The day had grown late by the time Piper Chapman finally secured the lock and descended the porch steps. The golden afternoon light started gradually seeping away, yet managed to catch on the red autumn leaves that hung precariously on the trees that lined the street. Piper inhaled a shaky breath, her chest constricting as a flood of cold air pierced her lungs. Damn, I should've worn a jacket, Piper muttered inwardly. She picked up her pace a little in an effort to dispel the cold, scuffing along the sidewalk.
Piper had always enjoyed the coming of winter. She loved the feeling of the cold as it hit her cheeks. The way the snow patted gently on car rooves and letterboxes. The musty smell the house generated without fresh air to flow freely through it. Yet these days, winter was associated with another wasted year; at least that was the case for her parents. Most graduates went on to steady jobs and careers. But that wasn't a reality for Piper. She hadn't picked her major based on income prospects, despite the endless encouragement from her parents to study something solid. But solid wasn't Piper's game.
Nevertheless, she had enjoyed the time it allowed her to pursue her passion for theatre, read all those books that collected dust on her shelf, get dragged into parties and sleep the next day away. But her parents slowly began to resent the full financial support they granted her, and the necessity of finally getting her head down was slowly winning out.
Guilt at her half-hearted attempts at finding a job incrementally ate away at her conscience, and so Piper convinced herself that she'd bunk down at a coffeehouse, work off her hangover, and reconsider her options. She hung her head, unfocused as her worn Doc Martens paced the pavement, everything falling into a blur. The cold bit at her fingertips, and in retaliation she jammed her hands into the slim pockets of her jeans.
Piper was interrupted from her daze when she felt herself collide into something, or someone. Piper winced at the impact. Her clumsiness had made her accustomed to the familiar crash, and she mentally cursed herself for failing to pay attention to her direction. Her mother always pestered her about this habit of hers, stressing that If you don't cure yourself of that nasty habit of yours, you'll have a run-in with something much more serious than a signpost!
"Oh, shit. I'm so sorry…" Piper muttered, excusing her clumsiness as she held out her hand to steady the victim. "I wasn't looking where I was going-" Raising her head sharply from its gloomy tilt, Piper's jaw dropped ajar slightly as she realised who she had crashed into.
"Uh, it's…you" Piper stuttered, tripping blindly over her words, failing to formulate coherency. Her glance inevitably drifted, noticing how the cerulean-tipped locks appeared almost imperceptible against her dark blue leather jacket. Working her way up the jet-black curls, Piper finally managed to tentatively return Alex's gaze; her black-rimmed glasses framing those piercing green eyes that shone confidently back at her. She was hard to forget. And even harder to avoid, apparently.
Alex cracked a tentative smile. "Oh yeah. Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember you."
Piper felt heat sting at her cheeks as she desperately tried to crush the signs of embarrassment giving her away. Finally, Piper managed to muster up the courage to respond, swallowing down the lump that was forming in her throat. "Look, I'm so sorry about that. Did I hurt you?"
Alex grimaced as she held out her coffee cup and inspected it for spillage. "I'll survive. You didn't manage to drench me in mocha, so congratulations. You successfully avoided a dreadfully overused cliché where you're obligated to clean the mess off my shirt."
The forwardness of Alex's reply threw Piper off-guard, and she rendered her completely unsure of how she could even appropriately respond. Is she flirting with me? Piper realised that she should probably reply before she was made completely mute, but each time she tried to form a logical answer in her head, she failed dismally. Alex arched an eyebrow, sensing Piper's discomfort. "Kidding, mostly."
There was something about this Alex character that Piper felt utterly captivated by. Some foreign quality she'd never seen before in a person. Some difference that appeared so attractive to Piper, she felt compelled to chase after it. Perhaps it was because Alex was distinctive to most in this town. From what Piper had managed to establish, Alex belonged to the sophisticated, cultured clique that rented the town-houses up on the high road. They rarely bothered with the college bars and cheap diner joints haunted by the broke college kids. Piper had never harboured any inclination to associate with those types. They were rich and considerably older than herself. But Alex didn't quite fit that mould. Alex was something else entirely.
"How's that resume bullshitting treating you?" Alex quipped, effectively bringing the conversation back to something a little more sterile. Piper shrugged slightly, her glance wandering as she avoided her tendency to state; balancing her gaze between eye-contact and the brickwork of the building adjacent. "Oh, you know, I'm working on it."
Alex nodded enthusiastically in assent. "And by working on it, do you mean working off a crippling hangover?" Piper cringed, getting the sensation of Alex's eyes boring into her. It was a feeling she had never felt before, like someone had taken a knife to her and ripped her wide open. Like all her defences couldn't shield her from Alex's intuition. Like Alex was somehow able to see her for who she really was. Was it really that obvious?
"I-, how can you tell?" Piper stammered, crossing her arms in a meek last-line-of-defence gesture.
Piper watched as a smirk tugged at Alex's lips, allowing her slight dimples to peek out from her cheek. "I can see the bags under your eyes. Your make-up's not exactly hiding it all that well." She responded, brandishing her cup close to Piper's face.
"Oh. For a minute that I thought you were some kind of psychic."
Alex gave a throaty laugh. "Are you fucking kidding me? No need for psychic-voodoo, you're an open book, kid." Piper grimaced. Perhaps she was. She was a terrible liar, and even worse at keeping secrets; but she'd never felt so incredibly transparent.
Alex adjusted her position awkwardly, drumming her fingers on the takeaway cup she brandished, waiting to see whether Piper would respond. But Alex had done a wonderful job at rendering Piper mute, remaining absent of a reply for what felt like close to a minute.
"Hey," Alex began, "I can see that you're freezing. They've got some killer espresso in there. Keep me company, and I'll give you a few resume tips while you're at it." Alex offered, gesturing towards the corner coffee shop.
A strange sense of joy began to bubble within Piper at the offer. She wanted to jump at the opportunity, to let her eagerness show as she took the bait from the trap so whole-heartedly. But she decided that eagerness was sure to put Alex off, and the last thing Piper wanted was to scare her away.
"Sure." She replied casually, sticking her hands back into her pockets. Alex crinkled her brow in confusion. "It's just an offer, Piper Chapman. You're not obligated to take me up on it." Shit, thought Piper. I overdid it. "No, no. I mean, I think I could use the tips."
Alex hesitated, but detected the slither of a smile creep onto Piper's face, and figured she was being deliberately nonchalant. Playing hard to get.
Piper rubbed her palms together furiously before jamming them in-between her thighs. Alex pushed the coffee towards Piper, taking a swig of her own as she did so. "Thanks," Piper muttered as she lifted up the plastic top and discarded it on the table, the strong aroma of coffee being released into the air. Raising the hardened edge to her lips, Piper tasted bitterness flood over her tastebuds. Piper screwed up her features and cut her sip short at the assault. "Oh gosh, what's in this?" Piper exclaimed, horrified. Alex grinned, giving Piper the impression it was intentional.
"Double shot. Of whiskey, that is. You looked like you needed it."
Piper nodded in acknowledgement. "You really didn't have to pay for that. In fact, it's kinda becoming a habit, don't you think?" She commented, revelling in the way the liquid bubbled and burned deliciously down the back of her throat, creating a wonderful sensation of warmth that only seemed to spread through her entire body.
Alex shook her head. "Don't worry about it. You're a broke college grad! I'm practically aiding the nation's poor and needy! Perhaps I can even take you in and give you shelter." Alex teased. Piper spluttered against the rim of her drink, hot liquid being expelled back into the cup as she was reduced into a coughing fit. Alex clapped her hands together in triumph, attracting the attention of several disgruntled patrons who shot disapproving looks at Piper.
"Classic." Alex remarked, as Piper finally managed to recover from her distress. Piper timidly let her eyes flicker back up to those green orbs, catching glints of mischievousness being directed back at her.
"If you're so financially secure, Piper Chapman, why the stricken job-search?"
"Since I'm such on open book to you, you should be able to work that out for yourself."
Alex sat back against the chair. "What, you want me to guess?" Alex asked, sceptical of Piper's intentions. What's she playing at?
"That's right." Piper confirmed, resting her jaw against her palm as the leaned further towards against table, raising her eyebrows as she waited patiently for Alex to accept the offer.
Alex couldn't escape the feeling that Piper was baiting her, but wasn't one to turn down the offer of a challenge. Mirroring Piper, Alex rested her elbows on the table, her fingers pressed against her cheek as she evaluated Piper. Challenge accepted.
For several moments Piper wondered whether this evaluation was just a false pretence, as Alex stared relentlessly at her, only occasionally lowering her glance to take in some other aspect of her appearance. "Hmm…" Alex hummed, her eyes narrowed as she put down her cup and focused her attention folly on Piper.
"Are you, addicted to something?" Alex quizzed.
Piper shook her head. "No."
"Some weird journey of self-discovery?"
"Nope. Why would I need a job for that anyway?"
Alex huffed in feigned annoyance. She was fairly confident she knew why Piper was out pacing the pavements, applying for every damned job within a 5 mile radius. But if it was games Piper wanted to play, Alex was more than content to play along.
"Desperate measure to avoid someone? Roommate, boyfriend maybe?"
Piper bit her lip, shaking her head slightly. She was quite sure that was not just any guess that Alex had so casually suggested. That was an intentional interrogation veiled as a lucky guess. "No boyfriend." Piper countered, masking it as a subtle drop of information. Alex nibbled slightly at her lower lip, catching Piper's gaze with an intensity that seemed to transport them both into new, unexplored territory. Alex sensed Piper grow timid, and swiftly broke away, returning to her coffee. "We might speed this up by you just telling me, rather than taking on a wild goose chase." Alex suggested.
"My parents are getting sick of supporting me. I haven't exactly followed through on the college-to-career front."
"Ah. Your parents should've seen that one coming, honestly." Alex admitted, sniggering slightly.
Piper wasn't sure whether or not to take offence. Her hand dropped from her jaw, sinking down against her chest defensively. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, come on!" Alex exclaimed, plunking her coffee back down on the table. "You majored in theatre! No-one majors in theatre with a well-paying career in mind. Passion, Piper. Passion is why people study theatre."
Piper furrowed her brow in confusion, raising her hand in the air, indicating for Alex to hold up. "Wait a second." Piper began, her tone uneasy. "Can we backtrack a little?" Shit. Thought Alex, as she realised her mistake. I've blown it now. "How did you know I studied theatre?" Piper queried.
But Piper remained unconvinced. She thought back to the condition of her resume, and what information had been spilled onto its pages. "No, no, I'm pretty sure that's not on my resume…"
Alex shrugged, trying to appear as indifferent as possible, despite the fact she knew she had blown her cover. Piper was familiar to Alex, long before their 'meeting' the week prior. Alex always spent a lot of time at Smith, and in doing so, grew familiar with those that frequented parties and taverns. Piper had gained her attention, although her identity remained a mystery to Alex. Yet, at some point during semester, Alex recognised her in one of the various classes she crashed, cementing her face firmly in her memory.
"Relax, kid. I'm not a stalker." Alex reassured, finding it difficult to hold back the laughter threatening to burst forth at Piper's apprehension.
"But how did you know?" She insisted, becoming more befuddled by the second as Alex's source of information continued to elude her.
Alex finally burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, utterly humoured by Piper's adorable expression of bewilderment that was etched onto her face, her brows crinkled together as her eyes darted to Alex's, unnerved. "Put your hand down, kid. They'll think you want something." Alex managed to say, fighting to keep her tone steady as she fought amusement.
"Relax!" Alex called, reaching up to catch Piper's suspended hand and bring it back down to the table. "I know a lot of things."
Piper felt her entire being spark alive at the touch. It started simply, at a single nerve ending, and it grew. It bubbled and simmered and spread. Starting at her fingertips, it caught on every feather of hair like a wildfire that would not be stopped. Alex didn't retract her hand, and let it remain covering Piper's: her fingers curling slightly around to bury it in a chasm of warmth. Whether it originated from the coffee cup or Alex's body heat, she couldn't tell. It was just warmth. And it was delicious. Piper let her eyes wander down to the interlocked entanglement of hands, her breath getting caught somewhere in her throat as her chest began to swell.
A faint humming sound pestered her, and Piper took several seconds to register that it wasn't a product of her imagination, but was the dull buzz of a cell phone. Quickly, Alex slipped her hand back across the table, slithering away, back to safer territory. Piper felt a selfish impulse to snap it back, resenting the loss of warmth it's absence provided.
Fishing the device out of her back pocket, Alex focused her eyes on the screen, skimming through the text that was illuminated on the display. For a moment, Piper swore she saw disappointment surface in Alex's eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared. Alex groaned, stuffing the device back into her pocket. "Look, I've got to go."
Instantly deflated, Piper felt herself release a breath she wasn't aware she had been holding. For her mind, Alex's departure was much too premature. She wasn't sure exactly what she had been expecting. Angry at the expectations that she had managed to unwittingly create, Piper began to slowly retract her hand. "Oh. Okay…"
But before Piper had much time to react, Alex swiftly brushed her hand lightly against Piper's, enclosing softly around her unguarded wrist, pulling her arm gently back across the surface of the table. The pressure encircled around her wrist forced Piper's arm to fall hopelessly under Alex's control. The touch, however light, seemed to burst with some thick anticipation that had stifled the pair of them. Some unsaid, yet mutually admitted, desire. Piper felt her muscles quiver, torn between the impulse to tense, and the urge to relax. To be pulled into Alex, and go willingly.
A pen emerged from Alex's back pocket, and the familiar click resounded heavily in Piper's ears, immune to the chatter of the surrounds, as Alex pressed the ballpoint into her skin. Piper felt her skin prickle as goosebumps flooded along her arm as Alex began to carve a line of digits into her flesh. Piper watched, strangely mesmerised as she focused on the curve of Alex's hand slide along her arm, leaving a trail of ink in its wake.
As each stroke of black ink was applied, a flush developed to outline the numbers. Part of it was from the pressure of the pen, part of it from sensations of touch than danced up and down her arm. Piper secretly hoped that line of numbers would never end.
The penstrokes became achingly slow as Alex drew closer to the end of the sequence, re-tracing again and again unnecessarily over the arcs of the numbers. Piper's skin sparked alive under the command of the pen, evoking sensations that caused Piper to release a shudder that ran through her entire body. She hoped that Alex wouldn't notice, but as her eyes flickered boldly up to read her expression, the smirk plastered onto her face indicated otherwise. Piper watched as the word "Alex" appeared in-between two neatly drawn brackets, slightly crooked as she ran out of space.
"Give me a call sometime. We never did get to those resume tips." Alex invited, letting her hand linger on Piper's skin for a little longer than necessary.
"Sure." Piper answered, her voice breathy and hardly audible; her fingers automatically curling in order to sustain the sensation that lingered on her flesh. Alex reclaimed her mug, sweeping it off the table. Piper let her eyes wander up to meet Alex's, seeing the deliberate and fully intentional nature of her actions reflected in the green depths.
Piper watched her leave, waiting until she was no longer in sight before inspecting the mark Alex had left her. Like claiming her as her own, the name in particular marked Piper as hers.
A smile tugged at her lips.
"We really should start eating healthy, you know." Polly remarks, trailing along behind Piper, her hands occupied by the basket she hauls along. Piper's hand lingers steadily above the boxes of mac-and-cheese, not hesitating to toss the dark-blue package into the basket before moving on to a new set of shelves.
"Mac-and-cheese doesn't exactly qualify as healthy, Piper." Polly insists, raising her voice slightly to stress Piper's inconsistency. From the safety of having her back to Polly, Piper rolls her eyes; gradually beginning to regret the decision to bring Polly along. "As I recall, Polly, the basket-slave does not get speaking rights."
From the corner of her eye, Piper catches Polly's glare as she shifts uncomfortably under the weight of the basket. "Yeah, well, the basket-slave is in a foul mood today. It's the fourth time this week Jason has blown me off to watch his stupid football games." Polly huffed, frowning slightly as Piper slips some frozen hash browns into the basket.
Piper smirked, raising her hand over her mouth to conceal her amusement. "You did decide to date him. Despite his intense, and slightly unnerving, passion for that ridiculous game." Piper countered, her fingers running lightly against the convex protrusions of aligned soup-cans that lined the shelf.
"A terrible decision…" Polly muttered, under her breath. "Can we pay a visit to the chocolate aisle?"
Piper spun around instantaneously, forcing Polly to skid faintly in her worn-out shoes in order to not collide into Piper. If Polly was going to bicker endlessly about her inconsistencies, Piper was damn well going to bug her over hers.
"You've just spent the last twenty minutes criticising my food choices, and now you want chocolate?" Piper retorted, her hands animating her irritation.
Polly shrugged, hoisting the laden basket a little higher against her hip. "What can I say? I'm a hypocrite." She justified, lightly pushing against Piper's back in an effort to steer her towards the confectionary aisle. Reckoning that chocolate was likely to shut Polly up for a while; Piper lets herself be blindly driven towards the confectionary.
"Ugh, look at this stuff!" Polly whined, raising the basket up onto the checkout conveyor belt. "There's not a single vegetable here." She complains, visibly horrified by the state of their bi-weekly shopping.
"Next time, I'm leaving you in the car. You're worse than a child." Piper snaps, dragging Polly away from the basket as she picks through its contents, preventing the bewildered cashier from scanning the items.
"When was the last time we ate a vegetable?" Polly grumbles, raising her hands up in the air, surrendering as Piper lets her go.
Piper snaps her jaw shut, squeezing her eyes closed in an effort to block out Polly's incessant rambling. She catches a mild look of amusement flashed by the cashier, and Piper secretly thanks her lucky stars that they don't shop here often. "Do you have a playpen here or something?" Piper enquires, avoiding Polly's displeased expression.
The cashier sighs lightly, scanning an item as he responds. "Sorry, that's more of an IKEA thing."
"Stop avoiding my questions. I'm just trying to prevent you ballooning." Polly demands, interlocking several bags within her grip and waiting until Piper passes over two crumpled $20 bills. "Well now I'm going to avoid you completely." Piper states, hauling her quota of bags over to Polly. "I'm going to get some wine."
Polly furrows her brow in confusion, as if Piper had just suggested something ludicrous. "But we never get alcohol from here." Polly remarks, maintaining her confused expression. Piper dangles the keys in front of Polly, sticking them in her front pocket upon realising she didn't have a free hand.
"I have a coupon." Piper justifies, sensing this was not the end of Polly's interrogation.
Momentarily appalled, Polly looks on the verge of questioning Piper's sanity as she digs the coupon out of her back pocket to prove herself. Convinced, Polly hits Piper's hand away, embarrassed to be in the possession on the offending object, and quickly scanning around to see if anyone had seen. "Seriously? Is this the direness of our situation? Using coupons like an old granny?"
"I don't think the elderly collect alcohol coupons. I think that's more of an orange-juice thing…" Piper chuckles, jamming it back into her pocket.
"Whatever. I'll wait in the car."
The familiar ding announces Piper into the near-empty bottleshop, attracting the attention of the lone staff member flicking through a day-old newspaper behind the counter. It's an unfamiliar set-up to Piper, and she takes several seconds to orientate herself towards the wine-specific section. Chewing her lip absentmindedly, she heads down the spirit aisle, tempted to pick up a bottle of tequila. But before Piper has the opportunity to act on selfish impulse, the lightness of her wallet squashed into her back pocket registers in the back of her mind, and she decides against it.
Shuffling her feet, Piper rounds upon the wines, her eyes tracing over the unfamiliar labels, searching for something appropriate. Grimacing at the assault of brands, blends, and years advertised on the packaging, Piper releases a slight huff of annoyance.
What do they even drink? It had been a long time since Piper had been coerced into playing host to her family. She had successfully avoided it for almost ten months, employing all manner of excuses from a contagious case of the flu to a 'broken' wrist. But Cal, under the pressure of the "next safest bet" after Piper, was quick to call her up on the fact it was her turn to satisfy the parents. Grudgingly, Piper had complied.
She could easily get takeout from the little Italian place down the road, and pretend her and Polly had been cooking up a storm all afternoon in preparation. But choosing the wrong wine threatened to blow her cover, forcing Piper to endure endless criticism from her mother. Personally, Piper had never been much of a connoisseur when it came to alcohol. The cheapest bottle on the shelf elicited the exact same haze of euphoria that a vintage would, given she slugged down enough.
Utterly mystified by the cryptic combination of years and vineyards she had never heard of, Piper was tempted to accept defeat. She could always ask that uninterested staff member up the front, but decided to save herself from the embarrassment of asking advice on wine she intended to buy with a newspaper coupon.
"You'll want that one." A voice announced from behind her, an arm faintly brushing against Piper's shoulder as a finger indicated to a particular bottle about midway along the shelf.
Piper was alerted to the presence of someone behind her almost immediately as the words reached her ears. Her body reacted automatically; a strange tingling sensation of fear began to run up the length of her spine, making her jump. She spun around clumsily, thrown notoriously off-balance at the shock of someone so unexpectedly entering her personal space.
Piper sought frantically to identify her invader, eyes darting uneasily around until her mind realised she was not in any danger. Piper's rather extreme reaction appeared to take her approacher by surprise, too: a tattooed forearm apprehensively prepared to steady her.
Piper didn't need to glance any farther than that distinctive tribal tattoo to determine who she found herself face-to-face with.
Distantly, Piper's mind distinguished a slight tingling along her forearm at Alex's presence, awakening feelings that had laid dormant since their last lingering touch at the exact spot that began to burn. Instantly, Piper's mind flashed back to watching Alex carve those numbers with an exquisite pressure that threatened to unhinge her. She had wanted to keep that brand on her arm forever. She wanted to be reminded of it, of her, every time her forearm was within her line of sight. But above all, Piper wanted to feel that touch again.
Piper snapped her slackened jaw back into position, feeling the irregularity of her heartbeats slowly return to consistency. "Jesus." Piper breathed, her tone wavering nervously. "You scared me."
A slight flicker of guilt surfaced in Alex's expression, her lips twitching downwards slightly as she inwardly claimed responsibility for Piper's reaction. "Sorry." Alex mumbled, so faintly Piper was lucky to catch it. Piper ran a nervous hand down her hair, taking a deep breath as she felt the possibility of hiccups rise in her stomach.
"Is that how you approach people?" Piper accused, exasperation pushing her tone up to a much shallower register. "By sneaking up on them like that?" But her defence quickly lost its charm as Piper punctuated it with a slight hiccup.
Alex felt torn between accepting Piper's statement as serious, in its intended form; or the cute, awkward way in which it had come across. Alex screwed up her features, deciding to shrug off Piper's seriousness, and direct her slight irritation in another direction. She wanted to push Piper just that bit further. "Because crashing into them is so much better?" Alex justified, her recovery much more successful than Piper's attempt.
"That was an accident!" Piper defended.
Alex watched as embarrassment burned Piper's cheeks into a flush, the redness almost equal to the colouring of her lips. "Well, we're even now." Alex chuckled, breaking into an amused grin.
"Anyway, I'd be going for that one, if I were you." Alex suggested. Piper glanced back at the shelves, focusing on the bottle Alex had pointed out: a red blend branded with a crisp white label, imprinted with the words "Jacob's Creek" in prominent letters.
"How are you so sure this one is going to be appropriate?" Piper mused, clasping her fingers around the neck of the bottle, plucking it off the shelf. Alex took a step forward, breaking what barriers of personal space they had left. Piper felt her senses automatically heighten in response to Alex's proximity, allowing her to detect the indistinct smell of cigarette smoke, intermixing with another scent that Piper could only identify as distinctly Alex. It felt strangely comforting to Piper.
"It's an Australian shiraz. You can't go wrong." Alex shrugged, extending an arm as she gently pried the bottle out of Piper's grip, her fingers brushing softly against Piper's. Piper felt herself suck in a quick breath. Whether it was a reaction from Alex's proximity or her touch, Piper couldn't tell. All she could concentrate on was the way her body responded so quickly, and so powerfully to Alex. In more ways than Piper would care to admit. And before Piper could even begin to consider how Alex had done it, she was utterly intoxicated.
"Good year, too. What's the occasion?" Alex questioned, inspecting the bottle carefully before handing it back to Piper. "It's my turn to host the family dinner." Piper replied, trying to keep her voice as matter-of-fact as she could muster.
"Somehow, I can't imagine you being much use in a kitchen." Alex mocked, allowing her eyes to rake over every inch of Piper, taking in her worn-out grey hoodie thrown on as a buffer from the onslaught of rain, to the denim-shorts that frayed at the edges into a million pieces of deserted cotton, leaving very little to Alex's imagination. She lacked adherence to any specific style, or clique. She was original, down to the very last thread. Perhaps that was what made her so intriguing to Alex. No, she doesn't look like the domestic type at all…
As Alex returned her gaze to Piper's, she noticed Piper take mild offence to her statement: arms curling defensively around the bottle of wine. "That's rather presumptuous." Piper retorted, her inflection trailing off into something a little more flirtatious than originally intended. It didn't go unnoticed, either. Alex quirked an eyebrow, shuffling a little closer to Piper; forcing her to lean back slightly in order to maintain a delicate slice of personal space. Alex rested a hand against the shelves level with Piper, effectively trapping her. If she was going to run, she was going to have to get through Alex first. "Well, am I wrong?" Alex toyed, relishing the way Piper's pupils dilated to compensate against the closing proximity.
Piper knew that she wasn't. Piper couldn't cook to save her life. Her culinary pursuits had been consistent failures since she was a child, failing to master anything much more complicated than toast. Even that wasn't always a guaranteed success.
"You wouldn't be, no." Piper managed to reply finally, her grasp clutching tighter around the wine. Heat began to creep up in her cheeks, revealing much more about her feelings of their predicament than she'd like to disclose. But then again, it wasn't as if she had much choice in the matter. It was Alex who had consciously cornered her almost up into the shelves. It was Alex who relentlessly refused to give Piper the upper hand in the situation. It was Alex who reduced her to a stuttering, hiccupping mess. It was Alex who was now so close to her, she could feel herself drift from focusing on her eyes to her lips, wondering if this was the moment. The moment she'd been secretly anticipating, unconsciously expecting, silently craving.
Piper felt trapped, oddly claustrophobic and almost suffocating from being surrounded by Alex. She was everywhere: her smell, her eyes, her shallow breaths that Piper was certain she could feel dissipate just before they pierced through the thin fabric of her jumper.
Everything became singularly focused on Alex, and Piper suddenly felt herself growing scared. It was overwhelming; giving her the impression of losing all control, a little too soon. Shit, Piper, what are you doing? Are you really going to do this, in the middle of a bottleshop, clutching onto a bottle of wine for dear life? She inwardly cursed.
The line that Alex had drawn bordered too close to manipulation. Too close for comfort. Alex had drawn her in so easily that Piper began to wonder whether she trusted herself in this situation. Everything about it, from the smells to the building ache to the way her mind raced, was new to her. She was fourteen again, anxiously awaiting the first boy to touch her lips.
Piper pulled her wandering concentration back up to Alex's fixed stare, refusing to break the contact. Alex's reluctance to crush the intensity they deliberately created allowed Piper to map, between occasional blinks, the depths of her electric green orbs, flecked with the slightest hints of yellow. Ringed with a much darker shade that descended into darkness, Piper swore they appeared almost luminous behind those striking black frames.
There was something about Alex's eyes that imparted an extraordinary sense of truth. A strange solace that glinted back at her. A dark, unknown utopia. Did she dare travel it? Perhaps it was the strength of the colour that seemed too raw to hide dishonesty. Without even fully comprehending her mind's decision, Piper found herself trusting those pupils.
Risking another descent down to her lips, Piper observed a mischievous smile grow at the corners of Alex's mouth, allowing a flash of teeth to appear. The skin of Piper's forearm began to tingle again, bringing her to question how long this moment had been allowed to go on. Too long to be innocent. But there never was anything innocent about Alex. That was something Piper knew she could count on.
For every moment that passed, Piper became a little more surprised that Alex didn't pull away. But Alex had no intention of doing so. Every second Piper stayed there, deliciously trapped and adorably nervous, she became a little more intoxicated. The distance that remained was down to just a delicate slither. You could do it, you know. Alex thought, trying desperately to justify why she hadn't closed the space already.
"We're closing soon. Are you going to pay for that?" a frustrated voice announced, cutting the tension that had shrouded them. Alex grimaced, gritting her teeth as she accepted defeat, feeling the moment dissipate almost as quickly as the colour drained from Piper's cheeks. Alex removed her hand resting against the shelf beside Piper, taking a step back. Piper wanted to bolt, but her legs remained steadfastly glued to the sloppily mopped floor. She was without escape.
"Are you going to pay for that?" Alex finally asked, her voice cracked and raw, traces of desire still hanging off her words. Piper averted her gaze to the space between them, feeling like she might just melt if she met those eyes again.
"I am. I should. I-" Piper stopped herself from another verbal stumble, deciding she had made enough mistakes for one day. Piper caught her breath, wondering how she had lost it in the first place, realising she was still trapped under Alex's piercing eyes.
"You might want to do it now…"
"Yeah." Piper agreed, tapping gently against the bottle she still cradled. Sluggishly catching on to the fact Alex was waiting for her to make a move, Piper forced herself into an about-turn, directing herself back towards the counter.
"Nineteen dollars eighty"
Under the judgemental glare of the unshaven attendant, Piper dug her hand into her back pocket, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper and straightening it over with shaking fingers. Piper heard a chuckle from behind her. "You're buying wine with a coupon?"
Piper scowled, wondering if she could, in all possibilities, have appeared any more awkward in front of Alex. The cashier sighed loudly, not bothering to hide his displeasure as his large hand snapped up the crumpled paper, causing Piper to wince. When did I get this jumpy?
Piper waited as he turned it over, squinting to scrutinise the expiry. Accepting that he didn't have any grounds to refuse it, the code on the back was tediously jabbed into the cash register, without the slightest regard for the haste he had demonstrated earlier in ushering Alex and Piper out of the shop.
The cashier pushed the bottle forward finally, indicating that the transaction was complete. "Can I at least get a bag?" Piper queried, meeting the cashier's challenging stare with equal intensity.
"You got a coupon for that?" He snarled back, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter. Piper narrowed her eyes, tempted to ask for the manager, but suspecting that wouldn't do a whole lot of good. "Thanks." She shot back sarcastically, snatching away the bottle.
Alex brought her attention back to Piper, realising that their time was up. "Do you need any help with that culinary endeavour of yours?" Alex hinted, deciding pursuit was her only tactic left.
Piper wet her lips, fully aware of the direction of Alex's gaze. "I'll let you know." She teased. Piper turned to leave, brushing purposely past Alex, pushing up against as much fabric as she could without throwing Alex off-balance. Alex sucked in breath, tensing at the delicious contact. Alex detected a grin on Piper's lips as she watched her go, dangling that bottle behind her. Sensations of desire were swiftly replaced by anger as she realised if it weren't for his damn interruption, those lips would have already been on hers.
"You're a motherfucking asshole, you know that?" Alex barked towards the cashier, bitterness and hostility flooding off her tongue in an endless wrath. The cashier smirked, satisfied in his purposeful actions, relishing in the reaction it elicited from Alex.
"An underpaid motherfucking asshole who gets to go home at five."
Ugh. Making a mental note to switch bottleshops, Alex clenched her fists together, desperately attempting to suppress the urge to smash that smirk right off his pudgy face. Alex bit back another scathing retort, deciding that attacking the shop attendant would not bring that moment back.
"It's five." The cashier pointed out, tapping a biro against the silver watch around his wrist. "I'm going!" Alex yelled, deliberately overturning a stand of packaged nuts as she spun towards the door.
"You're going to have to pay for that!" The cashier yelled behind her, doing little to halt Alex. "Go to hell." Alex spat back, pushing forcefully on the door.
Disturbing her peaceful slumber, Alex jolted awake suddenly as a sharp pain struck just below her ribcage. As sleep still made her movements slurred and groggy, Alex slowly twisted around from her position, struggling to identify the nature of the attack. "What the fuck?"
Feeling around the epicentre of the hit, her fingers curled around a hard, rounded object. Running it over with her hand, her compromised vision barely managed to produce an unfocused image of a tatty worn-out baseball. Ugh, not again. Gripping the offending object tightly within her killer grip, Alex flung it angrily across the bedroom, not bothering to notice where it landed before collapsing back against the mattress. It was too fucking early to deal with conflict.
"Hey!" A voice demanded, drifting to Alex's ears in that same tone of resentment and insistence that had plagued her the past months. Alex didn't need this today. She was terribly jetlagged and frustrated, and the last thing she felt like doing was needlessly bickering. "You have got to stop doing that", Alex groaned, her voice muffled from being pressed against the edge of a pillow. But Alex doubted that meagre effort was going to be enough to throw Sylvie off her case. Sylvie wasn't one to take things lightly.
Confirming her suspicions, that grating tone struck again. "Are you getting up anytime today? We have a serious problem to deal with!" Swiftly following her words, Sylvie grabbed a handful of the duvet, pulling it away from the bed, leaving Alex no choice but to pay attention. Fucking hell, I have got to get rid of her.
"If it was that serious, my phone would go off." Alex protested, wedging her head underneath the pillow, blocking out Sylvie's incessant ramblings. "It has gone off. Several times, in fact!" Sylvie maintained, raising her voice several grating decibels. Alex groaned, pushing further into the pillows.
When an emergency called, Alex had learned to drop everything and respond immediately. 'Silent' mode was a luxury that was simply incompatible with her career choice; a fact that caused Alex to grow so familiar to the dull buzz of that irritating device, she responded automatically. Thus, it surprised Alex greatly to have missed it. Rare was the time she managed to fall into a sleep heavy enough to not be roused by its cry.
Sighing, Alex propped herself back onto her elbows, blindly groping around the surface of the bedside table to locate her glasses. "And so you throw a fucking baseball at me?" Alex spat, shooting Sylvie a hostile glare before turning her attention back to finding the frames.
"What's the emergency?" Alex finally relented, managing to slip her glasses over her ears, adjusting to the harsh afternoon light that filtered freely through the uncovered windows.
"Peter's got himself a runner. One of his kids took off with a kilo of product."
Alex rolled her eyes. This was not uncommon, particularly with the younger, gullible mules. They got their hands on a decent batch, and ran with it. They rarely got far. The more pressing problem was keeping them away from the authorities. If they were caught by the feds, they threatened to bring down the entire organisation.
"So? Why are you telling me? I don't run this operation." Alex retorted, her hand skimming the floorboards, searching for her cool metallic surface of her phone.
"Do you ever listen to what I am fucking saying anymore? Peter's your responsibility!" Sylvie shouted, adamant that Alex needed to be reminded of her role in this organisation. But Alex knew her role better than anyone. It wasn't an occupation she'd had vast experience with. But she'd used her time well, and executed her tasks to perfection. Every. Damn. Time. Her record was unmatchable.
"Fine!" Alex surrendered, sitting up and running a nervous hand down the length of her hair. "You go, get Drew, and track him down."
Unsatisfied, Sylvie threw the scrunched-up duvet down to the floorboards. "The purpose of me waking you up was for you to help! This is fucking serious!" Sylvie complained, raising her hands in the air to animate her point.
"Ugh, fucking hell. Just go, alright?" Alex started, taking a shaky breath to calm herself down before continuing. "I'll call Fahri. Tell him what's going on. Just- just give me a call if anything comes up." Alex instructed, flipping the device open and scrolling through the list of contacts.
"And what about you? Gonna waste away the whole fucking day, while I chase after your fucking dirtywork?"
Alex felt frustration bubble within her, growing with every irritating comment Sylvie made. "I'm fucking jetlagged here!" Alex justified, rubbing at her forehead. "Did you just get off a sixteen hour flight? No, you fucking didn't."
"Hey!" Sylvie countered, demanding Alex's attention back. "If that little asshole gets stopped by the feds before we get to him, you're screwed!" Sylvie droned, her hands gesticulating wildly to illustrate the seriousness of her point.
"Yeah, and so are you. So why are you still standing there?" Alex countered instantaneously.
Resting her head against the headboard, Alex squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to rid the tension from her mind. She waited for the telltale slam of the door, and the subtle click of the lock before accepting that Sylvie was indeed gone. Good riddance, Alex thought, and without even waiting to breathe, Alex jabbed the green 'call' button and waited impatiently for the call to connect.
"Vause." Came the characteristic monotone voice of Fahri, absent of any trace of the panic that Sylvie had displayed. But then again, Fahri rarely showed concern. That was what made him such an asset to the company: he never let anything stand in the way of the business. Problems were solved logically and strategically, and by doing so, nothing ever got out of hand. Alex had to admire his demeanour. And by the consistent tone Fahri demonstrated, Alex knew immediately there was nothing to really worry about.
"I can't do this anymore. She's a fucking psycho." Alex growled down the line, locking the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she tugged up her jeans.
"Save me the theatrics." Fahri conceded.
"She throws baseballs at me!" Alex elaborated, her eyes automatically locating the white ball in the corner of the room and scowling at it.
"You know what the deal was. She combines her ring with ours; we take the shipment, and cut her loose." Fahri keeps his tone steady as he reminds Alex how important her façade is. "It's a raw deal."
"Yeah, well, in none of that theorizing did we account for her getting attached to me."
The logistics behind the deal were as old as power itself. The cartel had been searching for an expansion, and rather than start from scratch, the quickest and safest way to accomplish an expansion was by taking over a smaller, less influential network. This automatically made Sylvie a target, for she operated from a high rank for a network that controlled a valuable channel through Mexico. Infiltrate her operation successfully, and T.A.M.E had a whole new route to deal through.
Alex was the perfect decoy. If she could turn kids into mules, there was nothing to suggest her methods of persuasion wouldn't be up to the task. Alex had complied, grudgingly at first, and she had executed her task perfectly. Sylvie gradually warmed to the lure Alex provided, forcing Alex to endure the term 'girlfriend' under false pretences for nearly two months. Manipulation had gradually transformed into torture, and Alex wanted the woman out. Out of her bed, out of her apartment, out of the cartel.
Fahri remained quiet, causing Alex to wonder whether the line had gone dead. But Fahri wasn't one to hang up. Fahri would always listen. Especially to Alex's concerns. "Are you even listening? It's been two whole months. Things aren't exactly positive between us. She's going to leave of her own fruition pretty soon."
"Wait until we have notification the shipment is in. Then, it's your call."
Alex sighed, switching the phone over to her left ear. "How long?"
"I'd say two weeks. Maximum."
Two whole fucking weeks. Alex wasn't sure she could deal with it. But she had a role to play, and it was her job to see it through. With a heavy sigh that bordered on a groan, Alex finally replied. "Fine. But if she ups it, there's no fucking way I am getting down on my knees to beg her to stay."
Alex hung up, throwing the device onto the sheets. Sex was one of Alex's most powerful weapons. Always effective, Alex used it whenever she could to get what she wanted. When her words failed, her seduction went the rest of the way. But this time, this one time, it had backfired. Badly.
Fucking bitches, Alex cursed, shutting her eyes for a moment to relish the silence her apartment was graced with. She liked it best like this. The one place she could count on to be silent. To be free of the outside world, absent of people and expectations; everything faded away when she shut that door behind her. But lately, Alex found herself falling into a routine. She stayed out intentionally late, crept back home in the darkest hours, and slept the majority of the day away. When Sylvie left, Alex used every second to her advantage. The term sanctuary grew less and less applicable.
Evaluating her choices, Alex eventually decided to take a shower. There was little food in the house, and Sylvie was unlikely to be back until tomorrow. She made a habit of crashing out somewhere else whenever she found herself particularly distanced from Alex. Alex spun the taps of the shower around, twisting them to the exact position she had long since memorised. She tugged her t-shirt over her head, getting a little stuck halfway through the manoeuvre. Through the gentle pounding of the shower, Alex's ears pricked to the sound of the familiar ring of an incoming call.
"Fuck." Alex groaned, ditching her shirt onto the tiles. "None of you shut the hell up today, do you?" Alex yelled, thankful her apartment was almost perfectly soundproof. Besides, she never heard the neighbours anyway. If she couldn't hear them, they couldn't hear her.
Alex snapped up the discarded device from the tangled sheets, the blurry string of numbers failing to feel familiar to Alex. It wasn't Fahri, it wasn't Sylvia. It wasn't even Drew. The number was completely foreign. But Alex's occupation required her to always pick up the phone, and so through compromised vision and a mind muddled with agitation, Alex flipped the phone and cradled it close to her ear.
"What do you want?" Alex barked down the line, not hesitating to let her agitation flood into her tone, flatly accusing the caller for their inconvenient disruption without the slightest hesitation.
"Why is it, every time we make contact, it is arrogance that greets me?" The caller returned, in playful sentiment.
Alex stilled, her built-up frustration coming to a grinding halt. Alex had a habit of moving two steps ahead at any given time. She could predict people's actions, thoughts, feelings and language so easily; it became habit to become apathetic to the moment. Alex couldn't remember the last time she had to change her strategy. When she had wrongly presumed the counter-move, leaving her to reel backwards. The response was supposed to fall into one of two categories. Either shock, rendering the caller into a verbal stutter, or indifference, indicating the caller knew Alex well. Intriguingly, the reply fit neither.
Alex crinkled her brow in confusion. "Who is this?" Alex ventured, her voice uncharacteristically tentative as she clutched the phone a little closer to her ear, trying to recall how the voice was familiar to her.
"5' 8", blonde; runs in people on the street…buys wine with coupons." There was no hesitation evident in her reply, none of that awkward muttering and stumbling that had plagued her other run-ins with Alex. This time, Piper had brought her game. She refused to be reduced to a stuttering mess. She was going to be confident. Give Alex a run for her money. Or at least attempt to.
Alex cringed, raising her hand to cover her face, realising she'd successfully made a fool of herself. She didn't need a name to fill in the blanks. She remembered. She remembered all too well. For when Piper left her physical presence in that rather cheap bottle shop, she hadn't left her mind. In fact, she had stayed there. Stubbornly fastened into the roots of her conscious, Alex had found she was incapable of freeing herself from those fateful encounters. They played and replayed until Alex was forced to drown them in gin and tonic. But oddly, they always managed to return.
Shit, thought Alex. Despite the fact she'd been made a fool of, utterly beaten in the exchange of a few simple words, Alex felt a smile tug at her lips. She'd wanted that call. She was glad she got it. Even if it was just to have her ego punctured.
"What, do you really know more than one person who fits that description?" Piper reflected, chuckling silently on the other end of the line.
Alex bit her lip, finding this new, quick-witted Piper strangely enticing. "It's just, I'd given up hope of your call. Thought I scared you away." Alex returned, picking distractedly on the pattern carved into the bedpost. Hearing her voice echo slightly back at her, Alex grimaced at the way she sounded. Honest. Too honest for comfort. It was raw; the words that fell so easily from her lips before she had the opportunity to bite them back spitefully. She could have covered her tracks with anything. Flirtation. Confidence. Indifference. Anything. Alex hoped Piper wouldn't pay too much attention to notice her lapse.
"Is that disappointment I hear?" Piper teased.
"Possibly. But I'm sure you can make it up to me." Alex suggested, recovering quickly to transform honest to a much more comfortable, and far more characteristic, coy.
"What did you have in mind?"
It was an innocent enough response. But there was something about the way Piper had said it that sent Alex reeling, twisting those words into something a lot less innocent. Alex couldn't be fully blamed, though. Piper had deliberately let the words hang precariously in the air, begging terribly to be open to interpretation.
"What do you eat?" Alex asked, realising her choice of words was, in retrospect, extremely poor. The line fell silent, and Alex could practically feel the confusion she had caused echoing back at her.
"Food, usually. I ate sand when I was little though."
God Alex, you're an idiot. Pull yourself together. Think of something! Finally, Alex recovered some of her lost ground, building a gameplay that would put her back in front. "No, I mean, that's not really a substantial dinner. Opt for something a little more nourishing."
"You sound like you've already got something in mind."
Once again, Alex felt herself town between responding with an innuendo, or pouncing on the opportunity to solidly state a time and place. Piper might have been chipper, but Alex was quick to remind herself that this was a phone call, and people always behaved differently when there was a barrier to protect them. She didn't want to put Piper off.
"Wait, tonight? Like, tonight tonight?" Piper clarified, taken aback. Alex certainly didn't waste any time. She was straight with what she wanted, and she was damn well going to make sure she did everything in her power to get it.
"Yeah, tonight. On-this-day." Alex confirmed, slightly relieved to have returned to her position of dominance of the situation. Of control. "Unless you're busy, that is." Alex added, covering her tracks, should failure beat her.
Alex waited. And she waited. The silence was agonisingly quiet, and Alex was starting to regret pouncing on the opportunity to take Piper out. But with a croaky start, Piper eventually responded. "I had some stuff planned, but I might be able to blow them off…for a burger." Piper emphasised.
"For a burger." Alex repeated. "7pm."
"That's in 3 hours!" Piper exclaimed. "That's awfully eager…"
It was. It was uncharacteristically forward of Alex, but the words had slipped so fast off her tongue that they were gone before Alex could even consider holding them back. But Piper was playing hard to get – practically begging to be pursued. Alex decided it didn't matter if she let her impatience show.
"You want the burger or not?" Alex declared.
"Well, there you go. I'll text you directions." Alex concluded, glad to have sealed the deal. Unless Piper chickened out, three hours was all it was going to take before Alex could reinforce the status quo.
Alex tapped the 'end call' button, snapping the phone shut and tossing it to free-fall back onto the sheets below. Alex barely registered the faint sounds of running water, her thoughts still squarely fixated on that phone call. Deliberately coy and charmingly teasing, Piper made it clear it was up to Alex to pursue her. And Alex was more than happy to oblige. She didn't care if she seemed eager. That didn't matter. This was different.
Bubbling deep within the pit of her stomach, Alex felt something akin to nervousness burn delicately away. She'd pursued girls before. This didn't count as anything new, from a tactical point of view. But Alex was mature enough to admit that Piper wasn't going to be just another conquest.