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dare to sit and watch what we’ll become

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When Sterling was nine she packed her bag with an energy she never felt before. This wasn’t just sheer anticipation. It was excitement, mixed with nerves, mixed with an invigorating level of pride at this newfound independence. She’d never gone to a real sleepover before. Occasionally she and Blair had stayed with their grandparents, but that hardly counted considering they were old, and boring, and family.

This time though, it was real. She would be sleeping at a friend’s house without Blair. And not just any friend — April Stevens. Her best friend.

So with that in mind she packed her favorite pajamas, her lucky socks, and the bubble gum toothpaste that Blair always hogged for herself. All of her belongings for the night tucked neatly in the backpack she normally took to school and Sterling held it with care in her lap the whole ride there.

Now, age eighteen, and hopefully a little more mature, that excitement has faded.

As Sterling sits in the backseat of her parents car amongst a high pile of suitcases she feels the pounding of her heart slowly rising until it’s in her throat and in danger of coming up along with her breakfast. All because she’s on her way to college and moving into her first dorm.

She knows this is good for her, knows she loves the campus, but there’s an overwhelming amount of what if’s to go through on the near six hour car ride to Durham, North Carolina.

What if she doesn’t make any friends? What if her roommate smells bad, or is messy, or even worse — what if she’s mean? What if Sterling misses Blair so much her heart explodes?

It’s only been a week since they dropped Blair off at FSU with Bowser’s old bounty hunting connections and every day Sterling has felt like a huge piece of her is missing. She compared it to losing a limb. Her parents said that was dramatic but Blair of course agreed, insisting over FaceTime that she felt the same way.

What if that was all Sterling could stomach? What if missing Blair, her parents, and Chloe was too much? Would it feel like all of her limbs were gone instead of just the left arm that her twin had claimed? What if she missed Bowser and Yolanda? Hell, at this point Sterling’s pretty convinced she’s sad about Miss Cathy too.

“Almost there, Sterl,” Anderson calls from the driver's seat. As if she hasn’t been watching the ETA on their navigation system for the last five and a half hours.

She takes a deep breath. This is normal. Kids go off to college all the time. Blair is at school right now and she’s doing great. Sterling would be doing a lot better if she had been the one to go first and Blair was in the backseat holding her hand, but this is what she’s got and she’s going to get through it. She’s been through worse.

Change is difficult. She learned that the hard way junior year. First she broke up with Luke, only to discover that she also liked girls (one girl especially), and the exciting high of letting herself explore that came crashing down within a few hours as one reveal after another turned her life upside down.

Maybe that’s why this change feels so disruptive. After that one terrible night and nearly two years of therapy it seems as if they all just got comfortable with each other and their new normal, and now it was being ripped apart all over again.

The bathroom that she split with Blair will now be overrun with a group of strangers in their shower shoes. The bedroom that was spacious and all her own, now traded for cramped and shared. The closet, the mattress, the dresser, and the desk are all smaller than anything Sterling has grown up with, which is why Blair warned her not to pack so much. Sterling will have to tell her later that she was right.

“We can bring the extra stuff back home. It’s no problem.”

“What if she needs something, Anderson?”

“It’s not going to fit.”

“That’s fine,” Sterling chimes in before it can turn into an argument. She knows her mother is just nervous and desperate not to cry, and that her father is just trying to steady the course. “If I’m missing something important you can always send it to me.”

“Or come for a weekend with it!”

“Sure, dad.”

Sterling knows how this goodbye is going to play out. She watched it happen with Blair. They’re going to pull her into a tight hug, whisper so many reassuring things into her ear — how much fun she is going to have (but not too much fun), the new friends she’ll make in no time, that they’re just a phone call away — and they’ll make it look easy for her sake. But Sterling knows from her sister’s drop off experience that as soon as she disappears from the rearview mirror they won’t hold their tears back anymore. It’s that knowledge that makes her squeeze a little tighter, sniffle through a second and then a third love you, and wait until the car disappears from view to go back inside.

She trudges up the stairs, wiping at her eye and taking deep breaths. With her parents now gone she’s about to walk into her first moment alone with her roommate, and Sterling will be damned if she sniffles like a child through her whole first impression with this stranger.

“You cried too?”

Her feet shuffle to a stop in the middle of the room, apparently unable to hide the signs of tearful goodbye. It’s the too that she said that gets Sterling to nod, relieved that she doesn’t have to be embarrassed of her puffy eyes and red nose.

“How far are you from here?”

“Almost six hours.”

“That’s not too bad,” Rachel points out. “I’m eight hours.”

“That’s a little worse.”

“Yeah,” she laughs. “Definitely.”

Sterling knows that they should figure out some boundaries for living in the same space since they don’t actually know each other, but it’s their first night and she doesn’t really want to think too much. She’s too exhausted from an emotionally draining day that began at an early hour. So they just talk, stumbling through the awkward basic questions of likes and dislikes, what their major is, and trying to remember where any of the buildings are.

“The library is on the other end of campus by the science building.”

“Which science building?”

Rachel pauses. “Maybe we should just print out a map.”

When Sterling cracks open a second sleeve of Oreos after telling a story about working in the yogurt shop (she doesn’t dare mention bounty hunting), she decides that for now it feels like a sleepover. The dorm, which seems nothing like home, appears to be way more temporary than it actually is and the lack of parental supervision creates what she hopes isn’t a habit of snacking so late into the night. But once the chatter dies down and Rachel interrupts a stiff silence by shutting the light to go to sleep, Sterling remembers that sleepovers aren’t always a constant loop of snacks and laughter — including the very first one she went to.

That night the light in April’s room quickly went out at the sound of parents arguing downstairs. Her reach for the bedside lamp was like a reflex, hiding them in the dark as harsh words were thrown carelessly around just below them. It sounded nothing like the disagreements Sterling had overheard from her own parents. This was a fight in every sense of the word.

Mr. Stevens' voice boomed up the stairs in a tone Sterling didn’t think her father even had, and there was a tremor in the otherwise delicate tone of his wife, as well as in the young girl who tugged her blanket up higher. Apparently once the house went dark the family that often baked cookies and watched movies together lost their light as well.

“You know,” Sterling said, voice drastically softer than the ones downstairs, “Blair and I usually make a fort at night if we’re scared.”

“I’m not scared.”

“Then why are you squeezing my hand so tight?”

April looked down as if she didn’t even realize she was doing it. “I thought you were scared,” she insisted, loosening her grip like she might let go.

Sterling held on. “If I was,” she said hypothetically, “would you want to make a fort?”

It was simple then, piling up pillows and blankets, and whispering until they felt better. Now when staring at the ceiling and listening to her roommate snore starts to feel daunting, all Sterling can do is get up to fill her water bottle, in hopes that the walk down the long hallway clears her head.

For the most part it’s quiet. The fountain trickles slowly in an otherwise empty hall, a few muffled voices can be heard through thin walls, and there’s new noises like footsteps up above and the subtle hum of fluorescent lights that Sterling is sure she’ll get used to in time.

As she’s putting the cap back on her bottle a door clicks shut a few rooms down. Sterling instinctively follows the sound to a familiar face staring blankly back at her for a moment.

Should she smile? Should she wave?

Sterling doesn’t get to decide, because April Stevens just rolls her eyes and disappears into the bathroom without a word.

Chapter Text

The bell rang to dismiss students from class and Sterling merged into the rush of the Willingham hallway, keeping pace with the rest of her peers. She internally ran a loop of her Spanish verbs — predecir, ponderar, comprobar — hardly paying any attention to the world around her when —

“Did you commit to Duke yet?”

She flinched at her sister's sudden appearance. “God, you scared me,” Sterling said with a hand over her heart. Blair always seemed to find her in crowds. “Not officially.”

“Good. There’s still time.”

“Time for what?”

Blair leaned over like she had a secret. “I heard through the grapevine that April Stevens is going there.”

“From who?”

“I will not reveal my sources,” she boasted as if this were at all a confidential matter. Sterling rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. Lorna heard it from Hannah B.”

She laughed. “Lorna is your reliable source?”

“Hey, I never said reliable. I said grapevine, which implies a trickle of gossip.”

“Whatever,” Sterling shrugged. She was not about to give up her top choice just because of her complicated history with April Stevens — someone she couldn’t even consider an ex since they were never officially together. “It’s a big campus. What are the odds we even see each other?”

The bathroom door creaks as it swings open, cutting Sterling’s daydream short. She glances into the mirror, transported in an instant from the Willingham hallway and into fluorescent lighting as April steps into the room.

Apparently the odds were pretty good.

April approaches the sink next to Sterling without even looking up. It’s not done in a way that’s purposeful or shady or cold. She exudes a composed level of nonchalance that Sterling just doesn’t have. Instead Sterling stares at April in the mirror, toothbrush hanging out of her mouth stupidly, wondering what she should do next.

She is much too friendly for this silence to be anything other than intentional, which it shouldn’t be, there’s no need for continued animosity or anger. They’re both here for a new beginning, a fresh start, and casual conversation is Sterling’s way of acting natural. So with that in mind she spits into the sink and decides to break the ice.

“How was your ride over?” April doesn’t respond or so much as acknowledge that Sterling spoke, leaving her to answer for herself. “We hit some traffic but it wasn’t too bad.”

Still there is no response from April. She doesn’t even react to being spoken to. Her hands run under warm water, splashing lightly on her face without so much as batting an eye. Sterling wonders if she’s mad. Probably, she thinks, but Sterling doesn’t know what about.

She rinses her toothbrush again just for something to do as a pit burrows down deep into her stomach, creating an ache that Sterling knows well. Having years of experience with April and her spite, this tension between them is familiar. She should know to back off, to steer clear of April’s forthcoming bite, but Sterling was never very good at that. She’s never been one to give up early and call it quits before she gets burned.

“Blair’s ride to school was a disaster. Bumper to bumper traffic. It took seven hours to get to Tallahassee.”

“What are you doing?”

She speaks!

“You don’t think we should…”

“Talk?” April finishes, patting her face dry with a soft towel. Sterling nods. “No, I liked it better when we weren’t.”

“So you are mad,” she says, more so out loud to herself than anything.

April keeps packing up her skin care products as if this were all a common occurrence and they don’t have two years worth of hurt feelings and lingering looks to unpack. “I’m definitely not happy that you’re right down the hall from me,” she returns. Her composure is still very intact, brushing Sterling off with such an ease that it radiates like a cold shoulder. “However, I can’t exactly blame you. Duke is obviously a good choice.”

Sterling beams. “Thank you.”

She should’ve known better than to smile, than to take it as a simple compliment without a backhanded attachment, than to think they had found a common ground and April wasn’t one step ahead of her.

“Truthfully, I’m just surprised you got in.”

She shrugs her shoulders simple as that, ponytail swaying as she walks away and deflates Sterling with ease.

Apparently they both have their first class of the day at the same time because the bathroom run-in keeps happening. Every morning Sterling starts her day with the same tense, miserable dose of April Stevens. She could go to a different bathroom or wake up five minutes earlier to avoid the whole thing, but Sterling supposes that if April isn’t taking those extra measures then she shouldn’t either. If she is claiming to be over the drama of their past then they have to coexist like normal, unbothered people.

The only problem: Sterling isn’t so unbothered.

April doesn’t even look at her when she walks into the bathroom. She doesn’t spare a single glance. Her eyes stay focused on her own task, in her own space, without any regard for the world around her. It’s done so naturally that sometimes Sterling wonders if she’s actually standing there or if this is all some sort of weird dream. No one can be that good at pretending a person doesn’t exist.

Anytime someone walks past Sterling in the hall or pops into the bathroom, she always gives a polite smile. It’s so ingrained that she often catches herself doing it for April, but April never so much as peeks in her direction and Sterling internally kicks herself every time. It’s infuriating how aloof she is, like the social norm of a closed mouth smile or the reflex of simple eye contact is just so beneath her.

The thing that really gets under Sterling’s skin is that she knows it’s not beneath April at all. She’s seen April at church, well mannered and mingling with folks. She’s seen April at school, respectful and eager with their teachers. She’s even seen April shake the hand of an opponent that just beat her in debate and Sterling knows from experience that April is anything but a gracious loser.

It rattles around on her mind for longer than she would care to admit. Regardless of how indifferent April appears to be, it feels personal, and for that reason it carries a sting. Blair advises her to let it go, to let the past be the past, and for the most part Sterling pretends that she does. But something in her aches for a reason and craves the truth, brewing in the silence that comes day after day until one quiet morning where Sterling reaches her boiling point.

“Okay, what the hell?”

April looks up, proving that Sterling does in fact exist, though she still plays it off with an untouchable level of cool. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” Sterling exclaims, voice squeaking. “You can tell me what you’re doing.”

“I’m trying to floss my teeth,” she returns as if there were nothing else to be discussed.

Sterling’s forehead creases in disbelief. “How are you so good at this?”

“Good at what?”

“Pretending that I don’t exist.”

“Please,” April scoffs, “I wish I was that good. I’m well aware that you exist. It literally follows me everywhere.”

“Why did you say you weren’t mad then?”

“What do you want me to be mad about?” April snaps, finally cracking her calm exterior. “That every time I think I have something good going for me you show up and ruin it? Or how you always get to decide what we are, whether we’re talking or not talking, and I’m just supposed to go along for the ride?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t always decide,” Sterling argues, though it doesn’t sound certain.

“Yes, you do.” April stands firm in her theory. “First we were friends, then you decided I’d be a better fit for Jessica, then after years of not speaking you decided you wanted to make amends, and then — why are you smiling?”

Sterling didn’t even realize she was doing it. The smile completely snuck up on her. There’s just a certain level of pride that comes from beating April in an argument. “I’m waiting for you to get to the part where you breakup with me.”

“After you decided that we would come out.”

Sterling blinks, speechless and once again a step behind. Does she always decide?

“Are you satisfied now? Am I mad enough?”

“April,” she sighs.

April steps back. “I have class.”

For the next few days Sterling doesn’t see her in the bathroom before class. She suspects that April is taking one of those extra steps to avoid her (probably waking up earlier if Sterling had to guess).

The wounds she thought were old and healed are apparently still fresh on the both of them. Sterling wouldn’t have pushed otherwise and April would be in the bathroom at the start of each day, because April Stevens doesn’t change her ways for just anybody. She’s forceful and determined and if you have a problem then she expects you to stay out of her way, not the other way around. So it must have really bothered her.

It’s weird to be in a peaceful morning quiet, no longer starting the day on edge with the potential of hostility. Sterling still looks into the mirror every time the door swings open (because it’s a reflex that certain people don’t claim to have) but now at least her greeting smile is reciprocated by a stranger.

“You’re Sterling, right?”

Sterling nods, mouth still full of toothpaste.

“I’m Sam,” she says, “and I have class with Rachel. I’m not, like, creepily observant.”

Sterling spits into the sink. “No worries. I read the door tags sometimes to figure out names.”

“Ah.” Sam dips her hands under running water then reaches for the soap. “The problem with that is you know which pair belongs to which room, but you don’t know who is who.”

“Exactly! Like I know room 312 is Jake and Ryan, but I couldn’t tell you who either of them are.”

“Ryan is blonde with glasses and Jake has a man bun.”

Sterling nods, gathering her things. She does recall seeing a guy with a man bun when they were all moving in. “Good to know.”

“Hey,” Sam starts, grabbing her attention before Sterling can head out. “I’m getting dinner with some other girls later. Do you want to come?”

She smiles. “Okay.”

Sterling feels good about her new morning bathroom run-in — great, in fact. There’s no more tension or worry and she doesn’t have to carry it around all day in the form of a knot in her neck. She doesn’t have to waste her energy post-April-Stevens to bounce back into her usual positive mood. Sterling doesn’t even have to pretend not to be bothered by how effortlessly she can be ignored.

It’s exciting. She gets to kick off the day with an energy boost, putting a little pep in her step as she walks to class thinking about her potential new friend and their plans to hang out. She lets this high carry her through the day, not being bothered by small things and surprisingly not having many small things to avoid being bothered by. Everything around her just flows with an ease she hasn’t experienced in a while.

When Sterling gets her food at the dining hall she tunes out the noise of clacking dishes and various voices to scan the large crowd for a girl she’s only spoken to once, while she was still in pajamas, and Sterling suddenly has no real idea of what this girl looks like.

“Sterling!”

She follows to where her name is being called, eyes landing on Sam, who is waving her over with a friendly smile. Sterling starts to walk in Sam’s direction, noticing two other girls at the table. Her first thought is an eager one of more friends but as Sterling gets closer she feels her neck tighten.

“This is Lindsay and April,” Sam says, pointing to each girl respectively. “They live down the hall.”

Sterling tries her best to reciprocate the other girl’s kind smile but her eyes land on April, jaw clenched and staring down at her food. Her hands are sweating so much Sterling fears she might lose her grip on this plate if she doesn’t set it down. “Hey,” she greets as general as possible and takes the open seat across from April.

What the heck does she do now?

Sterling is certain April doesn’t want these strangers to know about any of their past connections — friends, enemies, more than friends, back to enemies — but does April want her to act normal or like they’ve never met?

She stares for a moment, willing April to look at her, knowing that in one glance they’ll be on the same page. They’ve always been good at reading each other. Not nearly as good as she and Blair are (which would really come in handy right now) but Sterling will take what she can get.

However, she doesn’t get much. April doesn’t meet her gaze at all. She avoids it just like she did in the bathroom and Sterling is left clueless to dive in blind.

Luckily Sam and Lindsay carry a lot of the conversation, already on the fast track to friendship. They’re in the same major, they both have alumni parents, and they’re trying to do long distance with their boyfriends — although Lindsay’s isn’t going as well. Sterling jumps in when she can, mostly whenever April isn’t involved, and April seems to have the same approach. Even without exchanging that look they still managed to land on common ground.

It’s strange to see April so relaxed with potential new friends. At Willingham she always seemed to be competing for some sense of control with Hannah B. and Ezekiel, though they posed little to no threat for someone like April. There isn’t as much of that intensity to her now, dropping her guard down a notch and in turn loosening up. But even under this newfound ease, there’s still an edge to her that Sterling can pinpoint as frustration with this situation. An internal struggle of walking the line between trying to uphold what Sterling knows her to be and letting it all go into how April wants them to see her.

“I miss syllabus week already,” Lindsay says.

Sam is quick to agree. “I’ve been swamped ever since. It was so nice getting out of class early and barely having assignments.”

April, for as good as she is at hiding her feelings, can’t hold back her judgement. Her nose scrunches in what looks like genuine disgust, catching Sam’s attention.

“What?” she wonders.

“I was kind of bored during syllabus week.”

“She was,” Lindsay confirms. “Actually did her textbook reading.”

“The whole point is that you get to be a little lazy.”

Sterling laughs. “April doesn’t do lazy.”

She continues to poke at her food, not even aware of the abrupt silence that fell over their table.

“You guys know each other?”

That is all it takes for Sterling to realize the mistake. Her smile drops the second she finds two pairs of eyes quizzically shifting between her and April, waiting for an answer. “We’re from the same town,” she says, voice too shaky to appear nonchalant.

“Were you friends?”

Sterling glances over to April, who, if looks could kill, would’ve just committed a brutal murder.

“Something like that.”

The harsh glare that April sports eases in an instant when the focus shifts back to her. “Wow, what a small world,” Sam exclaims.

“Very,” April returns through the gritted teeth of a forced smile.

Sterling gulps. In a sudden turn of events she thinks she prefers the tense quiet of a morning bathroom run-in.

Chapter Text

Sterling has the lamp on her desk angled down so that it’s pointing at her notes, but after hours of studying she’s also pretty sure the light is burnt into the corner of her eye, because when Sterling finally flicks it off well after midnight she’s seeing spots.

“All done?”

Sterling blinks rapidly as she turns to Rachel’s side of the room. “Yeah, I’m at that point where nothing is sticking anymore. My brain is just like…” she makes an exploding gesture with her hand.

Rachel nods. “Big mood.”

The hallway is quiet, given the time. Most people are either tucked into their rooms or out for the night. She passes Sam on her way to the bathroom and Sterling stupidly waves the hand that’s carrying her toothbrush instead of the one that’s empty, but that’s just where she’s at right now.

Even in her reflection she looks tired. Underneath the smudges of a dirty mirror Sterling’s eyes appear blank as she stares straight ahead, slowly dragging the toothbrush back and forth while internally rolling over the material for her psych test.

The door flings open, clunking against the wall, and causing Sterling to jump. Unfortunately when she sees who caused her sudden start her heart rate doesn’t get to return to normal, still thumping at a faster pace. Of course it’s April, because why would she catch a break after a long day of studying?

April hesitates when she finds Sterling’s eye in the mirror. Her upper lip curls and there’s an exaggerated roll to her eyes, apparently irritated by the run-in as well. She drags her feet as she shuffles over to the sink, hips bumping the edge before she runs her hands under the warm water.

Sterling furrows her eyebrows.

Something about April is different, aside from the fact that she didn’t even bother to hide her disgust when she spotted Sterling by the sink or how she waddled over to it. They’ve successfully steered clear of each other since the accidental dinner but there’s just something slightly off in the way she looks that hooks Sterling’s interest.

Her eyes are glassy and less alert. She doesn’t even notice Sterling studying her in the mirror and Sterling is anything but subtle. There’s a faint shade of what was a dark lipstick on her, which Sterling will admit is actually kind of hot, but it’s nothing at all like what April would normally wear and is sloppily placed.

Maybe she just went out, Sterling thinks to herself, but then her eyebrows shoot up. If April was out and now she’s spacey and her depth perception is off then that could mean —

“Are you drunk?”

Sterling was so shocked by the conclusion she jumped to that she couldn’t help but wonder aloud.

April gives a dramatic sigh, rolling her eyes once again. “I may be experiencing...a slight intoxication...but I am not drunk.” She says the first part very slowly, like she’s not sure if she should share, before rushing to insist that it’s nothing. All the while her words are lacking their usual annunciation and that is just the final nail in the coffin.

Sterling grins. “I don’t believe you.”

“Well you would know,” she recalls. “Isn’t puking at college parties kind of your thing?”

“It happened one time. That hardly counts as a thing.”

April huffs. “Whatever. I have to pee.”

When Sterling returns to her room the light is still on. Rachel is flipped on her stomach, scrolling on her phone in bed, just about ready to call it a night, while Sterling can hardly get her mind off of what she saw in the bathroom.

April is drunk. She went out, likely to a party, to partake in underage drinking. There is just no way Sterling would believe it if she didn’t see it for herself.

“What switched your mood?” Rachel wonders, glancing up. Sterling gives her a puzzled look. “You were literally the walking dead when you left and now you’re all smiley.”

“Oh.” Sterling pauses. She’s smiling because she just witnessed April Stevens after having a few, which wouldn’t mean anything at all to Rachel. She doesn’t know their past and therefore won’t understand how truly wild it is to know that someone, who was such a constant ray of perfection in a town built on gossip and scandal, let go a little bit. “I’m just excited for bed.”

Rachel narrows her eyes, not quite buying it. “It’s the little things in life,” she teases without pushing.

Sterling turns out the light.

Her alarm goes off early in the morning, much earlier than normal, needing one last look at her notes before she heads to class. Her grades haven’t totally taken a hit, Sterling’s not failing or anywhere near in danger of it, but the classes are harder, the work is more in depth, taking up more of her time, and the A’s that once came with ease are now a lot harder to grasp.

Even with all of her studying the test doesn’t go well. Sterling scrambles to finish on time and doesn’t feel confident in all of her answers. She leaves the room with her shoulders slouched and her confidence squashed.

She never had to try this hard at Willingham. These things just came naturally to her and Sterling is now starting to wonder if April had a point.

Truthfully, I’m just surprised you got in.

Maybe she should’ve just gone to UGA and stuck with the plan that she had years ago, back when all Sterling really wanted was to be close to home and with Luke. He definitely would be a much friendlier old flame to run into. She also might not be this tired or this stressed. She wouldn’t be so dazed that she’d leave without her textbook in the morning, now trekking across campus in between classes to retrieve it — that’s for sure.

Before she even reaches the stairwell of her building, she dials the one person who always seems to help.

“This history class is kicking my ass,” Blair answers abruptly.

“Hello to you too.”

“Hi,” she rushes, ready to get back to her complaint. “I hate that they require general courses. I just want to get my shit done and be out.”

“You don’t want to be well rounded or whatever?”

“Nope. I’m perfectly round,” Blair returns. Sterling smiles at her sister's stubborn view, taking comfort in the fact that some things are still the same. “How was your test?”

“I studied so much,” Sterling whines. She closes her door and tosses her backpack on the bed just for a minute. “I literally lost sleep over it and I still don’t think I did well. So now I’m tired and sad.

“Are you doing that thing where you say you failed but really you got, like, an A-minus?”

“I don’t know,” she mutters, spotting the book she left behind. “Maybe.”

“Remember when we said it was easy to have it all?”

“Yeah.”

“We were fucking liars.”

Sterling laughs. “You’re just figuring that out?”

“Being a full time student and part time bounty hunter is really hard when it’s college!”

Sterling tilts her head to the side, holding the phone between her cheek and her shoulder. With her hands free she puts the textbook in her bag. “I should’ve gone with you to lighten the load.”

“Sterl, you know I love you,” Blair starts, and Sterling just knows that something is about to be unleashed, “but that’s a load of crap. You got into a really good school because you’re super fucking awesome and even though I wish you would just know that, I will remind you of it until the end of time.”

“Everyone here got in because they’re super fucking awesome and I just worry that I’m falling behind because it’s hard to be that great all the time.”

“Believe me, I get it,” Blair boasts. “Clearly I am a success story.”

“Oh, for sure.”

“You’ll be fine, Sterl.” Her voice is gentler this time after rolling through steps one (the call out) and two (the teasing) of her foolproof make-Sterling-feel-better plan. “You’re exactly where you need to be and you can let all that energy out by kicking down some doors when we’re back with Bowser.”

Sterling takes a deep breath. “You’re right,” she exhales, like she always does after step three when Blair brings it home. They’ll be on break for the holidays soon enough. She can finally hug her sister, relax, and make some extra money. “I’m just stressed and I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

She pulls her backpack over her shoulder and moves toward the door, feeling lighter now than she did just a few minutes ago. Considering how this day has gone, it really shouldn’t be a shock that it doesn’t last.

Sterling nearly drops her phone when she jumps at the surprise of finding somebody on the other side of her door.

“April?”

“What!”

She hangs up on Blair, ear still ringing from the way her twin shouted. “Why are you waiting outside my room?”

Her phone starts to buzz again. Sterling ignores it, shoving the device in her back pocket.

“I was about to knock.”

April acts as if she didn’t just get caught lurking outside her door. She steps right past Sterling, letting herself in with way more confidence than a person in her shoes should have.

“Okay,” Sterling grumbles, turning back around. She stands purposely in the open doorway and adjusts her backpack strap. April’s observant. Hopefully she takes the hint before Sterling ends up late to class.

“I just wanted to talk about last night.”

“What about it?”

April rolls her eyes. “Don’t make this difficult.”

“I’m not trying to.” Sterling crosses her arms. “It was a pretty typical April encounter. Even drunk you’re still you.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk about.”

“You being drunk?”

“Inebriated,” April corrects, like it makes much of a difference. She pushes her shoulders back to stand taller. “I understand that it was out of character, but the book club moms nearly crucified you for underage drinking, and my family’s reputation is on very thin ice as it is.”

“Wait.” Sterling interrupts what seems to be a preplanned speech. “You think I would tell someone?”

“I don’t know. Maybe,” she shrugs, looking small for the first time since she forced her way in here. “I couldn’t blame you. I would probably deserve it.”

“You would,” Sterling confirms with a smile that eases its weight, “but I couldn’t do that to you. I know that it sucks being on the other end of gossip and it’s stupid — like why are these grown adults even following me on Instagram anyway?” Sterling huffs, getting a little side tracked. She softens her voice. “As long as you’re safe and okay, I really don’t care what you do, April. There’s no reputation to uphold or example to set. You’re not the fellowship leader of an overbearing Christian school anymore.”

“I know that.” April is firm to agree before gently adding, “but I’m glad you do too.”

“Hey, whatever happens at Duke stays at Duke,” she offers. April smiles, looking content with that, but Sterling feels a need to make certain, “You’ll do the same for me, right?”

Without a word she holds out her hand. Sterling accepts, repressing an urge to laugh as April very seriously confirms their agreement.

“Firm shake.”

“Obviously,” she scoffs. “I’m not a child.”

They step out into the hall together, Sterling finally getting to go to class. Although now with the lack of friction between her and April, even while shoulder to shoulder, she isn’t in as much of a rush.

“So did you have fun?”

“I’m not talking about this with you.”

“Okay,” Sterling shrugs. She tried. For some reason she tries again. “You looked nice. I liked your lip shade.”

April blinks. “My what?”

“You had a darker lipstick on. I’ve never seen you wear anything like that. It was nice,” she explains, but April stares like she’s genuinely stumped. “Wow. I didn’t think you were that drunk.”

“I wasn’t,” she hisses, still thinking.

Her confusion is bizarre. It’s not like April to not be able to place something or at least not hide it, so Sterling starts to think as well. She then gets an idea. “Did you not wear lipstick last night?” April shakes her head, eyes widening as a smirk tugs onto Sterling’s lips.“So who’d you kiss?”

It was all just a theory. Sterling was just teasing about some loose observations, but apparently Bowser should really let her do some interrogating because April immediately blushes.

“Oh my god,” she gasps.

“Stop it.”

“I was right,” Sterling exclaims in disbelief as they reach April’s door at the end of the hall. “I can’t believe I was right. Who was it?”

“Don’t you have class?”

“I’m usually early. I have a few minutes,” she dismisses and April stares up at her in a way that Sterling can only categorize as a fond annoyance. “So who was it?”

April rolls her eyes, staying tight lipped, although she doesn’t straight up tell Sterling to fuck off. She also doesn’t shut the door right in her face. Sterling takes that as an invitation to keep pushing with whiny come on’s or pleading just tell me’s until April snaps.

“I don’t know her name, okay?” she blurts to a stunned Sterling. “It was just supposed to be a study session, but somebody brought terribly cheap tequila. She wasn’t even in our class. She was just the roommate's friend who heard we had alcohol. Half their floor showed up.”

“Wow,” Sterling smiles, hell-bent on teasing her more. She’s enjoying the switch of April being the flustered one for once. “So is kissing random girls at college parties kind of your thing now?”

“It wasn’t a party,” April is adamant to remind her, “and shut up.”

Sterling shakes her head. Her intent is not to stay quiet. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen your face this red.”

April opens her mouth and then closes, pausing to compose herself. Her shoulders slump with a heavy exhale and it takes a second for the flush of color to drain from her cheeks before she looks more like her usual self. “Go to class, Sterling.”

“Fine,” she agrees, only because she really does have to go, “but we’re not done here.”

“Yes, we are.”

Her door closes without a slam, sending Sterling on her way in a very giddy mood over this small victory.

For the next two days April blushes every time she passes Sterling in the hall or around campus. She still avoids eye contact but it’s more deliberate, lacking the nonchalance that they recently grew accustomed to. It’s like they have a secret. And apparently having that secret means that April isn’t nearly as good at pretending Sterling doesn’t exist.

As it turns out she does react to noises and the presence of other people, which Sterling discovers one afternoon when passing April and Lindsay in the stairwell.

“Hey, Sterling!”

“Hi,” she returns.

But it isn’t Lindsay’s excited greeting that shocks her — it’s April’s soft one that follows.

A small hello really shouldn’t be a big deal, but Sterling thinks about it on her entire walk to class. She wonders if things have shifted between them. It certainly has felt different lately, but Sterling doesn’t want to get her hopes up for a ceasefire and settles on April not wanting to appear rude in front of Lindsay.

She brushes it off without another thought until April is back in the bathroom one morning. Her eyes shift in the mirror at the sound of the door and Sterling almost comes to a full stop when April offers a small smile.

It feels like a fresh start.

At first Sterling just takes it, keeping things simple. She smiles in the morning and greets April in passing in the afternoon until it becomes routine. They stay that civil and pleasant for a few weeks, but as things start to get comfortable, Sterling’s impatience shows and she decides to push her luck.

Her night class falls right in the block of time that their RA schedules a floor meeting, so Sterling has to miss it. She spends the majority of class cooking up a plan for taking the next step, putting it in motion as soon as they’re dismissed from lecture. Instead of waiting until she’s back at her dorm and asking Rachel to fill her in, Sterling texts April for the first time in two years.

Sterling: so what did i miss at the meeting?

April: you mean the “mandatory” meeting that only half the floor came to?

Sterling: that’s the one

April: apparently the boys bathroom got so gross over the weekend that maintenance complained.

Sterling: ewww

Sterling: so what does that have to do with us???

April: wonderful question. we were all issued a warning and told to clean up after ourselves like the adults we are.

Their texting doesn’t become a regular thing, only occurring by rare necessity, and never occurring from April texting first. Sterling wonders if this is her deciding everything for them again, but she doesn’t dwell on it very long. While the words April threw out there a few months ago still sit with her, Sterling mostly figures that April would let her know if she wasn’t happy. She knows from experience that there is nothing subtle about an annoyed April Stevens. She spent years making sure Sterling knew exactly how much she hated her and oddly enough has been rather agreeable lately, so Sterling leans into it.

Sterling: can you let me in the building? i forgot my ID

April: coming.

She waits by the door on the tips of her toes, thrumming with a bit of excitement until it opens from someone who isn’t April.

A boy holds the door for Sterling on his way out and she mutters a disappointed, “thanks,” as this was not part of her plan.

With a sigh she shuffles her feet up the steps and starts to type a never mind message when a voice echoes through the stairwell, “You got in?”

Sterling looks up to find April just ahead on the next landing. “Sorry, I was just texting you.”

“No problem,” she shrugs, turning back around.

Before April can get too far something in Sterling springs for more. “Hey, wait up,” she calls and surprisingly April stops without a huff or a roll of her eyes. “We’re going to the same place, right?”

“Same floor,” April nods as they head up the stairs. “Unless you forgot your room key too, then it might be the same place.”

Sterling waves a dismissive hand. “I’m not worried. Rachel’s in there.”

It slips out so easily before she can stop. April turns her head fast, eyebrow quirked. Sterling pretends not to see, staring straight ahead. She prays April doesn’t ask but braces for a harsh then why would you bother me type of question to follow.

It never does.

“Good,” April decides, glossing right over Sterling’s misstep. “I have to study and I’m not trying to babysit you.”

“I wouldn’t need a sitter. Just somewhere to sit.”

“Well I’m sure it’ll happen again,” she says, reaching her door, “and next time I doubt we’ll be as lucky.”

For a second Sterling considers losing her key altogether. She imagines throwing it into the nearest body of water, letting it sink down to the bottom and float far away, but that hardly seems logical. Instead she keeps an eager eye out for reasons to text April, though they prove to be few and far between. It can’t be too casual or conversational. It has to serve a purpose. Which would be easy if they shared a class and had common assignments or professors to talk about, but they don’t. The only thing they have in common is this long hallway and the town they came from (though Sterling is trying to avoid the latter).

Thankfully the dreaded boys in 312 give her a less than perfect excuse one late night as music blares from their room, slipping through the thin walls and echoing down the hallway.

Sterling: do you hear it too?

April: YES!!

April: apparently quiet hours mean nothing to some people.

Sterling: and yet my roommate is out cold???

April: wish i could be that unbothered.

Sterling smiles at her phone in the dark of her room, while Rachel snores peacefully. What originally felt like a fresh start now feels oddly like friendship.

Chapter Text

When Sterling and Blair were young they always made a big deal out of their birthdays. The two of them would spend weeks brainstorming ideas for a party before presenting anything to their parents, knowing from a young age that they were a stronger force together.

They would always have a theme and an argument prepared, but the latter was rarely ever needed. “Whatever you girls want,” was usually the response they received.

One year they begged for a magician because Blair wanted to see if she could levitate. The next year, when they started dance classes, they asked for a DJ. Then after that they insisted on a giant blow up water slide. The only thing off the table was a petting zoo, because they did that already and it made a mess in the yard.

Debbie and Anderson would invite their whole class over for whatever extravagant plan the twins thought up. There would always be a piñata filled to the brim with candy and two cakes (chocolate for Blair and vanilla for Sterling) from the local bakery with the best frosting they ever tasted.

Luke would eat junk food until it made him sick, Blair would make fun of him for throwing up, and April would watch the whole thing with such a horrified expression that Sterling would just have to laugh.

“He’s ended up with his head in that trash can three years in a row,” April grimaced at their tenth birthday party.

“I can’t believe you counted.”

“I can’t believe you keep inviting him.”

“Luke is sweet.”

“That’s one word for it.”

At the end of every party after all the presents had been unwrapped and their parents were exhausted from hours of entertaining children, Sterling and Blair would meet in their shared bathroom to make secret trades. She would swap the weird video game that Luke got for her with the dress that Big Daddy got for Blair and once that was sorted, they would sit in their pajamas on the tile floor, whispering to one another since it was always far past their bedtime. Too hopped up on sugar to get to sleep, they would start brainstorming for the next party.

Every year was something new, but there was always one stagnant — she and Blair would do it together with their separate cakes, because that was the only thing they couldn’t agree on.

Sterling never would’ve thought that by nineteen they would end up in separate states with separate birthdays. She never would’ve guessed that after years of being told she was just three minutes younger that it was actually more like three weeks.

Her young brain could never have imagined a life where her shared birthday with Blair wasn’t a universal truth. Their sisterhood was always something Sterling just assumed she’d have forever. It was something that couldn’t be taken away. Aside from the technicalities she supposes that it’s still intact, but in recent years this once joyous day has carried a much heavier weight.

Sterling hears a knock rattle against her door, pulling her from the depths of old memories. She’s quick to wipe her eyes and sniffle, tossing the pillow off her lap as she sits up straighter on the bed. “Come in.”

April steps in distracted with typing at a rapid speed on her phone. “I hate when professors take so long to grade assignments and then don’t leave any feedback. Like I would maybe accept an A-minus if I knew why he —” she stops. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

April shakes her head. “You look upset.”

Sterling hesitates, struggling to put this feeling into words without going into the whole story of being kidnapped and adopted.

“It’s Blair’s birthday,” she admits, knowing that this version of the truth will go over April’s head. Her eyes widen, likely remembering all the conjoined parties she used to go to at this time of year and how she forgot what this day once meant. “I’m sure it sounds like a dumb reason to be sad, but we’ve never spent one apart.”

“It’s not dumb,” she refutes. April points to the edge of the bed. “Can I?”

Sterling shifts her feet to make room for April to sit.

“That new Stars Wars movie came out last week. I used to always go see them on release night with my dad.”

“Even after…”

“Even after,” she confirms with a nod. “I think we’ll get used to it eventually. It’s just fresh right now.”

“You’re probably right.”

“What else is new,” she jokes, looking satisfied when Sterling cracks a smile. April stands to leave, only making it one step before she stops and turns back around. Her hand lands on Sterling’s leg, warm and comforting. “Happy birthday by the way.”

She forces a smile but there’s an immediate pang at the sound of those words. Sterling holds the lump in her throat down until the door closes and she is alone in her room once again.

She always assumed that the sting would fade away with time, that after a few years of being grouped with Blair despite their secret, those words wouldn’t hurt so much. She figured it was something she could get used to, like cool pool water on a hot day. If she spent enough time in it, fully immersed herself, then it would start to feel comfortable.

The first year was the hardest.

They were all a little on edge in the weeks prior, knowing that this inevitable change was upon them. There were talks. So many long talks where they would all sit around the kitchen table to discuss what they could do.

“Whatever you girls want,” their parents would say like always, but this wasn’t just another theme. They weren’t deciding whether they wanted a bouncy house or a clown. They were deciding if their birthday would no longer be theirs.

And Blair always got defensive, which is why they had to have so many of these conversations. It would always end before it really even began with her storming off after stating that they were still sisters — twins in fact — as if it were indisputable.

“Can you believe them,” she huffed once they were alone in Sterling’s room. “They can’t take away our day. It’s always been ours.”

“They’re just giving us options.”

“Well I don’t want to hear it.”

“I don’t like it either,” Sterling sighed, “but now that I know it, I can’t unknow it.”

Blair took her hand, instantly softening her voice. “Hey, I’ll do whatever you want,” she promised, and while many things in Sterling’s life were up for debate, she knew for certain that was true. “I’m down to share a birthday for the rest of my life, already committed to it years ago, but if you want to do it the new way then we will.”

“Maybe we could just try it.”

Sterling used to think that it took forever for their birthday to finally arrive. She blamed it on the excitement, but unfortunately that year she discovered dread also made it take a while. She hoped they could just rip it off like a bandaid, but instead it built slower than ever before with the anticipation of a terribly difficult day crushing down on them until it finally came.

When lights in the kitchen went out in preparation for the cake and singing happy birthday, Sterling’s biggest worry was that one of her parents would accidentally say both of their names out of habit, but they never even made it to that part of the song.

As soon as Anderson put the cake down, Sterling and her mother came to an abrupt stop. Glowing underneath the light of seventeen candles they saw vanilla frosting.

“That — that’s the wrong cake,” Debbie said, interrupting Anderson as he sang alone.

He stopped. “What do you mean? I thought we were just getting Blair’s this year.”

“We were supposed to,” she returned, her voice sharper this time, “but you didn’t get Blair’s cake.”

“What?”

“Blair likes chocolate,” Sterling muttered and watched as Anderson’s confusion turned into horror at the mistake.

“I’m sorry,” he said, guilt ridden as he looked at Blair. “I always just asked for both. I must’ve mixed them up.”

“Didn’t I tell you to get chocolate?”

“Don’t you think if you told me to get chocolate, I would’ve gotten chocolate?”

Their parents bickered back and forth, exhausted over a long few weeks and their efforts to get the day just right, while candle wax dripped onto the white frosting, tainting it all different colors.

Blair inhaled sharply before plunging the room into sudden darkness and cutting the noise out. “I was ready to make my wish.”

Now Sterling stands in the dining hall staring at a tray of cupcakes frosted in both vanilla and chocolate. They don’t look very good after most likely sitting out for a few hours, but she toys with the idea of taking a chocolate one for the sake of Blair’s birthday.

“Are you having one?”

“Huh?”

Sterling looks over her shoulder to find a boy behind her and a whole line of people behind him.

“Are you having one?” he repeats.

“No, go ahead.”

She steps aside, deciding against the desert. Her lunch was hard enough to get down on it’s own, force feeding herself through an ache that dove deep into her stomach. Sterling has carried that queasy, knotted feeling all week just like she did last year and will probably do next year as well.

She finally dials Blair when her last class of the day ends. They texted at midnight and all throughout the morning, but Sterling has put off calling her, knowing that her sister is going to ask how she feels today.

Part of the trouble with this new birthday dynamic is that both Blair and their parents spend more time checking in on her than they do celebrating, so she always insists that she’s fine. She smiles and cheers on her sister as if it were the only thing to do, because if anybody deserves a good birthday it’s Blair.

“Nineteen is probably the least exciting birthday I’ve ever had.”

Sterling pouts. “Why?”

“Think about it,” Blair starts, “when you’re little they all feel exciting, but these last few actually carried some weight. Getting our learners permits, our licenses, tattoos, voting, next year marks another decade, and then twenty-one should be obvious, but there’s nothing special about nineteen.”

“It’s your first birthday in college.”

“Lame.”

“Oh, come on! I’m trying here.”

“I know, Sterl,” she returns, voice taking a gentler tone. Sterling braces herself for what she knows is coming. “How are you feeling today?”

“Good. Great.”

“Sterling —”

“You know,” she cuts Blair off, “I got an A on that paper I told you about, and they had broccoli cheddar soup at the dining hall today, and overall the weather is just fantastic.”

“Okay, I get it. I’m glad you’re okay.”

She looks up into the sunshine and exhales a breath of relief. “What about you?”

“It’s definitely different, but we’ve had worse.”

“The petting zoo was way worse.”

It wasn’t at all what Blair was implying, so the shock of Sterling’s reply makes her laugh that really hard laugh where she snorts through her nose and wheezes a little bit. “You begged for it too. Oh my god, you promised me all of your piñata candy just so I would agree to some stupid goats.”

“Not my best idea,” she says, grinning as Blair’s laughter finally settles.

“What made you want that so bad?”

Sterling thinks for a moment — not about why she wanted it, but about whether or not she should admit it to Blair. “I thought there would be horses. April liked them at the time.”

“Never going to let you live down that your first girlfriend was a horse girl.”

“Thanks,” she mutters.

“So, how is the Wicked Witch of the West?”

“That doesn’t really work because we’re on the east coast,” Sterling reminds her and she can just picture Blair rolling her eyes, “but she’s fine.”

“I don’t know what that means. Fine for you and April could literally be hooking up or just not being blackmailed.”

“We are not hooking up and I am not being blackmailed.”

“So you’re a normal person's idea of fine?”

Sterling opens the door to her building, smiling at a neighbor as she passes them in the foyer. “Yeah, I guess.”

“What’s that like?”

“Blair,” she groans.

“What?” Blair returns, feigning innocence and simple curiosity. “You guys are usually so obsessed with each other. I can’t picture it.”

“We’re...polite,” Sterling decides. She lowers her voice when she walks by April’s room, noting that the door is open. “We talk sometimes but we don’t hang out or anything.”

“Lame.”

She laughs. “What would you rather?”

“I don’t know. Drama is just way more on brand for you two.”

“Well I think I like this brand.”

The easy smile that Sterling wears drops as soon as she reaches her room, finding a birthday note from her RA taped to the door.

“I gotta go, Blair,” she rushes, hanging up the phone and tearing the note off.

She hopes it hasn’t been there long, hopes nobody saw it, hopes Rachel has been out of the room, but of course as she turns the handle she finds her roommate inside.

“Hey!” Rachel sits up from her bed with such a rush of excitement that Sterling just knows she saw it. “I didn’t know it was your birthday.”

She nods, while her brain quickly searches for a response that isn’t overly revealing. “I don’t really like to make a big thing out of it.”

Good. Solid. Honest.

Half the game is just trying to come up with something decent to say. There’s a fine line between telling the traumatic truth of her birthday and lying to everyone around her. Sterling tries to always find that line, to find a way to give an answer that’s at least partially true. It’s hard and it doesn’t always work, but she considers it a small victory when it does.

“Are you sure? We could —”

“I’m sure,” she interrupts before Rachel can start spitballing ideas.

“Okay.”

She drops the subject for all of thirty seconds, then hits Sterling with another question before she can even sit down.

“So who’s technically older, you or your sister?”

“Blair.”

“By how much?”

She swallows. “Three minutes.”

One.

“Do you not like making a big deal out of your birthday because you always had to share it?”

Her heart nearly stops with that question. The truthful answer is that Sterling only loved making a big deal out of her birthday when it was shared, but she can’t tell Rachel that. “Probably,” she guesses.

Two.

Sterling starts to back track towards the door as the lump in her throat begins to rise. Her stomach twists in knots, making her regret the choice of having a heavy soup with lunch.

“I thought you just got back from class.”

“Yeah, um, I have plans.”

Three.

Apparently the third time really is a charm, because that time it slipped out so casually, Sterling didn’t even have to think. She lied with ease.

She rushes out of her room, stepping out into the hall and closing the door behind her. Sterling hates this day. She hates what it means to her as opposed to what she has to pretend it means. She hates that those are two entirely different things and that she has to carry the weight of a life long lie. She hates that she hates lying. It makes her all tense and uncomfortable. Why couldn’t she just be one of those people that lie like it’s nothing? Or while she’s wishing for things, maybe her parents could’ve just told them the truth.

Sterling makes her way down the hall in a dizzy haze, feet moving remarkably fast as the floor seems to sway underneath her.

Air would be good. She should go for a walk.

It’s a nice thought, but as she reaches April’s opened door her body has other ideas.

Something pulls her into the room. Like a moth to a flame it drags her there without warning, without even so much as a knock. All she knows is that she needs one person to hear the truth today so that she doesn’t have to spend the whole afternoon lying to Rachel about when her birthday is and why she doesn’t like to celebrate, or lying to Blair by saying that she’s great when really this fucking sucks, so maybe that’s why she blurts it out.

“It’s not my birthday.”

April turns around in her desk chair, eyebrows furrowed and thankfully alone, because Sterling didn’t even bother to check that. She blinks for a moment, opening her mouth to respond, but Sterling speaks before April gets the chance.

“I found out two years ago that I’m adopted and my parents pretended we were twins. So maybe me being super bummed is partially because I miss Blair a ton, but maybe it’s also just that this day brings up a lot now.”

And just like that it’s out. All in one breath, two sentences, and about ten seconds everything that’s been weighing on her is out.

For a second all Sterling feels is relief but then April exhales a breath and a new weight forms, because crap, now it’s out there. Her weird, traumatic, soap-opera-like origin story is all out there in the open.

“Sterling…”

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” she insists, hoping to wave off the look of pity on April’s face. Maybe this was a bad idea. Blurting it out seemed good in theory, but she never prepared for a response or even a captive audience. “I just thought someone should know.”

“Okay,” April nods, though she still appears uncertain. Until now Sterling doesn’t think she has ever seen April look at something like it was delicate. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Sure.”

Sterling takes a step back towards the door, plotting a quick escape after a rush of sudden embarrassment washes her from head to toe.

“Sterl,” she calls, stopping Sterling in her tracks. She pivots to face April again, holding her breath as she finds April with her mind clearly made up. “Do you want to get dinner?”

Sterling exhales. “Yeah, okay.”

It’s still a little early for dinner so the dining hall doesn’t bustle with its usual six o’clock rush. There is a peaceful quiet and students spread out amongst the tables. Without a loud chorus of voices all speaking at once, the room is filled with softer, lingering conversations.

April gave Sterling a weird look when she only took a plate of French fries back to the table, but she was good enough not to say anything about it.

Normally in these situations Sterling always takes the bait. She breaks the silence or the tension or whatever it is that they need to hurdle, but this time she doesn’t budge. Sterling stares down at her plate, picking at her food, and she waits for April to say something as if her life depends on it.

Their conversations are typically short, and school or dorm based. A one on one meal, following a dramatic declaration seems to carry a different vibe and Sterling doesn’t know how to set the tone. She doesn’t want to chance saying the wrong thing, starting the wrong way, or misinterpreting whatever April intended and potentially setting her off. Even if they are on better terms, this day has left her too fragile to take that risk.

“I’m sorry I didn’t react well. I was just a little caught off guard.”

“You were fine,” Sterling dismisses, but April rolls her eyes in return.

“I think we’re past the point of lying to each other. You just revealed something pretty major.”

“Fair enough,” she shrugs, picking at another fry. “You weren’t great.”

“I’d like to be better if you want to talk about it.”

Sterling narrows her eyes. “Do you want me to tell you more so that you can out do yourself or do you actually want to know?” she teases.

April pretends to really think about the question. “Both.”

Her answer gets Sterling to laugh, feeling light and at ease for maybe the first time all day, and April smiles like she knows it.

“It’s a really long story.”

“Well if you ever want to tell it, I have time,” she says with a sincerity that Sterling hasn’t heard from her in years.

“What happened to the always busy April Stevens?”

“She’s trying to be nice.” April smirks as she snatches a fry off of Sterling’s plate. It’s casual, and teasing, and borderline flirty. Sterling feels the way her face starts to warm and apparently April notices too. She breaks away, clearing her throat. “Have you talked to Blair today?”

“Yeah, of course. We talk everyday.”

“Should’ve known,” April concedes, while Sterling takes a long sip of her water. “How is she?”

She swallows. “Good. She has plans with friends tonight, so I’m sure I’ll get a drunken phone call later.”

“You’ll have to return the favor for yours.”

Sterling forces a weak smile in return. It was intended to be lighthearted and easy. She knows that. April seems to purposely be keeping this simple and fun, but Sterling is still not used to this new birthday thing.

“It’s weird,” she says, a lot softer and more serious than April’s teasing tone. “Neither day really feels like mine.”

It’s a sad truth that she’s had to live with since that night in junior year. This day leaves Sterling longing for the innocence and perhaps the ignorance of the story that was fed to them in two cakes on one day. But that shared birthday doesn’t feel at all like it used to. Now that she knows the dark truth, Sterling is left in a limbo between a lie that had grown comfortable and a reality of this new day that would be all her own.

“Can I ask when it is?”

Sterling nods. “The twenty-third.”

April leaves it at that. She doesn’t push any boundaries or ask more questions that Sterling may not want to answer. Instead of wallowing in the sadness of the past, she turns herself into a good distraction.

April keeps her so occupied and relaxed for the next hour that Sterling almost forgets what brought them there.

The weird part about it is that it’s not weird at all. Even on short notice, with years of animosity under their belt, the two of them still work so well as friends.

Three weeks later when Sterling’s birthday comes, she’s surprised to hear another knock on her door. This time it swings open before she can even say anything and April peeks her head in, because that’s something they do now.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

April comes to a stop right before her bed and Sterling’s eyebrows furrow. There’s a smile on her face that looks shy and uncertain. “Can I say it?”

“Say what?”

“Happy birthday.”

She remembered. Sterling just blinks for a moment, trying to wrap her head around that fact. She didn’t expect the date to sit with April, nor did she expect a pop-by when a text could have sufficed, but her stunned silence leads April to believe she crossed a line.

“I’m sorry,” she says to immediately take it back. “That was probably insensitive. Are you —?”

“I’m fine.” Her tone is soft, but firm so April knows it’s true. “I was just surprised you remembered. It caught me a little off guard.”

“Well,” she shrugs, voice trailing off. April never actually finishes that sentence. Instead she stands straighter, pushing her shoulders back to brush off whatever she intended to say. “What do you have planned?”

“It’s a Tuesday and legally speaking my birthday was a couple weeks ago, so nothing.”

April frowns.

“But,” she starts, dragging it out for suspense, “I do have plans to go out over the weekend, which I’m secretly counting as something.”

She smiles, satisfied. “Good.”

“You could come if you’re not busy.”

April opens her mouth, though she hesitates to give an answer. “I don’t want to intrude,” she dismisses, taking slow steps towards the door and avoiding her gaze. “I’ll let you just hang with your friends.”

“April,” she calls. April stops to look up at her once again and as soon as their eyes meet the you are my friend that Sterling planned to say dies right there on her lips. “Thanks.”

She shrugs. “It’s not a big deal.”

“It was to me.”

Her tenderhearted response leaves April pausing a second time. They usually try not to get this soft with one another, opting to linger around it as much as possible. She shifts her eyes from Sterling to the floor and back up, conflict evident on her face before she finds a clumsy reply, “Well don’t like, cry about it or anything.”

“No promises,” she teases, but Sterling honestly might mean it.

Chapter Text

Things changed a lot for Sterling and April while they were at school. First they didn’t speak, then they fought, then they didn’t speak, then they kinda spoke, and eventually something resembling friendship was born. But regardless of what terms they were on at school, the way they acted at home remained the same.

There were no polite smiles in passing, or friendly texts, or just showing up in the other person’s room while on break. They went back to their old ways, avoiding one another for the weekend, the week, or the month depending on the time of year.

The first was Thanksgiving, which came and went in a blur of family activities, home cooked meals, and getting to shower without shoes on. It was also the first time Sterling noticed that her room had a smell. Not a bad smell, just the one that's always been there, resembling her and the house. After being away for a few months it stood out like new air to breathe.

Blair asked her repeatedly about living down the hall from April, laughing all the way through a, “that would only happen to you, Sterl,” but Sterling didn’t have much to report since they hadn’t been on speaking terms at the time.

That Sunday in church she snuck a look at April sitting at attention between her two parents. If April ever looked back (which she doubts), Sterling certainly didn’t see.

Their winter break couldn’t have come at a better time. Finals kicked Sterling’s butt with late nights of studying, early morning tests, and occasionally no sleep in between. By the time she made it home she didn’t want to see another book ever again.

That only lasted until Christmas morning when her parents gave her a bunch of romance novels with queer characters. Then she found a way to stomach reading again.

Throughout the month or so that they were home, Sterling had five Sunday’s where she saw April at church. This time, though, she knew not to expect anything.

While they had reached a truce at school, April expressed her need for things to remain unchanged at home. After the drunken encounter (that Sterling hasn’t even told Blair about) it was easy to infer that the Stevens family was still trying to keep up appearances and play into the reputation game, and anything that April plays, she intends to win. So Sterling wasn’t surprised to find April laser focused during mass, or in a corner with her two friends, nowhere near the alcohol at Franklin’s New Years Eve party. She still looked for her though, which Blair called creepy, but Sterling said with confidence that she was just checking in on a friend.

Spring break was no different, regardless of the fact that she and April were oddly close when in a state that wasn’t Georgia. The week that they were home only allowed for one Sunday mass, which went exactly the same as every other Sunday, ending without a single glance.

They never spoke about it when they got back to Durham either. In fact it usually took April a few days to shake off the front she put on around her family and click back into her school self. Sterling always knew when the switch came because all of a sudden their morning run-ins would feel less tense, or she would get a new text, or a response to a message she sent days ago. It felt like they had to start over every time, just with the luxury of skipping the fighting stage.

Sterling doesn’t actually worry about it until the summer when they’re officially home with a large amount of time to spare. She already knows that they won’t be living down the hall from each other in the upcoming year. April and her friends will be in an entirely different building than Sterling, so the convenience aspect that surrounds what they have will be long gone. She worries that three months in Atlanta will be enough for April to lift right out of her life. Well, it might be enough for April to lift Sterling out of her life. Sterling is pretty sure her mind will stay wrapped around April for a little while.

There’s one Sunday in July where only April and her mother are at church. John Stevens is nowhere to be found. She still doesn’t look in Sterling’s direction, rigidly steering her focus straight ahead like her life depends on it. Something about it looks off.

Neither of them stick around after mass to socialize and catch up with their fellow parishioners, and Sterling can’t help but notice the wandering eyes that follow April and her mother all the way to the parking lot.

“So any hazing on the golf team?” Blair questions a flushed Luke.

“None that I’d like to report.”

Debbie and Anderson make small talk with the Creswell’s at the end of every week, leaving Sterling and Blair to stumble their way through a chat that should be awkward with Luke, though it never is. He told them last week about his new girlfriend, which Sterling is actually proud of him for — he’s moved on, he’s happy, and he finally just wants to be friends — but Sterling tunes Luke’s golf talk out as soon as she catches Lynn mentioning the Stevens family in conversation with her parents.

“I hear John is staying at the lake house. They’ve gotten lawyers involved.”

“Well I’d imagine it’s hard for a relationship to recover from what he did.”

“Still it’s too bad. Always such a shame to see a marriage end in divorce.”

That night Sterling stares at her phone for an unreasonable amount of time. She has her messages open, her last conversation with the person she wants to text is practically mocking her, but she can’t will her fingers to type.

“Sterl, are you listening to me?”

“Huh?”

She looks up to find Blair standing in their bathroom doorway with a toothbrush poking out of her mouth.

She smiles. “I’ll take that as a no.”

“Sorry,” Sterling mutters, glancing to her phone screen and then back to her sister. “Do you think I should text April about her dad?”

“If you guys are as friendly as you claim to be, I don’t see why not.”

“We don’t usually talk when we’re home and I don’t want to be pushy.”

“Pushy is like your whole vibe,” Blair points out, stepping back into the bathroom to spit into the sink. Sterling frowns. “April has to know that by now and she still likes you enough to keep you around. So again, why not?”

Blair appears in the doorway once more to shrug her shoulders, then disappears back into her own room, leaving her words to ruminate with Sterling.

April is a tricky one to be pushy with. She could take it in stride, locking a door and coming back for another kiss, or she could push away, flirting with Sterling’s ex and leaving her heartbroken on a bench. There unfortunately hasn’t been much of a middle ground.

After teetering back and forth between texting or not texting, Sterling finds that her fingers start to craft a simple message. It’s summer, she figures. She won’t have to see April and deal with her wrath if she ends up angry.

Sterling: hey sorry if i’m overstepping but i just wanted to see if you were okay

She drops her phone to the bed immediately after pressing send as if it were a ticking time bomb that was about to blow. Sterling tries to exhale a sigh of relief — what's done is done — but her breath catches when she sees three dots appear on the other side of the screen.

April: word travels fast, huh?

Sterling: in this town? absolutely

April: true. to answer your question i haven’t exactly been his biggest fan in recent years, so i will be okay. it’s just a little new right now.

Sterling: understandable

April: thanks for checking in. no need to apologize for it.

Sterling sits up a little bit straighter, patting herself on the back for the risk she had taken and how well it was received. Maybe being pushy does work for her if it’s just the right amount.

With April’s words in mind, she makes a habit of checking in on her for the rest of the summer, and Sterling doesn’t feel overbearing at all. It starts off small, just sending simple how are you messages back and forth, but eventually it gets more frequent and less professional as they drop the etiquette of purposeful conversation.

It doesn’t take long for Sterling to start texting her with any casual thought she cares to share, and April is always there with a quick reply and usually a joke at Sterling’s expense.

Sterling: i convinced blair to have a romcom marathon with me tonight.

April: ew.

Sterling: ew???

April: way too sappy and straight for my taste.

Sterling: well you weren’t invited anyway

April: wowww. i’m really devastated if you couldn’t tell.

Sterling is glued to her phone by August. It gets so bad that when holding a skip at gunpoint, she reflexively pulls the device from her pocket at the sound of a new text, allowing the man to run off before Bowser can get the cuffs on.

“Are you kidding me, Sterl?” he tries to yell, but his chest heaves from chasing the guy down a second time.

She winces a simple, “Sorry,” and is teased relentlessly by Blair for a week.

Not a day goes by where Sterling doesn’t hear from April, exchanging messages so often that she now knows certain things about her routine. She hangs out with Ezekiel and Hannah B every Thursday, she usually eats dinner with her mom at seven, and she gets up early on Saturday mornings just because. It makes Sterling wonder (and hope) if April has picked up on any little details of her day to day life as well.

April: tell me why ezekiel just invited me to visit him this semester so we can go to a gay bar

Sterling: do i really have to tell you why

April: is it that obvious?

Sterling: to me it might be, but that probably has something to do with you kissing me junior year

April: i believe it was you who kissed me.

Sterling: the point is that you kissing back = gay

April: interesting math. thanks.

Taking that step and messaging April was the right move, gently nudging them into this wonderful place, but Sterling has learned from her past mistakes. She knows where to draw the line and leave well enough alone.

While they might text on an almost constant basis, an in person interaction is clearly off the table. April still doesn’t look at her during Sunday mass, so Sterling doesn’t dare to approach. She also doesn’t ask for anything more than what they have, never suggesting that they meet up to hang out in a more private setting even if Sterling might want to.

Sterling: you looked nice at church today

April: thank you. with the divorce getting messy i figured we’d have some eyes on us.

Sterling: oh you definitely did

Sterling: i didn’t mean me

April: how would you know that i looked nice if you didn’t look??

Sterling: good point

April: i would rather it be you anyway.

April: you know, as opposed to gossiping trolls looking for flaws.

Sterling: of course

This time when they go back to school there is no starting over, no weird tension between them, and no gap to April returning to herself.

She texts Sterling their first night back to invite her out and it kills her to tell April that she already has plans. In the past a little rejection like this probably would’ve bruised April’s ego and set them back a pace or two, but this time it doesn’t infringe on anything. April never falters or pulls away.

As it turns out talking everyday for the last month builds a rapport that can’t easily be undone. They’ve turned into such genuine friends that even when lines get blurred it goes almost unnoticed. It’s easy to get flirty or soft or admit something that maybe they wouldn’t have before when the repercussions were something to worry about.

Now with fear aside, they’re not nearly as careful, because now they’re not nearly as delicate. This isn’t a three day fling or a brief truce over a weekend debate tournament. They’re sturdy. Friends through and through. Even if Sterling has to tamper down butterflies whenever April smiles.

It’s nothing she can’t handle.

She swallows her feelings and the very detailed thoughts that occupy her brain when on April’s bed. Luckily she’s on it alone, otherwise that would be a much harder pill to get down.

April is at her desk by the foot of the bed, book in hand and the epitome of focus, while Sterling just flopped onto her stomach, bored with her work, to watch April read for as long as it takes for her to notice that they’re face to face. Every once in a while Sterling sighs or clears her throat but April never budges or breaks. It’s disappointing.

Sterling did actually study for the first hour, then pretended to be busy for the second, but now she’s over it. Now she just craves attention — specifically April’s. She’s kept quiet and tried to reign it in all afternoon, giving April space to work and read and study, but her resistance is crumbling fast. She wants to talk. She wants to purposely say something kind of stupid so April does that little eye roll and smile thing. She wants to see how far she can push, drawing back at the first sign of flushed cheeks so it’s not obvious that she’s flirting. She wants to interrupt her, to break the silence, and damn it she’s going to. Two hours is long enough.

“I was thinking about studying abroad. Thoughts?”

“Thoughts?” April mocks without even looking up. “What does that even mean?”

“I want to talk to you about it.”

The book lowers just for a second. “Me?”

“Yeah,” Sterling nods, like it's obvious. “I like getting your input.”

Once the stunned expression leaves her face, April starts to smile. “I didn’t know I was a confidant for you.”

“If I want a fun answer I ask Blair, but if I want a serious one I ask you.”

She shrugs. “Fair system.”

Then April returns to her book and Sterling is ready to scream over how slow this is going. “So what are the thoughts?” she presses, incessantly reminding April of their conversation.

“Well I would need more information.” April flips her page with a concentration that Sterling would kill to have on her. “Where are you looking to go? For how long? What’s the program like?”

“London. For a semester. And it’s really cool.”

“So if you’ve got it all figured out, what do you need my opinion on?”

“Do you think I’d even get in?”

It comes out needier than she intended, sounding a little meek. She might want April’s input on this specific issue, since she didn’t think Sterling had a shot at getting into Duke, but Sterling didn’t want to seem that desperate for it.

“Blair is probably better for pep talks.”

April doesn’t even look up or seem fazed by her insecure tone, and that’s what does it for Sterling. She’s had enough of homework, and distractions, and that damn book.

“I don’t want a pep talk,” she huffs in return, snatching April’s book right out of her hands and demanding her full attention. “I want an honest answer.”

For too brief a moment April looks stunned by Sterling’s little outburst, eyes wider than normal and her cheeks a light shade of pink before she composes herself once again.

“First of all, don’t act like you didn’t know I would hate that,” April warns, though the corner of her mouth tugs upwards instead of down. “Second, what’s your GPA?”

“3.4.”

“What’s their average for acceptances?”

“Just a three.”

“Then unless you really fuck up your essay,” she says, leaning over her desk to claim the book back with a teasing smile, “I’m probably going to miss you next semester.”

“Really?”

She nods, flipping to find her page. “They would be lucky to have you.” Even without looking up to catch the blush on Sterling’s cheeks or the smile on her lips, April must notice the gentle way it comes out, because the page turning stops before her words can sit for too long and she adds, “I’ll proofread everything so you don’t blow it.”

Chapter Text

Sterling has always thought of herself as more spacey than observant.

There was that time in fifth grade where she was trying to find shapes in the clouds and Blair launched a soccer ball at the goal, knocking her right in the head. Then there was a time in middle school where she zoned out so badly at one of Luke’s golf tournaments that she didn’t even realize they had finished until the whole crowd started to move to the next hole. And she can’t seem to remember a single thing from eleventh grade Spanish, far too focused on the twirling ponytail in front of her than on their latest vocabulary.

So now that she’s spending more time with April, Sterling is surprised by how much she has noticed.

As much as April tries to appear well rounded and adult-like, she’s actually a picky eater. Whenever they go to the dining hall she always ends up with one of three things — a salad with honey mustard dressing, a turkey sandwich, or pasta. It's weird to pick up on and Sterling doesn’t know what to do with it.

Of course they still do homework together, even if Sterling is likely to interrupt. Despite being in two very different majors they’ve formed something of a study group just between the two of them. The competitive edge that used to drive them apart, now naturally flows without animosity or fear of one taking it too far. If Sterling gets distracted and she takes her eyes off her work, all she sees is how laser focused April is, how she grips her pen tightly, how her eyes dart across a page, how her brow furrows if she gets confused, and how she doesn’t so much as look up until she’s done. It pushes Sterling to her very best sometimes, and other times it makes Sterling wish April would look at her with that same intensity.

But with all that time together she has also noticed a new level of comfort come out from April’s normally rough shell.

She did proofread all of Sterling’s application materials for London, and then she took it a step further, reading her class papers too. Sterling really doesn’t mind since April always gives good pointers, leaving notes in the margins in red ink because of course she’s that official. And while she doesn’t shy away from honest criticism, April is actually very supportive.

“I think it’s great that you want to broaden your horizons,” she said after Sterling had confessed that Debbie was hesitant about her going abroad. Sterling knew her mother's reasoning. It was a tough sell just getting her on board for a six hour drive to North Carolina, the fear from a kidnapping still weighing heavily on her mind, but something about April’s support specifically made Sterling’s heart flutter.

It’s been happening more recently — the little ache in her stomach, the flutter in her chest, the wobbly feeling she gets in her knees — and Sterling is finding it harder to swallow, because this new level of comfort also means that the line of a friendly distance and personal space is a lot harder to find.

It started off subtle with just casual touches. A sudden hand on an arm when April excitedly remembered a story she wanted to tell, or a soft touch on Sterling’s back when she would pass her from behind, or a leg pressing against hers when they didn’t need to be seated so close together. Sterling had convinced herself that she was being dramatic, that her feelings were clouding her judgement, but then it grew.

April was hanging out in her room one night while she and Rachel were getting ready to go out, and April helped straighten the back of Sterling’s hair. Which in theory sounds like nothing but a kind gesture, she knows, but in practice Sterling could hardly sit still with fingers making the occasional graze across her neck. She almost got burned a few times.

Then just last week there was another incident. They had plans to get lunch, so Sterling had swung by April’s room to meet up. It was one of those fall days where the morning was cold, but the afternoon brought a sudden heat, and April changed from a hoodie to a t-shirt right there in front of her like it was nothing. Sterling nearly passed out.

“What does it mean if someone you’re maybe, kind of into changes their clothes right in front of you?”

“Who are we talking about?” Blair asked through FaceTime, chewing on a hot pocket. “April?”

“I’m not naming names.”

She rolled her eyes, because of course it’s April. They both knew it. “What was changed?”

“Shirt.”

“Was it casual or was she trying to do something?”

“She was mid sentence and Lindsay was there too.”

“You might have gotten friend zoned, my dude.”

To make matters worse Sterling was back in April’s room a few days later, sitting on her bed like always, when April turned from where she folded her laundry and said, “Last time you were in here you got your smell on my comforter.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. Do I smell bad?”

April had turned away and muttered a small, “No.”

It made a rush of warmth spread through Sterling’s cheeks so fast that she too would’ve liked to put on a t-shirt.

But the day Sterling gets the email is the day she’s most excited to hang out with April, eagerly awaiting their plans to grab dinner. Sterling told herself she would wait until they got to the dining hall, but the secret buzzes with such a strong current that she can’t tamp it down.

“I have bad news,” she starts, refusing to look at April, knowing her grin will just give it away. From the corner of her eye April stands straighter, more rigid. “You’re totally gonna miss me next semester.”

Now she lets herself look. April’s forehead creases as she tries to add it up. The tension evaporates from her shoulders, eyes widening when the realization hits. “London?”

Sterling nods. “London.”

An excited squeal comes out of April and before Sterling can even wrap her head around that, arms are being wrapped around her neck for what her brain knows is just a congratulatory hug.

Her body, on the other hand, not so much.

It takes a second for her arms to wrap around April’s waist, feeling the soft fabric of her sweater as Sterling holds her close, the warmth of another body pressing harder against her own, and inhaling the scent of a shampoo and perfume combination she once got to know very well.

She wonders if they’ve ever hugged before, aside from when they were little kids, and lands on an unfortunate no, because Sterling is certain she would remember this happening.

It ends all too quickly though, with April withdrawing her arms, taking a small step back, and avoiding eye contact as she does it.

“That’s um,” she clears her throat, “really great. I’m happy for you.”

“Thanks,” Sterling returns, already wishing she could wrap her arms around April’s waist again. She settles for nudging her arm. “I’ll miss you too, you know.”

“I figured.”

In her tone April is clearly going for smug, but in the golden hour sunset Sterling swears she sees pink on her cheeks.

It’s simple, but she still feels a need to recap with her sister, filling Blair in on her walk to class one afternoon.

“I told April.”

“That you’re in love with her?”

“No, about London.”

“Oh,” she says, seemingly disappointed as her voice echoes through her speakerphone. “What did she say?”

“She said she’s happy for me.” Sterling starts to grin, feeling that fluttering sensation bubble up in her chest until she could practically burst at the seams. “We hugged.”

“Oh my god! No way,” Blair quips in an exaggerated exclamation. “Did you make eye contact too? Maybe graze pinkies in a public place?”

“Okay, I’m hanging up.”

“Wait, no,” she rushes. Sterling hears Blair fumble with the phone as she takes it off speaker and brings it to her ear. “I’m just messing with you. I’m done. I promise.”

“It’s out of your system?”

“It’s out of my system,” Blair confirms. Although Sterling doesn’t quite believe her, she doesn’t hang up either. “It’s just weird. In high school you guys went from zero to a hundred in such a short time that I didn’t even know about it and now you’re going so fucking slow.”

“Because we’re friends.”

“But you want to get in her pants.”

Sterling’s face warms, a blush rushing her cheeks with the thought. She stammers to find a rebuttal.

“Ha! That’s not a denial.”

“Remember when you said this was all out of your system?”

“Sterl, nobody gets that excited over a hug. At the rate you’re going that’s practically second base.”

She thinks about what Blair said all through class, wondering if she was too excited about that hug, if she does want to get in April’s pants, and if the reason things are moving so slow is because they are just friends with nowhere else to go.

It stays on her mind all afternoon until she gets back to her room, occupying so much of her headspace that she greets Rachel with, “Blair thinks I should make a move on April.”

“Oh, finally.”

Sterling furrows her eyebrows. Rachel is one to just roll with things, never really batting an eye at anything Sterling blurts out anymore, but that was oddly casual.

“If you need to use the room for that just let me know and I’ll get out of your way.”

“I didn’t say I was doing it.”

Rachel blinks, confused. “Oh,” she says just like Blair.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing,” Rachel dismisses, though her voice is a higher pitch than usual. “I must’ve misread the tension. Do you want to go out tonight?”

Sterling ignores her rushed suggestion. “What tension?”

“There’s a...vibe.”

“A vibe?”

“Yeah, it just seems like you’re into her or something. I could be wrong though,” she shrugs. Rachel doesn’t look at Sterling once while she brushes it off. “So do you want to go?”

Sterling’s a little thrown, still stunned that her roommate picked up on this vibe well enough to somehow land on the same page as her sister, but Sterling agrees.

A night out might take her mind off of it.

The basement is hot. Not a single window is open because nobody wants to risk a noise complaint with a house full of underage college students, so the heat just radiates off of the crowd of people, packed in tight. There’s a makeshift DJ in the corner, which is pretty much just a frat boy with an iPhone and an aux cord, and the music is loud. So loud that it shuffles any April related thoughts right out of Sterling’s head, allowing her to focus instead on the cup that Rachel passes her.

“Who’s party is this?”

Rachel shrugs. “Alpha something. I don’t remember.”

One thing that Sterling loves about Rachel is her spontaneity. She’s fun in a go with the flow kind of way, either dragging Sterling on a random adventure or willingly being brought on one herself, and although Sterling agreed to this, she’s currently feeling a little dragged.

She leans with her back against the cement wall, getting at least a small taste of something cool pressed up against her. She tugs at the ends of her shirt, feeling like it’s clinging to her skin in this heat.

“Hey,” Rachel says, grabbing her hand. “Stop fussing. You look good.”

“I don’t really feel it.”

She smirks. “You will.”

Sterling’s eyebrows furrow but she doesn’t ask Rachel to elaborate. She takes a long sip of her drink instead, grimacing a little as it goes down. It’s sour, not at all sweet like the cherry flavored punch of her first party experience.

There’s an uproar of cheers as the song changes to something the boys apparently like, and Sterling lets her eyes wander the room for some fun people watching. She finds a lot of the usual things, girls waiting by the bathroom, guys crowding the keg, and different variations of dancing that will all boil down to just simple grinding in due time.

She sees Lindsay first.

“Sterling!”

Sterling is being engulfed in a hug before she can even respond. “Hey,” she says, eyes scanning over Lindsay’s shoulder, knowing that not too far behind her will be —

“April!” Lindsay exclaims, waving the girl over. “Look, I found Sterling.”

She turns to Rachel, who has the audacity to wink and tug Lindsay away for “another drink,” but Sterling knows from the mischievous look on her roommate’s face that they won’t cross paths for a while.

“That bitch.”

“Hey.”

“Hi,” Sterling greets with an exaggerated level of excitement that she hopes says I have no idea what’s going on, I swear. “What brings you here?”

“Oh, you know,” April starts, a smile tugging at her lips, “I’m a big fan of frat boys.”

“Yes, you’re all about a sweaty, drunk guy in a Lakers jersey.”

“Exactly my type.”

But April can’t even say it with a straight face and suddenly they’re both laughing like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and feelings or no feelings, Sterling’s alright with that.

She holds out her cup. “Wanna share?”

To her surprise, April only debates the offer for about half a second before accepting.

“Fair warning — it sucks.”

Sterling maybe watches April’s mouth a little too closely as she brings the cup to her lips for a sip, then shifts to her neck to watch her throat bob as she swallows, then back to her mouth just in time for her tongue to peek through, all before passing the cup back with an easy shrug. “I’ve had worse.”

For the moment all Sterling can do is nod, burning with the knowledge that she has to get it together. She takes a quick sip of her drink as an excuse to tear her eyes away, purposely not thinking about April’s lips on the rim of this same cup, which is a lot harder when there’s a lipstick stain a mere few inches over.

Just when she thinks she’s recovered, April reaches out a hand. “I like this,” she says, running a finger along the hem of Sterling’s shirt and just barely grazing the skin underneath.

Okay, so maybe she should thank Rachel.

Sterling shivers. “Cool.”

“Cool?” she mocks playfully, one eyebrow quirked as she appraises Sterling. April nods towards the solo cup in her hand. “Are you drunk already?”

“I think you mean inebriated or — crap, what was the other one you used?”

April rolls her eyes. “Slightly intoxicated.”

“Yes! That’s it.”

They both laugh. It's been years since they had an inside joke or looked back fondly on their past over something that wasn’t wrapped too tightly in a secret. It’s nice.

“I’m not by the way,” Sterling says suddenly. April’s eyebrows furrow. “I’m not drunk.”

She leans closer and Sterling’s breath hitches. “Between you and me,” she says, voice low, “I actually was that night.”

“I know,” Sterling manages, mouth dry as her eyes flick down to April’s lips, so close and inviting and the same color as the stain on her cup. “Not even you could cover that up.”

Even while standing on a sticky floor and sipping bottom shelf liquor, Sterling’s brain just keeps going, kiss her, kiss her, kiss her as the cheap colored lights bounce off April's face in a way that feels all too familiar — like laser tag.

“I’m a good shot, you know,” Sterling bragged as she buckled her vest. An announcer was doing a dramatic read through of the rules, but she tuned it out with no intent of really playing. Sterling would much rather do what they did in Ellen’s office the day before, something she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about ever since.

“I wouldn’t doubt you’re the best one here,” April agreed, scanning over the group of kids scampering around them, some only waist high, “but I don’t think laser tag is going to be where you prove it.”

“Probably not.”

April scrunched her nose as she barely dodged another small boy running by. “I can’t believe I let you drag me in here,” she said, stifling a laugh when Sterling shot him in the back. “Nice.”

“Thanks,” she smiled before addressing their original conversation. “Why?”

“Look around.” April gestured to their surroundings — the black lighting, the crowd of kids much younger than them, the toy gun attached to the light up vest that reflected on her face. “Does this not feel ridiculous to you?”

“It won’t in a minute.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not actually trying to play. I’m trying to find a dark corner to kiss you.”

For a moment April looked stunned by her honesty, but then her hand landed on Sterling’s vest, nudging her back against a wall. “I think this will do just fine.”

And the last thing Sterling saw was a smile that seemed to glow in the dark.

She knows there’s nothing objectively romantic about laser tag or an over crowded basement in a house that should’ve been condemned years ago, but the intense desire that Sterling feels remains the same.

Every once in a while April touches her arm or leans a little closer to make sure Sterling can hear her. She’s telling some story, but Sterling has hardly listened. The low bass pulses through the floor, buzzing between her ears along with a repetitive thought of it would be so easy. And it really fucking would. They’re standing so close to each other, April is practically talking into her ear. All Sterling would really need to do is tilt her head down and boom — they’d kiss.

She keeps playing the scene internally on a loop as she nods cluelessly along with whatever April is saying. She stops talking then you tilt your head down, or the ever so tempting, you tilt your head down so she stops talking. The noise of it all consumes so much of her focus that it takes their lips meeting for Sterling to even realize she did it.

And it was that easy. So easy in fact that she didn’t even think about it or the repercussions. She never wondered if April wanted to be kissed, or if come tomorrow they would still be friends, or if Sterling even wanted to chance losing that.

“Sorry, I —” but before Sterling can even try to blame it on the drink in her cup, she’s being kissed right back.

Chapter Text

Sterling stares up at a ceiling that is not hers. It looks like hers. It has that same dull white paint that all the dorms have. But it belongs to the warm body laying next to her, as do the soft cotton sheets that are draped over them, and the t-shirt that she slept in.

Last night she didn’t really care too much about space, too tipsy, tired, and caught up in the moment for any apprehension. Now however, wide awake, in the daylight, and tucked into a tight bed, she finds herself pressed up against the cold wall, trying not to think about bare limbs shifting under the covers as a leg brushes against hers. She avoids looking over to her left, or breathing too loudly, or making any sudden movements even though she’s pretty sure April is still fast asleep.

Instead Sterling stares up at the ceiling that isn’t hers, thinking about how they kissed at the party, liquor still fresh on her tongue. She thought for a moment that she had messed up, thought that she had ruined everything, thought that she had crossed a line, but she didn’t. That became obvious when April’s hand landed on her hip and she came surging in to ease every single one of Sterling’s worries.

Her body came alive right there, pulling April closer, in need of more, and the arm wrapped tightly around her waist seemed to agree. They stayed there against that wall, lips moving together purposeful and insistent until the rest of the party faded out. The heavy bass of a rap song mixed in with Sterling’s beating heart until she could no longer tell the pounding apart. When she broke for air, face flushed and panting, Sterling recognized a look in April’s eyes that she hadn’t seen since they were sixteen and in the back of a car.

This time, though, there were really no pretenses. They weren’t kids secretly exploring a part of themselves that had been kept hidden, daring to dip into uncharted territory with just the mere thought of being together. They’ve had the thought, lived with it for a few wonderful days, and they’ve held themselves back only to have the prospect of a future pulled out from under them. So this time there was really no hesitation.

She had sex with April. Fulfilling her sixteen-year-old self’s supply closet fantasy — she actually had sex with April Stevens.

Sterling wonders if she thinks on it loud enough that maybe the twin thing will kick in and Blair will be summoned from miles away, because holy shit — she has to tell Blair that the girl who got her to her first orgasm can now be credited with a few more.

“Why are you smiling?”

Her body jolts in surprise at the sound of April's apparent morning voice, now awake and staring at her with a sleepy expression.

“I was just thinking about Chloe — my dog. Chloe is my dog.”

“I recall,” April nods, turning onto her side to fully face Sterling. “Tiene muchos gusanos”

“Oh thank god,” she sighs, relieved. “How weird would it be if I was thinking about some other girl while lying here with you?”

“I would be a little insulted.”

“Exactly.”

Sterling tries to force a laugh, but when she glances back over to her left and finds April staring blankly back at her there’s a rush of nerves shivering up her body that no amount of staring at the ceiling will take away.

“Sorry I’m not trying to be weird. I’m not very good at this. Not that. Hopefully I’m good at that. You were good at that. It’s just the whole morning after thing —”

April puts a finger to Sterling’s lips, quieting her mid sentence. “It’s way too early for all that.”

Sterling mouths an apology that April brushes off with ease. “I get it,” she says, sitting up to reach her arms above her head and stretch. The action lifts her shirt up a bit to expose some of her lower back and Sterling finds herself temporarily distracted. “The protocol can be a bit tricky. Shall we just call it a one time thing?”

“That would imply we only did it one time,” Sterling quips with a teasing smile.

April’s arms drop to the bed with a thump and she turns around just to roll her eyes. “A one night thing, then.”

There’s a slight pang in Sterling’s chest, her initial reaction is to feel let down, but then that’s followed by a wash of relief that there is no pressure on them, or what they did, or what it means going forward with friendship on the line and London on the horizon. Oddly enough Sterling’s only hope at the moment is that they can smoothly return to something platonic, because regardless of what she feels Sterling still wants to talk to April.

“Okay,” she agrees, but her voice is apparently too high pitched and breezy for April to believe.

“Sterling, I’m serious.”

She knows April is in fact very serious because of how sharp her voice is, but all Sterling can think about is the breathless way her name rolled off April’s tongue last night. Fingers threading through her hair, hands on her body, lips —

“This isn’t like high school. We’re not starting a whole,” April gestures a hand, “you know what I mean — a thing.”

“Okay,” she repeats, her tone more firm and April appears to be convinced this time.

It takes a few days but eventually they return to normal. Sterling stops waiting what she thinks is an appropriate amount of time to text April back and she no longer overthinks sending a message of her own. When they see each other in person they seem to have an unspoken agreement to avoid any and all party related topics. There is no talk of their Friday night, their Saturday morning, or how either of them have felt about it since.

Sterling does her best not to think about it, avoiding the topic with Rachel and Blair as well. She brushes out the memory of spending a night with April, repeating to herself that it was just a one night thing, because they’re finally friends again and things are good — great even. But no matter how hard she tries, Sterling can’t seem to stop thinking about it.

They go to the gym together, which in hindsight Sterling realizes wasn’t her best idea. Sweating and exercising sucks enough on its own, but add in a determined April Stevens that is literally within reach (figuratively not so much) and it takes things to a whole new level. She spends way too much time listening to the way April breathes, remembering how it felt against her skin, warm and labored, and for a moment all Sterling wants is to forget about sit ups and just roll on top of her on this gross mat in the middle of a public place.

She politely declines the next time April invites her to a work out, but her problem doesn’t go away.

Every time April texts her Sterling reads it in her morning voice. Every time they hang out Sterling can tell that she’s staring too much, watching the way April’s lips curl around a word rather than listening to what she's actually saying. And if April is feeling particularly expressive that day, Sterling especially pays attention when she talks with her hands.

This annoying, all consuming feeling that can’t seem to be turned off, lasts about a week until Sterling, who has never really been good at self-control, finally caves.

Sterling: what if we made it a two night thing??

She sends it on a whim after trying to tamp down her desires with a romance novel, hoping a character would at least give her someone else to picture, but it didn’t work. She still just thought about April and the way her lips felt on Sterling’s skin, the way she touched her, the way she sounded when Sterling took her to all the places she used to dream about.

There are some things in life that can’t easily be forgotten and April Stevens coming down from an orgasm is apparently one of them.

She starts to second guess her message after a half hour comes and goes with no response, and the high that Sterling sent it on rapidly dwindles.

Sterling: sorry. never mind that. carry on.

She flops back onto her bed as soon as she hits send, groaning into her hands in frustration, because once again, she got too eager with April and it backfired.

Or so she thought.

Her phone then buzzes and Sterling parts her fingers just enough to peek.

April: lindsay just left for class if you want to come over.

So Sterling is back in April’s bed, staring up at a ceiling that now looks a little less dull. Her breathing is heavy, but that’s expected and wow, this should really happen more often.

Sterling definitely wants it to happen more often.

She rolls onto her side as April settles in beside her, doing the same. “What made you change your mind?”

“I was,” April hesitates to find the right word, “intrigued by your offer.”

Sterling deduces that as code for horny and decides to keep the ball rolling with another proposition. “So, I’m leaving for London in a few weeks.”

“I’m aware.”

“Any interest in keeping this up until then?”

There’s a pause, but the smile tugging at the corner of April’s mouth brushes off any nerves of impending rejection.

“I could get behind that.”

Sterling kisses her, because it’s something she can do now, and rolls April onto her back for the same reason.

Their new arrangement doesn’t change much about their relationship, only adding a little something extra to it. They mostly go about their business like normal with the occasional my roommate is out, or come over, or a one-time-picture-attached text cutting through what is otherwise just friendly conversation.

“You know,” April breathes in between kisses one afternoon, “I was working on a group project at the library.”

“Bad timing?” Sterling wonders, feigning innocence as she tilts her head to the side.

The teasing smile that she wears goes unnoticed when April’s focus moves to her neck, and if it weren’t for the arm around her waist or the wall against her back, Sterling thinks her legs might give out.

With her trip to London rapidly approaching the option of actually being anything serious is taken away from them. It leaves no room to talk about feelings and no time to talk about the past, forcing the two of them into something light and fun without even the opportunity to question otherwise. For the most part it works.

But then there’s one weekend where Lindsay goes home, leaving April with the room to herself, and Sterling doesn’t see her own dorm until Sunday afternoon, spending Friday night and all of Saturday with the girl she’s supposedly just casually seeing (as Rachel so kindly reminds her).

With all that time on their hands they do more than just each other, grabbing meals, studying, watching movies, and cuddling more than they probably should.

It’s not just falling asleep post-sex with a head on a shoulder or laying under somebody's arm. It’s homework with legs draped over each other, movies with shared blankets, and her hair being mindlessly played with while April reads.

It feels a lot like high school — the magnetic pull, the intensity, the urge to just drop everything for a moment alone — but there’s a simplicity to it this time around that their old flame lacked. They don’t have to fake anything in front of their peers, friends, or family.

If Sterling wants to hang out in April’s room, she just walks over there. If she wants April to come over, she simply invites her. And potentially best of all, if Sterling wants to kiss her, she just does.

Their friends know that they have some sort of thing going on, considering they pretty much arranged it themselves. Sterling occasionally gets grilled with questions about April or teased for blushing when her phone buzzes, but it’s all out of curiosity and without judgement. They don’t know the complexities of going from best friends, to enemies, to whatever they were before Sterling was left broken hearted on a bench, to whatever they are now. They simply know April as the girl who single handedly led their team to victory on trivia night, earning them a free round of drinks at a local pub, and if Sterling holds her hand under the table not a word is said about it.

She tells Blair everything, of course, but that’s as far as it goes in terms of family. No one else is within four hundred miles to see or hear anything that requires explaining, so regardless of Sterling being out now, she feels no need to loop her parents in on anything less than serious.

To Sterling’s surprise though, April’s circle of people in the know stretches farther than the Duke campus.

“Hey, look at you expanding your palate,” she says late one Saturday from April’s floor, surrounded by cartons of Chinese take-out and textbooks.

April looks down to her food and back up at Sterling with a confused expression. “It’s sesame chicken. I would hardly call that expansive.”

“Compared to what you eat here I would say so.”

“That’s because our food sucks, Sterling. If you find something decent you stick with it.”

She shrugs. “I don’t think it’s that bad.”

April eyes widen as she chews her last bite and Sterling knows from experience (not from the fork now pointing at her) that April has something coming.

“Then maybe you need to expand your palate,” she says, all in good taste. Her gaze may be narrowed, but her tone is teasing and Sterling can’t help but smile. She loves this.

She loves spending time just existing in the same space as April, she loves when they land themselves on the brink of debate, and she loves how April has this ease about her that seems to love it too.

There’s a short buzz against the area rug and April breaks away to grab her phone, fingers tapping quickly on the screen. As she goes to put it down, before it even leaves her hand, her phone vibrates again. April rolls her eyes when she checks her messages once more.

“Hannah B. says hi.”

It buzzes a third time.

“So does Ezekiel.”

“Hi,” Sterling says rather cheerfully before registering what that means. “Wait they know about…”

Her voice trails off, unsure if she should finish that question with a this or an us. Are they an us?

April nods before Sterling decides. “Is that okay?”

“Yes! Oh my gosh, yes. Of course. I just didn’t know they even knew about you.”

“I told you that he invited me to a gay bar.”

“And you seemed nervous about that. You asked me if you were obvious”

April shakes her head. “Nervous about my family finding it obvious. Not him.”

“Oh,” Sterling says at the clarification. “So are you going?”

April looks off for a moment to think. A soft smile spreads across the already tender expression on her face and her eyes meet Sterling’s with an answer. “My weekends are a little busy right now. Maybe in the spring.”

The when Sterling is gone part of April’s maybe in the spring is only implied — an unspoken desire to soak up these last couple weeks and not waste them on road trips to visit friends that aren’t leaving the country soon — but it’s enough to make Sterling lean over and kiss her, to brush her hand against April’s cheek, and to smile against her lips when she feels April do the same.

As they refocus on their food and studying, Sterling just can’t shake the thought that they feel like an us. With weekends spent attached at the hip, sitting on the floor in a mess of take-out and homework, breaking to kiss even though it won’t lead to anything because of said homework, their simple arrangement feels way bigger than what they agreed to.

It’s easy, like their own personal bubble, and it stays that way until they go home for winter break. Then it’s back to just texting, and those texts seem even rarer now since they got used to seeing each other on such a regular basis.

Gone are the days filled with messages, or the nights in each other’s arms, or the mornings under a ceiling that isn’t hers — which Sterling understands. While she wouldn’t at all be concerned if her parents were to ask where she was going, who she was seeing, or why they were seeing so much of each other, April has a much different story and Sterling knows better than to push it. She made that mistake once before.

Their plan was just to be involved until the semester was over and now it was, leaving them with this new normal that Sterling kind of hates.

April: are you packed yet?

Sterling: just finished

April: good. i thought you would procrastinate.

Sterling: oh i definitely did. only started packing this morning but my mom helped a lot

April: sounds about right. how are you feeling?

Sterling: nervous. like i could throw up at any second but also kind of excited if that makes sense??

April: it does.

April is still typing and Sterling hopes she wants to hang out. She’s on the edge of her seat praying for a can i see you text because she certainly wants to send one herself. Sterling has honestly been thinking all day about sending one herself. She would run off to meet April in her car, parked in some empty lot at the drop of a hat just to say goodbye.

But April has other ideas.

April: good luck with everything and be safe tomorrow.

Sterling’s shoulders sulk in disappointment, though all she types in return is a simple thank you.

She knows April well enough to be certain that there isn’t another message coming. So Sterling flips off her light to stare at her dark ceiling, too wound up to rest before her early morning flight.

Chapter Text

“I miss you!”

“Miss you more!”

Blair shrugs through the phone screen. “Miss you less?”

“Hey!”

“Come on, you know I’m kidding. I would literally give you my left arm if you asked for it.”

“And I’d give you mine,” Sterling returns, propping her phone up against a textbook on her desk. The very textbook she’s supposed to be reading right now, the same one she said she was going to read yesterday but abandoned to grab dinner with some new people, and the one that will put her behind after only a week in class if she doesn’t do her reading today.

“So have you channeled your inner T-Swift and found yourself a London boy?”

Sterling shakes her head.

“Right,” Blair returns, a mischievous smirk on her face, “because you’d rather have a Georgia girl.”

She rolls her eyes and lets out a long sigh. “We hardly even talk.”

“I never said her name.”

“Twin thing.”

“Doesn’t work through the phone. We’ve tried it,” Blair reminds her. “Plus, you sounded disappointed.”

“I’m not,” Sterling insists, though it isn’t entirely true. Not in the least.

She is disappointed. Sterling has barely heard a word from April since they left Duke almost a month ago, after spending their last night before break curled up in her bed like the almost-couple they were. With weeks of hooking up, weeks of talking, and weeks of building to something that suddenly fell out from under her, who wouldn’t be disappointed?

“Hey, remember when I made out with a British guy at the debate tournament?”

It successfully changes the subject. Blair laughs, rambling through pieces of what she remembers — the boy with the scratchy cat-like tongue, the boy with the hands, and obviously the boy with the accent. She’s good enough not to mention the girl that actually got Sterling over the edge, serving as a sexual awakening, and launching them into a strange yet exciting dynamic of secret not-quite-girlfriends.

Sterling crinkles her nose at the memory. Going from an unlabeled relationship to radio silence feels a little too familiar right now, like she should’ve seen it coming.

Before Blair has to go, she asks Sterling if she’s really okay — a thing she’s been doing a lot lately.

“I’m fine.”

And Sterling really does her best to be — she’s in London for Christ’s sake — but it's hard. It’s nothing like her first year of college with the knowledge that home was a six hour drive away and that there was a familiar face down the hall. This is an ocean away, a plane ride away, and there’s not a single person here that feels like home.

She’s genuinely on her own for the first time ever, so far out of her usual safe space that she’s in an altogether different time zone. It’s scary, but her dad always liked to remind her that sometimes fear is good.

She gets this little spurt of electricity, this buzz in the depths of her stomach that zaps in moments of uncertainty. It kicks something deep inside of her into gear, because anytime Sterling somehow finds herself in the midst of an unexpected situation she clumsily throws herself in head first, and when she comes out on the other side, Sterling feels nothing but pride.

It’s almost comical how frequently it happens. She walks into the wrong classroom, realizing halfway into the lecture that it’s incorrect and scrambling out of the room with a quick apology, only to get to her actual class and find out it was cancelled. She hops on the Tube on a Saturday afternoon, looking for a little exploration and gets herself lost, stumbling back into her room hours upon hours later, exhausted from what turned out to be an awesome day. She greets strangers with an awkward “Sterling Wesley, how the heck are ya?” and somehow they turn into friends. It’s like magic, this level of dumb luck that allows her to charm her way into peoples hearts or enjoy an afternoon lost downtown on the one day that week where it doesn’t rain.

All this to say that she doesn’t usually dwell on the silence of her phone and the lack of April in her life. Instead she tries new things, she meets new people, and she tells herself that April will be back at Duke when Sterling gets there next fall.

Mostly it works, but once in a while if things get slow or stressful Sterling can’t help but long for the bubble of bliss she lived in last semester, and finds herself reaching for it.

It happens when she studies for her first test of the semester and she doesn’t have April’s work ethic to compete with or an overwhelming desire to distract her.

Sterling: holding down the fort at Duke??
April: always.

Then it happens again when she gets out of class early one afternoon and all her friends are busy, so Sterling snaps a selfie while out sightseeing by herself.

Sterling: did some touristy things today!
April: nice

The third time Sterling is genuinely homesick, an ache building in her stomach over missing a holiday with her family for the first time in her twenty years on this planet.

Sterling: happy easter!!
April: you too.

Regardless of the reason for the text, it plays out the same way every time. Sterling always messages first, the response always comes late, and it’s always terribly short.

At this point with the semester over halfway through, she’s used to it. Her occasional one word answers from April fit into her life like the rest of her new routine — breakfast, class, dinner, no new texts, repeat. It’s just the norm now and Sterling doesn’t let it bother her as much as it used to — or so she tells herself.

Sterling sits down on a curb, or more like flops down after a few too many two-for-one draft beers, blinking rapidly as her phone shines way too bright against her eyes. The dim lighting of the bar and the dark night sky did nothing to prepare her for the stark white screen.

She finds a familiar name at the top of her contacts and barely hears the phone ringing over the noise of music and drunk folk behind her. It unsurprisingly goes to voicemail, and not even one that April recorded herself, but to the automated, generic, robotic voice that could belong to anybody.

“Hey, I’m a little too far gone to do math right now so I don’t know what time it is there. Hopefully it’s not too late or too early — wait, what time is it here?” Sterling shakes her head to refocus. “I just wanted to say hi, and that I miss you, and I hope you’re well, and also beer is gross. Don’t drink it. Get something better. You deserve it.”

“Sterling!”

She looks up, squinting into the glow of headlights and sees a friend waving her over.

“Okay, my ride is here. Good night...or morning...or whatever,” she says, hanging up the phone and following her friend to the car.

Sterling: so apparently i called you last night?? sorry for whatever that was.

April: no worries. sorry you had to drink beer.

It’s the best response Sterling has gotten from April in months, but it's also the last one she gets for the semester.

Sterling drags her suitcase along the airport tile floor, seeing the sunshine gleam through the sliding glass doors up ahead, and on the other side she spots her family. They don’t see her yet, which Sterling actually loves, sneaking a peek as Blair and Debbie simultaneously roll their eyes at something Anderson says, and feeling her heart soar over finally being home.

Blair finds her first, because of course she does. She locks eyes with Sterling through the crowd and the door, meeting her on the other side as soon as it opens for a crushing hug.

“Please tell me you picked up an accent while you were there,” she says as if they didn’t speak nearly every day that Sterling was gone.

“I don’t think so.”

“Ugh, that would've been so cool.”

When Blair eventually steps back Debbie and Anderson swarm Sterling as well, whispering welcome home and we missed you over the obvious lumps in their throat. Every inhale from their tight embrace fills Sterling with the scent of her mother’s shampoo, her father’s cologne, and the laundry detergent they’ve been using since she was a little kid. It warms her more than the Atlanta summer sun, reaching down into her bones, all the way to the tips of her toes, and filling the void that Sterling deliberately ignored at the distance of a few thousand miles.

She does nothing but soak it all in for the next few days, catching up on anything she’s missed with Blair, enjoying her mother’s cooking, and painting wooden ducks in the garage with her dad.

It’s nice and simple until Sunday comes and her eyes instinctively flick over to a familiar pew, only this time there is just one person sitting there.

Mrs. Stevens is at church by herself that week and the next four weeks after. The strange sight takes Sterling’s natural curiosity and wraps it tightly around the one girl she’s thought so frequently about over the last four years, wondering where April could possibly be.

She considers texting her, but doesn’t, and she can’t seem to run into April anywhere — not at church, or at the country club, or at Lorna’s backyard party beside her two best friends.

Sterling tries to hold herself back, she really does, but eventually she just can’t do it anymore, going against Blair’s advice and her own better judgement to approach the only people who might be able to provide some clarity.

“Hey guys!”

Hannah B. lights up with a bright smile, but Ezekiel doesn’t look at all impressed. “Let me stop you before you fake your way through conversation with us.”

“I’m not faking—”

He puts a hand up, bringing her to a sudden halt. “She’s not here.”

“What?”

“April. She stayed in Durham for the summer.”

“Oh, I didn’t — I wasn’t trying to—”

Ezekiel narrows his eyes, smirking a little. “Sure, you weren’t.”

Sterling was well aware he knew about their situation but something about this call out, this moment of being known, makes her freeze up like a deer in headlights.

Luckily, Blair comes to the rescue, swooping in by her side. “Lovely catching up with you,” she announces, despite not uttering a prior word to Hannah B. or Ezekiel.

She grips Sterling by the arm and tugs her away before she can dig her grave any deeper.

“Dude, what the hell was that?”

“Do you think April is avoiding me?” Sterling whispers, scanning to ensure that both Ezekiel and Hannah B. are out of earshot.

Blair sighs. “Look, I don’t know how to put this nicely, but I don’t think you’re mattering to her as much as she is to you.”

“Ouch.”

“I’m sorry, but somebody had to rip off the band aid,” she says, then mutters under her breath, “since apparently she’s too much of a coward to do it herself.”

“I’m just worried. Like, what if things got worse with her family, or if she came out and it didn’t go well, or —”

“That’s because you’re a nice person, who cares too much about people that don’t deserve it.”

Sterling starts to pout for a reason she’s not exactly sure of. It’s simultaneously over April being a person that does deserve kindness and care, over Sterling’s care being unwanted, and that neither of those things seem to ease her worry of something being wrong.

Blair squeezes her shoulder before she can spiral any further, taking a softer tone to say, “She probably got a fancy internship or something.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she exhales. While Blair’s theory was only voiced to make Sterling feel better, it does actually make sense, and it does help Sterling shake off what is probably just misplaced concern. “Let’s go have fun.”

Neither of them so much as utter the name April Stevens for the rest of the summer, busying themselves with bounty hunting, frozen yogurt, and family time before they each head off to different states yet again.

Even with her dense schedule, April still crosses Sterling’s mind from time to time, an inkling of worry or wonder pestering her once in a while, and Blair seems to know it, usually whacking Sterling on the arm and claiming that she just “had that look on her face.”

Somehow it’s always right.

The last few weeks of summer go by in a breeze and suddenly she’s back in her parents arms, standing in front of a fully packed car, about to make the six hour drive back to Durham by herself.

“Call or text when you get there.”

“I will, Mom.”

“And let us know if you forgot anything. We can always overnight it for you.”

“Thanks, dad.”

Then Blair is wrapping her in a tight hug with the promise that they’ll be back home soon, and Sterling squeezes her eyes shut, sending tears down her cheeks.

They all wave from the driveway as Sterling backs out, peering over a pile of her stuff in the rearview mirror, and officially on her way back to school.

There’s something about listening to her own playlist, eating her own snacks, and choosing where to stop to use a bathroom that makes Sterling sit a little bit taller, sing a little louder, and feel a hell of a lot lighter about leaving her family.

All things considered, she’s eager to start her junior year, to be back in a familiar space, to see her friends, and potentially to see April.

Despite the avoidant behavior (which Sterling is totally over by the way) she thinks that things between them could finally shift if April is just willing to try. They’ll finally be back in the same place, not on separate continents, or surrounded by people from home that aren’t supposed to know how close they are. It’s an opportunity they will probably ever have to get back to their old selves.

Maybe it’s the excitement and the pride at this new independence of driving herself back, but the hours on the road go by much quicker than usual — or maybe Sterling was just driving faster than Anderson usually does.

Rachel is waiting outside when she pulls up, squealing as she tugs Sterling into a crushing hug.

“You’re not allowed to leave again. A semester and a summer was too long.”

“Tell me about it,” she agrees, throwing the first of many bags over her shoulder to head inside.

Once up in their room for the year, Rachel sits on her already made bed, fully moved in, while Sterling unpacks just about everything she owns.

“Okay, so I know I told you about Josh.”

“Your childhood crush turned summer fling?”

Rachel starts to smile. “Turns out it didn’t end with summer.”

“Really?”

She nods. “He wants to visit.”

“Good,” Sterling grins, “because I want to meet him.”

“You will.”

Rachel then pauses, eyeing Sterling closely while she puts her clothes on hangers. Something sits in the air between them, like Rachel is bracing to say something else.

“Speaking of flings,” she starts, voice cracking at a high pitch that erases the illusion of anything casual, “how are things with April?”

Sterling sighs. “Still the same. We don’t talk anymore, which is like, super disappointing. I know what we had wasn’t supposed to be serious and then I left, but we were friends before all that and I just really miss it.”

“So text her.”

Sterling laughs.

Rachel says it like it is just that simple, even accompanied her words with a little shrug, as if Sterling hadn’t been texting her from another continent only to be phased out altogether, as if April shouldn’t be the one to reach out and finally reciprocate the effort.

“What? It doesn’t hurt to try.”

“Are you conspiring with Lindsay again?”

“No,” Rachel answers firmly, and although Sterling narrows her eyes playfully she knows it to be true. “Just give it one last go.”

So Sterling does. Temporarily ignoring her three suitcases, she and Rachel workshop a message to send to April for the first time since Sterling set foot in America.

Sterling: feels a little weird to be back after so long but also kinda nice. where are you living this year?

Rachel nods, satisfied. “Casual, but purposeful.”

Her clothes are all on hangers, her pictures are all hung on the walls, her bed is made for what will probably be the only time this semester, and her stomach is full from dinner when Sterling finally gets a text back.

April: i’m off campus now.

Sterling doesn’t take long to reply but when waiting for April’s next response doesn’t just take a few minutes, or a few hours, or a few days, Sterling takes the hint.

The irony of it all is not lost on her. When she didn’t want to see April, they lived right down the hall from each other, and now that she is desperately hoping to run into her, Sterling is finding the campus to be too big, just like she claimed it would be years ago. The Lord works in mysterious ways, she hears her mother’s voice echo in her head, though sometimes Sterling wishes it was less of a mystery (even if she does love a good solve).

She longs for simplicity, not the complications of closeting and secrets, or the fear of getting too serious with an all encompassing feeling in a short time. She wants to just be able to take a hand and know what it means, not to be afraid to ask that question, to have that conversation, and to fall head over heels for someone she’s pretty much been in some version of love with for years.

So she looks for that feeling elsewhere.

Sterling continues to push herself out of her comfort zone throughout her years left at Duke — taking a ceramics class in the spring semester, dating a few new people, applying for an internship in the fall that she doesn’t think she’s qualified for, getting the internship, and then finally taking a spring break trip to visit Blair in Florida, figuring it’s now or never.

They’re playing a silly game of truth or drink, which is supposed to consist of asking hard questions in order to get people drunk, but Sterling really has no problem answering, especially when Blair’s roommate asks, “Best sex you’ve ever had?”

“April Stevens.”

Blair groans. “You’re still on that?”

“What? It was really good,” she argues, cheeks flushed (from the drink, of course). “I didn’t say I have feelings or anything.”

Blair just rolls her eyes and drops the subject, allowing the game to move on. But a few hours and many drinks later they find themselves on a bench outside the dorm, each with what once was a warm slice of pizza, and on the topic of April yet again, though this time they’re without an audience, with lowered inhibitions, and going for complete honesty.

“I just think you’re closing yourself off.”

“I am not,” Sterling says defensively. “I’ve dated plenty of people.”

“But no relationships with real feelings.”

“What would you call Casey then?”

“Okay, one relationship,” Blair corrects herself, “but it was pretty short lived.”

“And I’m fine with that.” Sterling takes her sister’s hand, staring into Blair’s eyes as she hopes to get her point across. “I spent six years in a relationship as a teen. I don’t want to force anything just to prove that I’m over whatever happened with April.”

“You don’t need to,” Blair says, her tone gentler as she squeezes Sterling’s hand. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. I don’t like when you’re sad, because then it makes me sad.”

“I’m in Florida, spending my last spring break with my favorite person. How could I ever be sad?”

She thought it was sweet but when Blair shoves her to the side, nearly knocking her over, Sterling whines, “Hey!”

“Don’t make me cry,” Blair warns, but there’s already a bit of sniffling going on.

The tail end of her college career goes by much faster than Sterling would like. The internship turns into a job offer, which turns into apartment hunting for her upcoming post-grad life, which she drags Rachel and a virtual Blair on every step of the way.

“I don’t like studios. Everything is in one place.”

“But it’s actually in my price range!”

“I agree with Rachel. Where am I supposed to sleep when I visit?”

“On a futon or in my bed like you do at home sometimes.”

“I was kinda hoping to have my own room.”

“Blair, it’s a studio. I wouldn’t even have my own room.”

That quickly fades into her last week of finals, and before Sterling knows it her family is up in Durham for graduation.

She grins over Blair and Rachel finally meeting in person and not just ganging up on her over FaceTime. They bring Blair to some of their favorite spots around town, introducing her to the best late night eats, the best drink deals, and the best parts of Sterling’s last four years. It’s so natural and fun that she can’t even bring herself to care that half the conversation stems from jokes made at her expense.

Debbie cries during graduation, whispering how proud she is into Sterling’s ear when they finally find each other in the swarm of people after the ceremony. It’s enough to make her chest feel tight, but Sterling doesn’t actually cry until she’s saying goodbye to Rachel, squeezing her in a firm hug and making her promise to come visit soon.

“Can I stay with Sterl instead of in the hotel?” Blair asks their parents over a celebratory dinner. The plan is for them to get on the road back to Atlanta in the morning.

“I thought you said there wasn’t enough room for you in a studio — that it can’t hold your energy or whatever.”

“We’ll make room,” Blair insists, waving a dismissive hand like she would never dare say such a thing. “Plus you still have to learn the noises.”

“What noises?”

“Every place has noises — the way the heat comes on, the way the floor creaks, the weird crackling sound that randomly comes from the TV. I know you. Until you learn the sounds you’re gonna be scared of all of them.”

And there’s really no arguing that.

Sterling snuggles close to her sister that night, wondering how she thought she could do this without Blair, wondering how she will do it without her every night going forward.

It takes Sterling some time but by August she is settled into her new apartment (noises and all), and settled into her new job. However, she’s not quite settled into this new chapter of her life.

It feels very grown up to wake up in the morning for a nine-to-five, then come home to her own place and make herself dinner (which is usually something microwaveable or just take-out). It’s routine by now but something about it still feels strange, carrying a dream-like quality, because Sterling feels totally unprepared for this to be real life, and for her to be an actual independent adult.

The reality of it stems from the fact that she does pay rent every month and go to work everyday, but something about it just feels temporary, because even with all these new changes, Sterling feels the same in so many ways.

She still talks to Blair everyday, calling her on her drive home from work and staying on the phone until she finishes dinner. She still asks her mom for advice on easy to make recipes, or finding friends in the office, or what cleaning supplies to use around the house. She still asks her dad for help with handy work, FaceTiming him for three hours one Sunday afternoon while Sterling builds a nightstand she ordered online. And she still finds joy, excitement, and bliss in the little things around her.

Sterling has a tradition on Fridays where she goes to a bagel shop down the block from her office to get herself breakfast as a little end of the week treat. It’s simple and maybe a tad silly but it pushes her through the week, thinking about her latte instead of just homemade coffee and her bagel as opposed to her usual bowl of cereal, and it definitely puts a little extra pep in her step on Friday mornings.

She stands in line amongst a bustle of coffee orders and egg sandwiches, trying to decide what to choose for herself and thrumming with excitement for the weekend, when a voice comes from behind her.

“Sterling?”

Sterling doesn’t even need to turn around to know who called her name. She could recognize that voice anywhere regardless of how long it’s been or what chaos is going on around her.

Still it surprises Sterling just the same, heart jumping into her throat, and gaze wider than normal as it lands on a familiar face.

“April, hi.”

“Hey.”

Her eyes don’t really get to settle on April as she extends her arms for a hug, wrapping them loosely around Sterling’s neck. She is a little taken aback by the embrace of a girl who hasn’t uttered a word to her in almost two years, but Sterling still lets her arms fall comfortably around April’s waist.

The last time April surprised her with a hug it was in the glow of sunshine, off of good news, and budding feelings buzzed inside of them. This should feel nothing like that.

In what should just be a stiffly polite hug amongst former classmates, Sterling, finds that April still smells like April. With every inhale Sterling is greeted by the same scent she snuck a whiff of in bible study all those years ago, and although April’s arms aren’t as warm as they used to be (years of distance will do that to them), Sterling also finds that she still melts into the embrace more than she would care to admit.

“What are you still doing around here?” she asks when they break apart.

“Oh, I got a job,” Sterling says casually, noting that April looks a little impressed, “and you’re…”

“Still in school. I’m in the masters program.”

“You’re in the masters program,” she repeats, nodding her head. Sterling really should’ve been able to guess that one. “Of course.”

For a moment they just look at each other, eyes finally getting to settle and take in the ways that they’ve changed. April’s hair is a little shorter, her smile is a little easier, and her shoulders don’t seem to hold nearly as much tension as they used to. She looks like someone ready for adulthood (though Sterling is pretty sure April was born ready, the look has just caught up with her). No longer nineteen and new to exploring parts of herself that once had to be hidden, April appears set and certain. Sterling isn’t sure if she should feel proud, intimidated, or turned on, so she runs through a quick mix of all three.

“So, um…” April starts, breaking away with her cheeks slightly flushed after studying Sterling, trying to come up with something to say as to not let this moment die.

Sterling finds the words first, asking before she can think better of it, “Would you want to catch up sometime? Stingers does a great happy hour.”

“Well they’re not just known for their trivia nights.”

The two of them share a smile that feels familiar, like old times on the swing set of their elementary school, or in Ellen’s office after getting a good grade, or in the bathroom of their freshman year dorm, or in a bed the morning after a night together.

Sterling can’t seem to shake the recurring thought that this particular smile feels like a fresh start.

Chapter Text

“I thought you were just friends.”

“Well we were,” Sterling says, standing in front of her mirror and tugging at the hem of her shirt, “and then we weren’t.”

“So you do still have feelings?”

“Never said that.”

“Why do you keep changing outfits then?”

Sterling looks over to where her phone is propped up on her dresser with Blair watching what is probably a pathetic image unfold.

“I just haven’t seen her in a while.”

“Sterl, you haven’t changed much. You’re still hot.”

“You think?”

“Obviously,” she confirms and for a second Sterling feels settled, “but if you don’t hurry up you’ll be late, and hot or not, Stevens will hate that.”

And now it’s back to nervous.

“Right,” she says, checking the time. Sterling scrambles to find her keys, and her purse, and her wallet with mere minutes to spare. “Hey, I know I went through a whole thing about being over her, so thanks for not giving me a hard time about this.”

Blair laughs. “Oh, I’m planning to give you tons of shit. It just doesn’t seem like a good time right now.”

“Awesome.”

“Call me after!” she rushes before Sterling can hang up.

Sterling thinks about everything her sister said on the drive to Stingers to meet April. She has had feelings, definitely, but she’s not sure where they are now. She had them in high school, had them through most of college, and a small taste of it came back up when the pair of arms she spent years longing for wrapped around her in a bagel shop. But Sterling also had feelings of hurt, feelings of disappointment, and feelings of confusion for the last few years over an explanation she never received. So maybe she is stressing about her outfit and if she’s “still hot” but whether it’s because of the old flame that still flickers somewhere between them or because she wants to look like someone worth missing, Sterling isn’t entirely sure.

They settle in at a high top table near the bar, fruity drinks already stationed between them and food on their mind as Sterling distracts herself with the menu. She pretends to read it regardless of the fact that her appetite is almost nonexistent, finding that sitting across from April is a lot harder than she expected.

They’re tense and awkward — one of which, she’s used to. Some sort of tension has always lied between them regardless of their status, whether it be animosity or desire or competition, it’s always lingered. The awkwardness is new. In their best and worst of times, Sterling and April have never struggled so much to find words that they’ve actually talked about the weather.

“Nice day today.”

“Yeah, very sunny.”

It’s strange and it bubbles up in Sterling’s stomach with every stumbling point of small talk, through passionless stories about work and her new apartment until it starts to remind her of Debbie.

So many times they would go to the grocery store, or to church, or to a school event where Debbie would bump into one of her book club friends and immediately plaster on a smile, bragging about how great things are to make up for whatever gossip and judgement had recently gone around about her kids.

Sterling feels the similarity as her neck starts to tighten in the same way her mother’s used to whenever Debbie would force a laugh to hold back the quip she’d really like to make. It’s an art that Sterling has never fully mastered, always struggling to keep her tongue tied when it comes to her true feelings. So when both she and April go to speak at the same time and April follows it with, “I guess we’re a little rusty,” Sterling just can’t help herself.

“Well you kinda stopped talking to me.”

April blinks, stunned, and Sterling’s senses come rushing back to her.

“That was uncalled for. I didn’t mean —”

“I think you did,” April says without much bitterness, “which is fine. I probably deserved it.”

And just like that, in a blurted, thoughtless rush, it’s out there on the table.

“So much for just simple catching up.”

April swirls her straw around in her cup. “You thought this was going to be simple?” she asks, a teasing glint to her eyes.

It’s enough for Sterling to crack her first easy smile of the evening. “I don’t know what I thought, honestly.”

She’s been bracing for this moment for days (a moment she’s wondered about for years if she’s being honest), rehearsing what she would say, imagining how April would respond, and questioning how it will all turn out. Now that they’re here though, and it’s real, and she can’t decide what will happen next with her own conscience, the conversation carries a much heavier weight. It sits perched on her chest to the point where Sterling forgets everything she spent years thinking she would say.

Fortunately, April breaks the silence.

“I should probably explain that, huh?”

Sterling gives a small shrug of her shoulders, waiting for April to speak, but April just stares down at her hands as they grip her cold glass, collecting condensation while she tries to find the right words.

“I was with someone,” she admits softly with such an uncharacteristic nervous undertone that for a second Sterling’s ears start to ring over what might come next. “I know you and I said we were just friends back when we were involved, but that wasn’t entirely true for me. I was in — I had feelings for you. When you left for another continent I thought it would be easier to move on if we didn’t talk as much. So I wedged in some space, and eventually I met this girl, and when you came back it just seemed like a good idea to leave this closed.”

“Oh,” Sterling says, slow to process. The explanation that she had been craving for so long now sits in front of her and Sterling doesn’t really know what to do with it. “I — um, I can understand that.”

Truthfully, she can understand it, but it does hurt a little to not be chosen and to be the one cut out when somebody else got everything she wanted.

“You don’t have to.”

Sterling furrows her eyebrows.

“I know you’re someone who likes to find the silver lining, but you don’t have to do that with me. You don’t have to be so...good.”

“We agreed to just a semester thing. You technically didn’t owe me more.”

“Sterling.”

April’s voice is firm, but Sterling can’t get hers to match, trembling as she utters a small, “Yeah?”

“I’m trying to say, I’m sorry, is all.”

“I know. Thank you.”

Now they’re back to just being tense, but even that feels like a lot after two years of nothing and Sterling just has to break it.

“So who’s the girl?”

“Nobody anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, because that’s something people say in this situation, but April just brushes it off with a dismissive wave of her hand and a slight roll of her eyes like it’s not worth getting into. Sterling leans back in her seat, trying not to seem too thrilled by it. “Wow, for like thirty seconds there I was so happy for you and not at all jealous.”

April laughs, a light and easy sound. “We broke up almost a year ago. There’s nothing to be jealous about.”

Realistically, Sterling knows that. She knows she shouldn’t be jealous, knows that she dated people over the last two years as well, but there’s this feeling she can’t quite shake, a thought of that could’ve been me if she and April had just gone about their relationship a little bit differently.

She picks at the wrapper from her straw, allowing the feeling to linger for a moment. It should be easier now that they’re cleared a lot of the air, but Sterling still feels a little on edge.

She shifts in her seat. “Why, um — why didn’t you reach out to me after that?”

“I don’t know,” April shrugs, although she definitely does have an idea of why. She just lets it sit on the tip of her tongue, getting a taste for it before she says, “I guess I thought you might be mad at me or maybe in the same situation.”

Sterling shakes her head. “I was definitely confused and hurt,” she admits, more honest than she’s been all night, “but never fully mad.”

She had gone through a few stages following April’s phase out. Sterling had been sad over the loss of someone she had known for years and her stupid broken heart. She had been confused after expecting that they would just go back to being friends like they were before. And she had been worried that something bigger was going on with April, which apparently was true even if that bigger thing wasn’t family stuff like Sterling had anticipated. It was feelings that were hard to swallow and a chance at finding happiness elsewhere — without her.

“It just kinda sucked, you know? Made me feel like, disposable or something.”

Now April is quick to shake her head. “Never,” she says so firm and certain that the weight on Sterling’s chest starts to evaporate. “I know my actions might say otherwise, but I can definitely agree that it sucked for a while. It was just what I thought I needed.”

“Thought?”

“I mean, we’re here aren’t we? Clearly I was at least a little wrong in thinking we would just leave this behind.”

Sterling nods, looking away. “True.”

“Hey,” she says, grabbing Sterling’s attention again. “I really am sorry. I could’ve handled it better.”

That right there, along with the way April holds her gaze like she needs Sterling to hear her, is what makes Sterling feel like this is a good enough start.

“Okay,” she returns as the ache in her stomach finally turns into hunger. “So what do we want to eat?”

Happy hour becomes a weekly thing for them. They meet up at Stingers every Tuesday for drinks and a shared appetizer, just catching up on all that they’ve missed.

Sterling wants to plow through the menu and try something new every week, which April gives her a little bit of push back on. But that only lasts until Sterling mentions expanding her palate, then April is right on board, not daring to be called something as childish as a picky eater.

Week after week they run through the menu and stories of the last two years, mostly staying on the fun and easy topics as they rebuild around something fragile.

Sterling finds out that April did in fact land an internship that one summer where she didn’t come home and April finds out that Sterling thought she met Harry Styles while in London.

“You got fooled by a look-alike?”

“My ten-year-old self would be ashamed.”

But as they reach points where their paths intersect with talks of roommates and friendships, things get a little trickier and the past gets harder to avoid.

It starts with April bringing up that she hated having Sam move into her off campus house halfway through junior year.

“She’s just so lazy.”

“You always thought that.”

“I know, but this was worse. It wasn’t just me being, well, me,” April explains, pausing then to sip her drink. “She was messy, and loud, and she had this running bit whenever she drank where she would call me any other month in the calendar except for April.”

Sterling tries to stifle a laugh at the image of a drunk Sam following around a sober April, and calling her things like February or July or September, but Sterling ultimately can’t hold it in. “Sorry, wow, I just — I’m surprised you both even survived that.”

April simply shrugs. “I stayed with Emma a lot then.”

Emma, as Sterling has learned, is the ex-girlfriend.

“Plus, Lindsay loves Sam and I wasn’t going anywhere without her.”

The mention of Lindsay brings Sterling to the topic of Rachel, who went back home to New Jersey, is still dating Josh, and has been terribly missed in Sterling’s everyday life.

“She was a good roommate for you.”

“She definitely was.”

April smiles. “We got lucky.”

It leaves Sterling reminiscent and teetering dangerously on the edge of a more complicated conversation — one that they’ve never had.

She goes for it.

With the distraction of the waiter dropping off their drinks at the table Sterling, despite her better judgement, casually mentions, “They totally set us up.”

“What do you mean?”

Sterling takes an experimental sip of her latest colorful cocktail, nods her head in approval, then swallows and says, “Rachel knew I liked you and was trying to get me to make a move. That’s how we ended up at the same party that time.”

April narrows her eyes, pausing for a moment as she thinks back. “Lindsay told me that you ran into her and specifically invited us.”

Sterling shakes her head.

“She even went into a whole thing about how it would be rude to say no.”

“We were played.”

“Wow,” April laughs, too bewildered for anything more. But then it fades and the moment still sits with them, leaving April to take a plunge of her own, asking, “Wait, you liked me?”

Sterling rolls her eyes. “We regularly hooked up for like two months, April. Yes, I liked you.”

She purposely says it like it’s obvious because, well, Sterling thought it was. However, the look on April’s face, the blinking of her eyes, and the pink hue on her cheeks, all say otherwise.

“I thought you were just...”

“Just what?”

“I don’t know, horny?”

Sterling smiles, which seems to throw April even more.

Something about April Stevens saying the word horny and not something like, intense urge to ravage or intrigued by your offer just tickles her a little. Add that in with the fact that Sterling has never known herself to be subtle and has always known April to be observant, and it’s honestly a miracle she didn’t burst out laughing at the premise alone.

“I mean, yeah, I was,” she says, “but I could’ve been 'just horny' with anyone. I wouldn’t have risked what we had with our friendship over that.”

“Oh.”

“You really didn’t know that?”

April just shrugs, making any of the lines that they had drawn for this rebuild seem like they were all drawn in sand.

“April,” she presses, because Sterling almost can’t believe it.

“You can be very...pushy when you want something and you kind of just let me be.”

Sterling let’s her head hang as she fails to stifle yet another laugh, because of course this would come back to bite her in the ass all these years later.

“What?”

“I did that on purpose! I’ve been trying not to put so much pressure on things.”

“Well,” April starts, hesitating as a smile forms on her face, “that’s good to know, I guess.”

They get more and more comfortable with each other every week until Sterling finds that friendship has fallen naturally back into place. Without the weight of the past hanging over them, Sterling and April are able to pick up where they left off before the start of their fall semester fling.

At first Sterling would wait until Tuesday to fill April in on anything she had to share, worried that they would be left with nothing except the weather to talk about, but conversation starts to flow so easily between them that she doesn’t always remember everything she wants to tell April. Which is when the texting starts.

Sterling: i just met blair’s latest boy over facetime

April: what’s the verdict?

Sterling: i’m not trying to be judgy. i thought he seemed very nice but my parents will definitely not go for it

April: why? they’re usually pretty understanding

Sterling: he has a face tattoo and he’s an atheist.

April: ohmygodd

Sterling: might be the most drama the wesley’s have seen since i found out i was adopted

Texting on a daily basis and seeing each other once a week reminds Sterling a lot of that one summer before sophomore year. Only this time Sterling isn’t seeing April from across the church on a Sunday. She’s seeing her across a small table with a shared appetizer and a couple drinks in between, and she loves it.

She loves how effortless it is, loves how it gives her something to look forward to (even more than her Friday morning bagel), loves how although she is making friends at the office she still has someone else to lean on — someone who understands her more than just a common colleague.

But what Sterling loves even more is that April is the one who escalates their meetings past once a week.

April: what are you doing for dinner?

Sterling: i found lunchables at the store the other day and bought like 5 packs. so probably that

April: well i made pasta if you want real food.

Sterling: but LUNCHABLES!!

April: there’s melted cheese on top.

Sterling: okay i’m coming

April’s apartment is exactly what Sterling would expect. It’s neat and organized, has more than just one big room, and while the decor is sparing, it doesn’t feel cold or empty at all.

Of course to top it all off her food is also fantastic, as is her company.

“Do you think you’ll stay here once you graduate?”

“Maybe,” April shrugs, laughing a little when Sterling frowns at her lack of an answer. “I think you learned that you go where the job is.”

“But hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” she starts, thinking for a moment, “I don’t think I would mind if this was my life.”

It becomes more of a regular thing, the extra time spent together. Sometimes they stay in and April cooks or Sterling shows up with take out, sometimes they go to a movie or they rent one, but most of the time Sterling gets lost in how easy it is, how great it could be, but she always lands on how her lack of patience and their complicated past tend to prove otherwise.

“Are you gonna want a tour?” Sterling asks, turning her key in the lock of her apartment door.

“Absolutely,” April says without missing a beat.

Sterling leads the way, flipping on the light and spinning around in the middle of her own floor.

“This is it,” she says, arms open wide to reveal her entire apartment.

April smiles. “Wow. Great tour.”

“Right?”

“You should totally be a realtor or something.”

They both laugh, free and easy, holding each other’s gaze for a few seconds longer than necessary, until Sterling’s drops down to April’s smile. It creates a buzz deep inside her that Sterling hasn’t felt in a while — two years to be exact.

She breaks away suddenly at the realization, clearing her throat. “Well I’ll grab some utensils. You just, uh, make yourself comfortable, I guess.”

It’s abrupt and clumsy how Sterling sets the bag of take-out down on the counter, shuffling through her drawers for forks and knives, and wondering what the heck that was.

Obviously she’s gotten pretty close with April, and obviously there’s still an attraction there, but recently that urge hasn’t been full force. It’s been an inkling, easy to swallow, and this right now is throwing her for a loop.

As she turns back around, thinking her head has been cleared, Sterling finds April perched rather stiffly on the edge of her bed. It makes her breath hitch more than it should.

Her mind comes dangerously close to running away with thoughts of forgetting the food and giving April a tour of her body, but Sterling shakes it off before it gets too out of hand and hard to contain.

“Sorry, I’m still working on the seating,” she says, pointing to a large box that has been collecting dust on the other side of the room. “Futon coming soon.”

“What are you waiting for?”

“The weekend. I’m gonna FaceTime my dad so he can talk me through it.”

“We can do it.”

Sterling quirks an eyebrow at a very confident April. “You’ve seen me with tools. You had to cut all of the wood for our Solomon’s Temple.”

“And you were so great at passing me things.”

She says it with a genuine smile and without any sarcasm or bite underneath, which makes Sterling decide, “Okay, let’s do it.”

After their food is done they find themselves on the floor amongst a large pile of pieces and parts. April holds the instructions in her hand, eyes narrowed as she studies it carefully, because no, they absolutely cannot just “wing it.”

“Okay, I need parts C and D, and two screws from the yellow bag.”

Sterling rummages through the array of metal, fumbling for the properly labeled pieces, and can't take her eyes off of April once she passes them over.

She’s very focused, reminding Sterling not only of when they worked on their biblical building, but also of when they used to study together, and she had wished April would look at her like that.

Sterling then takes an obvious, but large leap further, remembering when April did in fact look at her like that — like Sterling was something to be studied, to be learned, to be paid the utmost attention — and boy does it make her skin grow hot.

There’s truly nothing more intense than a focused April Stevens and if Sterling learned anything from her junior year debate tournament, it’s that intensity does something to her that’s just out of her control.

For the rest of their work, Sterling is quiet, just watching April and the way she breathes slow and steady when she pieces two parts together, or the way her hands grip the screwdriver, or the way her forehead creases when she zeros in on something.

By the time they’re done Sterling needs a drink, citing it as something celebratory and a gesture of thanks, when in reality it has a lot more to do with her own sudden thirst.

She searches the fridge for whatever she can find, pulling out a half filled bottle of wine and pouring them each a glass.

Sterling hands a cup to April. “To all of your hard work.”

“To still being a good team.”

They clink their glasses together and April immediately takes a sip, but Sterling lags a moment behind. She watches over the rim of her glass as April walks away to sit on the futon, boasting about how comfortable it is.

The sight in itself is oddly comfortable. Despite it being entirely new (with the freshly built futon and the fact that April has never been here before) it looks so very natural.

Sterling doesn’t even realize that she’s staring, frantically trying to figure out where this feeling came from, until April interrupts.

“Admiring our handiwork?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah,” Sterling blunders, tearing her gaze away before muttering a quiet, “Something like that.”

Chapter Text

Sterling doesn’t know what happened.

She was hurt when April pushed her away, then she greatly enjoyed having her back as a friend, but in the past few weeks there have been some moments — moments that brought her back to being sixteen with an invigorating crush, and moments that brought her back to being nineteen and getting to experience April in ways that Sterling never had before.

And it’s really confusing.

Part of her loves their friendship more than anything, but there is still a part of her (and she knows exactly which part) that wants more.

At first it started as just simple desire, watching April with a screwdriver and thinking screw me instead, but Sterling wouldn’t dare make another move on desire alone. Instead she would just look at April and feel a craving deep within, longing to be touched and to be kissed.

It was relatively easy to swallow in the beginning — nothing a little masturbation couldn’t fix — but then that burning desire turned into something much softer.

She first notices it after April drags her on an afternoon hike, promising that Sterling can choose where they order dinner and pick what movie they stream if she just stops complaining. It’s enough to keep her occupied and distracted from the fact that her feet hurt, and it lands them on April’s couch with pizza and a romantic comedy later that night.

While sitting side by side, painfully aware of every simple movement April is making, Sterling finds that her thoughts aren’t just horny. She’s not strategizing what position would be the quickest to get into if they were to just go at it right there (not like she does that on a regular basis or anything). Instead she’s wondering if April wants to hold her hand too, or if she would lean in if Sterling were to put an arm around her, or if she also sees a familiarity in the pair of oblivious friends on screen.

It takes her never ending yearning of being touched and kissed to another level, now longing for these softer things and well. Which leads Sterling to the startling realization that she is also, on some level, longing to be loved.

It’s not exactly a foreign concept. In the past she and April had been on the cusp of love twice. Sterling has practically been fantasizing about going further, falling with no restrictions, and actually being able to call April hers since they were in high school. However, that also means it makes Sterling want to act like a teenager again — and not in a good way.

It makes her emotional and impulsive, feeling like a bull in a china shop. She regularly has to remind herself to rein it in, to slow down, and to not destroy everything in her path, because crossing this line for a third time, well, that would probably leave them in an all or nothing situation, with no turning back, leaving future friendship off the table if they were to fail again. All of which should be scary or at the very least, intimidating, but once Sterling starts noticing this feeling, she can’t stop. She finds that it lingers everywhere.

It flickers in their small moments with April telling her neighbor to fuck off after he catcalls Sterling in the stairwell, or April sending Sterling home with leftovers from the dinner she made them, or April walking her down to the front door that night just to bid Sterling farewell.

It blossoms even more in the moments where April takes Sterling’s hand after hearing that Blair reported Chloe was sick, or when she casually says “I missed you” one Saturday afternoon after they had just seen each other on Tuesday, or when she calls Sterling after a long day just dying to share the details with someone.

But it screams at Sterling, like a wailing siren, on an evening that starts off just like any other.

Sterling leaves work with a little pep in her step (as expected — it is Friday after all) and she goes straight to April’s apartment, where dinner and a new documentary are waiting for them.

What she doesn’t expect is for April to open the door with her eyes red and wet, plastering on a smile to say, “Hey.”

“Hi,” Sterling exhales, the word getting a little caught in her throat with surprise. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, all good,” she dismisses casually, stepping out of the doorway to let Sterling in.

Sterling is slow to follow, still processing the rare sight of an upset April Stevens.

If this had occurred a month prior, Sterling wouldn’t have been so tempted to push. She would let April insist she was fine, even when they both knew she wasn’t, and Sterling would’ve made it her mission to make April laugh or at the very least smile. But at this point they’re in a much better place, more stable, more solid, and she isn’t going to give up that easily.

“April,” she gently presses, and that’s all it takes for April to turn back around, facing Sterling from the other side of the kitchen. “You don’t have to tell me, but you can if you want to.”

April runs a hand through her hair, releasing a heavy sounding sigh. “My dad got arrested again,” she says, nearly bringing Sterling’s heart to a full stop, “which objectively really is fine because I haven’t seen him since the divorce, but my mom also hadn’t seen him since the divorce and he still thought it was cool to hit her up for bail money.”

“Wow.”

“That’s not even the best part,” April warns, voice low in an attempt to cover how it cracks. Sterling braces for what could be next. “She obviously turned him down, so then he called me.”

“He called you?”

April nods to confirm and somehow in her mix of shock and concern, Sterling finds a way to also feel angry on April’s behalf.

“It’s not my problem anymore. I know that. It’s literally what I told him. So I don’t really know why I’m upset.”

April caps it off with a defeated little shrug of her shoulders, making Sterling’s chest feel tight over the fact that John Stevens can’t seem to stop hurting his daughter even all these years later. It also makes Sterling put aside the anger, knowing that it’s not what April needs.

She takes a slow step in closer, like any abrupt movement might scare off the rare vulnerability in front of her. “I think it makes sense,” Sterling says gently.

April rolls her eyes in her way that’s more fond than annoyed. “Of course you do.”

“What?” Sterling takes another step forward until they’re face to face, without much room to let their gaze wander elsewhere. “It’s perfectly reasonable.”

“For you,” April says, so certain in her words. “You’re caring, and sweet, and loyal. I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

“You can be those things too. I’ve seen it. I think I’m seeing it right now.”

April looks away, a bashful shade of pink spreading through her cheeks and Sterling just can’t shut up.

“I’ve only ever had one experience with my birth mother. She kidnapped me, held me at gunpoint, and tied me up in a bathroom, and yet, I still hope she’s well. I’m happy that it’s far away from me and in a jail cell somewhere, but I still think about it. So for you to see your father — who you’ve grown up with, looked up to, shared a home with for God’s sake — continuously be a major disappointment, I think it’s more than okay to feel let down.”

“Gunpoint?”

Sterling brushes it off with a wave of her hand. “Gunpoint, ransom, the whole nine yards. My point is that it’s not weird, or out of character, or whatever you think it means to be upset. And I know you don’t really like to do this in front of people, so we can totally reschedule the movie for another time.”

“No,” April says suddenly, grabbing Sterling’s wrist as she was practically backtracking towards the door. “You can stay if you want.”

“Well, what do you want?”

“I want you to stay.”

In April’s soft request, her voice thick with emotion, Sterling catches that feeling again — the flutter in her chest, the ache for something more. This time it’s much more prominent, harder to ignore, and she knows it will sit with her for weeks to come.

What doesn’t help at all is that while this feeling weighs on her mind, consuming all of her daydreams and fantasies, the two of them get mistaken for girlfriends three times.

The first time it stems from a simple text on a Monday afternoon.

April: i’m at the deli by your office. do you want a sandwich?

Sterling: omg yes. i’ll take anything with melted cheese and bacon.

About fifteen minutes later Sterling looks up from her work to see a smiling April, holding a brown paper bag and a Snapple bottle.

“You like the raspberry, right?”

For a second Sterling just nods, staring blankly, then April is handing it to her and she remembers that she should speak. “Thank you.”

“Sure,” she shrugs, like remembering Sterling’s favorite drink flavor and buying her lunch is just a common occurrence (it’s not but it totally should be). “So is this your desk?”

“What gave that away?”

“Well you’re sitting at it,” April says, smiling as she adds, “and there’s like ten pictures of your family.”

“Is it too much?”

April shakes her head. “It’s cute.”

Sterling looks away as her face grows hot over something as simple and silly as being called cute. It just reinforces the fact that April makes her feel way more like a teenager with a crush, rather than a grown adult that’s still trying to figure out their next move. Troubled by that feeling, Sterling changes the subject.

“Are we still on for tomorrow?”

“Of course. We never miss a Tuesday.”

“You can pick the appetizer. Whatever you want,” Sterling says, unpacking the brown bag to find a warm, deliciously scented sandwich.

“Wow, I’m honored.”

“Well I have to return the gesture after all this.”

April grins, making the surrounding murmured voices and ringing phones suddenly fade away. Her smile is all Sterling can focus on — well, until they’re interrupted.

“Hey, Sterling!”

She tears her gaze away to find Janet, her coworker, hovering over her desk.

“Did you get my email?”

“Yeah, I told you it was taken care of like an hour ago.”

“Oh, I’m just getting back from lunch. I haven’t checked anything yet,” Janet says in a low voice, trying not to be overheard on her late return to the office. She got a stern talking to last week after a failed attempt at squeezing in a doctor appointment for her son. Janet then glances over at April and puts on a bright smile. “Who’s this?”

“This is April. We went to school together,” Sterling says, in what she knows is a clumsy answer. She should refer to April as a current friend instead of just an old classmate, but something about it feels tricky. “She, uh, brought me a sandwich.”

“How lovely!” Janet holds out her hand in greeting. “I’m assuming you’re the girlfriend.”

Sterling thinks her heart must drop to the bottom of her stomach, because there’s a brief pause followed by a sudden rapid pounding that makes her feel sick with panic.

April apparently feels it too, eyes wide, face a deep shade of red, and voice higher than normal as she says, “No, I’m not actually.”

“I don’t — I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Janet looks genuinely confused, increasing the likelihood that this subject won’t be dropped. Sterling braces herself.

“Who’s the girl you always go out with then?”

With her mouth too dry for words, Sterling simply points at April, who offers an awkward wave.

Janet just utters a small, “Oh.”

She expects things to go south between them after that, predicting that April will recoil just a bit over the blunder of Janet’s assumption, but it never happens. They still go to Stinger’s the next day, still talk on an almost constant basis, and the tension that they’ve grown accustomed to never so much as dips into anything stiff or awkward.

In fact, the second time the girlfriend error happens, April brings it up herself over happy hour the following week.

“My mom thinks I have a girlfriend because of how often I’m out now.”

Sterling sputters for a second, nearly choking on her food, which leaves April regretful and borderline horrified.

“I didn’t mean —”

“Since when are you out to your mom?”

The panic on April’s face disappears, tension fading from her shoulders at the realization that she didn’t say anything wrong, they just haven’t caught up on everything.

“Since that winter break when you left for London,” April says, picking at Sterling’s latest appetizer choice — jalapeño poppers. “I told her the day before I came back here. Just in case.”

“How did it go?”

Sterling leans forward in anticipation, mind racing with possibilities while April takes a second to chew. She knows that her perception of the Stevens family is a little outdated, Sterling hasn’t interacted with either of April’s parents since she whacked John over the head with a gun, so she tries to ignore the nerves clumping in her stomach and attempts to cling to the sliver of hope that some things might be better now.

“It went fine,” April guesses, lifting her shoulders to shrug. “It was awkward and then I came back to school, so anytime we spoke there was this tension of not wanting to bring it up or not being sure if we should, but then when I went home for Easter we had a really long talk about everything. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to my mom that much in my life and it went shockingly well. Far better than I ever expected.”

Relief hits Sterling first. “That’s great, April.”

April shifts in her seat, sitting taller with a smile on her face that seems to say, it is, isn’t it?

Pride hits Sterling second.

“Remember the girl I mentioned?”

Emma, she means.

Sterling nods, bracing a little.

“Well my mom met her — not just as a friend, but as my girlfriend — and actually really liked her.”

“Wow,” Sterling exhales, finally leaning back in her seat. April just nods and grins, almost like she still can’t believe it either.

The best part about it, Sterling thinks, is how April sits with her shoulders squared, beaming with the pride of telling someone who understands just how hard it was for her to get to this point. Someone who has seen April crying, and scared, and ready to break her own heart over that fear. It’s what makes Sterling reach across the table for her hand.

“I’m really proud of you.”

April just blinks for a second, taken aback as well, but she eventually squeezes Sterling’s hand and says, “Thank you.”

It’s crazy to think about how far they’ve come from closeted teens, overwhelmed with new feelings, and on the brink of something incredible, to adults comfortably holding hands across a table and definitely on the brink of something yet again. Sterling just isn’t sure of how to get them there.

She doesn’t want to rush it like they did in high school, doesn’t want to lose it like they did in college, but whatever’s happening now, Sterling thinks it’s a feeling that they’re both aware of.

And they’re definitely not the only ones.

The third time it comes from Blair.

“How’s your girlfriend?”

Sterling rolls her eyes, holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear, while rummaging through the fridge for something to eat.

“April is fine.”

“So it is official?”

“No, Blair. I just knew what you meant,” she says, pulling out a yogurt and deciding to call that dinner.

“Well can you speed it up a little?”

Sterling laughs at Blair’s sudden urgency, she can’t help it. Normally Blair is too caught up in either teasing Sterling for this old flame that she won’t let die, or reminding Sterling of all the ways it went wrong in a vow to “protect her future heart.”

“Since when do you want me with April?”

“Since you’re obviously in love with her and I have a bet with Bowser about it.”

Sterling feels her face warm. “How did Bowser get involved?” she asks, ignoring anything that has to do with love.

“He said he was tired of hearing me talk about you guys so we made it more interesting. Now with fifty bucks on the line he lets me share.”

Fifty? That’s a lot of pressure.”

“Well then get moving,” Blair exclaims with a snap of her fingers.

Sterling hates how she stands up straighter at the sound, like she’s thirteen again and her mom just gave her a task to complete. It’s what makes her mischievously say, “Maybe I should talk to Bowser first and hear from both sides.”

“Bowser doesn’t have your best interest at heart. He’s just blinded by the money.”

She almost brushes it off, coming extremely close to dropping the subject, but then Sterling suddenly perks up, realizing, “Wait a second. That would mean you think it’s within my best interest to date April.”

“Gross. I never said that.”

“But you implied it.”

“Totally different story,” Blair dismisses. “I can imply all day, but it’ll take a hell of a lot more than fifty freaking dollars for me to actually give April Stevens my blessing.”

“But she does have it, right? That’s the takeaway here?”

Blair lets out a long sigh. “Sterl, I love you very much, but if I lose this bet over your inability to read between the lines you’re going to owe me fifty dollars.”

It gets in Sterling’s head after that — the news of the bet, the ease of her interactions with April, the fact that calling April a friend felt out of place with Janet, and that she didn’t even correct Blair for throwing around the word love.

Maybe she should speed it up a little. Too often she goes to April’s for a movie and halfway through April is asleep with her head on Sterling’s shoulder, or their eyes lock for a moment too long, or Sterling stares at April’s lips while she’s talking and knows April notices by how her cheeks always seem to flush.

It shouldn’t have to be difficult or overthought, since Sterling has pretty much always wanted more. Through high school, through college, and over these last few weeks, it hasn’t been a question of if they should cross that line, but a question of how.

So when they’re walking down the sidewalk towards Stingers and Sterling feels their fingers brush, she decides to push, to go for it, and simply takes April’s hand in hers.

She immediately hears breath hitching and for a moment Sterling isn’t sure if it was just her own or not, but then from the corner of her eye, while desperately trying to play it cool, she sees April look down to where their fingers are entwined.

“What’s this?” she wonders, her smile light and teasing as she gives Sterling’s hand a squeeze.

Sterling doesn’t go for light and teasing though. She’s all in.

“I told you right off the bat that I would be jealous of you dating someone. So whatever you want this to be,” she says, gesturing with their clasped hands, “is up to you and fine with me.”

Sterling starts to walk ahead but a yank on the end of her arm spins her back around, bringing her face to face with April just in time for their lips to meet.

It surprises her, but Sterling doesn’t hesitate to melt into it, bringing her free hand to April’s waist and pulling April in closer.

It’s been two years since they last kissed, since Sterling last felt April’s hand in hers, since April last brushed her thumb across Sterling’s jaw, since Sterling’s whole body seemed to lurch forward into hers, and yet it all just falls seamlessly back into place.

Everything that Sterling had craved two years ago — the simplicity of just taking a hand, of asking the question and daring to give an honest answer — now suddenly feels very within reach as they stand on a street corner blissfully unaware of their surroundings. There could be people walking past them or cars driving by, but Sterling doesn’t even care. None of it so much as registers in her mind with April in her arms and tenderly stroking her cheek.

That feeling doesn’t even fade when their kiss breaks because April just presses her forehead against Sterling’s, leaving them there for a moment.

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” Sterling agrees breathlessly, eyes still shut from the kiss. It’s not even close to an articulate response, but she hopes it captures the feeling, hopes it says everything from I’ve wanted to do that for so long to the even bigger I don’t think I ever want to stop doing that.

That realization gets Sterling to open her eyes just as April is taking a small step back.

“So, um,” she starts clumsily, cheeks flushed and barely restraining a grin, “Stingers?”

Sterling nods, still too dazed for words, and apparently not the only one. She lets herself be tugged by the hand and led down the sidewalk, pretty certain that she would go anywhere as long as it included April and the possibility of kissing her again.

Chapter Text

“So is this like a date now?”

Sterling can’t help it. She knows it’s only been like thirty seconds since they kissed but their hands are still joined, there’s a rush of energy flowing through her, and April appears to be feeling the same way, standing by Sterling’s side with her cheeks a little pink and smiling softly.

April stifles a laugh. “Sure.”

“What?”

She leans closer, lowering her voice a little as her eyes dart to the hostess stand. “Would you ever actually have a first date at Stingers?”

“Yeah, why not? The food is good, the drinks aren’t overpriced—”

“Your shoes stick to the floor if you stand in one place for too long,” April finishes, lifting her foot to make her point.

“It’s all part of the charm.”

Sterling waits until they’re seated with drinks and picking at a plate of nachos to bring it up again.

“So, hypothetically,” she starts, which always gets April to roll her eyes (though April also always leans closer like she’s really taking it seriously). “Where would you take a girl on a first date?”

“A hypothetical girl or someone in particular?”

Sterling shrugs. “Whichever you prefer.”

“Okay.” April pauses to give it a second of thought. Sterling shifts to the edge of her seat. “So hypothetically I would probably take her — wait a second.” She stops herself right before she gets to the good part. “Why are we assuming I’m taking you out and not the other way around? You are the one with a full time job. I’m assuming you have more money than me.”

“Your apartment says otherwise.”

“I know how to save.”

“April, I had microwaveable mac and cheese for lunch today and it wasn’t even a name brand.”

April narrows her eyes to examine Sterling, a teasing glint in her glance. “I bet you liked it.”

“That’s not the point.”

“What exactly is the point, Sterl?” she says, lowering her voice and placing her hand on top of Sterling’s.

Sterling gulps under the touch. “The point is…” she trails off, mind going blank. It used to happen to Sterling all the time at debate. She would get ahead of herself, ramble nervously, and then forget how she even got there.

While staring stupidly at April’s mouth, Sterling notices that the corner starts to tug upwards on one side. She instantly recognizes the smile as the one April wears when she’s about to win.

Sterling has to find an answer.

“The point is that I asked first and we can reverse the question after you give your answer,” she decides, watching as April quirks an eyebrow, apparently impressed with her quick recovery. “Although you did just blow your cover about the mystery girl. Now we both know it’s me.”

April rolls her eyes halfheartedly, but it still doesn’t cover up the gentle way her thumb sweeps across Sterling’s knuckles or how she stares down at their hands as she says, “Of course it’s you,” in such a soft, yet certain tone that makes Sterling feel like she could fly.

That Thursday evening they have loose plans to meet up with some of April’s school friends. Sterling has met them all before and it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to April (the text invite she sent the day before was a simple, i’m just gonna swing by for a little bit if you want to come) yet Sterling spends the whole drive over to April’s apartment and the walk upstairs wondering where that leaves them in terms of the kissing and lingered touching they enjoyed the other night — a conversation they probably should’ve had at Stingers.

That question, though, vanishes from her mind when April opens the door and greets Sterling with a kiss, one that Sterling eases right into, nerves fading, and arms wrapping around April’s waist to prolong the moment.

They never end up making it out.

“Well we haven’t done that in a while.”

Sterling blinks up at the ceiling while April giggles into the crook of her neck, placing kisses along her skin in a way that’s much more tender than they were a moment ago.

She takes in the warm sunlight traveling through April’s bedroom window, painting the room a beautiful golden hue. It glows across their skin, bouncing off of April’s smile in a way that’s so ethereal it leaves something bubbling in Sterling’s chest until it’s a bit too much, too overwhelming, and Sterling finds that she can’t help herself once again.

“Not to be super clingy and dive into the what are we conversation after one time, but—”

“Sterl,” she interrupts gently, fingertips brushing hair out of Sterling’s face. “You’re not leaving the country in a few weeks and I’m not deeply in the closet. I think we can be adults about this.”

“Alright...”

Sterling just stares back at April, waiting for her to speak first (which she knows is not at all adult-like). They hold each other’s gaze for a moment, April apparently trying to wait Sterling out as well, but for once she doesn’t break and April does.

“Fine, okay,” she huffs, sitting up straighter, hips still bracketing Sterling’s, and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear only to reveal flushed cheeks. April shifts her gaze away, letting it rest on the pillows and sheets instead of on Sterling. She takes a deep breath. “It’s been a long time and I would be lying if I said I’ve never thought about this — about getting back here with you. We’ve been different variations of together through the years but never the real thing. Can we just try that? So we don’t have to wonder anymore.”

Sterling‘s first reaction is to laugh. “So we don’t have to wonder?”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Wow, so adult about it.”

“Sterling—”

April’s whine is cut short when Sterling’s second reaction is to tug her down for a kiss, hoping it says everything that they’re struggling to put into words, tender enough to prove that this really means something, then firm enough to drive it home.

When they break apart April’s face isn’t so red anymore. She doesn’t shy away from eye contact either. She’s set in her convictions, finger tracing Sterling’s jawline and staring with a gentle focus that Sterling isn’t sure she’s ever seen before.

“I want to be with you. For real this time.”

Sterling grins. “Me too,” she says, words getting a little caught in her throat.

April kisses her again and with their conversation still so fresh, Sterling finds it hard to believe that this can just happen now. That kissing April can (and probably will in due time) turn into a casual occurrence, taking the form of a greeting, a want, a just because. It’s intoxicating to say the least.

“Should we just order food? You know, since seeing my friends involves clothes and leaving.”

“Yes, please,” Sterling agrees, wrapping her arms around April’s body before she can drift too far, “but in a few minutes.”

It only takes two days for Blair to text Sterling a picture posing with her newly acquired fifty dollar bill.

Blair: courtesy of your undying love for april stevens and bowser being a hater

Sterling: so do i get a cut of that since i technically made it happen??

Blair: nah you needed a push. i took matters into my own hands.

Blair: but don’t tell bowser!! he’ll say i cheated

Over the next couple weeks Sterling is surprised with how easy everything is. Her time with April continues to be spent over dinners or drinks or movies almost like nothing has changed. The one major difference is that their evening and weekend activities now include hand holding, and kissing, and April casually calling her babe, and all the other things Sterling had dreamed about over the last few years.

She knows she’s falling fast, she can feel it. Sterling was already halfway into love before she even saw April at that bagel place (if she’s being honest she has been since high school), but now it’s only grown and she’s no longer pretending to be figuring it out.

Sterling knows it’s love when April stays over at her apartment for the first time and Sterling’s heart does a little somersault at the sight of her toothbrush by the sink. She knows it’s love when her bad day at work gets a hell of a lot better just with the sound of April’s voice over a simple phone call. And she knows it’s love when she wakes up on April’s couch in the middle of the night, under a blanket that wasn’t there before, and finds a note on the coffee table that reads, if you wake up before morning just come to bed.

Knowing and naming the feeling is the easy part. The hard part is keeping it in.

“Sterling!”

Sterling looks up from her phone to see April rushing over to the stove where a pot of water is starting to boil over.

She winces. April literally only gave her one job. “I was paying attention, but then Blair texted.”

If at the age of fifteen Sterling went off task — a task April specifically gave her — and things went awry, she would’ve expected yelling and ridicule. But now, although April’s cutthroat tendencies are still well known, her April just shrugs knowing that Blair is Sterling’s achilles heel when it comes to focus.

“You know what they say, a watched pot never boils.”

“So would you say I did you a favor?”

April smiles, pouring in the pasta. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

Sterling sets her phone down on the counter, throwing one distraction away for another slightly better one. She wraps her arms around April’s waist just for the sake of holding her close. April releases a soft sigh at the contact and automatically leans her body back into Sterling’s.

“Is she still dating that boy with the face tattoo?”

“They never got serious.”

“So we won’t get to find out how your parents react?”

Sterling smiles, noting that April actually sounds a little disappointed. “No, but we might be better off that way.”

She presses a quick kiss to April’s cheek before releasing her hold and going to set the table.

As Sterling approaches the cabinets it strikes her that she already knows where April keeps all of her things. She knows that April has good utensils and average everyday ones, she knows that April only has glasses and mugs because she thinks plastic cups are childish, and she knows that the plates are on a top shelf that April has to stand on the tips of her toes to reach.

“Do they know about us?” April asks suddenly, her voice small and shy. Sterling turns from her task of setting the table to try to get a read on how she should break the news, but April doesn’t take her eyes off the pot.

She keeps it simple. “Yeah, I told them.”

April’s focus never strays from the noodles, but Sterling catches her smile and the warmth that floods to her cheeks, although April would definitely argue that that had everything to do with the steam of boiling water.

“How did Blair take it? I know she was never my biggest fan.”

“Give yourself more credit. She was actually rooting for this.”

April turns to glance over her shoulder. “Really?”

“She literally bet on us.”

April perks up, intrigued. “I’m gonna need a little more info there.”

“You know how Blair’s a talker?” She waits for April to nod before Sterling heads to the refrigerator, crossing the room in search of drinks. “Well her boss got so tired of hearing about us that she had to turn it into a bet to keep him interested. She put fifty dollars on you and I being together before the holidays, because apparently I’m just so obviously in love with you.”

It takes pulling her head out of the fridge and turning to see April’s stunned expression for Sterling to realize what she just casually said out loud in a mocking Blair tone.

Shit.

“Are you?”

Sterling gulps, heart racing in her chest. While it is way too soon to confess, she couldn’t possibly look April in the eyes and deny it. So with her gaze darting nervously around the room, Sterling very quietly admits, “Maybe a little.”

A blush rushes to her cheeks confirming it's more like a lot, and then April rushes to her side, wrapping her arms around Sterling’s neck for a tight hug, one that Sterling sinks right into. Her flare of panic subsides as she finds her usual comfort in April’s arms.

“Is it okay that I said that?” she mutters against April’s shoulder.

“You didn’t technically say anything.”

“April—”

April kisses Sterling before she can ramble or pout any further. “More than okay,” she says, finally answering Sterling’s question, and smiling as she adds, “even if it is just a little.”

“It’s really not.”

April just blinks for a split second, probably stunned by how Sterling keeps digging her grave even deeper as if it’s as easy as breathing, but then April’s eyes refocus with a familiar intensity.

“Good,” she decides, squaring her shoulders with her mind made up, “because my feelings for you have never been small.”

They somehow tiptoe around saying the actual word, delicately dancing over the big reveal, but that doesn’t last very long. A week later April wraps up a phone call by ushering a quick “love you” before she hangs up and Sterling has to call her back to see if she knows what she just said.

“I thought we already established this?” April says so casually, like she didn’t just make Sterling almost crash her car over what rolled off her tongue with ease.

“It was heavily implied at best. That was confirmation.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

Sterling could scream over how nonchalant she’s being.

“Yeah, I have no problem confirming.”

“That you’re in love with me?”

April’s laugh rings through the speakers of her car, better than any song Sterling has ever blasted over the years. “Do you need me to say it again? Just for the clarification.”

“No — I mean, if you want to you can — you don’t, like, have to or anything.”

“Sterl.”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

Sterling exhales abruptly, her breath just rushing from her lungs at the sound. “I love you too.”

She thinks that she could just sit in this moment forever, but the loud noise of a car horn tells her otherwise.

Six years. Almost six years after they first got together, testing the waters with a kiss in a locked office, Sterling is finally in love with April and April loves her right back. It’s real — maybe the realest thing she’s ever felt — and for the first time ever there are no restrictions. They just get to fall.

Sterling ends up at April’s apartment more often than not. Half the time she shows up with take-out she picked up on her way over from work and half the time April has something prepared.

Their time together is pretty much routine at this point, though nothing about it ever feels boring. Sterling could spend hours listening to April talk or rant and she would still think it was the most fascinating thing on earth. Even with years of growing up together, competing, and learning each other’s behaviors, Sterling still finds herself blown away by how smart April is, how passionate she gets, and how amazing it feels when that passion is directed at her.

She knows when April is no longer interested in a movie just from the look on her face, and as soon as Sterling reaches for the remote April knows that it’s an invitation to climb into her lap and kiss her senseless. Sterling knows when April is tired from the scratch in her voice, even if April insists that she’s fine and that she would be too busy for a break if she weren’t. She knows April is especially exhausted when she gives into it, letting Sterling coax her into relaxation, cuddling close and drifting almost immediately to sleep under Sterling’s soft touch. Ultimately, she knows that there’s a safety to it all this time around, one that is not unfulfilling, but instead one that has been earned with years of jumping through hoops and doing it halfway.

It shines through in a level of comfort that Sterling has never had with a partner before. She’s never made herself at home in another person's place and finds that it just feels normal. She doesn’t think twice about rummaging through April’s cabinets and bringing her a glass of iced tea while she studies. She doesn’t think twice about getting herself a blanket and settling in on the couch with her own form of entertainment. And she doesn’t think twice about the joy she finds in just coexisting together.

Something catches her eye one night after a large helping of Chinese food. Sterling flops down onto April’s couch too full to even reach for the remote, but April doesn’t seem interested in TV anyway. Her eyes are glued to her phone where a familiar website glows on her screen, one that Sterling knows April has repeatedly been visiting.

“Did you look up that menu again?”

“Just wondering if it changed.”

“Three times in the last week? I think it’s probably still the same.”

Sterling snatches the phone from April’s hand, ignoring the whine that follows. At the top of the screen she finds the phone number for this new restaurant that her girlfriend is very obviously dropping hints about.

“What are you doing?”

The phone is already up to Sterling’s ear. “I’m calling for a reservation.”

“They have a waiting list.”

“That’s why I’m calling,” she explains after the hostess immediately puts her on hold. “I don’t care when we go as long as we get to go together.”

“Sterling, it’s kind of pricey.”

“Is it fancy?”

April nods, eyes wide as if that were some type of deal breaker, like they didn’t grow up going to the same country club and Sterling doesn’t love an excuse to dress up.

“Cool, so it’ll be like a real date,” she shrugs, the repetitive sound of hold music still playing in her ear.

“Do we not go on real dates?”

“No, we do,” Sterling quickly deflects. “They’re just usually more casual, like Stingers or something. This will be fun. Shake it up a bit.”

April opens her mouth to respond, or likely to argue judging from the look on her face, but Sterling stops her by putting a finger up as she gets taken off hold and finally gets to speak to a human being about reserving a table.

“Okay,” Sterling says a moment later, hanging up the phone and handing it back to April. “We are all set for the 22nd at eight o’clock.”

“The 22nd?”

Sterling nods.

“That’s a Friday, right?”

She nods again.

“We have to head home for Christmas the next morning.”

“So remind me to pack early,” she shrugs again, dismissing all of April’s concerns with ease. It only takes Sterling about half a second to come up with her next solution. “Maybe — and this is just an idea — we could go to dinner, I could stay over here after with my suitcase already packed and by your front door, and then we could ride home together in the morning. You know, for the sake of the environment.”

“Right,” April says, narrowing her eyes, “the environment.”

“What? Carpooling is awesome for the environment.”

“Yes, but you say it like we’re not in a relationship and going to the same place. I already assumed I was driving you.”

“Oh.”

So Sterling’s excited to go home for the holidays. She's been eager to see her family, enjoy her mom's cooking, snuggle with Chloe, and probably get into some trouble with Blair, but now with the added carpool plan, she’s also crafting a road trip playlist and brainstorming the perfect combination of snacks.

That excitement then grows even more when April rolls onto her side to face Sterling one late night in Sterling’s bed. The dull glow of streetlights shine through the window, bouncing off her face, and lighting up her eyes. She stares at Sterling for a moment, gaze soft and sweet, fingers trailing over her cheek, but then her eyes break away and April clears her throat.

“Maybe you could come over for dinner one night while we’re both home.”

Sterling grins. She knows what that means. “You want me to meet your mom?”

“If you want to. You’ve technically met her before, she’s known you since we were five, but if you think it’s too soon or whatever that’s fi—”

Sterling kisses her before she can even finish second guessing herself. Truthfully, Sterling has wanted to be April’s girlfriend since they were in high school and in no way, shape, or form is it too soon.

“I’d love to,” she agrees and April looks relieved as if there were ever a world where Sterling would decline. “Thank you for asking me.”

“Sterl, this really isn’t that monumental. She knows about me. She met my—”

“I know, I know. She met the ex,” Sterling interjects, choosing to ignore how April quirks an eyebrow. She focuses instead on draping an arm over April’s waist and running a finger down her bare back. “But in terms of us isn’t it a little big? Like think about where we started.”

April starts to smile, a shy shade of pink on her cheeks at the thought. “I guess that’s true. We’ve come a long way.”

“Damn right,” Sterling says, getting April to laugh before she adds a softer, “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

On the night of the 22nd Sterling can feel the butterflies fluttering in her stomach even as she’s getting ready. She knew she was excited, knew April was over the moon (already deciding what to order three days ago), but this is different. It’s thrumming inside of Sterling with an intensity that should be familiar when it comes to her feelings for April, however, the buildup to it all is sending her into overdrive.

The years of back and forth, the tension, the fighting, the way that they used to kiss each other so deeply just to avoid saying the truth out loud — it has all led them here. Now they’re in this wonderful place where they make fancy dinner reservations weeks ahead of time and they’ve heard the words that go along with every kiss, knowing when it’s needy, when it’s simple, and that it’s always love.

When Sterling checks her reflection in the mirror just before she is about to leave the first thing she notices is her smile. She sees how easy it is, how it lights up her whole face, knows how common that sight has been recently, and knows exactly why it’s there. All the pieces that Sterling had hoped for at the age sixteen and again at nineteen have now fallen perfectly into place.

April yanks her apartment door open with her phone pressed up to her ear. There’s a tension in her face that subsides as soon as her eyes land on Sterling. She smiles, kisses Sterling’s cheek, and tilts the speaker of her phone away from her mouth to whisper, “Just give me two minutes. It’s my mom.”

Sterling enters, hearing bits and pieces of April’s side of the conversation, but she hardly pays any attention to it. She lends her focus to how pretty April looks in her dress, feet still bare as she scours the apartment for her shoes. Sterling feels a magnetic tug pulling her in April's direction, wanting to tell her what she thinks of that outfit, wanting to kiss her, but ultimately holding herself back. They have time for that. There is a whole night ahead of them. She can wait two minutes for a phone call to end.

It’s hard to be that patient though when all Sterling can think about is this long awaited night out, a nice bottle of wine (that April also picked out three days ago), and her hot girlfriend. She wants to come back to the apartment afterwards, kiss April like the concept of air is overrated, and get her out of that very beautiful dress.

“Okay, I’ll do it later,” April says, taking her wallet off the counter and tossing it in her purse. “I’m leaving for dinner in like five seconds.” There’s another pause as she grabs her keys. “With Sterling — my girlfriend.”

April turns to Sterling, rolling her eyes as her mother keeps talking. She then begins to smile. “Yes, Sterling Wesley,” she confirms, dragging out the speculated last name.

That smile suddenly fades and April gets quiet, eyes narrowing with something to think about. She puts a finger up, signaling for Sterling to wait a moment, and walks out of the room without another word.

It’s puzzling, but before Sterling can wonder or strain to eavesdrop her phone buzzes in her purse.

Blair: bitch you actually get to see my face in person tomorrow!!

Sterling: i can’t wait…

Sterling: ...to see bowser

Blair: oh fuck off

Sterling: love you!!

Sterling: and very excited to see your face in person

Blair: as you should. love you more

Sterling shoves the phone back into her bag, looking up just in time as April comes trudging back into the room.

“Hey,” Sterling says, finally getting in that greeting, but she doesn’t get a response.

April’s knuckles are white from the tight grip she has on her phone, no longer held up to her ear in conversation with her mother. She keeps her head down until they come face to face, only then revealing a hardened expression that immediately drags Sterling down from her excitement high.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me about my father’s arrest?”

For a moment Sterling just blinks. She’s so stunned by the question, the low trembling way in which it was asked, and how April’s hand shakes around her phone that all Sterling can mutter is a dumb, “What?”

“Don’t make me repeat it. Hearing the truth from my mom was humiliating enough.”

Sterling hesitates, mouth agape. Her heart is thumping so hard she can feel it between her ears. “I thought you knew. It’s been years,” she exhales slowly in a haze of confusion.

April furrows her eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Blair bringing him in two months ago while you stood right there and gave me some bullshit speech about how it was okay to be upset.”

All the air leaves Sterling’s lungs at once as if she had just been punched in the stomach. Her ears are ringing on every word, making April’s reveal all the more dizzying.

Blair lied to her.

Sterling tries to refocus, to get a grip, sifting through the many questions that flash through her mind — how much does April know, what exactly did her mother tell her, and why on earth did Blair keep this to herself — but questions aside Sterling knows one thing for sure — she is so screwed.

Her shock must be evident because something new comes over April’s face.

“You were talking about his first arrest,” she realizes, too smart for her own good and slowly piecing it all together while Sterling can only watch and wait, praying that she finds the right words in response. “That’s why you said ‘it’s been years’ because you were talking about when we were sixteen.”

“April, I’m so sorry.”

Sterling rushes in closer, trying to hold her, to provide some form of comfort, but the confirmation just makes April step back instead.

“Oh my god.”

“How did he not tell you?”

“No,” April returns, firmly jabbing a pointed finger into Sterling’s chest. “How did you not tell me?”

Okay, so those were the wrong words.

“We broke up and then you didn’t speak to me for the rest of high school. I thought that was why.”

“Still should’ve fucking told me.”

Now that, to an extent, is true. Sterling should’ve been the one to tell her, but April wasn’t exactly an easy person to track down after the lock-in.

“Was I supposed to break our pact of pretending like nothing ever happened just to make sure this bomb dropped on you? Oh by the way, I’m a bounty hunter and I brought in your dad one time.”

“Twice,” April corrects, crossing her arms. “You’ve now lied to me about this twice.”

“I didn’t — I had no idea about Blair.”

She scoffs. “You guys tell each other everything.”

“No, April, I swear I didn’t know,” Sterling insists, voice high and frantic as she reaches into her bag for her phone again. “I can call her right now and she can tell you every—”

“I don’t want to talk to Blair. I’m talking to you.”

April is firm when she cuts her off, making Sterling think carefully about what she says next.

Pushing aside the sharp sting of betrayal, Sterling tries to put herself in Blair’s shoes, rationalizing what she did, and searching for something validating to give April, to give herself. It’s the only way for Sterling to explain and potentially prove her innocence, even if finding an excuse for Blair’s actions means tamping down the anger that boils in her chest.

“She never said anything. She probably thought it would put me in the middle.”

Sterling is almost certain that’s the truth and although she hates the way it tastes, she knows her fight with Blair is at least a fight for another day.

“Okay,” April starts. Her eyes narrow and Sterling knows she’s nowhere near finished. “Let’s just say, hypothetically, that I believe you. It still doesn’t change the fact that you were actively involved and lying to me the first time.”

“We broke up. I thought you—”

“You should’ve told me before we broke up — before the lock-in even happened,” April interrupts. She runs a hand stressfully through her hair as a new realization dawns on her. “God, we were planning on coming out that night. Could you imagine if we went through with it while you just kept this to yourself?”

Sterling puts both of her hands up, surrendering to her past mistakes. “Okay, fair. That’s true. I stupidly thought that if your dad was gone we could just forget about it.”

We? I would have to actually be included for that to work.”

“I know,” she exclaims, emotions running high. Sterling takes a deep breath, then repeats it much softer, “I know. That was selfish and immature, but I’m not sixteen anymore. I genuinely thought you knew and I had no idea about Blair. She will definitely be getting a stern talking to later.”

Sterling manages to land her hands on April’s shoulders, internally celebrating the fact that April doesn’t step out from under her touch, she just ducks her head and looks away. There’s a pause of silence, like in the eye of a storm, and Sterling starts to think they made it through.

“Have you done it since?”

“What?”

“Since high school, since college, since we…” April stops, voice catching. “Have you done it?”

Sterling pauses, wishing she had a better answer. She nods. “Whenever I went home.”

When April finally looks up there isn’t just anger painted on her face. Her jaw is still clenched, but her eyes are teary and the sharp breath she takes trembles on its way in.

“And I’m supposed to believe that this part of your life just never came up in all these years? Not while we were friends, not while we were hooking up, and not now when we’re together?”

“I thought you knew,” she repeats for what feels like the hundredth time. April just rolls her eyes, trying to blink her tears away but sending them down her cheeks instead. Sterling is quick to wipe them off. “We never talk much about high school. It was messy, and hard, and I thought we had, like, a silent agreement to leave the past in the past. I haven’t been purposely keeping this from you the whole time, I swear.”

April holds Sterling’s stare, looking for something to latch onto. Before she can find anything her phone buzzes in her hand. She breaks to check it, taking a small step back and putting distance in the space between them that Sterling desperately tried to close.

“What’s that?”

“Our reservation,” April mutters, thumbs tapping rapidly on the screen. “The table is apparently ready.”

“I thought you said this place was fancy. Applebee’s sends me texts when my table is ready,” she jokes, her own voice struggling to stay steady in her lame attempt to lighten the mood. “You’ve been looking forward to this. Let’s just—”

April puts a hand up, signaling her to stop. “I think I, um — I think I need a minute.”

April is asking for space, Sterling knows, but she’s not quite ready to give up and let it go. She steps in again, reaching up to cradle April’s face.

“Do you want me to pick something up? We can stay in and talk about it,” she offers, trying to make the best of it, to salvage whatever she can, but April just shakes her head, looking away again.

It’s obvious that April is trying to hold onto her anger, but Sterling knows it’s more than that. She’s hurt. As much as April tries to hide it her face is visibly red, her neck looks tense like she is straining to hold back, and there is a faint but noticeable sniffle that nearly breaks Sterling’s own dam, knowing that this is all her doing.

“Okay,” Sterling says softly over the sizable lump in her throat. “I’ll just go then.”

She kisses April’s forehead, wipes another tear off her cheek, and walks towards the door, waiting until April actually lets her leave to start crying.

Chapter Text

The drive is mostly quiet. There’s just the steady hum of the engine, the jingle of keys whenever the road gets a little bumpy, and the occasional sudden rush of a motorcycle passing that always seems to make Sterling jump in her seat, snapping her out of her thoughts and back to reality. When it happens for a third time she tightens her fingers around the wheel, trying to get a new grip and refocus on the road ahead.

Sterling isn’t distracted with any of the usual things like music or conversation, because Sterling is alone, and she can’t stop thinking about what would be filling this silence if she weren’t.

She was prepared to be the perfect co-pilot for her ride home with April, ready with snacks, directions, and a playlist crafted just for the two of them. She was ready for hand holding, laughter, singing too loudly, and maybe a distracting thigh touch depending on the traffic. She was ready for them to dive into the topic of family with tips for good first impressions, buzzing with excitement and nerves while awaiting this big step in their relationship. But now Sterling sits in the quiet, no longer in the mood for six hours of cheesy pop songs, and opting to sit with her thoughts instead.

She had texted April early this morning, unable to sleep.

Sterling: i can drive myself home if you need more time. no rush.

April: okay that might be a good idea. thank you.

April’s quick response sent their plans of carpooling right out the window before the sun had even risen (though the hopeful part of Sterling’s brain noted that April clearly couldn’t sleep either). The reveal from the night before — Blair’s deceit, Sterling’s own lie having gone too far, and April struggling to wrap her head around it all — looming overhead like a dark cloud, ruining plans with ease and apparently keeping them both awake on what was supposed to be a glorious Friday night into Saturday morning.

It all just fell apart so quickly, drifting further and further out of hand as lies and secrets unraveled one after the other. Sterling hasn’t felt this unbalanced and rattled since the junior year lock-in, walking in excited to spend her time with April and ending the night in a trailer park, stuck in a tangled web of reveals that would later take months of therapy to even begin sorting out.

She remembers the weeks that followed the lock-in, dreading every school day but hating the idea of staying home with her parents even more. She remembers Blair not leaving her side and ranting about how secrets are just the worst (funny how that has changed). She remembers April not speaking to her or so much as looking in her general direction, which was just so strange, because even before they were...whatever they were, April would always seek Sterling out. And she remembers Luke being terribly awkward and uncomfortable after Sterling had kissed him, only to quickly take it back and say it was probably a bad idea.

“Nothing is normal,” Sterling had shouted after a particularly rough day navigating that new reality. “Mom and dad are weird, April is weird, Luke is weird. Everything is just so…”

“Say it, Sterl.”

“Fucked!”

Blair cheered, throwing a fist into the air. “How do you feel now?”

“Terrible.”

“Oh,” she frowned, “I thought it would be great.”

No matter how much Sterling shouted, cursed, or cried, she never felt anything more than drained and it certainly didn’t change her situation. It didn’t take away what she knew, it didn’t undo her parents lie, and it didn’t make things at school any better. So now she tries not to waste too much of her energy on it, tries not to question what could’ve happened if she had told April the truth in high school, and tries to wonder why Blair kept this secret to herself, which all turns out to be easier said than done.

There are too many secrets, too many explanations that need to be given, too many different places where this could end up, and too many miles of open road to think about it and nothing else.

Debbie is out front when Sterling finally reaches the house. Her arms are filled with grocery bags and her eyebrows furrow upon seeing the Volt pull into the driveway. Sterling turns off the car, takes a deep breath, and puts on a smile.

“Hi mom,” she greets cheerfully, avoiding eye contact as she closes her door and heads to the trunk for her suitcase.

Debbie still hasn’t moved. She stands there staring, like there is something to figure out. “I thought you were riding with April.”

“Yeah, uh, slight change of plans,” Sterling says, trying to stay nonchalant and bubbly, but her throat suddenly feels tight. Debbie must notice because something passes over her face, a question in her eyes that Sterling does not want to answer. She swallows and swiftly changes the subject. “Need a hand?”

“Just grab the door for me, hun.”

Sterling has never been very good at lying to her mother. Debbie always has a way of getting the truth out of her. With just one look Sterling often turns into a babbling, tearful mess, and Debbie somehow knows exactly what to say and what to do when it all comes rushing out.

Normally that’s fine. Sterling has learned to welcome her mother’s comfort over the years, rarely shying away from a sturdy shoulder to lean on, but right now it’s the last thing she wants.

Sterling doesn’t want to tell her family about April, their fight, and the fact that she really has no idea where they stand at the moment. She doesn’t want to say that she’s scared, that maybe she’s ruined this for the last time, or that it all circles back to Blair and a secret that they’ve kept since high school.

As soon as they get in the kitchen Debbie sets the bags on the counter, freeing her hands to give Sterling a big hug.

“It’s good to have you home, baby,” she whispers into Sterling’s ear.

Sterling almost sniffles. Between the familiar scent of Debbie’s perfume, her arms warm and steady around Sterling’s back, and her soft tone, it’s a miracle Sterling doesn’t give in and break down. She thinks about it for a second, almost letting that wall down, but then the garage door swings open.

“Sterling!”

Anderson comes barreling in at the perfect time with an oblivious grin on his face and a bright yellow stain on his shirt.

Sterling stops him just short of a hug. “Is that still wet?”

He follows her pointed finger down to the paint spot and frowns. “Well, golly, I thought I was careful.”

“You didn’t wear your smock? That’s a good shirt and that paint doesn’t come out,” Debbie reminds him.

“I know, I know.” Anderson lets out a disappointed sigh. He lightly dabs his finger on the paint, and sure enough, it is still wet. “I am coming for you as soon as this dries,” he says to Sterling before heading back to his crafts.

Debbie starts unpacking the grocery bags and muttering something to herself about that smock being “money right out the window.” It’s the perfect opportunity for Sterling to sneak upstairs for a moment alone.

She quietly tiptoes out of the kitchen and towards the stairs, where Blair is now coming down. Great.

“Sterl,” she exclaims, picking up her pace. “When did you sneak in?”

Sterling wasn’t planning to do this now. She was just going to go upstairs, lie down, and think about how to broach the subject. But Blair’s easy tone, like she isn’t harboring a secret that just imploded Sterling’s entire relationship, causes an awful feeling to arise in her stomach, one that Sterling knows she can’t hold down long enough to fake her way through a greeting while their parents are in earshot.

Without a word, Sterling grabs Blair by the wrist and tugs her back up the stairs.

“Oh, where are we going?”

“We’re going to have a private hello.”

She swears she hears Blair quip, “Well, that hardly sounds appropriate,” but Sterling doesn’t acknowledge it, refusing to say anything else until they’re alone in her bedroom.

“Alright, bring it in.” Blair stands in the middle of Sterling’s floor with her arms wide open and ready for a hug. “I love you a lot and I missed you terribly, but I was on my way downstairs for a snack, so let’s make this quick.”

Sterling closes the door. She stops on the other side of the room, making no move to embrace her sister.

Blair drops her arms down at her side with a thud and she huffs, so oblivious to what she’s done that she has the nerve to be annoyed right now.

“I’m getting the feeling this isn’t going to be quick,” she announces, taking a seat on Sterling’s bed and quickly making herself comfortable. “So what does a private hello entail? Because it sounds kinda dirty and you’re really weirding me out.”

“You think I’m acting weird?”

“You wouldn’t even let me get a snack! Mom just got back from the store. Do you have any idea how long it’s going to be before we eat?” Blair takes it upon herself to answer, “Hours. And you know once she gets started, you can’t spoil your appetite with ‘junk food’ so that might have been my last chance to—”

“Oh my god, shut up!”

“Excuse me?”

“Shut up,” she repeats, crossing the room in a few quick steps and punctuating her sentence with a flick to Blair’s forehead. Sterling ignores how Blair gasps in shock and maybe just a little bit in pain. “I don’t care about your stupid snack or that you think a private hello sounds dirty. I brought you up here to yell at you.”

Blair pouts, rubbing her forehead. “Why would you yell at me?”

“For not telling me you arrested John Stevens again.”

Suddenly, Blair is paying attention, sitting up straighter than Sterling has ever seen. “How did you—”

“April found out.”

Her eyes go wide.

“Yeah, exactly. So imagine my surprise when she confronted me, demanding why I didn’t tell her.”

“That bitch.”

“No, you bitch,” she corrects, flicking Blair once again.

“Ouch. Since when do you even use the b-word?”

“Since the situation calls for it!”

Sterling barely restrains the urge to stomp her foot and throw a whole tantrum, like an exhausted, frustrated child — although she is definitely two of those things.

“What did you tell her?”

Sterling laughs, a little unhinged since she actually is exhausted and frustrated. “Well, you see, this is where it gets messy. She asked me why I didn’t tell her about her father’s arrest, so then I told her about the first one because that’s what I thought she meant.”

“She didn’t know about the first one?”

Blair winces like she already knows the answer.

“Nope. He apparently never mentioned it and then she didn’t believe that I didn’t know about you, because we’re not supposed to keep secrets.”

“Yikes.”

“Yikes?”

That can’t possibly be all Blair has to say for herself.

“I’m guessing you didn’t go to dinner,” she says, adding, “or get laid.”

Sterling could scream. She thinks she might rip her hair right out of her head, given the desperate way she’s gripping to hold it all together.

“That’s the least of my problems,” Sterling returns through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw, her patience wearing thin. “We didn’t make it to dinner and we didn’t...do anything, because we had such a huge fight that I don’t even know if April wants to be my girlfriend anymore. All thanks to you.”

“Woah, woah, woah.” Blair rises to her feet, coming eye to eye with Sterling. She puts a hand over her chest, like she’s genuinely hurt by the accusation. “I understand that you’re upset, but I would like to put the blame on the actual criminal — the man — and not the badass woman who brought him in.”

“This isn’t a feminist issue. This is a you-should’ve-told-me issue.”

“So you could panic over whether or not to tell April?”

Sterling stomps her foot. “I would’ve told her!”

Blair rolls her eyes. “Right, like you told her in high school?”

Sterling doesn’t know what comes over her, but she loses her grip and her composure. With a war-cry-like scream, she tackles Blair onto the bed.

Their limbs tangle together as they wrestle and shout, Blair yelling at Sterling to “get the fuck off” and Sterling yelling back that Blair “ruins everything.”

She eventually gets a grip on Blair’s wrists, stopping Blair just short of whacking her upside the head and Sterling pushes. She pushes with all of her strength, her anger, her exhaustion, her every feeling of betrayal and question of what if, until their struggle comes to a sudden stop.

It takes a second for Sterling to catch her breath and snap out of whatever just rushed through her, chest heaving as she realizes she actually (for the first time ever) managed to pin Blair down.

“Admit you should’ve told me,” she demands, hovering over Blair, who is just a tangled mess of hair underneath.

“When did you get so strong?”

“Admit it.”

“Seriously, Sterl—”

“Admit it!”

“I didn’t want to put you in the middle!”

Sterling gasps at Blair’s blurted response, releasing her arms in the shock of it.

“That’s exactly what I said to April last night.”

“Hey, look at us,” Blair exclaims, sweeping her hair out of her face and grinning an awful lot for someone still stuck under Sterling’s full body weight. “Long distance for four years and we’ve still got it.”

“It’s honestly, like, so impressive.”

“Right? They should totally put us in a museum or something when we die.”

Sterling grimaces. “Gross.”

“You know, now that I think about it I’m really not sold on the museum thing either. Maybe they could write a book about us — wait, I wouldn’t even want to read that. Maybe—”

“You’re changing the subject,” Sterling interrupts, remembering that she is sitting on Blair for a very good reason. “I’m still mad at you.”

“And I still think we should be directing this anger at John Stevens, because I was just doing my job.”

That stuns Sterling, knocking the anger right out of her, like air from her lungs after a punch to the gut.

“You’re really not sorry?” she asks, voice catching a little. She knows that Blair is stubborn, she knew that they were going to fight, but she thought that Blair would at least be apologetic for causing this much harm.

“No, I am,” Blair finally, finally, admits. “I’m sorry that you both found out the way that you did. I’m sorry that it obviously made a mess of things. I never wanted to hurt you or April. But he broke the law and skipped bail again. It needed to be done and I thought that leaving you out of it was the best way to keep everyone happy.”

Her tone is softer than it’s been this whole time and more genuine, bringing tears to the brim of Sterling’s eyes as the dust begins to settle. The adrenaline that actually allowed her to pin Blair to the bed has now vanished into thin air, leaving them in an earnest moment, and leaving Sterling’s emotions uncapped and ready to flow.

“We don’t do secrets.”

“I know. I freaking hate it. Normally, I would tell you anything, but I thought I needed to keep this one to myself. For all of us.”

Sterling swallows. “I would’ve told her. I would’ve done the right thing.”

“Sure, you would’ve,” Blair says, offering a comforting smile, though Sterling doesn’t know who she was trying to convince with that statement. “If it makes you feel any better, you probably would’ve ended up here anyway.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You still didn’t tell her about the first time, which probably would’ve come up when you told her about the second, and I know you love her, but she’s kinda feisty when she’s mad.”

Sterling lets out a watery laugh. “That’s true.”

She climbs off of Blair, taking a seat on the edge of the bed and breathing deeply, hearing the air tremble the whole way in. From the corner of her eye, even in the blur of her tears, Sterling sees Blair appear by her side, like always.

“I just don’t want to lose her.”

“You won’t.”

Sterling isn’t so sure. “You didn’t see her face. She was so upset and hurt and — and I did that.”

“We did that,” Blair corrects, putting her arm around Sterling’s shoulders. Sterling lets herself lean into it, letting go of the anger, and resting her head on Blair’s shoulder, finally allowing herself to just be tired and sad.

“I can’t believe he never told her.”

Blair leans her head on top of Sterling’s. “It’s almost as fucked up as you not telling her,” she says, tone teasing.

“But still not as crazy as you not telling me.”

There’s no argument from Blair there. She just tightens her grip and pulls Sterling in closer. It’s a thing Blair does whenever Sterling is upset, like squeezing her will just push all the pieces back together.

“April is not going to dump you,” she says, so certain in her words. “You guys will be fine. Just give her some space — not two years worth of space, but maybe, like, give her the day.”

Sterling nods, sniffling still. “That’s why I offered to drive myself down. I want to give her space, but it’s really hard. I get antsy and I want to explain. I want to fix it.”

“I know. You hate when someone is mad at you. You’ve always been people pleaser,” Blair says, running her hand gently through Sterling’s tangled hair. “For us this is like the oldest of old news — we’ve roped tons of scummy men since John Stevens — but for her it isn’t. It’s new and it means reevaluating your history.”

“Reevaluating?” Sterling leans back, abruptly taking her head off Blair’s shoulder. “I thought you said it wasn’t that bad.”

“Well, let's just think for a minute. You always looked back on your thing in high school as these magical few days that got cut short or whatever,” she explains, only slightly mocking, “and now—”

“Now it’s tainted because I was keeping something from her that whole time.”

“Exactly.”

Sterling knows that Blair is right. She still hates it though.

“You’ve really been Team April lately.”

“Hey,” Blair looks Sterling dead in the eye, giving her shoulder a firm squeeze, “I am captain of Team Sterl first and foremost, and don’t you ever forget it.”

Sterling distracts herself as best as she can. Debbie has a big dinner planned even though she’s also preparing to host Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, making the kitchen the busiest place to be.

“It’s just a little welcome home dinner,” Debbie assures her, brushing off the marinating meat like it’s just any old thing. “I figured you’d enjoy some home cooking.”

So Sterling volunteers to help with small tasks, chopping vegetables and mixing ingredients for a holiday dessert, while her phone sits upstairs out of sight and out of mind.

“You can’t keep checking it,” Blair said after Sterling repeatedly jumped at the sound of buzzing, only to deflate and sulk when she found that the noise didn’t even come from her phone. “A watched pot never boils.”

And that’s when Sterling’s dam broke. After holding it together throughout her six hour drive, then through her mother’s questioning stares, and then partially through her talk with Blair, she finally let it all go in their joint bathroom with her toothbrush still hanging from her mouth. It wasn’t just a quiet sniffle with a tear or two (that had already been done when she spoke with Blair). This time it was an ugly sob that left her eyes red and puffy, and a portion of Blair’s shirt soaked through.

“Can you cut those carrots a little bit smaller? Big Daddy will lose a tooth in that tomorrow,” Debbie says, rolling her eyes just at the mere thought of her in-laws.

Sterling laughs a little and gladly starts the process over to get each piece just right. It’s tedious and she’s pretty much a useless help, but it allows her to focus and stops her mind from wandering.

Blair comes strutting into the room, all casual and confident as she heads straight for the cabinets.

“Absolutely not,” Debbie warns. “Snack time is over.”

“But I’m hungry!”

“Then you should’ve come down earlier with your sister. What have you been doing up there?”

Blair shrugs. “I had business to tend to.”

“Well start tending to business down here. I’ve got potatoes that need peeling.”

Blair huffs, but does as she’s told, making a show of snatching a carrot off Sterling’s cutting board and sitting down next to her with an obnoxiously loud crunch.

Wow, Big Daddy really would lose a tooth in that.

At first Sterling was restless with her phone upstairs and at such a distance. She wondered if it was buzzing, if April had been reaching out, or if there was just continued silence. But that slowly fizzled out, little by little, hour by hour until she could just soak up the chaos of her family without feeling ready to burst.

It reminds Sterling of old times, which then makes her feel kind of old. As she watches Debbie chastise Blair, who seems to enjoy getting such a reaction, Sterling can’t help but feel like these last few years never happened. It’s almost like she never moved away, or went to college, or even found out she was adopted. It’s simple, and light, and easy, like distance and hardship never came their way.

“Don’t you dare,” Debbie gasps, eyeing Blair as she holds sugar instead of salt over a pot.

“Oh, did I grab the wrong thing?”

Her obviously feigned innocence gets Sterling to crack up, which seemed to be Blair’s goal, and soon they're both laughing so hard that Debbie has to take over.

“Just give it to me,” she huffs, shooing Blair aside, but there’s no real bite to it. Debbie is practically grinning from ear to ear.

Their laughter comes to a sudden stop when the doorbell rings. Each shooting each other a confused look, wondering who that could be.

“Big Daddy and Mother know that Christmas Eve is the 24th, right?” Blair wonders.

“Yes, they're coming tomorrow,” Debbie says, although it sounds like she’s in the same boat as Blair. “Sterl, can you get that? I apparently have to teach your sister the difference between sugar and salt.”

“On it!’

Sterling drops her knife to the counter, eagerly taking off with another small task and smiling as she hears the teasing banter that lingers behind her in the kitchen. For a moment she thinks that she might try cooking more often, not sure if she likes the task or just the familiarity of family time.

But that thought vanishes from Sterling’s head before she even figures it out, her breath catching as soon as she opens the door.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” Sterling exhales, staring in disbelief at April standing on her front steps.

“Do you have a second?”

“Yeah, I’ve got plenty,” she returns rather awkwardly.

Sterling glances back into the house where her father is setting the table, her mother is finishing up in the kitchen, and Blair is apparently still getting in the way.

“Probably better off outside,” she decides, stepping out onto the stoop and closing the door behind her.

They sit side by side on the steps, a purposeful two inches between them. The sun is just starting to dip beyond the trees, casting scattered shadows on their faces and painting the sky a fiery orange. Sterling doesn’t pay it much attention though, still trying to wrap her head around the fact that April came to talk to her, while also wondering what that could possibly mean.

“I’m sorry for just showing up. I tried to text you but you didn’t answer.”

“Blair took my phone. She said I was checking it too much.”

“Oh.”

April takes a deep breath but she doesn’t say anything more. She just stares straight ahead, fingers fiddling with the ends of her ponytail.

The anticipation is killing her and Sterling can’t take the weight of the silence.

“I’m assuming you want to talk about last night.”

“I think we should.”

“I’d like that,” she agrees, a little too quickly, like a dog lurching for a treat.

April still doesn’t look in Sterling’s direction. Her posture is rigid and tense, clearly out of her element and lacking her usual confidence. If the stakes weren’t so high, Sterling might actually be a little proud of her for showing up.

“I don’t want any secrets. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

April takes a breath, admitting, “Well I’m a little lost here so I don’t really know where to start.”

“I could start from the beginning?”

April seems to consider it for a moment, but then she nods.

“I did work in a yogurt shop in high school — that was true — but I was also a bounty hunting intern, which I know sounds crazy. Blair and I kind of stumbled into it by accident. We borrowed our dad’s truck without permission and this guy came out of nowhere…”

Sterling goes through the whole story of that first night, how Blair recklessly dove on the hood of the man’s car, how she shot out the tires, how they bargained with Bowser for part of the reward but it wasn’t enough to fix the truck, and how John Stevens of all people came up on their radar next.

“We tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had a very convincing story but then Bowser showed us the security footage from the motel and we couldn’t let him go.”

“I’ve seen the footage,” April says, squinting out at the sunset where the light beams through the trees. “I can understand that.”

Sterling exhales a breath of relief. It isn’t much, but it's a step.

“What I don’t understand, or what I’m mad about rather, is that you lied to me. Which I can kind of understand after the lock-in, I know I didn’t make it easy, but how could you date me and ask me to be honest with the world when you weren’t even being honest with me?”

“I don’t know,” Sterling mutters with a shrug of her shoulders. She wishes she had a better explanation for why she pressured April to tell the truth, for why their secret was the only one Sterling couldn’t bear to keep. “I was wrong for that. I should’ve told you.”

April nods, ducking her head back down into the shadows casted by the trees, and taking that little taste of progress back with her.

But Sterling doesn’t want to let it go. She can’t. She loves April. And she doesn’t want to tread lightly around it just because they’re in a tough spot. It’s not who she is.

She doesn’t put her phone upstairs and distract herself with meaningless tasks. She doesn’t sit back and let the conversation come to her. Sterling is pushy.

She double texts shamelessly on a daily basis, she wraps up simple conversation with an easy breathed love you, she wanted to shout from the rooftops that she and April were together after two days of secretly kissing, and in giving April space two years ago, Sterling made her feel unwanted.

So now is not the time to practice patience.

“You hated me when it first happened and I didn’t like you very much either. But when that changed, when we became us, I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. I held onto it so tightly that I kept secrets I never should’ve. Like I literally screwed over my own sister just to make out with you.”

April, in spite of herself, laughs a bit there, and Sterling sees a small glimmer of hope appear. She holds onto it, remembering what Blair has said about reevaluating and the terrible queasy feeling it left in her stomach.

“I understand if this changes some things for you, but I really hope it doesn’t ruin the memory of what we had back then.”

April finally meets her gaze, eyebrows furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I know it was short lived, but those few days meant everything to me. It was so new and exciting and intense. I had never felt anything like it. You were just — ugh, you were amazing.”

A deep blush floods April’s cheeks and she almost falters for a moment, hesitating just slightly before she remembers why they’re here. She quickly recovers, hiding her crumbling walls behind a cocky smile and a teasing comment, “You didn’t already know that?”

“I mean, I knew you were smart and passionate, so much so that it used to terrify me. But getting to know you — the real version — was by far the highlight of my high school career. Even though it ended where it did.”

“Really?”

Sterling nods. “Of course.”

This time there is no teasing comment or forced arrogance. April smiles a soft, bashful smile, quietly admitting, “Mine too.”

Sterling grins, brighter than the sunlight piercing through the branches of bare trees, barely reining in her urge to cry or cheer in pure celebration.

Even before this fight Sterling half expected April’s high school highlight to be her fantastic SAT score, or her senior year debate tournament victory, or maybe even just a nice night out with Hannah B. and Ezekiel. But somehow, someway, her best memory is still Sterling, still them, and their secret few days of bliss.

“After we broke up,” she starts, noticing how April suddenly tenses, “why did you spend all that time hating me if you didn’t know?”

“I hated the position we were in, hated that I couldn’t do anything about it, hated that it followed me everywhere, but I didn’t hate you,” she says so firmly that Sterling knows it to be true. Something passes over April’s face, twisting her intense gaze into one that’s more meek. She swallows and looks away again. “I avoided you because of everything that you brought up. It was easy not to be so...enamored when we weren’t even speaking.”

“Ah,” Sterling nods, “so cutting me off to move on wasn’t just a one time thing?”

April shakes her head. “A cowardly move, I know, but I’ve never really been good at feelings.”

“I think you’re doing just fine.”

April scoffs, rolling her eyes in the playful way that Sterling had been used to. “I appreciate the sentiment, Sterl, but I practically kicked you out of my apartment yesterday.”

“True,” Sterling agrees, now letting herself acknowledge that small flicker of pride, “but I don’t think you would’ve even entertained this conversation in high school. Let alone seek it out like you did just now.”

“That’s probably true as well,” April shrugs, still a little rigid but loosening up.

“Why were you so mad at me freshman year if you didn’t know?”

Sterling spent so many mornings tense and on edge, knowing that she would run into April in the shared bathroom down the hall. There were mornings where they wouldn’t dare to exchange a single word or so much as lock eyes in the mirror above the sink, and then there were mornings where they fought with years of unresolved hurt feelings just bursting at the seams.

“I wanted to leave everything so far behind me and just escape to another state where nobody knew me or could tie me back to my father,” April starts. The sharpness of her jaw unclenches when she turns to face Sterling. “Then there you were with your little smile and excitement, like it was just this great coincidence, when for me it was everything I was afraid of.”

Sterling almost reaches out for her hand.

“My dad was still living in the house back then, so I couldn’t risk anything following me back home. And I had spent years dreaming of getting away from him to finally live on my own terms. It was a juvenile fantasy of mine and college was supposed to be the perfect opportunity.”

“Until I showed up.”

“Until you showed up,” she confirms, rather regretfully. “I know it was wrong to resent you, you had just chosen a great school like everyone else on that campus, but God, I was so mad. I thought it meant another four years of putting out that fake, perfect version of myself.”

Sterling knows all about April’s misdirected anger. It’s been a long time since she’s landed on the receiving end of it, thanks to years of freedom from a certain terrible father, but Sterling still understands it well. While she might not have fully wrapped her head around it in high school (certainly not when they were on a bench and she was getting her heart broken), now she gets it.

She knows how suffocating John Stevens was to live with, knows April was afraid to be anything other than what he expected, and knows that April needed to be hundreds of miles away from that man in order to feel safe enough to be herself.

It makes something in her chest ache, always has. This desire that she has for April to experience the good in the world, to have people that genuinely love her, and to know that she’s safe. And although she understands April’s panic and her lack of trust, Sterling hates the idea of April thinking that she would ever want to stand in the way of her fantasized safe space.

“I never would’ve said anything. Blair doesn’t even know about the time I saw you drunk in the bathroom.”

“Wait, really?”

“Of course.” Sterling crosses her heart. “You asked me not to tell anyone. I was prepared to take that to my grave.”

April is trying very hard not to smile. It’s a face Sterling recognizes from many little debates, usually worn when April is about to concede.

“Obviously, I should’ve told you everything years ago and I’m so sorry that I didn’t, but I really thought—”

“I know,” she interrupts, voice firm and certain. April glances up, no longer hiding her crumbling defenses. “You thought I knew.”

“And I had no idea about Blair.”

“I know that too.”

Sterling gasps. “You do?”

“She called me like an hour ago,” April says, shocking Sterling even more. “I didn't have her number saved in my phone so I just happened to answer and she explained the situation. Turns out you have a pretty good sister.”

Sterling’s eyes prick with tears, barely holding back the desire to correct April and say that she actually has a fantastic sister. It’s almost enough to make Sterling regret tackling Blair onto the bed and pinning her down until she apologized.

“April,” she starts, voice rough over the lump in her throat, “I would never hide something from you now.”

“You weren’t planning to do it while we were home?”

“Bounty hunt?”

April nods.

“God, no. I have a full time job. This literally counts as my vacation. I just want to sit in the office and eat froyo while they work.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah,” she says, realizing, “I haven’t worked for Bowser in over a year.”

“Oh,” April exhales. For the first time since they sat down her shoulders look relaxed, not tense and rigid or slouched over in regret. She looks relieved, comfortable even. “I’m sorry I ruined our plans last night. It was just a lot of information and I needed a moment to process.”

“I get it,” Sterling returns. “I’m so sorry you had to find out like that.”

“I know you are.”

It feels final. With everything off her chest, Sterling is even more exhausted than she was before, but there’s still a rush to her heart as she braces for the last question.

“So are we…?”

April takes Sterling’s hand before she can even finish.

“We’re good.”

Two simple words send a wave of relief over Sterling’s body, so powerful that she can’t even hold herself up, and she doesn’t want to. She leans into April, resting her head on her shoulder and latching onto her arm, feeling so content and at ease after what may have been the longest twenty four hours of her life — well, minus the lock-in.

With their fingers still tightly entwined, April presses a kiss to the top of Sterling’s hair, then rests her head over that same spot.

The sun has dipped out of sight, leaving a pink sky to linger overhead, but as Sterling squeezes her eyes shut and breathes in the scent of April’s shampoo, she swears she can still feel it’s warmth.

They sit like that for a while — Sterling doesn’t know how long — just holding onto each other in the quiet aftermath of a pretty draining conversation, and Sterling’s pretty sure she never wants to let go.

“Does your mom hate me?” she eventually mutters against April’s shoulder.

“You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

She isn’t at a good angle to see April’s face, but she can hear the smirk in her voice.

“I’m still invited?”

“Yes,” April confirms, though it sounds to Sterling like she’s on thin ice. “I would bring a bottle of wine if I were you. Something red and expensive.”

“I can do that.” Sterling perks up, taking her head off of April’s shoulder and seeing the exact smile that she pictured. She would do anything for that smile. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

April leans over, eyes falling shut as she softly presses her lips to Sterling’s, making everything in the world feel so right that Sterling could cry.

“Dinner’s ready — oh!”

They pull apart, apparently too caught up in their own world to have heard the door opening.

“April, I didn’t know you were out here.”

“Hi, Mrs. Wesley.”

April greets her with such a polite charm, like they weren’t just caught in the middle of a vulnerable moment.

“So nice to see you.” Debbie’s beaming smile seems less easy when she turns to Sterling. “I would’ve appreciated the heads up, Sterl. We only set the table for four.”

“Oh, I—”

“Sterling didn’t know I was stopping by,” April chimes in on her behalf. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“Not at all. I’ll have Anderson get a spot ready for you.”

With nothing but a dismissive wave of her hand, Debbie is back inside to apparently set a fifth plate at their kitchen table. It all happens so fast that April doesn’t even get a chance to accept or deny the invitation.

“You don’t have to stay if you’re still upset.”

“You don’t want me to?”

“I would love it,” Sterling answers quickly, squeezing April’s hand and holding her gaze. “I just don’t want you to feel ambushed if you’re not ready. We literally just talked.”

April thinks about it for a few seconds. “No, I can stay.”

“You’re sure?”

She nods.

If at any point April regrets her decision to stay for dinner it probably comes within the first five minutes.

She gets whisked away almost instantly after giving a simple compliment to the napkin holder on the table.

“Oh, I made it myself in the garage,” Anderson grinned. “Have you seen our little workshop?”

April of course had seen it years ago but she still went to have a look, dropping Sterling’s hand to follow Anderson into the next room, while he droned on about his homemade ducks.

With her father and April gone, and Debbie still plating the food, Sterling goes looking for Blair.

She finds her in the next room, waiting by the back door for Chloe to come inside. Sterling has always been very fond of her sister, but there’s a sudden rush to it now that sends her closer, throwing her arms around Blair’s torso from behind, and pulling her in tight.

“Thank you.”

“Jesus Christ,” Blair gasps, body going rigid in Sterling’s arms. “You scared the crap out of me.”

“Sorry” she winces, giving Blair one last squeeze before letting her go. “I just wanted to say thanks.”

“Yeah, I know,” she mutters, turning around. “You said that already. What for?”

“For April. She told me that you called her.”

“Oh,” Blair scoffs, “that was nothing.”

In any other situation Blair would never let Sterling hear the end of it. There would be years of “hey, remember when I single handedly saved your relationship,” while always managing to leave out why said relationship was in trouble to begin with. But in this situation, since it involves April, someone Blair used to hate, someone she once wanted to protect Sterling’s “pure little heart” from, it would mean admitting she changed her mind and that she actually likes April. So naturally, Blair is playing it cool.

“It wasn’t nothing,” she insists, because this might be the one time Sterling wants Blair to boast and take credit. “It was kind of everything actually.”

“Really?”

Sterling nods.

“If you say so,” Blair shrugs, closing the door once Chloe comes moseying in. “I just thought you seemed upset.”

Sterling glances back towards the kitchen. Debbie is still the only one in there. They have another minute or two to spare.

She leans closer to Blair, practically bouncing on her toes as she whispers, “So what, um, what did you say to her?”

“I told her that her father is a creepy son of a bitch, who deserved to have his ass thrown in jail.”

“Blair!”

Blair holds up a hand. “I also told her that we swore never to tell anyone about our bounty hunting back in the day, and so you were essentially keeping a promise to me by leaving her in the dark. Then when it happened a second time, I didn’t want to put you in a position where you would have to choose sides. You guys were finally in a solid, happy place and I didn’t want to ruin it for you.”

It makes Sterling melt even more, although she was already a mushy pile of feelings today.

“Awww Blair—”

“And I thought that gossiping snitch would keep her mouth shut.”

Sterling just blinks for a moment, thrown by the rapid change in tone. “What, um,” she lowers her voice, “what gossiping snitch?”

Blair wiggles her eyebrows mischievously. “Lynn Creswell. She was down at the police station for having a few too many and she saw me bring him in. Turns out she can’t stay quiet even when her own reputation is on the line.”

“So she exposed herself for the sake of gossip?”

“One hundred percent,” Blair confirms, now moving towards the kitchen where a fully set table and a surprisingly patient Debbie is waiting for them. “I know Luke is pretty cool but you really dodged a bullet there. Could you imagine having that as a mother-in-law?”

Blair shivers at the thought.

“We’ll see if Mrs. Stevens is any better.”

“You’re still going?”

Sterling nods, grinning. But her smile doesn’t last.

Blair stops in her tracks to dramatically clasp Sterling’s shoulder. “I’ll pray for you.”

It’s weird having April at the house as a girlfriend. She’s been over as a friend, as a project partner, and as a guest to their many birthday parties. But this is different.

Sterling has seen April with parents before, but not quite like this. This isn’t boasting about herself so that they’re impressed — well it is at times — but there’s also an added kindness to it that wasn’t always there before.

Sterling notices it when April offers to help Debbie with the dishes. She notices it when April inserts herself into conversations, taking every single one of Anderson’s questions in stride. She notices it when April tolerates antics from Blair a little more than usual. And she notices it when April doesn’t shy away from holding her hand or resting an arm on the back of Sterling’s chair.

It takes Sterling a little while to see why this is different from April’s usual polite demeanor, but once Sterling does, it fills her heart with so much joy.

It’s different because this isn’t the side of April that she usually puts on for parents, teachers, and various authority figures. This is the side that Sterling gets to see. It’s her April.

She’s endearing and sweet and thoughtful, while still every bit as smart and passionate as she’s always been.

And the family is eating it up.

Debbie grins when April compliments her cooking, playfully wondering how she ended up with a daughter that eats a microwaveable meal twice a day.

“I’ve tried teaching her,” Debbie says. “Maybe you’ll have to give it a go.”

“Oh, I have, but after that experience I find it’s just easier to cook for the both of us or let Sterl pick something up.”

“That sounds like a nice little system.”

April brushes her fingers gently along the back of Sterling’s neck. “It works for us.”

Anderson is beyond thrilled just to have another person in the house that enjoys woodworking. In between dinner and dessert he must bring April every finished project he could find around the house.

“I made this last year for our anniversary.”

“Well that’s just beautiful,” April remarks, leaning out from Sterling’s side and to the edge of the couch for a closer look. “Nice work on the rounded edges. I would struggle to get them that smooth.”

“It just takes practice. You should’ve seen my first duck.”

His eyes then go wide with an idea.

“Dad, do not go get that duck,” Blair warns as if she could read his mind.

In her own little way, Blair even ends up impressed. Halfway through dessert she kicks Sterling under the table just to give a thumbs up. That’s it. But it feels like a win.

And although this is all new territory for their relationship, Sterling gets a warm fuzzy feeling in her chest, thinking that maybe this was always on the way, maybe they’ve finally landed where they’re supposed to be, because there’s something about it that just fits.

It’s easy. Much easier than the Stevens house will be later this week, that Sterling is sure of, but right now she can’t even bring herself to be envious of that. She can only sit and watch with what must be such a lovestruck expression, judging from how Debbie eyes her with a knowing smile.

After they all have dessert Sterling gets her first moment alone with April.

It comes in the kitchen, where April is pouring herself another drink, Sterling’s family having shifted into the living room, and Sterling gets an urge to hold her close. She wraps her arms around April’s waist, presses a soft kiss to her shoulder, and nuzzles into her neck, reveling in the warmth — a warmth that she realizes is a bit more than usual.

“You’re really hot.”

“Appreciate it baby, but maybe save it for when your parents aren’t in the next room.”

“True,” Sterling laughs, “but I meant temperature wise. You’re really warm.”

“I’m like grossly sweating.”

Sterling lifts her chin off of April’s shoulder, frowning. “Do you feel okay?”

She shrugs. “Just nervous, I guess.”

“April Stevens breaking a nervous sweat?” Sterling gasps teasingly.

“I want to make a good impression.”

Part of Sterling is touched by that. In all the years that she’s known April she’s never seen like this, warm and clammy and nervous. It’s oddly human and Sterling knows it means that April must really care about getting this right.

That’s not the part of Sterling that speaks though.

“Oh please,” she scoffs. April turns around in her arms, eyebrows furrowed in confusion as to why Sterling is practically laughing at her very real concern. “You are so far past that. I think they might like you better than me at this point.”

April’s eyes light up and she stands a bit straighter. “You think?” she asks as if it isn’t beyond obvious that Sterling’s family is over the moon about her.

“I know,” she confirms with a playful roll of her eyes.

Sterling is well aware that they’ve been through just about every emotion today, their talk on the stoop already feeling like it was a lifetime ago, but when she looks down to where April’s fingers have found hers, her touch soft and gentle against Sterling’s skin, Sterling just has to voice the thought she had earlier.

“You make it look easy,” she admits, adding, “So easy that it doesn’t feel like a first time at all. And I’m not even close to jealous of that because it feels like it should always be this way, and I love that so much more.”

April’s smile falls into a stunned expression, her mouth opened but oddly lacking words. For a second Sterling thinks she may have said too much, but then she meets April’s gaze, hope lingering in her eyes as she stares up at Sterling for confirmation.

When Sterling offers a small smile of her own and a quick nod, hands land immediately on the sides of her face and April lurches forward, kissing her like it’s the only worthy response.

It’s not a soft kiss like the one they shared outside. That was a gentle, everything’s okay type of kiss. This one is different. It’s firm and a little needy, but it feels a lot like an agreement, a confirmation of April’s own that Sterling wasn’t alone in her sentiment.

Maybe it’s because this day has felt like a rollercoaster, but they get a little caught up in the kiss. One of April’s hands slides into Sterling’s hair, while Sterling uses her grip on April’s waist to pull her body in as close as physically possible, each prolonging the moment more and more until a throat clears behind them.

Both of their heads abruptly turn to the doorway but neither of them do much to move, Sterling too dazed to realize she should unwedge April from between her body and the countertop, and April too stunned to nudge Sterling in that direction.

“Excuse me ladies,” Anderson says, stepping past them to pour himself some water.

The whole time it trickles into his cup, the seconds feeling like minutes, neither April or Sterling look at him or even at each other. They both stare down at their feet in an uncomfortable silence, waiting for him to either say something or leave. Sterling internally prays for the latter.

Just when he’s about to go and Sterling thinks she might actually be able to breathe again, Anderson pauses, lingering in the doorway.

“Your mom would want me to say something like, leave room for Jesus, so please do.”

April’s face burns red with a heat that Sterling wants to feel under her lips. Once her father finally leaves the room, she does.

Sterling presses a kiss to one of April’s cheeks and then to the other.

“Well that was kind of mortifying,” April says, face still warm enough to prove it, although she’s also smiling. “I know I didn’t have a normal teen experience, but I feel like a child right now.”

“Such a bad influence,” Sterling teases. “Weren’t you the one who just said we should rein it in while my parents were in the next room?”

“I know.” April grins, still playing along. “Do you think I could blame it on peer pressure? Maybe hang onto my good impression?”

Sterling pretends to consider. “Nah, I think you blew it.”

April throws her head back and laughs, light and free and unbothered in a way that Sterling never would’ve imagined this morning.

“Worth it,” she says, kissing Sterling once more.

And boy, was it ever.

Chapter Text

Sterling stands in front of her closet with her hands on her hips. She has to have scanned it over a hundred times, but still, nothing is jumping out at her.

“Can you at least pick something to try on?” Blair says, twisting and twirling in Sterling’s desk chair.

“I can’t decide.”

“It would just be an option. You’re not marrying it.”

“I know but,” Sterling trails off with no end to her sentence. “Maybe we should go shopping. Get something new.”

“So you can do this whole clueless and panicked thing out in public? No thank you.” Blair stands. She walks over to the closet and nudges Sterling aside, confidence pulsing through her as she says, “I’ve got this.”

After trying on half of her closet (the wrong half apparently) Sterling realizes that Blair does not in fact have this. Through no fault of her own, it turns out Blair isn’t really well versed in outfits for impressing your girlfriend's conservative mother who hates you. It just isn’t her style. So after a little bit of back and forth — Sterling teetering on a breakdown and Blair repeatedly insisting that she just try on “one more thing” — they decide to recruit outside help.

Debbie has mastered the art of southern charm. She looks the part through and through — gorgeous dresses, never a hair out of place, and a demeanor that is so rarely shaken when not behind closed doors. Nobody around here has ever suspected that she was from an area like Nandina, that she adopted one of her daughters from an estranged sibling, and that said sibling resurfaced to kidnap that child. Folks in their community have always just assumed she came from a similar place because of how well she’s learned to fit into it. Her fake smile is eerily convincing and she’s quick to a kind word, easily wooing and impressing people who have no business thinking they’re above her.

Within three minutes Debbie pulls four dresses from Sterling’s closet. In another five minutes they’ve all been tried on and one has been eliminated as an option. It’s progress.

“I like the one with the flowers best, but I think you would be fine with any of those three,” Debbie says, perched on the edge of Sterling’s bed while the remaining dresses hang from her closet door.

Sterling sighs. Fine doesn’t feel good enough. She doesn’t want to walk into April’s home feeling fine. She doesn’t want to greet Mrs. Stevens looking fine. And come the end of the day, once Sterling has left, she doesn’t want Mrs. Stevens to turn to April and just say, “she was fine.”

Sterling wants better than that. She needs better than that.

“Blair, what do you think?”

“I still like my choices better,” Blair says, ego a bit bruised since none of her selections made the final cut, “but those are all okay.”

Now they’ve gone from fine to okay. Sterling doesn’t know which is worse.

“Maybe I should try them on again.”

Blair groans dramatically, letting her head fall over the back of Sterling’s chair. “Dude, seriously?”

“Yes!”

“We’ve been through your whole closet like three times.”

“Why don’t we all just take a break,” Debbie calmly interjects, hoping to appease both of her girls. “Get some fresh eyes on it in a little while.”

Sterling stands straighter, shooting up like an arrow.

That’s it. She needs fresh eyes.

“I’m gonna ask April to come look,” she says, the idea coming to her like a cheesy cartoon lightbulb moment.

Sterling doesn’t know why she didn’t think of it sooner. April obviously knows her own mother better than Debbie or Blair would and she is also very well versed in all things Sterling. It’s a perfect combination.

Sterling needs April’s stable and sturdy presence, her genuine reassurance that is never just an empty pep talk of what Sterling wants to hear, her soft touch, her easing smile. Sterling just needs her.

Sterling: no idea what to wear for tomorrow. can you help me?

“Why don’t you invite her over for dinner?” Debbie suggests, voice higher than it was before. “After we eat you can come down in your dresses one by one, like you did when you were younger.”

Sterling stares at the bubble on the left side of her screen, waiting for the three dots to turn into an agreement. They do.

“It’s not a fashion show, mom,” she huffs, typing back a thank you with an abundance of emojis. “I’m genuinely freaking out.”

“She just doesn’t want you guys alone up here,” Blair says, kicking her feet up onto Sterling’s desk.

Sterling doesn’t have time to shame Blair for that even though her shoes are on. She stays focused, putting her hands on her hips as she turns towards Debbie.

“Seriously?”

Debbie stammers. “Well, with you changing outfits and all, it hardly seems appropriate.”

“It’s nothing April hasn’t seen before.”

“Blair,” Sterling warns through gritted teeth, praying that Blair stops.

No such thing happens.

“What? You don’t think it’s a little strange that you can’t get a moment alone with your girlfriend? You guys are six hours away and staying at each other’s apartments so often that you might as well be living together. I think we can all assume you’ve done the deed.”

Debbie abruptly puts her hand up. “I don’t think I need to know anything more.”

“Agreed.”

Sterling really doesn’t need to have another sex talk with her mom. The first one they had back when she was still with Luke was emotional and supportive, but the awkward refresher she got before college was enough for one lifetime.

Debbie rises to her feet, smoothing out her pants and taking a steady breath. “April can come and y’all can be upstairs,” she says, her tone a practiced calm, before leaving the room.

Blair smirks, apparently very satisfied. She leans further back in the chair with her feet still on Sterling’s desk, folding her hands behind her head. “You’re welcome.”

Sterling wipes the smug look off her face by throwing a pillow at it.

Later that night April shows up at the house all calm, cool, and collected, greeting Sterling with a soft kiss and an easy breathed, “hi baby,” as if she hasn’t spent the last two hours pacing in her room.

Sterling can’t relate.

“Okay, so we narrowed it down to three options, but if none of these work for you then we can go back to square one and bust out the rejects.”

“Who got you down to three?” April asks, making herself comfortable on Sterling’s bed as if she’s done it a million times. Sterling supposes April has, given that she’s a frequent guest at Sterling’s apartment, but never like this in her childhood home.

“Blair got the ball rolling, then my mom narrowed it down.”

“Your mom has good taste.”

Sterling rolls her eyes.“Questionable,” she mutters, still irked by the fashion show suggestion.

Their options include a blue dress, a pink dress, and a flowery one. April immediately nixes the flowery one, calling it “out of season” before Sterling even puts it on, and suddenly the three dresses are down to two.

“This is why I needed you.” Sterling grabs April’s face and pulls her in for a quick celebratory kiss. “My mom liked that one the best.”

“Really?”

Sterling nods.

“I’m shocked,” April says, grimacing a little, “and kind of disappointed in Debbie.”

A few days ago Sterling was thrilled that April and her mother landed on a first name basis. Her stomach tingled with butterflies, her heart felt full, and she couldn’t help but smile fondly throughout the whole evening. Now those butterflies have formed a pit, her chest feels tight, and her smile fades knowing that April likely won’t get to share that same joy.

“I think you’re overthinking it,” April says after a few minutes of Sterling staring blankly at her two dresses. April insisted that either one would be fine (there’s that word again) but Sterling wasn’t satisfied.

“Oh, I know I am,” Sterling agrees, well aware that she’s letting her nerves get to her. She peels her eyes off the dresses to look over at April. “Everything went perfectly when you were here with my family and I loved every second of it. I want that for you.”

“Those are very high standards.”

“You set them.”

“Not for you.” April’s voice is gentle and understanding, but simultaneously firm and certain. “Listen, I love that you want it to go well but they’re different situations. Your family is easy going and kind. My mom, while better than she used to be, is a lot less warm.”

“True,” she mutters, still feeling a little off.

Sterling glances back at the dresses, finding that same dread still lurks in her chest. “So,” she starts, already hating the taste of this question before it even leaves her mouth, “what did, uh, Emma wear?”

“I don’t remember.”

Sterling rolls her eyes. “Yes, you do.”

“Excuse me?” April laughs, her smile daring and teasing as she shifts to the edge of the bed, letting her feet hang down to the floor.

“Your mom meeting your first girlfriend? April, you definitely planned that whole day to a tee, which also means you have it memorized.”

“Okay,” she concedes, surprisingly easy, “but why does it matter what she wore?”

“She got a stamp of approval!”

Sterling hates how April quirks an eyebrow, like she’s figuring out something that she’s not supposed to, and gulps under her stare.

“Why are you so weird about that?”

“I’m not weird!” Sterling attempts to insist, but her voice cracks and nobody believes it.

April levels her with one glance.

“Sometimes I just wonder if that could’ve been me, you know? If I could’ve been the girlfriend you introduced to your mother.”

“Sterl,” April sighs softly, dropping her playful smile and holding her hand out. Sterling takes it. “You are the girlfriend I’m introducing to my mother. No past tense. Doesn’t that sound better?”

“I guess,” Sterling mutters, knowing that her pout is slowly curving into a smile.

“I know we didn’t have the smoothest path and sometimes it feels like we wasted time elsewhere when this was waiting for us, but we’re here now and we’re ready for it.”

“Were you nervous?”

April blinks. “What?”

“For your mom to meet her.”

April hesitates for a second, rattled by the quick change in topic. Sterling doesn’t even know where that question came from. One second she was being convinced to let this extra weight go, and the next she was barreling into a corner of April’s past that she’s never actually asked about.

“I just gave you a nice little speech and you’re still on that?” April deflects teasingly.

Sterling doesn’t fall for it.

“April,” she presses gently. April looks away. With their hands still joined, Sterling keels down on the floor, resting her free hand on April's thigh and trying to catch her gaze. “You know that’s not why I’m asking.”

Her question isn’t coming from jealousy or regret or whatever she was feeling before. It’s coming from a place of care, a place of love, a place that wants to understand a little bit better.

April just barely nods, eyes still downcast, which tugs at Sterling’s heart and only makes her wish she could’ve been the one there even more. To hold April’s hand, to tell her it would be okay, to say I’ve got you and mean it, to make her laugh when she needed to loosen up. Though she supposes April had Emma to do all of those things back then.

Now though, Sterling gets to do it. She gets to give April’s leg a reassuring squeeze, to brush her thumb gently over April’s knuckles, to wait and listen if April wants to share.

“We had our whole long talk at that point. She apologized for everything with my dad and for her slightly awkward reaction when I first came out. She said that she loved and supported me, but,” April pauses, taking a breath, “hearing that your daughter likes girls and seeing it for yourself are two entirely different things. I thought she might change her mind.”

April looks up, no longer hiding away, but still tense as the weight of a heavy reveal slowly lifts from her shoulders. Sterling can feel the tension in the muscles of April’s thigh beneath her hand, in the tremble of April’s fingers between her own.

After years of being raised in a house run by John Stevens and playing for a team fueled by his hatred, April didn’t trust that her mom genuinely turned over a new leaf, suspecting that she would revert back to her old ways instead. It’s heartbreaking.

Sterling brings April’s hand up to her lips, kissing the back of it and giving it a comforting squeeze. She blinks her watery eyes (this is not her time to cry) and swallows the lump in her throat, trying to steady her voice to say, “That must’ve been really hard.”

“It was a little scary,” April admits lightly, “but it worked out.”

“Are you nervous now?”

April shakes her head, finding her confidence and her smile once again.

“Not even afraid she’ll hate me?” Sterling presses playfully, getting that smile to grow.

“As someone who used to hate you, I’m pretty sure it won’t last.”

It’s softer than Sterling expected. She was waiting for a halfhearted eye roll and a quick witted response, but now she’s on the verge of crying again, so full of love and joy.

Sterling leans up to kiss her — she has to — and April leans down to meet her halfway. For the moment it eases everything, silencing Sterling’s anxieties for dinner tomorrow and April’s past hurt. That comfort spreads through Sterling’s chest, warming her body, and reminding her that their history, no matter how complex, has led them to this level of tenderness that Sterling doesn’t think she’s ever experienced anywhere else.

“Wear the blue one,” April breathes against her lips.

Sterling leans back a little. “Why?”

“Because it brings out your eyes and I like it.”

Sunlight creeps in through Sterling’s bedroom window as she stands in front of her mirror, smoothing out the fabric of her blue dress. She takes a deep breath. She’s been taking deep breaths all day, waiting for one of them to actually settle her.

“Okay, lets go over it one more time,” Blair says, zipping the back of Sterling’s dress and peering over her shoulder. “What are your three keys to success?”

“Good introduction. Survive dinner. Make a gracious exit.”

“And the key to a good introduction?”

“First few seconds are crucial,” Sterling recites, catching Blair’s eye in the mirror. “Smile, don’t babble, shake her hand, compliment the house, and thank her for having me.”

Blair nods. “How do we survive dinner?”

“Don’t get poisoned.”

Sterling smiles a wide, dumb grin into the mirror, waiting for Blair to laugh. She doesn’t. Blair holds a stoic expression.

“Is this a joke to you?”

Sterling shakes her head, smile falling.

“How do you pull off a gracious exit?”

“Smile, don’t babble, shake her hand — or hug, depending on how the day goes — compliment the house, compliment the dinner, and thank her again for having me.”

“Okay.” Blair steps back. “I think you’re ready.”

Sterling turns around. There’s a nervous energy pulsing through her — has been all afternoon — but now as she faces Blair one final time, it’s multiplied.

“You think so?”

“I know so,” Blair confirms, clasping Sterling’s shoulder. “She’s gonna love you. She’d be stupid not to.”

Sterling smiles, standing straighter. There’s only one thing left for Blair to clarify.

“The don’t get poisoned thing was kinda funny, right?”

“I almost broke character.”

Smile, don’t babble, shake her hand, compliment the house, and thank her for having you. Sterling repeats that to herself over and over once she rings the bell of the Stevens house. She gets through it four and a half times before April opens the door and Sterling finally breathes steady again, relieved to be greeted by a familiar smile rather than a cold scowl.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

April steps aside to let Sterling into the foyer. “After last night I’m surprised you made it in one piece.”

“Making it is the easy part.”

“Oh babe, nothing about that was easy,” she teases, taking the bottle of red wine from Sterling’s hand and giving it an approving nod. “Good choice on the wine and the dress. Blue was definitely the right move.”

“You’re just saying that because you picked it,” Sterling teases right back.

April steps in close. “I’m really not.”

She half expected April to drop her voice low in the way that usually makes Sterling swallow and sends a warmth pulsing through her body. But April says it in a soft tone, with a little smile, and Sterling blushes like a teenager asking her crush to play skee ball after school.

Footsteps descend from the top of the stairs and Sterling may be caught up in a moment, but not so caught up to forget why she’s really here.

Catherine Stevens. She helped Sterling and April bake cookies at their first sleepover when they were nine, mostly to ensure that there wasn’t a mess. Sterling didn’t even come close to understanding the mechanics of the Stevens family back then, but at the time she did recognize that there was something about this mother that didn’t feel at all like her own. Her smile would never reach her eyes, she wouldn’t let them eat any of the dough, and she didn’t ruffle April’s hair or laugh when the girls got distracted and the cookies turned out a little crisp. She was nothing like Debbie.

“Hi,” Sterling blurts as soon as Catherine’s feet land on the hardwood of the first floor. She holds out her hand. “So nice to meet you — well not meet you. We’ve met before, obviously.”

Strike one. Babbling.

Catherine stares right over Sterling’s shoulder, chin up high. She may be refusing to look Sterling in the eye, but she’s not so much of a coward to stare down at her own feet.

“Yes, I’ve heard you know my ex-husband very well.”

Sterling retracts her unshaken hand. Strike two.

“I wouldn’t say well,” she mutters. It almost rattles her. Sterling nearly lets her smile drop, but then April’s hand slides around her waist, warm and steady. “Your home is just as beautiful as I remembered.”

Compliment the house. Check.

“That must be an old memory.”

Sterling blinks. Okay, so maybe no check.

Every attempt that Sterling makes is just effortlessly dismissed. Catherine doesn’t raise her voice or snarl. Her tone isn’t even remotely sharp. Her cold shoulder is more of a sleek, slippery slope instead of jagged ice. She’s so casually cool in the way that she brushes Sterling off, easily aloof like Sterling isn’t even worth a reaction. It’s unnerving.

Sterling peers into the next room, searching for an out.

“Did you, uh, get new furniture?”

Catherine frowns. “In the ten years since you’ve last been here? Yes, I would hope so.”

“Well it’s just lovely.” Sterling pushes on, trying to keep up with Catherine’s level of nonchalance. Sterling can be unbothered too. Or at least pretend to be. She dives head first right into Blair’s final step for a good introduction, “Thank you for having me.”

“It wasn’t my choice.”

“Mom!”

Strike three.

Sterling finds where April’s hand is still resting on her hip, grip now noticeably tighter, and gives it a pat, a simple easy there, tiger gesture. Sterling is fine. She’s got this. She has a supposed foolproof plan to win Catherine over. She doesn’t need April choosing sides within thirty seconds of Sterling and her mother meeting. That would only make things worse.

April seems to get it, taking a deep breath. “Shall we.”

She gestures to the living room, towards the new furniture they apparently got in the last decade, and both Sterling and Catherine follow.

Sterling settles in on the couch beside April, easing a bit more when April takes her hand. On the other side of the glass coffee table, Catherine sits in a chair all her own. It’s one of those chairs that are probably nicer to look at than sit in, the fabric more rough than soft, and the cushion more firm than fluffy.

So Sterling’s introduction totally blew. No biggie. It’s just one of Blair’s three keys to success. If she avoids getting poisoned at dinner she can still manage the other two.

But as the seconds turn into minutes that possibility drifts further and further away.

They have short bursts of conversation, or well, Sterling and April do. Catherine keeps them at bay. She’ll hum in response or say something rather cold while April tries to bridge the gap to no avail, repeatedly landing the three of them in a stiff silence.

Nothing seems to be working and April, who was allowing Sterling to ease her after every one of Catherine’s backhanded remarks, is now starting to let her frustration show. Her grip on Sterling’s hand is tighter, her voice is sharper when addressing her mother, and Sterling honestly can’t blame her. She’s feeling a little dejected herself.

In moments like this Sterling wishes she had Debbie’s composure, because her sensitivity is getting harder to control. Her mother’s practiced smile never looked as tired as Sterling’s feels right now. She never watched Debbie gulp nervously whenever Big Daddy or Mother would dismiss her. Debbie never even blew a fuse when the other parents blamed the lacrosse team's championship loss on Blair’s ejection, a mere week after the lock-in. And yet here Sterling is forcing a smile, swallowing a lump in her throat, and doing everything possible not to dramatically burst into tears over another grown woman not liking her.

“This isn’t our usual Tuesday,” April says after a conversation about Sterling’s job went nowhere.

“I wonder if they miss us at Stingers.”

“They definitely miss you.” April’s tone is teasing, but her thumb is swiping gently over Sterling’s knuckles. “I think they're all charmed by your little mission.”

“When April and I first started going there for happy hour, I suggested that we try to order something different every time. Really work our way through the menu,” she explains, providing an uninterested Catherine with a little context. “Expand our palettes.”

April bites back a smile. “Which we’ve definitely done by now. They’re a small pub. The options are not that vast.”

“Then maybe it’s time to find something new.” Catherine’s tone is steady. Her gaze shifts purposely from where Sterling and April’s hands are joined up to meet April’s eyes. “Move on from this little place. I’m sure there’s better out there.”

She doesn’t flat out say her suggestion is that April dump Sterling and not Stingers, but after the half hour that they’ve had (God, how has it only been that long) the implications are definitely there.

With that blow, Sterling, for as put together as she’s been this evening, needs a damn minute. She clears her throat, smoothing out her dress as she stands. Sterling can feel their eyes boring into her but she doesn’t bring herself to look at either April or her mother.

“I’m, uh, I’m gonna go to the bathroom. Excuse me.”

“Sterl—”

“I’ll be right back,” Sterling assures April with a fake cheery voice that cracks, a smile that doesn’t reach her watery eyes, and a firm squeeze to April’s hand before she hurries out of the room.

Once the bathroom door closes, Sterling wastes no time in dialing Blair.

“Yo.”

“She hates me!” Sterling whisper-yells in lieu of a greeting.

“Her loss, dude.”

“But I don’t want her to hate me.”

“So work your magic.”

Sterling rakes her fingers through her hair. “How?”

“Did you follow the steps?”

“Yes!” she whines.

“Damn, I don’t know then.” Blair pauses, genuinely stumped. “How did you make April like you?”

“I suggested that Naomi and Ruth were gay and then I kissed her while she was midsentence.”

“God, and that worked?” Blair scoffs, chuckling into the phone. Sterling doesn’t have time for this. “I always thought April would be more difficult. I’ve been giving you way too much credit over the years—”

Sterling hangs up.

She knows it was rude, but Blair wasn’t helping, Sterling’s already panicked, and she’s been in this bathroom way longer than necessary for it to pass as a quick pee break.

Sterling checks herself in the mirror above the sink. Luckily, she only looks slightly unhinged. Her hair got a little messy when she stressfully tugged at it and her eyes are a little red, but that’s it.

She takes a few deep breaths, flushes the toilet to give the illusion that she used it, texts Blair a quick apology because she can’t possibly win somebody over on a guilty conscience, and opens the bathroom door.

With each step Sterling steadies her breathing, internally telling herself that she’s got this, and damn near believing it until —

“Sterling and I first got together in high school.”

Sterling muffles a gasp with her hand, quickly stepping back from the doorway and stopping behind the wall, out of sight but still in ear shot.

“What?”

“We snuck around for a few days before dad got out of jail and then I called it off because I was terrified of him finding out.”

For a second the living room goes quiet. Sterling’s heart rapidly thumps through the silence, pounding between her ears so loudly that she hopes neither April or her mother can hear it in the next room.

Part of her thinks that she should just go back to the bathroom and let them sort this out privately, but another part of her wants to be out there with —

“April…”

Catherine’s tone has shifted to sound sympathetic. April won’t have it. She hates pity.

“We got involved again in college but it didn’t amount to anything serious. I still hadn’t told you I was gay and she was leaving the country, so we held back a second time. I am not holding back a third.”

Sterling starts to smile. She knows that voice. She loves that voice. She’s witnessed it on more than a few occasions, getting a thrill from it as a bystander and fearing it when she used to land on the receiving end way back in the day. It’s not just April’s usual debate voice. It’s her I’m going to make you wish you never even tried to debate me on this voice.

“What I have with Sterling right now is a long time coming and it’s not her fault that dad is gone. If she didn’t arrest him somebody else would’ve. He still got out of jail, he still cheated on you again, and he still made threats when he was angry.”

“April, I know.”

“No, I don’t think you do,” April interrupts, firmer than she was a moment ago. Sterling braces herself, back tensing against the wall. “It is stupidly complex to be two girls and have anything real in this town — in this community — in this house,” she corrects, voice wavering. “Your divorce was honestly one of the best things that ever happened to me, because he never would’ve accepted me or any girl that I loved, regardless of if they threw him in jail or not.”

“Loved?”

“Yes,” she confirms without hesitation.

Sterling could fucking cry. It’s not that she is in any way surprised to know that April loves her. They’ve said it countless times to each other just this week. But it’s the way she says it with such an ease and a confidence that Sterling never could’ve imagined when they were sixteen and then again at nineteen, just barely scratching the surface of what they could be to each other.

“So please get on board, mom. Sterling is not going anywhere and she’s never going to stop trying to win you over. Believe me, I would know.”

There’s a shift in April’s voice that’s softer, more pleading, and Sterling physically can’t hold herself back anymore (not that she even wants to after all that).

Her feet start moving, mind blurred with a hundred different thoughts of April, and so overcome with love. Sterling doesn’t know what she’s going to do when she gets to her, just that she has to get there. She wants to be near her, hold her, kiss her, and maybe drag her upstairs, but mostly she just wants to make sure that April is okay, because that was a highly emotional speech and way less fact based than April’s usual arguments.

Sterling almost gets to her, holding out a hand once she’s within reach.

“Sterling—”

Catherine’s voice stops her immediately. On her bee-line through the living room, Sterling had zeroed in on April so much that she kind of forgot Mrs. Stevens was even there and about to witness whatever dramatic, emotional thing Sterling intended to do.

Her first thought is, crap, were they not finished? Which is followed quickly by, was my eavesdropping that obvious? But then April takes her outstretched hand and Sterling doesn’t care if they were finished or not. She’s staying.

“— do you think you could help me in the kitchen?”

Oh.

The tension in Sterling’s body deflates, relieved and stunned that she no longer has to brace for a fight.

“She’s not much of a cook,” April dismisses as gently as possible.

“I can try!” Sterling insists. There is finally a window for her to have a moment with Mrs. Stevens, a window that April fought for Sterling to have. She is absolutely going to take it.

“I just need a taste tester.”

“Oh, I totally got that.”

Catherine heads towards the kitchen without another word. Sterling starts to eagerly follow, but a tug to her hand holds her back.

“You don’t have to do this,” April says, her voice low enough that her mother won’t hear. “She’s being rude and we’re not here for her approval. We don’t need it.”

“I know that, but wouldn’t it be nice?”

“Sterling,” she says firmly, squeezing Sterling’s hand and staring intensely into her eyes. “I didn’t invite you here because I need her to love you. I invited you because I love you and I wanted to give her the chance to see that. If she can’t then that’s her problem, but you don’t need to carry that weight. We’re not here to beg for acceptance.”

Sterling nods, so full of love and pride that all she can say is, “Okay.” She presses a kiss to April’s forehead, a silent promise of understanding, though it kind of blows her mind that the girl who once hid away out of fear of rejection is now okay with it. “If you’re comfortable, I would still like to help your mom with dinner. It seems like an olive branch and I want to try.”

“Alright.”

“Yeah?”

April smiles. “Yeah, let's go.”

Catherine noticeably loosens up in the kitchen. She actually looks Sterling in the eye and even speaks to her while they prep the meal, but tension still sits in the air. Neither she nor Sterling really know what their dynamic should be and April lingering in the doorway certainly doesn’t help.

She’s hovering. April is watching their every move and analyzing her mother’s every word with her eyebrows furrowed in full concentration, ready to pounce at a moment's notice. Sterling gets it, is rather endeared by it, but the pressure in the room is astronomical and bound to burst.

Catherine decides to put an end to it. “Don’t you have a book to read for class?”

“Well, yeah but—”

“But nothing,” she cuts in, shooing April away. “I think Sterling and I can handle ourselves. Go.”

April looks at her mother and then over to Sterling, unsure.

“I’ll come get you when it’s ready,” Sterling says, giving April a go ahead nod.

She still hesitates, but then April is off for the stairs, leaving Catherine and Sterling alone in the kitchen just like they asked.

“I think we should clear the air,” Catherine says as soon as April is out of earshot, not wasting a second of time.

Like mother, like daughter, Sterling reluctantly thinks to herself. Out loud she agrees, “Yes, ma’am.”

“John is a terrible man.”

Wow, what an opening.

“He broke the law, he skipped bail, and then a few years later he decided to do it all over again. Because of his status he thought he could get away with it, and he probably would’ve if it weren’t for you and your sister.”

Sterling winces.

“However,” Catherine starts, pausing to sprinkle some fresh herbs into a pot on the stove, the anticipation nearly killing Sterling as she waits, “even if it’s difficult to admit, it’s wrong for me to blame a couple of teenagers for the actions of a grown man. You held him accountable when I wouldn’t and when the law eventually didn’t.”

“Wow,” Sterling exhales. She was expecting more of an argument. “Mrs. Stevens, I — I hope you know that I never meant to cause so much trouble for you and April.”

Catherine waves her hand dismissively, somehow brushing it off. “If he never got arrested it would’ve saved us some public scandal, sure, but it wouldn’t have saved us any less trouble. We would’ve just kept it all in house and Lord knows where we would be today if that had been the case.”

Her confession jars Sterling more than she would care to admit. Without the scrutiny of an arrest on their backs, would Mrs. Stevens have reached her breaking point and filed for divorce? If the answer to that impossible question is no, then John could still be living in this very house, April could still be in the closet and afraid, and Sterling doesn’t know where she would fit into that picture if it were real.

“I can push past your involvement in his arrest, because it never should’ve been your cross to bear.” Catherine’s eyes stay focused on the stove top, where she stirs her pot of sauce with a wooden spoon. “My issue, and why I’ve been so cold today, is that this was withheld from my daughter throughout the apparent three times you’ve been together. Now, I’ve been with a liar before, I married him—”

“Mrs. Stevens, I—”

Catherine raises her hand to stop Sterling before she can insist that she is nothing like John and that this won’t happen again.

“I think I was being a little overprotective and...projecting as my therapist likes to say.”

Sterling’s eyes go wide. “Oh.”

“We don’t tend to get into details in this house, so I won’t pretend to know everything. Obviously you two have worked it out and that’s your business.” Catherine glances up from the pot, pointing her wooden spoon at Sterling. “But I do not want to see her that upset again. Got it?”

Sterling immediately nods. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Alright, good,” Catherine lowers the spoon, “because she’s very fond of you.”

“I’m fond of her too — very fond — the fondest,” Sterling clumsily replies, a warmth rushing to her cheeks. She’s about to apologize for babbling when Catherine holds out the spoon again, cradling her hand underneath in case any of the sauce should drip.

“Here, taste this for me.”

Sterling leans over. “Wow, that’s really good.”

Catherine smiles for the first time all day and the weight that had been pressing down on Sterling’s back feels lighter.

“Mrs. Stevens, if you don’t mind me asking, what changed just now?”

“She loves you,” Catherine answers simply, “and we don’t throw that word around very often over here.”

Even with the air cleared it still isn’t easy between them. Sterling offers to help where she can and Catherine graciously accepts, but they stumble a bit trying to find things to talk about. Until they realize that the one thing they definitely have in common is sitting upstairs in her room.

“She’s more sensitive than she lets on.”

“Oh, I know. Last week she teared up during that new Pixar movie.”

“Did she blame it on her allergies?”

“No, but I was honestly in worse shape than she was so I just passed her a tissue and didn’t really ask,” Sterling says while setting three plates on the table. Her eyebrows furrow. “April has allergies?”

Catherine shakes her head. “It’s a little trick I used to use whenever John and I had a fight. I would blame my red eyes and runny nose on seasonal allergies. April never questioned it when she was young, so I saw no harm, but then she started doing it too.”

“Oh.”

Sterling wishes she were a little more articulate, wishes that this house wasn’t such a sad place when they were growing up.

“You’ve never heard that one?”

Sterling shakes her head.

“Good. We could use a little more honesty around here.”

Catherine freezes, rethinking her phrasing.

“I wasn’t trying to get into your lying again with that comment.”

Sterling smiles. “I knew what you meant, ma’am. Thank you.”

Catherine drops her shoulders, seeming relieved. “You should go grab April. I’ll finish getting the table ready.”

“Are you sure?”

She nods.

Sterling knocks lightly at April’s open door, apparently catching her off guard. She immediately closes the book she was reading and sits straighter on her bed, shuffling to the edge.

“How was it?”

“Fine.”

That doesn’t seem to put April at ease. “Be honest. Did my mom behave?”

“Yes,” Sterling says, watching April start to loosen. “I got a little bit of a talking to, but nothing that I didn’t deserve.”

And now she’s tense again.

“She can’t blame you for what he did. It’s not fair.”

“No, but she can blame me for lying to you about it.”

April stares up at Sterling, just blinking for a moment, too taken aback to question it.

“I didn’t mind. Getting a ‘don't hurt my daughter’ lecture felt oddly accepting.”

April shakes her head in disbelief, a light shade of pink grazing her cheeks. “I can’t believe she did that.”

“Well your speech definitely helped.”

“My speech?” April’s eyes are wide. Her flushed face is getting redder by the second, going a full crimson when Sterling nods. “You heard that?”

“Caught the tail end of it on my way back from the bathroom.”

April grimaces. “This just keeps getting more embarrassing.”

She’s mortified. Sterling can tell. It’s even worse than when Anderson caught them kissing in the kitchen a few days ago, or when Janet assumed they were dating a few months ago, or when April blurted out that she wanted to ravage Sterling in the back of her car a few years ago. But Sterling finds herself utterly charmed by the whole thing.

“Hey.” She takes April’s hands and steps between her legs where they hang off the bed. “Your parents divorce is one of the best things that ever happened to me too,” she says with a teasing smile.

It takes a second to click, then any tension that April previously held fades away as she starts to laugh.

“Oh, shut up.”

Sterling grins and pulls April to her feet, bringing them face to face. “I’ll always try to win you over,” she says, going for serious this time.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

April starts to lean in and God, Sterling aches for it, but then she stops to brush her nose against Sterling’s and say, “Then I guess I’ll always let you win.”

“Let me?” Sterling leans back in feigned shock. “Name one time where you let me.”

“Sterl—”

“I earned those wins with blood, sweat, and tears, baby.”

April laughs. “You’re ridiculous. Come on.”

She takes Sterling’s hand and tugs her into the hallway, down the stairs for a dinner that Sterling is no longer worried about.

There are moments where April seems stunned at how the energy has shifted between Sterling and Catherine. Her eyebrows furrow when Sterling compliments the food and Catherine thanks Sterling for the wine. Her mouth opens, almost questioning it when they laugh over a shared joke, but ultimately April doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t demand to know exactly what they talked about in the kitchen that got them to this place. She doesn’t wonder why Sterling isn’t holding a grudge, or why her mother is suddenly smiling instead of rolling her eyes, or why the animosity was ever there to begin with. She just squeezes Sterling’s hand a little bit tighter and takes it all in.

After Sterling survives dinner she goes for the final step, a gracious exit, and nearly blows it by gasping when Catherine hugs her goodbye (which she can’t wait to brag to Blair about).

She somehow makes it out of the Stevens house unscathed and that’s not even the best part. April walks her down the driveway, quietly smiling to herself until they reach the Volt.

“I’d say that went well, shockingly.”

“Started a little rocky, but landed in a good spot.”

“The best things usually do,” April says, staring softly up at Sterling. The implication makes a warmth spread through Sterling's chest and she must visibly melt, because April suddenly brushes it off. “Thank you for trying so hard today. I know she didn’t make it easy.”

“It was no big deal.”

“It was to me.” April wraps her arms around Sterling’s neck. “Turns out you were right. It was nice to see the two of you getting along.”

“Did you just say I was right?”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

Sterling kisses her. She has to. It has been a long, tense day, and she hasn’t yet had a moment to simply kiss the girl she loves. So maybe she gets carried away.

With her hands gripped tightly at April’s hips, Sterling steps back, pinning herself between April and the car, and gasping into April’s mouth at the feeling of body on body contact.

April pulls back, face flushed and smiling. “Do I need to remind you that we are in front of my childhood home where my mother is right inside?”

“Sucks not having our own place.” Sterling’s eyes widen, registering the words. “Not like our own place, but like each of our apartments where there’s no adult supervision, or Blair, or uh—”

April kisses her again, still shorter than Sterling would like, but so damn sweet and effective in shutting her up.

“I get it, Sterl,” she breathes against her lips, letting them linger right there for a moment, and oh, Sterling could stand here for hours kiss-dazed and holding April Stevens at the end of her driveway like a couple of teenagers who don’t want to say goodnight. “But we’ll be back in Durham tomorrow.”

“What time should I come over?”

April laughs, more free and unburdened than Sterling has seen all day. “First let’s see what time you even wake up to get on the road.”

“Fair point,” she concedes, leaning down to kiss April again. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Sterling eventually tears herself away from April and grins the whole drive home. She finds Blair waiting on her bed, sprawled out and eagerly awaiting the details.

“It's a long story. Let me get changed first.”

As soon as Sterling is out of her blue dress and into some pajamas, she slides under the covers, nuzzling into Blair’s side. On the now rare occasion that Sterling sleeps alone, she does really miss this.

“So how did it go?” Blair asks, draping an arm around Sterling’s shoulders.

“Really well actually.”

“She doesn’t hate your guts?”

“Well, she did at first but—”

“You charmed your way into her cold blooded heart,” Blair finishes in a teasing voice.

“Actually,” Sterling starts, a smile peeking through, “April kind of did it for me.”

Blair turns her head to get a better look at Sterling. Her forehead is creased in confusion.

“She, like, fought for us,” Sterling says, unable to restrain the grin that spreads across her face, the wonderment that reaches her eyes, and the flutter that takes over her whole chest. “April stood up in front of her mom and gave a whole speech about how we’ve been through so much to get to this point and that she loves me and that I’m not going anywhere, so she’d better get on board.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

Sterling is breathless just thinking about it.

“Did you drop to your knees right there?”

“Kinda wanted to,” she admits, cheeks burning with the thought, “but we were still technically in the middle of the mother situation.”

Blair smiles, no longer just in teasing, but happy as she roughly tugs Sterling closer. “And to think you were panicking about getting dumped a few days ago. Now she’s never letting you go or whatever.”

“Yeah,” Sterling sighs, content. There’s a lot running through her mind and through her heart — the ease that she feels right now; the relief of the weight from her shoulders; the love that still seems fresh even when it’s been confirmed a hundred times over; the eagerness for a future filled with moments like this; but also just living in this moment now, fully and openly with everything this weekend had to offer. “I would say it worked out.”

Chapter Text

“Sterling, are you ready?”

Sterling takes one last look around her now empty apartment — the bare walls, the empty cabinets, the wood floor that she hardly ever noticed when it was under her bed frame and futon. Her first home away from home, the first place she ever called her own, is now officially vacant and no longer hers.

“Yeah,” she calls back, voice echoing in the emptiness. She is ready.

There is just enough room for Sterling in the passenger seat, the car piled high with all of her stuff as she awaits a new chapter for the second time in her life. This time her heart doesn't pound through deafening nerves as she struggles to hold down her breakfast. Unlike her first ride to college six years ago, Sterling is excited. Her heart now races in anticipation as she watches her old apartment building disappear in the side mirror and Sterling grins when she shifts her eyes to focus on the road ahead.

“Thanks for helping this weekend.”

“Of course,” Blair returns, signaling to merge onto the interstate. “Did you really think I’d miss moving day?”

“Never.”

It would take a hell of a lot more than a measly four hundred miles for Sterling and Blair to miss out on each other’s big moments. Especially when Blair has upgraded to a Jeep and Sterling is still trudging around in the Volt. That definitely makes moving easier.

“Although I will say, you really need to learn to pack lighter. Yesterday was a breeze with April’s stuff — don’t tell her I said that. She was super controlling and it’ll go right to her head — but today, with all this crap,” Blair gestures to the messy pile of Sterling’s things, “I have a feeling you might kill me. So when I crash on your couch instead of driving all the way home, that's on you.”

“I already assumed you were,” Sterling says. “Did you really think we were just gonna send you on a four hour drive after helping all day?”

“I don’t know. Thought you might want some alone time on your first night in the new place.”

Sterling could’ve figured out what Blair meant even without the exaggerated wiggle of her eyebrows.

“Well, since I’m not in a studio anymore, that alone time is still feasible. Unless you’re planning on sharing a bed.”

Blair gags. “Nope. I’m good with the couch.”

There had been a few moments recently where Sterling thought some type of move with April might happen. She would’ve brought it up herself if she had more to offer, but the odds of April moving into Sterling’s small studio were slim to none. It made more sense for Sterling to go to April’s apartment if anything, and so, bringing it up and essentially inviting herself to move in just felt odd.

There was one time when the power went out in Sterling’s entire building, so she went to stay with April for the night, citing (as if she even needed a reason), “Showering in the dark felt spooky.”

April, after researching Sterling’s part of the neighborhood and finding that there was no street-wide power outage, that the issue simply lied in Sterling’s building, casually said, “Maybe that chapter has run its course.”

Sterling perked up on April’s couch, bright eyed and ready for it. “Yeah?” she said, bracing for April to ask.

She didn’t.

April stared at her for a second, sputtering, and then made some comment about bad landlords, effectively closing that open window of opportunity.

A month later, there was another window where Sterling thought it just made sense.

Exhausted from a rough day at work, thinking that might be another chapter that’s run its course, Sterling had called April from her car to cancel their dinner plans.

“I’m so tired. I just want to go home,” she whined through the Bluetooth.

April, without missing a beat, had said, “I’ll call that Chinese place you like and get it delivered,” so simply as if Sterling wanting to go home meant that she just wanted to order takeout from April’s apartment instead of going to a restaurant.

To be honest, Sterling knew that April’s apartment had felt more like home than her own, had for a while, having practically vacated her place over the last few weeks in favor of sharing dinner and a bed with the girl she loves. However, the official question still didn’t come.

Then there was a moment where Sterling almost gave in and brought it up herself.

She got out of work early (gotta love those summer Fridays) and used her key to get into April’s apartment while she wasn’t home.

Sterling started to make dinner, which was a new thing she picked up after spending so many nights in a kitchen with either April, Debbie, or Catherine. She already knew where she’d find the pasta, the sauce, the pots, and the wooden spoons. She was so familiar with the place even when April wasn’t in it.

And then she was.

April came walking in, not at all surprised to find Sterling already in her home. She just gave her a kiss and said hello as if it were all routine. Sterling supposed that it was, just not officially.

And it felt so nice waiting for April to get home, being greeted, and immediately asking about each other’s day while April automatically started setting the table.

She thought to herself then, can this please be real, but Sterling didn’t almost blurt it out until later that night.

While taking pajamas out of a drawer that had slowly become her own, she just barely held back on saying, “Can I bring the rest of my stuff over so I don’t have to leave every morning?” She hated leaving every morning.

But Sterling kept her mouth shut.

A few weeks later they finally booked another table at that fancy restaurant that April had been dying to try before the big bounty hunting reveal of two years prior. She had planned it all herself, simply giving Sterling a date and time.

When that time came, a lot of the same feelings from their first attempt came rushing back. Sterling spent the whole ride to the restaurant gushing about how good April looked, God forbid she missed out on the opportunity. Butterflies fluttered with every shared smile between them and the strong magnetic pull that Sterling felt left her a little touchier than usual.

“Save it for later, Wesley,” April said after Sterling’s hand had drifted up her thigh. “I’m not about to be late on account of your horniness and miss this again.”

“I’m not horny,” Sterling objected, “just very in love and excited. Have I mentioned that you look great?”

“Like ten times, my love. Thank you.”

Once they were settled at their table with a bottle of wine and their food had been ordered, April finally (finally) broached the subject of moving in.

“So I’ve been thinking,” she said, taking Sterling’s hand across the table.

“You and your thinking.”

“I know, but I think you’ll like this one.”

She had a little speech prepared, because of course she did, and Sterling had said yes so loudly (of course she did) that the wait staff assumed April proposed, which got them a free dessert.

Sterling was so over the moon by the time they got back to April’s apartment (soon to be their apartment, she thought to herself) that she immediately pulled April in, wedging herself between April and the closed door.

“You look so hot in this dress.”

“Yeah?” April wondered innocently, as if Sterling hadn’t spent the whole night drooling over her. Sterling nodded, eyes fluttering shut as April leaned in, stopping just short of her lips to whisper, “I thought you’d want me out of it.”

Eventually after stopping by the door, then in the kitchen, and then on the couch, they made it to the bedroom, breathless and tangled together while Sterling stared up at a ceiling that recently felt an awful lot like hers.

“I can’t wait to live here with you.”

“I mean, you basically have been.”

“Yeah,” Sterling laughed, “but, like, officially.”

And now Sterling is officially pulling up to her new building, in her new city, where April is already waiting out front and looking at her watch.

“Did you actually use my directions and take I-85?”

“No, the GPS took me on I-40. I just drove fast. We’re only five minutes late, right?”

April just blinks for a second, trying to process that Blair shaved over twenty minutes off their travel time by simply driving fast. She decides not to question it.

“The delivery truck will be here in three hours with the furniture. I want as much of Sterling’s stuff out of the way as possible when they arrive.”

“That’s a big ask. Have you seen my car?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” April reluctantly nods, staring over the jumbled mess in Blair’s trunk. “Maybe a little less nonsense this time, Blair, and we get it done.”

“When was there nonsense yesterday?”

“You asked Sterling if she had a favorite of my underwear.”

“Sounds a lot like your fault,” Blair says, before yanking a suitcase out of the trunk. “Never should’ve put me in charge of your clothes.”

Blair shrugs and starts to wheel the suitcase inside, already very familiar with the route to their new apartment, leaving April and Sterling by the curb.

“My mom called again. She wants to give us some of the stuff we have in storage from when she sold the lake house. I think we’re gonna have to make a trip down there just to check it out and satisfy her.”

“That’s fine,” Sterling says, watching closely as April tugs on another suitcase that is too tightly wedged into the back of Blair’s car. She seems tense.

“I mean, it is but it isn’t. We already got a bunch of stuff for our room and the living room. It will help with the extra bedroom, but I’m not really in a rush to do that since we still have so much to do elsewhere.” April successfully plucks the bag from the trunk and sets it down on the sidewalk. “We have to unpack everything, we have to paint, we have to decorate. Not to mention we’re both starting new jobs—”

“Babe.”

Sterling rests her hand on top of April’s, where she tightly grips the handle of the suitcase, effectively bringing her ramble to a sudden stop.

“What’s up?”

“Good morning,” Sterling greets, kissing April soundly for the first time all day.

“Hi,” she exhales against Sterling’s lips, body relaxing as Sterling kisses her once more. “Sorry, am I being too much?”

“Never. Just slow down once in a while. It’s a busy day, but it’s exciting too.”

April smiles. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Sterling turns to head inside, chest fizzling with a light and happy feeling as she has already managed to calm down one stressed out April Stevens, but she doesn’t make it very far.

“Hey,” April calls after her, “aren’t you gonna grab anything?”

“Oh, you actually want me to? I thought that’s why we had Blair.”

April rolls her eyes, dragging the suitcase over to the building by herself. “You’re so lucky you’re cute.”

“You love me.”

As it turns out, April’s “you go where the job is” answer to Sterling’s hypothetical question of if she would stay in Durham after graduation was actually pretty true.

Sterling learned that a few months ago.

While she was still figuring things out with her lease, April sat her down for another conversation. One where she had a job offer about two hours away in Charlotte. One where she understood if Sterling wanted to reconsider her move and plan to just see April on weekends since Sterling already had a home, a job, and a life in Durham. One where she sat curled up on the couch, fiddling with the hem of her pajama top, avoiding eye contact, and speaking softly so that Sterling hopefully wouldn’t hear the tug in her voice. It was stark in contrast to the confident smile and hopeful glimmer in April’s eye from their night at the five-star restaurant.

“April,” Sterling said tenderly, reaching out for her hand and giving it a squeeze. “I’m coming with you.”

“What?”

“If you’ll have me.”

“Of course I’ll have you. That’s not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“You — you have everything here.”

“And as long as I’m with you, I’ll have everything in Charlotte too.”

“Sterl,” she said, visibly softening, “I love you and I would love to have you there, but it’s alright if you need a minute. This is a lot to think about.”

“It’s really not,” Sterling dismissed with an easy shrug of her shoulders as if she were deciding on an ice cream flavor. “I was already planning on moving and I’m trying to find a new job. You’ve literally been reading over my cover letters. What’s the difference?”

April stared back at her for a moment, lips pursed and eyes blinking. This version of her thinking face, Sterling realized, was usually worn right before a concession.

“You’re sure?”

Sterling leaned closer to press a kiss to April’s cheek. “More than anything,” she confirmed. “Plus, Charlotte is closer to Atlanta so it’ll be way easier to visit our families. It’s perfect.”

April kissed her firmly. “You’re perfect,” she breathed against Sterling’s lips.

So it’s not Durham anymore, where they went to school and fell in love, and there’s no Stingers on Tuesday’s, but this place is theirs, and that’s all Sterling cares about. That’s what makes it feel pretty damn perfect.

“You’re filling my room with John’s hand-me-downs?” Blair exclaims, echoing through the empty second bedroom after Sterling had spilled their storage unit plan.

April quirks an eyebrow. “Your room?”

“Yeah, duh. Who else do you expect to use it?”

“Visitors.”

“Name three.”

April gladly takes the challenge.

“Rachel, Lindsay, Hannah B., Ezekiel, my mom, your mom, your dad — shall I go on.”

Blair crosses her arms. “Sure. Be my guest.”

Sterling quickly turns to her sister, eyes wide and zeroing in on only each other.

What are you doing? She already won!

Yeah, but I don’t think she’s got anyone else. I’m totally calling her bluff.

“Ellen.”

“Ellen?” Sterling gasps, being pulled back into the actual conversation.

Blair shakes her head. “No way.”

“She’s been in touch. It could happen.”

“First of all, only you would brag about being friends with your high school teacher,” Blair says. “And second, I highly doubt she’s ever going to use this room.”

April shrugs, not bothering to argue any further since she just barely scraped by. She quietly claims her victory instead, heading back out into the living room.

“I would bet my life that Ellen never visits you guys here. I still called her bluff.”

“Sure, you did,” Sterling says, patting Blair on the back in a very whatever you have to tell yourself type of way. “I don’t think April knows that though.”

“That Ellen isn’t coming?”

“That you called her bluff.”

“Well,” Blair starts, trying to find the other end to that sentence, one where everybody knows she caught April Stevens bluffing, “she — she’s your problem now.”

Sterling grins. “I know.”

There is something about April being her “problem” that Sterling just loves. Maybe because it sounds like another way of saying that April is her person or because now Sterling really is the one that gets to be by April’s side through everything — problems included. Either way, she loves it.

The thought of falling asleep together every night, getting ready for work side by side in the morning even if it’s chaotic and cramped in the bathroom, and coming back home to each other at the end of every day just fills Sterling’s heart with an effervescent joy.

This joy bubbles up her chest and fizzles into a smile every time she meets April’s eye. And April, regardless of what she’s doing, even if she’s in the middle of directing the movers to very specific locations around their living room, always returns that soft smile with one of her own like she couldn’t possibly keep it down.

“Hi,” Sterling breathes, resting her chin on April’s shoulder and wrapping her arms around her waist from behind.

“What’s up, baby?” April doesn’t look up from her phone, eyes glued to her Notes app as she crosses another item off their move in list, but she does ease back into Sterling’s body reflexively.

“Nothing.” Sterling presses a kiss to April’s cheek. “I love you.”

April lowers her phone. “Well, that’s not nothing.”

She turns around in Sterling’s embrace and wraps her arms around Sterling’s neck.

“I just meant that it’s not a pressing matter. It’s not like it’s on the list or something.”

“Remind me to add it,” April says, her voice low as she leans up to kiss Sterling’s lips.

“Y'all know I’m still here, right?”

Sterling somehow tears her eyes off of April to find Blair waving from where she’s sprawled out on the couch.

“How could we forget?” April still gives Sterling a quick kiss, ushering a soft, “Love you,” before she shifts her focus to the box of silverware on the kitchen counter. Moment over.

Blair sits up, giving Sterling an apologetic look as she stretches her arms way above her head. “What time is it anyway?”

“Almost six.”

“Why don’t I go pick up some pizza?”

Sterling’s stomach grumbles at the mention of food. In the busyness of the day, she hasn’t eaten since Blair zoomed through a McDonald’s drive-thru this morning. “That’s probably a good idea.”

Blair is already on her feet, grabbing her keys and then Sterling’s arm, leaning in to whisper, “Use the time wisely” before she dashes out the door.

Sterling has an idea.

“Come here,” she says, heading towards the living room.

April doesn’t move. “Some of us are still unpacking,” she says, voice light and teasing.

“And some of us are taking a break.” Sterling holds her hand out, beckoning April to come closer and working her best pout. “Come on. We were up so early this morning. Blair shouldn’t be the only one to test out the new couch.”

“Fine,” April sighs, although she’s smiling. “Five minutes.”

She follows Sterling over to the couch. Sterling sinks right into the soft cushion — wow, they really picked a good one — and April settles on top of her, nuzzling into her neck. Sterling wraps one arm around April’s waist, while her other hand runs gently through April’s hair. She notes that April’s eyes close automatically. This is totally going to be longer than five minutes.

“I’m so glad we did this.”

“Took a break or got this place?” April grumbles sleepily, the words buzzing against Sterling’s skin.

“Both, I guess.”

April presses a kiss to her collar bone. “Me too.”

With just a few more strokes of Sterling’s fingers in her hair, April falls asleep and Sterling feels her own eyes start to close.

When they eventually flutter back open, Sterling doesn’t know how much time has passed, just that she smells something cheesy. It takes a second, but she blinks until her vision clears and Sterling finds Blair standing over her with a pizza box in hand.

“Jesus Christ,” she gasps. Sterling thinks she would’ve jumped a foot if it weren’t for the weight of a sleeping April still on top of her.

“Please tell me this is a post-sex nap and that you got it out of your system while I was grabbing dinner.”

Sterling rubs her eyes with the hand that is not still tangled in April’s hair. “This is just a regular nap.”

“Seriously?”

“Would you rather we have sex where you’ll be sleeping tonight?” she wonders, gesturing to the couch beneath them.

Blair considers it for a moment. “Fair point,” she decides. “Wake your girlfriend. I’m starving.”

The three of them sit around the small round table in Sterling and April’s new kitchen, eating pizza off of paper plates from the pizzeria because they haven’t unboxed any of their actual dishes yet.

It should feel a little strange, having their first meal in a place that is still brand new to them, but in this moment with Blair and April both teasing Sterling for how much she packs, Sterling finds that it isn’t weird at all. She has this warm feeling that spreads through her body, radiating a comfort that she recognizes as familiar.

Then it dawns on her.

Sterling realizes with startling clarity that this new place suddenly feels a lot like home.

It’s a word that Sterling used to associate with Atlanta, the familiarity of where she grew up, and her mother’s cooking. Then after a few years Durham earned that stamp as well, being the place where she started her own life, made great friends, and reconnected with the girl that she’s loved for most of her life and will likely spend the rest of her days with. But it’s not a building, or a house, or an area that makes something a home. It’s people. Her people.

“Sterl, what’s wrong?”

April reaches for her hand, face riddled with concern. Sterling doesn’t even know when she started crying.

“Nothing. It’s just — this is so nice.”

Relief washes over April’s features as she smiles sweetly and squeezes Sterling’s hand. Then she’s turning to Blair and that smile turns into something snarky. “Pay up.”

Blair groans. “God, damn it.” She pulls ten dollars from her pocket and slaps it on the table for a very giddy April to take.

Sterling sniffles. “What’s going on?”

“Blair bet that you would cry leaving your apartment this morning and I bet that you would cry happy tears here in our new one. So I just won.”

“When did you…?”

“It was part of yesterday’s nonsense,” Blair says regretfully. “Obviously you were going to cry at some point. It was just a matter of when and where.”

There’s a part of Sterling that has an urge to tear up even more, because these two people know her so well that they schemed and strategized and made a bet about it. Then there’s another part of her, perhaps a more childish part, that makes Sterling want to cross her arms and roll her eyes.

She lands in a mixture of the two.

“I hate you both,” Sterling tries to huff, gaze so watery that she can hardly even see them.

“Please,” Blair scoffs, ”you love us both. That’s why you’re crying.”

They’re all laughing now, light and easy and joyous as if they’ve never had a bad memory together or bullied one another or harbored a massive life changing secret. And although Sterling’s emotional state is currently the butt of the joke, she knows that come tomorrow, when it’s time to head home, Blair will be just as bad as Sterling is now. She also knows that at some point it’ll hit April too.

That moment comes after dinner, once the rest of the boxes have been unpacked, and they’re all too exhausted to call her on it.

“Goodnight,” Sterling says, hugging Blair tight. After all, this is the last time they’ll be sleeping under the same roof for a while.

Blair squeezes her back just as much. “Night, Sterl.”

“Thanks for all your help,” April says. She stands opposite Blair, her hands fidgeting at her sides.

“It was nothing,” Blair dismisses casually, like she didn’t drive six hours to Durham, load her car up with their stuff, and then spend her weekend unpacking it all in Charlotte. “Although, I’m hoping for a bed next time.”

“That can be arranged.”

April steps in and gives Blair a hug. It’s a sight that’s still somewhat new for Sterling, though she can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t make her grin from ear to ear.

“You should come with us to the storage unit,” April suggests, leaning back to let her hands rest on Blair’s shoulders. “Pick out some stuff for your room.”

Blair’s breath catches in surprise. She’s quick to clear her throat. “That, um — that sounds cool.”

As April starts to walk away, Blair grabs Sterling by the arm before she can follow. “I told you she was bluffing,” Blair whispers.

Sterling rolls her eyes. “Goodnight, Blair.”

“Oh, I bet it’ll be a good night,” she returns suggestively. Blair then raises her voice to call, “I really hope I don’t drool on these nice, soft, new cushions.”

The ceiling in their bedroom is different.

Sterling stares up at it while she waits for April to finish in the bathroom. She can hear the shower water still running and Sterling knows that the mirror is clouded with steam from when she was just in there brushing her teeth a moment ago.

It’s not a flat, white ceiling like Sterling had been used to literally everywhere else. It’s textured. April hated it when they first looked at the apartment, calling it “outdated,” and then Blair said it was “funky” yesterday, but Sterling decides that she likes it.

It’s the first time she’s been in a new place and stared restlessly up at a ceiling without it feeling daunting or stressful.

Sterling is still buzzing with excitement from the day and for their future, as opposed to the nerves that crawled through her chest when she snuggled next to Blair on the first night in her Durham apartment, or the ache that weighed at the bass of her stomach in her first dorm at Duke as Rachel snored in the next bed over, or the tension she experienced when she went to her first sleepover at April’s house all those years ago.

A young April strategically stacked pillows and Sterling draped blankets over their heads until it seemed like the rest of the word disappeared, leaving them in their little fort. Their own whispered secrets and giggles drowned out the yelling from downstairs, and eventually April’s grip on Sterling’s hand had loosened.

With her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Sterling could just barely make out April’s relaxed but tired features. She twirled a stand of April’s hair around her finger.

“Can I braid your hair in the morning?”

“Yeah,” April said with a long yawn. They were supposed to be asleep hours ago but neither of them had been ready for it.

“I’m glad you’re my first sleepover.”

“Me too.” April nuzzled deeper into her pillow, eyes unable to hold themselves open any longer. “I wish you could always sleep over.”

“Me too.”

Sterling had a lingering thought in the back of her mind, knowing that she would miss Blair and her parents terribly if that were the case. Though maybe she could convince April to sleep over at her house instead.

“Hey, April,” she whispered, eager to share the idea. April hadn’t responded. She had fallen fast asleep.

“Blair was kidding when she said she drools, right?”

Sterling didn’t even hear the bathroom door open. She startles briefly at the sound of April’s voice before easing into the sight of April in her pajamas and drying her hair with a towel.

Sterling can’t wait to get used to this.

“Never can tell with her.”

She sits up, resting her back against the headboard and watching as April starts to brush her hair.

“You know what I was just thinking about?”

April catches her eye in their mirror. “What?”

“The first time I slept over your house. Do you remember?”

April nods. “My parents had a fight and you were scared so we built a fort.”

“I wasn’t scared.”

“Sterl, that’s literally why we made the fort. It was your first time sleeping out and my dad was practically screaming. No judgement.”

April is smiling and her tone is light, very obviously endeared with the thought of Sterling childishly insisting that she wasn’t scared all these years later. Sterling almost lets her believe it.

“Well, I only said I was scared because you wouldn’t admit that you were.”

April turns her back to the mirror, facing Sterling and tilting her head to the side. “You knew I was scared?”

Sterling represses the urge to roll her eyes. “April, I think my hand was bruised the next day from how tight you held it.”

“Oh.” April smiles again, blushing. “I never could get much past you.”

Sterling doesn’t know if it’s because of the quiet and sweet way April says it or the soft shade of pink flowing across her cheeks, but Sterling holds her hand out, needing April closer.

She climbs onto Sterling’s lap, knees bracketing her thighs and arms wrapping around her neck.

“It’s one of the things I love most about you.”

Sterling smiles, quipping, “A good quality to have in a future wife.”

“Future wife? Babe, you better have a ring with that statement.”

“It’s on the list.”

April blinks wordlessly for a second. “You have a list?”

Sterling nods. “Not on paper or anything, but mentally, yeah.”

“I love that too.”

Nine-year-old Sterling never would have guessed that her best friend would turn into an enemy, then turn into something more, and would later become everything she’s ever wanted. She never would have thought that fifteen years down the road they would end up here, in their own apartment, lightly discussing engagements, and essentially having a sleepover every night just like they wished they could.

Well, maybe not just like they envisioned at the young age of nine, probably expecting more pillow forts and stuffed animals and One Direction posters, but now Sterling wouldn’t have it any other way, too in love with this life, with this girl in her arms, and this version of them that they’ve become.