The bed had been pushed all the way against the far wall, with one of its sides directly underneath the window frame - that was the only way it fit inside the tiny room. She didn't mind; it allowed her to have a bookcase between the foot of the bed and the wall, loaded with books up to the ceiling. Those that she had read several times -which were like an old, cozy sweater-, she had stacked on the lower half of the bookcase, so that she was able to reach for them just by sitting up. The bed's location also allowed her to be gradually awakened by natural light every morning - a nice, warm sensation she had learned to appreciate.
Running a lazy finger down the dusty Venetian blinds, the brunette squinted at the rectangular patches of yellow sunlight which were filtering into the room. She'd had a dreamless sleep, a deep sleep and, only when she glanced down at her own nakedness, did she recall that there had been a girl there with her that night. Yes, Alex vaguely remembered telling her to see herself out, since Cherry didn't approve of her bringing her conquests home - not when "home" was the backroom of their common workplace. But hey, if the girl had discreetly left before being caught and without stealing anything, then Alex could definitely consider it an excellent night.
She showered quickly, jumped into a pair of jeans, a black t-shirt, and her favorite boots, and poked her head out the door which connected her place to the storage room. Then, she grabbed the little cart full of books and pushed it through a second door, which led to the proper store. Everything looked in order, she concluded, so the girl -whose face Alex couldn't even remember- had actually behaved herself.
Cherry arrived when Alex was reaching into the cart and pulling out the last handful of books. She examined their spines and arranged them gingerly on the shelf in front of her, ignoring her partner's early morning drabble, which undoubtedly had to do with the shitty traffic or the shitty cold - something or other was definitely shitty.
Returning the empty cart to the storage room, Alex glanced around the place with considerable pride, slapping her hands on the back of her calves to get rid of the traces of dust from the shelves (she would have to organize a cleaning session soon). The store was organized, without renouncing to that apparently messy, quaint quality which made secluded bookshops attractive, since it looked like one could revisit childhood friends or find a hidden treasure buried amongst other books in the stacks. There was also a small sitting area at the far end, where Cherry managed a tiny café. Alex had learned to value stillness as a way of securing a space that could be her own. After years of having no privacy whatsoever and no property to speak of, of being told what to do, when, and how to do it every waking moment of every single day, having that little, inconspicuous bookshop was very reassuring. Besides, the place contained most of the things which the brunette loved best.
"Hey, Alex," Cherry called out, in an unnecessarily loud voice from her corner behind the bar. "Shouldn't we be open already?"
The brunette turned her head towards the clock in the wall, the one with Tenniel's classic illustration from 'Alice in Wonderland', the White Rabbit checking its pocket watch. "Oh my God, you're right! Those poor people, shivering outside in the cold! Hundreds of them just dying to get in!"
"Screw you, it's Christmas."
"Right… Wait, is that supposed to make a big difference?" Alex cried over her shoulder, while twisting the door lock and flipping the "SORRY, WE'RE CLOSED" sign to the "YES, WE'RE OPEN" side.
"Oh, you'll see, you skeptical bitch!"
"Fuck you and your Christmas spirit bullshit," she barked out a laugh, swinging the door open and carrying their blackboard sign under her arm.
It was a busy morning, with intermittent crowds of people wading through the snow, trying to get to their jobs or perhaps just shopping for presents. Planting the sign securely on the sidewalk, Alex stretched her arms and squinted at the sun, reveling in its pleasurable warmth, although it only seemed to be successful at heating her face. It reminded her of those freezing mornings at Litchfield -Christmas in general did-, with the yard covered in snow and the monochrome-uniformed inmates jumping up and down and exhaling on their fingers.
When the cold started hurting her naked arms, she turned around to go back inside. More coffee, less memory flashes, she instructed herself, as if there was anything she could do to stop those. She reached out for the door handle, suddenly realizing that there was another hand on it already. Pulling away quickly, Alex glared at the person whose gloved hand she had touched, grumpily wondering what now, who was presently interfering with her caffeine needs?
There was a blonde woman in front of her, wearing a purple ski jacket, a white, wool hat, and a shocked look. Instinctively, Alex opened her mouth, but had no intention or capacity of saying anything, so she forgot to close it. Seeing that face again made her freeze worse than the wintery climate; during what felt like an eternity, she didn't even blink, with her pupils nailed to the blonde's eyes. After everything that had happened, she had successfully buried every urge of seeing that woman ever again - there had been no hope, since her hope had already died; she had let the earth swallow her again, and bygones were bygones, right? In the end, time was the longest distance, and it had done a fine job of making the woman seem unreal all over again for the second time in her life. And yet, somehow, here she was, in the flesh, not at all vaporous or ghostly but irritatingly full-fledged, and flushed, and living.
However, for God knew how many seconds -or even minutes-, Alex did not see her how she was now, but as the last time they had ever laid eyes on each other, years before - an image that still made her shiver.
With no one to reprimand her for it, she ran downstairs towards the chapel, bumping against a growing crowd of inmates. She asked what was going on, but there were guards pushing everyone out, commanding them to go to their blocks, saying that the show was over. However, profiting from the commotion, Alex squeezed her way past the small auditorium, sliding along the corridor's wall. She was trying to get to a smaller group of inmates who were huddled before one of the exits to the yard, where she had spotted a familiar shade of copper hair.
Nichols turned to look at her with her eyebrows raised and her mouth half open, which instantly made Alex frown, for she considered Nichols a very hard woman to surprise. She then glanced at Morello, dressed as the Virgin Mary and equally serious, but she offered no explanation either.
"What is it?" Alex noticed her voice getting higher, as her concern increased. She had no idea as to why, but she was feeling a pang in her stomach, like a bad premonition.
"She did it, man. She fucking did it," someone said, sounding excited.
Unable to locate the voice, the brunette grabbed Nichols by the jumper and forced her to face her. "Tell me."
"It's Piper." There was a pause. "She… They're saying that she either killed that fucking meth head or that they killed each other."
Her blood froze in her veins. It had been more than worry; she had somehow sensed that it had to do with Piper, but now she couldn't believe her ears. She let go of Nichols and shoved her way towards the door, ignoring the other women's protests - she couldn't even see them. Alex tried to push the door open, but the guards had locked it from the outside. Placing her hands flat on the hazy glass, Alex distinguished two bodies on the ground: one blonde, wearing the standard prison uniform and brown jacket, and the other dressed in white. The latter was almost undistinguishable from the snow, if not for a mop of long, dark hair and… red.
There were bright-red stains splattered around the bodies as well, which Alex spotted between the gaps of the surrounding guards' legs, and that was what almost made her lose her mind. She slammed her shoulder against the door once, twice, unsuccessfully trying to open it. The banging did manage to make the people outside turn around, apparently jerking them into action. Two of them pulled Piper to her feet in a rough manner -which at least meant that she was alive- and started taking her away, her knuckles and fingers dripping blood, leaving a trail on the snow. The blonde opposed no resistance, but did stop one moment to glance in her direction, acknowledging her, although Alex detected no sign of recognition. Her eyes looked dead, congealed. Her entire expression was terrible, animalistic, with her face half shadowed by strands of matted hair and her lips pressed tightly, shaping her mouth into a straight line.
Snapping out of it and seeing Piper as she was now -fancy, in an informal kind of way, fresh, like she had just stepped out of a winter sports catalog-, Alex chastised herself for letting the past shock imbue the present. The blonde was looking at her uneasily, perhaps because if there was something that surely neither of them expected was to run into each other like this - not ever, in Alex's case, but definitely not like this. Come on, if anyone could simulate indifference… At the very least, she needed to hide that stupid weakness of hers under a lot of ready-to-be-used layers of attitude.
"Piper," she said, countering the blonde's incredulous tone with a more secure one, which gave her the upper hand for the moment, even after that long, stunned silence. "Where you going in?"
"Y-yeah. Yes, I was. Is it okay?"
Alex managed to fabricate a tight grin and gestured for her to enter the shop, holding the door open for her. One thing that she had always loathed about running into an ex-girlfriend was the fake politeness for the sake of normalcy, for the sake of peace -the single kiss on the cheek, the detached smiles, and the safe inquiries about the other person's wellbeing or their job- , when there was nothing normal about that. She didn't believe in that kind of posturing - not complaining about something that hurt just wasn't natural, and yet here she was, feigning civility, when their situation was much more intricate, much more fucked up, than a mere encounter between exes. This was the present playing dress-up with the past, the arrows going counter-clockwise, the merry-go-round becoming unhinged.
Walking straight to the tiny café, the brunette distanced herself from Piper and left her hovering near the entrance. Alex realized that she desperately needed a beer -or fifty- and one or two rounds of shots, but coffee would have to do - coffee as black as the mouth of hell, even if it wrecked her nerves, for she needed something strong.
"Of all the gin joints in all the world…" she muttered to herself, pouring half the pot into her mug.
"I know, right?" The blonde was suddenly directly behind her, with her hands bunched together like a well-behaved schoolgirl.
The shock of having her so close merely added another layer of unreality to the whole thing. Already in the Twilight Zone, Alex could only raise her mug and ask her dryly if she wanted a cup of coffee, which Piper accepted, instead of getting the hell out of there.
Just then, Cherry exited the storage room, stopping in her tracks as soon as she saw the blonde woman sitting at one of the little tables. "Morning. I'll be with you in a moment."
"I got this," Alex said, with a firm voice, surely piquing her partner's curiosity, since she never used to make coffee for anyone but herself.
Twirling her reddish hair between her fingers, Cherry peered at them from a respectable distance, yet making no effort to hide what she was doing.
The fact that Alex remembered exactly how Piper used to like her morning coffee only irked her more. If the blonde had changed in that respect, she said nothing - just nodded her thanks and took a sip of the hot liquid. She should've suggested that Piper should leave -it was too late now-, and the only reason why she hadn't was because she was too fucking dumbfounded to react properly. Consequently, she was presently slumped at one of the little tables, with Piper sitting in front of her, both having their coffee and acting very civilized - like there was nothing cosmically wrong about it.
"It looks like you're doing very well," Piper said, wrapping her hands around the cup.
"I guess I am."
"This place…" The blonde glanced around, pointed at several of the decorative posters -which had incidentally been chosen by Alex-, and smiled. "I pass it every day and I always mean to come in, but I'm always in a hurry."
The blonde shook her head slowly. "Do you just work here or is it yours?"
"Mine. Well, half of it is. The other half is Cherry's." Alex jerked her head towards their red-haired spy, who took it as her cue to approach them. She was evidently tired of being a mere spectator of a boring ping-pong match. "Cherry, this is Piper."
"Yeah?" the redhead shook her hand, but suddenly froze, wide-eyed, because of course she knew who Piper was. Alex had told her about her heroin-importing, plane-hopping days with a certain blonde hottie, and she knew that they had ended up in the same prison, and that they had briefly resuscitated their romance there. Alex had been purposefully vague and cool about the details, but it wasn't like Cherry wasn't smart enough to fill in the blanks and perceive that there was a lot of messy, unresolved drama between them.
"Oh shit," Cherry blurted out, forgetting to let go of Piper's hand. "Holy shit."
Alex detached her attention from the other two and concentrated on staring at the table, for her surgical, analytical mind required a break. Among other things, her darting eyes had already informed her that the blonde's fingers were ringless, and thinking about those fingers reminded her of the image of her blood-soaked hands, and she just couldn't handle it all at once.
"You know, I've actually seen you once before," Piper was saying.
"In prison," Piper grinned, glanced at the brunette. "During visiting hours. I remember you sitting with Alex. I think you actually looked at me."
"Yeah? Can you believe this fucker never told me who you were?" Cherry stepped closer to Alex and unceremoniously punched her on the arm. "So secretive."
"Shut the fuck up, Cherry," Alex breathed out.
The redhead shrugged and promptly walked off to a different part of the store. The bell that was hanging above the doorway had rang a couple of times, and there were now three potential customers roaming the stacks, so Cherry started offering them her help - essentially doing Alex's job without complaining.
"She's nice," said the blonde, and Alex nodded, told her that she was. However, "nice" didn't quite cut it. An addict herself, Cherry had been there for her during Alex's addiction, trying to make her quit, helping her during the process, and later sending box after box of books to Litchfield. She had been the friend that Alex had always needed in elementary school, the shoulder to cry on when the two most important people in her life had vanished, and the person responsible for her newfound appreciation for some degree of permanence.
"Is she…? I mean, are you…?"
"Jesus Christ!" Alex spat out, earning the attention of everyone in the bookstore. But she couldn't care less, for Piper's questions had shot that weird, lukewarm courteousness of hers in the face, thereby igniting a ball of anger that she had kept silent and tight like a closed fist for a very long time. Anger she understood; anger she could justify. There were things that she hadn't said, things she would never say, however, if she hadn't known how to act before, now it became exceedingly clear. "Piper, there are so many issues with what you've just asked me that my head's gonna fucking explode."
"You're right. Of course you're right. I don't know what… I'm so sorry. Forget it," the blonde babbled hurriedly, holding up her hands.
"No, hey, you know what? Let's do this. First, what do you care? Second, she's a friend, a good friend. You know, the kind that doesn't use you and -this is very important- doesn't bail on you."
"And third, she's fucking straight. Okay? But, I mean, really straight?" She would've preferred to provide zero information about Cherry, and let the blonde imagine -provided that she gave a shit-, but having the chance to say those things was just too valuable.
"Come on, Alex, I never claimed to be straight. You do know that there are other… other possibilities, right? Anyway, that's not important. And that other stuff… Look, I didn't mean to disturb you, I'll just go."
Piper stood up, looking seriously upset, which was good, although it didn't make Alex feel good. She had probably let things escalate a bit too much, consequently showing that she still cared, but hey, no amount of absurd posturing could be better than an injection of truth. The blonde reached into her pocket, and Alex shook her head vehemently, refusing to let her pay for her cup of coffee.
"Take it," Piper said, pointing at the money she had dropped on the table. Then, she smiled somewhat sadly. "Just remember what happened the first time you bought me a drink."
Was that a warning? An avalanche of memories started tumbling down; that casual meeting many years ago had set it all in motion, their entire relationship and its later revival. No wonder the blonde was cautious about repeating parts of their history, although Alex was sure that it had been more of a theatrical move than a superstition.
They would have never crossed ways. Never. Their universes would have never touched in a million years, and their lives would have followed their respective courses independently, like two parallel lines never crossing each other. However, their chance meeting on a random cold night in a certain bar had made the universe tilt slightly, and what was imperceptible for others had been life-altering for them. Were they going to keep running into each other, again and again, on pointed moments for the rest of their lives?
And who the hell knew what would've become of them if they hadn't met? She wouldn't have landed in prison because she would have never lost control over her own life - that much was clear, Alex mused. No, she wouldn't have found refuge in heroin, which transformed her into something she'd never been -careless and dim-, which in turn made her an easy target. Who knew how that decade of her life would have developed? And who cared? Theorizing about a world which had never come to pass was just useless. The answer was just as unknown as Piper's hypothetical outcomes, although the blonde had been fucked up before meeting her, and would've been fucked up without her, as she was surely fucked up now too, well after her.
She guessed that she had only known fragments of her, perhaps a couple of pieces at a time and not more. To be fair, she had to admit that the blonde wasn't the only one who had dark corners, twists and turns, but Piper was volatile -she just was- and, after having been left to wallow in the weakest possible of positions, Alex's personal safety needed to come first.
With that, Piper moved towards the exit, but then stopped, turned around, and retraced her steps.
"You know, you look exactly the same," she said, with a gentle, Mona Lisa-like smile.
For the first time that morning, Alex dared to fix her eyes on Piper, really lingered on her features and on everything she could see. Her hair was back to being on the longer side, drooping both before and behind her shoulders; her clear eyes were warm and seemed rested. In prison she had been mostly on edge, as if composed of sharper lines, and had dark shadows under her eyes, which was understandable. She was softer now, fuller, and shiny, instead of shadowy.
Piper didn't look the same; she looked better.