Chapter 1: Prologue: I wouldn't like me (if I met me)
So I turned myself into a total liar, but after spending two weeks unpacking everything about Piper's arc and Vauseman's arc and speculating how I would want it to be dealt with next season, this fic was just begging to be written.
It's basically my speculation for their season four arc. This chapter is a little more internal (for reasons that will become obvious), but by chapter two we're in full narrative mode. I kept a couple of details from my other post-finale fic, since those were my instincts for this same space, but in general everything's very different and lengthier etc etc
This is kind of a prologue/set-up, but love to hear what you think!
A childhood full of books and after school specials had taught Piper Chapman that everyone chooses whether or not to be a good person.
She knows now that’s bullshit.
Choice only comes in for simpler, surface level things. You can choose to be nice or mean, polite or rude. But good and bad have deeper roots, down to the very core of a person. Some people just have natural disasters rumbling in their blood.
Something else Piper knows now: her core is fucked up. It's rotten and gnarled and there's no changing that.
The way she figures it, there are two kinds of bad people. There are the ones who don't try to fight it, who learn to relish it. They aim to be feared: those are the bullies, the dictators, the powerful. Piper had tried that for awhile, but she doesn't have it in her. All her not-giving-a-fuck had fell apart like everything else that day in the greenhouse.
Now she's trying to be the second kind: the kind that fight and fight against the core of themselves, the way she'd done for too many years, and finally crash up against the inevitable truth: she is who she is, down to the core, and all she can do now is try to minimize the collateral damage.
Picture yourself as a hand grenade without a pin.
Picture everyone you care about, tossing it among themselves, some fucked up game of Hot Potato, waiting to see who gets obliterated next.
Picture Alex, catching too often, holding on for too long.
Picture yourself exploding in her hands.
Picture the blood.
The first two days after, Piper doesn't speak.
No, more than that. She doesn't think or feel, either. She doesn't function.
It's too awful to comprehend, to give in to. She isn't equipped, so she shuts down, waiting for the world to turn itself right side up again before she has to readjust.
On the third day, she bumps her knee on wall of the shower and starts sobbing so hard she has to stuff a towel down her throat, muffling howls that feel like they're made out of blood and bone until she starts to physically gag.
For a week after that, she demands answers from any CO she sees. She gets four shots for it, all within a week, and finally breaks down and begs in a counseling session with Healey. He tells her she shouldn't be concerning herself with Alex Vause, and that confidentiality means he couldn't tell her even if he did know.
The next day, when Alex still isn't back and someone new moves into her old bunk, Piper's brain started to work against her, insisting over and over that Alex is dead.
For the next month, she mostly believes it.
Piper makes herself small and quiet and the days start to blur together.
She eats with Lorna and Yoga and Boo and Sister Ingalls sometimes, if they come to sit beside her, but she rarely speaks and they've learned to leave her alone. She works in the sweatshop and throws the excess fabric away. She wears long sleeves under her khakis every day so she doesn't have to look at the tattoo on her arm.
Her parents haven't visited since her birthday, anyway, so all she has to do is stop calling home. Cal gives up after the third visit when she refused to change her mind about quitting the business. She can go days without saying a word.
Any time she starts to feel so faded it scares her, Piper sneaks away to a chapel with the homemade tattoo gun and scrawls something new onto her ribcage. She'd started on the day she found Alex's list of songs, tucked behind boxes of Ramen, and world breaking screams had stacked up in her throat and stayed there until the moment she pressed the needle too hard against her skin, copying the song titles just above her hipbone without thinking about why.
Now, she adds something every few days, slanting lines written from awkward angles. Song lyrics, or phrases from Alex's old letters (she doesn't have to reread them anymore, has them all memorized). She doesn't really grasp the permanence of what she's doing to herself. She hasn't even seen it altogether; her eyes flit instinctively away from mirrors, but not to avoid the messily inked tapestry of her body. She's just sick of the sight her own face.
Piper tells herself Alex's words are teaming up to outnumber the scar tissue white words on her forearm. And yet every time she adds something new, it's Stella's voice that floats, unbidden and unwelcome, through her head.
Honor the pain. Really feel it. Tell yourself you're into it.
Piper isn't into the pain, and she doesn't think she's capable of honoring anything, but she does start to crave it. At least when it hurts, she's getting a tiny fraction of what she deserves.
Picture Alex in all the ways you never used to let yourself remember her.
Alex in your Smith sweatshirt, asleep on the couch in Northampton, her glasses crooked on the bridge of her nose.
Alex soaked through with rain on some street in London, dropping her leather jacket over your head and practically giggling like some giddy teenage kid.
Alex with wide beggar eyes in a hotel in Paris when she asked you not to leave.
Picture Alex in the ground somewhere, with a headstone next to her mother's, two graves you've never been to.
She has Alex's glasses.
No one else had noticed them in all the blood and chaos, lying next to the gardening tool cabinet.
At night, Piper runs her fingers over the crack in the lens, the proof that it wasn't all a nightmare. That a shovel knocked Alex's glasses off her face and kept going to skin and bone.
These days she spends a lot of hours just curled in her bunk, and she usually ends up with the glasses perched on top of her head. Sometimes she forgets and goes to the cafeteria or work duty with them still there, earning herself pitying looks. Piper doesn't want that. She knows she lost all claim to anyone's sympathy, and when they look at her like that it makes her want to speak up and explain it was all her fault.
She doesn't get much sleep anymore. Every time she closes her eyes, she sees Alex's face.
Well. Not really her face. She hadn't even been able to see Alex's face.
It was all just -
Sometimes Piper forgets why she's here.
One night she remembers and has to press face into her pillow to muffle wild, 3 am laughter.
Carrying a suitcase into Brussels is so fucking low on her list of crimes. It's not even in competition for the worst thing she's ever done.
She can't believe they're going to let her out of here at all.
She's standing in the shower, watching rivulets of hot water run over her handiwork. It stings a little - she keeps picking at scabs, not letting it heal - and Piper tilts her head down, watching water run into the drain, halfway expecting it to be stained black with ink.
Out of nowhere she thinks of the boards in the floor of the greenhouse. Imagines blood seeping between the cracks.
For a second, the shower water turns thick and red and Piper's whole body starts to panic.
She's hyperventilating, steamed air knifing in and out of her lungs without settling, and she twists out of the water's spray, bile rising in her throat.
Half out of her head, she ends up taking a razor to the bubbled up skin of her arm, shallowly shredding the letters of Trust No Bitch, just to prove to herself what's blood and what isn't, but once she starts it's hard to stop.
It takes too long for the pain to catch up to her, and the plastic razor clatters out of her fingers and onto the tile. Trembling, she crouches on the floor of the shower with her arm held gingerly under the spray. There are light scratches and a few deeper gashes, flaps of peeling skin right across letters, but the words are still readable. Still mocking.
Piper wishes she had the guts to properly destroy herself.
Picture yourself destroying Alex instead.
Picture taking a blade to her, shredding and shredding until there's nothing left of her to recognize.
A slice for every time you said she was crazy.
A slice for every time you made yourself ignore the fear in her face.
A slice for every kiss with Stella, every time she touched you.
One two three four for being the reason she was standing in the greenhouse in the first place.
A dozen more for not letting her go.
"Big day tomorrow, huh?"
Alex turns her head and tries to smirk; Tanya is the only nurse here who likes her. The others apparently heard animal instead of prisoner, not feeling the need to engage with her like she's anything more than a body. She's long since given up politeness with them, but Tanya at least deserves an attempt. Not least because she has an accent and a smile that reminds Alex a little bit of her mom, and more than once she's found herself fighting an embarrassing lump in the throat when Tanya gives her the slightest bit of compassion.
"Can I see the mirror again?"
The older woman's eyes soften with almost-pity, but she only snarks back, "I can guarantee you it hasn't changed in the past two hours."
She passes over the handheld mirror anyway, the one she deliberately keeps out of Alex's reach, and as always Alex stoically sets her jaw and prepares for the sight of her reflection.
The soon-to-be scar is a fault line down her left cheek, starting just above the eyebrow and meandering down to her chin. The skin is thick and pink and jagged; it makes her look off-kilter. Damaged. No matter how long Alex looks at it, no matter how normal she wants it to become, she can't stop seeing how ugly it is.
Tears start to twist her throat into knots, and Alex grits her teeth, hating herself for this. She almost died. She'd been a few seconds away from the most pathetic death imaginable - alone, in prison - and compared to that, this is nothing. This is lucky.
Except. It makes her feel like a teenager again, in the wrong shoes and the patched up clothes, too tall and too gawky and wearing glasses with tape around the center because someone at school broke them, and her mom couldn't afford another pair until Christmas. It makes her feel like the thirteen year old girl who'd been sure no one would ever think she was pretty.
Alex knows, now, what happens to girls' faces when she approaches them in a bar, back when she was a normal person who could pick up girls in bars: they'd looked lucky. Thrilled to be chosen. They couldn't look away from her. And that feeling had been a long time coming.
She's pretty sure she'd get a whole different kind of look now.
"Hey..." Gently, Tanya plucks the mirror away from her, setting it down on a chair well out of Alex's limited range of motion. "Not gonna tell you this again. Swelling hasn't even gone down from the last surgery yet. No use making your final judgment." She arches an eyebrow, tone going smartass again as she pointedly flicks one of the lengthy chains on Alex's handcuffs. "Besides, don't know who you think you're trying to impress where you're heading."
Alex instinctively looks away, her fingers drifting up to trace the mottled, split skin. Piper's voice drifts into her head. What happened to that scary professional felon I fell in love with? She was so hot.
Well. Scary might still cover it - she's taken scary to a whole new level, but hot is definitely far less applicable.
Truthfully, Alex has probably never been further from the version of herself that Piper fell for. If Piper thought paranoid and needy was bad, well fuck. Try broken. Try helpless. Try - though Alex hates hates hates admitting it - traumatized.
She keeps waking up in the middle of the night, out of nightmares and into panic attacks. Already she's worried about that will mean when she's back in Litchfield. She always comes to, half chained to an unfamiliar hospital bed, feeling for all the world like she's back lying on that greenhouse floor. She'd stayed conscious for so long, through the shovel cracking her cheekbone, then clipping her temple, through blood dripping into her eyes, obscuring her vision of Aydin looming over her, in total control.
It wasn't until he'd grabbed the pair of gardening shears and driven them into her gut that Alex had started to fade.
She doesn't really know what happened after they found her.
She wonders all the time if Piper saw.
Alex is probably owed a dozen or so I told you so's, and sometimes she wants them. Always in her most frustrating moments, the lowest indignities, when she hates herself and hates the world and maybe even hates Piper, too.
When she's struggling to walk the length of a hallway even with a walker and PT assisting, a police officer always hovering along behind them.
When she's having to be helped in the shower from one of the nurses who won't make eye contact and seems to hate having to touch her, like she's some dirty monstrous thing.
When she's in so much pain it's hard to breathe, but she's too scared of becoming reliant on the meds to ask for more.
In those moments, yeah, Alex hates Piper for making her feel crazy, for putting her in this position. But those are usually the same moments that make her want Piper so badly it aches.
So most of the time, she can't get to vindictive. She'd woken up from her first surgery, barely aware of what was going on or where she was, slurring demands that someone tell Piper Chapman she's alive.
She remembers what it was like to be the one not knowing.
Blood in the snow. So fucking red against the sparkling white.
You follow the commotion outside, getting there seconds after the COs. For a second, it looks like two dead bodies. Your chest caves in on itself, Piper's name filling your head.
You'd been with Nicky when it happened, both of you snuck away from the Christmas pageant to an abandoned dormitory. Your fingers are still damp and clammy when you burst into the winter night air.
(It takes months to forgive yourself for that. That was the second and last time for the two of you.)
Piper's moving on the stretcher when they carry it past, moaning, her eyelids fluttering. Your eyes fill up with tears and you think they might freeze there.
You get stuck inside the memory of her coming to your bunk, you turning her away.
Rage starts simmer in your blood when they carry that fucking meth head by, but it turns instantly inward when you remember this should have been as much your fight as hers.
You're the reason she's in here. You made her an enemy and then left her alone.
You aren't surprised she put up a fight. You've seen Piper kick doors and throw a hot glue gun out of frustration. Rumors filter down fairly quickly that Doggett is the only one sent to medical, so your worry switch flips to imagining Piper in seg or max. You're still picturing her bruised up and beaten.
Everyone talks like she's never coming back, and you're half twisted up with worry, half furious at yourself for somehow fucking up this miracle second chance with her.
Alex never thought she'd be glad to go back to Litchfield, but she is now, and that says everything there is to be said about the last two months. Prison is going to feel huge, overwhelming with free will, compared to this godforsaken hospital room.
She's reminded fresh of that sad fact when they lock her into a wheelchair, a strap added around the waist in addition to her handcuffs, stop her from making one of those supposedly infamous prison escape attempts, which is frankly hilarious: Alex is now proudly capable of walking the perimeter of the post-op floor two whole times without getting too tired, thank you very much, but she doesn't think that will do her much good in a getaway.
They put a blanket over her lap when they wheel her out of the hospital, hiding the cuffs, but within the first thirty seconds Alex starts wishing they didn't. Maybe that would have detracted from the scar.
For two months she's only seen nurses and doctors and cops - they tend to leave her physical therapy mandated walks for post-visitors hours, presumably so her law enforcement escort won't cause a panic - who enter the room knowing what to expect. Now, as she's pushed through a corridor and into a crowded elevator and finally through the hospital lobby, Alex catches at least a dozen stares. It's a quick, repetitive process condensed into maybe two seconds: the noticing, the horror, and finally the very deliberate, polite pretending.
Alex could kick the blanket off herself, reveal the cuffs, go from pitiable to frightening in one moment.
She doesn't really want to be either.
The sun feels foreign on her skin when they roll her out of entrance, and it takes Alex a second of dizzily squinting into daylight before she notices the prison van pulled up at the curb, a CO waiting outside of it, a blue uniformed man she doesn't recognize; he must be another new one. He nods a thanks at the officer, who bends down and unstraps her from the wheelchair, sticks a small key in each of the handcuffs, and then tucks his hand under her elbow, and just like that Alex's insides jolt sideways. She jerks away from his touch, a panicked instinct.
"Whoa, easy..." The guy looks alarmed, and he looks at the police officer as though expecting help.
The cop gives him a skeptical look. "You got this, junior?"
Insulted and feigning bravado, he nods. "Sure, yeah. Got it from here." The CO gives her a stern look, tugging on her arm a little too roughly. "On your feet, inmate."
"I can walk myself," Alex mutters, shrinking away from him before she stands up and walks pointedly to the open van doors. Her abdomen aches when she bends slightly to fold herself into the seat, and she jumps a little when the door slams shut behind her.
Alex is expecting to see the fucking meth head cretin driving the van, just to make her welcome back the best it could be, but it's Maritza Ramos who twists around in her seat and immediately recoils, wrinkling her noise. "Oh, shit." Alex hardens her face into a glare, and Maritza quickly rearranges hers, lips pursing in sympathy. "That's a real rough break. But hey!" She smiles encouragingly. "Least it's better than getting killed, huh?"
"Wow, you're right. I never thought of that," Alex retorts dryly. It occurs to her then that Maritza was one of the panty girls, and for the hundredth or so time today, Piper's name speeds through Alex's head. She opens her mouth to ask about her, to demand any scrap of information, but then the CO crawls into the passenger seat and for some reason it makes Alex nervous. Her head feels hot and heavy, and she runs a hand through her hair, self soothing. She shakes out her wrists, savoring the lack of cuffs.
The van pulls out of the parking lot, Maritza and the CO chatting away in the front seat. Alex tunes them, staring out the window at roads taking her back to prison, and back to Piper.
Piper leaves work and goes straight to her bunk as usual, curling up on the bed and facing the wall, trying to force herself into blankness. She feels hot and out of it, probably feverish from skin infection, and she doesn't mind except it means her skin is buzzing, singing demands for the chapel and the tattoo gun and the needle.
She wants to wait - sometimes she does that now, puts it off as long as she can stand it, depriving herself - but she can't help but start mentally running through words, trying to choose the next addition. The letters are all so similar, she's run through the key phrases. There's a line from every song on Alex's mix.
The fallibility of memory frustrates her in moments like these. Piper has an exceptional memory, several of her old teachers said so, but what good does it do her? She can call to mind stanzas from a poem she memorized for seventh grade Language Arts, but she doesn't remember what Alex said to her the first time they met. Or the first sentence out of her mouth after their first kiss. Or what she'd said on the phone when Piper finally got up the nerve to call.
She remembers the feeling of all those moments - breathless exhilaration and a swollen, cartwheeling heart - but she doesn't recall the exact words.
There are a handful of words she does remember, words she can still hear, and they're the only way she can really bring Alex's voice into her head:
Please don't leave.
You may never come to me again. Ever.
You are such a manipulative cunt.
Maybe those are the words she should be inking onto her body, warnings to mark her skin, scarlet letter, but Piper hasn't been able to bring herself to write them yet. They're loud enough in her head already.
She also remembers I love you's, so many of them, but Piper can't convince herself she should be allowed to make them permanent.
Alex's arms and legs go slack. She doesn't move. Shuffles instinctively away.
The CO sets his jaw, looking like he's physical biting back some asshole order. Instead, he blows out his cheeks in a beleaguered sigh. "You want a female guard?"
She supposes this is the prisoner's version of VIP treatment, her reward for having a CO try to kill her on prison grounds. Alex folds her arms and nods, more to buy time than anything. She is, unfortunately, more than used to the strip and search prison routine by now. She's not sure the stripping is the problem, or even the gender of the CO.
She waits ten minutes for Maxwell to come in and double take at Alex's face before she offers a surprisingly warm, "Welcome back, Vause."
Alex peels off her clothes without incident, save for catching another wide eyed look at the scar on her stomach, but her chest starts to tense up when the female guard gets close. She holds out her arms obediently, but her stomach starts churning when Maxwell touches her. She feels dizzy and sick and inexplicably out of control.
She does, perversely glad for the chance to look away. Alex braces her hands on her knees, aware that she's shaking and trying to stop. This is ridiculous. Aydin wasn't some random CO, some unknown, looming threat. That was just his disguise, his Trojan Horse into Litchfield to find her, and it's really the least important part of it.
Maybe paranoia's just become second nature here. Alex's brain knows the threat is over, that she's not waiting on the worst anymore - it already happened - but her body doesn't seem to have caught up yet.
She gets to jump straight back to khakis, and it feels strange donning the familiar outfit. Alex glances down at herself; from that angle, she can almost pretend everything's the same.
She has to stop at the medical wing for a perfunctory check and confirmation of her new medication routine. She'll have to be bused back to the hospital in a few weeks for a check up, but is told to report immediately if there's any sign of complications. It's all shockingly solicitous, and Alex spends the whole visit on the verge of an eyeroll.
Then suddenly it's over and she's back, walking down the corridor to the rooms while other prisoners she's never even spoken to before gape at her like she's a ghost. A deformed ghost.
It's mid-afternoon, so the room is empty, thank God. Alex tosses her sheets onto the designated bunk, remembering the last time she returned to this place, back when she thought a fucking black eye was bad.
She keeps her back to the door, pulling her sheet and blanket out of the mesh laundry bag but not bothering to make the bed up yet. She needs to find Piper, but she also needs a second to reorient herself.
Slowly Alex becomes aware of a low hum of muttering from behind her, and she twists around to see a steady flow of people oh-so-casually strolling by the doorway, unabashedly craning their neck to get a look at her.
Alex twists her face into a snarl; she hadn't practiced that in the mirror, all that time she spent looing, but she can imagine it's pretty intimidating. Movie villain worthy, even. "Can I fucking help you?"
Most of them scatter instantly, and Alex turns back around until she hears a familiar, disbelieving voice say, "Vause?"
She turns with a sheepish half-smile in place, anticipating the reaction this time. Lorna actually gasps, eyes bulging in the moment before her face folds into such genuine concern and sympathy that Alex has to look away.
"So, uh...that thing about the shovel wasn't just rumor, huh?" Lorna says awkwardly after a moment.
Alex laughs once, a little harsher than she intends. "Can't make this shit up, I guess."
Lorna glances over her shoulder, then comes a little further into the room, her face softening. "Ya know, nobody knew if you were alive."
Her stomach lurches, even though Alex had told herself to expect that. "Um. Is Piper..." Lorna's face darkens, that fast, and Alex stumbles her way into a new, safer question. "Do you know where she is?"
"Haven't seen her today, but her bunk's the best bet if you wanna find her."
"Okay. Thanks." Alex nods and keeps nodding, thinking about Chicago, her name and Piper's voice grabbing onto her from across the prison yard after six weeks of silence. She needs to go find her. "I'll see you later, Morello."
"Hey." Lorna taps her knuckles lightly on Alex's elbow. "I'm glad you're back."
Alex smiles a little, genuine this time. "I am, too, actually. How fucked up is that?"
She makes it halfway to the dormitories, her heart roaring in her ears but not quite loud enough to tune out the fresh reactions - "Holy shit." "She lives!" - and then loses her nerve and changes course to the bathroom.
It's mercifully empty, and Alex walks right up to a sink, eyes on the mirror. It's starting to feel like an obsession; most of the time, she's trying to get used to the sight, convince herself it's normal and Not So Bad, but today she tries to imagine herself through Piper's eyes.
She stares until she's sick of herself. This is stupid, and vain, and according to Morello Piper has probably spent the past two months thinking Alex is dead. It fucks her up to even think about that, and should make it pretty damn obvious that Piper isn't going to care about what her fucking face looks like.
Something else Alex doesn't like to think about: how hard it was to understand Piper that last month. Alex is historically much, much better at seeing through Piper than she'd been at the time, but with everything else going on, it's like she'd been afraid to look too closely.
She'd been holding onto Piper for dear life, clinging with her eyes shut and stubbornly missing the moment Piper started to drift away.
At some point, Alex had opened her eyes again and found herself alone.
On the heels of that thought, it hits Alex fresh that Piper's probably spent the last two months blaming herself.
She drags her gaze away from the mirror and goes to find Piper, this time pointedly ignoring anyone who sees her coming, just heading straight to the suburbs, her eyes searching out the bunk Piper shares with Red. Alex can't help glancing into her own former cube when she passes by; someone else's things are there.
Her heart is inching toward her throat when she approaches Piper's bunk, but it sinks when there's no one there. Alex leans against the doorway of the cube, frustrated, the momentum that carried her here abruptly deserting her.
Those last few weeks, it felt like Piper was always someplace Alex couldn't find her. She remembers the day she went looking for her and came upon her with Stella.
She wishes she hadn't thought of that now, hadn't remembered the two of them in here together for the past two months.
I promise I was protecting you.
Piper finishes the dot of the period and doesn't lift the needle right away. She tilts her head back against the wall and closes her eyes, the whir of the gun oddly soothing.
It's a sentence from Alex's letters, in almost all of them. Protecting you is already scrawled across her stomach, but now Piper's added the full sentence underneath the curve of her left breast.
Piper never once protected Alex. She doesn't think she's ever protected anything but herself.
She still feels hot and ill. Her exhaustion is burrowing deeper.
But a light goes off and she's out of bounds and has to hide the tattoo gun - she has a place for it now, attached to the metal bottom of one of the chapel's random built in chairs, changing rows and seats every time she uses it - before she rushes back for check.
Lorna and a few others in the dorm are looking at her strangely. Piper observes that and then promptly forgets. Everything that happens now feels like that, utterly transient; nothing has anything to do with her even when it does.
A CO comes by and clicks a count, the second one quickly following. Everyone heads out to dinner, and Piper hangs back, out of the crowd, the way she likes.
When she does start walking down the corridor, she ducks a hand under her shirt, conducting a bad habit of tracing her fingers over the freshest spot, and then someone is saying, "Pipes." and it feels like she's swallowed lightning.
Piper jerks around, eyes darting, following the sound.
Alex is standing there.
Alex is standing.
Alex is -
Alex is alive.
Piper's chest spasms a staccato of wavering breaths. She feels tears and sobs swelling everywhere, like she'll be crying soon and her whole body is planning to participate.
Alex is alive but there is crack down the left side of her face, pink and jagged and tender. Alex is alive but she is all sunken eyes and shadows, her skin hanging like it was fit for a different set of bones. Alex is here but Alex looks diminished.
For a wild few seconds, Piper thinks she's just here to haunt her.
But Alex's eyes, intently searching Piper's, slowly cloud over with worry, and Piper would never ever imagine Alex concerned for her.
"Alex?" She asks it like she's not sure, her voice weightless.
"Hey," Alex breathes out, her face forming this eye crinkling Picasso smile. Piper is openly staring at the scar. She sees Alex noticing but can't make herself stop.
"I thought..." Piper's voice is wet. She hasn't cried since that third day After, in the shower, and she's pretty sure she's forgotten how to do it right. Right now talking feels like enough of a struggle. "I thought you were...no one would tell me - "
"I'm sorry," Alex says softly, so earnest. "I told them to, at the hospital, first thing, I swear, but no one paid attention....assholes said I wasn't even allowed to write, that there was no communication."
Piper's torso is humming, and she feels hyper focused, all of a sudden, like she needs to remember every single word Alex is saying to her. Her fingers twitch, aching to write them down even while she's speaking.
"God, Pipes, I don't even know where to start...it's all been so fucked." Alex takes a step closer. She looks sick, not just injured. Still sick. "Are you okay?"
Alex asks her that.
Piper goes numb.
Picture - yourself - as - a - hand - grenade - without - a - pin.
Piper physically backs away from Alex. "I have to go."
"What?" Alex's voice sounds hurt and confused. Piper doesn't know what Alex's face looks like because she can't look at it anymore.
"I'm glad you're okay." Piper's voice bends a little. She struggles for distance, addressing the floor. "I'll see you around."
"Piper - "
But Piper goes and goes and goes until she's gone, ending up out of bounds in the same place where she once beat up Pennsatucky. She stays there until she's sure Alex isn't going to follow her. Then she sneaks away to the chapel and frantically inks Are you okay? three times, stacked on top of each other, written sideways on her stomach, until she feels present again.
Then she starts to sob.
Alex pushes her hands through her hair, feeling strangely, viscerally afraid of something.
That hadn't been what she was expecting. She can't make sense out of it yet. But even though Piper didn't answer her question, Alex can tell she is miles and miles from okay.
She goes to the cafeteria but doesn't get food, just heads for the table where Lorna and Yoga Jones are sitting. Lorna smiles when she sees Alex, and it's mostly not forced; Yoga looks taken aback by the sight of her but she covers better than most people have. "It's good to see you back."
"No food?" Morello asks as she sits down beside her. "You kinda look like you could use a good meal, not that this qualifies."
Alex shifts self-consciously, briefly distracted from her immediate intention. She's been so focused on her face that she hasn't stopped to think about the rest of the physical repercussions from two months in a hospital. She's only been back on solid food for a few weeks. "I'm okay."
"Did you find Chapman?"
"Yeah..." Embarrassingly, Alex's voice falters right away, and she has to gnaw on the inside of her cheek before she can ask in a steady, crisp voice, "What's going on with her?"
What Alex is really asking is why she looks like all the Piper has been drained out, why the only thing left in her eyes is ache. Alex wants to know how long it's been like that, how far gone she is.
Instead they tell her about Piper giving up the panty business almost immediately, that everyone was pissed to have it taken away just as they were about to start earning money, but no one was willing to challenge Piper, even the new, nearly silent version of her, because of what she did to Stella.
And then they her about that, and maybe Alex should be perversely happy about it, but she just ends up startled at how far gone Piper must have been to do something like that. Piper, who agonized at perjury because of the morality, who so often asked for assurances that she wasn't a terrible person because it was so damn important to her not to be. Alex had realized those parts of her were disappearing when she fired Flaca so gleefully, but this is on a whole new level.
But then, that version of Piper sounds a far cry from the one they're describing from the aftermath: silent and withdrawn. Hollowed out. They talk about Piper sleepwalking through work and meals and spending most of her time curled in her bed.
Alex doesn't say much in response, but Lorna reads the distress on her face and adds hastily, "But you know, everybody understood. We all thought you were a goner. I'm sure she's gonna be just fine now that you're okay." Lorna's smile trembles, voice going wistful and a few shades of envious. "Bet it's the best thing to happen to her, you coming back when she thought you were gone forever."
Alex thinks about the nothing in Piper's voice when she said she'd see her around. She strongly suspects Lorna is wrong.
Piper lies in the almost-dark that night with tears still trailing from the corner of her eyes and into her hair, like a switch flipped on and isn't going to turn off until she's gotten two months of crying out all at once.
She feels vividly aware of how little distance is between her and Alex. Her brain is pacing manically back and forth between her bunk and the rooms, exhausting her.
Alex didn't die.
But that means she's been in a hospital this whole time, all by herself, and maybe she came close.
She was probably scared. She was probably in a lot of pain. Her face looks like it hurt.
Her face looks like -
Piper clamps a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. She wishes she couldn't picture it. It should be easy not to. She saw Alex for maybe two minutes with the scar, and years and years without it.
But she'll never see her that way again.
"Thought I might actually find you happy tonight," Red had said earlier, when she found Piper sniffling in her bunk before the last count of the day. Piper had just curled herself tighter and not answered. She doesn't know how to explain.
She is glad Alex is alive. She is relieved Alex is alive. She is so fucking grateful Alex is alive that she hasn't stopped crying for hours.
But Piper isn't sure she should get to be happy anymore. Because Alex is alive but Alex is here and Piper doesn't want that because she has to stay away.
It's so fucking hard being the grenade.
Obviously I'm doing shorter chapters than usual, but there will be more of them, and I'm going for fairly frequent updates. Love to hear what you think so far!
Chapter 3: unstitch that shit I've sewn (to close up the hole that tore through my skin)
Alex has spent more time upright and moving today than she has in two months. Exhaustion is reaching all the way down to her bones, but her head is pounding with anxiety, and sleeping here feels dangerous, too vulnerable and exposed. She's not used to other people being in the room anymore.
And Alex never knows, these days, how or when she's going to wake up.
So she lays in the top bunk listening to DeMarco's breathing machine whirring, idly thinking she's at least lucky she didn't have to haul any medical equipment back with her.
Although if Alex wakes up screaming from one of those nightmare that are more like a warped, amplified memory, that will end up attracting even more attention.
So she fights off sleep like it's something stalking her, though lying awake in the stillness isn't much better. Her thoughts wander straight to Piper, still processing their earlier encounter, as well as everything Lorna and Yoga had told her.
It was always, always frustrating here at night, lying in some single bed alone, maddeningly aware of how close Piper was, but this is on another level.
She hadn't even touched her.
Alex remembers her first night back last time, stretched out in Piper's arms in the chapel, both of them wrapped in a delusion, but still, being held and stroked and comforted, childishly thinking that she'd been needing that for years.
Now, tonight, Piper had looked like she's the one who needs it. But she hadn't given Alex the chance.
Piper gets out of the shower the next morning and Alex is standing in front of the mirrors. She feels knocked off balance, like it hadn't really clicked that yesterday wasn't a one time only return.
Alex turns her head to look at her, and in the second before Piper's glance jumps away she sees cautious light fill Alex's eyes. "Hey, Pipes."
She doesn't answer, just nods slightly, directed mostly at the floor. Absurdly, Piper pulls her towel a little tighter around herself, as if Alex might reach over and yank it off, exposing her. She carefully angles her arm inward. Hiding.
Two sinks down from Alex, Piper brushes her teeth so hard and fast her gums bleed.
Alex isn't sure how to navigate this.
When she and Piper were last in proximity, they weren't together. Last time Alex saw Piper, she was treating Alex like an irritation and trying to turn herself into some prison crime ring dictator.
But now feels so fucking far away from then, like they'd both been blown off the map and wherever they'd been standing when it happened is irrelevant.
Piper won't look at her face. Other people pretend, either with too intense eye contact or that trick where they focus on a point over her shoulder and think she won't notice.
With Piper there's no pretense, like she isn't even going to risk peripheral vision.
It hurts more than Alex wants it to. Hurts more than it should.
But it does mean Alex can openly stare at her while Piper brushes her teeth and then brushes out wet tangled hair, and slowly Alex realizes something.
Piper isn't looking at her own face either. Her gaze is slack, deliberately avoiding the mirror.
For some reason, she walks into a stall to change clothes, then leaves the bathroom without saying a word.
For two months, Piper has held herself in a self imposed solitary confinement, not getting close enough to anyone to inflict damage.
For the first time, that isn't easy.
She starts making a point not to go through the line for food until after Alex and several of the others have already sat down. She lets Alex have everyone else, makes sure she's settled at a table and surrounded by friends before Piper gets her own tray and finds an empty space as far away as she can.
The third or fourth time that happens, Alex leaves her own food and walks over; as usual, Piper's lungs swell into conflict, one of them breathing out I'm so glad you're here while the other exhales look what I did to you.
She stares down at a her tray.
"Hey, you can come sit, you know," Alex says lightly. Lorna and the others have probably informed her that Piper's New Kid in the Cafeteria routine is new, and that she has at least been sitting with them for the past two months, albeit silently.
"I'm good," Piper mutters.
"Yeah, I can see that." Alex's voice has a hint of smirk. "But in the name of peaceful coexistence...." She trails off, and when Piper doesn't answer, her tone softens at the edges. "Pipes, c'mon, I'm seriously not trying to push you out."
Of course she's not. That much is obvious, but Piper doesn't understand why. She wants to the Alex who broke up with her and walked away. The Alex who called her a manipulative cunt, who slapped her across the face and wanted her hurt.
But those versions of Alex had always existed in quick flashes, always an immediate reaction, never sticking around. So instead she's left with this, with Alex trying. Alex always searching for eye contact, Alex saying hey, Alex always always watching.
Alex is the person Piper has come closest to truly destroying, the one wearing the damage on her skin.
So why the hell is she the only one who won't just stay away?
"Don't do that." Piper still must not be used to talking, because the words get messed up. What she means is you don't have to do this, but it comes out cold and commanding. "I just....I don't want..." She shakes her head. She doesn't want to hurt her. Not again.
But she can't say that. Piper knows she owes Alex an apology (at the very very very least), and maybe that's what she's after, but Piper will never be able to make it big enough. Besides, the way Alex seems now, all concern and zero asshole, she'd probably argue, try to downplay it.
She'd probably fucking forgive.
Piper remembers that the version of Alex she wants right now, the one she deserves, only emerges out of initial shocked anger.
So Piper turns her face hard and makes herself disconnect and fixates on a point just over Alex's right shoulder, the first time she's lifted her head the whole conversation. "Just leave me the fuck alone, okay?"
She picks up her tray, not waiting to see if it's enough for Alex to walk away.
"Welcome back!" Berdie smiles warmly when Alex slinks reluctantly into her office.
"You, too," Alex replies, referencing Berdie's supposedly complicated suspension. It comes out too snide, and Alex regrets it a little. To her counselor's immense and sudden credit, she doesn't even bat an eye at the sight of Alex's face.
She doesn't react to the snideness, either, just waves a hand for Alex to sit. Alex has been dreading this, not wanting anything resembling therapy, so in an attempt to steer the conversation toward the practical, she asks, "Do I have a job assignment?" She pauses, rolls her eyes slightly. "My third prison career."
Berdie smiles at that. "Well, first of all, don't worry, we obviously won't be putting you back on grounds crew." The phrase tugs forward an image of the greenhouse, and Alex's pulse starts skittering unpleasantly. She hasn't even been outside in the yard yet. Berdie continues, "Any job in particular calling your name?"
Alex arches an eyebrow. "Seriously? Is this more VIP treatment? Very important prisoner?" She makes a derisive, scoffing sound, "You people hire a guard who worked a drug ring, I nearly get killed, but hey, now I get to choose my own job?"
With a patient smile, Berdie says, unrattled as always, "We don't want to give you anything too physically intensive right now. And if you have a preference that might ease the transition back, then it makes my job even easier. Win win."
Alex is quiet for a moment, thinking. She's tempted to ask for the sweat shop, keep crowding in on Piper's determined avoidance of her; she hardly ever sees Piper except for from across the cafeteria, sitting on her own. She's never in the TV room or rec area or library, so Alex has no idea where she spends most of her time.
She'd like to see if there's any part of the day when Piper seems okay.
"The, uh, Whispers thing - "
Berdie makes an apologetic face and cuts her off. "Actually, that one we can't do."
"Oh, right...the fucking test."
"Between you and me, I think the test is a hoax. But they are maxed out with people down there."
"Oh." Alex frowns, disappointment colliding with small, guilty relief - she's not sure she wants to spend every day making reminders of the panty business and everything that had been falling down around it. She thinks for a second. "I don't know, is the library actually functioning enough to be a job?"
"That I can do for you."
"Great." Alex gives a crisp, we're-done-here sort of nod and starts to stand up.
"Not so fast," Berdie sounds amused at her attempt to flee, but when Alex grits her teeth and lowers herself back into the chair, the counselor's face goes soft. "How you doing?"
"Fine." It comes out firm and defensive.
"Yeah..." she says it like it's a stupid question.
Berdie pats a thick file in front of her. "We have your records from the hospital, they indicated there's been some problems with - "
Alex talks over top of her, sarcastically reassuring. "Well, that's what the pills are for, right?"
Consulting the papers in front of her, Berdie says smoothly, "Right, I see they've got you on a low dose of anti-anxiety, but I want you to feel like you have a safe space to - "
"I'm fine," she says through her teeth.
"Vause," Berdie says gently. "You've been through a major trauma, and there's absolutely no shame in - "
"Yeah, a trauma," Alex spits out the word. "Because you people hired a fucking drug dealer and hit man based on a fake name and fake resume, and then half the other guards walked out just before he decided to dent my fucking head in with a shovel. And now..." Alex's measured, bitter tirade stumbles before she really gets started; her voice catches and her eyes start stinging and fuck, Berdie is going for tissues. "I'm fine," she says, forceful and panicked enough that Berdie stops mid reach. Alex swallows against the lump in her throat, pissed at herself.
"Alex." The use of her first name startles Alex enough to look over. "I am truly sorry this happened to you." There's a sincerity in her voice that makes it hard for Alex to snark or dismiss. "I can understand you not wanting to trust help from any of us who work here. But I'm on your side, and I just want you to know that if things get too hard...you can come to me, and I'll help you figure it out."
Alex's face is hot. Her eyes drift away, and she tightens her jaw, running a hand through her hair before she's able to ask flatly, "Do I have a bunk assigned yet?"
Mercifully, Berdie accepts the cue to move on. "You do, actually."
Ten minutes later, Alex is putting sheets on one of the beds in the suburbs when Lorna sing-songs from behind her, "Hiya, bunkie."
Alex throws a grin over her shoulder. "Hey. You cool with this?"
"You kidding? McGinnis snored like a buzz saw. You and me, we'll have fun."
Alex scans the wall above Lorna's bunk, looking at photos. "So that's the husband?"
She beams, pleased with herself. "Yeah, yeah, that's my Vince. Isn't he handsome?"
Alex makes a noncommittal noise; for an odd second, she misses Nicky.
She shakes it off, letting her eyes wander to Piper's cube, only two down from theirs. It's empty.
Lorna follows her gaze. "Yeah, I dunno where Chapman is. Used to be she was in the bunk all day, just...lyin' there." Alex knew that already, Lorna's told her before, but she feels the dull sting of that mental image anyway. "Gotta be a good thing she's up and at 'em, right?"
"You wouldn't know where she's up and at, do you?"
To her credit, Lorna pretends like Alex doesn't ask her some variation of that question all the time. "Sorry. Not a clue."
Piper spends most of her time outside the greenhouse.
She doesn't go inside; there are still bloodstains, a deep brownish red splattered over the wooden planks in the floor. She used to make herself go look at it, when she went too numb for too long and the pain from a fresh tattoo wasn't enough to wake her up.
Now, she mostly just sits in the grass with her back against the side of the building, the one near the garden, facing away from the yard.
It's the one place she's sure Alex won't look for her.
Lorna leaves while Alex finishes making her bed, and when she's done, Alex walks casually toward Piper's bunk, scanning the dormitory to make sure no one who would bother observing is around. That's still a larger than usual number; the novelty of Alex's return and appearance hasn't worn off. The staring is wearing on her; it makes her feel cornered, jumpy with dormant paranoia.
But the dormitory is mostly empty, save for a few women napping or reading, so Alex moves unobserved into Piper's cube.
She's not snooping without purpose, but she gets distracted once she's inside Piper's space, some ill defined ache rounding between the chest and throat.
Piper's standard issue white wife beater is hanging on the hook on her side of the room. Alex lifts it off, checks one more time for anyone watching, then burrows her face briefly in the fabric. She breathes in, steadying herself. It feels like so long since she's been close enough to catch Piper's scent. She hasn't even been close enough to touch her.
Lifting her head, Alex reaches to hang the tank top back up when she notices her glasses, hooked over the neck of Piper's sweatshirt.
Alex picks them up, overwhelmed at the thought of Piper holding onto these all this time, and then her eyes land on the crack in the lens.
The shovel must have done it.
Alex's hands start to shake.
The shovel had hit her and the glasses had fallen off and blood got in her eyes.
The floor tilts beneath her, and Alex sits down, hard, on the floor of Piper's bunk. Her heart is trying to claw it's way out of her chest, desperate for evacuation.
The world turns to broken glass, delicate but sharp.
There's a crack in the lens. A fault line. If she put them on right now, it'd line up with her scar.
The dormitory starts to shrink.
"You don't have to do this."
"Yeah. I do."
He is between you and the door, and you tighten your grip on the broom because it's all you have, but then Aydin reaches for pepper spray, aiming it with his finger on the trigger and advancing toward you. The broom clatters to the floor and you squeeze your eyes shut, twisting your head into the crook of your arm on instinct.
Two seconds later his baton hits the side of your head, and in the same breath his foot hooks around the back of your heels, jerking your legs out from under you. I t's so absurdly childish, but you land with a leaden impact that thuds your heart and lungs into momentarily stillness. The broom is under your back, your glasses slid up to your forehead.
There's a rattling of keys. You pull down the glasses and look up, see Aydin with his back to you, reaching in the cabinet of garden tools There's a clear path to the door.
You're on your knees when he turns around, swinging the shovel like a baseball bat.
You feel your cheekbone crack.
Your face is split in two, nerves are spilling out and licking your skin like flames. There's blood in your left eye, wet and thick, you're scared it might dry there, but you can still see Aydin lifting the shovel again and you curl on your side. Blood runs the bridge of your nose, it's everywhere now, blinding you. The shovel hits the side of your head and the blood in your eyes explodes like crimson fireworks.
You struggle to get up, but something is sitting on your legs.
Something sharp pierces your gut, aimed upward. The air is full of desperate, dying animal whines. They start to rattle. Blood sprays the back of your throat, warm and metallic. You can't swallow. You can't see. Blood in your eyes, in your mouth, your lungs. He's going to drown you in your own blood.
The weight rolls off your legs.
You're going to die.
Out of nowhere you think of your mom; she died instantly, that's what everyone kept reminding you, at least it was instant, and you hated all of them who made it sound like that made a difference, like you should be grateful, except now you understand and now you are glad. It means she wasn't hurting, she wasn't terrified, she didn't have to wait and she didn't have to know.
She didn't have time to wish you'd been there.
You wish Piper was here.
Picture Piper wrapped in hotel sheets, on the floor by the minibar, laughing like music and swirling tequila with her finger.
Picture Piper asleep on your shoulder across airplane seats, fingers limp in yours.
The pain is starting to recede, its volume turning way down.
Picture Piper reaching for your hand through crystal blue seawater, bubbling words from under her scuba mask, her hair floating angelically in the water.
The greenhouse feels far away and you swallow the blood.
Picture Piper's dizzyingly familiar smile, Piper dancing in khaki prison scrubs, pressing herself close.
Picture Piper's cube Alex is in Piper's cube. When she comes to, she's crouched on the floor, soaked in cold sweat and shaking violently.
Alex blinks, her eyes darting wildly around her. She runs both hands through her hair and ends up pressing spasmodically at her skull like she's trying to hold herself down, anchored to the present.
Slowly, she extracts a hand to run her palm along her cheek. The skin is bumpy and rough but it's healed.
Forgetting her original purpose in coming to Piper's bunk, Alex gets to her feet. She leaves the old glasses on the floor and frantically stumbles through the dormitory, heading for the bathroom, feeling like she's barely outrunning collapsing ground.
She's breathing hard by the time she gets there, gripping the sides of the sink to hold herself up, and staring intently at her own reflection. Her eyes are bloodshot and disturbing, but for the first time, the scar is a reassurance.
Piper returns to the suburbs for count, her steps momentarily faltering when she sees Alex standing outside Morello's cube.
She doesn't slow down, doesn't stop to look, but panic is swerving through her bloodstream.
Red gives her a pointed look when Piper reaches her own bunk. She nods at the floor of the cube and asks dryly, "Were you hoping to lure Vause inside? Those some sort of bait?"
"What?" Piper looks where she's indicating, and her stomach clenches. Alex's glasses are lying in the floor.
Confused and unsettled, Piper picks them up but doesn't return them to their usual hiding spot, just keeps them in her hand, pressing her thumb against the cracked lens. She can't remember when she last pulled them out. She can't be sure she hadn't left them there.
When the COs walk in, Piper chances a look over at Alex. In profile, she can't see the scar. Traitorous longing yanks at Piper's chest, and she winds herself tighter to quell the urge.
In her curled up fists, the biggest piece of the lens pops out of the frames.
The CO gets to their bunk, and Piper nervously tightens her fingers around the shard of glass, hiding what could be seen as a potential weapon. It slices new lines into her palm and the pressure in Piper's chest eases up.
The first three nights Alex is sleeping in the dormitory, it takes Piper longer than usual to quiet her brain enough to go to sleep, but for the most part, she manages to stick to her strategy without disruption.
On the fourth night, Piper wakes up in the middle of the night and becomes aware of quiet whimpering and the occasional gasp sliding through the dark of the room.
Even before she's awake enough to figure out which direction they're coming from, Piper knows it's Alex.
The sounds catch in her ears, and Piper rolls over on her side, pulling her pillow over her ears and grinding her teeth.
Somewhere in the dark, Alex makes a noise like she's hurt, a moan mingled with a whine, and then sucks in a quivering, wet breath.
Piper presses the heels of her hands against her ears, muscles flexing so tight she rips opens scabs.
The word "Don't." falls onto her. Alex's voice, but not like Piper's ever, ever heard it before. Almost wailing.
Piper's head fills up with memories that aren't even hers.
A scream stretches its way from her chest and up her throat, but Piper catches it behind her teeth. She swallows it back, and then her voice leaps out of her, too loud and wild sounding, "Morello, shut her up."
There's a slow, shuffling murmur of waking reactions, as if Piper is the one disturbing the quiet.
Alex makes another stuck, panicked sound.
Lorna's voice, fuzzy with sleep and sharp with annoyance, finally answers, "Whassit? What'd'ya want?"
"Shut her up." she sounds borderline unhinged. "She's keeping everyone awake."
"No, that'd be you, bitch," a voice Piper can't place yells.
"No," Alex again, practically a shriek.
"Lorna," Piper's voice is coming apart at the seams.
Lorna answers, "M-maybe you should - "
"She's your bunkie, wake her the fuck up."
Finally, she hears a few padding footsteps, followed by Lorna's quiet voice, "Vause...hey, Vause, wake up...."
Piper buries her face in her mattress and pulls her pillow firmly over her head, folding her arms back and pressing it down. Her eyes are wet, chest heaving. She inhales and exhales, deliberately sharp so it roars in her ears like crackling static.
She stays like that for a long time until she lets herself lift her head and hesitantly listen.
Everything is quiet.
Piper's skin is prickling. She splays her hands under her shirt, against her ribcage, her right thumb finding a rare patch of bare skin, suddenly begging to be marked. Piper doesn't know how to ink the sound of screaming.
A little bit of a filler chapter here, I think, but necessary, and stuff definitely starts escalating next go round
Chapter 4: I'll tell you my sins (and you can sharpen your knife)
Alex doesn't go back to sleep after Lorna gingerly wakes her up.
She'd startled awake fairly quickly, thank God, her chest jerking with shallow, gasping breaths and tears she hopes Morello didn't notice mingling with cold sweat on her cheeks.
A clean sock gets stuffed into her mouth for a good fifteen minutes because Alex is still tired and a little desperate; she's thinking it'll wake her up if she makes anymore noise, but instead her gag reflex jerks her to consciousness the second she starts to relax.
So Alex just lies there with her heart racing in the dark dormitory, listening intently to the quiet like she's expecting to be taunted.
She wonders if Piper heard.
In the morning, she's avoiding Lorna's eyes until her bunkmate says sympathetically, "Y'know it wasn't even that bad. Nothin' to be embarrassed about. You weren't even what woke me up, and I'm a very light sleeper."
Alex throws her an odd look. "What do you mean I didn't wake you?"
"Ah..." Lorna glances over in the direction of Piper's bunk. "Chapman started yelling at me to get you up."
"Fuck," Alex mutters, her face heating up. She remembers her old broken glasses hidden in Piper's cube; the last thing she needs right now is to here Alex screaming in her sleep like a goddamn little kid.
"She might've just been awake already," Lorna assures her helpfully.
Alex's eyes track back toward Piper's bunk. She can only see the top of Red's head moving around; Piper somehow manages to beat her out of the dorm every morning, not run into her in the bathroom, and see manage to show up at breakfast when Alex has already sat down.
The amount of effort she's putting in must be exhausting.
Later that day, Alex is waiting for Piper when she tries to leave the dorm directly after count. She falls into step beside her, starting like they're in the middle of a conversation, "So did you see I got assigned the library? There still aren't enough books for an organizational system, so I basically just sit and read while Washington naps on the table. It's a prime gig. But don't be jealous; if any Woolf or Oates come in, I'll set 'em aside for you." She grins. "I can even wave your late fees."
Piper slides her eyes sideways at Alex - she's standing to Piper's left, so her scar faces away - but in the next second they go back to darting wildly, looking for an escape.
She wants to run so bad it's practically radiating off her.
Alex's chest tightens, her momentum faltering in the silence. They're almost to the bathroom, and she can see Piper's eyes land on it, so Alex ends up blurting out, "You want to go to movie night with me?"
Jesus fuck. She sounds like an idiot teenager refusing to recognize that they're getting a brush off.
"No, thanks," Piper answers with robotic politeness, but there's a flicker of pain on her face before she shuts it down.
"Look, Pipes." Alex stops Piper by grabbing the crook of her elbow, and the gesture seems to startle them both. Piper stares down at Alex's hand like she can't believe it's there. Either that or it's just another way to avoid Alex's face. "Um. You were right, about the way I was acting with Lolly. I was being crazy...a hired killer would've probably made a point not to stare." She makes herself smile. Showing how okay she is. Showing she can laugh about it. Piper isn't looking at her anyway. "I'm really fucking lucky I didn't kill her. Or go to max for almost killing her, so...you were right."
It is barely skimming the surface, the easiest gift Alex can offer, but Piper is already backing away from her, expression stricken.
"Piper - "
"What is wrong with you?" Piper demands, tight and panicked, not waiting around to hear an answer.
What's wrong with her?
Alex keeps thinking about it.
She can tell that in the two months she was gone, Piper was burying herself in guilt, so deep she can't see light anymore. Too deep for Alex showing up, Alex being alive, to be all it takes to pull her out of it. Alex even knows - though she hates thinking about it - that she's marked with evidence of what Piper feels guilty about.
Alex knows all that.
But she also can't help thinking of this current version of herself: the weakened, broken, traumatized version, the version that cries in her sleep and has flashbacks over a pair of glasses and can't even go in the yard without the threat of a panic attack.
Hardly a pillar of strength and support.
Piper is so far gone and Alex is trying, but it should be better than this. She should be better than this.
But Alex can't lead Piper out of the swirling darkness when she can't even find her own way.
When Alex had touched her this morning, Piper's pulse had relocated to the center of her forearm, drumming against her skin. Piper had been sure Alex would feel it, that she'd push back Piper's sleeve and see Stella's goddamn tattoo.
It feels very important for Alex not to see it.
Piper starts taking the broken lens from Alex's glasses with her to the greenhouse every day, and she spends her afternoons sitting in the grass dragging the longest, dullest edge of the lens shard against Trust No Bitch. She doesn't dig deep or anything, this isn't like the tattoos, she's not trying to hurt herself.
She just wants to mangle the words, camouflage it. They're white and faded anyway, barely more than scar tissue. Soon it will be like there's no tattoo there, that it's all just something that needs to heal.
Alex is whimper-gasping in her sleep again, a few nights after the first time, and Piper decides to make herself stay awake and listen. She ends up wondering what sounds Alex made in the greenhouse.
The third time it happens, Piper actually gets out of bed to get the earbuds from her radio. She shoves them in and curls back up, her own heartbeat racing in her ears.
The fourth time, Alex is loud enough that someone else yells at her to shut up. Piper's face flames and her eyes sting and her fingers slide frantically over the I promise I was protecting you tattoo on her chest
Alex still tries talking to her, sometimes. Too casual, too funny, too obviously trying to make Piper smile. To trick Piper into thinking everything's okay.
She can't blame Alex for trying. There was a time Piper would have gladly latched onto that delusion. She'd always been good at convincing herself Alex would always, always be fine.
But Alex is crying out in her sleep, every few nights, and there's no illusion in that.
"Chapman, they've been paging you. Got a visitor."
Piper stares blankly at Bell, like she doesn't understand the words. For a second she wonders if she failed to realize it's a holiday, but no, just a random weekend.
She walks toward the visiting room with no real enthusiasm, or even curiosity. She assumes it's Cal, and just hopes he isn't here to talk about goddamn dirty panties. Or their parents. Or anything she can't just contain to the hour long visit and walk away from again.
It isn't Cal sitting on the other side of the table.
Piper approaches slowly, anxiety bearing down on her. She doesn't like this, how unprepared she feels. She has routines now, but she hasn't seen Polly since that disastrous visit with her and Larry, hasn't spoken to her since -
Piper shudders. She'd been so fucking proud of herself back then, on the phone with Polly and Larry, setting her destruction of Alex in motion. She can't really remember what it felt like to be that person, blissfully unconcerned by what she wad doing.
Her skin starts crawling, pleading for punishment.
Polly looks startled by Piper's appearance, but Piper doesn't have enough knowledge of it herself to know why. Still, Polly gamely forces a smile and comes to hug her, a little sheepish. "Hey, you."
Piper lets herself be hugged. She curls her fingers around the edges of her sleeves, just in case.
They settle on opposite ends of the table. Polly seems stiff and thrown off, not sure where to start. It's never been this strange between them. "So...how is everything?"
"What are you doing here, Polly?" Piper asks, swiftly bursting the pretenses with a pin. It's been so many months without even a letter, from either of them, despite the fact that Polly's phone call to the probation officer had been sold as a way for her to make amends.
Polly seems to hesitate, probably debating whether to insist that there's no ulterior motive beyond dormant friendship, but finally she sighs. "Okay, fine. How's this for irony.." She smirks a little, injecting trying-too-hard levity into her voice. "Supercunt wrote me."
"What?" For the second time today, words simply won't compute. Alex couldn't have written Polly; they barely exist in the same universe.
"Yeah, I know. Surprised me, too. She didn't say much, just...that you maybe you could use a visitor. And not your parents." Polly's face twitches, fighting a wince. "Didn't sound like she knew you and I aren't really..." She waves a hand in lieu of voicing uncomfortable truths. "But I knew no one else has been in awhile, and I was worried. And....I miss you. So it was a good -"
"Do you have the letter?" Piper blurts out, too intense.
Disappointment flickers across Polly's features, but then she nods, reaching into her purse. "Here."
Piper reads it, pulled between shock that Alex did this and a sick, greedy hunger to see what she said. It's only a paragraph, but it is a paragraph of brand new sentences, in Alex's familiar all-caps writing. Piper is already picking out phrases, mentally cataloguing the space she has left on her skin.
"Um....Pipe?" Polly prods uneasily when Piper's reading it through for the fifth time. "You okay?"
"Sorry." Piper makes herself look up, but she splays her palms flat on the piece of paper, possessive.
"Cal said you were with someone else last time he was here." Someone else. Piper's forearm starts simmering. "Did, uh, Alex...did she find out you had me call...?"
"She knew. But she forgave me. She always does that," Piper delivers this in a dull, almost clinical voice. "I think she must be a really fucked up person."
Polly doesn't seem to know what to say to that. "Well...we always kind of assumed that, Pipe. But because of the drug dealing, not her ability to forgive you." Piper's eyes drift to the letter again, and Polly presses for her attention. "Besides, she's the reason you were here in the first place, right? Kinda makes it even."
"You don't know all of it. You don't know what happened. What I did..."
Trying hard, Polly says earnestly, "You can tell me."
Instead, Piper shakes her head hard, veering abruptly away from the topic. "Do you feel like I ever fucked up your life?"
"What? Jesus..." Polly's face pinches in bewilderment. "Of course not. I'm the one living with your ex-fiancee. You've got all the high ground here, Pipe."
"That's okay. I'm glad. I fucked Larry up, too. But he at least knew to get away, so it wasn't forever - "
Polly is starting to look severely unsettled. "Pipe, what's going on? And don't say nothing, you're...you don't seem like yourself."
"That's good," Piper replies in total sincerity. "I've been trying not to be."
"What does that mean?"
Piper doesn't answer. Polly leans back in her chair and sighs in frustration. The concern isn't gone from her face, but after too long of a moment she desperately grasps for levity again, joking, "Talk about not being like yourself...were you going to show me your new tattoo?"
Piper's torso lights up in alarm. "What?"
"Cal told me. Your mom's going to lose her shit." Before Piper realizing what's happening, Polly is reaching across the table and pushing back her sleeve. "C'mon, let me see the infamous gangster ink..."
"No," Piper yelps, jerking back, but Polly's hand follows, all amusement gone from her face, and she grabs Piper's wrist hard.
"Jesus, Piper," she murmurs, going pale. "What did you do?"
With a forceful tug, Piper succeeds in freeing herself from Polly's grip, jerking her sleeve back in place before Polly can get a proper assessment of the damage, particularly the freshness of it. "Nothing. It was a stupid tattoo. I needed it off me."
"So wait until you're out and pay for a fucking removal!" Polly shakes her head, upset and confused. "This isn't okay."
"Look, it wasn't..." Piper closes her eyes, trying to gather up the words she needs to sound reasonable. She can't have Polly walk away worried, spreading concerns and pulling everyone else back into her screwed up orbit. So she needs to remember how to do this. "It was just a really bad time. Alex - " Her voice splinters, the name trailing tears down the column of her throat. "Alex got attacked, okay? And no one would tell me if she was alive. She was in the hospital for awhile, but I didn't know...it was just bad. I maybe went a little crazy. But now she's back. So everything's fine."
Polly still looks doubtful. "So why did she write me?"
It's getting harder to blink back tears. "Alex...she just worries." The inadvertent, sickening truth of that is a stone dropped heavily into Piper's stomach. Alex worries. "I'm sorry. She shouldn't have done that...I'm not your problem, Polly."
Polly rolls her eyes, but whole face gentles. "You're nobody's problem, Pipe."
"I'm trying not to be."
At that, Polly reaches across the table. Piper tenses automatically, thinking she's going for her sleeve again, but Polly just rests her hand on top of Piper's. "Promise me you're okay?"
Piper's throat narrows again, a sudden rush of affection warming her chest. For a moment, Piper just wants to tell Polly the truth. To say it out loud, that she's not okay, that every day ushers in a fresh struggle to live with herself and everything she's done.
But that's not how this works. She doesn't get to pick and choose, pull one person into her own crossfire and blindly hope they'll turn out to be immune.
Besides, there's a part of her that would be telling Polly everything with the hope for absolution. Polly's instinct will be understanding. She will want to tell Piper all the reasons it's not so bad, to deny the pattern of awfulness and excuse things with circumstances.
Piper's done being let off the hook.
So she extracts her hand from her former best friend's and lets her face glaze over into a smile, knowing that if Polly comes again she will have to refuse the visit. "I'm fine. Really."
She tattoos I'm a little worried about her under her collarbone, and the letters are even shakier than most. She adds I know this is fucking strange to her stomach
Then, for the first time in so long, Piper goes looking for Alex.
She's in her bunk, reading.
She looks up, and Piper's eyes are trained on a point over her right shoulder, but she still catches Alex's smile, and her whole voice lights up with surprised delight. "Hey!"
Piper's chest goes hot, and she's suddenly, absurdly furious. She thinks of what she said to Polly, that Alex must be a pretty fucked up person. She can't believe it took her so long to see it.
"You wrote Polly a letter," she says coldly, tone making it clear Alex shouldn't be happy to see her.
"Yeah." Alex is completely unapologetic. "You won't talk to me, but I figure someone should - "
Piper talks right over top of her, loud and firm. "That's none of your business."
There's a pause, and when Alex speaks again, there's an edge to her voice. Finally. "Weirdly enough, Pipes, it kinda feels like my business. You feel like my business."
"You are when you're freaking me the fuck out." Alex exhales sharply, running a hand through her hair before she's able to soften her voice, "You don't have to talk to me, if it just...make things worse, or something. But you're not talking to anyone. So no one's noticing something's wrong. I just...I thought someone should notice."
Alex voice is soft around the edges and her voice is familiar and everything hurts. All the cuts in Piper feel ripped open and revealed. She can feel herself wanting to be selfish again, to break down crying and walk into Alex's arms, let herself be held even though she can never do the holding.
She fights it. She has to squeeze her eyes shut to keep them off Alex's face.
"Why?" the word shoves itself between her clenched teeth.
"Why do you care?" It's a question that already sounds scared of the answer.
Tender and quiet, Alex answers, "You know why."
Piper does know.
She just doesn't understand.
"Pipes..." Alex's voice is closer now, too close, and Piper's eyes fly open in a panic.
"I fucked Stella."
The words are a sudden gunshot, fired into the sky. A warning.
The air trembles violently in their wake.
A few painful heartbeats pass, and then Piper adds, "I cheated on you." They hadn't actually had sex until Alex broke up with her, but Piper doesn't clarify. That's a technicality, and she doesn't deserve even the smallest of concessions. "More than once. I didn't even feel bad about it."
Alex is standing very, very still. "I don't believe you."
Piper isn't sure what she means, if she doesn't believe any of it or just the lack of guilt. Either way, she counters quietly, "Yeah, you do." The truth of that hangs heavily between them. "You knew, Alex." She releases a wild, scornful laugh. "And you let me get away with it. You let me lie to your face."
Alex doesn't say anything. Piper can't stop herself from lifting her gaze, checking Alex's reaction.
She pictures herself ripping into Alex's scar, gouging out rubble with her own two hands.
That's how wrecked Alex looks. But she's still fucking standing here.
Piper's throat constricts and her eyes fill up, and it's all wrong because she's not supposed to be the one crying.
"I had you sent back here just so I could fuck you," Piper spits out with dirty sharp edges. Her eyes are off Alex's face again, listlessly fixed on the pale hollow of her throat. She pictures herself wrapping hands around it, attacking. "But you were scared and that was annoying so I just found someone else." Piper advances on Alex, goading. She wants the version of Alex that slapped her in the library. She wants to be close enough for her to do it again. "She was a stranger. I didn't even really like her." Piper's eyes flit up again. She makes herself look. "All that mattered was that she was hot."
Alex's face twists, and she huffs out something breathless, barely audible.
"What was that?"
"Fuck you, Piper," More than anything else, Alex sounds tired. Her eyes are glittering. "That's what I have to say now, right? Fuck you." She turns her head, but not before Piper sees a tear streak from her eye, parallel to the scar. "Good job. You can go now."
Alex turns her back on Piper, wanting her to go away. Piper makes it out of the dormitory and into the bathroom before a crooked, strangled sound lurches out of her, and she crumples to the floor in a fit of uncontrollable weeping, all because she got exactly what she wanted.
Chapter 5: your hands can heal (your hands can bruise)
Piper cries in the bathroom.
It's loud and messy and right in the open but luckily no one pays her much attention, just steps around her or over her or maybe mutters something sarcastic she can't hear over her own sobbing. No one stops. No one worries, not even Alex, who isn't following her - which is good. That's the whole point.
But there is so much selfish left inside Piper, and she's been trying and trying to smother it but now it's making itself known and that's why she can't stop crying.
The selfish part of her really, really wants Alex to care about her.
Alex cries in her bunk.
It's quiet and choked and so fucking angry, because she knows exactly what Piper's doing, and she hates that it's working.
But of course it's working. Piper knew right where to aim and fire, and all along she's had the perfect ammunition.
Fuck, Alex can't stop picturing it.
It's so objectively awful, for just the reasons Piper had said: she had Alex sent back to prison, just to be with her, and Alex had forgiven that, stopped blaming entirely, and Piper still found someone else.
But Alex isn't thinking about that part, the blatant hypocrisy.
She's thinking about how fucking scared she'd been, all the time. She'd been fumbling around in the dark for Piper's hand, the one thing she had to grab onto, and so often she couldn't find it and now she knows why.
She's thinking about all the times she could see Piper getting annoyed with her, exasperated by the crazy, so Alex had tried so hard to push it down, to believe her.
And the whole time...
Alex doesn't want to think that, not now, because Piper is still just as broken as she was yesterday.
But at the moment it's hard for Alex to see past her own hurt.
Piper has broken her heart too many times.
At a certain point, it won't able to take anymore. You'd think she'd have learned a lesson by now.
Maybe it would all be easier if Alex loved Piper just a little bit less.
"You know, with PTSD - " Alex tries not to grimace at the term. " - it's not so helpful to treat the symptoms. You have to really get at the root of the problem."
Gritting her teeth, Alex forces herself to sound reasonable. "Look. I get that. I'm not some fuckin anti-therapy philistine, okay? But maybe you can appreciate that I'm sleeping in the same room as fifty other women. And being the one to wake them up every night screaming isn't the best position to be in." Alex raises her eyebrows. "In a women's prison."
Berdie's lips twitch a little, always so amused by Alex. But then her eyes soften and she nods. "Fair enough. How about we meet each other halfway? I'll send a recommendation to medical to increase your dosage - take it at night, and it may help with the night terrors. But I also want to increase our sessions...the pills are a band-aid, Vause. Let me do more for you than that."
Alex huffs out a scoffing laugh. "You're a counselor in a prison."
Berdie smirks. "And you're a prisoner. Kinda makes us perfect, huh?"
Alex has stayed away from her.
Which is good.
Piper doesn't have to put in the effort to avoid her anymore, because Alex knows to do it herself. She doesn't seek out eye contact, doesn't try to trap her into conversations after count. She lets Piper sit alone at every meal.
Which is good.
Piper's done all she can, now, and so her days are rendered purposeless. The tattoos feel even more important, they're the only thing she has to do now, but Piper tries to slow down. She doesn't go every day, she can't, because she's running out of words and Alex won't be giving her new ones, not anymore.
Which is good, goddamnit, and if hurts -
(if it hurts all the time)
- then that's probably a good thing, too.
"What's your support system like?"
A low, bitter laugh lurches out of Alex before she can stop it. Her support system. Last time she needed a support system it had told her she was crazy. Her support system started fucking someone else.
Berdie lifts her eyebrows, questioning.
Alex shakes away the thought, covering, "My support system is a bunch of other felons, so, y'know. It's fucking stellar."
"But you have friends, which is a good thing." Berdie says patiently. "You're not isolating yourself."
The words hit like a sharp kick of guilt to Alex's gut. Her friendships in here may not be particularly deep, but no, she's not entirely isolated.
That would be Piper.
"Are you having me watched?" Alex mutters. "Because that would've maybe been helpful before I got attacked."
Ignoring that, Berdie answers smoothly, "I've just asked a few COs if you seem okay." She pauses, getting more serious. "They say you tense up around them."
"Right, as opposed to every other inmate who loves being around the guards."
"We talked about this, Vause. It's important to identify your triggers - "
Alex arches an eyebrow, feigning interest. "So...if I say the COs are a trigger, does that mean they have to stay away from me? For mental health purposes?"
Berdie almost smiles. "Nice try. They also said you don't ever go outside."
Alex's smirk falls instantly, her eyes darting away. "That's not required, is it?"
"Of course not. But...it seems like an extreme choice. Avoid even looking at the place where it happened." She leans forward a little, voice gentling. "Had there been any incidents? Flashbacks, panic attacks, anything?"
"No," Alex answers immediately. It's at least partially true. The greenhouse hadn't caused any incidents: she hadn't given it a chance.
But she thinks about her old glasses and starts to feel vaguely ill.
Her hand comes up to touch her face, unconsciously, thinking about the crack in the lens and the shovel that caused it, but on the heels of that, Alex imagines where she found them: hanging on Piper's sweatshirt, kept all that time.
She doesn't like thinking about that. Piper keeping her glasses. Piper guilty.
Piper thinks a lot about just...stopping.
One day she tries it. Just doesn’t get up, stays in bed until a CO walks by and barks at her to clear out and go to breakfast. She does, unshowered, unbrushed, un-anything. She doesn’t eat, just finds a corner of a table and sits until she’s allowed to leave. She doesn’t go to work. She’ll take the shot that comes, if it comes, if anyone noticed. She lies in her bunk and sleeps on and off for most of the day.
Inside her head, the day doesn't feel different from any other one, but it's so much easier not having to go through the motions.
Alex is trying not to notice, but Piper is right there, and she can't help it.
Well. Piper's technically right there, living in Alex's peripheral vision, but...
Piper just seems gone.
For awhile, she was making a point to not let Alex see her. Now she doesn't seem to think she has to bother. Like she thinks she's succeeded, and now Alex doesn't even care if she's okay.
Alex really tries not to, at first. She's angry and hurting and she doesn't want to care. She tells herself she shouldn't. Besides, she already brought Polly in, and surely anyone who's known Piper that long took one look at her and knew she needed help.
But Polly isn't here. And Alex pays attention over the next two weekends: Piper doesn't get any visitors.
Alex doesn't want to care, she maybe shouldn't care, but fuck, she really, really does.
One afternoon everyone's been talking about the gorgeous weather outside, unusually warm for this late in fall, so Alex has the dorm largely to herself, most everyone out in the yard.
Alex is reading in her bunk when suddenly Lorna comes in. Alex smiles at her. "Sick of the sunshine already?"
"Just came to get my sweatshirt," Lorna replies, pulling it off the hook. "Everyone talks like it's the fucking fourth of July out there, but I get nippy with a breeze." She pulls it on and starts out, stopping suddenly. "Oh, hey. Just saw Chapman heading to the chapel."
Alex drops her book, unsettled. "The chapel? Seriously?"
"Yep, all by her lonesome. Maybe that's where she used to disappear to." She winks. "Just thought you might be interested."
"Yeah, thanks," Alex mutters, distracted, as Lorna heads off again.
If Piper's in the chapel, by herself - and of course she's by herself, she's always by herself...
If Piper with her staunch atheism is searching for comfort and prayers...
That is not good.
Alex stands up.
Piper's carefully inking out You know why on her right side; she's been living off that last conversation with Alex for two weeks, torturing herself with it, even tattooing the fuck you's, but this is the phrase she keeps coming back to, keeps repeating.
Three words that really mean three more.
She's so focused that she doesn't hear the door of the chapel, just approaching footsteps and she hurriedly pulls down her shirt and rips the tattoo guns cord out of the socket before a voice reaches her, "Pipes?"
Her breath catches in her throat, and she wraps her arms around her stomach, panicked and protective.
Alex is walking down the side aisle of the chapel toward her, expression completely bewildered. "What the fuck are you doing?"
"Why are you here?" It flies out of her mouth like an accusation.
"Lorna said she saw you come in."
For an awful second, Piper's afraid she might cry. Her chest feels cracked open, traitorous, selfish relief bursting out of it.
Alex came to find her.
She's not supposed to do that anymore.
Piper sets her jaw and narrows her eyes at the floor as Alex gets closer. "Get out."
"What the hell is your problem, Alex? You're like a fucking abused puppy." As soon as the words are out, Piper has to suppress a physical shudder. "You don't know when to stay away."
It scares her, still, how good she is at this. How easy it is to access her own poison.
But it doesn't have the affect she'd meant to. When Alex's voice falls down to her, it's quiet and a little shocked. "You really think that, don't you?" Piper's fumbling for something to say, something worse, but then Alex's voice changes, "What the fuck? Were you...were you giving yourself a tattoo?"
Pure fear balloons between Piper's lungs. Alex can't see them.
"No," she blurts out, bravado gone. She sounds about five years old.
Alex ignores that; she's obviously seen the gun. She sounds worried, now. Always fucking worried. "Piper, what did you do?" Piper feels her moving closer. "Let me see."
"No," more forceful this time. Piper twists around on the floor, her back to Alex, hunched over like she's hiding her own body. "It's Stella's, okay? I let her give me a tattoo before she left." Piper hears Alex inhale sharply, and somehow she knows what she's thinking about. Holding Piper's hand while she got that fish tattoo, how ridiculously pleased Alex had been when Piper told her she wanted it, something to mark the day they'd just had together. Spiteful, Piper adds, "She said it was to remember her by. So I kept the gun, too. I...I like them."
There's a long silence. Piper feels it baring down on her, so heavy. Then Alex laughs, once, harshly, and even before she speaks Piper knows it worked.
“You know what, Pipes...you make it really hard to give a shit about you.”
Piper's ready for that, and she takes it under the chin, but fuck it feels more wrecking ball than fist. Finally, finally Alex gets it: Piper is hard to care about, she is hard to love, she is not worth it.
She hears Alex turn and walks away, which is good, and hopes to God she stays gone this time; Piper doesn't think she can stomach doing that to her again.
It reaches Alex at the door of the chapel, this shakey, whimpering sound, and she stops walking.
For a second, she tries to be a different kind of person. Tries to listen to Piper crying and think Good. Tries to think she deserves it, to acknowledge that she should be suffering.
It doesn’t stick. Alex doesn't really believe it.
Maybe if she loved her just a little less.
But as it is, leaving Piper alone right now feels impossible, so Alex turns back. She keeps her footsteps as light and quiet as possible, because she doesn't know yet if she can do much more than simply stay.
Piper is sitting on the floor with her legs splayed out, arms limp at her side, head bowed; like a broken doll. Her shoulders are shaking.
Alex reaches for her; she can’t help it.
If she loved her less….
She's sitting in the floor crying like a little kid when Alex, who is supposed to be gone, is suddenly right beside her, just barely threading gentle fingers through the back of her hair, and Piper feels herself coming unspooled.
The selfish inside her is clawing its way to the surface, and it's winning. She's too exhausted to fight it.
Piper leans her head against Alex’s hip.
God, she wants her to stay.
Piper's head drops against Alex's side, and she can't let herself look down because she's certain it will be her undoing.
It's like Piper is finally too broken to push her away.
Alex's eyes are stinging. She's standing up, fighting with herself, still not sure how much she can give right now.
Then Piper's fist clenches desperately around the hem of Alex's shirt and it's all over.
Alex lowers herself onto the floor in front of Piper, keeping her hand where it is, and when she's at eye level Piper's eyes remember to move away from the scar.
It reminds her why this is all wrong, and Piper belatedly shrugs away from Alex's touch. She dips her head low.
"Look at me," Alex commands softly, and without waiting for refusal, she touches two fingers to Piper's chin and lifts it, not tender, but not rough either. Purely functional. "Look, Pipes."
Painstakingly, Piper does.
She's scared she'll never be able to see Alex's face without hating herself even more.
Finally, finally Piper lifts her gaze to Alex's, and suddenly it hurts to breathe.
Because, see....Piper has always had this smile.
It’s this beautiful, unfettered thing, made of sunlight and love and a little bit of magic. She smiles with her whole damn face, and Alex's favorite, favorite thing is being the one to get it out of her.
There was never a moment, even in eight years apart, that Alex couldn’t picture that smile.
Until right this second, looking at Piper. Alex can’t imagine that smile on this face, not when Piper's eyes are so blue and so wet and so filled to the brim with pain that Alex thinks it might leak out and wash them both away.
Alex just wants her to feel something good.
So she lifts a hand and cups Piper's face, her thumb brushing at the closest coasting tear. Piper tilts her head when Alex touches her, and she makes a sound like it hurts.
Piper screws her eyes tightly shut, sending more tears falling. Her body is tense, like she might pull away. Alex leans forward, resting their foreheads together. Trying to keep her there.
Delicately, she brushes her lips against Piper's.
It is the gentlest Piper has ever been kissed, and she falls into it, kissing back for too many moments before she remembers that she can't.
She turns her face, and Alex's lips skid over to her cheekbone. They stay there, trailing light, tender kisses. She's got one hand on Piper's other cheek, fingers brushing featherlight, and the other hand stroking her hair, so soft and deliberate and tender.
Piper sits back, leaning on her own hands to stop them from shaking. She's afraid to touch Alex. She won't let herself.
Her throat feels strangled by sobs, and she lets out a soft whimper before she manages to whisper tightly, "You can hurt me. It's okay."
Alex's lips are wet and they taste like salt, and she's not sure anymore if it's from her or Piper.
Piper keeps asking her to hurt her, and it's not the first time she's wanted that. Alex doesn't want to feel guilty, she shouldn't have to, but right now she's so fucking sorry for ever listening.
She touches three fingers to Piper's jaw and guides her lips back, catching them in her own, still soft and slow and a little desperate. Usually, with Piper, it's all instinct. Her mouth knows what to do, and her hands have their own cravings. But now, Alex is all deliberate, thought out motion. Every touch is tender. Every touch is so full.
Piper isn't touching her. Her lips are wet and trembling.
"Alex..." she gasps into her mouth. "Alex, please."
Alex shakes her head against Piper's. She sucks on her lower lip, just a little, then traces her tongue along the seam.
Piper kisses her back.
Piper knows this is wrong but it is the most awake she has felt in so long. Her skin is singing, it wants this moment etched on it forever, but she doesn't know how.
Even with that thought, she's too out of her head, practically out of herself, to notice when Alex pulls her shirt off, first the khaki, and then the long sleeve underneath.
They're still kissing, so it takes a moment before Alex's hand drifts down, skimming Piper's chest, and it turns her into a neon sign, lit up and flashing; Piper stiffens and wrenches away, wild eyed and panicked.
Alex gives her a startled look. "Hey, what's - ?'
Her eyes drop.
Piper's stomach folds in on itself. She tries to cover her torso, but Alex catches her wrists and holds them steady.
For a long time, she just looks.
Piper's skin is prickling with something like shame, and she lifts her eyes to the ceiling, blinking out fresh tears. Alex lets out a sobbing sort of gasp, and it hits Piper for the first time that she's crying, too. She doesn't remember them ever doing this before, crying at the same time.
It takes Alex a second of surveying the dizzying amount of words scrawled onto Piper's body to realize what she's looking at.
Tattoos, messy and stilted and sometimes unhealed, of her own words. Save for the song lyrics, all from the "mix" she gave Piper on her birthday.
Slowly, she relinquishes her hold on Piper's wrists, running her fingers over the words, like she doesn't quite believe them. She keeps having to blink her vision clear.
Her chest is aching. She feels overwhelmed by this, and she doesn't quite understand, but God, she knows it hurts.
"I'm sorry," Piper whispers suddenly, her voice breaking. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have put them there..."
Alex looks up, and she can practically feel her heart crack along a whole new fault line.
"Pipes..." She can't help it, her voice is unraveling. She touches Piper's face, strokes her hair, anything that feels like a comfort. "Babe..."
Piper has broken her heart too many times, but never so bad as this.
Alex has questions, she has so much to say, things Piper probably needs to hear, but if she tries she's going to lose it.
So she leans forward and kisses Piper again, less gentle, more searing. She kisses her like it's breathing. Like it can fix something.
Berdie's words come back to her, unbidden. This is a band-aid.
It's also a bad idea, and it ignores so much about what Piper did, or the fact that Piper still can't seem to touch her or look at her face for more than a few seconds.
It's a bad idea, but she does it anyway.
Maybe if Alex loved Piper even a little bit less...
But, God, she wouldn’t even recognize herself.
So. A few things: it's deliberate that Alex hasn't seen Piper's arm, no worries, I didn't just forget. Also, I just got back from vacation, so the updates may be slightly less frequent, but hopefully not too bad, because I've been in a major hurry to write this one.
Love to hear what you think about this chapter, been planning for it awhile.
Chapter 6: I won't let you choke (on the noose around your neck)
Alex is kissing Piper everywhere she can reach, like her mouth is capable of pressing new words into Piper's skin and leaving them there.
She finally peels her hands off Piper's tattooed ribcage and pulls off Piper's pants and underwear; she pulls her head back enough to look down, relieved when she doesn't find more tattoos waiting.
She drops one hand between the part of Piper's legs, relieved to find her slick and ready.
Piper can feel herself coming unspooled. She wants Alex's fingers inside her with a desperation that feels primitive. And a little bit wrong.
She's forgotten how to want anything.
Alex is kissing the side of her neck and when her fingers slip up and in, Piper presses her face into Alex's hair and lets out a low, keening noise that still sounds like crying. She rocks back a little, arching into Alex's touch.
Slowly, Alex draws her fingers out in a way that leaves Piper feeling achingly empty. Her lips find Piper's again in the same moment, swallowing the whine that lurches out of her at the sudden absence.
Piper's breathing is ragged, her heartbeat feels feral, and there's a pure, overwhelming need trying to crawl its way through her. "Alex," she whispers against her mouth, and it sounds caught between protest and plea. At a torturing place, Alex's fingers dip back inside her, her thumb hooking up to leisurely circle the outside of Piper's clit.
Alex's free hand is still roaming, sliding up the ladder of Piper's ribcage before letting her fingers meander across Piper's chest, each touch still gentle and soothing. Piper imagines her leaving behind fingerprints, pressed among the words; leaving proof of this.
Piper is clenching and rocking around Alex's strokes, but she stays quiet even as her throat tangles with moans and pleas and Alex's name. She feels Alex's tongue and teeth lightly scraping the edge of her jaw, and Piper's arms are starting to tremble from leaning on her hands, her whole body on the verge of collapse.
Between her legs, Alex's fingers move more intently, hard, building pressure, a contrast to the hand still gliding across Piper's tattoos almost as if it's checking her for wounds. She feels Alex's breath, hot against her cheek, saying her name and telling her it's okay.
She is pulsing with pleasure, this feels too goddamn good to be allowed. A tiny, almost frightened whimper wrenches out of her in spite of Piper's efforts to stay quiet; Alex's face rises to check on her, expression concerned, and Piper automatically squeezes her eyes shut and realizes there are still tears there. She feels Alex's lips brush the corner of her eye, featherlight and achingly sweet.
Blindly, Piper parts her lips and tilts her head, searching. Their noses bump lightly, and she almost smiles, until her lips skid sideways, across the comfortable planes of Alex's face and come up against the unfamiliar: rough, pitted skin and scar tissue.
Piper's body goes cold.
At nearly the same moment, Alex's finger hook deep and hold while her thumb builds its friction to a fever pitch. It yanks Piper to an edge, she is so close and it feels so good but it is all wrong.
Alex does exactly what works, and she feels the jerk of Piper's body and the quaking of her thighs that shows she's close, when suddenly Piper's whole body wrenches back, a litany of tight, panicked commands hurling out of her, "Stop, stop, no, don't, get off...."
Pure alarm shoots up Alex's spine and she jerks her hands back on instinct, holding them up in a strange, panicked surrender.
Piper looks hazy eyed and off balance. With stiff, precarious movements, she folds her knees up to her chest, successfully shielding herself for the first time since Alex took off her shirt. She's shaking. She looks small and scared and so, so ashamed.
Fresh tears start to prick at the corner of Alex's eyes. "Pipes, hey. It's okay." Tentatively, she reaches out a hand but Piper visibly shrinks away. Guilt hooks itself in Alex's gut, and she starts to question her own actions for a dozen new reasons. "Hey, look, I'm sorry if - "
"DON'T." She practically yelps it, like a terrified child. "Don't apologize, Alex, I haven't even...I haven't told you I'm sorry, you can't say it to me - "
"Okay," Alex cuts her off quietly. She's not sure if Piper means an apology is imminent. She waits, wiping her hand on her khakis.
"You shouldn't have done that," Piper says instead, her voice wavering. "You should...you should want to hurt me..."
"I don't," Alex tells her, making it calm and firm, like Piper's continued insistence on her own pain doesn't knife Alex fresh, every time. Tentatively, she moves a little closer, her eyes roving Piper's balled up form for a glimpse of the tattoos. She's struck suddenly with the importance of everything she says to Piper. "And I don't want you hurting yourself."
Like she knows what Alex is referring to, Piper reaches for her discarded clothes, trying to grab at the shirt she was wearing under her prison scrubs. Alex's eyes land idly on Piper's arm, and her stomach coils. "Piper..."
Horror sweeps Piper's expression, but she can't pull away fast enough before Alex has crawled the rest of the space between them and gripped her arm.
It takes Alex all of five seconds to realize what she's looking at. This is the tattoo that Piper had told her about, the one that woman gave her. It's white ink, and only a few letters are fully distinguishable now: instead there's just scrape shattered skin, all scratches and scabs.
"I'm sorry." It's Piper's first apology. "I'm sor - I tried to get rid of it, I really did."
As if the tattoo is what's ripping Alex to shreds.
Not half an hour ago, Piper had told her about this almost like she was bragging; she's talked about the affair like that this whole time, all spitefully rubbed salt, trying to make Alex angry...when all along she's been mutilating herself to get rid of any trace of it.
It hits her that Piper's been trying to make Alex hate her as much as she hates herself right now.
Except Alex isn't capable of hating her at all.
Alex is running her knuckles over the cuts when out of nowhere she thinks of blood, drying her eyes shut, and just like that a red metallic scent that isn't really there fills up her nose and then her lungs, leaving her horrified and infuriated with herself.
This isn't the time. This shouldn't even matter now.
But Alex can feel her lungs contracting and her chest tightening and finally the chapel starts to narrow and fall away.
Somehow, Piper's voice makes it through the fog and reaches her. Alex grabs on and follows it back to the present. "Why aren't you mad?'
For once, Alex is glad Piper barely looks at her anymore. She has to take several deep breaths before she answers, "I am mad." Her voice sounds scraped raw. It sounds anything but angry. "Well. How about I'll get mad when you're okay."
God, that feels so far away right now.
Piper pulls her arm out of Alex's grip, hiding the decimated tattoo, but really that tattoo says so much. Buried there is proof of Piper's betrayal, of what she did to Alex. But more frightening and more urgent is the evidence of what she's doing to herself.
Piper is pulling her clothes back on and her hands are shaking. She turns her head away from Alex to say, "You have to stay away from me." Finally, she's spelling out what she's been trying to make happen for weeks. "I don't want to hurt you again."
"Then don't," slips out, small and pathetic, before Alex can stop it. Like it's ever been that simple with them.
"I don't think I can stop it," Piper's voice splinters, and words start spilling out, a frantic downhill tumble. "There's something really wrong with me, I'm awful, I always have been...." Her eyes flick up to Alex's just for a second, but then her whole face crumples, the next words almost lost in an agonized wail, "Alex, I thought you died."
Then she's crying again, crying so hard it's scary. Alex's heart is trying to claw its way out to get to Piper, so her whole body takes it there; she pulls Piper into her lap even as she fights it, resisting comfort in the same way she resisted pleasure, but this time Alex won't let her.
For a moment, fingernails scratch ineffectually at arms that only wrap tighter until finally Alex feels the fight leave Piper. She drops her head, body going boneless, and sobs against Alex's collarbone.
Alex rocks her and strokes her hair but she doesn't shush her because instinct is telling her that Piper needs this, maybe. So she just holds on.
But something is wrong, because Alex is starting to feel awful. Not just the expected awful - the Piper is hurting awful. Awful like she can't get enough air, like her skin doesn't fit right.
It's the feeling that means panic is chasing her and getting close.
She digs her teeth into her lower lip, trying to count backwards in her head. She sends her fingers swimming through Piper's hair, leaning close and breathing in the smell, trying to focus on her senses.
She does everything Berdie had told her to do, because she's no good to Piper if they're both falling apart.
Still, when Alex wraps her arms a little tighter and brushes her lips against the top of Piper's head, it feels like she's clinging to a life raft instead of being one.
Piper is balled up and wailing like an animal. Her hands are clenched and held close against her chest, like she's hiding claws.
Some part of her is still able to feel sick about this, letting Alex comfort her, but her weaknesses are taking over and she can't pretend not to need this.
She wears herself out eventually, but stays buried against Alex's shoulder with her chest still heaving chaotically; she doesn't want to move. She's afraid of what will happen when she does.
Jesus, she loves Alex so goddamn much.
It swells in her chest and it climbs frantically up her throat but she won't say it because it would sound like an apology, or an excuse. It would sound like a plea for absolution.
She won't say it because that would offer Alex the chance to say it back. And Alex has already come too close, today: whispered with gentle fingers and spelled it out with tender lips.
Piper has no idea how much time has passed when suddenly Alex's voice says in a hoarse whisper, "Pipes? Hey, babe, we gotta go back for count."
When she lifts her head, she sees the light on the wall is flashing. Keeping her gaze low, focused on the wet spot she's left on Alex's shirt, Piper wipes the back of her hand over her face. Alex's hands join hers, thumbing away tear streaks. "You okay?"
Stupidly, stupidly Piper nods. Because it's harder to remember all the reasons why she isn't when Alex is touching her like this, when her voice sounds like mornings and flannel and home.
"Come on." Alex holds her hand when they stand up, but Piper lets go so she can retrieve the tattoo gun from the floor and hide it under a chair. She doesn't watch Alex when she does.
They walk back to the dorms together, and after count, Alex falls into step with her to head to the cafeteria. Before, when Alex would try to walk with her, she'd try to talk as much as possible, like she knew it would be too rude for Piper to run away in the middle of sentence. Now she's quiet, like she isn't worried about keeping her there.
Alex follows her through the line and to an empty table. She's still not saying anything, but Piper isn't looking at her enough to figure out why.
As soon as they sit down, Alex says in a purposeful voice, like she's been planning this, "Look, Piper. I know you've been trying to hurt me or make me mad enough that I just...go away and write you the fuck off. But that's not going to happen, no matter what shit you tell me, so maybe...don't try anymore." The force falters in the last three words, more begging than anything. "It's not going to work, but it's...it's still not exactly fun to hear."
Piper should argue or refuse, but she doesn't want to, and because she's horrible and selfish her wants win out.
Nothing has changed. Alex is still better off staying far away from her, but Piper's maybe run out of the strength to push her there. Alex had touched her with matchstick fingers and given gasoline kisses and Piper's little bit of strength had burned to ash.
She hates this about herself, the way her flaws and her weaknesses are so mismatched and volatile. Piper knows now she is selfish and manipulative and unthinkingly cruel, but she is also a coward and so fucking needy it makes her sick.
Piper has never been good at being alone, even though she's exactly the sort of person who deserves to be.
"Okay?" Alex prompts, a little nervously, when she's gone too long without answering.
Piper nods, and it takes her another few moments to make her voice work. "You know everything now." She should add don't forget and don't forgive but she doesn't.
"Good." Alex sounds relieved. She's quiet for a moment. Piper watches her hands, peeling an orange. Then, hesitant, Alex starts, "So, those tattoos - "
Her skin wakes up, instantly panicking. "I don't want to talk about that."
There's a long pause, and Piper can practically feel Alex's gaze picking her apart, trying to figure out if it's worth arguing. Finally, she just says in a low voice, "You know you can stop now, right? You...it's not good, Pipes."
Piper doesn't answer. She's already been mentally reciting things Alex said today, she's already picked out where they'll go: Look at me and You make it really hard to give a shit about you and I don't want you hurting yourself.
"So, fuck, okay. Blood, I guess." She tenses up a little; Alex doesn't like saying the word, even. How pathetic. "Or anything that just reminds me of blood."
"Okay, great." Berdie smiles encouragingly. "I told you, Vause, identifying triggers is an important thing. So what happened?"
"Hardly anything." It comes out irritated, because honestly, Alex hates this. It's ridiculous, that she should have to spend her time dissecting her reaction to Piper's cut up arm, like that matters more than the fact that Piper did that to herself.
"No." Then, when Berdie just waits, infuriatingly patient, Alex adds, "I thought for a second I might but...I stopped it, it was fine."
"That is awesome to hear," she smiles like a proud kindergarten teacher giving Alex gold stars for managing to stay mentally in the present. Jesus. "Does that mean you've found a method that works for you?"
Piper. Piper's voice, Piper's hair. The fact that Piper needed her more than the crazy did.
"I don't know, I guess the five senses thing."
"Great. Seriously, Vause, that's really important progress...that you were able to center yourself, and take control."
Alex lifts an eyebrow. "Does that mean we're done here?"
Berdie laughs a little. "No. Sorry. It's great that you might have a way of stopping the flashbacks, but it can't be fun to have a near panic attack before you do it." Alex lets out a harsh, frustrated sound that Berdie ignores. "Think you might be ready to try going outside?"
Alex sits back in her chair, tightening her jaw. "Sure," she bites out. "Sure, I'll go outside. I'll look at the fucking greenhouse. I'll even walk inside. If I do that without losing my mind can we be done here?"
Berdie doesn't even flinch. "Any reason you're feeling particularly resentful today?"
Alex pushes a hand through her hair, shaking her head almost unconsciously. "These sessions...you're just covering the prison's ass. It happened. It's over. Maybe I needed help before, but now...you know, you've got inmates with a lot bigger problems than me, but because it's not your fucking fault then who cares?"
"I'm really glad you feel like you're getting such personal attention, Vause, but I promise you, I've got a lot of inmates I'm working with just as frequently as you."
Alex scowls and looks away, suddenly and embarrassingly tearful. She hates coming to these sessions. She hates being reminded that she's supposedly messed up. And she even kind of hates not knowing where Piper is when she's in here, if she's gone back to the chapel with her tattoo gun or, worse, whatever it is she uses on her arm.
She's not sure how much good she's doing Piper right now.
Piper still doesn't talk much, which is unnerving, and she'd tensed up so badly when Alex asked her about the tattoos that she's instinctively avoiding pushing her on anything difficult.
So mostly Alex is just there. Trying to find things to say, smiling even though Piper doesn't look at her, keeping watch. But she knows it's not much, and it scares her that she doesn't know what else to do.
When she's confident she can talk around the knot in her throat, Alex rolls her eyes and says, "Look, can we go back to where I made great progress and maybe you can just let me go early as a reward?"
It takes a moment, but then Berdie nods in acquiescence. "Sure. But I'll see you back in two days, yeah?"
Piper skips work one day to go to the chapel. She's started writing things down in a notebook, saving up words for later. She doesn't want Alex to bring it up again - actually, she wants to pretend Alex doesn't even know - so she can only go when Alex is at work and she isn't, or when Alex has sessions with Berdie (which is another thing Piper doesn't want to think about).
Then she goes back to her bunk and lays down, fingers running comforting circles over her skin while she shuts her down all her thinking.
A few hours slip by without her noticing and then suddenly Alex is there. "Hey, you okay? Are you sick?"
There's more worry than sick in Alex's voice, so Piper makes herself sit up and work her face into a smile. "Yeah, just finished work early. Fell asleep."
"Brought you something." Alex tosses a book onto Piper's bed. Piper glances at the title, it's something she read in college; in a few days, she'll send it back unread and Alex will bring her something new.
"Thanks." Piper slides over on the bed to make room. Alex settles beside her, opening up her own book. This is their routine, now, and she leans back against the wall, opening the book on her lap but it's mostly for show. Her eyes can't hold the words, can't focus; she still gets a little overwhelmed by Alex's presence.
When Alex has turned two pages, she kicks her foot gently against Piper's. "Good?"
"Good," she replies, aiming a faint smile in Alex's direction.
Sometimes, around Alex, Piper feels like her throat may rip open from all the scrambling apologies and declarations. But she's spending her last ounces of self-control on never trying to excuse herself, never attempting to make what she did any better.
But she's glad Alex is here. And sometimes Piper thinks that maybe it's safe like this, if she doesn't do or say or want too much. If she keeps herself small and quiet and doesn't wish for much more than Alex held at arm's length, Alex sometimes saying her name with a smile in her voice.
Maybe she can allow herself that much.
Alex is whimpering in her sleep again.
It doesn't happen as often anymore, or maybe Piper's just gotten better at sleeping through it, but one night she wakes up and Alex is practically sobbing a few cubes over.
She thinks about that day in the chapel, breaking down in Alex's arms, and she hates herself for not being able to walk over and give her the same thing.
But she can't, so she just rolls on her side and pulls the pillow over her ears.
God, she wants to sleep.
She just wants this to stop.
"Did I ever tell you what happened to Fahri?"
Alex says this, seemingly out of nowhere, one day at lunch, and the randomness of the subject actually makes Piper look up. "No."
It takes her a moment to keep going. "Kubra had him killed."
"What?" For a second, the shock of that eclipses anything else - she'd always vaguely thought of Fahri as Kubra's righthand man - but then her stomach starts to clamp up.
Piper doesn't want to talk about Kubra having anyone killed.
"Yeah, it was about six months after you left." Alex says completely neutrally, all fact and no accusation, but it knocks the wind out of Piper anyway. She wants to run. "We'd been...partying pretty hard for awhile. And I guess he'd been screwing up in general. But when it happened, he missed an airport pickup and the girl got arrested. So...Aydin shot him in our hotel room."
Piper's insides twist again at the mention of Aydin, but she still manages to ask quietly, "You were there?"
"Yeah," Alex's voice is thin. After a second she continues, "I thought he was going to kill me, too, because - Pipes." She waits until Piper looks up. Alex's face is serious. "He missed the pick up because I wanted to stay out. He had the drugs, so I talked him into staying. And then the next morning Kubra sends a note and he's just...dead."
Piper hates this, she doesn't want to hear it, for too many reasons. "Alex...."
"I thought it was my fault, Piper. Kubra made me go to rehab, after, and they always want you to make list of friends and family you've harmed and you know...I was basically on my own when I was using, but I did get a friend killed because I wanted his drugs so...still would've trumped everyone else's shit in group therapy if I'd been allowed to say anything honest."
The air feels thick between them, this is too much information, and it takes Alex a few moments before she continues, "Anyway...I felt really guilty for a long time, but me feeling bad didn't change anything. And I honestly never believed something like that was going to happen. You know?"
Piper maybe gets why Alex is telling her this, that she's saying she understands something about blame and guilt and fault, but mostly what Piper hears is Alex doing drugs after she left, Alex without her or her mom or even Fahri, Alex watching him die six months after burying Diane, Alex in rehab on her own.
And Piper should remember that, because she knows now that she was always the bad guy in their story. That didn't start the moment she picked up the phone and told Polly to call Davey Crockett.
She doesn't even answer Alex, doesn't accept any of the empathy she's trying to hand over, just pretends to be paying attention to Janae and Poussey arguing about something a few tables over until Alex changes the subject to something innocuous, something she knows is just meant to fill the silent space between them.
The next day, while Alex is in counseling, Piper adds I was basically on my own when I was using just below her infinity sign. She's crying by the time she finishes, and this time she tries to be glad Alex isn't there to hold her.
"Take me through it one more time."
"Are you getting bored?"
"Uh, yeah, we only do this every single time."
"Good. I want you to get bored by this story." She smiles a little, then turns serious. "You know it's important that you're able to talk about it."
"Fine." Alex lifts her eyes upward, addressing the ceiling, almost reciting, "I was in the greenhouse sweeping. I thought the CO who'd been overseeing the crew was back but it was Aydin. He was in uniform." She flicks a distasteful glance at Berdie at this declaration. "He said anyone could get hired here, and that they were just happy to find someone qualified. I told him he didn't have to do this. I knew it wouldn't work. He got out his pepper spray and started toward me. I hid my face and he hit with the fucking bullshit baton thing they give you people. Then he tripped me. Like a ten year old on a playground. When I looked up he was unlocking the tool cabinet. I tried to get up and then he hit me with a shovel."
Her momentum stalls a bit, because she knows by now Berdie will prod her for feelings. For her to personalize it, not give a crime report.
"It hurt a lot. I, uh. I heard the bone crack. There was...blood in my eye, but I could see him lifting the shovel again. He hit me in the head. The blood was in both my eyes by then." Her mouth tastes vaguely coppery. Alex lips her lips. Her fingers are twitching, so she winds them through her own hair like she can distract them. "I couldn't see, really. I tried to wipe it off. Aydin was sitting on my legs, or something, and he stabbed me with the shears. That's when it got hard to breathe. I could taste blood. It felt like it was everywhere."
"And what were you thinking?" Berdie asks gently when she stops talking.
"That I was going to die," she grits out, sounding almost angry about it, because she knows the question is perfunctory and how the hell is this helping.
"And you felt...."
"Shockingly, I was scared." Anticipating Berdie's next question, she says, "I thought about my mom. Everyone always said her death was instant, and that was good, and I never thought it mattered until then. I just wanted it to be over." She doesn't say what else she thought about; Alex doesn't talk about Piper in here.
"Okay. And then what happened?"
"I don't remember anything else. Just waking up after surgery."
"No paramedics? No ambulance?"
"No." A vague feeling of unease washes over Alex, and she adds, a little too forcefully, "Why?"
"What do you mean?"
"You always ask me that. I've told you I was unconscious. Probably because I was bleeding from the head, face, and gut. So why do you always ask?"
"Vause, I'm just making sure - "
"I want to see the incident report."
"I can't show you that."
"Why the fuck not? Doesn't that go along with your whole thing about wanting me to see it as a 'thing of the past'?"
"Vause, there's nothing out of the ordinary in that report - "
"So show it to me."
Berdie sighs a little, then looks her in the eye. "The medical report says you were still conscious and verbal in the ambulance."
Alex chest starts to prickle unpleasantly. "No, that's...that's wrong."
"It's what we have on file," Berdie tells her. "It could just be that you were partially conscious and not really aware of what was going on...but there's a decent gap there, and it's possible that you've just cut off the memory. If that's the case...it could be beneficial for you to remember on your own."
Alex is shaking her head without stopping. "Look, I...I don't care what the fuck that says, okay? I was passing out right after he fucking stabbed me. I could barely breathe."
She had been thinking about Piper, and everything had faded.
Alex knows Aydin ran shortly after making use of the garden shears, that he was off prison grounds by the time anyone found her, but she has no idea what else happened.
Berdie is giving her this waiting look, like she thinks some memory is coming back to her, and it pisses Alex off.
She pushes the chair back and stands up, in a swift, almost violent motion. "I was unconscious."
Then she leaves, without waiting for permission. None of this is important. None of this matters. She should be with Piper.
Another kind of a filler chapter, but probably anything have felt filler after last chapter.
Sorry there's been more of a delay between chapters...like I said, I was on vacation when I started this story, and now chapters will be more of a weekly thing rather than every few days.
Chapter 7: I saw you walk the wire (I watched you burn away)
"I miss you."
The words, quiet and thin as a wisp of smoke, float from one end of Piper's bed to the other. She ducks her head a little lower, aimed toward the book in her lap, so her hair falls from behind her ear, then cuts her eyes to the side, covertly peering at Alex. Her own book is closed and she's giving Piper this wide open look that makes her chest hurt.
"I'm here," Piper replies, but her voice sounds lifeless even in her own ears.
Piper's legs are hanging off the bed, and after a second she feels Alex foot hook around her ankle, tugging in an oddly gentle gesture. "You know what I mean though."
Piper does, even though she's not sure what prompted the statement; they've been sitting here in mostly silence for nearly two hours, like every other afternoon.
But she does know what Alex means. Piper's been doing well. She doesn't say much, doesn't do much, doesn't ask for anything. She never even seeks Alex out, makes sure it's always her choice to come find her. Piper's relieved every time she does, but she's not sure what Alex is getting out of it.
She realizes she's tracing the letters of I miss you over and over with her fingernail, just above the knee, and she forces herself to hold the book with both hands again.
The next few hour passes without conversation, Alex reading and Piper pretending to. They split up, by about twenty feet, for bunk count. They walk to the cafeteria for dinner. Alex tells Piper about overhearing Boo completely talk her way out of a shot that morning with one of the new befuddled COs. Piper nods politely and says "Wow" when the story is over. They sit at an end of a table by themselves, and after a few minutes of trying to stomach the food in silence, Alex asks if she remembers that restaurant in Turkey, how Alex had ordered for both of them with utter confidence and Piper had been completely shocked two minutes later when Alex informed her she had no idea what food she'd just asked for. Piper confirmed that she does remember. They go back to not talking and not eating much, either. Piper goes with Alex to movie night and sits on her right side so she can sneak occasional glances from the corner of her eye. When something funny happens, Alex bumps her knee against Piper's and turns to see if she's laughing, and Piper curves her lips obediently upward even as her gaze darts quickly back to the screen. When it's over, Alex makes curse laden jokes about the horrible movie while Piper makes indecipherable hums of agreement to show she's listening. Before lights out, Alex taps her knuckles against Piper's shoulder like she's knocking on a door and says goodnight, Pipes. Piper answer: night, Alex. They split up, and Piper falls into uneasy sleep, hoping this won't be a night she wakes up to the sound of Alex's nightmares.
Another day finishes. Rinse and repeat.
"Geez, bout time. I was ready to come check your pulse."
Alex blinks confusedly up at Poussey for a moment, then sits up from the library floor, her stiff muscles groaning in protest. "Sorry if I'm cutting into your nap time," she snaps, though she's more embarrassed than anything. She hasn't been sleeping much lately.
Slowly, Alex becomes more focused on her surroundings and figures out why Poussey's sequestered amid the back shelves where Alex had claimed a napping spot. There's a ceiling tile that's been slid aside above them, and Poussey is sipping from a jar.
"Jesus," Alex mutters, instantly irritated as understanding dawns and Poussey's frequent requests for Alex to "man the front" of the library suddenly make a lot more sense.
She can smell the hooch, sickeningly sweet with sharp boozy edges, and for a second Alex can almost feel the liquid dripping down her throat, the craving's that strong. She holds out a hand and lifts an eyebrow, expression imbedded with the implication that not sharing would be pretty fucking rude, even in prison where everything is a precious commodity. "Can I get in on that?"
Poussey's face pinches skeptically. "Ain't you in AA?"
"Drugs. Not booze," Alex says, not mentioning the drugs she's currently taking. "Never did the across the board sobriety thing."
Like she's making a great sacrifice, Poussey passes over the jar. "Don't get used to it."
Even as she greedily swallows the first gulp, Alex is wanting more.
She leaves the library with a generous buzz. It hadn't taken much: been too long since she drank, and prison food hasn't done much to help regain the weight Alex had shed in the hospital. Turning into a sudden lightweight may have been a blow to her pride in other circumstances, but now it's just convenient.
It makes it a little easier, today, for her to go to Piper's bunk and sit beside the shadow Piper has become.
It makes it a little easier for her to try.
Some days, now, she doesn't. Can't. Some days she writes off as lost causes, just thinks I'll try again tomorrow and joins Piper inside her locked up quiet, both of them barely conscious. Just existing, side by side. She usually redoubles her efforts after days like that, working even harder to engage Piper, to make her laugh or even just smile, searching and searching for the switch that will flip on the light in her eyes.
Alex tries not to notice that the results are the same either way.
She's just so fucking tired. She is learning that the most exhausting thing in the world is trying so hard at something important, pouring everything into it, and getting absolutely nowhere.
In the worst moments, when she wants to cry out of frustration and fear and secret, creeping resentment, Alex thinks maybe there isn't enough of Piper left anymore. Like she's trying to rebuild a burned down home out of just the ashes and dust.
Sometimes, Piper catches herself feeling almost safe.
She is still a grenade, she can't afford to forget that, but for now, the pin is in and no one is too close. Alex can tug it along on a string as long she doesn't hold it in her hands.
She can function like this.
Listen to the familiar husk of Alex's voice and remember she's alive.
Every day, rinse and repeat.
Alex wakes up one night with her face and eyes wet, immediately clobbered by panic. She paws at her cheeks with frantic shaky hands, expecting blood.
But no. Tears, again. Tears and sweat.
She sucks in a harsh, quivering breath that sounds absurdly loud and waits for her heartbeat to stop sprinting. There's no memory of a dream; for the past week she's been waking up scared for no discernible reason. Alex hates it, hates how little sense it makes: emotions triggered by nothing.
Even so she can't shake it, the terror blooming in her chest, thickening in her throat and making her cry like a little kid.
She becomes suddenly, sharply aware of how close Piper is.
Fierce, unfiltered need courses through her and, God, all Alex wants is to be able to cross the room and crawl into bed beside Piper, just for a few minutes. She wants to wake Piper up and and she wants Piper to hold her and she wants Piper to tell her it's okay.
But she can't, and Piper won't, so Alex rolls onto her stomach and presses her face into her pillow just in case she can't stay quiet.
Only now, in the tense 3 a.m. almost-dark, can Alex let herself admit how unfair this is.
"Vause? Can I borrow you for a few minutes?"
Alex tenses up, automatically glancing at Piper to check her reaction to Berdie's sudden presence. She's looking over at the same time and they make accidental eye contact for a brush of a moment before Piper jerks her attention back to her book. Alex notices she hasn't turned a page in at least ten minutes.
"Vause." A little pushy now. Unmistakable authority.
Alex narrows a glare in her counselor's direction. She's been even more irritated with Berdie than usual, ever since she'd tried to claim Alex had been conscious longer than she remembers during the attack, and she definitely doesn't like this: Berdie slipping out of the confines of her office. In there, she lets Alex curse at her and talk back, acts like it's all part of the process, but here she's just another blue uniform who could send Alex to SHU the second she feels like it.
That in mind, Alex swallows the sarcastic refusals lining up on the tip of her tongue and closes her book. Her knee nudges Piper's. "Back soon, okay?"
Piper nods, and Alex trails sulkily after Berdie as they walk to her office, feeling like a kid caught skipping class.
"So," Berdie nods at her to take a seat, then settles into her desk. "Want to tell me why you decided not to show up for your session?"
Alex gives a flippant shrug. "Well, I'm not paying for them, so I don't feel super obligated."
Berdie gives her a look. "This isn't optional, Vause. You came to me for help - "
"Wrong. I came to you for drugs."
"And I told you, if you want those, we have to do the real work with - "
"Fine, take the pills away. Fuck it. They don't do shit anyway."
At that, Berdie pounces, her eyebrows shoot up. "Why do you say that? Have any symptoms increased? Because that can happen, actually. PTSD can actually worsen as you get further from the event -"
"Jesus," Alex cuts her off. "That's fucking convenient for you, isn't it?"
"What do you mean by that?"
Alex's face twists hatefully. "You make me come in here, it doesn't do shit to help, and you get to say, oh, that's just part of it."
Berdie's expression doesn't waver; it's frozen into her fake fucking concern. "What is it that's getting worse, Alex?"
Through her teeth, Alex grits out, "I never fucking said anything was getting worse. You said it could."
There's a long silence, like Berdie just wants that to sit between them, before she finally says, "What is it that's making you angry?"
"Seemed to come on pretty fast to be just about me." Berdie waits a second before adding, "How about when you're not being forced to sit in my office? You find yourself feeling any anger then?"
"So what do you feel?"
Alex tightens her jaw and looks away. She feels helpless, and frustrated, and scared, and yes, fine, okay, sometimes she feels angry. But none of that has anything to do with Aydin and the greenhouse; it has everything to do with Piper, and that means it doesn't belong here in Berdie's office.
I miss you makes a nice addition to Piper's waist, as well as a decent distraction from thinking about whatever might be happening in Berdie's office.
She's running out of space. As she pulls her shirt back on, Piper tugs her pants down instead, running a hand experimentally along the smooth, unmarked skin of her thigh. It could work. Not as painful as the ribs or hipbones, but easily accessed. Plenty of space.
Piper's body is still tingling with want, so she finds a tiny rectangle of space and inks Back soon okay? in a narrow stack of words, just because it's the first and easiest thing that comes to mind. It hurts and it makes her feel very awake. Out of nowhere, she thinks of Alex kissing her here, weeks and weeks ago now. She hasn't tried again. Piper doesn't let her get close enough.
The tattoo gun gets tucked into her waistband when she walks back to the suburbs; she doesn't feel safe hiding it here anymore. When Piper walks through the dorm, Alex is standing in front of her cube, and nearly collides with Piper when she turns around.
"Jesus fuck," Alex jolts back from her, wild eyed, her hands shooting out in front of her like she's expecting an attack.
"Sorry," Piper says on reflex, holding up her own hands in surrender. It takes Alex a second to relax and move closer again. Thinking about why makes Piper feel sick.
"Where were you?" There's an edge to Alex's voice that hasn't been present in awhile.
"Bathroom," Piper answers, overly aware of the gun pressed against her stomach. The newest tattoos are chattering at each other; even covered up, they always feel so exposed around Alex.
Piper isn't looking at Alex enough to know whether she believes it or not, but either way she walks past Piper into the bunk, taking her former position on one end of the bed. Piper sits gingerly beside her; she has to wait until they split up for count to temporarily hide the tat gun under her mattress.
Sometimes, out of nowhere, Alex takes Piper's wrist and pushes up her sleeve to check her arm. It's the most she ever touches her; she hasn't tried anything more intimate since that day in the chapel, even though that was the most present she's seen Piper since coming back.
But Alex does check her arm, makes sure she's not hurting herself. It's the only thing she dares to push Piper on at the moment - she doesn't even ask about the tattoos - but she needs to know this much, even though looking at the cuts and open tissue still sometimes makes Alex's skin tighten and lungs shrink.
But a lot of it is healing, and Alex can finally make out the individual letters of the tattoo: Trust No Bitch, of all idiotic bullshit, written in round handwriting and white ink.
And sometimes, even though she's mad at herself for it, Alex can't help but focus on the tattoo instead of the wounds. Sometimes her sickening hurt and anger shove themselves in front of her concern and empathy.
Sometimes she's perversely glad Piper doesn't look her in the eye, because sometimes she can't quite hide her flashes of irritation and resentment.
Sometimes she can't help thinking: Piper cheated on her. Piper ruined them. Piper brought her back here and then she nearly died.
Piper should be the one trying.
It's selfish to think like that, and Alex can usually avoid it.
It would all be okay if Piper would just smile. Or talk. Alex would bask in even the tiniest spark of progress; it would be enough to smother that bitter, selfish voice in her head.
She is just sick and tired of failing at this.
Piper's face is so lifeless, all the time all the time all the time, no matter what random anecdote or nostalgia laced memory Alex gives her, no matter how many snarky jokes she tries to force into her monologues. It's hard to be funny and charming when there's no real back and forth, but Alex tries anyway.
If she were the one collecting Piper's words, Alex would have a ribcage list that's both dull and frightening: yeah's and okay's and fine's, dozens of each; tiny hollow sentences that wouldn't be worth the little ink they'd require.
Sometimes Alex is gripped with the overwhelming desire to shake Piper, to yell and shove and curse until she's forced to wake up enough to fight back. There's probably something to that instinct; Piper has always needed truths forcefully shoved in her face, and Alex used to be good at doing it.
But now, every time she starts to string the words together in her head, she imagines them written on Piper's body and loses her nerve.
So Alex keeps so many words unsaid, carved on her throat rather than Piper's skin. Because there are both forgivenesses and accusations, and once she gets started Alex isn't sure the two can be untangled.
Occasionally, not too often, when Poussey takes her semi-regular naps on the table in the library, Alex gets the hooch down from the ceiling - the location had changed after that first day, but Alex finds it laughably fast - and drinks. She's taken to carrying water bottles around so she can replace the level of liquid in the jar. She'd never been much of a drowsy drunk before, but the Not Recommended combination of the alcohol and her anti-anxiety meds make her feel foggy in a way that isn't exactly unpleasant.
It almost makes her miss heroin; she'd favored E in the clubs, anything with a kick, but would usually end the nights nodding out in a hotel room, getting happily lost in that strange, euphoric sedation.
At Alex's weakest moments, she wonders vaguely about the heroin that got Nicky thrown into max, if there would be anyway to figure out who'd been supplying her.
She always dismisses the thought, all too aware that the junkie version of herself was almost as useless as this new, supposedly traumatized version. Combining the two won't do anyone any good.
Still, Alex can't help wishing she had easier access to Poussey's supply just before lights out. She needs more sleep than she's getting.
It's a Sunday, with no work, so they're eating lunch together in the cafeteria. It's another weekend passed without Polly coming back for visitation, Alex realizes darkly. Maybe she should try Cal; there had been at least one letter from him in Piper's bunk, too, she could easily snag the address.
That's what she's thinking about, watching Piper eating on the other side of a table that may as well be a few miles long, but what she says is, in a casual, musing aloud kind of tone, "Maybe I should start going to yoga." A few seconds tick by before Alex remembers it's better to talk in direct questions. "Up the Zen level in my life. I can be Zen. What do you think?"
Piper's eyes aim away from her food and toward Alex's approximate direction while she produces one of her randomly generated acknowledgements. "Sure."
Alex takes advantage of the sort-of attention to maneuver her face into a smirk. "Maybe I just want to sit behind you during downward dog. That's a thing, right?"
"It is." She doesn't address the flirting.
"Morello says Jones has upped her game lately. She came in yesterday - "
"Shit," Alex hisses under her breath before she can stop herself. She's skipped two more of Berdie's sessions; at the last one she'd attended after, she'd been pushed on her supposed anger into demanding to read her own goddamn incident report. Berdie had calmly refused, and Alex had walked out.
"Think we need to talk," the counselor says with a small, martyred smile that pisses Alex off right away.
"Don't think you can stop me from eating," Alex says dryly, barely sparing her a flick of a glance. "Probably falls under the umbrella of cruel and unusual punishment. Also, skipping meals is a sign of poor mental health so you're just trapping us in a cycle."
As she's talking, Alex watches Piper. She's pretending to look in the opposite direction, eyeing another table. Somehow, her eyes are withdrawn further than they were thirty seconds ago, like she's trying to lose herself in her own head. It makes Alex's chest hurt.
"I'm not asking, Vause."
"Would you just fuck off?" Alex snaps, jumping up from her stool and rounding to face Berdie in a swift, angry motion.
Berdie just only an eyebrow in response, almost challenging, but a CO is walking by at the exact moment. He grabs Alex's upper arms from behind and jerks her back, away from Berdie. She nearly stumbles over the table stools. "What was that, inmate?"
Alex feels herself go paralyzed, in the same second the pounding urge to run the fuck away knifes through her.
"Let her go, Daniels," Berdie orders sharply.
"But she - "
"We're fine here," Berdie's voice is firm and unmistakably in Boss mode. "Move along."
Throwing in a slight shove, the guard lets Alex go.
She can't stop shaking.
"Alex..." Berdie steps toward her, voice soft, all sternness gone from her face. "Hey, Vause, look at me."
"Go away," Alex grits out, but it doesn't come out pissed off. It's high and strained and childlike. Everything is so, so quiet. She turns around and sits back down at the table, grabbing an orange, the first thing she can reach off her tray, whispering to herself without meaning to, "Go away, go away, go away..."
A hand grazes her shoulder and Alex flinches away like it burns. "Come talk to me tomorrow," she hears Berdie say in a worried, conciliatory voice.
Piper is watching her now, so Alex starts digging her fingernails into the orange peel, pulling off strips, trying to seem fine even though her hands are trembling and she can hear her own breathing, wet and staggered, filling the air around her.
She swallows and it tastes like blood. Her head starts to throb.
But she's fine she is okay she is okay she is -
Piper had been trying to tune Berdie and Alex out, but when the CO had come over, Piper had looked along with everyone else in their vicinity, and now she can't look away.
There are tears rolling down Alex's face and she's making choked, quivering noises but it seems different than crying. She doesn't seem to know she's doing it. Her eyes are wild and intense but somehow not looking at anything, and she's shredding a piece of orange peel into smaller and smaller pieces, littering the table with them, her fingers fast and frantic.
Piper's stomach is flipping over. She wants to throw up.
Abruptly, the orange falls from Alex's grip and she presses her hands into her eyes, rubbing them in urgent, unhinged motion. "Pipes..." It's a desperate whimper. "Help."
Piper's vision blurs, a sob rounds in her throat, and she is filled with the strange but certain feeling that she is the one doing this. Like Alex is reacting to her.
So she gets to her feet and she walks away, legs stiff and clumsy underneath her. People are staring, and she nearly runs into Berdie, moving in the opposite direction.
Help becomes the first word she adds to her leg. And the second third fourth fifth and sixth, a shaky arch of pleas.
"Is this the part where I go to psych?" Alex mumbles. Her voice is a weightless, croak of thing. She drinks more water.
"No," Berdie answers gently. She's standing beside Alex's cot in the medical room. "You had a panic attack, not a psychotic break." Neither of them are saying flashback. She was supposed to be done with those. "And it was understandably triggered. I've told the CO's they're not supposed to get too physical with you - "
"Yeah?" Alex lifts her gaze. "If I'd known that was a rule I'd have been doing a lot more shit."
"Unless absolutely necessary," Berdie finishes pointedly, smirking the slightest bit. "And you should forget I told you that."
"Don't be nice to me," Alex mutters.
"Well, that's an interesting request..."
"You're all pissed off I haven't been showing up in your office. So if you're being nice it's because I seem really pathetic."
"Well, now that you mention it..." Berdie drags a chair over. "You do owe me a session. So." Her voice softens. "What are you feeling?"
She always says that. What instead of how, so Alex can't just dismiss with a fine.
Alex huffs out a tired, humorless laugh. "I'm feeling like a fucking idiot."
She had lost it in front of everyone. God. She'd had to be led out by a counselor...only after Berdie had handed her a bag to breathe in. Alex feels like a soap opera character. One with a weak constitution.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Vause."
Alex makes a scoffing sound. "I think you're overestimating the empathy of the crowd. This place is worse than fucking high school."
"Okay. So you're feeling embarrassed," Berdie summarizes needlessly. "Anything else?"
Unexpectedly, Alex feels a fresh wave of hot tears well in her eyes. She lifts her gaze up and lifts her hands to her face, massaging as if she has a headache. "Um..." It comes out wet. She can't shake the about-to-cry sensation.
Piper left. And Alex doesn't want to say what she's feeling about that.
She left before Berdie even got there; Alex had been dimly aware of it, even in her fucked up state, and it had redoubled her panic. In a wild, out of her head moment, she'd been briefly convinced something had happened to Piper, but no. She'd just walked away. Not like someone broken or hollow or numb. Like someone who could make their own damn choices, and had chosen not to stay.
When she's gone too long without answering, Berdie wisely changes course, saying gently, "I hate to be that guy, so to speak, Vause, but...I'm kinda hoping this incident shows you that maybe the sessions are still necessary?"
"Only if they help," Alex mutters, her voice still pulled too tight.
"I think they can. I hope they will," Berdie says, and it's obvious she means it even if Alex doesn't want to like or believe her right now.
"Do I have to stay here?"
"Nope. You're good to go...as long as you feel okay."
Alex stands from the cot, still a bit unsteady but not wanting to be here any longer than she has to. She meets Berdie's eye and even gives her a quiet, sincere, "Thanks." before leaving.
Piper is lying on her bed, flat on her back, physically ill with self-revulsion.
She doesn't know where Alex is. An inmate she doesn't know had yelled at her "Hey, they drag your loony girlfriend off to psych?" and now she can't stop thinking about it, remembering everything Suzanne told her about psych, all those months ago.
She's been so stupid, thinking everything was okay. It doesn't matter how quiet and still she makes herself now, it's too late the undo the past damage.
And of course Alex is the one still caught in the aftershocks.
Piper's kept herself numb for weeks, but now she feels jolted back to life and it's awful. She scares herself this way. She has no idea what to do.
Then Alex walks by.
Piper sits up, going weak with bone melting relief, and breathes out, "Alex."
She stops walking, but it takes a second before Alex turns around and comes inside Piper's cube, expression impassive. "What?"
Belatedly, it hits Piper that Alex was planning on walking right by her. Her face heats up, and she looks down at her lap before asking in a small voice, "Are you okay?"
"Do you care?" Alex retorts immediately, like she genuinely wants an answer. Like she genuinely doesn't know.
Piper's throat narrows. She should just let Alex stay mad, go back to staying away from her, but Piper really, really hates the idea of Alex thinking she hadn't cared. "I'm sorry." God, that word sounds so thin. Piper needs to stop using it, she still hasn't said it for anything big. "I..." This is more than she's spoken in weeks, since the chapel, and it takes awhile for the words to stumble out of her. "It's hard to...I don't like seeing you...like that."
"Yeah, you've made that really fucking clear," Alex's voice is cold. She huffs out a sharp, frustrated breath of a laugh. "You know what, Pipes? I know you had a rough time when - would you fucking look at me?" Her voice splinters on the outburst of a command, and Piper obediently lifts her head. She makes herself take it all in: both the scar on Alex's cheek and the bruised, wounded fury gleaming in her eyes.
"I know it messed you up," Alex continues after a moment, dangerously quiet. "And I'm really trying to help, Piper, because you were torturing yourself worse than I would ever want for you. But the thing is, Pipes, I shouldn't have had to almost die for you to actually feel bad about getting me sent back here and then fucking someone else anyway."
Alex's face twists in disgusted disbelief, like she's just now hearing how it sounds when she says it all out loud. "Jesus Christ, Piper, I was so fucking scared, all the time. And I didn't even blame you. But you still didn't give a shit!" She runs a hand through her hair, something frighteningly like resolution passing over her expression. "Yeah, you know what, that's exactly the problem. I shouldn't have had to get stabbed in the fucking gut for you to give a shit about me."
The words whip through the air around them like a storm. Alex isn't even finished, and it already feels like they're standing amid destruction.
"You...you are bad for me," Alex states with a definitive sort of force that cleanly rips opens up some old wound in Piper's chest. Piper feels dizzy and out of control, and her skin is screaming. "You selfish fuck."
Alex walks away. Alex leaves. Alex feels really really gone this time.
Piper can't move, she suddenly wants to tell Alex she loves her so badly it aches, she just wants her to know. It's a scream shoving at the walls of her throat but for once she really doesn't think it will be enough, because Alex is right.
She shouldn't have had to almost die for Piper to understand what she was losing.
The library is closed but Alex sneaks in anyway and drinks over half of Poussey's supply, no way she won't notice but Alex will deal with that later. She's crying most of the time, messy, chaotic tears born of the untamed rage and hurt still rioting through her.
She feels crazy and out of control and she hates that. She doesn't like what she just said to Piper, and she especially doesn't like that it's all true.
Not for the first time, but for the first time since she's been back at Litchfield, she thinks it would be easier if Aydin had just made sure she was really dead.
When she can move, Piper takes the tattoo gun for its usual hiding place (inside an empty box of ramen) and heads to the chapel.
With grim determination, she does what she should have done a long time ago.
In a neat, steady list in the center of her thigh, she inks
such a naive asshole
you controlling selfish bourgeois piece of shit
such a manipulative cunt
you are bad for me
you selfish fuck.
Her hand is cramping and wavering when she finishes, and Piper has to blink her eyes clear a few times to get a good look at her handiwork.
It looks -
Drunk, and sick of the stares people keep throwing her way, Alex stumbles back to the dorm while everyone else is on their way to dinner. After what happened at lunch, she figures the COs won't give her shit about wanting to rest.
She isn't thinking about much of anything, the alcohol is nudging her toward sleep with blissful ease when, with a sudden, sobering flash, Alex imagines everything she said earlier, tattooed on Piper's torso.
Fuck fuck fuck.
Fully awake now, urgency thrumming through her, Alex moves toward the empty halls of Litchfield until she gets to the chapel, searching under chairs for Piper's tattoo gun. She should have done this a long time ago. It never occurred to her.
She stars weaving through every row, back hunched uncomfortably so Alex can run her hand under every seat, frustration mounting as each and every search comes up empty.
"Shit, shit, shit, Jesus fuck..." Curses are spilling out under her breath, increasingly harsh, and Alex's chest feels tight with worry.
She doesn't want words hurled in a moment of anger etched on Piper forever, and right now that seems so much more important than everything that made her say them.
Chapter 8: I'm trying but I'm gone through the glass again (just come and find me)
Hey y'all, sorry for the delay on this. My brother was in town for almost a week, and not only could I do no writing while I played hostess, but I also couldn't do much work, so I had to do extra on either end of his visit. So I've been pretty busy. This is a fairly long chapter though, hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This isn't working. Not for either of them.
Piper has to do better, but so does Alex.
Slowly, she sits up, running a hand through her hair.
Then she pulls herself together and walks back to Piper's cube to find that goddamn tattoo gun.
Everyone's still at dinner, the dormitory empty, leaving Alex free to start ripping apart the cube. She upends the mattress and tugs off the sheets, then turns her attention to Piper's cabinet.
She finds the bundle of her old letters, a thick stack representing all those terrifying weeks in Queens...dozens of unanswered attempts to get Piper to talk to her. Alex holds her own apologies in her hands, anger flaring again, overwhelmingly loud for the few moments before she remembers the phrases from the letters that are now residing forever on Piper's skin.
"Alex?" Piper's voice comes from behind her, small and confused. Alex just keeps pawing through the contents of the cabinet. The pitch rising in panic, Piper adds, "What are you looking for?"
Alex doesn't answer; she's already decided, she's not saying another word to Piper until she destroys that thing.
Piper does nothing; doesn't even repeat her question, definitely doesn't come over and try to stop Alex. She just watches, and after less than a minute more of searching Alex finds it in a box of ramen.
Relief waterfalls through her as soon as the tattoo gun is in her hands, and Alex doesn't even look back at Piper, just sets her grip and snaps it in two, separating the handle. Behind her, a crooked, gasp of a sound unspools from Piper, but Alex keeps going, ripping off the extension cord before dropping the remaining pieces of the gun on the floor and driving her heel deliberately onto the needle.
She picks it up, urgently untwisting the paper clips holding bits together. When it's mangled into the smallest possible sections, she stomps on any part that seems crucial.
Only when she's certain it's beyond repair does Alex look up.
Piper's stone still in the door to her bunk, face ashen, eyes huge and stricken. It's an expression Alex recognizes - from old clients, from patients in the detox unit of her rehab center, from herself in the mirror at too many different points in her life: junkie panic.
"Sorry," Alex says. She's panting a little, and it's a half-truth. She's not sorry for smashing the godforsaken thing, but she can't help being sorry for making Piper's face look like that. "But I...I can't talk to you when you have that thing."
Piper's got her arms wrapped around her torso, and even from her place on the floor Alex can see her shaking. It winds her stomach into knots, and Alex turns to put Piper's letters and snacks back into the cabinet, buying herself a few moments to toughen back up. Then she drops the metal bits of the tattoo gun into the trash can and gets to her feet.
"Will you come sit?" Alex asks, nodding at the bed.
It takes Piper awhile to drag her gaze away from the trash can; she looks a little dazed, but she eventually walks forward and sits down beside Alex on the edge of her mattress.
"I don't know if you know this," Alex starts in a hard, calm voice. "If you've figured it out or whatever, but...Berdie's been counseling me for PTSD." That draws Piper's attention back, her eyes grazing Alex's face for a flash of a second before dropping. "She was on me as soon as I got back, because of nightmares in the hospital...I know you at least woke up once, when I was talking in my sleep. I wake up scared pretty much every night. Actually, lately, it's more like I'm just not sleeping. And I haven't even been outside since I've been back. I've had a few flashbacks, and that's a more literal thing than I ever thought. Makes me feel fucking crazy. Mostly I'm just...on the edge, all the time, like I still think someone's gonna jump out and attack me. I get freaked out even when there's no reason to be anymore. And," Her voice sharpens a little. "I get panic attacks. Which I guess you know now."
Piper isn't looking at her, her face tilted down in the direction of the mattress, and she's tracing her finger on her thigh. What little Alex can see of her expression is pained.
"So...that's where I"m at," Alex finishes. "I've been trying to hide it from you, but I'm thinking now that was a bad move." She lets that settle long enough that Piper sneaks a look up at her.
"I think I wanted to protect you. You were torturing yourself about what happened, Pipes, and I didn't want you to feel more guilty than you already did. And also...I've been so fucking worried about you. I didn't want my own shit to get in the way because helping you seemed more important, but now I'm thinking...why aren't you doing the same thing when I need it?"
Piper physically flinches. She's moved against the wall in the corner of the mattress by now, seeming to shrink into herself even more, properly shamed, and it makes Alex's chest hurt but at least she knows the words are said and now they're gone. Piper has no way of keeping them.
"I'm actually asking, Piper," Alex adds firmly. She's all too familiar by now with the signs of Piper shutting herself off, but Alex is done letting it happen. She can talk freely to Piper, now, and that's important, but she's also going to make Piper talk to her. She's been letting her get away with five to ten single syllable words a day, and in the silences between them Piper found space to hide herself somewhere Alex can't find. "I want to know why."
But Alex has made a decision; she's finally sending out the damn search party, aggressive and determined and brandishing torches.
Panic and guilt are devouring Piper, gnashing their teeth and competing for the final bite.
She isn't even looking at Alex, but she feels caged in by her. She hadn't expected this - she'd thought she'd finally, inadvertently succeeded in the goal she'd given up: pushing Alex away.
Instead Alex is sitting beside her, she's talking so much and Piper's skin is buzzing with need, but the tattoo gun is in pieces and she doesn't know what she's supposed to do about that.
And she can feel Alex waiting for an answer. Somehow, Piper can sense she'll have to give one.
"I...haven't..." Each word has to crawl out of her, and they come out all scrunched up and puny. "...been telling you...I haven't wanted to apologize or...explain anything because...I don't want you to tell me it's okay."
"It's not okay," Alex's voice is flat, and the speed of the reply startles Piper. "I needed you, Pipes, and you just walked away. I have no interest in telling you that's okay." Piper squeezes her eyes shut, and then Alex's voice catches. "But if you have a reason for that besides just not caring...it'd be nice to hear it."
This, again, fires directly into Piper's selfish weakness; she can't stand the idea of Alex thinking she doesn't care. She doesn't have it in her to let Alex think that.
But tears are pushing insistently at Piper's eyes, and any words she has are wrestling against the thick, familiar silence that usually closes her throat.
"Pipes..." Alex's voice is gentle again, and closer. "Talk to me."
"I..." Piper sucks her lip between her teeth, not confident she can get through a single sentence without breaking down. It takes so long, but then something inside her snaps and the words wrench themselves free, "I hate myself, Alex."
Fuck, she doesn't want to do this, doesn't want to cry like someone who deserves sympathy, but it's happening anyway. "I thought you died. You almost did, and that's because of me, and I feel that...all the time." She's glad Alex isn't touching her. "So when I hear you at night, or when I have to look at what he did to you - " Her eyes flick to the scar before she can stop them. "...or when I saw you today, it just...it feels like..."
She's always been good with words, comfortable with her books and her speeches and her logic, but she can't find the words for that feeling.
Like her chest is going to detonate. Like she's getting smothered in darkness. Like breathlessly wishing she were the one he tried to kill.
"I will never want you to hate yourself," Alex says quietly.
Piper wipes her eyes with her sleeves. "If you won't, at least one of us should."
A long silence follows that pronouncement. Alex is sitting right beside her now, leaning against the wall. Their shoulders brush, barely, and then Alex asks, "Piper when you got me sent back here...did you think Kubra was going to be able to get to me?"
Her throat is tight, so Piper just shakes her head hard and doesn't stop.
"Okay. So that matters, Pipes."
Her skin is crawling, and she's still blinking out tears. "It wouldn't have mattered if you had died."
"But I didn't. And I know my face is fucked up, and I keep freaking out in public but...I'm okay." She pauses, and a few degrees of strength drain from Alex's voice. "But I still need you sometimes, Piper. And..." She hesitates, but only for a second. "I needed you before, too."
Slowly, Piper lifts her eyes to Alex's face and keeps them there no matter how it makes her feel. "I know." Her throat feels lined with broken glass. "And I was...I was awful to you."
Alex's smile is sad but her eyes are soft; she reaches up and touches a strand of Piper's hair. "Tell me why," she prompts, like she's just nudging Piper toward saying something she already knows.
Her hand stays where it is, absently winding Piper's hair around two fingers, and it loosens the knot in Piper's chest, makes it a little easier for her to admit, "I didn't send you back because I wanted to protect you. But I...think I kind of convinced myself that it would." She feels so far away from that, from whoever she was then. It takes forever to get the words out, she has to crawl back over months and months of hurt to get to them. "I thought that made it okay, or something. And then you were here, and you were so upset. I wasn't expecting...then you started saying how he'd know exactly where to find you, that you were in even more danger..."
Piper stops talking, her throat scraped raw with the effort, and it takes a minute or so to work herself up to what she needs to say. Alex just watches her a patient, waiting look.
"I needed you to be crazy," Piper finally clenches out. "I really, really needed you to be wrong."
"I know," Alex answers almost gently.
Piper lets out a stuttering whimper, suddenly so tired from everything she hasn't said. "I'm sorry, Alex." The words feel like something tangible, solid and heavy, a boulder lifted from her chest. "I'm so, so sorry..."
It actually feels better, saying it out loud, maybe because Alex really doesn't tell her it's okay. She doesn't offer forgiveness. But she does nod and say without a single note of doubt in her voice, "I know you are."
"I'm sorry," Piper says it again and again and again, hoping to extract more stones from inside her. "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm so sorry..." At some point, the litany of apologies gets lost underneath a fresh wave of sobs, and Piper drops her face into her hands and cries.
Her legs are crossed on top of the bed, and she feels Alex wrap one hand around her ankle, the other sliding around the nape of her neck, like she's trying to figure out how to hold all of Piper together at once.
"I know you are," Alex repeats, quiet but close enough to her ear that Piper can hear. "I know, Pipes, I know, I know..."
After a few minutes of this, like a habit, Piper's brain starts choosing a place for the words, for an I know you are followed by a string of repeated I know's, across her unmarked leg, maybe, and then she remembers with a jolt that Alex destroyed the gun.
In a sudden whirlwind of panic and determination Piper scrambles off the bed and hits the floor on her knees, digging into the trash can.
"Piper..." Alex says her name with weary disappointment as Piper arranges every dismantled piece in her palm, paper clips and all.
She doesn't want to think about Stella, not ever and especially not right now, but Piper's still frantically trying to remember how Stella had said the gun worked. The round part that spins, the bit she took from a discman, is cracked and a little bent. Heart sinking, Piper realizes it probably won't work even if she remembered how.
Her fingers are starting to tremble, her skin tingling and tight.
"It's fucked, Pipes," Alex comes to sit beside her on the floor. "But you don't need it."
"Yeah, I do," she clenches out, the pitch of her voice quickly scaling a ladder toward hysteria. "I do, I need it..."
The question pins Piper down, corners her. Alex hasn't asked since that first day, and Piper refused to talk about it. But here's a patience to Alex's voice, and a force that hasn't been present in awhile. For some reason, it makes Piper feel afraid of her; she'd almost had a handle on herself, on the silence and stillness, but Alex clearly has no intention of letting her go back.
Again, she prods, "Why do you need it, Piper?"
Unconsciously, Piper's fingers curl around the edge of her shirt. She doesn't say anything.
She's not so far gone that she doesn't know how it looks. For months, keeping the tattoos in hidden spots hasn't just been because she's breaking the rules; it's just as much about avoiding psych.
She knows how they must seem.
But she needs them. And Alex has never judged it, never made her feel crazy; she just wants to know why, but Piper at a loss for what to say.
When she started, that day she found Alex's list of songs, it was simply because the white ink on her arm had turned into a neon sign announcing her guilt.
Once, she'd spent an entire sleepless night obsessing over the fact that she's never actually seen the fish tattoo she'd gotten after a scuba trip with Alex. She can just catch it in the mirror, out of the corner of her eye with a precise turn of her neck, and Alex had taken photos on the digital camera right after she had it done, and then in every stage of healing, but she's never actually seen it firsthand.
In her grief stricken, disconnected state, that had seemed unfathomable.
Stella's tattoo, the three words she chose...it's right there on Piper's arm, unavoidable in spite of her perpetual long sleeves, glaring at her during every shower or quick change of clothes.
So Piper started telling herself she needed to drown it out. The song list had been a manic, out of her head whim, but after that she'd been more deliberate, scouring her memory and her letters for Alex's words, wanting them to outnumber the three words on her arm.
At some point, though, the reasons shifted. And Piper doesn't have words for the why anymore.
"I don't know," she answers finally, a trembling, childlike confusion to the words that makes it sound true enough that Alex believes her.
Alex reaches over and unfurls Piper's fingers, pointedly guiding her hand back above the trash and brushing the metal pieces back into it. "Look. I need to be able to be honest with you, Pipes, without worrying about it ending up fucking...marked on you forever."
Without meaning to, Piper's hand drifts to her leg, splaying her palm across the spot that holds her newly inked list of Alex's harshest honesty.
She thinks if something's honest, she deserves to have it marked.
Alex's scar is honest, though she's not the one who deserves it. For maybe the first time, it occurs to Piper that Alex must have a second scar on her stomach.
The thought makes her hands feel slick. She wipes dry palms against her khakis.
"Nothing." Piper's a little amazed at how automatically the word leaves her, no thought or decision behind saying it, as though no alternative answer exists. Like singing a song she knows by heart.
"Piper." It's Alex's no-bullshit tone. "Don't do that. What is it?" Then, softening, "Really?"
She fumbles around for an acceptable answer. "I know how crazy it must seem to you."
There's a silence, and then Alex touches her cheek, subtly turning Piper's face to look at her. "You aren't crazy, Pipes. You just got into a bad habit." She pauses long enough to manage a smile. "I'll be your sponsor to quit. Anytime you want a new tattoo, tell me about it, and I'll convince you that nothing I say is worth it."
All across her torso and chest, Piper's tattoos start murmuring at her, at each other, loudly reasserting their own worth.
But Alex is looking at her, so soft and patient, and maybe Piper shouldn't but she can't help thinking about what Alex told her, that it mattered that she hadn't meant to put Alex in danger.
She is still a bad person.
But Alex is saying she could have been worse.
A few pieces of the tattoo gun have fallen to the floor, unnoticed by Alex, so Piper steels herself before and picks them up, then dumps them. She has to suppress a shudder as she does it, but she wants to give Alex something, so she maneuvers her lips into a clumsy, fragile smile and meets Alex's gaze. "This is kind of a harsh detox."
Alex's whole face breaks into a smile, so wide and delighted Piper feels her whole heart snag. "Piper Elizabeth Chapman, was that a joke?" She lets out a soft, weightless laugh that's a breath away from crying. "Don't get me wrong, it wasn't funny. But still..."
Piper's still holding the smile. It hurts a little less, now. "I try."
Every plane in Alex's face softens. "I know you do." She taps her knuckles on Piper's knee. "C'mon. I'm done sitting on the fucking floor."
Alex stands first, then offers a hand and pulls Piper after her. They sit on Piper's bed, and for some reason Alex turns to her expectantly, like the next step is up to Piper. They're an hour away from lights out, and she doesn't think she can handle any more heavy talks, but she still wants to give Alex more. She wants to make her smile like that again.
She can't seem to stop wanting, all of a sudden.
So Piper gets up again and rummages around in her cabinet until she finds a deck of cards. She catches Alex's eye and then tosses it to her. "Wanna play?"
Alex grins; it feels as good as Piper hoped.
So they play Speed and Gin Rummy and Crazy Eights for the next hour, through Red's return and undisguised surprise at the sight. Alex keeps losing but she doesn't seem to care.
When the light flashes for the final count of the day, instinctive fear washes over Alex's face and Piper wishes she hadn't seen it. But then Alex covers her hand, just for a second, on top of the a pile of scattered cards between them.
"I'll see ya tomorrow, okay?"
Piper holds her gaze; she's even a little bit proud of herself for how much she's looked, tonight. "Yeah."
She stands up when Alex does, heading to the door of the cube to be counted, and just before Alex walks away, she leans close and says in an almost nervous voice, too soft for even Red to hear, "Don't go anywhere, okay?"
For a half a second, Piper feels the bare bones of another too obvious joke, about prison and the lack of opportunity to go places. It would make Alex happy, but she can't grab onto it. She's too fixated on the worried vulnerability in Alex's eyes.
God, it's been so long since Piper really looked at her.
Misreading the silence, Alex raises her eyebrows. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I know. And I...I won't."
"Good." And, God, another heart stopping smile. Piper wants more. She doesn't want Alex to go. "Night, Pipes."
She leans against the edge of her cube and watches Alex walk away. Her fingers come up to the edge her lips; they might even be smiling, too, without effort.
An amused grunt from Red breaks her reverie. Piper glances over to see her bunkmate watching her in surprise. "I heard about your little early exit at dinner...surprised that one forgave you."
Red squints at her, makes a scoffing sound "You seem strangely okay with that."
Piper touches her lips again; she's definitely close to a smile. "Yeah," she says softly, almost to herself. "I really am."
She's so wired it takes an hour to fall asleep, and no sounds of Alex's nightmares wake her up.
It all falls apart by morning, when Piper's standing in the shower looking at the bloody skin around manipulative cunt and selfish fuck and remembering that they're the last ones she'll get to do.
She ends up snapping her pink plastic razor in half, it cuts her palm when she does it but one side breaks sharply enough that an edge would probably work. She scrapes it lightly across her unadorned thigh, testing, and she's a few seconds away from carving out I know you are and maybe so that matters, Piper until she remembers that Alex is just outside, probably brushing her teeth or plucking her eyebrows in the mirror and waiting for Piper to be done.
It's enough to make her stop. Because a lot happened yesterday, but one of the big things is that, in spite of herself, she'd really hated the way Alex looked at her after she walked away in the cafeteria. For the first time in so long, Piper had been almost desperate to fix something.
She'd thought she'd given up on trying.
Now, she hides the pieces of the razor in her shower bag, forcibly telling herself that she doesn't need it. She tattooed herself yesterday afternoon; even on a normal day, she wouldn't have been able to add anything else by now. She's only panicking because she knows the gun is gone.
She remembers Alex saying it's just a bad habit, that she'll be Piper's sponsor.
Alex would know about that, because she used heroin and apparently went to rehab. Piper wonders sometimes when she started using. If maybe it was after the phone call Piper didn't answer on the day of Diane's funeral, right before it started, Piper knows because she googled the obituary on Polly's desktop computer the day after she got back from Paris, memorized the time and date and name of the funeral home but never even considered going.
Piper hates thinking like this.
She toys with the zipper on her shower bag. She can see the razor through the plastic. Her skin is asking for it.
She tucks her chin into her chest and looks down, eyes tracking I don't want you hurting yourself, diagonal across her sternum. There's just room underneath for another sentence, she could have added I will never want you to hate yourself.
Alex would ask her why she needs to do it. Piper still doesn't know how to explain it.
The water's gone from steaming to lukewarm in the time she's been standing under the spray, but Piper doesn't notice until she hears Alex say her name from the other side of the plastic curtain.
"Coming." She flips off the water immediately, grabbing her towel and wrapping it around herself on autopilot. A few seconds later, her stomach sinks in horror as Piper realizes: the towel will no longer conceal enough skin. Covering up the highest tattoos on her chest reveals the lowest two sentences on her thigh.
There are a few tattoos visible up high: I'm a little worried about her an inch beneath her collarbone and scrunched up you can go now somewhere between her breasts and her throat. They'll attract more attention, closer to people's eyelines, but she doesn't want Alex to see the list on her leg.
So she tucks the towel in at the side, tugged low enough to hide the newest tattoos, then holds her shower bag awkwardly against her chest, mostly hiding the old ones, before she steps out of the shower with a carefully constructed smile.
"I want to talk just a little about Piper Chapman."
Berdie's waited until the last ten minutes of a fairly inoffensive session, their first since the panic attack, to drop that bomb. Alex boards up her expression, instantly impassive. "No, thanks."
"Are you supposed to talk about other inmates? Seems unprofessional."
"I'm only interested in discussing her in how she pertains to your recovery," Berdie counters smoothly. "She's the person you spend the most time with...we've talked about how important a support system is."
Alex's face heats up, assuming the implications in spite of her counselor's neutral tone; Berdie obviously saw Piper walk away in the middle of Alex's public panic attack. Angry as she'd been, she suddenly feels defensive on Piper's behalf.
But not defensive enough to start discussing her with a prison employee.
"I'm not talking about her."
Berdie looks at her for a long beat, like she thinks Alex is just going to crack under silence. Getting nothing, she finally says, "Do you talk to her?"
Alex makes a face. "What? Obviously we talk." More in the last two days than in the past several months, but Berdie doesn't need to hear about all that.
"Have the two of you ever talked about the day of your attack?"
Alex tenses, the way she always does when Berdie brings up the day itself. Like the question is unspeakably rude, she demands, "Why?"
"I've told you how important it is that you're able to talk about the trauma, and your feelings about it. That doesn't just mean with me." Berdie pauses, the slightest moment of hesitation before she finishes, "Talking to someone you care about is probably even more beneficial. Especially considering you both experienced that day in different ways..."
Alex makes a scoffing sound, like she doubts what Berdie is saying. She's just started discussing the aftermath with Piper, making Piper listen to it without allowing her to shrink further into guilt after. Alex thinks it's good, she thinks it's helping, but she's not ready to talk about that day. She doesn't want Piper to have to hear about it.
She doesn't let herself linger on Berdie mentioning Piper's experience.
So Alex just reiterates, firmly, "I'm not talking about her in here."
"Alright," Berdie agrees. "Just...at least think about what I said."
Sometimes Alex catches herself stealing Berdie's tactics when she's talking to Piper - tell me about it, what are you thinking, tell me what's wrong - and she always has to stifle a groan, because she doesn't want to be Piper's goddamn therapist. Things between the two of them should be easier than that.
But there's no getting around the fact that Piper's traumatized, too, much more than Alex is, and no one else is helping her. Even Berdie would probably take one look at Piper's black ink handiwork and recommend a trip to psych.
So, fuck it, sometimes she steals a trick from therapy, and it's hard to care because it's working.
Piper talks to her. It takes her forever, sometimes, to get the words together, and they come out sounding painful, like sentences constructed out of broken glass, but she talks. Sometimes Alex can even guess what she's going to say. And she almost always understands it.
Alex talks, too, and not just filling silences now; she tells Piper everything she was holding back before: how Berdie says eventually she should try going outside, but just imagining having to look at the fucking greenhouse freaks her out. How much she hates getting suddenly, randomly afraid even though she knows there's nothing to be scared of.
When she says things like that, and Piper's face twists with barely restrained guilt, Alex makes her talk about it. Makes her realize, over and over, that she'd never thought that would happen, and that Kubra wanted Alex dead even before Piper sent her back to prison. That Piper wanted Alex to be crazy because it meant nothing bad would actually happen to her.
They don't talk about that woman, about the cheating. Alex doesn't know yet if she can make that okay.
They're draining, those talks, and Piper usually ends up spent and tearful. Alex never thought she'd be glad to see Piper cry, but it's almost a relief compared to the empty silhouette Piper had nearly turned into.
Alex pushes her into easier, better things, too. They leave the dorms now, play cards and scrabble in the rec room or meet in the library toward the end of Alex's shifts, pouring through the new donations of books and always talking. They even eat breakfast with Lorna and Boo and Sister Ingalls and Yoga once, though Piper doesn't say it word throughout the meal and Alex hates it so much she doesn't suggest that again.
Sometimes when they're mid-conversation, no matter how well it's going, Piper will get a stricken, wild eyed look on her face. She gets good at wiping it within seconds, but Alex will catch her hand slipping under her shirt, or her fingernail spelling out words across her leg.
Once, they're in Alex's bunk when it happens, and in a sudden flash of inspiration, Alex hands her a pen. "Try this. Wean yourself off." She smirks, just a little. "Sponsor, remember?"
Piper takes the pen and grips it so tightly her knuckles go white, but all she says is, "That kind of defeats the purpose."
Alex goes still, instantly on alert. "Which purpose?"
Piper swallows, her throat working furiously with effort, her eyes on the pen. She's getting better at looking at Alex, lately, but the pained effort of it still shows.
(She still doesn't look at herself in the mirror. Alex knows she should ask her about that, someday, but she's afraid the explanation might hurt more than she can handle right now.)
"The permanence," Piper says finally, but she doesn't offer anything else.
"I liked that you missed me, you know?"
"What do you mean?"
It's a few minutes before the final count of the day. That always makes Alex feel anxious, and a little bit desperate, like the seven hours of separation that sleep requires will be enough to unravel any progress. She always finds herself scrambling around for something good to hand Piper, some confession that convinces her to stay familiar for another day.
"In Berdie's godawful drama class, remember? You said you weren't sorry you got me sent back because you missed me." Alex smiles, almost sheepish. "I liked that you did. Cause I missed you like hell, Pipes, all that time in Queens."
Shadows pass over Piper's face, fuck, that isn't what Alex was going for. "You missed me because I wouldn't answer your letters."
"Jesus, I didn't blame you, Pipes. I wouldn't have answered if it were the other way around."
"Yeah, you would have," It's an unusually fast answer for Piper, hardly a heartbeat of silence between their voices.
Alex opens her mouth to protest, but the thing is, Piper's right. Alex would have answered. The third or fourth, maybe, but no more than that. Not the twentieth. She doesn't have the staying power.
For once, she's the one to look away, the acknowledgement of that truth a dull kick to her gut.
Then, so quiet she barely hears it, Piper says, "I missed you then, too."
Alex searches for Piper's gaze again; her eyes are shining, and so sorry. Alex smiles so maybe Piper will, just in case she can catch an old reflex. "One thing I will hold a grudge on, probably forever..." Her voice is all warmth and teasing. "The missed opportunity of your furlough. Both of us in Queens and totally celibate is a fucking tragedy."
Piper smiles, maybe more from surprise than anything, and though she isn't actually laughing her eyes are, somehow, and it makes Alex's chest go warm.
For a second, she wants to kiss Piper so badly it physically aches.
The impulse surprises her, and within seconds, the surprise surprises her as it occurs to Alex how long it's been since she so viscerally wanted that.
Piper's feeling it, too, Alex can tell, and for a loaded moment they look at each other in an old way that feels new.
Then the light flashes, directing them back for count, and Piper moves away from her too fast.
"Night, Pipes." Alex winks at her, playing it up. "Don't miss me too much."
Piper laughs with her eyes again, and Alex's blood speeds up with triumph.
When the lights dim in the dormitory, Piper fills up a page and a half of her notebook, margins and all, with anything she can remember Alex said today. She knows she has no way of making another tattoo gun, but she feels better telling herself she's saving up.
Every day she runs her finger over the list on her thigh, silently mouthing the words to herself. They still feel true, she doesn't want to forget that they are, but Alex says other true things, too, and she really, really wishes she could see them all together.
Sometimes she catches herself falling into moments with Alex, loving her so much that Piper believes anything she says. So much that she forgets not to trust herself.
But any time she's on her own, at work or in the shower or in the hour or two it takes her to fall asleep, those moments with Alex barely feel real and Piper starts craving a needle.
She digs her nails into the nearly healed scabs on her left forearm until the pain turns her vision white at the edges.
It's almost two weeks after Alex's panic attack in the cafeteria before she wakes Piper up with the sounds another nightmare.
Piper's barely asleep when the first stuttering gasp reaches her. Right away her throat tightens, her chest gearing up for an explosion.
"No..." It's so quiet, but Piper can hear the tears soaking the single syllable anyway. Her own flood her eyes like a reflex. "Don't...please..."
Piper touches her fist to just below her right hipbone, to the words Don't leave me. They're the first of Alex's words she tattooed on herself, two days after she impulsively inked the list of song titles.
Her thumb frantically circles the phrase as Alex lets out a muffled whimper, and Piper tries to think of what Alex would say to her right now.
What are you so scared of?
Don't you feel more guilty lying here and ignoring this?
Guilt is dangerous, that much Piper has learned, but it's also measurable. And somehow, there's always room for more.
She gets out of bed with a burst of determination, her legs unsteady beneath her as she hurries two cubes over to get to Alex.
Lorna's stirring in the bed beside hers and lifts her head to blearily stare at Piper when she comes in. "Go back to sleep." Piper whispers. "I got her." It's the first thing she's said to anyone but Alex or, occasionally, Healey or another CO, in months.
"Hey..." Piper gets on her knees beside Alex's bed. She touches her hair, voice barely audible. "Alex?" Alex's face contorts into a childlike mask of fear, her lips trembling as she lets out a frightened whine.
The crying takes over, just like that.
"Alex, it's okay," Piper whispers thickly, her voice falling apart like an avalanche because she doesn't believe it. It's been so long since she believed it. Then, something true, "I'm here."
Alex's eyes fly open, terror and adrenaline galloping through her. Her nervous system is more awake for the rest of her, and for a second she's too disoriented to recognize anything around her.
"I'm here, Alex."
Piper's hand is in her hair, swimming between strands, impossibly tender.
Alex blinks her vision clear and sees Piper only inches away, watching her. Her eyes are huge, shimmering in the dark, and she keeps sniffling loudly.
She's really there.
Alex can usually stop herself crying as soon as she wakes up, it's not even real, just a physical reaction to the dreams, but this time she starts crying harder, before she's even properly awake; she has to turn her face into the edge of the mattress to keep quiet.
"Ssssshhhh." Piper's holding her head, her voice is so close. "You're okay, Alex, you're safe, you're..." Her breath hitches sharply. "S-sorry. I'm sorry. I'm here. You're okay..."
God, Alex hadn't realized how much she's been needing this.
She wants to fall back to sleep right away, with Piper this close, Piper reaching for her instead of the other way around, but after a few minutes she wipes her face on the sheet and looks up, choking out, "You should go, they'll be coming around."
"You sure?" Piper whispers, soft and wet, and Alex loves her so much for asking she nearly starts crying again.
"I'm sure. Thanks."
"Don't thank me."
Alex's arm shoots out to catch Piper by the elbow, and she waits until she looks back to repeat firmly, "Thank you."
Piper doesn't protest again, just holds Alex's eyes for a moment before gently pulling away.
Alex listens to the pad of her footsteps, back across the dorm. She wipes her face with her hands and just before she falls to sleep, she thinks if she had to get a tattoo of Piper's words, anything she's ever said, she would choose I'm here.
So this was a lengthy chapter, but also kind of comparatively quiet. Hope you enjoyed...it's obviously an important one, but pretty talky as well, and that first scene could have almost been the fanfic equivalent of a "bottle episode". Hope it didn't feel too filler.
Chapter 9: I'm so hard to handle (I'm selfish and I'm sad)
Sorry for the wait, guys, having trouble getting writing time in between work. Hope it was worth it.
This chapter takes place around Christmas, which is where we are in the vague timeline I've been keeping in my head (assuming the show's season ended around the end of July/beginning of August). This means we've probably surpassed where season four would ever actually go, linearly, but whatever. That was inevitable.
The water in the shower runs blue and black around her feet, swirling toward the drain; Piper looks away from it, scrubbing at her thigh with a bar of soap but not watching the words disappear.
She's been using the pen on her skin the past few days. She likes seeing words there, even though they won't stay. Sometimes the smooth, painless glide of the pen isn't good enough, and she presses too hard and ends up breaking the skin. It makes her think of when she was a kid, Cal coming home from school with boredom induced scribbles all over his arm, her mother sighing heavily and warning him against ink poisoning.
She chances a glance down, checking her progress. The tattooed list of insults and the arch of help's are the only visible words on her leg, but the ink is smeared and faded around them. It makes her look bruised.
Piper's stomach starts to clamp up, she's already forgetting everything she'd written last night. She closes her eyes and tips her head back under the hot spray, reminding herself that Alex is back in the cube, waiting for her. Piper can see her in five minutes, she keeps telling herself that, even bargaining it down - five more minutes, maybe three if you hurry - just trying to get herself calm.
So she rinses off fast then towels herself dry and puts on clothes in the tight space of the shower stall, tired of having to hold the towel just so to hide the tattoos. Her hair drips water onto the shoulders of her khakis as Piper moves out of the bathroom and back to the dormitory, heading straight for Alex's waiting smile.
She's okay, then, and she stays okay through breakfast, but fifteen minutes into work Piper's staring too hard at the needle jumping on her sewing machine, wishing there was a way to dismantle it with no one noticing.
Piper finds Alex in the library when she's done with work for the day; she likes seeing Alex here, surrounded by books, relaxed and easy and hardly ever doing actual work.
"Hey." Alex grins when she sees her, and the book she's holding gets folded shut, silenced without a second thought. Piper settles down beside her on the floor, their backs against the bookshelf. Piper still doesn't read any of the books Alex brings her, but it doesn't matter so much lately; there are fewer of those long, silent stretches between them, when they needed open books in their laps to stare at it to make it okay that they weren't looking or talking to each other.
The edges of their boots are touching. Piper shifts so her shoulder brushes Alex's.
"How was work?"
"Okay. Felt long." Piper pauses, talking herself into the next question, "You never told me how Berdie's was yesterday."
She makes herself ask now, every few days.
Alex's eyes go soft, recognizing the effort. "It was okay. Whatever. She asked me if I'd been outside yet. I told her no one's going outside unless we wanna freeze our asses off."
Piper makes a humming sound in agreement; winter has descended early and harshly on New York, clearing the yard and filling the prisoners with restless, unspent energy. There have been an uptick in fights the last few weeks, from loud curse ridden verbal altercations to actual throw downs. Not that any of that affects Alex and Piper; they've been completely contained and entirely isolated for months now.
She changes the subject from Alex's counseling sessions too fast. "People in the sweatshop kept talking about their auditions."
"Oh, fuck, is that today? We should go watch that train wreck."
"I don't think we can get in if we aren't auditioning."
Alex smirks, eyes flashing suggestively. "What? I didn't tell you about our Baby, It's Cold Outside duet? You have to take the high part."
Piper ducks her head and smiles. "Not that it matters."
"What does that mean?"
"You're tone deaf. At either part."
Alex laughs the way she always does when Piper says anything remotely lighthearted, the kind of laugh that's more about being happy than amused.
Piper's scratching her fingernails back and forth across her knee. Alex habitually picks up her hand to stop her; she keeps hold of it, letting her thumb slip absently across Piper's knuckles. It feels nice. She wants, for a second, to rest her head on Alex's shoulder, but she doesn't.
Alex doesn't like Christmas. Not since her mom died.
For most of the Decembers since, she'd been traveling, which made it easier to pretending the holiday didn't exist. A few times - definitely the first year after, and a few more that coincided with relapses - she'd been high enough that she hadn't even noted the actual day while it was happening, can't even remember a single pang of awareness.
She'd been all too sober last year, days removed from the double blow of being dumped by Piper and then watching Piper get carried off, bloody and unconscious.
She's not sure what to expect from Christmas this year. Thanksgiving had come and gone without much notice; it was during that long, frightening period where Piper was barely there. Alex can't even be sure if Piper realized why the food was a little better that day.
Now, though, only a few weeks removed, there's a lot more to be thankful for.
They're unlikely to pull an invite into anyone's Secret Santa pool; she and Piper have become a closed unit, even more so than they were before. She can't get very far in trying to figure out a gift, always getting tangled in the memory of Piper's birthday, painstakingly choosing between songs without realizing she was picking lyrics for Piper's ribcage.
And anyway, she's afraid what Piper wants for Christmas is another goddamn back alley tattoo gun.
It's been almost three weeks since Alex smashed it, and everything is better than it was, but she can still see Piper craving. Still thinking she needs it.
But she's been there, helping Alex emerge out of nightmares, three times so far. And she smiles sometimes, and doesn't usually stiffen when Alex touches her. She sounds like talking takes less effort, and she can hold eye contact for lengthy stretches.
She is getting better, in small steps and inching progress. It makes Alex feel better, too, like she has finally proven she is not too weakened and fucked up to help. Just knowing that makes her feel stronger, more herself, and it's more helpful than any of the pills or advice Berdie has provided her so far.
The Christmas pageant is schedule for the night before Christmas Eve, and Alex has a pretty good idea of what to expect: Lorna's taken to giving a running commentary every time they're in their cube, griping endlessly about how she was downgraded from the role of Mary to "some sort of fuckin' goat".
Alex has been cranky and on edge the last few days, and she's sick of the minimal, pathetic attempts at holiday decorations pasted throughout the prison, alternately stuck thinking about last year's Christmas and, more vaguely, her mom.
Both Berdie and Piper notice her mood and ask about. Berdie sounds like she genuinely wants the answer, Piper sounds, as always, like she's nervous about it, but Alex gives Piper more anyway.
"Christmas in prison doesn't really change, right?" She says to Piper one afternoon in the library. "I just keep thinking about last year." Guilt shadows Piper's face, and Alex quickly clarifies, trying to keep her tone light, "Your stint as a prize fighter."
"Oh, right..." Piper looks a little startled, like she'd forgotten all about that.
They're quiet for a moment, and then Alex hesitantly adds, "You know, I never told you, but....I saw you, after."
Surprised, Piper looks at her. Her voice is small. "Yeah?"
"There was a whole crowd outside...you were all sprawled out in the snow." Alex presses her lips together. "Scared the shit out of me."
Piper isn't looking at her. "Yeah...I kinda know what that's like."
Before Alex can work herself up to asking, Piper says, forcing a casual tone, "Actually, you know what I never told you? Pennsatucky never knocked me out."
So Piper tells her about Suzanne coming outside, obviously confused and out of it, and knocked Piper out beside an already unconscious Tiffany Doggett.
"She probably stopped me from killing her," Piper finishes grimly, her eyes unfocused and far away. "I just...I couldn't stop."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't kill her, Pipes, for the sake of your criminal record. But she was the one trying to kill you. She fuckin deserved to get her redneck, homophobic ass kicked." Piper nods, but she still looks troubled. "And, hey, she got new teeth out of it, so I actually you did her a favor."
A smile ghosts across Piper's face. "Yeah."
Alex can tell Piper's stuck on something about that night, locking herself into guilt somewhere. This is usually where Alex would push, make her talk about it, but she's tired, and she doesn't want to keep thinking about last year. So Alex smiles and nods at the surrounding bookshelves. "Wanna pick out some books? I'll sneak 'em out for you as a Christmas gift."
It takes a second for Piper to get her full attention back on Alex, but she smiles when she does. "It's prison, Alex, you don't have to get me anything."
"I might not," Alex says honestly, smirking a little. "We're kinda down to the wire and I have no ideas. I'm not crafty, and commissary's shit for shopping."
"True. Everyone ends up with the same stuff."
"I may just re-gift you a Snickers."
Piper gets a few Christmas cards, including one from Polly and Larry, a photograph of them on the cover with the baby she's never met, looking like a family, like she or Pete never existed. The thought of them adding her prison address to the list of recipients of their joint Christmas card would have yanked Piper into an indignant fury six months ago, but now she stares at the photo with a sense of detachment from both of them. They feel like people she knew when she was someone else, someone who was barely real and doesn't matter, and whatever life they're living right now has nothing to do with her.
There's a handwritten note on the inside, just from Polly, the phone number Piper already knows and an entreaty to call, arrange a time for Polly to come back and visit - just me again, she'd promised.
Piper's immediate instinct is that she won't do it, but then she realizes Alex might actually tell her she should. She touches her collarbone and then her stomach, tracing words she'd stolen from Alex's letter to Polly.
Alex joins Piper in her bunk soon, her hair wet and smelling like generic shampoo. She glances at the green and red envelopes stacked in Piper's lap. "Your family coming for Christmas?" There's a cautious note to her voice; she knows no one but Cal has come back since her birthday, and that Cal stopped shortly after the panty business did.
"Yeah. Christmas Eve." Her mother had written we in talking about the visit, but Piper's never sure if that includes her father or just Cal and Neri. She's not sure if she wants to see him; she maybe doesn't want to see any of them.
She can feel Alex watching her. "Are you glad?"
"I don't know. I don't know how to be around them now." She stops, rattled by how selfish this is, talking about her family's visit when Alex has no one coming for her.
Piper stays quiet, but Alex pushes it. "What do you mean?"
It takes a second for her to answer. "I'd just been really pissed at them, for how they were reacting to this whole prison thing. But now it's like...what did I expect? Why do I think anyone should give me free passes?" She has to look away from Alex, then, the scar on her face. "And they don't even know the worst things I've done. I'm the problem, not them."
"Fuck that, Piper," Alex says immediately, and for the first time in awhile, she actually sounds angry. "Jesus, I hate your parents."
Piper looks up again, surprised. The statement sounds off somehow. "You've never met my parents," she reminds Alex, not without self-reproach.
"Fine, whatever, then I hate the way they make you feel. Like you need to be good enough for them."
The words slam, unexpectedly heavy, into Piper, and she feels the impact somewhere between her chest and throat. Her eyes tear over, and she feels an instant and alarming sense of desperation, the need to catch the words somehow. She wants to hold them in her hands, turn them over and examine them. She needs a needle, or at the very least her ink pen.
Of course she is not good enough. But Alex is saying -
That she shouldn't have to be?
The skin on her leg starts tingling.
Alex is still talking, oblivious. "You find out your dad cheated on your mom when you're, what? Twelve years old? You didn't treat him like shit for his worst mistakes, but he can't show up at a visitation room and do the same for you? And from what you've said about your mom - "
"You remembered that?" Piper asks, slightly delayed.
"Of course," Alex makes a face like that was a dumb question.
For a second, Piper feels like telling Alex that she remembers things, too. She remembers what Alex picked out to wear the one and only time she met her asshole of a father, and she remembers the restaurant where Diane Vause worked, the way Alex would sit in a corner booth during her shifts, occupied with a stack of library books and an occasional milkshake.
But thinking about Diane just makes Piper remember all the reasons why she's awful, so she just shakes her head. "It's not really on them. It's me."
The irritated rant is gone from Alex's voice. She meets Piper's eyes, very deliberate, and brushes back a section of Piper's hair. "Why do you think that?"
Piper feels her jaw clenching, tight enough that it aches. Her face feels hot. "You know," she says through her teeth. She spreads her palm across the top of her thigh, right over the last tattoos she gave herself. "You know, Alex."
Alex's expression is blank. "What do I know?"
Piper's throat narrows. She and Alex have been having so many talks lately, and she's genuinely listened to everything Alex says about intent and circumstances and how all of it makes a difference. She doesn't feel anymore like she's a breath away from destruction. When she's around Alex, she feels okay.
But it also feels a little like living with her fingers crossed behind her back, spitting out white lies of omission.
"I know everything you've been saying, Alex. I didn't mean to put you in danger. And I acted like you were crazy because I didn't want you to be right. But that doesn't make it okay - "
"I never said it did - "
" - and what about how I cheated on you?" Alex flinches automatically, jerking her gaze away. Piper's voice thickens with sudden, threatening tears. "We never talk about that, because there's no excusing it, right? We can't make that okay." She huffs out a sad, lifeless laugh. "I'm not good enough for them, okay, Alex?" she clenches out, voice breaking on the last word. "I'm not good at all. It's hard to love someone like that."
Alex's eyes are shining. Softly, she says, "Always came pretty easy to me."
A crooked, tear soaked sound jumps out of Piper before she can stop it, and Alex reaches over to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Piper can barely look at the tenderness on her face. "Don't."
Don't love me, she thinks but doesn't say, can't actually bring herself to wish for that. But she doesn't want to hear it, just like she doesn't want to hear forgiveness. "You don't understand."
Alex shakes her head impatiently, like she doesn't believe there's anything about Piper she can't understand. She looks at her in that way that makes Piper feel see through, but she still doesn't acknowledge the darkest parts.
Piper presses the heels of her hands over her eye. More truth is scratching at her throat, wanting out.
She hasn't let herself say this, has let it sit lodged in her chest like a bullet it would do more damage to remove, but she doesn't feel like she can stop it anymore.
"I love you, Alex." It comes out small and weightless, even with her whole heart in her voice.
Alex's eyes warm, melting her whole face into softness, and she smiles even as she opens her mouth to say it back.
"Stop." Piper barely restrains herself from physically putting a finger to Alex's lips. Her voice unravels into protests, increasingly panicked. "I mean it, Alex, don't, please, I don't want you to say that - "
"Okay, okay." Alex puts a hand on her arm, conciliatory. "I got it, Pipes."
Piper draws a shaky breath, nodding a little. "I love you," she says again. Alex starts running her fingers the length of Piper's arm, gentle and soothing. "I love you so, so much Alex..." Her voice breaks, and Alex moves even closer. "And that really fucking scares me."
Alex touches a curled finger to the corner of Piper's eye, brushing away a tear. "How come?"
Swallowing against rising sobs, Piper closes her eyes and, for just a second, rests her head against Alex's.
Alex doesn't understand, she can't understand what it felt like when Piper thought she was dead. She'd never been so achingly aware of how much she loves Alex, how deep it goes, to her veins and marrow and nerves. She'd thought Alex was gone, and that there was nowhere for that love to go.
She doesn't understand that it's what makes Piper hate herself the most.
"Pipes?" Alex whispers.
"If I love you that much, more than anyone...and I still hurt you like that, over and over...what the hell does that say about me?"
A long, heavy silence follows this question, and then Alex sighs shakily, "You're killing me, Pipes."
"See? There's not a good answer."
"Okay, you know what..." Alex holds her eyes, sad and serious, and Piper can see her thinking, getting the words together. "No one's ever hurt me like you, Piper."
Piper knows that, she does, but it knocks the wind out of her anyway. She bites her tongue so hard it draws blood, and she thinks about breaking the needle off her sewing machine at work tomorrow, breaking her pen open, she can figure something out, she just needs to get the words on her.
But then Alex finishes, "But that's only because no one else has ever made me as happy." She lets that linger for awhile before touching Piper's cheek gently, making her look again. "It all counts. Okay?"
Piper has to blink her vision clear to look back at Alex, and she says, "I love you," again because it's all she's feeling or thinking.
"I..." Alex starts slow, and she seems to see the fear take over Piper's face, because she finishes, "I have a very important question." Nervous, Piper waits. Alex smiles at her. For her. "Will you go to the prison Christmas pageant with me?"
Piper drops her head to wipe her eyes on Alex's shoulder. She feels Alex's lips on her forehead.
She can't help but believe Alex. The truth of it's there in her smile, and in every smile she's given Piper over the past few weeks, pure unfettered delight whenever Piper offers her any effort.
"Are you asking me on a date?" She mumbles into Alex's shirt.
Beneath her, Alex shudders once with one of those happy laughs.
Piper makes Alex happy.
It all counts.
She pictures the words on her chest, trying to trick herself into thinking she can keep them. She knows exactly where they'd go.
Alex makes a big show of picking Piper, two cubes down, to walk to the chapel. She plays the date joke too big to disguise how stupidly happy it makes her.
They sit toward the back, and Alex keeps snarking to Piper about the casting or the set - "Do do they know that's a fucking palm tree? Was Jesus born in Miami?" - and she's gratified every time Piper grins in response, enough to completely evaporate the last traces of Alex's bad mood from the past few days.
The lights go down, and there's applause and a lot more catcalling than is typical for a Christmas play.
When Poussey and Taystee sing Silent Night it makes Alex's chest hurt, reminding her of her mom for no real reason besides Christmas. Her mom still has claim to most of Alex's memories of the holidays; she's never had a good one without her.
Until, maybe, miraculously, this year.
The past year has been awful, one of the worst of her life, maybe only topped by that first year after Paris, both Piper and her mom gone, though she'd gotten through a lot of that in a haze of drugs, carrying oblivion around in her pockets.
But somehow, here at the end, they've ended up like this. Alex turns away from the stage to look at Piper, right beside her, her face calm and okay and familiar. A few lines of the song pass before Piper seems to sense her looking; she turns and gives Alex this small, soft smile that makes her feel like the whole sun is in her chest.
Piper's arm is draped over the thin wooden armrest between them. Facing forward again, smiling slightly to herself, Alex carefully nudges her arm beside Piper's, just the outside of their pinkies touching. She takes her time, slowly easing over, before finally weaving their fingers together, feeling like a thirteen year old kid, the kind she never actually got to be.
Piper squeezes her hand.
All day, Piper's been stuck in the memory of last year, and it's left her nervy and scared of whatever monster inside her had roared to life and nearly killed Tiffany Doggett.
Mostly, though, she's remembering what Doggett said to her:
You ain't worthy of nobody's love.
Piper knows Doggett was dangerous and delusional, insisting that she was an angel of god, trying to kill her. And yet somehow, even she had managed to zero in on that fundamental truth about Piper, and in every moment since she said it, all Piper's done is prove her right.
But worthy or not, Alex loves her anyway.
Piper makes Alex happy, and Alex deserves to be happy.
Somehow, Piper is still capable of that much good.
Alex is sitting to Piper's right; she usually goes to the other side, the scar hidden in profile, but she'd forgotten tonight, and Piper knows that probably means something good, that Alex isn't taking care to hide anytime there's a chance.
When Alex takes her hand, something loosens inside Piper's chest.
She feels overwhelmed, all of a sudden. There's something howling inside her, something trying to break out of a cage inside her chest, but it's not a monster this time. It's something better. It's maybe even something good.
"C'mon," she whispers to Alex just before standing up, keeping their hands together.
Alex follows Piper out of the chapel. Piper goes out the same door where she disappeared from the last pageant, knowing she got away with that before. Only when she steps outside does she remember coming here right after Alex came back
"Fuck," Alex hisses when the door closes behind them. Piper turns toward her, questioning. "Wasn't expecting the cold." Alex smirks, a little sheepish. "Haven't been outside in awhile."
"Oh, shit, Alex, sorry - "
"No, Pipes, it's okay. Can't even see the greenhouse." Alex looks at her, expression folding into concern. "What's going on, you okay?"
"I'm fine." Piper pulls her coat a little tighter around herself, lifting her eyes to Alex's and amends quietly, barely believing it, "I'm good."
The worry fades from Alex's face, and she tilts her head a little when she smiles, confused.
Piper reaches for the edges of Alex's coat, pulling her closer. "Merry Christmas." She says it the way people do when they're giving a gift, then she leans forward to kiss Alex.
Alex's hands are cool on her cheeks but her mouth is hot and eager. Piper tightens her grip on the coat, keeping herself steady, but it feels off-balance and unnatural. When the kiss deepens, Piper lets her hands give into their instincts, and reaches up to carefully cradle Alex's face, her fingers barely brushing the edge of scar tissue, like it's delicate and breakable. She feels Alex's fingers circle her wrist, as if she's scared Piper will move away.
They kiss out there in the dusting of snow until their hands are shaking and their lips are numb, until they keep moving closer as much for warmth as anything else. When they pull away, sharp breaths puffing into the air between them, Alex smiles; her nose is red and her eyes are bright and Piper's hands have done a number on her hair. She looks so beautiful it hurts.
"We should go," Alex says. She takes Piper's hands between both of hers, warming them up. "Before someone checks."
"I'll take the shot."
Alex grins at her, looking almost dizzy with her own happiness. "Such a delinquent." Her eyes soften, and she kisses Piper again, fast and soft and cool. "I'm glad you're back."
"Yeah..." With only a moment's hesitation, Piper pulls one hand free and touches it to Alex's cheek, her thumb gently tracing the crack of the scar. "You, too."
There's no work detail on Christmas Eve, and Piper and Alex spend the morning in Piper's cube, playing cards in socked feet and talking in lazy circles, swapping old Christmas stories.
It's actually nice, talking about her mom, and a few times Alex catches Piper smiling in soft recognition, eyes flaring in anticipation of mirth before Alex even gets to the funny part of a memory, and she guesses she's told Piper these stories before, but Piper lets her keep talking.
They go on like that for hours. Alex is in the middle of a story, the time she was seven and her mom had taken a fourth job at a 24 Hour Wal-Mart, just for the holidays. She'd worked Christmas Eve, and brought Alex with her, made her wait until midnight before sending her off to the toy section with a pocket calculator and a grocery cart, making it a timed race to pick out her own gifts, sixty dollars worth. To Alex, it had seemed like an unfathomable amount of money.
She's still telling it when Piper gets called for visitation, and guilt washes over Piper's face. "They can wait..."
"Don't be stupid. Go."
"Okay..." But Piper doesn't move to get up, pure anxiety chasing the guilt away.
Alex watches her carefully. "Hey." Piper looks at her, big eyed and worried in a way that makes Alex instantly protective. "If you're totally dreading this...you don't have to go."
"Yeah, I do. I should."
Piper gives her a limp, apologetic smile. "Sorry. I'll be back soon."
"I'll be here."
Alex watches her walk off, worry prickling on the back of her neck. She has a brief, unhelpful fantasy of following Piper to the visitation room, leaning against the glass window and keeping watch, maybe sending the senior Chapmans her most intimidating, scarred glares.
She's pretty sure that'd do Piper more harm than good.
Piper's legs feel heavy when she moves to the visitation room. She hasn't seen anyone in her family in months. Her skin feels tight and buzzing.
She's expecting Cal and her mom, probably Neri, but when she walks into the room, her parents are alone at the table. Both of them.
She catches her dad's eye and her heart pinches, just like that.
One of Piper's earliest memories: three years old, at her older brother's T-ball game. Danny was six, and Cal was a baby, or maybe her mom was still pregnant, but either way her dad was home more back then. He was an assistant coach for Danny's team, which didn't mean much - half a dozen of the dads held the title. They couldn't make it to all the practices, but they all wore team shirts and stood around the field and in the dugout during Saturday games.
It was after the game, the families flooded onto the field, and Piper had spotted her dad standing along the first baseline with his back to her, so tall in his purple Hurricanes T-shirt and matching baseball hat. She'd gone running eagerly to him, slamming into his legs and wrapping her arms around his knees, squealing, "Daddy!"
Then she'd looked up to find a complete stranger, one of the other fathers slash assistant coaches, staring down at her with a bewildered expression.
The simultaneous rush of panic and embarrassment had made the memory stick, even for a three year old. But ever since the indictment, Piper thinks about it almost every time she sees her dad, when she's filled up with the childish urge to run to him for safety, all too aware she might not recognize the disappointed, distant man looking down at her.
Her mother's tight, uncomfortable smile is at least familiar, so Piper focuses on that first because it hurts less, but when she gets close enough to the table she sees something almost like alarm kick the smile away just before her mother gives her a dry kiss on the cheek. "Darling, you look..." She can't seem to find a word. Piper waits; she's been wrecked a dozen or so times over since they last saw her, and she has no idea what she looks like. Carol settles on, "...tired."
Piper ignores that. "Merry Christmas, Mom." Then, hesitant, she adds, "Dad."
Bill nods and gives her an obligatory hug that's fast and stiff, like Piper's covered in spikes.
"Where's Cal?" She asks as they sit down.
"He and Neri are out of town seeing her parents...he said to tell you he'd stop by when he's back. Next week sometime." Carol reports, glad to have something to say, and Piper feels a pang of panic, already missing her brother's buffering, joking presence.
"That's good. It's uh...it's been awhile." She regrets that, immediately. She hadn't meant to bring that up, can't blame them for staying away, but now that they're here it feels strange to pretend it hasn't been six months.
"Well," Carol says with a barely perceptible edge to her voice. "Last time we were here, honey, you were so convinced your life here was so perfect, it didn't seem right to intrude."
Piper remembers that, remembers insisting that prison was good for her, making her a better person, but it feels so distance. She remembers saying it, but she can't remember ever being a person who thought like that, who believed that about herself.
She also remembers kissing Alex after that visit, and wishes she didn't remember everything that happened after.
Across the table, her dad is repeating his strategy from before: avoiding her eyes, not even pretending to listen, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else.
Last time, she'd been hurt but also angry, puffed up, little kid anger about how unfair he was being. Today, she feels like apologizing.
But Alex's voice is in her head, exasperated, telling her she shouldn't have to.
"So what are you guys doing tomorrow?" It must be a strange Christmas, the first since her grandmother died and Cal got married. Not their first without Piper, though. They're used to her absence by now.
Her mom seizes on the subject, letting her know about plans, which aunts and uncles and cousins are still coming, how their usual lunch had been pushed to a dinner and Cal and Neri would be back just in time - "apparently Christmas Eve is big for her family, you know how marriage is, have to accommodate two different traditions, although I suppose if you'd married Larry we wouldn't have had to worry about that on Christmas" - and how much she's cooking and who likely won't contribute.
It's mindless talk, but Piper's glad for the noise. At least her mom is talking. Piper feels like apologizing to her, too. She feels like apologizing to everyone.
She doesn't call her dad out this time, not like his last visit, not like her furlough, but she can't help wanting something from him. It's painful, how much he doesn't want to look at her, and with a jolt Piper realizes she was doing the same thing to Alex until very recently.
For a second, Piper's genuinely afraid she's going to start crying.
"How's work, Dad?" she asks when she can talk again, like they're distant relatives at some once a year family reunion.
"Busy," he says, a little gruff, addressing the edge of the table. Then, almost satirical, "And yours?"
"They've got me out of electrical, actually. You know the prison went private -"
"Oh, yes, your father read an article about that."
"Right, well, there's this lingerie company they work with now." Piper smiles and lightens her tone, pretending her parents are the kind of people who might find prison absurdities amusing. "So they've actually got me making panties." Her mother makes a soft, distasteful sound. "It pays a dollar an hour instead of ten cents, so it's considered a pretty high honor."
She's joking, but her father actually lifts his gaze and fixes her with a hard stare. "So you're working in a sweat shop for seven bucks a day...that's what passes for success for you right now?"
Piper can feel herself shrinking. "I...I don't think of it as success." Her voice comes out so tiny, like she's regressing back to childhood.
"Should hope not," her dad mutters. He sounds exhausted by her.
She thinks, suddenly, of the panty business. She had considered that success. She feels a wave of something like revulsion.
Then her mom gives her dad a look, not reproachful, but like she's reminding him of something. He sighs, then with visible, reluctant effort makes himself look at her again. "Do you remember Todd Blakely? One of our biggest clients?" Piper nods, not because she remembers but because she knows it doesn't really matter. "Well, his receptionist is having a baby around the time you're released...I spoke to him about your situation, and he agreed to see you for an interview when you're out."
Piper just blinks at him, not comprehending. "What?" Her initial, idiotic thought is that she can't be a receptionist from Litchfield.
"You've only got a few months left, Piper," he says in this stern voice that makes her feel like a teenager who isn't studying enough for her SATs. "You need to start thinking about a plan."
A few months.
Piper's stomach folds sickeningly in on itself.
She hasn't thought about her release in so long. Not since that day. Not since Alex -
She can't even picture it. Walking out of Litchfield, going...where? Her parents house? Covering her tattoos with business attire?
Alex still has years left.
Piper's the one who doesn't deserve to get out. And not because she carried some suitcase.
But her parents are watching her expectantly, and she wants to say the right thing, but all she can manage is, "Yeah, maybe."
"I just mean...it's still a few months off. I haven't really thought about it - "
"Well it's time to start thinking," her dad says harshly. "Jesus Christ, Piper, you wouldn't have an opportunity like this at all if I hadn't called in connections. Do you have any idea how lucky you are?"
"Yes," she says immediately. She knows she's lucky. People here remind her of that all the time.
"So you say yes, and then you say thank you."
"I...I'm not saying no." Piper feels stressed and overwhelmed. "I mean, I know it's what you want - "
"Oh, no, don't make that mistake, Pipe. I didn't want to have to speak to a client about giving my daughter a chance in spite of her prison time. I don't want to have to hope that your expensive Smith degree will be put to use sitting at a front desk answering phones, but that's the position you've put me in."
There's nothing Piper can say to that. Shame rises on her skin like blisters, and now she's the one who can't look at him.
She will get out of here - in a few months, fuck fuck fuck - and continue to disappoint them. There is no coming back from this, she's fallen too far to aim for the heights they expected from her. This look in her dad's eyes is all hers now.
And this little bit of good she's discovered she has in her, the ability to make Alex smile, to make Alex happy, will be no good to either of them when Alex is stuck here without her for another few years all because Piper made a phone call.
She always ends up leaving her, one way or another.
Chapter 10: happiness (damn near destroys you)
Sorry for the ridiculous wait guys...things have been super busy, and this chapter is pretty long. Only one or two left after this, I THINK. But don't quote me on it, I'm famously bad at estimating length.
Less than two minutes after hugging her parents goodbye in the visitation room, Piper finds Alex still waiting in the bunk. Alex's smile is like a wave of warmth, the first step inside the house after being left in the cold.
"Hey. How was it?"
"Okay," Piper says, just that, but Alex's eyes dim anyway.
"My parents. Cal's at his in-laws." Settling onto the bed beside Alex, Piper leans against the wall and cuts her eyes sideways. She wants, badly, to fold herself against Alex, huddle for warmth, but she holds back.
"Want to talk about it?"
"Not really. Not right now."
Piper's nervous Alex might push her on that, but she just nods, soft eyed and understanding, then asks quietly, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." It slips out too fast, and Piper flinches at how unconvincing she sounds.
Silence wedges between them, long enough that it almost turns uncomfortable, but then Alex wraps her fingers around Piper's hand, squeezing gently, her eyes lit with sudden purpose.
"Will you come with me somewhere?"
"Sure," Piper tries to smile at her. She agrees without even wondering where Alex means, grateful to seize onto any distraction, but then Alex stands up, grabs Piper's heavy brown coat off the hook and tosses it to her. "What - ?"
"We need to stop by my bunk for mine. It's cold as fuck outside."
Alex shrugs into her the bulky coat and nods her head toward the exit of the dorms. Piper keeps close, following her through the prison without asking questions, and when they get close to the door Alex reaches back and reclaims her hand.
She hates how anxious she feels already, her heart slipping around inside her chest like it's come untethered. She pushes out the door and hears Piper say her name like a question.
The yard is mostly deserted, though she can spot Watson and a few other die hards running the track in sweatsuits, a solitary CO standing to the side, uniform covered by winter layers. He glances over at them when they emerge, and Alex automatically drops Piper's hand. Her gaze jumps straight to the greenhouse, looming through another layer of black fence.
Without meaning to, Alex stops walking. For the first time, she feels really afraid of what she might do, and she's questioning whether she really wants Piper here to see it. But then Alex feels Piper's hand on her back, and she moves close enough to slide their fingers together again.
Warmth catches between their palms, and it feels like strength. It makes it easier to breathe.
Then she just does it.
Alex walks across the yard, the route she easily took every day on grounds crew, until they're right outside the greenhouse.
Piper's voice is close. "You okay?"
And she is.
Alex has built this up in her head for months now, as weak as it's made her feel. But nothing happens; standing there doesn't suck her into a thick pit of memories. It actually makes her feel good, like this means something, like it's really over. She even catches herself looking forward to telling Berdie about this.
Feeling bold, she squeezes Piper's hand. "Let's go inside."
"Just for a second."
She can see where it happened, a few splotches in the floor where the wood is darker. It doesn't really look like blood anymore, if someone didn't know. Just stains, spilled varnish.
And she's fine.
Piper looks less so, her fingers tight in Alex's, her eyes aimed up at the ceiling. It's finally Alex who squeezes her hand and asks softly, "Wanna go?"
Piper's voice is strained, but she just says, "Only if you're ready."
Together, they walk back, not talking much, their boots crunching into dirty, iced over patches of snow across the yard. They're nearly to the door when Piper asks tentatively, "Why today?"
Alex knows what she means, and she throws a smirk in Piper's direction. "I figure if you can take your parents, I can deal with looking at a fucking building no problem." Piper's staring straight ahead; there's no reaction in her expression that Alex can read. They're back in the eyeline of the CO now, so Alex just bumps her shoulder lightly against Piper's, softening her smile. "You make me brave, Pipes."
She means it; she's seen every ounce of effort Piper's been putting in, ever since that first night she woke Alex out of a bad dream. It's all gotten easier for her, now, Alex can see it, but she'd also seen Piper slogging her way through pain in order to get to that point.
But now Piper's face tightens into something like a grimace, and she still isn't looking over at Alex.
"I mean it," Alex says, more forceful, her voice acknowledging Piper's seeming rejection of the statement. "I'm really proud of you."
"Don't be," slips out between Piper's teeth. She finally turns her head, expression pained. "You shouldn't be proud of me for finally trying to act like a decent human being."
It's been weeks since Piper's said anything like this, and her voice is harsh, an electrical shock of sudden intensity. Alex feels sick all of a sudden, like she's about to watch all their progress unravel. "Okay, what the hell happened? What did they say to you?"
Piper exhales hard enough that it puffs out in the winter air, but she doesn't answer. They've reached the main building now, and Piper's hunched over, arms crossed tightly at her chest, so she shoulders the door open like an angry little kid, quickening her pace almost like she's trying to leave Alex behind.
Alex says her name in that firm, no-bullshit way she has, but Piper can't let herself stop moving. She feels tightly wound and scared of herself in ways that have been absent for awhile now. She wants her tattoo gun, wants a fresh needle, but at the same time she's thinking those words - you make me brave - don't belong on her skin anyway. She's been letting Alex tug her forward, past everything she's done, but the truth about herself keeps catching up and nipping at Piper's heels.
It's never going to stop. And it's going to be all that's waiting for her when she gets out of here without Alex.
She feels Alex tug, hard, on the back of her shirt. "Piper, whatever your parents said - "
Piper finally twists around long enough to grit out, "Come with me."
Alex shuts up, probably just relieved Piper isn't trying to get away from her.
They're both quiet until they get back to Piper's bunk. With a grim sort of purpose, she sits on her bed, legs stretched out in front of her, and she takes a second to glance around the dorm, make sure no one's hovering. Standing over her, Alex demands, "What is wrong?"
"You know, Alex," Piper says quietly. "You've always known..."
Before Alex can ask her to clarify, Piper slides a little lower on the bed, pulling her pants down at the waist and tugging one side low enough to reveal the tattoos on her thigh.
She'd done them like a list, neat and even, upside down to anyone but Piper herself, so Alex drops to her knees on the floor, scooting forward a little to see. Piper can't see her face while she reads. "It's always going to come back to that, Alex," Piper says quietly, utter exhaustion clinging to every syllable. "You just keep figuring it out, over and over."
Alex isn't turning around, even when Piper reaches down and pulls her pants back up. There's nothing left to look at, but Alex still doesn't move until all at once her shoulders shudder and then bend, head dropping into her hands as she starts to sob.
Piper's stomach lurches. No no no that isn't what she meant to happen. "Alex, don't cry." She's not soothing, just begging. "Please don't..."
But Alex does, just sits and cries with her knees on the floor and her elbows on Piper's mattress. Piper makes herself stay still and listen, but she doesn't let herself touch Alex.
Finally, Alex goes quiet, and it takes another minute before she lifts her head and turns to look at Piper, every movement slow and deliberate in a way that's almost frightening. Her eyes are blazing, and her voice sounds strangled by tears. "Is that all you think you are to me?"
"I..." Something about the way Alex is looking at her neatly punctures Piper's conviction. "It's just - "
"That's so fucked up, Piper. Fuck." She pushes her hands through her hair and glares up at the ceiling, still fighting back tears. "Think about the worst things you've ever said or thought about me, I'm fucking sure there are some gems...you want me to get a goddamn tattoo of them?" Piper flinches, trying not to hear echoes of her own voice; she used to say anything about Alex, to Larry, to her parents, to Nicky, she hadn't fucking cared: anything to make Alex the bad guy. "Do you?"
Piper shakes her head, fast. She can't look at Alex anymore, she's more upset than Piper expected. It's making her feel like she's done something awful. Like she's taken something.
"Yeah, I didn't think so," Alex spats. "This is so fucking unfair, Piper. Fuck." Her voice is almost soft, but it feels like she's yelling. "How about every good thing I've ever said to you, every time I've told you I loved you...where the fuck is that on your goddamn leg? You know that's going to be on you forever? All of that shit is, but especially...Jesus, what were you thinking?" She pauses, breathing hard, then asks, "When did you do it?"
There are tears stinging Piper's eyes now. She hates this, and she's nearly forgotten her reason for showing this to Alex in the first place. "A few hours before you broke the gun."
Alex makes a crooked, seething sound. "All of it?"
"Of course you did." Alex shoots to her feet, suddenly, and the movement makes Piper look up at her. Her face is twisted, a mask of devastation and anger. "How the hell did you think that was gonna make me feel?"
"I..." Piper's voice starts breaking all over the place. "I don't know - "
"Well let me tell you then, Pipes, it makes me feel like absolute shit." They're both crying by then, and Alex turns on her heel and starts walking toward the cube's doorway, but she only gets three steps before she spins back in the other direction, pacing in tight, frantic circles.
"What...what are you doing?"
"I don't know." Now she is almost yelling. "I'm really fucking pissed at you, Pipes, but I can't walk away, cause I think maybe that's what you want." The fight drains out of her voice, leaving it tired. "Christ, I don't fucking know anymore..."
"I'm sorry," Piper nearly whispers. "I didn't mean...I didn't mean for you to feel bad."
Alex stops moving, and she looks at Piper for a long time. She comes closer and kneels down again, meeting Piper's gaze. Her eyes are red, voice rough. "I don't know what your parents think of you, Pipes. But I know there's a pretty good chance they're wrong. And I know that this..." Delicate, like she barely wants to touch it, she splays her fingers over Piper's leg. "...isn't what I think of you. You know that." Her voice snags. "But now it's...it's on you. Permanently."
Before Piper can think of an answer, Alex is standing up, her lips barely brushing a ghost of a kiss on Piper's forehead as she goes. "Let's meet back up before for dinner, okay?"
She walks out without waiting for the affirmative, not heading for her own bunk but leaving the dorms entirely, covertly wiping her eyes when she does. It makes Piper's chest hurt because she knows, a deep irrational knowing, that Alex isn't really leaving because she's angry; she's going in case she breaks down again, so she won't do it in front of Piper.
When she's out of sight, Piper rolls over on the bed, pressing her face into her pillow. She's had the look on her dad's face in her head since she left him, and now Alex's is there, too. She can't stop screwing up, letting everyone down. She flips over on her back again, her hand inching under her shirt, dragging her fingers across her ribs. Every single tattoo is screaming.
Impulsively, she stands up and heads out of the dorm, walking to the bathroom with a vague notion of looking for Alex, but it's empty inside, not just of Alex but anyone, and for some reason Piper doesn't leave right away. Keeping her eyes low, she walks to the edge of the sink furthest from the door and positions herself a few feet back from the counter.
She lifts up her shirt and looks in the mirror; her face is barely in the reflection, but she makes sure not to look at any part of it, focusing on her ink scribbled torso. She's never looked at it properly, and hasn't looked at all since she stopped adding to it. Somehow it's worse than she thought; more tattoos than blank skin. Her fingers shake as she uses one hand to keep hold of her shirt, the other freely roaming the strange canvas. It's messy work. Slanted, tremulous words aimed in varied directions.
She doesn't need to see her leg again. Piper knows how that looks.
Her hand uncurls and her shirt, wrinkled now, falls back over her torso, hiding the evidence. And finally, Piper's eyes roam up until she's meeting the gaze of the person in the mirror.
That's what it feels like: like looking at someone else, a separate entity. Her lungs are slowly folding in on themselves, but Piper can't stop staring. Her reflection is disheveled and sallow. It is bones and shadows. For a crazy second, Piper is reminded of the way Alex looked the first day she came back from the hospital, fresh scars and ill-fitted skin and sickly complexion, looking like she was made out of tragedy.
Except Piper isn't a tragedy. She is a horror story, and she's turned her body into the haunted house.
When Alex walks away from Piper, she goes back to the greenhouse.
She's not sure why. Maybe to get that feeling of strength back, use it to put herself back together. Or maybe she's hoping it will feel more like punishment this time.
She goes inside again, walks over her own faded bloodstains, and she slips her hand under her shirt, consciously tracing the thick, ropey skin on her stomach, but all she can think about is Piper's damned tattoo, uglier than any scar.
Alex hates Piper a little bit, for putting it there, fucking memorializing that, but she maybe hates herself a little, too, for saying those words in the first place.
She is so tired. Last night they were kissing in the snow and now she's trying not to cry in the exact place she was nearly gutted to death.
She doesn't wait until dinner, and instead goes back to the dorm barely an hour after leaving it. Piper's curled in her bunk, facing the wall, and Alex hovers quietly in the doorway for nearly a minute without being noticed before she decides what to say.
"You're going to get rid of those, right?"
Piper twists around to look at her; even her surprise seems dulled. "Huh?"
"Those fucking tattoos, Pipes, the ones on your leg...I know none of them are great, but those especially...when you get out of here, you're going to go to some fancy clinic and have them lasered off, right?" It's a question with only one acceptable answer.
Slowly, Piper sits, drawing her knees up onto the mattress and wrapping her arms around them. Her eyes are bloodshot and puffy, and when she looks at Alex, dread settles over her face. "I don't really want to think about that."
"Yeah..." Hesitant, Alex moves further into the cube and finally sits beside Piper on the bed. "Could kinda tell you weren't thinking long term with the prison ink."
"That's not what I meant." Her face tightens. "Getting out...I'd kinda forgotten about that."
Alex huffs out a laugh. "You may be the first person in prison to ever say that."
Piper doesn't smile. "It's...less than three months, Alex."
"Yeah, Pipes, I know."
Piper's chin quivers, and she's blinking hard; it makes her seem heartbreakingly young, and Alex slides a little closer on the bed. "I don't want to go."
Alex isn't sure why this is what they're talking about right now, but she takes Piper's hand and repeats her joke, her voice gentle. "First person in prison to ever say that, too."
"I mean it."
"I know you do. But you shouldn't, Pipes."
"I didn't even think about...you've got years left, Alex. I didn't even consider that part when I made Polly report you. I wanted you back to be with me, but you're gonna be here for so long by yourself when you never should have been back at all..." She's getting increasingly distressed, talking too fast, her voice right on the brink of a whimper. "Maybe if I do something, if I try to get my sentence extended - "
"Whoa, okay...slow down." Alex touches Piper's chin, makes her look over. "Do you wanna think about that for a second, Piper, or do I actually need to explain all the reasons that's a fucking stupid idea."
Piper makes a face, shaking her head in protest, "Alex - "
"Fine, explanation it is. You've been to SHU, what, twice now? Once for six weeks. Neither of us know what it would take to get your sentence extended, but whatever rule you break is way more likely to get you sent back to seg, or upgraded to max, and that wouldn't help anyone." Alex threads her fingers through Piper's hair. "And anyway, it's stupid to feel bad for being out before me. This is just...back to how it was supposed to be."
"Pipes, you carried a fucking suitcase. Once. Because I asked you to. I should have years more prison time. The only thing that changed was Chicago, and I'd take that back if I could."
"You didn't do anything wrong in Chicago."
"I know that," she says evenly. "But it still sucked for you. And getting out, even if I'd stayed out....I never would have taken that deal if I thought Kubra wouldn't be locked up."
When Alex says that, Piper leans back against the wall and wonders what would have happened, if they'd never testified in Chicago, or if Alex had just lied on the stand...if they'd gone back to Litchfield together.
Alex never would have been in danger. Piper never would have had her sent back, wouldn't have been the reason for Alex nearly dying. There wouldn't have been that guilt, and maybe she never would have cheated. She'd never have had to see Alex lying on the greenhouse floor soaked in her own blood. Wouldn't have spent two months thinking she'd lost her.
But what fucks Piper up is slamming up against the realization that she still would have had reasons to feel guilty. She still would have been the one to recently break Alex's heart.
Piper would have wanted her again, of course she would have, right away. And maybe Alex would have thought it was only because Larry left, would have felt like a second choice instead of the love of Piper's life.
"I'm sorry," she chokes out suddenly. She's lost track of how many times she's said it.
Alex frowns a little, knitting her eyebrows together. "For what?"
"Just all kinds of stuff."
"Piper...you're here because of me," Alex says softly. "Don't think I don't know that, okay? It was fucked up of me to name you, and none of the rest of it would have happened if I hadn't. I've got my own shit to be sorry about. And I am."
They're both quiet for a moment until Piper asks softly, "Would you take that back if you could?"
Alex meets her eyes, wary. Carefully, she counters with, "Would you want me to?"
For a second, Piper unravels another what if? scenario, one that starts with her never coming to Litchfield. She feels so far removed from her life before prison, but the most impossible part is that she hadn't seen Alex in eight years, and never expected to again.
"No," she says firmly, holding Alex's eyes. "I wouldn't."
Alex's face relaxes into a smile. "That's good. Because I really wouldn't want to."
Piper catches herself smiling, too, and she hides it in the folds of Alex's shirt, leaning against her for a moment. She feels Alex kiss her temple, then lean close to her ear and whisper. "Your turn."
"It's your turn to ask me."
Reluctantly, Piper lifts her head to give Alex a questioning look.
"Ask me if I'd want you to take back getting me sent here."
"I would - "
"Stop." Alex lifts her glasses on top of her head. "I said ask me."
"Would you?" There's no weight to the words.
"No." She half-smiles. "No way."
Warm tears well in Piper's eyes; she can't believe her. "Alex, you almost died - "
"Still no. I would have taken off to some other country and never seen you again." Alex smirks, but her eyes stay soft. "We're both assholes who got each other sent to prison. But personally...I'd rather be an asshole than lose you." She grins. "So it's kinda good we're so fucked up."
A thin, weightless laugh leaps out Piper, and Alex's smile widens at the sound. "How do you do that?"
"Always make me believe you."
Alex tucks a strand of Piper's hair behind her ear, so tender it makes Piper's chest feel like it's breaking open. "It's cause I'm always right, babe."
Piper laughs again, but it's tearful. "I really don't want to leave you." She's still certain the only good she has in her is the ability to make Alex happy, to be there for her. And soon, too soon, she won't be able to.
"I know." Alex wraps an arm around her, and Piper gratefully leans into her side. "And I probably shouldn't say this, but I don't want you to go. But...it's not like we have to be over." Her voice warms, soft and teasing. "Be kinda fun to have visits." She's quiet for a bit, then murmurs into Piper's hair. "We'll be okay."
For just a moment, Piper lets herself be lulled into the easy comfort of Alex's words. She stays where she is, chin resting on Alex's shoulder, letting her mind run ahead. She doesn't have to take that job her dad mentioned. It won't make him happy, or any less disappointed with her; it'll just be something she owes him. She doesn't even have to go back home. She can get some crappy apartment close by, wait tables maybe - she has waitressing experience, from years and years ago, and she can probably get job placement through some program or another offering tax incentives for hiring her.
And she can come back and see Alex, any day she wants. She doesn't want to think about the rest of that yet...the reality of one hour visits at a time, from opposite sides of a table. Right now, it's a relief to just grasp onto a plan.
She doesn't think she'll need anything else. As long as Alex is still here, the least Piper can do is stay as close as she can.
That and try like hell not to hurt her again.
At dinner, they get to an empty table and Piper sits down first. Rather than take her usual spot across the table, Alex plops her tray down to the right of Piper, smirking as she sits. "Look, we're like those couples you hate in restaurants."
Piper tilts her head and grins at Alex. "We're the worst."
Alex sets her elbow on the table and props her chin on her hand, mock gazing at Piper, but it's barely a joke; she doesn't want to look away from her smile.
All at once, though, Piper's smile flickers and she slowly offers, "We don't have to do this anymore, you know. Sit alone." Her gaze tracks across the cafeteria to the table with Lorna, Boo, Yoga and the others. "I wouldn't mind hanging out with everyone else some."
Alex can read Piper like her favorite book, and right now her eyes are swimming with worry, like she's already beating herself up about leaving Alex alone so she's trying to set up play dates. Alex nudges Piper's leg with hers and throws her a small, grateful smile. "Maybe tomorrow? For Red's big Christmas dinner. Tonight it can just be us."
With perfect comic timing, a few of the older prisoners whose names Alex doesn't even know start heading for them, settling on the other end of their table. Alex starts laughing and after a second, Piper follows.
"Aren't you glad we're an annoying restaurant couple, now?" Alex says in an undertone, just wanting the laughter to keep going.
"Can I ask something?" Alex asks hesitantly toward the end of the meal, when they're fuller than usual and sitting in comfortable quiet.
Piper eyes her with a hint of anxiety, but she nods in agreement. "Of course."
Alex is already second guessing her own timing. She doesn't want to ruin the contentment that's settled between them, but she can't help but want to know, "What happened? With your parents." Piper's expression turns instantly impassive, but before she can dismiss the question, Alex adds, "Something made you want to show me those god awful tattoos, Pipes."
Her face tightens, but she nods. "A lot of it was just...my dad started pushing me about what I'm going to do when I get out, kept saying I need a plan because I only have a few months...I don't know, it sounds so stupid, but I hadn't even thought about getting out in so fucking long. Not since..." Her eyes move to Alex's scar, and Alex can see her forcing herself to keep going, tightening her jaw and saying steadily, "...since you got hurt. I never even really thought about you being in here so much longer than me. It's a pretty fucking clear reminder of how selfish it was getting you back here."
"Hey, we covered this, Pipes. I'm glad it happened."
"Yeah, but you know what it mean. Even if you're saying it worked out better this way...I don't like being the person who did it."
"It's only fair, right?" Alex asks softly. Then, frowning softly, she adds, "Was that everything?"
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know, just...I thought maybe it was your parents. Especially your dad. How was he?"
Piper shrugs with a dismissive sort of lost cause expression, but her eyes are loaded with pain that makes the fight rise in Alex's throat, like she wants to confront Piper's parents herself, defenses swinging. "The same as last time. Hating being here, probably hating me for it." Her voice catches, just a little, and Alex rubs her back, comforting. "It feels like...he just doesn't like me anymore." Piper always sounds so fragile talking about this, like a sad little girl, and it breaks Alex's heart every time. "My mom and I were never that close, but my dad...he was always really proud of me." Alex knows all this already, but she doesn't say so. "But I don't think anything he was proud of was really me, you know? Now he knows I'm not the good kid."
"Screw that, Piper," she says immediately, maybe a little too forceful. She swallows back a rising tidal wave of a rant about Piper's family. "He knows about one fucking thing you did, almost ten years ago. Because of me. You've got nothing on him, being a cheater's much worse."
It just slips out, with no thought to the implications, but Piper looks immediately stricken, and Alex winces before she can stop herself. The air between them clouds over, but they don't break eye contact. It's a long, loaded look, a silent acknowledgement of the one thing they hardly ever talk about.
"I'm sorry," Piper says at last, the words barely audible.
"I know." Alex reaches for her hand and squeezes it. She waits, letting any leftover sourness dissolve before she continues on like nothing happened. "I feel like I should point out, Pipes, that you're totally still the good kid. If there's an adult version of a goody two shoes, you're it."
Piper still seems tangled up in the earlier comment, half out of it when she mutters a reply, "Yeah, right."
"I'm completely serious." Alex is quiet for a moment, thinking, then she says, "Remember when we got the Appalachian mountain troll sent to psych? She was a homophobic asshole who basically put you in SHU, plus her crazy was at least half real. But you still risked going back to seg to get her out. Just because it was the right thing to do. And it wasn't just to look good, cause the only person who knew was me, and I told you outright it was fucking idiotic." Piper looks at her, cautious light returning to her eyes, and Alex softens as she finishes, "You are a good person, Pipes. You don't get to just decide that's never been true."
Piper sways forward, just a little, not like she meant to do it, and her eyes are tight and narrow on Alex's face. Like she might kiss her. Anticipation swells in Alex's chest even as she smirks and nods pointedly to their surroundings.
Lips crooking into a tiny smile, Piper seems to check the instinct, and instead just says softly, "You're doing it again."
"Making me believe you."
"Good. I told you, kid. I'm always right."
Piper does kiss her later, when they're sitting shoulder to shoulder on Alex's bed, sharing earbuds from a radio and listening to quiet, cheesy Christmas songs.
The dormitory is quiet and still; the Christian prisoner contingent is hosting a Christmas Eve service in the chapel, and more than the usual churchgoers seem to be attending. Alex's eyes are half-closed, lazy, and Piper's feet are bare; she knocks her heel lightly against Alex's ankle to get her attention. "Hey." Alex opens her eyes and turns her head as much as she can without yanking out the headphones, waiting. "I love you."
Then Piper's mouth is on Alex's, barely a breath later; still not letting her say it back.
Piper wakes up the next morning when one of the CO's voices comes over the intercom, the usual wake up call, this time with information about extended holiday visiting hours and chapel services. She sits up in bed, and her gaze moves automatically to Alex's cube, always her first instinct of the day. Alex is already standing, her eyes waiting for Piper's. She smiles, mouths Merry Christmas, then nods toward the bathroom. Piper smiles and nods, going for her towel and shower bag. She likes this, that they have morning routines now, and today she's filled up with relief that her parents' obligatory Christmas visit happened yesterday. It's over, out of the way; she could call home later if she wanted to, have the phone passed around the various judgmental relatives, all of them faking pleasantries, but she knows she won't do it.
Today, she only has to talk to Alex.
It's a good day. They sit in a corner of the TV room for awhile and watch It's A Wonderful Life, but then an argument starts when someone tries to turn it to an all day marathon of A Christmas Story instead. Alex rolls her eyes at Piper as a CO intervenes; she's eating a candy cane that was attached to one of the generic Christmas cards all of them got handed this morning, sent from various volunteer church groups. Alex is holding it around the hook, licking the end into a sharp point.
"You're going to cut yourself with that thing," Piper says dryly.
Alex grins. "I'll be careful." She's quiet again, and Piper glances back at the TV. Apparently It's A Wonderful Life won out. She's about to settle back into watching when Alex says in an undertone, "This is nice." Piper looks at her, unquestioning, but Alex clarifies anyway. "You. Christmas." Her eyes flash with mirth and she adds, "We're like our own two person prison family."
She's kidding, but for some reason, it makes Piper's eyes tear over. Her heart feels light, full of air.
She never thought of them that way, like family. Alex has always, always been a choice - not loving her, but being with her - and Piper has never thought of family as something you get to choose.
She takes Alex's hand and plays absently with her fingers, too many emotions tangling in her chest. She's happy, almost unbearably so, but she can already feel a shadow ache over what's coming, an ache that will turn into missing her.
Piper still thinks it's unfair that Alex will be here for so much longer than she will, when the whole reason for sending her back was that Piper wanted them to be together. But even more than that, Piper doesn't want to leave her, so much so that being here seems worth it. Somehow everything's gotten twisted: Alex feels like home and Piper's waiting family feels like a prison, like the thing that will trap her.
She kisses Alex again when no one's looking; she tastes like peppermint.
Three days after Christmas, Alex meets with Berdie for the first time in nearly a week.
"Vause," she smiles in greeting as Alex sits in her usual chair across from Berdie's desk. "How was your Christmas?"
"Fine," she answers, dismissive, wanting to cut through the small talk and get to the big, important news.
"I know holidays in prison can be rough - "
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Your attack? Nothing. But I'd be your counselor even if we weren't having extra sessions..." She smirks. "Nothing wrong with talking about other things, too."
Rolling her eyes, Alex counters bluntly, "Well, can we just stay on topic?"
"Sure. What's going on?"
"I went to the greenhouse." Damn it. Alex is trying really hard not to sound proud of this tiny, pathetic accomplishment, but it's there in her voice anyway.
The impressed beam Berdie throws her isn't helping matters. "Good for you, Vause. How did it go?"
"Fine," she says firmly. "I mean, completely fine. Nothing happened. I went twice, even went inside. You can still see the fucking blood, but I didn't feel anything."
Berdie is smiling at her like Alex just won a Pulitzer. "That is awesome to hear, Alex. Truly. You feel good about it?"
"Sorta. Also kind of stupid, for turning it into such a big deal when it wasn't."
"Well, it was a big trigger you knew how to avoid. Most of the time, you weren't prepared for them...when the guard grabbed you, or seeing something that made you think of blood. But seeing the place it happened...that was in your control." She turns down the wattage on her smile into something more gentle. "You weren't afraid of a greenhouse, Vause. It was the flashbacks it could have caused."
"But it didn't."
"No, and that's great."
"So...we done here?"
Berdie lifts an eyebrow, but she doesn't look surprised. "Do you feel done?"
"Yeah. I haven't had nightmares in like two weeks. And honestly, when they happen, I've figured out how to deal with them." Alex doesn't mention that dealing just means Piper waking her up, pulling her back to safety. "It's been even longer since a panic attack. And we both know I'm not really saying anything useful or new in these sessions, anymore. No breakthroughs." She stops talking, but Berdie still seems to be waiting for more, so Alex sighs and tries not to sound irritated. "I feel good. Really. And honestly, the only time I really think about it is when I'm in here and forced to...feels like it's getting counterproductive."
"Okay, we can scale back to less frequent counseling sessions. If you feel ready. Just as long as you know you can still come to me anytime if it starts getting bad again." She takes Alex's file and starts making a note of something as she talks. "We can meet the same amount as any inmate and counselor, but I'll still want to check in on how you're doing with everything for awhile. Fair?"
"Fair." She can hardly get the word out. Even though Alex had convinced herself before coming in here that she had a rock solid case, that there was no excuse for Berdie prolonging this anymore, she still feels dazed with the surprise of getting what she wants.
Berdie finishes writing, then closes the file to give Alex a kind, genuine smile. "I'm proud of you, Vause. Really. You've been through a lot, and you're kind of in a horrible environment to deal with it. But you're doing great."
"Thank you." Alex looks away, uncomfortable with the sincerity of the counselor's gaze. If it wasn't for her job, Berdie might almost remind Alex of the type of person she would have been friends with, years and years ago, before the travel became constant and she still had friends outside the cartel. She sighs, and like it takes a lot of effort, adds, "For everything."
Piper waits in Alex's bunk while she's in her session with Berdie, and when Alex finally comes back, she's smiling almost triumphantly, and she doesn't sit down on the bed, just hovers. Piper raises her eyebrows. "How'd it go?"
"Great," Alex replies, which isn't an adjective she's ever used to describe a counseling session. "I'm done."
"Like, finished. Cured. No longer certifiable. Out of the bell jar. Etc." She grins, sardonically holding her hand out to Piper. "C'mon, you gotta give it up for that."
Piper smiles back, tamping down a strange, instinctive concern. She dutifully slaps her palm against Alex's, having to lean up to do it. "Why are you standing?'
Instead of answering, Alex says, "So there was something I was going to maybe do on Christmas. I was going to play it off like it was your gift, but I wanted...I almost asked..." She trails off for a moment, smile tilting and turning almost sheepish. "If you wanted to be my weird prison girlfriend again."
It's the last thing Piper's expecting. She scoots back on the bed, leaning against the wall so it's easier to look up at Alex, sudden anxiety gripping her. "You...you changed your mind?"
Alex's face softens. "No. Not at all. It just seemed...unnecessary. Like we already were, without asking. But now I guess maybe I should double check with you..." She smirks. "You my prison wife or what, Pipes?"
It feels like it's been years since Piper was asking a similar question, since Alex said yes and gave Piper everything she had wanted, only for her to immediately start ripping it to shreds.
But Alex is right; this time, it's barely a question. It doesn't do any good for Piper to obsess over whether she deserves this or not; she already has it. "Yeah." She smiles, easily. "I am."
Alex's face lights up. "Good." She extends her hand, palm open, fingers waiting. "Let's go."
Piper takes her hand and lets Alex lead her away, tugging her through the prison like they're weaving back through time, shedding months of pain and uncertainty, until once again they're bursting into the chapel, ready and wanting, and Alex fists the front of her shirt and pulls Piper into her.
Alex pulls off Piper's shirt and she doesn't even mind; she can't hear the muttering of her tattoos over everything else.
"God, I missed you," Alex gasps against her between kisses, breathy and frantic. "I missed you like this."
Piper's got both hands on Alex's face, and she kisses her hard, feeling like they could make the world shake with this, with their sheer force of love and desire and need. Somehow they manage to stumble their way behind the altar, and once they're on the ground, Piper on her knees between Alex's legs, she pulls Alex's shirt over her head, arching over her so Alex has to ease down onto her back, lying on the floor underneath Piper.
She kisses her way down Alex's chest, loving the feel of her hands swimming through her hair, wanting this to feel like a gift. And it's fine, she's fine, she doesn't even remember what's waiting until she gets there, when her hands come against rough, thick scar tissue.
It shouldn't matter; Piper's gotten herself used to the scar on Alex's face, but she hasn't seen this one. She leaves her hands where they are, doesn't recoil, but she lifts her head enough to look. She inhales once, sharply, it shoots panic to her lungs. Her palms start to feel wet, slick with blood that isn't there anymore, and now she does snatch them away, just as her whole body starts shaking.
Alex lets out a throaty, frustrated groan. "Really, Pipes? Still?" She sits up a little, irritation and hurt warring on her expression, but they give up as soon as she sees Piper, wiped out by concern. "Piper? Hey, hey, look at me, it's okay..."
Piper closes her eyes, so tight it hurts; her chest feels heavy, like there's no room for air, and all of a sudden she feels fingers circle her wrist and it sets her off, an alarm screaming through her whole body. She wrenches out of the grip, a whimper jerking itself free from her throat as Alex comes closer, trying to calm her, but all she sees is the scar arched across her stomach. Alex touches her shoulder and Piper thrashes away, cowering, because all she can think about is that day...
He'd cut her in half.
That's what Piper kept thinking, afterwards, when her hands were itchy with dry blood and the ambulance was long gone. Alex had been laying on the ground, torn in half, and there was no way she could stay alive after that.
Piper's hands start flying across her own torso, trembling and urgent, pressing her fingers to spots where she knows there are tattoos, words Alex has said since she came back from the hospital. Proof she's been here.
She never expected Alex to live. That's all it is. Sometimes even now, months later, Piper gets sick and panicked when Alex isn't right in front of her. She's never stopped to examine that, why she's nearly knocked sideways with relief every time she sees Alex after any length of absence.
She should have died. The thought floats, unbidden and unwanted, through Piper's head. It won't shut up.
It felt right, in some sick sort of way, when she thought Alex was gone. Not because Alex deserved to die...but because Piper deserved to lose her.
But Alex is here, alive, right now, and she's rubbing Piper's back and telling her to breathe; slowly, Piper regains some control, and as soon as she's done hyperventilating she starts to sob.
"Pipes..." Alex is pulling her shirt back on, probably trying to hide the scar from Piper's sight, and that makes her feel terrible.
"I'm sorry..." Piper shrugs away when Alex tries to put an arm around her, furious at herself for ruining this. "I'm really sorry, Alex, I didn't mean...I don't mind the scar, I just..."
"It's okay," Alex voice is quiet, strained, but she reaches out to stroke Piper's hair.
"No, it's not..." Piper wipes her eyes, sets her jaw, and makes herself look at Alex. "I'm really sorry. I wasn't expecting that, and I just started thinking about..." Piper's voice cracks. She wants to explain, but she can feel herself careening toward an edge, close to losing it again. "After the ambulance left, I didn't...I didn't wash my hands, Alex. Not for hours. There was so much blood, and...and they were asking me all these questions about seeing Aydin and I could barely talk to them, I just kept staring at all that fucking blood...." She's shaking again, the words coming out in a hysterical free fall, so it takes a moment to notice that Alex has moved away from her, her eyes big and uncertain.
"What are you talking about?"
"What are you talking about? When did you see Aydin, why were your hands..." She trails off, shaking her head slowly, like she's rejecting everything Piper's saying. "What the fuck are you talking about, Piper?"
Chapter 11: a revelation in the light of day (you can't choose what stays and what fades away)
This isn't the very end, but it's the last main, lengthy chapter (though it's still slightly shorter than the last several). Epilogue is still to come.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"What the fuck are you talking about, Piper?"
Alex's voice comes out loud, too loud, it's wild and out of control and she doesn't mean to talk to Piper like that, harsh and practically yelling, but she's a sickly sort of desperate and the way Piper's looking at her - like she's crazy, like she's not making any sense - is just making her feel worse.
"I..." Piper actually looks scared, like she has to provide a very important answer for a question she didn't hear. "Um...which part?"
"All of it!" Alex blurts out, still loud, echoing in the chapel. She doesn't know how to narrow it down, because no part of what Piper said made sense to her. She seizes on the last detail she remembers hearing. "When did you see Aydin?"
Piper's expression relaxes a little, but she still looks pained. "Sorry, I don't know why I assumed you knew...that's how I found you, why I went looking in the greenhouse. I saw him leaving and recognized him, and, um..." Her voice falters. "There was blood on his shirt. Not much, but -"
This only fuels more questions, Alex's pulse is pounding with them, what what what?! "What do you....what do you mean found me?"
Piper doesn't answer, confusion casting shadows over her face. Belatedly, the words sink in, crawl under her skin; Alex's chest starts to hurt.
All this time, ever since the hospital, she kept wondering if Piper even saw her that day, and it turns out -
"You're the one who found me?" The words are barely audible. "Pipes, why didn't you ever...why didn't you tell me?"
Piper seems scared again. And something else. She's worried. "I thought you knew, Alex." Her voice sounds heavy with questions she isn't asking.
"No, I didn't, Berdie never...fuck, Berdie doesn't tell me shit - "
"That's not what I meant," Piper reaches out, puts a hand on Alex's leg, and that's when she realizes she's shaking. Or maybe Piper is. "You were there, you...you talked to me."
There is some part of her that still has a hold on logic, that can remember every time Berdie made Alex talk through that day like she was expecting a different story, that recalls being told she'd been talking in the ambulance, maybe even recognizes why she's never come out and asked Piper about it. But all that logic is drowned out by a chorus of NO's resounding through Alex's head.
"I passed out right after he got off me," she says firmly, her voice trying hard to make it true.
Piper's eyes are big and she doesn't argue. That's not enough, though, Alex wants her to agree.
Too loud, too angry, she snaps, "Maybe my eyes were open, or I was half out of my head and trying to talk..but I didn't know you were there, Piper. I couldn't have."
"You knew," Piper counters, fast. Certain. Her hand slips under the waistband of her pants, Alex habitually clocks the gesture, recognizes it: she's touching a tattoo. "This whole time, I thought you remembered that." Then, in a smaller voice, "Why do you not remember?"
Alex shakes her head, dormant panic waking up to kick aside progress and cloud her brain.
She had been lying there, drowning in her own blood and thinking about Piper, wishing for Piper. She had wanted Piper there with her, and if she was -
Alex would have fucking known.
She stands up. She hates this, how out of control it makes her feel. She wants answers, but she can't hear them from Piper right now.
"I...I need to talk to Berdie. She's been screwing with me this whole time, I have to go..." She exhales out a jerky series of breaths, turning to walk out of the chapel.
Alex pounds her fist three times against the door and doesn't wait before pushing it open, her accusation leading the way into Berdie's office in the form of a growl, forcing its way between her teeth, "You lied to me."
For a second Berdie and Warren, who's sitting in Alex's usual spot across the desk, just gape at her. Then Berdie narrows her gaze, displeased and firm. "Vause, we're in the middle of something here, so you can wait outside for five minutes and - "
Warren cuts her off, eager, "Uh, I'm all good with goin' early."
Not taking her eyes off Alex, Berdie counters, "No need, she can wait until we finish."
"Fuck that, you need to tell me right now - "
"You want a shot, Vause?"
Alex's momentum stalls at the tone of Berdie's voice; she's never heard it before. The counselor has never once threatened her with discipline; Alex had sort of forgotten she could.
On the heels of that, she's suddenly furious at herself for forgetting, and for letting herself hand Berdie even the slightest bit of trust. As if she's any different from the other corrupt fuckers who work in this place who don't give a single shit about them.
Already there are hints of regret softening Berdie's face, but Alex ignores it. "Fine," she says, soft and steely and dangerous. "Give me a fucking shot. As long as you still feel like one of the good guys."
Warren starts ooh-ing under her breath like Alex is talking back to the teacher, and Berdie sighs, hesitating for a moment before turning back to Suzanne. "Warren, I want to see you work on this in drama tomorrow, alright?"
"Will do." Warren gets amiably to her feet, swinging a finger between Alex and Berdie. "Good luck with...all a'this."
The door closes behind her, leaving them shut in the silence. Berdie's lips are curled inward into a thin line, she's not happy but can't be nearly as angry as Alex. "That's a shot, Vause, don't think I was kidding. And you still better have a damn good reason for being in here or it'll be another one." Alex tightens her jaw and doesn't let her glare waver. Finally, Berdie exhales a tired sound and waves a hand at the chair. "Sit down."
"No, thanks," she refuses, solely out of spite.
Berdie leans back in her chair, getting her bearings again. "Suit yourself." Her expression smoothes out, unflappable once again. "Now. What is it you think I lied about?"
"The attack. You said there was nothing unusual about the report -"
" - and that you didn't even know if I was forgetting anything, but you kept fucking asking me about her, you knew - "
"Vause, you need to slow down -"
"Piper's the one that found me," Alex's voice snags, and fuck, she hates saying it out loud, hates that it's true.
She closes her eyes, running her fingers through her hair, God, Piper kept talking about blood on her hands, and hadn't she said something about not washing it off right away? "You don't think that mattered?"
Berdie is watching her closely. "You never wanted to talk about Chapman."
"I didn't think she was relevant to the attack you kept making me walk you through every single fucking session. Maybe if you'd mentioned she was there."
"She just now told you about this?"
"She didn't think she had to tell me, she said..." Alex stops, tightening her arms over her chest. "She swears I knew she was there. That we talked."
It's infuriating, the way Berdie's voice gentles when she finally says, "Alex, what is it you're asking me?"
It takes her a moment to figure that out, but she doesn't pose it like a question. "Tell me what happened. Finally."
Berdie's getting something from the lower drawer in her desk. "I can tell you what's in the report. That's all I know. Remember I was suspended, I wasn't on the scene." She opens a file in front of her but doesn't give it to Alex. "So this is all from interviews with Chapman, the COs, and the police." She lifts her eyes to Alex, almost like she's checking in. "Alright?"
"You already know that was the day of the CO walk out, and the incident with the fence, so the grounds were fairly empty. Apparently Chapman saw Aydin while he was on his way out. She recognized him, and noticed a little blood on his shirt. Apparently..." She checks the file for the first time. "She knew you had been worried, since your testimony at the trial. So she ran to find you in the greenhouse."
This isn't anything PIper hadn't already told her, but Alex's legs have gone hollow beneath her, and in spite of herself she has to sink slowly into the chair. She's not looking at Berdie; her eyes glazed over and unfocused as she tries to picture this.
"Of course we don't know how long she was with you, or anything that you said...for the record, Vause, I genuinely had no way of knowing if you were conscious at that point or not. What I know is that CO Rikerson came back to the greenhouse to check on you - he was concerned you never came after the rest of the yard crew. When he got there, Chapman was crouched over you. He called for back up and subdued her - "
"What?" The image in Alex's head cracks. "What do you mean subdue her, why?"
Berdie meets her eyes, and she looks sorry. Fear roars to life in Alex's chest. "Apparently...Riker's initial assumption was that she was the one who attacked you." Alex makes a sound, jagged and involuntary. "They took her to solitary right away, to wait for questioning, but you gave a statement in the ambulance naming Aydin, saying he'd gotten in as a CO."
Alex is shaking. She feels punctured, like words can draw blood and she's dripping pain all over Berdie's floor.
"Why the fuck..." Alex stops, swallows. She's too loud, she sounds crazy. "That doesn't make sense, what kind of idiot would think she did it?"
Berdie glances at the file again, probably more to give credence to what she's saying than a need to double check. "The shovel and shears were lying right beside the two of you...she hadn't gone for help..." She looks at Alex again, sympathetic. "It was a knee jerk response. There's no report of any statement from Chapman until she was released from seg, no mention that she directed them to Aydin before then."
It seems impossible Alex hadn't known any of this. She doesn't even know what to ask, there's no question that's going to somehow prove this wrong.
"How...how long did they keep her there?"
"I'm not sure exactly. No more than a few hours, they held her until the SIS came in to conduct the investigation."
Her eyes are stinging, she's never once cried in here, not in all the times Berdie pushed her to traumatic edges, but the idea of Piper locked in the SHU - with Alex's blood on her hands, left on there for hours, Jesus - has her a breath away from sobbing.
She can't talk anymore, her throat locked around any questions, and Berdie seems to sense that because she just continues, "After a lot of questioning, Chapman filled in the blanks of what you told the police in the ambulance. You were unconscious by the time you got the hospital." Berdie closes the file and taps it with her hand. "That's all I know, Vause."
There's an unspoken end to that sentence - the rest you'll have to hear from Chapman - but Alex isn't thinking about that yet. Most of her effort is going into not losing it, while some distant part of her brain dazedly marvels at the fact that they're living in a place where someone would actually think Piper might try to kill her.
When she's been quiet for too long, Berdie pushes her damned box of tissues toward Alex, but she's too out of it to roll her eyes or insist that she's fine. She only shakes her head slightly and tightens her jaw before she asks, "Why don't I remember her being there? Why block that out?"
"It may not be anything you suppressed at all. He did hit you on the head, Alex."
For the first time in awhile, Alex lifts her head and squints at Berdie, reading her. "But you don't think that," she says flatly. "You think there's a reason. You always have."
It's not a question, and to her credit Berdie doesn't deny that. "I've always thought it was a possibility, yes."
Alex leans forward, eyes fierce and narrow and leaving no room for Berdie to refuse her. "Why?" She doesn't understand, really, really doesn't; right now, she's so fucking sorry Piper had to see her that way, hates that she's been carrying that memory around, but at the time, Piper had been all Alex still had it in her to want.
Her being there couldn't have been the worst part of that day.
Berdie's voice is gentle. "As soon as you came back here, you started avoiding anything that was there that day: CO's in uniform, the greenhouse...you wouldn't even go outside. That's normal for PTSD, Vause, you were steering clear of any triggers...except for her."
Piper is waiting outside Berdie's office when Alex finally emerges. Bloodshot, darting eyes taking a moment to register Piper's there, then flicker quickly from surprise to gratitude to something almost like dread. "Hey."
Tight throated already, Piper answers, "Hey. You okay?"
Alex nods but she doesn't really look it.
Piper holds her gaze for a long, loaded moment, an understanding passing silently between them, their eyes acknowledging that this is going to hurt like hell. Piper finally draws a breath. "Want to go somewhere and talk?"
Alex nods again, it scares Piper a little that she's not talking. But Piper's spent the last half hour talking herself firmly back to a place of calm, for Alex, so now she just leads the way back to the chapel. This time they sit in two of the back rows, Piper in front of Alex, turned sideways in a chair so she can face her.
Piper knows she needs to be the one to do this, but she can't figure out a starting point, when Alex speaks first, quiet and rough. "Sorry for...I didn't mean to freak out on you."
"No, God, I'm sorry, I didn't...I had no idea you didn't remember." Alex flinches, looks away, and finally Piper asks, "You...did Berdie tell you?"
"Yeah. Well. What she could. She basically read me the report."
Piper makes herself hold Alex's eyes. "Are you mad at me?"
Alex's brow furrows, nothing but surprise in her expression. "What? Why would I be?"
"Because I didn't do anything." The words, draped with distress, wrench themselves out of her. "I just froze, Alex, I didn't go for help, God, I couldn't even say anything..."
She hadn't said she was sorry, hadn't even told Alex she loved her.
Piper had thought about that all the time when she thought Alex was dead, that even in her last few seconds Piper had managed to screw up, that she hadn't even been able to give Alex one final thing.
Alex's face is tight. "Could you...sorry, Pipes, I don't want to ask this, but would you be okay telling me what happened?"
Piper nods. She doesn't really understand what's happening, why Alex doesn't remember, but that doesn't matter right now.
She knew this question was coming, and she's determined to get through it. Alex must hate this, feeling out of the loop in what should be her own memories. So Piper will do this for her, she can do this, but God, that day -
That day was something broken, it was shattered glass and Piper is still finding slivers of it in her skin.
"Okay. Like I told you, I saw Aydin. At first it was just the uniform, I only knew it was a CO. I'd been out of bounds, leaving here, actually, so I tried to make sure he wouldn't see me, but he was...in a hurry. And then I saw his face."
For a dizzying second, it hadn't even seemed real, just a memory out of context.
"And I noticed the blood, on his shirt. And dirt on his hands."
She'd understood exactly what had happened, that fast, the truth stinging in her lungs like the crack of a whip.
"I thought...I don't know, I just guessed he was coming from the greenhouse. So I ran."
It had felt like Piper had swallowed terror, trailing it down on her throat to sit heavy in her chest. She'd run without breathing, somehow, and even more miraculously had managed to leave behind the girl who five minutes before sat in the chapel giving herself an infinity tattoo, floating on power and pain.
"There was...I didn't see a single other person when I was going. Nobody. Did Berdie tell you about that, the thing with the fence...?"
Alex nods, so Piper doesn't add that it seemed like the world had ended. Through no real logic, that had only fueled Piper's horrified, gut deep certainty that the very worst had happened.
"So I got to the greenhouse and you..." Her voice stumbles for the first time, nearly falling. "You were just laying there..."
Blood, and blood, so much of it Piper's eyes had closed to red for months.
"I don't know, I think I screamed."
Or at least, something had screamed, maybe just in her head, her chest, her own blood still inside her body. Something had screamed.
"And I ran over, I was saying your name."
That was all she managed, the whole time, not I love you not I'm sorry not even a useless It's okay or I'm here. Just Alex Alex Alex and even that had cracked and faded too quickly.
"Tried to...stop the blood or something, I don't know."
Her hands had pressed to the hole in Alex's stomach, soaked in seconds and so goddamned useless, there'd hadn't been enough left to hold together.
"It was too deep, Alex, he'd fucking gutted you, I couldn't, I couldn't stop it..." She's losing it now, her voice thick and wild, she shouldn't be saying it like that, facts only, that's what Piper had decided.
Alex's face is pale, and she leans forward to put her hands over Piper's arm on the back of the chair. It helps her continue. "You said my name."
"You were looking at me...well, one eye was swollen shut." Piper touches Alex's cheekbone, her fingers searching for the bump of scar tissue, reassuring herself. "But you looked at me with the other one."
Alex's whole face had been wet and red except the right eye, pale pink and terrified, sending tears sluicing through blood while she'd begged...
Don't leave me.
There are tears on Piper's cheeks now, but she ignores them, continuing, "You asked me not to leave you." The words burn hot on her hip. "And, and I didn't." Her voice breaks in half. Alex is touching her face, thumbing away tears, so tender it's almost too much to take. "But I should have, I should have gotten help sooner."
She always gets it wrong, somehow. Piper had turned her back on Alex the first time she asked her not to leave, left her standing in the rubble of her life; then she had stayed the very moment she should have been running, should have been helping, just sat silent and useless to watch Alex fade.
"I just sat there until...one of the CO's showed up. You just kept asking for help, and for me to stay. You didn't look away from me."
She'd heard the blood in Alex's throat when she talked, when she struggled for breath, that was bad, Piper had known it was bad.
"I don't know how long I just sat there before...it was just lucky that he came, I didn't yell or anything. Like it never fucking occurred to me to go for help. He got his walkie and called for back up, already said they'd need an ambulance, and then..." Piper stops abruptly, hitting a wall; she hadn't planned for this part. She's not sure if it's part of what Alex needs to know.
But Alex's face softens, tears brimming in her eyes now, too. "Berdie...she told me - " She lets out a low hiss, and the words come out a thick, angry whisper. "That they thought it was you."
"He told me to move away from you," Piper says dully. "I just didn't."
It's not that Piper had made a decision to disobey, to ignore the order. She'd heard him, but that was it. It hadn't registered, nothing had except for Alex dying under her hands.
"So he grabbed me and got me on the ground, held me down."
Her cheek had landed right next to a creeping pile of blood, it turned her stomach, so she'd tried to move away but the guard's knee dug into her back. She couldn't see Alex's face anymore, but she could hear Alex saying her name, like she didn't know where she'd gone.
That's when Piper spotted Alex's glasses, over by the cabinet, nearly at her eye level. She'd wanted to say something, to tell him to get them, that Alex needed them to see, and God, one of her eyes was already hurt, she fucking needed her glasses. But Piper hadn't been able to make her voice work, the words crumbling somewhere in her throat.
"Jesus, Pipes..." Alex's voice is a tight, fragile thing, her eyes screwed shut.
"It's okay, it was my fault," Piper says quickly, hating that Alex feels bad for her in a story where she was the one bleeding out on the ground. "I didn't tell them they were wrong, or tell them what happened. Aydin was getting further away and I couldn't - " She stops, corrects herself. "I didn't say anything, Alex. And then...more guards came, and they were asking me questions, and I still didn't...I didn't tell them they were wrong."
Piper's voice falters and she has to take a second to sort out the chaos from that next moment. There had been so much happening, but mostly what she remembers is that she couldn't see Alex anymore, even when Rikerson jerked her up from the ground - there were CO's swarming over her, and another one in front of Piper, asking her questions and yelling, she doesn't remember what he said but she remembers finally realizing, vaguely, what was going on.
"They were all...they were talking to me like it was my fault. They took me off to SHU before the ambulance even came, I knew it was punishment. I knew they thought I did it, that I was the reason, so I didn't say anything because it felt true. They locked me up and I knew I deserved to be in there, it didn't feel like they got anything wrong."
Alex is crying silently, one hand hovering just in front of her own lips like she's ready to muffle any sound that tries to get out. It makes Piper feel awful, like she might cave in; she doesn't want Alex to think that was the worst part.
"Hey..." She wraps a hand around Alex's wrist, waiting until she meets her eyes. "SHU didn't matter, Alex, the only thing I cared about was that I wouldn't know what happened to you, at first that's all I was panicking over, but then I started thinking...there was no way you'd be okay. You were practically in two pieces, Alex, and I didn't even hear sirens yet."
She wipes her face with her sleeve, it's getting harder to talk, so she rushes through the end. "And then they came back for me and they seemed to know it wasn't me."
"After how long?"
"I don't know."
She doesn't remember much of SHU. Nothing after the sinking realization that Alex was probably dead, and Piper was locked up because it was her fault.
Something broke, then. Something hidden but crucial inside Piper, the kind of breaking that's forever.
The next thing she remembers is being let out, dragged into a room for questioning, her eyes burning and her head throbbing. They'd kept asking questions, and it took so long for Piper to surface enough to answer, her throat sore and her voice nearly gone, she wasn't sure why. She hadn't been able to stop staring at her hands, Alex's blood drying and flecking off her palms and arms, her own leaking from her knuckles.
"That's it, Alex," she says hoarsely. "They came and got me, I told them how you knew Aydin and why he was there, and that's it. You're not missing much, because there wasn't anything. I didn't do anything."
"Pipes, they caught Aydin," Alex reminds her gently. "You know that, right?" She nods pitifully, sniffling and blinking out more tears. Healey told her that, even as he refused to give an update on Alex. "I think your statement helped that, all I did was give a name they wouldn't know and say he was one of the new COs. And they caught him, and Kubra's wanted now, they think he'd left the country even before Aydin reported back. It's over."
"If Rikerson hadn't come back...Alex, I would have just sat there watching you die - "
"You were in shock, and no one was close - "
"I didn't help you, Alex!" That comes out in a high, childlike whimper, a scream without strength. "I couldn't even say anything important."
"Piper..." Alex exhales her name, leaning forward and cushioning her arms on the back of Piper's chair, resting her chin on them. Piper strokes her fingers through Alex's hair, throat swelling with apologies. Then Alex continues, "You were there. That was something important."
"Alex." Her voice cracks on the name. "You don't even remember - "
"But I knew then. And that's when I thought I was dying, that's when I was scared out of my mind." Piper wraps her arms over Alex's, leaning forward and burying a sob in her hair. She feels Alex turn into her, lightly kissing her chin before murmuring against her neck, "Pipes, I wish you hadn't had to see that. I wish none of that had happened because it made it even worse for you, but at the time...the last thing I remember is wanting you there."
Piper leans back again to look at her. "Why?"
"I thought I was dying," Alex says simply. "I just wanted to see you again."
Her chest spasms out of a rhythm of almost-sobs, and all at once Piper stands up, stepping over the row of chairs to sit in the seat beside Alex, leaning against her shoulder and grabbing her hand like a lifeline.
"I wanted you in the hospital, too," Alex tells her softly, lips pressed against Piper's temper.
Piper closes her eyes and sighs, exhausted, nestling as close as the armrest between the chairs allows and she mumbles, "How were you not furious at me?"
"I was that, too. I was a lot of shit in the hospital, actually. Mad at you. Wanting you. Scared of you."
Fear skitters her pulse. "Scared?"
"Well, not of you. That's the wrong way to say it." Alex is quiet for a moment, like she has to search for the right way. "Scared about you, I guess."
Piper waits, but when Alex doesn't explain, she sits up to look at her. "What about?"
Slowly, Alex smiles at her and it doesn't make it to her eyes; her face is all love and fault lines. "I was scared you wouldn't love me like this."
Piper closes her eyes, sending tears racing out. Blindly, she reaches for Alex, cradling her face, tracing the scar. She whispers, "I've been scared you shouldn't love me at all."
Her eyes are still shut when she feels Alex's mouth on hers, a soft, salty kiss. Alex waits until Piper looks at her before she says, "Well, I do." She tucks a piece of Piper's hair behind her ear, then, "Always will."
Warmth fans out in Piper's chest; she's been making sure Alex doesn't say she loves her, and she can't decide if this counts, but she also can't bring herself to mind.
She rests her head against Alex again, and they let the quiet envelope them for awhile. Piper focuses on the rise and fall of Alex's breathing, waiting for her bad memories to burrow down again, deep enough that the hurt isn't so close.
"Thank you for telling me," Alex says after a long time. "I know it wasn't easy."
Piper cuts her eyes high, trying to look at her without lifting her head. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Alex's voice sounds far away, thoughtful. "Berdie said...she said maybe the reason I blocked out you being there was because I was avoiding anything that might be a trigger. I had a total break down flashback over just the crack in my old glasses - "
"You knew I had your glasses?"
"I found them in your bunk, I was looking for letters with Polly's address."
Her voice warms, teasing. "And you thought they'd be hanging on a hook with my clothes? Stalker."
Alex grins, still delighted by Piper joking. "You're the one hoarding my shit, weirdo. Anyway. Those set me off, and when that asshole CO grabbed me...and I couldn't even chance looking at the greenhouse. Berdie says I didn't want to have to worry about that with you. If I didn't let myself remember you were there, I wouldn't associate you with the attack. And I wouldn't be scared to be around you."
"You think she's right?"
"I don't know." Alex laces theirs fingers together, her thumb moving in an absent circle. It feels so nice. "But if she is, I guess I'm glad." She's quiet for a moment. "Kinda ironic, though."
She smiles. "When I first came back, you were doing everything you could to get me to avoid you. And all along my brain was making sure I wouldn't."
Piper doesn't smile back. Tentative, she asks, "You know I'm done with that, right?"
Laughing a little, Alex answers, "Yeah, Pipes, it's pretty clear at this point."
"But I mean...done for good." It suddenly feels really important to make this clear, right now. "Even when I get out of here...I'm not leaving you, Alex. I'm gonna get a place close by - "
"Pipes, you don't have to -"
"- and come see you all the time, be away from my parents - "
"Get those tattoos on your leg lasered off."
Piper stops then, resting the hand Alex isn't holding on top of her thigh, worrying the material of her pants between two fingers. "If I can afford it, yeah. Eventually."
"Good," Alex says like she really, really means it. "What about the other ones?"
"I don't know..." It's still hard for her to think too far ahead, to understand what it means that they're on her forever.
Part of Piper can't help thinking that Alex is stuck with her physical reminders of all this; maybe, for once, Piper shouldn't get to erase her mistakes. Maybe she should bear the evidence.
The leg she'll take care of, as soon as possible; the words on her leg hurt Alex, and she had never meant for that to happen.
Finally, Piper answers honestly, "I haven't thought much about it. Right now, you getting out is as far ahead as I want to look. Everything after that we figure out together."
Alex smiles at Piper in this way that turns her eyes to pure light, this way that make Piper's heart feel like it's floating. She looks so damn happy. So damn alive. "Oh, yeah?"
Too soon, the light in her eyes dims, just a little, and Piper instantly misses it. "Pipes, you gotta promise me something." Piper raises her eyebrows, waiting. "I don't want you to do anything because you feel guilty that I'm still here. I was always supposed to have this sentence, Piper, you don't need to pay penance."
Pain twinges in the parts of Piper that are still broken, the unfixable cracks; she knows Alex has reason to doubt her certainty, and all she can do now is prove herself, over and over.
"I'm probably not done feeling guilty yet," Piper says softy. "But I swear, that's not the why. I am wishing I could stay here in this bullshit prison, just because I like that I get to see you every day. That's all this is, Alex."
And right now, fresh off reliving the worst day of her life, Piper's remembering how close she came to losing Alex, what an undeserved gift it is that she's still here.
Right now, it really does seem that simple.
Piper wants to see her. She wants to be with her. She wants to make her happy.
Finally, finally Piper knows what she wants.
"Not because I feel guilty. Just because I love you."
Alex gifts her with another one of those smiles. She hooks her finger around the neck of Piper's shirt and tugs her close, letting out a soft hum of agreement and a quiet, "Always will." seconds before she kisses Piper, slow and easy. She says it like she's finishing Piper's sentence, like the first declaration was hers, too, and when she pulls back there's a hint of a smirk dancing on her lips, smug that she's found a loophole to Piper's unspoken rule.
Piper kisses her again, not caring; so much of what Alex says to her already sounds like I love you.
So, like I said, shorter than the last several chapters, but I wanted this reveal and conversation to stand on it's own.
There will be a short sort-of epilogue posted in the next few days, but let me know what you thought of this one.
Chapter 12: Epilogue: we only notice light (when darkness crashes against it)
Two and a Half Months Later
The day before Piper leaves Litchfield, Alex finds her in her bunk after work and says, "I have something for you. A going away present."
Piper smiles like the words don't tear something in her, she's gotten good at that.
"I can't give it to you here." Alex raises her eyebrows and nods her head a little for Piper to follow. Piper easily understands what kind of "gift" Alex is referring to, and she grins, getting up to follow Alex out of the dorm. She's close enough that she keeps nearly stepping on her heels, reaching out every few seconds to tug playfully on the back of her shirt, like she can't wait to peel it off her.
They've been like this for the past week, Piper especially: hiding dread behind perpetually smiling teeth, burying it under a stream of teasing banter. She hasn't wanted to ruin their last real week together by worrying about the end of it, so she's made herself be okay, her hands clinging to this happiness that has sprung up between her and Alex. She isn't ready to let go yet.
She remembers crying the night before coming here; objectively, it would be ridiculous to do the same because she has to leave.
She will miss Alex, and sometimes it's just that simple: Piper can reassure them both with the promise of frequent visits, but an hour across a table, even if she can make that hour happen several times a week, is not nearly enough, especially compared to the strange version of domesticity they've manage to carve between the limitations of Litchfield.
But sometimes it's more than just the fear of missing her. Sometimes, what scares Piper most is still herself, and what she'll become when Alex isn't in reach.
She is still a grenade. But lately, Piper thinks Alex is the pin.
And tomorrow she has to leave her.
But today she is still smiling, still okay, still soaking up Alex's presence like it's something she can stockpile. So when they walk into the chapel, Piper pulls Alex close to her, more insistently now, pressing a smile against her lips and murmuring, "Liking this gift already."
Alex pulls away, twisting her face into a mock-scandalized expression. "Uh, not that kinda gift, perv." She holds the look for a few seconds before it fades into a wolfish smirk, lips pursed and eyes narrow. "Though if that's how you choose to thank me, then by all means."
Piper rolls her eyes, still smiling, because everything's fine. "Fine. What then?"
"C'mere." Alex leads her over to the front row of chairs, the very end, where the piano is pushed against the wall. Piper raises her eyebrows, a question. "Close your eyes."
"Alex..." The slightest hint of a plea slips into Piper's voice, spiked with nerves. This is the spot where Alex first saw the tattoos, where she sat to give herself everyone.
Alex's eyes soften. "Trust me. Just close your eyes, I'm playing out a whole surprise thing."
So Piper does. When Alex says, "Open," her voice is close again, right in front of Piper, and Piper dutifully looks to see Alex holding a homemade tattoo gun.
"What?" Piper's eyes widen. "Where did you get that?"
"I knew one of the women I used to work with on grounds crew had one...and it's not who you'd think. Anyway. I'm only showing you this because I know you're out of here tomorrow." But she's kidding; Piper's skin doesn't mutter at her anymore, doesn't hum or light up with cravings.
Even now, staring at the tiny makeshift needle, Piper doesn't want to reach for it. She isn't racking her brain for months of words she's saved up. Mostly, she's just confused. "Is...this is the present?"
"God, no. I just borrowed it. Well, technically rented. Took some commissary cash. Not to brag." She grins, reassuring. "The gift is the tattoo I'm going to give you with it." She doesn't wait for a response, just goes to plug the gun into the wall socket. "Come sit."
It doesn't even occur to Piper to protest. She sat in this same spot once, letting a near stranger tattoo whatever she wanted on her, and then dozens and dozens of times after that, indiscriminately choosing Alex's words to mark herself.
This seems only fair.
"What's it going to be?" Piper asks quietly as she settles onto the floor beside Alex.
Tone still light, she says, "You were quoting me without permission for months, Pipes. I think you can trust me on one, right?" Alex looks up at her, expression serious again, eyes roving Piper's face, gauging her. Softer, she says, "I keep thinking of you getting out and really having to look all these..." Her eyes flicker down, just for a second, and Piper knows she's thinking about the list on her leg. "And it'll be awhile before you can take care of them, I don't know even know if you're going to, so I just...I want to add one more thing. I think that's fair."
"You're right," Piper says evenly. She crooks out a small smile, waving a hand at herself. "Where do you want it?"
Relief floods Alex's eyes, and she cocks the tattoo gun playfully. "Give me your arm."
Piper leans against the wall and holds out her right arm, but Alex shakes her head. "The other one."
Something stings in her chest as she realizes, and Piper instinctively turns her left arm, hiding the cloud of scars and stray white letters leftover from Trust No Bitch. "Alex," she says, and it comes out like I'm sorry.
"It's alright, Pipes," Alex's voice is heavy with understanding. "Here..." Alex stretches her legs out straight out in front of her, nudging Piper until she lifts her legs, knees drawn up, over Alex's. Fingers gentle, she takes Piper by the wrist and extends her left arm. Alex brushes her knuckles absently over the mess on Piper's forearm, but she positions the gun in her hand higher, just along the edge of Piper's wristbone. She adjusts her angle slightly, bringing Piper's arm closer, then runs her thumb across two inches of skin, testing her canvas.
She lifts her eyes, searching for Piper's and holding on, open and earnest. Softly, seeking permission, she asks, "Okay?"
Piper nods, holding her gaze with unwavering trust.
The tattoo gun starts its quiet, familiar buzz, and as it approaches her skin Piper's stomach rolls with sickly excitement. The needle's bite is sharp, Piper always thought of it as angry, but Alex's free hand is warm wrapped around her, holding her still and steady.
Alex is bent over so she can see her work in the less than ideal lighting of the chapel, so Piper can't see what's emerging in the ink. The needle presses along her bone and Piper sucks in a shallow breath that makes Alex lift the gun briefly, turning her head to press her lips against Piper's shoulder.
"Sorry," she says, and her voice sounds soft and strained with concentration. "Won't be long, promise."
"I'm fine." Her instinct is to whisper.
For a moment, Piper just watches Alex. Her face is tight, so serious. Like this is something important. Piper's eyes cloud over, for no real reason, and she lifts a hand to Alex's hair, suddenly overwhelmed with the need to touch her. Her fingers barely land, not wanting to startle her.
Then the pressure of the needle disappears and doesn't come back; Alex flicks a switch and the hum of the gun stops, leaving them in silence.
Piper's skin feels hot and open; Alex's hand is curled over the wrist, not touching the tattoo but still hiding it from Piper's view. Piper turns toward her, to ask, but Alex's face is right in front of hers, leaning forward, her lips gently but insistently swallowing Piper's question.
She feels Alex smile against her, and it stays in place when she pulls back. "I love you," she says, eyes shining, her heart beating in the words. It's the first time she's said it in so long, since the last time one of them was in prison and the other was out.
Piper used to think she wouldn't be able to stand hearing Alex say it, maybe no ever again, that it would just remind her of all the reasons it shouldn't be true. But now, the words are a mere formality, a verbalization of something she already knows and feels every day.
Before she can say it back, Alex tilts a smile at her, soft eyed and sweet, then lets go of her arm and looks down; Piper follows the gaze to see two words, ink black, Alex's handwriting: Always will.
Her throat tightens with more love than Piper would have thought herself capable; the words have become Alex's declaration for the past few months, her answer to Piper's I love you's that always feel more like a continuation.
It's the most visible tattoo on Piper's body, drawing her eyes away from the mangled mess of skin and white ink just a few inches away. She knows Alex chose this spot on purpose, even before she explains, "If you're going to have to see them all, look at all that shit...at least you'll see this one more."
"Thank you," Piper tells her, and it comes out hushed, same as Alex's, like there's something reverent about the moment and neither wants to break the spell. "God, I love you."
Alex smiles, threading her hand absently through Piper's hair. "I love you, too." Her eyes sparkle, like she's just glad to finally say it. "And I would have just written that, but it seemed a bit on the nose, even for you."
Piper laughs; it's the first time she's done that and meant it all week. Alex's arms go around her, pulling her close, and Piper gratefully leans into her.
She feels Alex's lips brush the corner of her eye. "Does it hurt?"
"No," she says, wet and weightless, her hand closing around a fistful of Alex's shirt. "Not anymore."
They sit like that for awhile, just holding on in the quiet, until Piper starts to feel fear knotting up in her chest again, the familiar sting of almost-missing her. She disentangles her hand, Alex's words right there where she can see them.
She remembers everything that used to matter about the tattoos. Permanence. Proof.
She is still a grenade, but maybe Alex isn't the pin; maybe it's the fact that Alex loves her, somehow, even amid all her debris. That, at least, Piper can take with her. She touches her finger to the edge of the tattoo, feeling her pulse thumping beneath Alex's promise, strong and steady, every heartbeat a reminder.
Like I said, just a short scene for the epilogue, but I wanted it to be a separate ending because of the time jump. So. This story has been a super cathartic journey for me post-season three, and thanks to everyone who stuck around through all the heavy angst. Can't believe this fic took up nearly half the hiatus. If you haven't yet, check out my "LE" tag on Tumblr (I'm alxvse) for some excellent graphics made by thefundamental, as well as a playlist (possibly with a second one coming) for this fic.
As for what I've got coming up: I'm probably going to stick to shorter things for awhile, specifically oneshots set in either Monster of Young Blood verse, plus one more chapter of Lumos at some point...and I'm currently outlining a Vauseman Titanic AU which will be a little longer, but not nearly to the extent of this one. Monster oneshots are posted in the "Where the Wild Things Are" collection, and Young Blood excerpts will go in "only young and naive still". Feel free to send any prompts on those fics or on tumblr (I'm alxvse in case anyone doesn't know), but of course I'd still love to hear your overall thoughts on this one. Thanks for reading!