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can we always be this close (forever and ever)?

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“When has it ever been easy? But I apologized for it. I've done all I can to make it right. Ye belong wi' me. We're mated for life, Sassenach.”

April sniffles and shovels a spoonful of half-melted Ben and Jerry’s into her mouth. Is the combination of sappy romance and ice cream an absolute heartbreak cliche? Perhaps. But it’s the only thing that’s made her feel even a modicum better since leaving Sterling.

Though she supposes that isn’t saying much, seeing as she hasn’t stopped crying long enough to chance switching out her glasses for her contacts in a week. But really, it’s only appropriate that she bears a strong resemblance to her 13-year-old self in a time like this. Because just like then, she has had her heart thoroughly broken by none other than Sterling fucking Wesley, and she is pretty darn certain that she will never love again. 

If the risk is ever feeling this way again, then she doesn’t want it...and that’s even assuming she ever gets over this; which she does not think she will. Hell, if James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser can hold on to his everlasting love for Claire after 20 years apart, she’s pretty sure she can hold onto this feeling of all-consuming despair at the thought that the one person she entrusted her heart to could so easily lie to her for their entire relationship.

“Hey, April?” Jamie calls from the hallway and opens the bedroom door, poking her head in. “Is that pint of ice cream the only thing you’ve eaten today?” she asks.

April shakes her head, unashamed as she also holds up a bag of kettle BBQ chips that she got from her morning walk to the corner store. It’s only been a week and a half and she and the clerk have gotten on a first-name basis.

“April, please understand that I mean this in the nicest way possible, but I am so worried about you. I think completely cutting yourself off from the world is not any way to heal.”

April shrugs. “Maybe.” She crunches on a chip. “But if it’s the only way to stop me from seeing or thinking about You Know Who, then it’s alright by me.” This is stupid reasoning as she very much is still thinking about her former fiancée. She thinks about her every second of every day. That look of sheer devastation on her face when April revealed that she was leaving her has taken up permanent residence in the back of her mind. It’s the one thing that has had her constantly on the brink of picking up her phone and calling Sterling and telling her that she forgives her for all she’s done because she loves her and she can’t bear the thought of a life without her. 

Which, if you ask her, is some real Simpish shit.

“Okay, well, if you’ve got your evening all planned out, I’m just gonna leave you to it,” Jamie says, putting up her hands in surrender and walking back down the hall to the living area.

When she’s gone, April settles back in to finish the episode of Outlander, only to be rudely interrupted again a few minutes later, this time by her phone ringing.

“Fucking robocalls,” she mutters to herself, turning it over from where it was face down on the bed next to her and reading the caller ID. She expects some unknown number, but it says ‘United States Penitentiary, Atlanta.’ April sighs and hits accept.

A pre-recorded voice asks her if she accepts the call from Stevens, John, which she (begrudgingly) does.

“Hey there, Padawan. How’s my best girl doing today?” Her father says once their call is connected, and April immediately regrets answering.

“I’ve had better days,” she says truthfully. “Though I suppose you could say the same.”

John laughs. “Yeah, you got that right. But on the bright side, I’ve started spending my yard time getting into shape. Maybe once this is all over, you and I can go to the gym together,” he says, being overly friendly.

“Daddy, is there a reason why you’re calling me?” she asks, knowing there has to be or he wouldn’t have waited over a week to use his daily phone time on her.

“Boy, you really are a straight-shooter,” John remarks, then scoffs, which April presumes is him finding it funny to call her a straight anything. “I’m calling because I wanted to check in on you. Your mother’s in hysterics about you being missing.”

In hindsight, April perhaps shouldn’t have also blocked her mother and aunt’s numbers, but she knows they would be a liability right now. “Not missing, just taking a break,” she says around another bite of ice cream.

“Can I ask where you are?” John asks.

“Yep. Doesn’t mean I’ll tell you,” April replies, giving zero fucks. What’s he gonna do? Smack her from behind bars?

“April, I don’t care how old you are, you know I don’t tolerate insolence,” John says, using the voice that is far scarier in person.

April holds the phone out away from herself and flips it off, knowing he can’t see her but taking satisfaction in it anyway. “My apologies, Daddy,” she says when she puts her phone back up to her ear. “But I still won’t tell you where I am, as I’m recovering from the fact that my engagement fell through due in at least a small part to your whore-mongering!” With that, she hits the end call button and throws her phone down on the bed in a huff. Sure, she’s going to pay for that eventually, somehow, but God was it satisfying to say in the moment.

The very last thing she needs in her life right now is her father being smug over the fact that he actually managed to break her and Sterling up.

Her phone rings again, and she does not answer it. She refuses to answer it and be yelled at. But her resolve cracks when he calls again, and she answers if only to tell him to fuck off. “What?” she answers coldly.

John sighs. “I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel like I take any kind of pleasure in wrecking your fantasy. Truly, I wouldn’t have so much held what Sterling did to me against her if I knew she wasn’t still in the game. But then she had y’all get picked up by the same bounty hunter who took me in, and I knew she was still at it. You’re a good girl and I knew you wouldn’t willingly be with a bottom-feeder like that.”

“Don’t you dare call her that,” April says in a knee-jerk reaction because, despite everything, she feels the need to defend Sterling’s a certain degree. “She and Blair arrested you because you picked up a prostitute that you then proceeded to assault, and said prostitute was smart enough to press charges. You then jumped bail and tried to pin it on Gerald, whose wife was dying of cancer. Did I get everything?”

There’s a long silence from John’s end as April catches her breath, having managed to get that all out in one go. “It pains me that you can think so little of me after all I’ve done for you. Just know that despite your flaws, I still love you. I only wish you would offer me the same courtesy.” With that, John hangs up the phone, leaving April to seethe.

She hates how easily he can get into her head and make her question if she’s justified in her rage at him. Feeling the rage build inside her, she pounds a fist down on the mattress in frustration. And then she feels a sudden craving for something fizzy and caffeinated, which she supposes is an excuse to stretch her legs as she gets up from the bed, hiking up the overly-long pair of Sterling’s sweatpants (that she brought with her by mistake) so that she doesn’t trip. She grabs the remnants of her snacks, thinking her ice cream needs a refreeze, at the very least, and heads off to the kitchen, but stops in her tracks the moment the apartment’s front door opens to reveal...Sterling.

April has been picturing how it would be to see Sterling again because she has realized that it will happen. But this is not how she wanted it to happen. Not in baggy sweatpants. Not in her BB-8 hoodie. Not wearing her glasses. And certainly not with her hair in Jamie’s half-hearted attempt at an Elsa braid. But she guesses none of that really matters when she has apparently had her location compromised by her supposed best friend.

Without giving it another thought, April puts down her snacks on the dining room table and hightails it to the bathroom, slamming the door shut and locking it before Sterling can stop her.

“April? April, seriously, open the door,” Sterling says, pounding on it a few times, but April holds firm.

“No! Go away!” she says like a petulant child and takes a seat on the edge of the bathtub...which is also the shower.

“April, will you please hear me out? I drove here all the way from Atlanta,” Sterling pleads, sounding exhausted.

“How is that my problem? I didn’t want you here in the first place!” April replies, wondering why in God’s name Sterling didn’t just buy a $100 plane ticket like she did in the Uber to the airport.

“It’s not your problem, it’s mine because I drove you away. I can admit that, and I’m sorry,” Sterling says, and the shadow under the door moves in such a way that April thinks she’s slid down to sit on the floor.

“How did you even get in here?” April asks.

“Jamie called me earlier to come and get you, so I drove up from Atlanta and she let me in on her way out,” Sterling explains, confirming April’s friend’s betrayal, but despite herself, April laughs.

“You really think I’m going to come back to you after you spent the entirety of our relationship lying to me? Fat chance. I can’t trust you, Sterl. Trust is the most important thing that every good relationship must have, and ours doesn’t have it anymore.” Saying this cuts April deeper than it should. Probably because what is objectively good for her and what her heart is screaming out for are on opposite sides of this battle.

Sterling’s quiet for a moment. “You know, I almost told you the truth back before...well, after the first time we were together but before the most recent time,” she says, stumbling over her words.

“What changed your mind?” April asks, thinking that maybe things would be different right now if they hadn’t built their relationship around this enormous lie.

“It just didn’t seem like the right time. You were focusing on the school musical, and I was dealing with all of my mommy issues. But then it just never seemed like a good time until it suddenly felt like I waited too long to ever tell you. I knew you would react exactly like this and I didn’t want to lose you, because I love you. I love you so much that the thought of spending my life without you in it is the most horrible thing I can think of,” Sterling’s confession comes easy as if it’s what she thinks of every day of her life. “l want to wake up with you and share everything with you. If you want one really spoiled kid, we can do that. Heck, if you want no kids and just a bunch of cats, I could...well, I could negotiate that. But as long as it means being with you, I don’t care about the details of what my life will look like. All that matters to me is having you in it. And if I have to spend the next sixty years regaining your trust, I will do it.”

April’s not sure when exactly during Sterling’s speech that the dam broke and tears started streaming down her face. The sentiment behind Sterling’s words is overwhelming, and it breaks April’s heart to think that in the spirit of protecting herself, she might have to give up on the amazing life being offered to her if she can’t trust that it isn’t all smoke and mirrors. “How am I-” April starts, her voice weak, and she clears her throat before continuing. “How am I supposed to believe anything you tell me anymore?”

“I know it wouldn’t even begin to make up for everything, but how about you ask me anything, and I have to tell you the truth, no matter how tough the answer might be?” Sterling suggests, and despite her better judgment, April nods.

And then she remembers Sterling can’t see her and says, “Okay, fine,” she thinks for a moment, realizing just how many absolutely puzzling things that have occurred throughout their relationship that she was never given a clear explanation for. “Why were you wet when you came back to the bridal shower? You and Blair left due to a ‘work emergency’ and considering the fact that I’m pretty sure the froyo shop was little more than a front, I have to assume that was a bounty hunting thing.”

“I mean, it wasn’t a complete front. We got customers sometimes and Blair knows how to use the cash register, so I think that counts,” Sterling says, but gets herself back on topic just as April is getting annoyed. “But uh, yeah, we left for a bounty hunting thing. There was a cybercriminal skip who turned out to be more dangerous than we thought and I kind of...shot him…”

“You shot someone?!” April asks, voice going up an octave when she realizes this shit runs a lot deeper than just arresting her woman-beating father, who honestly probably deserved it.

“In the hand! I need to make it perfectly clear that I shot him in the hand because he had a gun to Blair’s head, and he did not die,” Sterling explains, and April feels only a tiny bit better, because now she’s thinking about how many times Sterling has been in a life or death situation during their relationship, and she didn’t even know. “But he did get his blood all over us, and technically it’s illegal for us to be bounty hunters, so we had to leave the arrest to Bowser and hosed ourselves down in a carwash, and that is why we were wet.”

“ God…” April says, still processing this. “You shot someone on the day of our bridal shower, and then you came back and planned a trip to Savannah like nothing happened…” It’s a little horrifying to think that Sterling was capable of compartmentalization on that level—and this is coming from the queen of compartmentalization.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was and am still shaken to my core by that. I threw up and everything. But it was also stuff like that that made me think it was better if you didn’t know,” Sterling says, and honestly, April can somewhat see her point.

“Okay, what about your ankle? How did the sprain really happen?” she asks, needing to move on to what is likely to be a lighter subject.

“Oh, um, well, we were going after this skip who had a bunch of DUIs, and they never are too thrilled to see us, but he really wasn’t and came at me when I was on the phone with you. He knocked me down instead of having to go through Blair or Bowser, and I landed wrong.” It’s a surprisingly boring answer, but April believes her.

“Uhhh…” April pauses to think of something especially confusing. “Well, how about you tell me about the thing that made you skip picking our DJ?”

“Hmm…” Sterling says, thinking a moment. “Oh yeah, that was the skip-in-a-box!”

“What?” April asks, more confused than when she started.

“Our skip managed to get right past me in a big refrigerator box on a hand truck and Blair and Bowser wouldn’t let me go until I fixed the situation,” Sterling explains. “But I really did want to be there to pick the DJ. Promise.” Sterling’s silent after that, until she asks, “Will you please open the door?”

April recognizes that continuing to hold a conversation through a door is immature of her, but she also knows that if she looks into those dumb blue puppy eyes, she’s going to fall into Sterling’s arms and forgive her. But maybe that’s exactly why she gets up and opens the door.

Sterling falls onto her back, apparently having been leaning up against it on the floor, and gives April the dopiest look imaginable. “Hi.”

April crosses her arms as Sterling gets onto her feet. “Hi.”

Sterling runs a hand through her hair nervously. “So, uh, I don’t really know what else I can tell you to make you forgive me, aside from the fact that I won’t ever keep anything from you again.”

“Well,” April says, trying to keep a complete poker face. “You could always apologize.”

Sterling’s eyes go wide as she realizes she hasn’t actually done that yet. “Oh my god. Yes, I am so sorry,” she says, and drops down on her knees, reaching for April’s hands, which she reluctantly gives her while trying to avoid eye contact. “I’m so, so, sorry, and I still want to marry you more than anything in the world. But if I have to settle for just having you back in my life, I can tolerate that.”

April is still pissed, and rightfully so, but she is also intensely in love with Sterling, and a not small part of her brain is more than a little thrilled to have a woman willing to literally grovel on her hands and knees for her. Some would say that that is the makings of a perfect spouse when combined with a wife who knows how to take control of a household, and April’s been being taught how to do that since she was playing with dolls. “Well, I can’t tolerate that,” she says finally, and Sterling’s face falls.

“Oh…” Sterling says quietly, looking like she’s trying not to cry.

April sighs. “I can’t tolerate that because having you in my life without having you is not something I’ve dealt with very well in the past, and I don’t foresee that changing,” she elaborates. “So how about we go back to Atlanta and see what happens from there.” This is a huge concession on her part, though she knows it isn’t exactly what Sterling came here for. “I imagine there are some people there that are worried about me.”

“Ya think? Your mom and aunt are terrifying, so thanks a heap for throwing me to the wolves there,” Sterling says, laughing to herself and following April to Jamie’s room, where April starts to pack up her stuff.

“Yeah, well, you deserved it,” she says, not even the least bit apologetic. She’s been on the receiving end of her mother’s wrath, and it’s nothing compared to her father, so Sterling can handle that much.

“That’s fair,” Sterling says, nodding, and helps April fold her clothes.

If Sterling thought for one second that April was going to let her drive them back to Atlanta, let alone on an only half-healed ankle, she would have been sorely mistaken. Despite them not being entirely clear on their current relationship status, Sterling clearly knows April well enough and handed over the keyfob without being asked. And that is how they have ended up here, on a mostly deserted highway in the wee hours of the morning, listening to Sunflower and not speaking. In fact, April thinks for a moment that Sterling’s dozed off until she hears Sterling faintly singing along to the song.

Just existing within the same space as her is making it very hard for April to remember why she has to stay mad at her. She has to if only for the sake of her own integrity as a woman. She deserves to not be lied to, and she should be angry that she was.

“Hey, are you hungry at all?” Sterling asks after they pass a highway marker showing a few food places on it. “I uh...didn’t have dinner. Just some Skittles and chocolate milk.”

“Seriously, what is it with you and chocolate milk?” April snaps. “You’re a grown woman!”

“...It tastes good?” Sterling says as if she’s confused at why April would even ask such a thing.

“Yes but you aren’t a five-year-old!” It’s a dumb thing to fixate on, April knows this, but it’s better than focusing on the hard choice she has to make regarding a certain event set to happen in a week or so. She pulls the car off onto the next exit, not wanting to make Sterling go hungry, regardless.

“It makes my bones strong…” Sterling says quietly.

“Yeah, well, you still sprained your ankle, didn’t you?” April’s just being contrarian at this point. Though in her defense, it is 3 AM.

“Sprains are in the ligaments, not the bone…” Sterling says, clearly not realizing that keeping her mouth shut would be best.

“Sterling, I swear to God, I will get back on the highway and you will not get Waffle House,” April threatens, though even she is feeling a hankering for an omelet right about now.

“Be angry all you want, I’m not wrong,” Sterling says, looking up and crossing her arms. April can only assume that being sleep deprived has made her particularly bold.

April grumbles to herself and pulls into the Waffle House parking lot. “You’re buying,” she says as they get out of the car, the only other sound in the mostly-darkened liminal space of a parking lot being the buzzing of the neon sign.

They seat themselves at a booth near a window overlooking the parking lot, at least in small part due to April having her concerns of the car being broken into in the middle of the night being parked outside a shady Waffle House in North Shitsville, Georgia. It’s only while looking at the menu brought around by a tired waitress that April realizes she hasn’t eaten real food in about four days, when Jamie forced her to eat a salad from Trader Joe’s so that she didn’t develop scurvy. And it is because of that that she feels justified in ordering some All-The-Way hashbrowns with her omelet.

Clearly, her appetite is under no impression that a wedding—and fitting into a wedding dress—will be happening anytime soon.

Sterling orders waffles and all April can think of is the rather disastrous announcement of their engagement. It feels like a lifetime ago that she was so sure of her relationship status with Sterling that she threw caution to the wind and unilaterally decided that they should move their wedding up so that nothing could stand in the way of their ever after. My, how things change.

They don’t speak to each other, at least not until their waitresses brings around their drinks: coffee for April, and, of course, chocolate milk for Sterling.

“So, do you have some kind of list of Greatest Hits bounties that really stick out to you?” April asks, dumping two little cups of half and half into her coffee, along with three packets of Splenda. It isn’t Starbucks, but it’ll have to do.

Sterling scoffs as if there are too many of them to count. “Well, this one time, we had to arrest this stripper from her place of work, and oh my goodness, she had the cutest baby,” she recounts, smiling.

“When was that?” April asks, now thinking her many trips to Hooters with her dad weren’t that bad after all.

“Like...the day before the memorial for Mr. Koontz,” Sterling replies, and April can’t help but laugh, even if it makes her a horrible person.

“Oh, Robert,” she says, re-enacting the inflection she used as the grieving student... which, in truth, was a preliminary audition for the school musical.

“So extra…” Sterling says, smiling and then looking down at the table. “April, I can’t say it enough how sorry I am for what I did. I wish I had been smart enough to confide in you.”

“Well, to be perfectly fair, I’m not sure how smart it would have been, depending on the time you told me,” April admits, knowing her past self and her own pettiness better than anyone else. “Like, for example, if you had told me when Reese Ryan was still in the picture, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have sent an anonymous letter to your parents telling them what you and Blair were getting up to.” She’s being completely serious, but at Sterling’s shocked face, she can’t help but laugh.

“You think it’s funny, but my parents would like, actually kill us if they found out,” Sterling says, eyes wide.

April rolls her eyes. “Then I’m a little worried to know what exactly you told them to explain my leaving you.”

“Well…” Sterling says, her voice high, “Funny you should mention Reese…”

April gasps, horrified. “Oh, Sterling, please tell me you didn’t cheat on me with that harlot.” Even if it didn’t happen, she doesn’t know if she can tolerate people thinking it did.

Sterling puts up a finger. “Not full-on cheating, but you did supposedly catch us having a nasty text exchange.”

“Like that’s any better!” April knows it’s ridiculous to be upset by this, but she doesn’t want to go into her wedding with people taking pity on her for being the kind of woman who goes back to a cheater... if she goes through with the wedding, that is.

“I just figured you wouldn’t be all that bothered by it, considering how you secured our wedding venue,” Sterling says, raising an eyebrow, and April’s blood runs cold.

“How did you find out about that?” she asks, fidgeting in her seat now because this is the first time this evening that she has not had the upper hand on the conversation and she does not like it.

“My mom told me, as an example of all you put into our wedding, only for me to screw it up by being a scoundrel..her words, not mine.” Sterling crosses her arms. “I mean, I kinda figured you must have done something underhanded for the spot but I never thought you would stoop to sexting a stranger.”

April needs to defend herself on this one. “Okay, but I didn’t even use my own pictures, let alone my own identity, and if a guy like that will fall for one catfish, he’d fall for any other in a heartbeat. That poor bride deserved to know who she was marrying.”

“I mean, okay, fine,” Sterling concedes, but something is obviously still bothering her. “I think it speaks to this feeling I’ve been having since we announced the engagement.”

April’s confused now. “Which is?”

Sterling takes a long sip of her chocolate milk, giving herself a mustache. “It just kinda feels like this whole wedding...for you it’s more about the event and what everyone else thinks of it than it is about marrying me.” 

This admission is a gut punch to April, who isn’t stupid and knows she could be a better fiancee sometimes, but she’d also foolishly thought that Sterling was so overwhelmingly understanding of her and how she tends to be, that it didn’t bother her, as self-centered and presumptuous as that had been. But now, knowing she’s made Sterling feel like she doesn’t matter…

“I-I’m so sorry I made you feel like that…” April says, not having any good excuses. She reaches out to wipe Sterling’s mouth with her napkin, only realizing once she’s doing it that this move might be a touch too intimate for where they are in their relationship at the moment, but Sterling doesn’t stop her either. “Sterl, you were... are the most important thing in the world to me.” She’s done fighting with her own heart over this. She refuses to throw away the one great love of her life for the sake of her own pride. She puts down the napkin and takes Sterling’s hand in her own. “I love you, and I would have married you on the mini-golf course at the Fun Zone with a witness and Luke officiating if you really, really insisted on it.” She braces herself for Sterling’s inevitable look of devastation at what she has to say next. “I don’t...I don’t know if our wedding next Saturday is going to happen anymore. It could. In fact, I would venture to say that it very well might, but I do know that with time and perhaps a lot of weekly couples sessions with Pastor Booth, I think I can forgive you for lying to me, and I do want to marry you. But I am perfectly willing to give up our big, beautiful wedding if it means letting things happen when we’re in a good place.”

Sterling’s lip quivers as she tries not to cry, turning her head towards the window when the waitress brings their food around.

“Thank you,” April says, smiling up at her and telling her with her eyes to please not check on them for a while. 

As if understanding, the waitress smiles, says, “You’re very welcome,” and silently puts down a small stack of extra paper napkins on the table before she leaves.

April picks up one and offers it to Sterling, who takes it and wipes her eyes and sniffles before speaking. “I guess I don’t really have the right to be upset when all of this is happening because of me.”

April can’t exactly say she’s wrong, but she’s not in the mood to rub it in right now. Sterling knows what she’s done, but she can’t pretend like she’s been a complete saint either. “Do you remember that time in fourth grade when we did that really elaborate play wedding in my backyard and Sergeant Bilko was the ring bearer?”

Sterling lets out a watery chuckle. “Yeah. You wore that white dress you got from being your uncle’s flower girl and you made me be the groom in one of your dad’s ties.”

April smiles, actually a little surprised that Sterling remembers that day almost as well as she does. “And you looked very handsome, too,” she says, and Sterling rolls her eyes. “Anyway, it was that day that I knew I wanted to marry you for real. Of course, it wouldn’t even be legalized in Georgia for another year or so, but I just knew. And I know now that I still want to marry you.”

Sterling reaches under the table to get something out of her pocket and comes up with April’s engagement ring pinched between her thumb and index finger. “So are you saying you would like this back?” she asks, smiling cautiously.

“Oh my, a proposal in a Waffle House. We really are that teenage couple,” April says sarcastically, but holds out her left hand. “Yes, I would like it back,” she says, and Sterling slides it back into its rightful place on April’s finger, which has felt awfully lonely without it. Though it does make her think of something. “So, if that total honesty thing is still in play, how exactly did you get this and like, ballpark, how many weeks’ salary would you say it cost you?”

“Well, I uh, I bought it,” Sterling shares this obvious bit of information nervously, and it has April worried for what’s to come. “Granted, not brand new, but from a very reputable source.”

April’s not sure if she really wants to know this, but, “That source being…?”

“My bail bondswoman Yolanda. But uh, considering I was in a bit of a dry spell before I bought the ring—not every bounty yields $5k for each of us—it took me probably a month?” Sterling clenches her jaw as if preparing for April to snap at her, but April is honestly impressed that she still spent that much on a ring. 

Especially since she didn’t exactly work for the money that bought Sterling’s, even if she may have spent a bit more. “So what did you think of the ring I got you?” April asks, saddened to have missed Sterling’s reaction.

“I didn’t look at it,” Sterling admits after swallowing a too-big bite of waffle. She goes digging in her pocket again and pulls out the ring box. “But how about I give it back to you, and you can give it to me whenever you’re ready,” she says, putting it down and sliding it across the table to April, who nods.

“I will do that,” she says, pocketing it herself and finally digging into her food.

The sky is just starting to lighten when they’ve finished their food and are leaving the Waffle House. April’s reached the level of tiredness where she’s been given a second wind, and she knows she’ll have no trouble getting them back to Atlanta before anyone wakes up. Though that does leave her with another difficult conversation she needs to have with Sterling as they reach the Volt.

“Sterl?” April says, causing Sterling to stop before getting into the passenger seat. 

Instead, she closes the door and comes around to stand in front of April near the hood of the car. “Yeah?” she asks, leaning up against the Volt and looking like she regrets not ordering a drink with more caffeine in the diner.

April in no way wants to break Sterling’s heart again this morning, but she has to. “When we get back to Atlanta...I think I’m going to move back in with my mom.”

Sterling’s lip quivers until she bites it, putting on a poor attempt at a good face. “Yeah, that...if you think so, I think that would be a good idea.”

April holds her hand, rubbing circles with her thumb into Sterling’s palm. “I love you, and I still want to marry you, but I think it would be good for the both of us to have some space...if only for the next week. After that...well, we might be married, and then good luck getting rid of me.”

Sterling frowns. “Wait, I’m confused. Are we or are we not postponing the wedding?”

April sighs, having gone over that same question in her head over and over again while indulging in greasy goodness. The nutrition provided her with some clarity. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am furious with you for lying to me and while I can say I would trust you with my life, I can’t exactly trust you with my heart at the moment. But I know I still want to marry you. And, not gonna lie, I want our big beautiful wedding, and I know we won’t get a second chance at it if we make your mom and dad cancel this one—they haven’t canceled it yet, right?”

Sterling shakes her head. “No, they haven’t canceled it yet. They honestly have been holding out hope that you’d come back.”

April nods. “Good. Well, like I was saying, if we canceled, our eventual wedding would probably be a much more scaled-down affair, but aside from that, I know I want to marry you, and I also know my bastard father’s entire plan was to tell me about your indiscretions in the hopes that I would cancel the wedding. Well, fuck that. I want to marry you eventually, so why not next week?” Spite is an admittedly horrible reason to go through with a wedding while one’s relationship is in disarray, but April has been driven by it her whole life, so why stop now?

“I mean, as long as I get to have you as my wife in the end, I’m willing to do whatever you’re comfortable with. But I would like to not be murdered by my dad for canceling a non-refundable wedding if I can help it,” Sterling says, shrugging but clearly restraining herself from jumping for joy at the idea of the wedding being back on. “So, in that case, do you have something you want to ask me?” she holds out her left hand and waggles her fingers.

April rolls her eyes and considers getting down on one knee, but there is surely drugs, or oil, or god knows what on the ground of a Waffle House parking lot, so she instead decides to flex those leg day muscles and does a low lunge as she pulls out Sterling’s engagement ring, avoiding touching the ground. “Sterling Pearl Wesley, you are perhaps the second most infuriating person I have met in my life, behind only your sister. You have dishonest tendencies, your personal hygiene is often lacking, and you’re coddled by your mother like a five-year-old. I must have something completely defective going on in my brain, or my heart, or wherever it is that makes me love you as much as I do, all the time, every day.”

“-Is this a proposal or a breakup?” Sterling interrupts, looking confused.

April doesn’t acknowledge her as she goes on. “But you’re also the sweetest, most understanding, and generous person I know, and the fact that you love me despite me being absolutely none of those things is equally as baffling. Neither of us is perfect, but I’d like to think that we make each other better people, and as far as I’ve gathered from years of observation, that’s really all you can hope for in a lasting relationship. So this might be a completely awful idea, and I hope you don’t make me live to regret it, but I think we should just take a leap of faith and--if you still want to after this god-awful proposal--declare our love and commitment to each other in front of our friends and family in a wildly expensive ceremony next week that has already been paid for.”

Sterling looks away and is clearly trying not to laugh. “April, I hope you are aware that that was quite possibly the worst proposal in the history of marriage,” she says, failing to keep her straight face.

“That may be, but I’m kind of on my knees asking you to marry me,” April says, feeling her quads start to burn--forget leg day, she’s skipped a week’s worth of gym days.

“You aren’t on your knees, you’re lunging,” Sterling points out.

“Yes, because these are $200 Nordstrom jeans,” April says through her teeth. “And I wouldn’t be caught dead kneeling in them. But will you marry me, or what?” She opens the ring box and sees Sterling’s face light up momentarily before she reigns it in.

“Well jeez, when you put it like that, how can a girl resist?” Sterling says sarcastically. “Yes, I will marry you. Obviously.” Sterling offers out her hand for April to slide the ring onto her finger, and she is finally allowed to get back up onto her feet to kiss her, though it doesn’t last very long before April’s reaching down to clutch her cramping thigh.

“Oh, sweet baby Jesus ow!” she yells as Sterling laughs at her.

"We really do have a thing for Waffle House parking lots, don't we?" she asks, and April smacks her in the arm.

“I’ll text you once I get a few hours of sleep, okay?” April says as she unbuckles her seatbelt in front of her parents’ house.

Sterling wipes sleep from her eyes, having napped the last half-hour here. “Okay,” she says, getting out of the car to help April get her stuff from the trunk. “So uh, I’ll let you know how much trouble I’m in for not telling my parents before I left the state.”

“Hopefully not too much. You did manage to bring me back,” April offers that one bright side.

“Kind of,” Sterling says, looking past April at the house, which now seems tackily huge since she was last here. “I can still take you back home if you want.”

April sighs, wanting that more than anything, but knowing having some space for the next week is what they need. “I wish, but I think it’ll be good for us to have some time before the wedding. And hey, your mom can let her guard down a bit when it comes to protecting my virtue.”

Sterling scoffs. “You would think,” she says, pulling April’s suitcase out and setting it on the ground.

“Well,” April says, pulling up the handle, “I guess I’ll see you around then?” It feels so weird parting like this. They truly haven’t spent much time apart since the engagement, save for the past nine days when they technically weren’t engaged anymore.

Sterling nods. “I think that’s a decent assumption, yeah.”

April hands off the Volt keyfob to Sterling and turns to go up to the house, but Sterling grabs her hand and pulls her back for a lingering kiss.

“I’ll miss you,” Sterling says, not wanting to say goodbye, and April can hardly blame her; she doesn’t want to, either.

“Hey, just because we aren’t living together doesn’t mean we can’t still see each other,” April reminds Sterling, who seems like she needs further convincing. “ could consider this our chance to finally ‘date’ like a normal couple with everyone knowing about it.”

“For the next week,” Sterling adds that important caveat. “Then we’re going to be married teens.”

April makes a sound of disgust. “Please don’t phrase it like that,” she says, thinking it makes them sound like they’re entering some kind of arranged marriage situation. “But yes, we’ll be married. So enjoy your last week of freedom.” April punctuates her sentence by pulling Sterling in by the front of her shirt for one more quick, rough kiss, and then she’s going up the walkway to her house, though she thinks of something and turns around halfway up. “I don’t mean that seriously because obviously, we aren’t straight people who think marriage is some kind of life sentence.”

Sterling smiles, shaking her head at April’s compulsive need to be pedantic. “Obviously.” With that said, she gets in the car and drives off, and April is left with nothing to do but to go back into her old life, even for a short while.

She reaches the front porch and is just grabbing the hide-a-key from under the angel baby statue when the door swings open, and out steps her Aunt Franny’s husband in a blue bathrobe and slippers, his usually carefully combed over hair in a state of disarray. He’s holding a cup of tea in one hand and reaches down for the newspaper with the other. April remembers what her cousin said about him not wearing anything under said robe, so she’s prepared to avert her eyes, should the belt come untied.

“Good morning, Uncle Tom,” April greets him, and he about jumps out of his skin, startled.

“Blimey,” he says, panting. “Where the devil have you been? My wife and your mum have been worried sick about you!” he says, chastising, but also pulls her in for a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek.

April realizes now that she’d been incredibly selfish and irrational to think she could simply drop off the face of the earth and expect there to be no consequences for it, but she’s fully prepared to own up to it. “I know, I’m sorry. I just needed a break from everything and I went about it the wrong way.”

“I’d say so! You really gave us all a fright. But you’re back now, so there’s really not much any of us can do about it.” He holds the front door open for April to get her suitcase through. “Is it true the wedding’s off?”

April is surprised by his bluntness but shakes her head. “Not anymore.”

Tom breathes a sigh of relief. “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? You know, your Aunt Franny never likes me sharing this, but I have it on good authority that she got cold feet the day before our wedding and—pardon the expression—fucked off to shag some bloke from university.”

April has certainly never heard that story before—in the foreign language that is her uncle’s English dialect, or otherwise. “Oh my God…” she says, hardly believing it. “And you still married her?”

“Yes, of course. A boffin like me can only ever hope to marry a woman as amazing as your aunt,” Tom says with a completely straight face. “I’m kidding, obviously, but she did try, she just didn’t succeed in finding him before coming to her senses, thank Christ.”

April breathes a sigh of relief, not sure she can take another long-standing truth bombshell this morning. She picks up her suitcase by the handle to take it upstairs.

“Say, would you care for a cuppa?” he asks, gesturing with the coffee mug of tea he’s holding.

“No thank you, Uncle Tom,” April declines, really wanting to go upstairs before either her mom or aunt is woken up, because she’s never getting to sleep then.

“You sure? I must say, it works wonders at calming nerves,” he takes a sip of his tea. “I have been married to your aunt for 32 years, after all.”

April can’t help but laugh at that. Her aunt and uncle’s relationship has always been so unlike her parents’ to her. For one, Tom has a deep respect and fear for his wife, as he very well should. “No, that’s okay. I really should be getting some sleep. I had to drive back from North Carolina last night.”

“Bloody Hell, girl. You really are just like Franny,” he says, then points to the stairs. “Well, go on, then. I promise to not compromise your location for a few hours.”

Not having to be told twice, April lugs her suitcase up the stairs and down the hall, not wanting to risk the wheels on the hardwood floors waking her mother and her bat ears.

Being back here after being gone for so long has made it feel almost foreign to her. The meticulously symmetrical decor and everything being so absolutely spotless are less of a comfort to her now than it was back then. Now it makes the place feel cold and less inviting. The pictures of her milestones that adorn the walls are a shrine to the person she’s stopped pretending to be, and the lingering smell of her father’s cologne as she passes her parents’ bedroom brings back memories of him that even seeing him through glass could not.

Feeling overwhelmed, she’s glad to make it to her room at the end of the hall and breathes a sigh of relief when she closes the door behind her.

After everything that’s happened since then, it’s strange to think she last stepped foot in here on prom night. It was once her sanctuary, and now, with the curtains drawn and the air stale, it feels like a tomb. Her mom brought most of her current wardrobe to the Wesley’s after she was kicked out, but everything else seems to still be in place, including her framed decorative picture of a log and a stick that says ‘That Log Had A Child,’ which she can’t wait to confuse Sterling with when they move into whatever housing they eventually end up in.

Though with an entire week of their precious time to find something now gone due to their drama, it’s starting to look like she and Sterling will be commuting the hour to school for who knows how long.

More to April’s annoyance than surprise, her whole drawer full of her warm-weather pajamas is emptied, and she’s forced to resort to the tote of winter ones she keeps in the closet, smiling when she finds her unicorn onesie. Who knows when she’ll next be able to wear it, considering she does actually want to maintain the illusion of being sexy for Sterling for at least the first year of marriage. She goes into her bathroom to change, not wanting to risk anyone currently staying in her house barging into her room while she’s mostly naked. Her dad’s insistence on her having a bedroom door that doesn’t really lock is still a pain in her ass when she’s a week away from being a married woman. 

A married woman. Going from being broken up to that in the span of a week is enough to give a girl whiplash. And it isn’t lost on April that she could be making the biggest mistake of her life by going through with this while knowing full well what a liar Sterling is capable of being. But at the end of the day, she’s willing to take that chance over choosing to make herself miserable for the rest of her life by casting out her one ray of light. Sterling may be very flawed, but April loves her anyway, and that says a lot, coming from a perfectionist such as her.

When she returns to her room, she puts the hood of the onesie on, letting it hang over her eyes as she crawls into bed, feeling like it might take her t-minus 10 seconds to fall asleep, and she’s just drifting off when she hears shrieking from downstairs, followed by a stampede of footsteps and her uncle’s ignored pleas to not wake her.

She really is back home.