Actions

Work Header

Full Control

Chapter Text

____________________

Contrary to popular belief, April has wide-ranging interests. Her classmates might think she’s a stuck-up goody two-shoes who only thinks about school and the Bible, but that’s a highly unfair characterization. She likes a lot of things.

For example: She likes cooking (though she prefers baking). She likes music (Kacey Musgraves is her favorite singer, though she’d never admit it out loud because while country music is the only type of music she’s allowed to play in her house, Kacey has unfortunately visible ties to the West Coast liberal gay community). She likes performing well in school, she likes woodworking, she likes debate, she likes excelling at physical projects (like puzzles, and woodworking). She likes the color pink (but not as much as she likes green and, recently, light blue). She likes Bible study (okay, so she does like school and she does like the Bible, but she’s more complicated than that reductive synopsis). And she likes girls.

(She really, really likes girls.)

She likes all of those things, and she’s not even very private about it — except the overtly lesbian interests, for obvious reasons. It’s not that she’s private. It’s that no one’s ever bothered to ask her. She’s pretty sure that the heathens masquerading as students at Willingham Academy think that her interests begin and end with getting her head as far up Ellen’s ass as is physically possible. And while April might be a proud brown-noser (she also likes authority, and she likes pleasing authority figures), that’s not a hobby, nor is it an interest. More of a survival skill.

But the thing April really likes, the thing that she keeps closest to her chest, the shining character flaw that’s patently obvious to her (she is excellently self-critical and self-aware) but which she will need veritable hours of therapy in order to properly interrogate and compartmentalize?

April likes control. Being in control, being in charge. She likes giving orders and she likes when they’re followed. She likes saying something and having others fall in line behind her leadership. She likes security, and the only time she knows, knows for certain, that she is safe and secure is when she’s in charge of the situation, completely and totally. There are no errors when she leaves no room for error, and she’s the only person in her life who is meticulous enough to always ensure perfection. She likes schedules, she likes discipline, she likes everything to be just-so. She likes getting straight A’s and won’t settle for anyone or anything risking her GPA, and she’s willing to burn as many bridges as necessary in order to maintain the carefully-constructed order in her life, the order she’s worked for seventeen years to cultivate, nurture, and perfect.

April likes control.

Sterling Wesley is a complication April doesn’t think she can control. That’s a horrifying reality, something that makes her heart pound and her cheeks flush and her throat go dry. April likes control, needs it, craves it in a way she can’t begin to explain. But Sterling Wesley barrels into her carefully-constructed world with her big, blinking eyes and her soft lips and her soft hair and her laugh that bubbles up from the tips of her toes and April feels her resolve crumbling through her fingertips.

____________________

April has hated Sterling with the ease of settled fact since they were ten years old, and for seven long years she has been comforted by that fact, blanketed in its security, has enjoyed the simplicity of a hateful rivalry with a worthy adversary.

At least, until recently. Until everything in April’s life started to fall apart, and Sterling Wesley started to sneak her way back into the picture, unwanted and unwelcome, like a particularly annoying mosquito humming by her ear that just won’t leave her alone, always threatening to leave her itchy and uncomfortable and riddled with a debilitating malady.

It would be so much easier, April thinks, if Sterling weren’t so agreeable. It would be so much easier to hate her, to ignore her, to ignore the way Sterling makes her feel, if she weren’t so present. So obliging. So… passive.

She stares at April with wide eyes and slack expression whenever April speaks (snaps, really). When April tugs, Sterling follows. When April pushes, she stumbles away. The whole time they’re working on their Solomon’s Temple project, Sterling is the perfect assistant. She lets April run the miter saw. She uses the color scheme April picks out without fighting her about which shade of blue to use, the one that’s more aesthetic or the one most historically accurate, like Ezekiel might have done. She passes over wood and tools almost without being asked and April notices the way she blushes sometimes, the way she ducks her head and tucks her hair behind her ear, the way she stutters when April snaps at her to do something, and stumbles to get it done as quickly as possible. Sterling tells her, “I aim to please,” with a delighted smile and April’s stomach clenches and she has to swallow thickly to avoid saying something untoward.

April doesn’t know what that means. In all the years April’s known her, she’s known Sterling Wesley to be a lot of things, but passive is not one of them; agreeable certainly isn’t, either. She’s a sheep in ways April isn’t, of course, mostly having to do with constantly playing second fiddle to her sister and her clear acquiescent conformity to her mother’s prescribed expectations of her. And yes, she’s also an anxious ball of energy on the best days, but Sterling usually has a backbone when it comes to her academic autonomy (see: fighting April’s blackmail attempt with dirty subterfuge in order to maintain her position as Fellowship Leader — which April succeeded in taking eventually, obviously, but it was more an act of seppuku than any brilliant maneuvering on April’s part; a humiliating loss that she’ll never admit to).

So it’s weird that she’s treating April like this. With deference. With submission.

April watches her suspiciously, when she isn’t focused on her project (because getting an A is still, of course, her primary concern).

She just doesn’t get Sterling. What is her angle? What was her intention, offering to work on a project with April when they’ve barely spoken outside of Fellowship since the fifth grade?

And what the hell was that weird thing she said about Naomi and Ruth? Insinuating that they might have been lovers? April’s heart clenches in her chest when she thinks about Sterling stuttering that story, because what possible reason could Sterling have to talk about lesbians with her? Unless… God, unless she knows? But no, she can’t know. No one knows about her. No one’s ever even suspected. April’s never been romantically linked to anyone, boy or girl. For God’s sake, the only two people she consistently interacts with at school in a non-professional capacity are a boy who might give her a run for her money in the ‘Most Closeted Student at Willingham’ competition (a competition no one but April knows about; a competition she is surely winning) and a girl so ditzy and oblivious that she’s probably the only girl in the entire school April is guaranteed to never catch feelings for. She and Hannah B. are so unevenly matched mentally that even the world’s most perceptive bigot would dismiss the notion outright.

Unless… unless that’s how Sterling figured it out? Unless she started to suspect that gays of a feather might flock together, and Ezekiel is so obviously gay that he’s practically leading a one-man pride parade through fifth period lunch? Unless she started to think that perhaps April’s carefully-constructed façade of indifference to every member of the opposite sex she’s ever spoken to is more innate and less situational, less about intellectual inferiority and more about physical preference?

The idea is panic-inducing.

Because if someone as self-centered and in-her-own-world as Sterling Wesley is starting to suspect April might be a non-hetero, then maybe April needs to reconsider the people she spends time with. If Sterling Wesley, her sworn enemy, can figure out that she’s gay…

But no. Sterling doesn’t know. She can’t. That bit with Naomi and Ruth… that was just a coincidence. It must have been. A weird coincidence, but Sterling is a weird girl. That much is obvious. She has no filter between her mouth and her brain, and she’s always stumbling half-blind into confrontations. She’s clumsy and careless and blabs when she’s nervous. She leaves used condom wrappers where people might find them and stutters when she lies and is so easily-swayed by logic and her own twisted sense of morality that she’d rather concede a debate than fight tooth-and-nail for a victory.

Which is why April has never and can never trust her.

This is why April can’t stand Sterling. This is why she’s so dangerous. She’s unpredictable. Unreadable. She acts all innocent and oblivious but April knows the truth about her. She might be the only person in all of Atlanta who knows the real Sterling Wesley, but she does. She does know her. Sterling might have the rest of Georgia fooled, but she can’t fool April.

April might be the only student in all of Willingham who knows that Sterling Wesley is as fake as the breasts on the Real Housewives. But it’s so hard to prove that when she looks at April that way, with her expression nervous and excited, with her flushed cheeks and darting eyes, looking at April like she… like she’s attracted to—

No.

Except… except she can’t stop thinking about the way Sterling’s face paled and her eyes went wide when April grabbed her arm after the Forensics tournament. It’s an image that’s been unfortunately burned into the back of April’s eyelids, and she sees Sterling’s expression in that moment every time she closes her eyes. It’s especially distracting when she’s trying to sleep, and all she can see is Sterling’s face, anxious and dismayed. The tears in her eyes, the quivering of her lip, the way she inhaled sharply when April touched her.

April doesn’t know what that means, either.

(Or, she does, and she just can’t bring herself to confront it.)

____________________

April is confident about several things. (1) She will graduate as valedictorian of Willingham Academy. (2) She will attend a reputable four-year college, an Ivy League school preferably, but an elite institution for sure (in the Northeast, if she must, but never the West Coast). (3) She will major in a respectable field, like Business Management or Economics, something which will lead to an appropriately well-earning career so she can support herself financially and have a sizeable cushion for rainy days/emergencies. (4) She will stay deeply in the closet until such a time as she is no longer dependent on her family’s money to secure her education or her future, at which point she will remove herself from their lives and meet a respectable woman with a similar Christian background who shares her commitment to both fiscal/professional success and the Lord, and maybe they’ll get married and have a child or two, if that’s something they’re both interested in down the line, and they will keep to themselves and never vacation to Canada or any other country run by liberal socialists.

April is confident about the path her life is on. It’s not very glamorous right now, and her father being a criminal woman-beater has definitely complicated the near-term, but as far as she’s concerned, her future is solid, and her path forward is clear. She just needs to keep her head down and do what needs to be done for as long as it needs to be done for. At this point, she’s on a simple self-preservation track. Not glamorous, but necessary.

She’s only 17. Her life is still ahead of her; her future is very much still within her control. She just needs a few more things to go right so she can graduate and leave Georgia and never look back.

(5) She’s confident that everything is going to go according to plan.

That is, until Sterling kisses her in Ellen’s office. Until April locks the door and kisses her back. Until Sterling’s hands wind in her hair and Sterling’s moans fill her mouth and April grips her so tightly she’s sure Sterling will have bruises on her hips in the morning but it’s the only thing she can do to stop her hands from shaking.

____________________

For one blissful, wonderful, stupid, naïve moment, she even thinks it might be possible. That she and Sterling might be able to… be something, something real. Something secret, of course, but… something real.

April never thought she’d kiss a girl — multiple-times, exclusively — while she was still in high school. She thought for sure her blossoming female-female romantic experience would happen in late-college, even post-grad; never before that, never in Georgia, and never like this. Never with Sterling Wesley, the last girl to ever break her heart, the only girl to ever make April feel like the risks, the consequences of being a young lesbian in a wealthy white conservative Southern Christian community might be worth it.

Then her father knocks on her bedroom door, and all of that hope goes flying out the window.

____________________

With her father back April is trapped. The blossoming web of possibilities, the loosening of the tightness around her throat, the weight lifting off of her chest slowly, with ever-more speed since her father has been imprisoned — all of that vanishes in the blink of an eye. Sucked up like a black hole, or a powerful Hoover vacuum.

Suddenly she’s right back where she was a few months ago, right before everything changed. Before she found that stupid condom in Sterling’s backpack, before she blackmailed her, before her father was arrested and outed as a philanderer and a prostitute-beater, before her mom started losing it and losing herself in the bottom of a glass, before the trial, before Solomon’s Temple, before Sterling kissed her, before Sterling invited her into the back of her car, before Sterling let April press her into the upholstery and slip her hands under her top, under her bra, moaning and arching up into the contact and making April feel like the most powerful woman in the world.

Her father’s appearance saps her of any and all power, and she’s stuck once again.

Her father’s eyes follow her like a hawk, a perfectly oily smile always on his face. He asks her about Sterling and Blair, Those Wesley Girls, and April’s heart stops beating because if he knows… if he’s insinuating

She has no control over her home life, her privacy — not anymore. April can’t be without control for long. It’s an untenable position for her. April Stevens doesn’t allow the world to buffet her; she buffets the world, or else holds steadfast and unflinching, or else the world falls apart against her steely footing.

Her home isn’t stable, her family is crumbling apart even as her parents are trying to force it back together with Scotch tape and rubber bands, and her father wraps his hand around her shoulder while they watch Star Wars together and instead of bringing her comfort it only makes her skin crawl.

Not to mention her attention span in school has been slipping, even before her father returned home, and that’s unacceptable for myriad reasons (and for once not something for which she can blame him). If her academics aren’t strong, she’ll never be able to get out of Georgia. If she starts to lose her academic credibility, she’ll never be able to earn a scholarship worth a damn, and then she’ll be reliant on Daddy’s money for years and years to come (what bits of it are left, that is; the sums that haven’t been spent on legal fees and mortgaging the lake house).

It was that stupid condom. That was the inciting incident. That was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Sterling had sex with Luke Creswell, and April saw the condom wrapper fall out of her bag and the tips of her fingers went numb and she snatched it up before she could even think twice about it. It didn’t take long to turn into the only thing she could think about. What that condom meant. What it insinuated. What it said about Sterling Wesley, and what she got up to in her free time, and who she got up to. It was like a fungus growing in April’s brain, spreading over every thought, mucking up her synapses until the only thing she could think about was the fact that Sterling chose to give herself for the first time to someone as… amorphous and pedantic as Luke Creswell. When Sterling was clever, vivacious, and obviously the second-smartest girl at their school.

Luke Creswell.

It boggled the mind. April obsessed over it in a way she’d never obsessed about anything non-academic in her life.

(That isn’t entirely true. She crushes hard on girls. She’s intense. Obsessive. She fixates on someone special and then it’s hard for her to let her go. Sterling’s been her ‘hard to let go’ for the past 7 years.)

It’s so clear to April, the more she thinks about it. Her life has fallen apart since Sterling stomped her way back into it, with her clumsy laziness and her inability to dispose of her sexual aides discretely, and that’s… unacceptable. Her life cannot fall apart. Not when she’s so close to finally being free. Sterling poses a danger to her escape route, the one thing she’s always been sure about, and that is not something she can continue to risk.

Not for a girl, not for any girl.

Not even Sterling.

Besides, she and Sterling would never work out, romantically. She’s been kidding herself by pretending their fling is anything more than experimental flirtation. Sterling isn’t interested in her. Not the way April is, not the way April needs. A week ago, they were enemies. April’s been nothing but horrible to her, outright hostile, manipulative, cruel and vindictive, needy and confusing, doubling back on her word again and again and again, running so hot and cold it makes even her dizzy, and she’s the one living inside her own head.

/

She can’t help it, in the end. She’s a coward, and that’s what cowards do: they protect themselves at all costs.

Maybe it’s cruel. Sterling certainly looks at her like she’s being cruel. She doesn’t mean to be. (She never really means to be.) All she knows is her heart is at risk, and she has to do whatever she can to protect it.

Sterling, with tears on her face and snot in her nose, lurches forward to kiss her on the bench outside school, and it takes every bit of strength left in April’s body to turn her head away. The broken sob Sterling lets out at her rejection has April closing her eyes. She can’t look at her.

She can break her own heart but she can’t look at Sterling while she does it.

____________________

Breaking up with Sterling (can she even call it that? were they even together? can you break up with someone you never even got to call your girlfriend?) was supposed to restore order. They were supposed to go back to hating each other and avoiding each other at all costs. April’s father was supposed to stop asking her pointed questions about “Those Wesley Girls” (it always makes April’s palms sweat, always make her voice tremble, and she thinks he notices, thinks he can smell the fear on her, because he hasn’t let the subject drop, no matter how much April denies and evades).

April was supposed to regain her focus in Spanish and Bible Study and Math and Physics again, and everything was supposed to go back to normal. The way it was before. Settled, and sure, and stable. April was very good at ‘the way things were’. She was a pro at living under those strict conditions.

But things do not go back to normal.

____________________

Sterling doesn’t come to school on Monday.

No one but April has any cause for suspicion, but April — who has cause and a half — obsesses over the mystery. What it might mean. What it might entail. What it says about Sterling that her first unexplainable absence all semester is happening only a few days after April broke off their… arrangement.

April knows Sterling left the lock-in early. She also knows that it’s her fault Sterling left in tears, but she didn’t think…

Missing school is such an extreme reaction. Overblown, honestly. After all, April’s the one whose heart was shattered on Friday. She’s the one who had to break up with her dream girl; she’s the one who had to deny herself the first real, true pleasure she’s ever experienced in her entire life. She knows she hurt Sterling by flirting with Luke and she hates herself for it, hates herself for her knee-jerk propensity for cruelty, but that doesn’t change the fact that the break up itself was necessary. Inevitable, even. Her logic is sound. It always is. The pain is real, yes, but it’s necessary, too. And, more importantly: temporary.

And Sterling… Sterling will come to understand that, too. Of course she will.

Eventually.

Clearly Sterling liked her enough to kiss her on multiple different occasions — plus she told her as much that day at the Fun Zone — but it’s not like Sterling was in love with her, or anything. They were only hooking up for like a week. And Sterling had never even been interested in girls before April. This is hardly a life-altering tragedy for her. Hardly something to miss school over.

She doesn’t mean to invalidate Sterling’s sexuality (even inside her own head), whatever brand of ‘fluid’ she might eventually decide upon. But April has known about her latent homosexuality since she was eleven years old, and she’s had years to panic about it, hate herself for it, deny it until she cried herself to sleep every night for six months straight when she was 13 before finally, reluctantly, accepting that her sexuality was something that she couldn’t change about herself. It took years of agonizing, years of praying, years of making herself right with the Lord for her to accept her sexuality as something fixed, as something okay and natural. Years.

April’s had the time to work through her own feelings and understand her situation. She knows that God loves her just the way she is — that’s no longer a question in her mind. But she also knows that no matter how much it might pain her now, she has to keep that part of herself hidden until it’s safe enough for her to live her truth.

Sterling, on the other hand, was ready to hold April’s hand in public, to sleep next to her, to tell her sister about them like it wasn’t the riskiest decision she’d ever made in her life. Like her life wouldn’t be over once everyone at school found out about who she really was, or how she really loved. Like her family wouldn’t disown her, disregard her, kick her out with hatred in their hearts because of her sins. After one. week. And that confidence, that belief in herself (that belief in April) had been… terrifying. It screamed fickle naiveté, flippant disregard for herself and her reputation. It stank of recklessness.

April can’t risk recklessness.

(Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was courage.)

(Maybe April has to accept that Sterling has been grappling with these emotions for all of a couple weeks, and she’s already braver than April could ever hope to be, even after years of self-reflection and praying and slow, careful acceptance. Even after all of that, Sterling was the one to take the final step. Sterling was the one who kissed her in Ellen’s office that day after school.)

(That’s the only part of April’s hypothesis that doesn’t quite fit. Sterling kissed her. That just doesn’t make sense. The Sterling Wesleys of the world do not go around kissing the April Stevenses of the world. The April Stevenses of the world pine after the Sterling Wesleys silently, masking their obvious crushes with animosity and jealousy and dramatic augmentation, making sure to be as unlikeable and disagreeable as possible to maintain the utmost distance at all times. But Sterling kissed April. And maybe that makes her braver than April, but that doesn’t explain why she did it, only how she was able to do it. Sterling kissed April, and threw April’s world completely off-balance, and April doesn’t know quite what to make of that.)

It just… doesn’t make sense. April can’t understand her. If Sterling was serious about being less-than-straight (and God, she really did talk about April like she was serious about her Sapphic desires), then she would understand what it means to not conform in a community like theirs. She’d understand the danger she wanted to put them both in. She clearly didn’t understand that, because she was ready to go public after a week, so clearly, she wasn’t serious about her feelings for April. It was all just an exhilarating experiment for her, something new and exciting to try out. She’d already slept with one person, so now the proverbial floodgates were open, and she was just looking for the next taboo to transgress, the next rebellion she could carry out. And there was April Stevens, gay and weak and so helplessly devoted to her, so unable to control herself, so unable to hold back. Waiting to be transgressed.

April’s feelings were just the unfortunate collateral damage.

But… well, that reasoning made a lot more sense to April before Sterling misses school on Monday.

And then Tuesday. And then Wednesday.

/

 

April (Monday, 6:43 p.m.)
Just want to make sure you’re okay.
You weren’t in school today. There was
a pop quiz in Physics. Let me know if you
want a look at my notes.
 

April (Monday, 6:46 p.m.)
Feel free to ignore that message.
 

April (Monday, 6:46 p.m.)
And this one. 

April (Monday, 6:54 p.m.)
Get better soon. 

/

April (Tuesday, 8:25 a.m.)
You’re not in school again, are you okay? 

 

April (Tuesday, 4:02 p.m.)
I know you probably hate me right now
but the least you could do is respond to
my message letting me know you aren’t
dead. It’s only polite, Sterling. 

/ 

April (Wednesday, 8:34 a.m.)
Seriously, where tf r u??? 

 

April (Wednesday, 9:56 p.m.)
Okay. Message received.

 

/

Luke asks her out on Wednesday. She doesn’t even pause before telling him she thinks they’d be better off as friends.

(She can’t stop thinking about Sterling’s face when she saw them sitting next to each other, when she put on “Slow Burn” and April rejected her and it looked like her soul was pulling apart at the seams. She might be deeply in the closet, but she doesn’t need to be deeply in the closet with Sterling’s ex-boyfriend. Some things are a step too far.)

Blair has been at school, and besides her limp hair and the dark bags under her eyes to indicate she isn’t taking care of herself effectively, she’s been mostly normal. Not that Blair’s hair is ever particularly clean nor her makeup ever particularly even. Besides, April remembers Sterling mentioning something about a breakup on Friday (Blair’s boyfriend dumped her unexpectedly?), so the teenage angst visibly wafting off of her like Pigpen’s stink lines makes sense.

There’s certainly nothing visibly out-of-the-ordinary about Blair. Except that she walks through the halls of Willingham Academy alone. That part is unusual.

She glares at April whenever she sees her, too, but April can hardly blame her for that. She’d glare too, were their roles reversed.

Still, the longer Blair shows up to school by herself, the more anxious April gets.

/

By Thursday, April is actually starting to panic.

It’s the fourth day in a row Blair has come to school without Sterling, and no matter how much casual snooping and innocent questioning April does of the rest of the student body, no one can explain her absence. Someone suggests Mono, someone else the whooping cough, and Billy Dresden cracks a joke about an unplanned pregnancy that makes April blanche and her vision go red so she sabotages his double helix model out of revenge, and he cries when it shatters in his hands on the way to Advanced Chemistry, which makes April feel marginally better, but not much.

After nearly 4 days of Blair studiously avoiding any eye contact (much less verbal communication) with April, and with April’s sexuality still a secret amongst the student body (she’d have heard by now if rumors were spreading about her lesbianism), April is fairly confident she isn’t going to be blackmailed or outed in a vindictive adolescent hate crime, which is why she feels confident enough cornering Blair outside of the Fellowship room before Thursday’s morning meeting.

Blair glares at her when April grabs her jacket. She shakes her off and folds her arms over her chest. Up close, her hair is even greasier than April first imagined. Her eyes are bloodshot and she looks exhausted, like she hasn’t slept in days. “What do you want?” Blair grumbles, her face full of animosity.

April swallows down her insecurities and tries to gather herself. “Sterling hasn’t been at school,” she says finally, wincing at the lame way it falls from her lips.

“Wow,” Blair snorts, “great observation. They really picked the right valedictorian. Nothing gets by you, April.”

April rolls her eyes. “No need for the sarcasm, Blair. I just wanted to know if she’s feeling alright. I heard she might be sick, but she hasn’t been answering my texts, so I have no confirmation.”

“She broke her phone. Hasn’t gotten a new one yet.”

Something hard around April’s heart softens, unbidden. “Oh. I didn’t… know that.”

“Great,” Blair says with an eye roll, “happy to help.”

She moves as if to walk away but April puts up a hand, stopping her. “Not so fast. Back to Sterling’s illness. It’s vital that her immune system is given enough time to recover, and we’ve already missed the crucial early days of infection. She’s missed four days of school this week, so she’s of course unconscionably behind in all of her classes and that has to be rectified at once. Now, to accelerate her wellness process: I carry amoxicillin on my person at all times, and can Postmates some antihistamines to your house if necessary. But if it’s a more serious infection, like whooping cough, you’ll need—”

“She’s not sick,” Blair growls, cutting her off. “And if she were it would be none of your business. She doesn’t want anything to do with you. So just keep your weird medicine to yourself and leave me alone.” Blair tries to side-step her again, but April is ready for her. She moves her body quickly, blocking Blair from getting into the Fellowship room. Blair’s expression, if possible, grows even more sour. “Move,” she grunts.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“I said move, April.”

“Not until you tell me what’s wrong with Sterling!”

“Why do you care?!” Blair finally yells. April stumbles back a step, until her back hits the glass behind her. April can feel eyes on them, but she can’t tell whose they are or where they’re coming from. Blair takes a step towards her, and drops her voice murderously. “After what you did to her?” she whispers. “After the way you treated her? Why do you care what happens to her?” April opens her mouth but no sound comes out. Blair’s face hardens. “My sister isn’t sick,” she spits, acid-tongued. “She’ll be back at school next week. Maybe by then you’ll learn how to leave both of us alone.”

“If this is about the lock-in, you should tell her I never meant for it to impact her studies—”

“Not everything is about you, you self-centered bitch.” A few people gasp. April’s face burns, all the way through her ears. “Sometimes people have problems that don’t have to do with your stupid face and your stupid cowardice.” Blair seems to notice the crowd they’re drawing. She looks just as unhappy to be the center of attention as April feels. She turns away in disgust. “Just leave us both alone.

She stomps away without looking back. April, blinking back tears, flees the school. She doesn’t come back until Monday.

____________________

Chapter Text

____________________

Sterling is back by Monday, though she’s much changed from the last time April saw her. Her clothes hang looser on her body, ill-fitting, untucked and messy. Her shirts no longer match her socks. She comes to school with hair wet and unbrushed, completely foregoing her usual styles (no more pigtails, half-up-half-down, or high ponies). It dries against her cheeks limp and depressing, and April can’t stop staring at her. She can’t tell if it’s the horror of watching a train crash in slow-motion or the relief of confirmation that Sterling is alive, she’s healthy (or as healthy as can be ascertained by a subtle visual examination).

She’s clearly healthy, which is a relief, but she’s also clearly not well, which is frankly debilitating.

It’s not just her physical appearance. It’s everything. The way she acts in Bible Study and Spanish, the two classes April has with her on Mondays. The way she keeps her head down and doesn’t raise her hand to volunteer an answer in class, the way she has no homework to turn in despite being absent for 5 full school days, the way she mumbles “I don’t know” when asked a simple question. It’s the way she disappears as soon as school is over, ducking into her car with Blair and speeding off without looking back. It’s the way she acts in Fellowship Tuesday before school. She’s quiet and serious where she used to be outgoing and joyful.

She and Blair hold hands sometimes when they walk into school, their fingers laced tight together like they’ll die if they lose touch, and April can’t figure out what it’s all about.

It’s horrible. It leaves a horrible, sticky, nasty feeling inside of April’s stomach, coating her throat.

Blair said that Sterling’s absence had nothing to do with her. But she can’t help but think that’s not entirely true, not when Sterling can barely even look at her, not when she responds to April’s quiet, gentle, tentative “Hello” during Bible Study with a mere grunt of acknowledgement. Not when everything about Sterling’s body language is screaming rejected, lost, out-of-control.

(April knows all about being out-of-control.)

She allows Sterling three days to readjust to being at school, three days to stop sulking and pull herself together, three days to even acknowledge for a moment that April is a person, a real living person who by all accounts meant something rather considerable to Sterling only a few short days ago.

For three days, Sterling ignores her. Which seems needlessly cruel. April deserves some hostility, she will be the first to admit that, but not the silent treatment. How excessive.

She excused the ignored text messages because Blair said Sterling never received them. But they’ve been attending classes together for three days, and Sterling still can’t even look at her.

And April’s trying. She knows it was a mistake to flirt with Luke. It wasn’t her strongest moment, and it was a mistake she’s trying to rectify. (She thought she could handle it. She thought she could deal with losing Sterling, pushing her away. She thought losing Sterling by her own hand would give her the power in the situation, would allow her to maintain control over the fallout. But it’s been almost two weeks and Sterling won’t talk to her and April feels neither powerful nor in control.)

She’s trying, at least. Luke asked her out and she rejected him, though it would have been easy — so, so easy — to fall into a romantic pantomime with him. Because Luke is dull, a few crayons short of a full box, but he’s also sweet, genuinely kind, and they at least have one common interest (two, if you count Sterling, which April will not count). He can match neither her wit nor her ambitions, but she obviously isn’t actually hunting for a male romantic partner, so that hardly matters.

But he’s Sterling’s ex-boyfriend. And no matter what’s going on between the two of them, there are some things that just cross a line.

She and Sterling can’t be together, for obvious reasons, but they don’t have to hate each other.

At least, she didn’t think they had to.

But it’s been three days, and Sterling can’t even look at her. So maybe they do have to hate each other.

(It’s hard for April not to feel some sort of vindication, having her suspicions so obviously validated in front of her eyes. It’s obvious that Sterling never took things seriously between them. She’s gone back to ignoring April’s very existence, like she hasn’t had April’s tongue in her mouth, like April hasn’t had her hands up her shirt, like they haven’t felt each other, like they haven’t swapped panting breaths in cramped back seats. And it’s fine. Good, even. It’s what April wanted. For things to go back to normal — simple, uncomplicated. And it’s obvious that Sterling isn’t hung up on her, and that’s good, that thought doesn’t sting and isn’t painful. Sterling never cared about her, so April was correct. Breaking up with her was the right thing to do.)

(Being right has never felt so terrible.)

She gives Sterling 3 days, 4 if you count her generous act of giving Sterling even more space during the school day Thursday. She gives her all the way through Bible Study, their last class of the day, and not a moment longer.

“Sterling?” she asks sweetly after the last bell rings, her voice dripping honey, like the sticky paper her mother uses to catch fruit flies in their kitchen. “Can we speak for a moment?”

Sterling stops near the door. Blair is in the hallway on the other side — loitering, like she’s been loitering all week, Sterling’s shadow who won’t let her out of her sight. She isn’t even in their Bible Study class but she’s everywhere Sterling is these days, only parting from her when absolutely forced. The Wesley sisters cause a brief traffic jam, forcing the other students to duck between their bodies. They look at each other, sharing that long stare that they sometimes share, that look that communicates an entire silent conversation. It lasts for almost thirty seconds before April clears her throat loudly.

Blair grimaces, glares at April, and finally says, “I need to go to practice. Wait for me, or come steal the keys or whatever. Whenever.” She shoots one more glare at April and squeezes Sterling’s hand before stomping away.

Finally, it’s just the two of them, and Sterling is looking at her blankly, with no expression on her face, and April is starting to realize that she didn’t plan for this as well as she should have.

There’s no one else in Ellen’s classroom, but April still swallows and looks around quickly before she asks, “Are you okay?”

Sterling nods. “I’m fine. Never better, actually.”

“You missed school for a week.”

“Family emergency.”

“Blair was here.”

“Personal emergency, then.”

April frowns. She hates this. There’s a canyon of space between them, and her fingers twitch, her chest aches. Sterling’s eyes are shifty, never settling on her face, and God, April hates this. “Sterling…”

“Listen, I have to get home, so if that’s all you wanted to say—”

“No!” April steps forward, a knee-jerk reaction to Sterling turning away from her. Sterling pauses and looks at her, head quirked. April shifts her books in her left hand. Her arm is starting to ache but she just grips tighter. “Um… you missed a quiz in Physics, and we turned in the final draft of our Spanish projects. If you need help catching up, I can—”

Sterling laughs in her face. April blinks and falls silent. “That’s what you wanted to talk about? Catching me up in my classes?”

“I… just want to make sure you don’t fall behind.”

Sterling gives her a strange look. Expectant. Like she’s waiting for April to say or do… something. But April doesn’t know what she wants from her. So they just stand there, staring at each other stupidly. April’s heart is pounding in her chest. She doesn’t know why.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, April,” Sterling finally says. She turns and leaves, and April watches her go with her feet nailed to the ground.

Time seems to slow around her. That can’t be it. That can’t be it. It’s been nearly two weeks since they’ve spoken to each other. Two weeks ago April was on top of Sterling in the back of Sterling’s silver Chevy Volt, with her hand under Sterling’s shirt, kissing along her neck, biting at her collarbone. And now: this.

Two weeks ago she and Sterling were giddy and romantic, and now… yes, April ended things with her, but Sterling’s obvious grudge is frankly petty, not to mention misplaced. And unproductive! April can handle animosity towards her, that’s not her objection — as long as it’s deserved.

This is most certainly not deserved.

Sterling knows her situation. She knows what her father is like. April’s never hidden that truth from her. She made it perfectly clear that she wanted Sterling — that she still, in many ways, wants Sterling — but she didn’t have a choice. How dare she hold something against her that she can’t control?

What the hell was she supposed to do? Her father’s charges were dropped. He was released from prison. He’s living in her house again, poking his nose in her business again, asking about her friends (asking about Sterling, asking about Blair, watching her with hawk eyes that know too much know too much). How can Sterling expect anything different from her? For her to take out her anger and frustration on April, when April’s just doing what she needs to do to survive high school, is mean-spirited. It’s idiotic. It’s aggravating and unfair.

April squares her shoulders. She’s not going to let Sterling have the last word.

April shoulders her bag and drops her textbooks. She can get them later, or tomorrow, or whenever, it doesn’t matter. She just has to catch Sterling before she leaves campus.

She barges out of the front doors with a bang. “Sterling!” April yells, stomping towards the rapidly-emptying parking lot. She sees Sterling’s shoulders rise and fall like she’s just let out a long sigh. It makes her even angrier. Sterling turns to her, poised on the curb, arms crossed over her chest. April bristles. “I was not done talking to you.”

“You seemed like you didn’t have anything else to say.”

“Well, I do. I have quite a lot to say to you.” They stare at each other for a few long moments, breathing heavily, both out of breath for some reason.

“Well? Get on with it, then.”

April’s nostrils flare. “I want you to know how unbelievably disrespectful it was for you to just disappear after the lock-in weekend. I texted you several times and you never responded. And then you missed school for an entire week, because you were sick or… something. You don’t have to tell me why you were gone, that’s none of my business, and I understand that, but I didn’t hear a word from you all week. And even if you broke your phone, you could have sent a message through Blair. You clearly knew I was worried about you. I know Blair must have told you I asked about you. To continue to ignore my concern was rude. You left school and then I didn’t hear anything from you, and-and you never even stopped to wonder if I was okay, either.” Something flickers in Sterling’s expression.

Sterling opens her mouth but April keeps speaking. She doesn’t want to hear what she has to say. “And then you come back to school and you treat me like I’m nothing. You can’t even look at me, Sterling. And I want you to know that that’s hurtful. And childish.”

Childish?” Sterling’s eyes flash. “I thought this was what you wanted. No interactions at school, no way for anyone to assume anything about us.” Sterling’s lip curls up in a sneer. “I’m just trying to do what you asked me to do.”

“That’s incredibly unfair. I never told you that I wanted you to ignore me. Don’t put words in my mouth just because you decided to grow an attitude problem during your week of playing hooky. It’s disingenuous and mean-spirited. And… and your sister called me a bitch. Which was rude.”

Sterling’s shoulders get straighter and she stands a little taller. “Yeah, well she told me you deserved it. So.”

April falters. “That’s hurtful,” she says. Sterling’s expression twitches and just for a moment, April can see—regret. April licks her lips and takes a breath. “But… maybe true.”

The admission makes something crack in Sterling’s expression. She deflates and suddenly looks tired, much too tired. “No,” she sighs quietly, “you’re right. It was uncalled for. Women shouldn’t call other women bitches. It only serves—”

“Patriarchal interests.”

“—patriarchal interests,” they say at the same time. Sterling blinks, clearly surprised. April’s mouth twitches up and Sterling throws her head back and laughs. The sound is such a flood of relief, is accompanied by such an unexpected surge of euphoria, that April finds herself laughing, too.

For a moment she and Sterling just look at each other, laughing, eyes twinkling with a shared joke, and April’s chest is lighter than it’s been in two weeks.

Sterling rubs her cheeks and her laughter dies. The smile on her face starts to slip slowly, and melancholy takes over her expression again. April’s stomach twists uncomfortably. The tension grows between them again, and Sterling casts her eyes around.

“I should get the keys from Blair,” she says, an effective dismissal. April can tell when she isn’t wanted. It’s a particular skill she’s honed over her many years being a relative social pariah. She can see it in Sterling’s tense, closed-off stance, arms folded over her chest and body turned away.

This can’t be it. This can’t be how they’re going to leave things. She can’t accept that after everything they’ve been through together in the last month, they’re going to revert back to the way they were before — except worse, because at least before they were something like rivals. At least before there was competitive banter and lively exchanges, at least the animosity between them was out in the open (even if it was mostly overblown, mostly put on for show, mostly a fabricated excuse to make sure that Sterling Wesley remained a mainstay fixture in her life, because if she was April’s rival at least April would have a reason for obsessing over her all the time).

“My father is back,” April whispers, barely able to force the words past cracked lips. “He’s back in my house, living down the hall, and you-you didn’t think—I know that I don’t deserve your friendship, I know I’m not worth the trouble. After what I did to you… I understand, Sterling. But do you really care so little about me that you couldn’t even ask—?” Something catches in April’s throat and her eyes burn in her skull. She presses her palms quickly to her eyes, forcing the tears back inside. She swallows something hot and spiky. She will not cry. She will not cry about Sterling Wesley. Not now.

Not again.

“Is this all there is, now?” April asks in a whisper. “Is this all we can be? Just… two enemies who ignore each other most of the time and get into screaming matches once a week?”

There’s a crease between Sterling’s eyebrows. “What else can we be?” she asks quietly, plaintive.

There’s an ice cube in April’s stomach. It solidifies, cold and uncomfortable, seeping ice through her veins. The tips of her fingers are going numb. “It really meant nothing to you, didn’t it?” she whispers, and she hates the tremor in her throat, that soft, weak sound that escapes against her will.

Sterling’s face falls. Her eyes are unnervingly empty. “Is that what you think?”

“Well, what am I supposed to think? You haven’t spoken to me since the lock-in. I knew that things were going to be strained between us, but I never thought you’d be so petty as to—”

“I’m sorry, I must have misinterpreted your intentions when you were flirting with my ex-boyfriend right in front of me and making me feel like a freak for daring to talk to you around other people.”

April swallows. Her stomach has sunk into her intestines. It’s a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. “I’m sorry about Luke. My behavior with him was… unnecessary.”

“Yeah, it was.”

What she doesn’t say: I needed to understand you I didn’t know how it (he sex with him) could draw you in I wanted to be drawn in I needed to know how you could go from loving him to wanting me what is it about him that captivated you and why couldn’t it have captivated me too

What she says: “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Sterling just looks at her. “Has he asked you out yet?”

April blinks. She opens and closes her mouth once, twice. “Blair told you?”

Sterling laughs. It’s cold and entirely humorless. “No, he did. He asked my permission and everything. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t ‘hurt my feelings’ if he ‘tried to move on’ with you.”

This isn’t how April expected this conversation to go at all. It’s all too raw; too unstable. They can’t talk about this here. It’s too risky, too vulnerable, too open. She glances around. But besides a few faculty cars still lingering in the parking lot, they’re quite alone. The closest students to them are the sports teams practicing on the field, a couple hundred yards away. Way out of earshot.

“What did you tell him?”

Sterling stares at her, eyes unreadable. “I told him to go for it, obviously. What choice did I have?”

April swallows. This is not going according to plan. “I turned him down,” she admits, against her better judgment. “For what it’s worth.”

“Fantastic,” Sterling grumbles. “You didn’t even dump me for a convincing beard. Great. Just awesome.”

“Sterling,” April doesn’t know why she’s begging and doesn’t even know what she’s begging for. She only knows that Sterling is looking at her like she’d rather be anywhere else in the world and April can’t stand it. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for how I handled things. I never meant… I never thought that it would hurt you like—”

“You didn’t think it would hurt me? What is wrong with you?”

“No, that’s not… what I meant. I only meant that… you missed so much school, and I couldn’t help but think…” I didn’t think I was able to hurt you, I didn’t know you were someone who could be hurt by someone like me, I needed to be safe and I thought you’d understand—

“I didn’t miss school because you broke up with me, April. God, I knew you were self-centered but I didn’t think you were that deluded.”

April recoils. “That hurts, Sterling.”

There’s a rough line in Sterling’s forehead. Her lips are a thin line, and she shifts, ready to bolt. “Sorry, am I supposed to protect your feelings, now? I don’t get you, April. You hate me, and then you kiss me, and then you run away from me, and then you kiss me harder and you touch me and you make my skin burn and my body come alive and then you’re back to hating me and pushing me away again.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“You’re so hot and cold!” Sterling shouts like she hasn’t even heard her.

“Well so are you! You’re treating me like I never existed. Like I’m just a piece of gum stuck under your shoe. You were fine tossing me aside like yesterday’s trash.”

“I can’t keep track of your mood swings. Do you want me around or do you despise me? Do you want to ravage me or does the sight of me make you sick?” April blushes and looks away. “Because you have a really fucking funny way of showing your feelings.”

April winces at the curse that slips from Sterling’s lips. Spit in her face like acid. “What happened to you?” April asks, because it doesn’t make sense. Sterling doesn’t act like this. Blair is the Wesley twin full of anger, the one who lashes out and picks fights. Sterling crumples under confrontation, her eyes get blink-y and wet whenever someone yells at her. What’s happened to her? “What turned you into this?”

“Gee, I don’t know.” Sterling’s gaze burns white hot. “People change, April. Not everyone is going to act exactly how you want them to. Maybe I’m just different. Maybe it’s because you’ve been making my life a living hell for the past month, jerking me around like I’m not a real person with real feelings. Or maybe it’s the fact that you decided to break up with me by seducing my ex-boyfriend. Or, gee, maybe it has something to do with my deranged—aunt and her psychotic boyfriend kidnapping me at gunpoint after I left the lock-in? Maybe it was getting held hostage for ransom money? Maybe it was getting into a shootout and almost fucking dying in some trailer park off of 141?”

April’s gone completely pale. “You were kidnapped?” she asks in quiet horror. Her ears are ringing. It feels like the ground is falling away from under her feet. She sways, feeling dizzy. She needs to sit down. “At gunpoint?”

“I hate to deflate your superiority complex, April, but some things really aren’t about you.”

Sterling moves to walk away and April grabs her arm tightly. She doesn’t move, doesn’t loosen her grip, even when Sterling tries to jostle her arm free. Her heart is racing, panicked and urgent, and she can hear blood pounding in her ears.

Sterling was kidnapped, someone held a gun on her, Sterling almost died Sterling almost died.

“April,” Sterling grunts, “let go of—”

April yanks and brings their bodies together in a crushing, desperate, painful hug. Her hands sink into the fabric of Sterling’s hoodie and she clutches her tighter than she’s ever clutched anyone before, hard enough to hear the little groan Sterling releases when April manages to crush the air out of her lungs.

But her hands wrap around April’s hips. Her chin rests on April’s head and April buries her face into Sterling’s chest and it’s only when Sterling starts to shush her that she realizes she’s not only trembling but full-on weeping into Sterling Wesley’s baby blue pressed polo shirt. And she just can’t seem to stop.

The panic of almost losing Sterling settles, the longer they hold each other. April hadn’t even known she’d almost lost her, and hearing about it now, nearly two weeks later—

“April,” Sterling murmurs. It’s soft, too soft, not at all appropriate for school grounds. April crushes her tighter, as if she’s trying to fuse their two bodies into one. “Someone might see,” Sterling mutters, but it’s half-hearted, not said for her own benefit.

For the first time in her life, April doesn’t care. Let someone see, let someone spread rumors about her Sapphic inclinations. She doesn’t care. She can’t.

Sterling almost died.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispers into Sterling’s chest. She has the back of Sterling’s grey hoodie still in her fingers. The open zipper is pressed into her cheek. She’s sure to have marks when she pulls away. She presses closer. “You almost died, Sterling, and you didn’t—”

“I didn’t… think you would care,” Sterling mumbles, and April bites her lip, but not hard enough to suppress her whimper of pain. “I’m sorry,” Sterling apologizes, rubbing April’s back in tight small circles, keeping her breath steady. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you would be so upset. I’m sorry.”

And God, how rich is this situation? They’re in the parking lot in front of school, hugging like their lives depend on it, in full view of anyone who might happen to be exiting or entering the school, and Sterling just told her she was kidnapped, and yet Sterling is the one comforting her.

Sterling is good. She’s good, and kind, and sweet and thoughtful and caring, and even though April has been downright horrid to her and even though they’re coming off of a screaming match, she cares about April enough to hold her while she cries.

No one’s ever cared about April that much in her life.

“Can we go somewhere?” April whispers against Sterling’s neck and Sterling nods, her whole body moving with April’s.

/

They decide on somewhere less-visible. A third-party location, neutral territory, public. They end up at Rocco’s Pizza, the discount pizza place next to the Fun Zone (Where we had our first date, April’s brain provides, unhelpfully). The food is barely edible but Sterling orders two slices for each of them anyway, and stuffs her face with greasy cheese and dough like she hasn’t eaten a full meal in days.

April doesn’t know if she’ll ever understand this girl. She tops her pizza slice with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes, which just feels unnecessary to April, and she eats her pizza like a taco by folding it in half. April’s not a purist by any means, but foods are supposed to be eaten in specific ways. Sterling doesn’t seem to care about that.

“How much do you want to know?” Sterling asks around a mouthful of cheese and bread.

April blinks. “Sorry?”

“About the kidnapping. How much do you want to know?”

“Oh, uh… whatever you’re comfortable telling me, I guess?”

“I haven’t talked to anyone about what happened that night except Blair and my family.”

“Right.” Of course, of course she wouldn’t. It’s private. Not something you just go around sharing with every Tom, Dick, or Nancy on the block. Not something Sterling would just share with her, April, the-girl-who-means-nothing. “Obviously. Sorry. We can just… eat our food in silence. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Thank you for indulging me. You didn’t have to. Even if it’s just pity, it’s—”

“Hey.” Sterling reaches across the table and rests her hand briefly on April’s. April softens at the touch, longs to turn her hand over and take Sterling’s hand in hers. But they’re in public. But no one knows who they are, here; just two anonymous girls in private school uniforms. But anyone could walk by and see them, they’re hardly inconspicuous. But maybe it wouldn’t matter, maybe they wouldn’t even care, maybe they’re just two girls out for a slice of pizza, and besides, holding hands with another girl doesn’t have to be—

“It’s not pity.” Sterling pulls her hand back and smiles, small and tight. “I want to tell you. I know we aren’t… together, or anything. And that we, uh… might be fighting. But…” She pauses, licks her lips. April’s breath catches. “I could really use a friend.”

April’s shoulders relax and she sinks into her chair. She smiles tentatively. “I want to be your friend.”

Sterling smiles at her. April loves when she does that. She loves the way Sterling smiles at her. “Besides, I think you might have some insight. You’re kind of an expert in having messed up parental types.”

April frowns. “This is about your parents?”

Sterling takes a breath. “I guess I should start at the beginning.”

/

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

“So your mom is—?”

“My aunt. And vice versa.”

“And Blair—”

“My cousin. Or… half-sister. I’m a little confused about how it works. With the biology and identical twin genetics stuff.”

“And your aunt-mom kidnapped you at gun point after the lock in, tried to blackmail your family for ransom money, but Blair and your boss from the yogurt shop tracked you down, and that’s when there was a shootout?”

“It sounds kind of crazy when you say it like that.”

“That’s because it is crazy, Sterling.”

“I’m not lying,” Sterling says defensively.

“No, God,” April shakes her head, “of course you aren’t. No one is sick enough to make up a story like this.” April shakes her head again. She’s torn at least ten napkins into tiny little strips — a nervous fidgety habit of hers. Her father hates when she does it. He says it’s embarrassing and infantile. She pushes her napkin bits away and chews the inside of her lip. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. It’s kind of a lot.”

“Try living it.”

April can feel the pout on her lips. She always did have quite a pronounced pout. Sterling’s eyes are glued to her mouth, and she doesn’t want to think about why. “I didn’t know any of that was happening to you.”

“Blair’s good at keeping secrets. It’s one of those, like, ‘Big Family Shames’ so no one’s really interested in talking about it. My dad thinks we should all go to therapy. But my mom’s being weird about it; she thinks it would make our family look weak, because strong families don’t need professional psychological help. It’s kind of a moot point right now anyway, because would you be surprised to learn that it’s actually super hard to find a family therapist in Atlanta who doesn’t specialize in, like, divorces?”

“No, that’s not surprising.”

“My dad’s still looking. Blair’s super excited about it. She’s just been waiting for a legitimately legislated time to air all of her grievances about growing up pro-choice in a pro-life household.”

April’s lips twitch up at that. “My mom sent me to a therapist. Right after my dad was arrested.” Her smile slips into a grimace. “He told me my feelings of anger towards my father were repressed sexual fantasies manifesting as aggression.”

Sterling’s face twists in disgust. “Ew, gross.”

“It was.”

“I think Freud was a real weirdo. All that ‘penis envy’ stuff? Like, way to reduce people to their genitalia.”

“Yes, well I only went the once.”

“Hopefully our family therapist will be a little less interested in creepy sexual hang-ups and a little more interested in family-destroying secrets and traumatic near-death experiences.”

April shivers as the mood between them darkens. “I never should have let you leave that stupid lock-in,” she whispers.

Sterling shrugs. “Honestly, I would have probably climbed out a window if you hadn’t unlocked the doors. No way I was going to stay there after…” She glances at April, her cheeks turning pink.

“I could have driven you home. Or waited with you until Blair came. I could have helped, or… done something. Seen something.”

“It’s okay, April. No offense, but I don’t think you would have made much of a difference. Even I didn’t suspect anything was fishy, and she was impersonating my mom.”

“But you’re traumatized.”

She sees Sterling bite the inside of her cheek. “I don’t know about all that. ‘Trauma’ is such a heavy word.”

“You missed a week of school.”

“Yeah, well things were a little weird. I just… needed some time with my parents. Away from school and responsibilities. To figure things out and talk about… you know. What our family means, now. Dana — that’s my aunt, her name’s Dana — she’s in jail. And so is her crazy boyfriend Levi. So we’re safe and everything. Finally. It’s just been… hard. My mom’s taking it harder than anyone else, even harder than me.”

“She never told you that she had a sister?”

Sterling shakes her head. “Even when Blair and I found out she was lying about her past. She took the fall for everything. She admitted to blowing up an abortion clinic before she admitted to having a twin sister. That makes me so sad. I couldn’t imagine going through the world without Blair. Or, gosh, fighting with her, pointing a gun at her? That’s not how you’re supposed to treat your sister.”

“You and Blair would never be like that.” April shakes her head, because it’s true. Nothing in the world could turn the Wesley twins into people who threaten each other’s lives. “You’re freakishly close, and Blair would literally kill anyone who hurt you.” April’s probably gotten off easy, all things considered. Blair could have slipped laxatives or rat poison into her lunch. It’s actually curious that she hasn’t tried anything more violent to get back at April for making Sterling cry. April’s seen her stick-check people in the halls for less than that.

She makes a note to investigate that later.

“I know,” Sterling smiles wide. “I know we didn’t share a womb or anything, but she’s totally my soulmate. I love her so much.”

April is an only child. She’s never known what it is to have a sister, a friend who won’t (can’t) leave your side. She’s never known the strength of having someone who would kill for her, die for her.

She’s always envied Sterling and Blair. She’s never said as much, would never say as much. But she’s been going to school with them since they were kids. When Sterling passed her off to Jessica and her crew, April lost her only friend in Sterling, but Sterling never lost anything. She always had Blair. She had someone to have sleepovers with, someone to sit next to at lunch, someone to ride the bus with. Without Sterling, April had nothing, but without April, Sterling still had her soulmate.

April would give just about anything to have someone who loves her as much as the Wesley twins love each other.

Sterling clears her throat. April realizes it’s been almost a minute and she hasn’t said anything. She flushes.

“How crazy is it that my mom has an identical twin and never told us about it?”

“The more impressive twin type and everything.”

“Hey,” Sterling brightens, “that’s what Blair said!”

“Of course she did. It’s common knowledge.”

Sterling tears her own napkin absentmindedly. April watches her deft fingers. “Well, you’re both wrong. Fraternal twins are definitely better. They shouldn’t even be considered identical. I mean they are so different. Honestly like, night and day, as different as me and Blair, just with the same face. Which is freaky. Like, she talked to me for a long time and I was confident she was my mom. I should have seen through it, she has these like crazy eyes and her finger nails were all chewed up — Debbie would never go out in public with her makeup or nails looking like that.”

April frowns. “She looked just like her, you shouldn’t feel bad for not noticing. It isn’t your fault. How could you have known?”

Sterling shrugs. It’s a tiny movement, subdued. “I guess. But Blair would have known in two seconds. Dana saw me kiss Luke outside school, and she didn’t even know his name. Which, like, ‘hello, he was my boyfriend for six years’, you know? Like whose mom wouldn’t—”

“You kissed Luke?”

Sterling blinks. She works her jaw a few times. Her fingers crumple her napkin, her nails shredding the paper into tiny pieces. April stares at her and Sterling stares back.

“Oh, uh… yeah. After the—after you left, he… found me crying outside.”

April blinks. Sterling is twisting her napkin tighter. The tip of her finger is turning bright red, almost purple, with the choked-off blood flow.

Finally, after a much too long pause, April says, “I see.”

“It was just the once, though,” Sterling explains quickly, the words bursting from her like she’d barely been able to hold them back. “And I was crying, so it was super weird. Not even a very good—”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Sterling.” It comes out too short, too abrupt. Too obvious.

“No, I know. Just, uh…” She hears Sterling swallow. Her Coke is empty. Her mouth must be dry. “Well, I kind of forgot all about it. Considering, uh… family drama. And I haven’t even talked to Luke in like two weeks. You know I haven’t had time to get my phone replaced. I probably have, like, a thousand missed calls.” She laughs awkwardly. April doesn’t laugh with her.

She stands from the table and Sterling fidgets in her seat, hands flexing against the table. “I’m going to walk home.”

“What?” Sterling stands now. “No, April, it’s like thirty minutes to your house. I’ll call Blair, she can wait at school while I take you—”

“It’s fine. I want the exercise.”

“You don’t have to leave yet. We can… play some skee-ball next door? It’s still early.”

April tries to smile, but it’s so pained she knows it comes out more of a grimace. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I have… responsibilities, at home. I should get back.”

“I wouldn’t mind driving you. It’ll probably be faster—”

“I said no, Sterling.” Sterling’s face falls and she looks down at her hands, shy and rejected. April’s stomach does that terrible flip-flopping thing it’s been doing recently. Only ever in Sterling’s presence. She clenches her jaw. She can feel a headache coming on.

“Sorry,” she says, softer than she means to. Sterling glances up at her and opens her mouth, but April doesn’t stay. She ducks by Sterling and grabs her bag before Sterling can stop her. She bursts out of Rocco’s in a daze, half-walks and half-runs until she’s three blocks away, when she collapses on her knees into the too-green grass of a too-large home, heaving and struggling to catch her breath.

Sterling doesn’t follow her.

She gets herself together in four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. When her eyes have cleared and her breath has calmed she calmly walks the remaining 1.7 miles home. It takes her exactly 27 minutes.

____________________

Chapter Text

____________________

There’s optimism in the air when April walks into school on Friday.

Things aren’t perfect. They’re nowhere close to back-to-normal, but her conversation with Sterling at Rocco’s yesterday really helped clear the air. And yes, she left rather abruptly, which she probably shouldn’t have done, but she’d just received some shocking and unexpected news, which she needed to process on her own time. Lord knows what she might have done if she’d stayed. She might have said something regrettable.

The space had been good for her. With a night to sleep on it, a night to journal quietly through her thoughts, she feels like she’s confidently compartmentalized anything unpleasant. She’s actually a bit eager to see Sterling again. She needs to apologize for running off on her, and she needs to make it clear that despite initial appearances, she is deeply invested in making sure their friendship remains on good terms. Sterling wants to be friends, and April wants that, too. If they’re going to clear the air for good they need to be able to communicate respectfully, and she thinks that yesterday was a big step in that direction.

She just has to make sure her lack of self-control hasn’t derailed things completely.

(It’s also exhilarating to know something intimate about Sterling’s life, something no one but her immediate family has been made privy to. It makes her feel important, like she’s guarding a secret, like she’s been entrusted with a piece of Sterling’s very soul, and she better keep it close. It’s nice feeling like she matters. Sterling didn’t have to tell her about her aunt, about Blair, about being kidnapped. She didn’t have to tell her about her complicated family history. She chose to. That has to mean something.)

A real détente with Sterling would be a nice change of pace. The ability to have reasonable conversations is something she greatly wants. No extreme emotions, no unprofessional outbursts. A polite relationship — exchange hellos in the hall, speak to each other in class, occasionally share a laugh or a smile. Innocuous, polite, well-controlled rapport. April longs for the serenity of peace between them; a much needed ceasefire after an endless war.

These seem like perfectly reasonable terms to April; desirable, even. Attainable expectations.

As long as she can keep herself in check. Which she can do. She can control herself. She’s something of an expert in the field of self-control, after all. She won’t allow something as trivial as her emotions or her instability get in the way of smoothing the waters with Sterling.

Yesterday’s outburst notwithstanding.

Truthfully, April’s tired of fighting. She’s tired. She’s sick of the stomach-clenching, gut-churning fear that comes with not knowing where she stands with Sterling. She’s sick of it.

After so many years of open animosity, of trying so desperately to hate Sterling because hating her was the only viable option (because if she allowed herself to feel anything other than hate for Sterling Wesley the consequences would have been disastrous), she doesn’t think she has the strength to go back.

(She experienced the consequences for less than a month and they were, indeed, disastrous.)

She should have run screaming in the opposite direction. She did run screaming in the opposite direction. She thought that a return to normal, to the way their lives were before they were Sterling-and-April, would have been comforting; easy; normal. But it was horrible. The past two weeks have been horrible. The week she and Sterling were together was maybe the best week of April’s entire life. The weeks since have been some of the most miserable. And maybe it’s naïve, maybe it’s dangerous, maybe she’s playing with fire, but April doesn’t particularly care.

She has no desire to continue feeling horrible every single day for the rest of high school. She’s not strong enough for it.

(Not when she knows what the alternative looks like, what it tastes like, what it sounds like. Not when she knows what it means to be kissed by Sterling Wesley, touched by her.)

Of course, she and Sterling can’t be together — it’s an absurd notion, completely out of the question. April refuses to entertain the idea. It’s too dangerous. As long as she’s still living with her father, (and it does appear as if her father’s legal troubles have been completely taken care of, as if overnight) she can’t act on her latent same-sex attraction.

She has no idea what her father did to convince a judge that his case should be thrown out, but she imagines it involves large sums of money, offshores bank accounts, and untraceable transactions. John Stevens is a dangerous man, and if the situation with the sex worker is anything to go by, he has more power in their city than even April realized. He’s an unknown, uncontrollable factor, and he’s too much of a risk. Even if they were to try and keep their relationship a secret, it would never work out.

April refuses to entertain the possibility.

It’s a moot point anyway, because Sterling doesn’t (didn’t) want them to be a secret. They encountered an impasse. An unstoppable force (Sterling’s fierce courage, her confidence, her desire to feel and feel proudly) met an immovable object (April’s crippling fear of the consequences of her family finding out she’s a lesbian). Something had to give. And it did. The possibility crumbled, April asked ‘Maybe someday?’ and Sterling said, ‘I don’t know’, and that was the end of that. Settled fact. Fait accompli.

Besides, a secret is only as strong as its keepers are good at protecting it, and Sterling is a terrible liar. They were only honest about their feelings for each other (Together, a soft voice in the back of her skull whispers, you were only together) for one week, and already Sterling told Blair, and she wanted to tell the whole school. Their whole school of extreme Christian fanatics, whose parents are all Bible-thumping Republicans who hate taxes almost as much as they hate liberals and, by extension, homosexuals. Even if Sterling had been willing to keep their relationship a secret (which she hadn’t), she would have been functionally incapable of doing so.

How easy had it been for April to find out Sterling and Luke were having sex? She was careless enough to leave a used condom wrapper in the bag she took to school. Who knows what kind of evidence Sterling could accidentally leave lying around about their relationship? All it would take is one mistimed text, one visible phone screen, and that would be it; the rest of their high school careers, maybe the rest of April’s life: down the toilet. Gone, like it was never really there.

Sterling is a risk. Everything about her is a risk.

April is not in a position to be taking risks right now.

(Maybe Sterling isn’t the sole keeper of the risk. Maybe April’s feelings are nakedly apparent on her face, too. She’s been growing suspicious that Ezekiel knows more than he’s letting on; his judgmental once-overs are much too smug for him to not at least have an inkling that April is hiding something juicy.)

All together, a romantic… entanglement with Sterling is much too risky. But that doesn’t mean they have to go back to being enemies. Sterling was kidnapped two weeks ago. She almost died. And if she had died (even the thought chills her blood, makes her woozy), the last time they would have spoken would have been through tears, through anger, through betrayal and rejection. That ultimately is the thought that makes April walk into school with her head held high and her demeanor determined.

She and Sterling can no longer share any kind of romantic bond. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be friends.

Walking into school, April feels better, lighter somehow. She feels like she can breathe easier. It’s good to know that there’s a reason for Sterling’s strange behavior recently, and that that reason is not ‘I hate April Stevens with every fiber of my being’.

This week has actually turned out to be victorious, despite its unpromising start.

Of course, her good mood lasts only as far as her first period Spanish class. When she walks into the room Luke is hunched over Sterling’s desk, talking to her in quiet, whispered tones. April’s mood immediately plummets.

April’s spine stiffens and she stalks over to her seat, slamming her books down on her desk. Luke jumps at the noise and looks at her, eyes wide, expression nervous. He glances between Sterling and April, and shrinks back from the ice in April’s gaze.

“I’ll, uh… talk to you later, Sterl,” he squeaks before rushing back to his seat with his tail between his legs. April glares after him. The audacity of men, honestly. To go from Sterling to April to Sterling to April to Sterling again… ridiculous. This is why April doesn’t do men. This is why she never liked Luke. He’s too unprincipled. He’s like a chicken with his head cut off, running around deaf dumb and blind, hitting everything in his path, dripping blood on the floor behind him.

Lord knows why Sterling sees anything in him. He’s an utter imbecile.

She sits down heavily. She keeps her back to Sterling, all thoughts of apologies and explanations disappearing from her mind. She can feel Sterling’s eyes boring into the back of her neck but she refuses to turn around and acknowledge her. Sterling’s gaze makes the hairs on her neck stick up. Her skin tingles, but she doesn’t turn around. It’s better for the both of them if they try to maintain their distance.

If she still felt bad about running off yesterday, that feeling has all but vanished.

Clearly yesterday didn’t mean to Sterling what it meant to her. She’s been foolish again, blinded by her emotions again, reckless with her heart again. It’s her curse: she over-thinks and is overly optimistic. And she keeps getting burned.

There’s a tap on her shoulder. April ignores it.

“So yesterday was weird, right?” Sterling mumbles, leaning forward so her breath tickles warm on the back of April’s neck. April fights a shiver.

“Hey,” Sterling whispers, tapping her again, “are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” April shoots back through gritted teeth.

“Are you mad at me for talking to Luke? Because that wasn’t what it looked like,” Sterling whispers, choosing to ignore her.

April grinds her teeth. “Of course not. Why would I care if you’re talking to Luke?” She glances up now. More students have started to filter in. Señora O’Rielly is writing the day’s lesson plan on the chalkboard (Estructura Romántica en la Telenovela). There are a few curious glances her way. April realizes her body language is much too tense for a Friday morning before 8am. She tries to relax her shoulders. She throws a glare over her shoulder at Sterling. “Now be quiet. People are staring.”

Sterling sinks back in her seat, a curious expression on her face. It’s a frown but not the wounded, hurt frown that April’s grown used to; not the look Sterling gave her at the lock-in, all wrecked and tender, like April was clawing her heart to pieces with every laugh she shared with Luke.

The thought makes her spine go rigid again. What a hypocrite.

¡Formen parejas, clase!” Señora O’Rielly says when the bell rings. She claps her hands together a few times, until the lingering conversations die down. “¡Formen parejas! En la primera fila: su compañero está detrás. Lo mismo para la tercera fila. Quinta fila: tu pareja está a tu lado.” She claps her hands together when no one immediately moves. “¡Ahora clase! ¡Formen parejas!

April sighs. She really can’t catch a break, can she?

She turns around in her seat and Sterling smiles at her nervously. “Partners again. What a coincidence, right?”

En Español,” April says shortly, determined to stay focused on the task. She’s done being hurt by Sterling Wesley, and yes they’ve reached a sort of neutrality, but she has to stay strong. Distant. Letting her guard down around Sterling never ends well for her. There’s no point even trying. When she opens herself up to Sterling she gets hurt, even unintentionally.

Schoolwork is safe because it’s an entirely non-emotional, non-sexy subject. As long as they stick to the assignment, this should be fine.

Fine,” Sterling says with a little eye roll. “¿Novio o novia?”

What?

Sterling gives her a weird look. She taps a piece of paper on her desk. “¿La actividad?

Oh. She hadn’t been paying attention when Señora O’Rielly passed out the day’s assignment. April glances down at the worksheet in her hand, scanning the words quickly.

 

 

Escena: Amor

Diálogo - Personaje A (Novio) / Personaje B (Novia)

Escribe una escena de amor. Una propuesta de matrimonio, una luna de miel, una velada romántica en la ciudad, etc. Borrador: 1 cuartilla mínimo. Entregar al final de la clase. Practica y prepárate para realizar una escena de 10 minutos después de las vacaciones de Navidad.

She swallows. A love scene. Great. “Novia,” she says, because if she and Sterling are forced to split writing dialogue for a love scene, she’s going to take the female part.

Bueno,” Sterling says, making a note next to the parts, “soy el novio.”

April shifts. She glances around. No one is paying attention to them. Not even Blair is watching, and all Blair seems to do these days is watch April carefully, like one might watch a venomous snake on a path, waiting for the moment it rears back to strike.

She takes a breath. Maybe it’s residual annoyance, maybe it’s boredom, maybe it’s something like bravery. “Tú también puedes ser la novia,” she murmurs, almost too quiet for Sterling to hear. You could also be the girlfriend. Her accent is flawless. Of course Sterling understands her.

She blinks, and her pen pauses on the paper. “Escandaloso, Abril,” she says quietly, play-acting offense. April meets her gaze, her expression serious. Challenging. Sterling licks her lips and bends her head. Her hair falls too perfectly in front of her face, the way it does when she wants to hide her smile. “Bueno. Novia y novia.” She glances up. “¿Qué te haría amarme?” April gasps. Sterling blushes and stutters, immediately backtracking. “Not me. Yo no... Me refiero a la personaje, obviamente. ¿Qué te haría amarla?

April’s heart is still pounding in her chest. What would make you love me? Sterling asked.

That’s quite a loaded question.

No lo .” April catches movement over Sterling’s shoulder. Luke is staring at his ex, his eyes wide and adoring, fixated on the back of Sterling’s head. A frustrated Lorna is trying desperately to get him to pay attention to their assignment to absolutely no avail. Sterling tilts her head and her hair sways, pretty and shiny smooth, and Luke sighs dreamily.

It makes April’s blood boil. “¿Qué hace tu novio?” she snaps, all heat.

Sterling’s forehead and nose scrunch together. It isn’t cute. It’s annoying. (It isn’t cute, her mind repeats grumpily. Even she can tell she’s lying to herself.)

“I thought we were both the girlfriend?”

April’s eye twitches. “Tu novio,” she sneers. “Carlos.” 

Sterling blinks. “Oh, no. Gosh, no,” she says quickly in English.

April keeps her mouth thin. Sterling never could follow directions. “En Español, Carolina.

“I’m not dating Luke,” Sterling says, stubbornly still in English. She keeps her voice low and leans forward. “And I definitely don’t like him anymore. I didn’t kiss him to start dating him again. I was just sad about, y’know, you—” April turns pink, “and Luke was… something easier. But we aren’t dating.”

And April doesn’t know what to do with that, because the honesty from Sterling is unexpected and making things a lot more difficult. She deflates a little. “Oh.”

Señora O’Rielly is several rows away. No one is paying any attention to them. April glances down at Sterling’s paper. They haven’t written a single line yet. “Lo siento,” April says in the softest voice she can manage. “About yesterday.”

Sterling softens. Her eyes are full of an expression that April is too nervous to think about. “Yo también.

“I shouldn’t have stormed off like that. It was childish.”

“Why did you?”

April shoots her a leveling stare. “Why do you think?”

Sterling flushes and shifts in her seat. She looks happy, giddy almost, and it would be attractive if it weren’t so obviously intentioned. (It’s very attractive.) “Were you jealous?” she whispers, ducking her head low as if that will make her voice travel quieter. “Were you jealous just now? Your face got so red when you saw me and Luke.”

April blinks very quickly and swallows, hoping to keep her blush in check. Instead it flames across her cheeks, an uncontrollable wildfire. “No. I don’t care about you and Luke.” But it’s said so unconvincingly that Sterling’s mood isn’t even diminished. God, she’s such a failure.

“You were jealous.” Sterling bites her lip. It doesn’t hide her smile. “That’s so crazy.”

“I was not jealous of Luke Creswell,” April scoffs. “Please. He’s almost a man and his sleeping bag is shaped like a guitar. As if I would be jealous of that lug.”

“I’m flattered, honestly.”

April looks away. She glances at her watch and balks at the time. Only fifteen minutes until the end of class. They haven’t even started their assignment.

Nosotras deberiamos…”

Si. Si. El trabajo.” Sterling ducks her head again. She’s smiling secretively, fingers toying with the pen in her hands.

April feels her own lips twitch up. She can’t help it. There’s just something about Sterling Wesley she just can’t shake.

They turn in their assignment at the bell, a perfect 1 page of Sterling’s neat handwriting, a decent enough dialogue. The grammar is perfect anyway, so they should ace the assignment easily. April tries to speed off but Sterling jogs after her. “Hey, can I, um… text you?”

April’s fingers flex on her bag. Dangerous, she thinks. This is dangerous.

“You have questions about the assignment?” she asks, careful to hide behind a reasonable excuse.

Sterling refuses to play along. “No. Just to text you.” April glances at her out of the corner of her eye. Her hand stops on her locker, her mind going briefly blank as she forgets her combination. “I thought… we could try this ‘friends’ thing.”

“…I suppose. We could start slow. It’s the holidays, after all. I’m feeling generous.”

Sterling smiles. April’s heart flutters. “Okay. I’ll text you. And… see you next week?”

“Yeah. Next week.”

“What’s she doing here?” Ezekiel asks as he and Hannah B. appear next to April’s locker. He looks at Sterling, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“Just talking about the Spanish project,” Sterling lies easily, smooth as anything. April doesn’t look at her. “Well, have a good day. I’ll text you this weekend, April.”

“Bye, Sterling,” April says into her locker.

“Bye, Sterling!” Hannah calls. “See you at lunch!”

Ezekiel watches her carefully. April tucks her hair behind her ears and hopes she isn’t blushing. “What’s going on with you two? You’re very chummy, all of a sudden.”

“Hardly,” April scoffs. She grabs a book out of her locker, slamming it shut. “We got partnered up in Spanish.”

“Still. You’re texting all of a sudden?”

“What am I supposed to do? Let her slack and leave me with the entire project to do on my own this weekend? If we don’t practice, our scene will hardly be believable.”

“Girl, it’s just a Spanish presentation. It’s worth like 20 points.”

“We have a presentation in Spanish?” Hannah B. asks, clearly confused. “Do we have to speak Spanish or can I give it in English?”

April sighs. “Why does it matter? Maybe I’m just… tired of hating her.”

Ezekiel’s lip curls. “Since when? Hating Sterling is like, a full contact sport with you.” April’s eyes widen at the turn of phrase. Ezekiel arches an eyebrow, his eyes scanning her face quicker. “Wait…”

“I have to get to class. See you both later.”

She walks off with her head down, her heart in her throat. She hears Hannah B. ask “When’s our Spanish project due?” and Ezekiel answer with a loud sigh. She turns the corner, pulling out of sight.

The Sterling topic doesn’t come up again for the rest of the day, for which April is grateful.

____________________

Sterling (5:09 p.m.)
oh shoot

Sterling (5:09 p.m.)
i totally forgot but im missing
school next  week

  Sterling (5:10 p.m.)
Can we practice our scene over
Facetime? i wont be back in town
until the 30.

 

April (5:15 p.m.)
Why???

 

Sterling (5:15 p.m.)
we’re spending Christmas with my
grandparents, we’re leaving tmrw

Sterling (5:16 p.m.)
it’s gonna b super terrible

Sterling (5:16 p.m.)
Blair is already planning a rant
about the social importance of
the BLM protests

Sterling (5:16 p.m.)
this might b the year they
finally write her out of the will

 

April (5:17 p.m.)
Oh no. Poor Blair.

 

*Sterling laughed at a message*

 

Sterling (5:17 p.m.)
nice tone

 

April (5:18 p.m.)
We have a half week of school, and
your parents are fine with you missing?
After 5 absences in a row?

April (5:18 p.m.)
Is that wise?

 

Sterling (5:19 p.m.)
they insist. They want family
time “away from prying eyes”

Sterling (5:19 p.m.)
ppl are starting to gossip about
us at church because we missed 2
weeks in a row. lots of whispers &
tough ?s.  Mom wants to skip the
xmas pageantry

Sterling (5:19 p.m.)
fewere questions

 

April (5:20 p.m.)
Gotcha.

 

Sterling (5:20 p.m.)
anyway I wanted to tell u I wont
b at school so we can schedule
around it.

Sterling (5:20 p.m.)
I know ur particular about
ur project timelines

 

April (5:23 p.m.)
That’s actually thoughtful.
Thank you.

  April (5:23 p.m.)
FaceTime is fine. The performance
isn’t until the fifth, anyway. So we
can also practice when you’re back.

 

*Sterling loved a message*

*Sterling liked a message*

 

Sterling (5:23 p.m.)
Cool. I’ll txt u?

 

*April liked a message*  

April (5:24 p.m.)
You know how to reach me.

 

Sterling (5:33 p.m.)
I also wanted to make sure
u knew i wasn’t ghosting u again

Sterling (5:33 p.m.)
no ghost, just unavoidable familial
conflicts, u know how it is

 

April (5:33 p.m.)
I do know, yes.

  April (5:40 p.m.)
Thank you for telling me.
I would have been worried
if you hadn’t.

 

*Sterling loved a message*

Sterling (5:43 p.m.)
see u after break?

 

April (5:43 p.m.)
I’m looking forward to it.  

____________________

April honestly thinks her life is over when her dad stops her before church on Sunday morning and says, “I need to speak to you about the Wesley girls.”

April is already cataloguing which of her belongings she most urgently needs to collect, which medicines she should put in which labeled bags, calculating the legal withdrawal limit on her checking account and how to ration the money she’s saved up from the past 5 consecutive Christmases, and wondering who will be more likely to take her in when her father inevitably kicks her out, Hannah B. or Ezekiel, when he says, “Sterling and April aren’t who they say they are.”

And then he starts to tell her about the night he was arrested.

And April’s entire world shifts on its axis.

/

The story April’s father tells lasts twenty-eight minutes, but it feels much longer. April doesn’t say a word the entire time.

When he finally finishes, he waits in expectant silence, watching her. April is having trouble controlling her breathing. Her face is stony and, she hopes, impassive. The smirk on his mouth is disconcerting, and makes her feel sick.

“Why are you telling me this?” April whispers, because she doesn’t know. She can’t think of any reason beyond cruelty and vindictive pleasure.

“Because you should know who those girls really are. What they did to me. To our family.”

“I already hated them, Daddy.”

Her father’s smile is crooked, like hers. Unlike her smile, his is sinister and empty. “Good girl.”

Up in her room, April counts her breaths carefully. In through the nose for seven seconds, out through the mouth for five. Counting helps. Time is fixed and permanent. Time moves only in one direction. Time is punishing and unforgiving, like her, always moving forward, like her, perfectly logical and structured, like her.

But she’s not logical. She’s not. Despite all of her posturing, despite her commitments, despite her staunch belief in sound arguments and deductive reasoning, she’s proven herself to be the most illogical creature on the planet.

Sterling betrayed her. She lied to her. She hid something incredibly important from April for months. She arrested her father. She’s the person who ruined April’s life, who destroyed her family, who put her father behind bars and then kissed her so hard her knees went weak. She’s the reason April’s mother had to mortgage the lake house, the reason April’s grades have been slipping for a month, the reason her mother has started taking her breakfast with a side of vodka. She’s been hiding this from her for months. She never said anything.

And all April can think about is kissing her again.

She played April for an absolute fool.

How many times can one girl screw her over? How can one girl be responsible for so much heartache? How is it that at every impossible juncture in her life, Sterling Wesley seems to be there, with her goofy smile and oblivious destruction, wreaking havoc on every facet of April’s tenuous control?

And how on Earth is April still so hung up on her?

Sterling kissed Luke two weeks ago. She got her father arrested. That should be enough to cement her hatred.

She’s so stupid. She’s been so stupid. Sterling lied to her. She lied. She comforted April, she told April she could trust her, April said, “Why can’t people just tell the truth” and instead of telling the truth Sterling kissed her.

Why? To confuse her? To manipulate her more? To help keep her secret safe? Did she ever really care about April, or was it all a ploy? Was getting close to her part of some plan to put her father away from the rest of his life?

Was it all just some cruel joke?

Sterling Wesley is bad news. She’s a liar. She’s dangerous, she destroyed April’s family, she destroyed April’s concentration. She got a C on her Spanish project last week because she was so worried about Sterling being missing that she barely had time to write the two-page literary analysis Señora O’Rielly assigned them. She turned in a page and a half. Ten minutes late. She got a C. April’s never gotten a C in her whole entire life, and of course the first time she does, it’s Sterling’s fault, too.

Sterling is bad news. If she didn’t know it before, it’s unbelievably clear now. She’s a stain on April’s life, a cloud hanging over her head, a risk. A terrible, horrible risk.

April hates her. She hates her. Or she doesn’t, yet, but she will. She’s hated Sterling before; she can hate her again. Hating Sterling is practically second-nature to her. She can return to it, like a single-minded focus. It can be the locus that sets her life back on track.

(It’s a mindset that still centers Sterling, which is probably less-than-ideal, but April’s already feeling whiplash from the past 2 weeks — falling for Sterling to breaking her heart to having her heart broken to being spurned to tentative healing to… this. It’s been too much. She needs to ease her way back into not having Sterling in her life any more. She can’t be expected to cut her out cold turkey; not after the week she’s had.)

Hating Sterling is practically second-nature, but there’s nothing natural about the way her stomach churns when she thinks of seeing Sterling again.

It would all be so much easier if Sterling were easier to hate. She’s given April every reason.

And yet.

 

 

Well. Easier said than done, apparently.

____________________

Chapter Text

____________________

Sterling texts her exactly six times over break.

Sterling (Dec. 21, 9:46 a.m.)
SOS Blair just said the braves
have a racist team name &
should change it SOS

Sterling (Dec. 21, 12:18 p.m.)
how long is a parsec??? v
important debate happening rn

/

Sterling (Dec. 24, 3:37 p.m.)
Hey! Not sure where you’ve been, but
I hope you have a great Christmas.
Tell me if one of the goats poops on
stage during the pageant again this year?

/

Sterling (Dec. 31, 11:47 p.m.)
Happy New Year, April

/

Sterling (Jan. 1, 10:04 a.m.)
I’m not sure what I did this time
but can you please talk to me?
The silence is really freaking me out.

/

Sterling texts her six times over break. April only responds once.

Sterling (Jan. 2, 1:20 p.m.)
Just please tell me you’re okay, April. I’m
really starting to worry. I’ll stop texting
you, just tell me you’re alive and safe.

Please.

 

April (Jan. 2, 1:23 p.m.)
I’m safe.

 

Sterling (Jan. 2, 1:23 p.m.)
Promise?

 

April (Jan. 2, 1:38 p.m.)
I promise.

 

____________________

April prepares for church like a soldier prepares to go to war. She pulls her skirt down over her knees, fixes her shoes three, four times to make sure they shine just so. She brushes her hair with 50 even strokes until it lies perfectly against her cheeks.

She takes a breath, staring at her own reflection. She looks exhausted.

Her parents currently aren’t speaking, though they’re pretending like they are. Their finances are tight, which no one will admit, so Christmas was significantly subdued this year. Previous Christmases have included trips to exotic islands, helicopter rides, cruises, lavish gifts and wealthy posturing. April always thought she’d enjoy a smaller Christmas, something more intimate. ‘Just the family’ is how she used to pitch it to her parents when she was younger, but they’d always laugh her off. Why would we want to spend Christmas in Atlanta, when we could spend it in Sandals?

It turns out a small, intimate Christmas is worse than any of their lavish excursions. It was claustrophobic, and stifling. There was absolutely no place to hide.

Her holiday break was tense. In a word.

And John has been sleeping on the couch. They aren’t talking about that, either.

Church has been horrible.

They hadn’t been back since the arrest, but with John in the house, their presence every Sunday is once again mandatory. And their absence had been noted.

Even though John wears his best suit and shoes when he shows up, the looks their family receive are withering, the talk poisonous. Even though everyone smiles at them like nothing is wrong, shaking their hands and pressing warm hugs to still bodies, the obvious pity is cruel. April sees the way they look at them when they think they’re unnoticed. She hears the way they whisper. She knows what they think of her family — her father and his extramarital indiscretions (his violence), her mother and her weakness for staying with him, April and her innocence nearly-robbed, her bright tragic future that they pity.

And to make matters worse: The Wesleys will be at church today. April knows they got back into town yesterday. She knows that no self-respecting family in their community would dare to miss church — not for anything less than a world-ending scandal.

Who knows if the Stevenses will ever recover their social standing. Who knows if April cares at all.

She tugs at the skirt of her dress again. It’s a dark green, emerald and rich. She wonders if Sterling will like it.

(She hates that that’s her first thought. She hates that that’s the reason she picked it out, for the color and the way it hugs her waist and the way the neckline is cut, showing off her collarbones and just enough of her chest to be eye-catching but still appropriate in the house of the Lord.)

John gives her a curious look when she comes down the stairs, and April grabs a cardigan to wrap over her shoulders and around her body, and tries to ignore the way his gaze prickles her skin.

Her heart is in her throat all the way to church. She hopes no one can see.

/

April can hear Sterling and Blair whispering in their family’s pew. She doesn’t mean to pay attention to them, but they’re a small congregation and it can’t be helped. She’s doing her best to focus on the pastor. Her father’s hand on her knee burns and she hates it, hates the way he touches her like he has any claim over her, like he has any right to possess any part of her. She hates it. She hates him.

She hates the way the Wesleys whisper to each other, too loud and heated, too noticeable.

The sermon passes in a blur. April can barely focus on the lesson.

The pastor is talking to them about forgiveness. “The new year is a time for new beginnings. A time to let go of past wrongs. To right oneself, to make yourself right with God. Matthew 6:15: ‘But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ Greed and anger are Earthly sins. Only forgiveness is Godly. And He is a loving God, a forgiving God. He forgives us our sins; we must forgive each other as well. ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.’”

April’s father squeezes her leg, and when she looks at him he gives her a smile that makes her stomach churn. She returns it as best she can, thinking nothing of forgiveness, thinking of nothing but anger and betrayal.

April worries that the end of the service means she’ll have to dodge Sterling’s sad stares and stuttering questions as inconspicuously as possible. No doubt her father will be waiting to see how she speaks to the Wesleys; if she speaks to them. There’s no way her reaction will please him. Best to be avoided altogether.

But no sooner than the final hymn finishes, no sooner than their last ‘Amen’, and Sterling is ducking out the door like she can’t escape fast enough. April pretends not to notice, pretends not to watch her, pretends she isn’t relieved, pretends that the uneasy feeling in her stomach has to do with skipping breakfast, and nothing else.

She exits her family’s pew with her head down, looking at her own shoes. They shine nicely. She got that part right, at least.

“Hey.”

April draws to a quick stop. Blair has stepped in front of her, effectively blocking her way out. April glances over her shoulder but her father isn’t paying attention to her. He’s deep in conversation with Pastor Booth.

Blair jerks her head. “Do you have a second to talk?”

April squints warily. “With you?”

“Who else?”

“I’d rather not go to a secondary location with you, Blair. Number one rule to avoid a kidnapping.”

Blair’s nostrils flair. It’s a small movement, barely noticeable. April notices. “Don’t joke about that shit with me.”

April hadn’t meant to. An awkward turn of phrase, but she hadn’t meant to be malicious. Still: “Don’t curse in church, Blair. Christ.”

“Look, I don’t even want to be doing this. Sterling asked me to get you alone. If it were up to me she’d never talk to you again, but whatever.” She folds her arms over her chest. “So are you coming with me or not?”

She shouldn’t. She knows she shouldn’t. It’s a bad idea, a terrible horrible no good very bad idea.

April nods and follows behind her.

She hasn’t been in the Youth Group room since middle school. It looks the same as it did all those years ago, with cheesy Bible quotes painted on the walls (So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. — 1 John 4:16) and the bright green plastic furniture that looks about half as uncomfortable as it actually is.

Sterling waits for her with her hands clasped in front of her hips. She rocks on the balls of her feet, too nervous to stand still, and it would be endearing if April’s stomach weren’t already full of lead.

“Thanks, Blair,” Sterling says quietly.

Blair just scoffs. “Your funeral. Have fun with whatever this bullshit is. You know how to find me when you’re done.” With one last glare in April’s direction she leaves, closing the door behind her with a soft snap.

April stays as close to the door as she possibly can without being outside of it. Sterling notes her body language and doesn’t move closer to her.

“Sorry about the fake out. I didn’t think you’d come if it was me asking.”

April doesn’t correct her, doesn’t tell her that that’s the only reason she’s here — that she knew Sterling would be waiting for her, that she’s curious what Sterling has to say.

She crosses her arms over her chest. “Well?” she says shortly. “I’m here, now. What do you want?”

Sterling bites her lip. “I have a feeling you might be mad at me.”

“Oh, really? What gave you that impression?”

Sterling winces. “I don’t know what it is I did, exactly. But I have a feeling I probably deserved it. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. To… explain some things.” Sterling squeezes her eyes shut and takes a breath.

“He told you, didn’t he?”

April cracks her neck. “Who told me what?”

“April.” Sterling’s voice is soft. It makes something in April’s throat clench, and she swallows against the feeling of thick hot tears, of hot stinging bile. “You don’t have to pretend.”

It’s April’s turn to close her eyes. She shouldn’t have come here. They shouldn’t be doing this. This is a mistake, a horrible mistake that’s going to blow up in their faces sooner rather than later.

They shouldn’t be doing this.

“I don’t have to pretend? That’s rich, coming from you.”

“I don’t know what he said to you, but please, just let me—”

“How could you?” April asks with her throat tight and her words more resigned than angry. “You arrested my father, Sterling. You hit him with a gun.”

“I know.”

“You took him to jail, you—you lied to me.”

“I know that, too.”

April wants to throw something. “Will you stop saying ‘I know’?! I know you know! That’s the whole reason we’re here! You lied to me. You kept this secret from me. For weeks, Sterling! Weeks! Why? To laugh at me behind my back? Poor, stupid April doesn’t even know that the Wesleys are the reason her daddy’s rotting in prison?”

“Hey,” Sterling takes a step forward. April has nowhere to go. She’s already backed into a corner. “Don’t say that. Don’t talk about yourself like that. You aren’t stupid, I… I’m the stupid one. I thought… I thought by not telling you I was protecting you. I didn’t want to make a difficult situation any worse.”

April laughs, empty and pained. “No, of course. Why tell me the truth when lying makes things so much easier for yourself?”

Sterling’s shoulders draw back. She takes another step forward, then another. There are only a few feet of space between them. “I didn’t want to make it easier for me.”

April’s gaze is disdainful. She can feel her lip turning up, the way it does when she’s particularly disgusted. “You can lie to yourself all you want, Sterling, but don’t you dare lie to me. Not anymore. Not about this.” Sterling opens her mouth but no sound comes out. April suddenly feels tired, very tired, much too tired for any of this.

It’s getting late. Her parents will be wondering where she is.

“I get that my father is an asshole,” she says quietly. “I get that he’s a bad person. I even get that he should have gone to prison. If our so-called justice system cared at all about justice, he would be in prison. I’m under no misconceptions that my father is a good person, or that he somehow deserves freedom. He isn’t, and he doesn’t. But he’s my dad, Sterling. Why did it have to be you?”

Sterling stares at her, eyes wide and mouth gaping. She flounders for several long seconds.

It’s getting late. April can’t stand here all day and wait for Sterling to come up with a decent answer. There’s no defense for what she did.

They both know it.

April sighs and turns towards the door. “Goodbye, Sterling.”

“Wait!” Sterling digs around in her purse for a second before she pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. She flushes and flattens it as best she can. She holds it out to April, who looks at it warily.

“What’s that?”

“Um, I think… you should just read it? I tried to… I wanted to explain. I’m not great with the talking. You know what it’s like for me in Forensics. So I thought—” she looks down at the folded paper in her hand. “It’s not an excuse. I don’t have any excuses. It’s just the story. From the beginning. You don’t have to like it, I just… wanted the chance to explain.”

“I’m not interested in your explanation.”

“Please, April?” Sterling’s eyes are wide and urgent. She thrusts the letter again. “You can decide never to speak to me ever again. But after you read this. Please.”

April takes it from her with shaking fingers. She folds it in half three times until it’s small enough to slip into her bra. Sterling watches her tuck the paper through the collar of her shirt, her eyes a little unfocused.

April blushes. “No pockets,” she mumbles.

Sterling nods. “I’ll see you at school?”

“Goodbye, Sterling.”

____________________

There isn’t a lot that makes April cry these days. You only have to work through a few life-altering family traumas before the little things stop bothering you so much.

But she cries the whole way through Sterling’s letter. Her tears drip fat onto the pages, smudging the pen. She gasps through the pain and hides under her covers and reads it again and again and again.

____________________

It doesn’t change anything. It can’t change anything. It’s not worth even thinking about, no matter… no matter how Sterling feels. No matter the story, no matter the words.

It can’t change anything. It won’t change anything.

Sterling finds her after school in the Fellowship room, bent over her binder planning tomorrow’s devotional reading. Ellen lets her use the Fellowship room whenever they aren’t having meetings. It’s easier for her to get her work done there than at home, which Ellen knows but never mentions. Another blessing that April is more than thankful for, another allowance she’s more than happy to take advantage of.

Of course the one downside is that she’s very visible, and still at school, and Sterling finds her without even having to look.

April keeps her head down. She keeps writing, but there are no words coming from her brain, so it ends up just a bunch of indecipherable scribbles. She positions her arm so Sterling can’t see her paper. No need for her to know what kind of affect she has on April’s brain.

“Hey,” Sterling says softly.

“What do you want, Sterling?” April asks without looking up.

Sterling shifts in front of her. “I was… just wondering if you had a chance to read my letter? And if you… wanted to talk about it at all? Or something?”

“Of course not,” April snaps, finally jerking her head up. God, Sterling looks pretty today. Her hair is braided in loose pigtails, two strands free and framing her face. She takes a step back and goes all blink-y. It is not cute. April will not think that it’s cute. “I told you I’m not interested in your explanations.”

Sterling’s face crumples. “Oh. I’m sorry. I thought…” She twists her fingers. “I’m sorry. I’ll just leave you alone, then. Uh… and feel free to burn that letter from yesterday, it isn’t… important. Sorry.”

Let her go, April’s mind whispers to her heart. Let her walk away. Let her leave. Let her go. Let her go. Let her go.

“Wait,” April calls when Sterling is almost out of the room.

Someone yells out in the hallway. The band kids laugh and jostle each other on the way to the auditorium. The Satanic Atheists are taping their vile posters to a nearby row of lockers, advertising their bake sale to raise funds for middle schoolers who can’t afford laptops.

Sterling looks at her, her hand poised on the door, weight off-balance like she’s not sure in which direction to move.

April hates doing this at school. They always do this at school. School is the least safe place on the planet for them to talk about this stuff; it’s full of gossiping ears, nosy eyes, and students whose parents are unfortunately close to both the Wesleys and the Stevenses, which is sure to lead to entirely disastrous outcomes if anyone overhears them.

Sterling mercifully (impossibly) seems to understand April’s dilemma. “Here, follow me.”

“Follow you where?”

“Do you want to talk, or not?” April nods. “Then follow me.”

Let her go, April’s mind whispers to her heart again. Let her leave. Don’t follow her, let her go.

She follows her.

They end up in what looks to be a makeshift supply closet / storage attic on the third floor. It’s dusty and crammed with boxes, and April sneezes when she steps inside. She eyes it with trepidation. “What is this place?”

“It’s where I hooked up with all those guys during the Forensics tournament.”

April’s eyes nearly bulge out of her head. “You what?!”

Sterling shrugs. “It was right after Luke and I broke up. I wanted to… expand my horizons. See what it’s like to kiss someone else. I told Blair that Luke never gave me an orgasm when we were having sex, and she said I should—”

“Okay!” April cuts her off hurriedly, raising a hand, her cheeks flaming red and completely mortified. “I get it. It’s for your… rendezvous.”

Rendezvous is way too fancy a word. I just made out with a couple guys here. Oh, and Luke and I had sex here once.”

April squeezes her eyes shut and thinks about whether or not it would be too childish for her to plug her ears, too. She does not need to be thinking about Sterling and sex in the same sentence. Not unless she wants to keep tempting fate.

Sterling takes pity on her. “Point is we can talk here. No one will hear us. So, you know… free, open dialogue possibilities.”

Oh, if only that were true There’s nothing free nor open about April’s dialogue. But Sterling did secure them true privacy. April is grateful for that. It makes it easier for her to admit, “I did read your letter.”

Sterling blinks. “But you said—”

“I know, I—” April clears her throat, “lied. I still don’t know how to act around you. I’m sorry I was dismissive. I panicked. I’m still… well.” She takes a breath. “It was a really beautiful letter.”

Sterling’s smile is hopeful, barely-there. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” April swallows. Honest. She sees the word in Sterling’s loping script. Sterling said she wanted to be honest. “But I have some questions.”

“I thought you might.” She gestures around. “Hence: closet.”

“You’re a bounty hunter?”

“I’m—” Sterling swallows, “more of a trainee.”

“You’re not even 18. Isn’t there some sort of law against that?”

Sterling’s smile is weak. “Like I said,” she croaks. “More of a trainee.”

April rubs at her temple. She already has a headache. “So that’s the after school job Blair hasn’t been able to shut up about. The yogurt store is, what — a cover?”

“Bowser calls it his ‘side hustle’.”

April doesn’t know if that’s even worth acknowledging. “And you… chase down criminals? With disguises and guns and everything?”

“It’s honestly not as dramatic as it sounds. It’s mostly a lot of research and stakeouts.”

“It sounds dangerous. It is dangerous. You’re chasing after grown men who have weapons, how can you be okay with this?”

Sterling shakes her head. “I know it sounds crazy. It is a little crazy. But bounty hunting saved my life. Without bounty hunting, without Bowser… I mean who knows what my aunt might have done to me? I would probably be in Tijuana right now.”

“Don’t joke.” It’s a too-soft request, but the panic is still too fresh in her mind. Sterling’s mortality is too tenuous, and she doesn’t like to be reminded.

“Sorry,” Sterling whispers.

When she speaks next, her voice is more sure. “It started off as just a way to make some money and fix our daddy’s truck, but then it just turned into something else. We were helping Bowser and he was teaching us so much. We got to actually help people, catch criminals. Real criminals, like something out a TV show. There was a counterfeiter we caught in a nursing home. And the stripper we cornered at her club.”

It’s probably the least important thing Sterling’s said to her, but it sticks out in her mind, white-hot with flashing neon lights. “You went to a strip club?”

Sterling nods vehemently. She’s breathless, her eyes shining and her face bright. “I’ve gotten to do so many things. Meet people and help people and… it made me powerful. It’s not just that I’m learning all these cool skills and kicking ass with Blair after school. It feels good. It feels really good. I like what I do. And I’m good at it. Like I’m, like… really good at it.” There’s energy thrumming off of her and her excitement is palpable in the small room. It’s electrifying. “So I don’t know what your dad told you. If he said we attacked him or were targeting him or something — that’s not true. He was just another skip, just another case.”

She’s caught on to the anxious part of this April couldn’t articulate. That this has all been about her, about them. That the things between them were a show, a prank. That the suspicious proximity of the two events — Sterling arresting April’s father and Sterling kissing April senseless — was not just an opportune coincidence. It always felt too perfect, too cinematic. Right when April’s world is crumbling, someone steps in and rights it. That doesn't just happen. It felt orchestrated. But if not by Sterling’s hand, then who? Or what?

Could it really just be fate?

“Arresting him, it-it didn’t have anything to do w-with you. Or with him. It was just the assignment.”

But— “Why would you even take his case? You must have known it was him before you went after him. How many John Stevenses can there in Atlanta?”

It’s obviously rhetorical but Sterling answers, “Actually more than thirty!” At April’s withering gaze, she deflates a little. “Sorry. No, you’re right, I-I knew he was your dad. But I didn’t know… you. We hadn’t… we weren’t—”

“He’s still my dad, Sterl.” The nickname slips out, weakening the venom she’s trying to force into her voice.

“He’s a bad man, April. He did something horrible.”

“You think I don’t know what he did? I saw the footage. I was there in the court room when they sentenced him, I heard that woman— his victim give testimony. I know what he did. But we aren’t talking about what he did, we’re talking about what you did. What you did to me. Not him.”

Sterling stares down at her shoes. “I know,” she whispers. “I wish we’d never done it. Not because he didn’t deserve it — he super did. But it messed everything up.” Her eyes are glassy, slowly filling with tears. April’s heart cracks. “I didn’t know it would mess everything up. I thought… bad guys go to jail. You put them in jail and then they stop hurting people, but putting your dad in jail didn’t stop anyone getting hurt. It only hurt you more. And I’m so scared, every day.”

April wants to touch her. She wants to reach out and take her hand. She wants to say something, wants to comfort, wants to be comforted. She doesn’t move.

Sterling wasn’t expecting her to. The disappointment in her expression still stings.

“He said… he said we’d regret it. He said he’d get back at us. He called us the c word,” she whispers that last part, and April has to close her eyes because she tastes bile in the back of her throat. “And now he’s out and I’m so scared of what he might do to us. To my family. To Blair.” Her eyes are full of tears, and April can barely stand to look at her.

“I don’t want him to hurt you.”

“I don’t want him to hurt you,” Sterling breathes like a prayer. “I wouldn’t regret what Blair and I did. I wouldn’t regret any of it, if he was still in prison it all would be worth it. But he’s out. And you aren’t safe. It was all pointless. All I did was hurt you. I c-couldn’t keep you safe.

She can’t touch that sentence. She can’t touch it. It’s too much, it’s not enough.

“You aren’t the one who hurt me,” April admits quietly. “It wasn’t you. My father is responsible for his own actions. You were just… caught up in it. But your letter, Sterling…”

Sterling blushes. “I’m sorry if it was too much.” She bites her lip, looking down at her hands again. So unsure of herself. So tentative. So scared — of what? Of April? The thought is debilitating.

April’s heart cracks further. She’s surprised it’s still beating in her chest; it feels like it’s been split in two, spilling blood and pain like a flood. Her pulse is uneven and racing. Unhealthy. Her fingers tremble.

“It wasn’t too much,” April whispers. Sterling’s eyes shoot up. There’s something in them, something dangerous. Something that spells doom.

She takes a step forward, and April takes a step back. “We can’t,” April whispers. “We can’t, Sterl. My dad… he already hates you. If he found out… if he—”

“He won’t.”

“You can’t know that.”

“He won’t find out. Not if we’re careful. Not if we’re lucky.”

What a notion. What a dream, what an impossibility. As if God has ever cared about April’s luck. “I don’t believe in luck.”

“Neither do I.” Sterling is all earnestness. Unshakeable. “But you know what I mean.”

April just shakes her head. She doesn’t even know why Sterling bothers. It’s a fait accompli. Entertaining a debate about it is only gives them both a false hope.

There is no hope. They have no choices.

“It’s too risky. It isn’t safe. For either of us. The safest thing we can do is stay away from each other.”

“I don’t want you to stay away!” Sterling interjects. She blushes and ducks her head. “Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to say stuff like that anymore. We aren’t together. But I feel like I should tell you the truth.” I want to be honest with you, Sterling’s letter said. I can’t live with myself any more if I can’t be honest with you.

“Blair says you don’t deserve it, because you really hurt me, and people who hurt me don’t deserve my time and attention. But you hurt me for a reason. That’s not to say it’s okay, what you did at the lock-in. It isn’t. But I know why you did it. And I hurt you, too. I arrested your dad. I lied to you, after I told you I wouldn’t. I know we keep hurting each other, but that doesn’t mean that this thing with us is bad, or wrong. It doesn’t have to hurt. Not if we don’t let it.” She takes a breath. She fidgets, looking at April like she’s trying to read her but can’t. “Sorry, I’m rambling. I just… I wrote you that letter because I couldn’t stand you thinking that I don’t still want you. I don’t want to keep any secrets from you. I know how horrible secrets can be if you let them fester for too long. So… heart on my sleeve.” She smiles tentatively. April can’t breathe. “If you want me, April Stevens, I’m yours.”

April opens her mouth. “I do,” she whispers. Sterling’s eyes shine. Her smile is blinding. April doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s risking it all, she’s playing games with her own heart, with her own future, and it’s dangerous ground, shaky and untenable. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. “I do want you.”

They don’t move. April doesn’t speak, and slowly Sterling’s smile gets smaller and sadder. “I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming.”

April doesn’t know what to do. She’s desperate to say the right thing, desperate to keep Sterling with her, desperate to be the girl that everyone expects her to be, that everyone needs her to be.

This was not part of her 5-year plan.

“What do you want me to say?” Her voice trembles, and she hates it. She closes her eyes and turns her head so she doesn’t have to look at Sterling. It’s too hard to look at her. “You know what my family is like, Sterling. You know my situation. You know that I can’t… I can’t be the person you want me to be. Not now. Not when we’re… here. And my father—”

Sterling steps forward and takes April’s hands in hers. She squeezes tightly and April still can’t look at her. “I don’t want you to be anyone other than who you are. I’m sorry I pressured you into coming out, before. I didn’t know your dad was going to come back. It’s not safe for you to be out, and I understand that. I want to respect it.”

“No, Sterling… it’s not about safety. I mean it is, of course it is, but…” Here it comes: the thing about herself she knows but can’t say, spilling from her lips like a drunken half-formed secret. “I’m a coward. I can’t be out with you because I’m too afraid. Of what people will say about me, of how my parents will react, of what it will mean for us at school, of how it will change… everything. I’m scared of all of it. It petrifies me. It scares me so much I can barely breathe when I think about it.”

“I don’t want you to be scared of me. I want you to be happy, and I know how unhappy you are right now. But with us… it was good, wasn’t it? It felt good.

And God, it was. It really, really was. “It was amazing. I’ve never felt like that, the way I felt when I was with you. It was… utterly destabilizing.” Sterling smirks, but April shakes her head. “No, Sterling, that’s a problem. I can’t go around feeling like I’m going to lose my mind every time I see you, or don’t see you. I can’t stay up at night thinking about what you’re thinking about, wondering if you’re doing okay, what you had for dinner. I can’t think about what you’re going to wear to school, or how you’re going to do your hair, or the way you make my heart feel like it’s going to beat out of my chest. You’re a distraction. You’re something I can’t understand and that… scares me.”

“Love is scary.” April blanches, and Sterling is quick to continue, “Not saying that you love me! Gosh, how presumptive. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.”

“Sterling…”

“But you feel something for me. Something real. Something that could be love, someday.”

“Someday…”

“Don’t you want to keep feeling that?” Sterling steps forward. April lets her. She takes April’s hand in hers, and April lets her do that, too. “I can’t stop thinking about you, too. All I want is to be with you. To know you. To text you whenever I want and not worry about who might look at your phone and see my little name and picture pop up there and wonder Wow, why are those two talking to each other don’t they hate each other? You know?”

“I’m not ready to be out. Not… not while my dad…”

“We can figure out what to do about your dad. He’s not going to be able to stay out of prison forever.”

“The charges were dropped,” April croaks, feeling hopeless.

Sterling is anything but hopeless. “Then we’ll figure something out. Some way of dealing with him. That’s not important, now. I don’t care about him. I don’t care about anyone else. I just want to be with you.”

It should be illegal, the things Sterling says. The way they make her feel. The hope that flickers in her chest, a tiny flame that’s long been untended. She feels it grow, shine a little brighter.

“No one else needs to know about us. I don’t need to be out and open with you, April. Not if you aren’t ready. I just can’t go back to pretending I hate you. It’s too hard. I’m not asking for a parade,” she echoes her words from a month ago, “I’m just asking you to hold my hand.”

April swallows. Looks down at where their hands meet. Sterling squeezes. April doesn’t squeeze back, but she doesn’t pull away.

“What if I… can’t hold your hand? Not at school, not where people can see.”

“Then we can compromise. No hands. But maybe we could partner up in Spanish class, or tell people that we’ve started texting again? Maybe you can sit with me and Blair at lunch, and we can play footsie under the table.”

April can’t help but smile. It all sounds so nice. Exactly what she wants, with exactly who she wants.

It’s for that reason she shakes her head. “It’s too risky, Sterl.”

“Love is meant to be risky! If love was all boring and normal and safe then it wouldn’t be love.”

April huffs. “You can’t keep talking about love. This isn’t—”

“I’m not saying you love me. I’m saying I love you.” April’s doing that thing again, that impression of a gasping fish that she always pulls out whenever Sterling is involved.

“You don’t.” She shakes her head quickly. “You don’t love me. You don’t even know me.”

“Don’t tell me how I feel. I know what I feel, and I know that it’s real. I love you, April Stevens. And it’s okay if you aren’t ready to love me back. That’s not what I’m asking for, not yet.”

April keeps shaking her head. She can’t speak.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m not saying it isn’t risky. I’m just saying I don’t care about the risks. I don’t care what I have to do. I want to be with you.”

Sterling loves her. Sterling loves her.

But April is unlovable. She’s poison. She’s intensity and chaos, all trauma and emotional unavailability. She doesn’t know what it is to be loved. No one’s ever loved her before. She doesn’t know how to be loved, doesn’t know what to do with Sterling’s eyes or her mouth or her words or her love.

She’s poison. She’ll eat away at everything that’s good and sweet about Sterling, will chew her up and spit her back out mercilessly. That’s what she is. That’s all she knows how to do. Hurt and wreck. That’s all she’ll do.

She shakes her head. “No. I’m not what you want.”

“You don’t know what I—”

“I can’t be who you want me to be, Sterling! Don’t you get that?! I can’t… love you! I can’t love you the way you want to be loved. The way you deserve to be loved.” She’s crying now, openly weeping.

Sterling touches her now, her hands soft on April’s shoulders, sharing her space, sharing her oxygen. If April were stronger she’d push her away. But she’s not strong. She’s weak.

She collapses against Sterling’s chest, shaking and sobbing. Sterling clings to her, holds her like she’s never been held.

“I don’t want you to waste your time on me,” April whispers into her shirt. “I’m not worth it.”

“April.”

There’s something in the way Sterling says her name. She says her name like April’s never heard. Like it isn’t just a mix of letters, or a month in spring, or a useful way of distinguishing one girl from another. She says her name like her tongue wants to worship the syllables, like it’s a delicate thing to hold in her mouth, soft and breakable. It’s a caress. It’s a prayer.

April clings to her, afraid to pull back, afraid to look at her, afraid to let go, afraid to be seen.

“You are so worth it.” Sterling kisses the top of her head. Just a brush of lips. “You aren’t a waste of time. You’re all I want to spend time on. With. To.” April can’t help her laugh, watery and unexpected. “Um… prepositions are hard. Sorry.”

April pulls back now. Sterling smiles at her, her thumbs wiping away April’s tears.

“You aren’t a waste of time,” she says, and God, it sounds so believable coming out of her mouth. So right. So sure. “I love you. And sorry not sorry, but it’s too late. There isn’t anything I can do about it now. I love you. It’s a fait accompli.

“Kiss me,” April pleads, and Sterling obeys immediately.

Sterling kisses her like she doesn’t need air. Her body is pressed to April’s, her lips demanding, her hands on April’s waist, April’s hands in her hair. Sterling slides her hand down to April’s thigh and makes as if to lift her, but April stops her with a hand on her chest.

Sterling pulls out and blinks, more than a little dazed. “Sorry,” she whispers. “No touching?”

April shakes her head. She moves with Sterling, gently flipping their positions. With her help Sterling settles onto a half-empty table piled high with cardboard boxes on one side. Sterling watches her with wide eyes.

She moves with a confidence she didn’t know she had. With one push she’s perched in Sterling’s lap, her hips hovering above her, hands cupping her cheeks.

“Is this okay?”

“Yes, please. Yes.” April’s thighs clench around Sterling’s hips and Sterling bites her lip. Her hands slide with more confidence, her palms hot and scorching along April’s skin. The look she gives April… it’s unidentifiable. The closest word she can come up with is reverence.

“I’m here,” Sterling whispers, bending her neck up to press a kiss to April’s. “I’m here with you.”

April kisses her again because she can’t listen to her speak. Her words are too reckless, too dangerous. Too much.

Between gasping breaths, Sterling keeps talking, because she just can’t take a hint.

“No one’s ever made me feel like this,” Sterling whispers and April wants to tell her to shut up but she can’t, she can’t, she can’t. “My whole body comes alive when you touch me.”

“Touch me,” April pleads next, and Sterling moans against her jaw and shoves her hands under April’s bra. Her fingers tweak April’s nipples and April gasps, her hips jerking against the firmness of Sterling’s stomach. When she drags her hips down she bumps against Sterling’s belt buckle and a shudder rips through her entire body. “God, Sterling.”

Sterling whimpers and April forces her hips to still. “Sorry,” she whispers, ducking her head to hide the ferocity of her desire.

“No, that was… a good sound. You can—” Her hands flex against April’s hips. Slowly she pulls, and April moves with her. She shudders when she bumps Sterling’s belt buckle again, a lance of heat shooting straight from her clit. “You can use me like that.”

Fuck.” This time April’s hips move of their own volition. They skip, uneven and imperfect, until Sterling cups her ass and squeezes, pulling her into a regular rhythm that has all breath flying from her.

“Language,” Sterling breathes against her lips. She shuts up when April bites her lower lip, teeth sinking painfully into soft flesh. April grinds down against her and Sterling whimpers.

April guesses Sterling can add another mark to her Supply Closet Rendezvous tally.

________________

Sterling (6:48 p.m.)
txt when ur home safeee

April (7:46 p.m.)
Home. Parents pissed I’m late.
Can’t talk. Text you later.

 

Sterling (7:50 p.m.)
<3

 

________________

 

April (10:25 a.m.)
Sorry, in bed now. Pooped.
Long day. Lots of parental
yelling. Text tmrw?  

Sterling (10:27 p.m.)
Awww, okay <3 yes stay safe
nd txt tmrwww

Sterling (10:27 p.m.)
Thx for talking to me today.
It made me rlly :)

 

April (10:27 p.m.)
It made me :) too.  

April (10:27 p.m.)
Even though you LOVE to over-share.  

Sterling (10:28 p.m.)
Wdym?

 

April (10:29 p.m.)
You know. The stories of your
heterosexual exploits.

 

*Sterling laughed at a message*  

Sterling (10:29 p.m.)
“heterosexual exploits” is hilarious

April (10:29 p.m.)
Goodnight, Sterling.

 

Sterling (10:32 p.m.)
it didn’t work, u know

April (10:32 p.m.)
WDYM?

Sterling (10:33 p.m.)
the exploits. I was trying to figure out
what made me tick

Sterling (10:33 p.m.)
inside my vagina

Sterling (10:33 p.m.)
turns out: no men in the southeastern
semi-quarter regional forensics tournament

 

April (10:37 p.m.)
Oh. I see.  

Sterling (10:37 p.m.)
sry if that’s over-sharing

April (10:38 p.m.)
No, not at all. It’s interesting.

Sterling (10:38 p.m.)
Oh? it’s INTERESTING is it?

Sterling (10:38 p.m.)
;)

April (10:40 p.m.)
So you left the day unsatisfied?

Sterling (10:40 p.m.)
I didn’t say that

*April questioned a message*

Sterling (10:40 p.m.)
I found out what made me tick.

April (10:40 p.m.)
Ah. Anything noteworthy?

Sterling (10:41 p.m.)
Do you remember yelling at me? After
I blew that final round with Wu?
 

April (10:41 p.m.)
Yes.  

Sterling (10:41 p.m.)
You’re beautiful when you’re
angry. Terrifying, duh. but sexy.

Sterling (10:42 p.m.)
you grabbed my arm and it made
like electricity shoot down my body.
I’d never really touched myself before
that day. But I could smell ur shampoo nd
hear ur voicend your lips were quivering
nd I kept feeling you touching me
nd it made me so wet.

Sterling (10:42 p.m.)
i couldn’t help myself.

  Sterling (10:43 p.m.)
i touched myself and came so hard
thinking about u.
 

April (10:43 p.m.)
Jesus, Sterling.  

Sterling (10:43 p.m.)
Ah ah, never use the Lord’s name in vain.

April (10:43 p.m.)
I think He would understand my
need at a moment like this.

Sterling (10:43 p.m.)
Oh? what is it u need?

April (10:44 p.m.)
Don’t tease me.

Sterling (10:44 p.m.)
I like teasing u. I like making u blush
I like how pretty u look when ur
embarrassed abt smth

Read: 10:45 p.m.

Sterling (10:48 p.m.)
sorry if that was too much. I thought
we were doing a bit but if ive overstepped
any boundaries I’m sorry, I didn’t
mean to.

April (10:48 p.m.)
You didn’t overstep.

Sterling (10:48 p.m.)
:)

Sterling (10:48 p.m.)
I’ll be thinking of u 2nite

Sterling (10:48 p.m.)
Sweet dreams, April

Sterling (10:48 p.m.)
xx  

April (10:50 p.m.)
you’re going to be the death of me.  

Sterling (10:50 p.m.)
you love it.

/

The fact that she ends up touching herself is something of an inevitability. She imagines that was Sterling’s intention, winding her up like that.

April isn’t exactly annoyed at her as she slips her hand into her sleep shorts.

She thinks about the breathless way Sterling gasped against her, the look on Sterling’s face when April shuddered to a grinding climax against her this afternoon, all awe-filled wonder and disbelief. The way Sterling kissed her after, her tongue feverish and demanding. She remembers the moan Sterling let out when April bit her neck, and she wonders what other sounds Sterling might make, what other ways she might gasp when April touches her.

She thinks about Sterling sneaking away from Forensics to touch herself. She thinks about Sterling touching herself while thinking of April, bringing herself to climax with April’s name on her lips, wondering how she might taste.

She thinks about Sterling, wet and touching herself in her own bed, halfway across town, and has the biggest orgasm of her life as she bites into the back of her hand to make sure she stays absolutely silent. Worst case scenario is one of her parents hearing her night time sins.

She collapses sweaty and with a pounding heart. The back of her hand smarts with the indentation of her teeth, and she removes her sticky fingers, wiping them furtively on her top sheet.

She opens up incognito mode on her phone and googles “how to sext your partner”, because she’s April Stevens, and she always does her research.

The next time Sterling texts her, she’s going to be ready.

________________

Chapter Text

____________________

Having a secret girlfriend is not nearly as stressful as April thought it’d be. It’s challenging, and a little bit annoying that they can’t do things other couples can — hold hands in the hallway, kiss each other after class, go on dates, tell their friends, etcetera — but it’s bearable. More than bearable. It’s… nice, actually. It’s really nice.

The nice parts include: Waking up to Good morning texts from Sterling every day. Working with Sterling for every partnered assignment in every class they share (which has the double bonus of giving them an excuse to spend time together in private and netting them straight A’s, as they’re now free from the shackles of working with inferior students). Kissing.

They’ve done a lot of kissing. April’s kissed more in the last month than she thought she would in her whole life. She’s kissed Sterling more times than she’s ever seen her parents embrace — and they’ve been together over 20 years.

It’s nice that she doesn’t have to pretend to hate Sterling anymore. Ellen is thrilled they’re friends again, obviously. And the rest of their class has adapted pretty painlessly to their ceasefire. There were a few strange looks early on, especially the first time Sterling sat with April, Hannah B., and Ezekiel at lunch. Ezekiel stared at her the whole period and never said a thing, but April and Sterling both ignored him, and Hannah didn’t seem to notice anything was amiss at all. Now, they all eat lunch together a few times a week: Sterling, April, Ezekiel, Hannah, even Blair, after the first few weeks she spent grumbling about it.

What’s not nice: they pretty much have no privacy. Outside of what they can steal in Sterling’s car after school when Blair is at practice, or their ‘study dates’ at the library late in the evening when everyone else has gone home. Outside of when their interactions are expected — like school, like Fellowship, like Forensics — and their text conversations that are just for them, they don’t have any other time together.

Sterling and Blair have recently resumed their after school job after a brief hiatus (Sterling tells her it’s a complicated story, something about her boss and an ex-wife and a maybe-girlfriend and maybe leaving town and a maybe-firing that’s since been resolved). So now, on top of all of their other conflicts, Sterling is back to bounty hunting.

April’s not exactly happy about it. Despite Sterling’s reassurances, bounty hunting just seems downright dangerous. (Sterling’s also told her all the times she’s had to fire a gun, and all that gun violence near Sterling’s very mortal body is frightening.)

But April eventually meets the infamous Bowser — and after one clear credit check she gets a chance to threaten his life if he lets anything bad happen to Sterling, which makes her feel better about the situation, if nothing else.

It’s not a negotiable part of Sterling’s life. Sterling is a bounty hunter like April is an aspiring Senator. She doesn’t like it; she doesn’t think she’ll ever like something that puts Sterling’s life at risk. But Sterling loves it. She’s good at it, and she loves it; it makes her happy, it brings her closer to Blair, and it earns her a fair bit of disposable income. April won’t stop her from pursuing one of her passions.

She accepts the bounty hunting. If it’s part of Sterling’s life, she can accept it. But it eats into their already negligible time together. So by the time Spring Break rolls around, April is, for maybe the first time in her life, looking forward to a break from school. They have no class, Bowser’s case load has dried up (Sterling suspects he might be fighting with Yolanda again), and April is about to have her house to herself for an entire week.

It feels serendipitous.

Maybe not serendipity. Maybe just finality.

John’s disappeared somewhere. April heard some vague mutterings about ‘business in New Orleans’, but she hasn’t seen him for three days and it’s unclear when she’ll see him again. Maybe he’s gone off with a mistress, it’s hard to say. They aren’t talking about it. Her mother left this morning to go stay with her sister in Savannah, so April has the house to herself for the whole week with nowhere to go.

Her mom leaves at 11am.

Sterling is knocking on her door by 1.

Sterling holds up a stack of movies, grinning on April’s stoop. “A little birdie told me you haven’t seen Harry Potter.”

April blinks and shakes her head. “John wouldn’t let me.”

“See, I never got that, because didn’t he let you watch Star Wars?”

“Space operas are different. It’s the witchcraft and devil-conjuring John objects to, not the pop culture phenomena.”

Sterling rolls her eyes. “God, your dad is so annoying.”

“How do you even remember that I haven’t seen Harry Potter? I told you that like two months ago.”

Because,” Sterling says seriously, “no self-respecting high schooler can go her whole life without knowing about Harry Potter.” She side-steps April, even though she wasn’t invited in. April closes the door behind her and trails after her into her own living room, feeling a little lost. “Now I’m a purist, so if it was up to me you’d just actually read all seven books. But we don’t have that kind of time this week. So!” She drops the DVDs with a clatter and quickly snatches up the first one. There’s a young boy on the cover wearing a pair of glasses, surrounded by a host of other characters, the silhouette of a castle glowing warm and inviting in the background.

“Don’t worry,” Sterling says when April doesn’t respond, “we already owned these so it’s not like I’m giving J.K. Rowling any more money. So if you feel weird about supporting a transphobe, just know we definitely aren’t.”

“Who?”

“Oh, she wrote the books. Also apparently is a hateful bigot! Blair was so pissed when she found out, she burned all her Gryffindor swag. And she loved those robes.”

“I…” April frowns. “I don’t know half of those words.”

Sterling laughs. “Not important. You’ll learn them soon enough. By the way, do you have any popcorn? I’m feeling a marathon.”

/

Hours later and the sun is setting. They’ve already watched the first two movies (“These are my favorite. They have a different director starting with the third, and they just don’t feel as warm as the first two, you know?”) with no signs of slowing down. They’ve eaten three bags of popcorn between the two of them and there are empty Diet Coke cans littering the coffee table. Sterling also decided that she didn’t like the configuration of couches and pillows in the Stevens’ family room, but after a bit of a tussle she’s managed to craft something of a fort for the two of them. The couch and a couple chairs hold up their blanket covering, and a layer of cushions and pillows blanket the floor in a soft layer of padding. Inside the fort, April feels like she’s ten again, sharing secret giggles late into the night.

It’s the messiest this room as ever been. Her parents would never allow something like this if they were home, which is probably why curling up against Sterling’s side, warm and tucked away, watching the movie play out from her awkward angle on the floor (and not caring in the slightest) is so deeply satisfying.

Even her cat Sergeant Bilko, who is notorious for his distrust of strangers (he once clawed April’s cousin so badly when he tried to pick him up that the poor boy needed stitches) likes Sterling’s presence in the house. He curls up sometime during their second movie, and Sterling coos and scratches behind his ear while he purrs at her, luxuriating on her lap. He falls asleep within minutes but Sterling doesn’t stop scratching him, and if April’s heart weren’t already completely captured by the girl next to her, this would definitely do the trick.

Sterling is a restless movie watcher, but April doesn’t mind. She laughs at all the right movie moments, ducks her head into April’s shoulder when the evil character crumbles into dust, gasps and closes her eyes when Harry’s arm loses all its bones. Between films she’s in constant motion, running to get snacks and drinks from the fridge, making sure April’s pillows are fluffed and her blankets are soft. “For the optimal viewing experience,” she says, and April laughs and lets herself be pampered.

Right as the credits to the second movie are winding down (Sterling insists they sit through the entire credit sequence, as part of the ‘ambiance’ of the movie), the doorbell rings.

“Oh, I think that’s pizza!” Sterling says, jolting up from her spot buried beneath a mound of pillows. “Can you go get it while I pull up the next movie? I already paid!”

April goes without complaint, padding through her dark house with a light heart. She can’t wipe the smile off of her face. Not from the movies — they’re nice, charming even, and the actors all seem sweet and the storyline is at least engaging and unique, but she could take or leave the movies.

She’s been sitting next to Sterling, in uninterrupted physical contact with her, for almost five hours. It’s the longest they’ve ever touched, the longest they’ve maybe ever been alone together, since they were kids at least. It’s been… joyful sounds cheesy, but it’s true. She’s not sure she’s ever been so happy in her own house. She can’t wipe the smile off her face.

She opens the door, the smile wide on her lips. “Hi, how much—oh.” She blinks.

Blair’s smile is subdued. She holds up two pizza boxes. “Sterling said y’all needed dinner?”

“Sterling invited you?”

Blair shifts, a little uncomfortable. “HP marathon, right?” April nods. Blair glances over her shoulder, as if looking for Sterling somewhere inside. “Can I come in, or…?”

April steps aside, letting Blair slip past her. She follows her into the living room, a little dazed.

Sterling brightens when she sees her sister. “You got the pizza!”

Blair nods, her smile now looking sincere. “Duh, even got that gross pineapple and ham shit you like.” She casts her eyes around the room. “Cool pillow fort. Room for one more?” Sterling nods, beaming, and scoots to the side, letting Blair slip under their ramshackle structure.

“I’m going to get another drink,” April says because it feels like a good enough excuse. And then, because she’s nothing if not a responsible host: “Blair?”

“Anything bubbly and in a can is fine by me.”

April nods and escapes to the kitchen. She grabs two cans of sparkling water from the fridge and places them on the counter. She stares at the cans, the sheen of condensation sticking to the aluminum. She takes a breath, then another. Blair Wesley hasn’t been inside her house since her tenth birthday party. The way she remembers it, it hadn’t exactly ended pleasantly. (Though Blair denies it vehemently, her pool didn’t pee itself.) Having her here now, when she hadn’t expected her, hadn’t prepared herself emotionally… it’s weird.

Definitely weird.

“Hey,” Sterling says quietly, startling April who hadn’t heard her come in. “Are you okay? I’m sorry, I should have asked before inviting Blair over. I just knew she wasn’t doing anything tonight and… I don’t know. She’s my sister and you’re my girlfriend,” April’s posture eases. She can’t help it, it always does whenever Sterling calls her her girlfriend because, God, Sterling is her girlfriend— “and I know y’all don’t love each other or anything, but I really need you to start being able to be in the same room together. I thought this… would be a good start.” Her mouth twists. “But I’m sorry. I should have asked.”

“It’s fine.” Sterling looks skeptical. April shakes her head. “I mean it. It’s good she’s here. I’m glad you invited her.”

“You don’t have to just say that, you know. It’s okay if you’re upset.”

“I’m not. Honestly. You’re right: Blair and I need to be able to spend time together. She’s the most important person in your life, and you’re the most important person in mine.” Sterling’s expression goes soft, all around the edges. April flushes and looks down at her hands. “If we both want to be in your life, we’re going to have to at least cohabitate.”

Sterling steps forward. She takes April’s hands, swaying their arms between their bodies. “You’re really okay? Because I can ask her to leave, no sweat.”

April rocks up onto her toes and presses a soft kiss to Sterling’s lips. “She can stay,” she mumbles. “She did bring pizza, which I respect. At least she has enough manners to know it’s rude to show up to someone’s house empty-handed.”

Sterling boops her nose. It scrunches under her touch, and Sterling laughs, clearly enamored. “That’s the spirit.”

/

Blair stumbles into one of the spare bedrooms just after midnight, to Sterling’s loud objections. “Midway through the fifth movie?! You’re just giving up?!”

Blair is too tired to quip with her her. “You weirdos enjoy your marathon. I’m going to enjoy my doctor-advised 8 hours of sleep.”

“Bathroom’s down the hall!” April calls, and Blair gives her a wave before disappearing.

The movie continues to play, but out of respect for Blair Sterling lowers the volume considerably. She sinks back into their fort and taps the pillow next to her. April sinks down too, slipping under Sterling’s outstretched arm. She wraps her arm around Sterling’s waist and hugs her close.

“This is nice,” she murmurs, and Sterling’s answering hum vibrates through her ribcage, like a purr.

“Who would have thought?” Sterling asks, rubbing her upper arm, April’s head tucked under her chin. “April Stevens, a cuddler.”

“If you tell anyone…”

“Who would I tell?” Sterling asks with a laugh. “Blair? Sorry to say, babe, but she’s been here for like five hours. I think your secret is out.”

April pouts up at her but it’s put-on, and Sterling laughs and kisses the expression off her lips.

“I like that,” April says when they pull apart.

“What do you like?”

“You. Calling me babe.” She flushes. “I like that.”

“Pet names, too?” Sterling laughs again, teasing. “You’re full of surprises. And much softer than you let on. Willingham would go nuts if they knew.”

April’s shoulders tighten. She sits up, and her chest feels cold in the air without Sterling’s body heat warming it. “I’m not weak,” she says seriously. “Just because I like when you hold me doesn’t mean—”

Sterling sits up too, her hand settling soft on April’s waist. “You’re not weak,” she rushes, her thumb brushing small circles. “I wasn’t calling you weak. I like how soft you are. Finding out that you’re secretly a blanket hog and that you blush when I call you ‘babe’ is a good thing. It just makes me love you more.”

April blushes again and looks down. She never knows what to do when Sterling says things like that to her.

“I love…” Sterling looks at her, all wide blue eyes, all expectation. April swallows. “How patient you are with me,” she finishes, a little lamely. Sterling’s expression, to her credit, barely falters.

April kisses her, hoping to offset the disappointment. She’s not ready. Not yet. This thing between them is still so new, so tenuous. She’s not sure she’s ready for what it means to be in love with Sterling.

Loving Sterling is a risk her heart isn’t ready for. Yet.

“Thank you,” April says when they part, cupping Sterling’s cheek, hoping to communicate through her touch everything she can’t yet say. “Tonight was really nice. I don’t know what I would have done in this big house all on my own. And Blair behaved herself quite well.”

Sterling laughs. “I’ll tell her you said that.”

“Please don’t.”

Sterling settles onto her back, hand softly tracing the thin skin of April’s wrist. Her pinky brushes beneath April’s tank top. April swallows against the feeling rising in her chest at seeing Sterling splayed out below her.

Her palms are starting to sweat. She rubs them surreptitiously on her pants.

“C’mere,” Sterling says, voice nothing but softness.

April sinks down, half on top of Sterling and half off her, not wanting to put her full body weight on another human being (for obvious reasons). Sterling’s hands settle, one at the small of her back and the other by April’s ear.

“You look so pretty today,” Sterling murmurs. “Did I tell you that already?” April shakes her head. “Well, you do. And you know… we’re in this big house, all alone…”

“Blair’s down the hall.”

“Blair fell asleep during a hunting trip one time and she didn’t even wake up when my uncle Deacon took down a buck. She can sleep through anything.”

April licks her lips. Her fingers flex near Sterling’s head.

She’s nervous. She can’t help it. There’s a wanting in Sterling’s gaze, an expectation, and April…

April doesn’t want to let her down.

She kisses Sterling gently. Sterling hums against her lips and seems content to let April set the pace. Their kisses are soft, barely more than long pecks at the beginning, but it’s hard to keep the pace slow when Sterling smells like fresh laundry and shampoo, when her fingers are gliding on the bare skin of April’s back, where her shirt pulls away from her pajamas and April feels it against her, hot and thrilling. Sinking deeper into the kiss, April opens her mouth, and Sterling seizes the opportunity with gusto.

She’s breathless in moments. Sterling’s hands move with more purpose, slipping under the back of her shirt and settling against her waist. She pulls April’s hips and their legs slot together, soft movements growing hotter when Sterling shifts and her thigh presses into the throbbing pressure between April’s legs. April whimpers (a fully humiliating sound) and Sterling’s teeth sink into her lip.

Her hands are the hottest thing April’s ever felt, like a furnace against her. They slip a little higher when April resituates herself to get a better angle at Sterling’s neck, and Sterling lets out a soft breath into her ear when April’s lips lock onto her. Her hands slip higher still, wrapping sure around her ribs, her thumb just brushing against the soft mesh of April’s sports bra, her finger just teasing at the fabric—

Something on the TV booms and April jumps away. She glances at the screen but the scene is too dark to make out. There are people yelling and explosions from wands, but April hadn’t been paying attention and she doesn’t care to ask what she’s missed.

“Woah,” April turns back and is met with Sterling blinking up at her, looking thoroughly debauched. “Some kiss.” April blushes, and Sterling sits up to press a few quick kisses to her flaming cheeks. “Do you want to finish the movie?” she asks with her arms wrapped around April’s body, her scent invading April’s nose, her heat trickling through April’s skin and warming her whole body. “I think it’s almost done.”

But April shakes her head. “Maybe we could just go to bed?”

Sterling’s eyes widen, almost imperceptibly. “Yes. Yes, uh… let me just, yeah.”

April’s stomach swoops. It’s not entirely pleasant.

She takes a few steadying breaths when Sterling bolts to the kitchen, arms laden with plates and dishes, doing her best to clean everything in one go.

Her house is empty. Sterling’s been here all day. They’ve had something of a romantic night — even Blair’s presence wasn’t enough to cut the heat between them. And April could feel the heat. It was overpowering, almost stifling, like sitting in a sauna. Every part of Sterling’s body that touched her tonight seemed to burn. There’s a crackling energy, a tension to every interaction.

They’re not stupid. They know what this means, they know what this opportunity is: April’s parents conveniently out of town for days on end, Sterling conveniently off of school so her parents can’t object to a sleepover at a friend’s house on a week night.

They’ll never get an opportunity like this again. April knows it. It’s why she put on her cutest pajama set when they changed, somewhere between the third and fourth Harry Potter movies.

She takes another breath when Sterling appears in the doorway. She bites her lip and April’s stomach swoops again. “I, uh… don’t know the way.”

April stands with shaking knees. She takes Sterling’s hand and leads her down the long, dark hallways of the Stevens house, their stone floors and achingly cold fixtures.

She can do this. She can do this. It’s just Sterling. Sterling who loves her. Sterling who kisses her breathless. Sterling who has had sex before, who must have certain expectations in a relationship. Sterling, who clearly wants her. April wants her too. Of course she does.

It’s not like they haven’t been headed in this direction for months. They’ve done just about everything a person can do without removing pants. April’s given herself an orgasm just while kissing her. It’s not like there’s anything left to be embarrassed about. And she knows Sterling wants her — she tells her so all the time, in their late night text exchanges, in the whimpers she lets out when April bites her neck.

Sterling’s fingers are warm and her hand is grounding. April squeezes and Sterling squeezes back.

April’s bedroom is warmer than the rest of the house, because it’s the only room whose décor she’s had any say over. She’s glad she had the foresight to clean it, because if Sterling saw her room for the first time with April’s dirty underwear on the floor she’d probably never recover. One of her bedside lamps is on, casting a soft glow around the room. The carpet is a rich white, to offset the soft grey walls. April’s name hangs above her headboard, silver block letters. As if she might wake up one morning and forget how to spell it.

Sterling looks around and April tries not to think about what she’s seeing, about the clues she’s gaining into April’s life. She’s never been inside her bedroom before. No one else has ever been in her room except for her and her parents. No on else has seen the display of trophies and ribbons next to her desk — everything from horseback riding showcases to swimming competitions when she was in middle school. Her third place trophy from the Forensics tournament last fall is front and center — not because she’s proud of her placement, third place is an abysmal performance, but to remind herself of her failures, to force herself to confront her shortcomings.

(She moved it up front after Sterling told her what she did during that tournament, the way she touched herself to the thought of April. Her heart rate quickens every time she looks at it, the reminder always bringing the memory front of mind.)

She can do this.

She closes the door softly behind them. Blair is too far away to hear anything, but having the door closed makes her feel better. Like there’s nothing outside of this room; no house, no sister, no world. Just her and Sterling, just the two of them here with each other.

Sterling’s eyes are fixed on April’s lips, and her stomach does that swooping thing again, like she’s falling off of a very tall structure.

“Hi,” Sterling whispers, and April smiles back. It feels shaky, even on her own lips.

“Hi.”

Sterling takes a tentative step forward, then another, until she’s in front of April, April’s back to the cool wood of her door. Her hand finds April’s waist, her thumb brushing. That swooping feeling again.

“Is this okay?” Sterling asks quietly, and April can only nod. Sterling bends her head and kisses her and April melts into it.

She can do this. She can kiss Sterling, she can let Sterling touch her, she can let Sterling love her. She can do this.

Sterling’s hands play with the hem of her shirt and move as if to pull it off, and April’s stomach clenches, her heart clenches, and she pulls their lips apart with a pop.

She can’t do this.

“Sterling.” She grabs Sterling’s hands, stilling them. Sterling looks at her, worried in the moonlight, and April’s voice shakes. She can’t do this. “I—I don’t know if I’m ready to have sex yet. I know you have before, so it’s not as big of a deal for you, but it’s still a big deal for me and I’m… not ready. So if that’s why you’re here, or if you want to leave—”

“No! Gosh, no, I’m not… I mean I want to. Obviously. I’m so into you.” April’s fingers flex against Sterling’s wrists and Sterling lets go of her shirt, smoothing the fabric gently. “But no, that’s not why I’m here. I just… thought you might need a friend tonight.” April lets out a breath, unable to keep the relief off her face. Sterling smiles at her. “And it is a big deal to me. I’ve had sex before but not with—”

“A girl,” April guesses.

But Sterling shakes her head. “Not with you, April. Our first time — if we have one, I mean. Gosh, not to be presumptuous. Our first time… it’s gonna be the first time. For both of us. It’s a big deal.” She takes April’s hand in hers. “So I’m totally good waiting. Are you… waiting until marriage, or something?”

April pulls a face. “Decidedly not.

“Okay! Just wanted to check. I know you were in the Celibacy Club when we were freshmen, so—”

“How do you know that?” April asks with a frown. She was only in that club for 2 weeks. The meetings were insufferable. Just a bunch of horny teenage girls talking about all the ways they could get around their celibacy pledges with their boyfriends without full intercourse (the Ultimate Sin, as they put it).

It’s Sterling’s turn to blush. A nice change of pace, April thinks. “I pay attention.”

“Well, that was really just an excuse. The promise ring too. Promising to save myself until marriage meant there was no pressure from boys or my father or anyone else for me to date. It was a distraction tactic. Not because I believe sex can only exist within the institution of marriage.”

“It’s okay if you did, for the record. I mean it’d be kind of tough, like personally I guess, but there’s other things we could do, so if you do think—”

“Sterling.” April cuts her off. “We’re not having sex tonight, but not because I need you to propose to me first.”

“Well phew. I think my parents would go a little nuts if I got engaged before I finished college.” April rolls her eyes, a little endeared. “Plus, I ate like an entire pizza tonight, so I’m all carbo-loaded. Not exactly good for sexy times.” April can’t help but laugh at that. Sterling looks relieved that the tension has lessened. “I can sleep in the other room, if it makes you feel better?”

April bites her lip. “Sleeping next to each other… does sound kind of nice.”

Sterling smiles. “And there’s no Luke to get in the way this time.”

“Oh, did you want me to call Luke? I’m sure I can—” She reaches for her phone but Sterling slaps it out of her hands. April bites her lip hard and tries to keep her expression serious. “You don’t want me to call him?”

Sterling narrows her eyes. “You’re teasing.”

“I am capable.” She looks down at the bed. It looks much smaller now that she’s picturing their two bodies laying in it, side-by-side. She suppresses a pleasant shiver at the thought.

“Umm…” Sterling says, clearly caught in the same train of thought as April. “Left or right side?”

“I like being closer to the door,” April says, and Sterling’s answering smile is actually a bit relieved.

“I like the wall, so that works perfectly.”

The thought pleases April, but she doesn’t dwell on it.

They clamber under the sheets together, and it’s only a little awkward. They’re maintaining a respectful distance — not on opposite sides of the bed or anything, but not exactly touching, either. April can feel Sterling close to her, her skin prickling when Sterling’s body heat reaches her, like a ripple of expanding energy. They’re both extremely conscious of the fact that this is their first time ever in a bed together. Their first time ever horizontal together, except for sometimes when they’re making out in the back of Sterling’s Chevy, or on one memorable occasion, April’s significantly larger Jeep.

Still: horizontal, dark, bed.

It’s kind of a lot.

Sterling moves, drawing closer to April in the dark. Their knees brush, then their shins. One of Sterling’s arms falls over her waist, between her ribs and hips, her hand flat and firm on April’s back. Sterling’s nose brushes against hers. April can’t see her in the darkness but she can feel her, every inch of her. She closes her eyes and breathes her in.

“Is this okay?” Sterling whispers, and April can’t bring herself to respond. She nods instead. Sterling nuzzles a little closer. “We won’t do anything,” she continues to whisper. “I just want to hold you. If that’s okay?”

April could cry. She feels it in her chest, tight and threatening. She swallows the feeling and nods again. “That’s okay,” she responds, her voice just as silent. It’s something of an understatement, but if Sterling can tell, she doesn’t reveal as much.

/

April wakes up warm, with a soft weight around her waist and a firm body behind her. She shifts, stretching her neck to catch a glimpse of the girl behind her. Sterling is still sleeping soundly, her mouth hanging a little open, her soft breaths tickling the hair at the back of April’s neck.

April swallows, her mouth dry and tasting of sleep.

She’s never had a girl in her bed before. It’s… interesting. New. It makes her stomach do something shifty and uncomfortable.

She’s suddenly gripped by restlessness, a surging feeling she can’t shake off. She tries to sink back down, to go back to sleep, but she’d fallen asleep so easily last night because of exhaustion. Now that she’s no longer exhausted, she can’t help but hyper-focus on every bit of Sterling behind her. Sterling’s hand resting on her stomach, Sterling’s hips pressed against hers, Sterling’s soft snores. Goosebumps erupt up and down April’s spine and she fights the urge to shift away.

It’s hot under the covers with another person so close to her. She sits in the feeling, uncomfortable for another few moments but unwilling to pull away, before she can’t stay still anymore.

(She doesn’t want Sterling to wake up like that, with April’s vulnerability, her weakness so out in the open.)

After brushing her teeth and hair as quietly as she can with anxious glances behind her to make sure Sterling hasn’t woken up yet, she slips down the stairs. She pokes her head into the spare bedroom, but Blair is sprawled out on the bed like a starfish, her hair falling into her open mouth. Her snores are much louder than Sterling’s — she sounds like a rusty chainsaw that won’t start properly. April winces, thankful that Sterling is at least a quiet sleeper.

It’s still early. Much too early for Spring Break. But when April can’t sleep she can’t sleep, and no amount of wishing for laziness will manifest it within her. Instead, she busies herself making eggs and coffee. She’s not sure how Sterling likes her eggs, and she couldn’t care less if Blair wants to eat her cooking or not, so she settles on scrambled with cheese, mushrooms, and onions — her preferred style. The Wesleys can have some if they want or make their own, April isn’t concerned. She desperately needs to do something complicated with her hands. She gest busy chopping as the coffee machine gurgles, and slowly the kitchen fills with morning smells — onions sizzling in oil, fresh coffee, the sound of eggs cracking.

Sterling, maybe sensing her absence or maybe smelling the brewing pot of coffee, stumbles down the stairs only a few minutes later, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “Hey,” she grunts, sitting heavily at the counter. “I woke up and you were gone.”

April nods, adjusting the heat under her pan. She cracks a couple eggs into a bowl, whisking to break the yolks. “I wanted to make you breakfast,” she says, which is at least partially true.

She can sense the smile on Sterling’s face without having to turn around and look for it. “That’s extremely sweet of you.”

April feels her ears turn pink. She dumps the eggs into the pan and they start sizzling as soon as they touch the hot surface, already cooking through.

“I was thinking of asking you on a date.” She hears Sterling sits up straighter. “How would you feel about that?”

“A date? Like a real date? Like a ‘we-go-outside-your-house’ date?”

“There’s an art house cinema in midtown,” April says as an answer. “It’s showing a movie that I really want to see, and I thought we could go. Tonight. Or tomorrow, if that’s better with your schedule.”

Sterling laughs. “What schedule? We’re on break, I’m free as a bird. And totally yours tonight.” Totally yours. That warms the feeling in April’s stomach. “I’d love to go on a date with you.”

April’s heart does that stutter-stop thing in her chest. She clears her throat. Her smile is small but her chest feels like it’s exploding. “Okay. So we’ll go tonight.”

“Can I ask what movie? Or is it a surprise.”

April takes a breath. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire?”

Sterling hums. “I’ve heard of that. Doesn’t it have subtitles?”

“Yes, Sterling.” April can’t help the eye roll she shoots over her shoulder. “But lucky for both of us, we are functionally literate. Graduated elementary school, even.”

“Well, I’m just saying. Some people don’t like to read movies.”

April throws another look over her shoulder. “You’re talking about Luke?”

Sterling nods. “‘Why would I read a movie?’” she mocks in a deep, exaggerated voice. “‘I don’t drink meatloaf.’”

“Philistine.”

“You know that it’s a French movie, right? A gay French movie?”

April clears her throat. “I’m aware.” April keeps her focus on her skillet of eggs. She pinches a bit more salt onto them.

Sterling’s voice is light, half-way to a laugh when she says, “Okay. As long as you know.”

“While I do usually abhor French culture in all its forms…” April acknowledges slowly, “I’ve… heard good things about this one.”

Sterling bounces in her seat. “Yay!” She claps her hands. “Date night.”

/

April drives, because she doesn’t really know the rules of lesbian dating (only the propaganda fed to her by straight media) but she thinks it makes sense for the asker to be in charge of transportation to and from the date. And the date was her idea. She asked, so she drives.

Sterling, for whatever it’s worth, settles very well into the role of being driven — something new, for them. April likes it. She likes that this is something she’s doing for Sterling, with Sterling. She likes that Sterling is letting her.

It’s a Tuesday evening and the theater they’re going to is a good forty minutes from their side of the city. It was a happy coincidence, that the only theater in Atlanta playing the specific lesbian movie April wants to go see on her lesbian date also happens to be a safe distance away. No one will know them, here.

The knowledge is thrilling.

Sterling buys April popcorn and April makes sure to pick out M&Ms and nothing with the sour sugar that Sterling hates, because she knows it cuts up her mouth. When she says as much Sterling stares at her with an intensity that borders on obscene. Her eyes are glued to April’s lips and April knows she wants to kiss her, thinks for an exhilarating moment about letting her, but then a young woman behind them clears her throat and they pay, the moment broken.

“Oh, this is a great movie,” the young woman ripping tickets says when she sees the title. She looks up and smiles at April, a little too knowing.

April gives her a second look, notes the ragged short hair cut, dyed an unnatural pink; the nose ring, the odd tattoos visible on her forearms.

Oh, April thinks with a startling clarity. She’s like us.

Sterling bounds over, balancing two fountain drinks in her hands. “Ready?” she asks, with eyes only for April.

April blinks at the ticket-taker. Her lips quirk as she hands back their tickets. “Theater 3. Have a good time.” She winks, and April feels the thrum of visibility, the thrum of being known and acknowledged. It makes April think about what it might be like to actually live like this, away from Atlanta and Willingham and their church and their families.

April slips her hand into the crook of Sterling’s elbow and lets her lead them to the back of their theater (“Second-to-last row is totally the best in the theater. It’s got the perfect sound/visual balance, you can’t beat it,” Sterling says seriously).

They hold hands as the lights go down. She’s never really held hands with another girl before, definitely not in public, but it’s dark here and there are only a few other people in the theater, mostly couples (at least one of which featuring two women in their mid-to-late twenties who giggle and chuck popcorn at each other during the opening previews).

Sterling grins at her, tearing open the packet of M&Ms with her teeth. “You want?” she asks, and April shakes her head.

Sterling shrugs. “Just so you know, I’m a muncher. Sorry if that bothers you.”

April doesn’t think she’s ever been less bothered about anything in her life. “You won’t bother me.”

“You say that now. Wait until I run out of popcorn and start crunching on ice. You’ll wish you were seeing this alone.”

“For some reason I doubt that.”

The movie opens on a pencil scratching over a blank canvass and April sinks into her chair and lets the sound mixing wash over her, dragging her through space and time to 18th century France.

April’s always loved movies. They captivate her, fascinate her. The characters, the mise-en-scène, the atmosphere, the music. The way faces are filmed, the colors of a crashing ocean, the dripping chill of wet clothes and a cold room. She supposes it’s the escapist element that appeals to her. She’s never been particularly artistic, nor particularly interested in contemporary culture — for the most part she finds it boorish and uninspired. But she loves movies. Even the silly ones with guns and strange costumed crusaders, even the serious ones with subtitles and no non-diegetic sound.

She’s always been a fidgeter. With nothing available to fidget with, she uses the only thing at her disposal: Sterling’s fingers.

She doesn’t realize she’s doing it. Not consciously. It’s so easy to slide her thumb over the soft skin of Sterling’s palm, she’s mesmerized by the way it tickles. It’s so easy to bend Sterling’s fingers with hers, so easy for Sterling to let her, to give up all control over that part of her body to let April move it as she pleases.

But she stays focused on the movie. It helps when she stops reading the subtitles, hoping her grasp of Spanish and context clues can reveal the story to her.

“Ça fait des années que je rêve de faire ça.”

“Mourir?”

“Courir.”

She doesn’t realize she’s doing it. Not consciously, at least. She’s still figuring out how her hand fits with Sterling’s, how their fingers are supposed to move together. But the more engrossed she gets in the movie, the less she pays attention to where she and Sterling are in contact. She can’t lose it entirely — there’s electricity between them, there always is when they’re this close, and her stomach keeps doing little flips because Sterling smells so good and she’s balancing the popcorn on her knee so that she can keep her hand free for April to hold and it’s so nice and so sweet that it threatens to derail all of April’s concentration.

“In solitude,” Héloïse says to Marianne, “I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.”

Sterling is fidgeting in her seat and April doesn’t realize why until Sterling leans her head on April’s shoulder and whispers, “What are you doing?” in her ear. Her breath is hot and her voice is whiny, needy and April hadn’t realized what her touch was doing to Sterling but when she turns to her she can see in the flickering light of the theater the way her pupils are blown and she’s biting her lip and the hand not in April’s is clutching the seat with her nails digging into the upholstery.

And April doesn’t really know what to do, but she’s gripped with madness (or confidence). She puts her hand on Sterling’s thigh and Sterling’s arm flexes on the rest between them.

“You have to be quiet,” April whispers and Sterling just nods, her eyes screwed shut. But that won’t do, they can’t have that. “Open your eyes,” April whispers into Sterling’s ear, pressing a soft kiss to the cartilage above her piercing. “You don’t want to miss the movie.”

Sterling lets out a little gasp and her eyes snap open. She bites her lip and stares at the screen.

“Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep. The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn’t close to you.”

She touches Sterling over her jeans, pressing hard enough to feel how hot she is through the denim, and Sterling grinds her hips subtly against her, her breathing getting heavier with each passing beat.

“If you look at me, who do I look at?”

“Are you okay?” April whispers, and Sterling shakes her head. “What do you need?”

 Sterling fumbles with the button of her pants until it pops free. Grasping April’s wrist she guides her hand up and then back down. April’s fingers slip past her zipper, her knuckles catching the cold metal.

“Like this?” April keeps her voice soft, barely a breath. The movie is dead silent most of the time. No non-diegetic sound. They have no room for error.

Sterling’s hand finds her through the denim and she presses. April’s fingers press against her underwear, the texture of skin-hair-cotton under her palm, the damp part under the tips of her fingers.

Sterling grinds to a tiny silent orgasm in the back of the theater with April’s hand down her pants and her mouth at her neck.

“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something? I know the gestures. I imagined it all, waiting for you.”

April can hardly believe what they just did. She’s stunned and a little disoriented by her own bravery (hooking up with someone in public, in the back of a movie theater that is yes, technically all but empty, but still). She’s also unbelievably turned on before Sterling kisses her sloppy and uncoordinated. After Sterling kisses her… well, there isn’t really an ‘after’.

They don’t really watch the rest of the movie.

/

If you asked April to explain how they got from the theater back to her house, then from the front door up to her bedroom, then from fully clothed to halfway through tearing each others’ clothes off, she probably couldn’t explain all the steps.

She’s not entirely sure how they got here.

She didn’t come into tonight thinking that she would give herself to Sterling. That wasn’t what she was thinking about when she was planning their date. It isn’t even what she was thinking about when she had her hand down the front of Sterling’s dark wash jeans in an independent movie theater across town, but here she is. Here they are.

Sterling is making soft sounds under her and April doesn’t know how they got here, she didn’t plan on being here. Just last night she was telling Sterling she wasn’t ready to have sex with her. And it was true yesterday. Today… she’s not so sure how true that is anymore.

Not that she really cares much about pre-marital sex — as she told Sterling, that was mostly a charade to help maintain her carefully-constructed chaste and pious heterosexual lie. But sex is still serious. It’s a serious step for any person, for any couple; especially for a young woman, especially the first time.

But it’s hard to think that any of that matters very much when Sterling Wesley is topless and panting underneath her.

April is fighting what feels like a very minor case of brain failure — a misfiring of her synapses causing her pre- and postsynaptic neurons to utterly break down all communication — at being presented with Sterling’s bare chest.

She can’t believe she’s doing this. She can’t believe they’re doing this, together. She never though about losing her virginity in high school, mostly because it seemed like such an outlandish impossibility that it wasn’t even worth considering. But now Sterling’s topless underneath her, and her chest is flushed and heaving, and her nipples are so pink and pretty, so hard, pointing straight up, aching, just begging for April’s mouth to shower them with attention. Who is she to deny them their pleasure?

Sterling keens, arching up so her chest meets April’s tongue, and April moans against her skin. She can’t help it. Sterling is sensitive. Every touch causes a new reaction. She trembles, her fingers tight in April’s hair. April sucks, her teeth sharp against pebbled flesh.

Sterling’s hips jump. April pushes her back into the bed, and Sterling whimpers again.

Sterling moves to slip her hand under April’s skirt and April stops her. “Let me touch you?” Sterling asks quietly.

April releases Sterling’s nipple with a pop. She blows on the wet skin and Sterling shivers at the cold.

“Please, April. Can I touch you?”

“Let me,” April says instead.

Sterling’s jeans take a few tugs to get off, but they manage without too much struggle. Now presented with a topless and pantsless Sterling, in just her grey underwear and smooth skin, April’s brain does that thing again, where it fails to fire. She stares at the wet patch on Sterling’s underwear. Sterling blushes. “Sorry,” she mumbles. “That’s from earlier.”

“I did that to you?”

Sterling gives her a weird look. “Yeah, like… every day.”

April kisses her.

And then she brings Sterling to a stuttering orgasm with just her fingers on her clit. It’s the second orgasm she’s ever given anyone but herself (the first one was also Sterling, earlier tonight), and it’s mesmerizing to watch Sterling crest and scramble and then fall. Her legs shake and her hips jump up to meet April’s hand and she gasps into April’s neck and April is delirious, aching and pleased with herself, oh so pleased with herself.

No sooner has Sterling recovered from her climax than she’s flipping them over. Her arms bracket April’s head, her hair hanging down in a curtain, separating their faces from everything else, cocooning them in a tiny environment where the only thing that exists is the breath they share, the looks they give each other. April shivers.

“Can I touch you?” Sterling whispers. April’s lips are the most interesting thing she’s ever seen, clearly, because she can’t stop looking at them. April wonders what she thinks about when she looks at her like that. Is she picturing ravishing or being ravished? Does she ache to kiss April as much as April aches to be kissed? Does the feeling rise in her chest loud and reckless, threatening the stability of her basic organ functions?

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to.” Her eyes flick up, blue and searching. “Please. You made me feel so good, I just… I want to make you feel good, too.”

April licks her lips. Something tugs in her navel, a feeling she pushes aside for later. “If you insist.”

Sterling pauses right before she slips her hand down the front of April’s underwear. April’s skirt is bunched at her hips and she’s trying to control her breathing, trying not to absolutely lose her mind at the image of Sterling Wesley kneeling between her spread legs, staring at her like she’s dying of thirst, and April’s sex holds the oasis. “Are you sure?” Sterling whispers, unable to take her eyes off April’s pussy. “I don’t have to. If you aren’t ready… if you want to wait—”

April nods fervently. “I’m sure,” she promises, because she is. She’s never been so sure of anything in her life.

Who knows if this thing with Sterling will last, who knows if this is forever, who knows if she’ll ever have another girl as beautiful as Sterling Wesley between her thighs. She’d always imagined her first time having sex would be with the woman who was going to be her wife. She has no idea what her future with Sterling looks like, but Sterling stares up at her with her beautiful blue eyes, so open, so honest, and April feels safe, comfortable, seen. Sterling brings her mouth between April’s legs, presses open-mouthed kisses to April’s clit, and April moans and feels loved.

She never thought she’d be doing something like this in high school, out of wedlock, with the girl who’s supposed to be her nemesis, but if she’s going to have sex with someone for the first time, it’s going to be with someone who loves her.

With the way Sterling moans and tongues her languidly for the next twenty-five minutes, April knows that this isn’t a mistake.

Sterling loves her.

That’s all the reassurance she needs.

“Sterling,” she whimpers. “Sterling.

“I love the way you sound.” Sterling hums against her clit and April gasps, the pleasure ripping through her. She’s never felt like this before. She’s never felt this out-of-control, teetering on the edge of oblivion. She’s come before but never by anyone else’s hand (or mouth, as the case may be) and it’s never felt this intense, never felt this wet, never felt like this she’s never felt like this.

“Sterling,” she groans again when Sterling does something rather clever with her tongue. She’s aching, clenching around nothing. She’s so close, so close, almost there just another moment—

“I love the way you say my name,” Sterling says as she slips her fingers inside her for the first time and April moans, her back arching clean off the bed.

“God, Sterling. Jesus, I love you.”

Sterling immediately pulls back and April groans at the sudden loss of contact. “Why are you stopping? I’m so close, I—”

“You love me?”

April blinks at her. Sterling’s hair is messy, her chin wet with April’s arousal. Her head is poking between April’s legs and the sight would be comical if it weren’t so hot.

“Huh?”

“You just said you loved me for the first time while I was going down on you. Was that just a sex thing? Or did you, like… It’s fine if it was just a sex thing! Sorry, I’ll get back to—”

“I meant it.”

Sterling’s eyes shine. She looks close to tears. April doesn’t know what she did to make her upset but she wants to take it back. She never wants to be the cause of Sterling’s tears.

“Sorry,” April apologizes because it feels like the right thing to do.

Sterling shakes her head. “You love me,” she breathes, almost reverent.

April swallows and nods. “Of course I do. You think I would sleep with someone without loving them?”

Sterling’s laugh is wet. “I don’t judge.”

“Well, obviously. But you know me. You think I would sleep with you without loving you?”

Sterling pushes herself up April’s body to claim her lips. April moans, tasting herself on Sterling’s tongue. It reminds her of the throbbing between her legs, of the way Sterling had her so close to the edge just a moment before.

“I love you, too,” Sterling whispers against her lips.

April’s stomach dips. It feels so much better to hear Sterling say it, now. Now that she knows April feels the same. Now that they’re two people in love.

And two people in the middle of sex.

“Not to rush,” April says after a few long minutes of kissing, “but you were sort of in the middle of something?”

Sterling laughs. “Bossy,” she teases, kissing her way back down April’s body.

“You don’t know bossy.”

“Ooh, is that a promise for later?”

“Sterling…”

“Okay, okay. I tease. Putting my tongue to better use, now.”

“Your to—fuck, Sterl.”

/

They collapse together a long time later. April flops on her back and Sterling flops next to her. They pant for a moment, both staring up at the ceiling. April feels boneless. She feels good. Too good. Impossibly good. Better than she’s ever felt.

There’s an ache in her hips and her hand might be cramping, but she can’t bring herself to care.

“God,” she cranes her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of her clock, “what time is it?”

Sterling’s arms are wrapped around her wrist and she makes an unhappy noise when April shifts. “You don’t know?” she mutters, her check resting on April’s bare chest. “Ms. ‘My Internal Clock is So Perfect You Can Literally Set Your Watch to it’?”

April rolls her eyes. “You make me sound so dramatic.”

Sterling lifts her head since she has a better angle. She squints at the clock. “It’s 1:14 in the morning.”

April blinks, surprised. “I haven’t stayed up this late since…”

“We used to stay up this late all the time. Remember, trying to make it through the witching hour? You’d hold my hand when it hit 1 and I’d let you pretend it was because I was scared.”

“Wha—you were scared!”

“Or maybe I just wanted to hold your hand.”

April shakes her head. “No,” she says with a laugh. Her fingers are light on Sterling’s back, and Sterling hums happily, sinking into the feeling. “You didn’t like me back then. You barely liked me a few months ago.”

She can feel the downturn of Sterling’s mouth against her skin, he quiet pout. “I don’t know. I mean I didn’t know I liked you then. But I probably did.” She tilts her head up and April tilts hers down. Sterling’s eyes look dark, only illuminated by soft moonlight dripping through the window. “You liked me, right?”

April doesn’t answer for a moment. She did, obviously, but it’s a little embarrassing to admit that she’s been hung up on the same girl for nearly half her life. “What makes you say that?” she asks instead.

“Adelle Meisner?” April freezes. “You crush on girls, hard. And you get a little intense when you lose them. You held a grudge against me for, like, seven years. So you probably liked me a lot, huh?”

April can feel her ears go pink. She’s never had someone so confidently tell her about herself and be right before. Being seen by Sterling is an uncomfortable, uncontrollable feeling. April kisses her instead of answering. She presses Sterling back against the mattress and makes her come two more times with her tongue until Sterling taps out. breathless, boneless, and sated. She falls asleep against April’s chest immediately. April’s heart pounds back loud enough to echo through her whole body.

It takes her a very long time to fall asleep, but when she does, she sleeps peacefully.

________________

Chapter Text

____________________

Sterling comes home seething. She stomps up the stairs, anger in her heart, her feet guiding her to the source of her aggravation. She shoves Blair’s door open hard enough that it smacks into her wall with a bang and Blair yelps, ripping her headphones out of her ears.

“Dude! Knock much? I could have been naked in here.”

Sterling steps inside and slams the door shut behind her. She glares at Blair, who shrinks back a little under the intensity. “You fought with April?”

“Ugh,” Blair groans, standing from her bed. She kicks her discarded lacrosse stick under her bed and glares at Sterling. “I can’t believe she snitched to you. What a narc.”

“What the heck, Blair! Why are you picking fights with my girlfriend at lunch?”

“It was her fault! She took the last little thing of fries, and I forgot my lunch at home today, and when I asked her politely to share she told me to stuff it!”

“That’s not how she described it. She said you came up to her and said, ‘Those are my fries, give them’ and then when she wouldn’t you called her entitled and accused her of hoarding food like the 1% hoards wealth.”

Blair shrugs. “Potato, potahto. And she is part of the 1%.”

“So are we!”

“Like I said. Potato, potahto.”

“Blair!” Sterling stomps her foot.

“Sterling!” Blair mocks, stomping her own foot. Sterling glares at her. Her lip quivers, and Blair sighs. She’s never been strong enough to fight the lip quiver. “I’m sorry I yelled at her. I was just cranky. I forgot lunch and I had practice after school. You know how I get if I don’t have enough carbs before a workout.”

“That’s not a good excuse.”

“It’s an explanation, not an excuse. I’m sorry I snapped at your girlfriend. I’ll apologize to her, or whatever.”

“Of course you’re going to apologize. You’ll do it tomorrow, in Fellowship, in front of everyone.”

Blair groans louder and drops her head back. “Sterl…”

“No complaints!” Sterling wags her finger. “You apologize in front of everyone, or I’ll skip your next game.”

Blair’s mouth falls open. “You’ve never missed one of my games!”

“Yeah, so you know I’m serious about it.”

Blair gapes at her, but Sterling holds firm. She stands with her arms crossed and her expression steel. Unwavering.

Blair groans. “Ugh, okay. Okay. I’ll apologize to April in front of everyone, like a chump.”

“Thank you.”

“So you’re done being mad at me, right? Because I really need a shower, I smell like dirty gym socks.” She goes to move past Sterling into the bathroom, but Sterling doesn’t budge. Blair stops a step in front of her, frowning.

“That’s not why I’m mad at you.”

Blair pulls a face. “Oh, c’mon. What else did I do? I already said—”

“It’s not about you yelling at April! Well, it is, obviously.”

“But?”

“But… you promised!” Blair blinks at her. Sterling huffs. “You promised you’d try harder with April.”

“I am trying!”

“You aren’t! This doesn’t look like you trying!”

“I’m sorry I don’t like her, Sterling.” Blair says with an eye roll that makes Sterling’s blood boil. “I can’t do anything about that. It’s just the way it is. I’m never going to like April, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much you want me to. The sooner you get over that, the better we’ll all be.”

“Why, though? Why don’t you like her? She hasn’t ever done anything to you.” Blair scoffs. “Okay, besides when we were kids. She hasn’t done anything to you since I started dating her. You’re the one who can’t let go of your grudge, not her.”

“I just—” Blair flounders for a moment, working her jaw, “don’t get what you see in her! If it’s the girl thing, I’m sure there are, like, tons of girls at school who would roll around with you if you flashed them the old Sterling Wesley smile.”

“Don’t say that.” Blair is always making comments like that. She’s always saying things to prove exactly how comfortable she is with Sterling’s queerness. It’s never a ‘I don’t think you should be dating girls’ thing, it’s always ‘I don’t think you should be dating this girl.’ Sterling hates it. “It’s not just the girl thing. I’ve told you that. It’s the April thing.”

“Sterl…”

Sterling’s hands clench and she drops them to her sides. “You don’t know her! You’ve just decided that you can never get along when you’ve never even given her a chance.”

“That’s not true! I spent the night at her house. That’s, like, a big step.”

“We watched movies for five hours before you passed out. That wasn’t trying. That was me forcing a truce, which isn’t the same thing.” Blair scoffs again. Sterling crosses her arms over her chest. “Stop being so dismissive of what I’m expressing to you. I’m trying to tell you how your actions are making me feel, and you’re scoffing and rolling your eyes. You’re trivializing this when I’m being serious. Emily says we shouldn’t do that to each other any more.”

 Blair blinks and drops her gaze at the mention of their family therapist. She shuffles, scuffs her socked feet against her carpet. “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to think your feelings aren’t valid.”

“So why are you acting like this? What is it about April that drives you so crazy?”

Blair sits back on her bed. “I… don’t know.”

“Blair. I thought we said no secrets.”

“I’m not keeping anything secret! I just… don’t know. Something about her has always rubbed me the wrong way. She’s a nosy gossip who can’t mind her own business. She tried to blackmail you. She has absolutely horrible taste in music.”

“I don’t know if you’re really one to judge other peoples’ music taste, Blair.”

“My taste is eclectic. I’m unique.

“Your music is kind of unlistenable.”

“It has character.” She shakes her head and throws a pillow at Sterling, who catches it easily. “Whatever. That’s not the point.”

“So besides one time when she tried to blackmail me and a subjective opinion about her music taste…?”

“She hurt you, Sterling.” It’s the answer Sterling was expecting. Blair is only protective for her, only when she thinks Sterling is in danger. It’s the answer she was prepared for, and she has a whole monologue prepared. (I know that April and I went through something difficult, but we’ve been helping each other a lot recently and we aren’t in the same place we were then. I know you’re mad that she hurt me but she doesn’t hurt me, she hasn’t hurt me since and she doesn’t plan to. And I know that isn’t something you plan for but I trust her with my heart, and I want you to trust her, too.)

But Blair holds up a hand before Sterling can even begin her monologue. “I know what you’re gonna say. ‘She hurt me a long time ago, I’ve forgiven her, I trust her, blah blah blah.’ I get it, okay? I’m holding a grudge. I’m being vindictive. It’s my fatal flaw. But it’s not so easy for me to forget and forgive, Sterl. And as far as I’m concerned, April is the girl who jerked you around and ripped your heart out.”

 “I know that’s how you feel. And I like that you want to protect me. I do. It means a lot to me. But it also hurts. Knowing that you don’t like my girlfriend sucks. It makes me feel like I can’t spend time with both of you, like I have to choose. And I hate choosing. I don’t want to do it.”

“I’m not asking you to choose!”

“You’re asking me to choose between my girlfriend and my sister, so yeah, you definitely are.” Blair scoffs. “And what the hell does that mean?”

“Nothing.”

“No, you’re keeping something back. What is it?”

“I mean come on, Sterl. Are you and April even dating?”

Sterling frowns and pulls back, subconsciously putting more space between them. “Of course we are.”

“Really? Because last I checked, you had to actually go on dates to be dating someone. And I’m pretty sure most people are allowed to tell their friends and family that they have a girlfriend. How many people have you and April told?”

A sharp inhale. “That’s not fair.”

“I just can’t help but feel like she’s holding you back. Stopping you from reaching your full, out-and-proud, woman-loving self. Free from the restrictions of the world’s darkest closet.”

“I’m not exactly jumping to come out to everyone at Willingham either. It’s a complicated situation. With her dad, and… everything.”

“So you’re telling me that you’re fine being in the closet like this? You’re fine pretending that you and April aren’t anything more than semi-polite acquaintances at school? Because I know you hate that shit. I see what it does to you when she won’t sit next to you at lunch. You say she isn’t hurting you but she hurts you every day by forcing you to live a lie.”

Forcing you to live a lie — maybe there’s truth there. Sterling hates dishonesty and always has. It gives her acid reflux. It’s upsetting to keep secrets. Secrets hurt people, secrets and lies never end well. But April isn’t forcing her to do anything. She had two choices: be with April in secret or not be with her at all.

What was she supposed to do? What choice did she have?

“What choice do I have?” she asks Blair quietly. “I love her, Blair. I love her so much. It’s… yeah, it’s hard right now. It sucks right now. But I know it’s only temporary. We aren’t going to live like this forever. And I… I can wait. She needs me to wait so I… I can do it.”

“I know you can,” Blair says taking a seat next to her. She puts a hand on Sterling’s knee. “You’re the strongest bitch I know. You can literally do anything you want. You have a steely resolve. It’s my favorite quality of yours.”

“Aw, thank you.”

“But I want you to be happy. I want you to be free. And I don’t know if April is that, for you.”

“You’re wrong.”

Blair sighs deeply. “I know you like her and everything, Sterl, but sometimes I think you just have blinders on. Like you can’t see what’s really there.”

“I can see what’s there. I know her. I see her. I see a girl who’s scared and hurt but who loves so deeply. Someone who cares about me, who wants me safe. Someone who is so proud of herself and her accomplishments, but who feels like she needs to hide the softest most important parts of herself to keep her heart safe. And sometimes that means she acts in ways that aren’t perfect, but she’s doing it to protect herself and the people she loves. We’re dating for real, Blair. And she isn’t going anywhere. I’d really like it if my girlfriend and my soulmate can at least tolerate each other.”

“Well,” Blair clears her throat. “As long as I’m your soulmate.”

“Of course you are, please. We’re like this—” she holds up her fingers, crossed over each other— “from the womb to the tomb.”

Blair crosses her fingers too. She hooks them around Sterling’s, and they squeeze each other.

“You know I love you more than life. I’d do anything for you. I’d walk off the edge of the earth for you, if that’s what you asked me to do.”

“But?”

Blair sighs again. “Are you sure this is the real deal?”

“Yes.” Sterling says without hesitation. “I love her. She makes me so happy.”

“Yeah, well she better,” Blair grumbles. There’s an awkwardness between them for a moment. “Is she at least good in the sack?” Sterling flushes. and Blair laughs. “Damn, that good, huh?”

“None of your business,” Sterling mumbles, flopping down face-first onto her bed.

Blair clambers onto the bed after her, jostling them every which way. “Oh please, it absolutely is my business. There are no secrets between us. I told you everything about my sex with Miles!”

“Yeah, I didn’t ask you to do that! It was actually much too much information.”

Blair waves her off. “C’mon, you owe me.” She pokes Sterling in the side, and Sterling slaps her hand away. Blair just pokes her harder. “C’mon,” she whines. “Give me the dirty deets on your sex life.”

Sterling hesitates for a moment. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with April.”

“I just promised to try harder, didn’t I? Part of trying harder is participating in my sisterly duties. Namely, making sure you’re getting yours as good as you’re giving. If April’s not doing something right, it’s my job to make sure she can give you all the pleasure you deserve.”

“Gross.” Sterling’s cheeks are pink. She feels them flaming. “And how do you know I’m good at giving?”

“Please. You’re a Wesley. We’re like, notoriously good at sex.”

“Notoriously?” Sterling laughs. “We’ve had sex with three people between the two of us.”

“Yeah, and we’re only seventeen. Imagine our body count when we’re in our twenties.” She holds up her hand for a high-five, but Sterling doesn’t slap her palm. “Ugh, Sterl. C’mon. Don’t leave me hanging.” She waves her hand but Sterling shakes her head.

“I’m not trying to up my body count. I don’t want to have sex with anyone else.”

Blair rolls her eyes. “Fine. I guess I’ll have to do all the work, again, to bring our average up.”

“The guys at UGA won’t know what hit them.”

“I’m gonna bang my way through the entire soccer team. You know soccer players are the hottest athletes.”

“Guy soccer players or girl soccer players?”

“Both, obviously.”

Sterling laughs. “I like the ambition.”

“Well, we don’t all have long-term girlfriends who can fulfill our every sexual desire.” Sterling blushes and looks away. Blair notices, of course she does, and seizes on the crack in Sterling’s armor. “Hey, what was that look?”

“What look?” Sterling squints up, not meeting Blair’s eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. You just got a look on your face. What was that? Is April not satisfying you?”

“Gross, Blair. She satisfies me just fine.

“Fine?” Blair gapes, aghast. “Your sex life should not just be fine, Sterling. Have I taught you nothing? I thought we covered this during the ‘Luke-slash-O’ business. Remember, when he couldn’t get you the big O in—”

“Yes, Blair! I remember. And our sex life isn’t fine. It’s better than fine. It’s awesome, actually. Like really good.”

“Really?” Blair tilts her head. “I don’t know if I’m happy or disappointed that April’s good at this, too. She’s good at everything.”

“She really is.”

Blair laughs. “Okay, so why did you look all weird when I brought up your desires?”

Sterling shifts and rolls onto her back. “It’s nothing,” she obfuscates, but Blair won’t leave it alone.

“It’s not nothing. It’s clearly something, or you wouldn’t have that little crinkle.” She flicks the spot between Sterling’s eyebrows that always crinkles when she’s deep in thought, and Sterling yelps and pushes her away. “Crinkle!” Blair flicks her forehead again, and Sterling yelps.

“Blair! Stop it!”

“Not until you tell me what you’re thinking about!” She goes to flick Sterling again but Sterling blocks her hand. Blair pinches the skin of her hip instead.

“Stop it!”

“Not until you tell me!”

“Fine!” Sterling shouts, sitting up with a huff. She grabs the pillow from behind her and punches it into the right shape. She wraps her arms around it squeezing it tight to her chest. Blair just looks at her, vindictive and impatient. Sterling sighs. “Did you and Miles ever do anything, like… kinky?”

Blair squints. “Kinky how?”

“Like… handcuffs and restraint-type… things.”

That’s what April’s into? Why am I not surprised. Tell me you’re the one tying her up, at least?” Sterling blushes. “Gross. God, April is such a cliché.”

“We haven’t done it yet,” Sterling is quick to correct. “I was just… thinking. But I don’t know if she’ll like it. So I don’t want to ask.”

Blair pillows her head on her arms. “Why do you think you’ll like it?”

Sterling shrugs, hugging her pillow tighter to her stomach. “We’ve done other stuff… Like, she holds down my hands sometimes?”

“Oh my God.” Blair laughs. “Yeah, she’ll definitely like it. You should ask if you want to try something. It’s important to have open communication with your sexual partners, you know.”

“You don’t think it’s weird of me, do you? My whole relationship with Luke I was like leading the way, but when April takes control… it’s nice. I never knew I’d like it. Do you think it’s weird?”

“That’s probably why you like it. Think about it, Sterl. The whole time you were with Luke you were basically in a relationship with yourself. I like Luke, but that boy did not have a single opinion. He just kinda let you run the show because he was just happy to be around you. And that was easy, and good for you. You got to make all the decisions, and whatever you wanted is what happened. But April’s got her own way of doing things. You can’t just bowl over her whenever you want something. She’s kinda pushy, which apparently you’re into. It must be exciting for you to date someone with a spine.”

“Huh.” Sterling tilts her head. What a thought.

____________________

April has been essentially on lockdown for most of the summer, and it’s been torturous for both of them. Between Sterling’s job at the yogurt shop/bounty hunting and April’s gig as a counselor for a Bible camp on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina, they basically haven’t seen each other for more than twenty minutes since school let out. April’s camp is only three hours away, but she might as well be on the other side of the country for all Sterling is able to see her.

They’ve been making do with FaceTimes and phone calls, and a constant back-and-forth texting exchange. It's not enough, but it has to suffice.

All the communication is a little excessive. Even Sterling can realize that. She’s never been the ‘tied to her cellphone relationship girl’ and it’s been an adjustment. She knows she’s being annoying about it. She knows that almost anyone else would call her clingy and overly-involved. It’s just hard to go from seeing April every day to, like… never. Blair keeps making jokes about lesbians and U-Hauls but it can’t really be helped.

Her relationship with April has moved firmly into the ‘sexually active’ column, and that’s been a whole thing. Because now that they’re, like, having sex, Sterling can’t stop thinking about it. Every conversation they have, every kiss they share, every long look and invitation to loiter after school is now a potential setup for sex and orgasms and one or both of them naked and that’s… distracting. Now that school is out and they aren't seeing each other every day the heat has lessened, but Sterling's evolution into 'complete horndog' hasn't gone away overnight.

Still, she’s mostly got it under control.

Mostly.

“How was your day,” April asks, her face tiny on Sterling’s phone. They only have a few minutes between April’s afternoon activity responsibilities and when Sterling has to get to the yogurt shop, but they take every minute they can snatch.

“Okay.”

April frowns. Her face is tiny, but no less expressive. “Just okay?” she asks, because of course she’d think ‘okay’ is an unacceptable answer.

Sterling shrugs. “I… got a letter from Dana today.”

“Oh. What did it say?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t opened it.”

“You know you don’t have to open it,” April says gently. “You don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to. Your relationship — if you ever decide to have one — it’ll be entirely on your terms. It should be.”

“I know. It’s just complicated. Like… she gave birth to me, you know? She isn’t my mom or anything — she’s not even family, outside of our unfortunate genetic connection — but… I can’t stop thinking about her in that prison all by herself. No one to visit, no one to talk to.”

“After what she did to you? I would hope her stay in prison is unpleasant.”

Sterling looks down and picks at her bedspread, a little bashful. “I don’t know. I mean, yeah of course I think she should pay for what she did. But I also… don’t want to hold a grudge. She was put in a bad situation, she never really had the chance to be anything-anyone better. I don’t know if I’m ready to hear her out yet or anything, but… I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe. Does that make me crazy?”

“No, baby.” Sterling’s heart leaps at the term of endearment. It always does. She can’t help the way April makes her feel. “It makes you kind, and good. Too good. You’re too good for this world, Sterling.”

Sterling’s throat goes tight. She shifts on her bed, a tightness in her lower stomach, a discomfort that might actually not be discomfort at all.

“What about you?" she asks, changing the subject because this conversation is making her feel too much in a way that's too complicated for FaceTime. "How was your day? And—why do you look like you’re covered in mud?”

Ugh,” April groans. “Full of problems. Jamie messed up the tie dye this morning and all of the red turned out brown, so now we have a bunch of campers running around in mud brown t-shirts. The color war is totally destroyed.”

Sterling laughs. “Sounds like a pain.”

She’s heard plenty of stories about Jamie this summer, April’s clumsy and prone-to-screwing-up partner counselor. He mostly seems to stumble his way through the most trivial tasks, making more work for April along the way because she’s forced to clean up his messes. While she assumed this would make April angry — she can’t stand incompetence, after all — for the most part she actually seems to like Jamie. She speaks of him fondly, all eye rolls and loving exasperation every time she tells another story of him hilariously out-of-his-depths. She’s glad April has made a friend, though. From what she’s been told, previous summers (first as a camper, now a counselor) at Camp Jocassee have been isolating. Jamie, despite the fact that he’s as clumsy and unlucky as Lindsay Lohan after she’s been cursed in Just My Luck (a favorite movie of Blair’s from their childhood), helps her pass the time in a way that isn't stifling. April also loves solving problems, and Jamie causes enough to keep her busy for a lifetime.

“It was pretty funny, actually,” April says with a wry smile. “Do you mind if I change? I smell like beets.”

Sterling has no idea how beets factor into this story, but she strongly dislikes the taste of them and figures the smell can’t be much better.

“So you’d think that all-natural fabric dye and store-bought hemp t-shirts would be a simple enough thing to put together, but Jamie is apparently colorblind. And call me crazy but I feel like that’s something you’d tell a person if she puts you in charge of setting up an arts and crafts project.”

April keeps talking but as soon as she pulls her shirt over her head Sterling’s brain fritzes out. She loses all concentration. April’s body is tiny in the screen, and their internet connection isn’t great so she comes through a little pixelated, but pixelated or not, this is the first time Sterling’s seen her girlfriend topless in just about a month and a half and she’d kind of forgotten just how breathtaking a sight it really is. April’s hair falls down over her shoulders, kissing soft the skin of her chest. Her sports bra is a dark forest green, and Sterling can just catch a glimpse of the shine of her cross necklace as it dips into her cleavage. April’s much stronger than she looks — she’s always been a proponent of physical exercise, because as she says, “A strong mind needs a strong body” and though her stomach is soft and smooth her arms are toned and they flex when she reaches up for a clean shirt. Sterling blinks and tries to keep her thoughts on this side of PG but it’s getting difficult when April is standing there undressed and gee, how long does it take to put on a shirt, really? Not that Sterling is complaining, because she’d be more than happy to—

“Sterling?”

“Huh?” Sterling blinks and refocuses her eyes. She snaps her jaw shut, realizing she’s been kind of drooling, and April is smirking through the phone, her chest flushed.

“You listening?”

“Not even for a second,” Sterling says, too dazed to lie. April laughs and Sterling bites the inside of her cheek. “Sorry,” she says, not really apologetic.

“You’ve seen me shirtless before.”

“Yeah, it sorta doesn’t get old.” They smile at each other. April bites her lip, toying with her shirt. She seems in no rush to dress herself, now that she knows the effect it has on Sterling’s slow and uncoordinated brain.

“I miss you,” Sterling says quietly.

“I miss you more.

A tiny shout cuts through from April’s side of the call. She hastily pulls a shirt over herself, just in time for a small girl, no older than 13 and wearing pigtails with a Band-Aid on her knee, to barge into the cabin. “April!” she yells, out of breath and frantic. “Come quick! Jamie accidentally spilled bleach on the dock! Austin says we might have to call the EPA!”

“Oh, for the love of—I have to go, Sterling, I’m sorry. I’ll talk to you later?”

“Yeah!” Sterling calls back, trying not to feel too disappointed. “Talk to you—”

Beep Beep Beep.

Disconnected. Great.

Sterling can’t help but grumble about this Jamie guy for the rest of the night. Some clumsy good-for-nothing cutting into Sterling’s already limited time with her girlfriend. Maybe April’s right to forgo boys altogether.

They sure do love to make a mess of things.

/

It’s one of the first pictures April has posted all summer. They’ve been FaceTiming all the time, so it’s not like Sterling has forgotten what her girlfriend looks like. Still, she stops on the picture and traces every detail with her eyes for quite a long (almost an embarrassing amount of) time.

April looks great. The tip of her nose is red, a little burned from the sun, but she still glows in the late afternoon light, her skin clear and healthy. She’s wearing a pair of shorts that make her calves look awesome (since when has Sterling been a calf girl? since she started dating April, apparently) and her hair is sleek and shiny. She’s laughing, a delighted grin crinkling the skin around her eyes, her teeth gleaming. The girl next to her has her arm thrown around April’s shoulders and she’s leaning into her, laughing at the person taking the picture. There’s a swarm of similarly-clothed children running through a grass field behind them.

Feeling blessed, the caption says, with the little prayer hand emoji. Sterling double taps the picture to like it, then takes a screenshot for her own camera roll. She taps the picture again, curious to see the names of April’s friends. She hasn’t heard about any of the other girls at camp, only—

People tagged: @jamie_henders_336

Sterling blinks.

Oh, she thinks. Jamie’s a girl.

/

“Are you still stalking April’s Insta?”

“What?” Sterling throws her phone across her bed, trying to look innocent. “No. What? Instagram? Never heard of it.”

Blair rolls her eyes. “You’re obsessing, you know that? It’s not healthy for you.”

Sterling groans and flops back onto her bed. She pulls her pillow over her face and presses the cushion against her mouth. She screams with all her might, the sound muffled and almost too quiet to hear.

“You’ve got it bad, dude.”

“I’m being crazy, right?” Sterling asks around a mouthful of pillow. “Like… definitely crazy.”

“Definitely a little crazy. But you’re my sister, so I guess it runs in the family.” Sterling thinks of Blair’s single-minded pursuit of their family secret, her stakeouts and obsessive Google searching and skipping school to drive all the way to Nandina, and thinks, Yeah. Definitely runs in the family.

Blair picks up Sterling’s phone and Sterling hears it unlock with a click. She peeks out from around the pillow, trying to gauge Blair’s expression. “This is the girl, right?” Sterling nods and picks her head up to get a better look. “She’s pretty.”

Sterling groans again and flops back down. “Please don’t say that.”

“I mean… she’s hideous. Gross. Definitely not hot at all.”

Sterling covers her face with a pillow again, grumbling. Jamie is hot, and even if Blair could lie convincingly about it, Sterling isn’t blind.

“Not to be that girl—” Blair says, treading carefully, “you know me, I love me some internet sleuthing — but… is there anything to sleuth, here? April took a pic with another camp counselor. They’re surrounded by kids and they don’t even look that close.”

“That’s because you’re looking at the picture like a straight girl would.”

“Holy assumptions, Batman,” Blair teases. “Way to label my sexuality.”

That makes Sterling sit up. “Your huh now?”

“I’m just saying,” Blair shrugs. “It’s a big old world. I haven’t even been to college yet. I might get down with some experimentation.”

Sterling gapes. “Are you coming out to me? Is this you coming out?”

“I’m not doing anything! I’m just… open to the possibility maybe at some point in the future.” Blair shoots her a look. “Don’t be weird about this. I just want to prepare.”

“Prepare for a hypothetical future scenario where you do come out with me?”

“Yeah.”

Sterling looks at her for another moment. “Okay.”

“Okay. Want to get back to freaking out about April?”

“Not particularly.”

“You know she’s allowed to have friends, Sterling. Female friends.”

“Female friends who may or may not be Saphically-inclined?”

“Who are you, the lesbian police? Two lesbians can be non-sexual friends with each other. And we don’t even know if this girl is gay!”

“She has a nose piercing, Blair. She’s wearing a thumb ring.”

“You’re stereotyping.”

Sterling huffs. “I just… think it’s a little weird! That she never told me this ‘Jamie’ in all of her stories was actually a girl.”

“Wait…” Blair’s frown deepens, and she looks at the picture with renewed interest. “She told you she was friends with a dude when it was actually this super hot lifeguard-looking chick?”

“You think she looks like a lifeguard?”

“I mean… yeah, she looks like she’s been in the sun.”

Sterling balks. "Dang it. Knowing first-aid is hot." She stares down at her own pale, sickly-looking body. “And I’m never in the sun! I’m so pale! What if April’s into tan girls? I get sunburned through my clothes. I even got sunburned in the car that one time.”

“Oh, yeah. Dude that was crazy, your legs looked like molting lobsters, it was so nasty.”

“I’m never going to be tan! She’s going to dump me. She’s going to dump me for a hot girl who can tan and do CPR and play the guitar.”

Blair whistles. “She plays the guitar?”

Sterling nods miserably. “I Insta-stalked her, too.”

Blair hums before passing Sterling’s phone back to her. “Well, I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Real convincing, Blair. Thanks so much.”

“I’m just saying. April might be self-centered and manipulative—”

“Hey!”

“—but she isn’t stupid. She knows she’s got a good thing with you, Sterl. You have kinky sex and everything. She’d be dumb to throw that away over a girl who probably only knows one song on the guitar. It’s probably something lame, too. Like Wonderwall.

Wonderwall is a good song.”

Blair’s nose pulls up in disgust. “You’re hopeless, and you have no taste.”

“Also, we don’t have kinky sex. Or not really. Or not yet.” Sterling blushes. “I haven’t even seen her in five weeks. And she sleeps in a cabin with like ten twelve-year-olds.”

“So phone sex is out, too?”

Sterling nods. “We’ve been relegated to sexting and kind-of-suggestive pictures for over a month. And don’t get me wrong, the sexting is super good.”

“Yeah, I’m sure April’s comments on your maxilla really gets you fired up and ready to go.”

“We have a very good texting rapport, thanks.”

“So? What’s there to worry about? If she’s still sexting you, I seriously doubt Jamie underscore Henders underscore 336 is turning her head.”

“Not yet! But we’re sexually active young adults who haven’t been able to… you know…”

“Get it on.”

“Gross. But yes. We haven’t been able to ‘get it on’ in almost two months. And now my girlfriend is gallivanting around with a hot lifeguard with a nose ring who probably serenades her around a campfire every night. Who wouldn’t want to have sex with a girl like that?”

“So why don’t you remind her what she’s got with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have sex with her," Blair says with a shrug. "Rock her world. Make sure she remembers what it means to date a Wesley.”

Sterling can feel the crinkle reappear between her eyebrows. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“She’s a camp counselor, right? Don’t they get days off?”

“One every two weeks.” Blair gives her a pointed look. It takes Sterling several seconds to realize what she’s telling her. “Ohhh. You think—?”

“Where’s that camp? South Carolina?”

“Somewhere around Travelers Rest, I think?”

Blair’s grin grows even wider. “Oh man. Okay, I got a plan.”

____________________

The decision to visit April on her day off isn’t one Sterling makes lightly. She spends a full week planning with Blair — figuring out timing and directions, where to stop for gas, brainstorming ideas for things to do, even securing a place to crash over night if she doesn’t want to make the trek back to Atlanta. Still, when she gets in her car on Friday after their afternoon trying to stakeout a skip with Bowser (they spend four hours in the car and no skip appears), she feels like she’s doing something wildly impulsive.

She arrives at Camp Jacossee a little before 7, hoping to catch April as she goes down to dinner. She’s never been here before but a nice boy in khaki shorts and braces that make him look several years younger than he is gives her directions to the main office, and she pulls into the parking lot at just about 6:45.

Now, the part of her plan she hadn’t exactly thought through: She doesn’t know where the heck April is supposed to be. She thinks about flagging down someone else and asking, but she’s not sure what it might look like, a strange girl showing up out of nowhere and asking for one of the counselors.

In the end it doesn't matter.

She spots April within moments. She’s always able to pick her out — the gait of her walk, the sway of her hair. She thinks she could spot her from hundreds of yards away in a crowd of thousands. She’s spent enough time staring at her to have every detail of her memorized, from her expression to her physicality.

She’s walking down a sloping hill, a row of cabins behind her. She has a purse slung over her shoulder and she’s bumping elbows with another girl — Jamie, Sterling’s brain recognizes — laughing at something she’s saying. She’s walking right towards Sterling, though her head is still down. Sterling watches her, taking in this moment of observing April without being observed in return.

Gosh, she’s pretty. The sun hasn’t started to set yet but it’s low on the horizon, the sky a brilliant golden-orange. April looks beautiful in the golden hour. It illuminates the highlights in her hair, the soft tan of her skin. Her hair is in a loose fishtail braid and it dangles over her shoulder, longer than it was the last time Sterling saw her. April’s white shoes dip in and out of long grass, dark green blades wet with evening dew tickling at her ankles.

She looks at ease. Carefree and beautiful, young and unburdened. She never looks this free in Atlanta, but then again there are hostile eyes in Atlanta, there are spies everywhere and danger around every corner.

Like a magnetic force has tethered them together, or maybe like April has a sixth sense where she can tell when someone is staring at her, she turns almost in slow-motion.

The expression on her face when she sees and then recognizes Sterling might be a little funny, except Sterling’s heart is too busy being stuck in her throat for her to enjoy it.

“Sterling?!”

Sterling lifts her hand in a small little wave. April’s face is caught in some approximation of shell-shock and when she doesn’t move Sterling’s heart sinks. She must have done something wrong. She should have called, she should have told April she was coming, she shouldn’t have just—

April smiles and throws her head back laughing, and the tightness in Sterling’s chest eases. She runs to her — actually runs to her — and in moments April is in her arms. Her arms are around Sterling’s neck and Sterling’s are around her waist and it’s a tight enough embrace that Sterling’s ribs are starting to ache.

“Is that my sweatshirt?” Sterling asks into April’s neck.

April nods, her nose brushing Sterling’s jaw. “Smells like you,” she mumbles back, and Sterling squeezes her tighter.

“What are you doing here?” April asks, breathless as she pulls away. She cups Sterling’s face and Sterling melts at her touch. April’s eyes shine and she brushes Sterling’s nose with her thumb, the thing she does when she wants to kiss her but can’t due to circumstance.

“I wanted to surprise you on your day off,” Sterling murmurs, captivated by everything April. The way she smells, her sun-kissed and freckled skin, her hair in loose plaits. She’s smiling and she looks easy, here. She’s relaxed. Her hands slip down Sterling’s arms and she tangles their fingers together and Sterling’s heart jolts.

They’re holding hands. They never hold hands in front of other people.

She glances nervously at their interloper, and April shakes herself, taking a step back. She keeps holding Sterling’s hand, though. Sterling notices that.

“Where are my manners? Sterling, this is Jamie. Jamie, Sterling.”

The girl with loose curls and dashing smile, the girl who’s been occupying Sterling’s fears and anxieties ever since she saw that picture on April’s Instagram of the two of them with their arms thrown around each other a week ago, beams and sticks her hand out for Sterling to shake.

“The girlfriend, right?” Jamie asks, her eyes dancing between the two of them. “You’re cuter than April said.”

Sterling’s mouth falls open. She shakes Jamie’s hand without a functioning brain, which she thinks is actually rather impressive of her.

She glances at April, whose expression is caught somewhere between hopeful and nervous. “You told her?”

April nods. “Is that okay?”

“If it makes you feel better, I kind of confronted her about it. She just would not shut up about this girl back home, and there’s only so much mooning you can do over your secret long-distance high school girlfriend before people start picking up on it.”

April’s cheeks are red. “I wasn’t mooning,” she denies unconvincingly. Sterling’s heart is fluttering in her chest. Her palms might be a little sweaty, but if April minds she doesn’t comment.

“She was mooning. It was super gross. And she almost had a heart attack when I called her out on it. Thought she was about to be fired and kicked out of camp for secretly being gay. But—”

“But then Jamie told me she has a girlfriend back home, too.”

Jamie shrugs, looking unbothered. “I am also prone to mooning.”

“Oh, wow.” Sterling feels a little off-balance. Right: Jamie is gay. Right: she is close to April. Wrong: Jamie wants to date April. Jamie does not want to date April. Sterling is just paranoid.

She doesn’t blush. No reason to embarrass herself any more than she already has. “So y’all have been…?”

“Hopelessly pining over our girlfriends together?” Jamie asks with a laugh. “Pretty much.”

April is still bright pink. She looks down at her feet, then back up at Sterling from between her lashes, and Sterling doesn’t know why she ever worried. She’s the only girl April can’t stop looking at, the only girl April can’t stop touching.

“I’m really glad I got to meet you, Sterling. It’s nice to put a face to the name.”

“Yeah, you too. I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Don’t believe a word.” Jamie kicks out at April, nudging her calf with her foot. “Now, go! Get out of here. You were supposed to be off forty minutes ago.”

April bites her lip. “Are you sure? I promised I’d stick around tonight.”

“It’s your night off! You have plans now. Go have fun. I’ve got your cabin set. We’ll make sock puppets and have a blast.”

April smiles, relieved. “Thanks, Jamie.”

“You can pay me back when Halle comes in two weeks.” She winks. “I’ll see y’all later.”

“I’m sorry,” Sterling says when Jamie walks away. “I didn’t even think to ask… did you have night off plans? Am I totally intruding?”

April shakes her head. They walk to the parking lot side-by-side, their hands brushing every few steps. The camp isn’t exactly bustling, almost everyone is inside for dinner, but there are still a few people milling around, and this is a Christian camp, so they’re being careful.

“I was just going to get dinner in town and come back by lights out. Any little break from being totally swamped by pre-teens was all I was looking for. But this is so much better.”

“Good.” Sterling smiles. “I’m glad.”

“Do you need restaurant suggestions? There’s supposed to be a cute inn down—”

“Actually,” Sterling says, pulling to a stop in front of her car. “I came with a couple ideas all ready to go.”

April blinks quickly, looking flattered. As if she hadn’t thought Sterling would plan a super romantic gesture all the way through. They haven’t been able to go on many dates since the night at the movie theater, just a couple meals together here or there, the occasional day trip to the river or communal studying time. It’s Sterling’s turn to plan a date, and she intends to go all out. (She doesn’t think anyone’s ever planned a date for April before. Maybe that’s why she’s looking at Sterling with such softness.)

She pops the trunk, revealing several blankets and pillows and a cooler. “So I’ve got food enough for a picnic, but it was all stuff I had to get at Whole Foods or make myself this morning, so it’s mostly sandwiches and cheese. Which I love, but we could also go somewhere if you’d rather get something hot. Then for after dinner, there’s this drive-in movie theater the next town over, and they’re showing back-to-back John Hughes movies tonight. I know you haven’t seen Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles, but if we only want to do one I really vote Pretty in Pink, because Sixteen Candles has this weird non-consensual sex scene that’s played for laughs and that makes me a little uncomfortable, honestly. But it’s also a classic, so whichever one you prefer is fine by me. Or if you aren’t feeling a movie, there’s a pub that serves food late and on Friday nights they’re supposed to have live music! It’ll probably be terrible, but I like watching old guys play classic rock standards so it could be fun.”

She takes a deep breath, not realizing how long she’s been talking. She’s a nervous rambler, it’s one of her worst habits.

She shifts nervously on her feet, hoping that she hasn’t gone totally overboard. “I thought more options were better than not enough,” she says bashfully.

There’s a funny look on April’s face that she can’t quite decipher. Her eyes are wide and her mouth is soft, and there’s an intensity to the way she’s regarding Sterling that makes her want to swallow and scratch at her nose, just for something to break the tension.

April rocks up onto her toes and kisses her. It’s a soft kiss, the barest brush of lips, but it makes Sterling’s stomach flip-flop in her abdomen.

It’s a kiss. In public. Sure there’s no one around, but still. It’s a kiss from April in a place where they wouldn’t usually kiss. April didn’t even look around to double-check they were alone.

The thought makes Sterling’s heart soar.

“That all sounds amazing, Sterling,” April says quietly, and Sterling preens under the praise. “But do we have time for anything like that? I love that you went all-out, but all of those plans sound pretty time-consuming. If we only have a few hours together I’d rather just… spend the time with you. Just the two of us.”

And gosh, that does something to her heart. “We aren’t short on time. Not at all.”

“Don’t you have to get back to Atlanta tonight?”

Sterling shakes her head, thrumming with excitement. “Do you know about my uncle Deacon?”

“The one who likes to hunt and punch your dad?”

Sterling nods. “He actually lives near here. Well not super near. It’s like an hour drive to Lake Hartwell, but it’s closer than home. Anyway he’s traveling for work this week so his place is empty, and he said I could crash there as long as I agree to water his plants. It’s a total bachelor pad but there’s a guest room.”

“That’s convenient.”

Sterling shifts her weight. “It was Blair’s idea, really.” Blair was the mastermind behind this whole thing. She owes her big time. “So I’m here as late as you want.”

“You know…” April reaches across the seat between them. Her hand rests on Sterling’s forearm, a light touch, unassuming. “I have a full night off. Until tomorrow’s breakfast.”

Sterling swallows. “When’s breakfast?”

“9 a.m.”

“Oh. You don’t have to be back tonight?” April shakes her head. Sterling’s smile grows and she has to bite the inside of her cheek to stop it from turning into a smirk. April’s eyes shine.

Sterling clears her throat. “How do you feel about a drive?”

 

 

Uncle Deacon’s apartment is small but neat. It’s actually less of an apartment and more one half of a small house that’s been divided into two sublets, an A and a B. Uncle Deacon lives in apartment B.

It’s dark by the time they get there, but the key is in the lockbox, right where Deacon said it would be. Inside the apartment is a total bachelor pad. The floors are wood and the couches are lumpy, prioritizing comfort over aesthetics. There are probably three dozen plants scattered around various surfaces — Uncle Deacon apparently enjoys the responsibility of caring for living things, so long as those things don’t talk or walk or require regular feedings. There’s also a detailed note on the counter explaining all of the complicated steps (apparently she’s supposed to water some of the plants with cold water and others with room-temperature water, at varying times of the day for optimal photosynthesis potential, which feels both excessive and not scientifically correct).

Sterling finds some candles underneath the sink, and when she lights them the whole place feels warmer. It’s all in all kind of cozy, actually. There are thick blankets on the armchair and the temperature isn’t too cold.

It feels strangely grown-up. Like a couple of people on a weekend getaway.

“I just realized,” April says from her spot by the refrigerator. “I didn’t even bring a change of clothes.”

Sterling smacks her own forehead. “We were a bit eager when we left, weren’t we?”

April’s smile is soft, and she doesn’t look sorry. Mostly hungry. Sterling blushes and turns back to the candles.

“I think I probably have an extra pair of leggings you can borrow. For sleeping. If-if you need.”

A hand touches the space between her shoulder blades and Sterling sighs and settles back into the touch. She turns and her hands settle on April’s waist. April cups her cheek, her thumb brushing her nose again. Sterling kisses it. Then because she can, because they’re alone and there’s no one around for miles who might be interested in what they get up to, she kisses April.

April hums into her mouth. Their kiss is exploratory, like they’re feeling each other out again. Their fingers are soft and their tongues brush tentatively, unwilling to deepen things too far, unwilling to part for too long.

They haven’t kissed like this in weeks, and Sterling can’t believe she ever survived so long without this bliss.

April is the one to slow things down. Her kisses get softer, less tangible. A brush against the corner of Sterling’s mouth, then her cheek, then her jaw. She lifts herself onto her toes so she can wrap her arms around Sterling’s shoulders and Sterling brings her in close, embracing her. It’s nothing like their hug at camp. This is a hug of settling in, of comfort, of love. Of holding and being held, for no other reason than that.

“God, I missed you,” April whispers, nosing at Sterling’s neck.

“I missed you, too. Let’s never go this long without kissing again.”

“Okay,” April laughs. “If you insist.”

 

 

The queen bed in the guest bedroom has clean sheets. That’s comforting, at least.

Sterling still feels skittish when she drops her bag and kicks off her shoes. She doesn’t know why. It’s not like this is their first time, or anything. It’s not like it’s their tenth time. But it’s been weeks, and she can’t stop thinking about whether or not she’ll remember how to touch April the way she likes to be touched, or if her hands will have totally craped out on her.

She can’t stop thinking about her bag and the item tucked into the bottom of it, buried beneath her jeans and socks.

April takes Sterling’s hand and sits on the bed. She runs her thumb over her knuckles. Sensing the nerves wafting off of Sterling’s body like she can smell the anxiety on the air, she says, quietly, “If you just want to spend time together tonight — the non-sexy kind of time, I mean — I’m very much okay with that. Just being with you is enough for me.”

But Sterling shakes her head. She sits down heavily. “No,” she says, flipping her hand so her fingers lace with April’s. “No, that’s not it. I… really would like the sexy kind of time. I’m just nervous.”

“To be with me?”

Sterling nods. “You’re really pretty, and I’ve been thinking about you non-stop for, like, two months. And now we’re here and you smell really good and you’ve got more freckles and they’re so cute and I’m just—” She swallows, lets out a breath through her nose. “Just a little nervous.”

She’d call April’s smile a smirk, if it weren’t so genuine. (Smirks aren’t generally genuine, except maybe the way April does them — full of longing, and promise. Her lips pulling up higher on one side than the other, her dimple sharp and begging to be kissed.)

She kisses Sterling’s neck, and Sterling tilts her head to give her a better angle. April loves her neck. She loves how sensitive it is, how it makes Sterling swoon at the lightest touch. She loves to mark it, to leave tiny bruises below the collar of Sterling’s shirt where no one else will see, only her — Sterling walks around for weeks sometimes wearing April’s lips as bruises around her neck, and she presses her fingers against the tenderness sometimes, the ache always so pleasant and lovely.

Maybe because April isn’t looking at her, it’s easier for her to admit, “I think I want to try something?”

“Mm.” April kisses Sterling’s collarbone, her hands warm and resting under Sterling’s shirt on her waist. “Is that a question or a statement?”

“Statement.”

“What do you want to try?” April pulls back all of a sudden, her mouth twisting up toward amusement. “A sex thing?” Sterling blushes. April gasps and pushes at her shoulder. “You do! What is it? Tell me.”

“Okay, but… don’t laugh at me. Okay?”

“Why would I laugh at you?”

“Just… promise not to.”

“Okay.” April hooks her pinky around Sterling’s and squeezes. “I promise I won’t laugh at you.”

She gets up and walks over to her bag by the door. With her heart in her throat she rifles for a few moments before her fingers land on the cold metal she’s been looking for. She pulls the item and turns back to April and, before she loses all her nerve, she pushes a pair of shiny silver handcuffs toward her. She feels her cheeks flame red and her eyes are burning so much she has to look away. April has a curiously neutral expression on her face and Sterling doesn’t want to confront what she might be thinking.

She decides to just say it. She’s already this far gone. She can’t get any more embarrassed than she already is. “I was wondering if you wanted to use these tonight?”

April takes them from her gingerly. “On you?” Sterling nods. “Did you steal these from Bowser?” Sterling didn’t think her cheeks could get any redder. She was wrong.

Another nod. April hums.

“You’ve never used these before, have you?”

Sterling bites her lip and shakes her head. “Is it that obvious?”

“Maybe. Your blush is very cute, but it gives you away,” April says with a little chuckle.

Sterling ducks her head and mumbles, “I didn’t want you to laugh at me.”

“I’m not laughing at you, Sterling. But you didn’t happen to grab the key that goes along with those when you stole them, did you?”

Sterling’s expression drops. April places the cuffs on the bed gingerly, her fingers resting on them. “Oh.”

“These are real handcuffs. The kind police use. They’re extremely easy to tighten and extremely difficult to get off. Especially if you don’t have a key. They’re sure to hurt your wrists.”

“Sorry," Sterling mumbles, feeling a flood of embarrassment and shame. "It was a stupid idea.”

“It isn’t a stupid idea. I just think these—” her finger traces the metal cuffs and it’s incredibly distracting— “might be a little advanced for us. But I am… amenable to this idea.”

Sterling’s breath catches. “You are?” She looks up and the expression on April’s face makes her heart hammer. She shifts on the bed, the pressure between her thighs growing.

April’s eyes are dark. “You have no idea,” she says quietly, her gaze fixed on Sterling’s lips. It shouldn’t turn Sterling on as much as it does. One beat passes, then another, and they’re just breathing together.

April eventually shakes herself, clearing whatever fog had descended between them. “Maybe for the first time we should stick to something we’re sure we can get you out of?”

“Like?”

April thinks for a moment. “Where’s your uncle’s closet?”

April finds two neckties buried in the back of a drawer. They’re bulky and ugly and decades out of fashion. There’s no way Uncle Deacon has worn these any time this millennium.

“Perfect,” April says with a grin.

“For the 90s-themed Halloween party we’re throwing in four months?”

“For tying you up, Sterling.”

Sterling’s eyes widen and she gapes. “Huh?” she says dumbly.

“The headboard in the guest room should work well. The posts are too far apart but there’s a wooden bar between the mattress and the carved design that I think is thick enough for you not to break when you pull on it.”

Sterling feels a little dazed. She trails after April as she makes her way back into the guest room.

April surveys the bed and seems to like what she sees. She nods, one short jerk of her head. It should not turn Sterling on as much as it does. “Yes. This should work.”

“Have you done this before?”

April shoots her a look. Frowning, she says, “You know I haven’t.”

“You just seem very confident.”

It’s April’s turn to blush. Some of the bravado from the evening slips off of her and she looks shy, a little unsure of herself. “I…” she glances away, “might have looked into it.”

“You researched how to tie people up?” Sterling asks, delighted but trying not to show it.

“Among other things. I told you I’m into this. And aren’t you glad I did? Otherwise we might be calling the fire department to cut you out of a pair of handcuffs by now.”

“I love your weird brain. You’re like a girl scout, ready for anything.”

“I do like being prepared.”

 

 

“Is that okay?”

Sterling pulls on the ties. The fabric is thick and the knots are tight, but she thinks all in all it’s alright. There’s no strain in her shoulders at all. April made sure she propped enough pillows up so none of Sterling's body weight is resting on her wrists. “Yeah,” she says with a nod. “I think this is good.”

“Not too tight? Blood flow to your fingers feels fine?”

Sterling flexes her fingers, looking between her bound hands, testing to make sure she isn’t losing any feeling. “Yeah. Feels good.”

“You look really good,” April says breathlessly, and Sterling blinks and looks back to her. April blushes, like she hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

“This is working for you?”

“You have no idea.”

Sterling grins. “Why don’t you prove it?”

“Remember, if you want me to untie you at any point, or if you just want a break, say—”

“Corinthians. I know.”

“And don’t be afraid to tell me if something isn’t working for you. If it starts to be too much or if it starts to hurt—”

“April.” April stops talking. She’s breathing heavily. Sterling can see where her fingers are picking at the bedspread, a nervous habit. Like she doesn’t trust her hands on Sterling yet. “I’m good. I feel good. And I really want this. Do you?”

April swallows. Her eyes slide down Sterling’s body, slow and indulgent. Sterling can feel it like a caress. She shivers, her hair raising under April’s watchful gaze. She looks like she wants to devour her. “So much.”

 

 

Sterling gasps and throws her head back. Her legs are trembling and she’s out of breath like she just ran sprints. April has brought her to the brink of orgasm more times than Sterling can count, and she’s delirious with the wanting. Every time she gets even close to release April pulls back. At first Sterling thought it was just an accident, but after the fourth time of having her orgasm ruined she’s started to pick up on the pattern.

“You’re doing so well,” April murmurs in her ear, her mouth hot on Sterling’s neck, her fingers curling inside her. “So good, Sterling.” Sterling’s back arches off the bed and she gasps and her legs clench around April’s hand, trapping her inside.

As if to punish her, April immediately stops moving. She uses her free hand to press Sterling’s hips back against the bed, forcing her to stop bucking. It’s torture.

“Nooo,” Sterling whines, yanking on the binds at her wrists. “April. Please, don’t stop. Not again, I can’t—”

“Beg me.”

Sterling blinks. April’s fingers are still inside her. It’s very distracting to think about. She clenches around April’s fingers, and they both suck in a breath. It’s very distracting.

“What?” Sterling asks, barely a whisper.

April licks her lips. “I said, ‘beg me.’”

“Please?” Sterling whimpers, and April bites her lip so hard Sterling tastes blood. She drives into Sterling again and Sterling gasps and arches against her.

“Again.”

“Please, April. Please, harder I need-harder. I need you to touch me, please. Make me feel good.”

“You feel so good, Sterling.”

“So do you. You make me feel s-so good. So good, April. God, you’re so good at this. No one ever made me feel like this.”

April’s pace falters for only a moment before she catches back up. She picks up speed, and Sterling moans and her hips jump. “Please,” she says again, “please, April. Please can I…I need to come. Please can I come? Please I n-need to—please—”

“Yes,” April breathes. “Yes. Come for me.”

Sterling has had a few (okay, more than a few) orgasms since she started dating April. And there have been a lot of great orgasms in there, really stellar products if she does say so herself. They all pale in comparison to this one.

She comes with a scream, back arched, pulling tight against the ties that ground her to the bed. Her wrists ache but she barely feels them, even when she twists, her body wrenching out of her control.

“Oh my God,” April says after Sterling collapses, panting, trying to catch her breath.

Sterling grins at her. “That was so hot.”

Fuck,” April curses, and Sterling laughs.

“Language.”

“You’re so sexy.”

“No, you.” April kisses her, like she can’t not kiss her. Sterling hums into the kiss, deepening it. April meets her tongue with hers, her hands sliding over Sterling’s bare breasts, already ready for more.

Sterling pulls back with a laugh and flexes her hands. “Not that I’m not up for multiple rounds — totally into that, FYI, but could you maybe untie me?”

April blushes. “Sorry,” she mumbles, scurrying to undo the knots. Sterling’s wrists slip out of the ties, red and tender. She flexes her fingers, working some blood back up her arms, and twists her wrists, cracking away the stiffness. April catches them with alarm. “I hurt you,” she says, quiet and aghast.

Sterling shakes her head. “You did a lot of things to me, but nothing of the hurting variety.”

“But, your wrists—”

“Just a little red. I think you tied me too well.” April brings her wrists to her mouth and kisses them, reverent and soft.

Sterling softens at the tenderness. April is so good to her. She can fuck Sterling into next week one minute and the next she’s trying to kiss her aggravated skin better.

She gives Sterling everything she needs. She understands her better than anyone she’s ever known. It’s remarkable, how well they fit together. How they seem to be growing together, discovering together. How they need each other, how they can take from each other and give in equal measure. Sterling’s never had a romantic partner she’s felt so well-matched with. She's only had one, to be fair, but no one's ever made her feel as known as April does.

(They’re both dealing with a lack of control over their lives. April is stifled at home, Sterling feels like her entire life is seconds from descending into chaos. April compensates by taking control, Sterling compensates by giving it.)

What did she do to deserve this girl?

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” April whispers, all apology.

“Please don’t apologize for anything that just happened. It was awesome. You’re awesome. I loved every second.” She hopes her expression is as serious and honest as she feels. She tangles April’s fingers with her own. “Next time you can try looser knots. Or maybe we could invest in something softer? Blair says there are these silk ties that are designed for stuff like this.”

“You… want there to be a next time?”

“Did you see how hard I came? Yeah, babe. Let’s please do this again.”

April blushes. “It wasn’t… too much?”

“You’re so fucking cute.”

“Language,” April says reflexively, and Sterling laughs. She loves the way April makes her laugh, almost without even trying. Everything about her brings Sterling joy; talking to her, seeing her, her smile and her lips and her attention. She’s so good. Sterling loves her, the deep kind of unshakeable love that she only ever used to read about in books or see on TV. The kind of love Blair describes when she gets in one of her romantic nihilistic moods, bemoaning all of her great lost loves. The kind of love she imagines Luke might have thought he felt for her, without really knowing the depths of reciprocity.

She always feels a twinge of guilt when she thinks about Luke. When she thinks about how she felt when she was with him, how they texted, how they kissed, how they worked with each other and around each other. When she thinks about what all of those meaningless, insignificant things mean to her, now that she’s doing them with April.

It wasn’t fair to him. Luke really did love her. At least, as much as he could without being loved back. (She loved him, she did. In her own way. Not in the way he wanted. Not in the way he deserved.) She stayed with him because being with him was easy; because it was nice to be loved and adored, it was nice to be safe.

Nothing about April is safe. Her very existence is wild, unpredictable. Sterling feels a rush of excitement every time April so much as smiles at her. She never felt that way with Luke.

It’s a whole different experience, loving April. It’s all-consuming. It reaches into every part of her heart, every part of her life, and grips her, refusing to let her go.

It’s a whole different experience, loving April when she knows she’s loved in return. It’s powerful. It’s frightening. It threatens to swallow her whole.

Then April kisses her and the crashing in her ears subsides, the racing of her heart slows to a livable rate. She takes a breath and sinks toward sleep.

________________

Chapter Text

____________________

April pulls into the yogurt shop one early evening in mid-August, right when the sun is beginning to set, and Sterling barely has the chance to capture her waist and hug her hello before April pulls away from her, breathless.

“I found something about my dad. I think it’s big.” She glances behind Sterling at the door to Bowser’s office, closed and housing a snoring bounty-hunter (though April obviously doesn’t know that). “Can you help?”

And Sterling, of course, says yes.

Blair is harder to convince.

“No.”

“Blair,” Sterling pleads. April shifts her weight on her feet, glancing nervously between Sterling and Blair, locked as they are in their stand-off.

Blair keeps her back to Bowser’s office, her arms crossed over her chest.

Sterling lets out a little sound (it’s not a whine, but it’s close). “Blair. We voted.”

“I just don’t see why she needs to be here. You can’t explain what she found? She could be a plant or something. This could all be a setup.”

Blair.” Sterling’s voice is sharper, sharp enough that Blair winces.

Blair huffs and bounces her leg. She looks back at Bowser’s closed door, then back to Sterling and April by the front of the yogurt shop. She scowls and steps to the side. “For the record, you’re only here because I was out voted,” she says to April, her voice snide.

“Blair,” Sterling admonishes again, because it’s the only thing she knows to say.  Blair has been making more of an effort, helping Sterling pull off the camp plan was maybe the closest thing Sterling will ever get to Blair’s outright blessing on her relationship, but Sterling knows she still doesn’t trust April. She accepts Sterling’s feelings for her, and understands how serious Sterling is about April, but when it comes to April’s dad there’s just a wall of mistrust. Sterling can’t seem to break it down. She and Blair already yelled about this for forty-five minutes this morning before Blair finally eventually agreed to let April help them take down Mr. Stevens.

Clearly she’s not going to be quiet about it.

Sterling glances quickly back at April. She’s always nervous when it comes to April and her self-consciousness about not belonging. She doesn’t handle rejection well.

April just raises an eyebrow. “Noted.”

.

.

Sterling’s not super well-versed in Atlanta’s criminal legal system. She doesn’t know anything about arraignment, couldn’t recite the Miranda Warning if you held a gun to her head, and she’s never sat in a court room during a trial. She doesn’t even really know how cash bail works, or how Yolanda makes any money off of the skips they catch.

April showed her all the evidence she’s managed to gather last night, and Sterling had looked at all of the documents and numbers with wide eyes, completely and totally out of her depths.

Sterling doesn’t know much about the criminal legal system, but the evidence April produces makes Bowser whistle and drop into his seat.

“Do you think it’s enough?” April asks nervously. She’s handed over a binder with color-coded tabs (because of course she took the time to organize the files she stole from her dad’s computer into categories and sub-categories, alphabetized by last name of correspondent or financial institution, depending on the circumstance, because that’s just the kind of girl she is).

Bowser thumbs through the binder. It’s thicker than Sterling’s 10th grade history final project — which is saying something, because her end notes are meticulous and she inserted full charts and maps for every statistic and primary source she could find tracking the rise and fall of the Black Death across Europe. Her end notes alone added fifty pages to her final project. (She got an A+, obviously.)

“Well?” Blair asks from where she’s been sitting (sulking) on the couch. Even she can’t keep the sulk up now though, because she’s leaning forward with rapt interest. She might not understand April’s relationship with her dad, but Blair wants Mr. Stevens, and particularly his vulgarly-worded threats, gone from their lives for good.

Bowser looks up from April’s binder. His expression is unreadable. “He’ll know it was you.”

April swallows. Her hands clench on her armrests. “I was hoping you could help me with that.”

“I’ll need to make a few calls,” Bowser cautions. “And even then… I’m not sure it’ll be possible. There’s only a few places these documents could feasibly come from.”

“But it’s possible.”

Bowser looks uncertain. “It’s… possible,” he agrees gruffly.

“Why are you guys speaking in code?” Blair interjects. “Is it enough to take the sonuvabitch down, or what?”

Bowser runs his finger down the tabs, searching until he lands on the one he wants. He flips the binder open and pushes it across his desk. Blair clambers off the couch now, resting one hand on the back of Sterling’s chair and leaning over to read what he’s showing them. Sterling looks too, but she can only make out a bunch of numbers that don’t make much sense to her.

She frowns down at them, waiting for someone to explain what the big deal is with a spreadsheet.

“Holy shit,” Blair breathes after a moment. Sterling whips her head to her. No way Blair can understand what this means! It’s a bunch of gobbledygook.

Sterling squints at the 10 digit numbers sprinkling the page. “Phone numbers?” she asks.

Bowser taps the one highlighted in orange. “This is a transfer from April’s father’s bank account to the account of one Honorable Robert Griffin Deans, Superior Court judge for Georgia’s Fifth District.”

Sterling’s jaw drops. “Holy smokes.”

Blair is gaping next to her. “So this is—?”

“Evidence my father bribed a U.S. judge in order to escape charges of assault and sexual battery,” April supplies quietly, her gaze intent on Bowser’s face. “Which I believe is a felony.”

“Holy smokes,” Sterling repeats quietly.

Bowser looks down at the binder. “Let me make a few calls.”

____________________

It takes almost two weeks to get everything set, and Sterling doesn’t sleep for more than 3 hours at a time for the full 14 days. She’s perpetually on-edge, poised on a hair-trigger. Everything sets her off. A bang outside their house at seven in the morning jolts her out of bed with a sweaty brow, and it takes long minutes for her to calm down when she realizes it’s just the garbage trucks rumbling down the street like they do every Tuesday. Their lights flicker when a powerful storm sweeps through Georgia and threatens to cut their power, and Sterling rocks herself quickly while Blair keeps a hand clutched around their dad’s old Minor League wooden bat, as if Mr. Stevens might crawl from the tropical storm and snatch them when everyone’s defenses are down. Every time April takes more than an hour or two to text her back, Sterling’s heart is in her throat and her car keys are clenched in her fingers, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.

It’s mostly a waiting game. Bowser has kept them all firmly away from his maybe-shady-maybe-legit operations. He’s been communicating with a host of questionable characters, and he keeps asking for weird things — some trash from April’s house, a planted burner phone, and a little shake jar of paprika (Sterling thinks that’s probably for his cooking, he’s been experimenting with goulash recently).

He bars them from the yogurt shop and refuses to answer their questions. “The less you girls know, the better. Trust me on that.”

Sterling trusts him on that.

They wait with baited breath. Weeks are tense, weekends are tenser. Sterling and April see each other at the club and don’t exchange words. Church services pass in dead silence. Sterling can’t even buck up the courage to sneak off and see April in the evening, just in case her carelessness is the thing that blows this for all of them.

They’re just waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting for something to break, for some news to come through. April shoots Sterling long looks across the aisle during Sunday worship and Sterling just wants to hold her hand, maybe squeeze some feeling back into her own numbing extremities.

When Sterling’s phone chimes loudly on an innocuous Thursday morning, it takes her almost a full three minutes to check it.

When she does her eyes nearly bulge out of her head.

“Blair!” she shouts, leaping from her bed and racing across to her twin’s room.

Blair sticks her head up from a mass of pillows, groggy but awake. “Hmm?” she groans, squinting. She sits up straighter, digging her thumbs into the corner of her eyes to wipe the sleep out of them. “What happened.”

Sterling holds her phone up.

Bowser (8:52 a.m.)
Timber – 2pm

Blair squints harder. “What the hell does ‘Timber’ mean?”

“It’s the code word!” Blair stares at her blankly. “Like the Ke$ha song!” Sterling exclaims. “‘It’s going down, I’m yelling Timber’!”

“Oh shit!” Blair shoves herself out of bed. Her birds nest hair sits haphazard on her head, tangled and wild. “They’re grabbing him today?”

Sterling texts the question quickly.

Bowser texts back only a few seconds later. He doesn’t answer her question, but he says:

Bowser (8:58 a.m.)
Get April. Stay at Yogurtopia.

Bowser (8:58 a.m.)
Lock the door.

.

.

Sterling does her best to keep the mood up. She makes April and Blair their favorite froyo combinations (plain vanilla with chocolate chips and strawberries for April, chocolate and cookies-and-cream swirl with just about every topping under the sun for Blair) and cycles through her favorite upbeat girl pop albums. She even coaxes Blair into a few Katy Perry songs, and though April tries to keep a straight face she can’t help but laugh and sing along when Carly Rae starts blasting through the speakers.

2 p.m. comes, and 2 p.m. goes, and the mood inside Yogurtopia gets more and more somber with every passing minute. At 2:45, when they still haven’t heard anything, Blair switches off the music. She bites her lip and looks nervously outside. The storefront is made up of almost entirely glass windows, and Sterling hadn’t really noticed before how visible they actually are.

“Maybe we should go in back?” Blair suggests. April and Sterling follow her quickly, keeping their heads down.

2 p.m. becomes 3, 3 becomes 5, and Blair is chewing her nails down so far her cuticles are bleeding.

Their last 3 texts to Bowser have gone unanswered. Sterling is doing her best to keep spirits up, but even she can’t deny that this all doesn’t really feel like it’s going according to plan.

“Maybe there was a long line to process him?” Blair says around a mouth full of her finger. “Sometimes booking can take a couple hours. Maybe Bowser just didn’t want to tell us until they got all the paperwork done?”

“Yeah,” Sterling says, looking nervously at April, who is sitting next to Bowser’s life-size Lil Kim cutout and staring blankly into empty space. “Maybe.”

Blair catches her eye and Sterling’s tunnel vision activates.

Dude, is she okay?

I don’t know, Sterling says back through their twin connection. She bites her lip and glances nervously at April.

She’s your girlfriend. Aren’t you supposed to like, be able to read her or something?

She’s difficult to read! And she hasn’t said anything in an hour.

Bowser definitely caught her dad, right?

Sterling glances at April again. Yeah. Definitely.

Definitely.

Probably, at least. It is a little weird we haven’t heard from him yet. What if something went wrong? What if—

They’re jolted out of their silent conversation by the buzzing of Blair’s cellphone. She lunges for it, and Sterling can feel April holding her breath from all the way across the room.

“Bowser?” Blair asks, breathless into her phone. She falls silent, the eagerness in her eyes slips into something else, and Sterling’s stomach slides down to her feet.

She hears April release a puff of air and her stomach aches.

“Yeah…” Blair says quietly. “Okay, yeah. Keep up posted. … We will. … You too, Bowser.”

She hangs up. It takes her a few seconds to look up at them, but the second she does Sterling knows exactly what Bowser’s said.

April groans and buries her head in her hands.

“He wasn’t at work,” Blair confirms. “Police sent an arrest team to your house, and to your aunt’s place, in case he was hiding out there. But…”

“They haven’t found him,” April says into her hands.

Blair shakes her head. “Someone must have tipped him off. Bowser thinks there’s a mole in the APD, someone sympathetic to your dad—”

“My father is close personal friends with every Police Commissioner Atlanta has had since 1982. We get their Christmas cards. He has a lot of friends in the police force.”

“Fuck,” Blair curses. “I fucking hate cops. Useless fucking corrupt fucking assholes can’t even—”

“What, um…” Sterling glances between her sister and her girlfriend. “What does that mean? He’s just… gone? Off the face of the planet?”

"He's probably halfway to Cancun by now," Blair grumbles. She kicks Bowser’s desk, but she hits it too hard and yelps, hopping on one foot as she grabs her smarting toe. “Fuck!”

“He knows it was me,” April says quietly.

“No,” Sterling shakes her head even as her stomach twists. “There’s no way.”

“If someone tipped him off that the police were issuing an arrest warrant, he definitely knows what it was for.” She looks up then, and Sterling’s heart catches in her throat at the sheen of tears in her eyes. “He knows I’m the one who turned him in. He-he’s going to kill me.”

No,” Blair this time. Sterling just keeps shaking her head. “He doesn’t know it was you. And he’s not going to touch you. He skipped town, he’s not sticking around to confront you about a betrayal he doesn’t know you were a part of.”

But April is inconsolable. Her logic, as always, is flawless. “My father’s financial records aren’t accessible to anyone who doesn’t have access to his personal hard drive. The family accountant is the only one who sees everything, and he’s been my father’s co-partner in shady financial dealings since they were in college.”

Of course he knows that April’s the one who turned him in — who else could it be? It was obviously April. God they were so stupid letting her put herself at risk like that—

“Bowser took care of that,” Blair says stubbornly.

“Did he?” April snaps. “Or did he just say he did?”

Blair and Sterling exchange a look. “I trust Bowser,” Sterling says simply. If there’s one thing on this earth she’s sure of (besides the fact that she’s head over heels in love with April Stevens), it’s that she can trust Bowser. She trusts him with her life. More importantly, she trusts him with Blair’s life. And, apparently, April’s too. “He wouldn’t do anything if he thought it would put you at risk.”

“Bowser doesn’t know me.”

“There wasn’t even a reward for your dad’s arrest. He doesn’t get anything out of this. He just wanted to help you. Because I asked him to.” April looks down at her knees again.

“We’re doom-spiraling,” Blair says from her spot leaning against Bowser’s desk. “Right now, what we know is we’re here, together, safe, and your dad is on the lam. That’s all we know. No use freaking out about the rest.”

“What if he’s coming for me?”

Blair shakes her head. “Sterling’s right. There’s no way he knows it was you. And… even if he did, the cops are after him, and the first people they check are the family. His main goal is gonna be not getting arrested. That’s all narcissists really care about.” April winces. Blair notices. “Uh… sorry. I mean… he probably just skipped town. And if he skipped town there’s probably still a chance we can get him.”

April shakes her head. “He wouldn’t stay in Georgia.”

“Luckily, us bounty-hunters aren’t bound by silly things like state jurisdiction.”

April’s eyes flash. She sits up straighter and her mouth falls open. She looks between Blair and Sterling with a dawning understanding. “You’re not going after him.”

“Why not?”

“Because the police should be in charge of finding my father.”

“The police are useless!” Blair argues. “And demonstrably corrupt.”

“Bowser—”

“He’s chasing down another lead. Some high-powered DA who’s tied to your dad and that judge he was bribing. He’s an hour out from Savannah already.”

April shakes her head. “He’s wasting his time. My father wouldn’t stay in Georgia. Any lead in the state will be a dead end.”

Sterling picks up on something April isn’t disclosing. “Do you know where he’d go?”

April goes a little pale. She swallows. “My… uncle has a house, where he used to take his mistresses when he was cheating on my aunt. It’s across state lines.”

“Where?” Sterling asks, her fingers thrumming. Clues — she loves clues. Clues mean they’re one step closer to making sure John Stevens spends the rest of his miserable life behind bars. Or at least, 15-life with the possibility for parole after 10 (but beggars can’t be choosers).

April swallows. “Birmingham.”

Blair sits up straighter against the desk. “Do you know the address?” April shakes her head. “You don’t know it or you don’t want to tell us?”

April’s leg is bouncing so quickly it vibrates. “If I tell you… he really will know it was me. There’s no way he won’t. No one knows about that cabin but my dad, my uncle and me. What if… what if he gets out again? I can’t… if he knows what I did and he gets off—”

“He won’t.”

“You can’t know that, Sterling.”

“April, please,” Sterling begs. She sits next to April on the lumpy couch, drops a hand to her thigh and squeezes. “We don’t have any time to waste.”

“We can tell the police!” April says, voice a little more frantic. “We can… hire a private detective, or tell the FBI, or—”

Blair cuts her off. “The police can’t be involved. As soon as they know where he is so will your dad. He’ll be gone before they even get close.”

“Every minute he’s out there is another minute we’re farther from catching him,” Sterling says next. “He needs to go to jail for what he’s done.”

April whips her head in Sterling’s direction. Her expression is dark. “And I did all I could to help you put him there. I stole documents, I lied to him. I led you right to him. It’s not my fault you couldn’t catch him.”

She doesn’t understand why April is fighting them on this. John Stevens is dangerous. He’s a criminal. He’s on the run from the police. He’s violent and he’s dangerous. He’s a danger to herself and Blair — as long as he’s free and vindictive, she can never be sure that he won’t be out for blood in revenge for hitting him in the face with a gun and carting him off to jail the first time — but more importantly he’s a danger to April. As long as he’s out of prison, April will never really be safe.

“We have the chance to catch him now,” she says, pleading, hoping that April can understand the severity of this situation. “Not later. Not in a few months. Today.”

But April just shakes her head. “No. If you’re right and he-he’s really on the run, then… he won’t come back, right? We’ll be safe. Why does it matter? If he’s fled the state, then there’s nothing he can do anymore.”

“But we don’t know how long he’ll be gone for! Don’t you see—?”

“Hey,” Blair interjects. “I got this one, Sterling.”

Sterling’s eyes meet her sister’s and she frowns.

What are you doing?

I know what she’s feeling, Blair’s voice in her mind is calm, just like her expression. I think I can talk to her.

You think you can talk to my girlfriend better than me?

For once, Sterl, yeah. I really think I can.

Sterling squints. What’s your angle?

Sterling please, can you just trust me?

And—yes, of course. She doesn’t know what Blair is going for here, but she trusts her. She nods after a moment and scoots a little further away from April.

Blair crouches down in front of April and puts a hand on her knee. It might be the first time they’ve ever touched. April certainly flinches from the contact like it’s unfamiliar. Blair doesn’t move for a long moment, not until April finally pulls her eyes from Sterling and lets them fall to the other Wesley twin in front of her.

“I understand, okay?” Blair says softly. “I understand how scared you are.”

“No, you don’t.” April’s voice is a tremor, tiny and uncertain. “You’ve never been scared of anything.”

“That’s not true. The night Sterling was kidnapped, I’d never been so scared. You know there’s not a lot that can scare me, and I’ve always thought Sterl and I were indestructible, like our family was so rock solid nothing could fuck it up. Even when our parents were freaking out and calling the police, I was just so excited that I could actually do something to help. It was like real work, we were finding real clues and I knew we were gonna get her back. I was so sure. Until we got to this bathroom off of Route 14. Sterling maxed out our debit card at a vending machine so it’d show up as a text alert on my phone — she’s so fucking smart — and she left us a clue that would lead us right to the people who had her. So smart, like I said. But she also said goodbye.”

Sterling’s heart clenches. Blair looks at her, her eyes wide.

When she speaks next her voice is tight, like she’s swallowing some thick feeling. “I love you so much, sis. She said goodbye and for the first time I realized we were in way over our fucking heads with this bounty hunting thing. It was all fun and games before, but now Sterling was kidnapped and she—wanted to make sure I knew she loved me. In case.” She swallows and looks back to April. April’s eyes are wide and Sterling sees the quiver in her lip, and it crushes her chest.

“I panicked,” Blair says simply. “I didn’t wanna keep going. I almost called an Uber to take me home, let Bowser handle saving her because… I couldn’t be a part of it. Because what if I fucked up and because of that we couldn’t save her? What if my sister died and it was all my fault?” Her lip quivers and she wipes roughly at her eyes. “But then I thought: she could die if I’m not there to help, too. And if I didn’t do everything in my power to save her… that’s what I wouldn’t forgive myself for.”

Sterling is openly crying, tears dropping down her cheeks fat and hot and wet. She breathes steadily through her nose and watches Blair grab April’s hand and squeeze it for everything she’s worth.

“I know how scared you are,” Blair says again. “You’re thinking: How do I know what the right thing to do is? How can I keep everyone safe?” April doesn’t exactly nod, but something shifts in her mouth and Sterling knows Blair hit the nail right on the head. “You can’t keep everyone safe, April. And you can’t know what the right thing to do is. Your dad has hurt people. He might hurt you. We need to catch him so that maybe, maybe we have a chance at making sure he never hurts anyone again.”

April swallows. She takes a shaking breath, and Sterling holds hers. Waiting anxiously.

“It’s in Tuscaloosa. Near the river. On Third Street, five minutes from ‘Bama. It’s this little house with a red door and blue windows you—you can’t miss it.”

Blair lets out a breath and squeezes April’s hands again. “Thank you,” she says, and the look they exchange makes Sterling want to cry all over again. Blair meets Sterling’s gaze in the next moment. “You map, I’ll drive?”

Sterling nods and stands to follow Blair as she grabs their car keys off of Bowser’s desk. “Stay here,” Sterling says quickly to April, “and lock the door behind us.” Blair is already out the door, and Sterling makes to follow her but April grabs her arm and stops her.

She doesn’t say anything, just stares at Sterling with her wide eyes and soft face and Sterling’s resolve crumbles just a little. “I have to go with her,” Sterling says, pleading. She has to. April knows she has to go.

April grips her arm tighter and shakes her head. “No.”

“I have to.”

“He could hurt you.”

Two honks from outside, short and in quick succession.

Sterling looks helplessly out the door, then back at April. “Blair’s going with or without me. I have to be there for her. If it’s just her… I can’t let her go alone.”

“Please.” April’s fingers dig in harder. Sterling winces because it hurts, the pain is sharp and bright and distracting, but April either can’t or won’t force herself to let go. “I can’t—I can’t risk you.”

April’s nails are sharp on her skin, cutting deep into her, maybe drawing blood. Sterling kisses her quickly, knocking their lips together so abruptly their teeth clash. It hurts, it hurts and Sterling’s cheeks are wet and April’s are too, but she doesn’t know whose tears they are.

“I’ll be okay,” she whispers when she pulls back. “I promise.” Sterling pries April’s hand off of her gently, and April lets her. Sterling doesn’t have the ability to read anyone’s mind except Blair’s, but when she looks at April she can see what she’s feeling naked on her face, like she’s yelling in Sterling’s ear. April’s feet are made of lead. She can’t move. There’s something sinking in her stomach down through her body, and she trembles.

“Stay here,” Sterling says quickly, because if she lets April say anything else she’ll never leave this room. “He won’t think to look for you here. Lock all the doors. Don’t open them for anyone except me or April or Bowser. I’ll call you when we get him.”

“Sterling, please.”

Another two honks.

“I’m sorry,” Sterling says, desperately sorry that she doesn’t have any more time. “I have to.” She backs up towards the door, never taking her eyes off of April. “I’ll be okay. We’ll get in and get out, and then it’ll be over.”

A loud prolonged HONK.

“Don’t go,” April begs. “Please.”

“I’m sorry. I love you.”

She leaves, and tries not to think about the little sob April let out when she turned her back on her, tries not to think of the heavy thump of the office door shutting behind her, tries not to think of Mr. Stevens waiting in some dark corner with his evil eyes and evil machinations just waiting for them to leave April alone and vulnerable. She shoves the paranoia down and climbs into the front seat next to Blair.

Blair gives her a look out of the corner of her eye. “You okay?” she asks carefully.

Sterling wipes at her cheeks and nose, hating the wetness still lingering on her skin. “I’m fine,” she promises, though they both know she’s lying. “Just drive.”

/

They call Bowser on the way to Birmingham, and he makes them swear that they won’t make any moves until he can get to them. Blair complains about having to wait three more hours for him (“What if he makes a run for it?!” / “You’re gonna let a misogynist outrun you, Blair?” / “Hm. Point taken.”) but they promise eventually.

Staking out Mr. Stevens’ safe house sucks. It’s eight p.m. and there’s one light on in the house April described. Sterling’s legs bounce in the car while the time ticks away, slow as molasses in winter. It’s unbearable. Intolerable.

If only they could see him. Sterling wouldn’t mind it so much if they had eyes on him. Just to make sure he isn’t making a run for it. Just to make sure he’s actually there.

“He’ll be here,” Blair reassures as if reading her mind, never tearing her eyes away from the house. “We’ll get him, Sterl.”

“I know we will.”

Blair nods. She taps her hands on the steering wheel. Bowser has a very strict ‘NO music during stakeouts’ policy. Sterling knows Blair hates nothing more than sitting in a silent car, but she’d never break one of Bowser’s bounty-hunting rules so openly. Not when they need every bit of attention they have to make sure Mr. Stevens doesn’t get away.

Assuming he’s inside this house, at least.

“Was April super pissed?” Blair asks the quiet car.

“No. She was just scared.” Blair hums. Sterling chances a glance at her sister. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

“Felt what way?” Blair evades.

“About the night Dana kidnaped me.”

Blair’s jaw clenches. “Yeah. Well. You scared the shit out of me.”

“I didn’t think I was going to die,” Sterling says quietly, and Blair’s fingers flex around the steering wheel. “Not really. I knew… I knew you wouldn’t let that happen to me.”

“I wasn’t as sure as you.” Blair releases a breath and lets her shoulders drop, though even that movement is strained, like she’s only forcing herself to relax. “When I saw your note on the door, Sterl—”

“Hey,” Sterling reaches over and puts a hand on her forearm. Blair shifts and she lets go of the steering wheel so she and Sterling can tangle fingers. They squeeze. Blair’s love language has always been physical touch. She finds it grounding.

Sterling grounds her. “I’m here. You found me. We’re okay, we’re safe.”

“Not safe yet,” Blair murmurs. They’re both still staring at the house about fifty yards away.

Sterling squeezes her hand again. “Soon,” she promises.

“Soon,” Blair promises her back.

 

 

Bowser insists on being the one to go to the door. “With your history,” he casts Blair a meaningful look, and all three of them know they’re thinking of the same pool peeing incident, “I think it’s better if I’m the one to do it.”

“We can be your backup,” Blair offers, but it’s half-hearted. They all know what Bowser’s going to stay.

“No. I need you two to—”

“Stay in the car.”

“—stay in the car,” Blair and Bowser say at the same time. He narrows his eyes at her. “I mean it.”

Blair sighs. “We know you do.”

“I made your girl a promise,” he says to Sterling this time, and Sterling blinks, surprised. “I’m not letting you two put yourselves in unnecessary danger. Not for this piece of shit, okay?”

“We’ll stay here, Bowser,” Sterling promises and he nods, satisfied.

He walks up the front porch carefully. After one more glance around the neighborhood, Bowser hits the side of his fist on the panel above the knob three times. “Mr. Stevens! Bail Enforcement Officer, open up!”

Sterling holds her breath. She holds it longer, and longer still.

Several moments pass, maybe thirty seconds. Bowser slams the side of his fist against the door, 3 louder bangs this time. “Mr. Stevens!” he tries again.

Still nothing. No movement from inside, no sounds on the street at all. Bowser glances back at the car where Sterling and Blair are huddled together, both of them staring unblinking back at the house. He tries the front door, but a little shake proves it’s locked. He cups his hands around his eyes, trying to peer through the textured glass next to the doorbell.

After a few moments, with still nothing to show for it, Bowser pulls his gun out of its holster. He looks back at the sisters. Around back, he mouths. Blair moves to get out of the car but he waves her off. “Stay,” he says, out loud this time. “Watch the front.”

Bowser disappears around the side of the house. A beat passes, then two, and then Sterling sees something move in the shadow near the neighboring house on the opposite side Bowser walked around. She slaps Blair on the shoulder. “Look!” she points, and Blair glowers at the shadow, having seen it too. “He’s making a run for it.”

Blair grabs her shotgun. “Let’s get him.”

Sterling and Blair kick their respective doors open with their weapons drawn. Mr. Stevens doesn’t see them, his attention focused entirely towards the back of the property, where Bowser is. Out-of-sight but clearly the only threat Mr. Stevens anticipates.

Mr. Stevens moves carefully, his back to the road as he makes sure Bowser is still occupied trying to get in the house. He runs (or rather, slowly slinks) back-first into Blair’s upheld shotgun. He stiffens at the dig of the metal between his shoulder blades.

“Don’t move, asshole,” Blair says.

Mr. Stevens’ ears are flaming red, and he turns slowly with his hands raised, his expression murderous. “You,” he sneers at them “I should have known. The Wesley cunts.” He spits at their feet and Blair shoves his chest with her gun.

“Watch it, creep.”

“Bowser!” Sterling yells, her handgun trained towards the dead center of his mass. “We’ve got him!”

There’s stumbling and a grunt from around back that sounds suspiciously like Bowser jumping off the back porch and not exactly sticking the landing. “Stay there, girls!”

Mr. Stevens’s lip is upturned. Bowser is still out of sight. “So, how did you get it out of her?”

“John Stevens!” Bowser calls, finally slipping back into the light and reaching for a pair of cuffs he keeps in his pocket.  “You’re wanted by the police. I’m here to take you in. Keep your hands where I can see them, and don’t make any sudden movements.”

Mr. Stevens doesn’t even acknowledge him. “How did you get to April?” he asks, his eyes trained on Blair and her more intimidating weapon. “What do you have on her?”

Blair, unable to keep from gloating, says with her own sneer, “We didn’t get to April. She came to us.”

His face breaks into shock. He drops his arms and his mouth in tandem. “No,” he says, his eyebrows pulling together. “That’s not true. April would never betray me.”

“April is a better person than you,” Blair says, shouldering her shotgun higher. “She’s a good person, and you’re a criminal. She helped us because she knows that what you’ve done is wrong.”

“You’re lying.”

“You’re going to jail, Mr. Stevens,” Sterling says this time. The safety is still on her handgun, but she wraps her hands tighter around the warm metal and allows herself to feel, for a moment, violent and vindictive. “You’re going to jail for a long, long time.”

Furious and incensed, he snarls and lunges towards Blair but Bowser’s had enough time to reach them. He uses his gun to hit Mr. Stevens right in the back of the neck and he crumples to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Sterling walks up and gives him a sharp kick in the stomach, just for good measure. “That’s for threatening my sister.” She draws her leg back and gives him another hard kick. It sinks into his stomach with a thwap. It’s not quite as satisfying because he’s not awake, but it still makes her feel better. “And that’s for April!”

“Okay Bend It Like Beckham, enough. He’s out cold.” Bowser bends, his ear hovering near Mr. Stevens’ open mouth.

“You think Sterling’s kicks killed him?” Blair asks, incredulous.

“I’m just checking. Last thing I need is another dead body on my hands.”

“What do you mean another dead body?” Sterling asks carefully.

“Never mind that. Are you gonna help me carry this sack of shit, or are you just gonna stand there lookin’ pretty?”

“Aww, Bowsie. You think we’re pretty?”

“I think I’m gonna fire you if you don’t move your butts.”

____________________

This is maybe the stupidest thing Sterling’s ever done, and that list includes things like: having sex with her then-boyfriend in a supply closet at school, taking a job as a bounty hunter when she’s under age, that one time when she was eight and she touched a battery to her back molar and it sent a shock through her entire body and made her tongue taste like metal so she didn’t eat for a full two days.

In her defense, High School Musical made the whole climbing-up-a-trellis-to-your-girlfriend’s-window thing look super easy. Or maybe that was Romeo & Juliet. Still, she doesn’t exactly want April’s mom knowing that she’s getting house calls from a Wesley at one in the morning. Not after today. So: here she is, climbing up a trellis.

She usually likes grand romantic gestures that don’t risk her breaking her neck, but April isn’t answering any of her texts, and Sterling has to make sure she’s okay.

Luckily, she makes it to April’s window without breaking her neck (thank the Lord for small miracles). April’s light is still on, which makes her feel better, but Sterling still can’t see her when she peers inside.

She taps her knuckles gently against the glass and holds her breath, hoping that she isn’t about to wake up the wrong person.

The covers shift and Sterling lets out a sigh of relief when April’s tear-stained face appears, squinting in confusion. She gives her a little wave through the window and April’s eyes nearly bug out of her head.

She’s out of bed in a flash, and with only a few pushes her window is open and Sterling is tumbling inside.

“Hey babe,” Sterling jokes as she clambers to her feet. “Thought I’d drop by—ooph.” April slams into her chest, knocking all the wind out of her. Sterling stumbles backwards and almost tips back through the open window, but her hip catches the sill (painfully, might she add), so no one goes spilling to their untimely death.

“Hey, I’m here,” she whispers, rubbing light circles on April’s back. “I’m here. He’s gone. He’s gone. He can’t hurt you.”

“I was so worried. I thought—” she pulls back, “My mom took my phone, and I didn’t know—are you okay?” Her eyes jump around Sterling’s face, scanning her whole body. “He-he had a gun. He didn’t—?”

Sterling shakes her head. “I’m fine. He didn’t touch me. Well, except for my foot.” At April’s look Sterling shrugs. “I might have kicked him a couple times. When he was unconscious, which was a cheap shot, but he deserved it!”

“Blair—?”

“Blair’s fine, too.”

“Thank God.” April grabs her face and kisses her right on the mouth. They stay like that for a minute, their lips pressed together and unmoving. Sterling feels something wet on her cheek, and it takes a moment to realize April’s crying while she kisses her.

Sterling pulls back and wipes April’s cheek with her thumb, her touch soft and barely-there. “I’ve never made a girl cry while kissing her, before.”

“Maybe you haven’t kissed enough girls.”

Sterling chuckles. “I don’t know, I like my number. It’s not about quantity but quality.” She brushes a kiss to April’s nose. “And the quality’s been pretty high recently.”

April’s eyes are red but she smiles, nuzzles into Sterling’s hand, sighs when Sterling kisses her cheek, her tongue brushing her tears away from the corner of her mouth. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“I’m so glad you’re okay. I thought… when I didn’t hear from you, I thought maybe your mom—”

April shakes her head. “My mom tracks my phone. She found me at the yogurt shop about thirty minutes after you left and made me come home. Our house was swarming with police, they took just about everything my dad’s ever touched, and she confiscated my phone. But I’m fine. She doesn’t know it was me. Or… I don’t think she does, at least. If she does know what I did, she’s certainly not complaining about it. He made her life as miserable as he made mine.”

“Well, he’s gone now. He can’t hurt you again. Either of us.”

April sags and starts crying. Sterling catches her and leads them gently to the bed. She holds April for a long time, maybe an hour, it’s hard to say. She just rubs her back and murmurs in her ear. April’s safe. She’s safe. John is in jail, and Sterling has her in her arms. She’s not going to let anything happen to her.

Finally, April’s tears subside. It’s even later now, well past midnight. April’s alarm clock blinks at her, red letters threateningly informing her that it’s 12:37 p.m. On a school night.

April sits up a little straighter, squinting at the clock. Sterling doesn’t let her get very far. She hooks a hand around April’s elbow and drags her back down. “It’s late,” April mumbles, her throat still coated thick with the remnants of her tears.

“Not that late.”

“Sterling, I’m serious. It’s a school night, don’t you have to leave?”

Sterling shakes her head. “I can stay.”

“But your parents—”

“Are asleep. Blair will cover for me in the morning.”

April can’t help her slight frown. “Blair is going to cover for us?”

“She’s been trying. I know it’s tough with her. She holds grudges.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“But she’s trying. She wants to try.”

“Why?”

Sterling can’t help but laugh, a little incredulous. “Because you’re my girlfriend? You being in my life is kind of non-negotiable. She loves me, and I love you, so she’s got to love you too, by default. You know when I showed up on your off day at camp? She came up with all of that. She even coordinated with my Uncle Deacon to make sure we’d have someplace to spend the night together. If we wanted to.”

April blinks, taken aback. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, well it felt weird to tell you that my sister was helping us have sex.”

“We did have great sex that night.”

“The best.”

April’s expression darkens. Something shifts between them, some changing energy that charges and zaps.

April kisses Sterling the next second, bringing their lips together with a crash. Sterling catches her but isn’t quite ready for the force of the kiss because she topples back, landing heavily on April’s bed. Sterling is perfectly fine with this turn of events, and based on the way April gasps and presses down into her, she’s more than fine with it, too.

April’s pulse is racing under her tracing tongue. She nips at the spot where the blood pumps loudest, and April shivers, her fingers digging into Sterling’s upper arms and leaving painful crescent moon indentations. There’s a tightness to her body. It usually only takes a few minutes of kissing for April to go nearly boneless, but not tonight.

Tonight she’s coiled like a spring, full of pent-up, unreleased energy. She kisses Sterling and palms at her aggressively, her hands rough and beseeching.

She needs something different. Sterling can tell. But she won’t ask for it, for some reason.

Sterling stops kissing April’s neck and forces her head around. She leans their foreheads together and they breathe together, too loud due to their proximity. “What do you need?” Sterling asks in a whisper. April opens and closes her mouth a few times. She licks her lips and swallows dryly. “April,” Sterling tries again, her own voice hoarse. “You can tell me.”

April knows what she wants to say. Sterling can tell. She can read April better than she can read anyone in the world, except for Blair, and that’s only really because Blair’s had so much of a head start.

“I need you to apologize.” Sterling frowns. She thought she already did that. April shakes her head and rephrases. “I need you to be sorry.”

And—oh. Sterling knows what that means. She forced vulnerability tonight. April needs to take it back from her. Or, rather: she needs Sterling vulnerable, too. She needs them to be equals. She needs Sterling to say she’s sorry and mean it, body and soul.

“Okay,” Sterling says, with a nod of finality.

She lays down on the bed. She slowly raises her arms above her head. She grips April’s headboard and doesn’t move. “Whatever you need,” she says softly, “you can take it from me.”

There’s something unreadable in the look April gives her. Her eyes are wide and dark, all pupil. Sterling shivers. “Sterling…”

“I’m here. I’m offering.”

April stares at her for another moment and doesn’t move. She scans Sterling’s face, looking for anything that might hint at regret, or trepidation.

Finding nothing, she kicks off her pajama pants and underwear in one go, and the next moment she climbs up the bed and straddles Sterling’s shoulders. Her shins press Sterling’s upper arms into the bed, holding her firm. As if Sterling is at any risk of trying to leave. As if to prove her point Sterling wraps her fingers around April’s headboard, readjusting so her grip is more secure.

She looks up from between April’s thighs and their eyes meet and Sterling lifts her head as April lowers herself and her tongue hits dripping heat and someone moans, Sterling can’t be sure of who, but it reverberates through her entire body.

April has always been more concerned with Sterling’s pleasure than her own. Every time (except the first time when it was an accident) she’s always made sure Sterling gets off first. Even when she ties her down it’s more about teasing Sterling, pulling from her, bringing her over the edge again and again. April’s own sexuality has been more of an afterthought.

Tonight she takes from Sterling unabashedly, almost violently.

April pulls on her hair as she rides her tongue. Any time Sterling’s eyes slip closed April tugs, refusing to let her look away. It makes something tug behind Sterling’s navel, every time she does it. It’s intense. It’s hot. It’s way too much but the way she aches for it is so good.

“Doesn’t it feel good?” April asks, and Sterling — mouth occupied with more pressing matters — can only hum her agreement. April bites her lip and grinds her hips down. “Doesn’t it feel good to do what I want you to do?” And yeah, it really fucking does. “Fuck,” April hisses, “your tongue. You’re doing such a good job. Making me feel so good, baby.”

Sterling hums at that and slips her tongue inside. April clenches around her and Sterling drags her teeth, sharp and cold against April’s swollen clit.

April swallows a gasp and rides Sterling’s face to a shaking orgasm.

Sterling doesn’t stop licking at her, doesn’t stop sucking on her clit or fucking her with her tongue. April keeps her knees tight around Sterling’s head, pressing her ears so the only thing she can hear is the pounding of her own blood in her skull and April’s whimpers. It’s effective in keeping her still, but Sterling is uninterested in moving.

April’s second orgasm is more intense than her first. Sterling can tell because April bucks against her when Sterling sucks her clit into her mouth, wetness spilling down over her chin, soaking the collar of her shirt. April grinds down into her and Sterling sucks and sucks until April collapses to the side, nearly sobbing from over-stimulation.

Sterling moves as if to wrap around her but at the last moment thinks better of it. With her shoulders half-off the bed she freezes, before slowly lowering herself back down. April is getting a handle on her breathing already, recovering much faster than Sterling thought she would. She stays with her hands above her. April hasn’t told her to move, and Sterling has a feeling that she hasn’t fully atoned, yet.

April’s hand slides up her neck, her thumb rubbing possessively over Sterling’s lip. Sterling sucks the digit into her mouth and lets her teeth scrape against April’s skin. April hums and slides closer to her.

“You kept your hands up without my ties,” she whispers, her breath hot on the shell of Sterling’s ear. She presses a kiss to the soft skin under her jaw. “Good girl.”

When April was on top of her the only thing she could focus on was April — her smell was all-encompassing, her taste overwhelming, her pleasure the only thing on Sterling’s mind. But now that she can breathe again, she can feel everything that was muted. Sterling whimpers and like an electric jolt, she can feel every nerve ending in her body. Her nipples are hard and straining against her t-shirt. Between her legs she’s soaked and aching.

“Can I—” she starts to ask, her throat scratchy, but April’s mouth is on hers, licking in, tasting every inch of her (every inch of herself on Sterling’s tongue). Sterling whimpers again, but she doesn’t dare move.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” April whispers when she slips down Sterling’s body. And Sterling wants to — she tries. But she’s so wound-up. April shoves her shirt up and sucks bruises onto Sterling’s chest, the sides of her breasts. Her hands are simultaneously demanding and uncaring. She pushes Sterling’s leggings and panties down her thighs but not all the way off, so they end up dangling off of one of Sterling’s legs while April pushes herself between them.

Sterling is hyper-sensitive, on the brink of orgasm already and April hasn’t even touched her, so basically the second April’s mouth presses to her Sterling comes. Her hands fly to Aprils head and her fingers wind in her hair as she jerks against April’s mouth, holding her against her as she shakes and spills against her tongue.

Her orgasm is violent and by the end she’s breathless and completely unsated. April looks at her from between her legs, clearly a little surprised at the ferocity of Sterling’s response, and something in her face shifts.

The next time she lowers her head it’s to press soft kisses on the wet skin of Sterling’s thighs. Her tongue is softer, made of wet velvety heat as it traces patterns up to the junction of her hips and back down. Languid and unbothered. Sterling keeps her fingers wrapped in April’s hair but she doesn’t make any attempt to direct her. April still has control because Sterling is still apologizing for earlier; a submissive acquiescence.

April’s tongue is a soft worship. Her gaze is intense but underneath the heat is relief. Relief that Sterling is alive. Relief that they’re both okay. Relief that it’s over, that they’re finally free. April was scared earlier, she thought she was going to lose Sterling and she was scared. She thought Sterling’s safety was out of her control, so she need to reassert her control. And now her tongue is hot and her lips are around Sterling’s clit and Sterling whimpers and she wants to close her eyes, she can feel herself tipping over but she can’t look away.

 

This is what you’re risking when you risk your life.

She hears April’s voice in her head loud enough that she’d think she was actually speaking, except April’s tongue is currently predisposed tracing what feels like her name against Sterling’s sex and it’s taking all Sterling’s power not to clench her legs together and crush April’s head beneath the force of her shaking thighs.

 

This feeling. This heat. This love. Me.

Remember this the next time you run head-first into danger. This is what you risk losing.

She’s never had a mind meld with anyone but Blair before. But April takes her into her mouth and she looks up at Sterling from between her legs and it’s a connection Sterling’s never known. In that moment she knows April, understands her intimately and completely.

It’s not just the depth of her feelings — Sterling has known her feelings for April since the very beginning. But she doesn’t always notice it all the time. She’s in love with April in a way she doesn’t even have to think about. It’s like already built into the musculature of her heart, a steady and practiced beating. But then there are tiny moments like this and it jogs the muscle memory and Sterling is reminded of just how much she loves April, and it frightens her, the intensity of the emotion and the way it crests inside of her.

This thing between them is legit. It dawns on Sterling with a startling, unshakeable clarity.

The real kind of love. Really truly.

When Sterling finally collapses April wraps herself around her, holding her shaking body.

________________

Sterling is not doing a very good job of pretending she isn’t a little gay like all the time.

In her defense, her newfound bisexuality is something that’s genuinely exciting for her. There are so many things about queer culture that she doesn’t understand, and every new thing she picks up and reads, every new celebrity whose coming out journey she unearths, every new Netflix TV show that features two girls kissing in the trailer is like this jolt of electricity, this pulse-pounding, exhilarating new world she’s only just beginning to peek into.

It’s hard processing all of this newfound information on her own.

Not that she’s fully on her own. She isn’t. She has Blair, who has been an enthusiastic (if a little over-eager) ally, taking her role as ‘Twin Sister of a Member of the LGBTQ+ Community’ very seriously. She’s making it her mission to learn all of the niche knowledge Sterling can only flail at. Her newest task has been learning all the different terms for the different gay communities (though Sterling is still a little confused as to the difference between an Otter and a Twunk, and is feeling very thankful that she doesn’t have to navigate the frankly horrifying-sounding world of Grinder).

Sterling can talk to April about it too, obviously, but April has been firmly in the Lesbian column for most of her young adulthood, so she’s not exactly on the same discovery path. “We’re just at different points in our journeys,” April says, which is a fair assessment. April also seems much less interested in learning about ‘their’ community than she is with getting Sterling’s clothes off whenever they’re alone, and, well… April is the best debater at Willingham for a reason. She argues a compelling case.

Still, it’s difficult for her to keep her mouth shut. There are so many new things she’s learning and watching and reading, and sometimes it’s like all she wants to do is talk about.

Talking about queer culture is, probably obviously, kind of verboten in their house. Best to be avoided. Things have been complicated enough trying to navigate the compounding Family Shames revealed one after the other last fall. They’re still seeing a family therapist twice a month, and that’s been… mostly okay. Emily is a godsend, of course, and kinder than she needs to be. Blair spends a lot of time talking about politics, which probably derails the flow of their healing process, but they’re all still going, so they’re at least committed to more open lines of communication.

Sterling wants to be open about her sexuality. She’s bisexual and she’s proud of it. She has a girlfriend who she loves, and she knows that if her parents had the chance to sit down and get to know April, they’d love her just as much as Sterling does. She wants to be able to tell them about her life. She hates lying, hates dishonesty, hates contributing to dishonesty while attending bimonthly therapy sessions where a woman with a widow’s peak tells them all over her horn-rimmed glasses that it’s important for their family to be open with each other about their struggles, even when those struggles might seem insurmountable.

It just feels wrong — and frankly, a little icky — to show up to therapy and listen to her parents apologize for their years-long lying and deception (for which Sterling and Blair are still deciding whether or not to forgive them) and then sneak off to make out with April in the parking lot of an abandoned drug store a few miles down the road.

She wants to be open about it. She wants to talk to her parents about what she’s going through. But like when she and Luke started having sex, there’s just this implicit understanding that no matter how open-minded the Wesleys may be, there are a few things that are just a step too far for their daughters.

She’s not sure what to call it: homophobia or ignorance or just being tone-deaf. But when word starts going round that Weston Boone’s parents caught him in the pool house with the boy who mows their lawn…

Well. The conversation isn’t exactly pleasant.

Sterling does her best to ignore it. The laughing dismissal of the situation. The lack of regard for how Weston must be feeling, being outed against his will and having his secrets exposed to the whole congregation. Gossiping feels sinful, and Sterling would rather have no part of it.

Her family mostly stays out of the discussion — people who live in glass houses, and all that — but in the privacy of their own home at Sunday night dinner, after a few glasses of wine, Debbie’s lips are looser.

“Well, obviously the Boones won’t be able to come back to church,” she says with a wry smile and a shake of her head. “A shame, really. They were such a nice family.”

Sterling doesn’t say anything, but she can feel Blair’s angry energy wafting from across the table, her hackles up. “Why would they have to leave church?” Blair asks heatedly.

Anderson sighs, already sensing a fight and not eager to start one, but Debbie is like Blair: she doesn’t back down, either. “Well, obviously there’s nothing wrong with having a gay son,” Debbie says carefully. “God loves all his children, after all. It’s just… not wise in this community. It’ll be easier for everyone if they keep their distance until the news dies down.”

“But why?’ Blair asks again. Her fingers clench around her silverware. Sterling loves her, but she really wishes Blair would stay quiet at moments like these. “Because it makes a bunch of bigots uncomfortable that this teenage boy might someday have a husband?”

Then again, Blair is brave where Sterling can’t be; it feels too close for Sterling to get heated about, too obvious, too suspicious. Blair, with the distance of heterosexuality (or something adjacent), is able to speak her mind.

And someone should. Someone should defend Weston Boone, who did nothing wrong except kiss a cute boy where someone could see.

“We aren’t trying to start a fight, Blair,” Debbie says placating. “Just pointing out the obvious.”

“Well, I think you’re obviously stupid.”

Blair,” their dad admonishes, but Blair keeps talking, because of course she does.

“I love and support gay people, actually. Gay people are swell and they have great style and they love cats and I think that’s super cool of them. I want gay people at my church.”

“Of course your father and I have no problem with gay people. You know Garland, my hairdresser, he’s gay.”

“Yeah well I love them a lot.” Blair is still running hot. “I don’t ‘have no problem with them’, I actively love and support them. All gay people, everywhere.”

Debbie and Anderson share a strange look. “That’s… nice, Blair,” her dad says softly. He pushes something on his plate. Debbie takes a long drink of wine.

“Yeah.” She pumps her fist. “Gay rights!”

“Blair,” Sterling says quietly.

Blair turns to her, ready to defend herself and her outburst, but she sees something in the set of Sterling’s jaw and her eyes go wide.

Oh shit, Blair’s face says to her, you’re gonna do it?

I think so.

Okay. Shit, wow. Are you sure?

Yeah. I can’t stop it, it’s like word vomit. It’s coming whether I want it to or not.

Okay! Okay, I’ve got your back. You know I love you more than life.

I love you, too.

You’ve got this.

I’ve got this.

Hell yeah you do! Now go kick ass, queer queen!

Sterling turns back to her family and sets her shoulders. “I’m bisexual.”

Anderson laughs and takes another bite of casserole. “Very funny, Sterling.”

“I’m not being funny.” She feels Blair’s foot pressed against her ankle, the pressure reassuring. “I’m not joking. I’m bisexual.”

Her parents are frozen in place. They look at each other, as if doing their own twin mind meld.

Debbie breaks the silence. “That’s not funny, Sterling.” She whips around to Blair. “Did you put her up to this?”

“I didn’t put her up to anything!” Blair holds up her hands defensively. “But let the record show that I affirmatively believe love is love. Obergefell v. Hodges made it the law of the land! I’m an ally and I won’t be si—”

“Enough with your stunts, Blair!” Debbie exclaims, looking frazzled. She slams her hand on the table. The cutlery jumps, as do her daughters. She’s breathing heavily. “Now we won’t have any more talk of this tonight. When the two of you have calmed down and stopped this cruel prank—”

“It’s not a prank,” Sterling cuts in. “It isn’t a stunt. I’m bisexual. I’m coming out to you as a bisexual woman, as a lover of women and men.”

“And folks in between!” Blair interjects and Sterling nods.

“And folks in between.”

“I can’t do this with you right now, Sterling. First the drinking, then the sex, now this?! I know how hard things have been this year for you, but lashing out at us like this isn’t healthy.” Debbie’s expression is hard and closed-off. “And you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Blair bristles. “How dare you!” she shouts, but Sterling nudges her leg under the table. With one look, Blair goes quiet.

“Mom, Dad.” Sterling looks between the two of them. She feels a strange sort of calmness. Something like peace. Or maybe acceptance. “I am not lashing out. This is who I am and this is how I feel.”

“No it’s not!” Debbie whispers. And with tears in her eyes, she says, “We can’t have any more of this, Sterling. We can’t. Not after what this family has been through this year.”

Sterling swallows around the pain in her throat, the thing that swells and threatens to cut off her airways. “This isn’t something that can or will go away just because you want it to! I won’t be dishonest about who I am, not anymore.” Her lip quivers and she bites her tongue, hoping to stop the trembling in her mouth and her voice. She flexes her hands. “I don’t talk to you anymore,” she says quietly, almost pleading. “Haven’t you noticed that? It’s like I can’t trust you. I want to trust you again.”

“If this is about Dana—” Her mom starts cautiously, and Sterling has to laugh.

“Of course it is.”

“I know she made you feel unsafe. I’m sorry for the danger we put you in. But this is not an appropriate response.”

Sterling ignores her. “What did it feel like, lying about your own twin sister for all those years?” Debbie doesn’t answer. Sterling doesn’t need her to. “Look what it almost did to our family. I won’t put myself through that. I won’t put us through that. Not again. This secret has been weighing so heavily on me. It’s too painful, mama. It hurts too much to keep it inside.”

“Oh, Sterling.” Debbie sighs and reaches out, but she’s sitting too far away to reach Sterling on her own. Sterling doesn’t reach back to her, and her mother taps the table with her open palm, her mouth twisting and her eyes mournful. “You’re too young to know how painful life is, sweetheart. You might think that things are bad now, but you haven’t lived in this world. Your father and I… all your lives, we’ve done everything in our power to keep you two safe. We’ve made some mistakes, I am the first to acknowledge that, but we always, always were thinking of you. We’ve done everything we can to give you the life you deserve. But I—” her voice cracks, “I can’t keep you safe from this. You know what our church is like, the way people here talk. If you want to live like that… I can’t protect you from it.”

“You can’t keep us safe from everything,” Sterling says plaintively. “You can’t. You couldn’t keep us safe even when you thought lying would do it. I’m sorry if that’s hard for you to hear, but it’s true. You don’t know what will keep us safe, not all the time. I’m telling you that I can’t lie about this anymore. And I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not just because it’s easier.”

Debbie leans heavily on her elbow, her hand covering her eyes like she’s trying to ward off a pounding headache. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she mutters. When she looks up her face has crumpled. “You were supposed to go to college, pledge Delta Gamma like me. Have a nice husband, a nice life. Blair’s a lost cause, we already knew that about her.”

“Hey!”

Debbie shakes her head. “I didn’t mean it like that, Blair. You’ve been your own woman since you were 13. You were never going to follow in your mama’s footsteps.” Blair sinks lower in her chair. “And I have always been proud of you for striking out on your own. But… this isn’t what we wanted for you, Sterling.”

Sterling bites her lip and ignores the slight about Blair because things are a little strained right now. “It’s because of how you raised me that I know this about myself. That I’ve been able to accept it, to love myself enough to tell you, to love you enough to be honest with you. That’s what you do with the people you love: you tell them the truth. I’m young but I know myself, and you should be proud of me for knowing myself like I do. You taught me to think for myself and speak up for myself and that’s what I’m doing.”

No one has anything to say to that. Anderson hasn’t said a word in minutes, and Blair looks back and forth between their parents like she’s trying to see which one of them will strike next. But Sterling knows there’s no fight coming. Debbie’s shoulders are drawn and hunched, and Anderson keeps fiddling with his fork.

Her heart sinks. Disappointment. Maybe the worst, or at least second-worst possible response she could get.

Anderson stands from the table. He folds his napkin and carefully drops it back to the table. “Well,” he says slowly. “I think that’s probably enough excitement for tonight. Time for bed.”

Sterling swallows. “Should I… make up the tent?”

Debbie wipes at her eyes and shakes her head vigorously. “Oh, sweetheart, no. No, of course not. We love you very much, Sterling.” A glance to her husband. “I think your father and I just need some time with this information.”

“Okay,” Sterling says quietly.

“Go on up to your rooms now, girls,” Anderson says, placing a hand on Sterling’s shoulder. “You have school in the morning and it’s getting late.”

“Yes, Sir,” they say at the same time.

Blair holds Sterling’s hand as they climb the stairs. She holds Sterling’s hand as they brush their teeth, and as they curl up into Sterling’s bed together with Sterling’s laptop open on the covers between them, some Netflix show they don’t pay attention to playing quietly so they don’t have to listen to the silence. They hold hands as they fall asleep, and when they wake up the next morning, their hands are still intertwined.

________________

Chapter Text

____________________

Sterling (11:00 p.m.)
So… I just told my parents I’m bi.

April (11:03 p.m.)
Oh my God??  

April (11:03 p.m.)
Are you okay??  

April (11:03 p.m.)
Is everything okay? How
did they take it?

 Sterling (11:05 p.m.)
It went ok.

April (11:05 p.m.)
What’s ‘ok.’?

Sterling (11:05 p.m.)
It was kind of weird actually

Sterling (11:05 p.m.)
my mom said some things she shouldn’t
have. My dad didn’t say enough.

Sterling (11:06 p.m.)
but it went ok

Sterling (11:06 p.m.)
Blair didn’t rlly give them the
chance to say anything too bad she
spent a lot of time yelling about
‘love is love’ and obergefell v hodges
 

*April loved a message*

 Sterling (11:07 p.m.)
They told me they love me

*April loved a message*  

April (11:07 p.m.)
That’s a lot. Good though?  

April (11:07 p.m.)
Or at least it’s not bad?  

Sterling (11:07 p.m.)
yeah I thought so

April (11:08 p.m.)
How do you feel? Do you need
anything? can I do anything?
 

Sterling (11:08 p.m.)
I feel good tbh

 Sterling (11:08 p.m.)
Lighter

Sterling (11:08 p.m.)
like there’s this weight off my chest.

Sterling (11:08 p.m.)
I was so scared they’d find out by
accident it’s honestly a relief to
have it all out in the open

Sterling (11:09 p.m.)
I’m sure tmrw will b weird

April (11:09 p.m.)
Undoubtedly.  

Sterling (11:09 p.m.)
But they didn’t kick me out
or like… comdemn me
 

Sterling (11:09 p.m.)
So a win?

April (11:09 p.m.)
Of course they didn’t. I’m sure
they just need a little time to adjust.
it’s quite a bombshell to drop.
 

April (11:10 p.m.)
I’m proud of you, Sterling.

 *Sterling loved a message*  

April (11:10 p.m.)
Do you need me to come over?

Sterling (11:10 p.m.)
I’m okay  

April (11:10 p.m.)
You sure?  

Sterling (11:10 p.m.)
Blair’s here

Sterling (11:10 p.m.)
weve got a Gilmore girls
marathon planned
 

*April loved a message*  

Sterling (11:10 p.m.)
can i see you tmrw?
Maybe for breakfast?
 

April (11:11 p.m.)
Can’t wait.

Sterling (11:11 p.m.)
11 11! Make a wish  

*Sterling loved a message*

Sterling (11:11 p.m.)
love you tons

April (11:12 p.m.)
To the moon <3

____________________

Sterling (9:14 a.m.)
im outside! I have bagels!

 

April zips out the door at 9:16, her hair thrown up and messy and her face clear of makeup. Sterling is parked around the corner, where she parks every time she comes to see April. She’s lounging against the Volt, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a plain brown paper bag in the other.

She grins when she sees April approaching, waves with her hands full, her movements jerky as she tries not to spill any of the drink, and April knows she looks smitten, totally captivated. She can’t help it. She’s in love.

“Hi! I got you a sesame with—mmffph!”

April kisses her against her car, their bodies flush. Sterling stumbles but manages not to drop any of the food in her hands, which April would be thankful for if she cared about things like breakfast or coffee right now.

Sterling blinks, dazed and kiss-drunk when April pulls away. “Wow, what a hello.”

“It was for the lox, not for you,” April teases, thumb brushing under Sterling’s lip, wiping at an invisible smudge. Sometimes she just wants to touch. Sue her.

Sterling snorts. “Yeah, right. You don’t kiss a gal like that over some salmon.”

“Maybe you don’t.” April leans into her again. Her arms bracket Sterling’s hips and she allows herself another moment of closeness, another moment of warmth.

“What’s with the PDA?” Sterling murmurs through their next kiss, languid and unbothered. She has to bend her head to keep her mouth by April’s ear, and April shivers, enjoying the reminder of their height differential.

“I just… missed you, is all. And it’s early. No one’s around.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining. I’m happy to be the breakfast chauffer every day for the rest of the year, if you’ll kiss me like that.”

“I’ll kiss you like that whenever you want.”

Sterling licks her lips. She glances down April’s face, her eyes darting nervous, before they settle. “Whenever I want?”

April’s fingers twitch. She takes a step away, putting them at a more respectable, platonic distance. She tries not to see the way it makes Sterling’s shoulders slump.

Still, Sterling speaks with a forced confidence belied by her shifting weight. “Do you think… maybe it might be time to start thinking about…?”

“Sterling,” April says, a soft warning. “Please don’t ruin this. You came out to your parents, and you’re standing in front of me alive. Let’s just… enjoy the morning together. Please?”

Sterling swallows again. “Yeah,” she says quietly. “Yeah, we can do that.”

April takes her hand and squeezes it. The paper bag holding April’s bagel crinkles. “I love you,” she says, watching the way it makes Sterling’s lips twitch up. Sterling smiles every time April says that to her, and it’s calming for April to see. Grounding. “You know that, right?”

Sterling’s lips crack into a full smile. “That’s the word on the street.”

____________________

It is marginally harder to maintain the platonic façade of her relationship with Sterling now that they’ve moved to the post-coitus phase. (Sterling pulled a face when April referred to it as such, so now she just sticks to ‘sexually active’. Sterling doesn’t like that either, but it’s accurate and not from two centuries ago, so she allows it.)

As April’s tight control over her actions and words starts to slip more and more into careless affection, especially when Sterling is around, it’s not exactly hard for the people closest to them to start to put some of the puzzle pieces together.

That means that by the time senior year starts, an almost alarming number of people know that she and Sterling are a couple. It’s a number that would have petrified her a year ago. When she thinks it out loud it is rather alarming.

.

.

List of Secret-Keepers – September, 2021

  1. Sterling (duh)
  2. Blair
  3. Jamie
  4. Bowser/Yolanda
  5. Ezekiel
  6. Hannah B. (?)
  7. Coffee shop Barista (gay?)
  8. Luke Luke (TBD?)

 

 

Blair was the first to know. She knew almost before there was anything to know. Her relationship with Blair is interesting, because they’re sort of… getting along these days. An unexpected but pleasant turnaround. Now that April’s father is in prison, and more importantly, now that she’s proven she can actually be kind of helpful with bounty hunting (Blair’s one true passion), their relationship has softened its hard edges. She wouldn’t go so far as to say Blair actively likes her, but she tolerates her, and for whatever it’s worth she seems to think she and Sterling are a good match (they obviously are, so Blair might hold a mean grudge but she is at least logical enough to see sense).

Then there’s Jamie, from camp, with her own girlfriend and her own hyper-Christian community, her own carefully-constructed closet. The only other young lesbian April has ever met. She still sends April TikToks of different bread recipes sometimes.

Bowser and Yolanda know too, obviously. Sterling’s boss and his maybe-sometimes-it’s-complicated-don’t-ask-questions girlfriend. The only adults on planet earth who know that April’s gay. Yolanda winks when she sees them behind the yogurt counter together, standing too close for what the health code dictates. Bowser grumbles and gruffs and pretends like he’s not interested in their personal lives, but Sterling told her what Bowser said, the night April’s dad was arrested. She knows that beneath his prickly exterior is a man with a gentle soul who only wants the best for his protégées/surrogate daughters.

.

.

Ezekiel asks her about it quietly one day, the weekend before the start of their Senior Year.

“So what’s the deal with you and Sterling?” he asks carefully, picking up a piece of his spicy tuna roll and popping it into his mouth.

April swallows, feels her ears going a little pink. “What? Nothing,” she denies quickly. Too quickly.

Ezekiel arches a brow. “Really? So that’s not Sterling’s hoodie you have on?” April looks down, almost curses when she realizes he’s right. She’s had this sweatshirt since before she left for her camp counselor job. She’d almost forgotten it hasn’t always been hers.

He leans closer. April grips the picnic table between them, bracing for impact. “That’s not her lip gloss you’re wearing?”

April swallows and closes her eyes. The jig is up. There’s no point lying about it now. Besides, her brain is empty. She can’t think of anything even remotely believable, and she doesn’t really have the energy to come up with something on the fly.

She drops her head and sighs.

Ezekiel drops his chopsticks and they clatter against the wood. “Oh my God,” he whispers, sounding equal parts scandalized and delighted. “Oh my God. I knew it. I knew there was something fishy going on with you two! You just decided out of the blue that you didn’t hate her anymore, I knew that had to mean something. And all those looks you give her in church… then you’re gone all summer and you come back wearing her clothes!”

April covers her face.

The sob bubbles up in her chest and it slips from her lips without meaning to. A quiet choked-off cry that she tries to swallow, but it’s too late. The tears are burning behind her eyes and it’s too late for her to stop them from escaping.

“Oh, hey—no. No, don’t cry.” He climbs onto the bench next to her and wraps his arms around her shoulders while she shakes. “You’re okay, babe,” he mumbles. “You’re okay.”

She hadn’t meant to cry, really. It wasn’t because he said anything mean. It’s not even the fear of having someone else at school know about her. She’s just so tired. She’s been so tired for so long. She’s just so tired of it all, the lying and the subterfuge, keeping her only real friends in the dark about the most important thing in her life.

The tears are a relief, more than anything. Like a final purge of her system. Yes, the fear of being found-out is palpable, but it’s significantly diminished, a tiny flicker in her stomach compared to the overwhelming respite.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles. Ezekiel keeps rubbing her upper back. It’s comforting. She unburies her face and wipes at her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to cry.”

“It’s okay,” he says again. He’s frowning a little, his mouth downturned. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t… I shouldn’t have ambushed you like that. I’m sorry if you’re still, like… figuring things out?” He winces.

April takes pity on him. “You didn’t ambush me. Well… you did. But… it was about time.” Ezekiel relaxes at that. He reaches across the table and picks up his discarded napkin. He hands it to April so she can blow her nose, which she does gratefully. “If we’ve being honest,” she says once her eyes are a little dryer, “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you for a while.”

“I just can’t believe you didn’t tell me. Me, of all people!”

“You never told me about you, either,” April counters.

Ezekiel scoffs. “Girl, please. Like you haven’t known since I was 12. I’m not exactly great at hiding it. Not like you! You’ve got everyone fooled.”

April laughs, and it’s a little watery (and maybe a little bitter). “Not everyone. Clearly.”

“I don’t count. I’m a special case. I’m a gay man who is ostensibly still in the closet. All I’ve got is time to judge and sniff out the other gays.” He pauses for a second. “You are gay, right?”

“Yes,” April says, and there’s that little flutter in her stomach that signals excitement, or maybe fear. “I’m gay.”

Ezekiel’s lips twitch up. “Am I the first person you’ve ever said that to?”

April rolls her eyes. “You know I have a girlfriend.”

He gapes. “She’s your girlfriend? I thought y’all were just fooling around?!” April bites her lip to hide her smile.

Ezekiel’s own smile is devious. “You’ve been busy. And, clearly, holding out on me.”

Ezekiel guessed — not the first person to do so but the first person who really mattered — and opened a door she never would have been brave enough to push through. But she’s glad he did.

Ezekiel’s always been one of her closest friends, but given the fact that April was deeply closeted and focused more on keeping her social status intact than on building trusting and deep friendships, it’s more accurate to say that the majority of their relationship has been more of an association based on mutually beneficial protection than anything like real community.

But that’s different, now. He’s become a real friend to her, a real person she can confide in. Now they get brunch some Sundays after church, and she helped him fix his personal essay on his college apps. He’s applying exclusively to schools in the Northeast, in many of the same cities April is looking to. They might end up in the same geographic area when they go to college in a year, an unexpected but welcome possibility.

 

 

It’s impossible to know if Hannah B. knows she and Sterling are dating. She’s never said anything, but then again they haven’t been particularly subtle, especially now that Ezekiel knows, too. Hannah B. sometimes doesn’t know if it’s raining when she’s standing under an umbrella, so her attention span is limited at best.

.

.

April doesn’t know how she feels about Sterling’s ex-boyfriend knowing about their relationship. If teen television dramas have taught her anything it’s that jilted ex-lovers are prone to retaliation, especially if their masculinity has been threatened. And nothing threatens a teenage boy’s masculinity quite like being cuckolded. By a woman. (It’s not technically accurate but she wouldn’t put it past a boy like Luke Creswell to think somewhere in his Neanderthal brain that Sterling somehow belongs to him, even after all this time.)

But Sterling doesn’t see it like that.

“He’s kind of my best friend, April,” is what Sterling says when she brings up the prospect of telling him, and April firmly refuses. “I want him to be a part of my life.”

April pauses, a little more unsure. “I don’t know, Sterling…”

Sterling slots their fingers together. “I’m not asking for much,” Sterling says, and it’s the truth but it’s also pointed. “I’m not asking for the whole world to know about us. Just Luke.”

Relationships are about trust and compromise. Sterling has already said she’s fine remaining in the closet for the rest of high school. They only have one more year left. Eight months, and they’ll be free. It’s a terribly short amount of time but interminably long, too, and April knows Sterling is remembering those long months before summer, when they spent endless frustrating, supervised, hidden time together. Where they could be together but… not, at the same time. It had felt like a blessing then. A blissful escape from April’s stifling home, a reprieve where she was safe, at school, untouchable, and with Sterling on top of it. She’d loved their hours together with their knees brushing in the cafeteria, exchanging sly smiles across busy hallways.

But she’s gotten used to — selfishly, stupidly used to — Sterling’s company over the past month. With her father safely locked away and her mother’s mood rapidly improving the longer he’s out of the picture, April’s house has been… well, not pleasant. But easier. Peaceful. Private. She’s grown rather attached to that privacy, and the freedom found within.

She is not looking forward to returning to their norm of secrecy and stolen intimacy, either. But Sterling isn’t complaining about that. She’s never complained, not once, even though April knows it weighs on her. Sterling abhors secrecy and is a terrible liar on top of it. She doesn’t want to hide what makes her happy. But she would. She will. She’ll bite her tongue without question, just because April’s asking her to.

 It’s kinder than April deserves, and more than she ever could have hoped for.

So: compromise.

“Okay,” she says. “You can tell Luke.”

 

 

What she expects: a combination of wild text messages and tear-filled voice messages from Luke, who she maybe might admit (reluctantly, and under extreme duress) is her friend. What she expects: angry pounding on her door, the demanding of answers, ridicule, public shaming, whispers and humiliation and the stripping bare of her soul for all of their peers to sneer and poke at.

What she doesn’t expect: Luke Creswell hugging her before Spanish class on Monday morning.

She stiffens uncomfortably in his embrace, not sure what to do with her hands. Finally she settles on a few awkward pats to his lower shoulders, the part of him she can reach while her arms are crushed to her sides.

Luke pulls away after a few more uncomfortable moments. He holds her shoulders and looks at her, something that looks embarrassingly like tears welling in his eyes. “I’m sorry for flirting with you last year,” he says honestly. “It must have made you uncomfortable.”

“Um…” April blinks, and can’t think of what to say. “Why would it make me uncomfortable?”

“Well, because I’m…” he glances around, then ducks his head and whispers, so quiet April can barely hear him, “a guy. And you’re not into them.” He pulls back and April just stares at him, uncomprehendingly. “So it was probably weird for one to hit on you, right?”

Someone slams their locker next to April, and she jumps, clutching her books closer to her chest. It hallways are streaming with people, loud and noisy as the first day of school always is. Everyone bustling around and catching up after summer, hugs and shrieks of reuniting friends. Not one eye spared for their huddled conversation.

Still, April keeps her voice low when she starts to argue, “No, I was…” But she shakes herself. It might be too complicated to try to explain to Luke, I was leading you on because I was obsessed with your ex-girlfriend and trying to lash out at her while also remaining deeply in the closet and you were just the closest, most effectual tool for accomplishing that task.

Instead, she says, “Thank you, Luke. You didn’t make me uncomfortable, but it’s nice of you to apologize.”

“Sure. I just want to make sure we’re okay. With the, uh… Sterling thing.”

“You’re not upset with her, are you?” She hopes that isn’t the case. She doubts if she’ll ever feel truly comfortable around Luke, but Sterling cares deeply about their relationship, and the last thing April wants is to have unnecessarily jeopardized something important to Sterling. “Please don’t be. Nothing happened between us until after you two had broken up.”

But Luke doesn’t look mad. Not in the slightest. “She explained, yeah. That she loved me then, and now she loves you, but just because she loves you doesn’t change that she loved me, too. It’s just a different kind of love.” He smiles, and April feels relief so tangibly she might collapse from it. “She seems really happy. So that means I’m happy, too.”

She knows Luke would sacrifice everything for Sterling’s true happiness. April knows. She would do the same. “Good,” she says quietly. “I’m glad.”

“Sterling says you’re good for her.”

April softens. She grips her school bag tighter. “She’s good for me.”

“Yeah. She’s good, you know?”

April’s lips twitch up. She can’t help it. “The best.”

Luke’s smile is wry and genuine. “That’s why I’m not upset. You’re the only other person at school who really gets how awesome she is.”

“That means a lot, from you.” It does. For all his faults, Luke did truly love Sterling.

The two of them, they’re kindred spirits now. Forever part of an elite duo: The People Who Love Sterling Wesley.

.

.

Maybe April’s not ready to totally come out. But so far, with the toe-creeping she’s been doing out of the closet… well. It hasn’t been dreadful. It’s actually been… rather liberating. To walk into school knowing that there are people around who know just about everything there is to know about her. Her deepest secrets, bared and out in the open, and instead of being shunned for it she’s been embraced. Sometimes literally, in Luke and Ezekiel’s case.

Maybe April’s not ready to fully come out, yet. But she thinks she’s off to a pretty fortunate start, if you ask her.

6 people know about their relationship. 7, if she counts Sterling. 8, if she counts the barista at the local independent coffee shop she and Sterling sometimes like to do homework in, but April thinks she only knows because based on her pronoun pin and her alternative-lifestyle haircut, she’s also gay. And April won’t begrudge other gay women their successful gaydar. (That, and she walked in on her and Sterling making out in the gender neutral bathroom one afternoon, but April is pretty sure she suspected something before then.)

6-8 people might not sound like a lot to the unknowing spectator, but to April of a year ago it would have seemed a veritable army. Each new person opens up a whole new avenue for more people to know, and that’s never been something she’s been willing to risk. Not before now.

Because she actually trusts the 7 people who do know. (She doesn’t trust the barista, but she doesn’t know their real names, so all things considered she’s not very much of a threat.)

Never in her life would she have thought she’d trust 7 people independently with this secret, but… she does. She might be crazy, but she does.

It’s not a lot of people, but it’s enough where the variables start to get tricky. April knows it’s only a matter of time before their secret balloons out of her control. She wonders when it will happen, and what she’ll do when it does.

She has to wonder how obvious they are with their staring, with their ‘newfound friendship’. They aren’t hiding the fact that they occasionally work together on projects or occasionally sit together at lunch, which is a pretty big improvement for April from the year before. She knows it’s not enough for Sterling. Sometimes she gets this look on her face, soft and longing, across the patio where they eat lunch, or a glance out of the corner of her eye in class. It always shoots electricity down April’s legs, and she knows — she knows that look. It’s the same look Sterling gives her when April is hovering above her, lips kiss-stained and mouth aching, body hungry.

Sometimes Sterling looks at her and it’s all April can do to stop from kissing her.

Even Ellen has made a few comments that could be construed as off-color. If April were to squint. “I just know y’all are gonna be a powerful team this year,” she says with a wink, right before making them co-Fellowship leaders, a position that has never once been shared, not in the 100+ year history of Willingham Academy.

“So, you want us to… plan events together and stuff? Lead discussions?”

“Oh yes, I know it’ll be a lot of work. But that was why you had to step down last year Sterling, remember? And remember when y’all teamed up for the lock-in? Our most successful lock-in ever! Fellowship Leader is such a big commitment, but if anyone can do it and kick it out of the park, I know it’ll be y’all. Innovation! Experimentation!”

“Experimentation,” April says deadpan.

“Yes, that’s the spirit! Oh, I knew y’all would be excited about this, too. It’ll be a lot of late afternoons, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time together—” Sterling perks up, and April just manages to refrain from kicking her shin, “but now that y’all are so close again, I don’t see that being a problem.”

“No problem at all!” Sterling says, practically vibrating. “Thank you for trusting us. We won’t let you down.”

“Of course. We won’t let you down, Ellen.”

Ellen beams at them. She uses both hands to cup each of their cheeks. She pinches quickly. “Oh, I love you girls. I knew you were the right choice.”

Sterling beams at her when Ellen bounces away, and April bites her lip, suppressing her smile. “Don’t look at me like that?”

“I’m not looking at you like anything. Just thinking about all the afternoons we’ll be able to spend together, ‘planning’ for Fellowship.”

“We will complete any and all Fellowship work before we do anything romantic. I’m not above lying to spend more time with you, but we’re not going to let the first Fellowship Co-Leader duo in Willingham history fail just because we can’t keep it in our pants.”

“I love when you talk dirty to me.”

April swallows a laugh and nudges Sterling with her shoulder. “Knock it off. You’re distracting me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

April’s toes curl in her shoes. Sterling does a very good job pretending that she doesn’t know what effect she has on her.

____________________

Because of how well they performed last year, the Willingham Academy Forensics Team gets a free pass directly to the Second Southeastern Semi-Quarter Regional Forensics Tournament of 2021, which is held in early December this year. It also just so happens that by luck of the draw (or maybe Ellen’s tampering — April isn’t ruling anything out, including divine intervention) Willingham is hosting again this year.

Sterling, who has become a self-assured debater in her own right, with a haughtiness that on anyone else April would find downright insufferable, but on Sterling just looks hot. Gone are the days of stuttering insecurity, weak closing arguments and submissive cross examination. Sterling attacks with a viciousness that borders on ruthless. They’re the best debaters at Willingham, and considered two of the top competitors in their division, and everyone knows that they’re the duo to watch. Sterling & April from Willingham.

It leaves a delighted tickle in her stomach when she thinks about that. The fear they strike in the hearts of their subordinates. The fact that they do it together. That they’re a pair, a duo; they come in a matched set. Everyone knows it. It floods April with a possessive vanity that’s almost frightening.

She basks in it. Draws pleasure and power from the way her first opponent of the day gulps when he walks into the room and sees her poised behind the desk, waiting for him to take his position. He’s right on time but she was in place four minutes early, meaning he’s already behind her preparation. He struggles to loosen his necktie, his face already red and sweating, and April could purr from satisfaction. His discomfort is palpable and she is nothing short of delighted. Her eye catches Sterling’s for just a brief moment. All of the competitors not currently preparing or debating are crammed into this room. It’s the first debate of the day, and April’s got something of a reputation. There’s a rumor that she’s made three different boys cry during these Foresnics competitions, and she imagines quite a few people are following her progress today to see if it’s true.

(For what it’s worth, it isn’t true. She’s made five boys cry.)

April wins her first round easily. Her opponent carries sloppy notes in a sloppy briefcase and stutters through his opening statement. April smirks, already tasting victory on her tongue. It tastes sweet.

When given her two minutes to open, April clears her throat and leans forward and says, through something of a sneer, “I think what my opponent means to say…”

She wins handily. A unanimous judge’s vote that doesn’t even need to go down to individual speaker points. It’s an evisceration of the highest order, and everyone knows it. All in all, an excellent start to the day. She’s shaking her opponent’s clammy hand when quick movement out of the corner of her eye draws her attention. She catches sight of Sterling, her phone out and typing furiously with her head down, practically sprints from the room.

April’s phone in her back pocket buzzes, and she itches to check it immediately. She has to wait two minutes that feel like two weeks while she’s handed her official scorecard and told to ‘Wait for the next partner assignments’, which could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour from now.

She glances surreptitiously at her phone screen.

Sterling (11:08 a.m.)
3rd floor utility closet. ASAP.

 

 

“My stellar debate performance really did it for you, huh?” she gasps when Sterling’s fingers twist her nipple.

“You have no idea,” Sterling growls into her neck, and April’s patellas are certainly quivering now.

She comes with Sterling’s head under her skirt, her tongue lapping furious circles against her clit. April bites her knuckles to stop from screaming. Sterling kisses her with a wet chin and disheveled hair, and April thinks she’s never seen someone more beautiful.

She reaches for the button on Sterling’s pants but Sterling catches her hands, stopping her. “No time,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m on in ten minutes.”

“I can work that fast.”

Sterling just chuckles. She kisses April’s cheek. It’s far too chaste considering April can still smell her own release on Sterling’s breath. “I want to look over my notes one more time. Can’t have a repeat of last year.”

April bites her lip and considers, for a moment. “And if you win?”

Sterling smirks. She’s confident, almost unbearably so. Gone are the days of sweet Sterling Wesley and her fumbling, stuttering debate prep. “When I win,” she corrects.

“Cocky.”

“Confident. I have a good incentive.” Her eyes skim down April’s body, and April feels naked and undressed, even though she never lost any clothing. “I know what my reward’s going to be.”

April flushes against her better nature. She never thought this kind of self-assuredness would work for her, but here they are and here it is: working. “Cocky and positive that I’m a sure thing. You really know how to woo a girl.”

The kiss Sterling gives her is wild, filthy, and full of promise. “Sit in the front row,” she orders a breathless April. “Try not to cross your legs too much.”

“Don’t want to be distracted?”

“I won’t get distracted. I’ll just be up there sweeping up points. Poor guy won’t even know I can still taste you on my tongue. But you will.” April’s mouth drops open as all breath is stolen from her lungs. She doesn’t have time to respond before Sterling is pressing another swift kiss to her lips that’s over much too soon. “Wish me luck!”

 

 

Sterling doesn’t need luck. She runs laps around her opponent. By the end of the three minutes of cross, he’s nearly in tears.

April crossed her legs less than a minute into opening arguments. Sterling caught the movement and had the audacity to smirk at her. April never thought that something as serious as debate, an activity she takes arguably more seriously than she takes her schoolwork (which is saying quite a lot), would act as foreplay to her, but she can’t help it. Watching Sterling behind the podium, self-assured and assertive, with well-structured arguments and ruthless cross-examination is nothing short of exhilarating. Her rebuttals are short and concise. Dominant, confident, merciless. Unrecognizable to a year ago.

April stares at her with something akin to hunger, and when Sterling’s eyes meet hers the air between them crackles with promise. April clenches and unclenches her thighs, subtly trying to get any relief for the ache that’s building in her core.

She doesn’t wait for them to announce the winner. She doesn’t need to. It’s obvious by the Second Negative Constructive that the poor boy from Beecher Prep doesn’t stand a chance. April slips from the room and makes her way to their supply closet, Sterling’s eyes burning between her shoulder blades the entire way out of the classroom.

She fucks Sterling quick and dirty, aware of their time constraint. That’s alright. She doesn’t need a ton of time. Sterling is soaked already, and it only takes a minute of grinding against April’s well-placed thigh for her to fall apart with a little gasp and shudder.

“So,” April says when they’ve caught their breath. “I’m liking the new tradition.”

Sterling laughs into her shoulder. “We’re gonna crush today.”

 

 

She’s right. They absolutely dominate.

 

 

The day is long, but Sterling and April sweep through their competition easily. Most of their rounds aren’t even close. April makes 2 opponents cry (not her record, but a decent showing), and she makes Sterling come four times before 3 p.m. (something she’s definitely more than a little proud of).

Before she can blink it’s the semi-finals, and there are only 4 competitors remaining.

April stares up at the bracket board with a sinking sense of dread.

 

April Stevens – Cassie McDonald

Sterling Wesley – Craig Wu

Sterling sidles up to her and bumps her shoulder. “Fancy seeing you here,” she teases, like her hand wasn’t under April’s bra ten minutes ago.

“You’re up against Wu,” April says by way of greeting.

“I see that. Some déja vu, huh?”

“He’ll have a dossier prepared for you this time. He won’t make the same mistake twice. You got too close to beating him last year, he won’t—”

“Hey,” Sterling cuts her off, “don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

April shakes her head. She’s reliving their humiliating showing at last year’s tournament all over again. Despite all of her preparation, it’s Sterling who will have to face Wu first, which doesn’t make April feel good at all. He’s already hit her with the worst scandal he could dig up last time. She’s immune to him now. But Sterling still doesn’t understand. “Wu’s going to know things about you, Sterling. Maybe things you’ve never told anyone. He has this superpower for it. Even better than me.”

“No one’s better than you.”

April brushes aside the compliment. She chews on her lip. “He might bring up Dana.”

Sterling’s back goes a little straighter. “Oh,” she says. “I… hadn’t thought about that.”

April swallows. If they were in a more private location she’d grab Sterling’s hand, but they’re in the main prep room in front of dozens of milling students. She settles for a quick squeeze of Sterling’s shoulder. It’s not nearly enough. “You should be more prepared. We should have spent more time prepping you for his attacks. Wu has a way of airing out your dirty laundry.” She flexes her fingers. “I… have my own dossier on him.”

Sterling rolls her eyes. It at least looks affectionate. “Of course you do.”

“If you want to look at it,” April offers carefully. “You might need a counter-strike, and knocking Wu off-balance might—”

But Sterling just shakes her head. “No thanks. I don’t want to win that way. My arguments are strong. I’ve got this.” April chews on her lip. She knows she still looks nervous. She can’t help it. “Hey,” Sterling says quietly. “C’mon. I’ve got this. With the day I’m having? I feel unbeatable.”

“Don’t jinx it.”

“It’s not about superstition. When have you ever seen someone debate this hard? Besides you, obviously.”

She has a point there. “Whatever happens,” April says, “I’ll be here. And we can deal with it. Even… even if he tries to say something about your mom not really being your mom — he’ll have the negative for your round, and one of his counter arguments is about non-traditional adoptions, so you really fit the bill for that.”

“Gosh, it’s like you have his whole plan mapped out. Did you help him prep for today, too?”

She’s teasing, but April doesn’t feel like joking right now. “It’s what I would do.”

Sterling hums and doesn’t respond to that. Maybe that’s for the best. April knows Sterling doesn’t approve of some of her… more outside-the-box strategies. “It’s alright, April. He can’t hurt me.” She smiles. “I won’t give him the chance.”

 

 

Their debate topic is the same as it’s been all day. They’re arguing about religious exemptions to civil rights legislation, mainly: should small businesses be forced to take gay clients if the owners of the business are opposed to same-sex marriage and/or homosexuality on religious grounds?

Sterling is assigned the affirmative. Undoubtedly the harder position. She’s struggled slightly all day with formulating an argument that doesn’t fall into tired, bigoted tropes. Not that the judges are necessarily opposed to arguments with a homophobic tinge (the illegitimacy of homosexual parents, for example, has been used at least twice by opponents who went on to win their matches — April pays attention to these sorts of things). But Sterling prefers to avoid homophobic arguments, whether implicit or explicit. April doesn’t know if that’s the wisest position to take if she’s trying to win, but it’s what Sterling’s moral compass dictates, so who is April to judge.

Of course, this is a personal question for April too, she has her own stakes and her own feelings about the merit of allowing high schoolers to debate legal minutiae in order to justify / reinforce homophobic worldviews (mainly that no high school should be in the business of peddling homophobia, even if it’s only hypothetical), but she’s also a winner. Victory matters more to her than just about anything.

Besides, April’s always been good at compartmentalizing. She doesn’t have as difficult a time explicitly arguing against equal rights for her own community. But she’s built of different stuff. (That doesn’t stop her from attempting to disembowel Cassie McDonald’s affirmative position when they face-off in the first semi-final round. She feels a little vindictive pleasure, because her dossier on McDonald — the top debater at St. Andrew’s Preparatory School — revealed her youth group spends its free time petitioning local legislatures to make it legal for private agencies to deny same-sex couples’ adoption applications on religious grounds. It always feels good to defeat a bigot, even if it’s only a symbolic defeat. She also refuses to shake her hand after she’s declared the winner, but still: compartmentalization is April’s thing, not Sterling’s.)

She’s worried for Sterling all through her first constructive, but the longer Sterling talks the more April relaxes. Sterling has prepared well. Her points are solid, her tone is even, and she breezes through her constructive speech easily. Even the cross-examination she handles gracefully. Wu gets a couple good hits in, but Sterling is easily holding her own. April breathes a little easier the longer they trade back and forth.

It’ll surely be a close match — every match against Wu is a close one — but Sterling might actually stand a chance. She doesn’t have anything huge to detonate, but Wu has so far avoided any discussion about adoption agencies and single parents and the legitimacy of non-biological family units, so April (rather foolishly) is lulled into a false sense of security.

It comes during the first rebuttal, and it catches April — and everyone else in the packed debate hall — completely off-guard.

“So if you and your girlfriend decided to get married,” Wu asks with a sinister smirk, and April tenses where she sits, “you’d be fine with a bakery refusing to make you your own personalized gay wedding cake? Just because you’re in love with a woman?” Sterling falters for a second. April’s eyes widen, and Sterling catches her expression. April has flashbacks to a year ago, the way Sterling stumbled facing Wu before.

Wu, maybe remembering the same thing, keeps going, his tone mocking and overly sincere. “Don’t you think it’s a little ironic of you to defend the legality of homophobic discrimination, based on your own sexual orientation?” Their eyes catch, and April knows Sterling must be able to read the panic on April’s face. She thinks Wu might be reading it, too, because his eyes find hers in the crowd and April wants to sink into her seat, feeling about three inches tall. “How do you square your need for equal protection under the law with your so-called ‘states’ rights’ argument?”

Wu is watching Sterling, smug and evil, unabashedly evil. He glances to April and winks and April hates his stinking guts. She thought bringing up her father was low; but outing someone publicly is just beyond. Her heart clenches when she thinks about facing Wu in the final round.

Sterling flashes her a look that seems apologetic, and April sinks in her seat and closes her eyes, already preparing herself for the inevitable slaughter. Her fingers shake and she hangs her head and considers the inevitability of her own shameful secret getting exposed like this. She wonders if it would be more humiliating for her to forfeit the round before they even get the chance to debate, and then thinks about the look on Ellen’s face if she told her she’d be withdrawing from the tournament.

“As a proud bisexual woman and a Christian,” Sterling says with a firm finality, and April blinks and jolts up in her seat, “I have no problem with someone living out their faith the way they see fit, as long as they have love in their hearts and aren’t harming anyone.”

Wu looks surprised by her answer. There’s a murmur through the crowd and he glares out at the shifting mass until they fall silent again. “You think denying service on the basis of bigotry is loving?”

“I don’t think we’re debating the philosophies of love, here. Personally, I’d be happy if someone outright denied me service because of their religious views. If they’re a bigot out in the open, then I know not to take my business to their establishment. And the purchasing power of the LGTBQ+ community is an increasingly profitable share of the American consumer market. The efficacy of boycotts against small businesses who discriminate against their customers has proven not only to bolster the popularity of anti-discrimination legislation on a state and federal level, but has also helped local queer-owned businesses succeed in a competitive capitalist market. Are you saying that individual communities have no power to stand up for themselves?”

“Individual responsibility is a nice sentiment,” Wu says with a frown, “but the Fourteenth Amendment provides for equal protection under the law. There are certain rights enumerated in the Constitution; federal, human rights that cannot be denied for any reason. Refusing service to one woman because she has a female partner when you would not refuse service to the same woman if her partner was male or if she was single is unconstitutional, plain and simple.”

“Funny you should bring up the Constitution.” Sterling leans forward on her podium. “I’m a big fan of the Constitution, obviously, but my personal favorite Amendment is the 1st, where our Founding Fathers laid out the most important freedoms we are guaranteed as citizens of this country — freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.” She makes sure to draw out the last word. “And until there is a federal law or a Constitutional Amendment that protects private consumers against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, we have to go by what’s written in our Constitution. The right to practice religion freely in this country in a way that doesn’t harm others is enshrined clear as day. You aren’t arguing with the Founding Fathers, are you?”

Wu scoffs. “Well, that’s a bit of a reductive argument. Obviously the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have thought to include protections for gay people.”

Sterling smirks, her expression confident, her body language powerful. She leans forward, preparing to go in for the kill, and April has to cross her legs because seeing Sterling like this — powerful, unafraid, and absolutely dominating Wu — is maybe the sexiest thing April’s ever seen in her life. She squeezes her thighs together and feels a wet patch on the front of her underwear that she is choosing to pointedly ignore.

“You think gay people only, what, popped into existence in the last twenty years? You think there weren’t gay people in 1776?”

“Of course not. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m just saying that religious freedom shouldn’t extend to discrimination. Discriminating against a protected class—”

“Sexual orientation is not a protected class in the Constitution.”

Gender is!” Wu half-shouts, clearly flustered. April watches the scene unfold with wide eyes.

He’s flustered. He’s off-balance.

He’s going to lose.

“Well, it sounds like you’re making a very compelling argument that you should take up with the Supreme Court. Until then, I’m going to stick with the laws that are actually enumerated in this country. You brought up a hypothetical bakery. Now unless I’m mistaken, the case you’re referring to took place in Colorado, a state that does not have any laws protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And the Supreme Court decided in a 7-2 supermajority in 2018 that that Colorado baker was well within his rights to refuse to make a cake with a message that he didn’t agree with. Now, this baker and I might disagree about whether it’s the correct or Godly thing to do, but laws are laws, and as long as I’m an American, I’m going to follow the laws of this country.”

The timer dings.

“Time!” the time judge announces, and the room applauds.

 

 

There’s forty-five minutes between the semi-final round and the final round, and with both of their opponents vanquished, all the attention will now be on Sterling and April. Who are currently nowhere to be found. April’s phone buzzes again (Ellen, she assumes, probably growing more anxious with each passing minute, but she has nothing to worry about. They won’t miss their starting time, not for anything). She ignores it, pulling Sterling to her by the lapels of her shirt.

“You destroyed him,” she murmurs before kissing her, wrapping her arms around Sterling’s neck.

Sterling hums, her hands finding April’s waist. “It was so awesome. I mean it was icky, because winning on the ‘Yes bigots should discriminate’ argument is all kinds of heinous, but I still think the religious persecution argument was—”

April grabs Sterling’s hand and pushes it under the waistband of her panties. Sterling chokes on her words when her fingers slide through April’s wetness.

“Oh, gosh.”

April kisses her as Sterling enters her with two fingers, Sterling’s tongue swallowing her moan, keeping her quiet. “You’re so hot,” April mumbles. “Keep talking.”

Sterling blinks. “About my argument?”

“It’s really working for me.” Sterling makes a noise in the back of her throat, pleased and delighted, and she presses her fingers deeper inside April.

“When he brought up the Constitution—”

April groans and tips her head back. “What an idiot. First Amendment trumps Fourteenth every time.”

“It’s like he wasn’t even trying.”

“Oh, he was trying. You just wiped the floor with him.”

“Well, I had a lot of incentive.” April, not very interested in talking about incentive when they only have about ten more minutes before people really start to worry, bucks her hips to hurry Sterling’s pace. Sterling smirks at the eager display. “If I knew beating your nemesis would rile you up like this, I probably wouldn’t have choked so hard last year.”

“So you admit you threw that debate?”

“April, I’m literally inside you right now. Can we talk about it later?”

April drops her head to press biting kisses to Sterling’s neck. “Fine,” she grumbles. “Later.”

Sterling presses her palm against April’s clit and April keens. “Did you see Wu’s face when I implied he was insulting the Founding Fathers?”

April tips her head back, letting Sterling kiss the tender skin of her throat. “You played to the judges so well,” she whispers, pushing her hands through Sterling’s hand. :Leaning on American exceptionalism and patriotism was so smart.”

“You caught that, huh?”

“Your fingers feel so good.”

“You like that, baby? Like the way I touch you?” April whines. “Debate really turns you on, huh?”

“Like your panties aren’t soaked through right now.”

Sterling uses her hips to give her more leverage. When she thrusts inside April next it’s with a lot more power. April scrambles to grab her shoulders as her legs are lifted nearly clean off the floor.

She comes apart gasping in Sterling’s arms. Sterling kisses her temple where her hair sticks to her sweaty skin. April makes a quiet noise when Sterling slips out of her, wiping her fingers discretely. She kisses April’s temple again and softly slides her underwear back into place, separating with a soft pat to April’s pelvis. “I love that I can do that to you.”

“You can do anything you want to me.” April mumbles. Sterling laughs, her chest rumbling. April blushes and opens her eyes. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud. Still groggy.”

“I love you like this,” Sterling murmurs. She ducks her head and her lips are soft against April’s, slow and unhurried. “All open and relaxed. Beautiful.”

April blushes. It feels almost childish, blushing right now when Sterling’s spent more of today with her hands on April’s body than off of it. But sentimentality always stirs something in her.

April’s phone buzzes again. She groans, still wrapped around Sterling, unwilling to separate just yet. Sterling kisses her forehead, nosing at the April’s damp hairline.

“Sterl?” April asks quietly into her sternum. Sterling hums, her kisses soft on the parts of April she can reach without moving. “You realize you told everyone you’re bi, right?”

Sterling hums again. She pulls back, putting a little space between their bodies. “I guess I forgot about that part.”

“Are you… okay?” Dumb question, she knows. But it’s hard to read Sterling. The moment Wu said ‘your girlfriend’ it felt like April’s heart was going to leap out of her chest. All she’d felt was blistering panic. But Sterling hadn’t. Sterling had recovered, barely-phased, decimated Wu’s rhetorical strategy and then had thoroughly ravished April without a second thought.

Sure enough, Sterling shrugs. “My parents already know. Everyone who matters to me knows. So. There’s no one else really worth keeping it a secret from.”

It’s what she expected. Sterling’s been ready to come out for over a year now. She’s never been afraid of the repercussions, of the gossip or the potential nuclear fallout. Everyone in her family knows about her sexuality, and if they aren’t leading the Atlanta Pride Parade, they’re at least open to the idea of acceptance. April’s heart is lodged in her throat. Even now, when the choice was all but ripped from Sterling’s hands, the decision taken completely out of her control, Sterling isn’t curled up in a ball sobbing in a corner, like April might have been. She’s smiling, carefree and in love.

April aches with something like jealousy. “I wish I could be brave like you,” she says softly, like she’s embarrassed of the words. Maybe she is. It’s tantamount to admitting weakness, which is not something she is a fan of doing.

Sterling brushes her hair behind her ear. “You are brave. Just in a different way.”

April wants to tell her she’s wrong. She isn’t brave, not like Sterling anyway, not like Blair even, not at all. She’s a coward. She’s hiding in a supply closet after frankly almost ruinous sex with her girlfriend because she can’t bear the thought of kissing her in public.

“Our match is supposed to start soon,” Sterling says when it’s clear April won’t say anything else. “Don’t go easy on me, okay?”

April smiles, sinking into the relief of the out Sterling is giving her. “I’m offended you’d think so lowly of me,” she says, all faux-haughtiness. “You’re a worthy opponent. When I beat you, it’s going to be because I’m better.”

“And when I beat you, I’m going to eat you out in the backseat of your Jeep until your legs shake and you forget your own name.”

April gapes at Sterling as she slips out of the door with a kiss on the cheek and sly wink.

 

 

April wins.

Sterling still makes good on her promise. A reward, she calls it. For a job well done.

April loses the ability to form coherent sentences somewhere between her first and second orgasm. Sterling doesn’t slow down until her legs are trembling so bad April forces them to stop for an electrolyte break.

April’s trophy sits on the front seat, completely forgotten. The windows are fogged and it’s basically a sauna inside her Jeep Wrangler. April’s skin is sticky and her shirt clings to her body and Sterling wraps around her, mumbling quiet sleepy nothings into April’s shoulder, and she doesn’t think she’s ever been happier in her whole life.

Victory is sweet but Sterling is sweeter.

________________

The next day the halls are buzzing with the news of Sterling’s bombshell. It’s all anyone can talk about. Based on the explosion of pings from unsilenced cell phones April hears the moment she steps onto school grounds, it’s clear the news has caught the sails of the Willingham Academy rumor mill, and they’re all going to be swept away in the upcoming storm.

Sterling keeps her head up and Blair sticks close by her elbow as they walk into school. Blair keeps her lacrosse stick is gripped tight in her hand, and she brandishes it at any student who comes too close.

It’s like Condomgate all over again except worse, because no one’s even trying to hide what it is they’re talking about, or who they’re talking about. They openly speculate and stare, their voices loud and carrying down the hall without any regard for who might overhear.

“My mom told me drinking is the gateway to Satan’s temptation. Turns out she was right all along.”

“I just don’t get it. Kissing another girl? Gross, as if. What are you supposed to do if you’re both wearing lipstick?” A loud gasp. “Who pays for dinner?!””

“I heard if one twin is gay there’s, like, a 90% chance the other one is gay, too.”

“Do you think she’ll get kicked out of school? We’ve never had a homo before.”

“Well, first time for everything.”

“I think it’s kind of hot.”

“I can’t believe Creswell turned his ex gay! How embarrassing. He’s gotta feel terrible.”

April’s jaw is clenched so tight that it’s a wonder she still has any teeth left in her mouth. She walks straight ahead, directly into the Fellowship room. She doesn’t look at a single other student, just settles into her assigned seat near the front of the room and folds her hands in her lap, waiting.

The rest of the Fellowship group trickles in slowly, with their heads still bent together whispering feverishly. She sees Ezekiel duck inside the room, but instead of coming to sit by her like he might usually, he keeps his head down and floats somewhere off towards the back window. His shoulders are slumped and he looks dejected. April feels a pang shoot through her heart, her sympathetic nervous system reacting without her consent.

She understands his sadness. She feels it, too.

She’s been at school all of fifteen minutes and is already facing another blatant, painful reminder that for closeted queer kids at Willingham, there are no other alternatives. For some people, the truth is freeing, and for other people it spells destruction. Some people can handle the whispers and vitriol. Some people aren’t bothered by what other people say about them.

April is not one of those people. Neither is Ezekiel.

She tries to catch his eye but he keeps his head ducked, focusing on picking at his cuticles.

April makes a mental note to buy him lunch later.

A body settles into the chair next to hers. “Hi,” April says quietly to Sterling, who does her best to smile back as normally as possible. April can see the heaviness around her eyes, though. She looks exhausted already. “How are you?”

“Feeling great. It’s only 8:07 and I already can’t wait for this day to be over.”

April flexes her hands together. She wishes she could hold Sterling’s hand. Give her a comforting squeeze, even a light, friendly pat. But no, it would be too risky. Sterling + Women is going to be the #1 trending topic of the day. April can’t get dragged into that gossip cyclone.

“It’ll be alright,” she says instead, nowhere close to enough, nothing close to what she actually wants to say.

“I know.” Sterling tries to smile again. She’s not exactly successful. “I just wish it could be easier. Blair’s already checked two football players, and she’s threatened bodily harm to like the entire golf team except Luke. If she isn’t suspended by the end of the day, I’ll be shocked.”

The first bell of the day rings, and the room goes quiet without Ellen even needing to clap for their attention.

“Well, Beloved,” Ellen says with a smile. Her eyes linger for a moment on Sterling, sparing a quick glance in April’s direction, before the unidentifiable expression on her face vanishes, replaced by her regular upbeat optimism. “I know that we planned to talk about integrity today, but April asked me late last night if we could have a little topic switcheroo! And gosh, I just love that kind of gumption. Rolling with the punches, changing with the times. What a treat! Love you.” She winks in April’s direction. April smiles back at her.

Sterling was right, last year. Turns out Ellen really does have her back.

“So, I know this is a bit of a surprise, and Sterling, I’m sorry you didn’t have time to prepare anything, but I know that April is more than capable of leading a fruitful, powerful discussion this morning. Now,” she addresses the room more broadly, “I want you all to enter with open minds and open hearts, and remember: ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ Where’s that from, anyone? Anyone?”

“It’s from Luke,” Sterling says quietly. “Chapter 6.”

Ellen beams. “Yes, Sterling. Wonderful! Wonderful, oh gosh, I just love you all. Now, I know this convo might get a little teen-themed—” She winks at April again, “so I’ll just be in my office, getting my steps in. Holler if you need!”

When Ellen disappears behind her door all eyes turn to April. She wavers for a moment under the scrutiny — today, of all days, she really wishes she could just shrink into her shirt and disappear from public view. But she can’t do that. Not when the entire school is exploding with rumors about her girlfriend.

April can’t leave her out on her own like that. She can’t shrink back.

She can’t disappear.

She clears her throat. “Today, we’re going to be talking about homosexuality.” She feels the wind off of Sterling’s head when she whips around to stare at her, but April doesn’t look at her. She can’t look at her, not yet. Not if she wants to keep her nerves in check.

“Is this because Sterling’s a gay?” Franklin asks from the couch. Luke punches his thigh and he yelps, cowering away from him. “What? I was just asking!”

“I’m not gay,” Sterling interjects, her tone light and breezy. “I actually identify as bisexual.”

“What’s the difference?” someone asks, though April can’t see who. “Aren’t all sodomites the same?”

“A sin’s a sin,” Lorna nods, self-serious and infuriating. “What does it matter what you call your perversion?”

April’s nostrils flare. “Stop it.” Her tone is more steady than she thought it’d be, given the fact that she has to dig her nails in her own thighs to stop herself from vibrating apart with rage. “We are not going to speak like this. Ellen said to enter with an open mind and an open heart. So what we are not going to do is sit here and judge each other. Especially not about sinning, when some of us who live in glass houses should be more careful about where we cast our stones.” She glares pointedly at Lorna and Franklin, who both should know a thing or two about sinning, given what they like to get up to under the bleachers during 6th period. They have the decency to flush, rightly chastised. It makes the set of April’s shoulders firmer. “I don’t expect this conversation to be easy,” she acknowledges, “but we’re all adults — or almost-adults, as the case may be. When we leave Willingham, a few short months from now, we’re going to encounter things that are challenging. Things that might challenge our faith. We can’t enter every difficult situation with anger and judgment in our hearts. So if you can’t engage in a respectful conversation—” April points towards the door, “you know the way out.”

She looks around the room, waiting for someone to move. A few people shift in their seats, a few glances are exchanged. Someone coughs a few times, dry and shaky.

No one stands to leave. April straightens in her seat. “Now, leaving aside the language of judgment we so rudely encountered: I believe someone asked what the difference is between being gay and being bisexual. Sterling, would you like to answer that question?”

April turns to her in just enough time to catch her smile, soft and besotted and much too obvious, before Sterling shakes herself. There’s a pleasant tingling in April’s stomach when Sterling turns to answer the question. She directs her answer to everyone and no one, and the students at Willingham might talk a big game, but April sees the way they lean forward in their seats, their curiosity apparent and undisguisable.

“Well,” she says, “there’s a big difference between being gay and being bi, but also there isn’t. Or there doesn’t have to be. I’m bisexual, meaning that I’m attracted to multiple genders. Women, men, and maybe people who aren’t really either — I don’t exactly know yet, I haven’t had much chance to explore. If I were gay, I’d be, like… exclusively interested in women. I’m not. I like boys and girls. I like people. But not everyone uses the same terms to describe themselves. Some people say they’re gay and mean that they’re only attracted to someone of the same sex. Other people say gay and mean it more like queer, like a broad, over-arching, not-straight kind of deal.”

“But how can you know?” Jeffrey asks next. “Aren’t you, like, way too young to know if you’re gay?”

“Again,” Sterling says patiently, “I don’t identify as gay.”

“It’s actually super reductive to assume that all queer-oriented people are oriented in the same way,” Blair says from her spot on the floor. She has one leg curled under herself and her arms propped on her bent knee.

Sterling nods. “That’s right. Thank you, Blair. There are a lot of terms for how you might feel or identify, and there’s no right or wrong way; it’s just whatever feels best for you. I identify with the term bisexual, not gay.”

“Sorry,” Jeffrey says, and for whatever it’s worth he does actually sound apologetic. “But how do you know you’re bisexual? If you haven’t been able to act on it or anything, like… how can you be sure you’re attracted to girls?”

Sterling shifts. April pointedly does not look at her.

She speaks quickly, before Sterling has the chance to open her mouth. “A lot of people in this room have experienced attraction. I know I have. Anyone else?” Blair’s hand shoots up in the air, Luke’s following quickly after. A couple other people tentatively raise their hands, including Franklin and a bashful looking Lorna. “How did you know that what you were feeling was attraction? How did you know that you wanted — or didn’t want — to act on it?”

“It was like a fire in my gut,” Luke answers. “Like I couldn’t stop it. The temptation was there, and I just… knew.”

“It was Harry Styles for me,” Blair says without shame. “Long-hair Harry, obviously. When he started wearing those colorful suits… talk about a hunk.” A few other girls nod in agreement, glancing nervously between each other.

April nods. “Sometimes we feel attraction to people we don’t even know, like actors or singers. And sometimes there isn’t any big moment. Sometimes there isn’t any one specific person who flips that switch for you. Sometimes you just feel something inside your heart or your gut and you know that it’s the truth.”

The room is quiet for a few moments. April scans the faces around them, not sure what she’s looking for, exactly. She catches Blair’s eye, and Blair is actually looking at her with an expression April’s never seen directed at her before: respect. She gives April a small smile and shoots her a thumbs up. Doing good, she mouths, and April’s racing heart slows another few ticks.

“I’m sorry,” Hannah G. says into the silence. “I just don’t know why we’re all sitting here pretending like this is okay. Sterling’s a sinner. Homosexuality goes against God, and we should be praying for her to get better and accept Christ back into her life. Not talking about this whole business like it’s normal or okay. It’s not okay. Leviticus 18:22, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’

April sniffs. “Having bigoted notions about queer people is outdated. Last I checked, gay marriage is legal in all fifty states in this country. And one in 10 high schoolers in the U.S. now identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Odds are many students at Willingham are queer, and we just don’t know it. Pretending gay people aren’t our brothers and sisters doesn’t make them go away; it just makes us less able to love them.”

“You think there are others at school?” Hannah G. gapes. “Like who?”

April ignores her. “Even the pope said, ‘The key is for the church to welcome, not exclude, and show mercy, not condemnation. If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?’” There are several people giving her several different shades of strange looks. She straightens her shoulders. “Who are we to judge?” she repeats. Her eyes are drawn to Sterling like magnets. Sterling is looking at her too, but doing her best to pretend like she isn’t. “I personally think it was brave of Sterling to come out.”

You?” Hannah S. asks incredulously. “You think it was brave of Sterling to come out? Aren’t you the president of the Straight-Straight Alliance?”

Former president. We disbanded. It turns out, the straights are already aligned on almost everything.”

“But April,” Franklin’s voice is high and distressed, “Becca makes a good point. What about what the Bible says? Homosexuality is a sin, it’s an abomination. We can’t just ignore that.”

“Well, the word ‘homosexuality’ wasn’t even added in the Bible until the 1940s. So there’s a good argument to be made that even the verses we think are about homosexuality are actually about other kinds of sins. Treating men as you would treat women — as in, subjugating or dominating them.” Sterling shifts. April coughs and ignores her. “But that’s just one part of the Bible. There are tons of other verses that I think we should try to remember. Instead of just picking the flashy verses — y’all know Leviticus is a bit of a tense book — I find it better to focus on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus loved all of humankind — he lived with the poor, the hungry, the beggars and prostitutes, the degenerates, the homosexuals, and he loved them all, as God loves all His children. No matter their circumstances. No matter their choices, or the things outside of their control. God created mankind in His own image. He does not make mistakes. He does not judge. In God’s eyes, we are all His children. And parents—parents love their children unconditionally.” She swallows around the lump in her throat. Under her chair, she feels Sterling’s foot press against her shin. A small pressure, brief and just for a moment.

April’s chest aches.

She wishes she could hold her hand.

“Besides,” Blair cut in, “Jesus never actually said anything about gay people. That was all Apostle stuff. And he was a guy wandering the desert with 12 groupies — if you think they weren’t fooling around, then girl I’ve got some tough news for you.”

A few scandalized gasps break the tension. April claps her hands together, pulling focus back to her.

“I know that homosexuality might be a new concept for a lot of us. Does anyone have any suggestions for things to read or watch that might help open people’s eyes to what it’s like to be a gay American right now?”

“My mom really likes that Queer Eye show. Those guys are all so handsome.”

“There are two dads on Modern Family.

“How do y’all feel about Glee?”

“Ugh, Glee got so terrible in the later seasons.”

“Yeah, but the first two were decent! They had a boy and girl gay on that show, too. That’s good representation, right?”

April’s phone buzzes in her pocket, a few times in quick succession. She tries to pay attention to the conversation around her, even though she saw Sterling typing furtively on her own phone just a moment ago. She waits a few more minutes, then pulls out the device with as much nonchalance as she can muster (it isn’t a lot, but no one’s looking at her suspiciously, so it must be enough).

Sterling (8:33 a.m.)
You’re incredible. Amazing.
Extraordinary wonderful beautiful

Sterling (8:33 a.m.)
ily so much

Sterling (8:33 a.m.)
i love you

Sterling (8:34 a.m.)
just imagine i’m kissin g u
senseless rn. Can’t wait for
school to end so i can kiss u
like u deserve  

Sterling (8:34 a.m.)
i’m so lucky to have u

Sterling (8:36 a.m.)
I love you.

________________

Chapter Text

____________________

The romantic ideal of college acceptance — the anticipation of the wait, breathless afternoons spent crouched near front-facing windows, checking the mailbox the second you come home to see if you’ve received the thick packet or the dreadful skinny letter — is mostly a thing of the past. All college decisions these days come out via email. It makes the whole affair more mundane, a bit anti-climactic. Certainly it’s not very cinematic, not the stuff movie climaxes are made of.

That’s what she thinks, at least. Until it’s her turn to wait for the email.

April sits patiently on her email as 3:59 p.m. turns into 4:00. She hits refresh every five or so seconds for well over an hour. Cue: the most miserable and dreadful hour of her life.

April refuses to think about any of the myriad horrific possibilities as the hour ticks on and her inbox remains email-free. (Though the possibilities her subconscious brain conjures up are truly horrific. Harvard’s admissions office has burnt down, taking all files and paperwork and carefully-worked-upon applications to a fiery grave. She never sent in her application, or forgot to include a vital piece of information like her transcripts or SAT scores, and the admissions office is not even deigning to reject her formally.)

The worst thought of all, the one that needles at her brain and that she can’t quite ignore: that she’s going to be rejected like the many other thousands of students who apply to Harvard every year and get rejected. (Why should she be any better than the scores of young people whose hopes and dreams are also being dashed and stomped and spat on today?)

It’s 5:12 p.m. when the email from admissions@harvard.edu appears.

Though she’d been waiting for this exact moment, her fingers freeze on her trackpad, her cursor hovering over the little unread icon. Her eyes widen and she gapes for a moment. OFFICIAL – Class of 2025 Decisions, the subject line reads.

She slams her computer shut without opening it.

It’s a twenty-minute drive from her house to Sterling’s. Today, April makes it in 16.

She knocks feverishly on the Wesley’s front door, forgetting for a moment that she doesn’t really come over here unannounced, that Mr. and Mrs. Wesley will definitely be shocked to pull open the front door to April Stevens darkening their doorstep.

Sterling rips the door open, breathless and eyes wide. “Did you get in?!” she asks, and April is frozen for a moment.

“What?”

“Harvard decisions were supposed to come out today at 4.”

“How do you know that?”

Sterling rolls her eyes. “How do I know what time your dream school tells you if you’ve gotten in or not? Gee April, I don’t know. Lucky guess? It’s not like it’s literally the only thing you’ve been talking about for 3 weeks.”

April unlocks her phone and hands it to Sterling, still open on her email app, that little letter icon taunting her. Schrodinger’s email. As long as she doesn’t look, she’s both into her dream school and rejected; both full of pride and sunk in shame; a Harvard woman and one of the thousands of highly qualified students who get rejected from one of the best schools in the world every single year.

She can’t open it.

“You haven’t looked?” Sterling asks, taking the phone from her.

April shakes her head. “No. I didn’t… I can’t.” Sterling glances between her and the phone. There’s a quiet thought in the back of her throat, and April takes a breath before voicing it, timid and unsure: “What if they reject me?”

“Then one of the fifteen other incredible schools you applied to will let you in.” Sterling’s eyes shine. She looks so confident.

April wishes she was as sure of herself as Sterling is. “But Boston… It’s our plan.”

“Tufts isn’t that far from New York,” Sterling says easily, “so that covers Columbia and NYU. New Haven is just a car trip. And New Hampshire and New Jersey are only a couple hours away.”

“But—”

“Babe,” Sterling laughs, “maybe we should actually see if you’ve gotten in before you start doom spiraling about our five-year plan?”

April flushes. She shakes her head, staring at the phone in Sterling’s hand. “I don’t think I can look.”

“Okay. Can I look for you?”

April nods. “Please.”

Sterling nods. Her finger hovers over the screen, a moment’s pause. “Remember,” she says quickly, glancing at April again, “it doesn’t matter where you go to school. You’re the smartest girl in all of Atlanta, anywhere you go would be lucky to have you. And you still have to hear back from like ten Ivys. And I’ve got unlimited texting, and we can FaceTime like every single day even if we aren’t in the same city, and—”

“Just open it, Sterling.”

Sterling clears her throat. “Right. Sorry. I’m just nervous.”

April turns her head to the side and closes her eyes. She thinks about plugging her ears too, but that feels a little excessive. Her heart is racing, pounding in her chest so loud that she can’t hear anything over the blood in her ears.

Time seems to stretch. Everything goes silent around them.

“Oh my God.”

April’s heart sinks to her feet. “I knew it,” she mutters furiously. “I knew I should have applied early. Of course in general admissions my application wasn’t—”

“Oh my God, April! You got in!”

April freezes. Her eyes widen and she whips her head around. Sterling is beaming at her. She laughs, unexpected and delighted. April’s expression cracks. She feels light shine through the darkness.

“I got in?” she breathes, disbelieving. Sterling holds out her phone to her and April blinks down at it.

 

 

 

Dear Ms. Stevens,

I am delighted to inform you that the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid has voted to offer you a place in the Harvard Class of 2025. Please accept my personal congratulations for your outstanding—

“Oh my God, I got in.”

“You got in!” Sterling squeals, and the dam breaks.

She’s going to do it. She’s really going to do it. She’s going to Boston and so is Sterling. They’re getting out of Georgia. They’re getting out of here.

She’s really going to do it.

She laughs, an elated jolt that cuts through the afternoon.

Sterling’s arms are around her waist the next moment, and she picks April fully off the ground. She squeezes her around the waist and spins her in circles and April laughs louder, louder, her hands in Sterling’s hair and her heart soaring.

“Why are you screaming?” Blair pokes her head out the front door and frowns at their spectacle. “Did someone win the lottery?”

“Basically!” Sterling sets April down gently. She’s staring at her with that I want to kiss you so bad right now look, and it’s horribly distracting plus making April think entirely inappropriate thoughts considering they now have an audience. “April got into Harvard,” she says, so proud that April’s cheeks immediately flame.

“No shit, Stevens! Congrats.” Blair reaches over and slugs her on the arm. April, long since used to Blair’s particularly violent form of showing affection, doesn’t even wince. “Knew that big brain would get you somewhere eventually.”

She rubs at her smarting shoulder. “Thank you, Blair.”

Blair smiles at them for another moment before her face shifts. “Oh, God,” she groans. “This means you two are both gonna be in Boston together. I’ll never get a Sterling weekend alone. Ugh, you’re going to be insufferable about it, aren’t you?”

Nothing could dampen April’s spirit. Sterling is smiling like she’ll never stop. “That’s the plan,” Sterling says with a laugh, and for a moment, April could swear she’s weightless.

________________

Sterling (2:47 p.m.)
can you come over?

April (2:53 p.m.)
Now?  

Sterling (2:54 p.m.)
yes

Sterling (2:54 p.m.)
wait

Sterling (2:54 p.m.)
wait I need 30 more mintues

April (2:56 p.m.)
For what?  

Sterling (2:57 p.m.)
Can you come over at 330?

April (2:57 p.m.)
I ask again: For what?  

Sterling (2:57 p.m.)
yes or no

April (2:59 p.m.)
Fine.  

*Sterling loved a message*

Sterling (2:59 p.m.)
yayyyyy  

April (2:59 p.m.)
You know I hate surprises.

Sterling (3:00 p.m.)
You’ll like this one. promise

Sterling (3:00 p.m.)
<3

.

.

April (3:30 p.m.)
I’m outside. Should I come to the door?

 

Sterling (3:31 p.m.)
come around back!!

 

April walks around the side of the house trepidatiously, her phone clutched in her hand. “Sterling?” she calls, half-hoping she’ll get no response. Her birthday was only a few weeks ago, and April made a very big deal of dropping how much she hates surprise parties into every conversation possible. She seriously, desperately hopes she isn’t about to be accosted by a bunch of people in cheap cardboard hats blowing those horrible kazoos.

“Up here!” Sterling calls from the screen porch.

“I sincerely hope you’re the only one up there!” April calls as she climbs the stairs.

“Why, are you naked?” Sterling calls back, and that cracks her.

April laughs, her steps lightening. “You wish,” she says when she catches Sterling’s eye through the screen door. Sterling is beaming, looking a bit like the cat that ate the canary. “What?” April asks through the end of her laugh. “What’s that face?”

Sterling gestures with one hand around them, keeping her other behind her back. Her sunflower yellow dress is one April hasn’t seen before. It looks lovely on her, and her hair is particularly flattering, too. Half up, braided down her back, shiny and soft.

It takes her aback. Sterling dressed up for this. Is she missing something? She mentally catalogues all the important dates — anniversaries, birthdays, half-birthdays, half-anniversaries (Sterling loves to celebrate), graduation, college acceptance letter arrival day, Easter and other early-spring holidays — but today isn’t anything special.

Sterling rolls her eyes in good-natured annoyance. She gestures around them a little more dramatically, and April’s eyes finally scan the space.

She blinks, surprised. The Wesley’s porch looks nothing like how she remembers it. Streams of string lights are carefully tacked up. There are scattered photos on the wooden posts between screens, dozens of images laid in succession. A small iron table is set up to one side, two plates neatly piled with colorful donuts, two glasses of milk in mason jars (non-dairy probably, because this is the Wesley household and Blair has been on an anti-dairy industry tirade every since she watched this gross documentary in her AP Environmental Science class).

April blinks back to Sterling. “What—?”

“I know it’s trendy to do the big public asks but, well…” Sterling pulls a single rose from behind her back, freshly de-thorned. On a simple piece of tasteful stationary, in precise loping cursive that looks painstakingly practiced, one word: Prom?

“Who needs to go viral on TikTok, right?” Sterling finishes.

April is stunned. She takes the flower delicately, like she’s afraid too much pressure will snap the stem. She looks around the space with a growing sense of wonder as she realizes what this is. The photos hanging under fairy lights are photos of them. Snapchats no one else ever saw, secret joint selfies they kept only for themselves, carefully cultivated, carefully saved. Printed on real photo paper and everything, ordered and paid for and not cut from a home print job on shitty 8x11 paper.

It’s sweet, and lovely, and April can’t believe she did all this without her knowing. “When did you do all this?”

“This morning. I got up at like 5, made Blair drive us up 85 to that donut place we went to that one time? Do you remember?”

April does remember. A day in late summer. They stayed up all night and drove an hour and a half in the pre-dawn light, sleep deprived, because April wanted donuts and Sterling was determined to find her a shop that sold bacon maple.

“I wanted us to be there right when they opened.” Sterling bounces on the balls of her feet, twisting her hands together. “Do you like it?”

“Sterling… it’s amazing.” She looks down at the flower in her hand, her fingers teasing the edge of the stationary tag. It’s tied to the rose with a thin, delicate bow. It’s simple, and lovely.

“So…” Sterling lifts up onto her toes and settles back down, “Prom? You have to officially say yes or it doesn’t count.”

April takes a breath. “Sterling…”

“I know what you’re going to say,” Sterling cuts her off before she can say anything else. “And I’ve already thought it through. We’ll go as a group! You, me, Blair, Luke… just the people we trust. We’ll drive together, get dinner beforehand, maybe even get a limo? And when we get to the dance we can… sit at the same table, dance next to each other maybe?” Sterling’s mouth is quirked up. She looks so hopeful, so expectant, and God, April wants. She wants more than she thinks she’s ever wanted. She wants to go to a dumb dance with Sterling. She wants to dance with her, she wants Sterling in a pretty dress and a pair of high heels, she wants a corsage on her wrist and her girlfriend on her elbow. She wants to dance, she wants to kiss her, she wants all of those horribly cliché, terribly cringe-y high school moments. She wants them. The ache of it in her stomach is like an open, bleeding wound.

But.

But there’s a but. There’s always a but, as long as they’re talking about public displays of affection in front of the Willingham student body.

But Sterling’s got that hopeful little smile on her face, and April can’t break her heart. So she says, “Can I… think about it?”

Sterling’s smile still slips. Her shoulders droop, like someone’s just tied a heavy anchor around her clavicle and thrown it overboard. She frowns, her lips drawing thin. “April,” she says, a little incredulous. “C’mon. It’s not that hard. I’m just asking you to go to prom with me. Not even with me with me! Next to me! We’d basically be carpooling.”

“And I… am… thinking about it.” Sterling’s lips press into a tight line. April huffs. “Prom is two months away, Sterling. Do I have to answer you right now?”

“I’m your girlfriend. What is there to think about?”

“So I can’t have any time?”

“Time to do what? To figure out whether to go with me? Or whether to go at all?”

April shifts her weight. “Dances are… very visible.”

Sterling just stares at her. “You can’t be serious.”

“It’s all anyone can talk about right now! Who’s taking who to prom, who has a date and who doesn’t, who’s wearing what dress — it’s just a lot, Sterling. I don’t like idea of all that extra attention. I don’t… want people to gossip.”

“I get it,” Sterling says, her voice wavering and her expression unreadable. “So now that I’m the school’s resident homo, you don’t even want to be in the same group as me?”

“Sterling,” April says curtly. “That is not what I’m saying. Don’t put words into my mouth.”

Sterling sighs. “What are we even doing, April? We’ve been together for more than a year, and this is the last thing we’re doing at Willingham before we graduate. We’re into our colleges — we’re going to Boston together next year, for goodness sakes. It’s not like Harvard is going to revoke your acceptance just because you’re gay.”

April’s nostrils flare. That’s not fair. That’s not fair. Yes, they’re graduating. Yes, they’re leaving Atlanta. And yes, Harvard isn’t going to rescind her acceptance because she’s a lesbian. But it’s not as easy as that. They aren’t disappearing into the void after graduation. There’s still the summer, there are still college breaks where they’ll have to come home, there’s still the looming specter of social media that will follow them through the rest of their lives. There’s the church, their families, the weeks they still have left of exams, the vindictive power of homophobia.

It’s not that easy.

“I know when you and Luke were together he let you do basically anything you wanted,” April starts. Her voice is low and pointed, her words sharp and digging. She knows just where to press where Sterling doesn’t want her to. “You made all of your relationship decisions because Luke is a pushover who’d let you do absolutely anything you wanted to him just to please you. But I’m not Luke, Sterling. You can’t just make decisions for us without consulting me. I know you want to come out, I know you’re tired of hiding. I’m sorry about that. I am. But I don’t want to spend my last few months in Atlanta at the center of a heinous gossip tree. And I don’t think that’s crazy of me!” April’s breathing is heavy, her pulse uneven.

Sterling looks down at her feet. “I’m sorry.”

April rubs at her eyes. “I’m not… in the mood to do this right now. Will you take me home?”

Sterling frowns. “But you drove here?”

“I Ubered.”

With that, April turns on her heel and marches to the driveway. She stands next to the Volt with her arms folded over her chest. She taps her foot, patiently waiting for Sterling, who eventually emerges, dragging her feet, after several long minutes. She takes her time closing and locking her front door, and waits until she’s right up to the car before she finally unlocks it.

“April—” Sterling tries, but April slips inside the car without a second look.

She closes the door with a snap, and buckles her seatbelt with a calmness that hides the roiling in the pit of her stomach.

Sterling is slower to get in. She sits on the seat gingerly, and glances at April a few times.

“Start the car, please.”

Sterling shakes her head. “My parents have this rule where we aren’t allowed to drive while we’re having a big family fight. My dad thinks it’s dangerous. Increases road rage.”

“We’re not fighting.”

“Really?” Sterling sounds skeptical. “Because you look super mad.”

“I’m not mad,” April denies. Sterling gives her a look. “Okay, I’m mad, but we’re fine. I just need some time to think. Please.”

“I really think we should talk about this.”

“Well I really think you need to start respecting my feelings. We aren’t going to work as a couple if you steamroll over everything I want.”

Sterling gapes. “If I steamroll?!”

April inhales sharply, air whizzing through her nose. “Don’t start.”

“Sorry,” Sterling grumbles. She turns the key, and the car sputters awake.

Sterling drives her home in silence.

It’s a very tense twenty minutes.

She stops the car in front of April’s house. They haven’t exchanged a word in almost half an hour, and the thickness of their silence is getting close to unbearable.

April unhooks her seatbelt. She looks at Sterling, who grips the steering wheel with her clenched hands. Twenty minutes of tense silence certainly allows a person to do a lot of thinking, and April’s brain has been whirring at about a hundred miles an hour, cycling through every word of their fight, every emotion she felt throughout.

The emotion that finally settles, once Sterling has pulled to a stop in sight of the Stevens house, but still a block and a half away, is guilt.

She sighs. “Sterling.”

Sterling taps her thumbs against the steering wheel. She doesn’t look over at April, keeping her attention firmly on the road in front of them. April knows she should get out of the car. She knows that’s what Sterling wants. A cooling off period. It would probably do them some good.

She twists in her seat, instead. “Sterling,” she tries again, softer this time. She puts her hand on Sterling’s forearm. For whatever it’s worth, Sterling doesn’t pull away. “I’m sorry.”

Sterling shrugs, still not looking at her. “Whatever.”

“I can’t… go to prom with you as your girlfriend.”

Sterling deflates. The angry tension in her shoulders dissipates into nothing. She nods slowly. April doesn’t know why it makes her feel worse that Sterling looks mostly resigned. “Okay.”

April slides her hand up and grabs Sterling’s hand, pulling it off the steering wheel. Sterling’s eyes follow the movement, and she lets April pull her.

“But…” April says, and Sterling’s eyes flick to her, making eye contact for the first time since they left her house, “I would like to go in your group.”

Sterling perks up. “Really?”

April nods. “Really.”

“You, me, Blair, Luke?”

“And Hannah B. and Ezekiel.”

Sterling’s lips twist. She looks down at their joined hands. “You’re not afraid of showing up to prom dateless with Willingham’s only openly queer female student?” The vulnerability of the question is obvious, and it stabs, sharp and uncomfortable, between her ribs.

April shakes her head. “No,” April assures her. “It was never about that.”

“Then what was it about?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not very good at… controlling myself, around you.” Sterling quirks her head, one eyebrow raised. April digs at her cuticle. Sterling moves her thumb to stop her from picking at the skin. April’s always picking at her skin, tearing off strips thin and translucent, bubbles of blood and red hot irritation springing up behind. It’s an ugly, nervous habit.

April smiles at the gesture. Sterling hates when she hurts herself. “You make me… impulsive,” she admits. “I’m worried we’re going to show up and all of my careful planning will fly out the window and I’ll look at you wrong and…” She shakes her head. “It’s stupid. We aren’t brainless, perpetually horny sex machines.”

“Easy enough to say now.”

April’s eyes flick up. She catches Sterling’s teasing smile. “Be serious.”

“I’m deadly serious. You haven’t seen how good I look in my dress.”

April blinks quickly. “You already have a dress?”

Sterling’s ears go a little pink. “Yeah, uh…” She clears her throat. “My mom’s been talking about prom dresses since I turned 15. Of course I already have it.”

“…What color is it?”

“Why, do you want to coordinate?”

April rubs her fingers together. Sterling is teasing, but there’s some part of her expression that is genuinely curious. She looks like she wants to press April, push against her to find the point at which she gives.

April doesn’t necessarily want to discourage her. “Well, complementary colors would improve the outcome of our group photos. Aesthetics are very important, especially if you’re looking to maximize your social media impact.”

“Ah, so this is just about that social media training you made me sit through.”

“Social media presence matters for a lot of reasons, Sterling. It can impact college acceptance, future career opportunities, not to mention it’s a genuinely viable path to wealth and notoriety.’

“I don’t know if I’d call getting Twitter famous ‘notoriety’.”

“People get book deals off of how many followers they have on Twitter.”

Sterling blinks. “That’s not true. Is that true?” April nods solemnly. “Wait,” Sterling shakes her head abruptly. “Hold on. I feel like we’re getting off track, here.”

“Forgive me for caring about how you come across to future employers—”

“April,” Sterling cuts her off. “Off-track.”

“Right. Sorry. We were talking about…?”

“Dress color.”

“Right. And you said your dress is…?”

Sterling smirks. “I didn’t.”

April pouts. “Sterling, please.”

“How about I send you a picture later? You can decide whether or not to coordinate.”

“Thank you.” Sterling smiles. April smiles back. “I think… if the others agree, I think it sounds kinda nice. We can do the whole ritual, the whole nine yards.”

Sterling nods. “No one will bring a date. We’ll all just… show up together. Blair can swing something proto-feminist, make it seem like an intentional statement or whatever.”

April thinks it’s best not to let Sterling settle on that idea. Letting Blair run wild with her feminist rants never ends in a good night for anyone (even April, who enjoys the hell out of a good feminist rant). “We can take group pictures. Paint our nails, do our hair…”

“The whole nine yards,” Sterling parrots.

“We’ll have the night. Dinner and… and we’ll have the limo ride to be who we are. To be…” Sterling smiles, but it’s so soft and sad that April’s stomach somersaults. She squeezes Sterling’s hand tight, and Sterling squeezes back. “That’s the best I can do,” April whispers.

Sterling nods again. “Okay. I can do that.”

April leans across the center console and kisses her. Sterling reaches up and cups her cheek. Her thumb rubs tenderly.

April pulls away and rests her head against Sterling’s. “What you did for me was really beautiful.” Sterling brushes their noses together.

Sterling’s mouth quirks up. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” April kisses her, a light press of lips. “Personal, beautiful, private. All ours. It was… the perfect promposal. You know me so well.”

“Heck yeah I do. And Blair said I couldn’t do romance.” She scoffs. “I am the queen of romantic gestures.”

“Heck yeah, you are.” April rubs her thumb on the back of Sterling’s hand. “It’s just a couple more months, Sterl,” she says, much softer than before. “We’ll be together, we’ll be free, just… I just need a couple more months. Just to get out of Atlanta. But after that, there’s no more hiding. No more pretending. Never again. I promise.”

Sterling brings their joined hands to her lips. She presses a few soft kisses to April’s knuckles. “A few more months,” she whispers into April’s skin, and April feels tears prick at the corners of her eyes, but she doesn’t let them fall.

Just a few more months.

________________

Turns out there are a lot of steps involved in going to prom. So they divide and conquer. Blair handles the limo rental, since her on-again-off-again boyfriend apparently has connections to a few professional drivers who will take them for two hundred bucks cash if they pay him under the table. Thankfully, the rest of the arrangements are not so legally-questionable. Ezekiel reserves the restaurant (the regular way, by calling a few weeks in advance). April offers up her house for pictures (her mother will even be present, in fact all of the parents are invited to participate in the time-honored, cliché, horribly embarrassing, actually kind of cute tradition). Sterling is in charge of packing snacks and beverages (non-alcoholic, because Sterling’s already played with enough fire in the underage drinking department, so she’s the only person April trusts not to spike their drinks) for the after-party. Luke and Hannah B. are not assigned responsibilities, which they all agree is for the best if they actually want to eat dinner that night and/or end up at the dance at all.

Prom arrives faster than April could have anticipated. She’s not sure if that’s because she’s excited for it or dreading it. It’s a bit of both (which she is allowing herself to feel, because complicated opposing emotions are allowed to exist together in the same body, and that doesn’t make either less than the other).

.

.

Sterling’s dress is a lovely shade of red. April knows this because Sterling sent her a picture of it laid out on her bed, with a pair of strappy heels propped next to it. (Okay, you didn’t tell me you were wearing heels, April texts her, only a little bit serious, because Sterling is already taller than her and April was going to wear heels anyway, she knows how to accessorize for formal occasions, but still, her very tall girlfriend might have thought about their height difference before choosing footwear that’ll make April look even smaller next to her).

Sterling’s dress is red. That might influence April’s decision to choose a dandelion yellow dress for herself. Not that she’d ever admit it. Also, she looks great in yellow.

Sterling’s dress is red. April knows this because she’s seen it. Or pictures of it, at least.

But nothing quite prepares her for the sight of Sterling on her front porch, purse in hand, hair loose around her shoulders, wearing the absolute hell out of her dress, a deep luxurious red that did not translate well via iPhone camera. Sterling’s earrings match the delicate gold band of her necklace. Clearly she also knows how to accessorize. April has to tip her head back to look her in the eye, and the effect is more than a little dizzying.

“Hi,” April says, breathless for absolutely no reason.

Wow,” Sterling says back, her eyes wide.

April flushes. She knows she looks good. Her hair took her mom a whole two hours to do. She offered to make an appointment for April at the salon to get it professionally done, maybe even colored (Just a shade or two lighter, dear, you’ll barely notice the difference), but April hadn’t wanted all the fuss. It was nerve-wracking enough thinking about the evening without all of the tittering hairstylists asking her pointed and hard-to-avoid questions about non-existent boyfriends and/or hunky dates. She gets ready at home, without all the pageantry, and she knows she made the right decision.

She’s kept her hair mostly natural, and her makeup is light, too. Sterling always says she looks best when she looks most like herself.

“You look amazing,” Sterling says, and April pinks, the pleasure of the compliment warming her all the way down to her toes.

She glances behind Sterling and there’s already a small group gathering in her driveway. The Wesleys, who are admiring the rose bushes in the front yard, as well as Luke and Hannah B., who carpooled together because they’re neighbors. No Ezekiel yet and, more curiously, no Blair.

“Where’s Blair?” April asks with a frown.

Sterling rolls her eyes. “She’s waiting in the car. She wants to make a grand entrance when everyone’s outside.”

“Dramatic.”

“Of course. It’s Blair.” That’s explanation enough.

“Hi, April!” Luke calls, waving his hand over his head as if she might not be able to see him otherwise. She waves back.

Sterling beams. “Your hair is really pretty,” she whispers.

Luke lets out a low whistle. April’s eyes snap up, ready to glare (because yes, she looks good, but she has no desire to have a man whistle at her like she’s some sort of animal), but Luke isn’t looking at her. April frowns, but then someone clears their throat dramatically and she turns her attention, her frown still in place, before her mouth nearly falls open.

“Dude,” Luke says seriously, all of his attention towards where Blair has just emerged from the Wesley’s car, “you look awesome.

Blair grins and holds out her arms. The suit she’s wearing is an attractive cobalt blue. She does a twirl, and the breeze she makes puffs her suit jacket away from her body, revealing a pair of neat brown suspenders against her crisp white button down. A matching bowtie hangs undone around her neck. Her brown wing tips are buffed to a smart gleam. Her hair is half braided on one side, the other side falling in loose waves, neat and artful.

“Wow, Blair,” Hannah says, her eyes wide and her expression awed. “You look so good.”

Blair beams at her. She struts up the driveway, more than a little swagger in her step. “You like?”

Hannah nods her head very quickly. “Totally.”

Debbie reaches over and smoothes out Blair’s collar. She futzes with the ends of Blair’s hair too, pushing it off her shoulder, then pulling it back in front, then pushing it off again until Blair pushes her hand away with an embarrassed, “Mom, stop.

Debbie pulls her hand back and looks at her daughter, her eyes a little wet and shiny. “You look very sharp, Blair,” she says finally, and Blair’s answering smile is reserved.

“They fought about the suit for six weeks,” Sterling murmurs only to April.

“What got your mom to cave?”

Sterling shrugs. “Blair wasn’t backing down. And she showed her a bunch of pictures of Cate Blanchett and Kristen Stewart. Proving women can still be feminine in suits calmed her down a bit.”

April gets a curious look on her face. “Is Blair…?”

“Is Blair what?” April tilts her head. Her eye contact is pointed and direct. Sterling’s eyes widen. “No. No no, no. She’s not—” a quick glance to make sure no one’s listening, then Sterling mouths ‘gay’. “She’s just an ally.”

“If you say so.”

“Hey losers!” Blair calls up to them. “Get down here already! Let’s start snapping these pics.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Ezekiel?” Hannah asks, her eyes distracted on Blair’s undone collar. She reaches up and tugs the loose bowtie until it hangs evenly. “His parents are driving him from his grandmother’s house. But he should be here soon.”

“April,” Sterling says, just loud enough for her voice to carry, “do you mind showing me where the bathroom is? I haven’t been here in like ten years.”

She was there sneaking into April’s bedroom only last weekend, but April of course is not going to bring that up. “Of course,” she says, and as she leads Sterling into her house she catches Blair’s eye very briefly. Blair waggles her eyebrows at her, and she makes some sort of lewd hand gesture down by her waist that April flushes and tries not to see.

Sterling follows her all the way to the guest bathroom, down the hall next to the kitchen, the last door on the left. All pretense abandoned, April grabs Sterling’s hand and yanks. She pulls Sterling into the room behind her and closes the door with a soft click.

Up close, Sterling is even more beautiful. With her heels on she stands a good three or four inches taller than April, which is very attractive.

“Hi,” April says again, leaning back against the sink and feeling suddenly a bit shy.

“Hi,” Sterling says back, her eyes languidly raking up and down April’s form now that there’s no one to hide from. “This dress is… wow.

“You look beautiful,” April says.

“Hey, that’s my line.”

April leans up to kiss her. She has to stand on her toes, and she rests her hand on Sterling’s shoulder for balance. Sterling smiles into the kiss, her nose brushing April’s as she pulls back.

“I have something for you,” April watches Sterling’s lips say. It takes her a second to process the words.

“For me?”

Sterling rummages in her bag for a moment before she pulls something out. “I know you probably don’t want to wear it,” she mumbles, holding the box out for April’s inspection, “but I couldn’t show up as your secret prom date without bringing you a corsage.”

“It’s beautiful.” It really is. It’s small, as far as corsages go, with only two red rose buds and a few green ruscus leaves framed by delicate baby’s breath. She pops the container and lets her fingers brush over the rose petals. She holds out her wrist. “Will you put it on for me?”

“You…” Sterling blinks. “I just thought you could keep it in your fridge or something. You don’t need—”

“Put on my corsage, Sterling.” Sterling does, only fumbling for a moment. It slides onto her wrist easily and April looks at it, loving the texture against her wrist. “It’s lovely. Thank you.”

April kisses her again. She wants to get her fill of kisses now, while she still can, with Sterling looking beautiful and fancy in these stolen moments, before they have to go outside and go back to being friends. She’ll take all the quiet intimacy she can get.

But oh no, now she’s messed up Sterling’s lipstick. April bites her lip as she gently wipes around the corners of her mouth, cleaning up any potentially damning smears.

“Hey, April?” Sterling asks around April’s fingers. “Were you checking out Blair earlier?” April’s ears go a little pink. She clears her throat and pretends to be especially invested in fixing Sterling’s makeup. Sterling’s answering gasp is affronted. “No. Were you?”

April kisses her again. It takes a few minutes, but Sterling is effectively distracted.

When they reappear outside a few minutes later, Blair smirks at them. “Nice lipstick color, April. It looks familiar, but I can’t think of where I’ve seen it…”

April hopes the blush in her cheeks can be confused for rouge. “This shade of red is very popular.”

Blair smirks. “Oh, I’m sure it is.”

.

.

This might be the most fun April’s ever had in a single night. Hannah B. runs the music in the limo, playing the best of 2010s pop — Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, all the favorites they can jam to. Blair makes extensive use of the extra car space, performing an athletically improvised lip sync to ‘Bad Romance’. Luke does a solo rendition of ‘Call Me Maybe’ that makes Ezekiel snort Coke out of his nostrils.

But the best part of it is how they don’t have to have any walls up. For the first time in all of high school, April is sitting with her friends and being perfectly, completely herself. Sterling has an arm around her waist and she doesn’t let go, even when she doubles over laughing when Blair slips off the bench trying to do a complicated spin kick move.

Sterling pulls her seat out at dinner, and kisses her cheek over dessert, and April doesn’t even look around to check and see if anyone notices. She feels like a different person, inhabiting someone else’s life. With her fancy dress and her done up hair and the atmosphere of it all, she feels… free.

It’s a bittersweet feeling, because she knows just how fleeting it is. They can all feel it. The closer they get to the dance, the more the mood in the limo shifts. Blair starts fussing with her suit, making sure it lays right. Ezekiel and Hannah talk quietly amongst themselves, and Luke taps his hands against his thighs, humming nervously under his breath. April sees him shoot a few looks their way, and she knows he’s only worried about them, but it doesn’t make her feel any better.

The car stops, and no one moves for a moment. “Well,” Blair says after a second, “guess this is our cue.” She glances at Sterling and April. “We’ll, uh… give you guys a sec.”

The other four pile out of the limo, leaving Sterling and April alone on the bench.

April takes a breath and turns to find Sterling already looking at her. She opens her mouth, wanting to say something but not knowing exactly what, but Sterling just leans forward and kisses her softly.

April’s heart clenches. She holds Sterling’s hand tightly, not yet wanting to let go.

Everyone else is out of the limo. It’s just the two of them behind, still clutching each other.

“You look beautiful,” Sterling says quietly, and she’s already told her as much, she went practically non-verbal the first time she saw April. Blair’s teased her endlessly about it tonight.

“You said that already.”

“Yeah, and I’ll keep saying it. I’ll say it as much as I want, because it’s true. The most beautiful girl in the whole school.”

It isn’t fair of Sterling to say things like that to her. All open and vulnerable, not knowing the effect she has on April’s heart, on her crumbling resolve.

April’s smile is involuntary. Her heart swells and lifts every part of her body up. Her soul settles completely for the first time all night. Every feeling leaves her except for the certainty of this: “I love you.” April says when she means so much more. What she feels can’t be boiled down to three little words. Not when what she means is I need you, I respect you, I adore you endlessly, I can’t believe I got so lucky, I can’t believe you’re so patient, I can’t believe you’re real.

“I love you, too.” Sterling leans forward and presses a soft kiss against her lips. She pulls back a beat later, her thumb brushing after, swiping her lipstick off of April’s lips. “Shouldn’t show up wearing the same color,” she explains quietly, her eyes soft, her expression only slightly tinged with sadness.

April wants to stop her, wants to grab her wrist and say, Let it stay, let them see you on me, let them think what they want. She opens her mouth and nothing comes out. She takes a breath instead.

“Maybe we can sneak out and catch a slow song in the hallway?” Sterling fills the silence. “I’d really like to dance with you tonight. Where no one can see, obviously,” she appends quickly.

“Right. Yes. We… should.”

Sterling squeezes her hand and winks. “See you out there?”

April follows after her in a daze.

She doesn’t see the lobby of the hotel, or the hall they walk down to the elevators. She couldn’t tell you what floor they start on, or what floor they end on, or if they go up or down to get there.

The elevator doors ding, and they emerge into a room already packed with other Willingham juniors and seniors. She hears the exclamations of the people around her. A few guys from the golf team call to Luke, and Hannah B. runs off to hug a few of her friends, leaving the rest of them to find a table to lay down their things. They pick something near the doors, a little bit away from where most people are congregated.

“I love this song!” Blair yells over the thumping techno beat. It’s a song April doesn’t know, but Sterling’s eyes light up in recognition. Blair grabs Sterling’s hand. “Dance with me, Sterl.”

Sterling looks to April. “Can I?”

April smiles. “Go have fun. I’ll be here.”

Sterling lets Blair drag her into the mass of dancing bodies. Ezekiel drops a hand to her back and April blinks, realizing she’s been staring.

“You okay?” Ezekiel asks kindly, and April nods and makes sure her expression is as happy as she can force it. This is what she wanted, after all.

.

.

God, why had she wanted this? What mental deficiency convinced her this is what she wanted? April is dumbest person in the world. No, worse than that: she's the worst person in the world. She has a girlfriend, a beautiful, lovely girlfriend who loves her more than anything. A girlfriend who she hasn’t been able to spend more than five minutes with since they got to this dumb hotel.

It’s the slowed down part of the evening. The part of every event that centers music and/or dancing, late in the evening when the bubble gum pop turns into cringe-y crooning ballads, but right before the parent rock nostalgia hour that rounds out the night. It’s the time of the night when all the students have arrived from their various dinner arrangements, when the couples all march onto the floor to slow dance while all the single people watch jealously from the sidelines. A time-honored tradition of high school humiliation.

It’s prom. There’s terrible music and awful dancing and Sterling in the center of it, having the time of her life. And April, here on the sidelines, watching her with what must be the most obvious expression of longing that any human being has ever worn. She can’t help it.

Luke is slow dancing with Sterling. Sterling catches her eye every so often, her eyebrow quirked as if to ask, Are you okay with this? and April nods every time through her tight throat, her heart pounding like she’s just run a half-marathon.

She hates this. This is the worst thing she’s ever done. Her girlfriend is dancing in the middle of the crowded ballroom, smiling softly at her, forgiving and kind and understanding, and April’s just stuck on the side of the room watching her. Luke’s hands are on her waist and they keep a respectful distance, of course, and she’s not jealous of Luke. Not anymore. That ship has long since sailed, and their friendship is real now, solid and separate from his relationship with Sterling. It’s not jealousy she feels when she looks at them, because there’s nothing to be jealous of. It’s not jealousy. At least, not the way you might think.

Sterling wanted to dance tonight and Luke can dance with her. Luke can put his hands on her waist and they can sway together and laugh together and no one even gives them a second glance, because he’s Luke and she’s Sterling and the sight of the two of them together is the most normal thing in the world.

“You know…” a voice says from next to her and April jumps. She hadn’t noticed Blair sidling up, and she flushes now, wondering exactly how long Blair has been watching her moon over her sister. “That’s not a great expression to wear if you’re trying to convince people you aren’t a raging lesbo.”

April glances at her without turning her head. “I’m not sure you’re allowed to say that to me.”

“Why not? You are a raging lesbo.”

“Still. Feels homophobic.”

Blair knocks April’s ankle with her toe. “What’s homophobic is you eye-fucking Sterling across the room when you have absolutely no plans to do anything about it.” April makes a noise in her throat, the only acknowledgement that what Blair has said is true. “Damn, no snippy comeback? You’re really cut up about this aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” April snaps. Blair just looks at her, clearly unphased. April sighs and rubs a hand over her eyes. “I’m a terrible person.”

“You’re not terrible,” Blair disagrees. “You’re just mopey.”

“Same difference.”

“You don’t have to be mopey, you know? You could actually do something that will make you both happy?”

Sterling catches her eye again, and her expression relaxes. She smiles a little wider, happy to see that April isn’t alone anymore. She waves from behind Luke’s back and April and Blair wave back.

“She looks happy right now,” April says quietly, because she does. Sterling and Luke have always gotten along. He’s a poor April substitute, but he’s funny and his tux is clean and his dancing has gotten a lot better recently. April hasn’t seen him step on Sterling’s toes once tonight, which must be a new record for him.

“April,” Blair scoffs. “Come on. She’s almost as miserable as you are. She’s just better at hiding it.”

April’s stomach twists, because she knows Blair’s right. She can see that little flicker in Sterling’s eyes whenever their gazes catch, and they’ve caught a lot tonight. “It is what it is,” she says, quietly resigned.

“Wait.” Blair has a wild look in her eyes. “Wait, I have an awesome idea. Oh fuck yeah, this is good. Okay, give me five minutes.”

“For what?”

“To convince you to go over there and dance with my sister at her senior prom.”

It’s April’s turn to scoff. “Five minutes is enough for you to eradicate homophobia at Willingham?”

“You’re dramatic. No. I just need a second to set something up. Promise it’ll be worth it.”

“You’re not going to do something embarrassing like announce us both prom queen, are you?”

Blair laughs. “What is this, Carrie? No. Just… wait here. And get ready to cut in.”

“Blair—!”

“Five minutes! Three, even!”

She dashes by Ezekiel, making his way over from the drinks table. He pulls a face when Blair almost runs into him, but doesn’t say anything snide, which just proves that even he’s in a good mood tonight. He offers April one of the cups in his hand, and she smells sugary Hawaiian punch. She shakes her head. Ezekiel shrugs and finishes his own drink before starting on the one he brought for her.

“How are you doing tonight?” April asks him.

He takes another long slurp through his straw and smacks his lips. “I'm good. Thinking about how in 3 months I’ll be in New York and I’ll never have to share eating space with these greasy aspiring bigots or deal with this bullshit anymore.”

“Bullshit is right.” She smiles at Ezekiel and he smiles back, and she realizes with a start that he might be her best friend in the world (after Sterling, obviously). Their relationship has changed so much in the last year. They know each other better than she ever would have thought. They share something gigantic, something they’ve both been too afraid to acknowledge publically. Something about shared secrets brings people together. But it’s more than that. They get each other, the way only two closet cases can. She wonders if Ezekiel thinks of his own sexuality the way April thinks about hers — something that isn’t shameful but that also isn’t convenient, something not to be changed but to be hidden away for better or for worse.

Suddenly, she has to ask: “Do you regret it? Staying in the closet for this long?”

Ezekiel shrugs. “Nothing to really regret. I’m Black and gay, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s kind of obvious I’m not like the other guys here. Willingham was hard enough without me flaming that fire. No pun intended.” He shoots her a side-long glance. “Then again, there wasn’t anybody to risk it for.”

April swallows. “Would you have risked it? If there had been… someone?”

“If I’d had the chance to dance with a cute boy at my senior prom?” Ezekiel turns to her and puts his hand on her shoulder. His smile is small and a little sad. “I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I let that boy go un-danced.”

A familiar guitar pattern starts thrumming over the speakers, and April jolts. She whips around to the DJ booth and sees Blair standing next to a young Black boy with earphones hanging around his neck. Miles, she suddenly recognizes. She shoots April a thumbs-up.

She mouths something that April can’t catch. April squints at her and leans closer, trying to make out what she’s mouthing from across the room.

GO! Blair seems to shout, and just like that, the decision is made.

April walks towards them without thinking. She thought her heart would be beating more rapidly, or her palms would be sweatier, or maybe her knees would be weak. She thought she would feel more panic. But the decision has actually calmed her. She doesn’t think she’s ever been more sure of anything in her life.

Sterling recognizes the song after she does. She abruptly stops dancing with Luke, a motionless couple in the throng of swaying bodies, and casts about, clearly looking for April, but April is already at her side.

Born in a hurry, always late
Haven’t been early since ’88.

They don’t notice her until she’s right by them. She taps Luke on the shoulder and Sterling and Luke turn together.

“Can I cut in?” April asks him, and Luke blinks for a moment before his lips split into a grin. He steps back and April takes his spot seamlessly. Sterling’s mouth is frozen, her lips slightly parted. She doesn’t look like she’s breathing.

“Is this okay?” April asks as she steps into Sterling’s space, her hands slipping onto Sterling’s waist.

Sterling’s hands go to her shoulders reflexively, though she still looks shell-shocked. She can only nod. April smiles and takes a step closer, leaving room for nothing between their bodies, not even Jesus.

They begin to sway.

I’m alright with a slow burn
Taking my time let the world turn

“Are you sure?” Sterling asks softly. Her eyes never leave April’s face. April doesn’t look away from her, either.

She nods. “Standing over there, watching you dance all night without me… I thought I could handle it. I thought just being here would be enough for me. But it isn’t. And it isn’t enough for you, either.”

Sterling starts to object, “But people might—” but April stops her with her lips.

Sterling sinks into the kiss with a happy sigh. The world around them drops away. April doesn’t know if anyone has noticed them, doesn’t know if anyone is watching them kiss, can’t bring herself to care.

When she pulls back she rests her forehead against Sterling’s. Their noses brush, and Sterling’s smile is bright enough to light the entire room, and April knows she’s made the right choice. Consequences be damned.

She’d do anything to see Sterling smile like that.

“If love is supposed to be a risk, then I actually have to risk something, right?” April says quietly, and Sterling’s eyes shine. “I want to dance with my girlfriend at our senior prom.” Her thumbs rub over the soft fabric of Sterling’s dress. “You deserve that. We both do.”

“I love you,” Sterling whispers, only loud enough for April to hear.

Old soul, waiting my turn
I know a few things, but I still got a lot to learn.

April kisses her again, swallowing Sterling’s delighted laugh with her lips and her tongue. She hears someone whoop off to the side, someone who sounds suspiciously like Blair, but she doesn’t pull away long enough to investigate.

Mm, I’m alright with a slow burn

________________

The last 2 weeks of school are kind of hell. Or they would have been, if April cared one iota about what anyone at Willingham thinks about her. The truth is, she just doesn’t. Not anymore. She can’t.

How can she, when she can suddenly hold Sterling’s hand when they walk down the hallway together? When Sterling can kiss her at her locker in the morning? When they can arrive at school together and leave together, without worrying about what it looks like or who might see them and suspect something untoward? Let them suspect. April has no secrets, not anymore.

Do people say rude things under their breath? Obviously they do, teenagers are cruel, but they’re always scared off by Blair or, on one memorable occasion, Luke and his golf club. Ezekiel saves her a seat every day in Fellowship, and Hannah B. still invites her over for dinner twice a week as if nothing’s changed. (In fairness, April’s not entirely confident she actually knows that she and Sterling are dating, or that has any idea at all that April’s gay, but that’s neither here nor there.)

She tells her mom and it goes… okay. They don’t talk about it more than the once, but she hasn’t kicked her out, so… it’s okay.

Actually, it’s better than okay. It’s good.

Because she holds Sterling’s hand at lunch. Sterling kisses her after Spanish class, there in the hall in front of everyone. And people are mean and their ideas about homosexuality are (generously) underdeveloped, as teenagers are underdeveloped, but for the most part, the majority of the students don’t really care that she’s a lesbian. A few of them even smile at her still. Ellen beams and gives her the biggest hug April's ever seen her give anyone, and all-in-all, it’s a little anti-climactic.

Or maybe that’s just freedom she’s feeling. Maybe it’s just contentment. Maybe it’s just Sterling’s hundred-watt smile that chases away all of the badness.

________________

The night before graduation finds her outside the Wesley’s home, holding a bouquet of flowers that she spent way too long picking out at Trader Joe’s (she also spent thirty minutes driving to and from the Trader Joe’s just for these flowers, but that’s for her to know).

She takes a breath, steadying herself. She wipes her hand down her dress, smoothing it against her thighs, hoping to get rid of her sweaty palms and any wrinkles in the fabric. She checks her makeup briefly in the shiny doorknocker on the Wesley’s front door.

Now she’s just stalling.

She takes another breath and raises her hand. Her finger hovers over the doorbell for a moment, then two, then several more.

The door opens without April doing anything and she jumps back, startled.

“Sorry,” Blair says, not sounding very sorry at all. “I could see you through the window. Wasn’t sure you knew how a door worked, since you were standing out there for like five minutes.”

April glares. “I was psyching myself up.”

“Well, now you’re appropriately psyched.” She pushes the door open and gestures for April to step inside. “Sterling’s been freaking out all afternoon. Maybe you can calm her down.”

She’s freaking out?” April hisses, looking around the foyer nervously. “I’m the one meeting the girlfriend’s parents!”

“Considering Sterling and I arrested your dad twice, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be doing this the other way around.”

“I guess not.” April glances around the house again, toys with the idea of kicking off her shoes before deciding it’s probably best to keep them on. In case she has to make a quick exit.

“Hey,” Blair steps in front of her, blocking the view of the rest of the house. “For real: are you okay? Teasing aside, I know you must be nervous.”

“I’m nervous. But okay.” She looks down at the bouquet in her hands. “Do you think your mom will like these? I spent half an hour trying to decide.”

“Iris and Stargazer Lilies? Pretty sure she’ll trade you for me as soon as she sees them.” Blair smirks. “Sterling tell you which flowers to get?”

April flushes. “I do my research. I like to be prepared.”

“April!” Sterling’s voice breaks into their conversation from halfway up the staircase. She rushes down the rest of the stairs. She’s wearing a pretty dress, summery and light blue, her hair loose down past her shoulders. She looks lovely. She always looks lovely. The sight of her settles April’s stomach.  “When did you get here? I didn’t hear the door.”

April shrugs and Sterling steps into her space. She wraps one arm around April’s waist and hugs her tightly.

“Hi,” she murmurs after a moment. “You look really pretty. New dress?” April nods and Sterling kisses her quickly. Her heart almost seizes in her chest and she can’t help the initial flash of panic. Sterling’s never kissed her in her house before. Not when her parents were right in the next room.

Sterling feels her stiffen and she pulls back at once. “Sorry. No kissing tonight?”

April swallows. “Maybe after I know your parents don’t hate me.”

“They won’t hate you,” Blair interjects, and April had almost forgotten she was next to them. “You brought flowers, so you’ve already beaten Luke. He never bought our mom anything.”

“Well, we started dating when we were twelve, in fairness,” Sterling defends fairly.

“You’re gonna be fine, April,” Blair says with a smile, ignoring her sister. “I’ve got your back. Both your backs. We’ve got this. Nothing to worry about at all. Worst case scenario, the car’s all gassed up, if we need to make a quick escape.” April barks out a quick laugh.

“Blair,” Sterling cuts in with a frown. “Ignore her,” she says to April. “She’s just joking.”

“Just trying to lighten the mood!” Blair says, leading the way through the house.

“Thanks for coming,” Sterling whispers as they make their way slowly toward the kitchen. She keeps one arm around April’s waist and April can’t tell if it makes her uncomfortable or if it’s grounding. She doesn’t pull away. “Mom found out about us from someone at the club, so I haven’t heard the end of it all week. Apparently our kiss at prom made big news with the Willingham PTA. She was so pissed. ‘You can’t date anyone until your father and I meet them, Sterling,’” Sterling mocks, “‘those are the rules!’” She rolls her eyes. “Sorry to spring this on you so last-minute.”

“It’s fine,” April says, because it is. Sure, her heart is racing and her stomach is full of lead, but they were going to have to do this sooner or later.

“Mom, April’s here!” Blair announces as they enter the kitchen. April’s fingers tighten around the bouquet in her hand, and she feels Sterling’s hand on her waist grip her a little tighter, too.

Mrs. Wesley’s smile is tight, but she at least sounds sincere when April hands her the flowers and she says, “These are beautiful, April. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

Mr. Wesley looks at the contact between her and Sterling, seemingly flustered, and April feels a little self-conscious about the arm around her waist but not enough to do anything about it. His expression clears a moment later when he shakes himself and finally says, “Why don’t you girls go set the table? Dinner will be ready in a hop and a skip.”

.

.

“So, April,” Anderson starts as he cuts into his lasagna (vegetarian, in line with Blair’s new dietary restrictions), “where are you going to school next year?”

April makes sure to keep her feet flat on the floor and her back straight. She doesn’t bounce her knee, though she desperately wants to, because fidgeting gives a bad first impression. “Harvard, Sir.”

“Harvard!” Anderson looks impressed. “Helluva school. That’s a helluva school. Your parents must be proud.”

“My mother is, Sir. Yes.” Sterling’s hand comes to her knee. A light squeeze.

“Harvard and Tufts are very close together, aren’t they?” Debbie asks pointedly. Her eyes flick to where Sterling’s hand has disappeared under the table. Sterling stares back at her and doesn’t move her hand from April’s leg.

April swallows. She can hear her heart beating in her ears. “Yes, Ma’am. They’re both Boston schools.”

Debbie hums, turning her attention back to her plate. “Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, you know.”

Sterling’s hand finds hers and grips like a vice. Blair’s mouth falls open. She glances at April, who doesn’t let her gaze stray from the woman at the head of the table. “Yes, Ma’am. I know.”

Debbie hums again. “Well, just make sure you aren’t distracting each other from your studies. I know a new city can be exciting, but school always comes first. You got that?”

“Yes Ma’am,” April repeats, nodding seriously.

“You don’t have to keep calling us ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’, April,” Anderson says with a soft smile. “Mr. and Mrs. Wesley is just fine.”

“Yes, S-Mr. Wesley. Thank you.”

Her fingers are going numb under the pressure of Sterling’s grip, but April doesn’t ask her to let go. When she glances at Sterling next to her she can see that her eyes are welling with tears, like she can barely contain herself.

“Thanks, Mom,” Sterling says softly, her voice choked up.

Debbie looks up at her and must see something April can’t decipher in her expression, because her eyes fill with tears, too. She nods and her smile is tentative, lingering a moment too long.

She clears her throat and takes a sip of her wine and the moment breaks.

It’s not perfect after that. It’s a little weird and uncomfortable. Mr. Wesley smiles too widely and Mrs. Wesley drinks a little too much wine and April is so nervous she could throw up, so she barely tastes her food. But Blair is fiercely normal, and Sterling never lets go of her hand, and April is charming; parents love her, and Mr. and Mrs. Wesley aren’t immune to her perfect ass-kissing abilities.

By the end of the night Mrs. Wesley even hugs her goodbye, and it almost feels natural.

Sterling kisses the breath out of her after she walks her to her car. She presses April up against the driver’s side of her Jeep and April loses herself in the feeling of her.

Sterling cups her cheeks, her eyes shining. “That went so great. You’re so great. Thank you. You’re so beautiful. You’re so amazing and smart.”

Sterling is all of that and more, so much more, but April can’t find the words to tell her. She settles on the only thing she can, which is: “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

She kisses Sterling again, vaguely aware that they’re loitering outside the Wesley home, vaguely aware that there might be watchful and/or disapproving eyes on them. Very aware of how visible they are, she kisses Sterling without hesitation.

They kiss for a few more minutes, their kisses slowing down periodically until they’re just standing in each others’ arms, breathing together. “Thank you for waiting for me,” April says into the soft night. “I know I haven’t made it easy.”

Sterling chuckles. “As if I had another choice. I wasn’t about to let you go. Yeah, it hasn’t always been easy, but look where we are now. We graduate tomorrow, and then we’ve got the whole summer together. And then: the rest of our lives.”

“Sterling…” April admonishes softly. She doesn’t like when Sterling does stuff like this, when she talks about them like they’re inevitable, like they’ll always be inevitable. She doesn’t like when Sterling talks about their future like she’s so confident it’s a sure thing. April doesn’t like to think like that. Not when things are so changeable, so unsure.

Sterling just shakes her head. “No, I’m standing by what I said. You won’t bully me out of it, not this time.”

“I don’t bully you.”

“You absolutely do.”

“I don’t bully. I… helpfully suggest, until I get my way.”

Sterling laughs out loud. “Well, not this time. I can’t help it. I think you’re it for me, April.” April can feel her heart clench in her chest as all the breath leaves her lungs for the second time tonight. The panic must be apparent on her face, because Sterling squeezes her hips and whispers against her lips, “I know that’s a scary thing to say. I know you have this whole future plan and I know me saying this totally throws a wrench in your post-doc career path. But I want you to know that, like, as far as my future’s concerned… you’re in it. You know?”

“You can’t know that.”

“Sure I can. I’m manifesting it. Speaking it into existence.” She presses a soft kiss to April’s jaw. “I won’t let it be any other way.”

“There are some things you can’t control.”

“Wow,” Sterling pulls back with a laugh, “that’s a big admission, coming from you. Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“I’m serious, Sterling,” April whispers, her strength already tenuous.

“So am I, April. Look, I don’t know many things for sure. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the planet, or what I’m going to study in college. I don’t know what winter in Boston will be like or how living in a city will change us. But I know that… wherever I go in life, you’ll be there with me. Forever.”

April kisses her instead of responding. She’s never been good with her words the way Sterling is. She’s never been able to leave the other girl breathless with just a few lines. That’s a Sterling gift, not an April gift, but another Sterling gift is that she knows that about April, knows that she can’t always find the words, that she’s more inclined to speak with her touch than with her throat. And Sterling kisses her back, because she knows this is how April says I love you and I trust you.

April doesn’t know if Sterling is right or not. It’s impossible to say. They’re so young, and adulthood is long, and there are so many twists and turns between now and forever.

But right now she’s 18, and in love, and Sterling Wesley is kissing her absolutely senseless against her car, and they have a whole summer to spend together before they go to college in the fall. For now, one thing she knows for certain: the future isn’t set in stone, but she can still see that it’s bright with possibilities.

________________

Chapter Text

4 Years Later

 

“Okay,” Blair says, looking down at her phone, checking the time against the ‘Arrivals’ board for what might be the tenth time in as many minutes. “Sterling’s flight landed twenty minutes ago. So keep your eyes peeled for a tall, blonde girl. She looks like me, but, like… way less pretty.”

The girl standing next to Blair bites her lip to swallow her laugh. “I know what your sister looks like, babe. I’ve seen her before.”

Blair scoffs. “Yeah, in pictures! Through the phone screen on FaceTime calls, but never in person. The phone distorts the image, you know.”

“Blair,” the woman says, looping her arms around Blair’s shoulders, dragging her attention away from anxiously scanning the crowd of holiday travelers swelling through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Blair glances over her shoulder, her attention half-pulled away. “Baby,” she tries again, nudging her nose against her girlfriend’s, her nose ring cool against Blair’s flushed skin, and this time Blair’s posture loosens. She slips her arms around her girlfriend’s waist and sighs when Sama kisses her cheek.

“Why are you freaking out?” Sama asks softly. “I’ve met Sterling. We’ve talked, exchanged Insta handles. She’s one of my top friends on Snapchat, you know. That girl loves to take pictures of her food.”

Blair sighs again. “I know. I’ve been working on it with her, but it’s like her social media is stuck in 2014.”

Sama chuckles. “She’s a dork, like you. I like dorks, and we already know she likes me. So what’s with the anxiety?”

“Nothing.” Sama gives her a look. Blair shifts, and tries again. “Just… my family is kind of a lot. And you’ve never met them before.”

“You think they won’t like me?”

“Don’t be crazy, Sam. They’ll love you. You might not love them .”

“And why’s that?”

“Why won’t you like a couple of rich, white, conservative southern Methodists? Gee, no clue,” Blair says sarcastically.

“I grew up in a religious household. I’m not Christian but I’m not going to be freaked out by it. I can do religious parents.”

Blair grimaces. “Yeah, maybe don’t tell my mom you’re not Christian. She’s crazy about that stuff. Sterling almost dated this Baptist guy one summer when we were like 10, and I’ve never seen her force a smile like that. Face crack of the century, seriously. So… let’s build her up to it?”

Sama bites down her smile. “Okay. We’ll build up to that.”

“Blair!” someone shouts from across the room. There, standing near baggage carousal 3, is—

“Sterling!” Blair screams, and the Wesley sisters run towards each other, backpacks bouncing against their lower backs, suitcase wheels rattling and clacking against the linoleum.

They scream and jump into each other’s arms as a crowd of mostly confused but slightly scared travelers give them a wide berth.

Sama watches it all with an amused little half-smile.

Another blonde woman has sidled up next to her. She watches Sterling and Blair, still locked in a fierce embrace, and lets out a small sigh. Sama glances over and recognizes Sterling’s girlfriend from all the pictures Blair’s shown her in preparation for this visit.

“You must be Sama,” the girl says, holding out her hand with very little preamble. Sama takes it and shakes twice. “I’m April.”

“Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Likewise.”

A squeal from the pair of sisters next to them.

“When did you get this piercing???”

“My birthday! I wanted to get your reaction in person. So,” Blair turns to the side, framing her new industrial bar with her hand, making sure her hair is out of the way so Sterling can get the full effect. “What do you think?”

“O. M. G.! I love!”

“Are they always like this?” Sama asks April quietly.

April, her eyes caught on the Wesley girls, her mouth caught in a half smile, just nods. “You’d think it’s been years since they’ve seen each other, not three months. They do it every time. You’ll get used to it.”

And wow, that’s kind of a nice thought.

“Gosh, I’m so rude!” Sama grunts as a pair of arms wrap around her shoulders. She blinks, a little surprised at the armful of Sterling Wesley she now has to contend with. “Hi!” Sterling says into the hug. “I’m Sterling, but you know that already.”

“Nice to officially meet you,” Sama says, tapping Sterling awkwardly on the back.

“Oh, sorry.” Sterling pulls away quickly. “Do you not like hugs? Some people don’t like hugs. I’m not great with personal space, we’re a pretty touchy famiy, but just let me know and I can—”

“Hugs are fine, Sterling,” Sama says with a smile. Blair warned her about Sterling’s rambles. Best to cut them off before they get going.

“April,” Blair says with a nod.

“Blair,” April acknowledges. “No undercut yet? I’m surprised.”

“How’s Harvard? They still preparing a bunch of misogynists to clerk for the worst Supreme Court Justices in American history?”

April laughs. “Obviously. It’s Harvard.”



“So, you know Blair from college?” April asks politely.

Sama nods. Sterling and Blair have their arms linked together, chattering away as they lead their girlfriends through the airport and towards the airport exit.

“We’re in the same acapella group.”

“Wow, you’re dating someone from your acapella group?” April calls up to the pair of girls in front of them. “That’s very gay of you, Blair.”

“Thank you, April. I appreciate that.”

Sterling ducks out from Blair’s arm and falls back into step with Sama and April. “I just want to say, Sama, it’s really exciting to meet you.”

Sama smiles. “I’m excited to be here.”

“Yeah, Blair has dated a lot of people. Like, a lot of people.”

Okay ,” Blair says quickly, tugging on Sterling’s hand, “maybe let’s cool it with the… that, okay?”

Sterling laughs. “I just mean… she’s never brought anyone home, before. It’s very exciting. You’re going to love Atlanta.”

The holiday traffic is a bit overwhelming. As is true of most American airports, ATL is designed to be maximally confusing with suboptimal traffic conditions, passengers funneled and spat out into the dry December evening. Even though it’s already almost past dinner time, there’s a bit of sunlight left and the airport is absolutely crowded with holiday travelers. The girls assumed that their late afternoon arrival would mean an empty airport, but clearly they were mistaken. Blair squints towards a sign, mumbling under her breath about rental cars.

“Didn’t Mom say she’d pick us up?” Sterling asks.

Blair shakes her head. “There was a crisis with the Christmas Pageant costumes, apparently. Dad couldn’t leave work either, so we have to find our own way home.”

“We could split a cab?” April suggests.

“Or Uber,” Sterling says quickly. “Much cheaper.”

“Yeah, good luck getting a car in this mess.” Blair sighs. “We really should prepare better.”

Cars pull up and leave slowly, a slog of drivers not using their turn signals and double-parking, flashing blue and red lights trying to direct traffic and failing spectacularly. A black SUV pulls up in front of them and honks twice, which makes April scowl and Sterling cover her ears.

Honk! Honk! the horn blows again.

“Hey, asshole!” April yells, dropping her bags and marching towards the offending car.

“Uh oh. Sterling?” Blair says uneasily. 

Sterling just sighs. “I’ve got her, hold on. She does this when drivers are particularly rude. She’s got terrible road rage.”

Sama looks at April’s fuming figure, stalking towards some guy’s nice Buick. “But she’s not even driving.”

“April Stevens, the only girl in all of the world who has road rage as a pedestrian,” Blair jokes.

“Listen you inbred, entitled, gas-guzzling jerk ,” April shouts. “I don’t know who you think you are, but—”

A head pops out the driver’s side window. “Please don’t kill me, April!”

April blinks and pulls up short. Blair bursts out laughing.

Luke ?” April says incredulously.

Luke Creswell waves from the driver’s seat. “Hi!” he shouts through the open window. “Oh, wait, hold on.” He clambers out of the door, managing to get his foot caught in his seatbelt and almost face planting into the asphalt, but with a few hops and curses he rights himself. He yanks his shirt down before doing a sweeping and exaggerated bow. “A little birdy told me that the Wesley girls didn’t have a ride home from the airport. So I’m here, with the big car, to take you home.” He beams.

April throws her arms around his shoulders. Sterling slams into her body a second later, wrapping her arms around the pair of them. 

“Honking at April Stevens,” Blair says, shaking her head and dragging their bags towards the pile-up of bodies against the Creswell’s Buick. “You must have some serious death wish, bud.”



“Um… okay,” Blair ventures once they’re all packed together in Luke’s car. Luke is driving and Blair is sitting shotgun, because she remembers how Luke drove in high school and she’s not taking any chances. The backseat is a bit squished, with April and Sama flanking Sterling’s lanky body with knees scrunched up in the middle seat, because she insisted on sitting bitch even though April is the obvious choice, with the smallest legs and hips. You couldn’t ask for a more obvious display of how different the Wesley sisters are than that. “Before we get to the house,” Blair glances over her shoulder, “there’s something I should say.”

“Uh oh,” Sterling mutters.

“Never good,” April agrees.

“It’s fine! It’s fine. Just…” Blair glances over her shoulder again.

Sama catches her expression. “What?” she asks. Blair clears her throat and looks back at the road. “What? Do your parents not know you’re gay, or something?” she jokes.

“No, they know that, of course.”

“Yeah, Blair is not good at keeping secrets,” Sterling offers from the back row. Blair glares at her through the rearview mirror. “What? It’s true, you aren’t. And you wore a suit to our senior prom. That was very gay of you.”

“You’re one to talk!”

“Hey, I hid a secret girlfriend for a whole year and a half!”

Blair rolls her eyes. “Oh please . Some secret. Homophobia and lack of imagination of seventeen-year-old young Republicans, that’s the only thing that kept you two in the closet.”

“Hey!”

“You were so obvious . Playing footsie at lunch, mooning over each other in class, making terrible excuses to spend time after school together ‘planning Fellowship meetings’.” That last part is said with dramatic inflection and liberal air quotes.

Sterling punches her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Sama cuts in, “can we get back to whatever the problem is? Because I’m still a little confused. Is this a race thing? Do they not know I’m Indian?”

“They know that, obviously.”

“Nothing about this is obvious, Blair. Are you gonna tell me or do I have to keep guessing?” Blair fidgets. “Do they not know I’m trans?”

Blair frowns. “Actually… okay, that wasn’t what I was thinking about but… no, they don’t know that.”

“Blair.”

“Well that’s because I didn’t want to out you! I wasn’t sure if you wanted them to know, or not. That was not avoidance, that was me being considerate.”

Sama rubs at her eyes. “Will you just spit it out, please?”

“They… might not know that we’re dating.”

Sama blinks. “They what now?”

“I was just… thinking it over in my head, on the plane?” Her voice pulls up at the end, making every sentence unsure so they all sound like questions. “And I’m not… entirely confident that they know you’re my girlfriend girlfriend?”

“Then… what do they think I am?”

A beat passes. Then two. “It’s possible they think you’re my college roommate.”

Blair .”

“I told them we were dating! I swear I did. In the fall, before Thanksgiving, I told them I was going to the Austin Film Festival with my girlfriend. And they were like ‘Cool, great awesome!’ so I thought they knew. But… when I was home for Thanksgiving, Mom made some… weird comments.”

“What kind of comments?” Sterling asks.

“Dropping hints. Like, ‘Oh, Jeffrey Parker is single. You know Jeffrey, right? He’s going to be a vet.’ Weird stuff like that.”

“Like she was trying to set you up? With a vet ?” The incredulity in Sama’s voice is well-deserved. Vets are the lamest of the medically-trained professionals, they spend all their time taking care of cute animals and they don’t even get to see gnarly surgeries. Plus they’re so nice. As if Blair could date someone nice. She’d probably make the poor boy cry.

Blair cranes her neck to glare at Sterling. “I blame you for this, by the way.”

“Me?! What did I do?”

“You and April went to Paris for Thanksgiving—”

“We were doing our semester abroad!”

“—leaving me home alone with Mom and Dad! I was outnumbered. What was I supposed to do?”

Sama rubs at her eyes again. “So your parents think you brought your college roommate home for Christmas? And they don’t think that’s weird?”

“Well, I told them you couldn’t go home. Because international travel is so expensive this time of year. And you and your parents have a… strained relationship.”

“‘Strained’ is certainly a word for it.”

Blair sighs. “You’re pissed.”

“Yeah, Blair. I’m pissed.”

“It’s not a big deal.” Several pairs of eyes shoot her very similar unimpressed looks. Blair flushes. “Okay, it’s kind of a big deal. But we’ll tell them! The second we’re out of the car, I’ll be all, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, remember Sama, the girl I told you about? Well she’s my girlfriend and we’re in a gay relationship together. Merry Christmas!’”

“Great plan, Blair,” April says snidely.

“No one asked you, Stevens.”



“Oh, my girls! It’s so good to see you.” Debbie squeezes Sterling and Blair, one twin under each arm. “I can’t believe it. Your last Christmas as college students!”

“Only if Blair doesn’t flunk out.”

Debbie’s eyes flash and she pulls back from her daughters. “If Blair doesn’t what now?”

Blair kicks at Sterling’s shin. “She’s kidding, Mom.”

Sterling smiles sheepishly. “Sorry. Bad joke.”

“Terrible joke,” Debbie admonishes. She turns her attention to the rest of the group. “April, sweetheart,” she says with a soft, beaming grin, already holding out her arms expectantly.

“Hi, Debbie,” April says with a shy little wave. She’s always been nervous around the Wesley’s; she can’t help it. She has a preternatural need to appease authority figures, up to and especially including her girlfriend’s parents. No matter how many years it’s been, she’s still anxious to please them.

“C’mon, give me a hug. We’re a hugging family, you know.” April flushes a little and steps into Debbie’s outstretched arms.

Debbie rubs her shoulders a few times before pulling back, keeping her hands on April’s shoulders to get a good look at her. “You look beautiful, as ever. I just love this hairstyle on you.” April blushes again.

“Mom,” Sterling warns, because no matter how many years they’ve been dating, April still isn’t used to physically affectionate parental types, and Sterling knows that she has a physical touch quota that’s quickly being filled.

Debbie waves her off. “I’m sorry your mother had to be out of the country for Christmas, but we’re so glad you get to spend your holiday here with us.”

“I’m glad, too. Thank you for opening your home to me.”

“Oh honey, you know our home is always open to you. Speaking of which,” she turns to the lone male figure amongst them. Luke, though he’s several inches taller than any of the women around him, seems to shrink into the back. “Lucas,” Debbie teases, “I see you hiding from me.”

“Hi, Mrs. Wesley,” he says, stepping forward into her hug like the rest of them have had to.

She rubs his back. “Thank you for getting my girls, Luke. Will you wait here? I have a tin of cookies I want you to bring home to your mother.”

“Yes, of course.”

“I made them from a wonderful gingersnap recipe. And you tell her I can email it to her if she wants.”

“Will do, Mrs. Wesley.”

“Mom,” Blair steps in front of her, intercepting her mother on her way to the door. She reaches to the side and hooks Sama’s fingers, pulling her next to her. Debbie blinks between the two of them. “You remember Sama, right? My girlfriend?”

Debbie blinks again. “Your girlfriend.”

“Yeah. My girlfriend.” Debbie and Blair look at each other for a few long beats.

The silence stretches into uncomfortable, and Sama clears her throat and holds out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Wesley.”

Debbie blinks, and her manners win over her surprise. “Oh honey, we’re a hugging family here.” She pulls Sama into a short, slightly tense hug. She lets go a moment later. “It’s lovely to meet you. A bit of a surprise, considering the circumstances. But we’re very excited to have you.” She looks toward Luke. “Just a minute, Luke. I’ll be back with those cookies.”

“Take your time, honestly.”

“In the meantime,” Debbie says, turning to her daughters again, effortlessly back on hostess duty, “why don’t you show the girls to the guest rooms. Then Sterling, Blair, I’m sure your father would love some help in the kitchen.”

Mom !” Sterling and Blair groan simultaneously.

“Separate bedrooms, are you joking?” Blair huffs.

“We aren’t sixteen anymore,” Sterling joins in.

Debbie fixes them both with a stern look. “My house, my rules, girls. Unless you’re married, it’s separate bedrooms for any and all significant others.”

“Mom,” Sterling pouts. The famous Sterling Wesley pout, melter-of-hearts. “April and I literally live together.”

Debbie pauses for a moment, glancing between her two daughters. “Fine,” she acquiesces. “April can stay in your room, Sterling.” Sterling fist-pumps.

Blair works very hard not to stomp her foot. “Mom! Not fair! Sterling’s girlfriend gets to stay with her but Sam doesn’t? What happened to equality? What happened to not treating one twin different from another? What happened to—?”

“Blair Anjelica Wesley,” Debbie says and Blair immediately shuts up. When the middle names come out it’s never a good sign. “Now, I’ve made up my mind. We can revisit this discussion when we don’t have guests. But for now, I think your girlfriend probably wants to unpack.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Blair mumbles. She leads the way inside, a little sheepishly. She leaves her own bags by the door and helps Sama bring her things to the guest room in the basement, which is nicer than the one upstairs because it has its own bathroom attached.

Once the bags are deposited on the bed, Sama sets down her backpack and clears her throat. “So. That went well.”

Blair sinks heavily on the bed. “I’m so sorry.”

Sama sighs. “It’s fine, Blair.”

“No, I… I’m sorry, Sam. Really .” Blair rubs her face. “I really didn’t think she’d make you sleep in a different room.”

Sama shrugs. “You said they were religious. We could have guessed.”

“She’s just annoyed at me. She hates things being sprung on her. We’ll work on it, she’ll change her mind. She’ll loosen up as we get closer to Christmas and the eggnog comes out and everyone starts singing carols. She always does. Get a good showing of Rudolph in and she’d volunteer our living room for a menorah lighting ceremony.” Blair takes Sama’s hand and pulls. Sama, only a little reluctantly, lets herself get dragged onto Blair’s lap, her knees framing her legs. Blair slips her hands into her girlfriend’s back pockets, enjoying the soft feeling of new denim and the give of muscle and skin beneath it. She presses a few light kisses to Sama’s neck, and Sama, despite herself, softens at the intimacy. “I really am sorry,” Blair murmurs.

“I know you are,” Sama whispers back. She lets Blair nose at her neck for a few moments longer before she pulls away and asks the question that’s been nagging at her: “You didn’t hide our relationship on purpose, right? Because you were worried they weren’t going to like me?”

“Of course not. That was totally an accident. Besides, what’s not to love about you? You’re super hot and, like, an uber-genius. Wait’ll we tell them you’re gonna be a doctor.” Blair winks. “Nothing the Wesley’s like more than someone with a good career-earning potential.”

Sama shakes her head, not quite believing it. “Your mom just seems so… open with April. Even with Luke, and he’s an ex. But when she hugged me... ” 

The insecurity is surprising, and Sama is surprised with herself for voicing it. She’s not the type to get insecure around parents — she’s never been the type to particularly care what anyone thinks of her — but… Blair is different. Blair’s family is different. Blair cares about what her parents think, even when she tries to pretend that she doesn’t. And that makes her care about what the Wesleys think, if only because it means so much to her girlfriend. Sama’s never been much of a people-pleaser, it’s not in her nature to placate other peoples’ feelings, but it feels distinctly important that she please these people. And she can’t help but feel like she’s already fucked something up. Like the deck has been stacked against her before the cards have even been dealt.

“You seriously cannot compare yourself to April,” Blair says. She tightens her hold on Sama and pulls her closer, and Sama allows herself to be pulled. “Take it from someone who spent, like, twenty percent of her adolescence doing just that. God Himself could not have designed a more perfect partner for one of Debbie’s daughters. April goes to our church for Christ’s sake. She was Fellowship Leader at our high school. As soon as my mom got over her homophobic freak out she basically started planning Sterling and April’s wedding, complete with color swatches and mock bouquets. Pretty sure she’s got a whole Pinterest board set up. But it’s not a competition, and I’ve stopped thinking of it that way. That’s Sterling’s life, not mine. It’s not healthy to spend my time wanting something that wouldn’t make me happy. And,” she leans forward conspiratorially, her breath hot on Sama’s neck, “if I’m being totally honest with you, my mom disapproving of my romantic partners has mostly been big in the ‘pro’ column.”

Sama laughs at that. “That does actually make me feel a little better, believe it or not. Despite the insinuation that your mother already dislikes me.”

“She doesn’t dislike you. And even if she did, it wouldn’t change anything about the way I feel about you. It would honestly just make you hotter.” Blair waggles her eyebrows. “Speaking of… I know something else that might make you feel better.”

“Oh?”

“Wanna smoke?”

Sama shakes her head. “I didn’t bring any weed with me, are you crazy? On a plane? No chance, they’d take away my Visa in like a second.”

“Ha ha , I have a solution to our problem.” Blair wiggles her eyebrows again and pats Sama on the back of her thighs, urging her up. She clambers higher up the bed before clambering up near the pillow, wobbling a bit on the mattress. Blair reaches up to the top shelf of books that sit above the headboard, rummaging for a moment. Sama had noticed the bookshelf, but she assumed this room had been converted from someone’s study and hadn’t thought much about it. Blair finally pulls out a thick book, a thousand or more pages. The burnt orange cover reads, in red block letters, One Hundred Years of Socialism .

Sama knocks a brow. “A bit of light reading before bed? Not exactly the weed I was promised, but I’m not opposed.”

“Very funny,” Blair says as she flips it open. When she looks, Sama can see that the inside has been hollowed out. She cranes her neck to peer inside when Blair lets out a shout of success and pulls something out. She wiggles a baggie. Inside are two joints, a little crushed but mostly intact.

Sama laughs. “Hilarious. Very appropriate. But ouch, couldn’t you have destroyed something worthless? Like Ayn Rand?”

“Cut up a copy of The Fountainhead? In this house? Someone would notice that. But you think Debbie and Anderson are going to pick up a book about socialism any time in this hell dimension?”

Well, Sama can’t deny that logic. “Points.”

Lighting up outside the Wesley’s suburban mcmansion is quite the head trip, and Sama says as much as soon as Blair passes her the joint. “I can’t believe you smoke outside your parents’ house.”

“This is actually a very common suburban activity. Rich kids with too much time and too much disposable income. Leads to a kind of rampant drug problem. Even at a school as uptight as ours. Sometimes I wonder if the parents just looked the other way, or if everyone was really as slick as they thought they were.”

Sama rolls her eyes and takes another drag. “White people are crazy,” she says on the exhale, passing the joint through a cloud of thick smoke.

“We continue to be crazy. And extremely stupid. But God bless the stupidity.” Blair lifts the joint to her forehead in something like a mock-salute.

“I meant I can’t believe you smoke outside your parents’ house. You told me your mom found out Sterling drank one time in high school and she made her sleep outside in a tent for like a week. And you smoke on her property?”

Blair arches an eyebrow. “I’m a rebel, what can I say?” She pauses for a moment. “Well… that, and I told her the smell was a family of skunks that moved in under our porch.”

Sama’s laugh starts out and one chuckle, barely a puff of air, but then, contagious like a sneeze, she laughs again and again. Until she’s doubled over, and Blair is too.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I know,” Blair says through her own tears. “She still believes it, too.” They devolve again into laughter. An endless fit of giggles that gets more and more absurd (and their laughter thus deeper) with every passing second.

.

.

Later that night, after dinner (with a suspiciously smiley Blair and Sama, who kept giggling to each other like they were in on some joke), Sterling wanders down from upstairs, looking for a glass of water because it’s late and April’s still curled up in bed reading her book and Sterling’s gotten restless just scrolling through Instagram. When she enters the kitchen she sees her mom with her head tipped and her nose in the air.

Debbie frowns out the kitchen window. “Those damn skunks,” she mutters. “I’ve been meaning to call someone about that. So strange, they go months without bothering us and then all of a sudden…”

“We have a skunk problem?”

Debbie startles and turns around. “Apparently so,” she says before smiling at Sterling. “What are you doing up?”

“Just… wandering, I guess.”

“Well, I was about to make some tea, if you’d like to join me?”

Sterling smiles. She used to love late-night teas with her mom. They got in the habit when Sterling was in eighth grade, right before she started high school. She would wake up in the middle of the night with aches in her stomach from anxiety and stress, unable to sleep and unable to sit still. Most of the time her mom would be awake too, because Debbie is a notorious night-owl and does her best baking after 9pm. So when Sterling would stumble downstairs half-asleep with a racing heart, her mom would make her a mug of tea and talk Sterling through her various panics about starting at the upper school at Willingham. She’d listen as Sterling fretted about how hard classes were going to be and if everyone was going to hate her once they got back from summer break, self-conscious because she grew about four inches in as many months and all of a sudden she towered over other fourteen-year-olds. But a nice mug of green tea with honey, and her mom’s confidence that Sterling was special and smart and beautiful just the way she was, always helped her go back to sleep.

“I’d love that,” she says, and Debbie smiles and pats the spot at the island that’s always belonged to Sterling.

After a minute or two of silently waiting for the water to boil, Sterling says, “Hey, Mom?”

“Yes?”

“I just… wanted to say thank you.”

“Aw, that’s very sweet, Sterling. Thank me for what?”

“For everything with April. I know… I know you didn’t have the easiest time when I first came out. And for a while I was worried that you’d never be okay with it. April’s family had a really bad reaction to her being gay, and it… well, it’s just nice that we have a home here where we can just be ourselves. I know it’s probably still weird for you, but I see how hard you’ve tried to make her feel safe and welcome here. And I want you to know that I really do appreciate it. We both do.”

“Oh, sweetheart. It isn’t weird for me. I don’t have to try with April, she is… well. She’s just lovely. And I couldn’t ask for someone better for you.”

Sterling releases a shaky breath. “Do you really mean that?”

Debbie stands to grab the whistling kettle. She pours water into both of their mugs, stirs the tea bags around for a moment, before settling next to Sterling at the kitchen counter. When both mugs are steeping, Debbie takes both of Sterling’s hands in her own. “I know that I didn’t have the best reaction to your coming out. I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have. I didn’t act like a mother should. I can’t apologize enough to you for it.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” Sterling says quietly, because she doesn’t need one. They’ve done the apology thing. They spent several months on it in therapy before Sterling went to college, and ever since, her relationship with her mother has been — if not exactly perfect, then definitely much smoother. And to her credit, Debbie has never said anything pointed or judgmental to April, and has never been anything but accommodating towards her. And when Blair came out her second semester of freshman year, there wasn’t any of the drama of Sterling’s coming out. No yelling, no tears, just quiet acceptance (and not very much surprise).

“I don’t know if I’ve ever told you why I reacted so poorly.”

Sterling shrugs. “I mean, the church isn’t exactly welcoming to those of the non-cishetero persuasion, right?”

Debbie hums. “I’m fairly confident I know what all those words mean, strung together. Blair has sent me some very helpful podcasts. But, no, that’s not what I’m talking about. Of course the church has something to do with it. When you’re raised a certain way, it can be hard to overcome the way you’ve been conditioned to think. That may have been my excuse, but it wasn’t the real issue.” Sterling tilts her head, quietly waiting for her mother to continue. After a few beats, and a few breaths, Debbie does. “I was scared, Sterling. Scared for our family and for myself, selfishly, but mostly I was scared for you. I was scared your life was going to be… painful. Full of fear, and a lack of acceptance. Cruelty, discrimination, feeling othered… all of those terrible things you dread your children having to deal with. I’m your mother. It’s my job to protect you. But in my fear, and my desperation to keep you safe from pain, I made all that pain a reality for you. I fulfilled my own prophecy. And I hurt you. Which was unforgivable. All I ever wanted for you and for your sister was for you to have lives full of love and joy. And when you came out, I… I saw all that love slipping away from you. I was worried you’d never have what I have with your father — a partner in life, and in love, and in everything. Someone to balance you out, to care for you, to raise a family with you and support you unconditionally. I didn’t want you to miss out on that. So I reacted. Maybe I thought I was trying to protect you, or maybe my mind was just clouded.”

“I do have that,” Sterling whispered. “I mean, not the kids part, obviously, but… the partnership. With April, I… we have that.”

“I know, honey.” Debbie squeezes her hands tightly. “I know you do. I love April dearly. She is everything I could have ever wanted for you. She’s sweet, polite, smart as a whip, and she loves you more than anyone on this earth.” A quick pinch to Sterling’s cheek. “Except for your mama.” When Sterling squirms and giggles, Debbie softens her hand and cups her cheek instead. “And seeing you all together has… opened my eyes. Maybe you won’t have exactly what I have with your father. But you’ll have something just as good, if not better; because it’ll be something you’ve made for yourself, out of your own shared love. And that’s all I ever wanted.”

Sterling, eyes brimming with tears and heart feeling fluttery in her too-tight chest, can’t manage much in the way of words, but she does manage this: “Thank you, Mom.”

Debbie’s own eyes are shining. She puts her hand back on Sterling’s and squeezes tight. “You better not let her go, d’you hear me? A girl as great as that doesn’t suffer fools, and she doesn’t seem the type to let you drag your feet.”

Sterling frowns. “Are you talking about… a proposal?” Debbie gives her a very pointed look, and Sterling flushes all the way to the tips of her ears. “That’s—” she sputters, “—we’re not… we have a five-year plan. There’s no… I mean. I’m gonna be with her forever. I know that, and so does she. There’s no, like… rush to… anything else.”

“All I’m saying is, girls like commitment. Proven commitment. Your father had proposed to me by the time we were your age.”

Sterling can feel her red, flaming face. She pushes some hair out of her eyes, looking anywhere except into her mother’s knowing expression. “I… don’t want to push her. April’s got, like, the next three decades of her life planned out perfectly. She’s made room for me in her future and that’s… enough for me. We’re still so young. I don’t want to distract her from anything she’s trying to achieve. She wants to be the youngest Justice on the Supreme Court, and that takes a lot of time and work. We can’t just be, like… planning a wedding at twenty-three.”

“If you say so.”

“I’m not in any rush to get married. Neither is April. We’ve got time. We already know that we’re it for each other. We’ve known since we were sixteen.”

Debbie sighs. “It is quite a romantic love story. Like something out of a fairytale.”

“It doesn’t feel like a fairytale. Fairytales are silly and moralistic. This is better. This is real.” Sterling stands, grabs her mug of tea, and kisses her mother’s forehead. “Goodnight, mom.”

“Goodnight, Sterling. Give April a kiss for me.”

When Sterling gets up to her room she sees April already dozing on her bed, curled on top of the covers in her pajamas, like she was working very hard to stay awake but exhaustion overtook her. It makes Sterling’s already sensitive nerves stretch further. Her heart swells in her chest, and she smiles, tries not to feel like such a dopey sap because she shouldn’t be near-tears just looking at her girlfriend asleep on her bed, but she can’t help it. She’s always been a dopey sap.

April sniffs and her eyes flutter open at the sound of the door closing. “Hey,” she says, voice thick and scratchy. She struggles to sit up, blinking her droopy eyelids. “I’m awake,” she assures, though she’s clearly anything but. “How was your mom?”

Sterling just smiles at her. She climbs onto the bed and claims April’s lips with hers. Their kiss is soft, sloppy and loose with sleep, uncoordinated but no less sweet for it. April smiles against her mouth. She always smiles when Sterling kisses her.

Sterling’s never loved her more.

She brings a hand up to cup Sterling’s cheek when she pulls back. “Everything okay?” she asks quietly against Sterling’s skin, her breath warm and smelling faintly of mint.

Sterling smiles, her chest simultaneously light and tight. “Everything’s perfect,” she says. It might be the most truthful thing she’s ever said.

____________________

In only a few short days, it’s Christmas Eve. The Wesleys certainly take their Christmas festivities seriously, and every day has been jam-packed with winter time activities. Picking out a tree and decorating it, baking cookies, a memorable ice skating excursion, and of course the last minute presents-shopping debacle, but time flies by. Debbie relaxes with a full, busy house again, Sterling and April only wear embarrassing outfits one time, and all-in-all it’s a pretty delightful holiday so far.

But Christmas Eve means the obligatory Christmas Eve service, and Sama’s never been to a Methodist church but from what she knows about Catholics, the Christmas Eve service is one of the longest and most jam-packed. Still, maybe she’ll get to hear some nice carols out of it. She’s not religious herself, not anymore, and neither is Blair, really, but she still takes the church-going seriously. She doesn’t go when they’re at school together, except for the big holidays. Still, Sama’s never been to church with her, and Blair seems strangely nervous about it.

“It’s just a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time,” Blair explains to her that morning at breakfast. “The pews are going to be packed and it’ll be hot and… I don’t know. It’s Christmas, you know?”

And Sama doesn’t, not really, but she does understand about the pressures of keeping up with religious parents around high holidays. So she spends a little extra time on her makeup and even blowdries her hair, because she's not immune to wanting to make a good impression on Blair’s parents.

Sama comes upstairs in a nice, simple red dress. The sleeves are three-quarter length, modest but still leaving her forearms exposed. Several tattoos remain visible, simple black line drawings that make up nearly a full sleeve on her right arm. Thankfully, most of her tattoos are still covered. Blair is into them, but she can’t imagine the rest of the Wesleys are too used to seeing ink on non-criminals.

And of course, Debbie catches sight of them right away. “Oh.” She pauses for a moment. “What… lovely tattoos.”

Sama smiles and rubs her hand over the sunflower on the inside of her forearm. “Thank you,” she says, taking the compliment without the pointed weight of its pause. “I have a friend who’s an artist. She always needs a canvas to practice on.”

Debbie’s smile is tight. “Lovely.” She shoots Blair an intense look. “You don’t have any tattoos, do you?”

Blair shakes her head quickly. “No, mama.”

“Good. Keep it that way.” She claps her hands. “Well, I’m afraid there’s too many of us for one car.”

“We’ll go separately,” Sterling offers, pointing to herself and Blair and, by extension, their respective partners. “We’ll meet you guys there.”

“Okay. Don’t dawdle, you don’t want to miss the start of the service.”

“We’ll be right behind you,” Blair promises. She catches Sama’s hand and slips their fingers together. Sama squeezes back, the only outward expression of her nerves. “You good?” Blair asks her.

Sama nods. “I’m good.”

“The choir is actually really good, and Christmas Eve is when they sing all the songs everyone knows. It’ll be painless.”

.

.

Well. It’s not exactly painless.

They make it through the entire service with absolutely no problems, and Blair’s right, the choir is pretty good. The pews are packed (“Everyone shows up on Christmas Eve, it’s the one service no one dares to miss,” Blair explains in a whisper) and it is hot, but it doesn’t go on for nearly as long as Sama was prepared for. The service started at 4, and by 5:30 they’re all standing for the last hymn, and it actually wasn’t bad at all.

At least, until the after-church mingling begins.

“Debbie,” a woman says as she approaches with her arms out. She looks like every other woman at this church: rich, uptight, with a cutting smile and judgemental eyes. She corners Mr. and Mrs. Wesley in their pew, after the girls have already filed out. April and Sterling are half-way to the door, caught up in a conversation with one of their former classmates. Blair lingers back when she sees her parents are caught up and Sama lingers with her.

“Hi, Trisha.” Debbie smiles and hugs her, and it’s the same tight smile and tight hug that Sama saw when the two of them met for the first time. Debbie has loosened up considerably over the past couple days, just like Blair knew she would, and she’s no longer tense and uncomfortable around Sama, but Sama knows dislike when she sees it. “Lovely to see you. Russell’s well?”

“Oh, he’s just fine.”

“And Franklin?”

“Just finishing up at Georgia Tech. He’s an engineering major,” Trisha says, clearly bragging.

“Oh, y’all must be so proud.”

“Oh, we are.” She catches sight then of Blair and Sama, standing near the pew holding hands. “I see your girls are still in… that phase, ” Trisha says disdainfully. Debbie and Anderson stiffen simultaneously. “And it looks like Sterling’s converted Blair. A shame. You could have had one normal daughter.”

“That’s enough.”

“Debbie,” Anderson says, putting a hand on her arm, “we should go…”

“No. No, what did you say about my daughters?”

Trisha scoffs. “Don’t get mad at me for your parental failures, Debbie.”

Excuse me?!” Debbie yells. In the absence of her voice, Sama realizes that the rest of the congregation has fallen unnaturally silent. Pairs of eyes, varying shades of judgmental, are tracking over them. Sama shifts. Blair’s hand in hers is a vice, her knuckles turning white even as her ears are turning red.

“And allowing this kind of behavior?” Trisha continues, seemingly emboldened by all of this newfound attention. “At church ? You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“No, you should be ashamed of yourself.” Debbie looks around at the congregation, staring openly, gleefully reveling in chaos and carnage, as vultures circling over a battlefield. “All of you! You should be ashamed of yourselves. A pit of vipers. Casting judgment like you’re so innocent.” She turns back to Trisha “You will not speak about my family.”

.

.

All of a sudden the congregation falls quiet. Sterling turns, confused, when she hears her mother exclaim, “All of you! You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Uh oh, Sterling thinks. She grabs April’s hand without thinking, but April was already two steps ahead of her. They arrive back at the family pew to find a speechless Blair and a red-faced Debbie, glaring daggers at a woman Sterling vaguely recognizes. Franklin’s mom, she thinks. Mrs. Yearwood.

“What’s going on?” Sterling asks Blair, glancing nervously around at all of the eyes still locked on them. There are more than a few whispers breaking out through the congregation, and it’s making the back of Sterling’s neck itch. She’s never liked being the center of attention like this. She’s never liked the feeling of being gossiped about.

“Mom went kind of ballistic,” Blair murmurs. She reaches out and grabs their mother’s wrist. “Hey, Mom,” she says next. “Let’s get out of here.”

Debbie is still glaring at Mrs. Yearwood. Sterling shifts on her feet.

“I’ll clear a path,” April murmurs, and clear a path she does. It feels a bit like being led through a firing squad, but they manage to make it outside without any serious incidents. Anderson has Debbie's arm now, and he’s leading her briskly away towards the parking lot.

Sterling blinks after them. “What was that all about?”

“Honestly?” Blair says. “I’m not sure.”

“Do you think we should—”

“We definitely should.”

Sterling grabs April’s hand and pulls her to the side. “Would you mind going back with Sama? I think Blair and I should go with our parents.”

“Of course. Do you need… some family time? I can take us to get coffee.”

Sterling bites her lip. “Could you? I hate to ask, only—”

“No, of course. Of course.” April stands on her toes, her lips a brief moment of calm, desperately needed. 

Thank you,” Sterling mouths, before dashing off after her mother.

She catches up to Blair and they clamber into the backseat, one after the other. In the front their dad is fiddling with the radio, while their mom stews in her seat. Debbie huffs. She yanks on her ponytail aggressively, muttering under her breath. The car pulls off into the road, and they don’t speak for a few tense moments. When Debbie huffs again, louder this time, Sterling and Blair share a look.

“Uh, Mom?” Sterling starts tentatively. “Are you okay? What did Mrs. Yearwood say to you?”

“Nothing of value, as is completely in line with her character.” Debbie turns in her seat. “Girls,” she says, very seriously. “I think it’s time we find a new church.”

Anderson slams on the brakes. The car behind them honks loudly, but no one in their car notices.

“Woah.”

What ?!”

Blair and Sterling exclaim simultaneously.

“Debbie,” Anderson says, sounding more than a little worried. “Are you sure you’re thinking rationally?”

“Yeah, Mom, isn’t church, like, 88% of your social life?”

“Oh hush, Blair. Stop exaggerating.”

Blair looks at Sterling. “But it is,” she whispers to her sister.

“Mom,” Sterling says, leaning forward in her seat. “What did Mrs. Yearwood say to you?”

“Nothing of value,” Debbie repeats.

The car behind them honks, louder and more aggressively. Anderson waves distractedly and pulls the car onto the shoulder of the road. The driver behind them pulls out so quickly his wheels squeal. He shoots their car the finger. Anderson shoots one back.

“Dad!” Sterling exclaims, slightly horrified.

“Nice one, Dad. Show him who’s boss.” Blair claps him on the shoulder.

“Debbie,” Anderson says, turning to face his wife, “you know I support you in any decision you make. And if you think we should switch churches, I will start the Googling tonight. But are you sure this is what you want?”

Debbie nods tersely. “Church is one of the most important things in my life. My faith has sometimes been my only guidepost, and I have tried to live by it in the most honest way I can. Leading with love. And I’ve taught you girls the same.” She closes her hand over her husband’s. Their fingers squeeze each other. Debbie continues, through a thick throat and a wetness behind her eyes, “Our church is supposed to be our community. But they haven’t been living up to that. I’ve had quite enough of the people in that congregation—” she points behind them, off in the vague direction from which they’ve come, “saying rude things about my children, to my face and behind my back. If those people are not willing to accept my daughters for who they are, then I have no interest in spending any more time with them. I’d rather we find a congregation more in line with our values.”

Blair, who has been sitting quietly in the seat directly behind her mother, leans forward. Without saying a word, she wraps her arms around the seat, hooking her wrists in the center of Debbie’s chest. Debbie lifts a hand and rests it on one of Blair’s arms. Blair squeezes her tight, her biceps smushed uncomfortably against the leather upholstery. Sterling, forgetting her seatbelt or else not caring about the way it digs into her neck, leans across the middle seat in back to join the embrace. With the odd angle and her distance her arms don’t make it all the way around her sister and mother, but she gets a hand on both of them and rests her head against Blair’s so it feels like enough.

Anderson squeezes Debbie’s hand a little harder, too. They smile at each other, eyes full of tears and not feeling sad at all.

“Okay,” Anderson says, his voice tight but his smile sincere. “I’ll start the Googling tonight.”

.

.

Sama finds herself sitting in the passenger seat of the Wesley’s Volt in front of a random Starbucks outside Atlanta, dressed for Christmas Eve service and feeling extremely out-of-place. She and April stare up at the Starbucks. It seems to loom over them, with its fluorescent lighting and red brick facade.

“Some service,” Sama says finally to break the silence. April keeps tapping her fingers on the steering wheel. Neither one of them has made a move to leave. “Are they always like that?”

“I wish I could say no, but our congregation has had some significant blow-ups in the past few years. Usually around the Wesleys.”

“They attract drama, don’t they?”

April laughs. “They certainly keep things interesting.”

“I don’t really drink coffee after five p.m.,” Sama says apologetically. “Messes with my sleep schedule. But you can get a coffee! I can… watch.” She pulls a face at her own words. “Or eat a scone or something else not as creepy.”

“I don’t really want coffee, either,” April assures her. They sit silently for a few more moments, before April brightens. “I have an idea. Buckle your seatbelt.”

Sama does as instructed. “Where are we going?”

“How do you feel about frozen yogurt?”

“Generally positive, because I have a heart and a working tongue.”

April laughs. “That’s what I like to hear.”

.

.

April pulls into a parking lot in front of a small building with a bright, funny mural painted on the side. Sama squints at the smiling cupcakes. “Cheery,” she says, deadpan.

April beams and turns off the car. “Just wait until you see the aprons.”

“You sure this place is going to be open? It’s Christmas Eve.”

April nods as she climbs out of the car. “I know the owner. He’s practically allergic to holiday cheer. It’ll be open.”

Sure enough, the little bell on top of the door jingles when they walk in. The shop is empty, which makes sense, because who would be out buying frozen yogurt in December? Much less at 6:00. There’s only one other person there, an older Black man who looks like he’s dozing behind the register. He’s wearing a purple visor and a bright pink apron, and the picture is so comical that Sama almost laughs out loud.

He jolts up when they walk in and rubs furtively at his eyes, like he’s trying to hide the fact that he was sleeping. When he finally focuses on them, a grin stretches his face nearly to bursting. “April Stevens,” his voice is gravelly and deep but somehow also inviting, “as I live and breathe.”

“Hi, Bowser.” April smiles and accepts his offered hug. He pats her on the head once, twice, looking exceedingly awkward the longer the physical contact continues.

“It’s good to see you,” he says when he finally manages to extricate himself from the embrace. “You’re home for Christmas?”

“Staying with the Wesley’s this year, actually.”

“And what dragged you to my yogurt shop on Christmas Eve?”

“Where else am I supposed to get delicious sugary treats on a holiday?”

“‘S not a holiday, yet.”

“It’s after 6pm on Christmas Eve. You’re expecting a lot of customers?”

“Got you two, didn’t I?”

April shakes her head. “Touché.” She looks behind her. “Bowser, this is Sama. She’s Blair’s girlfriend.”

“No kidding.” Bowser shakes her hand, eyeing her carefully. “She’s never brought anyone home before.”

“That’s the word on the street,” Sama jokes.

Bowser is a super nice guy. He fills their cups and doesn’t make them pay for any of the toppings they get, probably because he can tell by the expressions on their faces that they’ve had kind of a weird day. He asks questions about Sterling and Blair, and April and Sama take turns filling him in on the twins’ lives. Sama’s heard of Bowser. Blair talks about him all the time, as a sort of surrogate father figure/friend/mentor who taught her how to disarm a grown man when she was 17. You couldn’t tell by looking at the visor, but he’s pretty badass, too. And he clearly loves the Wesley sisters, which makes Sama like him instantly. 

Eventually, shockingly, more customers do enter the store, a young couple absolutely baked out of their minds. Bowser gets called away to glare at them while they contemplate whether or not to get Oreo crumbles or Reese’s Pieces on their chocolate froyo (they end up getting both, obviously, and Sama must admit, she respects their bold-faced affront to dentistry).

It’s during this lull, when Sama is swirling a few leftover gummy worms around her rapidly melting yogurt and April is using her spoon to crush her remaining chocolate chips when April says, out of the blue, “I’m thinking about asking Sterling to marry me.”

Sama blinks, but otherwise hides her surprise very well. “No shit?” she asks.

April just nods, her attention still pulled elsewhere. “After graduation, of course. I don’t want anything distracting from our last semester at school. It’s one of the most important times in a young person’s academic career, you know.”

Sama swallows her laugh. Blair wasn’t kidding when she told her about April’s… quirkiness. “That’s great, April. Good for you guys.”

That gets April to finally glance at her. “You think it’s a good idea?” she asks, more vulnerable than she probably means to be.

“Well… I mean, to be honest I don’t really know you that well. Not even really sure why you’re telling me, of all people. But from what I’ve seen, you’ve got a good thing going.”

“Yeah.” April’s smile is soft. “We do.” Sama doesn’t know her well at all, but April’s a good egg. Blair likes her too, though sometimes she pretends that she doesn’t. She’s clearly devoted to Sterling, which is probably all you need to make a good marriage. She’s got just the right amount of chutzpah and kindness. She’s got Future J.D. written all over her.

“Is there a reason you want to do it so soon?” April frowns, so Sama clarifies, “Blair mentioned something about a ten-year plan. Grad school, then marriage? You didn’t get her pregnant, did you?” she jokes.

“Sometimes… plans should be altered.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“And I’m only telling you this because I feel like if I don’t tell someone soon I’m going to burst apart at the seams. And I can’t risk spilling everything to Sterling. I couldn’t tell Blair, obviously. You can’t, either. She can’t keep a secret to save her life, least of all from Sterling.”

“You’ve sworn me to secrecy. Promise.”

April smiles at her, then looks back down at her mostly-abandoned yogurt. “Do you think we’re too young?”

Sama shrugs. “You’re young, but what’s that got to do with it? My parents married when they were nineteen. It was an arranged marriage, but still. They’re happy together. If it’s what’s right for you then it’s what’s right for you.”

“What about you and Blair? Do you two have any plans to…?” April trails off, and Sama has to laugh.

“No. No no no. Nothing like that. I don’t really believe in the institution of marriage. It’s never been something I’ve wanted. And Blair and I have only been together for a little while.”

“Eighteen months is a pretty long time.”

Sama smiles. “Maybe so. But no, it isn’t in the cards for us. Not any time soon.”

“Well, maybe you’ll change your mind.”

“Maybe.”

“I used to think I’d never get married. Disregard the fact that it wasn’t legal for gay people until recently, I just… always assumed it wasn’t for me. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to marry a woman, legal or not, with my family it wasn’t even worth daydreaming about, and I had no interest in pretending I wanted to marry a man. But now…” She trails off, her eyes catching on movement outside. Sterling and Blair have arrived, and they’re clambering out of their car mid-conversation. Blair is gesticulating wildly and Sterling is nearly doubled over in laughter.

Sama smiles, and when she glances at April again she sees a similar lovesick expression on her face. It might have embarrassed her. She doesn’t really believe in sappiness. But something about Atlanta brings it out of her.

She taps April’s hand, catching her attention. “I think it’s a great idea,” she says to her.

April smiles at her. “Thank you, Sama.”

The bell above the door tinkles again, and April and Sama stand as one.

“How’d you know we were here?” April asks Sterling, meeting her by the door for a hug and a kiss.

“Please,” Blair answers for her. “Bowser’s a total Grinch. You think he’d take a holiday off? No chance.”

“Hey,” Bowser points, his effort to look intimidating undercut by the bright purple visor he’s wearing crookedly on his head, “that’s enough from you.”

“You know you love me.”

“I don’t,” Bowser denies grumpily. “You’re a menace. And you steal my yogurt.”

“I thought free yogurt was part of our contract?” Sterling asks, genuinely confused.

“I never had you sign a contract. I paid you cash, under the table. You’re welcome for all the taxes you didn’t have to pay on that, by the way.”

Blair shoots Sterling a look. “Were we supposed to pay taxes on our technically-illegal bounty-hunting job?”

But Sterling isn’t listening to her. “Babe,” she says to April, “you’ll never guess what happened tonight. My mom wants to switch. churches.

April gasps, which Sama would think is a bit of a dramatic overreaction if it weren’t for the expressions on everyone else’s faces, including Bowser’s. “But that’s tantamount to social suicide,” April says with wide eyes. “Are you moving? Is she dying?!

No,” Sterling says, almost gleefully. “Get this: the congregation is too homophobic for her.”

April’s mouth falls open. “Wow.”

“Good for your mom,” Bowser nods. “I always knew I liked her. She’s got a strong backbone. I like a woman with a backbone.”

“Gross, Bowser, that’s our mom,” Sterling says.

Blair, at the same time, says, “So you like all female vertebrates? Dating you must be a breeze.”

“Oh my God, Bowser!” Sterling exclaims, hitting his shoulder with her open palm. “You should come to Christmas Eve dinner.”

Blair gapes. “Oh my God, you should totally come to dinner!”

Bowser, used to the way the Wesley girls flit from topic to topic like bees between pollen-rich flowers, squints. He clears his throat and opens the cash register, pretending to count the money inside one more time. “I don’t know, girls…”

“Oh, please .” Sterling begs. “Please please please ? Mom’s been asking about you, you know. It’s been years since you came to Thanksgiving.”

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” Bowser says slowly, but it’s obvious by his expression that he’s already worn-down, and in no position to argue against both Wesley sisters in the height of their determination.

“You wouldn’t be imposing,” Sterling insists. “Come to dinner. Oh, you can bring Yolanda!”

“Yes!” Blair beams. “The more the merrier. I’ll call Mom!” she says, dashing toward the door with her phone already unlocked.

“Tell her to set two more places!” Sterling calls after her.

“Wait, Blair!” Bowser tries to stop her.

Blair just waves behind her. “Mom?” she says into the phone. “What do you think about adding some plates to the table?”

“Sama, did Blair tell you that Bowser saved my life one time?” Sterling hops onto the yogurt counter. April slips behind the glass screen and starts loading up a cup with everything Sterling likes — vanilla chocolate swirl yogurt, fresh strawberries, mini chocolate chips, a Reese’s cup and gummy worms. “It was very heroic.”

“Saved your life more than once,” Bowser gruffs. “You only give me credit for the one.”

“Well, the one was uber -dramatic.” She smiles as she takes the yogurt from April’s offering hands. “Thanks, babe,” she says, bending to press a kiss to her cheek.

Bowser shoves at her. “No shoes on the counter, I just cleaned there!”

Blair bounds back inside. “Bowsie! Call Yolanda, you’ve got a dinner date Chez Wesley .” Bowser grunts, his only acknowledgement, but the smile he tries to hide behind his beard is extremely visible (also, rather cute).

Blair finds Sama leaning against the utensils counter. She sidles up to her and knocks their hips together. “Hi.”

“Oh, nice to see you remember me,” Sama says, only somewhat serious.

“Hello, how are you, have I mentioned you look super pretty today? Because you look super pretty today.”

Sama hums. “You haven’t mentioned that, no.”

“I haven’t kissed you properly either, have I?”

Sama hums again and taps her lips thoughtfully. “Let me think. Gosh, it’s been so long, I can’t seem to recall…”

“Shut up, nerd,” Blair laughs. She folds herself into Sama, her arms going around her waist. She kisses her softly, a quiet pressure. In the background April and Sterling are having a heated debate over the best yogurt flavor-to-topping flavor profile, while Bowser grumbles about ending the day in the red because all of the thieves ransacking his store.

Sama hums when they part. “Nice kiss,” she murmurs, her breath warm against Blair’s lips.

“Thanks. I was going for ‘groveling’.”

“It was very successful.”

“Thank you, I’ve been working on it.” Blair kisses her again. “You’re okay, right? Today wasn’t too much?”

“Today was a lot.” Blair winces. Sama leans their foreheads together. “But no, it wasn’t too much.”

“You’re sure?”

Sama shrugs. “Your parents are intense, your sister is over-involved, and your town is full of weirdos and homophobes. Classic white people shit.”

“White people are the worst,” Blair agrees solemnly. “But you still… want to date this white person, right?”

Sama presses her lips together to keep her smile contained. “Guess I’ll make an exception for you, since you’re so cute.”

 “I worked very hard to chill out in college.”

“All the weed probably helped.”

“Shh!” Blair shushes her, shooting a nervous glance at Sterling. But Sterling is wrapped up in her own girlfriend, slouched over with her chin resting in her hand as April continues her minutes-long tirade about why fresh fruit toppings should never go on top of fruit-flavored yogurt, but Sterling’s got that look on her face that says ‘I’m thinking about what you look like naked’, so Blair’s pretty confident they haven’t been overheard.

She turns back to Sama and mutters, “Ix-nay on the arijuana-may,” out the corner of her mouth. “Sterling and I haven’t had the conversation yet.”

“Oh my God. Do you have to come out to your sister as a stoner?”

“Shhhhhh!” Blair shushes her again.

Sterling whips her head around, her eyes wide as saucers. “Blair Anjelica Wesley! You’re a what now?!”

The laughter that rings through Yogurtopia is warm, despite the outside December chill. And though dinner is hectic and loud, though the Wesley sisters wake up unconscionably early on Christmas morning, forcing everyone else to wake up with them, it’s still the happiest holiday any of them have ever had.

________________