Sterling wakes up in a room that’s too bright.
Not just, like, she left a light on before she fell asleep, but bright like fluorescents glaring overhead, like she’s not in her room.
She isn’t, she quickly realizes, when she tries to roll over and discovers she can’t; she’s got wires attached to her, and the bed is small and hard and—
Oh god, she’s in a hospital.
She manages to turn her head to one side, seeing Blair asleep in a chair (not hurt, thankfully) leaning on the shoulder of a sleeping man Sterling’s definitely never seen before. He’s Black and a little scruffy, maybe the same age as their parents, and he’s a stranger but Blair is pillowed on his shoulder like—like he’s family, or something.
Sterling is about to call out and ask what the heck is going on when a voice on the other side of her gasps, “Sterling?”
Sterling turns her head toward the voice, seeing April Stevens, of all people, standing over her, looking supremely freaked out. April reaches for her hand and Sterling stiffens; her throat is on fire and nothing makes sense.
“Sterling,” April says again, almost…tenderly? “Baby, you’re awake.”
“What—why are you here?” Sterling manages to choke out, and that’s when April’s face falls.
So it turns out Sterling’s lost a little bit of time.
About a year and a half, to be more precise.
“What’s the last thing you remember, Sterling?” the doctor asks after shining a light in her eyes.
Sterling’s parents on are one side of the bed, Blair on the other with a fierce grip on Sterling’s shoulder.
The dude Blair was sleeping on—Bowser, Sterling was told—escorted April to the cafeteria, because apparently April refused to leave the hospital without knowing how Sterling was doing.
Because apparently they’re a couple.
“Um,” Sterling replies, rolling her lips together. “I—Blair and I had just left Willingham at night, after—” Her cheeks flush at the memory of straddling Luke in his car, quoting Scripture at him as she—
“We all know that you and Luke boned,” Blair supplies breezily.
Sterling’s eyes go wide and she whips to face her parents, who look, remarkably, unfazed by that revelation.
“What? No, we didn’t, I mean, yes, we did, but we love each other and—”
Debbie squeezes her hand, and Sterling notes the look in her eyes. Like she’s been crying so much that the tears are always right there, ready to be shed at a moment’s notice.
“Sweetheart, it’s okay. That’s literally the least of our concerns right now.”
“We’re just so happy you’re awake,” her dad adds, his own eyes brimming with tears.
“Let’s try to keep focus on what you do remember, Sterling,” the doctor prompts.
Sterling takes a shaky breath, tries to refocus. “Okay. We were driving, and I was telling Blair about…what had just happened. And then I think we were in a car accident? Then darkness.”
“That’s the last thing you remember?” Blair asks in a small voice.
Sterling considers that before nodding. “But you’re telling me that that happened—” She cuts herself off, suddenly starting to tremble, a sob rattling up from her ribcage.
“A year and a half ago,” Blair finishes for her, as Debbie wraps an arm around her shoulders and kisses her temple.
“It’ll be okay,” Anderson says shakily.
“How did I end up here?” Sterling asks after a few gulping breaths.
“You fell off a ladder,” her doctor explains, “and hit your head. You’ve been in a coma for nearly two weeks.”
“What was I doing on a ladder?”
Above her, Sterling can feel Blair and her mother exchange a look.
Debbie is the one who finally speaks: “You were setting something up for April.”
Blair sighs. “You were asking her to prom.”
Sterling’s room at home is, thankfully, pretty much the same, though there are definitely a few books on the shelves that she knows she hasn’t read before.
Or maybe she has, she just doesn’t remember.
According to the doctor, she’s healthy. Everything seems to be functioning well enough for her to go home.
Everything except her memory, that is.
“Go slow,” he had advised, “but try to find ways to subtly trigger the memories. Sometimes using different senses can be helpful.”
So the day Sterling returns from the hospital, her mom cooks the same meal they ate the night before the accident, and Blair wears the same outfit, and their dad even tells the same jokes.
Sterling keeps waiting for a deja vu that doesn’t come, while her family watches her with increasingly pained expressions when it becomes clear that nothing they’re doing is going to flip the magic switch that fixes Sterling’s brain.
It’s all just so weird. Not only to have lost so much time, but to have lost time that was apparently quite significant, time during which a whole lot changed. Sterling knows that her family is trying hard not to overwhelm her, so she only has a few basics about what her life has become, but even those basics seem utterly impossible.
She and Luke broke up.
She and April Stevens (April Stevens!!!) are a couple.
Which means that Sterling is…gay now?
And everyone just knows and is cool with it, possible gayness and premarital sex and all?
Plus, there’s something else going on, some other little shift in the household that Sterling can’t quite place. Maybe it’s because of her, or maybe it isn’t, but she’s noticed a lot of weird little looks passing between Blair and her parents that seem to indicate something strange.
“Mom and Dad didn’t get a divorce in the last year, did they?” she asks Blair before bed that night.
“Oh my god, no!” Blair exclaims, patting the spot beside her in bed.
Sterling climbs in without hesitation, letting her body relax against Blair’s, grateful that at least this hasn’t changed in the last year and a half.
“Okay,” she replies sleepily.
Blair strokes a hand through her hair. “A lot happened, Sterl, but we’ll figure it all out. I promise."
“I just feel like I don’t understand anything.”
Blair is quiet for a moment before saying softly, “I know. We’ve been through worse than this, though.”
“Get some sleep, Sterl,” Blair encourages, and despite in the many questions swirling inside her, Sterling lets herself drift off.
Sterling honestly half-thought that the April thing was a joke, or maybe something her brain conjured up in its current unreliable state, but when she wakes up to Blair hovering over her with a muted, “Hey, your girl’s downstairs,” it becomes clear that the April thing is very real.
Because when Sterling descends the stairs, April is standing at the bottom with an expression Sterling can confidently say she’s never seen April wear. There’s a hint of the usual guardedness, but none of the animosity Sterling’s come to expect in the last five (or, six?) years.
Instead, the expression in April’s eyes is soft and a little concerned, while her mouth is tugging into a small smile that seems—if the way she quickly presses her lips together is any indication—to be entirely instinctual.
“Hi, Sterl,” April greets, and God, is that how April says her name now? All breathy and sweet? “Blair texted me that you were home.”
“You and Blair text now?”
Blair snorts from beside her. “Oh yeah, with emojis and everything.” She looks squarely at Sterling. “You want a minute?”
Sterling blinks. Does she? The last time she remembers being alone with April, they were in the girls’ bathroom and April was making some snide little comment about Sterling’s score on their math test. Sterling had felt the initial wave of annoyance, but also that familiar ache underneath it, the old bruise of confusion as to why April was acting that way.
What could have possibly changed in the last year and a half to bring them here?
“Sure,” Sterling agrees, curiosity getting the better of her.
Blair shuffles off to the kitchen, and Sterling is going to invite April to sit on the couch but April is already there and making herself comfortable, like she’s spent enough time here to have carved out her own space.
When she notices Sterling staring her cheeks flush a little.
“I’m over here a lot,” she supplies, and Sterling nods. “But I can—”
April starts to stand when Sterling waves her off.
“No, it’s fine.” She gingerly sits down beside April. “It’s um, like when we were kids. You being here.”
There’s a flicker of something at the corner of April’s mouth.
“What?” Sterling asks.
April shakes her head. “Nothing.”
“No, I want to know.”
April rubs her hands on her shorts, drawing Sterling’s attention to her thighs. Which—is that a thing? Like, does new, maybe gay Sterling spend a lot of time looking at April’s thighs? Or touching them? Or, like, touching what’s between—
“I was just going to say that it’s really not.”
Sterling blinks, refocusing on April’s face. “Huh?”
“When we’re together. It’s really not like when we were kids. Thank goodness.” There’s a sparkle in April’s eyes, which Sterling quickly interprets as implication.
So, like, yeah. Sterling is probably intimately familiar with everything about and between April’s thighs.
Her stomach sloshes at the thought. It’s not entirely unpleasant.
“Sorry,” April adds in a rush. “That’s probably a lot right now.”
Sterling nods. “It’s all a lot right now.”
“I don’t think any of this is your fault.” Sterling pauses, considering. “Well, I guess I was trying to ask you to prom, so…”
“You set it up in a hurry, I think,” April says quietly. “Trying to outdo my plan and ask me before I could ask you.”
“Oh, we’re one of those couples?”
And Sterling startles a little at her own words, at how easily she just referred to them as a couple.
“We are. Your sister pretends to hate us.”
“Shoot,” Sterling realizes with a flash of guilt, “I didn’t even ask her about Jennings. Are they still a thing?”
April’s eyes widen. “Wow, I’d almost forgotten they were even together.” She winces at her word choice. “Sorry, I shouldn’t—”
“Do you know that you’ve apologized to me three times since you’re been here?” Sterling points out. “I don’t think you’ve apologized to me once in the last six years.”
April folds her hands in her lap. “I have. We both have, many times over the last year and a half.”
Sterling swallows. “So how were you going to do it?”
“Ask me to prom.”
“I’m not sure if—“
“I want to hear it.”
April’s mouth tugs up a bit on one side. “Okay. I had compiled all of these declarations of love from some of our—from some books that I know you and I both appreciate. You know, Jane Austen, the Brontës. The kind of thing Blair would mock me endlessly for, I’m sure. And I put them in this little book, and at the end I was going to ask you to go to prom with me.”
Sterling sinks her nails into her palm to keep from crying, an instinct born from a promise she made years ago to not let April Stevens see her cry anymore.
But this is entirely different. This is April Stevens making her cry not out of cruelty, but out of sweetness. Out of the pain of Sterling not remembering, rather than the sting of wishing she could forget.
Out of love.
April Stevens loves her.
When Sterling dares to look at her, April appears to be bracing for impact. Or maybe it’s something else, some other expression that new, possibly gay Sterling would be able to read without a second thought.
“I think I would have really liked that,” Sterling manages to get out.
April’s lip quivers.
“Yeah, I think you would have liked it, too.”