Piper Chapman is nine years old when she first sees Alex Vause.

She's new to their school, and Mrs. Patterson makes her do that horrible thing where she stands in front of the class and introduces herself. Jessica Wedge and her three best friends are giggling quietly in an unmistakable laughing at her sort of way, and they're not even trying very hard to hide it. Piper's glad she's never had to be the new kid. Being the "always just kinda been here" kid is hard enough.

Alex Vause looks relieved when she finally gets to take the classroom's only empty desk, which is unfortunately right in front of Jessica and her friends. As she pulls off her puffy blue jacket, Piper can pretty much guess what they're laughing about. The new girl's clothes are kind of old and, while not exactly dirty, kind of dingy and moth eaten. They're oddly mismatched, too, not only in style but in size: the girl's jeans are too big, while her sweater is too small - the sleeves stop several inches above her wrists. And she smells faintly like the church thrift store Piper sometimes goes with her mother to drop off clothes she's outgrown.

Jessica's obviously noticed that, too, because she presses the balls of her feet against the back of Alex's chair to push her desk forward several inches. Alex turns around, startled by the movement, to see Jessica pinching the bridge of her nose between two fingers, waving her free hand back in forth in front of it. "Pewww," she hisses, loud enough for at least two rows of desks to hear.

It's completely over the top. Thrift stores don't smell bad. Just kind of old and dusty.

Piper looks over at her friend Sarah, in the desk beside her, but Sarah's watching the whole exchange with interest. Piper sighs and faces front again. Sarah gets way too excited any time Jessica finds someone to pick on, as if the more people below them on Jessica's list, the better.

Piper actually used to be friends with Jessica, and Holly and Madison and Amy...their moms all know each other, and they volunteer at the school together. But in third grade when they started having real math homework, Jessica would constantly ask Piper if she could copy hers. Piper always said no, so now Jessica barely talks to her except to call her Reader Dweeb or Goody Two Shoes.

Piper at nine is a rule follower. She gets 100s on all her spelling and Accelerated Reader tests, and she always remembers her homework. Piper at nine is quiet and unassuming, happy with one or two good friends...even when her friends seem to have higher aspirations. Piper at nine does not like to shake things up.

So when she sees the new girl sitting alone at the corner of a table at lunch, she doesn't invite her over, even though she kind of wants to. Jessica Wedge will bully no matter what; Piper would rather not attract her attention, not place herself right next to Jessica's target.

After school, Piper and Sarah are waiting for the bus, and Alex Vause is walking toward the same stop, when suddenly Jessica yells out, "Hey, Pigsty!"

Understandably, Alex doesn't turn for this name, but almost everyone else does, so there's a crowd watching when Jessica skips over to Alex and thrusts a bulky black garbage bag under her nose. "Can you take this home with you?" Alex looks at her blankly, and Jessica adds, "You do live at a garbage dump, right?"

The laughter starts with Jessica but scatters quickly and unpleasantly through the crowd. Piper can hear Sarah joining in beside her. She watches Alex Vause drop the garbage bag like she's been burned. It sags open and spills its contents on the concrete, and Alex's eyes have barely widened in panic before Jessica raises her voice, barely containing her delight at this unexpected twist to her plan. "Mr. Reilly, this girl just threw a bunch of garbage!"

The PE teacher on bus duty jogs over to them, and Piper's chest tightens in sympathy as he glares sternly down at Alex and the mess at her feet. She could walk over, tell Mr. Reilly what happened, but before she can decide the bus' door slides open, and another teacher on duty ushers them inside.

Everyone has taken their seats, the doors have closed, and the bus has pulled into the line of other buses, idling as it waits its turn to pull out of the parking lot, when there's a knock on the closed door. It squeaks open, and up font, Mr. Reilly says something to the bus driver, and a few seconds later Alex steps onto the bus, shuffling down the aisle, eyes darting wildly for any open seat.

"Nice going, Pigsty," Sarah whispers when she passes, and Piper wants to tell her that none of Jessica's friends are even here to hear her right now, but she doesn't say anything.

A few moments after Alex passes, Piper twists around in her seat. Alex is sitting alone, two seats back and across the aisle, and she's hugging her backpack to her chest. Her eyes look huge and bright behind her glasses, and she's blinking a lot, her top teeth dug stubbornly into her trembling lower lip. She looks almost unbearably sad and lonely, and there's a seat right beside her, but Piper doesn't go talk to her.

Piper at nine is kind of a coward.

For the next few months of fourth grade, the status quo stays that way.

Alex Vause remains Jessica's favorite target, and it's hard to deny that, with her around, Piper gets a few less "Reader Dweebs" and "Goody Goodys." It's kind of gross watching Sarah or even Alison Barnes try to join in on it - Sarah's the one who delightfully reports to Jessica that Alex's mom was her waitress at Friendly's one night - but Piper knows enough to take what she can get.

But Piper always watches.

Alex doesn't just clam up and slink away. She talks back. Even though her efforts are always in vain and often just make things worse (my mom has like four jobs), she still argues. And after that first day, she never once looks close to crying.

Alex at nine is all prickly defenses and a child's version of righteous anger. She develops a constantly bored exterior, a habit of rolling her eyes as though Jessica is only bothering her in that she's such a waste of time. It's almost definitely an act, because Alex at nine is all self-preservation, but Piper can't help but admire it. Alex at nine is brave.

And Alex is the one to talk to her, in the end.

Piper's too rattled to go through with Sarah's "sneak into the R rated movie" plan, and Sarah sighs and says Piper was was just looking for an excuse...as if the most important thing about seeing her dad with a woman who is decidedly not her mom was that now Piper didn't have to break a rule. Sarah goes to the movie anyway.

Piper sits on a bench outside, her knees pulled up to her chest, feeling upset and scared and too young to know how to handle this.

"Hey, you. Piper."

She looks up to see Alex Vause walking toward her, wearing the same clothes she wore to school yesterday. She's eating an ice cream cone from Ben and Jerry's, even though it's almost winter. "You're in my class."

"Um. Yeah. Hi."

"What are you doing here?"

"I was, um, going to the movies." For some reason, an instinctual need to impress Alex rears its head. "We got tickets for an R-rated movie. To sneak in."

Alex doesn't ask who we is. Alex just laughs at her. "Bullshit." Piper starts a little at the ease of the curse word rolling over Alex's lips. "You're going to sneak into an R-rated movie?"

Piper can't think of what to say to this; she's too surprised Alex knows anything about her.

"When's the movie?" Alex asks finally. Her strawberry ice cream is melting onto her gloves.

"It already started."

Alex grins a little. "See? You couldn't go through with it."

"No, it's just..."

And for some reason, Piper tells Alex Vause everything. About her dad, and the woman who isn't her mother.

Alex gets a very serious look on her face while Piper's talking, and she doesn't once interrupt. When Piper finishes talking, Alex takes a deep breath and says solemnly, "What an asshole."

This time Piper's not sure if it's the cursing that startles her, or the fact that it's being applied to her father.

"Are you going to tell your mom?"

Of course, that's the question pulsing in Piper's brain right now. "I don't know," she says, looking up at Alex in a way that clearly invites her input.

"I'd probably want to know if it was me," Alex says thoughtfully. "And I know my mom would want to know. One of her boyfriends cheated on her once, and she told him if he ever came back she'd cut his balls off." Piper frowns, disturbed. Then Alex adds, "Plus, do you really want to just walk around keeping a huge secret from your mom forever?"

"No." That Piper can answer easily. "You're probably right. I gotta tell her."

They're quiet for awhile. Alex gives up on her mostly melted ice cream cone and tosses it in a nearby bush, then rips off her gloves. Eventually, she asks, "You're on my bus, right?"

"Yeah. I mean, I think so." Stupid. Like she doesn't know everyone who's on the bus.

Alex doesn't quite meet her eye when she says, her voice carefully casual, "You could come sit Monday morning. Tell me how it goes."

"Okay. Maybe."

Nodding, Alex doesn't push it further. "Cool." After a beat, she says, "I gotta go. My mom gets off work soon. Sorry about your dad."

"Yeah, thanks."

Then Piper watches as Alex trots back toward the Ben and Jerry's.

Monday morning, she's anxious at the bus stop.

Sarah will be saving her a seat, as usual. And Alex Vause will be sitting alone. As usual.

Piper's much more comfortable with as usual.

But she does want to tell someone about her mother's weirdo reaction, the injustice of Piper getting punished, and the fact that she still feels like she's carrying around a secret.

She still hasn't decided what she's going to do when she gets on the bus, which probably increases the likelihood that she'll just play it safe and slip into her as usual: sit down beside Sarah, and pretend like she never talked to Alex Vause about parental infidelity.

But then she sees Alex, watching her carefully. She gives a small, close lipped smile when Piper looks at her. Alex's eyes are a question covering up barely concealed hope.

And Piper thinks of her mom, ignoring troubling information, and she thinks of herself, ignoring uncomfortable situations. She doesn't want to do that anymore.

So she strides down the aisle, slides into the seat beside Alex Vause, and says, as if they were in the middle of a conversation, "She didn't even care."

Just like that, they're friends.

They're ten years old before Piper goes to Alex's house.

After months of having Alex over after school, or for sleepovers, Piper's mother starts dropping hints that she thinks the lack of reciprocity is rude.

Why aren't you ever invited to her house, Piper?

So to placate her mother, that week at school, when Alex drops into a conversation, "Wanna do a sleepover Friday?," Piper casually asks if they can do it Alex's house this time.

Alex goes quiet for a long moment, adjusting her glasses needlessly on her face, and eventually mutters that she'll ask her mom. The next morning on the bus, Alex reports that her mom gave permission, but she doesn't seem very happy about it.

That Friday, Alex is uncharacteristically quiet on the bus ride home, her eyes narrowed and lips pursed in a deep frown, like she's in the midst of the task that's costing her great effort and no pleasure.

Piper's too dense to figure out the problem, even when they get off the bus on a street lined with dingy apartment buildings and Alex starts glancing back at her every few seconds. There's an oddly intense expression on Alex's face that makes Piper not want to talk, like anything she says is going to be taken very seriously, so she follows silently until they come to a two story, motel style apartment building, a row of doors that open directly outside. Alex leads the way up the white metal stairs, to a door with stripped paint and the silver number 6 dangling from its center, then fishes a key out of her backpack.

The key provokes Piper's first flicker of surprise. "Where's your mom?"

"Work." Even that single syllable is barbed and defensive, but Piper's too busy worrying that her parents will find out she was without adult supervision to register any other implications. Alex doesn't look at her as she sticks the key in the lock and opens the door.

The apartment is small, smaller than Piper could have imagined. The main room is encompassed of a recliner and a couch, which is piled with pillows and sheets as though someone's been sleeping there, an ancient TV, and a huge shelf packed with records. The carpet changes seamlessly to a small patch of tile, just big enough for a stove, fridge, and a sink. Piper can see a bathroom set off from the main room, next to a closed door that might be a bedroom, but that's the extent of the place.

"So...yeah." Alex's arms are folded across her chest, and she's watching Piper closely, eyes suddenly empty of all aggression. Now she just looks nervous, like she can't help but see the apartment - see her whole life, really - through Piper's eyes.

Piper's not sure if she's meant to say something. For a second, she can hear her mother's voice in her head, that fake voice she puts on when she talks to company, complimenting her friend's new hairstyle when she was just insulting it to Piper before they walked in the door.

Instead, Piper tosses her backpack aside and looks at Alex expectantly. "So. What do you want to do?"

Alex squints at Piper discerningly, but slowly her expression relaxes. "You want to hear something?"

Piper nods, so they move into the bedroom, which turns out to be Alex's. It's small, with an unmade twin bed and stacks of books taking up practically all the floor space, but the walls are plastered with band posters and the light is brighter than the rest of the apartment.

"You can sit on the bed," Alex tells her as she walks to a tape deck sitting on the floor in the corner. Piper flips the red comforter across the rumpled sheets before sitting gingerly on the edge, and watches as Alex kneels down and presses a button on the cassette player.

Wailing rock music fills the room and Alex grins a little as she flops onto the bed beside Piper, tugging on her arm and upending her prim perch off the edge. They stretch out on the narrow mattress, eyes turned toward the water stained ceiling that's freckled with glow in the dark stars, the music thrumming over their ribs.

Piper's not sure if there's a point to listening to this music - the sort of hard, screaming songs her parents always turn past on the radio - but she's afraid asking would seem stupid, so she just keeps quiet, even when she can feel Alex glancing over at her, trying to gauge a reaction.

When three songs have past, Piper ventures cautiously, "It's good."

Alex's grin is instantaneous. "I know." She's quiet for a few seconds, then adds, "It's my dad."

Lifting herself up on her elbows, Piper stares down at Alex in surprise. "What, he's singing?"

"No, he's the drummer. Hold on..." Alex vaults off the bed and bends over the tape deck again. There's the high pitched squealing of the tape fast forwarding, and then Alex stops with practiced precision on a pounding drum solo. She straightens up but doesn't return to the bed, just stands there bouncing on the balls of her feet, eagerly watching Piper listen to the music.

Dumbly, Piper bobs her head in time to the rhythm. "Wow."

"His band's really famous. See?" Alex points at the biggest poster on the wall, skulls and fire in the background of four tattooed, leather wearing band members, the name "Death Maiden" in red, severe letters. Piper surveys the walls a little closer; at least a third of the posters are for the same band.

"That's so cool," Piper says at last. She's not sure if it is; she's not sure what to make of it, really. She knows nothing about fathers who are rock stars, fathers on posters all over the walls but never mentioned as part of Alex's day to day life. And she knows nothing about tiny cheap apartments, even though famous people are supposed to be rich. "Like, really, really cool."

It's the right thing to say, though, and Alex opens her smile up completely, beaming with pride. She gives a modest shrug. "Yeah. I know." Satisfied, Alex turns down the volume but leaves the tape playing, then starts to rummage under her bed for board games. "You wanna play a game or something?"

So they stretch across Alex's twin bed and play Guess Who and Clue for the next few hours, until they hear the front door of the apartment open, and a few seconds later, a woman appears in the doorway of Alex's room. "Hiya, baby."

Alex doesn't look up from the game board. "Hey, Mom."

"And you must be Piper. Good to finally meet ya."

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Vause," Piper says in her polite voice. Her mother's voice.

"Please, it's Diane."

Alex's mom is young and pretty. She's wearing a lot of makeup and a black collared shirt with a name tag on it. "Brought you guys some food from the restaurant. You like cheeseburgers, Piper?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Ooh, you're a polite one. Maybe you could teach Al a thing or two."

Alex smirks. "Why? You haven't."

"Don't talk back." But Alex's mom is grinning, and she doesn't comment on the messy floor, just steps over piles of books and cassette tapes to start rummaging in Alex's closet.

"It's your move," Alex prompts impatiently, attention still on the game, but Piper is half distracted as starts thumbing through hangers containing her clothes. Right in front of them, she pulls off her black polo and swaps it for a plain white shirt, then pulls on a blue Wal-Mart vest. "How was school?"

Piper's mom asks her that every day, and every day Piper says fine, and the discussion closes. Alex, though, launches into an example of Mrs. Patterson's blatant hypocrisy and favoritism, letting Jessica Wedge get away with passing notes in class, and Alex's mom scoffs sympathetically, insults Jessica Wedge, and refers to Mrs. Patterson as a bitch (Piper barely stifles her gasp at that one). She asks Piper to corroborate the story, and requests confirmation that Jessica is as much of a "little fuckin' snot" as Alex makes her sound. Piper vehemently agrees with the assessment.

Eventually, looks at her watch, mutters fuck under her breath, and says she has to go. "The food's in the kitchen, you may need to heat it up a little. I'll be back close to two...Alex, let Piper have the bed, yeah? 'Less you girls wanna make some sort of blanket fort. Go nuts."

She kisses the top of Alex's head, waves at Piper, and then she's gone again. Piper is definitely not supposed to be without adult supervision so late, and she can only fervently hope that her mom doesn't call to check up on her.

They grab Cokes from the fridge, microwave cheeseburgers and french fries, and eat in front of the old TV in the living room. Alex wants to prank call Jessica or Holly or Madison, but Piper repeatedly refuses until she finally gives up on the idea. There are only a few channels on the TV, and when nothing remotely interesting is on anymore, Alex puts on one of her mother's old records, not her dad's band this time, and, hopped up on soda, the two of them dance and air guitar around the living room until they're sweating and breathless. They sit on the couch and play cards for awhile: Slap Jack and Speed and Crazy Eights. Alex tries to teach Piper poker, but her grasp on the game is far too tenuous to make her a good instructor, so eventually they give up the cards and flip through the TV again. Alex settles on some slasher movie that Piper almost definitely wouldn't be allowed to watch at home - even the edited for television version - and they watch until they fall asleep with their heads on opposite ends the couch, feet tangled in the middle.

After a few hours, Piper wakes up with a jolt of the buzzing adrenaline that comes from sleeping in an unfamiliar place. It takes her a moment to remember where she is, and a moment after that to register that something woke her up: the front door, opening and closing with Alex's mom's return. Piper immediately squeezes her eyes shut, listening to Ms. Vause's soft footsteps across the living room, the opening and shutting of the refrigerator door and, for a few minutes, quiet chewing.

Eventually, Piper feels a blanket being draped over her, pulled tight so it can cover Alex, too. The footsteps retreat again. Alex's bedroom door clicks shut. And Piper goes back to sleep.

There is a box of half a dozen doughnuts waiting for them on the tiny kitchen counter the next morning, and Piper and Alex have each had two before Ms. Vause emerges, yesterday's make up smeared beneath her eyes, her legs bare under an oversized Led Zeppelin T-shirt. She snatches a doughnut and a Diet Coke and sits on the floor in front of the couch, asking them about their night and telling stories about the dumbass customers at Wal-Mart.

When Piper's mother comes to pick her up - not getting out the car, which neither Piper or Alex quite hide their relief over - Ms. Vause tells Piper she's welcome back anytime. On the other hand, her mother is staring at the apartment building with poorly concealed distaste, and says right away that she never meant to suggest they couldn't have all their sleepovers at the Chapman household.

But there are more sleepovers at Alex's, and they go pretty much the same as that first one, except most of the time Piper and Alex share Alex's bed instead of sleeping on the couch. It takes several months before Alex is fully relaxed about Piper coming over, but Piper likes the Vause apartment. She likes the take out from Friendly's, and she likes Alex's mom's records (though, and she'd never say this to Alex, she likes a lot of the bands more than her father's), and she likes - Diane. She's not there much, but when she is, she talks to Piper and Alex like they're her friends who have gotten together for a gossip session. She complains about coworkers and customers and bosses, and listens to them complain about teachers and students.

Piper's mother disapproves as hard as she can without actually saying the words, but she doesn't outright forbid Piper from going to Alex's...simply makes sure the "playdates" are at their own house just as frequently. Mrs. Chapman isn't exactly rude to Alex, but her politeness takes on a certain frostiness after the one time Alex slips up and says "shit" in front of her. After that, Piper's mom asks a little too often if she'd like to invite Alison or Sarah H. over again, and Piper doesn't bother explaining that she isn't really friends with them anymore, and she doesn't miss it. They're too obsessed with what Jessica and Ryan and all their cronies think, and Piper no longer has any interest in anyone who's ever referred to Alex as Pigsty.

They're eleven when the fifth grade goes on its class trip to Washington DC: four days, including two days missed of school, and it's a source of building excitement pretty much the whole year. It's their first overnight field trip, their first time to be in a hotel room without adults.

On the day the teachers finally pass out information packets about the trip, everyone goes crazy, talking about who's going to room together and how much junk food they're going to bring on the bus. Piper's eyes sweep the classroom in trepidation, and she leans over to Alex and whispers, "Guess this means we have to find the two people we'd least wanna kill after four days in a hotel room."

Alex is frowning down at the paper, and she doesn't look up at Piper when she says, "Three."


"You'll have to find three people to stay with, 'cause I'm not going."

"What? Shut up, yes you are."

"I already have to see these losers enough every day at school. Why would I want to go on a fucking trip with them?" Alex ignores Piper's paranoid hiss of her name at the curse word and barrels forward, "That's 24 hours a day for four days. No thanks."

"It's not twenty-four hours," Piper corrects, her voice unmistakably bratty. "You'll sleep for at least eight."

"That's still twice as much as my idea of fun."

Piper clenches her jaw, upset. They've been talking about this trip all year, and all of sudden Alex doesn't care? She opens her mouth to point this out, when she catches Alex staring moodily down at the packet, and Piper figures out what page she's looking at. The one that lists the total cost: the hotel, the meals, the bus fee.


Piper shuts her mouth. She stares down at her own packet, at the itinerary: monuments and museums during the day, some fun activity like bowling or roller skating at night. She's been looking forward to this all year.

But then she tries to imagine the trip without Alex. Pictures herself trailing after Sarah, who's trailing after Jessica and Holly and those other snotty little bitches. Imagines watching Chloe embarrass herself trying to flirt with Ryan. Imagines getting made fun of her for reading on the bus, or being ignored at every single museum or monument or meal. Imagines roller skating by herself while everyone else whizzes by in groups.

"You're probably right, actually," Piper says at last, closing the brochure. "Did you see all the stupid stuff they're doing? Like I really want to watch try to bowl." Alex slides a suspicious gaze sideways at her, but doesn't say anything. Piper continues, "And museums are so boring. There are like ten different museums, did you see?"

Slowly, Alex unfurls a grin. "The only thing I'd be sad to miss is any of these idiots falling on their ass trying to skate."

"Especially Jessica."

"Oh, but she's probably perfect at skating. Her mom probably paid for private lessons."

"You think she'd have time? I don't know if you know this, but she takes horseback riding, and gymnastics -"

"- and modern dance -"

"- and art classes - "

"- and smiling lessons - "

"- and modern hair braiding -"

"- and harmonica instruction -"

"-and training bra decoration-"

Alex lets out a bark of a laugh at that one, and their recurring joke about Jessica's overly scheduled life comes to an end. Piper grins in satisfaction; she almost never ends the game, and anyway she gets immense satisfaction from cracking Alex up.

On the days the rest of the class is in Washington DC, there are six kids in the classroom, and the substitute just lets them watch movies all day (not educational movies either), and she doesn't even seem to care when they play cards or read magazines across their desks. Piper doesn't regret the decision.

The week before they start middle school, Piper and Alex, who's clad in shorts and a thin tank top, stand in the Vause apartment's bathroom carefully reading instructions on a box of black hair dye.

Alex leans her head over the sink while Piper, plastic gloves over her hands, meticulously covers every strand of Alex's hair. "Sure you don't want some?" Alex asks, her voice strained from being upside down.

"Yeah, right."

"I don't mean black. You should do like a red streak. That'd look badass."

"My parents would kill me."

"Your catchphrase," Alex says with a dramatic sigh. Piper, at twelve, does not change.

She ignores Alex, stilling her hands to survey her work. "I think I got everywhere."

"You think?"

"I definitely, for sure got everywhere."

Fifteen minutes later, Piper stands nearby as Alex leans just her head under the shower nozzle, inky black water draining into the sink. She can already tell her hair is going to look awesome.

Alex at twelve is at least three inches taller than any boy in their grade, which for awhile had allowed the nickname Big Foot to replace Pigsty. But soon she was wearing a real bra when the rest of the girls are barely figuring out the trainees, and boys have started staring.

So Alex enters junior high with black hair and black nails, and she's started wearing her mother's old band T-shirts with the sleeves cut off. She takes the jeans her mom gets her at Goodwill and deliberately widens the small holes worn into the denim. Most girls still dislike her - the new trend of boy staring doesn't help - but there's intimidation now, and no one dares make fun of Alex to her face.

Piper, in her Gap overalls and french braid, sometimes feels impossibly young next to Alex, and there's no way for her to catch up. She goes home one weekend from Alex's place with black fingernails, and her mother physically shudders at the sight. "Piper, take that off this instant. Are you trying to be...gothic now?"

For the first several months of middle school, Pipers feels like Alex's much younger, much less cool sidekick, simply looking on admiringly while Alex snarks at any boy who comes near her.

So when Cody Lionel kisses her outside the band room on their way to the car lot after school, Piper is full to bursting with a childish sense of pride, floating more on the fact the kiss happened than the kiss itself, and she runs right to her bedroom to call Alex, whose bus should have dropped her off by now.

"Guess what?"

"Not even a hello?"

"No time. Guess what?"

"Well, I saw you like twenty minutes ago and you weren't bursting with news then. Sooo I'm gonna guess a water main exploded and killed everyone left at school but you? I hope?"

"Uh, dark. And no."

"Well, I went straight to mass destruction, so I'm out of guesses. What?"

"Cody Lionel kissed me," Piper declares, practically gleeful.

The other end of the phone is disappointingly silent.

"Outside the band room," Piper adds.

There's another pause, and then Alex says, "Sorry, is that meant to be a good thing?"

Disappointment is starting to trickle down Piper's spine. "Um, yes?"

"Okay." It's the tone Alex uses when she thinks someone's said something extremely stupid or shallow, and Piper can feel herself getting pissed off. Aren't best friends supposed to squeal and be excited for you when you get your first kiss? Geez.

"Cody's cute," she insists defensively.

"Cody's gross. Wasn't he snapping girls' bra straps like two months ago?"

"That was at least a year ago."

"Oh, my mistake." There's real bitterness in Alex's voice now. It's a tone Piper's heard a lot, but never directed at her. It makes her stomach clamp up. "He still stares at my boobs, like, all the time."

Piper clenches her teeth. "Is that it? Are you jealous?"

There's a long, heavy silence, during which Piper recklessly unravels her own line of thinking, making herself angrier. Every guy stares at Alex, every guy flirts with Alex constantly, and she acts like she doesn't care, like she doesn't even like it...and yet now she can't handle anyone else getting attention? How the hell does that work?

Piper's about to launch into this whole tirade when Alex's heated voice cleaves through the silence, "Fuck you, Piper."

The line goes dead, and Piper's anger dies just as quickly. She stands frozen, listening to dead air followed by dial tone, panic breathing down the back of her neck like a monster.

She calls back twice, but Alex doesn't answer. And she isn't waiting by Piper's locker the next morning, doesn't look at her in the two classes they have together, and doesn't even seem to show up in the cafeteria for lunch. Cody Lionel passes Piper a note asking if she's going to the home basketball game that Friday, and all she can think of is Alex making fun of all extracurricular activities. By the end of the day, Piper's teetering precariously on the edge of tears; a single day of not talking to Alex is miserable, no matter how many notes from sort of cute boys she gets.

As soon as the last bell of the day rings, Piper ricochets out of her desk to get to Alex's locker before she does. She's pacing in front of it when Alex appears around the corner. Even from the distance, Piper can see her sigh and roll her eyes.

"I'm sorry," Piper blurts out as soon as Alex is in earshot, not wanting to give her a chance to say something snarky. "I'm really sorry, okay?" Never mind that she isn't entirely sure what she's supposed to have done. Piper just hates when people are mad at her, and though this is the first time it's happened, she can already tell Alex being mad at her is the worst.

Alex sighs and starts spinning her lock without answering. Finally, the locker door swings open, partially obscuring Alex's face, and she says reluctantly, her voice echoing in the locker, "Yeah, I'm sorry, too."

Instantly, Piper's whole body feels looser. "I don't even like Cody. I don't think I do, anyway. I just liked that he wanted to kiss me."

Still speaking to the inside of her locker, Alex replies, "I could have told you he wanted to kiss you. It's obvious."

Piper leans against the locker next to Alex, momentarily glad she isn't looking over. "I just wanted to feel like I'm cool. Like you are."

Alex goes still, and after a moment she leans around her locker door. Grinning. "Pipes. I'm not gonna be the kind of cool that comes from making out with boys. But you kiss whoever you want. I'll stop being a bitch about it."

Piper's not entirely sure what she means, but she's so busy basking in the familiarity of Alex's smile, the warm relief of the end of a fight, that she doesn't think much about it.

At fourteen, they go see Reality Bites and Alex talks incessantly about how pretty Winona Ryder is, and only then does Piper start to figure out what it meant.

She thinks.


It doesn't change anything, just goes a long way toward explaining why Piper's had a few different boyfriends (middle school boyfriends, boyfriends who hold her hand on the car lot and pass notes in the hallway and occasionally call her house to have twenty minute phone calls full of awkward pauses) and Alex hasn't. They still spend the night at each other's homes at least once a weekend, and hang out with only each other more often than not.

Alex at fourteen wears dark eye makeup and thrift store grunge flannel over cut up band T-shirts. She listens to bands that started before any of them were born, and smokes cigarettes that the man who works at the 7-Eleven across from the middle school sells her without ID. She has trouble with authority, and most of the teachers don't like her much even though she gets better grades than she has any right to get considering how little she studies.

Piper at fourteen gets straight A's and never lets even Alex copy her homework. She plays tennis and joins student counsel because her parents insist she start being well rounded even before high school. She develops some in-school friendships with other girls on the tennis team and other kids in the high math class, but she always defaults to Alex, who gets unending enjoyment from stomping up to Piper in front of other people, talking a mile a minute and cursing like a sailor until everyone else slinks away.

There's been a trend of birthday parties that are actually mini-dances, held invariably in the Women's Club with rented DJs and disco lights. Piper starts getting invited, and it pleases her mother to no end. If she has a boyfriend at the time she goes, and they hold hands in a circle with other couples, and eventually make out during the slow dances. If she's not "going" with anyone when a birthday dance comes around, Piper usually skips them and hangs out with Alex, who's never invited.

Piper likes the boyfriends and her tennis friends and her honors math friends well enough, but they all seem dull eyed and boring compared to Alex. Piper feels dull eyed and boring compared to Alex. Alex at fourteen is already a force of nature, she is sparks and flames and something that makes people pay attention. Piper has gotten used to walking through the mall or down the street and feeling eyes on them. She's gotten used to the way cashiers and waiters talk to Alex like she's older than she is. The Alex Vause Piper first met, the one who spent every second painfully aware of what she didn't have, has transformed into someone who doesn't give a fuck about the right clothes or the right music or the right friends.

Alex at fourteen carries a black backpack with ironed on decals of her father's band like they're badges of her own cool. Alex's cool isn't the same as the other eighth graders. It's not the cool that means popular, the social pyramid topped with jocks and cheerleaders. Alex's cool is harder and edgier. It's a cool the others aren't mature enough to understand yet.

Piper understands it, even though she doesn't have it in her. She simply basks in the glow of it, lapping it up by association. She's got mix tapes full of Alex's mother's music, and most mornings before class Alex drags her into the bathroom and does her eye makeup. Piper at fourteen is a straight A student, beloved by teachers, bookish but pretty enough not to be held back by it. In other words, she is decidedly average...save for her friendship with Alex. They are best friends, and that doesn't make sense with the rest of Piper's reputation. It's her one bit of enigma, and she's proud of it.

The summer before ninth grade, they're stretched out on the roof of Alex's apartment complex at nearly midnight, stargazing (Piper) and smoking (Alex).

"I told my mom," Alex says suddenly, apropos of nothing, unless what she told her mother coincidentally had something to do with the mythology of Orion, which Piper has just finished explaining (not that Alex had asked).

"Told her what?"

"About the whole...liking only girls deal."

Piper's quiet for a moment, watching curls of smoke float in front of the star filled sky. She doesn't bother to mention that Alex hadn't really officially told her about the whole "liking only girls deal". She just prompts, "And what'd she say?"

"She said she was jealous, and that I was lucky, because all men are assholes. And then she thought for a second and said, actually, women can be pretty batshit crazy too. Then she hugged me and she said she was sorry, but I was pretty much fucked either way."

Piper's laugh is loud and genuine. "Sounds about right."


Piper keeps her eyes turned skyward, but she knows Alex is looking at her, gauging her. She knows the weight of Alex's expectant gaze well. This always happens with them; Alex doesn't care what most people think, anymore, doesn't give a shit about most reactions, but she gives a shit about Piper's. She hasn't outgrown that, and it makes Piper's chest feel warm with pride.

She shuffles the slightest bit closer to Alex, so their shoulders are touching, a comforting pressure, but she keeps her expression decidedly unperturbed, like this conversation is just any other conversation. She can't think of exactly what to say, and ends up blurting out, "Can I have a cigarette?"

Alex lets out a shocked, spluttering laugh. "Serious?"


"I thought the second a cigarette touches your lips it summons your father?"

"Shut up."

"I thought if a single wisp of smoke hits your delicate lungs you develop instant disease?"

"Shut up."

Alex sits up so she can light a cigarette for Piper, but she's still chuckling endlessly at her own stupid jokes, and Piper scowls up at her.

"You know," Piper says at last with great dignity. "It's ironic that you don't like dick. Since you are one."

Alex starts laughing so hard she drops the lit cigarette on their blanket, and doesn't even hear Piper's instinctual yelp. "That," she chokes out eventually, "is the funniest fucking joke...you've ever made."

"I'm very amusing," Piper says haughtily. She props the rescued cigarette between her lips but doesn't inhale.

"You are," Alex agrees. "But it's usually not intentional."

That earns her the back of Piper's hand against her stomach.

When they eventually make their way downstairs and into the building, Diane is asleep on the couch, so they tiptoe into Alex's bedroom, and for the first time Alex looks uncertain. "I can make a pallet on the floor..."

Shooting her a sarcastic look, Piper snaps, "Why? Feeling the need for some variety after the last two hundred or so sleepovers? Worried we're in a rut?"

Alex's face relaxes, and she flops onto her bed in an undignified manner. "Maybe I'm just sick of you stealing the fucking covers."



They take turns in the bathroom and squeeze into the bed like they've done two hundred or so times before. Alex leaves her glasses on the bedside table and grabs her walkman instead. Obediently, Piper slides her head as far from Alex's as she can, as Alex sets the black headphone carefully between them and turns the volume on the walkman up as loud as it goes and presses play.

Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick...

Piper smiles instantly. The Cure is her favorite of Alex's mother's bands - meaning they're the least screechy and angry sounding - and Alex now has dozens of mixtapes floating around that are dominated by their songs, usually saved for when Piper's over.

Beside her, Alex's eyes are closed, and she's humming almost inaudibly, but Piper keeps her eyes open and trained on the familiar sight of Alex's glow in the dark stars, her invented constellations that pre-date even their friendship.

High school brings GPAs and honors classes and fifty or so clubs compared to middle school's dozen. And it brings pressure.

Alex starts out in honors classes, too, so she and Piper have several together, but that won't last. High school also brings looser supervision and a larger campus, and the allure of skipping class is too strong.

"What does it matter?" Alex says one day at lunch after Piper admonishes her for skipping Geometry to smoke on the baseball bleachers. "It's not like I'm going to college."

Piper does a double take. At fifteen, in ninth grade, college seems far enough away for Alex to sound completely unbothered by this fact, but for Piper, college has always been bearing down, now more than ever. "What? Why aren't you going to college?"

Her jaw tensing, Alex gets the slightest flash of that old look in her eyes, the one that paradoxically mingles shame and defiance. "I feel like you should know this, Pipes, but college costs a shit ton of money."

"There are scholarships."

Alex makes an unattractive snorting sound. "Yeah, for geniuses. Geniuses who also play sports and run a bunch of bullshit clubs. Even if I studied as much as, well, you, I'm not getting a scholarship."

"Okay, so student loans."

"Fuck no. Be in debt for my entire adult life? No way. You've seen my mom. Our apartment smells like fuckin' debt." Alex takes in the genuinely troubled look on Piper's face and rolls her eyes. "And not everyone needs college, dummy. I don't even know what I want to do with my life. What are you going to do with your fancy ass college degree?"

"I...don't know." She doesn't. Piper's never felt a pull toward a particular career path. She's good at a lot of things and great at very little. And her dad has a way of making it seem like the mere name of the college is the whole point, rather than what she does there. More defensively than she intends, Piper adds, "God, it's not like I have to know right now."

"Whoa, easy there," Alex's eyes are dancing fondly in that infuriatingly amused way. It's her that's so Piper look. "I'm not your career counselor. Or your dad." She reaches across and steals a fry from Piper's tray. "But I succeeded in my goal."

"What goal?"

"I got you too flustered to lecture me on skipping class."

In October, Cody Lionel, quite possibly nursing a dormant crush since the beginning of middle school, asks her to go with him to the high school football game one Friday night, and while there is really no going with involved - they arrive separately - it means sitting with him during the game, and getting her soda and hot dog paid for. Their team is infamously abysmal, and by the second half the freshmen class has migrated to the hills on either side of the stadium bleachers, lying around on the grass in clusters and barely watching the game. Cody leans back with his head in Piper's lap, and she finds she kind of likes running her fingers through his dark curls, likes the way the girls who aren't cuddled with a boy glance at them with envy.

After the game, the freshmen in their group start scrambling around for rides from older siblings or friends or parents. Cody takes Piper's hand and leads her to his dad's truck, along with Tyler Fletcher (Cody's best friend, who's on the basketball team and the highest honors classes) and his girlfriend Lane Groft. They get dropped off at Friendly's, where most of their cluster from the hill have reconvened. They have to pull three tables together, and they're all joking around so much that it's hard to distinguish separate chatter and laughter. Piper's feeling warm and grown up and wonderfully part of something, until Diane Vause comes over to the table to take their order.

Diane brightens her smile a few notches and winks at Piper, but doesn't say anything beyond that. She doesn't seem fazed to see her there, but Piper suddenly feels like she's done something terrible, even though she patently has not...she'd asked Alex to come to the football game, and Alex had laughed in her face.

But still.

Piper's clams up in the group's conversation, all at once feeling silly and inexplicably weak, as though she has been found out, exposed as someone who needs a crowd.

It's Friday night, and suddenly she wants to be at Alex's apartment, on Alex's roof, listening to mix tapes and watching Alex smoke and sneak sips of vodka before Diane gets home. She wants to play Slap Jack or Clue, wants to have a dance party in Alex's tiny living room. She doesn't want to be here with these people she barely knows.

After Diane delivers plates of burgers and fries, Piper impulsively leaps to her feet, mutters something about the bathroom, and speed walks after Diane across the restaurant.

She catches her right before they reach the kitchen. "Everything okay, baby?"

"Yeah. I just wanted to say hi." Heat floods Piper's cheeks instantly, as she hears how that sounds: like she would have been embarrassed to say hi in front of the others.

Diane doesn't seem to think anything of it. She only laughs a little and gives Piper a one armed hug. "Hey yourself. You been at the football game?" Piper nods. "We get our asses kicked?"


"Figured. You guys look like you're having fun anyway."

"I..." Shit. There's a completely inexplicable lump working its way up Piper's throat. "I asked Alex to come. But - "

Diane's laughing again. "Doubt Alex would have much fun at a football game, huh? Or be much fun."

"Not much, no."

"I'm sure she's home smoking up the apartment, which she thinks I don't know about." That coaxes a slight smirk from Piper. Diane's smile softens a little, her eyes almost gentle. "You go have fun with your friends, baby. But first tell me what dessert you like...I'm gonna pretend we made an extra."

The next night, Alex comes over to Piper's house, and her dad takes them to the video store and picks up a pizza, and they stay up half the night watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Big Chill and telling Cal to leave them alone, and it feels so normal that Piper immediately starts to feel stupid about her reaction at Friendly's that night.

But Alex doesn't mention it, even though her mom must've told her, and she doesn't have much interest in hearing about Cody Lionel, either.

That stays true for the next four months that Cody and Piper are going out. For that time, Piper's "in school" friends become more all purpose friends, and sometimes Piper feels bad for how much she likes being part of a group. But she almost likes the fact of the group more than the people themselves. She spends a lot of time imaging how they look to other people, reveling in the Kodak image: young, attractive people, laughing together. Leaning against a boy, an object of desire. Something insular and selective. They are the sort of polished, presentable friends she's supposed to have. Together, they are what a group of teenagers are supposed to look like.

Piper has an affection for them all as a unit, but no particular fondness for anyone in particular, even Cody. But for that, she still has Alex. Alex is weekend afternoons at the dingy little record shop or used bookstores. Alex is Saturday night sleepovers, music and movies and junk food. Alex is eye rolling or tongues pushed between teeth or eyes crossed like morons when they pass each other in the hall. Alex is for saying all the thoughts inside her head, the serious or the meaningless. Alex is the one calmly asking if she needs to kick Cody's ass when he and Piper break up and he immediately starts going out with Brooke Lewis. Alex is the reason Piper actually doesn't care that much about getting dumped.

Alex is still her best friend.

By sophomore year, even Alex has ditched their 'lone wolf plus one' act. She has 'in school friends', too, an eclectic mix of theatre techies and art students and just plain burnouts. Basically, the people who gather on the baseball bleachers to skip class and smoke.

Piper doesn't like Alex's other friends, which is fair, because Alex doesn't like hers, either. But really, it's completely different. Alex doesn't like people like Cody or Tyler or Lane or Brooke or Jesse because she thinks she's above them, somehow. Piper doesn't like Alex's friends because they make her feel lame and uncool. The first few times she approached Alex in front of them, Alex always introduced her by saying, "we've been friends since fourth grade." Like she had to justify it.

Sophomore year brings driving, and most of Piper's friends come out of their sixteenth birthday with brand new licenses and less than new cars. Moving the Group of Friends outside of school is easier than ever, and suddenly there are real hang outs and real dates (dates that end in the backseat of the car with a boy's hand up her shirt). There are fewer open Saturday nights.

Sophomore year also brings AP classes and an intense workload. Piper just edges into the top six on the tennis team, so it brings daily practices and matches that actually matter. Brochures of summer academic programs start coming to the house, and her father sticks the most prestigious ones on the refrigerator.

In February Alex gets caught with Liz Moony, a diminutive techie with a blue streaked pixie cut who runs lights for school musicals and always smell faintly of weed, in the auditorium's light booth, both of them half naked, during school hours. Piper hears this through other people, people who barely know Alex, and she feels sick and angry at the source.

Alex has never mentioned Liz Moony to her. Alex hasn't said she's dating anyone, or kissing anyone, or anything. What the hell kind of best friendship is that?


After school Piper drives her new (slightly used) car over to Alex's apartment, faces her newly suspended best friend, and starts in with a fit of righteous indignation. "I had to hear about it from Josh Newburn. Not even from Josh...I just heard him telling Lane. What the hell, Alex?"

Her arms crossed over her chest, Alex rolls her eyes heavenward. "Fucking hell, Pipes. I've been outed to the whole school. People I don't even know are talking about my personal business, and all you care about is that you weren't the first to know?"

"Please, your 'personal business'. If you cared so much about being outed you wouldn't have been screwing on school property." Alex's lips curl in on themselves, badly suppressing a smug smirk. Wisely, she doesn't bother denying that, and Piper continues, "I'm supposed to be your best friend. I didn't even know you had a girlfriend."

"She's not my girlfriend."

"So what is she?"

"Ehhhh." Alex waves her hand spastically and shrugs, apparently indicating the complexity of her relationship with Liz Moony.

"Have you been dating other girls?"

"I don't know if I'd say dating."

Piper's stomach swoops unpleasantly. "Why don't I know any of this? For all I knew, you'd never even kissed a girl." Alex laughs at that, loudly, giving an indication of just how far from true it is, and somehow that makes Piper feel worse.

"Hey..." Alex makes a concentrated effort to wipe the amusement from her face. "Don't make that face at me. You look like I kicked your puppy. What's the big deal?"


"You don't tell me anything," Piper insists, the slightest hint of petulance threading through her voice. It's not as if she hasn't seen Alex lately. They spent Sunday afternoon wandering around thrift shops and bookstores for nearly three hours.

"Like you tell me everything," Alex counters, but she still just sounds amused. Not like she's emotionally invested in the argument. "I haven't heard a word from you about Jesse fucking Campbell." Piper's frown deepens, unable to deny that. Finally, Alex sighs and says in a conciliatory voice, "Look, Pipes, it doesn't matter. We've never really been the kind of friends who talk about that stuff."

Piper scowls. "If we're not that kind of friends, it's your fault."

"How do you figure?"

"Cody Lionel. In middle school."

Alex pauses for a moment, like she has to dredge that one up from the dark corners of memory, and then she grins a little. "Okay, fine. I take all responsibility. But to be fair, if you had listened to me back then about Cody Lionel, Captain Bra Snapper, you might have saved yourself the trouble of repeating the mistake last year. Just food for thought."

Still miserable, Piper plops down on the couch, looking small and forlorn. Alex, damn her, still looks way too amused by the whole thing, but it's the kind of amusement that's built entirely on affection, and she sits down beside Piper and slings a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Pipes. I know Seventeen magazinesuggests otherwise, but the whole dating and sex thing is not the most important thing we can be talking about, okay? When someone really matters, I'm sure I'll tell you. And you'll tell me, right?"

"Yeah," Piper admits.

"See?" Alex rubs her hands together like that's the whole problem solved. "Now. You want a beer?"

"No, I drove."

"Ooh, get a load of Fancy. New question. Do you want to drive me to Wendy's? Or anywhere with food. I'm fucking starving, and there's literally nothing to eat in this place."


They pile into Piper's car, and Alex grins when she realizes one of her mixtapes is playing in the cassette player. She slides her seat back far enough to put her feet on the dashboard, singing along to the middle of the song.

We're on a rooooaddd to nowhere...

Piper's quiet, just listening to Alex's tuneless singing. She never gives voice to the real thing that's scaring her. That something is changing between them, that they're moving further away from each other. That they won't be able to stop it.

Piper at sixteen is stressed out. Piper at sixteen is a ball of anxiety. Piper at sixteen is terrified.

Her schedule the first semester of junior year is AP everything, and Piper is finally learning she is not as smart as she thought. She is smart, sure, but sometimes she doesn't feel smart enough. She isn't smart enough to just get this, for it to come easily, to remember everything she hears in class and have that be enough. She is the kind of smart that is just as dependent on good study skills as it is on her IQ...both of which are currently failing her, eaten up by AP Chemistry, which she just can't quite grab onto, and AP US History, which isn't so much difficult as it is packed full to bursting with information, and AP English, which comes the easiest but has the most work, full novels and essays every week, and AP Statistics, where she is completely lost.

Then her father brings her a gift of SAT prep books and doesn't notice that Piper barely keeps herself from bursting into tears.

It falls apart as early as October. It's only the first progress report, a grade that means literally nothing to her GPA or overall standing, and it's not even a fair prediction of the class as a whole. There are too few assignments, and her chemistry grade was torpedoed by her last test, so even though Piper should have seen it coming, she can't stop her hands from shaking when she stares down at the big fat C.

It's her first C ever, and her mental mantra of thismeansnothingthismeansnothingthismeansnothing is drowned out by the simple knowledge that statistics, her last class of the day, most likely holds the same grade.

She is too old, probably, to hide in the bathroom and cry over a grade. So Piper resists the urge; she folds the progress report neatly and puts it in her locker and goes calmly to lunch.

Even though they have the same lunch time, Alex isn't in the cafeteria, which isn't unusual lately, but Piper suddenly needs to see her. Alex is the only person in the world who can make her laugh when she feels this shitty, and Piper's suddenly craving it like a drug.

She leaves the cafeteria without eating and heads toward the baseball field.

She can pick Alex out even from a distance, amid the cluster of darkly clad burn outs, and like an idiot, Piper waves. Alex lifts a hand in response; they're all staring at her now, and the last twenty-five feet to bleachers feel impossibly long.

"Hey, Pipes." Alex smiles, but it's only at about half wattage. A girl whose name Piper doesn't know has her head pillowed on Alex's lap, and for some reason that pisses Piper off.

"Hi." Piper hovers awkwardly in front of the bottom bleacher, wishing she was the sort of person who could just flop down in the middle of them and feel perfectly comfortable. Her best friend is there, so she should be that person. She isn't sure if the deficiency is her fault or Alex's.

But then Alex squints at her and tilts her head with that scrutinizing look she gets. "You okay?"

Gratitude spills over in Piper's gut. Sometimes the simplest things help, like the knowledge that she has someone who can take one look at her and know something's wrong. She feels a little better already. "Yeah. Well, I guess. Kind of a shitty day. Got a C on the AP Chem progress report." Piper's proud of how casual she sounds, how off handed, even though she knows Alex will realize what a big deal it is for her.

But the comment provokes light snorts and unkind guffaws from the lifeless group of stoners.

"Oh, no." A guy with three eyebrow rings and white boy dreadlocks says dryly. "The tragedy."

"Who's going to play you in the film adaptation?" This from the girl on Alex's lap.


"Hey, AP is serious business," says Jack Sadler, a rare showboat in this crowd, who plays the lead in all drama productions that don't require someone overtly masculine. "The whole trajectory of your life is affected. Unemployable. Homelessness. May as well apply for welfare right now."

Piper looks at Alex, but she's just smiling her That's so Piper smile. She's never noticed how much condescension it holds.

For a second, Piper can't breathe, she's so furious. Alex knows what this means for her. Alex knows it's a big deal. And Piper is suddenly sick to death of this. She works her ass off and worries herself sick over the very thing these people - Alex included - find so contemptible.

"Fuck you," she spats suddenly, poisonously. The words are somewhat generally directed, but she's staring right at Alex.

Then she turns on her heel and goes.

"Aw, Pipes, don't be that way."

She keeps walking.


Huh. Alex's voice is closer; Piper hadn't expected her to follow.

She hopes she stood up so fast that bitchy girl's head hit the bleachers.

Piper is too old to run away from someone, and Alex's strides are longer so soon she's keeping pace at Piper's side. "C'mon, don't be so pissy. They're assholes, but they're like that with everyone."


"You don't have to get all mad."

"I'm not mad."

"Then why won't you stop walking?"

"Because I'm done. I have no idea why we even bother trying to be friends anymore, so let's just not."

In the intensity of the words, Piper actually outpaces Alex, and she can't help but glance back over her shoulder. She's expecting to see Alex rolling her eyes, more in disgust than fondness this time, expecting to hear Alex tell her to stop being so fucking melodramatic.

But instead Alex's standing stone still, her face slowly crumpling in on itself, and her eyes seem huge and overly saturated behind her glasses. She's standing there in a Clash T-shirt under that stupid white pleather jacket she and Piper had found in a church basement thrift store last year, and it's the first time Piper's ever thought Alex looks small.

It's the first time in years Alex has reminded Piper of the nine year old new kid trying really hard not to cry on the bus.

It turns Piper's insides to ice, and all the anger in her gut turns instantly inward, but she doesn't change her course of action. She keeps walking, more desperate to get away than ever. Her vision blurs with tears, but they aren't tears of guilt or sympathy or even anger. They're tears squeezed straight from panic, the sort of panic that comes as a little kid seeing their mom cry for the first time...panic from finding out someone you thought was invincible isn't.

Piper is too old to hide in the school bathroom and cry over a grade, but she is not too old to hide in the school bathroom and cry over her best friend. So that's what she does.