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Alex meets Dave the day after she turns fourteen, when she's still all elbows and knees and the promise of being beautiful some day, and the first thing people say when they meet her is, "So you're Jane's younger sister." Alex hates those five words more than any other words in the English language.

Dave's sitting at the kitchen table with Jane when Alex barrels into the house through the garage door, and the sight of him catches her off guard. He looks up, and the desperate, slightly overwhelmed expression on his face is one that Alex knows well. It's the one that everyone wears the first time they spend any time with Jane. It's the one that Alex has never been able to outgrow.

He smiles at her, and Alex brushes at the mud on her cheek, suddenly very conscious of the fact that she's still dressed in her shin guards and soccer cleats.

"Hi," he says, clearly grateful for the interruption. "You must be Jane's younger sister. Alex, right?"

Alex just nods in response, the words she wants to say caught in her throat.

"I'm Dave."

"You're going to flunk geometry if you don't stop talking and go back to trying to solve that proof," Jane snaps, not bothering to look up from her own book.

Alex rolls her eyes, too used to Jane being like this to do anything else.

Dave laughs, and Alex grins at him. He answers with a grin of his own, and a serious case of the butterflies erupts in Alex's stomach.

"Go away, Alex," Jane says, in the dismissive way that always makes Alex feel like less. This time, the words don't sting like they usually do. "We're working."

Alex goes, but not without Dave sneaking her another smile. She practically floats up the stairs to her bedroom, tripping over piles of dirty clothes as she falls onto her bed. She's already dreaming of his smile.

Dave saw her. Even with Jane sitting next to him, he saw her. It's something Alex never forgets.

***
They become friends. Best friends. Dave is the one that Alex tells when she has fights with her parents over her grades, and when they look at her with disappointment written on their faces and ask, "Why can't you be more like Jane?" Alex is the one that Dave calls when his dad is pissed that he opted for home ec classes instead of shop, and when his grandmother dies and he needs someone to listen to him cry.

Unfortunately, she's also the one that he calls when he wants to talk about girls.

"Come on, Al," he'll say, not even trying to hide the sound of begging in his voice, "tell me what I should do to get Molly Kirkpatrick to go out with me."

And she'll tell him, because he's her friend, and she doesn't know how to say no to him when he sounds like that. She'll tell him, and she'll hate every minute of it, because despite her best efforts, she still has a crush on him, two years after those first furtive butterflies.

The number of times she's cursed those damn butterflies is higher than Alex can count.

It's not that she doesn't try not to like Dave. Alex knows him better than she knows anyone else, and that means she knows all of his faults and disgusting habits. She tries to remember them whenever he does something sweet that reminds her of why she likes him at all. It doesn't work. She tries dating other boys, and that does help, at least a little, but the fact of Dave is always hovering in the background; the ghost of the ex-boyfriend that wasn't.

Dave doesn't feel the way about her that she feels about him. Alex accepts this.

Which is what makes his invitation to his Junior Prom all the more surprising. It happens like this:

Alex is sitting in the cafeteria with Jane and Penny, poking her fork at the gelatinous grey blob that's supposed to be meatloaf, when out of nowhere Dave straddles the bench next to her and says, "Hey, Al."

She jumps in her seat; Penny and Jane laugh. She glares at them. This is a routine that has played itself out many times. She holds out a forkful of goop. "Tell me what this tastes like."

A look of sheer disgust crosses his face and he leans his head back out of reach. "Not in this life."

"Come on," she says, dancing her fork back and forth in front of him. It's sort of mesmerizing, actually, the way the food bounces. "Try it."

"No," he says, and he takes the fork out of her hand and drops it back on her tray. He wraps his hand around her wrist and pulls her to her feet. "Come with me."

Alex shrugs her shoulders at Jane and Penny, and lets Dave drag her out into the hallway. "Okay, what's going on?" she asks once they're finally free of would-be eavesdroppers.

Dave shrugs, and looks down at his feet and then back up at her face. He looks almost sheepish. Alex doesn't know what to do with that. "I wanted to ask you something."

She crosses her arms over her chest and raises an eyebrow. "Something you couldn't ask me in front of Jane and Penny?"

"Definitely something I couldn't ask you in front of them." He hesitates, for just a second, and then blurts out the words, "Do you want to go to prom with me?"
She stares. She can't help it. There's the sound of blood rushing in her ears, and his face goes out of focus she stares at it so hard, and did he just say what she thought he said? He couldn't have.

"Alex?" Dave asks, his voice tugging her back to reality. "Are you okay?"

She blinks, and he comes back into focus. "Were you serious?"

He nods, and looks at her expectantly.

"Just as friends, right? This isn't a date-date." The words leave her mouth without her even realizing she's said them. But once they're out, she resists the urge to clamp her hand over her mouth and take them back. She's not wrong to ask.

"I -- er -- actually," Dave stammers, and it's almost enough to make her feel sorry for asking. Almost.

"Well?" she prompts, showing no mercy.

"Of course as friends," he finally manages to say. "Why would you --"

She doesn't let him finish, because she doesn't want to hear whatever it is he's going to say. "Sure," she says, aiming for flippant. She misses the mark and lands somewhere closer to bitter instead. "I just wanted to make sure you didn't have any funny ideas, Rose."

"Right," he says, nodding his head. "Well, no funny ideas here."

"Great," she says, feeling hollow inside. "I'm glad we got that straightened out."

They stare at each other, awkward in a way they haven't been for years, not since the very beginning of their friendship. Alex hates every second of it.

She has to look away. "I should go," she says. "Class."

"Class," Dave echoes. "Okay, I'll see ya."

"Bye," she manages, and then she bolts. She gets around the corner before she looks back, peeking around it furtively. Dave is still standing there, his back to her. She wishes she could see his face. She's glad that she can't.

Alex goes to class. She goes to soccer practice and home to do her homework. She signs onto ICQ and chats with her friends and waits to see Dave come online. He never does.

She goes to sleep, not knowing if she should be grateful. In the morning, he meets her at her locker.

It's as if nothing has changed. She doesn't know how to feel about that either.

***

Prom is fun. Somehow Alex hadn't expected it to be; she'd thought it would be like the last month had been, moments of completely normalcy that would suddenly get so awkward that one of them would make an excuse to leave the room. But it's not like that at all. They dance and sit on the side of the hotel ballroom and laugh at what a terrible dance Jane's date is and it's like whatever cloud had been hanging over them is suddenly gone.

Alex is sitting by herself at their table when Penny drops down into the chair next to her. Penny fans herself with her hand and pitches her voice over the music. "Having fun?" she asks.

It's an innocent question, but Alex is sure that Penny doesn't mean it that way. She plays dumb. Sometimes being a blonde is advantage. "Yeah," she answers, nodding her head. "You?"

"Oh, definitely," Penny says, and Alex can almost see the wheels turning in her mind as she tries to figure out how to get the answer that she wants. "Where's Dave?"

Alex shrugs. "Don't know."

"Don't know what?" Dave says from over her shoulder, and Alex jumps in her seat. She cranes her head around to look up at him.

"Don't do that," she scolds. "Are you trying to scare me to death?"

Dave grins at her and pulls her chair backwards. "I think killing my date at prom would kind of put a damper on the evening." He takes her hand in his and tugs her to her feet. "Come on, let's dance."

Alex can feel Penny watching them with narrowed eyes. Which is why she makes no objection when Dave leads her back out into the crowd.

The music slows, and Dave turns around to face her. She wraps her arms around his neck and smiles at him. They start to sway side to side, not at all in time with the music. She can feel his hands burning through the silk of her dress, and her heart starts beating way too fast. She needs to do something to distract herself from how right this feels.

So of course she starts to babble and says something she doesn't mean to. "You totally saved me back there, you know," she says, twisting her fingers into a knot. "I mean, I can't even believe --"

"From Penny?" he interrupts.

Alex blinks up at him, and the blink turns into a stare. She does not want to answer this question. Answering this question is going to lead to no good, very bad things that they don't talk about and she doesn't want to --

"Al?" he prompts. "You okay?"

"From Penny's ideas," she says reluctantly.

Dave raises an eyebrow. "From Penny's ideas? Okay, apparently I don't speak fluent Alex. Explain."

"Can't we just dance instead?" she tries, but the look on his face says otherwise. She sighs. "Fine. Penny -- she -- well --"

"Spit it out, Alex," Dave says. "It can't be that bad."

"That depends on your definition of bad," she mutters. She takes a deep breath, mentally steeling herself. She looks up at Dave and looks him straight in the eye. "Penny thinks that there's more to this than a just friends thing."

For a long moment, Dave doesn't say a word, just looks at her. Around them people are still swaying offbeat to the Goo Goo Dolls, but they're standing still.

Alex looks at him. Dave looks at her.

"What if she's not wrong?" he asks, so quietly that Alex almost misses it all together. "What would happen then, Alex?"

She can't answer. She's too surprised. But there must be something in her eyes, a look on her face, because before she knows what's happening Dave is kissing her.

He's kissing her.

She can't think, she can't breathe. Her arms tighten around his neck and she moves closer, as close as she can. His hand presses against her back, and it feels like his hand is the only thing keeping her standing. From somewhere in the distance, she hears the sound of Penny cheering.

Her lips curve against his. She doesn't stop kissing him.

***

And just like that, they're together.

In some ways, it's like nothing has changed. They still sit together at lunch, and they still spend Saturday nights at Perkins with Penny and Jane, drinking bad coffee and eating pie. Dave still helps her with her Algebra 2 homework, and she still is his chief taste tester for his baking class. But now they hold hands in the hall between class, and his arm wraps around her on their side of the booth at Perkins, and when he takes her home after, they kiss goodnight with rapidly increasing intensity.

It's less than a month before they have sex for the first time, and if it's not everything Alex imagined, well, she'd lost those illusions when she lost her virginity to Tim Bradley on his family room couch with a Seinfeld rerun in the background. Hurried sex in Dave's bedroom seems downright romantic by comparison.

Dave tells her after that he loves her, and she gives the words back to him, almost surprised to find just how much she means them. It doesn't seem possible to have fallen in love so quickly, but then, she thinks, maybe it's not so hard when you already love someone.

(Later, she'll think that maybe that was the problem, that she never realized that sometimes love was supposed to be hard. But that night -- for many nights to come -- the simple feeling of being loved was enough.)

***

A year goes by. Dave graduates, along with Jane and Penny, and Alex is left alone in the suburbs while they all head off to college in Madison.

She's lonely. Somehow without realizing it, she became half of a whole, half of Dave-and-Alex, and stopped being just-Alex. The worst part of it is, she doesn't even remember who just-Alex is anymore.

The Alex who's left hates it.

She throws herself into enjoying her senior year, reconnecting with the friends she's neglected for the last year. She helps plan the homecoming dance and she goes with a group of girls when Dave has midterms and can't come back. It's maybe the best time she's ever had at a dance, alone and free and without any worries of looking dorky or saying or doing the wrong thing.

She goes to Madison just once, making the trip up with Dave's mom for Parents Day. They go to the football game and his mom takes all of them -- her, Dave, Jane, Penny, and Dave's new roommate, Max -- out to dinner at Dotty's, a burger place that Dave loves more than any other. They take her to a frat party on Langdon after they say goodnight to Mrs. Rose, and Alex gets more than a little drunk. She kisses Dave in a dark hallway, the bass from the stereo thumping in her ears. The alcohol makes it easier to be the person that she was before, to drown out the Alex that she's become. Dave kisses her back, and in that moment, it's all she wants. But Alex knows that the thing about moments is that they don't last. Jane drags her back to her dorm room in Liz Waters, and Alex sleeps on her floor, waking up with a hangover that makes her want to die. They meet everyone for breakfast at the cafeteria by Dave's dorm, and Alex eats tater tots like they contain the cure for what ails her and as it turns out, they do. When it's time to leave, she kisses Dave goodbye and climbs into his mom's Toyota to make the drive back.

"Did you have fun?" Mrs. Rose asks when they're back out on the highway, and Alex looks out the window before she lies.

"Of course," she says.

Without asking, she turns the radio up. It's not loud enough to drown out the thoughts in her brain. She wonders if anything ever will be.

***

It's a month later when Dave comes home from college, and Alex knows what she has to do. She needs to break up with Dave. It just so happens that the thing that she needs to do is the thing she least wants to do.

The first day Dave's back, he's waiting for her in the parking lot after school. He's leaning back against his mom's car, shivering in the cold. A grin breaks out across his face when he spots her, and he yells, "Get your ass over here already!"

Alex does.

He's kissing her the second she's within arms reach, and she melts against him, even though the sane, rational part of her brain that her parents don't think exists tells her that it's the last thing she should be doing.

"Hi," he says, brushing her hair back out of her eyes.

"What are you doing here?" she asks, pressing herself closer to his body heat. It's cold.

"I wanted to see you," he says simply, and her heart clenches. He shouldn't say things like that to her. He shouldn't mean them. Not with what she's planning to do. She looks up at his face, sees the way that he's smiling at her like there's no where else he'd rather be.

She looks at him and she realizes there's nowhere else she'd rather be either.

She shivers. Unless it's out of the cold.

"Let's get out of here," she says, reaching behind him to tug on the door handle. "I'm freezing."

Dave moves out of the way and let's her get in. He rounds the hood and gets behind the wheel. "Where to?" he asks, starting the car and turning up the heat.

She rests her hand against his knee. "Where ever you're going."

(They're just words, not said with any thought of what they might mean in the months and years ahead. Words always mean something. It's a lesson Alex still has to learn.)

***

They don't break up.

Alex gets her decision from Wisconsin in February, in a big envelope that announces her acceptance in bright red letters without her even having to open it. She sets it on her dresser, next to her letter from NYU, and looks at them side by side. In a perfect world, she thinks, a world without Dave or Jane or her parents, Alex would choose NYU.

In the world she lives in, Alex knows there's not even a choice to be made.

She sends in her acceptance.

Madison's not so bad. It's just not what Alex wants.

That's something she's used to.

***

Alex graduates in the spring, with considerably less pomp and circumstance than had accompanied Jane's graduation as valedictorian the year before. Alex doesn't mind. She's content to sit in her assigned alphabetical order seat, passing beach balls back and forth across the center aisle while all the teachers try to get them to stop. She remembers how crazy Jane got trying to prepare the perfect speech and how tweaked on caffeine Jane was at the ceremony. At least Alex is having fun.

When they call her name, Alex crosses the stage to get her diploma from the principal she's seen maybe twice in the four years of high school. She hears Dave and Penny cheering wildly from the mostly silent audience. She grins. She steps past the principal and poses in front of the photographer, holding her diploma the way they'd been so stupidly instructed. She starts to smile, but at the last second she changes her mind, sticking her tongue out in Dave and Penny's general direction.

The photographer takes the picture. Alex grins again and walks down off the stage.

She knows how dearly she'll pay for that later, but at that moment, it was totally worth it.

***

In the fall, Alex heads off to Madison with the rest of them. She's the only one of their group of friends living in the dorms, and though she'd never admit it, she sort of likes it that way. It's something that's hers and no one else's, even if what's hers is a crappy dorm room on the tenth floor in a building where the elevators are constantly breaking down. Still, she spends most of her time at either Dave and Max's crappy, roach-infested apartment, or at Penny and Jane's palatial by comparison high rise apartment. That she likes Dave and Max's place better is another thing that she'll never admit.

Not admitting the things that she thinks and feels is second nature.

But college is good. She might be in the same city as Jane, and see her practically every day, but the six blocks that separate them might as well be an ocean. Alex loves it. She didn't know it could be like this. She didn't know she could be like this.

She starts the semester with a job at Pop's, the cafeteria next to her dorm, but she realizes with the first two weeks that it's not for her. She quits.

She doesn't expect the firestorm that follows.

Okay, she did expect her parents to be angry, and for them to lecture about how they're paying her tuition and the least she can do is earn money for her living expenses. Alex can probably recite that lecture from memory now. But she didn't expect Jane -- Jane, who no one ever asked to get a job -- to be angry, or Dave to be disappointed. That hurts most of all. Of everyone, she'd thought that Dave would be on her side.

She tells him this while pacing the length of his living room, in the middle of a rant about how Jane has no right to judge her.

"I am on your side," Dave says from his spot on the lumpy futon. "Of course I am."

"But you're disappointed in me," she says, not breaking stride. Out of the corner of her eye she sees him open his mouth, and she holds up a hand to ward him off. "I know you too well, Dave. You can't lie to me."

"I'm not disappointed in you," he insists. "Disappointed, yes. In you, no. There is a difference, Al."

That makes her stop in her tracks. She pivots to look at him, crossing her arms over her chest. "Explain."

He sighs heavily, but she can see the smile lurking behind it. "I'm disappointed," he says, "because I was looking forward to working with you. That's all. If you won't be there, my job won't be as much fun."

"Oh," she says, feeling like an idiot. "Oh."

He reaches out and wraps his fingers around her wrists, tugging her towards him until she's standing between his legs. "I want you to be happy, Alex. And if you're not going to be happy scrapping food of people's plates," he shrugs his shoulders, "then you should find something that you'll like."

She reaches out to touch his face, brushing his hair off his forehead. "I'm sorry."

"Accepted," he says, pulling her down so that she's sitting on his knee. "Now if you want to make it up to me..."

She laughs, and she kisses him.

Behind them, the door opens and Alex looks up.

"Don't mind me," Max says, dropping his bag on the floor and flopping down on the futon next to Dave. "I'm used to you two playing grab ass."

Alex rolls her eyes and slides off Dave's lap and to his other side. He takes her hand, rubbing his thumb over the inside of her wrist.

"So," Max says, picking up the PS2 controller from the floor. "Pizza?"

***

Alex finds the answer she wasn't really looking for on State Street. She's with Jane and Penny and they're going for ice cream at the Chocolate Shoppe, because Penny will not shut up about how good the Zanzibar Chocolate ice cream is. They're walking down the street, window shopping and people watching, when Alex sees a help wanted sign in the front window of a store that she's always wanted to go in.

She stops, and stares at the window display of jewelry and scarves. It's all so pretty, off-beat without being weird, and exactly the type of thing that Alex loves. She makes a decision. "Hey guys, you go ahead. I'll catch up."

"Are you sure?" Jane asks, but Alex can tell she's just asking it because she feels like she has to.

"Yeah," Alex says. She pushes open the door, and the bells jangle overhead. She steps into the store, and it's like walking into a wall of color in the best possible way. The wall of jewelry and the wind chimes dangling overhead, and the art on the walls, and so much more that she can't even process it all. Alex loves it immediately.

"Can I help you?" asks the girl behind the counter.

Alex turns to her with a smile. "I saw the sign in the window," she says. "Do you have an application?"

She gets the job. It changes everything.

***

One day she's a college freshman and the next she's a graduating senior. Four years gone in the blink of an eye. She doesn't know where they went. She wants them back desperately.

She moves back to Chicago and into Jane's apartment while she looks for work. She remembers within the first week why living with Jane never works.

Jane is up at five a.m. every day, and off to the gym before Alex even thinks about being conscious. She works ten hour days, minimum, and then she comes home and cooks elaborate meals or goes out with Brad until all hours and then she starts the cycle all over again. Alex gets exhausted just thinking about Jane's life.

And there's the way that Jane can't help but make Alex feel inferior. Alex knows Jane doesn't mean to do it, they've grown up and gotten past so much of the shit that they're parents did to them, but whenever she comes home to find Alex still in her pajamas watching ER reruns, Jane will give her a look that makes Alex feel twelve all over again. Alex will know she spent all day sending out resumes and making phone calls, but the look is enough.

Alex spends as much time as she can at Dave's place instead.

It's nice. Dave doesn't judge her for the pajama thing and he cooks for her when he gets home from work, and it's sort of like an extended slumber party with your best friend. Plus sex. It's living together without living together, and Alex thinks that if this was the point of growing up and becoming an adult then maybe it won't be so bad after all.

It takes her a month to find a job working at a boutique just off Michigan Avenue, an Assistant Manager position that she talks herself into through a combination of charm, her retail degree and sheer good luck. She loves it. The annoying customers, working on the books, the buying, all of it. She knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is what she wants to do with her life.

Her parents don't understand, and Jane doesn't either, but Dave never makes her feel like her dream is less because it involves clothes and jewelry instead of stocks and bonds. Maybe it's because he can't afford to chase his dream, not with student loans hanging over his head, Alex doesn't know why. But she knows that she loves him for being the person who never judges her. She just loves him.

She doesn't remember a time when she didn't. Sometimes she thinks that should scare her. Most of the time it doesn't.

But sometimes.

***

A year goes by, and then two.

Alex works at the store, and Dave continues to sell meat. They officially move in together. Jane and Brad get engaged. Penny continues her quest to find the perfect man. Max is Max.

It's all terribly normal. Which is maybe why it surprises everyone when Alex announces that she's opening her own store.

They're all out to dinner, crowded into a booth, and from across the table, Jane looks at her like she's just grown a second head.

"Your own store?" Jane sputters, her fingers twitching against her water glass. Brad slides it out of reach, and Alex hides a smile. "What? When? How? Where?"

Brad covers Jane's mouth with his hand. "I think what Jane meant to say is that's awesome."

"I'm sure she didn't," Alex says easily. Too many expensive sessions with her therapist later, and Alex is at peace with this part of her relationship with her sister. She will never quite be an adult in Jane's eyes. There's nothing she can do to change it. So she's given up on trying to change it. "But it's okay. I know it's kind of a big deal."

"Kind of?" Jane asks. "Alex, where are you getting the money? Starting your own business is expensive and if you think Mom and Dad..."

"A small business loan," Alex supplies. "I have a business plan and an accountant and everything. I've thought this through, Jane. And I've talked about this with Dad. He thinks it's a good financial decision. Shocking, right?"

"Oh."

Jane stares at her in mute shock, and Penny, bless her, jumps in to fill it before it gets awkward.

"Well, I think it's going to be amahzing. What's my friends discount going to be, Alex?"

"What makes you think you're going to get one?" Alex counters, and just like that, everything is fine. Dave squeezes her hand under the table, and she leans her head against his shoulder for just a second, in silent gratitude.

It's going to be fine. She refuses to think otherwise. Maybe it's not the most practical way to approach life, but it's served her well so far. She sees no reason to change now.

And if it's not, well, she has Dave. She'll always have Dave.

That counts for something.

(Jane sends her flowers the next day, and they don't speak about it again. But Jane is the first one to buy something from Xela, even though Alex's stock couldn't be further from Jane's personal taste. That counts for something, too.)

***

It's not a surprise when Dave proposes. That's not entirely true. Dave proposing was a foregone conclusion at least five years ago. The question of Dave proposing wasn't one of if, it was always a question of when.

The when is what's surprising. And the how. Or more accurately, the lack of how.

They're at home on a Sunday night, both of them too tired to even think about going out with the work week looming over their heads. They're watching a Bears game and Alex is half asleep on Dave's shoulder. She feels something slide onto her ring finger and her eyes open, darting down to her hand.

There's a ring there. On a very important finger. A bright, beautiful diamond ring. She looks up at Dave, who's grinning at her like this is the best surprise in the world.

"Are you--" she starts, and Dave nods.

"Marry me," he says simply, wrapping his hand around hers. "Marry me, Alex."

She looks down at the ring. She looks back up at him. "Yes," she says. "Yes, of course I'll marry you."

Dave's grin gets bigger, and he kisses her exuberantly. She kisses him back and tries not to think about how heavy the ring feels on her hand.

***

She can't pinpoint the moment when she starts to panic. Maybe it was after she picked out her dress, or after they booked the church, or after the invitations were sent and the caterers reserved. Or maybe it was there all along and she'd gotten so used to panicking that she didn't remember what it felt like.

All she knows is that one morning she wakes up and realizes that she can't go through with it. But she can't not go through with it either, and she's stuck.

Stuck with nothing but an endless future of cashew chicken stretching out as far as she can see and she's never tried the Mongolian beef. She really wants Mongolian beef.

And she'll never have any.

She goes through the motions, doing her best to make everyone think that she's a happy, blushing, bride-to-be, and all the while she can't stop thinking about what else is out there. All the things that she's never done and that she'll never do. The more than ten years of her life that Dave's taken up and that she'll never have to live again.

She thinks and she panics and when her wedding day comes and she's standing at the front of the church ready to sign over the rest of her life, she grabs onto the lifeline that roller blade guy throws her with both hands.

She runs out of the church. She runs out of her life.

***

The first thing she does is eat Mongolian beef.