For the rest of the day Piper is slipping, her fingers curled around the edge of a cliff, and it's taking every ounce of will she possesses not to let go and completely lose it.
She's forgotten about the bold angry C on her Chemistry report. She's forgotten everything except the look on Alex's face. The memory is everywhere, thick and heavy in her guts, coiled around her veins and squeezing, wedged in the forefront of her brain turning everything else into blurry white noise.
Alex, looking like Piper had just kicked her in the chest. Alex, unshed tears making her eyes look so green it hurt. Alex, so achingly familiar, in her stupid pleather jacket and stupid band shirt and stupid black Converse with red laces.
Piper replays the moment, lives in it, knows it by heart, and objectively, it shouldn't be unfixable. She'd said something stupid, an overreaction born from stress and anger. She could apologize, backpedal, pretend it never happened.
But the moment had been thick with something else, some intangible sense that the second those words left Piper's mouth she couldn't take them back. Like an unspoken truth had finally been spoken, as though the words had been lying like an ulcer beneath Piper's tongue for months before they finally slipped.
But Alex's face.
If she's honest, Piper isn't surprised by what she'd said. It was Alex's reaction that had shocked her.
For awhile now, maybe even longer than she'd realized, Piper's been anxiously waiting for the moment Alex finally realizes she isn't anything special, that she's lame and uncool and embarrassingly weak. She's been waiting for Alex to cut the ties. Been waiting for Alex to hurt her.
Somehow, she'd never considered that she had the power to hurt Alex.
What's depressing is how effortless it is.
Alex slips seamlessly out of her life; Piper doesn't even have to try to avoid her. For a long time now, any time they've spent together has involved specific planning, or at least, a specific intention to seek Alex out (or vice versa). Their natural, day to day paths rarely come close. At most, if Piper's mother ever sends her to the store for something, she has to drive an extra ten minutes to hit the grocery store where Alex hasn't been bagging groceries since last summer.
(Over the next month, Piper only sees Alex three times at school.)
Piper immerses herself in the parts of her life Alex never had anything to do with, all those careful social constructions and a studied persona. She pretends to be okay, and her school friends wouldn't know her well enough to assume otherwise.
(The first time is four days after the fight. Piper's in the parking lot before school, gathered around Lane's BMW with a bunch of other kids, Jesse Campbell's arm around her, when Alex gets out of a car Piper's never seen before, driven by a girl with tattoos up and down her arms. Alex flicks a gaze over to Piper, and for half a second they look at each other, but there's nothing in Alex's face anymore. She turns away, like a stranger.)
Piper gets a B on her next chemistry test. She wins a tennis match. She and her friends drive to the state fair one Saturday, and take photos to prove how much fun it was. They start going to Jesse's house after football games to drink and watch the guys play video games, and her mother is so pleased when she says she's sleeping over at Lane or Brooke's house that she doesn't think to question it.
(The second time, she ducks out of AP US History to go to the bathroom and nearly collides with Alex on her way in. For a horrible, gut punching moment she thinks Alex has been crying - her eyes are red - but then she pushes roughly past Piper, the scent of weed trailing behind.)
Piper's mother tells her she's proud of how well she's doing lately. She watches the school's horrible football team lose its homecoming game, and she goes to the dance with Jesse and the others. When the pictures get developed, Piper can barely look at her own stiff, practiced smile. She gets an A on a chemistry lab report, pulling her grade firmly out from the fire. She signs up for an SAT date.
(The third time she oversleeps and is nearly late for first period, so she cuts down the science corridor where Alex's infrequently visited locker is. Alex is there, by herself, looking in no particular hurry even though the halls are emptying out as kids head to class. She's drinking bottled water, which Piper is fairly sure Alex has never done in her life, and she can't help but double take at the incongruous detail. But then Alex takes a long swig, and her face muscles tighten in the slightest grimace, and Piper figures out it isn't water.)
She fucks Jesse Campbell in his bedroom one Friday after a football game, with his parents asleep and the rest of their friends passed out drunk in his basement. When it's over, Piper feels obscurely angry - at Jesse, at herself, at the stupid hype sex gets - because it didn't do what it was supposed to. She doesn't feel any better, doesn't feel like a more complete person, doesn't feel like Jesse knows her any better, doesn't feel any closer to him. She wants to go home.
(She doesn't see Alex anymore after that. Even when the tennis team leaves in the middle of the school day to attend Regionals, and the bus pulls past the baseball fields, Piper leans her forehead against the window and squints the students clustered among the bleachers, but she can't pick out black hair or a white jacket or anything else she knows.)
Piper's in her bedroom meticulously writing out weekly notecards for US History, and she groans softly when her mother's voice floats up the stairs and reaches her. It's probably Jesse, who can't stop talking about his parents being out of town this weekend, and the party he's going to throw, and how Piper can stay over (as if his parents being in the house has made much difference in the past).
She gets up from her desk and sits on the edge of the bed, grabbing the phone from her nightstand.
"Piper? It's Diane."
Piper's insides seize up, just like that: her stomach careens against her lungs which are being suffocated by her ribcage. It takes her as second to extract a word from her throat. "Oh. Um. Hi. Hey."
"I was just hoping you might've seen Alex this week. Over the past few days, maybe?"
"I -. No. I haven't seen her." Not for the past few days. Not for the past month. Haven't talked to her in more than two months. Piper feels dizzy. "Is everything okay?"
"Well, I haven't seen her in a few days. Which isn't so strange - we're both in and out so much - but there were a couple messages on the machine about her missing school. Also not strange, 'cept she's usually home often enough to erase them. But I called the store, and they said she's missed a couple shifts..." Diane's voice bends slightly under the weight of worry, and she trails off. In the space of the ensuing silence, genuine fear works its way down Piper's spine: Alex thinks nothing of skipping school, but work is different. She relishes those paychecks.
"They said it's not the first time," Diane continues, her voice steady again. "So it's not that I think anything's happened. I just worry not knowing where she is. She hasn't been herself lately." There's nothing accusatory in Diane's voice - in fact, it almost sounds like she's forgotten there's someone on the other end of the phone - but Piper feels nauseous with guilt anyway. Alex tells her mom everything, so she must know. "You wouldn't have any idea where she might be? Or with who?"
"No." Her voice comes out high pitched and shaky, and Piper physically bites down on her lower lip and sucks in a sharp breath. "I'm sorry." So fucking sorry fuck fuck fuck. "I can, um..." Her voice catches and threatens to unravel as it occurs to Piper that she doesn't know what she can do. She knows no one to call, no place to go.
Then it hits her.
"She hangs out with some of the theater tech kids," Piper supplies, voice hurried and overeager. "There's a play in a couple days, some of them may have to be at the dress rehearsals...I can drive to the school, ask around."
"Would you?" Diane sounds so grateful, and that makes Piper's fear surge fresh; it has to be pretty bad for Alex's mom to worry. "Thanks so much, baby. Just give me a call if you find out anything?"
"I will." Piper's voice comes out tiny, and there's another apology on the tip of her tongue, but she's sure if she says it out loud she'll burst into tears. "I'll go right now."
She has a vague notion that dress rehearsals tend to go pretty late, and that at least a decent amount of tech crew is required, but Piper really has no idea, so she's relieved to pull up to the high school (after a hastily constructed lie to her mother about working on an English project with Lane) and see plenty of cars in front of the auditorium.
Soon she's entering the front of the building and, sure she'll be kicked out by the stressed out drama teacher if she goes in the theater itself, climbs the stairs until she gets to the lighting booth. There are five or six kids packed into the small space, and apparently every one of them reeks of pot.
"You can't be in here," one of the boys says almost lazily.
Piper scans the small group; she recognizes at least three of them from Alex's bleacher crowd, but knows only one by name: Liz Moony, the girl got caught hooking up with last year, in this same fucking lighting booth.
The girl blinks at Piper, looking only moderately interested in how Piper knows her name. "Yeah."
"Have you, um. Seen Alex lately?"
"Alex Maxwell or Alex Vause?"
A couple of the other techies make soft, scoffing sounds. Liz shakes her head. "Nah, she hasn't been to school in like...shit. A couple weeks? Girl's off the reservation."
Piper's chest feels hot. "What does that mean?"
Liz gives a bored shrug, already returning her attention to the lighting booth and whatever's going on on the stage below. "You know. Just off."
Wanting to throttle her, Piper grits out between clenched teeth, "Do you have any idea where she might be? It's important."
"Probably Will's place," the boy who told Piper she couldn't be there offers. She waits, but he doesn't expand. Piper's temper snaps.
"Who the fuck is Will?" She's practically seething, impatient with their single sentence answers, and apparently the sight of a blonde, preppy AP student cursing at them makes a few of them laugh.
"He sells us our weed," Liz says finally. "He's out of school. There are always people at his place."
It takes a few minutes of barely calm questioning, but Piper finally manages to figure out a street name and a basic description of Will's house. She thanks them even though she doesn't want to, and drives across town.
It's a small, uncared for place with a ton of beat up cars parked in the driveway and on the street. Piper's heart is lodged somewhere at the top of her windpipe as she walks toward the porch, her keys in her hand with the sharp end out, like she's afraid she might need a weapon. The front door is cracked open, and she can hear soft music but not a lot of talking from inside.
The old coward inside Piper is whispering warnings in the back of her head: just go back she's probably not even here this isn't your type of place these aren't your type of people just forget it.
But it's ultimately drowned out by the voice repeating Liz's words: Girl's off the reservation.
Piper sighs and steps inside the house.
The living room is dimly lit, with a thin, consistent haze of smoke in the air, bongs and liquor bottles on every surface, and there are people sprawled all over beat up couches and mismatched lawn furniture. A few look like high schoolers, but mostly older. Most of them don't even register Piper's entrance.
It takes her a few seconds to adjust her vision, and then she gives the room a quick scan.
Alex is on one end of a couch, her legs stretched across another girl's lap.
"Alex!" Piper breathes it out before she can even figure out how to approach this.
Alex and a couple others swivel their heads toward her. Alex frowns, squints. "The fuck are you doing here?" She tilts her head, features twisting in slow confusion. "Are you here?"
Piper has no idea what to make of that question. Most people in the room are now watching her with mild interest, but no one seems to think it's their place to ask why she's just walked into this house. "Al, can I talk to you?"
"You can't call me Al," Alex responds almost mildly.
A guy on the floor tilts his head back to look at her. "Girlfriend, Vause?"
Alex scoffs, unkindly. "Fuck no."
"Jesus," Piper mutters. She steps over a pyramid of beer bottles and goes to the couch, grabbing Alex's arm and hauling her forcibly to her feet. Alex lets out a whine. "Come here..."
A few people laugh at them as Piper drags Alex out of the house and onto the porch. Up close, she can see Alex's pupils are huge, her skin flushed and a little sweaty. Piper's stomach sinks. "Christ, Alex, what are you on?"
"Why, are you a DARE officer?" Alex asks snidely, affecting some sort of almost-European accent, God knows why.
"This isn't funny." It's so strange to have Alex in front of her after two and a half months. Piper's been missing the familiarity, the ease that came from being around Alex, so much it aches. But this isn't easy, and right now Alex doesn't seem familiar. Piper's not ready yet to figure out why. "What the hell is going on with you? You haven't been to school in weeks."
"Surprised you noticed," Alex mutters, and it's like a leaden weight crashing against Piper's chest, because of course she hadn't noticed.
"C'mon, let's go, I'm taking you home - "
Alex wrenches her arm away before Piper can even tighten her grip. "No, you're not. I'm staying. We ordered pizza. Why are you even here?"
"Your mom called me," Piper says forcefully, thinking that'll get through. "She's worried because she has no idea where the fuck you are."
"Where the fuck is she ever?" Alex grits out in response, and instantly her eyes widen in shock at her own comment. Piper's never heard Alex say anything bad about her mom before; the regret on her face is instant and a little heartbreaking.
"I'll call her," Alex amends, in something slightly closer to her normal voice. "I'll call her right now, from inside. But you. You. Fuck you. Go away."
She starts back toward the house, but Piper grabs her arm again. "You can't do this."
Alex's eyes lock with hers, and they're so empty that for a second Piper wants to cry. "Why the hell not?"
This time Alex slams back into the house without giving Piper a chance to stop her.
Piper stands on the porch for two minutes, blinking back tears and wishing in vain that Alex might come back. When she doesn't, Piper stares at the number above the door, gets in her and car and drives home, and calls Diane Vause with Will's house address.
For the rest of the week, Piper looks for Alex at school. She's been hoping Diane stormed the house, rescued her daughter, and steered Alex immediately back on the right path, but while the rescuing bit is probably accurate enough, Piper's not sure if Diane's the sort of mother to force Alex back to some approximation of the straight and narrow.
All week it's like Piper's living with a scream stretched across her throat, aching to be let it out. She's sure she must seem a mess, like a disconnected freak, but none of her friends seem to notice that anything's off. But then, they also hadn't noticed any change two and a half months ago when she'd abruptly cut away one of the most important parts of her life.
Piper thinks again of that day, the bad day, and how before everything fell to shit one of the first things Alex had done was ask if she was okay. She'd taken one look at Piper and known something was wrong, even something stupid like a chemistry grade. Alex knows her. Alex knew her, at least. And that's so much of what Piper misses, though it's no more her friends' fault than her own: she isn't herself with them. She's always putting in effort, always overly aware of how she's supposed to be. With Alex she never had to try.
She's been fooling herself all this time, too. Trying to pretend she's fine, that she can live this normal, expectations meeting life that doesn't include Alex. But now that Piper's seen her she feels the worse kind of homesick, the kind when you're missing something that isn't even a place. Something that doesn't exist anymore, that you can't get back to.
Saturday night is Jesse's idiotic house party. Piper puts some feeble thought into ways to get out of it, but in a fit of foolishness three hours before, she decides she can't let one encounter with Alex undo the rest of her life. And anyway, a night of heavy drinking doesn't sound so bad right now.
Piper's never really gotten drunk, all those nights in Jesse's basement with the others. Usually she drinks to the very edge of a warm, pleasant buzz and stops, but tonight she starts pour the party's vodka/Kool-Aid mix down her throat like it might erase the memory of Alex on that couch surrounded by unresponsive strangers.
But she still feels heavy with the stress of the past week, and so Piper's short and borderline bitchy to anyone who talks to her, especially Jesse. Jesus, it's all she can do not to shove him off every time he touches her.
After only an hour and a half of heavy partying, he comes up behind her and slips his arms around her waist. "Wanna go upstairs?"
"Already?" She turns to face him as an excuse to get out of his grip.
He smirks. "I didn't mean 'go upstairs for the night'. I meant 'go upstairs for half an hour'."
"Oh. Then no."
Jesse's face falls, and he scowls a little. "What's with you?"
"You've looked fucking miserable all night."
"Maybe I am fucking miserable." Piper's drunk voice is all crisp, overly articulated syllables. "Not that you'd bother asking about it."
"I just asked!"
"Yeah, you asked what's with you. Not, y'know, are you okay?
"Are you okay?"
"Fine. Shit." He shakes his head like she's beyond help and walks back to his stupid fucking party, which suddenly seems so bland and predictable and embarrassing.
Piper takes a bottle of vodka from the kitchen and sits down in the middle of the staircase. She can just see into the dining room, where beer pong games are raging, and occasionally couples or groups of smokers step around her on their way up and down the stairs, but she doesn't talk to anyone else. Her mother thinks she's sleeping over at Lane's, and suddenly Piper regrets drinking at all because she can't just get in her car and drive herself home. She's stuck all night.
So, she sits alone, brooding and drinking and missing weekend nights in Alex's apartment.
"You're home! You answered."
"What do you want?"
"I don't know. I wanted to see if you were home and safe. And also if you hate me."
"You sound...are you drunk?"
"Where are you?"
"Jesse's party. I looked at you for school. No. For you at school."
"I'm hanging up now. Go back to your party, Piper."
"No, wait. You didn't answer the question. About if you hate me."
"We're not fucking talking about this right now."
"But are you okay? Because you're taking drugs."
"Alex, I'm really really sorry."
"I gotta go."
"No! Wait wait wait. You're at home. That's what I wanted to know. I want to come see you."
"Doesn't sound like you're going anywhere."
"Yes. I have my car."
"Piper. You can't drive right now."
"I can't stay here. I don't want to sleep with Jesse."
"So don't sleep with Jesse."
"No, but I don't want to even sleep sleep with him. Beside him. And I don't want to be at this party. I hate these people."
"You've seemed to like them just fine."
"No. I like you. I miss you."
"You're just drunk. This is a drunk dial, you realize that?"
"I'm not that drunk. I'm going to have some water and come see you."
"No you are not. Piper. You're not driving anywhere. Promise me."
"I want to leave so bad, Al...it's not that far. I can't stay."
"Jesus fucking shit...fine. Piper? Listen to me. I'm coming to get you."
"You don't have a car."
"Yeah, thanks, asshole. I can get my mom's. Where does this idiot live?"
"Are you really gonna come?"
"Well, yeah. If you wrap your car around a fucking tree now it'd be my fault. Where are you?"
"His parents' bedroom."
"Fuck Piper, the address."
"Oh, yeah. Sandhurst. Drive or Street. I don't know. It's past the country club. House is something that ends with a seven. It's the one with all the cars."
"Okay. Just do not fucking get behind a damn wheel."
"Okay. I won't. You're really coming?"
"Jesus. Stay where you are."
She stays where she is.
Exactly where she is, in the floor of Jesse's parents bedroom, the nearly empty vodka bottle and cordless phone cradled in her lap. Piper's been waiting for nearly half an hour when the door flies open and Jesse comes in, his face stormy.
It relaxes when he sees her. "Oh, good. I saw the light, thought people were hooking up on my parents bed."
"Go away," she slurs out, idiotically annoyed because he isn't Alex, here to take her home.
Jesse's eyes narrow, annoyed but also bewildered. "Fuck, Pipes. Remind me not to try to get you to drink more ever again."
Piper groans and stretches out on the floor, facing the ceiling so she doesn't have to look at him. "Don't call me that."
"Jesus, what's making you such a bitch?"
"Maybe I've always been a bitch."
"Probably." This from the doorway, where Alex is suddenly standing with her arms crossed, her eyes taking Jesse in with cool dislike.
He stares at her, confused. "What the hell?"
Alex ignores him, her eyes snapping over his shoulder to meet Piper's. "Ready?"
Piper's beaming at Alex like she's just performed a miracle by simply showing up. "Yes." She grabs onto the side of Jesse's parents' bed, scrambling for purchase to pull herself up.
Alex rolls her eyes and walks forward to help her, at the same time Jesse demands, "Wait a second, are you leaving?"
"Oh, c'mon. If I did something, just tell me, okay? You don't have to go."
With Piper steady on her feet, Alex lets go of her arm and glances at Jesse. "Take a hint, she wants to leave."
"Hey, you aren't even supposed to be in my house. This isn't your business." Then, under his breath, he mutters, "Fuckin' dyke."
Alex lets out a short, scoffing laugh, unperturbed.
Piper takes a step forward and drives her fist into his nose.
"Jesus!" Alex's eyes are wide, her mouth open, and she looks like she's caught between shock and laughter.
"Fuck!" Muffled outrage and pain from Jesse, his hands cupped to his face and sticky with blood. "What the fuck, Piper?!"
"Pipes, let's go," Alex says firmly, grabbing her arm and dragging her out of the room, through the oblivious party, and across Jesse's yard. She doesn't let go of her arm until she's deposited Piper in the passenger seat of her mother's ancient car.
The Rolling Stones are playing on the tape deck, something quiet and slightly mournful about another mad, mad day.
Neither of them say anything for awhile, just let the music fill the silence. Piper leans her head against the window, and it occurs to her that she's never been in the car with Alex driving. They'd always take Piper's car, and there was never any reason for her to relinquish the drivers seat. Now, though, her eyes heavy and her brain fuzzy with vodka, Piper decides she likes it. It feels safe, like being a little kid asleep in the backseat, home by the time she woke up.
"Am I taking you to your place?" Alex asks eventually.
"I can't go there drunk."
Alex sighs. "You can't sneak in?"
Piper throws her a have you met me? sort of look, and Alex's lips twitch like she might almost maybe be considering smiling. For just a second they're friends again.
Fuck it feels like the best thing in the world.
"Fine. You can crash at my place." Like it'd be some one off event, like they haven't done that a hundred times before.
"Okay. Thanks. I like it there."
There's a muscle pulsing in Alex's jaw, and she doesn't look at Piper again until they reach her apartment. She walks slowly up the stairs, right behind Piper and her shaky, newborn calf steps. When they get inside, the living room is dark and empty. "Where's your mom?" Piper hisses in a stage whisper; she assumes if the car was home Diane must have a night off.
"Asleep in my room," Alex answers in a normal voice. "Sit." Piper thumps obediently down on the couch. "I'm getting you water. And I'd really fucking love it if you didn't puke, okay?"
"Okay." Piper leans back into the couch cushions, heaving a long, contented sigh. She really does love it here, and she's suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of affection. "Alex?"
"You're my best friend. I love you so much."
"Oh, good, you're one of those drunks," Alex sits on the couch beside Piper, handing over a glass of water and wearing an expression of weary indulgence.
"But I mean it."
"I'm sure you do."
"You really are my favorite person."
"And I'm afraid I ruined it." Her voice snaps in half, and honestly, fuck alcohol, because no one should ever go from zero to crying so quickly. But the tears come fast, and her chest starts convulsing, breath coming in harsh, gasping sobs. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."
"Oh, fuck, Pipes..." It's that voice. The that's so Piper voice, all fond exasperation, and it makes her cry harder.
"I know I hurt your feelings. I didn't meant to. I didn't think I could." Wow, drunk crying is horrible. It doesn't stop even when she manages to talk, every word wet and wavering and high pitched, like a little kid who can't catch their breath long enough to explain what's wrong. "But I'm so sorry, and I missed you so much. You know that, right? You know?"
"I know." Alex shuffles a little closer to Piper, looking slightly alarmed at the rapidity of her breakdown.
"And I'm s-sorry I didn't talk to you. Your first day of school, when Jessica what's-her-thingie was picking on you, I wanted to go talk to you. But I didn't because I'm a chickenshit coward and I'm sorry I didn't sit with you on the bus..."
All this comes in a rush of weeping, and Alex is gaping at her, her lips twitching slightly, almost smiling. "Jesus, kid, you're really going deep tracks with this apology, huh?" She reaches out and wrapping a hand around the nape of Piper's neck. "We were nine. That one I've moved past."
"But I'm still a selfish cowardly bitch," Piper declares mournfully.
"And I'm a condescending asshole. Who's also sorry. Okay?"
The condescending asshole pulls the sleeve of her sweater up over her hands, curling her nails into the fabric, then reaches out and wipes the tears rolling down Piper's face. For a moment, Piper's brain actually clears, and she meets Alex's eyes. Holds them.
"Al, when your mom called me last week I was really scared." The muscles in Piper's face tighten, her lips trembling, and a fresh wave of tears hit her, and this time it doesn't feel like just the alcohol; it feels like these are the tears she's been holding back all week. "Like really, really scared."
Alex pushes her glasses up on her head, and her whole face goes soft around the edges. "Then I'm sorry about that, too."
A sob rips out of Piper's throat, and then she's really crying, telling herself it's the alcohol, just the alcohol. She bends at the waist at the same time Alex reaches for her, and somehow she ends up with her head on Alex's lap, crying against her faded jeans. Alex strokes her hair, long, gentle fingers slipping between strands or tracing patterns on Piper's neck.
Slowly, she finally starts to reign in the crying, but Piper doesn't want to move. Not with Alex's hands against her skin, not with Alex so close and smelling so much like herself it makes Piper's heart tighten.
She feels exhausted, but in a good way, suddenly overwhelmed by a marrow deep relief of having this back. It feels like coming home.
When she's gone quiet long enough, she hears Alex ask cautiously, "You okay?"
"Yeah." Piper rolls over so she's staring up at Alex, and because she can't not be needy as hell, apparently, asks in a small voice, "So you don't hate me?"
Almost absently, Alex hooks one finger around a strand of hair on Piper's forehead and brushes it back. "No, moron. I love you."
They've said that to each other before, dozens of time, usually in an amused, non-declarative way: This is why I love you. Oh my God I love you so much right now. You know you love me.
This sounds different. There's a weight behind it that keeps the words jangling around in Piper's chest. She closes her eyes, because fuck, alcohol makes you tired, and because she wants to fall asleep with Alex this close, with Alex's words still caught in her ears.
She wakes up with a bullet of a headache, shaky muscles, and a hollow stomach. But she wakes up and Alex is still there, and that counts for more.
Alex is still mostly sitting up on the couch, which couldn't have been comfortable all night, but she just smirks down at Piper when she sees her eyes open. "Morning, Drunky."
"Shit," Piper says. "I didn't meant to fall asleep on you." She kind of did, technically, but Piper would like to think her sober self would have been more accommodating, in spite of the comfort of Alex's lap.
A groan curls its way out of Piper's throat, and she screws her eyes shut against the light. She can feel Alex's laughter.
"Aw, is this baby's first hangover? Let me get the camera."
"Shut up," Piper moans feebly, skimming quickly through her memory, trying to isolate if there's anything she should feel embarrassed about.
Probably all of it. But it got her here, so whatever.
"Here, get up." Alex taps her lightly on the top of the head. "I've had to pee for like an hour."
"Ugh..." Piper sits up, a little dizzy. "Sorry. You should've woken me up."
Alex waves a hand dismissively and disappears into the bathroom, rolling her neck as she goes. Piper shakes out her own stiff, shaky muscles. The apartment seems empty, which means Diane's probably left for a Sunday morning shift somewhere.
There's the slightest awkwardness between Piper and Alex, a sense that they're both having to try not to be awkward, but Piper is willing to accept that as a side effect of months of silence, and a reconciliation that, on one half at least, was conducted under the influence.
When Alex returns, she flashes Piper a smirky grin. "You look like you need hangover food. I'll make some eggs. I left you a toothbrush in the bathroom, cause no offense, you need it. If you want to take a shower you know where the towels and shit are."
Piper brushes her teeth for a solid ten minutes, then jumps in the shower, feeling more like a functional human being as soon as the hot water hits her. She can hear music playing faintly from the living room, because there's always music playing here. Piper smiles and tilts her head under the spray.
She's thinking about Alex's I love you, still trying to figure out the weight of it, every angle and edge. She's thinking about Alex's fingers murmuring across the back of her neck. She's thinking about punching Jesse, and how he probably told everyone and she's basically thrown a grenade into the center of her social life. She's thinking that she really doesn't give a fuck.
Piper doesn't feel like putting on her dirty party clothes, so she darts into Alex's room and finds a The Who T-shirt she occasionally borrowed to sleep in when she stayed over, and a pair of sweat pants she has to hike up and still drag at the ankles.
She hovers in the doorway of the living room and watches Alex, in her shorts and tank top and bare feet, hair still morning messy. She's making eggs at the stove, her back to Piper, and she's singing to Bonnie Raitt, kind of quiet, like that makes up for her being entirely tone deaf.
Piper tilts her head against the doorframe, staying quiet. Her heart feels too big for her chest. Her blood is pumping faster through her veins.
It's impulsive and reckless. She strides swiftly and purposefully across the room to the kitchen, puts her hands on Alex's waist. Alex turns into her, her lips parted to speak, when Piper reaches up and swallows whatever Alex was going to say. It's maybe the first time Piper's ever been brave.
It's not what Piper would have expected, though she had no idea until this moment that she might have had expectations. It's not uncertain and tentative and gentle: it's an earthquake. They've barely made contact when Alex's hands come up to cup Piper's face, and she kisses back like she was somehow waiting for this. Her lips are soft, softer than any boys, but the kissing isn't, Alex's tongue brazen and exploratory; she fastens one hand against Piper's jaw and winds the other through her hair. They both taste like toothpaste, and Piper feels drunk again, but in the best way possible, light and dizzy and out of her head.
They pull back at the same moment, look at each other in hazy eyed wonder for half a second, then burst out laughing.
"Jesus," Piper murmurs eventually.
She's expecting questions and incredulity and quips, but instead Alex is staring at her intently. She's worrying a strand of Piper's hair between her fingers, and she traces it to its end before staying, "You can't fuck with me." Her voice is stern and commanding, but Alex's eyes give her away - wide beggar eyes, all vulnerability and want. "I'm usually a huge proponent of the whole 'may as well experiment' argument. Experimental girls have been great for me. But you...you don't get to do that. Not with me, anyway."
Piper smiles, puffing out a short, breathless laugh. "Alex. I've hated every single one of your girlfriends."
"They're never my girlfriends," she corrects automatically, as though her aversion to relationship labels is at all relevant right now. Jesus.
"Shut up." Piper kisses her, fast and soft, to make sure the command is heeded. "Not the point. I'm just saying. Every time you come to school in some girls' car, or lay all over someone on the bleachers, or get caught in the damn lighting booth with your clothes off - stop smirking you ass - I'm mentally calling these girls I don't even know bitches. I hate it. It's ridiculous. You're ridiculous."
Alex laughs, smile unsurprisingly smug. "That's a pretty compelling argument." Her thumb traces the curve of Piper's cheekbone. "Give me one more."
Slowly, the laughter leaves Piper's eyes, her smile easing into something more serious. "Just...you know me. I think you're maybe the only person who does. Who I let." Piper shrugs a little, almost shy. "I think that matters."
"I like that I know you." Alex's eyes track to Piper's lips, her tongue slipping unconsciously across her own, but she doesn't lean forward yet. "Want to know something stupid?"
"My mom's always thought we'd be a thing."
For some reason, that makes Piper even happier. "Really?"
"What did you say?"
Alex arches an eyebrow. "That you're straight."
Piper tugs her bottom lip between her teeth, and looks away, heat rising to her cheeks. "I...don't know what I am. But I know I...liked kissing you." She lifts her eyes to meet Alex's. "Is that okay?"
"I can deal with that." Then Alex smirks. "Although you do have a boyfriend."
"He's not my boyfriend," Piper parrots, mocking the same tone Alex used earlier. "Especially not after I punched him."
"You were defending my honor. Sort of." Alex smiles without opening her mouth, lips pursed, and fuck, how has Piper not spent the past eight years distracted by her damn lips?
Alex seems to notice the object of Piper's focus, and her eyes gleam smugly right before she leans in, catches Piper's lower lip lightly with her teeth and then kisses her. Slower than before, like she wants to take her time, get the lay of the land.
They keep that up until the smell of burning eggs fills the kitchen.
"Do we have to talk about this?"
"It wasn't a big deal."
"It looked like a big deal."
"Fine, it was just...run of the mill, self-destructive shit."
"Run of the mill? Really?"
"I'm not proud of myself, okay? But most of the time, I was fine. It just got a little...out of control the past few weeks."
"And that's it?"
"C'mon, Pipes, are you really gonna make me say why?"
"It was...always right there, you know? The option to just...check out. School's always seemed like a waste of my time. The drugs were always...well, I always knew I could get them, if I wanted. It's not like I never thought about it before, Piper. What else am I supposed to be doing with my life? My mom works her ass off and barely has time for anything else. And it's not like I'm on track to do anything bigger...I'm not a person who gets to have grand plans. So, yeah, it's always just been tempting to just say, y'know, fuck it."
"So why now?"
"Fuck, Pipes, I just...all I had was you, okay? You and my mom, but it's not like she's home much. You were the only people who cared that I didn't go off some edge."
"What, people to sit next to and smoke on the bleachers? Girls looking to prove how alternative they are by fucking me to piss off their parents? No offense."
"Joking. But Pipes...you were suddenly just gone. And I was really fucking lonely. And sick of being at school and waiting for you to come find me and apologize. And then when that never happened, I was tired of thinking about you finally figuring out you were too good for me."
"Oh, hey, fuck, come on...don't do that. Don't cry on me, Pipes, you made me tell you."
"I'm just really, really sorry."
"Piper, if you're going to force us to have these moments, we need to issue an apology embargo. Okay? I was a shitty friend, too. We both suck."
"I have plans, okay? Plans that require you. So shut up about going off an edge, or, or saying fuck it, or anything else."
"I like when you get all bossy."
When Diane finds out, she gives them an oh-imagine-that sort of smirk that looks uncannily like Alex, and makes a joke about them keeping the bedroom door open from now on. Later she gives Piper a tight hug and whispers a thank you, saying, "I knew I could still call you." That's the closest they come to mentioning Piper's recent absence from Alex's life.
Diane doesn't seem fazed by Alex and Piper's sudden reconciliation, or even their sudden escalation from best friends to girlfriends (which is undeniably what they are, even though it takes a month and a half before Alex uses the word).
What's stranger is how unfazed Piper is by it. She and Alex have been friends for almost half their lives, spent more time with each other than almost anyone else. It should be awkward, tentative, but instead they fall into it like it's the most natural thing in the world. Like this is what they should have been doing all along, and they'd been fighting something inevitable.
They rebuild their days around each other. Piper picks Alex up from school every morning, and Alex waits by her car every afternoon until Piper's out of whatever club meeting she has after school. Fired from the grocery store, Alex starts working at a Sonic, and Piper hangs around during the slow hours, leaning on the counter and flirting like an idiot while Alex gives her free slushies. There are times when it feels like middle school all over again, back when the two of them didn't need anyone else.
(And of course, there are times when it feels wonderfully adult.)
"We can start staying at your place on Fridays. That'd double up our weekends."
"Why not? I've spent the night at your house like two hundred times."
"Yeah, but now my parents would never - oh. Oh."
"And they say you're the smart one."
"I never even thought about that."
"The perk of the closeted teen lesbian."
"Not a lesbian."
"Whatever. Your perk is sleepovers with no suspicion."
"I like it."
"Good. Your bed's bigger."
"Oh, suddenly you don't like being close, Miss come be my little spoon?"
"Using my adorable banter against me. I see how it is."
"Does it bother you?"
"Yeah, Pipes, it wounds me to my core. I bant for you."
"No, not that. The whole, um. Closeted thing."
"No. I've met your parents. I wouldn't want them to know I'm gay. Much less you."
"What about at school?"
"I told you it's fine. Much as I'd love to have a repeat in the lighting booth - "
" - kids talk to their parents, their parents talk to yours. Vicious fucking cycle. I get it."
"You've got a look."
"I understand why you wanna keep it a secret. I really do, Pipes. It's just...it makes it easier for you to walk away."
"Oh my God, Al, would you stop it with that? I'm not going anywhere."
"Except to some fancy ass college out of state."
"What? That's over a year away. Why are you even thinking about that?"
"Oh, like you aren't thinking about it."
"Actually, I can honestly say I've never thought about college less."
"I'm a very bad influence."
"Shit. I hate proving my parents right."
After eight years of friendship, Piper thought she had nothing new to learn about Alex Vause. But she is making new discoveries every day.
Alex smiles into kisses. She tastes like cigarettes and sugar. There's a tattoo on her left shoulder that she got a couple weeks after their fight (Piper's bummed about that until Alex promises to bring her for the next one). She has a thing about touching Piper's hair.
And after only a few days of Alex being back at school, Piper can see why she has a history of getting caught in lighting booths and custodial closets.
She's not sure if Alex has always been like this, and she was just willfully not seeing it, or if some switch flipped the first time they kissed, but holy shit.
Alex is pure seduction. They'll be sitting in the cafeteria, or passing in the hall, and all it takes is one little thing to drive Piper crazy. A raised eyebrow. A lip bite. Sometimes just a look, Alex's eyes narrow and smug and practically shooting sparks.
She's going to school every day again, but Alex still nips out of class on a whim, and spends most of her daily study hall smoking on the bleachers. One day Piper's sitting in AP English, listening to her teacher go point by point over a sample AP test essay, when Alex walks by the narrow glass rectangle on the classroom door.
Alex catches Piper's eye, her lips pressed together and curled in a slight smirk, and winks. Then she walks on.
Piper shoots her hand in the air and asks to see the nurse.
When she goes out in the hallway, Alex is ten feet down the hall, waiting. She starts walking as soon as Piper appears, not looking back, and Piper follows her from a distance, every nerve ending in her skin singing in anticipation, until Alex walks into the women's locker room as if she has every reason to be there.
Alex is as gleeful about assisting in Piper's first ever instance of skipping class as anything else, calling her truant all day and looking ridiculously pleased with herself.
After that, she starts setting herself challenges.
Like the morning Piper picks her up for school, their new routine, and Alex refuses to so much as touch her. She doesn't kiss her good morning, doesn't play with her hair while Piper drives. She's smiling normally enough, but Piper's still racking her brain for what could be wrong until they get to the school parking lot and, testing, Piper reaches for her and Alex smoothly ducks away, badly biting back a grin, and Piper realizes she has some sort of plan.
With an eye roll and a dramatic sigh, Piper starts to turn the car off, but Alex says innocently, "Hold on, I wanna hear the rest of this song."
It's one of Piper's own tapes, and Alex doesn't even like Fiona Apple, but Piper knows better than to call bullshit. So they sit in the parking lot while students mill around and head inside the school. Piper's watching Alex. Alex is watching the clock.
With five minutes before the first bell, the parking lot's mostly empty, and Piper finally turns off the car and grabs her backpack from the back seat. "I gotta go or I'll be late."
Alex nods, then abruptly grabs the front of Piper's jacket and tugs her across the console, sweeping her tongue into Piper's mouth, filling it up. It's a powerhouse kiss, and Alex knows it, but she pulls back too quickly, and before Piper can even catch her breath, Alex slides her hand high up Piper's leg, pressing her fingers to the juncture of Piper's thighs, rubbing through the tight fabric of her jeans.
Piper lets out a whine that may or may not hold the syllable's of Alex's name.
Alex grins, leaning her free elbow on the console and propping her chin in her palm, smiling up at Piper through narrow, hazy eyes. Wicked, in the right light. Her fingers increase their pace and pressure, but it's teasing, pulling Piper in view of an edge but never once letting her lean over.
Dimly, Piper thinks she has to get out before she hits a point of no return, before Alex actually goes in for direct contact, and she mumbles a half-hearted protest, "Gotta...class," but doesn't back it up with any attempt to move away. Alex leans over, rounding her mouth at the base of Piper's jaw.
Alex eases her hand up, expertly flicking the button of Piper's jeans and sliding her hand under the waistband. Piper makes a stuck, squeaking sound, almost not wanting to give her the satisfaction. Alex spreads her wide, and she sends a single finger circling her clit, frustratingly languid. Piper arches against into her hand, when suddenly Alex leans forward and gives her a quick, perfunctory peck on the cheek and withdraws her hand.
"Two minute warning bell just rang," Alex informs her mildly. "I may hang out in here for first period...but you can probably still make it."
Piper closes her eyes, drawing shallow, quivering breaths, then cuts her eyes at Alex.
She has AP Chemistry first period. And a test in three days.
"Asshole," she clenches out in a hoarse voice before reaching out and seizing Alex's wrist, returning her hand to where it was. Alex's whole face lights up with her triumph.
"How long did you know?"
"Oh my god, ego."
"No, come on, I seriously want to know."
"You just want to hear about the teenage lesbian pining after her purportedly straight best friend. A tale as old as time."
"Hey, if anything, I'm an inversion of the trope. I made the first move."
"Mmm-hmmm. And were you pining?"
"Definitely. I remember sophomore year when you stormed my house to yell about Liz Moony."
"I still don't like her. You know she was aggressively unhelpful when I was looking for you that time."
"That's because she barely knows me."
"You'd prefer I stayed friends with all my exes?"
"I thought they weren't exes?"
"They aren't my ex-girlfriends. Ex-conquests? Sure."
"Ugh, okay, stop talking."
"Hey. You remember what I said to you that day?"
"When I got suspended and you were having a tantrum over Liz Moony."
"What did you say?"
"I said that we'd never been the kind of friends who talked about dating and sex - "
"Because you threw a tantrum at me when I kissed Cody Lionel. And we were twelve. So you've been pining longer - "
"Ego. That's not what I meant."
"I said that even though I didn't tell you about every random hook up I have, I'd tell you when there was someone that mattered."
"Well. I'm telling you."
"You can be surprisingly cheesy. It would ruin your reputation if it got out."
"I'll get a couple more tattoos to even things up."
"I'm telling you, too."
The summer before their senior year of high school passes in a sepia toned haze of rock music and sweltering sunshine and Alex's sinfully short cutoffs.
They do shots of tequila, straight from the bottle, and have sex on Alex's apartment roof. They wait until Piper's parents are asleep and night swim in the pool, discarding swim suits by the side (Cal leads a group of his buddies outside once, but Piper shrieks at him so they don't get past the porch). They buy milkshakes and drive aimlessly in Piper's car for hours, Alex feeding in mixtapes and smoking out the open window, until they find a secluded road to pull the car over and crawl into the backseat.
They go to Friendly's and eat with Alex's mom on her breaks. Piper takes books to Sonic and sits on the tables outside, reading and eye fucking Alex every time she walks by. Piper works as a counselor at a summer camp for two weeks and she's practically bursting out of her skin by the end of it - drives straight to Alex's when she gets back and doesn't leave her apartment for twenty-four hours.
At seventeen, Piper and Alex are in love. Piper and Alex are happy.
There are moments where it feels like no one else of relevance exists in the world. They stay up most nights like it will double the time they get to live in this summer, and then end up sleeping until noon anyway.
Piper's SAT scores arrive. They're good, but her father wants her to take it one more time before college applications. She doesn't tell Alex. Just like she doesn't mention the college brochures that start coming in the mail.
When the last first day of high school rolls around in September, Piper wishes she could thread her fingers through Alex's, or kiss her at their lockers. There's no real reason not to; they spend all their time together, and there's a general consensus among Piper's old crowd that they're probably together.
But some part of Piper is still a coward. She's cut off most people she had to pretend in front of, but she can't cut off her family. She's not quite ready to blow holes in her parents image of her.
And it's not just that Alex is a girl. It's that she's Alex.
They fight sometimes, snippy little arguments about Alex going to class or not, or Piper saying something inadvertently judgmental or patronizing. They're quick fights, and usually end in them either laughing or making out, unable to keep up the serious charade for too long, but they happen increasingly often. Neither of them say it out loud, but they both know what's coming.
Piper soaks up that first semester of senior year, more desperately than she'd felt during that summer. She soaks up sneaking into locker rooms or custodial closets between classes, soaks up Alex's completely played out joke about getting her into the lighting booth someday. She revels in those daily drives to and from school, in draping herself over Alex on the couch while she does reading for AP Lit, in the times Alex shows up for her tennis matches and leans, smirking, against the fence in her leather jacket, catching Piper's eye and whispering, "Kick her fuckin ass, babe," every time Piper has to chase a ball to her end of the fence.
Piper never mentions the application essays she's writing, the forms she's filling out. She goes out of town a few weekends to visit campuses, but Alex doesn't ask questions when she gets back. It's easier that way.
But January brings the acceptance letters.
She hears back from second and third choice schools first, and doesn't tell Alex about it.
But Alex goes home with her after school the day the envelope from Smith arrives.
It's big and bulky, the sort of envelope that contains a Congratulations! and a packet full of registration information.
Piper's smile is immediate and huge; for a second, she isn't thinking even of Alex, standing right behind her.
She worked damn hard for this. And in the end it turns out she wants it.
"Pipes, hey. That's awesome. You totally deserve it." The words are too formal, too practiced, and then Alex hugs her. When they pull back, she's smiling, but that look is trapped behind her eyes. The look from that day on the bleachers, their biggest fight, the one Piper thinks about every time she thinks about leaving.
Piper learns the words to to talk about it, and they patch together some sort of plan, born from necessity.
Only a few hours drive.
I'll come home some weekends, and your mom already said you can borrow the car sometimes...
I have to live in the dorms for a year, maybe two, while my parents are paying. But I'm gonna get a job there, part time, and save up.
You work for a year, and I work for a year...by sophomore year we'll have an apartment off campus.
And we'll see each other all the time even before then.
Alex nods and nods and tries to laugh and say she's not worried. But her smiles are stiff, jokes forced, and she goes quiet a lot more often now.
Piper runs out of assurances and explanations, because she knows it isn't just the distance: it's the very fact of college, that Piper will be constructing a life that doesn't include Alex. A life Alex isn't being offered.
It's taken Piper so long to understand Alex's insecurities; it's hard to remember she has them. Alex has always seemed so strong to her, even as a kid talking back to Jessica Wedge. It's been years and years since Alex was outwardly bothered by what she doesn't have. Because Alex Vause has always been cool. Piper remembers being twelve years old and hoping Alex's cool would rub off on her, hoping that her easy, daughter-of-a-rock-star confidence could be learned.
But then, during one of their countless conversations that came in the days after Piper kissed Alex and shook up the world, she'd mentioned Piper being too good for her.
Piper literally couldn't fathom that line of thinking, but Alex clearly had, and Piper's thinking about it a lot these days, but she doesn't know how to fix it.
"You remember my first day of school?"
"Oh, God, don't."
"I'm not trying to give you a crisis of conscious, dumbass. I'm trying to be nostalgic."
"What's there to be nostalgic about? I didn't talk to you."
"No, but you stared a lot."
"I was feeling guilty!"
"Nah, you were just staring. I think you knew, even back then. You knew what you felt, Pipes."
"Uh, if you noticed me staring it's because you were paying close attention to me."
"Shit. No wonder you're going to college."
"Did I kill the mood?"
"No. Which side does the tassel go on?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes. There's a specific way to do it, symbolically, but I can't remember."
"You better figure it the fuck out Pipes. Otherwise they revoke your diploma."
"I hate you."
"No, you don't."
"No. I don't."
There's something desperate to that last summer, nothing like the careless, infinite bliss of last year. Time rushes by far too quickly, careening toward the moment that everything changes.
On the fourth of July they crawl up on Alex's roof to watch distant fireworks and burn a box of gold sparklers Alex bought at a roadside stand. They're lying on a blanket, Piper's head on Alex's stomach, her arm stretched above them, holding a thin metal rod shooting sparks. One by one, they watch them burn out. When the box is empty, all the beauty of the night gone, they split a bottle of wine and part of another, drinking to the point of drunkenness, and the sex is frenzied and panicked.
They wake up with hangovers the next morning in Alex's tiny twin bed, and Diane laughs at them before making coffee.
Alex waits until her mom leaves for work before she hands Piper an envelope.
"I know it's only a week before you have to leave," she says quietly as Piper opens it up. "But...will you come with me?"
Piper's staring down at two tickets to a Death Maiden concert, three weeks away, and her instinct is a lurch of worry before she even knows why. "Does your mom know?"
"No. He came to a couple of closer cities on other tours, like back when I was a kid. And she'd never take me. So I don't know." Alex fiddles nervously with her glasses. "I figure I'll just go myself this first time. Tell her after."
Piper nods absently, thinking how unusual it is for Alex to keep something from Diane. She forgets Alex is technically still waiting for an answer, until she prompts urgently, "So will you?"
"God, sorry, yeah, of course, Al. You know I'll come."
Alex breaks into a relieved grin. "Great!" Then, too casual, "It'll be kind of cool, right? Getting to see his band?"
"Yeah. Really cool." Leaning back against Alex on the couch, Piper's sure she doesn't sound sincere, which Alex can usually bust her on, but anything having to do with her father has always been a cause for faulty wiring on Alex's bullshit detector.
And Piper suddenly feels very, very scared for her.
The concert date looms a week before Piper moves away to school, which is probably a blessing as it distracts their nerves.
Hours before they have to leave, Piper stretches out on Alex's bed watching her silently agonize over what to wear.
"No white pleather jacket?" she teases lightly after awhile.
Alex throws her a look. "I tell you way too much shit."
It's a three hour drive, and Alex plays tapes of the band and doesn't talk much, just plays absently with Piper's hand in the center console and occasionally smokes out the window, but Piper can feel the anxious anticipation radiating off her.
Piper, though, feels like her stomach is full of stones. Alex is nervous, but she's not nervous about him, about what he'll be like, so Piper's carrying all that fear for her.
There's never been room for practicality or realism when it comes to this. Alex has no neutral button about her father, no objectivity and while it's a little heartbreaking, it's been ultimately harmless. But now they're driving toward a real person instead of the abstract idea of a rock god, and Piper's gnawing the inside of her cheek and wondering if it's time to say something to tamper expectations. Just speak the possibility out loud, start a sentence with You know even if he's not what you're expecting...
But Piper's cowardice keeps a tight hold on the words, no matter how gentle and theoretical they are. She can't be the one to hand Alex doubt.
They get to the venue early enough to work their way close to the stage, and as soon as they're there Alex takes Piper's hand in a death grip and doesn't let go.
There's an opening band, and Piper can feel Alex shaking, so she moves behind her, wrapping arms around her waist and leaning up to kiss the back of Alex's neck. The music is crashing, jangling rock that sounds like destruction, but Piper starts moving her body against Alex's, and slowly Piper can feel some of the tension drain from her muscles. By the end of the set Alex is moving against her, reaching her hands back and trailing them up Piper's hips, craning her neck back to tease kisses. For a little while, it could be any other concert.
But as soon as the opener is over Alex goes still again, staring intently at the stage as roadies switch out instruments, like she's afraid she'll miss the exact moment her father appears if she glances away. Piper takes her hand again, squeezing gently.
And then he's there, this aging musician sitting at a drum set, and when Alex whispers, "Look!" she sounds like an excited little girl. Piper turns to watch Alex, and instantly her heart catches in her chest; Alex's smile is awed and full of light. She's staring at the stage like it holds the meaning of life.
Piper drags her eyes away to land on Lee Burley, drumming out an angry percussion that sends her lungs rattling against her ribcage. Tries to think of this tattooed man in a bandanna and ripped T-shirt as Alex's dad.
Alex is watching him like he's some sort of deity, and Piper's no better, because she closes her eyes and wings him a prayer.
Please be worth a damn. Please be some fraction of what she wants from you.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Alex yells, right against Piper's ear. Piper opens her eyes to look at her, and it's that look she gets, all eager anticipation and a fraction of anxiety, like what Piper thinks really, really matters. All of a sudden they're nine years old listening to cassettes in Alex's bedroom, Alex nervously watching Piper for approval.
Piper smiles and nods, briefly trailing her knuckles across Alex's jaw.
Please just fucking be nice to her.
"You want me to go with you?"
"Um. No. Not yet. I'll go back and meet him by myself and then come get you?"
"Yeah, sure whatever you want." Piper forces a smile, torn between disappointment, worry, and small, selfish relief. "Take your time, okay? I'll just hang out in the car."
"Thanks." Alex nods, like it's all been decided, but she doesn't move.
"Hey..." Piper brings Alex's hand to her lips, kissing the knuckles. "It's gonna be okay."
This is the moment to say something. To add no matter what he says. But she doesn't.
Soon, way too soon, she spots Alex striding across the parking toward the car.
Piper jumps out of the driver's side to meet her, hoping against all her instincts that Alex is just coming to bring her inside, that she's about to be introduced to her girlfriend's rocker dad. But Alex, her expression determinedly calm, just shakes her head and goes for the passenger door, "We can go."
Slowly, Piper lowers herself back into the car, throat constricting painfully. She's not sure what to do, whether to push Alex into talking or leave her alone. Finally, she decides it'd be weird to say nothing. Soft, understanding, she asks, "Al, what happened?"
Alex is slunk low in the seat, her fists shoved into her jacket pockets, like she's trying to make herself as small as possible. Her face is carefully blank. "He's just about what you'd expect from a depressing fucking has-ben. Don't think there's much fatherly wisdom to glean. Would you just fucking drive?"
Obediently, Piper cranks the car. Immediately, Death Maiden blasts to life on the tape deck, and Alex reaches out and hits the eject button almost viciously. Piper doesn't say anything as Alex unravels the tape from the cassette's reel, and when they pull out of the parking lot, she rolls down the window and slings the ruined tape into the street.
They drive in total silence for ten minutes, the quiet punctured only by the occasional sharp, angry intake of breath from Alex.
Eventually, Piper ventures hesitantly, "Wanna tell me what happened?"
"No, I fucking want you to drive me home."
"Al, it's okay..."
"No, it's not!" She bursts out, sounding so furious. "It's not okay, Piper, I was an idiot. Did you know? Have you always known howcompletely fucking stupid I sound talking about him?"
"Of course not! Alex, c'mon, what happened? What did he do?"
"He...he..." Alex's face twists into a childlike mask of devastation, and she lets out a short, wet laugh. "He said I have a serious rack on me."
Alex shakes her head hard, opens her mouth to continue, and then bursts into tears.
"Alex!" Piper cries out before she can stop herself. She says it as if Alex had just taken a fall, or screamed in pain. This is just as startling.
She's never seen Alex cry, and has seen her on the brink of tears only twice: once on her first day of school, back if fourth grade, and once after their fight junior year.
But now Alex has her face in her hands, making gasping, keening sounds. Alex cries angrily, like her body is betraying her.
Piper's whole body feels hollow, and she's light headed with panic. She pulls the car into an empty Chili's parking lot and pulls the key out of the ignition. When she realizes they've stopped, Alex manages to choke out, "Piper, don't, just drive, please just fucking drive..."
But Piper ignores her. She gets out the car and circles it to the passenger side, opens the door, and awkwardly ducks in to put her arms around Alex, who, in spite of her protests, wilts against Piper immediately.
She goes quiet soon; Piper wouldn't think she was still crying if she couldn't feel the tears on her neck, the way Alex's whole body shudders. Fighting back her own tears, triggered as naturally as any reflex, Piper presses her lips against Alex's hair and holds on tightly.
After awhile, Piper whispers, "Who you are has nothing to do with him, okay? It never has. You don't need it."
She's not sure if it's the right thing to say, but Alex's grip tightens on her, and she shifts slightly like she's trying to get even closer. Then, in a small, thick voice, Alex mumbles against Piper's collarbone, "Please don't leave."
Piper's chest knots up; she knows Alex would never say this at any other moment, would never drop the pretense of not being worried about Piper moving away. She kisses the side of Alex's head and says, "I'm right here," even though they both know that's not what she meant.
They go back to the apartment and Piper watches while Alex unravels every Death Maiden tape and rips down every poster they're on. Piper lets her rage until Alex starts in on other tapes.
"Hey, whoa...what are you doing? Don't take it out on all music ever."
Alex's eyes are red and swollen and her hands keep curling automatically into fists. "Why the hell not? I'm pretty sure I started listening to all this because I like...thought it would impress him, or some shit. So fucking stupid."
"Your mom was probably playing you those records before you had any clue what a 'rock band' was. Your father doesn't own an entire era of music." Piper watches Alex, and when she doesn't seem inclined to argue, shoots her a gentle, teasing smile, "Besides. To be honest, Death Maiden was never even close to my favorite."
That coaxes an exhausted smile from Alex. "I kind of figured. It's not exactly your thing."
"No, it's not." Piper sorts through the pile until she finds a cassette labeled "Pipes #5" in Alex's scrawled handwriting. She pops it into the tape deck and presses play.
Whenever I'm alone with you, you make me feel like I am home again.
"You and The Cure," Alex says, shaking her head a little, but she's smiling. She lies back on the bed, nodding for Piper to join her.
Piper crawls the length of the mattress and leans over Alex, kissing her deeply, but then rolls to the side and rests her head on Alex's chest. They lie there tangled together, listening.
Her car is packed up, and she says her goodbyes to her parents and grandmother and Cal in the driveway, but instead of driving straight to the interstate she goes to Alex's.
She's waiting outside, on the metal steps going up to the apartment building, but she stands up and runs to her apartment door when Piper pulls in. By the time she's out of the car, Diane is following Alex down the stairs.
Diane hugs Piper long and hard. "You be good, kiddo. Have fun, but not so much fun you won't come back and see us, yeah?" She winks, and Piper looks at Alex when she says she won't. She feels like she needs to promise that about a hundred more times.
She heads inside, patting her daughter sympathetically on the shoulder as she goes, leaving the two of them alone.
For a moment they're quiet, not sure how to begin this. Then Alex hands Piper a thick stack of tapes. "I timed it out..this is the exact length of your drive. And it took for fucking ever, so you better listen in order. I even put in some of that chick music you love so much."
"I know that was hard for you."
Quiet again. Piper suddenly finds this whole thing stupid; Alex can work minimum wage jobs from Farhampton just as easily, and for a second Piper wants to ask her to throw some stuff in the car and come with her.
But she can't move Alex into a dorm room with her. And anyway, it isn't the plan. Work for a year. Save up. Off campus apartment.
"Fall break's in like a month and a half," Piper says, in lieu of anything better. "But I may drive back in a few weeks for Labor Day."
"Piper." That smile. The that's so Piper smile, a little weaker than usual. "It's okay. Really." She hesitates, "I didn't tell you this, but...that guy I met at my - at the concert called. He's talking about maybe getting me a job."
"Oh yeah? Doing what?"
"I don't know exactly, but...he seemed to have money. It's all about the apartment, right?" Alex grins, but there's something strange about the way she's not making eye contact.
"But it doesn't have anything to do with, y'know...your dad."
"Oh, no fucking way. Nothing like that."
Piper wants to ask more questions, but she's worried Alex only brought this up to distract from what's going on. And she really does have to go. "Well, good. Keep me posted." She sets the tapes down on the dashboard, then faces Alex. "I'll call you when I get there."
"And all the time."
"And it'll just be a few weeks - "
"Pipes, I know, okay?" Alex is laughing at her. She pushes her glasses up on her head. "Just kiss me."
When they pull away, Alex isn't laughing anymore. Piper's trying not to cry.
"Don't go running back to the lighting booth with some other girl."
"There goes my evening plans."
"Kiss me again."
"I love you."
"Yes, I know."
"I love you, too. C'mere."
"Okay, this is fucking depressing. You gotta go, Pipes."
"I don't know if we have time..."
"Alex. Are you capable of being serious?"
"Piper, I'm trying really hard to keep it together, okay? Let me have my banter and innuendo."
Alex pulls her close, nudging her nose slightly against Piper's, then brushes their lips together, maybe the gentlest Piper's ever been kissed. "I really do love you," she whispers, the words falling against Piper's skin. Alex straightens up, pulls her glasses back down, and says softly, "Now go."
Piper nods, too tight throated to speak, and she grabs her stack of mixtapes and gets into the driver's side of her car.
This is the part she's been dreading even more than the rest of it: pulling away from Alex and seeing the look on her face as she shrinks with the distance.
She keeps her eyes locked on Alex through the windshield. She's wearing a The Cure shirt, and Piper wonders if that was on purpose. She throws the car into reverse and pulls out of the parking space, and finally drives away from Alex's apartment.
Piper's vision is blurry and probably dangerous for driving, but she's not sure she has the strength to walk away again. So she just blinks hard and keeps driving, heading toward the life she is expected to live, but with no intention of letting Alex go.
She's a mile away before she remembers the tapes. They all have numbers written on the label, so Piper pushes #1 into the tape deck.
It's the same song they were listening to in Alex's bedroom last week, but she'd started it in the middle of the chorus.
However far away, I will always love you.
A/N: So. I hope that was somewhat satisfying for everyone...I could honestly write a Young Adult novel length fic about the high school stuff alone, but I really don't have time to keep up with ongoing multi-chapters right now. This was always intended to be a kind of vignette style, through the years thing, so I hope no one feels shafted by what we got of their relationship. Thanks so much for reading, and for the feedback back so far! Would love to hear what you guys think!