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The Twelve Days of Christmas

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Sterling woke with a start as her peaceful slumber was abruptly brought to an end by Blair launching herself onto the bed. “Wake up already! It’s Christmas!”

Glancing to the clock on her nightstand, Sterling let out a frustrated groan. “It’s 7.03 Blair, why are you waking me up? Mom and dad don’t let us near the presents until 8am. A rule they brought in because of the 2007 incident.”

“Sterling...” The brunette’s voice took on a whiney tone. “It’s not my fault I woke up at 4am and thought it was morning. It was light already.”

“It was your nightlight.” Sterling grumbled back at her sister trying to pull the covers over her head.

Blair tugged them back. “Just because we aren’t allowed to open anything from under the tree doesn’t mean there aren’t presents.”

Sterling sighed at her sister and sat up in her bed, rubbing the sleep from her eyes before she focused on the other girl. She noticed how Blair’s leg was bouncing her hands fidgeting in her lap. “How many?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about?” Blair shifted her gaze away to look at anything else in the room.

“Yes, you do.” Sterling shot back.

“Oh shoot, I think I hear my phone in the other room.” Blair made a move to slide off the bed to retreat to her own room but was stopped by Sterling grabbing her arm.

“Nope. You woke me up. How many have you eaten?” Sterling held her grip firmly on the brunette’s arm to stop her escaping.

“Not many.” Seeing the unimpressed look her sister was shooting at her, Blair eventually relented. “Fine, eight.”

Sterling’s eyes widened. “Eight? You have eaten eight candy canes already? What time did you wake up?”

“About an hour ago and you were still asleep, mom and dad were asleep, even Chloe refused to wake up. It’s not like I can spend my Christmas morning messaging my boyfriend since I am doomed to spend eternity as a spinster who has to rely on processed sugar to provide me with short periods of happiness from the overstimulation of dopamine production.” Blair flopped back on the bed with her arms outstretched.

Sterling took in her sister’s prone form and shook her head. “I see Santa brought you that flair for the dramatic you asked for this year.” Blair turned her head to glare at the blonde. “Wow, OK. It’s not like you’re the only one who is single this Christmas.”

“Yeah, but you’ve had options. You are just being far too picky.”

“What options?” Sterling asked incredulously.

“Uh how about Darcy? She was cute, gay and totally into you and you turned her down without a second thought.” Blair held up her finger like she was about to start listing all the dating possibilities the blonde had turned down.

“Are you serious right now?” Sterling raised her eyebrows at her twin trying to express her disbelief at the suggestion. “She was a con-woman who catfished women online and then cleaned out their bank accounts. She was only flirting with me to try to let her escape.”

“You don’t know that...and you haven’t disagreed that she was cute.” Blair smirked back at her sister.

“Blair, she flirted with Bowser on the ride to the station. Bowser...a man more than twice her age...and a man. I think that is all the proof I need.”

Blair waved her hand dismissively at her sister. “See...picky.” Sterling started sputtering at her sister’s antics. “Anyway...we can open our stockings now you’re awake.” Blair rolled herself off the bed and was out of the room before Sterling could reply. Sighing quietly, she glanced to her clock and resigned herself to the fact that she was going to have to endure her sugared up sister alone for another 48 minutes. Before she could dwell on that fact, the brunette reappeared and landed on the bed once more as she handed the blonde’s stocking over.

Sterling watched as Blair tipped her stocking out onto the bed in front of herself, spotting another candy cane, the blonde reached out and grabbed it to prevent any further sugar consumption as she was certain her sister was one festive treat away from developing diabetes on the spot. “Hey!”

“Nope...You can have it later but right now you are too hyped up. You’re making my bed vibrate!”

Blair twitched her eyebrow at her sister. “Am not. That’s probably just your stocking filler.”

Sterling’s jaw dropped and she cast a nervous glance towards the stocking lying before her. “Did you buy me another vibrator?”

“After the revelation of last year I could help but notice when I was searching through your room recently that the last one I bought you is nowhere to be found. And seriously I don’t know how you really find anything in here. It took me hours.” She gestured around the generally messy room.

“Why were you searching through my room?”

“I could explain what I do and why but the more important issue is that since you haven’t found anyone new to help you discover the joys of sex that you need a little self-help. You have been rather cranky lately and spending more time alone.”

“I was studying. We had exams.”

“Potayto, potahto.” Blair gestured to the still vibrating stocking on the bed. “You really should open that. You don’t want the batteries going flat. Or worse nearly going flat and then just as you are about to…” Blair’s words were muffled as Sterling pressed her hands over her mouth.

“For the love of the Lord, please stop talking about sex this early on Christmas morning!” The twins locked eyes as each weighed up their options. “Eww…did you just lick my hand?” Sterling pulled her hand away wiping it on the covers next to her.

Blair shrugged at her. Before there could be any further discussion on the issue there was a knock on Sterling’s door. “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal their mom. “Happy Christmas girls.”

“Happy Christmas mom.” They both replied.

“Since the pair of you still haven’t mastered getting up quietly…” Her words trailed off. “Who is calling you at this time on Christmas morning?”

“Nobody is calling us.” Sterling replied, her eyebrows drawn together in confusion. Shooting Blair a look when the other girl started snickering.

“If nobody is calling then what is that buzzing sound?” Debbie stepped further into the room to investigate.

“Yeah Sterl, what is that buzzing?” Blair pinned her sister with a knowing stare, barely suppressing the smirk that threatened to form on her lips.

Locking her focus on her sister, Sterling initiated their twin connection.

“Blair! She’s coming over and it’s still vibrating on the bed. What if she finds it?”

“If you had just opened my great gift when we were alone, you wouldn’t be in this predicament right now.” Blair raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

“Not helping! We can discuss this later but if mom finds it, then she’ll know you bought it and do you really want to have that discussion?”

Blair broke the connection and turned to her mom. “I bought Sterl a neck massager because she has been so tense with school lately, I thought it might help her relax. It must have got switched on when I brought the stockings in.” She smiled at her mom sweetly, giving a slight shrug at the end of her statement.

Debbie stopped her approach. “That’s very thoughtful. Your daddy is already downstairs. I swear he is just as excited as you two.” She shook her head with a small smile of affection playing on her lips. “Finish up with your stockings then come on down to join us.”

“Yes ma’am.” They both replied in unison. They watched as their mom left the room and once the door closed, Sterling grabbed the stocking to finally shut off the vibrator.

“You’re welcome.”

“If it wasn’t Christmas…”

“But it is so hurry up and stash the gift that will keep on giving so we can see what’s downstairs.” Blair waited impatiently for Sterling to unwrap her present, switch it off and hide it before they headed downstairs. She watched as her sister looked around her room for a suitable hiding place before settling on hiding it inside the wooden duck, beneath her Twilight books. Hoping that nobody would think to look inside.

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

The twins sat on the couch surrounded by a pile of torn wrapping paper when Anderson came back into the room. “Hey Sterl, this was dropped through the mail slot for you.” He handed her a red envelope.
Sterling accepted the envelope and looked at the front. The writing wasn’t one she recognised but it had been written in block capitals.

“Who’s it from?” Blair peered over the pile of gifts between them to try to see what Sterling had.

“Still haven’t got x-ray vision so until I open it, no idea.”

“Well...open it then.”

Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister but proceeded to do exactly that. Flipping the envelope over she tore it open and slipped out the card inside.

Sterling,
I must admit that thinking what to say here has taken more than a few attempts.
When it came to thinking about what I wanted for Christmas this year, there was one desire above all others...A chance.
A chance to show you that there is someone who appreciates you and has feelings for you.
A chance to make you feel special as you do for others.
So I am taking a chance...Today is the first day of Christmas. Your gift is on your front porch.

Sterling read the message a second time before standing from the couch.

“Who’s it from? Sterl? Sterling? What did it say? Where are you going?” Blair called after her sister but garnered no response.

Sterling opened the front door and there sitting on the mat was a wrapped gift. She stepped outside and looked around to see if there was anyone in sight but there was nobody. She wrapped her arms around her waist as the wind blew, making her shiver while she observed the item. It certainly looked just like any other gift, except most presents weren’t left anonymously on a doorstep.

“Why are you just standing outside with the door open? Hey, what’s this? Is it for us?” Blair appeared in the doorway, frowning at her sister’s odd behaviour. She leant down to touch the present to see if there was a tag.

“It’s for me.”

“How do you know? There’s no tag on it.” Blair looked up from her examination of the box. Sterling waved the card in her sister’s direction.

“It says so in here.” Blair snatched the card from Sterling’s hand. “Blair! Give it back!”

Blair held an arm out to block Sterling from reaching her as she read the card. She looked back at the blonde. “We promised no more secrets. You twin swore the 24-hour rule would remain unbroken for any future life altering events.”

“I haven’t kept a secret from you.”

“Uh this card says otherwise. You clearly have a secret relationship. Who is it?”

Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister. “I do not.”

“Sterl, you can stop holding out on me. Who is it? Is it Chase? It better not be Luke again, after that whole post-trauma safety net you slipped into after the Dana situation. Is it Ellen? Did the scootering really do it for you? Oh my god...Is it Darcy? Have you been secretly hooking up with an ex-skip, current convict?”

“BLAIR! Stop. I’m not in a secret relationship with anyone but certainly none of your suggestions. I don’t know who it is from.”

“Open it then. Let’s find out.” Blair bent down to pick up the parcel from the floor.

“What if it’s not safe?”

Blair quirked her eyebrow at her sister. “Sterl, I hardly think you have garnered the attention of the next Unabomber.” Blair picked up the box and gave it a shake. “See, no pink mist.”

Sterling curled her lip in disgust at the term. “That’s a terrible phrase.”

“Whatever. Come on, I want to see what you’ve got. It’s quite heavy.” Blair turned and walked into the house, Sterling following behind her. They settled back on the couch and Blair handed the box to her twin. “Open it.”

Sterling cautiously unpeeled the tape from one end. She started to open the paper before stopping and looking at the brunette. “What if it’s like that scene from Seven and this is the severed head of someone I love? I can’t unsee that Blair!”

Blair sighed in exasperation. “Ok, no more watching films about serial killers for you. Everyone you love is right here in this house...complete with heads. Generally secret admirers don’t hate you and want to traumatise you.”

Sterling maintained her gaze with her sister for a moment, waiting to see if she would relent but was met with an unimpressed look instead. Turning her attention back to the parcel, she finally opened it fully. Inside the wrapping was a cardboard box. Opening the box, she revealed a metal lockbox with a combination padlock on the front keeping it closed. There was another envelope taped to the top. She peeled the envelope off the top and set the box down on her lap.

“Who gives someone a locked box?” Blair commented upon seeing what had been revealed.

I’m glad you have accepted my gift. I know this might seem strange to give you a locked box but today is only the first day of Christmas. There will be a gift for you on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Each of the gifts will reveal clues to allow you to open this box and reveal who I am.
Happy Christmas Sterling.

“The suspense is killing me. What does it say?”

“I’m going to get a gift each day with a clue to open the box to reveal who it is.”

“Ok, maybe I was wrong. They do hate you. Who makes you work for a present? That’s just rude.” Blair poked at the lock on the box. “I bet one of dad’s tools would let us break that baby off and get in without the need for solving clues.”

Sterling slid the box further from Blair with a disapproving look. “That’s not the point of this. Solving the clues is part of the experience.”

Blair huffed at her sister. “Yeah, sure Sterl. If someone wants to give me a gift experience, then I’d hope they would pick something cool like skydiving.”

Sterling shook her head at her sister, who settled back to playing on her phone, her interest having faded. She ran her fingers over the edge of the box and padlock as her mind tried to come up with a list of possible culprits.

Chapter Text

Sterling had been staring at her notepad for the past hour and felt like she was getting nowhere. After the events of yesterday, she had decided that she would get organised and keep track of the clues she received. After all, she currently had no idea who was behind the mystery gift of yesterday and the note clearly stated she would be getting more in the coming days. It made sense to work out who was responsible for this little break from the ordinary in her life. The problem was she didn’t have much to go on at this time.

“Hey Sterl? Mom said to tell you that if you don’t tidy your room properly then she is going to take anything not put away properly to Goodwill.” Blair walked into the room and came to a stop as she took in the surroundings. “I think she means that the clothes have to actually be like, in the drawers rather than half hanging out as if you were caught in the midst of packing during an apocalypse. Seriously, how do you make such a mess just getting dressed?” The brunette poked at a random article of clothing half in the drawer and half trailing down the side.

Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister. “It’s not that bad.”

Blair raised her eyebrow at her sister. “Sure Sterl, whatever you say.” She walked over to the bed and flopped down next to her sister. “Are you studying? It’s a Saturday…and the Christmas break.” The incredulous tone was unmissable in her voice.

“No, I’m not studying.”

“So, what are you doing then?”

Sterling regarded her sister for a moment, trying to weigh up the possible benefits verses risk of involving her twin in this process. Finally deciding that with so little to go on, two heads might be better than one she set aside her concerns that the brunette would be more of a hinderance in the process. “I’m putting together a list of the information I have so far to work out who left the gift yesterday.”

“And you didn’t ask me to help as soon as you started? I’m insulted. You know I am like a legit detective by now with all my snooping skills.” She held her hand out towards the blonde, wiggling her fingers, to signal for the notepad. Sterling handed it over with a sigh. Blair took the pad and turned her focus to the page. She scanned down the sheet and then turned it over before flicking through the other pages. She looked back to her sister. “This literally says…Secret Santa?”

“You came up before I could really get into it.”

Blair narrowed her eyes at the blonde. “How long were you working on this before I came in? Remember, I know when you are lying.”

Sterling rolled her eyes. “You didn’t know I was lying to you last year.” She muttered under her breath. “About an hour.”

“I heard that…but an hour? An hour and you have two words and a question mark? Remind me what you bring to our crack bounty hunting team again because research skills and insightful observations certainly don’t seem to be it.”

Sterling poked her sister in the ribs with her foot. “I bring cunning plans and great aim.”

“Well, that’ll be handy if you want to shoot whoever is giving you these gifts. Or maybe we could lay a trap and so when they come to drop off the next one, BOOM, got them. I’m thinking something with the adhesive dad has in his workshop.”

“Ok, I think you have watched Home Alone too many times this year. Can you either help me with this or leave me to it?” Sterling reached over for the pad but was brushed away by Blair.

“Fine. My way would have this all wrapped up in no time though.”

“Blair…”

“Ok, we’ll just have to rely on my amazing detective skills instead. Where’s the card?” Sterling handed her the card she had received yesterday. She watched as her sister read the message. “So this person knows your name and where you live.”

“Yup, those crack detective skills are really revealing hidden insights.”

“I can just leave you to work it out on your own as that seemed to be working so well before.”

“Fine. Continue.”

Blair nodded her head and turned her attention back to the card. “Note.” She held out her hand while still studying the card. Sterling placed the note in her hand. She watched as Blair studied both items before scribbling some notes on the pad. After a few minutes of silence, broken only by the sound of the pencil running across the page, she sat back and handed the notepad to the blonde.

Sterling looked down to read everything her sister had gleaned from the two items so far. “Blair the only thing you have added is not Luke.”

“A great bit of deduction to eliminate a suspect from the pool. Come on Sterl, they spelt appreciates right and it’s actually thoughtful. If it was Luke, you’d probably have just got some kind of mix tape with songs that had lyrics that rhymed with your name.” She paused and contemplated that for a moment. “What he could get to rhyme with Sterling would be interesting. I bet you’d be going curling or swirling or maybe some twirling. I can almost hear it.”

“He is really trying with his music. He’s just not the best lyrically.” Sterling felt the need to defend Luke, like a reflex that had been there for as long as she could remember.

“That’s one way to put it I guess.”

“Ok, let’s write a list of names then. Potentials.” Blair tapped the pencil against her lip thoughtfully.

“How would I know who was interested in me? Nobody has said anything.” Sterling’s voice held a mildly defeated tone.

“Oh Sterling. Bless you.” Blair reached out to pat her knee receiving an unimpressed look in return. “Clearly this person isn’t someone who has just walked up to you to announce their interest. So we need to count on your observation skills. Think of someone who has been around more recently. Maybe trying to join in group activities with you or just on the periphery. Maybe someone who you have caught looking your way in class. Or you know that feeling you get that someone is watching you? They are around when that happens. So…Who have you got?” Blair snatched the notepad back and sat with pencil poised waiting for the list of names to start.

“Erm, well, there’s Ezekiel.” Blair flung the nearest item to hand at her sister. “Hey! Did you just throw a dirty sock at me?”

“First of all…eww, why was there a dirty sock in your bed at all?” Blair looked at her hand that had thrown the sock almost examining it for cleanliness. “Secondly…Ezekiel? You really think Ezekiel wants to have a chance with you? Ezekiel?”

Sterling dropped the sock onto the floor beside the bed. “You don’t have to say his name so many times. He’s always kind of around.”

“Sterling…I’m pretty sure you are not his type. Are you not meant to have some kind of gaydar, like a free gift or a superpower just without the gamma radiation?” Sterling opened her mouth to respond but was cut off by Blair waving a hand dismissively as she carried on talking. “Never mind. Who else?”

“If we are listing anyone who spends time round me then we have Hannah B, Franklin, Luke…”

“We already discounted Luke.”

Sterling ignored the interjection about Luke to continue her list. “Brenda, Justin.”

“Hold up. Who is Justin?” Blair frowned as she searching her mind for anyone she knew of called Justin.

“You know Justin. He does forensics with me.” Seeing the blank look still on her sisters face she continued, “Eyeliner, Satanic Temple…”

“Huh, I always imagined he would have a different name, like Damien or…”

Knock, knock

“Come in.” The door opened to reveal Anderson with a wrapped box in his hands.

“Hi girls. I just got back and found this on the doorstep. Tag says it’s for you Sterling. Doesn’t say who it is from though.”

Sterling rushed off the bed and over to where her dad was holding the box. “Thanks dad.” She took the box and glanced down at the envelope taped to the top, her name printed on the front.

“Strange that someone would just leave it on the step like that rather than knock.” He mused to himself.

“I’m sure they had to dash off and didn’t want to intrude.” Sterling tried to downplay the whole thing, not wanting to risk getting into a lengthy conversation about accepting gifts from a potential stranger when there was a clue in her hands.

“Well, I’ll leave you girls to it. Those ducks aren’t going to whittle themselves.”

As soon as Anderson had left the room, Sterling closed the door and opened the paper, taking care to remove the envelope taped to the top first. Inside she saw a Tupperware filled with iced cookies. She took her seat back on the bed, placing the cookies next to her as she opened the envelope.

On the second day of Christmas I thought I would treat you to some cookies. I used to make them with my Nana when I was younger. It was one of the Christmas traditions that I used to look forward to each year. Since she passed, I’ve only made them for myself but I wanted to share part of my past with you…and they taste really good.

To get the number for today, you need to assemble the scene that is iced onto the cookies and then it’s as simple as the number of trees minus the number of elves.

And Sterling…You should make sure Blair doesn’t eat any of your clues.

Sterling’s eyes flew up to where Blair had one of the cookies in her hand and launched herself across the bed, snatching the treat from her hand.

“Hey! I was about to eat that.” Blair whined.

“You were about to eat part of my clue! And manners…you could have asked first.” Sterling examined the cookie in her hand for damage and breathed out a sigh of relief when none was evident.

“So what’s the clue?”

“I need to assemble the scene and then count the trees and elves.”

“And if I help you do that can I eat one then?”

“Yes Blair.”

“Excellent.” She grabbed the box from the bed and unceremoniously cleared Sterling’s desk to make space. Placing the cookies out of the surface, the twins worked together to assemble them into one image. The girls stood back once they had finished. Blair reached towards the one in the corner. Seeing the movement, Sterling slapped her twin’s hand away. “Hey! There’s no tree or elf on that one.”

“No but I want to take a picture of it. In case I need it for later.” Sterling pulled her phone out and quickly captured some images. She took her time to look at what had been created. The scene was beautiful. It was set up like the elves were working in an outdoor workshop, surrounded by the trees. Some were crafting a little doll houses, others were painting a bike and some were stitching a cuddly toy. They were surrounded by finished toys…teddy bears, lions, whales, dolls. The detail in the scene must have taken ages to ice. Sterling’s last attempt at icing a cookie had ended with her gingerbread person looking like the victim of an unfortunate accident. She counted the trees and then the elves. Ten trees and six elves. She scanned around the rest of the scene to make sure she had counted it right before handing Blair one of the cookies without any detail on it.

“Thanks Sterl. If you need help eating them, just say the word.” Blair then stuffed the sugary treat into her mouth. “You get the number?”

“Yup.” Sterling moved over to pull the locked box out from under her bed and clicked the first number into place on the lock. She knew that she wasn’t going to be able to gain access yet but felt like things were moving forwards.

“Well, anyone on our list that can’t bake can go as these are really good!”

I don’t think that helps much...I’m not sure I know everyone’s baking skills.”

Blair frowned. “Good point. Any other hints in the card?”

“It was their nana’s recipe and she has passed.”

“Excellent! Not that nana has shuffled off the mortal coil but we have a real clue. We know it is someone who has lost a grandparent.”

“Blair, do you know the status of everyone’s grandparents?” Sterling sighed with exasperation.

“Well, no but research Sterl. Hannah B lost all six of hers...remember at the memorial for Mr Koontz?”

“How did she have six?” The way the blonde’s eyebrows drew together clearly showing her confusion at that revelation even after all these months.

“There are some questions best left unanswered. But I figure she was either raised in a polyamorous household and so had multiple parents with multiple grandparents before moving here or it’s just a remarriage thing. Personally, I’m holding out for option one. Adds a certain layer of excitement and diversity that is certainly lacking in the halls of Willingham.”

Sterling considered asking the many questions now raised in her head by her sister’s ponderings but knew if she opened that door, then she would be prolonging the time before she could be alone to reread her clues and partake in some of the cookies. The smell of which had been making her mouth water since the tub was opened. “I think I heard dad calling you.”

Blair gave her sister a sceptical look. “No he isn’t. If you want to be alone with your cookies and notes, all you had to do was say.”

“Ok, I’d like to be alone.”

“Rude!” Blair placed her hand on her chest, feigning offence. “It’ll cost you another cookie.”

Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister’s antics. “Fine, just take the one in the top corner that doesn’t have any of the elves on it.”

“Thanks Sterl. Can’t wait to see what you get tomorrow.” With that Blair left the room and Sterling was left to consider who she knew that had lost a grandparent and could not only bake but also create intricate iced scenes on said baking. She picked up one of the cookies to consume while she got to work on thinking but the one fact that became clear immediately was that this was not going to be a quick solution.

Chapter Text

By the time Sunday rolled around, Sterling was no closer to a solution as to who had been sending her gifts than she had been when the first one arrived. It would seem her knowledge of the Willingham student body and their family situation wasn’t exactly extensive. And that was before opening up the possibility that this could be someone who doesn’t even attend Willingham. She had even stayed up late last night trying to learn all she could about graphology to try to derive clues from the handwriting. However, after a few hours of delving into what some refer to as a pseudoscience she realised she didn’t have enough to go on with the only handwritten parts being on the front of the envelopes and the first card and even that was written in capitals. Any of the other notes had been printed which had led to the second reason she was up late and so feeling rather tired this morning, matching the font on the notes. She had pinned the font down to News Gothic but that had been another dead end as it was just one of the standard fonts. She hadn’t realised it at the time but the research had taken her down a rabbit hole of link after link and before she knew it, it was 3am. So to say she was not exactly ready to get up for church that morning was an understatement.

There was a knock on the bathroom door. “Sterl, come on. What are you doing in there?” Before Sterling could reply her sister’s voice drifted back through the door. “Actually, don’t answer that. I can hear the buzzing form here. At least you appreciate my present this year!”

Hearing the muffled words through the door, she sputtered on the toothpaste currently in her mouth. “Blair! I’m brushing my teeth!”

“Is that what the kids are calling it these days? You’ve got 10 minutes before we need to be out the door or we’ll be late…again.”

Sterling knew that engaging with her sister when she in one of her knowing moods was only going to prolong the whole situation. So, instead she opted to just ignore her comments for now. Finishing up with her morning routine, she quickly got dressed and met her sister downstairs. As they left the house, her eyes immediately darted around the front porch searching for any signs of a new gift and clue.

“I already looked. I had time to kill while you were otherwise occupied.” Blair wiggled her eyebrows at her sister.

Sterling just rolled her eyes as she shook her head at the brunette. “I already told you, I was brushing my teeth. Your gift is still exactly where I hid it on Christmas morning.”

“Really? We talked about this after the whole Luke failing to get you there situation. I thought you were coming around.”

Sterling’s mind flashed images of a certain blue-eyed girl. A girl who still lingered in her mind with questions of what if and maybe someday. Someone that she knew was out of reach and who had made it clear that since the events of the lock-in, that whatever they had was a blip on their usual antagonistic relationship. Since that night, April had reverted to her old type in many ways. Their paths still crossed due to the number of classes and extra-curriculars they had in common but the distance between them seemed larger than before. There were never times that April would be alone with Sterling. The one main difference was the lack of snarky comments directed towards her. Something Sterling had actually come to miss since all that was left in their place was silence. She couldn’t even remember the last time April had spoken to her directly. It seemed that the other girl was determined to act as if the blonde did not exist. Even Ellen had stopped trying to get them to communicate or work together.

“Sterl…Stop fantasising and get in the car.” Sterling snapped out of her daze and climbed into the vehicle beside her sister. She had barely buckled her seatbelt before Blair peeled out of the driveway, clipping the curb on the way.

When they arrived at the church, they had a few minutes to spare so both girls slipped from the car and quickly inside the building to join their parents. Once they were seated, Sterling took a moment to look around at the other members of the congregation.

“You checking for potential suitors or suitesses?” Blair gave a slightly perplexed look. “Is there a female version of suitors or is it one of those terms still firmly entrenched in patriarchy?”

Sterling glanced over her sister’s shoulder to check on their parents and make sure they were not listening in. “I hadn’t considered that it might be someone at church but now I am.”

Turning her attention to the people gathered around she started to evaluate who was a potential candidate. As her eyes reached the Creswell’s pew, she gave Luke a smile and wave when their eyes met. Despite everything that had transpired between them, he was a good friend. The small smile and wave she received in return was nothing out of the ordinary. She had to agree with Blair’s earlier assessment that Luke was out of the running. In all their years of dating, the most thoughtful gift he had given her was a mini pencil with her name on it so she could join him playing golf. A sport she really didn’t enjoy. Letting her gaze drift further around the room, she discounted anyone not in high school. Her eyes passed over the Stevens’ pew where April and her mom sat. As usual, the shorter girl paid no attention to the blonde, her focus on the bible in her lap. Moving further round the church, Sterling found nobody of interest. There was nobody here who was a likely candidate. Either they had never so much as said hello to her or were discounted for reasons of age, thoughtfulness or general dislike. Sterling sat back against the pew with a sigh at being no closer to getting an identity reveal just as Pastor Booth came up to the lectern.

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

As they walked into the club, they were greeted by their mom. “Girls, now before we go in there, I just want to remind you that I want you on your best behaviour today. I know your grandparents can be…hard work at times but it is Christmas. The time for family and togetherness. Not the time for political debate.” Debbie gave Blair a pointed look at the end of her statement.

“We’ve got it mom.” Sterling tried to reassure her mom.

“Climate change isn’t real and the election was stolen by corrupt computer systems.” Blair repeated two of the most common topics of conversation.

Debbie released a deep sigh. “Just try not to push Big Daddy’s buttons until we at least get to dessert. Come on then.”

Debbie led them into the dining room where Anderson was already seated with his parents. The girls each took their seats across from their parents exchanging seasons greetings as they settled down to eat their meal. It was with great relief that the conversation mainly stayed on the relatively comfortable topics of what each of them had received for Christmas and what they had done that day. Albeit with some rather disparaging remarks from Mother thrown in around the seasonal cheer.

“Well, I think it is time we retire to the parlour where we can exchange our gifts.” Big daddy announced once the meal was complete.

The Wesley family followed Big Daddy into the parlour where their regular seats were occupied by a selection of wrapped items. Everyone took their seats and waited while the waiter came to take their drinks orders.

“Big Daddy…This one is for you.” Anderson handed him one of the presents from the table and waited for him to open it. “It’s a laser rangefinder that works up to 4000 yards.” He excitedly explained.

“4000 yards? That seems a bit excessive for hunting some deer in woods.”

Anderson deflated slightly at the comment. Debbie placed a hand on her husband’s arm gently. “Mother, this one is for you.” She handed over the next present.

“A spa day? How thoughtful.” The tone of her voice led everyone around the table to believe that was anything but what she really thought. “One of my friends went to one of these a few months ago. Came back with a nasty skin infection. I’m sure this one will have much better hygiene practices though.”

Debbie smiled as she grit her teeth. “I’m sure of it Mother.”

The exchange of gifts continued around the rest of the Wesley family. Finally there were just two gifts left on the table.

“That’s strange. There should only be the one gift left for Sterling. I don’t know where this one came from. It has your name it though.” Big Daddy handed over the two items to Sterling. She recognised the same block capitals on the envelope on top immediately. Sliding that one to the side, she focused on the gift from her grandparents. “It must be from one of my friends. We didn’t see each other before the break and I guess they didn’t want to interrupt our family time.” Sterling opened her gift of a matching cookbook to Blair.

“Big Daddy and I thought that since you will both be finding a nice boy and settling down in the not too distant future, you could do with some guidance on how to prepare a good meal. I know your mother doesn’t get that guidance from her own mother.”

“Well, she is dead Mother which makes it tricky.” Debbie remarked with as polite a tone as she could manage.

“Yes well, always an excuse for absolving themselves of responsibility.” Mother turned to the girls again, missing the way Debbie’s jaw clenched. “I’m sure you both have good prospects, like your cousin. She introduced us to her boyfriend. Lovely boy from a good family.”

Sterling turned to Blair engaging their twin connection.

”Don’t do it. We are so close to being done.”

“I don’t think I can stop it. It’s like trying to stop yourself from coughing in a silent exam hall. You can feel it, just a tickle at first but the longer you try and fight it, the worse it gets. It just keeps building.”

“Blair…”

“Here it comes…”

Sterling closed her eyes as her head dropped, dreading what was about to come out of her sister’s mouth.

“My last boyfriend was the son of a state senator and lawyer.” Blair deliberately ignored the look her mom was signalling across the table to kill this line of conversation.

“Oh Blair, that’s lovely. Why didn’t you introduce us? We’d have loved to meet such a good match for you.”

“You’ve already met him. Miles.” Sterling sank lower in her seat, willing this to end.

“I don’t recall someone by that name dear.” Mother replied.

Blair smiled back. “Oh right, you might know him as that tall black kid that parks your car?”

There was a silence that descended across the group before Big Daddy spoke. “Well, I do believe it is time for us to be getting back to the lake house.”

Sterling continued to avoid all eye contact as her grandparents made their way out, her parents walking out with them.

“Right, now you can open the present you actually care about.” Blair’s voice cut into Sterling’s consciousness, snapping her back to the reality that she had another gift and therefore another clue. “You can thank me later for cutting that whole experience short.”

Sitting up in the chair she pulled the gift back into her lap from where she had slid it off to her side earlier. Pulling the envelope off the front she opened it to read her clue for the day.

On the third day of Christmas, I wanted to share something that has become intrinsically linked with you.
Open the box.

Sterling stopped reading the note then and did as instructed. She unwrapped the box and lifted the lid. Inside was a necklace of a chemical structure. Not one she instantly recognised other than the fact that it was an aromatic compound from the carbon ring at the centre. She took a moment to admire the structure, running her finger over the shape, before turning back to the note.

This was a chemical that used to be in quite short supply for me. Since I opened my mind to the possibility of you being in my life, that has changed. It has not only made me happier in myself but also improved my focus and motivation for the right reasons. Just catching the lingering scent of your perfume when we pass or hearing your voice is enough to trigger another burst and that is what has got me through some hard days. You got me through them without even realising.

To get your next number, you are going to need to put that AP Chemistry knowledge to use. The number of carbon atoms in this chemical structure minus the number of electrons in the 4p orbital of the 33rd element.

Sterling caught the attention of one of the waiters passing by. “Hi, I don’t suppose you have a pen or pencil I can borrow do you?” She smiled her thanks at the offered item before setting to work.

At the top of the piece of wrapping paper she wrote down 33. From there she wrote out the electron orbitals adding them up as she went. 1s22s22p63s23p6…

“What weird nerd code are you writing?”

Blair’s voice cut into her focus making her lose count. Sterling turned to glare at her sister. “It’s chemistry. I need to work out the number of electrons in the 4p orbital of the 33rd element but you made me lose count.” Sterling turned back to her working only to be interrupted a moment later.

“3.”

“What?”

“3. The answer. Sure you can sit and do school work or you can just use Google. This is the 21st century Sterl, answers at the tips of our fingers.” Sterling looked back at her working quickly finishing it off. 1s22s22p63s23p63d104s24p3. “Nice to see you trust me to Google.”

“Ok, 3. I wanted to do it right.”

“So your next number is 3?”

“No, I need to subtract that from the number of carbon atoms in the necklace.”

“Pretty sure it is made of silver, so -3?”

Sterling looked over at her sister. “No, I need to count the carbon atoms from the ring and the side branches so we’ve got 6 in the ring plus these two branches here so add those gives us 8. 5. My number is 5.” Sterling grinned.

Blair looked at her sister and shook her head. “Ok, Hannah B is off the list.”

“What? Why?”

“Really Sterl? Whoever sent you this is just as geeky as you to be able to come up with this.” She paused for a moment of contemplation. “Maybe more so to think of this. Hannah B is in my chemistry class. I remember her asking what liquid ice was called. I think this…” Blair gestured to the note, “is beyond her chemistry skills.”

“Ok, good point.”

“So, any other clues in there?”

“Not really. They must be somewhere we go quite a lot as they mention hearing my voice or catching the scent of my perfume in passing.”

“It’s got to be someone at school. Or here.” Blair turned to scan the room before spinning back to her sister. “You don’t think it’s Miles do you?”

“No Blair, we had nothing in common. Plus, that would be weird.” Before they could delve further into other potential suspects from the club, their parents returned, the looks on their faces told them that their opportunity for discussion was over for the day.

Chapter Text

Sterling sat on the bench behind the counter, absent mindedly stirring the frozen yoghurt she held in her hand. Her mind occupied by thoughts of who her mystery gift giver may be. Three days in and she felt like their list was still too long and they were lacking in clues to narrow down the pool of suspects. She released a deep sigh as she poked her yoghurt once more.

“Ok, that’s it. Come on.” Blair hopped off the counter she was sitting on and walked past Sterling, grabbing her ankle as she went to pull the blonde off her perch.

“Blair! What are you doing?” Sterling exclaimed as she stumbled to her feet once she slipped off the edge of the counter.

Blair continued into the back office as she spoke. “I’ve spent the past two hours listening to you sigh intermittently and look all mopey. We still have another two hours on shift and as much as I love you, I fear you may not survive that long without intervention.”

“You’re being dramatic again. I’m only sighing. It’s not like I’m going to expire from being in thought.” Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister’s antics.

“Maybe not but if I have to endure much more moping, I may have to take matters into my own hands. Soulmate or not…there’s a limit to everyone’s patience.”

“Why are we in here? Bowser’s still in Florida and he explicitly told us…” Sterling lowered her voice to do her best Bowser impression, “Don’t even think about chasing any skips until I get back or you’ll be cleaning the fudge machine for a month.”

Blair frowned at her sister. “Your Bowser impression needs work.” She moved over to the board that Bowser had various skips taped to and spun it round. “We’re going to go full detective and chart this like they do on Criminal Minds…or like Alice from the L Word.” A smile spread across her face as she grabbed one of the pens.

“You watched the L Word?”

“Of course I did. My sister identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community and I had to carry out research to make sure I could support you in knowing about relevant cultural references.”

“Aww Blair. You are the best ally.” Sterling sent her sister a genuine smile before it faded and a skeptical look settled on her face. “I’ve been trying to work out who this person is for days now. How is this going to change the fact we don’t have enough clues?”

“Sterling!” Blair whined in an exasperated tone. “We are bad ass detectives and it’s time we put that into practice with our current case. You should have more faith in my ability to crack these clues.”

“Ok, fine. We will try.” Sterling sighed once more.

“Rule one: No more sighing.” Blair pointed the pen at the blonde.

Sterling went to sigh again but stopped herself. “Fine. Where do we start?”

“Let’s list all the gifts first, then we can put the clues from each beside them.”

“Ok, day one was the box.” Sterling watched as Blair wrote it on the board. “There were two notes with that. Well, one note and one card.”

“What was on the card?”

“Three snowmen.” She watched as Blair added that note.

“Anything else that day?”

“No. Any handwriting was in block capitals so not something we can match to handwriting we may have.”

Blair wrote day 2 on the board. “Hit me.”

“The cookies.” A smile graced Sterling’s lips at the memory of the baked goods.

“Of which I only got two of.” Blair remarked, quirking an eyebrow at her sister.

“They were really good.”

Blair made a mmm under her breath. “Clues?”

“They used to bake with their Nana but she passed away at some point.” The note was added next to the cookies. “The font on the notes is News Gothic.”

Blair stopped writing part way though that point and turned to look at her sister. “How do you know that?” Her head tilted slightly to the side as she regarded her sister.

Sterling felt the embarrassment rise in her as she refused to make eye contact with her sister. “I did research.”

“How did you research a font?”

“I may have typed in the content of the note and then worked my way through the list of fonts comparing each one to the original.” She muttered.

Blair gasped. “Is that why you were so tired? You were up all-night font finding?”

“It wasn’t all night.” The tone of Sterling’s voice betrayed how close to the truth Blair’s statement was.

“Day three?”

Sterling’s hand drifted to her neck, where her fingers brushed across the new pendant hanging there. “Dopamine necklace.” Seeing her sister’s raised eyebrow she answered the unspoken question. “I did some additional research last night.”

“Clues?”

“Well, they know I am in AP Chem so I figure they must go to Willingham.” She watched as her sister noted the knowledge of AP Chemistry on the board but stopped short of writing Willingham student.

“Didn’t that Geekster dossier that you had on the other forensics teams have information like that on them in there?”

Sterling’s eyes widened. “You don’t think it is a member of a rival team do you? Blair…what if it is one of the guys I made out with at the tournament? What of they have become like a stalker? Or this is some elaborate plan by Craig Wu to take down our team from the inside.”

Blair fixed her sister with a disbelieving look. “First of all, ego much? I know you came second last year but I’m not sure you would be the number one target to take down the team.”

“Harsh…but true.” Sterling reluctantly agreed.

“And stalking is probably a bit far for someone at this point. Anything else?”

“Well, they did say they are happier and can focus a bit more now. Oh, oh and they pass by me at times…they mentioned hearing my voice or catching the scent of my perfume. That must mean they go to Willingham surely?”

Blair noted those facts on the board before stepping back to admire her work, tapping the pen against her chin. “It seems likely.”

“So really we have just narrowed it down to the student body at Willingham with the exception of Luke and Ezekiel.” Sterling began to let out a sigh before catching the look her sister shot her.

“And the poison dwarf.”

“Blair! That’s mean.”

“Sterling, she broke your heart and hasn’t had the decency to so much as look your way in a year. The name is deserved.” Blair leveled her sister with an unimpressed glare, daring her to try to defend the girl after all that had happened. Sterling knew better than to push that particular button so let it drop.

Before they could get much further into their discussion, the bell on the shop door rang signaling customers. They could hear the excited noises of a group on the other side of the door, so with one last glance at their new board, they returned to the shop floor.

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

Sterling flopped down on her bed with a huff. The shift they had seemed to drag on forever with far more groups of over sugared children and teenagers than usual. They had got quite used to the majority of shifts being quiet affair, affording them both plenty of time to sample the different flavour combinations themselves and generally sit around without much to do. It was like after the Christmas closure, everyone decided that frozen yoghurt was the way to go and that they all had to descend on the one store.

The other aspect contributing to her not stellar mood that evening was that it seemed her mystery gift giver had given up. There were no gifts at the house, the store or anywhere else they had been. Sterling glanced over at the clock on her nightstand. 9.43pm. It was highly unlikely that there would be any kind of delivery now. It wasn’t like there would be the chance for someone to come across a present left on the doorstep at that time.

With another sigh, Sterling pulled her phone out to scroll through the internet in the hope that something would catch her eye. Before she could open her social media, she decided to clear out some of the e-mails that had accumulated over the past day, settling in for a period of deleting all the announcements about various sales and Russian brides. By the time she got to the 37th message in her inbox, something caught her eye. There at the bottom of the list was one with a subject line that grabbed her attention.

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: On the fourth day…

Sterling,
I hope you haven’t deleted this. Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Today, your gift isn’t something to unwrap but it is still something to open. I know that life can get rather busy and keeping track of everything going on is a challenge. While you aren’t one for missing deadlines for schoolwork, you can forget certain other events. So, I hope today’s present will help you avoid any future events being forgotten or double booked. I have populated it with anything I knew you would have coming up to get you started.

As for your number for the day. Nothing too complicated today, just how many forensics meets there are before the end of the year.

Just click the link and you can install the app with the events.

Sterling did as instructed and clicked the link. All thoughts of potential harmful links fled her mind as she focused on the possibility of getting one step closer to solving her mystery. She waited while the app installed on her phone and then opened up the calendar. As she clicked through the months she kept count of the number of forensics meets. Five more this year. Reaching down to recover the locked box from under her bed, she spun the combination to enter the third number. Only one more to go. Sterling could feel the excitement build as the knowledge that tomorrow would bring the final number to open the lock settled in. Part of Sterling considered just spinning the final dial until the lock clicked open. After all, there were only 10 numbers and so just a few rotations would do it but the other part of her wanted to do this properly. To wait until the final clue gave her the number. So with one more look at the lock, she placed the box back on the floor and turned her attention back to her phone.

Sterling scrolled through the different months to see what other events had been pre-loaded onto her calendar. She could see the various Fellowship meetings, term dates and other key school events like exam windows. There was a remote hope that whoever it was that had sent this gift had left a blatant clue like their birthday but none were evident.

Rising from her bed, Sterling started her evening routine. When she walked into the shared bathroom, Blair was at the sink already brushing her teeth. “Wha d’yu ge oday?”

The blonde blinked at her sister and tried to decipher what had been said. Before she could work her way through it, Blair spat and spoke again. “What did you get today?”

“It’s an app.”

“What app? Social? Gaming? You’re not being lured into the dark web are you?”

Sterling frowned. “What’s the dark web?”

“Bless you and your innocence. Never lose it.” Blair placed her hands on her sister’s shoulders as she spoke. “The dark web is what happens to the internet after nightfall.”

“But it doesn’t change after dark.” Sterling’s expression conveyed her confusion at the statement.

“That’s because it is after dark where the server is based. So with time zones it is highly unlikely you would have noticed.”

Sterling didn’t really think that was an accurate description of the dark web but getting into it with her sister now would only prolong any tangent that led away from a more in depth look at her latest clue.

“It was a calendar app.” Blair just stared at her. “It had been set up with the various dates for the rest of this year for me so I wouldn’t forget things.” Blair continued to just stare at her sister. “Why aren’t you speaking?”

“Wow, ok Sterl…whoever this person is, they must be in your forensics circle or those other equally geeky clubs you seem to gravitate towards. Sometimes I question how we share genetic material.” Blair shook her head at the revelation of the latest gift. “Wait, how did you get it?”

“They sent me an e-mail.”

“And you didn’t think to lead with that? What was the name and e-mail address?”

Sterling pulled her phone out to read the information. “Name is Santa’s elf and the e-mail address is Elves_Mana_Spirit@hotmail.com“.

She watched as her sister walked back into her room, pulling her laptop up and opening a search. “Mana is the spiritual life force energy that permeates the universe in Melanesian or Polynesian culture.” Spinning back to face her sister the brunette startled the blonde with her loud exclamation, “I’ve got it. I know who it is.”

“Who?” Sterling felt her interest peak at the prospect of finally getting a name to put with the series of gifts and clues.

“Mateo.”

“Mateo? The exchange student from New Zealand?” Sterling felt her hopes come crashing down.

“Exactly. It says right here that it’s an important part of their culture.”

Sterling peered over at the screen. “Blair, that’s Wikipedia. We discussed how reliable the information you find on certain websites is and why they shouldn’t be used for research purposes.”

“Don’t devalue my discoveries. Look at the last bit, it talks of spirit so it all ties in. Prove it isn’t him.” Blair challenged with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, he left to go back to New Zealand at the end of term so I really don’t see how he has been leaving presents on our doorstep.”

“Oh.” Blair deflated with that news before perking back up. “You can just ask.”

“What do you mean?” The confusion was evident in the blonde’s tone.

“Reply to the e-mail address.”

Sterling sat back against the bed with the realisation she now had a tangible method of communication with her secret Santa. The question of if she should use it ricocheted around in her mind. On the one hand, she had been provided with this opening so surely it was intentional but why have this elaborate set up for more days of gift giving if they just wanted to chat via e-mail? Why not just send an e-mail in the first place?

“What are you going to say?”

“I don’t know. I think I’ll sleep on it. Night Blair.” With that, Sterling left the room to contemplate her next move before her sister could continue her questioning.

Chapter Text

To say that sleep had been elusive for the past few hours was an understatement. Sterling had found herself tossing and turning in her bed before caving and retrieving her phone from her nightstand on numerous occasions to stare at the screen. She had got so far as to hit the reply button but then her mind was blank. The blinking of the cursor on the blank screen taunting her and her lack of inspiration on what to write. Who are you…seemed to direct and didn’t convey how appreciative she was of someone taking the time to share these gifts with her. Thank you…seemed like something that she could send but also felt like something to say in person and later to really express how special these gifts were so far. Can you give me a better clue…Felt like she would be admitting she wasn’t able to figure it out from the clues she had been given and even though she didn’t know who the mystery gift giver was, she didn’t want them to think she wasn’t smart enough to figure this out. After all, they had said that the clues would be there to reveal their identity. Unless of course, she had misread that initial message and in fact there were no clues in the gifts themselves and the identity would only be revealed once the box was open. That whole train of thought had sent Sterling down a rabbit hole of questioning her whole belief of the process and resulted in a 3am re-read of the initial messages to try to decipher if the phrasing was that their identity would be revealed upon the opening of the final gift or if there would be clues along the way. After all, if she was reading clues into the identity of the person that weren’t intended, then she may discount people from the list incorrectly which means she may still be at square one. Eventually, exhaustion had won out and silenced her very active mind for the night.

Sterling rolled over onto her back and stared up at her ceiling while she tried to get her brain to work at a level where not every thought consisted of either caffeine or sleep. Realising that the situation was not going to change as long as she lay there, she decided it was time to get up and get the all-important caffeine as sleep wasn’t going to happen again any time soon. As she sat on the edge of her bed summoning up the energy to actually get ready for the day, her eyes drifted down to the locked box on her floor. It was in that moment that she remembered what today would bring. Assuming her mystery Santa stuck to a daily gift, then whatever arrived today would bring with it the final number for the padlock on the box. That would mean she would be able to reveal who was sending her these gifts. So all she had to do was be patient for a little while longer and then she would get her answer today. That knowledge was enough to spur her on and out of bed, giving her the energy needed to face whatever the day might bring as the reward would be worth it…she hoped.

As she entered the kitchen, she was greeted by the sight of Blair perched at the counter making her way through a huge stack of pancakes. Sterling glanced around the kitchen for more but couldn’t locate any. “Did you eat all the pancakes?”

“You snooze, you lose sis.” Blair glanced over at the blonde and seeing the stricken look on her face, she relented and slid a couple of the pancake mountain in front of her to an empty plate. “Now that’s love. You are the only person I would share my pancakes with.”

Sterling took a seat beside her sister at the kitchen island and quickly slid the plate further from her sister, just in case she changed her mind. “Where’s mom and dad?”

“They went out first thing. Didn’t think to ask where they were headed.” Blair watched as the blonde cast a look around the room. “And no, nothing has arrived yet. We could always have a stake out and watch the front of the house. Then when whoever it is makes a move…BAM! Got them.”

“That’s not the point though.”

The brunette raised her eyebrows at the blonde beside her. “That’s the whole point of this…discover who is behind it.”

“Truly, finding out who is behind these gifts is the final part and will be a great surprise…I hope.” Sterling paused as images of various people who would not be so great to be behind the scheme flashed in her mind. “But if we skip to the end, then I’d miss out on the rest of the journey.”

“Ergh, you sound like a Hallmark card!”

“I love you and you have so many great qualities but patience is not one of them. You want to jump to the end now…it’s the same reason you jumped to the end to find out who died in Harry Potter rather than reading the whole book. As much as I can’t wait to find out who is behind this, I also am really excited to wait and see what comes next. Whoever this is, they have taken the time to get to know me and created this set of gifts that is so thoughtful and personal…I’m enjoying the suspense.”

Blair made a gagging gesture. “I just hope they live up to your expectation when all is revealed.” She slid her now empty plate to one side as she sat back to regard her sister. “So?”

“What? Have I got something on my face?”

Blair rolled her eyes. “You said you were going to sleep on it. You slept. So what are you going to say to them?”

Sterling just sat there, vaguely aware that her mouth was working without any sound coming out and she was blinking rapidly, suddenly feeling caught out at not being any closer to working out what she could say than she was in the small hours of the morning.

“You have no idea do you?” Blair sighed out.

“Not no idea, just no good idea.”

“Sterl, that’s pretty much the same thing…both have the same end result of no message being sent. You’re procrastinating.”

“I am not.”

Blair just leveled her with her best unimpressed look. “Ok, so why haven’t you sent a message yet?”

“I have to think about the best way to word it. I can’t just jump in there with who are you and I don’t want to end up typing word vomit but with my fingers so like finger vomit?”

“That is literally the definition of procrastination. If you want, I can type a message for you.”

“NO…I mean, nope. I’ll do it.”

“I’m wounded that you don’t want me to help. You know I have a way with words.”

“True but I also know you can be…blunt. I’d rather not scare this person away.”

“Fine, but you’re going to send it while we sit here so I know you have done it.”

“Why are you so invested in this?”

“Because I’m not seeing anyone and I’m not the recipient of secret gifts so until that changes, I will live vicariously through you.”

“Ok…fine.” Sterling pulled up the still blank email on her phone, the cursor still flashing, rather like an impatient foot tapping. She could actually hear the sound. The rhythmic tap, tap, tap. It was only when she heard Blair sigh at her side that she realised the tapping wasn’t in her head, it was her sister impatiently tapping her foot against the chair leg. The knowledge that the brunette wouldn’t let her get on with the rest of the day without something being sent, she started typing.

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: On the fourth day…

Hi
I’m not sure if you wanted me to email you
I just wanted to say thank you for the thoughtful
Blair is sitting staring at me and expecting me to write something to you and it is really not helping me think

“I’m not sure this is working.”

Blair sighed before grabbing the phone from Sterling, hopping off her chair and darting around the island while typing. “Blair! Give it back!”

Sterling tried to follow but every time she made a move to the left, Blair would dodge right, typing the whole time. “And done.” She handed Sterling her phone back. “You’re welcome.”

The blonde picked up her phone and quickly opened the sent mail items. She clicked on the sent message, her eyes rapidly scanning over the text once it opened on her screen.

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: On the fourth day…

Since you sent a message from an email address, it only makes sense you wanted a reply to it. The gifts are great but if you just reveal your identity then there are many way more fun things we could be doing with our time.

“Are you serious? Why would you send that when we don’t know who is on the other side of the screen?”

“Geez, calm down Sterl. If they are a creep they will reply to that as they think they’ve got you. If they don’t bite, then they are still in the running.”

“Well, that’s…I mean you…they…”

“The words you are looking for are thank you Blair, you’re a genius.” She shot her sister a smug look.

Before Sterling could report her phone pinged with a new mail notification. The blonde’s eyes were drawn to the screen instantly and she clicked to open the new message.

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: On the fourth day…

It would seem Blair still hasn’t quite mastered boundaries. While I’m sure there are many who would take you up on your offer (or Blair’s offer on your behalf), I don’t believe in leaving things unfinished. All will be revealed in time and I hope you don’t mind waiting a bit longer for me.

By the way, you should probably head down to the Volt, there may be something waiting for you there.

“So…who do I need to pay a visit to?”

“Nobody. They didn’t reveal who they were. They did know it was you who typed the message though.” Sterling started to make her way to the door as she spoke.

“Interesting. They obviously were waiting for you to message though for that quick reply.” Blair raised her eyebrow at seeing the blonde edge towards the door. “Where are you going?”

“Or the account is on their phone so they got a notification. I just thought I remembered leaving the lights on switched on the Volt so wanted to turn them off. Flat batteries are a serious problem.” Sterling kept creeping closer to the door as she spoke and made her way outside before hearing her sister call after her.

“They are automatic.”

Not wanting to delay further and risk Blair deciding to follow her, Sterling made her way down the path to the garage where the Volt was parked. Sure enough, sitting propped up on the windscreen was another wrapped gift. Once more the blonde looked around the area to see if anyone had stayed around but she was alone. Picking up the box, she tucked it under her hoody and made her way back into the house with the hope that her sister would let her pass without any further interrogation.

******************************* 

When Sterling was safely back in her room, she pulled the package out from under her hoody, retrieving the note from the front before tearing open the paper. Once the wrapping paper was removed, she was left looking at a wooden box. A sealed wooden box with a hole at one end. She gave the box a shake and heard something moving inside. Turning the box over in her hands to examine it, there were no made in marking or any other information on the outside aside from a single painted design. The painted image was a pink octagon with eight black triangles attached to each of the edges of the octagon. Perhaps a the symbol of the company that manufactured it. Finding no other information, Sterling opened the note to find out what she had to do.

Today is the fifth day of Christmas. And it brings you a bit more of a challenge to get the numbers but the pay off is worth it as it is also the last number to open the padlock. At least I hope it is worth it. For a long time, you were a puzzle to me. You were someone who always seemed to have this positive outlook on life and would succeed in anything you set your mind to. I always wondered how you could do that. I guess in many ways, I am still trying to work out that puzzle. Where some puzzles that I can’t solve in a reasonable amount of time frustrate me (the Rubik’s cube has been my nemesis since middle school yet I can’t quite bring myself to hate them) I think I’d be happy to spend a long time working out all the clues when it comes to you…even if I never fully figure it out.

Your present today is a puzzle box. Inside the box is a maze that you can’t see and you have probably noticed the hole on the end. You will also find that inside are two balls, each with a number on them. Just get the balls out and add the two figures to get the last part of the code for the padlock.

Sterling set the note aside and sat on the edge of her bed, the puzzle box in hand. She held it up to her ear as she tilted it and sure enough, she could hear the balls rolling around inside and clattering together. Settling in for what could be a long period of trial and error, she started to gently tilt the box and listen to the direction the balls moved. Part of her mind supplied that if Blair were to see this particular clue her solution to get the balls out would be simple and involve a hammer or similar rapid access device. It was for this reason, that Sterling decided to keep the puzzle away from Blair. After all, the only puzzle game she had solved was when she peeled all the stickers off her Rubik’s cube and stuck them back on in the right places.

Finally, after a few hours of trying the first ball emerged from the box. Sterling leapt up from her bed in celebration and did a little dance around her room before remembering she needed the second ball out too. She carefully set the first wooden ball to one side and resumed her task. The second ball came out much faster as it had followed the same path as the first. Turning the wooden balls over she located the two numbers, two and seven. She set them to one side with the puzzle box and lifted the metal box from her floor. Carefully setting it down beside her on the bed, she turned the final dial on the padlock to nine and heard the click as the lock popped open. She could feel her heart rate accelerate as the anticipation of what was going to be revealed increased. She slipped the lock out of the clasp and opened the lid. Inside the box was…another box. And on the box was another combination padlock.

Sterling spotted the note resting on top of her new box and pulled it out to read.

Congratulations on making it this far. I hope that my little puzzle box wasn’t too frustrating. I always found the sound of the balls rolling quite soothing. I realise you may have been hoping to have my identity revealed once that lock was open but today is only the fifth day of Christmas…Though I would hope you are getting closer to narrowing down your list with the clues.

Sterling picked up the original metal box and placed the items she had received so far inside for safe keeping. Even though she wasn’t sure who the person sending her on this little quest was, they had certainly made the period after Christmas a bit more enjoyable.

Chapter Text

Blair pulled the Volt up to the Yogurtopia car park, colliding with the parking block to bring them to a stop. “I can’t believe Bowser arranged for a delivery so early and with almost no warning.” The brunette complained as she unbuckled her safety belt.

“It’s 10am Blair and the delivery isn’t due till 10.30. Plus we knew about this before school broke up. You spent the best part of a week complaining about it then too.”

“But it’s the holidays. The big advantage of that is no early alarm calls and having to get out of bed before midday.” Blair trudged her way to the door of the shop with the blonde following behind meaning she was unable to see the way Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister’s continued complaining.

“You do know that since the holiday began you haven’t been in bed later than 9am on any given day right?”

“Maybe not but the option was always there. It’s one thing to be out of bed early through personal choice and quite another when it comes to being forced into adhering to the time scales of a world driven by capitalism.” Blair turned the key in the lock and opened the front door to the shop, stepping to the side to allow the blonde to enter first. “Bowser said you need to get the mail and organise the stock ready for the delivery.”

“I’m pretty sure he said WE needed to do those jobs.”

“Yet I am already on my way to get coffee. You know that without caffeine, I cease to function within an hour of being forced out of bed.” Blair started to back her way up to the car. “I’ll be back before you know it.” With that she turned to get back into the car, leaving Sterling staring after the retreating form of the vehicle as her sister pulled away from the store.

Sighing, she bent down to collect the mail from the mat and began sorting it into piles for Bowser. It was when she was halfway through that her eye caught a familiar envelope and writing. Placing the remaining mail on one of the tables, Sterling retrieved the one with her name written in the same block capitals as previously. Flipping it over, she opened it to reveal her note for the day.

Morning Sterling,
Today is the sixth day of Christmas and your gift today is an opportunity as well as something tangible. Life can be filled with joy and successes, but it also comes with adversity from time to time. It is the people who support us during those times of adversity that become our true family. It is why a real family isn’t based on genetics but based on who will stand by you through those hard times and be there to help you rebuild when everything comes crashing down. Sometimes people stumble on this path and make errors in their judgement or choices. One of your greatest allies is your mom, she has always fought your corner which is something I have always envied. I thought that having the opportunity to spend time with your mom, just the two of you, might be a way to strengthen that connection once more. Below is the address of a great little place that has a reservation for the pair of you this afternoon for an afternoon tea. Your mom has the afternoon free as her reservation at the club for her match this afternoon has fallen through.

As for your clue for the day…On the wall in there you will find a painting of some people swimming in a pool. Just count the number of people in that painting and you have your first number.

Sterling re-read the note, her mind focusing on how accurate the words were. Whoever the writer of this note was, they were aware of the events that had transpired last year. Though that alone didn’t narrow down the list much as the gossip had spread around both the church and the halls of Willingham. As much as all the Wesley family would have preferred to keep such matters between themselves, when it comes to a shoot out at a trailer park, secrets are quite difficult to keep. Those first few weeks had certainly been a trying time as not only were there the constant whispers and pointed looks in hallways to contend with but when she was at home, there were awkward silences and strained conversations as everyone tried to adjust to this new truth.

The relationship between Blair and Sterling had passed through that troubled phase relatively quickly. Initially, Sterling had pulled away from everyone and chosen isolation and angst ridden playlists. Some of her most listened to playlists from the time were entitled ‘for when the world is ending’ or ‘everyone lies’. Eventually Blair had barged into her room and wrapped her in a hug that she refused to let her out of until she hugged her back and listened to what the brunette had to say. Following that rather deep conversation, the two girls had both agreed that despite the 50% difference in their genetic makeup, they were still the same as they had always been. They were sisters and had a bond that was closer than many twins, as was evident from their twin-link. It hadn’t taken long for their relationship to revert to the way it had always been as when it came down to it, Blair had been just as much in the dark as she was.

The harder one was her parents however. They had known and lied to her for their whole lives. Sixteen years of falsehoods and deception cut deep and those wounds were not quick to heal. Every statement made now had the question of truth hanging over it, every interaction and memory was now tainted with the knowledge that it had all been based on a lie over the most fundamental aspects of her existence. There had been many attempted conversations over the situation and what led them to pursue the life of deceit that her parents had chosen but it had taken months before Sterling was willing to listen and engage in them. It had taken a long time and a lot of searching but eventually Sterling had come to the same conclusion as her secret Santa had so shrewdly stated, that her family consisted of the people who had been there to love and support her through the ups and downs of life. The people who provide the DNA to create a new life are not true parents, that is a title that you earn through your actions. When Sterling thought back over her life, she had never doubted she was safe and loved, she knew she had three people who would always fight beside her and be there to help her up when she stumbled. From the time of that realisation, the relationship she had with her parents had improved but when it came to her mom, it felt like there was still this invisible barrier that existed between them. Her mystery insightful Santa was right, this was an opportunity to just spend some time as the two of them, away from Blair’s protective side and on neutral ground. A chance to try to start breaking down that last barrier.

Sterling pulled her phone out and sent her mom a quick message. She knew that her note had said that her mom was free but how could they really know that?

Sterling
I was wondering if you are free this afternoon, would you like to join me for an afternoon tea?

Mom
That sounds lovely honey. Just let me know where and when. Mom

Sterling rolled her eyes at the fact her mom still signed her text messages. No matter how many times they told her that it wasn’t needed, it seemed to be one of those comments that fell on deaf ears. She quickly sent over a message with the address and time from the note. Picking up the discarded mail, she headed into the back room to set the relevant piles on Bowser’s desk before making a start on organising the existing stock prior to the delivery. After all, she knew that waiting for Blair would only lead to the job being protracted and therefore, potentially delaying her departure time.

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

Sterling pulled the Volt up into a parking bay and glanced at the address written in the note once more to check she had the right place. A quick check of the time told her that her mom should be arriving in the next few minutes. She folded her note back up and slid it into her pocket before making her way to the door of the little restaurant. The front of the building was made up of a large glass window with the top region consisting of an intricate stained-glass design of grape vines, the vibrant green of the leaves and purple of the grapes standing out amongst the twisting branches. A glance through the window revealed a cosy venue with a small selection of tables arranged around the small counter.

“Hi sweetheart.” The sound of her mom’s voice drew Sterling’s attention away from peering through the window.

“Hi mom.”

“How did you find this place?” Debbie asked as she glanced at the exterior.

“From a friend. Shall we?” Sterling gestured to the door and received a smile from her mom in acceptance. Opening the door for her mom, Sterling then followed her in.

“Good afternoon, how can I help you today?”

Sterling smiled brightly at the lady behind the counter. “We have a reservation, Sterling Wesley.” As she spoke the words out loud, the younger blonde realised how much trust she was putting in the mystery person sending her the notes. She hadn’t stopped to question for one moment if there actually was a reservation for her or if this was some trick. She felt a burst of anxiety at the thought but her fears were quickly allayed.

“Your table is set up towards the back, overlooking the patio. I’ll show you over.” Debbie and Sterling made their way towards the back of the restaurant and took their seats at the table with the little reserved sign on it. “Your order will be out in a few minutes.” She placed a jug of water on the table. “Can I get y’all anything else?”

With a quick check over to her mom, Sterling shook her head. “We’re good thank you ma’am.”

“I must say this was quite a surprise.” Debbie stated once the waitress moved away.

Sterling quickly stopped herself from saying the first thing that popped into her head that it was a surprise for her too as she didn’t want to open the door that that whole line of conversation. “We haven’t really had much time together as just us.”

Debbie gave her daughter a sad smile. “Baby, I’m sorry for that.”

Sterling shook her head. “It’s just as much my fault.” A silence descended upon the pair of them, neither of them sure where to start as had been the problem with most of their interactions over the past year. Sterling’s mind flashed back to the note she had received, the words reminding her of the relationship she had always been able to count on with her mom. “Do you regret it?” The words surprised Sterling as much as her mom as they slipped past her lips.

“Yes and no.” Seeing the frown descend upon the younger blonde’s face, Debbie continued. “I regret the way you found out and the damage that has done to our family. I don’t regret the choice your daddy and I made all those years ago. I wish we could have been honest with you from when you were much younger but there are a lot of people who wouldn’t have accepted you in the same way if they knew the truth. For some people, blood is what makes a family and so they would have treated you differently.”

“You could have just told me and Blair.”

“Oh sweetheart, we both know that secrets are not something you like to keep. I still remember back when you were in 1st Grade and we had got back late from a visit to your grandparents lake house so you hadn’t managed to read the book for your book report. We sat down and wrote it together when we got home and I just told you the story. When you went to school that next morning the first thing you did was tell your teacher that the book had never left the trunk of the car so you hadn’t read it.”

Sterling couldn’t help the small smile that appeared at the memory. Her mom was right about her not liking secrets, never had. Yet there was still one secret she had been keeping herself from her parents. A secret that only two people knew to this day. Sitting there in that moment made her want to share that secret with her mom, and even though she may not have given birth to her, she was exactly that…her mom. The person who had always had her corner and defended her. A real parent. “There is something I want to tell you, but I don’t want to disappoint you.”

Debbie reached across the table, placing her hand over her daughters which was resting on the table. “You can tell me anything.”

Sterling met her mom’s eyes and searched them for that reassurance that what she was about to do was the right thing. The words of the note echoed in her mind. One of your greatest allies is your mom. Taking a deep breath and dropping her gaze to the table, she let the words tumble from her mouth. “I don’t just like boys. I also like girls. As in I like, like girls.” She felt her breath catch in her throat with the admission, almost like she had to wait for some kind of signal to allow her lungs to function once more.

“Sterling, look at me.” Slowly she brought her eyes up to meet her mom’s. “You are my daughter and you being true to yourself would never disappoint me. In fact, I am proud of you.”

“You are?”

“Of course, I am. You have grown up to be this strong woman who isn’t willing to deny herself the opportunity to find love with someone based on gender or the expectations of others around her. It would be so easy for you to stick to dating boys like Luke but who’s to say that’s where your true happiness lies?”

“Luke wasn’t a bad boyfriend.”

“Oh honey I know that. He is a good boy who treated you right but he wasn’t your equal in many ways. You would have been settling for him. If there is one place you should never settle, it is in finding someone to hold your heart.”

Sterling let her mom’s words sink in. Her mom knew her only secret and she wasn’t disappointed or ashamed of her. She didn’t judge her for her choices but was actively supporting her seeking someone to be a better match for her heart than Luke was. “Thanks mom.”

“Baby, you never need to thank me for supporting you. That is just what a mom should do.”

Before they could strike up further conversation, their array of food and drinks arrived. “Here you are ladies. Anything else I can get for you?”

“No thank you. This looks amazing.” Debbie replied for them. “Let’s eat.” The two women settled in to far less emotional topics for the duration of their outing. The conversation flowed from school to plans for the new year and everything in between. It was a chance for both of them to reconnect and just talk without Anderson or Blair interjecting.

As time wore on, Sterling took the natural break in conversation to try to look around the walls of the room without her mom realising what she was doing. However, subtlety wasn’t one of her strong points.

“What are you looking for honey?”

“Oh, I was just looking at the artwork.” Sterling tried to play it off as nonchalantly as possible while still moving her eyes across the various paintings adorning the walls. Finally, she spotted it, a picture that seemed to be of people swimming in the corner, the only one with such a scene so that had to be it. From where she sat, she couldn’t quite make out the detail. There was no way to go and look at the picture without alerting Debbie to what she was doing so Sterling resigned herself to having to wait until they were finished before she could get her clue.

Once the final item had been consumed, Debbie sat back in her chair. “Well, I have to say that was a real treat. I never would have expected something so delicious from a little place like this.”

Sterling smiled back at her mom. “I’m not sure I could eat another bite.”

Debbie laughed. “If I know my daughter, then I would bet you already ate who knows how much frozen yoghurt before you came here so I’m not surprised.” Sterling ducked her head in embarrassment at her mom knowing exactly what she had done. “We had best be getting back home or your daddy and Blair will be getting up to who knows what. Leaving those two unattended for an extended period of time is a recipe for disaster.” Debbie looked up to the heavens as she imagined what she was going back home to.

“I’ll just settle up and then see you at home.” Sterling stood from the table to follow Debbie to the front of the restaurant once more. As they approached the till, Debbie turned and pulled Sterling into a big hug.

“I am so glad we did this.”

Sterling wrapped her arms around her mom and let her eyes drift closed as she just absorbed the warmth from the hug and let the scent of her mom’s perfume fill her senses. “I missed this…I missed you.” The words were spoken so quietly into her mom’s shoulder Sterling wasn’t certain that she would have been heard but as they pulled back, the glistening in her mom’s eyes told her that she had heard every word. She felt her mom’s hand on her cheek before her mom placed a kiss on her forehead and made her way out of the restaurant. Just before she reached the door Sterling called out. “Mom? I meant to ask, how come you were free this afternoon?”

Debbie turned back to face her daughter. “I was meant to have a match with Franklin’s mom but she had to cancel at the last minute. I’ll see you at home.”

Sterling watched her make her way back to the car, her mind suddenly occupied with the possibility that Franklin was behind her gifts. It would make sense. He went to Willingham so saw her all the time, he would know things from being friends with Luke…was it Franklin behind it all? Slowly she turned to pay her bill, her mind still preoccupied with her latest revelation. “Can I pay the bill please.”

“You’re all paid up.”

Sterling then had a flash of inspiration. If the reservation had been made and the bill paid, maybe they knew who was responsible. “I don’t suppose you have a name of who made the reservation or paid do you?”

The lady smiled at her before leaning against the counter. “Well now, that is something I can’t share. After all, it is only the sixth day and not my secret to tell.” Sterling felt herself deflate at not being able to get closer to the truth. “One thing I will tell you though, your secret Santa…They are a good one.”

“You know them?”

“I do have the privilege. I can’t say too much now as I wouldn’t want to ruin all that hard work but come back sometime when all this is done and you can ask me more then.” She winked at Sterling before turning to the next customer.

Sterling felt a small smile settle on her face as she turned to walk over to the painting. Sure enough, it was a painting of two people swimming in a pool at night. The moonlight reflecting on the surface of the water as the two figures floated in the centre, staring towards each other, arms wrapped loosely around one another. The painting stirred something inside her, a longing for someone to hold her like that. Part of her mind supplied that perhaps when the final clues were revealed she may have her chance with that special someone.

Chapter Text

Sterling sat at the kitchen island, drinking her orange juice and enjoying the relative quiet of the house that morning. Blair and her mom had gone out early to resolve a last-minute wardrobe issue. Her dad was out in his workshop wanting to finish the set of ducks he was working on as he didn’t want to leave anything left unfinished as the year ended. This left Sterling to have the house to herself and have the time to contemplate the past year.

Certainly, when she thought back over the year, it hadn’t been quite as eventful as the previous one. No kidnappings, shoot outs, life-altering realisations or stumbling into new careers. That didn’t mean the year had been dull. It had been a year where she had spent a lot of time learning about herself more than anything. The fallout from the revelations of the previous year had taken a long time to resolve and even now, there was aspects that were still a work in progress. Yesterday had been a big step in moving things in the right direction but there was still further to go to fully repair those relationships.

Sterling’s musings were cut off by the sound of the post being dropped through the mail slot. She hopped off her chair and made her way to the door to retrieve the mail, hoping that there would be her next clue. Sure enough, sitting on the door mat was the tell-tale red of the envelope whose appearance she had come to love each day. She picked the item up from the mat and made her way back up to her room with her latest gift, turning it over in her hands as she walked. Once she was back in the safety and seclusion of her room, she sat down on the edge of the bed to open her latest present. She carefully peeled the envelope off the front and set it to one side as she tore open the paper to reveal a book. The Time Machine by HG Wells. Sterling flicked through the pages briefly before turning her attention to the note.

Today is the seventh day of Christmas and your gift today is a novel, a classic. There have been many times when I have wanted to know what the future holds. To have some method of travelling forwards to see if the choices I have made get that happy ending. There have also been times when I have wanted to travel back, return to a time when I made a choice I regret and have a second chance. So, the big question is forward or back? To head back would potentially change the path we find ourselves on today which may not always be for the best…after all, we are the sum of our experiences. To travel forwards would show the outcome but we would miss out on everything that got us there and all those tiny details that and actions that led to that point. I have chosen to live in the present and keep moving forwards with the hope that my choices in the past will not prevent the future I desire.

Your number for today is to find the chapter that has the following quote: “Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.”

Carefully placing the note to one side, Sterling slid herself back to a more comfortable position on her bed. She opened the book to the first page and started reading.

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

“What are you reading?” The sound of Blair’s voice pulled Sterling back from her immersion in what had been envisioned as a potential future of the world. She looked over to her sister who had taken a seat at the end of her bed, holding up the cover of the book to allow the brunette to read it. “The Time Machine? Isn’t that like really old?”

“It’s a classic, yes.”

“And you decided that since you missed my presence so much this fine morning, rather than engaging in the activities of a normal teenager, you would dig out the oldest book you could find and read it? I’m pretty sure they have made movies about it too to save reading it.”

Sterling shook her head at her sister. “It’s my gift for today.”

“You got an old book? This is the low point of all the gifts…actually a calendar app was a poor effort.”

“Hey…The app was really thoughtful. How many times have I managed to forget that I had something on when I agree to something else?”

Blair held her hand out and started counting on her fingers. “So, there was the skip coupon day; the recording studio stake out; the shift you said you’d cover when you had Fellowship; the church bake sale…You know what, I’m going to run out of fingers. The app was needed. But a book?” Blair made a disgusted face.

“I like reading.”

Rolling her eyes at her sister, she spied the note on the bed. “Is this like one of those prison codes where you need to find a specific page, line and word to get each letter to then decrypt the message?”

“No, I just need to find a specific quote and the number for that day is the chapter it is in.”

“Well, that’s far less exciting. And once more I ask…Why not Google it?”

The blonde sighed at her sister once more. “I have already told you…”

Blair cut her sister off. “The journey is part of the adventure or something sappy like that. It’s New Year’s Eve Sterl. You can’t spend all day reading a book. We have to get ready for the gala at the club tonight. Hold up…do you think they will be there tonight? They clearly have access to the club grounds as they left that present for you there.”

Sterling’s hand reached up to her neck on impulse to graze across the pendant she hadn’t taken off since receiving it. “I didn’t until you just said that. What if they are there tonight? What if I say or do something that makes them want to stop sending me these gifts? I’d never find out who is behind it.”

“And you say I’m the dramatic one.” Blair muttered. “I’m pretty sure that you aren’t going to do anything that bad tonight. Just like, don’t try subtly interrogating people. That’s my speciality.”

Sterling looked back to her sister with a sceptical look clouding her features once more. “You do remember the last time you tried to subtly interrogate someone right? Or the last two times even…they both ran off as they figured out what you were doing straight away.”

“Hey…That was a long time ago and in my formative days as a bounty hunter. I’ve totally moved from novice to expert by now.” Blair puffed her chest out at the statement. “Anyway, since you haven’t utilised my amazing detective skills these past couple of days, you must have more clues for us to add to help us solve this mystery.”

“Oh my gosh, yes. Yesterday when I got my gift it was actually for mom too and the note said that mom would be free. Sure enough when I asked, she was. Her plans with Mrs Jenson had fallen through at the last minute.”

“No.” Blair gasped. “You don’t think this is Franklin?”

“The thought crossed my mind. Who else would be able to get Mrs Jenson to cancel her match with mom at the last minute?”

“Well, the Jenson’s will be at the gala later tonight which means we can do some snooping.”

“Blair, no snooping or quizzing or probing of Franklin.”

Blair pulled a disgusted face. “Eww, nobody would want to probe Franklin. But seriously Sterl, we could get some valuable intel tonight. I’m going to leave you to consider that while I go and do something that doesn’t involve me reading a book from hundreds of years ago.”

Once the door closed to her room once more, Sterling tried to clear her head of any thoughts of what Blair may get up to tonight and turned her attention back to the book. If there was one thing she was certain of today, it was that she would find the quote and get the next number in the combination lock. It was already day seven so she had made it over halfway without knowing the identity of her secret gifter, she could do another five days.

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

The Wesley family pulled up to the club just after 7pm. They could already see the steady stream of members making their way into the venue for the evening’s events dressed in their finery. The club had opted for a masquerade ball alongside the lavish dinner this year. What was evident as they made their way in through the main doors was that people had certainly embraced the opportunity to showcase some rather ostentatious masks. Where some of the families present had opted for more reserved versions with some beautiful painted designs, others had gone all out with what Sterling considered to be rather an excessive number of feathers and sparkles. The Wesley’s had opted for the rather more conservative painted designs following a rather impassioned speech Blair had made against the use of glitter and how it was contributing to the continued issue of microplastics in the world. As they made their way through to the bar area to have a drink before dinner was served, Sterling took the opportunity to look around to see who else she recognised.

Once they were seated at the bar, her parents were accosted by some of their friends which gave Blair and Sterling a chance to talk. “Right, game time.”

“Blair…we agreed no sleuthing tonight.”

“Did we agree that?” Blair gave her sister a dubious look. “If I recall, there was no agreement to that suggestion. So, here’s the plan.” Blair pulled out a note card and handed it to Sterling.

“You actually wrote down a plan?” Sterling’s shocked tone slipping through with the question.

“That’s not the plan. The plan is up here.” Blair tapped the side of her head. “These are the summary points from our perp board.”

“Perp board? That makes it sound like the person giving me these gifts is some kind of deviant.”

“As much as I’d like to rule out that as a possibility, we don’t know what people get up to behind closed doors.” Blair pointed at the notecard. “As I was saying, here we have our key points of intel gathered to date. Dead grandparent, Willingham student probably, member here, access to the Jenson family.”

Sterling glanced back over the notes, not that she really needed it written down. Over the past few days, she had read and re-read the notes to the point that she had them pretty much memorised by now. Taking a deep breath to steel herself for the answer, she asked the question she almost didn’t want an answer to. “What’s your plan?”

Blair’s lips stretched into a wide smile. “I knew you would come round. First up Franklin. I’ve already seen the Jenson’s are here so we can tackle him first. Not literally…” She paused. “Unless he runs.”

“No Blair…no tackling people or doing things to make them run. We are not chasing a skip. We are here for a nice evening with mom and dad to see in the New Year.”

Blair waved a hand dismissively. “Of course, but also to get you closer to solving this mystery. How is it not driving you crazy? If it was me, I’d have broken those locks off on day one.”

“I think this is why anyone who knows you would never try something like this with you.”

Blair nodded her head. “True. If they did, then clearly they were not the right one for me.”

“Girls, time to go through.” The sound of their dad’s voice pulled them away from their planning, the rest would have to wait until after dinner when the mingling really began.

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

Once the meal had concluded, the groups had started to relocate to the various areas around the club. Any of the younger children had been herded away to watch movies away from the adults to give their parents a break. Most of the adults had made their way into the ballroom for the main event which left the older teens to occupy the lounge area. As Blair and Sterling entered the room, they cast a quick look around to see who was present. Masks had been discarded on tables while the usual friendship groups took seats in various areas of the room.

“There he is.” Blair started to make her way over to where Franklin sat. Before she got more then a step away, Sterling grabbed her sister’s arm to halt her progress.

“You can’t just walk over there and interrogate him in front of the rest of the golf team.”

“It’s hardly the whole golf team, there’s only four of them over there.” Seeing the unimpressed look on her sister’s face made Blair relent. “Fine. Let’s go talk to Luke and wish him a happy new year. We can then seamlessly slide into their group and the conversation.”

“I guess that could work.” Without waiting for any further confirmation, Blair dragged the blonde over to the group by the arm.

“Hi Luke, having a good evening?”

Luke looked up in surprise at the voice. “Hi, hi Blair…Sterling. Yeah, it’s looking better now.” His eyes met Sterling in that hopeful way that still betrayed how he still held these lingering hopes that they would reconnect.

“Hi Luke.” Sterling smiled back politely.

“You can sit here.” Luke gestured to the seat next to him. Sterling caught sight of Franklin shaking his head in despair at the action.

“Thanks Lukey.” Blair sat in the seat to save her sister from having to deal with the uncomfortable situation that would no doubt unfold. “Hey Franklin? What happened yesterday that meant your mom cancelled her match with our mom?”

Sterling wanted to facepalm at the totally unsubtle way Blair approached the question but had to settle for glaring at her across the table they sat round. She tried to make eye contact to establish their twin connection but Blair was actively avoiding her.

“Oh, she won some kind of competition. Got a phone call the night before telling her she won a draw.”

Blair sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “What kind of draw?”

“No idea. She didn’t even remember entering one but came back the next day with her nails all done so must have been for real.” Before she could continue to ask questions, Franklin stood from the group. “I have to go and…see…my mom.” With that he made his way across the room.

Casting a look behind her, Sterling saw Horny Lorna standing over by the doorway wearing something that was rather more revealing than most would have thought acceptable for the event. Turning back to her sister, she just shook her head. Franklin was off the list as he was clearly still very invested in his occasional event hook ups with Lorna.

The girls settled into conversation with the others around, Blair occasionally asking questions that generally just caused confusion and made Sterling roll her eyes.

“So how many forensics meets are left this year?” To one of the guys on the golf team.

“How’s your nana?” To one of the Fellowship girls.

“Can you explain electronic structures to me?” To one of the guys who happened to also be in Sterling’s AP chem class.

None of the answers led them any closer to discovering who was behind the gifts. After they had rung in the new year, the hope that they would have an answer before the year was out had faded.

As Sterling climbed into bed, she picked up her phone to make sure her alarm was switched off and her eyes caught on a new message notification. Clicking on the messages she opened a new e-mail.

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Happy New Year

Happy New Year Sterling. You looked beautiful tonight. The blue of your dress and mask just accentuated the blue in your eyes. I must admit it took a lot of will power not to curtail my plans and reveal who I am to you when I saw you walk in. I hoped that maybe you could have been my midnight kiss…as the saying goes ‘kiss the person you hope to keep kissing’…Maybe next year?

Sterling could feel the smile pulling at her lips as she read the words. Then the realisation of what those words meant hit home. Whoever it was, had been there tonight. Had seen her. She may have even spoken to them without realising. With a groan, she looked up at her ceiling before sending a short response.

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Happy New Year

Happy New Year…It seems this year might be starting on a positive note. Maybe that hope will become reality…

Chapter Text

Sterling felt her head droop and woke back up with a start, blinking rapidly to try to focus and wake up a bit. To say that the morning had been going slowly at Yogurtopia was an understatement. They had been open for two hours and not a single customer had come in. The closest they came to having anyone set foot inside the store was when they saw Miss Cathy walking up but she merely waved as she continued past the door. This led Blair to then hold a ten-minute-long monologue about how Bowser had clearly sent Miss Cathy to check up on them and make sure they hadn’t burnt down the shop which was highly unlikely as they dealt with frozen goods and not fire. Sterling had merely nodded at what she hoped were the opportune moments and continued to watch the world pass by outside the shop window.

“Sterling!”

Feeling something ricochet off her head drew the blonde out of her thoughts. Turning to blink at her sister with a questioning look on her face, Sterling realised that she had clearly missed something important. Or maybe many things that could have been important based on the exasperated look being shot her way by the brunette. “Hmm?”

Blair rolled her eyes and threw her arms up in despair. “You weren’t listening…again.” Sterling quickly searched her mind to try to summon up some word or phrase that had registered in her distracted mind. Sadly, nothing was forthcoming.

“What were you saying? And did you throw a peanut butter cup at me?”

Opting to ignore the second question, the brunette dropped some confectionary back into the tub. “I was outlining my detailed plans for how to end this seemingly endless drought of intimacy and intercourse but you were too busy falling asleep on me! Why are you so tired anyway?” Blair raised an eyebrow at her sister. Sterling felt her mind drift back to last night and what had kept her up later than expected. “What is that face?”

“Huh? What face? I’m not making a face.”

“You are. This…” She spun her finger in a circle gesturing towards the blonde’s face, “is a face that says you were doing something I don’t know about. We have a rule Sterl.”

“Fine, I might have been exchanging a couple of messages with Santa’s Elf last night.”
“Were you sexting the elf last night?” Blair gasped. “Is it still called sexting if it is via e-mail? Se-mail?” She wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant sound of that.

“No. Nothing like that.”

“What then?”

Figuring the simplest way to bring the questions to an end would be to just show her sister the messages, Sterling pulled up the thread on her phone and passed it over.


From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Happy New Year

I guess we will find out soon enough.

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Happy New Year

Can I ask you a question?

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Happy New Year

You just did.
You can ask…as long as it’s not who I am

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Happy New Year

Why now?

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Happy New Year

A simple question with a far from simple answer. To fully explain why would lead to me revealing who I am tonight and we are not at the end just yet. I promise that if you still want the answer to that question after you know who I am, I will explain why now in as much detail as you want. For tonight, just know that for so long it has felt like every time I wanted to say something, I’ve had to hold my breath to keep the words from spilling out but now…now, I can finally exhale.

Blair handed the phone back to her sister. “Let me get this straight, you had the chance to ask any question except their identity and you didn’t go digging for information? You could have asked if you knew them, if you spoke to them last night, if they go to Willingham, if they are male or female…so many options and you ask about the timing?” Blair sighed. “This is why Bowser doesn’t let you go undercover to pump people for information on our skips.”

“You’re the one who always wants to go undercover.”

Blair grabbed a pot and filled it with gummies on the way past the counter. “Come on…let’s add the last few days of clues to our perp board.”

“Do we have to keep calling it that?” Taking one last glance around the shop and the street outside, Sterling followed her sister into the back office.

Blair stood by the board with her pen already in hand. “So we have the first three days already up. What was day 4?”

“The calendar app.”

“Right. We also got the e-mail address that day. Elves mean spirit?” Blair frowned as she tried to recall it.

“Elves mana spirit.” Sterling corrected and watched as the clue was added to the board. “I’d also add a point that they are highly likely to attend Willingham there as the dates on the app are school based.”

“Done. Day 5.”

“That was my puzzle maze box.”

“Oh yeah the wooden balls of frustration.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Sterl, once more there was such a simple solution that would have saved all that time you spent trying to solve a puzzle you couldn’t even see.” Blair acted out smashing it with a hammer.

“Your solution to almost all these challenges is to resort to destruction which we are going to come back to at a later date. If we smashed it, then it would have destroyed the box itself.”

Blair shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not like you can use it for anything else. Plus, I got a splinter from one of the edges so clearly whatever manufacturing company made it had lax quality control.” On the board the brunette jotted down, box of frustration. “Did you ever identify what brand it was from the painted mark?” She started to sketch out the design on the board while she spoke.

“Not yet. When I try and search them I don’t find many like this and certainly none with that design on them.”

“Dead end then.” Blair finished the design. “Day 6?”

Sterling couldn’t help the small smile that emerged at the memory. “That was the afternoon tea with mom at that cute little restaurant.”

“Where the waitress knows our unsub.”

“Unsub Blair? You need to stop watching all these crime shows.”

“These crime shows are providing me with new perspectives to view our clues from to solve this mystery. I still think we should stake out that place as it certainly sounds like this person might visit often and we could get a sneaky look.”

“Or we could spend our days not sitting in a cold car waiting for someone who may or may not visit. We only have a couple of days before we have to go back to school and I don’t want to spend them on a stake out.”

“Fine. Clues from there?”

“It was a painting of two people swimming in a pool at night.”

“Someone on the swim team?” Blair contemplated that thought for a moment before making the note next to the gift. “So yesterday, day 7 was the book.”

“Maybe someone who regrets something in the past but also wouldn’t change it. At least the note seems to suggest that.”

Blair stood back from the board to review their information. “Ok, Franklin is off the list right?”

“Yeah, he didn’t seem to have a part to play in his mom’s cancellation.”

“So, what we are left with is someone down a grandparent, who bakes, is as much of a geek as you…”

“Hey, I’m not a geek.” Sterling pouted at her sister.

“Sterl, the facts speak for themselves, I just happen to voice them. As I was saying, they hang out in lesser-known eateries, probably attend Willingham, are members of the club and clearly have way too much time on their hands.” Blair gave a frustrated sigh. “I swear we are just going round in circles with this. I’m running out of people who fit those criteria that we haven’t already eliminated.”

“Do you think we have gone wrong?”

“Or it’s just somebody we haven’t thought of yet. Far more likely than our crack detective work going wrong.” Blair rummaged around her pot of gummies and realised they were empty. “Anyway, I need more sugar to get through these last few hours. Maybe inspiration will strike with a sugar high.”

Sterling watched her sister head back to the front of the store before letting her focus shift back to the board. They had received so many clues and yet it just felt like they were still no closer to solving who was behind this scheme. As much as Sterling wanted to know the face behind the curtain, she was also enjoying these small insights into someone else and how they saw her too. The thought of having extra days to learn a little bit more wasn’t all bad.

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

Blair spun the Volt back onto their drive, once more ending up swerving up the grass bank that was slowly becoming a dirt track from the number of times it had been driven over. She brought the car to a stop with mere centimetres to spare between the car and the wall. “I’m just saying that it’s now 2021, a new year, a chance for new beginnings and to explore new opportunities.”

Sterling got out of the car, closing the door before leaning on it to give her sister an incredulous look over the roof. “You do remember the last time we explored new opportunities right? I ended up sleeping in a tent Blair…in the garden. It wasn’t even glamping…just plain old camping…sleeping on the hard ground…in a tent.”

“If you will insist on documenting your life on social media then there are going to be repercussions. I swear Ellen will use you as a cautionary tale on the dangers of sharing information on social media apps in the future.” Blair locked the car and started to walk towards the house.

“She will not.”

Sterling crashed into the back of her sister as she suddenly stopped walking.

“Give a girl some warning next time.” Sterling watched as her sister took a couple of steps forward before turning back to face her. In her hands was another parcel with the distinctive red envelope on top.

“I could have just let you walk past this but I figured you may want to see what was in it.” Blair responded as she handed over the gift to her sister.

“It’s heavy.” Sterling felt the weight of the gift as her eyes drifted over the familiar block capitals of her name once more.

“Are you going to open it or just analyse it while it is still wrapped?”

Sterling peeled off the envelope and rested it back on the wall before unwrapping the gift. Once the paper was off, she revealed a cardboard box. She handed the paper off to Blair who accepted it with a grumble about not being a trash can before opening the box to reveal a snow globe. She carefully lifted it out of the box and gave it a gentle shake to stir the snow before she watched it gently fall around the scene inside.

“What is it?”

“A snow globe.”

Blair rolled her eyes and threw the paper at Sterling’s head. “I know that. I meant what’s the scene?”

Sterling held the globe up to look inside at the scene. “It’s Santa sitting in his sleigh at the edge of a forest? No, it must be a park as there’s a streetlight. He’s handing out gifts to some children.”

“Well, that is…uninspiring. Did they run out of good ideas?”

Sterling set the snow globe down on the wall carefully, choosing to ignore her sister’s comments before opening the note.

Today is the eighth day of Christmas and I wanted to give you something that reminds me of my childhood. As we get older, it seems that we can forget the magic that filled the stories we were told as children. We get caught up in all the day to day pressures of school and the expectations of our social circles that we can lose that simple joy from actually seeing what is around us, from believing in things that seem impossible or out of our reach. Maybe someday we will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

Your number for today is simply the number of children getting their presents from Santa.

“The number is four today. Four children getting presents from Santa.”

“That was easy. I stand by my earlier statement that maybe they have run out of good ideas.” Blair handed the snow globe back to Sterling. “You coming?” The brunette shot over her shoulder as she made her way along the path and back to the house. Sterling snapped out of her thoughts and followed her sister inside. Though the knowledge that she was only a day away from opening the lock on her second box kept flashing in her mind.

Chapter Text

Sterling rolled over, shuffling herself further down under the covers trying to prolong the last few moments lingering in that state of mind between being awake and sleep. From her position in bed she could see the snow globe from yesterday on her nightstand. Looking at it in that quiet time had something niggling at the back of her mind, something that seemed almost familiar about the scene depicted under the dome. Sterling reached her arm out from under the covers to retrieve the item to look at it closer once more. She gave it a gentle shake to stir up the snowflakes and watched as they drifted back down amongst the scene. After the final flake had settled, she gently placed it back on the side, whatever memory it stirred remaining elusive at this time. As she drew her hand back, she picked up her phone to scroll through her various socials while she contemplated getting out of bed. Once she clicked the button to activate her phone she saw a notification of a new event on her calendar app. Clicking on it to open it, she was greeted by a new event for today…The 9th Day of Christmas. She opened the event and found a link which she clicked to follow. The link opened a document on a shared drive.

Good morning,
I hope that today you will be willing to trust me to take you on a little adventure. I realise this is a lot to ask when you don’t know who I am but I hope that nothing I have said or done has made you question my intentions. You will need to dress warm as we are going to be going to be going for a walk. While I won’t physically be there, you will have a new clue to follow at each stage of our adventure. So, in a way, I will be sharing it with you…just not in person. We may be going off the beaten track for a bit so wear some sensible shoes.

To start our adventure, head on back to the location of your present on day 6. There’s something there for you to pick up and your next instruction.

Sterling was still reading the message when her bedroom door burst open as her sister walked into the room. “Sterl, why have I got a message from your secret Santa?”

She pushed herself so she was sitting up in bed, her eyebrows drawing together in confusion at the statement. “You do?”

“Yep, it says…I have asked your sister to follow a small adventure I have set up today. As I know you may not know who I am at this time, I thought it wise to also include someone else so you know I don’t have nefarious intentions. I’d suggest either you can join her or get her to share her location with you before she goes.”

“Huh.”

“Huh? That’s all you have to say? Some random person has just suggested you follow clues to lead you to who knows where alone and all you have to say is huh?”

“They did say you could come too. I think we are headed outside for a bit as I’ve been told to dress warm and wear sensible shoes.”

Blair’s face contorted into a look of disgust. “Yeah, so just share your location with me. I’m not going traipsing around outside today. Sounds like way too much exercise and I still have the weekend until I need to be thinking about physical activity again.”

Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister and set about sharing her location. “There.”

“Are you sure this is wise? I mean we literally have no idea who they are. They could be some kind of creepy serial killer.”

“Think about what we know…they are almost certainly a Willingham student and a member of our country club. Plus the lady at the restaurant knows them.”

“And wouldn’t tell you who they were.”

“You can follow my every move on the app and I’ll check in every couple of hours.”

“Every hour or I’m sending mom in…with her shotgun.”

Sterling rolled her eyes at her sister. “Fine.”

“You sure you want to do this?”

Sterling thought for a moment, her eyes catching on the snow globe once more and triggering that feeling that she knew something more, that she knew this person and that she would be safe following the clues. “I’m sure.”

Blair nodded before launching herself at her sister and wrapping her in a hug. “Just…be careful. And every hour Sterl…I mean it.” She nodded against the brunette’s shoulder before releasing her to set about getting ready for her adventure.

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

Sterling pulled up to the restaurant from the other day, slipping the car into park as she cast a glance down the street. It wasn’t like she expected to see someone she knew but there was always that little bit of hope that she would see something to reveal who her mystery person was. As she walked into the little restaurant, the same lady from her last visit was at the counter, a broad smile spread across her face as she glanced in Sterling’s direction.

“Morning.” She greeted as Sterling approached the counter. “You up for an adventure today?”

“I think so.” Sterling smiled a small smile back at the lady but she could feel her nerves surfacing. What if this was a mistake and she really was walking into a situation she shouldn’t.

“I have something for you but before that, you can ask me a question.” Sterling looked at the woman, the confusion evident on her face. “Hon, you look like you are questioning if you should stick around or high tail it out of here as fast as you can. So, ask a question that will settle your mind.”

“I’m guessing their name is not an option?” Sterling saw the answering smile and nodded, allowing herself to contemplate what would help to settle her mind about putting this trust in an unknown person. “Do I really know them…in real life I mean?”

“You do. Have done for most of your life in one way or another. Lord knows I have heard a lot about you over the years. I’m sure you have already worked out some facts by now? Come on, what do you know?”

“I think they go to school with me and are a member of the same country club as my family.” Sterling watched as the lady smiled as she listed her facts. “They are smart and thoughtful…I mean, to come up with all this isn’t something anyone could do. Oh, and they lost their nana at some point.” As she mentioned this, a sad look passed over the face of the woman behind the counter. “Did you know her?”

“I did. She was a lovely lady. Every week they’d come in here for as long as I can remember. They’d sit over there,” she gestured to the table Sterling and her mom had sat at a couple of days previously, “and talk, laugh and just escape from…” She stopped, clearing her throat. “Anyway, enough of my reminiscing…has that helped to set your mind at rest for the adventure ahead?”

Sterling considered pressing her to finish that sentence. Escape from what or who? It felt like that was an important part of this mystery. Yet at the same time, it felt like it was one of those personal facts that would mean so much more if it was shared by the person it was about, rather than an onlooker. She filed that bit of information away as part of her clues to consider in detail later and nodded her head.

“Here you go.” The lady handed her a backpack from under the counter and a red envelope with the familiar block capitals on the front. “Supplies and your next clue. Enjoy the day.”

Sterling accepted the bag and the envelope before heading over to an empty table to see what she had been given. She opened the backpack first and found it stocked with a range of snacks and drinks. In one of the side pockets were a couple of the hand warmer packs. In the large pocket on the front was an umbrella, a first aid kit, a flashlight and a whistle. Finding nothing else in the other pocket, Sterling opened the envelope.

You already know our first stop. This is a place that is special to me. It is somewhere that holds a great deal of happy memories, somewhere I have always been able to just be myself. Where nobody has expectations of how I should act or be. Plus, the food is really good! You should have been given your supplies for the day. I didn’t want you to get hangry during our adventure.

Next stop…You need to head a little out of the city. Just add the zip code below to your car GPS and it will take you to the parking for our next stage. When you get there, head over to the visitor centre and ask them for the flamingo beanie you left there the other day.

Sterling picked up her backpack for the day and made her way back out to the car, plugging in the zip code to her GPS. Before she pulled away she sent Blair a quick text.

Sterling
First stop complete. Got some new intel for later. Heading out to the second stop now.

She snapped a quick photo of the destination on the GPS to send along with the message. Once she hit send, she started the car and pulled away to head out to the second stage of her adventure.

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

Sterling pulled up in the car park and looked over the note once more, reminding herself of what she needed to do next. Tucking the note into the front pocket of the backpack she slipped out of the car and walked over to the visitor centre. As she entered the building, she made her way over to the main desk.

“Hi there. How can I help you today?” The mature lady behind the desk asked as Sterling approached.

“Morning ma’am. I’m hoping you have a flamingo beanie for me that was left here the other day?” Sterling smiled, hoping that they didn’t ask for more details about the hat she had never seen.

“Ah yes. Just one moment.” The lady stepped back from the desk and ducked her head into the office at the side. She returned moments later with the hat in question. “Sterling I presume?”

Any confusion about how the lady knew her name abated when she drew near as just visible sticking out from the inside of the grey hat was the tell-tale red of the envelopes that had become part of her daily routine, the flamingo embroidered on the front visible from where she stood. “Yes ma’am.”

“Here you go. Have a good day.”

“Thank you. You too.” Sterling headed back out of the visitor centre and took a seat on one of the benches out front before opening her new envelope.

Welcome to one of the places I come when I need to just get away from everything. When all the pressures of the expectations of my family and others around me gets too much, I come out here to just breathe. My nana lived not too far from here so as a child we would walk these trails when I stayed with her. You’ll find a trail map in the envelope. We’re going to follow the white trail today.

The first part of the trail takes you through a young deciduous forest. Even though the branches are currently bare, take a moment as you walk through to picture how it changes with the seasons. To walk here in the spring as the branches change from the dark branches to green and gold of the new leaves.

Keep following the trail and you will reach a stream. When you get here, look for two fallen branches. Between them you will find your next clue.

Sterling tucked the note safely in her backpack and checked the trail map. She snapped a quick picture of herself at the start and sent it to Blair before making her way along the start of the trail. As she walked, she did as her secret Santa had asked and took in the surroundings. She tried to picture how different it would look come spring. She could imagine small flowers springing up around the trees as their branches came to life with the buds signalling an end to winter.

Eventually she reached the stream. She heard it before she saw it, the sound of the running water growing stronger as she continued her journey along the path. When she got to the stream itself, she looked around for the two fallen branches. Luckily she located them quickly, just off the edge of the main track. She made her way over and looked around them but couldn’t see anything immediately. Spotting a pile of leaves at the base of one of the branches, she kicked at them with her feet. That was when she saw the red of the envelope. Reaching down she lifted it out. The envelope was inside a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. Sterling made her way back to the main track and perched on the edge of a rock to open the envelope.

I remember coming here one year with my nana when I was back in second grade and we had a reasonable amount of snow. It had been so cold that part of the stream had frozen over and the trees were all covered with snow. As we stood here and the snow fell around us, everything was almost silent. All the usual sounds were muffled by the snow and it felt like we had stepped into another world, one where everything that usually fills your senses was silenced. It was standing here in that moment, that I first truly heard the voice in my own head. I guess it is fair to say that it was the first time I started to listen to that voice rather than those of people like my parents.

Head on down the trail and you will come to the ruins of an old mill. I’m not going to give you a history lesson today but follow on down the stairs on the right side of the mill towards the banks of the creek. You’ll know when you are in the right area by the sound of the water. Look for the big rock wall to the right of the trail, there is a split tree there. Behind that tree you will find some large flat rocks, your next clue is under those.

Sterling snapped another picture on her phone to send to Blair with the message…still alive…just to keep her from calling out a search party. Before she left the area, she took a photo across the stream. Tucking her phone back in her pocket, she continued on down the trail. The note was right about one thing, as she continued along the trail, the sound of the water rushing past grew louder. Ultimately it was all she could hear, the roaring of the water as it raced past the rocks creating a swirling torrent of white water. Turning her attention to the right of the path, she saw the rock wall and the split tree. She made her way off the trail and stepped around the trunk to locate the flat rocks. She lifted the top one and tucked underneath was another red envelope sealed away to keep it dry. She retrieved the envelope before replacing the rock and taking a seat on it to read her note.

A lot of my life, I have had to keep certain thoughts and opinions to myself. This spot is somewhere that I first voiced some of those thoughts. The sound of the water crashing across the rocks drowns out almost everything. After my nana died, I came here and just yelled and cried. Shouted all the things I wanted to tell her but hadn’t quite got the courage to say before she passed. Even though they were out, my secrets were still safe as the water masked them all. I have come out here since, whenever I need to just yell and cry without anyone questioning it. It’s good catharsis. Feel free to give it a try.

Keep following the trail back up to the visitor centre. Just before you get back, you will see the picnic area. There is a bench set off to the side with a plaque on it. Underneath that bench, you will find your last clue for the day.

Sterling tucked her latest note in her bag with the others and turned back to the edge of the creek. The rushing sound of water filled her ears. Standing there in that moment, she thought back to everything that had happened over the past year and a bit. All the times that she had been made to question herself, her relationships, her very foundations and there was one person that she still held a lot of anger towards. Glancing down the trail and seeing she was alone, she drew in a deep breath and then shouted at the top of her lungs, “Fuck you Dana!” The words themselves were swallowed by the rushing water, captured by it and washed away, downstream and further from where she stood. They were words she had never said out loud before but her Santa was right…the ability to voice these thoughts without fear of reproach was liberating. Taking a moment to just let that feeling wash over her, she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath before continuing on her journey.

When Sterling reached the picnic area, she could see a number of other people scattered around. She looked around to spot the bench in question, smiling at the people she passed. Set off, over to one side and a reasonable distance from any other seating was a lone bench. It was set right against the edge of the forest and looked out towards the trees, rather than across the meadow like the others. Sterling made her way over and sure enough on the back of the bench was an engraved plaque.

I have come home at last!”

Sterling knelt down and looked under the bench and sure enough, there was her red envelope. She pulled it off from where it had been stuck to the underside of the seat before sitting on the bench to read it.

This is the bench that I had put in for my nana after she died. She and my parents didn’t see eye to eye on a number of things by the end so I wanted somewhere that was just ours that I could come back to and still feel close to her. I hope that this little adventure has helped you to feel a bit closer to knowing me…even if my identity is still a bit of a mystery.

Your last number for the box is the number of words on the plaque.

Sterling turned in her seat to read the words once more and count them. Six. She let her fingers run across the letters of the words as she thought about her adventure. She had certainly had the opportunity to get to know a side to this person that felt a lot more private than any of the other interactions. Whoever it was had been willing to share some of their most treasured memories and locations with her. That thought made Sterling’s heart swell as she felt like she had been granted access to something special. She sat on the bench a little while longer, just taking the time to let her mind drift as she admired the scenery.

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

When Sterling got back home, she made her way up to her room and grabbed the box from the floor by her bed. She quickly turned the last number to six and watched as the lock clicked open. Sliding it out of the clasp, she opened the lid. She couldn’t help the small smile that graced her lips at the sight that greeted her. Inside was smaller box with a three-digit combination lock on the front and a red envelope stuck to it. She set her new box to one side as she opened the note.

I know…another box…another lock…But not all locks confine you, some give you freedom. I promise that this is the last one. Three numbers…three days.

Chapter Text

The sound of her alarm roused Sterling from her sleep. She rolled over to reach an arm out to shut it off before falling back against her pillows with a sigh. This was the last day of the break, tomorrow would be the start of the new semester which also means lots more alarms and a return to the busy schedule of pre-Christmas. However, in only two days she would also have an answer to the one question that had been on her mind since Christmas day…the identify of her secret Santa. Just two more days after today to get her last three numbers and all would be revealed. The sense of excitement grew within her at that thought. It was a feeling that had been slowly building across the days and now it was drawing towards its culmination.

Finally deciding she had better get herself up and ready, she rolled herself out of bed to ensure her sister was up. The last time they had arrived late for church was still not forgotten in the Wesley house and so she didn’t want a repeat event any time soon.

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

Sterling and Blair walked into the church with at least four minutes to spare before the service started. Suffice to say, the pews were already pretty full by the time they slid into their seats.

“Cutting it close girls.” Debbie raised her eyebrows as she tilted her head in admonishment of the two of them.

“Sorry mom.” They both muttered quietly.

Debbie nodded her acceptance of their apologies before turning her attention to Sterling. “This was on the pew when we arrived. It’s for you.” She handed her a small box with the familiar red envelope on top. “Don’t even consider opening that until after.”

“Yes ma’am” Sterling said as she accepted the gift. Her eyes danced across the familiar writing. The box was light today. Before she could explore more, the look her mom gave her made her slide it onto the seat next to her. She had been waiting for days to get closer to her answers, the duration of one service wasn’t too much time to wait.

Pastor Booth made his way up to the lecture at the front. “Happy New Year Beloved! Some have heard me say before that this is my favourite time of year. It is…it feels sort of like we can start over, doesn’t it?” Various members of the congregation were nodding at that statement. “In some ways we feel like we are starting fresh and because of this everything is possible. We haven’t done anything or failed to do anything that has made something else impossible. At least that is how we like to think of it.” He smiled at that statement. “That’s why we get so excited about this new beginning that comes about every January 1st. I’m not really sure why it feels this way, nothing is really new. We are the same on the first day in January as we were on the last day of December, although we have probably made promises to ourselves to be different. There is nothing special about January 1st, nothing to make it any different from December 31st, except how we measure progress. The cycle of the seasons seems like a good cycle to measure our progress. We set goals to accomplish prior to the end of the year and then make resolutions for how we are going to be different next year. As each year comes to a close it just seems like the time to be retrospective and evaluate or re-evaluate some of our choices and vow to make changes. We like to call these resolutions. Resolutions are our commitment to ourselves to make all those changes that we have failed to make thus far tomorrow or next week or next month. Have you made new year’s resolutions this year?” Pastor Booth paused and looked around the room. A low level of muttering began as people affirmed they had made resolutions or stated they had not. “Don’t worry, I won’t ask for any examples, but I imagine they would include things like getting in shape, eating healthier food, or to improve your concentration and focus.” Sterling’s focus was dragged to her sister at the feeling of an elbow in her ribs.

“Wasn’t that what one of the notes said? Concentration and focus?” Blair whispered.

Sterling shook her head. “Concentration and motivation.” Her eyebrows drew together as she narrowed her eyes at her sister. “You’re not suggesting my secret Santa is Pastor Booth are you? That’s just wrong on so many levels.”

“No.” The way the word was drawn out and the tone suggested that was exactly what Blair had been thinking.

Sterling gave her sister an incredulous look. “Pastor Booth only joined our church a few years ago, so I haven’t known him for most of my life. It’s not him.” Catching her mom looking their way, Sterling shot an apologetic look towards her before refocusing on the sermon.

“We resolve to be different people every year and by the time February rolls around we realise we are the same. Nothing has changed…really….I mean really changed. And I think it is because we are looking at the wrong things. We are trying to change the wrong things. We are trying to change our circumstance and not ourselves. Now, I know some of you are sitting there and thinking that we shouldn’t change who we are, but some of us are longing to do just that. We have this emptiness or longing that just won’t go away. We feel anxious or nervous or uncomfortable even when things are going well but especially when they aren’t. We hope that this new year, this new beginning will allow us to find more of these things that eluded us in the previous year. But in order to begin a new year, we must first make peace with our past and the relationships that have been broken through unforgiveness.”

Sterling listened to the words of Pastor Booth and found herself considering what it all meant for her. She hadn’t made any true new year’s resolutions this year but she had hoped that the new year would bring changes to her life. Changes to the strained relationship she had with her mom over the past year. She glanced over to where her mom sat and couldn’t help the small smile that appeared as her mind drifted back to a few days prior. How a gift from her unknown Santa had provided a step in the right direction for them repairing their relationship.

Her focus shifted to her sister next. Theirs was a relationship that when she had sat in this exact seat a year ago, had been unrecognisable from what they had always had. That bond had been shattered with one sentence uttered by a stranger. A stranger that shared a face with her mom but a stranger none the less. Blair had been the one to push through the walls she had thrown up and drag the blonde back from the dark recesses of her mind that she had languished in after the whole kidnapping event. It had taken her a while to forgive Blair for what she deemed as her part in everything that went down. After all, had they not gone digging into their mom’s past, would they have found themselves on the path that ended with a shootout? Once more her mind was brought back to an earlier note from her Santa, the fact that Blair has stood by her through everything and shares everything, in disturbingly excessive detail at times, shows she is her sister despite any genetic differences.

As she looked across the aisle, she met the smiling face of Luke. She offered a small smile in return. If there was one thing she was certain of, it was Luke was not behind the gifts. He may still harbour some feelings for her but he just fell short of meeting the standard for this mystery person. Sterling knew that at some stage she needed to sit down and talk with Luke to let him know that it was over, for good. She didn’t want him to keep holding on to the hope that one day they would find their way back to one another. She wanted him to accept they had grown apart in that way and for him to find someone who could love him the way he deserved.

Finally, her eyes landed on the one girl who couldn’t even look at her. April. Sterling sighed quietly to herself as she studied the other girl. She figured that her dad must have told her that it was Blair and Sterling who had turned him in. It was the only reason that she had come up with that would explain the complete embargo on any form of interaction between them. If there was one relationship that she was going into this new year knowing was still broken, it was this one. On those times when Sterling would let herself think of everything that had transpired between them, she was also the one person the blonde craved forgiveness from. On the one occasion that she had voiced this to Blair, she had then had to endure her sister’s rant about how it was April who needed to beg for forgiveness for the way she had treated her. Yet the truth was that Sterling had forgiven her long ago for the events of the lock-in. She’d had the time to consider what April had said and had come to the realisation that fear can drive people to hurt others without meaning to. Her parents were proof of that.

“You’re drooling.” Blair’s voice cut into her musings.

Sterling reached a hand up to her mouth to check on reflex before turning to glare at her sister. “I am not.”

“The fact you had to check tells me all I need to know. You going to get up so we can get out of here? These are not exactly comfortable seats to spend the day in.”

Sterling then glanced around and saw people had started to filter out of the church. Whatever the end of the sermon was, had clearly passed her by while she was lost in her thoughts. She stood from her seat, sliding the gift into her hand with the knowledge that as soon as they were outside, she could finally open it and get the clue for the day.

As they emerged back outside, Sterling stepped off to the side to wait for her parents and to open her gift. She slipped the envelope off the box, tucking it under her arm while she opened the package. She tilted her head slightly as she lifted out a rubber duck from the box. However, this rubber duck was dressed with a black coat and black wide-brimmed hat, around it’s neck was a white neck scarf.

“Why have you got an Amish duck?”

Sterling shook her head. “Not Amish. I think it is a Quaker duck.”

“O…k.” Blair raised her eyebrow at her sister, the look on her face clearly expressing the lack of clarity that statement had brought.

“Fifth grade.” Sterling mused.

“What about fifth grade?”

“In fifth grade we had a quiz and I spelt Quakers with an additional ‘c’…Quackers.” She turned to look at Blair fully, holding up the duck. “Don’t you get what this means?”

“That your secret Santa is into really bad puns?”

“No…they were there. They were in my fifth grade class.” A thought popped into Sterling’s head then. A discussion she had held with a certain girl about the exact incident. Looking around the various scattered groups of people outside the church, her eyes landed on the teen in question. April stood off to one side with her mom, talking to some of the other parishioners. Sterling stared at the other girl trying to piece it together while also looking for any clues that the darker haired girl was even aware of her presence. April didn’t so much as glance her way.

“Why are you staring at Stevens? Again? This is starting to become a problem. A problem I thought we had moved on from months ago.” Blair clicked her fingers in front of her sister’s eyes to snap her back to the present. “Earth to Sterling.”

“You don’t think…” Her voice trailed off.

“Stevens?” Blair’s voice came out louder than expected and April’s mom even turned towards them to see what had caused the commotion.

Sterling grabbed Blair’s arm and dragged her further from the people standing outside the church but not before registering that April hadn’t so much as twitched in their direction. “Tell me I’m crazy.”

“No problem there. You are crazy. You actually think that April Stevens is behind this? The girl who flirted with your ex-boyfriend in front of you and only after that dumped you without a second thought. The same girl who has iced you out of any form of interaction for so many months. You think she would do anything remotely thoughtful…for you? The girl who put her dad in prison…at least for a short time.” Blair shrugged at the end.

“I know it sounds crazy but we talked about that very quiz. And she goes to Willingham, she is a member of the same country club as we are and I have known her virtually our whole lives.” Sterling could feel the excitement building at having put together the clues.

“That may be true Sterl but she hates you.” Blair placed a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “I get that for some reason you still have some kind of unresolved feelings there but don’t you think she would have at least thawed the ice a little bit if she was going to go all out with this scheme?” Sterling felt herself deflate. Blair noticed the droop in her sister’s posture and softened her voice. “Besides, she’s not the only one who fits those categories. Maybe you are just reading what you want into the clues. We can look at our list again later with this new information. What does your note say anyway?”

Sterling pulled the note out from under her arm and opened the envelope.

Today is the 10th Day of Christmas. We are drawing close to the end now and I’m sure you have a good idea of who I am by now. I just hope that if you have worked out who I am, you still want to continue down this new pathway.

Your number for today is the number of points on the symbol that is represented by your duck.

Two more days.

Blair pulled out her phone and typed in a quick search. “So, I’m assuming it is this then?” She turned her phone to show the blonde an image of a red and black star on the screen.

“Eight. Eight points.” As Sterling tucked the note back into the envelope, she cast one more glance to where the Stevens’ were standing. April still paid her no heed which made the blonde doubt her own conclusion about the identity of her secret Santa. Her sister’s words still ringing in her ears. After all, Blair was right about the fact April wasn’t the only one in her fifth grade class. Most of those same students were still with her at Willingham now and a fair number were members of the same country club. Maybe Blair had a point about her seeing what she wanted to in the clues.

Chapter Text

Sterling and Blair walked in through the doors of Willingham Academy, neither of them particularly ready to be back in school. With each step they took, the break began to feel like a distant memory. The hallways were already filled with the other students, hugging and sharing all their stories about the break. Various groups were scattered talking loudly about plans for the semester ahead.

“Do they not talk to each other at all over the break?” Blair commented as she walked past a particularly loud group of girls basically squealing at seeing each other. She shrugged as they walked further from the group. “Anyway, more importantly…you need to be on high alert today.”

“I do?” Sterling glanced over at her sister, the confusion evident on her features.

Blair rolled her eyes as she sighed. “Yes Sterl. We established your secret Santa is a member of the Willingham student body and someone from our fifth-grade class. That means we have a narrowed list of suspects and you need to pay more attention to identify them.”

“But I haven’t been able to pick out anyone as acting differently previously.”

“That’s because your observational skills are in need of work. It amazes me you are in AP Chemistry which is all about observing reactions.” Blair mused.

“It’s also about logic and rules.” Sterling defended as she shrugged at her sister, unable to come up with a good argument against her original statement.

“Also, clearly your strengths.” Seeing the argument brewing on the blonde’s face, Blair quickly continued before any words could be uttered from her sister’s open mouth. “All that logic and observation has given you the name of your secret Santa, right?”

Sterling closed her mouth and felt her shoulders slump. Of course, the list of names was now much shorter than previously based on who they had been able to eliminate from the other clues. However, it was still a list of names and not just a single one. “Fine. Observation. I can do that.” She nodded as if the action would somehow confer a confidence that this would work that she was currently seriously lacking.

Blair looked over at her sister as they approached the Fellowship room. “That’s the spirit. Remember, you are looking to see who pays more attention to you or acts strangely.”

“Got it. More attention and acting strange.” Sterling nodded along with her own statements as they walked through the door to Fellowship.

As they took their usual seat on the floor, Sterling looked around at the assembled students. Ezekiel and Hannah B were flanking April on their usual couch as April explained something to them from the devotionals folder. Only Hannah B looked up at them as they passed the trio and gave a little wave before Ezekiel rolled his eyes at her. The other couch had Omar and Brenda sat next to each other, again neither really paying attention to others around them as their focus was solely on the screens of their phones. Various other students were scattered around the room but as Sterling ran through her mental list of names of her fifth-grade class only one other was also in Fellowship with them.

“Hey Sterl. How was your break?” Luke collapsed down to the floor beside her.

“Hi Luke. You only saw me a few days ago.” Sterling gave him a friendly smile as she spoke. When it came down to it, he was still a friend and someone she had spent a large chunk of her life with.

Luke reached his hand up to rub the back of his neck. “Yeah, I did. But a whole weekend has gone by so you might have been up to something interesting then.”

Sterling felt a sharp jab in her ribs and turned to see her sister. As their eyes locked, their twin-link activated.

“Interesting things over the weekend? He knows something.”

“Blair, it’s not Luke.” Sterling shook her head with exasperation at having to reiterate the same point again. “You even said that yourself at the start. Besides, I think I’d know if his nana had died.”

“Maybe it is him and he got someone to help him with the tricky bits…like spelling. You never met any of his grandparents.” Sterling gave the brunette a sceptical look. “Only one way to find out…ask something from the notes.”

Sterling gave her sister one last dubious look before turning back to Luke with a smile. She quickly ran through options of what to ask in her head. “I read a book. The Time Machine. Have you read it?”

Luke frowned. “Uh no but I did watch this show about a time lord. I thought it may be like Star Wars with the whole Time Lord being a different version of a Sith Lord but it was just this group of British people in an old police phone box.”

Sterling shot her sister an ‘I told you so’ look before turning back to Luke. “That sounds…interesting.”

“So, I kinda wanted to talk to you about something.” He shifted in his place to face her better. “I have been asking around and I know you’re not seeing anyone at the moment.” He reached down and took her hand in his. Sterling looked down at the touch, looking at the way his hand smothered hers. It was something she hadn’t questioned when they were dating but since they had been apart, the way his hand felt wrapped around hers just felt wrong. “I had a big plan on how I was going to ask you this but I just don’t think I can wait any longer. I was wondering if you wanted to go to the…”

“Alright everyone, I think it is time we get started.” Sterling’s focus was drawn to where April had stood from her seat, the devotionals folder pressed against her chest as her arms wrapped around it while she addressed the Fellowship group. “I hope you all had a good break. I thought we should start off our new semester and the new year with a passage from Isaiah. Forget what happened in the past, and do not dwell on events from long ago.” Sterling slipped her hand out of Luke’s grasp and turned her attention to the shorter teen as she continued.

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

By the time lunch rolled around, Sterling had managed to avoid Luke by some rather strategically timed conversations with teachers about assignments that were not due in for a while. The end result had been there hadn’t been another time for the two of them to be alone together since that morning in Fellowship. Sterling had a feeling what he was going to ask her and while she knew she had to let him down gently, she wasn’t sure the middle of a classroom or hallway was the best place for that discussion.

“So…how’s the sleuthing going?” Blair dropped down into the seat beside the blonde, instantly reaching over to steal some of her lunch.

“It is going.”

“Care to elaborate on that vague response?” Blair continued to reach over to steal items off her sister’s lunch tray until the blonde relented and just slid it over to between them.

“Ok, so Jessica and Brett are off the list. On my way to math earlier I saw them together and let’s just say they were not leaving room for Jesus between them.” Blair scrunched her nose up at the image.

“I walked past Chase earlier and he was bragging with his friends about scoring a date to the winter formal with Hannah G so I think we can cross them off.”

“So, who are we left with?”

Sterling reached into her backpack and pulled out her notebook. Flipping to the back page she read down the list. “We had fifteen people left on our list as of this morning who we think fit the criteria and were in my fifth-grade class.” Sterling crossed off Chase, Hannah G, Jessica and Brett to add to Franklin and Ezekiel who were already discounted by their discussion last night. “That leaves us with Omar, Hannah S, Darren, April, Justin and Luke.”

“Ok, so we have five suspects left.”

“There are six…”

“Nope. I have discounted the ice queen and my vote counts for double here as your judgement is still clouded about her for some reason. What was Luke saying this morning?”

“I think he was going to ask me to the dance. He started saying how he had a big plan on how he was going to ask me but didn’t want to wait.”

Blair just looked at her sister. “It’s Luke. He as good as admitted it.”

“I don’t know.”

“Sterl…the boy is still hung up on you after all this time. The puppy dog eyes he sports when looking at you really is quite nauseating. He has known you virtually your whole life, goes here, knows loads about you and then said he had a big plan…It’s him. Our work here is done.” Blair pulled the tray of food over towards herself and continued to eat the remainder of Sterling’s lunch. “Maybe you guys are just meant to have a second chance.”

Sterling knew that what Blair said was accurate in terms of the clues fitting with him. They had dated for so much of their lives, he would know a lot about her. He just never really showed that level of thoughtfulness during all those years. Then if Blair was right and he had enlisted someone to help him with this plan, maybe that was why it didn’t sound like Luke.

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

When the final bell of the day rang, Sterling was tired. The first day back after the break always felt more draining than usual but this time having to constantly try to look for her list of potential Santa suspects and what they were doing had taken it to a new level of exhausted. That coupled with dodging Luke to avoid having an awkward conversation when her mind wasn’t really on the task had left her in need of that final bell more than ever. As she walked back over to the Volt, she barely registered what Blair was saying. Her sole focus on placing one foot in front of the other to get her back to the car and then home. She also held the belief that when she got home, she would be picking up her penultimate clue from her Santa.

“What do you think?” Sterling quickly looked over to her sister, eyes slightly wider than usual at the realisation that she had no idea what she was required to have some thought about. Blair rolled her eyes before thrusting the object in her hand at her sister. “I said, we could ask around to see if anyone saw someone come over to the car to put this here.”

Sterling looked down at the envelope in her hand. She noticed her sister turning to look around the parking lot to see if anyone from their list was in sight. Leaving Blair to her fruitless searching, Sterling opened the car door and slipped in before opening the envelope.

The first thing that she saw was a black and white image. As she looked at the picture, she took in the scene. There was a sole person standing in the middle of what appeared to be a forest. They were surrounded by a variety of plants but that was it. Just a lone figure amidst all the flora. Placing the image down on her lap, she pulled out the note.

Today is the first day of the new semester and also the 11th Day of Christmas. The penultimate day of our little adventure. I thought a lot about what I should gift you today and the image is more symbolic than being the real gift. The real gift today is actually a thank you for a gift you gave me. For a long time, I felt that my value was measured in my achievements, of having people to follow my lead. That if I didn’t have people around me who looked up to me, that I had somehow failed. What I realised is that even when I had those people around me, I was still isolated. That actually being surrounded by people made me feel more lonely than when I was alone. Sometimes being alone is just what you need. It was what I needed to really figure out the path I wanted to take. So, thank you for giving me the gift of finding myself and realising what truly matters.

Your number for today is simply the number of people in the image.

Tomorrow is our last day. I know how tempting it will be to just turn that dial until the box opens tonight but I hope you resist that temptation otherwise we’ll have nowhere to go.

Sterling was snapped back to the present by the door slamming as Blair took her seat. “So, what did you get?”

“A picture.”

Blair took the image from Sterling’s hand and looked at it. I stand by my statement of yesterday…they ran out of ideas. A duck and a picture…” She lifted the picture closer to her face. “That I’m pretty sure is a stock image from the internet.” She handed the image back to the blonde as she started the car. “They should have just stuck to like the ten days of Christmas.”

Sterling looked back at the note. Maybe Blair was right and it was Luke after all. The comments about having people to lead just took her right back to just before they broke up and he had lost his captaincy of the golf team. Her own words from the day they broke up also jumped off the page at her. Being alone doesn’t mean lonely. Was this it? Was it Luke after all? Sterling couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the thought that all of these clues, all of the gifts just led back to someone she had outgrown.

Chapter Text

Sterling heard her alarm go off and reached over to silence it. It wasn’t like she had needed the sound of the alarm to rouse her from her slumber as she had been awake for the past hour, just staring up at her ceiling while her mind cycled through all the possibilities. Today was the day, the final day of her clues…the day she found out the answer to who her secret Santa was. The thought of finally having the big reveal made her heart race through both excitement and anxiety. After all the clues, all the notes, she felt like there was a connection with the person on the other side. Something that was a strange feeling to resolve when they could be anyone. Or at least anyone from a small number of people left on the list. Picking her phone up, she opened her e-mails and began typing.

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Final Day

I know that today is the final day and all will be revealed by the time it ends but I have been awake for an hour already. I’m both excited to know who you are and yet I’m also sad that this is the end. I’m also a little nervous about finding out who you are. Is that strange?

After she clicked send on the message, she kept her phone in her hand, staring at the screen and almost willing a reply to come in. She even clicked refresh a few times for good measure but when no reply came in, she sighed and dropped her phone onto her chest to return to staring at the ceiling. A few minutes passed before Sterling decided it was time to get up and face the day. As she picked her phone up to set it on her nightstand, she felt it buzz signalling a new message. Quickly turning the screen towards her, she clicked on the new e-mail.

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Final Day

It’s not strange. I share the same feelings. While today may be the final gift, I hope it is not the end…I hope it is just the beginning.

Sterling re-read the message once more, feeling some of her nerves dissipate. Whoever was the creator of the past twelve days, they had already given her so much more than she imagined. Instead of spending the time between Christmas and the return to school plugged into her phone or the TV, she had explored new locations and had been trusted to share in someone else’s private thoughts. Someone who had taken the time to notice small details about her life and then the time to put this elaborate plan into place. Even if it went no further than discovering their identity, she had been gifted a lot through the experience. Placing her phone on her nightstand, she let herself feel the excitement of what the day may bring while she got ready for school.

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

As the Volt pulled up in the Willingham student lot, Blair killed the engine and turned to her sister. “Ok, so this is the last day. I’m kind of bummed we didn’t manage to solve it before now.”

“That’s OK. Maybe the clues just weren’t that clear?”

Blair shrugged. “I still can’t believe you brought the box in with you.”

“After all these days of waiting, I wasn’t about to leave it at home and then have to wait longer if the last clue comes when I’m at school.”

“You could have just kept spinning the dial to open it if you were so keen to know.” Blair stated while reaching towards the box.

Sterling quickly moved it away and tucked it into her bag. “I already told you…”

“The journey, I know.” Blair rolled her eyes as she opened the door and climbed out of the car. “Text me if you get anything.” Sterling nodded towards her sister as her gaze drifted to the doors of the school, the nervous feeling returned. “If I didn’t have lacrosse conditioning first thing, I’d be right there with you. Sterl…” Blair waited until the blonde had turned to face her once more. “You’ve got this.” She came around the car to stand before the taller girl. “You have spent a long time on your own. I didn’t get it before, but you needed that time to find yourself. Whoever it is that is behind these gifts, I think they might be worth a shot. You deserve to have someone in your life who will go to such an effort just to get your attention.” The brunette pulled her sister in for a tight hug before pulling away and making her way across the parking lot. “Go solve your mystery.”

Sterling watched her sister move out of sight before making her way into the building, Blair’s words echoing in her mind providing her with the encouragement she needed.

As she approached her locker, she couldn’t help but see it had a new adornment. Attached to the outside of the door were some of the most beautiful lavender roses she had seen. She felt the various eyes in the corridor focus on her as she approached the flowers. Once she stood before them, their fragrance invaded her senses. Peeling the tape off that had been used to stick them to the surface of the door, she carefully retrieved them. A quick look at the bouquet showed the typical red envelope was absent. Sterling frowned to herself. It felt like this was right up her secret Santa’s street as far as a gift being left in a location she would find but the lack of the envelope confused her. As she opened her locker, she found what she was looking for. She retrieved the books she needed and the red envelope before carefully placing the roses into her locker for safety. As she turned back, she noticed all the eyes still on her from the various students scattered around the corridor. The whispers they were exchanging clearly about her. Even Ezekiel was watching her every move from across the hallway. Realising she didn’t want to open her note in front of the prying eyes of the Willingham student body, she tucked the envelope in her bag and made her way down the corridor to an empty classroom. Ducking inside she pushed the door closed before opening her note.

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas and the last day on our journey. I have spent a long time thinking about how we got to this point and how over time, things change. I guess when there is a long history it is only natural that things evolve. The way you view things and people can change too and the possibilities therein. Did you know that all flowers have meanings? Some are very simple and haven’t changed across their history like the red rose. Others…what they mean has changed over time.

I know you are expecting your final number but this is only the first part of your final gift. You need to count the number of roses…then wait for your next clue.

Sterling tucked the note back into her bag. She knew she needed to return to her locker to count the stems but didn’t want to face the eyes that would no doubt still be drawn to her every move should she return now. She pulled her phone out and sent her sister a quick message.

Sterling
No answer yet but another clue.

Once the message had sent she pulled up her browser and quickly searched the meaning of her purple roses. The first link she clicked opened to a range of different shades of purple roses which allowed her to identify the actual colour as the first one, lavender. Returning to her search she amended the colour and clicked the first link once more. She read down the page and paused when she read one of the sentences that sounded familiar. Pulling her note back out she scanned down and sure enough there was a very similar phrase about evolving. The various meanings jumped out at her…love; adoration; enchantment; wonder and impossibility. Sterling carefully placed the note back in her bag with her phone, trying to reduce the size of the smile that had appeared on her face while she researched before venturing back out into the hallway.

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

By the time the bell for lunch rang, there had been no further clues. Sterling had managed to pass by her locker between her morning lessons to count her roses. There were twelve stems there. As soon as she had opened her locker, the sight of the flowers had triggered the return of her smile. She had arranged with Blair to meet in the Fellowship room for lunch as they usually did on Tuesdays. Sterling sank down into the couch next to her sister.

“I take it that there are no other clues?” Blair commented as she took in her sister’s slightly deflated posture.

“Not since this morning.”

“I bet it will come…”

“Sterling…There you are.” Sterling turned in her seat to see Ellen making her way over in a rather excited state. “I have been waiting for you to come in.”

“Is everything OK?”

“Oh of course.” Ellen beamed at her. “I came back after my mid-morning circuit of the hallways to get my step count up. Christmas is a wonderful time of year but it does not do wonders for my waist line! So after I’d hit my 8000 step target for the morning, I came back for a fig newton break and when I opened my door, there they were. Right in the middle of my desk.”

“There what were?”

Ellen gestured for Sterling to follow. “Come and see. They are just so lovely. At first I thought that maybe someone had left them for me but then I saw they had an envelope with your name on it.” Sterling saw the slightly sad look pass across Ellen’s face and resolved to raise the idea of getting the woman some kind of thank you gift from the Fellowship students for all she did for them. As she rounded the corner into Ellen’s office, her eyes landed on another bouquet. This time of yellow tulips. Sterling picked up the envelope as her eyes passed over the flowers before her. “You are welcome to leave them here until later if you want. They brighten up the room.” She noticed Ellen gave her a smile before making her way back out of the door.

Your second clue is another flower whose meaning has changed over time. I guess you could say they represent my feelings quite well. To be honest, there was a time when their earlier meaning was true for me. Part of me didn’t want to entertain the possibility of an us and yet I couldn’t help myself from having those interactions with you. However, the more modern meaning now represents how I feel today and the reason I chose to pursue this journey. The Victorians had a belief about the yellow tulip. They used it to mean there’s sunshine in your smile. If ever there was a meaning that suits you so perfectly, it is that one. Your smile has certainly brightened some of my darker days, even when you didn’t realise it.

Count the number of stems of tulips. Roses – Tulips. Then wait for your final piece to the puzzle.

Sterling counted the stems. Eight. One more piece of the puzzle to go. Sterling spent a moment longer taking in the beautiful array of flowers before making her way back to Blair.

“And?”

“Eight yellow tulips.”

“Time to Google?” Blair waved her phone in front of her until Sterling nodded. They searched the meaning of yellow tulips. “Hopeless love and jealousy?”

Sterling nodded and kept reading. “The note said how the meaning had changed. Here…” She pointed at the screen, “happiness, cheerfulness and hope.”

“Ok, so your meanings so far are what?”

“I think the roses were meant to be for impossibility. It makes sense with the old meaning of the tulips being hopeless love. But the modern meaning being hope. I think it is someone who didn’t think they had a chance at a relationship with me but something has changed.”

“Ok…So what changed and for who?” Blair started to look around at the others in the Fellowship room.

Sterling cast her gaze across the students present. As her focus settled on Hannah B she was rewarded with a cheery smile and wave which she returned. By the time she had finished checking the occupants, nobody in there had been in her fifth-grade class. “Not sure yet.” Sterling answered her sister in a distracted tone as her mind wandered to one possibility that certainly seemed to fit with her latest clues.

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

The final clue didn’t appear until the final period of the day, Spanish. As soon as she entered the room, she saw the flower on her desk with the tell-tale red envelope beneath it. This time it was a single stem of a flower she recognised. She took her seat and checked to see if Senora O’Reilly was paying attention to the class yet but it appeared she was busy writing in her book, no doubt her latest Telenovela idea. Sterling opened the envelope to retrieve her final note.

Your final part of today’s puzzle. The purple hyacinth. When you look into the meaning of this one, you might be surprised that I chose it as the final clue. We have been in each other’s lives for many years as you know from some of the clues. I have already thanked you for what you have given me but there is one more thing I need to ask of you. To forgive me. I have made mistakes in the past. Mistakes that cost us the chance at something more sooner and for that I am sorry. As much as I wish I could say I would change the choices I made, at the time I couldn’t. I was trapped in a lie. I need you to know that I’m done lying.

The final part to your puzzle is the add the number of hyacinth stems. You can now open the final lock on the final box.

Sterling pulled the box from her bag and entered the final number on the dial and twisted the latch to open it. Inside she found a ticket to the winter formal and another note.

I realise you were probably expecting some big reveal of my name in this box and instead you have a ticket. So, I will ask your forgiveness once more for not giving you the final answer today. I had always hoped that maybe someday I would find the words to be able to explain…but the more time that went by, the less I believed words would be enough. After all, words I had said before had failed to materialise into action. I knew that words alone were not enough, not without the action to back it up.

On Saturday I will be at the dance and I hope you will join me as my date. No more hiding. I will be waiting at the door.

Sterling let her eyes drift over the notes once more before class started. As Senora O’Reilly started talking, Sterling wanted to turn in her seat. Look behind her to a seat she had tried to avoid looking at too much over the past few months. The seat where the one person who had asked her for a maybe someday sat. The seat where she thought her secret Santa was sitting.

Chapter Text

Sterling woke early on Saturday morning, no longer able to keep her mind at rest. Today was the day that she would have her suspicions confirmed…at least she hoped they would be confirmed. Despite her best efforts to get confirmation over the past few days, she had always found obstacles in her way. On Tuesday, by the time she had been able to turn to the back of the room where April’s assigned seat was this year in Spanish, the girl had gone and had remined elusive for the rest of the day. On Wednesday and Thursday, every time she had attempted to approach the other girl, the other members of the Holy Trinity had somehow managed to block her path until the shorter girl had left sight. By Friday, she was getting frustrated with her inability to make any form of contact with the other girl to just ask the question that plagued her mind. She had planned to intercept April once she had concluded their Fellowship meeting. However as soon as she approached her, Ellen had called April into her office to discuss some Fellowship business. Sterling had been torn between screaming in frustration or storming into Ellen’s office and demanding answers. Luckily Blair had stepped in to drag her to her first class and so she had avoided any kind of scene. That was the point that Sterling had given up on being able to get any face-to-face time to ask her question. So, on Friday she had sent an e-mail to her secret Santa.

To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Would you tell me…

If I was to guess your name, would you confirm it?

Sterling had endured what felt like the longest gym class ever before she had been able to retrieve her phone to check for a reply. To her relief, she didn’t have to wait any longer.

From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Would you tell me…

There is only one more day to wait to get that confirmation in person. What if you guess the wrong name?

Sterling had spent some time thinking about that after the message came in. She thought she knew that the person on the other end of the e-mail was April but what if it wasn’t? If she asked if the person was April and it was someone else, there would then be questions about why Sterling thought that it may be the other girl. She clearly remembered how much keeping that part of herself hidden from the general population had meant to the other girl. Enough that she had called off what had been developing between them previously, the memory of that night still seared into her memory. It was that thought alone that had kept her from replying with her guess. On the chance that it wasn’t April, she would still keep her secret.

Getting frustrated with tossing and turning, she rose from her bed and headed across the shared bathroom to Blair’s room. “Blair?” Getting no response, she nudged the form under the covers. “Wake up. I need to talk to you.”

A groan emanated from somewhere buried under the cover. “It’s early.”

Sterling glanced to the clock before replying. “It’s 8.30am and we have to get to work for 9.30.”

Blair threw the covers off to fix her sister with an unimpressed glare. “That means I could have another 30 minutes before getting up. This had better be important.”

Sterling sat on the edge of her sister’s bed. “What if I’m wrong? What if I turn up to the dance tonight and it isn’t April standing there?”

Blair pushed herself up to sit against her headboard. “You’ve gone back over your clues and you seemed pretty sure the other day. What changed?”

Sterling bit her lip as she stared down at the floor. “What if it’s just what I want the clues to be? I might be reading into them what I want.”

“Sterl…look at me.” Blair waited until her sister turned to face her. “I get you are scared about raising your hopes to just get hurt again but you explained the flower notes and as much as I hate to admit it…The level of thought in this, it’s right up Steven’s street. I don’t think any of the others on our list could have pulled it off.”

“So, I’m not being stupid?”

Blair shrugged. “Only as far as you wanting to hook up with April again.”

“Hey!”

“You know I will support you in whatever you choose and if it is going down the path of a clandestine relationship with your ex-nemesis, I’ll be there. If she hurts you again though…” Blair shook her head at the thought.

“It feels different this time. She said to meet her at the dance. That doesn’t sound very secretive.” Sterling reasoned, voicing the thoughts that had been running through her head since getting the ticket along with the potential identity of her secret Santa.

“She also said she would sleep next to you at the lock-in.” Blair muttered. “Just…be careful. I’m not her greatest fan after what she did but if she treats you right, I can be civil.”

Sterling leant over to hug her sister. “What am I going to wear?”

Blair rolled her eyes. “No way! You are going to wear the same thing you were planning to wear tonight. We didn’t spend an entire day at the mall visiting every dress shop just for you to drag me back there for a last-minute change!” Sliding back down in her bed, Blair pulled the covers over her head. “I’m getting my remaining few minutes of sleep.” She waved a hand out from under the covers. “You can leave.”

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

As they walked in the door of Yogurtopia, they were greeted by the sight of Bowser.

“Bowser! You’re back early!”

The man nodded. “Miss Cathy mentioned that the pair of you had eaten more yogurt than you had served. So I figured it was time to come on back and check up on things. Make sure I still had a business to return to.”

Blair gasped. “We have eaten a normal amount of yogurt to ensure we are fully versed in the range of flavour combinations available.” She pointed to the badge on her apron. “What if someone asked and we didn’t know? This badge would be a lie!”

“I’m too old for this.” Bowser muttered. “Would either of you care to explain why my office board is covered in some kind of weird dating chart?”

Hopping up on the counter, Blair grabbed a handful of gummies. “Sterling has a secret admirer.”

“Ok.”

“We have been plotting the clues to work out who it is.”

Bowser scratched his ear. “Did you?”

“Sterling thinks so.”

“Ok, great. That means you have plenty of time to clean the fudge pump today.” Bowser commented, pointing towards the device in question as he made his way into the back office.

By the time their shift at Yogurtopia had ended, Sterling could feel her nerves increasing by the minute. On the one hand, in mere hours she would have the answer she had been seeking for the past two weeks. Yet on the other hand, she may turn up and be disappointed either by the person not being April or by April changing her mind and not showing up full stop. She was pretty sure that if she voiced a concern once more Blair was going to make her walk home and then go to the dance alone if the look the brunette had shot her way the last time she mentioned the name April was anything to go by. So Sterling just kept repeating the line from her last note, the one that instantly reminded her of April, like a mantra.

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

Sterling sat in front of her mirror putting the finishing touches to her look for the evening. She was vaguely aware of Blair talking to her from the other room but the words were failing to register in her mind. Her thoughts were occupied with running through the clues she had been given to try to build her confidence that she was going to meet who she expected tonight. There were still some that she couldn’t piece together, no matter how many times she revisited them with the thought of the shorter teen in her mind.

“Sterl? Did you hear what I said?” Turning to face her sister, the blank look on her face clearly answered the question. Blair rolled her eyes as she shook her head at the blonde. “If this is a sign of your ability to focus before you even get up close and personal, then I think maybe you need to adjust your expectations for college.”

“I do not. It’s just…”

“Nope.” Blair cut her sister off before she could descend down the infinite loop of what ifs that she had been subjected to for the whole day. “We are not going over it again. Up.” She gestured to get her sister to stand from her seat in front of the mirror. Blair took a moment to check the blonde’s appearance. “You look great Sterl. The elf would be a fool not to be there tonight. Even if it ends up as just us…looking like this we are going to have our pick of the school tonight.”

Sterling couldn’t suppress the smile at her sister’s statement. No matter what happened, no matter who was waiting for her (or not) at the doors tonight, she was going to have a great time and her sister would be by her side every step of the way. “Let’s do this.”

“That’s my girl!” Blair linked her arm with her sister to make their way out to the car.

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

As they pulled up at the venue, they could see the other students exiting the array of vehicles that had brought them to the event. There were groups who had opted to go the limo route, others arriving in fancy sports cars and some just in their usual vehicles. As they got to the front of the queue, they both got out of the car, Blair making way for the valet to slide into the car to park it for them.

The sound of the music could be heard from where they stood. The front of the building had been illuminated with moving green, purple and blue lights giving the effect of the aurora borealis. Sterling spared a moment to thank the dance committee for settling on the theme of the aurora rather than the earlier idea of the White Walker Waltz. Even the name sounded terrible, let alone the idea of having to attend in costumes from Game of Thrones. The Aurora Borealis Ball sounded far more sophisticated and also avoided the whole need for costumes entirely.

Blair turned to her sister as they approached the doors. “I’ll be right through there if you need me. I may not have my lacrosse stick or a gun, but I’m more than happy to Wesley check anyone who messes with you tonight.”

Sterling leant over to give her sister one more hug. “Go. Based on the fact Brett McNease just walked into the door because he was too busy looking at you, I think your drought may have ended.”

Blair pulled back giving Sterling an encouraging smile and nod before she vanished through the doors. Sterling took a deep breath before making her way inside. Once she entered, the main hallway had been illuminated with arches of lights slowly shifting between the colours of the aurora, giving the illusion of walking through them. With each step, she could feel her heartbeat pick up in pace. She kept her attention on the area ahead, trying to see past the group of students a little way in front of her. As the group passed the final arch, Sterling spotted a lone figure standing beside the door to the ballroom. She felt her heart jump at the sight. Standing just to one side wearing a dark blue dress, almost dark enough to be look black in certain lighting was April. Sterling felt her breath catch in her throat as she looked at the other girl, her heart beating erratically in her chest. Despite having thought that her mystery Santa had been the shorter girl, there was always that lingering doubt. That part of her that didn’t believe the person she would see was the one who had been a constant resident in her mind since that day so long ago at the forensics tournament. Somehow, despite the fact her mind appeared to have imploded at the sight, her legs had continued to carry her towards the other girl. She saw the moment that April clocked her presence. The shorter girl’s eyes meeting her own across the last few metres of space, the half-smile pulling up the side of her mouth. Sterling continued to walk towards her, feeling her own lips pull up into an answering smile the closer she got. When she was within touching distance, she came to a stop. “It is you.” The words were spoken on a breath, a combination of awe and disbelief that the person behind all those gifts was the one girl she hadn’t been able to shake free of her mind in all this time.

April ducked her head slightly before looking up at the taller girl through her eyelashes. “It is.” The two girls just looked at each other for a moment before April snapped herself back to the present. “I got this for you.” Sterling looked down and saw a corsage of a red flower. “It’s a gardenia.”

Sterling held her wrist out to accept the corsage from the shorter girl. “What does it mean?”

April’s eyes flitted up to meet her own for a brief moment before turning back to focus on the task in hand. She watched as April stretched the band to make it large enough to slip over her hand. “Gardenias have many meanings. They are often given as a symbol of trust, showing love and respect for another person.” As she placed it on her wrist, April’s fingers brushed the sensitive skin on the inside of Sterling’s wrist, sending electrical impulses shooting up her arm from the points of contact. “They also symbolise the idea of starting something new and hope.” The feeling intensified as April gently took her hand to turn her arm over. “The red gardenia had another meaning in Victorian times.” Her eyes followed the motion as the other girl twisted the flower to the right position. “Back then so much was frowned upon and so they would give red gardenias as a sign of a secret love. It was a way for them to express those feelings without the need for words.”

Sterling let her eyes trail over the red petals now set against the pale skin of her wrist, the dark green of the leaves that finished the design catching the lights behind them. “So, this would be a secret?” The blonde couldn’t bring her eyes up to meet the blue of the other girl, the disappointment was evident in her tone.

It was only when she felt the brush of a fingertip under her chin, gently applying pressure to tilt her face up that she met those eyes. The finger brushing across the underside of her jaw with the lightest of touches before she felt the other girl’s thumb brush across her cheek. The action catapulting her back to a similar time that felt so long ago. She saw the way April shook her head gently. “No more lies. No more secrets.” April dropped her hand. “If you let me, I will explain everything.” All Sterling could do was nod, not trusting her words at that moment. Her mind split between just wanting to dive right back in, to take everything at face value and worry about any consequences later while also trying to tamp down the fears that there was a catch coming.

“Let’s go inside and I will explain.” Sterling turned to the door and walked beside April, hyper aware of every time their hands would brush as they stepped closer to the door. As they set foot through the entrance, they were met with a room that had been transformed into the most beautiful venue. The large chandeliers that hung down from the ceiling were gently illuminated in a purple hue. At the far end of the large hall the wall had been transformed into a shimmering green curtain of light that danced and merged with the purples creating an ethereal effect. The tables that were arranged around the edge had been adorned with a black material that would catch the lights and created the effect of them being reflected on dark water. Sterling felt a touch on her arm as April gained her attention to lead them to a table set to one side where Hannah B and Ezekiel were sitting. She watched as they both saw the girls’ approach before Ezekiel leant over to Hannah B to say something before they both rose and moved away to the bar. April gestured for Sterling to take a seat as she made her way to her own chair.

“Where do you want to start?”

Sterling regarded the other girl for a moment before asking the one question she desperately needed the answer to. “Why now?”

April smiled at the familiar question. “I have had a lot of time to think. To decide what is important to me and to work out what I am willing to give up. I thought I knew where my priorities lay but…I was wrong.” She paused for a moment. “After my dad came back the day of the lock-in, I made a lot of mistakes. The biggest one being the way I acted that night. It is the main reason I know I need to ask for your forgiveness before anything else.”

The words of that conversation on the bench were still so fresh in her mind. Every word, every action ingrained into her memory. Sterling also knew there was the whole issue of the bounty hunting and John Stevens hanging over them as much now as it was then. “You aren’t the only one who needs to ask forgiveness.”

“You’re talking about the fact that you and Blair were the ones who turned him in?” Sterling felt her jaw drop slightly at the nonchalant way April referenced what she believed would be a deal breaker. The reason she had believed for all this time that the shorter girl had refused to acknowledge her entire existence since that night. “He told me not long after he came home. Wanted me to get close to you.” She smiled. “I don’t think he was thinking of being close to you the way I was.” The smile slipped from her lips. “I wanted to be angry at you for that but all I could think was because of that action, I had the courage to lock that door. As long as he was around, I couldn’t risk being near you. I didn’t want him to think he could use me to get to you.”

“So, what’s changed?” Sterling finally found her voice to ask.

“He’s gone. Did you not notice he hasn’t been to church with us in weeks?” Sterling thought back. She can remember seeing April and her mom there but no John Stevens. Not last week, or the week before…in fact not for the past month. She had just assumed he had been away on a business trip but now the length of time he had been absent for seemed too long. The recognition must have shown on her face as April continued. “My parents are getting a divorce.”

“Why? Sorry, you probably don’t want to talk about it.”

April placed her hand on Sterling’s for a moment. “I said I would explain everything.” Sterling felt the loss of the touch as soon as the other girl’s hand slipped away. “As much as I couldn’t be near you, I needed to know that he wasn’t going to hurt you. I may have set up recording devices in his office and his car.” Sterling couldn’t suppress the grin that appeared at that. “Turns out he wasn’t just breaking the law through his abuse of sex workers.” A frown settled on the shorter girl’s face as she spoke. “After my nana died, it seems she didn’t think much of her son and so left the majority of her estate to me in a trust fund. I had no idea it even existed until recently when I heard John trying to access the funds. Turns out he had also been involved in some less than legal financial dealings. One of these had not gone to plan and he needed some cash to bail himself out of the hole he was in and figured he would try to siphon it from my trust. Unfortunately for him, I had recorded enough to prove his shady dealings. When he threatened Abigail about not releasing funds…that was it.”

Sterling frowned slightly. Abigail. That name sounded familiar to her. “The lady at the restaurant?”

April smiled affectionately at the statement and nodded. “Her mom was one of my nana’s best friends. They went to Willingham together when they were teenagers and were best friends ever since. Abigail lost her mom when she was a teenager and so nana always looked out for her. When nana died, she made sure Abigail was made trustee to avoid my parents having any type of control over the trust.”

“What did you do?” Sterling had shifted forward in her seat as April continued to explain the events of the past few months.

“I spent a lot of time talking to Abigail and Ellen. They both told me the same thing. I took a copy of the recordings to the police.”

Sterling was shocked by what she was hearing. It struck her that over all these months that she thought April hated her, she had actually been protecting her. That when it came down to a choice over whose side she would stand on, her father had been left on his own. “What if he gets out again? There was a recording of everything last time too.” Sterling reluctantly pointed out.

“The problem he has now is that his crimes were not limited to the state of Georgia. It was a federal crime so he can’t use his influence to buy his way out of this one.”

“He’s gone?”

“For good.” April confirmed with a decisive nod.

Sterling let that sink in for a moment before remembering what April had said to her during their impromptu debate on having a relationship previously. “And your mom?”

April sighed. “Still a hateful bigot.” Sterling felt her shoulders slump at the confirmation that even though John
Stevens was out of the picture, their path was far from clear. “However, with my trust I know now that I have enough money to my name to cover college. So that power they had is gone.”

They both sat quietly letting that information settle between them. Sterling had never imagined that a time would come when John Stevens was off the scene and April had no reason to keep herself hidden from her family. There was still the question of the other aspects of their lives. “What about the Willingham student body?”

“You were right about Ellen.”

“I was?” The confusion was evident in her tone.

April smiled. “I spoke to her. Came out to her actually.” A smile graced her lips at the memory. “She may be our biggest shipper.” The shorter girl nodded her head over towards the other side of the room. Sterling turned to look where she had gestured and saw Ellen standing there, a big grin on her face. When the older woman saw her looking, she shot Sterling a double thumbs up which made the blonde laugh. “I also decided to trust my friends. They all helped make sure everything went to plan once we were back in school.”

Sterling gasped. “Is that why Ezekiel was glaring at anyone near my locker on Tuesday?”

April nodded. “He was there to make sure nobody messed with the roses. Ellen was in charge of getting you to the tulips. Then they all helped me to avoid those times you tried to talk to me before tonight. You were…persistent in your attempts to get an answer before tonight.”

“They all know about us?”

April felt the tips of her ears start to burn as she realised she had outed Sterling to those people without her permission. “Oh Sterling. I’m so sorry…I didn’t think when I spoke to them that you may not want them to know about you.”

The words died in April’s throat as Sterling’s hand came to rest on her own. “I told you before…I don’t want to hide who I am.”

April’s eyes searched the blonde’s face before she shifted the position of her hand to interlace her fingers with Sterling’s. “Would you dance with me?”

Sterling could feel the smile that grew in response to those words. “I would love to.”

The two girls stood from their seats, their hands adjusting to the new position but neither one of them released the grip they had. They slowly made their way through the tables and around the various other students to a space on the dance floor. As they came to a stop, Sterling watched as April turned to face her just as familiar chords played out over the speakers, her half smile playing on her lips. Sterling stepped closer, entering April’s space as she slipped her hands around her waist. She felt the shorter girl’s arms come up to rest behind her neck. “I would question what the chance of this song playing as you ask me to dance are but I don’t think chance has anything to do with it.” The smile she got in response was enough to know that it was far from chance. The two moved together as they listened to the words of the song, their song.

As the song drew closer to the end, Sterling spoke. “April?” April pulled back slightly to be able to see the face of the taller girl. “What are your views on kissing in public?”

Rather than giving a verbal response, April raised herself up slightly, leaning closer to the blonde. She paused when mere centimetres from her. They could each feel the others warm breath against their lips. April searched the eyes in front of her for any doubt and then closed the final distance. Sterling’s eyes drifted closed at the first touch as she let herself get lost in the feeling of the familiar lips. Her arms wrapped tighter around the shorter girl’s waist, drawing her closer. As soon as she felt the warm touch of the other girl’s tongue tracing gently against her lips, silently asking for entry, Sterling granted it. Their tongues sliding against one another as the kiss deepened. The sound of a wolf whistle broke the moment and caused both girls to separate. By the time they looked around to see where it came from, all they saw was a member of the swim team on the floor, rolling around in pain while cradling their privates. Beside them they saw Blair give Hannah B a sly high 5 as they both walked away from the area. There were a couple of other members of the swim team who tried to tell Ellen what had happened but she just waved them off.

“Hannah B?” Sterling asked as she turned back to her date.

“She is quite protective.”

The two continued to dance together as the next song came on. “What now?”

“I would like to take you on a date. A proper date, not the fun zone or the backseat of your car.”

“They weren’t so bad.” Sterling shrugged, her mind drifting to those memories.

April laughed lightly before placing a quick kiss on the blonde’s lips. “True. I still want to take you on a date that doesn’t involve cramped spaces or small children running around.”

“I’d love that.”

After a couple of songs had passed, April stepped back. “Drink?” Getting a nod from her partner, she took Sterling’s hand and led her towards the bar. While they waited for their drinks, April turned to face the blonde. “When did you guess it was me?”

Sterling reached up to play with her necklace. April’s eyes followed the motion, a slow smile appearing as she recognised the familiar shape. “Well, it was the flowers.”

April’s attention snapped back up. “Not before then?”

“No? Initially I wasn’t sure who it could be. There were so many possibilities and it seemed that each time I got a clue, it just added more people to the list. Then there was the whole potential of Franklin when his mom cancelled on my mom but we discounted him pretty quick. Then I thought maybe Luke because…”

“Hold on…Luke? Luke Creswell?”

“Yes?” Sterling admitted reluctantly.

April shook her head. “You thought he made you the wooden puzzle box?”

“You made that?” Sterling asked in awe of the girl before her. Seeing the nod she received, Sterling leant forward to capture the lips of the shorter girl once more. Pulling back slightly, she murmured against her lips, “You need to tell me all about each gift one day.”

“I’m not sure I want to if you think Luke could create them.” Rather than responding, Sterling just pulled the other girl closer and kissed her again. “But I guess I could be persuaded.” Sterling smiled against the lips pressed to her own. The only thought in her mind was how much she was looking forward to finding ways to persuade the other girl to share more of herself. How after all this time, they had finally got that someday.

Chapter Text

Sterling looked over at the clock hanging on the wall for what felt like the hundredth time and yet the minute hand had only moved 4 minutes. “Is the clock broken?”

Blair looked up from where she was currently setting out a gummy bear reenactment of their last skip collar with the justification that Sterling had been distracted and missed some key opportunities to avoid the chase that ensued. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

Instead of responding to the brunette, Sterling pulled her phone out to check the time. She sighed when she saw the clock was, in fact, working perfectly meaning she still had another thirty-three minutes to wait until their shift was over. Thirty-three minutes until she could head home to get ready for her date. Which meant it was just ninety-three minutes until she would get to see April again. Her eyes drifted over the last message the shorter teen had sent her, it was a picture of her holding the Star Wars box set as a reminder of what her evening held in store. It had all stemmed from a conversation mid-week that revealed the blonde had not seen any of the Star Wars movies which April took as a challenge. Unfortunately for Sterling, the other girl had some pretty convincing arguments that the blonde was unable to refute. The lure of some alone time with the other girl for an extended period was simply too tempting to pass up, especially as her parents had agreed to attend a fund-raising event which left them home alone. Sterling was pulled out of her thoughts of her girlfriend by the feeling of Blair tucking something into her top. Reaching her hand up she pulled a napkin out of her collar. “Why did you do that?”

“You were drooling and I didn’t want you to get it on your top.” Blair placed one hand over her heart while the other rested on her sister’s shoulder. “I was only looking out for your well-being.”

Sterling shrugged the hand off and rolled her eyes at the brunette’s antics. “I was not drooling.”

Blair raised her eyebrows. “Sure Sterl. You’ve got something just…” She gestured to the corner of her lip. Instinctively, Sterling reached up to check. “Told you…drooling.” Sterling dropped her hand and shook her head at the other girl, her eyes darting to the clock once more. “Oh my god…go clean the fudge pump or sweep the floor, just do something rather than staring at the clock.”

“You could cover me for the end of the shift?” The hopeful tone in her voice was met with an unimpressed look from her sister.

“So, you can stare at the clock at home instead? You would only draw suspicion from mom if you start sighing at the clock every few seconds and then where would that leave your plans?”

“You make a good point.” Sterling reluctantly had to agree with her sister. As much as her parents had been supportive of her coming out and the news she was dating April, they would be less supportive of their unsupervised time together. Glancing over at the fudge pump before another look back to the clock to check the time, the blonde decided her sister was right. At least the arduous task of cleaning the sticky residue from the machine would give her something to pass the time with.

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

At the sound of the doorbell, Sterling practically launched herself off the couch. She raced to get up so fast that she missed the fact that her foot was caught on the blanket she had placed beside the couch earlier in preparation for the evening. The end result was her ending up sprawled across the floor, staring up at the ceiling. She blinked a few times before a face appeared in her field of view.

“Real smooth Sterl.”

Before Sterling could respond to the upside-down view of her sister’s face from her vantage point on the floor, another voice cut into her consciousness. “Your lack of manners is disappointing if not unexpected.” Sterling turned her head to follow the sound of the voice and found herself meeting the concerned gaze of her girlfriend. She smiled at the thought of the word, despite the fact they had been dating for the past month the sound of the word, either out loud or in her mind, still made her smile as her heart gave a few faster beats in a rhythm that had become synonymous with April. “Sterl, are you OK? Did you hit your head?” Rather than finding the words to reply she found herself lost in the swirling depths of the other girl’s eyes as they scanned across her face. “Do you have a concussion? How many fingers?”

“Wow…I’m standing right here people! At least keep your R rated antics until I’m in another room.”

Sterling snapped out of her reverie and gently took the hand that April was holding in front of her face in her own, bringing it down to kiss the palm. “I’m fine. No concussion.” She smiled reassuringly at the other girl before pushing herself up from the floor to a seated position, bringing her to eye level with April. “Hey.” She lightly ran her thumb across the hand she still held before leaning in to place a gentle kiss on the lips before her.

“Still here you know.”

Pulling back slightly, Sterling rolled her eyes before turning to address her sister as April stood back up. “We are aware.” Sterling accepted the hand that April had extended towards her and found herself pulled up from the floor. Her eyes dropped automatically to the arm that had pulled her to her feet with such ease. The force of the action had brought the blonde closer than expected which resulted in April’s hand resting on her hip to steady her motion.

“Ok, I’m out of here. Sterl…you’re drooling…again.” Blair turned and walked out of the room muttering comments about her unhealthy fixation on arms.

Ignoring her sister and the comments, Sterling’s attention was still on the girl before her. “I forget how strong you are.”

April ducked her head, looking down at the floor between them for a moment before raising her eyes to meet the blonde’s once more, her trademark half smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “Just means I will always be able to catch you…with those quivering patellas of yours.”

“You have no idea.” Sterling closed the distance between them to bring their lips together in a proper greeting. She could feel the hand that had been resting on her hip, slide further round her back to draw her closer. Her own hand came to rest against the side of April’s neck, her fingertips lightly scratching against the skin she found. Her other hand came up, her finger hooking into a belt loop on the jeans April was wearing to give a gentle tug to get the girl to follow as she stepped back towards the couch. April willingly followed the motion, their kiss only breaking as Sterling’s legs hit the edge of the cushions leading her to sit. The hand that had been resting against the shorter girl’s neck came up to slip into one of the belt loops on the other side to give a little more purchase to encourage the other girl to follow. She was surprised when the action was met by resistance, a small pout settling on her lips.

“As much as continuing down this path is…tempting, you promised we could watch Star Wars together and this…” April ran her fingertips over the back of Sterling’s hands where they still resided attached to her jeans. “Well, I don’t think we would get to explore much of a galaxy far, far away.”

“So, you are picking Star Wars over further exploration of each other?”

April slid one knee onto the couch next to the blonde, placing a hand onto the back to brace herself as she leant in and captured the pouting lips of other girl. She allowed herself to sink into the kiss, their lips moving against one another slowly. As she felt Sterling’s hands slide around her back, April pulled back enough to lean their foreheads together. “Who says we have to pick just one?” Seeing the smile spread across the blonde’s lips, she leant in for one more chaste kiss before pushing herself back up before things got carried away. “I thought about the right order to view the movies in. Chronological by plot or by year of release. If I’m going to convince you to watch them all, then I went with release date as episode 1 is something we will endure but not as your first foray into the movies.”

Sterling looked at the movie April was now holding. “We’re starting on episode 4? Why would you call it episode 4 when it was the first?”

April moved over to cue up the movie while she answered. “When George Lucas first wrote it, the script was so big that he divided it into smaller acts. The first being A New Hope. He didn’t expect it to be a success at all and when it was released it didn’t have the episode 4 attached, it was just called Star Wars. When it became so big, the rest of the story got told in three trilogies and the episode numbers became a feature.” She sat down next to Sterling on the couch as she finished.

Sterling lifted her arm in an invitation which April accepted by tucking herself against the taller girl’s side, her head resting against her shoulder. “Do you want a drink or anything to eat?”

April glanced at the table and the wide array of snacks spread out across it. Evidence of Sterling’s over preparation for the evening plain to see. “I think we’re good for now. Ready?”

“One sec.” As April turned to enquire as to the reason for the pause, she found her lips once more captured by the blonde. Sterling pulled back with a content sigh. “Okay, I’m good.”

Returning to her previous position, a small smile playing on her lips, April hit play. They watched as the iconic line popped up and the music started. Before the screen crawl had even finished, Sterling leapt up from the couch and ran out of the room. “Sterl?” April frowned and hit pause while she waited to see what had possessed the blonde. She heard the footsteps on the stairs and then a moment later, more footsteps coming down. When the blonde reappeared in the doorway, she was holding a box.

Sterling walked back over to the couch and rested the box on her lap before opening it to reveal a number of familiar items. She pulled out one of the notes and looked between it and the screen, then another and a third. “News gothic.” She turned to look at April and saw her smile. “The font in all the notes it was news gothic. The same font they used in the title sequence of Star Wars?”

Rather than giving a verbal answer, April leant forward and confirmed the thought with a kiss. “How did you work out the name of the font if you didn’t know where it was from?”

Sterling could feel her face flush. “I may have spent a bit of time trying out every font in Word and seeing what matched the note.”

April gently shook her head. “That must have taken hours.”

“It took a little while. I thought it was a dead end as it is used in a lot of places. Did you know that it was used in the ABBA logo and on the artwork for one of Lady Gaga’s albums?”

April couldn’t help but laugh. “I did not. So, I take it you didn’t get that clue then?”

Sterling shook her head. “Just now. In my defence, I have never seen Star Wars.”

“Did you never watch them with Luke?” April couldn’t help but ask the question, knowing Luke was just as much a fan as she was, it surprised her to know that he had never watched any of the movies with the blonde.

“He tried to suggest it once but his description was very action centred and honestly, watching people kill each other with lasers wasn’t appealing. I was still in my Twilight phase.”

April frowned slightly at the description Luke had given. “It’s so much more than fighting. You’ll see.” April’s eye caught sight of the box still resting on the blonde’s lap. “Did you want to ask about the other clues?”

Sterling looked into the box and considered her answer. She wanted to know everything, every tiny detail that had gone into the grand plan but she wasn’t sure she wanted them all at once. The slow reveal of the gifts had been exhilarating, and at times frustrating, but learning about her mystery Santa had been such a wonderful gift in itself she wasn’t sure she wanted it to end tonight. “Tell me one more.”

“Just one?” Sterling nodded. April looked in the box. “Did you keep everything?” She questioned, her voice held an air of awe at the thought that every small token had been kept by the other girl since the moment of the first gift.

Sterling nodded as she met the gaze of the shorter teen. “Of course. You put so much thought and effort into it that I wasn’t going to just throw them away. They mean a lot to me.” She admitted quietly.

April glanced back into the box and pulled out the card that started it all. “What did you get from this?”

Sterling looked at the card, the snowmen on the front were nothing out of the ordinary and inside had been her first message. The one that started the whole scheme. “Just that whoever had written it wanted a chance with me.” Sterling reached over to open the card to reread the message inside in case she had missed something. When April closed the card, Sterling looked up to meet her eyes, the question clear in them.

“The clue wasn’t in the words.” She pointed to the image on the front of the card. “Three snowmen.” She pointed at the one on the back left “Ezekiel,” then the back right “Hannah B,” and the one set just ahead of them in the scene, “and me.”

“The Holy Trinity.” Sterling quietly mused.

April smiled. “Perhaps a bit too subtle but I didn’t want to give the game away on day one.”

“So, there were two clues on that first day?”

April nodded. “Did you have any ideas after that first day?”

“Not really. Blair suggested people that were always around but that didn’t really narrow it down.” Sterling shook her head at the memory of the early conversations they had about who could be behind it all.

“You sure you don’t want to know any more clues?”

“I’m not ready for it all to end yet.” She shrugged as she met the gaze of the girl beside her. Sterling placed the box gently on the floor beside them before sitting back and signalling for April to resume her previous position.

Before settling back into her spot, April leant in to kiss the blonde once more, unable to resist the lure of Sterling’s lips. “This is just the beginning.” Curling back against the blonde, she hit play and watched as the text continued its journey across the screen while the music filled the room. She couldn’t help the smile that graced her lips when she felt Sterling’s arm settle around her, fingers tracing random patterns across her arm. When she first considered her plan, she had dreamed that it would result in moments like this but feared she had missed her opportunity. Yet now, she was sat on the couch in the Wesley house, pressed up against the girl who had occupied her thoughts for so long and finally she was able to drop her walls.

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

As Sterling walked into Fellowship on the Friday morning, she was greeted by the delicious smell of freshly made chicken biscuits. She had arrived early in the hopes of having a few minutes of time alone with April before the meeting began. She scanned the room and aside from the food on the table, there was no sign of the other girl. Sterling pulled her phone out of her bag to send a message to find out where her girlfriend was but before she got past opening their message thread, she felt arms wrap around her waist from behind before there was a gentle kiss placed on the back of her neck.

“Good morning.” The word was breathed out against the skin of her neck, the warm air tickling her ear.

Sterling turned within the embrace to meet the smiling face of April. “It sure is.” She closed the distance between them to enable their lips to meet in a proper good morning. Sterling would be lying if she said she didn’t wake up each morning with the hope that she would be able to secure a kiss from her girlfriend as soon as possible after waking to start her day right. Reluctantly, she pulled back from the kiss, knowing that if they didn’t exercise some element of restraint, then things could escalate quickly. “You baked?”

“I did. With it being Valentine’s this weekend, I thought a discussion on relationships was appropriate this morning and people tend to be less judgemental when they are well fed.”

Sterling reached down to take April’s hand and led her over to the couch. “Did your Nana teach you how to bake these too?” The topic of April’s family was one that they normally skirted round due to the complexity of the situation but the smell of freshly baked goods had triggered the memory of another set of baked items that Sterling had received from the other girl.

“She did.” A smile tugged at the corners of April’s lips at the memories. “She taught me how to bake as my mom was never interested. She hated the mess and so would never bake with me when I was younger. Nana never cared about the mess which used to be another source of tension between her and my parents.”

“And are these as good as your cookies? I didn’t get to try one last time.”

April flinched at the memory of turning Sterling away during her misdirected anger phase. “The cookies are better.”

“They were good cookies.” Sterling licked her lips at the memory, not failing to notice how April’s focus was drawn to the action. Before she could make a remark, the shorter girl had leant over to capture her lips. Sterling smiled into the kiss, part of her still felt that bit of pleasant surprise that April would initiate these interactions in school. Her thoughts ground to a halt as she felt the exploratory touch of the other girl’s tongue against her lips, the tentative touch asking the question her lips were incapable of. Sterling answered by parting her lips and meeting April’s tongue with her own as the kiss transcended from gentle and innocent to something that conveyed deeper feelings. The sound of a moan led them to separate, neither girl sure exactly who the sound had originated with. They remained in each other’s space, each trying to return their own breathing and heart rate to normal. “Tell me about the cookies.”

April laced her fingers with those of the blonde as she contemplated where to start. “Do you remember the design on them?”

Sterling nodded as she retrieved her phone from where she had placed it on the couch beside her as they sat. She caught sight of the enquiring look from the other girl as she opened her photos and scrolled back to the one she was looking for.

“You took a photo?”

“As you so knowingly pointed out in your note, Blair was on the verge of eating my clue. I thought it best to take photos before she consumed something important. Besides, the design on them was more a work of art than cooking.”

April looked at the image on the phone and felt a sense of pride at the words the blonde had spoken. Since her Nana had died, none of her family really paid her compliments. Even when she succeeded in something there was always a caveat attached to any compliment. “Do you remember what I told you at the Fun Zone?”

“About how my competition was Adele?”

April nudged her shoulder into Sterling’s. “There is no competition.” She ran her thumb over the back of the hand she still held, eyes following the motion. As she looked up to meet the blonde’s blue eyes, she continued. “About my mantra.”

“God isn’t going to smite you for being a lesbian.” Seeing the smile and nod, Sterling continued. “He made you along with narwhals and tiny blue poison frogs.”

“May I?” April gestured toward the phone. Sterling handed the device over. April rested it on her knee and used her free hand to zoom in on part of the image. “What do you see?”

“Elves making toys.”

“Look closer.”

Sterling looked at the image, taking in each of the items in the part of the image. There were two elves stitching cuddly toys, one was a bear and the other a whale. Sterling zoomed the image in further on that part, scrolling over to the finished ones. Sure enough sitting right there in the pile of finished toys was one that caught her eye. It wasn’t just a whale, it was a narwhal. The tusk appeared clear as day now she looked at it again. “A narwhal. You iced a narwhal?”

April nodded. “I thought icing an elvish laser tag scene was a touch too obvious.”

Sterling laughed at the mental image the words conjured in her mind. “So, it was just the one clue that day?”

“Technically three. You had the narwhal, the fact my Nana had passed and the baking. I didn’t think you would know about Nana as that happened after we parted ways. And OK, they weren’t the chicken biscuits but I was aiming for subtle hints, not a flashing neon sign at that point.” Glancing over to the study the blonde’s face, she could see the look of concentration. “Did you get either of those hints?”

“We knew it had to be someone who could bake but I didn’t consider it could be you.” Sterling admitted.

“Why?”

“I thought you hated me. You hadn’t spoken to me in months unless mandated by a teacher and that next day in church, I was looking around for anyone looking my way. You didn’t even glance in my direction.”

April caught the blonde’s gaze before speaking. “I could never hate you.” She chuckled as she shook her head. “You have no idea how hard it was to not look at you, like all the time. I knew the moment you arrived and saw you looking around. I thought for sure you had worked out it was me and I didn’t want to look up and see...rejection. I must have read the same sentence in the bible at least twenty times and I still have no clue what it said.”

“You wouldn’t have seen rejection.” The admission was quietly made, like it was a secret being shared quietly to avoid anyone overhearing despite the empty room. “You would have seen hope.”

“Hope?”

“No matter what happened between us, I always hoped we would find our way back. You’re a hard girl to forget April Stevens.”

April smiled at her before leaning in for a kiss. “As are you.”

The sound of other students making their way towards the room, burst the bubble they had created for themselves. A glance out into the hallway showed a number of students now starting to trickle through the corridors. April gave Sterling’s hand one final squeeze before turning to greet the other members of the Fellowship group.

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

When Sunday arrived, Sterling couldn’t help but be excited. April had asked her out on a date for Valentine’s Day and of course she had agreed instantly. She knew they were going out for a meal but hadn’t been able to ascertain any further information from her girlfriend. Despite the lack of information about their destination for the night, she knew that it would be special as she was spending it with the other girl. Their first Valentines. Sterling smiled to herself at that thought, her mind finding far more interesting things to contemplate while they watched the outside of the strip club their latest skip frequented. They had both been surprised that strip clubs operated on a Sunday afternoon, yet here they were sat in Bowser’s truck watching a surprisingly large number of patrons make their way into the ‘Taste of Eden’ event. Bowser had to remind Blair she was only there to observe from the car when she discovered the event also had an all-day breakfast buffet. She picked her phone up to send a message to the other girl.

Sterling
Can’t wait to see you later. I know our venue is a secret but what should I wear? Is it a formal, smart, smart casual or casual kind of place?

“Sterl agrees with me.”

“Hmm?” She turned from where she sat on couch to see Blair looking at her expectantly.

“Ellen was right…you are MOBOT.”

“I’m not MOBOT.”

“Ok, so what were you just doing and what did I say?” Blair raised a knowing eyebrow at her sister.

“Fine, I was texting but you’ve been talking almost non-stop since we arrived.”

“I miss the days when I used to work alone.” Bowser muttered from the front seat.

Blair turned to face the older man. “Just think of all the new experiences we have opened your mind to that you would have missed out on.”

“I’m not sure my ears have recovered from the last experience you tried to open my mind to.” Bowser grumbled.

Blair gasped. “The contribution of German groups is seriously overlooked in modern metal music.”

“Music huh? It didn’t sound nothing like music to me. Just lots of shouting.” He shook his head at the memory of whatever noise had been blasted through the speakers of his truck when he had relented to let the twins, or more specifically Blair, play some music to help pass the time without talking. After only half a track, Bowser wished he had stuck with the talking.

“Bowser…we are trying to broaden your musical tastes…”

“Blair, your musical choices can be a little more niche than mainstream.” Sterling placed a supportive hand on Bowser’s shoulder as she addressed her sister.

Narrowing her eyes at her sister, Blair redirected the conversation. “What does Stevens want now?”

“She didn’t message me. I messaged her to see what to wear tonight.”

The brunette shook her head. “What is the end game for tonight? Are you going for a look to make her jaw drop or her pants drop?” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

“Nope. I don’t need to hear this. Actually watch the door.” Bowser opened his door and stepped out of the truck to avoid having to listen to any further discussions.

“Blair! It’s not like that.” Sterling glanced at her sister before turning her attention back to the door of the strip club, hoping that Blair would let that line of questioning go.

“So, you don’t want to see if Stevens can do better than Luke and tick off that first orgasm for you?”

Sterling couldn’t help but have her mind flashback to the events that led to her first orgasm. Something she still hadn’t confided in Blair about. Somehow after the kidnapping, family drama and having to redefine their familial relationships, it wasn’t a topic that just flowed naturally into a conversation. “I didn’t say that.” Sterling reluctantly admitted. It wasn’t like the thought hadn’t crossed her mind...a lot. There had been plenty of cold showers and independent study over the past month but neither of them had made a move to take things further together.

“I bet she has carried out extensive research. Do you think she has a dossier of notes?” The level of probing her sister was willing to extend into this area was swiftly becoming clear.

“Can we talk about something else?” Sterling desperately wanted to discuss anything potential research April had carried out. Thoughts of that nature would only lead to the consideration of how thorough her research would be and what that could mean...Sterling was snapped out of her thoughts by her phone vibrating in her hand.

April
You’ll look beautiful whatever you wear. It’s nowhere formal, just wear what makes you comfortable.

Before Blair could make a remark about the look now residing on her sister’s face they heard Bowser knock on the window and signal at the entrance, their skip had arrived. Sterling was almost thankful they had a felon to apprehend as opposed to dealing with any further questions from her sister.

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

When the bell rang, Sterling turned to glance at the clock on the far side of her room. She could have sworn she still had another ten minutes until April was due but the green numbers disagreed with that assumption. She quickly scanned her room for her phone hearing the sound of Blair’s footsteps descending the stairs. With that piece of knowledge, Sterling started to search her room faster for the missing device, not wanting to subject April to her sister’s interrogation for any longer than necessary. In a last-ditch effort, she checked under her bed and felt the relief flood her body as she saw the phone. Grabbing it quickly, she made her way out of her room to rescue her girlfriend.

As she made her way down the stairs, she was surprised not the hear Blair talking. Then she realised why when her mom’s voice drifted to her ears. “…plans for this evening?”

Sterling increased her pace at hearing the question.

“I have planned for us to go for a meal.” April’s voice drifted out.

“Eating out huh?” Blair commented.

Sterling rounded the corner in time to see April’s ears burning red. “I thought that much was obvious Blair. I’m sure April has planned every detail.”

“I’m sure she has.” The way the brunette looked at the shorter girl, just caused her ears to turn a darker shade of red.

Sterling shot her sister an incredulous look at the comments she had heard, dreading what else had been said before she got within earshot. “Hey. I’m ready.” She moved over to stand next to the chair April was seated on for her interrogation, her hand coming to rest against the shorter girl’s shoulder in reassurance. The apprehensive look that Sterling had caught sight of as she entered the room was replaced by the small half smile as the other girl met her gaze.

“Y’all have school tomorrow so curfew is 10.”

“Yes ma’am.” April responded with a nod.

Debbie smiled back at the girl. “Have a nice evening girls.”

“Yeah, I hope it is really satisfying.” Blair smirked as Sterling practically dragged April out of the house.

As soon as the car door closed, she turned to the other girl. “I’m so sorry about Blair. She really has no shame when it comes to embarrassing people and...”

April leant across the centre console and silenced Sterling’s rambling with a kiss. “Hey. You look…stunning.” Sterling watched as the other girl let her eyes drift across her outfit.

“As do you.” Sterling stole another kiss before April pulled back to start the car. As soon as they had pulled out of the drive, she slipped her hand into April’s and laced their fingers together. She saw the way the shorter girl’s lips pulled up into a smile with the action and felt the gentle squeeze of her fingers. The pair settled into an easy conversation about their respective days as they made their way to their destination for the evening.

As April pulled her car into a space, Sterling realised where they were. Before she realised what was happening, her door had opened and she was greeted by the sight of a hand being extended to her. Reaching up, she accepted the hand and stepped out of the car. She walked beside April until they reached the door, where Sterling found it opened for her by the other girl. As she moved to step through, she leant closer to place a chaste kiss on the other girl’s lips. As she pulled back, and met the blue eyes of the other girl, she smiled and quietly commented, “A girl could get used to this.”

When they entered the restaurant, they were met by Abigail. “Evening ladies, your table is all set up.” April led the way towards a familiar table at the back of the room but as Sterling passed the older lady, she felt a hand rest on her arm. She turned to face the woman who smiled at her. “Told you she was a good one.”

Sterling couldn’t help the way her eyes shifted over to where the other girl had paused at not sensing the blonde following her. “She is.” With a pat to her arm, the hand fell away and Sterling caught up to her date. As they took their seats, Sterling couldn’t help but remember the last time she had sat at this table.

“You want to ask about a clue.” The way April spoke made it clear it was more of a statement than a question. “Which one?”

Sterling thought for a moment to get her days right. “Day 6?”

“When you came here with your mom?”

Sterling nodded. “Thinking back to the note that day, the line about envying my mom fighting my corner…it makes sense.” She watched as the other girl gave a sad smile and instantly reached her hand out to interlace their fingers. She wanted a point of contact for this, that physical bridge between them that somehow always made her feel stronger and braver. “Why that painting though? There were lots of others in here that you could have got the number two from.”

April smiled her half smirk as she ran her thumb in random patterns across the blonde’s palm, looking up at Sterling with a playful look. “Hace mucho calor en México en esta época del año. Te gustaria nadar con migo esta noche?”

As soon as the words were uttered, Sterling was transported right back into the Spanish classroom all that time ago. That was one of the moments that made her believe that April might have been willing to be more open about their relationship back then, openly flirting in class but the reality was most of the class were pretty mediocre at Spanish so the risk was low that anyone would understand what was being said between them. Despite that, she could still feel the way her heart had skipped and she had almost choked on her own breath at hearing those words. She couldn’t help but notice the very similar reaction on hearing those words once more falling from her date’s lips. “It all seems so obvious now.”

“Who did you think it was at this point?”

Sterling groaned and broke eye contact, just watching the motion of April’s thumb for a moment to bolster herself for the admission. “When Mrs Jenson had cancelled on mom then it may have led to the idea that it was someone who had access to her. The one person who came to mind was…Franklin.”

The sound of April’s laughter pulled her attention back up. “Franklin?”

“He fit some of the clues we had worked out by now. He went to Willingham, was a member of the club and he had the access to get his mom to change plans.”

“First Luke, now Franklin…I’m starting to think you may have a preference for members of the golf team. Do I need to get a new hobby?”

Sterling laughed. “Please don’t. Do you know how long a golf match takes? That’s time that could be spent on more…mutually enjoyable events.”

April leant forward, reducing the distance between them and dropped her voice. “What mutually enjoyable events do you have in mind?”

“Maybe you’ll find out later.” Sterling couldn’t help but notice the way that April bit her lip at that comment, her eyes drawn to the action. Before their conversation could continue, their moment was broken by their waitress for the night.

As they were left to themselves once more following their order, April decided to ask a question that had been playing on her mind since the Franklin admission. “How did you eliminate Franklin then?”

“Blair decided that we were going to do some snooping at the gala.” Sterling rolled her eyes at the memory. “We found out that his mom got a phone call about winning a contest but it was when he made an escape with Horny Lorna that his name was crossed off. Can’t say we saw either of them for quite some time after that.” A thought flashed into the blonde’s mind. “You were there that night…but I didn’t see you.”

“I was. You might not have seen me but I certainly saw you. Mom and I were already at our table with her friends when you walked in.” A smile spread across her face at the memory. “I literally choked on my drink...poor Gerald was unfortunate enough to be sitting next to me at the time.”

“Your dad’s business partner?”

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” She winked at the blonde. “You have no idea how badly I wanted to just tell you everything that night.”

“What stopped you?” The question had been on Sterling’s mind since the admission in the e-mail.

“Do you remember the day you came in late a few months ago?” Seeing Sterling nod, she continued. “You came into Spanish and Blair kept trying to talk to you. I think it is the only time I have ever seen you completely blank her. I heard some of the things she said and when I got to look at you properly later on...it was the one time I really worried about you. I cut the end of gym last period to get to Fellowship to catch you before everyone else got there as I knew you had study hall so would be there early. That’s where Ellen found me.” A small smile played on her lips as she continued her recounting of the event. “When she sat me down in her office, everything just came crashing out...including me.”

Sterling couldn’t help the way her eyebrows rose with that information. It had been months ago that day had happened. “That was when you came out to her?”

April nodded. “She asked me what I planned to say or do when you arrived.”

Sterling sat forward in her seat. She knew the day April spoke about; it was still the only time she had been late for school. It was the culmination of events long set in motion. First, there had been weeks of waiting for one day...the day of Dana’s hearing. When it came down to it, she had looked at Sterling once and pled guilty to the charges. There were no drawn-out court proceedings, no having to take the stand, just a single confirmation of guilt and that was it. There were no opportunities to ask questions, no answers, just an end. It had left her feeling disconnected from everything in her life. Started her on a spiral that led to her becoming more reckless, more detached from everyone in her life. The night before had been the last case Bowser had let her go on for months. He was right, Sterling could see that now but at the time it had contributed to her disconnect. Her actions had led to them ending up in a dangerous situation that they had been lucky to get out of relatively unscathed. The fall out and subsequent confrontation had been the final straw that had caused Sterling to just take off, only appearing the next day at school.

“I told her I was done waiting because it might be too late.”

“But we didn’t talk that day.” Sterling frowned as she thought back over what had transpired back then.

“No. Ellen reminded me that ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’ She asked if I truly believed it was the time for me to stand beside you as a partner.” April looked down to their conjoined hands once more. “If I’d said something then, I would have let you down again. There were other matters still holding me back.”

“Your dad?” April nodded. “You did speak to me though, not directly but what you spoke about in Fellowship…Ecclesiastes.”

“I might not have been able to stand beside you that day but I wanted you to know you were not alone.” April paused. “I spent a lot of time after that day wondering if I made the right choice.”

“What do you think now?”

“A different choice may have led us both down different paths that didn’t end with us here.”

“The time machine.” Sterling mused.

April nodded. “That was one time I considered if I had a time machine, would I change it. The other was the lock-in.” April sat back as their food arrived. “Plus, I did announce that Ezekiel should get himself a biblical time machine the day of Solomon’s temple.”

Sterling gasped. “I had forgotten that.” April laughed. “Why that quote though?”

“I fully expected you to have some ideas by this point but knew you would need to look beyond face value to get to the real meaning. I didn’t want you making a hasty guess and getting the wrong person...though not sure how well that worked out with what I’ve heard so far.”

Sterling caught the smirk the other girl was trying to suppress. “I got there in the end.”

“You did...or I should say, we did.” The smile on April’s face was reflected by a matching one on the blonde’s.

The rest of their meal was spent on far lighter topics, both girls just enjoying one another’s company and being able to speak freely without checking their words or actions in advance. As April drove them back towards the Wesley house, Sterling interrupted.

“Pull up the next turn.” Casting a quick look to the blonde, April did as requested and found they had ended up pulled up on a dead end. As she brought the car to a stop, she turned to face the other girl, a quizzical look on her face. “We still have 40 minutes till my curfew and it only takes 5 minutes to get home from here.”

“And what did you have in mind for the other 35 minutes?” April quirked an eyebrow at the blonde sitting beside her in question.

Sterling got out of the car without more than a smile before the back door opened and she slid onto the backseat. Pulling the door closed she raised her own eyebrow at the other girl, “Care to join me?”

April didn’t need to be asked twice. She shut off the engine and repeated Sterling’s action to join her in the back of the car. As soon as the door was closed, Sterling reached forward to draw the shorter girl closer and fuse their lips in a kiss. Unlike the ones they had shared throughout the evening, this one was far from chaste. There were no tentative brushes of the lips, no holding back. They met one another with an equal level of need and desire, lips gliding over one another as tongues duelled. Hands roamed over exposed areas of skin, goosebumps trailing in their wake. Sterling carefully lowered April down onto the backseat, following the motion with her own body. Her hair falling down around them, acting like a curtain coming down around them to encapsulate them in their own private world. She was aware of how fast her heart was pounding in her chest, her breathing becoming shallower and rapid. At some stage her hand had managed to slip through the narrow gap that had appeared between April’s top and her trousers, allowing her to run her fingertips across the well defined and toned flesh of her stomach. She could feel the hands of the other girl exploring her own body, drifting across her back and sides...edging closer to more sensitive areas.

Sterling summoned up her will power to break the kiss and pull back far enough to meet the eyes of the girl beneath her. When she looked into those eyes, the usual blue was almost completely lost to dilated pupils. Despite all the physical signals, she wanted to have a confirmation that what they were doing, where they were heading was OK with the other girl. Before she could open her mouth to speak, she felt April’s hand come to rest against her own, nudging her further up under her top. As her hand edged closer to touching part of April that she had only dared think about when alone in her room, she reconnected their lips. Trying to communicate everything she was thinking and feeling in that one kiss while her hand continued it’s journey north. Her fingertips brushed against the edge of fabric and just as she was about to make that last move, she leapt back as the car was filled with the sound of an alarm.

“Shit.” Sterling felt her eyebrows raise at the curse word slipping from her girlfriend’s mouth. She slipped herself out from under the blonde to reach forward and grab her phone to shut it off. Once silence had descended once more, punctuated only by the sounds of their breaths, April turned to the blonde. “You have no idea how much this pains me to say but we have to stop or you’ll miss curfew.”

“Do you care?” Sterling challenged. The hormones now flooding her system, making her feel slightly reckless.

“I do if it means getting on your parents’ bad side and potentially not being able to see you for a while.”

Sterling sighed. “You make a good point.” She leant in to steal one more kiss before reluctantly returning to the front seat so April could get her home before her mom broke out the tent.

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

A week later, Sterling found herself sitting amongst all the other forensics teams in the local area as the organiser for the day ran through the basic procedures for the day. She could feel the heat from April’s arm against her own from where they sat side by side. Despite her improved performance the previous year, the turn in events with her family had knocked the self-confidence she had discovered that day which had resulted in a series of low place finishes since.

It was April’s second year as captain and despite the downturn in Sterling’s performance, the team had been doing well. It never ceased to impress her how much attention to detail the other girl demonstrated. The dossiers she provided before each meet were extensive and had played a part in their improving record as a team. As she listened to the emergency protocols be explained, her mind flashed images of a similar tournament at Willingham. The way April’s little finger would brush against her thigh every so often probably had a significant amount to do with the mental replay she had going on. Her attention shifted back to the room as it was filled with a cacophony of message alerts as the assignments were sent out. Sterling glanced down to her own phone to see her first opponent. The others in the room were all rushing out to make their way to the different rooms for the first match. As Sterling made her way to the door, she felt a hand grasp her arm and guide her out of the main throng of students.

“I just wanted to say good luck…you’ll do great today.”

“I think you’re right.” Sterling responded with a confident smile now settling on her lips.

Sterling noticed the way the other girl was regarding her. “You haven’t been this relaxed at a forensics meet since the Southeastern semi quarter regionals last year.”

“I guess I am more focused today.” Her hand drifted up to the necklace she was wearing to run her fingers over the surface as she spoke. She noticed the way April’s eyes dropped to follow the motion. “When you win, meet me here.” Casting a quick glance around them, Sterling leant in and placed a quick kiss on the shorter girl’s lips before making her way to her own room for the first match.

As soon as Sterling started, she felt that confidence grow. Her opening argument was concise and well structured and when it came time for the cross, she was able to unsettle Roderick very easily to secure an easy win. Exchanging the usual pleasantries at the end of the match, Sterling made her way back down the hall where she found April already waiting for her. Without saying a word, she slipped her hand into that of the shorter girl and led her back down the hallway and into a room near the end.

“Sterl, what are you…” The rest of April’s words were cut off as Sterling’s lips crashed against hers.

Sterling ran her hand across the door until she found the lock and twisted it. The sound of the click echoed in the silent room. Her hand then drifted back to rest on April’s hip as she pulled the girl towards her and further into the room. As the backs of her legs collided with the edge of a surface, she moved one hand to steady her as she slid back to sit on the table behind her. Her leg wrapped around April’s to draw her closer.

“Mmm…Sterl…” April pulled back from the kiss, her hand coming to rest against Sterling’s chest when the blonde tried to follow her lips. “We should stop.”

Sterling noted the way April hadn’t attempted to move away from her and how her chest rose and fell in quick succession. “Someone once told me that an increase in dopamine can help improve focus. So really…” Sterling brought her hand up to cup the other girl’s cheek, feeling her lean into the touch. “I’m providing extra focus for the next round.”

April smiled and rolled her eyes playfully. “How do you know it won’t have the opposite effect and serve as a distraction?”

“Well, it is also linked into the pleasure and reward centres. Something that is a good motivator.”

Sterling felt the hand on her chest, slide up towards her neck before fingers gently ran across the pendant hanging there. “You make a good point.”

“This was the day I worked out that whoever my Santa was went to Willingham.” Sterling’s fingers brushed against the hand still toying with the pendant.

“What else?”

“There were other clues that day?”

April smiled. “Pretty much every day had multiple clues. Do you remember what you said in the Fellowship room after the lock-in meeting?”

“I remember pushing too hard for you to come out with me then.” Sterling admitted quietly, dropping her gaze from the blue eyes before her. She felt April’s fingers under her chin to raise her face.

“We both made mistakes back then. You talked about how new pathways were opening in your mind. This...” April ran her finger over the chemical structure once more. “This was the new pathway you opened for me. I spent so much time and effort trying to accomplish things that would get the same release that you triggered with a kiss.”

“How do you remember that?”

April smiled. “It’s something that has always been there. You have always stood out for me.” She admitted quietly.

“Anything else that day?”

“Two more.”

“Two?” Sterling’s voice raised in pitch slightly as she came to the realisation that she had missed two other clues.

“One clue was in there twice...once in the note and the other in the structure.”

Sterling thought about the note and what she had ascertained about the chemical structure. A task made more difficult when April kept trailing her fingers over her thigh. “Smell!” Sterling announced quite loudly, before lowering her voice. “It’s an aromatic compound and the note mentioned my perfume. The day Blair and I skipped and went to Nandina, you said you missed my smell.”

Rather than speaking, April leant forward and captured the blonde’s lips with her own. Both got lost in the kiss for a moment before the sound of Sterling’s phone alarm broke them out of their bubble.

Sterling silenced the alarm as April stepped back to give her room to return to her feet. Once they both checked their appearance, April moved back to the door and unlocked it. “Sterl? What’s the 33rd element?”

Sterling frowned for a moment before replying. “Arsenic.”

April opened the door and stepped out, turning just as she breached the threshold. “Think symbols.” With that comment, she turned and vanished from sight.

Sterling stared at the slowly closing door as her mind ran through the different symbols arsenic could have. A symbol to represent something, hazard symbols. Sterling groaned as the realisation dawned. She had overlooked the most obvious of the symbols in chemistry, the chemical symbols on the periodic table. Arsenic...As. April had literally included her own initials as a clue and both Sterling and Blair missed it. “So much for the crack detective team,” she muttered as she exited the room to make her way to the next match.

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

It was the end of February when Ellen announced another paired project for bible studies. As had become the custom with Ellen’s projects, the class groaned at the thought of having to spend their weekend on schoolwork rather than more enjoyable activities. The exception to this was April and Sterling who saw another opportunity to spend time together, with the added bonus of the high probability of securing a high grade.

They had both decided that working on their project at the Wesley house was a better choice than at April’s house. Sterling looked over to where April sat on her desk chair, focused on the laptop in front of her. She watched the way the other girl twisted her hair around her fingers completely unaware of her audience.

“I can feel you staring.” Sterling was snapped out of her trance by the sound of April’s voice. She watched as the other girl turned in the chair to face her. “How’s your research going?”

Sterling looked back to the screen in front of her, the three lines she had written in the document highlighting how little she had achieved in the past half an hour. “It’s getting there.” Hearing movement, the blonde glanced up to see her girlfriend making her way across the room. Sterling clicked onto the open search tab in the hopes that April wouldn’t look too closely. She looked up to meet the questioning gaze directed at her as she slowly slid her laptop to the side.

“Sterl...you do know I can hear when you type and you haven’t typed anything for at least fifteen minutes.”

Sterling could see the way April was trying to suppress a smile as she spoke. “Maybe I’m just like…a stealth typer.” She watched the eyebrow raise and head tilt that signalled the disbelief in her statement.

“Let’s see it.” April challenged.

“Well, I mean I could show you but it’s not the finished article yet and so it wouldn’t be a true reflection of the complex interlinked ideas.”

April glanced over to the door of Sterling’s bedroom which was partially open as per the Wesley’s open-door policy. As she turned back, Sterling felt the edge of the bed dip as one of April’s knees slid onto the mattress beside her. Her focus was locked on the blue eyes before her as they moved closer. She was vaguely aware of pressure on her shoulder from the hand that had come to rest there. Instinctively she raised her own hand to rest on the other girl’s waist. She could feel the warmth of April’s breath against her lips as the distance between them narrowed further. Her eyes drifted shut in anticipation of the connection of their lips. Instead, she felt a shift in the bed and as she opened her eyes, she saw April was about to click on the open document and reveal the lack of progress she had made. Reacting before she had thought through her actions in full, Sterling brought her other hand up the the girl’s waist and twisted from her position. Sterling found herself looking down into the shocked eyes of her girlfriend, acutely aware of every point of contact between their bodies. Unable to resist, she lowered herself the last few inches to bring their lips together. As the kiss deepened, she felt April’s arms come up to wrap around her back, drawing her in closer. The reason for their new found position faded from Sterling’s mind instantly.

“Hey Sterl?” The sound of a voice made Sterling pull back and scramble away from the other girl. “Wow...you need to learn how to close a door. I can’t unsee that!” Blair commented from the doorway, her hand covering her eyes.

“Mom’s rules mean no closed doors.” The blonde grumbled as she moved into a more natural position now the immediate panic had subsided.

“Sucks to be you then. You’re lucky I wasn’t mom as there was certainly no room for Jesus between you two!”

“Blair...what do you want?” Sterling asked as she cast a look back at April who had moved to sit on the edge of the bed, facing away from the door.

“Oh, mom wanted to know if Stevens was staying for dinner.”

“Only if it’s no imposition.” April spoke without turning to face the other girl.

“Cool.” She turned and walked back out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

Sterling shuffled up the bed to sit against her headboard once more. “I’m sorry about Blair. You know how she is.”

April glanced over her shoulder before sliding back to sit beside the blonde. It was then Sterling saw what was in her hand, the puzzle box. “It’s still in one piece.”

Sterling laughed. “Of course it is. Admittedly I did have to keep Blair away from it and Dad’s tools otherwise it would have met an early demise but I wasn’t going to smash it.”

“How long did it take to get the numbers?”

Sterling groaned. “About five hours...but it was worth every minute to get to the answer.”

“I was sure this one would give away too much and lead you straight to me.” April admitted as she looked over the box in her hands.

“Really?”

April turned the box over and pointed at the symbol. “Do you recognise it?” Sterling looked at the symbol and drew a blank, shaking her head. “It was the design on the floor of our Solomon’s temple model.”

“I knew it looked familiar but I couldn’t place it at all. I spent ages looking for manufacturers with that symbol.”

“No manufacturer…it’s handmade remember.”

“I still can’t get over how good you are with your hands.” Seeing the raised eyebrows and smirk appear on April’s face, Sterling felt her face flush. “I mean, good with your hands in a making things kind of way.”

April leant over and placed a kiss on her cheek. “You’re cute when you ramble.” She placed another kiss on her cheek before leaning in close to her ear. “And you are yet to find out how good I am with my hands.” Sterling choked on air as the words registered, turning to see the teasing smirk of her girlfriend. “So, the painting was one clue, handmade wooden structure the second but there were two more that day. Any insights now you know it is me?”

“April...are you serious? You just fried my brain. I’m at fire pretty level right now.”

April tilted the box and sure enough the sound of the wooden balls moving around filled the space between them. “There is something satisfying about the clacking of wooden balls. It was what I said to you when you tried asking me out on our first date to the Fun Zone.”

“You class that as our first date?”

“Me...you...alone...lots of kissing...I’d say it was a date.” April’s half-smile made a reappearance with the memory. “There was one more clue that day...in the note.”

Sterling reached over the side of her bed and pulled out the box she kept there. She rummaged through the box until she found the one she was looking for. As she re-read the note she spotted it. “The Rubik’s cube?” Seeing April nod, she continued. “You can’t bring yourself to hate them because it reminds you of our first kiss.”

“It does. Every time I see that one hanging on Ellen’s keys it takes me right back to that moment.” April leant her head against the shoulder next to her. “That was the moment you changed everything.”

“For the better I hope?”

Sterling felt the smile, more than she saw it. “Very much so.” She leant down and placed a kiss on the top of April’s head. A quiet descended between the two of them as they just enjoyed the closeness of each other. “You know that day at church when you got the duck, I heard Blair.”

“You did?”

“Sterl, I think the whole church heard her shout my surname. My mom even looked over and asked why she was calling my name. Luckily she accepted the first explanation that popped into my head.” April shifted back slightly to look up at the other girl.

“You didn’t look over.”

“Honestly, I heard that and thought you had worked it all out...and that you were not exactly thrilled with the outcome. I didn’t dare look over as I didn’t want to see the confirmation that everything I’d been working for had been for nothing.” The admission was spoken softly into the stillness of the room.

“But you didn’t stop.”

“No.” There was a moment of quiet as she threaded her fingers through those of the blonde. “You really should pay more attention to Pastor Booth and spend less time looking at me.”

“I do not look at you that much in church.” Sterling stopped, a frown creasing her brow. “Hold on...You’d only know that if you were looking at me.”

April smiled. “You have no idea how much of the past year has been spent looking at you. That sounds way creepier than I meant it to.” She paused. “There’s something about you Sterling Wesley that means I can’t help but notice you. Even when we weren’t friends...or more...I would always be aware of where you were. It was like you were the North Pole to my South Pole...as soon as you came within a certain radius there was a pull towards you.”

“That was what made you carry on with your plan?”

“That…and when you came back round to the front of the church, that feeling told me you were looking my way again. When neither you nor Blair confronted me, then that tiny bit of hope clung on.”

“I thought it was you that day.” April turned to look at the blonde. “It was the 5th grade quiz, quackers...not Quakers. That conversation we had when Ellen was trying to convince us we could be close again.” Sterling gasped. “Do you think Ellen knew before we did? About us I mean?”

April laughed. “As much as Ellen is firmly in camp Stepril, she didn’t know. She knew we were good for each other though, could see what we had lost sight of.”

“Stepril?” Sterling quirked her head slightly to the side with the strange name.

“Ezekiel’s name for us...Sterling and April...Stepril.”

April reached over to find the note from that day. “You also had this clue about new pathways from when you talked about the new parts and pathways opening up.”

“It all seems so obvious in hindsight.”

“Pick one more day to be explained then we have to get back to work.”

Sterling considered which day she wanted explained when her eye caught the snow globe on her desk. “The snow globe.”

“I thought you’d have got that one. It’s from a book we both read that was seared into our memories.”

“Narnia! Of course it is.” Sterling shook her head at how she could have missed it. “I knew there was something familiar about it. It’s from the lion, the witch and the wardrobe. The lamppost in a snow-covered wood...It’s the scene when Father Christmas gives the Pevensie children their gifts. Though why anyone would thing giving an eight-year-old a knife is a good present I don’t know.”

“I did try to give you a hint in the note too.” Sterling rifled through the box of notes and pulled out the day in question, showing it to April. “Here.” She pointed to the penultimate line. “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. It is a line from the dedication at the start of the lion, the witch and the wardrobe.”

Sterling turned her body, bringing her hand up to cup the cheek of the girl beside her as she captured her lips in a searing kiss. When the need for air became too great, she pulled back far enough to rest her forehead against April’s.

“What was that for?”

“You...You literally take my breath away.”

April shifted slightly to reconnect their lips. “The feeling is mutual.”

Sterling tried to lean back in once more but April pulled back. “We should get back to work since someone has only got three lines.” Sterling pouted at being called out on her lack of progress, noticing how at some stage her girlfriend had changed tabs to see the proof of the limited work. “If we get this done, then there is more time for...other activities.”

Hearing the suggestive tone in her girlfriend’s voice was enough to spur Sterling on to get back to work. She pulled her laptop back onto her lap, vaguely aware of April’s chuckle as she got off the bed to return to her own task. The promise of other activities going uninterrupted by the need to work providing all the motivation she needed.

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

The sound of her alarm roused Sterling from what had been a very pleasant dream featuring her girlfriend. She poked blindly at the screen until the sound stopped before frowning. It was Saturday and she had no shift at Yogurtopia today so why was her alarm on? She never set her alarm on the weekend unless it was absolutely vital. Before she could question it much more, her phone vibrated on the side. She picked up the device and clicked to open the message that had just arrived.

April
Morning Sterl. I hope you don’t mind that I set an alarm but I’d like to invite you to go on a little adventure with me today. I hope you still have the backpack I gave you last time...pick you up at 10? X

Sterling
Morning. I might be able to forgive the alarm but will need some convincing...See you in an hour. Xx

Sterling got out of bed and opened her closet to retrieve the backpack that still contained a range of items from when she had been given it. Deciding that today was a good opportunity to discover more about her outstanding clues from her last April planned adventure, she collected the notes from that day and placed them into the front pocket of the bag.

When Sterling returned from her shower, she noticed her phone had received another message.

April
I hope you don’t mind but I haven’t invited Blair this time. X

Sterling smiled at the message.

Sterling
Wouldn’t have it any other way. Xx

She set her phone down while she finished getting ready for their excursion. Her mind was focused on what the day might hold but one thing she was sure of was that she was about to have a good few hours of uninterrupted time with her girlfriend. Something that she never felt like she could get enough of.

As Sterling headed downstairs, she checked the time on her phone. She had ten minutes until April would be there to pick her up. “Morning mom.” She walked over and took a seat at the counter where her mom was busy preparing various breakfast items.

“Morning baby. What have you got there?” She asked gesturing to the backpack that Sterling had placed on the floor.

“Just some supplies. April and I are going for a walk and she fully believes in being prepared for all eventualities.”

Debbie smiled. “She is a planner that one. What time are you heading out?”

Sterling checked the time. “She will be here any minute.”

Debbie turned to the other counter and picked up a couple of muffins. “Here, take these with you.”

“Thanks mom.”

Feeling her phone vibrate, Sterling pulled it out to check.

April
I’m outside when you are ready. X

Sterling stood from her seat and walked around the counter to give her mom a hug. Their relationship had continued to improve as they each found a way to move past the events that were unchangeable and focused on the present. Sterling was still so grateful to have her parents be so supportive of her relationship and treat April the same as they did Luke. “Have a good day mom.”

“You too sweetheart.”

Sterling picked up the muffins and made her way outside where she found April leaning against the side of her car. The sight of the other girl waiting for her still brought a smile to her lips. She made her way down the steps and greeted the other girl with a kiss. “Good morning.”

As Sterling started to pull back, she found herself tugged back in as one of April’s hands wrapped around her waist. Drawing her close enough for their lips to reconnect. Ordinarily Sterling would have responded in kind but her hands were currently full of muffins as opposed to being able to wrap around the body of the girl rendering her breathless. April pulled back with one last chaste kiss. “It certainly is now.” She opened the door for Sterling before returning to the driver’s seat and pulling them out onto the road.

After a short while of driving, Sterling realised they were heading out of the city on a route she had driven herself three months ago. “I meant to ask you something.”

“What would you like to know?”

“Did you really think I was going to injure myself to the point of needing a full first aid kit on a hike?”

April laughed. “I certainly hoped not. Being prepared means you should have everything in that pack. Did you ever open the first aid kit?”

Sterling shook her head and immediately rummaged in the bag to retrieve it. When she opened the kit, she saw all the usual items but there was a pack of oscillococcinum sitting right there. “I didn’t even know this was in here.”

“Did you find my helper whistle? Ezekiel asked a lot of questions about why I stopped using it until I eventually told him I had given it away.”

“You actually used to summon Ezekiel with this?” Sterling held it up.

“Usually it was greeted by an unimpressed eyebrow raise from him so I think it is best left in the past.”

They drove quietly for a while, the scenery passing the windows as they drive further out of the city. The further they went, the more certain Sterling was of their destination. “This was the day I felt like things changed.”

“How do you mean?” April glanced over at the blonde before returning her attention to the road.

“Until this point, you had shared these tiny comments that gave a little flash of your life but this was the day when I felt you let your walls down with the notes. You shared a lot of personal memories with me without knowing how I would react when I knew who you were. That was brave.” There was an element in awe in Sterling’s voice as she recalled how special that day had felt with each note revealing those deeply guarded aspects of April’s life.

April glanced over at the blonde. “I guess I was. You were always worth the risk.”

“I wish you weren’t driving right now.” Sterling half groaned out.

“Why?”

“You can’t just say things like that and not expect me to want to kiss you.”

April laughed. “We’re nearly there and then we have the whole day together with as much kissing as you like.” Sterling smiled at the thought and set about returning the first aid kit to her backpack. “Did you bring the notes?”

Glancing up, she saw April had caught sight of the familiar envelope peeking out of the bag. “I did. I thought today was a good day to have some more reveals.”

“What did the first note reveal?”

Sterling pulled the note out and re-read it. “You started to let me in right from the start. Sharing more about how you could only be yourself in some places.”

“Does your neck still get tense when you are hangry...like when you had to lie to Blair?” Sterling glanced at the line in the note as her mind flashed back to standing in the Fellowship room after the lock-in meeting. Her admission to April about how the lying made her feel, her pushing for the other girl to take that next step with her.

Her mind then flashed forward to the night of the lock-in. Seeing April for the first time that night on the floor in the classroom with no space beside her. Watching as April spent the evening close to Luke. As much as Sterling had tried to avert her eyes from the sight of the two of them, she couldn’t help but take in everything about it. The image of her legs stretched out with so much more flesh on show than their uniform ever revealed. The way her top had pulled slightly off to the side at the top button revealing a tantalising glimpse at what lay beneath. And the flamingoes...

“The flamingo beanie...your flamingo pyjamas.”

April glanced over after she made the turn. “I wasn’t sure if using clues from that night would be wise but it was a big part of our history.”

Sterling reached across the console and linked their fingers. “As much as I wish things had gone differently that night...I understand why they couldn’t. But we are here now.”

“Yes, we are.” April pulled the car to a stop in one of the parking bays. “Did you bring all of the notes from this day?” Upon seeing the nod of affirmation Sterling gave her she continued. “The note from the beanie told you about how this was a place I would come to escape. When my parents got into one of their righteous moods and I’d had to endure the commentary they gave on what they deemed as amoral lifestyle choices, I would always find myself out here. My nana was the one member of my family who loved me for me and not who she thought I should be. So, coming here has always been my last connection to that feeling of unconditional love.”

Sterling bit her tongue to stop herself from blurting out the words that had been building for a while now. She knew that she had fallen in love with the girl next to her. The love she felt was not conditional on April behaving a certain way or achieving anything in particular. She loved her for who she was and as much as she came close to saying those words, she hadn’t felt the time was right.

“The description of the forest in the spring...that was another clue to our shared past with the lion, the witch and the wardrobe. The scene where the queen’s power is fading and winter is coming to an end replacing the bare branches and white with green and gold.” April glanced out through the windscreen. “It may not have snowed this year, but spring has arrived. Walk with me?”

“Always.” Sterling saw the way April bit the corner of her lip on hearing the word.

“Always is a long time Sterl.” April commented quietly as she climbed out of the car.

“I hope so.” Sterling whispered as she followed.

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

As they reached the stream, April slowed her pace before they came to a stop. As they stood looking at the stream, Sterling noticed a small shiver run through April’s frame. Stepping in closer behind her, she wrapped her arms around the shorter girl’s body, resting her chin on her shoulder.

“In the second grade, I stood in this exact spot and for the first time in my life I listened to myself. Until then I had let my parents and their views control what I thought. I didn’t dare listen to that little voice inside that kept trying to tell me that I was different from the other girls. That it wasn’t normal to be so distraught over your friend moving away.”

“Adele Meisner.” Sterling grumbled her name.

April turned in her arms, an eyebrow raised in question. “Are you jealous of my second-grade crush?” Sterling tried to pull away and avoid having to answer but April was quick and wrapped her arms around the blonde’s neck to hold her in place. “You know you have nothing to be jealous of. As much as Adele was my realisation, you were the one who made it a reality.” She leant forward and kissed Sterling. “You are the first person I kissed.” She brought their lips together once more. “The only person I have kissed.” As April leant in to bring their lips together for the third time, Sterling reciprocated. No longer content to settle for the fleeting brush of their lips, she ran her tongue along April’s lower lip, silently seeking permission to deepen their kiss. A permission that was granted as April parted her lips. Sterling could feel one of April’s hands lightly scratching at the base of her scalp as the kiss continued. It was only when they heard voices approaching that the reluctantly broke the kiss. April slid her hand into Sterling’s and led her on down the path.

When they reached the edge of the creek, they both came to a stop. “This was where I first said that I was a lesbian out loud. OK, there was nobody here to hear it and the sound of the water swallowed my secret but even so, to actually say the words…that was a big step in accepting who I was.”

“You were right.”

“About what?” April turned to look at the blonde standing beside her.

“Shouting into the abyss being cathartic.”

“What did you shout?” Sterling drew her eyebrows together at the recollection of the words. “Sorry, you don’t have to tell me.”

Sterling turned and took a step closer to the edge of the creek, drawing in a deep breath. “Fuck you Dana!” She shouted, knowing that the April would be able to hear her words above the rushing water. She wasn’t surprised when she felt a hand slip into her own. What did surprise her was when the shorter girl shouted her own comment into the roar of the water.

“Fuck you John!”

Sterling turned to face the girl beside her. “I’ll second that.” She felt April nudge her shoulder with her own. Neither of them made a motion to move for a few minutes. Just letting the sound of the rushing water carry the burdens that those two people had placed upon them away.

“One more stop.” April said as she gave Sterling’s hand a gentle squeeze, slowly leading them along the trail.

As they reached the bench, they both took a seat. Sterling watched as April ran a finger over the plaque, much like she had done herself when she had first sat at this bench. “The quote is from CS Lewis’ The Last Battle. As much as my dad used to read me the Narnia books because of the religious significance, it was my nana who taught me to enjoy them for the magic.”

“You really did include a lot of clues on this day.” Sterling admitted with an air of wonder in her voice. There were so many clues that pointed right to April, yet she had been blinded to the possibility that the other girl could have been the one behind it.

“There are two more.”

“Really?” The surprise was evident in the tone of the word.

“All the envelopes for the trail were in Ziploc bags.”

“Wasn’t that just to keep them dry?”

“In part, yes. But a moment of misdirected anger also had a Ziploc bag at the centre.”

Sterling wrinkled her nose at the memory. “The condom wrapper you kept. How could I forget.”

“Not my finest moment.” April took a moment to look out over the trees before speaking once more. “I never did say thank you.”

“For what?” Sterling turned her head to look at the girl beside her, taking in her profile as she continued to look into the distance.

“In the Fellowship meeting, when everyone thought it was mine...you could have just kept quiet, let them believe that. You would have continued as Fellowship leader.”

Sterling turned to the other girl, reaching her hand up to turn her face towards her. She wanted April to see her as she spoke her next words. “That wasn’t an option. No matter what our relationship, you didn’t deserve to have your reputation tarnished by my actions.”

April dropped her eyes as a small smile played on her lips. “When you did that...something changed. It made me realise that the moment I saw that wrapper on the ground, something just broke. I was angry and looking back now, jealous.”

“Of what?”

“Luke.” April sighed. “There has been something about you that always got under my skin. For a long time, I kept telling myself it was because you gave me away. But there was something else there. Don’t go thinking I was in love with you back in fifth grade...but somewhere along the line, it was more than just friendship I wanted with you. Knowing that Luke got to hold your hand, kiss you and then he’d...”. April trailed off. “Do you not remember how I just kept putting myself in the way of you two when you were trying to have alone time with the memorial?”

“Oh wow. I didn’t even think about that as a possibility.”

April shrugged. “Honestly, I would have denied it if you had.”

The girls fell silent as they both considered what had been shared. “You said there were two more. That was one, what’s the other?”

“Not all locks confine you, some give you freedom.” April recited the line from the last note of the day. “That day in Ellen’s office...I could have just walked out and kept that part of myself hidden away. Instead, I turned that lock and kissed you back. That lock...it gave me the freedom to drop all the walls and stop hiding what I wanted...who I wanted.”

Sterling smiled and leant over to kiss her girlfriend. “Ellen Johnson...our number one shipper...providing opportunities for locked doors since 2020. Where would we be without her?” Sterling noticed April shiver once more. “Let’s head back to the car. We still have a couple of hours before we have to head home.” April shook her head at the ridiculous eyebrow wiggle that accompanied the blonde’s statement but she couldn’t suppress the smile that it triggered.

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

Sterling walked into the Fellowship room and took her seat on the couch to wait for April. It had been a long day and all she really wanted was to spend some time with the shorter girl before they had to head to their respective homes. She knew that April would be a bit later meeting her tonight as she needed to meet with Ellen and Coach Esposito to discuss the arrangements for the next forensics meet. Sterling settled herself with her head resting on the back of the couch and closed her eyes.

“Hey Sterl.”

Feeling the couch depress from the weight of another person and the familiar voice, she opened her eyes and looked over. “Hi Luke.”

“There’s something I have been meaning to ask you.”

Sterling shifted to sit more upright in her seat before responding to him. “What’s up?”

She watched as he rubbed the back of his neck as he was inclined to do when nervous. “Well, I was wondering if you were free Friday after school?”

Sterling would usually spend Friday with April as they worked their way through the latest Star Wars linked movie or show. However, the way Luke was acting piqued her interest. “Why?”

“We have that anatomy test coming up and if I don’t get at least a B, then I’m going to be benched from the golf team. I was hoping you could help me study?” The boy admitted.

Despite the end of their relationship, Luke had always been a good friend and she didn’t want him to lose the one part of his life that brought him a real sense of accomplishment and joy. “I can help you but only till 6.”

“Thanks Sterl. You’re the best.” He leant in and wrapped her in a large hug which she returned with slightly less enthusiasm. She watched as he stood from the couch and made his way to the door. “Hey April.” He greeted the shorter girl standing in the doorway of the room as he left.

“Hey April.” Sterling greeted the other girl from the couch. “You finished faster than I was expecting.” The blonde frowned slightly at seeing the other girl still standing in the doorway. “You OK?”

April seemed to snap out of her thoughts and walked over to the couch. “What did Luke want?” She asked as she took a seat next to the blonde.

“He needs some help studying anatomy for our test or he’s off the team. I said I’d give him a hand on Friday but only till 6. The evening is ours.” Not getting a response of any form, Sterling turned to face the other girl. “You know there’s nothing going on with Luke, right?”

That comment seemed to bring April back to the present. “Of course.”

“You sure? Because you aren’t acting like yourself.” Sterling’s tone clearly reflected the scepticism about the truth of the statement the other girl had made.

“I’m sure. It just reminded me of how he nearly de-railed my whole plan right at the end.”

“He did?”

April nodded. “Day 11. You were sitting in your usual seat on the floor and Luke came in to talk to you. I had got quite good at ignoring his pining looks towards you but that morning…it felt different. He held your hand and when he started to ask you a question, I just couldn’t sit back.”

“Was that why you had a death grip on the devotionals folder?” Sterling could recall how April had hugged the folder tightly to her chest as she had started their meeting that morning.

“It was either start the meeting and cut him off before he potentially ruined all that work or throw the folder at him.”

Sterling chuckled at the image. “I’m glad you interrupted. I didn’t want to turn him down in front of everyone.” She reached over to lace her fingers with the other girl’s. “So, day 11 was the picture. What were the clues?”

“There were three that day. The first was something you said at the remembrance service for Mr Koontz.”

“Ah yes...Robert.” April lightly elbowed the blonde in the ribs but failed to suppress the smile dancing on her lips. “Sorry...continue.”

“You said that being alone doesn’t mean lonely. In that moment, it was like you were speaking to me. I spent so much time trying to have all these people who would look up to me and follow me but when it came down to it, I was actually alone. I was changing myself to fit with what all these groups of people wanted me to be when all I really needed was to be by myself to find who I really was and wanted to be.”

“I was speaking about myself then too. For such a huge part of my life I had been part of Sterling and Luke. The rest I was one of the Wesley twins...I didn’t really know who I was as an individual. I needed to listen to my own inner voice.”

“I’m glad you did.” April admitted quietly.

“Me too.”

April turned slightly to face her girlfriend, just taking a moment to look at her before she spoke. “I have to ask...did you wait until the last day or did you open the box early?”

“I waited.” Sterling’s face reflected the realisation that set in. “We’d have nowhere to go. The line in the note. It was exactly what you said when I said you could ravage me.”

April ducked her head. “That was too much.”

Sterling reached her hand out to tilt her face back up to allow their eyes to meet once more. “It wasn’t. You can, you know.” Seeing the confused frown on the shorter girl’s face, Sterling leant over to place a kiss against the side of her neck, bringing her lips against her ear. “Ravage me.” Sterling heard the way April swallowed upon hearing those words. April turned her head to capture the blonde’s lips in a searing kiss.

April pulled back to provide enough space between their lips to speak. “When I do ravage you...it won’t be on the Fellowship couch or in the backseat of a car.” She placed a kiss against the blonde’s lips. “It won’t be when we have a time limit to avoid curfew.” Another kiss. “It will be when we can spend the whole night together. I want to fall asleep pressed up against you and wake up in your arms.” Their lips met again in a longer kiss. “I want it to be worth the wait.” The last words were whispered out into the fraction of space between them.

Sterling looked into the blue eyes before her, the sincerity in the words shone through. “It’ll be worth it.” She muttered as she brought her lips against the other girl’s once more. As they parted, Sterling settled back into the couch, raising her arm for April to curl into her side. “What was the third clue?”

April pulled her phone out and opened the picture that Sterling recognised from the day. “Do you remember what I told you when we played skeeball?”

“About Adele being your awakening?” She smirked at the other girl receiving an eye roll in response. “God isn’t going to smite you for being a lesbian. He made you. Along with narwhals and those tiny blue poison frogs.”

April zoomed in on the bottom left of the image. Sterling looked down and saw it. Sitting on the leaf in the foreground was a tiny frog. “I figured leaving the colour on the image was a bit obvious.”

“I was so busy looking at the person, I didn’t even think to look for anything else.”

April glanced over at the clock. “We’ve got an hour until we need to head out. How about I help you brush up on your anatomy knowledge before you tutor Luke?”

“And how are you going to help me do that?”

Sterling saw the answering half-smirk as April shifted to run a finger lightly down her jaw. “Just name the parts I indicate.”

“Maxilla.” April leant forward and placed a kiss where her finger had been. She then ran her fingertip along the blonde’s ear. “Pinna.” A kiss followed the correct answer. The fingertip then ran lightly down the side of her neck. “Neck.”

April shook her head. “More specific.”

Sterling tried to think of her diagrams in the anatomy textbook, a job made difficult by the way her brain was short circuiting with the touches on her skin. “Carotid artery.” April smiled and leant in to kiss and lightly nip at the skin just above. She ran her fingertip against her lip. “Lower lip.” The fingertip was replaced by April’s own lips in a kiss that left no doubt as to the promise of things to come. April ran her hand lower, appreciating the lack of school requirement for a tie. Her finger ran down the front of Sterling’s neck, where shew could feel the way the blonde’s throat bobbed as she swallowed. She let her finger slip off to the side, dipping just under the collar before glancing up to ask the question with her eyes. “Clavicle.” April leant down, pulling the collar of Sterling’s shirt to the side to expose enough skin to place a kiss where her fingertip had just been. Her fingertip continued its journey, tracing lower. April kept her eyes fixed on the blonde’s as she popped another button open before allowing her fingertip to trail lower. Raising an eyebrow in silent question, she waited for Sterling’s answer. “Sternum.” With that answer, April’s half-smile spread across her lips as she dipped her head lower, using her finger to gently pull the fabric of the blonde’s shirt away enough to make space for her lips. She placed a kiss right above her heart before slowly sitting back up and placing a gentle kiss against the blonde’s waiting lips.

When they separated, Sterling caught her breath before speaking, trying to fight the smile from appearing. “I hope you’re not suggesting I use this method with Luke on Friday.” Her only answer was April’s lips crashing back into her own, bringing and end to any attempt or desire to talk about Luke.

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

As March drew to an end, the school was filled with that strange combination of excitement and apprehension that only comes with college acceptance season. Each morning, there would be the sounds of people either celebrating with friends or being commiserated. Sterling walked down the hallway with Blair at her side. Both sisters had already received offers from colleges with Blair currently leaning towards Penn State for criminology. Sterling was still waiting on the couple she had secretly had her hopes pinned on and they were due to be sent today.

“Sterling!” She heard her name mere moments before she felt herself lifted off the ground and spun.

“Luke!” She gasped as she placed her hands on his shoulders to brace herself against the motion. “What are you doing?”

He stopped spinning and lowered her to the ground. “Sorry...but I got in! I got my acceptance to UGA this morning. Go dogs!”

“That’s great Luke! I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks to you Sterl. You always helped me to get better grades.” He took her hand in his as he met her eyes. “Thank you. I know things didn’t go exactly to my plan, but I feel blessed to have you in my life as a friend.”

Sterling leant in to wrap him in a hug. “I’ll always be your friend.” As she pulled back, she could see the grin on his face.

“I’ve got to go tell the team.” He started down the hallway giving a final wave over his shoulder as he vanished around the corner.

“So how are you going to tell April?”

“Tell me what?” The voice came from behind them, causing Sterling to smile as she turned to greet the shorter girl.

“Luke got into UGA.”

“He must be thrilled.”

“That’s it?” Both girls turned to look at the brunette. “Where’s the drama? I expected a storming off in a jealous rage as a minimum. Luke and Sterl both accepted to UGA….Nothing?”

Sterling frowned at her sister as she shook her head but it was April who spoke. “Sorry to disappoint you Blair.”

“Whatever. I’m out of here. Don’t forget Sterl.”

“I know. If I hear anything, I will message you.”

As Blair disappeared from sight, Sterling reached down to take April’s hand as they headed to the Fellowship room. “So, I’m guessing you haven’t heard yet either?”

“Nothing yet.”

Sterling dropped her bag at the side of the couch and settled back against the cushions. She was aware of April doing the same beside her. “I am so stressed my neck feels like it could just snap if I turn too quickly.”

April laughed beside her. “How about a distraction?” Sterling turned to face her girlfriend before casting her eyes around the room and bustling hallway outside. Her attention was brought back to the other girl when she felt a nudge in her side. “Not that kind of distraction.” Sterling pouted but relented when she received a gentle kiss. “That kind of distraction is for later.”

Sterling slipped her hand into that of the girl next to her. “Distract me.”

“Do you remember the last day of gifts?”

“Hard to forget. That was the day I really believed it was you.”

“What clue gave you that belief?” April had turned so she was sitting to face towards the blonde.

“It was two together. You said you were trapped in a lie and that you hoped for a maybe someday.”

“Two of the moments from our past that were the hardest for me.” April dropped her gaze with the admission, choosing to focus on the way their hands fit together.

“Why?”

April sighed sadly. “Walking away from you was one of the hardest things I had to do. That first time, I got as far as the student parking lot before I had to turn around. I couldn’t just keep walking and not give you a chance to help me overcome my fears.”

“The second time you did.” Sterling recounted, the tone in her voice clearly showing that the memory still came with a certain amount of pain. Sterling felt April’s grip tighten on her hand.

“I still wanted to hope that there was a time when everything holding me back would have faded. Even when you said you weren’t sure about a maybe someday, there was a part of me that couldn’t give up entirely. After a lot of tears and regret, I came up with the master plan. As much as I wasn’t sure if it would work...I had to try.” Sterling watched at April ran her thumb along her own. “I’m glad I did.”

Looking into the blue eyes that she could lose herself in, Sterling smiled. “Me too.”

“Did you know Blair spoke to me on the way into the dance?”

“She did?” The shock in Sterling’s tone shone through. Blair had never mentioned anything about speaking to April on the way into the dance.

“When she saw me standing at the door. I was waiting for you and then I saw Blair come in alone and head straight for me. I thought she was going to tell me in no uncertain terms that you weren’t coming and to stay out of your life. And that was the best-case scenario.” She grimaced slightly at the other thoughts that had run through her head when she had seen Blair approaching.

“What did she say?”

“Don’t fuck it up or I’ll fuck you up were the exact words. It wasn’t a long discussion.” April couldn’t help the smile that graced her lips at the admission.

Sterling smiled. “She can be rather blunt at times.”

Hearing the bell sound signalling the start of the day, both girls rose from their seats. “If you hear...”

“I’ll let you know...before Blair but don’t tell her that.” Sterling added with a wink as she headed in the opposite direction.

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

The e-mail had arrived in last period and Sterling had just stared at the notification. She knew that once she opened it, then her future would either be confirmed on one path or she would be headed in a different direction. It was the reason she hadn’t opened it, a Schrodinger’s cat scenario. If the e-mail stayed unread, she had neither been accepted nor rejected. She had done as she promised and messaged both her sister and girlfriend with the news the message was there. April’s reply had come in moments after.

April
Mine too. I don’t want to open it in school. Come over at the end of the day?

That was how Sterling found herself sitting on April’s bed after school. Both had their phones in their hands, neither making a move to open the message.

“Before we do this, tell me something good...just in case this is bad news.”

Sterling watched as April got up from the bed and walked over to her desk, picking up the pad of paper and a pen before returning to her seat beside the blonde. “Do you remember the e-mail address I used for your secret Santa gifts?”

“Elves mana spirit?” Sterling watched as April nodded and wrote it down on the paper. “Blair thought it meant it was the exchange student.” She shook her head at the notion now.

“But he had left the country at the end of the semester.”

“I know.” Sterling shook her head at the many incorrect guesses they had made over the duration of those two weeks.

“It’s an anagram.” As she spoke, the pen moved across the paper adding a letter to the line beneath before crossing it out on the e-mail address.

I am April Stevens.

Sterling stared at what she saw. “You literally spelled it out for me.”

April laughed. “I did.” April held her phone out to Sterling, her eyes pleading. “Open it for me?”

Sterling accepted the phone and in turn, handed hers over to the shorter girl. “Only if you open mine.”

“OK...we’ve got this. All those years of hard work will pay off.”

“Ready?”

“No.” Sterling leant in to kiss the girl next to her. “Ready now?” Seeing the nod, they both turned to the respective phones and opened the messages. The silence that descended on the room was palpable as they read the information. When they turned to look at each other, the smiles on one another’s faces was enough to know the answer. April crashed her lips into Sterling’s as she ended up straddling the blonde on her bed.

“Are you sure you can put up with me at college too?”

“I told you...what we have now...it’s only the beginning.”