office.  

In the list of Piper's unforgivable behavior, it feels comparable to making out with Larry at the cabin.  

Piper hates herself for it, but her hate is generous and pervasive, spreading to Jessica and Madison and sometimes all of them, even Polly.  Today has, so far, been safe from all Alex talk, but sitting on one of those dinky little stools in a shoe store, watching the others try on heels, the sight of Jessica Wedge's face makes Piper nauseated with loathing.  

Finally, before the dark feeling in her gut boils over, Piper stands up, needing to get away before she starts hurling shoeboxes at heads, and murmurs only to Polly, "I'm gonna go walk around for awhile.  We'll catch up later?"  

Disappointment flickers across Polly's expression; Piper will never understand why she cares so much.  "You sure?  We're almost done here, I swear."

"Take your time, it's okay.  I just need to look for a few things."  It sounds lame, even to Piper, but Polly seems to accept it.

Piper finds a bench near the food court - purposefully away from all the best stores - and settles in, relieved to be alone.    

She's usually much better at pretending than this, with Polly and her friends; actually, she's much better at pretending than she wants to be.  It's not a quality she likes about herself, the ability to blend in and fake contentment.  But for at least the last month, Piper has fit comfortably among them, like she's been there all along.  

Maybe, in a strange way, she should have been:  if she hadn't been assigned Alex as a roommate, Piper probably would've hovered hopefully around Polly, the one person she knew going into Litchfield.  She'd have been gratefully absorbed into their group, maybe wouldn't have liked Jessica much but would have deferred to her, anyway (that's the part Piper really wishes she didn't know about herself...but there was a girl in her middle school crowd that was like a seventh grade, Jessica Wedge prototype).  

In that scenario, Alex's first, distant impression of her would have been as a friend of Jessica's, and she would have justifiably written Piper off as someone she would never be interested in knowing.   

It's dizzying, spinning these scenarios, imagining banal but painless universes, and it kills a good hour before Polly finds her.  

"Hey."  She grins down at Piper, tossing a Cinnabon bag in her lap. "Got ya a treat." 

"Thanks."  Piper takes it, her stomach sinking a little.  It's nice of Polly; annoyingly nice, actually, because Piper's going to have to tell her soon that she can't hang out with her friends anymore - if Piper can't bring herself to stand up for Alex, the least she can do is stop passively endorsing Jessica's bullshit by listening to it - but obviously can't say so right now, confronted with undeserved thoughtfulness.  

"Sure."  Polly sits on the bench beside her.  "You alright?"    

"Yeah.  Where's everyone else?"  

"Still shopping.  I kinda wanted to ask you something."  

Piper throws her a sharp look, anxiety bubbling in her stomach.  "What about?"  

"It's just..."  Polly sighs, melancholy settling over her face, and then Piper relaxes,  understanding this isn't going to be about her. "Do you think your brother is going to break up with me again after graduation, or would he be into trying long distance?"

Danny-based conversations with Polly only require letting her think out loud until she talks herself into optimism, so Piper easily nods and occasionally rephrases things Polly says for another fifteen minutes until Jessica and the others approach them, loaded down with shopping bags and smoothies from Orange Julius.  

"We think we should go see a movie," Jessica announces managing, as always, to give the impression that she's somehow channeling the group mentality.  

Polly stands up, nodding agreeably.  "Sure."

Piper stays where she is.  "I may just take the next shuttle back...gotta do some homework."  

"Aw, c'mon," Sarah tilts her head at her.  "It's Saturday."  

"Yeah, Pipe, don't go."  Polly tugs her up by the elbow.  

She relents, of course; it's easier in the moment.  Piper stands up, shoving what's left of her cinnamon bun back in the bag.  "Fine, what's playing?"  

They walk to the AMC at the opposite end of the mall, and Piper gradually tunes them out.  That is one good thing about slipping into Polly's crowd: she has the safety of a group, but a group whose rhythms were established long before Piper joined, so they don't tend to notice when she falls silent for too long, getting lost in her own head.

Today, she's stuck on a common refrain from the last week: Alex's voice,  We can't put it back together, Pipes.  It wouldn't be good enough anymore.

She's picked the phrasing apart so much that she's turned it into a vague image: broken glass, all sharp edges and misshapen pieces, a pile of so many shards covered in  glittering dust that no one could tell what it used to be.

Like her thoughts conjure her, Alex suddenly enters Piper's field of vision, jolting her into awareness for the first time in a few minutes.  She's hovering with the others, in line for tickets; Alex is walking out of the theater, along with Janae, Poussey and Nicky.  

Piper's used to crossing paths with Alex on campus, of course, and even in their shared dorm room, but somehow the shock of seeing her somewhere she hadn't expected her to be makes this feel worse, like they've run into each other on dates with other people.  

Janae and Poussey smile awkwardly at Piper.  Nicky ignores her entirely, choosing to squint distastefully in Jessica's direction instead.  Alex just looks away.

As soon as they pass, Jessica says, not quietly, "Here's what I don't get about Alex.  It's not like she doesn't hang out with other gay girls, right?  The whole predatory roommate thing isn't even necessary - "

"Will you shut the hell up?"  Piper finally finally finally snaps, rounding on her, eyes blazing.  "Alex never had a thing for you.  Here's how I know that:  she hates you.  Not because you rejected her so now she's bitter.  More like, she hates people like you.  All of them.  Everyone, everywhere, who is remotely similar to you: every entitled, homophobic liar in the world.  You included."  

Stunned silence follows the tirade for a moment; Jessica's eyes are bursting with shocked indignation, her friends gaping in disbelief, but Piper can't help but twist around, checking to see if Alex is within earshot. 

She isn't.  

It takes a second to spot her, still walking with the others past an phone case kiosk, much too far to have heard.

Piper deflates, sudden, stampeding hope falling flat on its face.   

When she turns back around, Jessica has more than recovered.  With an expression that brilliantly mingles disgust and pity, she retorts, "I'm a liar?"  She sighs, patronizing.  "You idiot.  You're pathetic, Piper.  Rushing to defend the school drug dealer."  Jessica over enunciates the last two words, like she's talking to a preschooler.  "You must be the only person here stupid enough to blindly trust her word over mine.  Jesus Christ.  Even after she humiliates you, you're still buying her whole cool girl, trailer trash schtick."

Rage is breathing down the back of Piper's neck like a monster, the fight swelling in her throat and bending her bones and eventually working its way to her hands, sending them shooting out to grab Jessica's smoothie, jerk off its lid, and dump what's left of the purple slush into Jessica's Nordstrom bag full of newly purchased outfits. 

Her careful composure snaps, and Jessica actually shrieks.  Piper's already walking away, adrenaline storming through her, leading an army of sudden, unfamiliar pride.   

Piper feels like breaking into a run and catching up with Alex, with their friends, and telling them what just happened.  She is floating in the bubble of a rare, perfect moment of strength, and she wants them in it with her.    

Except as her heartbeat slows down, the jolt of disappointment Piper had felt when she realized Alex hadn't heard her strikes her again.  From a distance, she watches Alex and the others turn into the arcade.

Realistically, she can't just run up to them after all this time and brag about finally locating a scrap of courage.  

Piper stops walking, her insides twisting so tight it wrings out all the good feelings.  Her perfect, crowning moment feels immediately worthless and wasted.

She hates herself for feeling that, as though standing up for Alex only counts if she gets credit for it.  Deep in her chest, shame is already pressing against the spot where pride had just bloomed, bruising it over: Piper can't be sure she would have said anything at all if Alex hadn't almost been there to hear it, if her own blood hadn't still been humming with Alex's unexpected presence.  Actually, it's more likely she wouldn't have; that hadn't been the first, or even the most awful, comment Jessica's made about Alex, and until today Piper has barely argued.

She's so sick of herself.  She always finds a way to ruin anything good. 

Piper wants that feeling back.  She wants to do something brave she doesn't have to question and rip apart.  

Taking out her cell phone, Piper's fingers shake as she types out a text, sending it before she can change her mind. 

PIPER
[Hey you free later?  Want to hang out?  I kind of need to talk to you about something.]

With a soft, whooshing sound effect, the text sends.

Piper's stomach lunges, even though she can still take this back: say it's nothing, or make something else up, but she's at least a little cornered by that final sentence.  

The three dots appear, and then her brother's reply appears on the screen.

CAL
[Did Mom and Dad tell you about my bio grade?]

Piper rolls her eyes, deliberately forcing a chuckle out of her throat, attempting to trick herself into thinking this is no big deal.  

PIPER
[Nope but now I guess you can.]

CAL
[Whoops.]
[So what's wrong?]

PIPER
[Nothing's wrong.  It's not a bad thing.]

CAL
[Okay.  You wanna just come over?]

PIPER
[Can you come to Litch?  We can order a pizza and hang out in my room...Alex won't be around.]

CAL
[Alright]
[When?]

PIPER
[I'm at the mall now, I'll text you when I get back on the shuttle.]

CAL
[Cool]

 


 

Text Message, Saturday, 5:12 pm

PIPER
[Hey, I'm sorry.  You've been really great putting up with me the last month or so, and I really hope you aren't mad at me. I've just been feeling really shitty lately about never saying anything when Jessica talks about Alex.]

POLLY
[It's okay.]
[I know she can be a jerk.]
[And she definitely crossed the line, especially the whole trailer trash thing.]
[She's REALLY pissed at you though.]

PIPER
[I figured.]
[That's fine.  I can't be around her anymore.]
[We're okay though, right?]

POLLY
[Yeah.  Of course.]

 


 

When Cal shows up, Piper can tell he thinks this entreaty is weird; the realization provokes a rush of affection toward him for being so agreeable, anyway.  He's been that way the past month, really, never giving more than a baffled shrug in response to Piper's sudden apparent need for sibling bonding time.  

She spends too long on the Dominoes website crafting their pizza order while Cal wanders around Alex's side of the room, studying her posters, continually circling back to her desk where he'll pick up a book or DVD to peruse.  When Piper starts putting in her debit card number to pay for dinner, he asks, "Where's Alex?" 

"I don't know."  Might as well be honest.  

"Still don't get what happened with you guys," Cal mutters. "I liked her."  

For awhile, Piper doesn't say anything.  Cal doesn't seem to expect a response, wasn't fishing: the mythical, complex tanglings of girl's friendships are not something he even hopes to understand.

But Piper's plan is to slowly back herself into a corner, take small steps until there is no escape beyond the obvious.  So she says, probably after too long of a silence, "That's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.  Me and Alex, I mean."  

"Okaaay..."  He glances over at her, more confused than curious.  "What about it?"  There's the slightest note of impatience in his voice, like he's waiting to hear what this has to do with him.

"Listen, Cal.  You can't tell anyone about this, okay?  Especially Mom and Dad."  

"Well, that'll be really difficult for me."  He affects a half assed British accent.  "You know Mum and Pop and I are so very close."  

"Hey, I mean it, though.  Not even your friends.  Or Danny."  

"Okay, yeah, whatever.  I'm not gonna tell."  There are practically air quotes around the words; Cal obviously finds this request incredibly immature, like his older sister is regressing to a kindergartner pointlessly protecting shallow secrets.    

She steps further into her own trap, heart pounding like it wants to leap from her chest.  "You know Alex is gay, right?" 

This seems to puncture Cal's impatient bravado.  He actually blushes, stammering, "Oh, um, yeah. Yeah, I did.  Course."  

He's not a good liar, but now isn't the time to dwell on that.

"Right.  So..."  Piper's mouth goes dry, the words scampering back down her throat.  Lamely, she amends, "Do you maybe...know where I'm going with this?"

Piper's not sure where this fear comes from, if it's too real to say the words herself, or if she only wants him to put it together because that means it must make some sort of sense to him.

"No." Cal scowls, like no one could possibly read the subtitles of this conversation.  

Piper swallows.  She has to just say it, blurt it out, it won't change anything immediately beyond this moment, and Cal isn't so scary.

She looks away from him, sets her jaw, unfolding the admission like a covertly passed note, still crumpled and small when it comes out: "So we were together."  

"What?"  Cal's unfiltered surprise is immediate and genuine.  "Holy shit."  Piper's whole body feels tense, like she just jumped off a diving board and is waiting for the painful shock of icy water.  

But then Cal says, "But Mom and Dad let her sleep in your room."  

A shocked sort of laugh leapfrogs out of her.  There is only old, familiar indignation in her brother's voice, a sense of unfairness - no fair, I'm not allowed to have girls in MY room! 

Typical Cal.  Typical teenage boy.  

There is such warm, soothing relief in the typical.    

"Well, we also shared a room here.  Every night," she reminds him.

"Damn.  That's a sweet set up."  He's moved away Alex's side of the room, hoisting himself up on Piper's bed instead.  

Pointedly, she tells him, "You know I didn't not tell Mom and Dad just so Alex could stay in my room when she visited."  

"Ah.  Right.  They're gonna be really weird and annoying about it."  He makes a sour face, presumably to convey sympathy.  "Are you gonna tell them?" 

"Not anytime soon."  She's been sitting at her desk chair, but now Piper climbs up on her desk, feet on the chair's seat, so she can better see her brother up on the loft bed.  Her voice is small.  "We broke up."  

"Oh, yeah.  Dur."  He grimaces, hastily adding, "I don't mean, durof course you wouldn't last.  Just that that explains why you don't hang out anymore." 

"I got it." 

"So...why'd you break up?"  He asks it in an obligatory manner, and for a second a smile ghosts across Piper's lips.  She'd had a vague assumption that this would be such an earth shattering revelation that anyone, especially her own brother, would surely have dozens of questions, need to fill in every blank she's left for the past year.

Clearly, she'd underestimated the self absorption of a fifteen year old boy.  Or his disinterest in gossiping.  

Piper chooses to see it as a good thing.  She doesn't really want to rehash the details.  "Long story.  It was my fault, though.  I screwed up." 

"Did she dump you because you wanted to keep it a secret?"  

"No.  She's not like that."  

"Oh."  

Silence stretches between them.  It's long enough to remind Piper how nervous she is. 

"Seriously, though.  What are you thinking?"  

"I dunno.  That it sucks for you?  Alex is really hot.  And cool."  His face tinges pink again when he says it; it occurs to Piper, not for the first time, that Cal might have a slight crush on her roommate.  

"Yeah, but I mean...the me liking girls thing?  Does it seem weird?"  There's a desperate edge to the question; she's almost uneasy at how quickly the conversation has begun to feel normal.  

"Sort of.  I guess.  Like, I would never have figured it out.  You don't seem gay."  Piper rolls her eyes, suppressing an impulse to lecture.  Sounding reluctant, Cal adds,  "But you and Alex...I can kinda see it." 

Piper smiles thinly, the sentiment bittersweet.  

Her brother cocks his head at her.  "So are you officially into girls now?"  

"I...think I like guys, too.  I don't know."  

Piper hasn't really felt a need to examine the issue too closely.  Her naive, love drunk teenage brain had been counting on a future with Alex, rendering other girls or other boys irrelevant - she's surely ruined her for anyone else.  

"Well.  You should just tell Mom and Dad.  Fuck 'em.  If they don't like  it, it's their problem,"  Cal says, suddenly animated with the conviction and confidence that comes from knowing it will never be his problem.  "Who cares?  They're so fucking backwards."  

Half-heartedly, Piper shrugs.  "I just don't want to start a whole thing with them until I have an actual reason to.  And right now, I don't."  

"True."  Cal grabs Piper's laptop from the foot of her bed.  "Wanna watch a movie or something?" 

"Sure."   Piper's attune to her brother's squirmy discomfort: this is too much serious talk.  That's not how anyone their family interacts with each other, even the two of them with their long held but unspoken alliance.  Piper, too, was starting to feel the itching strangeness of such a conversation, and she's glad for the escape.  "Pizza should be here soon."  

"Sweet."  

She takes a conscious moment to congratulate herself.  This is not a spine tingling rush of power and pride from the mall earlier, but closer to the exhausting, trembling relief that comes after doing something unpleasant but necessary: resetting a bone, ripping off a band-aid, vomiting. 

Piper had vowed to herself that she was doing this only for herself, but she can't stifle the instinctive desire to tell Alex about it.  Not because she sees it as a grand gesture - she's not trying to score points - but simply because this is the kind of thing that needs to be shared with someone who will understand the significance.

And Alex is still the first person she wants to tell things to.

 


 

The weekend felt significant, like it should usher in some new stage of Piper's life, a stage much preferable to the last one defined largely by heartbreak.  But on Monday, her brother is back at Overbrook with the truth tucked in his pocket, safe and unobtrusive, and the only tangible difference is now Piper doesn't have anyone to sit with at meals.  

It's April by now, and spring is blooming prettily around the campus, so it's not the worst thing for Piper to start surreptitiously taking her food to go and eating on the lawn of the quad.  There are others doing the same thing, though usually in groups, so it's easy for Piper to settle onto the grass with her sandwich and headphones. It's a little lonely, sure, but it's also a more honest and less stressful solitude than when she was hiding herself in plain sight.

 


 

After a week of her new routine, Piper's become strangely fond of her solo rituals.  Sick of the dorm, she ends up spending a lazy weekend afternoon just outside their dorm building, stretched out on a blanket, reading an unassigned novel and listening to music.  

Polly finds her like that around four o'clock.  They've been normal with each other in class all week, but haven't hung out otherwise.  They'd had two off season tennis practices, but Jessica was there, too, and Piper could see Polly wasn't sure how to act with either of them: she's never seen her doubles partner so focused on a practice in two years.  

"Hey."  Piper shields her eyes, having to squint up at Polly, still standing over her blanket.  

"Oh, sorry."  Polly bends down, tucking her legs underneath her to sit on the edge of the blanket.  Out of the sun, Piper gets a good look at her face: Polly's eyes are red and swollen, and Piper has to fight against a sigh.  

She's been anticipating this for a few weeks now; the end of the semester is just over a month away, which for Danny means graduation.  Despite Piper's neutrality and, at times, encouragement in recent discussions with Polly, she has little doubt that her older brother has no intention of going to college shackled to a high school girlfriend.

And given what happened last year, he'd probably rather be single for the summer, too.  

Piper's not thrilled about having to comfort Polly through yet another breakup, particularly in light of their awkwardness this past week.  But she looks genuinely upset, and she's been a good friend to Piper since her own breakup, even without knowing it happened.

"Hey, what's wrong?"  Piper closes her book and sets it down, ready to go into full supportive friend mode.  

"Um..."  Polly draws in a shaky breath.  "Listen, this is really fucked up, I know.  We kinda got caught smoking pot earlier today."  

"Oh, shit.  That sucks, sorry."  Piper's legitimately surprised.  The whole time she's ben here, she and her friends have been consistent with their routines for various contraband, to the point where she stopped feeling the threat of punishment long ago.  So it's genuine curiosity that makes her asks, "Where were you?"  

"By the lake, halfway between here and Overbrook.  It was a total fluke, teachers are never there."  Polly shakes her head, disbelieving, then sighs.  "Look, that's not why...they sent us to Red's house.  She asked where we got the pot, and Jessica...told her about Alex."  

Piper's heart drops.  "Meaning what?" 

"Meaning she told her all of it.  She said we got it from her, but also just...that Alex sells weed to everyone.  The alcohol, too."    

Piper's face hardens.  "That's bullshit.  Alex has never sold Jessica anything."  

"I know." 

"So why didn't one of you tell the truth?!"  

She's almost yelling, and Piper lowers her voice to a half whisper like that will force Piper to match it.  "We couldn't.  We were all smoking the joint, but the teacher who caught us - it was someone from Overbrook, not even here - found more in Jessica's bag.  By the time she spilled everything on Alex, we'd already said we didn't know where it came from."  

A sick, panicky feeling is starting to thump like a heartbeat in Piper's stomach.  

At Litchfield, one violation that's considered minor - being caught smoking pot, or drinking, or sneaking out - within a school year only results in a warning.  Not that a warning means  you're free of consequences - parents are contacted, work hours given, sometimes even suspension from activities - it just means no expulsion.  Two minor violations within a year, or a single major violation - harder drugs, stealing, cheating - expulsion is immediate. 

Piper doesn't know how dealing contraband - even minor violation level contraband - is classified. 

"Fuck," she grits out, scrambling to her feet without even bothering to gather up her blanket and book, or saying anything more to Polly.  She runs for the dorm entrance; Alex is at soccer practice, they have it every Saturday until Regionals start, and the only thing Piper can think to do is to gather up everything from Alex's known hiding places and get it far away.

She's speed walking down the hall while thumbing out a text to Nicky - Where are you need your car EMERGENCY - when Piper pulls up short, realizing the door to their room is already open.  

Headmistress Reznikov is standing in the middle of Piper and Alex's dorm room, stony and imposing, so out of place among their posters and twin sized beds.

Susan Fisher is in front of her, going through Alex's desk drawers.  There is likely some sort of caveat in the most text heavy pages of their student handbook that allows for this sort of search, but Piper's head fills up with fourth amendment protests anyway.  But Red's shrewd gaze lands on her, shrinking her into silence.  

"Miss Chapman."  The headmistress nods shortly.  "Apologies, but we need your room for another hour or so.  Feel free to grab anything you need."  

"Alex is at soccer," Piper blurts out dumbly, and too loud.  "Should I...do you need me to go get her?" 

"That won't be necessary.  We'll call Coach Mendoza to send her up when we need her." 

"Yes, ma'am."  Piper can't bring herself to move from the doorway; by now, she's spotted a cluster of bottles and ziploc bags sitting on Alex's desk.

Guilt and fear sting in her mouth, warm and metallic like blood, and Piper's afraid for a second she might be sick.

Logically, she knows this isn't her fault.  Jessica didn't get caught on purpose, and she probably would have seized on the chance to blame Alex even if Piper hadn't pissed her off last week.

But she can't know that for sure.  

Fisher closes a drawer, moving instead to Alex's closet, and she catches Piper's eye as she does, shooting her a sympathetic grimace.  Fleetingly, Piper wonders if Alex has talked to her yet about switching roommates for next year.

She wonders if it will even matter anymore.

Chapter Text

We're getting deeper in this mess,
take careful contemplation.
I'd rather be spitting blood
than have this silence fuck me up

The Quiet  //  Troye Sivan

 


 

When soccer practice ends, Alex checks her phone to find a text from Fisher, asking her to please come straight to the dorms after practice.  She frowns down at the message, not sure what the dorm counselor could want with her.

She's been putting off talking to Fisher all week, even though she'd resolved to get it over with. 

It should be a relief, requesting a room change.  If someone told her she could spend the last three weeks of school in a different dorm room than Piper, Alex would gratefully take the offer without hesitation, but there's something so final about committing to a whole senior year of living apart.  It's like an acquiescence that this really is permanent.   

That's a subject Alex keeps getting tangled in - her hesitation forces an acknowledgement that some stupid part of her is hoping things will change with Piper, and finding a scrap of hope where she thought she'd cleaned just makes her angry  -  and it's enough to preoccupy her during the walk to the dorms, so much so that she forgets to wonder about Fisher's text.

And so the sight waiting in her room catches Alex completely off guard: Fisher and Red sitting in her  and Piper's desk chairs, Alex's desktop cluttered with bottles and ziploc bags of weed.

For a second, the only thing Alex feels is the gut punch surprise at being caught.  She's never really worried about this, in nearly three years.  Now, she freezes, stunned, like an animal stepping into a trap when they didn't even know such things existed.  

"Miss Vause," Red intones brusquely, her lips flattened into a grim, unsmiling line.  "Seems as though we need to have quite a talk."  

 


  

Alex had been summoned to a meeting with Red once before.  

Only once.  Not a terrible track record for the school drug dealer.    

It was a few months into her freshmen year, the Jessica Wedge's Roommate era. The L Word poster on her wall, making out with Nicky in her room when she knew Jessica would be returning from class, off handedly mentioning how how Jessica's friends looked that day era.  

When Red got involved, Jessica had already outed Alex to everyone, was already talking about how "uncomfortable" Alex made her.  She had finally threatened to go to Fisher, demanding a room change.  Alex had heard about Fisher's timid attempts at mediating conflicts by then, and the threat didn't scare her.  She figured the worst that could happen was Fisher might make them come to her room and do trust falls, probably after stammering through some overly PC talk about tolerance.  

Instead, the headmistress is the one who summoned her.  She'd gotten a note in her first class after lunch, telling her to report to Red's office as soon as classes ended, which meant there were three more class periods for her stomach to twist itself into knots.  By the time the final bell rang, Alex was convinced she was getting expelled.

She silently berated herself the whole walk to the administration building.  What had she been thinking, antagonizing the rich bitch daughter of Litchfield board members?  It was never going to be a fair fight.

Her mom was so proud of her for getting into Litch.  More than that, she was relieved, that maybe Alex wouldn't be held back by all the things Diane couldn't give her.

She'd stopped outside Red's office and frantically started googling on her phone, looking for legal terms she could throw out about discrimination lawsuits.  She finally entered, sick and scared but determined to dig in her heels and refuse to let Jessica Wedge or Headmistress Reznikov rip this away from her. 

She never needed to make any threats.  Red seemed embarrassed to be having the meeting at all, and was largely concerned in finding out, in a roundabout way, whether they would be able to appease Jessica with a room change without making Alex feel like she was being bullied for her sexuality.   Once Alex adamantly assured Red that such a move suited her just fine, Red had seemed nearly as relieved as Alex.

 


 

Today, though, Red clearly isn't on Alex's side.  

She doesn't make any mention of moving out of Alex's room and into her office, or even Fisher's room.  So Alex is just left awkwardly standing, feeling like an intruder in her own space.

Just like two and a half years ago, Alex's survival instincts flare to life.  She goes instantly on the defensive, even without the benefit of internet research.

"Why are you in here?"  

Red lets out an impatient sigh that manages to apply she thought Alex was above such an obvious starting point.  "Alex.  You know perfectly well the administration reserves the right the search students' - " 

"I haven't given anyone probable cause," Alex cuts her off.  The muscles in Red's face tighten, and Alex notes that interrupting is reckless.  Still, she pushes through, "So does this mean everyone's room is getting searched?"  

She knows it doesn't.  Based on the spread on her desk, they found the majority of her supply - most of it was hidden in places a general search wouldn't have turned up.  

"Probable cause only applies to the police," Red chides her.  "You've watched too much of the Law and Order."

"But you don't randomly select students' rooms to search," Alex shoots back, having to work hard to keep anger out of her voice.  

"No, we don't, Miss Vause."  Red's voice turns grave again.  "But very serious accusations have been, and we felt compelled to investigate."

"What accusations?"

"We were told you've been selling contraband - both drugs and alcohol - to your fellow students.  Apparently for quite some time now."  

"That's bullshit," Alex blurts out, her voice throbbing with indignation.

Her brain churning furiously, assessing her situation.  She's smart about this, has never kept any written or typed record of sells, storing orders and transactions nowhere outside her own head.  

Possession isn't so bad.  It's only a first strike, minor violation.  They won't find any proof it's more than that.   All they'll have is someone's word against Alex's.  

She doesn't think anyone she sells to would rat her out.  People have gotten caught with her product before.  They've always taken their violations, have never pointed to a source.  There's no benefit to it; Litchfield doesn't make deals or offer lesser sentences. 

"Language," Red admonishes almost lazily.  "Frankly, Alex, we were skeptical, as well.  It didn't sound like you, but this..." She waves a hand at the drugs and alcohol.  "...is pretty convincing."  

A clear, rational strategy is beginning to take shape, and Alex takes a breath before saying in a determinedly calm voice, "This is what you would find in almost every students' room.  Everyone stocks up for a full semester, and I'm guessing whoever made up that crap about me running some drug ring out of a dorm room knows that, too."  

Red holds her gaze.  "And why would someone make up something like that?" 

"If you tell me who said it, I can maybe answer that."  

Red exchanges a look with Fisher.  Alex had nearly forgotten she was in the room.  Fisher, bless her trusting soul, tentatively speaks up, seemingly in Alex's defense.  "They have had their troubles - " 

"Who was it?"  Alex asks tersely, her voice unnecessarily soft to keep from yelling.  

After another momentary hesitation, Red admits, "Jessica Wedge."  

Alex had just come to that conclusion herself, but she barks out a hollow, incredulous laugh.  "Re -  Headmistress Reznikov, come on.  You know how she feels about me.  Why would I give her anything?" 

"I believe she said you sold it to her."  

"Right."  Acidic fury bubbles deep in Alex's gut.  Like it's not enough Jessica's got Piper stuck in her web now; she thinks about that day at the mall last weekend, Piper walking to the movie theater with Jessica and the rest of her hive of followers.   Alex had heard Jessica say her own name when they passed by, probably talking her same old brand of bullshit.  

And Piper probably lets her.  Piper's probably terrified to say anything: wouldn't want to make anyone suspicious, wondering why she'd bother defending her own roommate.  

"Look," Alex tries to soften her eye contact with the headmistress, appearing both humble and reasonable.  "This isn't fair.  Jessica obviously got caught with something, right?  And she decided to find a silver lining to getting in trouble by pinning it on me.  She figures of course you'll believe the scholarship kid is selling stuff to rich kids, right?" 

Alex catches the slightest flinch in Red's expression when she says that.  She decides to push that button again. "I have an actual job back home.  I work at a bowling alley every single break while most of the girls here tour their family vacation homes."  She doesn't mention her own trips to Nicky's family vacation homes, but the thought does remind Alex to play the Nicky friendship card.  Red's favoritism can come in handy.  "And yes, sometimes I still have to borrow cash from Nicky.  But I don't sell anything, Red.  I promise." 

Using the headmistress's nickname is a smart move: Alex can see it land.  It makes her seem vulnerable and honest, like she's not even filtering herself.   

After a long moment, Red sighs.  "Even if you aren't selling anything, Alex, this - " Again, she indicates the evidence on Alex's desk.  " - is highly troubling.  Marijuana and alcohol possession...that's two separate violations, without even taking the quantity into account."  

Alex's heart drops.  Two violations within a year is still expulsion.  They just usually aren't given simultaneously.  

"But you shouldn't have even been in here," Alex insists, her control audibly slipping.  "If I named a random student I don't like and say I got it from them, is that enough for you to go search their room?"  

"Miss Vause - "

"You had more reason to search Jessica and whoever else she got caught with, but I bet that didn't happen." 

"Alex, we're talking about you now."  

"And I'm saying that's not fair.  I didn't do anything today and I'm the only one who got my whole room torn apart so you could find multiple violations. Right?  The board probably wouldn't let Jessica get in that much trouble anyway."  

Fisher looks away in obvious discomfort, but Red's eyes flash, apparently reaching her limit of the disrespect.  

Before she can interject, Alex changes tactics, indicating the contraband on her desk.  "You don't even know all that's mine."  

"We did only search your side of the room," Fisher puts in.  

"So?  Maybe I'm just better at hiding stuff.  And anyway..."  Feeling bold, Alex picks up a bulky bottle of gatorade that is at least 60% gin.  "We only have one mini fridge in the room.  This could be Piper's."  She puts the bottle down, then crosses the room to the bookshelf under Piper's bed, pulling out a copy of On the Road and extracting a plastic bag of weed.  "And this is definitely hers."  

She drops the pot on the desk with everything else.  Red stares at it, looking genuinely confused at the route this disciplinary conversation has taken.  

"So do you have to give her violations now, too?  Just because you caught someone smoking weed, who then lied and said she got it from Piper's roommate, leading you to search her room?  That doesn't seem fair either, does it - "

"Okay, that's enough," Red snaps.  She stands up, leveling a steely glare at Alex, who understands right away that, no matter how this turns out, she is no longer going to be seen as one of the good kids.  She maybe could have saved that even with the haul of illegal substances - Red's smart enough to know that Alex is right about almost every student having stashes in their room - but not anymore.  Now, the headmistress thinks Alex is a self righteous smartass who doesn't respect her authority.

Red holds Alex's eyes long enough to silently communicate the magnitude of her displeasure, then flicks her gaze to Fisher. 

"Susan, please gather all this and then meet me in my office."  To Alex, barely looking at her, Red says, "We need to discuss this."  

"But - "

"You have more than had your say, Miss Vause."  

Alex's face feels hot.  She doesn't move as Red walks out of the room past her, leaving Fisher to hastily gather the alcohol and weed.  It's only then, staring blankly as Fisher sweeps her source of cash into a garbage bag, does Alex notice another item on the desk: a strip of photobooth pictures she and Piper had taken at the bowling alley arcade over the summer.  

In the last two they're kissing.

The urge to reach forward and snatch it out of view seizes her, but Alex doesn't move. Those photos were somewhere in a desk drawer;  she hasn't seen them since before the break up.  There's technically nothing against the rules about dating your roommate, but there's an implied violation of no sexual conduct there, and Alex doubts it will help her case.

The desktop cleared again, Fisher gives Alex an awkward grimace.  "I'm, um, sure we'll call for you soon." 

Twenty seconds after she's closed the door behind her, Alex nearly dives for the small trash basket beside her desk, her stomach lurching along with her. 

She crouches on her knees on the tile floor of the dorm room, half leaning against her desk chair.  She gags on bile and what tastes sickeningly like the red Gatorade she drank at soccer practice.  

When it's over, Alex's throat feels raw and achey.  She sits down on the floor, eyes landing on Piper's copy of On the Road, discarded nearby. 

She hadn't even thought about it.  Pragmatism and self preservation had been driving her on some sort of manic autopilot, and consciously there hadn't even been time for Alex to wage an internal debate over whether to drag Piper into this.    

But Alex still knows that if they were together, not even her most base, selfish instinct would have mentioned Piper's name. 

Even with the breakup, Alex still might have protected her if it wasn't for Jessica: because she was the one to do this to Alex, and Piper fucking chose to be friends with her.  

And all that was storming around Alex's head when she went for Piper's bookshelf.

 


 

Piper's sitting in the dorm basement, listlessly watching Poussey and Brook play a giggly game of ping pong.   She hasn't told Poussey about the search going on in their room, and she's got her phone in her hand, wishing she could think of something to text Alex.

Eventually, she gets a text from Fisher, thanking her for clearing out and saying she can return to her room.

"Hey, Pipe, we're gonna go grab dinner at the bakery."  She looks up, seeing that Poussey and Brook have put their paddles down and abandoned the game.  "Wanna come with?"

It's an unusual invitation, even for a Saturday - Poussey must have noticed Piper sitting alone for the past week - but Piper barely registers the offer.  She doesn't feel much like eating anyway.  "Thanks, but that's okay.  Not that hungry."  

Poussey shrugs.  "Suit yourself, girl." 

Piper waves half heartedly, then heads upstairs.  

She isn't expecting to find Alex there, and definitely not sitting on the ground, looking dazed.  

In that moment, Piper's worry over a situation that has nothing to do with their relationship eclipses everything else about the past few months.  "Al..."  Like there's nothing weird about it, Piper drops to her knees just in front of Alex, seeking immediate eye contact.  "Are you okay?  What happened with Red?" 

Alex blinks at her.  "What?  How do you know - ?"  

"Polly told me that Jessica named you to Red...they all got caught, Polly and Madison and those guys."

Alex frowns.  She seems out of it, like she's having trouble keeping up.  "Were you with them?" 

"What?  No, I...I don't really hang out with them anymore, did you..."  In spite of herself, a pang of disappointment sounds in Piper's chest.  "You hadn't noticed that?"

"No."

"Anyway...Polly told me what happened, and I ran up here to try to clear everything out, but Red and Fisher were already going through your stuff."  

"You were going to clear everything out?"  Alex repeats.  Her eyes are big and restless, and Piper has to wrestle down the urge to grab her hand.  

"Yeah, I don't know, I thought maybe I'd call Nicky, we could put it in her car."  

Alex holds her stare for another long beat, then abruptly stands.  "Pipes, I can't...I can't do this with you, right now."

Despite the nickname, there's a distance in Alex's voice that reverberates like a door slamming between them.  Trying to let the hurt roll over her, Piper stands, too.  "Yeah, sure, sorry, just...what happened?   Did they give you a violation or...or what?" 

"I dunno," Alex mutters, her back to Piper as she goes to her closet, changing out her clothes from soccer practice.  "Red's discussing it.  With Fisher, for some fucking reason."

"You know what, I think that's probably a good thing.  Fisher knows you, she'll probably be on your side."

"No one's on my fucking side, Piper," Alex snaps, the words cutting the air like a blade with the same sharpness of the night they broke up.  Piper shivers at the sound.  "Jessica's parents are on the goddamn board, so as soon as she calls somebody out, fuck them.  Especially the trailer trash scholarship kid who of course must be the school drug dealer." 

Without thinking, Piper points out, "Well, you are, though."

"Fuck you, Pipes."  Alex whirls around, still wearing her sports bra with her shorts, and Piper's chest tightens when she realizes Alex is fighting tears. "I didn't sell shit to Jessica, you know that.  And they still fucking believed her, with nothing else to go on."  She turns back around, grabbing for a tank top.   "You think they tore her fucking dorm apart today?  Or any of your other friends?  The people who actually got caught breaking rules?  No, cause nobody wants to find a reason to kick them out -"

"Wait, did Red make it sound like you're getting kicked out?"  

Dressed now, Alex shoves past Piper, grabbing her bag almost violently.  "What do you care?" 

"Alex - " 

But she's already halfway out of the door, slamming it shut behind her.  Piper's sick of conversations with Alex ending with that sound, hearing the harsh finality again and again.  

 


 

Alex gets summoned to Red's office after about an hour.  Since it's Saturday evening, she was starting to worry they'd make her wait until the morning to find out her punishment - then again, the urgency might not be a good sign.  

She crosses the campus to the administration building.  There are texts from Nicky, Janae, and Poussey on her phone, probably figuring out plans for tonight, but Alex doesn't let herself look at them.

The only reason the administration building is open at this hour on a weekend is for her punishment, but Alex still isn't called in right away.  Litchfield is all about its collaborative staff, including in discipline.  Red's probably been calling other teachers.  

Like Ms. Rogers, who can tell her all about Alex freaking out and disrupting a play reading in the middle of class.  Or Coach Mendoza, who's probably smart enough to at least suspect that the reason Alex sucked so bad at practice for a few months is because she was showing up stoned.  

Or just about anyone who can confirm that Alex's grades have slipped this semester, and that she barely talks in class.  Somehow, they'll be able to use her post-breakup behavior as evidence for drug dealing.

Sitting in the chair outside Red's office, Alex rests her elbows on her knees and lets her head rest against her palms.  Her throat is still raw and sore from vomiting, but she's feeling sick again.

How in three years has she failed to worry about this moment?  Litchfield has always been a chance she literally can't afford to lose, but somehow she's always been willing to risk it.  She's just that much of a fuck-up.  

What a goddamn cliche.  Piper's right, Alex has no grounds for getting all self-righteous when she's every bit as much of a low life as they assume.

Then Piper walks in, and it's the only thing that could possibly make Alex feel worse right now.  

"Hey."  Her movements tentative, Piper sits down beside Alex.  There's nothing on her face but sympathy - she hasn't figured out why she's here.  "Fisher texted me to come..."  Piper lowers her voice.  "You know I won't say anything, Al.  And I happen to know Jessica gets her shit from guys at Overbrook.  She started this, I don't mind spilling." 

Alex closes her eyes, swallowing thickly against a lump lodged stubbornly in her throat.  More than anything else, for the past hour of waiting, she keeps thinking about Piper running up to their room and trying to hide Alex's stuff.    

What a stupid fucking thing to do.  She's lucky she was too late, or she could have run smack into Red and Fisher lugging a bag full of contraband, and then what would she have done?  Thrown Alex under the bus to save her own ass? 

Like Alex did to her? 

She isn't proud.  It was one of those moments when Alex wishes she didn't have to bear witness to her own behavior.  

She doesn't like knowing she's that kind of person.

"I can't talk to you right now, Piper, okay?"  Alex mutters, leaning forward again so Piper isn't even in her peripheral.  

"Sure, yeah.  Just...it's gonna be okay." 

"Alex?"  They both look up to see Fisher leaving the office.  "Red's ready for you."  

Alex catches the quickest flash of surprise on Piper's face, but then she stands up and averts her gaze, moving past Fisher, who doesn't follow her in to hear her fate.

 


 

"We're disappointed in you, Alex," Red tells her gruffly, the we weighted down, like it's carrying the disappointment of the entire Litchfield faculty.  "Not just about what we found in your room, but your behavior afterward...a distinct lack of respect, which isn't like you." 

Alex curls her lips inward, sensing it's best to stay quiet.  She definitely pushed it too far earlier; Red prefers students who bend completely to her authority, are even a little afraid of her.  

"However.  I can appreciate the point you made, about searching your room and not the rooms of other students in trouble.  As your dorm counselor, I trust Fisher has more knowledge of the dramas and dynamics between you girls...and she seems to find Miss Wedge lying to get you in trouble more likely than you conducting any sort of transaction with her."   Alex inhales sharply, the words lifting hope from her chest.  "If that is the case...then I apologize.  But I hope you understand that the accusations made were extreme serious, and I wouldn't be doing my job if I simply dismissed them."  

"Yes, ma'am,"  Alex forces out.  

"Although, according to all your...candor, earlier, it seems as though we should be monitoring all students' rooms more frequently.  So that's something that will be implemented soon...particularly for students that have a history of violations."  Red narrows her gaze, back to severity.  "And on that note...marijuana and alcohol.  Two separate violations."  

Alex's stomach drops again, her submissive act nearly collapsing.  "But - "

Red talks over her.  "Given the circumstances, we are spreading those out: one for this semester, one for next.  Meaning you'll start your senior year with one strike already on your record."  

Instinctively, Alex looks away so Red doesn't glimpse the flash of anger lightning through her.  

Starting with a violation - and suspicion already on her - means she'll have to play it safe her whole senior year.  Which shouldn't matter, considering she walked in here expecting expulsion, but Alex knows what it means.  She's officially been branded a bad kid now, a troublemaker, and Red is forcing her into a corner.  Making her start in a more precarious position than anyone else here.

What else is fucking new? 

"I hope you understand how lucky you are.  I would be well within the rules to compound these violations right now and expel you."  Red's voice is sharp, like she sense the defiance coming off Alex in waves.  "But given your clean record, we're giving you the benefit of the doubt here.  Understand?"  

Alex grits her teeth.  "Yes."  

"Good.  Now, I assume you know what violations involve.  We'll be contacting your mother, and it's fifteen work hours each you'll need to schedule - just a reminder, work hours are suspended during finals, as well as the week leading up to them so as not to interfere with studying.  It's unlikely you'll finish this semester, so they'll carry over."  Red pauses.  "And you'll be unable to participate in soccer for the next week - " 

"What?"  The protest bursts out of Alex, her whole body tensing as her calm finally deserts her entirely. 

"A week's suspension from extracurriculars is standard for any violation, Vause, you know that.  And Miss Wedge and her friends  - "

"It's Regionals this week -"  

" - are facing the same consequences."  

" - and they're just on the off season for tennis."  

"Enough."  

Alex shuts up, swallowing a snarky question about how Red can ban students from sports they're required to play.  Red's got that look again, the one reminding Alex how far she's fallen in the headmistress's estimation, but it's worse to think about facing Coach Mendoza, knowing she's gotten herself benched right when the games start to really matter.  

Worse than that, obviously, is her mom getting the phone call about Alex's multiple violations, but she's not letting herself think about that yet. 

Red gives her a shrewd look.  "You may want to use these work hours to consider an adjustment of this attitude, Alex.  I'm not the only one whose noticed its recent emergence."  

When Red seems to give up on her responding, she says in a more neutral tone, "We've also decided it's best if your...room situation is reassigned."  

Alex was going to ask for that anyway - she thinks she was, she was supposed to be, she probably would have done it - but she still feels a sharp stab of loss.  She meets Red's gaze for the first time in awhile.  The headmistresses' face is stern but blank, no hint of accusation for the real reason she and Piper are being separated.  

She wonders, stupidly, what Red and Fisher must think of her.  They see her kiss Piper in a strip of photos - a messy, uncoordinated kiss because they couldn't stop laughing - and the next thing they know, Alex is going out of her way to narc on Piper.  

She remembers Piper outside the office, right now, and for a second Alex rummages around for some way to undo it.  But nothing comes to mind short full on claiming she lied about the pot in Piper's bookcase, dragging Red's already plummeting opinion of her further into the dirt.

Alex is still too selfish for that. 

"Can I go?"  She says, finally, trying to keep any ounce of asshole out of her voice.

Red makes a show of considering it.  "Yes."  She arches an eyebrow.  "Fisher will be talking to you about when to start your work hours."  

"'Kay."    

"What was that?" 

"Yes, ma'am." 

"Send in Piper as you go, please." 

Outside Red's office, Piper's desperately seeking eye contact, but Alex walks by her as quickly as she can.

 


 

After maybe two minutes, Piper gives up on trying to hear any part of the conversation through Red's door. 

She isn't sure what's going on.  She figured she was here to give some sort of statement about Alex and everything they found in their room that would somehow affect Alex's punishment, but then Red had called Alex in first.

Restless and nervy, Piper toys with her cell phone.  She keeps wishing she could text Poussey or someone, reach out and share the anxiety a bit, but she doubts Alex wants them to know anything yet.

She keeps trying to distract herself with Instagram or Twitter, but mostly Piper just watches the minutes tick by and tries to convince herself there's no way Alex could get expelled.  

She's almost startled when the door finally opens, and Piper barely gets a glimpse of Alex's face before she's gone.  Her insides twist.  

"Miss Chapman?"  Red calls from inside her office, sounding exasperated, like Alex was supposed to get her.  

Piper gets to her feet and turns into the office.  She can't help herself, immediately blurting out, "Is Alex being expelled?" 

Red's face is impassive.  "Sit down, Piper."  

She keeps talking even as she obeys.  "Because, honestly, Jessica really hates her, and Alex would never - " 

"No one's being expelled," Red interrupts, her expression a mix of weariness and impatience.  "Alex is in a good deal of trouble, which she can tell you about if she chooses.  But we're here to talk about you, now."  

Confusion quickly punctures the relief swelling in Piper's chest.  "Me?"  

"Mmm-hmm.  We found quite a bit of marijuana and liquor in you and Alex's room.  I need to know if any of it belongs to you." 

"No," Piper says immediately.  

"Sure about that?"  

There's a hard edge to Red's voice, and Piper's stomach liquifies as it occurs to her that question isn't obligatory.  That fast, a heat wave sweeps across Piper's skin.  She doesn't do well with this, being in trouble; she isn't used to it.  The one and only time she'd turned a card - her elementary's school's preferred disciplinary system - in third grade, she'd cried in front of the whole class.

"I -- yes, I'm sure."  

Even though her body currently feels like it's made of pure, buzzing anxiety, Piper really does feel certain about what she's saying.  She never really had to think about obtaining contraband - Alex just handed it over at the moment of consumption.  She's never heard of room searches actually happening here, but if they had, it's not something Piper ever really had to worry about.

But skepticism is set in Red's expression.  "Even what we found in a book on what seems to be your bookshelf?"  

Piper feels the muscles in her face go slack, her projected innocence faltering as she remembers Alex grinning about joints hidden in On the Road, telling Piper they'd earmark those for personal use.  

That doesn't make them hers.  Alex had gotten them, Alex had put them there, Piper had completely forgotten they were there.

"No," she says firmly.  "Those aren't mine."  

"Those?"  Red repeats, and immediately Piper's heart lurches.  "So it's not yours, but you seem to know what we found there wasn't just a clump of something.  Or a bottle."  

"A bottle wouldn't really fit...behind books..."  Piper says weakly.  "I...I knew what was there, but it...it's Alex's."  

She feels shitty even as she's saying it, especially when she came in here ready to defend Alex, but Piper is technically telling the truth.  Anyway there was so much shit on Alex's desk already that pinning one more bag on her isn't going to make the difference.

Then Red lifts an eyebrow and says, "Really?  That's not what she said."  

Piper feels like she's just been shoved, hard.  She actually jolts slightly, back against her chair, as Red continues, oblivious, "But I assume you're claiming you would pass a drug test if we were to administer one?"  

"I, um..."  Piper took a few hits of a joint with Cal and his buddies, playing Settlers of Catan on one of those desperate Saturdays when she needed away from the emptiness of her and Alex's room, she isn't sure how long ago that ways, a few weeks at least, but she doesn't know how long that stays in her system -- 

"I thought so," Red says with a tired sigh.  "This is your first violation of the year, you'll be assigned 15 work hours, though they won't interfere with finals or the week before - " 

"Do you have to call my parents?"  Piper asks, her voice catching.  

"We do."  

"And you tell them...you tell them what happened, that I had weed..."  Piper's voice is jumping all over the place, hot, panicky tears pooling and threatening to spill over.  

Her parents are going to freak.  She isn't supposed to be this kind of person.  None of them are, but especially Piper, who's had one card turned in her entire academic career. Danny hasn't had a violation in four years at Overbrook, and even Cal made it out of his freshmen year unscathed.

Piper will be the first.  And it will change the way her parents look at her.  Especially since its drugs...they're the type who just associate the word with their vague, mythical concept of street gangs and juvenile delinquents.  

"One more thing," Red is saying.  "I've discussed it with Fisher, and we think it's best if you and Alex no longer room together." 

Piper lets out a high-pitched, disbelieving laugh.  Alex must have asked for that, even after everything.  Probably the second she found out she wasn't being expelled.

"Fine," Piper bites out, a little taken aback by the vehemence in her own voice.  

A few minutes later, she's walking in a numb sort of daze back to the dorm room.  Alex isn't there, but after a second Piper sees her copy of On the Road lying on the floor.  She stares at it for a second before swinging her eyes to the bookshelf; it's largely undisturbed.  So does the rest of her side of the room.  

Piper's pretty sure Fisher didn't thumb through every one of the books on her shelf on the off chance of finding something.  She highly doubts they even came over to her side of the room, at least not for anything more than a cursory sweep.  They had more than enough from Alex's.  

Which means Alex must have pulled it out and shown them.  For no fucking reason. Just to drag Piper down with her.  

Fury has its grip on her, just like that, and Piper grits her teeth so hard it hurts, grabbing the book and ripping it at the spine.  

She doesn't stop, tearing pages out and shredding them, leaving Kerouac confetti all over Alex's bed and desk and floor.  Her breathing turns rough and shallow, and she keeps it up until her fingers are stinging red.

 


 

Alex is in Nicky and Janae's room, finishing telling them about the drug ordeal and the eventual punishment.  She'd had to start over halfway through when Poussey showed up after hanging out with Brook.  

They express outrage and indignation in all the right places, appalled at Jessica and irritated with Red.  Even Nicky manages to wait until Alex had gotten a five minute pile on of sympathy to wonder aloud what they were going to do about alcohol next year.  

Alex doesn't tell them what she did to Piper.  After the stress of the past few hours, she wants their uncut sympathy for awhile.   But as long as she's there, Alex keeps an eye on the time, getting closer dorm curfew when she'll have to face Piper.  She's well practiced at avoiding their room by now, but this is different. 

"Hey, so does this have something to do with what Chapman was texting me for earlier?"  Nicky says suddenly.  "She was all emergency, need your car, and then when I answered she said never mind."  

"Uh, yeah, I guess," Alex mutters vaguely.

"How the hell was my car gonna help?"  

The other three are all looking at Alex expectantly.  Reluctant, she doesn't make eye contact when she admits, "Polly told her Jessica sold me out to Red, I guess...she was gonna try to get my shit out of our room but they were already there."  

"Nice of her," Poussey comments carefully.

Alex changes the subject, realizing she left out another detail.  "Oh, I almost forgot, Red also found photos of me and Piper.  From when we were together."  

"Oh, shit."  

"Wait, like..."  Janae wrinkles a face.  "X rated photos?"

"No.  We're just kissing.  But Red's still splitting us up.  New room assignments next year."  

"Whoa."  Poussey's eyes widen.  "For real?"  

"It's not like you actually broke rules with that, right?"  Janae asks.   

Nicky snorts.  "What's Red gonna do?  Claim any gay inclined girl who happened to get roomed with another gay inclined girl isn't allowed to be into her?"  

"She didn't even mention it," Alex tells them, her voice starting to dull.  "Just told me we were being reassigned.  It's like she was daring me to ask why."  

"Works out for you, right?"  Nicky raises her eyebrows at Alex.  "Just saves you from having to ask Fisher."  

"Yeah.  Right."  

Fortunately, conversation turns for the next ten minutes until Alex and Poussey have to head back to their own rooms for dorm check.  

"Come back after if ya want,"  Nicky calls after them. "We can get in a little FoL before light's out."  

"For sure."

"What's the point?" Alex asks over top of Poussey's affirmative.  "I can't drink anymore."  

Horror takes over Nicky's expression as the reality of Alex's situation sinks in.  She doesn't wait for further reaction, just heads into the hallway, Poussey following her.

"You should come back and watch anyway," Poussey says tentatively.  "We don't have to make it a drinking game."  

"I think the day we start watching Facts of Life sober is the day it officially gets weird that we watch Facts of Life," Alex deadpans.  Then she sighs.  "You guys go ahead, I probably gotta talk to Piper anyway."

"Y'all are talking more lately, huh?"  Poussey slows a bit before they get to Alex's room.  "Hey, maybe not living together will make it less weird with you two, ya know?  And maybe next year...she can start hanging out with us again."  Misreading Alex's silence, Poussey adds,  "I know it still sucks, what she did.  But she's not even hanging out with Polly's whole crew anymore, either.  I feel bad."  

"No, I know."  Privately, Alex wonders if it will even matter.  "I get it."  

"Just something to think about."  She half-smiles.  "See ya later?"  

"Yeah.  Night."  

Poussey walks on to her own room, and Alex tentatively tries the doorknob.  It's unlocked, but Piper isn't inside.   

Alex's side of the room is littered with shreds of paper.  For a few seconds, she just gapes at it, confused, until she spots a larger section of the On the Road cover and figures out what she's looking at.  

Then she gets pissed off, anger elbowing aside all of her guilt.

Piper cheated on her, and Alex has still managed to get through the past few months without destruction of property.  Because she doesn't handle shit like a little kid with anger issues.  

The door opens and Piper walks in.  She's in her pajamas and her hair is wet from the shower and she just gives Alex this slanted, disdainful look. 

Alex scoops up a pile of paper and tosses it satirically in the air.  Dripping sarcasm, she says,  "Good you aren't being too dramatic or anything."

"Fuck you," Piper mutters, her back to Alex.

"Are you fucking kidding me?  You're suddenly allowed to be like that?"   There's a knock at the door.  "That's Fisher."  Alex opens the door and says shortly, "Hey, we're here, sorry." 

Fisher doesn't tell them off for not being in the hallway for check.  She just gives Alex an awkward smile that seems caught between admonishment and apology.  "You can both start your work hours tomorrow after dinner.  Just come to the kitchen when you finish...or by 8, if you're not eating in the dining hall."  

Alex nods, but Piper speaks up from behind her, "Can we have different work assignments?"  

Alex stiffens, while Fisher's expression turns even more uncomfortable.  "Uh.  This first week's already set.  But work assignments, they're not, um...very...social anyway."  

When she's gone, Alex closes the door behind her and turns on Piper, suddenly more than ready for the fight she's been dreading for the last few hours.  

"So.  Now you can't wipe down cafeteria tables in the same vicinity as me?  That's a change."  

"You mean a punishment I only got because of you?"  

"Jesus, they searched our room, Piper."

"I don't think they were looking in my bookshelf," Piper retorts.  "And even if they were, you had to tell them it was mine."

Alex clenches her jaw.  "Or they knew it was your fucking bookshelf on your fucking side." 

Piper narrows her eyes.  "Red told me you said it was mine, asshole."  

Panic thrums through Alex, in spite of herself.  She'd been ready to come at Piper, shameless, with the reminder that she's done far worse.  

But her instincts are still working to keep Piper from thinking badly of her.  

A sour sort of triumph flickers across Piper's expression at Alex's silence.  "That's what I thought."  

"They were yours."  

"Bullshit.  You bought them, you put them there - " 

"Oh my God.  I bought and hid everything, that doesn't mean you weren't gonna smoke or drink it later."  

"I haven't taken anything from you in months."

"Uh, yeah, and maybe take a second to remember why that is."  

Piper flinches at that, and for a second silence swells between them.   

"You're loving this, aren't you?"  Alex asks, quieter now.    

"What part of this do you think I'm loving?"  Fury is seething through Piper's voice.  "The work hours?  Or my dad getting the phone call that I'm, like, doing drugs?!"

"You love acting like I'm the fuck up all of a sudden.  Because now you get to be mad at me like nothing else ever happened."  

Piper's face is red.  "So I made a mistake, and now you get to screw me over anytime you want?"  

"A mistake, that's what you're calling it now?"

"Yeah, you know what, I was drunk.  And scared."  

"You think I wasn't scared?  They could have kicked me out, Piper, and that would've been it for any chance I have at a decent future."

"Believe me, I get that, which is why I tried to get there in time to help you.  But dragging me down with you wasn't going to make any difference."  

"My only chance was showing Red how fucked it was to search our room was in the first place.  I told her Jessica knew I'd have shit hidden because everyone does.  Including you.  I had to make a case." 

"Oh, so now you had to do it.  You're not even sorry, are you?"  

"Why should I be?" 

"I apologized to you, Alex, all I did was apologize - " 

"It's not the same thing, Piper!  Stop trying to equate it.  And, anyway, you fucking apologized after two months of lying.  And only because Janae caught you doing the same thing again - "  

"I wasn't - "

"- so you want an apology, check in with me mid-July and we'll see where I'm at." 

Alex's voice is biting and hoarse.  Across the room, Piper's wild eyed and tight jawed.   

The last time they fought this big and awful, the breakup, it felt like they were both ripping words straight off their hearts, yanking them through muscle and tissue and tears to get out.  

This is different.  All the shaky, early fissures of heartbreak are gone, leaving anger alone and unadorned.  It feels like they're exchanging blows.  Like hard, chaotic violence.  

The thing is, Alex is sorry.  She was sorry the second she did it.    

But she can't bring herself to lay down and lose the fight.  

"You know what, Pipes, it was your fucking friends who started this.  I'm surprised you didn't get caught with them in the first place."  

"I already told you," Piper growls.  "I don't hang out with them anymore.  Wanna know why?"  

"I wanna know why you'd hang out with them in the first place."  

Piper's voice stumbles slightly, losing her momentum before she continues as though Alex didn't speak.  "Jessica, she -- I tore into her for talking shit about you."  

"Oh, wow, thanks so much.  And how many times did she have to do that before you finally said something?"  

Alex's throat tightens as Piper looks away, confirming the truth of it.  

It takes a moment for Piper to lift her gaze again, and now there are tears gleaming alongside the anger.  

"I asked you if you hate me now, Alex," Piper says quietly.  "And you said no, but you're sure as hell treating me like someone you hate."  

Alex's defenses deflate slightly, and she sounds more tired than annoyed when she counters, "You're making it sound like some calculated thing.  I was making a point, I didn't think Red would do anything about it - "

"Bullshit," Piper snaps.  "You realize you did the same thing to me that Jessica did to you."  She pauses, her eyes gripping Alex's, unshakable.  "Makes it pretty clear that you really don't give a shit about me."   

The punch lands, winding her, and Alex swallows hard against a litany of protests, nitpicks of differences between her and Jessica Wedge, but nothing that really undermines the truth of what Piper's saying. 

"Fine," Alex's voice is soft, throbbing with a fresh wound.  "Maybe I did want to hurt you back."  

Piper's face tightens, a portrait of childlike hurt.  "Well, there's the difference, Al," she says thickly.  "I never wanted to hurt you."  

Alex laughs once, a strangled, disbelieving sound.  "But you did.  And I'm sorry that you got some fucking work hours and maybe your parents are going to ground you for a few weeks.  But you do not get to act like we're even now or, or like you don't have any reason to feel guilty anymore.  I tattled on you to the headmistress or whatever, fine.  I shouldn't have.  But you broke my fucking heart, Pipes.  And you are right here, all the time, just...reminding me.  And you know what, maybe it's hard not to hate you a little bit for that."   

They're both quiet for awhile, a silence that feels familiar:  cut through with harsh, shaky breaths and devastation that reaches its corners. 

"Well, you're getting what you wanted, right?" Piper says finally.  Her voice is hard, but Alex can hear the effort she's putting in to keep it that way.  "We're not roommates next year.  And until then, I'm more than happy to stay the hell away from you."  Her voice cracks, but Piper's already turning on her heel, viciously grabbing her pillow before stalking out of the room.  

Heat fans out in Alex's stomach, because she knows exactly what Piper's doing.  She's going to sleep in the basement, because now she's the wronged party.  The one who gets to walk away.  

Fine.  But Alex refuses to play her part.  She's not going to send middle of the night apology texts, or beg Piper to come back.  She doesn't want to feel like she's the one who ruined this.

It was already over, even if there was some last shred of hope Alex shouldn't have been holding but was, and now she's crushed it between her palms.

Alex hasn't showered or eaten since soccer practice this afternoon, so she heads to the hall bathroom and stands under the water long after she's clean, letting the hot, steady spray lure her somewhere blank and numb.

Later, Alex crawls into bed, sending pieces of Piper's book scattered all over the floor.  The mess will bother Piper more, anyway, and she's not going to be the one to clean it up.

 


 

Piper doesn't sleep well in the dorm basement.  Her brain keeps her awake, cycling through anxieties: her parents getting a call from Red tomorrow, notifying them of her violation.  Alex refusing to apologize.  Alex saying she hates her a little.  Moving out of the room at the end of this year, not coming back.  Work hours.  Finals coming up, how hard it will be to focus on studying.  Having no real friends anymore.

God, she wants to go home.  She's been ready to get away from here for the past two and half months, ever since the break up, but now she's not even allowed to look forward to that, because her parents are going to be furious at her.

It's already a summer vacation without visits with Alex, or weekends at Nicky's lake house.  There will be no one for her to run to when the house gets thick with her parents inevitable disappointment.  

So the rest of this year is going to suck.  And then summer vacation is going to suck.  And then she comes back as a senior with nothing to show for the last two years: no roommate, not even a lunch table.  Just half-friendships with Polly, on the tennis court or when Jessica isn't around, or Poussey, when everyone else is busy.  

Just thinking about it makes Piper feel very, very tired.  

She thinks herself in circles, outrunning tears until five in the morning when she's too exhausted to not be crying.

After an hour of that, she wants her bed more than she wants to prove a point to Alex, so she walks up the stairs and through the eerie, dark silence of the dorm hallway to slip quietly into their room.  Five minutes later, Piper falls asleep facing the wall.  

 


 

When Alex wakes up Sunday morning, she's surprised to see Piper curled up on the other bed.   Alex was still awake around 3 am; Piper must have snuck back in early this morning.  

Something about that, her deciding to come back, puts a knot in Alex's throat.  

She leaves for breakfast before Piper wakes up.  Janae and Poussey are there - Nicky's been sleeping in on weekends lately.  Alex knows she's going to have to tell her friends what she did; going through the line for food, she decides this is probably the best time to do it.  She's pretty sure Nicky will absolve her, say Piper got what was coming to her, and Alex doesn't want to hear that right now.

"How you doing?"  Poussey prompts when Alex sits down.  

She gives a listless shrug.  "I dunno.  Did I tell you I'm banned from soccer for a week?"

Janae's jaw drops, looking as though she can't imagine a worst punishment.  "The fuck?"  

"Isn't it the tournament this week?"  

"Yeah.  Game on Wednesday.  And then Friday, if we win.  So I could miss two Regional games and if somehow we're still in it, I bet Mendoza benches me anyway."  

"That's fucked up," Janae says feelingly.  "Jessica and them gonna miss, what?  Two tennis practices?  Not even on season?"  

"I know."  Alex exhales, then adds,  "Piper's gonna miss those, too." 

Poussey frowns.  "Why, what'd she do?" 

"Nothing."  It comes out like an admission, heavy and quiet.  "When Red and Fisher were in our room yesterday...I showed them weed in Piper's bookshelf.  Told them it was hers." 

"Oh."  Poussey and Janae exchange quick, surprised looks.  

"I didn't really plan it, I just...I thought I was going to get expelled."   

Her friends listen as Alex gives them a more honest summary of everything she'd said to Red, how the only defense she could think of led her to sacrificing Piper's reputation along with her own.  

They're quiet for awhile when she finishes, expressions uneasy but not judgmental.  Finally, Poussey asks, "She know?  That you told?"  

"Yup," Alex says dully.  "She's...pretty mad.  Thinks I was punishing her or something." 

"Were you?"  Poussey's scrutinizing her intently.  

Alex lets out a hollow, breath of a laugh.  "I...was in panic mode, it's not like I even had time to think, 'well at least I finally have a chance to get back at Piper'."  She runs a hand through her hair, frustrated.  "God, I don't know.  I didn't even hesitate."    

"I get it," Janae says suddenly, the first time she's spoken in awhile.  

Alex looks at her.  "You do?"   

"You been pretty mad for awhile, Al," she observes, steady and serious.  "'S like it was just looking for a way to get out."  

"Yeah, well."  Alex looks away, feeling the heat rise to her face.  "I don't feel good about it."

Poussey lightens her tone.  "It's just a violation, right?  This close to the end of the year, it's not like she has to be careful for long."  

"Right."  

 


 

Text Message, Sunday, 11:03 am

MOM
[Hey kiddo you up?]

ALEX
[Yeah.]
[Did the school call?]
[I'm really sorry.]

MOM
[Ok if I give u a call?]

ALEX
[Yes.]

 


 

Alex answers the phone, dread trickling through her as she steps out of the dorm building and onto the lawn.  "Hey, Mom."  

"Hey, babe,"  Diane's voice is gentle, and for a fleeting instant Alex wishes she would just be angry.  She closes her eyes with the thought that Piper's parents will definitely be angry, probably angry in a way her mother's never once been with her.  "You okay?"  

"Uh."  Alex forces a laugh.  "Been better?"  

"You wanna tell me what happened?"  

Alex wanders around to the side of the building, where there's an old, unused bike rack.  She half sits against the metal, kicking her Converse in the dirt as she slowly starts talking.  "Um.  You remember that girl Jessica I told you about?"  

"Your old roommate, right?"  

"Yeah...well, she and her friends got caught smoking pot.  And she hates me, so she said she bought it from me.  Which isn't true.  But I guess Red believed her, and they searched my room.  I had stuff in there, like...like everybody does."

"They usually search kids rooms?"   

"No.  I've literally never heard of it happening."  

"Well, then.  That doesn't seem fair."  

"I know.  Red even basically admitted that when she was punishing me but, like...too late for her to pretend she didn't find anything."

"So what's that mean for you?  Said one of the violations is carrying over to next year...?" 

"Two violations in a year means expulsion, so...basically I have no room to screw up next year." 

"Got it."  Her mom is quiet for a moment, then Alex hears her draw a breath.  "Listen, Al, I....I know you got into that school all on your own.  You worked hard for that scholarship and it's not something I've ever been able to help you out with - "

"Mom," Alex protests softly, a sinking feeling in her chest.  Ever since she started at Litch, it's like her mother feels like she has fewer rights to Alex.  She was never big on discipline in the first place - she worked too much to really enforce most punishments - but it's different now.  She's hesitant to give any sort of admonishment or even advice that has anything to do with Alex's life here.  It makes Alex sad, and guilty, like boarding school means she emancipated herself without intending to.  

"- but you're so close, kid.  Next year you start applying to schools, and I've looked into it....Litchfield kids get into good ones.  With your grades, and that school on your application, you're gonna get some scholarship offers.  And...I really want that for you, Alex.  I know how teenagers are, I know it's normal in high school to be breaking rules, kinda figuring out your limits, but...I'd hate to see you lose this chance.  You're so smart, and you've worked so hard - "  

"It's okay, Mom," Alex cut her off, her voice pulled tight.  "I know I can't risk getting in trouble again, no matter how careful I am.  Total girl scout from now on, I swear."  

"That's good to hear."  Diane pauses, her voice softening before she adds, "I'm sorry, babe.  I know this wasn't fair, and you're having a rough year anyway."  

"This one was kind of on me, though," she admits softly.  "I did have all that shit and...I didn't really help my case with Red."   

"Still.  Must've made for another shitty day."  

"Yeah, kinda."  Alex's voice breaks, and she squeezes her eyes shut, frustrated with herself.

"Hey..."   

"Sorry, it's...I'm fine."  

"Listen, Al, you made a mistake.  But it's not a mistake that's gonna ruin anything for you.  And nothing's gonna get fixed by you beating yourself up over it." 

"I know," Alex assures her. Privately, she doesn't think guilt has to be productive.  Just deserved.  

"We can talk more about this when you're home.  You just focus on your exams and everything, yeah?  Then you and your friends can have a fun summer."  

"Yeah.  you're right."  

"You know how much I love you?"  

"Yes.  I love you, too.  And I'm sorry.'  

"Don't apologize to me, Al." 

"I want to.  Because I am." 

"It's all okay, baby.  Talk soon?"  

"Yeah, definitely.  Bye, Mom."  

 


 

Piper's waiting all day for an angry phone call from home, her anxiety compounding the longer it doesn't come.  By the end of the day, she's so nauseated with nerves that only the required work hours get Piper to the dining hall for dinner.  

She goes through the line, thinking she'll go to one of the few outdoor tables and quickly eat alone before coming back inside, when Polly comes up to her.  "Pipe, hey!  God, I'm glad to see you.  You wanna maybe sit?  Like...over there?"  She nods to an empty table nearby.  Off Piper's questioning look, she clarifies, "I kinda had a a whole thing with Jess....lemme get food, and I'll fill you in."  

A few minutes later, they're eating by themselves while Polly insists she's finally done with being part of Jessica's crowd.  "I told her off for what she did to Alex.  That was so fucked up.  She could've gotten her expelled."  

Piper nods vaguely but doesn't reply.  Polly waits a beat, seeming to expect Piper to join in insulting Jessica.  Finally, she continues, "I should have bailed a long time ago.  I already knew she does shitty things to people."  

"She's not the only one," Piper mutters.  

"What's that mean?"  

"I....will actually be joining you guys for work hours."  Off Polly's look, Piper explains, "Red searched our room yesterday and - "

"Seriously?  I didn't think they actually do that."  

"Apparently so.  Anyway, Alex told them some of the weed they found was mine."  

"What?  Why would she do that?"  

Piper's eyes flick across the dining hall, where Alex is sitting with the others.  "I guess because she really doesn't like me much anymore."  

Polly is all too willing to join Piper in denouncing Alex's actions.  Piper gives her everything that makes it sound worse - that Alex actually pulled it out to show Red, that she's the one who hid it there in the first place - all the while knowing Polly is clueless about the motive.  

But Piper relaxes in the face of Polly's secondhand indignation.  She prefers the story the way Polly hears it, where Piper doesn't have to remember that she did give Alex plenty of reason to hate her.  

Maybe Alex is right, that she's using this as an excuse to finally shrug off the guilt that's been weighing her down since that day in the cabin.  But Piper doesn't think that's so wrong.  

She screwed up, badly, but it's already cost her enough.  She lost Alex and all her closest friends.  Everything good about her life here, it's gone.  

She's sick of hating herself on top of all that.  

 


 

Piper wonders idly if Mrs.Nome, the dining hall manager, realizes how many fucked up dynamics there are in her work crew of punished students.

Polly and Jessica aren't speaking, and Jessica's clearly given the rest of their friends orders to ignore her as well.  Jessica and Alex hate each other, and today Alex has more reason for that than ever.   And Alex and Piper... 

Well.  They're not really speaking, either - although that's nothing unusual.  The last month has been nothing but small, pained greetings going in and out of the room, and before that there had been all silence for awhile.   

It doesn't make any sense, then, why this feels so much like another breakup, when there was almost nothing left for them to lose.

Piper pairs up with Polly, wiping down tables with a wet towel while she holds a metal container at the edge for all the crumbs and bits of trash.  "So, you got into it with Jessica, and now none of the others will talk to you either?"  

"Apparently not."  

"Even Madison?  She's your roommate." 

"And the furthest up Jess's ass."  Polly rolls her eyes.  "Whatever."  Then she grins.  "Look at us, Pipe.  Both ousted from our lunch tables this semester.  We're like the island of misfit toys."  

Piper laughs a little.  She's suddenly, acutely grateful for Polly.  "You're gonna be around this summer, right?  I mean, like...visiting Danny?"  

Polly looks up and grins broadly.  "Yeah, for sure.  Even without him, you should come stay for a week or something...my grandparents have a beach house, it's only like an hour away from my place."  

"That'd be awesome." 

"Yeah?  We'll plan it, then, when school's out."  Polly sighs.  "Once I'm done being grounded.  My parents freaked out on the phone to me for like an hour earlier.  They, like, used the landline for the first time in years just so they could do it at the same time."  She raises her eyebrows at Piper.  "What'd your parents say?"

"Nothing yet,"  Piper says, trying to keep the level of worry out of her voice.  Polly sounds so flippant and exasperated talking about her parents.  "Which can't be good."

"Letting you stew, huh?  That's the worst."  

"Yeah...I guess that's what they're going for."

PIper's distracted, suddenly, by the sound of Jessica's voice nearby.  

"Here's what I don't get - how come we get the same punishment for using as she gets from dealing?"  

Glancing back, Piper immediately realizes why she heard that.  Alex is rolling two large trash cans, now emptied with fresh bags, back through the dining hall, and Jessica had obviously raised her voice to make sure Alex overheard it.  

Piper waits for a second, expecting a retaliation; Alex used to always have the perfect snarky remark back to Jessica, and surely she must really want to let her have it for almost getting her expelled. 

But Alex just keeps walking, her head down, not so much as a glare or eyeroll in Jessica's direction. 

Piper frowns, her chest squeezing around worry, just for a second.  

Then she shakes it off, turning back to Polly, pretending Alex isn't even here.

 


 

Text Message, Monday, 8:51 am  

PIPER
[Hey have you heard from Mom or Dad the last few days?]

CAL
[Yeah Mom texted yesterday why] 

PIPER
[No reason I just hadn't talked to them in awhile]

CAL
[Is that supposed to be a bad thing?]

PIPER
[Guess not.]

 


 

Coach Mendoza makes Alex show up at the beginning of soccer practice Monday and announce to the team that she got herself banned for the next week of Regionals.   

It's sufficiently humiliating.  The freshmen girl who will have to take her spot in goal looks sufficiently terrified, but most of the team just looks pissed. They give her these condescending, disdainful looks like most of them haven't been buying from her for years.  

She feels like a banished prisoner on the long walk from the practice fields to the dorm.  Piper's not in the room, but Alex grabs her stuff and clears out anyway, heading to the library for the rest of the night.  

She can't think of anything to do right now besides work, so once Alex finishes her homework for the night, she gets a head start on final papers that will be due in the next few weeks.  Nicky texts her repeatedly asking why she isn't at dinner, but she doesn't leave the library until it's time to report for her her work hours.

 


  

By the time finals roll around, it's officially the longest stretch at Litchfield that Piper hasn't heard from her parents.  She studies obsessively, like maybe if she can ace every class it will make up for getting in trouble.  

The last week at Litch, she finally texts her mom to ask the plan for Danny's graduation on Sunday.  The reply comes after an hour, and it's just curt instructions of where and when to meet them at Overbrook.  

The stress and intensity of exams at least have Piper looking forward to the semester's end, but she has no idea what's waiting for her at home.  She's rarely been the target of her parents' anger, but she's seen it with Cal and even Danny enough to know this tactic is unprecedented.  

On Friday night, Piper hangs out in Polly's room while she gets ready until Polly has to head for the bus taking the Litchfield girls to Overbrook for the spring formal.  Then she heads back to her own room to pack, figuring the campus must be completely empty.

She pulls up short in the doorway, taken aback by Alex's presence.  She's on her knees on her bed, peeling her posters from the wall.  

Glancing back, Alex immediately frowns in confusion.  "What are you doing here?"  

Piper doesn't look at her.  "It's my room, remember."  There's a hard, possessive edge to her voice.

"I meant why aren't you at the dance?"  

"Polly's going with Danny.  It's his last one so they're making it a serious date."  She cuts her eyes at Alex.  "And since I literally have no other friends there was no point in gong." 

"Is that supposed to be my fault?"  Alex mutters, turning back to the wall.

"Just answering the question."  Piper hesitates for a second before closing the door behind her and walking to her own side of the room.  

She and Alex have managed to avoid each other for the last month of school.  It's been strange, but she also feels more in control than she has since they broke up.  Piper's better at anger than longing.  Or shame.                

But something about the image of Alex taking down the posters that have been on their walls since Piper got here makes her stay put.  Alex will probably go home tomorrow, so this is the last night the room will be theirs.  

It feels like they're both supposed to be here.

She drags a suitcase out of the closet and starts folding clothes to put in there, leaving only her school uniforms hanging.  After a few minutes of thick, precarious silence, Alex asks, "Do you care if I put on music?"  

"Go ahead."  

It seems to take her awhile to choose something, and then some song Piper's never heard starts playing through Alex's laptop.    

"Why aren't you at formal?"  Piper asks after a moment.  

"Just didn't feel like it.  Doubt it'd be much fun sober."  

Another four songs play before Alex breaks the silence again.  "Hey, is it cool if I leave the minifridge in here and come get it next semester when I know my room assignment?" 

Fisher had told them both, separately, that Piper is staying in their room next year, while Alex will get moved.  "Yeah, fine."   

"Thanks."  Alex pauses, but before the quiet can settle again, she says, "You're lucky you're the one staying.  You might not even get a new roommate...no one transfers senior year, I'm probably gonna get stuck in a different building with the juniors."   

"Well, you're the one who asked to move."  

"No, I didn't."  

Piper tenses, pausing in her task but keeping her back to Alex.  "What are you talking about? "

"When Red was going through my shit she found that photo booth strip we took at the bowling alley last summer."  

"So...she knew we used to be - " 

"Yep.  She's just enforcing to no sex rule."  

Piper's quiet for awhile, processing that.  She decides it doesn't make a difference.  "But you were going to ask for it, anyway."  

"I don't know."  

She finally whirls around, finding Alex sitting on the bed, no longer working, just looking at her.  Piper narrows her eyes.  "You told me you were going to Fisher." 

"I know.  But I kept putting it off - "

"Stop," Piper's voice is firm, but there's already the slightest fracture at the edge.  She swallows hard.  "You don't get to do that, you can't start taking shit back - "

"What, like there's nothing you want to take back?"  Alex snaps. 

They stare at each other across a silence loaded with so many feelings, but nothing so big as the exhaustion.  Piper gets that feeling again, like she's losing something she didn't think she had anymore.

Piper ends it, blinking rapidly as she turns back to her closet.  She comes across a few stray pieces of paper, remnants of her destroyed book that somehow survived Piper's eventual cleaning.  The sight of them makes it easier to steady her hands and finish packing.

After almost an hour, Piper's pretty much packed everything and is sitting in front of her bookshelf, figuring out which ones she might want for the summer, when Alex speaks again, her voice uncharacteristically tentative.  "Hey, I...was gonna maybe go down to the basement.  Watch a movie or something, since no one's around to fight for the TV.  If you wanted to come."  

Piper's quiet, wanting, for a second, to say yes.  

There is no one else in the dorms.  If they were still together, she could have curled into Alex on the couch.  Held her hand.  Kissed her during the boring parts.      

But that's all over.  And Piper thinks maybe the finality she keeps getting pounded with is the realization that there truly is no route to get them back to that place.

And to handle that, Piper needs the shield of her anger.   

So she curls her fingers around the edge of the bookshelf, thinking about Alex pulling the weed out of it and naming her for it, before she can say in a clear voice, "No, I'm good."  

 


 

 

Piper's sick to her stomach when she finally sees her parents on Sunday.  They both hug her and ask about her grades, but it's more perfunctory than usual, and even her dad doesn't linger on her for much conversation.  She's glad her grandmother is with them, and doesn't seem to  have been informed of her wrongdoing.   

She sits between Cal and Polly during graduation, but she's so disconcerted by her father avoiding eye contact that she barely pays attention.  Danny's leaving immediately for a grad week with his friends, so there's no way to avoid the car ride home with her parents. 

They go by Litchfield to pick up Piper's bags, so she gets the image of the blank, nondescript side of Alex's room, everything familiar and comforting stripped away, to carry in the mostly silent ride home.

When they get into the house, her eyes go instinctively to the hook near the door where her keys usually hang while she's at school.  There's nothing there.

Her dad follows her gaze and says calmly, "You won't be needing your car for awhile."  Piper looks up at him, bracing herself at the same moment her shoulders sag with a strange relief at this finally being acknowledged.  "Being able to come and go as you please isn't a privilege you deserve right now."  

Cal spins around, his eyes wide with interest and surprise.  "Whoa, what?"  

"Calvin, mind your business,"  their mom says stiffly, nudging him along with a cool glance back at her daughter.  

"I...okay,"  Piper nods.  "That's fine - " 

"Damn right it's fine."  

"- can we just go ahead and get this part over with?" 

"What part is that?"  

"The talking or, or the yelling."  

Her father raises his eyebrows, miming surprise.  "You're almost seventeen years old, Piper, and you're telling me you need a lecture to explain why you shouldn't be doing drugs at school?"  

Her voice shrinking, Piper stammers, "N-no, I know I shouldn't - "

"At this point, you know the difference between right and wrong.  I don't have to tell you. If you're choosing wrong in spite of that, there's nothing your mother and I can say that's going to affect you.  Apparently all we can do is enforce consequences and hope those make an impact."  

Then he's gone, apparently done with her.  Piper stays where she is, feeling impossibly small, when Cal comes slinking into the hallway.  "Dude, what'd you do?"  He lowers his voice.  "Did they find out about you and Alex?"  

"No, and you can fucking keep your mouth shut about it," she says roughly, shoving past him to head upstairs to her bedroom to shut herself in for a long summer.

 


 

The first day of summer vacation, Alex borrows the car during her mother's shift at Friendly's so she can drive around and inquire about jobs.  

The bowling alley's always been chill, easy part-time work, good for three or four shifts a week.  But Alex needs more hours, preferably somewhere with available shifts almost every day.  She'd finally gotten around to considering the loss of income from her illegal dorm room business.  She's going to need to save a lot more than usual this summer if she wants to pay her cell phone bill for the school year and have any chance of joining her friends at a movie or restaurant during weekends at Litch.

She gets a job on the early shift at IHOP, which lets her keep working evenings at the alley, too.  Her mom looks disappointed for her, doesn't like the idea of Alex running from one shift to the other the way she does, but Alex starts to prefer the days that are completely consumed by work.  There's not much for her to do, sitting at home by herself. 

The group message stays active, most days, but when Poussey, Nicky, and Janae start planning a trip to Nicky's lake house, Alex declines.  She tells them she can't miss work, that the jobs are too new to take much time off.  It's probably true, but she doesn't even think about it before saying she can't go.  It's not so appealing, anymore.  She'd probably spend the whole week thinking about who isn't there.   

Chapter Text

And the further from my side you go, the longing grows.
And I will hate it, I still want you.  
Cause I will hate it, but I still want you around

And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop // James Vincent McMorrow 


 

Text Message, Tuesday, June 5, 4:46 pm

POUSSEY
[Yo girl important invite: Nicky's lake house this weekend.  You in?]

PIPER
[Is that a joke?]

POUSSEY
[Nah for real, come.]
[Alex isn't coming.]

PIPER
[Wait why not?]

POUSSEY
[Says she's gotta work.]

PIPER
[Since when can she not take days off work?]

POUSSEY
[I dunno, she got some new job waiting tables.  On top of the bowling alley gig.]
[Says it's too soon to start taking days off]

PIPER
[Even without Alex, I don't think Nicky wants me there.]

POUSSEY
[You think I didn't check before asking you?  She's cool with it.]

PIPER
[Thanks, but I don't really wanna be a reluctant inclusion.]

POUSSEY
[Stop.]
[We want you to come.]

PIPER
[It doesn't matter anyway, I actually can't go.]
[I'm grounded indefinitely.]
[No car or anything.]

POUSSEY
[Oh shit cause of the weed in your room??]

PIPER
[Alex told you?]

POUSSEY
[Yep.]

PIPER
[Did she tell you she ratted me out for it?]

POUSSEY
[Yep.]

PIPER
[And...?]

POUSSEY
[And what?]
[You need me to say it was fucked up of her?]

PIPER
[If you think it was.]

POUSSEY
[I do.]
[So does Alex, for what it's worth.]

PIPER
[Yeah right.  She didn't even try to apologize.]

POUSSEY
[K we're stopping that discussion right there.]
[Alex never shit talk you to us]

PIPER
[Not even when we first broke up?]

POUSSEY
[Nah she never wanted to talk about it.]
[Back to the point: you for real can't come?]

PIPER
[I really can't.]

POUSSEY
[Ok.]
[Later in the summer then.]
[When you're done with imprisonment]

PIPER
[Ha ha]

 


 

June crawls by, a slow stretch of sticky humidity.  Alex buys an old bike from a pawn shop so she can get to and from the IHOP every morning, so she starts every shift already tired and probably smelling of sweat.     

Over the last several weeks, Alex has gotten good at functioning on autopilot.  She even starts to appreciate the low expectations of her summer routine.  On the nights she works at the bowling alley, she only has time to grab food  - sometimes with her mom, if she's between shifts or on a break - after her IHOP shift.  On nights off, she watches shit on the Chapman family Netflix account for hours - she's taken to using Cal's profile.  She goes to bed and wakes up earlier than she ever has to at school.

The last Thursday of the month, the final hour of her shift means the slow period between peak lunch and early dinner.  The restaurant is fairly empty, but Alex still doesn't register the identity of her newest diners until she actually walks over to their table and looks up to take their order.

Alex barely halts her standard greeting, instead blurting out an utterly sincere,  "Oh, shit." 

Nicky is smirking mightily at her, while across the booth Poussey gives her a slightly sheepish wave.     

Immediately, heat swarms Alex's face, her heartbeat going all weird and hectic at the sight of them where they aren't supposed to be.  She has a sudden awareness of what she's wearing, the stiff blue apron over a collared shirt.  As though reading her thoughts, Nicky's looking her up and down, eyes gleaming with good-natured mirth.

There is a scenario where this is all in good fun.  Alex can imagine some high school movie, the whole gang showing up to rag on their friend's lame summer job.  But she knows they'll never be able to pull that off.  Just them being here, sitting in her fucking IHOP section, feels invasive.  

"What are you doing here?"  Alex can't keep it from sounding like an accusation.

Nicky doesn't seem to think anything of it.  "We're bored," she informs her.  "I bothered Washington until she agreed to hang out, and we made a mutual decision to inflict ourselves on you."  

"Where's Janae, she didn't want to complete the ambush?"  Alex asks dryly, relieved when her tone lands somewhere near 'mild annoyance' instead of 'humiliated panic'. 

"Her family's still in Maine seeing her grandparents," Poussey explains.  

"But no worries, she'll be back by the fourth.  Throw down at the beach house, Vause, put it in your calendar." 

"Sorry, but I have to work," Alex tells her without hesitation.  

"Oh my God, c'mon, dude.  You can take a few days off.  It's fuckin' summer, you're a teenager, they expect it.  And, anyway, we're doing it up big.  Decided to widen circle for a lucky few."  

"What does that mean?" 

Nicky nods in Poussey's direction.  "This one wanted to invite her girlfriend.  And a few other juniors on the volleyball team.  So J and I decided to extend the honor to a few other people who don't completely suck.  Mainly track girls."

"Did you drive here just to tell me about a party?"  

"Maybe we just missed the warmth and affection of your friendship.  Think you might bust it out at some point?"  

"We're not getting you in trouble, are we?"  Poussey asks, seeming to scan the restaurant.  

"You're off soon, aren't ya?"  Nicky puts in before Alex can answer.  "We should go bowling later, since Janae's not here to fuck it up.  We'll just crash at your place tonight."  

Poussey must read something in Alex's face, or maybe just puts it together that, in the half a dozen times Alex has gotten a ride with her on school breaks, she's never once let Poussey's mom drop her at her actual home.  Quickly, Poussey says to Nicky, "Anybody ever teach you not to invite yourself to stay places?  Damn.  My house ain't that far, we can just drive back."

Out of the corner of her eye, Alex tracks new customers sitting down in one of her booths.  "You guys ordering food or what?"  

They both get big breakfast combos, and Alex doesn't say anything friendly before walking off to put the order in.  She doesn't glance over at them when she comes back to greet her newest table and sweep by an old one to collect empty plates and confirm they're ready for a check.  

When she finally returns with her friends' food, Nicky seems quiet and chastised, Poussey overly cheerful in her attempts to reframe the situation -  "Nicky didn't give me any warning before showing up, either, I just needed somebody to share the burden."  - and that makes Alex feel worse, because it means they probably talked about it. 

Alex hates this.  They're her best friends, they probably thought this would be a fun and amusing surprise, but they're making her feel like she's back in middle school, when everything about her - shoes, jacket, address, mother - was something wrong.

She never feels this way at school, even surrounded largely by kids much richer than the average hometown mean girl.  At Litch, her status at a scholarship kid is just a vague fact that doesn't actually make her different in noticeable ways; her rule breaking business ventures meant she always had disposable income, so Alex was never left out of anything.

Here, though, she can't pretend.  She is literally serving them, a nametag pinned crookedly over her chest that may as well say Really Fucking Poor.  

It's weird, really, that she never once hesitated to bring Piper home.  Sure, she got a little self conscious about Piper seeing the trailer, but never enough to reconsider the invitation. Hell, she told Piper she lived in a trailer park a month after meeting her, drunk on pink wine and thunder that night of the storm.  

Alex had never been afraid to show or tell Piper anything about herself.  Even before they were together, the way Piper looked at her seemed indestructible.  

The thought of her stings in Alex's chest the way it always does.  She shouldn't have gone there right now, getting all her emotions tangled tight around Piper before she has to go deal with Nicky and Poussey and whatever the fuck this Fourth of July trip is supposed to be.

Her friends finish their breakfast combos and pay the check about five minutes before Alex clocks out.  They tell her they'll wait in the parking lot, and their exit from the restaurant is a relief big enough to be embarrassing.   It's also a relief that deflates in under sixty seconds, when Alex finds a twenty dollar tip waiting for her at the table.  It's more than the combined total of their meals.

She slams her palm over the bill, pissed off.  Nicky and the others always gave Alex no end of shit for failing to sell them booze and weed at a discount, but suddenly she deserves twenty bucks for carrying over a plate of mediocre waffles.   

This, really, is what she's most worried about.  That her drug money was as much of an equalizer as Litchfield's identical uniforms and dorm rooms, and now she's lost it, leaving a conspicuous gap between Alex and her friends

She's got shorts to change into, luckily - biking to work in her standard issue khaki pants is miserable enough to be worth changing every morning in the employee bathroom.  Alex sheds the shirt along with the ugly ass apron and meets her friends by Nicky's car, wearing denim shorts and a camisole that's barely acceptable as a tank top.  She doesn't even glance at her bike, chained up near the entrance, not sure exactly how she'll get home tonight without Nicky specifically dropping her at the trailer park.  She'll deal with that later. 

"So, Vause," Nicky says conversationally.  "You can get us free bowling, right?"  

Alex tosses the twenty dollar bill at her.  "Why don't you just use this?" 

"That was your tip!" 

"Don't be a dick," Alex bites out, ducking into the backseat of the car rather than wait to see the probable bafflement on Nicky's expression.  

Poussey gets in the passenger seat a moment later, turning around to look at Alex.  "Do you wanna go bowling?  Or are you sick of the place by now?"  

"It's fine," Alex answers as Nicky gets in and cranks the car.  "Not much else to do around here."  She doesn't work at Spare Room on Thursdays, though they seem to know that, have probably managed to figure out her schedule based on texts.  "Turn left out of here."  

It's strange the first few minutes of the ride, silent save for Alex's occasional directions.   She can't stand the unfamiliarity creeping up between them, and Alex is aware that it's her fault, so eventually she leans forward and jostles Poussey's arm.  "So how's it going with Brook?"  

Poussey breaks into this automatic grin that morphs her face into dreamy happiness, and Alex feels a dull pain of recognition and loss.  "Good.  We FaceTime most nights...it's been a bitch trying to figure out a time to visit.  She's not super close, and she's been doing all these volunteer trips....but I think I'm gonna go to her place for a few days after the beach house."  

"Nice."  Alex slides her gaze to Nicky.  "So the beach house is in play again, huh?  Full embargo last summer...that mean what I think it means?"  

Nicky's eyes flare with delight, which makes Alex feel a little bad; it's her first attempt at friendliness to Nicky so far.   "Maybe," Nicky replies with a coy smirk, while Poussey frowns in confusion.  

"What's she talking about?"  

"Just that there's only one reason Nick likes to go Montauk.  And last year that reason had a boyfriend named Christopher."  

Poussey's eyes light up.  "Waaaait, that townie from forever ago?  That's still a thing?" 

"It was and then it wasn't and now it....might be.  Again."  

"Now I see why you're opening it up to plus ones.  Not so much about you being all generous."  

"You should invite Piper," Alex says suddenly, without really meaning to.  "Oh, and left at this next light."  

Nicky meets her eyes in the rearview mirror.  "I'm not gonna invite her if it means she'll come and you won't."  

"I can't come either way," Alex says firmly.  "I'm already on the schedule for that weekend."   

"So get someone to cover for you.  You're looking at a sober senior year, Vause...you gotta at least party while we're still outside of Litchfield rule."

Alex leans back in the seat, her face twisting into an angry scowl.  "It doesn't fucking work like that, Nicky.  And anyway, I actually need the money.  I know this is, like, impossible for you to fathom, but I think it should have sunk in by now that me not being able to sell anymore is a big fucking deal.  That was the only way I could pay for a cell phone the whole school year, or to go to movies and the bakery with you guys, or go in on the fucking birthday baskets for everybody."

There's a tense silence, and then Nicky says, "You don't have to go in on the birthday stuff - "

"Right, cause that's what I want,"  Alex retorts.  "To be a pity name on the card because I'm the only one who can't pay." 

The air in the car feels tight and uncomfortable, and after a long pause Nicky says "Sorry." in such an uncharacteristically small voice that Alex feels shitty for going off on her.  

Everything she's saying it technically true, but there's a contextual deception to Alex using it as an excuse to skip the vacation.  A few days off won't make or break her summer wage fund, and she probably could switch shifts around if she wanted.  

They invited Piper to the lake, barely a week into the summer.  Alex knows because she told them to do it.  Poussey texted and said Piper was grounded.  That's Alex's fault. 

Alex's mom didn't punish her; she never does.  Alex has to do it herself. 

"Invite Piper," she says again, tone conciliatory.  "Especially if you're inviting your track friends.  The whole freezing her out thing needs to be done."  

"She might be still grounded," Poussey points out.

"She's not.  She was at Polly's last weekend."  

"How you know?" 

"Polly tagged her on Instagram."  

"Ah, social media stalking the ex,"  Nicky speaks up, sounding fully herself again.  "I expected better of you, Vause."  

"Don't know why you would," Alex tosses back.

Poussey huffs a laugh through her nose.  "Ooh, self burn."

"Gotta give it up to your commitment to the bant," Nicky says with admiration.

Alex smirks, the air between them recognizable again. 

Just before they reach the bowling alley, they drive by Friendly's.  Alex's mom is inside waiting tables and her ancient car is visible in the lot, but Alex quickly looks away, working hard to pretend they're somewhere else.

 


 

At Spare Room Bowling Alley, Alex's colleagues let them have a lane free of charge so long as there's not a waiting list.  

On Alex's suggestion, they each put their names down twice, essentially playing two games at once, so if things get busy they'll still get to play longer to finish before giving the lane up.  She feels more relaxed here, and Alex starts to regret going so sharp edged when they first showed up.  If she had just fucking acted normal, they probably could have come and gone without giving much thought to the ways Alex's non-Litchfield life differs from theirs.

As it is, Poussey comes to sit beside her when Nicky stands up to bowl for maybe the fourth time.  "Hey, for real, I'm sorry we just showed up outta nowhere.  

"Not a big deal," Alex replies, the sentiment a blatant contradiction to her earlier reaction.

Fortunately, Poussey seems to accept it.  They're quiet as Nicky curses over coming two pins short of a strike.  As she waits for her ball to come back, though, Alex can feel Poussey scrutinizing her.  "You been doin' okay, though?"  

"Yeah, sure."  Alex feigns interest in Nicky's second attempt so she doesn't have to make eye contact.  

"Feels like we don't hear from you that much."  

"Just busy."  Alex finally glances at her, slightly defensive.  "I still text."  

Nicky's walking back toward them.  It's Alex's turn, so she's allowed to stand up and walk away from the conversation.  Bowling's good for that.  

She finishes and it's Poussey's turn, leaving her alone with Nicky, who's grinning up at her in gleaming self satisfaction.  "I've had a flash of genius."  

"Ah, shit."  Alex sits down beside her.  "Nothing good ever follows that."  

"So ungrateful, Vause, you realize how lucky you are to have access to my wisdom?"  

"Fine, fine, fucking enlighten me."  

"You still have your fake ID, right?  It survived the Red raid?"

"Yeah....?"

"So I know you can't risk using it and getting a second strike.  But that's only true when school actually starts.  This summer, Litchfield doesn't give a shit what you do."  

"Yeah, Nicky, I'm aware.  You already said this, remember?  That I have to rage while I can?"  

"I'm not talking about you drinking, although you should.  I'm talking about you selling."

"To who?"  

"Everybody at the beach house!  We can even expand the invite list in the name of a bigger customer base.  You do your usual sketchy shit and show up with weed and booze...I'll put out the word that you're our official provider.  C'mon, you'd make more than enough to make up for missing a few days of work."  Nicky leans back, hands folded behind her head.  "See?  Fucking genius."

Alex crooks out a small, limp smile, appreciating the genuine effort behind the suggestion.  "That is pretty smart.  But there's no way I can get weed in time, my local guy is super hard to pin down - " 

"So, fuck it, just bring booze.  Whatever you have."  

"I really am on the schedule for work."

"You can at least try to switch with somebody." 

"It's like a week away, Nicky, it's just not gonna work - "

"Y'all didn't even see that shit?!"  Poussey complains loudly as she approaches.  

Alex gratefully switches her attention.  "What'd you do?"  

"Goddamn spun a pin into another pin for the spare.  It was majestic."  

"Sorry, Vause is just fucking determined to avoid our party weekend at all costs."  

Frustration is evident in Nicky's voice now, and Alex scowls at her, impatient.  "What do you even care, won't you be wrist deep in the locals the whole time anyway?"  

"One of the locals!"  

"Is it just so we'll invite Piper?"  Poussey asks tentatively.  "You think she won't go if you're there?"  

Alex flinches at the absurd truth of that.  Piper probably wouldn't go if she was there.  God, Alex thought the months after the breakup were the worst of her life, but now she's actually missing the part where staying away from Piper was solely her choice.  

Summer's only a month old, and it's the longest she's gone without seeing Piper since they met.  She wouldn't think there was room between them anymore for a feeling this simple, but the truth is:  Alex misses her.  

"It's not her," Alex tells Poussey, and it's mostly true.  "I just...I don't really feel like a vacation.  Or a party."  

They exchange a look, all furrowed mutual concern. Alex adds, "I'm trying to get my shit together, okay?  I need to go to work.  Not run an illegal student speakeasy.  Even if we're not at school."

"I get that,"  Poussey assures her immediately.  "For real."  

Alex shifts her gaze to Nicky, who's slower and more reluctant to nod in agreement.  "Yeah, fine."  

Nodding toward the lane, Alex tells her, "Your go."  

Nicky rolls her eyes and slinks to the lane as though bowling wasn't entirely her idea.  

Alex waits until Poussey wins both simultaneous games and they've started another before she says to Nicky, "Listen, about Piper..." 

"I heard you the first hundred times, weirdass.  We're inviting her.  We invited her last time."  

"I was just gonna say you do it yourself."

"Why?" 

"Cause it's your house.  And she's not gonna go there if she thinks Poussey is just making you ask her."

"How about if you're making me ask her?"  

Alex's voice sharpens.  "Don't tell her that."   

There's a pause, and then Nicky asks, "Why do you care so much?"  

Even the slightest note of derision would have kept Alex from honesty, but there is none, only genuine curiosity.  Alex rests her elbows on her knees and lowers her gaze, addressing the floor and her and Nicky's matching bowling shoes.  "I just want her to be okay."  It's a truth that comes out sounding so simple, although it can't be, the way it easily hid beside some bigger, meaner urge to make Piper suffer that day in their dorm room.  "I don't know.  I never felt good about leaving her without friends."  

"Well, Harper's up her ass now, so at least there's that," Nicky says, the words more derisive than her tone, and Alex recognizes Nicky's version of acquiescence.

 


 

Piper hangs up her phone and, with the cell still clutched in her hand, stalks into the backyard to yell, without preamble, "You're such a fucking asshole, Danny."  

In a rare moment of synchronization, both of Piper's brothers jerk their heads around to look at her, Danny from the deep end of the swimming pool and Cal from the steps of the diving board.  

Not wanting to squint into the sun, Piper rounds the perimeter of the pool, picking an angle where she can properly glare at Danny in the face of his utterly unflappable expression.

"Mind your business, Pooh."  

"What'd he do?"  Cal asks eagerly.   

She keeps her eyes narrowed on Danny even as she answers, "He broke up with Polly, coincidentally right before a vacation, for the second summer in a row."  

Danny crawls on top of a pool float, lowering his sunglasses over his eyes and tossing out a lazy reply, "Would you rather I'd done it right before moving to school?  We're gonna be in completely different states next year."  

Piper grits her teeth.  She's been outside all of two minutes and is already more pissed than she was when came outside, the ungodly June temperature fanning the flames.  It's a thick, sticky heat, carrying the strong scent of summer, chlorine and freshly cut grass.  She sits down on the edge of the pool, submerging her legs up to the knees before arguing, "If you knew you weren't gonna stay with her, you should have let the first break up stick. Not jerk her around for an extra semester just because you wanted someone to take to the fucking dances."  

Danny snorts.  "Kinda like you jerking Bloomer around?  Least I didn't dump Polly in the middle of a restaurant on a major romantic holiday, damn.   And you waited a year before sucking face at a party and then shutting shit down again."  

"Are you fucking kidding me?  Larry wasn't even my boyfriend.  You dated Polly for two years.  And we just kissed one night, you've been full on back together for like six months.  Just to fuck with her."  

She sees Danny's jaw tighten, anger slipping into his voice for the first time.  "Back the hell off, Pipe, okay?  I love Polly, and we got back together because I missed her and it sucked being in basically the same place and not being together.  But that long distance shit doesn't work."  

"It's a five hour drive.  And there are plenty of breaks.  You just want to be free to hook up with other girls." 

"So fucking what!  I'm not some horrible monster for wanting to be single in college."  

Eyes flashing, Piper hurls back, "Fine.  But if that's what's most important to you, you don't get to say you love her.  That's not love."  

Annoyingly, Danny's anger is gone as quickly as it came.  He laughs once, unkindly.  "What, Pooh, d'you hear that in some dumbass rom-com?  Like you said, Larry wasn't even your boyfriend, and he's still the closest you've gotten to a relationship.  So fuck off my shit when you don't know anything about it."  

Cal's eyes dart to hers, the truth carried in his gaze.  Piper's glad for it.  There's something deeply unsettling about Danny's comment, proof how little her older brother knows her now.  Not just him, either - her parents, her grandmother, even Polly.

She didn't think it mattered anymore.  She and Alex are over.  They are less than friends.  There's nothing left for her to lie about.

But even when she's no longer someone with a girlfriend, she's still a person who's been in love.  And been heart broken.   And made a huge, unfixable mistake.

But most people in Piper's life don't know any of that.  They still see a former, more simple version of her.  They're missing so much that matters.  

It makes her feel unrecognizable.  And strangely lonely.

Her eyes are narrowed on Danny's floating form.  He's not even looking at her, and Piper's anger is gathering breath - it's a few more beats of silence away from yelling the truth at him, but then her phone goes off.

Piper stands up, dripping water down her lower legs as she heads for the house.  She assumes the call is from Polly, and Danny must, too: he shouts after, "Don't invite her over here until I leave for my trip, Pooh.  I know you're all rah-rah-women, go sisterhood or whatever, but I'm still your - "

She closes the door behind her while he's still talking, and only back in the shade of the house can she actually see the name on her phone screen: NICKY.

Surprise skitters through her chest, but almost on autopilot, Piper follows through on answering.  "Hello?" 

"Heeey, Baby Duck!  Good news.  Camp Nichols is open for summer sesh soon.  Doing a whole Fourth of July shindig at the beach house.   You're coming."  

"What?"  Piper says, like an idiotic reflex.

"Beach house.  July 4th.  Alcohol induced shenanigans.  Attendance mandatory."

"Mandatory?"  Piper's parents aren't home, so there's no one in the house, but she still drifts into the laundry room and closes the door behind her before settling onto the floor for the phone call.   "Since when are you even speaking to me?"  

"Well, you know what they say about America's birthday.  'Tis the season for forgiveness."  

"Are you fucking serious right now?"  Piper's anger at her brother was still leaning against the walls of her throat, ready to throw itself into her voice that fast.   "It's not on you to forgive me for anything, Nicky.  I didn't do shit to you."  

"I know," Nicky replies calmly.  "But you know how it goes, Chapman.  Shit like this blows up a group...sometimes you gotta take sides."  

"Your side's kind of seemed a lot meaner than Poussey or Janae's side,"  Piper points out truthfully.  While Piper and Janae hadn't really progressed past the awkwardness of Janae's inadvertent and reluctant role in Alex and Piper's breakup, she at least acknowledged her and exchanged small talk in class.  All Piper's had from Nicky is a minimal reply to her emergency text when Piper still had hope of getting Alex's contraband out of the dorm.  

"Fair enough," Nicky says.  "Look, I know I was a bitch.  I might have a smidge of a chip on my shoulder about girls who dump girls for boys because it's easier."

"I didn't - "

"But," Nicky swiftly cuts her off.  "Poussey's pointed out to me several times that I could stand to be more sympathetic to what you were going through.  So I'm sorry.  And I want you to come gets shitfaced at my beach house.  Good?"  

Piper's quiet for a moment.  Given everything she'd lost with Alex, she's never spared much thought about Nicky's apparent dismissal of her - save for the occasional conflicted swell of guilt and irritation when Nicky acknowledged her presence enough to shoot her a look of snark tinged judgement  - but right now, Piper's surprisingly grateful for the apology.  And for the sound of Nicky's voice, every note of it familiar and unchanged.

"Alex isn't coming by the way," Nicky says, maybe misreading Piper's silence.  "Has to work.  But it's not just us....Poussey's bringing Brook and some of her friends, and J and I invited track people.  It's a serious business throwdown."  

Piper feels her face get hot as she belatedly remembers Alex not being there is supposed to be a crucial detail.  Her dad gave Piper back her car keys a few weeks ago.  With her punishment lifted, Piper forgets to be actively angry at Alex - except when she misses her.  

"Oh," she says after a beat, realizing how long it's been since she spoke.  It's unusual, that other people are invited to Nicky's.  They've never been like Danny or Jessica Wedge's groups that way, overlapping with multiple circles of close friends.  

But maybe it'd be a good way to ease into hanging out with them again.  It won't feel much like their lake trips last year.  Alex's absence won't be so glaring.  

"Can I invite Polly?"  

"Harper?"  Nicky asks, skeptical.  

"Yeah....if it's already gonna be a big group?  She and my brother just broke up again, and I kind of said we would do something fun over the fourth weekend."  

"Eh, sure.  Why not?"  Nicky says, like she's making an exceedingly benevolent gesture.  "Bring her."  

"Only if you're sure you even want me to come."  

"I do." Nicky's voice warms into sincerity.  "I miss your gay face.  Well, your bi face.  Whatever, you get what I mean."

Piper feels herself smile.  "I do."  

"Calm down, Chapman, I didn't propose marriage.  We're driving down this Thursday, okay?  Stay through at least Sunday.  You and Harper bring booze if you can."  

"Okay.  We'll figure something out.  Thanks, Nicky."  

"See ya soon, Baby Duck."  

 


 

Polly's thrilled when Piper tells her about the fourth of July trip to the Nichols family beach house, to the point that it temporarily eclipses the angst from her and Danny's breakup.  It almost makes Piper wonder if her former group of friends have some cool, exclusive reputation that somehow escaped her notice for the years she was part of it.  But Polly mainly seems surprised at the invitation, and after a few nervous requests for reassurance - "You're sure you want me to come?   It's not crashing?" - Piper realizes the excitement is mainly a response to Piper finally including her in something.

It's a shitty reminder of what an inadequate friend Piper was to Polly for so long.  She doesn't like thinking about that now, when Polly's been the only bright spot in an otherwise friendless, funless summer. 

Piper keeps catching herself really looking forward to the trip.  She knows they aren't about to embark on a full fledged reversal of last semester's dynamics, where Alex is the one ousted for the shitty thing she did, but she'll take what she can get.  

She's missed them. Even just the feeling of being among them - the coordinated rhythm of banter, the rise to crescendo of overlapping laughter, snark swapped with wordless eye contact.  

Piper hopes they manage to snag a moment on the trip where it's just the four of them.  Like old times - Piper thinks the phrase with a conscious, deliberate effort not to acknowledge Alex's absence.  

  


 

"I don't actually know who all's going to be there."  Piper says to Polly, sitting beside her in the passenger seat.  They're thirty minutes away from Nicky's beach house, and Piper's covering up sudden, jangly nerves by talking too much.  "Like track people, and some of the sophomore volleyball players - juniors now, I guess, that's still weird we're seniors, right?  Or they might not actually be volleyball players, but Brook is, and they're her friends she's bringing."  

"No Overbrook guys?"  

"Oh.  No.  I don't think so, anyway."  

"I didn't figure there would, since it's Nicky's place." Polly sighs.  "I just know Danny's at Will's place on whatever the fuck island it's called with probably every Litchfield girl he ever secretly wanted to bang.  Including Jessica, by the way.  Could finally happen this weekend."

"So fuck them," Piper tells her.  "Jessica chasing after your leftovers is just sad."  

Polly shoots her a grateful grin.  "I like that you're willing to refer to your own brother as my leftovers."     

"It is truly how I see him now," Piper intones seriously.  It makes Polly laugh.  Piper's pleased with that;  strangely, it makes her think maybe she'll do okay this weekend.  She used to make Nicky and Janae and Poussey laugh, too.

And Alex.  Alex more than anybody.  

But Piper really doesn't want to spend this whole weekend thinking about her.  

 


 

Piper deliberately timed it so they'd arrive at the beach house around dinner time, knowing most people were showing up in the afternoon.  In some vague way, she thinks it will be easier to arrive to something that's already in motion.    

There are at least four other cars visible in the garage and driveway when Piper pulls in. Predictably, the Nichols' house is huge - several stories, with a wraparound deck, and located right on the beach.  Polly's eyes widen when she sees it.  "Jesus.  Didn't you say you spent New Years in another house of Nicky's." 

"Yep, lake house almost as big as this." 

"Fuck.  I forget how many levels of rich there are at Litch."  

There's no answer when they ring the doorbell, so Piper texts Nicky, who immediately instructs her to go to the open side door and drop their stuff before finding everyone out back.  The kitchen island is crowded with alcohol, and they add a box of wine and two bottles of tequila Polly managed to procure through her cousin.  

The deck steps take them down onto the sand, where Piper and Polly both kick off their flip flops to add to an already crowded pile.  Piper can see a group of people, about halfway between the house and the surf, sitting in a cluster of beach chairs circling the beginnings of a bonfire.  The only other houses in sight are barely visible down the long stretch of sand, and there are no other groups or even lone figures on the beach that Piper can see.

Like she'd figured, everyone is already several drinks into their day, a fact that eclipses any potential awkwardness to the quasi-reunion.  Poussey spots her first and yells her name with drunken elation. The eight or nine people around her cheer in response, less out of genuine excitement - Piper knows most of them by name and face but not much else - than a sort of party mob mentality.  

"Baby Duck is in the house!"  This of course from Nicky, who gets up to tug Piper into the circle.  She grins over her shoulder as Polly follows them, saying, "Harper, happy you could join us and prove Chapman here has other friends."  

There's some general chaos while Piper hugs both Poussey and Janae while giving smile/wave greetings to the other girls over their shoulders.  Within two minutes, she's got a beer in her hand and is settled onto a blanket spread in front of the beach chair Poussey and Brook are packed in tightly to share.    

Alcohol fueled or not, it's a good feeling - being greeted like the missing ingredient to a party, and after months of having only one friend at a time, if that, Piper happily basks in it.  She catches Polly's eye and smiles in what she hopes is a reassuring and inclusive manner.  She wants Polly to fit better here than Piper ever did as a dining hall table guest of the Jessica Wedge brigade.

There's a loose game of Never Have I Ever going around the circle.  It tenses Piper a little; a few times she catches Nicky subtly clocking her lies - like when she fails to put down a finger for having sex with a girl - and even moments she's truthful - like when she lowers a finger to having sex in a car - have Polly throwing her curious glances, obviously wondering the who.  

Fortunately, they move on soon, calling out indiscriminate Fuck/Marry/Kills, mostly comprised of Litchfield and Overbrook student body or staff.  Under the exclamations from the game, Piper manages to conduct brief, catch up conversations with both Poussey and Janae, swapping mostly boring details from summer break so far.  

Pizza is ordered, and the sun firmly sets.  They move closer to the house both to avoid high tide and in hearing distance of the speaker system playing music.  Someone sets up a beer pong table.  Polly brings out boxed wine and Nicky declares her a genius.  A few cups in, pinot grigio manages to drown the last of Piper's nerves.

Around ten, a group of five people their age or maybe a few years older show up, two girls and three guys, none of whom Piper recognizes from school.  One, a small girl with dark hair and bright red lipstick, runs to Nicky, kissing her with an immediate vigor.

Off Piper's confused look, Poussey drops her voice to explain,  "Nicky's befriended some of the locals.  Apparently her girl pushes a frozen lemonade cart in the more touristy areas of the beach....and this ain't their first summer fling."  

It starts to feel more like a little party - the music turned up and small clusters of people dancing on the shifting sand.  The few straight girls present seem invigorated by the arrival of guys, Polly included, and within an hour she's become the giggly and giddy beer pong partner of some beefcake dude who's almost definitely a lifeguard.

Piper's head fills uncomfortably with the memory of her and Larry, playing beer pong at that mountain house.  She shifts away from the image, forcibly shrugging off more thoughts about that night trying to remind her that,  no matter what Alex has done to her since, Piper's always going to be the one who ruined them.  

After refilling her plastic cup almost to the brim with wine, Piper walks to a soft spot near the dunes and settles down.  

The group has begun to break into pieces.  Brook and Poussey have disappeared into the house, while Nicky and her summer fling girl - Piper has yet to be introduced - are making out in plain sight on the steps to the deck.  The only one of the local guys who isn't playing beer pong has produced a joint and is partaking with Brook's friends.  

It's been a good night, for the most part, and easier than Piper probably had any right to hope for.  But sitting with only a drink for company at the end of it is a good way to get buried up to the neck in self pity.

Before she can get too comfortable in it, though, Janae sits down beside her.  "Hey."  

"Hey."  

Janae's twisting the top off a cheap bottle of wine.  She offers Piper some, but Piper shakes her head.  "You drunk?"

"Kinda.  You?"

"Gettin' there."  Janae smirks a little and takes a swig straight from the bottle.  

For a moment, they sit in companionable silence for a moment before Piper says, "Thanks for inviting me this weekend.  I've missed you guys."  

"Why you thanking me?"  

"I kinda assume it was a group consensus." 

Janae doesn't address that, just replies, "We missed you, too," with a brisk sort of warmth that makes Piper smile.

After a beat of silence, Piper asks, "So you still hanging out with Trevor?"  

"Eh.  Never really went anywhere serious.  He's kinda too whiny." 

"Really?"  

"Yeah.  Like he'd get all pouty when he wasn't winning enough in Mario Kart."  

The thought of Janae sitting in a boy's dorm room playing Mario Kart makes Piper grin.  "Ah, so he's one of those guys.  Can't get beat by a girl."  

 "Exactly." 

Piper turns her voice teasing, almost remembering how to do it.  "You don't wanna get in the game for one of the beefcakes over there?"  

Janae rolls her eyes.  "Nah, at the rate they're going Nicky's house is gonna turn into a brothel for the night.  Don't wanna be complicit."  She smirks.  "What about you, why aren't you getting in there?  You're single, too."  

The words are a kill switch to Piper's smile, and she lowers her gaze to hide the flinch.  

"I didn't mean anything," Janae says quietly after a few moments crawl silently by.  

"I know."  

They're quiet for awhile, Piper's head lost in the woods by the lake between Litchfield and Overbrook, the realization that Janae saw Larry kissing her.  A childish urge rises in her to ask Janae what she thinks about Alex ratting her out to Red, like she needs to make her friend think about something bad Alex did instead.  

Then Janae surprises her.  "Listen, Pipe....I'm sorry about how everything went down.  I thought about it a lot, after...wondering whether I should've handled it different.  I never would've wanted y'all to break up and...I still don't feel good about having any part of it."  

Piper tightens her jaw, staring hard, straight out at the ocean.  There hasn't been a single moment since she and Alex broke up when she's been angry at Janae - until this one.

"Piper?"  Janae prods after too long without a response.

It's the kind of irritation that Piper would usually just swallow and digest, but she's just hit the point of drunkenness where every feeling seems to be worth sharing.  "I wish you hadn't said that," she mumbles.

"Oh."  Janae sounds taken aback.  "Uh.  Okay?"  

"You were so sure then."  Piper's voice wavers slightly.  "Like there was no other way, so what good does it do me now to know that maybe....maybe I could've changed your mind - "

"Whoa, I never said - " 

"- and Alex would never have to find out." 

"Piper," Janae's voice is firm.  "I never said I would've changed my mind.  Or that I should've done anything different, I just, like...wanted to make sure you knew I didn't just brush it off like it wasn't anything big." 

Piper closes her eyes, fully absorbing for the first time how unlikely that night was, how easily her life could have stayed unshattered.  If she and Polly hadn't made plans.  If Litchfield had been playing a better movie, if they hadn't gone to Overbrook.  If Janae didn't have plans with a boy she never even really dated.  If either of them had picked different rows to sit in.  If Piper had made sure she didn't end up beside Larry.

But she could keep unraveling everything, all the way back to how easy it would have been to refuse Polly's invitation to the ski trip.  Those are easy knots to undo, little inconsequential circumstances.  The worst, gnarled mess, the tangle is the center of it, is always going to be a choice Piper made.  

"I know you were right," she says in a low voice, drained of all fight.  "Even if neither of us told Alex then...there was no way to be sure Polly or Danny would never mention it in front of her.

"Okay...."  Janae says warily.  "So...?  You mad or not?"  

"Not," Piper answers dully.  "Not at you.  Just myself."  Piper's not really crying, not yet, but the threat of tears is pulling her voice tight.  "Fuck, when am I allowed to stop that?"

"Stop...?" 

"Stop...hating myself for what I did.  I don't wanna feel guilty anymore.  You'd th, think the fact that I'm fucking furious at Alex too would be enough, but it's not."

Janae lilts sideways, just for a second, so that her shoulder gently bumps Piper's, her only method of comfort until she says, after a lengthy silence, "You wanna hear what I think or is that just something you needed to say out loud?"  

"Tell me."  

"Okay.  I think you're gonna be mad at yourself as long as you're still wishing it hadn't happened."  

Piper pauses, waiting for Janae to follow that up, or for the sentiment to reveal unexpected profundities.  It doesn't.  "Is that supposed to be insightful?"  

"I didn't say it was that complex, damn.  It's pretty standard advice.  I'm sayin' you gotta move on.  As long as you're still hung up on Al, of course you're gonna feel bad about the reason you aren't together.   You gotta stop wanting that before you stop being mad at yourself for getting in the way of it."  

The heavy, exhaustive truth of it sinks in.  Piper's shoulder sag with it.  There is a difference between using her anger at Alex to convince herself she wouldn't get back together now even if Alex offered - it's a much bigger challenge to stop wishing nothing had gone wrong between them in the first place.  

"So how do I do that?"  Piper asks, weary but almost sarcastic, like she can't imagine there being an answer.  

But Janae turns to her and smiles, this time gentle and sincere when she says, "You could start with one of the beefcakes over there.  Though, honestly, I think we can find you better options."  

Piper forces a clumsy smile, because she can see Janae is trying to give her permission for something, but the thought of it makes her stomach bunch up.  

It will be a daunting task, learning how to want someone else.  

 


 

Piper's in bed in her designated guest room, scrolling through Instagram in a sort of dim, wine soaked haze when the door opens and Polly creeps in, awkwardly dragging her overnight bag.

"Well, hey."  Piper tries to grin into the dark so it'll seep into her voice.  "Didn't know if I should expect you here tonight."  

"We just made out,"  Polly informs her, flopping stomach first onto the foot of the bed.  "He left, I think - someone was calling an uber."  

"Nice." 

After a second, though, she hears Polly sniffle and draw a quivering, sideways breath, immediately followed by, "Sorry.  I'm pretty drunk."  

Piper's pretty drunk, too, but she crawls forward to splay out beside Polly, remembering that even if it's just Danny, Polly's still in the thick of a breakup.  She touches Polly's shoulder.  

"Do you think I'm an idiot?"  Polly asks after she's pulled herself a little more together.  "For getting back together with him?"  

"No.  Of course not."    

"I think maybe I am.  It's not like he even tried to hide why last time...basically a week after we broke up he gets tagged in all these photos with other girls."

Piper bites back a litany of insults against her brother, and instead says slowly, "I think...you have to be brave to forgive someone.  To give them a second chance.  It's not dumb."  

Polly gives her this wide eyed look like she's said something unspeakably wise.  Piper's just thinking about Alex, who she always thought was so fearless.  

But no.  She's decided now: forgiveness is brave, revenge is cowardly.  And it was revenge, what Alex did to her.  She'd admitted as much.

Maybe I did want to hurt you back.   

Piper bites down on the inside of her lip.  She's precariously close to joining Polly in drunk crying mode, and resolves to be done with that for the rest of the trip.  She's here, and Alex isn't, and maybe that's what's fair.

 


 

The Fourth is on a Friday, and Alex works her usual shift at IHOP and voluntarily covers someone else's at the bowling alley.  The place is almost completely empty around nine, everyone in town probably gathered around parking lots and the high school football stadium to watch the fireworks. 

Alex gets a burger and fries and hoists herself up on the counter to eat, scrolling absently through her phone.  Poussey's gotten way too into Snapchat lately - her story is over a minute long, a series of eight second videos panning through the action at Nicky's.  

She can find Piper in most of them. It threw her off to see Polly there, led to an instinctive, childish hurt - that's not what I meant - but she knows it's a good thing.  It just means Piper hasn't been been sitting around alone all summer, waiting for Nicky to finally make a gesture.

But in some embarrassing, silly way it makes Alex feel replaced.  Not as Piper's girlfriend - clearly - but as her best friend, her designated person in any given group.  

She went to Nicky's place at the beach once before, the summer after freshmen year, but she's picturing the lake house when she imagines their current trip.  In her head, most of the extra guests aren't there, just Polly, sitting where Alex used to sit while they play games in the basement, Piper's partner in Taboo or Celebrity - they used to play three on two, as the others decided Piper and Alex had an unfair advantage.  Alex always rolled her eyes at those claims while secretly glowing with pleasure.  It was a good feeling, the two of them: seeing inside each other's heads, knowing and being known.

Alex knows it's not the same with Polly, but her chest is still simmering with jealousy at the imagined image.  She goes back to Poussey's Snapchat story just to get rid of it, but seeing all her friends together - now with sparklers - just makes her feel lonely.  

 


 

By Saturday evening, Piper's slightly sunburned and mostly comfortable with the somewhat randomly assembled group at the beach house.  Polly's moved through any initial awkwardness and ingratiated herself pretty well, so Piper's gotten time to hang out with Janae and Poussey, and even Nicky on the rare occasions she has eyes for anyone but her summer girlfriend (the term she and the others have settled on for lack of more specific clarification).

They're inside after a long day at the beach, everyone sun-tired and hungry.  The track girls are making a huge pot of spaghetti when Nicky declares they're running low on wine.  There's a brief sobriety check to determine if anyone can drive to the store. Piper feels more worn out than buzzed, but she and Polly have been traipsing back and forth from the beach to the house all afternoon, blending lemonade slushies and adding vodka, so she doesn't volunteer.  One of Brook's junior friends claims to be good to drive, and the other accompanies her.

"Hey," Nora Frost, one of Janae and Nicky's track friends, says suddenly.  "Is it true Alex isn't selling next year?"  

Piper's aware of four different people in the room glancing at her.  Nicky looks away fastest to answer.  "Yeah.  She's starting off with a violation so has to play it safe.  Fucking Jessica."  

"That's so messed up, what she did," Mary Burke, the other track girl, puts in.  "Isn't there some sort of no snitch code?"  

Poussey snickers, "Yup, I think the formal law is 'snitches get stitches.'"

Nicky nods sagely.  "I have heard that."  

Polly surprises Piper by speaking up,  "I hope literally everyone who ever bought from Alex hears exactly what Jessica did.  That's like eighty percent of the school."  

Nora arches an eyebrow.  "Aren't you really good friends with her?"  

"Not anymore," Polly says darkly.  Then she frowns.  "And even before I wouldn't say we were good friends.  I just room with Madison."  

Janae feigns surprise.  "You mean Madison actually sleeps in y'alls room?  She doesn't just curl up on the floor beside Jessica's bed?"  

Everyone laughs at that, including Polly.  And soon they're all off on one of those conversations that feels like competitive shit talking, everyone trying to throw out the funniest or most astute observation about Litchfield students who err toward mean or snobby.  

Piper mostly stays quiet, even when the pasta is served and the wine is delivered and everyone sits around the living room.  They used to do this, the five of them, when it felt like they somehow existed apart from everyone else at Litchfield.    

Not for the first time, she's struck with the strangeness of this expanded group.  Sitting on the couch beside Polly, Piper's gaze tracks from Janae to Nicky to Poussey. For a second, she entertains the idea of texting them all, planning to sneak away at some point in the evening and reconvene in the basement.   Maybe there's a game closet like at the lake house, and they can play Twister or Jenga.  

She wouldn't mind if Alex was there, too.  

 


 

"Check it out," Polly lands on her knees on the bed when the evening's party has finally broken up.  She's got her SnapChat story pulled up, displaying the people who have viewed it.  Piper spots her brother's username among the list, but Polly's pointing at Jessica's.  "Bet she can't stand that I'm here."  

"She doesn't want you to make new friends?" 

"Probably not.  But especially not you guys.  It's like an upgrade." 

"Right," Piper mutters dismissively, drunk and sleepy and only half listening.  

"Oh, come on.  You know you guys are like the cool kids."  

Piper pulls a face.  "Oh, whatever."  

"I'm serious.  Why do you think Jessica hates Alex so much?"  

"Because Jessica's a homophobe."

"Well, sure, the girl definitely has some lesbian issues - though she loves hanging out with gay boys.  But it's more than that."  Polly smiles slightly.  "Fuck, I seriously forget sometimes you weren't here freshmen year." 

"What's that got to do with anything?"  

"Just how Alex was at the beginning.  Everyone thought she was so fucking cool.  I bet Jess couldn't stand it, being her roommate - the whole pretty rich girl thing didn't make her instantly special here.  But Alex just like...didn't give a shit, ya know?  She was down to share weed, but she never seemed desperate to make friends like most people.  Probably made her seem even cooler."  

Piper's quiet, thinking about that.  She can picture it pretty well - Alex isn't the socially performative type, and she's independent enough that she'd probably be okay lone wolfing it around boarding school until she met people naturally.  But Piper also knows what it was like for Alex before Litchfield, the kind of middle school experience she was coming from. Alex came to boarding school expecting more extreme versions of the kids in her hometown who made fun of her clothes.  She was probably wary of them, not sure if she could fit in even if she wanted to.

It's useless knowledge, now.  But it still belongs to Piper.  

Voice turning wry, she asks, "So are we not actually cool anymore?  Since Alex isn't here?"  

"C'mon, that's not what I meant.  It's your whole group."  After a beat, she adds, voice slurring a little, "You included!  I was just talking about when we were freshmen.  And Alex kinda stood out the most since she became everyone's drug dealer like, immediately."  

"Do you care if I turn this off?"  Piper asks, already reaching for the lamp.  She's doing it again, rearranging all these thoughts about Alex, getting caught between them -  wondering about her working every time there's a trip this summer, and how losing the money from her massive rule breaking is probably an actual big deal - and she wants to just stop and go to sleep.

 


 

Even though she's nearly four hours away from it,  Alex is glad when the beach trip ends.  Her friends separate, going back to their individual social media accounts, and there's nothing for her to envy.  

Except Polly and Piper, still, who keep hanging out over the last month of summer break.  They clearly think their friendship doesn't really exist if they don't document it on Instagram for all of the Litchfield study body to see.  

There are three weeks left in summer break when her mom takes a night off.  It's one of Alex's off nights from the bowling alley, and Diane tells her they're going to their favorite Italian restaurant in the next town.  It's nothing crazy fancy, but still a rare indulgence, one they usually save for one of the last nights before Alex goes back to school.

"Kinda early for Portofino, isn't it?"  Alex comments when her mom suggests it.  "Trying to rush me out?" 

"We'll still go your last night.  This is just a bonus."   Alex sends her a questioning look, and Diana rolls her eyes at her.  "What, I can't crave garlic bread?  C'mon, put on some shoes, we gotta beat the rush." 

It's a fun night, though it's up to her mom to drive most of the conversation.  Alex has gotten out of the habit of storing up anecdotes from her monotonous weekdays, but Diane can always been counted on for amusing work stories.  

When the check comes, Diane puts her card in and then smiles at Alex.  "So." 

"I knew it." 

Diane rolls her eyes.  "What did you know?"

"That you had an ulterior motive."   

"Fine, smartass, you got me.  Had to butter you up before giving you a present.  How terrible." 

Diane smirks and hands over an envelope.  Rather than open it, Alex just frowns at her in confusion.  "Present for what?" 

"Half-birthday?  End of summer?  Start of your senior year?  Pick your favorite."  Alex rips open the flap and finds herself looking at a thin stack of bills.  Before she can protest, Diane keeps talking, "I want you to take a weekend off before you go back to school.   Spend some time with your friends.  You don't gotta worry about missing work."  Alex looks up at her, ready to protest, but there's a softness to Diane's expression that stops her.  "You haven't done anything fun all summer, babe.  You deserve a break."   

Alex is already shaking her head.  "They've done all their trips for the summer - " 

"I doubt anybody'll complain about an extra one.  You girls should go to the place on the lake for the weekend." 

"I...I'm pretty sure Nicky and Poussey are all booked up with their girlfriends, and anyway I'm already on the schedule - "

"Al."  Diane's voice is firmer now, brushing up against her take-no-bullshit edge.  "What's going on with you?  Why you being so hard on yourself about this?" 

Alex's eyes flick instinctively away, a belated attempt to hide truth.  But her mom clearly understands what Alex is doing, even if she lacks the details.  

For a second, it's tempting to give the details, every sharp, ugly one.  What she did to Piper.  The extent of the rules she was breaking, how stupidly willing she was to risk her own future.  The way it felt to have Red and Coach Mendoza look at her like there was nothing good there.  The way she can't stop wondering if they're secretly convinced she never belonged at Litchfield Academy in the first place.  

Her mom will never look at Alex like that, no matter what she confesses.  

But there is something almost unbearable about the money stacked carefully in an envelope.  This is something her mother had to plan for, probably setting aside tips from multiple nights.  

Alex doesn't want have to tell her mom how much she doesn't deserve it.

"I don't know.  I'm just still kind of embarrassed about everything." 

"Your friends didn't make you feel bad about it, did they?" 

"No, not at all.  I don't know, I'm being stupid."  

"You're not stupid, kiddo, just stubborn.  Promise me you'll call 'em up and  make some plans.  You've been working real hard lately, and once you get back to school you'll have college application shit on top of all your classes - "

Alex groans ostentatiously.  "Fuck, don't remind me." 

"- this might be your last chance for some fun." 

"That's cheerful."  

"Just being honest, babe."  Diane grins.  "I'm taking this as an agreement." 

"Okay.  I'll at least see if they're free...but you don't have to give me money, I can afford to take a weekend off." 

"Don't insult me by refusing a half birthday gift, Al." 

 


 

A week before school starts back, photos of Alex, Nicky, Janae and Poussey at Nicky's lake house crop up on SnapChat and Instagram.  Piper's been texting with her friends steadily since the Fourth of July weekend, but none of them mentioned this latest trip.  They definitely didn't invite her.  

It's a timely reminder that things at school won't actually be that different this year.  Nicky may be friendlier to Piper in passing, but Alex still has primary custody of their friends.  

As a senior, Piper automatically gets a parking spot at school, so a week after Danny moves into UPenn, Piper's the one to drive herself and Cal back to school.  She drops her younger brother off at Overbrook first, then drives around to Litch.

She checks in with Fisher, who confirms that so far Piper hasn't been assigned a replacement roommate, though she warns that any situations that arise within the first few weeks could mean someone gets shuffled into her room.  She wonders fleetingly where Alex ended up - if she's even in the sam dorm building anymore - but then forcibly stifles her curiosity.

When she gets to their room - her room, she'll have to get used to thinking of it that way - Alex's minifridge is gone.  So she's here already.  She's already cleared out the last trace of herself, without waiting to run into Piper while she did it.

Piper draws a breath, trying not to hate how empty Alex's side of the room looks.  This is a good thing; Piper's better at hating Alex at a distance than from across the room.

She has Danny's old fridge in the trunk of her car, and texts from Polly on her phone, making plans to meet up for dinner.   This year is going to look different, but that doesn't have to mean bad.  It should be a hell of a lot better than the last semester here, at least.  

Piper's got this.  She's ready. 

She gets her first glimpse of Alex that night at the welcome assembly, passing by the center aisle of the auditorium.  She's with Nicky and Janae, both of whom greet Piper and Polly cheerfully as they pass.  Alex doesn't stop walking but her eyes seek out Piper's, the first time they've seen each other in over three months, and for just a second it feels like Piper's heart is being held under water.

But then Alex and the others keep going, sliding into a row on the opposite side of the auditorium, and Piper's gaze doesn't have to follow her.

  


 

Alex's new room is on the third floor of Kerman House.  It's probably not directly above where their old one was, but it's pretty close.  She's living with Violet Tate, a senior who's on the volleyball team with Poussey and always ordered Fireball whiskey from Alex.  Violet's old roommate, Michaela Kowalski, had the bad luck of transferring her senior year when her family moved to the West Coast. 

Alex could have done a lot worse in terms of random roommates - Violet's nerdy and smart and always nice.  If anything she seems a little intimidated by Alex, which makes her quiet in a way that's sometimes awkward, but at least she isn't likely to ask Alex questions about her punishment and the room shuffling. Still, it's hard to fully relax in Violet's presence, like even the silence after they turn the lights off to go to bed is an awkward one.

There's something uncomfortable about it, an unearned intimacy in listening to someone you barely know fall asleep.  Alex lies in the dark of their room, trying to convince herself the unfamiliarity is all in her head - this is the same dorm room layout, the same standard issue bed set at the same height.  Even the side of the room Michaela vacated was the same one that had been Alex's, even though there was a good year or so when she and Piper switched back and forth indiscriminately.  

 


 

Litchfield doesn't waste anytime establishing the high stakes of senior year.  Every senior is assigned one of the three Litchfield teachers who doubles as an admissions advisor.  There are long established rumors that the teachers are assigned kids based on their prospects - Ms.Rogers handles the top fifteen or so, the ones who should at least apply to Ivys and other elite schools, Ms. Figueroa the calculus teacher handles the more middling kids, and Mrs.Bell has the duds (although the duds at Litchfield are still probably better off than even the average public school valedictorian).  

The faculty always dismiss this theory if any student is brave enough to ask about it, but the assignments sure as hell aren't alphabetical.  

Piper and Poussey have Rogers; Piper kind of assumes Alex does, too, but she never asks anyone.  Janae and Polly are with Figueroa, though for Janae those meetings are mostly a formality - she's already getting offers to run track at Division One schools.  Nicky's with Bell, which doesn't surprise Piper - Nicky's never been much for studying.

"So, Piper."  Ms.Rogers gives her a warm smile.  It's their first meeting, squeezed in between Piper's last class of the day and tennis practice.  "What are you thinking at this stage?" 

"Um..."  Piper blinks at her, taken aback at being asked such an open ended question right off the bat.  "I don't really - I didn't know I was supposed to have anything prepared for today - "

"Oh, you don't," Rogers assures her.  "It's just that a lot of girls come in, they already have one school as the end all and be all in their head."

"Oh.  No, I'm not really set on anywhere."  

"Okay."  The drama teacher smiles encouragingly.  "You being more open minded actually makes my job easier.  So let's start with what you want to study, and we can talk through what schools might be a good fit."  

"I'm not completely sure.  Yet.  Maybe English?  I mean, literature, or...I don't know."  Piper's face is starting to burn.  She's suddenly envious of the people who come in here, stubborn but certain with their dream schools.  

"Okay, so that gives you a lot of options.  So do your grades, by the way, so you're looking great there.  It seems like you're leaning liberal arts...how about this, any particular part of the country you're interested in?"  

Unwilling to give another useless I don't know, Piper desperately wracks her brain for any sort of preference. 

But all that comes to mind is the memory kissing Alex on a Dance Dance Revolution machine, swearing that all she wanted was to follow Alex wherever she goes after graduating.  

Her eyes sting unexpectedly, and Ms.Rogers must misinterpret it, because she says in a calming voice, "You know what I think you should do?  Take the next week to think about it, and come back to me next Monday with a list of anything you might want in a school.  The size, the weather, the sort of town it's in, anything.  And then you and I are gonna go over it and come up with a list of schools that fit.  Sound good?"  Piper nods mutely, and Rogers cranks her smile up a notch.  "Piper.  You've got a great record here...your grades, the SAT scores....you've obviously put in the work.  This is the fun part, okay?  You get to pick your dream school."  

"Alright."  

"You okay?"  

"Yeah.  Thanks."

"I know this can seem overwhelming.  But I'm here to walk you through it, every step.  And believe me, I've been through this with a lot of kids." 

"Okay. Thank you." 

"Same time Monday?" 

"Yeah.  Thanks"   

 


 

"Alright, Alex."  Ms. Rogers smiles at her from across her desk.  "Have you given much thought to where you'd want to apply?"    

"Yeah, so, I've been talking to Coach Mendoza.  She says a lot of smaller regional colleges have money for athletic scholarships.  Like, Division II stuff, I'm obviously not good enough to play D1 but she thinks probably, for the smaller schools - she can invite recruiters to exhibition games this semester if I want.  I looked into which ones gives the most money for soccer, here's this list..." 

She passes the teacher a piece of notebook paper.  Rogers frowns down at it.  "I see....so, playing soccer in college is a top priority for you?"  

"Not really," Alex tells her honestly.  "But if it's the best way to get a scholarship..."  

"Now I'm not sure that's true.  I've worked with a lot of our scholarship students over the years, and most of them have gotten very generous financial aid to some of their top choice schools."

Alex stares her down, unimpressed.  She knows Litchfield likes to send their alumni off to the top ranked, most highly respected schools.  The ones with prestige and name recognition.  They don't give a shit about the schools on Alex's list, schools people outside the general area where they're located would never have heard of.  

"Look, I want my best chance at going to school, period," Alex tells her bluntly.  "I'm not looking to get bogged down in years worth of debt."  

Ms.Rogers pulls a sheet of paper out of the folder on her desk.  "Did you know there are around sixty colleges in the country that claim to cover full financial need for all the students they admit?"  

"No."

"This is the list of schools."

Alex scans the names on the list; most of the Ivys seem to be included, as well as the school names she's heard of in books and television, the ones used to indicate brains or privilege or both in a character that went there.  

"Here's another question."  There's a sly sort of smile in the drama teachers voice, the kind that makes Alex roll her eyes in class.  "Did you know of all the senior SAT scores we have on file so far, yours is the highest?"  

Alex's lips curl involuntarily, and she keeps her gaze lowered on Rogers' list so she doesn't react with full smugness.  "Nope.  I did not know that."  

She tests well, she always has, so, arrogant as it sounds, Alex isn't really surprised.  But there's an undeniable sweetness to knowing the Litchfield faculty probably all know that information, especially after the bad note she ended last year on.  

And I did it all as the school drug dealer...

"Alex?" 

"Sorry.  What?"  

"I'm telling you you have a real shot at a lot of these schools, with very generous financial aid packages.  I've seen it happen before...it's why you worked so hard to come here, am I right?  And obviously, there's no harm in applying to these schools as well - " she taps her palm on Alex's much less impressive piece of paper.  "-but for next week, I want you to have two things done: your completed FAFSA form, and a list of schools from this list that you might be interested in.  How's that sound?"

"Good."  Alex's voice is quiet, her eyes more intently taking in Rogers' list, names jumping out at her, schools in states she's never been to.

She wonders, fleetingly, which names are on Piper's list.  Even after everything, it's still hard to imagine a future with even less of Piper in it.  

 


 

When she's not at tennis practice, doing homework or hanging out with Polly, Piper spends the next few evenings obsessively researching schools.  Picturing herself at college, Piper just conjures up images of brick buildings and grass quads lined with trees that turned orange in the fall.  

Which is basically just Litchfield.  Her dream college experience has pretty much been met at boarding school.  It doesn't leave her much to want.  

A few times, she pulls up Danny or Larry's Facebook pages and Instagrams.  They're rooming together at UPenn, and though boys as a rule aren't as diligent about documenting their lives, they've clearly found female friends already, so they're tagged in plenty of photos.  Other than the less subtle presence of solo cups, nothing about it looks very different than boarding school life.

Instead of a list of what she wants in a college, Piper starts thinking about what she likes about Litchfield.  She likes the small campus and the small class sizes, and New England weather.  She also kind of likes the no boys, but that's a pretty limiting criteria for college.  

She doesn't want to be any closer to home than she is now, but the few hours it takes to drive have always felt far enough.  Her parents don't push her to come home on random weekends, and it's not like they swing by Litch or Overbrook to visit.  

Piper keeps a tab with top 100 college rankings permanently open on her laptop, and she looks into every name on the list.  Some of them get copied into her Word document with notes and images.  It was embarrassing, sitting in Rogers' office with nothing to say for herself, and she's determined to make up for that next time.

 


 

Alex goes through all the schools on Rogers' list, and the first thing she does is cross out any that are outside their general region on the East Coast.  Even if it's true they'll give her enough financial aid for tuition, it won't help her get home to visit her mom on breaks.  Anywhere she'd have to fly is out of the question, and Alex spends a good two hours looking up the distance from each school to a Greyhound station, and the price of a ticket to and from her hometown, before she decides the difference in bus fares shouldn't be the deciding factor here.  

Ms. Rogers had told her most early applications are due in mid-November, so Alex starts looking into the specific dates and ends up finding a much more pressing issue. 

She goes to bed that night intending to go by Rogers' classroom after the last period of the day, but then spends the whole hour of drama class hoping for an opportunity to approach the teacher on her own.  They're doing a read through of the play they'll spend the whole semester putting on, so there's never a moment when Rogers sends them off into smaller groups.  When the bell rings and the other students file out, Alex approaches her teacher and without preamble says, "Are college applications supposed to cost so much?"

"Alex - "

"Some of them are like a hundred dollars, and you might not even get in?  How does that make sense?"  

"I know, it's kind of a racket," Ms.Rogers says, surprising her.  "Just so you know, Litchfield pays for three applications for each student."  

Alex makes a scoffing sound.  "Do they cover the most expensive ones?"  

"I think it can work out like that, yeah.  Also...there are steps you can take to get the school to cover more."

"For sure?"  

"Yes.  Alex, nobody here wants you to close yourself off from an option because it's not worth the completely unreasonable cost of trying."  

Alex is quiet, flinching from the eye contact, torn between relief and embarrassment.  Rogers smirks slightly, arching an eyebrow.  "We can talk about that more at our next scheduled meeting.  Remember that?  There's a whole time and place for it."

  


 

When the scheduled day of her next meeting does come, Alex shows up ten minutes early with a folder full of printouts and lists.  She's too keyed up to sit on one of the chairs lining the small hallway of faculty offices, so she leans against the wall across the door with the "Berdie Rogers" nameplate.  

She's been there two minutes when Piper walks out.  

Piper visibly jolts at the sight of her, and Alex's heart hits the wall of her chest, hard.  

They have three classes together this semester, and obviously still see each other multiple times a day across the dining hall or on the campus walkways, but this is the first time they've been any semblance of alone together since the previous semester.  

"Hey."  Alex blurts it out, fast, like an instinctive attempt to grab hold of something.

"Hi."  Piper's better at this than her; she's already closed her voice off, her eyes fixed somewhere over Alex's shoulder.  

"You got Rogers, too, huh?  Go us."

Piper makes some noncommittal humming sound, and Alex's chest snarls with that maddening collision of affection and anger.  

She is so goddamn frustrating, in such a fucking Piper way.  Her face is all coolly impassive the way it is when she knows she's being watched, but Alex catches her sometimes, all lonely eyes in these spit seconds before she can pretend she wasn't looking at Alex.

"Cool, okay,"  Alex says, rolling her eyes.  "So you're still doing this?" 

Piper's eyes flare, but she manages to keep her tone surprisingly measured.  "What do you think should have changed?  You still haven't even said you're sorry." 

"Jesus, Pipes, you don't want me to apologize.  You need to cling to the fact that I haven't so you still have a reason to be all pissy."  

"Why aren't you?"  Piper retorts.  

"What?" 

Piper glances back at Rogers' closed office door and lowers her voice to a hiss, like she suspects the teacher might be eavesdropping.  "You made it pretty clear you still hate me enough to sell me out to Red.  So if what I did is still worse, why aren't you acting all pissy?  I'm just trying to stay out of your way."  

Alex tightens her jaw.  "You know what?  That's a great point."   With that, she walks up to Rogers door and knocks, not sparing Piper another glance even as she brushes past her.  She unconsciously tightens her grip on the folder, needing to go into this meeting believing she wouldn't add a school to the top of her carefully constructed list just because Piper was interested in going to it.  She's supposed to be past caring about that. 

They need to end up at different places.  This was the most Alex has spoken to Piper in months, but she still has to confront her for so many moments every day.  Piper entering a classroom or the dining hall still feels like something that happens to Alex, every time, something she has to brace herself for and then recover from.  Losing that shouldn't make her feel sick to her stomach, but it does.  

She is forever discovering more endings waiting between them.    

 


 

Stressful as it is, Alex kind of likes thinking about college.  It makes it feel like the present doesn't even really matter, and the year's main purpose is just preparing for the next one.  

The shine has gone off Litchfield Academy, every aspect it of it dulled and monotonous, made even moreso by the fact that she can't really smoke or drink.  Maybe in a few months she'll relax a little, steal sips from Nicky or someone's cup while they watch terrible movies after dorm curfew, or even take a toke in the woods sometime as long as she isn't the one holding the joint for very long.  The school doesn't actually drug test or breathalyze  anybody, and she knows on the off chance anyone catches them her friends will all stick to a story that she wasn't partaking.   

Still.  For all of September, Alex is stone cold sober.  She's also living with a stranger.  And Piper starts getting tagged in photos with some guy from Overbrook Alex has never seen before, so also there's that.  

 


 

Sam Denton has apparently been on the basketball for his entire tenure at Overbrook, but he mostly rides the bench, so Piper isn't surprised Danny was never friends with him.  With the notable exception of Larry, Danny's friends were actual jocks, not the guys simply fulfilling the school's sports requirement.

Sam's cousin, Finn, is good enough to actually play, and was friendly enough with Danny to know Polly, but apparently not friendly enough to have any qualms about dating her now that Danny's graduated.  

Well, not dating.  Polly's very adamant that they're not dating - it makes Piper think about Larry, and his stupid theory about how seniors and freshmen never start relationships - but they're definitely making out a lot at Overbrook football games.  Which leaves Piper sitting with Sam. 

It isn't lost on her that he's yet another guy she's been de facto paired up with after Polly makes an actual choice.  But Piper doesn't mind that much; she barely knows any Overbrook guys on her own, and it feels a little late to start trying. 

And she likes Sam (just that, just likes him).  He's tall and lanky and messy haired, with a sweet, quiet smile.  The first time she met him, at a football game where Finn and Polly slowly boxed her out of their pre-kissing conversation, Piper realized he had headphones in.  Alex used to do that, listen to music during Piper's tennis matches or Poussey's volleyball games or the rare Overbrook basketball game they attended.  When Piper asked Sam what he was listening to, though, he grinned kind of sheepishly and told her it was some comedy podcast.  

She asked him about it, and he offered her one of the earbuds. Piper and Polly have hung out with Sam and Finn like six times now - three football games, two random Saturday afternoons on the Overbrook campus, and one bus trip to the mall - and they always end up listening to a podcast for at least an hour or so.  It gives them something to talk about, and it cuts into the time they have to find things to say.  

He kisses her the fifth time, in an Overbrook dorm basement.  They have a pool table instead of ping pong, but Piper and Sam both suck at it.  It's pretty nice, the kissing.  Afterwards, Piper makes sure to mention she isn't looking to start anything serious before graduating.  She believes the relief in Sam's expression when he immediately agrees. 

So it's good.  It's easy and low pressure and they've only made out like three times so far, it's no wonder that isn't enough to make her stop thinking about Alex every single time he touches her.  

 


 

October is usually Piper's favorite month at Litchfield, with the weather and the landscape making it the best time to be outside on campus, but this year the changing of the calendar just takes her closer to the due date of college applications.  She's started to have stress dreams about it, nightmares where everyone starts getting acceptance letters and Piper somehow forgot to even apply.

Tennis has started to feel like a burden, extra stress she doesn't want, but it's not like they're allowed to quit.  Piper's ranked fifth in singles - she could probably be higher, but she played shitty during the first round of ranking matches, and hasn't bothered to ask for a challenge.  

It's Thursday, and they've got an away match at one of the furthest schools in their conference.  They won't be back until late, so Piper leaves lunch early and settles into her first afternoon class with her laptop, working on one of her essays for Smith that, with a little tweaking, could also probably work for Middlebury.

The iMessage app pop up onscreen when Piper boots up on her laptop, reminding her that she has a text from Sam she still hasn't replied to.  It was a good morning text, for the second day in a row, and she isn't sure she wants to encourage the habit.  There's no need for it.  They're just hanging out.  

She thinks about texting him later about something unrelated.

She thinks about how Alex wasn't in third period, and she can't help but wonder why.

There's no reason that thought should follow the other.  Her brain can't stop chasing Sam's name with Alex's.  

She opens her essay and starts typing, focused enough that she's only dimly aware of other students moving into the classroom until her name rings above the noise, sharp and loud, "Piper."  

Nicky, Poussey and Janae are all approaching Piper's desk.  Nicky's leading, and her face is tense.  "Have you talked to Alex?"  

Piper's eyes go automatically to the iMessage window.  Sam's still on top.  "No.  She wasn't in drama."  Belatedly, she frowns, the strangeness catching up to her.  Nicky isn't in this class.  Neither is Janae.  And Nicky used her first name.  And she and Alex don't talk, so she isn't sure why they'd ask her.  "Why?  What is it?"  

The three of them exchange looks.  Everybody looks so serious.  Finally, Poussey speaks, her voice low so no one else can hear.  "Her mom died.  They pulled her out of second period, Red came and told us what's up at lunch." 

"What?"  Piper stares at her, stupidly thinking she misheard. Poussey's voice is serious but even keeled, and other girls are still talking around them, chairs squeaking against the tile floor; it's all too ordinary to be what Piper thought she heard.

"Red said it was an aneurysm," Janae tells her quietly.  "We all called Al but she isn't picking up - "

"Where is she?"  Piper cuts her off, shrill enough that a few people turn around.  Her heart feels stuck at the base of her throat, and her lunch slides sickeningly around her stomach when she thinks of Rogers' class earlier, a whole hour Alex wasn't there, when this was already happening to Alex and Piper didn't know.

"Fisher took her home." 

"But, but who's gonna be there?"  Her voice is all over the place, and Piper's muscles are shaking.  "If her mom isn't there who's gonna be there?"  

"Um, her aunt, I guess?  Red said she's the one who - "

"Her aunt?  Alex barely knows her, she hasn't seen her since she was like nine or something ..."  

The two minute warning bell rings, and Piper's friends look momentarily confused at the reminder of the ordinary school day.  Janae and Nicky look at each other.  "I guess we gotta go?" 

"Yeah, but listen, Chapman, after class, lemme know if you can get in touch - "

But Piper's on her feet, clumsily stuffing her laptop back into her bag.  "No, I gotta go, there's not gonna be anybody home for her..."  She has her car, her car is right in the parking lot.  "Can you guys sign out for me, they'll stop me if I try - "   

"Whoa, hey, Chapman, if you just wait a few hours they'll let you go."  

"It's already been hours."  All of drama class and lunch and who knows how much of second period since Alex has known, no one with her but Fisher and nobody waiting for her at home.  

Dimly, Piper is aware she needs to get out of here before the teachers comes in, so she slings her bag over her shoulder and hurries into the hallway.  

After a moment, Nicky and Janae emerge on her heels - Poussey obviously staying behind for class.  "Piper, what're we supposed to tell Red?"  

"Tell her I went with Alex.  Tell her I freaked out and left, I don't care."

"You're seriously just gonna drive to her house?" 

"Yes." 

"Well...call your folks, yeah?  You know Red'll call 'em for permission." 

"And text us when you see her.  We wanna know what's going on."  

Without answering, Piper outpaces them as the late bell rings.  She hears Nicky swear under her breath, and then two sets of footsteps hurry in the opposite direction, but Piper doesn't slow down until she gets to the dorm.  She doesn't even put down her keys, just grabs her wallet and purse and heads to the student parking lot.

Piper's been driving for fifteen minutes when it occurs to her to wonder whether Alex even wants to see her.  

The thought freaks her out enough that she pulls over to a gas station.  She takes out her cell phone and stares at Alex's name on the top of her contact list, feeling frightened of it.

On the phone, all she'll have is words.  She'll have to come up with something to say, and right now Piper can't think of anything big enough.  Besides that, she doesn't want to hear Alex cry and then have to wait over two hours to see her.  

And she really doesn't want Alex to tell her not to come.

 


 

Fisher's a really slow driver. 

Alex watches the speedometer for a good hour of the drive.  She never drifts more than a notch over the speed limit.  Even once they get on the freeway.  She has slightly better music taste than Alex would have guessed.  The radio's turned down low, playing hushed, crooning indie.  Alex's phone is off.  It was the only way to make her hands stop thinking they can grab it and text her mom about how she's dead.

Every few minutes, Alex closes her eyes and searches herself for grief.  Instead, she just keeps finding a quietly stirring panic that she isn't reacting right and maybe she never will.  Maybe this is what it means to say I can't do this and actually mean it. 

When they told her - it was Red and Coach Mendoza, Red must have figured she's the faculty member Alex is closest to because of soccer - there was this moment where Alex felt it all.  She had understood, fast and instant as an electrocution, that her life has just been halved and she is stuck on the bad side of the rip.  It screamed inside of her, what she has lost and the finality of the losing, turning noisy inside her bones and blood.

But then, just as quickly, it quieted down, muffled behind Red telling her that Fisher was going to take her home.  And then by Red assuring her they'd make arrangements for however long she needed to be home.  And then by Alex trying to figure out what to pack.  And now by Fisher's endless shuffle of Bon Iver and The Shins.

It's not that Alex wants that scream of a feeling back.  But it scares her that there's nothing there at all.  Maybe she is just going to refuse to move forward in this new reality, and that's how people go crazy.    

 


 


 

Text Message 2:05 pm 

POLLY
[Hey where are you???]
[You sick?]

3:15
[Are you coming to the match??]

PIPER
[Shit, sorry.  Forgot.]
[Can you tell Coach I had an emergency?  I had to leave.]

POLLY
[Leave like leave school???]
[Is everything ok?]

PIPER
[Alex's mom died.]

POLLY
[Omg.  Thats awful, I'm sorry.]
[What happened??]

PIPER
[I don't know everything yet.  Don't say anything to anyone ok?]

POLLY
[Of course not.]

PIPER
[I mean you can tell Coach I bet all the teachers know.]
[Sorry to leave you hanging for the game.]

POLLY
[Jesus don't apologize it doesn't matter.]
[Let me know what your plan is]
[I mean when you're heading back here]

PIPER
[Yeah I will]

 


 

When Piper pulls up at the trailer park, she sees Alex right away.  There's a wooden picnic table, halfway between her trailer and the one next door, in a shared yard type area of dead grass, and Alex is sitting on top of it with her feet on the bench.

It's not like Piper thought it would be.  Alex is squinting into the sun, so by the time Piper's out of the car Alex doesn't even look surprised to see her anymore.  She doesn't look like she's been crying or anything.  Just kind of out of it, like she's just walked into a room and forgotten what she needed from it.  

"Hi,"  Piper starts lamely, noticing, for some reason, that they're both still in their school uniforms.  

"Hey."  Alex stares at her for a long moment, and then she stands up.  "I'm glad you're here."  

Relief spills over warm in Piper's chest.  "You are?" 

"Yeah, I need a ride to the hospital.  I thought the car would be here, but I, um...I guess it's still at Friendly's.  I'll probably need a ride there, too, but I don't know about the keys." 

That silence again.  Alex is looking at her expectantly, and Piper just starts nodding.  "Yeah, sure, okay, I can take you wherever."

"Hospital first."  

"Is your - Nicky mentioned your aunt was the one who called the school?"  

"The hospital called her but she didn't go there.  I don't know if she's coming."

"Fisher just left you?"

"Took some convincing."  Alex walks around the side of Piper's car and gets in the passenger side.  

She's barely been out of the car a minute, but Piper climbs back in the driver's seat.  As soon as the key's in the ignition, Alex tells her to turn left out of the trailer park.   

It feels like they skipped an important step, missed the moment to acknowledge how huge and awful and crazy this is.  It feels too late for a hug or an I'm so sorry.  So they're just left with practicalities and the quiet of a car without music.   

They park and walk into the front entrance of the hospital, Piper trailing uselessly after Alex.  Alex pulls up short a few yards from the front desk.  She runs a hand through her hair, and Piper can see how tightly she's holding herself still.

Then she shakes it off, the effort physical, and strides up to the desk.  "Hi, I'm, um.  I'm here about Diane Vause.  I'm her daughter."

The cheerful woman smiles at her and says, "Sure, let me just get the room number..."  She starts typing, and Alex frowns, looking like she's not sure how to intervene.  The woman's smile falters a little.  "Oh-kay, let me see if I can page her doctor - "

Alex's tone sharpens.  "The hospital called my aunt, I already know what happened.  She said I needed to sign papers and get in touch with the funeral home or something."  

"Okay."  The woman's face has gone soft.  "Then let me call someone to help you with that."  

A few minutes later, a different woman approaches Alex and Piper at one of the empty sections of the waiting room.  Her nametag says "June" and she introduces herself as one of the hospital's social workers. She says Alex's name a lot.

"Alex, is there any other family we need to notify?  Anyone who can help you with arrangements?" 

"No, my aunt, she lives pretty far, I don't know when she'll even get here."

"What about your mom's friends?  The ones who came in with her?" 

"Who...who was it?  That came?" 

"Um..."  June consults the papers in front of her.  "That would be, Beth McGinnis and Tracy Garret."  

"They just work with Mom, I don't really...know them, much."  

"That's okay.  So, Alex.  Do you know if your mother had arrangements at any funeral ho - "

"No.  No. Definitely not." 

"Alright, then do you have a preference?" 

"I don't..."  Alex breathes out a heavy exhale, and her hand is in her hair again.  "That one across from the library, I guess, it, it looks like...just a normal brick house..." 

"Dayton & Sons," June provides easily.  "We can make those calls for you, Alex."  It's jarring, listening to the two of them talk.  The social worker's words come so soothing and automatic, and Alex sounds like she's having to construct each sentence out of jagged dissonant pieces.  

"She said - my aunt - it costs money?  To move her?"  

"Yes, but that's going to be the funeral home's fee...I will need someone to talk to our billing department, but if you want to take care of that when your aunt gets into town?"  

"Yeah, that'd be good," Alex mutters, and Piper sees the panic stirring behind her eyes. 

She's lied twice now: once about not knowing the women Diane came in with - Piper recognizes Beth's name, she's been Diane's best friend for years - and once about her aunt living far away.  Her family lives two hours from Alex's town, closer even Litchfield.  Piper feels her insides clench as she realizes Alex's aunt must have gotten the call, then called the school to let Alex know but didn't bother to show up and help her with all this. 

"Do I have to see her?  To identify or whatever?" 

"No.  You can see her if you'd like, but that's completely up to you, Alex." 

"No."  Alex says immediately.  

"Alright.  Then we'll call the funeral home and they'll take care of everything.  You'll need to call and make an appointment with them to come in and discuss further arrangements.  They might be able to see you today, or tomorrow if your aunt won't be back in time."  

"Okay." 

June is scrutinizing Alex now.  "Alex, do you know when your aunt is getting here?  Until she arrives, we can find somewhere for you to stay - "

"No," Alex says again, fast.  For the first time since the trailer, she looks at Piper.  "We go to boarding school...Litchfield Academy?  My aunt called there....she sent my dorm counselor to bring me home and wait with me until she gets here.  I just didn't want her to come in."  

June smiles, close lipped, managing to stay solemn but still pleased about this information.  "Okay, that's great.  We just need you to sign for your mom's belongings, and then we can get you out of here."

"Okay."  She looks at Piper again, kind of, her eyes skimming without settling.  "I'll be right back." 

"Okay." 

Piper watches Alex walk away with the social worker.  She thinks how good Alex is at lying, even when it's clearly hard for her to even talk.  And then she thinks that if one of her parents died, no one would ask her to think about money or paperwork or funeral arrangements.  

 


 

"We should go by the funeral home, see if we can just get it over with.  Just turn out of here and take a right at the first light." 

Piper doesn't say anything.  She just does as she's told.  It's weird that she's here, but it's probably too late for them to acknowledge that.  She can't help feeling like she did this all wrong, stumbled onstage and skipped lines that needed to be said from the start. 

Like I'm so sorry about your mom and I know we haven't talked lately but I was worried about you and I didn't want you to be alone is this okay?  All the true sentences she'd run through in her head on the frantic drive here, but as soon as Piper saw Alex none of them felt right.  

It's a relief to drive - it offers Piper a practical, active task, one that forces her to stop scrutinizing Alex. 

They have to wait twenty minutes for the funeral directors to see them.  They don't say a word in the tiny waiting area.  Alex is looking at a binder of funeral plans, and Piper keeps glancing over against her will and seeing caskets.  She checks her phone.  If she was back at school, her tennis match would still be going on.  It seems like more time should have passed.  But it also seems like more should have happened.  

A text pops up from Poussey.

POUSSEY
[Hey Red says your parents have to call if you're staying off campus tonight]

PIPER
[Was she mad?]

POUSSEY
[Not really it was weird.]
[How's Al?]

PIPER
[Weird.]

POUSSEY
[Meaning what]

PIPER
[I don't know.  She's not even really reacting to anything.]
[Just getting stuff done.  We're at the fucking funeral home.]
[I feel really weird like I don't even know what I should be saying or if she wants me here.]

POUSSEY
[She's probably in a weird kind of shock.]
[It's good you're there.]
[Let us know when the funeral is okay?  I think we're gonna come tomorrow after class.]
[Figure it'll be this weekend right?]

"Hey." 

Piper instinctively darkens her screen at Alex's voice, but she isn't looking at her phone.   She nods toward the doorway, where one of the funeral directors is standing.  "Are you coming or...?"  

"Do you want me to?" 

"Sure," Alex says, but there isn't much wanting in the word.

 


 

 

Piper immediately hates the middle age Dayton brothers who run the funeral home.  It's so fake, the way they talk to Alex, saying they're sorry and calling this a tragedy.

Maybe she's just pissed because it's more than she's been able to say all afternoon.

But then they sit down, and there  are all these questions that Piper can tell are meant to determine how much money Alex has to spend.  When one of them asks if Alex has any other family who can help, it feels like he's only asking to make sure she can pay, not because Alex is seventeen fucking years old and shouldn't have to do this by herself.

Piper can tell Alex is starting to get stressed, trying to figure out what the cheapest options are: cremation, a basic service in the funeral home, no visitation, no obituary.  She's hedging on flowers, and Piper finally nudges her elbow and says, "Al, you should your aunt about this..."  

"She's not gonna pay for anything," Alex bites out, annoyed. The brothers look at each other and start pitching their best deals, reassuring her about payment plans versus upfront costs, and maybe they're just trying to help but Piper hates them for not taking one look at Alex and telling her to not even worry about it.

It feels rude, but no one's paying her much attention anyway so Piper takes out her phone to text Nicky.

PIPER
[You have a credit card right?]

NICKY
[Yeah why?]

PIPER
[I think we should help pay for the funeral.]
[Alex's aunt isn't going to at all.]
[I promise i'll split it but I only have a debit card and I need to talk to my parents.]

NICKY
[No problem.]

PIPER
[Really?]
[Thank you thank you thank you]

NICKY
[Don't thank me dumbass Vause is my friend too]
[And my dad pays my credit card bill.  He's yelled at me for way dumber purchases.]
[Should I call the place or can I just go by when we get there tomorrow]

PIPER
[Tomorrow should be fine.  But have you asked Alex about coming here?]

NICKY
[She hasn't answered anyone's texts.]
[Just text us all later and let us know what's happening.]

"Piper."  Startled, she looks up to find Alex staring at her.  She raises her eyebrows at the phone.  "Seriously?"  

Her face heating up, Piper guiltily drops her phone into her purse.  "Sorry, my parents...I'm getting them to call the school and stuff about me being off campus."

"Oh, right."  Alex frowns a little, looking like it's just occurring to her that Piper must have left school.  Or like she's just remembering that school exists.

She shakes her head slightly, then turns back to the funeral directors.  "So are we good?"

"Yes.  We just need to get started with these initial costs..." 

"Al,"  Piper says in an undertone, glancing at the total on the bill Dayton handed Alex. "I can cover that with my debit card if you - "

"No." 

"Just until you have a chance to figure out, like...your mom's bank account - "

"I've got it." 

"Alex, come on, you know my dad will just put money back in - " 

"Fucking good for you, Piper, but I worked two jobs all summer and I've got this," Alex snaps, her eyes flaring with anger that, for the first time all day, seems to remember she doesn't officially like Piper much anymore.

"Okay," Piper agrees quietly, shrinking back on the floral couch.  Fuck, they're going to have to figure out a way to pay for this thing without Alex knowing.  Maybe they can say the money's from her aunt. 

All traces of Alex's irritation are gone by the time they're in the car heading home.  She's gone all quiet and blank again.  It's dark out, now, and Piper realizes she doesn't need directions back to Alex's house.

"Do you want dinner or anything?"  Alex asks suddenly, breaking a ten minute silence.  

"Not really."  

"Yeah.  Me either, I guess."  

Piper glances at her, trying to read anything in her expression.  "Is it...I don't know, is it okay if I stay?  Do you want me to go?"  

"No, you're fine."  She doesn't hesitate, but she doesn't say it like it matters much.  

"Um, Nicky and everybody want to come tomorrow after class and stay for the funeral...I can tell them they need to stay at Poussey's place and drive in - "

"Whatever, just warn them they might have to sleep on the floor."

"Sure."  Piper nods, feeling silly for thinking Alex would care about their friends seeing the trailer given everything else.

They ride in silence for a few more minutes, and then Alex suddenly hisses, "Shit."  

Piper whips around to look at her, wondering if it's finally all hitting her, but Alex just exhales and says, "We need to get the car, at Friendly's.  Can you drop me off?"  

"Do you have the keys?"  

"Yeah, they were the stuff the hospital gave me."  

"Yeah, okay.  Are we close, or...?" 

"You're gonna need to turn around when you can.  Sorry, I just remembered it..."

"Alex, c'mon.  Don't apologize."  

Soon, Piper pulls into the Friendly's parking lot, crowded with the dinner rush, and idles behind Diane's car.  Alex is staring intently at the restaurant, and Piper just keeps her foot on the brake and waits.  Diane must have been at work when she died.  Piper's stomach feels small and tight thinking about it.

"Fuck."  Alex swears, barely a breath.

"Al?" 

"Sorry."  

Piper reaches over, kind of awkwardly grazing Alex's forearm with her fingers, feeling like she's never touched her before.  Alex flinches, only a little, like she just wasn't expecting it, but Piper snatches her hand back like she's done something wrong.

Her throat narrows, eyes suddenly stinging.  Piper grits her teeth and stares straight ahead without blinking.  For some reason, it feels wrong to cry before Alex does.  Like it would ruin her ability to comfort.

But Piper can't help thinking she would be better at this if they were still together.  She'd know what to say, and she'd understand what Alex needed from her.  They haven't really talked in months, and that must means she knows Alex a little bit less. 

Maybe that little bit makes the difference.

The door opens, and Piper looks back to see Alex getting out.  "Follow me back to the house?"  

Piper nods at the closing door.

Guiltily, Piper feels the slightest tinge of relief when Alex is out of her sight.  It makes her realize she's been waiting all day for Alex to lose it, and scared she won't know what to do when it happens. 

Before Piper follows Alex out of the lot, she reaches for her cell phone and realizes Alex has left hers in the seat.  She hesitates before reaching for it; the whole lock screen is covered in missed calls.  Two or three each from Nicky, Janae and Poussey, and even one from Litchfield's Main office.  There are also several from Beth and Tracey, Diane's friends.  

None from Alex's aunt.  Piper knows her passcode, though, and she quickly opens the phone up and scrolls to Alex's contacts, copying the aunts number into her own phone.

Then she puts Alex's phone down and calls her parents, putting them on speaker as she follows the tail lights of Diane's car.  

 


 

Alex gets out of her mom's car as Piper pulls in beside her but doesn't get out right away.  She turns the car off and then lifts her phone to her ear, shooting Alex an apologetic look through the windshield.  Alex leans against her mom's car to wait.  She only went inside early to make Fisher leave, then just kind of dropped her bag in the doorway and went outside.  She'd been sitting on the picnic table for almost three hours, just waiting for sadness to show up, until Piper appeared instead.

Somehow, that got her moving.

Piper gets out of the car.  "Sorry, was talking to my dad...here."  She hands Alex her own phone.  "You left that in the car."  

"Thanks."  Alex takes it without looking at it.  She doesn't even really know what time it is.  

For too long, they just stand kind of awkwardly in the yard.  Alex gets the sense if she went and laid down on the gravel driveway right now, Piper would loyally lay down beside her.  

Instead, she asks,  "You cool to just watch TV and drink a bunch of wine?"  

Of course, Piper answers with an immediate, "Sure."  

 


 

They're half lying on the bed with Alex's laptop in front of them, playing endless episodes of Friends.  They're into the second bottle of wine from the kitchen, and Alex knows Piper hasn't had that much of it.  It's been awhile since she drank, period, and Alex hasn't eaten much today, so her head already feels heavy, like the wine is sloshing around inside it, washing up half drowned thoughts.

It's that episode where Rachel and Chandler are sort of stealing cheesecake, Alex likes this one, but she's starting to feel like she might throw up.  She swallows and thinks about asking for water, but instead she starts saying stuff out loud.  

"Pipes?" 

Piper actually jumps a little.  Alex sees it but doesn't feel it because they're not touching, she suspects Piper's been careful about that.

"Yeah?"  

"I think something's wrong with me." 

Piper straightens immediately, looking down at her with concern.  "You feel sick?"

She does but it isn't what she meant.  "No, like really wrong."  She focuses hard and makes eye contact with Piper.  "I don't feel it."  

"That's okay."  Piper's face shifts, getting soft and sad.  "You will." 

Alex shuffles closer to her, so their shoulders are touching.  She can't believe Piper's here, that she just left class and drove two and a half hours. 

"Tell me what happened."  

Piper gives her a confused look.  "What?" 

"Why we're here.  My mom."  Maybe if she hears it from Piper she'll believe it, because Piper is the only thing today that's felt real.  

Alex's mom was texting her this morning, between breakfast and first period, so Alex could not believe in a cliche fucking funeral home asking her to choose a vase to put her ashes in, or a social worker at the hospital treating Alex like an orphan who needed to secure a guardian.  It was all too absurd.

But she could recognize the pissed off look Piper got when the funeral home guys started sounding too much like salesmen, like there was a whole angry rant screaming itself hoarse inside her head, or this moment in the hospital when Piper so clearly wanted to hold her hand but didn't know if she was allowed.

No matter what nightmare they're thrown into, Piper stays familiar.  That pissed off Piper expression is a constellation, helping Alex find her bearings when she's lost miles and miles outside of what her life is supposed to look like.

Right now her expression is big eyed and worried, this look she gets when she's willing to say anything that might fix a shitty moment but isn't sure what that might be.

Maybe it's stupid, trying to nudge Piper into saying the words Your mom's dead like it will sink it deeper coming from her than from Red or Fisher or June the hospital social worker.  It makes a tipsy sort of sense, though; Alex can never help but take anything Piper says to heart.  Piper's words have always been the most important.  

"Tell me she's gone," Alex clarifies in a small voice.  

Piper's eyes are overbright, and for only the second time all day she touches Alex of her own accord, first on the wrist, pointlessly, before she lifts her fingers to gently grace the curve of Alex's cheek, the place where tears should be.

"I'm really, really sorry, Alex."  

Alex isn't sure if she's apologizing because her mom is dead or because she doesn't want to say it.  She sighs, giving up, and lets her head rest on Piper's shoulder.  "You still mad at me?"  

It's a childish, unfair move, and Piper knows it, huffing out a breath of laughter before replying, "You know I'm not."  

Alex's lips twitch with the slightest inclination toward a smile.  Piper still knows her, too.  Even after everything.  Piper still came here.  Even after everything.

"This is really bad," Alex slurs out after a little more quiet.

"I know."  Piper's voice is quivery, like she might be crying.  Alex doesn't look up at her to see.  She doesn't want to be jealous of that.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do."  

"That's okay," Piper says, even quieter now, not confident enough in the response to put much weight behind it.

Alex closes her eyes for a second, liking this position because she can smell Piper's shampoo more than the bedsheets, which smell like her mom because they always do, because her mom sleeps here when Alex is at school which is most of the time, she's spent the past three years living someplace else, that's something to feel shitty about later when she starts to understand those are the last three years she'll have with her mom, ever. 

Knowing comes before understanding, and clearly understanding is the one directly tied to feeling.  If this is denial that's a shitty name for it, because there wasn't even a second where she didn't believe what Red was telling her. 

Her mom is dead, and that is a permanent thing, but Alex can't seem to absorb the enormity of it.  The closest she can come is recalling that singular moment in Red's office, whispering a reminder of the loss waiting to ravage her.  She worries the longer it waits, the angrier it's getting.    She's not trying to hide from it; her mom deserves her to be feeling more than this.

 

Except instead she is drunk and playing pretend with Piper, acting like it's six months ago and things are good between them.  Piper might be achingly familiar, but her being here, devoid of all anger or guilt, should feel as surreal as a funeral home.

 

 


 

Alex kills at least a bottle and a half of wine and falls asleep half on Piper's shoulder, but Piper stays up late doing research on her phone.  She starts out googling how to help someone who's grieving, and there are some generic lists that mostly give the same tips, but soon she finds herself down a rabbit hole of really personal blogs, mostly by young widows, detailing the aftermath of tragedy.   

Inevitably, there is a post about the do's and don'ts of how to approach people going through a loss.  After the first few reads, Piper stops paying attention to the don'ts.  She would never tell Alex this happened for a reason, or that Diane is in a better place.  

It's the lists about things that were helpful that Piper obsessively scans, secretly hoping she might stumble upon a magic trick, a singular task or sentiment getting raves for how much pain it lessened.  

Of course there's nothing like that.  Piper copies certain bits onto her phone, anyway, wanting to be prepared.  She really thought today would be the worst part, everything raw and fresh, but all it's done is settle heavy dread in Piper's gut for everything that comes next. 

Alex had sounded so scared, saying there's something wrong with her for how she's reacting, but Piper can't help wishing she could just grab Alex's hand and hold her still, right where she is, before it gets any worse.  She's never wanted to protect someone so badly; it makes Piper feel much older than she is.