It's just like before, only worse. Because this time when you let go of Alex—only to realize you've made another epic fucking mistake—there is no going back.

The only thing that kept your selfish, miserable feet moving forward in Paris was the knowledge that if you felt like it, you could turn around and run right back to her. You could have Alex back in the minutes it took to hop a cab from Charles de Gaulle to the flat where she was packing up your lives. Or you could book a ticket to the funeral and meet her there, all airy apologies and half-baked excuses. If you felt like it, you could change your mind.

Just like the fickle, self-involved horse's ass that you are.

This time, though, your stupidity is irreversible. It started out the same way, because you're just as much of an impulsive idiot now as you were eight years ago: leave Alex, die inside, come to your senses. But by the time you got to step three and realized what a colossal fuckup you'd made—which was literally as the words I pick him were falling out of your mouth—the damage was done. You knew it as soon as she got up from the table, even before you talked to Larry and he ended it and you called Alex a crazy, manipulative liar.

It's really you you were talking about.

But you hoped anyway, because it's Alex fucking Vause and she is inevitable to you and there had to be a way, some last-gasp way for you to erase the past several hours. To go back in time and listen to your heart instead of the traitorous voice in your mind that convinced you you needed stability more than love.

When you walked into Alex's block and saw her sitting there with Nicky, you knew there wasn't a way. She had looked you up and down six ways from Sunday over the years, but never like that. Never with cold, hateful eyes that saw through your soul instead of into it. And that look, still, even though you were shaking and crying and clearly scared out of your goddamn mind. Alex has always been fiercely protective of you, whether the offender was a meddling mule or a skeezy guy in a bar or that wasp that lived outside your bungalow in Java until she gallantly slayed it for you. She would never leave you afraid and alone, not ever, not like you did to her.

Not unless she was totally, utterly, absolutely fucking done.

But it's not like it matters. Even if Alex didn't hate you, you would still be sitting in this concrete box in the SHU, unable to tell her that you chose wrong and that all you really want is to freefall to Cambodia with her and her ridiculously hot glasses. You're going to die in here, you're sure of it, whether from the insanity or the semi-voluntary hunger strike you've been staging. A faraway corner of your mind tells you you're being melodramatic, but it just makes you laugh the hollow cackle you've developed over the past eight weeks, because Larry called you a drama queen right before you went psycho on Pennsatucky. And he was right.

Maybe you really are the Piper from his article—just the jackass who traded other people's happiness for a few years of adventure and multiple orgasms. Or maybe you're the Piper from Alex's rage—the jackass who sacrificed other people's happiness for Sundays at the farmer's market and a low-risk-low-return 401k.

Either way, the jackass part is the same.

When Mendez finally hauls you up and tells you it's over, you stumble all the way to the van. It's not that you've grown weak, which you have, or that the feeling of another person's hands on your body makes your knees shake, which it does. It's the fact that you haven't died in SHU after all—a fate you only now realize you were looking forward to. Because now that you're still alive, you have to see her again, see her hurting up close and personal. Or, worse, you have to see her not bothered at all, because she's moved on. You bite your tongue until you taste blood, because even now—even fucking now—you're pulling for a scenario where Alex is hurting and you're not. She's right to be done with you.

Your feet are firmly beneath you by the time you get out of the van, but the world isn't. Sunshine blinds you. The abundance of open space makes your head whip from side to side. You're pretty sure this is what insanity looks like, and you feel grateful no one is watching through the window.

Morello hasn't spoken to you apart from a stilted Welcome back, Chapman when you first got in the van. You wonder if she's under orders from Nicky to express the mutual distaste Team Alex holds for you. You shouldn't be surprised, really. Prison always was like high school, if high school had toothbrush shanks and foot fungus. Still, her snubbing pricks a new hole in your already pin-cushioned heart. You didn't grasp until now how much she and the other inmates had come to mean to you.

Outside the newbies' bunks, where you'll wait to be assigned all over again, she glances over her shoulder before squeezing your elbow and telling you she's glad you're okay.

"Am I?" you say. Your voice breaks a little bit, because you really need to know.

"You'll get there." Morello smiles, and you feel a flicker of hope that maybe you'll still find some kindness among the women who made your first three months in hell bearable. Maybe you'll be able to keep your head down and finish out your time, just like you'd planned to.

Hope is what you lost in the SHU, you realize, along with your sanity and your figure. The spark of it now, however dim, bolsters your spirits enough for you to thank her without crying.

You don't know what happened to your things after the Pennsatucky debacle, so when Morello scurries back to work, you sit down on the mattress that seems vacant and stare at the opposite wall until lunch. You've gotten good at waiting, and it's a much nicer wall than you had in the box.

It's still early when you leave for the dining hall, but you're wary of making an entrance in a packed room. Better you arrive first, while everyone is still on duty, and slip quietly into a seat before you become a spectacle.

As you meander the halls, you marvel over how much has changed, and how much hasn't. Signs decorate the empty rec room for the goodbye party of a prisoner you don't quite remember, but you'd swear the Scrabble board was in that exact position when you were last here.

You turn toward the kitchen, your stomach already clenching in anticipation of actual, honest-to-God food. And then your insides start seizing for another reason, because that's when you see her.

Alex stands in the middle of the hallway, wide-eyed and staring at you through those fucking glasses. Nichols skids to a stop close behind, and they're both breathing heavily, as if they sprinted here, or as if they—no. No. You force the other possible cause of labored breath from your mind, because you just cannot handle it. Not today.

"Vause." Nicky says it like a warning, pulling at Alex's arm. Your gaze snaps to her hand. You can't help yourself. Alex doesn't let just anyone touch her.

But she doesn't let Nicky pull her away, either. You're frozen in place, both of you, and though you are determined not to give her the puppy dog eyes, you're pretty sure your face is betraying every goddamn thought you've had over the past two months. Alex's face—her perfect fucking stupid face—is a jumble of emotions that have been too well-obscured for you to interpret. The pain is unmistakable, and the anger. But the hate...

Is the hate still there?

You ache to run the ten feet into her arms regardless, to sob into her neck about how sorry you are and how you pick her and how you figured out that prison loaf is sort of edible if you swallow little chunks whole, who'd have thought? Five fucking steps—that's all it would take for you to be home.

But you haven't forgotten the rules. You are not to go to her, not ever. Beating up a bible-thumping meth head and doing a stint in the SHU doesn't change anything. And you don't intend to fuck up on your very first day back.

It takes every sliver of your willpower and then some, but you avert your eyes and walk around them—Alex and her new pet.

You're glad she has someone, you tell yourself.

You should be glad.