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

It's her first day at a new school. She hates first days. Not because she misses her old class - what's to miss? More like because it's the same shit, at every place. And every single time, Alex has some brief, idiotic moment where she thinks maybe it'll be different.

Not so much.

This is her third elementary school. She's gotten pretty good at figuring out what most of the kids are going to be like. Of course, it helps identify the Class Bitch when she basically announces herself by kicking Alex's desk forward and implying that she smells.

There's one in every school. Alex hates this one - Jessica something - instantly. She can tell just by looking around the classroom which girls are friends with Jessica, and which ones just wish they are. About five girls fit into the former category...almost all the rest fit into the latter.

Except maybe that blonde girl in the overalls over the pink sweater. Her name's Piper - Alex finds that out when the teacher calls on her to read - and she keeps looking at Alex. Like, all day. But not like she's counting the duct tape covered holes in Alex's jacket or the patches on her jeans, not like she think it's funny, even though Piper is dressed like Jessica and everyone else, in her new, expensive looking clothes that fit perfectly.

A few times Alex thinks she's going to come talk to her - that's the kind of look it is, the look of someone who might want to say hi - but she never does.

Not even on the bus, at the end of the day, after Jessica Wedge tries to hand Alex a freakin trash bag and it busts open on the sidewalk and she blames it on Alex meaning she may or may not have already gotten marked as a troublemaker at this dumb school. Not even after Alex walks to the nearest empty bus seat, and Piper's friend, the one who wants Jessica to like her so much it's pathetic, calls Alex Pigsty (because she's never heard that one before, these kids are so original). Not even when Alex is sitting alone on the seat, grinding her teeth together and blinking back tears, hating this school and hating that things always have to be like this, and she can feel that blonde girl looking at her, she's even turned around in her bus seat to do it. She's staring like she feels sorry for Alex, and while Alex doesn't particularly like being pitied, it's at least better than the way everyone else at this place has been looking at her all day.

But even then, she clearly doesn't feel sorry enough to actually say hi.

Whatever. Whatever whatever whatever. It doesn't matter, Alex doesn't care.

She goes home to the new apartment. It's even smaller than the last one, because the kitchen isn't separate from the living room, but the bedroom's actually a little bigger. She turns on her tape deck and spends an hour or so taping up more of her posters, singing to herself and tapping her palms along the wall, in time with her dad's drumming on the tape, until she feels a little better.

When she's bored with decorating, she sits on the couch, eats two blue popsicles, and watches TV until her mom comes home.

"Hiya, babe." She's got food from the restaurant and an hour before she has to leave for her next job, so she sits beside Alex on the couch and unwraps their sandwiches. "How was your first day?"

"It was okay," Alex says dispassionately. Her mom lifts an eyebrow.

"Just okay?"

"The teacher's kind of boring. And there was this girl Jessica who seems like a complete bitch."

Her mom makes a sympathetic sound. "There's always a few bitches, huh?" She eyes Alex, trying to read her. Which she usually can do. "Was she mean to you?"

Alex shrugs, not looking at her. "You could just tell."

Alex is pretty sure her mom was really cool when she was in school. She probably had a ton of don't get to go out with a famous rock star if you aren't cool and popular.

"Did you make any friends?" Her mom asks after a moment, and Alex can tell she really hopes the answer is yes. Alex knows she feels bad they had to move (not that Alex had left any friends behind).

So she nods, and says like it's no big deal, "This one girl was nice."

"Oh yeah?" Diane smiles, relieved. So obviously relieved. "What's her name?"

She only hesitates a second. "Piper."

"Piper..." Her mom nods, like she approves just from the name. "That's good. You should invite her over sometime."

She sounds so happy about it - Alex knows she doesn't like how much she's alone in their apartments - that Alex feels a little bad for lying. "She was just nice, Mom, geez. It's not like we're best friends."

"Okay, okay. Hell, I didn't mean invite her tomorrow. Just, you know. At some point. "

"Yeah. Maybe."

Alex would never say this to her mom, but she doesn't know if she would ever actually invite anyone over to the apartment. Even if she really did make a friend. Kids at all her schools always have something to say about her clothes or their car or her mom's jobs...she wouldn't want them to find out they only have one bedroom, that her mom is barely ever home and when she is she sleeps on the couch.

But still. Maybe Piper really will be nice to her at some point. She seems like she wants to, at least. Maybe she'll get over whatever her problem is and talk to Alex. Or Alex could even talk to her. Maybe. At some point.

It won't necessarily always be a lie.

"Say it again."

Piper tilts her head, adorably confused. A question in her voice, she tries, "I love you?"

"Not that. I knew that." They haven't seen each other for nearly a year and a half, and even that was all too brief, but Alex still knows it. It's there in the first syllable of every single phone call; Piper's voice practically floats on it. She tugs on the hem of Piper's graduation robe, so she'll stop her pacing and sit down beside Alex on the library steps. "Say the other thing."

Sunlight has barely started to creep into the sky, but Alex swears it brightens a few notches with the smile Piper gives her. "I'm coming with you." She looks practically giddy. She leans over, the cadence of her voice slowing. "You. And me. In Bali. I'm gonna come with you."

Alex reaches out and tips Piper's chin toward her, kissing her in that soft, habitual way that sends a fresh thrill rolling through her chest. The past few hours have been a push and pull between the surreality at finally having Piper in front of her, and the comforting familiarity that tricks her into feeling like no time has passed.

"Are you sure?" she asks again, and it comes out soft. She keeps making Piper say it. She hadn't expected the yes quite so fast, so easily won. The plane ticket had fluttered out of Piper's hands, crushed between their stomachs as they fell back on the mattress, Piper's lips against her skin, smearing her yes on Alex's jaw, neck, lips. Now, she meets Piper's eyes, serious. "Really sure?"

Piper sends her fingers swimming through Alex's hair, leaning back just enough that she can hold her gaze without going cross-eyed. "This whole year, people keep asking me what I want. And I told you..." Her face falls open, nothing held at bay. "I just want you. I don't have another answer to that question. I want you back. Just you." She tips forward, her forehead dropping against Alex's, eyes closing. "Three years, Alex."

"I know."

"That was really stupid of us." Three years since they've been together, since they saw each other consistently, since they were anything more than phone calls.

Alex knows it was unavoidable, that it was maybe even necessary. But she still nods against Piper, whispering in agreement, "So stupid."

"I kept all your postcards. And every time you sent a new one, it was like I hated it here a little more. I just wanted to be having adventures with you." She smiles, fully, and reaches behind Alex, grabbing her discarded graduation cap, twirling it sardonically between them. "So I did the college thing. In a few hours, I'll get the diploma, and my parents can take their photos. But after that I don't care what they want anymore." She reaches out, cradling Alex's face in her hands. "And I've already told you what I want."

Less than a month after Alex finally talks to Piper, when Piper sits next to her on the bus and officially becomes her friend, Alex gets invited to spend the night at the Chapman house.

It's her first ever sleepover, and even before it starts Alex loves everything about it: geating to bring her duffel bag to school and stuff it in her cubby; having a note for the bus driver that she's allowed to get off at Piper's stop; knowing there's not a whole weekend stretching out where they won't get to talk.

They're both excited and overly hyper on the bus, even more so than usual Friday afternoons. Sarah, who used to be Piper's friend but won't even talk to her anymore, is glaring at them from the other side of the aisle, which kind of makes the whole thing even better.

They get off the bus and start down the sidewalk without even acknowledging Sarah or Alison or any of Piper's old friends who get off at the same time. Piper's little brother, Cal, gets off with them, but even though he's only a first grader he sprints off without them, beating them back to the house.

Already Alex can tell this is a rich neighborhood, with big houses, but she's too absorbed in their conversation to really worry about that; Piper's telling her about the field day and carnival the school has during the last week of school. One of the features is a dunking booth, and students get to vote which teachers they most want to sit in it. Alex and Piper are pitching ideas of how to get Jessica Wedge voted into the booth, and they're both still giggling a lot at the image when they get to Piper's front walkway.

They go to the front door, which is unlocked, and as soon as they walk inside, Piper calling out for her mom, Alex's laughter has already faded completely.

Because it's a really, really nice house.

It's big, and rich, and fancy. It's bigger even then her aunt and uncle's house, upstate; Alex has only been there a few times but it was the richest house she'd ever been inside.

Until now.

"Back here, sweetheart!" The voice comes from somewhere distant, like the house is just that big.

"You can just put your stuff there," Piper points to the foot of the stairs as she hangs her backpack on a hook. "We'll take it up to my room after we say hey to mom."

Alex follows Piper through the house, trying not to stare too much at how clean and perfect every room is.

Piper's mom is in a sun room on the other side of the house, sitting at a table with a spread of photo albums, stacks of photos with Post-Its on top spread in neat rows. She stands up when they come in.

Her eyes land on Alex, and she looks surprised. Not in a good way. Alex can tell she's looking at her clothes - and not the way adults do when they feel bad for her. More like the way Jessica Wedge's friends do. Piper doesn't seem to notice, but Alex is pretty good at figuring out how people are looking at her. Even grown ups.

"You must be Alex. So nice to finally meet you." Her smile is so fake. God. Even Piper looks like she can tell.

"Thanks." She pauses for too long before remembering to add, "Thanks for letting me stay over."

"Of course. You're welcome anytime" So. Damn. Fake. "Do you girls want a snack?"

Out the window, Alex can see a pool, covered up for the winter, and a trampoline, and even a small swing set. They follow Mrs. Chapman into the huge kitchen and she makes them a plate full of apple slices with peanut butter that they aren't allowed to take outside the kitchen. When they finish, they take Alex's bag upstairs to Piper's room. It's got a double canopy bed, stuffed animals everywhere, a TV in her room, a case full of fancy glass dolls, and a full bookshelf.

Alex knows she isn't talking enough. She's being weird and awkward and if she doesn't snap out of it Piper might never invite her back. So she makes herself smile. "Your house is really nice."

"Huh? Oh. I guess. Thanks." Piper frowns a little, like she's surprised Alex even noticed. "You want to go jump on the trampoline? It's not too cold yet."

"Sure." They go downstairs and outside, putting their coats back on and lifting themselves up over the blue padding and metal springs. Alex has never been on one of these before, and Piper gives her a detailed run down of all the games they can play. They even call Cal over, make it sound like they're doing him a big favor letting him join in, so they can play the games that need more than two people.

Soon she's having so much fun, just reveling in getting to hang out with Piper outside of school, that she forgets to obsess over her house.

They stay outside until it's time for dinner - Piper's mom cooks lasagna, and Alex meets her dad and older brother - and after dinner Mrs. Chapman lets them help bake brownies. They go upstairs to Piper's room and play cards for awhile before they change into pajamas - Piper's in an Alice in Wonderland nightgown and Alex in a huge The Who T-shirt that used to be her mom's - and crawl into Piper's bed to watch a movie. Piper has The Princess Bride on VHS).

They stay up talking and giggling for at least an hour after they turn off the TV. Alex has never done this before, never fallen asleep with someone close by, and she likes the way the words slip out in the dark, how everything seems a little funnier, how weird it is to fee l Piper laughing beside her but not being able to see her face. Eventually Piper can't stay awake anymore, but Alex lays awake for awhile, weirdly hyper from staying overnight in a strange place, but not in an unpleasant way. She's pleased with herself, with the friendship, and with the sleepover.

But she's also one hundred percent positive she won't be inviting Piper to her apartment.

"Almost there...I gotta open the door, don't fucking peek, Pipes."

"I feel like a kid about to be surprised with Disneyland."

"Please. Disneyland's got nothing on this. In about ten seconds you're going to regret that your step..."

"Who knew you have such a flair for the dramatic...hey, are we outside?"


Alex uncovers Piper's eyes, already leaning forward so she can watch the moment wonder fills Piper's face, like she's been dunked in light. She exhales a breath that sounds like, "Wow."

Pleased, Alex rests her chin on Piper's shoulder, slipping her arms around her waist from behind. "Told you."

They're on the smooth, wooden balcony outside their cliffside villa in Bali. The almost unnaturally saturated ocean looms below the edge of their private infinity, the cliff lush with greenery. The sky seems infinite above them, and it's the sort of postcard beauty Alex has come to expect, has even gotten used to.

So she watches Piper, seeing something like this for the first time. It takes awhile before she turns away from the cliff, looking back at their room, with its high ceilings and huge windows. "You always stay in places like this?"

"Mmm-hmmm," She murmurs into Piper's hair. "Crime pays, babe." Regret instantly chases the statement, but to Alex's relief Piper just laughs, still sounding incredulous.

"This is unreal." They're quiet for another long moment, and then Piper turns to face Alex, her smile stretching. "It's weird, isn't it? Us, being here."

Alex smirks, tilting her head playfully. "Why weird?"

"We've never been anywhere together. We never even went on school trips." Alex's smile softens a little; Piper skipped more than one overnight trip when they were younger, knowing that Alex couldn't afford to go. They'd never acknowledged it, never said the reason out loud. "And now we're on the other side of the world."

"Still glad you came?"

"God, yes." Piper sways forward, and Alex winds her fingers in Piper's hair and kisses her smile, that delighted, familiar thing. Their movements slow and deepen, and when Piper hums into her open mouth, Alex easily pulls Piper's shirt over her head.

Piper arches away, glancing around. "Can anyone see out here?"

"Nope." Alex uncurls a smile. "Unless they want to scale the fucking cliff." She nods behind Piper. "Want to try the infinity pool?"

Piper lets out a huffing, breathless laugh, like she still can't believe this is happening. She hooks her fingers through Alex's belt loop and pulls her close again, fingers fumbling with the buckle as she rounds her mouth along the curve of Alex's jaw. They lose their clothes quickly and dip into the warm water; Alex backs Piper up against the very edge of the pool, her back to the ocean, so she's framed within all that postcard beauty.

It feels good, her being there. More than good, it feels right, like the picture is finally complete. Because what good has all that improbably beautiful scenery, all around the world, been when the best thing - the most beautiful thing - was in goddamn Northampton, Massachusetts.

After over a year of it - minus summer vacation of course - Alex is used to riding on the bus with Piper. They always sit the same way: shoulders pressed together, slunk low in the seat, heads bent so they can talk about the people around them. Alex usually puts her feet on the seat in front of them unless someone complains.

Today's different, though. Today's bus ride is going to last over two hours, because they're on their way to some science museum on a field trip.

Piper's being super boring, reading The Giver. Alex has a book in her bag, too, but she always gets headaches when she tries to read in buses or cars, so she's got on her headphones with her hood pulled up to hide them, even though she's not even sure it's against the rules on field trips.

Still, after an hour, she starts to get restless. She spins the volume low and shoves her shoulder a little harder into Piper's. "You're being boring," she informs her solemnly.

"Hold on, I'm at a really good part."

Alex splays a hand over the page, threatening, "I'll tell you what happens."

Piper's head snaps up. "You didn't tell me you'd read it!"

"Yes, I did." She might have even stolen a copy from her old school library, snuck it in her bookbag without properly checking it out. She used to do that sometimes, but she'll never tell Piper that because Piper freaks the hell out if Alex even talks about breaking rules.

"Fiiine." Piper gives this huge over the top sigh and closes the book, then looks at Alex like she expects her to have a list of activities. "What do you wanna do?"

Alex just smiles innocently, tugging her headphones from around her neck, wrestling the whole thing out from her hoodie. "Wanna listen?"

Piper gives her a skeptical look that Alex ignores, turning the headphones upside down and wedging the top between their shoulders. Even rolling her eyes, Piper shuffles automatically closer, leaning her ear against one end while Alex mirrors her, turning the music as loud as she can without drawing attention.

They sit like that through three songs, and then Piper's elbow digs into Alex's ribs. In her smug know-it-all voice, she says, "You know you're literally doing the same thing you were ten minutes ago? So you shouldn't actually be less bored?"

Alex just smirks at her. Piper doesn't get that music changes when it's a group activity. But she doesn't seem to be in hurry to pull her book out again.

The plane rattles slightly, and Alex reaches for Piper's hand without even thinking about it. She'd have thought after thirteen years there would be nothing new left to learn about Piper, but here it is: she's a nervous flyer. Not so anyone could tell when the plane takes off or lands, just the sort that stiffens at every slight bump of turbulence.

Her grip is tight on Alex's hand, but after a minute or so stretches out with no further trouble Piper relaxes her fingers but doesn't pull away. She readjusts herself slightly, leaning into Alex's side. There's a book open in Piper's lap, but at this point their overhead light is the only one on in the first class cabin. Alex plays absently with Piper's fingers, tracing patterns on the back of her hand, until finally Piper flips the book shut and reaches up, turning off the light.

"Giving up?" Alex whispers.

"Getting tired." Without asking, Piper plucks one of Alex's earbuds out and stuffs it into her ear. Alex wordlessly passes her the bulky mp3 player and Piper starts to scroll through.

"I'd have thought you'd be a snob about these," Piper mumbles, her voice already going soft with sleep. "You basically skipped the whole CD technology because you're so mixtape loyal."

"I'm still loyal. But this travels easier," Alex admits with a grin. She watches Piper scroll for a moment. "Just play The Cure, you know that's where you'll end up."

"Only the quieter ones," Piper flips to Pictures of You and puts the mp3 player on her thigh, nestling her head against Alex's shoulder and closing her eyes. It makes her seem young, which makes Alex smile.

"Go to sleep," Alex says softly, kissing Piper's forehead. "Wake up in Greece."

Piper smiles without opening her eyes, the happiness practically shining out of her anyway. Alex loves that; she soaks in all evidence of Piper's happiness. It's just about been long enough that she's stopped cataloguing a comparison in her head, stopped trying to prove Piper is happier now than she was during her first months of college.

Usually it's not even a close contest. But Alex reassures herself anyway.

Without her glasses, it's blurry underwater, even though she's got Piper's older brother's super fancy goggles on. Not that Alex could see Piper's face anyway; there are too many bubbles, a stream shooting out of her mouth and nose, rocketing to the surface as the loud, discordant syllables get warped by the water.

Alex closes her eyes, trying to focus solely on the noise, but she can't discern a tune.

Finally, less because she needs to breathe than because she can see this round is hopeless, she braces the balls of her feet on the concrete bottom of the pool and pushes toward the surface.

Piper comes shooting out of the water a few seconds after Alex, shaking her hair out of her face and sending water droplets flying. She gives Alex an expectant look. "Did you know it?"

"Pipes, I gotta be honest, that didn't sound like anything. That was just noise."

Piper sighs. "Fine, one more time." She draws a deep breath, preparing to submerge again, but Alex kicks her shin under the water.

"Just tell me, I'm clearly never going to get it."

Piper starts humming, giving Alex a look like it should be obvious. Which it is. When they're not underwater.

"Here Comes the Sun."

"Finally. Geez. So is it your turn or do I have to go again?"

"Let's do something else. We clearly aren't good at this game anymore."


"Whatever, I'm not. It's not exactly riveting anyway."

"Fine. What do you want to do?"

"I don't know. Go get Cal, make him play Fox And Hound." A silent, reverse version of Marco Polo they'd made up a few summers ago. Much more serious and much more intense, but requiring at least three people to play.

"Okay." Piper hoists herself out of the pool, squeezing water out of her ponytail as she walks the perimeter toward the house, and Alex finds herself forgetting not to look.

Piper switched to bikinis this summer. So. That doesn't help with the Not Looking.

Alex ducks underwater again, forcing Piper out of her sight.

Once she's under there, she opens her mouth and yells. Just because she can. Just to hear the scream get sucked into the water.

She and Piper have been friends for like four years now. They know each other pretty damn well. Sometimes, one of them will start to ask a question and the other will answer before the sentence is even halfway finished, without even realizing it. Alex's mom thinks it's hilarious, and impressive...she jokes that they can read each other's minds.

But now Alex's mind is keeping secrets from Piper. It's drawn the curtains and barricaded the door and tacked up a huge KEEP OUT sign. It had to.

Not that it's a big deal. At all. Piper is her best friend, she likes boys - she obviously likes boys - and that's not a big deal. It's just that Alex doesn't have anyone else to look at. Piper may be fine with kissing every asshole idiot boy in their class, but Alex can't see past their female classmates' horrible personalities. They're the same kids who were calling her Pigsty a few years ago and making fun of her clothes and her mom and everything else, which kind of dims the attraction even if any of them were interested in kissing girls.

Which, for the record, they aren't.


"What's up, Alex?"

The voice floats down to her barely five seconds after she reaches the surface. She cranes her neck and squints into the sun; Danny Chapman is grinning down at her, all teeth and charm and blurred edges. He's almost sixteen now, and after years of pretending she and Piper don't exist, he suddenly seems to find Alex - or at least, her boobs - worthy of his time and attention.

"Nothing," she says in the flattest, most uninterested voice possible.

"Where's my sister?"

"Getting Cal for a game."

"You guys need a third?" He's already pulling off his shirt.


"Nah, that's okay." Alex swings herself up onto the side of the pool and stands up, not because she particularly wants to keep talking to him, but because the angle - Danny looming over the water, probably looking down her bathing suit - was creeping her out. "I'd prefer Cal."

"Aw, c'mon," He cranks the smile up a few degrees. "Don't cop out with the ten year old. I'll go easy on ya."

"Not what I'm worried about."

Alex is already shutting down, preparing to walk away from him, but then she hears Piper from across the pool, her voice nakedly suspicious, "Uh, what are you doing here, Danny?"

"I live here, dumbass," he says, barely sparing his sister a glance. "I was just telling Alex I'd play with you guys."

Piper scowls and rounds the pool, crossing her arms and glaring at her brother. "No, thanks. We're busy."

He grins. "Your Siamese twin over here - " That's apparently supposed to be Alex, because he turns to her with a grin. " - said you guys were gonna play a game."

"Not with you." Piper slides a glance at Alex, unmistakably annoyed.

The curtains in Piper's head don't close fast enough, apparently, because Alex completely recognizes the look on her face: she's jealous. Holy shit.

For half a second, a mean impulse speeds through Alex. She could plaster on a fake smile, muster up a fake voice, laugh at every dumb thing Danny says, show Piper exactly what it looks like when she talks to boys, how she gets so far away from herself that it's hard to watch.

But that would be dumb, and immature, and unfair: Piper actually likes the boys she flirts with, at least a little. Alex would just be trying to piss off her best friend. And anyway, the idea of flirting with Danny like that, even just for show, kind of makes Alex want to vomit.

So she bumps Piper's shoulder with hers, going to stand so they're side by side. "I just fucking told him that."

Danny's eyes flash, and he smirks. "You always have had a mouth on you."

"I know, watch it..." Alex points at her own lips, over enunciating. "Fuck. Off."

Piper bursts into loud, surprised laughter, and Alex spins on her heel, jumping back into the pool, tugging Piper in after her.

Alex figures out pretty quickly that Piper must see that Danny likes her, and she's just afraid that her best friend will start hanging out with her older brother instead of her. She isn't exactly least, not jealous the way Alex gets at school, when Piper turns into her slightly fake self to talk to guys.

But right now it's summer vacation, and none of those guys are around, and Piper doesn't even seem to miss them. So Alex will take it; she has summer and Piper and bikinis in the still silence of underwater all to herself.

It's magic under the water; even Alex, with her unassisted vision, can tell.

Piper had turned that into way too much of an issue. Even when Alex has assured her, repeatedly, that she wasn't nearly blind enough for it to be considered dangerous - "Pipes, have you blocked out the multiple summers when we practically lived in your swimming pool? Do you remember me swimming blindly into walls?" - Piper was still troubled by the fact that Alex wouldn't get the full, 20/20 experience of the underwater sights. But spontaneous scuba diving trips don't really allow for the planned ordering of prescription scuba goggles.

But it doesn't end up mattering. Everything in the ocean is magnified and shimmering, the colors so bright it hurts, and Alex's eyes feel blown out by all the blue. Piper stays close, keeps grabbing her hand and tugging her to look at coral or fish or anything else she notices. Her eyes are lit all the way up. Alex loves that about her, that bottomless excitement.

It's like they're alone on their own private planet, and Alex can tell Piper feels it, too.

When their time runs out, and they break the surface, they just smile at each other, silent understanding, and don't talk much on the boat ride back to shore, keeping the feeling pulsating between them.

They've been back at the hotel for nearly an hour and spoken less than twenty words between them. Alex is stretched on the bed on her stomach, Piper half draped over her, fingers absently tracing the salt shaker on her shoulder blade when she says softly, "Think there are any tattoo parlors around here?"

Alex smiles into the mattress, then tilts her head enough to look up at Piper. "Why? Is the butterfly tramp stamp finally happening?" It's an old joke between them, whenever Piper gets fixated on one of Alex's tattoos and idly mentions getting one herself. She never has concrete suggestions, so Alex likes to pitch the most cliche tats possible.

Piper swats at her shoulder. "No, asshole, not a butterfly." She pauses, perfectly timing the follow-up. "A fish."

Alex laughs more out of surprise than anything else. "A fish?'

"That blue and yellow one from today. Didn't you think it was beautiful?"

Alex lifts herself up on her elbow, reaching out with her free hand and twirling strands of Pipers hair around her fingers. "Eh, who knows? All I could see were colorful smudges."

Piper scrunches her face, adorably indignant. "I'm serious, Al."

She eases her smile into something softer. "Yeah, it was beautiful." She doesn't actually remember the specific fish Piper means. But it doesn't matter because, "It was all beautiful."

Satisfied, Piper smiles. "I mean it. I want a tattoo." Her eyes spark playfully. "I have to get on your level."

"My badassery level?"


"Then a tropical fish is definitely the way to go."

Piper steals Alex's laptop for half an hour until she finds the right fish, and gradually Alex figures out that she's actually serious about this. That Piper wants to remember today enough to etch it onto her skin. Alex slips her arms around Piper's waist and leans forward to kiss the back of her neck, and she practically feels Piper's body shift with her smile as she says, "That's where I'm gonna get it."

They find a tattoo parlor the next day, and Piper hesitates for the first time. "Is"

Alex gives her a look. "Is this your way of backing out?"

Piper shoves her slightly. "We're in a foreign country. I don't know anything about the health codes..."

"I swear it's fine, Pipes." Alex watches her for a second, observing the very real anxiety flickering across Piper's face, then reaches out and squeezes her hand. "If you want, I'll get one, too."

Relief floods Piper's expression. "You will?"

"Sure, why not? I'll even go first. You've never even watched one get done before." It's true. Alex has gotten all of her tattoos when Piper was somewhere else. The first one, the salt, was during their fight junior year.

"Okay." Piper smiles at her gratefully. "You go first. What are you going to get?"

"Who cares, I'll just pick something off the wall."

So Piper sits and holds her hand - even though Alex makes sure not to wince even a little while Piper's watching - as Alex smirkily gets a partially naked woman next to the roses on her bicep. Piper shakes her head, lips twitching as she tries not to smile. "You don't get to say shit about my fish."

Alex put exactly zero thought into the tattoo, but she doesn't care, as long as it got Piper onto the chair. Alex sits low on a stool in front of Piper, hunched over so she can maintain eye contact, both her hands clasped with both of Piper's. She talks constantly about nothing in particular, keeping Piper's attention on her with some overly detailed run down of her last phone call with her mom.

When it's finished, Alex gathers Piper's hair in her hand, smiling down at the fresh tattoo, this permanent proof of something they shared. She touches her lips gently to the edge. "It looks perfect."

"So can I ask the obvious question?"

Alex goes still, nerves flaring to life again. She'd just told her mom The Thing, the Liking Girls And Only Girls Thing, and it had gone amazingly well. And even though that makes total sense, because it's her mom, Alex is still kind of waiting for the catch.

And maybe this is it. Whatever the obvious question Grandkids?

"Are you and Piper...?" Diane trails off, like the rest of the sentence is obvious when she raises her eyebrows and grins.

"What? No! God, Mom, no." Alex's face is hot and her mom is giving her this totally skeptical look, so she scrambles around for righteous indignation, crossing her arms. "What, now that you know I'm gay I can't possibly be just friends with a girl?"

"Sure you can. I'm just asking if you are." She shrugs, still smiling all wise and knowing. "It would...make sense to me, is all. A lot of sense."

God. Alex kind of wants to ask more about that, make her mom explain in great detail all the reasons she and Piper might make sense - because in Alex's head, it basically defies all sense making and is probably the most ridiculous thing in the world - but instead she just rolls her eyes and shakes her head. "Piper's straight."

Diane's face goes soft, amusement gone. "Ah, babe, you don't know that."

Alex frowns slightly, because the sympathy in her mom's voice makes it sound like she admitted something she doesn't remember admitting. "Um. Yeah, I do. She'd have to really like guys to go out with the ones she goes out with."

"Eh," Diane shrugs like that doesn't even matter. "Some people like guys and girls. And a lot of 'em just don't figure out who they like until they're way older than you are."

She reaches out but Alex shrugs away from the touch, her face pinching in distaste, rejecting all this bizarre optimism. "I really don't think Piper's like that." Really, really.

"Okay," Diane says, but not like she believes it. She says it like she knows something Alex doesn't, which is impossible. Alex knows everything about Piper. "If you say so, kiddo."

There's a lot of competition for Alex's favorite image from all the traveling - all the contenders are from the past year, ever since Piper came with her - but this is maybe her favorite.

The beach in Tahiti. Translucent aquamarine ocean and sugar white beaches, mossy green hills in the distance: another saturated postcard view. And her mom and Piper, side by side in beach chairs, talking animatedly, all stretched out smiles and unprecedented suntans.

Her mom hasn't had anything remotely resembling a vacation in over twenty years. She's never been out of the country until this week. Alex is so, so glad she's giving her this.

Alex watches them for a few leisurely minutes before walking over from the cantina, the sand hot under her bare feet as she hands Piper a margarita.

Piper's eyes light up. "Yes, I love you."

"You love tequila," Alex corrects, settling in her own beach chair, facing her mom and Piper.

"I can love both."

Diane grins, sipping her own half empty drink. Alex stretches her legs out, resting her heels on Piper's thighs. "So, Mom. How's the car?" Alex had wanted a house to be the first major thing she bought for her mom, but four months ago her ancient car had a final breakdown, and a new one had become a necessity.

The house will be soon, though. A nice house. She should be able to swing it in a year, maybe less.

Instead of answering, Diane throws Piper a look. "See what I mean? She always fucking asks me this."

"I know," Piper agrees solemnly. "It's like she wants progress reports." Alex kicks her lightly.

Diane smirks. "Al, the car's great. It follows directions and always stays inside the lines."

She and Piper laugh like some kind of comedy duo. Alex rolls her eyes and scowls, pretending to hate when they do this, even though she really, really doesn't. "Fuck you both. I should never let you hang out."

When they used to pass notes in school, Piper would make those tiny, thick paper triangles, like some of the boys used for table football. Alex never bothered to figure out how, but Piper could do them so perfectly. The paper had to be folded about a dozen times, back and forth, getting smaller and smaller, so when she finally got around to reading the thing there were about a million creases that would never be smoothed out.

That's kind of what Alex feels like now. Like she's folding in on herself, tucked tight, getting smaller and smaller.

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

Piper is done with her.

She'd looked back once, but that had only made her walk away faster.


Okay okay okay okay it's okay.

Alex isn't sure what to do. Her body doesn't seem to know how to proceed. There are tears in her eyes, like she's about to cry in school like some goddamn little kid. She closes her eyes, keeping them back; it feels like she's holding back blood.

She doesn't walk back to the bleachers, but she doesn't follow Piper either. She just starts walking in a different direction, away the baseball fields and across a parking lot and finally off the campus and then the three and a half miles to her apartment, with Piper's words running through her head on a loop, crashing again and again like a wrecking ball.

It's not like this is a surprise.

Piper has always divided her life into pieces, and for a couple years now, Alex's piece has been shrinking. No; getting chipped away, so there's more available for everyone else. For Lane Groft and Tyler Fletcher and Brooke Lewis and Jesse fucking Campbell.

And it's not like that's been a surprise either.

Alex has always known where Piper is heading, has known it since that first day she went over to her house after school. High school is just a race for her, and the finish line is some fancy college, probably out of state. Or maybe it's not the finish line, but a whole new race, one that leads to an important job and a big house and a rich fucking husband. All Piper's new friends are going in the same direction, but Alex isn't. She's just kept her company so far, and that's been nice, but they're running out of room on the road. She might as well get the hell off.

It's starting to go dark inside her brain. Alex gets to the apartment and drinks her mom's wine and unravels a Cure cassette out of spite. She ends up staring down at her hands, wound with unspooled tape, and feeling almost painfully guilty, so she sits in front of the stereo for the rest of the night, recreating the mix.

Piper's never been good at being mad at her. She'll probably apologize tomorrow.

"Hey, you."

Alex grins cheerfully as she walks into the hotel suite; Piper's stretched on her stomach on the bed, eyes glazed over as she watches some British gameshow. She barely flicks a glance over at Alex. "Oh, hey."

Her eyebrows shoot up. "Geez, Pipes...four nights without me keeping your bed warm I kind of expected a better greeting." Piper's expression doesn't crack. Alex sighs, impatient. "Are you seriously still pissed?"

"Nope. Not pissed."

"Right. Just barricaded behind a wall of passive aggression." Alex leans onto the mattress, crawling toward Piper on her knees, giving her a placating kiss on the corner of her lips. "You wouldn't have wanted to come anyway. It was all work."

"And how is that different from when you're here?" Piper tosses back, but the fight is out of her voice. She's arching into Alex's touch already, letting her slide a hand through her hair.

"You do realize we aren't traveling around on grant money, right?" Alex asks lightly. It's a conversation that can go in endless, frustrating circles, if they aren't careful. Basically: Piper gets bored when Alex is working, especially if they've been in one place for too long, and Alex is forever reminding her this isn't actually a vacation, even though it might look and feel like one for Piper.

Fortunately, Piper chooses not to pursue the argument. She slides a little closer to Alex, tilting her head back to give her easier access to her neck and collarbone.

"How was your week?" Alex murmurs between light, teasing kisses across Piper's throat.

"It rained," There's the barest hint of a whine in her voice that isn't exactly attractive. "I barely left the hotel."

"You couldn't go to museums or something?"

"We've been here for almost two months, where do you think I haven't been already?"

"A show?"

"By myself?" Piper pulls back at that, looking irritated.

Alex rolls her eyes. Of course she's all about the appearances. "Would it really matter?"

Piper's eyes narrow. "I guess not. I do everything by myself lately."

Alex's jaw tightens, instinctive barbs piling up in her throat, but she makes herself swallow them. Piper's just chafing under all her free time. This happens. The novelty of a new country is usually all it takes. "Fahri said we're moving on soon." He hadn't exactly said it, but Alex had inferred. Relief sparks life into Piper's eyes, instantly. "Amsterdam, maybe?"

A smile starts to threaten Piper's face. "Yeah?"

"Mmm-hmmm." Alex takes advantage of the d├ętente to pull Piper close again, slipping her hands under Piper's shirt, slowly climbing the ladder of her ribs. "Now if you're so sick of the hotel..." She ducks her head to kiss Piper's neck. "We can go out tonight..." She pulls Piper's shirt over her head and lightly nips her teeth around her lower lip, her hands roaming freely below. "Or..." She seals their lips together, her tongue tracing the seam, then moves away just enough to mutter, "You can have one more night stuck inside."

She feels the shape of Piper's smile against her mouth. "I can live with that."

After all time, she is learning so many new things about Piper.

This is what Piper's tongue tastes like. This is the sound she makes when she kisses, this is what that sound feels like collapsing inside Alex's mouth. This what Piper looks like without a shirt, without a bra, this is what her breasts feel like, this is how hot her skin gets, this is how well she fits underneath Alex, this is the sound she makes when Alex strokes her nipple, this one when she tongues it. This is what it's like to have Piper's hands there and there and there.

Alex has become acutely aware of every molecule she's made of, and it feels like they could all scatter at any moment.

The apartment smells like burned eggs, even here, in Alex's bedroom. Piper kissed her. Piper kissed her. Piper kissed her. She's not sure how long ago now. Most of their clothes are on the floor of Alex's room, draped over books and mixtapes, and they've kicked the sheets off the bed, the same bed they've been sharing during sleepovers for seven years now.

Alex presses her mouth to the base of Piper's throat, then shuffles back, kissing a trail down her sternum. Piper's fingers tangle in her hair, and Alex's tongue skims the skin of Piper's stomach and she feels it contract with reflexive, breathless laughter. Alex feels laughter rise in her own throat, because of course Piper is ticklish, she knows Piper is ticklish, she's always known that, and honestly, she can't fucking believe this isn appending

She has her hands stretched above her, cupping Piper's breasts, but now she reaches down, gripping Piper's hips, thumbs tracing the edge of her underwater, hesitating.

"I can stop if you want," Alex says, even though something lurches in her stomach at the traitorous offer. She might snap in two if she stops. "We can slow it down." Except, no, they can't, because Alex can't quite make herself believe this isn't some freak one off event, that this isn't the only time in their lives this will happen.

Piper shakes her head, really hard, her lips curled together, looking like she's lost the power of speech and has to be particularly emphatic. Finally, she breathes out in this husky, trembling voice that fully unravels something in Alex's chest, "Don't stop. Please, Alex."

Without further encouragement, Alex hooks her fingers around the fabric and tugs, sliding it down her legs, in too much of a hurry to be teasing. She presses a light, gentle kiss to Piper's ankle just before flicking the underwear aside, joining the rest of the mess on the floor. She slides her hands up Piper's calves, stops at the knees, kisses her way up her inner thighs, feeling Piper's hips roll beneath her, impatient.

Alex presses her lips into the skin of Piper's thigh, stopping the sudden barrage of questions clawing up her own throat. She's thinking of all the boys Piper's ever kissed, how self-preservation meant she'd never asked about them, doesn't know how far they went.

It's stupid, childish and possessive, but all of a sudden Alex feels like the twelve year old kid with knots in her stomach because Piper sounds so damn happy about kissing a boy. It makes her want to know if Piper fucked Jesse Campbell or any of the others. Because, sure, Alex fucked other girls, and she always liked it, but she'd also been led to believe Piper was never something she could have like this.

She's having to revise a fair bit of history.

She shakes off the anxiety, tells herself it doesn't matter, because Alex is the one here now. A predatory growl forms in her throat, pushing at the sides, and she quiets it by bringing her mouth down on Piper. She learns more.

This is what Piper tastes like. This is how it feels to have her legs vibrating trembling on either side of Alex's head, to be the one making that happen. This is how she begs with noise but no words, arching into Alex's mouth, her fingers slipping on Alex's scalp, scrabbling for purchase. This is the sound Piper makes when she comes.

This is what it feels like to really, finally, have everything with her.

Alex is half falling asleep under the hot spray of shower. She'd gotten off a plane two hours ago, back from another whirlwind trip that Piper didn't come on, which means she's out in the room, monosyllabic and wrapped in petty resentment, but Alex can't bring herself to worry about that right now. She's too exhausted, and stressed, and she's kind of getting sick of being guilt tripped over something that's not even her choice.

The bathroom door opens, and a few seconds later a rush of cold air billows into the shower as Piper slips in behind her. Her eyes are empty of irritation; they're drinking Alex in.

Alex tilts a grin at Piper, relief threaded with teasing in her voice, "Fancy seeing you here."

Piper smiles, curling her arms to grasp Alex's shoulder blades, then lazily sliding her hands down her wet back. "Sorry for being a brat." Piper's blocking the spray of water and Alex shivers slightly as she leans close to kiss her. "I just missed you."

"I missed you, too. I always miss you." Alex kisses her deep like it will prove it, the water raining down on the them. Then she feels Piper's hand slip between her legs, fingers spreading her. Alex make a low, humming sound in the back of her throat, sliding her feet further apart and leaning back against the cold tile wall. Piper slips two fingers inside Alex, leaving her thumb twirling her clit, a steady, weighted pressure. Piper leans over her, bringing their lips together, the kissing in time to her hands' rhythm, Piper's always been good at that, like she's just naturally in sync. She breaks the kiss after awhile and rests her forehead against Alex's. Alex's vision is blurred and wet, going bright white at the edges the faster Piper goes, but she Alex still gets a look at Piper's expression, and it makes her chest constrict. Piper looks earnest and determined, like she's trying to prove something, like she wants to show Alex exactly why she shouldn't be left behind.

Here's what Alex can't stop thinking about: how happy Piper looked when she got that acceptance letter.

Her face had flooded with it, all this joy and pride, and Alex knew her own expression must have looked wrecked. Or terrified. Something bad, at least.

After a few seconds, they'd both dialed it back a few degrees, meeting somewhere in the middle: Alex congratulatory, Piper humble. But something in the air between them had changed, and Alex feels like someone just started a ticking countdown, possibly on a device wedged between her lungs.

She's known Smith was Piper's first choice, and she'd been to the library to look up the driving distance months ago, back when she first applied. It's not so far; two and a half hours in a car, three on a frequently running Greyhound bus.

But the distance isn't really the problem. It's that whole new life college brings, the one Alex won't be a part of - she'll hear about it on the phone and over holidays, maybe an occasional weekend visit - not to mention to possibilities it will open up after.

The trajectory of Piper's life hasn't changed, in spite of the otherworldliness of this past year they've been together. Piper's still heading as firmly away from Alex as she always has been.

And all Alex can do it stay behind and wait.


Even though Alex had expected that, she feels unexpectedly pissed off by how quickly and simply the answer comes. "That's it? Just...unequivocally no?"

"That's right." Piper's got her stubborn face on. And beneath that, something Alex wishes she couldn't read: betrayal. "I told you I was never going to...participate. You said I'd never have to do anything."

"I know that," Alex replies, trying to keep her voice reasonable. "And doesn't the fact that I'm only asking you now, after almost two years, suggest that maybe I don't have a choice? It's kind of an emergency, Pipes."

"So, what does that mean? That it's even more dangerous than usual?"

Alex's expression turns stormy. "You really think I'd only ask you if it was more dangerous? Or, fuck, Piper, dangerous at all. It's one flight. You can use your own passport, and you're not even carrying drugs. Just money."

"No, Alex." Piper crosses her arms, unyielding. "It's still illegal. It's still wrong."

At that, the fight in Alex's chest clenches into a fist. She'd promised herself she wouldn't get angry, that she'd get through this because she has to - and she really does have to - and not let it become a huge issue. But she can't help but pounce. "Fuck that. You don't get to make it about some moral high ground. You're perfectly happy taking the plane tickets and the hotel rooms and the fancy restaurants and everything else, even though you know exactly how I'm paying for it. You're saying no because you're okay being part of everything as long as there's no risk to you, and that's fine, Pipes, but at least admit it."

"Fine," Piper retorts, seething. "I don't want the risk. And I don't have to take it, because I told you,from the very beginning, that I wouldn't."

"Christ, do you really think I'd let you go down for anything? I'd make sure your name stayed out of it." She offers this promise with the same easy flippancy people use when making alliances for the apocalypse: with utter certainty the scenario will never actually present itself.

Piper sighs, the anger fading from her face. Which turns out to be worse, because she gives Alex this pleading look. "Alex. I can't, okay? Sorry if that makes me a coward, but I can't."

That word, coward, is a thorn between them. Alex closes her eyes, and for just a second, she's a breath away from telling Piper the truth: that this is their only option. That Kubra apparently doesn't like how much Piper's around, how much she's seen. That Fahri came up with the solution: Piper has to be implicated.

But she always makes a conscious effort to keep the harsher realities of the cartel hidden: Alex wants it to be all about exotic travel and glamorous amenities and VIP booths. She doesn't let her see the danger - the danger that gives Alex such an addictive adrenaline rush but would likely send Piper into a tailspin of panic.

She already lost Piper once over this job. She doesn't want to send her running again.

"Pipes." Alex reaches for her hand, hating herself a little for it. "I wouldn't ask if I had any other option. I promise you I wouldn't." It comes out sounding so true, because it is. "It's a small, safe, one time thing. And we are seriously fucked if it doesn't happen."

Piper's chewing on her lower lip, eyes holding Alex's, and it looks like it's hurting her to consider this. Finally, in a small, resigned voice, she repeats, "A one time thing?"

"Yes." The syllable comes out like pure relief. "Thank you. Really."


"Hey, it's me."

"Alex, hey! I was going to call you."

She'd left a voicemail on Piper's dorm answering machine earlier in the day. Now Alex can hear music and the rise and fall of conversation behind Piper's voice. She doesn't say when she was going to call. "That's fine, I just figured you'd been going out. Didn't want to miss you."

"Good call. Everyone's pre-gaming at our place." Pre-gaming is a new addition to Piper's vocabulary. It means getting drunk before going somewhere to drink more (or somewhere they're too young to get served). Piper's voice sounds overly articulate and cushioned, which means the pre gaming is serving its purpose.

"Do you have to go?"

"No, no, no I want to talk to you."

From the other side of the phone Alex hears someone say, "Hey, Pipe, is that your girlfriend?!"

"Ask her when she's coming here!"

"They want to meet you," Piper says, and her voice is practically bursting with pride. It takes Alex a second to figure out why, to push past her instinctive, disoriented jealousy at hearing voices she doesn't recognize say Piper's name with such familiarity, and realize that this is the first place Piper's ever been able to talk about Alex as her girlfriend.

"Yeah, I want to meet them, too." It doesn't sound sincere, even though Alex really does want to meet them. But only to get rid of the unknown factor.

Piper's saying something to the people on the other end of the phone. It sounds like she's covering the mouthpiece. Alex knows she's drunk, and in a small dorm room presumably filled with people, and that this isn't a big deal.

But Piper's been gone for three weeks and Alex still isn't used to the missing her.


"Yeah, I'm here."

"Okay. Sorry, the phone won't reach in the hall, or I'd go out there."

"No, it's fine. You're busy, just call me in the morning. I'll talk you through your hangover."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, it's cool."

"Okay. Is your mom there? Can I say hey?"

"You want to talk to my mom when you're drunk?"

"Oh, right..."

Alex laughs at her. "I'm kidding, she wouldn't give a shit. But she's at work."

"Okay. Just tell her I said hi."

"Will do."

"And tell you."

"Tell myself you said hi?"

Piper giggles. "No. Sorry. That was dumb. I can just tell you."

"Tell me what?"

"That I love you. And I miss you."

"Me, too, Pipes. A lot, okay?"

"And I'm gonna call you in the morning."

"Good. But I don't want to be on the phone when you puke, okay?"

"I don't puke when I'm drunk. Or hungover. I never have."


"Shut up."

"Night, Pipes."

"Goodnight. Bye, Alex."

"Alex, I miss you."

"I don't have time to wander around flea markets and drink cafe au lait with you."

"But I'm so cute. Look how cute I am." Piper's voice is light and playful, and that in itself is enough to get Alex to drag her eyes away from the computer.

"Babe, I'm sorry, I'm so fucking stressed."

"But you're always so fucking stressed. I feel like a pathetic housewife." Playfulness gone, that fast. This is a familiar fight - familiar over the last year or so at least - but it's taken on new weight for the last few months. "Is this our life now?"

Alex hears shuffling on the bed, and when she turns around Piper's walking away. Purely reflexive panic knifes through her, and she stands up. "Hey...hey." Piper stops walking, thank God. "Let me take you out tonight, okay? Anywhere you want to go." Piper gives a fraction of a smile, lets Alex kiss her, placated.

And for some reason, that placation is enough for Alex to stop her again, "Hey...would you be up for a trip to Istanbul this weekend?"

It goes against a promise she made, and it's probably a long shot, but this time the emergency is real. A client got picked up - not a huge one, no one in contact with the higher ups - but enough that they've had to stop using all the regular mules, let them lay low just in case. Now they're scrambling to make drops on time.

And Piper's already done this once; Alex already brought her into this, didn't have a choice in it. And she knows Piper's been feeling restless. They've been in Paris for too long, and Alex has been too busy. It makes Piper moody and snappish, which makes Alex defensive and harsh - it's patently not her fault that Piper doesn't have a job, or anything besides Alex to occupy her time. It's not her fault that they're two years removed from her college graduation and purposelessness is starting to eat at Piper's brain.

None of that is Alex's fault. But it scares her all the same.

Piper's eyes light up, and for a second Alex thinks the gamble has paid off, that Piper's so desperate for something to do that she'll rethink her former participation embargo. "Yes, of course."

"Oh, babe, that's great...thank you." A weight eases off Alex's shoulders. "I think you should be able to get there and back in a day, so you won't even have to stay overnight."

"Oh my God." Just like that Alex knows she was wrong; Piper's voice is devoid of anything good. "I thought for a second you meant we would go together. Like a vacation. Like normal people."

A vacation. Of course a fucking vacation.

"I need you to do this. I wouldn't ask if I had any other option."

"Yeah, I've heard that before. And you specifically said it was a one time thing."

"This isn't some perpetual vacation, Piper. We're here because I'm working."

"So, what, now I have to pull my weight?"

"Of course not, don't be an idiot. But you don't get to lay around and pout - "

"I don't pout - "

"- whenever I am drowning in work! Especially if you won't even consider helping me..."

"It isn't my fucking job to help you, Alex, I'm not one of your drug mules!"

Alex sucks her lower lip between her teeth, physically stopping herself from pointing out it isn't Piper's job to do anything. This fight is getting away from them, like all the issues are spilling out too quickly, but it's still just a retread of old ground.

"I know that. And fuck you if you think I treat you like one."

"Well, it does seem like I'm only visible to you when you need me for illegal errands."

"You just mean I'm not at your beck and call anymore, completely able to drop everything else at your every whim."

"No, that'd be what I'm supposed to do for you."

"You don't have anything else to drop!"

"And whose fault is that?"

The question stalls their momentum. The fight's gone off course, strayed somewhere unexpected. Alex gives Piper a cold, tired look. "I'm pretty damn sure it's not mine."

Piper flinches, and looks away, and it feels like a victory until she says tightly, "I can't do this anymore."

The bottom drops out of Alex's stomach. "Do what?"

"I...I can't be here."

"Are you serious?" Scornful, good, it comes out scornful. Not panicked. Not terrified. "Where are you going to go?"

"I don't know where I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go home, back to the States..."

Alex lassos the tidal waves of panic rushing through and forcibly hardens it, so all she sounds is angry, "I can't believe I didn't see this coming. Of course you're leaving the moment things get complicated. Again. Classic fucking Piper."

"Right, Alex, make this my problem," Piper's voice is shaking. "I guess that's easier than facing the fact that you are a drug dealer. And it is ruining everything good in your life."

What hits Alex so hard is how much Piper means it. It's not just deflection, it's not a swerve away from Piper's own issues of boredom and stagnancy. She really means it, and suddenly Alex feels every bit of whatever changed between them after Brussels. She usually tries to forget the fear that had been trapped behind Piper's eyes that day, how real her anxiety was. It had been necessary, so Alex had forgiven herself for it, but suddenly she's wishing she never asked for that again.

And yet, there's still something in there to fight.

"You knew exactly what you were getting into," Alex says quietly. "You didn't have to come..."

"I left you over this once already," Piper says tightly, painful memories washing over her face. "And it hurt like hell, because I love you, and I needed you, so yeah, I tried to look past it. I bent on the goddamn issue because it was obvious you wouldn't, that you were never going to give it up for me."

"That's not fair," Alex bites out, because it isn't, it's simplifying things. Even Piper admitted their breakup had been about more than the cartel, that their lives hadn't fit back then.

And then she thinks about Piper walking away from every other part of her life. Making sure she fit with Alex's.


"You looked me in the eye and you said you wanted me and nothing else. You didn't have some grand plan that I'm keeping you from, Pipes. You said you spent a year looking at my postcards and wishing you were with me, so don't act like you made some noble fucking sacrifice."

"You're right." Piper's voice is soft now. Her eyes are too bright. "You are. But you looked me in the eye and said carrying that bag was a one time thing. And now you're asking me again. How am I supposed to know how far it's gonna go?'

Alex grits her teeth, shaking her head, impatient, "I wouldn't - "

"And how am I supposed to believe anything you say about it?" Piper's voice breaks, and she looks like a single blink might send the tears spilling over, but before it does she turns and walks out of the bedroom.

It's almost Piper's goddamn birthday, and that really doesn't matter since Alex hasn't seen or talked to Piper in seven months, but it's still kicking at her ribcage all fucking day, making Alex feel like shit and making it far too obvious how much she's lost.

She could actually buy Piper a decent gift, for once. She always put way too much time and thought into mixtapes, like an idiot pretentious kid, as if that made up for the fact that she always gave the same thing and spent no money.

But now she could buy something good, something different. Except she won't be seeing Piper on her birthday. And even if she did, Piper would probably give back the gift just like she did the necklace. It took Alex forever to pick out that necklace; she'd never bought jewelry in her life. And Piper had handed it back with her sanctimonious comment about preferring the tapes.

Fuck her.

Alex forces herself to stop thinking of birthday gifts or birthdays at all, tries not to imagine Piper in her apartment with Polly and her other shiny friends, all of them drinking and giving her decent gifts that cost money.

But her brain is dark the whole day leading up to it, the kind of dark that feels like it's dragged her down. It pisses her off, that Piper still has that affect on her, that she has any access to Alex's brain or heart or anything else. She wants to stop feeling anything about her, even the anger.

Alex doesn't know how to turn that off, hasn't learned that in ten years of this tumultuous Alex-and-Piper shit, but she at least knows how to drown it out.

It's been almost two months since she last used (snorting a quick line in the bathroom of a nightclub before going up to some potential mules, now actual, official mules), which is perfectly acceptable. Alex unravels the seam in her purse and pulls out the bindles of heroin she'd stashed there for treats. Her mom's at work, and Alex will probably be in blissful, dreamless, feel nothing sleep by the time she gets home.

Alex didn't think she'd really go.

It hadn't seemed possible, that they could to zero to broken up that quickly, that anything happening that fast could be permanent. Especially since Piper doesn't have access to her usual immediate exit; Alex figured she'd wander the streets of Paris for a few hours, brooding and angry, then come back to fight some more and, eventually, work their way back to somewhere good. Or at least better.

But Piper hadn't been outside the bedroom for even twenty minutes when Alex had heard her on the phone with the airline.

She did disappear after the phone call, returning late and going to sleep on the couch in the suite's living room. Alex is in the king sized bed, alone and wide awake, slowly talking herself into taking this seriously, into realizing that Piper is actually planning to go.

Then she sneaks out of bed and stolen Piper's passport, stuffing it beneath her stack of T-shirts in a drawer Piper doesn't share. She hides it because Piper needs neat, easy exists, she always has, and she's already struggling with that: she hasn't let herself be in the same room with Alex for more than a few seconds since the fight.

So Alex will force her to circle the small space of the hotel room, searching. She'll strand her here if she has to, make her miss the damn flight, but most importantly, she'll buy herself time to talk Piper back from this edge she's about to hurl them off of. Alex is confident she can do it; she may not have seen this coming, but she still knows Piper better than anyone. This decision has no staying power.

But that doesn't calm the full fledged panic flipping over her insides, darkening her brain.

It keeps her hands shaking the whole morning while Piper moves around silently putting things into suitcases. The sight of her makes Alex so, so angry. Fuck her for bailing, like she always does, and when she realizes the passport is missing, fuck her for asking Alex to help her find it like there's any chance in hell she'd make it easier for her to leave. Like she's allowed any favors.

At one point, when Alex refuses to help look, Piper gives her this frustrated, disgusting look like she barely recognizes her, and then stomps out of the room, and Alex feels her stomach roll sickeningly, because for a second it looked like Piper really wants to get the hell away from her.

A sudden, childish need overwhelms Alex: she needs to hear her mom's voice. Diane has never needed details when it comes to her and Piper; she is always rooting for them, always so sure they'll end up together and okay, that nothing that breaks between them is permanent. She'll tell Alex she's doing the right thing, that she'll be able to talk Piper out of leaving.

So Alex pulls out her phone and dials, but it's not her mom's voice that answers.

A/N: The intercut flashbacks won't be a thing throughout the story...those and the Alex POV are just for this prologue chapter. Subsequent chapters will also be shorter, but I plan on doing more chapters for this fic than the previous ones.

I was sort of torn with how to do this one, because I hate to time jump from angst to angst...but the events between Landslide and this story are the closest to canon this verse will come, and while there are obvious discrepancies and subtle differences in the dynamic, it's still more interesting for me to center this story around the obvious major divergence from canon that the YB history dictates, which is what we'll see going forward, and what this story is really about. But hope this kind of vignette style intro gives you a sense of things, and obviously we'll find out more about the break up (?) once we get into Piper's POV.