A/N: Just to help everyone get their bearings: we're following Young Blood and It's Friday, I'm In Love. We're starting out in March of 1999, the second semester of Piper's freshmen year in college, when Alex and Piper are nineteen.
Today is gonna be the day that they're gonna throw it back to you.
Piper smiles, turns up the music, and stuffs her portable CD player into the side pocket of her backpack. There are days when she or Polly or Grace's class schedules line up enough that they meet up to head back to the dorms, but she almost prefers the solitary walks across campus: headphones on, backpack slung across one shoulder, the contented relief of being done with class for the day. In these moments, she practically belongs on the cover of a college brochure, especially today, with spring break two days away, which means work load and stress level are at an all time minimum.
Wonderwall carries her for most of the walk, then segues into Don't Look Back In Anger. Piper never gets tired of this album; Oasis seems like a nice choice between Alex's classic rock music snobbery and Piper's college friends' lazy, whatever's popular on the radio standard.
Though Alex still wouldn't approve.
She's approaching her dorm, humming the final few bars of the song and thinking about forcing some of these onto mixtape for Alex, when someone rips her headphones from her ears with the sort of jarring abruptness that makes the sudden silence seem loud, and Piper whirls around, curse word at the ready, to find Alex smirking at her.
For a second it's so startling, as though Piper's thoughts had actually conjured her, she can't react. Alex grins, arching an eyebrow. "Surprise."
Then Piper's hands are on Alex's jacket, seizing the leather and tugging her forward, kissing her for the first time in two months. It's the longest stretch they've gone without a visit since Piper started college, and she's been counting down to the upcoming week vacation with something bordering on desperation.
She's so absorbed in the immediate need to kiss Alex senseless that Piper forgets to wonder what the hell she's doing here.
When Alex pulls away, fiddling absently with the headphones now looped around Piper's neck, Piper has to catch her breath before she manages to ask, "How'd you get here?'
"You know I'll be home in two days?" As if Alex might have forgotten. As if Piper hasn't been reminding her of the exact countdown at the end of every phone call for the past few weeks.
Alex raises her eyebrows. "You want me to leave?"
"No," Piper punctuates the word with another kiss, firm and possessive. Funny, she'd thought she was perfectly content five minutes ago, but as always, once Alex is back in front of her, it's hard to remember how Piper goes so long without her.
"I figured I could catch a ride back with you. And since tomorrow's your shortest day, maybe we could go check out some apartments?"
"Oh." The reason for this incredibly pleasant surprise snaps into focus. "Right. I guess it is time to start figuring that out."
She takes Alex's hand as they go inside the dorm, trying to quell the instinctual flutter of anxiety that always starts up when they talk about the apartment.
It's not that Piper doesn't want an apartment with Alex; the set up sounds almost unbelievably perfect. She just wishes they could skip ahead to when the apartment is an established reality. The practicalities and logistics always trip Piper up. Over Christmas, they'd looked up basic information about the various off campus apartment complexes, and Alex had been talking about rent and utilities and security deposits while Piper sat stupidly beside her, stressed out and out of her depth.
She knows some of that is about her being spoiled; Piper can't deny the part of her that wishes she could just hand all forms to her father and wait for him to tell her it's all taken care of. But Piper's also pretty sure she's not wrong to worry about the financial feasibility of this plan. In fact, she's not sure how Alex isn't worried. Maybe her Sonic paycheck, or whatever equivalent job she'll end up getting when she moves her, really will cover the rent, but it seems unfair to expect that.
Still, after Alex's last - and, until now, only - disastrous visit to Smith, Piper knows how important the plan is for both of them. How necessary.
So she takes Alex up to her dorm room, delicately asks Polly - who, predictably, isn't at all pleased to see their visitor - if she could make herself scarce for awhile, and then Piper spends a blissful hour and a half remembering exactly why coming home to a bedroom she shares with Alex every day will be worth whatever it takes to get there.
"Do I get to come to classes with you tomorrow?"
Piper moves the short story collection she's reading from in front of her face so she can look up Alex, who's sitting at the head of her bed, leaning against the wall. Piper's stretched out, her head in Alex's lap, finishing her reading for The American Short Story.
"You really want to?" Piper asks, surprised. She tends to assume that Alex wants as little to do with the college experience as possible.
Alex shrugs. "If I can."
"My english class is kind of small. So that'd be kind of weird...Perspectives in Drama is a huge lecture, though. You can totally sit in on that."
She smirks. "Why are you taking drama?"
"It's basically English for plays. But it fills a gen ed performing arts credit."
"College is weird."
"I actually like it. I might add a theatre minor. Or even a double major, if I can swing it."
"And then do what with it?"
"Your lack of a career plan continues to inspire," Alex declares, returning her attention to absently playing with Piper's hair. She doesn't put her headphones back on, instead waiting until the precise moment Piper lifts the book again to ask, "What are you reading?"
"Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
"Nice title." Alex thumps her knuckles playfully against the book's cover. "C'mon, I wanna hear."
A smile creeps slowly across Piper's face. "What, you want me to read out loud?"
"It's the least you can do. You're not being a very entertaining host."
"I'm pretty sure you were entertained earlier."
"Or was I doing the entertaining?"
"I remember it as both."
"True." Alex smirks. "But still. Read."
"Want me to start at the beginning?"
"Nah, just wherever you are is fine."
"Okay. It's just two couples sitting around talking and drinking. Basically the whole thing's a single conversation." Piper's eyes find her spot again, and she starts, "The afternoon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We raised our glasses again and grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden..."
It doesn't take long before Piper's reading on autopilot, the old 'reading aloud' instinct from earlier school days coming back to life. She flicks her eyes away from the page at one point, pausing just long enough to look at Alex. Her face is unfocused and intense all at once; eyes glazed like she isn't really seeing anything in the room, but somehow still lit with concentration. Piper smiles to herself and keeps reading; she likes homework this way. She likes that by next semester, this could be the norm.
When she finishes the story, her mouth is dry, voice scraped thin, so she flips the anthology to "Paul's Case" and hands it up to Alex, nearly knocking her in the face with the book's spine. "Your turn."
Obligingly, Alex takes the book in one hand, thumb and pinky stretched across the pages, three middle fingers balanced behind the spine, so she can keep one hand woven through Piper's hair. Happily, Piper closes her eyes, letting Alex's low, familiar voice wash over her as she starts to read.
She thinks yes, this is what I want.
Yes, I can have it.
Polly comes back to the room around eleven and finds them in an even lazier version of that position: Alex stretched across the tiny dorm bed, reading with the book held aloft, Piper sprawled next to her, practically using Alex as a body pillow. Alex barely pauses when Polly enters, just plows on through the sentence, and Piper smiles and gives her roommate a lazy hand flap of a wave. She can practically see Polly physically fighting an eyeroll.
Piper ignores that. She's given up trying to explain Alex to Polly.
When Alex gets to the end of a paragraph and pauses for breath, Polly breaks in, "So is this your set up next year, Pipe? You get, like, a housewife slash girlfriend to wait at home to help with homework?"
Feeling Alex stiffen beneath her, Piper winces in anticipation of whatever pride fueled comeback is about to be hurled in retaliation. But, shockingly, nothing happens; Piper lifts her head slightly to look at Alex, and she's wearing a small, amused smile that seems to suggest Polly isn't even worth it.
She catches Piper's eye. "Want me to keep going?"
"You don't have to."
"I don't mind." She flicks a glanced at Polly. "Gotta earn my keep, right?" But she doesn't sound irritated, merely amused, and Piper can't help but sigh with relief as she settles back down on Alex's chest.
On Alex's last visit, a comment like Polly's would have propelled her into Asshole Mode for the rest of the night. But she seems infinitely more at ease this trip, as though finally putting the plan for next year into motion is serving as a light at the end of the long distance relationship tunnel.
It feels good, walking across campus the next morning with Alex's arm looped around her, both of them sharing a coffee from the cart outside the dining hall. Alex is wearing a black scarf she'd snatched from Piper's bed post and a grumpy expression.
"It's still so fucking cold."
"Well, it is only March."
"I haven't been outside at this hour since graduation."
"You mean you haven't been awake at this hour since graduation."
"Ha fucking ha. Rub it in I have no reason to get up every morning, Pipes."
"Relax, kid, I'm joking. I'm being good this trip. Haven't you noticed?"
"I have, actually. Didn't want to point it out and jinx it."
"Well. I invited myself. Figure I shouldn't push my luck."
Piper leans into Alex a little more, grinning. She feels like a brochure cover again, an even better one this time: the happy, blissed out college couple. She lets herself daydream again about next semester again: always strolling along campus with Alex at her side, bringing her along to all lecture classes, coming out of the smaller ones to find Alex lounging on the quad, waiting. Eating in the dining hall together, Alex keeping her company in the library (maybe even eventually playing out the library hook up trope Alex kept joking about last time).
But then the daydream bubble bursts as Piper remembers Alex will, presumably, have to work nearly full time to afford rent on minimum wage, and guilt rushes through her again, just like that.
She stays quiet until Alex suddenly reaches out her free arm to point. "Hey! I know that building." She purses her lips, squinting. "Why do I know that building..." She hmm's thoughtfully for a moment, then snaps her fingers. "Oh, right. We fucked outside it!"
"Alex!" Piper hisses, glancing around the crowded walkway in horror.
"Don't be embarrassed, Pipes," Alex continues cheerfully, unnecessarily loud. "They should put a statue there. Or at least a plaque, commemorating my work."
It's undeniably strange, sitting beside Alex in the lecture hall, like Piper's seeing her out of context. Alex props her feet on the chair in front of her and gives a perfunctory flick through Piper's syllabus.
Piper's sort of expecting the class to turn into an hour and ten minutes of teasing distractions from Alex, but she actually seems interested in the lecture. The professor has hooked his laptop to a projector, and is showing clips of various performances from The Glass Menagerie, discussing the many different interpretations and the way it changes the scene's intent.
Alex is actually paying more attention than Piper, who's suddenly too distracted by weird, random memories, back in middle and early high school, before Alex pretty much gave up on academia and started skipping class. The thing is, Alex is smart. Piper had better grades, because Alex often rushed or forgot homework and never bothered to study, but Alex often beat Piper on tests, and a few times she'd even helped Piper with math concepts that didn't come easily.
For the first time Piper feels something besides guilt that she's away at college and Alex isn't; she actually feels the unfairness of it. Maybe this should have occurred to her a long time ago, but Alex had always been so certain and phlegmatic about the fact that college wasn't in her future; she'd told Piper that, so matter-of-factly, like it was obvious, way back in ninth grade. It had simply always been true, the way the future was written.
But carrying food to cars at Sonic must be so fucking mind numbing for someone like her.
Full on tuning out her professor's lesson now, Piper follows this line of thinking, trying to figure out what could be done. Alex could try to get a job at one of the book or music shops downtown - all their employees are young and impossibly cool looking.
Apartment Guilt bubbles up, right on schedule. Alex won't have the luxury to wait around and be selective; she'll have take whatever job is available, whatever can give her the most hours, because the bills will start as soon as they move in.
What's fucked up is that Piper's father would pay for a place. He'd asked over Christmas break if she'd given any thought to her housing next year, and simply said that if she was looking for off-campus apartments to let him know, and he'd send along whatever information about the finances she'd need to get the application approved.
Of course, what he really meant was "an off-campus apartment with your school friends." Piper know that, because she'd stupidly, optimistically floated the idea of living with Alex.
"You know, Alex is thinking about maybe moving to Northampton next year. To work."
Piper's parents had exchanged a dark, concerned look, and then her mother had swept in, taking the lead, as she always does when it comes to disapproving of Alex. "Why would she do that, sweetheart?"
"I don't know. Probably just wants a change. But, um...anyway. I was thinking maybe we could go in on an apartment together."
Another look exchanged. That time, her parents had tagged teamed it.
"I don't know if that's a good idea, Piper."
"Don't you think you should be living with other students, honey?"
"It's...nice that you two keep in touch on breaks, but you wouldn't want to neglect your new friendships for that."
"And, Pipe, do you really trust that she could consistently hold up her half of the rent?"
What it all came down to, of course, was that he wouldn't be giving her rent money for an apartment with Alex (even Alex as just a roommate in a separate bedroom).
Just the thought of defying her parents on that front, even without asking for money to make it happen, gives Piper a childish rush of anxiety she wishes she'd outgrown by now. She's not looking forward to that conversation.
Alex glances over and catches her, spaced out and staring. She smirks, then whispers, "Little miss valedictorian's slacking off in college?"
"I wasn't the valedictorian," Piper whispers back.
Alex narrows her eyes, frowning in feigned confusion. "You weren't? So you didn't give a really long, rambling sentimental speech on graduation day? What am I thinking of?" She pauses, and Piper rolls her eyes, anticipating whatever punch line is coming. "Oh, right, that was just the car ride on the way to the school."
Piper elbows Alex, who is, of course, laughing at her own joke, loudly enough to draw some irritated stares from students around them. Piper shoots apologetic looks and hisses for Alex to shut up, biting back her own smile as she does.
Piper's two Thursday classes are back to back, so after they file out of the theater building, she kisses Alex in the the quad and then leaves her there, heading off to presumably discuss the many short stories they'd read aloud to each other last night.
The air's still cool, but the sunshine is warm, so Alex drops her messenger bag on the grass and stretches out with her head against it, right in the center of the quad...the heart of this place she's trained herself to hate.
This time, though, Alex feels less threatened by Piper's shiny new home and her shiny new life. Maybe because this trip was all her idea, all on her terms, or maybe because she knows Piper is coming home with her on the other side of it. And of course, there's the chunk of money waiting in her bank account, and her own firm resolution that she'll leave Northampton with an apartment picked out and applied for, at the very least.
Of course, that means spring break is going to bring the less than pleasant task of telling Piper about the drug ring.
She really had meant to talk to her over Thanksgiving break, but that had barely been a vacation for Piper. Finals apparently started less than two weeks after she got back, and Alex had spent most of Piper's five day vacation being silent, supportive company while Piper studied or wrote essays, providing snacks and the occasional "study break". Piper's stress level had already peaked, and Alex had made a mostly selfless decision not starting that conflict.
Christmas break, though, she had no excuse.
That had been just too good to ruin.
Piper had been home for nearly a month, and Alex have reveled in that, in not having to feel like a clock was quickly ticking away the time they had together. It had been enough to erase the last traces of anxiety and tension leftover from Alex's disastrous visit to Smith, and in the end, she hadn't been prepared to unravel it all.
But Christmas had also involved more lying than Alex was comfortable with, as she had to occasionally make excuses about hanging out with Piper because Fahri needed her. And she knows once they actually sign a lease, her excuse crosses a line from I was afraid to tell you and into I was waiting until you were stuck with me no matter what.
So, okay. This break she has to do it.
But she's got a whole week to worry about that.
Alex pulls our her new cell phone (another lie, and a particularly inconvenient one - it'd be super helpful if Piper knew the number where she could reach Alex at any time, but there's no way her alarm bells wouldn't go off over the price and necessity of Alex having a cell phone) to check the time. Piper's got another hour in class, so Alex pulls out her Walkman, slides her headphones on, and closes her eyes.
She's spaced out to some Bob Dylan tape when someone kicks the bottom of her foot. Alex opens her eyes to see Piper smiling down at her, backlit by the sun. "You're looking very collegiate."
Alex grins back, pulling off her headphones and lifting her leg to lazily nudge the side of Piper's shin. "Get down here."
Obliging, Piper zips her jacket and tosses her backpack beside Alex's head before stretching out on her stomach, leaning over to give Alex a quick kiss hello. "I kinda like having you waiting after class."
Alex affects an uppity expression. "Gotta be a dutiful housewife." Piper rolls her eyes at the reference, and Alex smirks. "How was class? Did you say my thing about the sunlight metaphor?"
"Someone beat me to it."
"You gotta be on top of that shit, Pipes."
"Sorry. You explained it better, though."
"Of course I did."
Piper smiles and moves closer to Alex on the grass, resting her cheek on Alex's shoulder. Automatically, Alex lifts a hand to play absently with Piper's hair, and for a few minutes they lie there in content, easy silence.
Piper lifts her head, propping her chin on Alex's shoulder to look at her, the lack of space between them rendering her slightly cross eyed when she does. "I was thinking. And you're gonna think this is crazy, but just hear me all the way out."
Already amused, Alex lifts her eyebrows. "Go for it, Pipes."
"Okay. So I've got three more years of school, and I know you said you'll work the whole time and we'll keep the apartment and everything. But I was thinking, that doesn't seem really fair. So after I graduate and get a job...then maybe we can switch."
"Yeah. I can work, and you could go to college!"
Piper stops with that, beaming at Alex, so sure of her own brilliance. Alex doesn't react, just scrutinizes Piper's expression, unable to quite gauge the intentions of this sudden suggestion.
Misreading her silence, Piper continues, "I know you hate the idea of debt and student loans. But if I'm working a decent job, and then you get a job right after you graduate, it may not be so horrible, right? If you could come out of it with a legitimate job."
Alex bristles slightly. "A legitimate job?"
"You know what I mean."
Alex sighs, barely keeping it from segueing into a groan. She turns her eyes skyward, trying not to be annoyed. It's not that she doesn't get the logic of what Piper's trying to suggest. It's not her fault it seems so simple.
"I think you're jumping ahead a little, Pipes," Alex says finally, in a carefully calm, measured voice.
"I'm not telling you to apply tomorrow or anything."
"I know. I just think there's a lot of other stuff you need to figure out before we plan your post-graduation life. Like, just off the top of my head...if you're supporting me through school, won't it be kind of hard to keep convincing your parents we're just platonic roommates?"
Piper's face falls; she doesn't have an answer for that, and even though that was Alex's intention, she can't help a traitor flicker of disappointment. She has no idea if Piper has any notion of when, or how, she'll eventually tell her parents about her relationship with Alex. She never even floats the possibility. As far as Alex knows, it'll be a secret forever.
If it was just about her being a girl, Alex could maybe accept the awkward reality. It's not as if she's dying to get closer to Piper's parents, but really, that's the whole problem. She knows how they look at her, how they always have, even when she was a nine year old kid whose only crime against the Chapmans was inviting their daughter to a less than presentable apartment building.
Alex sometimes suspects Piper's reluctance to tell them the truth is as much about that as anything else.
She kees her neck tilted back, not looking at Piper for a moment, letting the awkwardness settle and fade in the silence, and then she lifts Piper's hand to her lips, conciliatory. "Maybe we need to take it one step at a time, kid. Go see some apartments?"
Piper smiles up at her, unmistakably relieved. "Okay. Let's do that."
"I think this is the one."
Piper whirls around, obviously surprised at the declaration. "Are you serious?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Alex looks up from the apartment application the building manager had given them. "You said this was the best one." It's the third apartment complex they've visited in the last two hours; all are close to campus, all primarily populated with Smith students.
"Why do we need two bedrooms?" This particular complex has very few studio apartments, seeing as most students tend to favor two or three bedroom places.
"Because, Piper." There's an edge to Alex's voice. "When your parents come visit again for Parent's Weekend or whatever the fuck it is they drove up for last semester, they may actually want to see where you live. And they'll probably expect us to have separate bedrooms."
"But I didn't mean...it's stupid to pay more than we need to. This place is the most expensive." Christ. Piper looks like she'd rather sink into the floor than discuss this; Alex knows Piper would just as soon avoid talking about money, ever if possible, and she kind of wishes she could just drop the whole front and explain that it's not a problem.
"I know. But I've got it."
Piper plucks the housing application from Alex hand and scans it. "Did you see the security deposit? Because they need it upfront...and it says they want proof of three months' rent in your bank account already - "
"I said I've got it, Piper."
"But - "
"You obviously like it the best. It's bigger, and the difference in rent between two bedroom apartments at the three places isn't that significant. This one includes more utilities, and doesn't charge extra for your parking space. I wouldn't take it if the money wasn't something I could handle, okay? I've actually paid bills before, Pipes, you haven't."
Piper flushes, and Alex sighs, instantly regretting the condensation in her tone. She knows Piper is feeing guilty, and anxious, and really it's Alex's own fault, since she could assuage all worry and isn't.
"Look," Alex softens her tone. "I've been working for like three years, Pipes. Full time for almost a year now, and I don't pay rent or spend money on much more than cigarettes and blank tapes. It's gonna be fine."
She shouldn't accept that so easily, but Alex knows she will. Money is a vague, abstract concept to Piper, and anyway, most of Alex's expenses would never occur to her. Even since Alex started working, Diane's refused to take any of her money for rent or car payments, so Alex has always just contributed where she can. She does most of the grocery shopping, snags whatever bills she can, knowing her mom won't miss them as long as nothing turns off, and even takes the car to fill it with gas when Diane sleeps between night shifts.
But anyway. That's not such a problem anymore.
Piper still looks anxious, and Alex doesn't want this apartment to be a source of anxiety for her. She flops down on the hardwood floor, right in the enter of the empty living room, and, arching an eyebrow invitingly, extends her hand to Piper.
"Besides," she says as Piper links their fingers together and allows herself to be tugged onto the floor beside Alex. "You add up the amount of gas money you've spent on 'dates' where we just drive around for hours and have sex in the car...I probably owe you at least a couple months worth of rent."
"My dad gives me gas money," Piper admits.
"I know." Alex smirks, stretching out on her back and pulling Piper down beside her. "So spoiled." But she says it warm and teasing, and it coaxes a small smile from Piper. They look around at the bare walls and open space. It's nearly twice the size of the apartment Alex shares with her mom, and Alex has to work on not feeling guilty about that.
It's fine. Alex has plans. She is going to buy her mother a house someday, is going to hand her a key and tell her to quit every job she has.
Alex is, for once, able to think in the long term.
Starting here, with this. Her and Piper's place. Theirs.
"Hey." She nudges her shoulder against Piper's. "Wanna christen the place?"
Piper turns to look at her, and Alex curls her lips, arching her eyebrows suggestively. Piper grins. "You know this won't actually be ours. It's just the unit they keep empty to show students."
Alex leans up on her elbows and rolls over, leaning down to kiss Piper. "So?"
In the end, Piper's too paranoid about the possibility of the building manager walking back in to check on them to do more than make out for a couple minutes. Alex rolls off her and grumbles that she has no sense of fun. She stays on the floor, diligently filling out the apartment application, and then she and Piper drop it off at the landlord's office and head back to campus.
Friday morning, Alex sleeps in, alone in the dorm room while Piper attends her last classes before spring break.
Piper had regretfully informed her that she was giving Polly a ride home from break, meaning for the first hour of their drive they'll be joined by an unpleasant third wheel. Alex doesn't mind so much; she has a plan for dealing with Polly this trip: she's going to be an utter fucking delight.
Piper will be happy about that, thinking Alex is making an effort, but the truth is, it's probably the most irritating thing she could do. After Alex's first visit, Polly already hates her; it's the sort of hatred that will not be reversed, can only be fed, so Alex is refusing to feed it. Won't give Polly the satisfaction of sending her away with brand new examples to prove how right she is about Alex.
So Alex flashes a charming smile when Polly gets back to the dorm, and while they load suitcases into the trunk of Piper's car, she asks pleasantly, "Polly, things still going on with that guy?"
Startled at being addressed, Polly swings a suspicious look at Alex. "What?"
"You were with a guy last time I was here."
"Jake," Piper puts in helpfully.
"Oh. No. That's over."
"That's too bad." Even Piper is staring at her, trying to gauge sincerity. Alex just smiles; the affect is almost satirical. "Plans over break?"
"Not really." Polly ducks into the backseat of the car, looking like she's crawling into a locked cage.
Alex shrugs in Piper's direction and takes her usual place in the front passenger seat.
Piper cranks the car and grins. "Spring break!"
Alex is already sorting through tapes. "Pipes, we fucking need milkshakes." She lifts her gaze to the rearview mirror. "Polly, milkshake?"
"Cause that's how Pipes and I road trip."
"This is true," Piper confirms seriously.
They go through a fast food drive thru on the way out of town, Alex testing mixtapes without settling on one until they pull onto the highway and she recognizes the label on a tape deep in the glove box. "Oh, okay, here we go. Pipes, you ready for this?"
Alex pushes in the tape and immediately fast forwards, the high pitched shrieking filling the car.
"Good choice," Piper says dryly.
"Shut up. We gotta start in the middle."
"Should we be concerned that you know the track order on every tape in my car?"
"Probably not, I made most of them."
"Still. They're barely labeled. That's some savant level memory."
"I just remember specifically making this tape. The first side's for driving, the second side's for car sex." She twists around in her seat to give Polly a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, we'll skip those."
"Gee, thanks." Polly looks like she'd like to hurl herself out of the moving car. Alex turns back around, hiding her smirk as she continues going through the tape until she finds what she's looking for.
Piper's face lights up instantly as the hurried, buoyant piano riffs of Baba O'Riley burst through the speakers. Her fingers start fluttering across the steering wheel, a poor but enthusiastic imitation of the piano, a well practiced routine.
Alex cranks up the volume, and Piper, still intently miming riffs across the wheel, shouts over the music in explanation, "We used to air band to this when we were kids."
"I think I played this the first time you spent the night."
"Yeah, I remember, on your mom's record - Alex." Piper waves her hand in the direction of the radio.
Alex keys back into the music just in time to come in on the air drums. Piper frees up a hand just long enough to crank the volume even louder, and when the vocals come in, they both start singing, hands still valiantly miming the instruments. Alex rolls down her window, and the wind sucks up their voices but not the music. The tape is loud and the car is fast and Polly's miserable expression in the backseat is just a bonus.
"Hey Piper!" Polly calls loudly from the back. "Should I be concerned about your driving right now?"
"She's kind of an expert at this multi-tasking, actually," Alex answers with a wide grin. "You're witnessing true talent."
They're a giggling, breathless mess by the time the song winds down, but Joan Jett cranks to life immediately after, and the energy stays high.
Thirteen songs later, they pull into the driveway of Polly's house, hoarse and giggly, and she exhales in exaggerated relief as she gets her bags out.
"See ya next week, Poll," Piper calls out the window as Alex waves merrily at her. They idle in the driveway and watch Polly roll her suitcases toward the front door.
"Polly hates fun," Alex deadpans.
Piper starts laughing. "I think we're probably kinda hard to be around."
"We're fucking delightful, Pipes. Don't let her tell you otherwise." She leans across the console to kiss the curve of Piper's jaw, meaning it to be perfunctory, but the idea of making out in Polly's driveway isn't unappealing.
As if reading her mind, Piper smirks, turning her head for a quick kiss but then moving pointedly away and throwing the car into reverse.
The first few days of break pass like all the vacations before it: Alex and Piper slip right into their old routines, spending every possible moment together, waking and sleeping.
But on Tuesday morning, Piper has to put in some obligatory 'home from college' mother/daughter time, going out for breakfast with her mom and grandmother and then shopping for a few hours. It's not as terrible as it could be: her mother makes three different passive aggressive comments about Piper not having a boyfriend, and two wondering why she hangs out with Alex so much over breaks, but she also buys Piper a couple skirts and shirts for the upcoming spring weather. So. Could be worse.
Still, she's glad to get home and be released from family time for the day. She dials Alex immediately, but no one picks up at her apartment. It only takes an hour or so of no answer for Piper to get impatient enough to go track Alex down; it's not as if there are many locales she frequents.
Diane spots Piper thirty seconds after she walks into Friendly's; she smiles and changes courses on her way to the table, waving a dismissive hand at the hostess about to ask Piper how many are in her party. "I got this one, Jean." She puts an arm around Piper's shoulders and leads her toward the dining area. "Didn't expect to see you today, Pipe. To what do I owe the surprise?"
"I was wondering if Alex was here."
Diane gives her a stern look. "Wrong answer."
Piper smiles. "I mean, I was just craving the best customer service in town?"
"Better," Diane pronounces with an approving nod. "Al's not here, though...if you're in town I usually assume I'll find her within two of feet of ya."
"My mom and I had to see my grandmother this morning."
"Ah. Well, if Alex isn't at the apartment, she probably swung by on the bus to borrow the car. She usually stops in to say hi when she brings it back, you're welcome to wait. 'Less you think she's drivin' around in circles looking for you." Piper considers for a moment, then Diane adds, "You eaten lunch?"
"Here, sit down. I'll put in your order and go on break...you and me need a chance to catch up without Al, anyway."
Piper grins. "She's just always third wheeling us."
"What a brat, huh?" Diane winks. "You want your usual, or have you gone vegetarian in college?"
"Not a vegetarian."
Diane's back in less than two minutes with diet cokes and plate of fries. She sets them in the middle of the table and slides into the booth across from Piper. "So. Catch me up."
Even though, unlike her daughter, Diane has never demonstrated an ounce of resentment - or, in fact, anything but genuine interest - in Piper's college life, she still feels awkward discussing too much. So she gives a vague, 'no-big-deal' sort of rundown of her classes this semester, then focuses the conversation on her and Alex's apartment search.
Grinning, Diane comments, half teasing, "Big step. You two sure you're ready to live together?"
"I think we're pretty familiar with each others' habits by now."
"True. I was telling Al...it just seems so fuckin' grown up. When I was you kids' age, I was mostly sharing hotel rooms with four or five other girls."
"Yeah?" Piper leans forward, eager. She's always loved Diane's stories from before Alex was born, back when she'd travel around the country, going from concert to concert, sometimes following a single band, sometimes just sticking close to a venue for awhile. "How'd you pay for it?"
"Oh, some of the other girls were fuckin' loaded...playing the boho groupie thing, but doing it with their parents money, ya know? But then sometimes, if we were with one band in particular, they'd just get a whole slew of rooms, and we'd take one the same as if we were part of the entourage."
"But you weren't, like, you know..."
"Stayingwith the musicians? In their rooms?"
Diane smirks. "On and off. Most of those arrangements weren't exactly permanent, if you know what I mean. The best thing was when one of us would have a thing with one of the guys from an opener, some up and coming band. That's usually how we'd get on a tour bus. 'Course every once in a while, one of us would get in with one of the real famous guys. Those were the best times." She pauses, grabbing a few fries, then adds, "That's what happened with Al's father."
Piper goes still. Even back when they were kids, and Alex still talked about her father's band and music constantly, when Death Maiden posters were the primary decorations in her room, Piper's never heard Diane mention him. She meets her eyes cautiously. "Yeah?"
"Mmm-hmmm. His band was somethin', trust me. Not that you'd know it now, but they were. But Lee walked right up to me backstage one night - we'd gotten in with some nerdy lil rock journalists - and that was it. Stayed with him on tour with him for a whole three months."
"Wow." Piper thinks back to the concert she went to with Alex, trying to picture that aged, weathered drummer twenty years ago, charming someone like Diane. She hesitates, then asks softly, "Did you love him?"
"Ah, I don't know. Probably not, or else I'd remember more of it. All I remember is the cool, ya know? How famous he was, how fucking jealous the other girls were. I remember loving the thrill of it, the fact that he wanted me, but not much else about him. Not before he proved himself to be a right asshole, of course." A waiter brings over Piper's usual burger order, and Diane grins and thanks him before continuing. "I was just an idiot fuckin' kid, though, Pipe. Even when I got pregnant, and he had fuck all to say about that...I didn't want to ruin it. Having a wild affair with a famous rock star? That was a damn good story. Getting knocked up and left in Cincinnati by a mediocre, drug addicted rock star? Not so much."
"He left you in Cincinnati?"
"Oh yeah. The whole tour rolled out. The other girls, too. Had to call my goddamn sister to wire me money for a bus ticket home. Not that my parents let me move back in once they found out I was having a baby. That was a bad few months, Pipe." Diane smiles and shakes her head a little, incredulous, the way people do when they've got enough distance to look back on bad times and feel almost nostalgic. "But like I said. I still couldn't let the story go. So I told myself and everyone else that he was talented and cool, and that I was lucky to even be with him." Her smiles fades slightly. "Just wish I hadn't passed that version of the story onto Alex."
Piper's eyes skirt automatically away, and she's not sure what to say, until Diane, as though reading her mind, answers her unspoken question. "Al told me she met him."
"Oh." Piper meets her gaze again. "She did?"
"Yeah. I feel like shit about it. I never wanted to ruin it for her, and...honest to God, I never thought she'd be able to find him. I mean, you saw the show." Piper nods confirmation even though Diane doesn't seem to need it. "In a shithole, right?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Mmm-hmm. I can't believe she even found a concert." Diane sighs, but then her face softens. "I'm just glad you were with her."
Diane grins a little. "Yeah, yeah, I know of course. You two, I swear."
Piper slides her gaze to the front of the restaurant, for no real reason, at the same second Alex walks in. Piper's face lights up enough for Diane to swivel around, likely assuming who she'll see. Alex grins and tilts her head in surprise when she sees them sitting together.
"Hey!" She practically throws herself into the booth beside Piper. "What are you doing here?"
"I had plans with your mom, didn't I say?" Piper says casually.
"It's true, babe," Diane nods, straight faced. "We get together to complain about you whenever we can."
"Uh-huh. Like I give either of you things to complain about." She reaches for the plate in the center of the table, grabbing the last few fries that remain. "Hey, Mom, can you get me another order of fries?"
Diane scoffs out a laugh. "Do I look like I'm on the clock?" She looks at Piper, shaking her head in mock exasperation. "What did I say? Total fuckin brat."
"Fine. Nathan'll get them for me."
"Oh, sure, good plan. I'll call Nathan right over here to meet your girlfriend." Diane looks at Piper, arching an eyebrow, an expression eerily similar to Alex. "One of our new waiters is all crushed out on Al. And she flirts just enough so he gives her perks."
Piper turns to Alex, eyes narrow and accusatory. "Why do you need some dude's perks? Your mom works here."
"She only uses her employee discount. I'm pretty sure Nathan takes everything out of his paychecks."
Diane nods to confirm that. "He does."
Piper scowls, which makes Alex smirk. "Oh, stop, you know you don't have to be jealous of guys."
"Oh?" Piper lifts an eyebrow, challenging. "Are you saying I do have to be jealous of girls?"
Diane chuckles at that. "Bad move, kiddo."
Alex scoots a little closer to Piper, puts an arm around her and kisses her cheek, conciliatory. "You know you don't."
"Really, though, where have you been?"
"Thought you have the week off."
"Somebody didn't show up this morning, they were desperate."
Piper frowns a little. "You know you really don't have to take off the whole week just cause I'm home. I don't mind hanging out at Sonic."
"Yeah, Al," Diane puts in. "That way you can be the one giving away free fries, instead of just mooching."
"That doesn't sound as fun."
"You don't have to tell me." Diane stands up, smirking. "I gotta get back to work. Pipe, don't worry about the bill."
"You don't have to - "
"I know I don't." Diane winks and waves her off.
Alex looks up at her mom. "So are we a no on the fries?"
"I'll send Nathan over. But you two might not wanna be cuddling on one side of the booth when he gets here."
Diane walks away, and Piper grabs Alex's jacket and tugs her close, kissing her insistently, almost possessive.
Alex is smirking when she pulls away. "Do you have any idea where you are right now?"
"Oh, shit." Piper's eyes widen, then dart nervously around the restaurant, looking for anyone she knows. "I kinda forgot. I think we made out too much in public in Northampton."
"I was there for two days, Pipes."
"And we made out a lot."
Eyes gleaming, Alex leans close again, but doesn't quite close the gap. "Let's go out tonight."
"Yeah, it's your spring break. I feel like you're supposed to spend a certain amount of it drunk. Let's drive out of town, maybe go to all those bars near State...I'll DD you coming back."
"You want to DD?"
"Shut up. But, yes. Consider it my spring break gift to you."
"Okay, sounds fun. But one thing...my mom's kind of making a thing about how I 'don't even sleep on the house when I'm home on break'."
"Not a problem. We'll go back to your place...I can sneak your drunk ass in."
Piper grins, and only barely restrains herself from kissing Alex again.
Alex shows up to Piper's house, dressed and made up to go out, and quietly sneaks upstairs without alerting Piper's parents to her arrival.
She pushes open the door to Piper's bedroom. "Hey, you."
Piper looks her her shoulder and smiles. She's in a dark blue dress Alex hasn't seen before, and is finishing up her makeup in her full length mirror. "Hey, how'd you get here?"
"My mom dropped me off."
"I'll be ready to go in a minute."
"No rush. I brought you something." She reaches into her leather jacket, which she's been pulling tightly against herself as she walked through the house, and pulls out a bottle of tequila.
"Thought I was driving there."
"I'll drive. You drink." Alex sticks her tongue between her teeth and smirks. "I know important the pre-game is to your nights out."
Piper takes advantage of being in the passenger seat for once and, with some help from the several shots of tequila she'd had before they left, goes full out with the air banding and singing on the forty-five minute drive to the nearest university town.
It's the middle of the week, but the State college nearby isn't on their break, so there are still decent crowds, judging by the main street that runs along the edge of campus, lined with bars and cheap restaurants. Alex leads the way, picking a place she knows, the closest to a dance club the area has.
Piper's buzz is starting to wear off upon arrival, but one drink at the bar and it surges to life again. Alex orders a beer and drinks it slowly, heeding her designated driver duties.
They drink and dance for an hour or so, riding the music and adrenaline. At one point, Piper's grinding on Alex from behind, when suddenly she leans forward and yells into Alex's ears, "Think we'll see anyone from high school?"
As the closest, and biggest, public university in the state, the school is famous for attracting a decent chunk of every graduating class from their hometown. Alex frequents this area for work, and she knows it's not impossible, but she feels only a flicker of vague recognition for most of her peers from high school, and she's never seen anyone who would bother approaching. There's a decent smattering from Piper's old crowd that ended up here, though.
"I don't know, why?" Alex spins around, hands on Piper's hips, pulling her flush against her as they dance. "Do we need some space in case they see? Get some plausible deniability?"
Directly defying that, Piper vines her arms around Alex's neck and kisses her deeply.
After an hour, Alex takes Piper's hand and weaves through the crowd toward the bar. She's leaning on a tiny available surface of space, Piper in turn leaning against her back. Alex is working to catch the bartender's eye when someone forces themself into the space beside her, shouting, "Alex?"
She glances over, and instantly feels shot straight through with panic. There's a twenty something year old guy standing there, Abe something, and he's one of the local clients.
Alex ignores him, less because it's a good strategy than because her mind can't settle on another one. He tugs at her arm. "Alex."
She feels the weight on her back lessen as Piper straightens up. Alex keeps her gaze fixed behind the bar. "Sorry, you're looking for someone else."
"Hey, listen, hey. I got money, alright, I just need a bump, c'mon, just however much you have..."
He's shaking. Gleaming with sweat under the lights of the bar. And he clearly doesn't comprehend that Alex isn't a dealer.
"Alex?" Piper's voice now. Confused, slightly anxious. Alex reaches back and takes her hand, giving her a baffled shrug. She turns back to the guy and says in a forceful, threatening voice, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Go. Away." His eyes are huge and desperate, and for a second he seems to be debating following the advice; Alex pulls Piper forward, then pointedly turns her body, edging the guy out.
"What the hell was that?" Piper asks.
"I have no idea."
"But he knew your name."
"Yeah, I've seen him with groups before. He knows Whit and Lucy." Names of theater tech kids Alex was vaguely, almost friends with in high school who now go to school here. They're who she tells Piper she met up with when she goes out.
"Did he think you have drugs?"
"I guess. Told you, I barely know him...definitely didn't know he was a fuckin' junkie."
Piper's eyes are squinty, forehead furrowed, and she looks like she's got more questions, so Alex leans her body even further across the bar, holding up a hand and insistently flagging down a bartender.
Two minutes later she's handing Piper another drink and one of the two tequila shots she'd ordered. Piper eyes the pair uncertainly. "Should you be doing shots and driving?"
"Oh. Probably not." Alex smirks, and pushes the second one toward Piper. "Guess it's all on you."
Five minutes later, Piper's blissfully dancing, the encounter forgotten, and Alex leaves her on the dance floor to go the bathroom, but instead finds Abe wandering the peripheral of the bar.
He looks stupidly relieved to see her. "Hey, listen, seriously - "
She steps close, menacing enough that he stumbles back against the wall. "Listen, you shit. Do not come up to me again. You don't know me, you have no idea who the fuck I am, got it?"
"Yeah, fine, sure, fine, just...just sell me something."
"I'm not a dealer, dumbass. I fucking work with the mules, I don't carry."
"Okay, okay, but I know you got some of your own shit, right? You had to bring your own? I'll pay you double for it."
Alex laughs at him, unkindly. "No, I don't have my own. Know why? Cause I don't want to be a pathetic fucking junkie having to beg for drugs in bars." She lets go of him, narrowing a glare. "I mean it. You come up to me again, I'll be letting Fahri know there's a problem."
Piper's singing Bad Reputation in a sort of hissing stage whisper as they enter her front door, and Alex has to wrap an arm around Piper and lift the hand high enough to cover her mouth.
"Ssssh, Pipes, your parents," Alex says under her breath, trying hard not to laugh at the image of Piper's parents running in in their bathrobes and pajamas, finding their perfect daughter drunk off her ass, her mouth smeared with Alex's lipstick, one hand trying to not so stealthily creep under Alex's dress. But Piper instantly heeds the warning and stops singing, proving she does give a damn about her reputation.
Alex helps Piper out of her heels and clumsily kicks them out of the center of the foyer. It's slow going up the stairs; Piper lets both feet land on every step before going for the next one, like a toddler just learning to walk. She's leaning against Alex, and keeps turning her head to kiss her neck.
They're moving down the upstairs hallway to Piper's bedroom when there's a shuffling behind them, and even in Piper's drunken state she stiffens and leans away from Alex, though she still keeps a tight gip on her arm out of necessity.
Alex turns; it's just Cal, leaning against the dorm frame of his bedroom. She grins at him in greeting. "Evening, Calvin."
"Hey, Hobbs," he says, using the nickname he's been calling Alex since he was nine, the inside joke born out of some comic related conversation no one really remembers anymore. He smirks a little, watching his sister. "Is she drunk?"
Alex sniffs the air pointedly. "Are you high?"
"Almost always. Wanna join?"
"Maybe in a minute." She nods pointedly at Piper, who's now leaning her head against Alex's shoulder and eying her younger brother with naked suspicion.
"Cal. Cal. You can't tell," Piper orders with a surprising amount of gravitas.
Cal snorts. "Why would I tell?"
Piper shrugs and starts stumbling toward her room again, pulling Alex after her. Waving at Cal as she goes, Alex says, "Good to see you, Calvin."
His door shuts again, and Alex leads Piper the rest of the way into her bedroom, where she immediately wrestles her dress off. There's an open suitcase propped against the wall, clothes Piper had brought home for break spilling out, but right on top is the oversize The Who T-shirt that used to be Alex's, the one Piper usually sleeps in. Alex hands it over and watches as Piper puts it on inside out.
Piper sighs in contentment and flops down on the bed. "Are you coming in?"
Alex chokes on a laugh. "Coming in the bed?"
"Yeah, I'll, uh. I'll be in in a sec."
Alex tugs off her pants and top, leaving her in only a black cami. She checks that the bedroom door is locked, just in case, and then crawls under the sheets beside Piper. She curls against her and leans over, lips caressing the bow of Piper's cheekbone, but Piper's eyes are already closed, and she only makes a happy little humming sound and snuggles back against Alex in response, too sleepy drunk to be anything but chaste.
But Alex is all too awake, and all too sober. As Piper drifts off beside her, she can finally let the full panic of tonight hit her. God. Today was a total fucking mess. She started it out lying to Piper about working a last minute shift at Sonic, and then the incident at the bar had been too close for comfort.
They're halfway through the break. She can't put this off anymore.
Tomorrow. She has to tell her tomorrow.
"Piper! Piper, honey, are you awake?"
Piper eyes snap open, her mother's voice and the insistent tapping on her bedroom door hurling her into wakefulness. Beside her, Alex sleeps on, unaffected by the noise.
Urgent, Piper shakes her into a rude awakening. Alex screws up her face and opens her mouth to protest, but Piper's hand clamps over her lips. She mouths the word Hide and starts nudging Alex off the bed.
"Yeah, Mom, I'm awake."
"I'm going to meet Marilyn for brunch at the club. I may stop by the grocery after, do you need anything?"
"Nope, I'm good, thanks."
Alex ends up on the floor, tugging all the blankets off the bed with her.
"Okay, sweetie, I'll see you a little later on. Don't stay in bed all day."
"Alright, Mom. Have fun."
They listen for the retreat of footsteps down the stairs, and then Alex scowls up at Piper. "Why would I need to hide?"
"Oh..." Piper thinks about it. "I guess you didn't. Sorry. Panicked."
"Terrific." Alex crawls back onto the bed, looking somewhat irritated and disoriented at her less than gentle exit from sleep. "You hungover?"
Piper takes a second to assess. "Not so much. I think going out so much at school is building my hangover tolerance."
Alex manages half a smirk. "Just not your actual alcohol tolerance, huh?"
With her mother out to brunch, her father at work, and Cal in school, the house is safely empty. They take their time showering and getting dressed. Piper turns on the stereo in he bedroom, feeling perfectly content to just meander through the morning, but Alex seems distracted and oddly restless.
"Let's do something different today," she says suddenly, oddly declarative and apropos to nothing.
"Okay," Piper agrees easily, up for whatever plan Alex concocts. "Like what?"
"Like..." She thinks, then abruptly grins. "Let's go to the ocean."
"Yeah. I'm trying to give you an authentic spring break here, Pipes. Drunken debauchery last night. Today: beach."
"I think it's usually sunny Floridian beaches, Al. Not New England in the middle of March."
"It's all about the experience, babe."
Alex is staring expectantly, waiting for Piper to agree. As it dawns on her that Alex is actually, literally serious, a slow smile starts to creep across Piper's face. "Yeah, okay. What the hell. Let's drive to the ocean."
They stop at a gas station on their way out of town, and Piper fills the car while Alex runs next door to the pharmacy to get supplies. Piper follows her when she finishes. Alex is in the line at the register with two bottles of wine (made possible by her extraordinarily fake ID) and a basket full of junk food.
Piper grabs one of the disposable, one roll Kodak cameras hanging on a rack beside the register and adds it to the pile. She pulls out her debit card but Alex waves it away and pays in cash.
There's a giddiness building slowly in Piper's chest as the day stretches out before them, all possibility and no obligation. As they cross the parking lot to head back to the car, Piper laces her hand with Alex's, complete with arm swinging, and Alex smiles and rolls her eyes and affectionately calls Piper a fuckin' dork.
They crank up the music, again looking for perfect road trip songs, and Piper's trying to keep her eyes on the road while cracking up at Alex's total nonsensical attempt at the lyrics to Come On, Eileen when a flash goes off. She glances over to see Alex smirking and lowering the disposable camera from her face.
It takes a little over two hours before they're driving through some tiny coast town that looks like it's practically shut down for the non-summer months. They park near a stretch of empty beach, and it's cool and windy enough that they have to keep their jackets on and zipped. The sky is a muted white, the ocean gray beneath it. With her leather jacket and black beanie pulled over her hair, Alex could probably look like a black and white photograph even in color film, but she won't give up the camera for Piper to test the theory. She ruins the desaturated effect by grabbing three Twizzlers at once and sticking them halfway in her mouth, the red ends hanging out between her lips. When Piper laughs at her, she takes a picture.
It takes half an hour of not seeing another person before Piper will agree to open the wine. They take off their shoes and roll up their jeans, walking in the very edge of the freezing cold surf, passing wine and candy back and forth. Piper stains her tongue with Skittles, Alex tosses back fistfuls of pixie sticks, and soon it's hard to tell if they're working more off an alcohol buzz or a sugar high.
There's nothing to any of it. Just Alex and Piper, their words and their laughter and their hands and their lips. That's the whole day. Piper would be hard pressed to explain to someone like Polly how they fill so much time, but two, three, four hours slip away with utter ease. They fall asleep for half an hour on the blanket they'd brought from Piper's house, napping off the effects of the wine, and when they wake up the chill in the air is pushing down harder.
Piper sits up and brings the sand covered blanket with her, attempting to wrap the corner around her shoulders. Alex smiles blearily up at her, beanie slipping off and leaving her hair a staticky mess. Somehow, she's still got the damn camera beside her; she aims and clicks before Piper can stop her.
"Should we head back?"
Surprisingly adamant, Alex shakes her head. "No, let's not go home yet."
"It's getting kinda cold, Al."
"I know. We can go somewhere else." She smiles and holds out her hand. "Give me the keys."
Piper obliges, and they pick the blanket up in a bundle holding what's left of their snacks, tossing it in the trunk of the car. Piper closes her eyes and leans the passenger seat as far as it will go, happy to sit back and let Alex take control of the day.
She opens her eyes when the car eases to a stop. They're in the near empty parking lot of a dinky little movie theater, the kind that still has an old fashioned marquee circling the entrance. Alex asks the middle aged man working the booth which showing has sold the least tickets, and he gives her a dry look. "Take your fuckin pick."
So they go see Rushmore, sitting in the middle of an empty theater. Piper lifts up the armrest between their seats and drapes her legs over Alex's, leaning against her shoulder. For the most part, they just sit like that, genuinely watching, but then the movie's soundtrack kicks onto a song Piper loves, and she feels the entire experience of today hit her at once: the sweet, fun simplicity of it, the way the distance and unfamiliarity of the town makes them feel hidden.
She shifts, swinging her left leg over so she's straddling Alex's lap. She leans down and kisses her, one hand wrapped around her neck, the other reaching into the pocket of her jacket. When she feels Alex smile against her lips, Piper leans back, snatching her hand up, camera at the ready, and a flash of white light bursts between them. She hopes she got that smile.
"Geez, Pipes, blind me why don't you?" Alex asks, screwing her eyes shut and pushing her glasses up on her head like that's going to help.
"Sorry," Piper says with a smug grin.
Alex recovers quickly, then leans up to reclaim Piper's lips. After a minute or two of that, she shifts her hips underneath Piper. "Let's move."
"Let's move seats." She smirks. "Just in case."
They stand up and hurry to the back corner of the theater. They don't see the end of the movie.
Alex can't do it.
She'd had a vague sort of plan to bring it up toward the end of the day, just before they left to head home. That way, no matter how bad the initial blow up, they'd have two inescapable hours in a car together.
She doesn't examine that plan too hard; doesn't ask herself why it seems so damn important to make sure Piper can't just walk away.
But anyway. Not today. Today was too good. She can't bring herself to taint it.
But, really, that's everything with Piper.
And that's the whole problem.
It's all too beautiful to ruin.
Alex stays over at her house again, but they split up Thursday morning when Piper has to fulfill a promise to have lunch at her dad's office.
She calls the apartment as soon as she gets done, but no one answers. So Piper stretches out on the couch and tries to make some headway on a play she's supposed to read for class, until just before three o'clock when her mother asks if she'd mind picking Cal up at school.
It's weird, driving up to the high school, past the bleachers where Alex used to hang out instead of go to classes - the bleachers where they had their horrible falling out. She should talk Alex into driving here one night when it's closed, late enough so even the sports teams and the marching band have gone home. They should have sex on those goddamn bleachers, cleanse that memory for good.
Cal smirks a little at her when he slides into the car. "Didn't know you were coming. Feeling nostalgic for the old stomping grounds?"
"I wasn't until I got here," she replies honestly, suppressing her own smirk. "By the way, when are you gonna get a license?"
"Maybe when oil stops being the downfall of modern society." Piper cuts her eyes at him, skeptical. Cal grins. "Or when I pass the test. Whichever comes first."
"Twice. Gotta wait another month."
Piper laughs. "Nice going." Her eyes land on the Sonic sign down the street, and she remembers Alex getting called to an emergency shift the other day. "You want a slushy or something?"
"Fine. I'll just get myself one." Piper pulls into a space at Sonic, rolling down her window and waiting until one of the servers walks by. She doesn't recognize him, but yells out, "Excuse me?"
He turns. "You can order through the speaker, we just bring the food."
Piper suppresses an eyeroll. "I know. I was just wondering if Alex was working?"
The kid makes a face like she's just screwing with him. "Never heard of him."
"Okay, either way. No one named Alex works here."
"Are you new or something?"
"Not for five months, no." He waves a hand at the menu. "Order at the speaker."
Oblivious to the significance of the exchange, Cal pokes her arm, "I changed my mind, actually. I'll have a Blue Raspberry Blast. Large."
Distracted, Piper orders his slushy over the speaker and doesn't get one for herself. Luckily, it's brought out by a different server, a girl who was definitely working there when Piper used to come visit Alex.
"Oh, hey," she says as she takes Piper's cash. "You're Alex's friend, right?"
"How's she doing?"
Piper's stomach swoops in confusion. "I...you haven't seen her?"
"Nah, I don't think she's been by since last summer. Not that I blame her. If I ever quit this shithole, doubt I'll be swinging by for a visit."
She's quiet as they drive away, brain fogged over with utter confusion. Cal's watching her warily. "You didn't know Alex quit her job?"
"No, she didn't mention it," Piper says flatly. "I'm just gonna drop you off at home, okay?"
Alex is in the apartment putting away groceries when her cell phone rings. "Hello?"
"Yes, is this Alex Vause?"
She frowns slightly, on immediate alert. Not many people have this number. "It is..."
"This is Derek Littleton, we met about the apartment the other day?"
"Oh, right, hi." She relaxes instantly; she'd put this number down on the application, without showing Piper, but hadn't expected to hear back so soon.
"I just wanted to let you know the application's been approved. You're all set for the apartment."
Alex grins, feeling a rush of something almost like victory. "Thanks, that's great."
"I know the school's out for spring break this week, think you two could come by Monday afternoon to sign the lease?"
"Sure..." Alex pauses, trying to remember Piper's class schedule. "Five o'clock be okay?" She can just ride back to Northampton with Piper on Sunday night, and get a bus ticket home again.
"Sounds good. And I'll need a check for the security deposit upfront."
"Not a problem. What about the first and last month's rent?"
"Nah, no need for that until you move in in August."
"Great. Thanks for the call, I'll see you Monday."
Alex hangs up and stares at the phone for a moment, overwhelmed with the conflict between excitement and dread.
This is really happening. She and Piper have a place waiting for them, and in five months they are allowed to move in and live there together.
She's just gotta fucking tell her. It's like she's been building a house of cards, and it's almost finished and so goddamn close to perfect, but this one final move could bring the whole thing down.
Then there's an insistent knock on the door, and Piper comes in without waiting for an answer, bringing gusts of a hurricane that send the whole tower scattering.
Her whole face is screwed up into a troubled, bewildered expression, but for a second Piper just stares at Alex like she's not even sure where to start. Already fear's got a light hold on the back of Alex's neck, even as she reassures herself it's fine, that there's no way she could know.
But then Piper says, "Did you quit Sonic last summer?," and the fear's grip becomes a stranglehold.
It takes Alex a moment to scramble for a calm, measured tone, one that doesn't sound like she's been caught, one that suggests this is no big deal. "Yes."
"Okay..." Piper squints, and nods for a long time. "Okay. See...I don't even know what to do with that? Because it's a very, very odd thing to lie about. But it's also not just a you never mentioned it kind of lie. There were a lot of specific instances where you told me you just got off work, or you weren't home when I called because you were working, or, oh yeah, that you had saved up money for the apartment by working."
"I do have the money for the apartment," Alex puts in, still determinedly calm.
"How?" Piper demands, but then seems to unsure if that's the most pertinent question. "I don't get this, Alex."
"I know. Just...sit down, okay?"
"I don't want to sit. I don't want this to be some long drawn out story, I want you to just explain it, right now."
"I'm gonna explain. But that won't necessarily be fast."
Piper just stares at her. She doesn't sit.
"Okay." Already Alex is faltering. For the many times she'd planned and then backed out of this moment, she never really got as far as picking out the words. "Okay. Remember that guy at the bar the other night? The one who thought I had drugs?" The muscles in Piper's face are tight. Alex can't tell if she's inferring anything. "He...thought that because my boss is his dealer."
"What?" Piper's face pinches in complete confusion. "Your...old boss at Sonic? You left because he's a drug dealer?"
Jesus, this is even harder than she thought. "No. My current boss. I guess." Alex goes quiet for a moment, watching Piper slowly follow that thought. Then, remembering, she adds, "Remember, I told you about that guy I met at the concert? Who offered me a job?"
"Yeah, and then you never mentioned it again. I figured he never called."
"He did." Alex goes quiet, waiting for the unavoidable question. But Piper's face is still set in intense, dark concentration, like she's desperately trying to put two and two together and come up with something other than four.
Finally, Piper says, "So your boss is a drug dealer. Which makes you...what?"
"He's not exactly...not just a dealer. He imports."
Piper makes a sound, like a laugh being strangled. Her eyes are huge. "This is a joke, right? You're fucking with me."
"I know it seems crazy. So far they've mostly had me working with the drug mules - "
"Drug mules." The pitch of Piper's voice is climbing.
"It's a really, really good opportunity, Pipes. The money - "
"An opportunity? You sound like it's a career."
"It kind of would be. In a couple years, Fahri says I could start traveling - "
"Years? Jesus, Alex. What the fuck is wrong with you? It's illegal."
"I know that. But this has been going on for decades, okay? They're smart about it."
Piper presses the heels over her hands over eyes. "You sound like such an idiot right now."
"If you'll just listen - "
"Are you fucking kidding? You've been lying to me for the past year, Alex. You're nineteen years old and you're working for a..." She struggles for the word.
Piper's muttering under her breath, "Fucking shit, Jesus fucking Christ..."
"Piper. I am sorry about lying. Really sorry. I kept wanting to tell you, and I'd plan to, and then I'd back out, and I didn't know how to. But it didn't...it doesn't have anything to do with us."
"It has everything to do with us! Jesus, Alex, I don't even know who you are."
For the first time, Alex's determined calm fails her, and her face hardens. "That is bullshit. And you know it."
"No, I actually, genuinely don't." With an almost dazed look on her face, Piper starts toward the door. "I'm gonna go..."
"The fuck you are, Piper. You don't get to just walk out, give me a chance to talk to you about it - "
"Oh, like you've wanted to talk about it this whole time you've been complaining to me about shifts at fucking Sonic?"
"I told you I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I didn't want you looking at me the way you are right now, that goddamn judgy face like I'm the delinquent skipping class and you're the perfect honor student."
Piper makes a scoffing sound. "Yeah, because this is the same thing. I think I should be allowed to judge you for being a drug dealer."
"I already told you, I'm not fucking dealing - "
"I don't want to talk about it. I can't...I can't even believe we've gotten this far into this conversation. Fuck, Alex."
"They called about the apartment." It just slips out, not so much a subject change as a Hail Mary. "We got it."
Piper shoots Alex a disbelieving look. "I'm not living in an apartment you're paying for with drug money."
Alex's chest tightens. It takes her a second to find some anger to grab onto. "Well, you aren't living in one paid for with minimum wage from Sonic either, Piper. Not in fucking Northampton anyway. That was never going to work. You really think I could ever get full time hours there, with all the high school kids they hire?"
"Oh, right, how stupid of me to believe what you told me."
"Jesus, I'm not blaming you. I'm just telling you...the apartment isn't possible without this."
"Then I don't want it."
The words suck all the air out of the room. They sound heavy when she says it, and Alex knows there a whole set of possible implications to that statement.
Ever since she visited Smith last semester, the apartment had taken on even more meaning. They couldn't do four full years of the distance, of Piper immersed in her new life and Alex resenting it. The apartment was everything. The apartment was the future of their relationship.
And Piper doesn't want it.
In the silence that ensues, she turns and walks out the door, without clarifying what she actually means.
She's just gone.
Piper gets two blocks away from Alex's apartment before she has to pull over and park on the side of a street, too frazzled to drive safely.
She can't even get her head around this. She's stuck on the bit where Alex lied to her for eight months, because that, at least, she knows how to react to. That's easy, understandable anger.
The part where she's apparently working with drug mules, working for people who import heroin...that doesn't even seem real. This isn't something that happens in real life, and Piper has no script for it.
Even as Alex stood in front of her, telling her about working for a drug cartel, Piper kept thinking, almost on a loop, Alex wouldn't do that.
Drug cartels don't enter her world. People she knows don't become criminals.
As furious as she is about Alex lying, there's a fleeting moment where Piper stupidly, childishly wishes she could just go back to not knowing. She was blissful in the ignorance: her relationship was great, they were moving into an apartment together, everything was planned and settled and certain.
And now Piper has no fucking clue what to do with this.
Alex can't figure out what's going on.
She keeps telling herself that she and Piper have been together for two years, have been best friends for ten, and there's no way they could break up without her being certain it happened. But really, she isn't sure, and it's making her panic.
It feels, on the surface, that Piper had taken it worse than Alex had expected, but considering how scared she'd been for so long to tell the truth, that probably isn't the case. She knows Piper, even if Piper claims not to know her anymore. Piper panics, and Piper runs, but Piper also said once that there was no scenario where they were just over.
So Alex gives her a day to freak out. She forces herself not to call, or drive by the Chapman's house, or care that Piper hasn't called her.
Just for a day.
On Friday afternoon, she calls the Chapman's number and is relieved when Cal's the one to answer.
"Yeah, it's me. Listen, is Piper there?"
"Do you know where she is?"
"Yeah..." He draws the syllable out, sounding confused. "She seriously didn't tell you? She went back to school this morning."
"What? She's supposed to be here until Sunday."
"Yeah, I dunno, she just told Mom and Dad she had an exam to study for, and she drove back last night."
Alex's lips form a silent curse. "Got it. Thanks, kiddo."
Of course she went back to school. Of course she ran to hide in the new life she'd built away from Alex.
Isn't this exactly what Alex was always afraid of? That Smith College and Northampton and Piper's friends there were just creating a safety net for Piper? Making it easier for her to walk away?
Fuck that. She doesn't get to do this. She doesn't get to take one brief conversation, immediately after the initial shock, and leave. This doesn't get to be just her decision.
The dorm is unsettlingly quiet with most of the campus still on break, even though the dorms opened back up today. Piper almost regrets the spontaenous decision; she'd wanted to escape back into the distraction of her college life, but instead she'll have two days of solitude to brood over Alex.
Her stomach knots up every time Piper thinks about leaving without saying goodbye; Alex's apartment is always her last stop on the way back to school.
She knows she's being a coward, running away with everything unresolved, but the truth is Piper's waiting for everything to work itself out. It's still impossible to imagine Alex doing this in the first place, but even more impossible is the idea that she'd keep it up after Piper's reaction.
So she waits for Alex to call and tell her it's over, that she quit, that she was desperate and stupid and she's sorry for lying.
But the phone doesn't ring.
Maybe Alex doesn't even know she left.
So Piper spends two days going back and forth between the library, where she obsessively searches for information about international drug cartels and heroin importers, and her dorm room, where she lies on her bed and waits for the phone and tries to swallow back fear over what it means that Alex isn't calling.
Polly gets back around noon on Sunday to find Piper still in her pajamas in the dorm room.
"What are you doing back so early? Thought Supercunt likes to keep you occupied until the very last minute?"
"I had some work to do."
"Uh oh. Trouble in paradise?"
"No, we're fine," Piper says firmly. God, she can never tell Polly about this. She's careful never to give Polly any new ammunition against Alex, and this would be like handing over a new, upgraded weapon.
That evening, they keep the dorm room door propped open so everyone returning on the hall can pop in to say hi and catch up. Piper's sitting at her desk, finally doing the work she'd claimed to be returning to work on, when Maggie, one of her neighbors from across the hall, leans her head into the room, expression awkward. "Hey, Piper?"
"I, uh, think your girlfriend's outside."
Polly's head whips around, eyebrows up, her face infinitely curious. Piper blinks at Maggie. "What?"
"Tall, black hair, glasses, right?"
"Thought so. She's outside."
At that moment, the dorm phone rings.
Polly and Piper look at each other.
"Don't answer that," Piper blurts out, already standing and pulling on her coat.
She's expecting to find Alex downstairs at the public phones, having followed someone into the building, but instead she's outside with a cell phone pressed to her ear. She hangs up when Piper walks out.
Already Piper's thrown off balance, hung up on the cell phone. "When'd you get that?"
Piper shakes her, disbelieving. "So I could have been calling you at anytime, but you couldn't give me the number without explaining why you had it. Awesome."
Alex looks tense and edgy, and her immediate silence makes Piper almost regret going on the defensive. She wants this to be over. She wants to accept the apology.
"Listen," Alex says finally, opting to ignore Piper's dig. "Can we take a walk or something? So we can talk?"
"Sure." Relieved, Piper falls into step beside Alex as they heard toward the main part of campus. Piper doesn't even question Alex's presence; her showing up in person makes up for the days without a phone call. Maybe this is why Piper left in the first place; she wanted to be followed. She wanted the grand gesture the following implies.
When they reach the edge of the academic part of campus, as though she'd set herself the distance as a goal, Alex says in a low, serious voice, "You can't do that, you know. You can't just fucking...take off after one fight."
"Well. I was pissed." They aren't looking at each other, walking close but not touching, their eyes on the ground. "You've never lied to me like that."
"I know. And I'm sorry. I know it doesn't matter, but I felt like shit about it." She's quiet for a moment, waiting for forgiveness. When it doesn't come, Alex says, sounding like the words have to be forcibly extracted from her throat, "I was scared. I was really scared to tell you. I was going to do it when I first came to visit, but that got fucked up so fast that I got even more worried about it."
Piper thinks back to that weekend, how they'd felt so damn precarious. "I can understand that."
"I want to tell you how it started." Alex waits a beat, giving Piper a chance to protest but not waiting for outright encouragement, before she continues. They walk the entire perimeter of the quad as Alex tells Piper about Fahri, and the way he explained the cartel to her, every idyllic dream he put in her head to talk her into it. She talks about telling herself she'd only do it long enough to secure apartment money, but then got seduced by the promise of world travel, of financial security, of the thought of being able to let her mom stop working someday.
When she finishes, she's looking at Piper with an achingly familiar expression: it's the look Alex gets when she's projecting utter confidence in what she's saying, but can't quite hide how desperately she cares about Piper's opinion. She needs to know Piper understands; that Piper doesn't think she's a bad person.
"I get it," Piper says finally. "I can totally see how that would be...appealing."
Relief washes over Alex's face. "And the thing is, Pipes, I'm good at it. Like, really fucking brilliant, actually. It's a good feeling."
"You could be good at a lot of stuff, Al."
"Yeeeah, but skilled at remembering dinner orders doesn't have the same thrill," she deadpans.
"Then we'll find you something else. Something more...intellectually stimulating."
Alex stops walking to regard Piper with confusion. "What are you talking about? Something else? You just said you get it."
"I said I get why you got sucked in in the first place..." Piper's voice trails off, and she's hit with the realization that she may have jumped to conclusions about Alex showing up. "Wait, you're not quitting?"
"Then why are you here?"
Instantly, Alex's eyes narrow and flash. "Because you fucking cut and run, Piper! You didn't even give me a chance to explain."
"Explain? Jesus...you could go to prison. How does that not matter to you?"
"I'm not planning on going to prison," Alex says dismissively, as though the whole worry is ignorant.
"You didn't tell me for eight months, Alex. That means you know it's wrong."
"No, it means I know you'd think it was."
"What about your mom? Does she know?"
Piper can practically see Alex's defenses shoot up. Tersely, she answers, "No."
"See?" Piper has a suddenly flash to junior year, finding Alex in the dilapidated drug den of a house, high on LSD or whatever the fuck, refusing to leave with Piper. One call to Diane, though, and she'd been out of there. "Maybe I should just talk to her about this."
Alex gaze hardens into a glare. "Fuck you, Pipes. Did I go running to your parents to tell them we were dating?"
Piper lets out a dry, scoffing laugh. "Are you really making that comparison?"
"Only in terms of how much we don't want our parents to find out," Alex says softly. "So what does that say about you?"
Piper looks away, fighting back the guilt that always flares to life when that subject comes up. She sighs, frustrated, and leans back against the brick wall surrounding the flowerbeds outside the math building.
Silence pervades for a moment, and then Alex reaches into the inside pocket of her leather jacket, her tone conciliatory. "Look...I was gonna give you this before you went back to school, but you kinda jumped the gun on that one." She hands Piper a small velvet box. "Since we didn't see each other on Valentine's Day."
Caught off guard, Piper blinks at her in surprise, then opens the box. Her breath catches in her throat. "Jesus, Al..." It's a necklace, simple and elegant and beautiful, silver with a design of small diamonds. "It's gorgeous."
Alex gives her a crooked, close mouthed smile, taking the necklace out and gently reaching around to fasten it around Piper's neck. Her palms skim across skin, taking their time trailing down to touch the necklace. "Looks good on you," she says softly, the hand not holding the jewelry drifting almost absently down to Piper's chest.
Piper nearly falls into the moment, barely stopping herself from leaning into the touch and kissing Alex. But something about the whole image jars her out of it. It's not like Alex, these sorts of gifts, and suddenly the whole thing strikes Piper as stupid and sad. She draws back slightly and mutters, "I liked it better when you just gave me mixtapes."
Alex's hands stiffen against her, and her face twists into an ugly, scornful expression. "Yeah, Pipes," she says coldly, eyes roaming pointedly around the immaculate campus and its ivy covered buildings. "You've got such simple, cheap taste."
"I mean it," Piper says, reaching back to unfasten the necklace and handing it back even as Alex takes a physical step away from her. "Do you really think this is what I want from you?"
Alex closes her eyes, exhaling sharply out of her nose, like she's having to work hard to restrain her sudden fury. "I don't know what the fuck you want, Piper, and neither do you. You want to go to a great college that'll impress your parents, but you have no idea what you want to do with the degree. You want to pay for the goddamn apartment - sorry, you want me to - and not use your Daddy's money, but you still don't want them to know you're living with me."
Alex pauses, not looking at Piper, frowning deeply, like she's working something out. "No, okay, you know what you want? You want me to fit into your life exactly the way it is now. That way you can keep living up to expectations, just like you always do, and I just have to make it work. Eventually, Piper, I'm not gonna fit in anymore. I can't be the dutiful girlfriend waiting for you at home, and hanging out with your boring ass college friends. That doesn't work for me, Piper. And trust me, you don't want me like that either."
"What the hell does that have to do with you joining a fucking drug ring?"
"It's something that's mine. And it has nothing to do with you, you don't have to have any part of it. But it means I can pay to get an apartment and move in with you. I can get a fucking car, I can pay for dinner. Me. I don't have to sit back and let you do everything. You aren't the only one with choices."
Piper closes her eyes, and without speaking she stands up and starts walking again, back in the direction they came. Alex falls into step with her. For awhile Piper can't think of anything to say. Alex is wrong about the drug ring, she's so wrong it's crazy, but she's mostly right about everything else, which makes the arguing hard. Piper's felt it for months, that vague sense of guilt over the arrangements as she'd understood, but she's never been able to work it out so thoroughly.
"What are you thinking?" Alex asks eventually.
"I don't know. I don't...I don't know how to just accept this. How to act like it's normal." Piper squeezes her eyes shut, feeling the sudden, burning threat of tears. "I don't know how to be with you like this."
The words fall like a cleaver through the air between them, and Alex stops walking, panic leeching into her eyes for barely a second before they flash with hot accusation. "You said you'd still want to be with me no matter what I do with my life."
Piper freezes, her own words echoed back at her, the moment she said them replaying in her mind, from a whole new angle. There's a note of genuine shock in her voice as she states, "You knew." Alex doesn't answer. "You were already working for them, and you weren't telling me about it, and you fucking tricked me into saying it was okay."
Alex's question, that day at the bus station: Promise me you'll still want me no matter what I end up doing. It had opened up some cut in Piper's chest, and she'd thought about it for weeks, how vulnerable Alex had been in that moment.
In reality, though, it was all manipulation. She was getting herself preemptive absolution.
"I didn't tell you how to answer," Alex retorts feebly.
"No, but you knew that wasn't what I thought you meant."
"So what did you think I meant?" Alex demands, a challenge in her eyes.
She waits, but Piper just tightens her jaw and doesn't say it. She won't play that game, won't list Alex's alternate option, won't acknowledge that she was looking at a thankless, exhausting life just like her mother's.
Alex's face lights with grim triumph, as though she's just remembered something, "What about that crap about how there's no scenario where we're just over? I didn't make you say that."
"I'm not saying we're over," Piper's voice trembles and catches. The whole world feels delicate, suddenly, made of glass. She's terrified.
"So what are you saying?" At the surface, Alex's voice is all impatience, but there's a tremor underneath, the kind that warns of a coming earthquake.
The campus is so dark and so quiet. It takes Piper a moment to find the words. "I can't...be with you if you're gonna keep doing this. You can't have both." There's a muscle pulsing in Alex's jaw, and her eyes look bright and angry in the darkness. "I'm not...it's up to you, Alex."
"Of course it is," Alex's voice is quiet, but the words slam into Piper anyway. There's something she's never heard before in her voice, something bordering on disgust. "Of course you have to tell yourself that. Like it's not your fault. But if you really think I have a choice, you're even more of a spoiled, naive asshole than I thought." She takes a step closer, practically bearing down on Piper. "If I stop? There is no apartment, Piper. I stay right where I am, for at least another year. And we both know this year only worked because we knew it was the only one."
Piper shoves her hands in her pockets and starts walking again, Alex following her. She's not sure if she's more pissed off or panicked. "I could talk to my dad," she says finally, the word coming out hurried and desperate. "Tell him I'm getting a place with Polly, he doesn't have to know - "
"Fuck that. No. I'm done with that." Alex is practically yelling, but then she lowers her voice and adds, "That's the whole fucking problem, Pipes. I'm not allowed in your real life. And if I don't move here, if I can't...that's just going to get more and more true. I won't be part of your life here, or your life with your family. And eventually there's just not going to be room for me anymore."
Piper whips her head around to look at Alex, and demands, voice thick and trembling, "That's...Alex, you've been the most important person in my life for ten years."
"Yeah," Alex mutters bitterly. She's staring straight ahead as they walk, like she's determined to be unmoved by the tears starting to roll down Piper's cheeks. "As long as I don't screw up the other parts of it."
They walk in harsh, heavy silence for a moment, nearing Piper's dorm again. Her gasping, shaky breaths seem loud in the quiet night air, but Alex still doesn't react, doesn't take her hand or soften her voice or anything. She just glares straight ahead, her whole body held in stiff, careful control.
When they end up outside Piper's dorm, they stop on the sidewalk and look at each other. Piper wraps her arms around herself, protective. "I don't know what to do," Piper says in a small, fragile voice. It's terrifying, because what she really means is I don't know how to save this.
"Me either," Alex says quietly.
Piper sets her jaw, wiping the sleeve of her jacket under her wet eyes. She'd been the one to throw down the ultimatum; she really thought Alex would be forced to take it and back them away from this edge. Finally, Piper asks in a small voice, "You really won't quit?"
"No," Alex says, eyes boring into Piper's. "But I'm won't leave you, either. You don't get to put that on me."
A sob tears itself out of Piper's throat, and she presses a hand over her eyes. Alex has never, ever been able to keep her distance while Piper cries, but she's doing it now.
That realization makes Piper pull herself together. She lifts her chin and curls her trembling lips together until she can force out, "Well, I guess that's it."
"Is it?" She's never heard Alex that quiet.
"Yeah. It is." They stand there for a minute, frozen by the moment, then Piper chest constricts dangerously, fresh sobs rising in her throat, and she turns away to head toward the dorm.
Abruptly, Alex's fingers close around Piper's forearm, grip tight. "Say it." Piper's inches from the door, one hand holding her keys halfway to the doorknob. It takes her a second to look back. There are tears on Alex's face, and it knocks the wind out of Piper; she'd missed the moment they fell. Alex's eyes are blazing, and she leans close to Piper, clenching out through gritted teeth, "You have to say it, you fucking coward."
Maybe it's that, Alex finally admitting what Piper has always known about herself, that perversely makes Piper just brave enough to lift her eyes to Alex when she whispers, "I can't be your girlfriend anymore."
Alex lets out a stuttered, gasp of a breath, loosening her grip on Piper's arm but not pulling away. They hold each others' gaze for a long, loaded moment, and then Piper finally slides out of Alex's grasp and stumbles inside the dorm, shutting the door and leaving Alex alone on the other side.
A/N: Soooo this is inadvertently the longest chapter of anything I've ever written. This one's breaking the two shot pattern of YB and Friday, and it's going to be three...but chapter two is a lot shorter than the others, it's a more transitional thing, and part of it's already written, so update shouldn't take long. Love to know what you think so far, I appreciate everyone's enthusiasm for this 'verse so much.