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Our Darkest Moments

Chapter Text

Darkness.

That is the first thing Sterling becomes aware of. Not the kind of darkness that still has the feintest light emanating from a distant source that allows you to make out different shades of black, this was the kind of oppressive darkness that comes from the total exclusion of all light. Where no matter where you look, everything is the same pitch black. She could feel her heart rate pick up as the realisation dawned that she could see nothing at all. Blinking rapidly and turning her head, allowing her eyes to dart around, frantically searching for the tiniest sliver of light. But there was none.

Sterling tried to lift her arm to rub her eyes. As she went to raise her arm, she felt resistance. She tried again, tugging her arms forward. Nothing. She tried twisting her hands and arms to get some movement. Nothing. Something was restraining her arms, holding her firmly in place. She tried to stretch her fingers down towards her wrists to feel what was there. Her fingertips brushed against something coarse, rope maybe. She could feel her breathing rate speed up, the breaths getting shallower as the panic of not knowing where she was or what had happened set in. She became aware of the taste of salt and something metallic on her lips. A distant part of her brain filled in the salt must be tears, she must be crying. The metallic taste was familiar too…blood. She could taste blood. She felt herself getting lightheaded as the reality of her situation sank in that bit deeper.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed, reflecting off the hidden walls before fading into the deafening silence, punctuated only by her own rapid breaths.

“Is anyone there?” Her voice wavered slightly. “Please? Someone?” She could hear the way her voice cracked on the last word only for it to be swallowed up into the blackness that surrounded her. She screwed her eyes closed tight, trying to fight down the fear flooding through her body. Desperately fighting to maintain the last bit of control she had. She strained her ears to listen for any sound. Anything that may give her the hint that there was someone there. Someone who could help her. Someone who could save her. There was nothing. No voices, no footsteps, no sounds that would indicate there was anyone near. Nothing to break the silence but her own ragged breathing. Sterling dropped her head forward, eyes screwed shut and prayed.

Chapter Text

6 months ago

April looked at herself in the mirror, running her hand over her hair to tame the last stray strand back into place. She gave herself a quick glance over to ensure that everything was as it should be. The perfect image of what a good Christian girl should be. The image of the perfect daughter to fit in alongside the perfect family. For years she had bought into the perfect family she had been sold by her parents. Years of feeling like she was the only imperfect part, the only piece that doesn’t quite fit with the rest. Not that she would ever let on about that perceived imperfection, certainly never daring to vocalise the thoughts that invaded her mind when she finally stopped. As far as those thoughts go, they were not to be dwelled upon. Process it, sort it and pack it away in a neat little box in her mind and close the lid tight. It had worked for years. She had lived up to every expectation her parents had of her. If there was a test in school, she aced it. A new society that would look good on her college applications, she would not only join it but become an integral part of the leadership. An event at church, she was the first to volunteer. Every day was spent working to ensure the spotlight fell on her to highlight all her successes. To make them stand out and draw the focus of her parents to all those things that were exactly as they expected. To show them she was the perfect daughter they wanted. Yet when darkness fell and everything in the world became still and silent, April would let her perfect persona slip. It was only when she was awake in the small hours of the day, while everyone else slept, that she would entertain the thoughts that fell so dismally short of the perfect image she had painstakingly crafted for herself. In the times when it was just herself and God, she would let those questions and thoughts emerge from their boxes. It was in those private moments that April would acknowledge her true feelings. The ones she knew could never be shown in the cold light of day. The ones kept hidden in the shadowy depths of her mind.

April caught sight of her eyes for a moment. Caught that glimpse of the fractured walls that lay behind them after the events of Friday. Walls that had held strong for years that had started to crack and crumble all with one person at the heart of it. Sterling telling Blair about them. Sterling wanting to tell everyone about them. Her dad returning. Her dad asking about Sterling. The two facets of her life seeming to collide in one moment. The perfect Christian daughter, member of the straight-straight alliance, Fellowship leader whom her father respected and loved; and the lesbian who had developed feelings for her previous nemesis who she had spent hours kissing in school, the car, laser tag arena whom her father would kick out of the house in a heartbeat. The flash of Sterling’s face and words from that bench sent a new wave of sadness through her. Another hairline fracture forming in one of the carefully constructed compartments.

Knock Knock

April tore her gaze away from her own reflection to look over to her door. “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal her dad standing there. The same smile on his face from Friday as the same greeting fell from his lips. “Hey little Padawan. You all ready to head out?”

April smiled, enough to convince her dad but certainly not the kind of smile that reached her eyes, not like when she was with…she cut her own train of thought off. “Yes daddy.”

“I’m really looking forward to sitting down with you later today to really catch up on everything that has been happening while I’ve been away.” April knew this conversation was coming for the past two days, ever since she made her excuses to leave to head to the lock-in. She followed her dad and he made his way downstairs and out to the car. Trying to dampen down the feeling of anxiety that flashed that maybe he knew something. Maybe someone had seen or heard and it got back to him. The Stevens house had been tense since his return with so many questions unanswered between them. April had delayed going home on the Saturday as long as she could by helping Ellen tidy up everything from the lock-in. Knowing that upon her return, there was the chance her dad would want to pick up the conversation where they left it the night before. That was a conversation she hadn’t been ready for. There were still too many raw feelings that she hadn’t been able to organise and she couldn’t risk getting into that conversation without a clear head. Luckily when she had returned home on the Saturday afternoon, her dad was out and her mom was shut in her room which had bought her more time. Today was the first time they were going out in public as a family. April could see her mom had slipped on the mask of perfect wife to fit with their family image. April slid into the car and began to prepare herself for the next two hours.

The car pulled up outside the church and as the engine shut off, April steeled herself for the stares and whispers. She waited until her parents had exited the vehicle before following closely behind. Making sure she kept her eyes firmly focused on her mom’s back to avoid meeting the gaze of any of the others in the congregation. She was unsure if it would be judgement or pity that would be held within their eyes but one thing April was sure of was that she didn’t want to find out.

“Well hello there Stevens family.” Pastor Booth’s upbeat voice drew April’s attention. “It is so good to see you all back together after such a trying time. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. I know it may be hard to process everything that has happened recently but together you will find the strength.”

“Thank you, Pastor.” John said as he shook the pastor’s hand. “We are given challenges in life but together we can overcome them.”

Pastor Booth smiled and nodded. “So very true John.”

April followed her parents into the church, still taken aback by the welcome they had been given. While Pastor Booth was a man of God who teaches forgiveness for your sins, it seemed a little too friendly a greeting for someone who was arrested so recently for the assault of a sex worker. Someone who had sinned so blatantly and broken so many of the teachings of the bible. Yet here they were being welcomed in like her dad had just been away for an illness. She took her seat and steadfastly kept her eyes forward, resisting the temptation to glance to the left to the Wesley’s pew. As much as the chance to just see Sterling from a distance would give her that tiny bit of pleasure from knowing the other girl was nearby, it would be overshadowed by the painful recollection of her actions and words two nights ago.

“John, so good to see you back and to hear that terrible business has been put behind y’all. It shocks me that anyone would be so vindictive as to make up such a terrible lie about you.”

“Thank you, David. Some people are so desperate that they will do anything for money. Even lie. I’m only glad she saw the error of her ways before it was too late.” April spared a glance towards her dad and caught his expression. There was something unsettling in the way he smiled and spoke. It just didn’t seem right that the police would have arrested him if it was purely her word. Her father was an upstanding businessman and member of the community and she was a sex worker. As much as people like to claim equality and fairness, the chance of her word being taken over that of her father was low unless there had been some corroborating evidence but then how could he have got out. Before April could dwell further, the sermon started.

“Beloved. Do you ever wonder why you do what you do? Do you ever have one of those moments where you’re shopping and you’re looking at sweaters or something like that. And you’re checking out the sweaters and then all of a sudden you are like, what am I doing here? I have like fifteen sweaters crammed into my closet and I wear two of them. What am I doing here? What am I trying to fill in my life by buying something I so don’t need? Am I the only one? Do you ever catch yourself walking away from a conversation and in that conversation, you have found it necessary to critique someone else’s performance, their decisions? You just kind of knock them down a couple of notches. And you’re walking away going what was that about? What in me could possibly need to lower them to boost myself a bit? Anyone here just walk away and in a moment of self-reflection ask themselves why do I do what I do?”

The words of Pastor Booth echoed around in April’s head. Her mind kindly filling in flashes of all the instances where she had done exactly that to others. The person most often on the receiving end of her snark was none other than the person who pervaded so many of her thoughts for as long as she could remember. As she continued to listen to the sermon being delivered, she finally succumbed to her deeper desire to see Sterling. Just to make sure the other girl was OK was the justification in her own mind. When she turned her head to look beyond her father, she was greeted by the sight of an empty pew.

Chapter Text

April reached out and shut her alarm off as soon as it started playing. It wasn’t like she had slept much that night. Her whole night had been spent tossing and turning, trying to find some semblance of comfort to allow her mind to settle and to get some sleep. Every time she had started to drift off, another question or scenario about why the entire Wesley family had been absent from church would pop up. The continued flashes of what might have happened had become a constant companion since the moment she spied the empty pew during the sermon. She had tried to subtly listen to any conversations about the Wesley’s after the service but it didn’t sound like anyone knew where they were. She had even gone so far as to approach Luke to ask him in what was potentially one of the most awkward conversations of her life as she couldn’t stop picturing Sterling’s face asking her why she was flirting with Luke. She regretted her actions at the lock-in and that conversation made her realise that she had the additional problem of Luke looking like he was going to ask her out. The way he fiddled with his tie and the puppy dog eyes he sported were enough of a warning for her to make a quick exit once she ascertained he knew nothing. In the absence of any real information, her mind had gone to work on filling in the blanks with multiple scenarios ranging from the completely conceivable, everyone had come down with a bout of food poisoning, to the utterly insane, they were all being held hostage by some crazy person. Sighing deeply, April just hoped that she would see the twins at school to set her mind at rest.

She dragged herself out of bed and went through her morning routine, albeit much slower than usual. Her attention was drawn by the ping of her phone.

Hannah B
Hey April. Did u still want a lift 2 school today?

April
Yes please

Hannah B
Ok, cu in 20

April set her phone down and finished packing her bag for the day ahead. She knew she should venture downstairs to get some breakfast before school but she was still unsure how to feel about her dad being back. If she was being honest, she wasn’t ready to slip into the perfect daughter persona after the past few days and certainly didn’t want to have that conversation with him yet. She had spent all afternoon and evening hidden away in her room with the excuse of preparing for the Spanish test they had coming up. The rumbling of her stomach reminded her that in her efforts to avoid her father the previous day, she had barely eaten and it was going to be a long day. She glanced at the clock on her nightstand and saw that she only had ten minutes until Hannah B would pick her up. A perfect excuse for a quick getaway should she need one.

“Morning sweetheart.” Her dad greeted her the moment she entered the kitchen.

April internally sighed at the fact that she hadn’t even managed one minute before running into her dad. “Morning daddy. Where’s mom?” She tried to make it sound casual as she continued on her path to grab something to take with her for food.

“She wasn’t feeling too good this morning so is staying in bed a bit longer.” April wondered if the shouting that had gone on between her parents had anything to do with her mom not feeling well that morning. “So how’s school? Keeping your grades up I hope.”

“Yes sir. In our recent Bible Studies project, we got an A+, highest in the class.” April couldn’t stop the smile that graced her lips with the memory of that day. The way Ellen had congratulated them on such an impressive creation. She felt that pride wash through her again.

“That’s my girl. Was it a group project? You said we.”

April stuttered in her motion for a moment. “Oh, yeah it was.” She could feel her heart rate pick up as her anxiety about where this line of questioning may lead set in. She checked her watch. Five more minutes till Hannah B would arrive.
“Who did you work with? I know you usually hate these kind of assignments. Having to rely on others to maintain your grades. As lovely as Hannah is, she isn’t the brightest penny in the pot.”

April felt her shoulders tense. It was a natural instinct when someone insulted her friends. As much as she may say some rather cutting things about her own friends, it is something different when someone else does it. Deeper than that was the knowledge that this could lead down a rabbit hole she didn’t want to venture into. Her dad had already showed too much interest in Sterling on the Friday before the lock-in. Mentioning that it was Sterling she had worked with would give rise to questions about the two of them again and the last thing she wanted was her dad thinking of her and Sterling together in any way.

“April? This project wasn’t with a boy was it? Your mom mentioned that you had spent a whole weekend working on a project for school.” Her dad’s tone had lost its levity.

“No daddy.” She knew her father’s views on her socialising with any boys that he hadn’t personally vetted.

“So who was it?”

“Sterling Wesley.” There it was, the name she didn’t want to utter near her father. She watched as her dad’s face morphed into an unreadable expression.

“Well now, that is surprising. Are you two friends again?”

April’s phone pinged in her hand.
Hannah B
I’m outside

“Sorry daddy, Hannah B is here to give me a lift to school. I have to meet Miss Johnson to discuss the devotional reading for the next week before first period.” She rushed out, slowly edging her way to the door.

“Have a good day honey.”

“Thanks dad. You too.” As she opened the door to leave the house, her dad’s voice reached her.

“And say hello to Sterling from me.” April froze, her hand still on the door handle with it half-way closed. All the anxiety she had about her dad knowing something about her and Sterling came back tenfold. Knowing that Hannah B was waiting for her in the car, she shook herself out of her stupor and slid into the passenger seat of the car.

“Are you OK? You look the same colour as Hannah G when she found out that Netflix hadn’t renewed her favourite show.”

April looked over to her friend seeing the concern on her face. She mustered up a smile for her. “I’m fine Hannah. Just didn’t sleep too well.”

Hannah smiled and nodded before pulling away from the house. “Was it because you were worried about how some people got a little bit too close during the game of twister?”

“Just some personal things.”

“Well if you ever want to talk about it…” Hannah B trailed off after making the offer.

April felt a genuine smile tug at her lips for the first time in days. No matter what had been said between them over the years, Hannah was a steadfast friend and someone who April had come to rely on having in her life. April was happy to listen as Hannah spoke about her latest ideas for songs for Fellowship.

As they pulled up to school, the first thing they both saw was a police car parked out front. There were pockets of students standing around outside the main entrance whispering to each other, while casting glances towards the police car and building. As soon as the two girls exited the car and approached the building, they caught snippets of the hushed conversations.

“I heard it was at the lock-in.”

“Took Miss Johnson into the principals office as soon as she scooted up.”

“Just gone.”

With every comment they overheard, April could feel a greater sense of unease settle in her. “Where have you two been? The one day of our entire school lives where something interesting actually happens and you are not early!” Ezekiel said as he approached them.

“What’s going on?”

“How have you not heard? It is literally all over the school. Well, Hannah G told me that Hannah M had been talking to Horny Lorna, who had spent part of the lock-in AWOL with Franklin – but that’s a story for later, who told her that she had been told by Jessica from the lacrosse team that she overheard her mom talking to their cleaner whose husband is on the police force that on Friday night…”

“April. Thank the high beautiful heavens you are here. I know y’all just got to school but I need you to come to the principals office with me. There are some people who need to talk to you.” Ellen didn’t wait for an answer as she steered April into the school building. With every step they took, April could feel the eyes of the student body focus on her and was sure the whispers were now involving her somehow.

When they entered the office, April was greeted by the sight of two police officers and the principal. “Officers, this is April Stevens. I’ll leave you with Miss Johnson while I see if the CCTV covers that area.” The principal excused himself from the room.

“Hi April. We need to ask you some questions about Friday night if that’s OK? We can either do this with Miss Johnson here or we can call one of your parents to come down.”

“No, that won’t be necessary. Ellen is fine.” The last thing she wanted was the police to call her parents, especially if there were questions around the lock-in.

“Ok, could you take us through what happened from about 10.30pm on the Friday night?”

“I’d really like to help you officers but I can’t say I kept track of the time that night.”

“Well, tell us what happened after the pizzas were served.”

“I was talking to Luke in the Fellowship room.”

“Is that Luke…” The officer looked into his notebook, “Creswell?”

“Yes sir.” She watched as he noted something in his pad.

“Continue.”

“I…I saw Sterling leave the room from where I was sitting. She seemed upset as she left and I wanted to make sure she was OK as Fellowship leader.”

“Was this when you asked Miss Johnson for her keys?”

“Erm, yes.” April didn’t look over to where she knew Ellen was sitting. Knowing that she had asked for the keys to get into the janitor’s closet for some supplies for a fictitious spillage that needed cleaning up. “I opened the door as when I found Sterling, she wanted to leave.”

“After you let Sterling out did you see her get into a car or meet anyone?”

“No sir.”

“So you unlocked the door, Sterling left and you locked the door before returning to the rest of the students?”

“No sir. After Sterling left, I followed her outside to talk to her.” April paused in her answer. She knew they were checking for CCTV footage and didn’t know if there was a camera that faced that area. She didn’t want to lie and then be questioned about why later. “We sat on the bench and spoke for a bit before I came back in. Sterling was still sitting on the bench when I left.”

The officer made a few notes in his notebook. “And how would you describe her state of mind after your conversation?”

April had a sinking feeling in her chest. “She was upset.”

“Did she tell you why?”

I’m asking you to hold my hand at the lock-in. The words echoed in her mind. “No sir.” The lie tasted bitter on her tongue but there was nothing to be gained from the truth of why Sterling had been upset being shared.

“And you didn’t see any vehicles nearby?”

“No sir.”

“Thank you April.”

April stood to leave but before she could take a step she asked the question that had been plaguing her mind since the day before. “Did something happen to Sterling?”

The officers looked at her with sympathy. “I’m afraid we can’t discuss that with you.”

April felt a hand on her arm leading her out of the room. All her senses had dulled as her mind raced. She was vaguely aware of Ellen talking to her as she led her through the outer office but instead of hearing any of the words being said, all she could hear was the blood racing through her ears. As they got to the outer office doors, she noticed Luke sitting on the bench. Ellen said something to her which she nodded to without really knowing what she agreed to. She watched as Ellen led Luke towards the principal’s office.

April fumbled her phone out of her bag as she started to regain some of her focus. She pulled it out and found Sterling’s contact, hitting the call button as she put the phone to her ear. Straight to voice mail. She ended the call before the message had even finished playing. She opened the text screen before her thumb froze. What do you say to the girl you last saw when you told them you wouldn’t even hold their hand? Someone you had ignored for most of the night and not provided a real explanation as to why until it was too late.

Sterl…I know you probably don’t want to hear from me or talk to me but can you please just tell me you are OK?

She re-read the message and hit send, watching the screen to see the ‘delivered’ message pop up. It didn’t. April heard the bell for class ring and knew she couldn’t be caught skipping. With one last look at the undelivered message she tucked her phone away and headed to class.

6 months later

The phone buzzed with another message, vibrating on the table. The message popped up on the lock screen.

Twice in one year? I think we need to talk about your truanting before it becomes a habit! Can’t have your GPA slipping if we want to get into the same school Sterl. And I really want you close…very close. Miss u

Sterling’s head shot up as she heard the sound of breaking glass from somewhere behind her. It was faint but she heard it. If there was breaking glass, that meant someone was here. Part of her was desperate to call out, to seek help, but when she heard something else break that hope that whoever it was would help her faded. Her hope instead transitioned to hoping they wouldn’t come near her.

Chapter Text

To say that the day had dragged was an understatement. It was perhaps the longest day of April’s life. It was as if the space-time continuum had shifted making each minute stretch into what felt like five. It started the moment she had entered her biology class first period. The usually short walk from the door to her seat seemed to take much longer as all eyes in the room settled on her, even as they continued their whispered conversations. April’s eye caught on the seat that would normally have a certain blonde occupying it that instead sat empty. The feeling of unease about what could have happened after the lock-in intensified. April sighed to herself as she slid into her seat knowing that there was nothing to be done for the next hour. She opened her textbook and tried to focus on the lesson while simultaneously wishing the day away.

As soon as the bell rang, April packed her belongings away and hurried to the corridor to find Ezekiel. Not only did he have the rest of the rumour that was going round but he also should have been in first period with Blair. Spotting him by his locker with Hannah B, April made a swift approach.

“Tell me what you know.” She stated as soon as she was beside them.

Ezekiel raised an eyebrow at her. “Someone seems very keep to lap up the tea today. What has brought on this sudden desire to discuss the wonder twins?”

April clenched her jaw as the frustration of still being no closer to having answers built. She fixed him with her best glare but internally she doubted it held the usual iciness as her single-minded focus was currently more fragmented. “Just tell me.”

Ezekiel regarded her for a moment, noting the fact that her eyes betrayed her inner turmoil and the fact that this wasn’t just a search for gossip but something deeper. “OK. Rumour has it that Friday night ended with the twins in a trailer park shootout.”

“I heard that it was a ransom situation gone wring and at least one person was shot.” Hannah B chipped in. April clenched her hands into fists at her side to try to bring the involuntary shake that had begun under control.

Ezekiel frowned slightly at Hannah B’s sharing of one of the more outlandish rumours going round. “Suffice to say that the Willingham student body is allowing their creative sides out to play and adding their own unique spin on things so what is actually true is still up for debate.”

“Everyone is aware Ezekiel.” Hannah B responded curtly. “I mean, its not like the part I heard about Sterling being kidnapped from the lock-in was true. Luke saw her get into the car with her mom.”

Ezekiel nodded. “Or the fact that Sterling was actually running some shady side business from the front of the yogurt shop her and Blair worked at and the whole shoot out was with the police as they came to arrest her.”

April had stopped listening to the various tales going around the student body. Her mind settled on the fact that something bad had happened after the lock-in. Something that happened after Sterling had left. Something she had set in motion through her actions making Sterling want to leave. Something she could have stopped if she hadn’t unlocked the door and left Sterling sitting on the bench alone at night. “…absence just makes the whole they ran off to escape some dark secret that bit more credible.”

“Who is absent?” April enquired having caught the tail end of whatever statement Ezekiel had been making.

“Blair. Neither of the Wesley twins are in today.” Hannah B supplied. Whatever had happened on the Friday night was significant enough to keep the entire Wesley family out of church on Sunday and both of the twins off school today. In all the years of knowing the Wesley family, April had never known either event happen, let alone both in the same week. The sinking feeling that something terrible had happened returned full force as the bell for next period rang. As much as April wanted nothing more than to get answers, there was no method for doing so in the confines of the school grounds that day. She resigned herself to getting through the rest of the school day and at least trying to focus on her lessons. Adding the concerned phone calls home of any teacher noticing her dip in performance to her plate was something she didn’t need to do. She would wait until tomorrow to see if anything changed.

By the end of the second day with neither Wesley twin at school, April had heard so many rumours she had lost track of them all. Some even involved her playing a part in the events of the night. The most ridiculous one she had heard that day was that she and Sterling had a heated argument over Luke which resulted in April killing Sterling before disposing of the body, hence why the police had been to speak to her. Ordinarily April would have had some rather choice words for such lies about her, but she just couldn’t muster up the energy to engage in any form of discussion on it.

By the end of the third day, April had taken to glaring at anyone who even came close to her. Even the teachers were opting to give her a wide berth. Ezekiel had spotted Ellen walking towards them one morning before she spotted the shorter girl and quickly side stepped into the janitors closet to avoid her.

It was on the fourth day that Blair Wesley returned to school. April walked into their first period Spanish class, her eyes cast towards the ground, as had become habit over the past week to avoid the unwanted looks. As she approached her desk she flitted her eyes up to the desk behind in the futile hope that she would be greeted with the sight of the blonde she missed but yet again the seat was empty. However, the seat behind it was not. The shock of seeing Blair sitting in her normal seat, after so many days of seeing them vacant, distracted April to the point that she managed to walk into her own desk.

The other students in the room broke into laughter at the spectacle and April felt her cheeks flush bright red. She was expecting some kind of cutting remark from the brunette seated just behind her but aside from the cold glare she shot at her, nothing was forthcoming. Taking her seat, April had to fight the urge to turn round and ask Blair where her sister was. If the look she had received was anything to go by, then she didn’t think that answers would be freely offered.

“Buenos dias clase. Hoy vamos a trabajar con un nuevo socio para desarrollar nuestro español conversacional antes de nuestro examen la próxima semana.” Good morning class. Today we are going to be working with a new partner to develop our conversational Spanish before our examination next week. Senora O’Reilly explained the task. April had decided as soon as she heard the mention of a new partner that she could use the opportunity to talk to Blair. Turning in her seat as soon as the introduction to the task was complete, she was met by the same cold glare as before. Before she had the chance to ask Blair to partner up, the brunette turned to her right.

“Brenda, do you want to pair up with me?” Seeing the nod from the girl with glasses, she shot April a smug look knowing she had managed to derail whatever plan the shorter girl had in mind. April reluctantly turned to work with Franklin, knowing she would have to wait for another opportunity. The rest of the lesson was spent trying her best to focus on whatever conversation Franklin was having with her but her heart just wasn’t in it. Her mind opting to supply the memories of the last paired task in the Spanish class. The rare opportunity to be able to let a little part of her true self show at school under the cover of a conversation that few others in the room would have been able to follow. A rare opportunity to demonstrate her courage to publicly flirt with the girl who had been the holder of part of her heart for as long as she could remember. Mentally shaking the memories from her head, April set her mind to working on ways to get the only present Wesley twin to talk to her. Before April had the chance to even turn to face Blair when the bell went, the other girl was out of the room and out of sight. She didn’t see her again that day.

Friday. This was the day she would get answers. April made the decision after her week kept spiralling further out of control that she would get some information today. A decision she had made somewhere between 3am and 4am when she woke yet again plagued by nightmares of what may have happened. She had checked her phone to see none of the messages she had sent to Sterling had been delivered. Whether it was a grand plan or one born out of sleep deprivation, she had made the decision to ambush Blair after her lacrosse practice and demand answers. She would sneak into the locker room and swipe the keys to the Volt from her bag while they were out on the field. At least that way, she would have to hold some form of communication with her.

The school day dragged on as April watched the clock. Waiting for the end of the day. Waiting for the time to enact her plan. Finally, the time came. The hallways were empty at this time of the day, most students opting to make an early escape on Friday to get the weekend underway as soon as the final bell rang. April waited just outside the locker room as the rest of the lacrosse team filtered out. Blair’s voice carried through the open door. “You go on. My keys must have slipped out of my bag and I know you have a hot date tonight.” April watched the last two girls leave and waited until they had turned the corner before making her move. She took a deep breath the steel her nerves and slipped into the locker room.

“We need to talk.”

Blair spun round from where she was hunting through her locker at the sound of the voice. Her face clearly displayed a level of distaste for the girl before her. “Actually, no we don’t. You need to get out of my way.” Blair approached the shorter girl, but April refused to concede her ground. She met Blair’s eyes and was mildly taken aback by the anger swirling in them. Along with the anger, she also saw something else. Blair was tired. She had bags under her eyes that were not hidden now they were so close, and her eyes had an almost bloodshot look to them. She looked like she hadn’t slept properly in days. “Now Stevens.”

April squared her shoulders and held the fiery gaze of the brunette before her. “Not until you answer me one question.” She was pleased her voice came out strong and held the level of authority she had worked so hard to cultivate over the years. The tone that said she expected whatever she said to be carried out without question. The two girls both met each other’s steeled looks, both refusing to back down. She watched as the anger seemed to intensify in the other girls’ eyes and wondered if she had miscalculated in her plan. If she had overlooked the possibility that Blair would resort to some kind of physical altercation. The seconds ticked by without either girl moving until April spoke. “Is Sterling OK?” She knew that the moment she uttered the name of the blonde, her gaze would have softened. It had becoming a repeating pattern in her life, one she was sure someone observant would pick up on sooner or later. It was something she had tried to hide but knew that her resolve was waning. She was just so tired of all the lies, yet also terrified of the fallout from the truth.

“Are you serious? You actually have the audacity to stand here and ask me that? To ask about Sterl after what you did?” April felt another crack form in her armour, allowing the regret she felt over the way she treated Sterling start to trickle through. Blair was getting louder in her reproach and stepped into April’s space. April automatically backed up until her back hit the door but Blair didn’t stop until they were mere inches from one another. “It’s your fault! She was so happy to be going to the lock-in. Positive that what she had with you was real. That she had a future with you. But it was all bullshit! You broke her heart by being the bitch that you have always been! You made her need to leave. You left her alone out there.” Every accusation was hammered home as Blair poked April square in the chest with each one. The physical contact paled into insignificance compared to the blow the words dealt themselves. “It’s your fault! I almost lost my sister.” Blair’s voice cracked on the last word and April watched as the taller girl seemed to deflate in front of her. “I have lost my sister.” The words came out quieter than the others. “It’s your fault!” The poking became less forceful and tears slipped down the brunette’s cheeks. “Your fault.” The last two words were barely above a whisper.

April was shocked by the sudden break down in Blair. She reached a hand tentatively out and placed it on the other girl’s shoulder in an attempt to offer comfort but fully aware that it would likely be rebuffed. “Blair, what happened to her? Is she…” Her voice trailed off not wanting to finish that question. Not wanting to actually voice the nightmares that had been plaguing her every sleeping and waking moment since this whole mess began lest they somehow become reality.

Blair shook April’s hand off and pulled the door open, shoving the smaller girl aside with it as she did. She held her hand out, “Keys.” April shakily reached into her pocket to retrieve the keys.

“Please Blair.” April had given up with any pretence of strength now. The quiet plea revealing how much she did really care.

The brunette snatched the keys from her hand but paused in the open doorway. “She’s not dead but I lost her that night.” Blair let her head drop. “We all did.” With those words, she was gone. Leaving April alone in the silence of the locker room. As the door clicked shut, her legs gave out from beneath her as the cracks in her carefully constructed walls reached the critical number and collapsed letting every emotion flood her mind and body in an instant. Something terrible had happened to the girl she had very strong feelings for, feelings she was too scared to name. The girl she had hurt in the fear of what would happen if others found out about them. A fear that faded into the background having come face to face with the possibility of never seeing the blonde again. A fear that their someday would never have the chance to come. In that moment, on the floor of the girl’s locker room with tears silently running down her face, April made the decision not to let fear rule her life.

Chapter Text

Fear. One of the oldest and most primal feelings built into humans. The source of our fight or flight response. An ancient defence mechanism hardwired into us to protect us from harm. Originally the fear was based around literal survival, warning of threats from predators. As humans evolved, the fear response did not. Still there, ever present and providing those signals that something is not right but all too often they are now ignored. That uneasy feeling you get when someone is watching you gets passed off as your imagination. The way your hairs stand on end or that feeling of your skin crawling when near some people is put down to overreacting and being paranoid. Too often these primitive responses of the body are ignored in our modern world. After all, what do you really have to fear?

Sterling blinked her eyes open. The haze in her mind clearing as she snapped back to the reality of her predicament. Still darkness. Still restrained. How long had she been here? Time had no meaning here in the darkness. It could have been hours or days. Someone was surely missing her by now. She had been due to meet…Her trail of thought was cut off as suddenly the room was flooded with bright light. It blinded her with the sudden change in light intensity. She flinched away from the light, slamming her eyes closed against it. Realising that light meant she could get some clues as to where she was, she forced her eyes open and blinked rapidly to try to get them to adjust to the new illumination. She had no idea how long it would last so every second was another detail that could help her work out where she was and what was happening. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she looked around quickly. Trying to take in all she could as fast as she could. She was in a room, it was small but not tiny. There was a metal framed bed against one wall that just reminded her of the ones from bible camp. The opposite wall held a couple of metal lockers and a desk. The walls were painted brick. There were no personal items visible to give her a clue as to who this room may belong to. She tried to turn her head to see behind her but could only see so far. Before she had the chance to shuffle the chair round to get a better look the distinctive sound of a metal handle turning, hinges that hadn’t been opened too frequently squeaked as the metal shifted with the opening of the door. In that moment, as those sounds reached her ears, those primitive warning systems went haywire. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, the dread settle in the pit of her stomach. Her fight or flight response was in overdrive, but she could do neither. The surge of adrenaline through her bloodstream heightened her senses. She could feel her racing pulse pounding in her chest. Every system in her body geared up but she could do nothing but sit and wait to see who had opened the door. Who the slow footsteps echoing off the concrete belonged to. The steps stopped. Part of her wanted to turn to face whoever it was but part of her kept her frozen. Fight, flight or freeze. They forgot that one in school. When despite all these systems designed to protect you, sometimes the fear renders them all useless as you just freeze.

“You should have stayed away.” The voice was cold, detached but held an undercurrent of anger. It was a voice that she had heard before. One she would remember. One that made her heart sink with the realisation that without fight or flight, she was in serious trouble.

Almost 6 months earlier

April had not slept for more than a couple of hours. Her own mind was her own worst enemy. Every time she closed her eyes, new scenes would play out. Every rumour she had heard merged with the stories from her true crime podcasts that she listened to giving her a personal nightmare. She had entertained the notion of driving over to the Wesley house last night and asking to see Sterling for herself right then. She knew that if she tried, Blair would stop her from getting anywhere near her sister. She wasn’t sure that had it been either Mr or Mrs Wesley that opened the door, that she would fare any better. So instead she had tossed and turned all night to the point that even Sgt. Bilko had left her room for some respite.

She was sitting in her kitchen nursing a cup of coffee, hoping the caffeine would jump start her brain into action. Give her at least enough brain cells firing to come up with some kind of workable plan to get the answers she desperately needed. She had been sitting there for a while having given up on sleep before the sun rose and didn’t expect any company for a while yet.

“Hey there honey. You’re up early.” April felt herself tense at the voice.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

Her dad walked over to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He turned to face her and took a moment to study her. April felt herself grow more uncomfortable by the second as the scrutiny continued.

“I think it’s time we talked.” April wanted to think of an excuse. Any reason to not have this discussion in her sleep deprived state but her brain gave her nothing. “Let’s sit in the lounge.” Her dad left the kitchen and she followed obediently. She sat herself on the chair opposite her dad and tried to mentally prepare for whatever he was going to say. There were so many possible avenues this conversation could venture down, none of which April particularly wanted to explore. She was still so conflicted in her own mind about how she should feel about this whole situation. One the one hand, she knew what her dad had been arrested for, the actions he had perpetrated against another human being. Yet he was still her dad. The same man who had read her CS Lewis as a kid. Had held her when she cried after Aslan was killed on the stone table. The same man who had watched every Star Wars film with her numerous times. The man who had dressed up as Chewbacca when she decided she wanted to be Han Solo one Halloween.

“I know you have heard some upsetting lies about me over the past few months and I just wanted to set the record straight with you.” April kept her eyes firmly settled on the floor between them, not wanting to look up and meet his eyes. She wasn’t sure if her own eyes would betray her conflicted thoughts. “All this talk of my interactions with a prostitute is just untrue. I love your mother and as any good Christian knows, adultery is a sin. As for the rest…just malicious lies. The woman who made up those lies was after money. She had come up with this plan that if she made up these outlandish lies about me, that I would pay her off to keep it quiet.”

April listened to the story but said nothing. As much as she wanted to believe that it was nothing more than the lies of someone desperate for money that had torn her family apart, deep down she knew that wasn’t the case. As much as she wanted to still believe her father was the good man she remembered from growing up, she’d had time to review her memories and they weren’t all good. There were one too many arguments between her parents where she would be sent to her room, as if the wooden door would block the sounds of shouting and breaking glass. There was still the question of why the police would arrest and charge him if all they had was the story told by one woman.

“Of course, we were not going to pay her anything.”

“Why did they drop the charges?” April almost couldn’t believe she had asked the question out loud.

Her dad paused for a moment. “The force can have a strong influence on the weak minded. You know this little padawan. If you know someone’s weakness, you can exploit it to your advantage. And this woman was very weak minded.”

An unsettling feeling set into April with those words. Her father was a successful businessman, in part due to his rather ruthless tactics. When there was something he wanted, he would get it. If someone tried to stand in his way, he would find their weakness and exploit it for his own gain. Something he had taught April that she used in her forensics competitions. She felt her throat close up at the realisation that it wasn’t just in forensics she had employed her father’s teachings. She had used them against Sterling. She wanted Fellowship leader, had found Sterling’s weakness and exploited it for her own gain. The realisation that she had more of her father’s influence shining through than she believed made her feel slightly queasy. Unsure if she wanted the answer to the question ricocheting around her mind, she forced the words out anyway. “What weakness?”

Her dad smiled. This was not the smile she remembered from her childhood. There was no real joy behind it. It was a smile born out of schadenfreude. “She had children. It’s amazing what the threat of child protective services will do.” Her dad sat back in his chair looking very pleased with himself. “As if staying with her degenerate sister was in any way an improvement on staying with a prostitute.”

April felt herself pale slightly. Not wanting to hear more, yet not knowing how to stop this conversation. There was no school, no church, no reason to get up and walk away without creating a greater problem.

“She changed her statement so they had no evidence against me that would hold up in court. The only witness to the events had changed her statement and proven herself to be unreliable. Meanwhile, Gerald had made a statement about overhearing her trying to blackmail me. Once that was all done, I felt it was my duty as a good Christian man to report that family anyway, if you can even call it that. Leaving those children to grow up in a house with those dykes would have been wrong. They have no place raising children.”

April felt the bile rise in her throat. It took every ounce of her will power to remain passive through the recounting of his achievement. Her own father had reported a family as the person looking after the children happened to be a lesbian. She knew her parents were bigoted but to hear the level of hatred in no uncertain terms still cut deep.

“Anyway, that is all behind us. Those children are safe in the foster system and that woman knows better than to try anything like that again.” April forced herself to nod. Her eyes still firmly fixed on the floor. “So tell me about this new friendship of yours with Sterling.”

April’s mind was fragmented. Still trying to resolve the news from her father’s explanation of his temporary incarceration, being asked about Sterling threw her. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it again when no words came out. Swallowing and taking a deep breath she tried again. Attempting to sound as nonchalant as she could. “Oh, it’s just for school. A couple of projects we got paired up in.” She chanced a glance up at her dad’s face and was met with a searching look. She wanted to look away as soon as she had looked up but couldn’t afford to raise suspicions that she wasn’t comfortable with this topic.

“Are you going to be working with her again?”

April flashed back to the last interaction they had. The hurt look on Sterling’s face. Her gaze dropped with the regret of having caused that hurt. Then the events of the weekend she still hadn’t got all the details on. “I don’t think so.” The words felt heavy on her tongue as she spoke them. The knowledge that the sole reason for not being able to work with Sterling, be close to Sterling, was all her own making.

“That’s a shame. I’d have liked to see Sterling again.” April’s eyes shot up to her dad’s face , the confusion written plainly across her features. He chuckled at her expression. “Don’t look so surprised padawan. She had been involved in a big event in our family recently. I’d like to pay her back for that.” As he spoke his hand came up to run across the left side of his head.

The feeling of unease amplified. After all, her dad’s way of paying someone back had just resulted in breaking up a family. There was something more going on but April didn’t know what and the man before her was not someone she could ask. One thing she was certain of, was that this wasn’t just about a school project.

“Anyway, if the chance comes up to work together I think it would be a good option. After all, y’all got a A+ on the last one. So much better than the grade you got on the last project with those friends of yours.”

April bit the inside of her lip to stop from saying something she would regret. She wanted to defend her friends but going against her father was one step too far right now. “Yes daddy. If there’s another project, maybe we could work together again.” She knew the chance of that was remote but the answer would placate her father for now.

He smiled at her. “Excellent.” He looked at his watch. “I’m off to the club to meet up with Gerald. We have a lot of business to catch up on. Be good.”

“Always daddy.” April stayed motionless on her seat as she watched him leave. Left alone once more, she retreated to her room and began pacing. Her mind racing through everything that had been said and the events of the past few days. She pulled her phone out and opened the message thread with Sterling. The last message was flagged an undelivered. Knowing she couldn’t turn up at the Wesley house and she had no other method of contacting Sterling, she just started typing.

Hey Sterl. I don’t even know why I am typing this. You have obviously blocked my number and I can’t blame you. I just need to say these things now before I really go crazy with them circling in my head. I need to see you. I need to speak to you. I’m just so worried that you are not OK. Despite everything I said and did at the lock-in, I still care about you. I’m just so tired of being scared. I want to close my eyes and sleep without fearing what lurks in the shadows of my own mind. The only time those shadows were kept at bay was when my mind was filled images of you. I miss it Sterl. I miss you. I have tried to shut this side of me down again but I just can’t. I’m still terrified of what would happen if people found out but these past few days have made me realise I’m more scared of never seeing you again. Never getting a chance at someday. I just want to hold your hand and hear you tell me it will be alright and that we can do this. That I can do this.

April hit send and turned her phone off, curling into herself on the bed. Hoping that having sent her thoughts into the ether that at least they wouldn’t continually plague her mind. That maybe she could get just a bit of rest. She didn’t see the notification that her message was delivered. Nor the one that told her it was read.

Chapter Text

April smoothed down her dress absentmindedly as she resolutely stared straight ahead. She could hear the general chatter going on around her as various families greeted each other and caught up on the week just gone prior to the service starting. She tried her best to block out the conversations, not wanting to hear the usual gossip that accompanied their weekly catch up sessions. She found herself eyeing up the glowing red exit sign hanging above the door to the side. No longer did the church offer her that sense of calm and peace, it just made her feel claustrophobic being surrounded by all these people who rather than looking out and supporting members of their community, would sooner gossip about them. Before her mind could drift further into the idea of making a break for the exit, she felt like someone was looking at her. The back of her neck tingling slightly. She tried to ignore it initially, but the feeling didn’t fade. It was almost certainly a feeling caused by her recent lack of sleep, but it just wouldn’t stop. So, she succumbed and glanced around to see if anyone was looking and then she froze. Sitting right across the aisle, no more than a few metres from her was none other than Sterling Wesley. April felt her breath catch as her eyes locked on to the green eyes looking straight at her. A wave of emotion flooded through her as they continued to look at each other, the relief of seeing the other girl in the flesh was almost overwhelming. She wanted to just get up from her seat, take those few steps and pull Sterling close to her. To be able to physically hold her and reassure herself that this wasn’t some illusion induced by sleep deprivation.

April noticed when Sterling’s expression darkened, her eyebrows drawing together and her jaw clenching before looking away. She felt her heart drop and bit her lip to try to stop the tears she could feel prickling at the back of her eyes. Looking back around she was a surprised to find her dad looking at her with an unreadable expression on his face. His eyes flicked over her head to where she had been looking, right at Sterling, before looking back to her. April dropped her gaze to her hands and subconsciously fiddled with her purity ring while internally wishing she was anywhere but here. Her eyes flicked to the exit sign, the red of the letters seemingly glowing brighter. All she needed was a quick excuse to step out for a moment, to just get out of there, away from all the eyes she now felt were looking right through her. Before she could come up with anything that her parents wouldn’t question, Pastor Booth approached the lectern and began speaking.

As the service concluded, April was brought out of her thoughts. If you were to ask her anything that had been said, she would have drawn a blank. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t listened to a word of the sermon, too lost in her own thoughts. Thoughts of where Sterling had been; was Sterling OK; Sterling, Sterling, Sterling. The one repeating thought was trying to formulate a plan of how to talk to the blonde. Any idea that she had would have drawn too much attention from the adults that knew they had not been friends for years. Anything more subtle required help from someone else to get Sterling away from Blair. It hadn’t been a scenario she had planned for and coupled with the shock of seeing the other girl for the first time since the lock-in had derailed her ability to come up with anything that could work. As she stood to leave their pew, April had the opportunity to look to where the Wesley’s sat and found it empty. Clearly the time her mother had taken getting herself organised had been enough for the Wesley family to leave. It wasn’t like April could have leapt up from her seat as soon as the service ended to rush over to her nemesis. April’s heart felt heavy as she started to make her way back down the aisle to the exit. She wasn’t hopeful that she would be running into the blonde outside, not when virtually every conversation she had overheard on her walk out of the building consisted of some mention of the Wesley family.

“Hi April.” April glanced over at the source of the voice to see the red hair and smiling face of on of the children from the church summer camp she had helped out with.

“Hi Jessie. How are you?” She smiled back at the young girl.

“I’m good but I need some help and I thought you would be the perfect person to help as you are so smart.”

“Ok, what do you need help with?” The young girl passed her a sheet of paper.

“I’ve got this and I need to translate it.” April unfolded the paper she had been given and recognised it was written in Latin. A little perplexed as to why an eight-year-old would need to translate a paragraph of Latin, she was about to ask when she recognised what it was. Her eyes scanned across the text picking out the words she already knew.

Ne adverseris mihi ut relinquam te et abeam: quocumque enim perrexeris, pergam, et ubi morata fueris, et ego pariter morabor. Occursum mihi septem in. Ubi novissime locutus est nobis.

“Can I leave it with you?” Jessie looked at her hopefully, glancing over her shoulder to where her parents waited.

April nodded. “Of course.” The young girl smiled and skipped away back to her parents. April watched her go, the paper still held carefully in her hand.

“Everything OK honey? What have you got there?” Upon hearing her dad’s voice, she turned putting a smile on her face.

“Oh, just some Latin that Jessie needs help translating.” She turned the paper towards her dad so he could see the writing, knowing full well that he didn’t speak any other languages other than American. His views on the unnecessary nature of learning another language was frequently voiced in the house when any topic of another country came up. She saw her dad look at the paper briefly before dismissing it. April carefully folded the paper and slipped it into her bag to properly translate when they got home.

As soon as they got back home, April slipped off to her room to finish her homework. Once her bedroom door was closed she pulled the piece of paper back out re-reading it. She picked up a pencil from her desk and started to translate.

Ne adverseris mihi ut relinquam te et abeam: quocumque enim perrexeris, pergam – Do not ask me to leave you and go: wherever you go, I go. April recognised the quote. It was from the book of Ruth. Her mind took her back to sitting in Sterling’s workshop painting Solomon’s temple and the way the blonde had rambled her way through her interpretation of this story. The last two lines were not from the bible however. Occursum mihi septem in – Meet me at seven. Ubi novissime locutus est nobis. – Where we last spoke.

April sat back looking at her translation. This was a note from Sterling. A note Sterling had written in Latin for her. A note that asked her to meet at a place she hadn’t even been able to look at since the previous Friday. A place she knew she would be going back to tonight to hopefully get some answers.

*****************************************************************

6.55pm. April sat on the bench she had purposefully avoided for the past week. Her mind filling in flashes of the last time she sat there as the seconds ticked by. The way she had sat at a distance from Sterling, her eyes focused on the keys she was fiddling with in her hands rather than facing the girl beside her. Having to turn away when Sterling leant across to kiss her, having to take a breath after to keep her composure.

6.57pm. Feeling her heart and composure start to crack as she met those tear-filled green eyes asking her to hold her hand. Her last remnant of hope of there being a someday being crushed with just four words.

6.58pm. “Hey.”

April looked up and as soon as her eyes landed on Sterling’s face, every emotion she had kept bottled up for the past eleven days came rushing out. She stood from her seat and wrapped her arms around the taller girl, her face buried into the side of her neck. She just needed to hold her, even if it is just for this one moment. Just to feel the warmth of her body against her own. To feel the way her chest rises with each breath. Just to know that she is real and here. April feels arms wrap around her in response and in that moment, her last wall crashes down and the tears fall. Time had little meaning as they stood there, just holding each other but eventually April began to pull away. There were still so many questions that needed answering. She pulled back enough to be able to look at Sterling’s face but kept one hand on the other girl’s arm, not willing to give up that last point of contact. Needing to have that connection to keep her grounded. They took a seat on the bench and both girls just looked at each other. Taking their time to map out each other’s faces with their eyes.

“Are you OK?” April broke the silence. There were so many questions she needed answers to but right then, at this moment in time, that was the only question that really mattered.

Sterling looked away across the road, her head dropping slightly. “That’s not an easy question to answer.” She looked back and met April’s gaze once more. “I needed to talk to you. I don’t want to lie anymore.” April frowned slightly at the mention of a lie. Sterling’s voice dropped quieter. “I don’t want to be lied to anymore.”

“Sterl, I…” April stopped as Sterling moved to hold her hand, her eyes dropping to the new point of connection.

“Please, just let me speak. I need you to hear everything before you respond. Can you do that…for me?” April looked back up from where their hands were joined to meet beseeching eyes. She nodded. She watched as Sterling took a breath and then started speaking. “I don’t really know where to start. I thought I had it all planned out in my head but now I’m sitting here…with you…and it’s going to change everything.” April watched silently as Sterling ran her thumb over the back of her hand, giving the other girl time to collect her thoughts. “I’m not who everyone thinks I am. I’m not even who I thought I was. My whole life has been a lie.” April watched as Sterling drew a shaky breath in. “My mom and dad are not my parents. They have been lying to me my whole life. My real mom kidnapped me from the lock-in.” April couldn’t help the way her hand gripped Sterling’s tighter at the confirmation of the rumour. “She had a gun in her bag. We ended up at this trailer park and she tied me up. If it hadn’t been for Blair and Bowser finding me…” She trailed off as a tear slipped down her cheek. April reached up to brush it away with her thumb. Desperately wanting to say something but knowing that Sterling had more to say and she was determined to let her speak. “These secrets that people kept to keep me safe have done nothing but put me in danger and tear down everything.” April fought the urge to wrap the blonde into another hug. “I have been keeping a secret from you.” Fresh tears fell down the blonde’s cheeks alongside the admission. “I should have told you before but I knew you would hate me again and I didn’t want to lose you.”

“I never really hated you Sterl.” April admitted quietly.

Sterling smiled sadly as another tear fell. “You will.” April was about to launch into a denial of this when Sterling continued speaking. “Do you remember the last time we sat here and you asked me about a someday?” April nodded feeling the lump in her throat form. “I wanted a someday with you.” She felt the tears begin to fall at the past tense. “I want a someday with you but I don’t think you will when I tell you this.” April met Sterling’s gaze and tried to search out the answers in her eyes feeling both hope and despair simultaneously. “I’m the reason your dad went to prison.”

April froze with those words. Her brain seemingly short-circuiting as far too many neural pathways fired concurrently. Her face clearly reflecting the questions racing in her mind. “Blair and I are bounty hunters. We found your dad at your lake house and took him in after he had skipped bail. We hadn’t believed it at first and had said we didn’t find him but then we saw the video.”

“What video?”

“Of the night he was arrested. He was filmed being led out of the motel room…after. We saw what he had done and so we found him. When we took him in, he became aggressive and told us we would be sorry. Then you told me he was out.” April could feel the tears running down her cheeks. Here she was sitting on a bench, holding hands even, with the person who had broken up her family. The person who had put her dad in jail. The person who had taken away the image of her perfect family. The person who had kissed her in Ellen’s office. The person who had given her the courage to say out loud that she was a lesbian. The person who had made her feel like she was free for the first time in her life. She felt gentle fingers brush across her cheeks, wiping the tears away. “When you told me he got out, I got scared. He told us that we would be sorry and I didn’t want you to get caught up in this mess.”

The silence stretched between them. “I’m already caught up in it Sterl.” April reached her free hand out and gently raised Sterling’s face by placing her fingers under her chin. When their eyes met, April gave a watery smile. “I can’t hate you. You’re not the reason John went to prison. He is.”

“If I hadn’t taken him in…”

“If you hadn’t taken him in, then I wouldn’t know what it was like to truly be myself. I’m still so scared of what he might do if he finds out about me but I’m tired of running.”

“What are you saying April?”

April brought Sterling’s hand across to hold between both of hers. Her eyes wandering over their joined hands for a moment before returning to meet the questioning green eyes before her, searching them before dropping to her lips briefly. “I can’t be out, not with John still around and asking about you. Though the reason behind his interest is clear now.” She watched as Sterling’s shoulder’s slumped and felt the blonde try to pull her hand back but April held firm. “But I can’t shut this down anymore. I don’t want to wait for someday.” Sterling searched for a definitive answer in the eyes before her. April reached her hand up to cup her cheek and brushed her thumb over her jaw. “Tell me we can do this.” The words were barely above a whisper.

Sterling slowly closed the distance between them, resting their foreheads together. “We can do this.” April felt the last remnants of her walls come tumbling down as she shifted to bring her lips to meet with Sterling’s, letting all her doubts and fears get washed away with the warmth of the blonde’s smooth lips against her own. There may still be dangers lurking in the shadows but at that moment, there was nothing but the two of them, together.

Chapter Text

Sterling opened her mouth to speak before closing it once more. What could she say? Her mind raced through the possible words that could be used to try to improve the situation she found herself in but every potential response fell short. She watched as the figure emerged from behind her into her line of sight, confirming what her ears had already told her. “Please just let me go.” Her voice shook, revealing the fear coursing through her. She watched as a cold smile spread across his lips as he cocked his head to the side.

“Why would I want to do that? You only just got here, and I have so many plans.” He reached his hand out to touch her face, fingers brushing against her eyebrow. Sterling winced away. “Oh, come on now, it’s only a little cut. Things could be worse…a lot worse.”

“What do you want?”

“What do I want?” His voice grew deeper and louder. “I want to go back to a time before I sat in a jail cell. I want to have my reputation back. Can you give me that?” Sterling dropped her gaze to the floor and shook her head. “You had no problem taking it all away. Did you even think about the consequences of your actions?”

Sterling felt regret wash over her. She hadn’t thought about the consequences of her time bounty hunting. Sure, she was taking in people who had skipped bail but she hadn’t stopped to think about the domino effect. How the people she was taking in would impact on those around them. She had been so caught up in the fact that they had broken the law that she overlooked the fact that they were parts of families, even when faced with some of those people. Her mind flashed up Cherry Grigio holding her son; Gary Durbin’s wife; April. People who had been carrying on with their lives when someone integral to it had been taken away. “They broke the law.” She offered weakly.

“Being charged and convicted are two vastly different things. Surely they have taught you that at school! I’ll tell you what…you do something for me and then we’ll see about letting you go. How does that sound?”

Sterling had a sinking feeling about what he could ask her to do. This was a man who clearly despised her, the look in his eyes said it all. He held her responsible for the downturn in his life and so when it came to balancing the scales in his mind, what would that take? Despite the feeling of dread, her options were limited. If nothing else, she needed to buy some time so that the people who loved her would be able to find her. “What do you want me to do?”

He patted her cheek. “Good girl. It’s simple really. Just call up that sister of yours and get her to join us for a little…chat.”

As soon as the demand registered in Sterling’s mind, her own fear dissipated. There was no way she was going to do anything that could put her own sister in jeopardy. She offered up a quick prayer that they would find her soon and took a deep breath to steel her nerves. Looking up to meet his stare dead on she gave her answer. “That is never going to happen.”

She caught sight of the shift in his demeanour, the way his lip twitched into a sneer. Then his fist connected with her face. She felt the burst of pain and then registered the metallic taste of blood. Before she could fully process that, the air was knocked out of her as his fist connected with her solar plexus. She bent forward as far as she could, gasping for air. Her face was grabbed roughly and brought close to his. “Never is a long time.” He released his hold on her face and walked to the door. Sterling was still gasping for air when she heard his comment. “I’ll give you some time to think about your answer. You don’t want to disappoint me again.” With that he left the room, the door closed behind him and then she found herself plunged back into darkness once more. Left alone with her own thoughts about what could happen. She was stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. Whatever her choice in the matter, there would be serious consequences. On the one hand, she could agree to call Blair and hope that she could give some indication of what was happening, a warning, so they could find her but the risk was her warnings would go unheeded and she would land her own sibling in the same predicament she was in. Alternatively, she could refuse to play along and suffer the consequences of her non-engagement alone. The thought of what those consequences may be made a wave of nausea wash through her if his reaction to her first response was just a hint of things to come.

Five months ago

“Ok, guys and gals. Now I’m sure y’all remember the success that was our biblical buildings project. Let me tell you the comments we got from the open house about our centrepiece…woo. So, I think we can all repeat the success of that with our next project.” Ellen paused dramatically at the board, smiling at the class who looked back with a mixture of dread and hesitant intrigue. Ellen pulled the cord to reveal the board. “Divine Dioramas.” The room was filled with a chorus of groans from the less enthusiastic members of the class. “I want you to recreate your choice of story from the Bible in teeny tiny model form. Who doesn’t like miniature religious scenes, right?” The class started to mutter between themselves. “I think we should keep the same partners as last time so just call out your stories once you have decided.”

“Adam and Eve.” Lorna called out. “Two people, created as the perfect match for each other…so romantic. Don’t you think, Luke?” She asked as she turned to him, her hand once more straying to glide down his arm.

“Yeah I guess but didn’t they kind of lose everything by giving into temptation?” Luke scratched the back of his neck, trying to shift a bit further from her in his seat.

“We can focus on the happy part…things are always best when they are starting.”

“The golden calf with the burning and the slaughter and bodies just strewn everywhere.” Franklin called out.

“That sounds…graphic Franklin.” Ellen replied, a minor grimace on her face as the mental image of what may be forthcoming formed.

“Jesus rising from the tomb.” Ezekiel called out.

Other members of the class continued with their claims on stories while April turned to face Sterling. “Any inspiration?”

Sterling looked back at April. “I’d love to say Naomi and Ruth for the meaning but I know you’d like to do something a bit more…impressive.” April smiled at the blonde. “So, I was thinking maybe the Tower of Babel?”

“Sounds like that would take a while to construct if we are going to live up to our previous creation.” April gave Sterling a half smile as she glanced up at her through her eyelashes. She watched as Sterling smiled back in response.

“Many hours of working together.”

April bit the side of her lip at the thought of having a legitimate excuse to spend many hours with Sterling, alone. “The Tower of Babel.” April called out to Ellen.

“Oh April, I would ask if you were sure about such an undertaking but after yours and Sterling’s last effort, I have every confidence you will do it justice.”

Sterling leant a little closer to April as Ellen continued to note down the choices of the class. “Want to come over tonight?”

April deflated slightly. “I can’t tonight. John has decided that the first Friday of each month requires us to have family night.” She sighed. “Tomorrow?”

“Come over as soon as you are ready.”

“Careful Sterl, I know you like to have a lie in and I do tend to get up pretty early. I’d hate to be the reason you had to get out of bed.”

April met Sterling’s eyes before seeing the other girl cast a quick glance around the room. She watched the blonde lean closer to her, dropping her voice to barely above a whisper. “I’d prefer you to be the reason I stayed in bed.” April felt her ears start to burn as they turned red with the mental imagery now planted firmly in her mind.

“Ok, so now we have our assignments, let’s get to our discussion for today.” Any further conversation was cut off between the two girls as Ellen led the class in their debate for the day.

*********************************

April sat at the table in the country club, quietly trying to eat her dinner without having to engage in the conversation her dad was having too much. He had spent the past twenty minutes sharing his views on why the fake news was to blame for anyone thinking negatively about their president. April had tried to switch off from his rant lest she share her views on the matter.

“Not long until you get to vote little Padawan. Then you can follow your dad’s lead and help keep the Republicans in power to get this country back on track long term. How was school?”

April really wasn’t sure she would be following in her father’s footsteps in any way other than voting in each election. “School is good. We have a project for Bible Studies to do so I will be out of the house a bit over the next couple of weeks until the deadline.”

John sat forwards in his chair. “Who are you working with?”

“Miss Johnson said we need to keep the same partners as last time.” April saw the interest pique on her dad’s face.

“When will Sterling be coming over to work with you?”

That same feeling of unease that she had last time the conversation had been directed at Sterling returned. This time, it was compounded by the knowledge that there was another secret being kept that April certainly didn’t want her parents to find out about. “We are going to be working at the Wesley’s house as Mr Wesley has some a workshop with the tools we need to really make our project stand out again.”

April watched as her dad turned away to catch the attention of a passing waiter to get another drink. Ever since the conversation she’d had with Sterling on the bench, April had been more aware of her father’s interest in the blonde. Anytime the conversation started to veer in the direction of the Wesley’s, April tried to steer it in another direction. Her feeling of disquiet had been growing over the past month and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Glancing at the clock on the wall, she mentally started to countdown until she could return to the sanctuary of her own room.

*********************************

April
Are u still awake?

Sterling Wesley – Facetime

April clicked accept and waited for the call to connect. She was met by the sight of the blonde smiling back at her with a sleepy look, clearly all settled in bed. “Hey.” She breathed out, just taking the time to drink in the features of the other girl.

“Hey yourself. I take it dinner did not go well.”

April let her head fall back against the headboard as her eyes drifted up to the ceiling briefly. “It was…draining.” She brought her gaze back to the face on the screen. “He asked about you again.”

She watched as Sterling’s face dropped. “I’m sorry…”

“Hey. We have said all we need to say about that. You have no reason to apologise for his actions.”

“I know. I just wish things were different.”

“Me too.” A silence fell between them for a moment, each girl just looking at the other.

“Top five things you are grateful for.” April looked into the eyes on the screen and let a small smile play on her lips.

“Second chances.” As much as there were meant to be five things, that was the only one that mattered right there in that moment. The fact that she got a second chance to be with Sterling. That she had been granted a second chance to be herself and explore a side to herself she had believed would be firmly kept so far in the closet, she swore she was going to wake up in Narnia one day.

“Second chances.” Sterling echoed, smiling back. “You know one day we are going to have to actually make it to the full five on the list.”

April chuckled lightly. “Maybe, but not tonight.” She looked at the other girl through the screen and shook her head.

“What?” Sterling looked at her with the adorable confused expression she got where her eyebrows crinkled.

“How do you do it?” The brunette’s voice held an air of awe.

“Do what?”

“Make me feel like everything is going to be OK with virtually no words.” April almost whispered out.

Sterling met her gaze as best she could through the phone. “Because together we can do this. I’ve got you.”

“You really do.” April watched as a smile blossomed across the blonde’s face before she yawned. “Get some sleep Sterl. I’ll see you in the morning.” As they ended the call, April settled herself down into bed. Her thoughts no longer plagued with the what ifs that used to invade her mind at night, instead they were filled with brighter thoughts of a future with a certain blonde who seemed to chase away the shadows.

Chapter Text

Sterling woke suddenly as the room was bathed in bright light once more. She realised she must have succumbed to a restless sleep at some stage, exhaustion having finally taken its toll. Her mind scrambled to regain full coherence and become ready for whatever would happen after that door opened. Following her previous encounter with her captor, she had run through as many scenarios as she could to try to work out the best course of action to take. Knowing that it was only a matter of time until she would need to give an answer. The reality that she had come to realise was that no matter what she chose to do, there were risks…serious risks.

She heard the lock turn once more and closed her eyes tight and clenched her jaw to try to prepare herself for the next few minutes. Trying to summon every ounce of strength she had to carry out her plan. She offered up a brief prayer that she hadn’t miscalculated and that this would work. Hearing the footsteps approach, she relaxed her jaw and opened her eyes, ready to face what was coming. She watched as he came to a stop in front of her once again. His eyes raking over her appearance. Sterling had the urge to recoil from his gaze, to try to cover herself from his assessment but she refused to show him any weakness.

“I hope you didn’t plan on having any photos for the yearbook taken any time soon.” He smiled at her. “I must say, it pains me to have to cause any damage to such a pretty face.” He knelt down in front of her and untied her legs. Sterling resisted the urge to move them now that circulation had been fully restored. Before she could process what was happening, his hand reached out to trace a finger down her cheek. His eyes locked on hers and his finger continued to trace down her neck to the collar of her shirt. Sterling could feel her heart rate pick up, a feeling of nausea building rapidly. He rolled the top button of her shirt between his thumb and forefinger for a moment, just watching her. He then slipped his hand inside the collar of her shirt. Sterling felt a tug around her neck and then saw him retract his hand, her necklace hanging from his finger. A cold smile settled on his lips as he regarded her while he slipped her necklace into his pocket.

“Now, I believe you have a decision to make.”

Sterling could feel her strength fading. The fear of just what he may do to her rising following the past moments. She clenched her fists from where they were restrained behind her, feeling her nails dig into her palms. She was sure that there would be crescent moon cuts there from the force she was applying. “I won’t put my sister in danger.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she braced herself, expecting him to lash out once more. What she didn’t expect was for him to laugh.

“Oh Sterling, I thought you were smart. You really think that she is safe just because you won’t make this call?” Sterling looked at him, unsure what to believe right then. “Did you think that this was all a spur of the moment action? That I hadn’t been thinking about this for a long time? That I hadn’t done my research?” Sterling could feel her confidence that her sister would be safe as long as she said nothing begin to fade. “Let me see, tomorrow is Sunday so you’d go to church with your family, usually arriving with your sister. You’d then go to the club for lunch with your family before heading to that yoghurt shop.”

Sterling’s mind raced. He knew their routine. Probably better than her parents knew it. That meant he had been watching them. She could feel her mouth go dry with what that meant he knew. Saturday, today was Saturday…it had been Thursday that she had been taken. She had been heading back to her car after a late forensics practice when everything blanked out. There was no doubt in her mind that people would be looking for her. That certainty was followed by a sinking feeling as she realised that they hadn’t found her and it had been two days. That meant they had no leads or they would be here by now. She was on her own unless she took the chance of following his plan to lure her own sister into this waking nightmare.

“So, do you want to make that call?” Sterling’s eyes fell to the phone he held out. Not her phone she noted. A cheap phone. A burner her mind supplied. She knew that there would be no leads they could get from that phone number. Sterling swallowed, not wanting to trust her voice in that moment, and shook her head. She saw his hand tighten around the phone. “Try again.” His voice was cold and Sterling felt an involuntary shiver run down her spine.

She took a shaky breath in and then said one word “No.” Moments after that word had been uttered, she felt pain blossoming across her face. No longer being tied to the chair, the force of the impact knocked her to the floor. Before she could try to move, she felt herself being pulled up from the floor before her back slammed into the cold concrete wall. Her head striking it with enough force to make her vision grey out. She struggled to breath as his arm was forced over her neck, pinning her against the cold surface. She tried to struggle but he was much bigger than her and her arms were still tied behind her. His face was so close to hers that she could see the darker brown rim around the iris of his eyes. She tried to kick at him but he was so close, she couldn’t get any real force behind it. Her vision was fading as she continued to gasp for air. She could feel the panic rising. This couldn’t be it. She couldn’t let him win but she was powerless to stop him.

A phone ringing cut through the sounds of her gasps. The next thing she knew, the arm around her neck fell away and she slumped to the floor, coughing and frantically sucking air in while she could. “We’re not done.” He spat at her before answering the phone. “Hey honey.” Sterling opened her mouth to say something, to make the other person aware she was there but before she could speak his foot was pressed across her neck. He kept the pressure on her neck as he listened to what was being said. “This problem is taking a bit longer than I expected to resolve. I’ll try to be back by tomorrow but sometimes people just take a bit more convincing.” He eventually lifted his foot from her throat and watched as Sterling sucked in air amidst coughing. All the blonde could so was watch as he walked out of the room once more, knowing that he would be back.

***********************************

Five months ago

April sat across from Sterling in the Wesley’s garage as they worked on painting their creation. Her eyes were drawn to the girl sitting opposite her. The way she focused on making sure each of the details were all painted so carefully. April was so engrossed in watching the way Sterling’s hands moved as she worked on their piece that she didn’t notice when the other girl looked over at her until the hands stopped moving.

“Is it OK?”

April looked up to meet the worried gaze of the blonde and smiled. “Perfect.” She watched as a relieved smile graced Sterling’s lips. “I was just thinking of the last time we were here.” She watched as Sterling ducked her head and broke eye contact.

“I was really trying to just you know…throw out the bait that day.”

“Throw out the bait?”

“Yeah, I’d had this…epiphany…after the debate tournament, about you, but I had no idea how to approach it. One of the skips we caught was in a relationship with two women, they were like all together. As in together, together. I asked her how to work out if you might like me too.”

April smirked at the blonde. “So Naomi and Ruth?” Sterling nodded. “I really didn’t know what to make of that whole conversation. Part of me was worried you had somehow worked out that I was gay.”

“I wish.” Sterling muttered.

April put down her paint brush and sat back in her chair, quietly regarding the girl opposite her. “You had no idea?” Sterling shook her head. “”But you still kissed me in Ellen’s office.”

Sterling looked up to meet her eyes once more. “I couldn’t not kiss you.”

April smiled before rising from her seat. She stepped around the table they were working at and came to a stop right beside Sterling. She reached her hand out to slide across the blonde’s neck, her thumb stroking how lower jaw. Their eyes locked as April leant down, bringing her face so close to that of the blonde that she could feel her warm breath against her lips. “I know the feeling.” She whispered out before closing the distance. She let herself sink into the kiss, their lips moving together with ease. April felt Sterling’s hands come up to rest on her waist, guiding her closer. Moving her so that she ended up straddling the blonde’s lap. She felt Sterling’s hand pull up the edge of her top and slide underneath, to rest on the warm skin of her back. It felt like wherever skin touched skin, a trail was being seared into her flesh. Their kiss deepened, tongues moving together. April was aware of Sterling’s other hand on her thigh, her thumb stroking random patterns across the denim clad muscle.

April felt Sterling pull back from her and opened her eyes. She took in the flushed appearance of the blonde girl. “We uh, we should finish our model.”

April leant forward bringing her mouth close to Sterling’s ear. “We could…or…” She ran her tongue around the shell of her ear lightly. “We could keep doing this.” She punctuated her statement with gently biting the blonde’s ear lobe before kissing down the side of her neck, nipping gently at the skin. She felt a hand rest on her cheek, turning her face and reconnecting their lips. The hand on her back pulled her closer.

“Hey Sterl?” Blair’s voice rang through the room, causing April to hurriedly try to distance herself from the blonde. Unfortunately, it ended up with April tripping over Sterling’s feet and ending up on the floor beside the blonde. Both girls looked over to the newcomer. “Ok, first of all…Guess TV didn’t lie when it portrays such rapid lesbian relationship development. You’re getting up close and personal with Stevens in no time. Poor Luke waited years to get close to any action.”

“Blair! Please don’t bring up my ex.”

Blair just shrugged her sister’s remarks off. “Secondly…get a room. Y’know one with a lock on the door? I don’t want to walk in on you two getting all scissory.”

April rolled her eyes as she stood up. “That’s not even a word.”

“Whatever. Mom asked me to see if you were staying for dinner tonight?” Blair paused for a moment. “If I came here much later, think I’d be telling her you already ate.”

April’s jaw dropped. Sterling rose from her seat and started to push her sister out the door. Blair’s voice came through the wood. “Is that a yes or a no to dinner?”

April shook her head. As much as she wanted to stay for dinner and spend longer with Sterling, she had to make an appearance at home. Her dad had insisted that they spend time at the club for dinner. Something about a business venture that needed his family there to impress someone. Or just another part of the perfect family that John Stevens liked to portray to the world.

“Not this time.” Sterling called back through the door. After hearing the brunette retreat, Sterling returned to the table. She paused by the shorter girl and leant down to give her a chaste kiss. “Her timing sucks.” The blonde huffed as she sank back into her own chair.

April smirked over at her. “Anticipation makes pleasure more intense so I’m alright with a slow burn.” She watched as the blonde smiled back, her eyes sparkling with the promise of more to come. “Let’s get this finished. We have a reputation to uphold.”

*****************************

Once more the students found themselves gathered around the table with their models spread before them. Ellen stood across the room, adding her final notes on to her clipboard. April cast a quick glance to the blonde standing next to her, arms brushing against each other. She could feel the same nerves that always settled in before getting a grade. Part of her wanted to mover her hand that little bit to just slip into Sterling’s but now wasn’t the time for such public behaviour.

“Franklin and Jacob. The golden calf.” April looked over at the scene. There were bodies scattered all over the scene with more blood than you would find on the set of most horror movies. “Very…graphic. B-. The calf had been burned before the erm, slaughter.“

“Ezekiel and Hannah B. C-.”

“Why? It’s not cardboard.” Ezekiel remarked.

“It’s a paper mache dome with a rock.” Franklin stated. April cast a glance at the creation that Ezekiel and Hannah B had made and sure enough, it was another minimal effort piece. Internally she breathed a sigh of relief at not having had to partner up with her friends on this project. As much as she valued their friendship, the work ethic was somewhat lacking.

“Well he had already risen. You expected him to hang around for photographs?” Ezekiel snarked back.

“Sterling and April. Girls…You have done it again. A+.” April felt the wide smile spread across her face and had to resist the urge to throw her arms around the blonde beside her and kiss her in celebration. “The attention to detail is just breath-taking. The others in my Facebook Bible Studies Educator group are going to be so jealous when I post this masterpiece.”

The bell rang and the students filed out of the room. April walked out with Ezekiel and Hannah B. “So…this whole Sterling Wesley thing seems to be working out for you.” Ezekiel raised an eyebrow as he spoke.

“She is very attentive.” April responds. Her mind drifting to several of the things Sterling is attentive to that are not school related.

She snaps out of her thoughts with Ezekiel’s comment. “I bet.” Her eyes snap to his and she sees something she can’t quite read. The look is gone as Hannah B speaks up.

“So are we now friends with Sterling? You work with her a lot now.”

“Good question Hannah. April?”

April looks at her friends. She has the feeling Ezekiel suspects there is something more going on but he won’t outright ask her. Hannah…Is just Hannah. “I think it is time to move forward and not hold on to past grudges in the interest of unity amongst the Fellowship group and mutually beneficial opportunities for academic gratification.”

“Oh yes…academic gratification.” April catches the smirk he throws her way as he speaks. She feels the worry about someone suspecting her deepest secret start to bubble up. It is only when Ezekiel puts a hand on her shoulder briefly that she realises that her fear must have been expressed on her face. The look he gives her tells her that she need not worry. They hold eye contact for a moment before he nods and lets his hand drop once more. “I don’t know about you, but I am in need of some non-cafeteria-based sustenance.”

“Chick-fil-A?” Hannah asks.

“Girl, you read my mind.”

As the trio climbed into Hannah B’s car, April took the opportunity to send a quick text.

April
Are you busy tomorrow?

Sterling
Got a shift at the Yogurt shop till 6.

April
Keep the rest of the evening free? I want to celebrate with you.

Sterling
It’s a date. X

Chapter Text

Sterling lay on the floor as she brought her breathing back under control. She had expected to be plunged into darkness again but the seconds ticked by and the light remained on. She realised this was her chance. She was no longer immobilised in a chair and she had light. Rolling herself onto her side slightly, she used her elbow to help get herself in a sitting position. She sat still and squeezed her eyes shut as her vision swam, taking a few steadying breaths until it settled. In the back of her mind she realised she may have a concussion but that was not the priority right now. She rested her back against the wall and used her legs to push herself up so she was standing. There was a fleeting moment of relief that she was on her feet but there was still a long way to go before she was out of danger. She looked around the room, searching for anything that could be of use. The most important mission was getting her hands free.

She walked over to the bed and examined the frame. It was metal but there were no obvious sharp edges that could be used to cut the ropes that held her arms firm. Turning to the opposite wall she took in the lockers and the desk. She walked over and opened the first locker. It took her a couple of tries to get the angle right with the restricted motion of her arms. Inside were neatly folded items of clothing arranged on the shelves. Moving to the second locker, she repeated the process. Nothing but more clothes. Sterling cast a glance to the closed door, not knowing how much time she had left. She turned to the desk, letting her eyes flit over the surface. Nothing. She could feel her anxiety start to increase as she felt she was running out of time and options. Finally, she looked over to the one region of the room she had been unable to see from her previous position. It held a bookshelf with various titles scattered across it. Then she saw it. On the bottom shelf, a box that stood out from the other items. Sterling moved across to the bookshelf and dropped to her knees. She angled her body to be able to pull the box off the bottom shelf. Looking over her shoulder she identified the catch on the clasp that held the band around it and unclipped it. Feeling for the zipper next she started to work it round the edge of the case. It took longer than she wanted as the limited motion of her arms made moving the zipper a slow process. Eventually she reached the end and flipped the case open. She drew in a breath as she shuffled round on her knees to look, unconsciously holding it until her eyes fell on the contents of the case. The air rushed out of her lungs in a silent sob of relief. Sitting right on top was folding knife. Sterling twisted her body to grab the item and focused on opening it behind her back. As the blade clicked into place, she carefully slid the handle of the knife between her feet to hold it firm. Slowly and carefully she felt where the blade was and moved her wrists closer. Once the blade was positioned, she moved her arms to slide the rope against the blade. She kept her eyes on the door and strained her ears for the sound of him returning. She pulled against the rope as she kept cutting, finally the rope snapped and her arms were free.

Sterling brought her arms forward and rubbed her wrists, flexing them to ease the stiffness that had set in. She picked up the knife and kept it close. As much as she didn’t want to consider it, it may be her only way out of here. Spotting some bottled water on the shelf next to where the kit had been, she grabbed one and quickly downed the entire bottle. Not realising how dehydrated she had been until that moment. She rose from her position on the floor and crept closer to the door, the knife clenched firmly in one hand. She could feel her heart rate accelerating as she drew closer to the metal barrier separating her from whatever lay beyond. She leant forward and placed her ear against the surface, her eyes drifting closed as she listened, trying to hear any movement on the other side. When she heard nothing, she pulled back and placed her hand on the handle. She couldn’t recall hearing him lock the door but she was focused on just breathing at the time. She adjusted the grip on the knife as she pressed down on the handle.

=========================================

Five months ago

April pulled up outside the Wesley house at 6.30pm. She took a moment to check her reflection in the rear-view mirror before climbing out of the vehicle and making her way to the front door. She rang the bell and waited, unconsciously playing with the ring on her finger. She hoped that when the door opened it would be Sterling on the other side. She knew that the brunette Wesley was all too aware of their developing relationship but that didn’t mean she wanted to open herself up to a one on one encounter with Blair. There was still an undercurrent of mistrust that underpinned most of their interactions that meant April tended to keep her distance from her. As the door opened, April’s eyes fell on the sister she had hoped not to see tonight.

“Hey Blair. Is Sterling ready?”

April watched as the brunette leant against the door she had partially opened and swept her gaze across her from head to toe. “So, Stevens what are your intentions with my sister tonight?”

April quirked her eyebrow at the girl before her. “Are you really trying to give me the parent talk?”

Blair levelled her gaze at the shorter girl. “Somebody has to. Don’t think I have forgotten how this all went down last time.”

April met brown eyes dead on. “It’s different this time.”

She watched as Blair crossed her arms. “I don’t see how. You still want to keep it all a secret. And we all know how that worked out before.”

Before April had a chance to respond, a new voice sounded from the other side. “Blair!” The door was pulled fully open to reveal Sterling making the brunette who had been leaning against it stumble slightly to regain her balance. April couldn’t help the half smile that appeared on her face as she took in the sight of the blonde. “I love you but you need to stop this…this animosity with April. She’s not going anywhere so you’re going to have to get used to it.”

Blair looked between her sister and the shorter teen on the doorstep for a moment, before turning and walking away, but not before muttering over her shoulder. “We’ll see.”

April sighed as the door closed. “You still sure she doesn’t hate me?” April looked over at the blonde and took in the slight frown on her face.

“Blair is…protective. Especially after everything that happened. She doesn’t hate you so much as the thought of you hurting me.”

April let her head drop to focus on the front step. “I can’t say I don’t understand her concern.” She looked back up to meet the gaze of the blonde before her. “But things are different this time. I might not be able to come out yet but I also know what I want.” She stepped closer to Sterling and reached out to take her hand in her own, sliding her thumb over her knuckles gently. “I’m not going to walk away again.” She watched as the smile settled onto the lips of the taller girl. “You look beautiful.” She whispered as she closed the distance and placed a soft kiss on the lips of the girl before her. As she pulled back she kept a gentle grip on the hand of the other girl and led her to the vehicle.

Just as she got to the door, she felt Sterling come to a stop. “Where’s your car?”

April glanced back over her shoulder as she opened the door to the truck. “Tonight’s plans required a different vehicle. So I borrowed the truck.”

“And what are those plans?” Sterling asked as she let herself be led forwards and into the truck. As she settled into the seat, April released her hand slowly, allowing her fingers to trail along the other girl’s hand for as long as possible.

She smiled at the blonde. “Wait and see.” Before Sterling could respond, she closed the door and made her way to the driver’s side. As she started the engine, she glanced over to the girl beside her once more as she put the truck in drive. “Ready?” She was greeted by a bright smile from the blonde.

“Not yet.” April shot the blonde a questioning look before a hand came over to intertwine the fingers of the hand closest to her, resting them between the pair. “OK, now we can go.” April felt her half smile return and turned her attention back to the road and pulled the truck away from the house.

The pair settled into easy conversation as they drove. Sterling watched the scenery pass by the window, trying to get hints about where they were headed every once in a while, to no avail. Finally, the truck slowed and pulled onto the side road in front of the Starlight sign.

“The drive in? I haven’t been here in years.” Sterling’s face lit up as she took in the sign at the entrance.

April smiled back as they pulled in, bought the tickets and parked up. She flicked the radio on as they parked. “Hold on.” She hopped out of the truck and came round to the passenger side to open the door for the blonde. She held her hand out to the taller girl who took it immediately, sliding out of the truck to stand in front of the shorter girl. Their eyes met for a moment before April tugged her hand slightly leading her to the back of the truck and dropping the tail gate. “After you.” She gestured into the back, watching as Sterling climbed up before following suit. The back of the truck had been set out with a foam base, pillows and blankets. She reached behind the pillow in the corner and pulled out a cooler and a selection of snacks, setting them to one side. “I hope this is OK.” April said as she set the pillow back in place. As she turned to check the reaction of her date, she felt a hand come to rest on her neck before pulling her in. As she felt her lips meet those of the blonde, her eyes drifted closed as she let herself sink into the kiss. Pulling back slightly she questioned “Is that a yes?” Her response was the blonde pulling her closer and deepening their kiss. Reluctantly, April pulled away to open the back window of the truck to let the sound from the radio spill out into the night.

April took a moment to look at the girl settled on the pillows beside her, feeling that smile that always graced her lips when she spent time with the blonde slip onto her face. She settled herself down next to the blonde, reaching for her hand once more. As their hands met, April was surprised when Sterling shifted so that her arm was moved behind the blonde and Sterling moved to rest her head against her shoulder, her own arm draping across her waist. “Is this OK?”

Leaning over to kiss the forehead of the girl now cuddled into her side, she nodded. “More than OK. It’s perfect.” April brought her arm around to rest on Sterling’s back, tracing random patterns as the movie started.

===============================
By the time the second movie was halfway through, both girls were tucked under a blanket. The evening air brought with it a mild chill that brought about their desire for extra warmth with the added bonus of providing them with an extra element of privacy from their surroundings. Their focus had drifted from the screen to each other at some point. Their bodies now intertwined with one another. At some point, Sterling had shifted so that she was above April, her arms bracketing her and one leg slid between April’s. The feeling of the weight of the other girl pressing against her made the shorter girl feel somehow safe and grounded. Her own hands had made their way under Sterling’s top to run across the skin of her back. Their kisses had been getting progressively deeper as the movie played on. April let her hand drift down from Sterling’s back to her side. As soon as her fingers traced across the skin, the blonde jumped, her hand flying up to grip against the shorter girl’s wrist.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to take it too far.” April’s worried gaze met the eyes of the blonde.

“No. It wasn’t too far. I’m just…” The blonde trailed off without finished her sentence and focused on the screen.

“You’re just…?”

Sterling sighed. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”

“No more secrets.” April reached her hand up to cup the cheek of the other girl. “You can tell me.”

“Ticklish. I’m ticklish and you just hit one of those spots.”

April laughed before a mischievous smile settled on her face. “Oh really? So if I was to…” Her voice trailed off as she dropped her hands to Sterling’s sides and with absolute precision hit the spot once more. Sterling tried to wriggle away from the dancing fingers but found her attempts impeded as April rolled herself onto the taller girl. pinning her wrists with her free arm and trapping her legs with her own.

“April….April….Stop….Please…” Her pleas were interrupted by short bouts of laughter and gasps of air. As their eyes met, April’s hand stilled as she took in the flushed appearance on the blonde’s face. She closed the distance between them, bringing their lips together once more. Her hand slid up Sterling’s side until her thumb brushed against the side of her breast. She felt the slight change in the blonde’s breathing as she sucked in air with the contact. She broke their kiss and trailed her lips down the blonde’s neck, kissing and nipping at the skin as she went. Her lips continued their path across the soft, pale skin being careful not to leave any marks. “Is this OK?” She whispered in her ear as she kissed the skin just behind it.

“More than OK.” April couldn’t help the smile that graced her lips as she heard those words. Feeling emboldened by them, she allowed her hand to move more confidently and used her thumb to brush over her nipple, slowly tracing circles around the hardening bud. Suddenly there was the sound of engines starting up and headlights illuminated the area. She heard Sterling groan. “Guess the movie ended.”

April raised her head to rest her forehead against the blonde’s. “Yeah.” She kept her eyes closed for a moment, taking the time to get her own heart rate and breathing back in check. She felt Sterling’s lips against hers once more, a gentle kiss. Opening her eyes once more, she was met with a look she couldn’t quite place. “We should probably head back.” Seeing the other girl nod, she reluctantly untangled their bodies and offered her hand to Sterling as they climbed back down from the truck bed to the ground. As April opened the passenger door, Sterling leant over to give her another kiss in thanks for the chivalry. April closed the back of the truck and made her way back to the driver’s side and drove them home.

As they pulled up at the Wesley house, Sterling glanced over to the house before leaning over to give April a chaste kiss good night. “Night April. Text me when you get home.”

“Night Sterl.” She watched as the blonde climbed out of the truck and over to the house. Waiting until she had made it safely inside before driving home herself, a smile firmly in place across her face as the thoughts of their evening played out in her mind. If this was what taking that leap with Sterling felt like, then she decided that she would gladly continue to follow the blonde for as long as she wanted her. The risks were worth it for nights like that. As she opened the door to her house, she pulled her phone out to send her text. Her attention so focused on her phone that she didn’t register the voice until it was much closer.

“It’s past your curfew. Where have you been?”

April’s eyes snapped up to meet those of her father. “I’m sorry daddy. I was at the movies and it was late starting.” She watched as he came closer, close enough to smell the whiskey on his breath.

“Who were you with? If it was some boy then there will be consequences.”

“No. No boy. I was with Hannah B.” April hated lying about who she was with but with her dad having been drinking and his unhealthy interest in her girlfriend she wasn’t going to open that door tonight. Her father continued to stare her down but April refused to look away or give any sign of weakness to him. Eventually he turned and walked away to pick up the bottle of whiskey and refill his glass. April took the chance to make the journey to her room, closing the door soundly behind her. She rested her back against the door for a moment, cloding her eyes as she pushed the interaction from her mind. Choosing instead to focus on the previous few hours and how they had made her feel. Lifting her phone once more she typed out a quick message.

April
I’m home. I miss you already. X

Sterling
I miss you more. Thank you for an amazing evening. Xx

April was about to lower her phone when it vibrated in her hand. Bringing it back into her line of sight, she smiled as a picture of the two of them cuddled up in the back of the truck appeared on the screen. Just looking at that picture was proof enough that this was God’s master plan. After all, how could someone look that happy if it was wrong.

Chapter Text

2 months ago

The sound of her alarm roused April from her sleep. Reaching out to her nightstand she felt around until her hand fell onto her phone. She grabbed it and pressed the off button. As she squinted at the screen to check the time, her eyes caught the message notification at the top.

Sterling
I can’t wait to see you later. I’ve missed your smile.

April smiled at the message. Since her relationship with Sterling had been rekindled, it was a regular occurrence to wake up to a message from the blonde and every night, their last moments before sleep consisted of text messages to one another. It was surprising how much such a simple action could settle April’s mind before she slept leading to a more restful sleep, pushing away any thoughts that would have normally plagued her dreams. She typed out a quick reply to the message before getting herself ready for church.

April
Good morning x You can’t have missed it too much…we FaceTimed last night

As April made her way downstairs to the kitchen, her phone pinged to alert her to a new message.

Sterling
Yes but that was on a screen. It doesn’t compare to seeing it in the flesh.

“What’s making you so happy this early?”

April clicked the lock button on her phone and slipped it into her pocket while doing her best to temper her smile to something more befitting friendly texts. “Morning daddy. It’s just a text.” Trying not to focus on the way her dad kept his attention completely on her, she set about making herself a drink.

“Come on little Padawan. Just a text doesn’t make your face light up like that. Is there someone in particular that might have been texting you?”

April felt her hand clench tighter around the mug in her hand before making the conscious effort to relax as she turned to face her dad. “It was just Hannah B and Ezekiel discussing ideas for what we could do for my birthday this year.”

“I hope you haven’t made a decision yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“Excellent. I was going to suggest that you have your friends up to the lake house for the weekend. I know you loved the time up there in the summer.” Meeting her dad’s gaze she could read the hope in his face. It was times like this that April would catch a snippet of what her dad used to be like and for that short moment in time, she could almost forget his indiscretions and the impact it had on her. Almost. It didn’t stop that longing feeling taking root in her heart that these moments could be a permanent reality, that her dad was just her dad and he loved her no matter what. Pushing away those feelings, April considered the offer. The lake house was one of her favourite places to spend time. It was her sanctuary away from school and was a place she had always been able to relax. “Before you say no because you are worried about having your old dad hanging around when you are with your friends, I’ve got a business deal up there and so I’d be out at meetings for the day and fully expect them to run late into the evening. So I wouldn’t be there to cramp your style.”

The idea of having the lake house without her dad being there for the best part of the weekend was appealing. Over the past few months, Sterling had spent more time with her at school under the pretence of various projects initially and then easing into a public friendship. It wouldn’t be strange to invite the blonde to her birthday get together with her other friends. Since her dad would be busy all weekend, then Sterling shouldn’t be worried about being in the same space as him either. Plus the lake house was big enough that once everyone was asleep, they could get some time alone together too. April could feel her excitement at the prospect of an extended period of time with the girl who occupied so many of her thoughts. “That sounds like a great idea.”

Her dad smiled and rose from his seat to envelop her in a hug. “Perfect. Just let me know what you’d like stocked up.” April felt her body respond automatically to the physical affection that had been lacking for a long time. Even before his arrest, her dad had been distant. When she thought about it, the last time her dad hugged her had been back when she was still in elementary school. Her eyes drifted closed as she just let herself soak in the affection that she had craved for so long. At the back of her mind was the knowledge that this was the man who thought it acceptable to beat women and tear families apart due to them falling short of his perceived view of normality but right then, in that moment with his arms wrapped around her, all she could focus on was that moment and the way it transported her back to simpler times. Times when she thought her dad’s love for her was unconditional. She felt him pull back. “Hey now what’s wrong?” She felt the back of his hand brush across her cheek and it was only then she realised she must be crying.

April reached her hand up to brush the remaining tears away, stepping back as she did so. “Nothing daddy. I’m just happy.” She watched her dad regard her for a moment longer before he looked down to his watch.

“Shoot. We’d best get a move on if we don’t want to be late. I’ll go get your mom if you’re ready to go?” April nodded as she watched her dad turn and leave the room. Once he was out of sight she leant back against the counter, her hands gripping the edge as she closed her eyes tight, drawing in a shaky breath as she bit her lip trying to keep her emotions in check. That one moment just served as a reminder of all the years she had longed for his affection, trying to do everything in her power to make him proud enough to want to acknowledge her in the way he used to. Despite the desire to just allow herself to slide back into the fantasy of a happy family, the truth about what her father had done, what he was capable of wouldn’t just fade from memory. Taking one more deep breath, she pushed away from the counter and slipped her mask back on.

**************************************

April took her seat on the pew and smoothed down her skirt. She cast a quick glance over to the Wesley’s pew but it was still empty. Her dad’s insistence on never being late usually meant they were one of the earlier members of the congregation to take a seat.

“Hey April.”

Hearing her name she turned in her seat to look behind her. “Hi Luke.”

“I was wondering if…maybe if you have time…if well, could you maybe help me with the Spanish assignment?” He had leant forward to speak to her quietly, clearly not wanting others to overhear his request for help. “Sterling helped me last time but I’ll be honest…Blair kinda scares me and since the lock-in, she has been more…Blair. I wouldn’t ask but Senora O’Reilly told me that if in my next oral exam I don’t sound better than Jon Voight in Anaconda then she’d have no choice but to fail me. I didn’t know who Jon Voight was or what Anaconda was but I looked it up and even I knew he sounded better than me and it was terrible! I’m not sure I can trust my luck to get me through this one.”

April reached her arm out and placed her hand on his arm to stop his explanation. “In my experience, there is no such thing as luck. Of course I’ll help you.” Whatever Luke said next faded into the white noise of the background as April’s eyes caught on the individual who had just entered the church. She noted the moment Sterling spotted her and watched as a wide smile spread across her face. April felt her own half smile appear in return as her eyes lingered on the blonde making her way down the aisle to their pew, their eyes remaining locked. April brought her hand up to cover her mouth and stifled a laugh when she saw Blair roll her eyes and grab her sisters arm to drag her into their seats just as Sterling was about to walk straight past.

“So study hall tomorrow?”

April brought her attention back to the hopeful look on Luke’s face. “I’ll meet you there.” He nodded and gave her a genuine smile before sliding back in his seat and turning his attention back to the front of the church. April followed suit and turned back round in her seat.

“Beloved. I wanted to start today’s sermon by sharing a quote I read recently. Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much. When I look around our congregation, I see love. Husbands and wives that love each other; mothers and fathers who love their children and the love you share for your neighbours and friends. And that makes me feel so good. When I read this quote, I couldn’t help but think that this was what Paul was trying to say. Now before we dive into things, I think we need to remind ourselves of two things. Firstly, the meaning of the word love. These days love is used in many different ways to mean different things but primarily it is used to describe an emotion in the English language. We need to remember that when Paul was writing his letters, he didn’t write in English but in Greek. Now let me tell you, when it comes to love, the Greek language is much richer than English. They haven’t just got a single word for love that they use in different contexts. They have different words for different kinds of love. They have Eros which is the romantic love. They have phileo which would be best described as the love of friendship. Then there’s storge which is closest to the love of the familiar so our familial love or love for those we have known all our lives. Despite having all these words at his disposal, Paul uses none of them. Instead he uses the word agape. And this word is no longer tied to emotion. It isn’t based on affection or approval. It is totally unconditional, given as a free gift, not because the beloved deserves it but because the lover chooses to give it. It is a decision of the will to act in the other person’s best interests, whether we feel like it or not. It’s getting down at the supper table and washing your disciple’s feet. It is being willing to lay down your life for people who do not even care about you. Now we all have love in our lives but can we say that it is unconditional? Can we say that we have agape love in our lives? That the love we give is not based on affection or approval but a gift we choose to give to someone freely.”

April listened to the sermon that Pastor Booth gave. The words he spoke struck a nerve deep inside after her interaction with her dad that morning. She wished that she could confidently say that the love her parents had for her was agape love. That there were no strings, no conditions on it but she knew that was a false hope. For as long as she could remember she had to strive to be the best to earn that love. This was not a freely given gift but something you had to earn. It was also based solidly in the expectation that she conformed to their belief system, that she would love the right person. April’s mind then shifted to thinking about her relationship with Sterling. They had been together for a few months now but was what she felt for the blonde love? The flutter in her chest when she thought of Sterling and the word love in the same sentence certainly suggested it may be but that was something they hadn’t mentioned to one another. Deep down, April feared that there would come a day when she wouldn’t be enough for Sterling with their relationship kept out of the public eye. That she would have to make a choice about whose love she wanted to keep. That she would find herself sitting back on that bench once more faced with that same choice again, only this time she wasn’t certain who she would choose.

**************************************

Lunch at the club had passed slowly with April mainly lost in her thoughts. She had engaged in conversation when asked but mostly she had focused on her own food and let the sounds of the dining room wash over her. Following the meal, her father had excused himself to the men’s parlour and her mother had slipped away to the bar. April found herself leaning against the railing on the veranda while she waited for her parents to finish socialising. Despite the cool weather, the need to escape the confines of the club and the feeling of everyone’s eyes watching had won out. She became aware of a presence beside her just before she felt her jacket get slipped over her shoulders. A small smile played on her lips as the person came to stand beside her, she knew who it was without looking. She slipped her arms into the sleeves being grateful for the warmth it provided before resuming her original position. Despite the jackets they both wore, April could swear she could feel the heat radiating off the taller girl’s arm resting beside hers.

“I hate Paul.”

April’s smile grew as she cast a quick glance to the girl beside her. Her eyes catching the smirk on the blonde’s face. “I remember. Not everything he said was bad though.”

“April Stevens…tell me you are not one to follow his teachings on…” Sterling cast a surreptitious look around them before whispering “sexual activities.” The shorter girl suppressed the smile that threatened to emerge. “Because I’m pretty sure we have already exceeded his views on what is acceptable…in more ways than one.”

April playfully nudged Sterling as she felt her ears start to burn with the flashes of memory on exactly what they had already been up to together. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” She feels Sterling’s pinky slide over hers where it lies on the railing, hidden from view from inside by the top rail.

“You make a great point.”

The two girls stood beside each other in silence for a moment, just enjoying the proximity to one another and that small point of contact between their bodies. “Hey Sterl, what are you doing next weekend?”

“Whatever you want, it is your birthday.”

April looked over at the blonde. “You remembered?”

“Of course I did. I remember a lot about you.” As she turned her head, she was met by such a sincere look from the blonde. A look that held such depth that it actually took her breath away. Her own gaze slipped to flash over her blonde counterpart’s lips before she drew her focus over to the wall of windows behind them. Taking the moment to suppress the urge to follow her heart instead of her head in that moment.

“I’m having a small gathering, just those closest to me, and I was wondering if you would come?”

“Nowhere else I’d rather be.” A bright smile spread across Sterling’s face as she responded, while simultaneously interlocking their pinky fingers. “Where are we going?”

“The lake house.” The moment the words had passed her lips, April felt Sterling pull away. She turned to face the taller girl fully.

“April…I…”

“I know what you’re going to say and it’s OK Sterl. John won’t be there. He said he has business meetings all weekend so he won’t be around. It’ll just be a few of us from school. He hasn’t mentioned you in weeks.”

“He hates me. He threatened us when we took him in.” April felt Sterling grasp one of her hands between her own. “What if he does see me there? Do you really think he has just forgotten everything?”

“It’s not like you’d be alone.” April ran her thumb across the edge of the hand that wrapped around hers. Her eyes following the motion, reluctant to look up to meet the face of the girl before her. “I wouldn’t let him hurt you.” Her voice was quiet with the admission.

April watched as one of the hands dropped hers before feeling it lift her chin so their eyes met once more. The soft brush of fingertips against her jaw as the hand fell away left a trail of warmth in its path. “I don’t want you to ever be in that position. I’m sorry April but I can’t.”

She held eye contact with the blonde for a moment longer, searching for any sign that she may change her answer but all she saw was remorse for having to say no. April gently pulled her hand away from Sterling’s grasp, taking a step back as she let her head drop. The feeling of disappointment weighing heavily upon her. “I should get back. I’m sure mom has realised I’m not there by now.”

“April, wait.” April stepped back as Sterling reached for her hand once more, her eyes darting to the bank of windows behind them.

“It’s fine. I guess Pastor Booth was right when he suggested our relationships are not unconditional. I’ll see you at school.” With her head dropped low, April turned and walked back into the club. The warmth she had previously felt from her interaction with the blonde had dissipated and been replaced by a chill deep within stemming from the belief that once more, she wasn’t enough for someone to put before their own fears.

Chapter Text

2 months ago

“Do you need to answer that?” Luke asked gesturing to the phone resting on the desk as the device vibrated once more. “It seems like someone really wants to get hold of you.”

April picked the phone up, casting a quick glance at the screen to see multiple message and call notifications from Sterling. She knew she needed to talk to the other girl but just hadn’t been able to face it. Every doubt she had about having any form of romantic relationship while still living with her parents had returned with each individual negative thought being amplified, making her question if what she had with Sterling was ever meant to be. The doubt about if she would be enough for the other girl when she couldn’t be brave enough to hold her hand around anyone who knew them had become overbearing. That there would come a time when the complexity of her home situation would become too much. She was just waiting for the moment to come when she would be transported back to the 5th grade and Sterling would walk away from her once more. On some level it was one reason she had avoided the blonde and her attempts at communication since they parted ways at the club, if they didn’t speak then Sterling couldn’t confirm her fears. “It’s fine. Your exam is more pressing and we are almost out of time today. Remember, your focus determines your reality.” April slid the phone into her bag to prevent it drawing their attention away from the task in hand. “Estás hablando con tu amigo español. Yo soy tu amiga. Describe a una persona en tu familia.”

As Luke painstakingly made his way through the conversation, April tried to keep her focus on what was being said. Not wishing to let her thoughts drift to far more enjoyable Spanish exchanges she had held with a certain person she was trying not to think about. By the time the bell rang to signal the end of the period, Luke had actually managed to get through a conversation with only minor corrections.

“Thanks for helping me with this April.” Luke gave her a genuine smile as they packed their belongings. “I know you are super busy.”

“I have cut back on some of my extra curriculars recently.” Ever since the events earlier in the year, April had found herself less inclined to dedicate so much time to certain activities that were so misaligned with her true beliefs. With the SATs drawing closer, it had been a perfect excuse to withdraw from some of those less desirable groups without drawing any unwanted suspicion behind her motives. The pair of them walked out of study hall together and made their way through the corridors.

“I could never find the time for anything much, except golf. And I think that’s because I’m just really good at it so it never felt like it took much time.”

Before April could respond, she felt someone grab her arm and drag her through a nearby door, slamming it closed behind them. “What are you…” She spun round to face the other person, pulling her arm free from their grasp.

“No. You do not get to speak.” April fixed her assailant with a cold glare before casting her eyes around the room she had been dragged into. Noting the only way out was the door currently blocked, she resigned herself to having to talk her way out. The only saving grace was that at least she hadn’t found herself being dragged into a closet.

“Blair, I don’t have the time for this.” She watched as the brunette fixed her with a scowl.

“Oh you don’t have the time for this? You seem to have plenty of time to cosy up with Luke!”

April raised an eyebrow at the accusation. “I am not…”

“Save it. I told Sterl you’d do this.”

April crossed her arms over her chest, feeling the discomfort about her concern that Blair was very much against their relationship return full force. Not willing to let on to how much it hurt that her suspicions about the negative view Blair had on her and Sterling had been confirmed, she raised an eyebrow in question trying her best to put on the front that had served her well for years. “Do what exactly?”

“Remember who you really are and hurt her again.”

“You don’t know anything about me.” April kept her voice level, unwilling to get drawn into a full-blown argument with the other girl.

“Don’t I though? I know that you are so consumed with maintaining this perfect image that you will do whatever it takes to keep it.” Blair took a step towards the shorter girl. “No matter who you have to hurt along the way. The only person you care about is yourself. You don’t even have friends, you have minions who likely only associate with you because they would rather be deemed as mildly useful to you and suffer the odd cutting remark than to be an outsider bearing the full force of your redirected self-loathing.”

April opened her mouth to respond, to counteract all the points Blair had made but words failed her. She wrapped her arms around her middle tighter as she battled with trying to keep the tears she could feel prickling the back of her eyes from falling, her eyes had dropped to the ground between them.

“After everything that Sterl has been through this year, she doesn’t need you to…”

“I decide what I need.” Hearing the new voice fill the room, April’s eyes shot up and she was met with the sight of Sterling. However, the girl standing before her held an expression she had never seen before. She was angry, really angry and that anger was directed squarely at her sister. A sight that April never thought she would bear witness to.

“For fucksake Sterling! Why can’t you see what is right in front of you?” Blair spat out as she spun to face her sister.

“I can see what’s in front of me perfectly clearly.” Sterling met her sister’s gaze square on.

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” She challenged.

“Currently the person who is meant to be my biggest ally, the person I have always been able to count on to have my back and to fight alongside me is the one causing me the most harm.”

“I’m trying to protect you.”

“From what?” The exasperation was clear in her tone.

“From her breaking your heart again. The last time she did that…I…”

“Blair…” Sterling stepped forwards and placed her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “What happened that night after I left the lock-in wasn’t April’s fault. You have to stop blaming her for that.”

“If she hadn’t dumped you then you wouldn’t have left.”

Sterling shook her head and shrugged. “Maybe not but Dana had come to the school looking for me. It wasn’t because of what happened between April and I, she had no idea about that. She knew where I was and had her mind set on getting me.”

“But…”

“No Blair. She could have just as easily got Ellen to let me out. She’s our mom’s identical twin that nobody knew about. Nobody would have questioned it if she said I needed to go with her.” Sterling tried to reason with her sister.

“Fine but that doesn’t change the fact that she is just going to hurt you again.”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take. What I feel for April…” April watched as the blonde made eye contact with her over her sister’s shoulder. “It’s like nothing I’ve felt before. It’s more than just what I feel for her, it’s how she makes me feel about me. She makes me feel vulnerable yet also invincible. She makes me feel like I can finally breathe and yet she can take my breath away. These things…they should be mutually exclusive but being with her, somehow it makes them all possible.” She could feel a tear run down her cheek as she listened to the words of the blonde.

“She has spent the day avoiding you, just like before.” April watched as Sterling refocused on her sister.

“And that is something for us to talk about. Our past is just that, but I need you to listen to this…April is my future.”

The silence that descended upon the room was palpable. April found herself frozen as she watched the two sisters maintain eye contact with one another, neither willing to look away and concede. Finally, Blair broke the stare and shook her head. “I don’t understand how you can trust her.”

“You don’t have to understand it. You just need to trust me.” April watched as Sterling stepped around her sister and approached her. She felt the brush of the blonde’s thumb across her cheeks as the remnants of her tears were wiped away. Her eyes were drawn to the brunette who had made her way to the door. Blair turned to meet April’s gaze, opening her mouth as if to say something. April saw the way her brown eyes took in the way they stood together and without another word, she left the room.

April watched as Sterling took a step back from her. “We should talk...just not here.” She received a nod from the blonde in response. April held her hand out and felt relief when the other girl interlaced their fingers. As she started to walk back to the corridor, she felt the blonde try to release her hand as they approached the door. Instead, April squeezed her hand tighter, gripping the fingers interwoven with her own.

“April? There’s bound to be others still around.”

She turned to face the concerned look on the blonde’s face. “Do you care?” Her only response was Sterling searching her eyes for a moment before tightening her own grip on their conjoined hands. In that moment, it didn’t matter who else was still around. The only thing that mattered was maintaining that contact between them, keeping that source of her strength when inside she felt broken. Together they walked to April’s car, their hands remaining firmly entwined.

As the doors closed on the car, the two girls found themselves in silence once more. Considering words were normally her strength, April was struggling with finding any that would form a coherent thought. She felt Sterling’s hand reach for hers once more and with that she found a way to start.

“Sterl, I’m sorry for today.”

“April, I don’t need you to apologise to me. Just...don’t shut me out.”

“I didn’t mean to shut you out. I just got scared.”

“Of what?”

“That you would realise that everything with my father made this…us, too complicated.”

“I went into this with my eyes wide open. Do I wish we didn’t have to contend with outside influences and were just able to be together whenever we want? Of course I do but that’s just not realistic. What is real is what you make me feel and that is worth every bit of complication we have to deal with.”

April let the words settle in her mind, feeling the truth behind them from the girl beside her. “How did you know where to find me?”

“Luke. While he wasn’t going to face Blair himself, he didn’t want you to have to face her alone. He knew we had history last period.” April nodded at the information. Her focus was drawn to the way Sterling was playing with the fingers of the hand she held. “What did Blair say to you?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Hey…” April glanced up to meet the gaze of the other girl. “It matters.”

“She just pointed out some facts.” Seeing the patient yet searching look being directed her way, she knew that Sterling wasn’t going to settle for partial information on this matter. “Just that I’ll do whatever it takes to maintain my image, whatever the cost to others and that people only associate with me to avoid my misdirected anger.” April broke the eye contact with her admission, not wanting to let the blonde see the glassy appearance of her eyes as the tears threatened once more.

“She’s wrong.” The certainty in Sterling’s tone caused April to draw her eyebrows together in confusion and disbelief. “At best she is describing the old you, but you are not that person anymore. Honestly, I don’t think you ever really were that person deep down. Your home situation isn’t like ours and I get that now. The image you project isn’t so much through choice as it is for survival. Sure, you can be…intense…at times but you have people who choose to be with you for more than dodging your wrath. I remember in 6th grade when Hannah M made Hannah B cry when she told her Santa wasn’t real and you turned round and told her that just because she always fell short of his expectations so her parents had to buy her gifts, didn’t mean he didn’t exist for kids who were worthy.” A small smile graced Sterling’s lips as she recounted the tale.

“How do you remember that?”

“I told you before…I remember a lot about you. We have always been in each other’s orbit, even when we weren’t friends, you have always been there. Your friends have chosen to stand beside you because you stood up for them.” Hearing those words broke the final barrier that had been holding her tears in. She felt herself being pulled into Sterling’s embrace, as the taller girl wrapped her arms around her, April responded in kind while burying her head in the blonde’s shoulder. Once her tears had subsided, she pulled back to look at the girl who always seemed to know how to help put her back together.

“What did I do to deserve you?”

“You’re you. You said it before…some things are a fait accompli. But…just to be clear…If I had the chance to make any choice, I’d still choose you.” April watched as the blonde cast a quick glance out of the car before leaning over and connecting their lips. “Never doubt that.”

*******************************************

The rest of the week had seen April and Sterling settle back into their natural rhythm of late night and early morning texts followed by stolen moments after school. By the time they all pulled up to the lake house, April had allowed herself to be caught up in the conversations with her friends and had done as the blonde asked and focused on having a good time with them. By the time evening rolled around, the teens had settled into the cinema room to enjoy a couple of movies. As the evening wore on, the numbers dwindled as individuals made their way to bed until only April, Ezekiel and Hannah B were left.

April felt her phone vibrate next to her and slid it off the arm of the chair to read the message.

Sterling
What are you up to?

April
Just watching the last scene of a movie with Ezekiel and Hannah.

Sterling
Your dad?

April
Not been here since mid-afternoon. He messaged to say his meeting was going to run very late and not to wait up.

Sterling
I know it’s late but after the movie, could I see you? I’ve missed you today and I need to wish you a happy birthday properly.

“And just who is messaging you so late?” April jumped at hearing Ezekiel’s voice and opened her mouth to reply. “And before you claim it is your perfumier, we didn’t buy that the first time.”

“We didn’t?” Hannah asked, looking perplexed.

Ezekiel placed his hand on her shoulder and shook his head before returning his attention to April. “And this face,” He waggled his fingers towards April, “Is doing nothing to convince me that you haven’t got some juicy little secret.”

April looked at her two friends and considered her options. Of course, she could come up with some excuse, give some name to redirect their attention but her mind supplies her with the memory of their interaction a few months ago.

“Ezekiel! If April has a secret then she doesn’t have to tell us unless she wants to.”

“It’s OK Hannah.” Taking a deep breath she regards her two friends. Sterling’s words echoing in her mind from earlier in the week gives her the courage to speak. “I’ve been seeing someone for the past few months.” She paused and bit her lip as she weighed up if she was going to actually say the words, she felt her phone buzz in her hand.

“Is it Luke? I know he likes Star Trek too.”

“Star Wars honey but I don’t think it’s Luke.”

“It’s Sterling.”

“Oh that makes sense.” Both April and Ezekiel turned to look at the Hannah with their confusion plain to see. “She’s the only person who challenges you and the two of you always kind of gravitate towards each other, ever since we were kids.”

Ezekiel raised his eyebrows as a smile spread across his face. “She’s not wrong.”

“So, you don’t think it is wrong?” April could hear the mild shake in her voice as she asked the question.

Ezekiel rose from his seat and came to sit beside April, placing his hand over hers. “Love is never wrong. Unless you had told us you were hooking up with Jennings…that boy is so beneath you.” He waved dismissively at the thought.

“I didn’t say I loved her.” April felt her heart rate pick up with the suggestion. She felt her phone buzz in her hand and chanced a glance at the screen.

Ezekiel smiled back. “No, you didn’t say that. Answer your girl.”

Sterling
Has the movie ended?

Sterling
When it finishes, go check the dock.

April read the messages on her phone, a frown creasing her brow with the last one. She looked behind her, over towards where the dock would be, despite there being a wall between the areas.

“Well, I think that is our cue to head to bed.” Ezekiel remarked as he stood from his seat.

“Is it? Why?”

“I’ll explain on the way.” April watched as Hannah followed Ezekiel out of the room. As he passed her, he gave her an encouraging smile. “Talk to your girl.”

Once her friends were out of sight, she made her way to the dock. She wrapped her arms around herself to fend off the cold night air as she walked towards the edge of the property. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she felt the air rush out of her lungs with the sight that greeted her. The dock area had been adorned with fairy lights and standing beneath them was none other than Sterling Wesley. When her eyes met the face of the blonde, she saw greeted by a wide smile and felt her own lips tug up in return. She continued on until she stood before the taller girl. “What are you doing here?”

She watched as Sterling cast a look back towards the house. “Are the others asleep?”

“Hannah and Ezekiel were the last ones up but they headed off when they knew you were texting me.” April saw the question on Sterling’s face and answered before she could voice it. “I told them…about us…that we are together.”

“How did they take it?”

April smiled. “I think they approve.” The smile that lit up Sterling’s face only served to make April smile wider.

“I’m so proud of you. Dance with me?” April looked at the hand Sterling held out towards her before stepping closer to the blonde and slipping her arms across her shoulders, gently lacing her hands together behind the blonde’s neck. Sterling’s arms came to rest at her waist, drawing her close. Sterling reached into her pocket and pulled her phone out to press play. The opening chords of Secret Love Song filled the quiet air around them. As the song played on, the pair of them moved together, the rest of the world fading away. All other sights and sounds dissipating into the darkness until it was just them. April let one of her hands slide forward to rest against the side of Sterling’s neck, her thumb brushing gently against her maxilla. Slowly she leant forwards to close the last few centimetres that separated them, their lips moulding together perfectly. As April parted her lips and ran her tongue along those of the blonde, she felt Sterling’s hands pull her closer as her lips parted. Their kiss deepening as the song played on. As the final notes rang out into the night air, April pulled back and rested her forehead against Sterling’s. “Happy birthday April.”

Chapter Text

2 days ago

“Ok forensics warriors listen up. We have one week until our next city-wide competition. Last time we were beaten on our home turf, something that still gets my goat. Next weekend we get to take our revenge because you know what we are going to do?” Coach’s eyes tracked around the students in the room. “WIN! It may be an away game but we are going to go in stronger than before.”

April stood from her seat and took her place beside Coach Esposito. “I know we all remember how close we came to securing a win last time.” She watched as Sterling sank down in her chair slightly at the reminder of the events at their last tournament as the eyes of the others in the room turned towards her. “As your captain, I have reviewed our performance at that meet and across the year. While the dossiers I provided last time were comprehensive and prepared us with information about our opponents, I did not consider the information they would have on each of us.” April gestured towards the pile of folders to be handed out. “So, in addition to the updated dossiers on the opposition, I have also included information on each of us. Strengths, weaknesses, any secrets you thought were hidden that could be used as ammunition. We need to be prepared for anything that Craig Wu may have dug up on each of us. If I could find it, he can too.”

She watched as the members of the team started to look at the information that had been compiled in the files. “Well April, I have to say it certainly seems like you have been thorough.” Ellen came to stand beside her before addressing the group. “I’m sure that the other school’s teams would never resort to using underhand tactics to win.”

April cast a sceptical glance at Ellen. “Anyway, I have reviewed everyone’s past performance and identified the weakest subject areas for each of you. We are going to pair off to focus on these areas. Ellen has the assignments.” April took her seat as Ellen circulated to hand out the topics and pairings for the session.

“Sterling, you’re with April. The dream team back together again. It just warms my heart to see the two of you so close once more. Here’s your topic.” April watched as Sterling took the slip of paper from Ellen before resting her hand on the blonde’s, drawing the attention of the taller girl to herself.

“Before you read our topic, I picked the one that I think we would both have the potential to be thrown off point by well targeted questions on the cross.” She gave the blonde’s hand a light squeeze of reassurance before drawing back to allow Sterling to read their topic.

“To what extent is a person’s nature determined by genetics or does their upbringing and environment lead them to commit crimes?” Sterling read aloud.

“With each of our familial links with those who have fallen foul of the law, it seemed like the topic that would be most likely to present opportunities to open a line of questioning to try to unsettle us. I thought it best we prepared for that eventuality as Craig Wu demonstrated last time, he can dig up information and isn’t afraid to use it.”

“You really think he would use something so personal to win?” April saw the way the blonde’s face fell.

“Without question. He did it to me last time.”

“What could he really have on me though? It’s not like my family situation is public record.”

April cast a glance around the rest of the room seeing the others on the team focused on their own discussions. “Sterl…I know that it’s not common knowledge but if you dig, you can find it.”

“But your information on me in here,” Sterling raised the folder she had just been given slightly, “doesn’t have anything about all of that.”

“Of course not. While the student body may have their own thoughts, and certainly spread plenty of rumours when everything happened, I wasn’t going to put anything in writing about it and start the gossip again.”

“OK, so what can you find?”

April regarded the blonde sitting opposite her for a moment before reaching into her bag and retrieving a different folder. “This is everything I could find through using a few useful search sites and asking around.” Handing the file over to Sterling she watched as the blonde looked over the information within.

“You found all this, but you know me. It’s not like Craig Wu knows me or anything about my family. All he knows is my name and that I go to school here.”

“And that’s all I used. I started with searching your name. Aside from the typical social media, which you really need to update your privacy settings on by the way, not a lot comes up…probably because of your age so you’re not on many databases. It did link me to your parents though and then when I searched your mom that’s when the information started to stack up. It gave me her family links and then from there it led to the arrest record for Dana. From that a quick search through the local papers revealed a story about the events at the trailer park and it didn’t take a leap to put the information in that article about a teenage girl being kidnapped and held at gunpoint to the gossip that was all over Willingham about you.” Looking over at the blonde, April could see that the realisation of how much detail was out there about the events of that night settle in. “Hey Sterl?” She waited until Sterling raised her head to make eye contact once more. “Are you OK?”

Sterling nodded in response. “Can you…is there…did you find anything more?”

“No. There is no record that I can find that links Dana to you in any way other than as your mom’s identical twin.”

A silence descended upon the two girls. April waited for the blonde to process the information she had just received while doing her best to try to read what the other girl was feeling. “OK.”

“OK?”

“While I’d rather not have all that dragged back up and have to deal with the whispering in the hallways again, it’s old news. Plus, if we beat him, that will bring the focus away from whatever is brought up.”

April gave Sterling her trademark half smile. “You never cease to amaze me.”

Sterling returned the smile. “Come on oh captain, my captain...the quicker we focus and finish, the more time we have for...other activities.”

April regarded the other girl, feeling her eyebrows draw together. “Did you really quote a Walt Whitman poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln to me?”

“Is that where that line is from? I saw it in a movie and it seemed appropriate.”

“OK.” The scepticism was clear in April’s tone.

“It’s true. It’s the way they address this one character who has inspired them to be themselves, to stop living inside the box that their parents and community have dictated they should, to embrace life and stop hiding from the things that ignite that spark in you. That’s what you are to me, what you have given me. I’ll just stop talking now.” The blonde shrugged as she ducked her head as the final words slipped past her lips.

April felt the quirk of her lips as she listened to the explanation. “You gave that to me too.” Their eyes met as Sterling raised her head upon hearing the validation of her own words through the reciprocal phrase. “We should get started or we really will be reducing the time we have together for our debrief.” April watched as a slow mischievous grin spread across the blonde’s face, the realisation of Sterling’s chosen interpretation of her words sinking in. The shorter girl rolled her eyes while shaking her head at the girl opposite her. “You take the affirmative.”

************************

“Well…I think we can all agree that there is still room for improvement. After all, we can’t afford to let these trivial events from our past render us incapable of forming a solid rebuttal due to an emotional response.” April caught sight of the look Sterling shot her at her team debrief, subconsciously reaching up to play with the cross at her neck while considering how to provide a more moral boosting statement. “However, we still have some time to work on compartmentalising our feelings and many of your initial arguments were based soundly in irrefutable facts.” The shorter girl bit the inside of her cheek to stop a smile forming as she saw the disapproving look fade from the blonde’s face and be replaced with a proud smile.

“That was a great practice. Now I don’t know about y’all but I’m really looking forward to learning about how to compartmentalise better. There was this one time that I was in Home Depot looking for a solution for my gopher problem and when I Googled how this one trap worked…well, let’s just say I had nightmares for weeks and decided that the gophers have as much right to share this world as I do…even if they do keep chewing through the sprinkler lines and stealing my post.” April shook her head slightly with a minor eye roll at Ellen’s latest gopher tale.

“Ok, well, I think that wraps things up for tonight. See you all next week.” The shorter teen headed over to her desk and began slowly tidying away her belongings as the rest of the team and staff filtered out of the room. Once they were alone, she felt a hand slide across her lower back.

“So…what time have you got to be home?” Glancing over her shoulder, she took in the sight of the blonde leaning against the desk behind her. Noting the way her eyes sparkled with the hope of being able to spend time together, alone.

“John is never home before 7 these days and my mom…well, I’m not sure she has any real concept of time after the first few glasses of wine.” April felt her brows draw into a slight frown with the admission.

“April, I’m so sorry that things are like that for you at home.”

She shook her head and turned to face the other girl fully, her hand sliding across her arm reassuringly. “It’s not ideal but in truth, it hasn’t been for a long time. The fact that neither of my parents seem to be interested in much outside of themselves and maintaining the image of a perfect family when in public does afford me certain…freedoms.”

“What would these freedoms be?” She suppressed a chuckle at the ridiculous way the taller teen waggled her eyebrows at her.

April glanced around the room they were in, taking in the double glass doors on one side and the open doors and large window at the back of the room. She reached up and placed her hand on the taller girl’s shoulder before leaning up, closing the distance between them slowly. She watched as the blonde’s eyes drifted closed in expectation of what was to come, leaning close enough that her breath ghosted across the other girl’s lips. “Nobody questioning where I am…” The corner of her mouth twitched up into a half smile as she changed course ever so slightly to lean closer to her ear. “Giving me hours of unsupervised time…” She brushed the pad of her thumb on the hand resting on Sterling’s shoulder over the edge of her collar bone which was protruding from the collar of her shirt. “To explore…” She both felt and heard the way the blonde’s breath hitched. “The range of reference texts in the library.” She placed a chaste kiss against Sterling’s cheek before stepping away to retrieve her bag. She took a couple of steps back, keeping her eyes on the blonde and the shocked expression she wore. Reaching into her bag she pulled out the item she was looking for and let it dangle from her fingers, watching as the other girl’s focus shifted to the keys now hanging from her hand with the very distinctive Rubik’s cube key ring clearly visible. Seeing the look of recognition dawn on the blonde’s face, she felt her lips pull up in her half smile.

“How did you get Ellen to give you her keys?”

April took a step back into the hallway. “Do you really care?”

“Nope.” It took only a matter of seconds for the response to come and the blonde to begin to follow.

*****************

Buzz, buzz

April became vaguely aware of the sound of buzzing again from somewhere on the floor beside the couch she was currently lying on, a certain blonde beneath her.  The sound breaking through the cocoon of bliss that existed between the two girls.  Reluctantly she pulled back from the kiss eliciting an unimpressed groan from the other girl, the hand that had slipped underneath her shirt attempting to pull her back down.  “Sterl...”  She managed to utter before relenting to the insistent pull of hands, allowing their lips to reconnect and sinking into the warmth that surrounded her entire body.  Their tongues sliding against one another as they freely explored, hands drifting over skin where they had sought to touch previously uncharted areas.  

Buzz, buzz

Their tranquillity was shattered once more by the vibrations from the phone.  April felt the blonde pull back at the same time she did, both separating just enough to rest their foreheads against each other as they tried to get their breathing back into some semblance of a normal rhythm.  A considerable challenge when all April was aware of was the way Sterling had consumed all her senses.  The faint scent of perfume that lingered against her skin.  The sound of her own blood pulsing around her body.  The way her nerve endings were acutely attuned to every point of contact between them, rapidly firing off impulses along her sensory neurones, flooding her parietal lobe with information.  The lingering taste of the cherry lip gloss that served as a continued temptation to lean in once more.  

Buzz, buzz

“If Blair isn’t either in grave danger or...or...I don’t know something serious then I’ll...do something really bad.”  

April couldn’t help the small chuckle that escaped her lips as she sat herself up.  “Your eloquence is lacking.”  

“Yeah...well...it’s your fault.”

She raised an eyebrow at the blonde in question of her statement, taking in the sight of her kiss swollen lips and tousled hair.  “How so?”

“Because all the blood that should be supplying my brain with the valuable oxygen it needs has been diverted…elsewhere.”  

“And that’s my fault?”  

April found herself captured by the sincere look in Sterling’s eyes.  “You have no idea what you do to me, do you?”  She shook her head slightly.  “When I’m with you like this, it’s like my body is designed to respond to you, like you are my resonant frequency.  The smallest touch from you gets amplified and causes my nervous system to go into overdrive.  Your drive me crazy...in a good way.”  

Buzz, buzz

April leant over to grab the phone from the floor before handing it to the blonde.  “Blair, this has better be important.”  She watched as the Sterling listened to whatever her sister was telling her while her fingers absentmindedly traced patterns over her thigh.  “I told you we had a debate meeting tonight...Blair!  That is none of your business.  No, do not do that.  Yes, I’ll be there.  I’m hanging up now.”

“We should go before we get locked in.”

“I can think of worse places to be.”  April rolled her eyes at the ridiculous attempt at a suggestive eyebrow wiggle the blonde cast in her direction.

“I’m not sure sleeping on this couch would do much for my posture.”

“Who said anything about sleeping.”

“You are incorrigible.”  She stood from the couch, shaking her head and smoothing down her clothing after tucking in her shirt.  She extended her hand towards the other girl to help her up from her prone position.  “You head out first.  I’ll just lock up.”  April leant up to place a brief kiss to the lips of the girl before her.  “Call me later?”

“Count on it.  I always sleep so much better after talking to the girl I lo...look forward to talking to.”  April felt her heart give an odd flutter at the word she thinks were about the slip out from the blonde’s lips but before she could question it, Sterling was out of the door.

***************

Present Day

Sterling pushed down the handle on the door, her grip tightening further on the knife in her other hand.  She held her breath as she watched the handle depress and then she heard the click as the latch disengaged and the door came free.  Her heart was pounding in her chest as she gingerly pushed the door open, constantly listening for any sound that might reveal she was not alone.  Once the door had opened sufficiently, she stepped across the threshold and into the unknown, offering a silent prayer that she would get out of this.

Chapter Text

1 day ago

The alarm sounded rousing April from her slumber. She reached out and picked her phone up from the nightstand, quickly silencing the alarm. She lowered the phone onto her chest for a moment while she stretched and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Lifting her phone back into her line of sight, she clicked the button to illuminate the screen, fully expecting to see a message from Sterling after the lack of a call the night before. It wasn’t the first time that one of their calls had to be postponed due to an assignment taking longer than expected. As much as part of her wanted to just hear the blonde’s voice before bed each night, having Blair in the background certainly put a damper on most of those conversations and as a result they had decided that calls when on the job were just better avoided. April felt herself frown when there were no new notifications on her screen. She unlocked her phone before pulling up their conversation.

April
Morning…Missed you last night. I hope you stayed out of trouble and at least got some sleep. See you at school. xx

Clicking send on the message, April set her phone back on the nightstand before getting herself ready for the day at school. Every so often during her morning routine, she would glance at her phone but it remained silent.

As she made her way downstairs to the kitchen, she started to mentally prepare herself for another early morning interaction with her dad. Her mom was never awake before she went to school these days, hadn’t been since she was in elementary school. Breakfast was a time that used to be reserved for conversation between her and her dad when he didn’t have an early meeting, each of them sharing what the day ahead held for them. It was one of those times that always felt special to April in the past. Yet now, each morning that she descended the stairs, each step she took brought with it a feeling of apprehension. The father she had known, or at least thought she had known, was gone. Erased as the result of his actions, leaving only those fading memories that were slowly being overwritten by ones filled with pointed questions, uncomfortable silences and unreadable looks.

Entering the kitchen, April was surprised to be greeted with an empty space. The coffee pot still sitting unused and no sign that anyone had passed through since the night before. Since her dad had made his return from his temporary incarceration, he had always been present on weekday mornings. The early meetings, if that was ever what they had been, were no longer a feature of their lives resulting in her constant companion in the mornings. April set about getting the coffee on while taking the time to enjoy not having to put on a façade so early in the morning.

Her phone pinged just as she poured herself a cup of coffee. A smile graced her lips in the expectation of the message from the blonde. She cradled her mug in one hand while retrieving her phone from the counter.

Dad
Morning honey. Sorry I missed our morning routine today but there was an urgent matter that came to light last night that I had to deal with.

April’s smile slipped from her face at seeing the sender. She knew that her dad was trying to make an effort to reconnect with her after everything that had happened and as much as she wanted to just be able to forget everything she had learnt about him and just focus on the image that she had let herself believe for so long, that time had passed. The actions he had taken, the words that had been uttered were forever seared into her mind, tainting every memory she held.

April
That’s OK. I hope everything gets sorted soon.

As much as she wanted to just close the message and not reply, she knew that her dad would be expecting an acknowledgement. After she had sent the message, she finished her coffee and headed out the door, preferring to get to school early in the hopes that a certain blonde would also make an appearance before home room.

******************************

April had been disappointed to not manage to see Sterling before home room. Their first lesson together was during second period when they had bible studies. Throughout the morning, April had snuck peeks at her phone hoping that at some stage there would be a notification waiting for her from the blonde. So far, she had always been greeted with a blank screen. By the time second period rolled around, she had run through an extensive list of potential reasons for the radio silence. She had considered every eventuality from standard sickness to many scenarios involving Blair being the root cause of the twins having their phones confiscated.

As the bell rang signalling the start of second period and there had been no sight nor sound of Sterling, April started to get a bit more impatient to get some information about her whereabouts. Glancing towards the front of the room and seeing Ellen still getting herself set up, she pulled her phone out and sent a quick text.

April
Twice in one year? I think we need to talk about your truanting before it becomes a habit! Can’t have your GPA slipping if we want to get into the same school Sterl. And I really want you close…very close. Miss u

April tucked her phone back into her bag and tried to regain her focus on the class ahead but her eyes strayed to the empty seat beside her.

“She’s not been in all day. I’m sure she’s just sick.” Ezekiel supplied, drawing April’s attention from the empty chair.

“Maybe there was a power cut and so her alarm didn’t go off. That happened to me once.” Hannah B added with a thoughtful look on her face.

“I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation but…” April trailed off, not wanting to delve into the details of the last time Sterling had missed school and everything that had followed.

“Don’t you have Spanish next period?”

“Yes.”

Ezekiel gave her a look that clearly communicated how simple he believed the solution to the problem to be. “So just ask the angry twin.”

“Morning y’all. I’m super excited about today’s lesson…” Ellen started to detail the lesson for the day and try as she might, April couldn’t bring herself to embrace the infectious enthusiasm that her teacher projected. Her mind was torn between repeating a mantra that Sterling was fine and watching the clock on the wall that seemed to be counting down incredibly slowly to next period.

******************************

As April sat in her seat at the front of the Spanish class, she could feel her leg bouncing under her desk. Another class had passed and there was still no word from the blonde which was certainly out of character for her. Even if she was sick, it had been hours past the time an alarm would have woken her for school and so to not have sent so much as a quick response seemed very unlike her. Perhaps more concerning was the lack of the other half of the dynamic duo. April started to spin the ring on her finger as she anxiously waited and willed the brunette to appear.

“So, do you want to go first?”

She turned at the sound of a voice to see Luke had slid into Sterling’s usual seat. Her eyebrows drew together as she tried to work out what she would be going first in and why Luke had moved seats.

Luke reached up and scratched the back of his neck under her gaze. “Erm, Senora O’Reilly said that since neither Blair nor Sterl are in that we should work together today. Which is weird as I thought I saw Blair first thing.”

April glanced around the room and saw the other students all involved in conversations. As she glanced at the clock on the wall she realised that they were twenty minutes into the lesson and she had no idea that the lesson had even begun. “Sorry Luke, I must have missed that instruction.”

“Yeah that’s OK. You looked kind of super focused.”

Eventually her mind caught up with what Luke had said. “You saw Blair? Do you know why Sterling isn’t in or where Blair is?”

April watched as Luke shook his head. “I can’t say we talk much these days.”

Sneaking a glance over her shoulder to locate her teacher, April was relieved to see her focused on writing something in a notebook on her desk. No doubt some new idea for her future telenovela dream project. Slipping her phone out of her bag she opened the thread with Sterling seeing the message had been delivered but not read yet. A slight frown creased her brow as she typed out the message.

April
Sterl…I’m starting to get worried about you. Please text or call me as soon as you get this.

April hit send on that message but kept her phone in her hand. She chewed her lip as she contemplated her next move. With an internal prayer that this would go better than she imagined, she opened a new message.

April
Blair…It’s April. Are you with Sterling?

She scrolled through the list of contacts and selected Blair, thankful that she had let Sterling program her sister’s number into her phone in case of emergency. She just never believed there would ever be a time that she would feel the need to use that number. Placing her phone on the desk before her, she turned her attention to Luke. “You go…” Her voice trailed off as her phone vibrated against the wooden surface. She snatched it off the desk and quickly looked at the screen, seeing Blair’s response flash onto the screen.

Blair
Yoghurt shop. Now.

Before April could respond to the message another came in.

Blair
Before you say anything, yes you are skipping or I’ll come and drag you out of the building.

A feeling of dread settled in as to why the brunette would be summoning her in the middle of class. “I have to…” She gestured towards the door. She turned towards her teacher, “Senora, may I be excused please?” Getting a nod and a wave in response, April slid out of her seat grabbing her bag as she went. Being the perfect student certainly had some perks when it came to teachers not questioning your actions.

As soon as she was out of the classroom, she fired a text back to Blair trying not to focus on the way her hand was shaking as she typed.

April
Is she OK?”

It wasn’t until April was seated in her car that the reply came.

Blair
Just get here.

***********************

April pulled up to the yoghurt shop with her seatbelt already unbuckled before she had turned off the engine. The entire drive over had been accompanied by a vast array of images of what could have happened that required her to leave school in the middle of the day. She pushed the door open, her eyes searching the empty shop for Blair. Part of her hoped that Sterling was also somewhere on the premises but she wasn’t able to come up with a plausible reason that would allow that to be true.

“Blair?” April called into the empty space. Moments later the door behind the counter flew open to reveal the brunette twin.

“What the fuck did you do this time Stevens?” Blair rounded the counter and approached the shorter girl. The anger being exuded by the brunette was almost palpable.

April felt her eyes widen in shock at the sight of the angry teen, she took an involuntary step backwards while Blair continued to close the distance between them. “What do you mean?”

Blair was right in front of her, her eyes burning with rage but underlying that was something else. Something she hadn’t seen reflected in the brown eyes before her previously. Blair was scared. “Don’t play dumb! Sterling. What…did…you…do…to…her?” Each word was punctuated with a shove to her chest, until her back hit the door behind her.

“Nothing. She left to meet you.” April held her hands up to try to placate the girl in front of her. “You called, she left and that was the last I saw her.” She watched as the brunette seemed to deflate, the anger fading away and leaving behind a girl who looked like she had shrunk in on herself. When their eyes met the fire that had been burning had been extinguished and all that was left was a broken look. The two girls just stared at each other for a moment before another voice broke into her consciousness.

“Blair, you said you were just going to talk. Didn’t sound much like talking.” April watched as an older man appeared from the same back office and walked over to them, placing his hand on the brunette’s shoulder. “Head on back and we’ll be through in a moment.” To her surprise, Blair acquiesced and headed into the back. “Now you must be April.”

“Yes sir.”

“Enough of that sir stuff, Bowser is just fine. Certainly not how I’d wanted to meet ya but we are out of ideas.” April opened her mouth to ask the question that had been on her mind all day but before she could utter a word Bowser spoke once more. “Just hold your questions. Let’s go in back and I’ll tell you all we know and then we can take it from there.”

April followed Bowser into the back room, seeing Blair pacing by some shelves. She took a seat on the old couch that Bowser directed her to.

“There ain’t no easy way to say this so I’m just gonna say it. Rip the band aid off. Sterling is missing.”

April shot up off the couch. “What? What do you mean missing? How long? Where are the police?” She pulled her phone out to make a call, if nobody else here was willing to do so.

“Just…Hold on.” April paused in her actions to look over to the man behind the desk. “We only realised this morning. The Wesley’s are talking to the police back at the house.”

“How did you not realise sooner?” She spun to where Blair was still pacing. “You literally share a bathroom. How did you not know she wasn’t there last night?”

“Well let me think…She was with you. Last time she failed to show to help us catch a skip…she was with you. I thought she had flaked on us again because of you.”

“Girls! This is not the time to argue.”

The two girls reluctantly let their argument end before April turned back to Bowser. “How can I help if the police are already involved?”

“We need information. Times, if you saw anything out of the ordinary.”

“Ok.” April sat back down on the sofa, her eyes dropping to where she had begun to twist her ring. “Ok…We finished forensics practice and then went back to the Fellowship room for a while. Then Blair phoned so Sterl headed out first. She was heading to wherever you were I assume. I locked up and then headed back to my car.”

“When you got to the student parking, did you notice if the Volt was still there? Were there any other vehicles?”

“I didn’t go that way. I had parked in Ellen’s space in the staff parking area that morning as I had all the dossiers to take in and it was closer.”

“Great, thanks for all the help.”

“Blair.” The warning was clear in Bowser’s tone.

“Who would want to take her?” April’s voice waivered slightly with the question.

“Well…that’s what we have been trying to work out. Could be a skip that has got out and wasn’t too happy that a teenage girl took them down. Could be someone random. We’re running a list of names of potential suspects against last known locations now to try to narrow it down.”

April looked between the two people in the office. “How can I help?”

************************************

Present Day

Sterling stepped out into a hallway, quickly taking in her surroundings. There was nobody in sight and everything seemed silent, she felt the relief at that knowledge she was alone flood through her body. The hallway was relatively narrow. Directly opposite her was a door that seemed to lead to a bathroom from what she could see from her current position. To her left were two closed doors. She quietly moved closer to the first door, placing her ear against the cold surface. Hearing nothing inside, she placed her hand on the handle and pushed. The door opened quietly and revealed a dark room, another bedroom but this one was much larger. It not only had a large king size bed but also a seating and entertainment area. Satisfied that there was nobody lurking in the shadows, she moved on to the other closed door. She placed her ear to the surface and listened once again. Silence. She cautiously opened the door and revealed another bedroom, smaller than the last one but still large and more importantly empty. She pulled the door closed and looked down the hallway. Slowly, she made her way down the hallway, past the bathroom and a pantry on her left and came to a stop just before the hall opened up into a larger space. Her back was pressed firmly against the wall. She closed her eyes for a moment to mentally prepare herself for what could be round the corner. Opening her eyes, she took a deep breath and peered round the corner. She was greeted with a large open room, a kitchen diner on one side and a seating area on the other. Her eyes scanned every corner of the room and once more was greeted by an empty space. Then she saw it. In the far corner of the room was a door. This one looked different to the others she had passed, sturdier. With one more glance around the room, she made her way across the open space to her escape. Her steps increased with speed as she moved closer. As she neared the door, she heard crunching under her shoes. Looking down she saw broken glass, the remains of a whiskey glass if the odour was anything to go by. Her mind pieced together the information from a previous time of shattering glass beyond the closed door. Not sparing another thought as to the reason behind it she closed in on the door. Her hand clasped the handle and pressed…or tried to. It didn’t budge. She tried again, using her other hand to try to apply more force but nothing. Her eyes darted around the door and that was when she saw it…a keypad. She slammed her fist against the door in frustration knowing that despite being so close to freedom, it had been snatched away. Her head dropped against the cold steel of the final barrier as the tears fell, along with her hope.

Chapter Text

One day ago

Slam

April jumped in her seat at the sound. She turned from where she was leaning over a pile of papers beside Bowser to see the cause of the noise. She watched as Blair cast the now closed laptop to the other side of the old couch and stood to pace around the room.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere! What the fuck are we doing just sitting here looking at a computer screen? We’ve been doing this for hours! We should be out there looking for her!” The brunette turned to face the pair of them, while her posture and tone of voice exuded anger, her eyes told a different story. They reflected the fear and despair they were all feeling. April had to look away, knowing that she was only able to keep working, keep focused on the task as long as she didn’t stop to consider the reality of what might have happened to the blonde. If she let her mind drift from the clear focus of the job in hand, she would break. She was hanging on to her compartmentalisation by a tenuous thread.

“Hey now…every file and skip we eliminate is a step closer to bringing her home.” Bowser stood from his chair and walked over to the twin. He placed a hand on her shoulder and waited for her to look up at him. “We found her before, we’ll find her this time.”

“But what if we don’t? What if we are too late?” Gone was the confidence and strength of conviction normally held within Blair’s voice. In its place was the tone of a kid desperately seeking someone to tell them that their nightmares weren’t real. That the shadows didn’t have monsters lurking in them. That their greatest fears were unfounded. “She was only gone for a couple of hours before…it’s been a whole day.” Her voice cracked at the end, fading to a barely audible tone as the tears fell. Bowser pulled the girl into his chest and held her as she cried.

“It’ll be ok. She’s strong and smart.” Bowser continued to speak quietly to the girl he held, his words were quiet. When April caught sight of his face and saw the look of concern settled on his features, she felt that thread snap.

April could see the shake in her own hand as the file she held started to waiver. Hearing Blair voice doubts about getting to Sterling in time…that was something she never thought she would hear. She never believed that either twin would give up on the other, would lose the faith that they would always be able to get through anything together. April lowered the file to the desk and quietly walked out of the room. She couldn’t listen to anymore, couldn’t watch the way all the strength had been drained from the other girl. As she walked, she could feel her legs shaking, her breathing getting more unsteady with each step she took. She had no idea where she was going. All she knew was that she couldn’t stay in that room. That she couldn’t witness the scene that was unfolding before her.

She carried on walking out of the store, vaguely aware of the darkness as she emerged from the building. A sign of how long they had been searching already. Her legs carried her around the corner before they wouldn’t take another step. Leaning back against the cold brick wall, she wrapped her arms around her waist, squeezing her eyes closed tightly. Gone was any form of coherent thought, her mind consumed by the thought that her last interaction with the blonde had concluded with a missed opportunity to admit her feelings. That she might never get to say the words that had been at the forefront of her mind for so long, yet she had let fear prevent her uttering them. She felt herself slide down the wall as her legs failed to maintain the strength to keep her upright, even with the support of the wall behind her. Everything around her faded, the sounds and smells no longer breaking through the darkness creeping in, slowly tightening its grip on her consciousness. The only sound she was left with was the blood pounding in her ears, every heart beat adding to the already deafening thrum.

She became vaguely aware of something, a pressure on her arms. She forced herself to focus on that feeling, using it as an anchor to stop the encroaching darkness. A sound, she could hear a sound. She latched on to it, initially unable to make out any discernible words. It felt like being underwater and hearing someone speaking from above the surface.

“April…open your eyes…”

She forced her eyes open and found herself looking into the deep brown of Blair’s.

“That’s it. Just focus on me. We need to slow your breathing. Just breathe with me, OK?”

April managed a nod to the question, not taking her eyes off the ones in front of her.

“Breathe in.” She watched as Blair inhaled, trying to match the pace.

“Hold it.”

“Breathe out.” She watched as Blair exhaled slowly, letting her own breath out. She followed Blair’s instructions as she repeated the exercise a few more times. Gradually feeling the world come back into focus around her, the sounds of passing cars returning as the roar of her own blood subsided.

They stayed on the ground a while longer with Blair crouching before her. “Do you think you can stand?”

“I think so.” April watched as Blair stood before extending a hand towards her. She nodded a thanks as she reached up to accept the offered help. When she was standing once more, she expected the brunette to break the contact but instead found herself surprised as her hand remained firmly within the other girl’s grasp. April let herself be led back into the yoghurt shop and sat on the seat Blair gestured towards. The brunette then stepped behind the counter before returning with a pot of frozen yoghurt.

“Here, eat this. It’ll help.” Blair slid the pot across the table to the shorter girl as she took a seat on the other side.

April followed the instructions and spooned the first mouthful of the froyo into her mouth. As soon as she did, she felt her eyebrows draw together in confusion as she tasted her favourite flavour combination. She raised a questioning gaze to the brunette. “How did you know?”

“What to do to help you with your panic attack or your toppings of choice?”

“Both.”

Blair sighed, focusing on a spot on the tabletop. “Sterl. After the kidnapping, she would wake up from nightmares unable to breathe.” The brunette’s voice was quiet as she spoke, her fingers picking at an imaginary spot on the surface. “I spent a lot of time researching how to help her, even if she didn’t really want it.” She then looked back up. “As for the flavour combo, Sterl talks about you...like a lot. What you said, what you did, what you like...It’s annoying. I try to block her out but I guess some of it slipped through.”

April felt a small smile tug at the corner of her lips at the admission. For that split second, she was able to let the warm feeling triggered in the knowledge that Sterling talks about her to the point Blair has absorbed some of the information wash over her. A feeling that was replaced too soon as a chill ran down her spine with the realisation that the blonde was currently in an unknown location with who knows who.

“Hey.” April felt her hand being gripped by the brunette once more. “Stay with me.”

“What if...”

“I know but Bowser made a good point.” April looked back into Blair’s face. “If we focus on the what ifs then we are diverting attention from finding her.”

April considered the brunette’s words. She knew they were the truth and that it was highly unlikely that Sterling was going to just turn up now. If she hadn’t managed to get out of whatever situation she had found herself in during those first few hours, then she would need help…their help. She looked down at the hand still holding hers on the table surface, the thought of how unlikely it was that she would be sitting there with Blair providing her with the comfort and grounding she needed passed through her mind fleetingly.

“The police are checking into the random stranger side of things but as Bowser said only 0.1% of all kidnappings are strangers. So, it is someone she knows which means it is someone we know.”

April nodded at the information. She could feel the exhaustion clawing at the edges of her consciousness but in that moment, she couldn’t afford to stop, couldn’t afford to rest…not until they had some answers.

“Sterling needs you…I need you. I don’t think I can do this on my own.” Blair’s admission was barely above a whisper. April’s eyes shot up to meet those of the girl sitting opposite her, the vulnerability within them shining through. “When you get super focused on something and get all single track minded…Your research digs up things that nobody else knows. I need that April right now.”

April turned her hand from where it rested under Blair’s on the table and gave the other girl’s hand a squeeze in reassurance. She pushed down the questions and fears that threatened to overwhelm her once more, instead choosing to focus on what she could do right now. “Let’s go.”

The two girls stood and started to make their way back into Bowser’s office. As they approached the door, April reached out to rest her hand on Blair’s arm to get her attention. “Thank you.”

Blair just shrugged. “Don’t go thinking I’m all team April now but Sterl loves you and she would be pissed if I’d left you to deal alone.”

April felt her heart jump as her stomach dropped when the words registered. “She said that?”

Blair fixed her with a withering look. “She didn’t have to. Let’s get in there and find her so you can both finally tell each other what is so obvious to those forced to suffer being around you.”

The pair of them re-entered the office and re-joined Bowser at his desk. “Ok, Bowsie who have we got left to eliminate.”

“Next up…Gary Durbin.” He lifted the first file, placing the other to one side.

“The naked threesome guy?”

April raised her eyebrows at that description.

Bowser nodded. “He certainly had no problem with using violence previously.” April noticed how he looked up at her, an unreadable expression on his face. “Find out what you can on where he is now.” Bowser handed Blair the file.

“Come on Stevens.” April followed the brunette over to the old couch to continue with the research. She accepted the folder that Blair handed her to read over the information it contained. While Blair had prior knowledge, each one of the files she had looked at was filled with information she had never seen before so she was having to play catch up while running down potential leads with what they did have. As her eyes read through the information, she couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows as she read through the notes that had been written after they had taken him in.

“What does he mean he used violence previously?” The tone of her voice clearly betraying the concern she felt, partially for the risk involved in their bounty hunting and partly because this was someone who may have something to do with Sterling’s disappearance.

Blair stopped typing on the laptop to look over. “When we picked him up he didn’t come quietly.” April kept looking at the brunette, waiting for her to continue. “His wife and girlfriend started with the throwing things…Bowser got hit by a chair, Sterl with a bible. Then when he ran, he hit me with a wrench.”

The new information did nothing to alleviate the concern building inside the shorter teen. “Do many of the people you apprehend do things like that?”

Blair shook her head. “Not usually.”

April nodded as she returned to the file in her hand to find any other clues to aid in their search while Blair returned to the computer, each working quietly on their designated tasks.

They had been working their way through a range of potential leads when the sound of Blair’s phone broke the quiet in the room. April watched as she grabbed it from the side, swiping to answer the call.

“Have they found her?”

April couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation but from the way the brunette’s shoulders slumped as her body shrank in on itself, she knew the answer anyway.

“But…” Blair frowned as she listened to whatever was being said on the other end. “Yes ma’am.” She hung up and stared at the screen before it went black. “I have to go home.”

“It’s getting late.” Bowser held a hand up as Blair opened her mouth to argue. “There’s nothing more to be done tonight. Until the Durbins check in, we’re playing a waiting game. And before you say anything else, you’ll be no use if you don’t get some rest. Besides your parents will want to see you to make sure y’all are ok.”

“But what about the other skips?”

April watched as Bowser lifted the remaining case file. “Last one. I’ll look into it.” The tab was facing away from them so there was no way to see who it belonged to. “Get on home, both of ya.” The tone of his voice left no room for argument.

The pair of them walked out to their respective cars. As April opened the door, she paused and turned to face the other girl. “Blair?”

The brunette paused before getting into her car, glancing over to where April stood. “If I hear anything I’ll call.”

April watched as she got into truck and pulled out of the parking lot. She continued to watch the vehicle until the taillights turned a corner and were lost from view. When she was seated in the car, she pulled out her own phone. Aside from the messages from Hannah B and Ezekiel asking where she had gone part way through the day, there were no other messages or calls. Clicking her phone off, April started her car and drove home. Her only hope was that her parents wouldn’t ask questions as to where she had been until so late as she wasn’t sure she had the energy to come up with a lie tonight.

*********************

As April pulled her car up to her house, she noticed it was dark. Glancing at the clock on her dash, she saw it was just coming up to 1am. She walked up to the door and quietly opened it, unsure what she was expecting. Part of her half expected a light to turn on as soon as she walked in to reveal her dad sitting ominously in an armchair waiting for her to interrogate her as to her whereabouts so far beyond her curfew. Yet as she closed the door and made her way through the entrance hall, the house remained in darkness. The silence only broken by the sound of the ticking clock and her own footsteps. Not wanting to use the lights for fear of alerting her parents to her late arrival, she used the torch on her phone to help navigate the house.

Once she was inside her room, she closed the door and leant against it. The fact that her mom wasn’t still up was no surprise. Her mom rarely was about past 10pm having retired to her room with whatever remained of the wine from dinner. Her dad though was a different story. Sure there were days when he would be home later than her curfew but aside from out of town business trips, he was always home before this time.

She knew that he had been out of the house dealing with some issue, clearly it was one that had kept him occupied for much longer than expected. Of course, this wasn’t the first time her dad had been caught up with business. Though now, with the knowledge she had gained as to his activities beyond the boardroom, she did question how many of those business meetings that ran late or out of town business trips had actually been nothing of the sort. That they were just handy excuses for him to spend time with sex workers. April couldn’t help but wonder if the facade had already slipped and he had reverted to old habits already.

As she sat on the edge of her bed, she could feel the exhaustion from earlier return. Unlocking her phone she opened the message thread with Sterling. Her last three messages still showed as delivered but not read. She stared at the screen for a couple of minutes, silently willing the notifications to change or to see those three little dots pop up. Knowing the messages hadn’t been read made the likelihood of Sterling having her phone improbable. So that meant whoever had her, could have her phone.

There were so many things she wanted to say, yet the possibility of them being read by another meant her fingers faltered.

April
Sterl...don’t forget Ruth.

She looked at the message, her thumb hovering over the send button. It was vague enough for a stranger to not know what it referred to but she hoped the blonde would pick up on what she was trying to say. That she would understand that they were not giving up on her. She closed her eyes and clicked send, placing her phone on the side without bothering to check the status. April lay down on her bed, pulling her pillow in close and wrapping her arms around it tightly. She could feel the tears silently run down her face as she prayed that they would find Sterling and bring her home safely.

Chapter Text

Present Day

Sterling raised her head from where it had come to rest against her knees when she slid to the floor. She reached her hand up to wipe away the traces of the tears from her face, wincing as she brushed against her left cheek. Glancing around the room from her position on the floor with her back to the door, she saw the corridor that led back towards the bedrooms and a bathroom. Gingerly touching her cheek again, she made a decision and pushed herself up from the floor. With one last look at the locked door, she made her way across the living space to the bathroom she passed earlier.

Pushing the door open, she stepped into the room and the lights came on automatically to reveal a simple bathroom. She made her way over to the sink and looked into the mirror hung on the wall above it. The face that is reflected in the glass is certainly not what she usually sees when looking at her own reflection. She takes in the bruising already visible on her left cheek, her eye slightly swollen. Her mind giving her a replay of the moment it occurred. She tracks across to register the cut on her eyebrow with a dry trail of blood down the side of her face. An injury she must have sustained when she was taken, something she still doesn’t recall clearly. She probes the cut on her lip with her tongue before noticing her neck. Tilting her head back slightly she takes in the bruising already forming across the pale skin. As she reaches her hand up to run across the area, she sees the marks against her wrists from the ropes. Her eyes fall to look at her wrists, pulling back the sleeves of her shirt to see how extensive the rope burns are. Her hands fall to the edges of the sink as she takes a moment to catalogue her injuries, glad that aside from cuts and bruises she doesn’t think there is anything more serious. She reaches out to turn on the tap before dampening the towel to carefully wipe some of the blood from her face. Once she had done the best she can to clean up the wounds she has sustained, she makes her way back into the corridor with the intention to use whatever time she has before he returns to her advantage.

Eight hours ago

April heard her phone start to ring from where she had placed it on her nightstand. She turned to face the side and grabbed the phone, blearily looking at the screen with the hope that Sterling’s name would be the one she was greeted with. She felt that hope fade when she was instead greeted with a number she didn’t know. There was part of her mind that suggested that perhaps it was Sterling, maybe it was just her phone was out of action for some reason and she was using someone else’s to phone her. She slid her thumb across the screen to answer the call.

“Hello?” As soon as the word was out she felt herself hold her breath, unwilling to let even the sound of an exhalation potentially mask any words or sounds she may hear if it was the blonde.

“April?” She felt her heart sink with the sound of a distinctly male voice.

“Who’s asking?” The voice sounded familiar but she couldn’t place it, the lack of sleep and inability to focus on anything other that thoughts of Sterling certainly weren’t aiding her in summoning a face to go with the voice.

“It’s Bowser…from the Yoghurt shop.”

April shot up in bed, her eyes already scanning for what she would need to be ready to leave. “Has someone found her?” Just saying the words aloud made her heart race and that flicker of hope reignite.

“No, not yet.” As soon as she heard the words, she felt the lump return to her throat and her shoulders slump forward. “Can you come down to the shop this morning? There’s something I need your help with.”

April glanced at the clock on her dresser, surprised to see it was nearly 11am. She fully expected to have to explain her whereabouts last night before she would be able to leave the house. Doing a quick calculation of how long that might take plus the journey to the yoghurt shop , “I can be there in an hour.”

Hearing the call end, April dropped her phone from her ear and set about getting ready. Her body was going through the motions while her mind was occupied by trying to come up with an explanation for why she missed her curfew last night that wouldn’t result in a slew of additional questions she couldn’t answer. At least not without adding an extra layer of issues to the already dire situation.

As she placed her hand on the door handle, she took one last deep breath to steady herself before emerging from her sanctuary to face her parents. The descent down the stairs wasn’t greeted with the usual sounds of her dad’s music drifting out of his office as he worked, nor could she hear any voices. Once she had reached the bottom of the stairs, the quiet had become unnerving. It was Saturday morning and her parents would usually spend their Saturday mornings at home for what had always been classed as family time, despite the fact that they hadn’t really spent the time together since April had been in elementary school. She cast a quick glance to the front door and contemplated if she could make it out without detection. Making the decision to at least try, she took a step towards the door before her mom’s voice called out.

“April? Is that you?”

April glanced over at the door for a few more seconds before sighing and turning towards the kitchen. “Morning mom.”

“Can you pick up some more food for Bilko today?”

“Sure mom.” April waited for any further questions but when her mom just returned to drinking her coffee, she took the chance to make an exit. She opted not to question the reasons why she had escaped an inquisition about her activities the previous night and just be grateful that it gave her a faster out. “I’ll be back later.” Her mom barely responded to the comment, merely sending a vague sound of acknowledgement in her direction without even looking up from her book. As April passed by her dad’s office, the door was ajar providing the opportunity to see in. When she peered through the gap, April frowned as she saw the office was empty.

********************

“Hello? Mr Bowser?” She called as she walked into the yoghurt shop.

“None of that mister stuff, just Bowser is fine.” The voice came from the back office. “Come on back.”

April made her way around the counter and through the door into the back room where she was greeted by the sight of Bowser sitting behind his desk. From what she had seen so far, he generally wore a serious expression so the look on his face was not unexpected. However, it certainly didn’t help to relieve the feeling of unease that had settled in her the moment she had answered his call earlier. When he gestured to the couch, she took a seat.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you down here.” April nodded. She watched as Bowser picked up a file from his desk before standing and moving to lean against the edge of his desk. “We’ve only got this one skip left and I’m hoping you can help with that.”

“Shouldn’t Blair be here? She knows how to track card transactions and...” April trailed off seeing the way Bowser shook his head.

“That may be so but it’s your insight we need.”

“Mine?” April frowned at the remark. She had no idea what insights she could bring to finding a skip unless...She looked at the file Bowser still held before extending her hand for it. As she accepted the documents, she had the sinking feeling she knew exactly what name would be written on the front. Dropping her gaze to the file in her hand she read the name...John Stevens. Obviously she knew that Blair and Sterling had been the ones to take her dad in after he skipped his bail and somewhere deep down she had expected that his name had passed through their discussions about who could be involved in blonde’s disappearance. Yet she hadn’t really considered the possibility that she would be asked for insights and information on her own father as a potential suspect for the kidnapping of her girlfriend.

April stared at the cover of the file, frozen in place as her mind raced through many different thoughts in a short space of time. She knew that in that file would be the information from the case that had been dismissed against her dad. Potentially there would be certain aspects that she was not aware of at that time, parts that neither Sterling nor her parents had shared with her. The same conflicting emotions flared up within her once more. She could feel her hand start to shake as the warring feelings collided with a fierce intensity. Closing her eyes, April recalled the breathing technique Blair had used with her the night before and forced herself to draw in a long slow breath, hold it and exhale slowly. Using the focus on the simple act to quieten down everything racing in her head until she could focus on one image...Sterling.

She flicked the folder open and scanned over the information, trying her best to view it from an emotionally detached point of view but knowing that she would fail in that endeavour. Seeing the photographs of the woman her father had beaten made her feel sick. Despite being cleared of the charges, she knew that he wasn’t innocent of them. He just had enough money and power to get away with them. He had proven himself to hold a level of hatred for others that made the accusations against him perfectly believable.

“What do you want to know?”

“Has he been acting differently these past couple of days?”

April thought back to Thursday. Her morning had begun as usual with an awkward and strained conversation over breakfast while her dad tried to engage her in discussions about what them day ahead held. She hadn’t seen him that night but in truth, following her extra curricular activities with a certain blonde, she had made her way up to her room as soon as she got home. She had spent the remainder of the evening in her room opting to preserve the feeling the blonde had instilled within her rather than interact with her parents and potentially lose it. “Thursday was nothing out of the ordinary. We spoke at breakfast...the usual small talk about what was going on at school. Once I left Sterl, I headed home. Then I didn’t see him or mom that evening, I spent it in my room alone.”

“When you say you spoke about school, did he know you had a forensics meeting?”

“Yes. I would have mentioned it.” A gnawing feeling starting in April’s stomach. The potential for her having provided information that led to the blonde being taken started to take hold in her mind. She flashed back to an earlier interaction with Blair where she blamed her for Sterling being kidnapped the night of the lock-in. What if this time, she really was at fault? What if she provided the information needed to know exactly where the blonde would be to someone who wished her harm?

Bowser nodded, his voice snapping April back out of her spiralling thoughts. “What about Friday?”

“I didn’t see him. He sent a message Friday morning saying he’d been caught up with and urgent issue at work.” April had to swallow as her mouth had gone dry as a queasy feeling had settled in. “He wasn’t around when I got in last night.”

“And today?”

“Didn’t see him. I don’t think he was there.” Her mind raced through the past two days and beyond. Her dad’s disappearance coinciding with Sterling’s. His continual attempts to find out information on the blonde. The way some of the things he said set off warnings in April’s mind that she had tried to ignore. The threat he had made to Blair and Sterling when they took him in. Every thought, every feeling of unease flooded her consciousness at once leaving her with the terrifying reality that her dad could have Sterling. April dropped the file and ran from the office, pushing the door to the toilets open before dropping to her knees and emptying the contents of her stomach. She clenched her eyes shut as she continued to heave. Trying to stop the images flooding her mind. Images triggered in the knowledge that despite what she had wanted to believe for so long, her father was not a good man. He was a man who thought nothing of beating women. A man who would destroy multiple lives for revenge against someone who had wronged him. The question of just what that would mean for one of the girls who had humiliated him by catching him refused to stop circling her mind. The images from the file merging with the images of the blonde to produce an ever worsening series of pictures that she clenched her eyes shut against.

When there was nothing left and she had been able to get some level of control to stop the retching, April flushed and made her way to the sink on shaky legs. As her eyes caught sight of herself in the mirror, she saw how pallid her skin looked. She splashed cold water on her face, using some to rinse her mouth out. She gripped the edge of the sink as she stared at the water circling the drain. Reaching out she shut off the faucet and opened the door. Bowser was standing just outside the door and offered her a cup of water which she accepted.

“What do we do now?” Her voice sounded rough, the bile having burnt her throat.

“We call Blair.” April nodded at the statement. She knew that the brunette would find out their line of enquiry soon enough but it didn’t help to ease the feeling of dread that settled at knowing the other girl would hold her responsible for whatever had happened to her sister.

“Then?”

“We find where he has been the past couple of days.”

******************

The sound of the door to the store opening roused April from her reading of the files. There were several details she had not been privy to prior to today, especially the details surrounding the case that her father had got dropped. While she knew the general information, actually seeing the images of the injuries the woman had sustained at her dad’s hands was something she certainly hadn’t been prepared for. As much as he had been cleared of the charges, she knew he was far from innocent. That didn’t mean it was easy to reconcile the man who had perpetrated the crime in the file and the man who had picked her up when she had fallen. That those same hands that caused such harm had cautiously stuck plasters on scuffed knees when she was younger. Amongst the inner turmoil of trying to resolve these two sides to her own father was the voice telling her that he may also be the one who had kidnapped her girlfriend. The end result left her feeling numb.

“Bowser? You said you had a plan.” Blair’s steps faltered in the doorway as her eyes fell on April.

“Have a seat and I’ll explain.”

April closed the file in her hand as Blair sat down beside her on the couch. She could feel the taller girl’s eyes on her and couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact with the other girl.

“As you know we’re still waiting on an update on where Durbin is but there is one more skip we need to investigate.” The pause in Bowser’s explanation gave April the chance to mentally brace herself for what she knew was coming as soon as the brunette heard the outstanding name. “John Stevens.”

April sucked in a breath as the name was uttered, waiting for the inevitable explosion beside her. The seconds dragged out with nothing more than silence leading to her eventually turning to look at the girl beside her. The sight that greeted her was unexpected. Rather than the fury she had been prepared for, Blair looked…scared. Every other skip they had checked hadn’t elicited such a response but the name of her father led to the colour draining from the other girl’s face.

“I have spoken to April this morning to get some information, to see if we could eliminate him. We can’t so we have the two skips to find.”

Blair turned to face the shorter girl. “Don’t you know where he is?”

Shaking her head, she forced herself to meet the brown eyes of the other girl. “I haven’t seen him since Thursday morning.”

“And you didn’t think to mention that yesterday?” Blair shot out of her seat with the exclamation. She started pacing around the small space in the office. “Sterl goes missing the same day as your woman beating father and you didn’t think to mention it?”

Bowser came out to place his hand on Blair’s shoulder to try to calm her. “Come on now, it’s not like she knew he was a threat.”

“Didn’t she?” April watched as Blair stepped around Bowser to meet her gaze. “So Sterling didn’t tell you that he threatened us when we took him in? Didn’t tell you that was the reason she backed off when you said he was out?”

April could feel the sting at the back of her eyes signalling the impending tears. “She did.” Her voice was quiet even to her own ears.

“So what…are you protecting him?”

“I’m not.” April shook her head in denial, feeling the need to emphasise her answer with more than just words.

“Then why the fuck didn’t you say he went missing the same day she did?”

“Blair…” Bowser tried to interject, attempting to step between the two girls but Blair sidestepped him.

“I didn’t think…”

“No…you didn’t think.” Blair snatched the file from her hands. “What if he has her?” She waved the file between them. “That’s another day with someone who did this to a woman.” April’s eyes caught on the photograph of the prostitute’s injuries. “And she hadn’t pistol-whipped him and dragged his ass to jail.” April could feel the tightening of her throat, her heart pounding as every word hit. “You think he’ll not do worse or don’t you care?”

It was as those last words registered that something inside broke. “Of course I fucking care! I love her!” April found herself standing in front of the brunette, her chest heaving. She glanced down and saw she had gripped the front of Blair’s shirt in her fists. She unclenched her hands and stepped back, wrapping her arms around herself. The silence in the room was only punctuated by the sounds of their breathing.

“That’s enough! You both need to stop. This ain’t gonna help us get Sterling back. We need to work together but if you both can’t do that then get out.”

Both girls looked to Bowser, his face left no room to question if he was serious with his statement. April looked back over to Blair who scowled at her in return. When no further arguments were forthcoming from the brunette, April adjusted her focus back to the bounty hunter. “What do we do?”

“Call him.” April stared at Bowser with the suggestion, her mind racing with all the possibilities of what could go wrong if she said the wrong thing. It seemed Blair wasn’t faring much better if the silence and look on the other girl’s face was anything to go by. “All you need to do is call your dad and see when he’ll be back. Try to find out where he is. I’ll be right here to help you out.”

“What if he suspects something?” The tone of concern was evident in Blair’s voice.

“He won’t.” April spoke up. “He doesn’t even think Sterl and I are friends so would have no reason to think I knew anything.” Their eyes locked and April held the gaze, trying to communicate her certainty in that fact through the look. Blair gave a finally barely perceptible nod. The shorter girl turned to face Bowser as she pulled her phone out. “You’ll be here the whole time?”

“Right beside you. When you talk to him, keep it casual. Is there something you’d normally do with him that you can be checking on if he will be there for?”

“Church. Tomorrow is church.”

“Good. That’ll work. See how things are going and if he will be back for church. While you are talking, listen for anything else you can hear. It might seem like nothing but really listen...cars, trains, even birds it all gives an idea of where he might be.”

“Ok.” April looked at her phone as she steadied her breathing. Slowly she scrolled to her dad’s number, her finger hovering over the call button. She glanced up at Bowser’s face once more and got a nod from him. She offered up a silent prayer and hit call. Bringing the phone to her ear she listened as it rang.

”Hey honey.”

“Hi daddy. I know you’re busy with work but I was just wondering if you were going to be back for church in the morning?”

“This problem is taking a bit longer than I expected to resolve. I’ll try to be back by tomorrow but sometimes people just take a bit more convincing.”

“I understand but...” April lost her train of thought as she heard something, she pressed her phone closer to her ear as she strained to listen to the sounds in the background.

”But...?”

“But I look forward to our time as a family. I know work is important but I guess I just want to spend that time together.”

”I understand Padawan. It’s going to take me a little while to get back but I’m sure things here can wait one more day. They’re not going anywhere tonight.”

“That’s great. So I’ll see you later?”

” You sure will. Maybe we can watch an episode of The Mandalorian when I’m home?”

“I’ll look forward to it. Bye daddy.” April hung up the phone and dropped it on her lap, bringing her hands up to cover her face.

“So? Anything?” Blair’s tone held both hope and dread.

“He wasn’t alone. Someone was coughing in the background. He’s coming home tonight.” April spoke the words but felt detached from her body at that time. Her mind replaying the sound of someone coughing in the background having the images of Sterling added by her subconscious.

Bowser knelt down on the floor before her. “Where would he be?”

April dropped her hands to look into the kind eyes of the man before her. Eyes that held a gentleness, a look that was so different to those of her own father. “I don’t know. Maybe the lake house.”

“Ok, let’s go.” Blair started towards the door.

“Hold on there. We are not going in guns blazing here. He is coming home today, so we wait to be able to search the place without a confrontation. Can you get us keys?”

“It’s a keypad combination lock on the door, I can give you the code to it and the alarm.”

“You let us know when he gets home and if he leaves.”

April nodded. She knew that as much as she wanted to stay as far from her father as possible, she needed to spend the time with him to ensure Blair and Bowser could search for Sterling. She could keep up the act of loving daughter for another night, even if the thought of being close to someone who may have harmed the blonde made her skin crawl. For Sterling, she would face a lot worse.

Chapter Text

Two Hours Ago

“Would you just…sit still.” Blair looked over at the driver’s seat, taking in the exasperated look on Bowser’s face. She slid back in her seat as she placed the phone on the seat beside her to stop fidgeting with it. “She said she would let us know when he got back. Until then, we just need to wait.”

Blair sighed. “We’re just sitting here literally five minutes from where Sterl could be. We should be in there already.”

“We need to be smart about this. We have no evidence that proves he has her so we can’t call the police in.”

“We don’t need evidence.”

Bowser shook his head. “Well, no we don’t but it won’t do nobody any good to rush in and potentially create a volatile situation. Rule one: Always know what you are walking into.”

A silence descended upon the vehicle while the two occupants sat looking out the windscreen, watching as the sun slowly set. Bowser had parked his truck a few minutes out from the lake house while they waited for the confirmation that John Stevens was back at home. From the moment that April had hung up the phone, Blair had been ready to get on the road. She didn’t want to wait another minute if the blonde was somewhere they now potentially knew. These past two days had been the longest that the pair of them had been separated in their whole lives and the thought of prolonging that for even a single second longer than necessary was almost too much for the brunette to bear. The thought of who potentially had kidnapped the blonde certainly did nothing to alleviate the gnawing anxiety in the pit of her stomach.

As Blair stared down the dark and empty road, her mind drifted back to what led them to this point. Their first day as bounty hunters. When they had heard Bowser name the skip he was after as John Stevens, she had jumped at the chance to put one over on April. Thinking back to that interaction now, she could recall how Sterling had not agreed with her view on taking him down to make April squirm. Instead, the blonde had changed the topic, not that Blair had let that stop her. From that point things had just happened so fast that there hadn’t been a chance to really talk about what they were getting into. Both of them getting caught up in the adrenaline rush of chasing down a skip. Now Blair was faced with the possibility that her initial exuberance to help Bowser with taking down John Stevens was the catalyst for the whole situation they were now in.

“Do you think…” The words caught in her throat as she tried to voice the question that had been playing on her mind since they realised the blonde was missing. “Do you think that she’s OK? That we’ll get her back?”

Blair watched as Bowser turned in his seat to face her, his expression shifting to one that betrayed the affection he felt toward the pair of them. “Almost all of them do.”

“Almost all?” Blair knew that her consternation was written plainly across her features.

“Come on now baby girl, you need to stay positive.”

“How can I when someone has Sterl? And you hear about it on the news, how they didn’t find them until it was too late.”

“Yeah, well, the news doesn’t report everything. For every kid who doesn’t come home that you see on the news, there are many more who do. If April is right and that was Sterling in the background, then that’s good news.”

“How?” The word came out harsher than she expected but the idea that John Stevens having her sister captive was somehow good news certainly didn’t correlate in her mind.

“That was this morning. The majority of cases where they don’t come home alive, it was too late after the first three hours.”

Blair studied Bowser’s expression, looking for any sign that he was hiding something or downplaying the situation but all she saw was genuine concern and honesty. She nodded her understanding of what he said, trying to focus on the hope that Bowser was offering. Hearing her phone ping, Blair grabbed it off the seat next to her to open the message.

Stevens
He’s here

“He’s home.”

Bowser started the engine on the truck. “Let’s go get our girl.”

*********************

April watched the notification on the screen change from delivered to read before locking her phone and tucking it back in her pocket. Safe in the knowledge that while she occupied her father, the bounty hunting duo would be searching the lake house to hopefully bring Sterling home. The thought of having to spend the next hour or two in close proximity to someone who had potentially kidnapped another human, her girlfriend, made her feel nauseous. It wasn’t like their relationship had been exactly filled with positive interactions since his return from prison, but they had been tolerable. Her views on her father and his indiscretions had been almost detached from their everyday lives. It is one thing to know that he assaulted a sex worker and another to see the photographs of the harm he caused. When those images were coupled with the possibility that he had kidnapped Sterling, then the images blended together to form a mental image April would rather not have ever had enter her mind. Certainly one that meant she was unable to consider the possibility that there was any form of future for their relationship as father and daughter.

April was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of the front door opening. She took a deep breath in order to try to settle the emotions coursing through her body. The one thing she had to make sure of was that there was no reason for her dad to suspect anything was amiss. She needed to make sure Blair and Bowser had enough time to search the whole house. As she heard his footsteps approaching, she just hoped that she could pull it off.

“Hey there little Padawan.” She looked up as John walked into the room, a casual smile on his face like he hadn’t a care in the world.

April reminded herself to smile. “Hi daddy.” She was surprised when he stepped closer to her and wrapped his arms around her. On instinct, she felt her entire body tense before reminding herself she had to play her role of perfect loving daughter that bit longer. Knowing that she couldn’t afford to let on that she suspected anything, she forced her body to relax and brought her arms up to return the hug. Every second felt like an eternity, every point of contact felt like her skin was blistering under his touch. She wanted nothing more than to recoil from the touch but she knew that would raise questions. Thankfully, he released her from the embrace and stepped back.

“I’ve missed you. I hope I didn’t miss much these past couple of days.” He started to make his way to the kitchen. “Why don’t you tell me about what you have been up to while we get some snacks sorted.”

April reluctantly followed her dad into the kitchen. “How’s school?”

“It’s good. I have an exam coming up in math.” She kept her reply as short as possible to reduce the chance of her voice betraying her unease.

“I hope you have been studying.”

“Yes sir.” The reply automatic. If anything had been ingrained into April from an early age, it was that anything less than one hundred percent effort was not good enough. That you have to earn every mark, every medal through hard work and dedication. The medal hanger her dad had bought her to display her medals on even stated it, ‘always earned, never given’. The similarities between the messages drilled into her from an early age on achievements and the love her parents gave her were glaring clear now. Much like her awards, the love her parents had for her was to be earned, not given.

“That’s my girl. Can’t have those grades slipping if you are going to be valedictorian. How about your extra-curriculars? It’s important not to ignore those if you want to stand out when it comes to college applications.” Her dad went to the fridge to retrieve their usual drinks for their daddy-daughter time.

April felt herself tense at the mention of the extra-curricular activities as the memory of her last time with the blonde was interwoven with the only activity she had participated in during the past couple of days. Forcing those feelings back down, she walked over to the pantry and rummaged through for the popcorn to avoid having to make eye contact. “Forensics is going well. I have revised the research that is in the dossiers for the team so we will be prepared for both offence and defence.”

“In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” April emerged from the pantry and set about opening the bag to prepare their go to snack for Star Wars nights. “Is that Wesley girl still the weakest link on your team?” Hearing her dad reference Sterling caught her off guard, the shock of hearing him mention her led to her tearing the bag further than expected, unpopped corn spilling out over the side and onto the floor. “Woah...steady on there kiddo. Looks like someone has spent too much time in the gym lately.” The smile on her dad’s face was unexpected. Ordinarily, any form of mess was greeted with a stern reproach and the instruction to clear it up.

“Sorry...I’ll clean it up.” April quickly stepped out of the kitchen to retrieve the dustpan and brush, taking the moments away from her dad to get herself back in check. It was just a question about forensics, not a targeted question about their relationship. It wasn’t like she had spoken highly of Sterling’s forensic prowess in the past. In fact, she had spent a considerable amount of time bemoaning the blonde’s readiness to concede to her opponent in the past. She certainly hadn’t been sharing the fact that the blonde had placed higher than her during their last big competition.

“April? Everything OK?” She grabbed the dustpan and made her way back into the kitchen, plastering a smile back on her face as she re-entered the room.

“Fine daddy. Sorry, just couldn’t find the brush.” April set about clearing up the mess while her dad made a start on preparing the rest of the snacks.

“So, the Wesley girl?”

“Oh...no. She has improved over the past year.” She hoped that the answer would satisfy his curiosity and not lead to further questions. She wasn’t sure that she would be able to maintain a conversation about Sterling without letting her facade slip and the concern she had for her welfare shine through.

“Well must be down to having some good leadership in that team.” He smiled at her. April just nodded, opting to just agree with her dad’s assessment of what had led to the improvement in the other girl’s performance.

“Did you manage to sort your issue at work?” April held her breath as soon as the words passed her lips. Hoping that her question would allow the focus to be taken off her interactions with the blonde. There was also the distant hope that he would say something that would give her a hint as to where he had been the past couple of days.

“Not yet. You know how it is...some of these problems, you just need to take your time. Play the long game. That’s not to say you can’t take pleasure in the small things along the way, those moments where you get to put the other side firmly in their place but that final win...it’s worth waiting for.”

The words were nothing new. Many times over the years she had heard her dad talk about his business dealings in a similar way. However, now with the additional knowledge of what he was capable of and the uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of her girlfriend, they took on new meaning...a much darker meaning. One that made April want nothing more than to run from the house and drive to the lake house herself. She emptied the contents of the dustpan into the trash and took the time to squeeze her eyes tightly closed. Hoping the action would somehow repress the images now flashing in her mind as what small things her dad could have taken pleasure in inflicting on the blonde.

“Ready?”

“You go ahead and load it up. I’ll be through in a minute.” Her voice sounded distant to her own ears but her dad didn’t seem to notice as he left the room. April made her way down the hall to the bathroom and closed the door, clicking the lock in place as she leant her forehead against the cool wood. She pulled her phone from her pocket and opened her messages.

Blair
We’re in.

April
Tell me you have found something.

April stared at the phone screen. Watching as the message changed from delivered to read before the three little dots appeared.

Blair
Nothing yet.

Reading those words made her heart sink. She knew that they hadn’t had long to search and the lake house was extensive but a small part of her had hoped that maybe, just maybe she wouldn’t have to spend an extended period of time playing this part. April stepped over the the sink and checked her reflection in the mirror. She could see the way the spark that had been ignited inside her by the blonde had faded in her eyes. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul and right now, her eyes certainly reflected the turmoil within. The one saving grace was that her dad wouldn’t be looking in her eyes as they watched the show. With a final glance to make sure the rest of the image was in place, she turned to return to the den and buy Blair and Bowser the time they needed.

**********************

30 Minutes Ago

Blair opened another door on their search through the expansive property, she flicked on the light switch as she looked around the room. The knowledge that John Stevens was at least an hour away and the secluded nature of the lake house meant that they didn’t need to worry about alerting someone to their presence through using the mains lights. A fact that Blair was thankful for as searching the large space using torches would have taken even longer. She could hear Bowser opening a door further down the hallway. So far they had searched the upstairs rooms to no avail before making their way back downstairs to search through the various reception rooms and other spaces. The process was made slower by the thorough method of checking behind every door contained within the rooms on the off chance that there were hidden spaces. As much as April had given them a run down on the layout of the property, there were many rooms that she didn’t frequent that could have easily been forgotten.

Blair walked over to the door on the far side of the room, pulling it open to to reveal yet another storage closet. She slammed the door shut in frustration letting out a loud groan. She slumped against the door and brought her hands up to rub her eyes. They were running out of rooms to check and there was no sign of the blonde. They hadn’t even found anything to suggest she had ever been there.

“You OK kiddo?” Bowser appeared in the doorway of the room she was in.

“What if she’s not here?” Blair could feel herself becoming despondent with the situation. Every room they checked that was a dead end just made it feel like Sterling was slipping further from their grasp.

“We’ve not finished checking yet. Why anyone needs such a large property for a small family I have no idea.” Bowser walked over to stand before her. “I know how hard it is to stay positive when we haven’t found Sterling yet but she could still be here. We just need to keep looking while we can.”

Blair nodded in response. She knew that what Bowser said was right. She just hoped that the next door they opened would bring this nightmare to a close. She pushed herself up from the door and walked out of the room to continue the search.

By the time the last door closed with no sign of the blonde, they were starting to run out of options. The pair of them met back in the entrance foyer, each looking as dejected as the other. Blair pulled out the paper that April had sketched an outline of the property on with various instructions. “That’s it for in here. We’ve got these areas outside to check.” She pointed to the locations on the sketch.

Blair stepped back outside and waited while Bowser reset the alarm so that there would be no evidence of their search. “Come on.”

The pair walked round the back of the property and headed towards the first location, the maintenance room. Bowser pulled out the set of keys that April had given them for the outbuildings to unlock the door. As the door opened, they were once again greeted by nothing but a collection of tools. He pulled the door closed, clicking the lock back in place.

Finally, they approached the last door, the pump room. As they opened the door, they were greeted by nothing more than the typical pump equipment. Blair walked across the metal grates on the floor to check behind the large machinery but was greeted by nothing more than a concrete wall. She returned to stand in the middle of the room where Bowser had remained. “What now?”

“We head back. Either it is John Stevens and he has another location we don’t know about or it isn’t him. We need to let April know.”

“I’ll do it.” Blair pulled her phone out reluctantly to send a message admitting they had nothing.

*********************

Present Day

Sterling jumped at the sound of an alarm echoing from down the hall. She quickly grabbed the knife she had found and followed the sound, not willing to venture anywhere without some form of defence. She headed back down the narrow corridor and into the master bedroom. The TV in the entertainment area was now on, the screen illuminated the room casting shadows from the furniture that extended across the floor. What Sterling saw on the screen made her heart skip a beat, the knife tumbled from her hand as she stumbled forwards. She searched the table for some kind of control but there was nothing except a regular remote. She grabbed it anyway to examine, in the obscure hope that there was a button that would reveal a method of communication. Throwing the remote down when there was nothing to be found, she turned and ran back down the hallway to the steel door. She slammed her fists against it, over and over again, as she screamed as loud as she could.

“BLAIR! BOWSER! I’M HERE! I’M IN HERE!”

She placed her ear to the door after a while and strained to hear anything but was greeted by nothing but the blood rushing through her own ears. “Fuck!” She sprinted back to the bedroom to see if there had been any sign that they had heard her. As she skidded to a halt in front of the screen, she reached her hand up to place against the screen resting against her sister’s form. She could feel her own tears fall as she watched Bowser place an arm round the brunette’s shoulders and guide her towards the door. “No, no, no. Don’t leave. Don’t go.” Her voice was hoarse from the yelling as she spoke to the images on the screen. As Blair stepped out of view, she watched as Bowser turned to look into the room once more, his head dropping in defeat. “Please don’t leave me.” Her voice was barely above a whisper as she watched Bowser step out and the door closed. The screen fading back to black as the alarm stopped, leaving her in the dark with only the sound of her own ragged breathing echoing off the walls.

Chapter Text

Present Day

April sat tensely on the couch, her posture rigid and her eyes fixed on the screen without actually taking in anything that was occurring. Her mind was split between offering up prayers that any moment she would get a message telling her that others had found Sterling and trying to suppress the questions of what if should the message not come. It didn’t help that she was hyper aware of every movement made by her father, the man she currently believed was responsible for the disappearance of her girlfriend. As the titles rolled on the episode they were watching, she felt her phone vibrate. Snatching it up from where it sat on the cushion next to her, she resisted the urge to look at the screen where she sat. If the message was from Blair, then she was uncertain that she would be able to mask her true emotions...whatever the contents said. She stood from her seat and started to make her way out of the room, phone clutched in her hand.

“Everything OK? Did you not want to watch the next episode?” Her dad’s voice stopped her in her tracks.

April turned slightly to look over to where her dad sat, schooling her face into what she hoped was a neutral expression. “Everything is fine. I just need to send Hannah B a photograph of our homework assignment. She lost her sheet.” She held her breath as her dad regarded her closely. Every second that passed with his eyes focused on her made her want to shift on the spot in discomfort at the scrutiny but she fought the urge, knowing that any such movements would only lead to further questions.

“You really could do better with your choice in friends. If you want to be successful in life, you need to surround yourself with other successful people...not those you have to prop up. You should be associating with equals...who is your greatest academic competition?” The phone in her hand felt heavier with every passing moment that she hadn’t been able to read the message. She clenched her free hand into a fist, feeling her nails dig into her palm from the force. She remained silent, not wishing to speak the name of the person who was her equal on so many levels. The name of the one person who had always been right there next to her for as long as she could remember, pushing her to improve her performance through their mere existence. “April...Who is it? I taught you to always know your competition.”

“Sterling.” She dropped her gaze to the floor between them. “It has always been Sterling.” She admitted quietly. The words she uttered holding a very different meaning to her than to her father.

“I should have known.” He muttered as he shook his head with the comment. “Though from what I have learnt about her, she is not someone you should associate with.” There was no elaboration on the statement but April could imagine what her father was referring to. There was her one foray into tasting alcohol, her losing her virginity to Luke or the bounty hunting…There were plenty of reasons why her dad would deem Sterling as someone to be avoided and he didn’t even know about the intimacy they shared behind closed doors. “She has outlived her usefulness to you.” Part of April wanted to ask what he had heard about the blonde but, in that moment, her greatest focus was on finding out what Blair and Bowser had found. Rather than responding verbally she nodded her agreement to his statements, silently hoping that this would be the end of their conversation and provide her with the time to escape to her room to check her phone. “Go. Sort out that friend of yours.”

Without waiting for another word, she turned on her heel and walked along the hallway. She kept reminding herself to walk, one foot in front of the other, don’t run. Don’t draw attention to yourself and a change in your behaviour. The words were repeated in her own mind, serving as a mantra to keep her from listening to the part of her that just wanted to know immediately. As soon as the door to her bedroom closed, she pulled up the message on her phone.

Blair
She’s not here. There’s nothing here.

April read the message twice before the words sank in. Despite everything they had done over the past two days, they were no closer to finding the blonde. However, no matter what the evidence said, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her dad was behind this. There were too many coincidences otherwise. She just had to think of some way to find out where he had been for the past couple of days without raising his suspicions.

*************************

Sunday

Hearing the alarm sound, April reached over to silence it. Part of her had considered shutting it off last night when she knew that sleep would be eluding her while she focused on her research and listening out for any sound that her dad was leaving the house. Unwilling to risk spending so much as a minute in slumber when he could leave the building without her knowledge. However, she didn’t want to risk losing track of the time, causing her parents to come to her room to fetch her. A quick glance around her room revealed why. The normally immaculate space was now a scene of disarray with sheets of paper scattered across the floor with various notes written on them. Her bin was surrounded by several balls of paper that had been discarded once the avenue of enquiry had proven fruitless. She rubbed her bleary eyes, allowing her hand to run down her face to try to clear the exhaustion. She had searched for property records for anyone she could think of that her dad would trust, business addresses...anything that might have a connection to where her dad could be holding someone captive.

Closing her laptop, she gathered up the sheets of paper that held potentially useful information and slipped them into a folder. She tucked it into her bag along with her iPad that contained a selection of photographs from records in her dad’s office that might be of use. Photographs she had captured during the small hours of the morning when everyone else slept. Making sure that everything incriminating was out of sight, she set about getting organised for church. Once she felt she was presentable, she picked up her bag and made her way out of her room, her sanctuary, to maintain the façade of perfect member of team Stevens once more for the general public.

“Good morning.” April’s head snapped up at the sound of the cheery greeting from her dad.

“Morning. What’s going on?” The question slipped past her lips before she could stop it, the lack of sleep clearly affecting her usual filter.

“Why would something be going on?” The smile didn’t falter on her dad’s face.

“I...It’s just when you have had problems at work before, you haven’t been so positive.”

The sound of his laughter only served to increase the feeling of unease that had taken root in the teen since the potential of her father being responsible had first been mooted. “Very true little Padawan. However, after some consideration last night I decided to just bring that little situation to a conclusion today...after church, of course. There are some things that are just not worth wasting another minute on when you can just eliminate them once and for all.” April felt her stomach drop with the comments. She swallowed, trying to stifle the feeling of nausea that was building rapidly within. “You OK?” She flinched back at the feel of her dad’s hand on her cheek. “You’re looking pale.”

“Just stressed about exams.” She threw out the first thing that popped into her head, hoping that it would be sufficient to bring any further questioning to an end. She forced her eyes to meet those of her dad, willing herself to not look away as his brown eyes searched hers. She didn’t realise she had been holding her breath until he turned away from her.

“If you have prepared properly, you have no reason to worry.” Breathing out a sigh of relief, she let her eyes drift close for a second. “You all ready to go?”

“Yes sir.”

“You go get into the car while I get your mother.” Without waiting for a response, he turned back into the hallway leaving April alone once more. Knowing better than to not be where her dad expected her to be when he was ready, she headed out to wait in the car. As she slid into the backseat, she pulled her phone out. With a quick glance back to the house she sent a message to Blair.

April
Are you going to church?

Blair
No…mom and dad don’t want to leave the house in case someone calls or Sterl turns up.

April
I did some more research last night and have an idea of somewhere to check. Can you meet me before the service?

Blair
I’ll be cutting it close if I can get out.

April
There’ll be a folder tucked behind the planter to the right of the main door.

Seeing her parents emerge from the house, she opened her bag to stow her phone. As she did so, her eyes caught on her iPad. She glanced back over towards the front step where her parents were approaching and made a decision. She pulled her iPad out and tucked it under the seat, sitting up and closing her bag just as her dad opened the door. April turned her attention out of the window as her dad pulled out of their drive, willing the journey to pass quickly. The car ride was silent with the exception of the radio quietly playing in the background which April was glad of as her mind was occupied with how she was going to be able to secure the folder she had for Blair without drawing attention to what she was up to.

As the car pulled up into the space, April waited until her parents had exited the vehicle before stepping out herself. She cast a quick look around the parking lot for any sign of the brunette, but she was nowhere in sight. She followed behind her parents as they approached the front of the church, greeting various others on their way. As they approached the door, April slowed her pace hoping that her parents would enter and not check on her progress. As they passed through the doorway, she breathed a sigh of relief and almost let a smile appear that things were going her way. That was until her dad turned to call her over. Just as she was about to head over to join him, frantically thinking about an excuse she could use to delay the entry just for long enough to drop off the folder someone stepped into her path. She was instantly aware of arms wrapping around her and a body that dwarfed her own smaller stature. She felt herself tense the second this person made contact with her, that was until she heard the familiar voice.

“Sorry for invading your space and touching you without asking but Blair told me that you might need help with dropping something off for her before church and I couldn’t think what else to do with your dad watching.”

April allowed herself to relax slightly against Luke’s chest. “Thank you.” She whispered before pulling back and reaching in her bag for the folder. She was aware of her dad approaching the pair of them so handed him the file with a look that was hidden by Luke’s taller frame. She saw him nod as he took the folder and tucked it into his jacket.

“What’s going on here?”

April watched as Luke turned to face John Stevens, a kind smile on his face. “Morning Mr Stevens. I just had to thank April for the help she gave me on my Spanish. I found out on Friday I got a B on my last assessment and it is all down to her taking the time to tutor me in study hall.”

“Luke, right?”

“Luke Creswell, sir.” He held his hand out for the man to shake.

“And April is just tutoring you?” The tone in his voice made it clear that the real unvoiced question had nothing to do with tutoring. April noted the way her dad held firmly on to Luke’s hand as he waited for the response.

“Yes sir. April and I are just friends. I have chosen to spend this year focusing on my studies and my golf.” The answer seemed to satisfy her dad as he ended the handshake.

“That’s a smart choice. Come on April, your mother is waiting for us.” April followed her dad into the church, casting a quick look over her shoulder at the door to mouth a thank you at the tall boy. She received a smile and nod in response before she turned and followed her father into the church.

“So, the Creswell boy?” April had barely sat down in their pew before the question was voiced.

“He’s just a friend.” As the words slipped past her lips, she felt the truth in them. She hadn’t stopped to consider what kind of relationship she and Luke could have. Initially it had been tarnished by the association with the 5th grade incident which had continued for the entire duration of Sterling and Luke’s relationship. It was only after the pair of them had broken up that April started to notice that he was a genuinely nice guy and she had reluctantly admitted to understanding why Sterling had been with him for so long.

“Good Christian boy, you could do worse.”

April had to remind herself to keep her mouth closed at the suggestion from her own father to date Luke. “He’s not my type.” Catching the look her father gave her from the corner of her eye, she knew she had to justify that statement. “He’s not on the same level…intellectually.”

Before any further questions could be asked, Pastor Booth made his way up to the lectern to start the sermon. April tried to focus on what was being said but found it increasingly difficult between the combination of a lack of sleep and concern for Sterling rendering her with very few functional neurones.

It wasn’t until the collection plate was passed that April really managed to refocus on her surroundings, drawing her attention out of her own spiralling thoughts. Since she was seated on the position closest to the aisle, she accepted the plate from the usher and patiently held it while her father retrieved his wallet from his pocket. As he opened his wallet, April felt everything stop. The sounds of the congregation became muted, everything around her faded and blurred until the only point of clarity was her father’s wallet. Or more specifically, the item that had emerged from his wallet along with the notes. The gold of the ‘S’ reflected the light as it swung gently from the edge of the chain. April felt her heart stop with the sight, her whole body frozen from action with the exception of the hand holding the offering plate which had begun to shake. She felt like time had ground to a halt as she stared at the pendant from the corner of her eye, unable to move her head to look closer, unwilling to risk alerting her dad to her observation. The gold pendant vanished from sight as swiftly as it had appeared. As soon as it was out of her eye-line, it was like someone had hit play once more. The sounds returned as the rest of the room returned to focus, bringing with it the control of her own body. April glanced down towards the front of the church before her dad turned to look her way.

“All done.” Without looking his way, April nodded and passed the plate back to the usher giving him a smile as she did so. She knew that the smile was forced, that should anyone look closely enough that they would see the way her lips and her eyes were in conflict. One exuding happiness while the other fear. In that moment, she started to count down the seconds until she could get away from the man beside her. The man she now knew had been responsible for the abduction of her girlfriend. The man who she knew had caused harm to others without any real provocation had the person who he held responsible for his fall from grace at his mercy.

As the band continued to play, she processed her options. She could call the police and report the pendant as Sterling’s. She knew that they were involved and there was hard evidence that he had her. However, if she did that and he didn’t tell them the blonde’s location there was the risk that they would never find her. April’s mind flashed with images spurned April’s mind flashed with images sparked from too many true crime podcasts of Sterling being trapped somewhere nobody found until it was too late, slowly losing strength as nobody brought her food or water. The risk was too great.

The next option was Blair and Bowser. She knew that they should have got the file by now and the location of the hunting cabin that belonged to her father’s business partner, Gerald. While she had been searching for any addresses that may be of value, she had seen the photograph on her dad’s desk of them at the cabin. Somewhere she hadn’t considered as an option initially due to it not belonging to her family but when she really thought about where he would feel safe, she knew that Gerald would provide an alibi so the loan of his cabin would go without question. She hoped that the pair of them were almost there but if she was wrong…if that wasn’t the location, then she had just sent them two hours away from Atlanta. Potentially two hours in the wrong direction. So, she couldn’t count on them. It was in that moment she realised that there was only one option…herself. She was on her own for this.

When the service ended and the congregation filed out of building, April was thankful that her parents stopped to talk with some of their friends. With a quick check to make sure nobody was watching, she slipped away towards the edge of the building. Pulling her phone out she quickly dialled Blair’s number. She cast a glance over to where her parents stood still deep in conversation as she waited for the brunette to answer.

”We’re not there yet. About thirty minutes out.”

“It’s him. He has her.”

”That’s the theory and why we are driving to the middle of nowhere.”

“No. You don’t understand. I know he has her. He has her necklace.”

”What?”

“In his wallet. I saw it.”

”Does he know?”

“No.”

”Ok, good. Watch him. If he leaves, call me.”

“April?” She hung up without another word when she heard her dad call her name. As she slipped her phone into her bag, she returned to where her parents stood. “David has kindly offered to drive the pair of you back home.”

“Can’t you drive us?” She knew her voice sounded strained, the pitch higher than usual as the knowledge that if her father didn’t drive them home, she had no way to know his whereabouts.

“I’m sorry honey but I really must get back to finish up that situation I left yesterday.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

April saw the frown appear on her dad’s face at being questioned in front of others. He had always made it very clear that his instructions were to be followed to the letter, yet here she was going against that ingrained teaching. “I’m done having it hang over me. The sooner I get going, the sooner I can tie up the loose ends and all this is behind us. Now, no more questions. Go with your mother and David.” His tone made it clear that he expected his instruction to be followed.

She desperately wanted to argue. To come up with some reason why he needed to drive them back but there was nothing that wouldn’t raise his suspicions. “Yes sir.”

“Good girl.” She watched as John turned to David. “Thank you for this once again.”

“No problem John. When work calls, we all have to answer.”

“So true.” John clapped him in the shoulder and shook his hand in a final thanks before turning and heading to the parking lot.

“Ready ladies?” April watched as her mother nodded her agreement and she followed the pair to David’s car. Part of her focus remained on her father as he reached his vehicle and climbed in. April now knew that time was against them. As soon as she was seated in the car, she pulled her phone out to text Blair, unable to make a call while the two adults were in such close proximity.

April
He left church without us. Got a friend to drive us home. He’s going to tie up the loose ends – his words.

April could feel her leg bouncing with impatience as she spun the ring on her finger, every second in the car felt like an eternity and she wanted nothing more than to get back home. She blanked out the small talk between the two adults and just ran through everything she had found out. Blair and Bowser were almost two hours ahead of her dad so they would be at the cabin in advance of him. They had the time to find Sterling and get out of there before he could get there. She kept repeating the facts to herself as if the words could somehow become reality if she said them enough. The mere act of focusing on the words over and over helped to stop her from snapping at the man to drive faster. Finally, they pulled up at the house and she was out of the car as soon as the vehicle was stopped, shooting a quick thank you over her shoulder she pulled her keys out of her bag and rather than heading for the house, turned to make her way to the garages. She was vaguely aware of her mom calling after her but right then, she didn’t have the time to worry about engaging in any form of conversation.

As she sat behind the wheel and started the engine, she pulled her phone up. She saw the message from Blair that they had arrived at the cabin but rather than focus on that, she pulled up the Find My app. She waited while it opened and selected the devices before scrolling down the list to select her iPad, quietly offering up a prayer of thanks for her dad having opted to buy her the cellular connected version rather than just WiFi. She looked at the map location and frowned. He wasn’t heading south towards the cabin, he was headed north. April felt the realisation hit her, making her breath catch in her throat. The two people who were equipped to deal with her father had been sent in the wrong direction, by herself. She pulled the car out of the drive and headed north. She had to follow him and buy enough time for Blair and Bowser to get there. She just needed to know where to tell them to go. Her dad had a head start so she pushed every speed limit to make up ground. Her time split between focusing on the road and checking the map on her phone screen. It didn’t take long before she recognised where he was headed. Reaching over, she dialled Blair as soon as she saw his intended destination.

“Get to the lake house.”

“We already checked there.”

“Don’t argue with me. I’m following him and that’s where he is heading. Just get there as soon as you can.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Stall him.”

April could hear the brunette start to argue with her plan but she couldn’t hear that now. She couldn’t afford to be distracted by the thought of what might happen to her. Her whole focus had to be on the blonde and keeping her safe until the bounty hunting duo could arrive and intervene. She clicked to end the call returning her car to its previous quiet state with only the sound of the engine and her heart pounding filling the space. With one more glance at her phone screen she saw her dad creeping closer to his destination. Not willing to let the thought of what that meant for Sterling if she didn’t get there soon, she pressed her foot down on the gas willing the road to be clear and that she could close the distance between them.

Chapter Text

Sterling snapped awake as her chin hit her chest, blinking rapidly to try to clear the drowsiness from her mind. She had no idea how much sleep she had actually had in the past three days, but it wasn’t much and certainly wasn’t restful. She had used the time since he had left to search through the various rooms to try to find anything of use. It had only been when she explored the pantry that she had realised she hadn’t eaten in days. Despite the anxiety regarding her situation, she forced herself to consume some food to provide her with some energy for whatever came next. There had been a moment of hope when she had opened one of the cupboards in the pantry and found a gun safe hidden inside. However, that hope had been short lived when after trying every possible combination of numbers she could think of that may hold meaning, it still remained firmly locked. With the code being four numbers, that meant 10,000 different possible combinations so certainly a very remote chance of stumbling across it by entering random numbers.

She shifted in her position to stretch out her sore muscles. For a fleeting moment she considered if her current position, seated on the floor of the pantry, tucked out of sight of the hallway was the best position. Yet her options were limited. She couldn’t risk any of the bedrooms as they each had locks on the doors, the bathroom had automatic lighting that should be move at the wrong time would draw attention to her location and the rest of the space was open plan. Standing for a moment she stretched her arms and legs, an effort to both keep herself ready for any movement needed and help to keep her alert. All the while she ran through her plan in her head over and over again, making sure she hadn’t missed anything as she was only going to get one shot at this. As much as she hoped that a rescue would be forthcoming, having seen Blair and Bowser leave, she knew that there was only one person who could get her out of this now…herself.

****************

April glanced down at the caller ID on her phone and saw her mom’s name flash up on the screen. She knew that leaving as she did would lead to questions but she didn’t have the time to waste giving her mom an excuse. She considered just declining the call but the realisation that her mom might call her dad to let him know about her erratic behaviour was a risk she couldn’t take. With a deep breath, she accepted the call.

”April Stevens, just what do you think you are doing running off like that?” Her mother’s voice rang through the car, her tone leaving no room for misinterpretation about her feelings on the matter.

“Sorry mom but I had to go.”

“And just where do you have to go in such a rush? David was utterly aghast as your rude behaviour.” There it was April thought, there was no concern for her welfare, just justification for her embarrassing her mother in front of one of their acquaintances.

“One of my friends needed me urgently. They are in trouble and I have to help them.”

“I fail to see how it is your responsibility or why you couldn’t have taken the time to explain yourself before making such a scene.”

April wanted to drop all pretences and just announce there and then that she had to follow her abusive father to where he was holding her girlfriend hostage and she feared what he would do when he got there. Yet the part of her that still retained some higher-level functioning prevented her from dropping that bomb. Even when her dad had been arrested, her mom still stood by him and the only anger she held was that her precious reputation had been tarnished. She knew that her mom wouldn’t believe a word of it and would call her dad about the outlandish lies his own daughter was spreading. “I’m Fellowship leader and they are in crisis. How could I not help them? It is the Christian thing to do.”

“We will be discussing this when your father is home later young lady. You will not drag the reputation of this family down in the community.” The thought that her helping someone would lead to the family name being dragged through the mud more than her father beating a prostitute was almost voiced. However, before April could reply, she was greeted with the sound of the disconnected call tone. Her mother had hung up. Glancing at her phone she saw how much closer her dad was to the lake house now. All thoughts of the conversation with her mother vanished from her mind and she pressed the gas pedal down further.

*****************

Sterling felt her whole-body tense. The silence of her surroundings was broken by the sound of metal bolts retracting, the noise echoing off the walls. She reached down to retrieve the knife she had as her only means of defence or attack, her only bargaining tool to get out of this place. The steel of the handle felt cool against her skin. Rising to a crouch, she waited. She was aware of the pounding of her heart in her chest, part of her feeling sure that with the force that it must be audible in the silent room. She leant closer to the entrance of the pantry, listening for the tell-tale sound of footsteps denoting the approach of her captor. The silence seemed to stretch on for an immeasurable length of time, each second felt like it was being drawn out far longer than it should last. Then she heard it…

Clomp…clomp…clomp

The rhythmic sound of shoes across the solid flooring, slowly approaching. Each step that fraction louder as the individual responsible drew ever closer to her position. She had paced out the distance from the door to her hideaway to know how many steps to expect. Twenty steps. Twenty steps was all that lay between her and the exit. As she counted the fifteenth step, she drew in a breath and held it, not daring to exhale.

Clomp…clomp

Three more steps. She heard the sound of metal clinking together join the sound of the footsteps. Her mind filled in the image of what was responsible for the new noise…keys. Keys to unlock the door behind which he expected her to be. A door which as soon as the key entered the lock, he would realise wasn’t locked. Sterling rose to her feet fully, clenching her hand against the steel handle in preparation.

Clomp…clomp…clomp

The footsteps stopped. As soon as the silence returned, Sterling slipped out from her hiding place. As she rounded the corner, she was greeted by the sight of his back as his attention was on the task in hand. The sound of the metal of a key being slipped into a lock accompanied her motion. She stepped up behind him, extending the arm holding the knife towards him. She pressed the tip of the blade into his back. Just enough to make its presence felt, to provide the warning that she wasn’t bluffing.

“Don’t move. I’ve got a knife.” She could hear the edge of fear in her own voice but despite that, he froze. The key in the lock, his hand still holding them. Sterling could feel her own heart pounding against her ribcage. She watched as he raised his hands.

“Ok, no need to do anything drastic.” Sterling felt a laugh bubble inside her chest at the words but managed to suppress it at the last moment before it spilled from her lips. “I’m sure we can find a way out of this.” He turned his head slightly, so she was able to see his profile. “What do you want Sterling?”

“I want to go home.” She desperately tried to maintain her composure, to not let any sign of weakness show but as soon as the words were uttered, she felt a tear slip down her cheek with the honesty of the admission. All she wanted was to go home. She wanted to get out of this place and see her mom and dad. She wanted to have Blair lie in bed next to her as they ran through a top five list. She wanted to have April wrap her arms around her and tell her that she was going to be OK.

“Ok then.” The words snapped her back to the present, the thoughts of those hopefully waiting for had fading.

“Ok?”

“I’m not about to die down here and it seems to me you have the upper hand.”

There was an element of truth to the statement but she couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension that she was missing something. She couldn’t believe that after all this, he would just let her walk out of here and report him to the police. “Why would you let me leave? You know I’ll go to the police.”

“Maybe…But what’s my motive for this? Why would I kidnap a teenage classmate of my own daughter?” The realisation hit Sterling then. The reason for all this was because of her bounty hunting. Something that she was not legally allowed to do. Something that had been kept a secret for so long because of that very reason. “Besides I’ve been dealing with a business issue these last few days and have the alibi to back it up.”

Sterling processed his words for a moment. She didn’t doubt for one second that he had managed to convince someone to provide him with an alibi. After all, he had somehow got charges dropped when there was video evidence against him. A conversation she and Blair had overheard so long ago about Gerald being willing to turn himself in for the man echoed in her mind. The reality was that admitting to the motive behind the whole event would create problems for herself, Blair, Bowser and Yolanda.

“Shall we?”

The sound of his voice brought the rapid-fire thoughts to an end. “Move.” She pressed the blade into his back with a touch more force to start him moving back towards the main door. She matched him step for step. Not daring to blink in case she missed any sign that he was going to try something.

They came to a stop in front of the steel door. Sterling could feel hope start to bloom that this ordeal was almost over. She was so close to being out of this place. “I’m just going to enter the code to open the door.” She watched as he raised his hand to the keypad and began typing.

*************

April knew that Blair and Bowser were not going to be able to get to the lake house soon enough. Even if they broke every speed limit and hit no traffic, they were too far away. As much as she wanted to believe that she could handle whatever she was walking into, she feared she wouldn’t be able to stop her father. Her destination was mere minutes away. Reaching a hand out, she pulled up the keypad on her phone and dialled.

“911, what is your emergency?”

“He’s going to kill her.” April wanted nothing more than to push the speed she was driving at but as she drew closer, the roads became more rural and twisty. Ending up wrapping her car around a tree would be no use to anyone so she was having to accept the slower speeds despite her growing agitation.

“Can I take your name?”

“April. You have to send the police now. John Stevens has kidnapped Sterling Wesley and he is going to kill her.” She knew that the nearest police station was still a good thirty minutes drive from the lake house, even if they pushed the limit of safe driving speeds for the roads. She hoped that they would dispatch officers immediately but even then, she had to somehow prevent anything from occurring before they could arrive. She took the final turn onto the road that led to the lake house.

“How do you know this?”

April ignored the question reeling off the address of the lake house to the dispatcher. “Just hurry…please.” With that she ended the call, knowing that she was moments away from arriving and having to face her father. From having to find Sterling before any further harm could come to her. She just hoped she want already too late.

****************

The sound of the metal bolts sliding back into the door, allowing the steel barrier to finally open made Sterling want to cry with relief. She was no longer confined to this space, the fear of never getting out of there began to fade.

“What now?”

Sterling glanced towards the door. If she walked out first, she was walking into the unknown and he would be behind her. If he went first, she would have to be certain that he didn’t get beyond the threshold of the door and close her back in once more. She knew she couldn’t let that happen. The only reason she was so close to escape now was due to having the element of surprise on her side. She wouldn’t be so lucky if there was a next time.

“You first.” She nudged him forward, watching as he opened the door fully and stepped across the threshold. She stayed close behind him, not willing to risk being trapped once more. She took in her surroundings as they stepped through the door. The walls were concrete and before them was a steep flight of concrete stairs. The sparse lighting on the walls did nothing to ease the feelings of disquiet that resided within her with every step they took. The lighting was barely enough for her to see where she was placing her feet. He ascended the steps and as he neared the top he reached up. “What are you doing?”

“Take it easy. Just opening the hatch.” Sterling saw him glance over his shoulder at her. She kept her eyes on his hands as they reached up and slid a bolt back before pushing up. As soon as the hatch rose, bright light flooded into the stairwell. Sterling ducked away from the sudden illumination. As soon as she did, she realised her error.

****************

April slammed her foot on the brake as she pulled up the gravel drive, she could hear the grinding of the stones against the tyres as they struggled to find purchase against the loose surface. Her eyes caught on the sight of her dad’s car already parked in its usual space. While she had managed to close the distance between them by breaking every speed limit on her way up there, he had still arrived ten minutes before her. As soon as the car came to a halt, she threw the door open and flung herself out of the vehicle, not even bothering to stop to close the door.

She ran towards the front of the property, hand shaking as she tried to type the code into the keypad on the door. The tremors in her hand made her inadvertently press the same number twice. “Fuck!” She reset the lock and clenched her fist a couple of times in an attempt to steady it. She then reached out once more to enter the code. The sound of the lock clicking open brought a fraction of relief. Relief that was quickly replaced with the cold truth that Blair and Bowser had searched the whole property and found nothing. Pushing the thought to the back of her mind as she pressed the door open, she tried to consider what her dad would do first. The house was silent aside from the sound of April’s hurried footsteps on the floor as she made her way to her dad’s den.

She pushed the door open and looked around the space. Her eyes caught on his keys and phone on the table. There was her confirmation that he was here. Then she saw the door to the back was standing open. She started to make her way towards it when out of the corner of her eye she spotted the gun safe. Her footsteps faltered as the thoughts rushed through her head before she stepped over to the cabinet. She typed in her dad’s usual code. The code he thought she didn’t know and watched as the door opened. It felt like her hand was moving independently of her body as she reached forward and removed the Glock that her dad had bought her to teach her how to defend herself. Knowing that she was considering using the weapon to defend herself against her own father probably never entered his mind. April loaded the gun and turned towards the open door. The only reason the door would be open was if her father had ventured through it, stepping towards the open door. She just hoped that she would be able to locate the blonde where Blair and Bowser had failed.

***************

Before Sterling could rectify her mistake, she felt a foot connect with her abdomen. The unexpected force on the narrow steps sending her careening backwards. Her eyes flew wide as she reached an arm out to try to brace herself against the wall but there was nothing to grip. Everything seemed to slow as she felt her body tipping further back. Felt her fingers graze across the rough concrete. Then she felt nothing but the cold brush of the air against her skin as she fell back, losing that final contact against the ground. There was a fraction of a second where she felt completely disconnected, almost weightless, as each moment stretched on for longer than time dictated it should. She watched as his face turned to watch, a cold smile playing across his lips. The moment her back hit the first step she was vaguely aware of a cry leaving her body, whether it was through shock or pain, she didn’t know. Her body kept tumbling, each impact jarring already bruised skin. Her head cracked against the stone with a sickening thud causing her vision to grey out as everything spun. Finally, everything stopped.

She could feel the pounding in her chest as she sucked in gulps of air, screwing her eyes shut for a moment to try to get her vision back into focus. When she opened her eyes, she wished she hadn’t. Towering over her prone form was John Stevens. Sterling didn’t give herself a moment to think. She shot her arm forwards. She knew the moment the blade struck its target, could feel the way it met resistance as she was no longer moving through air but instead flesh. A glance down the length of her arm revealed she had driven the knife deep within his thigh, the majority of the blade now buried deep in the tissue.

“YOU BITCH!” The words had barely registered before everything went black.

Chapter Text

As April set foot through the door, her whole body froze at the sound of a scream. Her heart lurched in her chest as she felt the colour drain from her face, the sound making her blood run cold. Her head snapped towards the direction it appeared to come from, partially wishing for another scream to help her locate the source while the remainder dared not think about what that sound meant. At what could have elicited such a response from another human. She listened, straining her ears to detect any sound aside from the birds chirping in the trees. Their cheerful tunes so at odds with what was signalled by the cry she had heard. She took a step forwards when she heard it…Her dad’s voice.

“YOU BITCH!” The tone was filled with pure rage, something she had never heard from her dad before. Of course, she had heard him angry. She’d heard him shout at the TV when a politician he didn’t agree with was speaking. She had heard him shout in his office when there was an issue with his business. She had heard her dad shout at her mom on numerous occasions over the years, but this was on a different level. Despite the way the tone twisted his voice, it was unmistakable. She had heard that same voice read her the entire Chronicles of Narnia books when she was too young to read them herself. It was the same voice that had spent hours discussing the minutiae of each Star Wars movie with her. It used to be a voice that was associated with positive memories. Yet now, hearing him brought forward nothing but fear. Fear for what he might do…fear for what he had already done.

April hastened her pace across the patio and descended the steps to the lower pool. She turned her head to scan the area, searching for anything that would hint at where she should venture. She knew the sounds had been close, that they had to be somewhere here…Then she saw it. The door to the pump room stood ajar. She adjusted her grip on the gun in her hand, trying to ignore the way the metal was sliding against the perspiration that had formed on her palm, and approached the door cautiously. She rested her back against the wall beside it, turning her head to angle her ear closer to the opening, listening for any sounds. Any signs that what she heard had been emitted from within…Nothing. Drawing in a steadying breath, she clicked the safety off and stepped into the room.

The first thing she saw was the grate that covered the floor was open. She could feel the frown crease her brow with the image before her. The grate she had always believed to be a drainage feature was a hatch. Her eyes scanned the structure, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Beneath the metal grate was a black painted steel hatch. Something that would appear from above as if there was nothing but a dark drainage channel beneath the silver grate. Peering towards the opening, she could see a steep flight of stone stairs leading down into a dimly illuminated area. On instinct she reached round for her bag to retrieve her phone, her hand coming into to contact with nothing but the fabric of her clothing. The realisation that she must have left it in her car in her rush to find the blonde sank in. The question of whether she should return to grab her phone flashed into her consciousness for a moment. However, the sound of the scream replaying in her mind spurred her onwards. She had to trust that someone she had called for reinforcement would be able to locate the same entrance to whatever she was about to walk into.

Angling the gun down, she shuffled forwards towards the opening, towards where she believed the blonde to be. Each shuffled step coinciding with a contraction of her heart whose regular rhythm had long since departed. The closer she got, the further down the steps she could see. The lighting was poor, especially compared to the bright sunlight streaming in from the open doorway but she could make out the bottom of the steps. She could feel her leg shake as she took the first step down into the unknown. Her breathing was shallow as she tried to suppress any sound she made, each step taking her lower. It didn’t take long for her to be able to see the steel door at the base of the steps. She took each step, placing her foot securely before moving the other. Not willing to risk a misstep leading to any form of error on her part, not when she felt she was so close.

Finally, her feet reached the base of the steps. She glanced back up from where she had come, feeling like she had descended many steps, yet as she looked back it had to be no more than fifteen steps. The cold feeling that had settled across her skin was perhaps less to do with the depth and more to do with her building fear. Fear for what she may find and the fear of what she may need to do. As she turned her attention back to the door, something on the floor caught her eye. Checking the door was still closed before her, she knelt down for a closer look at the dark patch on the ground. She reached out the hand not holding the gun to gingerly touch the spot. Needing to utilise another sense as her mind was incapable of making sense of what she was looking at.

Wet…

Sticky…

Red…

Blood.

She shot back to her feet, eyes wide with the new found evidence. She wiped her hand on her dress while she tried to rationalise that just because there was fresh blood on the floor, that didn’t mean she was too late. “The average female has four and a half litres of blood in their body. If you lose over forty percent you die. That’s 1.8 litres.” April whispered to herself as she continued to wipe her hand, her eyes scanning across the dark spot on the floor. “There’s not that much there.” She raised her right arm up, pressing her forearm across her eyes as she drew in a few breaths, trying to regain control of her erratic heart rate. She could feel the way her arm was shaking against her face. “There’s not that much there.” She dropped her arm and looked at the door before her and the keypad beside it.

She slipped the gun into her left hand and reached out to the device on the wall. Her fingers hovering just over the digits. Her mind racing through the possible codes her dad would use. This was clearly somewhere he had kept secret, somewhere he didn’t want anyone else to have knowledge about, let alone gain access to. The code wouldn’t be one he would use for anything that would be shared with another being. It would be something personal to him. April had the sinking feeling that should she enter an incorrect code, there would be some kind of system to alert him to an attempted entry. She had one chance to open the door undetected…or at least she hoped it would be undetected and that he wasn’t standing directly on the other side of the door. She shifted her weight on her feet as she reached out to press the first number.

0…The sound of the beep the pad made as the button was depressed sounded almost deafening.

5…April could feel her palms getting sweaty.

0…Her heart was pounding in her chest, making it feel like it was actually ricocheting off her ribcage with the force of the contractions.

Her finger paused over the final number. She sucked in a breath and held it, biting down on her lower lip as she pressed it down…4…

The sound of metal bolts retracting inside the door filled the stairwell. She exhaled with the relief of another obstacle being removed from her path. She quickly shifted the handgun back into her right hand and raised it before her. She placed her left hand against the cold metal of the door and pushed. The door opened slowly, silently. A distant part of her mind questioned where the eerie squeaking of metal hinges was that should accompany such a scene. Something that horrors and thrillers had entrenched into her mind as a sound that accompanies the most spine-chilling moments…Yet the silence was so much more terrifying. Each centimetre that it moved revealed more of what lay beyond. Her eyes scanned everything as it became visible, searching for any sign of her father…for any sign of Sterling.

The first image that registered was that this wasn’t some long forgotten bunker, built by a previous owner and buried like a time capsule. This was a space that had been maintained, upgraded even from the glimpse of the items of furniture that became visible as she pushed the door open further. A place that her father had clearly kept as a secret and for purposes she didn’t want to consider. Then she saw it…a black shoe. Her heart lurched in her chest as the breath was stolen from her lungs. She pushed the door more firmly, caution being thrown to the wind as her own subconscious treated her to a slew of images of what she may find when there was no longer a barrier between her and the rest of the person the shoe belonged to. Despite the increased pace of her actions, it was like the reveal happened in slow motion. As if her own mind couldn’t bear to process the whole scene at once, instead having to peel back a tiny sliver of knowledge at a time.

After the shoe came the beige of the standard issue Willingham trousers. Motionless. Then the white of a shirt. She could only see the back from her position. Finally came the sight of blonde hair. Hair that April had spent many hours running her fingers through, feeling the silky strands slip between each digit. Hair that was now matted with blood. She felt her throat tighten at the sight, the visual confirmation of what she had hoped to deny to that point…That the blood did belong to Sterling. The sense of dread built within her as she took her first step into the bunker, unable to quell the increasing fear that she was too late. With every step she took taking her closer to the prone form on the floor, her apprehension grew as the blonde remained motionless.

April dropped to her knees at the side of the other girl. She raked her eyes over the body before her. The usually full of life blonde who seemed to fill any space with her energy and smile, seemed so small where she lay in a crumpled heap on the cold floor, her hair covering the face that April had memorised every curve and contour of so long ago. She reached a shaking arm forwards, vaguely aware of the feeling of tears slipping down her face. Her fingertip brushed across the soft skin, so reminiscent of many previous occasions where she would sweep stray strands of hair behind the blonde’s ear during stolen moments of intimacy. This time the action wasn’t accompanied by the feeling of the blonde leaning into her touch or the feel of a smile against her lips, there was nothing. No reaction. No response. April heard the choked sob emanate from her own lips as the hair revealed the face that had remained hidden to that point. The once perfect skin was now marred, an array of colours of bruising of different ages littered her features. “Sterl?” She traced a quivering finger across the curve of the blonde’s maxilla.

“When I think about you, which is like all the time, I get dizzy and my maxilla goes numb.” The memory flashed unbidden in her mind of standing in the arcade, her own hand gently tracing the same path as the potential of experiencing something that April had barely let herself contemplate as a possibility was on the precipice of occurring.

Her fingers continued down to run across the skin of her neck. Another memory flashed in her mind with the action. Standing on the dock, mere metres from where they now found themselves, surrounded by fairy lights as they danced together.

April closed her eyes as she pressed her fingers to the side of the blonde’s neck, drawing in a shuddering breath as her own heart pounded in her chest. Then she felt it.

Thump…thump…thump

The steady rhythm of the blonde’s pulse. She brought her other hand up to her face, wiping away the tears with her thumb and forefinger at the relief that she wasn’t too late. Not willing to relinquish the one connection she had to knowing the blonde was still with her, she dropped her hand for her own face and gently brushed her fingers against the cheek of the girl before her. “Sterl? Please wake up. I’m right here.”

April saw the frown crease the brow of the blonde first. “Sterl?”

The eyelids started to flutter, slowly blinking open to reveal the eyes she had so desperately missed. She watched as the eyes before her focused on her face, feeling a small smile grace her lips as they did so. A smile that slipped away as quickly as it appeared as the blonde pushed herself away from the other girl, scrambling across the floor, sliding herself back away from her. April felt her eyes grow wide at the reaction, frozen in shock as she watched the other girl retreat from her, only coming to a stop as her back hit the edge of the couch. She noticed the way she winced with the action, favouring her left side.

“Sterl…it’s me.” April watched as the girl drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around them as she buried her face into her knees. She saw the way the blonde shook her head. “I’m going to come closer, OK?” Getting no response, April edged closer being sure to leave a bit of distance between them. She desperately wanted to reach out and just pull the blonde into her arms but based on the reaction of moments ago, knew she couldn’t. “I’m right here.”

She saw the blonde shake her head but before she could question it, she heard the voice she had missed so much. “What if you’re not? What if you’re still just in my mind? What if just picturing you, your voice wasn’t enough this time?”

April could feel the tears spilling over her cheeks at the blonde’s words. “Sterl…please look at me.” She tentatively reached her hand out to rest it against Sterling’s knee, breathing an internal sigh of relief that the blonde didn’t pull away this time. She watched as the other girl’s head rose slowly. “Open your eyes baby.”

“But if you’re not really here, I can’t…” The blonde’s voice trailed off as she sucked in a shaky breath.

“I’m here. I’m right in front of you.” She ran her thumb gently across the fabric covering the blonde’s knee. “Can you feel that?” She saw the tentative nod Sterling gave. She slid her hand lightly over her arm to rest on the other girl’s hand. “Can you take my hand?” April waited, her eyes flitting between the face before her and the hand resting beside her own. Then she felt it, the brush of skin against her own. Her eyes shot down to see the movement of Sterling’s hand as the blonde slipped her fingers between April’s own. As soon as their fingers were interlinked, the shorter girl gave a gentle squeeze. “Feel that?” She returned her attention to the blonde’s face and saw the nod of confirmation. “I’ve got you.”

“Please…Don’t…Don’t let go. Don’t leave me.” April felt the fingers interwoven with her own tighten their grip which she reciprocated.

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.” She watched as the eyelids that had been tightly closed cautiously opened, revealing the eyes she had spent so many hours lost within. Eyes that while they were still unmistakably the same, had also lost the sparkle that normally resided inside them.

“You’re really here? You came for me?” The soft voice the words were spoken in held an air of disbelief.

“I’m here. I’ll always be here when you need me.” Before April could say anything else, the blonde had launched herself forwards, her arms wrapping tightly around the shorter girl. April carefully wrapped her own arms around Sterling, mindful of the potential injuries she had that were not visible. She could feel the solid warmth of the other girl’s body against her own, feel her breath brushing over the skin of her neck. She could feel a patch of dampness on her shoulder, signalling the tears that the blonde was letting escape. “We need to go Sterl.” She pulled back slightly from the embrace, ensuring she kept physical contact with the other girl at all times. “Can you stand?”

“I think so.”

April took the blonde’s hand in her own as she stood herself, the feeling of unease returning now that she knew the other girl was OK. The lack of information on the whereabouts of her father creating a sense of urgency in her desire to get them both out of there as soon as possible. Even if Blair or the police weren’t there when they got out, they would at least be above ground and could get to her car.

“Just…need a…second.” The blonde drew in some shallow breaths, her brow creased as she grit her teeth and rose to her feet. She didn’t manage to fully straighten her posture. “Where is he?”

April cautiously looked around the space. “I don’t know.” Seeing the blonde take a step, she fell into pace beside her. Ready to provide any additional support that Sterling may need.

"Blair?”

As they passed the spot April had found Sterling in, she bent down to retrieve the Glock from the floor where it has been abandoned in her haste to reassure her girlfriend. “She’s on her way with Bowser.” She looked over to the door that still stood open. She could feel the hope that all this was over blossom in her chest. The relief that they would both be walking out of there and bring this whole ordeal to a close started to ease the gnawing anxiety that had taken root in her stomach the moment she heard the blonde was missing. As they got to the door, April paused. Sterling spun rapidly, hissing at the pain the action caused her.

“Why did you stop?”

“It’s not wide enough for both of us to walk side by side, you go first.” Seeing the apprehension in the blonde’s eyes she leant forward and placed a gentle kiss against her lips. “I’m right behind you.” The words were whispered against her lips.

April watched as Sterling searched her eyes before turning back towards the steps that led back to the pump room. She gave the hand that still resided within her own a reassuring squeeze. Then she watched as the blonde took that first step towards the exit, towards freedom.

"Hey there little Padawan.”

Chapter Text

The sound of the words that always used to trigger a smile and make her feel like she was special, now caused any feeling of warmth to retreat, leaving behind an icy chill in its wake. April saw the way Sterling had spun her head back, a look of uncensored panic clearly displayed across her features. The blonde’s eyes were wide and frantically scanning for any sign of the man the voice belonged to, but April knew he was out of sight to the blonde. She could feel the way the hand still interlinked with her own was shaking. When Sterling’s eyes caught her own, she made sure she held the other girl’s gaze. Trying to communicate everything she couldn’t say out loud with a single look. “Go.” The one word was spoken quietly, spoken just for them to hear. April tried to pull her hand away as she turned back to face her father. She had said she would stall him and that is exactly what she intended to do…to keep him away from the other girl, to prevent him inflicting any further damage to her. Her hand, however, was held firm by the blonde.

April saw the way the blonde shook her head, tears welling in her eyes as she tried to pull the shorter girl with her. She could read the pleading look and wanted desperately to acquiesce, to follow the other girl out of there right then. Unfortunately, she knew that wasn’t an option. She knew that her father wouldn’t let them both just walk out of there.

“Team Stevens always wins.”

The family motto that had been ingrained within her from the moment she could understand the words sprang to the forefront of her mind. He always prided himself on coming out on top in any situation, this would be no different. If anything, the stakes in this scenario were so much higher that there was no chance of his conceding a defeat.

April bit down on the inside of her lower lip and pulled her hand, twisting it as she did so. Her hand started to slide out of the grasp of the blonde. She could feel the way longer fingers attempted to cling to her own but with one quick twist of her wrist, her hand slipped free and she took a step back into the bunker. Her eyes remained focused on the other girl, wanting to have one more moment to gaze upon Sterling, to secure those last few seconds being able to look at the one person who had made her feel like she was always enough and never too much. Not breaking the look she had with the other girl, she reached out her hand and grasped the door. She saw the way the blonde made a move to step back towards her and shook her head in response as she pulled the door towards her. She saw the first tear slip over Sterling’s lashes, watched as it traced a path down her cheek, before looking down. No longer able to face the other girl if she was going to hold herself together long enough to give the blonde time to get out of there. She pushed the door closed, not willing to risk Sterling doing something stupid like charging back in. The clang of the door reconnecting with its frame rang out in the quiet. A memory of another closed door flashed in her mind…only this time the securing of the locks did not free her from the oppression of her parents. This time they heralded her surrender to it.

She adjusted her grip on the gun in her hand, allowing her eyes to close for a brief moment. Just long enough to force the emotions flooding every corner of her heart and mind back behind rapidly constructed walls. “I’m not your little Padawan.” As she opened her eyes, she turned towards the source of her dad’s voice, starting to raise the gun as she did so. “I’m nothing like you.” The words were spoken quietly and yet seemed to echo around the silent room.

Her eyes raised up his form as her arm raised with the gun. The sight that greeted her made her actions stutter. Her eyes landed on the barrel of a gun pointed directly at her. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that. It seems we are more alike than you want to believe.” He gestured at the guns between the pair of them. She watched as he took a step further into the room. “Only one question remains…now you’re faced with the choice between a candle or the night, are you able to pull that trigger?”

It was a question that April hadn’t fully considered. She had picked up the weapon knowing her father was dangerous but to actually pull the trigger… “The police are coming.”

He took another step into the room, bringing him closer to her. The silence stretched between them as each regarded the other. April could feel the steady thrum of her pulse against the grip, each beat feeling like a ticking clock, counting down to an unknown climax. She watched as he lowered his weapon. “Why are you here?”

“Because you kidnapped Sterling!” The words rushed out without thought.

“And you know that how?” John tilted his head slightly, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly with the question.

“What?” April felt her eyebrows draw together in confusion at the question.

“How do you know I kidnapped her?” His tone remained calm. It was like she was having a discussion with him about what was for dinner, not the fact that he had held her girlfriend hostage and assaulted her.

“You had her locked up here.” April gestured to the bunker they were in.

“I can’t deny that she was contained within this bunker but only after she broke in and threatened me. She stabbed me.” He pointed to his leg. April followed the action and looked down to where there was an obvious injury hidden under a bandage. The blood had stained the front of the trouser leg and had already seeped through the white of the bandage indicating it was certainly not just a graze.

“No.”

“No?” A disbelieving smile crept onto his face.

“She didn’t do that.”

“And how do you know that? It’s not like you know that delinquent well. It’s not like you two are close.”

April felt herself shift uncomfortably with the words. Words that she knew were inaccurate and yet to dispute them would lead to questions she certainly couldn’t answer in this moment. He stepped closer to her, the gun she held now pointed squarely at his chest. He was close enough that even if she was the worst shot, there was no missing.

“Do you really think I’d do such a thing? Your own dad.” April found herself staring at the point of contact between the barrel of the pistol and her dad’s chest. “Do you really think that I’d do something to hurt you?” She wanted to speak, to tell him that she’d seen the pictures, seen the injuries he had inflicted on Sterling. To tell him that he’d hurt her every day for years through his bigoted views. Yet she couldn’t find the words to express every thought running through her mind. “I have always protected you but if you think I’d do such a thing…that I’ve strayed that far from the light…pull the trigger.”

April’s eyes flew up to meet the dark brown of her dad. He was standing so close that she had to tilt her head back to be able to meet his gaze. Her eyes flicked backwards and forwards between his trying to read his motives. He met her stare unwaveringly. She saw the images from the files, Sterling’s necklace caught on his wallet, Sterling…the bruising on her face, the way she initially recoiled from April’s touch, the fear in her eyes. She knew her father was responsible and that he would have done so much worse had she not got there…but she was there. Sterling was safe. The police were on their way. There was nothing to gain by pulling the trigger. Nothing to gain by letting her dad control her into taking a life, his life.

The moment seemed to stretch between them, neither moving, nobody speaking. “Move back.”

She watched as he held his hands up and took a step back. “Now what?”

“We wait for the police to get here.” He nodded and turned away from her. “What are you doing?”

“Easy there. I’m just getting a drink.”

April watched as he walked over to the table and picked up the whiskey bottle that sat there before walking into the kitchen area and taking a pair of glasses out of a cupboard. She watched as he placed the gun he had onto the kitchen counter and poured a healthy volume of the amber liquid into the two glasses before picking them up and turning back towards her. He stepped closer before reaching a hand with one glass out towards her. “If you truly believe that I’d do such a thing and that’s the story you and those Wesley’s are going to tell the police, at least have a drink with me.”

She looked at the offered glass with disgust. “No.”

“Suit yourself.” He sipped from his own glass. “Will you answer me one question?”

April didn’t respond, unwilling to get drawn into any form of conversation with him. She had read enough books and seen enough films to know that letting yourself get distracted by being drawn into a conversation never ended well.

It appeared that John took her silence as permission to continue anyway. “When did you decide to condemn yourself by letting that cunt defile you?”

The genial tone of his voice changed as he spoke, slipping into a far more threatening tone by the end. April felt her heart lurch in her chest as the words rang in her ears. She felt the shock that he knew about them land like a well delivered strike, her mind went blank for a few seconds. Those few seconds were enough.

One second…She saw the glass drop from his hand, the liquid inside remaining perfectly still within as it began its descent. Her lungs constricted within her torso as it felt as though every question, every concern, every fear she had about her parents discovering her greatest secret had materialised into stones being piled on her chest. Each one preventing her lungs from expanding, preventing air from entering.

Two seconds…The sound of breaking glass resounded through the room as it hit the floor. The feeling of a hand slamming into her own, pushing it back until it collided forcefully with the surface behind her. The impact jarring her hand and causing her fingers to uncurl. Her eyes grew wide as she snapped her focus to the side in time to see the weapon slipping away from her hand. She tried to close her hand to prevent its fall but all the managed was to graze the edge.

Three seconds…The gun clattered as it hit the floor. The sound reinforcing the realisation that her only method of effective defence against the man before her, her own father, now lay useless by her feet. She grit her teeth and raised her eyes to his face, her vision filled with the dark brown of his eyes. Eyes that held none of the warmth she remembered from her childhood. She felt the way her stomach sank but refused to drop her gaze, refused to let him see her fear. She squared her shoulders, drawing herself up to her full height.

“God will not condemn me…”

April felt the impact before she registered he had moved. She felt the sting of the slap against her face from the back of his hand. The force caused her to stumble slightly from her position. Her own hand came to rest against the rapidly warming skin on instinct as she straightened back up. She drew in a breath through her nose as she dropped her hand.

“You dare to speak of God…to contradict the bible to justify your deviance?” His face had twisted into one of anger and disgust.

April met his angry stare once more, unwilling to back down from him. “The lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” She knew that goading her father was only going to result in one outcome for her but she needed to keep him occupied just a bit longer. She knew that physically she was no match for him and her only remaining weapon were her words. She saw his eyes darken as his lip raised into a snarl. She felt the impact of his hand on her face, the force jarring her head to the side. This time the pain was accompanied by the metallic taste of blood where his ring had split her lip. Before she could do more than register the taste, his hand had wrapped around the back of her neck and she found herself being thrown to the floor. She shot her arms out to avoid colliding fully with the ground but felt the reverberations of the impacts through both her knees and wrists.

The sound of the door opening made April spin her head back towards him. She saw him start to pull the door open and knew that she had to say or do something. She hoped Sterling had got out of there, had just got into her car and driven away but she couldn’t be sure. It was a risk she wasn’t willing to take.

“For someone who preaches scripture to denounce others, you are the greatest sinner of all.” April pushed herself back to her feet and turned to face him. She squared her shoulders as she stood while she solidified her resolve to say the words she knew would stop him. “God isn’t going to smite me for being a lesbian but can you say the same about your adultery?” She watched as her words reached him, saw the way his body tensed and he turned from the door. “Just how many of the Ten Commandments are you planning on breaking while keeping up this pretence of the good Christian man?” She saw the way his expression darkened with each word that she spoke. His eyes narrowed as his eyebrows drew in, his upper lip twitched with each word she spoke. “You disgust me.”

As soon as those words left her mouth, she saw him lose that last tenuous strand of control over his rage. With two rapid steps he was before her with his fist so tightly clenched at his side that the white of his knuckles was visible from across the space between them. April sucked in a breath as she steeled herself for what was to come. She summoned the image of the blonde to her mind to act as her own internal armour, her own reminder of why she wasn’t backing down or trying to run.

He grabbed her by the front of her dress, the fabric pulling tight at the back of her neck as he wrapped it in his fist to draw her closer. She was pulled so close that her entire vision was filled with his face, his whiskey scented breath invading her senses. “I disgust you? Did you really think that I didn’t know about you and your proclivities?” He sneered the last word out at her. “I thought you knew better than to dare to act on them until I read that message you sent to that bitch. You are an abomination and you will regret the day you decided to stain the Stevens family name.”

April heard every word she had imagined would be thrown at her should her father discover her secret spill from his mouth. Yet the words didn’t have the impact she always thought they would. They didn’t render her speechless. “You did that yourself.”

“You’ll learn your place!” His voice rose with the clear threat. She saw the way his arm drew back and part of her was desperate to close her eyes, to avoid having to see what she knew was coming but the larger part refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing any weakness.

“GET OFF HER!” The voice echoed around the enclosed space moments before a force collided with John’s back, knocking him off balance and sending him stumbling into April. April found herself falling back as she was knocked off balance by the unexpected impact and the sudden loss of her father’s grip on her dress. As she hit the ground, her eyes were drawn to the scene in front of her, though it took a moment for her to process what she was seeing. Her father was clawing at the arms wrapped tightly around his neck. Arms that belonged to the blonde that had launched herself at his back, holding on firmly. “April...Gun.”

April caught the slight change in demeanour as John heard the phrase. Her eyes flicked between the floor and the counter, rapidly calculating which to go for as she pushed herself back to her feet. At the same moment, she saw John accelerate backwards. She forced herself to keep moving. There was a dull thud as Sterling’s back slammed into the wall behind her. The girl let out a cry of pain with the impact. April spared a fraction of a second to glance to where her father was as she continued moving forwards. She was aware of Sterling slumped on the floor against the wall. The sound of the other girl sucking in gasps of air resonated in her ears. She was close, so close. Two more steps and she would have it. She could hear the heavy footsteps approaching. One more step. Her heart was pounding. She reached her hand out to pull the gun into her own hand. She felt the cold metal against her fingertips as her hand moved over the weapon. She closed her fingers around the grip and started to turn. She raised the gun as she came face to face with her father. Her finger already positioned over the trigger. There was a brief moment where their eyes met…Then April pulled the trigger.

The sound was deafening, the noise echoing off the walls. April felt her own breathing stop. She watched as her father’s progress towards her faltered, his body twisting away as his face contorted. She watched as his right hand came up to cover his bicep. She watched as blood seeped between his fingers.

“You bitch!” The words are muffled by the sound of the ringing in her own ears. She barely raised her eyes from the wound she had created before pain exploded across her face. The feeling of warmth spreading down her lip as blood flowed from her nose. The pain was sufficient to distract her and loosen her grip on the gun that was wrenched from her hand before being slammed into the side of her head. She felt the room begin to spin as she sank down, her back against the counter. She felt nauseous as she tried blinking to refocus on her surroundings. Before she could manage to do so, she felt a sharp pull against her hair. Her hand shot up to try to reduce the tugging against her scalp as her knees scraped across the floor as he dragged her forwards. She could feel tears stinging her eyes and slammed her eyes closed to try to prevent them falling. “Open…your…eyes.”

April forced her eyes open with the command, despite knowing she wasn’t going to want to see whatever was waiting for her. The sight that greeted her made her heart lurch in her chest. Sterling was still slumped against the wall, her face ashen and her breathing ragged. April felt the tears spill over as her eyes met those of the blonde. She had failed. She had failed Blair. She had failed Sterling. “I’m sorry.” The words were spoken on a breath.

"Do you hear that?” Sterling’s rasped out. “The police are here.”

April strained her hearing trying to ignore the tinnitus still present. Then she heard it, sirens. She saw the blonde shift slightly from her position. She caught the way her father seemed to consider his next move. Each of them motionless, silent. The sound of the sirens grew louder signalling their approach before they too fell silent.

“They’ll be here soon. Just let us go.” April spoke from her position beside her father, chancing a glance up at him.

He spared her a brief glance. “The next time you consider embracing your depravity, remember this. Take a good look.” April saw him gesture towards the blonde with the gun still held in his hand. “This is what happens when you tarnish your soul by yielding to your perverted lust.”

April wanted to respond to his hateful vitriol but anything she said may tilt the delicate balance they found themselves in. With the police at the property, it was only a matter of time until they were able to get out of this and there was no sense in provoking him further.

The sound of voices reached them, carrying down into the bunker. “It’s over.” Sterling said before drawing in a breath to call out to the people outside.

“You’re right.” The words filled the air between them as April caught the flash of movement from the corner of her eye, as he raised the gun he still held within his hand.

Chapter Text

Present Day

Blair reached out and shut off the sound of her alarm without bothering to open her eyes. She was already aware of the sunlight streaming in through her window signalling that morning had arrived. The shaft of light that always seemed to fall right across her pillow and into her eyes serving as her reminder that another day had arrived. She rolled over onto her left side, curling her legs up and wrapping the covers tighter round her body. She stayed that way for several minutes before the sound of knocking on her bedroom door reached her.

“Blair honey, are you awake?” The muffled voice of her mom came through the closed door.

“Yeah.”

“OK…We need to leave at nine. I…” There was silence on the other side of the door and Blair wondered if her mom had gone, changing her mind about whatever sentence was about to follow, but then she heard a sigh before her voice carried through the door once more. “I’ll see you downstairs when you are ready.” There was a sadness, a resignation, to the tone. It was a tone that had become all too familiar in the Wesley household since that day. The tone that always accompanied words that were spoken in place of the ones they really wanted to say.

Blair pushed the covers off and raised herself to sit on the edge of her bed. Instead of rising from the mattress, she just sat staring at the floor as the memories that had plagued her every moment for the past three weeks, awake or asleep, replayed once more in her mind.

********************

Three Weeks Ago

“Can’t you drive any faster?”

“Not on these roads. Not if we want to get there without crashin’ into somethin’.” Bowser frowned. He glanced over at the brunette in the seat beside him as she alternated between fidgeting with her phone and looking out at the road before them. He watched as she hit redial again before hanging up moments later. He glanced down at the dash before rolling his eyes and pressing his foot down on the gas a bit harder.

“I thought you said…”

“You just tell me when to turn.”

Blair looked back at the map on the screen, watching the dot of their vehicle edge closer to their destination. As soon as she had received the call from April telling them that they were at the wrong location, she had felt her stomach drop. The knowledge that John Stevens was on his way back to where he held Sterling and they weren’t going to be able to get there first was gut wrenching enough but if he was headed to the lake house, that meant they had been there. They had been in the same place that her sister was. They had been right there and they had left her. So many thoughts were consuming her mind as Bowser raced along the roads.

What if they couldn’t get there in time?

What if April didn’t get there fast enough?

What if April couldn’t stall him?

What if they were all too late?

She had been holding on to the hope that they would find Sterling before any harm came to her but the knowledge that the person responsible was John Stevens had crushed that hope. She could clearly remember the images from the video they had seen, the proof of the physical harm he was capable of inflicting on another person. She could hear the venom in his voice when they had apprehended him at the lake house, the way his tone and demeanour had flipped from pleasant surprise to one of malevolence. The thought that they had a location and could get there before he did was the last glowing ember of hope she had left but hearing April’s words that they had been wrong was like a bucket of ice water had just been dumped over it, extinguishing it completely.

“It’s the next turn.”

The drive had felt like the longest of her life. Every time she glanced at the clock, it felt like hours had passed and yet each time it was only a few minutes. As they drew closer, each turn they took brought with it a growing feeling of apprehension, of fear. She could feel the clamminess of her hands and the way her leg kept bouncing. No matter how many times she wiped her palms on her jeans, moments later the same feeling would return.

“When we get there, don’t you go runnin’ off. You stay with me. Got it?”

Blair glanced over at Bowser. She knew he was only looking out for her but she wasn’t sure she could wait for him if Sterling was in danger.

“It won’t do nobody no good for you to charge in alone.”

Blair dropped her gaze. “I can’t lose her Bowser.” Her admission was quiet.

“You trusted me to get her back before. Just trust me this time.”

Blair nodded. He was right. When she needed him to help her, Bowser had always come through. He had helped her save Sterling once before, so she had to trust him to do it again.

********************

Present Day

Blair pushed the door open to the bathroom, deliberately keeping her eyes on the ground. She had mastered the routine now. Eyes down…four steps from her bedroom door to her sink…turn to the left and don’t look right. She picked up her toothbrush from the counter and set about getting ready. The only sound was the quiet buzz of her toothbrush. She felt her gaze start to drift towards the other side of the counter, to the other sink, but quickly snapped her attention back to the mirror before her. As she looked at her reflection, she was reminded why she had avoided doing so these past weeks. Her eyes were red and swollen, whether this was down to lack of sleep or the random bouts of crying, she wasn’t sure. The dark circles beneath her eyes were more noticeable now than when she previously looked although the paler appearance of her skin may be enhancing them.

She heard the padding of Chloe’s footsteps, the sound breaking her evaluation of her own appearance as she pulled her gaze away from the mirror. She turned off her toothbrush and placed it back on the side. She felt her fur brush against the back of her legs as she walked past her. It was only in that moment that she realised where she was headed, her mind operating at too slow a pace to have pre-empted the outcome. She heard the way her claws ran down the edge of the wooden door as she pushed it open.

“Chloe. Come here girl.” She patted her thigh to try to call her back. When Chloe didn’t return, Blair swallowed. She turned her head tentatively to the right and felt her heart drop at seeing her suspicions confirmed. The door to Sterling’s room was ajar and Chloe was nowhere in sight. Blair took a few reluctant steps towards the door, coming to a stop at the threshold.

“Chloe…come on, here girl.” She waited for a moment, hoping her dog would saunter out of the room of her own accord. She did not appear. Blair placed her hand on the wood and pushed gently to open the door further, revealing the space she hadn’t set foot in since…She snapped her thoughts back to the present and scanned the room for the dog. She saw her curled up on Sterling’s couch with her head resting on a discarded Willingham shirt. Her heart lurched in her chest at the sight. She took a tentative few steps into the room, trying not to look around too much. Trying not to see the can of coke still sitting on her desk, nor the notepad resting on her Spanish textbook. Everything looking like she had just stepped out for a moment. That she would walk back in any second and pick up where she left off. She got to the edge of the couch and knelt down, running her hand over Chloe’s head.

“I know girl. I miss her too.” Blair could feel the tears slip from her eyes with the words. She reached up to brush them away with one hand as she nudged Chloe off the couch with the other, not wanting to spend any longer than necessary in the room. She led Chloe back out to the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind them.

********************

Three Weeks Ago

As soon as they turned the corner, they were greeted by the sight of two police cruisers pulled up to the property. Their lights were still on, the rhythmic flashing of red and blue the only sign that they had arrived in a hurry. Blair cast her gaze further up the drive as Bowser pulled them up. She caught sight of two other vehicles, one she recognised as April’s car. The door to the driver’s side was wide open on it. As soon as Bowser came to a stop, she dashed out of the car and ran over to the open door. Looking inside she saw nothing out of the ordinary until her eyes caught on the phone still sitting in the cradle. She carefully leant into the car and pressed the screen. It lit up with the touch, the missed call notifications flashed on the screen.

“What did I tell you bout runnin’ off?”

Blair ignored the question. “April’s phone is still in her car. That’s why she wasn’t answering when I called.”

“Ok...the police are here so you need to do exactly as I say. We got no idea what the situation is and you don’t go rushing in to situations where people may have guns out. You hear?”

As much as Blair wanted nothing more than to race into the building, she knew Bowser was right. They didn’t need to end up creating an incident with the police on top of whatever John Stevens was up to. She nodded her agreement.

“You stay close and behind me. Do exactly as I say, when I say.”

Bowser made his way toward the side of the house, ignoring the door that was open at the front of the property. “The door...”

“Ain’t no way we are walking inside a strangers house unannounced... ‘specially not one owned by someone with history of violence and a grudge. Georgia’s a stand your ground state and I didn’t get to this age by bein’ reckless.”

Blair followed Bowser as he made his way cautiously around the side of the property. As she passed a window that looked into the kitchen, she peered in. Seeing nothing but an empty room, she sighed and stepped round the corner of the building to follow Bowser and collided with his back. “Little warning Bows.”

A new voice pierced the quiet. “Hands where I can see them.”

Blair leant slightly to the side to see round Bowser and was greeted by the sight of a police officer with his gun levelled at them. Her eyes were drawn to the weapon as she slowly extended her arms, palms out in front of her. “It’s cool…we’re the good guys.”

“Identify yourselves.”

“Blair Wesley and this is Bowser…”

The officer cut her off before she could finish. “Wesley? Like Sterling Wesley?”

Blair stepped out from behind Bowser at the mention of her sister, coming to an abrupt stop as the gun turned towards her. “She’s my sister. How do you know her name?”

The officer ignored her question. “Why are you here?”

“Can we maybe discuss this with you not pointing a gun at an unarmed teenager?”

The police officer raked his gaze over the pair of them before reaching up to his radio, keeping his eyes on the pair. “Blake, meet me out back.” As he released the call button, he started to re-holster his gun. “So?”

“We’re here to rescue my sister. April called us after she tracked him here. Have you found them?” Blair could feel herself getting impatient with having to explain her presence to someone who should be helping them, not hindering them.

“No.” Another voice answered as a second officer joined the group. “There’s nobody in the house but the doors were open so someone was here.”

“They are still here. We have to find them.” Blair could hear the increasing volume of her voice as time ticked by with them all just standing there.

“We’re going to need you to wait in your vehicle while we finish our search.”

“He has my sister. He’s going to hurt her.”

The older officer approached and placed a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “You need to let us do our job. If he is dangerous then we can’t have you in harm’s way. I promise that we…”

Everyone froze as the sound of a shout followed quickly by a gunshot echoed off the walls. The birds in the nearby trees took to the air with a cacophony of calls with the sound. Blair felt her heart stop at the sound. Too late…they were too late. She turned towards the source of the sound, feeling the tears stinging her eyes as the realisation of what that sound could mean settled in her mind. Before anyone could move three more gunshots rang out.

Then…silence.

Blair felt her legs unfreeze and surged forwards, only to find her progress blocked by the police officer. He wrapped his arms around her struggling body, holding her firm.

“Get off me! Sterling! Sterl!” She twisted and thumped her hands against his shoulders, but he didn’t release her. Blair had to watch as two other officers emerged from the house and the three proceeded towards the sound with their guns drawn. “Let go of me! That’s my sister! Bowser, help me.” The tears were flowing freely down her cheeks as she begged with the two men to let her go.

She watched as Bowser shared a look with the officer before he stepped closer placing a hand on her shoulder. “We need to wait here.”

Blair shook her head as the tears came faster. “No…I…I need to help her. I can’t leave her alone.” Her eyes pleaded with Bowser but when she met his eyes she saw something she had never seen before. She saw fear. Even when everything with Dana had been occurring, Bowser had never shown any fear that they wouldn’t succeed. Now as she stared at him, she knew. She knew he thought that they were too late, that what was at the source of the gunshots was not a scene she should see. She felt her legs give way beneath her with the dawning realisation. Felt herself lowered gently by the officer before Bowser slipped into his place, wrapping his arms around her shaking frame. All Blair could do in that moment was let her tears fall, allowing them to soak into Bowser’s shirt.

*********************

Present Day

Blair glanced down at her dress, brushing her hand over the side where a couple of Chloe’s hairs were visible against the black fabric. She placed her hand on the door handle, pausing for a moment to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat. She let her eyes drift shut for a brief moment as she drew in a deep breath before opening the door and heading downstairs.

The house was quiet. It was always so quiet these days. She could hear her own footsteps as she descended the stairs. Could hear the faint creak that sounded as she placed her weight on the fourth step. Something she hadn’t even known happened until life in the Wesley house was shrouded in an oppressive silence. Conversations were muted when they happened at all. The usual sounds of the busy household had been hushed.

As Blair entered the kitchen, she saw her mom stood over by the sink. Her back was to her but Blair could see the way her mom’s shoulders slumped forwards as she leant her hands against the edge of the sink, her head hung low. The posture seemed so alien on her mom. Even when everything with Dana had come out, she hadn’t looked so defeated.

“Mom?” Blair spoke quietly, not wanting to startle the older woman. She saw as a hand raised up to wipe at the face still turned away from her.

“Did you want anything to eat or drink?”

Blair watched as her mom only partially turned her head towards her, keeping her face predominantly hidden from view. “I don’t think I can face anything.”

She watched as Debbie finally turned towards her. Her eyes were bloodshot, betraying the tears that had escaped before Blair arrived. “If this is too much...if you don’t want to go, then you can stay home. She wouldn’t want you to...”

Blair shook her head. “She would. If she was here right now, she’d tell me we twin swore that we’d always be there for each other.” She paused as the weight of the words seemed to cause her throat to constrict. The memory of the last time Sterling needed her to be there for her, the time she had failed her. “I failed her before.” Her voice cracked as she made the quiet admission. She sniffed back the emotions threatening to overwhelm her. “So, I’m going...for her. I won’t fail her again.”

Debbie stepped closer to her daughter and wrapped her into a hug. “Oh Blair. You did not fail her. Don’t you ever think that. Sometimes, no matter how strong we are, there are things only God can stop. You did everything you could.”

“But it wasn’t enough.”

**********************

Three Weeks Ago

Blair wasn’t sure how long she had been sat on the ground. She was vaguely aware of the cold stone beneath her but couldn’t summon up the strength to lift herself up. It was as if every cell in her body had gone into shock the moment she saw the look in Bowser’s eyes. The police officers had not returned, leaving the pair of them alone on the patio. She could see Bowser standing a little way off from where she sat, his phone held up to his ear. She knew he was talking to someone, she had a dim recollection of him saying something about her parents, but she hadn’t been able to decipher any individual words being spoken. The conversation sounding muffled against the roaring of the blood racing through her ears with each beat of her heart. She absentmindedly watched the way his hand ran over the top of his hair as his head hung low.

A new sound broke into her consciousness…sirens. Their pitch and volume seeming to increase as the seconds ticked by. Blair glanced up as one of the officers re-appeared in her line of vision. She only saw him for a moment before he vanished around the edge of the building but it was long enough. Long enough to see the blood on the gloves covering his hands. The bright red standing out in stark contrast to his pale skin. She could feel fresh tears slide down her cheeks as the visual confirmation of what those gunshots meant sank in.

The sound of people approaching drew her attention. She watched as paramedics rounded the corner following the officer. Blair pushed herself up from the ground and followed the group. A tiny flicker of hope reignited at the sight of medical personnel. She followed them down the steps to the lower pool and then watched as they walked into the pump room. She rounded the corner into the room and the sight that greeted her made her stomach drop. The grate she had walked over, stood on, was open and revealed a flight of stone steps. Shaking away the thoughts flooding her mind, she stepped further into the room and started to descend the stairs. The sound of voices grew louder with each step she took. She frowned as she tried to decipher what was being said but different people were talking at the same time.

“…GSW…”

“…blunt force trauma…”

“…no breath sounds…”

As she continued to descend the stairs, more of the scene came into view. The police officer was standing in the doorway preventing her from seeing everything. She could make out people moving around but not what was really going on. Then one of the paramedics moved and Blair caught a flash of blonde hair. “Sterl…” The word slipped out form her lips at the sight of her sister lying motionless on the floor. The officer in front of her spun round, eyes wide.

“You can’t be here.”

“That’s my sister.”

He glanced over his shoulder at the blonde and the paramedics working on her. “You need to let them work.”

“Is she…”

“They are doing everything they can.”

“Let’s move.” The sound of a voice from inside the room cut through the rest of the noise. The officer herded her back up the steps. Blair threw a glance over her shoulder to see Sterling being carried out on a stretcher. The officer has positioned himself in front of her so she all she could do was watch. She saw the pallid complexion on her face, the blue tinge to her lips as they rushed past. Instinctively she reached her hand out towards her sister but was too far to touch her. Before she could make her legs move, the sounds of more footsteps on the stairs drew her attention back as a second stretcher emerged. Blair watched as April was carried past her. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second. Blair could see the way the area around the shorter girl’s eyes were swollen and red. As soon as her brown eyes met blue, she saw fresh tears spill as April screwed her eyes closed. That split second was enough to see the regret and sorrow that resided within the depths of ocean blue.

******************

Present Day

Blair sat in the back of the car, staring at the buildings and people passing by the window. The only sounds filling the space were those of the engine and the steady rhythm of the windscreen wipers passing over the glass. She watched as new raindrops fell on the surface, temporarily blurring the image before being swiped away.

She saw a couple of young children running along the sidewalk, jumping into puddles with their hands firmly gripped together, laughter spilling from their lips. Blair felt her heart clench at the sight, a flash of a similar scene of herself and Sterling doing the same thing much to the disapproval of their mom…especially when their dad had joined in. It was a memory from a time that seemed so long ago, before everything became so complicated. A time that used to only be filled with light and laughter rather than the darkness that now permeated round the edges of each interaction and new memory.

**********************

Three Weeks Ago

Blair sat rigidly in the passenger seat of Bower’s truck. As soon as the ambulances had pulled away, he had pulled out of the residence following their path. She was aware of him telling their parents what hospital they were headed to. She had heard the short-lived relief in her dad’s tone when Bowser had told them that they had found her. Heard the way Bowser had faltered when asked if she was OK.

Since the phone call had ended, the pair had been driving in silence. Blair had noticed the frequent glances Bowser would cast her way. She had expected him to speak but the few times he had opened his mouth, he had closed it soon after with no words having been uttered.

“I can’t stop thinking that we could have stopped this.”

Bowser’s response was immediate . “Don’t be thinking like that. We did everything we could.”

“But we were right there. I literally stood on that grate. She was right there that whole time and I left her.”

“Listen to me. You listenin’?” She nodded at the question. “There ain’t no way we could have known about a secret underground bunker. You never gave up lookin’ for her and you ain’t gonna give up on her now, you hear me?”

Blair nodded before turning her attention back to the trees passing outside the window while silently offering up a prayer that they had got her out in time.

Present Day

The car came to a halt outside the church. The building was framed by the dark grey clouds that seemed to reflect her mood perfectly. She could see Pastor Booth standing just inside the door through her rain spattered window. His normally cheerful demeanour replaced by a much more sombre look. She watched as a couple of people who looked vaguely familiar to her, possibly members of their congregation, walked to the door. She saw the way they exchanged a solemn nod with each other before disappearing into the body of the church.

“Honey, are you ready?”

Blair turned her attention to the front seat where her she met her mom’s gaze, the usually vibrant blue of her eyes decidedly more muted. She looked back towards the doors of the church before dropping her head and nodding. She reached out and pulled the handle to open the door. The cool air that rushed in sending a chill down her spine. As she stood from the car, she could feel the way her legs felt unsteady beneath her until she felt an arm wrap around her own. She glanced over and met her mom’s gaze.

“If it’s too much, you don’t have to stay.”

Blair took a moment to consider if she could do this. If she could actually take the steps needed to enter the church. To sit in the pew and listen to the words that Pastor Booth would say. ”Twin swear.” The words flashed in her mind with the image of their interlinked pinkie fingers. Her decision was made. “I do…for Sterl.”

Her mom nodded and gave a watery half smile before straightening her back and neck. Blair felt the gentle squeeze on her arm and then they started to walk. Each step taking more effort than it should, reminiscent of trying to walk through the swash at the beach. As they approached the door Pastor Booth looked between them, extending the same nod as before only this time he placed a gentle hand on Debbie’s shoulder. His eyes met Blair’s for a second before she looked away, unable to bear the sympathy in his eyes. As they walked down the aisle, she vowed to keep her eyes away from anyone else in attendance. She didn’t want to see the looks that might be held within their eyes. The Wesley’s slid into the pew and Blair felt her leg start to bounce the second she was seated. The quiet murmuring of the other occupants of the church sounded all too loud to her ears. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she slowly drew her gaze up.

She saw the wooden legs of the stand, knowing that sitting on top was a picture. A picture from much happier times, a smiling image selected to hide the reality of the reason they were all there. As if that one image could somehow erase the memory of just what had happened, how it had ended. She couldn’t look at it. Her eyes tracked left. There it was. The wooden coffin was simple, no ornate carving or ostentatious decoration. Seeing it before her, she couldn’t help but think how small it appeared. Seeing the closed lid with the flower arrangements on top drummed home the finality of it. She never imagined that the first funeral she attended would be this one.

Pastor Booth made his way to stand at the lectern on the stage, casting a look around the assembled mourners. His gaze paused on their pew for a moment before continuing to the other side of the aisle before momentarily pausing prior to speaking.

“We meet here today to pay tribute to…”

Three Weeks Ago

Blair sat on the hard plastic chair in the waiting room of the hospital, shifting slightly to try to find a more comfortable position. The smell of disinfectant that lingered in the air added to the queasy feeling that had taken up residence since hearing April confirm her fears that John Stevens had her sister. She paid no mind to the various medical staff and people wandering around the area. Bowser alternated between sitting beside her and pacing around the room. She had asked for information as soon as they arrived but nobody had told her anything other than the doctor would be out as soon as they could.

“My daughter is here. Wesley, Sterling Wesley.” The voice resonated around the room.

Blair lifted her head at the sound. “Mom?” As soon as the word left her lips, Blair felt the tears that she had been threatening to fall since the moment she arrived finally slipping free. Debbie spun towards her and rushed over, scooping her into her arms.

She leant back from the embrace, her eyes scanning over her. “Are you ok baby?”

Blair nodded through the tears. “Sterl…she…they took her and haven’t said anything.”

Her mom pulled her back into her chest, her arms tight around her torso. “Shhh, your daddy will find out what is happening.”

As Blair’s sobs subsided, her mom pulled back, gently brushing the remaining tears from her cheeks. She could see the tracks left behind from tears that her mom must had shed as she slid herself into the chair beside her daughter. She looked up as a shadow fell over the pair of them to see her dad standing there, his lips turned down and his brow furrowed. Her mom reached up a hand and clasped one of her dad’s hands. “She’s in surgery.” Blair heard the sudden intake of air from beside her. “The doctor will update us as soon as she comes out. She had a collapsed lung and they think her spleen is ruptured. They are hoping to be able to repair it but if it’s too damaged, they will have to remove it.”

“What…” Blair swallowed down the bile that had risen in her throat at the thought. “What if she doesn’t make it?” Her lower lip quivered with the question.

“We’re not going to think like that. Your sister has never given up on anything, she’s not going to start now.” Her mom pulled her into her side as her dad sat on her other side and wrapped his arm over her shoulder, his hand resting on Debbie’s back.

The doors to the waiting room finally opened a couple of hours later as a doctor emerged. She spoke briefly to the man behind the desk and then started to walk towards them. Blair felt both her parents stand as she approached and looked up at the new arrival, not trusting her legs to hold her own weight if the news wasn’t good. “Mr and Mrs Wesley?”

“How is she?”

“Please have a seat.” She gestured to the chairs and pulled up a seat of her own as her parents sat. “She is out of surgery and in recovery. When the EMTs arrived on the scene, she had developed a tension pneumothorax, so they had to release the pressure to help her to breathe. It appears to have been caused by the fractured ribs she sustained. We were able to repair the rupture in her spleen. She has a chest tube in which will have to stay in place for a few days while her lung recovers. We also need to monitor her due to the extensive blunt force trauma she experienced. She’s stable at the moment but we will monitor her closely in case any bleeding recurs.”

“Can we see her?” The doctor looked towards her.

“She’s not awake yet but when she is, I’ll get one of the nurses to come and get you. She will need rest so keep it short tonight.”

“Thank you, doctor.” The doctor gave them a small smile and stood, returning the chair to its original position before slipping back through the doors out of the waiting room.

“I’m going to get a coffee. Can I get either of you anything?” Her dad stood from his chair and looked between them. When both shook their heads, he made his way out of the waiting room.

Blair was aware that sometime after her dad had returned, Bowser had stepped back into the waiting room. She watched as he spoke quietly to her dad on the opposite side of the room. As they returned to take the seats beside herself and her mom, a nurse came over to them. “Wesley family? You can come through to see Sterling but only two at a time I’m afraid.”

“You go with Blair, Debs.”

Blair stood on shaky legs as her mom wrapped Anderson in an embrace and placed a kiss on his cheek. As she pulled back, her mom took her hand and they followed the nurse through the doors. As they walked, Blair glanced at some of the rooms they passed. Rooms that were occupied by people with a range of machines attached to them. As they walked, the sound of an alarm going off made Blair jump. She expected people to rush into the room like she saw on TV but instead one of the nurses walked into the room in question and shut off the alarm on a machine while talking to the person it was attached to.

Finally, the nurse came to a stop at a door. “She’s on some quite strong medication so she may be a bit sleepy. I’ll be at the nurses’ station if you need anything,”

Debbie took a deep breath and pushed the door open, stepping onto the room with Blair just behind her. Her view of her sister was blocked by her mom’s back but as she stepped closer to the bed, Sterling was revealed to her. She lay in the hospital bed, surrounded by various screens connected to her by a multitude of wires and tubes. Blair felt the breath leave her chest at the sight. Sterling’s face was pale in places but was also littered with a range of different colour bruises and cuts. She knew there were other injuries hidden beneath the covers that lay across her body. Her mom had moved to stand beside the bed and was talking to the blonde as she rested her hang gently against her cheek. Blair couldn’t find the strength to move her feet, didn’t want to get closer as she couldn’t face seeing the injuries her sister had sustained in greater detail than she already could. Injuries she sustained, in part at least, because she had given up searching for her when they were at the lake house before. The feeling of guilt that she was responsible washed over her, crashing down on her and making it hard for her to catch her breath. She had no idea how long she stood in that one position until her mom, placed a gentle kiss on Sterling’s forehead before walking over to her.

“I’m going to get your daddy.” She repeated the forehead kiss on Blair before continuing past her and out of the room.

As the door clicked shut, Blair finally found the ability to speak. “Sterl?”

The blonde turned her eyes towards her, she saw a slight movement from the corner of her eye and glanced down to see Sterling extending a hand slightly towards her. The action was sufficient to trigger her legs into moving. She stepped close to the blonde and carefully took her hand in her own. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Feeling a firmer squeeze to her hand she brought her eyes up to meet those of the blonde. Sterling shook her head. “Not your…fault.” She winced as she spoke. “April?”

Blair swallowed and shook her head. “I saw them take her in an ambulance but they won’t tell us anything as we aren’t family.”

“She saved me.” The words were quiet and punctuated by pauses. “Need you to be there for her.”

Blair shook her head. “Don’t talk like that. Don’t talk like you’re not going to be there for her. You’re not going anywhere. You can’t leave me. Promise you won’t leave me?” She squeezed the hand she held tighter with each word she spoke.

Sterling didn’t respond to the question. “Tell her something for me…tell her…I’ve got her.”

“You tell her yourself.” Blair stubbornly retorted.

“Blair…please…twin swear you will.” Sterling held up her pinkie finger on the other hand. Blair stared at the finger for a moment. She glanced back up to meet her sister’s eyes and could see the pleading look they contained. “Please.” Closing her eyes, she linked her own pinkie finger with Sterling’s.

“Twin swear but you’re going to do that yourself.”

Sterling gave a small smile. “Thank you.”

The sound of the door opening drew her attention away from the blonde. “Hey honey, your mom is waiting for you and Mr Bowser is going to take you both home.” She opened her mouth to argue but her dad cut her off before she could get a word out. “You need rest and I’ll stay right here. If anything changes, I’ll call.”

“Go…I’ll be here tomorrow.” Sterling spoke from the bed.

“You’d better be.” Blair squeezed the hand she held once more before turning and heading to the door. As she reached it, she glanced over her shoulder. “Love you Sterl.”

Present Day

The pitter patter of raindrops striking the fabric of the umbrella was the only sound that penetrated the fog that had descended in Blair’s mind. She could see the way Pastor Booth’s lips moved as he stood at the side of the open grave. There were only a few people gathered around the graveside. Considering the circumstances, the decision had been taken to keep the service small. She had opted to stand further back, not wanting to be surrounded by the others present. She was aware of her mom’s presence beside her. She hadn’t left her side since they left the house which Blair was grateful for as she could draw strength from her mom’s proximity.

She watched as the casket began its gentle descent into the ground.

She watched as the handfuls of dirt fell onto its surface.

She watched as one by one, the people gathered began their walk back to their cars.

She watched as Pastor Booth placed his hand on the shoulder of the last remaining figure standing at the side of the grave.

She watched as he spoke quietly to the individual before walking away.

She watched as the lone figure continued to stand at the side of the grave, the rain running down their face.

Blair turned to her mom, the two women sharing a look before she turned her attention back to the figure at the graveside. She started to walk towards them. The rain was still falling steadily, starting to soak through her jacket now she was no longer covered by the umbrella her mom held. As she drew level with the edge of the grave, she came to a stop and looked down at the coffin. Its surface now speckled with mud and rain. The pair stood in silence.

A quiet voice sounded from beside her. “Shouldn’t I feel something?”

Blair turned to look at the face now turned slightly her way, absently noting the way the water ran down their face before dripping towards the ground. The faint bruising still evident at such close proximity. “There have been days where I have felt everything…and then others where I have felt nothing. I don’t think there is a right way to feel.”

The silence returned for a moment. “I can’t stop thinking what if I’d done something different. What if…”

“Stop. You are not to blame.” Blair turned to look at the girl beside her. She saw the rivulets from the rain had merged with tears now falling steadily. “None of this is your fault.”

“Will you stay with me for a minute?”

Blair slipped her hand into April’s as they stood side by side, feeling the shorter girls fingers close around her own. “I know I’m not her, but I’ve got you.”

Chapter Text

Three Weeks Ago

Sterling’s eyes shot open as she frantically scanned her surroundings. She tried to push herself up but a shooting pain that spread across her chest and abdomen caused her to cry out and sink back. She could feel the way her heart was hammering in her chest, the staccato of her shallow breaths sounding deafening to her own ears.

“Sterling?” She heard the voice moments before she felt someone touch her hand. She pulled her hand away and tried to recoil as far as possible but not managing to move far, the action bringing tears to her eyes with the new flashes of pain. “It’s me. It’s your dad.” She turned to the direction the voice came from and her eyes landed on her dad. He was standing at the edge of the bed, one hand partially extended towards her own. His face a mixture of concern and sadness.

“Dad?” Her voice was slightly muffled and when she reached up, she pulled at the mask that resided over her face. She could feel her lower lip quiver as fresh tears welled up at the sight of him.

“I’m here Sterl. You’re safe. You’re in hospital.” When he spoke, there was a certain gruffness to his voice that she hadn’t heard before. “Keep the mask on, it’ll help with your breathing.”

Sterling let the mask settle back on her face as she looked at her dad. As she continued to focus on his green eyes, she felt her heart rate start to slow as her breathing evened out. The images that had flooded her mind moments ago began to fade as the rest of the room came into focus. The grey concrete ceiling of the bunker had been replaced by white tiles and fluorescent lighting. The lingering odour of whiskey substituted for disinfectant.

“What happened?” Her dad looked away for a moment before returning to meet her eyes.

“Well, honey, you got hurt.”

“John Stevens.” She noticed the way her dad’s face darkened at the mention of the name before the image of a familiar face flashed into her mind. A face that she had been unsure she would see again in the flesh. A wave of nausea washed over her as the memory of the last moments before the police rushed in flooded her consciousness. “April!”

“April? April Stevens?” The confusion her dad felt at her uttering the name of John Steven’s daughter was written across his face and in his tone.

Sterling grabbed her dad’s hand. “Where is she? Is she here?” She turned her head to look at the various tubes and wires that were attached to her body, looking to see how to disconnect them. As she tried to drop her dad’s hand to start the process, he held firm.

“Whoa there, you are in no state to move.” He placed his free hand on her shoulder gently. “Sterl, listen to me. If you try to get up, you are going to hurt yourself more.”

She shook her head, still trying to identify how to get herself free of all the different connections. “I need to know she’s OK.”

“If you promise to not try getting out of this bed, then I’ll see what I can find out.” Sterling reluctantly nodded her agreement. “OK, good.” She watched as her dad sank back down into the chair beside her bed, keeping his grip on her hand. A small frown appeared on his face before he spoke. “The police need to talk to you…about what happened.”

Sterling knew that she would have to explain what had happened. She knew that there would be many questions that needed answering but the thought of having to recall the details of the past few days was something she couldn’t face in that moment. “I can’t.”

“That’s OK. I’ll tell them you’re not up to it right now.”

“I’m quite tired.” As soon as the words were spoken, she felt the truth of the statement settle into her body.

“Get some rest.” He leant in and placed a kiss on her forehead. Sterling returned her head away from him and looked out of the window. The darkness signalling that night had fallen at some point since April had opened that door. Sterling felt her eyelids grow heavier before she succumbed to sleep once more.

*****************************

Sterling’s eyes drifted open only to be met by a mostly dark room. She glanced towards the window and could see the red tinge to the sky that signalled a new day was dawning. The lamp beside her bed was still on, casting shadows across the room.

“Sorry for waking you.” A voice sounded quietly beside her causing the blonde to turn towards it. Beside her was a nurse, adjusting one of the bags attached to her canula. She looked over to the chair her dad had been sat in earlier and saw him asleep in the seat.

“There was another girl...April...Is she OK?”

The nurse checked the newly hung bag before moving closer to check the chest tube. “I’m sorry but I can’t share information on another patient.”

Sterling reached her hand out and gently grasped the nurse’s hand. “Please? The last time I saw her...” The blonde’s words trailed off as the image of April collapsing to the ground filled her thoughts. She could feel stinging at the back of her eyes and tried to swallow down the impending tears. “I need to know she is OK. I never told her.” She was aware of the change to her breathing, the way the pace had increased with each word.

The nurse met her gaze, placing her own hand over Sterling’s. “Sterling, I need you to slow your breathing down for me.” She glanced up at the monitors above the bed before meeting the blonde’s eyes. “She’s stable and I’m sure she would want you to stay stable too.” She raised her eyebrows at the blonde with a look that left no room for argument. “Try for slow, deep breaths.”

The word stable settled firmly in her mind. April was in the hospital and whatever injuries she had; she was stable. She would be OK. Sterling kept repeating the word over and over in her own mind, closing her eyes to focus on that one glimmer of hope.

“That’s better.” Sterling opened her eyes once more as her breathing came back to a more normal pace. “She means a lot to you huh?”

Sterling swallowed before glancing over at her dad who remained fast asleep. “Everything...She means everything to me." She could feel the truth in the words as she spoke them. She knew that what she felt for April was different to what she had felt for Luke. She had told Blair that once, what felt like a lifetime ago. Yet when it came down to actually saying those three words that she knew were true out loud, she had always shied away from it. That distant remnant of a memory of sitting on a bench alone after having pushed too far, too fast always acting as a tether holding the words back. “Can you take me to her?”

The nurse shook her head. “You’re in no fit state to be going anywhere yet."

Sterling knew it was the truth. Even small movements caused twinges of pain and that was despite the pain medication she was on. “Do you have a pen and paper?” The nurse reached into her pocket and pulled out a small notepad and a pen before handing it to Sterling. She tried to adjust herself to prop the pad against the side of the bed before being stopped as a clipboard was slipped under the pad and held firm. Sterling tried to smile a thank you to the nurse before turning her attention back to the pad and starting to write. Once she finished, she tore the sheet out of the pad, folded it in half and handed the items back to the nurse. “Could you give her this? Privately.”

“Sterl?” Her dad’s voice sounded from the chair. The nurse accepted the note and tucked it into her pocket, giving the blonde a nod of agreement before leaving the pair alone.

*****************************

April lay on the hospital bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her mom was on the other side of the room on the phone, as she had been for the past two hours. The sound of her voice was doing very little to provide comfort to her. Her head was pounding, whether that was due to her injuries or her mother’s insistence at holding all her verbal correspondence at full volume while standing in her hospital room, she wasn’t sure. Part of April wondered why her mom was even there. Aside from the initial questions to her doctor about how long April was going to be in the hospital, she had shown very little interest in listening to the answers to her questions about what happened.

The sound of the door to her hospital room opening seemed to break her mother’s train of thought as the voice that had been droning on fell silent. The respite was short lived however as her mom picked up the conversation again. “Sorry, a nurse just came in.” April sighed to herself as the conversation continued.

“Hi April. How are you feeling?”

“I’ve felt better.” She dropped her gaze to meet that of the nurse standing beside the bed, noting some readings on her chart. She opened her mouth to speak but then the sound of her mom’s voice registered once more, and she snapped her mouth shut. The nurse finished writing, placing the board back on the end of the bed. April saw the way her mother was watching the scene with limited interest while continuing her conversation. She let her gaze wander back to the ceiling as the nurse checked the various bandages and adhesive strips.

“OK, everything is looking good.” As she spoke, April felt something against the palm of her hand. Glancing at the nurse who had stepped back, she saw a small smile on her lips before she turned to leave. Running her thumb across the item in her hand, she realised it was a piece of paper. April felt her heart jump at the potential of what she now held in her hand. She looked over to where her mother was still on the phone, having turned her attention back to the window now they were alone once more. She nudged the piece of paper towards her thigh to give her enough purchase to unfold it one handed before raising it to where she could read it while not drawing attention to herself. As soon as she read the words, she felt a tear slip from the corner of her eye. She bit her lower lip in an attempt to keep from letting out any verbal response. Her eyes scanned the words once more.

You are the strongest person I know so I know you can do this but if you find that strength wavering...I’ve got you, always. R1:16

She ran her finger over the words as the meaning sank in. Not only was Sterling nearby, but she was also alive and alert enough to write her a note. The relief that flooded her body felt like the crushing weight that had been residing on her chest since she had seen the ambulance doors close was at last lifted away. She carefully folded the piece of paper and tucked it into her hand which she placed on her chest, holding it close as she allowed her eyes to close, finally able to block out the sound of her mother’s voice and rest.

*****************************

April sat up in her bed, shifting to drop her legs from the mattress to hang over the side. She paused as she adjusted to the new position, the throbbing across her nose and cheeks increasing in intensity for a moment. She carefully slid herself down to the floor and made her way over to the door. As she opened the door, she cast a look down the corridor in both directions. It was late so there were very few people about. All visitors had returned to their homes for the night, leaving just the staff and patients. Seeing nobody paying her any attention, she made her way out of her room and down the corridor, noting the room numbers as she went. Eventually, she reached the door she was looking for. She offered up a silent prayer that the guy who brought her dinner had provided her with accurate information and that she wasn’t about to walk into another blonde teenager's room. Pressing down the handle, she pushed the door open and stepped into the room. The lamp attached to the wall was on, casting light on the area by the bed while the rest of the room remained dark. The light from the lamp was enough to make out the figure on the bed. She glanced around the room to ensure it was empty before continuing forwards.

April’s feet carried her closer to the bed, only coming to a stop as she reached the edge. As she stood there, she looked down at the blonde’s face. She took in the butterfly stitches over the cut on her eyebrow, the bruises that had already been an array of blues, purples and blacks were now starting to gain a yellow tone. “Sterl?” She whispered out the name as her eyes darted across the face before her, searching for any response. The blonde remained motionless. April glanced up to the monitors watching the steady, repeating pattern of the lines. Visible proof that the girl before her was just sleeping. Dropping her gaze back to Sterling she took in the now darkened bruising across her throat. Travelling further down she took in the wires emerging from under the gown connected to the monitors before noticing the tube that ran from a device on the floor, along the edge of the bed before disappearing under the covers. She could see the way the blonde’s chest didn’t rise and fall with the familiar rhythm she had grown accustomed to feeling pressed against her back or side as they watched movies cuddled up together on the couch.

Glancing across the bed she saw the chair that was positioned near the bed. With one more look at the tubes, she stepped around the bed to the chair. Standing behind it, she was thankful it was on castors, enabling her to push the chair forwards with the one arm at her disposal before she took a seat. April raised her hand up and gently slipped her hand over the one closest to her, slipping her fingers between those of the blonde. The feeling of warmth from the contact spread across her skin. In that moment, all the turmoil that had existed within her mind was calmed. All her fears about the blonde quashed. For the first time since the whole ordeal began, she felt like she could breathe. She felt like she was home.

April stirred at the sound, a quiet whimpering. She almost discounted it as being a figment of her own imagination, letting her head settle back against the chair as her eyes drifted closed once more but then she heard it again. The sound was louder this time, more of a murmur although the actual word was still indecipherable. She looked over at the face of the blonde noticing the frown that creased her brow before her head twisted away with another muted cry. April rose from the chair, feeling a wave of nausea wash over her as the pain radiated from her arm. She drew in a couple of deep breaths to help abate the feeling. When Sterling tossed her head back to face the shorter girl, April could see the glistening tracks of tears trickling down the side of her face. She felt her own heart constrict in her chest at the sight of the other girl being in such anguish. She extended her arm towards the blonde, cautiously brushing the back of her finger against the blonde’s temple to wipe away the moisture that had accumulated there.

“You’re safe Sterl.” Gradually, the crease between Sterling’s eyebrows faded. Once she seemed to have settled once more, April leant closer and placed a kiss to her forehead, lips barely brushing the skin. She felt her own eyelids slip closed with the touch, permitting herself a few seconds of solace in the feeling before pulling back. What she hadn’t expected was to be greeted by the sight of Sterling’s eyes open and looking right at her.

“April?”

She opened her mouth to reply but instead of words, a choked sob escaped her lips. She brought her hand up to press against her eyes in an attempt to stop the tears from falling. That one word was like someone just took a sledgehammer to her carefully constructed walls. As the walls cracked and crumbled, every fear she had of never hearing the blonde utter her name, of never being able to look into her eyes and know she was being truly seen, were carried away amidst the tears. She felt the soft caress of a hand against the side of her neck and allowed her one hand to drift down to cover that of the blonde with her own. A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips with the action.

“I’ve missed that.” April looked at the other girl, the question clear in her expression. She saw the way Sterling shifted the mask off her face before responding to the unspoken query. “Your smile.”

“I thought I’d lost you.” The admission was quiet, almost lost against the background noises of the various medical devices in the room.

Sterling shook her head. “I couldn’t leave you. I hadn’t told you I loved you.”

April felt her breath catch at the words. “You love me?”

“I do.” The response left no room for doubt in its sincerity.

The feelings of elation she felt were overpowered by the doubt that crept in. “I don't know how you can look at me the same way after what he did.”

“April, listen to me. You are not your father. When I look at you, I don’t see him...I see you. I see the girl who kissed me back when I took a crazy chance. The girl who flirted with me in the middle of Spanish class. I see the girl who didn’t want to wait for a someday anymore. Above all that, I see the girl who stood up to an armed man twice her size, her own father, to protect me. I always knew you would change my life; I just didn’t realise you would save it too. So no, I don’t look at you the same way as I did...I still look at you as the girl I love and respect, but I also look at you as the bravest person I know.”

With each statement, April could feel fresh tears trickle down her cheeks. Her heart swelling with each admission. By the time the blonde finished, she was powerless to do anything but lean down and kiss her. As she drew closer, there was a moment where she hesitated, not wanting to unintentionally cause any harm to existing wounds. However, the gentle tug on her neck provided all the encouragement she needed to close the last few inches. As their lips met, she could taste the salt of her own tears, evidence of all the pain that had been a constant companion for what felt like days. Yet the softness of the lips beneath her own brought her more comfort than any words. The contact of their tongues, the moist flesh sliding against its counterpart served to eradicate any lingering doubts and fears. As flesh moved against flesh in a tender dance that radiated life, she felt as if she was finally able to wake from her nightmare.

As much as she wanted to continue to immerse herself in the kiss, she could feel the way Sterling’s breathing was changing. Reluctantly she pulled back, fighting down the smile at the groan of disappointment that emanated from the blonde. She reached up to replace Sterling’s mask, raising her eyebrows in challenge when the blonde reached up to stop her.

“As much as I’d like to continue kissing you, you need this more.”

April saw the grudging acceptance as Sterling dropped her hand to rest against her own, interlacing their fingers. “How are you? Really?”

She sighed. “Better than I was. My arm hurts like a bitch and my mother is labouring under the delusion that there is an explanation for all this that doesn’t involve him being a piece of shit.”

“Have you spoken to the police yet?” She shook her head, feeling the dread of having to recount every moment in detail amplify. “I’ll need to tell them what happened down there but what do you want me to say about why you were there?”

April was quiet as she contemplated the answer to that question. “The truth.”

“But that would mean...”

“I know. Sterl, I almost lost you and virtually nobody knew we were even together. I don’t want to keep hiding. I don’t want to waste another moment being scared of what others might think. I just want to be with you...in private, in public, every day and every way unless you tell me it’s too much.” She heard the way her voice broke on the last words.

“That could never be too much.” April could see the smile peeking out from under the mask and felt her own form in response. Knowing in that moment that all her fears of what may happen should people find out about her paled in comparison to what had happened, despite keeping the best thing to happen to her secret. The proposition that Sterling had made to her so long ago while standing on a dark corner of the Willingham campus echoed in her mind...”Let’s keep going...together.” Only this time, there was no hesitation about her decision.

*****************************

Sterling looked between the two detectives that had entered her room. The younger one of the pair approached her bed while the older detective walked over to the far side of the room and took a seat in the chair there. She noted the way the woman scanned over the various devices she was connected to before looking down to meet Sterling’s gaze.

“Hi Sterling. I’m detective Wilkins and that surly looking fella is my partner, detective Dawson.” She noticed the way the grey-haired man gave her a nod in recognition. “We need to ask you some questions about what happened and get your statement.” Sterling felt the colour drain from her face at the thought of having to recount everything that had transpired. She had known it was coming but to actually be faced with the reality of having to say it out loud was something she hadn’t been able to prepare for. “We’ll take it slow and if at any point you need a break, just let me know. Your dad will be here the whole time too.” As she looked across to the other side of the bed, she met her dad’s reassuring face and reached up to take his hand from where it rested on the edge of her bed. Needing to have that connection if she was going to do this.

The detective flipped the file in her hand open. “We know you went to school Thursday but weren’t in Friday morning. What happened after school on Thursday?”

“We had forensics practice.” Sterling was aware of the older detective making notes as she spoke.

“What time did you leave school after the practice?”

“I...” Sterling faltered in her answer. The memory of her conversation with April the night before rose to the forefront of her mind. “I didn’t leave after forensics. April and I spent time in the Fellowship room after everyone else had gone.”

“Is that April Stevens?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you stay late?”

Sterling picked at the edge of the sheet on her bed as she spoke. “It’s one of the few places we could be together.”

“Together?”

“We’ve been dating for six months.” She braced herself for the feeling of her dad pulling away, unable to look over towards him for fear of seeing a look of disappointment or disgust on his face. What she hadn’t expected was his grip on her hand to remain constant, unwavering.

“When did you leave?”

She swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat at the realisation that her dad wasn’t going anywhere despite her revelation. “I can’t remember the exact time, maybe round 6.30. Blair called me to meet her.”

“So, you left together?”

“No. April stayed back to lock up while I left. Her car was on the other side of the school to mine.” Sterling felt like she had to justify the reason behind them not leaving together, not wanting there to be any doubts about April’s involvement in anything that night.

“Continue.”

“I walked out to my car, I opened the door and then someone grabbed me. I tried to fight back.” She reached her hand up to rub at her neck as the skin tingled with the memory of an arm being wrapped around her in a choke hold. Her heart rate increased as the fear she had felt in the car park came rushing back.

“What happened after that?”

“I...I don’t know.” Sterling frowned as she tried to recall what had happened but there was just a void where any memory of what happened next would be. She noticed the way the two detectives shared a look across the room before the older man rose from his seat and stepped out.

“You’re doing really well. What’s the next thing you remember?” Sterling continued to recount all she could recall from the moment she regained consciousness, answering the questions they asked as she went. When it came to describing the moments where she had been hurt, she felt her dad’s hand clench that bit tighter around her own. She could see the way he worked his jaw as he heard the details of what led her to be lying in the hospital bed.

“What happened after you heard the sirens?”

”You’re right.”

Sterling saw the gun raise; the barrel pointed at her head. In that instant, all she could see was the seemingly never ending black of the chamber as she stared down the muzzle. She knew there was no way for her to dodge a bullet, even if she was in perfect health, she wasn’t in a movie. She would see the flash and then that would be it.

Instead of a flash, she found herself staring at a blur of motion. The gun angled off to the side as April grappled with her father. Sterling could see the way his face had contorted into sheer rage at the intervention. Until that moment, Sterling had been able to convince herself that he wouldn’t cause serious physical harm to his own daughter. As they continued to struggle against each other, she saw the way April’s arms began to shake as he kept pressing back against her. Saw the way the weapon inched closer. Saw the way there was a flash of triumph on his face. In that instant, her belief faded. “No!”

Then the gunshot rang out.

There was a moment where everything seemed to be suspended in time. There was no movement, no shouting, no screams. Sterling felt her eyes widen as she pushed herself more upright, bringing her arm forward as she released it from underneath her. She saw the way April’s arm dropped to her side before her legs buckled and she fell to the ground heavily.

Tearing her eyes away from the prone figure on the ground, Sterling clenched her hand tighter as she brought her arm up. She barely registered the way John Steven’s eyes widened as he looked at her before pulling the trigger of the gun she held in her hand.

Once...

Twice...

Three times the shots rang out.

She saw the look of disbelief cross his face before he dropped to his knees. His own gun falling to the ground as his mouth fell open. His eyes met hers across the short expanse of floor that separated them. Finally, his body toppled over, ending with him on his back. There was a gasp and then a cough resulting in blood erupting from his lips, splattering the ground and his own face. The sound of his gasping for air filled the room.

Sterling turned to look over to the still motionless body of her girlfriend. She could see a pool of blood slowly spreading out from beneath her. Her own arm lowered, dropping the gun to the ground beside her. She could hear the sounds of people approaching but couldn’t wait. She bit down on her lip as she pushed herself off the wall, feeling her own vision begin to fade around the periphery as the pain became unbearable. She had one focus, one goal in that moment and continued to shuffle herself towards it. She could feel the sweat coating her skin with the effort. With one last push, she sank down, extending her own hand forward until her fingertips brushed against those of the shorter girl. Finally allowing her cheek to rest against the cold floor, registering the voices were much closer, as she let the darkness take her.

*****************************

Two Weeks Ago

April sat on the edge of the bed, her foot swinging gently while she was lost in her own thoughts. In some ways she couldn’t believe it had been a week since she had found Sterling, yet in others it felt like it was only yesterday. The image of the injuries inflicted on the blonde were seared into her memory and hadn’t faded in the slightest. She had spoken to the detectives and given them her statement, opting not to have her mother present at the time. The thought of having her mother hear every detail about a man she still couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe was capable of such atrocities while she was trying to process everything that had transpired herself would have been too much.

“I’m not sure I want to go home.” Her voice was quiet as she made the admission, her thumb brushing against that of the blonde whose hand was laced with her own. “Everything there just reminds me of him.”

“What time are you going?”

“My mom has an appointment for him this morning so probably around midday.”

“Ok.” April turned to look at the blonde beside her. The bruising on her face had faded with the remaining traces various shades of yellow and green. The expression on her face held an air of sadness. “You’ll call me, right?”

“Every day.” In truth, April would rather remain in the hospital than return to her home but that wasn’t an option.

The door to the room opened and one of the nurses walked in. It had become common place for the shorter girl to be found in Sterling’s room. Aside from the single conversation one of the doctors had about potentially aggravating injuries, nobody seemed to mind. It was plain to see the positive effect the two girls had on each other. “April, the doctor is on his way up to sign you off so you can get out of here.”

“On my way.” April carefully leant over to press a gentle kiss to the blonde’s lips. “I’ll stop by before I have to go.” She slipped off the bed and made her way out of the room, not noticing as Sterling reached for her phone to type a message.

*****************************

The car ride had been uncomfortable to say the least. Every pot hole sent a new wave of pain diffusing out from her arm and it felt like her mom had developed a knack for getting the passenger side wheel to hit each and every one of them on the journey. The majority of the time they had been driving for had been spent in silence. Something April desperately missed when her mom would make a comment about her father and the latest developments where he was concerned. She had done her best to tune out her mother’s voice when such topics were mentioned but the odd word would slip through. By the time they pulled up the driveway to their house, April could have cried with relief. Once the car came to a stop, she reached over to unbuckle her seatbelt and swiftly exited the vehicle before making her way over to the front door while her mom collected her medications from the back. When she stepped up onto the front porch, she noticed a backpack sitting there, tucked into the top handle was a rolled up piece of paper. She bent down to retrieve the paper and unrolled it.

Stevens,
Sterl said to drop this off for you.

“What’s that?” Her mom’s voice sounded from beside her as she unlocked the door.

“A friend left it for me.”

April’s mom accepted the explanation and stepped into the house. “I’ll leave your medication in the kitchen with some money for you to order some dinner.” Her voice faded slightly as she walked further into the house. “I need to meet your father’s attorney and I have no idea how long that will take.” She watched as her mother breezed past her still muttering about everything she had to do until the click of the door closing cut off any further words.

April adjusted her grip on the backpack and looked around the entrance hall with a sigh. The feeling of disquiet that had been growing since the word discharge had been mentioned was amplified now she found herself standing back in this space. Wherever she looked there were pictures, memories that would forever be tarnished by the man her father had become. Not wanting to be surrounded by them, she retreated to her own room. She hoped that when she closed the door, the feeling would dissipate. However, even in her own space, there were reminders of him scattered across numerous walls. She walked over to her desk chair and sat down as she pulled her phone out to message Sterling.

April
Just got back. It’s worse than I imagined it would be.

As she placed the phone on her desk her eyes caught the pictures on her notice board above it. The picture of him smiling at the camera as he showed off the purity ring he gave her. Standing at the lake house with her friends. She reached up and ripped them off the board, screwing them up as she did so. She could feel the burning sensation behind her eyes as she was reminded of what she had almost lost at his hands. The vibration of her phone brought her out of her spiralling thoughts. She dropped the photos still clenched in her hand into the trash by the desk and picked her phone up.

Sterling
Have you opened it?

April glanced down to the backpack she had rested on the floor and lifted it to her lap. Opening the zipper took longer than she would like to admit but with one of her arms restrained in an elaborate sling, it wasn’t an easy task. The first thing she saw as she peered into the bag was blue fabric. She could feel the smile starting to form before she had even finished pulling the item out of the bag. Sterling’s hoodie. She ran her fingers over it as the scent that was a mixture of the Wesley family’s laundry detergent and Sterling’s perfume wafted to her nose. She pressed the clothing to her chest and let her eyes drift shut, just taking a moment to be surrounded by the aroma that was uniquely Sterling. Setting the hoodie to one side she peered into the backpack once more before pulling out an envelope. When she opened it, she discovered a selection of photographs, some new, some old. There was one from when they were in fifth grade where Sterling and April were on the swings, both laughing about something long since forgotten. The second photograph was of the pair of them showing off their second winning creation for Ellen’s bible studies class. The final image was one Sterling had taken on their date to the drive in with the pair of them cuddled up together in the back of the truck. April took each photo in turn and slipped it into place on her notice board. When she held the drive in photo, she paused. Rather than pinning it to her board she walked over to her bed and propped it up against the lamp on her nightstand.

April
How are you so perfect?

Sterling
I’m far from perfect, just ask Blair.

April
You’re perfect to me. Thank you Sterl.

As April glanced at her new pictures with the scent of Sterling still lingering from the nearby hoodie, she felt like maybe this could feel like home again.

*****************************

One Week Ago

April glanced down at the clock in the corner of the laptop screen. 8.50pm. A small smile tugged at her lips as she realised that in only 10 minutes Sterling would call. The past week had resulted in the pair of them developing a new night-time routine. Every night at 9pm they would call each other and would remain on the phone until one of them fell asleep. While it was no substitute for being able to hold each other’s hand or feel the heat radiating from the parts of their bodies that lay beside one another, it was a constant connection. A connection they both needed to remind themselves that everything that happened was in the past, that each day that passed was a step closer to healing.

Glancing down at the progress bar at the bottom of the screen, she knew she had time to finish the episode of the show she had been watching before her call. Shifting her laptop to the side, she clicked play and settled back to enjoy the last few minutes of the baked Alaska showstopper in the Great British Baking Show. It was something she hadn’t expected to enjoy and yet each episode found her enthralled and getting way more invested in who would win than she would care to admit.

April opened her eyes, squinting at the light that was streaming in through her window. She tapped the space bar on her laptop but was greeted with the same black screen. Twisting to the side she grabbed her phone from her nightstand. The clock on the screen told her what she already knew from the sunlight filling her room, it was morning. Unlocking her phone, she saw the three missed calls and voicemail notification. Dialling the voicemail, she brought her phone to her ear.

“Hey. I’m guessing you have fallen asleep. I was going to hang up but then your voicemail message played. Have I ever told you how much I love the sound of your voice? I may have called you a couple more times to just listen to your voicemail greeting so don’t panic about the number of calls. I just miss you and hearing your voice, even recorded, helps me sleep. Call me tomorrow. I love you.” There was the sound of a couple of kisses and then the message ended.

April shook her head to herself but was very aware of the half smile that had formed as she listened to the blonde’s message. She hit redial and waited as it rang. When the voicemail kicked in, April waited until the beep before speaking.

“Hey you. Sorry for missing our call. Though it seems we may be destined to communicate through voicemail. Give me a call back when you are free. I love you too Sterl.” April placed her phone down on the nightstand before setting about the slow process of getting ready for the day. The sling she would be wearing for the next couple of months certainly made the simplest of tasks more challenging.

When she returned from the bathroom, she saw her phone light up with a call. As she went to pick it up, she saw Blair’s name illuminated on the screen. Her hand paused mid-air as her mind raced with the possible reasons for the other girl calling her. None of the options she could come up with were positive. With a shaking hand she answered the call.

“Sterl’s been rushed back into surgery. They think her spleen is bleeding again.”

April heard the words and felt her chest constrict, the air leaving her lungs as every negative thought became amplified.

“April?”

“They got her in there in time, right?”

“I don’t know.”

That one phrase, three words, was all it took to send everything positive she had been rebuilding crashing down with the fear that the last time she would hear the blonde’s voice would be on a voicemail.

*****************************

Present Day

The click of the latch echoed around the room as she leant back against her bedroom door to close it. Despite the time spent at the wake, her clothing still retained a lingering dampness that seemed to draw the warmth out of her skin, leaving her feeling drained. She walked over to her bed and sank down onto the edge, letting her eyes focus on the photograph that sat there. Her eyes drifted to the piece of paper that sat next to it, carefully propped up against the base of the lamp. The words she had read so many times since receiving it that they were permanently entrenched in her mind.

You are the strongest person I know so I know you can do this but if you find that strength wavering...I’ve got you, always. R1:16

Reaching forward she picked up the photograph and brought it into her lap. Her eyes traced over their smiling faces, letting her finger gently trail down the curve of Sterling’s jaw. She wanted nothing more than to be able to have the blonde wrap her arms around her, to hold her close and tell her that she could get through this. That the hollow feeling in her chest was just temporary. That the day would come where she could sleep without being woken by nightmares of what had happened and what had been taken from her.

She pulled her phone out of her pocket before dialling her voicemail.

“Hey. I’m guessing you have fallen asleep. I was going to hang up but then your voicemail message played. Have I ever told you how much I love the sound of your voice? I may have called you a couple more times to just listen to your voicemail greeting so don’t panic about the number of calls. I just miss you and hearing your voice, even recorded, helps me sleep. Call me tomorrow. I love you.” *kiss kiss*

She looked back at the picture in her lap and replayed the message again. Just needing to hear Sterling’s voice one more time. Needing to quell the mix of emotions swirling through her, to focus on the only one that mattered. She let her eyes drift closed as she disconnected the call, letting herself sink into the memory of times spent with the blonde.

The vibration of her phone in her hand drew April back to the present. Opening her eyes, she pressed accept on the call notification on her screen. She stared at the screen for that second it took to connect.

“Hey.”

“Hey Sterl.” She could feel the small smile settle on her lips as she looked at the image of her girlfriend on the screen. As she saw a responding smile appear on the blonde’s face, the emptiness she had been feeling all day began to dispel as the feeling of warmth that came with the other girl’s presence spread through her chest. John was gone, relegated to her past. While Sterling was most definitely her future.

Chapter Text

April sat down on her bed, leaning back against her headboard before placing the ice pack on her shoulder. She leant her head back as her eyes drifted closed while her skin acclimated to the chill spreading across her skin. It had been a month since her whole life changed. A month since her surgery. Surgery that was only required because of the actions of her father. Actions she was still trying to process in her own mind. The sound of her phone ringing pulled her focus back to the present. Adjusting the ice pack slightly so it wouldn’t require her to hold it in place, she reached down to retrieve her phone from the mattress. She didn’t even glance at the name illuminated on the screen before she accepted the call.

“Hey Sterl.” She smiled as the face of the blonde appeared. No longer was her face marred by the multitude of contusions that had been present, serving as a constant reminder of what she had experienced. All traces had now faded away with the exception of a small pink scar that disappeared into her left eyebrow.

“Hey yourself, how did it go?”

April angled the phone slightly to show the ice pack. “It’s a bit sore but the ice pack should help. It’s getting there…slowly.”

“You’ll be back to lifting in no time.”

Her lips tugged up on one side at the confidence Sterling had in her. It was still an unusual feeling to have someone who would be so supportive and hold this unwavering belief in her ability to succeed, one she was adjusting to slowly. “Maybe not no time. I’m not allowed to do any overhead lifting for another couple of months.” She sighed and started to adjust the ice pack. “Let’s just say that I will not be viewing action movies the same after this. All those times someone gets shot in the arm or shoulder and just carries on…clearly they have never experienced it themselves or even done the most basic research.” When she looked back to the screen, she could see a change in the look on the blonde’s face, the smile that had been present had slipped and a sadness shone through. Her own look softened. “Sterl...I’m OK.”

“I know and I keep telling myself that. And I know I’m sitting here right now looking at you and talking to you as proof that you are OK...but I can still see it. I’ll close my eyes and then I’ll be back there. You got shot April...because of me.”

Even through the screen, April could see the glassy appearance of Sterling’s eyes as she spoke, could see the way she dropped her gaze from the camera. “Hey...look at me.” She waited for the hesitant eyes to return to the screen. “Nothing that happened is because of you.”

“But if...”

“No.” The word was spoken with a force that brought the blonde’s response to a halt. It was the same voice that April used to command the room in a debate, a voice that left no room for negotiation. “The only person to blame is him.” She spat the final word out, her disgust at even referring to him in the most basic terms apparent in her tone. There was a silence that hung in the air, neither girl seemingly willing to speak the thoughts in their mind.

“I just wish you hadn’t got hurt.”

“I know but I don’t regret it. I can’t regret it. If I hadn’t made the choices I did that day, it might not have ended as it did. If all it costs is a few months of physical therapy to have a future with you, I’ll pay that price.” April noticed the way Sterling turned slightly from the screen before swiping a hand across her cheek. The action brought a feeling of longing to be able to wrap her arms around the other girl and say the words in person. To feel the warmth of the other girl’s skin against her own, to feel the gentle brush of air against her ear as soft words are spoken. “I wish I could see you in person.”

“So I have some news.”

April noted the way that the phrase seemed to have flipped a switch in the blonde, her forlorn expression fading away to be replaced by one of excitement. After a few moments of prolonged silence, she checked the call was still connected. “Are you going to share the news?”

“I was building suspense.”

“Don’t you think we’ve had enough suspense for a lifetime?” She raised her eyebrow at the other girl while trying to fight the corner of her lip tugging up.

“But this was the good kind.”

April watched as the blonde pouted, finally unable to contain her own smile at the sight. “You are ridiculous and yet adorable.” She saw the answering smile appear on Sterling’s face as she glanced away from the screen briefly in an attempt to hide the pink tinge to her cheeks. The action only serving to increase the size of the smile currently residing on her lips.

“I’m coming home this weekend so if you aren’t busy and want to come over...?”

She could feel her smile grow exponentially wider with the news. Sterling was finally being released from the hospital and would be back home, no longer too far to travel to without access to a car.

“Why are you crying?”

April brushed her fingers across her cheek, feeling the moisture from tears she hadn’t even realised had fallen. “You’re coming home.” Uttering those three words felt like the weight she had been carrying for weeks had finally been lifted. The constant fear that greeted her every morning when she woke up, that it would be the day she got a call to say there had been another setback, an unexpected complication...all dissipated in that moment.

“I’m coming home.”

******************************

“Blair, for the love of the lord will you just sit down.” The exasperation at her sister’s antics shone through in Sterling’s voice. She watched as the brunette slumped down into the seat beside the bed with a huff.

“What is taking them so long?”

Sterling glanced over to the clock on the wall. “You’ve been here for an hour.”

“Exactly. Those are fifty minutes longer than I planned. You’ve been cooped up here for weeks. Weeks Sterl.”

“I am aware.” Sterling fought the urge to roll her eyes at her sister.

Ignoring her Blair continued. “In this room that is just...beige.” She gestured at the walls, curling her lip with disgust. “It’s like they found the most uninspiring colour known to humans and someone decided to paint the walls of a hospital room with it. As if people here aren’t feeling bad enough, they then have to look at this.”

Sterling opted to let her sister’s voice drift into the background as she pulled her phone out.

Sterling
Please tell me you are able to come over later? I love Blair but she has been non-stop Blair since she got here.

April
I can imagine. Just tell me when to come.

Sterling
Well Miss Stevens, that is quite the offer.

Sterling could feel herself smirking at her phone as she imagined the way that April would react to her message. She could picture the way the shorter girl’s ears would turn red whenever things would get a little heated between them. The way the little spark that was always in her eyes would glow that much brighter with her half smile that never failed to make her heart skip and her breath catch, resulting in her brain becoming starved of the oxygen it needed to function on more than a fire pretty level.

April
Come over...Tell me when to come over. Mind out of the gutter Wesley.

“Are you sexting Stevens?”

Sterling almost dropped her phone as the sound of Blair’s voice pierced her consciousness. She felt the burn on her face at the insinuation, knowing that by now her cheeks were quite obviously glowing red making it impossible to redirect Blair from her belief. However, that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try. “No. Do you not remember the health lesson about the dangers of such an activity? I don’t want to become another statistic or cautionary tale to be told to other teens.”

As she looked over at her sister, she saw the way her eyebrows had raised. “Sure Sterl.”

“It’s not like either of us is medically cleared for such activities.” The blonde grumbled under her breath.

“You discussed your plans to get down and dirty with your girlfriend with your doctor? I didn’t think you had it in you.” Blair looked almost impressed with the suggestion. Placing a hand on her chest, she actually looked like she was tearing up. “I’m so proud of how far you have come under my guidance.”

“What? Eww...No, of course not. He’s like the same age as Big Daddy.” Sterling could feel herself getting more flustered. “I just mean that she still needs to keep her arm in the sling and has a lot of restrictions on what she can do and I have stitches that I don’t want to split.”

“So, what I’m hearing is you have thought about it...in detail.” Blair paused for a moment before continuing. “It was her left arm that got injured right?”

“Yeah.” Sterling reluctantly agreed with the statement, uncertain about what her confirmation would lead to.

Blair sat back in the chair and shrugged her shoulder as she spoke. “Good thing she’s right handed then.”

“Blair!” Sterling sputtered, trying desperately to think of a response that wouldn’t be twisted by her sister to her own gains. “I just wanted to check she was still able to come over later.”

“Who is coming over later?” Sterling looked over to the door to see her dad walking back into the room.

“Oh April...if that’s OK?”

“That’s OK.” Her dad came to stand beside the bed. “We’d better get going if we want to get back before your mom cooks anymore brownies. We already had enough for half a bake sale on the kitchen side and that was before we left this morning.”

Sterling eased herself down from the bed. She noticed the way Blair picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder without needing further prompting. With one last glance to make sure she hadn’t left anything, Sterling went to leave the room but came to a stop as a wheelchair appeared in the doorway. “I don’t need that.”

“Hospital policy.”

Sterling went to sigh but the flash of pain that radiated across her ribs prevented it. Reluctantly she settled herself into the chair before hearing her sister’s voice from over her shoulder. “Step aside nurse Ratched, I’ve got it from here.”

“Blair!” Sterling turned to the nurse in question, the same one who had been nothing but caring and helpful during her stay, the same one who had passed on her note to April. “I’m sorry, Blair gets caught up in the moment at times.” She could hear the protestations of her sister but opted to ignore them. “Thank you…for everything.”

“Just doing my job. Take care Sterling.”

Before Sterling had a chance to reply, she found herself being propelled out of the door by the brunette. As much as she wanted to be leaving the hospital without the aid of a slightly recklessly steered wheelchair, allowing Blair to push her out certainly reduced the time it took to get back to the car. The sooner Sterling was able to get home, the sooner she would be able to see April in the flesh once more. That was a thought that stopped her from complaining too much, even when there was an occasional collision with a door frame on their exit.

******************************

As April walked up the steps to the Wesley’s front door, she felt an odd combination of nerves and excitement. She could feel the way her heart was beating that little bit faster as she raised her hand to knock. It wasn’t like this was the first time she had visited the Wesley’s house, as a child it had been like a second home until the recess incident. In more recent times, she had spent a significant number of hours tucked away either working on school projects or on the pretence of working on school projects. Yet as she waited for the door to answer this time, she knew the reason for the nerves. After all, she was no longer just a project partner or even a friend from school, now she was the girl who was dating Sterling. As if meeting the parents after months of sneaking around wasn’t nerve wracking enough, she also had the concern of if all the Wesley’s were as accepting of her as an individual or if they would always see John Stevens when they looked at her. Hearing the lock turn in the door, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves.

The door opened to reveal Debbie Wesley. April felt herself straighten up a bit more trying to stand a bit taller to exude the confidence that she normally carried without any real effort. “Good afternoon ma’am.”

In the next moment, she felt herself wrapped in a careful embrace from the woman. On instinct, she stiffened at the touch which caused Debbie to pull back slightly, her left hand resting on April’s good shoulder. “Oh April, I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“No ma’am.”

Debbie waved a hand dismissively. “I think we have moved past the ma’am phase with everything you have done for my daughter.” She felt herself ushered inside. “How are you doing?”

“I’m healing.” She saw the way Debbie nodded her understanding as she led them through the house to the lounge. As soon as she turned the corner, her eyes fell on Sterling and she felt a smile instantly spread across her face. Nothing could have prepared her for the rush of emotions that she felt at seeing the blonde in the flesh for the first time since she had been discharged. She had come to a stop in the doorway, her legs seemingly incapable of moving any further as she locked eyes with the other girl. “Can I get you something to drink April?”

The sound of Debbie’s voice drew her attention back from the blonde. “Could I have a water please?”

“Sure thing. Blair, come and give me a hand.”

Blair dropped her head into the back of the couch as she rolled her eyes at the ceiling. As she looked back over towards them, her eyebrows raised as she questioned the request. “You need help with water?” April noticed the way Sterling nudged her in the side to make her move. As she reached the doorway the brunette turned towards April and gave her a nod in greeting before turning her attention back to her mother. “Have you and dad ever considered the benefits of a drinks fridge beside the couch?”

April heard the voices of Blair and Debbie grow quieter as they retreated further into the house. “You’re not going to make me get up are you?” As soon as she heard Sterling’s voice, her feet unfroze and she stepped across the room. As she approached, the blonde patted the cushion beside her and April followed the unspoken instruction, slipping into the seat beside the taller girl. She turned slightly in the seat towards Sterling to really look at her, eyes darting across every curve and contour of the face now so close to her own. She felt the brush of fingertips across her cheek, the gentle contact sending impulses racing through every neurone. Sterling leant in, her lips grazing April’s cheek with the lightest of touches. April felt her eyes drift closed as her nerve endings went into overdrive, sending wave after wave of excitation spreading from that one area of contact throughout her entire body. She could feel the way her own hand began to tremble as the simplest of touches broke down the carefully constructed barriers that contained all the pent up emotions of the past few weeks. “I’ve missed you.” The words were whispered against her cheek, the warmth of her breath ghosting over the skin it touched, triggering a small shiver to race down her spine.

April reached up and pulled the blonde’s lips to her own. Their lips met in a gentle caress, neither of them pushing for more than the feeling of soft skin slowly moulding together. April let herself sink into the kiss, her thumb grazing over Sterling’s cheek as she surrendered herself to the moment. The tentative flick of Sterling’s tongue against her lips sent a new wave through her, awakening her senses further and heightening her awareness of every point of contact between them. Yet simultaneously dampening her perception of anything that extended beyond the pair of them. April felt herself drawn closer to the blonde, her body moving of its own volition to close some of the space that still existed between them, craving the feeling of the solid warmth of the blonde’s form against her own. Their kiss deepened as each of them sought what they had been missing, trying to communicate everything that words spoken through a screen had fallen short of achieving through re-establishing an intimate physical bond.

The sound of Blair’s voice shattered the connection causing April to pull back reluctantly from their embrace. She heard the quiet disgruntled sound that escaped Sterling’s lips as they broke apart, pausing to rest their foreheads together. April could feel the smile that graced her lips as they remained close enough that their breath mingled, the increased rate for each of them not going unnoticed. “I didn’t realise how much I needed to kiss you until now.”

She felt the blonde lean in to press a chaste kiss against her lips before pulling back. “Really? It’s all I have been able to think about. Hopefully we can continue this later.”

Hearing Blair much closer, April slid back on the cushion, allowing her hand to drop to intertwine with that of the blonde between them.

“Is it safe?” April looked over towards the door and saw Blair standing there with her hand covering her eyes. Before either herself or Sterling could respond, Debbie appeared giving her arm a light slap on the way past.

“What have I told you about mocking your sister?”

Blair rolled her eyes once her mom had passed her. “But light mockery is our language of love.”

“No matter, I’m sure April doesn’t need to be subjected to your antics.” Debbie set the water down on the table for April before looking back to where Blair stood. “And don’t roll your eyes at me.”

Blair’s mouth dropped open at the comment before she made one last attempt to defend her actions. “She signed on to dating Sterl knowing that we’re a package deal. Besides she has known me like our whole lives and hasn’t complained about me yet.”

“Not to you.” April heard Sterling mutter quietly and had to bite down on her lip to stop the smile spreading across her face at the comment.

“I heard that.” Blair huffed as she sank down into the seat beside April.

“When are you back at school, April?” Debbie’s voice cut through the room to redirect the conversation away from any potential squabbles.

“Monday.” She could feel Sterling’s eyes on the side of her face with the new information. She hadn’t wanted to mention her plans to return to Willingham to the blonde until after she had been given the medical clearance to do so. Even after being told there was no reason why she couldn’t return as long as she was mindful to avoid certain activities and bustling in corridors, the apprehension about what the return would be like had prevented her from sharing, not wanting to burden the other girl with her worries.

“Probably a good thing too, Fellowship hasn’t been the same since Hannah B took charge. She may look all sweet and innocent but that glare...” Blair shook her head as she blew out a breath. “I don’t think Luke will be MOBOT during a devotional reading again. He looked like he was going to cry.” April felt a surge of pride in Hannah B for having kept the group in check while she had been absent. She knew that many people would write her off as a bit ditzy and not think that she had more substance to her but there was a reason they were still friends after all these years. “Plus I’m pretty sure Ellen is a little afraid of her.”

“I'm sure that’s a slight exaggeration.” Debbie interjected.

“Then why did Ellen run over Coach’s foot on her scooter when she pulled U turn on seeing Hannah B heading out of the Fellowship room the other day? She didn’t even stop to apologise.” April noticed the smug look spread across Blair’s face with the lack of response from Debbie.

“How’s your mom doing?”

The question caught her off guard. With the exception of Sterling, nobody really asked about how things were at home. Hannah B and Ezekiel had learnt over the course of their friendship that family was a topic best avoided unless April brought it up herself. She felt a reassuring squeeze to her hand that was still held by the blonde, aware Sterling had turned to face towards her and Blair. “She’s coping in her own way.”

April braced herself for a follow up question upon seeing Debbie open her mouth. Before she could utter a word, Blair’s voice interrupted the moment. “Bet you’re glad Willingham doesn’t have metal detectors.”

“Blair.” The exasperation with Blair’s statements was evident in Debbie’s tone.

“I’m just saying. Last thing you want when going into school is to set off alarms because you have some additional hardware.” April caught the sudden way Blair’s face lit up. “Can we like stick magnets to your arm now?”

“Mom, is it OK if we head up to my room?” Sterling’s voice interrupted any potential need to provide the brunette girl with an answer to her question.

Debbie sighed while rubbing a finger across her forehead. “I think that would be a good idea.”

As Sterling rose from her seat, there was a gentle tug on the hand still firmly ensconced within the blonde’s grip. She stood from the couch and the pair of them made their way out of the room. Just before they got to the door April noticed Sterling shoot a look of thanks to her sister. As they reached the doorway, the sound of Debbie’s voice carried to them. “Door open Sterling.”

April noticed the look of disappointment flash across the blonde’s face before she turned back to face her mom. “Yes ma’am.” Debbie gave a short nod of approval that served as a signal they were free to leave. She felt the gentle tug on her hand as Sterling continued out of the room and gladly followed to escape any further questioning.

April let herself be led into Sterling’s room, their hands still connected, as the blonde pushed the door closed. She heard the small sigh escape the other girl as she opened the door slightly, clearly recalling her mom’s instructions. April couldn’t help the small smile that appeared with the feeling of being treated the same as any other romantic partner. She wasn’t sure the same could be said of her own mom. Since she had returned home from the hospital and purged any images of her father from her room, it wasn’t like she was hiding who she was. Those pictures had been replaced by the few photos of herself and Sterling with the one by her bed being of them cuddled up together, leaving little room for debate as to the nature of their relationship. Yet it felt like her mom was just opting to ignore any and all signs that there was anything that didn’t fit with the facade the Stevens family had cultivated for as long as she could remember.

She felt the gentle tug on her hand as Sterling led them over to the bed. “Your room is abnormally tidy.” April looked around the space, noting how there were no articles of clothing half hanging out of drawers or strewn across the floor.

“Mom went into nesting mode when I was discharged.” She felt Sterling relinquish her hand as she set about arranging the pillows against the headboard. As she watched the other girl, she noted the stiffness to some of her actions. One of the remaining signs that the other girl was still healing from her injuries despite the visible bruising having faded. “Is that OK for your arm?”

April stepped closer to the taller girl as she turned towards her, closing the distance between them. Her right arm slipped up to rest against Sterling’s shoulder before she raised herself up enough to brush her lips against those of the blonde. “Perfect.” As she went to step back, she felt an arm wrap tentatively around her waist, the simple action halting her retreat. As she looked up to meet Sterling’s gaze, she quirked up an eyebrow in question at the action.

The blonde shook her head. “Not enough.”

The corner of her mouth pulled up at the words as she slipped her hand round the back of the blonde’s neck, fingers gently pressing into the warm skin to draw the other girl closer. “You’re insatiable.”

April’s gaze dropped to the other girl's lips, noticing the faint remnant of fading scar on one side. “You have no idea.” When she raised her eyes to meet those of the taller girl, she had expected to see the sparkle of a teasing look. What greeted her was a look that went so much deeper, held such intensity that she felt her breath catch. The arm round her waist drew her closer, bringing their bodies together. She felt the brush of fingertips against the skin on her back, slipping underneath the edge of her top and leaving a trail of goosebumps in their wake despite the heat that radiated from every point of contact. She felt the brush of fingers against her cheek as Sterling tucked the errant strand of hair back behind her ear, tracing a path round the edge of her ear and across her jaw to gently tilt her chin up. She caught the fleeting way Sterling’s eyes dropped to her lips as they edged closer, feeling the anticipation building. She was sure the other girl would be able to feel the way her heart had increased in tempo as it pounded in her chest. April’s eyes drifted closed as she leant in to close the last remaining gap between them, lips reconnecting in a searing kiss. She felt herself being pulled closer, their bodies melding together until the only thing April was aware of was Sterling. The warmth that enveloped her from their interconnected bodies, the unique aroma that would linger for a time after they part but never long enough, the taste of her lip gloss...every sense was filled with the other girl. In another circumstance, April was sure it would be overwhelming to have every receptor attuned to one person, but in that moment all she felt is safe and home.

The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs snapped April out of her Sterling induced haze. She pulled back just far enough to break their kiss, despite the quiet groan of disapproval that emanated from the blonde at the action. She felt the way Sterling sighed before a gentle kiss was placed on her forehead, the blonde’s lips lingering for a moment against the skin. “I don’t know about you but I need to sit.”

April leant back to look into the face of the other girl, searching for any sign of discomfort. “Are you OK?”

She watched as a small smile tugged at the corners of the blonde’s mouth. “I told you once that the thought of you made my patellas quiver. Well, the reality of you is so much more. Kissing you...touching you...it makes my whole body tremble.”

April could feel the way her ears started to burn as Sterling's words registered. “Come on.” She slipped her hand up to gently grasp the hand of the blonde and lead them the last couple of steps to the bed. She took a seat, resting her back against the pillows Sterling had arranged for her before their momentary distraction.

She had expected her girlfriend to take the space beside her but instead Sterling moved to lie across the bed, her head resting on April’s lap. “Is this OK?”

April’s hand came up to brush against the blonde’s cheek. “Very much so.”

“Good.” A silence descended between the pair of them, April let her fingers play with the ends of Sterling’s hair as she lay there. “So school?”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “I can’t stay home forever.”

“How about just until I can go with you?” The blonde looked up at her, the concern evident in her eyes.

She shook her head. “I’ve missed so much already.” As she looked down at the girl lying on her lap, she noted the pensive expression on her face. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Sterl…”

Sterling released a quiet sigh. “It’s just that Blair mentioned that there were a lot of rumours going round about what happened. I just...I don't want you to face them alone.”

She brushed her thumb over Sterling’s lower lip. “I’ll be fine. Even if you’re not physically with me, I know you are just a call or message away. I know you’ve got me.”

“Always.”

“Always is a long time Sterl.”

“Or not long enough.”

April smiled down at the other girl, noticing the way each blink seemed to last longer than the one before. “Get some sleep.”

“I’m good. Just resting my eyes for a second.”

“Mmhmm.” She watched as Sterling drifted off to sleep, her breathing slowing as her body relaxed. It wasn’t long after that April fell asleep herself. Neither of the girls stirred when Debbie appeared in the doorway of Sterling’s bedroom, looking over at the pair of them as they slept.

**************************

The car came to a stop in the parking lot and April looked out of the windscreen towards the buildings of Willingham Academy. The last time she had set foot through those doors nobody really knew the kind of man her father was. Sure, they had heard the rumours that circulated following his arrest but once those charges were dropped, the image of the Christian family man who had been wrongly accused seemed to slip back into place as if it had never left. This time, there was no escaping the truth about at least some of the events that had transpired at the lake house.

“How bad is it?”

She caught the awkward look that flashed across Hannah B’s face before she tried to mask it with a smile. “Not terrible?” The tone of the statement did nothing to assuage her concern for what she was about to walk into.

“Worse than the condom incident?” She saw the way Hannah B reluctantly nodded her head, a look of regret accompanying the confirmation. April wished that Sterling was going to be back at school with her but she still wasn’t due back for another week or two. “If you want to walk in alone I’d understand.”

“Why would I want to do that?” There was a genuine look of confusion settled on the brunette’s features.

“To distance yourself from this, from me. Avoid being caught by the shrapnel.” April could see groups of students standing around the parking lot and the lawn and knew as soon as they laid eyes on her, the whispers and looks would start. She was no longer April Stevens, Fellowship leader, Forensics first white female captain and member of numerous other clubs. She was April Stevens, daughter of the man who kidnapped one of their classmates. A man who had been shot dead for his actions in a situation only a handful of people really knew. Leaving only the imaginations of the Willingham student body to fill in the blanks.

Hannah B shrugged. “You always stood by me...now it’s my turn to stand by you.”

April could feel the tell tale stinging behind her eyes as she swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat with her friend's words. She had been wrong to ever doubt that their friendship was anything but genuine. With a deep breath she did her best to summon her old facade before they exited the vehicle.

As they started to walk across the campus to the building, she could feel eyes turn towards her. She would catch the occasional finger pointing in her direction, see someone turn to whisper to a friend about her. She shifted her blazer slightly to try to cover the sling she was still sporting. She kept her eyes forward, dimly affixed to the doors that led into the school. As they drew closer to the doors, the whispers grew louder as the number of people present increased. April could feel her heart hammering in her chest with each step she took, trying to keep her steps steady and measured when all she wanted to do was turn and run in the opposite direction.

“...tried to kill her…”

“...murder-suicide…”

Just as she felt like she couldn’t take another step, an arm slipped in to interlink with her own. “Chin up, eyes up and keep walking. We’ve got you.” She glanced to her right and saw the way Ezekiel fixed one of the other students with a glare when they happened to cross their path. As they walked through the main doors, April drew herself up that bit taller as the knowledge that her friends were flanking her gave her the strength she felt faltering. When they turned the corner to head towards the Fellowship room, the bustling corridor grew quiet as people turned to stare. She felt a gentle squeeze on her arm as they continued down the busy hall.

“Told you...she was in on it. The apple doesn’t fall…” A thud sounded off to her left. “Ow! What the hell man?”

April turned her head slightly and caught a glimpse of Luke picking up his golf bag while one of the football team clutched his foot. As she met his eyes, he gave her a small nod as they passed. In that moment, she knew that it wasn’t just her against the world. It wasn’t even that she only had Sterling to rely on. She had friends who would walk beside her and lend her the strength she needed to keep one foot moving in front of the other. She had people who would drop a bag of golf clubs on someone’s foot to defend her, despite everything that had transpired between them in the past. As they entered the Fellowship room and Ellen’s face lit up at seeing her back, April knew that she wasn’t alone anymore.

Chapter Text

“Thanks for the ride.” April shot Hannah B a tired smile as she unbuckled her seatbelt.

“It’s no problem. Same time tomorrow?” She gave her friend a nod in agreement before climbing out of the vehicle.

After April closed the door, she waited while Hannah B drove off, prolonging the time she had to herself before entering the house. Her first day back at Willingham had been both draining and challenging. Returning from an extended absence was always a challenge as classes had kept moving on without you. She was glad that she had already read ahead so she hadn’t fallen too far behind and could follow the lessons. The non-stop whispering and looks however were far harder to move past. All she wanted to do was to curl up on her bed and talk to Sterling, yet a quick glance towards the garages told her that her mom was home.

There had been an element of uncertainty that hung over the house whenever her mom was present since she had returned home from the hospital. Sometimes her mom would be a good bottle deep in the wine cellar by the time afternoon rolled around. Those were the days that were reminiscent of the time John had been arrested.

Eight Months Ago

April walked through the front door and instantly wished she had found a reason to stay at school longer. Ever since her dad had been arrested for assaulting a prostitute, her highly predictable home life had become far more uncertain. Gone were the days where every night, they would all sit down to dinner together. It wasn’t that these were particularly enjoyable events but they held a consistency that gave a sense of normality. Contrary to popular belief, Team Stevens was far from perfect when behind closed doors and away from prying eyes and ears. Her dad would sit at the head of the table and lead the conversation, if it could be called that. Quite often it would be his delivering a monologue about himself and the aspects of his day that had vexed him. Any questions asked had expected answers which her mom would always provide, happy to agree with whatever views John spewed. April would keep her eyes down and answer when questioned directly but with each day that passed, agreeing with her dad’s views on what was right and wrong became harder.

Tonight it seemed to be one where her mom had embraced her day drinking to the full. The sounds of clattering could be heard in the kitchen but April was under no illusion that it was the result of any form of meal preparation. She started to make her way over to the stairs to retreat to her room for the night but the sound of breaking glass stopped her in her tracks. There was a split second where she considered still continuing to her room but the sound of a broken sob from the kitchen reached her ears. Her own eyes drifted closed for a moment as she drew in a deep breath as she mentally built her walls that bit higher in preparation for what she was going to walk into.

As she turned the corner into the kitchen, she took in the sight of a variety of jars scattered on the side, some filled while others lay empty. There was an empty wine bottle sat by the sink and a partially filled glass beside it. The faint odour of vinegar lingered in the air. Stepping round the counter she found her mom on her knees, broken glass and wine covered the floor beside her as she tried to gather the pieces of glass. “Mom?”

Her mom didn’t acknowledge her as she continued in her attempts to collect the glass. April noted the unsteady movements and slight sway to her posture. She crouched down beside the older woman and placed a hand out to stop her actions. “Mom, stop. You’ll hurt yourself.”

The older woman shook her head. “I need to clean this up. You know your father detests when the house isn’t in order.”

“He isn’t here.” April couldn’t bring herself to refer to him as her dad, the thought of what he had done still made her feel nauseous.

“But he’ll be back soon. Now we have the money from the lake house to pay for his lawyers, that woman’s lies will be revealed. We want everything to be just right when he does come home.” Her mom tried to reach over to a piece of broken bottle but April intercepted her hand once more.

“Mom, you should go and get changed. Your knees are soaked.” She watched the way her mom glanced down at her knees as if seeing the wine soaking into her clothing for the first time. “I’ll clean this up.” She met the blue eyes of her mother and tried to convey the message that she could trust her to do this with just a look.

Her mom reached a hand forward and placed it on her cheek. “Your daddy would be so proud.” April dropped her gaze as she helped her mom stand up, placing a hand on her hip to steady her as she adjusted to the new position. “He always worried that I hadn’t taught you the importance of keeping a good home.” She started to steer her mom around the spillage and broken glass, trying to ignore the outdated notion that it was the woman’s job to keep a home. It was just one aspect of her parents expectations for her that didn’t fit with her long term plans for her own life. “That you were so focused on your studies that you’d miss how important it is to keep your husband happy.” There it was. April was glad her mom was decidedly inebriated as she didn’t seem to notice the way her fingers dug that bit more firmly into her side with that phrase as she bit the inside of her lip.

“Why don’t you head to bed and I’ll clean up.” April watched as her mom continued out of the door and upstairs before turning to clear up the mess.

Present Day

As she pushed the door open and entered the house, she listened for any sound that would reveal her mom’s location. As soon as the door clicked shut, her mom’s voice echoed around the entrance hall.

“April? Is that you?”

April wasn’t sure exactly who else her mother would be expecting to walk into their house since it was only the two of them now. “Yes mom.”

“Can you come to the kitchen?” Setting her bag down at the bottom of the stairs, she made her way through the house to the origin of her mom’s voice. “Why are you late?”

A glance over to the clock on the wall told her that she was thirty minutes later than usual for a Monday. “I had to speak to some teachers about the work I missed.”

“You should have called. You know how we appreciate keeping to routines in this house. Your father...”

That one phrase was all it took. The exhaustion she felt from keeping a mask firmly in place for the school day making it impossible to stifle the words that rushed out. “Stop talking about him like he is going to walk back through that door. He’s dead. He’s not coming back and I’m glad.”

Her mom’s eyes widened at the outburst, her mouth opening and closing a few times with no sound coming out. April could feel her heart pounding in her chest with the words, feel the tremor in her hand as she waited for a response. “Do you think I don’t know that he’s gone? That I don’t know that he isn’t going to come home ever again? I wake up with that knowledge every single day, that the one person who provided for me, who always gave me the chance to make up for my mistakes and made me a better person has been taken from me.”

April was shocked by her mom’s response, the last words rang in her ears. Her relationship with her mom had been strained ever since April had realised she wanted more from her life than what she deemed her mother to have settled for. She had learnt long ago not to question her mother’s choices, yet when faced with the possibility that her mom still couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see what kind of man her father had become, she couldn’t stop the question that spilled from her lips. “What about his mistakes?” Referring to what John had done as mistakes felt wrong, almost like she was devaluing the severity of his choices and actions.

“Your father was a good man and if he stumbled on his path, it was because I hadn’t supported him enough.”

“You can’t believe that.” April shook her head with the words, unsure how to reconcile the thought that her mom somehow took responsibility for her father’s actions. “He was…”

“Enough! You might think you know more than I do from all your books and studies but you can’t speak of what you don’t understand. Until you have found the man who you will vow to stand by for better or worse in the house of our lord then you can’t comment. This conversation is over.”

April watched as her mom turned away from her, signalling her dismissal. She wanted to respond, to tell her mom everything that was wrong with her statements. That it wouldn’t be a man she would ever vow to stand by but a woman. That she already had someone that she would stand beside for better or worse in her life. Someone who she had faced down her own father to protect. Someone who had done the same for her. Yet she knew that anything she had to say would fall on deaf ears as whatever hold her father had over her mom, it persisted even after his death. With one last look over to where her mom stood with her back to April, she turned and left the room, her head dropped forwards in resignation.

**********************

The next couple of weeks passed relatively swiftly. With each passing day, the noticeable whispers and looks decreased as whatever tales had been spun ran out of fuel. The days all followed a similar pattern. Hannah B would arrive to drive her to school, upon their arrival they would meet Ezekiel and head to the Fellowship room where they could spend a few quiet moments before having to face the rest of the day. Classes passed by with minimal aspects of note since April had caught up with the content once more. When the day ended, she would attend any of her extra curricular clubs and then return home with the hope that there would be negligible contact between herself and her mom. Dinners were strained affairs with virtually no conversation, something April was glad of on most nights but there was always a part of her that hoped her mom would just be a mom. That when she asked about how classes were going, there wasn’t the unsaid expectation that the only answer was a positive one. The one part of her new routine that never failed to brighten up her day was when she would deliver Sterling’s assignments to her so she would at least be up to speed when the time came for her to return to school.

As April waited on the doorstep of the Wesley house on Friday evening, she no longer felt apprehension about what was waiting on the other side of the door as she knew that all that lay beyond that barrier was acceptance. What she hadn’t been expecting was to be greeted with the sight of Sterling as the door swung open. She watched as the other girl leant casually against the doorframe, a small smile tugging at her lips.

“Hey.”

“Hey yourself.” April could feel the way her own lips pulled up into a smile in response to seeing the blonde. “Can I come in?”

“That depends.”

“On?”

“What you’ve brought me.” She watched Sterling glance over her shoulder back into the house before she pushed off the door frame and stepped across the threshold, pulling the door closed behind her. “You know I appreciate the deliveries of school work but it’s hard to remain motivated for long periods of self-study.”

April tilted her head slightly as she fought to prevent her smile from growing. “So you don’t want what I brought you?” She took a step back. “I’m sure I can still meet up with Hannah B and Ezekiel…” Her retreat was halted as Sterling hooked her fingers into the front belt loops on April's jeans.

“I didn’t say that.”

April felt a gentle tug on her jeans and let herself be pulled forward, closer to the other girl. She rested her hand on Sterling’s hip as she let her eyes trail up, stalling at the blonde’s lips. “What are you saying then?”

“Maybe I just need some...incentives.”

“Incentives huh? And what kind of incentives are you hoping for?”

“Well, I was thinking a kiss for each question I get right.” She saw the way Sterling’s eyes dropped to her lips as she felt herself get pulled in closer, their bodies finally pressing against one another.

April let her own eyes drop to the taller girl’s lips for a brief moment before closing the distance between them. “That can be arranged.” The words were spoken softly before she moved in those last few centimetres to connect their lips in a languid kiss. With each second that passed, she felt the tension from the week drain from her body, replaced with the feeling of comfort that the blonde always seemed to trigger within her. When she felt Sterling turn her slightly to back her against the wall of the porch, she pulled back. “Sterl, we should probably move inside as I don’t particularly want to give your neighbours a show.”

“I guess. Pretty sure Mrs Davenport would have one of her funny turns if she saw us.” Sterling stepped back, slipping her hand into April’s as she opened the door. “Head on up, I’ll just grab us some drinks.”

As they reached the bottom of the stairs, she watched as Sterling headed through to the kitchen before making her way up to the blonde’s room.

****************************

April sat herself on the couch, resting her head against the back as she let her eyes drift closed for a moment. Even with the sound of Blair’s music reverberating off the walls, sitting there in Sterling’s room brought a sense of peace. The tension she held in every muscle in her body the whole time she was in her own house was finally able to ebb away. She felt the way the couch cushion depressed beside her as the blonde sat down. Without opening her eyes, she leant her head against the other girl’s shoulder.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No...yes…” April opened her eyes and stared across the room, her hand going to play with the purity ring on instinct only to find nothing but bare skin. “I guess part of me always hoped that if John ever left then my mom would be more...like a mom.”

April felt Sterling slip their hands together. “Still no change?”

“She does what she is expected to do as far as keeping up appearances but I want more than that. I want her to get to know me, find out what I like and don’t like. To ask me about my day and genuinely care about the answer. I know you hate it when your mom does it but just once I’d like my mom to come to a forensics meet and cheer too loudly when I win...and to just give me a hug if I don’t.” She gave a humourless chuckle as a thought passed through her mind. “I’ve had more hugs from your mom than my own in my life.”

Sterling turned her head to place a gentle kiss on the top of April’s head. “I wish there was something I could do.”

“You’re already doing it.” Seeing the confusion on the blonde’s face, she turned to meet her gaze. “You make me feel like there is someone who cares, even about all the little insignificant events.”

“They aren’t insignificant, all those little things we experience are what shape our day and us.” Sterling fought down a smile. “If you want to be embarrassed at future forensics meets, then I’m sure mom and dad would be thrilled to help. At this stage, I’m pretty sure you are an honorary Wesley for life.”

April couldn’t suppress the smile that graced her lips at the words. However underneath the warm feeling those words brought, there was a sadness. Refusing to dwell on that feeling, she pulled the folder from her bag. “Since I expect you have already finished most of the work for this week, I took the liberty of getting next week’s assignments.”

“You didn’t need to do that.”

“Did Blair actually collect work? I thought she believed that absence from school was a free pass for not completing assignments. Nobody said anything when I asked for the work.” April frowned at the folder in her hand.

“No, Blair still believes that unless you are in a classroom you should not be expected to do work.” Sterling shook her head at the notion.

“Then I don’t understand.”

“I saw my doctor this morning and I’m cleared to come back to school. No gym class and I have to avoid being bustled in the halls but on Monday, I’ll be right there with you.” With each word, the smile on Sterling’s face grew wider.

April leant over to place a firm kiss against the blonde’s lips, she could feel her own smile as she pulled back. “That’s great news.” As the thought of what her return to school had been like flashed in her mind, April felt her smile falter. “Are you sure you’re ready?”

“Oh my goodness yes. I’ve spent so long stuck either in hospital or at home that I’ve watched pretty much every good show. If I don’t return soon, I’ll end up watching Emily in Paris and I respect myself too much to sink that low.”

Once more April fiddling with her ring finger in nervous habit. “It’s just...You know what it’s like with gossip and what happened is still the hot topic.”

“I’ve got you and Blair.” Sterling stated without hesitation, as if those few words answered any question and in some ways she supposed they did. If she had learnt anything over the past two weeks since her own return, it was that having people stand beside you made any comments easier to endure.

“I’ve got something for you.” April watched as Sterling rose from the couch and went over to her dresser before pulling something out of a drawer and returning to sit next to her, the item hidden from view. “Close your eyes.” Looking into the sparkling eyes of her girlfriend, April did as requested, even though she usually hated any surprise that required her to close her eyes first. She felt Sterling bring her hand up between them, placing a gentle kiss to her palm before something else was placed in her hand. “You can open them.”

As April opened her eyes she looked down and saw a black velvet box sitting in her palm. Her eyes shot up to look at the blonde who was just smiling back at her. She could feel the way her heart had increased in tempo at the thought of what might be inside the box. She searched the blonde’s eyes for any clue before dropping her gaze to open the box. As she flipped the lid open, it revealed a ring. “Sterl, I…Are you…”

“Am I...? Oh...oh no. Gosh, we are too young for that and anyway I want it to be so much more special and romantic. It would need to be one of your top five nights to remember and this isn’t that. Plus the ring would be more fancy.”

April listened to the rambling for a moment, not missing the fact that the way Sterling spoke made it sound like a future possibility that she had considered. Her heart gave an odd lurch in her chest at that information and the realisation that she did want that one day. “Is it a promise ring?”

Sterling shook her head. “I don’t need you to wear an item of jewellery to tell people that what we have is serious. I know that every time our eyes meet and you smile that way that feels like it’s just for me or how just hearing your voice can settle my mind from whatever is racing through it. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.” Sterling reached over and gently took the box from April’s hand. “You know you have a habit when you are nervous, you spin your ring...or you used to. Since you took it off, you still go to do that but there is nothing there. So I wanted to get you something to wear that still meant something. A few hours of Googling later and I found this.” Sterling lifted the ring from the box. “It’s a celtic knot. Depending on what site you read, gives you different meanings but the one that resonated with me was this.” She pointed to the first part of the design. “See the three interconnected loops? They represent the three aspects of self - mind, body and spirit - and how they are all connected. To alter one, will impact on the others.”

“There are two of them.”

Sterling smiled. “There are. The way they are separate and yet touching shows that when you let people in, they can influence all those aspects of you. Just as you can influence theirs. It’s a reminder that as long as you have people who are close to you, they will always be there to restore that balance when you need them to.” She placed the ring back into April’s hand. “Or it just gives you something to fiddle with when you are nervous.”

April leant in and kissed the other girl before slipping the ring onto her finger. “Thank you. So if we have no school work, what do you propose we do this evening?”

Sterling grinned. “Well, dad is in the workshop whittling his ducks, mom is out at her pre-book club book club with Mrs Creswell, which is really just mom code for an evening of wine and gossip while they Google a synopsis of the book they should have read. And Blair is…”

“Right here.” The brunette announced as she wandered into the room and flopped down on the bed. “Can’t help but notice your door is closed. I can only imagine what you were planning before I arrived to save you.”

“Not the only one who is left with just imagination.” Sterling muttered quietly. “Save me from what?” She said loud enough for her sister to hear.

Blair held her hand up and used her fingers to count down three, two, one...The sound of a knock on her door filled the space. “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal Debbie. “Hi honey.” As her eyes landed on April sitting on the couch beside Sterling, she paused as the smile faltered. “Sterling, what have we said about closed doors?”

“Hi mom. You’re back early.”

“Oh Blair, I didn’t see you there.”

“You didn’t think that Sterl would have closed her door with April here if I hadn’t also been in the room did you? That would be a direct violation of the Wesley house rules and I think one stretch in the tent of shame is enough for anyone.”

Debbie rolled her eyes. “Alright Blair. Can I get you girls anything?”

“We’re good thanks mom.”

Once Debbie had closed the door once more, Blair looked over to the pair. “You’re welcome. So what are we doing for real as you’re stuck with me now mom is back and I’m not going to just sit here while you both play tonsil hockey. I love you but not that much!”

**********************

By the time Monday morning arrived, Sterling was starting to feel anxious about what the day may bring. Despite her best efforts to try not to dwell on any of the potential scenarios that could play out upon her return, they still lurked at the edge of her consciousness. As Blair pulled into the parking lot, she cast a glance outside the windshield at the various students standing in their groups. She had arrived earlier than usual this morning to give her time to get organised before their morning Fellowship meeting which also had the added bonus of avoiding the majority of students who would roll onto campus a few minutes before the first bell rang.

“You ready for this?”

Sterling turned to look over at her sister. “Guess we’ll find out.” With one last mental pep talk to herself, she climbed out of the car and made her way across the lot and into the building. A few students glanced her way as she passed them but she made it into the building and to her locker without any audible comments reaching her.

“Sterling, we heard what happened.” The voice of one of the other girls from Fellowship broke into her consciousness. With a deep breath, she closed her locker and turned to face the new comers. “We prayed for your swift recovery. It must have been so terrible. And to think the school didn’t…” The girl's voice trailed off as she looked at something at the far end of the hall before dropping to a whisper. “I mean even with your history you’d have thought she would have done something.”

Sterling fixed the girls before her with a glare, not needing to turn to know who had just entered the hallway. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful in building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

“Ephesians 4:29.” April stated as she came to stand beside the blonde. “I do hope you can both make our after school Fellowship meeting this week, we are discussing the importance of considering our words.” April watched as the two girls made a rapid departure without further comment before turning to face the girl beside her. “Quoting scripture before first bell?”

“It felt right in the moment. Hard to argue with the good book.” The pair fell into step together as they made their way to the Fellowship room. “Does that happen a lot?”

“Less now than when I first came back.”

“How can they even consider that you would have been part of anything that happened?” Sterling felt incredulous at the concept.

“I’m not sure if you noticed but I haven’t been in the running for nicest member of the student body for a long time and as far as the general population is concerned we have been enemies for years.”

“There’s a big difference between high school rivalry and full blown criminal actions.” Sterling grumbled as she sat on the couch.

“I know that and you know that but sadly we are in high school and rumours don’t have to make sense.”

Sterling pulled April’s hand into her own. “Just promise that next Fellowship event we do, they get vomit patrol or equivalent?”

April laughed as she linked their fingers. “I’m sure that can be arranged. Our end of year celebrations aren’t too far away.”

**********************

Sterling was relieved when the lunch bell rang. It would seem that having such an extended period of time out of school made adjusting to the unrelenting pace of moving from one class to another more of a challenge. She was glad that she had completed all the work or she would be feeling even more exhausted than she was currently. She made her way to her locker to drop off her books before meeting Blair for lunch.

“Hey Sterling.”

She glanced over to the origin of the voice and saw one of the guys from the soccer team standing there. “Jackson.”

“I’m glad you’re back. I heard what happened with everything.”

“Thanks.” Sterling cast a glance down the hall to see if she could see her sister, hoping to draw this conversation to a close swiftly.

“I was wondering if you wanted to catch a movie with me this weekend?”

“Sorry...I can’t.”

She turned to make her way down the hall but he stepped in front of her. “Come on, I know you and Creswell broke up months ago.”

Sterling frowned at the comment. “I don’t see what that has to do with my not wanting to date you.”

“I know you were together for a long time so wanted to be respectful and wait before asking you out. So what do you say?” He smiled what he probably thought of as a charming grin but it fell very short of achieving anything other than annoying her further.

“Sorry...I’m seeing someone.” She hoped that would be enough to end their interaction.

“Come on Sterling, you should be with someone who can protect you.”

“I am.” She stepped round him and took a couple of steps away before a hand grabbed her arm, spinning her back towards him.

“Who? Because I’ve asked around and nobody knows of any boyfriend.” His body was close to hers, far closer than she wanted.

As soon as she felt herself restrained, it was as if someone had tightened a vice around her chest, making it hard to draw in a breath, her heart pounded against her ribs as images of John Stevens flooded her mind.

“I’m a decent guy and…”

“A decent guy wouldn’t grab a girl. Let her go.” April’s voice echoed across the hall as she strode up to the pair, her eyes flashing with anger as she took in the scene before her.

“This doesn’t concern you.”

“That’s where you are wrong.” Once she drew level with him and saw his grip hadn’t released, she spoke again. “I said let go.”

“Or what?” He shot over Sterling’s shoulder. Before he could say anything more, April’s arm shot out and delivered a precise strike to the pressure point in his bicep causing him to lose his grip as he grunted in pain. “What the fuck did you do to me?”

April ignored him as she gently took one of the blonde’s hands in her own. “Are you ok?” Seeing the blonde nod, she gave a gentle squeeze to the hand she held. “Come on.”

“No fucking way...her?”

April ignored his question and started to walk down the hall with Sterling’s hand still firmly ensconced within her own.

“Come to my car and I’ll have you set back straight by the end of lunch.”

April turned on her heel to face him, ignoring the silence that had descended in the hall as the other students stood gaping at the scene before them. “Firstly, no decent man would make such a proposition in public nor make such a crass statement which does nothing but reveal his own bigotry. Secondly, she said she was seeing someone so take no for an answer. Finally, the whole of lunch? From what I have heard you’d be lucky to make it ten minutes...with the time to walk to your car.” With that, she turned and continued to walk down the hall with Sterling.

The next few moments seemed to be a blur. The laughter that had trickled through the halls came to an abrupt halt, a shout rang out and then a cry of pain.

“You broke my nose.”

April turned to take in the scene behind her. She was greeted by the sight of the soccer player cupping his nose with blood trickling down his face. Looking to the right of him she saw the cause of the injury. Blair was standing there, clenching and unclenching her fist as she stared him down.

“Jackson, go to the medical room. Blair, April, my office now.” Everyone in the hall stared at the unexpectedly stern tone that came with the words from none other than Ellen. The girls looked at each other before starting to make their way to the office as instructed, none of them willing to argue with the instruction.

Ellen opened the door to her office and gestured for the girls to head inside. The three of them stood in front of the desk as Ellen took her seat and regarded the group. April was to the left of Sterling, their hands still interlocked, she kept casting glances to the side to check on the blonde. Sterling herself looked rather pale and kept her eyes down on the desk, not making any attempt at eye contact with any of the other occupants of the room. Finally, Blair stood to Sterling’s right with a scowl still present on her features, flexing the fingers on her right hand. Without a word Ellen turned in her chair and leant down to the small fridge that resided against the wall. When she turned back around, she held out an ice pack to Blair. “Put that on your hand.”

“Why do you have an ice pack?” Blair asked as she accepted it and placed it over her knuckles.

“It may surprise you girls to find out that I wasn’t always as proficient on my scooter as I am now. Those early days did have a few incidents. Talking of incidents...who wants to explain what happened out there?”

Blair and April exchanged a look around Sterling, neither one really knowing how to explain what had happened without revealing too much. It was the sound of Sterling’s voice that broke them out of their silent communication.

“Jackson asked me out and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Sterling drew in a shaky breath, tightening her grip on April’s hand and using the physical connection between them as a source of strength to continue speaking. “He grabbed me and it...it brought back…”

April ran her thumb across the blonde's knuckles in an attempt to offer comfort. “I saw what happened and how it was affecting Sterl. When he didn’t let go, I made him by hitting one of his pressure points to numb his arm.”

“And how did he end up with a broken nose?”

“He deserved it.” Seeing the look she received from Ellen, Blair rolled her eyes. “He said something that would have been enough justification but April put him in his place…verbally. When they were walking away, he started to go after them. You didn’t expect me to just stand by and let anything happen to them did you?”

“Girls, the school has a zero tolerance policy on violence.” Seeing the objection brewing in Blair, Ellen held her hand up to stop her. “However, I heard what he said and while it doesn’t condone the actions, I can see your motivation was born out of protection.”

“So we promise not to do it again and we can go?”

“Oh bless you Blair, but no. This would normally be a suspension but I will talk to the principal. You girls stay here until I get back. I’d suggest you get on with some work as this could take a while.”

**********************

Eventually the office door reopened as Ellen returned. All three girls looked up at the sound, April and Sterling from their textbooks and Blair from her phone. April rolled her eyes at the attempt the brunette made to hide the phone and pretend she was working. “Girls, can you wait in the Fellowship room.” It was only then that April’s gaze fell on the figures behind Ellen, both her own mom and Debbie Wesley were standing with unimpressed looks. The three of them collected their belongings and made their way past the three older women, none of them willing to make voluntary eye contact. They sat on one of the couches and watched as the door to Ellen’s office closed.

“You’d better sneak me breakfast if I’m banished to the tent for this.”

April didn’t listen to the reply, her mind too occupied with running various scenarios of what the outcome of the afternoon’s events would be for her. She only realised she was fiddling with her ring when she felt the warmth of Sterling's hand come to rest over her own. She looked up to meet the worried gaze of her girlfriend but before she could speak the door flew open.

“April, we’re leaving.” She slipped her hand out from Sterling's grasp as she began to collect her bag knowing that whatever Ellen had said must have been enough to warrant the rapid departure. “You have embarrassed our family enough for one day. Your father was right about that girl being a bad influence.”

April stopped what she was doing upon hearing those words, the familiar flash of anger that rose in her whenever her father was brought up ignited as she turned to look at her mother. “You’re wrong.”

“Excuse me?”

She squared her shoulders and met her mother’s gaze. “I said you’re wrong.” She could feel the slight tremor run through her hands as she repeated the phrase.

“That’s quite enough. You were raised better than this.” April could feel the shame she always felt when hearing how she had fallen short of expectations start to eat away at the confidence she had in challenging her mother. “I am so disappointed and your father...”

“Enough!” April turned her head to the sound of the new voice and saw Debbie emerging from the office, a look of anger on her face that April had never seen before. “You should be proud of your daughter and her actions. Lord knows I am.”

“What they did was not something to be proud of.”

“Which part? Supporting each other, standing up to a bigot or not hiding who they are?”

“Leviticus 20:13…”

“Junior year, right here in this room, Darren tried to cast out James using that passage. Do you remember what you said?”

April watched in stunned silence as her mom turned to face Ellen. The silence stretched between them until her mom finally spoke. “I told him that to try to cast out a member of Fellowship based on Leviticus would mean everyone would need to be banished for wearing our uniform as it was mixed fabric.”

“That was the girl I knew. The one who would stand up for others and who wasn’t afraid to question old beliefs or traditions when they were detrimental to the fundamental principle of loving and accepting others. That girl was my friend.” April had never heard anyone mention this side to her mom before. The woman she had grown up knowing and who Ellen was describing sounded like two completely different people. She certainly never knew Ellen had been one of her mother’s friends. “I should have spoken up back then.”

“What do you mean?”

“At the time I just thought you were caught up...young love and all. It was more than that though and by the time I realised, it was too late.”

“He was a good man.”

“He wasn’t good then and he certainly didn’t improve with age. From the moment you started dating him, one by one, you severed ties with your friends. Then you dropped your extra curriculars one after another. By the end of senior year, you were just John’s girlfriend. You had lost who you were.”

“I did not.”

“Really? You are standing in the same place that you defended a freshman you knew nothing about against bigoted views while reiterating those same passages at your own daughter.”

“I know we haven’t spoken in a long time but you used to listen to me. So I hope you can listen to me once more. Whatever John said or did to make you lose yourself, you don’t have to stay lost. All those amazing parts of who you were are still there somewhere...I know that because I see them in your daughter and she had to learn them from somewhere. June, you almost lost her because of his actions but she didn’t give up. Don’t let him take her from you now. It’s your turn to fight back.”

April watched her mom throughout the exchange, searching her face for any change in expression that would reveal her thoughts. When she saw her mother reach up to wipe at her cheek, that tiny glimmer of hope that things may change sparked into life. She could feel the warmth permeating through her shirt from Sterling’s hand resting gently against her back.

“I don’t know how.” Her mom’s voice had lost the edge it usually held, leaving behind a hollow broken sound.

April watched as Ellen stepped forwards and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You start by accepting help from someone.” She was aware that her own breathing had stalled at the statement, waiting for some sign as to what the response would be before she could exhale. She watched as her mom brought her own hand up to cover Ellen’s on her shoulder and then she nodded. The simple action brought with it a chance at something she had always wanted, a real mom and not just one in name. April felt a single tear escape her own eye with the sight and she was finally able to exhale.

Chapter Text

“Now before y’all head off for the weekend, there is some exciting news. At the end of the semester we have our annual Fellowship camp weekend. A whole weekend of getting closer to nature, to each other and closer to God.” As she spoke she moved to stand behind the couch where the Holy Trinity sat. “As our Fellowship leader, April will be taking point on all the details. I’m sure this will be the best year yet.” She placed her hand on April’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze.

April stood from her seat and addressed the group. “Everyone will need to take a pack with them today. You will find the parental permission form, medical details, itinerary and packing lists in the envelopes. Allergies are diagnosed medical allergies. This would not include, and I quote, short people with a big ego.” April cast a sideways glance at Blair who just smiled in response. “You will need to return the forms by next Friday so we can book the site. Hannah B and Ezekiel are handing these out to you now. You will find each of your packs is colour coded for ease, so anything on green paper needs to be returned for you to go.” April continued to explain the contents of the packs as the remainder of the Holy Trinity handed them out.

“Question.”

April turned to see Blair with her hand up. “Yes Blair?”

“Will there be actual fun during this weekend?”

“Yes, of course.” Seeing Blair’s hand raise again, she drew in a breath. “Blair?”

“I see on the packing list that you have listed swimming attire.”

“That’s correct.” April responded, her eyes narrowing at the brunette slightly as she tried to work out where these questions were going. “So, you can see…”

“April?” April could feel the frustration with the brunette twin rising inside her with each interruption. Part of her was tempted to regress to her old ways and bring the questions to an end with a cutting remark but she felt the brush of a thumb on the back of her calf. A quick glance down revealed Sterling, looking up at her with an expression that made that desire fade away. Despite the progress they had made, Blair took a certain level of pleasure from continuing to press April’s buttons whenever she could. Sterling claimed it was how the brunette showed affection but truth be told, she was sceptical about that and felt the other girl still wasn’t her greatest fan. “Yes Blair?”

“Will they be solo, paired or group activities?”

“They would be mostly paired activities. Anything else?” She focused on the reassuring touch from the blonde still seated on the floor beside the couch she sat on. The warmth radiating from the close proximity of her body against her leg helped considerably.

“Nope. Got it. You are expecting to partake in paired activities that get you wet.”

April instantly felt her ears start to burn with the insinuation. She felt the hand that had been brushing her calf, come to a sudden stop. Her brain felt like it had short circuited as the words registered, leaving her unable to come up with any response immediately.

“Oh absolutely. I know that April has spent a lot of time and many late nights thinking about every tiny detail.” Ellen commented, making April cringe internally. She only just resisted the urge to cover her face with her hands as she silently wished for the fire alarm to go off to bring this to an end.

“I’m sure she...ouch!” As April chanced a look down to where the Wesleys sat she saw Blair rubbing her ribs and Sterling glaring at her sister. As the sound of the bell filled the room, April felt herself release a breath she didn’t know she was holding as the assembled students began to collect their belongings and file out. April sank back against the couch and closed her eyes. She felt the cushion beside her shift as someone took a seat. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know who it was. Keeping her eyes closed she leant her head onto the shoulder beside her as fingers interlaced with her own.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. It’s just Blair being Blair.”

“I’m pretty sure nobody else had a clue what she was suggesting...except Ezekiel.”

“Are you still coming over tonight? Dad’s been eyeing up Emily in Paris ever since his conversation about taking mom there for their wedding anniversary and we need your vote to avoid having that horror inflicted on us.”

Before April could answer, Blair’s voice carried across the room. “Sterl, Bowser wants us to swing by the yoghurt shop on the way home. You ready?”

Sterling glanced over to where her sister stood at the door, typing something into her phone. “Coming.”

“On that couch again? I’ll save my eyes and see you at the car.” Blair turned and left without giving either girl a chance to reply.

Sterling placed a kiss against the top of April’s head where it still rested on her shoulder. “See you tonight?”

April turned her head to capture the blonde’s lips in a chaste kiss. “Text me when you are home and I’ll be over.” She watched as a wide smile spread across the blonde’s face at the response. The pair rose from the couch together and Sterling started to walk away, waiting for the last moment to drop their hands.

April watched the blonde leave before collecting her own belongings and making her way out to her own car.

**********************

The bell over the shop door rang out to signal their arrival. “I’m just saying that your desire for honesty means you blew your chance at an unsupervised weekend. You know Ellen will be running some serious cliterference.”

“Is it too much to ask for one conversation that doesn’t revolve around your love lives?” Bowser grumbled from behind the counter.

“No problem, Bowsie. Have you asked Yolanda out yet?” Blair wandered behind the counter and grabbed a handful of gummy bears, popping some into her mouth as she smiled at Bowser.

Bowser ran a hand over his forehead. “Forget I said anything. C’mon, we have a skip.” He made his way into the back office. “You comin’?”

Blair grabbed another handful of gummy bears as she made her way out back, Sterling following behind. Sterling sat herself in one of the chairs while Blair flopped down onto the couch, tossing another sweet into her mouth. “Those are comin’ out of your next wages.”

“I’m carrying out quality control.”

“Mmm hmm. Nick Morgan.” Bowser hands Sterling a copy of his picture. “This guy has a long history of conning senior citizens out of their pension money for home renovations.”

“So why do you need us?”

Bowser frowned at the question. “To find him.”

“Can’t you just book him for some work? Then we can be there and boom.”

“How old do you think I am?” Blair sat up on the couch and tilted her head as she regarded her boss. “Never mind. Fine...I’ll organise some work with him.”

Sterling tuned out what Blair and Bowser were discussing as a thought that had kept recurring since her experiences at the hands of John Stevens resurfaced in her mind. When her own voice sounded in the room, she was just as surprised as the other occupants. “I don’t think I want to do this anymore.”

“What?”

Sterling turned to face her sister. “I don’t think I want to carry on bounty hunting.”

“Why would you give this up? The rush you get from kicking down doors, the chasing skips down and taking them down with your badass shooting skills.”

“That’s just it. I don’t get that feeling when I think of that anymore.”

“But…”

“Blair...I think what your sister is sayin’ is that it’s time for her to move on. When you started this whole thing, it was only to get the money to fix your daddy’s truck.”

“Sterl loves this.” Blair told Bowser before turning to her sister, the uncertainty clear in her voice. “Don’t you?”

“Truly, I did but it’s not how I want to spend my time now.”

The brunette frowned at the response. “Is this because of April?”

“No. It’s a dangerous job and I have had enough danger for a while. There was something Mr Stevens asked me that stuck.”

“You’re going to listen to him?” Blair shot up from the couch and started pacing.

Sterling ignored the comment and continued. “He asked if I had ever considered the consequences of my actions.”

“The consequences are for their actions.” Blair argued back.

“Yes but when we take them in, it has an impact on others too.”

Blair stopped her pacing and turned to face her sister. “So this is about April.”

Bowser stood and stepped closer to Blair. “It’s about your sister not wanting to play a part in something that can be partly responsible for tearing a family apart.”

“I’m not saying that I’ll never do it again, just not now.”

“What about me?” Blair’s voice was quiet as the question was spoken.

Sterling rose from the chair and stood in front of the other girl. “You are my sister, now and always. You can go with Bowser to kick down doors and I’ll help Miss Kathy with the shop. Then when we are both done, we will still spend plenty of time together...just without the naked people throwing bibles and wrenches.”

“Promise?”

“Twin swear.”

“If you break that promise to scissor with your girlfriend all the time, just know that no locked door is a match for my badass skills.”

*****************************

Sterling scrolled through her phone while on the couch next to Blair. Friday night had been designated as family night at the Wesley house. Usually this time consisted of watching a movie or some episodes of a new series that someone had found. As much as the idea had sounded far from an ideal way to spend a Friday night, after the first couple, they had settled into this new routine and Sterling actually found herself enjoying the time spent with the people closest to her. Something that had only increased when her mom had invited April over the first time with a comment that only reinforced what Sterling had already told her about being an honorary Wesley.

The sound of the doorbell roused Sterling from her mindless scrolling. “I’ll get it.” She jumped up from the couch and made her way to the door, running a hand over her hair as she placed her hand on the handle. Once she opened the door, she was greeted by April’s smile. “Hey.” Her eyes drifted down the figure in front of her and came to rest on the item in her hand. “You know you don’t have to bring something every time, they already love you.”

April tilted her head slightly and took a step closer to the blonde, her free hand slipping into Sterling’s own. “Maybe...but if they keep thinking that I’m the perfect houseguest, it may help stop them wondering what happens when we spend a bit too long on an errand.” Sterling dipped her head to close the distance between them and steal a kiss before their evening began. As much as she loved having April included in family night, it also provided the challenge of having to keep a respectable level of contact with the girl she wanted nothing more than to leave as little space between them as possible.

“Smart girls are so hot.” Sterling brought her hand up to cup April’s cheek before allowing herself to sink into a more languid kiss.

“Leave space for Jesus.”

Sterling reluctantly broke the kiss and rested her forehead against April’s. “There are times that I wish I was an only child.”

“I heard that. And no you don’t. Your life would be empty without me. Plus…”

“Is that April?” Debbie asked as she rounded the corner into the entrance hall. Sterling watched as April stepped further into the house, a smile settled on her lips.

“Good evening Mrs Wesley.”

“We’ve been over this.”

“Debbie. I hope you don’t mind but I had a bit of time after school and found this recipe for mocha swirls that I wanted to try. A far superior substitute to cinnamon rolls in my humble opinion.”

Sterling watched as April headed over towards her mom who greeted her with a hug before leading them into the kitchen. “You’re welcome...again.” The blonde looked over to her sister who was sporting a rather smug look.

“You’re insufferable at times.” She retorted as she approached the brunette.

“Yet you still love me.” Blair threw an arm across her sister’s shoulder as she drew alongside her. “Now come on, we have to make sure Stevens brought her debating A game to convince dad to watch something good for a change.” As they approached the couch, Sterling shot a glance towards the kitchen. “She has been gone for less than a minute.”

“I was just checking to see if mom needed help.” Sterling saw the way Blair rolled her eyes at her before taking a seat beside her sister. “What do you think we should pitch for?”

Blair pursed her lips as she considered. “I’m feeling...whimsical.”

“So we need something whimsical that doesn’t suck and is set in Paris...Can’t be too hard right. Google it.”

Blair pulled her phone out and did a quick search. “Ok, best French movies on Netflix...The Artist?” Sterling tried to lean closer to see the synopsis but before she could read more than the first sentence, Blair had scrolled on. “Nope, black and white. I need colour in my life. How about this one...Blue is the warmest colour?”

“I wouldn’t suggest watching that with your parents.” April settled into the seat beside Sterling, making sure to leave a respectable distance between them.

“Why not?”

“There’s a reason it’s NC-17.”

Blair’s lips rose in a smirk. “And how would you know that?”

“How would you know what?” Anderson asked as he walked into the room, taking his seat in the armchair. Sterling could feel the tension radiating off her girlfriend at the situation Blair had just created.

“April was just telling us about this French movie that she has seen.”

“I was going to suggest we settle in to watch some of Emily in Paris but if you have a better movie suggestion, we can postpone that. What’s it called?”

Sterling could feel the way Blair’s body was shaking as she tried to hold in the laughter beside her.

“Amelie.”

“That’s not…” Without looking at her, Sterling aimed a quick jab into her ribs to dissuade Blair from any further comments.

“It’s quirky but not too weird plus it’s the kind of movie that gives you that warm feeling at the end.”

“Bet that’s not the only French movie that leaves you with a warm feeling...like bl…”

Sterling jumped in before Blair could finish her sentence. “Anyway dad, why don’t we watch that tonight? It gets much better reviews than your suggestion and it fits Blair’s desire for whimsy, right?” April nodded.

“Well, alright then.” Sterling waited until her dad was occupied by finding the movie before turning to Blair to glare at her and fire up their twin link.

“If you say one more innuendo loaded comment, I will tell dad about how his dry hunting spell was because you kept an ultrasonic deer repeller in your bag.”

Blair’s jaw dropped. “You wouldn’t.”

“I would.”

“Fine. I won’t say anything...enjoy watching the movie sitting next to your girlfriend with the knowledge that she has watched NC-17 rated lesbian movies.”

Sterling felt her own jaw drop as heat flushed her skin while Blair sat back against the couch looking smug.

“Subtitles?”

Sterling ignored the whine from her side, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the screen to try to avoid the new thoughts flooding her mind. She only snapped out of her not suitable for family time thoughts when she felt April slip her hand into her own. With that simple action, Sterling’s mind settled back into the present. She shot a small smile to the girl beside her before settling back to watch the movie.

********************

Sterling turned the Volt onto April’s drive, all too aware that their time together was drawing to a close once more. She proceeded along the driveway at a gentle pace to prolong their time for those few extra seconds. “Is that Ellen’s scooter?”

April frowned in the seat next to her as she peered out through the windscreen at the unexpected vehicle resting against the wall. “I…think so.”

“Why is Ellen at your house?” Sterling brought the car to a stop beside the scooter. “Do you think she overheard Blair’s comments earlier and is here to have an intervention? You don’t think Ellen and your mom are having a secret affair do you? I mean, they did sound like they were close and you told me about how Ellen was so sad…”

Sterling’s musings were cut off by the feeling of warm lips encapsulating her own. “I don’t think my mom is having an illicit affair with Ellen.”

“And the intervention?”

April shook her head. “She’s been…trying…to be better.”

Sterling chewed her bottom lip as she contemplated what the presence of Ellen could mean. “Want me to come in with you?”

“I’ll be OK. Besides, you're due home in 15 minutes and I don’t want your parents to think I’m a bad influence on you.”

Sterling couldn’t help the sound of disbelief that escaped her at the comment. “My parents love you…maybe more than they love Blair and myself.”

“Then let’s keep it that way. I’ll call you later to let you know what happened.” Sterling watched as April opened the door and stepped out of the car before turning back. “I’ll talk to you soon.” The blonde watched as April walked up the path and vanished behind the front door. She waited for another minute before putting the car into drive and pulling back onto the road, trusting that April would be fine with whatever awaited her inside.

************************

April walked into the house, her hand remaining on the closed door behind her as she listened in an attempt to gather information on what she may be about to find. She could hear voices from the kitchen but was unable to make out any of the words being said. She started to make her way towards the back of the house when the sound of laughter ringing out brought her to a stop. Now that she was closer, she was able to clearly make out that the two voices belonged to her mom and Ellen. When the voices descended into laughter once more, she found her feet beginning to move. The desire to confirm everything her ears were telling her was happening overriding the shock that had brought her to a standstill.

“Hi mom, Miss Johnson.”

“I think you can call me Ellen when I’m sitting in your kitchen.”

“I just wanted to let you know I was home. I’ll leave you to it.” April turned to leave but was stopped by the sound of her mom’s voice.

“If you’re not too tired, would you join us? There are some things I would like to talk to you about.” There was a part of April that wanted to decline and retreat to her room, the sinking feeling that had accompanied hearing those words made it seem like an appealing option. However, there was the part of her that heard Sterling’s voice in her mind reminding her that if her mom was trying to change, that she should give her a chance to show it.

“Sure mom.” With the decision made, she turned back and walked over to the table and took a seat in one of the empty chairs. As she did so, her gaze drifted across some of the piles of papers on the table. She watched as a look passed between Ellen and her mom but before she could decipher it, her mom started speaking.

“I know things haven’t been good between us and you have a lot of concerns about what happens next. I haven’t said anything until now as I wanted to make sure everything was all finalised so I didn’t let you down again.”

“Mom, you did…”

“April...We all know it’s true. I wanted you to know that I sold the lake house.” If she had heard those words a year ago, she is sure that she would have been angry but now all she felt was relief. “Since your father’s life insurance policy was void due to the circumstances, I needed to get some financial security.”

April nodded at the news. “Will we have to move too?” Barely a second had passed before a more concerning thought occurred. She felt her body tense as she voiced her concern. “Is Ellen here as we can’t afford for me to keep attending Willingham?”

“No. Absolutely not to either of those questions. Ellen is just here as a friend. She has been helping me sort out this.” April accepted the folder that her mom handed to her. She glanced over at her mom and Ellen before opening the folder to read the contents.

“Mom...this says I have over $500,000 in an account in my name.”

“There are conditions attached to it.”

April felt her heart sink. The potential conditions that could be imposed on her racing through her mind. She closed the folder before taking a deep breath and asking the question. “What conditions?”

“It is to be used to pay for your education. Ellen helped me find out how much it costs per year for all the costs associated with an Ivy league school and that will more than cover your bachelors degree. Once you finish that, the rest of the money is yours to do with what you wish.”

April stared at the table for a moment letting the information sink in. There was one question that lingered in the back of her mind that she had to voice before she could allow herself to feel confident in knowing this money was hers. She began to turn the ring on her finger as she opened her mouth to speak. “What if I wanted to use it to marry Sterling?”

There was a silence that hung in the air and April couldn’t bring herself to look up at her mom, knowing that the one question may mean she loses it all but needing to know the answer before she could accept it.

“Then that would be one expensive wedding.” April’s eyes shot up to look at her mom, searching for any sign that she had misheard. “I know I have been less than supportive and said things that have given you reason to doubt me in the past but between counselling and Ellen reminding me of who I used to be…” June sighed. “I could choose to keep the views I have expressed across your life and drive you away or I could choose to change those views and start learning to accept you. As Ellen reminded me, I have a choice in who I am in this situation but you don’t.”

April was vaguely aware of tears tracking their way down her cheeks as she listened to her mom. She saw the way Ellen placed a reassuring hand on her mom’s shoulder.

“Just not yet?”

A small chuckle escaped April’s lips at the question. “Not yet. We’re not ready now.”

“But you have...thought about it? That someday you would want to?”

April chewed the corner of her bottom lip for a moment as she contemplated her answer. She could tell that her mom was still not completely comfortable with everything but she was trying. April was under no illusion that years of bigotry would fade away overnight but the fact her mom was even willing to engage in a conversation on the topic showed how far she had come already. That alone gave her hope that a time would come where her mom may truly accept her for herself. “Maybe someday.”

“Well, when y’all do decide to make that commitment, I hope that there will be an invitation for your old teacher. I know I shouldn’t have favourites but,” Ellen dropped her voice to a whisper as if it wasn’t just the three of them in the privacy of the Stevens house. “Just between us, you both snuck in there. There’s just something about you girls that warms my heart.”

“Thanks Ellen.” April looked down at the folder in her hand.

“There’s no catch. Your mom asked me to be there when it was all set up. She wanted someone you trusted to be involved.” The fact that April couldn’t trust her own mom went unspoken between the three women.

Raising her gaze from the file in her hand, she looked to her mom. “Thanks mom.” Even though there was still that doubt lurking in her mind, she hoped that with time it would fade.

**********************

Sterling looked over at her sister sitting on her bed, casually scrolling through her phone. “Are you going to help pack?”

Blair glanced up. “I already packed my stuff.”

“When did you do that?”

“When you were busy giving April a full physical exam with your lips after Fellowship.”

Sterling sputtered as soon as the words were out of her sister's mouth. “I was not…”

“Sterl, your shirt is inside out.” Sterling looked down at her clothes to check.

“It is not.”

“Nope but the fact you checked tells me I was right about your extra, extra curricular activities.” Blair sat back against the pillows. “You’d be done a lot quicker if you had any form of order in here.”

“There’s order. I know where everything is.”

“Sure Sterl. That’s why you have spent the last ten minutes searching for the hoodie that is thrown on your couch.”

Sterling turned her focus to the other die of the room and sure enough, sitting right there on the back of the couch was her top. “And you didn’t feel the need to share that information sooner because…”

“I am helping you develop your own independence. Can’t have you depending on me all our lives.” Blair locked her phone and dropped it to the mattress beside her before turning to face the blonde fully. “So, what’s your plan?”

“Plan?”

“For the weekend. A whole weekend, including overnight, without parental supervision.”

“It’s a Fellowship event. Ellen will be there…”

“Pshh. Ellen believed that the lock-in was an innocent affair and we all know the truth there.” Blair stood from the bed and headed through the door into their bathroom.

“Where are you going?” When she didn’t get a reply, Sterling returned her focus to packing her bag. The thoughts of what her sister may try to do across the weekend being pushed to the back of her mind.

“Here.” Blair thrust a rucksack at her.

“What’s this?” Sterling asked as she started to unzip the bag, pulling out the first item. She examined the triangular pillow, a frown creasing her brow. “A pillow?”

“Lesbian sex starter kit.” Sterling’s eyes dropped to the item in her hand, before she pulled open the bag to look at the rest of the contents.

“Blair! Why…what…how?”

In the next instant, the bag was pulled out of her grasp as Blair retrieved it and emptied the contents out onto the bed. “Be prepared. You don’t want your first time with April to be as disappointing as it was with peanut butter lumberjack.” Sterling found her feet firmly rooted to the spot, just staring at her sister’s back. The next instant she felt herself being dragged over to the bed by her sister. “So I did the research as you seem to have an aversion to topics not on the school curriculum. I present to you the top items for all sapphically inclined individuals.” She waved her hand over the assorted items. “A sampling across the range if you will. We have a finger vibrator - self explanatory. A strapless strap-on so you can both benefit. You already have the sex wedge.”

“Sex wedge?”

Blair gestured towards the pillow still in her hand. “Apparently it gives the perfect 27 degree angle for her pleasure…and your comfort.”

“Please stop speaking.”

“Oh and this is for you.” Sterling caught sight of the item Blair tossed her way just in time to catch it. “Since you chose to date someone pocket sized, finger extenders.” Sterling dropped the item. “You’re welcome.”

“Good lord Blair. I’m not taking any of this to camp. April and I…we haven’t even…we’re not…shared cabins.”

Rolling her eyes, Blair shook her head. “You’re both smart, figure something out.” Sterling felt Blair pat her shoulder as she made her way out of the room. “If you’re not taking my amazing gifts to camp, you probably want to hide them so mom doesn’t find your sex toy stash while we are gone.” Before Sterling could answer, the door clicked closed behind her sister, leaving her alone in her room once more.

************************

The Volt skidded to a stop against the gravel of the parking lot, drawing the attention of the group already gathered at the edge.

“Told you we would make it on time. And to think you were going to veto the essential grocery store trip.” Blair commented as she climbed out of the driver's side.

“I don’t think Sour Patch kids can be classed as an essential item.”

Blair turned to face her sister, her hand resting over her heart. “How could you ever doubt the importance of something Sour Patch? More importantly, you lost the bet so you have to carry the bags.”

“I thought you were kidding.” Sterling called after Blair’s retreating form, receiving nothing but a wave in response. Shaking her head, she turned to open the trunk of the car to unload their bags. With one backpack on her back and the other in her hand, she grabbed the bag from the grocery store before realising she still had to close the trunk. Sterling glared at the offending part of the car while trying to work out how best to approach the task. Adjusting the bag in her hand she stretched up and managed to slam it closed, only stumbling slightly but it was enough for the cans sitting on top of the bag to topple out and roll under the back of the car. Knowing Blair would not survive the weekend without the added caffeine, she dropped her bag to the ground before sinking to her knees to retrieve the stray items. Crawling as far as the backpack on her back would allow and stretching an arm out, she managed to edge the last can back towards her with the tips of her fingers.

“Need a hand?” Sterling turned to the source of the voice and was greeted with the sight of April’s legs. She slid a bit further out and let her eyes trail up the tanned skin before her. Unlike the school skirts that always cut off her ability to ogle her girlfriend’s toned legs at the knee, as her eyes reached above the knee, there was no barrier. Allowing her eyes to continue wandering up the exposed flesh, she offered up a silent thank you for April’s dedication to a fully rounded workout regime and her decision to wear shorts...short shorts. Sterling’s gaze was broken by a hand appearing in her sight line and when she followed the arm up, she was met by the smirking face of her girlfriend.

“You have no idea.” She muttered as she reached up to take the offered hand to get back to her feet, the only sign that April had heard was the slight raise of an eyebrow. Once Sterling was back on her feet, April took the other backpack from her.

“Dare I ask why Blair is not carrying her own bag?”

“I lost a bet.” Sterling watched as April lifted the backpack onto her own back, adjusting the straps, before reaching out to take the grocery store bag. “Don’t you have your own bag to carry?”

“I got here early to help Ellen set up so my bag is already at the site.”

As the pair approached the group, Ellen looked over to them. Seeing April give a nod, she stood up on a bench to gather their attention. “Good morning y’all. I know you are all just as excited as I am to get started on the great activities that we have planned.” Ellen addressed the assembled teens with her usual enthusiasm and ignored the lackluster response from them. “We have a short hike to our campground and then we can pitch the tents, dig the latrine and then we are good to get settled in.”

“Tents?”

“Dig?”

“What’s a latrine?”

Ellen chuckled behind her clipboard. “I’m just kidding y’all. You should have seen your faces. We are staying in cabins as apparently the Willingham excursions insurance doesn’t cover chiropractor bills from sleeping on the ground.” The grumbles from the students faded. “April will share your cabin assignments when we reach our site. Let’s go.” Ellen led the group out of the parking lot and along one of the trails that were marked towards their cabins. The students fell into step behind her in their usual friendship groups and settled into gentle chatter.

As they arrived at the site, April headed over to a table that had already been set up in the middle of the clearing between the cabins. Sterling waited with Blair as the other members of the Fellowship group filed past the table to get their cabin assignments. Once the final student had departed, Sterling wandered over to where April stood. “I suppose it is too much to hope that we get a cabin to ourselves.”

“Afraid so.”

“And to think that Sterl didn’t splash out on noise cancelling headphones for my birthday as, and I quote, it’s the rest of us that need noise cancelled.” Blair slung her arm around the shorter girl’s shoulders. “For the right price, I could be persuaded to enjoy the campfire a bit later. I have a great hourly distraction rate that I never got to use when Sterl was with Luke...it would have been less of an hourly rate and more of a per minute rate.”

“For the love the of the Lord Blair...stop talking.” Sterling could feel the mortification rise within her at having her previous sexual encounters brought up with her current girlfriend. She reached out and grabbed April’s hand to lead her away from the scene and to their cabin. “I’m so sorry.” Sterling spoke as soon as the door closed behind them. “We clearly need to have the discussion on boundaries again.”

April leant up and placed a gentle kiss on the blonde’s lips, taking her hand to lead them further into the cabin. “I think we both know…” The comment was cut off as Sterling closed the space between them to claim another kiss. “...That trying to set boundaries with Blair is futile.” Sterling dropped the bag she was carrying onto the floor before gripping the other girl’s waist to draw her closer, their bodies pressing together as their lips met in a kiss that held greater intent than the previous ones.

“Damn right.” The sound of Blair’s voice carrying across the cabin caused the two girls to break apart. Sterling rested her forehead against April’s as she let out a quiet huff in frustration at being interrupted. “However, we do need some rules. When in the cabin, that I also have to sleep in, then keep all fingers and tongues…”

“I will clean the fudge pump for the next month if you don’t finish that sentence...ever.”

“Deal.” Blair flopped down on one of the other beds in the cabin. “So who else gets the pleasure of my company?”

“I do believe the pleasure will be all yours angry twin.” Ezekiel announced as he stepped through the door with Hannah B in tow.

“I have a name.” Blair huffed.

“I know. Hannah, you’re sharing with grouchy.” Ezekiel flashed his hand dismissively in Blair’s direction.

Blair shot up in her bed, narrowly missing hitting her head on the upper bunk. “Why have I got to share?”

Ezekiel regarded her with raised eyebrows. “Oh girl, please. You have been sharing with blinky over there your whole life so don’t make out like you don’t know how. Besides, it was Ellen’s rule for letting me stay in here...as if anything you ladies have is of any interest to me.”

“Do you mind if I sleep on the bottom bunk? I have a fear of heights.” Hannah asked as she approached the beds.

Blair cast a glance at the other girl, ready to question how someone could be scared of the top bunk but seeing the genuine look on Hannah B’s face, the words died on her tongue. “Sure.”

“Thanks Blair.”

“We’ve got ten minutes until Ellen wants us all back out to start our first activity.” April announced to the group as she rose from where she had been sitting beside Sterling watching the interactions. She turned back towards the blonde. “Can I be on top?”

“As if that is even a question.” Ezekiel commented from his bunk. April turned to raise an eyebrow in question at her friend. “Oh please, don’t give me that look. We all know it’s true.”

“We do?” Hannah B looked between her friends. “Does Sterling not like heights either? Is that why she broke up with Luke?”

Ezekiel closed his eyes before rubbing his forehead with his hand. “No, Hannah. I’m sure it had more to do with his vacuous nature than his height.”

“Then why would April being on the top be so obvious?”

Blair rose from her bed and slung her arm around the other girl. “We’re not talking bunks.”

“I was.” April muttered.

Blair ignored the comment and continued with her own explanation. “You know how April likes to have control of every tiny detail and Sterl is...well...Sterl is very willing…”

“Blair...if you continue that sentence then I will tell mom that you set fire to the Bible.”

“Fine. We should get some prime seats before the first event.” Blair kept her arm around Hannah’s shoulder as she led her to the door. As she passed Ezekiel, they shared a look that neither Sterling nor April could fully make out.

“Great idea.” Ezekiel fell into step beside them.

Sterling stood from the bunk to stand beside her girlfriend, watching as the trio exited the cabin. “Remind me why we thought sharing with those three was a good idea?”

“As much as Blair and Ezekiel may try our patience, sharing with them does come with some advantages.”

Sterling turned to face the shorter girl, her hands coming to rest against her hips. “Like?”

April met Sterling’s gaze for a moment, before rising up slightly to bring her lips level with the taller girl’s ear. “You’ll find out.” She whispered before nipping at the bottom of the blonde’s ear and pulling back. “We’d better get out there before they break out the dolls for a puppet show.”

“You don’t think…” Seeing the look on April’s face was all the answer Sterling needed. “We should go.”

********************

“Good morning campers. It’s time to rise and shine. We have a full day of great activities ahead of us.” The sound of Ellen’s voice carried over the intercom system in the cabin. Sterling groaned and rolled onto her side to see Ezekiel sitting on the edge of his bed already dressed. She looked over at the sound of a thud as Hannah B jumped down from the top bunk.

“Good morning. Are you both ready for all the great activities today?”

Sterling frowned at the use of the word ‘both’ and poked the bottom of the mattress above her only to find it gave way too easily for April to be up there. “Where’s April?”

“She went out for a run first thing.”

“It is first thing.” Sterling pushed herself up and stretched as she rose from her bed.

“Not in AST.”

“AST?”

“April Stevens Time...between 5am and 6am is the perfect time to complete a cardio workout and start the day with an endorphin boost according to April. Personally, I always felt it was the perfect time for another REM cycle.”

“I still think that if you started the day with some exercise then you may be less cranky before your morning coffee.” Sterling turned towards the door at the sound of April’s voice and was greeted by the sight of her girlfriend entering the room, sweat glistening on her skin. She watched as April lifted the bottom of her t-shirt to wipe her brow, her eyes drawn to the toned stomach that had just been exposed.

“Girl please, if I want a morning hit of endorphins, I’ll eat a chocolate bar.” April shook her head at her friend. “I think you broke your girlfriend. For someone who spends a significant amount of time blinking, she hasn’t so much as twitched since you walked in.”

Sterling is vaguely aware of the fact that April is now approaching her and that she hasn’t moved, spoken or even breathed since she laid eyes on her. She watches as April draws closer until her vision is filled with the colour of her t-shirt as she stands directly in front of her. She is aware of the lightest touch of fingers tracing the edge of her maxilla, a gentle force tilts her chin up so her eyes land on the half-smile that she loves so much. She knows she should keep moving her eyes up to meet those of the girl before her but she just doesn’t have the ability to look away from the lips before her. It is only when her own lips are captured by the smooth warmth of April’s that she feels like her body restarts. Her hand comes up to cup the cheek of the girl kneeling before her while she allows herself to sink into the kiss.

All too soon for Sterling, April pulls back just far enough to speak. “Probably a good thing you weren’t in my gym class this year huh?”

“I’m not sure I would have survived.”

April’s laughter filled the cabin. “Breakfast is in 20 minutes so I’m going to grab a shower.” Sterling watched as April grabbed her wash stuff from the end of the bunks and began to head out of the cabin. “How is she still asleep?”

“Blair can sleep through pretty much anything.” Sterling saw the mischievous look appear but before she had a chance to say anything, April had picked up the bottle of water from beside the bed and began to slowly pour it into the brunette’s ear. Blair shot up in the bed, hitting her head against the upper bunk in the process.

“What the fuck?” Her eyes darted to where April stood as she rubbed her head. “Stevens?”

“See you both at breakfast.” Sterling fought down the smile that threatened to blossom at her girlfriends smirk, watching as she shot her a wink before leaving the cabin.

*************************

Sterling sat on the wooden bench beside the campfire with Blair to her side as they listened to Hannah B’s latest song. As much as she had wanted to spend as much time with April as she could, the responsibilities each had seemed destined to keep them busy or apart for most of the day. The blonde looked around the faces gathered around the fire, searching for one in particular. When she came up empty she turned to her sister. “Have you seen April?”

“Nope. Can’t say I keep track of her. She’s probably with Ezekiel or Ellen.”

Sterling nodded absentmindedly before looking back around the assembled group. She picked out Ezekiel beside Hannah B so knew that option was out. Then she spotted Ellen having a discussion with a disheveled Franklin and Lorna.

“Hey.” The sound of the voice accompanied a gentle kiss being placed against her cheek.

“Hey yourself. I was starting to wonder where you were.”

April took a seat on the bench next to Sterling. “I had a couple of jobs that needed doing before lights out.”

“You should have said. I would have helped.”

“There is one thing left that you can help with.”

Sterling went to stand but was stopped by April’s hand on her thigh. “Later. Let’s just enjoy this for now.”

Once Hannah B’s song ended, Ellen stood to address the group. “Y’all have done some really great work today. I’m proud of how you have worked together as a team to get closer to each other and closer to God. Tomorrow we have another fun filled day ahead so as much as I know everyone wants to stay here, it’s time for y’all to head to bed. Cabin check and lights out in twenty minutes.”

The students started to drift off to their own cabins one by one. “I just need to speak to Ezekiel. You head in, I’ll be there in a minute.” April pressed a quick kiss to the blonde’s cheek before heading over to where her friend sat. Sterling cast one more glance over to where they sat before making her way back to their cabin.

“I’m disappointed.”

“What? Why?” Sterling turned to face Blair as they got ready for bed.

“First you reject my fabulous bag of joy, then you actually follow the camp rules.”

“For someone who sporadically claims to dislike my girlfriend, you seem oddly invested in our sex life.”

“Or lack thereof.” Blair muttered quietly. “I’m just being a supportive sister.” She commented as she climbed into her bed. Sterling just shook her head as she did the same.

The door to the cabin opened and April and Ezekiel came in. As the shorter girl approached their bunk, she knelt down beside the bed. “Everything OK?”

“Yep, all sorted. Don’t fall asleep too quick.” April leant over to place a quick kiss on the blonde’s lips before climbing up into the top bunk just before Ellen popped her head in through the door.

“Sleep well everyone.” There were a few muttered responses before the light was turned off and the door clicked shut once more. Sterling found herself staring at the bottom of the bed above her, wondering why April had made the request she did.

A few minutes passed before there was a soft thump as April hopped down from her bed. There was a faint glow from a torch which April had mostly covered by her hand to reduce the light emitted. “Put your hoodie and shoes on.” She didn’t question the whispered instructions and proceeded to do as requested. Once she was ready, April took her hand and led them over to the door.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” April opened the door and took a tentative look around outside. “Come on.” Sterling felt the gentle tug on her hand as the other girl exited the cabin. All Sterling could do was follow her, casting her eyes around the campsite for any sign of the teachers. She followed April as they made their way around the cabin and along a path that led away from their campsite. Sterling could feel the way her pulse was racing at the prospect of being caught. Each step that took them further from the others meant the racing in her chest became less about breaking the rules and more about spending time alone with the girl whose hand was firmly enclosing her own. After a few minutes of walking, they emerged into a small clearing with a tent.

“Someone is here.” She whispered as she stopped in her tracks.

April turned to face her. “Nobody is here but us.”

“But the tent…”

“Is mine.” April started to walk backwards towards the tent, keeping her eyes on the blonde. “I wanted to spend some time, just us.”

“How did you do this?”

“Ezekiel dropped the tent off while Ellen was busy with the arrivals. Then I set it up on my run this morning. By now, our beds will have been padded to look like we are there just in case Ellen does a late cabin check. He is ready to tell Blair if she wakes up before we are back so she won’t worry.” April came to a stop as they reached the tent. “This is ours for tonight, for as long as you want to stay.”

“You are amazing.”

April smiled bashfully as she reached into the tent to retrieve a blanket to lay on the ground. Once it was laid flat, she gestured for Sterling to take a seat before following suit. As April settled onto her back, she opened her arm in silent invitation to the other girl. Sterling was only too happy to oblige and slid into the space, resting her head against the shorter girl’s shoulder as she settled back to look up at the night sky. She felt April’s arm wrap around her shoulder to hold her close as they both just enjoyed the closeness of one another while looking at the stars.

“Have you ever gone stargazing?”

“Not really. You can’t see much in Atlanta.”

A silence hung between them while they both just looked at the much greater number of stars visible than they could see from home. “When I was little and mom and dad would argue, I’d sneak out of the house. If we were at home, I’d sit at the end of the garden to be as far as I could get from them. If we were at the lake house, I’d go and sit on the dock and I’d write a letter to you.”

Sterling felt a small smile tug at her lips with the reminder of the letters she used to get from April as kids. “I remember that. I was always so excited when the mail arrived when you were away.” Her smile slipped as her eyebrows drew together as the memory developed. “You wrote me a lot of letters.”

“I did.” April sighed. “They argued a lot.” She reached down to play with her ring. “After we stopped being friends, I had no one to write letters to.”

“April, I’m so…” Sterling’s words were cut off by the gentle brush of lips against her own.

“I’m not saying that because I need you to apologise again, it’s just part of the story.” April saw the blonde nod before settling back to lie beside her, looking back to the sky. “After that I’d spend hours just looking up at the stars. I’d look for patterns and pictures in them. There were two that always stood out.” April raised her arm to point. “See those five stars that look like the kind of house you drew as a kid?”

Sterling followed the direction April pointed in and saw the stars. “It really does look like a house.”

“I used to look up at that one and wish my house was more like a home. The closest I felt to being home was when I was at yours and your dad would make us a fort to play in while your mom made us brownies...even if Blair always claimed the corners.”

After April stayed quiet, Sterling glanced over to her before quietly asking, “What was the second one?”

“The cosmic reminder of you. The W. Sitting just below the house...like the universe was reminding me that my home was always with you.” April reached out to intertwine their hands. “My dad found me sitting outside at the club one time and asked what I was looking at. I told him I was looking at my house in the sky. He laughed before turning to some of his friends and telling them I had clearly been watching too many movies and had an overactive imagination. When they walked away, your dad came over. He sat down next to me and told me that there was nothing wrong with looking for stories in the stars. He told me that in the past every culture had their own stories for the stars and some of them are still used to name the constellations today. So I started to learn the constellations and asterisms along with the stories about them.”

“I never knew dad spoke to you after we stopped being friends.”

“It was only the one time.” April glanced over and met Sterling’s gaze for a moment before shifting closer to the blonde and leaning her head against her shoulder. She felt the gentle press of lips against the side of her head, a small smile gracing her lips at the action. “Do you see those three stars that form a triangle?”

Sterling looked up and spotted the stars April spoke of. “Yep.”

“That’s the Summer Triangle. Two of the stars are Altair.” She pointed to one of the stars. “And Vega.” Her finger drifted across to a second star. “Vega was an immortal sky goddess but she was lonely. From her home amongst the stars, she looked down upon the Earth and one day her eye was caught by a mortal, Altair. She descended from the heavens to get to know him and they fell in love despite knowing her parents wouldn’t approve. She promised him they would be together in the heavens. One day, her father discovered she was descending to Earth to spend time with a lowly mortal. In his rage, her father decided to grant her promise and placed them both amongst the stars, forever separated by the celestial river that flows between them.”

“Are all the stories this tragic?”

April chuckled. “There’s more. On the 7th night of the 7th moon of the year, a bridge of magpies forms to let Altair cross to be with Vega for one night. So they wait on opposite sides, so close but unable to be together yet knowing they will get to hold each other again when the time is right.”

“Do you think if they knew what would happen to them that they would have done things differently?”

“I think that for some people, their love is inevitable. That despite the barriers they may face, whatever time they have together will make the hard times worth it.”

April reached into her pocket and pulled out a small box. “I know you haven’t had a necklace since...everything.” She sat herself up and turned towards the blonde, her eyes focused on the box she fidgeted with in her hands. Sterling mirrored her position, remaining quiet while she waited for her girlfriend to work through whatever she wanted to say. April opened the box and turned it towards the other girl, revealing a triangular pendant with a small diamond set in each corner. “For so much of our lives it feels like we have been standing on opposite banks, coming together for moments that are all too short before we are separated once more. You’re my Altair, Sterl.”

Sterling cupped April’s cheek with her hand, gently drawing the other girl towards her. “I’ll always wait for you.” The words were whispered on a breath that ghosted across the shorter girls lips.

“You don’t have to wait anymore.” With those words, April closed the remaining gap between them. Their lips meeting in a kiss that not only reinforced the words spoken but also the unspoken, the promise that they would always overcome obstacles in their way. April pulled back from the kiss. “May I?” She gestured towards the necklace.

Sterling turned so her back faced towards April. She felt the delicate brush of fingers as the shorter girl swept her hair to one side, the warmth that radiated between them as April shifted closer before securing the necklace around her neck. She was aware of the goosebumps that rose wherever fingers trailed against her skin. The fingers were replaced by lips as April pressed a kiss against the back of her neck. Sterling felt her eyes drift closed at the touch as her own hand came up to touch the pendant resting against her chest. Rather than retreating after the kiss, Sterling felt April’s lips continue to explore her neck, burning a trail further forward. The hands that had secured the chain, had slipped to wrap around her midsection. The blonde brought her hand up to rest against the back of April’s neck, holding her close as she let her body sink back against the other girl. Her other hand dropped to intertwine fingers with one of the hands resting on her waist. As April pressed a kiss to just behind her ear, a hand trailed further up her body and Sterling felt her breath catch. “You should probably stop.”

“Do you want me to?”

“No but…”

“I'm done waiting.”

Sterling turned to face the other girl, so she could look into her eyes. “Are you sure? I always wanted it to be special, to be everything you ever imagined.”

April leant in to kiss the girl before her. “It’ll be with you. That is all I have ever wanted.” Sterling searched April’s eyes for any sign of doubt for a few seconds more before capturing the shorter girl's lips with her own, her tongue slipping between lips that parted in a silent invitation to deepen the kiss. Sterling could feel her own heart pounding against her ribcage as she felt a hand slip underneath the fabric of her shirt, the warmth radiating from each point of contact between fingers and her skin. As April broke away from her lips, Sterling heard a small whine escape her lips, her eyes meeting the mildly amused ones opposite her for a split second before April began to trail kisses across her jaw and down her neck. Sterling was sure that she could feel just how much her heart was racing as she nibbled on her pulse point. She slipped her own hand around April’s waist to draw her closer, becoming hyper aware of every part of their bodies that touched but needing the other girl closer. As the hand on her abdomen trailed up, Sterling could feel her pulse accelerate. When April’s thumb brushed across her breast, Sterling’s eyes slammed shut as she pulled her lower lip between her teeth.

The feeling of warm breath ghosting across the shell of her ear sent an involuntary shudder through her body. “Tent?” The only response possible was to nod her head. Hearing the zip on the tent, Sterling opened her eyes just in time to see April pause part way into the tent to glance over at her, a soft smile on her face. “You coming?”

The first response that popped into her head was ‘soon I hope’ but she didn’t voice that, instead nodding as she followed the shorter girl inside. As she pushed the door to one side, her eyes fell on April adjusting a lantern that was hanging from the roof so it cast a small amount of light across the space, the slight tremor in her hand belying her earlier confidence. Sterling settled herself back to lie on her side, one arm propping her head up as she waited as April took a couple of breaths before turning back towards her, their eyes meeting for a moment before April slipped down to mirror the blonde’s position.

Sterling reached her arm forward, allowing it to come to rest upon April’s hip, her thumb tracing over the fabric there. “We don’t have to do anything you aren’t ready for.”

April shuffled forwards to close the gap between them, bringing their lips together in a languid kiss. Sterling felt the gentle brush of her tongue against her lips, seeking entry, which she granted. As they sink deeper into the kiss and into each other, it feels like everything around them ceases to exist. All she is aware of is April. Her hand slips under the edge of April’s top, nudging the material higher to expose more flesh to her wandering hand. Her fingertips exploring the soft skin, slowly venturing further up her body. Sterling’s hand cupped the breast under her shirt, as her thumb brushed across the nipple she heard the sudden intake of air as April pulled back from their kiss. Seizing the opportunity, Sterling kissed a path down April’s neck before running her tongue up the length of it to bring her lips level with April’s ear. “Lie back.”

As soon as April had let herself fall back, Sterling allowed her lips to trail lower, along the curve of her girlfriend's neck. She rolled one nipple between her thumb and forefinger as she dipped her head to capture the other between her lips, running her tongue over the hardened bud. She shifted slightly to bring her leg between April’s, pressing up against her.

“Fuck Sterl.” Sterling wasn’t sure if it was the combination of feelings from touching the other girl or the profanity that slipped behind her lips without effort but she felt a rush of heat straight to her core. She shifted her hand to push April’s shirt higher but a hand stopped her. Sterling pulled back to look up to meet the other girl’s gaze. “Sorry…was that…”

Before Sterling could finish the sentence she found herself on her back, her lips captured as April’s tongue licked into her mouth. She could feel her own thighs bracketed by April’s. Her top was being raised as warm hands blazed a path up her torso, breasts cupped as thumbs circled her nipples. Their kiss only broke when it was necessary to allow her top to be removed. As the clothing was discarded to the side, Sterling looked up to catch the wandering gaze of the other girl, the look on her face a mixture of awe, lust and love. “So beautiful.”

Sterling reached her arm up to pull the other girl down to her to claim her lips in a searing kiss. She heard a small whine escape her own lips as April broke their kiss, only to cause Sterling’s breath to catch as she kissed a path down her sternum, veering off to one side to kiss and nip at the underside of a breast before allowing her tongue to lick up, circling closer and closer, until her nipple was sucked into the velvety warmth of April’s mouth. She felt the graze of teeth against it as her tongue flicked across the tip. Sterling felt her back arch up as one hand wrapped itself around April’s neck to pull her closer, the other fisting the material beneath her. She tried to clench her thighs together to create some kind of pressure to alleviate the throb that had settled in as April repeated the action on her other breast. A feeling that intensified as she felt April’s lips kiss a trail down her stomach. She felt the brush of fingers at the edge of her shorts. “May I?”

Sterling opened her eyes and looked down into April’s blue eyes, nodding in response as she didn’t think she could form words if she tried in that moment. She held eye contact as she felt the material slide down her legs. Saw the moment that April gave in to her temptation and let her gaze rake over her now naked body. Saw the way her throat bobbed as she swallowed and her chest rose with a stuttering breath. She watched as April’s eyes followed the trail her fingers ran, starting at her ankle and rising further up her leg, above her knee and across her inner thigh. Rising higher up her thigh before trailing off along her groin at the last moment drawing a groan from the blonde. Before she could voice her request for April to just touch her where she needed her, she felt her fingers slide through her folds. “You’re so wet.”

The words held an air of surprise which if Sterling had any ability to form words in her mind other than ‘fuck’ and ‘April’ she would have commented on. Instead she finds her mental capacity further reduced as April slips a finger inside her, thumb brushing over her clit. She feels a pressure building inside her and knows that she is close. When she feels April kiss her way up the inside of her thigh, Sterling drops her head back to the ground, eyes screwed tightly shut, her breathing becoming faster by the second. It is when she feels April’s tongue trace over her clit that her hand flies to the back of the other girl’s head, holding her close. “Fuck.” She can feel the pressure building deep inside her, a pressure that is finally released as April sucks her clit into her mouth and flicks her tongue over its surface. Sterling’s hand tightens on April’s head, holding her close as she rides out her orgasm. She feels the way April slows her motions, gently bringing her back down before placing a gentle kiss on her inner thigh.

Sterling gives a gentle tug on her neck to bring the other girl up to her lips to kiss her once more. “That…was…amazing.” Sterling ran a hand across the other girl’s cheek before rising up to flip their positions. “If I do anything that makes you uncomfortable, just say and I’ll stop.” Seeing the nod, Sterling went to lift April’s shirt but felt a hand rest on hers, stopping the action. “Do you want to stop?”

“No. I just…It’s not attractive.”

Sterling felt the frown crease her brow. “What isn’t?”

“The scar. On my shoulder.”

Sterling leant down and placed a gentle kiss against April’s lips. “You’re beautiful. Every part of you.”

“You haven’t seen it.”

“I don’t need to see anything to know that it won’t change how I see you. That scar doesn’t make you less attractive to me. It is part of you, part of your story…our story.” April finally met her gaze. “I have them too.” She held April’s gaze for a moment longer, trying to convey all her feelings with the look. “Can I?”

April nodded. Maintaining eye contact, Sterling lifted the top April was wearing, sliding it further up her body. She paused for a second as she got to just below where the scar began but when she received no opposition, lifted the shirt off the rest of the way. Sterling leant down to kiss April deeply, feeling the way their bare chests pressed against one another and April’s arms wrapped around her neck. Sterling let her hands wander over the exposed skin, enjoying the feeling of the way April’s body responded to her touch. Feeling the tension drain out of the body beneath hers, Sterling dipped her head to kiss down the column of April’s neck, daring to give a gentle bite to her pulse point. Her kisses trailed lower, tongue dipping into the hollow of her collar bone. As her lips first made contact with the edge of the scar, she felt April stiffen slightly underneath her. She continued her path, allowing her kisses to trace the length of the scar. By the time she reached the end, the tension had drained from April once more.

Sterling raised her head to look the other girl in the eye once more. “You’re perfect.” The words were whispered on a breath before April pulled her down into a searing kiss. Sterling ran her hand up April’s leg, dipping onto her inner thigh and edging closer to her goal. She had never been more glad of April’s choice of sleepwear than she was in that moment. The shorts she was wearing allowing her to slip her hand under the fabric and into the ever so inviting wet warmth beneath. There is a moan than emanates from one of them but Sterling really isn’t sure which one, nor does she care. Her whole focus is on the amazing feeling of her fingers sliding through her girlfriends folds and the way April’s gripping the bicep of her free arm. Sterling lowers her head to let her tongue play with a nipple, tracing a range of patterns over the surface as she circles April’s clit with her fingers. Hearing the way April’s breathing changes, Sterling knows she is close. She changes the angle of her hand ever so slightly and with a couple more strokes, feels April dig her fingers in deeper as she comes. “God, fuck.”

Sterling slows her fingers until April reaches down to stop her hand moving all together. She waits for a moment before slowly pulling her hand back and lying back. As soon as her back hits the ground, April rolls over to tuck into her side with her head resting on her shoulder. Sterling traces random patterns across her back while she lets the other girl get her breathing back to a normal rhythm. “Wow.”

“Just wow?”

April nudged her slightly in response. “I never realised sex was this good.”

“Only with you.”

Sterling looked over as April lifted her head slightly. “I don’t want this to end.”

The blonde raised her hand to cup April’s cheek. “This isn’t the end. This is just the beginning.” As Sterling leant in to kiss April, she felt the truth in those words. While each day may draw to an end, they would wake up tomorrow and start a new day…together.