They walk back to Piper's dorm with several feet between them, barely talking. It's a slow, maddening torture.
Someone should apologize. And it should probably be Alex. Piper hasn't done anything wrong, technicaly. Alex knows that, but she doesn't quite feel it.
They reach the dorm building, but when Piper opens the door Alex says, "I might, uh..." She holds up her cigarette pack.
Piper nods, leaning against the propped open door and pulling the key that opens the building off her key ring to hand to Alex. "You remember the room number?"
"Yeah." Had she inadvertently implied she wanted to be alone? Or did Piper just want a moment away from her?
"We should leave in like forty-five minutes...if you want to go to dinner." The door closes. Alex leans against the building and smokes. She's a fucking disaster. She can see what she's done wrong, can admit without excuses that the tension is all on her...and yet she can't bring herself to explain or even apologize.
That doesn't leave her with many options.
She grinds her cigarette into the grass and unlocks the dorm. Before she heads to the stairs to go up to Piper's floor, Alex spots a row of phones. She looks at her watch, then walks over to them and dials. Two rings, and then a voice: "Hello?"
"Oh, hiya, kiddo! Didn't think I'd be hearing from you this weekend...you living that fancy university life and all."
"Ha. I just figured I'd catch you between shifts."
"Well, glad you did. So how's it going? How's our girl?"
"You two having fun?"
"Nothing. I don't know."
"Okay, babe, out with it. What happened?"
"Mmm-hmmm. You two have your hands off each other long enough for you to call me? Something's wrong."
"Wow, okay, thanks, Mom."
"Pipes practically lived with us your last two years of high school, let's not pretend I don't know what you two are like. Out with it."
"I think I'm fucking up the weekend."
"Just being a bitch."
"No. Well, a little. Mostly to her friends."
"Ah. Probably too simple to just tell you to stop, right?"
"Probably. Also too late."
"Okay. Well. What's the deal? You don't like her friends?"
"No. We hung out with them all last night. The hatred was mutual."
"You didn't want to hang out with her friends."
"So you were an asshole to them."
"Instead of just telling Piper you didn't want to hang out with her friends."
"Well, you know what she was doing."
"No, not really."
"She was showing you off, babe. It must be nice for her."
"Getting to do that. Now that she's finally away from those uptight fuckers."
"Wha - do you mean her parents?"
"Mmm-hmmm. Don't tell Piper I said that, obviously. But the way you two had to sneak around at her house? At school? Keep everything such a secret? Poor kid."
"I know it's shit having her far away, Al. But, trust me...it's good she got to leave."
Alex presses her forehead against the wall next to the phone, suddenly, irritatingly, having to blink back tears. "I guess."
"And if you're really planning to move there next year, no wonder she wants you to get to know her friends."
"Oh, shit. That's right. I'm probably gonna have to find her new friends."
"Knowing you, you'll be able to."
There's a long silence. Alex rubs the heel of her hand under her eyes.
Finally, her mom asks gently, "You good?"
"What do you guys have planned tonight?"
"Going to dinner. Pipes, like...made a reservation. She wants to do the whole date thing."
"Well, isn't that damn sweet of her?"
"Yeah. I feel pretty shitty about it."
"Don't feel shitty. But don't act shitty either, yeah? That girl can't stay mad at you, Al, but don't test that too much."
"Alright. I love ya, babe. Tell Pipe I said hi."
"Love you, too. I'll see you tomorrow."
Alex hangs up but stays where she is, considering if what her mom said was true: that girl can't stay mad at you. To a certain extent, it is; it's why they'd had fun last night and this morning even after the disastrous dinner and pregame. Piper had, to her credit, attempted to let a lot of things go.
But at some point, Alex is going to push her too far.
She goes upstairs, knocks twice on Piper's dorm room and then walks inside. Polly's not there, thank God. Piper's lying on her bed, and she sits up fast when Alex walks in. Her eyes are red.
Purposeful, almost desperately so, Alex walks straight to Piper, takes her face in her hands, and kisses her. Long and soft.
Piper's breathing hard when Alex pulls away. "Um...was that your version of an apology?"
"If you count it, yeah."
Piper's not looking her in the eye, gaze fixed on her own fingers, playing absently with the zipper on Alex's jacket. Finally, she says, "You're lucky you are very fucking good at that."
"I want to go to dinner," Alex says quietly. "Really, I do."
"And the party..." Alex hesitates, then says resolutely, "I'll be better. Promise."
Piper smiles the slightest bit. "Okay."
"Do you still like me?"
That earns a laugh, and an eyeroll. "You're an idiot."
They change for dinner and take a shuttle to the off campus lot to fetch Piper's car. Things are still quiet. They're polite to each other, not at all natural. So, okay, kissing Piper senseless is nice, but it doesn't actually take the place of apologies.
Alex is relieved when they get to Piper's car, because then at least there's music. Piper doesn't protest when Alex starts fast forwarding through cassettes, that obnoxious screech filling the car as she searches for something she wants to hear, something that might reflect a better mood than they're feeling. She stops at random in the middle of an old, unlabeled mixtape and suddenly her father's band is screaming through the speakers. Piper looks away from the road, eyes wide, and Alex instinctively pounds the eject button.
"Don't be sorry," Alex mutters, tossing the tape into the backseat. "I probably gave it to you."
It's silent again. Shaking off the moment, Alex resumes pawing through the stack of tapes in the glove box, looking for something else, until Piper blurts out, "I'm also...I'm sorry about the thing with Polly. When she said she knew about your dad."
It's absurd, of course, that Piper's the one handing out apologies. And still Alex doesn't brush it off. Her hands go still. "What did you tell her?"
Piper winces. "I told her what happened at the concert."
"I know. I'm sorry. We were drinking, and - "
"When did that happen?"
"I don't know. When I was about to go see you for Labor Day weekend."
"So you told some girl you'd known for, what, less than three weeks, about the worst moment of my life?"
"I know it sounds stupid, Alex, but it's like...you weren't a real person to her. It's not the same as telling someone who knows you."
"And you didn't think I'd ever meet your roommate?"
"I wasn't thinking. Look, we were drunk, and we were laying outside the dorm on the grass...it was one of those things, you know, where we were swapping stories and bonding - " Alex makes a snorting sound that Piper ignores. "- Polly was talking about this guy she dated in high school who'd been in and out of foster homes and -"
"Oh, and I'm your equivalent to that?"
"Is that what I am to you? Some dysfunctional, tragic story to make you more interesting? Your low class girlfriend and her slutty mom who got pregnant by a druggie deadbeat rock star?"
At the phrase slutty mom, Piper slams on the brakes and jerks her head toward the passenger seat, eyes swimming with venom. "Fuck you, Alex."
"Yes. Fuck. You. You know I don't think that, I know you do, so you're just being mean."
Alex does know that Piper doesn't think that. But she can't access that knowledge right now, not when she's stuck on the image of Polly and Piper laying outside their dorm room, drunk on shots of cheap vodka from two separate handles of Smirnoff, bonding. She feels physically sick, and she's got an insane need to know exactly what Piper said, what words she used to describe that night. Did she tell Polly she'd suspected it might go badly? Did she make Alex sound oblivious and childish and stupidly, stupidly naive? Did she tell Polly what Alex's dad had said, exactly, that he'd complimented her rack and mentioned that he could have accidentally fucked her? Did she say it was the first and only time she'd ever seen Alex cry, that she'd bawled like a baby in the parking lot of a fucking Chili's?
Cars are honking behind them, and Piper presses the gas again, agitated, turning off the main road onto a residential street. "And I can't believe you're trying to pick a fight and act like I'm the one who has something to apologize for."
"This isn't some small tiny thing, Piper, don't act like it is. And I didn't ask you anything about it last night...you aren't the only one letting shit go this weekend."
Piper pulls over and parks at a curb, leaving her full attention to the fight. "I apologized."
"That doesn't make it better!"
"It's more than you've done."
"Oh, so we're on that now? Fuck, Pipes, you have to decide if you're mad or not! If you were so fucking pissed at me about dinner last night, you shouldn't have acted perfectly fine."
"Would getting mad make any fucking difference? You never think you do anything wrong."
"You don't have a fucking clue, do you?"
"What the hell does that mean?"
Alex shakes her head, not looking at Piper. In a swift, sudden motion, she throws the passenger side door open, muttering something about needing air, and slams it shut behind her.
She walks quickly down the sidewalk, her back to Piper's car. She pulls out a cigarette but doesn't light it. Her fingers are shaking.
A wild, high pitched laugh lurches out of Alex, and she's thinking she might as well tell Piper the truth about Fahri and the drug ring; at this point, what could it hurt?
Of course that's bullshit, and she's more scared to tell Piper than ever. They're on such thin ice right now, something like that would crack the whole goddamn lake.
She walks the length of the block and then turns back. Her thoughts are still scattered, and she doesn't feel any calmer. The car's still parked; when she gets closer, Alex can see Piper bent over the steering wheel, head cradled in her hands. Automatically, Alex's throat narrows; she hates when Piper cries.
She approaches the car slowly, and slides back into the passenger seat.
Piper doesn't look up. Alex tentatively reaches over, her fingers splaying gently over the nape of Piper's neck. "Piper."
"I thought we were doing good." Piper looks over, her voice high and thick and wet.
"This whole fucking...long distance relationship thing. We talk on the phone regularly, we don't get all suspicious and paranoid. I thought we were doing really well. But...this weekend wouldn't be going like this if we were okay, would it?"
It takes a moment for Alex to answer, her voice small, "Probably not."
For a second they stare at each other, completely still, like they're both terrified to move, to set in motion what might come next.
Finally, Alex tries, "We used to see each other every day of our lives, Pipes. For basically nine years. This...it was always gonna be shit."
Piper blinks out a few tears. "I thought, for us...it could be easy."
"I know you did." Funny, because Alex had always known it would be hard, had always been scared to death of it. "I'm probably not making it easy." Piper leans her head back against the car seat and looks at Alex. Her eyes are soft, all traces of anger gone. Quietly, Alex admits, "It's...kind of hard being here. And seeing you here."
"You should have said something."
"I know." She reaches for Piper's face, gently running her knuckles across tear streaks. "I'm sorry."
Piper draws a deep, shaky breath. "So what do we do?" She looks at Alex. Her eyes are big and wet; they look fragile, somehow, like blue glass. And she's looking at Alex like somehow, in spite of all this, Piper still believes she'll have the answer.
What kills Alex is that sometimes she can look at Piper and see all her incarnations: age nine, all braided pigtails and wide eyed innocence; age thirteen, looking at Alex with obvious hero worship, wanting to be just like her, achingly unaware that all Alex wanted was her; age sixteen, naked and glowing with the simultaneous thrill and comfort of diving headfirst into a different sort of love.
And now there's this: eighteen, in love, and terrified. Eighteen and holding on for dear life.
"We get through the year, I guess," Alex answers at last. "Maybe stop pretending like it doesn't suck."
"I do that, don't I?"
"A little." Alex leans across the center console to kiss Piper's cheek. When she pulls away, she stays close. Piper drops her forehead against Alex's for a brief moment.
"Can I say something? About telling Polly about the concert?"
"You don't have to -"
"I know, but I want to explain. It just...it didn't feel like I was only telling her something that happened to you. About you meeting your father. I was telling her about me, having to watch the person I love more than anyone get hurt without being able to do anything about it." Piper sighs, and frowns, like she hasn't just said something painfully sweet. "That probably sounds self-absorbed, doesn't it?"
"No," Alex says quietly. "No, I get what you mean." She doesn't like the idea of Piper having that kind of conversation with Polly at all, but she can't really fault her for it. The night happened to Piper, too...anything that happens to one of them happens to the other. It just means something different, sometimes.
They go silent again, both leaning into the center console, as close as the car will allow them to be. Piper's fingers trace absent patterns across the back of Alex's hand. Finally, finally, Alex offers her something. "I...I know I fuck up."
"You said I never think I do anything wrong. Trust me, I always know. Actually, I'm pretty much the master of handling things completely wrong."
A pause follows that pronouncement, and then Piper gives her a tiny fraction of a smile. "Well I won't argue."
Alex smiles back.
"I think we missed our reservation."
"That's okay. Probably not the night for it." Alex turns her hand over, linking her fingers with Piper. "I've got another idea."
They get burgers and fries and eat in the car in a parking lot of Wendy's. The silence isn't so much tense as it is tired.
Alex remembers when they were kids, sleeping over at each other's houses before the sleepovers became about sex, or even before they became about sneaking alcohol from the kitchen, trying to convince Piper to smoke or trying to stop Piper from talking about boys. When they were ten or eleven and still fit comfortably in Alex's twin bed, she remembers staying awake even after they cut off the music and finally admitted to being tired. They still wouldn't stop talking. She can remember the feeling of those nights, how easily words slip out in the dark, how she'd end up laughing until she couldn't breathe, or having to press her hand over Piper's mouth to keep her from waking up Diane sleeping in the living room. But she can never remember what it was they talked about.
"Music?" Alex asks, already pulling out a tape with a label she recognizes.
Piper grins, reaching out and plucking the tape from Alex's hands. "Sure, but I'm picking for once."
Alex lets out an exagerrated groan. "Is it gonna be Jewel? Mariah Carey? I swear to God, Pipes, if you play NSYNC we have bigger issues than we thought."
Piper ignores her, pulling a cassette from the center console and pushing it in. The wistful notes of a single electric guitar filter through the speakers, and Piper shoots Alex a smug look. "It's from this decade, but you'll have to deal."
Alex listens dutifully, and they go quiet again until the song gets to it's chorus.
Someday you will find me, caught beneath the landslide.
Then, out of nowhere, Piper says hesitantly, "Al...I wanna ask you something. But I'm afraid it'll make you mad."
Alex barely suppresses a groan. It's fucked up timing, but now that Piper's said something, it's not like Alex can tell her to keep it to herself. "Go ahead."
"Are you hanging out with...those people again?"
It's the last thing Alex is expecting, and it doesn't make her mad; partially because she's not sure what Piper's talking about. "What people?"
Piper makes a face. She isn't looking at Alex. "Like, um...those people from that house? Where I found you junior year."
Clarity dawns, and Alex rolls her eyes. "Are you asking if I've hung out with anyone who happened to be in Will Lionel's house on the one particular day you came there?" Piper doesn't answer. "Ask what you really want to know."
"Okay." It takes her a moment to string the words together. "Are you doing drugs again?"
Even though Alex has worked out what Piper's worried about, icy panic knifes instinctively through her at the accusatory tone wrapped around the word drugs.
But she's able to say "No." with complete honesty. She knows Piper's referring to back when they weren't speaking, Alex's month or so of blowing off school and taking LSD in Will Lionel's craphole of a house. She hadn't actually liked it much, and she'd hated the aftereffects, the way her brain would trick her into thinking she was still on a trip. Alex hates the feeling of being out of control. Those months had taught her that, and watching Fahri's clients has only confirmed it. Fuck, she doesn't even smoke pot anymore, and she takes care not to drink to the point of blacking out.
Alex squints at Piper, more confused than annoyed. "Why do you think that?"
"Your mom says you're sometimes gone for a few days at a time."
That's news to Alex. "You talk to my mom?"
"You know I talk to your mom."
"I know you say hi before she passes the phone back to me."
"And sometimes I call and you're not there."
"Does my mom think I'm off doing drugs?"
"Not that she's said."
Alex sighs, leaning back in her seat. "Pipes, are you really asking if I'm doing drugs with deadbeats again or do you just want to know where I go for a few days?"
Piper meets her eyes. "It's not like I'm not curious, but...those people were really the first thing I thought about. It's what you were doing last time you didn't come home for days."
She scrutinizes Piper's expression, realizing she's telling the truth. So Alex lies. "You know those theater tech kids I used to kinda hang out with?" Piper nods. "A bunch of them go to State," she says, referring to the college only forty-five minutes from their hometown, where probably 30% of their graduating class ended up. Not to mention where Alex does a lot of her recruting. "That's mainly where I've been using my fake ID. No drugs. I promise."
Piper looks relieved, and there's nothing accusatory in her voice when she says, "You never mentioned it."
"That's because it's fucking sad, Pipes. You're here, with all these new friends, and this new life, and I'm, what? Hanging out with assholes I barely even liked in high school."
It sounds like the truth, and it's easy to lie, because the core of it is accurate: it is sad. It's fucking pathetic, really. The most pathetic part being that she still can't tell Piper what's really going on.
On the ride back to the campus, Alex leans over to Piper and tells her to pull over somewhere.
"Why?" She asks innocently. "You need some air again?"
"Hmm-mm, we won't be getting out."
Piper grins, but only says, "We gotta get back to change if we're still going to that party." She glances over, quickly adding, "Which we don't have to."
"I'm good with the party. But you're still gonna need to pull over." She takes off her seatbelt and leans close. "We're at what, zero for today? Versus six yesterday, that's pathetic."
"Glad to know the shower made a major impression on you this morning."
"Okay, fine, one to six. Still a shoddy performance."
"Don't forget Polly's out of the room tonight."
"Oh, I'd never forget that. But it doesn't cancel out the need for you to park the car." Between words, Alex trails her lips lazily across Piper's neck. "Or the need for us to find an empty bedroom at the party."
Piper exhales a shaky breath, and within a minute she pulls the car onto a side street, circling neighborhoods until she finds somewhere appropriately dark and dead for the night.
Piper's still trying to parallel park when Alex crawls gracefully into the backseat. As soon as the car is in park, Alex reaches over and takes Piper's arms, tugging her playfully toward the backseat.
"I love you," Piper says after, the words murmured softly into Alex's shoulder. "You know that, right?"
Piper hates that jokes Alex plays, responding to an I love you with a smug smile and an I know. But now the question is serious; she genuinely wants an answer.
Alex, splayed across the backseat with Piper straddling her lap, looks up at her. Piper's hair is falling like a curtain around their faces, and Alex gently brushes it back, tucking it behind Piper's ears as she answers, "Yeah. I know."
An ugly, manipulative impulse balloons in Alex's chest. She wants to extract a promise from Piper.
Promise me nothing can change that.
Promise me it stays true no matter what happens.
No matter what I do.
But she doesn't say it, less because of a guilty conscience and more to avoid the questions it might bring. Instead, Alex lifts her face to kiss Piper, leaving the whispered words "Love you, too." smeared across her lips.
When they walk back into Piper's dorm room, Alanis Morissette is playing from the CD player and Polly's standing in front of her closet door mirror, curling her hair. Her eyes flit over to register in their entrance. "Cutting it close, Pipe."
"We'll change fast. If you need to leave for Haley's without us, we'll catch up."
"It's fine, I'll wait."
Polly's avoiding so much as a glance to acknowledge Alex's presence, so she carelessly pulls her shirt off even as she crosses the room to rummage through her duffel bag for house party appropriate clothes. Piper and Polly start talking about Jake, the lucky guy who gets Polly sleeping over tonight, and Alex gladly tunes them out. A few minutes later, when Alex turns around to grab her boots, clad in leather pants and a clinging black and white sweater, she catches Piper staring at her ass, obviously ignoring whatever Polly's saying. Pleased, Alex shoots her a slightly sardonic wink.
A few minutes later, when Piper's changed into tight black jeans and a sleeveless silver top - and Alex has indulged in a little ass gazing of her own - she glances between Alex and Polly before announcing, "I'm going to run to the bathroom and then I'm good to go if you guys are."
Piper looks slightly nervous to leave them alone together, which Alex would be amused by if she didn't think most of that nervousness was because of her, and what she might say. When the door closes behind Piper, Polly actually reaches back and turns the music up a notch. Alex rolls her eyes.
Then, against her better judgment, but with every fight she's had with Piper since getting here ringing in her ears, Alex decides to Make An Effort.
The other girl turns around with a look of naked suspicion, as though Alex is an active con artist. It's so over the top it's all Alex can do to carry on with her impulse and say, "I'm really glad you and Piper hit it off so well." Another lie, but the good intentioned kind for once. "She was kinda freaked about the whole random roommate thing."
Polly doesn't answer right away, just squints at Alex like she's waiting for the punchline. Or possibly waiting for Alex to literally punch her. Still, eventually her expression relaxes a little, and she answers in a guarded voice, "Yeah, so was I. We're lucky it worked out." Polly pauses, seemingly trying to decide if she wants to take this conversation further. Finally, she adds casually, "It'll suck if I do end up having to find a new roommate next year."
Alex's body stiffens, the whole sentence ringing discordantly in her ears, and it takes her a moment to figure out the offending word. "If?"
"Yeah. Don't worry, I know you guys had talked about maybe getting an apartment next year." She can't quite keep the skepticism out of her tone. "But Pipe said if that didn't work out we could just keep our same room." She waves at the dorm room in all its lime green, chick flick postered glory.
For a second, Alex just stares at Polly, trying to figure out if she's just playing some game. But she's not paying any attention to Alex's reaction at all, and anyway Alex's instincts tell her Polly would be a shitty liar.
Which means Piper really did say the apartment might not work out.
What what what what?
Piper comes back in the room, an oblivious smile on her face. "Ready?"
Immediately, Polly goes to the mini-fridge in the closet, loading up the vodka for travel. Piper comes up to kiss Alex lightly on the cheek. "You good?"
Alex nods mutely. Piper hands Polly a stack of plastic shot glasses from the window sill and then slips her hand into Alex's.
Even though they aren't heading anywhere where age will restrict their drinking, everyone seems just as committed to getting drunk before they get there. Alex takes two shots every time the bottle comes around and doesn't talk. After about twenty minutes, Piper leans over and asks, "Is this some sort of thing where you can't say anything nice so you're not gonna say anything at all?"
"Are you okay?"
Instead of answering, Alex grabs the bottle Grace is offering and somewhat messily pours a shot. She tosses it back without waiting for Piper to get one ready. For the rest of the pregame, Piper keeps trying to catch her eye, her gaze a blatant request for reassurance. Alex isn't playing the silent treatment, or putting on a poker face; she just feels numb and shaken, like she's still absorbing an impact; she can't even get to anger.
Haley stays sober through the pregame, and around ten they pile into the backseat of her car, Piper half on Alex's lap in the backseat. Piper seems much more sober than she was at this point in the proceedings last night, but Alex hadn't paid enough attention to notice if she'd been skipping shots deliberately.
Alex is perversely glad for her own inebriation, at least; it's shutting down layers of her brain, making everything seem simple: Piper's making other plans. She hasn't brought up getting an apartment all weekend, or even for the past several weeks.
She's not counting on it anymore. Maybe doesn't even want it.
The party, at a house just off the UMass campus, looks like every college movie ever made. Crappy music pumping through a speaker system and vibrating the whole house, people draped over furniture and huddled in corners, sitting in circles on the floor playing drinking games, makeshift dance floors wherever there's space. There are four giant buckets filled with some sort of unnaturally orange concoction in the kitchen, and Piper's friends have no qualms about dipping red Solo cups into the buckets for "Party Juice". The counters are sticky and crowded with mostly empty bottles and bags of chips, but Alex sorts through the mess until she finds a bottle of Fireball whiskey with maybe a third of its contents left.
Piper sees her just as she takes a swig. Grabbing Alex's arm, she demands, "What the hell, where did that come from?"
"You shouldn't drink random open containers."
Alex arches an eyebrow and slurs out in slow, halting phrases, "You are literally drinking from an open bucket." Piper frowns down at her cup, then glances over at the bucket set up like it's the first time she's connected it to the standard 'open container' warnings. Before Piper can come up with a reply, Alex sardonically lifts her whiskey bottle in a toast. "To reckless living."
Piper's brow furrows in concern. "Alex, what's...do you wanna go somewhere and talk?"
"No, no, we're at a college party. You probably want to party at college. So go party."
"Okay..." Piper eyes her uncertainly. "You want to go sign up to play beer pong? I'm like, weirdly good at it."
"You have to sign up?"
"Yeah, well, there's always people waiting. Winners stay up, and then they just go down the list."
"So you want to?"
"No, no, you go ahead. Play with Polly or whoever."
"Alex - "
"I'll come watch, okay? I'll cheer you on."
But when Piper and Polly go to the dining room, which is apparently beer pong central, Alex trails behind them for a few seconds before slipping away into the crowd.
She moves through the party, taking intermittent sips from her poached whiskey and observing the different pockets of partygoers with an almost clinical detachment. She knows from phone calls that Piper does this most weekends, as if the very same party just pauses for classes then picks back up again. All these people show up, caught in some perpetual cycle: dumb kids doing what movies tell them they're supposed to. And college students are supposed to be the respectable ones. The ones with futures.
Alex stays in the sprawling living room until she sees Piper come through from the dining room, scanning the crowd. Alex turns before she's spotted and heads up the stairs. She doesn't stop to analyze her own actions, and she's drunk enough that she doesn't have to.
She kicks open the first door she sees that's slightly ajar, and finds herself being gaped at by a circle of fratty looking guys passing a bowl around. Their startled looks mold instantly into leering grins. They look her up and down in that way she hates, but she just smiles and leans on the doorframe. "Sorry, I was just following the smell."
Obediently, the guy holding the bowl stands up, lighter ready. "Help yourself, gorgeous."
She takes the bowl, and when the guy leans over to light it she takes the lighter, too, doing it herself. She inhales, a long hit that makes the guys wolf whistle and cat call. She exhales in the eager dude's face and hands the paraphernalia back, immediately turning to go. They all groan loudly, one yelling, "You can't just smoke and run, baby!" She throws her middle finger over her shoulder and slams the door.
She tilts the bottle all the way back and finishes up the last of the whiskey, then leaves it lying haphazardly in the hallway, enjoying the cross buzz that's starting to settle. She goes back downstairs, shouldering through the crowd and keeping an eye out for Piper. Someone grabs her arm and she nearly jumps out of her skin, but it's only Grace. She leans close and yells over the music, "Hey, Alex, I think Piper's looking for you." Alex nods vaguely and continues her trek toward the kitchen, in search of something else to drink.
The bottles littering the countertop prove disappointing, and Alex is about to give in and sample some of the orange Koolaid concoction when she gets distracted by a flip cup game going on on the counter. Alex leans against the fridge and watches for awhile; the redheaded girl at the end is killing the three guys she's playing against. She's flushed and bright eyed and celebrating more loudly than is strictly necessary, but she's got a sweet smile and is just a tad overdressed for a house party. Alex's brain is foggy with alcohol, but she still goes automatically into bar mod, recruitment mode, work mode, simply to have something to do.
She struts across the kitchen and leans on the edge of the counter, right next to the redhead. The girl cuts her eyes at Alex and smiles, but continues the game. When she wins, Alex cheers along with her.
"You're really good at that," Alex tells her.
The girl glances at her again, blushing. "Ah, thanks."
Alex cranks her smile up a notch, then says teasingly, "Lemme guess, you're majoring in flip cup."
Red laughs, fumbling to pick up the joke. "Oh, yeah. It's a really intensive program here."
"Oh, I'm sure. Your parents proud?"
"Well, they weren't into it at first, but I gotta follow my passion, right?" She giggles.
Alex leans a little closer, flashing her teeth. "I admire that in a girl."
One of the guys on the other side of Red says something to her, and she nods but then immediately turns back to Alex. "Um, do you wanna play?"
"Probably not fair, right?" Alex rests her chin on her hand. "Amateur, professional...hardly an even match."
The girl giggles again. "What year are you?"
"I mean...do you go here?"
"The school?" The girl nods. "Nope. Should I?"
She turns, at the same moment Piper's hand closes around her wrist. Her eyes are blazing with anger, but it's badly concealing a shocked sort of hurt. "We gotta talk."
Alex allows herself to be dragged through the house. They go through a sliding glass door and end up on a deck built two feet off the large backyard, littered with actual furniture. It probably used to be crucial to the parties, but has emptied out for the winter season, so they have it and the cold night air all to themselves.
Piper lets go of her and folds her arms. "What the fuck are you doing?"
"Mingling at a party?"
"Right," Piper grits out between clenched teeth. "You can't be nice to my friends, but point you at a random hot stranger and you're suddenly a social butterfly." In spite of Piper's best attempt to sound hard, her voice wavers, and she pulls her lower lip between her teeth to stop it from trembling.
Alex groans and rubs her temples. She's too drunk for this conversation. Too drunk to work out if it's worse for Piper to think she was hitting on a girl or recruiting a girl to transport heroin. So drunk that it takes her a second to remember what's really wrong.
"I thought we were okay!" Piper's voice is pulled tight. "We world everything out earlier tonight, so what the fuck happened to you?"
"All we said was that we were gonna stop pretending everything isn't shit," Alex hurls back in a petulant tone. "And I'm sure as fuck not pretending that."
Piper makes a frustrated, gaspy noise that's a step away from crying, and Alex can't look at her, can't think about making her cry, can't.
"I've been looking for you for like an hour."
Suddenly confident that she has the high ground here, Alex narrows her gaze at Piper. "Maybe I was just keeping my options open. For the eventual break up."
Piper's face freezes, and she takes a physical step back, stricken. "What?" The word's barely a breath.
"That is what's going to happen, right?" The pitch of her voice is all over the place, her pronunciation overly formal and precise.
Piper's got her arms wrapped around herself protectively, and she's shaking her head without stopping. "You're drunk." Her voice is shaking. "You're fucking wasted, Alex, so don't you dare say anything about that..."
"What, like you're not going to do it?"
At that, Piper goes still, relief and then confusion chasing across her expression. "What? You think I'm gonna break up with you?!"
"Eventually, yeah." Alex's voice cracks, and suddenly all the bitter sarcasm dissolves. She feels all the hurt all at once, her voice throbbing with it, like she's just taken a punch. "You told Polly you'd live with her next year if our apartment doesn't work out." Immediately, understanding breaks across Piper's face, apology leeching into her eyes. "And see...I didn't know we needed a back up plan."
"Jesus..." Piper rakes her hands through her hair. "Fucking Polly."
"Is it not true?" Alex asks quietly, wishing she didn't sound hopeful.
"I..." Piper winces. "I did tell her that, Al. I have to live here, no matter what, you know? And I figured I needed something to fall back on just in case."
They're quiet for a moment, avoiding each other's eyes, and finally Alex makes herself ask, "Just in case of what, Piper?"
Piper takes a few steps closer, meeting Alex's eyes and saying earnestly, "In case we couldn't get the money together. Or in case my parents decide to go batshit crazy and refuse to pay my tuition if I don't stay in the dorms. I don't know. It was literally just in case, I told Polly I probably wouldn't need to."
Alex is quiet for awhile, absorbing that. Her throat is tight, and suddenly she hates herself for how drunk she is. "I didn't...know you were worried."
"I don't know..." Piper sighs. "We kept talking about how we'll both work for a year and save up but like...I work at the library three nights a week for a couple hours. It's not much, Al. And I know you're practically full time at Sonic now, but it's not fair to ask you to cover everything on minimum wage."
At that, Alex looks away, guilty. The money isn't pouring in, not yet, but Fahri says it will. He likes the Northampton plan, he'll make sure she's set up.
Alex shivers slightly. The only reason she wants to be in Northampton is for Piper, but the only way she'll be able to move here might be the one thing that could cost her the relationship.
She's in a world of fuck.
"I want to cover it," she say finally. Piper looks at her, looking like she might protest. "I mean...I know I have a shit job. But what's the point of spending my whole life with a shit job if I can't use it to be where I want?" She'll blame it on the alcohol that she follows that up with a quiet, painfully sincere, "And I want to be here with you."
Piper's whole face goes soft. She takes Alex's hand and sits on the edge of the deck, tugging her gently down to sit beside her, their shoulders touching. Piper touches her chin, making Alex look at her. "I want you here with me, too."
Alex forces a shaky smile. "Even after this weekend?"
Piper laughs softly. "Yeah. Weird, right?" She keeps their hands together, resting on Alex's thigh. After a moment, Piper asks, "So, what Polly said...that's the only reason you were avoiding me tonight? Why you were talking to that...girl?"
"Yeah," Alex mutters. "Well. That and whiskey."
"Okay." Piper's quiet for a moment, then adds, with the barest hint of sarcasm, "There's no chance Polly told you that on Friday before dinner?"
"No, sorry. Just tonight. Pre-pregame."
"Right. So the rest of this weekend, that was just...?"
"Yeah. That was just...me."
"Hmmm." Piper leans over, resting her head against Alex's shoulder. "You're the worst," she mumbles softly into the folds of Alex's sweater. "I miss you so goddamned much that sometimes I forget."
"Sucks how that works, huh?" If Piper hears the tears thickening Alex's voice, she knows not to make a big deal out of it.
Alex swipes the sleeve of her sweater under eyes, then puts an arm around Piper, tangling her fingers in her hair. For awhile they just sit, the music and voices from the party muted behind them. Alex feels Piper shiver beside her. "Aren't you cold?"
"I'm actually okay."
"That's because you've got the whole 'alcohol blanket' thing going on."
"Are you sober?"
"Pretty much. I never even got to play beer pong."
"Lucky for everyone else. You're like a champ, right?"
"I am. Well. I didn't major in it or anything..."
"God." Alex winces and draws back to look at Piper, chagrined. "You heard all that?"
"I'm sorry. Really. That was fucked up, I was just...scared or something."
"That's so stupid, you know that? Thinking I would break up with you..." Piper laughs a little, a thin, incredulous sound. "Is that even possible? Can we even do that? You know, I barely even remember anything before I met you. Like...age one through eight? A blur. I've got maybe a month in there, just for the purposes of comparison. Alex, there's no scenario where we're just...over."
Piper looks so confident, so fucking certain, that for a second Alex is afraid she's going to start crying again. She holds Piper's eyes, soaking up the strength of her conviction, and she thinks: Please, please let that be true.
When it starts to snow, tiny, salt sized flakes that only serve to remind them that it's winter and the middle of the night, they go inside and find Haley and Jenna and Grace, confirm that Polly's settled with Jake for the night, and pile back in Haley's car.
Short a person, there's more room in the backseat than on the ride over, but Piper still leans against Alex the whole way back, head on her shoulder, playing with Alex's hand in both of hers. Alex leans her head against the window, eyes closed, the car's movement making her slightly dizzy but glad for the weight of Piper tucked against her.
They murmur thank you's when Haley drops them off at Piper's dorm. Once again there's an empty room and bed waiting for them, but tonight they're oddly serious walking inside, and Alex can somehow sense that they're both feeling not only the weight of the past few hours, the multiple fights and tentative reconciliations, but the goodbye that's waiting in the morning.
Outside her room, it takes Piper a second to get to the right key, and Alex leans against her, briefly burying her face in the back of Piper's neck. The door clicks open, but Piper waits another moment until Alex moves back and they walk inside together.
Piper closes the door and locks it behind them, then turns around and fixes Alex with a look so tender it feels like Alex's chest is cracking open. She reaches out, linking two fingers around two of Piper's, and pulls her close, kissing her like kissing is the whole point of it. Absurdly, she feels tears inching up the column of her throat again. Fucking alcohol.
She's so tired. Tired of fighting with Piper, of always saying the wrong thing, of pouncing on words and misinterpreting. It's a relief not to talk, to drag her fingers in patterns across Piper's bare skin, to suck gently on her lower lip, to pull Piper onto the bed and drape herself over. They don't speak for the rest of the night, save for the occasional gasp of the others' names, tucked among more unintelligible sounds.
The message, all want and need and love, comes across anyway. It's past four in the morning when they finally fall asleep, sweaty and spent, Alex pressed up against Piper's back, one leg draped over hers.
Alex stays awake for awhile after Piper's breathing evens out. It's always happened like this, even when they were kids having slumber parties: Piper sinks into sleep so easily, while it takes Alex awhile to turn her brain off, even now that it's humming on whiskey and afterglow. She nestles a little closer to Piper, breathing in the vanilla and sweat scent of her hair. She thinks again of what Piper said, about there begin no scenario where they're over. Right now, in the quiet of night, with their bodies tangled together, so close Alex shifts with Piper's breathing, that her heartbeat is thrumming against Piper's spine...right now, Alex can almost believe that they're unbreakable.
She wakes up with Piper's fingers skimming along the curve of her cheekbone, dipping down and outlining the edge of her jaw, moving around to her chin, like she's mapping the planes of Alex's face. After a few seconds, her lips press featherlight against Alex's hairline, then the corner of her eye.
Alex finally opens her eyes, nearly going cross-eyed trying to look at Piper. "Hey."
"Hi." Piper presses a chaste, close mouthed kiss to the corner of Alex's lips, her hands splaying less chastely across Alex's bare breasts. She presses one more kiss to Alex's jaw, then moves her hands, bracing them on the mattress and pushing herself backwards, ducking under the sheet as her lips coast down Alex's sternum. Alex grins. "Good fucking morning," she says huskily, throwing back the sheets to watch Piper's progress. "Is the bra on the door?"
Her tongue flicks teasingly at Alex's nipple before Piper looks up, eyes narrow and hooded. "Don't worry. Polly's ride of shame back doesn't usually happen for another few hours."
"Oh, I'm not worried." Alex twines her hands through Piper's hair. "You go right ahead."
Her eyes accidentally land on a digital clock across the room on Polly's side, and she falls back on the pillow, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think about how she has to be at the train station in less than four hours.
An hour later, when the two of them return from the shower, looking smirky and pleased with themselves, Polly's back in the room, wearing last night's clothes and some of last night's makeup. She rolls her eyes when she sees them, then seems to regret it because she says, "Sorry, not personal. Just...happy couples."
Instead of providing her with a detailed recap of the weekend to assure her that their happy coupledom is somewhat inconsistent, Piper just pulls a sympathetic face, dropping her towel and quickly pulling a The Cure tank top over her head. "Bad night with Jake?"
"Just the same old shit." Polly waves a dismissive hand like it's not worth going into, for which Alex is grateful.
Aex sits on Piper's desk chair, dragging a brush through wet, tangled hair, then glances over at Piper. "Hey, is that my shirt?"
"Huh?" Piper looks down like she'd forgotten what she'd put on less than thirty seconds ago. "Oh, yeah. I stole it over fall break."
"How dare you?" Alex tips the chair forward, fisting the hem of the shirt and pulling Piper to her. She falls on Alex's lap, laughing.
Polly groans ostentatiously, flopping onto her bed in an undignified, hungover heap. "Okay, you both need to get out."
"Where are we going?" Alex asks when they're on the shuttle, en route to Piper's car.
"We've only got a few hours," Piper says, and it's starting already, that forced note of no big deal in her voice, face set with determination to not cast a shadow over the last moments. "And we sure as hell aren't spending them on campus."
"Probably a good move. So where are we spending them, exactly?"
They spend them in the car, just driving. Piper lets Alex control the music, and she digs in the flaps behind their seats for older tapes with dates on the labels. They get milkshakes at a drive through and take random, curving roads, sing along to music that's from the 70's or 80's but, to them, sounds like the summer before their senior year, or the first months after Piper got her car, or mornings before school when they first started dating.
It's probably not a cheap date, aimless hours of driving means burning hours' worth of gas, but it's a good one: they've got a couple years' worth of memories in this car, and nearly a decades worth for the music.
Eventually, they have to keep singing - an old, well practiced duet to Bad Moon Rising - and pretend like Piper isn't heading toward the bus station.
"Less than three weeks until Thanksgiving," Piper tells her. They're standing at the corner of the bus station, in view of the bus; Alex already gave her duffel over to be loaded, just didn't get on right away. "Like, what? Eighteen days, I think."
Piper always does this, always states how much time it'll be until they see each other again.
Alex nods, overly patient. "I know, Pipes." She aways does that, too: pretends like she doesn't need the reminder.
"Shit..." Piper leans against the wall, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. "I hate saying goodbye to you."
"Yeah, me, too." Alex braces one hand on the brick wall behind Piper, leaning forward to kiss her, but it's not the kiss. Not yet.
When they pull away, Piper says, all too casually, "By the way...I'm going to tell Polly she needs to find a new roommate. That we're for sure getting our apartment."
The our hits her unexpectedly, and Alex's smile comes out crooked. She doesn't deserve this, after this weekend, and in fact probably shouldn't leave without another few apologies, but Alex is pretty sure Piper's just as sick of all that as she is.
The ugly, manipulative impulse growls in her chest again, and this time Alex can't quite stop herself before she's blurting out, "Pipes?"
"I know you're going to end up being some super successful writer, or, like...one of those fucking brilliant professors who also give all the students Hot for Teacher fantasies..."
Piper laughs. "Okay, yeah, I like that..."
"Yeah, that's you for sure. But...promise me you'll still want me no matter what I end up doing."
It's so fucked up, the way Alex delivers it with just the right hesitant vulnerability, and how it does exactly what Alex knew it would: Piper's face goes soft at the edges, her eyes lighting with that certainty that had been there last night. "Alex. Of course. I promise. Don't even worry about that, okay?"
So fucked up.
Piper thinks Alex is talking about some low, minimum wage job, the kind of jobs her mom has. Piper thinks she's promising to stay with Alex even if she never amounts to anything beyond a waitress at Sonic, if she's always a person behind a cash register or wearing a shirt with her name stuck on.
She isn't thinking at all of criminal activity.
It's a cruel, manipulative trick, an extraction of a promise without giving the conditions, but Alex wants it on the record. She wants to be able to point to this moment someday, maybe throw it at Piper while she's trying to walk out the door.
Sometimes Alex can see herself at a distance, like she's looking at someone else, and she thinks, with something almost bordering on fascination,Wow, what a horrible person.
She'd meant what she said to Piper: she always knows she fucks up.
Her stomach feels tight, her throat lined with bitter aftertaste, and it makes her want to say something honest. She pinches a strand of Piper's hair between two fingers, following it to its end, and says the truest thing she has, "I love you, Pipes."
Piper's hands come up to cup Alex's face. "I love you, too." She leans forward and kisses her; the kiss this time. The goodbye.
Alex pulls away first. She always does.
"Eighteen days," Piper corrects.
"Call me when you get back. Tell your mom I say hi."
"I will. Bye, Pipes."
"Bye. I'll see you soon. Bye."
Alex turns around and walks toward the bus. She lifts her headphones over her ears but doesn't flip her Walkman on yet. She doesn't let herself look back until she's in her seat, squinting at Piper through the window. Piper lifts a hand. She might be crying, Alex can't tell for sure from here.
Thanksgiving break is eighteen days away.
Alex has Piper's promise.
Maybe she'll tell her.