I'm very sorry for the delay, although to be honest I'm impressed I made time for this at all as I've suddenly gotten ridiculously busy so please don't expect extremely regular updates :( That being said the reviews and other forms of encouragement are the only reason I forced myself to sit down and write the stuff I had planned, so thank you very much, you're the best!

The next morning, Piper Chapman felt happier than she had in a long time. Her and Alex had slept so soundly that when the familiar piercing sound announced the first check of the morning, they were still both entwined on Alex's bunk, arms wrapped around each other with the taller woman's head resting underneath Piper's chin. They woke up abruptly and stood awkwardly apart, staring at the ground as two guards came by, clicking away. When they were gone, Alex muttered: "Last night doesn't change anything", before grabbing her towel and heading for the shower.

But when Piper later stopped by her empty cube before going to the library, she saw that the two halves of the book she had given Alex were no longer on her bedside table. Instead, placed at the end of the row of books on Alex's side of the room was The Alchemist, its edge carefully put back together with commissary duct tape.

Piper smiled. Things would still be difficult with her ex-lover and bunkmate, but Piper recognised the simple gesture for what it was in Vause-speak: an acknowledgement of their past, a small token of forgiveness signalling that Alex was no longer quite so angry with her, and a promise to no longer actively try and hurt Piper.

So Piper Chapman was happy as she skipped off to work, heartened by the thought that her relationship with Alex might be salvageable after all.

"Open it." Piper sat on a plush hotel bed, staring at the thin rectangular box Alex had just delicately placed in front of her. Her girlfriend of a few months was crouched next to the bed, looking up hopefully into Piper's eyes in anticipation of her reaction. After their first meeting at that bar, Alex had continued to impress Piper by taking her out to cool places where she seemed perfectly at ease, leaving the younger woman to marvel at the fact that she was on dates with this incredibly sexy chick she would never have thought would even give her the time of day.

But as the two women started seeing each other more, Piper also got to know the real Alex behind the confident strength of her drug dealer persona. And so when Alex had to go away and asked her to come along, Piper had no doubt in her mind that where she wanted to be was wherever Alex was. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being about her 23-year-old self wanting an adventure after graduating, and she realised that her feelings about the woman who had changed her life had become unexpectedly serious. But while Alex had often bought her presents in the past, more than happy to spend her ridiculous income on making Piper feel special, Piper couldn't help but doubt what exactly she meant to the other woman. Alex made no apologies of taking what she wanted out of life without stopping to analyse things, and Piper wondered whether Alex simply wanted someone to spend her money on and come home to after negotiating a drug deal.

So as Piper stared at the box she hoped contained jewellery, she was overcome by what she felt was the momentousness of the occasion. She slowly reached out, and carefully opened the box to find a beautiful white gold necklace, a small and delicately crafted key hanging from the chain.

"Oh Alex, it's beautiful." Piper murmured. Her girlfriend reached between her own breasts to show Piper the necklace she was wearing.

"I bought myself one too." Piper looked at the pendant Alex was holding out, and her heart swelled at the sight of a small heart made of white gold, with a key hole cut right in its centre.

She looked back at her own and, her voice quivering with emotion, asked "You're giving me the key to your heart?"

Alex simply nodded, and Piper was overwhelmed by the sincerity she saw swimming in the pale grey eyes. She readjusted herself on the bed to turn her back to Alex and pulled her hair aside to reveal her neck. Alex took the key necklace and silently handled the clasp, her fingers ghosting over Piper's skin.

Admiring her new accessory, the blonde woman muttered, "Jesus Christ Alex, these must have cost you a fortune." Alex simply turned Piper around and smiled, switching to her usual bantering voice, seemingly embarrassed by her open display of emotion and the metaphorical meaning she had chosen for her present.

"Well, you know what they say, you don't count when it comes to the one you love", she quipped, before apparently realising what she had just said as her eyes went wide.

Both women froze at the accidental confession. Piper sat stunned on her bed, wondering if she had imagined that Alex had just said she loved her. She looked at her girlfriend who just stood there, her mouth opening and closing as her confident countenance melted and she started babbling like an awkward teenager.

"Oh wow. I didn't mean – well, I do, but I didn't think – it just... fell out."

Piper smiled affectionately, appreciating the fact that she got to see this vulnerable side to the tough drug dealer she was dating. She stood up, never taking her eyes off Alex, and stepped closer to the taller woman.

"You love me." It wasn't a question, just a simple statement. Piper was testing the words out loud, enjoying how they felt on her tongue, appreciating the fact that they were true.

Alex nodded, looking like she didn't know whether to feel guilty about this fact, before quietly confirming, "Yeah. I do."

"I love you too", Piper replied, surely, reassuringly. She leaned in for a kiss that started off sweet and unhurried, as both women took their time to savour each other and convey the feelings they had just admitted they had for each other. But as tongues got bolder and breaths got louder, both women gave in to their passion and fell back into bed, proceeding to trace out every inch of each other's bodies that they had come to know off by heart.

That afternoon, Piper was surprised to find her cube crowded with inmates, and cheerfully asked: "Did my invitation to the bunk party get lost in the post?"

One look from Red told her she had said something wrong and she noticed, too late, that Morello was crying on Alex's bed, sat in between the latter and Nicky, who held a comforting arm around her shoulders. Silent Norma looked on concerned, stood next to her favourite cook, while Big Boo sat on Piper's bed scratching her puppy's ear.

"That bastard Christopher wrote to say he was engaged to someone else," Nichols tactfully explained.

"Oh. Shit, Lorna, I'm so sorry." Piper felt like an idiot, and had no idea what to say.

"How could I be so stupid?!" Morello was hysterical, her high-pitched words difficult to make out in between the tears and the snot. "You all knew it. You all knew it was over but I refused to believe it. Who did I think we were, Romeo and fucking Juliet?!"

"Romeo and Juliet were two horny 13-year-olds who couldn't distinguish between love and lust." Shit. Piper didn't need the murderous looks that were thrown her way to regret those words as soon as they escaped her mouth. Maybe she should say something more helpful. She crouched in front of the sobbing inmate and placed what she hoped was a reassuring hand on her knee. "Lorna, you're not stupid. You're human, and human beings shouldn't be made to live like we do. It makes things easier to hang on to someone on the outside as a sort of anchor to the real world, even if deep down inside you know it's not real anymore. It's like a survival instinct, it's completely natural."

Morello smiled a wet smile and squeezed Piper's hand in gratitude. The other inmates' attitude to Piper softened as she had seemingly redeemed herself for shoving her foot in her mouth earlier. But it was one inmate's reaction in particular that Piper was interested in, as she felt a heavy stare on her she was certain scientists could measure in tonnes. Alex was apparently trying to look into Piper's soul, suspecting that the words she had shared to reassure Morello came from a place of experience and wondering how she felt about that.

The ever-perceptive Nicky seemed to notice, looking awkwardly between the two ex-girlfriends. She patted Morello's shoulder and stood up, hoping a change of tone would help her own erstwhile lover snap out of her funk. "C'mon Morello, let's go make a dummy Christopher that you can run over with the van."

A murmur of approval rose from the assembled inmates.

"You can have your pick of vegetables for limbs", Red offered in her thick accent.

Norma nodded enthusiastically, taking a ribbon out of her hair to put it around her neck and mime that they could use it as a tie. As the group of misfits that Piper was coming to consider her prison family filed out of the cube, exchanging ideas for their makeshift voodoo ritual, Piper noticed that Alex hadn't moved from where she sat, eyeing her bunkmate curiously.

"Why did you pick him?" There it was. Alex hadn't wanted to ask, she didn't want to want to know. But she couldn't help it, Piper's words to Lorna had stirred something up inside of her and all the hurt from the recent rejection beat her stubborn refusal to acknowledge that Piper had yet again broken her heart.

Piper took a deep breath to gather her thoughts as she slowly sat on the edge of her own bunk. She couldn't believe Alex was talking to her again and willing to listen to her side of the story. She knew how important what she said next would be.

"I think... I think I desperately wanted to believe that I loved him the most. He fought for me. He told me he loved me and wanted to marry me now even though I had messed up. I'm not saying it's your fault, Al, and that you didn't give me a reason to pick you, but I told you I loved you and you didn't say it back." Piper's voice cracked, and Alex's heart a little with it, but she stood her ground, willing Piper to continue. "He was safe. I think Polly got to my head as well, because that's what I was thinking, that he was safe and always knew when to order Chinese food." Alex frowned a little at that, not entirely sure she was following. "He had a ring and plans for our wedding, whereas I ended up in prison because of you. I know I committed the crime, Alex", Piper rushed to add as Alex had opened her mouth to protest. "I carried that suitcase and I deserve to do time, but you have to admit you were the one who asked me."

"You knew exactly what you were getting into!" Alex interrupted, frustrated at what she felt was the same point they had addressed many times before being rehashed again.

"No I didn't Alex, and neither did you," Piper snapped. "Yeah, I loved that you were fun and exciting and dangerous, but I never expected to fall in love with you the way I did and I don't think you did either. Not at the start."

Alex looked down, mollified. She couldn't exactly argue that point.

"You have to admit that on paper, it doesn't look too good..." Alex managed a bitter half-smile at that understatement. "But that's the thing about this place, if I'm learning anything here it's that I can't hide away from who I am or what I want, and what I want is you. We're messed up together, Al, but so beautifully messed up, and we don't have to be at all if we just try and get it right for once."

Alex closed her eyes, trying to sort through her conflicting emotions. Part of her wanted Piper to stop talking so she could go back to pretending she didn't exist, and part of her wanted nothing more than to jump right back into her arms. Piper stared at her with a quiet intensity and, after a few seconds, asked softly: "What would you have said, if I had asked you to pick?"

Alex looked up confused. "What, between you and Larry?"

A little laugh reluctantly escaped Piper's mouth. "No, you idiot. Between me and..." she paused, wondering how to phrase what she meant. "Between me and your pathological inability to make a plan. I would never ask you to give up who you are because I love you, the whole of you, but what would you have said if I had asked you to promise to never do illegal shit again, to promise to love me forever and that we could figure the rest out together?"

Encouraged by the fact that Alex had opened up the bridge to communication, Piper got up and crouched in front of her in her enthusiasm to share the fantasies that she had had of their future together while she was rotting in the SHU.

"We could carry on travelling. I could teach and sell soaps, and you could write! You love books and you have so many interesting stories, you could write while we sit on that beach in Cambodia. Or..." Piper faltered, wary of making Alex think she was trying to impose things on her. "Or you could do whatever you want, there has to be a job out there that doesn't involve drugs but wouldn't bore you to death." Piper slowed down, tried to gauge Alex's reaction.

Alex sat there, overwhelmed by Piper's words, not realising that her eyes were glistening with tears.

"I know I'm getting way ahead of myself here, but think about it, Al. You and me again. For real. I know I hurt you. Several times, and I am so sorry." Piper started crying in earnest now. "I am so so sorry about your Mom, and about being an indecisive dipshit. But if we can just manage to put the fucked up shit that we've done to each other aside, we could be great. You're the love of my life, Alex, and I know now that I need you to fully be myself. We're going to be spending a lot more time in here together, and if I have to spend all of it proving this to you, I will. You've always felt so inevitable to me because that's exactly what we are to each other."

Alex didn't know what to say. She couldn't believe she was hearing these words, words that she had hoped to hear come out of that mouth so many times before. But she doubted she should let herself believe them, wondering whether something had broken between her and Piper that couldn't be fixed that second time that Piper chose herself over Alex.

She shook her head, her wet eyes focused nowhere in particular, and opened her mouth without quite knowing what was going to come out of it. "Piper..."

A small yapping sound suddenly came from the entrance of their cube, and Piper jumped up, turning to wipe the tears away from her face.

"Hey lovebirds, sorry to interrupt". Big Boo stood there, her arm draped on the low wall of the cube, a shit-eating grin indicating she was anything but sorry. "Just thought you might want to know that Leann just got out of the SHU. I'd watch my back if I were you, Chapman, she looks out for blood," she added for Piper's benefit.

A/N: I'm not entirely sure how I feel about how this one's turned out because I'm tired and haven't properly proofread. Also to one guest reviewer: you've managed to mention two things that I was planning on making happen (one of which you can now guess) so, err, well done. Little creepy, but yeah, hopefully you'll like how I deal with it :)