"Are you still there?"
"Yeah. I'm here."
"Where are you right now?"
"I don't know. I like being able to picture it."
"In my room. In bed. But don't get any ideas, perv. I'm not telling you what I'm wearing."
"Where are you right now?"
"My room. Also in bed. And before you ask, I'm wearing your shirt."
"You've had that thing for like three years now, Pipes. I think it's okay if you claim ownership."
"I don't know. I just like thinking of it as yours."
It's slow at first. A phone call every few weeks, maybe. But they talk for hours, every time, and Piper spends the in between storing up things she wants to tell Alex: all those moments when she instinctually wonders what Alex would say about something, every story she just knows will make her laugh.
Piper's never the one to call. She lets Alex take control, set the pace. She's too greedy; if it were up to Piper, she'd call every day. She's addicted to the moment Alex's voice first hits her, the way her body empties of tension, leaving her with oddly buoyant muscles and bones.
It reminds her of playing Hide and Seek with Danny and Cal when they were little. There was a tree in the middle of the backyard, the only tree big enough for climbing. It was always base, every game ending with a mad race toward it, hands outstretched, reaching for the trunk, safe the second her finger's skimmed the bark.
That's what hearing Alex's voice feels like: reaching home base.
"...so then Haley and her boyfriend did Don't Stop Believing."
"Oh, Jesus fuck."
"Hey, there's bravery in the cliches. It's one of those songs everyone secretly wants to sing, but you don't want to be the one to do that."
"I can promise you, I've never secretly wanted to sing Journey."
"You'd hum if it was on. No one can resist."
"Don't bother testing that. So what did you sing?"
"Oh, I didn't."
"I'd feel weird without you. We've got all our duets down."
"Uh, that's sweet, Pipes, but if you're waiting on me to do karaoke, then you're never going to do karaoke."
"You wouldn't sing Teenage Wasteland with me?"
"It's not called Teenage Wasteland."
"I know, I'm just fucking with you."
"Ha ha. And no, I wouldn't. I don't sing in public. Or anywhere the radio can't drown me out."
"Karaoke performances aren't supposed to be good."
"Easy for you to say."
"What's that mean?"
"Don't fish for compliments."
"So you think I'm a good singer?"
"I'm not saying you should run away to Broadway or anything. But you're adequate."
"Yep. That's all you get."
"If you wanted me to sing, Al, you just have to ask - "
"I'm only telling you to go fuckin nuts at the next karaoke night."
"I understand if you're missing it."
"You and Polly could duet on fucking Britney Spears or whatever you're into now."
"You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar..."
"That's your go-to?"
"I picked you out, I shook you up, and turned you around. Turned you into someone new. Now five years later, got the world at your - okay, you don't have to laugh that much."
"I can't help it. You're such a dork. I kind of like you."
"Tell me something."
"Tell you what sort of something?"
"I don't know. You can tell me what you've been up to. I feel like I just ramble at you."
"I like the rambling. I learn so much...I'll never read Robert Frost the some way."
"I know you're making fun, but just watch. You'll blow someone's mind with that someday."
"Probably. Poetry comes up a lot in my circles."
"How would I know? You don't talk about your circles."
"I don't know how much you want to hear."
"I don't know either, but we can try. What'd you do last weekend?"
"Went to a club. Everything was neon. Even the alcohol. Mia kept buying everyone rounds of these Jolly Rancher shots and they looked like green highlighters."
"Yeah, I told you about her, she sort of works for us."
"One of the mules?"
"Oh. Did you get drunk?"
"Eh. I was okay. Nothing there worth a hangover. What about you, how was frat village?"
"What, you want a whole beer pong recap?"
"Only if you kicked ass. Otherwise it's a terrible story."
There are certain things they don't ask.
She doesn't know if Alex is dating anyone, or sleeping with anyone. She doesn't ask, because she probably isn't supposed to care. She probably isn't allowed to mind. So she'd rather not know.
Alex doesn't ask either. Piper kisses people at parties or the club, she goes on dates, and very occasionally she spends the night with them. Boys, mostly. The first time she kisses another girl she's sober and anxious and oddly relieved when she doesn't feel much of anything. Just like with the guys. Even when she goes on dates, they feel like strangers.
Nothing they do or say feels as good as the sound of the phone ringing, Alex's voice on the other side saying hello.
"Hey, it's me."
"Wow, hey. You're up early."
"Wanted to catch you before your final. Wish you luck."
"Alex. That's...really sweet of you."
"Your astonished tone is kind of ruining it."
"Sorry. I can't believe you even remembered."
"I think you're underestimating your own freak out, Pipes."
"Probably. Sorry, I'm feeling kind of wired...pulled an all nighter last night. Not the smartest idea, but I still needed to cram."
"If it makes you feel better, I also pulled an all nighter. Haven't been to sleep yet."
"Hence you being awake to call me."
"Fine, fuck, blow holes in my good deed. I was trying to score points."
"You don't need to score points. I'm glad you called. I've been so fucking stressed all week. I always feel better when we talk."
"Sorry. Up all night. No filter."
"Don't be sorry. I'm just trying to remember all that SAT advice. You have two number two pencils? Balanced breakfast?"
"Did you take the SATs?"
"You know I didn't, College. Fahri didn't make me provide scores."
"Sorry. Up all night. No filter."
"Not making ya feel better anymore?"
"Weirdly, you still are."
"Good. Go eat your balanced breakfast. Few more hours, and you're done for the semester."
"Thank God. Hey, also...will I see you this summer?"
"I...thought you were staying in Northampton and working?"
"I am. But I can drive back, pretty easy."
"Or you could drive up here, maybe? Come see me at work. I can return the favor for all the free food you used to sneak me at Sonic."
"I don't know, Pipes. Probably gonna be kind of busy...moving around a little more this summer. Could be hard to coordinate."
"Next Christmas, though? Maybe?"
"Yeah, yeah, definitely. Okay. Christmas."
"If you guys don't go skiing again."
"I should...I gotta catch the bus to campus soon."
"Okay. Good luck."
"Thanks, Alex. Thanks for calling."
"Sure. I'm sure you'll kick ass, nerd."
"I'll call you later. Find out how it goes."
"Yeah, definitely. Also you should sleep."
"You, too. After the test, of course."
"Bye, Alex. Bye."
Piper gets a job waiting tables at a restaurant close to campus, and she takes classes the first summer session but not the second. She feels adult and self-sufficient in a way that hasn't hit her even after a year in the apartment. She doesn't end up going home at all, not once, and she talks to her parents less and less.
Polly and Grace are there for half the summer, but they're traveling through most of July, and Haley and Jenna are home save for the occasional weekend visit. July is a lonely month, with no classes and an apartment all to herself, but through it all there is Alex's voice. She calls more frequently now, and Piper finally feels okay making the first call. Most nights she sits on her balcony with the cordless phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear, talking and listening for hours.
Alex keeps the details of her job vague, but she doesn't avoid the mere fact of it, and like anything can over time, it starts to feel normal. Piper accepts it as the reality.
"Piper? What is it, what's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, I'm...I'm really sorry, I know it's so late."
"It's okay, don't be sorry -"
"I shouldn't have called."
"Pipes, you're kind of scaring me. Slow down, just tell me what's going on."
"Stupid dream. Needed to make sure you're okay, needed to...hear it. Sorry."
"Stop being sorry. What dream?"
"I don't know, I don't - "
"Sometimes I wake up and I think I'm supposed to be at the hospital. It's hard to explain. Like your mom just called and I'm supposed to be on my way but I'm not, and if I don't get there you aren't gonna wake up. I don't know. It felt more real tonight, for some reason. I know it's stupid. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have woken you up."
"I...didn't know you still thought about that."
"Yeah, well. Sometimes."
"It's been almost a year."
"I, I know..."
"Pipes...hey, c'mon, babe, don't cry. Everything's okay."
"Damn it...s-sorry. Sorry...delayed reaction..."
"Ssshh. It's okay, Pipes. I'm here."
"I'm okay, I'm fine. Sorry. Um. Did I wake up your mom?"
"I'm not at home, I'm at a hotel...out of town. Work stuff."
"You know I don't...I don't do drugs. Ever. I've kept that promise."
"I know. I believed you."
"Do you...I don't know, do you wanna to talk about it?"
"Want me to stay on the phone?"
"Okay. Not going anywhere until you say so."
That night, the night her two a.m. panic attack was bad enough to make Piper call, she keeps Alex on the phone for nearly an hour, barely talking, just saying her name and confirming her presence. She wakes up embarrassed the next morning, aware of how ridiculous she must have seemed, and it's not until her last class of the day that she starts smiling like an idiot at the realization that Alex had called her babe.
"Happy birthday! Officially. I know I'm the first to say it."
"Uh, yeah, because you're a little early. But thanks."
"Wrong. Not early. Not in Paris."
"What? Wait...you're in Paris?"
"Fuck yeah I am. Paris fucking France...where it is already your birthday. I'm calling from the future, Pipes."
"You didn't say you were going to Paris."
"I know, Fahri invited me along at the last minute. It's actually a really big deal for me...but I didn't forget your birthday. I wanted to call on the actual moment, but I figure Polly & Co. would be dragging you out to a bar."
"They are. Getting there right at midnight...the second it's legal."
"Congratulations. Not that you haven't been drinking for years anyway."
"Hey, don't harsh my soon to be legal buzz."
"I feel bad I'm not there to buy you your first legal drink. Listen, buy yourself a shot of tequila, as soon as you get to the bar okay? Before Polly or anyone else does. Consider this a verbal IOU."
"You're going to pay me back for a shot of tequila?"
"Yes. I'm serious about this."
"Okay. Holding you to it. When I see you at Christmas."
"Though you just trumped my 21st birthday by being in fucking Paris."
"It's so beautiful here, Pipes. I want you to see it. You'd be one of those tourists trying to walk around and pretend you aren't a tourist."
"I can't tell, but I think that's an insult."
"You'd love it here. You have to come someday."
"We don't have to talk about it, do we?"
"No. I'm trying not to think about it."
"This year's better."
"I know. It couldn't be worse."
"I wish you were here."
"Me, too. Happy birthday, Pipes."
She sees Alex over Christmas, for the first time in over a year, and for the first time she has to admit that the phone calls aren't enough.
It's not like other visits, when they'd slipped seamlessly into inseparable mode as soon as Piper arrived. She sees Alex three times, twice with Diane there. On the third time, Christmas Eve, it's snowing, and Alex kisses her in the car and they both nearly come unspooled.
Piper's on top of her in the passenger seat, the seat nearly horizontal, their shirts flung over the steering wheel, before reality wedges between them like merciful, frustrating clockwork. Alex whispers her name, just Piper, and it sounds like stop. Like don't and please and we can't.
She drives back to Northampton three days after Christmas. Alex calls her five minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve and carries on like nothing happened.
She remembers to let the phone calls be enough.
"Hey, it's me."
"Yeah, just landed. I'd say sorry for calling so late but, y'know, you made me."
"I just like knowing when you're safe on the ground."
"Wouldn't have pegged you for plane anxiety, Pipes."
"Not anxiety. Just caution."
"Did you get my postcard?"
By the second semester of Piper's junior year, the postcards are frequent. She has every one memorized, and she covers a section of her bedroom wall with them: Paris and London and Greece and Rome and Istanbul.
Wish you were here, a postcard from Cambodia proclaims.
Piper wishes it, too, starts to wish it so much it aches. Alex feels further away than ever, even though there's technically no difference between the phone calls. Sometimes Piper lies on her bed and stares at the collage of adventures, feeling the smallness of Northampton and the Smith campus, hating that Alex's world is cracking wide open without her.
She wonders if this is what Alex felt, when she left for collage, expanding beyond their hometown for the first time. Leaving Alex behind.
"I heard you saw my mom."
"Yeah. I was home for Cal's graduation."
"Jesus, I can't believe Calvin's out of high school. I should send a card."
"It was a hellish experience. Principal Watkins came up to me after."
"Oh, that pervy little shit."
"I'm sure he has fond memories of you. In the lighting booth. With Liz."
"You know what I love, Pipes? It's been five years, and you still sound bitter. I'd have taken you up there. All you had to do was ask."
"Anyway. My mom went on and on about how good it was to see you."
"It was good to see her, too. I've missed her."
"I wish you'd been there."
"I know. Sorry. This week's been crazy. Technically, I've been to Jakarta now, but I didn't leave the airport."
"Where are you now?"
"And you chose that over a high school graduation?"
"Agonizing decision, believe me."
Alex is happy.
Piper can tell; she likes hearing the smile in Alex's voice, likes the ease of her, likes that it feels a million miles from Alex in a hospital room. But Sometimes, selfishly, it hurts to think maybe Alex can be happy without her. That this job, the traveling, the money...maybe it can be enough.
But she keeps calling. And surely that's something.
"Yeah, hey! Can you hear the music? Hear what it is?"
"Where are you?"
"Party. At a client's penthouse. But listen, listen, the song came on and I had to call."
"I know. I thought about you."
"What? I can't hear you - "
"Hold on, hold on, I'll go outside..."
"Can you hear me now? I'm in the hall."
"Yeah, I hear you. Are you good?"
"I'm great. I'm a little drunk."
"You don't say."
"I wanted to call you. I wanted you to hear the song."
"I'm glad you called. I haven't heard your drunk voice in forever."
"Why isn't your voice drunk? I mean. Why aren't you fucking drunk, Pipes? It's Saturday night. You're the one in college. College is always drunk."
"I don't know. Getting kind of bored with it. Same three bars. Same house parties."
"You should come to New York. Did I say I was in New York? You should come here. The parties are better."
"And you're there."
"And I'm here."
"I mean it. I'll send you a ticket. Come for a weekend."
"I wish I could, Al. But I don't think I'd be able to leave."
"Mmm. Now I really want to convince you."
"I was magic this week, Pipes. So fucking brilliant."
"I bet you were."
"And my mom quit Wal-Mart. Did I tell you that? I keep forgetting to tell you stuff."
"You didn't tell me. That's great."
"Yeah. I'm sending her enough money now. I made her quit. No more night shifts."
"Yeah. See, Pipes? It's all good."
"Are you still outside?"
"Well, outside the party. I'm sitting on the floor in the hall. This building's super fucking fancy."
"Do you have to go back?"
"No. I can talk. Unless you're busy."
"No. Not busy at all."
Senior year feels like a ticking clock, and while Piper won't mourn the end of college, she's not looking forward to deciding what comes next.
There's not a blueprint anymore, not after this. No clear next step, and no grades to prove she's completing it successfully.
"Whoa, easy soldier."
"Oh, it's you, thank God. Sorry. I thought it was my dad. He's been calling all week to have the same stupid fight."
"He doesn't understand why I won't take the LSATs."
"Why won't you take the LSATs?"
"Because I don't want to go to law school. Or be a lawyer."
"That's such a good reason. That may even be the best reason."
"You'd think. He says it won't hurt to take it...just in case."
"In case of what? A sudden emergency that requires four years of law school?"
"And the most annoying thing is he acts like this was all decided. I never once said I was going to law school, but listening to him, you'd think it was the entire plan."
"What about an English and Theater double major screamed law school to him?"
"No idea. I guess, to be fair, it doesn't really scream anything else."
"You could be a bard. A traveling bard, moving around and espousing trivia about misinterpreted Robert Frost poems."
"Technically a bard would have to be writing the - hey, you remembered the Robert Frost thing."
She keeps thinking of something Alex said, back when they first broke up, about how their lives didn't fit.
She's supposed to be reshaping her life right now.
She wants it to fit.
"So. Have the festivities begun?"
"Senior bar golf last night. It was a predictable shit show."
"I'm sure. Who won?"
"It's not really a competition. And if it was, I think everyone lost."
"Ha. So, what? A week away? You getting excited?"
"Not really. It's easy to dodge my dad on the phone. Not when he's actually here, taking the whole family to celebratory graduation brunches. He wants to sit down and figure out a plan."
"A plan for what?"
"The entirety of my future, I guess."
"Fun times. You aren't going home with them, are you?"
"No. We've got the apartment through August, so Polly and I are going to keep working at the restaurant, save up all summer. Then we have to decide if we want to sign on another year."
"Are you thinking about it?"
"I don't know. Probably not. Seems kind of pathetic, right? Hanging around your college town, like that girl who won't leave the party even when the lights are on and the music's off and everyone else is going home."
"Ooh, yeah, don't be that girl."
"At least that girl has a plan."
"Yeah. I don't know. I feel just...weirdly panicked. And stupid. This is what you always said, right? That I don't know what I want."
"Hey, no. You know what you don't want. That's important, too...I'm really proud of you, Pipes."
"For not going to law school or grad school just to have an answer to give your parents. Fuck, they should be proud you're graduating. You'll figure out the rest."
"I wish you were gonna be there."
"I know. Me, too. I'd get an air horn and everything."
The thing is, Piper knows what she wants.
She wants Alex.
Alex is the maybe only thing she's ever wanted just for herself, not because her parents told her to. Not because she was supposed to.
Piper at twenty-two is restless. She is suffocating. Her world feels small and limited and played out. She wants to overturn the snow globe and shake the whole thing up. Or, fuck it, kick out the glass altogether.
The only thing she wants to take with her is Alex. She wants to run toward her and not away, for once. She wants more than the voice on the phone. She wants to prove Alex wrong about them being doomed from the start.
It's nearly three a.m, and the bar's lights have been on for thirty minutes, the music off for fifteen, but everyone's refusing to leave. Graduation is in six hours. This is their last night as college students.
It will be a very hungover graduation.
Finally, the bouncers start physically escorting the mass of students out of the bar, and Piper grabs Polly by the elbow, and she grabs Grace, who grabs Haley, who grabs Jenna, and the five of them end up on the street. They are all drunk and sentimental. Their parents are in town, packed into local hotels, and they'll be waiting for them on the campus lawn tomorrow, hopefully unable to tell how much they've all had to drink.
Polly looks at her watch and insists they walk back to the apartment instead of trying to find a taxi. She and the others have their arms around each other, badly singing that stupid Vitamin C song from a few years ago about graduating. Piper walks a little apart, laughing at them but not out of her head enough to participate.
She's thinking about high school graduation. They'd stayed up all night before that, too, sneaking out of Piper's house to jump in the pool at three a.m, then left her room smelling like sex and chlorine. She remembers kissing Alex that night, the way she tried to make every touch feel like a promise. She remembers her own certainty that nothing would change.
They've been broken up for over three years. She hasn't seen Alex for a year and a half, since that Christmas junior year. And yet.
And yet and yet and yet.
There has been her voice.
It's on the other side of the phone while Piper sits in her bedroom, eyes closed, lights off, trying to turn off her other senses. It's on their answering machine, letting Piper know when her plane lands safely. It's shouting over music or murmuring into silence, practically whispering in Piper's ear.
And it's here, now, floating from the shadows outside their apartment building. "Hey, Pipes."
Alex Alex Alex.
Alex is supposed to be in Belgium, she said she couldn't get out of it, couldn't possibly make it, but Alex is here. Her eyes are tired and her hair's in a messy half ponytail and there are bags at her feet but she's here, and she's smiling, and it feels like Piper conjured her just by wanting it so much.
She forgets to wonder what she's supposed to do, how they're supposed to act, and she practically knocks Alex over in her hurry to get in her arms. She feels truly drunk for the first time in hours. She can't stop saying her name.
Polly and the others start to walk past them; Polly stops and nods at Alex. "Good timing."
"Thanks for the help," Alex says, and this is so strange Piper has to pull back and look back and forth between them.
"She called while you were taking your Renaissance Lit final," Polly explains loudly. "Told me it was supposed to be a surprise but she couldn't get here until almost four am. I knew we'd be out, so. No big deal." She shrugs, then herds the others inside, leaving them alone.
"You're here..." Piper's holding onto Alex's forearm, pointlessly. "I can't believe you came."
"It's good to see your face." Alex gives her this small, soft smile. Her eyes are tracing Piper's face, taking her in. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too." Piper's feeling tearful, all of a sudden. "God, how did we go this long?"
Alex brushes at an errant strand of Piper's hair, moving it from the corner of her eye. Piper twists her fingers around the front of Alex's shirt, holding on, and swallows a million needy questions about what this all means.
"Should you be sleeping?" Alex asks eventually.
"No," Piper shakes her head hard. "No, as long as I can respond to my name and walk a straight line tomorrow, I'll be fine. Don't need to be well rested for that."
"Good. Cause if I sleep now I won't wake up in time...my body has no idea where it is."
"I can't believe you came," Piper repeats, smiling like an idiot.
"Well. I remember finding you really fucking cute in the whole cap and gown get up." The teasing light in Alex's eyes dims a little, and she bites her lip. "And I wanted to give you your graduation gift."
Piper flashes suddenly on the expensive necklace Alex tried to give her three years ago, just before they broke up, and she winces a little. "You didn't have to get me a present."
Alex smirks slightly, and it feels like something warm spills out in Piper's heart. "I know I didn't. Me showing up was pretty damn good on its own. But still. I have you something."
Piper grabs one of Alex's bags and they go upstairs to the apartment, through the living room where Grace is sleeping on the couch. Jenna and Haley seem to have gone back to their own apartment, and Polly's shut up in her room. Alex follows Piper through to her bedroom, pausing to smile at the wall of postcards, and the plethora of photos of the two of them scattered around the room.
Alex sits on the edge of Piper's bed and starts pawing through her smaller, carry on bag. Piper reaches out and grabs her arm again, seeing it in light for the first time. "This is new."
She glances down at the tattoo like she'd forgotten it was there. "Oh, yeah. Well, like a year or so ago."
Piper frowns a little, letting her fingers trace Alex's skin. It's stupid, but she doesn't like the evidence of how much she's missed. A year she's been imagining Alex wrong.
"So did you talk to your dad?"
Piper shakes off the moment and looks up. "Yeah. Told him I'm staying here for the summer, waitressing, and I'll use the time to 'figure out what's next'. He still says grad school."
Alex is watching her intently. "What do you say?"
"I say I'm ready to be done with school. I don't want to be one of those people who stays entrenched in academia for fucking ever because it's the only thing they've ever been good at."
Alex lifts an eyebrow, just enough of a suggestive smirk in her voice as she says, "You're good at a lot of things."
It makes Piper want to kiss her.
So she does.
"Yeah," Alex murmurs against her mouth. "You're good at that."
Piper cradles Alex's face in her hands so she can't move away. They slide back on Piper's mattress, her knees on either side of Alex's lap. "I want you," she says urgently between kisses. "I want you, Alex." She means it in every possible way. Alex's hands are in her hair, she's kissing her neck, the curve of her jaw.
Then Alex pulls away, leaning back to look at her, and Piper makes a desperate, gasp of a sound before she can stop herself.
But then Alex is pushing an envelope into her hands. "Happy graduation." Her eyes are dancing, her lips curved into a grin, but there's the slightest tinge of nerves in her voice.
Piper opens the envelope and shakes it.
A plane ticket to Bali falls into her hands, dated a week from today.
Piper's eyes widen and she looks up.
There is Alex's face, lit with hope. And there is Alex's voice, asking her to come.
A/N:This isn't the end of the YB 'verse - I know of at least one lengthier multi chapter I want to do - but it might take me a little longer to get around to writing that one, plus there's a little more of a time jump leading into it. So I wanted to do this epilogue and kind of...wrap up/set up this era of the 'verse.
People's response to this series continues to overwhelm me. Love to hear what you thought of this piece as a whole, and where we left them. Thanks so much for reading!